Two years ago today, at about 5:00 in the morning, I woke up in a cheap hotel room in Latham, New York, drove over to a cold and empty house that had once been full of all of my family’s worldly belongings, loaded two protesting cats into my car, and headed west for Des Moines, Iowa. It was cold. And dark. And raining.
In the two weeks before this momentously dreary morning, I had also spent five days in Annapolis, Maryland as the Naval Academy Class of ’86’s reunion coordinator for a three-day, 25th Anniversary event involving over 1,000 people, $100,000 in expenses, and uncountable numbers of details, questions, complaints and comments to be handled. Just before that, I had spent four days in Great Barrington, Massachusetts in my role as Secretary to the Corporation for the American Institute, dutifully recording days’ worth of meetings, and then transcribing minutes.
Oh, and I also quit a job I loved and oversaw the sale and emptying of our home of twelve years.
Barring life-altering death and birth experiences, obviously, I can tell you that October through December of 2011 were undoubtedly the most difficult and stressful months of my adult life, made all the harder because Marcia had already moved to Des Moines with her new job, and Katelin was away at college. So I spent most of my time drifting around an ever more empty house, worrying about the fairly stupid combination of responsibilities I had saddled myself with during that period of time, and trying to figure out how to say goodbye to so many people and places that were important to me.
Since I had no regular income at this point, I amused myself by “eating the House” (don’t buy any new food until everything in cabinets and refrigerator has been eaten, leading to some interesting meal combinations), and “living off my shit” (lightening the load of the move by selling a lot of things I’d accumulated over the years, and not spending any more cash than I was bringing in). I also loaded a huge dumpster-full of basement detritus that was not salable, and donated our bikes and house plants to people needier than we were. One woman of very limited means was starting a new household for her child and new boyfriend, and she cried with gratitude as she took the many gorgeous plants I let her have, since she had been forced to leave all of her own beloved plants in her ex-husband’s house. After she left, though, I felt like crying because they were gone.
And then on November 12, 2011, the morning after a lovely wedding and reception attended by many dear friends from Rockefeller College, I got in the car, and I left. I would have liked to have stopped and seen Katelin in Geneseo on the way, but could not do so with the cats in the car; I just needed to drive as hard and as long as I could to get to Des Moines as fast as I could. I made it past Cleveland on the first leg, and spent a sleepless night in a desolate interstate highway hotel listening to the cats pace and cry. The next morning, also by 5:00 am, we were up and on the road again, next stop Des Moines.
Marcia had a great apartment out here already, so it was wonderful to arrive there at the end of a long and unpleasant drive, even if the cats (and their litter box) had to share it with us in close quarters. The day after my arrival, Marcia and I were scheduled to close on our new house in Des Moines’ Beaverdale neighborhood. The closing was, probably no surprise, also stressful due to the seller using a fly-by-night “Sell Your Home Yourself” outfit that did not provide needed documentation, paperwork and filings; fortunately our own exceptional realtor got it all done for us.
The final walk-through and acceptance of the house was something of a shock to us in terms of how much junk was left behind by the sellers, and the unexpected condition of many of the rooms: the prior owners had once painted without moving furniture, and the interior walls of the house looked like a patchwork quilt when they got their stuff out. So there was a lot more work necessary than we had expected, and it was really well into spring 2012 before I felt like we had gotten the required baseline projects done to bring the house up to the standards we wanted and expected. (Our additional shower took another six months after that, even).
But, eventually, there I was, in Iowa, chores mostly done, house settled, spouse gainfully employed, child doing well in school back in New York, cats happy that I gave them their own couch in my home office.
Huh. Now what?
Well, fast forward two years, I guess, for part of the answer. I am in my 18th month as Executive Director of Salisbury House. It’s a tough, time-consuming and often thankless job, but it fits my skills and interests, and allows me to work with a truly astounding historic house and its collections. I’m growing to appreciate it more and more. Marcia’s work continues to go well, too, as she always adds value when working on behalf of her clients and their interests, and has much better home/work balance now than was the case when she was a partner in a New York law firm. Katelin graduated from college in May 2013 and followed us out here: she has a great job in her chosen field of her study, and lives in her own apartment in what’s emerging as a hot neighborhood in downtown Des Moines. Our house is very nice: we pay much less for a higher quality property, in a well-regarded neighborhood. We have seen more of Marcia’s family in Minnesota in two years than we had in the prior two decades. And the cats still like their (increasingly shabby) couch.
So it’s mostly good, at bottom line, though I still feel the sting of dislocation occasionally. The move has allowed us to achieve most of the objectives that we desired from our relocation, and we’ve settled into new routines, with new friends, in new places. I have actually been surprised at how hard the adjustment was for me in many ways during these first two years. Having moved so often while growing up and during my early professional career, I used to be really good at ripping up and starting afresh at the drop of a hat, but those 19 years in Latham (the longest I have ever lived in any one place) caused my roots there to sink deeper than I realized they had.
Of course, there are little lifestyle things out here that remain gentle annoyances: the regional acceptance of boomboxes blaring from bikes and golf carts, for instance, or most restaurants being closed on Sundays, or having the State-wide news occasionally dominated by matters that really, truly mean less than nothing to us (e.g. legislation regarding lead vs steel shot when hunting doves, which really evokes a lot of passion in some quarters hereabouts).
When those aggregated annoyances start to bother me, I have found that the best therapy is to return to a practice that helped me get through my first few months here: I get in the car, and I drive and I drive and I drive around Iowa. (Without the cats, though. They are on their couch. Always). Work peeves, petty urban annoyances, worries about things I can’t fix, all of those thoughts tend to dissipate when I am on the road experiencing Iowa at its most granular level: riding down dirt roads between corn and soy fields; visiting tiny towns with exceptional civic architecture and museum cultures; passing through the gorgeous campuses of the State’s many small private and three large public colleges and universities; appreciating entertaining roadside vernacular statuary and architecture from the earliest days of car culture in the United States. Best of all is when I get to do these drives with Marcia, or Katelin, or both. They are great company in great scenery.
I completed my Full Grassley in March 2012, having visited all 99 of Iowa’s counties in less than five months’ time. But I didn’t stop driving, and I didn’t stop exploring. I rarely go the same way between any two points in the State if I can help it, though I am running out of options between Des Moines and Iowa City, since I go to or through there often. I will be planning on adding some new roads in December when I accompany Marcia to Clinton in the eastern part of the state, and we find a new route to wind our way back. Huttah!
Two years ago today, the cats and I set off on a terrible, disquieting drive to Iowa. Today, I actively look forward to my drives around Iowa as an anchor. And then I look forward to coming back to our new house. To Des Moines. Here.
I think that’s good progress in 24 months’ time, don’t you?