“Janie, why are you still in Madison?”
This is a question I was asked recently. I actually get asked this question a lot.
For the record, I don’t live in Madison. I live in Deerfield. Deerfield is a village with less than two thousand people, no grocery store, and no traffic lights.
I had a lot of frustrating conversations with people over the winter when I was freaking out about taking care of myself where I was told to order delivery or sublet my house to move closer to work. There is no delivery in a village of two thousand people, one restaurant, and six bars (this is Wisconsin, there is a five bar minimum per incorporated town).
There is no public transportation. I drive sixty miles round trip every day to go to my job. This can easily eat up two hours of my day. The closest actual grocery store is twenty minutes away, so it is rather difficult to run errands because just going to the store kills almost an hour of my increasingly limited free time.
Additionally, I have my pugs who spend way too much time alone in my house and it’s hard for me to go home, feed them, shovel food down my throat, then go back out again after working a ten hour day.
Part of me thinks it would be nice to be able to go out at 9:00 on a week night on the spur of the moment without having to drive a hundred miles round trip in one day. It would be nice to take advantage of my gym membership without feeling guilty thinking about my pugs being stuck in my house alone all day. It would be nice to join the maker space that inconveniently exists equally far away from both my job and my house.
So why don’t I move?
First off, I can’t afford it. Conservatively, it would quadruple the cost of my housing to move downtown, or even closer to my job. After my divorce I effectively have a blank slate. I don’t have any debt (besides my house and my car), but I don’t have anything saved either.
I would have to sell my house. Did I mention the whole living in the middle of nowhere, no public transportation thing? There are a half dozen houses around me that have been on the market for a while. My house is just about the right size for one person or maybe a couple, but not for a family. It’s within walking distance of the school, but in our era of helicopter parenting, that doesn’t mean what it used to.
I feel like I am in a really weird stage of my life right now. I never did the whole partying and dating thing in my twenties. I had some health and social issues and so I didn’t go out to bars and date. I married my ex-husband because we knew one another our whole lives and the dating scene terrified me because the only attention I got was from married creeps who wanted to have affairs (which isn’t that much different right now, to be honest).
Even though I didn’t have kids, I have a lot of the same issues that parents have. I have to go home to take care of my pugs. If I want to stay out after work, I have to make arrangements for someone to come take care of them. I find it incredibly selfish that people tell me that they only want to hang out with me if they can call me on a whim and ask to meet at the bar twenty miles away in ten minutes rather late on a week night. When I tell them I need to schedule something or meet earlier, they get pissy with me and tell me to move. This makes me less inclined to hang out with them because they want me to contort myself like a pretzel and they are unwilling to do one thing to accommodate me.
Last week I did an interview with the Ray Wenderlich podcast. One of the themes of the interview was them asking about all the projects I have been doing. I spoke at, I think, at least ten conferences last year. I coauthored a book. I work a full time job. I am the cohost of NSBrief. I have a lot of projects that I do. I never really thought about it because they slowly added incrementally and the deadlines for each one would come and go then another would take it’s place like Hydra.
I started to really think about what I am doing with my life and how things would be different if I lived in a city like a normal person.
If I lived downtown and I could order takeout and go out drinking at 9:00 on a week night, I would probably do it. I would develop a circle of friends who all do those things. I would probably be more social, have different hobbies and activities, and have something that resembles a normal life.
I don’t think I would find that fulfilling.
When I started programming a few years ago, I was driven by my fears of inadequacy. I was competing with people who had been programming since they were twelve. I was in my thirties and I hadn’t established a career yet. Just yesterday I was talking to a high school student who is on Ray’s tutorial team and I felt a deep sense of shame for squandering my twenties doing stupid crap.
I don’t remember where I read this, but there was a piece of writing Anthony Bourdain did where he talked about his chef career. He said that when he was a young chef, he had two options. He could either take some time really honing his skills by working for better chefs, or he could chase the money by being an okay head chef at a couple of different places. He had a heroin habit to feed, so he chose to chase the money. He talked about Grant Achatz, the chef at Alinea. He was talented enough that he could have been a head chef right away, but he wanted to be a great chef, so he paid his dues for several years by being a sous chef for great chefs so that he could learn to be a great chef. His restaurant is the only consistent 3-star Michelin restaurant in Chicago and he is considered to be one of the greatest chefs of his generation.
I consider my current job to be more than a job. I feel like it’s my do-it-yourself graduate school. I am a much better programmer now than I was when I started here almost a year ago. I have the freedom to ask stupid, esoteric questions without worrying that I am going to be fired for not knowing what a bubble sort algorithm is. I am a sous chef working under a great chef to learn how to be a better programmer (mixed metaphors are pretty).
Right now I have two options for making up for lost time. I can either spend a lot more money to engage in a lifestyle that will be fun for a few years but will do little to enhance my career, or I can accept that living in the suburbs sucks, but that I can spend all of my time stuck at home doing things that will enhance my career and help me make up for lost time by fast tracking my programming skills.
I know most people after a divorce would throw themselves back out into the dating pool and get new hobbies and do a bunch of things to feel free and alive again. It’s a tempting thing. However, I made a lot of sacrifices over the last three years to get to the point I am at now. My fire is burning, but it will go out if I don’t keep tending it. I worked my ass off to get it going after having two previous attempts not get past the kindling stage. As cool as it would be to be a “normal” person and go enjoy my youth, I think that I have a chance to do something important right now and I want to see where I can take it.