Staying Put II

  Jerome Shea       March 22, 2008      Weekend Wonk

This idea of mobility is easy to oversimplify and of course is also a matter of degree. There are people who, for whatever reasons, move every couple of years and often over great distances; there are others who are born, live, and die in the same house in the same town. Some are proverbial rolling stones while some are as rooted as oak trees.

But most of us fall somewhere in between.

I know I do. Yes, I have lived in Albuquerque for almost 40 years, well more than half my life. But I was born in Rhode Island and raised in eastern Pennsylvania. After college graduation (see “Ford Flathead I”) I made my own monumental trek, all the way to Colorado. Then with my new masters degree I went to the Midwest for three years to teach at Illinois State University. Then, finally, I came here to the University of New Mexico for my PhD and here I have stayed.

I honestly think I’ve had the best of both.

I said last week that people move because they have to or because they want to. That, too, was an oversimplification. I left Pennsylvania for both reasons. There were things I needed to—had to—leave behind. Moving, especially moving from where one was raised, is a metaphor for separation and independence, a Statement. Why Colorado? Because it was not just “away,” but very far away and because it was like a completely different country and because it was where one traditionally got a new start (”Go west, young man!”). I could have applied to grad school in New York or Maryland or somewhere else close to home. But I never even considered it. That is the “want to” part, I think. I wanted to reinvent myself and restart my life.

Everything after Colorado is anticlimax. I moved to Illinois because a classmate got a job there and persuaded me to join him. I moved to New Mexico because I needed the PhD if I were going to continue in academia and UNM had a respected program in American Studies. But so did a lot of other schools. But I was already homesick for the West. I was already, at heart, a Westerner.

And here—here where I met the Longsuffering Diana 35 years ago—I am.

There is one more detail if I am to be completely honest. I—we—might have made one last move to somewhere and not looked back. When I got the MA in 1966 it was boom time. You could write a ticket to almost anywhere. But when I got the PhD in 1975, that train had left the station. I did not get a single offer, so I just hung around at UNM like a scrawny cat and howled at the back door until they let me in. There were times when we just scraped by, but I am glad, now, for all those rejection letters. Then we had the kids, Dan in ’77 and his sister in ’81, and the deal was sealed.

This is not intended as a mash note to Albuquerque, but where one chooses to spend four decades does make a difference. Truly big cities unsettle me, and while there are those who could happily spend four decades in, oh, Whipsocket, Iowa (pop. 1811), I am not one of them. Albuquerque, with about half a million people, has decent amenities and few pretensions. We have the state’s flagship university, we have good hospitals, we have a symphony orchestra, we have a lively community theater scene and several good restaurants. You can get your spirits lifted or your car fixed without a lot of fuss. Three cultures—Native American, Hispanic, Anglo—actually make a go of it together here. Although summers are getting hotter and the specter of drought looms over all, the climate is better than most: we’re not Fargo but we’re not Phoenix, either. And I could never leave my bosque running trails.

One more thing. Albuquerque has grown a lot since I got here. But some things and some neighborhoods haven’t changed. On a bright spring morning I can cruise through the “university ghetto” where I started out, and my ’99 Miata magicks into a ’65 Volkswagen and I am 27 years old again and the world is my oyster. Only a history in a place can do that.

Diana and I set the example, and what goes around comes around. Our daughter started her married life in Alaska. Today the family lives only a hop and skip away from us as Western distances go, but there is talk now of leapfrogging to New England. And on Christmas day at the dawn of the new millennium, our son rolled into San Diego at the wheel of a big U-Haul truck. Dan had found his own Colorado.

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