No Perfect Place

By Bob
February 28, 1999

I've probably thought more about where I want to live than anyone I know.  I was born and raised in the suburbs of Chicago, but I learned at an early age that the fast pace of life there didn't appeal to me at all.  Bonnie, my wife of almost 24 years, was raised out in the country in Northwest Ohio.  When we were going together, I'd drive to Ohio to visit her, and it always felt great to take off my watch when I arrived and not even think about the time until I drove back to Illinois.  In fact, during one visit, I think I actually gave my watch to Bonnie's brother Neal, a gesture symbolic of my love of the area and its relatively slow pace of life.  Ironically, Neal grew up to be a highly-paid manager of 17 other people, working for an internationally respected accounting firm in Cleveland, a city which he loves partly because of its fast pace of life.

When Bonnie and I first got married, we rented a house in the same area where she had grown up.  We tried to break into music ministry, but despite the fact that we sent out 400 letters to area churches, we only got 4 replies.   Six months later, we went into church volunteer service, and worked for a year as Pastoral Assistants at a church in Orlando, Florida.  Orlando was a relatively nice place to live in the Winter months, when a 68 degree morning seemed cold compared to most mornings.  We enjoyed calling our northern relatives, hearing about the blizzards and ice storms they were living through while we basked in the Florida sun.   In the summer, though, Orlando was really, really hot and humid.  There were weeks when it seemed like it would it would be sunny and 90 degrees all day, but then rain for about 10 minutes at 3:00 every afternoon.  You could actually see and hear the rain coming -- sometimes it was a big storm coming from across a field, but sometimes it was a tiny, localized storm that would come right down the road, about 20 miles per hour, chasing the hot sun away.  After about 10 minutes, the rain would stop, the sun would beat down again, and clouds of steam would rise off of all the roads and sidewalks.  Living in Orlando in the summer was like living in a greenhouse.

After Florida, we stayed in church volunteer service a second year and worked as Pastoral Assistants in Bonnie's home church back in northwest Ohio.  The sky was almost always overcast, due to the influence of nearby Lake Erie.   In the winter, the absolutely flat terrain did nothing to dissipate frigid polar winds, which were free to drift the snow completely across the roads, making it nearly impossible to see where the roads ended and the ditches began.  It turned out that the best strategy for driving on drifted-over roads was to just try to stay between the telephone poles on either side of the road.  Temperatures often dropped to the teens above zero making it a pretty inhospitable place to live, and a horrible place to own an older, unreliable vehicle, which was all we could afford at the time.  After our second year of church volunteer service ended, we got back into music ministry, singing 426 places in 26 states over a five-year period.  Singing all over the country gave us a pretty good look at all kinds of places from New Jersey to California, from Minnesota to Texas.  Despite its harsh winters, we kept living in Ohio, though -- partly because that's where all of our friends were, and partly because living wherever you already are is always easier than moving somewhere else.

In early 1985, when I was finishing my undergraduate degree, with plans to stay in Ohio to get a Masters degree, Bonnie and I talked about moving to a different part of the country.  I bought a book called the "Places Rated Almanac" that listed a few hundred metropolitan areas of the U.S., along with statistics for each one, including climate, cost of living, crime rates, health care costs and quality, educational opportunities, employment opportunities, and more.  Based on the findings of that book, I decided that the Seattle, Washington, area would be a perfect place for us to move after I had completed my Masters.  We even flew out there to scout out the area and look for job possibilities.

In the meantime, however, one of my professors had different plans for me.   His best friend was a professor at the University of Minnesota, and the two of them wanted me to pursue a doctorate at that school.  When they first proposed their idea to me, I laughed in their faces, "Why would I want to move somewhere that has Winter six months out of the year!!!"  For over a year, the two of them wooed me with offers to find me a job, to find Bonnie a job, to help us find a place to live, etc.   A few months before finishing my Masters degree in 1986, I was accepted into a doctoral program at the University of Minnesota, with the understanding that I would finish my doctorate in 2 years and Bonnie and I would be on our way to the Seattle area.

Here are some "fun facts" about Minnesota, "the land of 10,000 taxes".  Our state income taxes are the third highest in the whole country.  In addition, we pay hundreds of dollars each year for those little stickers that go on our automobile license plates.  Despite running up billions of dollars of tax surpluses for each of the past several years, our lawmakers repeatedly refuse to return any of the money that they've overtaxed us.  Instead, they've more than doubled the state budget in the past several years by constantly thinking of new ways to spend the tax surpluses, like handing out condoms and birth control pills to high school students right in their schools, without the knowledge or consent of their parents; and pouring money into financial bottomless pits like sports stadiums and light rail transportation systems.  Minnesota offers extremely generous welfare payments compared to neighboring states.  That fact, combined with one of the lowest rates in the country for sending convicted criminals to jail, makes Minnesota a virtual crime magnet, attracting criminal gangs from metropolitan areas like Chicago, Milwaukee, and Gary, Indiana.  The current governor of our state is a former professional wrestler and shameless self-promoter who obviously only ran for that office in order to get free publicity for a local sports radio show that he was hosting at the time.  Since becoming Governor, he has continued to do what he does best - threatening reporters with physical violence, and making lots and lots of money by writing books, making public appearances and promoting himself.   In the meantime all the local television stations run nightly stories that portray him as some sort of god, while they try to convince us that our self-serving governor is actually promoting our state instead of himself.  There's a lot of crime, especially gang activity, in the Twin Cities themselves, but there's less crime in the suburbs and surrounding areas.   Every year, hundreds of organized gang members move to Minnesota from places like Chicago and Gary, Indiana, because welfare checks are bigger and easier to get in Minnesota.   Winter lasts at least 6 months of every year, and normally, we can expect snow accumulations any time from October through May.  Spring is hardly even noticeable, since the threat of snow lasts so far into the year.  Summer is only about 2 months long, but the only time you can know for sure that it's going to be hot is about the second week of July.  Fall lasts less than a month, starting any time from late-August to early-September, during which time the daily high temperature drops from the upper 70's to the low 40's.  The temperature in December, January, and February is often below zero -- in fact, we sometimes have several days in a row in which the high temperature never gets above 10 degrees below zero.  When the temperature is 30 degrees below zero, fierce north winds can drive the wind chill down to 100 degrees below zero -- at which time, any exposed skin will frostbite in only 10 seconds.  Some days, Minnesotans take their lives into their own hands just by going outside their houses.  Despite the long, horrible winter weather, many native Minnesotans enjoy cross-country skiing, ice fishing, snowmobiling, and other winter sports.  The rest of us mostly hibernate, eat, and get fatter for about 6 months out of every year.

Today, despite all that, and almost 13 years since we first moved to Minnesota, we're still in Minnesota, though I still feel like a visitor to this place.  After a couple of years here, I settled for an ABD (all but dissertation) deciding that it wouldn't be worth it to me to spend 2 years of my life in the library, working on a dissertation, just to be able to put the letters, "Ph.D." after my name.  In late 1991, Bonnie and I met a twice-divorced, domestically abused, pregnant, single woman who needed our help, so we spent the next 6 years helping her raise her two little daughters. 

I agree with the person who first said that life is what happens to you in between the plans you make.

Bonnie says she doesn't care where we live.  She says that me being nice to her is more important to her than where we're living, and that she can be happy anywhere.  But I'm starting to feel like it's time for us to move on.  We're middle aged now, and I'm thinking about where I would want to be living when we're old.  I know I don't want to be 70 years old, still chipping ice off of my back steps in sub-zero Minnesota.  I figure that, as much trouble as it is to move, it would be a lot easier for us to do it now, rather than wait until we're even older.  I also think it would be healthier for us to live somewhere where we wouldn't have to hibernate for half of each year.  The older of our two god-daughters, Sabrina, is almost done with high school.  Our "little baby Ana" just turned ten years old.  Ana has always wanted us to move to Florida or California or Texas so that she can live there with us.  Honestly, she is the only child that I can imagine ever doing that with.  I've known her since the day she was born, and I think of her as my own daughter.

Several weeks ago, I got the latest version of the "Places Rated Almanac" and since then, I've been analyzing its many chapters, hoping to find the "perfect place" for us to settle once and for all.  On the Internet, I've spent hours and hours searching databases of information about cities, and printing information from Money Magazine's "Best Places To Live" Web site, which lets you specify exactly what you're looking for in a place to live, and then gives you a list of the cities that most closely match your specifications, along with all kinds of information about those cities.  I've done Internet searches for about 30 different cities, trying to find out as much as I could about them.  I've marked maps with little colored dots to show where the colleges are.  I've even contacted some Realtors, who have sent me huge relocation kits with tons of information about their cities.

I had hoped that there would be some little area of Florida where we could move -- somewhere near the Gulf of Mexico, with nice weather, a low cost of living, a low crime rate, and a college where I could teach.  With that hope, I sent an email to my Uncle Dom, who has lived in Florida for the past 14 years, asking him about hurricanes and life in Florida.  Uncle Dom was kind enough to write back several times with an incredible amount of valuable information about Florida weather, lifestyle, and house hunting.  Unfortunately, the more I learned about Florida, the more wary I became of Bonnie and me living there for the next 30-40 years of our lives.  I did a bunch of Internet searches on Florida cities and weather.  From Uncle Dom and my searches, I learned that the crime rate in most Florida cities is much higher than the national average; wages in Florida are relatively low; Florida roads are extremely crowded and are getting worse every year; and pollution in Florida is a growing problem.  However, the one thing I learned that turned out to be the most important thing to me was the fact that, because the whole state of Florida is only about a hundred miles wide, while big hurricanes can be hundreds of miles across, there is nowhere in the whole state that is safe from hurricanes -- in fact, because of global warming, hurricanes are predicted to be even bigger and more devastating to Florida in the future.  So, Florida turned out to be a place I might want to visit, but not a place where I would want to live permanently.

So, where's my "perfect place" to live?  Well, the first time I used the "Best Places To Live" Web site a couple of weeks ago, I spent about 10 minutes, telling it exactly what I was looking for in a place to live.  It thought about my selections for a few seconds and then told me that there is no place in the United States that fits my specifications.  After a few more tries, I learned that there is no "perfect place" for us to live, because the closer a place comes to being perfect in a couple of categories, the worse it is in other categories, like having a lot of crime, a high cost of living, or a big possibility that it will get hit with deadly weather (like hurricanes, or sub-zero blizzards).  For example, Seattle, my 1984 choice, is a very pretty city, but it has way too many drizzly, dreary days, it often gets hit with big winter storms, and it will probably be hit by a giant earthquake some time during my lifetime.  California, one of Ana's choices, has great weather most of the time, but it has way too much crime, way too much traffic, way too much pollution, way too many earthquakes, and it's way too expensive to live there.   Texas has less crime than California, but it's expensive to live in its cities, plus those cities have a lot of traffic and too much pollution.  If you go outside of the cities in Texas, there really isn't much there except the hot, dry, barren land of the "old west".  Whether you're in the cities or out in the boondocks, there are plenty of fleas everywhere, according to a friend who lived there most of her life.   On top of that, I have a bad general impression of Texas as a place that has more than its share of redneck racists who don't like Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, or anyone else who isn't a redneck racist.  And Florida, as I mentioned earlier, is over-crowded, has a lot of crime, and is predicted to have even more dangerous hurricanes in the future.  

So, even though she thought she would like it, I really don't think Ana would like living in Florida, California or Texas.

Through researching places to live, I learned that I have to be willing to compromise on some of the things I'm looking for in order to find anywhere to live.  Instead of trying to find a non-existent "perfect place" that has only good features, I have to be willing to find a place that has as many as possible of the good features that I want, and as few as possible of the bad features that I don't want.

Once I learned that lesson, further research pointed me to an area of the country that is in a large valley between two beautiful green mountain ranges -- the one to the northwest blocks the frigid air that comes down from the north in the winter, while the one to the southeast blocks the hot, humid air that comes up from the south and over from the Atlantic coast in the summer.  The place I found has beautiful mountain scenery, clean air, clean water, a low cost of living, very affordable housing, a low crime rate, very low taxes, good health care, plenty of colleges for me to teach at, and a moderate climate that has a very low chance of tornadoes, with 6 months of summer and only 2 1/2 months of winter.  According to a couple of Realtors I talked to there, they close the schools and the whole area shuts down whenever a winter storm brings them more than an inch of snow.  The temperature rarely even gets close to zero.  And the pace of life is nice and slow.

I think I would love it there.  I think Bonnie would love it there.  I think Ana would love it there.

It's the area from east-central (Knoxville) Tennessee to southwest (Marion) Virginia. Or maybe we will end up moving to Florida, because it's nice and warm there.

God only knows if we'll ever end up there, but it sure is fun to think about leaving Minnesota some day.


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