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Life Changes

You know those comedies where the protagonist encounters trouble after trouble, and when he hits rock bottom, he says, "Well, at least it can't get any worse!"...and at that very moment, he hears a clap of thunder and a flash flood pours down on his head?

Yesterday that happened to me.

So I did my taxes on Wednesday night and came in to work on Thursday feeling poor, tired, and in desperate need of an aspirin. By noon I added "starving" to the list of ailments, since I'd brought nothing but a handful of Life Savers Gummies and a square of Dove chocolate to get me through the morning. But I slogged through until 1pm, when I needed to catch a bus back home and prepare for a 3pm telephone interview with a local publishing company. I just needed to wrap up a simple update to a form processor, and...

BAM. Database gone. 320 applications to an NSF-funded scholarship program went *poof*.

My stress hormones kicked into overdrive and I survived on pure nervous energy while salvaging 265 applicants' records from backups and hunting down emails for the remaining 55. At 2:30 I rushed down the road to get a bowl of over-fried sweet & sour chicken, then scarfed down just enough of it to make myself sick before my telephone interview. And then it was back to database triage until 6pm, when I gave it a rest and hauled myself home.

"Well, at least it can't get any worse!"

Hello, door. Hello, envelope hanging from the clip. Hello, $30 per month increase in rent. Also, an admonition to pick up after our non-existent dog.

That's it. Sweetie and I are done. We put up with the ghetto for five years because, even when they increased our rent by $20 each year, and the administrative fees crept up to $30 per month, and the neighbors found increasingly novel ways to wake us up at 2am, we still believed it was less costly to stay than it would be to pack up and move. Besides, we've lived in that moldy one-bedroom apartment for all of our adult lives—we're a tad sentimental about it.

We're also afraid of leaving it. I would always say that we'll move out "soon"; we're not going to renew our lease this year; I'm going to get a good job and we're going to go someplace nice where we can walk on the sidewalks in winter and use the air conditioner in summer and put curtains on the windows without being slammed with threatening notices. But I never meant it. Because, when a person doesn't have money or any idea how she's going to get some, the world is a very scary place.

We're not just talking about moving to another part of town. We're going to leave Bloomington. I wanted to stay so Sweetie could finish his degree without the hassle of transferring to another university, but it's been more than a year since I started looking for full-time work and I haven't had a single bite (just a few trick nibbles before they swam away). College towns just aren't the place to be if you have anything higher than a high school diploma and want to make more than minimum wage. I would have tolerated it—I would have continued to apply for low-paying jobs and lie to myself that I'll find something—if management hadn't left that envelope on the door. With two heart-shaped lollipops taped to the back to disguise its contents.

Where are we going? I have no idea. But I've started sending my résumés to the far reaches of the state: Valparaiso, West Lafayette, Evansville. I've never been to any of them; even though I've lived here for more than a quarter of my life, my familiarity with the state is limited to the triangle between Bloomington, Indianapolis, and Greensburg. I also spent a week in South Bend when I was six years old, but all I remember is some weeping willows, an Amish farm, and the chocolate chunk milkshakes in the restaurant of the Marriott hotel. (Also, I learned the word "mosaic" from a giant tiled Jesus Christ, watched a man drive a floor polisher into a glass wall, and got a glittery green pen and some navy spandex pants with the Fightin' Irish logo. I walked around with an angry leprechaun on my leg for months.)

But wherever we end up, it will probably be very different from Bloomington. This scares me more than I like to admit, but I also know it's a good thing. Limited experiences make for a narrow worldview. And a narrow worldview makes for a bad writer.

Here's an example. For a while I watched the cancelled ABC horror/fantasy show 666 Park Avenue. The lead actress overacted every line, the plot dragged, and the "horror" was far from horrific (it had to be "family friendly," after all). But it did have an interesting premise, and I suspended my disbelief as long as I could.

But there was one thing that strained the suspension to the breaking point, and it wasn't the dark magic or the even darker plot holes. It was the sweet young heroine's backstory. She and her boyfriend left Indiana with big dreams of the Big Apple, and the writers felt the need to remind us of this at every opportunity.

"I'm scared, Henry. I want to go back to Indiana!"

"Do you watch football?"
"Basketball. I'm from Indiana."

"So I hear you're going home to...Where was it? Ohio?"

And then, the crowning glory:

"Who'd ever have thought that a small-town girl from Kokomo would come so far?"

That line killed my last lingering respect for the writers, and not just because it's cheesy as all get-out. Here's the thing: nobody from Indiana would call Kokomo "small." Kokomo has a population of over 45k, more than 10 times the size of your average Indiana town. It's the twelfth largest city in the state. My freshman roommate in college hailed from Logansport, a northern community of about 18 thousand people, which still ranks it on the high end. On Thanksgiving, she could barely contain her excitement to drive down to Kokomo with her family for Black Friday. She gushed all about the wonders to come: the department stores! The restaurants! The Linens 'n Things!

Bean Blossom is small. Fruitdale is small. Gnaw Bone doesn't even have a population census. Kokomo is The Big City. Of course, a group of screenwriters in 4-million-strong Los Angeles wouldn't know that. They probably picked Kokomo off of a Google map, looked up the population on Wikipedia, saw that it was "only" 45k, and considered it small. I grew up in southern California myself, and my hometown of 30k was, at the time, puny and unknown (it's 100k now, and most people have still never heard of it). But to Indiana residents, a TV character from Kokomo calling herself "small-town" is like a TV journalist with a spacious high-rise and a wardrobe full of designer brands calling herself "poor."

If I'd stayed in the dry, warm safety of California all my life, I wouldn't have known that either. I probably would have made the same mistake of assuming that my standards of big and small, rich and poor, easy and hard were universal standards. And if I'm never pushed out of Bloomington—which is essentially a big ivory tower with invisible walls—I could get sucked into the ivory tower thinking.

Bloomington has given us nothing but wearysome troubles. It's time to get out and experience some different troubles.


nam chen (February 10, 2013, 2:08 pm)

I think it's a push/kick-in-the-pants in the right direction.

Mark Marnell (February 11, 2013, 10:53 am)

Four years was more than enough for my college town. Time to watch National Velvet and listen to the speech about there being a time to move on. (Isn't West Lafayette next to Purdue? When Andrew saw Purdue, he did not even want to stay for the engineering school presentation, but that area would have a lot more work in your areas.

(Will not be shown)

What is the first letter of "Pennsylvania"?