five years in madison, wisconsin, part III

Soundtrack in my head:  Nick Drake, “Northern Sky”

As of yesterday, I have lived in my current co-op house longer than any other place I’ve lived as an adult.  Only the thirteen years I spent growing up in a certain house in Oak Park, Illinois exceeds my tenure here.  

I can only imagine what was going on in my head on the morning of January 27, 2003, the morning after I’d relocated for good.  Paging through my journal pages doesn’t necessarily give me a lot of insight.  

I strongly associate Nick Drake’s album “Bryter Layter” with my arrival in Madison.  I’d received the CD as a Christmas gift, and so I played it when I first began moving my things to Madison on December 26th.  A little video of the track referenced above—“Northern Sky” can be watched below.  The first track of the CD, “Intro” is a brief but beautiful rolling acoustic guitar solo, and it represents for me the feelings I had as I left behind the busy metropolis, and reminds me particularly the rolling hills north of Janesville that always represented the last leg of the trek to Madison.  The second track on the CD, “Hazey Jane II,” has lyrics that were quite relevant to the moment (I’ve posted in an earlier post).  It sounds like many late 60’s/early 70’s folk-pop songs, and a chorus of horns opens the song as if it were a wake-up call to a new day.  

It was a new day.  Still slightly dazed and shaken, my new life began almost immediately.  At the house meeting the next day, I was appointed the house’s board representative for Madison Community Co-op, and a few days later, I found myself among a crowd of new faces as we discussed the organizational matters of the day.  I remember looking around the large vintage looking living room of International Co-op during that meeting, and trying to convince myself that this was all real.  There was a part of me that worried that I might hit financial bottom and have to relocate back to my parents’ house in the Chicago area.  

It was a very tough first few months.  A loophole in Illinois law kept me from qualifying for unemployment compensation.  I would need income soon, and I realized quickly after a number of interviews that I no longer had enthusiasm for the career of my previous twelve years (though recently, I’ve realized that certain aspects of it I miss and would not mind revisiting). So I had to scramble and ended up surviving on temp jobs for a while. 

A number of other things happened.  I began to develop what I’d later learn were the first signs of gout—but as I initially had no health insurance I had to wait for the crippling pain to just go away.  I had to learn the fine art of fending off creditors.  My Geo Metro was totaled on Fish Hatchery Road when a driver not paying attention made a left turn right in front of me, giving me little time to brake.  (Luckily I and the other driver were unhurt.)  

It’s funny—I have to fend off shameful feelings as I write this because of the stigma often associated with being in such a position, but looking back, I know that I learned an incredible amount during this period of hardships.  I feel like I have a very different perspective on work than I did before.  In the coming year, as stability returned to my life, I found myself (and still find myself) grateful literally to the point of tears of being able to have simple things like a job, co-workers, and a supervisor.  

Even with all the hardships at that time, I knew that I was still the recipient of a remarkable miracle.  Like I explained in a previous post, something resembling a makeshift but perfectly functioning Rube Goldberg invention:

1.    Gave me an unexplainable gut feeling telling me I had to move to Madison ASAP even though it made zero sense at the time.  These feelings that wouldn’t go away,
2.    …combined with learning that a friend of mine lived in a co-op house
3.    …led me to start job-hunting and looking at co-op houses in Madison.
4.    Then a friend let me rent a room in her condo for as long as I needed it without signing a lease
5.    …and a month later a co-op encouraged me to apply for membership and accepted me a few weeks later
6.    …with my friend helping me realize that I could pay rent at both places
7.    Finally, right after signing a lease at the co-op, I learned that my job in Chicago was in jeopardy, which would be confirmed a month later,
8.    …leaving me unemployed, but able to move to Madison, and able to cut my living expenses by a third at just the right time.

The only thing linking my life with my old home of Chicago—besides family and friends—was a spiritual path that I was involved with.  This spiritual organization had a center in the Chicago area, but I was the path’s only practitioner in Madison.  At that time, I had a great desire to start a branch of the organization in Madison, and I thought at the time that this series of miraculous events was due to my desire to pursue such a goal.  At the ceremonies this spiritual organization had, people would frequently share their experience stories, and I thought this was a perfect experience story to share.

Yet, mysteriously, I was never able to share this experience story at this spiritual organization’s monthly ceremonies.  I submitted the story several times for approval over the course the next few years, yet I was never permitted to share it.   One person told me that she just didn’t get the point of my sharing it.  This seemed baffling to me.  I mean, it was as if bricks and mortar were falling out of the sky in front of me and mysteriously arranging themselves into a house right at the point I desperately needed shelter.  And I wouldn’t have even walked in the direction of such a miracle had it not been for a mysterious gut feeling 2 ½ years before.  What part of God’s grace did they not get?   But another person told me that experience stories were supposed to talk about a difficulty in life and then talk about how applying a certain teaching from the spiritual path resolved the difficulty.  To them, my experience didn’t seem to fit neatly into that mold.

Looking back, I now realize this miracle was for my own development and not for the spiritual organization that I’d been seeking to promote.  Part of this experience was about God being bigger than any religion or spiritual organization, and God continually confounding efforts of human beings to put walls around Him and defining in their own terms what God is and God isn’t.  History has repeatedly shown God making a mockery of such walls by—guess what?—walking right through them.

This was actually among the first of many signs showing that it was time for me to leave that spiritual organization, and the gradual awakening led to my leaving that organization and joining the Baha’i Faith last fall.  

Looking back, I can now see that while I had met many of my life goals while living in Chicago, they were not always the goals that were making me happy.  I mean, they were to some extent, and some of those ex
periences are valuable even to this day.  But it was also clear that something in my life there was seriously missing and out of balance.  

In living in a co-op house here in Madison, I currently believe that I am closer to where I want to be than I was with my hyper-busy lifestyle and one-bedroom apartment in Chicago.  I feel like my life is more balanced.  I feel I have found a home for myself here, even as I try to understand and further develop the niche for myself in my life.  

It seems fitting now that I can finally tell the full story only now, five years after the fact.  It seems now that leaving the spiritual path I was in before and joining the Baha’i Faith was, in essence, the final step in my transformation from my life in Chicago to my life in Madison, because that was the last reason I had for going down to Chicago on monthly basis.  

I’ve stopped pretending that I know the answers or that I can figure out them all by myself.  I can’t even rule out the possibility of living a completely different lifestyle or completely different spiritual path years from now.  One thing is clear–God has given me a much more interesting life than I could have ever composed on my own.  


five years in madison, wisconsin, part II

Soundtrack in my head:  Nick Drake, “Hazey Jane II”

Today is the actual five-year anniversary of the day that I became a full-time resident of Madison, Wisconsin.  Part I talked about what made me decide to move to Madison.  Part II will talk about how I actually made the transition.  

Starting in the latter half of 2001, I began to apply for jobs in Madison, and I would frequently make trips there to visit co-ops.  Some friends of mine had moved up there a few years before and I’d occasionally visit them.  But it was difficult to apply for jobs from another city, and part of me also kept on holding out hope that the situation with my job in Chicago would continue to work out.  

In the summer of 2002, a friend of mine who owned a condo in the suburbs told me that she regularly rented out one of her rooms to people planning to stay only a few months. It dawned on me that this might fit well into my plans.  I could see it being potentially very difficult to sublease my Chicago apartment and I knew that if a job opened up for me in Madison, I’d have to move quickly.  I also realized that moving from my studio apartment into a room in her condo would force me to pare down my possessions—something that would be necessary if I were to move into a co-op house.

An opening in her condo finally came.  It was difficult to sublease my apartment, but something did come through at the last minute.  A mix-up at the truck rental placed forced me to scramble to find another truck.  This left me with no time to take my extra posessions to Goodwill.  Instead, a dresser, a nice coffee table, a couch, and a chair ended up in the alley.  I think the dumpster divers named the alley after me.  On August 31, 2002, I locked the door to my Chicago apartment for the last time.

On October 9, 2002, I got a call from one of the co-ops in Madison informing me that they had an opening, and they asked me if I was interested.  I initially told them no, because I had no job in Madison, I still had a job in Chicago, and it was the busy season for us.  But when I talked to my roommate about it, she said that when she was making the transition to her condo from the apartment she’d lived in before, she ended up living in both places until the transition was complete.  I decided to do the math and see if it would be financially possible for pay rent at two places.  I discovered that the two rents together would be equivalent to what the rent in my old studio would have been had I stayed in Chicago.  

I proposed to the co-op in Madison that I live there on the weekends, and live in Chicago during the weekdays so that I could continue my job there.  I’d be paying full rent both places. They asked me a lot of tough questions about my intentions, as any responsible co-op should.  On October 28, I got the call from the co-op letting me know that they’d unanimously accepted me as a member.

On December 8th, I signed the lease on my room and sent the co-op my deposit.  Legally, I would be in possession of the room on December 15th.  

At work on December 11th, I was cc’d on an email from my board president letting me know that they were scheduling a meeting in to talk about the future of my not-for-profit organization.  It was a meeting to which I was not invited.  I picked up the phone and called my board president, referenced the email and asked him if I should be looking for a new job.  He said, “Well, I don’t want put it that way, but yes.”   I decided at that moment to schedule two weeks of vacation from December 26th to January 8th.  I would spend that time in Madison getting my bearings there and doing some job-hunting.  

On December 26th, I packed six boxes into my Geo Metro, and headed up to the co-op to begin my first day as a part-time resident of the co-op and of Madison.  It had snowed on the day before, on Christmas, but as I drove north, snow gave way to greenery. My Geo was an old car, and would normally shake if it went much over 60 mph, but in the hills just north of Janesville that represent the “home stretch” enroute to Madison, my car suddenly found itself doing 70 mph effortlessly, almost as if it was excited to be moving to Madison.  December 26, 2002 represents the day I first moved to Madison, even though I wasn’t a full-time resident yet.  

Many housemates were out of town because of the Christmas break, but one housemate was nice enough to go out with me and celebrate my move over drinks. I spent the days researching job opportunities and the evenings writing in my journal.  I walked the neighborhood to get acquainted with my new surroundings, and spent a lot of time reading in the living room.

Then on January 8th, I drove back to Chicago.  I stopped at a Culver’s in Beloit, looked at my watch, and realized that this meeting about the future of the organization was happening right at that point.  

The next day, I found myself back in my office, looking out at the tall buildings of downtown Chicago, as if the last two weeks in Madison had never occurred.  At 2 p.m. that day, I got a knock on my door.  Two of my board members arrived, and told me that they had come to ask for my resignation, and if I didn’t resign, they were authorized to fire me.  I realized that my time to leave Chicago had arrived, and I offered my resignation.  

I’d served five years as the executive director of the organization, longer than I’d expected and twice as long as anyone in that position had previously served.  But my board members and I agreed that while I’d served the organization well and helped them get to a certain point, the organization now needed someone with a different set of skills, and it was time for me to do something different.  I continued to work for the organization six more days, tying up loose ends and letting different board members come in and debrief with me over various aspects of the organization.  It was, by every measure, an amicable parting.  Finally, my work there was done and I walked over to the office of one of my board members and dropped off the key.  

A week later, on January 26, 2003,  I moved the last of my possessions to my little room in my co-op house in Madison.

I would later tell friends that this transition was my “intricately planned, well-choreographed crash landing.”  But it wasn’t me doing the planning.  These puzzle pieces could not have fit together by themselves.  My friend’s room being available at the end of August. Getting the call from the co-op in Madison in October and having my roommate suggest dual residency. Signing the contract with the co-op in Madison three days before I first learned I might lose my Chicago job.. Being let go just two weeks after I started life as a part-time resident in the co-op, minimizing the amount of time I’d be forced to go back and forth between two cities three hours apart.  And landing in a situation where, yes, I was unemployed, but my day-to-day expenses were now cut by nearly 50 percent.  No, it definitely wasn’t me doing the planning.  

So, Part II of this series talked about the actual transition from Chicago to Madison.  Part III will talk about my reflections after living here five years…

five years in madison, wisconsin: part I

Soundtrack in my head: Nick Drake, “Intro”

Tomorrow marks my five-year anniversary as a full-fledged resident of Madison, Wisconsin. I’ve been meaning for a long time to tell the story about how I ended up here.

On July 30, 2000, I had every reason to be very satisfied with my life in Chicago. I was running a small not-for-profit organization and we’d just finished a strategic plan geared to put us on a course for exciting growth. I was actively involved with a spiritual organization I belonged to at the time, hosting bi-weekly gatherings and taking other leadership roles. I loved my apartment, and I loved my Lincoln Square neighborhood. Life was good.

Yet for reasons unknown to me that evening, I suddenly found myself nervously pacing my living room floor saying, “I’ve got to move to Madison. I’ve got to move to Madison RIGHT NOW.” These thoughts and feelings made no sense.  I felt that my life in Chicago was better than it ever had been before—why would I suddenly want to leave it now?

I’d just gotten back from spending the weekend in Madison with a good friend of mine. For about a year, I’d been making occasional trips to Wisconsin and Minnesota, visiting with and supporting the efforts of others in my spiritual organization, and I thoroughly enjoyed those trips. And, a number of times in the waiting room at a friend’s office, I’d find myself paging through a publication promoting conference facilities in different Wisconsin cities. I imagined myself fantasy-shopping for a new home, looking through a catalog featuring the cities of Stevens Point, La Crosse, Madison, Sheboygan, and others. I didn’t really seriously think I was city-shopping, but it was sort of a fun thing to imagine.

But to move to Wisconsin now? That made no sense whatsoever. So, like all nonsensical thoughts, I dismissed it.

Within six months, my workplace environment took sharp turn for the worse, and the organization began to struggle. Within a year, I’d realize that skyrocketing rents would no longer allow me to stay in my beloved apartment, and I ended moving to a studio apartment with window views of brick walls at either end. And over that coming year, I gradually came to realize that maybe indeed it was time for me to consider a move.

In the fall of 2000, a friend told me she lived in a housing co-op just a few blocks from where I lived. She was one of roughly twenty-five people sharing life in a converted Catholic convent they were renting. Community living had long been a life goal for me, so I began to look at her co-op and went through the membership process there. An opening came up in the summer of 2001, and I applied for membership. To my surprise, I was not accepted.

There weren’t many other co-ops in Chicago that I could apply to, but I knew of another city that had three or four times as many housing co-ops, despite being one-fifteenth the size of Chicago. That place was Madison, Wisconsin.

It was becoming increasingly clear to me that Madison was my destination. I wasn’t still 100% sure of this, but I was sure enough that I decided to start applying for jobs up there. I also began to make regular trips up to Madison to visit the co-ops up there.

This concludes Part I of my narrative as to how I ended up here in Madison Wisconsin. There will be a Part II and perhaps a Part III.

the end of suburbia

Soundtrack in my head: The Telescopes, “Splashdown”

Every now and then, I realize how significantly I’ve changed since moving into my co-op house. Outside of the changes that happen when one shares a house with a dozen other people, I’ve noticed changes in how I feel about other environments.

For some reason, I get the willies whenever I visit a shopping mall—even the ones reachable by bus at either end of Madison. I can’t quite put my finger on it. I get a similar feeling near Wal-Marts, Targets and other places that have enormous parking lots. And I get a similar feeling when visiting certain homes in the suburbs—typically in buildings that are less than 50 years old—typically in places that feel very “pre-fab.” I get a feeling that somehow the walls of the place are going to come tumbling down. I don’t know if it’s a gut feeling or an overactive imagination—I’m capable of having both.

Last night, I saw the documentary “The End of Suburbia” at my co-op house, and the documentary gave a lot of justification for my “willies.” The premise is that the world has passed or is about to pass the peak of oil production. After that point, the car-dependent suburbs—with the lifestyle that is dependent on cheap oil for meeting even the most basic of needs—will become more and more dysfunctional. The rest of the economy—and the way of life we’ve become so used to and dependent on—will go down with it.

The documentary talks about the development of the suburbs and suburban sprawl, and how necessary cheap oil is to make such a system function. Essentially, American civilization and the institutions we’ve become so dependent on are built on a house of cards balanced on top of oil derricks, and once the oil stops being abundant, cards are going to start falling one by one. As one expert in the film put it, “Cheap oil is the party that we’ve been enjoying for the last 150 years.” That party appears to now be coming to an end.

According to the documentary, the main solution to the crisis will be for people to develop local, sustainable and interdependent economies of scale, so that most of people’s needs can be produced locally. This is very much in the opposite direction that our global economy is currently moving, and most of the experts featured in the documentary believe that major economic shocks will occur before people are able to develop such new infastructures. There are a variety of predictions as to when this “peak” will occur—but most predict somewhere between 2000 and 2015, with some people insisting that we are already past the peak.

To me, “The End of Suburbia,” seems like an excellent companion to Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth.” It shows another dimension to future crises we are likely to face and must address. It also looks like the biggest shocks from peak oil will affect us much sooner than shocks from global warming, but efforts to reduce carbon emissions now—particularly from the automobile–can help with both crises.

Seeing this documentary has helped me feel somewhat vindicated about the choices I’ve made in my life—not that I’m any shining example per se. I do lead a simpler way of life and try to consume less, and co-op living enables the sharing of resources to a significant degree. Madison has always been a more community-oriented city, and most parts of the city are within walking or biking distance (though I haven’t gotten used to the notion of winter biking yet.) Madison has its bedroom communities, too, and parts of it are car-dependent, but the city of 220,000 is small enough that it’s comparatively easy to get around even without a car. Southern Wisconsin is also home to many co-operatives and organic farms, with lots of farmers’ markets in the area. That doesn’t mean that Madison will fare much better than other places when the stuff hits the fan, but my guess is that we’ll probably be a little better off than, say, Phoenix.

Even before I saw this documentary, I found myself thinking a bit more about the implications of such developments in my search for a new career. It got me thinking about what needs people will have in the future and what skills and knowledge will be necessary in order to meet those needs.

In any case, I highly recommend seeing “The End of Suburbia.” You can check out the promo trailer to the documentary here. There is also a sequel that came out in 2007 that I haven’t seen yet, called “Escape from Suburbia.

a fresh little dusting of snow makes me re-think winter

Soundtrack in my head:  Cocteau Twins, “Lazy Calm”

This morning I stepped outside on my way to work and discovered that there was a light coat of snow covering everything and it lifted my spirits more than a little bit. 

I think about the aspects of winter that bring me down, and I notice an interesting pattern.  I don’t like how snow gets dirty and gray and makes the outdoors look yucky.  I don’t like how salt stains my boots and the hardwood floors.  I don’t like the huge pile of snow pushed by the plows, making the snow look like piles of rocks and gravel at a construction site.  I’ve had some harrowing experiences driving on snow and ice.  I never was a fan of shoveling out my car when I owned a car, or scraping the ice off the windshield.  And while I’ve never had to deal with airport delays, a co-worker was recently stuck in Detroit for two days trying to get home from the holidays.  

The common thread through all of these things is that it’s not so much the winter weather that’s the issue.  The issue seems to be how winter weather interacts with modern society.  Snow  wouldn’t require salt trucks and plowing if we didn’t have cars.  It’s the cars and other air pollutants that make the snow an ugly gray.  Cars and airplanes are recent developments, as far as human history and earth history go.  And both of those modes of transportation cause problems for the environment.. 

I remember last winter, I took the Southwest Chief Amtrak train from Chicago to Albuquerque and back.  It took longer, but it was a less stressful way to travel.  At that time, Denver was still digging out from unbelievable amounts of snow, snarling air traffic right during the holidays, and there were several people on my train who boarded because they’d gotten sick of the airport delays.  The train got through just fine–the utility poles seemed “shorter” in southern Colorado with what was probably two feet of snow on the ground, but it didn’t slow the train down one bit.  And, faced with blizzard conditions on my way back from Albuquerque, the train merely re-routed itself through Texas and Oklahoma. 

One of the best train rides I ever took was on the Lakeshore Limited going from Chicago to New York, but hugging the Great Lakes and then going through upstate New York.  I had two seats to myself and I was able to stretch out.  I slept very soundly, and with my head leaning against the window, the very first thing I saw when I opened my eyes was a scene that resembled this:

This picture was actually something I took from our co-op house’s third floor back porch.  What I saw on the train was just all wooded area, with no houses.  What a way to wake up.

It makes me think that maybe there is no coincidence here.  Maybe Nature is telling us to slow down–we move too fast. The Amish seemed to be enjoying the ride on my train.  Many cultures have often considered winter to be a time for quiet reflection.  If cars, roads, and airplanes are a problem, perhaps the problem is not with winter, but with cars, roads, and airplanes.  Not that we are in a position where we can instantly abandon them, of course.  But maybe in the ugly grey-sooted snow and in the salt-stained sidewalks, maybe we are seeing a reflection of ourselves.

In any case, I felt a sense of calm as I looked out at the fresh coat of snow, covering up the grey and grime.  I began to think that maybe I’d like winter more if I lived in the country instead of the city.  Hard to say.  But I also realized that a fresh dusting of snow, in some ways, reminds me of God’s grace–that even in the coldest and barren places, God still provides us with beauty if we look for it.

It’s something to think about, at least. 


january 3–only 78 days until spring! yay!

Soundtrack in my head:  Roots Tonic Meets Bill Laswell, “Instrument of the Trinity”

The holiday season lets me smile and tell myself that I’m all aglow with this “peace on earth and goodwill to all” stuff.  January comes in and kisses me with a flying snowball that says, “Okay, now, what are you going to do about it?”

I look outside, as if Mother Nature would somehow give me solace and sympathy.  Sometimes she does, when fresh dustings of snow line the trees.  But today, I see mounds of plowed snow turned gray from car exhaust, wet winter boots leaving a salty grime on the boot tray and the hardwood floors we were hoping to keep clean, and weatherizing plastic on the windows reinforcing the fishbowl feeling I have.

I keep hoping that more holidays will illuminate the barren landscape and give me reason for celebration.  But those days are past.  Though it’s just 52 days before (my first) Ayyam-i-ha holiday as a Baha’i, and that’s kind of exciting.  But what about something between now and then?  Unfortunately, I don’t get Martin Luther King’s birthday off at work.  And unless I have someone special with whom I can celebrate Valentine’s Day with, there won’t be any reason to do so.  It seems like we need something else.

We need some kind of yeah-we-know-it’s-the-bleak-midwinter-but-the-heck-with-it-we-can-still-celebrate-it kind of holiday.  Maybe some time around January 25th.  A time to laugh at our sorrowful selves.  We’ll call it “Laugh At Winter Day.”  Whad’ya think?

But the snowball that just had a friendly reunion with my face is now running cold water down my neck and reminding me that there’s more to winter than holidays and wishing for more holidays.  There’s my goals and my–ack!–resolutions.  My goals for creating more community in my life.  My goals for narrowing the really wide gap between myself and God.  My career goals.  My financial goals.  My health goals. 

I have this annoying habit of making it all sound like work.  And no play.  Making me a dull boy.

Too often I forget that the world can be a candy store.  Opportunities to meet people, opportunities to find new things that interest me and excite me.  I even forget that I’m doing things now that I would have only dreamed of a few years ago–living in a cooperative community, writing, DJ’ing.  And that even in barren places, there is still the beauty of moonlit snow and the unusual but comforting glow it casts in my room, sleeping under a warm blanket, and the knocking sounds of radiators.

So is the snowball half frozen or half melted?  Either way, I’m beginning to like its taste.  Snow cones, anyone?