twenty years in madison

Soundtrack in my head: Nick Drake, “Introduction.”

madison, wisconsin, winter

Well, that went by quickly. I have now lived in Madison Wisconsin for twenty years.

How I ended up here is still a fascinating story I haven’t told in a while, so click elsewhere if you’ve heard this one.

In July 2000, I was at the peak of my career in fundraising as the executive director of a small nonprofit in Chicago. My organization had just gone through a highly motivating strategic planning process, my board members liked me, and I was thoroughly enjoying my job. We were negotiating an affiliation agreement with a larger organization that would let us keep our independence but give us more resources to make a difference.

I was also involved with a spiritual organization that I would describe as “messianic Shintoism,” that I felt satisfaction being involved with. I had a role with the organization as a “group coordinator” which had me staying in touch with and providing spiritual support to a group of people. In my case, it involved people who lived a long distance from the organization’s center in Chicago, which brought me up to Wisconsin a lot—mostly the Milwaukee area and Stevens Point. I sometimes found myself fantasizing about retiring in Wisconsin. I would often visit a friend’s downtown Chicago office and while waiting for her, there was a travel guide highlighting different Wisconsin cities that I would review. As I did so, I imagined that I was shopping for a new city to call home home as I read about towns such as Green Bay, La Crosse, Wausau, Eau Claire, etc.

One weekend, I decided to take a road trip to Madison with a friend of mine who knew and liked the city. She took me there once in February 1993 to a somewhat famous shopping district called State Street, which was known for its quirky and unique shops as well as diverse eateries. I remember thinking that the city was fairly charming, but the winter weather didn’t exact make being there feel pleasant. But since I was frequently passing Madison on my way to Stevens Point, I thought it would be worth checking out again, especially in the summer.

Near Memorial Union Terrace

I think what made me first fall in love with Madison was the Memorial Union Terrace at the University of Wisconsin, which was a large outdoor patio on the shore of Lake Mendota with tables and chairs, food and drink available and a stage that faced inwards from near the lakefront that would have outdoor entertainment on weekend evenings. Maybe I liked that it seemed to have the sophisticated and cosmopolitan nature of Chicago without it feeling like an overwhelmingly huge city.

What I didn’t expect though was to find myself restlessly pacing around my apartment Sunday evening thinking to myself “I’ve got to move to Madison! I’ve got to move to Madison…now…right now!” I knew my feelings made no logical sense. I liked Chicago despite its big city annoyances. I loved my third floor walk-up apartment where I could see over the rooftops of the single family homes and two-flats and the Sears Tower in the distance. I loved the charming little neighborhood of Lincoln Square where I lived, close to German, Greek, and Mexican restaurants, a second-run movie theatre, and the famous Old Town School of Folk Music. I like where I was, I like my job and really liked my life at that point. So what was the rush?

But the idyllic picture of my life began to sharply change less than six months later. An employee who was being extraordinarily difficult manage to get some board members on her side right at the point I was ready to fire her. This resulted in a stalemate and relentless gaslighting from the employee and her supporters that consumed the first half of 2001 and left me drained and starting to burn out.

During that time, a friend of mine told me she lived in a co-op house not far from where I lived. As it turned out, I had been wanting to live in intentional community for quite some time. My desire for this lifestyle actually was a major factor in ending the engagement to a woman I was going to marry in 1996. I decided to learn more about this co-op, which was located in former convent just a mile form where I lived. I was intrigued and decided to apply for membership. I ultimately wasn’t accepted, but while exploring membership, I learned that the co-op was, in large part, founded by someone who based the model on a group of co-op houses in Madison, Wisconsin that he used to live in. That piqued my attention. I began to look at co-ops up there. And I learned that some friends of mine who used to live in my Lincoln Square neighborhood had recently moved up there, so I decided to go up there and visit. At the time, they lived in the Williamson-Marquette neighborhood of Madison The weekend I visited them was the Orton Park festival. I’d been to many of Chicago’s great neighborhood festivals, but this one had a certain level of comfort and charm I’d never experienced before. It cemented my love for Madison and got me thinking more seriously about how I might move up there.

After my employee at my nonprofit from was hired away by a sister organization (and subsequently fired a few months later), I hired her replacement as we were finalizing plans to publicize the launch of our newly merged organization. I had come in early on the morning before our big launch to start preparing news releases and calling media outlets. Around 8 a.m., a board member friend of mine called me and told me he wouldn’t be able to attend the conference call we’d scheduled for our committee because “the country was on alert” and would be too swamped with things at the phone company where he worked. I was puzzled—I asked him what he meant by the country being on alert. He said “Turn on the radio.” It was September 11th, 2001. Our merged organization was going to originally have its publicized launch on September 7th, but at the last minute they’d decided to change it to September 12th. Oops.

I was understandably quite confused as to what to do next. The terrorist attacks had been in New York and Washington D.C. Was Chicago on the list? Did I need to keep going or stop what I was doing and leave downtown Chicago? I wandered into the hallway outside of my office and saw my friend who owned the framing gallery across the hall from me. She said she was leaving downtown and thought I should too. “It’s getting creepy here,” she said. I went back into my office and a few minutes later my employee, whom I’d hired just a month before, just arrived. She apologized for being late. She said she was watching what was going on in New York, and as she was explaining things, she said “Oh, we’re right next to a federal building, aren’t we?”

Actually the windows on two sides of the office faced two separate federal buildings. “Don’t even think about it,” I said. “Go on home. I’m doing the same.” The el trains leaving downtown Chicago were as crowded at 10 am as they normally would be at 5 pm—everybody was thinking the same thing and getting out. I remember thinking that I should have heeded my gut feeling telling me to leave Chicago ASAP.

I accelerated my efforts to move to Madison by visiting a number of the co-op houses in Madison, Wisconsin. Applying for membership in the co-ops was kind of weird. It required me to attend three dinners there, with the third one including an interview for membership. Given the close proximity of most of the co-ops to the University of Wisconsin campus, it felt kind of like what pledging fraternities must have been like, especially since many of the residents at these co-ops were, in fact, college students. In November, one of told me that I had been accepted, but couldn’t move in because they said they needed to keep a certain balance between men and women there. I interviewed with a second one in April, but I apparently offended some people there with my request that a couple of rooms there be kept cat-free to accommodate my allergies.

It was hard for me to contemplate how I could move to Madison under my current circumstances. My nonprofit salary still had me living mostly paycheck to paycheck, and to quit my current job, move north, and then find another job didn’t seem doable. And it was hard to get interviews for Madison jobs with my Chicago address. I went to one such interview, but on my way there, I got a flat tire at the Illinois-Wisconsin border. I called the employer to let them know what was happening, and the receptionist was kind and understanding. But when I got the tired fixed in less than an hour and told them I was on my way, the interviewer was like, “Um, I don’t know when I can fit you in.” I asked him if he really meant for me to turn around and go home after all the effort I made to move there. He wouldn’t admit that he was doing this, and instead said he’d get back to me. My gut feeling told me to just turn around, which was a good thing, because he never called back.

Welcome to Hoffman Estates, Illinois.

I learned that a friend of mine in the western suburbs was looking for a temporary roommate for her condo on a month-to-month basis. She lived in Hoffman Estates, about an hour’s drive out of downtown Chicago, and it was just another two hours to Madison from there. So I moved up there. Though it was a royal pain because the U-Haul facility lost my reservation and I had to wait two hours for a truck at another rental place that was first-come first-serve.

While living there, I began to interview with another co-op house in Madison that I liked better than the previous two. One day, the membership coordinator there told me that they had an opening and asked if I would consider moving to Madison ASAP. I remember talking to my roommate friend about it, and she suggested the idea of having dual residency between her apartment and the co-op house in Madison, which I could maintain until I found a job to replace my job in Chicago. I thought about it, ran the numbers, and came to the astounding realization that if I added the rent required by the co-op to the rent I was paying my friend, it would be the same amount that I would pay had I stayed in my apartment in Chicago. I proposed the idea to the co-op during my interview. I could tell they were not 100% comfortable with it, but on October 29, 2002, I got the call from the house telling me that they were happy to accept me, and that the room would be available on December 15.

They mailed me some paperwork to sign, and it involved some back and forth because the contract was very complex, so I didn’t get it all completed until December 8. On December 11, I saw an email from the board president of my nonprofit telling me that they were going to have a meeting on January 8 to talk about the future of the nonprofit. It was not a meeting I was invited to. He and I had a good rapport, and he was very understanding about my situation with the rogue employee and board members, but he was professional enough to keep our interactions pretty much strictly business. Feeling the floor was suddenly dropping from beneath me, I called the board member and asked him directly if I should be looking for another job. He said, “I don’t want to put it this way, but, yes.”

Christmas that year was very strange. My parents, who were also in the western suburbs of Chicago, had not known all that I’d been thinking of moving to Madison, much less that I’d been contemplating this for two and half years, so when I told them about this dual citizenship arrangement I was contemplated, they were surprised and tried hard to mask their worry.

So twenty years ago today, on December 26, I put six packed boxes into the back of my Geo Metro and drove them up to my new home at the co-op house. I stayed up there for two weeks, occasionally popping back down to the Chicago suburbs to go to the spiritual center there and to take up a few more boxes. I started looking for more jobs. I went to a New Years Eve party with one of my housemates and her boyfriend, and as she introduced me, she said, “He’s moving to Madison.” It was strange for me to hear those words because I wasn’t sure if this was really happening or not. I also wasn’t sure if I would be able to make it in Madison.

I drove back to Chicago on January 8. I remember stopping at a Culver’s, a famous and delicious fast food chain based in Wisconsin just north of the Illinois-Wisconsin border, looking at my watch, and realized that my nonprofit was meeting at that moment to discuss my future. The thought of it didn’t bother me. I’d gotten to the point where I’d realized my future with this organization was completely out of my hands at this point.

I came to the office January 9 and in the mid-afternoon I got a knock on the door there. It was my board president and another board member. We sat down and they told me that they had come there to ask for my resignation, and if I didn’t resign, they were authorized to fire me. They also said they would give me two months’ severance pay. I resigned. They took the checkbook away, but I told them that I would need to tie up loose ends. They asked me to make myself available over the next month so they could pick my brain on what was needed to manage the office, but I told them that I was moving up to Madison, and would need to conclude those meetings in the space of two weeks. I ended up going into the office every day for the next two weeks to tie up loose ends and essentially download my brain to them. A few of them seemed quite impressed with my genuine willingness to make the transition for them as easy as possible. For my part, I guess I had stopped being angry with them a long time ago, and had known for a while that it was time for me to move on.

On January 26, 2003, I borrowed my parents’ minivan and made two trips to get my stuff from Hoffman Estates to Madison, and then I put the remainder of my things in my little Geo Metro. By this time, I’d become quite familiar with the stretch of I-90 between Hoffman Estates and Madison. The terrain would get quite pretty in the hills north of Janesville, and continued to be scenic most of the way to Madison. I remember as I drove into the hilly terrain on this last trip between Hoffman Estates and Madison, my little Geo Metro seemed to suddenly pick up some extra energy, almost as if it were excited about the move.

I’d arrived, but the next year would be arguably the hardest one of my life. It was evident that I was severely burned out on the non-profit sector, and floated from temp job to temp job, not knowing how I would be able to pay my bills. I also began to develop a number of health problems, some of which I had not had before—including a nasty bout of undiagnosed gout that had me walking with a cane sometimes. This move—and the two preceding years prior to it—were taking a physical toll on me.

Yet I also knew I was experiencing a miracle. It was a remarkable coincidence that the combined cost of my friend’s room and my new room equaled the same amount of money I would have paid for my Chicago my apartment had I stayed. It was another remarkable coincidence Now that I was living in a co-op in Madison, my monthly expenses had been cut by 33%, and the severance proved to be a critical bridge. Even my father said, “They canned you at the right time.” Even though I was living from temp job to temp job, I managed to figure out how to play the temp agency game to get myself work, and between April and the end of the year (when I was offered a job by the last place I temped with), there were only three weeks where I had not been working.

I was eager to share the story of my miracle with my spiritual organization, but the moment I moved to Madison, my organization turned weird on me. A couple of people had got it in their head that I was trying to leave the organization by “escaping to Wisconsin.” It had not occurred to them that my desire to better support my group members in Wisconsin and build community might have been part of my motive. I remember sitting down with the new center director talking about my desire to share this experience, but despite my seeing all of the good in the difficulties, she accused me of not having enough gratitude for my difficulties. She drove home her point by doing a crude imitation of me limping on my cane and pretending to whimper.

I knew what she said was wrong and 100% inappropriate, but it didn’t stop me from internalizing some of that and making my depression worse. I would eventually get it together enough to file a complaint against her, which did get some sympathetic responses from the organization. But by that time it was too little too late—her crude imitation of me on a cane was just the first in a series of events that led me to leave the organization four years later. I was resistant to their gaslighting and that was part of the problem, and I eventually announced my public break with the organization. What I was experience with my move to Madison was a miracle, but ultimately it was a miracle that had absolutely nothing to do them.

These twenty years have gone by fast—very fast. I would end up living the co-ops in Madison for sixteen more years before moving to my current apartment. I still feel more at home in Madison than I ever have in any other place I’ve lived. I think I was always way too laid back for Chicago, despite my having grown up in the area.

I don’t know if I will be here twenty more years. But how I ended up here is a remarkable story, and worth revisiting from time to time as I contemplate my future.

By the way, big life events are often colored by the music we happen to be hearing at the time. I’d asked for a Nick Drake CD for Christmas after hearing good things about him on the local public radio station. The first two tracks of the album, Bryter Layter, paint a vivid picture of my life at that time. The first track, “Introduction,” is a beautiful guitar instrumental that very much reminds me of the hills north of Janesville that let me know I’m on the final leg of my trip to Madison, and the lyrics to the second track “Hazey Jane II,” seems fitting for the transition I was going through at the time.

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