Monday, April 05, 2010

"I never met a Kentuckian who wasn't coming home." --Gov. A. B. "Happy" Chandler

Today, I sat on my back porch and ate my lunch, looking out at the beautiful flowers blooming in my backyard. Last night, we had friends over for an Easter dinner, which was a tasty success. On Saturday, we enjoyed a lovely day of biking to the farmers market (which was bustling!) and then biking to the Durham Bulls stadium where we watched the home team take on their major league affiliate Tampa Bay Devil Rays, for whom Jeff's college teammate and roommate Jeff Niemann pitched the first four innings. On Friday evening, we met an old high school friend of Jeff's (who we just found out lives on our street!) for some drinks and conversation at a neighborhood bar. As spring blossoms and the city comes back to life, Durham grows on me. Yet still, even in the moments when I'm enjoying myself and finding positives most places I look, I know that this isn't least not permanently.

You see, today as I sat on my porch eating my lunch, I thought about how I wanted to have my mom come over and help me turn my front yard into something half as nice as my backyard. I thought about how much more fun it would be to cook out and play a few games of cornhole if my brothers could come over and join us. I thought about the Easter cookout at my cousin's new house that I missed and the baby showers for friends and family members that I've been unable to attend. I thought about how my grandpa just turned 85 and instead of being able to wish him a happy birthday in person, I could only send a card.

When I left Kentucky, way back in 1999 at the age of 18, I did so because I thought there weren't enough opportunities for me in the Bluegrass State. The state's universities didn't appeal to me. I couldn't conceive of a job that I wanted to do that I could find at home. I was ready for change. Now, more than ten years later, I've had lots of change. I've lived in three states (Texas, Maryland, and North Carolina). I've lived in two countries (Germany and Greece). I've spent time in dozens of other countries.

And while I've been away, Kentucky has, in some ways, changed. On simply the experiential level, Louisville is definitely a more interesting city than it was when I left. In other ways, Kentucky is still the same. If I wrote down all the characteristics I'd want in an place to live, it probably wouldn't be much of a match. It's much too conservative and much too fundamentalist. Outside a few select fields, it's been slow to attract new companies and new jobs. Its public education system leaves much to be desired. Its international airport is only international if you're willing to go via UPS. It's still poor (46th in per capita personal income with a poverty rate of 17%), falling behind in education (only 17% of Kentuckians have a bachelors degree and only 74% have a high school diploma; compared to 27% and 85% nationally), and overwhelmingly white (87%). But rejecting a place to live based on a set list of characteristics is like rejecting a potential life partner because they don't fulfill every single quality on your dream spouse list. No one and no place is perfect. It's about the total package, the feeling you get when you're with the person/place, not their ability to match 100% with your preconceived notions.

And while the fact that I see Kentucky changing, progressing (even if the facts don't prove it) is important, what's probably more important is the fact that I've changed. As I've lived in different places and held different jobs (some with "wow" factors, some without), I've realized that it's highly unlikely that there's any job in the world that is going to play a truly determining factor in my happiness. There are jobs I will like better than others; but there are no jobs that make everything else irrelevant. I've also come to see that successful people can be successful anywhere. There may not be as many opportunities to do the things you want to do in some places versus others, but there are opportunities (or opportunities waiting to be created), and sometimes it's better to be the big(ger) fish in the small(er) pond. I know lots of smart people in Louisville leading successful lives. Finally, as I mentioned in the credo I published at the beginning of the year, I've learned that when it comes right down to it, people matter most. I can do awesome things and see amazing places, but if the people I love the most aren't around to share it with, how great can it be?

And so, I've decided I'm coming home.* It won't be tomorrow. And it might not even be our next move.** But sooner, rather than too much later, we're coming home. I want my future children to see their grandparents once a week, not a few times year. I want them to learn how to fish from my dad. I want them to be close to their uncles, their cousins, and the family members that they don't even know how to quantify (greats and once-removeds and so on and so forth).***I want them to celebrate birthdays surrounded by people who know the second verse of the Happy Birthday song and to know what it means to give someone down the road, even if that also means they sometimes say "worsh" when they mean "wash," call Detroit "DE-troit," and carry an UM-brell-a instead of an um-BRELL-a. And when eventually, they too leave Kentucky, I want them to go out and experience amazing places and do awesome things, and then, having grown up in the embrace of family and close friends, know that while it's all well and good (and necessary, in my opinion) to see what all is out there, what counts when the day is done is people, pure and simple.

*The good Lord willin' and the creek don't rise.

**We'll be here in Durham for at least three years. In an ideal world, Jeff would then be offered a full-time job (with long term potential). In that case, we'd be looking for that job in Louisville (at U of L most likely, unless anyone knows of anywhere in the city else hiring research scientists). In the realistic world, it's likely that Jeff will end up having to do another post-doc. In that case, we would not be looking at Louisville. It is rare in the science world to take a job at the same place you did a post-doc, and since a job is the long-term goal, we'd want to look elsewhere for the post-doc.

***Yes, I do realize that not all of our future children's grandparents would be in Louisville. But, if we're in Louisville, that means we only have to travel to see one side of the family, not both, meaning we'll have more time to make the trek out West. I also realize that there is no guarantee all, or even any, of my brothers will end up in Louisville. I do know, however, that they, like me, love Louisville. I hope that they will at least be close. I know, for certain, that even if they don't live there, it is someplace they will return to often, meaning I'd still see them more if I'm there than if I'm anywhere else.

****And yes, by "I" I do mean "we." Jeff is aware of and onboard with this plan.