In August of 2002 Helen and I moved from Evanston, Illinois to Washington, DC. I had been accepted into the fellowship program of the National Library of Medicine (proof here) and she found a job at Grant Thornton. We'd been married for a year and a half by that point, and this was the first time we'd left "Chicagoland."
Turned out that we were in Washington for 2 years and then New York City for three. Grand total on the East Coast: 5 years, after 25 years in the Midwest.
By July 2007 another move was afoot, from Manhattan to Berkeley, CA (a separation that is far more great in miles than in cultural outlook.) Helen was accepted into the Haas School of Business at Cal, and I landed my first library management job at UC San Francisco. As documented lovingly on this blog, we packed a moving van (actually, had it packed for us) and drove across America. We arrived in Berkeley on July 31, 2007.
That was 5 years ago now, equal to my total time on the East Coast. But this time around there's no end in sight. I'll eventually reach the point when my West Coast time equals my Midwest years and keep on going.
A lot has happened in these first five years. Herewith a retrospective in four parts.
Aug 2007-Jan 2009: Dislocation and Dwindling
I had not wanted to leave New York City. After 3 years I was a proud member of the obnoxious "this is the greatest city in the world!!" club. (Although, once I knew I was moving away, I started to become more annoyed by the daily toil that is life in New York--chasing down a subway, climbing narrow flights of stairs, carrying bags of laundry through the city streets.) Helen was content to keep moving to a new city every few years, while I was starting to talk about "settling down." But I was just treading water in my NYU job. Plus, we'd left for DC because of my opportunity at NLM. Now it seemed fair to move because of an opportunity for Helen. And so we did.
But I kept looking back east. Once in Berkeley I was amazed at the inconvenience of being three hours behind my family (most of whom are now in Arizona, but were all in Ohio then.) Even my Aunt Linda, just two hours ahead of me in Tennessee, was harder to keep in touch with than before. I felt cut-off, trapped inside the Bay Area bubble. There were no more delicious New York style bagels, even though that's what Noah's Bagels claimed to offer. There was no more Taco Taco on 2nd Avenue, where I'd perfected the art of calling in my order, walking over to get it, and walking home. Now I had to find new haunts.
But there was no time to do so! I was enduring the longest and most expensive commute I'd ever faced. In Manhattan I could walk home if I wanted to, but that was not an option from Berkeley to the Inner Sunset of San Francisco. BART to Muni in the morning, Muni to BART at night. I was shocked that it cost $3.25 on BART each way from Berkeley (it's more now), and that there was no discount program to speak of. At least there was a monthly pass for Muni, but that was yet more money overall. My commuting costs more than doubled, although the rent went down dramatically. The commute was long too--I never wanted to do anything in SF after work because it meant I'd get home so late. And so, in New York terms, I became a member of the "bridge and tunnel" crowd.
Helen's social life at b-school was thriving, while I was merely schlepping back and forth to work. Out of desperation I became active in the school's social scene, much too active for Helen's tastes. She wanted me to find my own circles, but the combination of work and commuting time sapped my energy for that. So we quarreled, we fought, we yelled, we stewed in our own rage. We inexorably began drifiting away from each other, even if I did not see it at the time.
That spring, when we'd come to vist Cal, business school officials had been admirably candid about how hard the school experience could be on couples. But I'd ignored them, as I suspect most people do. After all, by that point we'd already been married for six years.
Turns out they those b-school folks were on to something. As 2007 rolled into 2008 our marriage continued to plummet. Helen kept finding ways to be on her own--a summer internship in Connecticut when there were many opportunities in the Bay Area, study abroad in fall 2008 in London when most people stayed home. I told everyone, "We're strong, we don't always need to be together." And indeed we had a great time in London the week she moved there, and all seemed well.
But Thanksgiving 2008, when we met up again after a few more months apart, was an exercise in excruicting awkwardness. We'd always bickered, but it used to be playful. Now it was just sad. Then the bottom fell out during Christmas and New Year's, as we toured through Europe on what should have been a very romantic journey. Instead it was a grinding haul from train station to train station, with no intimacy and sometimes barely any words. On this blog I wrote lots of happy posts about that trip, but they were all lies. It was my way of denying the obvious.
Denial soon became impossible. On January 27, 2009 Helen told me she wanted to get divorced.
February 2009-February 2010: Wandering
The next week I filed the divorce papers, "suing" Helen for divorce. Legally I could not serve her the papers, so we asked her friend John to do it for us. But we were still living together in our tiny Berkeley studio. Before we'd slept head to head, but now we slept head to foot on a small bed. No chance to hug each other that way.
By the end of February it was obvious that we could no longer live together. The divorce clock was ticking, to be made official in early August (after 6 months and 1 day, the minimum time allowed under California law.) On the divorce form I'd only had two options for taking this step--"incurable insanity" or "irreconcilable differences." I told Helen about the insanity option, and we both laughed. Then I checked "irreconcilable."
In March 2009 I briefly lived in a shared apartment with two other people, within easy walking distance from UCSF. The commute problem was over. But it was emphatically not my scene. I'd mostly lived in singles in college, and had only ever lived with Helen as an adult. Living with strangers required labelling your dishes and guarding your foodstuffs. Everyone was friendly enough, but we were all just doing it to save on rent. By the end of that month I'd found my own place, in a studio in the Mission.
And not just anywhere in the Mission--at 16th and Mission, where heroin is as easy to come by as bottled water. I was vaguely aware of the dicey nature of these streets when I moved in, but my only criteria was easy access to BART and my place was half a block away. I had eventually discovered some haunts in Berkeley, albeit at a slower pace than I'd done so in New York. So I knew my favorite places on Telegraph and College Avenues. I was only in SF to be closer to work, not because I wanted to be there.
So that year I wandered around SF wondering why anyone wanted to live there. The coffee shops closed too early. Market St was lame. Counter-cultural displays of rebellion were not courageous when everyone was doing it. And so on and so forth. I documented many of these thoughts, which now seem like the rantings of a curmudgeon, on this blog. That is, when I wasn't blogging about my various efforts to recover from the shock of getting a divorce.
Many of those efforts revolved around dating. That year I got into two relationships too quickly, and wanted them to be serious too soon. I had no idea how to be a single person, but knew I hated it. Both of those relationships flamed out by the end of the year, and soon enough I was on Match.com trying (and failing) again. By the end of 2009 I was sure of two things: that I hated San Francisco, and that I was destined to die alone.
On February 6, 2010 (one year and a day after the divorce filing, six months after it became official) I read about my experiences over the past year at a reading in Oakland. Friends came from SF, from Mountain View, from Berkeley. Even Jill, the first woman I'd dated, had the grace to attend. It was very cathartic, as I remembered just how many people cared about me. I eventually published that piece in the Superstition Review.
Six days after that reading, on February 12, 2010, I met Pi Wen.
Feb 2010-March 2011: Re-centering, falling in love
I'm so happy Pi Wen and I met then and not a few months earlier, when I was moping around and convinced I would die alone. That was not very attractive.
I was still a sad case in Feb. 2010, but no longer a terminal one. I'd decided to move back to Berkeley when my lease was up at the end of March, even though I still worked in SF. I still loathed the city, so I decided that the commute would not be so all things considered. I'd already decided to move when I met Pi Wen, but it did not hurt that she lived in Oakland and would be close by.
The early months were rocky, as my old patterns of wanting to move too quickly reasserted themselves. But the difference this time was that I was finally able (and willing!) to change. That spring and summer Pi Wen and I had our ups and downs, and broke up a few times. But she'd always leave something behind in my apartment on break-up day, I'd have to return it to her and then we would reunite. By that August we were engaged and we moved in together on the same day that happened.
Friends warned me it was too fast but I ignored them. The difference this time was that Pi Wen and I were always able to communicate with respect and humor, and we were willing to make adjustments to meet the other's needs.
By that August I'd started my job as library and educational technology director at Samuel Merritt, and the horrible commute to UCSF (which really was just as bad as it had been before) was behind me. I was in love! I could walk to work! Life was good again, and as it turned out I wasn't going to die alone.
Once the engagement happened it was a race to our wedding day of March 19, 2011. Along the way we went to Malaysia, where Pi Wen's family gave us an amazing wedding banquet. In her parent's eyes we were married as of Nov. 2010, and soon enough I was "uncle Marcus" to all of Pi Wen's younger relatives. Once we returned to the US our American wedding preparations continued. Our wedding day was blustery but beautiful, in the Terrace Room overlooking Lake Merritt.
More so than with Helen even in the good years, Pi Wen and I have shared values and know how to laugh with each other. We also support each other's dreams and are actively planning a life together. Helen and I danced around the issue for years, but we always knew we had different visions of what a good life should be. That's not a problem these days.
I'm very happy, very lucky, and very grateful.
March 2011-July 2012: Settling in, chilling out
Two months after we married Pi Wen and I moved into a 2 bedroom, 2 bathroom that still feels like a palace after all my years in tiny studios. This was the first place we chose together. We have a few plants on the balcony, a guest room, and even a TV. We cook more than I ever did before--me mostly as sous chef, but occasionally taking a more inspired role. We watch Castle and Louie re-runs on DVR and edit each other's writing. It's comfortable, cozy, and nice.
San Francisco is also much more charming than it seemed to be in 2009. Now I find excuses to visit the original Farley's on Potrero Hill, or Green Chile Kitchen in the Western Addition (granted, I always liked Green Chile.) Now it feels civilized that coffee shops aren't open so late. A picnic on South Park is lovely. I still chuckle at the predictable nature of SF's politics, but now it's a friendly chuckle and not a derisive one.
What a difference a happy life makes.