Colorado Dreaming and the Two Body Problem

While we were both in Colorado last winter, Michelle and I talked a lot about the emotional and physical logistics of moving back there permanently.  Our two body problem.  Location, career or love, (like sleep, good grades or a social life): pick two.  We tried to write an outline of all the decision points we might face.  A decision tree.  It became a mess.  Then we started writing it as a Python program, with zane and michelle objects, and method calls like zane.findjob(loc="boulder").  But it’s not really that kind of problem.  It’s not deterministic.  This is decision making under uncertainty.  Strategic and emotional, not entirely susceptible to reason.  It really stopped being an academic problem when I got the interview with NREL, and it seemed to go well.  Even if I don’t get the job (they still haven’t said one way or the other, as of mid February August), it was certainly a useful exercise in the sense that It made us think and feel through the realities of what doing something like that would mean.

Spending all of January in Denver/Boulder definitely reminded me of what it’s like out there.  It’s easy to just idealize when remote.  Commuting between Lakewood and Boulder kind of sucks.  I’d forgotten that.  The limited schedule of the busses, and the mandatory time sink certainly makes for a bit of a disincentive in going back and forth.  That means getting a job in Boulder, and living with Mike and Susan for a while in Lakewood, is not really an optimal arrangement.  It would be okay though.  There are much worse commutes out there, for sure, and being able to save more for a down payment is definitely worth something.  Being able to spend time with them would also be good, especially if I were out there without Michelle for a while – it wouldn’t be as if I were off completely floating and disconnected from her social graph.  If anything I’d be closer to its core.  The experience did reinforce my intuition that ultimately what I want is to live and work in the same place, ideally with a pleasant bike commute each way that’s long enough to constitute exercise.  The reverse, living in Boulder and commuting to, say, NREL by bus wouldn’t be quite as much of a hassle, since the bus basically goes right to NREL’s door, and it’s a little less time, though it would be eliminating the positive (bike ride) part of the commute.

What is the real trade off that we’re talking about here though?  Why would I consider moving back to Colorado before Michelle at all?

I feel like an alien in SoCal, like I’m living in a foreign land.  Even if I can relate to the people immediately around me, I know we’re embedded in this other world that I don’t understand, and don’t really get along with, that has all kinds of expectations and values which I don’t share.  This experience creates a background stress, similar to living overseas and being part of an ex-pat community.  A sense of personal otherness, for you and your clique.

The people that I’m surrounded by and can potentially relate to are all probably social transients.  I’m not going to go to their conferences.  We’re not going to be colleagues.  We won’t live in the same place.  Everyone’s at least mildly workaholic, and my social energy is limited, so investing it in these people often seems like a waste (no matter how thoughtful and interesting they are).  Maybe this is a lousy argument, since it’s always true to some degree (so long as we’re mortal) and obviously it’s worth having relationships with people in your life.  But it still feels this way sometimes.  You may have noticed that people often become more introverted or even hostile when they get close to graduating.  I don’t think it’s just that they’re busier or more stressed out.  I think it’s partly a way of dealing with the fact that they’re about to ditch everyone they know, despite being a social animal.  I think that’s a lame way to arrange society, and that this kind of geographic and social transience contributes to disengagement from local politics and discourages long term planning and constructive behavior.  It’s like we’re all social renters.  So I fantasize that if only I were in a place I thought I could stay, I’d be more willing to make connections with people.  Boulder seems to be a place that people stay, disproportionately, which makes it attractive.

Some variation on the above argument can also be made professionally.  If I stay here and get a job (assuming I can get a job), it’s going to be somewhat disposable.  As soon as Michelle is done, we’ll be off.  This creates an incentive to find a job quickly, that’s convenient, even if I don’t particularly like it.  That’s not something I’m keen to do, as one of the things that I’m worried about personally now is whether or not it’s even possible for me to like my work.  I think it is, but I’d feel a lot better if I could demonstrate it to myself.  If I manage to do that here, then I’ll have a conflict when Michelle finishes, in leaving a job I’ve found that I like, and I don’t really want to be any more chained to SoCal than I am already.

My moving out to Colorado immediately would be a kind of personal conspiracy.  It is a concrete move in the direction we say we want to go.  It makes that statement real (kind of like getting pregnant… or having a vasectomy).  Michelle would certainly move to Colorado as soon as practicable, if I were already living out there with Mike and Susan.  It might even accelerate her finishing grad school.  It would potentially save us money on rent, which could be put toward buying a place when we decide to do so.  It would strengthen my connection to Michelle’s family.

The great cost, of course, would be in intimacy: emotional, physical, experiential.  We’d have to work to keep up our daily connection.  We’d need to arrange shared time, and do our best to make it good time, probably outside and active.  I think this is all possible, but not necessarily easy.  Being separate would also potentially put pressure on Michelle to get a new housemate (which could be stressful) and to get permission to work or write remotely, which her TAC might react negatively to.

It might seem like this is primarily me being selfish – that I stand to gain something, at the expense of both of us losing something, and I wouldn’t argue against that interpretation too strongly, but I think there’s value for both of us in moving toward a place we want to have as our base, and people we feel like we can invest in, and more “career” like jobs, and I think we’d both feel better knowing that I’m capable of doing a job, and enjoying it.  I also think that it turned out my moving to SoCal in 2006 was not so far from being the inverse of what this move would be.  I came out here then because I felt like it was our relationship that needed to solidify.  The other things felt much more stable.  Now I feel like our relationship is the stable thing, and it’s work and the sense of “home” and social sphere that are unstable.  Ideally all these things could be worked on at once.  It’s one argument for doing something more personal and location independent, but that’s difficult economically.  It would be freeing though, if it could be made to work.  I think this is the option I’m rooting for at this point.  Our unusually low rent, my frugal taste in cars, and the copious free food in the area do make an extended bout of voluntary poverty at least plausibly enjoyable (and of course Bryan thinks this sounds like a great idea… he has trouble finding cycling companions given his randomly distributed 4 months off each year).

If I did get a “real” job and move out to Colorado, I’ve promised Michelle I’ll keep paying the $500/month in rent indefinitely, and she can do whatever she wants with it – not have to worry about a housemate, use it to fly out to visit on a regular basis, save it toward future housing or retirement, any of which would mitigate some of the issues of being apart.  It’s easy to see why the canonical dominant-submissive jobs relationship develops.  Much easier to just follow one person around than to negotiate consensus every time.  In contrast, we hope to just go to where we want to be, and never have to negotiate location again.  Honestly, career-wise there isn’t a whole lot of sacrifice in doing this for us.  The Boulder-Denver area has copious geoscience jobs, both research and applied.  Government labs, high tech industry, software, sustainable building, alternative energy, etc.  In the long run, I don’t think this decision is very hard.  It’s just the transition we have to manage.

By Zane Selvans

A former space explorer, now marooned on a beautiful, dying world.

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