Left at the lights

by Suw on June 23, 2013

Woodstock SquareSometimes, just when you think you’ve got everything nailed, when your plans are coming along nicely and all the pieces of the jigsaw are slotting neatly into place, something comes along and blows everything out of the water.

For some years now, Kevin and I have been plotting our move to the US. A few years ago, we both applied for various journalism fellowships with ideas we thought were really strong, but we didn’t make the final cut. In the following years, we talked a lot about where we might eventually move, even though we knew by then that Kevin had to get citizenship here in the UK first, so that we would be free to come and go. But without something to guide us in choosing a place to live, like perhaps a job, it was hard to imagine moving.

Kevin’s from west of Chicago and last year we realised that we really loved the area where he grew up, and that it ticked all of our boxes: it has an international airport, we both have friends in the area, the countryside is very picturesque, and – this might just be me, but – the area isn’t seismically active or prone to extreme weather events. (I think it was Scott Adams who said that he didn’t want to live in a place where his cause of death might be “went outside”.)

A friend of mine familiar with the upheaval of moving from the US to the northern states of America advised me some years ago to make sure that I visited in the winter, as winter in the Midwest is in a whole different league to winter in the UK. Kev and I did that properly in January when we went out to his parents’ place and enjoyed -21C temperatures where your breath freezes in your nose with an odd sort of crinkly feeling. (Two days later it was 16C and frozen ground was steaming – go figure.) One does need the right clothes to cope with such cold, but it certainly didn’t put me off.

We fell in love with a town called Woodstock, where Groundhog Day was filmed. The town square has barely changed in 20 years, so if you’ve seen the film you’ve seen Woodstock pretty much as it still is. It’s a gorgeous town with some beautiful Victorian houses and a walkable ‘downtown’ area with real character, not to mention an opera house, cinema, arts centre, and some lovely restaurants and even a pub that is more like a proper British pub than anything I’ve ever seen in the US. Woodstock is 1.5 hours from Chicago on the train, so it would be easy for me to get in to visit the Chicago Centre for Book and Paper Arts, were I would be able to do courses, volunteer and get studio time. Kevin had a job that was geographically independent, so we would be able to quite simply pick up our lives and transplant them to this wonderful little town without too much of a hitch.

We found a lovely house in January, a 1940s place with a lot of room and a lot of potential. We put an offer in and signed a contract. Unfortunately, the house survey came back with a laundry list of things wrong, including a gas leak, dangerous electrics and plumbing that was ‘at the end of its useful life’. Oh, and the strong possibility of asbestos in the roof. And squirrels in the garage. And it’d need a new furnace. Minor points. We pulled out of the sale.

We returned in May, found another gorgeous house, put another offer in, but this time, the vendors weren’t quite ready to sell and fell off the face of the earth. Negotiations over price didn’t even get off the ground and, although we were disappointed, we knew there were other houses in the town that were just as fantastic. And oh my word, the houses! We could get a three or four bedroom house, walkable to the town centre, with large basements and multiple bathrooms for £100k – £120k. And if we wanted to go for a foreclosure, houses were going for £40k – £50k – the very definition of affordable, and in stark contrast to the south east of England.

In Woodstock, we’d be able to afford the kind of house we’d always wanted, in the kind of community we’d always dreamed of living in. We’d be near Kevin’s parents, and the train from Chicago to his brothers’ town takes 22 hours and is a wonderful journey. Poor Kevin left the US in 2005, expecting to be in the UK for a year. He certainly didn’t expect to meet the woman who would become his wife and end up becoming a British citizen. Rather, he put all of his stuff in to a climate controlled lock-up in Maryland with the expectation of being back to pick it up within 12 months. He has been able to check on it just once in the last eight  years.

We dreamed of him being reunited with his stuff, and me getting all my stuff out of my parents’ loft and, eventually our stuffs would meet, fall in love just like we did, and have little stufflings. Our books would nestle next to one another on the bookshelves and produce pamphlets. Our audio cassettes would find solace in one another’s spools and have tangles together. His junk and my junk would become our junk.

It turns out that it’s lucky we didn’t quite get our house bought. It turns out that we may well be hanging around Woking for a while longer. Any move to the US relies upon Kevin having a job, rather than freelancing, as without one my immigration paperwork becomes a bit more awkward. And any move to Woodstock requires him having a geographically independent job, a rare thing these days, even with the internet and remote working.

Last week, Kevin’s job got redefined out of existence. So did all our plans, and our dreams of moving to Woodstock (unless by some large miracle, he gets a job in the outer suburbs of Chicago, which I think we both know is unlikely). Pffut goes my plan to set up a nice little book binding studio in my basement, and my plans to transition my consulting business to the US market.

We didn’t talk much publicly about all these things were were hoping to do. Close friends and family knew what we were up to, but it seemed premature to talk about it openly, even when we were getting so very, very close to making it all a reality. So I now find myself in the odd position of grieving for a plan that I had become emotionally very attached to, but having the destruction of that plan come as a complete surprise to most people I mention it to. It’s strange, this feeling, this wistfulness for a future that will now not come to pass, this death of a dream we’d held on to so tightly over the last few years. We came so close, but it now feels so far away.

We’ll roll with the punches, of course. Kevin’s got two months to find a new job and already has applications in. If we’re going to stay here, we might try to buy, but the houses we can afford are mean and small and cramped and not very pretty and don’t have a basement I can convert into a studio. I’m trying to ramp up my consulting, which means lots of meetings (do get in touch if you’re interested in being one of those meetings!) and hopefully now that my op is done and I’m mostly recovered, I can get a lot more work done.

I’m also going to focus on ramping up my writing, which means ditching the idea of doing a Kickstarter project for Queen of the May and, instead, releasing it as an ebook and cracking on with the next project. Kickstarter projects are fun and great at coalescing a community around a book, but they are also fickle and time-consuming, and time I am short of right now. It’s more important that I write more than spend time making books, sad though that makes me.

We’ll come out on top, without doubt, because we’ll make the best out of how things turn out. That might sound horribly clichéd, but what other choice is there but to carry on searching the gold buried in all the muck? We won’t give up on the dream of one day moving to the US, and there is a possibility that Kevin’s dream job might even come up somewhere across the Pond, but the probability that it would be within spitting distance of Woodstock is slim to nonexistent.

So for now, I must cultivate a zen-like calm. I am a leaf, being blown on the wind and the fates will take me whither they will. I must let my dreams of Woodstock fade, to be replaced one day by other dreams of other towns and other Groundhog Days. Meantime, I mourn the passing of our oh so well laid plan.

Dennis Howlett June 23, 2013 at 5:05 pm

I hope this is an encouragement…but towards the end of last year I took a leaf out of Jobs’ book. Rather than continue being driven by ‘the man’ I thought f%^k it – if we’re here to make a dent in the universe then that’s exactly what I’ve got to do.

As someone who has been writing for Big Media more than 20 years and listening to Tom Foremski talking about finding new models since forever and seeing ad driven Big Media continually demanding more for less I came up with a different model. One that values what I (and colleagues) know for what that is and not as part of a Big Media that only cares about page view whoring.

We’re in month 2. We’ve scored mid-6 figure deals for annual partnering. We have no clue if it will work in the long term. There is no safety net. We’re feeling out way around something that is still embryonic. Initial attention is very promising. Reception has been much better than we could have imagined.

So f&^k it…we’re here to make that dent and will fail and fail until we succeed and then we’ll fail again. And that’s OK.

Suw June 23, 2013 at 5:42 pm

Good luck, Dennis!

It’s funny, I know intellectually that there are many paths to happiness and that one Kevin’s job search has concluded we’ll find a way to achieve the things that we have found are important to us, but I’d invested so much in Woodstock that it’s hard to let that go, very hard indeed. We’d so fallen in love with the town, with the lifestyle that we’d so easily have there. But the key things that are important to us remain the same: financial stability and a house we can call our own. And that can be had elsewhere, although having it here in Woking will take a bit more work than Woodstock, which is just orders of magnitude more affordable.

But one just has to get on the horse and keep going, because eventually it’ll all come together.

PurpleCar June 24, 2013 at 9:55 pm

Good luck to you, Dennis and to you too, Suw. I’m sorry to hear you aren’t going to make it to the states yet, Suw. Artisan crafting is so bignow in the US! You’ll fit right in when you get here. It’ll just take a while longer, that’s all. I feel like I have to wait all the time, too. But you figure, our generation will be working until we are 80 at the very least. Stay strong.

Suw June 24, 2013 at 10:07 pm


If Kevin gets a job in London, then he’ll probably end up commuting, like normal people. I will miss him horribly – I’ve got so used to having him around all day, every day, and I love it. On the other hand, his desk will become free and I can set up a nipping press and use it as a permanent bookbinding workspace. Always an upside if you look hard enough!

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