Why KC?

(I wrote this in the winter of 2009, two months after arriving in KC. So much is still relevant; so much is not.)

Surely this question (or ones of similar variety) has crossed the mind of many after hearing that I moved from Portland, Oregon–the preferred destination of much of the hipster migration–to Kansas City, Missouri, the epicenter of… well, fountains? Meat slathered in BBQ sauce? Terrible sports teams? Jazz?

Truth is, KC was way cool a mere 70 years ago or so but now it is relegated to a lower-eschelon “cool city” status in the part of the country that my friend Marty refers to as the “flyover states.” In other words, it is no Chicago or Minneapolis or even Madison or Ann Arbor. So, again, why KC?

The answer starts a little over two years ago.

I first came to KC in January of 2008 for work. This trip was notable for two reasons: 1) The Kauffman Foundation paid for all my expenses: flight, lovely hotel, and meals. This was the first time that anyone decided that my thoughts were valuable enough to pay to have me at the table. It is a very humbling and flattering feeling; I highly recommend it. 2) My trip to KC allowed me to connect with a friend that I taught with in Shizuoka, Japan back in 1999-2000. That friend, Lily Berkley, was really more of a social-event friend and we’d been completely out of touch for 8 years. In other words, a lot of time had passed between two people who weren’t all that close to begin with.

I should mention at this point that, while it would seem logical for Lily to play a romantic role in this tale, I have never had any sort of amorous feelings toward her in what would be considered a “check this box if you want to be my girlfriend” way–not even during that first weekend reunion. Yet, I did find myself with a lot of loving feelings directed her way and it was only after a later trip that I figured out how to describe that love… but I am getting ahead of myself.

In the winter of 2008, Lily was one year into a divorce and I was 5 1/2 years into a happy marriage. Furthermore, I knew Lily’s ex-husband and found the messiness of their breakup all the more personal and confusing as a result. This weekend reunion reestablished our connection, showed me that there are a lot of really nice parts of KC (really!), and left me feeling like I’d found someone who’d been missing from my life… and I hadn’t even know it. I returned again for Halloween of 2008.

By the fall of ’08, I was divorced and Lily was still dating the same lovely fellow from the winter of 2008, a great guy named Ryan (her ex- is also named Ryan so no embroidery on towels and sheets needed changing). By Halloween 2008, Ryan and his precocious daughter Grace had moved in with Lily and her bright-eyed son Quinn. Furthermore, Ryan’s sister and her two children lived next door. So, in the place where I had a quiet catch-up weekend with a grounded-but-still-wounded divorcee, there as now a family and, in total, four kids.

Again I left and returned to my life in Portland. And again, in the summer of 2009, I returned, this time for the 4th of July. I arrived in KC on the 3rd after spending the preceding two weeks in San Francisco, Santa Cruz, New York City, and St. Louis. By the time I got to KC–and amidst all the serious patriotic hoopla of the 4th–I was thoroughly disoriented and firmly convinced that we Americans really ought to give up the silly notion that we live in the same country. Yes, it is common knowledge that all of the 5 cities I visited in two weeks are very different, but to actually tear through those places in under 14 days is very, very unsettling.

So, when I returned to Portland on the 5th, I attributed the lack of complete and total joy that I usually feel when the plane’s wheels hit the runway at PDX to the whirlwind nature of my preceding two weeks. While I was thrilled to be back in the Northwest, eager to see my cat, and otherwise ready to stop moving, something was missing, something beyond feeling “unstuck” by my travels.

I found that I couldn’t stop thinking about my friends in KC and about how much I enjoyed being in their environment. I also figured out how to describe my love for Lily: it is the love that a big brother has for a little sister.

It wasn’t until a week later that two conversations coalesced in my head. The first conversation was with my best friend Kevin and he had the following observation: “What’s interesting is that you keep talking about Portland as a place and Kansas City as a community.” Soon after, my friend Stephen said: “Place isn’t everything. If you have community, work that feeds you, and someone with whom to share your life, you are all set.”

I decided to return to KC during the start of September to spend two weeks figuring out if I actually liked everyone as much as I thought I did and to see what kind of professional opportunities were available.

After two weeks, 7 meetings with local professionals, and one day in particular where I spent time playing kickball with several of the elementary-school aged boys in my community of friends, walking another friend’s dog, and sitting on Lily and Ryan’s porch in bright sunlight watching their chickens roam the yard… I realized that life in KC was the kind of living that fed my soul.

While I know that much of this backstory’s focus involves thoughts that are very present and “in the now”, anyone who knows me at all knows that I went through a pretty unexpected (99% or so) divorce in the summer of 2008 and that really did me in for a while. I won’t begin to pretend that the experience of having someone forcibly hit the reset button on my life isn’t jarring, liberating, terrifying, and generally unpleasant. As a result, it is liable to make someone do rash and seemingly illogical things. That said, my eventual decision to move to KC–while surely influenced by my post-divorce mindset–was very well thought out and not at all spur of the moment.

Most importantly, I made the resolve in the summer of 2009 to stop making decisions based on fear. How much of our lives to we spend making choices based on worry, doubt, insecurity, and a lack of desire to change the status quo… even if the status quo is not enough to feed our souls? Even in insidious ways, I think the powers of fear and uncertainty makes us unwilling to reach out and chose to leave our comfort zone, to grow, to evolve, and to become who we want and are meant to be.

Once I spent two weeks in KC and I got used to my new “make choices based on possibility” mentality, it became abundantly clear that I needed to move to KC. I find the professional details of this story to be a bit drab (for a sample of that conversation, check out my last blog post “Taking My Own Advice” for my old work at Idealist.org) so I will simply say that there is more than enough interesting work to be had here. Much of what started happening in Portland in the late 80s and early 90s–the groundwork that makes Portland the bike-friendly, free-range, urban planning, sustainable living, LEED building, yada yada yada place it is today–is happening right now in KC. I remember my “epiphany moment” when I figured this out and I also remember my very next thought: “Why is everyone flocking to Portland to be a part of this 21st Century Community experience when so much of the work there has already been done? Why aren’t people flocking to places like KC where that work still needs to be done?”

Now I just need to dig back in after the holidays and find ways to turn conversations and proposals into paid work. Am I worried about employment? A little. Am I going to make career choices based on that concern (i.e. fear)? Absolutely not.

Now that I’ve been here for two months (I arrived the week of Thanksgiving), I am even more sure that I made the right choice. I have two great people living in my house in Portland (yes, I still have my Pacific Northwest house and I would like that to be the case for some time to come), my wonderful community of friends (and, after spending the holidays with them, I am all the more pleased to be immersed in their lives), a good apartment in which to make an initial “landing” in town (the apartment being the in-law on the first floor of Lily and Ryan’s house), interesting job prospects, my cat (who did admirably on the plane ride and is as lovely and perfect a creature as she ever was),  and, yes, even a girlfriend (who is so amazing and whose happiness and excitement is so intoxicating that I am sometimes rendered speechless).

Life is good. I hope everyone reading this can say that about their own lives right now. If not, I hope you can figure out a way to make it a reality this year. Who knows, that might involve you moving to KC. The more the merrier!


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