19 months after it began, our adventure in Utah ended much like it began, except in reverse.
We packed out the house we were living in, boxed up the pets in their respective carriers, loaded the kids into one car while another vehicle was towed behind the moving truck, waved goodbye to our neighbors, and off we went, capping off a year and a half of reaching for fresh starts
and frequently ending up with crushing turns of fortune. As we drove south toward Albuquerque, retracing the steps that had brought us to Utah in the first place, I found myself wondering… had I failed as a father, as the head of the household (as opposed to the shoulders or the central nervous system), or was I succeeding in putting my foot down and making the call to get us out of this insanely expensive state so we could return to somewhere closer to where we had come from in the first place?
I’m still not sure I have the answer to that question.
The idea was simple: get out of Arkansas, get our kids away from a school system in decline, and let them see a life beyond a part of the country where people still unironically flew confederate flags from their jacked-up pickup trucks.
Tech was booming in Utah; surely, with my background, I could be a part of that boom. The moment we began making plans to move to Utah, I began applying for jobs there.
It certainly seemed like that part of the country was in a job boom. Graphic designers, content writers, video production – all the stuff I know how to do, laid out like a smorgasbord. Getting even so much as a job interview, however, was nigh-on impossible… and the interviews I did do over the phone almost seemed to be taking place not to find an ideal candidate, but to satisfy some cursory curiosity. Wait, they have people in Arkansas who can do this stuff? You don’t sound like you’re from Arkansas. When can you be here for an in-person interview? In many cases, I was job-hunting far too early, though I was determined to have a place to land, career-wise, before leaving Arkansas.
I keep rewinding to December 2018. My ex-wife, who had been having significant difficulties in her relationship with her parents, was now angling for nothing less than leaving Arkansas – real irony there, since any time over the course of our marriage that I had mentioned a desire to do so, that idea was very quickly shot down…or, perhaps more ominously, it was thrown back at my in terms of “if you want to move to another part of the country, you’ll be doing it alone,” an argument that has a whole different atomic weight when you have two children.
And now, here she was, suggesting we move to a different part of the country a couple of years after the marriage had fallen apart. It’s here that I think the big mistake was made. And I don’t blame it on her. It’s entirely on me. I failed to take stock. It was two years and change since she had taken the kids and left. We had been in therapy for most of 2017, a year during which that therapy had revealed that I was suffering from a double-whammy – severe ADHD and chronic depression, and I was finally able to get treatment for both.
At least owing partly to those factors, 2017 was when I actually seemed to be coming out from under the cloud of the divorce. I had gotten my house – which had previously been a disaster area – whipped into some kind of shape. Gone was the maze that was created by having more furniture than a house of that size ever should have had in it. Gone were the stacks of papers and projects that someone was going to “get back to eventually”. And gone was the clutter created by me as well: my game collection, previously my pride and joy, had sprawled out into a disorganized mess. I donated nearly everything – consoles, computers, screens, cartridges, floppy disks, marquees, the lot – to the local retro arcade, in the hopes that this stuff could be deployed in such a way that the public could play it. Isn’t that what games are for, rather than turning into a pile of junk that takes up the entire room of someone who barely has time to keep up with it, let alone play it, anymore? It had taken both of us to really screw up the house (and the marriage). I was at least trying to reclaim the house. I looked forward to going home from work every day.
As the summer of 2017 rolled in, the kids were with me most of the time (to the point that numerous parties, including her parents, were questioning why I was the one paying child support). Trips to the Alma Water Park’s swimming pools were nearly an every-day thing. The kids slept at my place, and in the morning before going to work I’d drop Little C off at the day care, and Little E at the local boys’ & girls’ club. After work, I’d pick them up, and we might go for a swim, or maybe we’d go straight home for pizza or hot dogs – whatever I had stocked up on at Sam’s Club.
Once at home, swim or no, it was time watch a movie or a show on the media server that I had finally had time to start putting together after talking about it for so many years, or C would watch with rapt attention as E played Undertale or Terraria on the computer that fed the big TV. Then bathtime, then bedtime, with stories and cats.
I’m smiling, sitting here thinking about it. All three of us were really happy. I had missed that in 2016. I had gotten it back in 2017. I could be the dad I wanted to be, and in the fleetingly few moments when I wasn’t directly engaged in being dad, I was getting to be the person I wanted to be. I cannot overstate the importance of that last bit. I had friends over, not terribly often, but a hell of a lot more often than when she had been in the house with me. We could play some tabletop games, or watch something, or I could whip up a batch of home-cooked cheeseburgers and just shoot the breeze. The boys could have friends over too. (I never checked in with the cats to see if they wanted to have friends over, though increasingly, and to my amazement, they were cool with the rest of us having company.) Rediscovering the person you can be when no one else is looking is really important.
My failure as a father, at the end of 2017 when a move to Utah was first being discussed, was in failing to gut-check myself, comparing that happiness to the fact that nothing was certain about the move to Utah. If my ex wanted to try the grand experiment – all of us back under the same roof – I was okay with that. The counseling had done wonders for her as well. But the place to do that experiment was right there in that house, not over a thousand miles away in a state where we had no family, no friends, and no safety net. Maybe there was too much history between us in that house, but surely that was what months of counseling had been for. (Actually, it had been because E, at the tender age of eight, had begun expressing thoughts of self-harm in the months after the divorce, but the counseling sessions had spread into all other areas as well. It had turned into the couples counseling that we should’ve gotten instead of getting, oh, say, a divorce in the first place.)
The failure to recognize that fact falls entirely at my feet. From my vantage point in extremely screwed-up 2020, I would give almost anything to have 2017 back. It was probably the happiest year of the past decade of my life.
To put it very bluntly, we were seriously underfunded for a cross-country move on this scale. Both of us began selling things at the beginning of 2018, trying to sock back some money for the move, and I was unable to admit that having to feed and clothe the kids full-time, while also paying child support, was killing me in the keeping-up-on-house-payments department. I was behind. In fact, something I didn’t realize until I ran across some paperwork in late 2019 as I was boxing things up preparing to move back to Arkansas was that I had lost track of how far behind I was. And that was about to have consequences. I was about to lose the house on Baugh Road, move or not.
As winter gave way to spring and I listed the house for sale, a comedy of errors began to take shape – something that I now refer to as the Never-Ending Yard Sale. I parted with a great many items at fire-sale prices this way, from collectibles that prized highly, to stuff I’d spent the past several years trying to sell at local conventions, to stuff around the house that just didn’t need to come to Utah with me.
E volunteered to part with quite a few toys too. And all of his furniture. A lot of baby items and clothes that both boys had outgrown. Furniture. My ex started bringing stuff over as well. In fact, as she continued packing, she continued finding stuff she didn’t want to bring (and that we probably never needed in the first place)…and that’s how it stretched out to a yard sale that kept going for weeks. I had repeat customers, in fact. And, of course, lots of Facebook Marketplace no-shows, the most common commodity in the universe. I feel strongly that, when the composition of dark matter – the invisible, omnipresent packing peanuts of the universe – is finally discovered, it will turn out to contain Facebook Marketplace no-shows, or the byproducts thereof. In all, it netted about a thousand bucks. A GoFundMe I had started at the beginning of 2018 hadn’t done too badly. And put together, these two things still wouldn’t be enough. They would barely get us to Utah, but we were still far, far short of what we would need to get into a rental house. With my credit having already taken a hard hit after the divorce and being forced to refinance the house, and her credit not being in much better shape, it was going to be a hard enough task anyway. Any reasonable, objective analysis of these factors would’ve told us we were far too poor to being attempting this.
And yet we went anyway.
In late June 2018, we left Arkansas. I had left my job at the end of May, and she had gone on an extended leave from hers already to devote herself full-time to packing out and cleaning up her house. Matters weren’t helped when the air conditioning at her place failed and her landlord seemed to be very determined in his lack of interest in getting it repaired. Keep in mind, in May and June, Arkansas turns into a giant, humid broiler oven, so this made the place really unpleasant to be in. But even with that in mind, it seemed to take her forever to pack. In late June, out of time to delay any further, we loaded a moving truck to the gills and headed westward.
In other words, did you forget to include the bishop of your local temple as a reference so we know you’re a member in good standing of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints?
Look – I’m not here to engage in Mormon-bashing. Far from it. Our neighbors, when we did find a place to settle down (and we’ll get to that part of the story soon), were spectacularly nice people; a lot of people were. There are bad apples in any religion: people who state that everyone else has to abide by the stated tenets of their faith, even as they fail to do so themselves. But that doesn’t alter the fact that people were using this as a basis for gatekeeping places to live.
We spent six weeks in the hotel room as one door after another kept slamming in our faces. To say that this strained what, just a few weeks before, seemed like significantly repaired relations between myself and my ex would be a vast understatement. At one point, I was frazzled enough to very strongly suggest that I was going to take the kids and the pets and go back to Arkansas. The situation was not sustainable.
And he said that, if we ever ran into a situation where making the rent on time would be a problem, just be honest and open with the communication. Something could always be worked out. With the lease signed, we went to the hotel to round up critters, pack up the stuff we’d had with us at the hotel, and drove the moving truck (which had been sitting in the hotel parking lot for six weeks) to Spanish Fork. To our new home. We had met our neighbors on the day we signed the lease, and they organized a moving-in… well, I hesitate to call it a party, exactly, but all the able-bodied neighbor kids unloaded the moving truck, moved our furniture up the stairs, and then dispersed as quickly as they had gathered, leaving our beds and sofa and dining room table and other things right where they needed to be. We had places to sleep. Our own places to sleep.
The next item on my agenda, aside from having claimed the unfinished basement room (which was as large as the living room and dining area put together, since that was what was directly overhead) as my office/nerd cave, was to find that work that had proven to be elusive from over a thousand miles away. Surely now that I was here, that search would be easier…right?
One of the big factors in the divorce had been my extreme difficulty in finding steady work after the years in TV came to a sudden end.
Between 2012 and 2015, I’d had the kind of crazy job history that most people get out of the way in their teens. I worked for three terrible months in a call center for a payday loan place that was so shady that the company responsible for processing ACH debits (directly from customers’ bank accounts) abruptly stopped dealing with them. I installed computers in hospitals and clinics as part of a Windows XP-to-7 upgrade for most of 2014. I was a “human prop” for some National Guard exercises. I installed more computers in different hospitals. I ran teleprompter for the Governor of Arkansas during a Wal-Mart shareholders’ meeting. I installed printers in banks. All of this in a three-year period. Most of it was short-term contract work, which I knew going in.
In September 2015 I responded to a Craiglist ad from a local company seeking a graphic designer. Craigslist is only slightly better for finding work than it is for finding houses, but in this case the job was legit, working for a company that imported small engines, both on their own and attached to things like pressure washers, generators, and water pumps. It was a small company, the work and the paycheck were finally steady. On my second check I bought a second-hand clothes dryer from a friend, and was super jazzed about that – no more clotheslines or taking sopping wet clothes over to the in-laws’ laundry room! (Our dryer had packed it in a few months earlier.)
So it really didn’t make sense to me that, just as things were looking up…that’s when she left. One thing that emerged in counseling is that she was being…I’m not even sure what word to use here. Pushed? “Advised”? Pressured? Manipulated? Pick one, you’re probably not far from landing in the same square as the truth. The realization that there had been outside forces acting on us was a big part of why we were once again pooling our resources – perhaps more as parents than as “a couple” – in Utah.
Protip: the moment you let a third party have a vote in your marriage – and that encompasses anything from pushy parents and well-meaning friends all the way to actual infidelity – you’ve pulled the pin out of a grenade and placed it on a table between the two of you (or however many of you there are supposed to be in the relationship, if you’re poly). The moment that one more person has a vote in a marriage than the number of people who exchanged vows, you’ve set that marriage to self-destruct.
We were trying, at least for the sake of our kids, to put the pieces back together.
The problem in Utah was simply getting in the door for an interview when I had no degree in anything. Sure, the tech boom was happening because tax incentives had made the area around Lehi attractive to companies like Oracle, Adobe, and Microsoft, but places like that wouldn’t even touch you without a degree.
And that’s how I wound up in the foreign land of Startupia.
Where you find tech, you find startups – in many cases, they’re companies that spring up with the intention of being vendors or contractors to the bigger fish in the pool. That’s how I finally found the only gig I managed to land in late 2018: it was a work-at-home content writer gig for a company that attached itself, remora-like, to the Amazon.com shark. The job description was to rewrite product descriptions for companies that, for the most part, operated from China. They wanted to improve their sales by having native English speakers buff their product descriptions. This was a lot like the work I had been doing until May of that year, where I frequently found myself, shall we say, “correcting” manuals for engines and generators, sometimes rewriting them from scratch. I was hired!
- Oh crap, we’re having trouble negotiating rates with our primary client. Please stop working on their stuff for now, work on the smaller clients’ product listings.
- Also, if everyone could voluntarily edit their online time cards to reduce their hours, that would be great. Thanks for taking one for the team.
It was at about this time that our neighbors suggested we make use of a resource known as the Bishop’s Store. It’s more or less the church’s own private food bank. It was humbling to be stumbling this hard so soon after arriving in Utah, but bruised pride aside, it kept us and the kids fed.
The holidays proved to be a lousy time to try to find more work. Worse yet, one of the things I looked forward to the most each week, a Facebook Live call-in show for Star Trek fans called Mission Log Live (an offshoot of the Mission Log podcast to which I’d been listening faithfully for years)…abruptly stopped happening. Turns out that was a lucky break.
Within days of the e-mail about vacating within 30 days, we received another e-mail demanding February’s rent. This reminds me of that phrase, spoken fluently in Earl-ese, that had become a nearly weekly utterance as we packed out the house for an early February exit: are you fucking kidding me?
We didn’t even dignify that with a response. We had been given 30 days’ notice; we were already aiming to leave the house on February 11th, so the three-day drive back to Arkansas could take place between Mondays.
My geek cave, at near its height in early 2019, and on moving-out day, 2020. Someday…I’ll build it again. Elsewhere.