When you’re in a long-term relationship, you tell yourself it’s not going to happen. You hold out hope that the rainbows & kittens honeymoon period will never end, that years down the road you’ll feel the same giddy affection that you did at the beginning. Then reality sets in, and the inevitable disillusionment.
It’s been more than 17 years, yet I have to say the words out loud, painful as they may be: Salt Lake City, I’m starting to wonder if this is going to work out.
The truth is, I never expected it would last this long. There was plenty of initial skepticism on my part when my wife’s job led to relocation, the anxiety of a lifelong Californian who actually wondered before setting foot in Utah for the first time if it would be difficult finding Coca-Cola on supermarket shelves. More frightening still, I was moving from the Bay Area—in my mind, a cultural pressure shift that would likely result in the bends.
But worst of all was the prospect of winter—real winter, not California winter. I’d never shoveled a driveway, never driven in the snow, never watched the weather report with any concern more profound than whether I’d need an umbrella. I’d survived the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake while huddled under a pool table, yet nothing frightened me more than five solid months of Rocky Mountain snowfall.
Then a funny thing happened: I didn’t hate Utah. In fact, the crazy place started to grow on me. The first winter came and went, and I didn’t die, despite the tailgating SUV drivers who will never, ever learn the difference between “four-wheel drive” and “braking distance.” I fell in love with the ridiculously gorgeous mountains set practically up against my back fence, with the neighbors who didn’t hold it against us that we didn’t go to the same church they did, even with the sense of purpose that comes from being aligned with the political minority. Sure, as a young family looking for a place where we could buy a house for the same cost as a Bay Area studio apartment, we needed Utah. But it was also possible to feel that, somehow, Utah needed us, too.
For another 15 years, that feeling more or less remained, despite the occasional half-joking conversations about where we’re really going to retire, and grumbles about this or that particularly insane comment made by someone who had been elected by our fellow Utahns and, moreover, would almost certainly be elected again.
And then came the winter of 2012-13.
You don’t like the crippling, noxious, lung-burning inversions? Just wait for the next huge storm to clear it out! Not crazy about the accumulating mountains of snow? Settle in for the next weeklong marathon of So You Think You Can Breathe! Every white-knuckle drive, every furious glare at a carpooling mom idling for 20 minutes had me wondering: Is it worth it? Is Utah worth it? Doesn’t California—progressive, enlightened, snow-free California—look like a better catch all the time?
Perhaps you’ve already identified the irony of lamenting pollution while regarding California with wistful nostalgia. Indeed, I grew up in Bakersfield, Calif., which, until recently, was the city most likely to top Salt Lake City on lists of “Air Most Likely to Take the Form of a Solid.” Of course, that’s what happens to us when we start to get frustrated with a long-term relationship of any kind: We lose perspective and wallow in the stuff that irritates us. That little thing that’s been bugging you for years—the spouse who never washes a dish, or the co-worker who skates by while you do most of their work—becomes part of a grand mosaic of awfulness. You deserve better than this, you tell yourself. I’m not completely happy. Somewhere, there’s a place where I can be completely happy.
Only there’s not, whether it’s in a marriage, or in a job, or in a city. Familiarity breeds contempt, the grass is always greener, and a dozen more familiar aphorisms all tell us the same thing: Give anything enough time, and it’s bound to piss you off. But then you need to find the line between simple restlessness and frustration, and a problem that makes your life unbearable. Is the thing that bugs you so profound that it can’t be overcome? How much will you miss if you decide to move on?
So, sure, I could leave Utah. I could go back to California, where you have to deal with omnipresent traffic jams. I could move to Florida, where you have to deal with bugs large enough to carry off small children. I could move to Texas, where you have to deal with … well, Texans. As the late poet Roseanne Roseannadanna once succinctly put it, “It’s always something.”
American consumer culture is built on the inevitability of obsolescence—the idea that the thing you have may be working out all right, but it has its problems and look at this brand-new version, can you not see the joy and awesomeness that will be yours? That sensibility seeps into our approach to every aspect of our lives, but there’s value in learning what’s worth fixing rather than throwing away, and remembering that the giddy honeymoon feeling always goes away.
Salt Lake City, you smoke too much, and you’re too damned cold in the winter. You’re not perfect. In fact, you make me crazy sometimes. But I still kind of love you. For now, that’s worth not doing anything hasty.