John's Journal and PPSA News

Green Chili Heartaches

By John Johnson



[A preface: I hate PC's and I may spontaneously burst into a tirade when some little feature that would be so simple and common on my Macintosh doesn't work properly on my new PC laptop. But if you want an article (which you may well decide you didn't after reading further) then you have to put up with my peccadilloes.]


It is Sunday morning and I am flying back to Moline, Illinois from Santa Fe, New Mexico. The temperature is going to be right up there today. Another scorcher. People don't think I am very emotional or attached to things, but I have lived in New Mexico for just under ten years now and it is difficult to leave. Not really because of the beauty of Santa Fe - living in the mountains with blue skies and handpainted clouds, but because of the memories that New Mexico holds for me.

I grew up in New Mexico. Perhaps I should more correctly say that I grew up in Michigan, but I matured in New Mexico. I have been told that Santa Fe is a "healing port" and I can agree with that. We all start off life impetuous and self-concerned. Our life can be planned out at age ten, and yet our life is seldom a straight path. It is more of a journey that twists and turns with the curves and potholes in the road. What lane we drive in, how fast we go, and whether we take enough rest stops is up to us. As we grow older, we need time for retrospective. Living in Santa Fe has given me the time to look back on life and ahead to where I want to be. I have learned, for the lack of a better word, to be proactive about things.

I spent my childhood growing up on a Crooked Lake in Northern Michigan. The Upper Lower Peninsula to be exact. I was born in a small town and I accepted what I had. My life was exciting, by 1960's standards. My parents owned a hotel and I friends, lots of places to explore, and we would take vacations to the Caribbean once a year. Summer was filled with tourists and swimming and boating and TV was still reserved for Sunday evenings. Life was simple. Pop came in bottles and cost a nickel. Comic books were a dime.

In the 1970's life started to get more complicated. The world got smaller. I started to become aware of life beyond my own neighborhood. There was a war in Vietnam. Politics superceded cartoons on TV after school. TV was color now and we had NBC, CBS and PBS to choose from (ABC didn't come in clearly until about 1976 when my Dad bought an antenna for our new house.) My sisters were born in 1969 and 1973 and I was the big brother. I had to start thinking, at least subconsciously, about those people around me.

In 1976 we moved to our new house. It was great. I wasn't aware of the cost and why we had to live in an unfinished house with studs and drywall and plywood floors. I helped as little I could, but my parents had to be responsible for paying the bills and now that the hotel was gone that was more difficult. I remember these things in retrospect, but at the time I was more concerned about myself and how I fit in with my peers at my new school. I was going into 7th grade and we had just moved, so I was transferring to a very small school. I didn't like it. I thought my parents were being awful and limiting my future by forcing me to attend a small school with fewer classes. I felt self-important and needed those experiences though. I needed to live and work and play and go to school with all sorts of people so I could start to learn how to deal with people and make friends as a well adjusted adult.

Granted, I am not to the point of boasting that I am well-adjusted. Hell, I may never get to that point, but I had a pretty good life and my parents gave me a lot more freedom and privileges than most. I finished High School as a smartass, but at least I had a group of good friends. I don't know the last time I saw them. Maybe ten years ago. I don't know if I want to reopen old wounds by attending a High School reunion. I had good times and have great memories of High School. Much of High School seemed stupid and many of my friends seemed like jerks. But, we need to look back on those formative years from later in life, when we have perspective. For all the teachers who were jerks and for all the kids who teased me, I gained invaluable lessons from my few years at that small school.

College was a whole new world. I was now officially a "grown-up". I could do anything I wanted. I could get plastered at a frat party or run for office as dorm president, but everything had a price (namely learning about hangovers and the responsibilities of having to live up to my promises and try to make a difference as a student officer.) I made a lot of mistakes in college. My first quarter I took 21 credit hours. I was in back to back classes and tried to hold down a job at the library at the same time to help pay for expenses. If I had an extra $10 in my pocket, I was doing great. I learned about freedom in college, but I also learned about responsibility. I learned, eventually, that the cost of shortcuts was often much much higher in the long run than doing things right the first time. But I persevered and eventually moved on to graduate school.

Graduate school was much different than being and undergrad. I really was an adult now and had more responsibilities. I muddled through, and still wanted all the neat things that I thought were supposed to go with college, and in the process ran up some hefty student loan and credit card bills. Plus, I had totally removed myself from my parent's house and now only saw them a couple times a year. I was so focused on what I needed that I gave little concern to my family. I focused on the immediate situation and stress and couldn't yet see the whole picture.

I made one of my first real bold decisions in 1989. I decided to continue on for my Ph.D., despite my failing the comprehensive exams for Physics twice at MSU. I packed up my Beretta and drove to The University of Texas on the anticipation that I could convince someone to hire me as a research assistant. I had to retake a couple classes to prove my ability and I did just fine. But all in all, it was a big move and a drastic change to move to Texas from the Midwest. I extended my credit cards to their limits and took out yet more student loans. I knew that I could make it work for me eventually and I could pay it all back when I was older. I still had a few lessons to learn.

I was starting to grow up. I was learning how to get along with co-workers and how to treat my friends better. I was trying to make changes to how I interacted socially. This wasn't trivial, being that I now lived in Los Alamos, New Mexico. If there was an annual Geek's Convention, it would be held in Los Alamos. This is the town with the largest per capita number of Ph.D.'s in the nation. It is a totally boring town, if you aren't into hiking and biking all the time. Oh yeah, if you have a family already when you move here it might not be that bad a place - after all, it is very pretty and quiet for raising kids. So working as a grad student, and then later on as a postdoc and staff member at Los Alamos National Lab, I learned to get along and adapt to the situation. I started working out (this didn't last long) and after living in Los Alamos for 7 years, I decided to make another big move. I picked up and moved to a house in Santa Fe and started raising a teenager. We got a dog. I finished my LANL job and started my own business. It was hard to pay bills on time. It was very stressful, but it was good in a way to work for myself for awhile.

Anyhow, living in Santa Fe was very good for my soul, if not for my ulcer. I was stressed, yet I was blessed. I was very glad to have the opportunity to work for myself, help out people with their problems, and most of all raise my son Jarrett. I had the opportunity for the past couple years to get very involved with his life and accept the role of parent and grown up. It is hard to give up the irresponsibility of youth, but I found that when I had to I could give up my own selfish desires in a heartbeat to take care of my son.

People have said that Santa Fe is a "healing port." I certainly found that to be the case. I have been profoundly changed from spending the past couple years "growing up" in Santa Fe. I have spent time caring for others and other causes and it has been good. It seems obvious to me that if I were to extend that philosophy further that I would have to eventually leave Santa Fe. It is not the hub of high tech and I needed to find a full-time job again. It was important to make the progress in self-actualization arena that I did, yet it was important to repair my credit and start putting money aside for a house and for Jarrett's education. I had bigger responsibilities than I could deal with staying in Santa Fe. So in a two week period I interviewed with John Deere in Moline, Illinois and accepted the job and packed up with my son and dog and drove up here to start a new direction in my life. In all of our lives.

I am living closer to my parents, back in the Midwest. Jarrett is enrolled in a great High School. I am putting money aside to buy a house. This is a great career move. All of these things went through my head as I moved to Moline and spent two weeks living in a hotel while looking for a house. It all added up on paper, but the full impact of the move hadn't hit me until I was moving out of my house yesterday.

On Saturday, I was watching the carpet cleaners remove all the stains that we ground into the carpet over the past 2 1/2 years. There were stains from the dogs, as you'd expect. The dark gray stains of traffic; people walking and sitting on the couch and doing all the things that I remember in a rush. Stains from Jarrett polishing his shoes for NJROTC. A blood stain in the bathroom from the time that Jarrett fell over and hit his head on the corner of the sink. He started screaming when that happened and I remember rushing in and finding him on the floor with blood all over the floor. I remembered rushing him to the hospital and how he refused to get stitches.

I patrolled the house one last time after the carpet cleaners left. I piled all the keys in a corner by the sink for the landlord. Then I climbed up on the counter to look on top of the cupboards. That's when I found our first dog, Sweetie's collar. Sweetie was a puppy when we moved into the house. We loved her and played with her and she slept with us at night - and when she was just over a year old she was running loose with another dog and she was hit by a car and died. It crushed my son and I. We just sat crying that night. We couldn't do anything else. I pushed it into the back of my mind, trying not to think of it. Just like so many things over the years that built up calluses on my heart. But Jarrett demanded that we go to the pound and I agreed. The next day we found our present dog, Ellie. She was at the shelter and we fell in love with her. I wonder where she would be if we didn't take her and love her for the past two years.

All of these personal memories hit me at once and I shuddered. I was leaving friends and the beauty of New Mexico, but for me the fact that I was leaving a place filled with such intense and important memories made me very sad.

I am happy now. I am finishing this article up in my office. I'm not thinking much about the sad things from the past. There is so much ahead that I have to look forward to. I will always remember my days in New Mexico. It was a formative and cathartic time for me. Many of the people that I love and care about would not be in my life had I not moved there. Even though, at the time I had no idea the impact that making that one decision to stay in grad school and transfer to Texas would have. The Southwest will always own a piece of my heart. All that I can say today is that the future will offer up many more memories, sad and happy, and I am looking forward to them all.

I have purged, therfore I am....
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