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August 13, 2008

[Expatriate: A native of elsewhere residing in a specific place but still identifying with the native “home.” (

I have had a few people ask why I chose to title this blog “The Ohio Expatriate.” At the time, the name made perfect sense to me; it still does. I realize that by the specific denotative definition of the word, I am not an expatriate. I am not Hemingway living in Paris. As a matter of fact, in all the bumping around that I’ve done, I’ve never had reason to leave the country. This was not a choice, specifically — that was simply how things worked out; but I do hope to travel outside of the country someday soon, and like all dreams, my wife I hold on to that one with the same reckless optimism that we hold onto the dream that we might, someday, be able pay off our college loans and see a debt free horizon.

Dreams are important.

That does not change the fact, however, that I am a stranger in a strange land. It would not be fair to call the life I live exile because nobody forced me to move. An argument might be made that I am something of an economic refugee (and this is the term that I prefer) because our move to Arizona three years ago this month was predicated by the complete lack of full-time teaching positions in Cincinnati, OH or in Eastern Kentucky, for that matter. I am from a small town, Bethel, OH, which is approximately 40 miles south east of Cincinnati. My wife is originally from Corbin Kentucky — the home of Kentucky Fried Chicken, by the way, which is closer to Tennessee than it is to Ohio. We are both fish in strange waters — or in a strange absence of waters — living here in the Sun Belt. Tempe Arizona, which is really nothing more than an extended suburb of Phoenix (despite it’s insistence otherwise) is as far from the cultural hearts that my wife and I grew up in as we have ever lived.

The differences are more than climactic. Here in the East Valley, there aren’t seasons in the way I think of seasons. Leaves don’t change color here in the fall, and there’s no snow or ice to worry about in the winter. There are simply varying degrees of hot: this summer has been amazingly mild, since our hottest temperatures only cracked the 110 degree mark. My first August, the temperatures were above 115 in most places, and on some days reached 120. Save the whole “dry heat” argument please… the absence of humidity does make a difference… the difference between steaming vegetables and baking chicken. If you have ever wondered what life in a convection oven would feel like, move out here.

Beyond the seasonal differences, there are other things to consider. Culture here, for example, is a whole different monster. I am used to the land having history, and to there being evidence of this history. As a child, I rode my bike to the place where Ulysses S. Grant was born in Point Pleasant, Ohio. In 7th grade, I learned about Ohio History and the fact that the first hospital in the Ohio Territory was in Fort Washington, OH. I grew up in the shadow of Cincinnati, which became known for it’s association with flying pig statues because the city was once the pork capital of the country. I was forced to write a report about the founding of my hometown, and found out that the reason Bethel and Tate Township is a dry with an oddly high number of churches is because the town was, in fact, founded by Baptists — some of whom still blame every bad thing on the invasion of the Methodists. I grew up watching my hometown move through the painful transition of being a farm community to being a glorified suburb of Cincinnati; family farms started breaking up and becoming housing developments. Most people commuted to the city for work.

My wife has recollections about her childhood, and the deep history of the Appalachian region, but I won’t risk getting them wrong here. A person’s history should be a personal thing, and it is best described by the person who’s history it is.

History here is a different thing. This land once belonged to Native Americans. There are still reservations here, and if you’re here and you want a casino or tax free cigarettes, you drive to the reservation; the reservations also have some of the most beautiful untouched land, too. And if you’re looking for that image of the desert that you might have seen in westerns, that’s the place to go. The rest of the desert is gradually disappearing; increasing population growth (because of people like me) fueled a real estate development boom that is only now beginning to slow down due to the bursting of the real estate bubble created by governmental deregulation and predatory lending. The people who have moved here brought with them everything they thought they needed… including grass and trees that are not indigenous, but which need constant irrigation to survive — especially during the summer. This, along with the increased population, is working the valley into a water shortage that will have to be addressed someday, and can’t be solved by importing more bottled water from Colorado. Everything here is either new or ignored, and the ignored will someday become the renovated. Memory here is short, because it doesn’t take long to build something new, and because human memory is even shorter.

Culture here is fast paced and changing — if you use the term “culture” loosely. There’s the native influence — and by native I mean white folks who hold onto the mirage of being pioneers, cowboys, cranky individualists. Then there’s the west coast influence: people who are too poor to afford LA but move here. They bring what they need with them, too. Strip malls, neon signs, interstate projects to cope with increased traffic. They also bring buying power and cultural miasma: it’s more important to look good than to be good. When my mother visited us for the first time last summer, she remarked that nearly every commercial on television was for either plastic surgery or for lawyers. This is very telling of what is considered important here in the East Valley : leave me alone and give me fake tits and bottle dyed platinum hair. The East Valley is a consumer’s paradise — so long as you can afford the prices.

When I first arrived, I defined my perspective as cognitive dissonance. The world in front of me was not the same as the world I understood in my head. This can be healthy, I think. It was difficult for me, though, and I soon understood the true nature of the problem. I have understood for a while that I am the product of a small town. This has made me, I think, more deliberate, more cautious, more fond of open space, and a little bit stoic. This is very different from being raised in a city. Well, after moving out here, I’ve realized that I am not only the product of small town Ohio, but I am also the the product of the Ohio Valley/Midwest. This causes me to expect a certain depth, a certain history — somewhere, anyway. And here, life is very two dimensional in many ways. And because I live close to where I work, I feel like I live, not so much in the desert, but in an outpost at the edge of civilization. I can get a hamburger any time of day and buy beer on Sunday, but beyond that, the only thing that’s relevant here is what’s present. The past is only something to demolish and build on top of, and the future is something that nobody thinks about, beyond the next pair of shoes.

But the fact is, until something changes, I’m stuck here. Moving is expensive, and moving without a job or a plan is suicide. We’re talking about moving next year — if we can get the money together — but that will only be to another place where I feel like an alien, and where, if it’s big enough, I can soothe myself with the knowledge that it’s easy to get lost in the crowd. Out here, everybody’s a freak — even the ones who don’t know they are. It’s possible to be whatever you want, which is why the west has always been appealing, I think. This is the place you come when you don’t want to remember who you are. But when everything that defines you comes from someplace else — this is a place where memory is all you have.

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