Bright Lights, Small City

Mike Paulus, illustrated by Michelle Roberts

So I thought my life would turn out differently. You probably did, too. By now, you and I were supposed to have moved to a big city, rented an apartment with tall ceilings and at least one brick wall, we should have gotten a job doing something vague like “copywriting” or “design,” and we should have attended about 3,000 laid back cocktail parties where women and men wear their little black dresses and little black sport coats (add that up however you want).

For years I had starry-eyed visions of living in a big city like Boston or Chicago or Atlantis or the Death Star. There would be a handy little grocery market right down the street, a subway station nearby, plenty of good Chinese restaurants, and everything would be clean and fun and cool and affordable. 

At these parties everyone was going to fix each other with sexy, smoldering stares while some tiny-fedora-wearing DJ slipped another slice of vinyl onto the turntable. This was the future promised to kid-sized versions or ourselves by TV shows and body spray commercials. Back before we knew better. Before we knew what we wanted.

And now here we are in the good ol’ Chippewa Valley, doing whatever it is we do. Some of us are very happy with that. Some of us are, you know, maybe not so much. But let’s talk about me.

For years I had starry-eyed visions of living in a big city like Boston or Chicago or Atlantis or the Death Star. There would be a handy little grocery market right down the street, a subway station nearby, plenty of good Chinese restaurants, and everything would be clean and fun and cool and affordable. 

I didn’t want a lawn to mow. I didn’t want a car to drive. I wanted loft apartments and messenger bags and book readings at bars and parties and cool friends and a hovercraft. Sure, the vision was a tad blurry, but I had the broad strokes all figured out.

Until I met my wife. My lovely wife. My kind-hearted, funny wife. My sweet, sunbeam of a wife who, amongst her many beautiful attributes, had developed the aggravating habit of uttering the following words: “OK, but why?”

I’d tell her all about my dreams of an urban environment with all the very cool things to do and see – all within walking distance of my very cool loft apartment. She’d furrow her brow and say, “OK, but why?”

I’d look down. I’d sputter. I’d say, “Because of ... all the very cool things to do and see. Plus, the very cool loft apartment.”

And still she’d ask, “Why?”

This exchange would repeat and loop for another hour until we were both ready to beat our heads against the authentic brick wall in my imaginary loft apartment.

“Why” is a good question. All these years later I still don’t ask it nearly enough. After we had kids, I learned how they constantly ask you, “Why?” And they don’t always get an answer. Because sometimes grownups just don’t have one.

Likewise, asking yourself “why” doesn’t always lead to an answer. But when it does, it helps. And at the very least, it makes you think a little. That’s important.

But I wasn’t so goldarn enlightened back when my wife was asking me about why I wanted to live in a big city. Eventually, I had to face the fact that I just didn’t know why I wanted those things.

I never bothered to find out, but I have a suspicion the fun-filled life I saw depicted in the TV commercials of the 1990s never really existed. It wouldn’t surprise me. When I was a kid I had aspirations to be in a tragic lab accident that would mutate me into a grizzly bear-man hybrid. I’d be forced into the wilderness to run from the government, befriend lonely villagers, and of course, fight evil. Like big city living, these plans just didn’t pan out.

But life goes on. I eventually realized that I like living in a house. I like having a yard. I like having a neighborhood. I don’t always enjoy mowing the lawn or repairing my plumbing, but I like Eau Claire, and I like what I do here.

These are real, actual things. They aren’t sanitized by millions of dollars of television postproduction. And that means I can actually decide if I like them or not. It means that if I want to know “why,” I might actually have an answer.

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