After growing up in St. Louis, I wanted to settle down somewhere smaller. I liked Midwestern college towns, so I narrowed the choices to Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Madison, Wisconsin. I hadn’t been to either one, and this was the 1980s, before you could find out about a city by Googling it.
So I looked at a map and arbitrarily picked Madison, maybe because I’m left-handed and it sat to the left of Ann Arbor. I packed my belongings in my old Volkswagen and drove north, with no contacts and no job prospects.
I’ve been thinking about my move to Madison because, three decades later, my son is graduating from high school here. It’s strange to look back and realize how profoundly my life was shaped by this place I found by chance.
When I arrived in Madison, I noticed stacks of eccentric newspapers around town. I’d never seen anything like them in St. Louis. They covered the city’s thriving alternative culture, from indie bands to political debates. I quickly went native, throwing myself into all the activities I’d been reading about. I even got a job at one of those eccentric newspapers, called Isthmus, and started writing about local alternative culture myself.
I met and married a fellow writer who’d also come to Madison by chance. We had a son in 1996, the one who’s now graduating from West High School.
My son’s personality has surely been affected by growing up in Madison, with its lakes, its Capitol and its university. I’ve watched him gravitate toward the arts, which makes sense in this arts-loving town.
He discovered drama from classes at the Children’s Theater of Madison. He learned how to play guitar at our neighborhood’s Monroe Street Fine Arts Center. He saw Seth Myers at the Barrymore Theatre and Bob Dylan at the Overture Center.
Every summer my wife and I took him to the Isthmus Jazz Festival on the Memorial Union’s legendary Terrace. He and his lifelong friend Eli hopped around by the stage, got snacks in the Rathskeller, and fed the ducks on Lake Mendota.
As a native, my son takes his Madison identity for granted. But as someone who came here in his 20s, I marvel at how the place has transformed my adult life – transformed it in a way that a kid from St. Louis couldn’t have imagined. What would I be like today if I’d driven my Volkswagen out of Missouri to Ann Arbor instead of Madison? Who would I be married to? What job would I have? It’s impossible to know, but the version of me that developed over the past 30 years can only think he lucked out by picking the left-hand side of the map.
I hope my son is just as lucky as he heads off to college in the fall. It’s another place chosen more or less at random, in a city he knows almost nothing about. I can’t wait to see how that undiscovered locale shapes the person he turns out to be.