Fail: The Arizona Experiment

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In case you didn't catch the news in September and October, our little experiment with moving to the desert southwest ended abruptly, returning us to Northern Virginia (NoVA), and right quickly at that. Overall, things are working out for the best (despite the recent hospital visit by our li'l boo). It only seemed appropriate, then, to reflect a bit on this experiment and some of the things I'm slowly learning.

Overall, our Arizona experience wasn't the greatest. We had a hard time finding food that we liked (so many bad Mexican places, so little time). Making friends was very challenging (we're neither retired nor heavily tattooed, unlike the majority of the population, or so it seemed). The area seemed to be teeming with shysters, whether it be scam movers, lousy car service, lousy car wash service, expensive insurance, or whatever. Following are some various reflections on the life we tried to make.

The Job
I'll write more about my former employer in the near future (now that the last check has cleared). However, in general, I wanted to talk about the job itself. I was the first full-time security person for the organization. While my title lacked a "C" in it, I was - in theory - of sufficient rank to get things done. I asked all the right hard questions during the interview and got all the right answers. Perhaps this should have been my first clue that things weren't going to work out, since nobody should ever have perfect answers to hard questions.

This was, hands-down, one of the most frustrating experiences of my life. It all came down to two simple concepts: engagement and authority. I had neither. I couldn't get anybody to engage on security-related work, and thus spent my time spinning my wheels trying to figure out how to make people care. At the same time, and related to this issue, was the fact that I had been given great responsibility with no authority whatsoever. After a few months there, I sensed that I was being setup as the fall guy. Though the C-team denied this was the case, I can't help but think that this was exactly what happened.

Suffice to say, a few things jump out at me in retrospect. If the hard questions are answered with ease, this should be a red flag. If they show great commitment, ask for proof of where they've demonstrated this level of commitment before. Make sure that you interview with the entire management team, and if possible peers or comparable. I only interviewed with the hiring manager (COO) and this gave me a skewed view of reality. Overall, one should have a healthy degree of skepticism in believing anything they're told during an interview.

The House
Due to illness (a major cold/sinus infection, followed by a nasty flu bug), I was unable to travel for almost 2 months after starting the job, and prior to the move from NoVA to AZ. This was rather problematic when it came to finding housing. As such, we ended up relying completely on a realtor to whom we'd been introduced. Her parents had a home for rent in an area we wanted to live in (we thought - in hindsight, we were rather steered in that direction) and it was all fine.

For the desert, there were a few things I learned the hard way. Scorpions, of course, being a big lesson. They exist, they're common, and they will show up. Don't believe people when they say they've never seen one in or around a property in Phoenix, because it's probably not true. It's also worth bearing in mind that if a realtor is helping you out, they probably have the ulterior motive of hoping to sell you a place in the future. I think I thoroughly angered this realtor when I lost my job, gave notice of intent to vacate, and then bailed quickly. *shrug* Nothing I could do about it, certainly no reason for her to be upset, but whatever.

One key on the bugs was hiring a good pest control company. They sprayed on a regular basis (which reminds me, I need to call them!) and that seemed to help keep things out of the house. The garage was a different story as we found 3 bark scorpions in there over time. Ah, the joys of living in the desert!

One interesting note on critters is that the area we lived in (NW) was actually on the border of zones with heavier infestation problems. There are resources online that one should study if moving to an area like this. One should also look into other topics, such as restaurants, day care, etc, prior to moving to a location.

Insurance and Credit Limits
Car insurance was noticeably more expensive in Arizona. We're told it's because of the number of uninsured drivers given the proximity to Mexico. Of course, while AZ law required you to have insurance, they did not require proof of insurance to get a vehicle licensed (can you say "duh"?). There were some other interesting quirks. For example, AZ law requires full glass replacement in the vast majority of instances. As such, you generally get a $0 deductible policy because glass is apparently replaced quite often.

The other interesting bit was that our credit limits took major hits due to moving to AZ because of the statewide average on delinquencies. AZ, and Phoenix in particular, has been very strongly hit by the economic down-swing, particularly in the residential real estate market. As a result, there are tons of foreclosed properties, which is having the net effect of dragging everybody down with them.

Ignoring My Gut
As I get older this seems to happen more often. Really? Yes really. No, I don't know why. It seems we should get wiser with old age, and while that certainly seems to be happening instinctually, my brain still seems to get in the way on occasion. At any rate, I had strong foreboding feelings just prior to the move. I did not want to actually move out of the house we were in, nor move to AZ, but was in a quandary. For one thing, the house was committed to someone else immediately after we vacated. For another, I'd only been in the job for a couple months, and had been very sick most of that time to boot, so figured I'd not given things an adequate chance. As such, I talked myself out of my gut instincts and went along for the ride.

Now, despite the job totally blowing, the move was advantageous in a couple ways. For one, I was able to attend BlackHat/Defcon for the first time ever, which was a ton of fun. For another, the frustration of the job let to lots of ideas for writing articles, papers, and blog posts, which helped me find another job when I needed it. Regardless, I really do wish that we'd never moved away, though life would obviously be different at this point if I'd listened to my instincts. Would things be as good now as they are? It's impossible to know.

A Desert In Many Ways
When you move to the desert, you expect a few things. Lots of sunshine (it rained the day we moved in), scorpions, scorching hot temps, and of course very, very, very dry air. What you don't necessarily expect in a major city, regardless of geographic location, is the culture, or lack thereof. In many ways, Phoenix is a wild west town pretending to be a metropolis. I was overall quite unimpressed with everything but the stadiums and arenas. If you take away the sports franchises, the area doesn't really have much going for it. It makes one wonder why people even bother living there. Where's the culture? Where's the diversity? Tucson, Sedona, and Flagstaff had way more to offer than Phoenix did.

We lived out in Glendale, so perhaps our view of the area was skewed. Glendale was a suburb in all the bad ways. Chock full of crappy chain restaurants and chain retail stores, it was just plain boring. Not to mention all the vacant retail spaces and abandoned/foreclosed homes. It was the kind of place where people pretended to be trendy and pretentious even though they didn't have the first clue what either word meant. And don't get my started on the schools... some day soon I hope my wife will relent and write a guest piece for me here on how not to run a school district - especially one that's failing badly.

Sonoran != New Mexican Cuisine
One key lesson learned very quickly was that Sonoran cuisine is not the same as New Mexican Cuisine (as you'd find in New Mexico). Unfortunately, I really like New Mexican cuisine, and I really was indifferent about Sonoran cuisine. The other thing interesting to me was home many bad Mexican restaurants there were. I mean, seriously, how do they all stay in business? It was kind of crazy, and highly frustrating.

I'm trying to think of some of the key differences between the two. I'm sure there are ample descriptions online, too. It seemed that Sonoran food was less of the hot-spicy variety, but tended to have more diverse flavors. It wasn't all bad, per se, but I missed good green chiles, among other things.

You Call That Pizza?!?
Every time we move we run into this same problem: finding a good pizza place. What's weird is that we cannot find any place anywhere outside the midwest that does a good cracker thin crust (well, except for a couple major chains, and their toppings and quality are only so-so). We did eventually find a place here in NoVA where we both liked the pizza (not really a thin thin-crust, but it's tasty). Anyway... we probably tried somewhere in the vicinity of 7-8 different pizza places before we settled on one, and we still weren't overly happy with it. I was just shocked, especially at home many places that claimed to be "authentic New York thin crust pizza" and were, instead, soggy, sloppy, floppy, spongy crap. It made me wonder: is it really that hard to make a decent-tasting pizza from quality ingredients? Well, I suppose it is if you can't get quality ingredients.

Fresh Produce Shipped Away
You'd think, living so close to California and major ag land, that Phoenix would be inundated with fresh produce. Well, think again. We have far better fresh produce here in NoVA than we found in any supermarket or farmers market in AZ. In fact, it was seriously depressing how poor the selection was of things like fresh fruit. And let's not overlook the price. The same brand of raspberries, for example, went for double the price in our local Glendale Albertsons as we paid here last week at Wegmans. This is for produce that shipped 2000+ miles more to get out here. Bizarre, to say the least.

Accustomed To Warm Water
Perhaps one of the more odd things I've noticed is that I really missed chilled beverages. Yes, we had a refrigerator and freezer. However, constantly filtering water and putting it in the fridge to cool was inefficient and, thus, it was often just easier to fill a glass with filtered tap water. However, as a result, I had to become accustomed to drinking warm water, reminding myself that it was at least better than hot water (though I certainly had my share of that, too).

Summarizing Concluding Thoughts (I Think)
All of these things, and I'm sure many more, really led to re-developing some bad lifestyle decisions. I tended to drink a lot more soda again, I had a constant struggle with my weight, and then of course there were the various issues stemming from the very dry air. The baby had terrible problems with eczema, we all learned to drink water in staggering quantities, and so on. I even found out driving across country that my windshield wipers didn't survive the Summer heat (they began to disintegrate while in use as we drove through several hundred miles of rain). Oh, and btw, if you've ever heard that AZ is a good place to go if your allergies are bad, think again. This Summer was apparently one of their worst allergy seasons in recent times, thanks in part to higher humidity and lots of wind. Oh, and, also, don't forget about Valley Fever, which is a fungal infection of the lungs common to the area. Luckily, none of us seem to have caught it, but we probably won't know for a while. Anyway…

While I would never intentionally go through this experience again, I've definitely learned some things, and begun to find my way in certain areas. Now if I could just get some sleep, get the job going well (i.e. me actually being able to show up), and some things unpacked (dishes? tableware? please?), then perhaps I'll have some brain cycles free to write about them, too. :)

3 Comments

My favorite AZ story... young boy from CA, too hot, turns on the tap for some cold water. After 5 minutes, frustrated, he asks "Grandma, how long does it take for the water get cold"? She answered "December".
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You forgot gun-toting, retired _and_ tattooed ... that's just the Sun City Jazzercise class!
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People who move here, especially those from the California Bay Area, have a really tough time adapting to the food. You simply can't get good produce and good fish is a rarity. Wine? Unless you have specialized storage, forget it. Flavor is dead in a month. And people here think Pinnacle Peak steak house is good eats. Ugh! I think commuting between San Jose and Phoenix for four years helped a lot with the transition. With the exception of Le Sans Souci, I have not found a quality restaurant in the entire valley. Good food means I cook. This town has a very mid-western approach to food. Heavy. Fried. A lot of transplants make it about 2 years before they depart.
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Undeveloped desert, especially high chaparral, is exceptionally beautiful. Glendale ... uh, not so much. All of the things you encountered are exactly what I saw, from my perspective, having been here for 7 years. Where you live in the valley, adjustment to the heat, and what you want to do with your spare time will show you very quickly if Phoenix is a good or bad place for you. Fortunately for me, I have been pretty comfortable here. Sorry to see you go, but maybe we'll catch up when I am in DC next.
Take care,
Adrian

Well at least you tried it out. Better than wondering what could have been.

@Adrian -

Love that story, it's so true! I agree, too, that the desert can be beautiful - we loved the Desert Museum in Tucson, for example. As for fresh produce and fish, yeah, I hear ya there. Produce especially baffled me given how close to Phoenix it was grown. :(

One part I forgot to include was that, upon getting back to NoVA, my wife said "finally I can bake again!" We didn't feel right baking in the Summer in AZ since we would pay the price twice (once for the electric oven, once for the electric AC).

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@Grecs -

Very true. In fact, this was going to be our first step toward living in Montana again, but we learned that we'd morphed into big city folks somewhere in the preceding 5 years and missed real civilization. :)

-ben

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