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Living in Gin

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Manifest Destiny

Early in the year I resolved to let go of things that I felt were holding me back, and one of the biggest things I had in mind was the home I had created for myself in Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine neighborhood. I moved there in January of last year to be closer to friends and nightlife downtown, closer to school, and to have an overall nicer place to live. And what a place it was: a huge, newly-renovated loft in an 1860′s-era row house, complete with exposed brick walls, three decorative fireplaces, 10-foot ceilings, an incredible view of the downtown skyline, and within easy walking distance of nearly bars and art galleries on Main Street. I put a huge amount of effort and money into making the apartment into a real home, and the results were spectacular. My friends were properly impressed, and for a while, it felt like the kind of home I thought I wanted. The idea was to stay there until a few years after grad school, when I’d presumably be ready to buy a house or condo.

It was impossible to resist the siren call of exposed brick, polished concrete countertops, and hardwood floors.

It was the right idea, but at the wrong point in my life. With my meager student budget and co-op schedule, the apartment turned out to be an incredibly seductive but expensive albatross. The rent was already at the high end of what I could afford, and became untenable when the utility bills started pouring in. (As I discovered, it’s incredibly expensive to heat and cool a huge apartment with exposed brick walls and high ceilings, especially in a climate like Cincinnati’s where winters and summers are both equally brutal.) And there was the fact that I was already thoroughly burned-out with the whole “urban pioneer” lifestyle when I left New York in 2010. I love the city and its neighborhoods, but before long I quickly remembered just how much I hate loud car stereos and obnoxious college kids on a Friday night.

There’s also the issue of Cincinnati itself, and my long-term career options there. My first two co-ops were both with local firms in downtown Cincinnati, and I came away from them with a pretty strong conviction that if I were to stay in Cincinnati and practice as an architect there after grad school, I’d be spending the bulk of my career designing grocery stores and renovations to strip malls. My gaze turned westward, which prompted me to apply to firms in Seattle, Portland, and Los Angeles for my five-month co-op. When I accepted the offer from the firm in Santa Monica, I made the difficult decision to give up the apartment and put almost everything I own into storage. My ideal home would have to wait until some other time and some other place.

At the end of the winter quarter, I began packing up and moving out. By the evening of Thursday, March 22nd, all the effort I had put into that apartment had been undone. My stuff had been packed away into a self-storage facility, my cat had been dropped off to live with my parents while I’m away, and my car had been loaded up with my clothing and some other essentials. It was already starting to get dark when I finally hit the road, but at this point I just wanted to get Cincinnati behind me before I had time to think too much about what I had done or what I was getting myself into out in California. Almost eight years after leaving my life behind in New York and heading to Oregon, I was once again taking a giant leap of faith to the west coast, and I had just stepped off the edge of the cliff.

Somewhere before reaching Louisville, I had a mild anxiety attack as I was driving down the dark interstate. Now that I was on the road and was finally able to catch my breath after moving all day, the second-guessing and self-doubts started kicking in. What the fuck have I just done? What if I hate Los Angeles? What if the new job sucks? What if everything I left behind in that storage unit gets wiped out by a fire or tornado? I felt a bit like Captain Kirk in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, having just scuttled the Enterprise and now watching its burning hull streak through the sky of the newly-formed Genesis Planet:

"My God, what have I done?"

I made it through Louisville and a few miles into Indiana before stopping for the night. Tomorrow would be a new day, I figured, and the sooner it got here the better. I left the hotel the next morning feeling rested and renewed, and my focus turned from what I had left behind to what was waiting for me on the road ahead. The following three days took me across eight more states, the Great Plains, the Colorado Rockies, and the desserts and mountains of the Southwest.

In western Kansas the following night, I was treated to one of the most spectacular sunsets I’ve ever seen. The next day I stopped for a pint at the Cheeky Monk on Colfax Avenue in Denver, which had been the site of celebrating my friend Bret’s ordination to the Episcopal priesthood at nearby St. John’s Cathedral a few years ago. The Rockies, of course, were spectacular, and it was nice to see them again after my last visit to Colorado. I took a short detour to Breckenridge to have lunch at the Breckenridge Brewery, and spent my third and final night on the road in a tiny place called Salina, Utah.

The last day on the road took me through the remainder of Utah, a few more deserts and mountain ranges, a small corner of Arizona that’s home to the spectacular Virgin River Gorge, a monster traffic jam that lasted almost the entire way from Las Vegas to San Bernardino, and finally Los Angeles.

I arrived at the Santa Monica Pier late in the evening of Sunday, March 25th, in the midst of a rare Southern California thunderstorm. I would’ve kept on driving, but I had reached the edge of the continent. I’m convinced that every American should take a solo road trip across the country at least once in their life. Until they do, they’ll never truly appreciate the immense size and beauty of this country.

I checked into my hotel in Woodland Hills — where I’d arranged to stay for a week while I looked for more permanent housing — and began work the next morning. One of the few cardinal rules I have for this blog is that I rarely ever discuss work (I’m happy to air my own dirty laundry online, but not my employer’s), but I will say that it’s going well so far. The firm is well-regarded within the profession and has been widely published, the office culture is generally casual and drama-free, I like my co-workers (and they seem to like me), and the projects are challenging and interesting. More than just being a high-profile “starchitect” firm, though, their philosophy towards design is very closely aligned with my own. No grocery stores or strip mall renovations here. In fact, it’s the kind of place I could see myself working long-term after I finish grad school.

Southern California itself has also been treating me pretty well so far, despite dire warnings from my East Coast and Midwestern friends that the place is nothing more than a traffic-choked wasteland of suburban sprawl and fake personalities. Most stereotypes have a grain of truth within them, but for the most part, I’ve found that Los Angeles isn’t nearly as bad as people who’ve never been here insist it is. (And let’s be honest here. Nobody in Cincinnati is in a position to spew negative stereotypes about any other city. Cincinnati has its own less-than-stellar public image to deal with.) Ironically, I live in a very walkable neighborhood that’s within an easy bike ride of my office, with a 24-hour Ralphs grocery store right around the corner. As such, traffic is a non-issue during the week, and I can usually take an alternate route on the weekend if a particular freeway is jammed up.

As for the fake personalities, I think that stereotype is perpetrated on late-night talk shows by those the entertainment industry, where people’s livelihoods are often based upon how well they can put on a fake persona. The vast majority of the people I’ve encountered, though, are no different than the people I’ve encountered elsewhere. Some of them I like a lot, some of them I can’t stand, and most of them fall somewhere in the middle of that spectrum. Even among the few people I’ve met who actually are connected to the entertainment industry in some way, I’ve found them to be as genuine as anybody else. For every celebrity who manages to be a constant source of tabloid fodder, there are a thousand other people who work regular day jobs while advancing their particular craft during their spare time. And then there are all the behind-the-scenes people who, despite incredible talent, will never see their names in lights. Even though I have no desire to go into that business myself, I still find it all incredibly fascinating.

The things I like most about Los Angeles?

The climate is perfect for me. Just warm enough during the daytime to wear short sleeves (maybe a blazer during the winter), and cool enough at night that I can sleep under a thick blanket with the windows open. It’s amazing to not be living in constant fear of the weather. As an added bonus, my allergies — which normally go haywire whenever I’m within 500 miles of Cincinnati — have been clear for the entire two months I’ve been living here.

I'll take the one on the left, please.

The natural scenery is great; within the same county are miles of beach as well as snow-capped mountains. Having lived most of my life near either the ocean or Lake Michigan, I had forgotten just how much I miss the beach and the associated casual beach culture. And of course, there are the mountains. With the San Gabriel Mountains and other nearby ranges, it’s like having a piece of the Colorado Rockies closer to downtown Los Angeles than the actual Rockies are to downtown Denver.

These two photos were taken within a few hours of each other.

In addition, Southern California is a culinary delight, even on my meager budget. I don’t think I’ve had a bad meal here yet, except when it’s been something I cooked myself. And of course, there is the refreshing lack of Bible-thumpers and teabaggers in the civic realm.

Perhaps most importantly, though: almost everybody out here is from somewhere else, and nobody here gives a damn which high school or college I went to or what family I’m from. By almost any account, there shouldn’t even be a city here; there’s no natural port, and the nearest large-scale source of fresh drinking water is hundreds of miles away. But in the same way that the Los Angeles Basin was an entirely blank slate upon which to build a massive city from scratch, my life out here feels like a blank slate that can be given whatever attributes or characteristics I want.

My biggest complaint so far has nothing to do with my job or the locale, but the transitional living arrangement I find myself in while I’m out here. I keep telling myself this whole student lifestyle is only for a couple more years and will be worth it in the end, but a part of me is very much obsessed with getting my stuff out of storage and re-establishing a real home that actually feels like a home. I’m 37 years old, and way past the point in my life where I should be sharing a small apartment with a roommate and going to parties where beer pong is the dominant form of entertainment. My biggest motivation for finishing grad school is to put this decades-long student phase of my life behind me. More than giving me the credentials I need to achieve my professional goals, my masters degree will hopefully be the piece of paper that gives me permission to settle down, sink some roots, build a career, and finally create a real life for myself. It can’t come fast enough, though, as I’m getting incredibly impatient.

Genesis Planet

A couple weeks after my arrival, I was asked to house-sit at a friend’s apartment in Culver City while she was out of town over a long weekend. The large apartment complex felt almost like a fantasy world, with lush tropical landscaping and fountains between the buildings, several pools, and all the other modern amenities one would expect. The apartment itself had a large fireplace, dramatic vaulted ceilings, and just the right amount of space. At night, the only sounds where crickets chirping and the running fountain outside the window. I did some further research, and found that this apartment complex should actually be within my price range once I’m out of grad school and earning the average salary with somebody at my level of experience. And being a fairly large complex with several hundred apartments, there are always a certain number of vacancies each month. If I end up staying in Los Angeles for good after grad school, they’ll likely be the first place I contact about housing. I just need to hold on until I have that permission slip.

Blank slate.

The Clockmaker’s House

People grow up and grow old, and if they have children, those offspring will likely see the day when their grandparents and parents die and are laid to rest. And then those offspring have kids of their own, and the cycle continues. That’s the natural order of things, and if that natural order is somehow disrupted – say, if a parent buries a child – then something has gone terribly wrong. But under normal circumstances, we’ll live long enough to see our elders grow old and reach the twilight of their lives. First our grandparents, and then eventually our parents. In the back of our heads we know it’s coming, and that it’s how the world is supposed to work. Like clockwork.

At least that’s what I keep telling myself, but somehow that never makes it any easier when it becomes apparent that somebody who has always been a part of your life won’t be part of it forever.

My first grandparent to die was my paternal grandmother, when I was in middle school. She had been in poor health for many years due to diabetes and heart disease, and it didn’t come as much of a surprise when her ailments finally became more than her body could handle. My next grandparent to pass on was my material grandfather a couple years later, due to leukemia. A couple years after that, it was my paternal grandfather. He died of a rare form of cancer in his muscles, probably related to his working in a steel foundry in rural England as a child. God knows what he was exposed to in that place.

Both my grandfathers lived into their 80’s, and I figure once you live that long, you’re pretty much on borrowed time. If ailment X doesn’t get you, then ailment Y is lurking right around the corner. This isn’t to trivialize their passing or make light of the mourning felt by those they left behind, but they both lived long, full lives, had relatively short illnesses, died peacefully surrounded by people who loved them, and left the world a better place than they had found it. We should all hope for so much.

That leaves my maternal grandmother as the last surviving member of that generation in my family. Technically, she’s my step-grandmother, as my true material grandmother died of complications from breast cancer at an early age, years before I was born. My mother’s father remarried, and my mother’s stepmother would become, for all practical purposes, my grandmother.

Like the Energizer Bunny, she simply refuses to stop living. Now 86 years old, she’s still sharp as a tack, and as sweet and good-natured as ever. Always quick with a laugh or a compliment, she vaguely reminds me of “Granny” from the Looney Tunes cartoons: endearing and motherly on the outside, and tough as nails on the inside. She’ll always be there to offer you a bowl of ice cream, but don’t you dare try to reach into the birdcage and grab Tweety. I’ve never once seen her raise her voice, but even as kids, we knew that misbehaving in her house simply wasn’t an option.

And what a house it was. My earliest memories are of a simple split-level ranch house in Milford, but for the past 20-some years she’s been living in a little yellow house in the Cincinnati neighborhood of Madisonville, just a block from the Mariemont municipal boundary. More significant than the house itself, though, were the things it contained. My late material grandfather built and restored old clocks as a hobby, and the place is loaded with them. Floor-standing grandfather clocks, wall clocks, clocks that sit on shelves, you name it. They were all in impeccable condition. In the basement was his workshop, loaded with woodworking tools and all the clock-related spare parts you could imagine. And given that this was the German side of my family, everything was impeccably organized and labeled. A little drawer full of clock gears here, and another little drawer full of clock hands there. Craft was a strong tradition on that side of the family; my grandfather Monte Hillerich was the grandson of Bud Hillerich of Hillerich & Bradsby fame, the family-owned company that continues to make Louisville Slugger baseball bats a few miles downriver from Cincinnati.

On Saturday afternoons, he’d go around the house and wind up the clocks for the week. He deliberately kept them unsynchronized by a few minutes so that the entire house wouldn’t erupt into a cacophony of chimes every hour, on the hour. But beginning at around five minutes before the hour, a clock on the wall would chime. A few seconds later, a grandfather clock in the other room. Then another clock out in the hallway. This would continue for roughly ten minutes. Each clock had a sound that was as unique as its visual appearance. The chimes on the grandfather clock in the living room had a deeper, subtle pitch, while the little brass clock that sat under a glass dome on a nearby shelf had a more metallic, high-pitched chime.

In addition to the clocks were the antique furniture, family heirlooms, chinaware, photographs, artwork, and various other knickknacks. The house was like a museum for my maternal side of the family. Like the clocks, everything was kept impeccably clean and orderly.

The house — first out in Milford and then in Madisonville — always seemed like a refuge when I was growing up. Most family gatherings were at the house of my paternal grandparents in Fort Thomas, mainly because it was much closer to us, and such gatherings were usually pretty chaotic affairs with aunts and uncles talking, and small kids running around.

Visiting Grandma Hillerich’s house, though, was always a special occasion. The drive was a bit longer and involved crossing a large bridge, and the house was much more calm and orderly than anything on the Kentucky side of the river. I have fond memories of quietly playing with Tinker Toys in front of the fireplace in the family room while the adults carried on adult conversations nearby. All the clocks on the walls and my grandfather’s meticulous workshop in the basement were a constant source of fascination. Before we got into the car to head back home, my grandmother would always prepare a “goody bag” for me and my siblings, a small sandwich bag filled with a few candies and treats for each of us.

In 1988, while we were living in coastal South Carolina and Hurricane Hugo was threatening to wipe the state off the map, we evacuated to Cincinnati and stayed with my maternal grandparents for a few days. I remember watching the live reports on CNN from the house’s family room as Hugo battered the hell out of Charleston. My grandfather was already sick with leukemia at that time, and it would be the last time I saw him.

My grandmother, now a widow for the second time, had the house to herself and did her best to take care of it. Family members and neighbors helped her out, and she remained active in her little church just up the street on Plainville Road. I continued my nomadic lifestyle of moving around to various locations throughout the country, but tried to visit my grandmother whenever I found myself back in Cincinnati. She was as spry as ever, and the house itself hardly changed. It still felt like a place of refuge, the one remaining element of my childhood in Cincinnati that had been a constant throughout my life, no matter where I was living or what sort of trouble I was getting myself into. Grandma would always be there to welcome me into the home, remark about how tall I’ve gotten, ask me why I’m still single, and catch up with all that’s happening in my life. The clocks would chime, and like always, she wouldn’t let me escape the house without giving me some sort of treat to take home with me. On some level I hoped that, for as long as I lived, I could always come back here and find Grandma Hillerich among all the clocks, ready to give me a hug and a goody bag.

But that’s not how it works. A couple months ago she took a nasty fall at church and broke her arm. She wasn’t seriously injured, but the incident prompted the decision to move her into an assisted living facility out in the suburbs, closer to some relatives. The house, which had been a place of refuge throughout my life, is now being slowly emptied of its contents, and will soon be put on the market. I understand all the clocks, save for the large grandfather clock in the living room, have now been sold off.

I paid one final visit to the house a few weeks ago with my mother. The clocks had been appraised, and were lying on tables with little price tags attached to them. The house’s other contents were being divvied up among the relatives, and the place had the look of a garage sale. The walls that had once held clocks and family photos were now mostly empty. The house, which I had always known as being full of laughter, now felt like a silent, empty shell. That last remaining spatial connection to my childhood is now gone.

I always knew there would come a day when that house would no longer be there for me, and I knew it would be painful. But I didn’t know it would hurt quite so much.

California Dreamin’

Animal style. (J. Kenji López / seriouseats.com)

Over the past few posts I’ve mentioned that I’ve been searching for internship positions outside of the Cincinnati area for my five-month co-op term that will begin in late March. I applied to a few firms each in Portland, Seattle, and Los Angeles, and one firm in London. After a couple of tense weeks of not knowing where I’ll be living next quarter, I was offered and accepted a position with a very cool firm in Santa Monica.

As far as logistics go, I’ll be moving out of my apartment on March 20th, and putting almost everything I own into storage. Either that evening or first thing the following day, I’ll hit the road for Los Angeles, and I expect that trip to take about three days. If all goes well, I’ll arrive in LA late in the evening of Friday the 23rd. I’ll have a weekend to get settled, and then I start work on Monday the 26th.

Housing is still up in the air at this point; I have an extended-stay hotel room in Woodland Hills reserved for a few days, but I’ll have to start looking for something more permanent as soon as I arrive, most likely a small studio or a roommate/share situation.

This will be the first time since 2004 that I’ve moved to a city that I’ve never lived in before. I’m seldom happier than when I’m exploring someplace new, so I have a lot to look forward to over the new few months. It helps that I already have a couple good friends out there, and the weather will certainly be a refreshing change.

Perhaps just as importantly, Los Angeles feels like a blank slate to me: I have very few personal connections and no sentimental attachments to that city, and very little in the way of preconceived notions of what life will be like out there (although I imagine it will involve a lot of sitting in traffic and dining at In-N-Out), and there’s something very liberating about that. There’s something to be said for showing up in a new place with no expectations, and the opportunity for a clean start.  If things work out well enough, Los Angeles might well become my top choice of places to head to once I’m done with grad school here in Cincinnati. But regardless of whether I ultimately love it or hate it out there, it will no doubt be interesting. Stay tuned.

Panning the Sands

(photo: widescreenwallpapers.in)

On a dark interstate highway in western Nebraska, I was driving a ten-year-old Jeep Cherokee through a downpour, with the windshield wipers providing a steady tempo, and the headlights of semi tractor-trailer trucks shining in my mirrors. The Jeep’s cruise control had stopped working somewhere around Des Moines earlier that day. My cat, Spong, sat quietly in a carrier on the passenger seat, and all my remaining material possessions filled the back of the vehicle up to the ceiling. Everything else I owned had been left behind in a rundown apartment building in New York City. On the car stereo was some lonesome ambient music. I specifically remember Patrick O’Hearn’s Panning the Sands coming up on the playlist during this stretch of highway, and nothing else could have made for a more appropriate soundtrack. The only other sounds besides the road noise and wipers were the squeaks and rattles that Jeeps are infamous for. Spong and I had been on the road for three days already, and it would be another two days before arriving in Eugene, Oregon to an uncertain future. We had spent the previous night at a friend’s condo in Chicago, and before much longer that evening I’d be pulling into the parking lot of a motel in North Platte.

It was mid-November, 2004. A week ago I had been working for an architecture firm in midtown Manhattan, but I lost my job the day after I told my boss I’d need to take some time off to have surgery on my shoulder, which I had injured during a kayaking lesson a few weekends earlier. In all honesty, I had never been more relieved to be let go from a job. My shoulder had been badly dislocated and was still unstable and throbbing with pain two months after the injury, but right now, I was just happy to have the East Coast chapter of my life behind me. I had been feeling increasingly burned-out with life in New York City since moving there from Philadelphia earlier in the year, my career was at a dead-end, and this was the excuse I needed to leave it all behind and start a new life for myself out west. (Now that my shoulder injury was a pre-existing condition and I had no insurance, it would be another three years before I was able to have the surgery I needed. That tale is recounted elsewhere on this blog.)

The Pacific Northwest had been on my mind a lot over the past few months. I had been spending almost every spare minute poring over the trip reports on NWHikers.net and Oregon Kayaking, and virtually exploring the region’s waterfalls via Bryan Swan’s Waterfalls of the Pacific Northwest. The lush, moss-covered forests and canyons of western Oregon seemed like the sabbatical I needed after some of the most difficult years of my adult life. I had taken a long weekend trip out to Eugene in October, and did some exploring around the area while checking out local rental listings and the possibility of transferring to the University of Oregon to finish my undergraduate degree. One evening during that trip I was driving my rental car back to the hotel in Eugene from the coast, and I remember thinking: Here I am less than an hour from the ocean in one direction and less than an hour to the Cascades in the other direction, and I can get a two-bedroom apartment in a nice neighborhood here for $650 a month. What the fuck am I doing in New York City? At that time in New York, I was paying over a thousand dollars a month for a tiny one-bedroom apartment in a gang-infested building, where the neighbor’s loud stereo literally shook my walls until 3 AM every night. What really got me was that my friends and co-workers didn’t seem to think there was anything particularly unusual about my living situation. “Yeah, welcome to New York,” was the typical jaded response. If this is normal for New York, I thought, then screw it.

I had gotten in touch with somebody in Eugene via a whitewater kayaking message board, and he had a spare bedroom for rent. The minute my severance check posted to my bank account, I took the train over to a used car lot in New Jersey and purchased a 1995 Jeep Cherokee I had seen advertised online. The next few days involved a household triage operation in which I sorted those things I intended to keep from those that were expendable. My furniture at this point consisted of stuff that might have been appropriate for a college dorm room, so there was no great loss there. I concentrated on my books, clothing, computer, some essential kitchen elements, and a few things that held sentimental value to me. Most everything else was placed in the apartment building’s lobby under a hand-written sign that said “COSAS LIBRES”, which Google had told me was Spanish for “free stuff”. (The literal translation, I would find out later: liberated things.) The pile had been pretty well picked over by the time I loaded up the Jeep with my essentials and hit the road.

(photo: Brewdog / wikipedia.org)

The trip from New York to Eugene was mostly uneventful, but some memories still stand out. The motel room near Youngstown, Ohio reeked of cigarette smoke. In Chicago it was nice to see some old friends again, however briefly. There was the late-night rainstorm in Nebraska. Later the next day, I drove through the town of Green River, Wyoming, which stands out in my mind as one of the most depressing places I’ve ever seen in my life. The rocky hillsides were almost completely devoid of vegetation, and almost every structure and vehicle seemed to be caked in a layer of dirt. I had been looking forward to seeing the Rocky Mountains, but was disappointed to discover that I-80 mostly bypasses the mountains via a series of high desert plateaus.

That night I found myself driving through the densest fog I had ever seen, where I-84 passes through a valley in northern Utah and southern Idaho. I could barely even see past the hood of my car, so I slowed down to about 30 MPH and turned on my hazard flashers, while nervously looking in the rear-view mirror every few seconds to make sure some 18-wheeler wasn’t about to plow into me at 80 MPH. I thought about pulling over and stopping for a while, but I figured I’d be creating an even bigger traffic hazard on the side of the road, and for all I knew the fog could last for hours.  I eventually found myself tailgating the vehicle in front of me just so I could follow his red tail lights. If he had gotten off the highway onto some desolate ranch exit in the middle of nowhere, or missed a curve and plunged off a thousand-foot cliff, I would’ve been following a short distance right behind him. Eventually the fog bank lifted, and I found a motel somewhere in southern Idaho to spend the night.

The following day’s journey would take me up alongside the Snake River, over Oregon’s Blue Mountains, and along the mighty Columbia River into Portland. Mount Hood looming above the highway was a welcome sight, because I knew it meant I was getting close. From Portland, it was a relatively short hundred miles down I-5 to Eugene. Looking back at that road trip, I still shudder at all the things that could have possibly gone wrong. I could’ve gotten into a wreck, or somebody could have stolen the Jeep from the motel parking lot late one night, or the Jeep could’ve developed mechanical problems somewhere out in the middle of nowhere. I had no insurance and just enough money to pay for the trip to Oregon and my first month’s rent, so there was no margin for error. Any number of unfortunate circumstances could have left me stranded in some God-forsaken town with no money and no remaining material possessions except the clothes on my back. Thankfully, none of that happened, and I found myself pulling into my new roommate’s driveway in Eugene five days after leaving New York. I had taken a 3000-mile leap of faith and landed safely on the other side of the continent.

The next four months in Eugene were spent seeking employment, hanging out at the Starbucks near the University of Oregon campus, and whenever finances permitted, driving and/or hiking throughout the surrounding mountains. One of my favorite hiking destinations was the Opal Creek Wilderness in Marion County, about an hour or so from Eugene. Opal Creek came within a hair’s breadth of being clear-cut back in the 90′s, but a determined effort by conservationists led to the area being designated a wilderness area by Congress. Today, it stands as the largest intact old-growth forest in Oregon. Mining claims in the Opal Creek watershed date back to the 19th Century, and there are a number of old abandoned mine shafts in the area. Even today, it’s not uncommon to find some people panning for gold and silver in the crystal-clear waters of the Little North Santiam River and its tributaries. The Opal Creek Wilderness is one of those magical places that, once you’ve been there, gets under your skin and never really lets go.

My residency in Oregon ended almost as abruptly as it began. I wasn’t having much success finding employment in Eugene, and with my unemployment benefits slated to expire in a couple months, the clock was ticking. One day I got a call from an old friend in Chicago with an offer of some long-term freelance work in exchange for free housing and a modest stipend, and while I was content with my new life in Oregon so far, it was impossible to turn down his offer. Within a few days I had said goodbye to the friends I had made in Eugene, loaded up the Jeep Cherokee once again, and headed back east. I spent the next couple years back in Chicago before deciding to give New York City a second chance in 2007, and then moved back to my hometown of Cincinnati in 2010. I began grad school at the University of Cincinnati later that year, and I’m now roughly halfway through my Masters of Architecture degree.

Looking back, the decision to leave Oregon was one of those life moments where I found myself facing a fork in the road, and while I have no regrets about the choice I made then or the choices I’ve made since then, part of me will always wonder how things would have turned out if I had chosen the other path. I return to Oregon often in my mind, and at various times since leaving, I’ve left the door open for a possible move back there. I applied to the University of Oregon for grad school and was accepted there, but I ultimately decided the University of Cincinnati made more sense for me.

I’ve always enjoyed being out on the open road, and one of my favorite stress-relief activities is to take a long Sunday drive on the back roads of Northern Kentucky. By the time I made my cross-country road trip to Oregon in 2004 I had already logged quite a few miles on the nation’s interstate highways, and I’ve logged a few more since then. The late newspaper columnist Lewis Grizzard, in one of his best pieces, nicely sums up the allure of the highway:

What I am thinking is maybe everybody ought to do this occasionally. I am at least free with my thoughts here. Out like this, a man can talk to himself and it seems perfectly natural. You can ask yourself a question on a Georgia back road and get an honest answer.

Finally, Siloam. Siloam won’t awaken for hours yet. The interstate approaches, laden with 18-wheeled monsters with big eyes and loaded backs bound for the city.

Parting with Georgia 15 is more difficult than I figured it would be. I will be home in just over an hour, but I realize that out on that primitive stretch I had maybe stumbled upon one of the modern urbanite’s last escapes. I had ridden about all that remains of the High Lonesome on a pony with automatic transmission.

(photo: Nate Cull / wikipedia.org)

The Aboriginal tribes of Australia have a tradition known as a walkabout, in which a young man leaves his life behind and wanders the countryside for an indeterminate period of time, as sort of a spiritual quest. When he returns, he is considered an adult. In modern times, the Aboriginal walkabout is apparently done in a pickup truck at least as often as it is done on foot, but the general idea is the same. With the benefit of hindsight, I now look back on my Oregon trip as a much-needed walkabout, a purification rite in which all that was unnecessary in my life was left behind in that Manhattan apartment, leaving only the essentials riding in that Jeep Cherokee through Nebraska on a rainy November night. In the same way a prospector pans the sand and gravel of Opal Creek for gold, that road trip and the following four months in Oregon were a process of sifting what was truly valuable in my life from the gunk and detritus that had accumulated around it. And it worked, for a while. Upon my return to Chicago, I found myself with a newfound sense of purpose that gave me the focus I needed to finish my undergraduate degree, gain some valuable work experience, and begin graduate studies in Cincinnati.

The passing of the new year has provided ample opportunity for reflection on the past year, and of setting goals for the upcoming year. 2011 has seen continued steady progress on my academic and professional goals, and 2012 is sure to see more of the same. In previous blog posts I’ve already discussed the possibilities for where I’ll likely end up for my five-month co-op placement later this year. It’s still very much up in the air at this point, but the most realistic possibilities include Portland, Seattle, Los Angeles, or London. But more fundamentally, I’m striving to make 2012 a year when I do more panning of the sands, to jettison the things and attitudes that are holding me back, let go of the past, and embrace those elements of my life that are truly essential. To stop worrying so much about other people’s expectations and judgements, and live according to my own aspirations.

2004 saw me take a walkabout that put me in the right frame of mind to finish my undergraduate degree and begin grad school. I’m hoping 2012 is the year I embark on another walkabout that will set the stage for my final year of grad school and the beginnings of my career and personal life after grad school. The highway has been calling my name in a big way lately.

New Photo Galleries Added

At long last I’ve finally gotten around to adding the photos I took in London and Paris this past September. Here they are:

London 2011: Day One
Taking a stroll around London’s West End after arriving in town from Heathrow Airport.

River Thames and Environs
On my first full day in London, I decided to take a long walk from Parliament Square to Tower Bridge and back.

Shaftesbury Avenue, Camden Town, and Hampstead
Exploring the northern reaches of Zone 1, including Camden Market and London’s upmarket Hampstead neighborhood.

Nine Hours in Paris
A quick day trip from London to Paris and back on the high-speed Eurostar train.

Earl’s Court and Doctor Who
Exploring the neighborhood around Earl’s Court and checking out the BBC’s Doctor Who exhibit.

Lazy Sunday in London
On the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, I decided to take a walk around Grosvenor Square, Hyde Park, and St. James Park.

Chelsea and Knightsbridge
A walk around London’s exclusive Chelsea and Knightsbridge neighborhoods.

Peripheral London
Checking out some of the neighborhoods around London’s periphery, including Wimbledon, Croydon, and Stratford.

Angel to Victoria
My last full day in London involved an epic walk from the Angel tube station, northeast of central London, to Victoria Station southwest of central London.

The Next Horizon

Apologies for neglecting this blog lately. Being a full-time graduate architecture student at DAAP has a way of forcing one to jettison all other extracurricular activities in favor of school-related work. Now that the fall quarter is over, I finally have a chance to catch my breath and turn my attention to some of those things that have been pushed to the back burner over the past few months.

Back in July I posted The Grass is Always Greener, which describes my dilemma as to whether or not I’ll want to remain here in the Cincinnati area after grad school. In that post I concluded with, “If I ultimately decide to leave town, possible destinations include London, Los Angeles, the Pacific Northwest, or back to the East Coast. Each locale has its own pros and cons, which will probably be the subject of a future blog post.” This is that blog post.

In addition to the long-term question of where I go after grad school, there’s also a more immediate question of where I’ll end up spending my 5-month co-op that begins in late March. I’ve already begun laying the groundwork for that decision, and where I end up going for co-op has the potential to strongly influence where I’ll end up post-graduation. And of course, the decision isn’t entirely up to me, as it will depend heavily upon where I can find a job. In this crappy economy, I may end up having to hold my nose and move someplace I otherwise wouldn’t touch with a barge pole, at least until the job market improves and I get an offer someplace more desirable.

That said, there are a few locales that I return to often in my mind, where I can envision myself having a reasonably good quality of life, and will probably be the places where I concentrate my job search both for the co-op and for permanent employment. The short list changes from time to time,  and will almost certainly change many more times before a decision is made, but now consists of Cincinnati, London, Los Angeles, the Pacific Northwest, and Asheville, North Carolina.

Cincinnati

Home sweet home... for now.

As I mentioned before, my roots here in Cincinnati run deep, and no matter where else I end up, I’ll always be a Cincinnatian at heart. I grew up here, I have a lot of friends and family here, and I’ve made a point to get as involved as I can in local civic affairs. Cincinnati is small enough that one person can make a big splash, the cost of living is dirt-cheap, and the city has ambitious plans for remaking its urban core. I have enough professional connections that finding a job here after graduation will likely be considerably easier than in any other city.

On the downside: While I love Cincinnati dearly, I generally loathe the Midwest. No mountains, no ocean, very little international vibe, and despite some progress here in the city, the region’s political culture is loaded with right-wing ideology with strong undercurrents of racism and religious fundamentalism. In my more cynical moments, I feel like Cincinnati is where the bigotry and religious fanaticism of the Deep South meet the burned-out post-industrial landscape of the Rust Belt. The weather — featuring the most unpleasant extremes of both winter and summer — makes the mere act of going outside tortuous for entire weeks at a time. The local architectural scene, while not without its bright spots, tends to be very conservative without much in the way of new ground being broken. If I end up working here as an architect, it almost certainly won’t be in the areas of design that I’m most passionate about.

London

My life in six months?

This past September I finally took my long-awaited return trip to London, and stayed there for almost a full two weeks. There’s something invigorating about being in a global city where you can hear a dozen languages being spoken while walking down the street, and if I want to specialize in transportation-related design, there’s plenty of such work in London. London’s mild climate would be ideal for me, and the benefits of living in a city with such a rich history go without saying. London is also an ideal jumping-off point for exploring the rest of Europe. And while no political system is without its faults, the overall political climate in the United Kingdom is much more to my taste, and working in the UK would provide job benefits that Americans can only dream about. Depending on how the currency exchange rates fluctuate, I might also be able to repay my student loans in a much shorter period of time.

The biggest catch, though, is that it’s in a different country. Finding an employer willing to sponsor me for a work visa would be a big challenge (especially when so many British and European Union architects are already out of work), and if I were to live there permanently, getting professionally registered as an architect with my American masters degree and work experience would be at least as challenging. Moving that far of a distance across an ocean would present its own logistical problems. London is a long way from home both in miles and in culture, and while I consider my Anglophile credentials to be pretty solid, nothing would change the fact that I’d always be a foreigner in a foreign land. Beyond that, living in a major global city like London, with its long commutes and extreme cost of living, would present a lot of the same frustrations I found while living in New York City. On those frequent occasions when I get tired of the rat race, it simply wouldn’t be possible to jump in my car and escape to the countryside in a few minutes like I can do here. Visits back home would involve a long trans-Atlantic flight and all the hassle that entails.

While London would be ideal for  my 5-month co-op, I don’t see it being the place where I ultimately settle down after grad school. As such, there’s the possibility that whatever networking connections I make in London on my co-op ultimately wouldn’t do me much good if I decide to stay here in the US for the long term.

Los Angeles

You are entering a world of pain.

This past summer I had the opportunity to visit Los Angeles for the first time, and to my surprise, I liked it a lot better than I thought I would. The climate can’t be beat, and the city is in the process of rapidly expanding its mass transit system. I have a couple good friends out there already, and the ocean and mountains are both nearby. The architectural scene in LA is decidedly more forward-looking than that of Cincinnati.

Of course, the idealized vision of Los Angeles giving way to its harsh realities is one of the oldest cliches in the book. The cost of living — while not nearly as high as that of New York or London — is still very high, crime and general quality of life would be big concerns, and having the ocean and mountains nearby won’t count for much if I have to sit in traffic for two hours to reach them. Visiting Cincinnati would involve a 4-hour flight. While not nearly as long as a flight from London, it’s still a major hassle.

The Pacific Northwest

All else aside, if I could pick any region of the country in which to settle down based purely on its climate and natural beauty, it would be the Pacific Northwest. I briefly lived in Eugene, Oregon from late 2004 to early 2005, and not a day goes by where my mind doesn’t wander back to the mountains, forests, and waterfalls of the Oregon Cascades. While living in Eugene I visited Portland a couple times and liked what I saw of it. Similar in size to Cincinnati, Portland seems to have made all the right decisions regarding its future as a city, while Cincinnati has made many wrong ones. Seattle is less familiar to me, except to say it’s somewhat larger than Portland and has the benefit of being on Puget Sound. Both cities offer an attractive quality of life in a mild climate, a reasonable cost of living (although Seattle is a bit more expensive than Portland), incredible natural beauty outside the city, and a more progressive architectural climate. Portland has a well-developed light rail and streetcar system, while Seattle has ambitious plans for expansion of its own light rail system. I’ve never been to Vancouver, BC to date, but I haven’t yet heard a bad thing about it.

I'd be willing to put up with a lot of bullshit Monday through Friday if it meant being able to drive to a place like this on Saturday.

It’s hard to think of many downsides to the Pacific Northwest, but there may be a few potential pitfalls. The job market in Portland is notoriously bad even in good economic times. Lots of people want to live there, but there aren’t enough jobs to go around. This puts downward pressure on wages and upward pressure on the cost of living, and I’ve heard people half-jokingly say that almost every bartender and barista in town has a masters degree. I’m not sure what the situation in Seattle or Vancouver is like, but I imagine it’s similar. While I wouldn’t move to someplace like Portland or Seattle without first having a job lined up, this could pose a big problem down the road if I got laid off or otherwise had to look for work again. As with London, moving to Vancouver would require getting a visa, but I understand it’s generally easier to get a Canadian visa than a British one. While living in Eugene I found myself bored once I had explored most of the area, although I attribute that more to being unemployed and broke in a smallish town than to any inherent flaws of the region. I also remember feeling like I was about a million miles away from my friends and family back east, and I could see that being a potential problem. But I didn’t have social media like Facebook and Twitter at my disposal in 2004, and the world feels much smaller now than it did back then.

Asheville, North Carolina

Oregon Lite

I almost hesitate to include this on the list, but I lived there for a couple years as a kid and I was back there for a couple days last spring break, so I may as well mention it. Asheville is similar in size to Eugene, and offers many of the same advantages: a mild climate, a beautiful setting in the mountains, and a relatively progressive college-town atmosphere with a strong emphasis on the arts and brewing. Asheville also has the advantage of being only a 6-hour drive from Cincinnati, making weekend visits back home relatively easy.

Unfortunately, Asheville is the largest city for many miles in any direction. Whenever I got bored in Eugene I could always drive a couple hours up the road to Portland. Driving a couple hours in any direction from Asheville only puts you smack in the middle of Deliverance country. Driving back home to Cincinnati from Asheville takes about the same amount of time as flying to Cincinnati from Portland or Seattle. And there’s even less of an architectural scene in Asheville than in Cincinnati. If I end up working as an architect in Asheville, I certainly won’t be designing transit systems or other major infrastructure projects. But maybe that’s okay, and I would certainly consider Asheville if the right opportunity came along.

So, that’s the list as of today. I reserve the right to revise it, refine it, or scrap it altogether in the future. All in all, I’d say the Pacific Northwest has the most advantages and the fewest disadvantages, and I’ll admit that area of the country has been on my mind a lot lately. But it’s too early to say for sure where I’ll end up, and like I said before, it’s not entirely within my control anyway. If nothing else, though, it will be interesting to see where the road leads.

Bluegrass State

What I love about Kentucky. And the bourbon, of course.

The Grass is Always Greener…

Sometimes I wonder how my life would have turned out if my family had never left Fort Thomas in 1984. Maybe I would have stayed here in the Cincinnati area my entire life, married soon after high school, and settled down into a middle-class subdivision with a yard and some kids. Or maybe I would’ve run screaming to New York or Chicago the first chance I got, never looking back at Cincinnati with anything but resentment and loathing. I know plenty of Cincinnati-area natives who have taken each path.

You can't go home again. (photo: Tim Lindenbaum via flickr.com)

As it turned out, we moved away when I was ten, and I haven’t spent more than four continuous years living in one city since then. As a kid I didn’t have a choice in the matter, but as an adult I’ve embarked on long-distance moves for academic reasons, better career opportunities, a better lifestyle, and most recently, an overwhelming desire to just come back home to Cincinnati. Anybody who has read the archives of this blog will know that some of these moves have been more successful than others.

Chicago was the closest thing to an adopted hometown I ever found outside of Cincinnati, but after living there three times for a total of eleven years, I feel like I’ve exhausted all my possibilities there. Many of my closest friends have moved away, and most of my recent jobs in Chicago have felt like dead ends. During a weekend visit to Chicago last year, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was walking around in the empty shell of a life that had ceased to exist a very long time ago.

I guess you could call it the 18-month itch. Once the novelty of living in a certain place has worn off and daily life has settled into a routine, the wanderlust starts to kick in again. It doesn’t help that I struggle with clinical depression, and when it’s at its worst, I often find myself with a strong urge to leave everything behind and start a new life for myself somewhere else. I’ve even acted on that urge a few times (my decision to move from Philly to New York in 2004 and then to Oregon later that year would be two prime examples), but so far my attempts to outrun depression haven’t been successful.

By almost any measure, Cincinnati has been pretty good to me since I moved back here in March of last year. I’ve fallen in with a great group of friends, I’ve begun my long-awaited M.Arch. degree at one of the best programs in the country, I have the nicest apartment I’ve ever lived in, and I’ve even learned a lot more about the bar business than I ever thought I would. No matter what else I do in life and where I do it, I think the Cincinnati area will always be home to me.

But even before I moved here, I knew there would be a dilemma I’d have to face, which is the question of where I’ll ultimately settle down once I finish grad school, particularly in regard to rewarding career options. Assuming I remain in the architecture business, the odds of finding something here that excites me would be fairly slim even if the economy were in better shape. If the economy stays the same or gets worse, any job I take here in Cincinnati would most likely be a survival job until something better comes along.

One of my main design-related passions involves transit design and planning, and even if Cincinnati were to build its proposed streetcar line and get started on a bare-bones light rail system, there will probably never be enough of that type of work here to sustain a career. I also have an interest in high-end hospitality and custom residential design, but again, other cities offer far more opportunities in those areas than Cincinnati.

There’s also the question of what kind of city Cincinnati really wants to be in the coming years. Right now we’re fortunate to have a mayor and some city council members who appreciate the potential this city has, and are doing what they can to make the city an attractive place for new blood. (The aforementioned streetcar project is a big part of that.) But it’s an uphill battle. Cincinnati has lost over 10% of its population from 2000 to 2010, which continues a long trend of depopulation that began in the 1950′s. Suburban-based “Tea Party” groups have allied with some professional rabble-rousers within the black community to slam the brakes on anything that might make the urban core a viable destination for young professionals and start-up businesses, and our local media is quick to whip up fear and resentment against any idea that might threaten their anti-city narrative.

Artist's interpretation of Chris Smitherman and Chris Finney conspiring to derail the Cincinnati streetcar project.

Add the fact that Ohio has a teabag-waving governor and congressional delegation who seem hell-bent on turning the entire state into a third-world country, and the future for Cincinnati looks pretty grim. I have a lot of friends who see Cincinnati as the next Portland or Austin, and while I hope they’re right and I agree Cincinnati has that potential, I find myself a bit pessimistic lately. Potential is one thing, but capitalizing on that potential is something else. I love my hometown and I’ll continue to do whatever I can push the city forward while I’m here, but don’t want to tether my future to a sinking ship.

Aaron “The Urbanophile” Renn writes about the perils of “boomerang migration”, when young creative types from the Midwest expand their horizons in search of better career options or a certain lifestyle, and later come back and try to make a difference in their hometown:

I think boomerang migrants are more likely to encounter problems reconciling themselves to a place than those who move there with no connection. I’ve mentioned the problem of “that’s little kids stuff” before. People, especially those from smaller or less hip destinations, are very cognizant of their plebian origin. You see this manifest itself when they move to bigger cities. They immediately realize their inadequacy and set about in earnestness trying to get beyond it. This frequently takes the form of contempt from where they came from. Again, I’ve noted that the place that probably has the worst brand perception of smaller Midwestern cities is Chicago. Why is that? Well, because all too many of the people who live there came from those same smaller places and are desperate to prove their big city bona fides. As someone once said, contempt for where you came from is the signature attribute of the arriviste.

Returning, all of this comes rushing back. Particularly when perceptions have legitimately changed. When I was a kid, Ponderosa was my favorite steak place. Now, after years of eating USDA Prime, I can never go back and experience Ponderosa in the same way again. I probably don’t enjoy today’s steaks any more than yesterday’s, a topic worthy of its own post, but I’ll never be able to capture that past experience. The act of moving away from home unmoors us from the limits of our origins. It’s no surprise that the college educated are more likely to migrate. It isn’t just the skills, it’s that four years away from home opens a world of possibility in our eyes. Even at 22, if you return, it’s to a different place than you left, because you’re a different person. Because those who didn’t leave haven’t experienced this change, there’s an estrangement from your past. You no longer fit in. There’s something wrong. The cliche is true: you can never go home again.

I can certainly identify with this on a number of levels. For now, my focus is on finishing grad school, and I’ll remain here for as long as it takes to do so. But in the meantime, I can’t help but wonder if I have a long-term future here.

Where I go after grad school will largely depend on what sorts of opportunities are available at that time, and what type of city Cincinnati wants to be. My fear is that I’ll ultimately end up having to make a choice between A) a good standard of living along with proximity to friends and family here, but at the expense of more fulfilling career options, or B) a more rewarding career, but saying farewell to Cincinnati and all the things I enjoy about living here.

If I ultimately decide to leave town, possible destinations include London, Los Angeles, the Pacific Northwest, or back to the East Coast. Each locale has its own pros and cons, which will probably be the subject of a future blog post. But wherever I end up, I suspect there will always be a part of me that wishes I was somewhere else.

Storm Clouds

As much as I’ve been raving lately about how much I loved the weather in California, one of the few things I enjoy about Midwestern weather is watching a springtime thunderstorm roll in from the west. A few weeks ago I happened to grab a cell phone photo of an approaching storm from my living room window. I don’t consider myself much of a photographer, but sometimes I get lucky.

City of Angels

Los Angeles has always occupied a weird place in my consciousness. Having spent the bulk of my adult life in Chicago, Philadelphia, and New York City, my mental image of LA consisted primarily of east coast stereotypes and whatever I had seen on movies and television. That said, the city certainly has a mystique to it. Given that many of my favorite movies (Pulp Fiction, Blade Runner, Mulholland Drive, The Big Lebowski, and L.A. Confidential, among others) are set in LA and prominently feature the city itself as a major character, I figured there was something out there worth checking out.

That opportunity came this past week when my employer sent me and some others out to LA to take field measurements at a Macy’s store in Orange County. Most of the week was spent counting light fixtures and floor tiles inside the store, but at the end of the week I finally had a free evening before flying back to Cincinnati.

The skyline of downtown Los Angeles is somewhere off in the distance. Throughout the week I kept seeing this bright thing in the sky that Californians apparently call the "sun".

I met up with an old high school friend who has a small post-production company in Hollywood (www.5thwall.tv), and he gave me a quick driving tour of Los Angeles. Two of my favorite activities in the world are catching up with old friends and exploring new cities, and this evening offered the opportunity for both. Unfortunately we ran out of daylight before I could take many photos, but here are a few of them anyway.

My first impressions of Los Angeles: Dorothy Parker supposedly described LA as “72 suburbs in search of a city”, and the description seems apt. But among that vast patchwork of sprawl are some surprisingly fascinating urban places. And of course, the weather didn’t suck at all. It was nice to be in a place where I didn’t find myself living in fear of the outdoors. A few days after returning home to Cincinnati, I think I finally realized what I liked so much about Southern California: It had most of the things I miss about living in Florida (palm trees and the casual semi-tropical beach culture), minus most of the things I don’t miss about living in Florida (stifling humidity, boring topography, the post-Confederate collective chip on the shoulder, and the right-wing political/religious culture).

Large swaths of Los Angeles apparently look like this. (In fairness, so do large parts of New York and Chicago, minus the palm trees.) But the nice weather makes up for a lot of the LA cityscape's shortcomings. And like New York and Chicago, the scenery improves drastically once you get off the commercial avenues and start exploring the side streets.

I was barely able to scratch the surface on this trip, but I was there long enough to see the appeal LA holds in the popular imagination, and I’m sure I’ll find a reason to make a return trip out there at some point. Would I actually consider moving out there? Maybe. In a couple years I’ll finish up my M.Arch. degree in Cincinnati, and where I end up after that will largely depend on where I can find a job. My primary passion is transportation and infrastructure design, and there simply isn’t much of that type of work here in Cincinnati. But despite being the poster child for automobile-oriented sprawl, Los Angeles has actually been taking some aggressive steps to expand its public transit system. Before this trip I probably would have ruled out applying for positions in Los Angeles, but now I’d be willing to consider LA is a possible destination if the right opportunity came along.

The fact that you can buy liquor at your local CVS or Walgreen's is almost reason alone to move out there.

The full photo gallery from my Los Angeles trip can be found here.