Category Archives: Personal

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

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.

The Sea Voyages of my Grandfather, 1939-1947

5 Albert Road, Burnham-on-Crouch, Essex

On August 6, 1911, Herbert R. Cole was born in a small English fishing village called Burnham-on-Crouch, located about an hour-and-a-half east of London by train. He was a child during World War I, and worked in a local steel foundry while growing up between the wars. (I remember him bragging that he could pick up a piano frame with his teeth.) When World War II broke out, he joined the British Merchant Marine and ended up sailing to almost every corner of the world during the war.

This chronicle was originally compiled and written by my father, and sightly edited by me with some additional research.

29 November 1939 – 23 December 1939
S.S. Orontes
Liverpool, England to Sydney, Australia
Round trip via the Suez Canal and Ceylon

15 January 1940 – 16 April 1940
S.S. Orontes
Liverpool, England to Sydney, Australia
Round trip via the Suez Canal and Ceylon

18 May 1940 – ??
S.S. Orontes
Liverpool, England to Sydney, Australia
Round trip via the Suez Canal, West Africa, Cape Town, and Bombay

During these voyages, Granddad visted African villages in Kenya and South Africa. He often mentioned going into the dirt and thatch huts. He was also greatly impressed by the tremendous poverty in Bombay and the many beggars in the streets. Many were crippled and desperately thin. He talked of one particular beggar that dragged himself along the ground, wearing the skin off parts of his legs down to the bone. The young kids would gather around any Westerner and yell “mungie”, which was Hindi for food.

On one of his trips to Bombay, they unloaded chests of tea marked for Winston S. Churchill.

While in Port Said during one of these voyages, he was able to arrange a visit in Cairo with his brother Keith. Keith was stationed near Cairo with the Royal Air Force.

He was able to visit his cousins in Australia during one of these visits as well. He talked of the cold train ride over the Blue Mountains to their home, and their warm welcome to him.

15 October 1940 (Depart)
S.S. Samaria
Liverpool, England to New York City

Granddad traveled to New York as a passenger on the S.S. Samaria and then took a train from New York to Galveston, Texas to pick up the S.S. Labette. While in New York, he met Mary Hendrickson while eating apple pie at a Woolworth’s store. She was fresh out of high school and was living with her aunt and working at the American Bible Society. Throughout the war, they kept in touch and Granddad visited her when in New York.

While in Galveston, he had his photograph taken with a Texas longhorn bull.

18 April 1941 (Return)
S.S. Labette
Galveston, Texas to Liverpool, England

The S.S. Labette was in very poor condition and very slow. On this trip, it stopped in Halifax, Nova Scotia to pick up a convoy. Thirty-six hours out of Halifax on the voyage to Liverpool, it got stuck in a blizzard in the mine fields. It took six days to return to Halifax through the mine fields and blizzard, and when it finally got across the Atlantic, it took fourteen days for the crossing. The harbor master at Liverpool initially would not allow the Labette to enter the port, as it had been given up as lost. Granddad had his photograph taken on the deck of this ship. He is wearing a full beard and a duffel coat, and there is about six inches of ice all over the ship.

10 May 1941 – 9 September 1941
S.S. Brittany
Liverpool, England to Buenos Aires, Argentina

While in Buenos Aires, Granddad saw the wreck of the German pocket battleship, Admiral Graf Spee. She had been scuttled rather than surrender to the Royal Navy after a running gun battle had severely damaged it and they had entered Buenos Aires. As it was a neutral port, by law she had to leave the port in three days. Instead, they scuttled her.

Granddad had a love of banannas, and while in Beunos Aires he bought a whole stalk and ate them all. He developed a fungus on his tongue which turned the tongue black. It gradually peeled off.

The return trip was via Halifax, Nova Scotia.

S.S. Reina del Pacifico

Granddad stayed with the S.S. Reina del Pacifico from October 1941 to February 1943. The voyages were:

23 October 1941 – 23 November 1941
Liverpool, England to Halifax, Nova Scotia
Round trip

26 November 1941 – 16 March 1941
Liverpool, England to Bombay, India
Round trip via Cape Town, South Africa

3 April 1942 – 1 September 1942
Liverpool, England to Bombay, India
Round trip via Cape Town, South Africa

September 1942 – 10 February 1943
Liverpool, England to Arzew, Algeria
Liverpool, England to Oran, Algeria
Liverpool, England to Algiers, Algeria

The three round trips to Algeria were in the support of the North African invasion. During the trip to Arzew, he got a photograph of his brother Spencer’s ship being bracketed by bomb bursts on either side of the ship.

11 March 1943 – 3 April 1944
S.S. Queen Elizabeth

During this period, Granddad made eleven round trips between Gourock, Scotland and New York City, and one round trip between Gourock and Halifax. The Queen Elizabeth and the Queen Mary made the trans-Atlantic crossings without convoy or escort, depending instead on their great speed as the fastest trans-Atlantic liners of their time. This was due to an accident early in the war. The Queen Mary was being escorted off the coast of Ireland by the H.M.S. Curacoa, a light cruiser. They were doing the standard zig-zag alterations in course because of the German U-boat threat. The first night out of port, there was a mix-up in communications and the Curacoa was cut in half as she crossed the bow of the Queen Mary. 338 sailors were lost. It was decided that it was too risky to escort these two ships, and from that point until the end of the war, they left port at full steam and slowed only upon arrival at their destination.

During one of these high-speed runs while Granddad was on board, the Queen Elizabeth was struck by a rogue wave. It broke out the glass on the bridge and buckled fifty feet of the main deck of the bow.

12 September 1944 – 4 November 1944
S.S. Franconia

During this period, Granddad made three round trips between Liverpool and New York. During one of his port calls in New York while serving on either the Queen Elizabeth or the Franconia, Granddad was mugged and kicked in the jaw. This resulted in osteomyelitis of the right mandible, and the abscess was so large as to press against the trachia. It was drained by a ship’s surgeon and he was referred to Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital in New York for further surgery. The British government denied permission for the surgery to be done in New York, and Granddad returned to England. While in England he went to the Seaman’s Hospital, but it had been bombed and he was referred to Miller Hospital. After being in the hospital several days, he finally had the surgery.

S.S. Franconia

On this trip, the Franconia transported Winston S. Churchill to Sevastapol, USSR for the Yalta Conference. While in Sevastapol, the English seamen were treated to a banquet. At the banquet, the seamen were seated with a male Soviet soldier on one side, and a female Soviet soldier on the other. There was much devastation in Sevastapol due to the fierce fighting that had taken place, and many of the buildings had been destroyed.

While on the return trip, they stopped in Taranto, Italy to offload Churchill and his official party. Earlier in the war, the Royal Navy had conducted an air raid on Taranto and sunk some Italian battleships. Taranto was a shallow harbor very similar to Pearl Harbor, and that attack was a model for the later attack by the Japanese on the American fleet at Pearl Harbor.

R.M.S. Aquitania

Granddad made two round trips between Liverpool and New York during the last year of the war. At this time, Granddad had decided that after the war was over, he would bring Mary to England where they would get married. After the war, however, the economy of England was ruined and it was decided that he would come to the United States instead, and return to England later.

R.M.S. Aquitania

The final sea voyage of Herbert R. Cole. He sailed from Liverpool and landed in Halifax instead of New York due to bad weather. He thus entered the United States via Canada. This caused a bit of trouble with the immigration personnel, but it was soon straightened out.

Shortly after his arrival in New York, carrying everything he owned in two large leather suitcases, he was married to Mary Hendrickson at Marble Collegiate Church (the same church where Norman Vincent Peale was pastor). Their honeymoon was the train ride from New York to Cincinnati.

On December 3rd of that year, their first child and my father was born. Granddad got a job as a strikebreaker at Cincinnati Bell, despite being unable to legally work in the US at the time. At that point they lived in Bellevue, Kentucky, just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati. They would later move a short distance to Fort Thomas, which would become my hometown in 1975. By the time Granddad retired, he was responsible for all the underground phone lines in the city of Cincinnati. My fondest childhood memories usually involve family gatherings at my grandparents’ old house and playing around with my cousins in the back yard.

Eventually everybody in the family started going their separate ways, and my grandparents moved into a new condominium down the road in Southgate. My grandmother — the young woman Granddad met at Woolworth’s over apple pie — died of complications from diabetes in 1988. Granddad died of a rare form of cancer in July of 1993, survived by two sons, two daughters, and nine grandchildren. Doctors speculated that his cancer may have been related to his work in the steel foundry back in Burnham-on-Crouch.

I never got to tell you in person, granddad, but thanks.

And Now for Something Completely Different…

This past Friday we had sort of a St. Valentine’s Day Massacre at the office, with about 10% of the staff being laid off. Yours truly was among them, thus ending my 2.5-year tenure at Dattner Architects. I’m not holding any bitterness against my now-former employers; while every job has its good days and bad days, my time at Dattner has been an incredible learning experience, and I’ve never been treated with anything but the utmost professionalism and respect while working there, and I’ll look back with fondness on my time there.

This didn’t come as a complete shock, as the writing had been on the wall for a while. Thanks to a couple of large projects via the stimulus program, our office was able to maintain a decent workload for about a year longer than most other architecture firms, but all good things must end sooner or later. There had been a noticeable slowdown in our workload over the past couple months, and more often than not, I found myself without much to do during the day. The thought of getting laid off had occurred to me, and I had already begun to develop a contingency plan in case the axe dropped. This past Friday, when I was asked to come in to the office of one of the partners for a meeting, I instantly knew what was about to happen. It was time to institute my contingency plan.

As this means the end of my 2.5-year at Dattner, this also means the end of my 2.5 year residency in New York City. I moved here in 2007 with high hopes and grand ambitions. Some of those ambitions have been fulfilled, and some have not. When I moved here, I figured I’d be going to grad school here in New York City, presumably at Columbia or some other big-name school, and get a job with some boutique firm that does ultra-modernist hotels and condominium interiors. Instead, I ended up postponing my grad school plans for a while, and developing a strong interest in transit design, urban planning, and civic architecture.

As the economy went down the toilet, and I came to the realization that I had reached an age where a sense of stability and comfort were much more important to me than being in the middle of all the action. My thoughts increasingly turned back to my hometown of Cincinnati, and what it might mean to move back there for grad school and possibly even settle down there for the long term. Instead of Columbia and a bunch of East Coast Ivy League architecture schools, I ended up applying to the University of Cincinnati, Ohio State, and the University of Kentucky for grad school. At the same time, I found myself increasingly burned-out with New York City. There are still many things I love about this city, and I won’t rule out the possibility of moving back here sometime in the future, but for now, this city simply isn’t my natural habitat.

In the meantime, I’ve become increasingly involved with the local blogosphere and online community in Cincinnati, and have already added my voice to those advocating for improved mass transit and urban planning in Cincinnati. In the relatively short time I’ve been involved with these people who are relentlessly pushing to make Cincinnati into a better city, I’ve already developed a number of good friendships, and I know I’ll be welcomed with open arms when I return home. This is in addition to the numerous old friends and family members who have always been there to welcome me home whenever I found myself in town for a visit.

With my job now no longer keeping me here in New York, I’ve decided to leave NYC and move to Cincinnati at the end of the month. I’m hoping to start grad school at UC (or if not UC, then at least nearby OSU or UK) in the fall, so my unemployment benefits and savings should last until then, and I’m actually pretty psyched about finally going back. That said, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous as hell. Finding a landlord willing to rent to me will be a challenge, and if I don’t start grad school or land a job in six months, I’ll really start to panic. Also, the last time I lived in Cincinnati was 25 years ago, when I was 10 years old. Going back is certain to bring up all sorts of old memories and weird emotions for me.

I’ve reserved a Penske rental truck for the weekend of February 27th, and if all goes well, I’ll be arriving in town sometime on the 28th. As of this writing, I have no idea where I’ll be living, but I have a couple of strong leads.

At this point, I don’t have the slightest idea how this will all work out. In six months I may end up in Columbus or Lexington, or moving in with my parents in North Carolina. At some point I may end up frustrated with Cincinnati’s notorious provincialism, and run screaming back to New York or Chicago. No doubt there will be times I wish I was back in New York City, or longing to expand my horizons even further, perhaps as far as London or the West Coast.

But for now, I’m just happy to be coming home.

And Hugo Was His Name-O

It was just brought to my attention that today is the 20th anniversary of Hurricane Hugo’s landfall in coastal South Carolina. Wow, time flies.

I remember Hugo. We were living in Beaufort, South Carolina at the time, and had been nervously watching the weather updates over the past few days as the storm got closer. That morning, we looked at the forecast, and they said Hugo was expected to make landfall somewhere between Savannah and Charleston… Beaufort is smack in the middle of that zone, so we loaded up the car and got the hell out of there. My dad, a physician’s assistant with the Naval Hospital in town, had to stay behind in case there were mass casualties, so it was my mom, myself, my three siblings, some small family heirlooms, luggage, and three angry cats in an ’87 Ford Taurus for the next 14 hours or so.

The traffic on I-26 was unreal, like something out of a disaster movie. The westbound lanes were a 200-mile-long parking lot all the way past Columbia, while the eastbound lanes were completely deserted except for the occasional convoy of National Guard and Red Cross trucks headed for the coast. It was very erie. Eventually they allowed westbound traffic to cross the highway median and drive on the eastbound side.

We drove all the way to Cincinnati, since every hotel east of the mountains was packed with evacuees from the coast. At least we had family to stay with in Cincy, so we kept on driving all day and for pretty late into the night, not sure how long it would be before we could return to Beaufort, nor what we would have left when we got back. We got to my grandmother’s house in Mariemont at some ungodly hour of the night, turned on CNN, and saw that Hugo had turned north at the last minute and was ripping Charleston to shreds. Beaufort had a fair amount of damage, but was spared the worst of the storm.

We stayed in Cincy for a couple days before heading back. On the trip back to Beaufort, I remember seeing how the storm damage got progressively worse as we got closer to the coast. Around Columbia, it was mostly downed trees and branches alongside the expressway. Closer to Charleston, overhead highway signs, billboards, and gas station canopies were ripped to shreds. As we drove through mile after mile of pine forests, we saw that every single tree had been snapped in half. North of Charleston, all the trees were snapped toward the west; south of Charleston, all the trees were snapped toward the east. You could tell exactly where the eye of the hurricane had passed because that’s where the all fallen trees changed direction.

We were very fortunate. Our house wasn’t damaged, and most of the damage in the neighborhood was limited to some downed power lines and fallen trees. We have some relatives in Charleston who had five feet of water in their house and a tree in their living room. Many car windows on their block had exploded because the barometric pressure had dropped so fast.

The running joke was that Hugo was actually a good thing for South Carolina, because it finally gave them something to talk about besides the Civil War. As for me, I’ll be happy if that’s the closest I ever come to a large-scale disaster.


What am I doing here at 4:30 AM instead of sleeping? A week or two ago it was gunfire behind my apartment building; tonight it sounds like either a street party or a riot. I can’t directly see the street from my window (I have a lovely view of a brick wall), but I woke up a half hour ago to the sounds of a large crowd of people shouting, horns blaring, police sirens, and some asshole with his car stereo cranked up loud enough to rattle my windows. It’s still going on right now.

New York is the only city I’ve ever lived in where it’s apparently socially acceptable to park your car on the side of the street in a residential neighborhood at 4 AM, roll down the windows and open all the doors, and blast hip-hop music your car stereo while you and a dozen of your closest gangbanger friends hang out on the sidewalk and smash beer bottles on the pavement and yell at people. The police won’t bother to intercede unless there’s weapons involved.

Actually, I know this happens in certain neighborhoods of plenty of other cities, but this the only city I’ve lived in where I can pull in a good salary and yet still not be able to afford to live in a neighborhood where this sort of thing doesn’t happen on a near-nightly basis, at least not without involving a 90-minute commute.

Speaking of commuting, after work this evening I entered the Columbus Circle subway station and when I got down to the platform, I was immediately overpowered by the stench of body odor and human feces strong enough to literally make me gag… Luckily my train pulled in right away, or else I would’ve had to leave the station before throwing up, and take a different subway line home. WTF?

There’s a lot of great things about NYC, but quality of life certainly isn’t one of them, and I’m now remembering why I got so burned out and moved to Oregon the first time I lived here. Living back in the Cincinnati area (or Oregon or almost anywhere else, for that matter) will no doubt have its own set of frustrations, but at least I’d be able to afford to live in a neighborhood where I can get some sleep and not have to put up with this shit every night.

End of rant… I hate to sound so negative, but I’m getting seriously fed up. It’s now 5 AM and the local thug element seems to have moved on, so I’m going to try going to bed again.

Return of the Prodigal Son

As I mentioned on an earlier posting in September, I had planned on taking a weekend trip back to Cincinnati this month. Well, I just got back from that trip, so here’s my report.

I had to wake up at the ungodly hour of 4:00 AM on Thursday to catch my flight out of Newark Airport. Somebody remind me never to book a 7:45 AM flight again, especially when it takes over an hour just to get to the airport from my apartment. Fortunately, once we got airborne, the flight to Cincinnati was uneventful. I absolutely hate flying with a passion that passes all human understanding, and I’ll do anything I can to avoid it, but sometimes there’s no viable alternative and you just have to bend over and take it like a man.

Upon arriving at CVG, I picked up the rental car and grabbed a bite to eat at the Frisch’s in the Cincinnati suburb of Fort Thomas, just a couple blocks away from the house I grew up in. Afterwards, I drove around Fort Thomas a bit to see what, if anything, had changed. To nobody’s surprise, the town has hardly changed a bit in decades. They built an addition to the high school, and there’s been some streetscape improvements in the little downtown business district. That’s about it. Fort Thomas is about as middle-America as you can possibly get, a cozy bedroom community strung along the top of a high ridge overlooking the Ohio River, best known for its excellent public schools and its streets of tidy, well-kept houses. The type of place where you want to wake up on Christmas morning.

For me, it’s always weird going back there. Almost every spot in the city has some sort of childhood memory associated with it. No matter where I’ve been and what kinds of sordid ordeals I’ve been going through in my life, I feel like I can always go back and find Fort Thomas just as I had left it. For better or worse, the town feels like it’s stuck in some sort of time warp where the calendar never got past 1984. In many ways it’s nice to have a place like that to go back to, but I can’t help but wonder if I’d ever be able to live there again without going nuts.

My hometown of Fort Thomas may not have changed much since I moved away in 1984 at the ripe old age of nine, but my friends and family there aren’t getting any younger, and it always comes as a jolt to my senses when I realize how fast the years are passing. I’m now about the same age as my parents, aunts, and uncles were when I was a kid in Fort Thomas. My parents and their siblings are now rapidly approaching the same age my grandparents where at the time I most remember them. My cousin Austin and I were inseparable as kids in Fort Thomas; now he’s married and has a kid of his own. My best friend April is about the same age as me, and we spent countless hours playing together down in the woods behind our houses. She’s been married for a few years now, and has three kids. Her oldest kid is now as old as I was when I moved away in 1984.

I have no regrets about moving around as much as I have, even the moves during my childhood when I had no choice in the matter. I think being exposed to so many places has made me a more well-rounded and open-minded person than I probably would have been otherwise, and I’ve met some great people and made some great friends along the way. But I can’t help but mourn all the things I’ve missed out on while I’ve been away from my hometown, and it’s during these periodic visits when those feelings always come rushing back up to the surface.

For that reason, I made a special point during this trip to touch base with some friends and family members who I haven’t seen in a long time, to rekindle some of those relationships. I visited my aunt Ellen on Thursday, soon after my arrival in town. Saturday evening I was able to get together with Austin, his wife and kid, his sister Emily and brother Eliot, and his mother (my aunt) Lisa down at his place in Silver Grove. We all goofed around a bit while kicking back pizza and cold beers, and Austin and I still hit it off like old times. A lot of things have changed, but people’s personalities seem to stay fairly constant.

Earlier that day, I had met up with April at her place. This was especially emotional for me, as I hadn’t seen her in ages. There’s been more than one occasion where I’d become convinced that we had lost touch for so long that our friendship had become just an old memory, but we always seem to get back in touch. We were such close friends back in grade school that, at the time, I just assumed that we’d eventually get married. But I moved away and now she’s grown into a beautiful woman, happily married to her husband for about ten years now, with three kids and a nice house. I can’t help but think about the “what-if’s” that might have played out if we had been allowed to continue growing up together.

All but one of my grandparents have long since passed away, but Grandma Hillerich, now well into her 80’s, is still more healthy, more mentally sharp, and more active than most people half her age. The Energizer Bunny has nothing on her. She’s actually my mother’s stepmother, but I never knew my biological grandmother on that side of the family, so she’s always been my “real” grandmother as far as I’m concerned. As active and healthy as she is, she’s not getting any younger, and I couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that I should really make an effort to visit her while I’m in town. I made a couple attempts to call her, but wasn’t able to connect. So this morning, after checking out of the hotel and with a few hours to kill before I had to be at the airport, I decided to take a drive around her part of town. She lives near Mariemont, a picturesque village made up of Tudor-style buildings clustered around a central village sqaure. Up the hill not far away is the site of the hospital I was born in, now converted to a nursing home. Fort Thomas is my hometown, but Mariemont is where I was born. During my drive I happened across a familiar-looking little gray church on Plainville Road, and I realized that it was my grandmother’s church, where she’s been active for decades. I kept on driving, but looking at my watch, I figured she was probably in there getting ready for the worship service. I took a deep breath, turned the car around, pulled into the church parking lot, and went inside. How long since the last time I’d been inside that church? At least 25 years. I soon found her, and she gave me a huge hug and was proud to introduce me to her friends there. I stuck around for the service, and then we grabbed a bite to eat together afterwards. It was nice seeing her again, and for once I’m glad I listened to the little nagging voice that told me to turn the car around.

Eventually we had to say our goodbyes, and I made my way out to the airport to turn in the rental car and get checked in. Unlike the flight out there, the flight back was a living hell, the type of flight that reminds me why I hate flying so much. Two rows in front of me were three spoiled-rotten toddlers, who screamed non-stop the entire three hours I was on board that plane. It was with a huge sense of relief that I finally stepped off the plane, even if I was in Newark. My relief turned to dismay, though, when my baggage never showed up on the carousel, and I was informed that it was apparently never loaded onto the plane at CVG. About half the people on the flight had the same problem. Supposedly the baggage was put on a later flight and they’ll deliver my suitcase to my apartment sometime late tonight, but I’ll believe it when I see it. They said midnight, and it’s now 1:00 AM as I type this. Somebody remind me never to fly anywhere again, ever.

The obstensible reason for this trip was to attend the M.Arch. open house at the University of Cincinnati on Friday. Even aside from the chance to catch up with friends and family and to get my Skyline Chili fix, the event at UC was well worth the trip. I came away with lots of questions answered, and with UC now ranking among my top picks for grad school. Unfortunately, it looks like I’ll be delaying my application for another year while I finish my BA degree and get some money saved up, but I’m looking forward to sending them my application around this time next year. Assuming I get accepted and decide to enroll there, I’ll be moving back to Cincinnati around June of 2010, about 20 months from now.

I just hope New York City doesn’t drive me crazy in the meantime. Don’t get me wrong; I still love NYC with a passion. But it takes a certain type of person to live here for an extended period of time, and sometimes I question whether I’m that type of person or not. I’m rapidly reaching the point in my life where I need to pick a spot to settle down and sink some roots, and right now it’s looking like that place will either be New York or Cincinnati. Cincinnati has plenty of its own issues and problems, so I guess my task for the next 12 months is to decide which city is least likely to drive me crazy.

I Never Talk to Strangers

"There is no ocean, John. There is nothing beyond the city. The only place home exists is in your head."

The 1998 film Dark City, directed by Alex Proyas and starring Rufus Sewell, is one of my all-time favorite films, right up there with Blade Runner, 2001, and Pulp Fiction.

In the movie, John Murdoch (Sewell) wakes up in a seedy hotel room in a strange city where it is always night. He has no memory of who he is, where he is, or how he got there, but he knows that something isn’t right. He finds himself with an overwhelming desire to get to a place called Shell Beach, a sunny seaside hamlet that is presumably his hometown. It’s a place where he believes he can discover his true identity and find the answers to all the questions that bedevil him.

John spends a good portion of the movie trying to get to Shell Beach, while piecing together the clues about his identity and the nature of the city he’s in. Shell Beach appears in postcards and on billboards throughout the city, and it’s even shown on the subway map. Unfortunately, nobody can seem to remember how to actually get there, and the subway line to Shell Beach turns out to be an express train that blows through the station without stopping. Every supposed path to Shell Beach ends up going in circles or turns out to be a dead end.

Through a series of events, John ends up in contact with Dr. Schreber (Kiefer Sutherland), the one person who seems to know what’s going on. John forces Schreber at gunpoint to take him to Shell Beach, and is led through a desolate quarter of the city down a canal and then through a maze-like series of dark alleys and corridors. They come to a doorway and open it.

What first appears to be a bright blue sky and ocean beyond the door turns out to be just another Shell Beach billboard. It is at this moment when John faces the reality that there is no ocean, no daylight, no blue sky. Shell Beach is nothing more than a figment of his imagination.

“There is no ocean, John,” Dr Schreber explains. “There is nothing beyond the city. The only place home exists is in your head.”

I had an epiphany like that last Wednesday when, after a lot of research and soul-searching, I came to the realization that I most likely have Asperger’s Syndrome. While online quizzes and Wikipedia articles are no substitute for a professional diagnosis, my findings were consistent and conclusive, and I have no reason to doubt them. All the traits and symptoms fit me to a T, and the stories of other people on various support sites could have easily been my own life story. After years of trying, the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle finally fit together, and the picture it formed is both a relief and a curse. Looking back, I’m shocked that it has taken me this long to make all the connections. This isn’t a disease that needs to be cured or a defect that needs to be corrected, but it’s something that needs to be accepted and dealt with as I move on with my life.

So, what is Asperger’s? is a good starting point, and here’s what they say about it:

Asperger Syndrome (AS) is generally considered to be a form of autism. Unlike the more severe forms of autism, people with AS exhibit little or no impairments in their speech (at most a mild delay in early childhood). But like many people with autism, they have a level of intelligence at least in the average range and often in the above-average or even superior ranges. And as with all other forms of autism it is characterized by varying degrees of deficits in social interactions and non-verbal communications. More specifically, people with AS have difficulties, sometimes severe, in perceiving the world from the perspective of another person and in “picking up” on the social cues (facial expressions, bodily gestures, tone of voice, etc.) that constitute such a significant part of many human interactions. As a result, having AS can mean having great abilities or talents in certain areas, but can also mean never living independently, never holding down a job for any extended period of time, and perhaps never even enjoying an intimate relationship. At the very least, it often means being an outcast and even subject to victimization in school, in the workplace, and in personal life.

(Full article here.)

Some common traits of Asperger’s:

Difficulty reading the social and emotional messages in the eyes: Those with AS don’t look at eyes often, and when they do, they can’t read them.

Check. I remember meeting a woman in a bar last year, and within the first five minutes of our conversation, she asked me why I wasn’t making eye contact with her. That thought had never even occurred to me, but I realized she was right. Unfortunately, sometimes I end up overcompensating for this, and my eye contact gets interpreted as a stalker-like glare. For whatever reasons, I find it almost impossible to maintain a happy middle ground between these extremes.

Making literal interpretation: AS individuals have trouble interpreting colloquialisms, sarcasm, and metaphors.

Check. I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve misinterpreted somebody’s joke or smart-ass remark. Oh, you really don’t have a bridge in Brooklyn to sell me? My bad. (Oddly enough, though, I’m sarcastic as hell when it comes to my own sense of humor.)

Being considered disrespectful and rude: Prone to egocentric behavior, individuals with Asperger’s miss cues and warning signs that this behavior is inappropriate.

Check. Although I can usually handle myself in social situations nowadays, or at least manage not to look like a complete ass, I find myself having to make a very deliberate effort at things that seem to come naturally to most other people. I was born without a social filter, so I have a tendency to either say what’s on my mind or (more likely) not say anything at all. Read on:

Honesty and deception: Children with Asperger’s are often considered “too honest,” and may even proclaim themselves to be “honest” or “frank” as a way of explaining their behavior. They have difficulty being deceptive, even at the expense of hurting someone’s feelings.

Check. I’m incapable of lying or deception, no matter how much there might be a need for it. Not that I’ve never tried, but I suck at it. By the same token, I generally assume that other people are always being honest and truthful with me, and it’s always a big shock to my system when that turns out not to be the case.

Inadequate nonverbal communication: their facial expressions, hand gestures, and other forms of body language, are usually limited.

Check. My intentions have been misinterpreted so many times that I seem to have developed a perpetual poker face in response, an Invisible Anti-Intimacy Force Field™, and it can only be deactivated by a select few who have earned the proper security clearance. If somebody tries to breach it without authorization, my internal defenses instantly go into red alert, and my IAIFF™ automatically activates an additional layer of armor plating. (I used to be much less picky about who I gave security clearance to, but after a few people with less-than-noble intentions got past the IAIFF™ and did lots of damage, I had to tighten up my security protocols a bit.)

If you’re reading this blog, you’ll note that I have a much easier time communicating via the written word, and it should come as no surprise that a significant portion of my social interaction takes place in chat rooms, instant message windows, and on various online discussion forums. Whenever I’ve developed romantic feelings for somebody online, things always seem to go fine until we actually meet face-to-face.

Becoming aware of making social errors: As children with Asperger’s mature, and become aware of their inability to connect, their fear of making a social mistake, and their self-criticism when they do so, can lead to social phobia.

Check. If you really want to torture me, just throw me into the middle of a party full of strangers and tell me to “mingle” for a while. Sometimes I get lucky and engage in some decent conversation if I meet the right person, but more likely I end up going home even more lonely and depressed than I was when I showed up.

Better yet, find a way to put me on the spot and watch me squirm. A couple years ago I was at a bar with some people I barely knew from my health club, and it turned out to be Karaoke Night at that particular bar. Oh, joy.

A couple people from our group took turns at the microphone and generally made jackasses of themselves before somebody had the brilliant idea that I should go up and do a song. They may as well have asked me to shove a sharp pencil through my left eyeball, which incidentally, I would have gladly done rather than sing karaoke.

I resisted, but of course that only fueled their desire to see me up there. When it became apparent to me that these assholes weren’t going to drop the idea, I finally got up from the table and walked toward the microphone, with my group wildly cheering me on behind me. I kept on walking, past the microphone and out the front door, got on a bus, and went home. I never spoke to any of those people again.

Differences in speech: They display less speech intonation than neurotypical persons. Their speech may be perceived as “flat.” However, those with AS also possess superficial fluency in day-to-day conversation.

Check, sort of. If I’m talking to people that I’m comfortable with (usually the same people who have gained security clearance to bypass my Invisible Anti-Intimacy Force Field™) about subjects that interest me, I seem to do just fine. Many other times, though, I generally sound about as emotional as Stephen Hawking giving a lecture about particle physics.

A sense of paranoia: Because of their inability to connect, persons with Asperger’s have trouble distinguishing the difference between the deliberate or accidental actions of others, which can in turn lead to a feeling of paranoia.

Check. Many times I feel like I was born with a third eye in the middle of my forehead, but for some reason everybody else can see it except for me. Although people are usually too polite to mention anything about it directly to me, they always talk about it amongst themselves whenever my back is turned, and it’s always on their mind whenever they’re forced to interact with me. See that group of attractive women at that table over there? The ones laughing and giggling? They’re talking about me and my third eye. And that friend of mine who declined my Facebook friend request or never responded to my message? She actually hates people with third eyes, but doesn’t want to hurt my feelings by saying so. I just know it.

Managing conflict: Being unable to understand other points of view can lead to inflexibility and an inability to negotiate conflict resolution. Once the conflict is resolved, remorse may not be evident.

Bullshit. That paragraph is wrong, and I’m right! End of discussion.

Sense of humor: Although jokes can be grasped at an intellectual level, the emotional worth of humor is not appreciated. Smiles and laughter may appear unnatural with some people with AS.

I actually have a pretty healthy sense of humor, but I find humor in unusual places and situations. The more absurd the better, which is probably why I love shows like South Park, Seinfeld, and Monty Python. That stupid pun you made? I’m not impressed. But a goose and a toddler fighting each other in a boxing ring, with spectators placing bets on the outcome? That would be fucking hilarious.

Awareness of hurting the feelings of others: A lack of empathy often leads to unintentionally offensive or insensitive behaviors.

Check. Although it’s rarely deliberate (and if it is, there will be no question about it), I’ve no doubt left a long trail of bruised egos and hurt feelings in my wake. Most of my lessons in interpersonal relationships have been learned the hard way, and I’m sure I still have many more lessons to learn. It’s not that I don’t have empathy; it’s just that I have a very hard time showing it.

Repairing someone’s feelings: Lacking intuition about the feelings of others, people with AS have little understanding of how to console someone or how to make them feel better.

Check. My close friends know that I’m a good listener and that I’m always willing to hear what’s bothering them, and sometimes I can even offer practical advice on whatever problems they’re having, but I’ve never really been good with the whole consolation thing. I’m trying, though.

Recognizing signs of boredom: Inability to understand other people’s interests can lead AS persons to be inattentive to others. Conversely, people with AS often fail to notice when others are uninterested.

Check, although I’m getting better about this one. I used to talk people’s ear off about things only I found interesting, but I think I’m getting better about cutting myself off when the other person obviously isn’t interested. That’s not to say I still don’t occasionally slip into old habits, though.

Reciprocal love and grief: Since people with AS have difficulty emotionally, their expressions of affection and grief are often short and weak.

Check. Affection and physical touch are difficult issues for me. If I’m being touched by somebody I have feelings of affection for, I generally can’t get enough of it, but I’m very clumsy and awkward when it comes to initiating physical contact. For people I don’t have feelings of affection for (and this includes the vast majority of people out there), I prefer not to be touched at all. I don’t mind a handshake or maybe even a quick hug, but anything else will probably rub me the wrong way.

In romantic relationships, I live in mortal fear of making an advance and being rejected, so I usually end up playing it safe by simply never making any advances. On the very rare occasion when I’ve made the first move, it’s usually ended up being very forced and awkward.

The good news is, each time a relationship successfully advances to the next level of physical intimacy, I can usually maintain that same level of intimacy without too much trouble. For example, early in my relationship with my first girlfriend, the simple act of holding her hand represented a huge step for me, and I had a very hard time trying to get to that point. Once we got to that point, though, I never had a problem holding her hand afterwards.

Sex, though, is something I struggle with a great deal. Later in that same relationship, we had a date in which I came over to her place for dinner, and then we cuddled together on her sofa to watch a movie. After the movie, we began making out. So far so good, as we had done this a few times before and I always enjoyed it.

This was probably the heaviest we had ever made out to that point, and I was horny as hell. Problem was, I had no idea if she wanted to go “all the way” that evening or not, and I really had no clue how to find out. I soon found myself having a full-blown panic attack there on her sofa, as my heart began pounding and all the oxygen was sucked out of the room. I’m not sure what I was more afraid of: That she wanted to have sex and I was going to disappoint her by not performing well enough (or at all), or that she didn’t want sex and I was going to ruin the relationship by attempting to go for it against her wishes. Nothing happened, and I ended up going home and taking a cold shower that evening. To this day I have no idea what my girlfriend was thinking, and by the time it occurred to me that I should have just asked her, the moment was long gone. I do fine when the boundaries are clearly explained and understood, but I’m terrible when the rules are unclear.

Grief is a bit more difficult. It’s not that I don’t ever feel grief, it’s just that I’ve usually done a pretty good job of keeping it bottled up inside me. When I let it out, it’s usually in private. I always attributed that to my classically British stiff-upper-lip family background, but maybe there’s more to the story. When my paternal grandfather died in 1993, I didn’t shed a tear until a year or two later, and then only when it was triggered by something completely unrelated. At that point, I sobbed for hours.

Lack of participation in chitchat: They are not generally interested in, and do not participate in idle chat and gossip.

Check. Sorry, hair stylist, but I’m just not interested in discussing the weather with you. Sorry, taxi driver, but I’d much prefer to look out the window and not engage you in inane banter. Sorry, roommate, but I really don’t give a flying fuck about the Giants game. Sorry, date, I’ve tried my best, but we can only fill so much time talking about what was on TV last night.

Preference of routine: They prefer routine work, and are not able to cope well to changes, even small ones. Such disruptions from routine can cause stress and anxiety.

Check. I have a daily and a weekly routine, and although it has a certain amount of built-in flexibility and isn’t carved in stone, I find myself getting upset if that routine somehow gets disrupted. My morning cup of coffee while reading the New York Times, stopping to grab another cup of coffee on the way to work, taking a short walk outside during my lunch break, sleeping in on Saturdays, my Sunday brunch at Le Monde, my glass of sherry on Sunday evenings: These are all little things that, as long as I can keep them up, somehow assure me that things are right with my world. If I move to a new city or these routines somehow get altered, I always feel a bit off-kilter until they’re re-established or until I develop new ones.

Coping with criticism: People with AS are compelled to correct mistakes, even when they are made by someone in a position of authority, such as a teacher. For this reason, they can be unwittingly offensive.

Check. This used to get me in trouble all the time at my last job, where my bosses took any correction as a direct threat to their authority. Luckily I’m now at a job where my input is welcomed and encouraged, and I’ve developed a reputation for being sort of a quality control guru. I can’t turn in any work unless I’m confident that it’s flawless, and in written communications, I generally regard sloppy grammar and spelling as crimes against humanity.

Speed and quality of social processing: Because they respond through reasoning and not intuition, AS individuals tend to process social information more slowly than the norm, leading to uncomfortable pauses or delays in response.

Check. I can’t always get my mouth to say what my brain is telling it to say. I can rehearse entire, drawn-out conversations in my head in which I perfectly articulate all the things that are on my mind, but when it comes time for me to have such a conversation in real life, I usually end up freezing and stammering.

In addition to the traits listed above, many Aspies have a very low tolerance for intense light sources or sudden, loud noises. I know I certainly do: I prefer low light levels at home and generally prefer overcast days to bright sunlight.

When it comes to sound, I love steady sounds such as rainfall, the ocean, subway train motors, or air conditioners (in fact, I find it almost impossible to sleep without some sort of background white noise such as a box fan), but I have a hard time dealing with very sudden or abrupt noises such as banging pots and pans. I also find it impossible to follow a conversation if there’s a lot of background noise, such as at a loud bar or party.

The other night I was riding the subway home, and the guy sitting across the aisle from me was subconsciously tapping his fingers on the metal grab bar… It just about drove me up the wall, and I probably would have moved to the next car if my stop hadn’t been coming up shortly.

Right now my roommate is closely following college basketball games on TV, and I’ve been trying to figure out why I loathe basketball with a passion that passes all human understanding. I’m now pretty sure it has something to do with the squeaking of the players’ shoes against the polished wood floor of the court, the crowd cheering and yelling, the referee’s whistle, and the loud buzzer that sounds periodically throughout the game. All those sounds are like fingernails on a chalkboard to me, and they make me want to throw a brick through the television whenever my roomie has a game on.

One of the most significant Aspie traits is that we tend to have obsessive interests in various subjects; anything from trains, fire engines, Latin, church liturgy, books, deep fat fryers, you name it. I’ve had a number of such interests that have come and gone over the years, but there are a few particularly strong ones that I’ve had forever, and they never seem to go away.

When I was a kid, I was designing stuff left and right: Buildings, trains, sailboats, space ships and space stations. Other kids would play with Transformers or G.I. Joe action figures; I’d be designing my 27th dream house. Now I’m in the architecture business and I design buildings for a living, so I guess I can’t really call it a hobby anymore. Architecture has lost a bit of its novelty since I started doing it for a living, but I still enjoy it most of the time, and I can’t imagine doing anything else. Ask me to solve a difficult design problem, or put me out on a construction site, and I’m like a kid in a candy store.

In a somewhat related vein, I’m fascinated by how cities develop and grow, urban infrastructure, and comparisons between cities. Give me a chance, and I’ll bore you to death about the symbiotic relationship between New York and Chicago.

I also love trains, especially electric passenger trains such as subways. I love learning about the trains themselves, as well as the infrastructure that supports them. I can identify every class of subway car on the NYC subway system, and I can tell you all about the differences between the former IRT, BMT, and IND systems. Always the life of the party.

Like our friend John back in Dark City, I’ve been spending my entire time in this world looking for clues, trying to find out why I’m different, and getting frustrated when none of the paths I take to find my own Shell Beach ever seem to work.

I never gave up hope that I would eventually get things sorted out. I just needed to find the right job, finish my degree, marry the right woman, move to the right city, wear the right clothes, put on the right cologne, and somehow everything would fall into place and I could live the normal, well-adjusted life that most other people make look so easy.

Now I’m standing there in front of the wall, finally aware that there is no Shell Beach, no special place that feels like home, no magic solution that will make everything right. Like it or not, this is a permanent part of me and it isn’t going to go away. I can’t go home because I’m already there, and always have been.

So, how do I feel about all this?

On one hand, I’m feeling a great deal of anger, resentment, and sadness that I’ve pissed away 32 years of my life trying in vain to “fit in” and “be normal”, and feeling that my social awkwardness and lack of empathy were the result of some sort of moral failure on my part… Only to now discover that this is who I really am, and it isn’t going to change. My issues were plainly visible to my parents and all my teachers, but nobody lifted a finger to find out what the deal was. For 32 years I’ve been told by well-meaning but clueless people that, “You’re just shy,” or “Just be yourself,” or “Things will work themselves out when you’re ready.” I’ve been constantly whipped, beaten, bullied, and shunned for being different, and I’ve been made to feel like I have some sort of horrible character flaw for being socially awkward, not showing the proper amount of empathy, or neglecting my schoolwork in favor of exploring my interests. More than one potential girlfriend has told me that I give off the vibe of a stalker or serial killer. Hearing that on a first date certainly does wonders for the self-confidence, especially when you’ve heard it so many times before.

On the other hand, it’s a huge relief to feel like I’ve finally put enough of the jigsaw puzzle together to have some clue about what makes me tick, and I’ve already found some great support sites online that seem to be full of interesting people I can actually relate to. It gives me hope that I can find some like-minded people to build a community with, and maybe find somebody to share the rest of my life with. Imagine being a foreigner in a strange country your entire life, having different customs, speaking a different language, and never fitting in despite your best efforts. Then, out of the blue, you stumble into a neighborhood in some forgotten corner of the city where everybody speaks your language and shares your culture. It may not be home, but at least it’s a safe place.

Looking back, many of my closest friends over the years have been people who also show at least a few Aspie traits, and who went through similar nightmares while growing up. It shouldn’t have been that way. Nobody should have to grow up feeling like they’re alone in this world.

The good news is that Dark City has a happy ending, and John discovers that he has the ability to create Shell Beach on his own terms. I guess I’ll have to do likewise.

The Next Move

So, with my epic move to Bennett Avenue finally wrapped up, it’s time to look ahead to where I might find myself living this time next year. My lease runs through August 2009, and where I go from there is anybody’s guess right now. There’s a few options on the table, ranging from maintaining the status quo here in NYC to heading back home to Cincinnati.

Right now I have a decent job that pays well, I finally have a stable housing situation, I’m taking on additional responsibilities with the Acolyte Guild at the cathedral, and I still have a mountain of debt to pay off. As such, I’m giving some consideration to putting off grad school for another year while I finish my BA degree, pay off my debts, build up some savings, and clean up my credit report. This would put me in a much better position to afford grad school when the time comes, but then, I’ve been wanting to start my M.Arch. degree for a long time now and I’m not getting any younger.

If, however, I decide to go ahead and apply to M.Arch. programs this fall, I’ll most likely be applying to the following six schools, listed here in no particular order: City College, Columbia, Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and the University of Cincinnati.

City College is my “safety” pick, it would be by far the most affordable option, and I wouldn’t need to move again. Columbia would also allow me to stay put, although getting accepted there is far from certain, and being able to afford it is even less certain.

Yale and Princeton are both within a 90-minute train ride of NYC, but given the workload I’d be under, commuting wouldn’t be an option and I’d have to move to either Connecticut or New Jersey. Princeton in particular is a long shot, as they have a very small program and admit only a few people each year, but I figure it’s worth applying there anyway.

Harvard would probably be my top choice in terms of the quality of the program, but my last choice in terms of where I’d prefer to live. But if they’re willing to admit me — and especially if they’re willing to throw me some scholarship money — I’m sure I could learn to deal with Boston again for a few years.

That brings us to the University of Cincinnati.

Ever since high school I’ve had some sort of on-again-off-again interest in UC’s architecture program. I grew up in the Cincinnati area, I still have lots of family there, and I’ve watched the UC campus re-invent itself over the years, so the place already feels like my backyard.

UC’s distinguishing characteristic is their co-op program, in which students alternate quarters between full-time study in Cincinnati and full-time employment anywhere in the world. Back in 2005 I was considering UC for my M.Arch., but decided not to apply because I was: A) unsure how much the co-op thing would really do for me, given that I already have several years worth of experience in the architecture business, and B) wondering if I’d be freaked out living in Cincinnati again for the first time since I was ten years old, after so much time living in much larger and more progressive cities.

Fast forward to 2008, and UC is back on my mind again, for the following main reasons:

At some point in my life I’ll need to sink some roots and start a practice. I could do that here in NYC, I could do it in Cincinnati, or I could do it elsewhere. The co-op program would allow me to get a foot in the door pretty much anyplace I choose. I could alternate quarters between studying in Cincinnati and working full-time here in NYC (possibly even at my current firm), or allow me to test the waters in more exotic places such as Los Angeles or London. If I decide to practice in Cincinnati, I wonder if it might be easier to be a big fish in a small pond, rather than just another minnow in the ocean.

Maybe it’s because I just signed a lease for a cramped Manhattan studio for the same rent that would allow me to live like a king in Cincinnati, but quality of life and cost of living issues have been on my mind a lot lately. Living in NYC is great for a few years when you’re in your 20’s and early 30’s, and I still love NYC with a passion, but as I get older I’m wondering how much longer I’ll be willing to put up with all the daily stress of living here. As much as I love the city life, I miss having a car and being able to hear crickets outside my window at night. I think I’m starting to reach the point in my life where peace and quiet is more important to me than being in the middle of the action. Cincinnati is nice in that it offers a wide variety of housing options and neighborhood types within a short distance of downtown and the UC campus, all for peanuts compared to NYC’s cost of living.

Finally, I still have lots of family in the area. My parents currently live in North Carolina, but plan to move back to Cincinnati when they retire in a couple years. None of them are getting any younger and a couple of family members are starting to deal with serious health issues, so part of me wouldn’t mind being closer to home and reconnecting with my roots there.

Maybe it’s just a passing phase I’m going through in response to having my home life upended for so long, but I’ve been feeling pretty homesick for Cincinnati lately. I’ve lived in so many places that no matter where I live, I’m bound to suffer periodic bouts of homesickness for some other place. At various times in my life I’ve been homesick for Cincinnati, Jacksonville, Chicago, Philadelphia, Oregon, and New York. Sometimes that’s prompted me to pack up my bags and move to that given place; other times I just grit my teeth and see if it passes. This is something I suspect I’ll be cursed with for the rest of my life.

That said, out of all the places I’ve longed to move to, Cincinnati has the distinction of being the city I was born in, the city I spent my early childhood in, and the city where most of my extended family still lives. Despite all its many faults, Cincinnati is where my roots are, and every trip back there always brings back lots of old memories. Moving away to North Carolina in 1984 was an incredibly traumatic experience for me; at that point in my life I was being forced to leave behind the only world I had ever known, and sometimes I wonder if I’ve ever really gotten over that experience. Maybe I’m reaching a point in my life where I’ve had my fill of moving around all the time, and I find myself ready to come back home for a while. Maybe I’ve been moving to places like Philadelphia and NYC in search of something that can only be found back home…. Or maybe not. Who knows.

I’m committed to staying in New York City through August of next year, and I’m fine with that. Despite the occasional frustrations of living here, the city has been pretty good to me so far, and I’m not willing to move away just yet. In the meantime, I’ve decided to take another trip back home next month so that I can attend UC’s open house on October 17th. At the very least, it will give me an opportunity to get my Skyline Chili fix.

Stay tuned…


Well, I finally did it. After spending the last two weeks of August flat broke and in a constant state of near-panic, I’ve finally gotten myself more-or-less settled into my own modest studio apartment in a quiet corner of Manhattan’s Hudson Heights neighborhood. With that, all my earthly belongings are now finally back under the same roof for the first time since June of last year. Let’s take a moment to recap this whole year-long moving process:

June 2007: Pack up my apartment in Chicago, and move most things into a nearby storage facility. The bare essentials will travel in the Jeep with me to New York, and I’ll have to come back for the rest of my stuff later. Travel to NYC, and get settled into a dorm room at Columbia while enrolled in the summer architecture studio.

July 2007: End up selling the Jeep for less than a third of what I was hoping to get for it. I guess that’s what happens when you try to sell a V8 Grand Cherokee while gas prices are skyrocketing. Meanwhile, begin searching frantically for a more permanent place to live in NYC.

August 2007: Move out of dorm room without having another housing situation lined up yet. Spend a few nights in a friend’s spare bedroom in Chinatown before subletting a co-worker’s studio apartment in Harlem for the remainder of the month. Continue looking for housing.

September 2007: Move into a share situation in the Bushwick neighborhood in Brooklyn. The neighborhood leaves a lot to be desired and the roommate has some OCD issues, but vow to grit teeth and tolerate it until I can get my own place.

Later in the month, fly back to Chicago and rent a moving truck to pick up the rest of my stuff. About half of it will go into the apartment in Bushwick, while the other half will go right back into storage elsewhere in Brooklyn.

March 2008: Quietly begin building up anger and resentment toward roommate as his OCD and lack of consideration threaten to send me into a rage on multiple occasions. Somehow manage to bite my tongue and keep the peace for the next several months.

May 2008: Begin saving money for my own apartment when roommate informs me that he’d like me to move out by the end of August.

June 2008: Break a molar during lunch break one day, and watch as the summer’s apartment savings end up going towards emergency dental bills.

July 2008: Start seriously looking for no-fee apartments, determined not to end up back in another roommate situation. Eventually come across a smallish studio in Hudson Heights that, while far from perfect, is at least in a decent building in a much better neighborhood, with a much shorter commute. Spend the next few days scraping together every last penny to put down a deposit for it.

August 2008: After a few tense days waiting to hear back about whether I’ve been approved or not, make arrangements to hand over yet more money, sign the lease, and pick up the keys.

With no money left in the bank and the roommate demanding an unusually hefty sum for the final utility bill, paying for the actual move becomes a major challenge. Begin the slow process of moving by carrying a few things each day to the new apartment on the subway. Over the course of a week, this turns into a pretty good amount of stuff. This becomes my first move in which a healthy percentage of my household is transported via subway train.

Without enough money to do the proper thing and rent a Penske truck, end up renting a Ford Escape through Zipcar for a few hours and spend a Saturday evening getting as much stuff as possible out of the apartment in Bushwick and into the new place. Not everything fits, but it’s enough that I can now start sleeping at the new apartment. Meanwhile, beg a friend from the cathedral for the use of his own Jeep Grand Cherokee for moving the rest of my stuff.

Thursday, August 28th: Load up the rest of the stuff from the apartment in Bushwick. Turn in keys to roommate, along with post-dated check for the utilities.

Friday, August 29th: Make first trip from storage facility in Ridgewood.

Saturday, August 30th: Make second and final trip from storage facility. At this point the move is officially complete, although there’s still lots of unpacking and assembly left to do. Remainder of day Saturday is spent returning the favor to my friend by driving with him up to White Plains to pick up two pieces of furniture from Crate & Barrel, and helping him move the pieces into his 5th floor walk-up apartment.

First week of September 2008: Put a stop payment order on the check for the utilities when I do some research and discover my ex-roommate has been charging me for his own landline phone service for the past year. Send a new check in a much smaller amount to former roommate, along with a sternly-worded letter explaining my actions. Wait for shit to hit the fan, but try to remain calm in the knowledge that there’s not much he can really do about it at this point, short of pulling me into a dark alley and beating the crap out of me (which still wouldn’t get him the money). Luckily, he doesn’t know my new address, and there aren’t many dark alleys in Manhattan.

I’ve now been living in the new place for about a month, and things are going reasonably well. For the most part, my stuff is unpacked and the apartment pretty much feels like a real home instead of a self-storage locker filled with boxes and disassembled furniture. There are still a few odds and ends to get set up, but nothing critical. My commute is much shorter and more direct than before, and while I can still occasionally hear some obnoxious street noise from Broadway, it’s a tiny fraction of what I had to put up with every night in Brooklyn. So far I haven’t had any issues with noisy neighbors; as opposed to the ghetto trash and douchebag hipsters out in Bushwick, this neighborhood is mainly middle-class professionals and some Orthodox Jewish families. I’d much rather be in a one-bedroom apartment and able to sleep on a real bed instead of a futon, but I keep reminding myself that I’m not in a position to be very picky about my housing options right now. The one-bedroom apartment will have to wait a while longer.

Hurry Up and Wait

Well, my direct deposit didn’t go through last night like I was expecting, which means I can’t move this weekend. My firm’s payroll department is never consistent about when direct deposits get posted, especially if the payday falls on or near a weekend, but the last time the 15th fell on a Friday (back in February), the money was available the next day. So I’ve had to call the landlord and re-schedule the lease signing until Monday (I need to have a certified check for the security deposit), and I’ve re-scheduled my truck rental for next weekend.

I could move on Monday, but that would mean having to take a day off from work and probably having nobody to help me. In the meantime, I’m flat-broke and have no groceries, so it looks like I’ll be eating ramen noodles today and tomorrow… And this means I’ll have to put up with my roommate for another week.

I don’t know if I should be blaming my firm’s finance people, their payroll service, their bank, or my own bank, but whoever’s fault this is, I’m pretty pissed.

Just once, I’d like to have a move go smoothly with no major fuck-ups….