Panning the Sands


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 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 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 fuck 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 /

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 that 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 their red tail lights. If they 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 them. 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 alongside 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 blown its transmission 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 1990’s, but a determined effort by conservationists led to the area being designated a wilderness area by Congress. Today, it stands as one of the largest intact old-growth rainforests 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. Then 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 /

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 shithole apartment, leaving only the essentials riding in a 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.


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.


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.

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.

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 (, 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.

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.