Dec 29, 2017

five years

Towards the end of December, 2012, I graduated with my masters degree. Immediately after the last round of thesis presentations, there was a party of bottom shelf sparkling wine, crackers, cheese, and a few cases of beer. I remember slipping onto the quiet, snow covered porch of the architecture building, looking into the frigid St. Louis sky and regretfully thinking that I was at a kind of peak in my life. It was. I had worked harder than I had ever worked before, I had delivered a stellar academic performance, and I had discovered some unique things about my relationship to architecture and the world. Like an Olympic athlete, there was one target, a clear path, and it was just a matter of doing it and pushing myself, as if the rest of the world didn't matter. It’s a luxury, with a steep cost.

Of course, it's all artificial. I doubt I'll ever have that experience again if single-minded pursuit of intellectual excellence, especially within the confines of academia. There is a real world beyond the curriculum- debts to pay, relationships to cultivate, a world to experience, a life to lead. While there aren't as many hard deadlines as in school, every new white hair and wrinkle reminds me that there are plenty of soft ones. Five years ago, I remember feeling a little lost and more than a little burned out.

In the the five years since then, I have had a remarkable time.
Professionally, I worked in five different offices. Two of them used languages other than English as the common practice. I resigned three times. Between Mexico and Portland, I watched my wages rise tenfold plus (although I was making only a few hundred dollars a month in Mexico). I honed my skills as a graphic designer with intensive competition work in one office in Germany, and the typical high standard construction details in another. I learned about apartment buildings, hospitals, and schools. I participated in a radical renovation of an 18th century tavern, and watched ancient wooden beams and structural columns get repaired and integrated into a wholly new program. I went from an intern to a job captain, running my own meetings with consultants.

I learned German, and took months of classes. I delved into the rich world of Mexican food and history, and awakened a passion for cooking and food culture.

I returned to Saint Louis to walk in my graduation ceremony, and celebrated with family and friends.

There were some weddings.
Saori's old school friend from Tokyo got married to a Frenchman. We took the TGV to Paris and celebrated with them in mind-meltingly swanky Parisian style, surrounded by champagne.
Our dear friend and classmate Dew got married. We went to Japan and joined their farm wedding including a night bunking in the “gaijin” cabin, outdoor roasting and feasting, and joined the crop circle where the principal architect from Klein Dytham married him to the farmer’s daughter.  
My mom remarried, to a lawyer from Gainesville, Florida whom she had met while at school there. Tay and I went to her wedding along with Larry's sons. They had a lovely and small ceremony followed by dinner at the Royal Palms for the ten or so of us.

I got married. Three times. Once in Japan, in a way, where the Shinto priest asked for blessings on our common house, once in Louisiana with family and a big ceremony and celebration, and once in Portland, before a judge. My wife and I planned it with considerable financial and logistical support from my family, especially my mom and uncle. We celebrated outside of New Orleans with a large group of family and friends who traveled across the country and in some cases, across the world, to be there. We were wed in front of the mantlepiece of my uncle's Tracy's house, by my uncle David. Then we got legally married in Portland a few days later because Louisiana wouldn't grant us a marriage license. Two former classmates took a long lunch from their architecture jobs, and served as our witnesses at the county courthouse.

I traveled a lot. Mexico City, Puebla, and a scattering of remote and picturesque villages in the jungly mountains in central Mexico. Saori and I saw a lot of Europe together- Munich, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Paris, London, Barcelona, Porto, Rome. Venice, where we caught the famed architecture biennale. Ski trips in Austria and Germany. In the US, I spent a lot of time in Houston, Phoenix, and Atlanta, with short trips to Indianapolis, Tucson, Albuquerque, Austin, San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Raleigh-Durham, and St. Louis. One new years, I flew up to Indianapolis to celebrate with Taylor, and we road tripped down to Ponca City the next day, even as he was grossly hungover. We got to grandma Betty’s house after dark, but she was beyond excited to see us. We celebrated her birthday taking her out to our favorite Ponca restaurant.

I lost my grandmother- Betty became suddenly very ill and weak not so long after that visit, but I was able to chat with her a bit via Skype before she slipped away. Cutting short a visit from my dad, I flew from Stuttgart to Oklahoma City and drove to Ponca with Larry for the funeral. I was one of the pallbearers.

We spent a lot of time, money, and energy simply moving residences. In five years I lived, full-time, in eight residences, not even including the several weeks I crashed at Saori’s waiting for my rental room when I first moved to Stuttgart. When Saori moved to Germany, we packed up the Saint Louis apartment, sold the rest, and threw it in a storage unit by the St.Louis airport. Saori took off, and I drove across the US back to Phoenix, where I sold the car, too, and caught a flight to Mexico. In Germany, we built back up from scratch for a few years, and then sold back down to a few suitcases, a chair, and about $1000 of DHL shipping costs for the giant cardboard boxes we sent back across the Atlantic. After finding an apartment in Portland, I flew to St.Louis, unloaded the storage unit into a uhaul, unloaded the uhaul into a shipping pod, loaded the shipping pod contents back into a uhaul, and unloaded the uhaul into our house in Portland.

In addition to cooking, I got more into plants, first orchids, then succulents and cacti, and now all types of houseplants, and reaching into the yard with perennials and grasses.
I found out I am going to become a father- which sharpened my focus and shaped the direction of the jobs and the lifestyle I searched for in the US.

In many ways, Saori and I are exhausted- five years of whirlwind, of struggle every day with both foreign languages and cultures, but also the rootlessness and restlessness. What we both really want is some stability, a fixed home, to establish ourselves, to know we’re building something. I’ve heard babies are exhausting, and will fundamentally change our lives- but it’s a different kind of exhausting than flinging our time, energy, and resources out into the world in the way we’ve been doing it for the past few years- it’s investing in where we are, in our family, and in ourselves.

Dec 27, 2017

Holidays 2017

We bought a small tree the day after Christmas. Picked up a little 3’ Noble fir from Fred Meyer and carried it home by hand. Saori put A Charlie Brown Christmas on Spotify, and decorated the tree, almost entirely ornaments from Germany. Saori is in her third trimester, and while people tell us Saori still looks so small, we both know wildbad will triple in size before she is born. She's more tired than usual- in addition to the energy drain for the production of another human being, other things they don't tell you about pregnancy is that mom wakes up multiple times during the night even before the baby is born.

Shortly after thanksgiving, Saori used mom’s early christmas present to us, a KitchenAid stand mixer, to whip up several batches of her Springerle cookies, which she traded away for macaroons, peanut butter cookies, cardamom cookies, etc. at holiday cookie swap at the nearby house of a woman Saori went to school with in Finland.

We had the first BRIC office party in mid-December, in a swanky community room of one of the neighboring glass condo towers / tech frat-houses. It was really fun: mediocre Italian buffet, open bar with wine, party games. There was a contest for best festive attire and Saori and I were surprised to win! I think they saw Saori's bump with a ribbon, and thought ok, got to give it to her. Our grand prize was a star wars waffle maker, which makes Stormtrooper-shaped waffles.

It's not a great time for her to travel, to schlep baggage through crowded airports, and spend stressful hours in uncomfortable chairs. So family came to us. Tay and Mom and Larry all flew up here for a few days. I shared a google doc, and everyone contributed to the agenda. We had everything from StarWars to driving to see Christmas lights. To avoid impact on us, mom got an AirBnB in north Portland, not far from the plant shop Solabee and the quirky Mississippi avenue stretch.

It was a typical Portland bungalow- Craftsman style, and Portland decorated. The couple that owned it had really bizarre taste, or simply couldn't curate what they had. Lots of plants everywhere, and a really cosy living room with a big monstera. No TV, no microwave, and a lot of odd doors, drawers, and odds and ends. We stayed there Christmas Eve and opened presents Christmas morning, bright and early. Amazingly, it snowed when they arrived to take us over Christmas Eve day, and then it all froze.

We ate well, the first night they were in town we hit up Higgins, which was an early adopter of the local, seasonal gourmet food concept. Excellent, surprising food. Friday night, I cooked chicken enchiladas and Saori made a salad, Saturday we ate out again at the County Cat (cute, open, highly rated, and a slight let down, although my duck was great). For Christmas eve, we ended up making the fallback plan- Marie Callendar’s frozen lasagna which we’d picked up a night or two before. In the two hours it took for this red iceberg to thaw and cook, Saori also whipped up a very nice salad for us, and I prepared an STP (sticky toffee pudding). Christmas morning after present-opening, I also whipped up some pancakes.

As for activities, we didn’t end up doing much Portland sightseeing together- there was the obligatory stop by Nordstrom’s Rack, as well as several hours at Powell’s, a few hours of wandering along 23rd ave’s shopping district, and STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI, which was a lot of fun. We played a lot of cards, hit some coffee shops, threw back some bottles of local Pinot Noir, and right before they left all to the airport to catch delayed flights, we had a delightful hour of camp making fun of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves on our couch at home.

We never did see those christmas lights. Next year.

Dec 2, 2017

preppers

I proposed using Slack at the office and encouraged the staff and administration to support it, and most everyone now has it, although usage varies. The way Slack works, you can subscribe to different channels, which are basically topics or areas of concern, and everyone with a common email extension can write, post, share whatever on those channels. Not long after I set up a few logical ones, I discovered someone set up a "survival" channel. I joined it, because, hey, survival is generally a good thing.

Later in the day, Rachel, one of the other architects in office, bumped into me in the kitchen. "So," she said, nearly conspiritorially, "you're a Survialist?"

You may have heard about Portland's Big One. What seems clear from the data is that a broad swath of coastal Pacific NW from far northern California to the top of Washington state, is overdue for a massive earthquake. Oregon? Isn't California the one known for it's earthquakes? Precisely- tremors and small earthquakes occurring frequently to relieve the geologic tension as the seafloor of the pacific slides to the NW under the continental shelf. That same issue also affects the pacific northwest, although there have been a notable and alarming lack of earthquakes since records were kept in the area. Actually, the consensus is that about 320 years ago, there was one. A big one. The resulting shift of the coastal plate caused a tsunami in Japan. There's a pretty terrifying article which won a Pulitzer on it a few years back.

The big one is given a 15% to 20% chance of occurring in the next 50 years. If it hits at the expected intensity, the resultant tsunami will likely wipe Seaside and many other coastal towns off the map. In Portland, nearly every bridge over the river will fail, dividing Portland in half and the central power distribution will be completely destroyed. It is likely that many of the buildings will collapse given both the strength of the earthquake and the fact that most buildings in the area were built before there was any awareness of the risk. The estimation was it would take years for Portland to rebuild and recover.

So what's the response been? City of Portland has embarked on a slow retrofit of many public buildings, and large real-estate companies have also been proactive at adding additional bracing and steel construction. The office where I work is thankfully one story and was retrofitted for seismic loads. City of Portland also pushes a readiness campaign with pamphlets about stockpiling water and some food and keeping an emergency kit, but shies away from calling it a "massive earthquake kit." I've heard from some people that major companies downtown have emergency boats stashed away, ready to pull out as a means of escape to get back across the river.

The "survivalists" on the office Slack channel trade resources including emergency kits, and talk about forming an office committee to buy survival gear like boats. Some of the links shared take on a decidedly "prepper" overtones with an emphasis on dealing with issues of widespread social unrest primarily with personal firearms. Welcome to the laid back pacific northwest!

I've checked the maps, and our house is in an area that would not be affected by earth liquefaction. As a single story stick frame home, there will be a lot of stuff thrown around inside, but the walls and roofs are likely to hold and remain intact. If the big one hits, my major strategy is get the hell out as soon as the shaking stops. As soon as I can get to a car, getting on the road out of town seems like the best idea rather than wait for help to arrive. (Projections are it may take months to get potable water and sewage back on line). I have also started storing water, and assembling a survival kit. One of my biggest concerns is radio- what happens if the earthquake hits while I'm at work on the far side of the river? The cell phone and internet network goes down, the bridges go down. Five miles may as well be five thousand. So I'm looking at radios. Home is quite a bit elevated from downtown, so it may be within the theoretical line of sight.

Nov 8, 2017

The Tea Czar and the Patron Saint of Knives

Cities are made of webs of relationships between people. Sometimes there are people who are more central to the web, and others who make odd, erratic webs in the dark corners.

Monday, Saori changed her name on her social security card to reflect her married name. We were both delighted to discover that it was a relatively painless and quick process at the Social Security Administration center downtown, so she came up to my office to join me for lunch. I work in a strange part of town, where industrial-styled, overpriced condo towers are rocketing up next to empty lots, freeway flyovers and cloverleaves, and trendy boutiques and cafes are filling in formerly industrial buildings in a still heavily industrial neighborhood. We walked to Olympia Provisions, whose mainstay is actually sausages and smoked meats, although they put together obscenely brunchy menus and fantastic gourmet sandwiches. Next door, there is a small, black tea tasting shop called Steven Smith Teamaker.

Steven Smith is a common enough name- the personage behind it was a long time Portland entrepreneur in tea. This was actually his third venture. You may have heard of the first two: Stash Tea and Tazo Tea. Both of which he sold off (the latter to Starbucks) and started his business again. Apparently, he was known to sell teas himself in the shop in his later years before his relatively untimely death a few years ago at the age of 66.
...
Tonight, we joined our neighbor across the street for one of his regular cooking workshops. Tonight's students were light- just Saori and I, and Z, Z being a bright and precocious middle schooler with an anachronistic interest in cooking. Hector showed us how to make pan de muerto, the traditional bread from the day of the dead, from scratch, and we did it right there, served up with hot Champurrado and Mexican hot chocolate. Amazing stuff. It's striking to see a cook in action- for me a vivid reminder that recipes really only take you part way in the preparation of food when there is really so much in the technique. Hector didn't so much knead that bread dough as beat the crap out of it. Hector builds cabinets, paints interiors, and cooks professionally. Even with all that strength, he was still working up a serious sweat tearing into that dough. He joked semi-seriously, "when you are tired, you are half-way done." It was worth it- by far the best pan de muerto I've ever had (not that I've had much, mind.) but still light, fluffy, chewy, orangey, sweet.

Over the sliced bread and cups of rich Mexican chocolate, Hector and Z's father got into a discussion about knives. Z's father wanted to take his knives in to get professionally sharpened, and Hector was dead against it- he warned that professional sharpeners take machines to them and scratch the hell out of them. Some cheap knives you don't care about much, okay, maybe, but not the good ones. To that, Z's dad told us about the Patron Saint of Knives.

The first thing you should know about the Patron Saint of Knives is that you do not see the Patron Saint of Knives. If you wish to solicit his services, you contact him via his website and tell him what you have and what needs to be sharpend. PSoK then sends you instructions for payment and a locker number. You go to his house and on the front porch you find a bank of lockers with keys in the keyholes. You leave the knives in your assigned locker, take the key with you, and three days later, you return with the key and pick up your sharpened knives. The man apparently takes his service as an art form, grinding blades against whetstones by hand. And for all that, it's apparently fairly cheap.

Oct 29, 2017

stories from Portland

Thursday was a long day. After work, Saori met Jay and I to walk over the Portland Architecture Awards Jury critique. Jay is a project architect- about ten years older than I am, who after being laid off from a firm which was going through a round of downsizing, was snapped up by this company. For Saori, he really reminds her of Bill Murray- upbeat, always something to say. He was the one who picked up Saori and I drove us to the football game a few weeks prior. Anyway, Jay was the one who knew the event was going on, and Saori and I both jumped on board.
Three recognized and notable architects from San Francisco were tasked with judging a selection of about 25 works of architecture by Portland architects, and before the big gala reveal, there was a much more casual evening arranged to introduce the work and philosophy of the architects, and for them to discuss how they saw the state of architecture in Portland.
It was a burn. A sick burn.
There are preconceived notions of Oregonian architecture- woodsy, in tune with nature, high performative, humanistic, which the reviewers felt that what was actually being produced fell far short of expectations. They saw an architectural community which gave too much deference to developers and caution, and a tepid response to regional identity- architecture which simply had stylistic cues rather than really engaging the question of what it meant to design in Oregon. Worse, there was a refusal to either go strongly formalist or strongly utilitarian. The best things about Portland, the ruled, were actually established a century ago, and it was suggested Portlanders didn't now how good they had it. It was a fun session, with some free drinks. We ate at a cheap pho place nearby. Got home late.
I was out dragging our recycling bins to the curb around 11pm, when I was hailed by my neighbor across the street, Hector. Hector is from Mexico City- an artist/craftsman/cook with an interior designer wife and a young daughter. I had introduced myself a few weeks earlier, and he hopped across the street to say hello again. I ended up inviting him in for a beer, and the three of us (Saori came out from getting ready for bed) ended up sitting around chatting until about 1 am. He spontaneously invited us over for a light supper saturday.

Friday, I had a massive hangover. I'm getting older, I don't drink much, and those New Belgian Trippels are strong. But a good lunch an a few aspirin later, I was feeling better by the afternoon. Four pm, our landscape planner dropped by the office to leave some renderings for the client. After giving him a quick tour of the office, our project manager said "hey, it's friday, the end of our first week here, so let's grab a beer!" so the small group of us trooped across the street to Bridgeport Brewery for a pint. It was an odd group that afternoon- apart from me and the landscape consultant, there was Montana our project manager, Scott who specialized in theater design who with a flaming red beard and an affinity for flannel shirts could be the new face of Brawny paper towels, and Dan's (one of the principals) wife. Dan later caught up with us too, and caught the tab, which was nice of him.

After a round of beers, I caught Saori downtown and we shopped around together at the discount fashion stores: TJMaxx, Ross, Nordstrom Rack, before grabbing a Chiptole burrito together and heading home for the night.

This morning, we got out early and headed straight for Goose Hollow, a part of downtown tucked between the foothills of the mountains west of the city center. I'd picked out a cafe, Lovejoy bakery, where we got delicious coffee, and brunch. I got a fantastic bowl of cheesy grits with pulled spicy pork, poached egg, and jalapeno salsa, and Saori got the lemon poppy seed french toast. We had a sunny window seat.
After breakfast, we crossed the street and hiked up to the Japanese gardens. In most cities I've been to, the Japanese gardens are either entirely ignored (Phoenix) or tucked into an existing botanical park (Saint Louis). The Japanese gardens here have their own ticket building, which is necessary because they have long lines to get in. It was kind of crazy.
The garden was beautiful. A collection of fantastic buildings, paths, and gardens. We bought two adult tickets and in the end traded them in for year-long memberships. We ubered across town to pick up some more Japanese staples at the Lily Asian market, then caught the bus home.
We had about an hour and a half to recover, lying on the floor and couch, before heading across the street to Hector's.
Hector cooked us up some amazing tostadas- fresh fried corn tortillas topped with chorizo and onion tinga on one, and flame roasted poblanos mixed with sour cream on the other, and all topped with more crema and crumbled farmer's cheese. Amazing. Best Mexican food I've had in Portland. He also busted out the mezcal and some jars of his own fermented kombucha and a pickles. His home has that fantastic- in the phantasmagorical sense- quality of Mexico. Hand carved decorations and statues, ancient oil paintings in old baroque frames, nooks and crannies filled with hearts and flames, mismatched chairs and bold colors, and plants everywhere. One could get lost in the texture, even as we were coughing from the frying chorizo in the cast iron skillet.
I'm happy we've been meeting so many great people. Tomorrow morning we have brunch plans with Ruben's family.

Sep 11, 2017

first impressions

Our new home is a duplex with a mirrored duplex across a small yard. The presence of two absolutely huge pine trees divides the lot, and throws a lot of shade on the building. Pine needles litter every surface. Saori commented later that it felt like a camp house, but not in a good way.
Still sitting in the car in the driveway, I told Saori, "you know, if you hate it, we can always break the lease." She had been preparing herself to be let down the whole trip, but it wasn't apparently enough as we did a first walk through together. Let's face it, even with new carpeting and new lino, it's still a dark apartment, kind of dingy, and 800 square feet, which combined with the other two factors, makes it feel smaller than it is.

We pulled in our luggage and unpacked the car. We splurged on a 20" self-inflating air mattress, which I can tell you was worth the extra $40 for saving us from 1) waking up in the middle of the night on the floor and 2) blowing it up manually.

It was muggy, and hot, and I realized belatedly that the duplex had no air conditioning. Actually, none of the apartments I had seen had air conditioning. It's just not that needed up here. Saori picked pho for dinner, so we went to a place nearby. It was a relief- a moment to sit in a restaurant, away from a new, unpacked apartment, to get a bowl of hot soup, at the end of a long day. A moment too, to take a step back and get perspective on the situation.

We came back, spread our borrowed sheets on the inflatable mattress, and crashed, physically and emotionally exhausted. I was 33 years old.

the rest of the way to Portland

Sunday, we got up early, ate our packages of cold cereal with milk, and hit the road early because the only breakfast options was a Denny's inside a sad casino. We drove all day, continuing across the wastelands of Nevada, passing derelict brothels and silent and vast military installations. We finally starting getting to more interesting areas with lakes and high desert plains, before we reached Reno. Reno was nicer than either of us were expecting, but then we were expecting Reno to be the cheaper, skankier version of Las Vegas, so there was a lot of wiggle room there.

We stopped at a diner at one of the casinos close to the Reno main drag, and got a big, greasy, diner lunch. We picked it mostly because it was close by and had street parking. Pressing on, we passed the border into California, which was about the same, and drove on for a few hours more towards Susanville. Susanville is situated between the Douglass fir and Redwoods pine covered mountains, and the scrub and grasses of the rolling high desert. We arrived to find a thin smell of smoke in the air, the first taste of the forest fires which would follow us to Portland.

Checked in to a typical cheap roadside motel, and walked next door to a discount grocery store before returning to the motel for the night. I wouldn't have minded walking around a bit more, or visiting the local brewery gastropub, but Saori was done for the day.

Monday, labor day, we got up early, ate the cereal we had brought, checked where forest fires were burning, and hit the road again. We continued northeast, driving between pine forests and high deserts, although finally we were in the mountainous forests of northern California and southern Oregon. We stopped for BBQ in a small city near the border. It was the first BBQ since I'd arrived back in the US, and after all, it was my birthday.

We pressed on. The smoke in the air got thicker. Road closures due to fires had limited us from taking a more scenic route, but this way was scenic enough. Lots of traffic from people returning from Crater Lake, and Burning Man, and we saw lots of Burners, easily identifiable by the white dust coating the vehicles, and the bicycles hanging off the back. We did really appreciate, however, the passing lanes every ten miles or so, so traffic didn't get too backed up on the forest roads.

We stopped to use the bathroom and take a break at the outskirts of Portland at a KFC, which ended up a semi-go-to for pit stops. The smoke was as thick as it ever was, and it rained ash. Although we didn't know it at the time, this was from the very nearby Eagle Creek fire, which is burning through Columbia gorge. I took over driving, and we pulled into the driveway of our duplex around 5pm.

Sep 3, 2017

Nowhere, USA

4AM is my least favorite time of the day. But that was when my alarm went off to wake us up so we could get on the road to Portland by 5 AM. Why so early? Because for inexplicable reasons we decided the best course of action for two people who don't work was to travel across the country on the long weekend when the working population is on holiday. Actually, it just worked out that way with the communication with the property management company.

Anyway, we said goodbye to the cats, locked everything up, and drove out into the night. No traffic. We took some stupid detours I'm chalking up to lack of caffeine, and while I grumbled my way along, Saori really enjoyed the desert scenery revealing itself in the dawn. 

We stopped for a quick breakfast bite in Wickenburg, and then pressed on to Hoover Dam. I had been once, as a teenager, and remembered enjoying the tour and architecture. Saori had never been, so we went for it. It was pretty packed, but we were there early enough that we didn't have to wait in a line of cars. Lots of visitors too, but it looked like most people were there to take photos from the top of the dam. We got into the tour immediately, actually. They have crowd management down to a science. Line up in a queue, then into the theater for a ten minute movie presentation.

The movie bothered me, actually. The dam was presented as a heroic and bold step to tame a dangerous river which caused havoc and destruction with its flooding, [while the real reasons were the sales of hydroelectric power and the diversion of water to create new agricultural communities]. With the application of rolled up sleeves, good old American gumption, and ingenuity, nature could be tamed and contained for the benefit of all! If you don't include Mexico, which the film neglected to mention. Or even name. On the whole, 50% fact, 50% propaganda.

Tour was good. It's still an impressive sight, the tunnels for the water, the beautiful industrial art deco architecture in the turbine halls. We enjoyed it a lot, and then we were on our way again.

Drove through Las Vegas without stopping. Didn't even get off the freeway. Passed right through and waved to all the headliners playing the Vegas EDM festival over the weekend. Headed out instead into the desert, threading the desolate strip of highway 95 between the vast wasteland of Death Valley National Park on one side, and the Nuclear-bomb-pockmarked radioactive lunarscape of the even more massive Nellis Air Force Range. This area was so isolated and uninhabited, that it made Arizona look like New Jersey. We drove for more than two hours, and didn't pass so much as a gas station before we got to Beatty, Nevada, which by distance is possibly one of the remote outposts in the west.

Beatty had two restaurants. We ate at both of them. At the Happy Burro grill we got open faced hamburgers smothered in their homemade chili, and I had mine served up with a PBR. We ate outside on their weathered deck, under a dirty yellow umbrella on wooden cable spool tables. Saori bought a tee shirt from them with a big smiling burro on the back. Later, strolling the "town" we saw burros roaming free by the giant RV Park.

It's a strange town. They know they're between Reno and Vegas, and get visitors for Death Valley, so they play up their connection to the Nellis Range. Lots of references to Area 51, and a few more to the nuclear waste storage and nuclear weapons testing nearby. Relatively speaking. Most of the tests took place at least 50 miles inside the range, and the prevailing winds carried the radioactive fallout towards southern Utah. Although 10 miles outside of town, a low-level nuclear waste dump caught fire a few years ago.

We stayed at the internet-savvy Atomic Inn, which was a typical 1950s roadside motel until it was made over as a destination retro-kitsch motel with a nuclear-alien-scifi motif. Cutout aliens. Radioactive isotope signs as the logos. Our room had a giant framed photo of Barbarella. We were quite happy with the rooms. A nice big window with a view to a joshua tree, it was clean, spacious, and the AC worked great.

After we checked in after lunch, we basically konked out. We were exhausted. That last stretch of driving through endless desert did it especially to me. So we took a nap for about an hour and a half, and then went wandering through the town. We ate dinner more from habit than anything else at the other restaurant, and it was ok. Cold beef sandwich and cheezy potato soup.

It's surprising to see how vibrant the town still was. People lived here. The women working at the FamilyDollar yelled at the kids playing the aisles because I'm sure they knew them well in this small town. Kids played in the playground after dark. Chatting with the receptionist when we checked in, I asked about a ribbon hanging behind the counter. Third Place for Beatty Days. It piqued my interest, because getting third in anything in Beatty would seem to me as a huge slap in the face. But it turns out it was for a parade float in the annual parade and festival the town throws. This year, she told us, the truck was going to be decorated as a flying saucer, pulling a trailer made out to be a motel room with little kids in alien costumes harassing grandpa who was trying to sleep.

Slept as much as usual, which lately, is not great.

five years

Towards the end of December, 2012, I graduated with my masters degree. Immediately after the last round of thesis presentations, there was ...