Boston.

I moved into the city of Boston for the first time in the summer of 2008. I was a student, living in student housing—a decrepit, but much-beloved row house looking out over the Fens. It had once been a lawyer’s house, then a Jewish fraternity, then an “independent living group” for students. In the seventies this meant a lot of drugs and at least one subterranean explosion. When I was there, it meant we had the highest percentage of LGBTQ students of any residence at my university (somewhat less notable when one considers that our peak population was twenty students,) a disproportionate number of students who spoke openly about mental health issues, and a severe rodent problem.

My college years were not stellar ones. I had been living in student housing in Cambridge, but it wasn’t a good place for me. I was painfully socially awkward and alienated from the people focusing all their efforts on their courses. It felt like no one else was questioning if there was a life outside of lab or studio. I certainly never felt confident that I belonged in my program. I entered school with the idea that I was going to be an architect, but the truth is that I didn’t really understand what architecture was.

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The singular object.

I thought architecture was about making a beautiful thing, a singular object that exists in a landscape. But architecture is first and foremost about solving spatial puzzles for people living and working in proximity, and only secondarily about creating an exciting spatial experience for those people. It is not about making beautiful objects at all. If you reach Frank Lloyd Wright or Corbusier status, you might get to create some nice things to go in your newly-solved puzzle, or your newly-created landscape, but you don’t become an architect to design chairs to match the heating vents.

I sometimes like to think that if my college self hadn’t been perpetually short of sleep, frayed by anxiety, and undergoing a crisis of self-worth, I would have done all right as a student of architecture. As it was, I sat at my studio desk and stared blankly into my sketchbook for hours. My ideas were, so far as I could tell from the feedback I got from the teaching staff, pretty bad. I still liked the beautiful object. I wasn’t enamored with or good at understanding the fundamental spatial problems, let alone solving them. Where do the people go? Where do they stay? What does it feel like for them to be inside this particular enclosure?

I not only struggled to do the basic work of architecture in my studio courses, I couldn’t even understand exactly what it was I was failing to do.

I procrastinated. My coursework made me feel idiotic, so I avoided virtually every piece of work I was assigned. (I also, incorrectly, thought that I might like to major in biology, and took several courses to that effect. I learned that what I really like is zoology, not microbiology. My university only had courses in the latter.)

The most satisfying way of procrastinating was taking inordinately long walks. Most frequently I would launch myself up Boylston, along the side of the Public Garden and the Common, and then arrow back down along Beacon. Sometimes (more and more often as I got into my senior year) I’d continue up into the North End, picking up a marzipan pig or almond macaroon at Mike’s Pastry. Sometimes I would divert onto Charles Street and walk up and down in Beacon Hill. Occasionally I went south on Massachusetts Avenue, passing Symphony Hall and come back through the South End on Tremont. More frequently I would go north on Mass Ave, ending up somewhere in the mess of Harvard Square. I did not make as much use of the free student entry to the MFA as I might have, though the MFA and its disembodied babies’ heads were barely ten minutes away down the Fens.

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Avenue of escape.

Since graduation, I have passed through Boston with some regularity. I still have several friends in the area, and most of my travel has been in the eastward direction. I can make a case for spending my layovers there, especially if I’m changing airlines.

The last time I was in Boston was earlier this month. I flew into Logan and slept on the floor on the B terminal for a couple hours. At three-thirty AM, the security checkpoints opened and I was rattled into awakeness by flotillas of wheeled suitcases. I bought a scorchingly hot coffee from Dunkin’ Donuts and got on the airport shuttle around five. I walked from Government Center to North Station, losing a random twenty minutes to a side street I didn’t recognize before catching the 6:39 heading north. At ten AM, after sitting in a Cape Ann coffeeshop for two hours trying and failing to write a cogent journal entry, I signed a five-month sublease, starting in November. I’m not in Boston proper—not even in one of the close suburbs.

I am on the commuter line. I can be in Boston in about an hour. There are fifteen inbound trains a day.

My apartment is a five-minute walk from the ocean and a five-minute walk from the apartment of a friend I have known for eleven years.

Here I go.

Omaha.

 

Omaha is a mid-size city on the eastern edge of Nebraska. The population within city limits is nearly 450,000; the metro area, the largest component of which is its diminutive sibling on the Iowa side, Council Bluffs (population 62,500) has passed 900,000.

I grew up twenty-five miles north of Omaha, in a town that arguably saw its last heyday in the 1950s. This area was once dominated by trains. The First Transcontinental Railroad established its eastern terminus in Council Bluffs, and the Union Pacific, the U.S.'s largest train company today, is headquartered out of Omaha. The old Union station, an Art Deco iceberg finished in 1931, was turned into a museum of western heritage in the 1970s. The Old Market, a neighborhood that stretches roughly from 10th to 13th Street on the east-west axis and Dodge Street to Jones Street on the north-south line, was my first experience of what urban life could feel like. The teeth-rattling brick streets have been maintained (though "maintained" is perhaps a dubious word to use in relation to Jones Street,) and the industrial graffiti of warehouse advertisements has been touched up, leaving a smell at the back of the mind of what this place must have been like when it was where workers on their way home from the factories in Jobbers Canyon (since demolished to build the ConAgra Park) picked up their produce and groceries before taking the tram back home. It's an extremely faint smell, to be sure (and there's some bitterness now that ConAgra has decided to move their corporate campus to Chicago,) but it was enough to make a small heart hungry.

I have a deep affection for every alley filled with dumpsters in the Old Market.

I've been back in the area since November of last year. After an eight-month trip around Europe, I found myself unemployed and deeply embattled with myself to finish my book, The Golden City. It's not my first book, but it is the first one I've seen through to completion. I had discovered, to the amusement of the writing gods and my own frustration, that it is remarkably difficult to write consistently while traveling. There were cathedrals to be photographed, long walks to be taken, sketches to be done, French to be struggled through, goats to be milked, and pints to be either contemplatively nursed or sucked down, depending on how interested the old men in any given pub were in American politics. The most writing I got done at one go happened in Cork – where the two-hundred-year-old walls of the stone farmhouse prevented my phone from picking up even a hint of a connection and the daily rain prevented me from sitting on the overgrown wall of the drive to chase the faint signal just by where I'd planted some daffodil bulbs for my hosts – and Wales, where it also rained a great deal, and where the cat slept on the floor of the sunroom in a particularly nonjudgmental way. In Donegal, where I was able to get an excellent connection off a nearby cell tower, and Galway, where I cooked most (well, many, anyway) of the dinners and sat painting in the kitchen when I wasn't cooking, and Belle-Ile, where I spent all my free time walking the path that runs along the cliffs on the west edge of the island, I hardly wrote at all. 

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I have been soaked by this fountain more times than I care to admit.

It's hard to write when the sea is right there. It's hard to write when there's music on at the pub. It's hard to write when you're greedy for other people's company. It's hard to write when you're on top of a bicycle or hiking or losing the feeling in the top layer of your skin as you float in the north Atlantic. 

I finished my book two months ago. It's been edited, and edited again, and sent off to friends to read and a sensitivity reader; and I'm not altogether certain that it would have ever happened if I hadn't come back to my small town north of Omaha. This place has just enough of the pattern of a larger world – of brick, of train lines (though if you were to get on a train these days, you'd only have two choices: one Amtrak leaves at 5 AM for Chicago, and the other goes at 11 pm for San Francisco,) of art (the Joslyn Museum being a somewhat smaller, and distinctively pinker, Art Deco iceberg than the Union Station,) of food (every few months I budget thirty-five dollars to have dishes I don't quite recognize and beautiful bread and a glass of Pinot Grigio at La Buvette, which suggests Parisian grunge without being in any way Parisian) – to keep me hungry, while being so profoundly familiar that my brain does, occasionally, stop skipping and seeking, and let me focus on words.