Monday, July 12, 2010

Why I Left Alaska



I moved to Alaska from from New York City in 2004. I signed up for a year long legal clerkship, and thought I would be gone at the end of the position. And I did move eventually, six years later. How did one year turn into six?

My story starts in New York City, where, after a whirlwind four years I was decidedly overwhelmed by the city pace, and my exasperation was eclipsed by the fall of the World Trade Center. After finishing law school with a few detours, I decided that I needed to leave. As much as I loved the City, I hated it. On one hand I loved the intensity, the high caliber of everything available there, the ethnic neighborhoods, the cutting edge of it all. On the other hand I hated the competition, the 12 hour minimum work days, the pretension, the tragic hipness, the old lady jabbing me on the subway, the sound of babies crying and couples arguing through the dilapidated walls of my tenement apartment, the echo of gunshots on any given evening. To me the throngs of talented ambitious people started to look like nothing but a shameless swarm of humanity.

I went to the career center at my law school and saw a clerkship application for Alaska. On the announcement there was a cartoon picture of a mountain, an eagle, and a bear. I telephone-interviewed with one judge who ended up hiring someone else, and I sent him a perfunctory thank you card, a ritual ingrained in the minds of every East Coast law student. But, unlike the 100 judges in New Jersey and NYC to whom I also submitted my resume, the Alaskan judge wrote me back. He informed me that he had hired another because that person grew up in Alaska, and not because he thought me unqualified. He encouraged me to apply to other judges, so I did.

A few months later, sight unseen, I moved to Palmer, Alaska, population 5,000. I took a job working for a bearded judge who had spent the better part of his career helping Alaska Natives and polar bears. In the summer he wore a tennis shoes and shorts under his robe and hunted moose in the fall. I lived in a cabin where all I could see out my window were mountains and a glacier. Grizzly bear and moose roamed my backyard. I learned to hike mountains. I learned to ski. I learned to play oldtime music on a fiddle. I saw the Northern Lights, regularly. I split wood.




Eventually i moved to the urban haven of Anchorage, population 250,000. I moved into another cabin, with a 40 foot spruce growing on its roof. I felt modern because this one had running water and a flush toilet inside.

I kept on skiing, I met lots of people, I learned to ice climb.


I learned to rock climb.

I learned how to fish.

I even started a band.

I tried to settle down, and I thought I would. I moved from political jobs, to legal jobs. I became a public defender and learned that even 100 of me could not do for my clients what I wanted to do for them. Then I worked for the elderly, and learned that I can't help anyone working for a small-town tyrant, dead set on keeping her job at any cost.

I skiied less. I played music less. I got frostbite on my toe while ice-climbing.

I left the state twice, hoping that small escapades down south would remind me how beautiful Alaska was. I went to Nicaragua and came back. I went to Argentina and came back. But each time I returned, I looked at the dark night sky. I knew the beauty of Alaska, but I also knew how cold and dark it was, every year, nine months at a time.

I stopped climbing, I stopped skiing, I stopped playing music. I hated work and work hated me. I broke up with one boyfriend and then another. Things were no longer good for me in the Great Land.

So I packed my fiddle, my cats, my dog, and my computer. The most recent ex- offered to take my whole little crew to New Orleans, and I accepted. He dropped us off, and then turned around to go to his true home, Detroit. I hugged him goodbye, and he left. I looked around, and found myself in New Orleans.

Once upon a time I moved to Alaska to see if I could take care of myself in the rugged West. After the fall of the twin towers, I became a little bit of a fatalist and wanted to know that if the world collapsed, that I could take care of myself. I wanted to see if I could split wood, carry water, live in winter. The world did not collapse but I did alright taking care of myself anyways.

Afterwards, I knew that I wanted to be back home. Not California, where I grew up, but home. Where I could listen to music, walk to a cafe, wear a t-shirt at night, and visit with friends without having to make arrangements beforehand. I got that in spades here in New Orleans. Am I home? I have no idea.

Up until recently, I loved traveling and moving because I saw it as an opportunity to reinvent myself. As I got a little older, I loved it because all the new sights and the new people I met allowed me to forget the pressures and commitments of being a full-time working professional. Now, I'm not sure whether I want to stop moving around or whether I want to float forever. Either way, I'm done reinventing myself. In fact, unless we're Madonna, we cannot and do not reinvent ourselves. In actuality, we build upon what we already have, and get rid of the crap we don't like. Even when we change, a part of us still stays the same. Once upon a time I was a snotty, bookish, Berkeley grad who scoffed at people who exercised or went camping. Then I moved to Alaska, wore flannel shirts more often than not, and learned how to ice climb. Now in New Orleans, I love the culture that surrounds me, I go to museums and galleries and music shows on a regular basis, but I also yearn to see the bayou, ride my bike along the shores of the Mississippi and Lake Pontchartrain for as long as I can, and see everything the South has to offer in the universe of the outdoors. Like an Alaskan I have come to appreciate my privacy and my independence. But like the old me, I thrive in and treasure my friendships. And maybe, just maybe, I will find friends who can connect to these paradoxical values.

It's difficult to say what lies ahead of me. But gladly, I still have my dog, my cats, my education, some savings, and I just found a comfortable, reasonably priced apartment. I also have the photographs of places I saw, memories of people I met, and things I did in Alaska. I still have the job announcement, and the returned thank you letter from the judge in Alaska who I never met. These things remind me of how far I have come.

At the last minute, I was scared to leave Alaska and all the stability it offered. Dead scared in fact. But now, here in New Orleans, with some residual amount of anxiety over what lies ahead, I have confidence that leaving was the right thing to do. As I write this entry, I watch people ride their horses on the streetcar tracks past my window, under large oak trees, past a French fountain shop and an Italian restaurant. It is all very comforting.

Wish me luck.

3 comments:

  1. awesome post, vu. i got a bit misty, for serious. i do hope that our endless binge drinking of budweiser in various sunnyside bars and only occasional fighting were some good memories you took with you from NYC. how's it going down there?

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  2. great post - I was a DA in Palmer during your tenure. Had very similar feelings about the north country. Would like to return but concerned as well.

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    1. Anonymous,
      My feelings for Alaska is definitely in a mixed bag, but overall nostalgia dominates. While I know that my decision to stay in New Orleans is a better, more appropriate one for me, I am so grateful for those 6 years there. Only a crazy place like Alaska could have taught me as much about myself and the world around me as it did.

      Hope your current home is the right decision for you too.

      Thanks for reading!

      Kim

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