Unemployed, 25, and heading into the future

Posted: Friday, August 15, 2003

I have something to tell you. I'm moving out of Juneau. I've known for months, and I should have said something sooner, but I was having such a good time writing columns about living here, I didn't want it to end. The day this column comes out, it will be my 25th birthday. I'll be freshly unemployed, covered with a week of road grime and screaming down I-5 with the windows open on the way to Portland, Ore.

At Large

Julia O'Malley can be reached at julia_o_malley@hotmail.com.

At least I hope that's what I will be doing. I also could be breathing into a paper bag at a highway rest area in British Columbia.

I decided to move to Portland a few months ago when I was lying in my musty basement bedroom watching T.V. The "Today" show was on, and it was that part when the camera pans through all those people from around the country with the signs and the babies who stand outside the studio and scream and wave. Something about it made me feel choked up - the girls' soccer team from Texas, the newlyweds from Florida, the elderly woman holding the upside down sign that said "I love Matt Lauer." All of it seemed so vital, so exciting, so Lower 48. An itchy feeling came over me.

"Normal people don't live like this," I told a friend later, as I watched the rain pour down outside. "What am I doing with my life? I live on an island in Alaska in a house that smells like moldy carpet pad. I'm turning 25. Life is ticking by."

Then it struck me that all four of my grandparents are buried in Anchorage, and there is already a spot next to them in the downtown cemetery with my name on it. Before I'm dead and buried, or 30, I decided I should see what it's like to live some place with decent produce and four seasons, someplace connected to a road that I could take all the way to New York City. If I wanted to, I could hold an "I love Matt Lauer" sign outside the Today Show. Right then, I made up my mind to move.

Everything was going fine until last week, when I started having a recurring dream about a 737 crashing into the channel.

In the dream, I'm on the deck of the house I was renting on North Douglas Highway, and it's a beautiful day. I look up and I see the huge, white belly of a jet against the blue sky. I don't hear anything except a whoosh, like the wings of a huge bird cutting the air. The plane glides down into the low-tide mud in front of the Juneau Empire building and silently bursts into flames.

I woke from such a dream on Tuesday morning last week. It was the last day I was supposed to be in my house on North Douglas, and I got up at 5 a.m. to clean the fridge. I was tossing old condiment jars into a bag, when, with each jar I dropped, I heard the 737 whoosh.

Mayonnaise. Whoosh. Relish. Whoosh. Anxiety gripped my throat. What was I doing? I wanted my condiments back.

Living all my life in Alaska is like a handicap in golf, I thought. Even though I'm playing the game like everyone else, and at the end of the day my scores will be comparable, I know inside I'm an amateur. I get a special boost because there is less competition here. When I move Outside it will be like trying to become a member of the LPGA, when I've only played at Juneau's par-3 golf course. I hugged a half-eaten jar of nagoon berry jam to my chest.

What if I couldn't find a writing job by the time my savings ran out? What if I had to work as a secretary, or a nanny, or, I swallowed, at Starbucks? What if I couldn't hack it in the city? What if all the ideas I once had about my potential in a small town go up in a big city fireball, like the 737 in my dreams?

By midnight that night, I was two glasses of wine into a pity spiral, when I decided to accompany a friend on an errand out North Douglas Highway. Brooding in the passenger seat, I happened to notice a green ribbon of northern lights waving over the shoulders of Mount Juneau.

Northern lights always freak me out a little. Every scientific discussion of them always seems vague and theoretical, and boils down to the fact that no one knows exactly what causes them. But there they were, as real as anything else, bigger than a mountain, hanging over an entire town.

And for whatever reason, I thought about my future, hanging out there in front of me, unscientific, unpredictable and quasi-miraculous like an eerie curtain of light in the night sky. There wasn't much I could do to control what would happen to me next, except get up in the morning and let the day unfold.

Then I noticed what I thought was a bright star low on the horizon. As I looked closer, I saw that it was growing, and I realized it was a 737, coming in safely for a landing.

Julia O'Malley will continue to write columns twice a month from Portland. She can be reached at julia_o_malley@hotmail.com.

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