How Joseph Stalin changed my life

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All people share a dream. For the desperate, that dream is freedom. But give a man a sense of peace, and the dream will shift toward security and shelter.

We all want to own a home. Some people call it the American Dream, but it’s the human dream, has been since we wandered the earth looking for a dry cave to inhabit.

When Joseph Stalin was in the process of killing 10 million Ukrainians through a planned starvation, my grandparents undoubtedly dreamt of freedom or perhaps even more basically, survival.

They fled their native land and walked halfway around the world to northwest China, where they set up shop. Work, shelter, life.

Until Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution caught up with them, and they were forced to flee once again in pursuit of some dream only attainable in a land far across the known universe, if it existed at all.

They found it under fog-laced blue skies sailing under the Golden Gate Bridge. No Ellis Island for this family, just California dreams on Geary Street and a lifetime away from the Soviet Empire’s antithetical sense of ownership.

My grandfather, like most immigrants, worked hard to buy the dream, because the dream is never free, no matter how much you want it to be. He worked several jobs and bought up San Francisco real estate as an inheritance for his children.

Immigrant families have an overdeveloped sense of needing security. And that is often satisfied in the purchasing of land or houses, even to subsequent settled generations.

Somehow this did not affect me.

In fact, I had a wanderlust in direct contrast to that urge to settle and seek security. I suppose this, above all else, is what led me into journalism. Always moving, artistic, something new every day.

I wasn’t a loner though, I wanted a partner, and my girlfriend of three years agreed to marry me and go with me. I still feel like I duped her a bit, but she’s still along for the ride.

We traveled and lived in trailers and slept on floors in third-world countries. We had a baby together in Hawaii, and I never really had sense of place or any one place.

But I wasn’t a loner, and my wife, as wives tend to do, developed a nesting instinct and began to clamor for something more permanent than hostels, low-income housing or rented apartments and houses.

At 36 each, we bought our first house in October 2009. A green, two-story Missoula Modern out by the airport. Our neighbors are only 12 feet away, and every fifth house repeats except for color and trim. But it’s home. And it’s ours.

I remember feeling sick to my stomach at the closing, but I smiled and celebrated as we popped a bottle of champagne a little later that afternoon.

The feeling of making the first mortgage payment was good, except I kept seeing that huge number that included all the interest we’d end up paying, and I’d go dry in the throat thinking about it.

It’s not the money though, it’s the feeling of being tied down. Always has been.

So getting laid off is much more about the baggage for me. Generally, the idea of moving on to something new is right up my alley. I’m into the next thing, in fact, friends will tell you that as soon as I’m doing something new, I’m already thinking about the next thing.

Now I feel tethered to this place by this house, even though in reality, it’s just an investment that can go whatever way I decide it should go. No matter, it is a cord around my ankle and the most difficult thing I think about when I think about being laid off.

Place is good, it can define you. You can spend your life seeking a place to call your own, and perhaps that’s all my wanderlust really is, an ongoing search.


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