Saturday, November 16, 2013

What's your idea?

In the spirit of Ignite Innovation week, which is happening across Dayton this week, I have a question for you. What do you notice about these three pictures? 

They are simple, odd, iconic city-center sculptures that for some reason, attract THOUSANDS of people to them, just to smile and pose in front of. You haven't been to Chicago if you haven't checked out The Bean, and how can you say you went to Amsterdam if you didn't climb all over the "I Amsterdam" sign? 

Dayton needs something like this. A larger than life, obnoxiously mass-appealing piece of public art that's a blatant bid for tourists to come downtown and pose in front of. 

This is just one of many ideas that have struck me in the year and a half I've lived in Dayton. I'm surprised it took this long. My brain is an idea machine, and when presented with opportunities to improve something, its gears start humming. 

OK this is a pretty pathetic Paint-job, but you get the idea. How easy would it be to put a cool piece of art downtown that would draw in thousands, and inspire Dayton pride? 

What's your idea? Let me know. 

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Livolyn's UK Adventure Part 2

Ok, picking up where I left off in Part 1.

Day 7, Sept. 27:
We had started to hit a wall with London on our third day there. The city was overwhelming, and free wifi was almost impossible to find. But it was Friday, and we were looking forward to dinner with a friend from UNC, and hoping to meet up with one of my friends from frisbee in Cincinnati, who also happens to be a UNC student studying abroad in London. We caught the changing of the guard ceremony at Buckingham Palace, but got tired of standing on our toes and peering over shoulders to glimpse of red uniforms behind palace gates, so we left early.

We met up with our friend Maria for dinner after a long day of walking. She had offered to cook dinner in her flat, so we picked up a bottle of wine to go with it. Once in her flat, we had access to wifi, and realized that my friend Bridget lived in the same building! What a coincidence. She came over, and we caught up.

We headed out in search of some nifty bars, a group of six of us. But oddly enough, there's no obvious student bars district next to the University College London campus, so it ended up being a long walk. Ten minutes in, someone had an inspiration.

"Hey, let's stop and get a roadie!" So we turned in at a small convenience store and bought a four pack of Stella, and Carolyn chose a pre-mixed Jack and Coke in a can, for the novelty's sake, excited to take advantage of lax open container laws. We finally ended up in Covent Garden, and stepped into a bar with people spilling out of multiple doors onto the tiny patio. We wedged ourselves into the bar and ordered some fine European beers, then huddled in a corner talking to ourselves like anti-social Americans. Ten minutes later I noticed Carolyn was in a rather heated conversation with a Brit about journalism and ethics. He'd introduced himself to Carolyn and another guy who was with us because he heard our 'foreign' accents and decided he would like to meet some travelers. When we were all in need of a second drink, he and I stood at the bar next to each other.

"What's your name again?" I asked.
He looked at me disapproving.
"Now what kind of a name could possibly sound like Clock?"
I panicked, trying to think of names that rhyme with clock.
"Claude?" I tried, hopelessly.
"What's Superman's name?" he asked, laughing.
"Oh, Clark!" It finally registered.

Clark was very friendly and bought a round of drinks for all the Americans. Since he was so interested in journalism and its influence over people's view of the world, he was intrigued by my experience as a professional reporter. Carolyn and I realized it was nearly midnight, and we knew if we wanted to ride the Tube back to our hostel we needed to make it to a station before midnight. So we dashed out and left our friends in Clark's hands. Turns out, we missed a wild night, but we had high hopes for Saturday night.

Day 8, Sept. 28:
I was on my way back for seconds at breakfast in the hostel the next morning when a British guy approached me and said hey, how are you. It took three seconds for me to recognize our friend Alex, who lives outside of London and had taken the train in to hang out with us on our last day in the city. Alex studied abroad at UNC for a year and was proudly sporting a game day T-shirt under his jacket.

He offered to give us the insider's tour of London, so we hopped on the Tube yet again. I soon parted ways with them to join Bridget for one more attempt at experiencing UK ultimate. This time I had communicated with the point of contact for a pick-up group on the south side of London, at the last stop in zone 2 on the Northern line. It started at 11, so in true ultimate fashion, we showed up at 11:30. The group was just finishing some warm-up throws and invited us to join them in a warm-up game. I wasn't really sure what this entailed, but I ran out to the line to join. Since Bridget and I were the only girls at that point, they asked one of us to put on a white shirt. I hadn't brought one. Bridget grimaced and pulled out the only white she'd brought, with the letters USA emblazoned across the front in bright red.

"Get it, Captain America!" I heckled.

To get their muscles warmed up, this group started with several 'walking points.' I'd never played a point where running was strictly forbidden, and found it completely counter-intuitive. My body wants to sprint!

"Are layouts allowed?" I asked.
"Only if you jump with one foot," someone responded. Wow, I didn't expect there to be an exact rule on that.

The walking point was followed by a skipping point, which was followed by a jogging point, and then a few full-speed points, which made me finally realize how much out of ultimate shape I'd already gotten in two weeks off. Then they took a break and led us through a full plyo warm-up, with almost all the same exercises and stretches we use here. It was fascinating how universal the terms and drills are in ultimate.

We left early to meet back up with Alex and Carolyn to explore a giant NFL tailgate party happening on Regent Street, which we found awfully ironic. It was masses of people standing in lines for the chance to throw an NFL regulation-size football, or try a kick, or learn a simple play. The Steelers and Vikings were playing each other in London the next day as part of the NFL's attempt to gain some traction overseas, so the players of both teams made appearances on a stage in the middle of the street. But in order for it to have been a true American tailgate, there needed to be about 842 times as much beer and food, specifically fried chicken.

Our legs were starting to feel the toll of four days walking London up and down, but we pushed through to return to Camden Town for a look around, drawn in by the promise of Nitro Ice Cream, which we'd seen the day before when we'd first explored it. We ordered chocolate with hazelnuts, and watched in awe as they poured liquid nitrogen into a mixing bowl of cream and chocolate and whatever else you need to make ice cream, freezing it instantly and scooping it into a bowl to serve. While in line, Carolyn also decided to splurge on hot chocolate, which turned out to be one of the wisest decisions of the trip. It was mind-blowingly rich and thick.

We parted with Alex after checking one final London experience off our list -- fish and chips from a true English pub. We returned to our hostel, planning to take a rally nap before heading out for our last night on the town. But Carolyn decided to stay in, so I tried to meet up with Bridget and company. But we got a late start, and discovered to my extreme disappointment that all of the bars in London close at midnight, at which point you're expected to move to the clubs, which stay open most of the night. But not being quite ready for the club scene, we ended our night after a few Stellas and a fruitless misty walk in search of a late-night bar. I'd missed the last train back to my hostel, but Bridget managed to interpret the night bus schedule for me, and I left in search of the nearest bus station, armed with the numbers of three bus lines that would take me home scrawled on my hand. I had no map other than the mental one I'd developed in the previous four days, but I put my chin up and decided to own the experience. I hopped on a double-decker bus headed to my hostel's neighborhood, and listened intently as the stops were called out. I got off successfully, and found a map at the next street corner. A young man approached me claiming to be lost, but I couldn't help him find his way. He offered to try to help me.

"What street are you looking for? Maybe I know it," he said.
Alarms started going off in my head. It'd be super easy for him to jump me if he already knows where I'm going. 
"Actually I've got it, and I'm sorry I can't help you out," I said, and strode away purposefully in the right direction. I'd only gotten a glimpse at the map, but my navigation skills hadn't steered me wrong in London yet, so I followed my instincts through the dimly lit streets and intersections, always looking left, right, left-right-left-right-I-have-no-idea-which-direction-the-cars-might-be-coming-from-left-right-GO!

I got to my hostel 10 minutes later, feeling empowered for having handled several challenging situations in one night, including making it home for free without a map. But when all the doors to the hostel were locked, my confidence melted away. I tried all the doors desperately, until an older British lady walking past asked what I was looking for. I said I thought I was locked out of my hostel.

"Well why don't you try the bell?" she said patiently, pointing to a small white button to the side of the door that I'd completely overlooked. The hostel attendant opened the door immediately, and I let a wave of relief wash over me.

Day 9, Sept. 29:
Our next stop was Bristol via Megabus, where we stayed with my friend Will from a previous international exchange trip, and his girlfriend Jules. They were the loveliest hosts imaginable, picking us up directly from the bus stop, and giving us a tour of Bristol's highlights, including a stop for a traditional English Sunday roast, and a visit to a floating cider bar, where we had the most delicious, and strongest hard cider I've ever had.

Jules and Will live in Portishead, a small coastal town with a view across the Bristol Channel to Wales. In our two days staying with them we got to experience British life at a much slower, and more enjoyable pace than in London.

On our way out of Bristol, we stopped at the Isembard Kingdom Brunel bridge across an amazing gorge on the edge of town. Next to it was a natural slide worn into a steep rock face on a hill. Thousands of people's butts have worn the rock so slippery that it looks wet and is so shiny you can see your reflection. It drops you down the hill at a terrifying pace before vaulting you off into a rock at the bottom, so if you're ever there, slide at your own risk.

We were thrilled to sleep in a real bed, instead of the triple-decker bunk beds with three-inch foam mattresses our last luxury lodgings had provided. Our backs still bore an impression of the metal grate under the mattresses, and my left buttock had somehow developed a deep tissue soreness from contorting into the only comfortable position I could find.

Day 10, Sept. 30:

Our second day in Bristol was all about food. We went into Portishead for a traditional English breakfast in a pub that I fell in love with. In England it's the norm to seat yourself at any open table in a pub, then order food and drinks at the counter, leaving your table number with the staff. You pay immediately, and you're not expected to tip, so you can leave whenever you please without the hassle of closing a tab. It's much more relaxing than the American norm of flagging down a waiter for a check.

Once our stomachs had cleared out some room, we went to a fancy hotel for afternoon tea, something Carolyn couldn't bear to leave England without experiencing. It was delightful.

Then, back once more to downtown Bristol, after a drive through the British countryside that left me frazzled and confused from driving on the left side, and riding in the left-hand passenger side, we decided to blow the rest of our pounds on some fancy cocktails from a speakeasy-style club. Will led us to an imposing carved wooden door with no sign above it. He double checked the listing on Google, then rang the bell.

A butler opened the door. "Yes?"
"We're here for Milk Thistle," Will said.
"Right this way."
The attendant led us into a plush bar with low long booths and a gentleman's decor heavy on the taxidermy. The menu featured 15 to 20 cocktails, some traditional, and some unique to this bar. We tried four different ones and sampled each other's.

Day 11, Oct. 1:
We woke bright and early to catch our second and final Ryanair flight from Bristol back to Dublin, with a final destination of Galway, to stay with my friend Laura, whom I'd met on my last trip to Europe. In the Bristol airport, the Ryanair employee who checked us in chuckled as he handed us back our American passports.

"So what's going on with your parliament?" he asked.
We groaned. "Did they actually shut down the government?" we asked.
"Yes, just a few hours ago they missed the deadline," he said, clearly more updated on American politics than we were. #vacation
Carolyn and I weighed out the possibility that we might end up in a Tom Hanks-esque Terminal situation, and be unable to return home because our government had quit on us.

At the Dublin airport, Carolyn was finally reunited with her bag. She then set out on a campaign to promote the double backpack look, as she was now carrying enough luggage for two people.

"I'm going to wear two outfits a day, just because I can!" she declared.

Another friendly bus driver helped us figure out how to take an earlier bus than we had planned, and we arrived around 2 p.m. in Galway, just in time to catch Laura on her lunch break.

We were walking to meet her when we spotted each other, and once again it took me a moment to recognize her. It felt so bizarre meeting up with a friend in such a foreign environment.

"Shall we go for a cup of tea?" she asked in her musical Irish accent.

Laura drew us a map to get to her flat and gave us suggestions for exploring the small, seaside university town. We found it easily, and used her computer to plan out the remaining five days of our trip. Then we appeased our starving bellies by splitting a traditional Irish 5 euro footlong from Subway. We explored Galway's rocky coast and dipped our hands in the Atlantic, waving back to America.

"Actually I think that might be Greenland," I said.

We waved in all directions just to cover our bases.

We made it back to the pedestrian-only street lined with pubs and shops. We stopped in at one on a whim and ordered a sticky toffee pudding, an Irish coffee and a Guinness. With our first bite into the pudding, both our lives changed forever.

"What even is this?" we both asked, then googled the recipe. We savored it as long as we could, and then, slightly buzzed from our drinks, we began to dream about the ideal cafe/restaurant that we could open back in the U.S. that would represent the sum total of all our most amazing experiences in the U.K.

We wandered the streets of Galway some more and then ended the night back at Laura's, where we improvised beds with couch cushions and blankets on the floor.

Day 12, Oct. 2:
We caught our next bus out to a town called Doolin, that sits about eight kilometers of rugged wave-crashing coastline away from the famous Cliffs of Moher, a.k.a. the Cliffs of Insanity from the Princess Bride. It was a two-hour bus trip through the windiest, tiniest country lanes, with bumps and jolts that made the Greyhound bus feel more like a small airplane. The scenery gradually changed from flat Ohio-like farmland to rocky hillsides dotted with stone farmhouses and the odd castle here and there. For the first hour, an older lady sat behind the bus driver, catching him up on the latest gossip and her life in the past month. She must take this trip often. Hers was a real country Irish accent, which was a struggle for me to understand, but her rolled 'r's and rich tones almost lulled me to sleep. She got off several towns before us, but another older lady climbed on and took her place, picking up another conversation with the bus driver that seemed to have been left off just a few days before. Public transportation is an entirely different concept in rural Ireland than urban America.

We put our stuff down in our hostel, caught a bus to the cliffs, then walked along the cliffs at the ocean's edge, skirting by herds of cattle and sheep, and climbing over stiles from one pasture to another. It was incredible and the weather was perfect until the last 30 minutes, when a blowing rain came up from our right and soaked us on one half, but left us almost dry on the left. We made it home to change shirts, get our rain jackets, and then walked out to the pier to take a boat tour of the cliffs. But we had just missed the boat, so we had to wait an hour for the next one. We took shelter inside the tourist information building, hanging out with an enthusiastic Polish ex-pat who worked for the cruises.

The rain and the sun kept fighting over the sky, and we were nervous our voyage might be more like a swim, but then the sun pierced through the clouds and illuminated the cliffs for us right up until our boat turned around and headed back to the pier. Two nice American tourists who had rented a car gave us a ride back to the hostel, and we ended the evening with seafood chowder and fresh mussels from one of the two pubs in town. We read in the hostel common room by the wood stove until we couldn't keep our eyes open another minute.

Day 13, Oct. 3:
We had another bus to catch early, so once again we went without any breakfast. This trip had a few changes, and on our first leg we snagged a prime seat in the back of the bus where you could prop your feet up on the emergency stair rail. A young Irish man slumped into the back row behind us and began chatting excitedly, but in hushed tones, on his cellphone. His accent was so thick it sounded like a foreign language, except for every 15th word. But he kept saying, "yeah, come to the back of the bus."

At the next stop, a friend joined him. A big lumbering dude with an impish grin plastered on his face. I was casually enjoying the free wifi and browsing my Facebook, when the friend sat down right behind me, and tapped me on the shoulder.

"Hey can I have your number?" he asked, laughing.
I said no, indignantly, without looking up.
"Oh, you could just add me on Facebook," he suggested.
I decided that comment didn't even deserve a response, but I was quite taken aback by his boldness.
I pulled out my pen and notebook to try to catch up on days' worth of journaling, but I dropped my pen.
The guy jumped out of his seat and grabbed it off the floor for me, handing it back with a flourish.
"See he's a gentleman," his friend said. I thanked him, completely confused about why these two seemed so interested in me.
I went back to journaling, and the two began a heated discussion. Through the accent I still made out the words "100 quid" and "best price anywhere" multiple times. I didn't dare turn my head to see what they were discussing, since I was already a little sketched out.
The boys went quiet for a second.
Then 100 euros worth of weed dropped onto my shoulder.
"Hey, whoa, I don't want that!" I said as the 'gentleman' grabbed the bag that I was flicking off my shoulder, apologizing for his friend, and going right back to haggling over the price.
Carolyn, who had been oblivious to my previous interactions with this pair, finally noticed something was up.
What is wrong with these guys?
We had ten minutes of peace. Then, "Will you marry me?" the 'gentleman' asked. But he could barely spit out the words without choking on his own inane laughter.
That brought out some strong words as I told him to leave me alone, and he finally did.

We checked into a hostel in Killarney, which sits nestled in the foothills of Killarney National Park and the Macgillycuddy's Reeks, Ireland's tallest mountain range. We took a hike up to an excellent viewpoint of the park, and laid around in a meadow of wild flowers, taking Pinteresting photos. Later we walked into town via a bike path and a trail into the national park, which is teeming with elk. We went straight to the closest Tesco and eyed all the food greedily like kids in a candy shop. We settled on making a pasta dish, buying eggs for breakfast, and sandwiches for lunch the next day, when we planned to do an 11 km hike through the park.

Several experiences throughout the day reinforced a lesson the trip had been teaching me over and over: the value of asking for help. It earned us a free bus trip from town to the hostel, a second night in a 4-person dorm for the same price as the 10-person room we'd already booked, and a cup of milk to cook our pasta. Asking just provides an opportunity for someone to surprise and delight you.

Day 14, Oct. 4:
On our second day in Killarney, we met the most inspiring and fascinating fellow travelers. We booked an organized tour of the Gap of Dunloe, which provided a ride on a vintage bus to the beginning of the gap, then you walked 11 km through the mountain pass to a lake, then took a boat ride through the lakes to a small castle, and then rode in the bus back to town. There were only seven of us in the bus, and Carolyn and I bolted out first, cameras at the ready. We dodged several aggressive gentlemen trying to convince us to take a pony ride or an open carriage ride through the gap. But at this point in our trip we were no strangers to walking. We were about to settle into a nice, brisk pace, when a voice behind us stopped us.

"Girls! Girls, wait!" We turned.
An older, but extremely fit woman, who had ridden the same bus, was running after us. Catching up, she asked if we could walk together -- Carolyn, me, her and her husband. Carolyn and I looked at each other doubtfully, sharing unspoken objections in our eyes.
"...unless you walk really fast," she trailed off, unknowing she'd just touched on Carolyn's and my main point of contention throughout the trip.
We both laughed.
"She does!" Carolyn said, with a friendly glare. "But we don't need to, since we have three hours until we have to be at the boat."
So we shrugged and let them join us. Dinaz waved over her husband Hosi and they introduced themselves. It took two minutes to realize we'd just made the best decision of the trip. Dinaz didn't volunteer information about herself, but if you asked about her life and travels, she had a wealth of stories to offer. They had traveled all over -- Europe, Australia, parts of the U.S. and New Zealand. The trip with the Kiwis was our favorite to hear about. Dinaz, who I'm starting to think may be a closet adrenaline junkie, got her fill of thrills on that trip, trying paragliding, skydiving and white water rafting. For the rafting trip, she'd had to tag along with a group of English school boys because it was the tail end of the season.
"No one expected to see me, a 60-year-old Indian woman in with these proper English boys sitting straight backed, and I'm the one joking and trying to push them off the boat!" she laughed, remembering it.

We swapped adventure stories as we continued the walk through towering, rugged peaks dotted with bright green moss clinging to cliff faces. Visibility wasn't great, but it still gave us a glimpse of the majesty around us, until it started raining. Hosi and Dinaz, who revealed she needs a hip replacement, but since it doesn't hold her back her too much she's reluctant to bother it, flagged down a car traveling through the pass and got a lift, but Carolyn and I trudged onward. We crossed over the highest point of the trail, and below us and ahead of us the sun had burst through, leaving the rain behind us. One dogged pony cart driver caught up with us and tried to coax us into his cart, warning us we still had another three miles to walk. We shrugged him off and kept walking, but he was determined, so he trailed us for a good fifteen minutes until he finally clucked to his pony and sped on.

We finished the walk and reunited with Dinaz and Hosi, along with a German girl named Lisa, who had beaten us to the cafe at the end of the trail. We piled into the open air oversized powered canoe and pushed off from shore, our tour guide beginning to describe the small lake we were traveling through. But then his cell phone rang, and he looked around, then turned the boat around. Back at the dock, he stood up with an embarrassed laugh and said, "I forgot my dog." He whistled for Brax, who came bounding down and hopped in, making instant friends with Carolyn and me because of our sandwiches. Once again we pushed off from the shore and made it out ten minutes, when the phone rang again. He'd forgotten his jacket, but he decided he could do without it.
"And I thought I was forgetful," Dinaz said over her shoulder, with a laugh.

The tour ended at a small castle, and we stayed that evening in town to enjoy one last Sticky Toffee Pudding at a restaurant Dinaz recommended. We hopped around a few bars before meeting up with Lisa and others from her hostel and found a bar serving an exotic foreign craft beer, aka Blue Moon. But we all ended the night early since we were all exhausted travelers tuckered out from weeks on the road.

Day 15, Oct. 5:

We took the bus to Cork the next day and tried to tour around the city in a daze. But we found that unless something involved eating or sleeping, we weren't too interested in it. So we retired to our hostel with a frozen pizza and a bottle of wine, and spent the night packing and celebrating our impending return to the U.S.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Livolyn's UK Adventure, Part 1

This one time, I went to England and Ireland and Scotland with my best friend from college.
It was awesome. A real game changer.

We planned it together from the day I graduated UNC, one year before Carolyn did. A year and a half later, I was standing in Chicago O'Hare with my camera ready to catch a picture of her walking off the plane from Raleigh. We lucked out because the cheapest flight for both of us was also the one that routed us both directly through O'Hare. There was just a simple matter of convincing some passengers to rearrange themselves so we could sit together on the flight to Dublin.

Standing there waiting, I realized I couldn't remember when we had picked Ireland for our destination, or when we had even decided that this was a thing we had to do. It felt like it was something we'd always known would happen. Like destiny. We reached our gate for Dublin, and a happy Irishman with a big belly and a beer in his hand was regaling other travelers with a story of how he met his wife, sitting right next to him. Our ears were drawn in by his delicious accent, and we turned to each other grinning, no need to say it out loud because we saw the same excitement in each other's eyes -- we get to hear this for two weeks! 

That feeling of destiny melted away when we got off the plane in Dublin, bleary eyed but excited, and Carolyn's bag never appeared at the baggage claim. We reported it missing and left the hostel address with the airline, but had a sinking feeling that she would never see her bag again, at least not during the trip.

But strangely enough, it's as if Carolyn knew that was going to happen, because she packed her carry-on bag perfectly -- a change of clothes, her camera and extra lens, toiletries, and even our gifts for our hosts. We hopped directly on a bus to our hostel, and met the first of many bus drivers who would go out of his way to help us. We asked him to let us know when he got to the stop near our hostel, and he said no problem. On the bus ride, a teenager noticed our big packs and asked where we were from. He was curious why we'd chosen to come to Ireland, which I thought was funny, since just about everyone in the U.S. dreams of visiting the British Isles some day. He asked how expensive it was to take a trip like ours, and we said not too bad because we were going to keep the food expenses cheap by going to grocery stores.He answered with something that turned into one of many themes of our trip: "Hunger is the best spice."

The bus driver dropped us off in front of our hostel, calling out the name of the hostel to make sure we didn't miss the stop. Exhausted from the flight, we thanked him and stumbled into the hostel to check in. But they wouldn't let us into our room -- a 16 bed dorm -- until 2 p.m., and we had three hours to kill. So we took a free walking tour, and I think the highlight for both of us was our guide Sinead's accent. That afternoon we finally got to take a nap, and we were both already thinking in Sinead's accent.

Our roommates started trickling back in just as we were resurfacing from naps into a drowsy late afternoon haze, our bodies completely confused on the time zone. We had some Frenchies, some Americans, some Germans and some Danes in our room. From eavesdropping, we figured out they all planned to hang out together before going out that evening, so we planned to tag along. But first, we needed to take out some cash, to be prepared for the rest of our trip. We marched down to the nearest ATM. After waiting for one person to finish ahead of us, I confidently stuck my debit card into the machine, and it, in turn, proceeded to confidently chew, swallow and digest my card, with no apologies whatsoever. I looked at Carolyn, panic-stricken. I need that!

I mashed all the buttons on the machine, but it was unrelenting. Two Irish travelers stood in line behind us and asked what was the matter. We explained, and they immediately offered phones to let us call the bank, or the police, and tried to coax the machine into regurgitating my card. But it was useless. The machine, satiated from munching on my card, declared itself out of order. We thanked them for their help, and went to find a grocery store that accepted credit cards to get maybe some dry bread and cheap meat to soothe our growling bellies. We didn't feel up to a fancy dinner, and we had no cash.

Back at the hostel, I moistened my bread with a few tears that seeped out despite all my willpower being focused on not crying. This is vacation. You have fun on vacation. There's no crying in baseball!!!!

We pulled ourselves together, cleaned up from dinner, and set out to make some hostel friends with a deck of cards, a bottle of wine and a single die. We taught some Spaniards my favorite card game, Hijack (I have actually explained this game in this post), and then as the group grew bigger, we brought out my favorite game, Dare Dice. You simply take turns rolling the die and daring your friends to do something entertaining. If the die rolls on the number you guessed, they're obligated to perform the task. For example, if I roll a 4, Carolyn has to spin around in a circle 20 times and then give a stranger a hug. The more creative, the better. Unfortunately, this crowd severely lacked creativity, and the game died out in favor of some more efficient pre-gaming exercises. But as the self-proclaimed international ambassador of Dare Dice, I felt like I had done my part to evangelize the European continent. Carolyn went to bed early, but I went out with the boys to experience a Saturday night in Dublin. It did not disappoint.

Day 2:
We discovered a few great tips for traveling Europe on day two in Dublin. First, if you want to see the inside of a cathedral, time your visit during a service involving a choir. The acoustics will blow your mind, and you won't pay admission. Second, a break for tea and scones is always a wise decision. Our first experience with this was at Queen of Tarts, a homey little cafe with delicious scones and tarts, and tables so close together you felt comfortable enough with the people next to you to ask how the raspberry tart tastes. Third, when planning a visit to a tall viewing point in a city, try to get there at golden hour and stay through sunset.

Our last destination in Dublin was the Guinness Storehouse, and after wandering through five floors of Guinness facts, lore and trivia, we headed up to the Gravity Bar, perched atop the museum to afford 360 degree views of the city and the mountains to the south. We stalked a group who looked ready to leave and swiped their seats before their butt impressions had even faded. Once we had both finished our complimentary pints of Guinness, we were reluctant to leave the lovely view, and the free Wi-Fi. Since the Guinness comes with the price of your ticket, many visitors get to the top of the museum only to find out they don't actually like Guinness, so they abandon their glasses after one sip. One such pint sat forlornly on the table by our chairs. I watched it, and it watched me. Finally I could take it no longer, and Carolyn deftly swiped it, shielded it with her body, and poured it into her now empty glass.

We thought we'd gotten away with it, and we both took a triumphant sip, but then a British guy with a keen sense of humor turned over his shoulder and said, "I saw that."
"We didn't want to get any germs!" we said.
"Eh, you can't get AIDS that way," he said, laughing.

That night back at the hostel I had to steel my resolve against the pleading of the French boys, who tried to convince me to go out with them again. I would have loved to, but to catch our flight to Edinburgh we had to wake up at 3:45, and I knew a second night out with that kind of deadline could only mean bad news. As it turned out, the Frenchies weren't even back to their beds by the time we left.

Day 3:
Despite operating off of a cumulative total of about eight hours sleep in the past 48 hours, we were blown away by our first glimpses of Edinburgh. We were staying with, Rosy, a friend of one of Carolyn's former roommate's, but neither of us had met her.
"Carolyn, is Rosy in school? is she working?"
"I don't know."
"What's her last name? Does she live in a dorm or does she have any roommates?"
"I ... don't know that either."
"Do you know anything about her?" I asked.
She thought for a second. "I don't even think we're Facebook friends!"
Good thing we trust our friends, I thought.
Carolyn used the free Wi-Fi on the bus ride from the airport into the city to friend Rosy, and let her know our ETA.

We stepped off the bus and Rosy immediately recognized and greeted us, clearly having done a much better job of Facebook stalking us than we had with her. She led us to her flat, and introduced us to her three roommates. She had to dart off to class, as she was, in fact, in school at the University of Edinburgh. After she went to class, and we took a much-needed nap in her bed, she gave us a tour of the city. That night, Rosy and her roommate Rachel went to dinner with us at a fun basement-level pub called Under the Stairs. As we walked back, we took a detour into Greyfriar's Cemetery, which is right behind The Elephant House, where Harry Potter was born. JK Rowling wrote parts of the books in the cafe, which overlooks the cemetery, and she got inspiration for the names of some of the characters from the gravestones.

We wandered around the cemetery in the dark, but surprisingly warm evening, guided by the flashlight apps on our iPhones, trying to read ancient names behind vines and years of grime and soot, with the full moon casting spooky shadows. The graveyard was just scary enough to get the adrenaline drip started, but all too enticing to scare us off. The headstones are mounted on huge walls that transform the hilly graveyard into something like a huge castle, and it's definitely best experienced at night, although we returned back during the day for pictures' sake.

Day 4:
After a day of wandering around Edinburgh pretending to be in Harry Potter, or every fairy tale ever written, we closed out our Scotland tour by cooking the most American meal we could conjure for our hosts. Bacon, butter and cheese abounded. We teased each other by imitating each other's accents, and played a game called Articulate, which is similar to Catchphrase, but full of British sayings that threw Carolyn and me for a loop.

Day 5:

We took the train to London, and got acquainted with our new hostel. The common room smelled like feet. And unfortunately, as we would learn later, every other guest in the hostel was apartment hunting, and not interested in making friends. But we got a map of the city and decided to explore the Tower of London and Tower Bridge areas. We spilled out of the tube onto a busy street that reminded me of the financial district in Manhattan, and debated whether to climb a random monument. But then a horde of school kids being herded to the monument made our decision easy, and we ran away towards the Thames river walk. I consulted a map, then looked up at the river.
"Ah, that's London Bridge!" I said. "Looks like it's still standing."
Coincidentally, it is also 100 percent unremarkable, reason being, when it was in the process of falling -- a surprisingly slow process, as I understand it -- a rich American who must have had everything in the world, except the London Bridge, decided to buy it and transplant it into the middle of the desert in Lake Havasu City, Ariz. So the one currently standing on the Thames is the newer, and way less interesting, albeit structurally sound, London Bridge.

We got to the Tower of London and realized there was a large hole in our British history when we both looked around, surprised.
"Where's the tower? All I see is a castle."
Adjusting our mental picture, we walked around three sides of the castle, and to my delight, determined it looked remarkably like the Playmobil castle, which will forever be the universal standard for 'castle' in my mind.

Day 6:

The British Museum has a distinctly low statue-to-nose ratio. Touring around it at a blitz pace on Thursday, Carolyn and I started to wonder what anyone could possibly want with all those noses, and if somewhere in the black market underworld there's a separate museum called Noses of the British Museum. Filling in the gaps with our imagination, we joked our way through thousands of years of ancient history, hieroglyphs, tomb decorations, sphinxes, ancient coins, mummies and all.

We stepped into Primark, our favorite cheap department store, to buy socks, since Carolyn was now six days without her bag. At the checkout, or 'till' as they call it, the lady commented on the healthy splash of freckles Carolyn and I both wear year round. We both thought it an odd compliment, until we noticed she bore plenty of freckles herself, and we realized how rare freckles were in London. The lady went on to say she had spent some time in California, and a homeless man had once told her "a woman without freckles is like a night without stars." How about that. I'll take second-hand compliments from a homeless man any day.

We strolled on towards Trafalgar Square, passing a trio tossing a frisbee. It took all my resolve not to run in and layout D a catch, but we moved on instead. We enjoyed one of our most delicious backpacker meals sitting on the edge of the fountains in the square -- hummus, pita, sharp white cheddar cheese and pastrami. Then we found a coffee shop another backpacker had told us about and sat down for some espresso and hot chocolate, and a chance to rest the weary feet, while of course nomming on scones. We had a 5 p.m. appointment with the choir of Westminster Abbey, so we checked out the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben for a few minutes before shuffling in with the multicultural assembly of tourists looking to hear hair-raising choral music and sneak past the whopping 18 pound entrance fee to the abbey. It was mostly what we expected, although surprisingly less awe-inspiring than St. Patrick's.

One of my top goals for London was to be able to play ultimate with some Londoners in a city park. I had looked up pick-up games and thought I'd found a reliable source about one on Thursday evenings at 6:30 in Regent's Park. I marked an X on my city map, and led Carolyn through the tube to get off at Camden Town market. We found Regent's Park, and in the distance I saw flying discs, and I could barely contain my excitement. With no reliable shelter or cover to change in, I deck-changed out of cute touring clothes into ultimate gear, while Carolyn nervously eyed a family with young children walking nearby.

"OK bye," I yelled over my shoulder once changed, tripping along with one foot half-in a shoe. Carolyn trailed behind and found a bench to catch up on some journaling, and I ran and introduced myself to the "pick-up group," who were standing in a huddle. But as soon as I arrived, I got suspicious of the matching jerseys. They were not, in fact, a pick-up group, but instead a young team from University of the Arts London, who have no central campus grounds to practice on, so they meet at Regent's Park. That night was their first practice for new 'freshers' on the team, but seeing's how I was so stoked to play, they graciously allowed me to play with them.

Their freshers were enthusiastic, and those with experience were patient in explaining the rules. I was just happy to run around and get some touches on the disc. But after just a half hour, it was too dark to see, and they wrapped things up, inviting me into the team huddle. I'd by then figured out that this was not at all the group I'd intended to meet up with, but meeting up with them didn't feel like an accident either. I looked around the group, half wearing UAL jerseys and half wearing sweatpants, colorful leggings, flannel, graphic tees ... all around a collection of the last clothes I would have ever shown up to an ultimate practice wearing, and I surmised that England's ultimate culture must cater more to the arts crowd than the engineering crowd, as it does here in the U.S.

The team invited me and Carolyn to go to the pub with them after practice, so we all walked together to Camden town, found a pub and proceeded to rearrange the furniture to accommodate our group of about 15. We ordered drinks, and Carolyn and I ordered one tuna melt to split, in true backpacker fashion. After we'd explained our trip and how we came to be in the right place at the right time, there came a lull in the conversation. The group was still new to each other and there were a few shy ones holding back. I reached in my purse and pulled out the die, and cleared my throat.

"New friends, I have a gift for you from my ultimate team back in Ohio. It's called Dare Dice," I announced.  They were intrigued, so I proceeded. We started with half the table, and soon everyone joined in. One poor newbie to the team had to take a shot of vinegar from the condiments rack on the table, another had to stall count a stranger at the bar. Carolyn had to hug a bartender, and another kid had to lick mayonnaise off another's arm. The group fully embraced the game and took it to new heights that I'd not even experienced back home, and we realized it was a great ice breaker game that forces you to learn everyone's name. We hugged it out at the tube station entrance before parting ways with our new friends, happy that we'd fostered the first team bonding night.

Day 7:
London is huge. And exhausting. The end. Just kidding, there's so much more to say, but I have to save it for a second post. In the mean time, check out my photos from the trip on Facebook, or read Carolyn's version of events (with photos!) here:

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Pump the brakes with the negativity toward Millennials!

Can we not have another article making false generalizations about Millennials, written by a Generation Xer? Please? Thank you.

Recently I’ve started to cringe any time I see multiple people post the same article about 20-somethings.

I’m 22, (born in 1991 for those of you who struggle with the math). I’m solidly a Millennial. And I’m starting to think there’s something wrong with me, because I. Am. So. HAPPY.

And I’m single.
And I have an entry-level job making about half of the average salary in Ohio (I am in journalism, after all).
And I’m extremely ambitious and driven.

And apparently, according to the articles floating around, like this one, this combination should make me UNHAPPY and frustrated with my life because, as a Millennial, or Generation Y’er, or a GYPSY or whatever they’re calling us now, I can’t possibly have achieved happiness at 22.

I feel like I have some ‘splaining to do, because I definitely don’t identify as a GYPSY, which if you haven’t read the article, stands for Gen Y Protagonists & Special Yuppies, and I wouldn’t classify any of my friends as one either. But to avoid writing another post over-generalizing about Millennials, let me make the disclaimer that this is my experience, and my observation of the experience of the vast majority of my closest friends in Dayton and from UNC.

The main premise of this article follows an equation my favorite high school literature teacher introduced me to when I was 16: Happiness = expectations – reality.

To sum up the article, it basically says Millennials are unhappy because previous generations put so much pressure on them to have great careers and be happy that they had GREAT EXPECTATIONS for their 20s, and they're also inherently self-absorbed and think the world revolves around giving them a great life. And then when a tough economy made finding the most amazing job ever right out of college a little tough, REALITY smacked them in the face and made them UNHAPPY.

So let’s break this down.

I was raised with a strong work ethic, meaning I knew that anything valuable in life would take work. I’ve never felt entitled to anything. I was responsible for paying for 100 percent of my college expenses, so I picked the college that was cheapest and closest to home, but offered a major I was reasonably interested in. My EXPECTATION for life after college was that I would get some kind of 9ish to 5ish job in the field I majored in, find hobbies and interests to fill my free time, and make friends who would help me enjoy every minute of life. I knew it would take hard work and relentless networking, on both the professional and friendship sides, but I knew it would pay off sooner or later.

A few months into college, I realized just how competitive the job market is in journalism, and that it takes multiple top-quality internships to land a solid journalism job. So, with the help of excellent professors and mentors, I made sure that happened. I accepted the first job I was offered, even though it meant moving 500 miles away from home to a city where I knew no one, because as a recent grad in a tough job market, I wasn’t about to be picky when offered a job in my chosen career field.

So guess what, the REALITY is, I have an entry-level 9-to-5 job that pays the bills and buys the beer, and I discovered a love for Ultimate Frisbee, through which I made awesome friends.

End result? I’ve never been HAPPIER.

But it’s not because I set low expectations for myself, and neither is it because I live a charmed life.
I have high standards for myself, and I am highly competitive. So no, I have not achieved everything I want in life. I certainly want to work my way up within my company, but I understand that takes time developing a solid track record. Unlike this article implies about me as a 20-something, I already understand that it takes several years to master a job, and that unless you’re absolutely miserable, you should stick a job out for a few years at a minimum. I’ve been at my job just over a year and I am still learning so much each month, because my ego, even though it is in the healthy to slightly overweight range, is not big enough to think I could master a centuries-old profession in just a year.

Another article that riled me up recently was this one about questions I should ask myself in my 20s, and while some of them could be valid points for some people, I could barely keep reading after the first one: "Do the people I’m surrounded by bring me life?", which went on to ask … “Are your friends taking steps forward or are they still playing beer pong in the basement??"

And my answer to the author is heck yes! My friends bring me so much life it blows my mind, and after spending a weekend with them, I have to go run laps around a track to sort out all the fun and file it away for future grins and giggles. My friends, many of whom I’ve met in the last year through Ultimate Frisbee, have great careers or are headed for great careers – engineers, teachers, nurses, wedding photographers, social workers,… you name it. And yet we still get together and play beer pong in my basement, or any number of Frisbee games, and go to trivia nights, and go dancing on the weekends and generally live life with so much gusto and passion and care for each other that we don’t need to constantly abuse the phrase ‘I love you’ because it’s so already patently obvious that we do.

I don’t think there’s a one-size fits all definition of what your 20s should be like. I think they should be fun, but I’m planning on having fun in my 30s, and 40s, and 50s, and 60s and so on until I have a heart attack in the middle of doing something awesome. I think you should set realistic goals for yourself and try to achieve them, but again, goal setting is a great idea for any time in life. I think you should expect to fail at a good 50 percent of the things you try, but you should never give up on yourself.

I’m writing this mostly because I think the articles floating around about 20-somethings do more harm than good. They mischaracterize my generation, add extra anxiety to college seniors and new grads, and give people an excuse to stay unhappy. They can make life after college sound depressing, which, as I approached graduation, I had some concerns about as well. But let me tell you something: I have the #firstworldproblem of often wondering, as the breath catches in my throat in panic, if life is only going to be downhill from here because I can’t imagine how it could get any better than this. Sometimes this feeling strikes when I’m in the shower, with You Make My Dreams by Hall and Oates blasting out of my iPhone speakers, or I’m celebrating an amazing play on the Frisbee field, or I’m helping mount a dart board in my friend’s apartment, or making new friends at a concert, or getting to know my teammates at a tournament. And sometimes it’s literally standing on a mountain top, but the point is, life is as fun as you make it. To any college seniors wondering what post-college life is like, here’s an example of the average day in the life of Olivia:

Yesterday, I got picked up from work by a friend who’s a senior at UD, and in true college-budget fashion we hit up a downtown restaurant that is celebrating its 30 year anniversary by offering free pizza (with the purchase of a drink). After I stole all the corner pieces from all the pizzas – they’re so tiny and crunchy! – we met another 20-something friend at our favorite thrift and had a heyday with 25-percent-off-Mondays. We followed it up with $1.25 milkshakes from my favorite ghetto ice cream shop, where the solo staffer already knows my order – a kids’ size peanut butter shake – after my two trips there in the last five days. Then I came home and attempted to pack two weeks’ worth of supplies for my upcoming two week backpacking trip to the British Isles into a bag weighing less than 20 pounds.

And this isn’t even the highlight reel of my life. That’s just an average night. Today I went kayaking with my Little Sister at a free city parks event, followed by boxing in the grungiest, but most hardcore downtown gym with awesome people who keep me laughing and inspire me constantly, even while the sweat pouring off my body forms a mini lake on the concrete floor. On Wednesday, I’m going to meet with an ambitious group of young professionals who are passionate about downtown to discuss our plan to create more awareness of healthy, fresh food options near downtown Dayton, and I might throw in some intramural volleyball afterward, or some $2 wine tastings.

I realize that I am incredibly blessed. And I’m so thankful.

But also, I’m so tired of being told why I should be unhappy with my life. One of my biggest beefs with Christianity right now is how it trains you to be disappointed in yourself, by constantly reminding you of your shortcomings. Instead of inspiring you to go out and make more laughs and smiles, super ‘convicting’ sermons point out yet another area of your life where you’re messing it all up. And yes, sometimes you need to be called out for stuff, but that’s what good friends, on a one-on-one basis, are for, because more often than not those talks create unnecessary worry and anxiety in hearts that are already just trying to bring as much joy to the world as possible.

So to those 20-somethings out there who aren’t enjoying the wonderful gift that is your twenties and everything that comes with that, whether it’s the flexibility of not having dependents, the strength and agility of youth, the excitement of new responsibilities and learning as much as you can in a new job, the freedom from homework for the first time in 16 years, or what have you, please stop reading these articles that are just encouraging you to stay stuck in a rut of unhappiness.

Because your happiness isn’t based on your circumstances, or other people’s expectations for you. It’s not based on how your reality shapes up to someone else’s reality, or how it shapes up to what you expected. It’s based on what you make of your REALITY.

So please, go out and make as many people smile and laugh as you possibly can, and remind yourself that life only gets better from here. 

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Why I broke up with God

A few months ago, I did something very unlike me.

I quit.

I quit trying to follow someone else’s pattern for my life, because it was killing me. I got out of the most abusive relationship I’ve ever been in – my so-called ‘relationship’ with God.

Do you know why people stay in abusive relationships? Sometimes they don’t know anything better. They’re scared of being alone. They are convinced that it’s all their fault, and if they can change themselves, it will all get better. They want things to work out. They see other people in good relationships and they study them and try to figure out what to do differently to achieve that.

Maybe you can tell where this is going.

My struggle with Christianity looked a lot like that in the last two years.

I wrote this at the tail end of it a couple months ago:

My experience of spirituality has been almost bipolar. Vacillating between manic highs of spiritual conviction and determination to follow an external code and an invisible, unreachable God, and devastating lows of nothingness that wreck my inner peace and leave me crying out from my bed for hope and comfort.

Looking at it from the small distance I have achieved since I quit my daily Bible reading plan, and determined to kick the habit of prayer-as-reflex, my behavior bears scary resemblance to a victim of an abusive relationship.

I’m hurting, to the point of physical distress, longing for a spiritual relationship that is supposed to fulfill all my spiritual needs, and make my worldly needs look infinitely small. And it’s not working. I’ll have a moment of peace because I’ve mustered up all my emotional reserve to sit patiently, and I’ll think, “This is not so bad, I can do this.” And then it all comes crashing down and I know it’s my fault. I’m not doing it right. I’m trying to save myself. I’ve said all the right things, I’ve believed them in every sense of my knowing what it means to believe, and everything is still all wrong. But if I could just believe it better, or deny myself more pleasure and accept more pain, maybe God would accept me, or meet with me, and it would get better.

I just didn’t have what the other Christians had, or seemed to have. I was in search of this mystical connection with God, and it always eluded me. I tried so hard. I wanted to know God, whatever that means. But for me it was not whether I tried Bible reading, endless hours in prayer, going to church, or meeting with other Christians to talk about getting close to God. It was all a meaningless exercise that was life-draining instead of life-giving.

Plus, I’m gay. And even though Christians try to tell me that doesn’t mean I can’t be a Christian or know God, in my experience trying to be a gay Christian is torture. I grew up hearing only terrible thoughts about gay people from church. Being gay was maligned as the worst sin. It’s hard to shake off that influence.

I didn’t come out until a couple months ago, and even now lots of my friends don’t even know because it doesn’t always come up in conversation and I don’t dress or talk like a stereotypical lesbian, I guess. I also tried to date some guys in my attempts to conform and fit in.

When I first told some really close friends that I was attracted to girls, it was through sobs. I was already in the middle of some pretty tough doubts about faith, and saying it aloud made it real. In the Christianity that I grew up with, gay people have to be asexual. They have to ignore all the thoughts and feelings and desires that come with being a PERSON. In desperately trying to conform to this standard of the model Christian, I was losing my own humanity. I was trying to see myself as God supposedly sees me, and it seemed all I heard was that God wouldn’t be able to look past the gay. It’s a culture of complete self-loathing, and it is not healthy. I found that I would have given anything to just be straight. It was taking over.

Living as a Christian meant some weird priorities. I carved out time for two bible studies, church on Sundays, and volunteering efforts, and it all felt like a box to check off. I attended those things, almost always at the expense of missing things that I was actually passionate or excited about and found much more life-giving.

Christianity kept drawing lines in everything. These are the good friends, the Christian ones, it said. Those are the friends you should try to be a good influence on, but don’t get too close, because they’re not Christians. These are the people you can date. Those are the ones you have to always reject. This whole concept of sharing the gospel was always hard for me, but I had an epiphany about it, strangely enough, after watching Pitch Perfect for the eighth time. I thought the movie was so hilarious, I wanted to share it with everyone I knew. It came up so easily in conversation, and I was always willing to watch it again so a new person could see it for the first time. I think sharing the gospel is supposed to be something like that. But I had no joy in my personal experience with Christianity, and I found that rather than wanting to tell everyone about it so they could share in the experience, I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemies.

Anyway, the point is I’m done waging war with myself, and no surprise, I am healthier and happier for it. I still believe in God, but I’m done fighting to get to him. If he wants to be in a relationship with me, he can come and get me any time he wants.

In the last couple weeks I’ve been more conscious about correcting people when they make a straight assumption about me. It’s kind of exhausting, but once they know, it’s very freeing. I can finally be myself. So the status update on Olivia's mental health is…I am very happy because I am finally learning to accept myself completely. 

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Crampons and Tampons, or More Cheese, Less Fiber One Bars

The goal of this post is not to make you jealous of my 4th of July weekend.

Oh wait, yes it is.

Then why does it use the word ‘tampon’ in the title? Just read on, friends.

I flew out to Seattle on July 4th to visit my brother Philip and my sister-in-law Charyl, and also met up with my friend Nick, who is interning in California and flew up for the weekend. We planned the trip around climbing Mt. Baker, a 10,700-foot peak in the northern Cascades. It would take two days, so we had a day on either side to tool around Seattle, which Nick had never seen, and I had never enjoyed post turning 21.

We spent Thursday catching up, eating, drinking craft beers – including Diamond Knot brewery, Phil’s favorite local brewery – and gathering the gear needed for the climb. At REI, Nick and I contemplated dropping $50 to $100 on some snazzy glacier sunglasses, but Philip said he thought we might be able to make do with our own, along with some cleverly applied duct tape. So we rented the necessary gear: an ice axe, a helmet, and yes, the dreaded word … crampons.

Crampons, despite sounding like a portmanteau of the two worst things about being a woman, are devilishly clever devices that mountaineers swear by. Bearing an uncanny resemblance to bear claws, they look exactly like what I picture ripping the lining from the walls of my uterus. And as luck would have it, I felt the beginning signs of my period coming on just looking at them (male readers, get over it). Anyway, crampons clamp onto your hiking shoes (why couldn’t we just call them cLampons?) and provide excellent traction in ice and crunchy snow. Without them, glacier climbing would be a slipping sliding impossible mess.

Charyl laid out a feast of non-perishable, high-protein snacking items, and we each packed about two pounds of trail mix, Cheetos, Fiber One bars, cheese sticks, sandwiches, Oreos and just-add-water hiking meals. Our other gear included harnesses with all kinds of safety knots and clips and ropes that we would later learn how to use, sleeping bags and mats and lots of warm layers. Summer glacier hiking makes for frequent wardrobe adjustments.

“Are you all familiar with blue-bagging?” Philip asked me and Nick.
“Blue bagging? Is that like brown-bagging? Or TP-ing?” I asked.
“Not exactly. There’s no facilities on the mountain after the pit toilet at the trailhead…” he explained. I caught on.
“Ugh gross. Let’s just hope my hyperactive metabolism goes on vacation this trip,” I said, grabbing another cheese stick.

Taking a quick break from packing, Charyl took Nick and me to see her plot in the community garden in Mukilteo. We were thoroughly impressed and inspired by the tidy plants that yield so much green goodness. Her spindly sugar snap pea plants were drooping with plump pea pods, so we harvested-aka-snacked on the ripe and delicious peas.

Charyl and Nick pick peas.

Standing there, surrounded by fresh food soaking up what little Pacific Northwestern sun it can, I was reminded how disconnected I am from where my food comes from. I’d love to grow my own veggies some time, and after tasting and seeing the fruit of Charyl’s labors, I’m feeling a little more empowered.

The next challenge was converting our cheap sunglasses into wrap-around, full-coverage glacier glasses. The glare from a glacier on a sunny day can sunburn your retina, causing temporary blindness, so adequate eye protection is a must. Nick and I envisioned this meaning two very different things, and we attacked our glasses with strips of duct tape. Although they looked completely different, Philip ruled our ghetto goggles acceptable. No snowblindness for us. 

Modeling our Stunna Shades.

Charyl and Philip live in a rare unincorporated neighborhood north of Seattle that allows fireworks, and it being the 4th of July, the neighbors were going to town. From inside the house it sounded like a warzone. Unable to hold back our curiousity any longer, we grabbed a beer and walked outside until we found the best vantage point from which to watch all the households attempt to one-up each other’s fireworks display as the last rays of evening light slid behind the horizon.

We went to bed to dream of mountains, knowing our next night’s sleeping arrangements would be significantly lower on the creature comforts.

On the way out we stopped at the ranger station to pick up the dreaded blue bags, and to check in on the conditions of the route. 

I love 3D topo maps this one. Baker is the
 white one.

We arrived at the base of Mt. Baker around 10:30 Friday morning, and after a trip to the pit toilet – make it count, I thought – we weighed our packs. Somehow I ended up with the lightest pack, at 31.8 pounds. Philip’s read out at more than 45 pounds, but he laughed and called it a training pack, since this possibly-once-in-a-lifetime experience for me would be just another weekend for him. Then we hefted on our packs and hit the trail.

Five minutes in, I thought what the heck am I doing? How is this fun? My calves were already burning and my arches were straining under the extra 1/4th of an Olivia strapped to my back. But after a $500 plane ticket with the express purpose of climbing a mountain, I wasn’t about to complain. I chose my words carefully.
“Man, my calves sure are … engaging on this gentle but significant incline! Whew! Feels great! The way fire is…great.”

We soon came to a river rushing over a massive rock field that traces the path of the glacier down the mountain during the winter.

“That river wasn’t here two weeks ago,” Philip commented, noting it had still been covered in several feet of snow.

A narrow log stretched across most of the river, almost connecting with a large flat rock, and a few planks connected the rock to the other side. A few branches provided minimal hand rails until the last 10 feet of wet, skinny tree trunk. I stared at the “bridge” with apprehension. I hadn’t counted on going swimming this trip, and neither had the iPhone in my left pant pocket.

But with the aid of Philip’s trekking poles, we all made it safely across, and I beamed inside at conquering the first hurdle, and spent the next mile congratulating myself about facing my fears, just as my stomach cramps set in in full force, taking my mind to a new source of pain.  

The trail transitioned into patches of snow, and then only snow and no trail. We followed others' footsteps and slogged up a steady incline through the woods, with brief glimpses of Mt. Baker.

Finally the trees gave way to a wall of rock, which we scrambled up to reach the high trail. The wall of rock is known as a moraine, and it mirrored another wall several hundred yards away, making a U-shaped valley carved out by the glacier. Its right side dropped more than 100 feet nearly straight down into the ice and the left side dropped slightly less steeply into a snow-covered meadow.
Hiking up the moraine.

We were left with a trail no wider than our backpacks along the knife-edge cliff , which we followed for a mile steadily up the mountain. I was enthralled by the danger and even more surprised by my own cavalier manner. It would be pretty bad if you fell right now, my brain said. But my feet said, nah we got this, so I marched on and took in the full view of Mt. Baker, with a wisp of sulfur smoke coming out of the crater of the active volcano. 

Depth, distance and slope are incredibly deceiving in the snow, so I had no frame of reference to judge just how challenging the next day’s climb would be.

We stopped for lunch at a large rock at almost exactly a mile in elevation. We continued hiking until the moraine blended into the glacier and the scenery turned entirely to snow. We set up our tent on the flattest spot we could find, which is to say we set up tent on a hill.

“It’ll be fine, we’ll just put our heads on the uphill side,” Charyl said.

It was only about 2 o’clock when we made camp, but the snow conditions were deteriorating with the prolonged sun exposure, and Philip didn’t feel comfortable advancing much higher because of hidden crevasses that could swallow our camp. So we laid out our sleeping bags and staked out the tent. 

Nick and I sat on a rock and took in the already breathtaking views of the northern Cascades on all sides until a cloud moved in over the summit. Soon more followed, reducing our visibility to 50 yards from the tent. Philip instructed us on how to maneuver as part of a rope team, covering all the safety procedures in case one of us fell on the snow or plunged into a crevasse. Mountaineering takes a lot of trust, communication and coordination between team members.

We boiled some snow to cook our hiking dinners, and I froze my butt cheeks dealing with my feminine problems. Then, with nothing else to do, we went to bed at 5 o’clock, in anticipation of starting the summit-attempt at 2 a.m. This is typical with glacier climbing in order to take advantage of the best snow conditions before and soon after sunrise. Since my body was still on Eastern Time, this was slightly an easier notion for me to handle, although the ambient light streaming through the still thick cloud cover sent me mixed messages. I slid into my sleeping bag, and kept sliding to the bottom of the tent.

Apprehension about the climb threatened to take over and rob me of sleep, but eventually I settled into a series of light naps with bizarre, vivid dreams of finding myself anywhere but on top of a mountain at 2 a.m. and desperately trying to get back. Around 9 o’clock (technically the middle of our night, but that was hard to grasp), we all found ourselves awake, and looking out the small window in the tent, realized the clouds had disappeared, leaving the summit gleaming in the sunset and the craggy peaks to our left rimmed in glowing orange. I took in the view from my cozy sleeping bag, then buried my face inside to again block out the sleep-defying light.

Our destination at sunset.

At 1 a.m., Philip woke us all up, and we slowly emerged from our cocoons. We’d all slid into the bottom of the tent, and crawling back to the top with legs entangled in sleeping bags was a challenge. I finally emerged and shoved my feet into my boots, desperately needing to relieve myself. I stepped out into the cold, and the stars took my breath away. The Milky Way arced in a distinct band from horizon to horizon, and millions more stars than I’ve ever seen shone down in the moonless night. The mountain rose out of the sky, its white smooth surface reflecting the faint light. I peed in awe, trying to identify any familiar constellations, but all except the Big Dipper seemed crowded out by these new unknown twinklers.

We layered up in the cold and donned our packs, much lighter now with only water, food and spare warm layers inside. With headlamps attached to our helmets, we clipped into the rope and took our positions, Charyl leading, Nick and me taking the middle, and Philip bringing up the rear as the most experienced member of our team.

We trudged up the slope, picking our way carefully to give crevasses a wide berth when possible, or crossing sturdy snow bridges if necessary. Every few minutes I gasped as I remembered to look at the stars. Hundreds of feet in elevation above us, we glimpsed other headlamps marching up the glacier in neat little lines of three or four. I felt a sense of solidarity and community with the other mountaineers. A meteor streaked across my field of vision, seeming to crash into Mt. Baker’s summit. I wanted to bottle up all the beauty to take home to Ohio, but knew it would never fit inside the camera, and I’d have to preserve it in my mind.

As we marched on, the night shifted to grey which blended into yellow and pink. Taking a brief rest, we all turned to watch as the mountains behind us caught the first rays of a sun rising on the far side of the mountain. I munched on a Fiber One bar, passing up the cheese for the comfort of chocolate.

You can see the shadow of Mt. Baker on the horizon at sunrise.

Every time I turned around I was amazed by how much more we could see, and how high we’d risen, but the summit seemed no more attainable than before. Soon Mt. Rainier peaked a sliver of its shiny summit over the horizon. After more than four hours climbing, we reached the crater, which is nestled between Baker’s two peaks – Grant and Sherman, with Grant our destination. A ledge of soft, sandy rock provided a nice seat, and peering over the other side, an amazing view inside the crater, and our first taste of the sun, no longer obscured by the mountain. No, there was no bubbling lava, but there was a steady stream of sulfur smoke curling toward the sky. Huge impassable walls of snow streaked with sulfur and slightly ribbed from the freezing-melting cycle swept down into the crater, held up by the sharpest rock faces. We marveled at the beauty, and took the opportunity to fart freely, knowing the mountain would take the blame.

Approaching the crater.

Sitting on the edge of the crater.

Looking into the crater.

Another Fiber One bar down, we set out to conquer the Roman Wall -- the last 1,000 feet of elevation and the steepest part of our climb, cutting our own switchbacks to lessen the incline. With every upward step the view got more amazing. Mt. Rainier was now fully visible hundreds of miles to the south, and the Puget Sound, with all its islands, lay to the west. Finally we reached the summit, and with no trees or rocks to provide shelter, we abandoned dignity for much-needed pee breaks. By now my diet was starting to catch up with me, but I told it to keep quiet and determined not to use the blue bags. 


View from the top looking back into the crater.

We unclipped from the rope for the first time since starting out six hours ago. It was now 8:45 a.m. and the sky was crystal clear, with almost no wind, even at 10,700 feet. We snacked and rested our legs before starting the long climb down.Nick and I were both more concerned about the return trip than the trip up. My evil crampons were compressing my middle toe on my right foot, and I knew the continued downhill stretch would exaggerate that, and Nick has a bum knee.

Suddenly I had a realization.

“Wait a second, why have I been eating all these Fiber One bars? I should be eating StopMeUp bars! Where’s the cheese?!”

But it was too late. On top of my aching feet, and running out of water, the whole trip down was a battle between my will and my … let’s call it natural impulses. As the sun got higher, the snow got slushier, and we slipped and slogged down the last 1,000 feet of elevation until the welcome sight of our bright red tent appeared. I ripped the crampons off, and panting, swallowed half a liter of water in one gulp, along with my pride and dignity, and grabbed the blue bag and ran to a semi-private location just over a hill of snow.

Ahhh, sweet relief, I sighed, happy that me, my crampons and my tampons had all made it safely up, and back down the mountain.

Hours later, back in civilization, we settled in for a delicious pizza and beer before the best night’s sleep of my life.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Musings from one year in Dayton

Today is my one-year anniversary of work. In a year at the Dayton Business Journal, I like to think I’ve been a good influence on this town. I mean, since I showed up we’ve gotten two downtown brewpubs, one in Yellow Springs and a crap ton more to come, downtown Dayton has added hundreds of jobs, Mumford and Sons decided to come to Troy, and locals even admit to liking their hometown more because of me.

That’s probably just my big head talking, because I think in reality it’s just the opposite: Dayton has had a good influence on me.

In a year in Dayton, I’ve learned a lot about who I am and what I want to be. I’ve learned that it’s almost impossible to nail down both of those things at the same time, because I’m constantly changing as I have new awesome experiences and meet new amazing people.

In a year at a full-time professional job, I’ve learned that co-workers should feel like family, puns should be used sparingly, shoes are mandatory, it takes exactly three minutes to blow-dry my hair, that amazing sources can come from the most unlikely places, and without deadlines, I would get nothing done.

I’ve been reading Summer and Bird by Katherine Catmull, and I ran across a line that I loved last night:
“And Summer, when you tell yourself stories, make them true. And make them surprising. That’s how you will know they might be true.”

I realize that I started out this year telling myself the same old boring, untrue stories. You’re not good enough. This is too hard. Life would be easier and more fun back home. You’re never going to make friends. You have to live your life according to other people’s expectations. Most of your time has to be tied up in meaningless obligations. Your honest opinion isn’t valuable. And so on…all lies the devil tries to brand on your heart. 

But the surprising thing is, in every case the opposite is true. I am good enough. Yes, I can always be better, but there is value in the effort I bring. And nothing is ever too hard; I just often take the wrong approach to things. And the grass is never greener back home or anywhere that I’m not, because it’s all about what I make of where I’m at. And I’ve learned to make Dayton pretty awesome.

Since coming here, my story has taken some surprising turns – I mean who would have predicted Ultimate, not to mention boxing? And rock climbing? Spontaneous trips to Chicago, New York City and home. Sledding adventures, adventures in getting to know my neighbors, adventures in learning to appreciate solitude…the list goes on, and will continue to go on as long as I’m breathing.

The funny thing is, I never would have predicted where I am today because I was stuck inside myself. But looking at it now, it’s no surprise I’ve found these things in Dayton, because my nature is to not give up until I’m completely satisfied with the results of my efforts.

My first three months here were a real challenge because I couldn’t find obvious ways to meet people who also wanted to meet new people. The real world is full of people in every stage of life, instead of the homogeneous collection of bright-eyed students seeking friends that you find in college. Some are like closed border countries – they’re not accepting applications for friends right now. Some are older than you, and you’re tempted to write them off as not friend material. Some take a long time to warm up, and even though you will eventually become great friends, you can’t see that in the beginning. And some you hit it off with instantly, but that’s so rare in the beginning that the combination of all of this can shatter your self-confidence in your own desirability as a friend. At least it did mine. I remembered some of my past experiences with traveling to new places where there seemed to be no end of amazing people. I mused on how many thousands of people there are in all the world that I would probably be obsessed with because they’re so cool and fun, based on the infinitesimally small sampling of people I had met in the world. So I wondered, where are they all in Dayton? They have to be here, but why can’t I find them?

Well as I’ve found, it just takes a little ballsy initiative to try new things by yourself, the ability to drop your judgmental evaluations of what ‘good friend material’ is, the perseverance with friendships that start out sandy or seem to run aground prematurely, and a healthy amount of shared pints of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream (this exact figure is currently in debates by the CDC and the WHO).

Today, along with quietly celebrating my one-year, I had to say “see ya later” to one friend with whom my relationship grew through all of those exercises. As two strangers in a new city, we pushed each other to experience everything Dayton had to offer to the fullest, and I’m really thankful for our friendship. I’m sad you’re moving to Florida, but I can’t wait to visit you on the beach, Courtney!

Here’s to another awesome year full of truth and surprises.