Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Only hate the road when you’re missin' home

It snowed most of the afternoon and evening today. I love snow. I have been making snow puns all day, until my friends and coworkers have told me in snow uncertain terms to shut up.

I love walking in snow; I love looking at snow; I love sledding on snow; even just the inch or so of fluffy wet snow we got tonight. I check the weather spastically, looking forward to the day that the weather gremlins are calling for snow. But every moment that the snow is falling, I’m afraid it’s stopping, or slowing down. So with the enormous joy comes an equal sense of loss for every minute passed.

I realized it’s awfully similar to how I felt this weekend, hanging out in the mountains with 12 of my closest friends from UNC.

With some astute Facebook stalking, I figured out that many of my housemates from last year and close friends through Intervarsity would be in or near North Carolina around MLK weekend, and since most of us had Monday as a holiday, we planned a mountain weekend reunion at my last roomie Abby’s aunt’s cabin. Yes that’s kind of a mouthful.

I looked forward to our mountain weekend for weeks – from the minute I sent out the message inviting everyone to the minute my little Toyota finally chugged up the world’s steepest driveway to the cabin at just past midnight on Friday after the longest day at work – I was pee-my-pants excited.

And then I arrived. There were hugs all around as I reunited with friends I hadn’t seen in six months, or some even longer. In the whole scheme of things, maybe that’s not such a long time, but considering that’s the sum total length of my entire adulthood, that’s a long time.

And that’s when the clock-ticking began. A weekend – even a three-day one – is such a short time to recharge your soul.

These people are the ones who surrounded me during the three most formative years of my life. So much of me I have them to blame or thank for. It felt so right to be reunited, that it felt wrong that we had ever been apart. Those painful-but-worth-it get-to-know-you conversations were long since passed. Gone was the tension of wondering, ‘Am I clicking with so-and-so? Do they like me as much as I like them? Am I talking too much? Can they tell how dorky I am in real life?’

It was so comfortable.

And so ephemeral.

I found myself feeling torn. While I was having the time of my life with my dear friends, usually laughing so hard I figured I could pass on the abs portion of boxing class for at least the next month, it felt so unreal. Like the real Olivia had stayed in Dayton, and I’d gone back in time. I almost felt guilty that I wasn’t doing something productive with my life, like putting in my time to get to this same level with my Dayton friends.

But every minute that passed was a minute closer to saying goodbye, and I had to constantly fight that sadness in order to enjoy the moment. 

In almost seven months living in Dayton I have finally gotten to a point that when I leave, I miss it for more than just its familiarity. I have made real friendships. I leave a part of myself in the dirty old skyline in my rear view mirror. Despite my initial plan to leave Dayton after two years, I feel my roots starting to grab hold of this frozen Ohio soil. And it scares me. What if life takes me to somewhere else entirely after Dayton, rather than returning to North Carolina, and I leave a little part of my soul there too? J.K. Rowling got it backwards. You can hide fragments of your soul in all kinds of places without killing anybody. Love binds you to people and places, even against your will.

But the mountain trip was amazing. As my friend Carolyn put it, “I feel like this is one of those glowing weekend memories I’ll always go back to.”

We saw waterfalls, we illegally jumped over a fence to run behind a waterfall, we ate Kilwin’s ice cream in Highlands, we sang, we danced, we made spontaneous musical fusion, we sat in a hammock, we watched the sunrise (although I do sometimes wonder why can’t we just film the sunset and run the tape backwards and achieve the same end), we quoted Pitch Perfect ad nauseum, we ate home-cooked meals, we beasted a puzzle and we played hours of Hijack.

Hijack is kind of a variation on Egyptian Rat Screw, or like the game ‘War’ except on crack. Each player lays out a card, and if it’s a face card, everyone has to perform the corresponding response, depending on which card is played. For jacks, everyone yells “Hijack!” For queens, everyone freezes. For kings, everyone salutes. And for aces, everyone slaps the card. The last to respond, or the first to break the frozen pose, takes the stack from the middle, and the goal is to run out of cards. As you can imagine, the game often devolves into players realizing that if they simultaneously slap the middle, salute, yell hijack, and then freeze, they can cover all their bases and make up for any deficiency of focusing ability. My old housemate Lisa took this one step further, freezing in a victory pose every time she laid down a queen, but that naturally backfired, since it turns out it’s a lot harder to hold perfectly still in a jubilant stance than it is to stare stone-faced at the table in front of you.

The TV at the cabin didn’t have a DVD player, but that didn’t stop us from enjoying a viewing of Pitch Perfect one night, and then The Breakfast Club the next. We plugged a karaoke machine into a MacBook and piled all dozen or so of us around the 15-inch screen. MacGyver would be so proud.

We found out that we all have terrible hearing, and combined with dirty minds, that can lead to some strange, but hilarious miscommunications.

We found out we have both musical geniuses and musical dunces in our group (me). 

We found out that the Blue Ridge Parkway is often closed because of ice and snow in the winter. Yes, we found that out the hard way. 

We found out that a grown man can survive sleeping outdoors in a hammock when the low is 24 degrees, if he's determined enough, and has enough blankets. 

We found out that the lyrics to Girl on Fire would make a great theme song for a National Dyslexia Awareness Month barbecue.  

And we found out that no matter how many miles, career paths, or new friends separate us, we can still come back to that place our souls call home – a community united by our shared past.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Anything Could Happen (Bye Bye 2012)

My New Year’s Eve plans came to me in a moment of Nitro Mojo-fueled inspiration while hanging out with some friends from boxing at Lucky’s Taproom in the Oregon District a few weeks ago.

My friend Nick said, “What are y’all doing for New Year’s Eve? I’m thinking about going to Chicago.”
“You’re going to Chicago?!” I shouted, unaware of my excessive volume or excitement. “That’s such a good idea! I want to go to Chicago!”
I turned to my friend Lauren. “We should go to Chicago for New Year’s!!”
“Well uh, do you want to maybe go together?” Nick asked.

So I asked off work, we booked a hotel, and looked for a place to park our party. We found a microbrewery in Wicker Park that was holding a Roaring ‘20s themed NYE party with open bar and buffet for $75. Brews, barbecue and boas – what more could a girl want?

Nick’s friend Marc came along, and Lauren’s friend Paul drove with us to save gas on his way to visit a friend.

I carefully packed all my warmest clothes, looking for ways to cleverly layer my snow clothes under my most fashionable street clothes, in order to keep up with my fashionista traveling companions. This is a joke. There’s basically no way to look sexy hot and actually be temperature hot in Chicago in winter. I froze my butt off, even while going to such lengths as wearing leggings over my tights.

Paul, our driver, has been trying to learn German. This became readily apparent when the GPS said things like “Dan nach auf die liechtennachsterbachstenfarger” or “auf links unter die ausgebeleiden strasse” or “fahrt.”

“Paul! Did your car just say fart?” I squealed. “Make it do it again!” So Paul pulled up his German-English dictionary app, one of about 4,326 apps he has installed on his iPhone, and asked it to translate the word ‘drive.’ The soft-spoken German translator lady inside the phone obliged us, pronouncing it slowly and clearly, and Paul’s stereo proceeded to say “Fahrt fahrt fahrt fahrt fahrt fahrt” at intervals throughout the trip.

We made it to Chicago in time to watch most of the Bears game in a bar. Lauren, a.k.a. Chicago's ambassador of Bears' fandom to the common people of Dayton, was thrilled. Decked out in a Bears t-shirt, Bears earrings, and a Bears scarf, she was constantly shocked to find herself surrounded by football fans all unified under the same banner, er, jersey.

Although the bar food and the cupcakes from a shop we visited later were both delicious on the way down, Lauren and I both were unfortunately visited by the ghosts of carbohydrates past. When we returned to our room to get ready for our first night on the town, we found ourselves crawling into bed trying to ward off some serious reflux and stomach cramping.

But our traveling companions decided to become knights in shining armor, and took a cab to the nearest Walgreens to bring home the best Get Well Instantly care package you can imagine. Saltines, sprite, water, Tums, Pepto, and a suspicious looking white powder called “Goody’s” that professed to be made of acetaminophen, aspirin and caffeine … but I think we all know what it really was. That, combined with Ellie Goulding’s song “Anything Could Happen” cranking out of the hotel room’s iHome, perked us up enough to get dressed and amped up to go out.

Somebody recommended we hit up a place called Moe’s Cantina near the river downtown, so we caught a cab and went. Thanks to a successful hotel pregame, we spilled, rather than stepped, out of the cab onto the street in front of the bar. The bar had two identical front doors on either side, so we tried the first one we came to. Marc reached out, but the door seemed stuck, so he put some Army-toned muscle into it.

BOOM! The door flung open, and we were staring a three of the most shocked and startled waitresses I’ve ever seen. Apparently the door was locked, or was supposed to be, and we were supposed to have entered through the other door.

We ordered some nachos and a pitcher of Sangria, but I really have no idea of the reasoning behind either decision. Marc and I brilliantly decided to have a jalapeno-off, which resulted in him crying in the bathroom trying to wash his mouth out, and me downing everyone’s waters at the table, and grasping for those of the table next to us. I’ve had jalapenos before, but these particular triple-heated peppers raised my definition of pain to a-whole-nother level.

As suddenly as we’d arrived at Moe’s, we got the urge to sing some karaoke. Nick’s friend Riku, a native Chicagoan, had joined us at this point, so he led us around the town in search of a karaoke joint.

Well, we did not find one. But we found a lady in green who struck Riku’s fancy, so we continued to run around town, but this time in search of the emerald temptress.

We did not find her either. I give Riku two stars as a tour guide. Or maybe one thumb unenthusiastically hanging off to the side.

So we took a cab home and crashed.

On New Year’s Eve morning, we woke up to delicious pancakes in bed from the hotel cafĂ©, courtesy of Nick. Our first stop was the Navy Pier, which Nick and I were both disappointed to find out had no naval war ships. But instead, we rode the Ferris wheel for some fantastic views of the city. We then checked out Winter Wonderland, a huge temporary indoor amusement park for kids, complete with a Tilt-a-Hurl, mini Ferris Wheel, inflatables, and ice rink, and popular dance songs blaring from the PA system. 

In one corner we found a display called Winter Wondertown. It was lined with fake old-fashioned storefronts, and a handful of actors looking like they were dressed by Dr. Seuss stood in the middle of the ‘street’ greeting visitors, wearing a whole spectrum of neon from head to toe. The most enthusiastic of them called out to us.

“Would you like to Gangam with us?!” she yelled, and I realized the viral Korean dance song was then playing above us. We joined the group and got a quick tutorial from the green-wigged-lady, and then stomped, lassoed, and giddy’upped with more gusto than we ever thought ourselves capable for the next 45 seconds.

Properly gangamed out, we danced our way out of the building and moved on to The Bean. While I secretly hoped this would turn out to be a museum dedicated to Mr. Bean, Roan Atkinson’s hilarious British idiot character, I was still quite impressed by the giant chrome kidney bean strategically situated to reflect the best of Chicago’s skyline.

And I was even more thrilled when Lauren pointed out the amazing photo-bombing opportunities afforded by the scads of tourists performing self-photography into the mirrored surface. This entertained me for a full twenty minutes.

Across the street from the Bean I noticed the Chicago Public Library and begged to go there. Libraries have turned out to be some of my favorite experiences in big cities, and this one was no different. And it was deliciously warm, which was a huge relief from frosty gusting outdoors.

We entered a huge foyer with a grand double staircase leading up to a room with the most beautiful stained glass dome I’ve ever seen. We slowly ascended the stairs, taking in the grandeur, when a chord was played on a grand piano somewhere above us. I perked up, and we followed our ears to the elegant marbled room with the dome. In the front of the room, a man only four feet tall sat plunking out the most intricate and technically challenging piano concerto I’ve ever heard on a massive grand piano.

I slid into a seat, mesmerized. Including the four of us, there were a total of six in the audience. I marveled at how the man’s fingers, at least an inch shorter than mine, nimbly tickled the keys with speed and grace I could never hope to attain. I held my breath, waiting for a break in the music. One finally came, and my hands automatically attacked each other in applause. The musician turned as if he'd just become aware of our presence. He looked my way and smiled in amusement, and continued seamlessly with the song.  
The song ended and the dwarf quietly replaced the cover to the piano, and we floated out on a cloud of serendipity.

We stopped in at a Starbucks to get some hot drinks to prepare ourselves for a long walk to the Sears :cough: I mean watchu-talking-‘bout Willis Tower. We timed our visit to catch the last rays of daylight, and the lights coming up in the city. We were crammed into the elevator livestock-style, with 20 excited tourists told to walk to the back and face front. More than a minute later, the elevator opened to the 103rd floor.

Standing in front of us, their faces blank with solemn anticipation, stood 25 Buddhist monks in full screaming orange garb, waiting for their elevator ride down. Our whole elevator registered a double take. We walked a safe distance away and burst out laughing from the surprise.

“That was literally the last thing I expected to see when those doors opened up,” I said. “I thought they were going to start singing, like some kind of multicultural welcoming committee.”

We made rounds of all the windows, taking in all 360 degrees of amazing vistas of one of the prettiest cities I’ve ever seen. We got in line to step onto the protruding glass alcoves. When it was my turn, I walked fearlessly out onto the glass floor, but then faltered as my stomach lept into my throat.
“Whoa, vertigo!” I said. Weak kneed, the four of us posed for a picture with the Chicago skyline below us.
We stayed there on top of the world until the last drop of sunshine fell below the horizon, and darkness fell on the city.

We caught an early dinner at Giordano’s, famous for its classic Chicago-style pizza. We then took a cab back to the hotel and got ready for our 20s party.

We sauntered down to the hotel lobby a few hours later, ready to rumble, decked out in feathered headbands, fringes, boas, pearls, and dashing suits. But our enthusiasm was soon curbed when we found out the wait for a cab was nearing 30 minutes. We stood in the street for about 30 seconds before Lauren and I discovered how completely uninsulating our outfits were against the Windy City. We decided to wait in the hotel bar until we caught a cab or thought of a better solution.

The bar had a few windows to the street, and after about three sips into a round of drinks, Lauren spotted a cab with its light on waiting at a red light across from the hotel. Nick jumped up and ran out to stop the cabby. We started to chug our drinks, and Nick reappeared, huffing.
“Let’s go! I told him to start the meter!”
We closed out our tabs, transferred our drinks to disposable cups, and made it to the cab in two seconds flat.

Our party was being held in a neighborhood known for its microbreweries at a bar called Moonshine. The atmosphere was delightful from the minute we walked in. A DJ was cranking the best of the last 25 years in dance tunes, 2013 balloons were attached to everything, a hundred or so 20-somethings were dressed to the nines in ‘20s-somethings, and bar tenders were serving drinks in mason jars.

We were fashionably late, which meant all the tables were claimed. Nick quickly made friends with some Chicagoans on the highly coveted couch-booths across from the bar, and we squeezed into a space for two, working out a system that was kind of a cross between musical chairs and a rotisserie chicken for who got to sit and who had to stand.

Soon the beat caught my hips and the rest of the night was lost in a whirlwind of twirling, booty-shaking, fist pumping and shimmying.

As the party wound down, a pair of Minnesotans who both fancied Lauren invited us to accompany them to another bar. We gathered all our belongings and stepped into the frigid street. After beating a few old ladies with sticks in order to get a cab, we realized we’d lost Marc. We arrived on the opposite side of town 10 minutes later only to find that all the bars were closing or at capacity, our tour guides had no idea where we were supposed to be going, and Marc had gotten into a fistfight back at the previous bar.

For the next half hour we wandered the streets trying in vain to hail a cab, as literally hundreds of others found themselves in similar predicaments. With my coat covering all of my costume except my feather headband, a reveler mistook me for Pocahontas, and performed some kind of abbreviated Native American greeting as he passed. Lauren and I couldn’t take it much longer, so we limped on frostbitten toes to the biggest, swankiest two-story McDonalds we’d ever seen. But hundreds of other partiers had had the same idea, and we were soon in a massive crush of drunken people desperately jockeying for their spot in one of 12 different cashier lines. The only plus was that our extremities were starting to thaw. Nick continued to try to get us a cab while we tried to get us a Big Mac.

A man reeking of whiskey bumped my elbow in the line. “Did you have a good New Year’s Eve?” he slurred.
In no mood to make small talk, I responded curtly, yes, and turned back to the line.
“Well you just hate men, don’t you?” he said, angrily.
Not really feeling up to challenging him on that one, I answered again, just as emphatically, yes, and he stopped bothering me.

We thought, well if this is 2013, it can only go up from here.

Lauren and me ready to murder someone for our food.

We finally got our food, and rejoined Nick to look for an open table. Somewhere between the counter and the stairs, some miscreant stole one of my feathers right off my head, but my hands were too full to fight back.

We finally forced ourselves out in the cold again, ready to bribe the first person with an empty car to take us back to our hotel. We had, in fact, tried that on our way into the McDonalds, accosting a middle-aged lady with an empty minivan and offering her $50 for the 3-mile trip. But this only succeeded in thoroughly weirding out the poor woman.

We lucked out when a limo driver pulled to a stop the second we reached the street. Not a stretch limo, but just one of those all-leather interior black sedans. He warned us the trip would be a flat fee of $45, but we would have probably pledged him our firstborns in order to get out of the cold.

The rest of our trip was pretty uneventful, but I did get the opportunity to cross an item off my life bucket list when Nick and I went ice skating in Millennium Park’s outdoor ice rink.

I felt like the whole trip was like Sex in the City, the co-ed version, meets Friends, set in Chicago, minus all the sex. Living life and having a blast. I hope to enjoy many future such adventures, although it will be hard to top this one.