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Saturday, January 8th, 2011
10:17 pm - I have a blog!
I've launched a blog! Will Bike for Change (or Pie!) is a blog focused on sustainable food and bicycling.  I'll still post here occasionally - because I do so incredibly often now - when I want to write about something that doesn't fit in those two categories.  But most of my writing will be over there, as I plan to post once to twice a week.  I encourage you to check it out and tell me what you think!

(tell me a story)

Monday, September 6th, 2010
9:29 pm - Fashion happens every morning when you wake up. - Shalom Harlow
I've always wanted to get a makeover. I've fulfilled that dream, although in a different way than I ever expected.

The desire began around sixth grade, when I realized that not only was I socially awkward, but unfashionable as well. My mom's baggy sweaters and black leggings just weren't cutting it. (I still don't trust leggings.) And yet, I had no idea how to be fashionable. How did anyone know what and why something was popular? I wanted to be Sandy at the end of Grease, with her leather jacket and instant acceptance into the group. But I wasn't even cool enough to be goody-two-shoes Sandy.

Until recently, not much had changed.  There had been some shifts in attitude, but I was never completely satisfied. In high school, I pretended that I didn't care what anyone thought, itself a backlash against standards.  In college, I was fond of Hot Topic, even though it was a bit young for me.  Nonetheless, it was still more adventurous than my church friends and was one of the few times I felt cool. Through graduate school, I was pretty content with my jeans and clever t-shirts. I could do better, but if I was happy, why bother?  Besides, I didn't buy into that consumerist nonsense.

Then came adult life.  I could hold onto my hippie skirts and baggy pants at the semi-casual NYS Department of Environmental Conservation for a while.  But they just didn't cut it in D.C. When your boss is the President in the grand scheme of things, there's a higher standard.  My wardrobe limped through more than a year here, surviving off of hand-me-downs and Christmas presents.  I went shopping a few times, but always walked away frustrated and bitter.   Everything was made in China, and yet was still expensive!  Not to mention the environmental damages.

Nevertheless, I recognized my wardrobe needed desperate help. As a communications person, I realized my visual communication was lacking. My blah wardrobe was making me look younger, less professional, and uncreative.  Unfortunately, I still had no idea of where to start.  I'm not a visually oriented person and choices overwhelm me. Unlike some women who say, “I'll take one of each!” when presented with a multitude of colors and designs, my brain turns off and decides it hates everything. I watched makeover shows like "How Do I Look?" and "What Not To Wear" jealously, wishing someone would pluck me off the street and present me with the perfect wardrobe.  I was willing to throw out most of my work clothes in exchange, but knew I actually wasn't enough of an disaster case to qualify anyway.

My first step towards realizing my style destiny occurred unconsciously.

Mid-way through our first year in D.C., I acknowledged I needed new glasses. I started wearing glasses in my junior year, when I realized I couldn't see the board in chemistry. Like many first-time glasses' wearers, I hated them. They were quite dorky – brown and boring. Since then, I had managed to “lose” them by not looking particularly hard for them. Going to the optometrist, I was determined to buy glasses I liked, not just tolerated. I picked a pair of “hipster-style” black framed plastic glasses with a black-and-white flower design. They were retro, fun, and a little quirky, like me. The glasses ended up having two surprising side-effects. The first was becoming a signature piece for my wardrobe. The art-deco flowers combined with the hipster frames was the perfect combination of old and new, arty-creative and book-smart intellectual. The second was near-miraculous – they made me look good in photographs! I've never photographed well as an adult, always squinting or opening my eyes scary-wide. But the glasses balance out my eyes with the rest of my face. Now, I realize being pleased with myself in photographs gave me the confidence to move forward with the rest of my wardrobe. The photos made me realize I was beautiful enough to give a damn.

The next steps forwards happened at Christmas, with two presents – a pair of Victorian-style boots and “Tim Gunn's Guide to Style.” The boots were the latest in a cycle of several pairs of clunky black shoes. These were different though, because they had some beautiful feminine detailing. The lace-up style reminded me of women in petticoats and corsets, sweeping through the streets of Dickensonian London. They were goth without being too goth, wearable and not overly costumy. I loved them so much that I gave them as a Christmas present to myself. With the glasses, they became a second signature piece. Unfortunately, I was still at a loss as to how to wear them.

I hoped Tim Gunn's book would solve this problem. But although reading it inspired enthusiasm about the opportunities clothes offered me, I was still lost.  I loved that he quoted from Kierkegaard and Roland Barthes, but just wanted to know what looked good on me!  All of his talk of mixing and matching and moving pieces struck despair into my word-oriented soul.

Realizing there was good stuff in the book, but I just wasn't "getting" it, I started searching the Internet for help.  Style.com and women's magazines were useless with their relentless trend-of-the-month focus and bland/unrealistic suggestions.  I needed clothes for work, not cute strapless sundresses or Western clothes!  In addition, I wanted clothes to reflect my own personality, not someone else's.

But I knew I had found something special when I came across Academichic. The blog's authors are three PhD candidates writing about style.  These were my sort of people!  They posted photos of their outfits,
and discussed why they wore what they wore.  Instead of trends, they talked about social context and dressing as expression of one's identity, topics close to my heart.  From them, I found a whole world of style bloggers, humble people who just enjoyed sharing ideas and photos.  Like the Academichics, many of them also talked about the deeper feelings behind their choices.  In particular, I fell in love with the encouraging spirit of Already Pretty, a blog that focuses on the connection between positive body image and style. For her, it isn't about being cool – it's about being yourself and satisfied in your own skin. Truly, that was what I had always wanted. Although she explains things in a simple, easy-to-understand way, I felt like some switch in my brain wasn't turned on to understand it. How could I be so smart yet not be able to dress myself? I was fashion-dyslexic.

I wanted professional help. If “What Not to Wear” wasn't going to come to me, I'd go to them. I found a fashion consultant in D.C. who said she specialized in sustainable fashion. Beforehand, I filled out a questionnaire describing my likes (soft fabrics, fitted t-shirts, jewel tones) and dislikes (pretty much everything else). On the day of, I dressed in a purple sweater and ill-fitting black dress pants, one of my normal but unflattering outfits, to give her a good idea of what I was trying to move away from. I met her in the glass-ceilinged atrium of the National Portrait Gallery, an appropriately artistic setting. As I waited, my shoulders tensed. Jittery, I thought about how I could explain how I like Art Deco's sharp lines and the Arts and Crafts movement's combination of modern and natural materials. But architecture doesn't translate well to clothes (unless you're Lady Gaga). I hoped maybe she could break this code, lift this veil of mystery.

The fashion consultant looked put-together and stylish, the perfect D.C combination of professional power and individual flair. She asked questions about what I wore now, what I was willing to wear, and what my needs were. I answered as best as I could, but could tell all of my responses were negative. I knew what I didn't want, but couldn't articulate what I wanted. She explained there were six different styles most people fall in to – classic, sporty/preppy, “edge” (bit rock-and-roll), trendy, and boho – and asked me which one I was closest to. I wanted to say, “I'm none of those! I'm just me!” but refrained. Instead, I stammered, “Er, I guess a combination of edge and classic?” She wrapped up the hour-long session by telling me she would put together a report and send it to me within a week.

I walked away vaguely disappointed. I hoped she would ask me about my favorite bands, artists, movies. I wanted her to probe my soul, appraise my aesthetic sense, and tell me exactly what would work for me. I wanted her to do as they advertised on Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, “like you, but better!” I didn't want to be put in a category; I wanted someone to explain to me how I could dress like me.

Her report didn't change my opinion much. She described my body shape, my coloring, and what fabrics would work on me. She clipped pictures of a number of suits and dresses, none of which were bad, but none of which excited me.

However, I'm not disappointed that I had the session. In fact, it was revelatory. It wasn't anything she said; it was my reaction. None of it was surprising! It was all things I already knew. I was right; I had no reason to be ashamed. My confusion wasn't from a lack of fashion sense; it was a lack of confidence! It was as if a switch had been thrown. No one else could do this for me. If I was going to have my own sense of style, I was going to have to take matters into my own hands.

Once that piece fell into place, so did the other piece of my style dilemma – the ethics. I didn't want to sacrifice my values of sustainability and social justice for a few cute dresses. A lot of the style bloggers I read thrifted many, if not most, of their clothes. I realized that second-hand clothes met all of my non-aesthetic criteria for buying new clothes:
1) Ethically made – fair-trade, small crafter, or otherwise guaranteed good conditions (I don't trust big box stores claims)
2) Sustainable – made from organic cotton, recycled materials, etc.
3) Reasonably priced – I'm cheap
4) Locally bought – even if not locally made, from a local store
So thrifting seemed like a great idea, except that I always had a miserable time finding anything at Salvation Army. The answer came to me from the Express – the free newspaper from the Washington Post – of all things. They had a feature on downtown Alexandria, Virginia and described a number of quality second-hand stores.

I decided I would start my journey with the help of a fashionable friend – Rebecca. I liked how she wore clothes that just seemed to suit both her personality and body shape. She would be a good person to tell me if I was taking the train into crazytown while still being encouraging. Plus, she lives near Alexandria.

The trip went swimmingly. We spent a significant amount of time in only one store, but had incredible luck – two skirts and a couple of dresses for the same price as only one at a “mall store,” much less a Bethesda boutique. Plus, the store played really good music. That day, I realized that good second-hand stores have all of the advantages of boutiques – hand-picked selection, consistent vision, variety of styles – while still maintaining the ethical credibility of thrifted clothes. They also helped me get over my sense of discombobulation whenever I entered a mall store. Because each piece is unique, second-hand stores are much easier to browse. No bringing three different sizes to the fitting room and despairing when none of them fit my body. If one piece doesn't fit, then it doesn't fit and I move on to the next one. Second-hand stores also filter out all of the horrible clothes that sellers create that looks terrible on everyone and no one buys. For it to be in a second-hand store means that someone bought it thinking that it was a good idea. Also, good stores won't accept clothes that are “so last season” and so typically have more classic pieces, not things that are trendy for the sake of being trendy. As I still fail to comprehend trends – and have no desire to now – that helps me out quite a bit.

Considering these advantages, I decided I would try to check out all of the consignment stores I could in the D.C. Metro area to build my wardrobe. Although I wouldn't find something in every store, I had far more success than I ever had going to the mall. This success continued to boost my confidence; I was no longer intimidated when I walked into an expensive boutique. If I didn't like something trendy, that didn't reflect poorly on my sense of style. If I didn't think a $200 for a skirt was worth it, so be it.

During this process, I slowly came to an understanding of my own style. Before going to the fashion consultant, I knew I liked Victorian, science-fictiony, and 1950s-retro clothing. However, I also knew that if I wore most of the clothes I wanted to buy, I would look like I was ready for Halloween. Somewhere along the way, I realized I could buy things that hinted at those ideas, but was still basically modern. I read the blog Science Fiction Fashion and Style and thought of how I could integrate those pieces into my closet. I bought tweed skirts and pair them with dressy tops. I purchased a bubble-looking metal necklace from a local crafter that had an alien feel to it. I bought dresses and skirts with futuristic swirls and oval patterns. I call it “business steampunk with a hint of the Jetsons” (for the 50s retro). It reflects my character, but puts it in the context of work, just as I try to present myself professionally. My personality shines through, but not distractingly so.

My luck even continued with shoes. I refuse to wear shoes that I can't walk in, which has historically limited my selection. I decided I wanted Oxford-style shoes with a heel and happened to find them when looking for formal shoes. On the same trip, I happened to find another pair of high heels that were incredibly cute. My mother was embarrassingly proud.

When I look back on the last six months, I'm also genuinely proud of myself. This process has been about much more than expanding my wardrobe; it's been about increasing my confidence. It's been about silencing those inner critics that sound like the junior high girls of so long ago. I still don't believe clothes make the woman, but they do say something about her. Now I know my clothes say what I want them to about me.

(1 tale | tell me a story)

Sunday, June 27th, 2010
1:11 am - Wherever we're together / that's my home - Billy Joel
House-hunting will break your heart. If you're lucky, it will also mend it.

When we first started looking at houses, I hoped we would easily qualify for a loan, find a cute little house that would need some TLC, and live in Silver Spring, Maryland. About half of that turned out to be true, but the entire thing was a much more intense process than I ever expected.

Honestly, I don't think I really believed we'd buy a house this soon. When the first homebuyers' tax credit expired, we didn't have nearly enough money and had only lived in DC for a year. Our apartment wasn't perfect, but did we really want to move that badly? So we re-upped our lease.

The discussion started getting serious when they extended the tax credit. When else would we be able to get $8000 back for buying anything? The apartment was also starting to get on our nerves. Neither of us were pleased with its drab blandness, but neither were we invested enough to do anything about it. Being very close to the Metro was great, but if the Metro was delayed (almost every weekend), there was absolutely nothing within walking distance. Lastly, Chris was reaching his apartment-living breaking point. Although our apartment was relatively soundproof, he hates sharing walls with other people. It was time for us to move on. And if we could save the money in time and find a place we liked, why not buy a house?

Unfortunately, saving turned out to be the easiest part. We're pretty cheap. Throughout the fall and winter, we put the same amount we paid for rent into savings. As we had quite a bit in savings already, it added up quickly. Chris's tuition payment for school cut into it significantly, but we still thought we'd have enough to cover the down payment.

Around January, we decided to start looking. After talking to the bank, I called back Eleanor, the quirky real-estate agent who helped us look for apartments. She didn't find the one we ended up in, but she worked terribly hard to get us one that ended up falling through. She was a breath of fresh air compared to the Virginia real estate agent who told us, "I don't really want to do this, I'm just doing a favor for the people who own these places." Before our first meeting with Eleanor, Chris and I discussed our basic requirements. He wanted a detached house. I wouldn't have minded a rowhouse or a well-located townhouse - I always loved the Lark Street brownstones. I wasn't even sure if we'd even be able to find a detached house that was affordable, but was willing to look. Neither of us wanted a condo. To me, the idea of ownership involves being able to do nearly whatever you want, and condos have so many rules that it doesn't seem worth it. My single major requirement was that the house be Metro-accessible, either on foot or by bus. I did not want to buy another car for the sole purpose of driving to the Metro - unsustainable from both an environmental and economic point of view. In terms of location, we agreed that we would limit our search to Montgomery County. I would have liked to live in DC proper for some period of time, but Chris never shared that desire. More importantly, a DC house didn't fit into our long-term plans. We would like to have a kid or two in the next few years, and the DC school district is still very weak despite its recent improvement. Perhaps most importantly, it's unlikely we could find an affordable house that would match our criteria - even the "transitional" neighborhoods are very expensive. Within Montgomery County, we knew Bethesda (our location at the time) was astronomically out of our price range. So we decided to focus on looking Silver Spring (where the zombie walk was) and consider houses in Rockville. Our other requirements were pretty standard: three bedrooms, central air (very necessary in DC), a basement, and 1 1/2 bathrooms.

And so the search began. I quickly learned that there are a lot of really ugly houses in the DC Metro area. I had expected to find a cute little colonial or a Cape Cod. Instead, I saw page after page of 1960s modern split-levels that seemed to take their aesthetic inspiration from the Brutalist federal buildings (like my office). I have to spend all day in one of those - I certainly didn't want to live in one! Nevertheless, we picked a couple that looked "okay" and called Eleanor up. Our first appointment was the weekend after Snowmaggedon. We were scheduled to look at three houses. The first one was totally blocked by snow. The third one had deceptively nice photos. Although it looked lovely online, it was clear from the inside that the builder had not thought through the design at all. The kitchen was huge, but arranged bizarrely. Chris would never say a kitchen was too large, but this was close. The ceiling was made of those horrible tiles you see in office buildings and hospitals. The floor, which appeared to be hardwood in the photos, wasn't even Pergo, but a laminent with a "wood grain" design! The rooms were all awkward shapes and the upstairs hallway had several feet of wasted space that was desperately needed elsewhere. It looked like an architectural student's C-grade project - structurally sound, but ugly and impractical.

But the one in the middle was just right. It was a red-brick colonial that an older couple were selling to move to Florida. It was in a quiet neighborhood, right near a bike path into DC. It was disappointingly far from the Metro and downtown Silver Spring, but the bus stop was only down the block. It needed aesthetic updating, but didn't need any immediate repairs. It was three bedrooms and 1 1/2 baths. It was lovely and just within our price range. For the first time since we started, I could actually see us living there. So we put a bid on it. We worked with Eleanor to put the paperwork together and then sat back, grinning like idiots.

The euphoria didn't last long. Like the first apartment we bid on with Eleanor, the owner had received another offer. They proposed paying full price (we proposed $5000 under), having a bigger down payment, and closing in a mere month. Our bank paperwork wasn't going to be done for another six weeks. There was no way we could compete. We lost the bid.

I was devastated. I had fallen in love with this house. I was constructing futures around it - building the window seat I had always wanted here, hosting Christmas dinners in the dining room right here, putting the kid's crib here. Suddenly, that was all gone. Around that time, I realized that choosing a house is like speed-dating where you have to choose whether or not to propose at the end of the night. You have to do this knowing that you'll never have the chance to talk to this person again - someone's likely to come along and swoop him or her up tomorrow. Sometimes, even when you do propose, the answer is "no." And damn, that's a hard decision to make and a hard no to accept.

Like anyone who has lost something emotionally valuable, I didn't want to deal with the process at all for a few days. I was in almost mourning. I had no desire to start again. Chris wasn't as affected, but he was sympathetic. But the longer I stalled, the more impatient he became.

In the next few days, I picked myself up and started browsing the real estate sites all over again. The cavalcade of ugly houses. Ugh. We looked at a few - a big one in meh shape in a Jewish orthodox neighborhood way out in the 'burbs, an adorable but extremely small and expensive one in Silver Spring, a house in a fantastic location that was literally held together with duct tape - but nothing was appropriate at all. Frustrated, we expanded our search, looking in parts of Rockville the websites didn't bring up. Finding a couple of promising ones, we scheduled another appointment.

The first one was truly hideous. It was in a vaguely shady area and looked a bit run-down from the outside. But the inside was straight-up gross. There was garbage everywhere, and even though the tenant (or owner?) insisted that he would clean up, I didn't quite believe him. I also didn't believe him when he said he'd install the dishwasher, as there was no actual counter-space on which to install it.

The second house was the total opposite in every way. It was much cuter than it had seemed from the photos, and the inside was completely new. Even though the listing described it as being built in the early 1960s, it was clear someone had totally renovated it - new kitchen, bathroom and hardwood floors. And it had lovely touches - a big deck, a large yard, nice molding around the windows. Quite importantly, it also had a great location. (Relative to the other places we looked at, at least. DCers would have a very different definition of "good location.") It was less than a mile from the Metro, about a half-mile to a grocery store, and a mile from the Rockville Town Center, a beautiful new pedestrianized area with restaurants, a movie theater, and stores. It's everything that CCM should have been if Clifton Park's town planners had any sense in them (or possibly just ability to stand up to builders). The house even had a bus stop a few feet from the property line, so if it was raining you could run out right before the bus arrived. It even had a community center down the block and a park across the street! The neighborhood wasn't elegant, but felt like a real community. We loved it. It didn't need work of any sort and was easily within our budget.

Thrilled that we found another house - a better one, even - I didn't want to take any chances. It had only been on the market for a week, so the seller wasn't going to be desperate. I insisted we bid the full price; I didn't want to lose it over a few thousand dollars. We didn't have to be cheap on this one, so why risk it? We even threw in an extra $100 to make it an even number. That very night, we got together with Eleanor and signed all of the paperwork - liability forms, acknowledgment of lead paint, awareness of the city's master plan - that we already did for the first house. Thankfully, it went much faster the second time. We sent them out again, and waited nervously.

It took a few days for the seller's exceedingly slow real estate agent to get back with us - Eleanor rolled her eyes whenever mentioning him - but when we he did - success! Hallelujah! Now, of course, the process was far from done. We had 45 days from the day of the bid until the closing. During this time, we had to complete all of the bank paperwork, get the house inspected, and have a termite inspection. Not to mention all of the work that goes into moving.

The next month and a half was a blur. The bank, which had been great up until then, became a giant pain. Suddenly, they wanted proof of every single deposit put in our account, including our tax refund which was clearly labeled as from the "US Treasury." They even wanted proof that my parents could afford to pay the money they (very generously) gave us, long after the check cleared! Thankfully, the house inspection went very smoothly, and the seller agreed to give us money to fix the one urgent repair.

The most stressful day post-bid was the day before closing. I took the day off of work and made two major appointments for that day - the insulation people to fix the attic and the movers to transport our furniture. I had made both at the last minute and was nervous that the insulation people wouldn't show up. The insulation assessor had just made her assessment on Friday and had barely squeezed an appointment for us in. Once they actually did arrive, a South American guy and a guy who looked like he belonged in a ZZ Top cover band came in, stuck a huge worm-like tube in our attic, sprayed in a bunch of insulation, removed the worm, and left. I forgot to bring a book, so I sunned myself on our new deck. However, as I was pretty jittery, I probably spent as much time jumping up to look inside as I did actually enjoying the sun. From there, I zipped back to the apartment. As I drove down the street, my breath caught as I saw that the movers were already there. They were supposed to call me before arriving! Arms flailing, I ran over to the van and apologized at a mile a minute. It turned out that they had tried to call me, but had the wrong phone number. Phew - not my fault. They were very friendly and efficient, running up and down the stairs. They delivered it all to the house and moved it a few different times as I figured out where it should go. I had wanted to put the bed and dresser in the bedroom at first, but then realized we wouldn't be able to open our dresser drawers. Oops. When they finished, I examined everything very carefully. Finding a tiny scratch on the dresser, I persuaded them to knock $50 off of the price. I felt very proud.

That night, I felt a great weight lift off of my shoulders. The next day, we met at the title lawyer's office for the final closing. The house's owner was middle-aged but fit - the sort of person you could actually imagine successfully "flipping" houses in his spare time because he happened to enjoy carpentry. While we waited for the lawyers to organize the papers, he told us a lot about our house's previous life. Courtesy of Bing's aerial view, we had noticed that our house was once teal and had a screen porch where our deck was. The seller told us that he ripped down the screen porch because it was held on to the house with at least six inches of caulk. Apparently, whenever it started to crack, the original owner's solution was to pull out the caulk gun. Even more impressively, we recently learned that the original owners raised ten kids in this house! Whenever I feel like this house is small with the two of us, I just need to think of that. Yikes.

We proceeded into the office, which was decorated with a manner of gizmos and toys, catnip to my eternal-10-year-old. Between signing sheet after sheet of paper, I wound up teetering tin bugs and spun silver tops. Truly charming. And just the thing to keep your mind off of the immense amount of money you are signing away. After it seemed like we used a forest of paper, we both signed the very last sheet.

We were done! We owned a house!

There was - and still is - a lot more to do. We've unpacked all of the boxes, but still have paper instead of curtains over our windows and the lawnmower under a tarp instead of in a shed. Eventually, we'd like to finish the basement. But every day, it feels more and more like home. A few weeks after moving in, I went into Rockville Town Square to buy a pair of sneakers at the running store. They happened to be having a community concert with a local band. As I listened to them cover classic rock hits, and watched community members, from little kids to an older black gentleman, grooving to the music, deep in my heart, I knew "I belong here. We belong here." And every day I turn the key in the front door, I feel that just a little bit more.

Photos behind the cut!Collapse )

current mood: settled

(2 tales | tell me a story)

Tuesday, June 8th, 2010
8:40 pm - Happy Birthday to Meee! - Part II
As it turned out, I wasn't the only one celebrating an important occasion.

I invited Solmaz to the Spy party, but she couldn't come because her parents were visiting. Soon after, I found out exactly why they were visiting - for Solmaz's bridal shower! It was at her apartment, despite the fact that it was a surprise party. Walking in, I met Solmaz's mom, along with a bunch of her friends from graduate school. Nancy, my boss from National Academies, was there as well. For a while, we all sat around in Solmaz's well-decorated living room, introducing ourselves and waiting. And waiting. It soon became clear that Solmaz was not going to show up at the appointed time. A coded phone call from her mom to her dad, whom she was out with, revealed that Solmaz took the idea of shopping for homegoods a little too seriously! It ended up working out well, because Rebecca was held up by tremendous traffic and still arrived before Solmaz.

When Solmaz finally arrived, she was suitably surprised, exclaiming in joy when we jumped out. The party really started. We ate lunch, delicious truffles, and a nicely decorated cake. Because we were running so late, Solmaz opened presents relatively early. She was very pleased with my matching giant coffee mugs from Crate and Barrel. Others' presents were more - awkward. Holding a Victoria's Secret bag, Nancy noted that she bought a "traditional" bridal shower gift. Thankfully, it was a nightgown - not too sexy - but I know I'd still be embarrassed to get that from my boss. Before and after presents, we worked together to create a wedding scrapbook for Solmaz. We were each presented with a scrapbook sheet and pile of magazines to create a collaged page that imparted advice to the newly married couple. It was a very sweet idea, and we enjoyed it greatly, picking out a mix of silly and sincere photos. (There were some very odd food photos.) The whole party had a wonderfully relaxed vibe. It was very much what a bridal shower should be.

Driving back to our house, I got hopelessly lost and ended up being very late. When I got there, Greg B and Christine were already waiting so that all four of us could go into DC together. Chris was just finishing wrapping up yet another birthday cake, this one filled with strawberry jelly and topped with chocolate. We hopped in the car, foregoing the Metro, and sped through downtown DC. Upon arriving at the Museum, Greg, Christine and I jumped out of the car, dodged traffic, and yanked open the door. Between breaths, we informed the front desk staff that our group was there, and really, it would only be a few minutes before we were all present. Rebecca and Eric were there already, and Rebecca's friend Matt was also parking his car. It would just take a few minutes - right? The woman at the front desk rolled her eyes, smiled kindly, and told us we could go upstairs. After some persuading - they don't keep things behind the desk, after all - she even allowed us to store the cake with her. I breathed a sigh of relief and introduced everyone to each other. These sort of events - where you bring together people from different groups - can be awkward, but everyone seemed to get along right away. We followed the rest of our tour group up the stairs and into the introductory room for the "mission." As a step into another country, it was an effective, but I was too distracted by Chris and Matt's continuing absence that I didn't notice much. After the guide's short introduction, we delayed it as much we could - going to the bathroom, making excuses - but they insisted that the group had to start. We begged for amnesty and a few more eyerolls later, the front desk woman said yes, there was space in the next two groups if we didn't mind waiting. Thank God.

We sat down to wait in a booth in the "cafe" (aka cafeteria) area which had been turned into an awkward bar. We were pretty much the only ones there, so it wasn't nearly as classy as I had imagined. Nonetheless, we had cake and a free drink each, and you can't ask for much more. Unfortunately, we forgot to bring anything with which to cut or eat the cake. Thankfully, the bar was willing to lend us a knife and no one objected too much to eating it with their hands. Just as we started eating the cake, Matt finally showed up! He got stuck behind someone in a fender-bender, whom the DC police took their good old time questioning.

After much sitting and talking, our time came up. Once upstairs, we began at a large "steel" door with a peephole beside it. Our guide explained that Latvernia (no, that wasn't the name, but it might as well been) was on the other side of the door. She asked, "Would someone go to the peephole and report what they see?" An ironic hippie dude stepped right up, put his eye to it, and exclaimed, "Holy f***, it's Latvernia!" The guide deadpanned, "Now that we've got the f-bomb out of the way..." Over 18, indeed!

The rest of the tour wasn't as explictive-filled, but it was a lot of fun. We were supposed to be spies in a Middle Eastern country working to track a suspect with a dirty bomb and possible ties to the government. The first task was to "follow" the suspect using a series of video screens and then decode his encrypted "cell phone transmission." We futzed with the knobs and dials like little kids with a toy, and had about the same amount of success. We then crept through a hallway that had a "manhole cover" that clattered quite loudly when someone stepped on it by mistake. That led to the office of one of the bad guys. We were supposed to thoroughly search the space for documents, yet leave it exactly as we found it. I coincidentally had a flashlight in my purse that turned out to be quite handy when we needed to look on the underside of a desk. Other tasks included riding in the back of a very shaky "getaway van" as it wound its way through cobblestoned streets and "interrogating" a subject via videoconferencing. It finished with a debrief of how well our team performed together. We succeeded in the mission, but only received an overall rating of about 70 percent. It made us wonder both how you could get a perfect score and what would happen if you purposely screwed everything up. In my opinion, our group was fantastic. Everyone shared the attitude that it was wicked goofy fun, but that we were also going to work to succeed. As I suspected, this was LARPing with better props and scenery. Maybe if everyone had as much of a laid-back attitude, it might be more popular. I know I had a great time!

At that point, the cake was eaten, the free drinks were gone, and it was getting late, so we each went on our merry way. We brought Greg and Christine back to their car. But before they left, they presented me with two presents, both books. From Christine, the well-reviewed best seller, Like Water for Elephants. From Greg, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Perfect.

Overall, it was the most satisfying birthday I've had in a very long time, if not ever. It was wonderful to have an unexpected, awe-inspiring meal with Chris, share Solmaz's joy at her party, and then celebrate my birthday surrounded by friends. I couldn't have wished for anything better.

current mood: grateful

(tell me a story)

Monday, May 31st, 2010
2:22 am - Happy Birthday to Meeeee - Part I
I've had a mixed record with birthdays.

As a little kid, I had some great parties, due to Mom's creativity. I remember the art party (using chalk on the basement walls and spin-art!) and the Baby-Sitters Club party quite fondly. In those days, you invited everyone in your class and they had to come whether they wanted to or not. Then, it got a little harder in junior high, when you couldn't fall back on that tactic. But despite having a devastatingly bad 7th grade, my birthday party with the swim team girls (and a few others, like Deb) was one of the highlights. A few of them even got together and thoughtfully bought me a CD boom-box. I don't remember 8th grade (maybe a sleepover with Deb, Liz and Frances?), and in 9th grade, I went climbing with Deb, Andy, and Keith, but it wasn't exactly a party. In fact, the next party I had wasn't until 11th grade, when I could legitimately say I had a real group of friends again. I pulled together The Group, and several other people I enjoyed hanging out with. It was a pretty representative selection of the interesting, weird kids at Shen. We rented a karaoke machine, made fools of ourselves (some without even needing to read lyrics...), and ate a lot of cake. It wasn't the party of the century - for our group of friends, that was Chris's birthdays and Matt's New Years - but it was awesome to celebrate with people who liked me.

Of course, shortly after, adulthood and college struck. I stopped telling people when it was my birthday, so I don't think hardly anyone knew freshman or sophomore year. Either way, I didn't do anything, reflecting how I felt about myself at the time. Junior year was my my 21st birthday, described here. Although dinner with Dad and lively conversation over bubble tea redeemed me from my misery, it still wasn't the 21st birthday people envision. Senior year, I gathered a bunch of people together for pizza at The Chariot (RIP), which was nice, but a little awkward because they didn't know each other. In Oxford, someone bought me a drink and we brought the cake that Chris made down to the common room. Very low-key.

Which brings me to this year. This year, I wanted to do something so fun and goofy that I would need my birthday as an excuse. At first, I considered going to the Pirate bar in Silver Spring, but ended up settling on Operation Spy, an "interactive adventure" at the Spy Museum. I chose it because I love anything that allows you to "act out" a role. As a writer, actually being inside the story is a huge draw. I could easily imagine myself getting into LARPing (Live Action Roleplay), if I knew anyone nerdy enough. But they would have to have a sense of humor about it - there's are too many things in life to take Very Seriously, and your D&D character isn't one of them. This spy experience seemed like just the right balance of funny and cool, especially because if you signed up for a weekend night, it was adults-only and included a free drink. I know I'm shameless even when sober, but drinks can increase social chemistry. I invited people from our weird array of DC-area groups - Greg B and Christine in Baltimore, Solmaz and Rebecca from National Academies, and folks from poker - and sold it as a James Bond-pastiche, while acknowledging how gloriously nerdy it would be.

While planning that shindig, I hinted to Chris that it would be nice if he bought or arranged something for the day of my actual birthday. I've asked him specifically not to buy me presents during my last several birthdays because of financial priorities. Especially in England, I wanted the money to go towards travel rather than more stuff we'd have to bring home. He's got or made cake for me since freshman year of college, but this year, I wanted him to show he had put some additional thought into it. Something a little creative.

The day my birthday arrived, I really believed Chris had forgotten about doing anything. In the morning, he said "Happy birthday" but didn't have a present. I got held up at work and came home frustratingly late, but he said nothing about it on the phone. So I was a little disappointed that when I arrived home, he didn't at least have dinner ready. However, he had prepared gloriously chocolatey lava cakes (by my request), so I hungrily dug in. As I finished licking my fork, he announced, "You should get dressed nicely." "We're going somewhere this late? Really?" I asked, not knowing how to react. But he wouldn't tell me; he just flashed an enigmatic smirk.

Fortunately, I wasn't in suspense for too long. In fact, as soon as we got on the highway and I saw the sign to Frederick, I knew right away. "We're going to Volt?! How did you get reservations? I thought they were booked for months!" I exclaimed. "Not at 9 o'clock on a Thursday night," he nonchalantly responded. Volt is Bryan Voltaggio's restaurant, the runner-up on Top Chef. It's been very in-demand since the finale of the show. (Side note: It's worth checking out the restaurant's website, if for no other reason than the hilariously pretentious photo of Bryan standing in a field of wheat.) After a guessing game, Chris eventually revealed that he had made the reservation only the night before. I just shook my head and smiled.

We arrived at the old red-brick building in Saratoga-cute Frederick a few minutes before nine. We were seated at a little two-person table, and took in the surroundings while the waiter explained that the Chef designed the menu for people to order all four courses. Of course, we took the opportunity for all it was worth and ordered all of them. I ordered the potato-leek chowder, the goat cheese ravioli, the roast chicken (they were out of lobster, and shame on you Bryan Voltaggio for not having a veggie main course!), and the dulche de leche. Once we ordered, we waited....and waited...and waited. Our soup came out in time, but our second course appeared to be taking forever. Since our reservation was at 9, I was already super-hungry and getting antsy. But it was soon clear that something had gone wrong. Bryan himself poked his head into the dining room, looked right at our table and frowned. Never a good sign. A few moments later, our very-starched waiter came out and apologized very, very politely. We received our second course shortly after.

Beyond that little bobble, everything was excellent. My soup was creamy and the scallop in it was heavenly, my roasted chicken was cooked perfectly, and my dulche de leche's cheese cake was sweet and perfectly balanced with the granny smith ice cream. (Unfortunately, Bryan did not change my mind on beets, which I had on the side of the chicken. I really dislike their smell, no matter how well they are cooked.) But the absolute best was the goat cheese ravioli with mushrooms and brown butter. It was a revelation. I closed my eyes and chewed because I wanted to focus all of my attention on it. Where you could have never imagined until right this second that this dish could ever be this good.

Beyond the food, I also enjoyed the entire atmosphere of the restaurant. Everything coalased into a distinct point of view. If I'm going to go to a really expensive restaurant, I want to get an equally full experience from it. I want to be enveloped in that person's entire vision, the way you are in a movie or a play. I want to know the story you're telling. Two weeks earlier, we had gone to the Oval Room, another very fancy restaurant, for Valentine's Day. And it lacked that coherent vision. The food was good, some even as good as Volt's, but the place lacked character. It was very traditionally DC power-lunch white-tablecloth with inoffensive psuedo-modern art on the the walls. It was incredibly quiet, so I found it uncomfortable to talk. The women's bathrooms felt like they belonged in Macy's, but without the couch they usually have. Just blah. In contrast, everything blended perfectly at Volt. Stepping inside, the interior used sharp lines, exposed brick, modern furniture, but all in wood and other traditional materials. The dining room had serene white walls punctuated with bright digitally-manipulated photos of the restaurant's historic building. The waitstaff was dressed to match, in button-down shirts and ties with Converse sneakers. The music was dim, but lively. It sounded as if it could have been picked from the chef's iPod - fun but not too intense alt-pop-rock bands like Vampire Weekend. The food, beyond being delicious, was based on seasonal availability but had avante-garde touches like ginger foam. Everything was a precise balance of old and new, traditional and modern. It's a combination I love, and tend to personally embrace in my own life. So I totally bought into Volt's story.

The only personal disappointment I suffered was entirely my fault. The people at the table across from me asked if they could meet Bryan Voltaggio, and their friendly, young waitress escorted them to the kitchen. I thought that would be super-fun, but I was a little intimidated by our waiter. Eventually, after the main course, I mentioned that it was my birthday, hoping that perhaps he would suggest a trip to the kitchen. Instead, he wrinkled his nose, and said, "That was not mentioned in the reservation. We usually need to know that at the beginning of the meal." Nevertheless, he insisted he would take care of it. As it turned out, that meant not a talk with the chef, but yet another dessert! Mind you, this was already on top of chocolate lava cakes, my own full dessert, and some nibbles of Chris's "textures of chocolate." It turned out to be a set of three different fruity sorbets, which were thankfully quite light and delicious. I still would have preferred a talk in the kitchen, but free desserts are cool too. As if I hadn't consumed enough sugar that night, the end of the meal came with tiny adorable ice cream sandwiches, like macarons with ice cream instead of buttercream. And with your check, they present you with wrapped muffins for breakfast the next day. It was a lovely gesture, but I was glad we didn't have to eat them then.

We left fulfilled, physically and emotionally. We had a wonderful dinner together, talking and sharing food. It was neat to be in a place that respected and appreciated food as much as Chris does and to hear him talk about it from that perspective. And to have it be his present to me - thoughtful and perfectly reflective of what both of us love. With a perfect end to the actual day, I was looking forward to seeing what the rest of my birthday weekend held in store.

current mood: reflective

(1 tale | tell me a story)

Monday, May 24th, 2010
9:28 pm - A Long, Cold Winter - Part II
After a week of vacation, it was quite a surprise to get work off again less than a month later. The first week of February, the snow began falling on Friday morning. The forecast was so threatening (more than 8 inches before 5 PM) that they sent all non-essential federal employees home four hours early, so people wouldn't be stuck if the outdoor Metro stations closed. As I walked home from the station, I was already slushing through a couple inches of snow.

As a proud upstate New Yorker, snow doesn't bother me, unlike many residents of D.C. Whenever there's a hint of snow in D.C., people get freaked out and wipe the store out of toilet paper and bottled water. (Toilet paper - really? Do you think you'll be stuck for months?) So Chris and I figured we'd skip poker, hang out inside and wait it out. Then, in the middle of my Wii Fit routine, the power flickered on and off. I was most annoyed; the Wii had lost track of my progress. Then, it happened a half hour later...and then again...and then again. We quickly realized it was serious and started scrambling for candles. It was already past 9 PM at that point, so it wasn't too long before we gave up reading and went to bed.

The next morning, we woke up fairly late and noticed two things - that the apartment still lacked power and was distinctly colder. We hadn't noticed it during the night because Chris insists on having a million blankets on the bed. But as we got up, we realized the consequences of lacking electricity. They are much more than simply no computer or TV. No hot water. No heat. For who knew how long. Considering that we didn't get our power restored yet and we were supposed to get another foot of snow, our power probably wasn't going to get fixed any time soon. Ugh.

Our worst fears were confirmed when we turned on the radio. "300,000 without power in the D.C. Metro area. We'll continue to push the utilities until they tell us when they're restoring your power!" Fantastic. Thankfully, the radio turned out to be a saving grace. When I received it from the Sheas for Christmas, I said, "Oh, that's neat," but never expected to use it so soon! A hand crank radio with a flashlight, it was our only connection to the outside world. It allowed me to jealously listen to reporters yelling about the Dupont Circle snowfight. If only we had such luxury to play out in the snow... The radio was also equipped with a cell phone recharger, but no matter how much I cranked, it needed a lot more power than I could provide.

The rest of the day was spent waiting and watching the temperature drop. Chris pulled out the kitchen thermometer and we'd check it every once in a while, seeing if it had gone down a degree or two. We dressed in layers upon layers, including fleece long underwear and even winter hats, but the cold still crept in. I had almost as much on as at the Inauguration, which was much colder, making me wonder how I managed to survive that. As we couldn't take showers, we felt grimy too, which only made it worse. Thankfully, we could at least use the gas stove. We made oatmeal for breakfast, canned soup and baked beans for lunch, tea and hot chocolate to drink and more hot liquids for dinner. It was like camping in our apartment!

To stave off the boredom, we read (I finished off Incredibly Loud and Extremely Close), and played Fluxx and chess. Always listening to the radio in the background. It was too cold to just sit around and chat, as we love to do. You needed something to keep your mind off of the discomfort, the underlying anxiety, the worries of when things would return to normal.

Around 4 PM, we finally left the apartment to wander outside. We would have gone earlier, but the idea of getting wet and cold without a way to warm back up seemed like a really bad plan. On the other hand, we knew that if we ever wanted to leave before spring, we needed to clean off the car. And we wanted to see what the rest of the neighborhood looked like, to see how other people were dealing. So we suited up and went for a walk. It was dream-like. The trees were weighed down with pounds of snow, some of them with branches touching the ground. Snowbanks reached my head. People were walking in the street because the sidewalks were blocked. Groups of people were aimlessly wandering around, being too bored and cabin-feverish to stay inside. Obviously, there was no traffic. We spoke to one guy who was absolutely convinced that Pepco, the power company, would come to the rescue and restore our power if our condo management called them. "This many people without power and it's just one little fix .. ." he said, as if it was that simple. I replied, "Yeah, but they're restoring it to the NIH (National Institutes of Health) and hospitals first." He didn't look particularly convinced. Of course, there were also lots of people cleaning off their cars. Apparently, it's a very common practice in Maryland to clear off everything except your roof, totally reversing all of your work as soon as you start driving. I wanted to help, but what did I have to offer? We had no shovel of our own, no heat, no electricity, nothing to give. There was an apocalyptic feel to it all and I felt helpless.

Eventually, we made our way back to our own car. With some struggle, we cleared the snow off, trying not to throw it in front of our neighbor's car. Unfortunately, as there wasn't much of anywhere else to throw it. We were incredibly grateful that the tree branch that broke off right over our car barely missed it. We had just spent several hundred dollars to fix a rattle in the engine, so that would have been the last straw.

Back inside, we managed to make dinner without opening the fridge, because we wanted to keep everything from going bad for as long as possible. We went to bed shortly after, hoping that when we woke up, the power would have returned. Expecting the worst, we piled almost all of the blankets we had on the bed - sheet, Hudson Bay wool blanket, comforter, fleece blankets, and the heavy duvet to top it all off. I felt buried alive; Chris loved it. But what choice did we have? Who knew what temperature it would be in the morning?

46 F, as it turned out. Dear Lord, it was cold. Thankfully, it turned out to be a sunny day and the bank of windows in our living room served us well, bringing the temperature up to the mid-50s. Beyond the temperature, we also had a purpose that day, a destination. We were going to a Super Bowl party at Greg B's and Christine's house that night. Normally, we would have never gone in that weather. But they said we could stay overnight with them afterwards, and I couldn't imagine anything better than being somewhere with electricity, heat and hot water. It was just what we needed to stave off despair. Chris had vowed to bring fancy chili (beef burgundy with beans and extra spiciness) and God damn it, he wasn't backing down! By that point, the electricity had been down for so long that everything in the fridge was going to go bad anyway, so opening it was fine. (The meat was fine because it had been frozen.) I sat in the sun and read while Chris bustled around the kitchen.

Finally, around 2 PM, we headed out. We figured it wouldn't be too difficult because we lived right off of the Beltway and Greg and Christine live right off of another huge highway. Although most neighborhood streets weren't plowed, ours were because our condo community (Parkside) had its own set of small plows. The Parkside roads were fine, and the road connecting Parkside to the Beltway was about as good/bad as one could expect. What surprised the crap out of us was the Beltway. Here is a four lane highway, the vehicular lifeblood of DC, and three out of the four lanes had 6 inches of snow on them. Packed down 6 inches of snow. Yikes. Needless to say, we drove very, very slowly. And it didn't get any better when we got on I-95. The apocalyptic nature of the storm only continued, as we passed abandoned cars buried in drifts. Where did these people go? What happened to them? Were they okay? But it was too late for us to do anything about it. The best we could do was take care of ourselves. Not that we could prevent other people from doing stupid things. There was one car whose driver was obviously frustrated by the slow speed and kept weaving back and forth across the two middle lanes blanketed in snow. I was happy he didn't skid out and take us with him.

After all of that, we finally got into Baltimore, which seemed to have more streets plowed than DC did. Our only remaining problem was that we had to find a parking space. In our seemingly hopeless quest, we drove up one street and missed the snow-covered sign that indicated it was one-way. It was quite a surprise when a small snowplow started coming towards us! In slight panic mode, we attempted to make a three point turn - right into a snowbank. Of course. We gestured to the plow driver that we were confused and very, very sorry. He just rolled his eyes and yelled out the window, "Hey, I'm paid by the hour." Lacking any snow implements except a scraper, I lamely tried to clear snow from the tires with my hands. Thankfully, Baltimore residents were better prepared than DCers, and a couple of guys with shovels came to our rescue. With some digging and pushing, we managed to back the car up, turn it around, and eventually find a space.

We were thrilled to finally arrive at Greg and Christine's door. Glory be, there were friends and food and heat and electricity! After brushing off our clothes and thanking them for their hospitality, we immediately asked if we could borrow their bathroom (separately, mind you!). I don't think I've ever enjoyed a shower more. Then, I borrowed Christine's computer, so I could get the feeling that there was still a world outside of Maryland. Sadly, we still had one more task to be done. We needed to get - pizza. So Greg and Chris took our car while Christine and I valiantly protected our parking spot. They took forever! After that, we thankfully didn't have to venture out into the snowy wasteland the rest of the evening. We watched a pretty good Super Bowl with them and their next-door neighbors, ate Chris's delicious chili, and played Rock Band with Greg B late into the night. I turned to be surprisingly good at rapping!

The next morning, we woke in a building with heat, something we had learned to not take for granted. We hung around the house for a while longer and kept checking the computer to see if they restored our power. When Christine left to make a sales call (snow wasn't going to stop her), Greg, Chris and I headed over to one of their favorite sandwich shops. We trudged through the sloppy snow, trying our best not to step into knee-height piles. On the way there, we ran into Greg's friends, who were digging out their own car. The place he brought us, Beach Bums, was an adorable little local shop decorated with a summery beach theme. Among the cardboard flip flops and cartons of ice cream, it felt like a futile, but best-effort, fight against the cold.

Thankfully, by the time we returned to the apartment, Pepco's online map showed that they had finally restored power to our area. Hallelujah! We drove back via a much less snowy highway and arrived home safely. Compared to that ordeal, the rest of the week was nothing. Sure, we didn't have the Metro, but hey, we could sit around comfortably! Nevertheless, I was still extremely thankful when the Metro reopened on Friday. I had a serious case of cabin fever. But we could proudly say that we survived the great Snowmageddon of 2010.

current mood: accomplished

(tell me a story)

Sunday, March 28th, 2010
6:47 pm - A Long, Cold Winter - Part I
Now that daffodils are sprouting, it seems that I can definitely say we survived the D.C. Winter of 2009-2010.

The winter started out normally enough - cold and wet. We went home to New York for Thanksgiving after going to Aunt Linda and Uncle Rick's house last year. We had a lovely time, all gathered together at the Sheas. I truly am ever grateful that our families get along as fabulously well as they do. Chris' aunt and uncle came up too, and we had another rousing game of Apples to Apples after dinner. Then, the long drive back - oh, holiday traffic, how you vex us so!

Shortly after, the snow started falling. And never really stopped. The snow in December introduced me to the concept of the adult snow day - the federal government can close? really?? - a concept that I grew extremely familiar with over the next month. But the first snowfall wasn't too much of an inconvenience beyond delaying the start of a volunteer project for a second (and indefinite) period of time. I was just happy I didn't trudge into D.C. and then stuck one Metro stop away from ours, which closed after about 8 inches of snow had fallen. Missing work for one day was like a vacation more than anything else.

Christmas was a reprieve from D.C., but not from the fluffy white stuff. Of course, White Christmases in Clifton Park are not unusual and the snow didn't hamper our travel plans, so I didn't mind it too much. It always makes everything look so lovely. In terms of celebrations, we reversed Christmas this year. The last few years, we stayed over with my parents on Christmas Eve and then went to the Sheas, where we had Christmas dinner. In contrast, this year, Mom decided she would host Christmas dinner. As my parents had never hosted Christmas for anyone but the three of us before, she was rather nervous (even if she wouldn't admit it). On Christmas Eve, the house was all a hustle and bustle. Chris helped Mom quite a bit in the kitchen, while I unhelpfully sat like a lump on the couch, watching Anthony Bourdain's holiday special ("Force feeding geese doesn't hurt them!") with Dad, who slept through half of it anyway. I did make myself somewhat useful by decorating the Christmas tree, which I had promised to do the day before. However, I kept getting a little out of the spirit because of the oh-so-Christmasy Jethro Tull that Dad kept selecting on the TV music channel!

Christmas morning was relatively unhurried at the Sheas, as I knew my parents were busy getting ready. There were all of the Shea hallmarks - cinnamon buns, orange juice, and a tremendous pile of boxes of all shapes and sizes under the tree. I did feel a little bad because Chris had a stack of presents for me, but I had nothing for him at his parents' house. I bought him a few larger presents, all of which I had left at my parents' house by mistake, whereas he bought me a bunch of smaller ones because he loves the look of a "cascade" of presents. Nevertheless, we both received quite a lot of nice presents at the Sheas, and of course, even more at my parents' house. In particular, we received Wii Rock Band and Wii Fit from my parents, drastically expanding the usefulness of the Wii, which we received from them last Christmas. Also, sitting on my parents' hardwood floor, I realized that if we have hardwood floors in our house (which of course, I didn't know about at the time), we will make sure to have lots of pillows to sit and lean on when opening presents. Keep things nice and warm.

After opening presents, Christmas really kicked into high gear, as Mom and Chris finished up the food and waited for the Sheas, including Chris's Aunt Pat, to arrive. Aunt Pat wasn't going to come at first, but decided to drive up after much needling and encouragement from Melissa and Chris. For dinner, we had an Italian extravaganza, with chicken Parmesan, eggplant rollatini, and two different types of lasagna (veggie and meat). Naturally, we ate ourselves illy, as if we were Tiny Tim, previously surviving on crusts of bread. A delicious mix of veggies, cheese and pasta. Dinner was followed by a smorgasbord of desserts. Mom made several types of cookies, lemon lush, and dessert bars. Mama Shea brought pie and even more cookies! It would have made a Victorian child die in delight.

We finished with a rousing game of the traditional pastime, Catchphrase. It's this little electronic gizmo that pops up with a word you have to help your team guess. Thankfully, Dad played much better on Christmas than he did the night before. Then, he was on my team against Chris and Mom and the best he could do for several of them was "I dunno" and a shrug. On Christmas, he proved he could do better, both helping people guess several and getting a few himself. Even Aunt Pat laughed a lot, even though she was a bit nervous coming over.

The rest of the week we spent hanging out and going out with our friends. New Years was fun without being overly eventful. We got in on a package in Troy with Greg A, Dave and Stephanie. It was at the Marriott with a bar, and included a buffet dinner, drinks all night, and a hotel room. We were actually part of a much larger party that we glommed onto because Greg's friend-of-a-friend knew the bar's owner. Seeing how "sports bar" the place was, I was a bit skeptical at first, but we ended up having a good time. The only weird thing was that we somehow got carded by police/security after we entered! The bar staff pointed people out to them that they thought had questionable ID and I think the security people got confused. After a bit of examination of my Maryland ID, they gave it back and all was well again. I drank Pinto Grigio and Riesling all night, which keeps me happy without feeling nauseous. We met Greg's friends-of-friend, who were good-natured and interesting to talk to. It was the second time I had ever met Stephanie, but she was great fun to hang out with. At midnight, we blew horns and rattled noisemakers and yelled quite a bit. It was lighthearted fun. The place started clearing out not long after, so we headed up to the room around 12:30. We briefly considered hanging out with other people in the larger party, but it seemed like it was winding down when I stepped in their room, so we quickly abandoned that plan. Instead, we returned to our own room, which we were sharing with Greg. Sadly, the deal was only for two rooms, and Dave said, "There's no way in hell we're sharing a room." So much for New Years romance. It didn't really matter anyway, as Chris promptly fell asleep as soon as his head hit the pillow. So I stayed up and talked with Greg, which was really cool. It's so rare that I hang out with my high school friends one-on-one, and Greg's always been someone I've been able to have in-depth, honest conversations with. We talked a lot about relationships, along with some goofy stuff, until about 3, when we were both too exhausted to stay up longer. The next morning, Chris and I were awake enough to drag ourselves downstairs to the breakfast buffet, which was surprisingly good for a hotel buffet. After a long night, I think I would have died without some food. Plus, it was definitely healthier than the year we went to Bombers for breakfast (and much more drama-free).

On the drive back home to D.C., we visited with my extended family in New Jersey. My Dad's Mom is in her late 80s and I like to see her whenever I can. As usual, she fed us entirely too much, and then we talked and talked, especially once Aunt Patty, Uncle Brian, and Sarah arrived at her house. I'm so glad I come from a family who loves to converse, to tell stories. I can't imagine anything worse than family gatherings where you sit around and stare at each other. We stayed over at Aunt Linda and Uncle Rick's house, which allowed us to wish them a Merry Christmas and exchange gifts. Generously, they gave us a $100 gift certificate to Volt, the restaurant in Frederick, MD, run by Bryan Voltaggio, the runner-up on last season's Top Chef.

Driving home was, as usual, miserable. But the traffic was expected and we got home safely, so it all worked out. Little did we know that we would be dying to get out into the car soon enough.

current mood: thankful

(tell me a story)

Tuesday, February 9th, 2010
1:57 pm - It was no surface but all feeling / Maybe at the time it felt like dreaming
Whenever I mention that my favorite band is terribly obscure in the U.S., the person I'm talking to inevitably says, "What's their name? I bet I know them." Then, of course, when I say "the Manic Street Preachers," they'll say, "Oh. I've never heard of them." But on a chilly night this past fall, I was surrounded by Americans who would not only know who I was talking about, but be able to recite their entire discography.

When I became a fan of the band, I never expected to be able to see them in concert. When they toured while I lived in England, I figured it was a once in a lifetime opportunity. We went to London, it was a very good show, I got to meet them in person (!), the end. Very lovely. So when Ilya told me they were touring in America, I was simultaneously shocked and thrilled. The chance to see them again? In Philadelphia? I'll be there!

To compensate for the concert being on a weeknight, I took a half-day off work to leave early and come in late the next day. Taking the train from Union Station, I alternated between writing, sleeping, and being sheerly excited. I met Ilya at the train station, where he showed me his (relatively) new Hyundai, one of his two "hot Asian girls" (the other being his girlfriend!). Considering our shared love of music, the last time I saw him was also at a concert, appropriately.

We headed over to the venue, World Cafe Live. The space must have been much stranger for them to perform in than for us to watch. At the turn of the last decade, they played at one of the largest stadiums in the UK to a sold-out crowd. In contrast, World Cafe Live made Saratoga Winners seems spacious (although this place was far cleaner). It was a step up from the concerts I went to in the now-departed Noyes Student Center at Cornell only in that it was an actual venue, with food and a bar. It was cute in its smallness though. When we got food, we could actually still see the opening band despite sitting down.

Unfortunately, the opening band was awful. The Manics' opening band last time was a bit dull, very young emo-ish, but these guys were just dumb. They had a song comparing women and weed and determined weed was a superior option. Thankfully, they were done quickly, leaving me to finish off my crab cake sandwich and wait in excitement for the Manics to come on.

As we waited, the venue began to fill up, with more and more people staking out their places in front of the stage. It was obvious from the start that this was a very different crowd than the one in London. The crowd in London was energetic, with everyone seemingly pleased to be there. But there were definitely some people who thought, "Oh, the Manics? They had that song from a long time ago - you know that song? Yeah, sure, I'll go see them." Interested, but not enthused. (There were also a couple of very rude people who I found annoying.) On the other hand, everyone in this crowd was absolutely passionate about the Manics. Many of them probably thought that they'd never be able to see them live. We waited in eager anticipation, like kids on Christmas Eve.

Finally, they made the waiting all worth while. With James Dean Bradfield (yes, his real name, isn't it rock star?) at the mic, guitar in hand, Nicky Wire on the bass, and Sean Moore hidden behind the drum kit, they launched into the iconic first notes of Motorcycle Emptiness. "Culture sucks down words..." James cried, as sincere and cynical as he was 17 years ago when they released Generation Terrorists. From that electric beginning, they launched into "No Surface, All Feeling," one of my favorite songs. The intimate surroundings perfectly matched the song's melancholy musings on youthful passion and love shared by friends.

Then they switched to a couple of newer songs, maintaining the intense energy. James jumped and spun wildly all over the stage, swinging his guitar in time with the rhythm. Nicky alternated between doing high scissor-kicks, grinning in an intensely goofy manner, and intently focusing on playing his bass. Nicky's gotten a lot better at playing his guitar over the years - in the beginning, he was known for being a fantastic lyricist but terrible instrumentalist - but Ilya and I still poke fun at how hard he seems to be working to get the notes right. While transitioning to "La Tristesse Durera," about the loneliness of WWII veterans, James described their diction on that album as "very German." As Welsh accents are very unfamiliar to many people, even some British, I'm sure many listeners didn't notice! Nonetheless, it's a deeply empathetic song that makes teenagers care about people they might never have thought about otherwise, and I was so glad to hear them play it. Another new song followed, with the eminently sing-alongable chorus "Mummy, what's a sex pistol?" Then "Let Robison Sing," which was the song I chatted up the Welsh historians about at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, followed by a searing version of "Faster," about furious mania. "Faster" is one of those songs I turned to when I felt particularly dark about the world and myself. Just listening to it reminded me of sitting in my bedroom at Alpha Zeta. I think playing it was a specific tribute to Richey Edwards, their long-gone rhythm guitarist who disappeared without a trace over 10 years ago. His lyrics, from a notebook they found shortly afterwards, made up all of the songs on their latest album. Moving into the flip side thematically, they then played "Enola/Alone," which is about feeling terribly isolated but needing to reach out despite yourself.

Somewhere within those songs, James' guitar went incredibly out of tune, forcing him to spend quite a bit of time between songs fixing it. Thankfully, I could actually understand the on-stage banter this time. While he was futzing with it, someone yelled "Cuba!" where the Manics have performed in the past. They allegedly got their live concert DVD's title from a conversation they had with Fidel Castro. They said their music was going to be quite loud, and he said, "Is it louder than WAR?" In response to the fan, James smiled and shook his head, saying, "Don't say that in this country. We had to rip those pages out of our passports before we got to Immigration!" As he continued to fiddle with the strings, he asked, "So do you want to hear a little Philadelphia Freedom?" The crowd was amused but not supportive, so I sadly didn't get to see the Manics cover Elton John.

After a new song (Ilya's favorite off of the album, if I remember) and two of my favorite songs ever ("From Despair to Where" and "If You Tolerate This, Your Children Will Be Next"), everyone except James left the stage. In their absence, he switched to acoustic guitar and launched into the Manics most pretty/sad song, "This is Yesterday." Never has lost innocence transitioning into despair sounded so lovely. Then, much to my surprise, he launched into "Masses Against the Classes," normally a rocker. The acoustic version removed the loudness, but none of the venom, making it an ironic, almost silly but quietly nasty song. It was hard to judge the level of sincerity, bringing the entire song's meaning into question. That combination of brutal honesty and self-awareness of their own ridiculousness has been something I've always liked about the Manics. On one hand, they fiercely believe in whatever they are saying at the time. On the other hand, they know that may change tomorrow. As they've always said, "We reserve the right to contradict ourselves."

The rest of the band returned for a big, full version of "Send Away the Tigers," followed by the electric-tinged "You Stole the Sun from My Heart." Then a lead-in I didn't recognize (a cover), into the song that best captures their once-youthful anger, pride and cynicism: "Motown Junk." Absolutely blistering. "Stops your heart beating for 168 seconds / stops your brain thinking for 168 seconds." Within all of this intensity, the Manics did stop again to exchange a bit of fun conversation. At one point, Nicky said, "There's a hot, sweaty, sexy mess up here," to which James replied, "Well, it's not me." Later on, James called Sean "a beast" on the drums. It was hard to see his response, as he tends to get a bit lost behind the kit.

Another one from the new album and then they finished with 3 iconic songs - two early ones and their most famous of all. First, "You Love Us," another one full of malice and fury, then "Little Baby Nothing," a softer, almost pop-like song about child prostitution and exploitation of women. That song epitomizes their love of highlighting the pain of the continually oppressed and downtrodden. That theme continued in their closer, "A Design for Life," a rousing bar song about the co-opting of the lower class culture in Britain by trendy "lads."

For a few moments after they finished, we stood there mesmerized , letting the experience wash over us. As we walked to the door, Ilya commented, "Richey missed a really good night." "Yeah, he did," I said. After a second, he added, "Unless he was here." Misunderstanding him to be referring to a ghost, I said, "Well, that would be creepy." Looking at me oddly, he said, "If he was in the audience," and I immediately understood what he meant. I think every Manics fan - and the band themselves, of course - know that Richie is dead, but secretly hope that maybe he just ran away from everything and is living happily in disguise. He certainly wouldn't be recognized in Philadelphia. "Yes, maybe he was," I replied, with a sad smile.

We walked out into the lobby, and Ilya looked like he was going to leave. I pointed out that it was still quite early and it was likely the band would be greeting fans, especially with this devoted crowd. If he wanted to get something signed, he could get it from the merchandise table. I already had a signed CD from the last concert, so I was going to try to get a photo. Standing in line, waiting for Ilya to buy the LP, I received some reward for my hard work with a paint pen. For the last concert, inspired by classic Manics DIY shirts, I created a t-shirt with glitter paint that says, "Words are never enough." I used glitter paint specifically because the lyrics following that line are "Only cheap tarnished glitter..." As we stood in line, a lady passing by asked, "Oh, is that from the song?" I said, "Oh yes, I made it myself!" It was a rather odd question to ask - where else would it be from? - but I appreciated that someone did notice it.

We headed to the backstage door the most awkward way possible, down a dodgy fire escape. But our interest paid off - they were there! The bus was parked out back, and little clusters of people were gathered around Nicky and James. Even though Ilya had joked for years that he would kick Nicky in the shins if he ever met him (because of his extremely delayed stated opposition to the Iraq War), it was obvious that wasn't going to happen. He was thrilled as anyone else to have this opportunity. We went over to Nicky first, in his military jacket and matching tight pants, surrounded by a gaggle of girls (and a few guys). He has to be the only cross-dresser considered a sex symbol - he wears it so well. In some ways, he reminds me of Tip from Skin Horse. As we were waiting patiently, two guys next to us kept complaining that the more giggly girls weren't "real fans." I wanted to say something to them but I just rolled my eyes and muttered to Ilya. I hate when people claim others are fakers. Eventually, we got close enough to ask for a photo, and Nicky was so sweet. When I asked, he said, "Of course!" and put his arm around me. How many people can say they've been hugged by their favorite rock star? Just after taking the photo, a car came down the back alley, causing everyone to scatter. Nicky exclaimed, "Manics running wild on the streets of Philadelphia!" He looked so sincerely happy about it all - smiling, taking photos, shaking hands, answering questions (even the personal ones), laughing, signing memorabilia. He was having as good of a time as we were.

Having gotten photos and signatures, we moved on to James. He emanated a bit more rock-star cool, but was still smiling and more than willing to talk to fans. Interestingly, despite being the lead guitarist and singer, he had a slightly smaller crowd than Nicky. I mentioned that I had attended a concert in England and was so glad to see them in America, something I never expected to happen. He nodded, said he was glad we could make it, and posed for the photo. Then there was only Sean, who was nowhere to be found. But I had a plan. Boldly, I asked the manager who was standing in front of the bus (and who a fan was harassing for an autograph) if Sean would be willing to have a photo taken. He said he was in the bus and he would ask. And miracle of miracles, Sean came out! He didn't look quite as enthused as Nicky or James - he's much shyer than either of them - but was willing to pose. Unfortunately, none of the photos came out well because of the lighting. But just having the experience of talking to them and getting the photos taken was worth it.

Having seen everyone, we walked back to the train station. Ilya waited with me until the next train came, and we talked about all sorts of things, including writing. Then, while waiting on the platform, I ended up talking to a fellow fan who was also heading back to DC. I had a lovely conversation with him that kept me awake on the whole ride back.
Even though I had already seen the Manics in concert, it was a thrill to see them again. The space and the crowd were ideal, intimate without being cramped. Despite the smallness of the crowd, the Manics themselves were enthralling, so full of energy and joy. And experiencing it with Ilya, who introduced them to me, was gratifying. It was, without a doubt, my favorite concert ever.

Photos behind the cut...Collapse )

current mood: rock-and-roll

(tell me a story)

Wednesday, January 6th, 2010
10:42 pm - "Barbara, we're coming to get you!" / "Lisa, you're killing me!"
My high school friends introduced me to the fine art of the bad movie. Ever since the first party I attended with them - Ed's birthday party in 11th grade - I've watched a series of memorably horrible films. Starting with Castle Freak, we viewed everything from City of the Walking Dead ("And the nightmare became reality!") to Dracula 3000 ("I'm a sex bot" - then the spaceship goes boom) and laughed and Mystery-Science-Theatered our way through them. Inspired by these great times, I participated in two things in the past couple months that drew on bad movies for their inspiration.

The first was the Silver Spring Zombie Walk just before Halloween, which I just happened to hear about from a local blog. The basic premise of a zombie walk is that people dress up as zombies, walk through the streets of a city and growl "Braaaainsss!" I dressed up as a punk zombie, with my black-and-pink Hot Topic dress and plenty of green/brown/white makeup. Chris dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, with lots of decaying-looking makeup. We considered creating fake blood with corn syrup and food coloring, but decided against it on the grounds of creating a mess. Christine drove down from Baltimore, and also became zombified with our help.

We all then headed over to the dive-ish bar in Silver Spring where all of the zombies were meeting. We had trouble finding it at first, because there was no sign on the door, just a set of wooden stairs leading down to a basement. Appropriately horror movie. The bar itself actually turned out to be rather charming. Small, with low ceilings, it was decorated with Christmas lights and had a great jutebox, as advertised. It reminded me in some ways - the intimacy, the neighborhood feel, the crampedness - of some of our favorite Oxford pubs. Tonight, the place was absolutely packed with zombies. There were zombie brides with rotting gowns, zombie prom queens covered in blood, several doctor zombies in scrubs, a nattily dressed gentleman zombie, zombies with gaping facial wounds, and many, many others. Once we vacated the bar to actually start the walk, there were even more. There was one particularly clever guy who was collecting signatures for brain donations upon death. Carrying around a clipboard and politely harassing pedestrians, he seemed like a particularly bloody mall survey worker. Perhaps he should work with Lurch for the Cure next year. There were also several little kid zombies, accompanied by zombie parents. Super cute. Chris and I decided that we were certainly going to traumatize our children by dressing them up as zombies and bringing them to the walk if this tradition continues that long.

I spent much of our time at the bar looking for my friend Rebecca, who I met at the National Academies. She is the only person I have ever met who could possibly rival Mark for horror movie fandom. She has pictures of classic movie monsters framed on the walls of her apartment! (They're really cool.) Knowing that she would definitely be into such a thing, I invited her to meet us at the walk. Unfortunately, her and her two friends went to dinner beforehand and I didn't have her cell phone number. While I was looking for her outside, I ended up walking behind a local TV news reporter doing a spot on the walk. Oops. We also watched zombies fake-attack several cars and a fire truck on the way back to the firehouse, which the firefighters didn't seem to think was very funny. Thankfully, the police keeping watch seemed pretty okay with the whole thing, so long as no one did anything obscenely dumb. In our quest to look for Rebecca (and because the other bar was really crowded), we ended up going into the pirate bar across the street. Yes, Silver Spring has a zombie walk and a pirate bar. This town being cheaper than Bethesda isn't the only reason we want to move there. The pirate bar was pretty hilarious - everything was themed, the waiters and waitresses were all dressed as if they walked off of the set with Johnny Depp and the drinks were all quite fruity and involved rum. Unfortunately, the line at the bar there was even worse than at the first bar, so we headed back outside. I'd like to go back for my birthday though.

Finally, the walk was about to begin, with about 400 zombies participating. We found Rebecca (appropriately outfitted in a What To Do in Case of Zombie Attack t-shirt) and friends just before then and so were able to lumber together through downdown Silver Spring. We walked along slowly, with our arms out in front of us, groaning "Braaaaaaaains!" We started squashed together on the sidewalk, but then spread out once we got to the pedestrianized shopping area. On the one corner were guys fake-threatenly wielding baseball bats. I pretended to attack them, then backed off and fake-attacked again when they were distracted. Hilarious. As we passed by the toy store, a lady held a rubber brain above her head, waving it. Naturally, we all gravitated towards her. As the crowd approached, she tucked the brain behind her back, smiled, and shut the door of the store behind her. We all let out a collective groan and moped off. It's amazing how many different emotions one can express through the word "Braaaains...." It was also shocking how many people were gathered to see us. Along the pedestrianized part of the town, there were large crowds on both sides of the walk watching and laughing. I lunged at several people, including some kids who thought the whole thing was the funniest thing they had ever seen. We even went up to the windows of restaurants and growled at those dining inside. It's truly astonishing how completely ridiculous and shameless you can be when you're in costume. It's why I love being in costume - you're outside yourself, you're not held accountable in the same way for being silly, you're a character.

The walk ended at the AMC Classic movie theater, where they were showing Shaun of the Dead. Appropriately, the organizers of the walk were dressed as Shaun (with his cricket bat) and his friend Patrick. While we waited for the movie to begin, we watched a couple of zombies throw a rubber brain around the theater. One particularly athletic zombie at the front of the theater actually took a flying leap for the brain, caught it, and then crashed to the ground. Perhaps there could be a zombie football league? Watching the movie was great too, because everyone booed every time they killed a zombie, in addition to the usual laughs.

The other event we attended wasn't horror-movie themed, but it was definitely bad - a midnight movie showing of perhaps The Worst Drama of All Time, The Room. The Room is a drama written, directed and acted in by Tommy Wiseau. Who is Tommy Wiseau? Hell if anyone knows, apart from this movie. Apparently, he came into a good chunk of change, decided to fulfill his dream of making a movie, rented a billboard on Sunset Boulvard for more than a year, and showed it at Cannes. Unfortunately, for Tommy, he is truly awful at all three of the roles he took on. The script is absolutely nonsensical, the sex scene is one of the least sexy things on earth and is repeated again shot-for-shot later in the movie, the camera is frequently out of focus, the movie randomly changes locations, people wander in and out for no apparent reason, the dialogue is something no one would ever say (and not in a clever way), and it is never clear during the entire movie what room the title is actually referring to. This movie is just indescrible; you really do have to watch it to understand. Between the sheer terribleness and the director's blind faith/self-promotion, this movie has actually become a major cult film. It's better than Rocky Horror because at least Rocky Horror was trying to be funny. We had watched in a couple times with our friends at home, and gloried in its badness. But when I saw they were showing it in an actual movie theater, there was no question we would be attending! Because I knew how much Greg B. loves The Room in a perverse way, we invited Greg and Christine along.

Watching it in the theater was the most entertaining experience I have ever had in a movie theater. (Although the Sing-a-long Sound of Music is up there.) People who had watched the movie many, many more times than we have, had clearly come up with standard responses to certain lines in the movie. During one of the sex scenes, when the main female character says "The candles, the music, the sexy dress," they yelled "What candles? What music? What sexy dress?" Whenever the mother comes on screen, who mentions she has cancer once in the movie and it never mentions it again, we all yelled "Cancer!" On one of the many, many random pans over the Golden Gate Bridge (yes, we get that the movie is supposedly in San Francisco, thank you), we yelled "Go, go, go, go!" and then cheered once it reached the end. And whenever the spoon decorations that are randomly in the background appeared on screen, they threw plastic spoons at the screen - unfortunately, hitting other members of the audience. The only thing that was missing was someone throwing around a football in a tuxedo. Besides the group responses, it was also encouraged to yell random stuff at the screen whenever something particularly stupid happened. I yelled whatever comment popped into my head - it was fabulous! Greg and Christine had an equally good time – Greg said it was one of the most amazing experiences he has ever had.

And the theater manager promised even more. He said that they were going to show it once a month at midnight until Tommy Wiseau actually attended. There's a question and answer with him as an extra on the DVD and watching it, you realize that he has no idea why people enjoy this movie so much. One of the questions is “Should everyone see this movie?” He answers, “No, this movie is not for everyone. But all Americans should see it twice.” What? Although at this point, he does seem to understand that people don't think it's a great drama, because it's advertised on the DVD as a “black comedy.” Currently, he shows up for question and answer sessions during screenings in L.A. Seeing him in person would be truly a treat. I think it might be the one thing that might get Mark to come visit us in D.C.

The culture that's grown up around these films is really fascinating. Later, Rebecca and I were talking about the re-popularizing of zombie films, and thinking that perhaps it was because of our current culture of fear. When it feels like The World is Ending via climate change, terrorism, or that meteorite the Discovery Channel special keeps telling us about, it feels good to watch a movie where the world really is ending and then be able to walk away from it at the end. And zombies have that terrifying absoluteness to them that other threats lack, combined with the personal ability to at least do something about it. As for the really bad ones, I can't exactly pin down what really attracts me to them. The horrifying bad ones are more ridiculous than just plain old Roland Emmerich style popcorn flicks, too much so to be escapist. Mystery Science Theater 3000 is beloved, but much of that is the snarkiness of the puppets, which is lacking when you're watching the films by themselves. Some of it is superiority, the fact that we clearly know more about storytelling and moviemaking than these people, but not all of it. The rest may come from our appreciation for the sheerly absurd. It's the same characteristic that compels us to love Monty Python. When a moviemaker clearly does not mean for that bit to be silly, it comes across as even more patently ridiculous. And then when a lot of people share those same feelings and experiences around the movie, it creates a community of sorts, where there's a shared understanding. Whatever it is, we had a good old time participating in the world of the cult movie.

current mood: mellow

(tell me a story)

Sunday, January 3rd, 2010
11:21 pm - The salt, salt smell of the thick sea air / And the smooth round stones that the ebbtides wear - Geo
Cape Cod Vacation

Day Four

The next day, we did the one singular thing that I absolutely wanted to do on this trip - take a whale watch. When I was in third grade, I took a trip to Boston with my mom's school, where we went on a whale watch and saw a huge pod of dolphins jumping alongside the ship on the way back. That same year, we travelled to Homasassa Springs, Florida, where I saw wild manatees face to face with only a small layer of glass separating us. That year, I decided I was going to be a marine biologist in the summer and a famous writer in the winter. Considering that I now do science communication, I think I've gotten almost as close as I can to that dream, even if I would like to spend more time outside. Not bad for a third grade career option. On this trip, I did get to fulfill some of my love for large aquatic mammals, but I also learned that perhaps it's best that I didn't pursue the marine biology part.

My stomach had been bothering me some the entire trip. Because of this, I made sure to buy Drammamine at the little shop next to the whale watching office. Unfortunately, I don't know how much it helped. As soon as we got into deeper water, past the calm waters surrounding the Cape, I felt sick to my stomach. I never thought I was actually going to throw up, but would have gladly if I thought it would help. (It wouldn't, I'm sure.) It didn't help that we were on a rather small boat - better to see whales with - and had some fierce winds. I hoped that perhaps it was the moving forward that was doing me in - it had to improve once we stopped, right? No. No, it did not. When we finally stopped, the wind rocked the boat back and forth so fiercely that you would slide across the deck as it tipped without something to hold on to. Standing on the sides, where there was the best view, was impossible for me because they both kept rocking up and down like some horrible pirate carnival ride. Ugh. To stay in the middle of the boat, I planted myself on the bow, feet wide, leaning up against the top cabin. That way, I had the best views while minimizing the rocking as much as possible.

However, I had about as great of a time as possible, considering my physical state. Thankfully, the rest of the trip didn't disappoint. There were plenty of whales! And we actually saw much more than spouts and backs, as you often do. Several of them got quite close to the boat. Many of them fluked and some raised their flippers, pounding the water. We had several times when there was more than one whale near the boat, swimming around. When that happened, I ran as best as I could from side to side, just to catch a glimpse. My heart raced as I did it, and it wasn't from exercise. I just find them so fascinating and beautiful. I also had a pretty neat conversation about whale biology and what scientists know (not much) and don't know (a lot) with the on-board biologist. If I had to trade feeling sick for seeing whales, I'd still pick the whales.

Here are a couple of the best photos I got:Collapse )

current mood: cheerful

(tell me a story)

Friday, December 25th, 2009
11:12 pm - Peace be with you...
"Christmas, children, is not a date.  It is a state of mind."  - Mary Ellen Chase

"Our hearts grow tender with childhood memories and love of kindred, and we are better throughout the year for having, in spirit, become a child again at Christmas-time."  - Laura Ingalls Wilder

"God bless us, every one!" - Tiny Tim, A Christmas Carol

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it. ....He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband's will, but born of God. The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth." - John 1: 1-14

Happy tree watching, merry Christmas, and God bless!

current mood: blessed

(tell me a story)

Sunday, December 20th, 2009
9:52 am - The low sandy beach and the thin scrub pine / The wide reach of bay and the long sky line - Cape Cod
Our vacation to Cape Cod this year was the first travel vacation we've had since returning from England. Of course, it wasn't nearly as exciting (and sadly, not as long) as Europe, but it was fun and relaxing. It was also cheap - Chris's parents rented a house for all of us, so all we had to pay for was our plane tickets.

Day One

We began our journey going home to Clifton Park, in the hopes of seeing our friends there. Unfortunately, the guys were all attending Justin's bachelor party - unfortunate timing - but we were able to catch up with Drew for lunch at Five Guys. Munching on fries, burgers and grilled cheese, we talked about work, our lives, what had been going on in Albany. Seeing people face-to-face is always Good - there's only so much you can do on Facebook. That night, we went to a fondue restaurant with my parents, which was really cool. We started with cheese fondue - with excellent cheese - then hot oil fondue. Chris and Dad had meat plates, where you skewer the raw meat and actually cook it right in the hot oil. Mom and I split the vegetarian plate, which didn't really require cooking, but certainly made it tastier. We finished with chocolate, of course. Delicious and sharable. As for the conversation, we had a lovely time. Even if living with my parents would drive me nuts, spending a few days with them is wonderful. Both the Breschers and the Sheas like to sit around and talk, which is why I think Chris and I are so close to our families and both appreciate family conversations so much.

Day Two

We packed all of our gear in the Shea's car (including the ridiculously giant suitcase) and drove to Boston to meet up with Melissa. The Sheas dropped us off and drove on to Cape Cod, but we stayed because we had never been to Melissa's place in Boston. She lives in Somerville, a suburb on the far side of Cambridge. It's a nice little area, with loads of restaurants, bars, and stores easily within walking distance. She lives with three of her college friends in an older Victorianish townhouse, where they live upstairs and the owners live downstairs. It's a good set up for them, as they get to see each other, but have plenty of space, unlike her New York apartment.

We had been to most of the touristy attractions in Boston, so Melissa took us off the beaten path. The first stop was for lunch/brunch at this cute neighborhood cafe called Soundbites. It was incredibly crowded, albeit in a bustling, friendly way. Thankfully, we were seated in a corner by a window so we had prime peoplewatching opportunity without any of the chaos. Unfortunately, it was as far as physically possible from the drinks, which were self-serve. I spilled tea on myself a couple of times. But the lack of waiting for drinks and the tasty eggs benedict combined with the atmosphere made it a worthwhile stop. In addition to Melissa, her friend also came out with us, who was funny and talkative. The next stop was the Boston Public Library, as Melissa had some books to return. From the outside it was a handsome, traditional stone building, but as I stepped through the heavy wooden doors I actually gasped. "Oh my God, this is beautiful," I said, trying to be quiet, as it is a library. From the marble floors to the muraled walls depicting Greek figures and the surrounding gilded decorations, it was far more elaborate and beautiful than I had ever expected. I knew the New York Public Library was legendary, but had no idea the Boston one was. Of course, Melissa did know this, as well as my love of libraries, which is why she brought us there. As we continued on, we came to a huge carved stone staircase rather like the ones in the New York State capital. At the top of the stairs was a hallway, with several very elaborate murals depicting different scenes from the Bible. There was even a key printed on laminated paper if you didn't recognize them right away. The murals were done by John Singer Sargent, and were incredibly rich in detail, from the distinct impressions on people's faces to the vibrant gold leaf and red paint used. I didn't realize it then, but two more things make it even more impressive - the prophets portrayed in the one mural were lifesized (hard to tell looking from below) and the murals are actually multimedia, including paper-mache, metalwork, and cut-outs in addition to paint. The paintings reminded me of Renaissance-era work, even though they were obviously painted long after that. Another room had a similar, although far less detailed, set of murals on all four walls, but with a medieval knights-and-Crusades theme. We never did figure out what that one was specifically depicting.

Off of the Sargeant Hall, there was a bookbinding exhibit, showcasing the finalists of a recent international bookbinding contest. The entries truly displayed the art of bookbinding, from wooden cut-outs to brilliantly painted covers. Bookbinding is one of those arts that you think is dead, but are pleasantly surprised when you see an exhibit showing that it is fully alive in some artists' hands. I hope that these artists are encouraged by people's interest in their work because it would be shameful if we lose this art. We strolled through another exhibit of political cartoons and tiny, precise dioramas, although I was never sure how these two things were related. We poked our head into the dramatic reading room, with a soaring ceiling and carved flowers on the ceiling. The ceiling reminded me of the one in the Radcliffe Camera in Oxford, which I spent many hours staring at when I couldn't focus on reading any more.

After Melissa dropped off her books, we spotted the Old South Church across the street and decided to take a look. Unfortunately, it wasn't the Paul Revere Church, as we thought at first (that's the Old North Church), but it was from the same time period. Ben Franklin was actually baptized there! Inside, the stained glass shone bright, lit by the rays of the afternoon sun. I tried to pick out Biblical stories in the windows, but just ended up gazing in awe. I also liked the church, as they do jazz worship and seemed to be very inclusive.

From there, we just ended up wandering around, stopping at a funky gift shop and the building where Melissa works. Taking the bus to Harvard Square, we browsed a multi-story children's bookstore (dear Lord, I love bookstores), Newbury Comics (mostly CDs, a lot of nerdy random stuff and a few comics), and a few others before we got serious about helping Chris get his mom a birthday gift. We eventually came to a jewlery boutique where Chris bought his mom a necklace, after much hemming and hawing and convincing from the shopkeeper, Melissa and I. That night, after returning to Somerville, we ate at an Indian restaurant with good food and terrible service. They were really busy though. At least it was better than when we went to the Ethiopian restaurant in Grenwich Village, the last time we visited Melissa. (I was the only one to like the food there and the service was...apathetic at best.) We then stopped over at Melissa's favorite bar, The Burren, a very authentic Irish pub, perfect for Boston. We were all so tired that we couldn't stay long, but just a few drinks was enough to get a feel for the atmosphere.

Day Three

We spent most of the next day eating and driving. Heading out early, we stopped at a bagel shop that Melissa described as the "soup Nazi" of bagel shops. It was a tiny place with one table and two women behind the counter. While one lady was pleasant, the other gave you a laser-eyed glare if you asked a question, took too long, wanted something fixed or did anything outside of what she thought was correct. Even more hilariously, Melissa said she sees both of the ladies regularly at the pub she goes to for trivia. Now that's a neighborhood bar!

We drove to Cape Cod in the pouring rain, which was still going by the time we arrived at the house. It was an adorable little Cap Codder, appropriately, with two bedrooms and was unfortunately extremely musty. After bringing in our stuff, we set off to find lunch, meaning a restaurant where Papa Shea was willing to eat. Not an easy task. We tried the Hot Chocolate Sparrow first, an adorable coffee/candy shop recommended by others, only to be rejected. Paninis are not acceptable. Then, we drove around for more than a half-hour searching for some restaurant the Sheas went to once years ago. I always feel awkward in situations like this with the Sheas because it frequently involves some amount of yelling, something I'm not used to with my parents. We finally found the place, which ended up being almost directly across the street from the Hot Chocolate Sparrow. Sigh. They had a fun atmosphere, with license plates decorating the walls, and pretty good fried seafood though.

As there's not a lot to do in Cape Cod when it's pouring rain, we took advantage of the one opportunity we had - taking a tour of one of the lighthouses. We walked up the steps, watched the lights spin, looked out the windows and talked to volunteers about its history. The most fascinating thing was that the Cape Codders considered that particular lighthouse to be such an essential part of the culture - in terms of both safety and history - that they moved the entire lighthouse not just once, but twice! The first time, they moved it further back from the crumbling coastline so that it could continue to warn ships effectively. The second time, they moved it in a spot so that it was permanently out-of-service in an official capacity but would never be threatened with falling into the ocean again. I wasn't nearly as excited as Mama Shea to tour it - apparently they've seen it from the road from years and never went inside - but I enjoyed learning about its neat history.

That night, we ate the Italian feast brought by Mama Shea (eggplant and chicken parm), watched America's Best Idea: The National Parks under duress from Papa Shea, and played Apples to Apples. Although I have bad memories of my introduction to the game - it involved Alpha Zeta - I've had great fun with it ever since. If you've never played, the basic premise of the game is that each person is given several cards with nouns on them, which you have to choose from to "match" an adjective card. The judge for that round picks which noun card is most appropriate, ironic, or funniest, depending on their taste. Who serves as judge rotates around the table. The aspect of the game I like best is figuring out the personality of the current round's judge and deciding what they personally would like best. Certain people's choices are often surprising and not what you would think they would pick at all! I think I'm pretty good at the game because I have lots of practice in "writing for my audience" which this is just a spin on. However, I didn't have the best match of the night - that honor belonged to Melissa. The adjective was "Radiant" and Melissa put down "Hiroshima 1945." Radiant in more than one sense of the word, indeed. However, Melissa also happened to make the worst match of the night. The judge was Papa Shea and the adjective was "Corrupt." Much to everyone's surprise, someone put down "Carl Sagan!" Now, like a good geek, Papa Shea would have picked Carl Sagan for any other adjective. But corrupt? Not so much.

current mood: snowy

(tell me a story)

Friday, December 18th, 2009
6:55 pm - "I want a blue, green Mardi Gras fun ball, orbiting through space." - Henry Rollins
My parents visited again a few months later for Columbus Day weekend, on rather short notice. I didn't expect - and at first, didn't want - them to come because it was already a very busy weekend. We were going to the Extreme Green Ball on Friday night, Greg B and Christine's house on Saturday and the rest of the weekend at the Green Festival. On Saturday, I was volunteering for Ecolocity's booth at the biggest environmental event on the East Coast for a couple hours, then the next day, speaking on a panel about Transition Towns. Despite our lack of time to entertain my parents, they still wanted to come. They looked into going to Lake Placid for the weekend, but "everything was booked," and they said they would just go out to dinner when we were in Baltimore.

Surprisingly, it worked out much better than I thought it would. We went to the Extreme Green Ball on Friday, a reasonably-priced fancy charity/networking event to benefit a local group doing weatherization for low-income people. We got there late because we were cleaning the house in anticipation of my parents' arrival. But despite some of the nicer food being gone, there's only so long you can attempt to network in a space full of people you've never met. I had no idea where to start. Both Chris and I knew I didn't come to talk exclusively to him, but at first, I found starting conversations with complete strangers baffling. Eventually, I found a few people that I had met previously (albeit briefly) and struck up conversations with people who were standing nearby. When the night started to wind down, it had been the perfect amount of time. And as it turned out, my parents got in late, so we were home waiting for them when they arrived at our door.

The next day was a flurry of outreach and exploring. I made a teacher-worthy bulletin board about our group's local food efforts and made every chance I could to show it (and our work) off to whoever passed by our booth. After doing this type of outreach at quite a number of events, ranging from the hippie/yuppie Green Fest to the fishing and hunting New York Outdoor extravaganza for the Conservationist, I've gotten good at shanghaiing convention-goers into conversation. I never pass up an opportunity to highlight what we're doing, what our vision is, and how people can get involved. I had a terrific conversation with a father and teenage son, as the teenage son wanted to do more but was frustrated with the kids in his high school. However, rather embarrassingly, Mom started to get in on the act. I know she was trying to help, but it somehow always devolved into her bragging about me. It made me feel like I was 12. I suppose she deserved that right though for helping me draw that giant bulletin board around the convention center (and just generally by being my mom!). It's funny now at Ecolocity - if I mention my mom, everyone now knows exactly who she is and what she acts like. Not surprisingly, I heard a lot of "You're so alike!" comments that day. Believe me, I know.

After I finished my volunteer time, we wandered around the Festival, which is humongous. While I was volunteering, my parents managed to only cover the first couple rows, eating their way through. Chris was on his own, as usual. With there being plenty left to see, we moved to booth to booth, looking at everything from hemp-based food (not very good) to elephant-poop paper to loads of home energy gadgets. In between returning to Ben and Jerry's for seconds and thirds, we applied natural hand lotions and smelled beeswax candles. There was even someone doing some really freaky yoga involving a harness! Once we were through all of the commercialization, there were all of the non-profit and advocacy groups, which I plied with Ecolocity business cards and my spiel about how our groups can work together. A lot of the national groups are pretty unhelpful on that front - Greenpeace always wants you to give them money, as if they were the truly grassroots ones - but I made some good connections.

Somewhere between looking at all of the stalls and my networking, we went to see Ed Begley Jr. speak. A long-term proponent of the environmental movement in Hollywood, with the low-key, energy-saving lifestyle to back it, Begley now has a very funny show on Planet Green called "Living with Ed." He also used to star on St. Elsewhere, Mom's favorite TV show ever, which was a bonus. He wasn't quite as outrageous as on the show - he brought his wife for a methane recycling plant on a dairy farm once for their anniversary - but he was very funny. He talked about how he was into "being green before it was cool" and they worked their way up to the lifestyle they have today. He understands that not everyone can buy solar panels, which are quite expensive, but starting with the easiest and cheapest steps can make a big difference. He said that modern technology has also made it more possible to be green than ever. He had a full energy audit done on his house, where the auditor uses a thermal imaging camera, and found loads of leaks and places for improvement. He also talked about his favorite green purchase - his recycled plastic fence, which he installed in spite of its aesthetics, much to his wife's chagrin. But while the neighbor's wood fence has rotted and been replaced, his ugly white fence is still standing proud.

The next day at the Festival, we saw another very entertaining speaker, farmer Joel Salatin. He's appeared in a number of books and movies focusing on local food (Food, Inc.; Omnivore's Dilemma) and has been a long-time proponent for locally-raised, small-scale animal farming. He raises cows, chickens, and pigs and has an ingenious rotation system wherein he switches off which field each species spends time in every few days. It really mimics the natural ecosystems that grow up around the large grazing mammals and let the animals act like animals. He says he tries to bring out the "pigness" of the pig as much as he can. We also happen to buy meat from him, which is very expensive but quite good. It also makes me feel better that at least the pig I'm eating was happy while it was alive. Most of Salatin's stories were about how the man is keeping him down. After all, the title of his one book is "Everything I Want to Do is Illegal." While a non-issue for most produce farmers, regulation designed for factor farms and slaughterhouses can pose huge problems for small-scale operations like his. The inspector said they needed to have at least two bathrooms in their slaughtering area, and Salatin replied, in an exasperated tone, "We can go in the farmhouse 10 yards away!" He then pointed out that the same people that won't let him use common sense to run his farm, go hunting down in Virginia, strap a dead deer to the top of their hot car, drive several hours, hang the deer outside to bleed dry for several days...and then finally break it down and eat it after it's never been refrigerated! Yuck.

Shortly after that presentation, it was time for me to speak. Ecolocity had somehow been invited to have a panel on Transition Culture. I have no idea how out of all of the groups there, they picked us to hold a panel discussion, but Larry has made a lot of connections. So he asked for volunteers and because I'm a masochist, of course, I volunteered. I can't help myself. The panel ended up being me, Nadine from Takoma Park, Chip from Baltimore, and Larry as the moderator. I was rather concerned because I had never spoken on a panel before. I had seen a lot of them, but had also seen a lot of them go badly. And I had never met two of my fellow panelists in person. So I was afraid I'd sound like an idiot, afraid I'd misrepresent the movement, afraid that I'd talk too much or not enough or something. The fact that my parents were attending only stressed me out more. I had wanted to have a conference call beforehand, build some camaraderie, but no one could get on at the same time. We were supposed to meet up a half-hour before the panel started, but no one could find Chip. Then once we got in the room, we had to shuffle around the chairs so we could see each other while still seeing the audience and not falling off of the chairs. It was a bit of a mess. Yet despite it all, I felt an inner calm before we were about to begin. I wasn't twitchy or wanting to talk incessantly. I felt, whatever happens, happens - not much I can do about it now but be your best. And I did. Larry started by showing a short, silly video about the Greenbelt Solar Clothes Drying Colorguard (or whatever silly name they have) that illustrated the combined attitude of practicality and fun sustainability that Transition espouses. Then after a short introduction to Transition culture, we began. We talked about the positivity of the Transition movement, how it's all about finding better solutions for everyone. I really focused on the social justice aspects of it - how it is about valuing those who are frequently devalued and solving problems in a way that benefits the most vulnerable. And how it's not a charity movement - we think we can learn from everyone's experiences and want them to share. We also talked about how much of the power of transition is meeting people where they are, matching their needs and interests and embracing their current knowledge. (Very close about how I think of talking about God, actually.) That's why we're focused on food now - everyone has to eat! We also got a lot of good questions. Even though we started with a small crowd - I was worried that other Ecolocity people were going to make up our entire audience - the room was pretty full by the end. That allowed us to take questions from very diverse people that we didn't already know, which was good. One young woman asked what the appropriate use of technology is in a sustainable, community-focused society, as we're all so wired these days. Our basic answer was that technology has its place - we use it a great deal in Ecolocity - but it is a tool that can be used well or poorly. You shouldn't let it control you, as hard as that can be. My mom also had some comment, about the importance of education and teaching. I just smiled and shook my head.

Overall, the Green Festival worked out very well for us. We got the word out to a lot of people, built our mailing list, and had a fantastic panel. I was so relieved everything went well. And now I can include "speaker at the Green Festival" on my resume, which ain't half bad!

current mood: green!

(tell me a story)

Friday, December 11th, 2009
10:25 pm - "The first and finest lesson that parents can teach their children is faith and courage" - Part II
When my parents visited, we decided to go even further afield - to Harper's Ferry, West Virginia. We spent the night before in DC - Dad, Chris and I got pizza and played ping pong badly while Mom took a nighttime photography workshop that I had purchased her for Christmas. It ended far before we got back, so we returned to the Mall to face a very annoyed Mom. Oops.

The next day, we woke up fairly early to get there on time for our whitewater tubing reservations, which none of us had ever done. We arrived half-prepared - Mom had forgotten her hat and for some stupid reason, I had decided against bringing a quick-dry shirt that would protect my translucent-white skin from the hot sun. We made do anyway. We bought a picnic lunch from the tubing company's snack bar, listened to an orientation video, and then piled on the repurposed school bus that looked similar to every other rafting company's repurposed school bus. The vinyl seats stuck to our thighs as we waited in the stagnant air filled with the smell of musty tubes - and waited and waited. With everything finally sorted, the bus finally took off, travelling up and down bumpy, hilly roads to arrive at the river.

As we were tubing, not rafting, we expected the river to be fairly calm. But this was placid. However, as we quickly found out, this was a very good thing. To get to the correct position in the river, you needed to cross completely to the other side. It was like a bad word problem - if you have 100 people and just a bunch of tubes meant for floating, not paddling, how do you cross the river? The only tools we had at our disposal were our arms and legs, which for Mom and I were too short to reach that far out of the tube. I was able to reach the water by stretching my back out as much as possible and arching it, using my arms as paddles. It looked exceptionally silly, I almost fell off a couple of times, and everyone was exposed to my very white stomach, but it worked. Unfortunately, Mom couldn't manage that. Fortunately, she got Dad to tow her much of the way across!

After the initial very slow flatwater, we hit a set of very bumpy riffles. I whacked my butt on rocks a couple of times and it felt like being a bowling ball at a kid's birthday party with the blow-up gutter blockers in, but it was good fun. The best part was a little drop between two rocks. I was afraid I was going to get stuck, but instead bumped and plopped down a tiny waterfall. The rest of the trip pretty much followed that pattern - flat, riffles, flat, riffles. Several times, I lost track of Chris, Mom and Dad but we always managed to find each other once again. The flat parts were relaxing - the weather was gorgeous, sunny and warm. You just lay back and let the current carry you.

There were only two things (besides my tendency to get anxious when I need to sit still and just let go) that disturbed the vibe. The first was a bunch of rowdy people from another rafting company who were all clumped together and drinking quite a lot of beer. The river's actually part of a National Park, and alcohol is strictly forbidden. I hate when people break good, useful rules. But I might have been a little more forgiving if they weren't also rude of me - way to reinforce stereotypes, guys. I bumped my tube into the group by mistake, getting rather stuck, and they directed some very nasty looks and comments my way.

The second incident was actually caused by my own arrogance. I pushed myself out of my tube to swim not long before the last set of rapids. Mom asked several times if I would be okay getting back in my tube without help. Quite confident of my own strength, I said, "Oh yea. I'll definitely be able to get back in. Over at those rocks, I'll do it." Well, by the time I got to "those rocks," the water had sped up quite a bit. The current was quite fast, in fact. So much so that it was really hard to grab onto the slippery rock, much less haul myself out with one hand while holding onto the tube with the other. My fingers kept almost slipping. Once I had clamored up a bit, I was teetering on a narrow ledge just a few inches above the water. But that section of the water was immediately before a little waterfall that could beat me up quite a bit if I wasn't adjusted perfectly in my tube. I needed to get around to the side with calmer water. But that narrow ledge was all I had to walk on. If I slipped, I could hit several limbs and possibly my head on the way down that little waterfall. I've been rockclimbing hundreds of feet above the water and not felt nearly so scared. At least then I was on a harness. Thankfully, with a couple of calm breaths and careful footsteps, I edged my way to calmer water. There, I jumped on my tube and slipped down that little waterfall without a problem. There were just a few more bumps and another large swath of flatwater we had to cross to get out of the river. The exit was surprisingly difficult to see - if there hadn't been a clump of fellow tubers scrambling out, we might have floated right by. Even the exit had a shock. A crisp, cold mountain stream entered the river right as we were trying to walk out, chilling you just as you were away from the bright sun and under the shade of the trees. Brrr. We scrambled up a steep, rocky trail in our sandals, dragging our tubes through the dirt, and sat shivering, back in the bus.

We finished the day at a quaint little restaurant in Old Town Harpers' Ferry. We knew it was good because the local costumed re-enacters, finished for the day, were getting their dinner there. It was a fun thing to do, but I don't know if I'd do it again - I think whitewater rafting is more my speed.

current mood: relaxed

(tell me a story)

Sunday, December 6th, 2009
10:59 pm - "The first and finest lesson that parents can teach their children is faith and courage" - Part I,
Since we've moved to D.C., Chris and I have become popular people to come visit, most of all (not surprisingly) by our parents. Chris's parents visited us last fall, his mom for the Inauguration, then in the spring for the cherry blossoms, then again in the summer. My parents visited a couple of times last year, this summer, and then on Columbus Day weekend.

The first time this year Chris's parents visited, we did traditional touristy things for the most part. Because they came specifically for the cherry blossoms - which were really quite lovely - we walked all of the way around the Tidal Pool. The next day, we went ot the Museum of American History (which they were disappointed by) and stood outside of the National Archives in the rain. I had never been to the National Archives, so it was exciting to see the originals of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. We also saw Taft's huge bathtub and Shaq's sneakers in an exhibit about "very large things" that tended to be more entertaining than educational. But the most surprising object there and my favorite of the non-Founding Fathers documents was the deed for the land given to Laura Ingell Wilder's father to the land that would become the setting to Little House on the Prairie. The one non-touristy thing we did on that trip was our personal tour of the Supreme Court, conducted by a former co-worker of Papa Shea's, who is now a security officer for the Supreme Court. We saw the court itself as part of the regular tour - neat allegorical murals, lots of dark red velvet seats - and then he showed us the "conference room" and the Library. The conference rooms are where the Justices meet to discuss important issues, and are all gilded gold, chandeliers, and jewel tones. Apparently the first time Obama met with the Supreme Court, it was in one of those rooms. Walking in, his reaction was "Woah." I bet it was very Keaneu Reeves like. The library was a classical old law library, with lots of neat lights, balconies, and ceiling decorations. It made me pine for Oxford's libraries.

The second time this year the Sheas visited was a bit more exciting - we actually got out of the Metro DC area! We visited Mt. Vernon, where I had previously had a miserable experience. Then, I was in 8th grade on a class trip, in the middle of bitter cold January and none of us were dressed appropriately. I remember being in the unheated bathroom and noticing that my legs had turned purple. In fact, most of my memories of that trip are of being cold. However, on this visit, I was pleasantly surprised to see that they had made many changes in the past decade or so. They installed a huge visitors' center with an extensive museum, interactive exhibits, a 3D movie, cafeteria, gift shop, and most importantly, climate control. We didn't worry about the cold in July, but the air conditioning was welcome. We also saw far more of the grounds than we did on the previous tour, or at least what I remember of it. My favorite part was the "farm" section, describing what George Washington farmed and when. Some of the buildings - including slave cabins - were original, but some had been reconstructed, like the octagonal horse barn. Like everyone of his day, Washington used his horses to separate wheat from the chaff. But the horses would inevitably soil and crush the grains. Luckily, like this friend, Ben Franklin, he was also an inventor. (Apparently people in those days had a lot of time to think.) To solve the problem, Washington created a two-tier barn where the sorted grains fall through slats to the bottom, while the chaff remains on top. A staff member in period costume actually led two golden-colored horses around the outside of the barn while we watched from the middle. Occassionally, they would get excited and try to race each other, circle upon circle, round and round. Nearby, there was a showcase garden with some of the crops Washington grew. Ever up-to-date on the latest farming methods, he was very into rotating crops and even had an elaborate diagram to maximize space, efficiency, and soil fertility. Everything old is new again, it seems.

There were a number of other animals elsewhere in Mount Vernon, often under much less supervision than the horses. There was a flock of fuzzy sheep, happily munching on the grass - except for the one wandering around in the vineyard! Mildly concerned, I made sure to find a staff member when we got near the house to tell them about the runaway sheep. I finally found an older man, in a park-ranger-like uniform, who was standing near one of the security guards, and said, "Uh, just to let you know, there's a sheep wandering around outside of the fence." Much to my surprise, both of them cracked up laughing! Teasing, he replied, "This fugitive, was he white and fuzzy?" After getting over his joke, he explained that particular sheep is always escaping from the fence and would go back in when he got bored. The naughty sheep reminded me of Marie's goat in Maine, eating her entire herb garden. ("That goat better be healthy after eating all of my ecineshia!")

Once we toured the wider ground, we got in the long, long line for the main house. To pass the time, his parents and Chris and I switched off standing in line with looking at some of the other buildings. The most interesting "support" building was the blacksmith's shop, who would cast horseshoes and meet Washington's other metalworking needs. What made that one unique was that there was an actual blacksmith working the bellows! A young man with red hair and a beard to match the flames, he was happily talking to visitors while standing in front of a roaring fire. I don't know how he could stand it - it was a hot day, and I could feel the searing heat from several feet away. I asked how he learned his art - do they have schools for that? He replied, "The way people have for centuries - apprenticing." He learned from an expert who had learned from an expert down through generations. I love me some book learnin' but I have such a deep appreciation for that passed-down knowledge. I think our society has disrespected it for too long, and I'd like to foster more of it in my work with Ecolocity.

After walking through the blooming bright gardens and the other stone buildings (including the manure/compost heap!), we returned to the line and finally reached the front. The house itself was pretty and fairly interesting, but I found the surrounding grounds to be much more engaging. We walked around the museum afterwards, where two different discussions of Washington's approach to freedom really struck me. One was his thoughts on freedom of religion, which he lived out by making an effort to attend several different Christian congregations and denominations when he was president. More importantly, he attended a Jewish synogogue (I can't imagine there were many of them at that time) and told them that he would fight for the right for them to worship and fulfill their faith! I bet he'd do the same in a Muslim mosque today. Now, whenever someone mentions the idea of a "Christian nation," I'm going to bring this up to them in a "isn't this cool!" sort of way. I think it shuts down that argument quickly without being aggressive about it. The other issue addressed was the fact that Washington released his slaves upon his death. The question was, if he didn't believe slavery was moral, then why didn't he do it sooner? I liked that the museum was willing to tackle this quesiton instead of portraying him as the Best Leader Evar. There was an excellent video from the History Channel where they interviewed historians who were the descendents of slaves about their perspectives on the issue. It was a very thoughtful, well-researched consideration of something that can stir turbulent emotions.

From Mount Vernon, we went to Old Town Alexandria for dinner. We had an okay Italian dinner at a place that seemed a little more run-down than the other restaurants around it (it was also cheaper, and we paid). We went down to the harbor, which was noisy and crowded, but pretty and entertaining with lots of street performers. On the way back to the car, Chris, Mama Shea, and myself got a drink and listened to a traditional Irish singer at a quaint-looking pub. Papa Shea decided he was tired and grumpy, so he waited for the trolley to bring him back to the car.

The next day, Chris had to go to work, so we decided Papa Shea and I would drop Mama Shea off at the pool and then go to the National Zoo. It was the most lucky day I have ever had at the National Zoo. Two out of three of the pandas were awake, and eating these frozen bamboo-fruit pops. They were even facing the right way! They looked like overgrown toddlers that just happened to be huge and fuzzy. So adorable. In the gorilla exhibit, the large female gorilla was nonchalantly carrying her baby around, completely unaware of how incredibly cute he was. She would carry him in her arms, just doing her thing, and he would be looking around at everything, like a human toddler. Over at the zebras, the zoo staff were doing a special feeding of a particularly rare, endangered species of zebra. Because of the feeding, they welcomed us in through a back gate, allowing us to get within a few feet of the zebras. We watched the handlers training them by using a target on a stick that the zebras had to touch before they got their treat. It was the first time I had ever seen something like that that wasn't part of a formal show.

We met up with Chris in Georgetown, after getting fantastic hand-made ice cream and walking quite a distance. Georgetown seemed really fantastic for shopping - vintage, boutiques, high-end chains - but it was a pain to get to, and on a hot day, you'd be sweating like crazy before you tried on any clothes.

Overall, we had a really nice time with them and it was nice to get out of our usual area. There were a few moments of crankiness, but we enjoyed hosting them.

current mood: familyish

(5 tales | tell me a story)

Sunday, November 8th, 2009
9:51 pm - Hot Fun in the Summertime - Part II
The Smithsonian Folklife Festival

Both Chris and I enjoy learning about other cultures, so the Smithsonian Folklife Festival is perfect for us. It's relatively easy to get to (on the Mall), it has things to look at and read, people to talk to, and wonderfully, it's free. We went last year on July 4th with my parents, but it was a bit of a mob scene because everyone was out for the fireworks. This year, we went the year before and brought a picnic.

It turned out to be a perfectly lovely day. We ate our bread, cheese, fruit, and home-made pickles on a blanket on the Mall, surrounded by other like-thinking picnicers. We used our plastic wine glasses to drink fizzy cider. And we learned about Welsh history, South American music, and African-American storytelling. The Welsh showcase had a particularly diverse array of exhibits, from green homes to handcarved fishing boats. There was an entire section on Welsh labor unions, which I used as an excuse to talk to the Welsh people manning the booth about the Manic Street Preachers. They seemed extremely happy anyone was interested, and I'm always happy when someone has heard of the Manics, much less know what their songs are about. We also watched a cooking demonstration by a Welsh woman of Caribbean descent who created a spicy Welsh dish, an oxymoron if I've ever seen one. It smelled wonderful though.

At one point, we did have to seek cover because it started raining. However, it seems like rain and us visiting the Festival just go together, as it was raining last year as well.

Fourth of July

Last July 4th, we had moved to D.C. just days earlier and knew no one in the city except my parents, who were of course, only visiting.

This year, Ecolocity, the environmental community-building group I'm part of, was putting on our second "Potlatch" event. We took the term from a Native American ceremony where those with the most possessions would share what they had with those that had the least. Our version is a community event that is a cross between a potluck lunch and a swap meet. We would like to do them once a month, but the center where we meet only has space available on weekend holidays. So our first one was on Memorial Day weekend, but we didn't get a big crowd. Fortunately, our Fourth of July potlatch was much more successful. It helped in part that the Community Supported Agriculture pickup for a local farmer was at the Community Center at the same time, bringing in many people who may not have come otherwise. I made ice cream (as Larry advertised, "Any flavor you want, so long as it's vanilla") using my ice cream in a can skills I gained from being a teacher for Scotia Glenville Travelling Museum. It was part of our "reskilling" focus, where we teach people how to make things homemade in a (hopefully) cheap and easy way. We shook, shook, shook, and ended up with ice cream that turned out surprisingly well. Even the vegan ice cream made of coconut milk was excellent. (Unfortunately, the ice cream we made at the Labor Day potlatch later on was much wetter, but the temperature was much hotter. C'est la vie!) There were some genuinely interesting conversations that didn't degenerate into radical left-wing rantiness. I'm fine with radical left-wing, but the yelling rantiness annoys me. I can get into "angry activist" mode occassionally, which is when Chris tells me to calm down, but some people get way more over-the-top and single-minded than I possibly can. Fortunately, they didn't this time. We even bought a print from Gerri's (one of my favorite members) husband. He's an artist, who makes wood block prints, and he was selling prints with small mistakes in them for a song. It was a really nice, relaxed time, with people buying things from each other and sharing their company.

After the potlatch, we weren't quite sure what to do. We had been invited to someone's house for a party, but we had only met the person throwing the party once or twice and weren't sure which of our poker friends would be there. So instead, we went home, hung out a bit and decided to come to the fireworks on the Mall. Unfortunately, I had incorrectly remembered the starting time of the fireworks, and we arrived at the Smithsonian Metro Station a good 15 minutes after they began. And we wondered why the Metro was so uncrowded! Luckily, the Capital's fireworks display is insanely long, so there was another solid 20 minutes of fireworks to come. We actually ended up standing half-way in the street, because it had the best view. No one cared anyway, because there was no traffic, and the little there was had basically parked in the street. That alone made it pretty unique. The fireworks seemed more impressive than they had the year before as well, because we were so much closer. But despite their impressiveness, both times I've felt there was something missing at the Capital's fireworks display. I think part of it is the lack of a soundtrack - the crowd near the Capital gets a live orchestral accompaniment but they have to wait for hours to get those seats. Although the music in Albany was frequently not to my taste ("Proud to be an American," ahem), it did lend a sense of emotion. And of course, the most choreographed of all fireworks displays, Disney, has the perfectly chosen music. But more importantly, the DC display lacks a sense of danger. When I was little, I was afraid I would get hit by the falling fireworks. As I grew older, I understood that the experts timed them just right so that wouldn't happen. But there was still that thrill. This was always especially true in Albany, where they set them off surprisingly close to the Empire State Plaza because they would hit the State Capital building otherwise. In Clifton Park, one of the great disappointments was that they had to shoot the fireworks off progressively lower and less directly over your head because of increased development nearby. (The development also destroyed my beloved blueberry farm [shakes fist].) But the DC fireworks lack of that feeling of danger. Even at the closest they allow people, you are still terribly far away. I don't think even a child would think they could hit them. The very fire of the fireworks is rendered harmless, leaving only sound and light.

Once the fireworks were over, we were left with a dilemma. Besides the Inauguration, after the July 4th fireworks is the most crowded time on the Metro all year. So Chris suggested we go get drinks. We figured we'd walk the two Metro stops to Metro Circle, the closest area with anything besides museums. It was still really crowded there and we weren't really happy with the options. So we continued up to Dupont Circle, two more stops up. Despite Dupont's reputation for being a lively place, we could only find restaurants that served drinks, not bars. Since we didn't want food and didn't want to go home, we were a bit stuck. I was at my eye-rolling point - the point at which I seriously question that Chris knows what the hell he's talking about. We had been walking for at least 45 minutes by this point.

In a last ditch effort, Chris suggested trying Adams Morgan, the raucous neighborhood known for its noisy bars and clubs. Unfortunately, neither of us knew how to get there. I had been there once in the daytime, and Chris had never been there (and yet somehow claimed he knew how to get there). Thankfully, I had just gotten GPS service for my phone, and we were able to have a guided walk to Adams Morgan by the ever-reliable "Gigi."

Our first stop was a jazz bar with a good band and expensive drinks. Unfortunately, the place was almost completely empty, which rather bothers Chris. So we listened to a couple of tunes, had a nice conversation, finished our drinks and left. After some scoping of the options (Shannon: "That looks too frat-boy, that has a cover, that's a restaurant, that looks lame..." Chris: "You don't want to go anywhere!"), we decided on a dance club that looked reasonably non-trashy. Now, I like to dance. I'm not very good at it, but I find it enjoyable. Because of this, Chris and I have gone to a number of dance clubs in a number of places. Unfortunately, I have also discovered that I really hate most dance clubs. Most importantly, I dislike (and sometimes hate) the music most play. I dance because I enjoy the music and interacting with it, so why would I want to dance if the music sucks? A club with good music (the sadly-defunct 1970s-80s place in Pleasure Island at Disney, the Brit-pop night at the Black Cat, virtually any club in England) can make up for all of the other flaws. Besides music, they are always too crowded (I always feel like I'm in someone's way), too loud (I like to be able to have a conversation at some times), and have too many people annoyingly trying to grab everyone else's attention. I always feel hopelessly out of place, like I'm at the junior high dance in the poorly chosen outfit of construction boots and a jean dress. So I tried to dance - at least they were playing a lot of Michael Jackson still - while vaguely watching parts of The Matrix, which they were showing on the TVs mounted on the wall. The place was quite stereotypical, except for its faux Greek-painted ceiling. I just couldn't be unself-conscious enough to enjoy it. After a while, Chris had his fill, so we headed home after a long night.

Our legs and feet were tired as we climbed aboard the Metro, which still didn't have a single seat available. But it had been a good day, a holiday spent in an unusual way, but good nonetheless.

current mood: mellow

(tell me a story)

Sunday, November 1st, 2009
8:26 pm - Hot Fun in the Summertime - Part I
Much like last summer, this summer was filled with visitors who wanted to learn more about and/or experience more of our glorious area. However, unlike last year, Chris and I weren't getting newly acquainted with DC ourselves. This year, we knew where to bring people, had ideas about what to do, and did some venturing outside of Metro DC on our own. We didn't have a formal vacation until September, but we put in some travelling right at home and nearby. Of those months, here are the highlights:

Ocean City, Maryland

For our third anniversary, Chris and I decided to visit Ocean City, Maryland. I had been there senior year of High School with my church youth group and remembered it being a grand old time. (Although that was about all I remembered apparently - the geography was completely foreign to me this time.) I figured it would only improve by having Chris there. I was right.

Because it was our anniversary, we didn't want to stay in a cheap hotel. Thankfully, with my parents' generous anniversary gift, we were able to stay a couple of nights in a lovely Bed and Breakfast across the street from the Boardwalk. Although it suffered from a bit of flowered-wallpaper and frilly pillows overload, the owners were beautifully warm and welcoming. The drive is quite long, so we only had the chance to eat dinner at an Irish-themed pub on the first night before going to bed. But the next morning, we ate breakfast with fresh pastries and pancakes and came back late at the end of the day to be welcomed with home-baked cookies. Mmmm....

We spent much of the first day frolicking in the ocean, swiming and bodysurfing. I caught several good waves, and experienced that bliss of weightlessness. Unfortunately, a few others smashed me into "hard" water and just about knocked the breath out of me! Inbetween swimming sessions, we walked up and down the shore, watching kids build sand castles, surfers struggle to mount waves, and good-looking lifeguards decked out in red bathing suits. Often we talked, but sometimes we didn't. Just being there with each other was enough.

At the day moved into afternoon, we left the water for the Boardwalk. We ate deep-fried oreos and pizza in a place that holds an annual Polish sausage eating contest, as described in a number of yellowed news articles on the walls. Even the fast food had character and history! We wandered through an Art Galley with varying quality and prices that was owned by a very self-promotional madman and billed itself as The Attraction to See in Ocean City. Apparently the owner planned on driving a car off of the pier, although it sounds like the city wouldn't let him. We drank in two different bars, one on the very end of the pier that looked out onto the ocean. A tiny place, the bartender noticed us right away when we sat down and looked skeptical. But once we showed her our ID, she became incredibly chatty and friendly. It was the type of ideal place you expect to find in an ocean town, like Key West - laid back and friendly and not touristy and not super busy. Just nice. They even had one of those crank nut dispensers, which we fed several quarters into so that I could eat pistastios to my heart's content while we watched news about Michael Jackson's death. After that, we visited the Ripley's Believe It or Not Museum because I have a weakness for gloriously tacky museums and Dad refused to bring me to the one in Las Vegas when I was in high school. It was a mix of the surreally educational (lots of "ooh, foreign culture" that was definitely colonialistic) and the just plain bizarre (shirts made of human hair!).

That night, we had dinner at a place that offered "All you can eat" freshly steamed crab. I never thought I was capable of eating so much crab. They brought a bucket of crabs to our butcher paper-covered table and once they were gone, they brought more and more and more. The funny thing about eating crab is that it's very labor intensive. Getting the best meat out of the individual crabs takes a lot of time. So we weren't stuffing our faces, like I know I do (in my lesser moments) at buffets. Rather, it was a meticulous process of cracking the shell, cleaning out the goo, picking out the meat, and struggling with the legs and claws.

Of course, after all of that food, what else was there to do but go on rides that spin you round-and-round? In Ocean City, the rides are on the very end of the Boardwalk, along both sides. On the ocean side, we rode the Giant Ferris Wheel, with its views over the whole Boardwalk - stunning as you hit the top, then always a bit disappointing as you descend, then the whole thing all over again. I also challenged the "Guess Your Age" guy and was so confident he would lose that I was picking out my prize before he even guessed. I was right - he guessed 19. Not really believing I was 26, he said, "Such a baby face. I wouldn't let you into my bar," several times in response. On the other side of the boardwalk, we bought a whole bunch of tickets. We first rode the wooden carousel, which was the oldest continually operated wooden carousel in the country, beautifully hand-painted, and ran and upkept by the same two families for several generations. Then we went on a rickety metal roller-coaster like the Boomerang, and the Matterhorne. Chris got a good laugh at my expense as I spent the last couple of tickets in the Mirror Maze, which I think the 10 year olds in it with me completed faster than I did.

We were out until late, and tired from the sun and the walking and the little-kid excitement. We tried walking to the other end of the Boardwalk, miles past our B&B, but didn't get very far.

The next day, we decided not to go back in the ocean, but I did get to fulfill my other beach longings. We bought a brightly-colored kite from a lovely kitchy store and tried to fly it. Hilariously, Charlie Brown could have gotten the kite up better than we did. The kite store made it look so easy, but running in the sand is really hard! Then we had Olde Tyme Photos done, something I've always wanted to do because I adore dressing up in costume, but was too cheap or embarassed to do. The process was surprisingly formulaic. We picked was "theme" we wanted (cowboy/saloon), and then I got shuffled to a back room while they gave Chris his accessories in the main room. In the back, they had "dressers" who put a dress on me (really a half-dress that tied in the back), selected shoes, put gloves on me, stuck a bunch of fake money in my garter, and placed a bow on my head. I hadn't felt so manhandled since preparing for my wedding! Once we were together - me perched on a piano, Chris on a bench under me - they put everything just-so. They wouldn't even let Chris hold the gun like he was shotting it - he had to have it by his side. It was so planned that it was funny. The photo with both us of came out pretty well, and I gave a framed version to Mom for her birthday.

I appreciated and enjoyed all of these "goofy" things because they brought back the simple pleasures of being a kid. Then, eating fried dough, riding roller coasters and going to arcades were as good as it got. Even though I've come to appreciate more adult activities, I've never let go of my fondness for things that kids are supposed to like the most - bubbles, playgrounds, water parks, fighting with sticks, tag - those things that are inherantly play. That's one of the things I love about Chris the most. He knows how to just let go of adult pretention and play. He reminds me how to just embrace that freedom when I get too self-serious and forget how. We had such a fantastic time because we weren't worried or tied down or burdened with a sense of being adult. We were free to just have fun.

We ate some fried dough (very healthy lunch), checked out of the B&B, and headed over to the Assateague Island National Seashore. Assateague is best known for its wild horses, which were once domesticated, but at some point escaped and took to living along the seashore. Now there are two herds - one on the Maryland side and one in Virginia, which is rounded up each year and their foals sold off for conservation funding. These days, on the Maryland side, they hang out by the campgrounds where they can mooch food off of tourists. This fact was illustrated to us quite early on. As we drove into the park, gazing out the window, I spotted three horses chomping on the grass on the side of the road! I yelled for Chris to stop, but he couldn't. Someone was stopped going the other direction, there was nowhere for us to pull over, and we didn't want to block the entire road. So we drove slowly past, watching them eat, unperturbed by the people gathered quite closely around them. The thing we noticed the most about the horses was their size - they were quite chubby! Chris pointed out that when he thinks of horses, he thinks of the Saratoga horses, and these guys had probably never ran a furlong in their lives.

Unfortunately, the rest of our time in the park was horse-free save another extremely brief glimpse from the car on our way out. But we did see some other wildlife and vastly different ecosystems on our two short walks in the park - the Sandy and Wetlands trails. The Sandy trail was a 1/2 mile through the dunes along the beach. Most of the trail was loose, unpacked sand, making it feel much longer than its actual length. There were all sorts of unique dune plants - grasses, shrubs, and delicate flowers. But the most befuddling thing was a hard, black stone formation that appeared and reappeared along the path. It looked volcanic, which didn't make any sense, both because of the location and the fact that it had layers. After discussing its possible geologic origins for a few moments, Chris started laughing. Looking at him with a raised eyebrow, I asked, "What's so funny?" He said, "A piece of wood is embedded in it...It's a road!" Recalling what we had read earlier about the history of the place, I laughed and nodded, realizing he had solved the mystery. Assateague Island and Ocean City had been connected at the beginning of the century, until a huge hurricane blasted a hole in the shoreline, forming a channel. The "rock" we were examining was actually a piece of the exact same road that ran in front of our hotel! It was funny to think of the honky-tonk on the other side and the semi-wilderness of the dunes, and realizing that they could be reversed. The wetland walk was a pretty walk along boardwalks and above little streams. We saw a heron, a couple of turtles, and a few other birds.

At that point, we gave up on seeing horses (although we saw their droppings), so we ended by stopping quickly at the beach and then headed out to Baltimore. While we were at the Ripley's Museum looking at a VW Bug covered in gold coins, Greg B. had called to see if we wanted to hang out the next day. As Chris had received a phone call from work telling him he didn't have to work Sunday, we took Greg and Christine up on their offer.

We arrived at their apartment and took the grand tour - including their lovely little balcony. We also met their menangerie - several cats and a crazy dog they found roaming Troy in a tutu. We then walked to the baseball game through their neighborhood, Federal Hill, which reminded me of the nicer parts of Capital Hill with its brick walkups. I could see Greg's vision of a nice neighborhood bar with Chris as chef fitting in very nicely here.

The baseball game was a lot of fun, despite the fact that I generally dislike baseball. My attention gives out before the seventh inning stretch. But Camden Yards - the Orioles stadium - is a really classic stadium, almost elegant, with a lovely little park area. The stadium even bought the old brick factory next store when developers were going to tear it down so that they could preserve the historic atmosphere. It also helped that they were playing DC's team, the Nationals, which even though I don't follow them, I hear enough about via flipping past the Washington Post's sports section in the Metro. Despite the connection, I cheered for the Orioles anyway. Greg was pretty excited, which helped too, so between wandering and talking and actually watching the game it all went by quickly enough.

After the game, we had a particular treat; they were showing Field of Dreams. I had never seen it but as Greg said it's his favorite movie and half the time it inspired tears from him, I was looking forward to it. Plus, the setting was just perfect - it was a gorgeous summer night, warm but not hot, and surprisingly unbuggy. The only issue came when we ignored the admonitions to move to the lower levels and had the speakers turned off on us! We hustled down the stairs quickly and didn't miss much. I really enjoyed the movie, with its emotions and messages. I especially liked James Earl Jones' character, the once-idealist who's now cynical and annoyed with humanity at large. Greg didn't cry this time, but we had a nice conversation about it afterwards. In fact, we had nice conversations about many things after the game, walking back to their apartment and then hanging out until past 1 AM at their place. Chris and I both agreed that it felt so comfortable, effortless, hanging out with them. We were just enjoying the time spent together, talking and laughing. And even though every night isn't perfect, in the end, that comfortableness, that happiness of being yourself with someone, is what friends are for.

current mood: loved

(tell me a story)

Sunday, October 25th, 2009
10:19 pm - "Music is the space between the notes." - Claude DeBussy
Both Nine Inch Nails and Jane's Addiction are bands that I've never taken a specific interest in, but I enjoy when they come on the radio. Chris is actually a bigger fan, and owns one album by each of them. However, I had heard they were both great in concert. So when Drew said they were touring together and asked if Chris and I would like to meet him and Greg in New Jersey to see the concert, we immediately said yes. I love concerts and hardly ever get to them anymore, Jane's Addiction was actually reuniting (and unlikely to stay together for very long), and most importantly, we would be able to see our friends! Then, it got even better - I found out Ilya was coming, whom I hadn't seen in years.

We drove up to New Jersey playing Jane's Addiction's Nothing's Shocking over and over again. Chris said, "You know, I always forget about this album, but it's really great." Indeed.
We met the guys on a grassy hill in front of the amphitheater. They weren't letting people in yet, unless you were a member of the Trent Reznor Fan Club. (Which despite Ilya's hiliarious Trent Reznor paper bag puppet presentation in high school, none of us are.) So we sat in the grass, talking. It was like we hadn't been separated at all. Like we hung out all of the time, even though we've only seen Greg and Drew during holidays (and when Drew visited last summer) since we moved here. I think that's the test of a great friend - even if you haven't kept in touch well, you feel like you have when you see each other in person. We all have gotten a little older, but can still laugh and comfortably enjoy our time together, just as we have since high school. We talked about music (the one thing that Greg, Drew, Ilya and I are all passionate about), work (mainly Ilya's experience at Princeston, but a bit on the NYS bureaucracy from Greg), and our fellow-concert goers.

And there were definitely some characters to talk about! Now, I certainly wasn't dressed shyly. I had my black and pink punk dress on with my Victorian gothy high lace-up boots. (It was pretty great - even Uncle Rick thought it was cool.) But some of the girls made me look like a wallflower. One had a corset she was popping out of and a PVC skirt so short you could see her underwear from the bottom. There were many others with lots of PVC and fishnets as well. But the odd thing about that particular girl was that I kept running into her - at the entrance, after the ticket gate, coming out of the bathroom. I'm sure if she was dressed more sedately, I wouldn't have noticed, but it just seemed bizarre.

After about 45 minutes of waiting on the grass and then standing in line, we finally got in. Now, from my aunt's description, I envisioned the Garden State Arts Center as similar to SPAC - nice theater-style seating under a roof, with a beautiful expansive lawn open to the elements. I was half right. The inside seats - where we were - were fine, albeit not quite as nice as SPAC's. But the rest of the place reminded me of the few sports stadiums I've been in - all concrete and plastic, with the occasional wire fence. And the lawn was just a strip of grass in the very back, up against said fence. Nothing like SPAC, which is lovely to walk around before the show. It reinforced both my opinion of how nice SPAC is and everything I already thought about New Jersey.

We got food and talked and joked another half-hour or so before the show got started. The opening band was Street Sweeper Social Club, which featured Rage Against the Machine's Tom Morello on guitar. (Guilty music confession - I thought Tom Morello was the singer until after the concert. Oops.) Their music was loud and sort of angry, but fun. Very energetic, especially their lead singer. He bounced around on stage like a pogo stick and yelled about as melodically as possible. It was good body-bopping music - not as vigorous as banging. Although it was getting both a little annoying and funny-ridiculous when the lead singer said, "We're not just a band - we're a social club" for the umpteenth time. Also, they name-checked themselves an awful lot.

Finally, Trent Reznor arrived on stage in all of his goth-god glory. At first, the stage was pitch black, then this crazy bank of lights came on behind him, which lit up in neon colors and blinding white. (And that was downgraded from his usual set, according to Drew.) The whole thing, when combined with the music, was a sensory barrage of light and sound. He wore a black t-shirt and pants, standing at the front of the stage. From the beginning, he gripped the mic and never let go. His intensity was magnetizing. I usually don't enjoy shows as much when I know only a few songs, because after a while, everything starts to sound the same to me. But his presence absolutely riveted me. He sang with so much energy, so much emotion that you could see it in the tension of his body - how he stood, how he walked around the stage. From the anger in Head like a Hole to the sadness in Hurt, you were experiencing every moment right with him. I think that is the mark of a great storyteller, whether in song, art or literature - to not only create something that the reader or listener can relate to, but that draws them in and helps them experience emotions and situations they would have never experienced on their own. The crowd helped too - it was obvious they loved him, with a passion they had for nothing else but perhaps their significant other (if that). Having a great crowd builds beautiful energy and enthusiasm that you can never create on your own, and it was there in droves. As Drew noted in his review, the crowd could have easily sung all of Hurt without Trent having to say a word. As a non-super-fan, it really lent depth to the experience.

Next up was Jane's Addiction. Perry Farrell is known for being a mad-man, even in the insane world of rock-and-roll. He brought at least a little of the madness - wearing some crazy leopard-print thing, much like one of my favorite musicians (Nicky Wire from the Manics) and having just about as much energy as Trent Reznor, albeit in a very different way. While Trent was channeling some dark, beautiful passion, Perry Farrell was like a little kid who had way too much sugar and had been listening way too much to his dirty older cousin. His mic never stayed on the stand. Instead, he held it and swung it while he bopped around on stage like some children's toy on crack. He also appeared to sexually molest several things on stage, including a speaker and the guitarist, Dave Navarro. He also has a nearly-childlike voice - high and almost reedy. Although it's very distinct on the albums, it's even moreso live. It communicates a sense of innocence mixed with mischevious, illicit activity. Juvenile, but in a true, honest, and as a result, good way. The perfect example is on "summer time rolls," when he sings, "She loves me / I mean it's serious / As serious can be..." Like a teenager who thinks he's in love, but wants to seem cool, he's passionate as could be, but then backs up just a little bit in defensiveness. And his delivery on it has that perfect mix of intensity and uncertainty. Ilya said he always imagined Jane's Addiction as being about joyful, colorful chaos, and Perry Farrell delivered perfectly on that image. He was also just as enthralling as Trent Reznor. He swept you up in a mess of color and sound and bright craziness. Although my legs started to hurt from standing on the concrete, it was only towards the very end that I wondered how many more songs they were going to play. I just let the music wash over me.

Afterwards, we talked for a while, but police were starting to shoo people away and so we said our goodbyes. Also, we couldn't stay too late because Greg and Drew were driving all the way back to Albany. It was sad to say goodbye, knowing that it would be several months before we saw them again. But it was so wonderful to spend that time with them, to be there together. Chris and I have a great time when we go to things together, but spending time with friends - especially our high school friends - is something special.

Note: For an actual review of said concert, see Drew's great review on his music blog - http://www.bloodygoodhorror.com/bgh/blogs/06/08/2009/ninja-tour-concert-review.

current mood: chipper

(tell me a story)

Sunday, August 30th, 2009
12:28 am - "How wonderful is it that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world." -
I've been an activist almost as long as I can remember.

While some environmentalists recall fondly playing in the woods (which I do as well, but...), I smile at the memory of my third-grade self attempting to sell my pom-pom creatures and magnets at my "Planet in Peril" store, where I planned to give my profits to environmental charities. I received a copy of 100 Things Kids Can Do to Save the Earth early on, and proceded to read it over and over and over until it became rather dog-eared. (I think it still resides somewhere at my parents' house.) Once I grew older and knew abvout poverty, I took that on as a cause as well. I wrote a lot of angsty romantic poetry as a teenager, but I also wrote a pretty powerful poem from the point of view of a very poor, starving child.

However, I didn't become a "real" activist until I joined SCARCE, Shen's environmental club, senior year of high school. There, I experienced both the joys and frustrations of activist work. The wonder of seeing my hands-on effort do something good that wouldn't have been done otherwise, even if it was just a pile of cans going in for recycling. The frustration of seeing a fellow activist act so self-righteous and accusatory towards a crowd that her speech may have turned some of them away from environmentalism for years (yes, it was that bad).

I took a couple of years off from activism in college to write for the newspaper, which really took all of my time. But as the politics reporter, I made sure to go beyond what the student council did and cover the environmental groups at Cornell. I knew how essential media coverage was to public awareness of issues (especially science-based issues), whether they were campus-wide issues or global. (I covered what the conservatives did too, by the way.) I picked it back up my junior and senior years by participating in Habitat for Humanity and the Cornell Greens. As dysfunctional as the Greens were - it's shocking we accomplished anything - I learned a lot about how not to run a campaign (information alone is not enough) or a group (getting and keeping committed members is the most important function you have - everything else will flow from there).

Following on that disaster was the most fun and rewarding activist experience I've ever had - Oxford People and Planet. It was an incredibly idealistic, smart, dedicated, energetic group of young people. You just knew these were people who would Change the World. And we managed to cram a surprising amount into one year. We marched in a massive climate change protest in London, received training on media and campaigning that I've found useful at my "real" job, showed a couple of movies and had a great Buy Nothing Day booth. But our most significant accomplishment was our campaign for Ditch Dirty Development that we based on materials from People and Planet's parent office but made very much our own. Putting our heads together, we came up with a tabling set-up that combined street drama - a tug-of-war between "renewables" and "fossil fuels" - with an interactive, artistic petition. We asked people to trace their hands in black marker as well as sign the sheet, indicating that they no longer wanted to have "dirty hands" that supported oil and natural gas investments by the World Bank. We had so many people sign our wallpaper rolls of signatures that it ran from wall to wall when we rolled it out! We then presented this massive petition to one of Oxford's two Members of Parliament, along with some well-thought out talking points. And he actually came to us! I had never had such an opportunity to interact with politicians at home like this. Heck, when we visited the New York State Senate in high school on Earth Day Lobby Day, we got blown off and could barely speak to a staffer. (Of course, New York's economy is probably about the size of the U.K.'s, but still...) But the Oxford M.P. listened patiently to our points, agreed to take most of the actions we asked for, and even suggested a few that he would take that we didn't know were possible. It was - oddly - the most rewarding experience I had with democracy until canvassing for Obama. In addition, that campaign taught me how to summarize very complex issues in only a few words, a very valuable skill.

Unfortunately, like all things Oxford, I had to leave People and Planet when we returned to the U.S. In the Capital District, I did a couple of activist activities - organizing a climate change panel at the New York State Senate and volunteering for the Art for AIDS Sake auction - but hadn't found anything I was dedicated to. I had finally decided I was going to volunteer weekly at the Damien House, an organization in Albany that runs a support center for people who are HIV-positive. But that's when I got the call from the Department of Energy, and the job offer was too good to turn down. However, it started my search all over again.

After a few false starts in DC, I found Ecolocity, a transition towns group. From the beginning. it sounded ideal - addressed climate change, local focus, integrated social justice and environmental issues, big focus on food - it covered all of my issues. The entire idea appealed to me - re-learning how to build our lives around our neighbors and community rather than making them dependent on fossil fuels. Unfortunately, I found out that Ecolocity wasn't exactly ideal. For one, they didn't have any projects that you could just join in on. Larry, the founder, had lots of fantastic, great ideas, but they were all too large to actually do now or even wrap your mind around to find a starting point. Every time I suggested an idea, Larry enthusiastically said, "Well, that's a great idea, Shannon! Why don't you do it?" Which was certainly a fair answer, but not the one I was looking for. Having a full-time job, I wasn't looking to be a leader starting independent projects. I honestly just wanted to contribute my time and energy to something I could see concrete results from. I understood it was a new group - it was only formed three months before I joined - but it didn't make it less frustrating. For once, I didn't want to be the one with the grand ideas and doing all of the work. It certainly didn't seem like I was the only one with big ideas, but at the same time, I felt like I was the only one who wanted to do more than talk about all of the exciting things that needed to get done. I wanted to take action!

Thankfully, I wasn't the only one who wanted that concrete action. As it turned out, I learned that Larry was pretty frustrated with the group's progress as well. From what he had read about other transition groups, they were ready to launch some grand city-wide project with the buy-in of a number of major stakeholders (like the mayor!) after a year. Meanwhile, we were still limping along with no more than 10 people at most of our meetings. When we had more than that, they never came back. It was especially frustrating because we knew how much potential there was for our work and how badly DC needed it. Unfortunately, none of us really had any idea how to fix this problem. I wrote up a draft mission and vision, but I didn't really seem to take hold.

Around the same time, I came up with my own Big Idea - Transition Tales. In other Transition Towns, I've seen Transition Tales being done as newspaper-style feature articles about how community members imagine the world to be once their community once they have achieved transition to independence from fossil fuels. As a writer, and especially journalist, at heart, this idea deeply appealed to me. Plus, I deeply believe in the power of telling stories and how that can guide a community (I spent enough time thinking about it for my thesis!). A different transition idea is Honoring the Elders, the idea of drawing on older people's knowledge and experience to prepare for a low-carbon, low-fossil-fuel future. Somehow, I was folding, kneading these ideas of in my mind and they melded into a unique take on the Transition Tales idea. I came up with the idea to interview elderly people, particularly those who lived through the Great Depression and WWII (even as small children) and put their stories together as articles. We would then bring these stories - via summaries of articles or better, with the elderly person speaking - to DC schools. We would share their experiences with the children, and then the students would write their own Transition Tales for the future, based on what they had learned. I think it would be mainly with elementary school students, partly because I have the most experience with them, and partly because they have less of a set curriculum and their teachers might be more willing to work with us. Plus, I like working with them much more than high schoolers. Admittedly, the project also appealed to me because I've always seen and heard these activists interviewed who described all of the cool projects they launched. Unfortunately, I've never felt that way. Obviously, you don't do such things for personal glory, but it could give a lot of self-fulfillment to point to something revolutionary and say "That was my idea." I admit it's self-righteous but I do have to recognize that motivation.

Despite this project, I still felt lost. This could be like many of the Ecolocity efforts that seemed to be mentioned, started, and then fell by the wayside. I wasn't feeling a lot of active support - enthusiasm for the idea, but not engagement from the others. Again, I didn't want to be a one-man-band. Nor I did I think I should be. This needed to be a community project. I know Larry was feeling the same way about the local complementary currency he launched, Potomacs. (They're like Ithaca Hours, local money that you can only spend in local establishments. It's totally legal, and one of Ithaca's many crazy but brilliant ideas.)

Thankfully, among all of this uncertainty, we had an activist fairy godmother. Her name is Heather, and she's a professional organizational consultant who specializes in working with non-profit and activist groups. Delightfully, she volunteered her services to help us out of our existential angst. She scheduled out a block of time on a Saturday, and asked us all a number of organizational questions beforehand - why we joined Ecolocity, how we personally, benefitted, how our community benefitted, etc. Then, on that Saturday, we all met up at a DC public library (where I managed to get hopelessly lost on the way there somehow) and brought veggie food to share for lunch. And then we sat down and talked. And talked. And talked. But unlike some of our more rambling meetings, nearly everything that was said moved us closer to our goal - to find our focus. To dig down in all that is the overwhelming Transition movement - all of the ideas, the goals, the values, and the potential programs - to pluck out something we could wrap our heads and hands around. After five hours and some delicious food, we found that focus - community-based, sustainable food systems. We always have the people attend our Food and Farming meetings, and D.C. has serious food issues among the underserved, both in quantity and quality. Perhaps most importantly, food is a universally understood need - everyone needs to eat.

Since then, Ecolocity has been more vibrant. Larry's been more enthusiastic and less beaten-down. Our last swap meet/potluck event, on July 4, was much more successful than our first one. Likewise, more of the regulars are consistently showing up and the discussions are more focused and less wandering into philosophical disagreements. As for me, the food aspect gave me a focus for the Transition Tales project, which is actually getting underway. I think having one focus will allow for a stronger narrative thread among stories, and therefore a more insightful project. So despite some struggle, it appears we're moving forward, and really going to Make a Difference in the future.

current mood: idealistic

(tell me a story)

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2009
7:09 pm - "We love because it's the only true adventure." - Nikki Giovanni
As of June 10, 2009, Chris and I have been married for three years! We had a nice dinner out at a tapas restaurant in Rockville, but our official celebration is this weekend, when we're going to Ocean City. Chris has never been there, and what is a better carefree weekend away than the beach?

Recently, two different movies reinforced for me what it means to be married and in love. Both of these have minor spoilers, so if you want to see these movies and haven't yet, don't read too much further.

The first was Pixar's latest, Up. Now, I love Pixar, but I was absolutely not expecting this movie. I was expecting a cute movie about a grumpy old man and a kid heading off on some grand adventure. Which I certainly got. But the first twenty minutes of the movie aren't about the grumpy old man. Rather, the movie starts when Carl (the future grumpy old man) is a little boy, and meets Ellie, a boisterous, bright little girl who turns his world upside-down. He wants to be an adventurer - but in her own way, she already is. She has grand plans to have a treehouse in South America, and pulls him into her dreams, makes them his dreams, their dreams. Not surprisingly, those dreams and their relationship long outlast their childhood. And those dreams - while fantastic - drive their fairly ordinary life together. (Well, not completely ordinary. She works as a vet at a zoo and he sells balloons there.) Between the section with Carl and Ellie as children, and the "grumpy old man" section, there is a 20 minute silent movie about their life together. Without words, it shows them getting married, moving into their first house complete with a mailbox they paint themselves, celebrating their joys, mourning their sorrows, and sitting quietly together into their old age. It ends with him at her bedside as she passes away. I cried through this entire montage. Not heavy sobbing, but quiet tears rolling down my eyes. And not just during the sad parts - probably more during the lovely, joyful parts. I cried because it was all so beautiful, and true. Even if they never went to South America together - even if that particular dream was lost in the busyness of everyday life - they were so in love and so happy. And their relationship, born out of friendship and a shared sense of child-like glee, reminded me of Chris and I. Even though Chris and I didn't know each other that early, I understand growing up together, having that person shape who you are early on in your life. Being positive that that person will always love you, and in some ways, always has, even before you knew it consciously. I understand never wanting to be without that person there beside you, because you never have been truly separated. When being away from that person means that you are missing a part of yourself - knowing you are a better person because of their presence. Chris was crying a bit too, so it wasn't just me. That aspect of the movie - the lifelong companionship, devotion and pure joy from being with each other - really shed some light on a comment someone had made to me the week before. On Memorial Day weekend, we went to Hannah's house and we were talking to one of our poker people and his fiance. When we said that we had been high school sweethearts, she asked, "What is it like not having baggage?" and I didn't know how to answer the question. I think I didn't know how to answer it because for me, the question I would ask her is, "What is it like knowing who you are without them?" That's why I think I understand Carl's absolute agony without Ellie - I can imagine going through that myself in such a situation. I can imagine having difficulty answering the question "Who are you?" without the influence of the person you love so very much.

The second movie that highlighted the joy and sometimes difficulty of love was Away We Go. Co-written by Dave Eggers (author of one of my favorite books) and his wife, it tells the story of a couple who finds out they are pregnant and have to decide on a city to move to. (Funnily enough, the couple isn't married and never will be, but that's irrelevant to what I got out of it.) They visit a number of couples, each who has their strange quirks and problems. The wife in the most affecting of the couples is played by Melanie Lynskey, the weird neighbor from Two and Half Men (surprisingly), and the character says something that really struck me. Unfortunately, I can't find the quote anywhere, but it was basically, "Being in a family is the hardest thing you will ever do. It will bring out parts of you - giving, loving - parts of you you never knew you had." And although we don't have any children, I get that quote. It's not that marriage itself is all that hard (contrary to what people think), but it's not easy either. It's not easy living with someone every day, finding ways to meet both your needs, forgiving both small and larger problems. It's not easy finding time to spend together when on one hand that's all you ever want to do, and on the other hand, there's so many other things (work, writing, activism, for me) demanding that time. It's not a constant struggle, but it's a constant giving of yourself. It's giving of your time, your affection, your effort, and your intimacy. Even just when it manifests itself in washing the dishes. And I'd imagine that giving of yourself is only multiplied unimaginably when you have children. The other part of the movie that struck me was that the relationship between the two main characters reminded me of our relationship. Sure, they were funnier and quirkier and more clever. But they made fun of each other, knowing it was a sign of love. They were obviously friends, and enjoyed talking to each other. They were easily affectionate - so much was expressed through glances and smiles. They wanted to be good parents, not by being perfect, but by finding a home that would be the best possible for their child. And as we're now saving for a house - won't really look until next year though - I understand their need to find a place that says "home." What is home? Can it be anywhere you want it to be, so long as the two of you are together? Or is there a particular place that you know is right when you find it? As Chris and I are struggling with that - and how to fit it into our current lives - I understood the character's struggle and the effects it has on their relationship.

The one thing that connected both movies together for me is the idea of love as an adventure. Chris and I have been on many adventures together, many that we wouldn't have gone on by ourselves, because we lacked the strength or the courage. But being married is itself an adventure, and now that we've been married for three years, our lives together are as much of one as they ever were. And far more of an adventure than they would have been apart. As I wrote in the letter to Chris that Father Keith made us write to each other before the wedding, "I expect that in a lifetime spent with you, I will learn and get to know so much that I have no way of seeing now. And I look forward to that lifetime of learning from and loving each other." Three years later, I still look forward to learning more every day.

current mood: in love

(tell me a story)

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