Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Spread the Joy

The economy is still recovering. Healthcare is a complete mess. Natural disasters and terrible accidents continue to be an everyday occurrence.

But the holidays are here, a time of happiness all over the world. And while the negativity is hard to ignore, I cannot help but be in good spirits. Especially after I saw this video sent to me from the Goodman Theatre here in Chicago.

I mean, you can't help but smile after watching it.

I also learned that today has been proclaimed "Share the Joy Day," to remind us all how important acts of kindness, generosity and good will are during the holidays--and all year. This message should be spread throughout the world, which is why I'm posting this video and sharing it with all of you.

But there are many other ways to "share the joy." Send a nice note to a friend or family member, donate to a local charity, tell a story about what makes you happy around the holidays, or just flash a friendly smile to a stranger on the street. You'd be surprised the difference these kinds of acts can make, not just in other people's lives, but in yours, too.

Goodman Theatre also offers some great ways to spread joy. You can share what makes you happy via social media and be entered for a chance to win some great prizes. Or you can donate to Goodman and Seasons of Concern, a non-profit that distributes direct-care support for Chicagoans living with catastrophic illness.

So go ahead, share what makes you joyous this holiday season!

Friday, November 29, 2013

Give Thanks

Thanksgiving was pretty standard this year. I woke up early, helped my mom bake bread, ran the Turkey Trot with my best friend, cooked all afternoon and then we all stuffed our faces in about 20 minutes. After the food coma hit, we relaxed, watched a movie and went to bed. A great holiday.

This morning, however, I woke up to a text message alerting me that my best friend from college had given birth to her first child. A Thanksgiving baby. How wonderful. Now, that's not your typical holiday treat. It's absolutely incredible, and I cannot wait to meet her little girl and see how this family evolves.

As I perused the many Facebook comments and admired the first few pictures of the little one, it really hit me how much life is changing, and how quickly. Before you know it, her child will be walking, starting school. These moments are made special by their sheer brevity, and we have to be grateful for the time we have.

There is so much to be thankful for this year, and with all the happenings yesterday, I really didn't have a chance to think about it all. First of all, I'm thankful for my family, that they are happy and healthy and there to support me. (Especially when I feel like work is so stressful I can't handle the pressure.) I'm thankful for Steve, who loves me for who I am, always makes me feel beautiful, and never fails to put a smile on my face. For my friends, both in Chicago and all over the country, who I can go to for anything. I'm thankful for having a good job in an industry I love, even though it can be difficult sometimes and there are days when I wonder if I can even do it. (But then I look at what else I have, and it makes it easier to get through.) I'm thankful for my good health; for the exciting city I live in and the beautiful place I get to come back to every holiday season. I could probably list a lot more things, but who really wants to hear that. I'm sure everyone else has plenty they are thankful for, and I encourage you to really think about those and acknowledge them.

My grandfather, at the wise age of 93, observed a couple days ago that life has been good to him, and that he had been blessed with longevity. But, he said, at a certain point, you have to let go. And I think he is ready. He has fought in a war; lived through many others; watched his children become successful adults who now take care of him; seen his grandchildren grow into strong, independent people; he's watched his wife slowly lose her memory and shift into a different person in a very short period of time; he survived a stroke. He's been through a lot. While I would love for him to be at my wedding--whenever that happens--I know it is selfish of me to hope for him to continue on. He's accepted his life, he's lived a good one, and he's thankful for it.

This Thanksgiving has been special. It has seen a new little girl enter the world and a new family begin. It has brought families together (especially those celebrating Hannukkah, too!), marking the beginning of many festive events to come. And it has made us all look at our lives and give thanks for what we have.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Getting into the Holiday Spirit

The temperature finally dropped to that biting cold that confirms winter has arrived. Twinkling lights hang from every tree branch downtown. Stores elaborately decorate windows with holiday themes. And last night, I went to see A Christmas Carol. (Oh, and it just started snowing!) The holidays have officially arrived.

This is one of my favorite times of year. The festive decorations, lights and music make the cold weather bareable, and everyone seems to be happy, giving and grateful. But the brevity of the season definitely makes it even more special. And even though stores start stocking Christmas materials on their shelves right after labor day, it still takes me a while to really feel like the holidays are here. Well, this weekend changed it for me. And the play certainly helped.

The Magnificent Mile Lights Festival took place on Saturday. The one year I went, it was bitter cold and super crowded, I couldn't even see the floats in the parade or notice if the lights along the street were turning on. So, as a result, I haven't attended the last couple years. And this year was no different. But, yesterday, when my boyfriend and I headed downtown for the play, I got to see the Loop completely decked out in its holiday glory. That immediately put a smile on my face.

When we got to Goodman Theatre, I went to the press stand to get the tickets and they handed me some complimentary hershey's holiday kisses. How thoughtful! And festive. In the lobby, there was a group of professional carolers in amazing outfits singing holiday songs.

Before the show started, I got a cup of hot chocolate (one of my favorite seasonal drinks) to help warm up. When we entered the auditorium, we were welcomed by a cozy set of old, snow-covered English homes. The whole place felt warm and inviting.

The play was absolutely amazing. Now, I know the story of A Christmas Carol pretty well. I've never read the book (Charles Dickens is tough to get through), but I have seen movie versions (personally love the Muppets interpretation best). The Goodman has been offering this annual play for 36 years, and it is now an established holiday tradition in Chicago. This production was probably one of the best renditions of the classic story of Ebenezer Scrooge and his transformation from cold-hearted, bitter and unsympathetic to a happy, caring and thoughtful man.

The actors delivered a meaningful, poignant performance with just the right amount of humor and mystery, and their own little twists on the tale. Larry Yando, returning for his sixth turn as Scrooge, was  impeccable in his mood, expressions, movements and overall delivery. I can see why people love him so much in this role. The rest of the cast was brilliant, too, and I appreciated how this small ensemble of 27 people worked so well together, seamlessly transitioning from one scene to the next without missing a beat.

By the end of the play, I could not stop smiling. It certainly accomplished its goal of bringing holiday cheer.

And now the holiday spirit will follow me as I head home for Thanksgiving, and will most likely stay with me throughout December, as I decorate my apartment, shop for gifts and listen to holiday music. Yes, it is that time of year and I will keep it in the best way I can.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Get Lost

"Half the fun of the travel is the aesthetic of lostness." - Ray Bradbury
Maps. I'm a firm believer in them, especially when you have somewhere to be at a certain time (or if you're trekking through the wilderness-definitely want to know where you're going). But if you are traveling somewhere new, and are unrestricted by time, then I say, toss the map and get a little lost.

Sure, most maps have major attractions marked, popular restaurants, etc. But, let's be honest, sometimes you want to avoid the big stuff and find something really unique to that destination. When you are not reduced to a select group of streets and neighborhoods, you can decide which path to go down, whether to turn right or left at the next corner. This is how you stumble upon that hole in the wall lunch spot, that local artist selling home-made items for a lot less than the products in the tourist traps, or the tiny church that barely takes up a quarter block.

I think some of the best aspects of a location are found off the beaten path, and it's hard to get there if you're following a map that everyone else follows, too.

So step off the designated route and don't be afraid to get lost, because that's when true beauty is seen.


Thursday, November 21, 2013

Traditional Wine, Tomorrow's Technology

Imagine descending a spiral staircase built with materials of the earth, a vast valley of vineyards as far as you can see. You continue to spin down the steps, like wine through an aerator, knowing that the decanter below holds one of the most elaborate cellars of the modern age. This is the new Cantina Antinori in Tuscany--a wine museum, auditorium, cellar, tasting room and restaurant in one. Basically, wine heaven.

Condé Naste Traveler

I love wine (in case you didn't know already), and I also love Italy. So, naturally, this has been added to my list of places to visit. I've been to Tuscany a few times, but this new winery only opened a year ago, giving me one more reason to go back.

The Antinori Family has been harvesting grapes and creating wine in Tuscany for centuries, but this new structure shows just how innovative they are as they look toward the future of viniculture and wine education. Designed by acclaimed architecture firm Archea, the cantilevered headquarters pay homage to the region of Chianti Classico and blends harmoniously into the landscape around it. It is made with local materials and has a minimal impact on the environment.

The design is not only beautiful, but functional. The cellars in which the wines are produced and stored were conceived to allow the grapes and natural materials to be moved with gravity, meaning there is no use for mechanical pumping, which results in a more natural process and a more balanced, elegant wine.

Antinori Cellars

The museum is a showcase of the Antinori Family's history alongside contemporary works of art. The artwork comes from three international artists: Yona Friedman, Rosa Barba and Jean-Baptiste Decavèle. All the items relate to themes like landscape, memory and territory. The Auditorium is a wood-panelled room where visitors can watch videos, short films and documentaries on the family, its estates and, of course, its wine.

The restaurant, which serves as a nice end point to a visit, sits on the roof of the cellars, providing sweeping views of the rolling hillside. Rinuccio 1180 offers visitors perfectly matched food and wine, with dishes that highlight the Tuscan countryside.

Cantina Antinori Source: Antinori Facebook page

The winery is certainly impressive and I cannot wait to make a trip back to Italy, head straight to Bargino (20 minutes outside Florence) and start exploring (and tasting) the fresh yet classic concepts developed at this advanced winery.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Starting Anew in Des Moines

The streets of downtown are dead, completely deserted. The most activity is going on just outside our hotel, as the valets bring around cars for guests who have just checked out. My boyfriend and I put our headphones in and begin our jog through downtown Des Moines and over to the river, where we hope to get a better feel for the city where Steve's sister has decided to live. Once we locate the river walk, we make our way south for about a mile before we reach the point where the water forks. We are forced to head down the other part of the fork, but the path ends shortly after that, and we must turn around. The lack of runner-friendly areas certainly hurt my impression of the city, and I started to wonder if Amy would be happy here.

The trip began early Saturday morning. Steve, his brother Randy, and I woke before sunrise and piled into the car and then headed out to Crystal Lake. Once there, we helped Amy and Steve's mom pack all of her furniture, clothes and boxes into three cars. It's amazing how much stuff one person can accumulate. By about 9am, we were on the road heading west to Des Moines.

Now, you may be asking why Amy was making the move to Iowa. Well, her boyfriend got a job there, and since she was only working a part time job and couldn't find anything full time in Chicago, she decided it was better to be with him in Des Moines. It's a pretty big decision, and a major change for her. She's been living at home the last year and a half, a place where she's comfortable and has a good support system. So this was certainly life changing.

It takes about five hours to get to Des Moines, but we managed to stay entertained (thanks to Ted Radio Hour, one of our favorite podcasts; and some retro music that took us back to the glory days of high school). The scenery also made the drive much more enjoyable. I am a city girl, through and through, but I can certainly appreciate the beauty of the country. The fall colors are so vibrant, with the trees sprawling for miles and miles. There were times where I got lost in the mixture of golds, reds and oranges. I love fall.

Before long, we reached our destination and made our way to Amy's new apartment. Her boyfriend, Zach, lives right down the road from Drake University in an old cow milking barn that had been converted into rustic-style lofts. It was actually really cool, I liked it a lot. The only problem is that his place is one room, so if she wants some privacy, that will be hard to come by. She'll need to figure out a way to separate the room, it'll be an escape for both of them.

We moved everything in pretty quickly, and then headed downtown to the Marriott where we were staying. I was excited to see what the city was like, but I quickly learned that it wasn't all that exciting, at least on the weekend. We were clearly in the business/financial district, so most places were closed and the streets were relatively empty.

After we freshened up a bit, we walked down Grand Avenue and crossed the river into historic East Village. Finally, we saw a crowd of people in front of the restaurant Amy and Zach recommended for dinner. Apparently, Zombie Burger is the place to be on Saturday nights, because we waited over an hour for a table. Luckily, they had some delicious (and strong) beers on tap, so we enjoyed a drink while we waited.

When we were finally seated over an hour later, I was about to faint from hunger--or maybe it was that 12% ABV I had. Either way, I prayed that this place was worth the wait. And it definitely is. The menu  is filled with some very unique burgers, with names like East Village of the Damned, 28 Days Later, The Walking Ched, Undead Elvis and Envy Corpse, to name a few. I went for the Fulci (brie cheese, prosciutto, caramelized + raw onion and truffle mayo), Steve and his brother went for The Walking Ched (breaded + deep fried macaroni + cheese bun, bacon, cheddar cheese, caramelized + raw onion, macaroni + cheese, mayo), Amy picked the Raygun (monterey jack, fried jalapeños, caramelized onion, bacon, guacamole, chipotle mayo) and Steve's mom got the Undead Elvis (peanut butter, fried bananas, bacon, American cheese, egg, mayo). And if you think it sounds crazy, it looked even crazier.

After we raised our chance of heart attack, Amy and Zach took us to a great bar just outside of downtown, called El Bait Shop. Housed in what looked like an old trailer/cabin from the outside, the bar had walls covered in different beer taps, road signs, images of famous guests, retro posters and much more. The beer menu was just as varied. I decided to try an Iowa beer called Twisted Vine Honey Harvest. We sipped our beers and chatted for a while, but soon the food and the alcohol hit us all and we decided to call it a night. On the way back to the hotel, we walked the Des Moines skywalk, a maze of indoor bridges connecting all the buildings in downtown, especially helpful in cold weather months.

The next morning, Steve and I woke up early for our run. After running for only a couple miles and finding ourselves at a dead end, we made the best of it and headed back, but took a slightly different path. We made our way over the river and back into East Village, where the capital building and many other major political structures stand. It was here where my image of the city shifted. In the morning sun, the majestic buildings shined among the changing colors of the trees. As we jogged around, we discovered some beautiful public art structures and found an impressive view of downtown. I had to admit, it didn't look so bad. 

I will admit I had preconceived notions of Des Moines, of Iowa as a whole. I believed there was just cornfields and some small towns, and that's about it. I'm not completely wrong, I've driven through it many times and there is a lot of corn. But I was pleasantly surprised at Des Moines. There's more there than I expected, and, apparently, it was ranked a top city to live in because of its economic growth potential. I'm not saying I would move there myself, but for two young people in their twenties just starting out in their professional careers, it definitely has potential.

We ran back to the hotel, packed everything up and made our way over to Amy and Zach's neighborhood for a farewell brunch at Drake Diner. There aren't many brunch places in Des Moines, so, naturally, the wait was pretty long. But living in Chicago, I'm accustomed to long brunch lines. When we finally sat down, we quickly ordered and scarfed down our food. And then it was time to say goodbye.

Amy and her mom cried as they hugged each other, and I could feel tears brimming as I remembered saying goodbye to my mom nearly 10 years ago. It wasn't as emotional, but it was tough leaving a person who was always there for me, who was a strong support system for the first 18 years of my life. But you have to let go, because every parent wants their child to be independent, to live on their own and support themselves. 

We waved our final goodbyes, hopped in the car and prepared for the long drive back to Chicago. And as we merged onto the highway, I looked back one more time and said a little prayer for Amy and Zach, wishing them all the best as they embarked on a new journey in their new home.

Monday, October 28, 2013

A Denver Weekend in D.C.

The capital building sits luminously in the distance as we make our way onto the grassy field of the mall. We pick the perfect spot, line up together and wait for our cue. One...two...three...jump. We leap high in the air, creating a blur of orange and blue, before landing and quickly hopping up again, numerous times. This is the process one must take to get the perfect jumping picture. You have to try different poses and angles, make sure the light is just right. And, most important, have fun with it!

Achieving the perfect jumping shot was one of the tasks on our D.C. to-do list. The others included a beer fest, watching the Broncos at the only Denver bar in the city and, of course, spending time with each other.

I hadn't been back to D.C. since eighth grade, when I visited for a class trip. This time, I went to visit my friend Hannah who lives in Arlington with her fiancé Jason. She's getting her phd at Georgetown, and is planning to graduate in May, so I knew the opportunity to see her was running out. My friends Elise and Emily also decided to come into town, making it a mini-GC reunion.

I arrived late afternoon on Friday, followed shortly by Emily. Hannah and Elise picked us up from the airport and we headed back to Hannah's apartment. It was weird being back in D.C., because even though it had been over 15 years since I'd been back, I remembered it very vividly, at least the parts of the city I had seen. What I really looked forward to was seeing some different parts of D.C. and Arlington. When we arrived, we poured ourselves some drinks and dove right into updates on our lives, and it felt as if I'd never spent a day away from them. It was so easy to fall into the conversation, discussing intimate, important details, with no inhibitions and no risk of judgement. Something I really appreciate about these girls.

That night, we went to dinner in DuPont Circle, an historic district in northwest D.C. anchored by a large traffic circle. We took one of the bus lines (only $1) over the river to DuPont, and walked over to the Luna Grill & Diner. After a delightfully filling meal (try the Jambalaya Penne Pasta, yum!), we walked around the neighborhood to check out the bar scene. We went to Buffalo Billards, a huge sports bar with shuffleboard, pool tables, skeeball and plenty of televisions. We played a few games of shuffleboard before realizing we were some of the oldest people there, so we decided to call it a night. After all, we had a big day of drinking ahead of us.

The next morning, we took part in Jason and Hannah's Saturday morning tradition and had brunch at Brooklyn Bagel Bakery, a cute little bagel shop just up the road from their apartment. This is a clearly a neighborhood favorite, as it was packed when we arrived. We got in line, ordered our bagel sandwiches (I got the Lox, onions and eggs breakfast sandwich--delicious!) and proceeded to devour our food in near record time.

Then, I got my first experience riding the D.C. metro. Now, let me just preface this by saying that I really like Chicago's public transit system, it's efficient and convenient. But D.C.'s transit...amazing. It's so clean and spacious and very easy to use. It can pretty much get you anywhere you need to go, with the exception of a few areas--but that's similar to Chicago. We took the Orange line to Metro Central, transferred to the Red Line and took that to NoMa, home of the Snallygaster Gargantuan Beer Jamboree.

Hannah and Jason have gone to this every year since they moved to D.C., so we were happy to take part in yet another of their traditions. Snallygaster is described as "an epic day of inimitable imbibery and monstrous merriment," and I can certainly attest to that. It cost $10, which included admission and a mug. Once we had our drink tickets, we headed into the fest for a long afternoon of drinking, and it was a blast. I tried a ton of great beers (including the Game of Thrones draft), Emily and Hannah played a game of bear pong (which is basically a large-scale version of the traditional college game) and we had a crazy dance party with hundreds of other fest-goers.

Four hours later, we left the fest and headed back to Arlington, where we had a low-key evening.

Sunday, we pulled on our Broncos gear and headed out for the day. Hannah took us over the river to Georgetown and showed us the campus. It was gorgeous. Colonial-style buildings, cobblestone streets and treelined paths, bright colorful homes and a peaceful vibe. It almost made me want to move there. We walked around Georgetown, which has a great shopping district, and we gladly took advantage. Hannah took us to one of her favorite lunch spots, Tackle Box, D.C.'s first and only lobster shack. While we should have got lobster, none of us decided to go for it this time. I got the Tackle Box Meal with Blue Fish, grilled zucchini and lemon garlic aioli (highly recommend). Everything is fresh and cooked to order, and I would definitely go back again.

After lunch, we walked along the river toward the Lincoln Memorial and reflecting pool. We hung out there briefly and then made our way through the World War II Memorial, past the Washington Monument and over to the Old Post Office Building, which has been transformed into an indoor mall. But it still has the original bell tower, where you can get an unobstructed view of D.C. (at no cost) Jason was waiting for us there and we all went inside to check out the view.

After that, we headed over to the mall to knock another item off our list. It was here we took our jumping pictures. As I mentioned before, it takes a long time, and many tries, to get the perfect shot. But I think we got it.

Next up, we headed over to the last stop on the itinerary, Penn Quarter Sports Tavern, the only Denver Broncos bar in D.C. Hannah has been raving about this place forever, and, after visiting, I can certainly see why. The vibe here is immeasurable. The whole crowd performs the chants done at Mile High Stadium (Not it's official name anymore, but it will always be Mile High to me), there are Broncos shots (blue and orange), everyone is decked out in their best Broncos gear, there are free jello shots at half-time and everyone is super friendly. And even though the Broncos lost (definitely the low point of the trip), it was still a ton of fun hanging out for hours at the bar, cheering on our favorite team together.

We left the bar after midnight and made our way back to the apartment. Emily and I packed up most of our stuff since we had super early flights, and then crashed for about three hours before heading to the airport.

Washington, D.C. was definitely fun the second time around, and I would love the chance to go back and see some more of the city. Maybe check out some of the monuments again, refresh my memory a bit more. But what I really appreciated about this trip was that I got to enjoy it with my friends, even if it was only for a couple days. It's these brief moments that we'll truly cherish, because who knows how many more of them we'll get to do. More weddings are in the future, and soon kids will join the picture. But, for now, we are taking every chance we get, and living every moment to the fullest.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Lessons Learned

Life is a perpetual lesson.

I suppose this is a truth I've always known, but it wasn't until last night that it really sank in.

I attended the opening night of Chicago Ideas Week--seven days packed with lectures, labs, workshops and networking opportunities with some of the most influential and thought-provoking people in the world. The theme for the night was Lessons: The Choice is Yours, and it featured five very different, and very inspiring, speakers: Ben Rattray (Founder & CEO of change.org), Catherine Hoke (Founder & CEO of Defy Ventures), Tig Notaro (Writer & Stand-up Comic), Josh Kilmer-Purcell (Author and co-founder of Beekman 1802) and Malcolm Gladwell (Author and Staff Writer for The New Yorker).

Each one of them had a lesson to share, something they had come across in their own lives that was impactful enough to change their perspectives, alter their paths, open new doors. As they spoke, I let every word unravel in my mind. For them, it was usually one event or story that changed things, sometimes it was simple, sometimes not. But those pure things had presented an unexpected lesson for these people, and it made me think about all the seemingly inconsequential events that have happened in my life and what lesson I might have missed.

Now, as a writer, I consider myself to be pretty astute, especially when it comes to these kinds of observations. However, after thinking about it all night, much to my chagrin, I missed a lot.

Not surprising, most of my life lessons have happened while traveling. What's unexpected is how and when those lessons came about.

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Arlington National Cemetery
The first memory that came to mind was of my eighth grade trip to Washington, D.C. and New York. (Not really sure why, but it probably has to do with the fact that I'm writing a freelance article about student travel.) I remember being at Arlington National Cemetery, and our class was going to present a wreath to the tomb of the unknown soldier. Prior to leaving for the trip, my English teacher asked if I wanted to be one of four representatives to offer the wreath, and I gladly accepted. She told me to pack a nice outfit for the occasion. Being a bit of a tomboy, my nice outfit consisted of fitted khakis and a button down collared shirt (I can't even remember the shoes I wore).

On the day of the ceremony, my principle stormed up to me and asked if that was really what I was going to wear. Sternly, I said I didn't have anything else, and that these were the nicest clothes I had brought. He was mortified. The other girl was wearing a plaid skirt, tights and buckled black shoes--with a heel, of all things. My appearance mimicked the boys, who wore slacks, buttoned shirts and ties. It was the first time I'd ever stopped to think about my wardrobe and what it said about me. It was also the first time a teacher had ever made me feel ashamed of how I looked. Regardless, I stood proudly with my classmates and handed off the wreath to the uniformed guard, who placed it in front of the tomb. My principle apologized for making me feel bad (followed quickly by a 'you could have at least worn heels'), and I went about the rest of my day trying to forget the whole thing. It was my first lesson in dressing to impress.

Throughout high school, I made more of an effort with my clothes--although dresses were still my least favorite thing to wear. In college, I didn't have to dress up, but every once and a while I made it a point to look a little nicer. And somewhere along the way, I really started appreciating what clothes could do for my self confidence. I even started wearing dresses on a regular basis. My perception of myself started changing. To this day, I make sure I look my best for important meetings, interviews and work, when I'm required to leave the house. It shows people you are serious about your career and your life. I will say, however, that the lesson I learned in eighth grade did not turn me into a shallow person. It taught me about expectations--other people's and my own.

So many other travel stories have drifted through my mind today, and all the different lessons that came outside the classroom. I would love to tell them all and analyze the ways they changed my life, but that would take way too long. (Perhaps I'll save it for my book.) But it has reinforced my belief that travel is essential. It broadens our perceptions of the world, introduces us to different cultures and ways of life, it propels us forward and challenges our ideas. It is a cog in the ceaseless learning process. And I look forward to the many lessons it still has to teach me.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Seeing the World from the Race Course

Runners weaved through Chicago's streets, waving at and cheering along with thousands of spectators, pushing themselves as hard as they can to reach that finish line. And as difficult as it is to run 26.2 miles, the beauty, vibrancy and excitement that surrounds them on the course, helps make the journey a little bit easier.
Chicago Marathon. Credit: AP

The Chicago Marathon loops through more than 20 different neighborhoods, exposing runners to the wide variety of cultures and colors in the city. From the modern greeneries of Millennium Park to the vintage brownstones of Old Town; the rainbow banners of Boystown to the architectural gems of the Loop; the vivid artistry of Pilsen to the oriental monuments of Chinatown. All ending with the final turn  that will take them to the finish line in iconic Grant Park. In one day, you can experience a remarkable amount of the city.
Running through the loop. Credit: AP

I've never been interested in running a full marathon, but I do like the idea of using a race as a reason to go somewhere new and get to see a city from a different angle. Luckily, I have others who share that sentiment. My boyfriend and I signed up for a half marathon in Nashville next April, and I cannot wait to visit the country music capital of the nation. The course starts next to Vanderbilt University, runs down West End Avenue and past the Country Music Hall of Fame, through various neighborhoods, past Bicentennial Park and ends across the river from City Hall. I'll definitely see a lot while running, but I'll see even more when I get the chance to explore Nashville after the finish. Since the race is on a Saturday, we can spend the afternoon being tourists, checking out the attractions and learning more about the city.

I hope to do more trips like this, where I can combine a race with a small vacation. Because I really think it's a wonderful way to experience a new place.

A marathon--or any race length--opens you up to a different world, whether it's in a new place or if you've been there before. As a runner, I can say with confidence that each stretch of the path is different, despite running it numerous times.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Cross it off the Bucket List

I celebrated another birthday yesterday, one year older, one more rotation around the sun...and a lot has happened in that time. A new job, an international trip to visit my family, a new roommate. It's amazing how much can change in 12 months.

As I was reading through all the messages on my timeline feed, I saw one from a good friend who is traveling abroad in Australia and New Zealand -- where I was just six months ago. She posted that she had scuba dived in The Great Barrier Reef, checking something else off the bucket list. It made me think about something another friend said at my birthday party last night. She had just celebrated her birthday and said she didn't manage to cross anything off her 30 things before 30 list.

Our lives are packed with daily responsibilities and obligations, it's difficult to find time for ourselves, to do something for us, that will make us happy. After hearing both my friends' stories, I did a mental checklist of everything I had done in the last year to make sure I crossed something off the list...and, luckily, I did. I went to New Zealand.

It may only be one thing, but that's better than nothing.

Color Run Chicago
Looking back over the last year made me realize I haven't accomplished as much as I had hoped by this time. It didn't help that I happened to be looking at the Jetsetter page on Pinterest at the time, which has a Bucket List board, featuring all these incredible places and things to do in each destination. I scrolled through the images, adding more things rather than removing them. When suddenly I saw a pin of a large group of people throwing colorful powder into the air. The Color Run. Amazingly enough, I ran that this morning. I never would have considered it a bucket list item, but it is a different experience, something offbeat and exciting. So maybe I've done more than I think.

I'll admit that much of it requires money and time, two things that can be hard to come by, but some things don't. There have been some small triumphs this year that I can be proud of. I set a personal record in the Shamrock Shuffle 8k, finally ran the Soldier Field 10 miler and ended on the fifty yard line, took a road trip to Door County, visited Seattle, painted a room for the first time all by myself. Sure, they aren't bucket list worthy, but these little victories are something to be proud of, something that made my life better.

But I hope to cross more off the bucket list before I celebrate my golden birthday. And I have 12 months to achieve that goal...and this is what's next!
Cave tubing in Belize

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Charity: Water - Taking a Waterwalk for India

My arms ache and my shoulders are about to give out. I quickly put one foot in front of the other, eager to reach the end of the runway. There, I set down the two yellow Jerry cans and shake out my arms, happy I did it, and shocked that anyone could carry those longer than the forty feet I just walked. And yet women and children all over the world do it every day, walking miles to collect water.

Last night, I had the privilege of attending an incredible fundraiser for Charity: Water, a non-profit organization determined to bring clean and safe drinking water to everyone in the world. As part of the event, they ask attendees to carry two Jerry cans, each filled with 40 pounds of water, and walk down a runway, which is only a fraction of what millions of people around the world walk. And so my friend Jessica and I decided to test ourselves--for a good cause--and carry the cans down the runway.
Charity:Water at W Chicago
Jessica carrying the cans
I figured it wouldn't be that hard, I mean, I lift, I'm in shape, and it's only a short runway. And yet when I pulled those cans off the floor, my muscles immediately started to burn. And once I started walking, it was hard to stop, since the weight seemed to force me forward. It was good there were two cans, as it helped to evenly distribute the weight on either side of me, otherwise it would have been much more difficult. I made it the whole way without stopping or putting down the cans, but I'm sure if I had to go much further, I wouldn't have been able to do it.

It really makes you think about how lucky we are to have access to clean water whenever we want it; how so many people in the world are forced to trek for miles just to get dirty, unsanitary water that could ultimately lead to disease and death. In fact, unsafe water and lack of basic sanitation kill more people every year than all forms of violence, according to the organization's website. The most affected are children, especially those younger than five.

The best part of the whole evening was knowing that by simply doing that walk one time, I helped people in need of clean water. In fact, for every person that walked, W Hotels will donate $45 to the Charity: Water cause.

This month's campaign is for India, and the goal is to raise $2 million by the end of September. Two thousand people have already started campaigns to raise money, and $568,917 has been collected to give families in India clean water. If you want to get involved, you can support and donate to any of the campaigns on the Charity: Water website. Or, if you want to start a campaign of your own, the next ones on the horizon are for Ethiopia and Cambodia.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Trouble in Colorado: How to Help Flood Victims

As most of you know, my home state of Colorado was hit hard by rain the last few days, causing severe flooding and major damage, mostly in the Boulder area. Roughly 1,500 homes have been destroyed and hundreds are missing as water continues to rush through the streets. Air rescue operations are said the be the largest in the U.S. since Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005. The situation is incredibly dire, and, unfortunately, the weather is still not cooperating, hampering helicopter rescue missions.
Boulder Flooding. Credit: ksdk.com
The president declared the area a major disaster and freed up federal funds and resources to aid state and local governments. But more is needed, and there are plenty of groups lending a hand. If you want to learn how you can help, check out some of these organizations.

Help Colorado Now is a partnership between the Colorado Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management and the Colorado Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster. It is an initiative brings together agencies and non-profit organizations that are responding to disasters in Colorado and need assistance. It lists all the voluntary agencies helping with the flooding and all the requests those agencies are making. You can contribute money, materials or your time to any of the listed agencies.

Foothills United Way established a relief fun to help with the long-term effects of the flood, and information about how to contribute can be found at unitedwayfoothills.org/floodrelief. The Salvation Army and Red Cross are also both asking for donations to help victims of the flood who have lost many of their possessions. The Boulder Valley Human Society is taking animals that need shelter from evacuated areas, and is in need of heavy blankets, dog treats, bottles, rubber toys and storage bins. The organization also needs volunteers to help take care of the animals.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Life of a Triathlete's Entourage

I recently became a member of an entourage. I'm not quite sure how it happened, but I can pinpoint when the cortege formed: August 25, 2013. That was the day of the Chicago Triathlon, a major sporting event that draws thousands of athletes from all over the country. My roommate, Amanda, was competing in the Olympic distance, so a few friends and I decided to make her some signs and go watch her run the race. But what began as an easygoing idea soon transformed into a deliberate plan. 

It started with the sign making. It took an entire afternoon of research; dozens of colorful pens; thoughtful consideration of wording and spacing; and fastidious penmanship and decoration. It seemed odd to spend so much time on something as trivial as signs, but, for some reasons, it was important that they be perfect and that Amanda not see them before the race. 

When race day arrived, my friends Meredith and Laurel and I (along with Amanda's parents) woke up super early, grabbed coffee to go and headed down to the start line. The next five hours were a whirlwind of cheering, sitting, jumping, walking, standing, waiting, yelling, clapping, picture snapping and following. It became a purposeful coordination moving from transition point to transition point, looking for the optimal viewing location to make sure we saw her and she saw us.

It was when Amanda finished and we found ourselves consistently walking about four feet behind her that we dubbed ourselves her unofficial entourage. And yet we seemed to take the new title pretty seriously. We were holding her gear, offering to help with things, looking up times on our phones, inquiring if she was ok or of she needed anything. We were her loyal crew.

Then, at Amanda's celebration dinner, the entourage got it's next job. She had agreed to take a friend's bib for a triathlon in Lake Geneva in a couple weeks, and said it would mean a lot if we all came up and watched. Who were we to say no?

So, this weekend, I helped Amanda put her bike on her car and load up her gear, and then we picked up our friend Laurel on the way up to Lake Geneva. My first job, help with navigation. Sounds simple enough, right? Not when there's tons of traffic and no alternate route (pissing the driver off) and all of us are hungry, making us a little more irritable and anxious. (We eventually stopped for some food, which seemed to brighten all our spirits.) And after getting through the parking lot of cars, we were finally able to relax and enjoy the scenery of rolling green hills, farms and towering trees. 

As we neared the hotel, we decided to stop off to pick up some libations for the evening, since we would most likely just be relaxing in the room so Amanda could get to bed early (she had to get up at 3:45 the next morning). Laurel and I, not being from Wisconsin, told Amanda to pull into the Shopko thinking it would surely sell liquor...boy, were we wrong. We walked in the doors to find an outdated, badly lit department store, and no grocery section. Laurel and I were surprised, we were sure it was a supermarket; but Amanda knew full well what it was and kept that knowledge to herself thinking we had to know what we were getting into. The adventure continued as we proceeded to change our course of direction about three times from the Walmart, to the Walgreens and finally to the Piggly Wiggly, where we were finally rewarded. 

We got the hotel, where Meredith was waiting. Amanda's parents arrived shortly after that. As I predicted, the evening was spent sitting in the hotel talking, snacking and drinking. But we weren't opposed to this, since there isn't much to do in Delavan, WI. 

The next morning, Amanda headed out early to get her bike set up and check in. We followed shortly after, making our way to the starting line to make sure we had prime viewing spots. It was a chilly morning, lots of fog hung over the water, but the athletes were ready to go. Luckily, Amanda was only doing a sprint distance this time, much shorter than Olympic. 

Once again, we made sure we saw her at every point that we could: going into the water, coming out of the water, wheeling her bike out of transition, pedaling ferociously back to the drop off, and sprinting to the finish line.

We were there again to hold her gear, watch as she stretched and refueled on free breakfast--spectators had to pay--and hear all about her experience on the course, which usually includes some crazy story (this time she was hit by a truck and landed in a front yard). 

After packing up all our stuff at the hotel, we quickly ran back to Piggly Wiggly (had to stock up on New Glarus beer, since you can only get it in Wisconsin) and then we had a quick lunch at a local bar and grill before heading back to Chicago. 

I would have liked to spend some more time in Lake Geneva, exploring the area, going shopping, etc. Unfortunately, our lives cannot completely stop for these events and other responsibilities get in the way. However, it sounds as if we may try and make more of an effort to dedicated ourselves completely to watching Amanda compete in triathlons. Next October, she plans to do a half Iron Man in North Carolina, and we have agreed to go along for the ride. (In this case, though, she's trying to convince us to run the race as a relay, which may or may not happen.) She also wants to do Lake Geneva again next year and make it a full weekend event.

I'll admit, our entourage status is pretty modest compared to others. I've heard of people who act like a pit crew for athletes, repairing bikes, taping injuries and giving massages. At least Amanda can handle most of that herself, and has never asked too much of us. After all, we are first and foremost her friends, and more than anything, she loves our support.