Five cities that surprised me

venice2

Travel is a funny thing. You can stare at guidebooks until your contacts dry out and you can consult Google maps for days on end, but try as you might, there’s no way to fully prepare for what’s ahead. No matter what, you’ll get lost, you’ll overestimate your energy level, and you’ll get caught in a surprise downpour without raingear. And at least once in your life, you’ll misread the timetable, find out the next train doesn’t arrive until 1 a.m., and spend the next few hours on an uncomfortable bench nibbling vending machine food and using your backpack as a pillow.

Unexpected moments like these can make or break a vacation, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. Here, I share a few stories of cities that exceeded–or didn’t meet–my expectations.

 

Paris

paris

Before I visited Paris, I heard a few less-than-flattering anecdotes from friends that convinced me I’d find the French capital dirty, crowded and underwhelming. In a way, I’m glad I flew into Charles de Gaulle Airport one October morning with such low expectations. I’ve never been so pleasantly surprised!

Back in Italy, my study-abroad friends and I felt a little like the fates were already conspiring to make our trip to Paris terrible. The forecast called for constant rain, and there were so few hostel options left in the weeks before our departure that we took a huge security risk and booked a place in the Latin Quarter that didn’t offer storage lockers–something I’d never recommend to anyone. And yet, the moment we emerged from the underground Metro, I felt like I was living out an Edith Piaf song.

Everywhere we went, magical things happened. We made fast friends with our hostel bunkmates and spent a memorable night with them at a perfectly Parisian hole-in-the-wall student hangout down the street. One relentlessly cloudy morning on Ile de la Cité, we rounded a corner just in time to see clouds parting poetically above the majestic Notre Dame. In the suspiciously empty Louvre, I had the Code of Hammurabi and Venus de Milo to myself for minutes on end. We got to Versailles three hours before the inside of the palace opened, and it was the happiest accident we could have made: the royal grounds were so vast and beautiful that we lost track of time exploring them.

I could write rapturously about so much more–every plaza, every sidewalk cafe, all the incredible and affordable prix fixe restaurants–and maybe I will when I return someday.

What I learned: Go to Paris in October. Most of the tourists are gone, and the city is somehow even more beautiful when it rains.

Venice

venice

For years and years growing up, I dreamed of visiting Venice. The bright colors, majestic palaces, tiny canals and romantic narrow streets looked so unreal in pictures. I’m a little ashamed to admit how major a factor Venice was in my desire to study Italian in college. I spent so long idealizing the place that a letdown was almost inevitable.

I really, really hated my first trip to Venice. I went with two friends on a rainy Sunday in September, and the entire city center was so clogged with tourists and day-tripping Italian families that it was hard to see anything around me. There were long lines everywhere–at major attractions, restaurants, even stores selling Murano glass jewelry. After having spent a month studying in an authentic Italian town, Venice felt less authentically Italian than a Spaghetti Factory…and a heck of a lot more expensive.

The whole experience was so disheartening that I used the next day’s class assignment as an excuse to rant about it.

Unfortunately, the next time I found myself in Venice was the night before my departure from Italy. To prepare for our upcoming flight out of Marco Polo Airport, everyone in my cohort got a hotel room for the night in nearby Mestre and decided to venture into the lagoon for dinner. Without the rain and summertime crowds, wandering through the cobblestoned alleys in a less central part of town was pure magic. I kicked myself for spending so long nursing a grudge against Venice, the city that had been only an hour’s train ride away for a whole semester.

What I learned: If I ever go back to Venice, I’ll do it right. I’ll make sure I spend the night there so I can see its magic without the crowds. I’ll build a ton of wandering time into my trip and get lost on purpose. And I will never, ever visit on a Sunday.

 

New York City

newyork

Last year, I decided to take my very first trip to the East Coast. I’d always wanted to visit New York City, and I figured I’d come away from my five days there with the same opinion a lot of my friends hold: that while New York is a wonderful place to visit, I’d never be able to live somewhere so large and loud.

Boy, was I wrong.

How did I manage to fall in love with a city so expensive that I spent most of my nights bunking with 18-year-old boys in a hostel? So humid that I risked ejection from the U.S. Open stadium hopping between shady seats that weren’t mine? So crowded that I couldn’t find a single free seat to watch the Oregon game at the only Ducks bar in town?

I’m still not sure. The world-class art certainly had something to do with it: At the Metropolitan Museum, I had as many legendary pieces to myself as I did at the Louvre. (Do I just have good museum luck?) The surprising plethora of free activities, from Central Park to window shopping to the High Line to free Fridays at MoMA, played a role too. So did the huge selection of food from all over the world, from Jamaica to Yemen to Cambodia.

But what captivated me most about New York had nothing to do with its most legendary sights. It was the way I felt walking down the street. Even in my stretched-out shorts and sweaty cardigan, wandering around New York made me feel like I could take on the world. Knowing I might be strolling down the same cobbled lanes as legends like Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand and Henry James once did was thrilling. Even though its poetic old alleys and grimy brick facades may now be home to more millionaire movie stars than immigrant tenements, it’s still America’s Melting Pot, and it still pulses with infectious energy.

What I learned: I could totally live in New York…if I won the lottery.

 

Vancouver

vancouver

When I moved to Seattle, I discovered that most Pacific Northwesterners know and love Vancouver. But I can attest that people in my home state of California have little interest in British Columbia’s largest city. Its metro area is home to more than 2 million people, yet before I lived in Seattle, I knew it to be nothing more than an affordable filming location.

Those two decades of ignorance were my loss. Vancouver boasts fantastic ethnic food, stunning views, beautiful parks and so much more.

In a handful of weekend trips over the last six years, I’ve discovered that pretty much anyone can enjoy Vancouver–including people who hate cities! Backpacking college students will find fantastic, cheap and authentic ethnic food in almost every neighborhood, and they can party the night away on Granville Street, which turns into an energetic pedestrian mall on the weekends. Couples looking for a quiet weekend escape can the explore wild, forested Stanley Park, take in world-class museums and performances on the UBC campus and discover quaint ethnic bodegas and cafes in Kitsilano. Solo travelers will find anonymous company on Granville Island, a huge farmers’ market with endless gastronomic curiosities and tourists from all over the world. Hikers can take on the Grouse Grunt, one of the steepest schleps out there, and they’ll be rewarded with a jaw-dropping view and a complimentary gondola ride back down. And I’ve only just scratched the surface!

What I learned: It’s never a good idea to write a city off just because you haven’t heard much about it.

 

Budapest

budapest

I traveled to the capital of Hungary in 2008, before the age of Pinterest and career travel bloggers. At that time, the internet yielded curiously little information about the city. My travel buddy and I found a few key sights to check out, but we weren’t sure what to expect. I wasn’t so clueless about lesser-known Eastern Europe to believe the scene from “Eurotrip” was right on the money, but I admit I had vague images of unattractive concrete buildings, crumbling train stations and miserable weather.

Ironically, my travel buddy and I experienced all of the above during our three-day trip. But for every time-worn train station, there was a mind-blowing museum or a magnificent tiled roof. Next door to every midcentury monstrosity, we encountered an awe-inspiring synagogue or an intricate sandcastle come to life. And frankly, we weren’t too upset when temperatures dropped or the rain began to pour, because it meant we could duck our heads into one of the city’s many beautifully ugly ruin bars for some warming stew and beer.

I like to think that Budapest is the new Prague, which used to be Europe’s premier unpolished jewel. Prague is still unbelievably beautiful, but the crowds have descended and much of the city has been sanitized for the visitors’ benefit. But in Hungary’s largest city, charming seediness and urban grit are still as prevalent as old-world grandeur and cute shops selling handmade lace. If you’re the kind of traveler who doesn’t mind visiting a museum that houses world-class art but doesn’t translate its guides to English, or if you’d sooner grab a drink in a not-quite-converted warehouse than in a sleek new lounge, Budapest is the destination for you.

What I learned: Hungarian is one of the coolest and most confusing languages I’ve ever tried to speak.

New York City’s great pretenders

Carrie Bradshaw proudly dines alone.

Carrie Bradshaw proudly dines alone.

Most people have vivid memories of their first moments in New York City. Famous authors remember the feeling of hopping into an airport cab and crossing the Queensboro Bridge, the whole island of Manhattan laid out before their eyes. Broadway actors reminisce about emerging from underground for the first time to encounter an exhilarating crush of people, lights, and billboards.

My first New York moment happened somewhere unlikely.

The day I landed at JFK, it was 90 degrees outside, and my West Coast sensibilities weren’t prepared for the high humidity. The hellish conditions were even worse below ground, and as I waited for a train to Flushing Meadows, the straps of my heavy backpack were slipping from sweat.

But what I remember first and foremost about that inaugural moment in New York was the six-foot man immediately to my left, also drenched in sweat, who suddenly burst out into soulful song:

Oh, yes, I’m the great pretender
Pretending that I’m doing well
My need is such I pretend too much
I’m lonely but no one can tell

Yes, I’m the great pretender
Just laughin’ and gay like a clown
I seem to be what I’m not, you see
I’m wearing my heart like a crown

Look, I’m no idiot. I know people perform for money all the time in the Subway, and I know because I witnessed more than five such performances in as many days. Most of the music was cheesy mariachi or badly-tuned barbershop, and the clear target was some clueless, wide-eyed tourist who didn’t know to avert his eyes and keep a straight face.

But at this particular Subway platform, in the heart of an immigrant neighborhood in Queens, no one around me wore track shoes or Jansport backpacks or I ♥ NY paraphernalia. I appeared to be the sole luggage-bearer and non-commuter. And that singer? I believed him.

Just an hour into my stay in New York, I’d already bought into a tired cliché, the idea that all the city’s inhabitants were secretly lonely. I imagined they were all great pretenders, happy and thriving from without but isolated islands from within. This was my romantic first impression of New York, and I suspect it stemmed from preconceived notions.

Luckily for me, New York was hell-bent on proving me wrong.

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Good morning, Santa Cruz…er, Brooklyn.

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The city dealt its first blow at a cafe in Brooklyn the next morning. The Jamaican barista took my coffee order and then stopped mid-pour. “Wait,” she said. “Are you related to someone who lives near here?” I shook my head and said sorry, no. “It’s weird. I have a friend who works two blocks away and she looks exactly like you. She said her sister was in town, so I thought…”

Even after I correctly identified myself as a visitor and stranger, the conversation continued…for five minutes. I learned about her family and she learned about my life. We chatted about the weather. Then, a regular customer came in and the barista introduced us.

If this had happened in Seattle or Boulder, I’d have found it exceedingly odd. In places where I’ve lived, baristas–sane ones, anyway–do not launch into conversations with perfect strangers. Sometimes, they barely have two words to say to regulars. For such a small-town moment to occur in a city of 8.5 million was baffling to me.

And yet these moments kept repeating themselves.

 

That night, at a jazz concert near Lincoln Center, a stranger told me his life story and invited me to a friend’s dinner party in Brooklyn the next day. Nearby, a college student and a retired man who had never met were learning the tango together.

On a Saturday morning in Soho, a shopkeeper walked up to me and smoothed out a wrinkle in my shirt without a word of warning or a “May I?”, something even my close friends might never think to do.

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I love these cool old streets.

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The clincher was a moment at The Central Bar, an Irish pub near NYU. I’d stopped in to catch the Oregon football game, and I wasn’t surprised to find a small group of men in the neighboring booth rooting loudly for the opposition. When they found out I was an Oregon fan, they tossed a little bit of good-natured heckling my way. But after a tense moment on the field and a bad play on my team’s part, I was stunned when a couple of them made a conciliatory “O” with their hands and offered to buy me a beer.

I’d been in New York for three days, and I had to admit that so far I felt neither lonely nor overwhelmed by crowds. (Granted, I may have felt differently had I ventured into Times Square.) In this place that I always assumed was its own ungovernable living organism, I found that I could completely control my social experience by deciding where, when, and how I traveled. During the day, I chose to visit tourist haunts early in the morning and at lunchtime; I felt as if I had whole sections of Central Park and the Met to myself. Later, I gravitated toward popular nightlife neighborhoods, and the teeming sidewalks insulated me from loneliness and danger.

 

One night, I grabbed dinner with a friend who said she’d long ago abandoned her fear of dining out alone. Now, I could see why: in most restaurants, the unrelenting energy (and yes, friendliness!) will seep into your skin, dissolving your misgivings in a matter of minutes.

Why is it that being alone in New York City feels so right, when elsewhere people seem to run in pairs or not at all? On my last night here, I went out solo to Highlands in the West Village and mulled the question over.

 

I thought of all the people I knew, scattered across the country and the world. For the most part, those who now live in small towns are married, and they moved there because they were offered specific jobs. In contrast, most of those who now live in cities moved there before they’d found work or love.

Most of my city friends arrived in their respective cities as islands, single and without many connections. With time, they all found work and friends. Many of them found partners and got married, too; many more still thrive as singletons, both socially and professionally. While in some places life as an unmarried 30-year-old may be difficult–Utah, Idaho, parts of Colorado–it certainly isn’t in New York City. Statistics show that 42 percent of women and 47 percent of men here have never been married. Furthermore, New Yorkers are among the least likely to get married by age 26.

If you’re single in New York, you’re in good company. If you’re dining alone in a restaurant on a Tuesday night, you are far from the only one. If you’re attending a free jazz concert by yourself, there’s a 99.9 percent chance you’ll find company in someone else who’s doing the same thing.

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Had to come down here.

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I’d been tricked into believing the big city was full of isolated islands, but I was only half right. New York is, indeed, full of islands, so many that they form an amicable archipelago too large even for Dubai’s developers to duplicate. New York is a big city that’s really just a giant collection of small towns, each one filled with people who are perfectly content to coexist alone together.

Now, when I return to the memory of that soulful, sweaty man on the Subway platform in Queens, I laugh to myself. If he could convince a cynic like me that he was lonely, I guess he really is The Great Pretender.

Mariners ArtsNight - by Jill Kimball for Classical KING FM

Recent work

After a few years working in the arts, I’ve stopped thinking in terms of the calendar year. To me, the year begins in September and ends in May, rising and falling in tandem with the concert seasons I follow closely. The months in between are for projects, parties, and pontificating. Even though my life is about to change big time, I think September will always feel like a new beginning to me.

While the holidays (aka the summer months) are in full swing and we edge ever closer to New Year’s Eve (Labor Day weekend), I thought I’d do a year in review of sorts.

If there’s one word I can apply to the last year of my life, it’s “busy.” In the 2014-15 concert season, I juggled one and a half jobs, three ensembles within Seattle Pro Musica, service on a board, and lots of time with friends. I have a lot to show for my hard work, including a wide variety of writing, graphics, and fully realized ideas.

 

A THINK PIECE

Morlot, Mix-A-Lot, and music’s future
I shared my thoughts on Sir Mix-A-Lot’s controversial joint concert with the Seattle Symphony.

 

MULTIMEDIA PREVIEWS

Backstage at PNB’s last Stowell/Sendak ‘Nutcracker’
I took my phone and two cameras with me backstage during a matinee performance of Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Nutcracker. This was a special Christmas at PNB, as the company announced this would be its last year staging the ballet with the unique Kent Stowell choreography and Maurice Sendak sets.

At SIFF 2015, follow the music
Each spring, the Seattle International Film Festival sorts its films by genre. Quite a few delve into the topic of classical music. I did a roundup of movies about, or featuring, classical music for KING FM.

 

LISTICLES

13 Seattle concerts you should attend at least once
For about a year now, I’ve been attending monthly NPR Analytics meetings. I’ve used these to check in on the digital state of NPR affiliate stations, but I also use them for creative inspiration. In a round-up of some of June’s most popular NPR stories, the meeting panelists mentioned the popularity of the classic “bucket list” article. I thought, hey, I can do that for KING FM! And so I did.

5 Facts about Jean Sibelius
The Seattle Symphony celebrated Sibelius’ 150th anniversary with a month of his music, then we did a marathon broadcast of all those concerts. I thought I’d get to know the composer a little better.

31 Facts about Mozart
Every January, KING FM creates a 31 Days of Mozart Channel, where we play nonstop Mozart for an entire month. I wrote this listicle to promote the channel.

 

SOME ALBUM REVIEWS

Nordic Affect: Clockworking
Last week, I listened to some blissful Icelandic music that lands somewhere between Sigur Rós and avant garde.

Gabriel Kahane: The Ambassador
While I interned at Palo Alto Weekly in 2008, I was lucky enough to chat with pianist Jeffrey Kahane while he was in town for the Music@Menlo Festival. Seven years later, I reviewed this album by his genre-defying singer-songwriter son, and along the way I got a fascinating glimpse into the history of Los Angeles.

Maya Beiser: Uncovered
An edgy cellist with East-meets-West roots deconstructed her favorite classic rock songs on this album. In researching and reading the liner notes, I think I learned more about classic rock than I did about the cello.

Julia Wolfe: Steel Hammer
One of New York City’s top composers generated a lot of buzz with a modern requiem for John Henry, the fictional steel driver who became an American folk hero. I loved the beautiful vocals by Trio Mediæval.

A Far Cry: Dreams & Prayers
This was a small, young orchestra’s feverish attempt at conveying the spiritual meaning of performing together.

The Knights: the ground beneath our feet
This Brooklyn-based chamber ensemble’s lighter-than-air exploration of the concerto grosso form spanned centuries of music, from Bach to the present day.

Missy Mazzoli: Vespers for a New Dark Age
My favorite feminist composer turned a religious rite, the vesper service, into a secular art form more fitting for the 21st century.

 

INTERVIEWS

A Talk with Anonymous 4
My 13-year-old self, newly obsessed with choral music, squealed the whole time.

Eight questions for the King’s Singers
Um…ditto.

Derek Bermel’s Death with Interruptions
I previewed a world premiere set to kick off the Seattle Chamber Music Festival.

 

 

Confession: I Document Everything

An intellectual (or not) debate at Max's.

An intellectual (or not) debate at Max’s.

Six months into my college career, I came home for spring break and announced to a few of my friends that I was switching my major from music to journalism. I expected reactions of mild surprise, at the very least. Instead, I was met with impatient “duh”s and amused “I always knew it”s.

“That’s not a surprising revelation, is it?” They asked. “You always carry a notebook in your purse. You’re always writing down everything we say. You document everything. It’s actually pretty creepy.”

It was true. I could certainly save a lot of closet space by purging from my belongings a stack of 20 or so notebooks, some completely full, others empty, still others only partially used. I buy them habitually, whenever I head back to my old stomping grounds for a nostalgia tour, whenever I’m away from home and need to chronicle my frustrations somewhere, and of course whenever a notebook is too pretty not to buy.

I’ve never met anyone else who is quite so intent on recording anything and everything, but thanks to the power of the internet, I now know there’s at least one other freak like me: Alice Bolin. I’ve never met her, but her post on thisrecording.com makes me believe we are kindred spirits and were probably separated at birth. From the post:

I have in my pocket at this moment a note I don’t remember writing to myself that I found recently on my floor. It reads, “Landscape quote: O pardon me thou bleeding piece of Earth.” (Googling reveals this is from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.) Also in my pocket is a note card where it says in my graduate thesis advisor’s handwriting, “Question / Is there a historical reason for the great number of rear/alley entrances/exits in Missoula bars?” Also: a stranger’s to-do list I found tucked in a book I ordered online; its only noteworthy item is “Return Cal’s pants!”

Similarly, I hoard written and verbal content constantly. I tore a page from one of my college legal pads that reads, in a list, “bastard food; misplaced football jerseys; acid dropping.” The Notebook feature on my phone offers this quote, squeezed between a flight confirmation code and a grocery list, with no context: “As soon as you’re sitting on a pokey thing, you’re like, damn, I’m sitting on a pokey thing.” And don’t even get me started on those little notebooks I used to carry everywhere from age 15, packed with funny-but-oft-nonsensical quotes from my closest friends, tales of strange adventures with acquaintances I no longer remember, and letters to ex-boyfriends. I once listed nearly 20 quotes from my college choir conductor in a LiveJournal post: “You need to get the L out.” “Make this violent word sound as sexy as possible.” “Sorry, taken over by an alien momentarily.”

The urge to document also manifests in photos.

The urge to document also manifests in photos.

The height of my recording craze was my senior year of college, when my amazing group of friends would essentially recreate a Cheers scene at our favorite local hangout three or more nights a week. We’d while away the hours commiserating about our jobs and classes, watching football games, playing cards and winning prizes in pub trivia. I must have filled four notebooks with inside jokes and stories borne from our nights there.

“I misread your mustache, sir.” (Courtesy of someone who judged my friend’s political views by his facial hair.)
“It crashed and burned, and then a dinosaur stepped on it. And then it killed a puppy.” (A friend describes her day.)
“They’re like the tacos of the feet.” (Your guess is as good as mine.)

Why the constant urge to chronicle every last funny, interesting and semi-brilliant thing? I guess I’m just a nostalgic person. In certain life situations for which a comprehensive record exists–like the trip to Eastern Europe in high school, or the night the power went out during my winter break reunion with youth choir friends–it’s likely I wrote everything down for nostalgia’s sake. Back then, I believed my future self would kick my present self for forgetting the Best Inside Jokes Ever.

I think the particular affinity for quoting my friends in our last days of college may have been a self-preservational instinct, a desperate attempt to log the here and now in some form or other–because I knew that less than a year later, I’d be in a strange new city trying to find a job and a new set of bar buddies.

When I ran out of notebooks...

When I ran out of notebooks…

Why do I still do it? Because my post-college years thus far have been predictably tumultuous and subject to change. My entire world has changed almost annually as I’ve moved to new apartments, started new relationships, said goodbye to old friends and awkwardly courted new ones. As much as I try to live in the moment the way older adults advise, I can’t help but look toward the future to an older me, contentedly flipping through five thousand notebooks of strange memories.

The Book City

Even if you’re not attending the current AWP conference, and even if you’re not a writer, hop on over to The Stranger’s article about the average Seattle resident’s penchant for reading…and hanging out in places where reading material is purchased.

From the article:

Part of the reason I moved to Seattle from the East Coast was for the rain and the clouds. There’s nothing more annoying than the pang of guilt that comes unbidden when you choose to stay inside with a good book on a beautiful spring day. With its relentless cloud cover, Seattle minimizes the opportunity for that kind of guilt. In fact, it rewards people for reading and writing, which is part of the reason our city always hovers near the top of those (admittedly somewhat arbitrary) “most literate city” polls that circulate around the internet every year or so.

Whether we’re literate because it’s raining or the rainy climate naturally attracts bookworms, it’s a fact: Seattle loves to read, and it always has.

Elliott_Bay_Books_(Capitol_Hill)_interior_pano_01

Ever since my dad read novels to me at bedtime (Goodnight Moon got old fast, so we moved on to Watership Down), I grew up with my nose buried in a book. I started with classics, including the Nancy Drew series and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. My childhood guilty pleasures included Animorphs and Sweet Valley High.

In high school, between the engrossing Harry Potter books, I devoured science fiction, fantasy, period literature and more, still discovering my literary tastes. During the week, I sat in English class wondering why in hell The Odyssey got top billing over The Aeneid in my classroom and a million others, while on the weekends I happily made my way through the 850 pages of Bleak House.

Then, in college, I discovered the wonder of contemporary fiction and its endless possibilities. There was nothing better than studying, discussing and writing about the books I would have read at home anyway.

Today, I miss the discussions and the feedback. Sometimes I convince a friend to read a book with me so we can get into lively debates like we did in college. In the last year, among other things, I’ve marveled at the Dickensian parallels in A Fine Balance, I’ve dissed Eugenides’ self-indulgent latest effort, I’ve read Zadie Smith at her best and her worst, and I’ve made it halfway through Colum McCann‘s canon.

It’s heartwarming to be reminded that I’ve done all this in a city full of like-minded folk, that I bought these books at some of the best book-buying institutions in the country…and that there’s so much more to discover.

On Being Real

I’ve been thinking a lot about the way my relationships with others have changed in recent years. I’m not a social butterfly, so I was glad to see Facebook’s continuous rise in popularity while I was in college. It was the perfect tool for those of us who wanted to keep tabs on old friends but lacked the courage to pick up the phone or even write an email often enough to do so.

But after more than seven years of Facebook use, I realize the site has not given me what I wanted. In Facebook I looked for insight into the daily ups and downs of those I used to see every day. It has instead provided me only with the highlights of my friends’ lives: the engagements, the exotic vacations, the new job announcements and the best home-cooked dinners.

I’m thrilled to see my friends doing well, but I know these updates don’t tell the whole story. In addition to their good news, I’d like to hear about their pipe leaks at home, their struggles at work and the recipes that failed. Balancing news of the positive with the negative, the quirky, the funny and the everyday paints a more accurate picture of someone’s life–a picture that does more to educate friends on one’s life rather than to simply induce friends’ jealousy.

This year, my life was filled with lovely sunsets, craft cocktails and exciting adventures. It was also filled with frustration, sadness, anxiety, confusion and sleep deprivation. And that’s okay.

I read a blog post last week that called for a New Year’s resolution almost all of us can keep. Rather than resolving to get fit, eat healthier, save more money or clean more often, we might first and foremost promise ourselves to be more honest with ourselves and with each other.

So in 2014, for better or for worse, I vow to stop Photoshopping my life. I’m done with humblebrags. I’m finished with heavily filtered selfies. I’ll leave the self-promotion at work, and I’ll spend more actual facetime with those whose friendship I value.

I’m ready to be real.

Fall

I visited Seattle for the first time in the fall. The weather was still temperate and sunny, the days were still long and the late afternoon light was perfectly golden. The city’s natural beauty was fully on display, and I fell in love.

ImageI know what you’re thinking–how can you possibly make it through another rapturous essay on apple picking, pumpkin spice lattes and changing leaves? But while I’m a sucker for all these things, I love fall because it’s been the season of so many good memories.

I’m sure I’m not the only one with fond memories of my first college term. I had no idea what to expect of the campus, the people or even my major, and I was pleasantly surprised to immediately love everything about the University of Oregon–even its retro student union, overly enthusiastic football fans and giant lecture halls. All of us who start college in the fall probably think of autumn as a time of year for fresh starts and self-discovery.

ImageTwo years later, I had one of the best autumns of my life studying in Paderno del Grappa, Italy. I spent much of the semester traveling all over Europe, and one of my most vivid memories is of the varied weather. It was practically summer one weekend in Florence, but two weeks later, my soaked ballet flats squelched all over Dublin during a daylong downpour. We wandered Paris in mostly T-shirts in October, but we needed to buy more layers and lots of mulled wine to  keep from freezing a month later in Köln. It was thrilling to experience Europe while the seasons were changing.

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ImageThree years ago, in the fall, my favorite people came together on the scenic rooftop of my first Seattle apartment.

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ImageAnd the next fall, when there was no more roof, we settled for a cramped kitchen.

ImageAnd to start this fall, some of us made a pilgrimage right back to the place where my love for fall started…at the University of Oregon.

Image…We were a little overwhelmed.

phi beta kappa key pin

The liberal arts factor

Some stereotypes are true. Most journalists, for example, possess thick skins, feel less empathy than the average person, don’t beat around the bush and enjoy the challenge of digging for well-hidden information.

Journalists are also notorious workaholics: their jobs follow them home, on vacation, to the gym, wherever they go. Reporters will pick up their phones in the middle of the night, on their wedding days and at funerals if the newsroom calls. Over the last few years, I’ve seen my peers and coworkers drop everything for a scoop. They’ve bailed on dates, classes, exams and parties to meet deadline or go the extra mile on a story. And although I believe hard work pays off–anyone who knows me can attest to that– I haven’t always supported their decision to skip out on everything else.

phi beta kappa key pin

I’m proud of my PBK key!

It’s true that getting good at one’s chosen profession requires focus, especially in journalism. But must focus translate to tunnel vision?

I remember some fellow students who pulled 50, 60, 70 hour weeks at the student newspaper. The work they did was incredible and invaluable. But their choice to work overtime for no extra pay was also a choice to skip classes, skim important reading and earn a degree with barely passing grades and nothing but minimum graduation requirements. Many of them told me they believed years of hands-on work experience was the most important (or the only) thing future employers wanted to see on resumes.

Like them, I made time for real-world experience. I had five summer internships, three of which were unpaid. I spent most of my college years working full time at the student newspaper, though my stipend covered less than half my rent. I always answered calls from my sources, even when they came at inappropriate times while I was in inopportune locations. I arrived at work too early and stayed too late. I put my life in danger to drive to work during a snowstorm. I left my own birthday party to investigate a mysterious death. (I don’t regret these decisions, but I don’t think I would make the same ones if I were to repeat my four years of school.)

I made all these sacrifices, but most of the time, I maintained much-needed separations between work, play and academics. While I took tens of electives outside my journalism classes, learned another language, contemplated a second minor and had the time of my life writing a thesis, my student newspaper colleagues were crashing on the newsroom couch and plotting how they might avoid their foreign language requirements. When we were all off the clock, my coworkers went home, reviewed notes on their steno pads and listened to the police scanner over a beer; I went to choir rehearsal, attended a play or read a novel. When I shared my hobbies and weekend plans with them, they stared with blank faces and went right back to their work.

I was, and still am, shocked at journalists’ blasé attitude toward non-news pursuits I consider important: a liberal arts education, cultural enrichment, a variety of personal relationships. I was relieved to leave the world of newspaper journalism and find a new company full of people with quirky hobbies, unique passions and different perspectives. These days, I have coworkers who appreciate my ongoing efforts to learn more and stay well rounded.

But these days, a well-rounded resume seems to be undervalued–and I think that’s a mistake on the part of employers. When I consider the leg up I had in stories that required a fundamental knowledge of history, literature or science, I wonder whether my laser-focused journalism colleagues were able to cover the story as thoroughly without a liberal arts education. I think about the friendships and relationships I maintain and wonder, when I’m having fun at a festival or a picnic, whether my old coworkers are still slaving away in the newsroom. When I absorb myself in choir rehearsal and forget about bills, task lists and arguments, I can’t believe underpaid cub reporters my age can cope without a hobby that provides an emotional escape from the stresses of adult life.

Perhaps the decision to broaden my knowledge base communicated a lack of pure journalistic commitment to some of the newspaper editors who saw my resume. But if a love for many things at once is wrong, I don’t want to be right.

Writer’s Block

I’ve always been quite an enthusiastic writer. From a very young age, I kept journals that I sometimes updated multiple times in a day. I wrote about everything: things I learned in school, classmates I liked and disliked, life in after-school daycare, friends’ deep dark secrets I promised never to reveal, and of course my own deep dark secrets–usually involving a crush on a boy.

My motivation to write back then was a desire to resolve issues in my mind. Once things had been written down in a semi-coherent manner, I felt I knew where I stood and could move past whatever lingering anger, sadness or confusion I felt. There were times when I felt extraordinary euphoria and found immense satisfaction in successfully translating the feeling into words.

Beyond childhood, there were ever more motivations to keep writing well–to get good grades, to get admitted into high-quality colleges, to win debates, to stand out in the job applicant pool. Even though I still found emotional clarity after writing down my personal thoughts, I wrote increasingly less for purposes of personal growth as I wrote increasingly more in the name of professional growth.

As a result, I started experiencing something I once thought I was immune to: writer’s block. In college, I spent hours staring at a blank Word document struggling to find the words to start my term papers, even after I’d done extensive research and found a good thesis. Writing each sentence was as difficult as pulling frozen taffy.

It didn’t help that Gmail, Facebook and myriad news sites were just a click away, and so I assumed the presence of campus-wide Wi-fi was to blame for the writer’s block. I found I was slightly more productive when I moved from the library to a cafe, where I found a pleasant buzzing of white noise rather than crushing silence; when I took short breaks about once an hour for coffee or a New York Times article; or when I was running on an extra-tight deadline and had no choice but to work without stopping.

Still, I’ve wondered for years why I, the person to whom others turn for help with writing and editing, experience these extensive mental blackouts when in childhood I could write unceasingly for hours.

Today, I realized the answer could be as simple as this: In childhood I wrote on paper; now, I write on a keyboard.

It sounds like an oversimplification, I know…but something crazy happened to me today at lunch. Before I left, I opened up a document full of scripts I’ve been writing for KING FM’s next on-air fund drive. I got out my yellow legal pad to consult the informal list of script ideas I’d made for myself, found where I’d left off, and started typing. No more than two sentences came out…in a half hour.

So I tried something else: when I left to grab a quick lunch, I took the legal pad and a pen with me, thinking a little lunchtime brainstorming couldn’t hurt. I ended up scribbling furiously with my pen as I scarfed a sandwich. Thoughts came to me two at a time and my hand nearly cramped up as it tried to get everything down. In about 20 minutes, I had written three full pages of scripts.

legalpad

For no good reason, I find it less inhibiting to write on paper than to write on a computer screen. It makes no sense, because when I write something down in pen, it’s there forever, and editing is messy. On a keyboard, the backspace bar is a no-fuss editor. So it must have something to do with the fact that I associate personal writing, which no one but me can judge, with paper and pen, while I associate professional writing, which many highly influential people have judged over the years, with computers and typing. The content is irrelevant; the medium is what alters my productivity. For all I know, I could have started my first-grade diary in Word and never gotten past Page One; similarly, I could have started writing my thesis in a spiral notebook and finished within a week.

This revelation has motivated me to try using good old pen and paper whenever I get into a staring contest with my computer monitor at work. It has also illustrated the importance personal writing once had on my personal well-being, and has offered a completely free and relatively easy stress-relieving method I’ve dismissed for years. I know I always say I want to write more, but this time I really mean write–not type.

Winter blues

…sure beats the winter greys!

lakeunion

No one REALLY enjoys constant rain, so it’s easy to believe Seasonal Affective Disorder is something we’ve all invented in our minds. But when the sun comes out in February, like it has today, I feel a huge sense of possibility and empowerment. I start getting excited about all the projects I started enthusiastically last summer but have since let fall by the wayside. If this great weather sticks around or at least shows itself a little more often, I have a feeling I’ll finally plant those indoor herb jars, seek out a collapsible, Farmer’s Market-friendly basket for my bike, and pay more visits to local parks with good walking trails.