Sometimes you have to go to England before you feel ok with your Popple backpack

When I was little, I was a scaredy cat.

I was seriously afraid of everything. I’d crush my mother’s hand, holding onto it for dear life, when walking through a crowd. Once, when a group of college students complimented my Popple backpack (that thing was awesome, by the way), I got so jittery from all the attention, I immediately swapped it out for a dull, run-of-the-mill blue backpack that would warrant no feedback from strangers. And then there was the time in first grade, I was the teacher’s helper for a week, but I was unprepared for the weighty responsibilities of the task – like running errands for my teacher and INTERACTING WITH STRANGERS; I was told to deliver a note upstairs to the third grade teacher, and I was so terrified I nearly threw up.

At some point, I realized I preferred not to be a shrinking violet. I decided it was important to do things outside the comfort zone I’d created for myself. You know, actually take a risk once in a while. Thank goodness. Or, I might have missed the chance to travel to England for four weeks for the trip of a lifetime.

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Five years ago this week, I traveled to England with four strangers for a month-long stay. It was one of the most daunting – and ultimately one of the most rewarding – things I’ve ever done.

I went through a rigorous multi-interview process with one of South Carolina’s two over-arching regional Rotary groups. Dozens upon dozens apply for a chance to be a part of these annual Group Study Exchange trips. I was elated when I discovered I was one of four young adults chosen from South Carolina to accompany a Rotarian team leader on this trip meant for cultural and vocational immersion.

And in the middle of September of 2008, unsure of what life held in store for me – but deciding the then-unknown reward just might be worth the risk – I flew across the Atlantic and landed in London.

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The great thing about GSE is that you stay in host families’ homes and you’re in towns you probably wouldn’t have visited otherwise. Peterborough, Leicester, Market Deeping, Northampton, Sleaford. Stamford. These were names with no meaning attached to them before. Before walking their narrow – and sometimes cobblestone – streets. Before staying in the homes of some of their hardest-working, friendliest denizens. Before eating at the local pubs (and devouring many a delicious plate of fish and chips). Before vocational visits that opened my eyes to the possibility of being able to have a career anywhere. Anywhere.

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I experienced so much during those four weeks. I gave talks to Rotary clubs almost every other day. I felt no fear in striking up a conversation at a dinner filled with unfamiliar faces. I made lifelong friends out of people who shared their homes with me for only two days. I delivered a speech to a thousand people I didn’t know. I learned I was capable of stretching myself beyond the limits I’d previously set for myself. I learned I shouldn’t set limits.

Most importantly, I learned that no one is a stranger.

I only wish I still had my Popple backpack.

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Green and yellow are the colors of fall.

Autumn’s in the air. It’s not here yet. But I tell you, it’s in the air.

I love summer, and I cherish every moment of its sun- and warmth-filled goodness. My heart, though. My heart belongs to autumn. To evenings crisp as apples. To leaves that paint an ombre canvas. To hot chocolate and spiced cider.

The days of summer are numbered, and I can’t help but feel the excitement I feel this time every year — when the sky starts taking on a distantly-familiar deep charcoal hue in the mornings. And that same hue reappears earlier in the evening, heralding night more quickly than those long-stretched summer nights that yawn and reach forward seemingly forever.

And, of course, there’s football. Oh, that sweet American pastime that’s more patriotic than apple pie.

Friends came to visit last week, and, because it’s almost autumn, and because we love football and because we love the Packers, we embraced the coming season with open arms and beers in hand. It was only a preseason game. A game that doesn’t matter in the scheme of things. But spending a day decked out in green and yellow — what could be better?

Here’s to changing seasons. Here’s to football and friendships. And, Go Packers.

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July 31, 2003

The details of that day are so vivid. They’re etched in my mind like deep grooves in glass.

The sun was beating down that day, sizzling hot to the touch of metal, of glass, of anything, in the way it does in South Carolina in July. I stopped for gas and filled up for the hour-long drive ahead. The stretch of I-20 between Florence and Columbia is straight, flat, boring. I broke my rule of never buying overpriced convenience store junk and grabbed a sickeningly sweet drink in one of those large glass bottles.

On the road, sun glinting off the windshield and heat waves dancing on the pavement, I slid Bon Jovi’s “Slippery When Wet” into the CD player. That CD player: man, that thing was the best ever. I was thankful to be driving the ’89 Camry my family had decided to give me after my granny passed away. Of course, it came equipped with just a radio and a cassette player. That summer I’d saved up for a Sony car unit and had some friends install it. I couldn’t get over how great it was, how ridiculously great it was, to be able to listen to my Dave Matthews Band and Aerosmith CDs whenever I wanted while drinking up the freedom of being in the first car that was truly mine.

I was wearing my brand new outfit, the one I’d just bought a few days earlier at American Eagle – distressed kkakis and a red short-sleeved henley-style shirt.  I’d bought it with the money I earned waiting tables that summer. I thought I looked so cool, so perfectly American Eagle, all laid-back casual and yet so put together.

In my red shirt, with my sunglasses on, I turned up Bon Jovi and sang at the top of my lungs…

About 20 minutes into the drive, I switched lanes from the right to the left in an attempt to pass a big rig. Suddenly, I felt too close to the truck, like I was being sucked into its airstream. I veered away and realized I’d turned the wheel too sharply. I veered again, this time toward the truck. I corrected and overcorrected a few times before opting for the tree-filled median over the menacing truck to my right.

The last thing I remember was driving into the median, the thick stand of trees before me, and knowing it was too late. There was nothing I could do. I was going to crash.

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I have no recollection of striking the deep ditch that ran alongside the interstate and my car doing cartwheels.

I have no recollection of hitting the two trees that bore the marks of my car for months afterward.

I have no recollection of dangling upside down, blood dripping from my face.

I have no recollection of the fire that started to burn in the engine.

I have no recollection of my car being flipped over, made rightside up.

I have no recollection of my seat belt being sliced, and being pulled through the broken shards of glass lining the driver’s side window.

I came to, flat on my back, grass and dirt beneath me. Several people hovered above me, people I didn’t know. A strange lady gave me her little girl’s pillow to comfort me and whispered sweetly to me.

I was confused. Why was I on the ground? Why did my body ache? I couldn’t make sense of where I was or what was happening.

Then I was being lifted onto a stretcher and loaded into an ambulance. My head felt so fuzzy, so thick. In the ambulance, they asked me my name, how old I was. I managed to tell them. But I kept forgetting things. I asked them what happened, and they told me. A few minutes later I asked again. And again.

I was kept overnight at the hospital. Doctors examined me and performed a myriad of scans. I didn’t break a single bone. My body, my limbs, my brain were fine.

I’m not quite sure how or why I not only lived but made it out of that mangle of metal with mere scratches. But I look back now, 10 years later, and I’m so unbelievably grateful.

I was 20 years old that summer. I can’t believe I almost died that summer.

On a sunny, beautiful day singing Livin’ on a Prayer.

I just made you say underwear

I probably didn’t. I probably haven’t made you say anything.

That’s actually a lyric, from the song “Pinch Me” by the Barenaked Ladies.

The band who was catapulted to ubiquitous radio airplay and stardom in the late ’90s by the song “One Week” provided the soundtrack to a Fourth of July night at BMO Harris Pavilion at Summerfest. They joked about the irony of a Canadian band being a part of Milwaukee’s Independence Day festivities, but somehow it seemed like just the right band at just the right time.

From the bleachers, flanked by Lake Michigan on the left, I was treated to a show from a band I’ve been a fan of for about 15 years. It was one of those moments that reminds me why being a music fan is truly the best kind of fan to be. I’ve always argued that little compares to the energy and the reward of a live show. When that live show is more than a decade in the making – and the band delivers more than expected – the reward is truly sweet.

BNL opened with a couple of new tunes, which initially felt like a bit of a letdown. I would’ve loved for them to launch right into “Brian Wilson” or “If I Had $1,000,000.” My disappointment, however, was short-lived. I enjoyed the new stuff and then was all the more excited when they launched into “Pinch Me.” Over the course of the night, they sang the aforementioned hits, along with “Be My Yoko Ono” and the Big Bang Theory Theme song.

Though “One Week” is nowhere near their best tune, it was quite fun to hear live. With its rapid-fire lyrics about pop culture, it’s so delightfully annoying, overplayed and kind of wonderful. Singer Ed Robertson impressively delivers the wonderfully weird, rhyming lyrics, spewing them like buckshot.

The band is known for being quirky and a bit off-kilter. Which might be part of the reason I’ve loved them so much over the years. Their stage show was in keeping with that beloved oddball-ness. Robertson did a fantastic freestyle rap about Summerfest, and there was quite a bit of banter among band mates between songs. And then there were the good-hearted jokes about Rush. “This is the first time we’ve ever played a show with absolutely zero Rush fans,” Robertson joked with the crowd, alluding to the night’s main-stage headliners Rush, performing just next door at Marcus Amphitheater. The band played a few bars of Rush’s “Tom Sawyer” at one point and even said they attended the warming-up of the other band before going onstage themselves.

Aside from the joy of hearing songs I’ve loved for years and their comedic repartee in between, I really enjoyed when the band did a few of their new tunes, huddled at the front of the stage, showing their prowess on the upright bass, the banjo and even bongo drums.

At the end of the show, after people had already started filing out, the band did a hilariously-awesome medley of pop songs that included Rihanna, Taylor Swift, and yes, Macklemore. It was worth sticking around for. For the encore, Robertson switched places with the band’s drummer Tyler Stewart, who performed their humorous ode to adult beverages, the diddy “Alcohol.”

Thanks, Ladies, for a superb Canadian-infused, music-filled Fourth. You rocked it.

We’re one Chicago hotdog and a t-shirt away from a giant cliché

I’m just gonna come out and say it.

I know some view it as heresy, but one of the best parts about living in Milwaukee is, well, Chicago. No offense, Milwaukee, you’re pretty awesome in your own right, but you’re no Windy City.

Since moving here a little more than two years ago, we’ve made a habit out of going to Chicago as frequently as possible. The great thing about Chicago is that every time we go, it’s a different experience. Each and every visit is filled with new and amazing memories, treasures we take home and tuck away as we look forward to the next spin on the Chicago merry go ’round.

Our most recent trip enabled me to spend time with a cousin who was in town from Tennessee. And it allowed us to check a long-standing item off our life to-do list: to see a Cubs game at Wrigley. So, we drove down to Illinois and hopped on what’s become the oh-so-familiar red line of the L.

Stepping off the train into Wrigleyville about an hour prior to game time is like entering the best party you ever went to in college and finding out they were just waiting for you to arrive. I loved the energy rising off the pavement and bouncing off the walls. In an effort to be a part of this great, beautiful madness, I snagged a Cubs shirt from a vendor across the street from the field, and the husband snagged a beer from Goose Island Brewery – a longtime favorite of his. We met up with my cousin and her friends, and we made our way to our seats inside that uniquely green Wrigley Field.

Wrigley is everything they say it is -you know, that ubiquitous yet unknown “they.” But really, truly it is. Dotting the green seats were fans in blue to the left and the right, in front and behind. Those fans, those loyal-beyond-the-point-of-comprehension fans. And when the synthesized sounds of the organ began pumping through the speakers, I’m pretty sure I swooned. My husband, with his Chicago dog in hand, and I with my Cubs shirt hastily thrown on in the bathroom of a bar after purchasing it mere minutes before – we felt a part of this city and this fandom and of Wrigleyville and of history.

 

 

And then we went downtown. And we saw buildings aglow for that other sports team. The city that loves its Cubs so much also has room in its sports-loving hearts to love its hockey team too.

 

Photo Credit for all the pics in this post: The husband.

Chicago’s a beautiful place to celebrate a birthday

Hello, 30.

It seems like just yesterday that slap bracelets and Teddy Ruxpin and my favorite fictitious rock star Jem were the things about which I cared the most. Was that really the 80s and early 90s?

Then there was flannel and grunge and American Eagle ripped jeans. And the 90s felt as safe and comfy as one of those flannel shirts or pairs of well-worn jeans. We were all so unscathed.

I went to high school before Macbooks and iPods and iPhones – when AOL was cool, and we’d stay up late instant messaging each other from our sparkly new screen names. One by one, we started getting our first cell phones. Back then, they were a handy tool that made us feel safe. We still talked to one another – really talked to one another; we still lived for the moments we were face to face. Our lives weren’t consumed by technology.

I graduated from high school in 2001, the first class of the new millennium (despite those graduates from 2000 trying to steal our thunder.) And while I was in college, that September, everything changed. Our world was rocked. As we walked around campus in a daze, we all grow up so quickly.

I love that I knew a world before that terrible September. When people trusted one another just a little bit more. I love that I knew a world where making plans was essential, because we didn’t have cell phones glued to our bodies. I love that I knew a world with Teddy Ruxpin and slap bracelets.

I’m so thankful for this crazy life. Even the parts that aren’t so shiny. These have been an incredible 30 years.