The Time I Took Part in a Birthday Conference (Yes, Conference)

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Any press is good press, they say - whoever they are - and my friend Emily whole-heartedly embraced that bit of wisdom in the lead-up to her 30th Birthday Conference, which took place earlier this month. You read this right: birthday conference.

Emily is a lady who knows what she loves, & among the many things she loves is conferences. Nametags, schedules-at-a-glance, learning sessions guided by PowerPoint: They all make her swoony. So as her big 3-0 approached, Emily wondered: Shouldn't birthday parties be a celebration of the people for whom they, um, celebrate? Thus, the idea was born for Emily's 30th Birthday Conference. She got some press for it, including a great NPR interview, a neutralish HuffPo piece, & a scathing bit of commentary from Fishbowl DC. But yes, all press is good press, & in the end, Emily's conference had 100 attendees (plus 11 children, referred to as "tiny humans," who were welcome to attend with their parents & guardians).

I was thrilled & honored to be asked to be presenter at the conference, speaking on social media alongside radical doula & feminist extraordinaire Miriam Zoila Perez. We were up against some stiff scheduling competition, including a massage how-to & a social justice session from Jews United for Justice with the quirky title "No Boogers in my Burgers."  Nervous Nellie I so often am, I feared no one would attend our little social media session - but we filled the room almost to the gills! Our PowerPoint centered around Emily's own social media presence, dissecting her personal brand as a means of individual marketing. You can find the whole presentation here, if you so desire, though it will not quite convey how fun it was in person.

What else happened that day? To name a few:
  • A session comparing the birthday girl's two favorite cities, DC & Austin, which involved free tiny bottles of Tito's Vodka to sway attendees into voting Austin
  • Lunch catered by DC Empandas, a food truck that distributed three tasty pockets of dough & fillings to all conference attendees
  • A mini Minnesota State Fair session run by two bonafide Minnesotans, complete with authentic Sweet Martha's cookies, accompanying glasses of milk, & a very loud round of group karaoke
  • Free (!!!) headshot sessions with DC area photog Pam Rutter, who took the lovely photo of yours truly that you now see at the top of this blog
  • Swag bags filled to the brim with sponsored goodies, including caramels, cookies, stickers, & more, all presented in a customized #EPGis30 tote
  • Customized nametags that read, "Ask me about ___," filled in accordingly for each attendee to serve as conversation starters. (Mine said, "Ask me about sandwiches!" though I can really only answer questions about hot sandwiches, as cold sandwiches are explicitly not my jam.)
  • Additional sessions on cookie decorating, inbox organization, sailing (taught by the birthday girl's father!), flower-arranging, yoga, & Cranium. The winner of the Cranium session got to name a new flavor at DC froyo fave Mr. Yogato!
  • A table staffed by a Planned Parenthood volunteer who offered free condoms, dental dams, & lubricant while educating attendees on the importance of safe sex & related advocacy work
  • A rousing group rendition of "Happy birthday" at the end of the event, plus cupcakes for all!

So yeah, that all happened. Was it wacky? Yes! In a good way? Most definitely. It may have been an unconventional way to celebrate, but Emily has never exactly been conventional. I, for one, thought it was a fabulously creative way to ring in 30 with all the people, activities, things, & brands she loves. And speaking of love, I loved being a part of it & wish Emily would turn 30 every day. Is that too much to ask?

Also, I turn 30 next August. Just sayin', Em. We've got a little more than a year to plan!

A note: All photos come from excellent event photographers (& friends of the birthday girl) Tosha Francis & Pam Rutter. Ain't no way yours truly could take such great shots!

Here, in Center Frame

Monday, May 27, 2013

It's beautiful here when the weather is right, in that sweet spot between too-cold & too-hot that never seems to last long enough - no more than a few weeks, if we're lucky. When it's like this, though, when we are lucky, Red Bank is a really wonderful place to live, & sometimes I stop & take it all in & think, "This is definitely not so bad." In fact, this is sometimes even so good.

Nathan was making dinner last night, chicken breasts stuffed with spinach & feta, & he'd just put them in the oven when I heard familiar booms outside, booms like I sometimes heard as a kid when they came from a concert venue miles away. These were the same but louder; closer, I knew. Excitedly, I ran to the living room window to try to see the source of the noise, but the recently bloomed trees now obscure our view of the Navesink River below.

"Do you want to go outside?" he asked, & I did, so we flew down three flights of stairs, our fingers barely skimming the handrails, me with my shoes only halfway-on, hurrying because we didn't want to miss what was happening outside. And when we made it outside, past the line of trees into the small clearing on the water behind our apartment complex, we saw them: fireworks! Fireworks going off somewhere else, for someone else, but perfectly visible from our own backyard.

None of our neighbors had come out to enjoy the show - their loss! - so we sat alone, knees up, on the concrete dock behind our building, a cool evening breeze blowing salty air over still, quiet waters. Together, we watched as colored lights exploded in the not-so-distant distance, showering the night sky with sparks & sound, echoing across the river. A Memorial Day treat. A gift from life, to us, with a big, sparkly bow on top, just because.

They didn't last long; fireworks never do. Ten minutes? But they lasted just long enough to remind me of all the things I love, of all the things that are good & beautiful & wonderful & right in the world & in my own life. To remind me that I am lucky & loved & in love. To remind me that the past has finally passed, & that so much lies ahead. In those 10 minutes, all the lyrics felt prophetic* & all the tears felt worth it, & I couldn't figure out exactly what felt so right. I just knew that everything did, & that I was grateful for that.

Tonight, as I sat down to write, the apartment was quiet & dark with Nathan already asleep in the next room, a train whistle blared in the (not-so-distant) distance, cutting through the silence. Just like the booms of the fireworks, the sound of that whistle brought me home again, to countless nights lying in my bed in Ohio, carving out time for myself & my dreams. Just like the booms of the fireworks, this little reminder of places past connects me to memories I didn't even know I held dear, all coming full-circle.

A gift from life, to me.

And it's in these moments that I know that this is the place for me right now, even when I think it's not, because he is the place for me, no matter where he goes. I will always, always go with him - & wherever we find ourselves, that will always be home.


Tropical Destination New Jersey?

Friday, May 24, 2013

Jersey, I love ya, but I think you may be overselling yourself by juuuust a little bit here?

This is What I Got for Waking Up in Vegas

Thursday, May 23, 2013

I first read about Bloggers in Sin City (BiSC) in 2011 on Terra's blog, in, like, a million posts, & with each sentence I read, I wanted that - all of that fun, all of those emotions, all of the inside jokes that made no sense to read about. When 2012 rolled around & Terra's recaps returned, I clicked "Mark as read" because I couldn't bear to read about another year of fun that I'd missed, all because I was A) too poor, & B) too nervous to do something crazy like spend a long weekend in Las Vegas with 70 strangers.

But then I did it. I realized registration had opened & that there weren't a ton of spots left, & I emailed Doniree in a frantic state to see how much time I had to get the money together, & I registered without even hearing back from her because I didn't want to miss out. That massive run-on sentence should give you a feel for the way my brain was working at the time. But suddenly, I was signed up for BiSC, & Simone was going to be my roommate & it was happening.

Going to BiSC was scary. Why? Well, because writing is pretty easy for me, & when I write, it's pretty easy for me to appear less horribly anxious than I am in real life. When I can pick & choose which pieces of me you see, like I do on the blog, my anxiety usually seems like a self-imposed, Lena Dunham-esque quirk & less like a debilitating, panic-inducing medical condition. It's not always the latter - in fact, sometimes it really is the former! - but when the bad parts take hold, man, it can be really bad.

When I left for Sin City on Thursday morning, though, I didn't even take my anxiety medicine because I was all dead-set on being superhuman & less scared of social settings than I usually am. Wait, what? I should've known that wasn't a thing, but I didn't want to rely on medication to keep me calm. "These are my people!" I told myself. "I'm going to be great!" But if we're being honest? I wasn't really that great. I was scared, a lot, & I just wasn't quite me throughout the trip. I was an almost-me version of me, a me whose anxiety manifested itself as a weird self-esteem issue I don't actually have, causing me to seem jittery, standoffish, & self-loathing a lot of the time.

Don't get me wrong: It was so much fun. Bloggers freaking love each other, & we have a million nice things to say to each other upon real-life meetings. I spent much of the weekend hearing how great my hair is, how porcelain my skin is, how Jennifer Lawrence-like my voice is - BiSC is good for the ego, y'all. I also:
  • Spent great quality time with my roommate, Simone, who I've wanted to meet for approximately three years (which is as long as she's been blogging), eating Canadian maple cookies & talking about life in our hotel room at the Flamingo.
  • Got an insanely good swag bag that included business cards from Moo, wine glasses from Stack Wines, food goodies from KIND Snacks, sunglasses from Firmoo, & other great things from other great companies.
  • Flashed my badge & jumped the line at the swanky PURE Nightclub for a rooftop party where all 68 of us were dressed in white - & because it's Vegas, someone told me on the way there, "Have fun at your wedding, ma'am!" 
  • Ate at In 'N' Out, wore a wig to brunch, & feasted on a plateful of nachos at Margaritavilla like total tourists
  • Even felt comfortable day-drinking in a bathing suit in public!
Still, I spent my time thinking I wasn't doing it right. I didn't bond with as many as attendees as I would've liked to; I appear in approximately three BiSC photos & took none of my own. I could feel myself being shy & strange while the bubblier, outgoing parts of me struggled to reach the surface. I worried: "What if they don't like me? They won't want to read my blog anymore! Wait, what if I don't like them? Then I won't want to read their blogs anymore! What if I'm ruining the Internet for myself?" I got stuck in an bubble of anxiety that kept me from... well, from myself. And from all these wonderful people.

On the last day of the event,  event organizer extraordinaire Nicole stood in front of the group at brunch & talked about All The Feelings, which is a BiSC theme - everyone has a lot of feelings, & everyone tells you about them. She was followed by Doni, then Jamie, then a couple dozen other folks, both BiSC veterans & newbies, who told the whole group, through laughter & tears, what a difference this event has made in their lives. And I sat there on the fringe, silently nursing a wicked hangover, I felt myself going through an extreme series of emotions. I spent 90% of the speeches thinking, "Crap. I don't have any of These Feelings. I knew I did it wrong!" & doing some serious moping. As the last few people got up to talk, though, the moping was slowly overtaken by something more along the lines of, "Are you kidding me? I have These Feelings Plus."

It was then that I started to realize just how much BiSC taught me about myself, when I wasn't looking & didn't even realize it. Above all else, being there  it taught me that I'm really tired of being so scared all the time, & I never want to feel so anxious meeting such amazing people ever again. It taught me that I don't want to miss out on the good things because I'm too afraid that they'll become bad things. Meeting 67 people who have really incredibly nice things to tell me about myself taught me that maybe I am too hard on myself. And BiSC reminded me that life is good, & I'm living it, & I'd better just start living it instead of being so afraid of it all the time. 

I came home & told Nathan I want to find a therapist. I haven't started looking yet, but I will - I promise. And next time I get paid, I'm signing up for a life coaching session with Ashley of Your Super Awesome Life, even though I confess that my initial reaction is "OMG LIFE COACH HA YEAH RIGHT, ME?" I also made a list of things that make me happy, things I want to do, long-term things & short-term things & dream-big things. I'm just... trying harder. Doing better. Living life. I owe it to myself to be as happy as possible, & I can't be happy if I'm too busy being panicky.

I'm so, so grateful that meeting people from the Internet isn't considered murdery anymore. Thanks, BiSC. I owe you one.

Photos from, in order, Karlyn, Doniree, Minus5 Ice Bar, Caryn, Caryn, &... Caryn again.

My Big Facebook Mistake

Monday, May 20, 2013

I really love social media. Right? Obviously. No one's surprised to hear that the girl who joined Twitter way before anyone understood why Twitter was fun (Twitter hipster?), who turned her social media hobby into a full-time social media position, has an affinity for, uh, social media. In fact, a coworker recently said to me, "I just realized i have no idea what you do with yourself when you aren't working," & my answer was pretty much, "When I'm not doing social media, I do social media."

It seems that every blogger on the planet has written about taking a break from Facebook, & I've always read their posts, rolled my eyes, & clicked that X in the right-hand corner. I've never felt stressed by the online space (or so I thought), & I had no interest in ratcheting down my own use.

And then... that day came.

A few months ago, I started feeling burnt out on the Internet. For the last year, being active on social media has been my full-time job - & suddenly, I started to feel way overexposed. Look at all the shiny Internet things! They take up so much time & energy & effort! Also within the last year, my anxiety has level has ramped up close to its summer 2010 status, which is to say that I'm perpetually on edge & tense at nearly all times. When I was able to take a step back & try to figure out why the anxiousness returned, I had to be honest with myself: The Internet was overwhelming me.

I'm careful about my online presence, somewhat cultivated. I'm honest & raw, but I don't share everything - & I truly try not to overshare anything. But everything is just so public: Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, the blog, you name it. And with my anxiety worsening, I suddenly felt like the whole world was watching, like I'd let too many people get too close - & I decided I wanted to whittle down the audience.

On a whim, I deleted hundreds of people from my list of Facebook friends, trying to create a smaller space. I deleted almost everyone I work with. I deleted anyone I wouldn't feel comfortable wishing a happy birthday. I deleted almost everyone whose socio-political views make me angry. I deleted all the blogger friends I've never met in person. I deleted people I haven't spoken to since college, people I never really knew, friends or friends, my mother's friends... anyone who wasn't family, a close "real-life" friend, or absolutely fascinating. But you know what? I had so many "friends" on my Facebook list that I couldn't even get through them all without getting exhausted, so I began to just weed them out as I saw them, indiscriminately.

And then Elissa died. Elissa died, & I saw how her Facebook page blew up with love, with people who wanted to create a community around the sense of loss that her death left for us, whether we knew one another or not. At her funeral, her mom asked some of our friends to continue posting happy memories to her Facebook page so that the family could enjoy those stories & conversations.

Suddenly, I felt like I'd made the wrong decision. Why did I feel the need to delete so many people? Is not being super-close reason enough to remove someone from my life entirely? Facebook provides us the opportunity to connect with people we wouldn't otherwise be able to connect with - & so long as we're connecting with people we like being connected to, what's the harm? Does someone need to be my real-life best friend in order to make it onto my list of Facebook friends? Isn't there room in my life for other people, too? So long as I'm paying special attention - & outside-of-Facebook attention - to the people who have a real impact on my life, is it necessarily a bad thing to be connected to a number of people who only exist within my life in the online sphere?

The questions go on & on, & the answers aren't necessarily black & white. In fact, I'm sure many people have different answers to those questions than I do, & that's why disconnecting makes sense for them. For me, though, the answer has become clearer: I like connecting with people, & I like connecting with people through Facebook. If my anxiety is creeping up, it's on me to sort it out - but limiting my social circles, even my online ones, is not an answer to that problem.

This is all to say that I made a mistake, & I can't really undo it without looking like a moron. Luckily, some folks have already re-friended me, no questions asked, & I'm pretending like it never happened (unless they're reading this blog post, in which case... thanks, guys!). As for everyone else? Well, either they'll return or they won't - but if you're one of them, & you'd like to reconnect... forgive me? Pretty please? You know where to find me.

Jersey Strong, But Really (Alternate Title: I Cried the Whole Time I Was Writing This Post)

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

[Warning: This post contains lots of photos. Also, lots of emotions.]

Prince Harry made headlines today when he visited Seaside Heights, N.J., the town where Jersey Shore was filmed & which Hurricane Sandy essentially laid bare. Have you seen post-storm photos of a roller coaster sitting in the ocean? That's Seaside Heights, & that roller coaster was torn down today. It used to be on the shore, of course, not in the water, & it was a main attraction at the Casino Pier boardwalk, one of two competing amusement park piers that were a summer destination spot for families & guidos alike.

Let's talk about the Jersey Shore for a minute, shall we? I'll get to Seaside Heights shortly, but let's start with nearby Asbury Park, home of American legend & all-around badass Bruce Springsteen. I'd been to AP only once before - last October, just before the storm hit - but a few weeks ago, Nathan & I found ourselves in town on a Sunday, grabbing coffee at America's Cup & brunch at Toast.  Though downtown Asbury Park appears unscathed (at least by now), I was shocked by the remaining damage we witnessed along the boardwalk just a few blocks away. Signs say the Jersey Shore is open for business, but, well, it sure doesn't feel like it:

The AP boardwalk is mostly in tact at this point (it reopened in March), but there are still telltale signs of damage:

The beautiful old Convention Hall at the end of the boardwalk is open to the public, but only sort of. Many of the doors are still boarded, & not much is going on inside - just a store or two open for business.

The abandoned old casino at the other end of the boardwalk, creepy even before the storm hit, has been even more gutted than it already was, & it remains closed for the forseeable future.

Along the boardwalk, a few places are back in biz, but the majority of stores & kiosks are still unopened, visibly damaged, boarded up - with no indication as to their return.

Because I thought the remaining damage in Asbury Park was devastating, Nathan wanted to take me through Seaside Heights, which is only a few miles away from our home. I'd never been - either before the storm or after - & he wanted to show me some of the real devastation there that is, essentially, in our own backyard.

I cried more than once that day, as we drove through a beach town that was clearly once a bustling summer hotspot but is now, in the bluntest of terms, absolutely trashed. At the boardwalk, called Funtown Pier, you could almost envision the way this place used to be, just a few short months before - bright & colorful, loud & crowded, home to so many people's best summer memories. In one night, though, Hurricane Sandy wiped it away.

When we arrived on that windy April day, the boardwalk itself was open but many of the stores & restaurants along it were still severely damaged, not yet ready to re-open for the upcoming summer season - if at all. There were sandbars in places where no sand should be, a remaining telltale sign that something wicked had this way come. We bought penny candy from a taffy shop, one of the only stores open that day, doing some small part to support the once-vibrant Casino Pier as it tries to rebuild itself, this place, these people.

The beach that runs parallel to the boardwalk - & the amusement park that used to stand there - was closed, decimated, blocked off with fences & police tape & signs warning lookyloos away from it.

What we saw beyond the fencing was horrifying, stomach-turning; at one point, I thought I was going to throw up, & instead I just started crying these hot, silent tears that I couldn't stop. Even now, having seen much of it myself, I can't look at pictures of the Funtown Pier taken by professional photographers in the immediate aftermath of the storm without that vomity feeling turning my stomach again. It wasn't just sad - it was scary, too, in that eerie sort of way that the ocean sometimes is, when you remember that it's not just beautiful. It's also powerful, & we are, quite simply, not.

Only four of Funtown Pier's 40 amusement park rides made it through the storm, & more than 50 feet of pier fell away when waves began to batter the coast. What's left of the beach was scattered with the carcasses of once-welcoming rides, now knocked over & covered in sand, rusted & mangled & dirty.

A year ago, this was a place tourists & locals alike flocked to for a fun day at the shore; I never saw that side of Funtown Pier, but I could almost imagine it before me, kids licking ice cream cones & begging their dads to win them cheap stuffed animals at dart-&-balloon games on the boardwalk, their biggest concerns sunburns & splinters & long lines.

What hit me hardest at Funtown Pier was the sight of a beautiful old Ferris wheel sitting solidly in the ocean, attached to almost nothing on land. Though it was still standing, its position - again, solidly in the ocean when the pier below it crashed into the sea - rendered it wholly unsalvageable. Nathan & I visited on a Sunday; just a few days later, the iconic Ferris wheel was demolished

When we left Funtown Pier, we drove through the town of Seaside Heights, down the road that runs parallel to the beach, where many people people live(d) & rent(ed) modest summer homes. The beach access roads were all closed down, orange barrels advising explorers to turn the other way or risk police questioning. Down some of the streets were Dumpsters, cranes, construction vehicles, people out working - & down other streets, there was almost nothing at all, because there's simply so little hope of rebuilding. We saw houses & apartment complexes that burned to the ground when they caught fire after the storm, homes that looked as though they'd been hit halfway through with a wrecking ball, homes you could see straight into & outr the other side of, homes in piles of rubble with caved-in roofs lying atop them, homes with boarded-up windows & phrases like "We'll be back" spray-painted upon the siding. Big homes, little homes, homes with Halloween decorations still hanging in the windows. Homes where maybe no one will ever live again.

It took me almost a month to write this post, in part because I'm bad with time management, & in part because I was so emotionally impacted by what I saw in Asbury Park & Seaside Heights that I just didn't know what to say. I've lived here for nearly a year now (!), & for months, I've carried on with my life just miles away from absolute devastation. I never visited it, never volunteered to help rebuild after it, hardly even thought of it beyond seeing it on TV. My heart broke for the people affected by it, but I didn't fully comprehend that these people are my neighbors now.

The other day I was in the locker room at my gym, changing out of my sweaty gear, & I overheard a conversation between two women. One was saying that it turned out to be a blessing in disguise that she couldn't have children because she can't imagine experiencing homelessness with kids in tow. Homelessness. As I eavesdropped further, I realized that she had been displaced from her home in the storm - & that "displaced" is not even the right word because her home is gone now, & she's living on friends' couches while she tries to figure out what to do next. The Jersey Shore is full literally thousands of people like this woman, living in my town & in my gym & sitting next to me in Starbucks, & I didn't even get it, you know? I just had no idea, not really.

And what am I doing about it? The answer is still nothing. I just don't know. I still don't know, & I don't feel good about that. But I know that's it's horrible & painful & unbelievable & that, if nothing else, visiting the shore last month solidified one thing for me: For so many people, Hurricane Sandy was not just a scary thunderstorm that tossed a few docks into the backyard, like it was for Nathan & me. This shit is real, & it's still really bad, &... & we're connected to it, whether we want to be or not. We live in New Jersey now. We are part of New Jersey now. We were here for this, & we're still here for this, & that matters to me much, much more than I thought it did.

Three Ways New Jersey Handicaps its Drivers

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Let me preface this post by saying that I don't hate New Jersey anymore. I don't. OK? So don't give me crap about giving New Jersey crap. It's kinda nice here, actually, & I don't hate it, but I do think there are a few key ways that the state of New Jersey is totally shafting its lifelong residents when it comes to preparing them to drive in states that are not New Jersey. Observe:

  1. Yellow lights last forever. When Nathan first mentioned this to me, I thought he was mental. No way do the yellow lights here last noticeably longer than they do anywhere else! Right? Wrong. The more I drove in New Jersey, the clearer it became that something is up with this yellow situation. You could be two blocks away when a light turns yellow & still make it through before it changes to red.

    I read a lengthy, detailed story about yellow & red lights in New Jersey townships, but I don't have a great grasp of traffic-related technical jargon, so I'm still sort of lost. All I know is that when I'm in any other state, I now find myself slamming on the brakes to stop before red hits, forgetting that I've become accustomed to freakingly long yellows.
  1. Turning left is unheard of. I've already explained to you the concept & functionality of jughandles, & I shared with you just how weird I think they are. As time goes on - & as I become more familiar with my surroundings - I admit that I've begun to see the value in jughandles, even if I still find them wholly unnecessary. But let's be clear: I still know how to turn left on green. I may not have the legal opportunity to do it in New Jersey, but I'm familiar with the idea, & I won't hesitate to implement it in states that will allow me to (slash require me to, because how else would you get places if you couldn't turn left & didn't have jughandles?!)

    I have a friend, though, who's Jersey born & raised, & I recently learned that after Hurricane Sandy, when all the traffic lights were out, she panicked when she reached an intersection where she had to turn left - even though so one was coming at her from the other direction. She just, like, couldn't do it. Not turning left is so ingrained in Jersey residents' driving habits that trying to turn left is, it seems, foreign to & difficult for them. That's some Zoolander shit right there.
  1. The thing with not pumping your own gas. It's illegal to pump your own gas in New Jersey, which is absurd & can cause confusion. Sometimes it's great, like when it's very hot or very cold outside, & you don't have to get out of your climate-controlled vehicle to refuel. Sometimes it's awful, like when there are seven open pumps & one attendant on duty & three people in line before you. You could gas & go on your own, if you were allowed (& knew how...), but instead, you have to wait in line like a helpless, obedient child until the attendant gets to you. So much time is wasted at highway rest stops this way. And also, back to my original point, a great many native New Jerseyans do not know how to pump their own gas - & are are possibly proud of it?
Also, as a related side note, I learned just yesterday that in the Garden State, it's illegal to talk on your phone while you drive. Quite illegal, in fact, as can attest a fried of mine who received a $100 ticket for committing this offense, which he, too, did not realize was a criminal one. The more you know.
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