Lighting a World Away

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The Korean BBQ sandwich piled high with slaw and crispy French onions weighs heavily on my plate. I think about my 7thgrade science class when I first learned about forces. My plate seems to be pressing down heavily on the table. Ergo, the table is exerting tireless upward force to support my BBQ burden. I greedily dig in.

I’m eating lunch on the second floor of Teaism in DuPont Circle. I come here on occasion when I miss Krakow. Something about the creaky oak steps leading to the stuffy second floor reminds me of the hideaway room past the service corridor at Nowa Prowincja on ul. Bracka. My go-to order there was the ribbon-thick hot chocolate and szarlotka cake with crème anglaise. My go-to at Teaism is Korean BBQ.

Though the food is a world apart, the lighting is the same. Diffuse rays filter through old glass-paned windows and bathe the tables in a warm, yellow glow. The steam from patrons’ hot drinks curls and spirals like candle smoke. And if you leave your napkin in the sunny spotlight on your placemat, you feel the warmth when you wipe your greasy fingers (a creature comfort which shouldn’t go unnoticed when you’ve come in from the chilly outdoors).

At Teaism, and in the hours after my lunch break, I daydream of Poland. I remember the bureaucracy needed for everyday tasks, like laundry and accessing the internet. I couldn’t stand the air pollution from coal which blanketed the valley for months at a time and launched me into weeks-long coughing fits. And I think of my apartment, the ex-Nazi Hitler Youth dorm that hadn’t seen new bed sheets since WWII.

But I mostly recall other vignettes. The families gathered for outdoor Chopin concerts each Sunday at noon in the royal gardens of Łazienki. The pink neon gorące pączki sign on ul. Szewska. My 10pm nightly strolls around the Planty listening to Mrozu and Kaen. The plush red velvet seats in Kino Pod Baranami, where you could catch the latest moody Polish film from Jan Jakub Kolski. The trumpeter proudly strutting to his late-night shift atop St. Mary’s. My senses have never been better attuned to the sights and sounds around me as they were in Poland.

Who would’ve guessed that Korean BBQ could bring it all back?

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Home

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The rolling hills move from right to left in my window. I’d planned to make notable progress in my latest summer read on this trip. But hours had sidled by and Pillars of the Earth remained neatly packed in the bag at my feet. I was in a trance.

This was my first time home in half a year. My first time home in a new quarter-century. I was thrilled to be back and couldn’t wait for the sight of my parents lingering in the same steel chrome Greyhound bus station in Binghamton as they had many times in the past. Soon, Dad would bring my bags to the car and Mom would gauge how much food I’d be able to eat within the next few hours. But for now, I would continue to gaze out the window and re-familiarize with the shape and sequence of green hills.

It still escapes me how time bends in discreet ways at home. Mornings on the back porch  in careful observation of my coffee’s steam swirling and dancing seem longer than usual. Marathon afternoons at the piano with messy sheet music mountains and muscle memory are void of time. I don’t notice until hours later that my body is exhausted from immaculate posture. That’s generally when lethargic evenings of popcorn and root beer floats on the couch come into play. These days both fill and drain me of energy.

The best part of home is Mom and Dad. Early morning walks, quilt lessons, day trips, afternoon teas, homemade dinners, swim sessions, pickle-ball on the tennis courts, ice cream outings, and country drives. I still expect Mom to wake me up after a night of peaceful sleep. I have fewer nightmares at home.

Home is teeming with nostalgic memories and smells. I visit St. Francis and our beloved pets no longer with us in the backyard. I meet a high school friend for our annual breakfast at Garf’s, the local deli. The lavender and shea soap in our upstairs shower smells the same as it did six months ago. I sit on the outside steps late at night and wave when the International Space Station passes overhead.

The worst part of home is leaving.

Pesky Plastics

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One of my ongoing goals for 2018 has been to live a more sustainable and plastic-free lifestyle. It’s something that I’ve mostly neglected until now because it’s so much easier and cheaper to carry on with status quo routines. But this week hit me like a sledgehammer. Between the June plastics issue of NGM (pick it up at your local library or visit yours truly for a copy!), the BBC video of the pilot whale carrying her calf’s plastic-laden corpse, and the video of a sea turtle getting a straw removed from its nose, I knew embarking on my goal was long overdue.

That being said, the whole thing seems…so daunting. I started reading zero waste blogs this week and became convinced that I was caught in a lose-lose scenario. I could go crazy eliminating plastics from my life to the point where I spend roughly 90% of my day trying to be self-sufficient. Or I could ignore the problem and continue to live an ignorantly comfortable existence of utmost convenience while the Great Pacific Garbage Patch grows larger. And then if I’m anywhere in between those two extremes, I’m a hypocrite.

But I also believe that being a hypocrite shouldn’t keep me from trying to improve my habits. Think about it this way. If I’m walking down a beach and notice a plastic water bottle washed ashore, that’s noticeable trash that could have come from me at some point in my life. I could choose to be all righteous and lecture other people on the beach who are drinking out of plastic water bottles, or I could accept that the bottle might’ve been mine at some point. It won’t stop me from bringing my reusable water bottle on future outings, but I’m not going to grandstand and pretend that I’m not partly to blame for the litter.

So my transition to an eco-friendlier lifestyle will be far less perfect than those 90%ers, but I’m committed to doing something. The more I see it, I’m approaching my sustainable goal the same way I’m approaching the 2018 Pop Sugar Reading Challenge. Is there any way I’m going to accomplish all 50 categories by the end of the year? Unless Apollo strikes me with a stroke of speed-reading genius, absolutely not. I’m already way behind watching my superhero mom lap me week after week. But that doesn’t mean I’m not going to read every day and get through as many categories as possible.

Speaking of the Reading Challenge, I better go finish my chapter of The Pillars of the Earth because I’m perpetually behind schedule. I’ll keep you updated on the sustainability front and leave you with a photo of my attempt at grocery shopping with minimal plastic this week:

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Not bad for a newb.

A Day at National Geographic Learning

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I never anticipated a career in publishing. I was all set to focus my job hunt on the Hawaiian Islands when a posting for National Geographic Learning popped up on LinkedIn. The D.C.-based position required the artistry to wear 50 hats for the dauntingly complicated and lengthy publishing process and an ability to withstand copious amounts of coffee while networking. I started researching the NGL publishing sphere and was subsequently funneled into a universe I never knew existed. It was almost as if I’d stumbled upon this immensely complex puzzle that I didn’t even know how to take out of the box. It was a puzzle I intended to solve.

Six months later and I’m starting to wrap my head around what I actually do. Because each day is so different, I find it challenging to explain. Rather than regurgitate a disjointed summary, let me walk you through a day in the life…

Tuesday, April 10th, 2018

I let out a sigh while I drop my tote to the floor and sink deep into my swivel chair. I don’t know how it’s possible, but my tote is getting heavier every day. Maybe it’s the oceanography textbook I’ve started taking home at night. More likely, it’s the dense leftover pasta I packed for lunch.

8:55am. I log into WebEx. Today I’ll be training media researchers and editorial assistants from the UK, India, the UAE, and Singapore on using the National Geographic photo database. I begin my introduction and dive right in, but it’s a large and tricky audience to read. I’m receiving little feedback, so I breeze through penguin workboxes and Mars graphics, worrying that I’ve lulled the entire group to sleep.

I end the eerily quiet training and glance at my wristwatch: 9:45. Aha! I still have time to make it to National Geographic’s campus for the 10:30am matinee. I grab my MacBook and soak in the early spring sunshine as I trot over to 17th Street. Today, an aquanaut is giving a talk on ocean engineering. SO COOL. I want to be an aquanaut. Too bad I nearly failed basic calculus twice.

My colleague and I wait for the aquanaut ‘Under the Stars’ in the M Street lobby after her talk. The three of us head to City Place Café for lunch and chat about areas for potential collaboration in our book programs while we make messes of our greasy paninis (dense pasta is a no-go). Who wouldn’t want to read about what it’s like to live underwater? We also chat about eagle rays, Greenland sharks, and how French cheese becomes even smellier at 2.5 atmospheres underwater.

Before parting ways with the aquanaut, we stop for coffee at Peet’s and feel collectively guilty about forgetting our reusable coffee cups. Single-use plastics and all. We sip our coffees in shame.

My colleague and I leave campus and head back to the bigger office space in DuPont. A new intern will be arriving soon so we’re brainstorming intern tasks as we swerve past aggressive cars and even more aggressive tourists. The fresh air and caffeine take hold and I’m re-energized for a long afternoon of asset clearances, contracts, and emails.

Back at the office, I start brainstorming how we can ‘opt-in’ two photographers who contributed to the NG Magazine’s April issue on race through our preferred content licensing agreement. Our media researcher wants to use the assignment photographs in an English Language Teaching book series. Time to write.

A few minutes later and I’m distracted. There’s a cool NG video circulating about a Japanese puffer fish – I’m mesmerized for 3 minutes. I subsequently discuss having a documentary showcase with the office downstairs and plug Chasing Coral as the preferred selection. I shall plug it to you now. This is that plug.

The rest of my day is a blur. I reserve a spot at the Nat Geo Nights happy hour next Thursday to meet with one of the archaeologists who’ll be in town. I look into the contracts and clear some of the National Geographic texts and graphics that my project teams have asked about permissioning. I send the more complicated texts to the Society for additional clearance. I email and I swivel and I write post-its.

Eventually, my dense pasta calls and I must go.

47 Seconds

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Miles waits patiently for affection

Nine adults in varying shades of black, navy, gray suits queue up outside the elevator with sharp-cornered, leather briefcases. Security badges are tucked neatly into tailored suit pockets. Eight of my fellow elevator-riders sport headphones, but only five have both earbuds in to fully deafen the ambient noise of shoe shuffling. All of us have dark circles around our sleep-filled eyes.

Makeup has evaded my morning routine. I’m wearing the same black jeans and Sperrys I wore yesterday. And the day before that. How many days is one day too many? Luckily my office has ping pong, a beer keg, a pup named Miles, and an abundance of tech gurus in jeans and hoodies. Not the typical D.C. crowd. I’ve found a good tribe.

The elevator takes approximately 47 seconds, but I guess it depends on how fast you count. I tend to count faster than your average second. Today I noticed 12 mini red lights which make up the down arrow. The elevator’s ceiling desperately needs a Mr. Clean Magic Eraser. I try not to make awkward eye contact and tuck in my limbs to guard any semblance of personal space.

47 seconds later and I’m dodging people left and right to reserve my allotted tile by the 7th car’s third door. Despite my well-placed location, there will always be some mindless guy bounding down the escalator at the last second. He will undoubtedly jump in front of those of us patiently waiting for the doors to open so he can claim his precious territory in the only available seat. Every day.

Welcome to morning commute. The day will improve in 17 minutes. Take a breath and mind the gap.

Reflections on a Facebook Fast

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My new photo inspiration: work!

February 14th: Deactivate

I hover over the deactivate button as I prepare to slip silently off the grid. “But so and so will miss you! Do you want to send them a goodbye message?” Ehhh, I don’t think I’ve talked to that person in what, 9 years? Another hour passes while I download my archive. Just in case. No need to post about my absence – all the cool kids know where to find me.

February 16th: The Philosopher

If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? If I’m doing something interesting and no one is around to see it, did I really do it? Am I relevant in the 21st Century? Who am I? HAS ANYONE NOTICED MY ABSENCE??

February 18th: Phone Call to Mom

Me: Hey Ma, I am a liberated woman! Smooth sailing off the grid. Mom: Oh, it’s weird not having you on! It’s like you’re not even a person anymore. Me: This is true. You have to send me all your pictures in a text now.  ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

February 20th: Business State of Mind

Doop da doop. What to scroll through this morning? Aha! LinkedIn. Business purposes and all. The Dow Jones Industrial Average pops up. My eyes glaze over while I enter a brief scroll coma.

February 24th: Irrelevant

Ten days. An entire week and a half has passed and no one has noticed. My cyber friends are dead to me. 😑

February 26th: But wait, an inquiry into my whereabouts!

A former colleague texts me. She invites me to a party and writes that she couldn’t find me on Facebook. I start envisioning all my FB friends secretly weeping over my absence. I make grandiose plans to revive Girl Meets Buoy to give the people what they want.

March 1st: New Month, New Woman

Facebook? What’s Facebook? This is rather exciting! No one can find me! I am a woman of mystery. Time to go frolic around Trader Joe’s and marvel at my mysterious and unpredictable wild-woman ways.

March 11th: Climbing

I’m scaling a wall at Earth Treks and my hair and outfit look great. My friend takes an awesome photo of my deceptively strong-looking arm muscles and I imagine all the people who’ve ever wronged me being impressed by my (in reality spaghetti) arms. I text the photo to Mom and Dad.

March 18th: Rejuvenation

I’m sitting on a frozen beach at 6am and no one is in sight. I’m glad that no one can see what I’m seeing. I’m especially glad that no one knows where I am.

March 31st: Cherry Blossoms Exhaust Me

It’s the last day of my Facebook fast. I walk around the Tidal Basin and it’s a soul-sucking experience. A man yells at me for being in his bike’s path and I stumble graciously into the mud so he can carry on along his way. I wish I’d stood my ground. Everyone within a 2-mile radius has their massive cameras and iPhones at the ready. I make an effort to find anyone looking at the blossoms through anything besides their lenses. Meanwhile, the Tidal Basin smells like a sewer and a Canadian Goose is trying to eat a sheet of discarded plastic.

Tomorrow marks the end of my proposed 40-day fast, but I don’t know if I’m ready to go back on social media – being undiscoverable is too good to pass up for now. This isn’t to say I’ll never be back. Maybe one day! But for now, I shall revel in the muddy shadows of pink cherry blossoms.

Also, if this isn’t the most adorable butter lamb / corgi butt I’ve ever carved…Happy Easter!

Awake

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I roll over in bed, pupils dilated as they attempt to make sense of an overwhelming darkness. My arm snakes carefully past the gold wristwatch and precariously placed bedside lamp to grasp for my phone. 4:31 a.m.

This is the sixth night in a row I haven’t been able to sleep. I’ve been on a perpetual caffeine high, though I can’t remember the last time I had coffee. I slide down the ladder which takes me from my lofted nest to the firm carpet and am careful to land softly so I don’t wake my friends.

Kitchen to couch. I put together two puzzle pieces depicting a small neon barber sign in a cardboard Nashville. I turn off the lights and remove the wooden block wedged in the screen door, keeping us safe from intruders. Goosebumps appear on my arms while I lean over the railing. It must be low tide – the water has receded from the dock. I watch a silver heron hunting in the shallows. He’s illuminated by the lighthouse’s glow.

Before I can think too much, I grab the car keys and layer on every piece of clothing I’d stuffed in my backpack. It’s about 30 degrees outside and I’m not sure how long I’ll be gone. By now, I’ve memorized the route to Assateague. I make the first right on Chicken City Road. It’s about a 20-minute drive through the marshes before the vast Atlantic peeks over the dunes. I’m back.

I don’t know how long I’m walking but I begin to feel the sand between my wool socks and Sperry’s. My knuckles are white and I regret not having mittens. The sky is a deep blue and there are horseshoe crabs washed ashore. The sand is pulling me down and each step feels languid and heavy. My legs are numb and I imagine my nose and cheeks to be a brilliant shade of pink. I keep walking away from the car and quiet wide-awake thoughts with crashing waves and headphones.

I feel at home. I stare out at the water and finally stop walking. The sand is cold and the numb spreads north. Shades of peach and rose fade from my face and reappear above the clouds on the horizon. I can no longer feel my toes. I start peeling off my layers which haven’t been keeping me warm anyway. My pale skin glows in the sunrise and I wade into the icy water. A wave crashes over my head and frosty crystals flood my lungs.

Still awake.