2.28.2011

Grateful and thoughtful and home.

Me at Hampton Court, where Henry VIII lived.
While standing on line for US customs yesterday, I realized that I had just completed my final international vacation as Jennifer Epting. It hit me as I was flipping through my passport, imagining all the future vacations destined to be recorded on those pages. It was the absolute perfect ending to the trip: a symbol of change, of an optimistic future, but with the slightest hint of sadness.

And that exact blend of emotions is how I spent my week. I started things off with the most wonderful bachelorette dinner with friends on my first night in London (friends who took it upon themselves to organize the surprise for me- though they had never met!). I spoke of our wedding and our relationship and our future babies in London and Paris and in-between. And then, on a bus ride from the airport to center-city Paris, I was hit in the gut by a wave of nostalgia when we passed the street I used to live on.

Such is life.

Perhaps expected, but there was lots of talk of marriage, what it is, why people get married, why they don't. These conversations were passionate and fascinating and revealed our cultures, our formative experiences, the truths we believe to be true. I hope to write more about this later this week, but the short news is that I guess I have some real anger towards married people and the way they treat each other. Huh. Who knew?

I was very happy to come home to the man I'm going to marry, though, and am very grateful to have someone who wants to hear all angles of the conversations I have with others. One week away felt like three and I am so energized, so inspired, so ready to spend the next few months getting ready for a big party in August.

I put some photos up on Flickr and will keep adding batches as I have time... more from me soon.

2.25.2011

Soul Stories: I see dead people.

There we were, racing down route 78 into Pennsylvania at 3am. I was driving; my mom was in the passenger seat fielding calls from my uncle, who continued to give us status updates every few minutes.

"She's pretty close," he'd say. "We think she might be waiting until you get here."

I drove a little faster and when we were about 20 minutes away, we received one final call. My Nana was dead.

Meanwhile, my dad and brother were in another car, also driving towards Pennsylvania, but headed for a hotel near the town where my Dad's Nana was to be buried the next day.

It was to be a double funeral weekend.

When we arrived at the nursing home, the nurses led us to the room where my Nana's body was. The undertaker had not yet come and they let us have a few moments with her. I hadn't seen her in a while, but I can assure you that even if I'd seen her earlier that day, I would still have been shocked at how she looked. Dead people do not look like the living. An understatement, this.

There was not much emotion at that moment. Mom tried to smooth Nana's hair a bit and I stayed back, exhausted and unsure how to interact with a person so recently dead. I'd been to plenty of funerals before in my life, most of which had open caskets. I was familiar with the way funeral homes attempted to make corpses look more like their living counterparts. This trick never worked, but it sure was a lot better than what we were seeing, I later realized. The image of my Nana's body right after she died is unforgettable and I can really only say one thing about it: she was clearly no longer there.

By that I mean that the person I knew, the personality, her energy, her soft-spoken voice, her calm demeanor, all of the the things that made my Nana my Nana, were completely absent from the scene. And truthfully, I could not believe that she was nowhere. In my mind, she was clearly somewhere. She was just not with her body.

There are a million and one theories about what happens when you die. They range from a soul moving to heaven or hell to ... well, nothing. I've read my science and I've killed ants and I know that, to some people, the answer that nothing happens is easier to swallow than the pandora's box of other possibilities. And after the way religious fanatics go on about it, I get it. The world's a war of beliefs and none of them seem more compelling than the others. But in refusing such zealots, do we throw the baby out with the bathwater when it comes to the afterlife?

Here's the thing: there is no way that I'M not going somewhere when I die. I'm not suggesting that I have to be going to a gold-gated heaven or the like; I just cannot believe that everything that makes me who I am is just going to -poof- evaporate one day.

Every once in a while I wake up in the middle of the night and roll over to make sure Chris is breathing. (Ah paranoia, you old friend.) For a split second, I worry that he's dead and my mind reels through life without him and the possibility that he was just here and now he's not. Then he breathes again and I lay my head back down, my heart beating ever-so-slightly faster.

It sure is easier to believe nothing happens when you don't know anyone who has died. But when someone you love, someone you adore, steps out of life - well, it's pretty damn hard for me to say that they're gone forever.

Sometimes I make Chris promise to haunt me if he dies before I do. "Not in a scary way," I say, "but just let me know what you're up to."

Because I just want it all to be true. I want the curtain to be pulled back and the grand universe to be revealed, like that moment in the movie when you realize the story you're watching is so much larger than you ever realized. If life is a story, I want the literature.

I need the literature to be true.

2.24.2011

Eh, Bonjour!

Le tour Eiffel, from our trip in 2009.
If everything's gone according to schedule, I'm in Paris! Right now! You can bet your bottom dollar that I'm bemoaning my flabby French accent and eating almond croissants for every meal. 10k training plan? What 10k training plan?

2.23.2011

Win-win-win.

We got our first wedding gifts last week (thanks, Bec and Greg!) and Oscar was pretty happy about it. We got travel guides, he got a box.

Eyeballing the merchandise.












2.22.2011

Music for when you're in loooove.

Me and my Valentine in Seattle, April 2010.
Our Valentine's Day tradition includes Chris cooking dinner and me making a Valentine's Day playlist of new songs that I find on Pandora in the weeks leading up to February 14. I realized that I never shared these, so go download these songs and find someone to smooch!

Vday mix 2011
Love like a sunset, Pt. II by Phoenix
Horse in the Sky by Chris and Thomas
Catch me jumping by The Dimes
Favorite One by Revival
Flightless Bird, American Mouth by Iron & Wine
Lost in Time by Whitley
Sooner or Later by Rookie of the Year
Til the Day by This is Ivy League
Elevator Love Letter by Stars

Vday mix 2010
I Sing I Swim by Seabear
Cartwheels by by The Reindeer Section
Marching Bands of Manhattan by Death Cab for Cutie
Impatience by We Are Scientists
Visit in my dream by Dan Bern
Twilight Serenade by Jason Myles Goss
Plastic Flowers by The Hiders
Signs by Bloc Party

Vday mix 2009
I don't know by Lisa Hannigan
5 Years Time by Noah and the Whale
I wish that I was beautiful for you by Darren Hanlon
More than life by Whitley
Bruises by Chairlift
Sleeping Sickness by City and Colour
Lover by Devendra Banhart
Your Ex-Lover is Dead by Stars
Afterwards by Danielle Ate the Sandwich
After Hours by We Are Scientists

2.21.2011

European bachelorette vacation, check.

I'm in London and Paris for the week, but I have posts lined up for you! Lucky me. Lucky you!

For the first time, I packed running gear for this vacation. I guess this is a turning point of sorts; when I thought about a week without physical exercise (and really, running especially), it made me a little sad.

I used to be the kind of traveler who threw a couple pair of jeans in a bag and wore the same sneakers the whole trip. I've never been the kind of high maintenance person who needs hair dryers and heels and "evening wear," but I guess it's a sign of the times when your suitcase is bulging with dresses and running sneakers and cables and chargers and your cute boots.

Next time I'm going to need a trunk.

Hell, next time I'm going to have a husband. This is officially my last "European adventure as a non-married girl" and I'm happy to have this time to myself.

... although I'm going to miss that husband-to-be and our trusty feline sidekick a whole lot.

2.18.2011

Soul Stories: the artistic soul mate.

It took me a long time to become a person who writes in books. Libraries and school districts don't look kindly on pen marks and anyway, no one ever really told me it was ok. Books were (dare I say) sacred objects. I didn't write in books the same way I didn't try to scrawl on the paintings I saw on the walls of museums.

Then when I was a senior in High School, I got into AP English and we had a long list of books to read over the summer. We had to buy our own books and suddenly Toni Morrison and Machiavelli were on my bookshelf, part of my belongings. I think we did a little writing in books back then, but it really wasn't until freshman year of college when people encouraged me to interact with the text in front of me. Instead of passively reading, I was in a conversation with the author- circling phrases and scrawling page numbers in the margins when I found themes that ran through chapters and beyond.

One of the most beautiful experiences in life is encountering a piece of art that IS you. There were occasions when I ran into a sentence that felt as though it had been lifted from the deepest part of myself and printed on the page. Sentences like that feel like fate.

It's probably not a stretch to say that I reach for these connections with Art when I need to feel that others have felt as I do. It doesn't trivialize my feelings, but rather it reassures me that others have gone through life before me and have come out victorious.

This is, in so many ways, why I write. I write to connect, to suggest, to demonstrate, to start a conversation. There is power in describing life moments and knowing that they resonate with others. Writing is the bridge that allows open souls to converge; in short, Art creates soul mates.

And so among my soul mates I count books and paintings and photographs and songs. I've read Eat, Pray, Love dozens of times; my copy of The Lover is so marked up that it looks as though a child put his markers to it. Dashboard Confessional's lyrics never fail to produce the irresistible urge to sing from my gut. The photo in this post is so sad and so moving and so true that I've hung it on my wall for years. (The text beneath says: "This photograph is my proof. There was that afternoon when things were still good between us, and she embraced me and we were so happy. It did happen. She did love me. Look, see for yourself!")

What and who are your artistic soul mates?

2.17.2011

Ready for a breath of fresh air.

My European travel gear. YES!
When it comes to friendships, I'm a firm believer that it takes all kinds. There are the people you see every day (they end up knowing a lot about your daily life). Then there are people who live in your city, but you see every few weeks or so. Then there are people who live farther away that you get to see once a year at most.

I'm about to see a whole bunch of that last category!

Tomorrow I'll board a plan to London (and next week, Paris!), where I'm going to be staying with Maddy and Katie. I can already predict a 48 hour non-stop conversation about everything that's happened in the past two years (and then some). I am dying to have this kind of conversation. For me, these annual or semi-annual check-ins provide a vantage point that isn't accessible via any other kind of friendships. Representing yourself to far-away friends requires you to dig differently in your memory and you can't help marveling at how life goes on, all over the world, when you are not there to witness it.

What would I do without my female friends? I would be a very different person. I can't wait to have dinner with Sarah and her boyfriend, view London through Fanny's French eyes, meet up for a one-night-only bar night with everyone I know in Paris, strengthen my friendship with Angela and Lucie by staying with them, and finally reconvene with Celine and Angelique after more than 4 years. Can you imagine how much life has been lived since then?!

It feels like getting an extra episode of your favorite sitcom - the "where are they now?" episode, where your favorite characters come back into your life.

NOT TO MENTION FAVORITE CITIES! I love wandering around London and can't wait to make new memories all around the city. Don't even get me started on Paris. My plan is to leave Angela's apartment next Thursday morning and walk the entire city, only stopping at night to drink a champagne with friends.

Damn, I need this vacation.

Are you in London or Paris? Want to meet up? Drop an email or comment and we'll do it! Let's get these friendships going.

2.13.2011

Ballet: first class.

My slippers, which I sewed myself!
There are photos of me doing ballet when I was a kid. For about a year when I was 5 years old, I wore a pink leotard with colored flowers on it and I learned a dance routine. I still remember it to this day and sometimes, when my friends are very lucky (and I am very tipsy), I relive my ballet days by performing it for them.

Long before the days of learning French verbs, I knew words like "plie" and "relever" as they related to ballet steps. But once we moved to New York, we got into gymnastics and our ballet careers were over. (Maybe I should say that Katie got into gymnastics- I was not nearly bendy enough and promptly quit to start writing for the 3rd grade newspaper. Obviously.)

When I got into yoga a few years ago, something was familiar about having a teacher focus our bodies into positions and I missed dancing, even the little that I'd done. Fast forward to November, when Groupon announced a deal - 10 classes for $59 at Ballet Academy East. I bought it and when the Soul semester came around, it seemed like a good time to cash it in.

Here's what walking into a ballet studio for the first time in 25 years feels like: really, really not belonging. I went into the dressing room to change and immediately felt like even the kids were judging me. The kids! Tiny girls whose mothers were giving them buns and who flitted around, talking about how they hadn't seen so and so since the Nutcracker.

With no Nutcracker stories to share, I waited outside the studio where my class was starting and then MY people showed up. The old ladies! The women with butts! The women with boobs! The nervous-looking Groupon owners. I loved them all.

Our teacher was a tall, thin flower who made funny jokes about our flailing limbs in an adorable Romanian accent. She pronounced the French words correctly... and HO BOY, were there French words!

"Next, we will do balancoire," she said and I thought "where will we swing from?!" Turns out, it was our legs that would do the swinging.

"Now we will do porte de bras," she said, and I got my arms ready for some graceful maneuvers.

At one point she had to move some of us around and she looked at me. "You follow very well," she murmured and I almost passed out of pride. But since passing out is not very ballerina-like, I did a few pirouettes and got cast in Nutcracker 2011 instead. (Ha.)

Physically, ballet forced me to stand tall and to keep my core tucked in. Towards the end, our teacher gave a 5-minute motivational speech about how dancers are art, how their muscles are not big (shudder!), but long and beautiful, and how people who walk with good posture can achieve anything they want.

It was awesome. And I can't wait for class 2.

2.12.2011

5k: mission accomplished!

It wasn't the best run of my life, but this morning's 5k was a success. Here are some things I learned for next time:

1. Tie your shoes. Double knot them. Triple check them.
2. Practice running outside with the Garmin more often.
3. Practice using iTunes.

Because they are awesome friends, Doug and Kelley ran right along with me and we all finished in 31:13. That's officially the fastest pace I've had since I started training... so thanks for being the best running buddies, guys!


Next up, a 4-miler in April in Central Park and then (the holy grail!), a 10k in DC in May. More pictures from today's run here.

2.11.2011

Soul Stories: Building your inner tools.

Pretty houses in Clermont-Ferrand, France.
The hardest thing about moving away (far, far away) is your first free Saturday morning. This is particularly true in France, when Saturday mornings are for dipping baguette into bowls of cocoa alongside your French siblings and grandparents and invisible ancestors, who hover constantly over your old, old city. Lonely Americans don't fit the morning routine.

I moved to Clermont-Ferrand in October 2003 and I had been in town about a week when my first free Saturday occurred. At the time I was living in the boarding quarters of a high school on a hill. The students went home Friday evening for the weekend and I was left alone on the campus with a bed, desk and tiny closet to my name. Oh, and an awkward leaky shower. That too.

My room had seemed a haven of quiet against the students' lively noise during the week, but come the weekend, it was hollow, cold and empty. And so when I awoke early in the morning that first free Saturday, the entire day lay ahead of me, 16 hours of cursed time to kill.

As familiar as you can be with the whole "I. am. alone." situation after you move, it isn't possible to avoid it. The anchor that keeps you sane and stops you from believing you've made the largest mistake in you life must come from deep within, from the recesses of your experience of the last time (if you were fortunate enough to have already lived through a first lonely time away).

You have to sit there, on your hard bed in a chilly room, and say to yourself: this will get easier. And when that's not enough, you have to get up and go take a walk.

On my first free Saturday in Clermont-Ferrand, I ate three breakfasts because I was so lonely. The first was a banana and granola bar I'd been saving in my room. (No kitchen, remember?) The second was a croissant at a bakery on my walk down the hill towards the city, an attempt to extract company from calories. And the third was a glass of orange juice and small meal at a cafe on the edge of town.

At a table for one, I ordered in French and pulled out the kids' book I'd retrieved from the library the day before. Le Petit Nicolas and I were about to get acquainted. There I was, feeling a little bit sad, finishing my orange juice and reading about a naughty little boy, understanding only every other word.

When my loneliness ached too badly, I got an idea. I decided that I should go up to the waiters who were speaking with the cafe owner, and ask them the meaning of one of the words on the first page of the book. There was no one else in the cafe and I felt like I might feel a little bit better if I talked to someone. So after a couple of nervous moments, I pushed my chair back and took my book with me.

"Excuse me," I said. They stopped their conversation and turned.

"Well, I was just wondering if you could tell me the meaning of a word in my book." A moment passed; no one was sure how to proceed.

"Of course, mademoiselle," one of the waiters said.

I pointed; he read the word out loud.

"La craie, la craie..." he said. "You know, it's like... it's when you're in a classroom? And a teacher is writing on the blackboard? It is this, what she is writing with."

He gestured and suddenly all three of them were waving their arms in the air, miming a teacher writing on a board. Communication! People! Interaction! all rushed forward, a welcome familiarity.

That's how I learned the French word for chalk.

I don't remember much of what happened for the rest of the day. I probably made my way into the city and checked out the cathedral. I probably ate a bunch of times, paying for the opportunity to sit in public spaces among strangers so that I would not feel homesick.

But what stuck with me, in a place so deep that it is no longer a memory but a tool, is the fact that inviting others to interact with me makes me feel better. Striking up a conversation is not nearly as intimidating as the prospect of a long, lonely day with no smiling.

I used the "strike up a conversation" tool so often that year that its handle conformed to the shape of my hand. And though it wasn't always comfortable, it got easier to pull out and wield the more I did it. At the end of the year, I took a bus to Italy and spent two weeks working on a farm alongside strangers. My conversation tool came too, proof that it worked outside of France and that I had earned the right to own it.

I still carry it with me everyday, except I barely recognize it anymore. The borders of where it starts and I end are too blurry. It's somewhere, deep inside me, where it's been tightly stitched into what makes me me.

2.07.2011

The post in which I put on my Hillary Clinton suit.

I don't often think about the fact that I'm a woman at work. Well, other than the fact that our bathroom is never in use and the men's room is a revolving door of developers with full bladders.

For the most part, I haven't felt limitations. I don't spend a lot of time daydreaming about my future roles at this company or another; I'm far too busy getting new designs in clients' hands and writing proposals for new work. Head down, thumbs up, and so far I've been rewarded.

But this afternoon a couple of things happened and it got me thinking about ambition- not the kind that grows from the bottom of your gut, but the kind that creates rules you need to pay attention to. I know that my clients appreciate the work I do for them, but is being well-liked the same as being well-respected? Or well-positioned to make larger deals, to push relationships farther?

It's not.

And here's where we look back to my customer service roots. I started at Arc writing copy for the Kindling website and answering support requests, a role that I loved. People were SO HAPPY to get an email that explained how to install or delete or edit something in human words. And I was happy that they were happy.

But when you start talking about how businesses are investing in technology, you're on a different level, aren't you? Your goal isn't to make a client giddy... it's to help them effectively solve problems. Sometimes the solutions to these problems are real challenges, for clients or for the technology team you're working with. Finding solutions requires a firm hand, a calm guidance and an ability to keep things positive without incarnating Mickey Mouse.

It doesn't boil down to me being a woman; most of this is more a confrontation with my personality. But I can pretty clearly see how pushing myself to grow into that firm voice is going to push me further than being a friendly goofball.

It's pretty much the most daunting thing about the prospect of growing my career right now. There's no need to; I can do great work with exactly the same approach that I've always had. But what if I tweaked things ever so slightly so that I was starting to lead instead of manage?

I guess there's only one way to find out. Mmm?

2.02.2011

Strength begets strength.

Tonight's dinner: chicken, brussel sprouts and broccoli.
It's officially been a month since I started running and tonight I was supposed to run for 28 minutes. Non-stop. No walking. On my way out the door, I made a scared face at Chris.

"What's wrong?" he asked.

"I'm a little scared," I said.

"But you know you're going to be great."

"Yeah. I'm always a little scared though."

It's amazing; here I am, having run 48 miles so far this year and I still feel nervous every time I get on the treadmill. It's not like I'm afraid that I'm not going to make my run... it's more that I'm afraid of the moment when I feel short of breath or when my legs are tired. And the reason I'm afraid of that moment?

I'm afraid I'll take the weak way out.

You can't be weak if you don't put yourself up to a challenge (well, you can... but that's a deeper sort of weak) and by merely walking up to a treadmill, I have to acknowledge the possibility of disappointing myself. I guess I kind of feel the same way when it comes to having junk food in the house. Someday I might be cool with having chips or cookies in the cabinet, but today I just can't handle the temptation. For now, we have those things on special occasions... and we send the leftovers home with someone else.

I want to tell you all that, by confronting the possibility of weakness four times a week at the gym, things have really changed for me.

When we came home from Thanksgiving at my parents' house, I felt gross. I felt like I'd eaten too much and I knew the Christmas holidays were on the horizon. Christmas means cookies and chex mix and pie. And I just knew that I'd feel like crap if I was feeling that gross on January 1, about to turn 30, about to have a wedding. So right after Thanksgiving, I started following some healthy living blogs. I started buying more produce and less stuff in boxes. I started paying a lot of attention to snacking and though I wasn't yet exercising, I felt good when 2011 rolled in.

On January 1, I added the exercise component and started running. And I'm so happy to say that since Thanksgiving, I've lost 10 pounds! I dropped a dress size and I feel awesome. Last weekend I went to Banana Republic and had a blast trying on clothes.

That's a big deal for me.

Here's what it took: a simultaneous change in the food I cook and the way I exercise. A more consistent sleep schedule (roughly 11pm to 6:45am) and cutting down on eating out (or at least making better choices when I do). But I won't downplay the importance of adding healthy blogs to my RSS reader and following runners on Twitter. Having a constant stream of healthy recipes and hearing about others' workout challenges has been so supportive. This, my friends, is the power of the Internet. We have the ability to engage with the kind of content that will help us achieve our goals. Tools like Twitter and blogs and Facebook messages form the structure of that support.

Here are some of my favorite healthy sites in case you're interested in adding a healthy influence to your lives too:
Daily Garnish
Daily Mile
Kath Eats Real Food
Fooducate
Kara Goucher's blog
Run, Life, Chant, Breathe

I killed my 28-minute run tonight at the gym, by the way. I just steamrolled through it, as if I'd been running 28 minutes for the past month. There is nothing better than making a strong choice and shoving weakness out of the way. After I finished running, my old personal trainer from last year came over and told me I was looking tough! I did my push-ups with a new energy and held my plank for longer than I ever have before.

Strength begets strength. It really does.

Do you have any healthy blogs to recommend? Leave them in the comments!

P.S. You guys, do you even know how much I love your comments? You made my day by commenting on yesterday's Soul post. I just wanted you to know how much I appreciate it and how it makes me feel less like I'm writing in a vacuum. Community happens, even on the Internet... and I'm very happy and appreciative that my blog is a small part of that for some people out there.

2.01.2011

Semester 2: The Soul: a quest for discomfort

There's not a ton to say about the next three months, other than... IT'S GONNA GET UNCOMFORTABLE UP IN THIS PIECE. From introduction to ballet to running a 10k, I'm going to be wearing leotards and generally feeling out of my comfort zone. 

New York City is the absolute best place to live when you want to change things up. Taking a different route to work, eating food from a country you've never heard of or generally hanging out with people from different backgrounds can be both uncomfortable and inspiring. Cheers to more of that for the next few months.

My hope is that moments of discomfort cede to clarity about what I'm made of and what lies underneath my exterior. We'll see what we find!

Questions to consider
What is it about being outside the comfort zone that brings out deep inspiration? Is there a term for this?
Is it true that you lose 21 grams when you die? What are the theories about what those grams represent?
How do different religions view the notion of soul?
What is Plato's essence of a person?

Films

Readings (choose 6 of 8)
Even Silence Has an End by Ingrid Betancourt
The Long Run by Matt Long
The Discomfort Zone by Jonathan Franzen
The Age of Comfort by Joan DeJean
Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela
A Rope and a Prayer by David Rohde and Kristen Mulvihill
Question 75 of the Summa Theologica by Thomas Aquinas
the Bible- the temptation of Christ/40 days in the wilderness - from gospels Matthew, Mark and Luke

Other Resources
Wikipedia's Soul entry

Assignments
Do a public presentation about my work at Arc90.
Run a 10k.
Attend 10 ballet classes.
Publish a soul post every Friday.