Monday, July 28, 2008

pre-trip jitters

So in four short days I will be jetting off to India. And I'm crazy excited. I feel like this is the first honest to goodness adventure of my life. I don't know much at all about India. I have a collection of images of the place in my mind-some from news, some from books, some just from imagination-but mostly it's just one big blur of not knowing. When I went to France, I felt fairly confident that I had some idea of what I was getting into. But this is a whole new ballgame. I've never had to get shots to go somewhere or fill a prescription for anti-malarial pills or find 30% DEET or more mosquito repellent. I've never had to worry about wearing culture appropriate clothing or having to wonder if my Western status will garner me unwanted attention or animosity (this might be ignorant but that's the whole thing, I am admittedly ignorant when it comes to what's awaiting me over in that big, beautiful, mysterious country). So to sum up, all of this not knowing has gotten me a wee bit nervous. Okay, more like scared. But the thing is, I've always believed that if you go too long without doing things that scare, no, terrify you, then you're probably not really living the life you want. The best things I've ever done have been things that have at one point been really scary-going to Charleston, going to Paris for a semester, trying oysters. And so by that logic India should be really amazing. So I'm going to keep making my packing checklist, putting together my medicine kit, buying my solar guard, bug guard clothing and then come Friday I'm just going to leap. I've never had any interest in bungee jumping or skydiving, but this might be the closest I get. I'm going to have faith that my bungee cord will work and my parachute will open, and that despite how terrifying those first few seconds of free fall are, two weeks in India will be the ride of my life.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

new charleston favorites

So you'd think after four years of living, going to school, working, and breathing in this fine city, I would have seen it all. But I am still constantly discovering cool new restaurants, places, and things to do here. And the most amazing part is that these new cool things are predominantly located outside of the peninsula. In my opinion, one of the great aspects of Charleston is the fact that it has really cool, unique suburbs. Yes, upon first glance the stretch of Mt. Pleasant on Coleman seems bland and just like every other 20th century-born suburb in America. The same can be said for parts of James Island and West Ashley. But the longer I've lived here, the more I've seen that all of these surrounding areas hold the same vibrancy and uniqueness that the city does; you've just got to look a little closer. Sure, modernity has produced strip malls and chains dotting the landscape, but like everything else in Charleston these outlying areas hold firmly to their age and gorgeous old southern charm. I've always said that the coolest part about the suburbs in Charleston is that you can drive past an Olive Garden and then make a turn and be on a road underneath a canopy of Spanish Moss with marshland on either side. But I've also come to see that these areas have held onto something else; a true, independent sense of character, the kind of character that can never be built but has to be lived in and earned. So here are the coolest things you may not have heard of in Charleston:

1) Old Village in Mt. Pleasant. How have I spent 4 years here and only recently discovered this area? It is without question my new favorite place in this city, a place where I can spend ages walking around and exploring, even in the heat of summer. It's the historic heart of Mt. Pleasant. Now if you've never been to Mt. Pleasant, I would imagine that the name would give you hints of Blandland, USA. And if you drive down 17, you might not be proven wrong. But take a right, head over to Coleman, and you'll see the real Mt. Pleasant, the sleepy southern town across the harbor from that bustlin', big city Charleston. I've come to love and be familiar with a lot of this area-Shem Creek, Rifle Range Rd., the Long Point area. But a few weeks ago, I got my first glimpse of Old Town. It's one of those places where you step out of your car for the first time and somehow feel nostalgic even though you've never been there before. It's the kind of place that seems timeless, that probably hasn't changed all that much in forty years and won't change all that much in the next forty. Take a visual tour with me. You drive down Pitt Street, with glimpses of water to your left and heartbreakingly beautiful old houses on either side. You reach the heart of the "village" and suddenly you're in your grandparent's hometown, because no matter where your grandparents are from, this is probably how you picture the place where they grew up. There's a pharmacy, a bakery, a florist, a couple of other quaint, little stores and businesses. And the "downtown" blends seamlessly with the surrounding neighborhood. Porches spill freely out onto the street. Inns are almost indistinguishable from the single family homes beside them. It's easy to imagine someone coming out in the morning to get their paper and waving to the pharmacist as he or she pulls up to open the store, or maybe having a brief conversation with the family doctor from a couple of doors down. Forget Norman Rockwell, this is the portrait of Americana at its idealized best.

But it gets even better. If you set out on foot, past the "downtown", you'll pass an old converted post house turned into a fine restaurant, and you keep going (on sidewalks no less! sidewalks! i mean coming from this suburb to city transplant, sidewalks are a rare thing to find outside of a downtown area), you'll pass more tremendous old houses painted in soft, sleepy pinks or classic, crisp whites. But it's not like the battery, where the old houses are beautiful but often void of life and warmth. Because there are actual real, live people living here, people with children and noise and bikes on the sidewalk and baby pools in the yard. And as if it isn't already perfect enough, the street starts sloping and narrowing, the noise drops off and if you take another turn you're within a few yards of the harbor. Almost all of these houses have a view of the water, but some of them sit literally on top of it. But they're not beach houses. They're year round family houses with swings and lawn chairs and basketball hoops in the driveway. They just happen to have the fortune of facing the crystal blue of the harbor, with dots of white boats in the foreground and Charleston looming in the distance. Keep walking and you'll see that every side street ends in a dock. This is one of those places that is hard to believe. It's so beautiful, so warm, so unique that it seems it could only be out of a story. But it's very, very real, and not only my new favorite place in Charleston but my new dream for a future home.

2) Downtown Summerville. That's right, Summerville, again with the slightly creepy sounding name that seems destined to mean soulless suburbia. We went to dinner in actual, downtown Summerville a few nights ago and my assumptions about Summerville were proven very, very wrong. First of all, it's about half an hour from the coast, but it feels a world away. There are hills and woods and more hills. The big old southern houses with their big old southern porches are there, but they're spaced apart and have a completely different feel to them than the houses in the city-still regal but in a more casual kind of way. And downtown Summerville, like "downtown" Mt. Pleasant is one of those great, little southern towns that I keep running into around here. Summerville is a good deal bigger than Old Town in Mt. Pleasant, but it's still basically a village, quiet and stubborn in its refusal to change in any major way from the city it has always been.

3) The Terrace theater in James Island. So this isn't old town James Island or anything, but I love this theater because it captures the offbeat charm of James Island-sort of the quirky cousin of Charleston. While Charleston is all grace and elegance, James Island/West Ashley has more of a laid back, good times feel. Maybe it's because James Island is that little bit closer to the beach, but where downtown has its fine restaurants and fancy houses, James Island would be the place you'd go to get really good BBQ or to pick up some boiled peanuts at a stand on the road. And the Terrace theater is sort of in this vein. And again I'm kicking myself for not going here sooner, but it's a movie theater that shows movies that may be a little more independent or artsy. And the kicker, it has a full service bar too. Not only can I enjoy my popcorn and milk-duds, but I can wash it all down with a bottle of beer or a nice glass of wine. But the coolest thing was that I went here to see Gone with the Wind. They have a "film school" where they alternate showing classic movies. Growing up, I used to rent Gone with the Wind about once a month, and cry along with Scarlett and mourn the "old south." Obviously I've come a long way in realizing the reality about aspects of the old south. But I'm still a southerner who gets a little misty when that old theme music kicks up and Tara comes rising up on the screen. But it's also just a fantastic old movie. Has anyone ever been cooler than Clark Gable as Rhett Butler? And to see it on the big screen was awesome. You can see a movie a hundred times, but seeing it in theaters is the definitive way to experience a film. Seeing Gone with the Wind in all of its epic, Technicolor full size glory was one of the coolest things I've done in a really long time. And you know what, it all happened on James Island, an area I wouldn't have given a second thought to a few years ago, but which as of August will be my new home.

It's taken four years but I think I'm finally starting to get Charleston, not just the peninsula but Charleston in full-Mt. Pleasant, West Ashley, James Island, the beaches. There's so much more to this place than the tourist sights and familiar streets and famous restaurants. And I'm looking forward to learning even more about my adopted home.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

one hell of a game

It's been about an hour and a half since the Federer v. Nadal Wimbledon final finished, but my head is still buzzing. I went out to the grocery store and felt slightly in a daze, pushed suddenly into the prosaic light of a humid Sunday afternoon in Charleston after spending the better part of the day witnessing greatness unfold on the chilly grass of London. I've watched a lot of tennis in my life, and I've watched a fair amount of other sporting events, but I can say without a doubt that the final that took place today went beyond any other sporting memory I can think of. It was epic. It was pure, unadulterated sporting heaven. It reached and then surpassed every sports writer cliche I could ever possibly steal. I only hope that if you're reading this, you watched it happen live, because I know otherwise there is no way I can even come close to doing it justice. You can read the detailed match summary, examine all of the stats, but nothing on paper could convey the thrill or beauty of what happened for a few hours this afternoon between the two greatest tennis players of this generation.
It couldn't have been scripted better. The setting: tennis' grandest and most important event, legendary in all of its detail down to the tiniest, most perfectly kept blade of grass. The actors: tennis' top two players fully engaged in one of tennis' richest rivalries, no scratch that, one of sports' richest rivalries. There's Roger Federer, already arguably the greatest tennis player ever, five time Wimbledon champion, smasher of records left and right-with his polished and regal ground strokes, all elegance in everything from his game to his cream colored Nike cardigan. And then there's Rafa Nadal, the current and possibly greatest clay court tennis player of all time. Where Federer is all quiet brilliance and grace, Nadal is all about the fight and the power of the game. He's hungry not just in every match but in his career, transforming in three years from a clay court specialist to the second best grass court player in the game. This rivalry has become the biggest thing in tennis not just because of how great these two players are but because of the marked contrast in their styles and games-it's polos versus muscle shirts, righty versus lefty, Swiss reserve versus Spanish fire. And they share a consistently high level that no other male players enjoy right now. That's why they've played each other in more grand slam finals than any other two men in the Open era. And until now each has reigned over their preferred surface, Nadal at Roland Garros with four straight wins (three against Federer in finals), and Federer owning Wimbledon for five years now (with two final wins against Nadal). Yet each has continued to strive to take the other's house. It's what has made the rivalry so intriguing, because there's so much at stake for each man. For Federer the French Open is one of the only remaining obstacles to him taking over the title of greatest ever. For Nadal winning at Wimbledon would mean silencing any doubt that he's only great on clay.
And so that all leads to the final today. And for someone who uses words quiet a lot and often to excess, I'm struggling here to find any words that might describe the match that took place. If you're a tennis lover you would appreciate the pure brilliance of much of the shotmaking in the match-the strategies used by both players, Federer coming to the net more in this match than he'd done the whole tournament, Nadal scrambling for every ball and blasting away at Fed's backhand. But even if you don't know the difference between a ground stroke and an overhead, this match would have sucked you in. Because like I said before, it just couldn't have been scripted better. There was drama in everything-three total rain delays, one at the start of the 5th set when the sky was already beginning to darken. The match ended seven hours after it started. But take away the rain delays it was the longest Wimbledon final ever, and even more important it was high quality throughout. There were no bagel sets, no long lasting lapses in concentration for either player. Federer didn't start off as well as Nadal, losing the first set and then the second set after holding a 4-2 lead. But just as I started to fear that despite the high quality, it might be a three set match, Federer regroups after the rain delay and takes the third set to a tie break. And of course he wins the breaker to extend the match. The whole time I was watching the match there was almost a feeling of inevitability. It just couldn't have been a straights set win. Nor could it have been a four setter. It had to go to a fourth breaker-the single most breathtaking few minutes of tennis I have ever watched. Of course Nadal would have two, count em two Championship points in the breaker that Federer would save. Sure it's easy to say now, but this match was destined to be a classic, perhaps the classic match of men's tennis, at least in recent memory. And so the destined fifth set did arrive, and it seemed so likely that one of the players would give in a little to emotional or physical fatigue, especially after another rain delay. How could Nadal, after coming so close to winning so many times, possibly keep it together mentally? How could either of these players keep playing at such a high level after so many hours on court, and even more hours of waiting in locker rooms for the rain to go away. But there was no letdown, not for a game, not for a second. On serve they went, game after game, inching past the four hour mark, past the 6 games all mark. And now there's this whole other element of drama. Because as the sky darkened, it became unclear if the match would even finish. They would play until 9:30pm, and as 9pm British time crept closer, there was a new urgency to the way these two men played. Because not only were the now playing each other and history and their own fears and nerves, but they were playing nature itself, trying to find some way to crack the other before the ball was impossible to see. Nadal gets two break chances in one service game and Federer saves them. Federer holds serve and then it's 7 all. Nadal serves again and this time he cashes in on one of the break points, but not after playing a completely nail biting game of tennis, with deuces galore and chances for both players to win game point. And so finally the championship is on Nadal's racket, the crowd is going crazy before the players start, because everyone knows this is it, either Nadal pulls it out or the match will probably have to finish the next day. And the crowd is also just picking up on the energy of these players, who both clearly want it so much, who have so much heart invested in this match, and who will fight to the very last point with everything they have. And the last game is just a microcosm of the entire match, a drama filled, nerve racking series of points-with both players playing with the same energy and brilliance, no matter that they've been out there for hours or that it's dark and chilly and that rain clouds hover in the distance yet again. And Nadal gets a a third Championship point, that Federer saves brilliantly with a return. But when Nadal gets a fourth chance, he makes it count. And the moment Federer hits a ball into the net, the moment Nadal wins Wimbledon after playing perhaps the event's greatest final ever-well how can sports get any better than that? I'm not going to lie. I choked up as Nadal fell to the grass and then climbed his way up into his box to cling on to his family. I choked up at the look on Federer's face as he sat in his chair, the realization that after five years, Wimbledon no longer belonged to him. This is human drama at its finest. Other sports have their moments of course. But in my opinion no other sport can boast the kind of moment that took place on Center Court today-the sheer story arc of it all, a narrative of pressure and desire and will, a narrative of a living legend coming to terms for the first time in years with his own limitations, a narrative of a twenty-two year old kid from a tiny island off the coast of Spain who for all of his on court bravado and force, dissolves into tears when he realizes that he has achieved the highest honor in his sport.
For us fans, sports are a diversion sure, but on some occasions they are more than that. After the match I was struck by the fact that no matter how well spoken the players were in their interviews, they seemed almost clumsy and awkward compared to how they seemed a few minutes earlier on court. As Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal played today, their game spoke for them with the most silent kind of eloquence. When sports are good and when they're pure, they're a form of expression on par with any art. And like any good art, sports at their best allow us to appreciate the rare moments when humans stop being mere animals and start resembling something great. Today's Wimbledon final was the greatest sporting event I have ever had the pleasure of watching. Even if you boil it down to just a game, even if it means nothing more to you than a couple of men swatting tennis balls across a net, you've gotta admit it was one hell of a game.

Friday, July 4, 2008

must have ingredients for a great 4th of July

I have spent 4th of Julys in a myriad of places - camp, the beach, San Antonio, Richmond. It's one of those holidays that translates well no matter where you are. I'd imagine that even if you were abroad, as long as you can gather around a cluster of Americans and wave a flag or two, it would feel like Independence Day. But, there are several necessary ingredients that make the 4th of July feel like more than just a date on a calendar. And they are...

1) watermelon-I must have watermelon on the 4th of July. Preferably it would be a whole watermelon, cut and served to eat. When I was little we used to get whole watermelons at my grandparents house and my papa would do the honors of cutting the monster fruit up on a wooden picnic table next to the pond. Each cousin would get a massive chunk, and we'd sit happily on our little man made beach and slurp away. Seed spitting contests would always ensue, something I sadly never got the hang of. But I'd still devour my piece of watermelon-savoring the cool, sugary pieces of fruit while all of the sticky, sweet red juice would run freely down my face and arms. But none of us cared. When we were done, we'd take our sticky, bathing suit clad selves and run at full speed into the pond. I was spoiled rotten by my childhood 4th of Julys-long, endless summer days at my grandparents house with cousins and aunts and uncles-costume parades by the reservoir, hours of swimming and canoing, burgers and hot dogs in the dark with fireflys surrounding us, and of course, the requisite, all important watermelon.

2) a little Wimbledon-for as long as I can remember I've never not watched Wimbledon on the 4th of July-and it just provides the greatest contrast. As we Americans loudly and boisterously celebrate our independence day with bright colors and fatty foods and noisy fireworks-the most serene and elegant of tennis events goes calmly forward. The best, of course, is when an American is playing. Tennis is such an international sport, and one of my favorite parts about it is that you can really root not just for players but for your nation. So when you can root for an American on the quintessential American holiday, well that's just perfection. There's got to be a quiet moment on a day of 4th of July festivities-and there's no better way to fill it than with a couple of hours of supreme grass court tennis.

3) fireworks-a little on the obvious side, but no matter how many 4th of July fireworks displays I've seen, there's always something a little awe-inspiring about these explosions of light in the night sky. And there's also always something a little touching, a moment during the display where I feel a tiny lump in my throat in spite of all my adult pretensions. Because as much as we complain, as sarcastic and cynical a nation we may attempt to appear, I still believe that Americans are fundamentally a very optimistic, earnest and open hearted people. And what better manifestation of that can there be than fireworks-a big bright and wordless act of celebration and yes, that out of style, much disparaged feeling called patriotism.

Sure, I'll take a cookout, maybe a baseball game and some flag waving. But all I really need on the 4th of July are the above mentioned factors. But strip all of those away, and I'll still love this holiday. Because, yeah, I'll say it proudly without a hint of irony or cynicism. I love my country. I don't see my country as perfect or infallible by any means. But I love American for what she has been, for what she is, and for what she still could be.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

quarter life crisis

So the phrase "quarter-life crisis" kind of irks me. I've come across it in some mid-tempo song lyrics, a few quickly canceled television shows. And it's always rang a little false to me, a little on the side of self absorbed, a term coined by anxiety ridden twenty-somethings who just want to complain about life. But today it hit me like the proverbial Mack truck. If there's any phrase or label or description to apply to my life as of late, it's a major quarter life crisis. Without delving into the whole drawn out tale, I've sort of changed things up recently. Let's just say that my life was neatly heading one way, and I freaked out and shoved it into an entirely new path. I didn't join a cult or the army or start handing out pamphlets on street corners. But I made the decision to stay in Charleston, at least a little while longer. Now this may not seem all that big of a deal but it has had ripple effects already. All of these little plans I've made have sort of been delayed or transformed or gotten rid of completely. I had this perfect little path all planned out, college then Americorps them graduate school. And it all sounded great, but gradually and kind of all at once I realized I was tired of having a perfect little path in my life. We spend our whole childhoods and young adulthoods with our futures meticulously planned out. And every few years there are these "big choices" like what high school to go to or what college to go to. But even these "big choices" are deliberate and carefully calibrated and expected. We're always following straight lines. And Americorps was just a continuation for me of that straight line. It should be obvious but it took me twenty two years to realize that I can make my own decisions, and that I can make messy and stupid and unplanned decisions. I can take a zig-zag path for a while. I don't have to map out my life for the next five years. I don't have to map out anything. And I'm not tossing Americorps out the window, far from it. But I am delaying things. Because I think I need to just give in to this crisis or breakdown or whatever it is I'm going through right now. For once in my life I want to just give in to my inner indecision and confusion and uncertainty. I want to screw up and be underpaid and fall below expectations. I want to fall of the life-plan grid for a little while, stop thinking all the time about what's best for my future and start living full time in my present. And more than all of this, I want to stay in Charleston.

I remember when I applied for colleges I put up a little poll on my buddy list info about what school I should go to. I asked my AIM buddies if I should 1) follow my dreams (Boston College-way too expensive but at the time it was my dream school) 2) follow my head/logic (Mary Washington-close to home and a good, small, state school) or 3) follow my heart. And of course my heart was Charleston. From the moment I stepped foot here, my heart has always been Charleston. I went home to Richmond a couple of weeks ago, when I was in the midst of panic over deciding whether to go ahead with my Americorps plans or defer and stay on in Charleston. I was packing some things up to take to my home in Richmond, in case I did decide to move away from Charleston. I picked up this Saks 5th Ave. snow globe that I got for Christmas. Inside is a miniature version of Charleston, complete with a little bridge, a little rainbow row, little churches. I took the snow globe and sat on my bed and stared into the tiny , artificial snow covered version of the city I know so well. And I tried to make myself understand what it would be like to be hundreds of miles away for good, when the closest I could get to Charleston would be that little snow globe. And the more I tried to wrap my head around it the less I could. I've been fighting all year with the sense of ending. I've been grieving for the loss of this town. And I know eventually I'll leave, at least for a little while. But if I can stay in this beautiful, lovely little city for a few more months, then who am I to turn away from that. I realized that I am in no way ready to leave the confines of my Charleston. Over and over again I kept hearing the words, coming from somewhere deep inside of myself, "I'm not ready, I can't, it hurts too much." We spend our lives being strategic. We make pro and con lists. We analyze and deliberate. But for the first major decision in my life, I decided to be emotional and messy and rash. It's a rare thing to be completely comfortable in a place, to feel at home in your skin somewhere. And for me Charleston is the only other city besides Richmond where I've found that. And so after all the stress and emotion and anxiety, it came surprisingly easy. My heart took me south and my heart is simply unwilling to let me leave. It may end up hurting me more in the long run, but it's a done deal. I'll take a little more pain, a little more heartache as long as I can get a few more months of Cooper river sunsets and a "skyline" of steeples and Spanish moss. This city has gotten to me. It's not logical. It's not smart. But right now, staying here, it feels right.
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