Doing Good

children reading

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Last Friday I attended a volunteer orientation at Open Books, a Chicago non-profit organization and used bookstore that promotes literacy in the community.

I’ve been itching to do some volunteer work for a while, but hadn’t quite found the right cause for me. That is, until I wandered into their bookstore on a leisurely afternoon, fell in love with the cause, and signed myself up immediately to get involved!

I believe being a literate person is not only one of the framework skills of successful people in this country, but it opens up an entire world of imagination and possibility for children (and adults!).

Check out their website to find out more about their programs or volunteer opportunities. I’m thrilled to start working with them! Happy Monday!

San Diego State of Mind

San Diego

Keith and I went to San Diego last weekend for a short vacation. The pleasant weather, Pacific coastline, and killer sunsets were just what I needed. The Mai Tais and fish tacos didn’t hurt either!

On our second day there, I came down with a nasty stomach flu. Though I was feeling under the weather, I tried not to let it ruin the rest of the trip. I pulled myself together enough to make it to the San Diego Zoo (best zoo EVER) and even go whale watching off Point Loma! Yes, the center photo above is a freaking whale! A gray whale to be exact. I still can’t get over the fact that I was this close to a whale.

If you’re ever in San Diego, check out H&M Landing for whale watching excursions. They were reasonably priced, and even extended the tour by almost three hours to scout out the best whale watching spots. Well worth it, indeed!

This was my first trip to the west coast and it will definitely not be the last. I could get used to California living. I fell hard for the combo of beautiful beaches AND mountains. For now, I’ll just put San Diego on my shortlist of U.S. cities I wouldn’t mind moving to if the opportunity came around.

I do wish I could have taken the weather back with me. Chicago hasn’t quite gotten the message that spring is just around the corner.

Bite Size Stories: Waiting

Bite Size Stories are a series of short fiction pieces from my mind to yours, delivered weekly.

Lionel approached the counter with a leaden stride. A redhead with buttermilk skin stared back at him. She handed him a folder with papers and a pen.

“Hand these back in when you’re done,” she said and ended with a toothy grin.
“Thanks,” he leaned in and squinted at her name tag, “Rebecca.”
He sat down on the chair closest to the counter and began writing. His pen glided across the page from box to box; these tasks had become so routine to him now. Every now and then, he glanced up from his paper to study Rebecca’s face. Her crystalline eyes were downturned most of the time, but every so often when his timing was right, he caught a flash of their glass-blue brightness.

“Here you go,” he said, and handed the papers back to her.
“Thanks,” Rebecca said while opening the folder, “Mr. Sampson.”
“Oh, no need for formalities, dear, Lionel will do just fine.”
In return, she let out a giggle and said “Ok, sure. Lionel it is then. Why don’t you take a seat and I’ll call you up when he’s ready.”
He turned back toward his chair, but quickly pivoted. “Say, where’s Sandy anyway? I thought she worked on Tuesdays?”
“Oh, she switched back to working only weekends a while back,” said Rebecca.
Fawn colored freckles danced across the bridge of her perky, up-turned nose. They had escaped his attention the first time.
“Oh, ok then.”

Lionel returned to his seat, one in a row of vinyl covered chairs with chrome legs and plastic hand rests, as stiff as the air that filled the room. A familiar nothingness surrounded him. He shifted his weight from hip to hip, trying to find a comfortable position, but gave up after a couple attempts and rifled through the stack of Reader’s Digests on the table across the aisle. He rose from his seat too quickly for his deteriorating frame and his knees buckled slightly, forcing him to brace on the hand rests. Nothing worth a second glance. A light flickered toward the end of the corridor; a florescent light bulb had just burned out. Just like that it went from working perfectly to not at all. A peek at his watch revealed the slow moving minutes—only twenty had passed.

Rebecca began peeling an orange at her desk. Its fragrant rind and supple flesh permeated the room. It called attention to her delicate fingertips and the ease with which she was able to navigate this piece of fruit. Lionel wrung his hands together and massaged his swollen knuckles. It was her youth that haunted him. He wanted to steal some from her, bottle it up and keep it in his pocket.
The phone rang.
“Lionel, the doctor will see you now.”

Ten Things I Learned from Completing NaNoWriMo

Apologies for the radio silence. For the entire month of November, I was consumed with with the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo for short) challenge. The goal is to write 50,000 words in 30 days. Take a second to marvel at the ridiculousness of this challenge–50,000 words. That’s roughly 200 hundred double-spaced pages. That’s about seven pages per day if you space it out evenly. Essentially, it’s an entire novel.

And…drumroll, please… I am elated to say that I conquered it! And I learned a few things along the way, both about writing and myself.

Writing is hard.

Nothing about this challenge was easy. There were many times I read over my stuff and thought I was the worst writer in the whole world. There were a few sleepless nights and even more seemingly endless day, but the sheer joy I felt after completing a chunk of writing made it all worth it.

Brainstorming is crucial to the writing process.

Maybe I should re-phrase to indicate that brainstorming is crucial to my writing process. Completing this challenge helped me loosen my grip on what “brainstorming” means to me. My go-to method is to take a few sheets of paper and a pen and just do a fast and furious brain dump of all ideas, characters, images, etc. pertaining to whatever story or project I’m starting.

But over-planning is deadly.

At its best, brainstorming is a great way to collect your thoughts before beginning a piece. At its worst, brainstorming keeps you in endless “planning” cycle and prevents you from doing what you actually want to do in the first place–to write!

Tame that inner self-editor.

This was the most difficult part of the entire challenge for me–letting go of that urge to perfect as I go. I used to think through every paragraph or page so thoroughly before moving onto the next one, I was barely finishing anything at all. And it was not working for me anymore. I felt most free when I would just write with abandon.

Build a network of accountability.

I have always believed that writing is a solitary act, but not a solitary art form. The community element of the challenge, knowing that hundreds of thousands of people across the country were also writing with me gave me the courage to keep going. I also told countless friends and family about the challenge. And you know what? The more people I told, the more people would ask, and the more people would get behind me. Their encouragement kept me going, and their constant inquiries about my current word count provided me with the accountability to finish.

Don’t be afraid to write badly.

You won’t be happy with every sentence you write. You can always go back and refine, but only if you have raw material to start with.

You can make this challenge work for you.

Got an idea for a non-fiction book? Want to work on a series of short stories? Want to write 50,000 words in diary format? Who cares? There aren’t any real rules to this thing, and that’s what makes it so great.

NaNoWriMo, to me at least, is a challenge but not a competition. It’s more a test of stamina and determination than of talent.

It’s never too late to start.

Similar to my last point, you don’t have to start on November 1st to complete the challenge. And you don’t have to write every single day either. There were several days in a row that I just couldn’t fit writing into my schedule, but I was determined to make up for it that following weekend. Life happens. Write tomorrow and move on.

When all else fails, just start free writing–about anything.

There were many times where I found myself just staring at my computer screen, completely stuck on where to go next with a character or a plot point. I learned to use the act of writing to get me through difficult points. During the worst of it, I would just start free writing about whatever was around me. I would start describing people at the coffee  shop, the smell of my freshly refilled mug of coffee, random people walking on the sidewalk. Though it seemed pointless at first, these stream of consciousness riffs helped me discover new methods of description. And the fact that I just kept writing during difficult times kept me motivated to continue.

The end is only the beginning.

The writing doesn’t have to stop just because the challenge is over. That is biggest takeaway for me. I’m not even close to finished with my novel, but I’ve got a huge stack of raw material to dig through and I can move forward with renewed confidence in my ability, my stamina, and my pure love of writing.


Back to Zen

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Last night, I returned to hot yoga class after a couple week absence. It felt oh so good.

I could say that an increased work load was to be blame, but really, I had stopped making myself a priority. One day last week I found myself staring at my computer screen for 30 minutes, barely able to concentrate on any work because I was so fried. That’s when I knew I needed to shift my priorities.

Most instructors at the yoga studio I frequent begin class by guiding us through setting an intention for the class. We seal that intention through a series of rhythmic breaths. My intention last night? Setting boundaries.

I’m still feeling the mind-centering effects. Ommm.

Like a dream

To close our European vacation, we spent another day in Copenhagen before flying back to Chicago. It was a great way to relax in a familiar city and enjoy the remaining hours of our vacation without rushing around town in sightseeing mode. We rented bikes through our hotel and explored, agenda-free, feeling more like locals. The cycling infrastructure in Copenhagen is truly the safest and most advanced I’ve ever seen!

Vienna waits for you

Vienna is truly a royal city. Its monarchic history and musical tradition permeated all the sights we visited and our interactions with locals.

We arrived in Vienna in the late afternoon, and after finding the hotel and dropping off our bags, we took a ride on the Wiener Reisenrad, the oldest working ferris wheel in the world.

The next day we were up early and ready for a full day of sightseeing. Like with Munich and Prague, we started our  day of sightseeing with a bike tour.

The Austrian Parliament building.

St. Stephen’s Cathedral

Mozart statue

Museum Quartier

Leopold Museum

Museum Quarter courtyard

Hofbibliothek, the National Library

Now that is one gorgeous library!

Our last stop in Vienna was—so fittingly—to the world famous pastry shop, Demel. I got this decadent chocolate lava cake. Surprisingly, it was rich and flavorful without being “knock you into an instant sugar coma sweet”. Keith got the vanilla custard-filled crepes. These desserts were to die for.


We spent our last day in Prague on a marathon sightseeing adventure in Lesser Town. We took the tram to the top of the hill where the Prague Castle sits then made our way down, hitting other sites along the way. This was another great insider tip from our bike tour guide. She told us about the #22 tram which goes directly to the top, saving us the strenuous climb uphill and leaving us with enough energy to see everything we did. And now the photos.

On the castle grounds, walking toward the cathedral.

St. Vitus Cathedral

The flying buttresses supporting the back of the cathedral.

Details, details, details.

After we walked around the castle grounds, we stopped at the Strahov Monastery for a couple of delicious, monk-brewed beer. On the grounds of the monastery was this gorgeous terrace overlooking the city.

We rented a paddleboat—cheesy, but so fun!

After paddle boating, we took the subway halfway up the hill to the walk through the park and stumbled upon a beer garden/picnic area.

One last view of the city while walking down the hill. Beautiful Prague, I’ll miss you!

Na Zdraví

(Sidenote: the post title means “cheers” in Czech and was one of the few words besides “please” and “thank you” I was able to pick up during our time in Prague)

I’ve been a bad blogger. Though I just arrived back home in Chicago, I’m  going to retroactively cover the highlights from the rest of my trip.

The architecture in Prague is unreal. Ornate details drip over every single inch of this city—from the St. Vitus Cathedral and Charles Bridge to manhole covers and street lamps.

Walking along the Charles Bridge on our first night in Prague.

Old Town Square

The astronomical clock. It’s one of the oldest clock towers in the world, dating back to the 15th century, but you can’t use it to tell time—it’s an astronomical clock, so it shows the locations of the sun, moon, and many zodiac constellations. Interesting tidbit: this is actually the second astronomical clock I’ve visited. I saw one, also dating back to the 15th century, in the Lund Cathedral in Lund, Sweden during another trip to Europe in March 2010.

Prague is all about the details: the sidewalk mosaics and manhole covers.

Entrance to the Jewish Cemetery

View of the Prague Castle and Lesser Town from the Charles Bridge.

View of the Charles Bridge from the other side of the Vlatva river, taken during our bike tour.

“Dancing House” designed by architect, Frank Gehry. The building is also nicknamed “Fred and Ginger” for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers because it’s said to look like a man and woman dancing.

Franz Kafka Museum


David Cerny sculpture outside the Franz Kafka Museum

The “John Lennon” wall