Archive for August, 2013

Transportation sucks, or The loss of our second-grade selves

Any other Chicago-area twenty-somethings remember the transportation field trip from elementary school? Oh man, was it ever the highlight of second grade.

Being all about, you guessed it, transportation, the day involved buses, subway trains, “el” trains, boats, elevators, Chicago, Lake Michigan and the Sears Tower.

Within the field trip itself, the climb up Chicago’s tallest building was the most exciting, entertaining and surprising part. But now, 20-ish years later, the most surprising thing is the fact there even was a transportation field trip.

I’m not getting all economic here or expressing shock and awe that money, gas pollution and highway space were wasted to show a bunch of squealing second graders the inside of a bus, boat, several trains and an elevator. I’m sure much more wasteful spending still goes on every day, and now’s not the time to drone on about it.

This is what shocks me now: In elementary school, transportation in its various forms was novel, educational and fun enough to get its own field trip – and not just any run-of-the-mill trip to some museum type of field trip, but the most anticipated day away from school of the whole year. Transportation was the bomb in second grade, but in our twenties, what has it become?

First and foremost a hassle. A daily time-waster eating precious hours of sleep on the way to work and freedom on the way home. A monotonous grind of joining the same mob of zombie commuters for the same stops at train depots with the same conductors, smelly passengers and threat of coffee spills. A stressful maze of traffic congestion, road construction, slamming on the brakes or gunning the gas and often running late. It’s all this and worse – and I’m nowhere near transportation’s biggest critic.

Yes, the demise of transportation from second grade to our twenties is an epic one, full of promise and fun at first, but now, devoid of all value – entertainment, intrinsic or otherwise.

It’d be easy to say it’s sad, how the things that used to excite us eventually become so ingrained in our existence that they lose all the intangibles that made them appealing. We could sit here and mourn the end of the fun of transportation, but the fact is, we’ve got better things to do.

Since we turned 16, transportation – and the independence to handle it ourselves – has no longer been a new frontier. It’s turned into a necessity, and like tube socks and toilet paper, necessities just aren’t fun.

There’s nothing sad about it, and us twenty-somethings don’t need to throw transportation a pity party. We just need to get in our cars, hop our trains and ride our elevators knowing we’ve grown up, but remembering your youthful excitability and saving it for the things that still are new and unexplored.

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E is for Eating Alone

The lamest thing about living on your own?

Eating alone.

This somehow didn’t hit me when I was in college, probably because I ate dinner at my campus newspaper job five times a week and with my roommates the other two. But I still think it should have hit me sooner: eating alone sucks.

Let’s be clear here – eating doesn’t suck. It’s just the alone part – and how chowing down while on your own amplifies the loneliness by lack of family, friends or boyfriend/girlfriend/partner to share the meal with – that’s a bit of a downer.

Without someone else around, it’s not like the actual putting-food-in-mouth-and-swallowing becomes a chore. It’s just that boredom becomes easily apparent. ADD moments strike. The mind wanders, but not in a good, possibly productive way.

Without someone to talk to, eating somehow feels empty, like it requires multitasking.

I’ve tried reading news online, and quickly found myself on Facebook instead. I’ve tried reading actual paperbacks, and found I don’t have enough hands to eat and keep a book open at once. I’ve tried watching DVDs and discovered I know what happens in all of my “House” episodes (and they’re much less fun when you know how each crazy case is diagnosed), and that at this point, in 2013, “Sex and the City” is a bit outdated.

Heck, I’ve tried all else while having dinner that now I’ve moved on to writing while eating (you’re reading the linguistic product of honey mustard chicken with baked potato pieces and cinnamon-sugar apples). Tasty.

I’ve never liked being alone, yet I love the independence of living “on my own” with a Craigslist roommate who’s friendly, respectful, pretty clean, and not home a whole lot.

Looks like the boredom and loneliness of eating by myself is a small price to pay, especially when company is only a phone call or a couple keystrokes away.

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‘My heart belongs to Pittsburgh’

I once bought a $4, one-size-too-small T-shirt from a market district shop in an American riverside city.

The reason? I couldn’t resist the slogan – it was just too true: “My heart belongs to Pittsburgh.”

Since sometime in summer 2010, it has.

Pittsburgh is the first city outside Illinois where I ever really lived for any period of time, and although it’s as American as baseball, apple pie and Chicago-style pizza, Pittsburgh served as the location for my study abroad-like experience.

It’s where I interned for three months (paid! I might add,) at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, and to me, the Iron City represents adventure.

Although I can’t pinpoint the exact moment when Pittsburgh stole my heart, I can tell you all about the top reasons I’ll always love the city. So if you ever travel to the ‘burgh, and you want to venture beyond a trip to PNC Park and a stop at Primanti Brothers for a cole-slaw-and-french-fries-topped sandwich, maybe these reasons Pittsburgh rocks will give you a few ideas…

1. Hills and lookout points

Coming from places as flat as Chicagoland and Champaign, Ill., I honestly appreciated Pittsburgh’s hills as a change of scenery, and lookout points gave a great spot from which to observe and enjoy the landscape.

As a runner, I learned hills are not symmetrical or predictable. You may go up a steep incline heading one way, make two rights to be heading back the opposite direction, only one block north or south, and find it almost as flat as Illinois. Or you may find another incline, as opposed to what you’d naturally expect – a nice downhill grade.

The strangeness of the landscape added unexpected challenges to my 45-minute runs, and, when I wasn’t huffing and puffing too much, I enjoyed it. I even got some nice hamstring and gleut work in without having to walk on the treadmill at its highest incline, clutching the heart rate bars for dear life.

While not running, I learned Pittsburgh has two kinds of lookout points – the touristy and the tucked away. When a tourist in Pittsburgh, do make sure to check out the touristy lookout point, Mt. Washington, by taking the incline car up from Station Square. The experience is well worth the train fare and the area is full of nice spots for photos, cute ice cream shops and the like.

But I’ll let you in on a secret. To see a different side of Pittsburgh, and gain a 360 degree birds-eye view of the city (which Mt. Washington doesn’t offer) go to Herron Hill Park. Warning: Go during the day, when it’s light outside. Herron Hill Park is in a neighborhood called the Hill District, which doesn’t have the best reputation for general safety. The best way to get there is by taking Bigelow Boulevard out of downtown to Herron Avenue south and making a left on Milwaukee Street. The park will be on your right. You may feel out of place, but the view is worth it. Bring your camera.

2. Active transportation and recreation

This one still kind of puzzles me, but Pittsburgh is very bikeable. By itself, that doesn’t excite me too much. But the availability of urban recreation that’s created by a bikeable city – now that’s one of the things I love about Pittsburgh.

To be bikeable, cities need pedestrian paths, sidewalks and bike lanes, all of which can be used to be physically active in ways other than biking. Those paths led to the chance to run over some massive bridges spanning Pittsburgh’s three rivers, while safely separated from cars. Bike paths let me explore quirky neighborhood commercial districts and residential streets by foot and gave me the great escape of running and hiking through the city’s two forest preserve-sized parks. Without a focus on being “bikeable,” I bet half the awesome path infrastructure I used wouldn’t be there for the crazy bike commuters always cycling by or for runners like me to enjoy at our own pace.

Kayaking, swimming, soccer, Frisbee golf, real golf, tennis, sand volleyball, even being a kid and swinging on playground sets are all ready to be enjoyed without leaving the Iron City’s urban environment.

As a bit of a workout enthusiast who enjoys moving around and being active, I couldn’t get enough of Pittsburgh’s urban recreation.

3. Giant parks

Highland Park (sorry, not the Chicago suburb this time) and Schenley Park are both Pittsburgh “Citiparks” large enough to get completely lost in while simultaneously forgetting you’re even in a city. But my love of the city’s parks is really more of an ode to Frick Park. It’s got a weird name, I know. But give it a chance, and it’ll surprise you.

Tucked between Regent Square (my Pittsburgh home base for three months) Squirrel Hill, the Parkway (as important in this metro area as the Eisenhower or Kennedy in Chicago) and a neighborhood called Point Breeze, most of Frick Park is as undeveloped and natural as a state park or county forest preserve. It’s just as beautiful as America’s favorite National Parks, too.

Now Frick Park does have its obligatory soccer fields and playground, and it’s even got a court for an old people’s sport called Lawn Bowling that unfortunately – and I know this from experience – isn’t half as awesome as it sounds. But I love the park mostly for its trails, hills, boardwalks and smelly little creek called Nine Mile Run.

When I was stressed during my three-month internship at the Tribune-Review, I would pop in my earbuds, lace up my running shoes and take a walk or jog through Frick Park, jamming out to my tunes and venting my frustration through each pounding step on the crushed limestone and gravel paths. Seemingly miles away from everything, I’d begin to feel better.

Everyone needs a place like that, and while the Illinois Prairie Path is as close as I’ve come to a Chicagoland substitute, it’s just not the same. No place I’ve ever been matches the charm, the seclusion, the picturesque and hilly natural beauty, nor the one-block away convenience and nearly immediate stress relief I’ve always found in Frick Park.

4. Winding roads and getting lost

I’m not someone who gets lost easily – literally or figuratively. In the literal, navigational sense, I know my Never Eat Soggy Waffles without a GPS, thank you very much, and my visual memory allows twists and turns to make sense. Figuratively, I’ve known I wanted to be a journalist since I was 12 years old. And for a few years now, that’s exactly what I’ve been doing – no getting lost on that life path.

But sometimes, you need to get lost. It’s a good mental break. And with an internal compass like mine, that’s not going to happen without some assistance from outside factors like roads that circle back and cross themselves, parallel one-way streets that change direction three times, “belts” instead of major thoroughfares and only isolated instances of grid streets.

Man did I end up in the right city. Pittsburgh’s got all that street confusion and more, and despite the stress of navigating it all – during construction season, mind you – I loved and welcomed the confusion.

Like I said, everyone needs to get lost sometimes to remember what they’re trying to find. Pittsburgh’s winding, hilly, scenic, one-way and abruptly ending streets offer even the best navigators among us the chance to do just that. To get lost in some corner of the city, and better yet, lost in thought.

5. BEER.

Have I mentioned yet that I’m a beer person? Forget the frilly drinks and don’t try to convince me I’m fancy enough for wine. Just buy me a beer or two and you’ll make my night.

Pittsburgh is the place where beer turned from the cheap shit to avoid at parties to my drink of choice, and I’ve got some great characters of friends to thank for that. The group of musicians, bartenders and their sidekicks I wandered into by striking up a conversation with an artsy 26-year-old in the Squirrel Hill library loved, loved, loved to drink beer.

They’d often have barbecues and drink Lion’s Head beer while puzzling at the riddles on each bottle cap. They could be found on the roof at a South Side bar called The Library drinking raspberry framboise beer (in Pittsburgh, the South Side isn’t a place to avoid, it’s actually where twenty-somethings go to party). They loved heading to the Map Room in Regent Square to sip Pedal Pale by East End Brewery and talk about that awesome bike race each spring when you follow a truck packed with kegs of East End’s newest brew to some remote spot, and the first to the finish is the first to the beer. And with some advanced planning, the musician crew and I could go to D’s Dogs and take our picks in the form of a 6-pack from the Beer Cave with 1,000-plus options.

Pittsburgh, well Pennsylvania, actually, has some weird alcohol laws.

You can buy beer in up to two 6-packs from a bar, like the Beer Cave at D’s Dogs, or you can get a case from a beer distributor. As far as I know, 12-packs don’t exist, although Wikipedia begs to differ. Privately owned liquor stores definitely don’t exist. They’re all run by the state and called “Wine & Spirits.” Classy.

Whenever I visit, I make my friends explain the liquor laws again, because just like drinking game rules, I never can completely recall them while sober.

But with all the cookouts and nights at bars (I was practically a regular at the Map Room by summer’s end) I learned what I like, mainly Belgians and wheat beers – or if I want to be beer-snobby about it, hefeweizens.

Which reminds me, it must be 5 o’clock somewhere, even if it’s not that time in Pittsburgh – the city I love for its hills and winding roads and lookout points, its giant parks and culture of urban recreation, and last but not least, its brews.

Cheers to Pittsburgh, the city where a part of my heart always will belong.

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Long live our cars!

Whether we drive a sparingly used 1998 Oldsmobile, a brand-new Prius, a hand-me-down Honda CRV or any other set of wheels, twenty-somethings these days seem to have one car-related thing in common:

Whatever our ride, we plan to keep it for a while.

A long while.

Like, until it dies.

Often but not always, the car we drive through our twenties is the first we’ve bought for ourselves. Many of us dealt with the shopping, comparing, test-driving, the haggling, financing, finalizing. This is a car we feel real ownership for, because for once, we really do own it.

This car won’t be left out under a foot-deep pile of snow – no way, we’ll brush our baby off, even if we don’t need to use it right away. This car won’t run out of gas, windshield wiper fluid or any other vital, uh, ingredient cars need, because whatever those are, we’ll figure it out. Yeah.

If this car of ours is not built to last, we’ll make up for its flaws with love and meticulous care. We’ll be the epitome of a responsible owner to make our investment last as long as possible, because it’s highly likely this purchase will be making us feel broke as long as possible, too.

Even if our ride already is a junker or clunker (remember Cash for Clunkers, anyone?) when we buy it used, we’re making sure to get our money’s worth out of it.

Road trips? We’ll drive. 30-mile commutes? We’ll tough it out, if it’s necessary and/or allows us to live somewhere fun like Wicker Park or Wrigleyville. Carpooling? Hop right in. Designated Driving … we’ll take our turn.

Because we’re so proud of what’s often our first real car purchase, twenty-somethings want to hold on to our cars/trucks/SUVs/hoopties/whatever-else-we-call-them as long as we can.

It’s not quite “’til death do us part,” – crashes (hopefully without injuries and someone else’s fault), or cost-prohibitive repairs can turn what would have been a long-term relationship into a quick and unceremonious breakup.

But until life, money, insanely high mileage, engines or other car parts do us part, twenty-somethings are in it for the long haul with the vehicles that move us forward.

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