At 20, Gratitude

This last Tuesday, I turned twenty and… yeah, I’m not quite feeling it yet.

I guess that’s probably normal. After I turned 13 I didn’t believe I was a teenager for a long time afterward. Though maybe I truly wasn’t a teenager for a long time afterward. These age distinctions sometimes feel a little too sudden for something that in reality is pretty gradual.

But in the eyes of aging conventions, I guess I’m a capital A Adult now. Not a lowercase one, like I was when I turned 18.

I figured I should probably make a post commemorating my second decade on this Earth, but I wasn’t really sure what I would say except… well… this. Strap in, folks. It’s story time.

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Round Two

Last year around this time I wrote a little narrative piece on my first day of college. I started writing that piece the evening of that very first day, I was so moved by the swirl of so many different emotions it had brought me.

And now, it is the Saturday after I moved in. I’ve been on campus for nearly four days now, and I’m just now sitting down to type this. I don’t usually like to procrastinate this bad, and I can’t even blame it on the lack of ideas. I knew that I’d be typing out this post this week, and though I had to wait until Wednesday (the day I moved in) to come and go to start it, I should have been able to put down how it all felt before now, right?

But the past few days have been weirdly busy. And it took me a bit to realize why that is – why I haven’t had the time to sit down and really focus on my own writing.

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Thoughts Two Hours From Home – Cincinnati Trip Recap

I want to start this post with a personal callout – it was going to be something else entirely for almost the whole week, but I never actually started that “something else” until now, about 11 a.m. on Saturday. I don’t like to cut posts so close to the deadline like that, so many apologies if the quality suffers as a result.

On Wednesday of this week, I drove my friend Marie and myself to Cincinnati to see “The Adventure Zone Live,” the McElroys live show tour promoting their new graphic novel version of the first arc of their incredible Dungeons and Dragons podcast (which I’ve talked about on two occasions before). The graphic novel is really good from the leafing through it I’ve done so far, and I’ll to get to that in a bit, but this trip was notable for more than just its destination.

See, I started driving, actually driving, late in my Junior year of high school. For a lot of reasons, I didn’t hop into a car immediately after turning 16 like many people do. For one, I know lots of kind and lovely people who would drive me where I needed to go most of the time. And for two… driving represented a lot of things I was uncomfortable with, and am uncomfortable with now.

Even now, almost 20, it’s still a little weird to imagine my own independence. But I’m certainly a lot more comfortable with it than I was at 16, or 17 when I actually started driving. I also am a lot more aware of my anxiety for new and unfamiliar situations, which driving was (and still is, a little) even now.

I’m thankful of all the ways I’ve grown since first learning to drive, due in a lot of part to my job requiring me to drive all over the place the summer after my senior year and this summer as well. But until last Wednesday I had never driven more than a half an hour from my house. And I certainly had never driven myself and a friend somewhere, stayed the day there and planned my own trip.

Admittedly, both Marie and I had a lot of help from our parents actually planning the trip, but once we got there we were able to figure out for ourselves what we wanted to do. That was new, and big.

Not to get ahead of myself, though, I first want to focus on the drive itself. I think what surprised me the most about it was how unremarkable it was. I know about my habit of hyping new things way up in my head before doing them, but it was incredibly true of the drive itself. It was really easy, and I never got panicked or overwhelmed. I stopped for lunch midway through and was able to locate the Wendy’s at the exit without the use of Google Maps just like I had seen my parents do so many times before. I didn’t run out of gas, or hit anyone, or even come close to.

And I found our airbnb just fine, and we introduced ourselves to the very kind owner and made friends with him just fine, and we walked into town just fine, found dinner just fine, and hailed a Lyft to the theater just fine. Unremarkable, all of it.

I guess that’s all to say that I’ve come a long way. I think the Gillian from… maybe even a year ago wouldn’t be able to say that any of that was unremarkable. Not to say it would be bad, but I’d be shocked to be taking part in any of that, if that makes sense.

The show was great. I wasn’t expecting to see all four McElroys there, partly based on how they were talking about the show on their podcasts and social media (apparently tickets didn’t sell very quickly in Cincy for some reason, which made me wonder if we would only be getting, like, one brother). But no, there they all were in the flesh on stage, talking in the voices I’ve heard hours and hours of from my podcast app.

The theme of the night was adaptation, which makes sense. The graphic novel is an adaptation of a purely audio story into a purely visual one, and as such they spent a lot of time explaining the particular challenge of making that switch. Personally, I think they did an incredible job capturing the spirit of the podcast without trying to literally adapt it. While many of the jokes made it more or less verbatim into the novel, those that didn’t were at least captured through the pictures, or through tiny background details.

It is a shame that they couldn’t use all of the same names from the original arc of their campaign, since it was at first adapted from a premade Wizards of the Coast campaign. Klarg couldn’t be called Klarg, nor Phandolin Phandolin, plus a few other small yet definitely noticed name changes. It’s a small thing but it is a shame.

But the art by Carey Pietsch (who I always thought was “Carey Peach” from all of the times the brothers talked about her on their podcast until I saw her name on the cover of the book), is lively and colorful and beautiful and fun and so perfect for this story. I cannot wait for the rest of the arcs to be adapted in her artwork and I can’t wait to get my grubby hands on a copy of every single one.

Speaking of a copy though, I got a free copy with my ticket and Griffin signed it! My favorite McElroy! What luck!

After the show, Marie and I Ubered home in the first instance of panic the whole trip for me. See, Marie had hailed us the Lyft getting there, but her phone was on the fritz and died partway through the show, leaving the responsibility of figuring out how to get home to me. She was super apologetic, but in theory it really shouldn’t have been a big deal. I didn’t even have to pay, thanks to my Dad’s family plan he shared with me.

But the app wouldn’t update and my battery power was slowly draining, and during the fifteen-minute intermission, I found myself standing in the lobby quietly considering a future where Marie and I were stranded at the theater, having to beg for a ride from the shady, probably violent strangers around us. That’s not what happened at all, though, because the app finally updated and I was able to get a ride from a man named Frank, who told us we should visit the gorilla exhibit at the Cincinnati Zoo, because his construction crew had just laid the concrete there and it was really beautiful.

We got back to the airbnb and sat on the front porch for probably an hour with the owner, Buddy, talking about all sorts of things. It was mainly Buddy and Marie talking about their endless knowledge of nature and the outdoors, two topics I’m a little lacking in, but it was fun all the same. Then Marie and I went inside and watched Buzzfeed videos until we went to sleep like the garbage millennials we are.

The next morning, Buddy made us cheese omelettes and walked us to the zoo, where he had a membership and was able to get us in for free. It had been probably years since I had visited any zoo, so I was really excited. It was hot, but not unpleasantly so, and though by the end of the day I was thoroughly wrecked, it was still a great experience. I think my favorite part was either the manatee exhibit, where Marie and I sat and watched the big sweet sea-cows sleep on the sides and bottom of the tank while the zookeeper talked about them, or the Galapagos tortoises, who we were allowed to pet and were all named after Harry Potter characters.

After that, Marie and I packed up the car and headed to our final Cincinnati stop – a vintage store. Unfortunately I’m never very successful in these places, but it was still fun to root through mounds of ugly 80s sweaters and oddly-shaped bathing suits from the 40s.

And then, the drive home. Slightly more stressful thanks to one botched turn landing us in standstill traffic behind an accident, and yet, sitting there in that standstill traffic, I was surprisingly calm. Annoyed, of course, but calm.

And I came home, exhausted, but proud of myself. It was a great two days, a nice reward for the four hours driven.

A Few Stories from Freshman Year

It is Friday morning as I’m writing this, the day after moving back home from my first year of college. I spent a long time yesterday evening unpacking boxes, putting clothes back in drawers, and reintegrating myself into the same room I’ve lived in for almost 20 years now.

I’ve only just now started this blog post because I debated what I wanted to do. I almost went ahead and did something normal and media-related, but it felt wrong not to commemorate the occasion. Especially after doing my Day One post, I felt like it wouldn’t make sense if I didn’t make a last day post. But then, my last day of college wasn’t very exciting. It was weird and sad and honestly, my Day One post was already a little bit weird and sad. That doesn’t define my freshman year of college at all… well, at least not totally.

So I thought instead I’d share a couple of stories from Freshman year. I hope you’ll enjoy this little trip through the year with me.

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Nathan Chen: Gifted and Pressured

My current obsession is Olympic ice skating. It’s a floor event. People gather in the lounge every evening and work on homework or socialize as the various events play out on NBC. Sometimes we get really into them, especially when the Americans are doing well (which is not particularly often, but still). But whenever ice skating is on, everyone is glued to the screen.

For good reason too. Ice skating is probably one of the most overly-hyped events. It’s practically a symbol of the entire games – the image of beautifully bedazzled people twirling and leaping across the ice. Plus, it lends itself well to big personalities. Adam Rippon’s reception thus far has been a great example of that.

So it makes sense that when promoting the Olympics, networks turn to notable ice skaters. Nathan Chen was one of those ice skaters.

Touted as Team USA’s best chance for a gold medal in figure skating, NBC announcers dubbed him the “Quad King” thanks to his seemingly inhuman ability to pull off quads, or jumps with 4 spins in the air. It’s currently the highest-scored jump in ice skating, and thanks to that the ice skating world is in a period of transition where all the most successful male skaters are more or less required to have one in their programs if they want to be competitive.

Nathan was also the winner of the 2017 Rostelecom Cup, beating out previous World and Olympic champion and expected winner Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan, to the surprise of pretty much everyone.

All that being said, Nathan was hyped BIG TIME. And the fact that he’s only 18 years old and this is his first Olympics only added to his mystique.

So NBC announcers were shocked and appalled when Nathan didn’t live up to their sky-high expectations. He stumbled through his short program in the Team skate, falling on jumps he had repeatedly shown to be able to pull off flawlessly in previous competitions and practices. Then, in his big chance to redeem himself in the Individual Short Program skate, he stumbled once more, landing in 17th place.

Suddenly, the boy for whom Olympic gold was “his to lose” had lost. I watched his falls over and over again as the NBC commentators deeply analyzed what had gone wrong. But to me, it was exceedingly obvious what had happened to Nathan.

See, we as a culture love winners. I don’t think that’s a crazy statement to make, I mean, it’s the reason the Olympics even exists. Winners of all types – athletic, historic, and intellectual. But there’s something we love even more than a winner – a prodigy.

It combines so many of the things we celebrate in our society. Youth, achievement, success… if a young person is unusually good at their chosen craft, there’s a good chance you’ll hear about it on the news or on the Olympics. That’s basically the whole draw of the Olympics too – young, extremely talented athletes. Prodigies.

And Nathan Chen is the epitome of that prodigy. Barely an adult and already shaking up the skating world. 18 years old and USA’s biggest chance for gold in ice skating.

But as celebrated as it is, it’s not always easy to be young and talented. I can’t say I’ve ever been an Olympic athlete, but watching Nathan Chen stumble under the collective eye of his entire country, I related. I’m sure many people with a similar educational experience to me can attest – being a “gifted” kid is a strange and ultimately overwhelmingly negative experience.

Ignore the fact all of us gifted kids never got to develop our social skills along with our peers since we were all so driven to improve our mental skills, although that’s a topic for another post, and look instead to the expectations.

When you’re young and gifted, success is expected. It’s not earned. You’re good at things naturally, and you don’t need to work nearly as hard as your peers. I coasted through elementary and middle school barely studying. I did my homework, sure, but beyond that I relied on my natural talents for school. I expected that that would be enough, and those around me expected me to continue to succeed all throughout school.

It seems like a natural system, right up until you’re in high school and you realize that everyone else around you is just as smart as you are, and not only that, they’re talented in sports or social skills or leadership. Suddenly your excellent test-taking skills don’t matter as much in the mad rush into college, and then in college you’re no more special than anyone else. You start back at ground zero, and you don’t have the skills to claw your way back to the top because you’ve never had to do that.

And you still have those expectations. They don’t go away. You still expect to not only succeed but excel at everything you do, and though they don’t say so, so does everyone around you. Or even if they don’t, you feel like they do. And that natural school talent you had as a kid doesn’t save you from the weight of those expectations once you realize that you’re pretty average, and you’ve never learned how to fail.

Now, I’ll admit, that’s a little bit of a cynical view of it all. It ignores the fact that, at least in my experience, you get to continue to excel in the things you love doing the most. And it ignores the fact that at the very least you’re not alone (my entire Hutton Honors College floor probably has a similar experience). And I don’t want to imply that Nathan Chen didn’t put any work into his ice skating because he’s a prodigy or a natural. But, you can’t deny that the expectations placed on him were way too optimistic, and that nobody ever expected him to fail.

Because in reality, Nathan Chen wasn’t really a gold medal favorite. He could have won gold, but that would have relied on a lot of other skaters not doing as well as they usually do, including the very skater he beat in the Rostelecom Cup, Yuzuru Hanyu. That’s probably what happened in the Rostelecom Cup itself. As great as Nathan Chen is, and he is great, the gold was not “his to lose.” It was his to set himself up for well, but a lot more went into who would win gold that evening.

And I can’t help but feel that it was those very expectations that led to his surprising failures in the Team Skate and Individual Short Program. Just like a former gifted kid struggling to realize they’re average adults since everyone else around them is usually just as talented as they are in other ways, Nathan was among other fantastic skaters who also had great chances to win gold. The only difference was the expectations placed on his head were the most inflated, especially considering he was new to the scene and very young.

But that was not the end of Nathan Chen’s Olympic story. In 17th place, Nathan Chen entered the Men’s Free Skate as far from a gold medal contender as he could be. And without the pressure that had weighed on him before, Nathan put down a record-breaking skate. He became the first Olympic skater to attempt and land six quads, and the first to land five clean quads. He rocketed from 17th to 5th, and for a moment placed himself back in medalling range.

And as he exited the ice from that incredible skate, he said, “I just wanted to be able to leave here satisfied with what I’ve done.”

Picture me and the rest of the Olympics fans in the lounge at that moment screaming and crying at Nathan Chen’s triumph over adversity, not only because he’s an American athlete and a hardworking person who deserved it, but also because I think we all understood him. As I mentioned, everyone on my floor probably went through a similar experience of shouldering the heavy weight of expectation of others.

And everyone knew, or hoped we would someday know, the satisfaction of being able to succeed not by the terms of others’, but by our own terms.

Reckless Optimism and Walk the Moon

Sometimes you have bad days. Sometimes you have stressful assignments, or unexpectedly bad grades, or technology that won’t work with you, or interactions with humans that makes you feel like a joke. And sometimes all of those things happen in a couple of days. And suddenly you’ve got a bad week on your hands.

When that sort of thing happens, the best treatment in the world is a Walk the Moon concert. I speak from experience here.

As most followers of this blog could probably tell, I’m a huge fan of Walk the Moon, and I have been for some years now. They’re my favorite band, and I have a hard time believing they’re going to budge from that spot for a while. But I’m not sure I was ever able to place exactly why I’ve loved them so much until I attended their Indianapolis show on their Press Restart Tour last Saturday.

It came at maybe the most perfect time. I was tired and stressed and done with school and with my responsibilities and with life. I was also, simultaneously, ashamed at myself for being so fed up with all of these things, since I felt like I was failing in all of these categories. I’m not so great at failure.

And then I got to go home and pet my dog. I got to go out to my favorite restaurant with my best friend. I got to get pedicures with my mom. I got to be with my mom while she saw my favorite band in the world live for the first time.

But maybe the most therapeutic part of the weekend was the concert itself. It was in the Egyptian Room at the Old National Centre. To those who haven’t seen a concert there, it’s a pretty intimate affair. It’s nothing but the stage and a large standing-room only area for the audience (as well as VIP wings with tables and chairs to the sides, but I can’t imagine trading the amazing view for a chair). The stage itself isn’t really that big either, just enough room for the band members to stand and face the audience, and maybe walk back and forth a little. It was stiflingly hot in that room, packed in with the audience as I was, and I stood the entire time.

It was my third time seeing the band live, but it was the closest I had ever been to them. I could see all of their faces clearly. Once the concert got started, I danced and screamed and sang as loud as I could. I threw my arms up in the air when the moment felt right, and so did the entire rest of the audience. At one point during one of their more romantic songs, the crowd near us parted to give room for a man kneeling down to propose to his girlfriend. (The band members, watching this happen, demanded to know the couple’s names so that they could congratulate them.) The mood was happy, energetic, hopeful.

And standing among the hundreds of fellow Walk the Moon fans, screaming every lyric I knew (99.9 percent of them), dancing and jumping and throwing my arms in the air, I realized what it was that made me love this band so much.

They are optimistic. Recklessly so. You can probably gain that from their recorded music only, but it becomes absolutely obvious when you see them perform. Walk the Moon mostly performs optimistic songs and even when their songs are sadder, they’re always with a note of looking ahead to better days. I can think of only one of their songs that is truly sad, and that one doesn’t usually get played at their concerts. (Though it is excellent).

But it’s not only in the content of their music, it’s in how they perform it. They’re energetic, they engage with the audience, they run back and forth across the stage. Kevin Ray, their bassist, always turns around and shakes his butt to the beat of “Shiver Shiver”, a classic fan-favorite that’s heavy on the bass. Eli Maiman, their guitarist, likes to shred his most complicated parts while striking rock-star poses. And Nick Petricca, the band leader, vocalist, and keyboard player, always encourages the audience to let loose and sing and dance along.

At no point do they bring down the mood. It seems they have no other mode except high speed, full energy, all optimism. They’re flashy, they’re colorful.

They’re unashamed of their positivity. Recklessly optimistic. And that is what I admire most about them.

I could talk for days about how much talent they all have, how fun their 80s-inspired sound is, how I love their often goofy lyrics, but it all comes down to that optimism. It’s the reason I keep coming back to them again and again.

It’s the reason that particular concert was such a cleansing moment for me, because it had felt that entire week like I could never possibly be optimistic again. What was the point, when it felt like I was failing in everything? What did I have to look forward to except more failure and more feeling awful?

But that performance showed me I was wrong. As far as I know, we hadn’t left the world, hadn’t traveled to some place where things were suddenly alright that night in the Egyptian Room. Yet, in that moment, I could still be optimistic.

Don’t get me wrong, when I came back to IU the next day, the same stressors and failures were there waiting for me. In fact, they were there with a vengeance that sent me back into a similar funk to the one I had been in before. And then, on the way back from class one day, I started listening to their new song “All I Want”. And I was surprised when a few of the lines hit me particularly hard.

“I am my own sanctuary,
I am my own hero,
I am my own teacher,
I am my own best friend,
I am my own Friday night,
I am my own love of my life,
I am my own way out.”

I won’t lie and say that all of a sudden I’m a master of fighting my anxiety demons and winning. I won’t lie and say that I never give in to defeatist attitudes anymore. But remembering what it is that I admire so much about my favorite band is an excellent reminder that that reckless positivity comes from within.

That was the energy I was feeling that night. As much as it was influenced by the crowd around me and the band on stage, it was my decision to laugh and scream and sing along. And it’s my decision to be happy, even when it’s hard.

I’m glad this wonderful band reminded me of that

A Sparkling Personality Type

I’d like to think of myself as a purely scientific person all the time. I wish I could say I always listen to facts and only facts… but listen, I love personality tests.

And I know there’s a lot to be said about the legitimacy of a test that claims to understand your entire life and personality through only a few questions. I know personality quizzes tend to pull off their eerie accuracy through making sweeping, vague statements that almost anyone can relate to. That’s how completely unscientific classifications like horoscopes work, but it’s more or less how more specific personality tests operate as well.

Still… I can’t help but love them.

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