instrument of freedom: notes on cycling

A bike is an instrument of freedom. On it, you can feel the breeze in your hair and against your skin as you pedal faster and faster, riding into the wind or along with it.

Nothing is weighing you down or holding you back. Wearing shorts that cling to the curves of your muscles, hair pulled back, and legs shaved, you blend almost seamlessly into the air swirling around you. The wind is not your enemy, but you are simply swimming in it.

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I thought Paris was my playground…


IMG_0885Paris is my playground. Wait, I thought only good things happened there? Like getting my portrait drawn by an old wrinkled artist called Igor in front of le Sacre Cœur, sipping vin chaud at the marché de noel while strolling along Champs-Elysées, or people watching on Saint Germain-des-Près pretending I was observing scenes from a Hemingway novel. Wasn’t this city just a perpetual maze of boulevards and bistros with charming, roll-off-your tongue names?

The other day, a notification popped up from my wordpress app on my phone that announced my “Happy two year anniversary!” It was two years ago that I wrote my first post from a suburban high school just an hour train ride from Paris on the transilien.

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Good Luck!

So I don’t want to jinx my chances of getting my dream apartment by writing about it (I don’t really know why a little blog post would equate to bad luck, but I feel the need to be overly cautious). What is luck anyways; do we just call it luck when an event with an extremely low probability happens? And if it just comes down to is numbers, then how small do the chances have to be to say that we’re lucky? Or does that depend on our point of view, like how they say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

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The Green Lamp Room

Hi all, I am working on a series of blog posts based on writing prompts. This week’s prompt is: “Write about a place where you felt comfortable or safe”. This first place that popped into my head was a room in the Paterno library at Penn State. I’ll see where this takes me…


I took various paths and routes to this room over my four years at Penn State. Sometimes I was wearing jean shorts and a sweatshirt, or a sundress and flip -flops, or leggings and rain-boots, depending on the weather outside. No matter the path I took to get there or what was happening in the little bubble we lived in that was State College, one could always find a sense of comfort at one of the dozens of long wooden tables with green readings lamps on them.

I had heard from someone that this room was constructed as a replica of the New York City Public Library Reading Room. Having never visited that library, the Green Lamp Room always felt like the original to me, and a place inherent to Penn State. Maybe the lamps emitted some special chemical that helped you better absorb formulas and equations and theories, because my most effective studying always took place in this room. Time seemed to move at warp speed once I opened up my MacBook or binder of notes at a table in the Green Lamp Room.

The way college time passed in general seemed to be an extension of this. People always say that college is “the best four years of your life.” Like most writers, I dislike clichés, finding it irksome when every well-meaning friend’s parent, professor, librarian or lunch lady felt compelled to impart this pearl of wisdom on me. It was always delivered like it was something utterly inventive instead of the hackneyed expression that someone had once told them twenty or thirty or fifty years ago.

It is not until you arrive on the other side that you realize that all of these people were just trying to help. They were reminding me to savor the moments during your finest years that flew by too fast for everyone. In order to accept this, I had to come to the conclusion on my own that college was a unique chronological scope; years barreling by too fast for anyone to fully appreciate while they were happening.

It happened while working at Penn State’s “Lion Line,” a division of the Office of Alumni & Donor Relations where students would call alumni to “catch up” and “check in” and then subtlety, strategically ask for a “gift” (never a “donation.”) that would help other students have their awesome “Penn State experience”.

One would think that cold-calling alumni would result in a long sequence of hang-ups, but the “let’s catch up with an old friend” hook worked surprisingly well on many occasions. Once people realized that the call was an opportunity to relive their college years for a few minutes, they would happily divulge the shenanigans they got into with their freshmen roommates or their plans to come back for a visit during “Blue & White weekend”.

I was talking to an alumnus, whose story I wish I could remember in greater detail. He was in the category of alumni who had made gifts before, but not in the past couple years. I had been on the phone with him for about ten minutes, which was longer than a typical call. He was an older guy who seemed to have plenty of time to shoot the breeze with his fellow Nittany Lion.

I was asking him about his Penn State experience; where did he meet his friends? What was his favorite part about Penn State? Then he started asking about me, and I told him that I was a sophomore in the College of Health & Human Development, living in Atherton Hall.

“The time goes by so fast,” I said to him casually, “every year it seems to go by faster,” I added with the air of wisdom and maturity that belongs to all of those who have survived one year of college.

“That’s it. Absolutely, every year goes by faster than the one before,” he said, “And it’ll only get worse once you leave Happy Valley.”

After I hung up with the old guy, one of the supervisors came over to my cube. The supervisors periodically got on the lines and listened to the conversations of random callers to judge our performances, so that’s what I figured he was coming to talk to me about.

“Hey Joanna, I was just listening to your call,” Brendan began, “Yeah, I mean you did a good job. It was fifteen minutes long, and usually we don’t want to stay on the phone that long. He was an interesting guy though. That line you said about ‘time going faster each year,’ that was really good. That’s definitely the kind of nostalgia we want alumni to feel. Nice one.”

Book Review: Booklife

Recently I read a book that greatly influenced my perspective on writing, and more broadly, my attitude in general. I’m often skeptical about books that are written on the craft of writing; they themselves have to be well written in order to be credible advice on how to write. Booklife by Jeff Vandermeer was.

In his work of nonfiction on the craft of writing, Vandermeer focuses on developing both one’s private and public identity with regard to being a creative writer. I will focus on the part about one’s private identity as a writer. Firstly, what does our identity as a writer, or just our identity, mean? Are we defined by our habits and behaviors: our schedule and structure to our writing practice, or does identity beg a deeper question, such as why it is that we wanted to be a writer, or whatever we are, to begin with.

Vandermeer explores both elements in Booklife. He offers practical tips on how to carve out the time to write, and tips on the writing process from brainstorming to polishing final drafts, to judging what advice from others we should take. This is useful in building positive habits and behaviors that will allow us to hone writing skills and advance our creative writing practice.

In addition to behaviors, customs and routines with regard to writing, Booklife helps us explore why it is that we want to be a writer. I thought this was an interesting question that most of the time we don’t even stop to consider. A chapter in a book will unlikely be able to provide you this answer, but Vandermeer poses some interesting questions which may help you discover the why for yourself. For example, do you write because you couldn’t not write? Do most people work in a particular area because it’s their passion and they couldn’t not do that job, or is their motivation more extrinsic, for practical financial reasons?

Something else, which struck a chord with me, was Vandermeer’s mention of perspective and how keeping a clear head and a rational mindset are vital tools for maximizing the energy and creativity necessary for writing:

“If you can somehow find the ability to zoom back and put every situation in your life in its maximum perspective, you will find your life immeasurably enriched and you will be positioning yourself for greater success. […] The focus on what’s coming often allows me to pull back and look at the world with the perspective I need to make better creative decisions.” (Vandermeer, Booklife)

It’s great advice for life in general. No? Basically, use your energy for what’s most important to you at the time, whether it be writing, school, career, family or something else. “All of the base emotions are tied to the short view. These emotions not only keep wounds green, but they burn your time and energy,” says Vandermeer in Booklife. Let all the unimportant details work themselves out, and maintain the ability to focus, zoom out and recognize when things are beyond our control; doing so will provide you with a sense of freedom, and the energy to focus on what we can control.

When has adopting a new perspective helped you in your creative life?



Lessons I Learned from My Dog


Thanks for teaching me how to be a better human…

  1. When you assume everyone in the world wants to be your friend, more often than not, they will:

Leo greets every person and dog he meets with a lot of enthusiasm. His tail whips back and forth at dangerous speeds, as he’s ready to play with any potential new friend. Most people react well when you show them that you’re interested and eager to get acquainted.

  1. Always be curious:

When the refrigerator door opens, the coffee maker gurgles, silverware clanks together in the drawer, Leo’s ears perk up with interest and inquisitiveness as he tries to determine what the noise is, and if it concerns him (food potentially dropping on the floor?). It’s not a bad thing to want to know more about the world around us!

  1. Show your love for those important to you:

Leo’s conception of time is a bit skewed. When someone walks in the door after having been gone for forty-five minutes, Leo welcomes him or her back with a greeting appropriate for a weeklong hiatus. It doesn’t matter to him how long you’ve been gone, or where you’ve been. Whether it’s been fifteen minutes or fifteen days since he’s seen you, he’ll just be overjoyed that the pack is back.

  1. Make time to play:

You don’t always have to be working towards a goal. Sometimes it feels good to run laps around the house as fast as you can with your favorite plastic chicken, or engage your best friend in a game of tug-of-war.

  1. Enjoy the little things in life:

Our dogs could spend hours playing with a root or a stick they found in the back yard or on the trail. Leo is easily entertained by rocks that he finds outside. Follow your pet’s lead and get out and interact with nature!

What have your furry friends taught you recently?



How to leverage your abroad experience on job interviews

Bordeaux, L'Opéra
Bordeaux, L’Opéra

Lately going on job interviews has been bringing me back to my adventure-filled days in France. Every question I get asked from “How do you deal with stressful situations?” to “What qualities best describe you?” and every open-ended prompt they pose, be it “tell me about a time you met a challenge,” or “What is the greatest lesson you’ve learned so far,” causes my mind to jump to my experiences exploring the globe.

Whether it was trying to maneuver my way through Gare de Lyon with luggage that weighed as much as I did, or sorting out my French bank account in a village where no one spoke English, like any other serious traveler, I’ve inevitably met plenty of situations which qualify as challenging, stressful or trying.

So does studying abroad or living abroad help you get a job? Is there any relation between that instance when you were trying to navigate the metro system in Budapest, or that time when you got lost in Paris to working and solving problems in the “real world”? In my opinion and based on my anecdotal evidence, the answer is that it depends. It depends on how skilled you are at communicating how these experiences translate into skills and traits that employers are looking for in a candidate.

Maybe figuring out a foreign transportation system doesn’t necessarily translate into success in the working world, but convince an employer of your resourcefulness and ability to solve problems under pressure that you learned while abroad… now you’re speaking their language.

For example, when an interviewer says, “Wow, you lived abroad in France for eight months, that must have been so exciting,” it opens the door for you to elaborate on your study abroad or work abroad experience and what you learned from it. Say something like, “Yes, it was an exciting learning opportunity. Living in a country where I didn’t speak the language taught me how to step outside of my comfort zone on a daily basis in order to learn the language and integrate into a new culture.”

There you go; chances are that in most work environments you’re going to be learning skills you might not yet be totally comfortable with and trying your hand at some new tasks. Having the ability to communicate with a variety of types of people, both colleagues and clients, is also a relevant skill to most any workplace. If you’re able to illustrate these examples (maybe some of them being from your time abroad), then you’ve just subtly informed your interviewer that you’re a candidate with the skills they want.

What have you learned while abroad that has helped you in your career?