The Longest Day of the Year

Midsummer always seems to come and go so quickly. Each year, I look forward to the day the season officially changes, regardless of when the weather actually indicates otherwise.

March 21. June 21. September 21. December 21.


Twilight over St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota, designed by Marcel Breuer.

There is just something about the solstice, the moment when the earth shifts and the daylight turns. Ever since December, each passing day has been growing longer, the sunsets delaying their shimmering settling if only a second later. A sort of broadening, of both light and hopefulness, as the scope of the year broadens and spreads like a swelling river. Of which we’ve had a lot of in Iowa this spring–one of the wettest on record. Often in the long, dreary gray days of this past winter, I had looked forward to the warmth of summer. The black dirt, then covered with snow, bursting with green things and fresh vegetables. The warm glow of a windows-down trip to the grocery store. And as the days lengthen and the nights grow warmer, the sense of broadening grows with each extra moment of golden twilight. And then, on a perfect summer evening, the switch happens. The earth tilts back the other way, to a long slow descent through the dog days, autumn’s dying brilliance, and the onset of frost and misty breath in the morning. I always look forward to the longest day of the year, where six months of waiting has come to its apex. And so the day has come–summer is officially here, even as I know (in my head; obviously I can’t notice it yet) the sunset starts to creep back towards the 5 on my clock.

And yet, it hasn’t felt like much of a summer for me. Usually, I imagine that most summers are like this:

a.) that ahhhhhhhh time when you aren’t in school, when you work at a low-wage job, likely doing some sort of outside manual labor. Usually, this means getting really tan and increasing your ability to lift things, if only for a short while. Also, it often means many relaxing evenings on the patio or porch, drinking lemonade (either G-rated or the slightly edgier variety), grilling various meats, and desserting on fruits most likely picked earlier that week from someone’s garden. THE BEST.

b.) having a real job, which maintains regular work hours meaning that I am both getting paid while also living in the adult world of “regularity.” This world includes, but is not limited to, not having to pack your stuff up every few months, a more “well-rounded” bank statement, and evenings (though not a full 3 months) free.

Taking summer classes means you lose the best of both of these options, while compounding their darker sides. i.e. you pay money to take classes which give you more work and take away all of your free time during the best days of the year. Such is the nature of this summer, which is brightened mostly by the fact that so many fun things have been going on on weekends that it’s impossible to be mad at my own life.

Our shelter at Peterson Park just north of Ames, still under construction.

Our shelter at Peterson Park just north of Ames, still under construction.

I am starting Week 6 of 8 for my summer classes, which are required as a part of my 100-credit total curriculum for Architecture and Community/Regional Planning. The saddest part is that ten credits in eight weeks doesn’t really allow for much of a summer, let alone a mental break. I have spent way too much time working indoors when all I’ve wanted to do is relax at the park, drive around the rolling countryside in the evenings, and eat grilled and barbequed things. I have class every day from 8:30-noon, with an additional class on Friday afternoons from 1-5. My one class is a design-build in which we are designing a park shelter for the local county conservation board, then actually nailing the thing together ourselves so we get a better sense of what our drawings actually prescribe when we make them. Basically, we’re learning both empathy for the builders of things, the contractors and the stone masons and the dirt guys, and literally finding out how the lines we make on a piece of paper get translated into materials and boards and site contours.

The Old Capitol.

The Old Capitol.

In my other class, we’re studying historic buildings around Iowa, then proposing modern additions to these structures. It’s an exercise in both the macro and the micro, as we figure out how best to add to buildings with (often) already-overbearing geometries, while also literally figuring out how to attach something new to something old. I chose to study the Old Capitol Building in Iowa City, which is older than the state of Iowa itself, ironically. Built in 1840, it was the state capitol (it took me awhile to figure out the difference between capitol and capital) for only 17 years before legislators moved it to the more central location in Des Moines (which is French for “The Moines” according to RayGun). To soothe the battered egos of the residents of Iowa City, the territorial government awarded the town the state university, which remains the focal point of Iowa City to this day. It’s hard to find a place more hellbent on supporting their beloved Hawkeyes than Iowa City. Just visit on game day, and you’ll see. The Old Capitol building has come to represent the city, the university, and the dreams of Iowans as a seat of learning and culture in the Midwest. For my addition, I am attempting to propose an underground art museum, which would replace the currently-unusable museum that got flooded out in the Great Flood of 2008. We present final designs in 2.5 weeks–there is much work to be done.

Due to the fact that I have been away from Ames for the last 8 weekends, I have quite a few things to run down. Here are some of the good:

  • The end of the beard. After 6 months of growth, the facial manliness concluded with a magnificent swan song– a bachelor weekend of mustachioed glory. Then it was nicked in the bud for a clean-shaven remainder of  the summer. The only downside was the fact that I aged in reverse about five years. I was asked if I was in high school twice in the next 8 days. Maybe someday I will come to appreciate this.

    The newlyweds.

    The newlyweds.

    Matt and Kelly.

    Matt and Kelly.

  • Amazing weddings. Isn’t it great when two friends whom you like and love invite a bunch of your other friends to a big party where you all hang out and laugh and dance and eat delicious food? I’m a fan. The celebrations of love for Matt and Kelly Dean and Maria and Matt Swartzentruber are highlights of the year already. And it’s only 2 of 4 for this summer!

  • Snazzy rental cars. I’m talking bright red 2013 coupe with Sirius radio and Pennsylvania plates. Sexy can I.

  • Beidler Girls #2 and #3

    Beidler Girls #2 and #3

    The Great Gatsby, which I finally finished reading in preparation for seeing the film. F. Scott Fitzgerald is a genius with the words, although the storyline is apt to put you in quite the funk. Also, the soundtrack is AMAZING and you should listen to it right this instant.

  • Nieces and Nephew. They are just so fun.
  • Mennonite Relief Sales. While each has their own unique flavor (both culturally and culinarily), Iowa specializes in fresh apple butter on homemade bread, strawberry pie, and apple fritters. Sweet mama, they are so good. Plus, so fun to hang out with friends.

  • The Big Ego, a ¾ lb. bacon cheeseburger with two grilled cheese sandwiches instead of buns. Even for me, who prides himself in finishing somewhat obscene piles of food on occasion,  this was a 2 meal entrée. Also, popovers, which must be a Minnesota thing. Tip of the hat to you, Land of Ten Thousand Lakes.

  • Per diems. Seriously, when does it get better than when someone else is paying for you to go out to eat? College days aside (thanks Mom and Dad! And all those who’ve ever treated!)

  • Battle’s Barbeque. Location: Ames, Iowa. As much as I love Hickory Park, Battle’s may have just eclipsed this Behemoth of BBQ with it’s delicious sauce (sold in local stores) and outrageously delectable smoked meats.

And a few things I could do/have done without:

  • Mishaps on the job site. Last week, a classmate accidentally dropped a 15-foot bracing board on my head while we were framing our park shelter. Thankfully, the bleeding stopped quickly and I didn’t have symptoms of a concussion, so no trip to the hospital nor any lasting harm done. Although my scab is quite itchy.

  • Subpar rental cars. I’m talking a tan Hyundai Elantra with no cruise and Nebraska plates. Laaaaaame.

  • Driving from Pennsylvania to Iowa in one long, 14-hour day. Not only is saying goodbye to family difficult enough, but knowing you’ll literally be sore from sitting for over half the day is not an inspiring way to begin the summer semester. Thank you, Tina Fey, for writing Bossypants and then for sharing this laugh track with the rest of us. My knee was also a little sore from all the slapping.

  • Grandma H.

    Grandma H.

    Missing family reunions and Grandma H’s 90th birthday party. It’s so much less satisfying to only be there “in spirit.” Screw that–I’m so much more of an in-person type of guy. Happy 90th Grandma! She still makes the best cinnamon rolls in the world.

  • Long talkers on airlines. Rookie mistake on not putting in my headphones soon enough. Also, Southwest Airlines makes one feel quite bovine-like as they herd you through their boarding process.

  • Biking in thunderstorms. That wet patch on the backside of my jeans isn’t exactly drawing moths to a flame, if you know what I mean.

I’m pumped to be back in Virginia in <18 days! It may be coloring drawings at work. It may be moving furniture and making coffee. It may be more exciting than I’m aware of right now. But one I DO know: it will be the off-the-hook-great-hair-day-waking-up-before-your-alarm-getting-cash-in-the-mail-coming-home-surprise-party kind of awesome to be both done with school and in Harrisonburg again. Iowa is getting better, but it’s time to exchange your pork chops and rolling fields for the smell of dead chicken in the Valley and the best of times with friends and family. Including niece Hannah who says “Uncle” each time someone says Michael.


Cheers, friends. I’ll be seeing you.



As of Thursday, this is how much of graduate school I will have completed. After 9 months of work and many late nights, this is a sad number, if you ask me. But after this summer, that number will jump to 40%. And at Christmas it will be 55%. Then 70. Then 85. Then BAM. Graduate of graduate school. Gotta keep the eyes on the pryze.

I take a break from my last assignment of the year to write this. And while I would apologize for not updating this more this spring, I know how little that apology would do. So let’s move on.

This past Friday, my fellow first years and I participated in our final review for my studio class. For clarity’s sake, the term studio refers to both the building where we hold classes, the room itself where my desk and supplies and computer are located, and is also an actual course where we design things. An example sentence might be, “I went down to the studio (the building) today to work in the studio (the room) on my studio (the class) homework.” Toss that lingo around for size.

This semester my Theory and Studio classes have been working together, combining an emphasis on digital design and modelling with ideas of circulation, public space, and environmental psychology. We studied precedents of baths all over the world (mine was a hammam/Turkish bath in Damascus, Syria), mapped the downtown district, and did tutoring sessions with Revit (the 3D cousin of AutoCAD).  All of this came together for our final project, where we designed a public bathhouse for one of three possible sites in downtown Ames. Another classmate and I were the only ones to choose the smallest and most tightly bounded site, located right on the heart of Main Street between a children’s toy store and a bike shop. Since I’d never even opened the digital programs before, it took several weeks to get up to speed. In the end, my design featured a yoga studio and art gallery, therapy pools and saunas, and a roof garden. Here are a few sample renderings from my final presentation.

Needless to say, I’m glad this semester is almost over. It’s been a long, cold few months. It’s been trips to Minnesota, Iowa City, South Dakota, Virginia, Kansas City, and whatever else I cannot remember. It’s often felt like living in fourth gear while driving on the interstate–a roaring engine and poor gas mileage while maintaining speed and still getting there on time. But at what cost? I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the cult of Busy, about why I consistently pack so much into each of my days. Brushing teeth, getting mail, paying bills, getting gas, making meals, packing lunches, planning ahead, buying plane tickets, calling Mom and Dad, calling family, calling friends, underlining readings, returning library books, cleaning the gook out of the shower, making sure I have quarters for the meter, responding to emails, responding to responses to emails, going to lectures, solving bending and shear equations, watching software tutorials, figuring out said software, crying when said software doesn’t listen to what I say (only a little), budgeting for the next month…and so on. I realized I was in uncharted territory when my to-do list went onto a second page.

And yet, what is it all for? Why do I fill my life up to the brim? I’m not complaining about this (though you may infer that), since it’s simply the way things are right now. Life in school is messy and complicated and probably a little unhealthy. Maybe I move to keep things whole, to keep the legs churning so I don’t fall. Maybe we need to feel busy to validate our own sense of insignificance. But it’s almost over for the time being, and I’m grateful. I’m ready to breathe deep again, road trip to western PA, and fill up the wells again. Even if I have to start summer classes in two weeks.

Well enough of that. Time for the list of notables:

  • Winter threw a total cheap shot this past week with 4 inches of snow. IN MAY. You know something’s wrong when it’s raining, there’s still snow on the ground, but birds are chirping. Get over yourself, Iowa.

  • Surprise spring break in Virginia! A last-minute road trip and a one-way plane ticket were totally worth it. An unbelievable amount of fun. I can’t even describe how awesome that week was. My parents drove down a second time, just for the evening, to spend time with me and Marcy. And little Hannah started calling me “Uncle.” She also says “Shushybye” all the time and it’s supercute.

  • VEISHEA. An Iowa State tradition. In case you’re wondering, the name stands for the old school colleges at ISU–Veterinary, Engineering, Industrial Science, Home Economics, and Agriculture. Hence, the name, coined an engineering prof named Frank Paine in 1922. He brought the pain (jokes!) to Ames (imperfect rhyme!). Who says engineers can’t be creatives? Besides the parade, the concerts by B.o.B. and Easton Corbin, the marching band, the miniature cherry pies (not that good), and the lumberjack exhibition, VEISHEA is a thinly disguised, institutionally sponsored excuse to go cray, if you happen to be sub-22 and into that kind of thing. My street was louder that week than it’s ever been, and I’ve never seen so many people on Welch Avenue. Iowa does know how to throw a party, though–complete with $9 giant turkey legs and fried Kool-Aid.

  • Surviving my structural engineering class, after much angst, confusing worksheets, and almost-screaming-into-a-pillow days. Somehow, buildings continue to stand up, even if I can’t exactly calculate the strength of a composite concrete column correctly or figure out the plastic section modulus of a cantilevered steel beam.

  • Ranch dressing + Frank’s Red Hot = scandalously good. You dip a green pepper in there, and you’ve really got something going.

  • Experiencing chislic, pluma moose, and an amazingly fun Easter in Freeman, South Dakota as a surrogate member of the Miller family.  It was awesome, yah.

  • That moment when your ear finally pops after being completely clogged all day. Thank you for clearing up, sinuses, after making me tilt my head to the left for every conversation so I could hear what was said.

  • The Nelson Atkins, at dusk.

    The Nelson Atkins, at dusk.

    Kansas City BBQ. One of my classmates got the sampler; we dubbed it the Meat Salad. OMG. Along with the Nelson Atkins Art Museum, you need no other reason to visit KC.

  • Attending my first drag show. You want to feel like you’re not in Ames, Iowa? Head there.

  • Playing soccer again. Oh, how I’ve missed it! A little part of me dies inside every time I get an email reminder about SVASL turf league, and how I can’t join this year. It’s universally one of the greatest things about Harrisonburg summers.

  • Penguins! Tearing it up. Steelers! Drafting big (I’m excited for how hard Jarvis Jones is going to sack opposing QBs). Pirates! Well, Pirates…it’s getting harder and harder to believe every year. But we dream on, Steel City. We dream on.

  • An internship in Harrisonburg! I am so grateful to have received an internship with Blue Ridge Architects for 6 weeks in July and August. I’d been dreaming about the possibility of spending time in their office, but somehow I’d never imagined it would work out. I’m so excited!

And in roughly 92 hours, I will be in experiencing one of life’s greatest moments–sitting in my wonderful living room in Boswell, PA, across from my parents and sisters and bros-in-law, playing with the kids before they go to bed, and discussing the exact schedule of fun for the Arts and Crafts Festival at JCS. And BELIEVE ME, there is a science and tradition to having a great time at the festival. And it always involves multiple strawberry sundaes and at least half of a BBQ chicken. My heart is beaming at the thought of how happy I’ll be, and my mouth is watering at the thought of the chicken. It’s that good. Believe it.

If you have any suggestions for good audiobooks, I’d love to have them. I’ll have 30+ hours to kill in the car in the next 10 days.

Cheers. I’ll eat a sundae for you this weekend.


On Hope

With all due respect to the great Ms. Dickinson, I’ll begin.

Hope is a slippery thing. Some days, it tumbles and fumbles through your fingers like the sparkling water drops of a stream, falling easily back into the dazzling current of things to do and appointments to make. It weighs heavy on my mind, a blurry-yet-blinding haze hanging on my forehead cavity as I walk to the bus stop. Hope seems to vanish when my fingers clutch for it, when someone asks how I’m doing, when I begin to write a letter to a friend. But then it sidles up again, unexpectedly, when the dusky light falls perfectly orange on the brick fraternity houses that line the walk back to my apartment.

Walking back on Linn Street.

Walking back on Linn Street.

Or as the sweet curry smell fills up the kitchen, and lingers into the evening. Or when I realize that I’m laughing freely without restraint or hesitation, when I wake up before my alarm clock, when someone tells me that they miss me. But flash–and it’s gone again, and the minutes stretch endlessly into a horizon of deadline days, tedium, flourescent lightbulbs, and talking to myself to fill the silence.

Hope is something I don’t understand. Our bodies are designed to survive another day, to look out for our own best interest. To find a way. And yet in those moments, it takes all my gumption and all my mental strength, all the prayers and little notes and the remembrance of the welcome-home-hugs to have hope, to keep going when all my body wants to do is give up. Don’t you hate those days when all you want to do is lock the door behind you, heat up your (already prepared) dinner, flop on the couch in your comfortable pants, and do nothing but be–but know that you have so much to do that you can’t rest for longer than the amount of time it takes your soup to warm up in the microwave. It’s on those days that my hope wears thin, where the distance back home opens like a dark hole in the earth, and I hope for a reality other than my own. A mingled, desperately hopeful reality somehow combining the best memories of the past with my future dreams–which also, incidentally, is rooted in the very presentness of my twenty-something life, this learning and challenging and growing time graduate school in Iowa. In flux.

Because, despite my best efforts over the last few months, hope–and its tributaries of intentionality, clarity, and contentment–is something I have to choose, rather than simply expecting it to show up in the general emotions of my day. I cannot feel the magnitude of the good things around me when I’m holding myself back, deceiving myself into thinking that by never immersing myself in my present life, that I justify my own tendency towards discontent. Even amidst an increasingly busy and full schedule, more time commitments (am I like my parents or WHAT), and the peak of midwinter blues, I am surprised by moments of hopefulness and spaces for deep breaths. And I must drink them in deeply when they come in order to bear the long days and down moments. Hope is a torment when it’s missing, but it’s own remedy when it’s overflowing.

Main Street--Ames, IA

Main Street–Ames, IA

And so begins March, the lion and the lamb month between winter and spring. I don’t think I truly understood the perseverance that long winters require. We go weeks without seeing the sun, just days and days of overcast grey, occasionally broken up by another 4-6 inches of snow. Which becomes piles of slushy mess and crusty drifts of dirty grit beside every sidewalk and in every parking lot. It makes my head droop a bit lower every day, until suddenly the sun breaks through the clouds, and it’s like my shoulders straighten out and my face lights up again. I every sunny moment, just waiting for the onset of true spring. I can’t wait for green, for sunny days, for warm rains, for the snow pack to melt out of my driveway and off the fenders of my car. But we’re supposed to get another snowstorm early this week. Really?!? I guess I should just expect it; last week we got a surprise 8 inches and none of the schools were even closed.

Here is a few stories since last time…

  • Weirdest thing to happen in Ames so far = seeing a naked woman check her mail at the post office. I wait in line, send off my postage, and see in my periphery a woman who appears to not be wearing pants. Not joking. Upon exiting the other set of double doors just slightly behind her, I look over to check. I mean, in these situations, you can never trust your periphery, particularly with the recent phenomenon of yoga pants being considered appropriate in non-gym settings. But no. CONFIRMED: ZERO PANTS. Just a puffy pink jacket and sandals. And as I began walking to the studio and she slowly walked to her car, I made the additional confirmation of no bottoms. That’s right people–she was as free as a bird that Wednesday afternoon. Guess even small towns can surprise you in unexpected ways.
  • I was able to attend Design on the Hill, which is the day that architects from around the state of Iowa converge on the Capitol Building in Des Moines to lobby for various legislation that affects their work. Since I’m the graduate leader for AIAS (American Institute of Architecture Students), I was able to attend. Talk about watching live politics in action, complete with power suits, good ol’ boys, constituency talk, and brief briefings. Seeing how government physically runs is always interesting, even if I confirms a certain amount of cynicism I have about the political arena.
  • Visitor #7 comes to Ames! A great time with Bethany Miller getting gelato, a plateload of BBQ, and watching the Big 12 Indoor Track Championships, which was the first track meet I’d ever attended. You might think that the 5000m would be quite boring (it’s 15 laps long), but it helps when the winner smashes the conference record by 14 seconds. And pole vaulting is going on simultaneously at the other end of the gym.

    Carver Arena--Iowa City, IA

    Carver Arena–Iowa City, IA

  • And speaking of quite ridiculous contests of athletic prowess, a few classmates and I snagged tickets to the Iowa-Penn State wrestling match in Iowa City last month. Now, I’ve never attended a wrestling match, nor do I know (really) anything about the world’s oldest sport. But this match was between the nation’s #1 undefeated team (Penn State) and the #3 team (Iowa), compounded by the fact that the best wrestler in Iowa lore is Cael Sanderson, the now-coach at Penn State. Needless to say, there was bad blood a’brewin’. And what an environment. A sold-out arena of 15,000 rabid Iowa wrestling fans watching two sweaty guys in unitards try to tackle each other. And the best part was watching the entire arena stand up and scream at the ref when something happened (which I couldn’t identify, knowing exactly zilch about the sport). All in all, a great time, despite the Penn State loss. Additional realization: I have now seen three different PSU-Iowa  sporting events in Iowa City (basketball, football, wrestling)…which is more than all sporting events I’ve ever seen in State College. Dope.
  • Eating a Butterburger from Culver’s for the first time. No, the burger is not made of butter. Although this is Iowa, so I wouldn’t be completely surprised. They butter the bun before they grill it; hence, the name. Delicious on a highly temporary basis. I’m not looking for a double bypass anytime soon.
  • We’ve started learning structures. Am I brushed up on my physics? No. Have I done math in 7 years? No. Was I ever very comfortable with it to begin with? No. Am I enjoying it? You figure it out. Calculating the deflection of a simple span beam may be useful, but it certainly isn’t like playing with a litter of puppies.
  • Care packages! Brownies, letters, chip clips shaped like lips (for Valentine’s Day, of course–also, say it out loud five times fast to make yourself chuckle). Getting one is like unwrapping a bundle of love. And it never grows old. So thank you, all my far-away people. You never cease to make my day and my week. Heck, even my month.
  • Leading a trivia night which featured, among other things, a section on 90s music. Jamming to classics from Lauryn Hill, Paula Cole, Oasis, and Blink 182 is bound to be both a blast from the past and a raging good time.
  • Architecture Ryan Gosling. This will probably be mostly an inside joke, but I still think you should look at it. Also, Henri 2: Paw de Deux, which is quite possibly the greatest video I’ve ever seen. Suffice to say, grad students can be real internet hounds.

Also, I miss quite a few things too. Maybe the wintry days make them more apparent, even as things get more routine. Don’t tell me I’m alone in missing any of these things:

  • Going to nieces’ birthday parties, getting to eat a piece of rabbit-shaped cake, and watching them turn from toddlers into little people with personalities and thoughts. Skyping just isn’t the same. Especially when they say, “I love you, Uncle Mituhl!”
  • the Breakfast Special sub bacon at Mr. J’s
  • the Blue Ridge Mountains on the skyline
  • Netflix evenings, minus any shred of guilt
  • 80s Dance Night at the Blue Nile
  • Cheers Night at Union Station. I think of it every time I use the pint glass.
  • Old Toll Gate Inn wings, the greatest wings in the world. Don’t question. Bdubs, you pale in comparison.
  • Roommate dinners.
  • Skiing trips to West Virginia (a great state!), complete with overheated hot tubs, puzzles, napping, and Kinect.
  • Mom and Dad.

As my good friend Calvin would say, the days are just packed. Many days, I wish they weren’t quite as full, but everything has a season. This is a complicatedly busy one, with its own set of idiosyncrasies. Stay close.

P.S. Anyone have a good, easy, and quick recipe for a thrifty grad student? Please share; I need some variety.
P.P.S. I close in tribute to Emily D. No relation to Pauly D.

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune–without the words,
And never stops at all,
And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.
I’ve heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.

Returning to the Strangely Familiar

It’s been three weeks since Christmas break ended, which somehow seems like a year ago. Four weeks of [insert the most potently great adjective here] holiday, complete with Pennsylvania snowstorms and Virginia mildness, remembering stories from our childhood by candlelight when the power went out, and Sunday evening specials in downtown Harrisonburg with friends. I drove about 38 hours in total, racked up 2300 miles and 0.5 audiobooks in 26 days (Game of Thrones #3 was not worth 48 hours of listening time, so I read the second half of the book instead). Let’s just say that Barney, my trusty Honda Accord (think Stinson), and I are very well-acquainted.

Now we’re three weeks into classes already. My classes this semester, while I have two new professors, are simply the second installments of basically the same material as this past fall–the second half of a full-year course. I have a studio class (where we make things) with a fun German man named Mikesch (who carries a self-proclaimed murse [man + purse = murse] to hold his 3 spare pairs of eyeglasses), a theory class (where we’re focusing on the social psychology of spaces; it’s fascinatingly analytical), and a sci-tech class (where we learn how and why things are made). This past Friday we built a brick wall. Mixed the mortar, “buttered” the bricks, and fashioned a small chimney-esque pedestal in the basement of our building. Good times; and if I do say so myself, looked pretty dang good. Speaking of our studio, my class was moved to the College’s extension location on Main Street, right in downtown Ames, to make room for the various projects that need to be stored for the upcoming accreditation visit. While it does mean a bit more of a logistical hassle being further away, the sweet space and cool location certainly make up for it.  20 foot ceilings, big windows, and an exposed brick wall will convince me of a lot of things. And check one for being clean and carpeted.

Returning to school and Iowa again is strangely disconcerting; it’s like a place I’ve been before but doesn’t look familiar. Is this my apartment? Will my key fit into the door? Where do I park again? Do they know I’m coming to class tomorrow? I think I’ve had more of those why-am-I-in-this-place-oh-yeah moments in the last three weeks than I’ve ever had. You know, those times of sudden overwhelming self-realization, where you actually feel the gravity and immediacy of your own life.

  • Wait, I am actually in this beat-up Mercedes sedan, in Botrivier, South Africa, with a Scottish man named Ross driving, holding all my possessions in my lap and no idea where we’re going.
  • Hold on, I’m walking across the stage to shake the president’s hand and take my diploma in the other.
  • Oh, I am driving back from Fareway after finishing a lecture on steel construction, $30 of groceries in the backseat and a wind whipping snow around at -20 degrees. Oh, I live here, in Ames? I’ve lived here for almost 6 months?

The studio space change has meant a new rhythm, a new pattern, a new set of expectations. After being gone for a month, I remember this place, but the memories don’t have as much to stick to. Being at home among family and friends for a full four weeks was life-giving, a surging geyser of laughter, twinkling eyes, and easy comfort. While I know that coming back to school is often fraught with angst, not just with leaving the comforts of break (getting a normal amount of sleep at night! watching movies all afternoon! doing nothing!), but also with re-entering the workload and mindset of constantly efficient productivity, heavy backpacks, heated-up meals, and both the curious joy and frustrating obligation of homework. As someone who generally enjoys learning new things, I feel the tension between my curiosity to learn new things and get the most educational bang for my buck (sense the obsession with thrift here) with the realistic, balanced, and healthy relationship to my own personal sanity. Can I read everything required, do detailed research, practice my drawing skills, learn new software programs, attend lectures, and do all the school-related stuff while still going to normal-person places (the grocery store, church, sporting events, bed), watching the new viral vid on Youtube (resounding YES to this one), and do things I want to do rather than feel obligated to? No is the most honest and realistic answer, but you can understand, hopefully, why such a question of priorities is something I’d rather put off.

But as always, time marches one whether I want it to or not, both ending the bad and the good. Barney and I made it back to Iowa, classes started, and the rhythm slowly returns. Always adjusted, always adjusting, but gently consistent. I’m grateful for the slowly growing community I have here; it softens the blow of this harsh Iowa winter. When the wind chill is -20 outside, waiting for the bus or scraping your car is about as enjoyable as sitting on a bicycle with no seat. And the way my car occasionally sounds on those mornings makes me think it’s not just me.

Happiness List (shortened, for the obvious reason of being too long to be complete here):

  • 12 inches of snow in Boswell over Christmas, right when all the family could come. Snowforts (Boys vs. Girls. Naturally, we boys successfully stormed the girls’ fortress. The nieces dispute this claim), sled riding (PA slang; get used to it), hot chocolate, and normally sturdy one-year-olds bundled up so robustly that if they fell down, they couldn’t get back up again. Hilarious for the adults–the little ones didn’t think it was as funny. Oh, and pelting Mom and Dad with snowballs when they weren’t looking. Always funny.
  • Conversations with friends that last at least 2 hours. Do people just keep getting better and better? Apparently. My cups runs over and over.
  • Friends getting engaged! Woohoo Kelsey and Jesse!
  • Thick pairs of wool socks. A warm and cozy apartment. Hot chocolate.
  • Getting $30 cash in the mail for completing a TV survey. Great way to start a Monday.
  • Les Miserables. I haven’t seen a movie in six months, and I saw it twice within a week. And I’m waiting for it to come to the dollar theatre in Ames, so I can see it again. Well done, Anne Hathaway. Well done, Eddie Redmayne. Well done, all. Except maybe Russell Crowe. But you tried.
  • Visitors to Ames, both expected (#4) and surprise (#5). Celebrated my 24th birthday going to toddler time with Ilyana and Silas, reading books, keeping Silas from falling down the stairs and getting into the cupboards, and catching up with sister Monica and bro-in-law Chad when they came through Ames in December. Then a surprise lunch with Travis and Alana King Weaver. The more, the merrier!
  • A few hours with long-lost friends newly returned from South Africa. Holla for being on the same continent again.
  • Getting cookies delivered to my apartment on the first day of class. Sisters are the best.
  • Playing basketball, making time to exercise, and actually feeling the good kind of sore again.
  • Getting a package in the mail containing, among other things, a bag of Herr’s Sour Cream N’Onion chips. The rest of the world (that is, everywhere outside of Pennsylvania) has not been enlightened with their delicious goodness.
  • Actually arriving somewhere. Leaving isn’t fun, the traveling road is often a drag, but getting there, shutting the car door and looking for that hug and smile and “How are you?”, that’s where it’s at.

(Less) Happy List:

  • That moment on a Friday evening when, just when you’re going back to your apartment at the end of the week, the bus pulls away right as you walk up to the stop. Thank you, 20 minutes of bench sitting.
  • Wiping out in the snow, in the middle of the street, while carrying a bunch of library books on your way to class. Whew, nothing like a little taste of humble pie to start your day, and a sore rear the next day.
  • The prospect of no real break from school from now until July.

This winter also marks another significant milestone for me; that is, growing a successful beard for the first time. It took a dare and the winter winds of the Midwest, but it happened. If nothing else, I look more like a grownup and it keeps the chill off my chinny chin chin.

Write me!

Looking over to Grandpa Spory's old farm in Boswell, PA.

Looking over to Grandpa Spory’s old farm in Boswell, PA.

I heart Slapsgiving (and real Thanksgiving too)

This post titled in honor of the sacred code of Slapsgiving, in all its fearful and joyous glory. Thank you Marshall Erickson, for bringing the great tradition of slapping another man as hard as you can in the face into our lives.

Somehow, over a month has passed since I wrote something here. How does that happen? How do the days slip away? How can a morning history lecture drag on for (what seems like) years of my life, yet there are only three more weeks left in this semester? How does the time pass so strangely, tumbling downhill and picking up speed and bits of memories and dust until, before you know it, you’re at the bottom of the hill, the rock’s rolling to a stop, and you’re not sure what just happened.

Ok, so I’m not quite “over the hill” yet, but you get the metaphor.

I’m not quite sure how I got here to this point in time—post-uprooting, post-drastic life change, post-first semester blunders, post-Thanksgiving break, pre-final review madness—but it’s here and I’m trying to make a go of it. The last month has seen a shifting of sorts, a settling in. And the tentative feeling that even if I might rather be somewhere else, the place I’m in right now has given me things that I cannot wish away or excavate from who I am, both for better and for worse.  A good friend asked me a few weeks ago if I am content. And while I can’t honestly say yes with a deep-seeded gut feeling that I’d require for such an answer, I can truthfully answer that the blessings I’ve received in graduate school, in Ames, in Iowa, are things that I will not regret. A wise, wise man named Harlan DeBrun once said that true joy is being content wherever you are, whomever you’re with, and with whatever you have. In any case, I’m certainly not at true joy yet, but always have much to be grateful for. And as the roots sink in a bit, the networks grow, the evenings fill up with things other than reading and drawing and watching The Food Network, something is happening. Something for the better, and hopefully something for the good.

Three weeks to go this semester. Whew. It’s the deep breath before the plunge called Dead Week. Which is the week of reviews, where classes are generally cancelled, design students’ hours get even more ridiculous, much more coffee is consumed than normal, and the entire world seems to point towards a 20 minute Q&A with four-to-five department professors. Currently, I’m working on my final studio review project, which is due in exactly one week. ONE WEEK. Next Wednesday at 1 p.m. Central Time, I’ll be pinning up all the process drawings, trace paper sketches, detailed pen sections, photographs, floor plans, cardboard models, finished basswood scaled models, anything that means something…it’s all going up and I’m going to have to talk about it. Usually it involves trying to defend (without being defensive) each of the 10,000 decisions you made, or chose not to make. We’ve been working on this project for about a month, with its ebbs and flows.

We have a 40 acre site just northwest of Ames, where we’re setting up a hypothetically functioning CSA and designing the barn for it. Which, honestly, is pretty much what I’d come to graduate school to do. It’s been both fun and super-challenging, walking (what feels like) blindly through the design process, making and trashing and drawing and erasing and sketching and staring blankly and scribbling quickly and sitting down and modeling and detailing and…something. It’s the part we do, it’s the design part of it, and I’m semi-constantly irked that it’s a completely learned skill for me rather than a natural one. I wish I could just spit out beautifully realized spaces, or sit down and have them erupt out of my 2B pencil lead onto my very nice pieces of drawing paper. But that’s not how it works, and that’s not how I am, and that’s not how it will ever be, sadly. I’m currently a bit stuck in my design, since circulation issues led to scrapping my initial (if cool) proposal, and I’m trying to just keep moving forward. Just keep making marks, scratches, cuts in cardboard. Something usually comes–and in this case, I’m banking on that happening in the next day or two. Because seriously, a lot needs to happen in the next 168 hours.

And in the spirit of the recently passed holiday (the one on Thursday, mostly; although the one last Friday would be fun too), here’s some gratitude to share:

  • Visitor #2! Isaac Yoder-Schrock, you are welcome any time. As are the rest of you (assuming I know you, of course). And plus, I’m learning about all the hot spots, points of interest, and tourist attractions in central Iowa. So it’ll be educational, as well as obscenely fun.
  • An end to political ads. The mudslinging is over, the hanging chads are (mostly) settled, and the daily texts from the ISU Democrats have stopped. For all my fellow eligible voters in swing states like Iowa, may we all be at peace for at least two years.
  • The feeling you get after a review is completed. For all the sketching, long hours, dull pencils, x-acto knife blades, and talking points that go into the 15-minute stressfest known as the Review, there is always that awesome feeling afterwards where you can go home and think about things other than architecture, guilt-free, for at least an entire evening. Like walking out of the exam room knowing that, for better or worse, it’s over and there’s nothing else to be done for the moment. So kick off your shoes and cheers it up; you did it. Until tomorrow, that is.
  • Fall break! Due to ISU’s scheduling choices, we combine fall break and Thanksgiving for an extended 10 day recess from classes, if not from all work. So I skipped east to Virginia and Pennsylvania for 8 days of unadulterated happiness, catching up with friends, family time, and even a little babysitting.  Trips to the farmer’s market and pastry shop in Harrisonburg, 3-hour breakfast conversations at Mr. Js, homemade gourmet dinners, thrifting treasures (or cheap and funky cards, mostly), babbling toddlers, long hugs, Pennsylvania mountain sunsets, making applesauce, nieces who call for “Uncle Mituhl.” Can’t get much better than that.
  • Old school diners. L&S Diner–with your bar stools, counter-only seating, weekly regulars, and server/cooks whose names are probably Betty and Glenda, you are an amazing way to kick off the day. My plate was all different shades of tan, and covered in gravy. Score two points for awesome.
  • And speaking of good food–THANKSGIVING. Turkey (both domestic and wild), mashed potatoes and gravy, Mom’s classic stuffing (filling? do we have enough? is it done? haha), corn casserole, soft rolls, cranberry salad, and cinnamon rolls. And the best part about all this? Playing card games later that night and snacking on bits of cold-yet-still-delicious stuffing. Ahhh. I love Thanksgiving.
  • Care packages. There really is nothing like a good care package. It’s like Christmas without the references to the words “percent off,” “noel,” and “wonderland.” So really, it’s not a whole lot like Christmas, other than getting a wrapped gift to open. And we both know what fun that it.
  • Black pens with very tiny points. I mean, we’re talking 0.25 inches. It’s a big deal to write that small. Thanks Katie Schmid!
  • Hats, gloves, scarves, and coats. Winter has come to the Midwest, with its lovely combination of dreary gray skies, biting winds, and plummeting temperatures. But at least I don’t have to pay the heating bill, and so can enjoy a cozy apartment without fiscal responsibility. And a mug of hot chocolate.

And, per usual, a few things I could have foregone:

  • Getting sick for the first time in several years. Achy and tired and queasy is not how anyone wants to spend the last day of a holiday break (or any day, really). Thank goodness for people to take care of you, a soft couch, a warm blanket, and a three-hour nap.
  • My first speeding ticket. Lame.
  • …and anyone who walks on the sidewalk while texting. Seriously people, LOOK WHERE YOU’RE GOING. Or better yet, look at who is coming towards you, particularly those of us on bikes. Remember this, all you Text-While-Walkers, that in the ongoing series of Pedestrians vs. Bikes, the lesson Will Ferrell taught to Mark Wahlburg holds true. In a collision with a rolling piece of steel and a determined cyclist, you lose that battle 9 times out of ten. You will be outgunned and outmanned. Don’t make me almost run into a concrete planter at 10 mph just so you can LOL at your friend’s latest meme post. Raise the gaze, LOLers. Let’s keep it real.

It might be a little bit until new stuff, folks. Studio calls until Christmas break.
(Clarification: Not that I actually think anyone has bated breath concerning this blog).

Trying to Find Something Like Home

Ever since I moved here to Ames, I guess you could say I’ve felt a bit out of place. And not only in the I’m-from-the-East-Coast-where-are-my-mountains kind of way, but something much less concrete and hard to pin down, like that annoying spider that scurries away just when you go to smash it with your shoe. Even after I started getting into the routine of classes, (mostly) got past the “What did you study for undergrad?” phase, and learned where all the grocery stores (Fareway is the clear winner here; the baggers actually carry your food to your car, sans tip) and streets with free parking are, something still wasn’t sitting right. I had this uneasy, unsettled feeling, and not the kind you get after you’ve eaten too big of a burrito. That is the good kind. This was something else.

However, the only problem with this feeling has been that Ames, even though it sometimes feels like a guilty concession to admit, is actually a good place to live for many reasons, which I try to recognize. It’s perfectly nostalgic in that way that only small Midwestern towns can be. The train whistles as it pulls through town at least three times a day (this is mildly irritating if I ever need to get to the north side of town), the angled cars parked along the shops on Main Street, the tidy front yards, cornfields within five minutes, pickup trucks and friendly cashiers. The people are nice enough, the town is clean and safe, I can pretty much pick up anything I need within ten minutes, and the weather’s generally good, even though somehow I always end up biking into a headwind, no matter the orthogonal direction I happen to be going that day. Seriously, it’s windy all the time, and I don’t like it.

But even with it’s good features, I still felt out of sorts. Strapped into something unknown, with that unsettled feeling of a traveler passing through, sleeping on an air mattress and packing up your belongings at the end of the day. Displaced, out of touch, on my own. But as I worked through this film project (3-5 minutes about self, identity, landscape, and relationship with the world), the script and the storyline, I asked myself this:

What is home? What does it look like, smell like?
A broken rope swing. Sitting at the kitchen table, eating ice cream straight from the box. Where someone asks, “How was your day?” when you walk in the door. A hand on your shoulder.

And conversely; what isn’t home?
Not gridded roads or low-slung sheds. An empty apartment, a train whistle, a bus stop. Rest when sleep doesn’t come. Nights in front of the tv, with your heated up soup in your lap. Not touching anyone, no transfer of heat and heartbeat, in weeks.

And through it all, I found that, for me, at least, home isn’t only about the place, the farmhouse on the hill in western Pennsylvania or the mountains of coal or Jasper the collie running up to nuzzle my hand. Sure, those are my memories, and boy, they are powerful ones. But home is so much more than that. Being at home is being known, truly and wholly and completely, for exactly who you are, not as a place  defined by points on a map. Where people miss you when you’re gone and hug you when you come back. Where someone notices your haircut and does nothing with you while you watch three hours of tv. Where people understand. And I don’t have that in Ames. Yet. Obviously, I know in my head that relationships take time and effort, but somehow, my impatient heart seems to have missed that memo. I am starting to make friends here. But it’s still early, early spring in this season of life.

And what does it mean to try to make a place home? I’m still figuring this one out. Although thankfully, I’ve received many unforeseen and unexpected blessings that have helped to snuff out the traces of bitterness. And those sad days are decreasing, truly. Here’s a rundown of the good, the bad, and the uncategorical:

The Good:

  • Tickets to football games. Going to the Iowa-Penn State game last weekend in Iowa City was certainly one of the highlights of 2012. Sorry about your luck, Hawkeye fans, but Penn State had your number this time. I thought I could tone down my support for PSU to avoid being spit on and the like, but I just couldn’t do it. I wore the Iowa shirt on top, but the Nittany Lion shirt underneath. Closest to my heart. Even though the game didn’t end up being superexciting, it’s difficult to imagine an evening (or seats!) more awesome than that one. Thank a million, Steve Ropp.
  • Tailgating food. Brats and sauerkraut, potato salad, buffalo chicken dip, no-bakes. Holla.
  • Those conversations with a friend that give you hope that things will get better, that someone is listening, that life isn’t always so serious, that you can take another step tomorrow.
  • Going to an ISU hockey game. Perk of attending a big university–lots of talented sports teams.
  • Four-way stops. I’ve learned to appreciate the courtesy that these traffic patterns produce. Maybe it’s why the people here are so polite.
  • Visiting farms for classes, getting dirt in my fingernails again, and starting to think about designing a barn.
  • Interlibrary Loan. Who needs bookstores when you can get any book for months at a time for free? The Ames Public Library also gets a shoutout here for not imposing a limit on the number of CDs you can check out at one time.

The Bad:

  • 12+ hour days in the studio. We had four days to do a group assignment, which then somehow morphed into a formal review with outside professors. Oh, and did I mention that the undergrads who get a similar assignment get almost a month? Yep. Crazy life, but I did get to learn how to build lap siding.
  • Going to Lowe’s at 8 a.m. in a cold, windy, rainy day to pick up lumber, leaning against the counter to ask a question, and realizing the person next to you is actually an employee with a wet roller of paint in his hand. And he’s painting the counter you just leaned on. The only positive spin was that I was already wearing patched carpenter jeans that day, so now the paint stains are actually authentic.
  • Not packing a lunch (because packing lunches is universally the worst thing ever), then not eating for 9 hours because I don’t want to buy lunch either. As you might guess, late afternoons aren’t always the best time for me.
  • Days when it’s windy, raining, and below 50 degrees. Do I bike and get that annoying wet spot on my back, or wait for the bus in the rain? Dilemma.

The Other Stuff:
A blog, started by a classmate, about another classmate who happens to really LOVE petting animals.
Halloween, in a college town. There are no words.

And, if you’d like to actually see this film I keep mentioning, here is the link. Enjoy.


The Best Seats I’ll Ever Have for a Sporting Event.

Feats, Films, and Fall

So can I just tell you one of the more impressive feats of the last 2 months? This morning, after staying late working on my film and the design for a solar and wind lab experiment, I overslept. Not that oversleeping is, in itself, very impressive (anyone can do it, really), but what transpired due to said oversleeping was quite the accomplishment.

Every morning, except Thursdays, we have class at 9:30. This is actually a terrific schedule, since it gets you out of bed at a decent hour of the morning, but it’s late enough that you can, in a pinch, sleep late and still make all your appointments for the day. Normally, I wake up, get dressed, eat breakfast and check my email, watch a little morning news, and get to studio around 9. However, today was not to be.

You know those mornings when you wake up, squint at the alarm clock, and hope with all of your heart that you are reading it incorrectly? This happened to me the other day, when it said 8:45, and I about freaked thinking the 8 was a 9. This morning, however, the clock actually said 9:23. Yep. Literally jumping out from the covers, I knew it was a morning where dignity no longer matters, like running through the airport. Thankfully, I didn’t have a cowlick. But needless to say, I got dressed, grabbed my backpack, unlocked my bike, and started pedaling like H-E-double hockeysticks. I’m sure I was a sight for sore eyes as I hightailed it across campus. And I walked in to class, just as he was starting the lecture, at 9:33. WHAT UP. And only a little out of breath, since I took the elevator. Impressive, right? Let’s hope similar mornings are fewer and far betweener.

I see it’s been a few weeks since I’ve written anything. Shoot. Such is my life nowadays, full of weekly readings, ever-present deadlines, bike rides into the wind, people walking around wearing cardinal-and-gold clothing, late nights in the apartment. I often wonder if I’m actually ever getting anything done, since I always have about five things started, yet I don’t cross five things off every day. Not sure how that works. I used to pride myself in my efficiency and prioritization skills, but it’s been a new rhythem to get accustomed to. In all my undergrad classes, the turn-in day was a mixed bag, because I actually love the feeling of turning something in. Because then, it’s out of your hands, you can breathe a sigh of relief, and relax guilt-free until the next class period when you get the next project. Here–not so much. My professors reach out to collect our projects with one hand and extend the other with the next assignment, often due the next class period. So the rhythm is all messed up and we never stop working, it seems.

While I don’t like it (on a personal level, clearly), the flip side is that being pushed, and pushed, and pushed, and squeezed a little bit more, then critiqued and pushed some more…it all means that we produce much more than I ever thought possible. Make a 3-5 minute film in two weeks on software you have never opened with equipment you don’t have? No biggie. (This is all true, except we asked successfully for an extra week. So three weeks.) Make a site model and surrounding landscape to scale, plus 4 detailed drawings and a full-size detail (like a joint or door or something) in a week? Sure. This second one is coming next week, so I’ve blocked out the logistics of how that’s going to get done until after this film, which is being reviewed Friday. Mine is about the concept of home. What it is, what it was, what it isn’t. Or at least, I’m trying to. I happen to like it quite a bit, but I think it’s going to be even more difficult to take the potentially harsh criticism, since I haven’t felt this close emotionally to a project in months.

The autumn leaves in Iowa are falling, a little early due to the drought, but just as stunning in all their orange and gold and red crackliness. Since my default is the maple-and-oak-covered mountains of western PA, I was expecting to miss the view of the mountains in fall, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how beautiful it is here. Fall is the best season…football and soccer games under the lights, wearing fleeces and vests, apple and pumpkin everything, the crispness of frost in the morning (though scraping a car windshield when you are in a hurry is truly one of the worst (first-world) problems)…it’s really great. At one point this week, I had apple cider, applesauce, apple dumplings, apple pie, and apples in my fridge at the same time. It was awesome.

Ames is looking up, if for nothing else than the fact that time eases the rawness of things, and continues to walk on, no matter what deadlines or car registrations come due. Because I like lists, I’ll make one to round this installment up:

  • I learned what “surcharge” is today in SciTech, which is my favorite class. FYI, surcharge is the pressure of soil and water (“hydrostatic”) on a wall, usually considered for retaining walls. We’re learning about solar, water, and wind factors for buildings right now, then we build foamcore models and test them.
  • The MacBook Pro, the bringer of beauty and fast computing, arrived into my life two weeks ago, like a long-desired vacation. Vacation, maybe not, but certainly long-desired. It continues to amaze and inspire; I just need to find a way to keep it as perfectly clean and slick as when I unpacked it. Fat chance, but one can dream. Oh, and did I mention the retina display?
  • FaceTime with nieces! I love you girls! Skyping with friends!
  • Mandolin music and brick oven pizza for the Harvest Moon celebration.
  • Biting into (what you thought was) a chocolate croissant and realizing it was spinach. Shocking.
  • Penn State football! 4 in a row!
  • Learning how to play, somewhat successfully, the game of Diplomacy.
  • Hot pretzels at the Kalona Fall Festival.

Also, Emily King gets the award for best visitor to Ames. You know why? Not just because it was one of the best days of the fall (which is was), but also because she was the first. STEP UP, PEOPLE. But seriously, it was so fun to hang out with a familiar face! I may not have much space, but if you come, we’ll make it work. Guaranteed.

Until next time, friends. Cheers.

The Trouble with Happiness

Three years ago, in the bedroom of my small, 4-room host home in Soweto, South Africa, I wrote that I was tired to feeling consistently content, that I wanted to live a more dynamic life and experience the full range of joys and pain. Sure, living in that sprawling township had its rough spots, but I felt like I wasn’t being challenged enough, not having enough “hard days,” and therefore, not growing very much. So I said I wanted to experience the highs of joy and the struggling lows instead of the calm, steady contentedness I had felt since we arrived there.

What an idiot.

My life changed after that. Lesotho happened. Rainy days, locked churches, stern host mothers, and lonely, candlelit nights happened. And I certainly got what I asked for. I hiked up rivers of sandstone and looked out over endless blue mountains as the breath caught in my chest. I went swimming in the river with amazing friends and laughed until my stomach ached at our group skits. Yet nothing was clean or started on time, our meals were repetitive and meagre, and the nights were lonely and hard, even as they glittered with a thousand stars.

Lately, I have been thinking a lot about that wish that I made three years ago, for I feel like my life is walking a similar path. Of choosing to dock the ship of consistency, familiarity, and stability for a rocking boat on its way to some unknown shoreline.

In order to keep myself going, I’ve purposely tried to schedule things I know I will look forward to, like trips to Harrisonburg this past weekend. I really wanted to go to the Barge-Ozuna wedding (and then ended up being an usher, so my presence became much more mandatory!), and when I saw that my niece Hannah’s first birthday was the next week, I immediately decided to buy a plane ticket. A quick trip, certainly, but one I was already looking forward to the moment I pulled into Ames. And when I chose to move to go to ISU, I made a vow that being farther away would not mean that I would miss those milestones, the birthdays and weddings and life events that don’t happen twice. I would shell out the cash for plane tickets home, and I would bike more and order water at restaurants instead. And what a weekend it was. I was so excited all last week that I could hardly do my homework (which was an issue, since I had to work ahead to keep from falling behind), and even then, the fun even exceeded my expectations. I got to help make little Hannah’s elephant cake (shaped cakes are a Spory family tradition) and wear party hats. I got to crash on the couch and share drinks and bagels with the kind of friends you never want to leave, but ironically, are the exact ones who give you the strength to do so. I laughed and toasted and danced at an amazing wedding. This may be bold, but it was definitely on the list for Top 5 Most Fun Wedding. I haven’t laughed that hard or lived that fully in 5 weeks, attempting to bachata with middle aged Colombian women and not look like an idiot, among other things.

But you see, here’s the trouble with happiness. It has no beginning or end. It exists only in moments, a constantly fleeting ebb and flow amid the doctor’s appointments and DMV trips and everyday items on my to-do list. Joy is as much a choice as happiness is an unknowable blessing. But as I gave goodbye kisses to little Hannah Bear and Ilyana and Silas at the Charlottesville airport, hugged and cried with my sisters, and walked towards the security line, there was no way to choose joy, no shred of happiness left but in memory. And the long road and runway back to Ames has never felt more bleak.

But would I give back the mountaintop so I wouldn’t know the valley? Never. Not once. Ever, even as I doubt the future, regret the past, and struggle to motivate myself to work on the stack of architectural theory in my backpack or the abstract video project I don’t know how to do. For I refuse to regret the goodness in my life so that I might shield myself when that goodness feels just out of reach. Somehow, some way, time marches on, yielding to both the good and the bad.

Until then, I wait for the good to return.

Side Notes:

  • The CyRide drivers (yes, the Ames bus system is called this) always wave to each other when their buses pass. Curious. I think it’s kind of cool that they all do it. Or, at least, that the ponytailed, 30-something wearing Converses on my bus does it.
  • Do not think me racist, but something about Chinese students learning Spanish is really funny. I’m not sure why, but I hope you get the chance to overhear a tutoring session while using the library scanner like I did.
  • I survived my first official review. In case you were wondering, official reviews are when you pin up your work in the gallery and defend it, both for outside professors as well as your own. They usually happen 2-3 times per semester. Since they can be traumatic, I’m considering starting a mail-order business for Herr’s Sour Cream N’ Onion potato chips to make post-review more enjoyable. Or just to make life in general more enjoyable.
  • I used a laundromat for the first time ever tonight. Lesson learned: don’t use a $20 bill in a change machine unless you want a brick of quarters in your pocket.



P.S. Here are a few images from the weekend, including the newly-minted one-year-old. Still waiting on the new computer.

Hello, Mr. President

Ok, so I didn’t actually get to say these words, because there were about 400 other people trying to say them too. Or say…something, whether it was intelligent or not. Mostly it was not. Nevertheless, it was still a great moment. A bucket-list moment–getting to meet the President of the United States. And while all you Iowa-folk may think politicians coming to town is old hat (shoutout to Anfield peeps Stevn and Tobias  for this phrase and still-amusing vlog), this is a newfound privilege for a boy from Pennsylvania.  I’m still waiting to cross off “A portrait session with a US President,” but this will do for the time being.

Here’s how it went:
I heard Obama was coming to Ames the previous week. After seeing posters and emails and even two unknown phone calls informing me of his upcoming presence, I thought I’d try to get a ticket to the Tuesday speech, since I didn’t have an afternoon class. But then I didn’t feel like waiting in a line on a Saturday morning in the rain, especially when I heard he might speak in the morning (when I had aforementioned class) and I had newspapers to glue together for a project. So I waited until Monday and thought, “Hey, if I can still pick up a ticket today and don’t have to wait in line, I’ll go for it.” So I went and waitlisted for a ticket, then eventually got called to pick it up. When I did, the guy told me I’d “gotten a really great seat.” Not seeing any number or indication of this on the green ticket, I disregarded this and sprinted back to my class, arriving classily sweaty and out of breath.

Sidebar: If you don’t really care about this, all I have to say is tough luck, because you’ve already read it. Sidebar out.

So when I walked to central campus with my friend Aik (from western China, fyi), the security volunteers directed me and my green ticket one way and him and his red ticket another. Apparently, I was allowed to walk around the gathering mass of students right up to the front row, where I promptly stopped and situated myself front and center, not 15 feet from the podium. Thankfully, I’d decided at the last moment that I might want my camera. GREAT choice, Michael.

Sidebar #2: If you still don’t care, you’re still reading, sucka.

So we stood there for over 2 hours, sweating bullets and getting sunburned in the 90+ degree heat, while local volunteers passed out water bottles (they wouldn’t let us have the caps. apparently they are a security hazard) or carried the various dehydrated and fainting people to medical tents, while a slightly tone-deaf regional musician sang strange modern rock intermixed with awkward odes to Obama. Finally, the hoopla got undeway, as an Iowa senator introduced The Man of the Hour. After listening to his speech (and taking lots of photos–again, brilliant camera decision), he came down off the podium and started greeting people and shaking hands, as I hoped he would.  And yes, I did get to shake hands with the sitting President of the US. How was it, you may ask? Firm and confident, with good wrist action. He didn’t linger too long (a classic mistake), nor did he overuse the moisturizer earlier in the day (another common blunder). To top it all off, I even got interviewed by a reporter from a newspaper in Des Moines. To be honest, he made up my exact quotes, but at least he got the gist of what I said. You can read it here.

Sidebar #3: If you’re disappointed with this story…whelp, sorry. I think it’s cool. You should ask my mom about really long stories where you don’t meet people in Kansas.

So ends week two, which was decidedly better than week one. We had a field trip to 5 different CSA farms. I turned in my first project for review, which was a large installation of neuron-shaped balls of newspaper on the atrium wall of the design building. We had to do an exploration of materials. Next up are an 8-foot abstract drawing where we can’t erase ANYTHING, our first technical drawing assignment of plans and sections, and preliminary ideas for a research paper and presentation. Sounds like school, right? However, thanks to my studio professor cancelling class on Friday so she could attend Burning Man to do research, I had a glorious four-day weekend in Iowa City full of fudge-nut bars, homemade ice cream, reading for pleasure, meeting other Mennonite young adults looking for friends, and even some painting and cutting wood with Steve to fix woodpecker holes on the breakfast nook. The only problem with having such a great weekend? Going back to a clean-but-empty apartment in Ames.

I’ve already been here for three weeks (really? really?! three weeks?!?), and it sometimes feels like my life began with that road trip west across I-70. Or at least, my new life. Maybe that’s the mixed blessing of newness, to struggle to see how your life could be any different from the reality directly in front of you. To be unable to imagine your life from what it used to be to what it is, even though I know it is true that I used to live in Virginia. Maybe that means I’m settling in, but I’m not completely certain of it yet. The pain of uprooting has retreated to a dull ache, mostly, amid the flurry of schoolwork, life plans to be made, new friends to have over for dinner, books to be read, projects to begin working on. But what do you do when you feel like you are exactly where you are supposed to be, yet you don’t actually want to be there? I should ask Jonah. He seems like someone who would know. I still forget sometimes that I really live in Iowa, and it takes all the Story County license plates to remind me of that.


  • I ate the last chocolate-peanut butter no-bake from Danita Speigle. While the last tastes of those delicious bars linger long on the tongue, sadly, they are no more.

(Moment of silence.)

  • I have taken my love of croutons to a whole new level. I think I’ve already eaten 4 bags. They are like chips, only better. But not better than Herr’s Sour Cream n’ Onion. Don’t question.
  • My Serbian history professor keeps calling me “Mark” in class, but “Michael” when she does roll call before we begin each week.
  • Graduate students can check books out of the university library for AN ENTIRE YEAR. My stack of books isn’t due until next April. Contemplate how awesome this is for a moment. Ahhhh.
  • Aik, the student who sits next to me in studio, loves Virginia. I mean, he really loves it, even though he’s never been there. And usually mentions it whenever I see him. It’s awesome.

Pictures are coming soon, I promise. I’m still waiting on my new computer to come, and the dinosaur I’m currently using doesn’t have the gumption to handle editing software. Also, I don’t mean to be pushy, but I’d like you to write me. I like mail. Do it. Could be a postcard, a post-and-lintel (which we’re learning about; it’s called a trabeated system), or a post-it note. I don’t care. 5 minutes, and it’ll warm my heart for a whole week. Do it. (Open the trunk. Do it.).

Look, I’m a real schoolboy again

I actually made it through the first week of graduate school. And only a little scathed (dang hot glue gun). Only 15 more until the end of the semester. Is it bad that I’m counting down already? Probably, but it’s not one of those things you can unthink. I mean, it’s out there now, so I may as well acknowledge it.

Classes started last Monday, and have been in full swing since then. Really, the only break I’ve had was an evening to put up all my artwork in my apartment. And then I found out the next day that I should have been working in the studio instead. Really, life as an architecture graduate student revolves around The Studio. A mythical place where time has no meaning and other priorities melt away amid the scraps of old models and various pens, markers, and strips of cardboard. Don’t be fooled though; that pen probably cost you $7.59 at the bookstore. Stuff isn’t cheap. Sheesh. But The Studio is just the name for the area where we do all of our projects. The graduate arch. students have space on the 5th floor of the college of design (campus map here) where we have a desk. All of our classes are either there or in a small conference room nearby. Yep, I pretty much see the same 14 people every day. Thankfully, they are a nice bunch, although I’m looking to make friends from other areas of town and campus too. Keep a little sanity, you know, with people who don’t build tiny models out of cardboard and epoxy in their spare time. The second and third year students’ studios are adjacent to ours, and I have gotten to know some of them as well. Getting to know a few people has actually made the last few days considerably better, although I still feel like I’m consistently surrounded by friendly people who don’t actually know anything real about me. Are we friends? No. But we aren’t acquaintances either, which is a weird space for me. I usually have at least one downer moment per day where all I want to do is go home and grab a drink with actual friends or go visit Marcy and Eric and eat peanut butter cookies while talking on their couch. Thankfully, those moments usually pass on after a little while, but linger in a different way, like a tightness in your chest that never really goes away, even when you belly laugh. It’s also been awesome to get connected to Joani and Carey, a local couple with whom I have a crazy web of connections, as well as a small group of Mennonites from the church in Des Moines. Sometimes I am simply amazed at how generous and hospitable people can be to a wide-eyed grad student who has only sent them a few emails.

Here are some observations about my time in Ames so far.

  • Did I mention I live next to a bunch of frats and sororities? Yeah, lots of pastel colored polos, boat shoes with no socks, and overhairsprayed hair. I live in an area called CampusTown, which is exactly what it sounds like. So many bros, bro.
  • Hy-Vee, Dahl’s, Fareway, Wheatfield’s = grocery stores. Menard’s = hardware/home improvement (…save big money at Menard’s…sorry, the jingle gets me every time). Hobby Lobby = Michael’s on steroids. Mr. Burrito = the most authentic Mexican I’ve had in awhile. Gotta love $2.50 tostados.
  • No, I didn’t go to Eastern Michigan University. Yes, I did indeed visit Ames before I decided to come here. Yes, I do actually like that I can drive past cornfields 5 minutes in any direction.
  • There are a ridiculous number of undergrads walking around. Was I really 18 just like them? Did I really look and sound like a young child? Probably not. I’m going to suspend reality and just believe that for a while. Being my first experience in public school, let alone a huge public university, I’m often overwhelmed by the sheer volume of people walking around. AND by the fact that I don’t know all of them.
  • Campustown on a Friday night. CRAY. There are street vendors who operate only late a night due to the hordes of intoxicated co-eds with the munchies. Fajitas or a hot dog for $4 at 1 a.m.? Don’t mind if I do. Country rock at a cowboy bar called Outlaws? Round ‘em up.

My apartment is actually really nice now, even if it remains small in square footage. Amazing what curtains, beautifully framed artwork (thank you, Jason Ropp), and some comfy furniture will do for a place. I still haven’t cooked a meal or used my stove for anything other than reheating some BBQ chicken, but I have been eating pretty healthily thanks to the massive bag of produce from Mom and Dad’s garden. Cooking will come, but I just haven’t found a good routine (or made time!) to cook, although I do have a microwave now, thanks to the high quality of the Ames garage sale scene.

Things I miss: Cheers night at Union (tell Serena I say hello), being able to walk 100 yards to the grocery store, not having to explain what a Mennonite is every 3 conversations, down time in the evenings to enjoy life with Barney Stinson and Leslie Knope, getting to watch my nieces and nephew take their first steps (Great job, Silas and Hannah!), and much more.

Things I am looking forward to: Obama coming to campus tomorrow, getting my awesome new 15” Macbook Pro with retina display, going to Iowa City for a 4 day holiday weekend, possibly going to the Penn State-Iowa game, apple cider-and-puffy vest fall weather, getting to design a barn for my final studio project, and making Mexican chicken corn chowder sometime soon.

Life continues on, even if I don’t always feel like I know how. I can’t believe I’ve only been in classes for a week; the days seem to crawl by. But I continue to be overwhelmed by how strong, committed, and generous my community of family and friends has been. I have felt so supported and loved and connected in a way I never though possible. Whether it’s a phone call to chat, a long message, a letter, or a two-part text, having those concrete reminders of love and friendship make life here worth living, even if I can’t be a regular part of those lives anymore. While having this degree and starting a good career are good an all, having you in my life (even as 1000+ miles separate us)  is my real reason for getting up in the morning. You are the blessing I can never repay.