Monday, February 29, 2016

Good Altitudes

"I heard them calling in the distance
So I packed my things and ran"
 - Mountain Sound, by Of Monsters and Men

Earlier this month, before flying back to Ecuador, I visited Mount Bonnell, the highest peak in Austin, Texas. However at only 775 feet above sea level ... it's practically nothing compared to the 9,000 feet of Quito, Ecuador. So, when you live in a place where the highest point is less than 1,000 feet, and you move to a city on a mountainside 9 times that height, what is that like?


High altitude is defined as 5000 - 11,500 ft. When traveling to these heights, one's body experiences:

Deficiency in the amount of oxygen reaching the tissues.

The process of the body adjusting to the decreased availability of oxygen at high altitudes. It is a slow process, taking place over a period of days to weeks. 

This process includes the body creating brand-new red blood cells to transport oxygen, because the air is thinner and breathing becomes more difficult. One's body first experiences hypoxia as breathing and heart rate increases, sometimes even doubles. Some people experience altitude sickness, which includes headaches, nausea, fatigue, and trouble sleeping. For me, I've experienced difficulty falling asleep my first few nights in Quito, as I feel my heart working harder even as I simply lay in bed. Going up stairs and walking uphill leaves me feeling winded, however staying well-hydrated greatly helps. 

Initially, the body experiences a drop in fitness capability upon traveling to a high altitude. Gradually, a person can acclimate and their fitness level can rise, though never to quite the same peak as when being closer to sea level. However upon returning to a lower plain, a person can experience enhanced fitness. For this reason, many Olympic athletes train in high altitudes (such as in Colorado, for American Olympians). Even though the initial burst of greater fitness will wear off, it still gives athletes an advantage. 

Cuts, bruises, and other injuries can take longer to heal in high altitudes. 

High altitude can even effect thought processes and memorization. Sometimes I'll find myself knowing that I know a certain famous name or right adjective but struggle to get my mind to bring forth the information. I had thought it was just that my mind became tired after long periods of Spanish, or switching back and forth. Although learning a second language as an adult can improve your brain, there can also be moments where the learner feels as though they're losing some of their original language, caught in a space of having parts of two languages and not quite a single whole anymore.  Now that I know that high altitude can also effect memory, it's no wonder I sometimes find myself going, "You know, he was in such and such movie? What's his name? I just had it!" 

People indigenous to high altitudes are normally shorter, as a people group. At five foot eight (a fairly normal height in the States), I'm easily the height of most men here, and often significantly taller then most women.
 I greatly intimidate when I put on heels. 

(Right? It's like, "Who invited the giant?" They're both wearing heels too, so this is still our normal comparative height.)

Sunday, February 21, 2016

2015 In Music

Whether it's a streaming service, a radio, or a music player, we live in an age where any kind of music is available to anyone. With so many choices, narrowing down a few favorites can be challenging. From what I was able to catch, here are a few of my personal top picks from 2015.


"Her Mercy", by Glen Hansard
This quote by Hansard sums up why this song, and so many of his, can feel so powerful. “Some of the best songs I’ve ever heard operate within the vernacular of prayer." With lyrics like "When you're ready for her mercy / And you're worthy / It will come", this song soars and crashes and is so alive. (more about the full album below)

"Atlantis", by Seafret
 In the music video for this song, a small boy is picked up and carried away from a terrible accident. When he opens his eyes, he is in a dream world, carried by a friendly white beast along a stony coastline. Like the video, the song is filled with sorrow and hope. Singing, "I can't save you / My Atlantis, we fall / We built this town on shaky ground", one might think the song would be a downer, yet the power with which the words are sung and the strength of the melody builds and grows with unmistakable hope and resilience. I don't know how many times I've listened to this song, but each time I feel so alive. "Seafret" is a newer band who just released their first full-length album, and I look forward to hearing more from them.

"She Used To Be Mine", by Sara Bareilles
Beautifully Bareilles mourns: "She's imperfect but she tries / She is good but she lies / She is hard on herself / She is broken and won't ask for help". Slowly however, her voice rises to insist that the life inside her is "Growing stronger each day / 'Til it finally reminds her / To fight just a little / To bring back the fire in her eyes / That's been gone, but used to be mine". Every note is a lovely exercise in confession and optimism.  (more about the full album below)

"7 Years", by Lucas Graham
 Beginning simply with "Once I was seven years old", this song swings easily from lighthearted to reflective. The Danish band is new to the States, yet is gaining notice for this first single.


"Didn't He Ramble", by Glen Hansard
If you've seen the movie "Once", you know it starts with a man on a street, playing an old guitar and singing his heart out to an invisible audience, hoping for passersby to tip him some change. (Likely, the following hit Broadway musical also starts the same way). Of course an audience does materialize in the form of another musician, Marketa Irglova, and from there, a musical collaboration is born. Though the partnership of Hansard and Irglova created incredible harmonies, it was that first song, blooming up from a lonely street corner, so unapologetically bold, which made me love Hansard and his music. Secretly, after being a little disappointed by his and Irglova's follow-up album, I wondered if he'd have anything such as good. "Didn't He Ramble" is everything. From the thoughtful opening track "Grace Beneath The Pines" to the upbeat "Winning Streak", and my favorite - "Her Mercy" - Hansard sings with absolute honesty. When his voice rises to a bellow, it is clear that he has put everything into his music. The lyrics, melody, and certainly his performance, contain something perfectly true; a man using every bit of his talents and passion to share his music with anyone who wants to pause and listen.

"Coming Home", by Leon Bridges
With smooth and bluesy songs which are highly reminiscent of Ella Fitzgerald, Billy Holiday, Bridges sounds as though he could have stepped out of another era, seamlessly and appropriately entering a world where vinyl is once again popular and sounds better than ever.

"What's Inside: Songs From Waitress" by Sara Bareilles
Bareilles wrote the album as a musical version of the sweet and funny movie "Waitress". The Broadway production will debut soon, with this collection of songs being Bareilles's personal interpretation. They all fit together well, with "She Used To Be Mine" being a standout beauty.

"Wilder Mind", by Mumford and Sons
Taking a departure from their usual banjos and folk sound in favor of a slightly more rock music direction, Mumford continues to deliver with strong lyrics, vocals, and a complete sound. It's an album I can put on at any time and enjoy, either as background music or to dive into the lyrics.

"What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World", by The Decemberists
For years, this band has consistently produced music with a strong signature sound and meaningful lyrics, and this one is no different. The upbeat "Cavalry Captain" is my favorite.

"Strange Trails", by Lord Huron
This album - recommended by my youngest sister - has grown on me more and more. Folksy goodness.

Other 2015 albums I've enjoyed:

"Heart Beats" EP by JOHNNYSWIM
"Carrie and Lowel", by Sufjan Stevens
"How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful", by Florence + The Machine
"Kintsugi", by Death Cab For Cutie
"Every Eye Open", by CHVRCHES
"A Head Full Of Dreams", by Coldplay
"25", by Adele
"Stages", by Josh Groban
"5 AM", by Amber Run
"Oh Wonder", by Oh Wonder
"Running With The Wolves" EP by AURORA
"Something Rotten!",  an original Broadway musical
"The Man From U.N.C.L.E." soundtrack
"Far From The Madding Crowd" soundtrack
"The Martian" soundtrack, by Harry Gregson-Williams
 "Room" soundtrack, by Stephen Rennicks

Thursday, February 4, 2016


"My body tells me no
But I won't quit
'Cause I want more
'Cause I want more!"
 - "My Body", by Young The Giant

My alarm went off at 5:00 am. I dressed in my running clothes, pinning my race number to my waist: 4044. When I stepped outside at 5:30, the full moon illuminated the cold darkness.

The long line of cars waiting to get into the Sam's Club parking lot reassured me that I was in the right place. Streams of people in running clothes crossed the street, heading to the start line. Eventually I found a parking spot and tried to memorize the location. (Later, when I was heading back to my car, I encountered a poor wandering woman who couldn't recall exactly where she had parked. I had done that before, and didn't envy her.)

The cold was biting. I rubbed my hands together, blowing on them and then touching them to my frozen cheeks. I wished for gloves and a hat. Before the race began at 7:00, the announcer declared, "It's a chilly morning here in Austin Texas at the start of the 3M Downhill to Downtown Half Marathon, with the temperature reading 39 degrees."

Thousands of people ran across the start line, thousands who had also woken up early and were braving the cold to run 13.1 miles. It was craziness, a sort of self-torture, so why was I and so many others doing it? Because it makes me feel so alive. The cold and pain mixed with adrenaline; running with thousands of other people and trying for a personal best is an excitement and rush unlike any other. I started to pass people, getting into my stride. I would run with people at a similar pace as me, then for motivation I would pick out someone and decide to pass them. It would be the girl with the purple tutu or the guy wearing a hat with antlers (because there are always people wearing crazy things, at least at Austin races), and I would run to them and past them. The playlist I had created the day before played from my iPhone: songs from Foster The People, OneRepublic, Moby, My Morning Jacket, Young The Giant and others.

All along the way, people had come out to cheer along the runners, some ringing cowbells and some holding up signs. One sign said, "Go Random Stranger!!" and another joked, "Worst Parade Ever!". Going through a neighborhood, someone had set up a table with a bowl of bananas cut in half, and second bowl with what looked like leftover Halloween candy, all free for the taking. Soon after there were a couple of little girls, bundled up against the cold, holding out gloved hands for high fives. I high-fived them, saying, "Thanks!" as I went by.

About five miles in, I saw a pacer: a person holding a sign saying "2:05", which meant if you kept pace with her you'd finish at about 2 hours, 5 minutes. I passed her.
This passing may sound like I'm bragging, but the truth is, I had to find positives to focus on because if I didn't, I'd focus on the cold which was making my nose run, the growing soreness of my legs and lungs, and how, especially by mile 8, I simply wanted to walk, or stop all together. Mile 8 was where it started to get really hard. The sun was rising, and in the clear light, puffs of dragons smoke appeared from every runner, from every other crazy person out there that morning.
"5 miles to go," I told myself. "Almost 2/3rds done." I willed myself not to walk. I wanted badly to finish the race in less than 2 hours.

There were policemen all along the route, most of them looking serious and busy as they made sure all was safe. Coming around a bend, a policeman stood near his car, smiling broadly at the passing runners. Someone near me called out, "Good morning! Thank you!" and suddenly many people were calling, "Thank you! Thank you sir!" The officer smiled, nodded, and waved back. All the week before, I had been thinking of the Boston Marathon. It wasn't inconceivable, sadly, that something like that could happen here. As the "thank-yous" poured from the runners around me, it was just another way in which we were all united. We knew the possible danger, however slight or real, and came out anyway.

At mile 9 I thought, "I think my hands and face are less numb!"
At mile 11 a woman held up a sign telling everyone, "You still look pretty!" I cheered and gave her a thumbs up as she laughed appreciatively.

I crossed the finish line at 1 hour 56 minutes. Volunteers placed medals around all the runners necks, fruit and Cliff bars were handed out, and photographers vied for people interested in paying for a photo. Finally I made it through the crowd and found a spot to sit down. I ate a clementine orange. It was delicious. I stretched and stretched. Minutes after I finished, my phone died. No more photos for me, but that was okay. I ate a small bag of chips, the skin on my face crusty with salt from sweating.

It was done. My first half marathon, the farthest I'd ever run. I made it in less than 2 hours and was happy. I was sore and hungry and tired and so, so happy.