Thursday, September 27, 2012

NYC -- New York in the Flesh

Times Square: along with hoards of other tourists!

  From the second I stepped foot onto Manhattan soil, one thing was glaringly obvious: New Yorkers are a different breed.

  I took a weekday red-eye from Portland to Newark. And after relatively painless flight and an easy bus ride out of New Jersey, I arrived into Manhattan before the workday had even begun. With the hustle and bustle surrounding me, I did my best to gather my bearings, and figure out which way was up (or in this case, which way was towards Lexington Ave).

  It was the epitome of being a small fish in an enormous pond. Nevertheless, I found my way.

Navigating the Big Apple
Cab line-up at Grand Central.
  Manhattan is incredibly easy to navigate and maneuver around. All you have to do is pay a little attention, and know how to count. 'Avenues' run north and south, while the numbered 'Streets' run east and west. 5th Ave. separates the east and west side. There's one little caveat, once you reach lower Manhattan, the easy-navigable grid system goes out the window. But really, there's no excuse for getting lost (for too long anyway) in NYC. 

  Right off the bat, New Yorkers pay zero attention to what the crosswalk light says. 'Walk' or 'Don't Walk', if there's even a slight opening in traffic, they're across the street. When there were cars and cabs whizzing by every which way, I thought they were crazy -- standing two to three feet off the curb, so they could get a good jump. But I guess that's just their norm, and what they're used to. By my second day in the city, I was following suit.

  My mode of transportation while visiting NYC was how New Yorkers get around each and every day: on foot, or on the subway. It was refreshing not to rely on a car to get around town. Though the hot, humid summer days had me sweating barely five steps out the door!

  I've always thought the best way to explore a city, and to get to know a new city, is by walking it. So what did I do? I walked over 34,000 steps on my first day in the city (so says my Nike FuelBand). And I bought a seven day unlimited trips MetroCard for $30 that I put to good use during my five day stay in Manhattan.

  Subway trips are interesting. And during high volume traffic times, they can be a bit uncomfortable. So many people, so little space. I found that most New Yorkers opt to stay in their own little worlds during their commutes: either by reading, listening to music, catching a few extra minutes of sleep, or on their phones (or sometimes, all of the above).

Thought I was doing something wrong: An empty subway car??
Grand Central Terminal
  That's another way New Yorkers are different: though they encounter thousands of people on a daily basis, there is zero interaction between them. Both on the subway and in the streets. I found it to be very disconnected. Not that I chat up every Joe Schmo I pass by either. But I've grown accustomed to occasionally saying hello, making eye contact, or exchanging a nod or a smile with people I encounter in Portland. (Portland can't be the only city that does this.)

  To be fair, when you encounter thousands of unknown faces day after day, I suppose you're bound to start ignoring them fairly quickly.

Day-to-Day Life
  Everyday living in Manhattan also seemed like something that would need some getting used-to.

  I made the mistake of stopping in at the Trader Joe's near Union Square at 5:30pm on a weekday. Mass chaos is an understatement. There were easily 15-20 checkout stands open, and two lines still wound around the entire store. I realized my error in timing, and actually had thoughts of putting my basket down and walking out of the store. But I needed some groceries, so I gave it a shot.

  To my surprise, it was well-organized, and went fairly quickly. And it would have to be. I can't imagine New Yorkers putting up with an inept system that took too long, or was too inconvenient. The really smart shoppers got in line immediately, and did their shopping as the line wound throughout the store. They were obviously longtime Trader Joe's vets.

  For me, grocery shopping would be a big stumbling block. You could never buy too much at once because you still have to get it home! I'm sure there's a way around this problem that has already been solved: perhaps online shopping and delivery is the norm?

Flatiron District.
  With space at a premium, apartments have the bare bones. You learn to live with what you need, not necessarily what you want. Kitchen amenities, laundry facilities, outdoor living spaces, etc; unless you have a money tree, chances are there will be something you'll have to go without.

  Finally, dealing with the influx of tourists day after day has got to be tiresome. What part of Manhattan isn't 'touristy', anyway?

Brooklyn Heights
  While it would take me some getting used to, I actually think New York-living is something to be admired: public transport, modest living conditions, living off of need, not want.

  Five days is hardly enough time to know what it's like to actually live in a city. Even though the pace, and the number of people wore me out after just a few days, I found New York City to be spectacular.

  And while living there might be biting off a little too much for me to chew, I would love to spend more time exploring and getting to know NYC!


Statue of Liberty ferry.
Busy Mid-Town streets.
More Mid-Town.
Radio City Music Hall
Flatiron Building.
Hudson River. Looking at New Jersey.
Statue of Liberty from Battery Park.
Central Park.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

NYC -- The Prelude

Manhattan from the Brooklyn Bridge.

  New York City is one of the few cities in the world that intimidated me. Without ever having visited, just the thought of NYC, while exciting me, also had me a little concerned

  And I've done my fair share of traveling.

  I've been all over Europe as a solo traveler (for the most part), and never thought twice about it. But just thinking about exploring the streets of NYC, made me a little uncomfortable.

  Before I got there, that is.

The Big Bad City
West Side -- Hoboken behind.
  Many times, that's the way it's portrayed in movies -- as the big, bad city-- isn't it? And all the things you hear or read about NYC aren't exactly favorable, are they? Once I got my feet wet, and learned the lay of the land (which didn't take long), I was comfortable. Those feelings of intimidation were ill-found. Maybe that was naive of me, but I felt 100% at ease in my surroundings.

  As a West-Coaster, NYC is a tough place to get to. And as someone who frequently is on trans-continental flights, once you reach your destination, you hardly want to jump on another plane going halfway back in the wrong direction. So other than a quick layover in the airport, I had never set foot on New York ground.

  I knew I would get there sooner or later.

  New York has too many things to offer for me not to see them. And I have friends in the area. So it was only a matter of time.

East Side run. Under the Williamsburg Bridge.
Holiday Fairy Tale
  Whenever I pictured myself visiting New York, it was always during the Holiday season. I don't know, there's something about the mystique of the lights, the cold, crisp air, and the holiday spirit that made me want to experience the Big Apple around New Year's. Maybe that's a fairy tale due to the scenes and images we get in the media so frequently, but that's the idea I had in my head.

  But the timing has never been right. December isn't exactly the time of year that allows me to take a vacation for travel.

  From the time I was a kid, the Holiday Season was smack-dab in the middle of my basketball season. So I will have to wait until my playing days are over to see whether NYC under the holiday lights can live up to the hype.

Statue of Liberty tour.
  Lucky for me though, I had an opportunity to visit the Big Apple this August. The proverbial kill two birds with one stone scenario had arisen (or in this case, three or four birds): visit New York City, meet and visit with friends, and attend a charity event (to be blogged about soon!).

  I had a fabulous time, and thoroughly enjoyed every bit of what NYC had to offer for five days.

  Needless to say, there were friends I didn't get to see, sights I didn't get to visit, and experiences I didn't get to have, so a return trip to NYC is in order. Hopefully sooner rather than later!

  Next time around, I'll blog about the day-to-day things I observed about New Yorkers, and living in the busy city!

A few teasers...

Times Square.
Yankee Stadium!
Central Park.
Grimaldi's Pizza in Brooklyn.
The High Line.
The BIG Piano.
Lexington Ave. Market.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Losing the Complacency, & Recapturing the Competitiveness

Back to game action.

  Imagine playing a game you've played countless times.

  But this time, you're a step slow. Your reactions are a little off. You have no feel, or rhythm, for the game. And you feel like you could get hit with a flying elbow at any moment. That's how I felt back on the basketball court, until recently.

  And then I felt things click. Something switched in my head.

  That's what pre-season is for. To get your body in the condition to play physical games week after week. To acclimate to your teammates and develop team chemistry. To rediscover that feel for the game. And also, maybe most-importantly, to recapture that competitive spirit.

  Since I arrived back in Dunkerque nearly three weeks ago, my teammates and I have played in five 'friendly matches'. But they've hardly been friendly.

  It's the first real game action many of us have seen since last April or May. It's not a running workout, shooting, or weights, where there's only one person to worry about: you. It's not pickup, where it's just for fun (for the most part), where you can turn it off and on as you please. It's not practice, where you're working towards a common goal with your teammates. It's a game. And people are trying to beat you. (And I swear, sometimes, trying to hurt you.)

  They're competing.

  Until I felt that switch flip, I felt out of sorts. Like I was being 'out-competed', so-to-speak.

No more shooting workouts. Where it's just you & the hoop.
  We were in a tournament this past weekend in Strasbourg. I was getting beat in situations I wasn't used to getting beat in. I was a step behind. I was reacting, instead of making my opponent react to me. Granted I was still adjusting to the speed and the intensity of the game. But I wasn't competing.

  After my fourth preseason game, I realized I was coasting, and not thinking competitively. I suppose was still in pickup mode, whereas everyone else on the court was already in regular season mode.

  There's such a thing as being too comfortable. I think that's called complacency. Being complacent is not the way to play basketball, or any sport for that matter. If you want to be successful, anyway. Complacency leads to unequal playing fields where you'll always be at a disadvantage.

  When I realized my error in thinking, or preparation, that's when it came together for me.

  I think I got a little ticked -- that I allowed myself to play like that. Playing mad isn't necessarily a bad thing, as long as it doesn't hinder you, that you don't stop thinking.

Competing against yourself only does so much.
  I decided to challenge myself, change things up a bit. Play more aggressively than what my 'norm' is. And you know what, things started to happen. I was the aggressor, instead of the reactor. I played freely, instead of over-thinking. Sure, I got a couple of fouls I don't normally get, but oh well. You get five of them. So you better use a couple.

  Your natural demeanor and personality are who you are at the core. In my opinion, you can't really change them much. Demeanor and personality are ever-present on the basketball court, as well as off.

  I'm naturally a laid-back, easy-going person. And more often than not, that sort of demeanor doesn't translate into a successful basketball player. You can't be too nice on the court. If you are, you'll be taken to school every time you step between the lines.

Time to compete!
  So you work to develop your personality on the court, all the while retaining the person you are off the court.

  It sounds a lot like pushing outside of comfort zone. Being a little bit of something you're not (while on the court), all in the name of being successful. The easy thing to do, is to slide into what is comfortable. Then we're back to being complacent. It requires more focus

  If I've learned anything from my three weeks of pre-season thus far, it's this:

- Be hungry.

- Remember why you play.

- And most importantly, competing is never easy. It's hard work!

  Two more friendly matches to go til the regular season! Including one tonight against a Belgian team. I'll keep working!

Friday, September 14, 2012

Got Coffee?

Starbucks in Germany!

  (Note: As luck may have it, I came across an in-depth look all about coffee, and its benefits over the weekend. Check it out here!)

  It's Friday, so it's safe to say a few of us might have needed a little stronger cup of coffee to get rolling this morning. Or maybe an extra cup or two sufficed.

  Those of us who have picked up the coffee habit rely on it for several reasons. Whether it's that boost to get our day started or a midday pick-me-up, the comfort of a warm drink or a morning ritual, a workout enhancer, an excuse to visit with a friend, or just because we like the taste, coffee is the most common way we consume caffeine.

  And depending on who you talk to, caffeine is either beneficial, or a harmful vice. So which is it?

The Biology 
  Caffeine is a stimulant. Biologically it's revs up our nervous system, decreases fatigue, and helps us feel more alert. It does this by blocking the Adenosine (known as nature's chill pill) in our brains. So there's a reason we get a boost after consuming caffeine!

  It's fair to say that the majority of us (as adults) consume most of our caffeine in the form of coffee. So the answer to whether it's harmful or helpful, most likely, lies in how much coffee we drink on a daily basis, and how we drink it.
Always good reason to stop in for a coffee with friends!

How Much Caffeine?
  Everywhere you look, the 'acceptable' amount of caffeine per day is roughly 300-400 mgs. Because there are so many different ways to brew it (and each way yields a different amount of caffeine per serving) the range of how many cups per day is dependent on how you brew your coffee. Lucky for us, someone has already done the math!

  Starbucks is probably the most well-known and most-frequented coffee spot throughout the US, so here's a complete guide to how much caffeine is in their countless coffee drinks (there is information about other caffeinated drinks, as well). And if you brew your coffee at home, you can use it to guide you as well. 

The Benefits
  Other than the obvious, and previously talked about, boost in the morning, there are other advantages to consuming a 'healthy' amount of caffeine on a daily basis.

  Caffeinated coffee has been shown to boost cognitive function, is an anti-oxidant, inhibits insulin resistance, and can speed up your metabolism.

  There's one benefit to caffeine that I had never considered until recently. More studies have been released about the benefit of consuming just a small amount caffeine 30-45 minutes prior to exercising to performance. Again, since it's a stimulant, caffeine gives you extra stamina and increases your heart rate, which improves blood flow to the rest of your body. It helps you perform difficult physical tasks by eliminating fatigue. Caffeine also increases the amount of adrenaline in your system, causing a rush of extra glucose and oxygen to your muscles.

  Caffeine has been found to help with two kinds of exercise: endurance activities, and short, power-intensive activities. 

The Drawbacks
  As with everything, coffee (caffeine) must be consumed in moderation. When we exceed the 300-400 mgs per day suggestion we may start to see negative effects. Sleeplessness, increased anxiety, and headaches are common results of too much caffeine consumption.

  A more serious result of over-caffeinating ourselves can be the effect our thyroid function. The thyroid controls our body's metabolism. Too much coffee can, in turn, cause the release of stress hormones and burn out our adrenal glands, resulting in weight gain.

  Lastly, because caffeine is a diuretic, we must drink water alongside consumption to avoid dehydration. 

How Do You Take It?
   I know very few of us actually LIKE the taste of coffee, and coffee alone, when we first start drinking it. We need a little (or a lot) of sugar and/or cream to doctor it up a bit to our liking. So be mindful of how much sugar and cream you take.

  But one thing is certain: please avoid the artificial sweeteners!

Hanging in the coffee bar in Italy.
  Green tea is a good non-coffee option for caffeine. Stay away from the energy drinks because more often than not, they're loaded with sugar or artificial sweeteners. Get your caffeine in a 'natural' form if you must!

  Bravo to you, if you've never picked up the coffee habit! I can't say I am one of those people. For me, it all started in Italy. The Italian espresso has to be one of the best things ever! Before I moved onto playing in Europe I would occasionally have a 'coffee' drink from Starbucks. But based on my preference for strong, bold coffee, I have a hard time calling those sweet drinks, coffee, now.

  I know when I'm sitting in front of my computer, working on a post, I can mindlessly drink three or four cups in one short afternoon. It was after I thought about my new habit, that I was curious: exactly how much coffee is too much?

  To be sure, as with everything good in this world, it's all okay in moderation!

The Complete Guide to Starbucks Caffeine (and other sources)
Caffeine Before Working Out
Health Benefits of Caffeine
The Effect of Excess Caffeine

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Boulder: Colorado's Beautiful Playground

The Flatirons from Pearl Street.

  One of my favorite places to visit, each and every summer, is Boulder, Colorado.

  For one, it's where I went to college and spent four awesome years. Many of my best friends still live in Colorado, and more specifically, Boulder.

  Visiting gives me the opportunity to spend some time with them, and catch up after a long year away.

  Secondly, Boulder is, quite honestly, one of the most uniquely beautiful places in the US.

  Bias aside, I challenge anyone to show me a city that can top the scenery and experiences you have in Boulder.

  I spent four memorable years earning my Psychology degree, and playing basketball at the University of Colorado. The beauty of Boulder and its surroundings is unmistakable. Even to an 18 year-old kid.

The Flatirons
Where most of my time in Boulder was spent as a student-athlete.
  Walking through campus at the foot of the Rockies, and having the Flatirons loom large, was quite a backdrop to have everyday. Whether they were covered with snow, displaying the fall foliage, or as was often the case, paired with a bright blue sky, you could never keep your eyes off the Flatirons.

  But during my college years, that's about as far as I got in the Boulder experience.

  As a collegiate athlete at CU-Boulder, the majority of my time and energy was spent on the basketball court at the Coors Event Center, training, studying, or eating at Dal Ward, or at home, trying to get some much-needed rest.

The Flatirons in Winter.
  The giant playground, that is Boulder, went largely unexplored and unnoticed by my 18-22 year old self.

  The hiking, the trails and paths, the creeks, the reservoirs, the parks, the annual events could have been on the moon for all I knew. Unless it was an organized team event or workout, chances are, I never experienced it.

  My nose was to the grindstone. And more often than not, I was too tired, or too busy to notice all the beautiful things surrounding me. Or maybe that's just not what college-aged kids are interested in?

Looking out, along Mt. Sanitas hike.
  Whenever I visit, I look around in amazement. That, wow, this was where I had the opportunity to live and go to school for four years.

  Now, when I visit in the summer, and when sleep and rest isn't at a premium, I do all I can to soak it all up.

An Outdoorsman's Paradise
  Hikes are a must: Chautauqua, Mt. Sanitas, Royal Arch, Flagstaff, the Flatirons.

  Trail runs: Bobolink, Wonderland Lake, Dakota Ridge, Boulder Res.
Royal Arch hike.
  The Boulder Bike paths are an intertwining network that goes throughout the city and beyond. You can walk, run, bike, etc without encountering cars, or crossing traffic miles upon miles.

  There's rock climbing, but I don't dare try that.

  And what I've done is probably still just the tip of the iceberg.

The Bolder BOULDER
  On Memorial Day every year, the city hosts the BolderBOULDER. One of my favorite runs, the Bolder Boulder is a 10k road race through the city, that finishes inside CU's football stadium, Folsom Field. I haven't been able to participate in the run in several years. But the years I did run, was a blast.

Summer trail run. Boulder behind.
  There are roughly 50,000 participants, and as you run the course, you're entertained by the home-owners along the route. Some of the memorable displays include: BBQs, live bands, the 'Halfway House' slip and slide (at the halfway point of the race), and cookie stands.

  It's the the fastest 6 miles you'll ever run in your life.

Pearl Street
  For the non-athlete, there's shopping (or what I do most-often: people-watching) along the always unpredictable, and picturesque Pearl Street Mall. It's a four block pedestrian mall the epitomizes Boulder. Anything goes along Pearl Street. Local restaurants, bars, and cafes, specialty shops, street performers and vendors line the streets day or night, summer or winter.

The Flatirons from inside Folsom Field.
  You can always visit and explore the ever-changing CU-Boulder campus, and the adjacent neighborhood, The Hill.

  Notice how most everything is outside? There must be some good weather in Boulder. And there is!

  As someone who grew up in the gray Pacific Northwest, year-round sunshine was unheard of. But in Colorado the sun is always shining. Call the 300-plus days of sunshine a year proof enough. Sure there is snow, but not nearly as much as you might think.

  One to two weeks every summer (and sadly, only four days this summer) isn't nearly enough time to finish the Boulder to-do list. In fact, it's usually just enough time to get to everything you loved from the year before, and maybe check one more activity off the list.

  Who's been to Boulder? And what are some of your favorite things to do? I know there are some gems I've missed out on!

Monday, September 10, 2012

Life A, to Life B

It'll be several months before this happens again.

  I often joke that I lead two different lives. One where I am home in the US, surrounded by family, and when given the opportunity, close friends. And the other, where I am more or less on a solo venture in a foreign land, keeping as close of touch as possible via the Internet.

  You can also call it going from vacation mode to work mode. From living in the US, to living in Europe.

  The end of August, most years, marks the transition period from one 'life' to the other. Depending on when my contract requires me to join my team for the new season, I pack my life into two suitcases (for the next seven to eight months), and jump on a plane to cross the Atlantic.

  For me, the most difficult time is the last few days at home and the first few days back in Europe. You anticipate leaving, with a little lump in your throat. You have difficult goodbyes to say, and you know that your life is about to make a drastic turn. And the last days always seem to pass far too quickly.

Bright, sunny beach days make for easy adjustments!
  It's not that you dislike returning Europe, and eventually returning to 'work'. But it's a change. No matter how many times you hop across the pond, it's a huge adjustment. Both emotionally and physically. Even if you might be returning to the same place as the previous year (like I am doing this go 'round), there are always adjustments to be made.

  You're anxious to get to your city, get settled, and get things started with your new team. And you can't do that until you actually set foot into your second home.

  This year, the adjustment was made a little bit easier since I'm back in a familiar place. I know the roads, I know my coach, I know the city, I know some of my teammates, I know where the stores are and when they close. I know exactly what to expect, both the good and the bad. There's something to be said for a little familiarity, isn't there?

  Even with a little familiarity, I still have to make adjustments.

Life B includes exploring the beach -- A blue jellyfish!
  Most obviously, jet lag. A nine-hour time difference from the West Coast always is always like riding a roller coaster. It usually gets better with each passing day, but at a slow pace. I go from my eyes popping open at 4-5am and falling flat at 3pm, to begrudgingly rolling out of bed at 6:45am (because my body won't let me sleep any later), and barely lasting til the day's end. You gradually sleep later and later each day, but it's a slow process.

  Now that I've been in France for a little over a week, the jet-lag is a distant memory.

  As I got myself settled into my apartment, I had to wait several days for the most important thing to a basketball player overseas: the internet connection.

  Until the internet's up and running, you feel a little disconnected. You can't talk to family and friends the way you would like to, and keeping up with daily news is a little difficult as well. Though I can say I'm more up on British news than I've ever been, thanks to my morning 'BBC Breakfast' show on TV.

  So life is in a bit of limbo til you get things how you want them. You just hope the limbo doesn't last too long. 

  Now with the Internet working, jet-lag gone, and my apartment set up, I can focus 100% on the thing I came back to France to do: play basketball. I can get into my daily routine, and live.

My little red car in Life B. No speeding tickets please.
  I can get to know my new teammates, and re-connect with the old ones. I can start to make adjustments on the court as well.

  The first week playing basketball is always a tough one for me. My legs feel like they're still somewhere on a plane in the sky. So until I get my legs back under me, I'm a little out of sorts on the court.

  Your body also must adjust to the daily wear and tear of playing basketball. Even though I worked out hard during the summer, nothing compares to two-a-day practices, and the pounding your body takes on the court. So the first week of practice, no matter how well-prepared you are, is one with plenty of body aches and sore muscles.

  Slowly but surely, I'm easing back into 'Life B'. Luckily, we have five more pre-season games to play, including a tournament in Strasbourg this weekend, til things start counting for real. The regular season starts September 29th for DMBC Dunkerque, so there's still three weeks to work out the kinks.

  It's been a fairly smooth transition for me back to the North Sea so far, hopefully a sign of things to come!