On Learning to Drive Stick in San Francisco

Learning to drive stick in San Francisco is like learning to swim at Ocean Beach. It’s theoretically possible, but the reality of it is somewhat dangerous, mentally intimidating, and more than a little bit stressful. Word to the wise: if you don’t know how to drive stick, and aren’t excited about the idea of the lives of your seven passengers riding (pun intended) on your ability to do a successful hill start, maybe don’t take a job that relies heavily on both of those requirements.

Let me back up to the beginning of this story.

In September of 2015 I was finally accepting that the day-to-day reality of my startup job was not doing it for me. I wanted to be doing something different, but had never encountered a job in San Francisco that combined not sitting in front of a computer all day with earning above minimum wage. As luck would have it, my roommate was in the early stages of planning an eight-month road trip with her boyfriend that involved quitting their day jobs and living in a van. Consequently, a solid amount of time was spent looking at beautiful vans and #vanlife accounts on Instagram. When I came across Vantigo’s account (and a post that they were hiring) I was intrigued. I corresponded with Erik, the owner, and within the week I’d been offered a job doing content, social media, community management, and most of all, learning to be a tour guide. This was regardless of the fact that I did not know how to drive a stick shift, which all three of the Vantigo vans required. Challenge accepted.

Fast-forward about two and a half months, one bicycle accident induced elbow fracture, and enough Vantigo employees being in the US at the same time for the tour schedule to be covered, and you will arrive at the time when my stick shift training began. I started at the Marina Green parking lot, moved on to the back roads of West Marin, and eventually began practicing the tour route around San Francisco over the course of three weeks.

Learning to drive stick proved to be one of those things you just had to learn by doing- and learn by screwing up on. Luckily for me, stalling while trying to do a hill start at a four-way stop seems to be much less irritating to other drivers when you are in acanary yellow VW van. Unfortunately for me, other drivers don’t seem to realize that when I’m stalling out trying to do a hill start at a four-way stop it might not be the best time to pull up next to me to chat about their VW nostalgia. I would have figured that the sweat pouring down my face combined with the stressed out facial expression would be a dead give away of, “this is maybe not the best time to chat with this person,” but VW vans just really bring out the dreamy, chatty side of people. C’est la vie.

My biggest lesson from learning to drive stick in a 1971 VW van was really one about science. In a van with four gears, gravity is gear number five. Gravity can be used to your benefit in many scenarios including but not limited to: backing out of a parking space, coasting down a large hill, and getting up to speeds not otherwise attainable by a VW van (slow is really all we know). Sir Isaac take the wheel. (Shout out to Erik, Eddie, and Justin for pulling the e-brake for me at exactly the right times).

The last three weeks have seen me driving tours to wine country, Highway 1, and all around San Francisco. I’ve been having recurring dreams where I’m driving stick, and I hope this counts as additional practice. I’ve also decided that our yellow van, Jerry, who followed the Grateful Dead for ten years during the 70s, is definitely my spirit van. There is really something to cruising around in these vans, whether you’re driving down Haight Street or coasting down Highway 1. It just feels so right. Well, so long as you don’t accidentally go from third gear to second when looking for fourth, or try to leave a stop sign in third when you think you’re in first, that is.

When in doubt, grind it till you find it.

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My Utterly San Francisco Bike Accident

I’ve been living and biking in San Francisco for long enough now that my chances of getting into minor “bicycle meets blank” altercations have increased, not in my favor. This is certainly not helped by the fact that my catlike fight or flight instincts lean heavily towards flight- (so much so that as I child I once jumped off a horse mid-horsebackriding lesson- I later claimed it threw me, but we all knew what had really happened).

Up until seven weeks ago my primary bike accidents had involved hitting the MUNI tracks at the wrong angle, and an attempted stealing of my bike seat which resulted in me tearing up my knee and chaco-clad foot. So it was to my great chagrin to experience my first bicycle snafu to involve a car at the end of October- though everyone who hears this story has agreed that it probably went as well as any bike-car accident could have gone.

After leaving a particularly emotional therapy session about the impending departure of my best friend and roommate of two years, I was headed across town to a yoga class. I was biking down Oak St towards Divisadero, with a green light and nothing in the bike lane ahead of me. I saw a car at the intersection with their right turn signal on, and the only thought that occurred to me was “they’re probably texting and don’t realize they have a green light.” In the next moment I reached the intersection, just as the car realized they could go and began to turn.

Inexperienced in both physics and what to do when you’re about to crash into a car (I suppose the latter is a good thing), I instinctually braked with both hands as hard as I could. My bike stopped. I, on the other hand, kept moving. I went right over my handlebars and landed chin first, followed by the heels of both hands. (Yes, I was of course wearing a helmet). As people from the sidewalk rushed to help me and my bike up, I slunk over to the sidewalk, half in shock and half in embarrassment.

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Looking mugged

This is where the story gets a little absurd. The woman who had been driving gets out of the car in a rush, saying, “Oh god! That was so scary! Are you okay? Tell me what happened?” After making sure I’m still in once piece she introduces herself as Sky, and proceeds to tell me that she is, in fact, a trauma counselor. “You’re clearly in shock, can we sit down and do some breathing exercises together?” She asks. I’m an emotional wreck at this point, trying to keep it together from therapy and now deal with the fact that I’ve just publicly wrecked my shit (and it was likely my fault for not paying attention) and the pain in my elbow means I’m probably not going to make it to yoga. “Sure,” I tell her, “Let’s do it.”

She talks me through some breathing exercises and then says, “Okay so I practice EFT, do you know what that is?” I shake my head and she continues. “It’s called Emotional Freedom Therapy– and it’s a psychological accupressure technique that helps you short circuit your emotions.” Uh huh… “Is it okay if I tap on you?” At this point I’m up for whatever, unconcerned with the genuinely confused and concerned people passing by on what is a street that gets a lot of foot traffic, especially on a Saturday.

Sky then proceeds to hold my hands in her palms, face up, and tap on my hands, cheekbone and arms, all while having me repeat positive affirmations. Things like, “I’ve just experienced a trauma, but I’m okay. I love myself and I will get through this experience.” Etc. The most bizarre thing happens- it totally works. I calm down completely. The adrenaline surging through my body magically dissipates and I’m steady enough to get back on my (thank god- unharmed) bike (that shit is expensive to fix) and bike the five blocks back to my apartment. This is only after Sky and I have hugged it out (obviously), because this is San Francisco after all.

~ ~ ~ ~

Just as a mini-epilogue for this, I ended up going in for x-rays the next day. I eventually found out that I had a impacted fracture in my right elbow, which healed on it’s own after about six weeks and a week of occupational therapy (also some magically stuff in its own right). This experience has taught me to be more cautious while biking, and given me a new appreciation for having use of both arms at once. To my parents amusement I also discovered what it really means to visit specialists when you know there isn’t anything they can do for you besides tell you your injuries won’t be getting any worse. “So I’m going to pay $50 to have someone tell me I’m fine and everything will heal on its own?” “Yes Eliza. Welcome to adulthood.” Shoutout to Marie A. for being a great friend and rushing home to sit on her apartment stoop with me while I cried over my bruised body and ego, and telling me about her bike accident that occurred while trying to text and bike simultaneously. (Really how on earth do some people manage that?)

My biggest lesson, of course, was that if you’re going to get into a bike accident it should definitely involve a trauma counselor.  *

My Profoundly Simple Burning Man Takeaway

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I had no idea what to expect going into Burning Man, aside from the knowledge that it was the supposed holy grail of festivals, without being an actual festival. A few moments came as more than mildly shocking- but those happened more along the lines of “I am by choice biking at night in a dust storm with 0 visibility while slightly intoxicated at the same time as 80,000 other people… Let’s again put the emphasis on by choice,” and less along the lines of, “oh look, the 100th naked person I’ve seen today. (Hope they’ve been reapplying sunblock).” The group that I went with has attended countless festivals, camping trips and holiday celebrations together, and venturing into the desert together certainly felt right, however much it may have impeded experiencing full participation in the wider Burning Man community. If I go again I’ll certainly push myself more to do some solo exploring, which, thanks to Burning Man I now feel ready to do. Because my profoundly simple takeaway from my five days in Black Rock City was this: being open to meeting strangers is a choice you can actively make (and they usually are 0% as intimidating as you were anticipating). As an extrovert I’ve never had a problem meeting new acquaintances through friends, but I would not often be the person to instigate interactions with strangers, whether they are waiting next to me in the bike lane at a red light or squished next to me on MUNI. What I saw first hand at Burning Man was just how easy it is to actively decide to be open and friendly to everyone you meet, how easy it is to make the choice to be open and not guarded- but also that is is certainly a choice, and one that is made with each human interaction you encounter.

And all I had to do for this realization was almost die in a dust storm? Totally worth it.

Death Cab, Cutie, and Me

Ben Gibbard at Union Chapel

Ben Gibbard at Union Chapel

The first time I listened to Death Cab for Cutie I was 12. The O.C. Mix 1 began my musical education with the kind of indie bands that spoke ever so lovingly to the isolating feelings of entering teenagerhood. I took my pink iPod mini with me everywhere the summer I turned 13, and for the first time gave my life a soundtrack. This was only the beginning.

It was around 16 when I first saw a Coachella lineup. Death Cab was listed, along with most of the other bands I was listening to at the time. I didn’t know much about California beyond the wonders of Sea World, but I knew they were getting something right if something existed where you could see all the music you loved in one place. And I wanted to be there. My live music experience in Upstate New York was limited to a few outdoor amphitheater Dave Matthews shows, and one 18+ John Browns Body show for which I strategically convinced a stranger to vouch as my mother so I could get in. I knew I couldn’t stay somewhere with such limited access to music.

I was 21 when I first saw Ben Gibbard play live. He played an all-acoustic set in a beautiful church venue called Union Chapel in Islington. None of my friends had been excited by the idea, so for the first time I went to a show alone. I got there early and sat in the second row, listening to an episode of This American Life about what happened to military Dogs after WWII (or was it WWI?) until the show started. I started weeping with joy as soon as he started playing, and I knew the words to every song he played. It was magical.

I went on to see The Postal Service play that April at Coachella. I sat behind the Greek in Berkeley with friends to listen to them play for free a few months later. When Death Cab came to town last August, Lina and I saw them play at The Independent. We saw them again the following day at Outside Lands. We’re flying down to see them play their new album at the Hollywood Bowl this July. Ben Gibbard really never gets old.

I might say that Death Cab is to me what the Beatles were to my dad, but the Beatles are arguably the other greatest musical influence in my life. Death Cab has been there for me in my most formative years, and grown with me on my journey towards adulthood. This NPR article hits the nail on the head describing the impact Death Cab has had on a generation, and I encourage you to read it.

I suggest taking a listen to their new album. You never know what might strike a chord with you, wherever in your journey you may be.

7AM Saturday, In Transit

This may be a drug reference...

I’ve been finding a lot more art now that I’m walking to and from work.

When I remember to see the good in myself, it helps me to see the good in other people, and to appreciate the beauty of my surroundings. I get excited about the little things- like street art, or designing an extremely colorful backpack. I remember that that is how I want to live my life, seeing the beauty in each moment, feeling almost recklessly silly, loving the people around me and experiencing the kind of giggling that bubbles up from deep inside my soul. Some would probably call that joy. I call it my optimal state of existence.

I’ve spoken to a few friends recently who said they read one post or another of my blog that resonated with them so much they made an active change to their daily routine. Hearing that made me feel so good. I like to think one of the most valuable thing we can do with our experiences is share them, and learn from each other- whether that means learning from others’ mistakes, or simply feeling less alone. The power of writing, and the power of words, continues to astound me- and I hope I never lose that.

The Joys of Planning

By this point it’s a pretty well known fact among my friends that I love to plan. And when I say I love to plan, I mean I fucking love to plan. It really doesn’t matter how hard I try to fight it, how frequently I tell myself “I’m not going to make any post-work plans this week”, I will inevitably end up making dinner with friends three out of the four nights of the week. There is just no feeling like the feeling of carrying out a well-orchestrated plan. It’s something akin to basking in the glory of accomplishing a military victory, (I imagine).

My love of planning definitely started at an early age. During days of complete freedom in the summertime (when I wasn’t at day camp) I would regularly schedule out my free time. Starting at age 7. My days looked something like this:

9:00-10:30 Breakfast
10:30-12 Barbies
12:00-1:00 Lunch
1:00-2:00 Digimon
2:00-3:00 American Girl Dolls
3:00 Snack

…and so it went.

I continued throwing myself birthday parties long after it was necessary, or socially acceptable. I just couldn’t pass up the opportunity to plan. I remember this book really adding fuel to the fire from a young age. And hey, if you think I’m strange for having a bouncey-bounce at my 16th birthday party, then we probably shouldn’t be friends anyway.

I’ve tried to fight my natural urge to plan, misled, nay- seduced, by the romance of being spontaneous. It never really works out though, because as soon as a little bit of a plan gets formed I hold onto it for dear life and struggle with it being changed- a bit like trying to wrangle a life preserver from someone floating in the middle of an ocean of indecision.

As I become slightly more of a young adult I’ve begun finding that the best way to structure my time is somewhere in the middle of very structured and entirely unstructured. On weekends I try to pick a gym class and plan just a few hours of the day for an adventure or coffee with friends. This leaves me with enough free hours to relax, and make it to my happy place. For certain, the best plans can only be enjoyed with contrast to time spent doing nothing- or whatever it is you feel like doing.

Unfortunately for this blog, I find writing to be something I can never plan to do- only something I can do when inspiration strikes. It’s all very spontaneous.

Working Towards Balance

I never imagined how difficult it would be to learn how to take care of myself. Having spent most of my time between ages 18 and 22 in a relationship distracted me from figuring out exactly how to make myself happy on my own. Finally single again at 23, I’ve embarked on the wildly difficult journey towards life balance. I’m a planner by nature. An organizer and someone who thrives where structure is laid before me. Thus the realization that life in the post-college world has about as little structure as play-doh came as a bit of a shock. Life balance used to be summed up fairly well by this diagram:

College life, like youth, is utterly wasted on the ignorant. Real life becomes a rabbit hole of paying bills, negotiating salaries, filling taxes (thanks Dad), not to mention balancing the few hours you have outside work to see friends, exercise, eat healthy, get enough sleep, and spend time with significant others. That triangle of college choices has morphed into some sort of crazy shape that has infinite corners.

My greatest challenge has been forming good habits. At certain points during college I kick ass habits in place. I was exercising almost every day, eating right, seeing friends, studying, and getting enough sleep. I should probably mention that I only had class three days a week. Ah, academia.

In the real world it has taken me about a year and a half to settle into startup life (now working at my second startup) and figure out how to make everything else happen at the same time. I read The Power of Habit earlier this year, and would highly recommend it to anyone looking to make changes in their life. The first habit I worked on changing was when I would exercise. I switched from trying to convince myself to work out at the end of the day, to getting up at 5:45AM four days a week to go to 7AM fitness classes at my gym. What I realized was that doing this was analogous to achieving bonus hours in the day. Besides that, it has allowed me to start each workday feeling empowered, lead to healthier food choices, and increased productivity. If you are not a morning person and see no way that you could get up at 5:45AM and do something like this, I suggest you offer yourself the following deal: try it one time and see if you like it. If you don’t, you never have to do it again. I’ve been applying this to a lot of things in life, and it works great. It’s also important to note that when I do get up at 5:45AM I’ve gone to bed by 10PM at the latest. I love to sleep 🙂

One of my favorite new habits is my Monday morning 7AM yoga class. This I would really recommend for starting out your week feeling calm and collected. Pro-tip, never drink coffee before yoga if you can manage it. I also pack my lunch for work every day, and have switched from a large lunch, to small snacks throughout the day. This has kept me feeling full and keep my blood sugar up, enabling me to turn a blind eye to the racks of free candy and snacks my office kitchen contains.

So I’m beginning to have a handle on eating right, exercising, and getting enough sleep. I make time to see my friends by having / attending dinner parties, or hanging out with people on the weekends. This is all working pretty well. I’m working on drinking less alcohol because I’ve never been a big fan, but unfortunately the work happy hour is a standard socializing ritual in most places.

My real goal is to keep a handle on all of this life balance stuff (and keep improving at it) so whenever I do end up in another relationship I’ll be able to keep myself happy, my life in check, AND work on the next terrifying life beast that they don’t warn you about: communication. More on that next time.

What It Feels Like When Your Startup Fails

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There is relief in knowing it’s over. It’s a kind of relief you could never anticipate. Not at the very beginning, in the middle, or as the end draws close. When you begin to sense that your startup is really falling apart it’s typically too late to do anything about it. That feeling begins somewhere deep in the pit of your stomach. The closest feeling I can imagine is the sense of panic that the sky might be able to fall down. As the pieces begin to truly fall apart the panic builds. It creeps up when you least expect it, and it settles in to ride out the end. It’s the uncertainty that will really get you though. Until you finally make the decision, and finally draw the curtain. Then there is relief, which will come as a surprise but will be welcomed with open arms.

And then you can move on.