A Dance for Every Heart

I’m going to take the liberty to break from my normal roundup of life in Spain, teaching baby English and enjoying the sunshine (and biting cold) and siestas of Spain for the next few minutes.

Back in college, I rarely pulled all-nighters. Hello, I studied journalism, and few sources were up that late. Every first weekend of February, however, I did stay up for 24 hours without sitting, sleeping or drinking alcohol all in the name of pediatric cancer. This was, of course, after raising $425 or more to get in the door, spending hours at morale meetings, visiting kids at the hospital and connecting with other dancers.

Dance Marathon was, by far, the most important student org I ever belonged to.

Imagine your little sister is diagnosed with cancer. You don’t live near a children’s hospital, the bills are piling up, and you can’t go to school. That’s where Dance Marathons – organized at college campuses, elementary schools and in cities across America – step in. Apart from providing research opportunities and providing better facilities for kids, my alma mater also provides emotional support for the families who are coping with childhood cancer.

The child assigned to me was Kelsey. She served as my contact family for my morale group and my sorority for years during her initial battle with bone cancer, then her secondary leukemia, and the relapse that occurred just a few months ago. At 14, I felt a connection with Kelsey and her family that made me feel like I had another cousin or sister. We wrote each other through email, talked occasionally on the phone and met when she came to Iowa City for check-ups.

After repping Kelsey for two years, she was passed onto another sorority sister, but stayed in the family – literally –  a sister from two pledge classes above me’s father married into Kelsey’s family. When I moved to Spain, we kept in touch through Facebook and the numerous postcards rumored to be kept safe in her bedroom. She went to technical college, took trips to Iowa City to see the Child Life Specialists and pretty much won the affection of everyone around her. She even made it to her 21st birthday and sent me pictures of her first time out with friends.

“You’re so much braver than anyone I know,” she wrote me in an email just before Christmas. “I really have to come visit you in Spain to see why it is you’re still there.” I promised to call her once she was out of surgery for some build-up in fluids around her lungs, an effect of her current treatment. She was supposed to watch the bowl game, as she loved the Hawkeyes like I do, and then be operated on.

The following day, she passed away.

I always said I’d never have to be one of those dancers who had to remember a child through a memorial candle that burns during the 24-hour event, claiming the child is dancing in my heart. As the  DJ gets the crowd going at 7pm CST tomorrow (2am in Spain), Kelsey will be one of the children honored by that candle.

I lost two friends to cancer in 2011, so I’m asking those of you who follow my blog to consider learning about Dance Marathons (there’s one in Chicago), dancing in one, or even donating a few bucks to kids like Kelsey and her family that spend holidays in the hospital and can’t live a normal life like most of us enjoy. If you donate anything, please let me know via personal message or in the comments, and I’ll be sure to send you a postcard from Spain (be honest, it’s For The Kids!!).

Our morale dance in 2006, the year I suited up in red ended with the now well-worn mantra of Iowa’s Dance Marathon: A dream for every child, a dance for every heart. I sure take it to my own little heart, so please consider a small donation to make miracles happen for kids across the Midwest.

Donate now

Say hello to my little friend.

I want to introduce you to someone.

His name is Camarón, not to be confused by the other one from la Isla.

Clearly the most expensive thing I’ve ever bought, besides plane tickets. Seems like a natural progression, as my interest for photography is likely stemmed from my passion for traveling.

Truth is, I feel naked without my camera, so having a big one dangling from my neck gives me a helluva lot more assurance that no one is checking out my muffin tops.

I spent my 19-day Christmas vacation in the American Southwest, snapping up Kike’s obsession with his Christmas present, stately saguaro cacti and the dazzling lights of the Vegas strip. Camarón got a good workout, and we’re starting to get to know one another. I wish I would have thought about investing in one earlier, as I’ve been making treadmarks on the Earth for ten years now, but timing is sometimes everything – I won back the value of the camera on penny slots in Vegas!

An Open Letter to the State of Iowa

There was a night that will go down in infamy dubbed the Valencia Bar Crawl night.

I was in Valencia, Spain with three girls I’d met on my study abroad program – Megan, Ashley and Anne – and we’d decided to nurse our Ibiza hangover with a few beers on a quiet night that involved more than a few beers, moto rides on slick city pavements and even a male stripper.

But I digress.

The night started by ducking into a brightly lit old man bar – the kind where the bartenders wear crisp white shirts and black pants, and the beer is always cheaper. In our half drunk state, we wrote love notes in Spanish to the bartender’s son, Miguel, and he asked, “¿De dónde venis?”

Ioooooooowaaaaa, said Meg, and I realized I was in the company of all Iowans. All of the sudden, that cartoon bombilla went off over the man’s head.

“Ah, yes, the Iowa of Walt Whitman! I love his poetry. Iowa must be beautiful.”

Sure, if you consider acre of acre after cornfields beautiful, then Iowa is your Garden of Eden (though I really, really do love corn on the cob). I only had the pleasure of calling Iowa home from August – May each year while in college, but I adore that state.  I got a degree from their flagship university. I was taught by engaging professors who had succumbed to the charm of Iowa City. I bled black and gold (and still do). I met my closest friends there. I studied abroad thanks to a grant made possible through the state, which may have arguably led me to end up in Spain. Yes, Iowa is more than just the Hawkeye State to me.

During my sophomore year of college, I was finally able to vote in a presidential election. After having sat through hours of civics classes, I wanted to exercise my freedom to. Iowa’s important role in our nation’s changing – or not – of leaders made for the first few months of that school year to be interesting and dotted with celebrity sighting (rumor is I let Tom Arnold stumble past me while under the influence).

Let me remind you that I went to the Iowa J-School. I never had Stephen Bloom as a professor, despite seeing him in the hallways of the Adler Building and smiling, as Iowans do. When his name kept cropping up on my Facebook feed this week, I figured he was some kind of political analyst before I thought, Hey, he shares a name with a professor I almost  took a course from.

Sure enough, when I looked for the Atlantic Weekly article where he lambasted the geographic center of America, the face with the straight nose and shiny, dark curls was smirking right back at me. I read the article. I furled my eyebrows as to why anyone would find a problem with people relating pigs with money (um, HOLA, I live in Spain). I hated on Bloom in Spanish. If I had the actual article in my hands, it would have gotten ripped up and thrown in the recycling.

In it, Bloom states that, to be Iowan – not a transplant like he and I – one must hunt, fish and love Hawkeye Football. I only fall into one of those categories, same as good old Steve, as I was born in Detroit and have called Illinois my home since I was four. But it stung to have someone throwing all of what I love about Iowa back in my face.

Iowa never seemed foreign to me, just an extension of the things I learned to love living in a bustling suburb. Iowa exemplifies rural America, sure, but Bloom glosses over its thriving arts scene, its sustainability achievements and the world-class universities, one of which employs him.

I may never be able to claim Iowa roots, but the Hawkeye State is more than cornfield, swines and kids named Bud. Field of Dreams, which takes place in Eastern Iowa, claims that “If you build it, they will come.” I think Iowa is trying to reinvent itself, offering incentives to teachers who stay in the state, pioneering sustainable agriculture ideas and playing up its arts scene. Iowa may not be a utopia, but I love hundreds of things about it.

Iowa City: University town and UNESCO World City of Literature

I come from the concrete jungle of Chicago, so choosing not to go to journalism school at Northwestern shocked my parents – I didn’t want to stay in the city. I wanted somewhere wide open, an extension of my high school years (I actually enjoyed mine). Besides, I’ve never been too artsy fartsy – I much prefer a cold beer and sports (see below).

Iowa City has been haunted by plenty in the past (Ashton Kutcher, duh!), but it’s especially known for its Writer’s Workshop, a world-renowned center for literature. Even Kurt Vonnegut was a director of the program, which has garnered Iowa City the title of a UNESCO World City of Literature – the only in the States. Sidewalks are paved with verse and independent bookstores thrive. The hours I spent running my hands over bindings in Prairie Lights are only rivaled to those spent at Brother’s during FAC, but as someone who loves words, Iowa City was just it for me. And, funny story, I spent time calling the Hancher Performing Arts Center pool without having ever seen a show there!

People say Iowa is all bacon and beer, but even the artsy fartsy can get their kicks.

Where else can drinking be acceptable before sunrise?

I am a self-proclaimed beer lover, so I clearly enjoy being able to have a beer for lunch and go back to work.

Iowans like beer, too. Not just for lunch, but many like it for breakfast, too.

But this isn’t what I love about Iowa. In a professional sports team-less state, everybody becomes a Hawkeye Football fan (you did pick up on that, Stephen). There’s little else to say, expect for that people came across the heartland to watch the Hawks run onto the field, followed by Herky on his little trolley waving the Iowa flag wildly. I came from a high school with a strong football program, so buying into the Hawkeye fever was an easy decision.

I have so many wonderful memories of other black and gold embraces in Kinnick, of other fans sharing their chili and space heaters in the back of their trucks, kids decked out in Hawkeye gear. I’ve never felt the spirit of how a sports team can bring people together until I went to my first Hawkeye game freshman year. I still follow the games from Spain, feeling the crush of defeat when we lose and yelling IIIIII as if I were in the student section. I love football, I love the taste of the second Natty Lite on Melrose, and I love sharing Gameday Iowa with Iowans.

The Fabric of Our Lives

Ok, so clearly cotton isn’t the main export from Iowa, but Iowans are about as down-home, country-loving as they come. And I love that about them.

Passing the I-80 Truckstop, deemed the largest in the world, the radio stations suddenly switched to country. All of them. My dad searched for anything else before cursing and turning off the radio to give me a pre-college visit pep-talk.

“Don’t rush into it. you’ll know when it’s right.” Ah, Don. You so smart.

We pulled off the exit towards Iowa City, a welcome break from the miles of endless highways that crisscross the Midwest. Rolling down Dubuque Street, I gawked at frat houses as my dad recounted his own years as president of his chapter. We parked near the Iowa Memorial Union and began our tour. After scaling what is seemingly the only hill in the city, upon which sits the Pentacrest, we toured the new business building, exiting in front of a crumbling brick church. An old man tottered by and tapped me, saying I wouldn’t regret being a Hawkeye.

I asked my dad to buy me a hoodie, convinced I would be calling Iowa City home for a few years’ time. Even after visits to Wisconsin, Illinois, Purdue and Indiana, I knew I had my mind made up.

When he asked why, it was simple – the openness of the people who smiled on the street, the simplicity of the Iowans. I was never once disappointed with the people of Iowa who take their family traditions seriously, who open their homes and hearts to anyone who asks. When a tornado ripped through downtown Iowa City in 2006 just hours before a busy Thursday night in the area popular for nightlife, I was overwhelmed by the support I saw from friends of the University, lifetime Iowans and the president.

Iowans are, for lack of better words, great people. With hearts the size of their state. I’ve met some of my dearest friends there, as they were always the ones to turn to when I needed someone to talk to, the ones who send me cards here in Spain, the ones who invited me to Easter brunch at their houses. Those religious freaks over in Iowa know where they come from, and are proud of it.

Come January, people will be watching Iowa. For better or for worse, a seemingly homogenous state will help determine the political course for one person. Maybe Bloom’s words really have taken roots. Here’s hoping they haven’t…

Here Come the Hawks!

As an American living far away form the Land of the Free and the Home of the Supersized McMenu, I am often asked what I miss most from America. I can tell you lots of things that I don’t miss (tipping, picking up after my dog, paying for gas), but there are few things that I miss so, so dearly. If I want a hamburger, I cough up the money and go to Friday’s. If I want an American brew, they sell Sam Adams at the supermarket next door. En fin, I’ve learned to adapt and still retain my Americaness.

But if I want this, well, I just have to remember that college football is only three months of the year.

There are few things I love more than hearing “Touchdown, Iowa!” and screaming IIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIII as the black and gold flag is waved at the student section. No better way to start a football Saturday than cracking a beer to the darlings of the Hawkeye State on Melrose Avenue at 6am. For a state with no professional teams, the Hawks are about as close as they’ve got, and fans pour into Iowa City during every home game. So, yes, I miss Hawkeye Football and everything that comes along with it (Kirk Ferentz’s trastero included).

My elementary school gym teacher had a yellow and black bumper sticker on the door to his office, 80s-style old-school, that read: It’s great to be a Hawkeye! I got a postcard announcing my acceptance into my first-choice school which proclaimed the same. Damn, it feels good to be a Hawkeye.

Yes, this is from the kids’ section, and yes, you can make fun of me for it.

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