A Year in Writing

It’s the last day of 2015, and once again I am reflecting back on the year that has been. A week or so ago I did a feature on all the books I’ve read this year, but that is of course only half the story. In 2015 I probably spent more of my time staring at the ever-blinking cursor, or the empty pages of a notebook. I’m not sure if I can say this year was my best for writing, but it’s easily been the most “successful” (if we’re talking about readership anyway) and offered the highest quality yet.

I know it seems a little cocky to say my work this year has been my highest quality, but of course it’s all relative. It’s funny looking back on blog posts I have from 2013, where half the time I can hardly discern what I was trying to say. And obviously, I’m sure next year I’ll think the very same thing about the posts of 2015 (this one included), but such is the nature of life. I guess that means I may be improving, which is pretty much all a writer can ask of himself at a basic level.

I started off the year with a very thoughtful piece called “User is currently unavailable-how we all grew up in the detached generation”. I can’t remember what my motivation was for writing it, but looking back I’m fairly happy with how it turned out. As I mentioned within that blog itself, I knew it was a little cynical etc, but it wasn’t far wrong either. I might not have known at the time, but that post paved the way for a lot of other, more serious articles later. Writing it was a lot of fun, as I got to play about with past and present and see what had changed as far as our generation was concerned.

My second post a month later was a piece on Worldbuilding. It was a while since I had written a post aimed as a sort of “how to” for writers, so it was nice that my return to it was on a topic on which I was familiar. Reading it now there’s a lot of metaphor in there and a fair deal of humour, which I suppose helped to explain what can be a very dicey topic at the best of times. It took a good deal of time to write, which was a feature of all of 2015 blogs. Sometimes I’d spend 3 hours working on something, but when it was done I was happy. In 2014, I was more likely to speed through blogs and be reasonably satisfied on the other side.

May was a good month for my blog. Out of no where, my views started skyrocketing, which prompted me to investigate. It turns out I owed a fair share of these views to Reddit and an “unsolved mystery” website, where people were reblogging my “Phantom Whistler of Louisiana” post from over a year previously. This was actually my first ever “Monday Mystery”, and definitely not one of my better ones, so it was odd to have hundreds of views pouring in because of it. It was the start of a great change in my blog, where my views moved away from Facebook friends towards those thousands of miles away. In 2015, over twice as many people viewed my blog in America as they did back home. Nearly all of the American views were for my Monday Mystery series, making me consider reviving it in 2016. The views carried on for the remaining 6 months of the year, so that at year’s end I’m happily sitting on three times as many views as 2013, and over twice as many as 2014.

May was also responsible for what may have been my two favourite blogs this year. The first, entitled “Let’s re-define marriage, not education” was an angry response to Leaving Cert changes announced at the time.

I’ll admit, the only reason I ever started my blog was for a place to rant that was a little more nuanced than facebook and a little more spacious than twitter. However, with rants, all semblance of good writing tends to fall apart. In this post though, I think I found myself a happy medium. Sure, I was giving an opinion on the matter, but I was also aiming it right at the Minister for Education. It was accurate sniping rather than a spray of rapid fire, and it got a good response from a lot of people who wouldn’t often take my side in things as well as those who would usually agree.

Following on from this was “For Freedom’s empty name to die…”, a post about the marriage referendum. For weeks I had debated whether to write this, but having been snowed under by unoriginal, frankly repetitive articles on facebook, I felt I had to weigh in with something even a smidgen different. Of course I was supporting a YES vote, but focused on where me, the average voter should be drawing their motives from. That’s not to say the articles mentioned above weren’t good. A lot of them were actually brilliant. But lost in a sea of their replicates, they weren’t adding anything to the conversation unfortunately.

On my J1 I didn’t have access to my laptop, which meant an end to things as far as my blog was concerned. Fortunately man can always put his trust in pen and paper, which quickly became my alternative. It’s very different writing it out “the old fashioned way” once you are used to smashing keys on a keyboard, but it was also refreshing. I can’t write nearly as fast as I can type, which meant every word got a second more to roll around in my head. It made me consider things more, even if that was at the expense of pace. A lot of my writing then was practicing description while I sat in Old Town or lay out at Pacific Beach. I wrote a short story too, which was spawned out of a morning at the San Diego Ice Arena.

Once back home I decided I’d update my blog with a separate short story. This wasn’t general fiction like my entry from the Ice Arena, but was instead my more trusted hand of fantasy. It didn’t garner a lot of views, but was more a “I need to share my work post” more than anything. It felt good to not be inhibited by “what will X think?”, as I probably was for much of 2014. In 2015, I got over that. Nobody has to read my blog, and if they do, I’d be hopeful (and a small bit quietly confident) that I can win them over in the end.

My next post was another of my favourites. “A voice I have written”, which was I suppose a mirror of this post, detailed how I’d got back into writing, divulging everything from why I think I write to what was a turning point for me after my Leaving Cert results. It got a lot of good feedback I wasn’t expecting, which was in a way part of the reason I thought this post might be worth doing.

After that I faced into what was my biggest project on this blog yet. My J1 summer was a perfect thing to write about, but not easy by a long-shot. I knew it would take at least three posts, and of course it ended up being five. On top of this I wanted to write the sister-post to this in terms of my year in reading.

I started the J1 blogs back in October and only managed to finish them two days ago. In total, it was about 20,000 words and hours of sifting through photos, writing introductions and trying to pick which memories made the cut. I’m happy with how it turned out to be honest. It got a consistent viewing as we went along and was a great way to re-visit what were the best moments of 2015. I also got to play around with a lot things since I had so much room, whether that was trying out new styles for my introduction or painting a picture of places I saw on my travels.

All this being said, my blog wasn’t the only place I was writing in 2015. I was very happy to get a column with UCC’s monthly magazine Motley, writing in the humour section. I’ll admit, it wasn’t the first type of thing I imagined I’d write in a university publication, but since it started I haven’t looked back. In total there’s about four or five of my humour pieces floating about. Having a piece in Motley reaches a far bigger audience than my blog is ever likely to, while also providing that all-elusive satisfaction that comes with seeing your words printed in front of you. It’s been a worthwhile venture, one I’m grateful for and one I know will help my writing in the long term.

Outside of Motley I’ve also fallen back into poetry. Poetry was something I was quite fascinated by in my teenage years, but since the age of about seventeen I’ve scarcely re-visited. This year, I decided it would be good to get back into, and so far have churned out about seven or eight poems. Unlike my blogs, I haven’t reached the level of comfort necessary to share them yet, but that doesn’t mean that one day I won’t. They’re a therapeutic form of writing, and take far less out of my day than a blog post would.

The only other thing hot off my fingers at the moment is my own fiction writing. I’ll admit, I’ve put fiction writing off far too long. Back in June 2013, the cursor was racing across the screen. Now, it’s at an uneasy crawl. Christmas has helped, with a couple hundred words here or there, but I’m still roughly where I was last January, which is to say, about 20,000 words in to what I feel is a 100,000 word climb. Still, even a hundred words can brighten my day. It is, of everything, my favourite thing to work on, but also demands the most skill, creativity and time. I’m hoping Summer 2016 will be where my real breakthrough comes, as I can step back from coursework and other forms of writing.

And that’s really it for 2015. It’s been a year where I’ve considered the “post regularly” attitude of most blogs, and found it wanting. This year I wanted to focus on quality, and think as far as my current ability stretches, have reached that goal. It might have meant only a post every month or so, but if the 3 hours put into writing them show anything, it’s that you will be far happier with a hard day’s work than taking a shortcut towards publishing.

2016 might be a landmark year. It might be a regression. It’s hard to say yet. There’s a lot of ideas I have rolling around in this head of mine, and at some point one of them might just be ready to run with. I can’t tell where my words will fall this year, but when they do, I hope they fall hard. I hope they have weight to them.

There may be a future Kyle out there, writing about his year in 2016. Perhaps he is thrilled, or even just satisfied. Or, maybe he is upset, angry, frustrated and confused.

Either way, he’s most definitely out there, and he’s most certainly writing.

 

 

My J1 2015: The Many Goodbyes,the Fond Farewells and the Journey Home

“When I was all set to go, when I had my bags and all, I stood for a while next to the stairs and took a last look down the goddam corridor. I was sort of crying. I don’t know why”- J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye

It’s been over four months since I arrived back to Ireland after a summer in America, but now at long last I find myself ready to say goodbye. This is my fifth blog about the J1, but is probably the only one that ever really needed to be written. The rest were a story, a highlight reel and a very brief summary at best. They weren’t my summer, or at least not how I remember it. But perhaps they were necessary. It’s like finishing a really great book. Sometimes, you want the story to go on, even if there is nothing more to say. You don’t want to say goodbye, and so sadly you find yourself reading the last page a couple times, hoping in vain you’ll find something you’d missed. But you haven’t missed anything. Your problem is what isn’t there, or what could have been there, if only the pages kept turning.

It’s why saying goodbye to this summer has been so hard. I don’t want the J1 to be just another memory, locked away in the imaginary filing cabinet alongside birthdays and Christmas. But if four months back home have taught me anything, it’s that the summer isn’t in the past. It’s not in the 23 kilos of belongings that came home on that plane, or in photos that were taken. I’d like to think it’s something I’ve held onto. Yes it is finished, but I’m not, and so even if the pages of this book have come to and end, we know the story doesn’t really end here for those involved.

I suppose this entry in my blog is like all cups of coffee. You might wonder where I’m going with this, but stick with me. Those last four blog posts have been the cup, the coffee and the all important hot water. They were substance. Without them, we wouldn’t really have anything. But anybody can make coffee. What sets this summer apart for me is all the extra things thrown in. The little things, like the private jokes, the lazy days or the forgotten stories are what made this story worth telling. They were the cream, the flavouring etc. Sure, they might not be necessary, but looking back God I wouldn’t trade them for all the world. That’s why this last post, where I finally say goodbye to it all, is reserved exclusively for them.

Saying goodbye to Toby Wells YMCA

It might have only been two months that I worked at the Toby Wells YMCA, but in that time I guess it mattered enough to me to make it hard saying goodbye. For myself and Adam, it was our lives five days a week. It was of course tough to say farewell to Dylan, Ronan, Conor, Sarah, Roisín and Ciara, who for weeks had been the Irish cohort we’d shared the dreaded morning shifts with. I guess there was a camaraderie in catching a tram at 5.30 am together, heading up to Overland Avenue on the 40 minute commute to be ready to go at half 6. Every morning, without fail, Adam would borrow my phone so he could clock in, while I dodged into 7/11 for breakfast after promising myself for the 40th time I’d just get up earlier and have it. By the end, a French Vanilla coffee was a staple of my morning shift, when the fatigue of early morning starts really hit home. In the evening, the Irish gang would head off into the sunset with a Big Gulp in hand and another day’s work behind us. But saying goodbye to Summer Camp was more than just losing the Irish friends I’d made. I must have met fifty different staff members working there, as well as hundreds of kids aged 5 and up. Some will be more memorable than others of course, but on my last day I made a note of saying goodbye to the Senior Fun kids. For weeks we’d endured each others company, and to their credit they’d made it easy for me, and by the end I guess I’d warmed to them. It can be tough working in a Summer Camp where you’re expected to be bright, fresh and rearing to go everyday, and so having a group of kids who were active, funny and up for a little adventure made the job a whole lot easier. Every morning before morning circle they’d gather around to tell me a million stories, or try beat me at Pokemon, or just listen to what was to them a funny accent. We had a sort of mutual respect for each other, a kind of unspoken agreement that if they lined up when I told them to I’d overlook the occasional misdemeanor and allow them practice their gymnastics in the grass when they asked me. We were nearly a generation apart, me and those kids, but we were fast friends. I had to say goodbye too to my colleagues, like Kristen, Nick and Amanda, who were also placed in Senior Fun. We’d seen everything from Belmont Park to a Britney Spears Lip Sync battle performance, the latter clearly captured on video but not surfaced as yet.

Even outside of Senior Fun, I was on first name basis with so many others that the last day was a bit of a panic not to miss anybody. There were so many memories of the place, of trying to sneak a few extra Sun Chips, of inventing rules to make Capture the Flag more interesting, of wall monsters in the gaga pit, water fights on the soccer field, dance parties during Spirit Circle, making hotdogs for the barbecue, trying to stay upright at the San Diego Ice Arena, baking from the heat on rotation in the playground, playing 20 vs 20 soccer matches, holding onto the Spirit Stick like your life depended on it, designing boats covered head to toe in glitter, learning magic and building functioning rockets. It’s so easy to picture it, with Mr.Tim co-coordinating Golden Pineapple on a Friday, or DJ playing keep-away with a basketball, or Jerrod saying “later dudes” as we rush to make the bus home. I’m happy to be back in Pharmacy, where I suppose I feel I “belong” but sometimes I’d give anything to be hanging out at the AM/PM desk back in Toby Wells YMCA, looking at the clock saying “6.25 am” wondering how I’m going to go face a hundred kids screaming on a soccer field. I guess if the YMCA taught me anything, it’s that nothing is really that embarrassing, or cringey or stupid. Everything can be a little fun if you throw yourself into it (especially the foam pit in the gym, now those were the days). Working with kids all day made me inventive, resourceful and maybe just a little more optimistic about the world. That summer camp, along with those camp songs gave me, Adam, Katie and Aine something to talk about back at 2130. One day it might be me regaling the famous tale of the Pokemon Thief, while the next was might be me explaining how I’d controlled 30 kids by telling them the story of King Arthur and his knights.

As I walked out of there on my last day, I turned and took one last look back from the car park, so I could see the soccer field, the tents, the playground, the water fountain-all of it. It was just gone half 5, and the sun was dreaming of sleep in San Diego and I walked out of maybe the best job I’ll ever have. Farewell Toby Wells.

Closing the door on 2130

If saying goodbye to Toby Wells was tough, then finally leaving our apartment 2130 was crushing. Before we knew it, our time in the apartment (which was over two months) came to a swift end. On one of our last nights, we caught the tram to Gaslamp Quarter and made the journey up to 8th Avenue, where months before a gang of clean, respectable young pharmacy students dragged their suitcases up the stairs of the Lucky D’s hostel. This time, we were a tad less clean and the only thing we were lugging was ourselves. Fiona Dillon had a swipecard still and so we all bustled inside (as a note, that swipecard had bought us more than its fair share of free wristbands to McFaddens). Once inside, we went to the main lounge, where for a week we’d gathered night after night for beer pong, a host of nationalities and four loco like it was going out of fashion. It was strange to be back, where only two months prior I remember showing a German man the wonders of hurling on Youtube. From there we went up to our rooms on the third floor. I’d almost forgotten how weird Lucky Ds was, with all its mismatched colours and knick-knacks on the walls. We posed outside 314, where myself, Katie, Eimear and Fiona had spent our first week in San Diego. There we had started our summer-long tradition of our secret knock. “Issues” by The Saturdays is not a song of note in any context for me, but for all of time it will now always be the secret knock of the J1. In time you really perfected it, though I do wonder what the neighbours thought. We stopped by the kitchen on the way out, where we’d gathered for pancakes, cookie crisp and what I never considered good tasting milk. The gang of us sat at the table where we had first met Adam, even remembering the seats we were in when a rather hungover lad from Celbridge struck up conversation with Aine and Fiona all the way back in May.

To be fair, we tried hard to make the apartment clean when we left. I still have memories of dragging that half-working hoover across the carpet sucking up God knows what on the morning we were leaving. We had to do a massive job on the kitchen, which though we operated on a “Clean as you go basis” usually became a dump in the post-night out hours of 4am or so when clothes, food, drink etc would be heaped up onto the counter. On top of that we had to make the bathroom mirror reflective again, a task that took about four or five of us while the others drowned the floor in Walmart all purpose cleaner. The day we moved out was a hangover day, but was also the day we had to collect our cars and the day most of the cleaning had to be done, so it’s fair to say it was an ordeal. With all of it going on, we probably failed to appreciate our final, precious few moments in the apartment. I guess maybe the writer in me makes me look back on it now and try to describe it, even though back then I knew it was special.

A lot of people think of a home as something that is lived in. A house can be grand and beautiful, but it seems a little hollow on the inside when there’s no memories sleeping there. If somebody walked into 2130, they would know it was lived in. OK, it was a little messy by the end. If someone had showed me that on June 1st I would have said no thank you let’s look elsewhere. But that mess was our home. Every stain probably had a story, like on the first night when I’d spilled Fiona Meade’s drink and she’d got the blame, only for her to spill another minutes later and frantically try to cover it up. If I described a place full of dirty clothes, eleven suitcases, ants, rubbish, empty beer bottles, cans of four loco, mould, gun range posters on the wall and an American flag flying from a fan on the ceiling, you’d probably call it unbearable. But that’s not what I’d describe. I’d talk about a place with ten great friends, music, conversation, laughter, beer in the fridge and food to be shared. 2130 was a happy place, even if it looked a little under the weather.

That’s why it is the hardest thing to let go of. I loved Yosemite. I thought New York was great. Vegas was amazing. But those were fleeting glimpses at best. They were minute thrills, once in a lifetime sort of surreal experiences that I’ll always remember. But they weren’t 2130 Promenade at Rio Vista. That was home, where no matter where our journeys in San Diego took us, whether it was Coronado, Pacific Beach, Old Town, Morena Linda Vista, Sea World, Downtown, Seaport Village, Mission Valley, Clairemont Mesa or beyond, we always had a familiar door to come home to, where if you stopped just on the threshold you’d hear laughter inside. The stories and lives of that apartment are too numerous to count and tell, but here I will do my best, especially for those for who it was real.

I think a lot of us probably forget what 2130 even looked like. I’m sure we could see the outline, or the main features, but all of the little details are a blur. I can still remember the tall black door, with its God awful lock. Just inside on the left was our notice board, where after every night about six different uber receipts would get tacked detailing amounts to be owed. On the right was our bathroom, where inside we had a very large mirror (surprisingly not the biggest in the apartment). We had a clothes heap on the left (as standard) and then a shower we only managed to break on two occasions (one I was able to fix, the other required maintenance who showed up unexpectedly and had us all running to the bedroom to hide amid army-style hand signalling). For a while there the toilet had a page taped onto it, where I outlined in length my tale of how I vanquished the mould king and if I remember correctly “all his minions”. Everyone had their own space for toiletries, though in general the sink was covered in toothbrushes and our communal shaving foam. Myself, Fiachra, Adam, Paul and Mark had communal shaving foam, shampoo and conditioner in what was a suprisingly efficient setup. Out in the kitchen the only clean area of the worktop was an odd square outline of duct tape (of the Star Wars variety to be precise), where every morning instead of finding three FOBs and three keys we’d find one Fob, no keys and two hair clips. Ideal. The sink was equipped with a draining board (i.e. a towel we used for pretty much everything) and was at the best of times filled with only half of the plastic plates, cups, bowls and cutlery we owned. We also had a garbage disposal, which none of us really knew much about, but the argument stood “we’re not supposed to put water down it”, but then again it alone must have swallowed roughly 20-30 knives and forks during our two month stay. The counter was generally a place for important items, such as Sea World hats, hair clips, plastic sunglasses, coins, Four Loco cans, 7/11 pizza boxes etc. On the ground between it and the bathroom was where we kept our mop and washing powder (again communal but lasted about a fraction of the time the shaving foam did). Then of course we had our wonderful appliances, such as a Microwave and toast master (trash room finest). The Microwave was a great place, where I would basically make microwave popcorn and if in a rush Taquitos. They never tasted great, unlike my popcorn chicken which was a great staple. We all had cupboard space, where basically every shelf was pasta, noodles, rice, bread and other carbohydrates. We had tea bags (rationed), Dairy Milk (extra rationed) and Ants. The ants didn’t start in the cupboard more so next to the washer and dryer which was a space we had for our rubbish. Next to it was the fridge freezer, which was by far the most complex storage space. We had to label everything, because of course nearly everybody had meat and frozen food. Cheese was also popular for some reason with up to 10 bags just lying about in there sometimes. We also of course had to fit in our drink (which should not go in the freezer which we found out to our dismay in the infamous Bud Light Lime disaster).

Out in the main room were two blow up mattresses (which pretty much deflated after week one and were useless after), a pile of clothes, a lot of suitcases and the ever organised area of Mr. Paul Green. I took up home on the far left of the apartment, right next to Katie’s mattress. There I had my Ramen Bookshelf my friends had made for me, my Padres towel, my sunglasses, my pillow, my duvet and my work bag. In my work bag I had pretty much every important item, such as my Passport, my DS2019, my insurance etc. Nothing ever happened to that bag fortunately. Of course protecting the DS2019 was tough, as Katie found out at the first Pool Party where hers became basically liquid. Off the main room we had the bedroom, which shifted between being the room for people getting up early, to the room for people not going out, to at some stages, the room for those home early from the nightclub. In there was the largest mirror known to 2130, which was where every night the girls all lined up to do their make-up while outside in the main room me and the lads drank to Justin Timberlake on repeat, Chris Brown’s “Loyal” or Post to be. OK, our playlist was a little unusual but by August we’d listened to it so many times we had it all off.

We had a patio too, which at first seemed like a great place to eat or drink but quite quickly became a giant area of drying clothes and phone calls (within the apartment, which sported thick concrete, we had no phone reception or Wifi). Next to it was a small sort of outdoor cupboard, which was deemed “The Love Shack”. It was a joke mostly, but by the end of the summer The Love Shack had earned its title well.

And that was just 2130. We also of course had the whole complex in Promenade, which had a gym (we went there for like two days for real then used it as a backup shower in shame), a computer room (the hottest place that isn’t the Nevada desert with the world’s slowest computers), the space on the ground near the computer centre used for Wifi, the Clubhouse (where we went to get free coffee, watch the NBA finals once and play rounds of pool), the shop (used for food/drink emergencies or when I just wanted M & Ms and a Vanilla Coke) and the pool. Considering we were a dot in the ocean of Irish people at Rio Vista the pool was flooded most days but was still one of the places I did most of my reading.

Even with all this, most of our time was spent above in the apartment when we weren’t at work. Somehow the cooking of 11 dinners (and the taking of 11 showers) did not cause a lot of conflict, though I will admit I did enjoy the luxury of the Wendy’s, In N’Out Burger and Sombreros close by on many an occasion. In the apartment, with no Wifi, reception or basically any technology, our forms of entertainment were far more basic, old-fashioned and enjoyable. Night time was always a good group conversation or a round of spooky stories. I can’t picture “individual conversations” as such in 2130. It always seemed like a real-life group chat of 11 people, all vying to be heard above one another drawing knocks on the walls from the neighbours and a round of “shhhhh”. It also drew noise complaints and visits from the wardens, who were posted outside apartment blocks like federal security. That meant we had to get inventive with access (insert relevant private joke hand gesture here) going in through the car park, other residents etc. One of my favourite nights of entertainment was Hide and Seek in the dark. That night, for whatever reason, only myself, Adam, Katie and Mark were at home (may have been Paul, there was more than one game of this). For whatever reason, given how clustered the apartment was, we considered it would be good fun. Whoever was on had headphones in, and by God was it terrifying having someone jump out of the dark at you to the tune of Michael Buble.

As a group amalgamated we quickly gelled in 2130. Soon, we had family roles assigned. I was Dad, for whatever reason. Michaela was my wife, though I believe the story paints us an unhappy couple in a tumultuous time. Aine was my sister and aunt to the kids (and rather “loose” in the head it seemed) while Paul was my brother (also a bad influence on the kids and on my wife). I had a lot of children, including my eldest son Mark (a role model son it seemed), two sets of twins (one was Adam and Katie, a pair constantly at each others throats, while the others was Fiona and Niofa (it seems arriving at the hospital drunk I accidentally named both my daughters Fiona and then spelled one wrong on the birth cert)) and then the youngest Fiachra. We had that kind of craic a lot in 2130. I bought a phone a week in from a dodgy shop in Downtown, and turning it on realised it must have came from across the border as it was all in Spanish. I decided to keep the names of everybody in Spanish predictive text, so instead of Adam, Paul, Mark, Michaela, Eimear, Katie, Fiona, Aine, Fiona and Fiachra we had Afanado, Greco, Mejico, Miami, Dinero, Latido, Finos, Cinetico, Diego and Diablo. It was quite usual for me to ring up outside to get let in and open the phone call with “Ola Diego!”

And of course not only did we have our own aliases but also a host of background characters. People such as “Trash Room boy”, “Manta Jack”, “Quiet Hours”, “Ms Tiff”, “Mare” and “my friend Kim” were regular features in many stories. Perhaps everybody’s favourite was a man who came to be known as Dave Craigid. Across the way from us lived another group of quite friendly Irish people. One night, we invited them over for pre-drinks, so all in all a total of 5 or so landed on at our door. We let them in, greeting the two girls we knew by name. At the back, a tanned lad who we’d never met came in, sizing up our apartment immediately. He burst into the conversation with something like “Our kitchen is way nicer than this. So we’re going to Sinbads tonight ya?”. Sinbads was a notoriously poor establishment on Pacific Beach with a reputation for letting in those under 21. We were all a bit taken aback, and the next day I commented “who the hell was that guy last night. The fella who looked like Craig David”. Now, let’s be clear, this guy actually didn’t really look like Craig David at all, nor did I believe he did, but everybody clicked with it, and it was born. Over the coming months we came to loathe Craig David (which became the more outrageous Dave Craiiigid) for no reason whatsoever telling funny stories of our encounters and never finding out his true name.

And even outside of these we had our own cast in the apartment. In total we had four fish, the most notable being Senior Tippy, who lived only four or five hours (we may have put him in the wrong water). However, in that time he had an effect on us all as we held a funeral for him, where the lads dressed up in shirts, some of the girls sang hymns, we had candles an each of us said our goodbyes in turn aloud. This literally took like half an hour of our time. Our other three fish were less notable even if more long lived such as the aptly named My Fish Kim.

I guess a lot of our fun in that apartment was private jokes. Even in our final picture, we were all allowed hold up one “piece” of the apartment, such as the American flag, the beach ball, the shower curtain etc. Our wall was covered in random artifacts like some of the gang’s posters from the shooting range (where notably Fiona Dillon had the best shot). I feel I had the best shot in what was one of our stranger forms of entertainment. It involved a set of jenga blocks, a jar and an exercise bench. I came upon this scene after a hard day at work so as can be imagined was a little bewildered.

Even the ordinary acts in San Diego were luxuries. On two occasions I went to the cinema, which felt brand new after months without TV.

But, all in all, it was the people that made the J1. Through flooding bathrooms, ants, eviction notices, trash room furniture and no beds we braved it all. Better yet, we enjoyed it. I think removed from everything material, relying on a questionably safe iron to get my night out clothes ready, I found on my first time living away from home the type of room mates I’d have dreamed of. Yes, there were fights, and smelly pot bandits and milk thieves and people who would get you Peach when you asked for Strawberry Lemonade, but there was far more random acts of kindness, like someone taking out the rubbish just as you’re about to get up or finding your work uniform neatly placed out to dry after a wash.

So here’s to the 10 of them, who taught me there’s far more to a J1 than what’s peddled to you, that getting in 3 hours before you start work is “good timing”, that IKEA do a solid breakfast, things will always turn up at some point and that doubling down and then going bust is one very unlucky player.

And so we came to it. As the cars waited outside, it was time for us all to leave 2130. One by one, we took a look around. With the suitcases gone, and a good cleaning done, the place was unrecognizable. But there we had spent two whole months together, often with five or six more people to boot. It was a goodbye to green apple floor lights and Fiona Meade’s muffins. It was farewell to Californian burritos as we chilled out on the floor and to having a bag of rent money taped to our wall. The fish tank was gone, along with the office chair and everything else we’d salvaged at some point.

We closed out the door, and for one last time Mark, in what was a very “Friends” moment, asked “So, anyone have a FOB?”

We went to the fountain in the middle of Promenade to take pictures together, after which we had to say goodbye to our Celbridge friends. It was odd, knowing the next day was the first we’d wake up in over two months and not have them around. I suppose a bit of me thought anybody we lived with on the J1 would always be “the other crowd”, but for Adam, Greeney and Mark, that was never the case. And I’m sure a change of flight here or a hostel cancellation there might have changed all that, and I might be writing a very different blog now or worse, none at all. It was a sad farewell, but also a very fond one. The eleven of us had come along way from home, and still found the very best of friends we made were those of our own. Perhaps one day all our paths will cross again, some time far off, or in a distant place we haven’t come to know yet. Until then, I’ll live on the promise that though this was a goodbye to San Diego, it doesn’t have to be forever. It may be, but perhaps I’ll find my way back there again. I would board a tram, see the doors close like it was yesterday and hear the very familiar words.

“Next stop: Rio Vista. Rio Vista is next”.

EpilogueHome

I arrived home from my J1 on a Friday, and was immediately (though happily) whisked away from Cork to Ballyheigue in Kerry, where I have spent most of my summers. Only two days before, I was sitting in a hotel room in the biggest city in the United States. Overnight the population of my world dropped from millions to roughly a thousand, and instead of a sprawling urban jungle I was on the wild coast of Southwest Ireland. When we arrived it was dark, and as was much of the summer, cold. I had been used to 30 degree heat as standard, so the harsh winds of the Atlantic coast came as a sort of shock to me. After a car journey I enjoy a good walk, so at around half ten I headed down towards the beach. It was late august, and the place was practically deserted. I must have seen at most five people on my walk. Down at the beach, only half the streetlights were on, and the wind was stronger than ever. I felt real “cold”, not the sort in a Californian forest at night, but the kind that rushes at you and pulls the air out of your chest. I stood there a long while, looking out onto the black water which kept Ireland’s coast from America half a world away. A week earlier, I was sitting on a porch in San Francisco, sipping a beer and listening to the crickets out in the grasses as I looked up at the moon. Now I was back, still looking up at the same moon even if the scenery was a little different. For all the adventure of the three months, I had come full circle at last. I was home.

Nine Companions, Two Cars and the Open Road

“Our battered suitcases were piled on the sidewalk again; we had longer ways to go. But no matter, the road is life” – Jack Kerouac

In this world, every time we leave we risk saying our last goodbye. Such is the nature of finite things like holidays, or trips, or life. You can’t always know whether you’ll be back, and in ways I guess that’s the beauty of travelling. But this is not a story of leaving, or of goodbyes. Those stories are best told last, when everything else worth saying is done. This story is about discovery and adventure and a fair deal of endurance. It may have been the end of one chapter, but turning the page we found ourselves on a new one. Simply titled: The Open Road.

Towards the end of July we realised our time for travelling was quickly approaching. Having spent over two months in San Diego, the original eight all sprawled out on the carpet in our apartment to look at a map of California. We had roughly two weeks to work with and by no means a large deal of money. Our first decision was to rent cars. While the public transport in America isn’t bad, it wasn’t going to get us There and Back again just the way we wanted. If we wanted to take in as much of America as possible, we needed to do it on our terms (with the problem of nine suitcases also an issue). You may wonder who this mystery 9th person is, but at the start of August we were joined by Rachel, who was Fiona’s friend from back home. Similar to Adam, Mark and Paul, we all quickly warmed to our new companion. In what was one of our last games of Kings in the apartment, Adam decided to add the rule of “Everybody has to compliment Kyle”. It was a lot of fun to see what people would come up with, but I was perhaps most happy with Rachel’s compliment, which was simply “Orange suits you”. For those who are not aware, I am of course obsessed with the colour orange, so that was friendship made.

trave

We left Rio Vista on another sunny morning in San Diego. We had two SUVs to fill up, and considering how much we chipped in to rent them, we were shocked with the cars we were driving. Sun roofs, leather seats, enough space in the back for all of our bags. It was a good start. Myself, Katie, Eimear and Michaela jumped into what would be dubbed “Ms. Tiff”, or “The Ms. Tiff-mobile” or by the end, just “Tiff”. Me and Michaela took the back seats, surrounded by books, litres of water and enough cereal bars to feed a small army on march. Eimear was shotgun as the navigator, which on day one seemed temporary but became a staple for our car. Katie was our driver, and though we were lucky to have Rachel to add to our driver ranks with Fiachra, we rarely ended up switching the passengers. It just made more sense to keep everybody’s stuff in the cars they were in. In the back, it was down to me and Michaela to host entertainment, whether that was “Would you rather”, music or a whole host of games we invented on the road. We pulled out of Rio Vista and almost immediately took a wrong turn on Friars Road. It’s funny, I was thousands of miles from home, but I was still on Friars Road. We got back on track, and then it was off north to Huntington Beach. The journey, which was about two or three hours, took us all along the South California coast. Those post card pictures come from somewhere, and that day we saw them all. We got out on the beach and walked out onto the boardwalk, where below huge waves crashed up against its pillars and surfers from all over the state came to ply their trade. Huntington beach has a nice network of shops and restaurants, but wanting to keep our costs down we opted to eat in “Bomb Burger”. I was at the top of the line, where I saw an a sign saying “add nuclear sauce”. I’m not a fan of spicy food, but I was curious. I asked at the till and I was handed a sheet of paper, which if I wanted nuclear sauce I had to sign and return. I was confused, until I saw two fully grown men behind me crying and gulping down their drinks.

Just the burger is fine please

After Huntington beach, it was onto L.A. While driving down the road that day, we were officially on the “101”, which of course called for us to play the theme song of the O.C. We had a lot of road songs like that, which as four reasonably good singers we joined in with for hours on end. In L.A., we were a little more careful. Being honest, I don’t know how Katie managed it. Five lanes of traffic, at night, all trying to go somewhere fast in a city home to Hollywood. Driving on the opposite side of the road is tough. Driving with a bunch of maniacs is somewhat tougher. By the end of it, our car opted for Sunset Blvd over Compton, which still surprisingly brought its own problems. You see, obviously we were masters of overcrowding, but that night called for a particularly good scheme. Katie drove us into the tiny entry to the Sunset Motel, then quickly hopped from the driver’s seat into the back and hid under some clothes. The motel owner came out, and I met her on the asphalt. She asked how many we had, to which I replied and pointed out three. I knew the room was for two, but with a bit of Irish charm I managed to convince her to take the extra “one” person. It seemed we had got away with it. Before she left, she pointed to the SUV in front of us and asked if I could pull it up a little closer. I remind you that Katie, the driver, was hiding in the back. I, a man whose choice of vehicle is his feet, stared at the massive SUV. I motioned to Eimear, but the woman was insistent. My saving grace was a Wells Fargo bank card, which I used to motion her to her office. After that, the real fun began when we emptied the car and tried to sneak our extra person in. Luckily, in the dark, Michaela and Eimear are passable for one another, especially if we put Eimear’s U.S.S. Midway jumper on Michaela and send her up the backstairs just in case.

And at the end of it all, I got a terrible nights sleep under a San Diego Padres towel and a whirring air conditioning unit. I didn’t know it then, but that was far from the worst night’s sleep I’d get on the road.

trave 3

The next day, after breakfast in Jack in the Box, it was off to Hollywood. We’d briefly seen it the night before all lit up, but during the day it seemed like just any other street. We walked all along and got pictures with our favourite stars on the pavement, and then decided in unison we wanted to sign up for a cringe-fueled tour of celebrity houses. We met Glen, who sold such tours, outside a Trader Joe’s. He was…..different, but quickly quoted us a price. Once the deal seemed settled, he simply said “I’ll be right back, I’m gonna get a plum”. To his credit, he returned two minutes later from Trader’s Joes with his plum, which he dug into as he brought us to get our tickets. Hollywood really is as weird as they paint it. But if we found Glen odd, our tour guide made him look altogether boring. We drove around for about 3 hours listening to him, seeing houses like Katy Perry’s, Michael Jackson’s old house and Tom Cruise and getting the obligatory picture in front of the Hollywood sign. Below, the entirety of Los Angeles could be seen, and nothing else. A whole horizon taken up by a city. Glen also insisted we saw the relatively unfamous Nia Long (“star” of Are we there yet etc). I’m not sure we did, considering further on he shouted to a random Asian woman “Heeyyy Lucy Liu”. I think all nine of us will never forget things like

Kat Von D’s house you guys. The L.A. Ink star you guys….Kat…Von….D.

Here guys the original Dracula house. Dracula Bela Lugosi you guys…Bella…Luuuugosi

By the time we were finished with our tour, we had only time left to see a few more things, so we quickly took in the Chinese Theatre (my hand size is the same as Tom Hanks and Robert De Niro). After, we found ourselves in a Scientology museum (Aine asked could we, it seemed cool) and were asked did we want to do a free personality test. I’ll admit, months of taking things at face value in America really blurred our radar, as we happily signed up to what seemed like a cult entrance exam. Instead of a personality test, we were subjected to 200 statements and a timed IQ test. Questions included “If you invaded a country, would you feel bad for the citizens there”. Keep an eye on Scientology, United Nations.

From L.A. it was onto Pasadena, where again we managed to get everybody into the motel room. It was funny, as a man watched this unfold from across the street. To all appearances, myself and Fiachra were ushering seven girls into a motel room in the backstreets of Pasadena. Nothing to see here.The next morning, we re-fueled and got back to the road. We took a lot of water with us. Next stop: Las Vegas, Nevada.

As we got further and further outside L.A., the sun seemed to swell, and the dots of green along the roadside seemed to vanish. Soon, we were in the Nevada desert, where we had to turn off our air conditioning and keep our windows shut. We knew it was the desert, because “when I opened the window it didn’t make that fwwwwp sound from the wind”. OK, that’s not how we knew, but we managed to convince Michaela of it for a while. But still, our spirits kept up. We had exhausted “Would you rather”, and were now permanently onto singing. That afternoon, as we drove into the nothingness that was the Nevada desert, the song “Shut up and dance with me” came on. It was one of our favourites, but that time we all joined in from start to finish. Here we were, four Irish students in an SUV tearing from Los Angeles to Las Vegas. I might have said 4th of July was the most freedom I’d ever felt on American soil, but perhaps that four minutes in that SUV on the road to Vegas eclipses it.

The road went on, and on, and on, so much so that it seemed the desert had swallowed us and we’d never reach Vegas. We kept in contact with the other car as best we could, though eventually the signal wavered and we were in radio silence. We had a false alarm on the road, when we saw roller coasters rising up from the sand only to find out it was in fact not Vegas. We rolled on by. And then, as if from nowhere, the entire city sprang into view as the GPS counted down the miles. We pulled into the MGM hotel with Uptown Funk blaring, and assembled above in the car park. Now, I’ve seen the Cliffs of Moher, or the Eifel Tower etc, but walking through the MGM had me stunned. It was like a city in one building. The corridors seemed to stretch for miles. Once inside, we quickly got dressed up and headed out for the night. Even at night, Las Vegas was sweltering. I could feel the moisture melt off my eyes at 4am, and so generally tried to stick inside. We played the slots, roulette etc at the MGM and New York, New York. Fiachra and Michaela were the big winners, with some of Mark’s blackjack skills seemingly on show. Unlucky player!

The next day, we got up as early as Four Loco allowed us, and headed off to the Grand Canyon. We could not have underestimated more how long it took. We crossed from Nevada into Arizona (stopping quickly at the state line on the Hoover Dam), passing by a place called “The Last Stop”, which offered you a final chance to shoot automatic weapons. Priorities. Soon, the dusty, rocky earth turned to shrub-filled fields and eventually dense forests. By evening, we had made it, and hurried to the Photo points as the sun began sinking into the east. Again, I’ve seen a fair share of landmarks, but the Grand Canyon simply blew me away. It was….everywhere. It was so vast, so empty, so incredible. We all posed for photos while judging hard the man standing a bit too far out on the edge for our liking. You have to understand, the floor just falls a mile from where you are standing. It’s a bit surreal to imagine how it formed, and just how far it stretches. We made our way home in the dark towards Vegas, only reaching our hotel room by 3am. Okay, we may have hesitated and watched an ad for The 21 day Fix for a while, all a bit spaced, but realising Vegas never sleeps, we headed out again. It was nice to see Caesar’s Palace and the Bellagio and buy some Gatorade at 4am because God it’s still hot (like 40 degree hot).

The morning after, it was time to say goodbye to Vegas and head back to California. Our road back was taking us further north, nearer to Death Valley, and so the heat by no means let up. At this stage we were eating a fairly staple diet of McDonalds 24/7. My job became to design nicely priced menus for breakfast, poking gaps in the pricing McDonalds had on offer. Our radio contact came back, which was important because it was my main job in the car to contact Fiona in the other car and ask were we going to stop for food. The day wore on and it seemed like California was getting no closer. Soon, our GPS led us into the mountains, and sunlight faltered. In the dark, we crawled along a narrow road with a sheer drop on one side, afraid at any moment we’d tip over. The radio was off, and our petrol slowly ebbed away. We were fairly scared, considering none of us wanted to get stuck out in the dark with mountain lions and God knows what else. When we reached the mountain floor on the other side, we went to the nearest shop and collapsed in relief. Luckily the other car got through OK too, and for the night we booked into what I could only describe as the best accommodation we’d had to that point (it was like a ski lodge with no snow). That night, I got to sleep in a bed for the first time since Lucky D’s hostel nearly 3 months previous.

Early the next morning we took off again, with Yosemite only two hours away. Now we were back in California, deep in the woods where everything seemed alive. We arrived just too late for a camp space, and so decided we’d sleep outside the tent space, in a parking lot a couple told us about in the queue. For the day, we headed on a hike up to Yosemite falls, where water cascades over half a mile to the base below. It’s one of the highest waterfalls in the world, and maybe even thwarted the Grand Canyon in terms of wowing me. We climbed up to the lake at the falls’ bottom and relaxed for the afternoon, only coming down again so we could get dinner and head for our camp site. That night, we set off from the restaurant in Ms. Tiff. We found the car park, where a separate car was parked. They gave us odd looks as we unpacked, then told us they wouldn’t be staying there. They left, and we were alone in the dark. The trees seemed to close in. We decided it wouldn’t do, and left just as a park warden came to lock the gates in. Waiting outside for the other car, the black deepened. I remind you, we had no phone coverage-this was complete wilderness. Half an hour passed with no sign of them, and I rolled up the windows after hearing one too many sounds that seemed like a bear. Eventually we headed back to the restaurant, and from there to the car park. A full hour had passed, we were lost with what to do. Just then, an SUV pulled into the car park and headed towards the back. I didn’t know it was them, but it was all we had. I jumped out of our car and sprinted across the car park. I ran right out in front of the SUV and waved them to stop. We had found them, and by God was that some of the biggest luck we had on U.S. soil.

We drove on from the car park to Groveland, where we booked two tents (well we wanted to camp didn’t we) and all squashed into one. A good thing we did, considering the temperature plummeted over night. Even wrapped up we were frozen. We broke out the drink to pass the time until the early hours when sleep took us.

The next day it was off to Lake Tahoe. It was another session of “Shut up and dance with me” winding down the mountain roads towards the lake. Again, we ate whatever we could, whether it was fast food or 7/11. Big gulp cups were everywhere, rivaling Katie’s cereal bar collection. The lake luckily wasn’t too far, and by afternoon we were at our campsite. This time we had booked ahead, and had great fun setting up our tents in the woods. We had a bear box, which was a metal box fixed to concrete. All food went in there, unless we wanted a bear on us in the middle of the night. Once settled, we headed down to the lake for a swim. The water was still, a band was playing and the California sun was out. Tranquility doesn’t say it. I learned that day I have the most pale feet in the world, made all the more ghostly underwater. Thanks gang.

That night we got our fire going, broke out the marshmallows (I can fit 7 in my mouth, as a note) and relaxed with some drink under the starlight. I know in the country you can see stars like you never can in the city, but this was of a different scale. That night, we must have seen millions, spread out on the floor listening to One Direction’s Once in a Lifetime on repeat. I know I talked about freedom on the J1, but that was the time I was probably most at peace. This was the wild after all. I mean, Fiona Meade even got last trying to find our campsite at one stage.

From there we headed to San Francisco, the last leg before we headed to the East Coast. We reached the airport, and sadly had to say goodbye to our cars. All in all, we had clocked up 2,000 miles on each car. Two thousand miles (roughly the distance from L.A. to Chicago) of takeaways, singing, drinking water, ringing friends back home, ringing the lads in San Diego, taking photos, taking detours, GPS recalculating, ringing motels, collecting money for petrol and knowing that the next McDonalds is just four miles away. Perhaps one of the best memories is our song game, where we had to take up a song off one another and see how long we could go i.e. Eimear’s example of “Mary had a little lamb/lamb of God you take away the sins of the world”. We once kept this game going for two hours, until Michaela, singing “Sexy back” screamed “TAKE ‘EM TO THE BRIDGE”.

We stayed with Aine’s relatives in Fremont that night. The next morning, once inside San Fran, we immediately went to the Golden Gate bridge. A word of advice, it actually takes a long time to walk across that bridge. From there we could see the infamous Alcatraz. That night, we again stayed with Aine’s relatives outside the city. We were treated to a home-cooked meal, which meant that basically all salad items were gone in two minutes, and allowed to go swimming in the pool or just relax in front of the TV. We hadn’t had comfort like this in months. On my last night in California, I sat out on the deck and drank a cold bud light as the crickets made noise out in the gardens beyond. The sun went down and I went off to bed, content.

For our last day before jetting off to New York, we took in Santa Cruz theme park on the beachfront. That night our flights brought us to Detroit, where we arrived just ten minutes before our flight to New York, and had to leg it to our gate.

Suddenly, we were in New York. After months of California coast we now were now in the biggest city in America. Our accommodation was the huge Hotel Pennsylvania, which stood just across from Madison Square Gardens. Our first day in the Big Apple we took in Times Square, Little Italy, Chinatown and went down to see from a distance the Statue of Liberty. On the way back, we stopped at Ground Zero and the new World Trade Centre.

Our next day was devoted mostly to Central Park. Renting bikes, we did a lap of the enormous park pausing for photos every so often (such as at the MET on route). For dinner, we found ourselves in Ellens Stardust Diner, where the waiting staff climb up on the furniture to belt out musical numbers. It was a good prelude, as the next day we finished off our NYC adventure by seeing Les Miserables on broadway (considering this is my favourite musical I was quietly content).

And that was that. Travelling. Two hectic weeks with my bed either a motel floor or a corner of a tent. But it was worth it. Endurance sapped, we headed to JFK airport for the journey home. I won’t say goodbye here, because that deserves a post of itself. So I will leave as I came instead.

Our battered suitcases were piled on the sidewalk again; we had longer ways to go. But no matter, the road is life

17 in a 1 bed -The days of apartment 2130

“A journey is best measured in friends, rather than miles”

As usual, it has been a while since I’ve come back to tell you the story of my summer. This time I return for what is perhaps the hardest entry, with well over a month of adventure to condense down into something palatable. Even so, it will be the most rewarding part of this tale. It has the most ups, and perhaps the most downs, and if ever I think back on those brief three months I spent half a world away, it will be of the following days.

The above quote made sense for this entry, but still has its problems. This journey was measured in friends after all, but it is those friendships that have both defined the journey and also been defined by it. Confusing, I know.

It’s funny though. At the end of November, I found myself at MedBall (Medicine Society’s ball, for those not affiliated). It was a good night, and exactly what I needed before the long three weeks that were college exams. I wasn’t the only pharmacy student there, and if anything we made up a fairly respectable amount of the guests. At one point in the night, as we all milled about on the dance floor, for the briefest of moments there was a coming together. It only lasted a second, and if you blinked you might have missed it. In fact, if you were there reader, I’m sure you would have hardly batted an eyelid. But there in front of me were seven of my friends. Seven friends, all swept up in a moment of enjoyment at a college ball, who probably didn’t notice exactly what I did. But there were the eight who left Cork at the end of May, and came back again three months later. We will not always be half a world away, but to paraphrase Casablanca, “We’ll always have San Diego”.

At the end of June, perhaps one of the most memorable nights was our night at the ball park. The San Diego Padres probably don’t get the award for the most well known baseball team, but that night we made it all the way to ESPN. Baseball is a funny sport, taking at least 3 hours, full of crowd participation (though I have a feeling this is all American sports) and hard to follow if you show up on a whim. Still, I enjoyed it for what is was. It was nice to see a fabled home run, or try catch a baseball fired into the crowd by a man dressed like a 12th century monk. P.S. we were of course all drunk. It seemed like a thousand Irish J1ers had descended on Petco Park that night, and for those Americans unused to the Irish, it was a night to remember no doubt. Long after the players had walked from their bases and called it a night, Irish twenty-somethings chanted and rocked the stadium like it was our own. The fans went home that night to Fields of Athenry ringing in their ears. For our antics, we showed up on highlight reels the following day. Olé, Olé, Olé, I believe they say.

july

As a group, we had a sort of thing going that we were “good at the J1”. We got an apartment within a week, and within two weeks we were all employed. Social security numbers and bank accounts came easy to us. We were efficient and organised. It was kinda funny. And of course the J1, if it turns out like that, can feel kinda like a dream. There aren’t any real “responsibilities” and your main concerns are enjoyment and food. But the J1 isn’t a dream. It’s real life, and on the 16th of June we were reminded of that. I still remember the sinking feeling in my gut when I left work at 9am (was working split shifts at this point, one of which was 6.30-9) and saw I had 9 missed calls from my Dad and a host of messages. I had only one thought: something has happened at home. As I looked into the texts, most of which simply read “Ring me” or “Ring home”, a friend of mine and Adam’s struck up conversation:

“Have ye heard what happened up in Berkeley last night?”

We had not, and as she told us all of it, I realised those calls and texts weren’t about something back home, they were about me. I quickly rang my Dad and told him I was OK, while still very unsure of what had occurred. When Adam and I got back to the apartment, everybody was frozen. I couldn’t accurately describe to you what the day after the Berkeley tragedy felt like, only to say it was one of the most vulnerable of my life. The entire apartment complex, with well over 500 Irish students, was in mourning. We all joked about how the Americans thought we all knew each other, but that morning it became apparent they weren’t very far wrong. People crowded the computer room eager to hear were their friends OK, or just to answer home that they weren’t involved. Reported as a balcony collapse in “California”, Irish parents were rightly terrified. And as the hours wore on, the numbers who had passed away rose. To know that six people lost their lives on the J1 is heartbreaking. To know it happened just up the coast from us, in what felt like could have been anybody’s apartment, was frightening beyond measure. Of course, to Americans this barely made the news, unlike at home where it was a national tragedy. And so, we Irish felt like we were in a bubble for the next few days, overtaken by grief in a world that continued to turn. Eventually, for us, it had to keep turning too. As the students were all from Dublin, I didn’t expect to know any of them. A few days later, I re-googled the story, and scrolled down through the names. One of them was familiar, even if faintly. I found a picture, and realised it was somebody I’d met at Irish college almost eight years before. I’m not sure he would have remembered me, save as the person who always went on goal in soccer. A Pacific Beach church held a vigil for the six students, which was crowded with Irish in San Diego. In times like that, all we had was each other to band together with. Of course we weren’t involved, but the nearness of the tragedy to our hearts was very real. They were just like us. For them, the J1 was also a dream.

july 3

July rolled around on the J1, and everything kicked into gear. At work, we went from the shy Irish J1 students to a real part of the setup. Now we were working normal hours (whether it was morning or evening), we actually got to be part of the individual camps. For me, that started with camps like Challengers and Soccer Camp, where I got to help win the Spirit Stick two days in a row. The Spirit Stick was as American as it got, decorated by the winning camps and liable to be stolen if let out of a camp counselor’s hands. Spirit Circle was 3pm every day, and there every camp came to perform, compete, and say goodbye for another day. The next day, you might be in Gym 7-12, or High-5 camp for swimming. It was very changeable at first. Of course, within each camp we were kept busy, whether that was organising Arts & Crafts, kicking around on the soccer field or going on field trips to places like the San Diego Ice Arena or the Natural History Museum. Perhaps the best field trip thrown my way to Belmont Park, where rollercoasters overlooked the beach and camp counselors could queue for the rides if they liked. That day unfortunately, I was hungover, and so spent my time with the campers who opted for the arcade. We Irish are tough, but not invincible. As part of camp we were expected to know about a million songs, as any moment might become an impromptu “Bulldog” or a recital of the YMCA song. At first, we Irish shirked the responsibility of joining in if we could, but by the end, we were as loud as everybody else even if half in amusement at ourselves. Those songs came back to the apartment with us, with the Sea World crew liable to groan if myself, Katie, Adam or Aine broke into a “G-double O-D-J-O-B, Good job, good job!”. Even if in individual camps at work, we were still rotated about a lot to cover breaks for regular staff. This was tough. Kids respect authority of those they are used to. As stand-in staff, they ran riot whenever they saw us. Eventually, by mid July we were being placed permanently in camps each week. I had interesting ones like NASA camp, but my favourite will always be “Senior Fun”. Senior Fun(tastic) was the oldest camp in Toby Wells, with kids aged 10 and up. I thought this would be difficult, as I know at aged 10 I was anything but Funtastic. But as I predicted, once the children got used to me, it became remarkable fun. Starting at 6.30am, I used to relish work everyday. Each of them would ask a million questions about Ireland to “Mr.Kyle”, wanting to hear about fairies and the countryside. There were a lot of games of Capture the Flag, Sharks & Minnows and Gaga (which is Israeli dodgeball-very fast, very dangerous). And at the end of it all, I’d sign out and walk out to 7/11 with Adam and Dylan, or maybe Ronan, Conor, Sarah, Roisín or Ciara on occasion. A big gulp was like a tradition for us by the end. It started one morning when I bought a hot dog, and the owner looked at me puzzled and added “You know you can get a big gulp for a penny?” What I’d do to be waiting for the 17:51 bus right now with one of those in my hand. The Senior Fun kids might change every week, but as a rule it was myself, Kristen and Nick as staff and a lot of familiar faces with the kids. There were some so regular they would ask about my weekends, and oh, were the weekends of July good.

july 11

The first was of course, the 4th of July. Myself, Adam, Aine and Katie were all off with no camp at the weekends, and so decided to buy a lot of beer in Food 4 Less and head down to the beach. Clearly, we weren’t affiliated with the holiday, as immediately American’s told us to hide our drink. Luckily we had bought a cooler, and so Aine and I went in search of ice. I’ll admit, I didn’t picture myself lugging a 20 pound bag of ice around when I woke up that morning, least of all down the beach promenade, but the cold beer under the San Diego sun was sheer bliss. The four of us sat there for hours, talking about God knows what as we knocked back our purchases. I hate to be over-dramatic, but that has to rank as the most freedom I’ve ever felt on American soil. And considering they love their freedom, I’ll count it among my better memories.

july 9

July weekends got better and better. Next we were off to the Del Mar fair, where hundreds of stalls of all descriptions packed into a fairground. Everything was deep-fried, or covered in chocolate, or both. San Diego was also of course host to Comic Con, which as a fan of shows like Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead, was a pretty big deal. The streets were lined with Chewbaccas, R2 units, Gandalfs, Spidermans etc. It was a Halloween at 90 degree Fahrenheit all brimming around the San Diego Convention Centre. On the Thursday, when the convention opened, a few of us ventured down for a look. Inadvertently, and a few still deny it, we ended up IN Comic Con. We just walked right in. This wasn’t Irish charm (like that time I got into a high school basketball tournament at SDSU-Go Aztecs!), this was just blind luck. And yet still, I accidentally achieved a sort of dream of mine, and for that I was delighted.

july 2july 4

SeaWorld comes under a lot of flak, but they do treat their employees well. Free San Diego Zoo tickets was just one of the perks, and for anybody who isn’t a zoo expert, it of course ranks as one of if not the world’s best. The day at the zoo was amazing, with animals I’d never even heard of becoming some of my favourite within hours. It wasn’t Fota-half under construction and a bit lifeless. This felt like a jungle you stepped into. It was perhaps only bettered by my visit to SeaWorld itself. Again, say what you want of the park, but it offers a spectacle to its visitors. I was happily splashed by water from the tail of a Killer Whale, which was only the finale of a day that included seeing the seals, staring at the odd Baluga Whales, riding the Manta, getting drenched on Journey to Atlantis or the rapids and hearing Blue Horizon about a hundred times. Myself, Katie, Eimear and Adam had a mega day out.

The great weekends didn’t stop there, with days out at the batting cages, or trips on the Orange Line (what even is the Orange Line in fainess) or visiting University San Diego standing majestically over Morena Linda Vista. And nestled in between all this yours truly changed his age. Well, I didn’t change it, I turned 22. The day of my birthday I went to La Jolla, where the white foam of the Pacific splashed up against golden cliffs and even the ordinary houses were like mansions to us. We went to In Cahoots the night before to celebrate, where the name of the game was line dancing. We were of course useless, but the prospect of it and a 3 dollar beer was enough to make it a regular haunt for us. I remember Adam switching on Taylor Swift’s “feeling 22” and the whole gang gathering around me. It was kind of funny, being presented with a coveted Dairy Milk bar, which to all of us was like a cake from the Gods. By Mid July our staple number of people had jumped to 14, when we were joined by Mark’s girlfriend Kate and their friend Aidan as well as James from our own class. On top of this, one night we found ourselves hosting a massive 17 people in one apartment. That was as high as it ever got, and I’m sure even if I tried to reassure you this was still reasonably comfortable you’d never believe me.

2130 was a hub for us, with all of us spread over San Diego some days. In the apartment, rather than become a hot bed of anger and frustration like you might imagine, it instead became a sanctuary, where we went to escape the day-to-day and just be 11 Irish people all tossed in together. The regularity of it grew one me. I might take a nap in the afternoon after work, then wake up to Aine and the two Fionas coming back from the pool, Michaela just arriving in after work, Eimear and Katie busy making dinner, Fiachra and Mark in conversation on the floor, Adam sorting music on his laptop and Greeny heading out to get Sombreros, and offering us to join him. Of course, any of the roles above might be changed for one another, which was in effect the beauty of it. We were for want of a better word living, and everyday was a new story, a new adventure or a new private joke for 2130. I might wake up to the bathroom flooding some days, but that was few and far between. For the most part, 2130 was a happy place, where every night its inhabitants sat around saying “Fuck you X” with cans of Four Loco in their hands, listening to spooky stories or all huddling up together to watch a movie (Top Gun, The Lion King spring to mind. If we wanted a movie we had to go load it outside the computer room, so it was a big deal for us). The nights out were too numerous to count, with every Thursday having us racing from a tram to get to McFaddens in time, and every other Tuesday getting a tram and a bus so we could go out in Pacific Beach.

Honestly, when people ask me about my J1, they want to hear about my trip to New York, or gambling in Vegas or camping in Yosemite. Those were all amazing, and will be in another entry. That was really travelling, if we’re going to use the strict sense of the word. But it wasn’t the journey. As I’ll remind you, for the journey, we measure in friends-not miles.

Tales from the Ramen Bookshelf: A year in reading

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2015 is slowly drawing to a close. With exams officially over I now finally have a bit more time on my hands. Even so, my aim is to get 5 blogs done by New Years, with three dedicated to the J1 and two towards reading and writing. I know. I’d want to get a move on.

I wouldn’t say it has been an amazing year for reading. It’s probably a year where I read more random books than I’m used to, much of this due to being on a J1 and not wanting to bring any books I would be distraught if I lost. You might wonder how I could lose a book, but there were eight of them and they were all being lugged around in my carry-on bag. In airports like JFK and Heathrow this isn’t exactly standard practice. When security at San Francisco wanted a look in my bag, the last thing I was expecting was for him to hold up Game of Thrones and say “Oh, is this good? I love the show.”As you can tell, San Diego was my prime reading time. With no internet and a work schedule that meant I might be alone in our apartment for hours at a time, books fell like dominos. Also, I simply love reading. I wouldn’t say that’s a cliché, more so a “well obviously Kyle you’re writing a whole blog on it”. Still, there were many times on the J1 where I wanted nothing more than a book in my hand and a seat by the pool. While I’ll always remember the nights out, working and mayhem around the apartment, it was during these quiet moments that the J1 really became a therapy. Sometimes you need a break, and if you need a break within a break, it’s handy to have a book nearby. For this blog, I’m just going to give a quick review of my 2015 reading list to the best of my memory (those first few months were neither productive or memorable but I’ll try my best).

The Walking Dead: Descent (Jay Bonansinga)

If I’m being entirely honest, I don’t remember much of this book. I’ve previously read (and reviewed) four books in this series, and by and large this installment was much the same. It’s a niche book (I enjoy the Walking Dead TV series, as you might guess) where the writing is intended to be tense, fast-paced and not at all verbose. It’s the kind of book you could knock out in a day if you really wanted to, which in some cases is a good thing. I liked Descent, it was an improvement on its predecessor “The Fall of the Governor” even if it was weaker than the first two books in the series. Again, it’s about Woodbury and at this stage differs largely to what Walking Dead fans are seeing on screen. This is good, because unless a TV show is amazing I really don’t care to read the book version of the plot (see Game of Thrones later for when I really do care to). That’s not to say The Walking Dead isn’t a brilliant show, but it’s a plot that works best on Sunday night on AMC, and considering the source material is a comic, you can be pretty sure nobody is going to want to read the same plot in a third and weaker format. Overall, a solid edition to the series and I’ll be buying the next one

Rating = 6.5/10

The Name of the Wind (Patrick Rothfuss)

I’m not keen to review this book, if I’m being honest. It’s not that it’s a bad book – quite the opposite. It’s more, I have issues with this book that are unusual, and explaining them isn’t easy. I digress.

The Name of the Wind came highly recommended to me, and of course people threw up the name Tolkien places and I’ll admit I got quite excited. I actually started this book in August 2014, but it dragged over to 2015. The main character Kvothe, a legend in his time now posing as a simple innkeeper, recounts his story to the fabled Chronicler, who has sought him out to find the true version of events. What follows is a sort of in-book autobiography, which at first I hated but soon grew to love with the constant change in location, characters etc. It was fresh, ambitious and the author controlled it. And I’ll concede, the worldbuilding was excellent. For the first fifty pages it was a little jarred but once the autobiography portion started I really felt part of the world. The dialogue was snappy, clever and witty. The characters for the most part were memorable, and for a plot that spent a lot of time detailing ordinary events, the story seemed quite extraordinary.

My biggest problem with the whole book was the main character. Yes, I’m aware, that’s bad, and it was. I simply hated Kvothe for large portions of the book. He was arrogant beyond measure, talented at pretty much everything, and loved to convince himself he was having a rough time of things. Yes, his life was tough, but given how much luck came his way I found it very hard to sympathise with him at all. This all manifested through the author’s excessive use of detail, sometimes spending pages showing off whatever he had popped into google on the day he wrote that chapter. It is clear the research was meticulous, but delivery is important in terms of how much you tell a reader. And Kvothe, the super-intelligent sponge, just had to tell us all of it. On a side note for all men, Kvothe also insists he is terrible with the ladies, but with his outcomes I’d have to call him a liar. He’s that type who sells himself as socially awkward and an introvert even though he is a master of small-talk, flirting etc. Overall, the Name of the Wind is brilliant. The above is a huge flaw, but damn it the book is good. Again, I digress…

Rating = 8/10

RED – my autobiography (Gary Neville)

Considering this was the first book of the J1, it may be already apparent that the first 6 months of 2015 were fairly poor in terms of reading. RED was a book I’ve owned for a quite a while now, but never got round to reading. As I said above, it’s those kind of books that came to San Diego with me by and large. I flipped the book open 8 hours into a flight to LA, when it was clear I wasn’t going to watch a fourth movie after the shambles that was “Exodus Gods and Kings”. As a United fan, I of course enjoy any story that involves the treble, the premier league titles, the wonder teams, the class of ’92 etc. And RED didn’t fail to deliver. Gary Neville is a clever man who has always worn his heart on his sleeve. He’s a face value sort of guy and for an autobiography that’s pretty pivotal. Outside of just the football, I enjoyed RED for the tale that it was. Neville recounts his upbringing with a sort of fondness and humour we would all be jealous of. For the entire novel he seamlessly blends the life on the pitch with the life at home and the world in his head. To my surprise, I found his stories of the England team some of the most interesting. Neville’s outings for his country give an insight into the sort of questions we constantly pose of one of football’s greatest nations. I would consider this a must-read for a United fan, and something you might look into if you like a good autobiography in any case.

Rating = 7.5/10

I am Zlatan Ibrahimovic (Zlatan Ibrahimovic)

Where to start with this one? Basically, it would be nice to see Kvothe and Zlatan have a conversation. Zlatan, is for all intents and purposes, the most self-confident man I’ve ever read about. And yet, I loved it. This wasn’t some made-up character spouting rhetoric the author fed them, this was a real human being taking on the world as they saw fit. What surprised me about this book was how deftly Zlatan dealt with his upbringing. While we are constantly hearing of wonder kids raised in Favelas and going on to be football legends, I didn’t expect the same social history for one of Europe’s greatest footballers. Zlatan is funny in every page, maybe every paragraph. He pokes fun at the world, at opponents, at himself. Nobody is safe within the confines of this book, with huge names like Pep Guardiola being ripped to absolute shreds. Like a Conor McGregor of football, Zlatan talks a lot but has never failed to back it up throughout his time in football. Capable of changing a game in a second, of tearing through defences, of sublime skill typical of a Brazilian, he has an illustrious career to regale across several countries. Even those with little interest in football would enjoy this book, which is as much Zlatan painting you a picture of the high-life as it is a look at his moments on the pitch.

Rating= 8/10

The Big Fight (Sugar Ray Leonard)

At this point in San Diego we had just moved into our apartment, with this being the first book I sprawled out on our then clean carpet to read. This was perhaps my favourite of the three autobiographies, not only because I knew little of Sugar Ray’s career, but also because of the backstory. Neville’s introduction was heartwarming, Zlatan’s was surprisingly full of hardship, but Sugar Ray’s was king of them all. There’s something about reading about life growing up in America that stirs you a little. Sugar Ray probably had it harder than both Zlatan and Neville, and certainly had knock-on effects from his childhood for the rest of his life. One of the greatest boxers in history, this was him peeled away to nothing and laid bare over 300 pages for all to see. Before, I knew Sugar Ray as a king; an Olympian who went professional and became a master showman while demolishing some of the greats. After reading, this image seems 2D at best. It’s a story of addiction, sex, fame, money, divorce and finally, and most poignantly, redemption.

Rating = 8.5/10

The Woman in Black-Angel of Death (Martyn Waites)

You can surely see now that I had strict criteria for “books I wouldn’t be distraught if I lost”. By the middle of June, I had reached this book, and looked forward to a few nights reading by my phone light in the dark of our apartment scaring myself half to death. Sadly, this was not the case. I should have seen the problems with this book in that it was a sequel wrote by a different author and worse, was only published to tie in with the movie of the same name. Adapting a movie into a book is shaky, very shaky. This was Richter Scale shaky. I love the original Woman in Black story. It’s so menacing, so tense and full of dread. This was a diluted version of that. It still had a haunted feel to it, and was scary for short periods. Based around children moving to the “empty” house during WWII, it had strong potential to be chilling. It floundered in the writing, and then ultimately met its demise in the very predictable ending. It’s strongest point was the manner of deaths, which I guess given the genre will earn it some salvation in my rating.

Rating = 5.5/10

Theft of Swords (Michael J Sullivan)

Every year, I’ll find a book that I especially like for some reason. In 2014, it was Stella Gemmell’s “The City”. I recommend that book to everybody. This year, it’s Theft of Swords. Given this was book five of the J1, and the first fantasy book, it’s fair to say I was highly looking forward to reading this. I’d got it as a gift a month before I left, after spotting it in what was then Porters, Wilton. What was obvious right from the off was how different this was from Name of the Wind. Whereas the latter was clearly heavily researched, detailed and mastered over a long time, this was far more….fluid? Lost for words there. Fluid suffices. Theft of Swords had far more room to breathe than Name of the Wind did. It didn’t over emphasise anything, it just ran with the story and asked you the small price of keeping up. The opening scene was brimming with clever dialogue. I loved the two main characters, a pair of mercenaries known together as “Riyria”, who through a wicked conspiracy get caught up in a case of murder. The book follows their attempts to reconcile this which unearths larger events in their world. To be honest, some people may read this book and criticise the plot or the writing or some of the characters. But at the heart of it all, it’s simple adventure. It’s what’s asked of fantasy novels right from page one. It doesn’t lean on a crutch of memorable description like some successful novels do, or build a world almost freakishly real, but what it does do is give us two main characters that we can care about. It puts them in simple plot lines and then injects the odd twist, a good deal of action and a constant change of scenery. Overall, I was just “content” reading this novel.

Rating: 8.5/10

No Safe House (Linwood Barclay)

While Theft of Swords was a brilliant book, it was also a long one, and came right at my busiest time of San Diego. So it was not until July that No Safe House came out of the book shelf my room mates had “constructed” from a Ramen Noodles box. When it did, I was apprehensive. No Safe House is not a fantasy novel. I know, who cares? People always say to read outside your comfort zone. Who knows, you might find something you like. Writers are also told the same. But your zone is comfortable for a reason, and we humans like comfortable things. So when I bought No Safe House as a sort of homage to the above advice, I felt all grandiose and like I was finally expanding my view. I was wrong. No Safe House wasn’t a bad book, I’m not being fair. It was an OK book, but I’m not on this earth to read OK books. I like thrillers, I’ve read a lot and so I expected a big name in the genre was going to blow me away. I just sort of wasn’t though. I tried to like this book for 200 pages, and with a plot of “woman who has disturbing past finds herself in new nightmare”, it wasn’t overly hard. But with time, the book wore on me. I felt like it was taking too long to get to that “Oh my God that’s what happened” moment, and when it did it wasn’t enough for me to appreciate the wait. The best portions of the book were the “setup phase”, as I call it, where some character inadvertently sets a chain of events in motion. Cynthia, the woman described above, has a daughter who along with her boyfriend find themselves in the wrong house at the wrong time. All of this part was good. It was the second half of the novel that just didn’t do it for me. How characters resolved things was predictable and boring rather than rash and exciting. If you like a crime thriller, this might be for you. If you, like me, prefer Middle Earth and Winterfell, then I’d perhaps give it a skip. And next time, think twice about leaving the comfort zone.

Rating 6.5/10

Game of Thrones (George R.R. Martin)

I feel a little guilty reviewing this book. It’s a re-read, and one of my favourite books by a longshot. In fact, outside of Tolkien, I would say this is the best fantasy I’ve ever read. Now I know there are still plenty I have to read, but coming back to this book a second time was an enjoyable as the first. I read Game of Thrones for the first time nearly four years ago, but this time instead of poolside in Gran Canaria I was poolside in San Diego. It’s the last book of the J1, and I only finished it once I got home to Ireland. To put it quite simply: read this book. I am jealous of those who will be reading it for the first time sometime soon. Game of Thrones is addictive as a book. I brought the first one on holidays for a week and after two days was coming to an end. The use of multiple view points is not exclusive to GoT, but it’s a great example of it being done well. Unlike Theft of Swords, this plot really is complex, with more going on than you can keep up with at times but each chapter tense, thrilling and riddled with mystery. Ned Stark, Lord of Winterfell, is called to be Hand of the King by Robert Baratheon, his old friend who sits on the Iron Throne in King’s Landing. Ned is to replace Jon Arryn, who died mysteriously. The next 700 pages are incredible, with characters larger than life who all interact within the labyrinthine Red Keep, where secrets are hard to keep and political conspiracy and betrayal are rife. This is all mixed in with action far to the north at the Wall and at Winterfell. For any fan of the show, I think the book towers over the TV series, and have yet to meet someone who read the book after and disagreed.

Rating = 9.5/10

On Writing (Stephen King)

I only just finished this book recently, and so it just makes the list for 2015. Obviously this is a different sort of book, but out of curiosity I wanted to read it (you shouldn’t turn your back on advice from Stephen King). To my surprise, King manages to use his own life story to perfectly give you a look into the writing process. I thought this autobiographical approach made the advice more palpable, more relatable and easier to digest. King doesn’t nit-pick or focus too heavily on grammar, structure etc. He works with what he knows best about the art, and brings it to life through his story of becoming the world renowned writer he is today. I didn’t expect anything less of him, and for anybody interested in writing, I would say it is worth a read. It’s an easy read, not something you get bogged down in like you would expect.

Rating = 8/10

So, a good year for reading overall I suppose. I’m looking forward to 2016, with my current book being “The World of Ice and Fire”, and I already know I’ll be reading “The Three Musketeers” sometime soon too. Perhaps I’ll stray again outside my comfort zone, though there’s definitely enough books within it to keep me going for another year.