Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Day 361: Shrimping, Finally

On Day 361, I arrived in Charleston to kick off my birthday weekend, and went straight to my friend Adam's house. He'd promised to take me shrimping as the thing I'd never done before since Day 294 when we overslept and quite literally missed the shrimp boat the first time we'd tried to go.

That day turned out to be a lot of fun. Adam and spent the day (ALL day) brunching instead, hitting various Charleston spots that I'd never been before. But I was still very disappointed that I'd blown my chance to go shrimping.

He wasn't sure if he'd be able to make the shrimp boat happen again, but Adam said when I came back to town, we could take his own boat and go shrimping ourselves. That sounded like a perfect way to kick off my birthday weekend. I arrived at Adam's house right as the sun was setting, and we, along with Adam's roommate Roy, jumped in his truck and headed to the boat ramp.

Day 361's thing I've never done before to go shrimping, finally.

I assumed that we'd be on the boat catching shrimp for a couple of hours and that we'd have plenty of time to head out on the town afterward. In fact, I liked the idea of myself wearing a fishing shirt and grabbing a couple of well-deserved beers following a successful evening out on the water. But Adam informed me, when we stopped at Harris Teeter to buy beer and something for dinner, that shrimping was an all-evening affair.

"There won't be any bars open when we finish up," Adam said, as he grabbed a bucket of chicken and a container of macaroni and cheese (sadly the only picture saved from the lost camera is that of Adam and the macaroni).

Clearly, I had absolutely no idea what we were in for.

By the time we loaded all of the tools, coolers and put the boat in the water, it was completely dark outside. A strange time to be headed out on the water, but the night could not have been more beautiful. The moon was full and bright and it hung over the harbor as if someone had painted it there for us. The light it gave was more than enough to guide us where we wanted to go and I wished that all nights could be so lovely, and that all of my evenings would begin on a boat in Shem Creek.

We all cracked our first beer and basked in the moon's glow for about five minutes. And then Adam said it was time to get to work.

Work meant making the shrimp bait patties, possibly the worst part of shrimping. Shrimp bait patties are made of powdered clay and shrimp meal. Adam had already mixed the dry ingredients in a painter's bucket and smiling the whole time, he dipped a few cup fulls of salt water and added them to the mixture, creating a thick, gooey, paste-like substance that stunk really bad. Adam's smile went from charming to sinister as he mixed, darting his eyes from me to Roy then back to me. He knew that I was eager to be involved in this process, and that I was willing to do whatever needed to be done. But he knew sticking my hands in this stinky mush would completely disgust me. And it did.

I didn't hesitate, though, and I rolled up my sleeves and got to work. While Roy and I made the patties, that looked like hamburgers when we were done, Adam scoped out a place for us to set up our markers and drop our bait. If there is any kind of rhyme or reason to choosing a place to shrimp, I couldn't tell. Adam merely chose an area that was far away from any other shrimpers.

When we had our area, we had to mark where we intended to drop our bait, so as Adam drove the boat slowly, Roy stuck the equivalent of a PVC pipe (or maybe it was PVC pipe) into the ocean floor every 10 to 20 feet. Ideally, the 10 poles should all end up in a straight line, only that didn't exactly happen. We were close enough, though, so we decided to go with it. Plus, the first one I tried to stake barely even stuck in the ground at all, so the fact that I was able to get it to stay was good enough for me.

Once the stakes were in the ground, we returned the boat to the first pole and we dropped a couple of shrimp bait patties in front of it, placing them gently into the water and letting them fall.

We hadn't caught a single shrimp and I was tired. I like activities that I can show up and they happen, but shrimping, I learned, requires a great deal of preparation and quite a bit of patience.

Once the bait was set, Roy took over as the driver of the boat, and Adam, wearing fishing waders, stood on the stern with a net. Driving slowly, Roy approached the first pole; Adam, using both hands and his mouth, shook the net out and cast it open. Almost as quickly as he dropped it in the water, he started to pull it back in with both hands.

I watched nervously, and jumped up from my seat, wanting to assist but not exactly sure how, or in what way to do so. Adam said nothing and didn't indicate that he needed any help, and as Roy drove the boat slowly away from the pole, he pulled the net into the boat and lifted it over the empty cooler in front of me. There were about a dozen shrimp inside.

I was elated.

"Alright!," I yelled. "Good job!" No, it was hardly the bounty I'd seen shrimpers get on big shrimp boats, but still, it was shrimp! That we (well, Adam) had caught!

Roy and Adam were unimpressed. They went on to tell me that they'd been out a few nights before and each net full had yielded 20, maybe 30 shrimp at a time. They filled their cooler in a couple of hours.

I loved that shrimping was something that these guys did often, and filed that fact under, "Reasons why living at the beach is way cooler than living in the city."

Roy turned the boat around, and went to the second pole and Adam cast the net again, the second time yielding just five or six shrimp. My role in the process became to pick up the little critters when they bounced out of the cooler and to throw any fish that may have ended up inside our net back into the ocean. The job sounds lame, but it was right up my alley and I only managed to get pinched a handful of times before I took Adam's advice and wore gloves.

There wasn't a whole lot of conversation throughout the process, much to my dismay, and I was the only one really drinking beers at all. Roy, as the driver, had to be focused on where he was going at all times. Adam was under a lot of physical stress because the net was heavy and for the most part the boat was in constant motion. If we'd stopped to take a break between each cast, we would've been out there for hours. Shrimping is hardly the kick your feet up and drink beers kind of outing. It's hard work.

At one point, Roy could tell I was really studying what was happening around me, and he spoke up.

"So, Gallman, how are you going to write this?," Roy asked me. "Will you say I, 'maneuvered the boat with pinpoint accuracy and Adam cast the net like it was an extension of himself?'"

I laughed. Those weren't the words I would've come up with, but I certainly couldn't think of a more accurate way to describe these two shrimping experts.

I couldn't let the night end without at least trying to cast the shrimping net, so when Adam paused for a well-deserved, much-needed break, I stood on the stern and tried to copy exactly what he did. My cast was not at all an extension of myself, more like an ugly toss, but I managed to snag a few shrimp. I only did it twice and I was exhausted. No wonder there wasn't a lot of chatter coming from him.

It took us several rounds (much longer than it had taken them in the past), but after several hours, we nearly filled a 50 quart cooler with shrimp for the Lowcountry boil I'd planned for the weekend. Adam was right, by the time we got back to the ramp, it was after two in the morning, and there was still work to be done. The three of us sat around the cooler and pulled the heads off the shrimp and threw them in the water. Another not-so-pleasant but necessary part of shrimping.

For all it's unpleasantness, the entire evening was the opposite. A perfect evening in my most favorite city catching my dinner. Not too shabby.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Day 360: Playing the Blues

Music, especially live music, is one of my first loves in life, so it's no surprise that a lot of my firsts in my 29th year have happened in the context of a concert or a music festival of some sort.

What has surprised me, and disappointed me terribly, has been my inability to personally excel musically. With so much good taste in music, shouldn't it come easily to me? So far, I'd pulled off playing a song on a banjo and singing a song with a band, but both efforts were bad. Scary bad.

With the help of my friend Andrew, who himself is an excellent musician, I hoped to change all of that, when he taught me how to play the harmonica as Day 360's thing I've never done before.

Andrew and I had both hoped that this experience would come about more organically. We'd be out having a couple of beers and one of us would suggest a jam session and Viola! Time for a harmonica lesson.

But time was not on our side, so we planned what time we were going to meet and I went to his house after work. Andrew owns several harmonicas, and even has a case where he keeps them. The only harmonicas I'd ever seen were haphazardly tossed into junk drawers, so I knew these harmonicas were special. He placed the case on the bar in front of me, and I opened it gingerly, and picked up one of the shiny harmonicas as if it was a porcelain doll, certain that this was the instrument that would lead me to musical success once and for all. Give me an hour, I thought, and I'll be playing the blues.

After opening some beers and giving me an overview of his own experiences playing the harmonica, Andrew taught me the most important thing about playing the harmonica:

"Nobody calls it a harmonica."

I was still staring at the harmonica in my hand, but his words caught me caught me by surprised. I looked up and stared at him.


"Yeah," he said, recognizing my embarrassment. "It's called a blues harp."

Only minutes into our lesson, and I'd committed a sin as glaring as wearing an artist's concert t-shirt to the artist's concert. I started to question him, "But why?," but I stopped. If he says, "blues harp," he probably knows what he's talking about.

"Blues harp. Got it."

Suddenly this instrument that I'd once associated with honky tonks and college bars felt a whole lot fancier.

Andrew had a blues harp of his own and started the lesson by showing me how I was supposed to position my mouth. Since I'm right handed, I was to hold the harp in between my right thumb and index finger and then cup my left hand over the backside.

Anyone can pick up a blues harp and blow air and make a sound, Andrew said. It's true, I'd done it plenty of times before. But to actually, "play" a blues harp requires blowing, or sucking, air through the individual holes.

"It's weird that you can suck on it," I said. As the words came out of my mouth, I regretted them.

I laughed like a 13-year old boy in sex education class as Andrew ignored my comment and went on to introduce me to words like, "blow note" and "bending." I was trying to pay attention, but I was easily distracted by the vocabulary associated with the instrument.

"All of this blowing and sucking, playing the blues harp is dirty," I continued.

"No, that's you," Andrew said. "Don't blame that on the harp."

The comments just kept coming; in part because I have a dirty mind that just always seems to go there, and in part because I felt like in order to play the blues harp, I had to essentially make out with it.

Andrew humored me for a while with the inappropriate commentary, and we shared some laughs, but time was ticking, and soon we had to get down to business. Like Donald and the banjo, Andrew started by playing me the song that I was going to play, and then writing out the notes out on a piece of paper for me to read from. He showed me exactly where those holes were on the blues harp and told me when to blow and when to suck.

I didn't know the name of the song (Andrew emailed me to tell me it's "Mannish Boy" by Muddy Waters), but I recognized it. The sequence was probably the most popular blues sequence I'd ever heard. Da da da dah dun. That's it. How hard could it be?

Very hard, in fact. All jokes aside, pursing my lips the right way and finding the exact hole to blow into was difficult. I was all over the place.

Clearly I was in the groove, but I kept playing the same wrong note over and over and over. I blame it on the weird dance I do at the beginning and the fact that my hair is in some fishtail braid. I played when I was supposed to, but I kept playing the wrong note, over and over.

The second time we filmed, I took my hair down, as if that would help. I found the beat, barely, but managed every time to miss the first blues harp sequence in the song. I got the notes right (for the most part) the second time around, but it was hardly impressive. I played so badly, even Andrew's dog Dexter ran upstairs to get away from the noise.

Besides my own music shortcomings, I decided to also blame my performances on the video camera. Every time Andrew turned it on, I completely choked. When we were just messing around, and I was relaxed, I managed to nail the five notes (just five notes) several times. Jessica, (Andrew's then girlfriend, now fiance) came home from drinks with her friends, I played for her what I'd learned and she said I sounded good. I'm pretty sure she had a lot of drinks.

Ever reluctant to turn 30, I thought at the very least my own anxieties about my birthday would've inspired me on the blues harp, but I guess I'm destined to leave my twenties with absolutely no success in the music department.

Unless you count concert-attending, of course. I had a lot of success there.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Day 359: Riding Along in the Gray

Day 359 involved quite a bit more foresight and planning than most of the other things I'd done during my 29th year. Going on a police ride along isn't something that can just happen on the fly. The Dunwoody Police Department actually requires a notarized application for anyone interested. I filled it out and mailed it in weeks ahead of time, then waited impatiently for a response.

Finally, with just a week to go, the department contacted me to join one of their officers for a police ride along on Day 359 as the thing I've never done before.

When I told people what I was up to, their responses were all of the same mocking variety, since Dunwoody isn't what I would call a "crime-ridden" area. It's actually a very nice part of town and boasts some of the nicest real estate in Atlanta.

"What kind of crime is going on in Dunwoody?"

"Why Dunwoody, Steph?"

"Why there?"

The answer is simple: I Googled, "Police Ride Along Atlanta," and it was the first thing that popped up, application and all. They made it easy, so I went for it.

The Dunwoody Police precinct is on the first floor of a building in an office park, which was typical for this white collar area.

Despite all of the jeers I'd received headed into the day, part of me completely expected and wanted to arrive to a waiting room buzzing with scanner traffic and chaos; I wanted danger in the form of drug dealers and prostitutes smoking cigarettes and yelling obscenities. This waiting room was vacant, though, and silent. The only person who was there was the woman behind the plate glass window. She was wearing plain clothes and looked like she was younger than me.

I told her my name and that I was there for a ride along. She nodded and instructed me to take a seat in the waiting room while she radioed the officer I was to ride with. I did as I was told, and watched the local news they had on a television mounted on the wall. After ten minutes, no one had come to get me and I was starting to get nervous that they forgot. Just then, the door leading to the back opened, and the front desk girl walked through with a police officer behind her.

Officer Tim looked almost exactly like how I picture police officers looking in my head. He was bald and he was stacked. Officer Tim looked like he spent hours in the gym bench pressing and grunting and throwing weights around. I was sure he drank protein powder shakes with every meal and considered the possibility that he ordered his uniform one size too small, just to ensure that his muscles would bulge when he put it on.

He politely shook my hand, but was a bit standoffish at first. Not rude, just quiet and not seemingly thrilled with having to entertain me for the next four hours. Having been in that position myself at my own job, I completely understood and opted to just tread lightly, and blanket him with my charm gradually, so as not to overwhelm him.

I climbed in the front seat of the police car, and marveled at all of the car's bells and whistles: a dash cam monitor, Walkie Talkies, a CB radio, and, to my surprise, a laptop computer, mounted in the center console. I asked about each one of them, thankful that the high tech equipment gave us something to talk about.

Officer Tim didn't tell me where we were going, but it was clear he had a plan when he pulled out of the office park into an apartment complex right across the street. He parked his police car on the side of the road, popped the trunk, and got out, returning moments later with a tire in each hand. He threw them in the back and then walked back to the landscaped area in front of the apartments and emerged with two more, also throwing them in the trunk.

Five minutes in to this experience, and I was already terribly confused.

Not for too long, though, because as Officer Tim drove back to the police precinct he explained to me that the tires came from a car that was stolen from the apartment complex. Apparently the car was good enough, the tires were not. So the thieves took what they wanted, and left behind what they didn't. While ridiculously stupid of them, I thought that made them nice thieves. Regardless, the tires were now evidence.

We returned the tires to the precinct and then made our way to the next call, a fender bender in a shopping center. While waiting at a stoplight, Officer Tim explained to me exactly how much of the Dunwoody area he covers. He used his hands to point it out, and referenced street names I'd never heard of; I nodded in understanding anyway.

We arrived on the "accident" scene, and Officer Tim turned his blue lights on, causing everyone in the vicinity to turn and look. I put accident in quotes, because from what I could tell, these cars barely scraped each other while backing up in the parking lot. Perhaps my judgment is skewed thanks to my less than stellar driving record, but this "accident," in my opinion, did not warrant police presence or insurance companies or tears. The woman driving the Nissan Altima disagreed and she put on a hysterical show telling Officer Tim, and everyone else in the city of Dunwoody, that the "DRIVER OF THE JEEP CHEROKEE," was to blame for "BACKING INTO HER." This "accident," was "NOT HER FAULT!"

Officer Tim looked like a seasoned officer, taking each aside to hear their side of the story. He returned to the police car with their licenses and insurance cards. There he ran a report on both drivers, saw that their records were clean and their insurance payments were up to date. Since the incident happened on private property, he didn't cite either driver with a traffic violation, but wrote up an accident report that they could each give to their insurance companies.

Nissan Altima was disappointed. I think she wanted Jeep Cherokee to get hauled off to jail for not paying attention while backing up.

As we drove away from the scene, we both agreed that Nissan Altima was crazy. Officer Tim began to open up to me by way of asking me a few questions.

"So, are you doing this for a class?," he asked me.

I tried not to make it obvious that I was absolutely thrilled he thought I was a student, and just said, "No, I just always wanted to see what this was about."

He raised his eyebrow at me like that answer wasn't good enough. He was right.

I smiled. "Well, and I'm turning 30 next week and I started this blog where I set out to do new things everyday for one year, so this is one of the things that I'm going to write about," I rambled on the familiar sentence I'd reused over and over during the past year.

"Oh great, you're a journalist," he said. I could tell that any rapport we may have established since we met has begun disintegrating rapidly.

"Well, no . . .I mean, yes, I am . . . but I'm not doing this as a journalist . . . my blog is just for fun," I stammered out, but it was too late. I could tell he had started to put his guard up.

"I promise I won't make you look bad," I told him, with a twinkle in my eye. He half-smiled, like he wanted to believe me, but had been burned many times by the media in the past. I tried to change the subject, asking about the students he's taken around on ride alongs. Many of them are budding defense attorneys, or Criminal Justice majors, looking for careers in law enforcement.

After we talked about that, the car fell silent for a while. I looked out the window and then at a laminated sheet I found in the center console that listed all of the numbered police codes and signals for the different scenarios officers may encounter.

28 - Person Drunk

86 - Domestic Dispute

Sure enough, "10-4," means, "Ok. Understood."

I was studying the list, not noticing that Officer Tim was taking a right to get onto I-285. Once we were on the interstate, I laughed watching cars slow down when they saw us coming. One car, a Lexus SUV didn't slow down, though. The driver was flying down the highway, darting in and out of lanes to move past cars going the speed limit. Officer Tim clocked him at 82 miles per hour in a 65 miles per hour zone. He turned on his lights and went after the Lexus, making me feel like we were in a police chase! It didn't last very long, since the Lexus pulled over almost immediately, but I thought it was exciting, and I couldn't help but smile.

Officer Tim turned up the audio on the dash cam monitor before he got out of the car and I listened as he asked to see the driver's license and registration. I couldn't hear what the Lexus driver was saying, but I heard Officer Tim tell him how fast he was going.

The two spoke for a few minutes. As Officer Tim walked back to the car, I saw the Lexus begin to merge into traffic ahead of me. Part of me thought he was driving off and we were going to get to go on a real deal police chase. But Lexus didn't squeal off, he took his time to get back on the interstate. I was confused, as I was fully expecting Officer Tim to come back and haul this guy off for driving under the influence or reckless driving. At the very least, Lexus deserved a speeding ticket.

I gave Officer Tim a look that said, "What the hell was that?"

He shook his head and smiled, in a "you kids these days," kind of way.

"He's in a rush to meet his girlfriend for dinner. He got off late from work, and she's mad, so he's rushing to meet her."

Yeah, I thought. So what?

"Well, he was honest with me. When I pull someone over . . .for anything, speeding, running a red light, DUI . . .I just want them to be honest. He was honest with me, so I told him to slow down, and I let him go. He was a nice guy."

That's it? No ticket? I wanted to haul Lexus off to the slammer for going 82 in a 65 and you're going to let him go? Booooooo.

I decided right then that Officer Tim is exactly the policeman I want to meet the next time I get pulled over, but as far as police ride alongs go, I wish I had someone that fit the "asshole cop," stereotype.

Still, I smiled as we got off the interstate, feeling like I had some insider knowledge on how to deal with police officers like Officer Tim. "Just be honest." So simple.

Officer Tim took a right down a busy winding road that seemed to connect a residential part of Dunwoody to the commercial shopping area. It was heavily trafficked, at least during this time during the evening. At a curve in the road, we could see a car on the opposite side of the road pulled over onto the shoulder with its hazards blinking. Pacing beside the car was an attractive, but extremely weary-looking young woman talking on a cell phone.

Officer Tim immediately turned around, turned his blue lights on, and pulled up right behind her car. Without hesitation, he got out of his car and walked towards the woman, who upon seeing him approach, hung up her cell phone.

I assumed, as Officer Tim did, that the woman was having car trouble, and was likely on the phone with a towing company.
But with cars whizzing by, it was difficult for me to hear what they were talking about on the dash cam monitor. I could see that they were looking at something on the ground, so I got out of the car and walked over to them.

The girl looked up at me, understandably confused (who is this girl and why is she riding around in a police car?). I smiled at her and then looked at what they were looking at.

Lying the grass, was a goose.

An injured goose.

Suddenly it became clear what was going on here. This woman wasn't having car trouble. She hit a goose on her way home from work. While I don't have particularly strong feelings about geese, I felt really bad for this girl. She was really upset.

Officer Tim instructed the girl to sit in her car while he and I went back to the police car. There, he filled me in on some of the details. She hit the goose, but her husband was a veterinarian and was on his way to the scene to see if there was anything he could do.

"Oh, ok," I said, as if this all made complete sense. Only it made absolutely no sense.

Veterinarian or not, what was her husband going to do with the goose right there on the side of the road? Give it CPR? Shocks of life?

Officer Tim told me that the woman, an animal lover, wanted her veterinarian husband to put the goose in the back of their car, transport it back to their house and nurse it back to health. The whole idea was sweet, and made sense, if it wasn't completely ridiculous.

Officer Tim said he'd been on animal calls before, but none of this nature. I pulled out the laminated codes list to see if, "goose down" (get it?!) was anywhere on the list. Sure enough, it was not.

In the worst of circumstances, he said, he could shoot the goose, just to put it out of its misery, but that seemed a little over the top and he knew he would suffer the ridicule of his officer colleagues who would likely accuse him of showing off for his "ride along," who just happened to be a young female.

By then, the veterinarian had arrived on the scene to talk to his wife and to assess the goose. Officer Tim and I watched as they talked. There were some raised hands and shaking of heads, indicating the conversation was not going well. Officer Tim got out of the police car and went to talk to the husband. Vet husband admitted to his wife, and to us, that he didn't know what the goose's injuries were, or if he had the proper tools to save it. And if he did save the goose, he told Officer Tim, what then? He and his wife's house was not equipped to raise a pet goose.

After a lot of conversation, a lot of staring at the still breathing, but clearly suffering goose, Officer Tim took veterinarian husband aside to have a private conversation. I could tell that a decision had been made about what to do with the goose. The vet husband had a brief conversation with his wife and then he hugged her. Then I saw the wife, who still visibly shaken, get into her car and drive away.

There was so much drama, so much emotion, and back and forth, as if we had just made the decision to pull the plug on our sick grandmother. If it weren't for the fact that a goose had been injured, I would've laughed at the hilarity of it all.

Officer Tim radioed in to dispatch to let them know what was about to happen, so if they received calls about gunshots, that it was likely him, dealing with this unfortunate set of circumstances. He got out of the car and pulled his gun out of its holster.

And then he shot the goose, killing it instantly.

Of all the things I thought I might encounter on a police ride along in the streets of Dunwoody, watching a police officer shoot a goose is the last thing I expected.

The vet, also upset about what happened, shook Officer Tim's hand, thanked him for doing the dirty work, and then got into his car to go home and tend to his sad wife. We climbed back into the police car and drove away too, leaving the dead goose on the side of the road.

Almost immediately, as if on cue, the responses from his fellow officers on duty starting pouring in, on his laptop, on the radio, and on the phone.

"Heeeeeyyyyyy, tough guy!"

"Wow, you really showed that goose!"

"I'll bet you really impressed your ride along, pal. Nice job."

We laughed all the way to Starbucks, where we treated ourselves to coffee and a scone.

After the goose, the rest of the stops and calls were rather tame. Several speeding stops, a homeless man making neighbors feel uneasy, teenagers playing their music too loudly after dark.

We drove past a man who was sitting in his car outside of a hotel, with his laptop opened. We assumed he was doing something sinister and downright creepy, but when Officer Tim questioned him, he said he'd had a fight with his wife and needed to get out of their apartment. So he brought his laptop to the hotel to get free wireless internet so he could catch up on his fantasy baseball team. It was so pathetic and sad, we had no choice but to believe him.

We pulled over one man whose tags had expired. Having been pulled over for the same thing after first moving here, I thought this would be fairly straight forward ticket for Officer Tim to write. Only when the driver explained that he was on his way to a construction job, his first in months after having been out of work, and therefore unable to fix his car so that it would pass an emissions test (required to get plates here), Officer Tim wasn't so sure.

The ticket would've made him late to work, which could've possibly jeopardized his employment and any hopes of ever having money to fix the car and get the tags updated. Writing him a ticket for what was a clear violation just didn't seem so clear anymore. There are times, Officer Tim explained, when the law, and what side is wrong and what side is right, is very much black and white. And there are others, in this case, when it's more gray.

I certainly didn't expect to have any sort of epiphany while handing out traffic tickets with a police officer in Dunwoody, but when I could see that Officer Tim was struggling with what to do about this driver, I thought about my own struggle to accept the "gray" in my life.

Growing up, I always thought people, and experiences, were one way or the other. Good or bad. Right or Wrong. Positive or negative. Worthwhile or a waste of time.

Only with age and experience have I been able to understand and accept that things are not always what they seem. Thank God I am not a creature who exists within the lines or boundaries of what makes sense; I'm far more layered and complicated. I'm crass, self-deprecating and a ball-buster, but I'm also insanely sensitive and emotional. I'm fiercely independent, but want to be with a man who will open doors for me. I'm bubbly and silly, but am easy depressed and have slipped into ruts so deep I thought I'd never get out. If I can wear stilettos and go to Phish concerts, I can only assume that everyone else's personalities are also a little bit country and a little bit rock and roll like mine.

After all, sometimes my friends who can be the most difficult can also be the most loyal, and some of the more irresponsible things I've done have always made for the best life lessons and the best stories. The gray is where life really gets interesting.

I'm a good person, I'd like to think, but I've made some bad decisions and I've said and done things I regret. I'll probably never be the smartest or richest person in the room, but I know what I don't know, and I know I already have more than I'll ever need. I'm not as good or as bad as my best and worst critics think I am. I'm somewhere in the middle, somewhere in the gray.

The challenge for me then, and for Officer Tim, is knowing when to stand my ground and when to let things go. When to write someone a ticket or cut them some slack.

And most importantly, when to shoot the goose, and when to call your veterinarian husband to see if he can save it.

The gray. It's tricky.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Day 358: Pop Rocks Rumor Control

I don't remember how old I was when I first started hearing rumors about, "Paul, Kevin's friend from the Wonder Years," but once I heard the first, all of the rest quickly followed.

When the show was still on the air, I heard that he and Winnie Cooper were a couple off screen, and it was actually Kevin (played by Fred Savage) who was really a nerd.

Years after the show went into syndication, someone told me, with such conviction I couldn't help but at least consider it, that Paul had grown up to become Marilyn Manson.

I'm not sure who comes up with these rumors, or why Paul from the Wonder Years was always the main character in them (what did he ever do to anyone?), but by far the most tragic of all was that he was dead, and the seemingly innocent activity that killed him?

Eating Pop Rocks and drinking Coca-Cola at the same time.

I hadn't thought of the Paul rumor and this apparently lethal concoction until my friend Anne suggested that I test the urban legend for myself for the blog. In her email she included the sinister, "dun dun dun . . .")

She was kidding, of course, and all research (i.e. Internet searches) led me to believe that no one had ever died by drinking Coca Cola and eating Pop Rocks. If Paul from the Wonder Years had ever even tried it (and there was absolutely no evidence that he did), his questionable choice didn't kill him. He was alive and well.

But rumors usually have some basis in fact, don't they? What if someone did die trying this? Was I playing with fire? There were just seven days to go until my birthday; should I risk it?

Of course I should! If I'm going down, I'm going down in a blaze of candy and soda! Day 358's thing I've never done before was to mix Pop Rocks and Coca-Cola and hopefully live to tell the tale.

Before work, I drove to Richards Variety Store to buy the Pop Rocks, something that I'd looked for at the grocery store and other discount stores, but couldn't find. Richards is a completely random store full of anything from hilarious greeting cards to hand crank egg beaters to Pez dispensers. I could spend many hours and several hundred dollars there.

Emily happily joined me for this challenge when I told her what I was up to, and I asked Justin to film it.

The video is long, and includes Emily and I willing our personal possessions to members of our families in case the urban legend was true, and this candy soda experiment did make us explode.

I willed everything to my brother, Jeff, and sister-in-law, Katie. Everything except for my car, which I said Justin could have, in light of Day 353.

Emily willed her stuff to her parents, since, "they are responsible for me having most of it anyway," and because her Mom, Joan, is an active Project 29 to 30 blog reader.

I felt badly for having left out my parents completely, so I went on to explain why I left it all to Jeff and Katie. I was actually thinking about my dad complaining, when he can't find anything in his closet or in the attic, "There's too much crap in this house! When I die, it's going to take you kids years to sort through all of it!" (As I've said before, my father talks about his death as if it is happening any minute.) But, understanding his detest of all the clutter that he blames all on my mother, I figured forcing my brother and Katie to acquire all of my things would at least make my dad happy.

So after we willed our personal belongings away, Emily and I opened up our Pop Rocks' packages, tilted our heads back, and dumped the contents into our mouth.

Pop Rocks is a carbonated candy, and the gimmick is that the "rocks" will fizz once eaten. I know that I ate Pop Rocks when I was a little kid, but I didn't remember them tasting so terrible. They're extremely sugary and I felt like my teeth could rot right then and there.

I took a sip of coke, which was difficult because there was so much going on with the Pop Rocks. Even after I swallowed, the fizzing continued down my esophagus. It was all very weird. I could have expected some negative life-threatening reaction and there wasn't one. I survived!

Emily said she thinks the bubbles of the soda negate the bubbles of the Pop Rocks, but I couldn't disagree more. I couldn't even taste anything, all I could taste were bubbles and sugar.

But we lived. Like it or not, I thought, I would make it to 30.

I had to laugh at this ridiculous rumor and how it got started in the first place. I imagine someone retells a story so many times that words and tenses get omitted or mixed up. After having tried this combo myself, I have to believe that if Paul from the Wonder Years tried it, be probably said afterward that he wanted to die.

Which makes perfect sense, because it's weird. And disgusting.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Day 357: V-I-C-T-O-R-Y

When it comes to celebrating milestones, wins, or any good news, I'm extremely superstitious, and I never count my chickens before they've hatched. Maybe I'm a pessimist, or maybe I've just been pulling for sports teams all of my life who always managed to blow sizable leads with hardly any time left on the clock. Regardless of how obvious and attainable a victory may be, I know how quickly things can change and not until the clock reads 00:00, do I ever raise my hands in triumph.

Declaring victory on Project 29 to 30, then, could only come if and when I turned 30 and had successfully done 365 things I'd never done before.

Maybe victory shouldn't have been declared until I actually wrote about them (who knew it would take me this long?), but with just a week to go, and a new thing already planned for each of the seven days headed into my birthday weekend, I knew success was mine. And on Day 357, I let all of Athens, Georgia know when I rang the Chapel Bell on North Campus and declared “victory” over my 29th year as the thing I've never done before.

Not that it matters, but I didn't set out to ring the victory bell on Day 357. Georgia lost to Arkansas the day before, and to South Carolina the week before that, so as a Bulldog, I didn't have much to celebrate.

In fact, I drove over to Athens to see Rebecca, my friend, former college roommate, and recipient of the diaper cake I made on Day 209 with no other plans than to meet her new baby daughter, Edie. No surprise, Edie was adorable and perfect, and had the cutest fat rolls I'd ever seen.

Because Athens is like a playground for young adults, I knew the possibilities for new things were endless and I'd have no problem finding something to check off the list. Yet, after Edie went down for a nap, Rebecca and I didn't set our sights on something new; instead, we set out on an all-too-familiar journey.

When Rebecca and I lived together and found ourselves bogged down with schoolwork and all of the drama associated with being 20-years old in college with literally no responsibility, we walked. We walked for hours through campus, talking about everything and nothing, solving each other's problems, and the problems of the world, that at the time, seemed monumental. We talked about the real world post-college like it was so far away, and we talked about the men that we would marry like we weren't sure that they even existed.

When Rebecca got married, she woke on her wedding day full of nervous energy and excitement. So we did what felt natural to us, and we walked. We walked and we laughed about the angst we shared years ago over thinking this day would never come, and mostly laughed that she was marrying Brian -- THE Brian we'd known since college, followed around at band parties and stalked on spring break. He was that obscure guy she thought she'd never find! We walked with a spring in our steps, and as we did, we cried tears of happiness.

And on that September Sunday, with 356 new experiences under my belt and one week before my 30th birthday, we walked again. We walked in front of fraternity houses where we once partied, and next to buildings we'd taken most of our classes in, and through some that didn't even exist when we were in school. We wondered, as we walked, if we could still pass for college girls and we laughed as a cute, shaggy haired fraternity guy walked by and we both checked him out. I tried to think if there was anything better than walking through Athens on a Sunday in the fall.

Somehow, in reminiscing about our pasts and daydreaming about our hypothetical futures, we found ourselves completely present in a beautiful moment, on a beautiful day, in one of my most favorite cities on earth.

A victory indeed.

Suddenly, what I needed to do that day as the thing I've never done before became quite clear.

We apprehensively approached the Chapel Bell, and pretending to be civilized, read about its history. Rebecca took my camera and took over, equal parts photo director and blog supporter/friend.

I stood next to the rope and looked up at the bell, having no idea how difficult ringing the bell would be. I gave it a little pull, just to check it out, and much to our surprise, it rang. Not as loudly as we knew it could, but enough to startle us both.

Once I knew what I was dealing with, I had nothing else to do but go for it. Completely sober, in the light of day, with no football victories to speak of, I rang the Chapel Bell at UGA.

The sound echoed throughout campus, and in a strange way, embarrassed me. Even though I know I'm not the first person to ring the bell in the middle of the day for no reason, I was happy, at first, that it was just Rebecca and me. But once the bell started to slow down, I stopped caring, and I rang it again, this time getting lifted up by the rope and taking it for a ride.

I felt joyful. And silly. And amazing.

In so many ways, ringing the bell before my birthday was much like spiking the football before getting to the end zone and therefore completely out of character for me. But then again, so was the whole year.

Then I hoped that someone might walk by and ask me who won, because I had the best answer.

It was me.

I won.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Day 356: Black and Tans and Other Stuff

My friend (and new neighbor) Andrew called me the morning of Day 356 to see if I wanted to walk to nearby East Atlanta Village to see our friend Jarrett's band perform at a festival. I had a list of things to accomplish that day, but I knew nothing was going to happen without first getting a cup of coffee, so I agreed.

Jarrett's band, Animal & the Evolvers, put on a riveting performance to a small but spirited group. Their song, "Love is in the Air at the Indy Zoo," was epic, and since I'd never heard them before, technically that is the first thing I did on Day 356 that I'd never done before.

I really had no intentions of spending all afternoon in East Atlanta. Seriously, I didn't. But Day 356 was one of those days where I just decided to go with the flow. I had nowhere to be, so why not stay and have a beer in the middle of the beautiful day?

So I did, and we all headed to the EARL, where I drank my first Black and Tan, the second thing on Day 356 that I'd never done before. A Black and Tan is a mix of two beers, usually a pale ale like Bass and a stout or a porter like Guinness.

I'd already tried a Guinness, and about a dozen other drinks, for the blog, so adding another wasn't too far out of my comfort level. When the waitress brought me the pint, I was surprised to see that the Guinness floats to the top of a Black and Tan, and the Bass sinks. Based on the heaviness of a Guinness, I guess I thought the opposite would occur.

I took a sip and further proved that there aren't many beers, or mixture of beers, out there that I don't like. I can't really explain what it tastes like, because I'm terrible at that; it tastes like beer. Heavier than a pale ale, not as heavy as a stout. I had to assume, based on this experience and after having tried a black velvet, that I most enjoy a Guinness when it's mixed with something else.

After a few beers, we decided to walk down the street to grab some food at Midway Pub. On the way, we saw a mechanical bull ride. And naturally, everyone that I was with, after hearing about the blog, suggested that I ride it.

I'm unsure whether or not this is the third thing I did on Day 356 that I'd never done before. I went to Wild Bill's years ago for a bachelorette party and hilariously witnessed my friends taking turns riding the mechanical bull. I'd like to think that I would've joined in the fun, but I can't remember if I did. Isn't riding a mechanical bull something I should remember for life?

So, maybe that's where the new thing will emerge here. Andrew insisted that I climb aboard, if not for the blog, then for his own amusement. And I took a mechanical bull ride that I will never forget.

It's certainly no secret that I like attention; it's why I tell stories, it's why I started this blog. But I like attention that I can manage, and when I found myself mounted on this ride in front of strangers, I quickly realized that I was no longer in control. Plus, perhaps I've seen too many bad movies, but I associate riding a mechanical bull with women arching their backs in an overtly sexual manner and I felt extremely uncomfortable from the start.

The ride operator talked like a high school dance D.J. and gave his own play by play.

"Do you wanna go fasterrrrrrrrr?"

"We're gonna speed it up now! Ahhhhh yeah."

The bull spun around slowly at first and bucked only lightly. But so it goes with mechanical bulls, the longer I stayed on, the more difficult and the faster it went. I was nervous, embarrassed and physically exhausted after only a few minutes.

I didn't last very long on the bull. The moment I thought I was going to have to arch my back to stay on was the very moment that I gave in. When I got knocked off the bull, and landed on the trampoline below, I noticed a group of kids hanging over the side of the "bull ring" laughing hysterically. I didn't mind; my friends and I were all laughing too.

As I tried to garner the momentum to stand up and get out of the ring, one of the kids that was laughing leaned over the edge and aggressively yelled at me, "GOD YOU SUCK!"

I immediately stopped laughing and looked around to see what caused this insane preteen to flip his asshole switch and be so hateful. In the span of five minutes, I went from feeling much younger than 30-years old, wasting away my Saturday and riding a mechanical bull to feeling much older, wanting to grab this little punk by the ears and hand deliver him to his parents.

It was a strange ending to an unexpected and awesome day of saying, "yes," to whatever adventure came my way. A day when young Stephanie gave old Stephanie the middle finger and said, "Whatever chores you had to take care of can wait, now is the time to have fun."

And I did.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Day 355: Alternative Medicine

Acupuncture was something that I'd wanted to try since I started Project 29 to 30. Do I feel like I've been saying that a lot lately. I definitely put a lot of things off until the very end.

Tippr (another daily deal email like Groupon that I'd signed up for) was offering a session at Longevity Health Care at half the price. So I bought it, and headed there on Day 355 to make acupuncture the thing I'd never done before.

When I think about acupuncture (which isn't that often), I always think about Charlotte from Sex and the City getting the treatments in hopes it would increase her chances of getting pregnant. The ancient Chinese practice of inserting tiny sterilized needles at certain points on the body to help the body mend itself is used by people all over the world to help manage pain, quit smoking, lose weight.

I consulted a lot of websites before Day 355 so I would know what to expect. Each website had varying historical perspectives on acupuncture and its benefits; there were also plenty of websites doubting the practice altogether. Regardless of what side of the acupuncture argument these sites fell on, all agreed that even doctors couldn't explain how it works or prove that it does.

One of these websites said that the Eastern medicine believes that the body is made up of energy and that acupuncture points on the body serve as conduits of that energy. I don't know about that last part, but evident in my behavior on Day 355, I absolutely agree with Eastern medicine.

I was a hot mess of energy that day. Really I'm a hot mess of energy most days, but I specifically remember this day especially.

I arrived at the appointment the way I do for most things: like a tornado. I squealed into the parking lot on two wheels, completely panicked, crazy. I left my house early because I had no idea where I was going, and despite a pretty good sense of direction, I still got lost. I realized on the way that I printed out the Tippr certificate, but left it in another purse. Complete disaster.

In all my research about acupuncture, I never read that it could be used to heal "insanity" or "forgetfulness" but I immediately hoped that it might.

I busted through the office doors and told the front desk who I was. Everyone was very friendly and I was able to calm down and fill out the paperwork they provided. Not long after I arrived, a nice woman came from one of the back rooms and introduced herself; then she led me through a winding hallway of a structure that reminded me of a house turned business turned hippie doctor's office. I can't remember if there were tapestries on the walls, but I wouldn't have been surprised if there were.

We walked into a room that resembled a spa only in the fact that it had a massage table in the center of it. Unlike the peaceful, candlelit, Eucalyptus smelling spas I'd been in in the past, this one was like an office that just so happened to have a bed in the center of it. As if trying to exude a sense of medical authority, the acupuncturist sat at a desk that was covered with paperwork; I sat in the chair and we discussed why I was there. I was friendly, telling her how I'd always wanted to try acupuncture. She seemed excited until I told her that only when the Tippr deal presented itself did I decide to go for it.

Her face fell, as if she had high hopes that I would be a serious new client, and after telling her I bought this session with a coupon, those hopes were now dashed. I wanted to tell her that I don't have that much disposable income just lying around to explore alternative medicines with, and also if I did make acupuncture a regular thing, I'd probably choose a place closer to my house. She seemed sad, though, so I kept all of that to myself.

She asked me if I was experiencing any pain that I wanted her to focus on. I really wasn't, not serious pain anyway, just mild back tension from running and sitting in front of a computer all day. She nodded and exited the room long enough for me to lie down, on my back, on the massage table.

Not until the acupuncturist came back into the room did it occur to me that I was about to get pricked with needles all over my body. I'm not terribly needle-phobic, and I knew it wouldn't be worse than giving blood, which I've done before, but I was slightly anxious that I wasn't sure if it would hurt or not.

My fears quickly subsided when she began inserting the needles into my hands and feet, ears and face, and it didn't hurt. Just a slight prick that strangely did, albeit for a short time, energize me in a strange way. Kind of like that rush that you get when you quickly rip a band-aid off your skin.

Once she had strategically placed all of the needles, she exited the room, turning on some soothing music as she went. So there I was, on a comfortable massage table with nothing to do but clear my head and chill out. No more traffic, no more getting lost or forgetting coupons. Just peace.

Only when I would move my hand slightly did I become aware that I had needles sticking out of it. Not in a painful way, but still strange.

When people later asked me if acupuncture hurt, I said, with certainty, "No."

When they asked me if acupuncture was relaxing, I said, "Yes," knowing full well that the soothing music and massage table and mid-morning nap had every bit to do with that.

When they asked me if I could tell a difference in my back, my answer was less certain. I felt great that day. But I'm not entirely convinced it was because of the acupuncture. I'm not entirely convinced that it wasn't because of the acupuncture either.

When she came back in thirty minutes later to remove the needles, she told me to flip over on the table; I just assumed that she'd be hitting more acupuncture pressure points on my back. Will I ever learn? Never assume anything when trying new things.

Once I was comfortable lying on my stomach, she said she was going to do some Chinese cupping on my back.

"Ok," I said enthusiastically, but having absolutely no idea what she was talking about. She was sweet and I liked her, so I had no reason to doubt what she was doing wasn't safe and pain-free.

I lifted my head up to get a view of the "cups" that she heated up and adhered to my back like little suctions. They looked like glass doorknobs.

Just like acupuncture, cupping is all about "opening up the meridians to let energy flow through," (what?) and also claims to pull toxins out of the body. Really, though, it just felt like there were little vacuums on my back.

She left the room again and let the cups do their job; I was left to relax with more music (and cups). But this time I was less relaxed because as the cups started to lose suction, I was worried that they were going to crash to the ground and break. One actually did fall, but thankfully it just rolled across the carpeted floor. Thankfully the acupuncturist/cupper returned to remove the cups before anymore fell.

The next day (which I'll get to on Day 356), I was hanging out with my friend Andrew. I told him about Day 355 and gave a detailed description of what an acupuncture session really feels like, and how Chinese cupping works.

"Oh, that's what that is," Andrew exclaimed, as I was telling him.

"What are you talking about," I said, feeling and looking confused.

"The bruises on your back."

"Bruises? What bruises?"

I demanded that he take a picture so I could see what he was talking about, and I couldn't believe it. I don't know why it never occurred to me that huge enormous heated glass suction cups would probably leave a mark, but when I looked at the picture, it looked like I had enormous hickies all over my back. I'd never had a hickie before, much less more than one, or one this size. The thought delighted me and I'd never felt better. I'm not really sure if acupuncture or cupping did for me on the inside, but I'd say my energy was lifted and I was feeling quite positive.

Thank you, Chinese medicine.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Day 354: Nice Try, Einstein

I had big plans to go to a pole dancing/strip tease class on Day 354. It was something I'd put on the list from the start of Project 29 to 30. Unfortunately, despite my friends all having loose morals (kidding . . . kind of), I had a hard time getting anyone to come on board with this one. Perhaps they were embarrassed, perhaps they were busy (it was Thursday), or perhaps this was God's way of saying, "You shouldn't be stripping for anyone, even if it's for exercise."

Melanie said she was up for hanging out, but that she would rather do so at a restaurant she had a Groupon for. So I made going to Einstein's on Juniper Street Day 354's thing I've never done before.

I know, not necessarily groundbreaking entry here, but after Day 353, I deserved a break. And while parking the car across from the restaurant, I was introduced to a whole subculture of Atlanta I never knew about -- that being, the tight-dress, high heel wearing crowd who stands out in line to get into dance clubs on a Thursday. I'm not one of these people, ever, so it was hard for me to imagine that such a crew came out to get down on a weekday.

The meal at Einstein's was good, but, as Yaya would say, it was, "nothing to write home about." The patio was nice and it was fun catching up with Melanie. Knowing I'd have difficulty cranking out an entry about a new restaurant, she and I tried to up the ante a bit and send a drink and my phone number to a good-looking guy at another table. And then we realized that he was definitely dating the terrible girl that was sitting beside him.


Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Day 353: Driving School Dropout

My driving skills are, at best, questionable.

I don't think I'm that bad, and when it comes to road trips with my girlfriends, I'm usually one of the drivers (though that may have something to do with the size of my vehicle and not my skills). But my parents' insurance agent Jerry (who has a nice house on the lake because of me), my former boss Lucia (who couldn't hire me at Country Music Television at first because I had so many tickets), and a plethora of small town police officers in Georgia and South Carolina would definitely tell you otherwise. I like to get wherever I'm going in a hurry, and as a teenager was quite distracted behind the wheel. I've definitely improved over the years (accident free since 2003!), but my less than stellar driving record has been the source of many uncomfortable conversations with my parents over the years.

I'm learning that in life, when it comes to learning new things, mastering the easier version of an activity before moving on to the more challenging one is usually the best way to go. For the 15 years that I've been driving, I've managed to prove that I'm definitely not an expert on automatic transmission. Moving onto a manual transmission might not be the best plan.

But who said I did anything according to natural order? On Day 353, I attempted to knock one of the top 3 items off my Project 29 to 30 list and learn how to drive a stick shift. Because why wouldn't I put everyone's lives and vehicles in danger as the thing I've never done before?

My very good friend Justin offered himself and his Jetta for this challenge, a move I'm sure he's still regretting all these months later. I hate to blow the surprise, but this innocent little driving lesson did not go well.

Perhaps I should've put Justin in touch with my ex-boyfriend Mark, who also tried to teach me how to drive a stick shift once. The lesson (which hardly lasted an hour), ended with both of us screaming at each other and almost breaking up. I was frustrated for many reasons, mostly because I could not get it, but also because Mark taught via the Art Teacher Molly method and instead of explaining to me what to do, he simply gave me a lot of, "justs."

"Just ease off the clutch while applying the gas."

"Just put it in neutral."

"Just apply pressure to the clutch, while shifting into second. You'll know when to shift because you'll just feel it."

To me, it all sounded like, "Just do these things that you've never done before in your life but are terribly easy for me." Uh, what? Thanks for nothing.

In Mark's defense, he wasn't a bad teacher, I was just frustrated that I couldn't do any of the easy things that he was telling me to do. Plus teaching someone how to drive period is challenging, especially if you've been doing it yourself for a long time. Trying to break down something that feels like second nature, is not easy.

I have to hand it to Justin (and to Mark) for even wanting to try. Had I known it was going to turn out the way it did, I wouldn't have even asked. But I honestly thought a little more maturity, several more years driving experience, and a heightened level of patience and I'd be ready.

Justin and I met after work in an open parking lot next to our building for the lesson. Learning in the dark wasn't an ideal scenario, but it was all we had. Luckily the lot was partially lit and wide open, a perfect place to learn how to drive.

Justin threw out some preliminary instructions, gave me a pep talk and then we traded seats. There was nothing left to do but drive.

Since I understood the basics of what to do, and had attempted them before, I wasn't completely clueless. In my head, the instructions made perfect sense. The trouble with me, in driving a manual transmission, is the mind-body connection. Making my feet and hands do what my mind is telling them to is most difficult.

The first few trips up and back in the parking lot were rough, no question about it. Justin gave step-by-step instructions on what I was supposed to be doing, but I was nervous, and unsure of myself. I stalled a few times and jerked the car around. We had some good laughs.

As a teacher, Justin was pretty good; very laid back and very detailed with his suggestions. But there is only so much that he can tell me before I'd just have to feel it on my own. And that, he said, just takes time, something we didn't really have on our side. But the more times I did it, I started to notice, without him telling me, when it was time to switch gears; and soon I started doing it on my own.

Back and forth we went in the parking lot, switching gears and getting faster. I was actually driving a stick shift. I wasn't confident at all, but I was doing it.

There was some frustration, on both of our parts, that though the parking lot was big, it wasn't quite big enough to ever get going very fast. And I really wanted to get to fourth gear.

And apparently the only way to get there, was to take it outside the confines of this parking lot. I call it, "Justin's Bad Idea."

Famous last words: "I don't know if I do . . .I'm scared."

I was really scared. It was dark and late. I was doing alright in the parking lot, but out on the street, I had other drivers and other people to contend with, and that just sounded like a recipe for disaster. But how could I claim to have learned how to drive a stick shift if all I did was take some laps around a parking lot?

Obviously I silenced all parts of my brain that said taking it to the streets would be a bad idea. Not until I got out onto the road did I realize how much I didn't know.

Like, where I was going to take us . . .or how to come to a pleasant stop at a stoplight and successfully make a left turn . . .or how to turn off the windshield wipers.

That left turn was disastrous in many ways, most of all because it led us directly into one of the scariest neighborhoods in Atlanta that I have ever seen. I knew as we started to approach the area that I should probably turn around, but how could I? I was just learning how to drive this car forward, there was no way I was attempting a U-Turn. Instead, I drove us to a red light right in between two rundown convenient stores where dozens of people had gathered, on a Wednesday night, to smoke cigarettes, drink liquor wrapped in brown paper bags, and deal what I can only imagine was crack cocaine. If I wanted to make a movie that had a scene with a scary ghetto neighborhood, this is exactly what it would look like. Justin and I were nervously chattering to each other under our breath, both willing the light to change to green, but feeling like we were sitting there for an eternity. Just when I thought I couldn't be any more anxious than I already was, a handful of people who had been standing on the sidewalk, had walked into the street and to our car to ask us if we had any money or cigarettes.

Justin cracked the window and told them that we didn't, and they fortunately accepted our answer and walked away, not before staring us both up and down in a sinister way. I kept looking straight ahead, still praying for the light to change and then added another prayer that I wouldn't stall in the middle of the intersection, prolonging this terrifying moment of my life.

We made it through the ghetto without stalling and immediately decided we needed to get back to the side of town that we knew and were more comfortable with. And somehow in the midst of my nervous energy, I was actually driving a stick shift through Atlanta. I guess it's true what they say about adrenaline -- it can make a person do crazy things.

It wasn't pretty, and I was never confident in my abilities, but I was doing it. And a handful of times, after a million questions and instructions from Justin, I actually pulled off some pretty smooth transitions.

Just when I thought it would never happen, I found fourth gear.

With all of the stalling and mishaps during our lesson, I was well aware what the car would do when I did something wrong. But as we made our way back to the parking lot we started in, the Jetta, presumably fed up with the torture I'd put it through, started to make a clicking noise. The thermostat in the car was spiking into the red, indicating that the car was overheating.

I whined to Justin, "I don't know what's happening here;" I wasn't quite sure if what the car was doing was normal, and I was just driving it incorrectly, or if something was wrong. Without driving it, Justin couldn't really tell either. Right at that time, I noticed a police car with his flashing was approaching. I had to assume he was coming for me, and was obviously relieved when he kept going. The whole experience was too much, though, and I immediately pulled over and made Justin take us the rest of the way in.

We picked up my car and I followed Justin home to make sure the Jetta didn't completely die. Like I had done with the stoplight in the ghetto, I prayed that the car was just acting temperamental due to the stress that I'd put it under in the last couple of hours. Give it a night of rest, I thought, and the car will be fine.

The car was not fine the next day. The clicking noise was still there and it was still running hot. Justin dropped it off at a mechanic near our office and we waited patiently for the news.

Actually Justin waited patiently. I was a bundle of nervous energy, unable to eat or think about anything but the wrecked Jetta and the amount of damage I caused during our lesson. I emailed Justin every hour to find out if he'd heard anything. When he checked in on the mechanic and got an idea of what the damage might be, I immediately started Googling it to see how much it would cost and how long it would take to fix.

When the estimate finally came in, the final damage was $1200 for a broken water pump and timing belt. Justin generously only asked me for half of the amount, since he said he was in on the adventure just as much as I was. I don't think he fully comprehended how terrible I could be. I know I didn't.

Destroying a friend's car while he was doing me a favor was bar none the worst part of this experience. Justin was without wheels for roughly a week, and no amount of rides or money I offered him would ever make me feel at ease about it. Even months later, I still feel sick about the whole thing.

Having my dreams of ever learning how to drive a stick shift (I mean, who is going to want to teach me now?) dashed and therefore ruining my chances of ever winning the Amazing Race was just the shitty icing on the already shitty cake.

Justin owed me no more favors, but after the car was fixed, and I had paid him for the repairs, I came to him in a fit of desperation and asked him for one.

"Will you please not bring this in front of my dad?"

He laughed. "Sure," he said. "I won't mention it."

And just like that, it was like I was 16 again. Driving, and acting, like an idiot.