The Shawshank Redemption

Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.

– Andy Dufresne, The Shawshank Redemption


30 Before 30: Spend a Day in a Blanket Fort

#21 from my 30 Before 30 list: Spend a whole day in a giant blanket fort


In anticipation of a mid-week July 4th holiday, my roommate and I excitedly built a blanket fort in front of our TV and stocked it with pop-tarts, popcorn, juice, and NERF guns before hunkering down for a marathon of Castle episodes. I may not have spent a consecutive 24 hours in the fort, but it did consume our living room for almost an entire week. We didn’t really want to take it down, but I had people coming over to the apartment, and they probably would have preferred sitting on the couch. Since all of my blankets were used to construct the fort, I got my sleeping bag out of the closet and slept in the fort for two nights. I would have liked to wear my footie pajamas while in the fort, but it was much too hot for that. I’ll break out the footie pajamas when the blanket fort inevitably returns in the winter!

Since my roommate and I are taller than the children you would normally find inside a blanket fort, we needed a taller structure. We stood the couch cushions on their sides for more height, and we propped the center up with a TV dinner table stand on top of our ottoman. We secured the blankets with chip clips and used large pillows and extra blankets to make the floor more comfortable. Most importantly, stock the fort with plenty of snacks! Trips to the kitchen? Ain’t nobody got time for that!

30 Before 30: Plan a 10-Year Reunion

team 3 header

#27 from my 30 Before 30 list: Plan and execute a successful 10-year reunion for Team 3.


Team 3 presented Joy with roses in honor of her concert that evening.

In 2003, I went on a mission trip to Ecuador with Brio, a magazine for Christian teenage girls. I was assigned to Team 3, a group of 29 teenagers (27 girls and two boys), one college-age male “Leader in Training,” and four adult women who were like our surrogate moms. We were a diverse group of people who came from all over the world to serve together. Some traveled from Missouri or California; others called Canada or Egypt home. Most of us were in high school, though some were headed off to college in the fall. Some of our leaders were mothers whose children were also on the trip (and on our team!). One of our leaders was Joy Williams, who was known at that time as a popular Contemporary Christian recording artist. These days, she is better known as half of the Grammy-winning duo The Civil Wars.

As missionaries to Ecuador, we took to the streets and performed “Spellbound,” a silent drama about a Toymaker and His Son. The drama allowed us to conquer the language barrier and tell the story of salvation through Jesus. When we weren’t performing the drama or talking to the people who stopped to watch us, we were working at schools and churches, doing some much needed painting or light construction.

With Team 3 members Amy and Kristin in 2011

We were a very close-knit team that remained connected after we went our separate ways. Some members went on similar trips in the years that followed, but they assured us that Team 3 was still the best team they’ve ever had. Technology like email and Facebook allowed us to share updates and prayer requests, and sometimes a few people were able to reunite in person. I had the opportunity to reunite with a few members in 2011, and we realized that we were approaching 10 years since that trip. Considering how much we enjoyed seeing each other again, we decided that an official 10-year reunion had to happen.

I took on the planning of such an event, starting with locating the rest of Team 3. While most members were my friends on Facebook, others were less easy to find. Thanks to my trusty cyber-investigation skills, I was eventually able to get into contact with everyone except for one person. I didn’t talk to her much while we were in Ecuador, so I didn’t have much information to help me figure out where she might be today.

Over the next year, I conducted surveys to find out when people were free for a reunion and where would be the best place to meet. We narrowed it down to July 2013 in St. Louis, Missouri. After some research, I located a hotel in St. Louis and signed a contract to book a block of rooms for our group. I also reserved one of their banquet rooms with plans to host an official reunion dinner complete with photo slideshow and video greetings from those who were unable to attend. I had big plans.

Alas, life happened.

As we got closer to Summer 2013, it became clear that only a handful of people would be able to attend the event. We canceled the contract and began making other plans with those who were still available. We tossed around a few ideas like a weekend in Washington D.C. or Philly, but we had no definite plans.

On July 3, I booked a train ticket for New York City, and on July 5, I reunited with Team 3 member Katie in New York’s Penn Station. We had been living on separate coasts (sometimes on separate continents), and this was the first time in 10 years that we were together in person. We were eager to begin our weekend together.

Katie and I successfully navigating NYC’s subway system!

Saturday was a busy day. I woke up earlier than I expected to and used those few extra hours to map out our destinations and try to figure out New York’s public transit system. We walked down the street to a little cafe, where we had bagels and iced coffee. We made sure to ask for a cup of ice water to go, since it was already uncomfortably hot at 10 AM. We hopped onto the subway and were excited that we had gotten onto the correct train. The day was off to a great start.

Our subway was bound for Fort Greene in Brooklyn, where over 100 vendors were set up for Brooklyn Flea. According to Brooklyn Flea’s official website, this event is “part vintage bazaar, part hipster hang, part old-fashioned town square, and part food bonanza.” There was a lot to see, from original artwork, housewares, and clothing to antique maps, vintage furniture, and food vendors. I ended up buying a dress from Martine’s Dream, a collection of original designs from a Brooklyn-based designer.

The heat and our hunger were becoming intolerable, so Katie and I were back on the subway. We first stopped to see Allie, Katie’s friend and our gracious host for the weekend, at Starbucks before continuing on to Chinatown. When I was in college, the art department took an annual field trip to New York, and we usually concluded the trip with dinner in Chinatown. One year, my friends and I stumbled upon Thai Son, a Vietnamese restaurant hidden on a side street, and we decided to go there again the following year. When Katie and I got off the subway in Chinatown, I led the way to that same restaurant, and we sat down for pho and lots of ice water. Why I thought hot soup on such a hot day was a good idea, I don’t know.

After lunch, we walked around Chinatown, and Katie bought cherries from a street vendor, who was very adept at eyeballing two pounds of the delicious fruit. We continued toward the subway to take us uptown, munching on the delicious cherries along the way. When we arrived at 7th Avenue, we headed for the Museum of Modern Art. We wanted to see their special exhibit, the Rain Room, which uses motion detection to let you walk through a room full of rain without getting wet. Unfortunately, the exhibit was full and we weren’t about to pay full price for an hour in the museum. Instead of the Rain Room, we sat next to a fountain outside of the museum and ate more cherries.

We continued uptown to the west end of Central Park and took our time walking the paths past playgrounds, Sheep Meadow, and a beautiful bride getting photos taken with her bridal party. We walked around the lake and sat by the fountain with a view of the Central Park Boathouse. While we sat there, a guy blasted “Benny and the Jets.” Basically, we were in 27 Dresses. While we sat by the fountain, we took the time to reminisce about our trip, which was exactly 10 years ago. (Earlier that morning, I had remembered spending July 4th in Ecuador. It was our first full day in the country and our first day doing ministry. The official photographer had come with us, and he treated us to Baskin Robbins before we went home. I had also discovered that morning a website I had apparently built to share my memories and photos from the trip – pre-Facebook – with other members of Team 3.)

Allie met us at the boathouse, and all three of us headed toward Shake Shack for dinner. Katie and I were hungry for burgers and fries, so we excitedly told Allie our plan for dinner when she arrived. Along the way, we stopped to watch a group of rollerskaters performing in the middle of the park and were thoroughly entertained by the one couple dancing together on their skates. Shake Shack did not disappoint. If you have the chance to go, try out their Fair Shake, a coffee shake made with 100% certified organic Arabica fair trade beans. Our window-side seats offered a great view for people watching, though we discovered upon leaving that the windows were not tinted and the view from the outside looking in was just as clear. We went to the Shake Shack on Columbus Avenue, and we decided that this particular neighborhood was like a person who dresses in fine clothes and might be wealthy but is still really nice and down to earth.

As we walked to the subway stop to head home for the evening, we somehow ended up talking about how one of my students loves the show Elementary and thinks I look like Lucy Liu. “I don’t know if I really look like her,” I said, “or if I’m just Asian.” The guy walking in front of us laughed and turned around to tell us, “I watch Elementary.” He started crossing the street, and every couple steps he turned around again to continue his thought. “I think you look like her. You’re attractive. She looks different, though.” And with that he walked ahead, moving much more quickly now, having realized how awkward the conversation had just become. All we could do was laugh and hope we didn’t cross paths again.

It might have been a Saturday night in Brooklyn, but the three of us were too tired for anything other than watching a movie back at the apartment. We went to bed relatively early, but the next morning, Katie and I woke up early to go to church. I packed up my stuff for my train ride home, and we hopped onto the train into Manhattan for service at Hillsong NYC. Hillsong is a megachurch in Australia known around the world for their worship music, and Hillsong NYC is their first U.S. location, meeting at Irving Plaza near Union Square. The place was packed, and it would probably be just as busy at the five other services going on later that day.

After lunch, Katie and I spent our last hour together walking around Grand Central Station and Bryant Park before going back to Penn Station for my train ride home. We wished we didn’t have to part so soon, but we were so appreciative of the time we were able to spend together and the opportunity to reunite after so much time apart. While the weekend wasn’t a grand getaway with over 30 people, it was a fun weekend that allowed us to reminisce. I look forward to future opportunities to reunite with other members of Team 3 and hope it won’t take 10 years to come together again.

Team 3

30 Before 30: Buy a Piece of Furniture at an Estate Sale

#24 from my 30 Before 30 list: Buy a piece of furniture at an estate sale

I’ll consider this one… “close enough.” It started out as a failure, but in the end I found what I was looking for.

My goal was to go to an estate sale, which is basically like a garage/yard/tag sale where you can buy pretty much anything inside the house, and find a piece of furniture for my apartment. Lately I’ve been wanting to get a coffee table for my living room. I used to locate local sales and signed up for their email alerts. Earlier this week, I received a notification about a two-day estate sale in Lancaster, which is about an hour from where I live. The photos showed an antique steamer trunk and a vintage toy chest, either of which could make for a good coffee table. When I called at the end of the sale’s first day, the estate sale company assured me that both pieces were still available.

Antique steamer trunk - $75. Vintage toy chest - $20. Both 50% on the second day of the sale.
Antique steamer trunk – $75. Vintage toy chest – $20.

I had my alarm set for 6:30 AM – far too early for a Saturday morning. I arrived at the estate sale a little before the doors opened at 8:30. The street was lined with cars, and there were people already waiting to get inside. As soon as I walked through the front door, I asked where I could find the toy chest. They directed me toward the kitchen, where one of the estate sale workers helped me clear off the towels that were sitting on top and remove the random assortment of toys that were inside. It would make a perfect coffee table. I got in line, made sure they accepted checks, and told the cashier what I wanted to purchase. She told me the toy chest would only cost $10, because everything is 50% off on the second day. Wonderful, I thought.

And then someone said, “Wait!” Standing with the worker who helped me move the towels and toys was another customer, who apparently had already claimed the toy chest. She entered the house before I did, so she had first dibs. The worker offered me the steamer trunk for $20, but it smelled like a wet basement. Pass. As I walked around the house to see if there was anything else worth buying, I heard the customer call out to her husband, “Hey, honey! I got the toy chest!” Yep. You did.

Waiting in line to enter the estate sale
Waiting in line to enter the estate sale

I left the estate sale empty handed and a little bitter. The cashier apologized but said their new consignment shop sometimes gets other toy chests and trunks. She took down my phone number so she could call if something came in. I drove away but didn’t turn on my GPS. I just headed in the general direction of home, wandering around Lancaster County in a post-sale rage. Maybe not rage… but I was not happy. I eventually ended up on a familiar highway and decided to see if Salvation Army or Community Aid had a coffee table for me instead. Both were a bust.

It was now 10 AM, and I still did not have a coffee table. I was pretty determined to find something – anything! – so that the trip did not feel like a total waste. According to a paper I picked up at the estate sale, the company’s consignment shop (Diamond Estate Sales Consignment Gallery) had just opened for the day, and since it was just in the center of town, I decided to give it a shot.

I couldn’t find the shop at first. It was located in a small office complex, but their entrance was on the side of the building rather than through the main doors. The shop contains several rooms filled with ceramics, trinkets, jewelry, furniture, and other odds and ends. I found someone’s marriage certificate – on sale for 25 cents. In one room, I found two potential coffee tables. One was a small wooden table with sides that folded up, converting the round tabletop into a square one. The other had a glass surface that rested upon two large dolphins. No thanks. I looked through all the other rooms in the store but didn’t find anything until I reached the last room. Tucked away in the corner behind old suitcases and a set of bar stools was a wooden coffee table with a glass top. Perfect.

The table was marked $20, but all furniture was 25% off. The cashier also offered me whatever vinyl records I wanted for 5 cents each. In total, I left the shop with a coffee table and stack of records for less than $17. On one hand, I was disappointed and frustrated that I had driven to the estate sale and back – two hours of travel – only to find what I wanted just five minutes from my apartment. On the other hand, I did find a pretty sweet coffee table for an excellent deal.

Lesson learned: Estate sales aren’t for me. I’ve experienced it once, and that was enough. I just prefer my bargains without the competition.

My new coffee table!
My new coffee table!