Showing: 31 - 39 of 39 RESULTS
North America USA

When The Man With the Gun Started Shooting at Me (Or “Happy To Be Alive Day”)

Orange High School Shooting

Happy to be Alive Day

My eldest cousin is 19 years my senior. I have a feeling I’m “walking in his footsteps” so-to-speak. He spent two decades living in New York City in the film industry, now he owns a Drive-in theatre in the Catskills, dabbles in mixology, and even hosts his very own podcast, “Cinema with a Twist.” Considering the atypical career goals I’ve been harboring for awhile now, leading me to experiment with a year of self-employment, I’m happy there is someone else in my family going about life the way they feel works best for them, even if that doesn’t mean a steady 9-to-5, a pension, and a suburban home.

Near Death Experience
Sometimes you will see me wearing this green shirt to support the Drive-In

If you are thinking my cousin tried to shoot me at some point, he didn’t. This is not where the story is going. Thank God. Actually, years ago, the studio in which he was working in NYC was robbed at gunpoint. Since then, he celebrates a holiday on the anniversary of this incident, aptly dubbed, “Happy to be Alive Day.”

Today, I’d like to borrow this tradition for myself.

The Shooting

Exactly ten years ago today, on August 30th, 2006, I was sitting outside Orange High School’s cafeteria on the lower patio for lunch. My friends and I always sat at the same picnic table everyday near the railing, about 30-40 feet from the student parking lot (or something like that, I’m not exactly spatially inclined). On this particular day, I remember hearing a popping noise and looked in the direction of the sound. On the edge of the parking lot I saw a cloud of smoke. Senior prank, I thought. But then, from the smoke, a figure emerged with a long coat and a gun.

I didn’t see anything else. I didn’t hear any gun shots. I didn’t even think. All I know is that I clamored out of that picnic table bench and took off running up the stairs. I don’t remember any of the other people running, just that they were definitely also running. I didn’t check to see if my friends were following me, just that they weren’t ahead of me. I ran from the upper patio to the doors where two things happened:

  • Some of the people who had run from outside to the inside of the school stopped as soon as they entered the hall. How they simply stopped in the hall I have no idea. I believe teachers told them to “sit down” (from stories I heard later). If the gunman had entered the school, those kids would have been gunned down immediately.
  • A girl, who I imagine was inside this entire time and trying to discern why the hell dozens of students were running hysterically into the building, decided to peak out the door as I ran inside. As in, she was blocking the door frame while I was literally running for my life. If I ever try to tell someone that in times of panic we humans are compassionate, I am lying. I pushed the girl out of my way. I have no idea if she fell down (but I don’t think she did) and I never looked back. Ten years later, I am finally extended a half-hearted apology: “Sorry, unnamed girl.” (But I’d do it again in a heartbeat).
Orange High School
This is the patio area where we ate lunch

So I ran in the hall connecting the patio to the cafeteria but I didn’t stop there (like many others). I kept running. I turned the corner of the hall and took off to the end and ran in a random classroom. As in, there was no one in the hallway. Just me. And I ran in an active science classroom without saying anything, ran directly past the teacher and the shocked students, and into the large storage closet. I ran to the very back, and sat down.

People must have been following me because within a fraction of a second, a whole heard of people were also sitting in the closet with me. I remember deciding in my head that if the shooter came into the closet and began shooting that it would be very chaotic and since I was small and in the very back maybe I could pull their dead bodies over mine and the shooter would think I was dead too. (Yes. I actually had this thought. Call it dark; I call it thrifty.)

I also prayed for the first time in maybe a year or two. It was also the last time I prayed. I prayed that, if there is a God, and he let’s me survive, I would go to church that Sunday and I would consider believing in God again. I know they tell Christians in church that “you can’t bargain with God,” but I didn’t have much to lose. So I did. And I did survive. Obviously. And I did go to church that Sunday. And, no, I don’t believe in God again. Not the one you learn in church anyway. Maybe I should, but it’s hard to forced yourself into these things. But I’m eternally thankful to…..well, I’m not sure. The universe? Chance? The deputy that stopped him? My survival instincts?

We waited inside the storage closet for a very long time. Some of the girls cried. I only cry for useless things like when there is mold in my refrigerator or when my boyfriend leaves for the weekend without telling me. For some reason I don’t cry over serious things like when someone I know dies or when a man with a gun starts shooting at me. Maybe I was in too much shock. But at some point, after some period of time that is now lost to my murky memory, we realized that no one was coming to shoot us. And then we started chatting and calling our parents. We took turns borrowing the cell phones of people who had theirs. Mine was somewhere with the gunmen outside on the picnic table. Or confiscated by the police as evidence. Who knows.

I’ll never, ever forget the conversation with my mom that followed. My mom picked up and I explained the situation. Ten years later I don’t remember the exact words but I believe it went something like this:

“Hi, Mom, this is Gwen.”
“Oh whose number are you calling on?”
“____Insert name of person I forgot about____. There is a guy shooting at the school. I’m okay, I’m hiding in a storage closet.”

After about 5 minutes we all started getting phone calls from our parents again. They, being the little researchers all parents seem to become, gathered as much information as possible on the subject and reached out to us to quell our little worried minds. The first phone call was to a girl. Maybe I knew her at the time. Maybe not. I definitely don’t know her now.

“It’s okay!” She announced. “My mom just called. She said that she called the police to tell them what happened.” A minute later a boy who I actually was friends with also announced that his mother had called the police. In quick succession, something like 5-6 people proudly publicized to the group, still sitting cross-legged in the closet, that their mothers had called the police. The police were not giving any information at this time but officers had been dispatched.

Finally my turn came. The boy who had lent me his cellphone got a call from my mom and he handed me the phone.

“Hi? Gwen?”
“Yes, hi.”
“Ok….I called the news….”

Hundreds of parents calling the police and mine calls the news?! My mom defends this decision to this day, and she should, she was the only parent who called who was able to provide any new information. But I still can’t stress enough how hilarious this was to me. I narrowly escaped death and moments later I was back to laughing. I love my mom.

Seriously though, she did get better information. The news confirmed that the police had been dispatched, the shooter had been taken into custody, no one at the school died (though a few suffered minor injuries), and the police were still investigating a second shooter (there wasn’t one). And that was that. They took him into custody. We spent the majority of the day in lock-down and writing witness reports to the police. And then they let us go. We weren’t allowed to take any of our things that we left outside.

Orange High School Shooting
The shooter at his trial

My friend, Cory, drove me home. On the way he made a sharp turn around the bend of a road and I joked, “We survived a school shooting and Cory kills me on my way home!” He didn’t find it funny. Too soon? I have a habit of finding my own jokes particularly more entertaining than anyone else does.

Orange High School
Orange High School

Residual Effects

Some people said that since no one died, it wasn’t a big deal. But in reality, the shooting actually did mess me up more than I realized at 16. Some of it seems pretty typical. For a few weeks I kept seeing people with guns everywhere. I still wake up sweating thinking that I am running away from shooters (though in the last ten years they have become more and more infrequent). Recently I considered running the Bombay half marathon and hesitated thinking maybe there would be some attack. Large, crowded spaces still make me a bit nervous. And when I eat at a restaurant, my anxiety goes through the roof if I have to sit with my back to the door.

That being said, I don’t think the shooting has made me more afraid of life or people besides these random quirks. I’ve actually gone off in the opposite direction. I’ve become very accepting of the fact that I am going to die, which has been good and bad. Bad because, well, becoming obsessed with your own mortality can make it a bit difficult to get out of bed some mornings. When you don’t believe in an afterlife (I so wish that I believed in an afterlife), it’s hard to deal with the fact that I simply live and die and in the end, I don’t think it matters that much when or how. And even when I don’t feel emotional about it, turning a fun night of drinking into a discussion of how strange it is that only humans are self-aware of their own death doesn’t generally lighten the mood. I’ve noticed I’m very good at bringing people down at parties….

But I actually owe a lot to that day. I’ve done a lot of really amazing (perhaps risky) things in the last ten years that I don’t know if I would have done otherwise. Feeling like life is all you have really inspires me to live it well: to travel, to meet people, to understand, to do exactly what I want and feel passionate about. I have housed strangers and they have turned into friends. I’ve been to over 50 countries because I’m not sure I will live until 70 or 80 or 90. So why not now? Ultimately what one person defines as success is how they define success, I can agree or disagree. It doesn’t matter if they think I am living my life “successfully” or “stupidly.” That doesn’t mean I’m afraid to work hard or to create difficult goals for myself. It just means I’m not going to pursue something I don’t love because I may never have the time later to do something I care about.

My sister once told me, after a solo trip through the Middle East (including Southern Lebanon and the West Bank during the last war), that my mom once mentioned that maybe my “risky” behavior is partially due to the shooting. I’m not totally sure, but I agree to an extent. Compared to the majority of people I have met, I do seem to be less cautious than them. How much of this is related to the shooting? I have no idea. How much is this related to traveling solo my year out of college? Potentially a lot. It’s hard to judge.

I do sometimes think, “If I die right now, am I okay with the things I have done so far?” And I’d say, 95%, yes. Not 100% because now I really want to write a novel before I die. So that’s what I am doing. And when I finish that, I’ll have some other goal. But who knows? It’s India in the monsoon. Maybe I’ll get dengue and that will be that.

My mom wasn’t thrilled about me moving to India. She, like any sane parent, was worried about my safety. Fair enough. But I still rather have died in India than have lived longer while being bored in Chicago. And after the shooting, why am I guaranteed more life staying in America? I didn’t almost die in the Middle East. I didn’t almost die in India. I didn’t almost die couch surfing in Ukraine. I almost died in high school in a small, safe town in North Carolina.


Living and Dying

When I was 15 years old, 9 months before the shooting, my parents and I visited the Eiffel Tower in Paris. For whatever reason, I was afraid to go to the top. What if there is some sort of terrorist attack and I am stuck up there and die? My dad told me that, yes, it is a possibility. We can’t avoid these things. But, ultimately, we can’t stop living just because some crazy guy on a suicide mission, or an emotionally disturbed man with a gun, or the numerous other people who make bad decisions based on mental health problems, anger, and indoctrination, decide to cause a panic. We can’t stop living because we are afraid of dying. I know that sounds cliche, but it’s honestly the best advice he has given me.

And I’ve taken this advice very seriously. I definitely don’t want to die and some days it absolutely terrifies me that I will. I feel guilty for watching television or not waking up at 6am to go to the gym and I feel absolutely overwhelmed that I need to do everything because I don’t have very long. I need to learn the guitar, and speak 7 languages, and how have I not visited North Korea yet? And Brazil? And the moon? Shit, I need to join NASA and learn to fly a helicopter, and become a professional chef, and pet a kangaroo.

But then other days I feel completely fine with it. Some days I think about the last ten years smugly, like I crashed a party I wasn’t invited to, and so I might as well mingle with every single person, eat all the food, drink all the alcohol, and just enjoy this free ride I was given. I won the lottery, I got TEN extra years that maybe I shouldn’t have gotten. Statistically, I shouldn’t have even been born. So let’s go!

Memes of girls standing on mountains with inspirational quotes about traveling and living each day to the fullest don’t appeal to me. Yes, I am aware that my main photo for this site is me standing on a mountain. But its me. It’s something I actually did. And I was shit scared on top of that mountain. And the other day on the train the cops were investigating a mysterious package behind my chair and I got nervous about that too. And, yes, I felt scared that time in Palestine when I went to a protest and couldn’t see anything because of clouds of teargas and canisters and rubber bullets rocketing through the air. The first time I went scuba diving I was 99% sure that I would die. And don’t even get me started on trying to cross the street in Delhi….

The point is, despite being scared, I still do this stuff because I rather die climbing Everest than living an extra ten years and dying of cancer after spending my life behind a desk in a corporation that doesn’t even know I exist. Not everyone wants to climb a mountain, fine. Some people have “normal” jobs and are happy. Great! Go for it! But the point of “happy to be alive day” is just to appreciate that you’ve made it to wherever you are in life now, and to remind yourself of the things and people that are important to you, and to do whatever it is that you want, even if it is shit-scary and possibly stupid to someone else oven if it is dull and boring to one person but you are super happy. Just do you.

Other Happy Things

And now, two somewhat unrelated videos, and yet ones I still watch on repeat when I feel like I’m not making good life decisions. I don’t have very good advice to give, so maybe you should listen to these people instead:


More on the Shooting

*UPDATE 2017: Recently a friend in Buenos Aires asked me about my feelings for the shooter. I harbor no resentment. My friend seemed to think this wasn’t normal. I should hate him. But I don’t. I’m not angry in the least bit. I’m thankful. I’m thankful no one died and I’m thankful for the way this incident has made me appreciate life. Plus, I honestly believe his mental health was suffering drastically and he mad a series of very bad decisions based on this state. Having delved deeply into depression after the shooting, I don’t feel like I can judge anyone when they are in such a state.

You can read about his conviction and trial from CNN here.

(Feature Photo )

Trim Ireland
Europe Ireland

Finding Baby Bones in a 16th Century Graveyard

The summer before my final year of University I decided to participate in an archaeological excavation. In fairness, it was part of UNC’s Archaeology major. Plus, how cool is that?

You’d be surprised how many field schools there are across the planet offering course credit for a summer excavating. If anyone is interested, here is a database of current excavations looking for volunteers or students worldwide. I literally chose Ireland because the semester before I took a class called The Medieval Expansion of Europe and we discussed British rhetoric of Ireland in the late Medieval period, which is how the stereotype of Ireland as mystical and full of magical creatures became perpetuated. I figured, why not try to dig up a Leprechaun or two?

Here’s a very weird and very, very vulgar short film about a leprechaun. I strongly urge anyone who dislikes anything remotely weird and vulgar to not watch it and judge me.

I’m writing this blog post at 3am IST. So forgive the inappropriate content on my otherwise tasteful blog.

Obviously, I imagined myself as Indian Jones (Gwendiana Jones), digging up ancient relics and consequently stumbling upon some sort of crazy mystical quest in which I save the day. I was only slightly disappointed to find out most of my archaeological dig consisted of labeling roof slates from the 14th and 15th century.

Archaeology Excavation

Archaeology Excavation
There are worst ways to spend your time….


The Site

The month of July 2011 I worked on the site named “The Black Friary” (An Mhainistir Dhubh), a Dominican Friary located in Trim, Ireland, built in 1263. If you aren’t sure what a friary is, think of Friar Tuck from Robin Hood.

Disney’s Robin Hood is clearly the superior Robin Hood

Friars give up their worldly possession and follow a simple life dedicated the God. They are similar (though slightly different) than monks.The Dominicans are one of the biggest orders.

Anyway, in 1540 King Henry VIII decided no one was going to be Catholic anymore and so all the Irish monasteries (and friaries) were abandoned or destroyed.

Four and a half centuries later, our job was to find out where the friary walls were located and to make sense of the general structure of the building. Instead we just kept  digging up skeletons. So many skeletons. We even changed where we were digging to avoid skeletons and found MORE  skeletons.

Archaeology Excavation

Some people found some pretty cool stuff. Like this girl Malika from Washington who found a great example of an intact skull. People were pretty excited about that.

The Baby

But no one was really excited when I found a dead baby. Everyone got really sentimental and sad.

Archaeology Excavation
Itty Bitty Skull
Archaeology Excavation
Itty Bitty Legs

I really tried to look misty-eyed about the whole thing and I think I did a damn good job pretending to be sad. But it’s kind of hard to be sad about a baby that died in something like 1300. My guess is that a lot  of babies died in 1300 (that factoid brought to you with my fancy B.A. in History. And they said I’d never use it…) When you think about the disease and violence of the time, most babies didn’t stand a chance. Academically, I find it an interesting mental exercise to think of all the reasons the baby may have failed to reach childhood. The Plague? Exposure? Hunger?

Excavating a baby is extremely difficult, not just emotionally From what it seemed, the baby’s coffin must have slid into a vertical position at some point as I found most of the baby upright. The legs were laying horizontally. Almost the entire thing had turned to dust. Baby bones aren’t nearly as sturdy as adult bones. I couldn’t even move it into a box, it pretty much just crumbled before my eyes.

Archaeology Excavation
Malika with her adult skull

Despite not feeling particularly sad about the baby, I did take issue with the way the Irish handle human remains on digs. While the team “got sad” about the baby, skeletons of people sat idly on the top of an oven.

Actually, I’m not really sure there are  any regulations on dead bodies in Ireland. In the US, the regulations are actually quite strict. For decades, archaeologists dug of the remains of Native Americans and kept them in shoe boxes or beer cases. This is problematic since some tribes believe in ancestor worship and the burial of the individuals is very spiritually important. Totally fair. These skeletal remains have since been returned to the tribes for reburial. Although I don’t believe in ancestor worship, I do believe we should respect the dead.

It doesn’t help that the rest of the summer I was pretty certain I was being haunted. Which I wrote about here.

Does anyone else feel particularly strongly about the idea of being dug up a few centuries from now?

Archaeology Excavation
The Remains of an Irish “bog person” on display at the National Museum in Dublin

*Friar Tuck Image from:

Witch Burning Prague
Asia Czech Republic Europe Festivals Abroad

They Burn Witches in Prague

Every spring, on the eve April 30th, the Czechs celebrate pálení čarodějnic or “the burning of the witches.” I celebrated three years ago near the end of my 10-month stint teaching in the country. Having written a 70-page thesis on early modern witch trials (which recently won the Gerhard Weinber Award for best article in European History), seeing this festival was a must. My former boyfriend and I had heard the celebration in Ladronka to be one of the best so we set off to the outskirts of the city.

Witch burning Prague
Image 1: Notice for a witch burning festival

We arrived a bit late, the bonfire had already been built and the witches already burnt. The “witches” constitute small cloth-made witches which are tied to the pyre.

Image 2: A young girl lights the pyre covered in handmade witches

Other times, one large central witch is placed in the center

Image 3: Cloth witch in the middle of the pyre

Then the bonfire burns. After that, it seems like a pretty typically “Czech” festival except that all the children were dressed like witches. They even had brooms. There was a stage with some music, lots of beer and food stands, and people building smaller fires to roast sausages which they brought from home. People from all over the country set up little stalls of crafts and jewelry. I bought some clay-fired heart earrings which I still own and wear on a regular basis.

Why Burn Witches?

Traditionally, it is believe the witch burning festival began with pagan rituals celebrating the spring equinox. Later, the date became associated with the date witches are most attracted to attend the Witch’s Sabbath (beginning in the 14th century until the late 17th century, witches were believed to fly into the woods at night where they would dine on rotting food, boil babies for their fat, copulate in orgies with the Devil and demons, and pervert anything Christian). It is most likely due to the pagan origins of this celebration that those not following the rules of Christianity in the 14th century would perform rituals in the woods on this date, which later became thought of as “witchcraft.” With time, communities began to gather on hills and light large fires to “ward off evil witches.”


It is also likely this festival originally celebrated fertility. The next day, May 1st (May Day), Czechs will visit Petřín Park which is covered in blossoming Cherry Trees. It’s considered a day of love. Couples kiss under the trees. Legend says any girl not kissed under the trees will “wither and die” within the next 12 months. So obviously I drug my boyfriend there ASAP and let’s just say I neither withered nor died…

Petrin Hill
May Day under the Cherry Blossoms


Featured Image: 

Image 1:

Image 2:

Image 3: