The Best and Worst of Photographs

My dog, Lola, turns six next week. Every time she has a birthday, I like to look at photos from the first day I brought her home, when she was about six weeks old. As a puppy, she was 90 percent head with googly eyes and floppy ears resting on a marshmallow torso with toothpick legs. Her expression of bewilderment and fear were unchanging in every shot. I love these photos and I put them on Facebook for her birthday, since people love my dog more than they do me.

Since I had the folder open, I perused the other photos on my computer—images mostly from the past seven years, with a few select shots from childhood that I lifted from my parent’s house.

My favorite of that variety is a shot of me from age six on vacation in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. I’m standing on the deck of a rented house in a white T-shirt with a bright orange sun and cartoony mountains that my mom bought at the giftshop before our conversion van got stuck on the steep driveway of our chalet. I’m snuggling my Pillow Person, which I’m holding in front of me, peeking over the top of his square head like Kilroy, and looking right at the camera. My fabric friend obscures my mouth, but the glimmer in my eyes makes it apparent that I’m smiling. After all, there was no reason not to smile: I am a babe in the woods and, judging by the darkness over the mountains, I am staying up way later than my usual bedtime. Seeing the hours that adults typically kept for themselves seemed so important at that age.

Then I’m quickly reminded of why I do not open the photo file too often—it is a minefield of happiness and abject horror with each subfolder threatening to be more wonderful or more painful than the last. I do not archive anything by event or spoiler alerts, just by date. It makes it more difficult to find what I’m looking for and hide what I’m not, but it does help cobble together a more complete archive of experience, which can be as grand as stopping in a giftshop and picking anything you want (under $20, of course, we’re not made of money, Cee) or getting your tires stuck in the mud while trying to climb a steep hill.

I found a photo on vacation with the ex I rarely speak about. I don’t speak about him much because I also don’t like thinking about him, fearing that if I say his name too often he’ll show up like Beetlejuice, do something offensive, and vanish back into obscurity after trenching up the bullshit. I like looking at him even less, his devilish smile peeking from behind his goatee as he wraps an arm tightly around my waist. I’m arching my back ever slightly, subtly recoiling, uncomfortable with his touch. To this day, when someone touches me in similar “you’re mine, let me paw at you” way, I tense, cringe, and clench my eyes, remembering that these sort of embraces are meant to be kind, not controlling.

One year after that trip, there’s one of me standing on a street corner in Andersonville with an ice cream cone—mint chocolate chip, my favorite. I’m unaware of the camera and between licks, I’m beaming alongside school children as I watch Puppetbike—a Chicago phenomenon that’s part bicycle, part puppet show. The mysterious Puppetbiker rolls up to different parts of the city, climbs inside the puppet theatre on the back and mans the hand puppets, who perform well- choreographed numbers to catchy tunes for dollar bills. In this photo, just as I am still when I see it parked around town, I am gleefully entranced by the powers of boogying felt. I am so glad this photo exists.

Then there’s a photo of me standing in a bar, sidled up to the man I wanted to be with. We met at the worst time for love to start, after respective breakups, but he felt different than anyone I wanted before; I found myself engaging in the cliché-girl behaviors I loathed: saying my first name with his last, wondering where we would live, and if I would compromising on not wanting children if it came to that. It didn’t matter though; he reconciled with his ex and he married her straight away. This photo was taken five months later when I agreed to have dinner with him and his wife. He put his hand on my lap during dinner as she sat across from us; he kissed my neck while she was in the bathroom, and I numbed the awkwardness with shots of bourbon. When he hugged me goodbye, he whispered in my ear, “you’ll always be the one who got away,” and it was the first time I actually felt relieved that he would be her problem instead of mine.

The next photos are seven days later, snapped from the left-field side of U.S. Cellular Field from a suite on Opening Day. The White Sox beat the Rays 5-1, and Edwin Jackson had 13 strikeouts.

There are more photos of events than of myself from 2009 to 2012. That is not a coincidence that those years correspond with embarrassing weight gain. I have never been thin, but at least I had been active, and when I stopped moving and started eating and drinking, I added 60 pounds to my already large frame, topping the scales at a weight that earned me the Bartolo Colon treatment—people mocking my every move, no longer seeing me as a person but as a caricature, a lesser being not only not worthy of adoration, but deserving of the harshest vitriol that thinned-framed folks can dish out.

My appearance bothers me in these photos—a double chin, a round face like a bloated cherry, an inner tube for a waistline, and tree trunks for legs. The worst part of these photos, however, is  the denial that I had a problem with over indulging with food and alcohol. I see these photos now—birthday parties, baseball games, and grad school commencement—and I loathe the weaker and less disciplined version of myself. I felt happy in many of those moments, but I would love nothing more to erase the years in which I shrugged, draping myself in tents for clothes, and telling my reflection that, “this is as good as it gets.”

I am much lighter now, hitting the gym six days a week and obsessing over every calorie, but that doesn’t make photos from then, or even now, easier to look at.  What they don’t tell you about losing weight is that, at least for a stretch, you will actually hate your body more the thinner it gets. Clothes don’t fit well. You don’t want to wear anything revealing, because overweight women are taught to tiptoe around their beauty, accentuating only the one or two features that are not marred by conventional beauty standards, while shoving the rest into Spanx. When you drop sizes, you still reach for the things that were flattering in the past. And even as you get out of plus size clothing, you’re still left with extra skin, imperfections, stretch marks, and little pockets of fat that you can’t figure out how to exercise.

I’m told there is a moment where all of this levels out, where the slight symptoms of body dysmorphia melt away and you see yourself through new lenses. A friend took my photo this weekend at dinner, and I don’t hate this photograph, one of the firsts where I am starting to see the transformation. My jaw line is stronger, my face seemingly less round and better balanced by new glasses and longer hair. There’s a man off to my left, sitting by himself. I felt his eyes on me for most of our dinner, and I wondered if he was judging me for what I ordered, but in seeing the still image, he is seductively smiling at me, not targeting my flaws in his crosshairs, but enjoying the view. The doubt is not about self esteem; it’s about knowing there was once a version of myself who punched a guy in the face for calling me “a worthless fat fuck” when I bumped into him on accident in a crowded bar. It was six years ago, but I remember standing in the alley sobbing, trying to catch my breath long enough to hail a cab and sulk away from the cruelty of Lincoln Park Chad.

I found screenshots of some text messages from a guy I went on two dates with when I first moved to Washington DC, a baseball fan that I knew through Twitter. My schedule got busy with work and I had to cancel on our third date, which sent him on a text message tirade, in which he told me he didn’t appreciate being my little whore, and that I was a “back-stabbing arrogant little cunt” and that I should “go back to the south side” because nobody wanted me there. He called me “south side trash” and said that, “they love fucking fat girls” there. He also told me that he only wanted to sleep with me because he always wanted to know what it felt like to be suffocated.

I still see him in my timeline from time to time, interacting with mutual acquaintances.

More about Australia SportBets

There are a group of photos from the spring of the following year, where I am standing alone on an empty beach. In all of the photos, I have a camera bag strapped across my body, a black tank top, and jeans rolled up, with chunky cuffs sitting just below my knees. In some I am splashing, in others I am posing, and in two of them I am carrying a cocktail in a plastic cup. In my favorite, my hair is resting on one shoulder, with the longer layers cascading down my chest. My back is to the water, the red highlights of my hair are glowing as the sun sets. There’s a boat the size of a thimble in the distance, and I am tilting my head backwards as far as my muscles will go, and though there is no sound, I can tell from my expression and pose that I am letting out a deep belly laugh and the camera has caught me in the throes of delight.

I can’t recall what made me laugh that hard, or why there’s a photo of it, but I am hopeful there will be more moments like that one to come.

How Not to Take a Compliment

Receiving praise isn’t the hard part. It’s the acceptance of praise that’s difficult.

I hate the hyperbole of defining tracts of time in our lives as being the “most pivotal”, so I won’t. But I do think that we live our lives at two speeds—spinning in a rut or with our tires squealing and our backend fishtailing as we pull out of it.

I spun in that rut for longer than I intended to, writing about baseball, watching baseball, and dating. These three vices yielded me with similar disappointments: embarrassment, reclusiveness, and often shouting about the shortcomings of men in both my bedroom and on 40-man rosters. In one swoop, I got rid of all three of these things, and with a wide open calendar and zero fallback plans, I was filled by a fervor to restructure everything around me.

For the better part of last year, I worked on turning my apartment, a below-market rate two bedroom into something livable. I don’t like summing up life and activities into simple metaphors, but the great apartment renovation of 2014 is my Rocky montage of taking myself from a shitty place (physically, mentally, quite literally because the toilet backed up my first week there) into a new one with 1,000-thread count linens and Eames chairs.

I am not Bob-Villa handy, but what I lack in raw carpentry skills, I make up for in a lack of patience and an enthusiasm for seeing my visions realized quickly, even if that means MacGuvyering some projects to expedite the deadline. I patched the plaster walls, which I learned is more difficult than the instructions on the back of packaging want you to believe, but with a ladder and a “well, that looks good enough!” attitude anything is possible.

There’s new flooring in the kitchen, except for under the refrigerator because I ran out of tiles and they were discontinued. I hung behemoth five foot shelves over the sink and they’ve yet to come crashing down, but I have one cabinet door that no longer opens because wet varnish apparently doubles as a super-bonding adhesive.

Instead of drafting for my day job, I used CAD to achieve optimal space planning for all of the solid wood furniture that I purchased from real designers and vintage stores. If asked to make a list of my greatest accomplishments in 2014, purging my life of all particle board is my proudest, followed closely by refusing to let a guy who dumped me via text message use my snow shovel when his car got stuck in the alley behind my apartment.

The free time led me back to painting on canvas, my sink has the acrylic stains to prove it, and my hallway has a Chicago-centric photo wall of framed landscapes, escalator mazes, pigeons eating rice on a manhole cover, and a black and white photo of a lady waiting on a train that taken at Union Station circa 2014, even though it’s passable as 1940s film noir.
There were tears just once in this entire process. While trying to build the frame of a European slat bed, my hand slipped, which forced a chunk of wood the size of a golf pencil to become imbedded in the palm of my hand. I fell off of exactly one ladder, but if anyone had been there, I would have contended that I meant to step violently off of the ladder and hit my face on the refrigerator, because home improvement gurus cannot be perceived as incapable of doing their craft three feet in the air.

With the Lawrence Peabody chairs and an oversized mid-century hutch that holds albums and liquor as the piece de resistance, I’m mostly finished. At dinner recently, a friend was boasting about the apartment improvements, telling her husband that I had done all of this work myself and that she loved the cozy finished product.

Instead of saying “thank you,” I reflexively dissected the apartment’s flaws. I told them that it doesn’t have a dishwasher and that I have to walk down two flights of stairs to do my laundry. And eight months ago on a Saturday night, the people upstairs had a party and it got very loud. The dog sitter once heard the same couple having a domestic dispute and wondered if she should call the police!

Speaking of dogs, the downstairs neighbors have a Pitbull that attacked my dog, and there’s someone (no, I can’t figure out who) smoking pot in this building and it comes through the vents in the middle of the night.

The bedroom has three windows, but now that they’ve built that school in the corner, it doesn’t get as much light as it used to. I frown when I think about the bathtub too, the cast iron needs to be refinished, but that requires a professional or wearing one of those respirator masks, and I don’t want to get lightheaded rom the fumes.

There was a rash of theft recently too, and someone stole my packages. Then I tell them the box had dog food and tampons in it, and that’s what the thief stole from me. Don’t bother coming over if it snows, because the super rarely clears the snow and they don’t put out salt.

In business meetings, if I’m congratulated for completing a project on time (and on budget, an even bigger feat), I diplomatically stop the praise from boiling over and assert that it was a team effort that wouldn’t have been possible without the help of every single person in the office, praising everyone from the CEO down to the coffee cart, even if the truth is that I did the great work on my own.

I don’t even realize I’m doing this most of the time, but sometimes it’s so asinine, I catch myself in the act. A coworker thanked me for making her a cappuccino this week, and instead of just saying “you’re welcome,” I told her it was no big deal, that the milk was going to expire and just needed to be used up (it wasn’t) and that the reason it tasted so good is that the beans were that great. They could have been Folgers for all I knew, but I simply could not let the perception that I was doing something kind be construed as praise-worthy. I am not a latte hero.

Sometimes people will say they miss my writing. This happened at a bar recently, when I encountered several friends I gained over the years of baseball writing. And for every kind word, I retorted that the landscape wouldn’t miss me, that if there was any quality to my work it was because of talented editors, and that I was grateful that they took the time to read anything at all because, “Sometimes I forget how to hyphenate compound modifiers correctly.”

I can’t believe I said that either, but I swear that I did.

This is a debilitating issue that leaves me incredulously disappointed at my own ineptitude, which is compounded by feeling like a colossal disappointment for making the compliment giver dance for no reason and regret they ever said anything nice in the first place. I turned to self-help articles on this topic, but they all spew the same advice—express gratitude, share the credit (probably not with strangers or janitors, as I’m wont to do), use appropriate body language (which doesn’t mean biting your lower lip or rolling your eyes as I often do), and follow appropriate etiquette, like not singing along with “Happy Birthday” when it’s your birthday.

All of this advice seems simple until you’re standing on the receiving end. The first step, I’m finding, is to recognize that compliments should not be swatted like buzzing flies, but allowed to permeate just long enough to let their weight settle. The second, of course, is to disable the reflex that makes one believe that they do not deserve accolades for a job well done, or worse, that one does not deserve good things at all. The easy part is expanding my repertoire of humble acceptance, stocking up on syrupy and folksy one liners that match my Southern accent like, “Golly! I can’t believe you noticed!”, “Goodness, I am so grateful that you appreciate me”, and “Gosh, this is unexpected. That’s a really lovely thing to say.”

And maybe eventually I’ll move from a pull-string responses into genuine acceptance. But, I’m not going to be very good at that.

Be Thankful

I had been in Indiana just two weeks, and had only met two classmates–one nice, the other a spitting image of Leonardo DiCaprio’s “Titanic” character, at an age where that was all you needed to be popular, and, simultaneously, have a license to be a real jackass to all of the girls that did not look Kate Winslet.

If you wanted to meet anyone on a Friday night, they were at the football field. Since entertainment was hard to find on the outskirts of Indianapolis and the weather was nice, each Friday night was like a carnival with a football game situated right in the middle.

The nice one’s mom loaded the three of us in the back of her Lexus SUV, and we sat in traffic near the four-way stop by the high school. Tired of the standstill and intrigued by the aura of mystery that would attend our showing up at the game seemingly without supervision, we piled out of the car and walked through the cornfield that surrounded the school’s campus. I stared at my shoes and listened to the dark mud that squished and sloshed around the edges of my Chuck Taylors, missing the red clay of Georgia more with every step.

As soon as we got through the gate for the Homecoming game, both the naughty and nice guys walked in opposite directions, leaving me alone. I wandered for the first quarter, pacing back and forth underneath the bleachers. Classmates I did not yet know stood in their cliques and watched me, but never took an active interest beyond snickers, leers, and whispers. The band played Gary Glitter for the tenth time and the cheerleaders stomped their sneakers and shook their pom-poms.

I could not find the exit, so I climbed over a short fence and went to the playground at the elementary school to wait until it was time for DiCaprio’s dad to come pick us up. I pulled out my headphones, pressed play on my Walkman, and listened to a Pearl Jam album as I sat atop the monkey bars, the brightly painted twisted metal glowed under a street lamp, rows of corn dancing in the distance.

I wanted a cigarette. As soon as the thought arrived in my head, a lanky girl with a pixie cut dressed like she just stepped off of a Fleetwood Mac album cover climbed up the slide.

“You smoke?” she asked as she put two Parliament Lights in her mouth and lit them simultaneously. Not waiting for an answer, she stood on her tiptoes and handed one up to me.

“Thanks. I’m Cee.”

“Logan. You new here?” In a town this small, she already knew the answer. I nodded while winding the cord around my Walkman and putting it back in my pocket.

I did not learn much about her that night, other than we were in the same grade. I hadn’t met her yet because she was a “B” and I was a “C,” and the school kept students segregated based on an arbitrary caste that determined when you’d lunch, where you sat before the first bell, and who got to board the buses first. Later, I asked around about her. Plenty of people knew her. Logan had been well liked in elementary school, I was told, praised for her creativity and art. She was gorgeous and that helped her trajectory towards the top of the popularity ranks in middle school, but she fell out of favor because her family was poor and she could not afford Abercrombie & Fitch without stealing it.

Logan was smarter than most Advanced Placement kids, but they did not want anything to do with her because she was a rebel and emulating her behavior might derail one from the fast track to the Ivy League. She wore dashiki, listened to the Grateful Dead, and drove a vintage Volkswagen Microbus that belonged to her father. It was hand-painted with daisies, suns, and slogans like “Honk if you love Jesus.” She conned her father into believing she wanted to drive the van to spread the message of God, a calculated irony given she mostly used the God-mobile to pick up drugs and give blowjobs to willing recipients, spending as much time knee-deep in the shag carpet in the back as with her foot on the gas.

We became high-functioning deviants together. We were subversive, but smart about it, skipping only the classes that would not get us in trouble, smoking pot, but still making it home in time for curfew so that we would be free to do it again the next night. We saved our lunch money to buy vinyl records and would spread them all over the floor of my bedroom, reading the liner notes instead of our Biology books. She let me borrow her Vonnegut novels, and I let her play my guitar. She turned everything into a canvas, and routinely moved my bookshelf away from the wall so she could paint things my parents would not find. When we moved later that year, I had to explain  why a portion of the wall was psychadelic. “Logan,” I shrugged and they understood.

Most of the things I had heard about her were misunderstandings or half-truths. Her parents were neither neglectful nor alcoholics; her father worked a full-time job and volunteered nightly at the church — he just did not earn much. Her mother had worked at one time, but she had developed a phobia that prevented her from driving, making it impossible for her to keep a job. The rumor at school was that Logan was anorexic because she was tall and slender to the point that her hipbones protruded when her midriff was exposed, but that was not the case. She did not eat because she gave her lunch money to her two younger sisters so they could have a hot meal every day.

I always thought of my family as wealthy when I was a child. That was sort of true, but not completely. I did, however, always feel safe and well cared for. My parents, like everyone, had their share of setbacks–layoffs, cancer, medical bills–but they shielded my sister and me to the point that we were not able to sense it. My parents were resilient though, and when something bad would happen they would recalibrate and fight back, often ending up in a better place than they began. Even when things were not ideal, we still had a refrigerator full of food, took a yearly trip to the beach, and we had a BMW parked in the driveway of our house on a golf course. Now it’s obvious to me that our position was just as tenuous as  anyone else’s, we just had a different height from which to fall.

 Logan triggered some feeling of recognition in my family, because meeting her changed them.

She frequently slept over, and when my mother caught her stealing shampoo from my shower and putting it into her overnight bag, instead of making a scene she took me aside and asked me what I knew of Logan’s family. I told her that I did not think they had much money, but that money only seemed to come up when we were at the mall and Logan needed to borrow a few bucks to buy a soda or a movie ticket. (This was also Logan’s defense for shoplifting makeup and clothing, but I did not tell my mom that part).

 From then on, my mother insisted Logan stay at the house more often. She ate dinner with us most nights and joined us on our vacations. When it was time for back-to-school shopping, my mother took us to the mall and bought more clothes for Logan than for me and my sister combined. When school resumed, I got an extra $15 per week for lunch money to make sure Logan could have all of the Salisbury steak and yeast rolls she wanted.

My family moved to a different state for the next school year, but Logan and I kept in touch with emails and late-night phone calls. Every week my mother would give us both a calling card so we could catch up on everything we had missed in each other’s lives. I would tell her about the college boy at the coffee shop who let me borrow all of his Who albums, and she would tell me how hypocritical the youth pastors at her church were at lock-ins. Then came the  summer before senior year, when she met Tom.

Of all the boys who had the pleasure of winning Logan’s affections, and there were many, Tom was my least favorite. Tom was three years older than we were, the token mustachioed high-school kid who caused everyone who did not know him to whisper, “How old is he?” He had shaggy hair and mangled teeth, and worked at the gas station while making his third attempt to finish high school. He stayed not because he cared, but because he had an arrangement with his ultra-wealthy parents that if he remained in school they would keep paying for his apartment and would not send him to rehab for his drinking problem and drug use.

I became resentful of their relationship because we spoke less and I worried more. Logan was always wild, but when we were together we stuck to petty things that would get us in trouble with our parents, not the law. Once at a party, someone offered her cocaine and she replied, “I draw the line at making bad decisions that could impact the rest of my life.”

I came home from midterms my Senior year to four missed calls from Logan, each voicemail sounding a little more urgent than the last. “Remember the stomach flu from a couple weeks ago? Well, it was not that…” she mumbled, trailing off on the final message.

Since she missed her exams and did not want to be fodder for the rich kids’ put-downs, Logan quit school. She wanted to get her GED and keep the baby, so she moved in with Tom in a rundown trailer in a neighboring town that I had been to once when she asked for a ride. I rarely heard from her because their phone was either disconnected or pawned and I tracked the final months of her pregnancy by keeping in touch with her mother. On Logan’s due date, I drove to Indiana and met her family at the hospital. I took her sisters for pizza to keep them full and out of the way. The baby was healthy and given a pretentious name that Tom had chosen to prove that he had read a lot of books over the years. I slept on the floor in the trailer for three nights as Logan adjusted to being a mom.  Tom was nowhere to be found.

We stayed up late talking about how different life would be now, and Logan kept saying, “I cannot believe you are moving into your dorm next week while I am stuck here changing diapers.” The pregnancy was hard, but the realization that everyone she knew would be leaving for college while she stayed put visibly shook her. I tried not to talk about school while I was there, because the subject now seemed awkward. My best friend was now an unrelatable stranger, not because she had a kid, but because she was not sure how (or if) to wear the skin of motherhood proudly given how radically her future had been altered. She no longer understood who she was in the context of any of her relationships. She often referred to herself as the “failed teen mom” in emails when she wrote to me at school. Then she stopped writing altogether.

After I finished my undergraduate degrees, I ran into some Indiana high school classmates at a bar. We exchanged more pleasantries than I’d expected, nostalgia and age suppressing the wounds of callous high school years. Since they had stayed in the area, I asked if anyone had heard from Logan; by then we had not been in touch in over five years.

They had not seen her recently, they said, but reported that she had, “bounced around like a pinball” between men, was on her second or third marriage, and had at least five kids. I wasn’t sure what to make of this news. It wasn’t exactly unusual for the town that we lived in, but I spent some time feeling guilty that I left her, that I never looked back, and that she had felt the pain of failed relationships and rearing children, at least partially, alone. I didn’t know where she lived, and when I tried to call her parents to get in touch with her, their number had been changed. I could have pursued it more–it’s really not hard to find anyone these days– but the the fear of not knowing what to say to her now that our lives seemed so different won out.

 Logan found me on Facebook recently. Her last name was different than when I knew her, and her avatar was a smiling blonde toddler I had never seen before. I accepted her request, but we never caught up. I still did not know what to say and figured that we might prefer to silently delight in voyeuristically peeking in on each other’s lives than actually being friends.The only question I wanted to ask was, “are you alright?” and every variation of that seemed condescending and presumptuous and I wanted to avoid that. I sometimes think of my adult milestones in relation to her children. I finished my undergraduate degrees before her first kid turned four and moved to Chicago for graduate school the week her second child was born. Judging by the pictures online, I was at a bachelorette party in New York City while she was giving birth to her youngest, just a few weeks before my 28th birthday.

My path has been quite different than Logan’s. I remember skipping classes with her, struggling to deal with depression and issues that all teens face, but somehow rallying, discovering my ambitions by finding the right combination of interests. And yet, one of those motivating interests, is also my worst quality. I measure ambition, merit, and even my own self-worth with a dollar sign. It is visceral and loathsome, making me feel like another petulant millennial begging for a punch in the teeth. Now that I am successful, I have embraced a “Treat Yo’Self” mentality that rationalizes everything from brunch to big purchases as the spoils for working 60 hours a week. And yet, I am sometimes shocked to find that I just engaged in long text message exchanges belaboring things like which Tom Ford handbag I will buy with my next bonus and where I will go for my annual birthday trip, as if such luxuries were a mandated right.

 I do not see myself as greedy or materialistic–though there are, undoubtedly, flashes of it–but perhaps I have lost sight of the fact that the rewards of my hard work need not be lavished on myself or my family. In the slow metamorphosis from floundering ugly duckling to Prada-gilded faux-sophisticate, I desensitized the basic parts that make a person good–kindness, humility, and empathy.

In preparing to host my first Thanksgiving this year, I went on a shopping spree to ensure that the experience would be perfect for my passive-aggressive guests. (Also because I can turn any event into a reason to shop.) I attempted to purchase a new Kitchenaid mixer, dishes, bottles of wine, and 1000-count linens for the guest bed so that my relatives could sleep in luxury. When I got to the register, my credit card and debit card were both flagged for fraud — erroneously — and declined. Embarrassed, I had the cashier suspended the transaction. I found an ATM and was able to get the cash I needed, then walked back to the register to complete the sale. The cashier, who seemed surprised to see me, said, “I’m surprised that you’re back. Usually when that happens, people don’t return because they don’t really have the money.”

After I finished washing the new bedding, baking cookies, and organizing a pantry that was overflowing for the holidays, I checked Facebook. Logan had posted that something fantastic had happened–a stranger arrived at her door to deliver a full Thanksgiving meal to her and her family. “The food will go to good use!” she said, adding she was, “grateful that her family would get to spend the holiday at home instead of going to a shelter for the meal,” and that she was, “so appreciative of anyone who can go out of their way to make the holidays better for those in need.”

I stared at the update for minutes, replaying what this must have been like. Stranger pulls up in a car. Stranger leaves his car (in my imagination it is a him) and he is carrying two big boxes stuffed with food, overflowing with vegetables and ingredients for pumpkin pie. Stranger knocks on the storm door and it makes a rattling noise as its hollow core vibrates. Logan answers the door for the Stranger, surrounded by her four older children with the youngest resting on her hip, all of them curious about the commotion. They all grin toothily at the Stranger, take the boxes from him, and rush them into the kitchen to see if there is anything packed with sugar they can eat now instead of waiting. I go back and forth as to whether or not Logan would hug the Stranger; I think that she would. The Stranger gets back in his car and drives away, and Logan runs to Facebook to tell the world of her good fortune, of how she has just hit the turkey motherload.

 I began scrolling through the photos on her page and thumb through her most recent posts, feeling guilt over how destitute they must be. Logan is 32 now, and she has five children all under the age of 12. She is on her third marriage, and her husband recently lost his job. They are hopeful, she posts, that he can earn some extra money through their eBay business selling vaporizers. I realize she is living in the same trailer park that she lived in with Tom. Her current husband posted on his Facebook that he is trying to support a family of six on $300 a month in income and is looking for a butcher who can supply them with meat at cheaper prices than Meijer, with the caveat being they need to accept food stamps.

But Logan’s life, as observed through my narrow window, is rich. She does not have a job, but she’s painting regularly and showcasing her work at local fairs. When her kids have a birthday, they get to pick whatever theme they’d like for their cake, and Logan and her mother create brilliantly elaborate landscapes for race cars and princess castles out of Duncan Hines and sugar sprinkles. Her kids play and run and she makes videos of them laughing and singing songs. They are usually happy, it seems.

Sometimes her posts take on a more serious tone. She posted recently she is concerned about the holidays because the kids are getting older and their list of demands longer, but she hopes they’ll recognize that it’s not what you have, but who you have and they have each other.

I check her posts every day now, but we still have not talked. I feel guilty about just watching instead of participating, but I am better served listening and taking snippets of inspiration from the lessons she’s teaching her children and, in turn, me. This week, I started collecting addresses for my holiday cards via a Google Form that asks for addresses and special requests. In the request form she said, “Can you make the card out to all of the kids? They love getting mail.”

I stared at it for minutes, just as I did the update about the Stranger. Now that I have her address though, I hope that she is prepared for another knock on the door from someone who is anxious to make the holiday better for those in need, someone who wants to say thank you for helping me remember what’s really important.

You’ll never walk alone. Unless, of course, you want to.

There was a baseball event in Chicago last night, and I was happy to attend because lately I have not dedicated enough time to being around others. I have been working longer hours than usual, and the past six months have been an indistinguishable whirl of airport codes, hotel robes, and room service. There’s not a single thing I would trade about it.

When I’m home, which isn’t often anymore, everything is regimented. Get to the gym, then to the office by 7am. Push through meetings, drink six cups of coffee, take conference calls on lunch breaks, and maybe sneak a radio hit with the office door closed and hope that no one knocks. After work, I take the dog for a run, cook dinner for one with a baseball game on the radio. By time I hit the sofa, there’s a 50-50 chance I’ll be asleep before the third inning of a west coast game. Some nights, I bypass the sofa altogether and head straight to the bed.

In your late 20s, you lose a lot of friends, and the past two years have been an Agatha Christie novel of disappearance and inevitabilities. Some get married and have kids. Others couple up with partners who dislike you and drift away slowly before changing their phone numbers. They may not feel like it, but these people are still your friends in the sense that they would show up at a once a year cookout (as long as their children don’t have dance recitals or soccer games) and would likely attend your funeral, but they are no longer the friends that go to baseball games and eat sliders as the sun rises over Diner Grill after a night of drinking.

They are not available for impromptu brunches or to take your plus-one for a concert, so, please kindly stop calling. Your virtual Rolodex has recedes… and then there were none.

But unlike the disappearing friends of your early 20s, who you have to worry are on a bender or got evicted or have been arrested, these people disappear because they are successful. You can’t even get mad at them, because you’ve changed and you’re successful, too. It’s not simple to pinpoint at what moment you all transitioned from ill-informed and fungible to professional and static, but subtlety your late-night drunk fits turn into early-morning brunches, your American Apparel T-shirts are ditched for Dior and instead of hand-me-downs, you’ve got Prada. No one stresses about splitting the check or who ordered alcohol. Someone just throws in their credit card and you go your separate ways for Bikram yoga or a pedicure instead of trawling discount stores for groceries and pregnancy tests. It’s inevitable that some get left behind. If you didn’t have the friend who constantly needed a sofa to crash on or the train-wrecked on Facebook once a week about their unemployment and venereal diseases, how would you feel good about yourself?

But regardless of path, we’re all adults here. Happiness and success come in multiple metrics. For some, it’s marriage, children, and owning a home, or as I like to call it, the path of least resistance. That’s not to sleight good relationships; for those, I’m grateful, but so many are tragic and maintained out of convenience instead of lust, adoration, and respect. You combine your lives by comparing who has a nicer toaster, duvet cover, and television and then you split the bills or join your bank accounts. And after a brief period, you birth something that moves, kicks, thinks, and eventually articulates that serves as a distraction from the doldrums of life not just internally, but to onlookers as well. You’re diversified in a way that provides leniency when something does go wrong. If you’re fired? At least you have love. And if your partner leaves you? Well, bury yourself in work and Little League coaching. The chances of everything being taken away at once are slim, after all.

I concede there are many ways to feel fulfilled and complete, but that’s a progressive view that isn’t supported by all. For some, the moral compass of society and “what is good” and “what is normal” might have been hammered harder. As such, there are people who see three pillars—marriage, career, and children—as zero-sum. If you don’t have all three, you’re deficient. If you’re not actively seeking all three, there’s something wrong with you. And occasionally, you encounter these people in person, and they project their biggest fears onto every single person they find.

Pardon me, correction: They project the fears of failure and deficiency onto every single woman they meet.

At the baseball event last night, I wanted to catch up with my peers—other baseball writers and fans of the game. And for the most part, that’s what happened. They drank beer, and I had a bourbon. We traded clubhouse tales, trade rumors, fantasy baseball strategies, and our thoughts on the shift. We quizzed each other on trivia (I couldn’t remember much about the 2005 NL MVP vote, but did alright on the rest). Being the only woman in the crowd, I was even applauded for my ability to abandon a conversation quickly or unnoticed, the best fight-or-flight skulking skills that women deploy when cornered by an unsavory male at the bar on display.

When it was time to go, I made my rounds, saying goodnight to the host and to old and new friends. In my final goodbye, I interrupted a friend in conversation with a stranger, and since it is a pet peeve of mine in social settings that people do not introduce themselves immediately, particularly in small groups, I extended my hand and said, “Hi, sorry for interrupting, I’m Cee, and I’m going home,” and the bearded man on the receiving end extended his own hand and said, “Oh yes, I know who you are.”

He didn’t tell me his name, but continued. “Cee, I wanted to tell you… you’re very beautiful. And you’re intelligent. I know that life is hard on you because you’re single, but I want you to know that you’re not going to die alone.”

Stunned, I continued to shake his hand for longer than appropriate before recoiling. “Oh, wow! We’re going straight there, huh?” Trying to ease the awkwardness and the tension in my neck, I said the first thing that came to mind. “Did my mom send you here?”

He continued for too many minutes, digging the hole deeper. He told me he was married and that he wasn’t hitting on me, but wanted me to know that I was desirable, and, that someday I would be loved and married.

He just knew it, he said.

It felt shameful, like I was eavesdropping on a conversation he meant to have about me, not to me. I was in a rush to avoid a parking ticket, but suddenly I was on trial for rushing home to an empty apartment. He knew from reading my work that I had been single for a long time, and he brought up something I mentioned on social media six months ago—a stranger helped me get my car out of the snow during the polar vortex—as an example of why he felt bad for me. I stood frozen as he took pains to tell me about the joys of having children and how I wasn’t to worry, because I was a viable candidate for mating, breeding, and traditional conformity. It was unsolicited, it was unwarranted. It was projecting at its worst and a back-handed compliment to everything I have accomplished.

I left with a smile on my face, not out of happiness or misplaced sense of politeness, but because I was so taken aback by the brazen judgment of someone I had just met. I called a friend to tell him what had happened and to let him know the great news about my future as predicted by a random judgmental prick who had saved me from singledom in a way that felt oddly familiar to when my Pentecostal coworkers at one of my first job who would pull me aside just to let me know that they were praying for my salvation. My friend sang You’ll Never Walk Alone as I drove to my apartment with tears of laughter in my eyes.

I thought about this stranger who thought he was doing me a favor by reassuring me that my life would not always be off-track while I brushed my teeth. I thought about it in line for coffee this morning and again during a rather dull conference call. I wondered not only about what he said, but also what he meant, and perhaps how many other people I have met look at me with those same eyes of sadness for the fact that I’m not married. I fretted about this perception of Cee Angi, lonely baseball writer and sad single sap who has nothing but a spaniel and Baseball-Reference to fulfill her until Prince Charming comes alone. I abhorred his insinuation that I was at this baseball event to meet a man who could stifle the loneliness and fill me with happiness, particularly since I was there for the drinks and company, not attention.

In the end, however, I felt worse for him than I did for myself, but I also feel as though it’s our duty to control our own messages and that if someone doesn’t understand where it is from which we come, then you have to speak up rather than giving someone the license to disrespect you or treat you inappropriately.

As such, let’s start over.

“Hi, sorry to interrupt, I’m Cee, and I’m going home. But before I do, I’m 29 and I live in Chicago with my dog, Lola. I work in Project Management and I’m a freelance baseball writer, and I’ve never had to borrow money from my parents nor have I felt the urge to get coupled up because I can’t pay my own rent. I am a workaholic and I’ve put my careers first because they are of utmost importance to me. Some measure their success in love in marriage and others, myself included, measure it in in disposable income and the ability to hop on an airplane at a moments’ notice.

Further, some of us are intentionally single. I could be in a relationship if I wanted to be, but I haven’t found anyone worth tolerating, worth fighting for, or worth the compromise. I’m a fan of silence and having the entire bed to myself. When I cook dinner and have a bottle of wine on a Friday night instead of spending it with a man, I never stop and think, ‘Oh, pity me that no one will buy me dinner!’ I think, ‘This week has been exhausting, I can’t wait to take my pants off and sit on my oversized chaise and watch baseball games and Netflix.’

There are moments when the societal pressures of conformity creep in and I wonder if I’ve made the best decisions for long-term happiness, but they are fleeting because I remember that life is simpler and often happier when you’re the center of your own attention.

I am not some hopeless case that deserves pity and judgment until I decide to let someone move in with me. If anything, I, like all strong single women, should be applauded for navigating tough periods in life without the traditional societal safety nets so many have become reliant on.

Now, can you tell me the top five candidates for the 2005 NL MVP?”

What Inspires Me

I was asked to answer the question, “What Inspires You?” Here’s the Result:


If you ask my parents to describe me as a child, their response would be a combination of praise, heavy sighs, and nervous laughter.

Let me preface all of this by saying that I have two wonderful parents, high-school sweethearts who believed that hard-work, dedication, humility, and accountability were the responses to any question. Parenting doesn’t come with a manual, so they overcompensated: No matter the question, they stuck to those four answers.

Essentially, I was raised by a Magic 8-Ball.

That approach worked well with my sister. She got good grades and took life at face value, never inquisitive enough to ask a question that the Magic 8-Ball couldn’t handle. Me on the other hand, I constantly fired up questions—not just hypotheticals, real predicaments that needed solving—only to find that no matter how violently I shook it, I got the same answer: Reply Hazy, Try Again Later.

Don’t jump to any conclusions here, I wasn’t a bad kid. I was simply an artist among accountants, a non-conformist that didn’t see boundaries (or understand social constructs like why people have to wear shoes in a restaurant which, admittedly, as an adult, seems obvious now), a precocious kid that was often labeled as untenable just because I wanted to read books, paint, sing, screech, fall out of trees, and push the limits of patience. It was not a scoff at pedantry; living was just more fun when I had cookie dough for dinner and finger painted on the dog.

I contend to this day that I was misunderstood. My mother wonders if she failed me. I know this, because she still asks.
When the time came, no one was surprised when I said I didn’t want to go to college. I wanted to be a painter. I wanted to take pictures; I wanted to write. In negotiations, I tried to reach the middle ground: I’d go to culinary school and open a bakery which seemed responsible enough, even though from the moment the words left my mouth I knew that I would never open La Cee Boulangerie because there’s no way I’d go to work at 4am every day.

Structure didn’t own me; creativity did.

Paths change and people mature. I finished college, even went back for graduate school (and got degrees in business, not abstract puppetry). I grew in new mediums: spreadsheets instead of pastels, high-rises instead of jazz taps. Some see that sort of shift as a dismissal of a dream outright, but that’s shortsighted.

Once you accept who you are—how your mind works, what excites it, and how to challenge it–you can be successful at virtually anything.

Life is hard for the intellectually stagnant, for those who sit idly without curiosities. Inspiration comes from improvising—after all, a Magic 8-Ball may not have an answer.

The City of Big Lessons: My Years as a Chicagoan, Part Two

In honor of my fifth year anniversary in Chicago, I’m taking time to reflect on all of the things I’ve learned in my years here. The first part of the series is here

Every new restaurant cannot be the best restaurant ever

Chicago is a food city. It’s also a sports city, the Windy City, and the City of Big Shoulders, but first and foremost, it is a food city. As such, there are new restaurants opening constantly, and anyone with an investor or a trust fund can try their hand at haute cuisine, food trucks, or even open a pretentious little vault that sells doughnuts for the price of ribeyes to people crazy enough to wait in absurd lines for fried dough. Most people in Chicago become foodies by proxy, and if the restaurant name is trendy enough or if it’s situated on a rough corner in a slowly gentrifying neighborhood, it might be billed as “the best restaurant ever” by the people who go there.

Perhaps the City of Big Shoulders is also the City of Gross Hyperbole, but I’ve heard the phrase “best ever” uttered so many times that it doesn’t even register. The true Chicago boulevardier knows he or she has to supply a more thoughtful portrait. If you’re the first person in your group to eat at a new restaurant, it’s your job to be an apostle, spreading the gospel of truffle fries and Scotch eggs to anyone who will listen. When among your peers, you should be armed with strong opinions about the food, and how the food ranks from best restaurant to (former) best restaurant. You also have to know the lineage—Kuma’s had the best burger ever, but then they branched into Lakeview which made it prosaic, and thereby were dethroned by Au Cheval or Three Aces. They too will be ousted by something that opens in the next six months.

Then there are all of the novelty food shops that pop up that you have to feign interest in—shops that make poutine, bars that specialize in brown liquor, hot dog shops, craft tacos, and places that put bacon in everything. Sure enough, as soon as someone says that BlackWoodBushHouse has the BEST biscuits and gravy in the city, your next brunch invitation will take you there. And, of course, if the food is disappointing your host will always take refuge in the bandwagon-jumpers favorite excuse, “Oh, it was much better the first time we came.”

There are good restaurants everywhere in this city. There are restaurants where you can spend your entire paycheck to literally eat the menu because the molecular gastronomy movement allows for it (and it tastes, as you’d expect, terrible) and there are taquerias with $2 tacos better than the ones you’d spend twice as much for at Big Star.  The secret is that a restaurant’s trendiness is seldom synonymous with its level of quality. The wise diner can ignore the hype in favor of those establishments whose qualities suit their individual temperaments. You don’t have to wait in line two hours of a hot dog, unless of course you want to. For me, the lists of bests include anywhere that you a) don’t have to wait in line b) don’t have to listen to the people next to you discuss the litany of problems with their vintage fixed gear and c) allow you to bring your own beer.

Don’t let anyone convince you that you’re less of a Chicagoan for not having tried every new restaurant in the week that it opens. Perhaps in certain circles there are points to be won for knowing someone who can snag you tickets to NEXT or a mixologist who gives you an exclusively heavy pour. What’s really unfortunate are the times that I’ve been surrounded by people simultaneously declaring something “the best” and being nonplussed that you’ve never heard of it, like we’re at Pitchfork talking about indie bands we love.

At best, you’re gullible. At worst, you’re broke.

Find Your Bar, Immediately.

I found my bar after being in the city for less than a month.  On that night, I headed back to the high-rise where my old boots had taken on water, this time in new heels and a suit for grad school orientation. I hated wearing suits, especially the jacket, but the invitation implored us to “dress to impress” which was synonymous for me with “dress in something excruciatingly uncomfortable, lest you be judged.” Even though I started overdressed, I felt the illusion of sophistication ripping away like I had lost a hand of strip poker every time I met a classmate who had roman numerals at the end of their name.

I still had more of a Kentucky twang at that point, which was at times a point of pride, but in rooms of young aristocrats, a point of insecurity. I sat alone in the corner, sipping the juice that I was handed when I walked in, and tapped my pencil on my notebook. I didn’t plan to take any notes, but it at least kept my hands busy, and if anyone made eye contact, I could fly open the cover and bury my nose in it.

The Dean of the University gave a speech, and while she spoke I looked through the “Welcome to Grad School, Don’t Fuck Up” pamphlet we were handed at the same time as the squeezed mystery berries in a Dixie cup. On the inside of the front cover was a letter from the Dean which seemed redundant since she was speaking from behind a podium inches in front of me, but it contained a biography that told me we did our undergrad at the same university. I hadn’t met anyone from Kentucky since relocating, but more importantly, it gave me a talking point with which to introduce myself. It would also prevent me from saying something stupidly awkward like “I EXCITED I AM SCHOOL GRADUATE EDUCATION” which is always the risk when you ask a wallflower to speak to a powerhouse.

When she approached, I shook her hand and said that we attended the same university. While that reference alone would have sufficed, my nerves forced me to throw in a “Go Cards” with the little L hand gesture afterwards (which is an event I’ve often replayed in my head as one of the most embarrassing things I’ve willingly done). Trent Thomas Edwards Rubenstein the Fourth, or whatever his name was, waited with growing jealousy as the dean and I talked about Louisville the city and Louisville the University. She then told me that she was leaving to go to a bar on the Northside and that if I hurried I could meet her and the alumni group to watch the remainder of the basketball game. With the Dean’s blessing, I blew off the rest of orientation and took the train to the bar, limping blocks in my boxy suit and itchy pantyhose. It was the first and only time I’ve chosen to watch a sporting event in stilettos. I was too shy to do much beyond say hello to the dean and her group, but I took a seat at the bar, which was tended by the owner. He’s no mixologist, but generous in pours and conversations.

In the months that followed, I wandered in there frequently enough that they learned my name, my drink, and even which sporting event I’d want to watch even before I could ask. It’s important to have a relationship with a bar as they seem to last longer than ones with people in this city. It’s nice to know there’s a place that can make you dinner, pour you a drink, and provide friendly conversation when being new can make you sometimes struggle to find it elsewhere.

The City of Big Lessons: My Years as a Chicagoan, Part One

Anniversaries for longevity have been elusive milestones in my life. Growing up, the longest I lived anywhere was two years. I stayed in my college town for six years, not because it took me that long to get two  degrees, but because I was so blinded by love that it took me a couple of years to figure out that the one thing I really wanted was to be left alone. I haven’t held a job, other than freelancing, for longer than two years. My aforementioned relationship was my longest, and it lasted just four years before ending with a lot of screaming and a partially-shattered sense of self-worth.

And when it was over, I landed in Chicago — five years ago today.

Conventional wisdom says that your early twenties are supposed to be the “best years of your life” and I guess, for me, that was no exception. I woke up two hours before my alarm, something that would have never happened in my first two years here, and watched the snowflakes dance along the Christmas lights hanging across the horseshoe curved courtyard.  It hit me that I’m just 365 days away from having more of an identity as a Chicagoan than a Kentuckian, if time were the only measure.

In celebration of my fifth anniversary, here’s part one of (at least) a two-part series of things I’ve learned from my first five years in Chicago.

Invest in good winter gear

When I arrived in Chicago, there was snow on the ground. That’s not usual for November-March, but on that particular morning in January there was just enough on the ground to argue that better footwear would be needed. My Chucks were reduced to squishy-soled water weights strapped onto my feet with fraying laces. As I carried my redneck suitcases (trash bags) full of clothes into my first city apartment my single agenda items– figure out how to get the sofa inside — was soon joined by a second: find better shoes.

The sofa was solved by using a rope to hoist it onto the balcony. I was proud of the new place, a two-bedroom that my parents were going to help me pay for until I found a roommate. I found it on my own, and it wasn’t until I moved in that I realized I committed a huge Chicago faux pas: I was renting west of Western Avenue. Now that gentrification has really picked up that carries less of a stigma, but I spent the first six months of my Chicago tenure convinced that the Norman Rockwell façade of the Northwest corner of Lincoln Square was hiding something more dangerous. Turns out, there’s just a caste system involving Chicago addresses.

In my first week in Chicago, I clocked nearly twenty miles of walking, all in boat shoes (without socks) and tennis shoes (also without socks). My feet were wet and cold, and on the first day of heavy snow and subsequent days of -30 degree weather, I caved to the importance of winter footwear. Money was something I didn’t have, so I got a pair of knock-off UGGs from the clearance rack at Macy’s. They lasted only a couple of weeks, until the snow started to melt; the faux-suede took on water like the Titanic and I sloshed around as if wearing a pair of icebergs.

One of the first things I had to do prior to starting grad school was meet a mentor for drinks at a gastro pub situated at street level of the 23-floor high-rise in which I was set to start classes at the end of the month. I still felt counterfeit when walking into the grown-up establishments catering to  cosmopolitan adults, places that often involved revolving doors and reservations, and if my own insecurities weren’t enough of a burden, as soon as I stepped on the rug my footsteps were met by gasps from the hostess, an early 20’s female, a thin stick of perfection with an orange-tinted face draped in long blonde waves (I’ll later learn we call those Trixies here), who looked at me as though I were a Great Dane whose paws were filthy. What she realized before I did was that my footwear had succumb to scientific principles; my budget boots were disgorging fluid with every step I took, water rushing out of the sides of the boots with great force, spilling onto the floor.

I shuffled to the table trying to avoid sloshing. The man across from me was pristine in a vintage gabardine jacket and rubbers over his wing-tipped oxfords. His cashmere scarf was finer than my fake one, and he sat with a stoic confidence that I assumed was gifted to individuals that had spent more than 30 days in the city. Each sip of my Sazerac and every word uttered about how grad school and the resultant change of career would revolutionize my life reminded me that I might not fit in. It was my nature to have cold feet, and on that day I did, quite literally, as my soggy boots created pools on the tile where they rested, the squid ink decay of car exhaust and other city unpleasantries deep enough for ducks to wade on the Italian tile.

The next day I took the red line to the Chicago stop. I found a place called Soupbox and ate clam chowder, my feet still suffering the same fate from the melting snow. I walked to the North Face store and charged new boots, a puffy sleeping bag coat, a hat, gloves, and a scarf to my emergency credit card. It was easily the most expensive shopping spree I’d had in all of my 23 years, but I wore the boots out of the store and threw the soggy sandbags I’d just disowned into the bin in front of the Jamba Juice.

There’s a joke that all women in this city look the same during the winter months, but it’s more about survival than conformity. Try walking two miles in fake UGGs and a wool pea coat in negative temperatures; chances are you’ll accept your fate as a Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man. Today I put on the same boots and coat I bought that day and spent 45 minutes dusting my car off from the snow that festooned its hood. There’s exactly one type of person in Chicago and I learned that quickly: We’re all masochists who would rather complain about the weather than move somewhere that’s better (and that’s because the spring and fall are amazing here).

Without a Budget, You’re not going to make it

I knew that living in a big city would be more expensive, but it’s also fair to say that I didn’t have a great concept of how exponentially more difficult my life would be financially. Prior to the big move, I’d never been reckless fiscally. Sure, I decided to fly to Los Angeles on a whim to see a concert with my best friend and probably spent more on vinyl records than necessary, but I always had a safety net. I knew that money would be tight here. I had loans for grad school with a couple thousand in residual funds to help defray the cost of housing (which it did, for roughly two months out of the year). I had a full-time job, but was earning just enough to subsist, not thrive.

When you’re strapped is when you learn the truth about your spending habits. Emergency credit cards turned into a means for paying for groceries, and each month when payments were due I played the shell game with my bank accounts and shifted money from one place to another, watching it disappear and feeling guilty over every purchase from eyeliner to toilet paper.

I had no outrageous spending habits to correct, but when you don’t have much it adds up quickly, especially when you don’t adjust your discretionary spending. I naively thought that if I avoided places like Barneys and Alinea that the money would just sort itself out, but coffee four times a week, beer three times a week, and even the cheap tacos added up. Then came the car troubles, a sick puppy, and a back injury. Bottled water taxes and the 9.25 percent the city takes on everything sent me into spending depressions (and forced me to buy one of those stainless steel water bottles).

Then came the frugal years. When I’d go out with friends, I’d surgically dissect our bill, paying for only the food I ate instead of subsidizing their drinking habits. It felt unfriendly and cold, but when every dollar mattered, it was the best I could do. I eventually stopped accepting dinner invitations and would eat Chef Boyardee before showing up for just drinks, where I’d drink club soda with lime, sometimes tipping bartenders in quarters. I got my hair cut by students who often left the ends jagged or split and the roots a different color from inexperience. I shopped at second-hand stores, bartered for tickets to baseball games, and limited my social calendar to free events.

My one oasis in an otherwise functionally poor existence was a student membership to the Art Institute. It was $50 I could have used, but on days when I felt lost, broke (which was most days), or in need of a few hours of escape, I could wander the museum for hours, rubbing elbows with Monet and French tourists. I memorized the museum; I could tell you which miniatures had dogs in them and which I wished were real so I could live in them. It was a slice of culture, one that I played like a VHS tape of Roger Rabbit when I was a kid. With afternoons of art and free fruit-water on the members-only patio, I was enriching my life since my other alternative was usually sitting at home.

My salary is now above the area median income, and yet budgets seem even more important now. There’s a tendency for young professionals here to parade about as though they are millionaires when in fact they are swimming in debt or one disaster away from bankruptcy.  I went out with someone recently who informed me that he spent over $450 on cabs last month, all because his friends like to go out in River North and he doesn’t like to take the train. I lived with someone who made a modest salary, yet went out to eat four nights a week at the city’s fanciest restaurants and often wondered aloud what had become of her savings. My father always warned me when I was a kid that “expenses would rise to meet income.” What he didn’t tell me, of course, is if you’re not careful your expenses can rise exponentially higher than your income and that you’ll have to call and beg for some emergency cash because your emergency credit card is maxed out. This leaky sieve of a city encourages commerce. I’ll spend the rest of my life confronting that, I’m afraid.

When people come to visit, let them stay with you, and give them a map.

There was a reaction that I always waited for when I told people I was moving to Chicago: the moment their eyes would light up when they realized that they might not have to pay for a hotel on their next visit. I can sympathize with that reaction, having done my fair share of sofa surfing over the years. Since I was moving to a place where I hardly knew anyone, the prospect of people coming to visit was exciting.

It’s exciting, that is, until you realize what visitors entail. You have to have the refrigerator stocked, even if they plan to eat every meal out, because if you don’t, they’re going to decide they want bagels at the house or mimosas before heading out to see Buckingham Fountain. You also have to convince them that you always have clean sheets, an organized closet, and guest towels. If it’s your parents, then you also have to hide everything that would imply that you’re doing anything but ideal, which means stashing the mail, prescription medication, text books, and condoms.

In my first year, a handful and a half of people came to stay.

Sometimes it was strictly transactional. An old coworker needed a place to stay during Lollapalooza, another on their drive up north. But the worst trips, and most of them were like this, was the Thursday-Sunday trip in which they showed up agenda-less and proclaimed, “We are here to experience ‘city-life!’” Of course what they don’t know is that once you’re living in the city, the definition of that becomes very different than it does for someone who is just passing through. My definition of “city-life” was sitting in coffee shops with free wireless, going to bars to watch college football, and going to my favorite BYOB Neapolitan pizza place that wasn’t mentioned in any of the tourism brochures. To them it meant going to the Cheesecake Factory, then ESPNZone, and then riding your bellyful of overpriced nachos and tasteless cheesecake to the top of the Sears Tower to look out upon the sprawling landscape.

After paying roughly $45 dollars to see the top of the damn skyscraper and $50 for two martinis at the Hancock, you lose your energy to argue that there are better restaurants than Weber Grill, better bars than Mothers, and accept that some people are just on a reckless quest through the tourist strip of Chicago. These people are oblivious and unsalvageable and they should be sent out on their own. Arm them with directions to Lou Malnati’s (which they’ll like better than Pequods), the Bean, the Macy’s on State, Wrigley Field, and something Ferris Bueller- or Blues Brothers-related and send them on their way. Don’t go with them and tell them to save room for dinner and take them somewhere that you like and listen to the things they saw. And when at the end of the dinner they say, “I wish we had come to more places like THIS,” do not smile. And do not, under any circumstances, say that you told them so.

Hours in the Day

I knew that I wouldn’t get out of bed when my alarm went off at 5am this morning, but it was worth a try. Even in the process of going to bed—somewhere between double and triple checking the alarm and giving Lola her bedtime snack—I knew that waking before the sun was a lofty and ambitious goal, especially for a Monday, but I had to at least try. I don’t naturally get up with the sun; if left undisturbed and in room dark enough, I can easily sleep until the Price is Right. As much as I’d like to be a morning person, the type who springs from bed like wheat bread from the greased springs of a toaster, I’m lacking the proper genes or life exuberance to make that happen consistently. The only times I ever exit bed with alertness is the days that I wake up hours before the alarm with the extreme paranoia of missing a flight or an important meeting. For months now, I wake up with three layers of regret, the first from staying up two hours too late, the second from hitting snooze for thirty minutes longer than I should have, and the third knowing that I went to bed without finishing all of my projects.

There is a delicate line between depression and exhaustion; I’ve bounced like a pinball between them this year; lately it’s been impossible to distinguish between the days when I am frustrated and the ones where I’m satisfied, but my muscles are too fatigued to form a smile. I recognize the days when I’m stressed, those are punctuated by time spent behind locked doors crying, hoping that no one can hear. The tired days happen with great frequency, four cups of coffee turn into six and I still drift on conference calls and pinch myself to stay awake in the ninth inning. There have been plenty of days of joy this summer, involving time by the lake, out with dear friends, or agenda-less with reading material, but for the better part of seven months it’s been a grind of counting the hours until it’s all over, all while watching them zip by, unable to reclaim any sort of routine or memory beyond the moment.

Judging by the number of people who feel like life is passing them by, I’d guess it’s probably normal. “I’m just too busy,” their lips uttering endless platitudes lamenting that there, “just aren’t enough hours in the day,” and that, “they don’t sleep!” because they’ve been, “burning the candle at both ends,” since, “time just flies by, yanno?”  Maybe we’re all exhausted from one thing or another; perhaps we’re destined to live stages of our lives in a fugue state fogged-and- bogged by anything and everything. But I’ve been exhausted before, and this exhaustion, all mine and all consuming, feels different than it has in the past.

The 5am alarm was to get to the 9-5, which is actually a 7-6 if I’m lucky or a 6-9 if I’m not. The extra time was to guarantee that I finished cleaning from the party I had the night before, a chance to take the empties to the dumpster before anyone would see me in my tattered Louisville sweatshirt and shorts that reveal more leg than strangers should see. Getting up early would also mean that I’d get the full shower instead of the abridged one, and that the entire makeup routine— layers and layers from four different brushes—would be satisfied instead of the smoky eyes and concealer on rushed days. I feel better on days when my belt goes with my shoes, but damned if I don’t choose sleep over perfection even on days when I’m not physically tired, leaving me feeling frumpy and unfinished, inferior to the bodies and couture of a Type-A office.

And at least three nights a week, when the day should be winding down, part of mine is just beginning. In the evening hours I’m tethered to the laptop and television, messing around with Play Index, writing drafts, and calling editors. I swap time at the gym and well-balanced meals for radio hits and podcasts, fulfilling a seemingly foolish dream of entertaining and enlightening. Most days the words are there. Others though, the exhaustion—or the depression—take hold before I’ve even slipped into my pajamas and house shoes, and I get so worked up about deadlines that I suffer epic tantrums somewhere between topic choose and stat searching. Writing for a paycheck is different than doing it for yourself. It’s frustrating and time-consuming, all while punching someone else’s clock, not to mention the unfriendly and often misogynistic audience has partially broken my spirits on numerous occasions. But even on days when my sex-life is up for public discussion by strangers, or more innocently when I mix up David and Daniel Murphy in my first and final drafts, I work through it, often with laughter. The truth with writing is, that even on the worst days, I recognize that I’m fortunate enough to actuate a pipedream and collect a paycheck in the process.

But the exhaustion, depression, and general apathy have made both jobs impossible for me to do well. I know I am valued, and perhaps integral at times, but I’d never fool myself into thinking that the buildings won’t get built if I’m not there to crunch the numbers, or that the world would be any different if I weren’t around saying something about Adam Dunn. But part of the exhaustion is expectation; we have to do something with our lives, and Development and Writing are what I’ve chosen to do with mine. Part of it is certainly financial related, but in the process of creating a life for myself, I’ve pushed myself to work constantly not with career advancement as the motivator, and not because I had any misconceptions about the imprint that I leave on projects.

I’ve been doing it because without it, I didn’t feel like I had anything else.

I’ve been working on changing that, learning to work because it pays the bills and because it’s rewarding to be accomplished instead of using it as an escape from the voids. It doesn’t matter if I work until 4pm or 11pm; the apartment is still empty when I get there. And accepting extra assignments can’t distract from having a sick parent, even if it makes me forget about it for a little while. And the hours spent writing? For awhile, they weren’t about a love of baseball or the craft of writing, but more about avoiding the fact that I didn’t have anywhere to go or anyone to see. It’s easiest to be busy—no one questions anything but your sanity when you’re working hard. It’s much easier to spew platitudes and keep your hands busy than it is to sit idly and wonder where the hell some things went wrong.

It’s been trial and error, but I’ve mostly found the balance that has been missing. I brought back the things that I abandoned, and packed my week with activities that didn’t stress or complicate things. I painted for seventeen hours, dancing through the kitchen with paintbrushes as microphones, stomping carefully as not to disturb the makeshift easel that held the canvas. I pulled out a camera I haven’t used in five years and shot roll after roll of film, manually adjusting apertures and minding the rule of thirds while I explored my neighborhood. I ate lunch and didn’t count a single calorie, indulging in old favorites and new beers, and even sang along with the bartender and the Beach Boys. I read a book on a train, in a coffee shop, on a park bench, in bed until four in the morning listening to the rain fall, knowing I didn’t have to force myself from bed for any purpose other than breakfast.

I also remembered, for a brief moment, what it felt like to be completely engulfed by someone else, stepping outside of myself in the pursuit of being consistently good to another instead of focusing so strongly on my own needs. And I started writing again—not because I had to, not because someone was paying me, but because I missed the intimate hours alone with a moleskine and a keyboard writing things that I’d probably never show anyone.

I went to the ballpark on Friday, and arrived just as the gates open. I sat in the Bleacher Bar, just beyond the right field fence drinking cheap beer, watching the Kansas City Royals take batting practice. I admired the pristine field, and embraced the way that the air feels just as the sun is going down on the Southside. We drank, we swore, and we pontificated on a team that lost 99 games this season. It felt good to be among people; it felt better to keep score and watch a game without a deadline. It’s a shame that I allowed myself to go months without experiencing baseball like that, especially since the season is now over.

And still free from the pressure of work and deadlines, I made the best out of an evening of canceled plans by making cookies that I decorated like baseballs. I hung the ticket-stub shadowbox and some pictures in my office, and festooned the apartment with vintage baseball cards, an egg hunt of earned run averages and runs batted in for those who stopped by for my housewarming to find.

These two weeks have felt normal, the closest to complete and satisfied I’ve been as an adult. I laughed and smiled at strangers; I sang along with Roy Orbison in a parking lot with the car windows down, not caring who heard me. I gave hugs and at moments talked the loudest instead of meekly deferring to everyone else. Some days it’s still going to be hard to get out of bed—but I’m going to be working less. If the past two weeks have proven anything, it’s that I have some serious catching up to do.

Laughter in a Vacuum

Last Friday, I left work early, something I hadn’t done in nearly three months.

In my last job, finding an excuse to leave early was the only reason to go to work.  I took Lola to dozens of imaginary vet appointments, had numerous important trips to the bank (which closes early), and even fibbed a  weekly therapist appointment that required me to leave early every Tuesday—sorry, the fake doctor doesn’t take appointments past five.

The new job, however, keeps me tethered to my desk from the early hours before most coffee shops open until around the fifth inning of the East Coast games. There aren’t any vacation days, or even paid time off, for the foreseeable future. For 50+ hours a week, it’s just me, my thoughts, and a brand-new IBM laptop that still smells like fresh plastic.

Everyone was gone, though, and instead of spending hours with my eyes burning from the strain on multi-tabbed spreadsheets, I forwarded my calls to my cellphone and left the computer on, just in case someone came back to the office looking for me.

I didn’t have plans—I never seem to have plans these days.

I came home from the office and created my favorite bath concoction: part Mr. Bubble, part bath salts, and just a light squeeze of lavender oil. I read a book that a friend gave me over a year ago, but ditched it four pages in for a copy of a Fantasy Football magazine.

Instead of throwing on jeans and boat shoes, I upgraded to a sundress, my favorite loafers, and curled my hair in beach waves, instead of a wet ponytail. I wore my Prada sunglasses instead of the cheap aviators I wear to baseball games, and carefully applied the rose-red lipstick that I wear for special occasions.

After turning from side-to-side obsessively in the full length mirror, I accepted truce with my shadow and added the diamond earrings my mother gave me for Christmas, a ring from an ex-boyfriend that I never stopped wearing, and a necklace from a vintage store near the train in my new neighborhood.

Lola got her Kibbles N Bits, and I filled my flask—the one engraved with my favorite player’s slash line—with bourbon, and took to the tree-lined streets in search of….something.

I walked in a large square around my neighborhood, before taking the bus to see the new Woody Allen movie.

I purchased a single ticket with a student discount even though I haven’t been in enrolled in years, and my hunger-panged stomach propelled me to the concession line, since I’d skipped lunch in favor of a bath.

I dug in my wallet, looking for my debit card to pay for my popcorn and mixer.

“It’s $9.50,” a squeaky-voiced Northwestern student said while I searched for the card in my clutch that contains more baseball stubs than dollars.

A man entered behind me and sat his items within my popcorn’s buffer zone, which confused the register operator.

“Are you paying for his, too?” he asked.

My face turned red, and my voice quiet. “No, I’m here alone.”

Going to the theatre alone doesn’t bother me—it proposes no dilemma of loneliness—but I’d prefer to never say it aloud. I’m not a frequent moviegoer, but I do know there’s no benefit in platonic movie company, unless the proximity of someone else’s heartbeat is as soothing to you as it is to puppies.

Non-platonic seatmates, however, are an upgrade over platonic company, but not necessarily over going solo. Non-platonic seatmates are good for handholding, shoulder pillows, and when I was much younger, more risqué fun—but I certainly do not have company of that ilk to speak of these days.

When I arrived, there were plenty of open seats, and I walked up the stairs to one of the last rows as a courtesy to the geriatric couples who gravitate to Allen’s films and require the aisle seats for frequent bathroom breaks and Poly-grip reseals.

I was alone, and I was okay, but sometimes these situations serve as a good reminder that there are societal norms and pressures that must continually be confronted, even if you’re within the bounds of normal behavior.

Before the movie, I was alone with my thoughts, not because I was feeling exceptionally introspective, but because the MLB App wasn’t working. After counting seats and then people, I did the math on something else.

How long had it been since I had been on a date. The answer? Eight months.

Eight months may not seem like a long time for regular daters, but like most things in life, I never approached dating conventionally. After breaking off an engagement at 22, I spent the following years as a serial dater, eating lavish free meals and seeking a connection, while mostly piling up on heartache and refining my abilities at feigning interest for long stretches of time.

I spent three years this way, with handfuls of dates per month, filling up the spaces in my douchebag BINGO card. There were nice Jewish boys with mommy issues, and musicians and artists that insisted on coffee instead of dinner because it was cheaper. I had dinner with men who wore too much cologne and were impolite to waiters, and ones that showed all of the warning signs of being in committed relationships like obsessive phone-checking and constant over-the-shoulder watching. I sat in theatres with men that were considerably older, but were more mature and reliable than men my own age, and I dated several men that were clearly unsure about their sexuality, yet kept buying women dinners, hoping there would be a spark.

I prepped myself for every outing as though it could be the night where I finally met The One, and even in the present, but especially retrospectively, it was a pitiful existence, a cycle of desperation that didn’t even make sense, considering I wasn’t lonely or longing. It became a cycle, where bad dates fueled the desire to go on more dates just to erase the shitty aftertaste, and to prove, definitively, that there were good men who would return phone calls, not text too much, and help change flat tires in emergencies.

The good news for single ladies everywhere is that I met plenty of them, but given that I was still unpacking the baggage of a four-year mind-fucking relationship, even though several candidates for The One came along, I would intentionally sabotage the whole thing in the interest of autonomy.

I worked hard to convince others that I was just a free spirit that didn’t need meaningful relationships with men for fulfillment, yet in the end I became a caricature of singledom.

I’m not alone in this—there is a large sect of women who tread through their mid-20s breaking hearts and acting recklessly, just as their male counterparts do. We’re the ones who didn’t marry our high school sweethearts and were spurned by our college lovers and we’re free to sample all of the possibilities of what life can bring. We can see how it feels to date older men, to make out with younger ones. What it’s like to date lawyers with money, or writers who leave love notes and give backrubs as currency.

It sounds cold, malicious even, but it’s not. The freedom to choose, to explore, is a luxury afforded to those who are willing to be patient, and not rush to live their lives bound by vows and contained behind picket fences. At some point, however, the dating becomes sterile, and the enjoyment in meeting new faces is lost, and then there are just two desires: Waking up alone, or waking up to same someone else’s breath on the back of your neck every morning.

Now in recovery from dating too much, I’ve spent the past two years waffling between consistently being alone, and consistently wanting to find The One again. But this time, it’s less about the feats of strength and mental gymnastics to prove that we’re made for each other, and more about a gut feeling.

I’m told this is how grown-ups date.

But even though I’ve clearly sorted what I want, it’s not a simple thing to implement. My career has come first, and when I’m not chained in my office working on spreadsheets, I’ve chosen to spend my evenings analyzing baseball to help pay down some of my grad school debt.

There’s a fierce proudness in learning that I can do most things on my own. My own apartment, new car, an entire room dedicated to my meaningless baseball collection, enough of a savings cushion to go on vacation, and sole control of the remote and contents of the refrigerator. I painted the entire apartment without consulting anyone on paint colors (other than an interior designer), and did the work myself even though it probably would have been safer to have someone there to hold the ladder.

I’ve done, and will continue to do, single well. I’ve conquered the fears of loneliness and depression that can sometimes accompany it, and I’ve come out on the other side realizing that a lot of those feelings don’t stem from the need to receive affection, but because the desire to give it.

Movies alone are unfulfilling not because it’s embarrassing to be in public alone—it’s not, and it shouldn’t be—but because laughing alone in a vacuum is worse than not laughing at all.

And that’s the part, platonic or not, that seems to be missing these days.

“Are these seats taken?” an oversized grandma asked as she reached to move my satchel, her chipped hot-pink polish exposed on her shaking hands.

“Uh, no. I’m here alone,” I said with a smile, as I scooped up my gummy frogs, popcorn, and bourbon and moved to my left, realizing that the theatre was now packed and that my space on the outskirts was now prime real estate.

She didn’t smile, or even acknowledge I spoke, before turning around.


Her husband pulled himself up the stairs, one at a time, balancing his Raisinets and his desire to reach his Mrs. before the previews started.

Some turned to look at the girl who was taking in a movie alone, but instead of cowering, I was confident for the first time in awhile that I had finally figured everything out.

Domain Bills, Forget The Hyphen

I got an email over a month ago reminding me that it was time to renew my domain name. I marked it as important, then promptly went about my business for another 35 days.

I think I got a warning when I posted my most recent article, and thought, “Well, it’s probably time to settle up that tab,” then promptly forgot again because I’m sure my wallet was at least ten feet away from me, and I was engrossed in reading, writing, and watching baseball, as I’m wont to do.

Today’s final reminder came in the form of an email, which I read in the bitchiest of tones, even though it was an automated reminder from the domain host.

I’d waffled on the idea of keeping this site over the course of the past year. There have been times where writing and publishing for public consumption has been too much. But fortunately, despite deciding for a brief period that getting away was better than being subject to ridicule, I’m now in a good place with it all. The truth is, I enjoy writing enough that it’s worth some of the nonsense that comes along with it.There are days where I feel depressed when I can’t drop everything and write–and those are the days that I know that I’m meant to keep doing this.

So, is going to be around for another year. And, it’s finally the year that I won the battle for the domain as well, so if you’re anti-hyphen, you can now get there either way. I’m looking forward to another year of creating content for this site (and hopefully more volume!). I’ll still be fulfilling my obligations over at, as well, with my weekly column there, and hopefully there will be more opportunities throughout the year, just as there have been in years past. As I’ve said before, but mean sincerely: Thanks to everyone who reads this.

But today feels good, and I’ll consider it the two-year anniversary of this incarnation of this particular site (which evolved out of other works, so it’s hard to really pin a birthday on it).

Without getting too introspective and nostalgic, I’ll just say that things have come a long way. I’ve gained confidence as a writer, even if sometimes that confidence is just knowing I’m able to sit in one spot for hours at end staring at a screen.  These days, the office is filled with boxes because I’m moving again in a few weeks, but it’s still been nice to curl up in bed in the evenings with the laptop. I’m working on a few things that I haven’t published yet, but there should be more content here in the coming weeks.

Lastly, this year of writing has a motto, one of which I’ve put on a Post-It note on my laptop and will hopefully stick (the message, not the adhesive). I had dinner with a friend this week, someone whose work I respect and has become an important person in my world. We talked about the grind of writing, of work, of relationships, and eventually settled on a conversation about gender and the assumptions of onlookers.

Two nights before, I had offered him a ride back to his place from US Cellular, because logistically it made the most sense. At dinner, I admitted that I was self-conscious about leaving the park with him, because the minds of onlookers would undoubtedly be substituting their own reality over what was simply a friend giving another a friend a ride.

The fact remains, as with most situations, we’re all dammed if we do and damned if we don’t, and that extends well-beyond the throngs of people who have nothing better to do but speculate on the sexual escapades of strangers. In what is possibly the best advice I have ever received, he told me simply, “It’s not your job to mitigate reactions.”

Perhaps the key to freedom is really just that simple. It’s worth a try, at the very least.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 27 other followers