life in general

The sounds of settling.

A man with a waxed mustache, twirled ironically to anachronistic perfection, drove me to Schaumburg last night.The wales on his rust-colored corduroys ran horizontally, and the pants' pockets were lined with calico and seemed to scream, "Screw you, I'm a nonconformist!" He says he only waxes the mustache to keep the errant curly hairs out of his mouth. I'm not sure I believe him.

We zipped along the back roads in his Honda Fit talking about music and food and the horror of the suburbs. Destination: Ikea. There, after successfully navigating the particleboard Labyrinth, I bought a flat cardboard box that magically became a shelving unit, and a rug that looks like my brain feels: jumbled, abstract. More than a little unsettling, like a circus in a nightmare. Whimsical, from the right frame of mind. Its long edges curled up in a stubborn sneer, like my friend's moustache but less friendly, through the rug's first night in its new home. But it looked better, more at home, in the morning.

Most things do.

My new home has welcomed me with all manner of strange but somehow familiar sounds: creaky floorboards; ancient plaster that shatters with the slightest tap of a nail through the hollow, perennially patched and repaired walls; radiators that gurgle and squeal like larger-than-life teapots. I can see the Brown Line just outside my living room window. My squealing radiators threaten to turn the whole place into a pressure cooker, so the windows have been open since the day I moved in, when the snow fell relentlessly, inch after inch, hour after hour. My moving crew was not fond of me that day. It's a 45-second walk, door to door, to the train — so I've heard. I always forget to count as I cut through the alley and race up the escalator to beat the next train into the station. Inside, as my music plays softly or Rachael Ray prepares yet another obscenely unappetizing dish on my obscenely huge television, the time passes in uneven increments — five to seven minutes apart, longer on weekends — marked by a digitized "bong, bong…doors closing!" and a hollow, garbled conductor announcement that would make Charlie Brown's teachers proud.

The trains clatter away in either direction, leaving behind the hiss of exhaust and howl of emergency vehicles along Western, the quiet hum and snow crunch of passenger cars prowling for parking on the street separating me from the train station. The city lives and breathes around me. It makes me feel alive. And at home.

Home: I waited to feel that for six months in Wicker Park. It never happened. Most of my photos are still stacked in corners, waiting to be hung. What should be the dining room is still a disaster area for homeless knickknacks and paper avalanches waiting to happen. Tearing through the pantry, I really thought I had garlic salt, but the boxes are all empty and broken down; it's nowhere to be found. But I pad around in slippers, the grit of salt and filthy snow grinding into the old wood floors I haven't made time to clean yet; I sip wine from stemless glasses that never made it out of their cabinet on Hermitage; I make dinner without my garlic salt, and I feel at home.

Somehow, everything fits here. Even the robin's egg–blue cabinet.

It all needs just a little more time to settle. Patience. Patience.

And that whimsical, unsettling rug, already relaxed into its bit of floor, will be what brings it all together.

Reverb 10: Gift.

On the last day of November, I signed up to participate in #reverb10, a month-long challenge to blog every day of December based on prompts provided here. Today’s prompt: December 25 Photo: a present to yourself. Sift through all the photos of you from the past year. Choose one that best captures you; either who you are, or who you strive to be. Find the shot of you that is worth a thousand words. Share the image, who shot it, where, and what it best reveals about you. (Author: Tracey Clark)

The Knight took this photo. It was February 28, a day warm enough to start melting the asphalt-tainted snow on the ground. Warm enough for me to wear just a warm hat and my puffy vest. And for him, a black jacket and the Thor tee he loves. He's a superhero kind of guy.

The sun came out that day, after what was apparently a miserable, grey month. We'd been living together for less than two weeks. I'm not sure whether I'd hyperventilated yet.

Either way, it didn't matter. We found ourselves in Boystown that afternoon. I think we'd eaten brunch at Uncommon Ground, and I happened to have my camera with me: Maybe I didn't have the energy then to capture magic with just my heart and mind; maybe I needed a shutter and a lens.

We handed the camera back and forth. Some of my favorite pictures of him, I took that day.

What strikes me about this photo: that look on my face. It was the look of complete and utter adoration. The we'll make it work, if only we try just a little harder look. We have all we need here in our hearts, in our beautiful new apartment. Two against the world. It's a look he knew well, though he saw it less and less as time passed, as winter turned to spring and the strains of life pulled us farther apart.

I remember being happy that day. And hopeful. And calm. Those actually are feelings I know well, though I experienced them less and less as time passed, as winter turned to spring. Storms wash these feelings away.

Despite the maelstrom that I used to define my existence in 2010, it's those rare moments of quietude and peace, the feelings of happiness and hope and love, that I'll hold on to as I pass into a new year of new challenges, as new fronts drift onto my life's radar.


Reverb 10: I don't have your recipe.

On the last day of November, I signed up to participate in #reverb10, a month-long challenge to blog every day of December based on prompts provided here. Here’s hoping it keeps me honest. Today’s prompt: December 6 Make. What was the last thing you made? What materials did you use? Is there something you want to make, but you need to clear some time for it? (Author: Gretchen Rubin)

Two recipes, both promising delicious delicacies and happiness beyond compare. I've tried them both.

First: I made a mess. Pair two unlikely ingredients. Stir together at just the right time. Let rise in a warm place. Beat furiously with family turmoil and life's little hassles. Mix ingredients with everything else in the cupboard, and bake at a high temperature until the smoke alarm starts going off. Throw the whole concoction out the window. Let cool for two months at opposite ends of the city — this metaphor actually isn't going very well — checking for bruises burns at intervals. Try again in a cooler environment, this time adding equal parts trepidation, pride and eternal hope. Repeat the process as best you can remember. Fail again.

Because the recipe looked so much better in the pictures. Maybe the ingredients are better off separately, too decadent — or toxic, maybe — when combined.

Second: I made cookies. 2 1/4 cups flour 3/4 cup white granulated sugar 3/4 cup dark brown sugar 1 tsp vanilla 1 tsp baking soda 1 tsp salt 2 sticks butter 2 eggs In a large bowl, mix sugars, softened butter and vanilla. Add in eggs, one at a time. Beat until smooth. In a smaller bowl, mix flour, salt and baking soda. Stir dry mixture, bit by bit, into the larger bowl until the mixture is even. Add chocolate chips. Drop by rounded spoonful onto an ungreased baking sheet. Bake at 375° for 9-11 minutes or until golden brown. Cool on wire rack.

Or, if you're me, skip the baking part entirely and eat the entire bowl of dough.

Guess I end up sick and hating myself in the end regardless of the recipe. This kitchen isn't going to clean itself.

Reverb 10: Letting go, three months later.

On the last day of November, I signed up to participate in #reverb10, a month-long challenge to blog every day of December based on prompts provided here. Here’s hoping it keeps me honest. Today’s prompt: December 5 Let go. What (or whom) did you let go of this year? Why? (Author: Alice Bradley)

I let go of the monkey bars. (If you're new here, click that! It's a link! Today, it could also be seen as something of a cop-out!)

The Cliff's Notes: I quit my full-time job, gave up my health insurance and paid vacation, the regular paychecks and 401K, my two-and-a-half-hour daily commute, the frustration of working for people with no interest in caring for their employees, and the general self-loathing that went with doing a job my heart was no longer in. An opportunity to work for myself, be on my own, presented itself. And I jumped at it. It wasn't a popular decision with my family — a situation not altogether unfamiliar to me at this point — and I knew it wouldn't be easy in a lot of ways.

But I did it because 27 years old is too young not to take a chance that might end in failure. It's too young to choose security over freedom. I did it because 27 is too old to still be worried about what's expected of you. I did it because despite the tough sell to my family, there are many, many safety nets, security blankets and downy-soft support systems lined up to catch me if I do lose my grip. And I did it because, contrary to all the news stories written in the past year about foolish, spoiled, naïve Gen Yers, it's never foolish, spoiled nor naïve to expect — no, demand — that a job be challenging, fulfilling and rewarding.

Three months later? I've left the monkey bars and hit the playground running. The twisty slide and the tire swing and the merry-go-round are all at my disposal, and I'm just getting started.

It hasn't been easy, just as I expected. I'm getting by on a bit less money than before. I'm paying through the nose for my health insurance (that's a link, too). I'm beating back the occasional attacks of crippling loneliness.

But I'm also embracing my freedom. I've been running up a storm; I'm getting back in shape. I spend my work days at Starbucks. I go to therapy in the middle of the afternoon. I love the people I'm working with, even though I rarely see them in person and we're scattered all across the country. I'm finding out I'm a pretty decent salesgirl. I'm starting to blog more; I'm proud of more of it. I've signed up for an eight-week writing course.

Challenging. Fulfilling. Rewarding.

Here's to letting go of the monkey bars and reaching forward to what's next.

Reverb 10: Fritter.

On the last day of November, I signed up to participate in #reverb10, a month-long challenge to blog every day of December based on prompts provided here. Here’s hoping it keeps me honest. Today's prompt: December 2 Writing. What do you do each day that doesn't contribute to your writing, and can you eliminate it? (Author: Leo Babauta)

How do I put this?

Everything I do takes away from my writing. All my life's tiny, interstitial moments add up to a pretty substantial chunk of time — hours and hours that I seem to choose to waste on other things. Things that are safe. Things that offer instant gratification.

I watch my Twitter stream refresh, two or three posts a second, sailing across my screen. I check my bank balance, half convinced some mysterious benefactor will have deposited a large sum of money since my last visit.

I rearrange my apartment. It's happened three times in as many months.

I zone out listening to NPR, even though I can't discern actual news half the time, beyond the Charlie Brown whomp-whomp-whomp of soothing radio voices, over the roar of my furnace.

I clean: fold clothes, wash dishes, consider dusting but never actually do. This place is so small that it's a disaster the second a stray sock finds its way to the floor. (I'm staring right now at a tote bag and a not-so-recent Staples purchase that have fallen from their rightful place in a bin next to my desk, and that third of my apartment now looks like a bomb dropped.)

I stare off into space, looking out the window at the grey sky over the grey concrete patio, tugging at the dry skin on my lips until they're so raw I have to force myself up to fetch my lip balm across the room.

I'll even go out and run before I'll sit down to write.

Because I fear writing. And often, that fear is paralyzing. Writing exhausts me, saps me creatively for the day. Or longer. Sometimes I'll sink two hours into writing a post without even realizing the time has passed. It's easy to spend 15 minutes stuck on one sentence, typing and deleting words until I find the supposedly perfect expression of some half-thought.

I'm a tough first read, my own harshest editor. I rarely publish a post without thinking, "Well, there goes another 800 words of shit out into the ether." Or something to that effect. Self deprecation rarely puts such a fine point on things.

Among my fears, expressed as simply (and rationally) as possible:

  • Will anyone read it?
  • Is there some grievous error I haven't spotted?
  • Will there be angry backlash? (Ahem.)
  • Will I stare at my e-mail all day without receiving a single comment?
  • Is this little blog post taking away words and ideas from the book I'll eventually write?

Fear doesn't hold me back from much. But somehow, it often holds me back from doing what I love most in the world. That time I could be crafting a sentence with the potential to unlock pages of thought, or at least fleshing out some flash of inspiration that strikes me at an odd hour?

I fritter it away.

I can't eliminate these little things I do to keep myself from writing. It's not that they don't need to be done…eventually.

But if I gathered up all the time I waste in the course of a day, I'd have plenty of time to get those 800 words of shit out into the ether every day.

Reverb 10: Le mot juste.

On the last day of November, I signed up to participate in #reverb10, a month-long challenge to blog every day of December based on prompts provided here. Here's hoping it keeps me honest.

The first prompt: December 1 One Word. Encapsulate the year 2010 in one word. Explain why you’re choosing that word. Now, imagine it’s one year from today, what would you like the word to be that captures 2011 for you? (Author: Gwen Bell)

One word. One word to sum up an entire year?

There are hundreds of words that describe the past 334 days of 2010 for me. I feel as if I've lived a couple of lives in these 11 months. So why not just randomly assign one and talk about it? Because I'm making this harder than it needs to be. Because the only word sticking in my head is "balloon." For no good reason. I considered "torrid," a word with a certain special meaning to me. But it has this sexual undercurrent — this sense of twisted satisfaction — to it that doesn't quite suit this year.

But that chaos. The heat. That's what I'm looking for. Stormy, maybe.

Only it's not quite that. It's close: Changes came without warning. Blue skies went a sickly green then an electric purple-black. Unpredictable winds, violently shifting red and yellow radar flares, blotted out breaks in the clouds as quickly as they appeared. A big part of the year was a blizzard of other shoes, dropping just as I was learning to do with just one. In my mind, a flurry of confusion and indecision: Family, romance, friendships, work, finances. Euphoria and dejection, paralyzing terror and near-foolish bravery were fronts colliding to create the perfect storm.

But the word "stormy," it lacks elegance. It lacks grace. It lacks je ne sais quoi. And there's a place for elegance and grace, for je ne sais quoi, here. Because storms can be breathtaking and beautiful if you stop worrying for a few seconds about hail damage on your car, about those plans you had to go to the park, about how much more awful your already-unbearable commute is going to be with all this snow. We hear on the news about only the worst storms. The ones that level trailer parks or leave entire cities under water, still recovering after five years. The ones that kill thousands of Asians on some faraway island most Americans couldn't even pick out on a map. (The ratings wouldn't exactly roll in if newscasters went on location to a family drinking soda and watching movies in their basement as they rode out a tornado watch.)

But most storms aren't like that. For the most part, we're safe inside our homes watching the rain come down and the lightning illuminate the backyard in the night with startling clarity and the occasional boom. Or tucked into a plush purple velvet armchair in the corner of a bustling Starbucks while the first big flakes of snow herald the start of yet another winter that's sure to be just as tumultuous and messy as the last.

Breathtaking and beautiful. And a reminder to enjoy the sunny, perfect days when they come. To play hooky once in a while.

English can be ugly. Brash. Halting. Overly simple. But in my second language, the word I'm looking for is appropriately beautiful: "orage," the French word for storm.

And I wouldn't mind if it were the same for 2011. In another life, I'd be praying for next year's word to be "peace" or "stability" or even "boredom," but this tempest suits me pretty well. As long as I can maintain my barometer of perspective. Because really? In most situations, as a sweet little orphan once sang, the sun'll come out tomorrow. Bet your bottom dollar.