On Tennis, Recovery, and Tying your Own Shoes

I have spent the last nine days thinking about three things: tennis, self-sufficiency, and how I’m going to put my own shoes on.

My first tennis lessons came at age seven. Our neighborhood in South Carolina had courts of crumbling clay that saw no use, nestled in a valley of sweet smelling honeysuckle, bramble bushes, and overgrown pine trees that made the surfaces sticky most of the year. In an effort to get more use out of the courts, the home owner’s association trimmed back the overgrown trees and ivy that climbed the chained links, and hired an instructor to teach the neighborhood children how to play.

By this point I was athletic, doing a circuit of outdoor activities every day the weather was nice, as our mother would discourage us from coming back into the house before sundown. I shot 25 free throws at the basketball hoop on our driveway. We used our sand wedges to chip balls out of the compost pile, followed by gymnastics on the neighbor’s trampoline. During pool season, I did back dives and pike dives into our own deep end, stroking like a frog end to end of the pool holding my breath for as long as I could. After dinner, we’d play pickle in the front yard, sprinting back and forth between the mitts we used as bases as my parents tossed the ball with my spaniel nipping at my ankles along the way. I loved grass stains, sometimes intentionally diving on the freshly mowed lawn, not to avoid a tag, but to mark up my clothes and make laundry a little more difficult for my mother.

My father signed me up for the tennis lessons, figuring I would be a natural, reminding me that in their younger days my parents often took to the courts for a date, considering it cost them nothing more than a little sweat and a can of balls. From a barrel of sporting equipment in the garage, my father unearthed an ancient tennis racquet, his own, with the name of a player I’d never heard of considering that we’d never watched the sport on television. He plucked the strings to make sure none were sprung and handed it to me; it was big for my age, but so was I, but it would work for an introductory lesson. If I liked tennis, he said, we could get me a new racquet, one of my own. That’s a promise he would have made good on; he loved to take us to the sporting good store and buy us new equipment, whether we needed it or not, a bonding and a piece of him to have at every game and match since he missed most of them while he was on the road for work.

I set off to my first lesson on my bicycle, a purple Huffy meant for small kids that I had outgrown, oversized racquet in hand. The bike’s seat was raised to the maximum height; the easiest way to get around was standing on the pedals and pumping hard so that my knees didn’t graze the handlebars. I was due for new wheels, but the goal was to wait to see if I grew two inches taller over the summer to skip right to the tween Trek, a ride that I could have for years.

The only thing I remember about the first lesson was that the instructor was an elderly man wearing short compression shorts, the type my father wore when he cut the grass or coached little league. The instructor lined us up against a line on the court—what I’ve come to learn is called the baseline—and taught us how to hold our racquets, what to do when a ball came near us (don’t jump out of the way!), and that the goal, no matter how ugly or strenuous, was to get the ball over the net and keep it within “the box” which I’d come to learn is called the court, but that the court does contain other boxes, though that’s not the lesson he was teaching at the time.

When it was over, I was no better at tennis, but it had at least piqued my interest. The courts had a wall mounted to the chain-link fence that could be used for practicing ones strokes alone, and the instructor encouraged us to do that when we had time, particularly before our next lesson. I figured I would do that, adding it to our circuit of neighborhood Olympic events, and that I would be better at tennis by time summer ended.

I got back on my bicycle, racquet clutched awkwardly in my right hand as I pedaled hard, then pulled my feet from the pedals, coasting down the big hill back to our house. My father was mowing the lawn and my mother was seated on the front porch grooming her potted plants. After making the hard turn onto the driveway full speed, I reached up with my racquet hand to wave hello, only to have the base of the racquet collide with the handlebars, sending me tumbling face first over the tiny bicycle and head first onto the concrete, the racquet breaking my face’s fall. Buckets of blood, a broken nose, stitches, and a waffle pattern that lasted a week on my forehead later, I vowed I would never play tennis again.

After the emergency room, we stopped to get a new bicycle.

Twenty-five years later, I broke my shin on a routine play at first base in a slow-pitch softball league, causing me to swear off organized softball, at least for a few seasons until I had better health insurance and a higher tolerance for pain. Once recovered, a friend suggested that we could take tennis lessons together, and I agreed to break my vow as it seemed like good exercise, also recalling my father’s advice in the past, that tennis was an opportunity to be social that required nothing more than a friend, a lover, or complete stranger and a can of balls.

Signing up with a friend made me more comfortable because while I am not an overly anxious person, one thing that kicks up anxiety for me is showing up to a new place and not understanding where I am supposed to be, who is in charge, and what I am supposed to do until I figure out where I am supposed to be and who is in charge. My therapist once asked me to describe what I felt was one of life’s most anxious moments, to which I blurted out, “those 45 seconds when you’ve walked into a crowded bar and you’re looking for your friends in a sea of faces and the only information you have to go off of was one text that says, ‘we’re here, somewhere by the ATM.’”

The night before our first lesson, I did a dry run, identifying the location of the courts, how to enter them, where to park the car, and making a mental list of what everyone at the tennis court had with them—racquet, balls, a bag (which I did not have), water (which I had not considered but seemed so obvious), and carefully curated outfit (something I had planned weeks in advance, given that my interest in fashion outweighs my athleticism by a large margin).

At the start of the lesson, we stretched, jumped for 30 seconds over the baseline—my first tennis vocabulary word for the day—and finished with sprints. The group raced to the net, and as we turned to make our final approach, my friend, the one who convinced me to come to lessons in the first place, fell hard on the court, scraping her knees as everyone gasped. The instructors rushed to help her up from the ground, both knees and ego badly bruised, as she tried to laugh it off every time someone said, “nasty spill. Are you alright?”

We broke into groups, the more skilled players heading down to the opposite end of the courts, the beginners lining up on the service line—second vocabulary word for the day—to learn how to hold a racquet, basic tennis etiquette, and volleys. To add insult to injury, my skinned-knee friend took a ball to face the during volley drills, her Ray-bans crashing her brow then falling to the court. I saw it in her eyes immediately that she never wanted to return, the frugality in me frowning that she’d just spent $250 for a nasty fall and full-frontal attack.

We left the first day unimpressed. Since we pre-paid for four sessions, I figured I would stick it out, keep going, and see if I could learn the basics of the sport so that I’d at least have a better understanding when watching it on television or reading David Foster Wallace.

Learning, particularly excelling at, a sport is not a linear experience. Some weeks I would leave lessons vindicated at my progress, staying after my hour to hit a cart of balls on my own to practice my strokes. Then there were humbling days where ten shots in a row would be perfect, followed up another 20 where my strokes were completely lost, sending fluorescent orbs sailing out of the zip code and I’d slam my racquet on the court or yell, “FUCK” as loud as I could, much to the chagrin of the good sportsmanship and no cursing codes of conduct for our club.

Over the course of summer, I spent at least three days per week on the court, in lessons and in matches, and with the persistence things started to click. An entire day dedicated to volleys taught me that being tall and having a basic understanding of geometry made me an ideal net player for doubles. My groundstrokes got stronger, my backhand became “beautiful”, and my personal instructor starting calling me “Ceerena” not for my play, but for my fluorescent tennis shoes and the audible grunts I make on my first serves.

If playing tennis was the addiction, getting better was the high. I went from not knowing how to hold a racquet one year ago to finishing second in an intermediate tournament against people who have been playing the sport for dozens of years. There was a rush from being active, something I hadn’t found since giving up on organized sports after college, and the desire to play as much as possible. Though the sport is physically demanding, I never tired, eager to always hit just one more round, play one more match, or to take my instructor’s advice of always finishing the day on a good shot. The mental strategy of outsmarting my opponents, the sunshine and cool winds off of the lake, even the tan lines on my shoulders from the afternoons spent hitting entire carts of balls to work on my serve became part of my identity, something I had been lacking since my hobbies had mostly become work, drinking a glass of wine while answering work emails, watching two episodes of television on the DVR while doing spreadsheets, and climbing into bed to read more emails on my iPhone before bed.

Instead of going to the club three days this week, I’ve been lying on my side, ice packs shoved under each leg and behind my back, shifting awkwardly every 30 minutes because that’s how long it takes for me to get sore. I felt some pain playing tennis one day, which wasn’t unusual because I’ve dealt with back pain for over seven years, but this time it felt different. More acute, sharper, jabbing in my spine, radiating down to my leg, numbness and weakness down into my left toes making it difficult to stand or walk normally. The orthopedic surgeon told me that surgery was the only option at this point, and the sooner the better.

I felt heartbroken over losing my routine; and devastated not just because the surgeon would be taking out parts of my spine and adding new ones—that part was certainly scary—but the ramifications of an extended recovery, a leave of absence, and conundrums like how I would put on my shoes when I can’t bend over and there’s no one here to help me.

I am a social person, but I live a solitary lifestyle. I have tried to stop pondering if it’s a good or bad thing that only a handful of people have ever seen the inside of my apartment, that some of my best friends don’t know my address, and that if I did succumb to a single person’s worst fear (it’s either slipping in the shower or choking on food depending who you ask), it would be awhile before someone found me. But I do know that it sometimes makes life much more difficult when there’s no one to lean on, even though my initial reaction is to rarely to take help, even when it’s offered.

I was fortunate that my mother came out for the actual procedure, shuttling me between the hospital and my bed, making countless trips to the pharmacy for new medications when nothing was cutting the pain or nausea, and for finding every spot in my neighborhood that sold milkshakes, smoothies, or slushies since my throat was raw from intubation. She walked my dog, washed the sheets, fielded countless demands to pick things up off the floor that I’d dropped or hand me something just out of my reach, listening to me whine about how frustrated I was that I could not do any of these things for myself. She said that it was a parent’s duty to help their children, even their grown ones, in situations like these. But I couldn’t help but be racked with guilt for asking someone with multiple chronic illnesses and breathing apparatuses to drive 12 hours across the country to be there for me. But, I had no other options.

Every time I asked for something, I saluted its completion with a, “thank you,” asking for things so often she told me she was tired of hearing those two words. For one afternoon, I changed the response to “fuck you” every time she did something nice to me, a bit of levity to show I was feeling better after what had been a tense few days of illness. The surgeon admitted that things were much more challenging than they’d expected and that he had to “fish” parts of my disc out of my body as it cracked into fragments during the procedure. (If you’re making a face here I apologize; I am making a similar one, except I also get a sympathetic tingle on my incision and an ache in my side just thinking about it).

My mother left to deal with her next patient, an aunt with breast cancer, and with nothing but time, painkillers, and Golden Girls reruns, I allowed myself a day (okay, two days) to be very hard on myself for being alone, for being isolated, for lacking an external support system while my internal support healed itself.

For a long time, I thought the hardest days to be alone were the ones when your car didn’t start and there was no one around to ask for a jump. No family, no friends, no strangers in the parking lot with jumper cables, and some strangers in a parking lot who pretended they didn’t have any so they wouldn’t have to help. Every time that’s happened, I’ve cried while waiting for someone to show up, not only because I would be late—which I loathe—but at the sheer loneliness of it all. Now I know that having a major surgery without a deep bench feels much worse. Some friends were kind, sending flowers, delivering milkshakes, taking their lunch break to help me with my rehab, but the majority of the people that I’ve considered myself closest to throughout my years in Chicago haven’t reached out, haven’t offered to help, nor have they offered any ingenious ideas of how to tie my own shoelaces.

On the days I gave myself permission to feel sad, I cried about this. I allowed myself to get angry. One friend rationalized that as we get older we get busier and more selfish, and that I shouldn’t accept that as a platitude, but that perhaps no one is malicious as much as they are oblivious. But to me, that seems like the coldest consolation, that we are collectively becoming so detached that the only times we think about kindness are as the day allows for it. I’ve waned from being understanding, knowing that if I weren’t spending 14 days on the sofa that I’d be spending 12 hour days in the office focused mostly on my work. I’ve tried not to feel sour and hurt by those whose birthday parties, baby showers, weddings, and graduation parties I’ve attended who were nowhere to be found as I used the corner of a door to help put on a bandage or used tongs to pick up the dog’s toy, because she desperately wanted to fetch, but I couldn’t bend over low enough to pick it up.

I am trying to feel no resentment, but there is a nagging disappointment that in the life I have curated I am more alone than I sometimes realize.

The good news is that there are solutions to most problems, and living in the city has helped. I have hired cars to take me to appointments, messengers to pick up prescriptions. There are services that deliver groceries and take out, companies that will walk your dog with the click of a button, and an app that allows you to schedule someone to clean your apartment with less than a day’s notice. I’m fortunate that I’m in a position that I can hire help for my basics needs when no one can lend a hand because there are plenty of people who struggle with worse ailments who have even less support to figure out how to do it on their own.

Physically, I am feeling stronger. I can stand for longer periods of time, can take short walks without holding onto things, can even make myself a meal, as long as it’s something on an eye-level shelf and not at the bottom of the refrigerator. I’ve cleaned out my DVR, binge-watched whole television series on Netflix, and I’m building strength for the next phase of recovery, heading back to work and physical therapy.

It will likely be eight weeks before I can play tennis again, an additional six or more before I can do something more competitive than just swing a racquet and some light drills. Getting back to a routine with the sport, the activity and the social aspects of it, are what I want to focus on right now, a marker down the road as I limp and waddle through the afternoons of pain, switching ice packs, and doctors appointments.

My goal for now, as I scribbled in my notebook today, is to let everything else go, stop focusing on the times I’ve felt let down, and get one day closer to wearing shoes with laces.

Across the table, there you are.

Over the winter I did some writing; it just hasn’t been published yet. I spent the cooler Chicago months huddled over a laptop in the atrium of the Harold Washington Library with vintage books. Well, not quite vintage books, but ones that seemed that way from being poorly tended during their short stints of life.

I read, cover to cover, a biography of an unapologetically angry outfielder hardened by his unfair treatment during (and after) the World Series. I read news clippings and scouting reports and anecdotes about dogs covertly licking mayonnaise and owner/player disputes and General Managers that could not tell time.

After weeks of doing much more research than necessary, I called my editor from a corner of State Street, loud and littered with tourists who were trying to get in and out of Macy’s with formalwear and snow boots, and bored him with monologuing the angles of my research.

“Maybe you’re over thinking it?” he said in a leading tone, which told me it was more of a statement than a question.

I continued north and we chatted. An editor’s nightmare, I would stay on topic for a few moments, interrupting myself with anecdotes and facts I’d found in my research, a mix between a Baseball Energizer Bunny and a Chucky doll wielding a pen.

An epiphany hit in the hosiery section of Nordstrom, as I caressed the samples while discussing lineup construction and the affect of player’s ages on championship teams, simultaneously settling on a topic for Part Three of my longform and a pair of glittery fishnets for an event I had to attend that evening.

In the weeks that followed, I drank coffee, stayed up past my bedtime zealously writing 9,000 words, which I parsed down to 6,000, filed for editing; feeling the heft of burden and emptiness when one has exhausted a topic.

There is something about the brain, perhaps the brain of all who write but mine in particular, which thirsts for that moment when you find the point to your research. Sometimes it hits in the shower or the produce aisle. Others it occurs after you’ve left a draft open for months on your laptop. It’s often the first place you started, hours of research serving as red herrings until you’ve Sherlocked your way back to assurance that the initial intention was the right one.

Some writers don’t go through that process—they see how to connect the dots before ever sitting down at the keyboard, and it flows from embryo to final draft moments. I am envious and enchanted by these writers. I obsess over them, seek them out, and have them walk me through how it all struck them so cogently. It’s not a gap in knowledge—okay, admittedly, sometimes it is deficiency in my knowledge—but I have a much harder time getting to that place of clarity—that moment when I have identified the through line, the thesis, and the perfectly outlined argument for a final draft.

One editor continues to assure me that this makes me special; I continue to apologize profusely and assure him that I’m not doing it on purpose, that sometimes my brain just compares Kenny Williams to Teddy Ruxpin instead of non-stuffed animal contemporaries.

I do not say this to self deprecate my own creative process, for it is elegant in its tedium, justified in its jumbledness, dignified in its disorganization. (Though, every draft that is ever started and abandoned gets a place on the hard drive, often labeled with the date, and sometimes with an added tag like “thisisntworking” or “donotshowtoaneditor” or “maybethisworksifthereaderisdrunk.)

The best advice I have received about writing is to read the works of others and to meet as many writers as possible; some of those writers have been invited to my bedroom. A few of them I have admired. Two were mediocre, though I’d never tell them as much; one wrote medical research articles for medical journals and I never got beyond the covers of his work.

Of the writers I’ve own interpersonally and intimately, I have had the pleasure of writing with one that I admire most. Not in collaboration specifically, but both behind our respective laptops at the same table in a coffee shop, under the same covers in the morning sunlight, or at my kitchen table.

When getting to know someone, I describe my greatest contentment in relationships as the moments when I can be near someone, but not verbalizing. A passive engagement, if you will, an opportunity where our brains are focused on other tasks, peripherally focused on one another, with appendages touching across a table or toes rubbing under the sheets as a reminder of physical proximity. It is an introverts’ paradise to keep company that is partially engaged, to be felt without being studied, to have warmth without it smothering, breaking momentarily for important pontifications like, “How many strikeouts do you think Randy Johnson would have if he played today?”

Orgasms that make your toes curl are important, but so are the lustful moments fueled by quick glances over the top of a Macbook in the direction of someone deep in thought that sustain me. This is not an argument for sapiosexuality, a concept which I find to be rather bullshit, but rather an organic arousal of watching someone in their element—pausing, head cocked in thought, a final gulp and slurp their beverage as it sloshes on its saucer, and typing feverishly while their fingers peck in an awkward gait frantically trying to keep up with the neurons firing inside of them. When he is done, it is sharp. It doesn’t have throat clearing or pre ambles, just laser focus on the outcome from the moment he picks a topic.

There are few things as intimate as getting the first glance at a tight paragraph or keen analysis before your partner hits publish.

But that’s just the view from my side, awash with envy.

Sometimes he rolls his eyes when I interrupt with something inconsequential. “Do you remember what year they added that addition to the top of Fenway Park?”

My brain is squishier, more meandering, and amenable to suggestion. It is not inept in focus, just less deliberate in reasoning, on a country stroll not a city sprint, taking in the scenery, ignoring deadlines. In the time my partner across the table has finished a 2,000-word analysis on the topic du jour, I have a dozen paragraphs I will delete or re-write multiple times, seven tabs of Baseball Reference open, snippets of articles, quotes from players and managers from 30 years earlier, pictures of uniforms, ballparks, and the fans sitting in them. On a tight deadline, I once spent twenty minutes trying to figure out in what year they’d changed the color of a dugout tunnel at a particular ballpark. It had absolutely nothing to do with what I was writing about, but at the time seemed important enough that I would risk hitting “ignore” when my editor called as I sleuthed through old photos.

I would never wish to swap my romantic and meandering brain for one more industrious. I’ve come to accept that the things that delight and impassion me are niche and nuanced. In every gig I’ve been offered, and even in some of the ones I’ve pitched, the hardest part is meeting in the middle to where the content pleases the people but keeps me interested long enough to publish it. I have been fortunate that I can dabble as a hobbyist and publish what I want, grateful for the paychecks but not reliant on them, to the point that I have felt guilty for some gigs as I’ve known others who would gnaw off my fingers if it meant they’d get a chance instead. (They are good people, just hungry—figuratively and literally– in a way that I never will be).

I’m just pleased to be talking, researching, writing, and fighting with editors again. And that sometimes I get to do it across the table from the one who understands me.

Never Put The Christmas Tree Up Early

We always put our tree up the day after Thanksgiving, and waiting for that day was tedious torture for me. I love Christmas decorations, and even as an adult, I am still giddy when I see an artful display of lights and sparkle. If it were up to five-year-old Cee, the tree would be up all year. I always had a countdown to the day we could put up our tree on the day after Thanksgiving.

Well, I should say that it was usually the day after Thanksgiving, but that ritual delayed in years that we traveled to see our extended family in Ohio. We did not do that often, typically opting for travel on Christmas instead of Thanksgiving and never both, which made me thankful for two things: no long car rides and none of my grandmother’s stuffing, and no delay on the pine festooning at home.

My grandmother is a terrible cook, her Thanksgiving stuffing being one of her worst offerings. It is thick and moist, the consistency of wallpaper glue, and no one—not person, not pet—liked it. The kids’ table was tucked into the breakfast nook in my grandparent’s kitchen and while the older kids talked and drank Zima with Jolly Ranchers (even though they were underage), I would cover my plate in a very large helping of stuffing, then spend the entire meal affixing random objects from the kitchen to the herbed putty, turning the plate upside and laughing maniacally as knives, soda cans, beer bottles, markers, cigarette lighters, retainers, candles, and punch-bowl ladles defied gravity.

Even if we left town for Thanksgiving, the one thing we never did, was put the tree up earlier than the day after Thanksgiving. This was one as firm a rule as “don’t put your feet on the coffee table” and “no swearing” in our household, one that could not be lifted, no matter how much I negotiated, and I did negotiate every year. I offered to carry all of the heavy boxes from the basement up the stairs myself. Nope. One year I suggested that I would do the lights myself—the dumbest of all offers I made, considering that my father is too much of a control freak to let anyone else do the lights. Still nothing. I eagerly promised to sweep up the broken glass of crushed ornaments and the fake pine needles, but they knew I was bluffing on that one.

No, they’d say. It’s not Christmas yet.

Growing up, Christmas meant different things within my nuclear family. It still does, and that’s a point of contention every year when my mother asks, “who is up for Midnight Mass?” the answer to which is always some diplomatic version of, “none of us, please stop asking.”

We were Catholic, but partially pious. We didn’t go to church every week, but we were more devout than those absent Christians the Church Ladies whispered about who claimed they were huge fans but only knew his Greatest Hits. I loathed Mass. Nearly every Saturday night our parents would threaten that we would be going; it was about 75 percent of the time they woke us for the Sunday morning torture eased by the promise of pancakes, but only after performing pew cardio of letting your fingers take a bath, genuflecting, sitting, standing, kneeling, standing, sitting, holding hands, shaking hands, walking down the aisle, genuflecting, making the sign of the cross, genuflecting again, kneeling, sitting, standing, singing, splashing your digits in water again, sprinting to the car, gripping and pulling the car handle repeatedly as if that would will it unlock, and tap dancing while muttering “pancaaakes paaancaaakes” while mom and dad stood on the church steps talking to an elder whose name they had forgotten.

One week on the way to church, my father got a flat tire. Knowing a flat meant no Mass, my sister and I cheered the misfortune from the backseat. My father groaned, pulled to the side of the road and got to work on replacing the tire. I patted my mother on the shoulder and said, “Jesus works in mysterious ways, but today, his message to us is clear! He wants us to skip mass and go straight for the pancakes!”

I discarded religion and its iconography at roughly the same age as Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, but I kept that to myself for years, which was hard to do while attending a private Catholic school. Religion class was the most difficult. We had a long talk about what happens to our souls when we die, and even had to complete a worksheet about what sorts of things have a soul—people have souls, pets have souls, heads of lettuce do not have souls. I decided the best place to voice my agnosticism was in confession with the priest. He sat behind a screen as I anxiously chipped all of the polish off of my nails, partially due to nerves, but because as I stepped up on the altar I remembered that nail polish violated our school’s dress code and I didn’t want the Big Guy—the priest, not God himself—to see it. I hoped for hundreds of Hail Marys and Our Fathers as repentance for my confession, but instead of “randomly” selected for a Bible study group, which I attended once then habitually skipped to play basketball.

It is hypocritical in the eyes of some, my mother included, to be beg for Christmas trees, but reject religion. When my sister and I were both in our late teens, my mother told us that she would not be buying us any presents for Jesus’ birthday (she called it this frequently, preaching not so subtlety to her heathens) if we didn’t make an attempt to believe again. We, of course, didn’t start believing again, and there were still presents underneath the tree for us that year. As a détente, we went to Midnight Mass with our mother, which she repeatedly reminded us was the best gift that she got that year. She smiled proudly as her children sang the loudest of anyone in the Church that night, choosing to ignore the fact that she heard us wagering in the car which one of could sing the loudest and most off-key during Mass.

“You sang so loud even Jesus could hear you,” she said sarcastically as we sprinted to the car, just as we’d done as children.

I think about this every year when I crave a Christmas tree—a flash of guilt when I put up stockings, knowing that there will always be a piece of my mother that is disappointed that we’ve rebuked our upbringing in some respects. Even though I’m an adult now, I still get those anxious feelings about putting up the Christmas tree. When I saw my first Christmas lights of the year—this time on Michigan Avenue instead of my own living room—I asked myself what it is about lights that still fills me with childlike wonderment. I am not just easily amused, rather nostalgic for my childhood and my family. My mother has not been in great health for most of my life and there is always that fear she won’t be around much longer, but I am fortunate that it is just a fear and not reality, as I have seen death taint the memories of so many dear friends every day, but particularly this time of year. Best I can figure it, the lights and Christmas are a reminder of some of my happiest memories, because growing up Christmas was the one time of year that our family was actually together. We didn’t have school or sports, my parents both took time off of work, and if we traveled, we all went together to see even more family. My family elaborately decorated everything—sometimes multiple trees, mantle, our bedrooms, the staircases, the exterior of the house, even set up a little Christmas village with a train—and for a few weeks out of the year, we lived in a snow globe enlivened by Christmas music, ensconced in togetherness, encapsulated by safe shelter. It wasn’t always perfect, but it was us.

Every year, my dad would yell about the state in which he found the Christmas lights, insisting that we did a terrible job taking down the tree the year before and this mess was all our god damn fault. (No, the irony of my family taking the Lord’s name in vain was never lost me, either). He also insisted we were not a twinkle-light household, and to stop asking him every year if we could have twinkle lights, because the answer was no, we could not have twinkle lights.

There was one rather scarring year that my mother declared we would have to delay decorating the tree because she was banning multi-colored lights and handmade ornaments in favor of a very Martha Stewart Christmas, a well-designed tree with a distinct color palette. We spent hours at Wal-Mart procuring all of the gold, silver, and white ornaments they had, went to at least five other stores looking for the perfect ribbon. (No, not that ribbon Cee, the kind with the wire in it so we can crimp it and make perfect bows like Martha!) There was a giant bow on the top of the tree, beaded garland, and ribbon streamers that ran the length of the tree to its bottom branches instead of the live-action Angel topper that they’d had since before I was born. I liked her; she held a plastic candle with a light bulb tip and sounded as though she was moaning in pain as her arm gears ground repeatedly.

Even in our worst years, and trust we had some bad ones, we still banded together for these weeks. And if anyone acted out of line, all someone had to say was, “It’s Christmas” and we would stop acting like assholes, even if it meant we resumed the bickering the second after we finished scraping the fake snow off of the windows.

My first Christmas away from home was the hardest. I was a Junior in college, and instead of traveling home for the holidays, I went to Kansas with my boyfriend to be with his family. During the 12-hour drive, we fought over the radio. He listened to Classic Rock and I’d scan the airwaves looking for Christmas tunes—Frosty the Snowman in Evansville, Little Drummer Boy in St. Louis, O Holy Night in Emporia—and I would cry and stare out of the window, as if I’d been taken hostage on this trip. Instead of my family’s Christmas Eve tradition of opening gifts, gorging on ham and scalloped potatoes, and playing poker until dawn, I sat in a Comfort Inn trying to watch A Christmas Story with the sound off, mouthing the words from memory as he slept. On Christmas Day, we sat on harvest gold folding chairs on shag carpet and politely drank soda that expired during the Clinton Administration, but we were too embarrassed to tell his grandfather it was flat. The only gifts that were exchanged were for the children, and the only time I smiled that day was when an English-speaking toddler opened a Fisher Price toy that only spoke Spanish, the gift giver too senile to notice. “La Vaca dice MOO!” rang out in the cramped living room, followed by stifled laughter growing more raucous each time the computerized voice repeated it.

I spent one Christmas alone in my early 20s. I woke up early and checked my phone. No messages. I put on my slippers, brushed my teeth, and before I could crawl back into bed, I laid on my back underneath my Christmas tree, watching the multi-colored twinkle lights dance across the ornaments. I counted ornaments, my eyes blurred by the lights and the tears that were streaming down my face and filling up my ear canals. I listened to “The Spirit of Christmas” by Ray Charles on repeat, watched Christmas movies, drank half a bottle of bourbon, and kept reminding myself that being alone on Christmas was the same as being alone on any other god damn day, and that I needed to pull myself together if I was going to talk to anyone on the phone that day, be it family or a Chinese restaurant. I never got it together that day, though. I just wallowed and felt sorry for myself, just me and a Christmas tree and a bunch of bickering families in the Christmas movies not realizing how good they had it because at least they had someone to fight with that day.

I don’t live near my family, so I miss them most of the time, but the holidays are the worst, and decorating for Christmas is the one thing that makes it all feel less lonely. When I signed my lease this June, the one thing I was most excited about was that the 11-foot ceilings would allow for a bigger Christmas tree. I look at dozens on Amazon before deciding, but channeled my screaming father and bought a pre-lit one with white lights that will never twinkle. It arrived the first week of November and I was tempted to put it up then, but tucked it away in the closet, trying my damndest to wait until the day after Thanksgiving as my parents were coming to town and they would know I broke the rules and put it up early.
The night before Thanksgiving, we finished meal prep and baked the pies. Feeling restless and nostalgic for the holidays, I pulled the tree out of the closet and insist they help me put it up.

“It’s not the day after Thanksgiving,” my dad told me as he fluffed out the bottom branches. “It’s Christmas, remember, you have to be nice to me” I told him. He shook as head and smiled with resignation, as we put up the tree early for the first time.


In June, I moved into a new apartment. This is barely newsworthy given that in the past seven years I have lived in three different states and six different apartments, but this one seemed more stressful than the others, even the moves cross country.

Life is generally pain free for me, other than some seasonal depression and the occasional pangs of a very uneven upbringing, but for someone who has it good, I do feel like one of those cartoon rain clouds is chasing me. It doesn’t manifest in sadness, but rather in fearfulness…that maybe I will become sad based on a decision I made. In my estimation, it has always been easier to deal with situations that arise not from my own decisions, but from the general cruelness of the universe.

With the move, I feared that I was biting off more than I could chew financially. I moved from an ancient courtyard unit that had layers of wallpaper on the plaster walls that had been there since the Hoover Administration covered up with layer upon layer of paint into a building that is branded as a “luxury highrise” with all of the amenities and niceties and a Pavlovian doorman that gives Lola a dog bone every time she comes back from a walk. I can afford the rent, but there was a fear that I might wake up one day and realize I did the math wrong and that I would be evicted and destitute. Part of it is the fear that the other shoe could drop. The other part, the part that is harder to shake, is continually grappling with this idea that as I am catapulting through adulthood alone, I still deserve nice things. I kept thinking I would stay in the last apartment until I moved in with a partner, but even admitting that now is rather embarrassing to myself and independent women everywhere.

Still, the fates could turn on me at any moment and this could become a very bad decision. Optimistically, I hope that it will not. Related, I have a long history of being bad at Choose Your Own Adventure Books.

When I unboxed things in June, I put my Macbook in the drawer of my coffee table. What used to be a nightly routine of writing, researching, and watching baseball, turned into pulling the laptop out once or twice a month to pay bills, shop for handbags, and to add high thread count sheets and new duvets to my wish list on the off chance that someone actually comes to visit me, at which point lavish bedding, which every guest deserves because this host fears judgement as much as impending doom, would be just one click away.

I even considered selling the laptop because I have an overweight, company-issued Thinkpad that I lug from airport to hotel to airport ad nauseam when I am traveling or catching up on projects over a glass of wine in the evenings, a Corporate Stockholm Syndrome that I rationalize with, “if I do not now, tomorrow will be easier!” and, the more pathetic, “everyone is counting on me.” I don’t care to use this laptop for personal things like writing, but I was not writing anymore, so it didn’t matter.

When I chose to stop writing, it was a difficult decision. What started as just a decision to end some freelance arrangements I had in place, turned into not touching a keyboard for any writing heavier than entering my address in the billing section for an online purchase or emails. Inertia is a bitch, and when life is bloated with activity, it’s easy to terminate anything that requires thought or work cold turkey. It was my intention to just stop chasing the news cycle, keep this site going, and give myself room to breathe, but the years I spent appeasing editors, filing at 3am because working all day, hitting the gym, cooking dinner, and walking Lola meant not even opening the laptop until after midnight killed my desire to even watch baseball, let alone write about it. Baseball is fun, but like anything, it loses its appeal when you feel like a prisoner to a paycheck.

When I see the few friends I managed to keep—cutting back on social media, in some ways, is like moving away; people say they will stay in touch, but once you’re gone for a few months, those connections naturally die off—they bring up that I quit because people were mean to me on the Internet. Quite honestly that didn’t help, but I had spent the past nine years of my life burning the candle at both ends and spreading myself so thin that I morphed into an unsavory person adopting behaviors I loathed, like checking social media constantly, letting threatening emails from strangers affect my sleep, and leaving a permanent indent in my sofa from sitting in the same spot for countless hours a week watching baseball, not to mention all of the drinking and solitude that goes along with it.

There were many tipping points, the final one being calling my boyfriend well past my bedtime to vent about having to do yet another ephemeral prediction piece on an unreasonable deadline for an audience that did not give a fuck. I cried from exhaustion, cried even harder at the ludicrous idea that I was actually crying over something this insignificant. He said, like he had many times before, “Cee, I know you keep telling yourself you enjoy this… but it seems to be making you miserable. And crazy. I think it’s officially made you crazy.”

And yes, maybe it had.

But Cee Angi is not a quitter, so it never seemed like an option. There was a crossroad about two years ago where I had a legitimate choice between writing full-time and a corporate gig—that intersection all freelancers who carry other gigs wait for, where the financial scales are in balance and it becomes a legitimate decision to make, instead of knowing you’d have to slash your pay by 75 percent or more to make it work. That also coincided with a time when I saw peers and friends losing their steady writing employment, saw pitches turned down or accepted for a pittance, and had to chase down various outlets for the paychecks they had promised me. When I asked for advice about what I should do, the only people who pushed me towards writing full time were the ones who said things like, “but you LOVE writing.” Those who were actually in the game? They told me to lean on my other skills and get out as quickly as I could without ever looking back.

So, I did not look back. I traveled more, worried less, and met every deadline for my job without the stress of knowing that I needed to leave work on time to get home for a night of scouring the Play Index. I could get through long business meetings without checking Twitter, box scores, or getting messages from editors who wanted clarity on a stat I used or to see if I could fit in a quick reaction during my lunch break or do a radio hit or interview in my office between conference calls. I took up tennis, eating dinner in restaurants without televisions, and binge watching and reading pop culture pillars that I never consumed before.

During the season, a few people I greatly respect and admire asked me if I would do some writing for them. I told them “no” immediately, but then softened on that position enough to put together a couple of pitches. In the end we didn’t get the timing right to make them work, but that door was open, and they’d occasionally knock for other reasons, all of which I declined. But it made me admit that if I did miss writing enough to craft a couple of pitches, then I probably missed it enough to work on actual content. But, instead of testing the theory, I just continued to talk about the sort of content I wanted to do if I started working again. No news chasing, no predictions, no slideshows. Just long forms, narratives, and slightly important to me and no one else, actually putting content on this site once in a while.

Last month, I got an email from a professor at a local university. He teaches a course in sports writing, focused on narrative and longform, with emphasis on the intersection of sports and society. Had that course existed when I was in college I might have actually stayed in J-school instead of switching to Philosophy and Political Research. We exchanged emails about the curriculum, he sent me the reading list which included all of the names that you’d hope to see on a class with that focus—Roger Angell, David Foster Wallace, Hunter S. Thompson, Norman Mailer, and some newer content from SB Nation and Grantland. The students were scheduled to read the longform that I wrote on Vin Scully, so the professor asked if I wanted to come and speak to his class.

Two days later, the faces of high schoolers who had turned collegiate were staring at me.

There was a Q&A, and as tentative and inexperienced Communications students, their first questions focused on AP Style, which made me concerned that they were prisoners of Oxford Commas and the possessive (not to mention that I have no real authority to teach them AP Style), then they relaxed and we just talked about writing. How to conduct interviews, do research, what sort of tape recorder to buy, and how to be believable as a journalist or writer. It felt fluid. I felt engaged, though slightly fraudulent given that I had not written anything more than a grocery list or emails in months.

There was a kid—are college students kids now, or do we call them adults even if their parents are paying for it?—in the back wearing a Cubs hat. He was most engaged and I liked that he nodded along with most things I said, particularly my views on the designated hitter. Then he asked, “can you tell us what you’re working on right now?”

Checkmate, my agreeable friend.

I told him that I had a couple of ideas for longforms—which is factual—that I had been kicking around that I am trying to find the right time to tackle. “Maybe in the offseason,” I said. Maybe I meant it even.

A girl asked me when I knew that I was going to become a writer. My answer to that, quite genuinely, was that being a good writer, particularly one who doesn’t want to report or regurgitate game stories for pennies, has nothing to do with being published. It has to do with desire, with the motivation to sit down at a keyboard or with a moleskine and just produce. Doesn’t matter who sees it, doesn’t matter if anyone likes it, doesn’t matter if someone paid you to put it on a four-letter network. Setting out as a student to measure one’s worth as a writer in just bylines is naïve, and unless lucky, bound to be a source of great disappointment.

That same week, an editor reached out about creating some postseason content, but I had to decline because it was too difficult to juggle with other obligations. I regretted having to say no though, something that didn’t happen when I had to reject work a few months ago. Then more emails came about teaching opportunities and writing opportunities. And I didn’t have to say no anymore, because I found a couple of opportunities that are going to work well for my schedule and the sort of content that I want to be doing.

So, I am writing again, and I have enjoyed the reunion with my laptop.  I am researching, thinking, using social media, and poking around the Play Index when the games are on. I never want to get back to a point where I am spending time creating content I loathe just to collect a paycheck, but I am to the point where I would like to stop lying to myself about hating writing, because that has never been true.

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.

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.