Archive for October, 2013

The tombstone question

Hey, twenty-somethings – what do you want on your tombstone?

No, let me rephrase that, because I’m really not alluding to those old frozen pizza commercials. (Although it IS still National Pizza Month for a couple more days. Nom, nom, nom.)

Let’s try it again: Hey, twenty-somethings – what do you want it to say on your tombstone?

I ask because I was asked. It was the most unexpected question in several interviews for the job I now hold. And I remember it now because a friend is interviewing jobs in my field, so I warned her about the tombstone question in hopes she won’t be as thrown off by it as I was.

I like her answer a lot better than mine: “Can I just say I’d rather be cremated?”

At least that’d buy her some time to think of a non-sarcastic response. Because seriously, who asks a twenty-something job applicant what she’d like written on her tombstone?

A lot of us don’t routinely think ahead past what we’re doing after work or over the weekend. And even those of us who are advance-planners (my hand’s raised), schedule-makers and forward-thinkers don’t think things through all the way to our deaths. It’s unnatural at this age.

What I bet the tombstone question asker really wanted to address is what defines me. What’s at my core? What’s so important to me that I’ll want it to carry on in writing after I’m gone?

Sitting in my car under a highway ramp in downtown Pittsburgh on a lunch break from my summer internship, and completely taken aback by the question, the first thing that came out of my mouth was something about always working hard.

I mean, it got me the job. Or, probably more accurately, it didn’t prevent me from getting the job. But is that really what I want on my tombstone? “Here lies Marie E. Wilson. She always worked hard.”

Not so much.

Truth is, I still don’t know what I want my last written words to be. In my line of work, I’ve got far too many words to write between now and then to be concerned about it just yet.

But I do know what defines me. What’s at my core. I’ve even got it whittled down to three simple words: I’m ambitious, loyal and thoughtful.

Beyond that, I believe in God. I believe you can never have too many friends, and I know my purpose in life is to inform and inspire people through words. To tell stories and make people think.

If I said all that, I know the same job I have now would have been mine – even more certainly.

But if I got asked the same tombstone question today, intended literally, I’d probably go with complete honesty and just stall for time.

“Well,” I’d start, “I’m not sure yet what I want written on my tombstone. I’ve got a lot more years left to live and it’s not time to think about that yet. But one thing’s for sure – there’ll be none of those obituary clichés, ‘loving daughter, sister, friend to many.’ I’m much too unique for that.”

And so are you, my friends. It’s up to you to live your lives that way.


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Bringing youth and real hobbies to juries everywhere

When you end up on a jury in your twenties, you play the role of “the young one.”

You may not be the only young one, as I was one of three twenty-something women on a jury for a weeklong federal case in Chicago.

But alone in the role or not, you bring youth to a group of 12 composed of an assortment of Americans not rejected as unfavorable to either the defense or the prosecution.

You’ll join people like retired public school teachers, truck drivers, self-employed stonemasons, a variety of office workers and those unfortunate enough to be unemployed. You may not be the foreman charged with melding together the opinions of the 12 into one unanimous verdict, but you still bring a certain something, a perspective that comes with your age, when you’re chosen for a jury.

Bringing youth means you apply the analytical thinking skills you probably haven’t completely forgotten from college to the complex facts of the case. Did the defendant have the phone at the time ransom calls were made? Can phone records be trusted? Your studious thought process, being fresher out of school and all, may help others sort through their notes and come to a clear understanding of what happened and whether guilt is proven beyond the ever-important “reasonable doubt.”

Bringing youth means you bring variety to the self-introductions presented during jury selection. You actually still have hobbies other than “spending time with the kids.” You can reply to the question about what you do in your free time with things like “run, play adult league soccer and see my friends,” or “travel, play tennis and host couchsurfers,” or “read, brew my own beer and go to concerts.”

Those answers might not raise any red flags to the attorneys, so they may be completely useless in helping you avoid being chosen as a juror. But still, others replying to the call of jury duty will be glad for a little variety in your interests. They’re a welcome change from the almost endless number of parents trying to avoid their civic duty by pointing out their only “hobby” and most important responsibility: taking care of their kids.

Like it or not, once you’re selected for a jury, bringing youth means being the hip and cheap one. It means knowing how to get online with your laptop despite the lack of a wifi network on the 19th floor of the federal court building. It means multitasking and spending your lunch hours keeping up with work, weekend plans and friends.

Best of all, it means making the most of the free Corner Bakery breakfast of fruit, muffins, coffee cake, cinnamon rolls and bagels so nicely bought for you by the government. Heck, this is jury duty, and the pay is roughly $40 a day. So that “breakfast” tray is much more than breakfast. It’s breakfast, a snack, lunch, a way to make the food in your fridge last just a few days longer and a boost to your grocery budget.

Jury duty is an experience at any age, but when you experience it in your twenties, you’re lucky enough to be fair, impartial and (relatively) young.

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“Wanna hang out?”

You know you’re officially an adult when the words “Wanna hang out this weekend?” roll off your tongue and you immediately feel weird about it.

“Hang out?” you might think. “Does anyone really say that anymore?

In our twenties, “hang out” seems to fade into “get together” or “go out,” which then slides into “grab drinks” or “get dinner,” which, in turn, will transition into some other invitational phrase when we least expect it.

The changes are sly, and can catch you off-guard if you’re not up on your Facebook phrases and new slang words. Just like goth faded into punk, which gave way to alternative, which led to indie before turning to hipster, “hang out” was here one second, but gone the next.

And the moment that previously ordinary invitation sounds foreign coming from your lips, you know you’ve officially reached adulthood.

This is a symbol of adulthood worthy of a toast. A fancy toast in slim, trendy glasses likely called flutes with real bubbly. A toast reminiscent of the commercial where the twenty-something partygoers head to the windows and set their red college party cups free like birds. A toast that says “I’m in my twenties, and I’m acting like it. Look how classy I am!”

Reaching this milestone shows you’re far beyond the high school nights of watching movies in friends’ basements and well past the college life of spending too much time idly chatting in the late night cafeteria or downing cheap beers in campus bar basements.

In a way, it signals the end of an era. “Hanging out” is what we’ve done practically all of our somewhat independent lives, so when that no longer seems to fit, it may be hard to let go.

But who wants to get stuck in the “hang out” phase when you can move on to whatever comes next? This new phase might far surpass your expectations, allowing you to meld your interests and hobbies with those of your friends and create your own terms for the ways you spend time.

Once you find a phrase that’s your own, and it sounds right when you say it, chances are you’ve just happened upon your very own definition of what it means to live twenty-something life to the fullest.

And that’s way better than just “hanging out.”

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A half-marathon in a word: Endurance

In the story of my life, the half-marathon I just ran won’t even be a chapter. Not a paragraph or a sentence, it probably will amount to one word. Just one word.

This experience involved about seven months of my life. It wore holes in the top meshy parts of my shoes; caused me to wake up at 5 a.m. more times than I’ll force myself to admit; dared me to sprint, then jog … sprint, then jog … repeatedly around the same four blocks in Ukrainian Village; even put me into the path of some stupid dog that bit me.

Running this half-marathon, my first, helped me regain the ability to wake up on the first alarm, a skill I lost my senior year of college and struggled nearly four years to get back. It helped me better adjust to one of the many responsibilities of adult life, as it forced me to figure out how much to eat to keep my body fueled and how to have that amount of food on hand and prepared when I needed it. It also made me a better and faster runner and brought me into quite possibly the best shape of my life, but that’s beside the point.

The point is this crazy 13.1-mile race, and all the training leading up to it, gave me all the endurance I’ll ever need to get through this twenty-something life and beyond. Endurance, and proof I can use that endurance to persevere through challenging things like, 12-mile training runs, to rewarding things, like the finish line, 3:14 before my goal – now that’s the true lesson of my first half-marathon.

“I think I can endure this” became “I’m training to endure this” became “Well, now I am enduring this” before it finally switched to the proud past tense after I crossed the finish line and became “I have endured this.”

And that’s the one word that will stick with me: endurance.

Kind of obvious, I know, for a race categorized as an endurance event, but significant all the same. It’s not like all I learned is I physically can endure a 13.1 mile race, running without stopping for slightly less than two straight hours. That’s nice and all, but not overly helpful in everyday life. What’s a bigger benefit is the mental edge, the confidence boost, the internal reminder that, as our parents and elementary school teachers liked to tell us, we all can do whatever we put our minds to.

I learned this from a half-marathon, but it doesn’t necessarily take half an insane amount of running to come to these same self-discoveries. What it takes is a goal. A goal bigger than the kind that can be accomplished in a day or a week. A goal that seems out of reach at first and may cause the perfectionists among us to loosen their strict “no failure allowed” rules.

Striving in a purposeful way toward any kind of giant goal – athletic, academic, spiritual, professional or some combination – can bring about improved endurance and all the benefits that come with it.

No one’s saying you have to run. It’s not for everyone, and that’s fine. But there have been times we’ve all had to endure, and like it or not, there will be more. We all need endurance. It’s a part of life. And we all have endurance. It’s just a matter of finding it. … And for anyone who’s curious, the half-marathon itself was a blast. Running along the Fox River with my boyfriend, who was conquering his second half-marathon, we experienced a barrage of humorously dressed competitors, corny running jokes chalked onto the course, snippets of overheard conversations, sometimes for miles at a time, and more than 26,000 steps that went by surprisingly quickly.

And when we finished, we ate a lot of food, napped, ate a bunch more unhealthy food, and then went back to using our improved endurance on the challenges of our everyday lives.

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Twenty-something life: A performance review

It’s not easy to sum up our twenty-something lives of working, dating, cooking, eating, seeing friends, trying new activities, traveling and learning about ourselves. And it’s not easy to determine, while we’re busy in the thick of it, if we’re living it well.

So this is the second half of a twenty-something life performance review, but there’s no need to keep score. These categories offer just one way to pause and evaluate different areas of your life to see where you rock and identify your next frontier for self-improvement. There’s no 1-10 point scale (unless you want to jokingly say 1 means you’re a hot mess, and 10 means you’ve totally got it together), but here it is. Review away!


Do you still live with your parents, or do you have your own place – with a roommate, boyfriend/girlfriend/partner, or totally on your own? Do you depend on your parents to pay your rent, cell phone bill, car insurance, iPass bill, etc? Do you mooch from free food at work lunches, from your boyfriend/girlfriend/partner’s fridge or your parents? Do you feel guilty about any such mooching?

Household management

Do you keep your place at least mostly clean and your laundry pile confined to one hamper or corner of your room? Do you cook a real meal that involves the stove or oven roughly once a week? Can you always see the bottom of your kitchen sink, even if it’s got a handful of dishes or pots and pans inside it? What usually takes up the majority of your fridge – beer and booze, empty pizza boxes or real food?

Love life

Are you seeing anyone? Anyone special? Or are you happier not to be, for now at least? Do you find yourself feeling jealous of others for the action they’re getting or the relationships they’re in? Are you trying new things, sexually or otherwise? Are you meeting new people, putting yourself out there, and most importantly, being yourself?

Social life

Do you see your closest friends about once a month? Are you still in touch with any high school friends? Do you see your friends who have scattered around the country when they’re back to visit? Do you plan trips to see your scattered friends with your hard-earned vacation days? Do you explore your interests, join new groups and continue to meet others like you?

Work life

Do you like your job? Is it at least important work, or a possible stepping stone to a much better position? Do you work too much? (Be honest, here – this is reviewing your life, not your work performance, remember?) How’s the commute? Are your co-workers awesome? Or at least somewhat cool or decently close to your age? Does your boss respect you? Does your company respect you – in terms of wages and benefits? And is your work causing you too much stress, or can you handle it?

Crazy life goals

What do you want to be when you grow up? No, really. Are you still dreaming about it? How do you plan to accomplish it? Is your current life (work, social, dating – everything) leading you toward what you really want to be, or preventing you from getting there? Do you still do things that make you uncomfortable, make a fool of yourself and take risks? Do you learn from your mistakes? Because if you do, you’ve got to be on the right track, and you deserve to give your twenty-something life a good review.

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