Archive for April, 2014

You’ve officially reached adulthood when … you buy your own couch

Owning your own couch is a milestone moment on the path to adulthood, not so much for the couch itself, or the place to sit, lounge or nap that it provides.

A couch is a benchmark because of all it represents.  Think of what it takes to own a couch:


Time to shop around at fancy places like Walter E. Smithe or Penny Mustard, well-known names like La-Z-Boy, shops around the corner, those cheapo discount places, IKEA and even the all-American favorite – department stores.

A plan for decorations and interior design (or at least a few ideas about color schemes, and how to avoid ending up with a brand-new couch that clashes too much with your other second-hand and scavenged furniture).

Money. More specifically a credit card, which isn’t easy to get these days.

A place of your own. You know, somewhere to put said couch. Somewhere that lacks a couch already purchased or inherited by your parents or roommate.

A steady residence. Couches, along with being flat-out expensive, are heavy, and therefore expensive and difficult to move.

A TV, record player or some interesting art. Why own a couch if there’s nothing to look at or listen to while sitting on it?

Beyond all that, owning a couch somehow seems to represent that final switch from the indescribable, post-college, no-man’s-land years into true adulthood. It’s a staple in turning a dwelling into a true, welcoming home where you can entertain friends and even host family – instead of a place to crash suitable only for your own use with the occasional appearance of your boyfriend/girlfriend/partner and/or friends who have been warned of the place’s possible lack of comforts.

Owning a couch is a bit of a frontier for twenty-somethings. It requires commitment and responsibility. Couch-ownership is not something that should be entered into lightly, as it represents a step toward even scarier ownership feats, like homeownership.

But when you’re ready, and you finally buy that first couch, you’ll know what you are and it’ll be official. Welcome to adulthood.



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City dreams and suburban realities: A farewell to Chicago

Growing up in the suburbs, going to the city was always a big deal.

It was a twice-a-year occasion at best – once in the summer to go to the beach or the Taste of Chicago, and once in the winter for something holiday-related or a Bulls game.

The city was so close, yet so far, so I often would dream of someday living there.

I’d gaze out the window as my Dad would merge from the Edens to the Kennedy and traffic would inevitably slow, looking down long streets of three-flats and rowhouses, dreaming of going on rambling runs to explore these neat-looking neighborhoods that actually had something my Mom would call character, something sorely missing from the sameness of our mid-1980s subdivision.

With how little I saw of the city growing up, each small step in my ability to explore it on my own seemed monumental.

Taking the Metra downtown with a friend, I’d draw myself a detailed walking map from Ogilvie to wherever I was going, adding a handmade grid of downtown streets in case we got off-track.

Taking the Metra alone required an even more carefully drawn map and a handwritten list of train times to make sure I’d get home OK, not to mention a note to self to pack change for the meters at the suburban station’s parking lot.

Taking the CTA with friends who knew the city better, I made the mistake of not paying attention. So when it came time to take it on my own, I nervously consulted my list of how many stops I’d stay on the train and how many blocks I’d walk after getting off. Transferring worried me, as did the possibility of choosing the correct line at the right stop, but boarding a train in the wrong direction. Thankfully, I never made that mistake, but one time, where the “El” is actually a subway, I stepped up to ground level and walked three wrong directions before trial and error pointed me the way I actually was trying to go.

And now I’ve lived here for two years.

And now I’m ready to move out, back to the suburbs, although not exactly back to where I came from.

I’ve learned two main things from my experiment with urban living.

I’m sure the first one’s not true for everyone, but it is for me: You can take the girl out of the suburbs, but you can’t take the suburbs out of the girl.

Basically, living in the city – and seeing the pros and cons of it in a real way, not in an idealized view from twice-yearly visits – has made me realize I’m a suburban person. The suburbs, and their nice mix of proximity to something bigger and convenience of sprawling parking lots and two-way streets, are not only where I’m from – they’re where I belong.

In the city, I can barely run two blocks without crossing some busy street and inevitably hitting a red light. I have to circle the same three or four streets every day for parking, avoid tall curbs, stop short of bumping parked motorcycles, and read every street sign I see – since the one I fail to spot will be the one telling me I’m about to owe $50 in a street sweeping ticket or risk getting towed.

In the city, there are too many good restaurants to count, too many fun neighborhoods to visit and too many new bars to try – but in my life, there is too little time to fit it all in. I’m constantly … guess where? … in the suburbs, working or seeing friends and family. And there’s another problem: I wanted city living to be like College Take 2, but I lack that close group of friends or the time to find a new one. Most of my college and high school friends have scattered across the country and I admire them for chasing their dreams in faraway places. But they left me, supposedly doing the twenty-something thing in the city, with few friends to join in my exploration.

I belong in the suburbs.

Despite that strange realization from two years here in the city, I don’t regret my time in Ukrainian Village. And that’s the second thing I’ve learned.

Childhood dreams might not play out the way you expected them to, but they’re still worth pursuing.

Living in the city was always a bit of a dream of mine, something that seemed like it’d be awesome to do if I ever had the chance, yet not something that would make me completely unhappy if I never was able to try. So when I had enough money to move out and realized rent would be cheaper and finding a roommate would be easier in the city than out in the ‘burbs, I knew the time was right. The opportunity was there, believe it or not, so chasing this childhood desire was worth a try.

The city part of my twenty-something journey is ending soon, and honestly, it’s about time. I can no longer stand the commute and I’m excited to gain more time in my life by spending a whole lot less of it in the car.

But those rambling runs down city streets I used to dream of? I’ve done dozens of them. And those bars and restaurants that looked too cool not to try? I’ve planned carefully, carving out time when faraway friends have visited, and I’ve tried a solid handful of them, too.

I’ve lived in the city. I’ve gotten mail with my name on it addressed to somewhere in “Chicago.” I’ve satisfied my curiosity. And now it’s time to make myself a new home.

Best of luck as you continue your twenty-something journey in the city, the suburbs, or wherever in the world you may be.

I've lived the Chicago live; seen the skyline, ran the streets and tried the food. Now it's time to return to the 'burbs -- where I belong.

I’ve lived the Chicago life; seen the skyline, ran the streets and tried the food. Now it’s time to return to the ‘burbs — where I belong.

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Life lessons from … some crazy runners

I was carrying an empty moving box from my brand-new Chicago apartment back to my parents’ car, when what did I see? Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a guy, actually two, or was it three? squatting down to draw arrows of chalk on the sidewalk just feet away from me. It was a sign.

“Oh my gosh, Hashers!” I said, excitement escaping my lips before I had time to stop it.

“Are you?” one of them replied, in a bit of a sing-songy tone, lengthening out the second syllable so it sounded like he said “Are yoooou?” with the emphasis on the “ooo.”

It was a tone I’d heard before. Out on trail. And even though it combined two totally common words used hundreds of thousands of times in everyday English speech, I knew “Are yoooou?” as part of a secret language – the specific mode of speaking of a crazy group of runners that likes cheap beer as much as a long run on a sunny spring day.

Whose secret language it is doesn’t really matter. Lingos and jargons and slang are all magical, no matter if it’s a group of physicists, police officers, preschool teachers or garbage collectors doing the speaking.

A secret language is music to my ears, and I’d say all twenty-somethings need one.

Not the type of secret language we used to create as kids, where, thanks to a popular book, “Frindle” meant “pen;” where “chickenliver” was a jinx for a basketball opponent about to shoot a free throw; where some silly code word got everyone into the treehouse except your little sister; or where Pig Latin was all you could hear in the hallways during passing periods at school.

In our twenties, we don’t need a secret language like that, but we do need some way of speaking, within groups we value, that proves we belong, that lets us feel the group’s acceptance.

These secret languages can be simple, as the crazy runners’ is.

The words don’t have to be invented, foreign or nonsense. The “secret” can be in how the words are said, when or where they’re said, and who they’re said to. We’re adults now, and our brains can handle the distinction.

A “secret language” consisting of completely normal words said only in a certain context can still produce the same result that treehouse passwords did in our youth – a comforting feeling of in-group knowledge gained from speaking in code and being able to comprehend it.

My answer to the “Are yoooou?” coded question asked by the crazy runner nicknamed something about tacos, or the Most Interesting Man in the World, was a straightforward one, and seemingly not at all in a secret language.

“Yes,” I said, meaning, yes, I’ve Hasher a few times, I run, I drink beer, and I understand the language. “But not today. I’m moving.”

It was a perfect moment, one that proved the apartment I’d chosen after several rejections and an exhaustive Craigslist search was the right spot for me – somewhere I’d feel valued and accepted and like I belong. I would have figured that out eventually, but the hashers’ secret language immediately made it clear.

And that’s what secret languages do. Once we learn to speak and understand them, they help us know, almost effortlessly, right where we belong.

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A staring contest with the deadlines of life

Some numbers just stare you in the face.

Your weight. Your age. Your rent. The price of gas. The miles to your office. The date of your one-year review. The birthday of that person for whom you can never find the right gift. The calories in your favorite dessert. And the day by which you absolutely have to move out of your apartment.

That last one can be particularly daunting. Leases are legal documents, and when they end, they end. That last day means business. It means you have to have a new apartment, or a house – or at least a place to shack or couchsurf for a while – by the time it rolls around.

I think one sign of adulthood is being able to beat these numbers in a staring contest, to own up to the pressure of something like a lease-ending deadline and deal with it before it’s too late.

Sometimes, this takes organization, awareness, time-management, money management or willpower. These responsible adult characteristics combine like Power Rangers wearing their rings into the save-the-world skills we need, and just in time. Like people who have their acts together, we avoid forgetting an important birthday or anniversary, eating too many sweets we really should turn down, or having to move back in with our parents … for the second time.

That’s when it all works by the book. But other times, it just takes luck.

Either way, next time you need something to celebrate or feel proud of, just call to mind the last deadline you beat at work, the apartment you snagged just before all the two-bedroom units were snapped up, the time you bought a full tank of gas right before the price jumped 18 cents, or even the time you caught a bus immediately after walking out of that alumni get-together downtown.

All the numbers of adulthood can cast a tough stare, but when we set our gaze on our goals, we’re a whole lot tougher.

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Second places and free college hangout spaces

There are times when every twenty-something with a bachelor’s degree gets nostalgic for college. Homecoming weekend, March Madness (only if your alma mater has managed not to suck at basketball) move-in weekend (especially if your younger siblings are going to your school, or to any school for that matter), etc.

But you know what I really miss? Like all the time? Those free, public places that are so common in college – the student union, the basement of the English building, the undergraduate library. They’re almost completely nonexistent in post-college life.

I’ve heard them called second places, and these places rock. I didn’t even fully realize it at the time, but they offered a great escape from the home environment and a change of pace that could spur thought, prod on productivity or inspire calm. Now, just thinking about them makes me homesick for my college days.

Ahh, the days of sneaking a sandwich made from stolen dorm bread and deli meat into the supposedly food-free zone of one of the many campus libraries. Ahh, the days of studying in a place that’s open until midnight, no questions asked, and where coffee and café treats are always for sale, but buying them isn’t required in order to access the Internet. Ahh, the simple days.

I’ve never found a place quite like the student union or the undergraduate library since graduating college almost four years ago (!).

In the suburbs, everything closes at 9 p.m., or earlier if you’re unlucky. The library might be a homeless hangout or a daycare center, depending on where you live. And either way, eating is seriously frowned upon. No one does it. In the suburbs, every Starbucks, Caribou and Panera has “free” wifi and an uninspiring, unoriginal version of that relaxing café atmosphere, but you can’t just waltz right in, fire up your laptop and hang out online to your heart’s content. No, you’ve got to buy food or a coffee to earn the “free” in “free wifi.”

In the city, plenty of unique coffee shops offer organic, vegan and/or range-free products, but again, they come with a hefty price tag when all you really want is an on-the-go Internet connection and maybe a muffin. The local Starbucks is infested with druggies who sit in the corner and discuss their latest score of pills. The library? Who even knows where it is? You’ll find a million schools, plenty of vacant properties, a handful of construction zones and your usual mix of restaurants, bars and Mexican cowboy gear shops, but the library branches sure make themselves scarce.

A place that’s open late, has free admission, Internet, and maybe even a slight atmosphere of camaraderie or shared experience – now that’s something beyond rare in twenty-something life. And that makes me sad.
All I can say is at least I don’t have homework anymore. If I did, I’d miss the union, the undergraduate library and the scattered collections of couches, chairs and desks in the hallways and lobbies of university buildings that much more.

College kids, enjoy your free hangout spaces/second places while you can. And twenty-somethings, get used to your apartment and your friends’ places, because those will pretty much forever be the only “free” hangouts you have.


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