Archive for May, 2014

Measuring life by someone else’s ruler

By the time we hit our twenties, we theoretically know life isn’t a track meet, a race to any particular position or finish line. We can comprehend the fact we’re all different, aiming to accomplish our own feats on our own timetables for our own reasons.

Logically, that all makes sense.

But the old bad habit of comparing ourselves to others still finds its way back.

We can understand we might not all be on the typical track of love-marriage-baby carriage, yet we still take note of how many friends are getting engaged or married or having kids at what age and measure ourselves against those milestones.

We can be completely happy with our jobs and our bachelor’s degrees, yet begin to feel slightly inadequate when we notice large numbers of our peers earning master’s credentials or even pursuing doctorate degrees. We know how we spend our lives is totally our decision, yet some strange part of us might want to be on the “normal” track.

It’s such a contradiction. So let’s stop right now and ask ourselves – what’s up with that?

Why do we want the latitude to pursue our own desires, free from the stereotypical expectations of society, yet safely within the confines of what’s deemed “normal” or “acceptable”? How come we can take the positive step of ignoring goals we don’t value, only to feel just as full of shortcomings when we don’t meet those goals?

And on a more productive note, what can we do about it?

I’d say we can start by finding the reasons we still strive to measure up. Maybe we’re competitive people. Maybe we haven’t distanced ourselves from the things we don’t care about as much as we thought. Or maybe we simply want companionship from others who “get it” – whatever “it” is.

The biggest reason I haven’t kicked the comparison habit is because I hate being alone, literally and figuratively. I innately want my friends to understand what’s going on in my life, and vice versa. And that means I have to keep up – to some extent, at least.

I’m keeping up just fine in the areas of careers, travel, general life adventures and apartment living. I’ve been with my boyfriend more than two years, and things are going really well, but I still find most of my negative comparing happens in the relationships department.

The comparing leads me to feel strange about the milestone of a “two-year dating anniversary,” because who am I to be excited about having dated someone for a couple years when people my age – even close friends of mine – are getting engaged or married, or already have surpassed a full two years of marriage?

In high school and college, a two-year anniversary meant a two-year dating anniversary, and that was a real and significant attainment. But in twenty-something life, a dating anniversary doesn’t feel like it reaches the same level as a wedding anniversary. It almost seems to call for its own term, although I haven’t run across an appropriate one, other than the clunky phrase “dating anniversary.”

And this is how I compare. No part of me is saying “I wish I was having a two-year wedding anniversary right now,” instead of celebrating a couple years of calling the same amazing guy my boyfriend. But too much of me is doubting the significance of the milestones in my own life. And that’s why I know it’s harmful.

The challenge is moving from a theoretical understanding of the fact that our lives will all take different paths and move at our own speeds, to a practical comprehension that will stop us in our tracks whenever we begin the harmful habit of measuring ourselves by anyone else’s yardstick.

I can’t say how or when we’ll reach that deeper understanding, but I know enough to say we’ll all get there at our own pace.


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When ice cream becomes the new alcohol

I deleted the line item for “beer” from my budget the other day. In its place, I added a line for “ice cream.” And while eating a bowl of sweet frozen goodness, I realized this: I am such an adult.

As a younger adult (translation: as a junior and senior in college and for the first year or so after I graduated), I wondered why my parents and other parent-aged people drink so rarely. I’d heard the theory that the novelty of being old enough to legally drink wares off. And I knew career-world life has a different rhythm than college life – a rhythm that’s more marathon than sprint and leads to less long nights at the bars and slightly more sleep.

Still, I wondered why the bottle of Crown Royal had been in our family’s pantry for more than a decade and why any leftover beers from holiday get-togethers would have gone stale in the fridge if I hadn’t come to the rescue. All the evidence was before me, but I still couldn’t quite figure out why drinking had become such a rare occurrence for my parents and their counterparts.

Worse yet, I denied the change as it was happening to me for quite a while. For two years, I’d say.

When I moved out of my parents’ house, I created a pretty detailed budget to make sure I’d never be spending a penny more than I was taking in. That would just make me uncomfortable. And I know the presence of a carefully calculated budget makes me pretty darn adult right there, but at least there was a line item for beer!

I mean, c’mon, I wanna be able to go out, right?!? I was living in Chicago for Pete’s sake, and I didn’t want to feel like I didn’t have the money when a text would come in inviting me to some new place on Division on a Saturday night or to a boozy brunch with my soccer team in West Town. So I budgeted for beer, too, just to be safe.

At first, I was glad I did. The very first month I moved out was probably the month I drank the most (bachelorette parties and three-in-a-row brewery tours while on vacation not included). So it was good to know the money was available.

But over time, the beer line item became a benefit for another reason: I was pretty much guaranteed not to spend it, so the $30 I set aside for my drink of choice became a solid cushion to help out if I overspent elsewhere. Like on ice cream.

I was definitely in denial at this point. Sure, my beer money was going unspent and a chunk of my restaurants budget was going to the aforementioned sweet treats, which I would enjoy with my boyfriend during the majority of weekends. All the evidence was before me, in dollars and cents tracked with scribbled notes jotted on a budget printout. But I still couldn’t quite admit that drinking – even in the form of one lonely beer with dinner – had become a once-in-a-while thing for me. Just like it had for my parents.

I guess the final straw that snapped me out of denial was moving to the suburbs. The move sparked some retooling of my budget, and with the help of my accountant-boyfriend, the document migrated to Excel, where it should have been in the first place.

The idea of an ice cream line item started as a joke, and it certainly wasn’t in the first draft of my new, suburban resident budget. But when the phone rang asking if I wanted Dairy Queen on the spur of the moment a few days after I’d moved, I knew it was time.

If I’m ever going to beat myself up for eating too much dessert (which I do sometimes – caring too much about my weight and what I eat is a bad habit I’m trying to break), then I should also credit myself for no longer drinking very much beer.

And if I’m going to admit I hardly ever drink beer, then I shouldn’t leave $30 sitting in my budget to pretend I do.

So Dairy Queen? Heck yes! Culver’s? Check – custard is ice cream budget-approved. I’m an adult, and if ice cream is my favorite and most frequent splurge, then so be it. In fact, bring it on. My taste buds – and my pocketbook – are ready.

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College is over; Smile because it happened

Whatever exactly is the opposite of nostalgia is hard for me to conjure up as I sort through massive piles of old paperwork from college classes and my job application phase.

I try to be ruthless, putting things I’ll never look at again and truly don’t need into a growing pile to recycle. I try hard to be disconnected, telling myself I’m never going to write the same novel I was dreaming up during sophomore year of college, and I’m never going to re-read my notes from my very first journalism class.

I even try to be organized, compiling the few things I am keeping – my very first college exam (intro to meteorology midterm in fall 2006, 95 percent), drafts and rewrites of the two best stories I wrote for my favorite journalism professor, the folded and fraying campus map I kept all four years, my first press pass from The Daily Illini – into neat envelopes, folders and piles.

But I can’t fight the nostalgia. The sad feeling I always get when I realize I can’t go back to a certain phase of my life, no matter how much I might want to.

Nostalgia has struck me hard since I was probably seven or eight years old. I remember going to Wal-Mart with my mom looking for a costume I was going to wear as a dwarf in our elementary school play. Dwarves were told to dress all in one color, but given the choice of what color that would be. I cried as I told my mom I didn’t want to look for pink shirts and shorts to be a pink dwarf, because bright pink was no longer my favorite color. I had moved on to lime green, and I was sad about it, nostalgic. Even then I realized I couldn’t go back to a littler kid phase of my life, a time when I unabashedly loved all things pink and was a complete girly girl. I was stuck in the lime green phase, and though I relished all the different stages of growing up, a part of me often wanted the ability to go back.
There’s never any going back in life, and that has always made me sad.

So here I am, in my mid-twenties, sorting through college paperwork that’s suddenly between four and almost eight years old (!) Here I am, trying to decide what artifacts of the “best four years of my life” I want to keep and which elements of college should live on only in my memory.

Here I am, and again, nostalgia strikes.

I still love lime green. I still love to keep notes and letters and journals as a way to preserve the lessons of the past. I still tend to wish I could go back to a younger version of myself, taking with me the perspective I now have. But I know that’s not possible.

So this time, I’ll embrace the nostalgia. I’ll throw on some of the tunes I listened to during my college days and since have strayed from – if only slightly. I’ll recall the fun times as well as the stress of college and I’ll tell myself not to cry because it’s over, but to smile because it happened. That’s a phrase I heard somewhere along the line, and it applies perfectly here. Life has happened, and it’s all a gift.

Elementary school plays, middle school catty drama, high school basketball, college journalism classes and adventures in old buildings and long nights spent listening to music and trying to find free parties, as well as our true selves – all those wonderful and enlightening life experiences happened.

They happened, and with or without the weight of the notebooks, test scores, syllabi and class schedules to prove it, all I can do is smile.

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Dear moms, Thanks for doing anything for us

You always seemed to love the little crafts we’d make at school, so with Mother’s Day coming up, we figured it’s time to create another one.

Close your eyes for a second, and pretend you’ve just been handed a piece of paper with your child’s answer to a writing prompt that asks something like “what do moms do?”

This is supposed to hearken back to our younger years when we needed elementary school room-moms and Valentine’s cards for everyone in the class and “Boo-Boo Strips” for our cuts, but there’s no need to post this essay on the fridge. Just read, relax and enjoy. Because moms don’t get to do enough of that, we know. Because this is who moms are; this is what moms do:

Moms are people who will spend an extraordinary amount of time on anything they think will matter or have meaning to their children. If it’s an elf costume for the fourth-grade school play or a Grinch costume for the sophomore year sorority dance, moms will make it, even if sewing is not their favorite thing. Moms will make chocolate bundt cakes and special request birthday dinners, sometimes when it’s not even a birthday – just a day when the long-lost son or daughter will be home from college for the weekend.

If a project takes time, moms will plan ahead to conquer it little by little, wake up early, stay up late, or do whatever else it takes to finish the task and impress or surprise their children. Moms will sneak into the healthy lunches we’ve already packed, adding a bag of homemade cookies and a note with a smile. Moms are organizers, protectors, role models of hard work, dedication, self-sacrifice and optimism.

Moms do this out of love. They love us enough to want us to have everything – every comfort they had growing up, every advantage they didn’t have as children, everything we need to succeed – and not just things, but every moral, mental, social and spiritual support as well.

Moms let their own clothes grow decades old while they take us shopping for new shoes and outfits every school year. Moms neglect their favorite pizza toppings and let us order ours, or at least go halfsies. Moms almost always stay behind the scenes, taking none of the credit, when they’re basically the directors or producers of the stories of our lives, and should be listed prominently. In doing all this, they model unselfishness. It’s just how they operate.

Sure, moms want texts when we get to our friends houses or touch down at our vacation destinations, and moms ask us questions before we’re ready to answer, like when will you find your next apartment or will your bosses ever give you a raise? And no mom is perfect, each has technology she can’t figure out, or songs she doesn’t understand or quirks of ours she doesn’t quite accept.

But she’s a mom – far beyond just the obvious and biologically imposed definition of a woman who’s given birth to an offspring – she’s someone who made the conscious choice to teach, to support, to love, to dedicate herself to a family she will create and to those who come after her.

For all this and more, moms deserve our constant respect, honor, admiration and love. More than that, they deserve recognition every day – recognition we can give by striving, with all our hearts and all our minds and all our actions, to be more like them.

Happy Mother’s Day to the best examples of love and selflessness we could ever ask for, our moms.


Twenty-something Times

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