A Year in My Body: Part 2

Silhouette of woman jogging at sunrise or sunset

This essay is from a five-part series about the emotions, challenges, and events surrounding my body, from my 32nd birthday to my 33rd. Read the first part here

Winter

My alarm goes off at 5:15 a.m., but I hit snooze twice because I have worked in the extra 10 minutes to allow this ritual, which feels like stealing candy. It’s above 20 degrees, and although I can run outside, I dress in two pairs of pants, a thermal long sleeve undershirt, a fleece zip up, and a scarf that covers my mouth. The exhaustive layering takes time that I did not build into the schedule.

This pre-dawn date with the gym does not happen every day. Some mornings I am up working on a book that will be rejected by 30-some literary agents later in the year while others I stay hidden under a pile of blankets until the last possible minute that I can without being late to work.

But, today, I am running before most people are awake, and I feel superior to everyone else until I see a middle-aged woman, with her lunch under her arm, stomping off to the bus stop.

At the gym, I peel off my clothes and do rounds of lunges and curls and other weight exercises that I either remember from my high school weightlifting class or examples torn out of women’s fitness magazines under headlines such as “Get that beach booty” and “Nail your vacation bod.” I know nothing about training but I have high hopes that these gym sessions will be what kick starts my weight loss, and subsequently, marathon training.

Being sober has done little to my waistline. It could be all the chocolate, ice cream, and fries that I have green lit into my mouth because “I deserve it,” or it could be that I am not doing enough physically to burn the calories. A piece of me is resentful that I gave up such an accommodating vice like alcohol and my stomach haven’t seen the benefits. “Have you lost any weight?” a friend asked, and when I said no, she replied, “Well, that doesn’t seem worth it, so I am not going to stop drinking.” I’ve been sober for three months, and the scale doesn’t reflect the absence of empty liquor calories nor the handfuls of tortilla chips I eat in a drunken stupor. Still, I hold out hope that the weight will go at some point. It has to.

My runs to the gym are slow, but I am OK with that for now. When I am running 20 miles in the dead heat of August, I will think about these mornings and remark how the hard part is long gone. My newer body, which will be quicker and faster, will reward me with that reassurance.

My day-to-day life is digitized into sets of numbers. I have goals of how much water I should drink each day (two liters), how much sleep I should get (eight hours), how many calories I should eat (1,500), and how many steps I should take (10,000). These goal numbers were cherry-picked out of articles on sites like MindBodyGreen, Popsugar and Elle. I have no reason to believe that I can’t hit them daily. All of these targets were made to get me to a specific number on the scale.

For a couple of years, I stopped weighing myself as an attempt to forge a better relationship with my body, and it worked. With a long history of distorted body image, the scale determined myself worth. Down a few pounds? I could eat an extra slice of pizza and feel good in my tank top and jeans. But if I was a pound heavier than the day before, I ran an extra mile and spend most of the day looking at myself in the mirror to assess how bad it had gotten. Then, one day at a doctor’s appointment, I broke down in tears because I hadn’t lost as much weight as I thought I should while in the midst of marathon training. The nurse tried to assure me that my weight was fine, but I was so angry with myself that I wanted to scream. Hours later, after I had calmed down, I decided that I was no longer going to give power to the scale. I refused to buy one, and whenever I went to the doctor, I closed my eyes and asked the nurse to write the number down without telling me. Not knowing the number was bliss. I no longer had numeric evidence of my shortcomings, so I could no longer berate myself.  

When I moved in with my boyfriend last year, he bought a scale to curb his own weight gain. I stayed away from it at first, but like an addict, I thought just one reading wouldn’t hurt anything. I’ll only do it once, to see where I am at, and then go back to ignorance.

We’ve had the scale for four months, and I check my weight most days. It’s 147. My goal is to lose seven pounds, make it an even 140 and match the number on my driver’s license. There isn’t anything unhealthy about trying to lose seven pounds—my boyfriend does that in a month just by avoiding fast food. I bet that that I can even get down to 135, (which I haven’t seen since high school) if I am really careful.

A hand-me-down FitBit keeps me in line for my daily goals. The first thing I do when I wake up, is look at how well I slept. Too many thin blue and pink lines indicate restlessness, which predicts that it will be an arduous day. The black bracelet on my wrist reminds me to get up from my desk every hour if I want to hit my step number. Sometimes, I excuse myself to the bathroom and pace back and forth from one end to the other in an effort to add another 500 steps. I catch my image in the mirror as I strut. There has never been a mirror, window reflection, or shadow that I haven’t checked my shape in. I need to see how my belly protrudes forward and if the thickness of my waist has changed in the last 60 minutes. I do this over and over throughout a single day, for reassurance or justification or habit.

Below the fitness tracker, I wear a Garmin watch to track my runs. I need to know the exact distance of my runs and the mile splits. After each run, I upload the workout to both the Garmin app and Strava so I can proudly spout off my workout to a listening audience and judge my exertion and pace against others’ workouts.. On the Garmin app, I check my heart rate, which I’ve also been trying to acknowledge using the factory built-in heart rate monitor on the gym treadmill. My watch also tells me that heart rate is higher than it should be, indicating that I am pushing too much, but I won’t slow down. My mile times, even in these foundational runs, need to be quicker. I can only race quicker if I run faster, and I bury the voice in my head that suggests this kind of exercise could lead to added stress and strain on my muscles and joints. I don’t care, though. My body will be fine.

It’s 60 degrees in Chicago in February. It shouldn’t be this warm, we all know, and yet we can’t help but feel giddy with the tease of summer. In the Windy City, it’s a sin to waste a nice day, so I plan to run five miles after work before meeting a friend for dinner. I am supposed to ease back into a consistent running schedule before I ramp up to 30-mile weeks, but the nice evening and the eagerness to get to a higher mileage plants the idea that maybe I could run eight this evening. I tick off one mile then two and three, knowing I should turn around, but I only do so after the fourth mile so that my final total is eight. I keep going, even if the light hip pain I’ve had on my right side is throbbing now. The glory of telling my friend, who is far more fit than me with the toned arms of Jennifer Aniston, screams more than the pain.

At dinner my hip hurts so bad that I cannot sit without wincing. It feels like there is a  needle stuck inside my joint that the doctor forgot to take out. I have an appointment with my primary care doctor in a few days, and I will bring it up to her. I am confident that this will be my like my knee last year, when I did tests and saw a physical therapist but no conclusions were made. It’s probably fine.

I take off a few days of running, and my hip still hurts. I sit down, it hurts. I stand up, it hurts. I feel pain when I get out of the car, when I am sleeping at night, when I am walking the dog. The pain haunts me.

It’s nothing, I tell myself. It’s nothing.

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Cash Money

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Please be less than 25. Please be less than 25.

I wouldn’t let myself look at the screen next to the cash register, nor the woman passing items under the barcode scanner. I stared down, waiting for it to be done.

“$45.76,” the cashier said.

Shit.

My stomach turned in knots as I handed her my credit card. I had gone to the store for just a few things, and did not expect to spend this much. How could you be so careless? I berated myself. I texted Ethan for reassurance, which he gave easily. I looked at our monthly budget and the numbers, and finally after a few hours, I realized it was just $20 more than I anticipated and not enough of an overage that we could adjust in other spending categories.

Money has long been a big stresser in my life. My family never went without the necessities but it wasn’t always easy for my parents.  I went to college on scholarships and loans and worked part-time jobs for rent and grocery money (I had three jobs my senior year), with help from my parents from time to time. In the professional world, I worked at newspapers and non-profits, which aren’t exactly lucrative employers. For three years, while I was in the Peace Corps, I didn’t have an income nor was I making student loan payments or contributing to a 401K. Since I got my first checking account, I have never not constantly worried about how much money I have and how much I am spending. However, if there was ever a time in which I could relax a bit, it would have been this spring.

I had recently got a promotion that came with a pay increase, making the best money I ever have, and after eight months out of work, Ethan got a job with a salary that was nearly double of what he was making prior. Also, I had no debt. I finished paying my student loans last October, and we never carry credit card balances from one month to the next. I had a nice savings built up and, while it wasn’t nowhere near the amount it should be for my age, I was making progress on my retirement. Now we weren’t swimming in money, Scrooge McDuck style (remember, we were also planning a wedding at the time), but we could go to dinner with friends or buy a new sweater without thought.

Giving up this slight financial ease to go back to school was a rather difficult choice to make. And, for a lot of people, money is a big deterrent from things like graduate school. On top of that, those in the mental health profession don’t make great money, so it would be years, if ever, for me to get back to the salary I had been making at my previous job. But I made a promise to myself long ago that I wasn’t going to let money stop me from doing the things I really wanted to do with my life, and so I had to be willing to make sacrifices in other ways. There was an option to keep my job and go back to school, but to be a part-time student would extend my program from three years to four. I also thought about doing both full-time, at least for a year, but I knew that I wouldn’t be able to give my all to either and that’s just not how I wanted from my graduate experience. Thankfully, I did get a full-time graduate assistantship that pays for my tuition, and all I needed account for was living and school extras, such as fees and books.

Ethan will help cover some of our shared expenses, and I received some student aid to help cover my share of the rent and specific-to me bills, such as my phone and gym membership. While I also have a healthy savings and do receive a small stipend from GA position, it’s probably that I will the next few years, but for now I want to focus on school so we have to pare down. I may have to turn a friend down for happy hour, and Ethan will have to pass on a video game he wants. We will have to be more conscious about our groceries, and we likely won’t be going to many concerts or plays in the next three years. We are also trying to protect the things that we do want to spend money on by cutting other places. For me, that’s my gym membership, and for Ethan that is weekly trips to Chipotle. We met with a financial advisor, who assured us we are doing all the right things, and we made a budget that we go over every week. By most measures, we are in a good place.

The biggest struggle for me, though, is defaulting to the scarcity mindset and allowing myself to feel so much shame around money. I am panicked each time we spend money. I bought two pairs of leggings from Old Navy the other day because I live in black leggings and my others had holes in them, and still I was nearly in tears for spending the money. I have never been an extravagant spender and I have to still be able to enjoy my life, but I don’t know how to do that yet without having a near panic attack each time I use my credit card. At some point, I have to stop putting so much value on the money itself and giving it so much control over me. The thing is, I have worried about money my entire life and not once have I ever not been OK. I have many memories of being wonderful places and with wonderful people that are disrupted by financial anxiety. At some point, I have to say no, this isn’t going to bother me this time.

I am very lucky that I was in a financial position where I could quit my job and go back to school and that I have a husband who can support us. I understand that I have a lot of privilege working on my behalf. Even so, the next three years will have to be tight and we will have to say no on purchases we really want. That’s OK; that’s the sacrifice both Ethan and I agreed to make when I went back to school. The key, though, is reign in some of my worries about money and trust the plan we’ve put in place, and trust myself to make good money decisions. This is a pivotal time for me, and I don’t want to look back on it and only see worries over money, so I have to do the emotional and mental work around money. It’s going to take sometime, and I am not exactly sure where to start other than to talk about my fears around money on this blog, but I am willing. I guess that’s the first step.

It’s your turn to share. Money is a hard thing to discuss and something we often shy away from. What’s the best advice you received around money? What are your favorite budgeting tools and tricks? How do you deal with money anxiety? Leave a comment with your tips!

 

Ms. or Mrs.

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In the few months that I’ve been married, I’ve been asked the same three questions a number of times.

How is married life?

When are you going to have kids?

Are you changing your last name?

So, if you are dying to know, here are the answers.

Married life is great. People often say it’s no different than before, but I disagree. As husband and wife, Ethan and I are more accountable for each other. We are now each other’s first contact. We make decisions as a team, not as individuals anymore. Me returning to school has also redefined our relationship, as Ethan has the sole income in our house. It’s the first time since I was a kid that I am reliant on another person for my well-being, which is an adjustment that I am not making entirely smoothly. But I trust Ethan more than I trust anyone else, and at the end of the day, he is the person I want to hang out with on the couch doing nothing. So, yeah, married life is treating us well.

Question #2: Not sure. As I am approaching 34—the year before my fertility starts to shrivel—it’s on our minds, but I am in the midst of a big career change. We want kids, but again, we are down to one income right now. Ideally, I get pregnant my last year of graduate school, but I’d prefer to wait until at least after January, when we are going on our honeymoon. We are taking the “when it happens, it happens” approach.

And, for the final question, will I become Mrs. Fife? No, I am keeping my last name, but it was something I thought long and hard about and might still change.

You all know the show “Growing Pains”, right? In that show, Maggie Seaver is an adoring wife and mother who has a successful journalism career as Maggie Malone. That became my name goal – make a career as Heather Mangan, but privately take my husband’s last name. This theory was reassuring as I got older and watched many of my friends get married; I was still bringing Heather Mangan out into the world. I would be come a famous journalist or writer with my maiden name. It would be my public persona.

By the time I did get engaged, my name wasn’t exactly what I had hoped it would be. I didn’t author any books as Heather Mangan, and while I have gotten most social media handles and URLS under this name, it’s not the famed success I thought I would have. Really, I could abandon the name and not be any worse off in my career.

For months, I thought about whether I would take my husband’s name or keep my own. I went back and forth about what each would mean to me, and the person I would be with either name. Heather Mangan, I knew her. She stumbles from time to time, but she is resilient and she tells it like it is. There is still hope for her. Heather Fife would be a fresh start. She’d have to prove herself, but maybe that would be easier than scrapping together small success to prove worthiness.

I liked the idea of having the same name as my husband. I would be a few spots up in the alphabet and it was shorter. It would also stop the annoying habit some have of calling me Megan (Mangan sounds like Megan and so for much of my life people have thought that was my first name). It’s traditional, a solid choice.

Then again, I’ve have a lot of strong female friends who have chosen not to change their name. They stand proud with who they were at birth, husband or not. I admire these woman, believe in the same individuality that they do, want to be more own person. On the other hand, I felt a bit of pressure (albeit perceived pressure) to keep my maiden name if I wanted to an outspoken woman who supports other women.

In the end, what ultimately made my decision was time and money. It’s not cheap or easy to change your last name and then update all the necessary documents, and the fact that it falls on the woman is patriarchal. Ethan was very clear that the decision to change my name was my decision—and mine alone—to make and there would be no pressure from him. Also, he added that he would never change his name because of the work involved. So, that became my reasoning, too. I would stay Heather Mangan, at least for now. When we have children and for the sake being tied to them by name, I will likely add Fife as a second last name or hyphenate it, but the Mangan will stay with me. I have built whole life as Heather Mangan, and I am not going to change, married or not.

I am curious to hear from my readers. Are there reasons you decided to change your name or not? Any regrets in doing so or not doing so?

 

The First Week – Belonging

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I stood by the elevator, looking at the building directory. There was the dining hall, the book store, financial aid. I scanned the listings, and I stopped at the Department of Journalism and Media Studies. My eyes moved to the right to find the room numbers, and it took me a second to stop myself.

Oh, I thought. That’s not me anymore. I’ve never had to know myself outside of the communications world, but now I do.

It’s Friday morning, which means I have officially completed my first week of school and my graduate assistantship. Actually, I should be doing homework right now – I already have a three-page paper due next week – but I wanted to recollect my thoughts from this week.

My days on campus are concentrated to Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday – the nights I have classes – and I’ve built my GA schedule so I only have to come downtown for those days (Roosevelt is in the Loop). Tuesday was not only my first day of class, but it was the day I received by GA assignment. I decided to go to school a bit early so that I could get my student ID and my U-Pass (as part of my student fees, I pay for an unlimited CTA pass, which is a nice student perk), and explore campus a bit.

I suppose I don’t need to state that Roosevelt University, an urban university with 2,700 students and a commitment to social justice, is different than South Dakota State University, a land-grant school that takes over an entire town with 12,500 students and my alma mater, but it is. Roosevelt is composed of just two interlocked buildings, which makes it slightly more confusing to navigate. All I had to do was find the registar’s office, but it took me 10 minutes and I eventually needed to ask for help. As I wandered through the small hallways amongst the other students in their shorts and sweatshirts, I became homesick for SDSU, for the familiar. I wanted to see the Campanile, Yeager Hall, the Barn. I wanted to go back where I belonged, which wasn’t at this campus where I looked more like a teacher than a student.

Eventually, I got my ID and UPass, went to the GA meeting and met those I will be working with, and finally, had my first class. To my surprise, it was just a syllabus class, but it was helpful in getting an idea of what to expect this semester. I came home exhausted and overwhelmed, but excited for the next day.

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Eleanor Roosevelt quotes are scattered throughout the university. I found this one on my first day and think it is an appropriate motto for the year. 

The following two days were more introductions to my classes and meeting the others in my cohort. There are about 38 individuals who are in the clinical mental health and school counseling programs, and these will be the people I will have all of my classes with throughout the duration of my program. There was one woman I sat next to in each of the three classes completely by happenstance. Walking into that first class, and seeing my cohort for the first time, felt very similar to when I met my Peace Corp groups for Niger and Lesotho. There is a lot of expectation that these people will become like family to you, but you will undoubtedly have complicated, intense, loving, emotional relationships with them over the course of the next few years. A big insecurity for me is that I am older than most of my classmates, by at least 10 years. However, there are a few in their 40s (I can’t tell for sure, but I may be the only one in my 30s) and the age difference will only become an issue if I let it. After three rounds of introductions, I am excited to get to know everyone a bit better, and as our professors tell us, we definitely we will do that much.

For my grad assistantship, I will be working 17 hours a week within the College of Education. Some of that time will be spent helping admissions staff and the rest as a TA in an undergraduate education class. The work shouldn’t be too taxing, especially coming from the professional world, but I am already a bit overwhelmed about how to get those hours in each week in addition to my class time and course work.

The last couple of weeks have given me a misguided perception as to what graduate school would be like. I figured I would have all this free time during the day to write, work out, take Annie on long walks, but the hard lesson I’ve already learned is that I am going to have some really long days. I don’t mind that, but I guess I had a slightly romantic idea graduate school life and now I must adjust. The good thing, though, is that I am really excited about what I will learn this semester.

After last night’s class, I knew my way out of the building. In just a few days, I’ve come to like the school’s dingy, narrow hallways – they remind me of the NFA basement. I had assignments for the weekend and even chatted with one of my classmates. It was the first time all week that I felt like a student. As I made my way to the train, people hustling home after a long day at the office, I smiled. I was right where I was I meant to be.

Back To School

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Every August, as a kid, my mother would take my brothers and I to Aberdeen, where my grandmother lived, for some back-to-school shopping. Our little one-way mall didn’t have much, and while Aberdeen’s shopping options were fewer than Sioux Falls or Rapid City, it was a good excuse to see grandma and get the must-haves of the season. We went to stores like Foot Locker, the Buckle and Maurices, picking out that perfect first-day outfit. We’d also hit up Target and Shopko for folders, binders, pens, and, of course, a three-subject Five Star spiral notebook.

As I got older, and I jammed my schedule with activities, back to school was more gradual than the one-day event in elementary school. In high school, cross country and band practice began weeks before the doors opened. As a college student, the first issue of The Collegian, for which I was an editor, was in residence halls just in time for move-in day, and the start of classes was consider a break compared to putting out a newspaper. Then, when I was a teacher in Lesotho as a Peace Corps volunteer, the first day of school was more of a date suggestion, and the students spent the first week cleaning the school’s premise while the teachers groggily prepared lesson plans for the semester.

That back-to-school feeling never seems to leave us entirely, no matter how long it’s been since we were a student. For many of us, those shiny folders and packs of pencils call to us, even if we have no real use for them. We get our own children and can relive our own first days through them, which is why Facebook is often inundated with pictures of cute kids holding signs and wearing backpacks. Back to school is part of our annual cycle (and marketing cycles) like holidays, and it brings forward memories of years gone and reminders accompanied that fresh start of a new school year.

It’s been 12 years since my first day of school as a student (five as a teacher), but today I go back to school as a graduate student in clinical mental health counseling, and it doesn’t feel like any other back-to-school send off parties I’ve previously have had. I haven’t bought any new supplies – not books (at the suggestion of other students in the program), not pencils, not even a backpack. Part of that comes from my husband lovingly telling me it’s a waste to get anything until I know what I need, but he is right in that I don’t know what to expect today. My first class is two and half hours, and while I imagine there won’t a pop quiz on the first day, I doubt it will be like the hand-out-and-go-over-the-syllabus first days of college. I don’t know if I should bring my computer or a notebook, and do I dress comfortably or more business casual? I am in the wilderness here.

I am nervous this morning. A part of me wonders if I forgot how to be a student, if I will be one of those “old students” who gets unnecessarily anxious about small assignments, if I have the capacity to learn an entirely new field. I am scared that I have set up graduate school and this new career path as another “if only I could do this and then I will be happy” scenario. I was a good undergraduate student, and I did well in all my major-related classes (macroeconomics, though, yuck), but I had been training to be a journalist since I was 16. I know I am good at writing, editing, communications, all of that, but I don’t know if I am going to be good at mental health ethics or understanding substance abuse (two of my classes this fall).

And, yet, that hope and excitement is still here. In the two weeks since I’ve stopped working, I have sort of got my life back on track. At the end of my job, I was drinking, eating, and zoning out on social media in an effort to get from day to day. I was not living, just holding on. But, this transition has helped me find the joy back in my days. I’ve got to exercise, see friends, remember my goals and dreams. School will no doubt be difficult, but it’s a challenge I am want to take, not something I feel like I have to do because it’s part of societal orders. I feel more excited about my future and the year ahead of me than I have in a long time.

When I walk into my classroom this evening, my palms will likely be sweaty and my stomach a bit uneven, but I anticipate I will be smiling. From kindergarten to senior year of college, I went back to school 17 times because I was getting an education like I thought I was supposed. Today, though, I am choosing to go back. I start this first day of of my master’s degree having made sacrifices to be here, and not truly understanding how difficult it will be in the next three years. But, this is the path I want to be on, and so I go back to school because I am following a dream. It’s going to be a great first day.

The End of Summer

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Tomorrow is my first day of school, and it’s nearly Labor Day weekend, which means summer is officially over. It was a good, but busy, summer. Between getting married, moving, quitting my job, and preparing for graduate school, I am a bit tired going into the next season.

To mark the end of the season, I wanted to look back at my Summer Bucket List and see what I did end up accomplishing.

  • Cook and bake: We got an ice cream maker for our wedding, and we have put it to good use. I really wanted to learn to make spaghetti from scratch, but that hasn’t happened. The fall and winter are better for baking anyway.
  • Go for a long bike ride and bike to work: I haven’t biked as much as I had hoped this summer. We moved further from the main biking routes in the city, and it became more of a pain. Still, I had a couple of longer rides – nothing to Indiana – but I am satisfied with how much I did ride.
  • Blog more: I have been avoiding writing lately. I have lots of writing ideas, but then I get it in my head that I need to pitch these pieces. I get scared and just never write them. I debate putting all of those pieces on to the blog, but then I wonder if it’s worth it for the six people who read the blog. What I am saying is that I am struggling with what is the purpose of writing and the joy it brings me. I am stuck in this cycle that if my writing isn’t going somewhere big it’s not worth it, but that isn’t the kind of writer I want to be. I am thinking about doing a 30-day blog challenge to just make myself write more. Stay tuned. IMG_0107.JPG
  • Day date with Ethan and Annie to Starved Rock: We did this, and it was wonderful. It was a hoooooottttt day, but Annie loved scaling up and down the trails and splashing in the waterfalls. We went early enough that we beat the crowds and were home for a snack and a nap.
  • Go camping: Haven’t done this yet, but a friend invited me to tag along on a camping trip to Michigan in September so I am planning on that. And, another friend and I are planning a bigger trip in 2019.
  • Read more: I may not have earned any Pizza Hut badges, but I did read a few books this summer. My favorites include Find A Way by Diana NyadKitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain, and Born a Crime by a Trevor Noah. (I really like memoirs, I guess).
  • Try Bumble Friends: I went on one friend date and talked to a few others, but no lasting connections. I think I am just going to invest more in my current friendships.
  • Take steps to start a podcast: Nope. Maybe someday.
  • Make kombucha: Yes! I took a class and have now made three or four batches. I love it, although I am not necessarily experimenting with flavors. I just love ginger so much.
  • Explore our new neighborhood: Rogers Park is taking some getting used to, but we are liking it so far. This weekend we had brunch at a divey diner that would be a great place for daily coffee and eggs, if I was the kind of person who had a breakfast at a diner ever morning.
  • Take the water taxi to Chinatown and then get dim sum: One Saturday my friend Katie and I were actually going to do this – I even bought the tickets – but it did not happen. Instead, we drank beers on my friend’s rooftop, which was highly enjoyable. It’s still on the list for the fall. IMG_1449
  • Swim: I have fallen back in love with swimming, and I actually did some swimming in Lake Michigan this summer. I am working on a piece about that that I hope to sell or share with you all one date.

Other fun things I got to do this summer that were not on the bucket list:

  • A weekend at a lake house in Wisconsin that included a lot of cheese curds, boating and, of course, Spotted Cow. Annie fell in love with the lake, and now it’s my life goal to have a vacation home in Wisconsin.
  • Lots of quiet nights with my husband. I made a conscious effort a few months ago to thin my schedule, and I’ve really enjoyed having lazy evenings in which we watch TV and eat homemade ice cream.
  • A long road trip to South Dakota and Minnesota. I found myself with two free weeks between ending work and starting graduate school, so Annie and I decided to drive to South Dakota. We did the first leg – 13 hours – in one day. In Pierre, I hung out with my nephews, had a mini wedding celebration, enjoyed the quietness of the Rushmore State. I drove to the Twin Cities for a few days where I watched way too much trashy TV and was a live-in nannie for my niece. It was a great break and good family time.

This was a really good summer for me. I didn’t do everything I set out to do, but I am OK with that. Fall is my favorite season, and I will likely have a new bucket list, but I get to go into September with lots of good summer memories. How was your summer? What was your favorite thing about it?

The Leap: Beginning A New Chapter

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“You want to jump over to the other tube?” my friend asked me.

I shook my head. I was fine just where I was. She shrugged her shoulders, and then as the boat pulled us behind it, she effortlessly moved from one flotation device to the other, a stream of water underneath her.

Recently, I went tubing for the first time in years, maybe decades, while spending the week at a friend’s lake house in Wisconsin. While I was eager to get on the tube, I didn’t have the bravery for anything other than gripping the handles. There were two tubes with two riders a piece, and to add an extra level of excitement, the other three passengers lily-frog leaped from tube to tube. Again, they asked me if I wanted to hop to the other side, but I said no. My body has lost much of its resilience since the last time I tubbed, and I was afraid it wouldn’t make it.

The more we rode and the more comfortable I got on the tube, I realized I probably could make that jump. And, if I fell, the pontoon wasn’t going that fast and I would likely be OK. So, when asked a third time if I wanted to jump to the other tube, I said yes. I hoisted myself up over the other rider on my flotation device, aimed for the handles, and leapt.

This is something I’ve learned about myself: it may take me a bit longer to leap, but in the end, I usually do it. This is true of big life events, like the Peace Corps. I talked about applying for the Peace Corps for nearly two and half years before I finally departed. Also, I had bragged about living in a big city since I was 14, only to actually move to one when I was 29. 

Now, I am making another leap. This fall, I am enrolled in a clinical mental health counseling program at Roosevelt University in Chicago and am starting down the path to become a therapist.

And like many of my big jumps in life, it’s taken me a long time to get to this point. Just recently I met up with a friend from high school, someone I hadn’t seen in about nine years, and when I told her I was going back to school, she said, “You’ve been talking about that for forever.” It’s true. When I was 10, I told people I was going to be a psychologist. During my first job, as an reporter, I called a woman who had been a counselor and then became a sports editor and asked her what I should do. And, a few years ago at a career planning session, I stated getting a counseling degree as one of my life goals. For the last threes, I’ve spent time researching and plotting about what it would take to get that masters. I went back and forth on what I wanted to study and if it was the right investment. I talked to everyone I knew who was a practicing counselor, whether they had earned a degree in counseling, social work, psychology or marriage and family therapy. I looked at programs in and out of Chicago. And still, I couldn’t make a decision, until last winter.

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My new school!

It wasn’t the best time for Ethan and I. He had been unemployed for months and his savings was dwindling each week. Me, I was recovering from hip surgery and continuously unhappy in my job. One cold morning, as I walking down our stairs on my way to work, it hit me that I was wasting my days. I was just trying to get from day to day and there was no fulfillment and joy. Something had to give.

Over the holiday break, I thought long and hard about what to do next, and thought that maybe I should finally pursue a graduate degree. It seemed like too big of a jump from my current life – to return to school 11 years after I finished my undergraduate degree and completely change my career – so, I did what Mother Oprah recommends and I looked what is the next right step. From there, I took it piece by piece, never fully committing to the idea. I made a spreadsheet of schools, attended information sessions, asked former supervisors to be references, wrote applications essays, and submitted application to two schools. The first acceptance came in and I didn’t tell my husband until hours later, but when the second one came, to my top school, a big grin spread across my face. This was right. It was later confirmed when I was offered a graduate assistantship that would cover my full tuition.

Last Friday was my final day at work, and I have about two weeks before I begin classes and my GA position. This new path hasn’t come without doubt and fear, but there have also been little signs along the way that indicate I am where I am supposed to be. Like when I tell people what I am going back to school for and they say, “Oh wow, you are going to good at that.” Or the excitement I get when one of my professors has posted the textbook list for the semester’s course.

The biggest sign of reassurance thought is how different I feel. My body is lighter, my mood is calmer. It reminds me of the weeks leading up to my Peace Corps service. I was noticeably happier, and people told me as much. I’ve heard the same thing this time around. “You seem much more at peace,” they tell me. They are actually a lot of similarities between the decision to go back to school and the decision to go into the Peace Corps, and since that was one of the best things I ever did with my life, I know I am headed in the right direction.

It may have taken me some time to finally make this leap, follow this dream of mine, but the timing feels perfect. Everything up until this point in my life has led me here and given me the tools to be successful. I am beyond excited to be a student again, to learn about things that are truly interesting to me, and to see parts of myself that have yet to be discovered. It will be hard and a long journey at three years, but I am ready for it.

 

A Dog’s Life

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Annie, taken by our dog walker, Norma

I did not want a dog for the same reason I don’t want sturdy, worth-your-money furniture. Both require costly up keep and make it harder to maintain a transient lifestyle for, what I could tell is, little benefit. No, I would stick to second-hand items off Craigslist and a dog-free life.

In general, I like dogs. In fact, I had a dog before I had a sibling as my parents owned a beagle named Candy when they had me. My baby book states that Candy was my favorite toy, and I have a flash memory of sadness when we gave Candy away because we were moving to another town.

A few years later, when my brothers and I were a bit older, we adopted Kirby, a bichon poodle. We had looked at several dogs, but the choice on which one was bestowed on my youngest brother who was scared of dogs. There was one pup who I adored but my brother ran from the animal crying, so that one was not to be ours. He decided on Kirby because he was calm and quite, which not two characteristics I remember about the dog we had for 12 years.

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Kirby and I

Kirby’s favorite game was to escape out the front door and wait for you to chase him. When you would get close – less than a finger tip’s distance from grabbing him – he would jet off. He hated baths, but loved table scraps. Kirby lived a good, long life before age took its toll. We got him when my brother was in kindergarten, and he passed away when my brother was a senior in college. I loved Kirby, but I didn’t have the same connection to him that my youngest brother did.

While I was abroad, in the Peace Corps, my parents adopted another dog. His name was Oreo at first, because of his black and white fur, but I made half-joke that this dog should also be named after a Twins player, like Michael Cuddyer. It was mostly a jab at my dad who is not a huge fan of the former Twins All Star, but my mom liked the name and it stuck. I met Cuddy when I returned home, and we spent the days together as I applied for jobs and he got used to another human in the house. Cuddy, a springer spaniel/heeler mix, was young and wanted to play and tear my tights and I wanted him to go away. He is a sweet dog, and I wasn’t always as nice to him. I decidedly did not want a dog as an adult. Pet ownership seemed like more of nuisance than a joy.

That’s not how Ethan felt about it. He did not grow up with dogs (they did have a few outside cats), but the romantics of dog ownership called to him. When he was a young TV reporter in Kentucky, he adopted a dog for two days before his landlord changed his mind about having pets in the apartment. Ethan had to return the dog.

When Ethan and I started to build our live’s together, he was clear about his intentions to adopt a dog one day, even suggesting we look at only dog-friendly housing. We had an inside joke that whenever we saw someone walking a cute dog that we would try to steal it from that person. Ethan was so excited to meet my brother’s dog, Winnie, a lab-mix, and was thoroughly disappointed when Winnie had absolutely no interest in him. I was less enthusiastic about getting a dog, knowing full well that that dog would need to be walked during the Chiberia months and early on Saturday mornings. But Ethan’s persistence wore on me. One day, Ethan and I walked to the dog beach along Lake Michigan and watched pups wrestle in the sand and gallop into the water. Ethan’s eyes held a genuine happiness, but also a longing. I loved Ethan so much that I wanted to help fulfill that missing piece.

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Cuddy

“Let’s just go look,” I told Ethan. A few weeks earlier, we had gone to visit a few animal shelters in the city to see what kind of dogs they had and inquire about the adoption process. Most places didn’t have much for dogs, but at least we became familiar with the shelters. We really enjoyed one of them, Felines and Canines, and Ethan started following them on Facebook, which is how he learned that they had just received a new batch of dogs from Kentucky who were looking from homes. They posted pictures of these dogs, along with their names. We awed at each one.

This was not a good time for us to get at dog. Ethan had just been laid off the month before, and while we hoped he would only be unemployed for a couple of months, max, we didn’t know that for sure. Adopting and owning a pet is not cheap, so it didn’t make financial sense to get at dog at this juncture. Still, those doggy faces in that Facebook album egged us on. We were going to just look.

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The day we adopted Annalise/Annie.

I insisted that we get there early, to be there as soon as the doors open. While we were “just looking” we did have our eyes on a beagle named Jordan. Ethan liked the coloring of beagles, and they are the perfect size for our small two-bedroom city apartment. We were the first ones at the shelter, just as I had planned, and asked to meet Jordan. The dogs had arrived only two days before and spent the previous day getting necessary shots and entered into systems. It had been a long journey for these dogs, and some were feeling it more than others, including Jordan. They brought him into a special meet-and-greet area, and he immediately soiled a blanket. He did it again 10 minutes later. We took him out for a walk, and it was clear he was experiencing some physical anxiety. He seemed like a nice dog, but so scared.

The volunteer helping us asked if we wanted to meet another dog, and from the Facebook photos, I remembered a black dog with brown eyebrows. Annalise. She smiled. “Annalise is so sweet.”

Immediately, the pup plopped into our laps. She sniffed our ears and licked our necks. We had just met her, but she was cuddling with us as if we had always known her. We took her for a walk and her affection didn’t let up. She pounced through the neighborhood, her ears flopping. I liked Annalise, but I knew Ethan really wanted a beagle, so when we returned to the animal shelter, we asked to see Jordan again. We took him on another walk, but that spark wasn’t there, kind of like an OK first day.

After they put Jordan back in his kennel, I looked at Ethan. I couldn’t tell if he wanted Jordan or if it was just best for us to leave. He was also unsure of where I stood. “Honestly,” he said. “I like Annalise.” I agreed, and we asked to see her one more time.

On our second walk, I thought about how stupid it was to get a dog at that point. It was a cost that we didn’t need. Also, while I was fairly sure of our relationship, we were not yet engaged and adopting a dog while dating seemed a bit reckless. I texted my mom about what to do, and she suggested maybe we think about it overnight and then come back the next day if we really wanted her, but I knew that if we didn’t adopt her that day that another family likely would. I couldn’t live with that. I looked at this hound mix with a natural mohawk who I had only met 30 minutes prior and already there was this deep, persistent affection. I was in love with her, and I knew that I couldn’t I leave that shelter without her. Ethan felt the same way, so we walked in and expressed our intention to adopt Annalise. AsI predicted, as we were filling out the paperwork, another family came in wanting to meet her, but she was ours. Annie, we would call her.

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Cuddy, Winnie and Annie, all not happy about wearing sweaters but waiting for their treats.

Those first few months were not easy. Annie warmed up to Ethan right away because the two of them spent all day together, and she was unsure of me. She nibbled at my hand and feet and did not like when I got too close to Ethan. She wined during the night and barked at strangers. Hundreds of dollars left our bank account to cover her adoption fees, vaccines, toys, food, etc. We left her with friends for a weekend while we attended a wedding out state, and Annie’s wining started a months-long fight with their neighbors. We also did not make friends with our neighbors who complained about her jumping and separation anxiety when we were not at home.

However, it did not take us long to get addicted to puppy cuddles and the joy of watching her chase a ball. She was a fun companion on road trips and nights at home watching movies. I was eager to introduce her to our family, to buy her a Christmas present, to integrate her into my life. That first week, I would fall asleep thinking about how they are now three heart beats under our roof. We were a little team, Annie, Ethan and I.

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Photo by Wes Eisenhauer

Today marks one year since we met and adopted Annie. She is a much better behaved dog, not minding at all when we leave her home alone. She only barks when she is scared, which really isn’t that much, she doesn’t bite or chew items other than her toys and she now sleeps in her own bed. Besides the mounds of dog hair she leaves in every corner of our apartment, she is a great dog.

Our lives did lose a bit of freedom when we got Annie. Just this weekend we had to leave a really fun gathering of friends because it was late and Annie needed to be fed. We have yet to get to a concert in the park at Millennium this summer because we must rush home after work to let our dog out. And, we must think about who will take Annie and how much that will cost any time we want to take a vacation.

But Annie has brought more joy into our lives than I ever though possible. Coming home after a long day to see her waiting for me is one of the purest forms of love I have ever experienced. She makes every experience better, like last weekend when we went to a lake house and we were able to take her swimming and out for a boat ride. I love how much my friends love her, including those that want to come over just to see her or bring her treats. A normally high-strung, anxiety-ridden person, Annie has calmed me. She forces me to get outside each day and to find simple pleasures. Sometimes Ethan and I joke about what a pain she is, but our love for her is deep. At the lake house, she went running off, which we were fine with, but when she didn’t come back after a few minutes, both of our heart rates accelerated.

Ethan was unemployed for another six months after we adopted Annie, which was way longer than we had anticipated. It was not an easy time for either us, but the lay off really affected Ethan. What helped him get through those long days of job applying, rejection letters, and doubting his abilities, he told me, was Annie. She sat next to him day after day, offering cuddles when he needed a break. She depended on him when he felt alone. She helped him through a dark time, gave him enough to get to the other side.

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Photo by Jon Beskin

While having a dog is a sacrifice, it’s worth it. I would never have imagined how much better my life would be, but here I am 2,000 words into this post and I could keep writing (I know see why dogs make great novel inspiration). When I vowed to build a family with Ethan, Annie was apart of that. She is our family.

My favorite place to be is on the couch, cuddled up next to Ethan with Annie sprawled out on our laps. She likes to make sure she is touching both of us, that she can feel us incase we move. Our three hearts, all within inches of each other, beating.

 

What Would You Do With Two Weeks?

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What would you do, if unexpectedly, you found two free weeks on your calendar? No work. No major obligations. Nothing but the time.

This is my current predicament. For reasons I will explain soon, I have two open weeks in the middle of August. This is a surprise, as I was originally planning on just a week. So, that now I have two, I feel like I need to make the most of it.

There are a few caveats. I have three appointments during the first week that I need to make, but then my schedule is completely clear. Also, while I have some cash, I am on a budget and so anything that will cost more than a few hundred dollars, such as a last-minute vacation to a resort in Mexico, is likely not going to happen. I want to spend much of the time enjoying summer and being outside. Here are a few ideas so far:

  • Be a tourist in my own city and tick-off some bucket list items; such as kayaking in the Chicago River, the Garfield Conservatory and biking all of the Lake Shore Path
  • Spend a full day binging Netflix
  • Write in coffee shops across the city
  • Take Annie out to some trails in the suburbs
  • Daily swims in my gym’s rooftop pool and the Lake
  • Convince Ethan to go camping for a weekend in Wisconsin
  • Make pasta from scratch
  • Take a day trip to Milwaukee
  • Take my dog on a road trip to visit family in Minnesota and South Dakota
  • Cash in some credit card points for a four-day solo trip to Portland
  • Decorate and settle into my new apartment

Now I want to hear about you. What would you do with an extra two weeks?

Home, Sweet Roger’s Park Home

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When I first moved to Chicago, I had absolutely no idea where to live. I knew that I couldn’t afford to live downtown, that I wanted to be in the city, and that there was a neighborhood called Wicker Park (thanks to 2004 Josh Hartnett movie). It made the most sense to search the roommates wanted section of Craiglist’s, but the options for neighborhoods were overwhelming. So, I messaged the two people who I knew who lived in the city – a friend from Peace Corps Niger and another from South Dakota – to get their recommendations.

The one from South Dakota suggested Edgewater. It’s affordable, close to the beach, and you get all the fun perks of city living, she said. It was actually close to where the Peace Corps friend lived. I narrowed my search to Edgewater and found a woman about my age looking for a roommate.

I have been in Edgewater ever since. When my year-lease with the roommate was up, I moved less than a mile south to a studio, where I also stayed for a year before moving three blocks into a two-bedroom with Ethan. My entire Chicago experience has been in Edgewater. My dentist is here, along with my favorite coffee shop, sushi restaurant, and salon. Many of my friends live here. I know the intersections and streets. It’s my place in this big city.

Ethan and I love our current apartment. It’s right next to a charming neighborhood with tree-lined streets and single family homes with wrap around porches and backyard fountains. It’s two blocks to the train, a 10-minute walk to the beach, and a quick jaunt to Andersonville, the adult version of Wrigleyville. We love it here, but as our rent steadily increases year by year, we realized it was time to find something more affordable. We went back and forth on it for months, and even got an extension on our lease as it was originally up two days before our wedding (I would have turned into a puddle had I been forced to plan a wedding and move at the same time). I was so close to giving into resigning, but in the end we decided to vacate.

Apartment searching in any metropolitan area is a nightmare, and Chicago is no exception (although, from what I have heard from friends, it is not as hellish as New York). I ended up with my studio only after the rental property company showed me another unit and I applied only to find it was already rented out. They just happened to have the studio open up, which was of course more expensive. For the apartment Ethan and I are now, I saw the ad on Saturday night, received a text to view it the next day, and was the first of five or six couples to look at it. We only got it because we were the first and willing to put $500 down on the spot. Things go fast and you can’t never trust the ads. I’ve seen some very rank and shoe-box apartments. So, when we were contemplating moving, I was not eager to go through that search again.

This time was infinitely harder because of Annie. One would think that dog-friendly housing would be ample in a city plump with dog beaches and dog cupcake trucks, but it is not. Our options were cut to almost a third because we now needed to find somewhere that excepted dogs. Annie’s size also makes it tricky. She is about 35 pounds, so less than 50 but she is not considered a small dog, which is often the only size some places will take..

After a few weeks of passing links back and forth, and touring one of the most disgusting living dwellings I’ve seen, we found a nice two-bedroom, pet friendly apartment in Rogers Park, the neighborhood north of Edgewater. Our current apartment has everything – two bedrooms, in-unit laundry, central air – and we figured we would need to let go one of those amenities this time around, most likely the bedrooms or laundry. This apartment had it all, though, and it was nearly $300 cheaper. We toured it, and while it is a bit smaller than our current place, it was everything we were looking for, including an open floor plan. From there it was simple – application, references, lease signed. Our landlords are a property management company, but the building is a condominium, which means the building will be better cared for than if operated by a company.

We get the keys on Tuesday and the movers come Wednesday (This was an odd concept for me, as a native of South Dakota, where you just get a friend with a pick up to help you. In the city, though, it’s worth every penny to hire a mover, mostly because they know more than you do about hauling furniture up and down narrow passageways and blocking alleys). Most of our belongings are in boxes and bags, and now it’s just a matter of moving things out.

I am sad to say goodbye to Edgewater. Just this morning I was thinking about checking out a new bakery that moved into a coffee shop I liked, and I realized this weekend was my last chance (well, I can still go there, it just be a three block-walk). Like I said, a lot of my friends live here, and while they will still be close, it will require a bit more effort to and from. And, this will be the farthest away I lived from my South Dakota friend, which won’t impact us seeing each other but still.

At the same time, I am ready for new. This is the summer of new beginnings, and I am eager to find that community in Rogers Park that I did in Edgewater. It feels like starting over somewhere new without actually living the city. There is a lovely market nearby along with a theater and a cafe with kombucha on tap. I will get a new favorite cafe and salon, while knowing the others are a short train ride away. We now even closer to the beach.

We also have this new home to build, the apartment where we will live during our first year of marriage. It feels sort of right that we are moving now, to start this year completely fresh. We’ll finally get to unpack our wedding gifts, and add all the little touches that will make this our place.

Sometimes it is hard to move on, but the new and the chance to make the unknown familiar have brought life to me. I am ready for you, Rogers Park.