Category Archives: Who I Am
How I define myself.
My love affair with Paris began almost a decade ago when I was a college Junior spending a year in the City of Light. I’d been studying French since I was twelve and was now knee-deep in international finance classes taught only in my second language. Time in class was intense (and mildly terrifying at first), but I was able to schedule my classes so I had long weekends off in which to explore Paris and travel as far as the trains could take me.
Once I returned, I completed my French minor, briefly (and disastrously) dated a Frenchman, and joined the Alliance Française here in Chicago to keep up my language.
Sometimes, I still dream in French.
I talk about my time abroad almost constantly. I used to feel bad for being such a one-trick pony, but honestly, no other decision in college has had such a lasting impact. You just can’t know me without knowing the French me.
Paris was the site of so many adult firsts. The first lease I signed was in French. The first bank account I opened was in France. My first encounter with petty theft and subsequent trip to the police office to report said theft: Paris. I dealt with utilities (including three trips to France Telecom), visa requirements (with a trip to a less-than-glamorous neighborhood to get a chest x-ray to prove that I wasn’t harboring tuberculosis), and multiple government agencies (monthly student stipend; socialism, for the win!). I was a mini-adult with unbelievable, sudden freedom and the resultant self-confidence to get things done.
I am a Francophile to my core and never hesitate to defend my adopted homeland. Don’t even get me started on “Freedom Fries” because you know that was completely ridiculous. I grind my teeth whenever someone tells me that the French are rude (and then, after politely letting them finish their misguided diatribe, I jump in to gently correct). I’m a mini-ambassador and fount of information. French Gruyère is better than Swiss Gruyère. French Fries are Belgian.
Paris, perhaps glorified through the rosy lens of nostalgia, is a place of magic for me. I constantly dream of moving back.
Perhaps someday I will.
There’s this man I see almost every day on my walk to work. I smile in acknowledgement as he calls out “Good morning, Red!” It’s a brief interchange. About a year ago, though, he switched up his routine. He starting calling me “Blondie”. I stopped smiling in response.
I am a redhead. I was born with a full head of Ronald McDonald-esque plumage. Sure, it’s gotten lighter since then, but I still strongly identify as ginger, not blonde thankyouverymuch.
Part of my pride comes from a feeling that being a redhead sets me apart. As a child, there were constant reminders that I was slightly more rare, slightly more precious. My childhood literary heroes – Anne of Green Gables, Pippi Longstocking – were redheads. The Little Orphan Annie was a redhead. With this coloring, surely I was destined for greatness.
I even feign annoyance at what I call The Redheaded Stigma – that being, in part, that I’m related to every other redhead who ever existed. In grade school there was this mysterious “Maggie” a few grades above me whom everyone assumed was my older sister.
In high school I briefly dated (ok, less than “briefly” – it was a two-week summer science camp program in Iowa but whatever) a ginger and people called us “The Kentucky Couple” – implying both that we were related and that people in Kentucky are more prone to date their relatives (sorry, KY, kids are cruel). I’ve even had someone at work protest emphatically when I informed her that the other redhead who sat on our floor was not, in fact, my sister.
Perhaps people are implying that I don’t come across as confident as to who definitively is and is not a member of my immediate family, but I digress.
I get asked with disproportionate frequency if I’m Irish – especially around the middle of March. When people find out my parents are brunettes there are jokes about the mailman’s hair color (or the milkman for people who are dating themselves while questioning my mother’s moral fabric). There are other mild annoyances – one involving tempers, the other involving “carpets” and “drapes” – that I suffer stoically.It’s not easy being Red.
… OK, but yeah. I don’t mind any of this at all. I love being a ginger. I love my orange eyebrows and translucent skin. It is one of my greatest dreams to one day birth wee ginger babies. I love being a member of our special Ginger tribe.
It’s entirely possibly I put too much stock in my hair color. I know I could always dye it if it were to fade further. I realize that we are talking about hair here. Triviality aside, being a Ginger is one of my favorite things about who I am.
Throughout my childhood, books could get me out of all manner of unsavory things. Naps, for instance, could be avoided if I promised to read quietly in my room.
I got my first library card on a Kindergarten field trip and that following Summer I enrolled myself in the California Raisins Summer Reading Program. We went to the library regularly and I could check out as many books as I wanted. While this often ended in tears as books were lost in the abyss under my bed, it fostered a deep love of reading.
I was always aces at reading competitions. Remember BookIt? My school also did “Read to the Moon” where every page read brought us a mile closer to our celestial goal. I was personally responsible for quite a bit of our travel. I crushed annual reading goals.*
Reading also provided an escape. The Summer I moved to New York I buried myself in Baby-Sitter’s Club books from the local library. Lost in the adventures of Kristy and her friends, I didn’t could ignore my anxiety about starting a new school.
Currently, I’m rarely found without a book in my purse. In fact, I’ve been known to select purses specifically because they are sized right for book-carrying. I’m avid, insatiable, always looking to start the next story. I swap books with friends and family and online via BookMooch. When people tell me they don’t have time to read, I smile and turn back to my book.
Reading is my favorite pass time. Books are slowly taking over my home but, as I tell Will, there are worse addictions.
I am a reader. Reading is a crucial part of who I am.
*Sadly, my early zeal for reading had a dark side. My first instance of plagiarism was forging my mother’s signature on a form attesting to how much I’d read that week. The give away? I’d yet to learn capital letters in cursive.
One Friday in the Fall of 1994 I was flitting around my bedroom preparing for a school dance. Yes, we had dances in the gym of our Junior High – a scenario straight out of a stereotype. In addition to all the awkwardness that the tween years bring, I was new to the area and completely unsure of myself. That evening’s anxiety was only increased by my inability to find my favorite pair of jeans. Without them, I was toying with the idea of skipping the whole event.
Mom offered to help me search. I assured her the jeans were not in my dresser, MOM!, but – you know what happens next – she walked over to the dresser, opened the second drawer, and there they were. Right on top.
I burst into tears.
“I don’t have a best friend!” I wailed, a sobbing non-sequitur.
“Helena, I’ll be your best friend,” my mother assured me. And she has been.
My father taught me to ride a bike. Granted, the whole no-training-wheels push started with a lie. We were months away from leaving Virginia and I was told that no kids in Texas had training-wheels on their bikes. Like every previous bit of wisdom my father bestowed upon me, I accepted it without question and headed to the parking lot at our nearby forest preserve to learn to bike like a big kid.
Dad taught me many key life skills: how to swim, how to drive, how to properly use silverware, that candy was dandy but liquor was quicker, how to properly swaddle a babydoll. He devoted entire summers to improving my math skills, reluctant though I was to participate in such enrichment. He proofread school papers. He never complained when we offered all our friends on the Track team rides home after practice. He was, and is, a model of patience and kindness.
Beyond all the obvious bringing-me-into-the-world and feeding-and-clothing-me business, the most lasting impression my parents have had on me is the strong relationship they have with one another. They are totally and completely in love. It’s inspiring to witness.
My sister is my role model.
Yep, she’s the little one in the picture. I’m the big one. As the big one, you’d think I’d be the one setting the standards, but I constantly have to challenge myself to be as friendly as Kerry.
Two years ago, Kerry and I welcomed 2009 at a party at the Drake Hotel. Fancy, I know. We were dressed up, coiffed, and ready to dance. Our pre-paid tickets covered the open bar, but tips were still being accepted by the hardworking bartenders staffing the event. I had a wallet full of dollar bills and made sure the bartenders saw me drop one in the designated jar each time I got a drink so they’d know I was a baller.
Kerry seemed surprisingly bad at this show of baller-tude. Her dollars always landed in the jar while the bartender was turned away.
“You’re doing it wrong!” I exclaimed, “you have to do it when they are looking so they know you tipped!”
Kerry told me that she prefered to tip “in private” as there was no need, on her part, for recognition from the bartender. She knew she tipped – no one else needed to. I was humbled by my sister’s quiet kindness.
We weren’t the only people ringing in the New Year at the Drake, and many ladies + open bars = much time spent in or waiting for bathrooms. It was in these crowded situations that Kerry glowed. She complimented other girls in line. She smiled at everyone we saw. She was, for a moment, everyone’s friend.
Most memorable was the way she interacted with the Drake housekeeping staff who were working non-stop to keep things clean and orderly. While everyone else – myself included – barely looked at these ladies, Kerry started up conversations asking them about their night. They all lit up with her attention; sunflowers to her sunshine.
We’ve had two New Year’s Eves since that night, but Kerry’s kindness that night lives in the front of my mind and is frequently called upon as a template for my own behavior. Now that she lives around the corner, I can spend time with her whenever I want. Perhaps some of her friendliness will rub off.
** For those of you wondering what the heck Kerry has on her feet, it looks like several pairs of ski socks layered over one another. I’m thinking the snowstorm caught my parents by surprise (we lived in Virginia at the time) and my sister didn’t have boots that fit.
Currently, my favorite place on earth is the beige, microsuede couch in my living room. That’s where Will and I curl up to eat dinner, watch movies, or sit to enjoy beer and each other. On the rare occasions when we’re able to coax both cats to join us, I’m positive there’s no greater happiness to be had.
For those of you fit to die at hearing a girl define herself as being “someone else’s girlfriend,” let me assure you that this is no barefoot-in-the-kitchen relationship. Well, I’m barefoot as much as possible, but he’s the one in the kitchen. I prioritize Will and he prioritizes me. It’s a relationship of equals (though he’s a better cook).
Will is incredibly supportive – if I came home today and told him I wanted to quit my job and be a dolphin trainer, he’d pack our bags and look for new homes near Sea World. I love spending time with him. I love who I am when I’m around him. With him beside me, I could be the best damn dolphin trainer Central Florida ever saw.
Will makes me feel like the prettiest, wittiest girl who ever lived. I get told how good I look every morning before I go to work. He’s this blog’s biggest fan.
In our relationship, I’m the big talker. My stories never go from start to finish without a few tangents along the way but Will drinks it all up and stores it away. When I mention something, like my hatred of mangoes, Will remembers that I originally informed him of that on our first date. Why I was talking about mangoes on our first date is beyond me, but I love that he was listening and remembers.
Oh, and I like mangoes now, so you can put your pitchforks away. “Mangoes are Tasty” was one of Will’s first lessons for me.
I love Will. I love being Will’s Girlfriend – it’s one of the greatest facets of who I am.
Recently, I’ve been thinking about the ways we define ourselves – what we say when we introduce ourselves to others, how we talk about ourselves. All to often, I think our occupation is our primary identifier. As I’ve said, there are other things I’d rather know about you.
I think I’m best defined by my relationships with the people I love.
It’s these relationships that help me prioritize – my time, my energy, my resources.
See, I’m a list-maker. I’m constantly creating lists, editing lists, crossing things off lists, creating new lists. I even think in lists. This seeming rigidity actually helps me relax. Once things are on a list, I know they are going to get done.
I’ve long maintained that everyone has time for what is important. We’re all busy. We all have demanding jobs or young children or something else eating up our days. In the haze of competing responsibilities, we have to choose what to do with the twenty-four hours we are given each day.
I choose to spend as many hours as possible with the people I love. It’s that simple.
If a task or errand can wait until tomorrow, I’m headed home to spend time with my boyfriend. Invitations for events during the week aren’t accepted until I know which day my sister is coming over to watch The Bachelorette. Wednesday at lunchtime, I have a standing date with my father.
This is not to say that I refuse to attend events if I’m not allowed to bring a friend or that I have no interest in meeting new people. Quite the opposite. I just want to be sure, each day, that the people I love know how important they are to me.
For the rest of the week, I’m going to focus on the three most-important relationships in my life.
When meeting new people, it seems the default question of “What do you do?” comes up shortly after names are exchanged. Our jobs become our definitions. However, only a lucky few who are truly passionate about what they do for a living welcome such a definition.
“What we do” is not always “who we are.” With the noted exception of those fortunate few who love their jobs, asking what someone does provokes, at best, a neutral, pre-packaged response.
There are other things I’d rather hear about.
1. What you are reading. As an avid reader (be my friend on GoodReads!), I love to hear about, talk about, obsess about books. I read thrillers, novels, personal essays. I dabble in poetry collections. I fill my home with books and pass good ones along to whoever I think would enjoy them. Tell me about the last great book you read. Tell me about the recent article you read in the newspaper, a magazine, or online that changed your thinking about foreign policy, menswear, or drapery pleats. Reading makes you interesting, and everyone loves to hear from interesting people.
2. Where you’re headed. I’m always planning my next trip – be it real or imaginary. I like to ask people where they’d go if they could jump on a plane right this minute and go anywhere, all expenses paid. My own answer to this question changes frequently. I want to go to Quebec, Istanbul, Mumbai, St. Petersburg. I want to see much of South America and Africa. I want to ski wherever I can. I’d love to hear about upcoming vacations, past vacations, or fantasy vacations. Distance doesn’t matter.
3. What you’re eating. My boyfriend is quite the chef. Prior to him, I had no real appreciation for the culinary world. Now, I have a cabinet full of spices and cookware. I’m slowly learning to love food – preparing it, eating it, and talking about it. Going to a great restaurant? Have a wonderful meal the other week? Love cooking at home? Peeved about Top Chef? Please share!
4. What you do. If your job is your passion, I’d love to hear about it – even if I have no real understanding of what it is. Listening to people talk about their passions is fascinating. The other night, I joyfully eavesdropped on my sister as she discussed chemistry with a mutual friend. I’ve never heard two people so pumped about Tungsten. Your passion may not be your job, but, for most of us, your job is not all that you do. Tell me about your hobbies. Tell me about your weekend plans.
People’s jobs can be fascinating. People’s jobs can be boring. Unless they are enthusiastic about it, I’d rather talk about something else.
All last week (whilst I was diligently at work INSIDE), the weather was like this:
(Yes, the weather was like my kitty sniffing some tulips.)
Spring had sprung. The temperature was in the high seventies, the sun was shining, and people were everywhere. After Winters like ours, people scramble towards the sunlight as soon as possible.
Last week was fantastic. Last weekend was tragic.
By Friday afternoon, the temperature plummeted and the rains rolled in. I finally had time to be outside, but now had no desire to do so. On Saturday, my plans to go to local garage sales were washed away. By Sunday, the rain was beating at the windows as though trying to force its way indoors. I pulled my hoodie back out of (perhaps optimistically early) storage and snuggled up on the couch with a book.
Sounds like the perfect recipe for Lazy Sunday, no?
Well, no. Not for me. I’m bad at Lazy Sunday. Perhaps I’m bad at weekends in general. I just can’t seem to let myself to relax without feeling guilty. Didn’t the movie Se7en teach us that Sloth is a Deadly Sin? Catholic guilt doesn’t mix well with a tireless Protestant work ethic.
On Saturday, I was able to find enough projects around the house to keep me feeling purposeful. I did laundry. I hung up a hook in our closet. I fixed the shelving in the linen closet (shelving that was initially installed by someone lacking a level, a tape measure, and common sense).
Sunday, however, went by more slowly, and my lack of “productivity” began to drive me insane.
Why can’t I just relax? I love curling up on the couch with a good book and a warm blanket, steaming mug of tea nearby. Yet, when I get the chance to do so, I have trouble allowing myself the treat. It seems there’s always something I should be doing instead – cleaning the condo, running errands, going to the gym. The list seems endless and I’m unable to unwind. I know that even if I was returning from the gym to a spotless home, I’d still find things that needed to be done. The guilt comes from somewhere within.
My guilt complex is something on which I’ll always be working. Meanwhile, does anyone else have trouble letting themselves relax? What do you do to combat your need for constant productivity?
Look, its me!
At the end of April, I worked with the lovely and talented Gretchen Kelley to produce these headshots. We had a beautiful (if slightly windy) day to work with, so we set out about her neighborhood here in Chicago and took some pictures.
At first, I was concerned my inner-awkwardness would win out. The last time I had portraits done was Senior Year of High School, and, despite my mothers protestations to the contrary, I wasn’t too thrilled with how those turned out. Since then, I haven’t been the solo focus of a stranger with a fancy camera.
Gretchen, however, was a complete doll. We chatted the whole time and I was perfectly at ease.
I received the final images last Friday, and I had to share – both the photos and the backstory (there is always a backstory).
As we know, I met my boyfriend via Online Dating. While I was initially putting my profile together, I realized that I didn’t have any photos of myself that I really liked. I know this sounds prissy, but – from what I’ve seen at least – everyone is their own worst critic when it comes to photos. Somewhere in the process, I considered enlisting professional help.
I looked online and made a few calls. When I explained that the photos would be for use in an online dating profile, I was excited to hear that several of the photographers had received such requests before and knew some tricks to keep the final images more “casual, girl-about-town” and less “stiff glamour shot.”
[Note: this is by no means meant to imply that everyone who does online dating has professional pictures. Hardly. I’m definitely not saying it is a requirement to have a stellar profile. It’s merely something I looked into to soothe my own insecurities.]
Insecurities aside, my inner miser balked at paying too much for these photos. Enter, YouSwoop. I got a great deal to work with Gretchen.
But then, of course, I met Will before I scheduled my photo session because, well, that’s always how these things work out, isn’t it? I considered other options for using the pre-paid deal (would my mother like portraits of my sister and me for Mother’s Day?) but then decided that you lovely blog-readers may want to see the person behind the writing here.
Aren’t I lovely?