A story of me

This week my day job has sent me to California to work with a team from all over the country in establishing a learning program for employees. I’ll be in charge of communicating to more than 140,000 people globally that this program is now available — come July, anyway.

But this meeting is about spending three days face-to-face with the people behind the project so that I can tell the story accurately. After all, people like stories. At least, that’s the theory that’s behind pretty much everything I do as a professional and as a moonlighting novelist. 

Part of my pre-work for this meeting is to prepare a story that will explain to the group who I am and how I got here to a Fortune 25 company’s communications function. So I’m taking advantage of this four-hour flight to Orange County and writing it here. 

My life has been a series of fortunate events. I was born into a middle class family in middle class Chicagoland, attended a good school district, went to the best journalism college in the country, and graduated with a near-perfect GPA due to a zealous obsession with acing each class, a film minor I practically snoozed through (ever watch L’Avventura on less than four hours of sleep?), and a complete disinterest in the more destructive social scenes. 

A lot of my best work came from lucky breaks. As a reporter for the Columbia, Missouri, city paper, my best story — a profile of a family who participated Viking re-enactments — came from walking past a house in the Benton-Stephens neighborhood without a raincoat as a storm started to rumble overhead. They happened to be sitting on the porch and invited me up to stay out of the downpour, and I walked away with a story that would define my time at the university. I became “Viking Finder,” or at least “that girl who found the weird-ass family that fights with battle axes in their front yard.”  

After college, I happened to apply for a corporate communications gig that on the surface I had no business filling. I didn’t get it, but 18 months later — and a career at an HR magazine publisher that gave me no upward mobility — they called me back when the woman who did get it moved on to a different role. Now, three and a half years later, I’m still there, clawing my way up and over into another role that I still feel like I have no business filling. (I’ll probably leave that part out when presenting to the group this week.) 

Outside of work, it’s the same thing. My greatest breaks have been a matter of luck. A vice president likes my last-minute idea of writing a retrospective on the Vomit Comet and sends me on a zero-gravity test flight, where I meet Joey Fatone of *Nsync, the band that defined my fourth grade experience. A literary agent in Italy likes my tweet about my novel-in-progress and six months later I’m a represented author waiting for a publishing deal. The Man with Time on His Arm happens to think I’m as cute as I think he is and goes from being the bartender at my favorite Chicago watering hole to being one of the most important people in my life who often says “I’m proud of you,” which always brings me to elation.

Now that I’ve written this, it looks a lot like humble-bragging. Maybe it is. But know that a hell of a lot of work followed those lucky breaks — a lot of stress-dreams, late writing nights, chewed-up lips looking for the right word or working on a deadline. I’m still in the middle of an intellectual battle between imposter syndrome and a Wonder Woman complex of wanting to fix everything, regardless if it’s in my job description or emotional capability.  

So that’s my story, at least so far. In the spirit of last weekend’s holiday, maybe it’s the luck of the 40-percent Irish. Maybe my parents forgot to mention the fairy that blessed me with good fortune as a way of apologizing to my mother for the twelve hours of labor she had to endure. Or maybe fate is a real thing, and I’m just embracing the plot twists as they come.  

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Nonfiction: “Terminal L”

Let me tell you about Terminal L.

Because if you’ve never flown to a college town from Chicago, you’ve probably never had the pleasure to observe this part of O’Hare International Airport.

It’s like a campus in itself. There’s a McDonald’s, vegan snack station, Bank of America ATM and bubble tea stand, though you wouldn’t notice them behind the everlasting line for the crown jewel: Starbucks. The frappucino ingredients are the first to run out as students load up on caffeine and sugar — mostly sugar — before returning to institutions of higher learning, where the brain damage incurred by childhoods fueled by corn syrup, aspartame and Red Color No. 3 is no match for tuition bills and student loans.

Passengers walk around in hoodies and athletic shorts, regardless of the weather outside. Mismatched socks and Adidas slider sandals are the footwear of choice for about 49.8 percent of men here, and 38 percent of the female population carries sequined Victoria Secret tote bags that wear down the hip of their leggings. The other 62 percent lug around quilted Vera Bradley in colors God never imagined would be coupled together in one paisley pattern.

And then there are the hats. Pork pies, fedoras, newsboy caps, trucker hats, snapbacks, beanies, earflap-and-pompom hats and even a top hat crown the moving crowd, as if status is directly correlated to the obscurity of each style. Top Hat is probably working on his second PhD.

But the most utilitarian — and conspicuous — choice of headwear is a full microphone headset worn by a 20-something man balancing a laptop, mouse and external hard drive on his lap at Gate L6A, where the gate attendants have just announced a flight will be boarding. As precise as a sniper packing up his weapon, he stores the entire setup in the suitcase at his feet, nesting it around a box labeled “Game Capture HD 60” and a roll of red raffle tickets.

Replacing him is a 25-year-old woman daring to return to the place that prepared her for nine-hour days and two weeks of annual paid time off. She’s just changing chairs, though: The flickering fluorescent bulb above her original seat cast dizzying light on the pages of the Margaret Atwood novel nestled in her lap. But even in this more stable lighting, it’s hard to concentrate.

As she looks around at the people just three or four years younger than her, she wonders how a relatively short period of time has made her feel so much older than these broke dreamers about to board the same tin can hurtling toward mid-Missouri. Maybe it’s because she’s still in her office clothes — tights, boots, Calvin Klein dress, flaking mascara and her own cap of exhausted hairspray. Maybe it’s because she’s leaving for what she calls “vacation” and they call “midterm exams.” Or maybe it’s that she’s sipping straight black coffee instead of a smoked butterscotch frappucino with extra whipped cream and a cookie straw.

They call my flight. I dump the rest of my coffee in a nearby water fountain and line up at the gate, adjusting my tights on the way.