Wednesday, September 24, 2014


“Do you mind if I sit down? I’ll only stay a little while.”

This is how Odette makes friends. She takes the bus down Western Avenue to Lincoln Square. She looks over all the occupied benches, and all she sees are good people, potential friends. She picks one out, and she makes an unassuming entrance. That’s how I imagine she does it, at least. I didn’t see her movements until she was right in front of me. 

“I promise I won’t disturb you,” she said.

In the following moments I mentally checked out of the book I was reading. I thought of the 80-year-old Yugoslavian woman I had met during a walk last December, who had stopped me mid-stride and called me back to her. Having only been in Chicago for a little over a month, I was hungry for new perspectives, and my 15-minute conversation with that woman stayed with me. That’s why when Odette, who looked to be in her 80s and spoke with a French accent, sat down next to me mere days before I am to move back to Minnesota, the sense of full-circle serendipity was not lost on me. 


Odette adored the kids running through the square, every last one of them. Whenever one came near our bench, she’d break off the conversation and try to engage the child by holding out her hand. One baby reached toward it, and Odette was thrilled. Within five minutes I learned that Odette has two grown children, both in their forties, who have never had kids.

“But you never know,” she said hopefully.

Then she turned to me.

Do you have children? Are you married?

When I said no, she asked for my age.

“You are young and cute. You won’t have trouble.”

Just like my nameless friend from last year, Odette seemed oddly preoccupied with my love life. I can’t fault her for it. Finding a husband mattered a great deal more when she was my age than it does today. She must have been worried for me, because after a while she looked at me and said, “But you will marry someday, yes?”


Odette was reaching into her handbag.

“I have something. It is not for you, but I have something.”

She pulled out a plastic grocery bag, and from it she revealed a small carton of orange juice with no label.

“Do you know Tony’s?”

“The grocery store? Yeah.”

“That’s where I go. I get these in packs of six.”

It didn’t look like real orange juice – its color was a bit off, and it was suspiciously devoid of pulp – but Odette looked thoroughly pleased with herself for discovering these cartons and having the foresight to keep one in her bag. Later she pulled out a banana with a look of delight, as though she didn’t expect it to be there.


“What do you do?” Odette asked me.

I felt weird calling myself a writer at my age, so instead I said, “I write.” I’m not sure that’s any different.

Odette liked this. She told me she’d been a beautician her whole life, but had always thought it’d be nice to write. She told me about her friend who is a writer and who has had his name in a magazine, and would I like to give her my number so he can give me advice? I asked her what magazine he wrote for, and she didn’t know. I gave her my number, and she gave me hers.

I told Odette that I’m learning French, and that I hope to go to France someday soon.

Vous parlez un petit peu de Francais!

Un petit peu, oui. I know I need to be fully immersed in the language if I want to really learn it, I told her.

 Odette was a nanny in London, and that’s how she learned English.

“Exactly,” I said. “You had no choice.”


Odette’s son lives in California with his wife. Her daughter lives in Holland with her husband. Odette lives in Chicago with her 23-year-old cockatiel.

“Do you ever think about moving back to Paris?”

“No, no. Everyone has their own families now. And I am an American now.”

Odette had moved to Chicago at the urging of a friend. Then she married a Greek man who eventually left her with two young kids.

“He was the one who wanted to get married! He kept asking me and asking me until I finally said okay.”

“What made you say okay?”

“I was getting older. I decided it was probably time.”


Odette and I had our share of silent moments, too. We’d turn and look out over the square, the fall sun spilling across the middle of it, leaving the edges cool in shade.

Some days, she told me, it’s hard to find things to do.

“You don’t think about not having company when you get old. You don’t think about how it will be.”


Several times it seemed Odette was attempting to wrap up our conversation. After every little while she would say that she’s glad she came here today and that we met.

“You are very interesting to talk to,” she’d tell me. “I like what you are doing.”

To date, nothing has been more validating than having this French woman -- who has had 80-some years to live in Paris and London and Chicago, and to get married and divorced, and to raise kids alone, and to work nonstop, and to retire alone in a big city, and to reflect on it all and take stock of her wins, losses, and regrets -- tell ME that she finds MY life interesting.


“Maybe I’ll see you again soon?” Odette asked as she got ready to leave for real.

“Well, I’m moving back to Minnesota this weekend.” I hated that I hadn’t mentioned it until now.

“When are you leaving?”


“And what is today?”


“That doesn’t leave much time.”

Still, Odette said maybe she would see me again sometime, and she told me to call her if anything exciting happens for me. I imagined myself on the phone with her, struggling to pick out words through her French accent.

We waved to each other, and she turned to leave. Halfway across the square, she turned back to wave again. I picked up my book and opened it at the bookmark, on which I’d written my new friend’s name and number. I looked up once more. Odette was smiling at me from across the square.


On the drive home I was stuck behind a 4Runner with car paint on the back window. It spelled out “Sigma Chi recruiting vehicle” in bright colors. There were polka dots everywhere. All I could think about was how garish it was, mockingly incongruous with where I’d just been.

This is where Odette has to live, I thought.

Odette will be fine, of course. She's been living here a while. She has other friends whom she met just as she met me, and she’ll find more, I’m sure. She’ll continue to open herself up to the small neighborhood square, and she’ll continue to see only what’s good in people. I just hope nobody lets her down.

Friday, September 12, 2014

A New Perspective

Lake Wobegon Trail, central Minnesota

It's a chilly fall morning in Chicago. I woke up early and drove through a light drizzle to my favorite cafe to pick up my standard once-a-week splurge: an almond croissant and cafe au lait to go. Now I'm back at my apartment, cozy as I look out the front windows at the sprawling maple, its green leaves pale and tired from summer, and the wet red brick of the building across the street. Between the frequent sounds of sirens, accelerating garbage trucks, and airplanes, and the muted rumbling of traffic from Irving Park Road, I am constantly reminded that outside my window is a big city. But every now and then a rare stillness sweeps through - no starting motors, no honking cars, no distant emergencies - and all I hear is the slight breeze slipping through the maple, or nothing at all.

Mornings like this are sacred to me. It's the kind of morning that, not long ago, would have intensified my love for this city and reinforced my decision to live here. But there's been a transformation, practically overnight, and now all I can think about is this kind of morning back in Minnesota.

Backyard farm field

Last year at this time, I was daydreaming of losing myself in a big city, starting from scratch and building a life that was wholly separate from everything I'd known. Now, my mind escapes to my mom's house in central Minnesota, where you can stand in the kitchen and watch rain rolling in over the farm field. It escapes to my favorite warm bakeries in Minneapolis, the small shops of Stillwater, and the rocky shoreline of Duluth.

Stillwater, Minnesota

In just over two weeks I will fill my car to the brim with everything I own in Chicago. I will start out early, first tackling the Illinois Tollway, then the endless hills of Wisconsin. I'll cross the Mississippi into Minnesota, and I'll be home. I will bake these, and cuddle him, and after the initial rush of being home subsides, I will begin to quietly figure out what's next. Though I'll be in a familiar place, it will still hold the unknown that I crave, the unknown that brought me to Chicago in the first place.

I may sound like a chronic escapist, but last year I felt down to my bones that Chicago was where I needed to be. I trusted that feeling, and I'm so glad I did. If I hadn't, I would have missed out on rich new relationships, unprecedented creative challenges, and a significantly altered perspective. And I probably wouldn't now be entertaining a new instinct that tells me Minnesota has what I need: more peace and quiet, more lakes, more family.

I'm going to trust my gut on this one.

Minneapolis skyline

Friday, August 1, 2014

A Year Ago

Approximately one year ago today, I completely blew an interview for what I could reasonably call a dream job. Looking back on the odd, confusing answers I gave during that ill-fated meeting, I can see it clearly for the instance of self-sabotage that it was.

I was restless, you see. I was itching to leave town. I really wanted this job, but I did not want to be in Minneapolis. I still kick myself over that interview, but I'm forgiving, too; I had something I needed to do. Two months after the interview, I finally accepted that I had to do it now, or risk having my soul digest itself.

Since I moved to Chicago last October, I've done a lot of things that I'd never done before. I wrote sketch comedy and dabbled in improv; I went to dance parties in lofts, and day-tripped to Michigan, and hugged Aidy Bryant; twice I got within smelling distance of a job at The Onion.

But last night, I wanted to know not what has happened to me in the past year, but how my life, as it stands now, has changed from the way it was a year ago. Given a snapshot of then and now, what is different? What is the same?

Here's what I came up with.

Things That Are Different From One Year Ago:

1. I have a nephew.

His name is Caden, and he is objectively adorable. As a result, I have a hopeless case of auntie pride. For the record, I'm aware of what I'm doing. I've been forced to look at photos of babies with whom I have no connection and no shared DNA; I know what it's like. But now that I have photos of my own to share, I really don't care whether you want to see them or not. One moment I'm thinking to myself, Don doesn't really want to see these photos, because he has no emotional or biological attachment to Caden, and the next moment I'm shoving my iPhone in front of Don's face.





Don follows proper etiquette and smiles adoringly at Caden, then takes advantage of the next pause between photos to show me a few shots of his nephew. We're fools in love, the whole lot of us.

2. I nanny for a 4-year-old named Kai.
Kai wears fitted tees with shark and dinosaur graphics; he absorbs everything he hears (yesterday he used the word skittish correctly); and he's perfectly capable of blackmail. A scene from last month:

Living room

(KAI is shaking a sippy cup of milk, fascinated by the way the milk appears to grow as his shaking produces more and more air bubbles.)

                        (Looking at milk)
It's getting bigger!

Yep, but you're spilling milk everywhere.

(KAI continues to shake sippy cup and MEGAN grabs a paper towel from the kitchen.)

                        (Wiping the floor)
Okay, no more shaking, Kai, you're making a mess. 

(KAI ignores MEGAN and continues to shake.)

Kai, please stop doing that.

But I have to!

Why do you have to?

Because I want to!

Having to and wanting to are not the same thing. Now please stop, or I'll have to take your milk away.

No! I'm gonna - I'm gonna say that you said the wrong thing.

What did I say?

You said stupid.

(MEGAN and KAI stare at each other. Kai resumes his shaking without breaking eye contact with MEGAN. MEGAN says nothing, the coward.)

(End scene.)

3. I take an improv class.
I'm nearing the end of my improv run at The Second City. I could continue on to the last two levels of the program, but for now I've had my fill of awkward scene work, delusional/mentally unstable classmates, and teachers who creepily goad us to incorporate lust into our scenes whenever possible (okay, there was only one of those teachers). All that aside, improv has been abundantly valuable to me. It's taught me that stepping out before you are ready is essential to moving life forward.

4. I'm regularly eating flax multibran flakes, soy milk, and those dried cranberries that come in the Trader Joe's Trek Mix.
These are things that I was not eating one year ago.

5. I live in a neighborhood with an ice cream truck.
An ice cream truck that I may or may not have actively sought out on a particularly desperate evening. In vain, I might add.

Things That Are The Same As They Were One Year Ago:

1. My preferred way to spend a Friday night.
Really. It hasn't changed a bit, and I have written proof. I have this book called Q&A a Day that asks me a new question every day for a year. Under each question are five separate spaces for five years of answers, so you can see how you answered the same question a year ago, two years ago, etc. I always cover up the previous year's answer until I'm done writing this year's answer, to ensure that my past response has no influence over my present response. This year, when asked for my favorite thing to do on a Friday night, I wrote, "Make a big bowl of pasta, pour a large glass of vinho verde, and settle in for an evening of tailored programming." Then I looked at my response from 2013: "Make angel hair pasta with tomatoes, pour a glass of vinho verde, and plug into an independent or dated film on Netflix." No difference whatsoever, except that I apparently want more pasta and wine this year.

2. My unstoppable predilection for doughnuts, croissants, and ice cream.
I am constantly discovering new bakeries and ice cream shops in Chicago, and frankly, it's a little overwhelming. Sometimes I think that I'll grow weary of these things, or at least one of them, if I eat enough. But no. Nope.

3. I'm still wondering what's next.
A year ago, I was romanticizing being on my own in a big city. Now I'm wistful for more peace and quiet, more lakes, more family. See, these are the kinds of problems you grapple with when you're restless by nature, and white, and priviledged.

Anyway, this was a lot of information. I just shared a whole bunch with you.

To sum up,

Monday, April 28, 2014

Acting Like Actors

For our final level A improv class, we played a new game called Oscar-winning scene. Three people start a scene, during the course of which the instructor stops the regular dialogue and tells one of us to launch into what will become our Oscar-winning monologue. We are to take whatever emotion we can scrounge from our last line and run wild with it. We are to start speaking without a destination, and we must keep speaking until our instructor mercifully prompts us to continue with the regular scene.

They (they being my instructor and anyone who agrees with him) say that you know you were really in the zone if, when you step off stage, you can’t say for the life of you what just happened. I know that during my monologue I used the word ‘cattywampus’ and talked briefly about milk. So I didn’t experience that elusive amnesia-by-improv, I guess, but I was still amazed at how far we’d all come in 8 weeks. I was amazed at what spewed from our darling, novice brains, especially when most of us have never acted before.

Did the previous statement lead you to believe that I've never acted before? Well, forgive me. I have misled you. In fact, I assumed the role of a hopping frog in a biblical school play about the Ten Plagues, and I also played Jester 1 in an all-girl production of Princess and the Pea (you snooze, you lose, boys). After that, my acting career sort of petered out / was completely over. I always thought it might be fun to do it in high school, but if you aren’t involved in theater by say, spring of sophomore year, you’ve established yourself as a non-theater kid, and it’s kind of too late. (Unless you’re one of those self-assured kids, in which case you can do whatever you damn well please.) 

So I settled for delivering silent monologues in front of the steamy bathroom mirror, and driving along Highway 15 as the imaginary opening credits played for a movie starring a pensive, sometimes lovelorn teen (me). Outwardly, I joined my friends in expressing mild annoyance with theater kids and, later on in college, BFA actors. For the record, I have friends who are actors. They are good people. But they can also be pretty loud, and at times, obnoxious. They never miss an opportunity to put on a show, or to assume that Greek tragedies and Shakespeare were part of your curriculum, too.

Regardless of how far I choose to take this improv stint, I doubt I will ever consider myself an actor. Still, when my classmates and I gathered for drinks after our last class, we were oozing that same in-group smugness I so often felt emanating from the theater kids. We cheersed to our favorite memories from Level A and, raising our voices a little louder than was probably necessary, praised one another for our clever moments. We were acting like actors.


Level B will delve further into character work; the acting has only just begun. Will my down-to-earth nature keep me from falling face first into a theatrical rabbit hole? 

Probably, but it would be foolish of me to be certain of anything at this point.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Time to Improvise

One of the first notes I took in class at The Second City was that humor writing requires two parts of the brain: the fool and the editor. I knew I had the editor part down, almost to a fault. I like to be in complete control of what I’m writing; I want to know that of all the ways I could say what I want to say, I’ve chosen the very best one. But that kind of strict self-editing limits a comedy writer. Edit too much, and you’ll end up stemming the abundance of half-baked ideas that spout from an uncensored brain and lead you through tangents and non-sequiturs until you’ve reached Crazy Town. Edit too much, and you’re not letting the fool speak. And you want the fool to speak, because it’s the fool that comes up with headlines like this one, and sketches like this one, and scenes like this one.

And that’s why about a month ago, in hopes of unleashing the fool in me, I did something I never thought I’d do: I enrolled in an improv class at The Second City. Now, for 3 hours a week, I play make-believe with a bunch of adults, and I learn about the same ‘yes, and’ rule that Tina Fey introduced me to in Bossypants. For those of you who have not yet read Bossypants, I’ll clue you in.

‘Yes, and’ is a simple code for the number one rule in improvisation: accept the scene your partner has set up, and add to it. Saying ‘yes’ doesn’t necessarily mean agreeing with what your partner is saying. It just means that if she says, “Avast ye, matey, the booty lies ashore!” then I am now a pirate searching for treasure, and I should act accordingly. If I were to say, “Ugh, it’s so annoying when you do pirate-speak,” that means I’ve shat all over the scene my partner just set up, and now she’s forced to come up with something else. The rule of ‘yes, and’ takes a lot of pressure off of each individual improviser, because we know we’re going to be supported no matter what we do. Which brings me to the next point.

Apart from refusing to ‘yes, and,’ you can’t make mistakes in improv, because there is no wrong answer or bad decision. This is where you kill the editor in your brain and you step out on stage and you start doing something, anything, because whatever you do is the right thing to do. We must also remember this when we set up a scene where we are clearly air traffic controllers, but a partner enters and thinks we’re scrapbooking. Guess what? Now we’re scrapbooking. Which brings me to the next point.

You’re there to support the group. If you’re trying to be funny as an individual, it’s probably not going to be funny. If you make it your goal to support your partner(s), the funny will come, even if the thing they set up isn’t inherently funny. Which brings me to the last point.

Comedy is a byproduct of improvisation. A group of people creating a scene together can be sentimental and touching and thought provoking as well as funny. Don’t force the humor; it’ll come naturally.

Every week, we play games that are meant to instill in us this group-oriented frame of mind. We also play games that encourage us to be silly with abandon. Every week, I become more comfortable relinquishing control over the way things unfold and letting the fool speak. But improv has quickly become much more than a tool for improving my writing. 

I suspect improv will teach me to stay flexible in uncertainty, to cope when things haven’t gone my way, and to not fret in situations that I cannot possibly control. I think it will teach me to relate to people who I don’t know or don’t have much in common with. I know it will teach me to listen. And along the way, maybe improv will let loose the unbridled, madcap, Mayor-of-Crazy-Town fool that’s been waiting to come out.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

A Lasting Impression

Today I met an 80-year-old war refugee with lipstick in her teeth.

I was walking back from the park near my house at a brisk pace. The old woman stepped out of her apartment building just as I was approaching it. Her gray hair was chin length and pinned back on one side. She wore peach-colored lipstick and a smile that I immediately returned. In that moment she quietly gasped. She said, very slowly:

Oh, how pretty you are!

Still walking, I turned to thank her. But she wasn’t finished.

“No, come here for a second, I just have to tell you something.”

I stepped back toward her. Then this lovely old woman delivered to me a quiet, measured, matter-of-fact declaration of admiration.

“You are so...”, she lifted her hands as though she were holding a vase by its sides, “…slender. You have the body of a model.”

I raised my eyebrows, amused by her opinion of my form, which at the time was rather indiscernible beneath a thick sweatshirt and sweatpants. She brushed away my thank you as if to say, I’m not looking for gratitude.

“No, no. You just are…how tall are you?”

“Five-seven? Somewhere around there?”

“Do you like to eat?”

I laughed. “I love to eat.”


She continued to survey my body. Then she asked me if I was a “Chicago girl.”

“No, I just moved here actually. About a month ago.”

“Where did you come from?”

I told her Minnesota, and she said Minnesota is a beautiful place. Yes, I agreed. It is beautiful.

She asked me if I had any gentleman callers. She used that exact phrase.

Then she asked where my family was. I told her they’re all in Minnesota, and she asked if I go back and forth between Chicago and Minnesota.

“A bit.”


“Well,” she said, and returned to her original discourse about my body, tracing again that imaginary vase with her hands. She said something about beauty, and her age, and how fast life goes by. Her sentences weren’t complete, or at least I don’t remember them to be, but I understood. I nodded along. Then:

“Is your family here with you?”

“No, my family is in Minnesota.”

“Oh. Do you go back and forth between the two places?”

“A bit, yeah.”

I told her I came here to take classes. What do you study? she asked.

I hesitated. “Comedy writing?”

She found this intriguing. So you’re very talented, she told me.

“We’ll see,” I smiled.

She asked me once again where my family was. I told her, then asked where she was from.

“I’m European,” she replied, as though letting me in on some sensational secret.

I figured as much from her accent. Where in Europe?



She had fled to the United States during World War II, when she was about 20 years old. Her mother was among the family she left behind.

“I never saw her again,” she told me.

My eyes filled immediately, and it caught me off guard. Maybe it was putting a face to what were normally faceless stories that affected me. Maybe it was the fact that she was about my age when she fled, and that made me imagine leaving my own mom for what would turn out to be a lifetime.

“If the war had never happened,” she said, “I would probably still be there.”

At first I thought she kept asking about my family because her memory was fading. Now I wonder if she simply didn’t understand why anyone would move away from their family when they didn’t have to.


Eventually another woman showed up. She looked younger than my new friend, and she wore thick glasses. She didn’t stick around to chat, but instead told the older woman that she’d head upstairs to “see what you need.”

“Well, I’m holding you up,” my friend said when the other woman had gone into the building. I just smiled. I wasn't anxious to leave.

As our meeting came to a close, I thought of asking for her name. But she never asked for my name, so, taking her cue, I figured maybe names aren't that important. I wish I had now, though, mainly so I could refer to her by name instead of as "the woman."

She left me with a reiteration of her opening remarks, and then added that her friend has a son about my age with big muscles.

I laughed again. “I’ll keep that in mind.”

I told her it was nice talking to her, and I meant it. When our conversation began, I had wondered if this dear woman had snatched up the first friendly face she saw for want of someone, anyone, to talk to. But I think I got more out of our interaction than she did, and I walked away from her with a tinge of reluctance.


My world is small. I think that’s true for most of us, even those who make conscious efforts to expand. It’s not easy, and when more pressing objectives like making rent or paying for school or supporting a family take priority, there’s not always time. But over the past few months I’ve come to believe that one of the easiest ways to gain insight and perspective is to talk to those who have simply been around longer than I have.

Today, an afternoon walk led me to a person who made an impression on me. I feel very lucky that this woman was there to pull me from my world; I was in the right place at the right time. Part of it may be happenstance, but it also has to do with frame of mind. I don’t think personal transformation is possible when you assume that you’re doing someone a favor by talking to them.

What would it be like if we all assumed just the opposite?