Monday, May 30, 2011

Last Memorial Day

Last year this holiday weekend, I was riding a jet ski around Lake Geneva, arms around my husband Eddie, squealing with laughter as we got sprayed with cool water.

This year, I have avoided emails, phone calls and spent the last three days nursing lonely wounds that have gone beyond the possibility of tearful, sweet release.

On Memorial Day last year, I visited my aunt in Wisconsin and drank beers on her patio.

This year my mother-in-law is visiting from India, eating and sleeping a mere three clocks away, and I am not part of her world anymore.

Last year at this time, I was celebrating the Chicago Blackhawks' blessed run to Stanley Cup glory.

This year, the Hawks are out, and the Bulls too. The Cubs don't seem primed to lift anyone's spirits.

In 2010, the spring was unnaturally warm, with 80 degree, sunny days that stretched back into April.

In 2011, I wore my winter coat until May 27, and the rain won't stop.

Last year I had my health, and my health insurance, and both seemed invincible.

This year I am counting down the days until surgery will relieve my body of a cervical cancer invasion.

A lot of things are different since 365 days ago. Not many of them are upgrades.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Smelling the Roses

I am highly self-critical. I am not known to give myself a break very often, whether it's a browbeating for past mistakes and poor decision making, pushing myself to do “more” (exercise, work, writing, cleaning) even when my body and spirit have clearly had enough, or simply honing in repetitively on perceived flaws.

The last seven months have been hellish by any standards: extended unemployment that caused me to question my place (like, if there was one) in the working world, fissure in a marriage to the man I still (and may always) consider the love of my life, and most recently, a battle with stage 2A cervical cancer. So clearly, if one is judgmentally introspective by nature, life has handed me a veritable buffet of reasons to feel like a loser.

I have written about the need to develop new pathways for myself, because at nearly 33 years of age, one thing is clear: the grief I give myself hasn't amounted to to any sort of spiritual epiphany or life fulfillment. If anything I'm beginning to consider that my own unforgiving navel gazing (this blog bears the title with good reason), has not been a tool for healthy ruminating and moving myself forward, but rather an overly self-conscious roadblock that has led me to make “safe” decisions that instead blow up into explosive peccadilloes. I have been too afraid to follow my “inner voice,” which I am learning a lot about from an unusual authority – star publicist to the fashion world Kelly Cutrone.

In recent discussions with my therapist, I have shared that the one thing I have done right in the last few years was to take a gamble on myself, finally heed the inner voice that screamed at me all throughout my 20s that I was a corporate fraud. I didn't want to climb the ladder, grab the brass ring or sit in the corner office fending off sniping barracudas. I wanted (nay, needed) to be a writer. That admission was not an acknowledgement of talent by any means. I was completely unsure I had anything to offer, or even knew where to start.

I am not going to rehash the two year-journey spent hustling down unpaid freelance lane, the strain I put on my marriage by asking Eddie to comprehend what must have seemed like a midlife crisis of sorts, where I remained unwilling to birth babies, yet brought no income into the home. It was one of the first truly selfish things I have ever done – and it came with a high price.

As someone in the business of self-flagellation, I often succumb to the inviting temptation to second guess the decisions that brought me to where I sit today: sick, alone, and financially shaky.

But on another level, I am covertly and tacitly aware that I am doing it. I am living my dream, however small and unintentionally isolating it may be.

This past Saturday, and for the second year in a row, I was awarded writing prizes from the Illinois Woman's Press Association. Last year, I went on to take first place from the National Federation of Press Women in one of their “Special Article” journalism categories. This year, proving that I am more diverse in my skillset than I have otherwise been willing to admit, I received two second place certificates for work on this very blog, “So This is What Fat Looks Like?,” and “A Generation X Bedtime Story.” Additionally, I received a first place award in the state category, “Column Written Specifically for the Web.” That honor was received pursuant to a piece I wrote on education for RootSpeak magazine.

The latter distinction means that I will be able to try my fortunes at the national level in August.

As a struggling writer, I feel very blessed. I have a lot to say, an abundance of avenues in which to be read, and best of all, the occasional validation of my peers to tell me I haven't turned my life inside out for naught.

It's important to take a moment now and then to acknowledge that.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Mommy, Can I Be a Brown Baby?

On May 16, Psychology Today ran a “piece” on its The Scientific Fundamentalist - A Look at the Hard Truths About Human Nature blog, entitled “Why Are Black Women Less Physically Attractive Than Other Women?” The “writer,” Satoshi Kanazawa, purports to offer a scientifically–based argument that proves that African-American women are less aesthetically pleasing than women of other races.

Let’s skip the obvious part where I call this author’s methodology into question, or where I might ask why Psychology Today would choose to run such an incendiary column in the first place.

Instead we’ll harken back to a five year-old Becky Sarwate, who in the throes of uncorrupted maturation, apparently never got the memo that black people were supposed to be physically inferior. For that was the age where, having spent a day wandering about the streets of Chicago, running errands with my mother, I asked her the following question: “Mommy, can I be a brown baby?”

My mom was used to these types of questions, having had to explain to me where babies come from – long before she might have been ready – after I drew a penis on a human figure in my kindergarten class. My patient teacher figured I might be a little ahead of my time and encouraged my mother, an RN nurse, to break out the medical books.

But the question about whether or not I could be a “brown baby” stemmed, not from scientific curiosity, but from envy and appreciation. I thought the brown babies were cuter – plain and simple. I didn’t see much to love about my own pasty white, nearly see-through skin, wild, tangly hair and frankly, I found the brown babies’ parents more attractive than my own too. I wanted a piece of that.

Mom once again exhibited limitless patience as we had a long talk about Genetics 101: that people had no say in the color of their own skin, eyes or hair. It was the luck of the genetic draw, based on the dominants and recessives that parents brought to the table. While that didn’t seem right, it appeared this truth was mine to accept and I went about the rest of my childhood, understanding that I would never be a brown baby but secretly wishing that I could reverse my racial fortunes.

I offer this anecdote because I wonder is Kanazawa ever considered the possibility that attraction to a race or set of features might be a nurture issue, as opposed to nature. I don’t believe there’s anything congenital about an aversion to color. Without reviewing hundreds of years of black American subjugation, isn’t it more than possible that these responses, which seem to “validate” the physical inferiority of the African-American woman, are socialized?

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Newt Gingrinch Gains a Little of My Respect…Before Promptly Losing It

I have taken a detour the last couple months from my regular obsession with the political arena to talk all things divorce and cancer. But as I am enjoying a relative “good” period, filled with some degree of life satisfaction and emotional equilibrium, I am inspired to join the endless sport of Capitol Hill navel gazing once again.

I am a huge fan of NBC’s Meet the Press, the Sunday morning political chat stalwart now hosted by David Gregory. While Gregory with his whiny, waffley interview style is no match for the “just the facts” tenacity of the otherwise cherubic Tim Russert (may he rest in peace), MTP is a habit I just can’t break. In years past, I would enjoy the show while indulging in the traditional Sunday hangover remedy of carbs and Gatorade, but now I am in my 30s and am usually well rested and alert. There are things to like about aging.

Anyway, this past weekend I queued up my Tivo to watch the show commercial-free and nearly deleted it altogether when I saw that the featured guest was former Speaker of the House, and current Republican Presidential candidate, Newt Gingrinch. I will NEVER forgive Newtie for the 90s – from the ridiculous government shutdown of 1995, to his laughably hypocritical pursuit of President Bill Clinton on the “family values” front. This from a man on his third marriage, the second which began under the auspicious influences of infidelity.

For a number of years, Newtie sort of fell off the political radar, only emerging as the occasional commentator on really important issues like President Obama’s African, colonial worldview (I was under the impression that Hawaii ceased to be a colony in the late 1950s). Rhetorically, he was swatted away like the pop cultural gnat he became (though he prefers the term “gadfly,” thank you very much).

But Newt got my attention on Sunday’s Meet the Press when he addressed rising GOP star Paul Ryan’s irresponsible, top two percent-friendly budget proposal. Specifically commenting on the plan’s goal of dismantling Medicare as we know it, converting it to a voucher program, his Newtness said: "I don't think right-wing social engineering is any more desirable than left-wing social engineering."

Well ok! Newt never stood a chance of getting my vote, but such refreshing honesty, such lack of pandering! Maybe we have a new Maverick on the right.

But of course my praise and excitement was premature. Once the Tea Party establishment (who seem to accrue power in inverse proportion to their distance from the mainstream) got wind of Newtie’s comments, Gingrich began backpedaling faster than a honey badger.

Paul Ryan had this to say to Reuters: "I think he now understands the magnitude of his comments -- how wrong they were. And I think he's going to have more to say about that. And he's working on that. He basically called and apologized. And I accepted his apology." Newt – you just got served by a man with a freakishly big head.

Last time I checked, Ryan is a lowly House member from the minority party, but we currently live in an upside down political universe, where less is apparently more. As the brilliant Paul Krugman put it: “Normally, a party controlling neither the White House nor the Senate would acknowledge that it isn’t in a position to impose its agenda on the nation. But the modern G.O.P. doesn’t believe in following normal rules.”

And an article in the “Caucus” section of today’s New York Times asks, “Can Newt Gingrich Control Newt Gingrich?”

I may be wholly biased and partisan but I happen to believe that running afoul of an increasingly wingnut right establishment, which has essentially declared war on the middle class, is the FIRST positive thing Newt has done in awhile. Alas, no more. He has been cowed and has summarily returned to placating the ultra-conservative. I would have hoped he’d take a lesson from 2008 also-ran John McCain (another formerly bold player who relinquished any and all respect I ever held for him). Winning over your party’s base almost necessarily means alienating the mainstream in this century. In short, the already debatably electable Gingrich just become untouchable.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

America's Health Care System is Still Broken

Right about now, you may be saying to yourself, “Thanks, Captain Obvious! And this just in, water is wet!” But this week, the truth of my post title hit way too close to home.

As many of you know, I am going through a rather acrimonious split from my husband of three and a half years, Eddie. As part of the rules of separation, I will be losing my current health insurance, which I was able to take advantage of through my husband's employer. Prior to moving into a studio apartment last month, I made the rounds: gynecologist, dentist, etc. Smoke 'em if you got 'em and all that. I had my IUD removed at the former appointment, not really the funnest 10 minutes I have ever spent, but I wasn't expecting any other developments.

I am learning as I grow older that life has a funny way of really piling it on. Because anyone who has been through it knows that getting a divorce affects everything you say, think, do and feel – for a much longer period than you may wish. It permeates every nook and cranny of your selfhood, throwing the formerly stable and assured into tremendous upheaval, and rendering the impossible suddenly all too real. As you go about daily life, the experience is disorienting, the sensation that the world should stop for just a moment and acknowledge that it has run you over. But maddeningly, it doesn't and you learn to cope with a new reality that you never imagined.

And just when you think it can't get any worse, it does. Remember that visit to the gynecologist I mentioned? About a week after the “routine” pap smear that was part of the exam, I received the dreaded call: my doctor (not a nurse or a junior physician) explained to me in a very calm and soothing voice that I needed to have a biopsy (also known as a colposcopy when we're talking about the cervix) as soon as possible.

This I did on Tuesday morning, and for other women out there who have endured a colpo, you will join me in declaring it a humiliating and uncomfortable procedure in every sense. I went in hoping for the best but fearing the worst and it seems that in this case, my fatalistic outlook served me well. Because when the doctor informed me that I appeared to have Stage 2 cervical cancer (final results will be in next week, but she felt confident enough to put a surgery on the books immediately), I took it fairly well.

The prognosis is very good. I learned this week that the traditional five stages of cancer (0-4) have a number of subclassifications. I am “lucky” enough to be classified under Stage 2A, which means that the surgery, scheduled for Tuesday, June 7, ought to be enough to eliminate the disease in my body once and for all.

While I am experiencing an epic case of conflicting emotions over the tumult of 2011 thus far: alternating between the joy of finally securing gainful employment as a professional writer, only to find myself suddenly alone, and now, ill, - that is not the drive behind writing this post. In fact my intent was never to address my battle with cancer publicly at all. In the first place, I have only begun to process my feelings, and in the second, it just seemed way too personal for now (yes, even I have my limits). However yesterday I realized that there is a cause to champion through my experience that is much bigger than a little laser surgery.

My employer is set to offer health insurance for the first time. When I learned this, I was overjoyed. How fortunate was I, just as I was about to lose coverage through my spouse? However, as I entered the small office where my boss had setup the insurance rep for the day, it dawned on me that telling the man I was in active treatment for the “Big C” could create some complications.

As soon as I informed the nice gentleman about my June 7 procedure, he pleasantly pulled a business card from his wallet, wished me well and told me to call him in 2014. That is the year when the part of Obamacare that forbids insurance carriers from rejecting “clients” (because we're certainly not fucking patients anymore), on the basis of pre-existing conditions takes effect. Until that time, I was politely told there was nothing that could be done for me, and it was further suggested that I ask my spouse very sweetly to stay legally married for as long as possible.

The agent shared with me that the only health insurance provider that will even take a look at cancer “victims” (his word, not mine) is Aetna, and then only if you've been in remission for five years. Well I haven't been in remission for five minutes.

I am 32 years old, and except for a spot of cancer, am in otherwise excellent health. I am afflicted with a temporary condition which, with a little luck and medical expertise, I will be free from after June 7. But for the next 3-5 years, I have the choice of no health coverage at all, or depending on the humanity and kindness of someone who no longer wants to be part of my life. It is a lot to ask of Eddie. It is a lot to ask of my personal pride. And it is way too much to ask of human decency. I feel like I am being punished - for what exactly, I don't know, but the sense of shame remains.

The ironic part is that I feel physically fine. I can work, write, exercise and take full advantage of what the world has to offer. Yet I am shut out from the ability to inoculate myself against the expense of unplanned accident or illness for half a decade. I can speak out about this travesty, and more than that, I must. Because what about those far sicker than me, with far less support, who suffer in unnamed silence?

I appreciate what President Obama has done to begin to correct our backward, inefficient and illogical health care delivery system, but it's still not enough. Not by a long shot.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Men Under 40: J'accuse!

While talking with my good friend who works in the fitness industry this week (a male, it must be noted), we found ourselves concluding that in the everlasting Battle of the Sexes, the female quotient of Generation X and ensuing batches of young people, appears to be winning - and winning handily.

Now I am know I am courting controversy with this post, and I can already read the outraged comments that I will receive, but let me make a couple points before you unleash the hounds:

  1. I am not a hard core feminist. I love men. The world needs them and for the most part, they are still the dominant producers of the world’s ideology and power structure. Whether I like that or not (usually not), I have to respect the facts.
  2. See Paragraph 1 – my indictment of the male character, in this case, is limited to men age 40 and under. I don’t pretend to understand the stolid, silent mien of my grandfather and his generation, or the blue collar gruffness of my uncles, but I’ll never accuse them of being sissies.

For the purposes of this essay, I am referencing with broad strokes (and there are of course many exceptions) the daily evidence I see of physical laziness, avoidance and lying as relationship strategies and a general inability to cope with discomfort of any kind. Don’t believe me? Here are some real world examples offered from my wanderings of the last couple of weeks:

  1. My friend in the fitness industry runs a regular Thursday night strength training class at a popular Chicago gym. On this particular evening, his pupils were all men under the age of 30. As he tried to put the group through its paces, he reported that it was the “saddest, whiniest spectacle of ‘can’t-do’” he had ever witnessed. When he repeated the same program with an all-female class at 6:30 the next morning, hardly the finest hour for most of us, each and every warrior lady made it to the end with no complaint.
  2. Any Amazing Race fans out there? If you want evidence of exactly the kind of shit I am talking about, watch this episode where “Goth” team Kent and Vyxsin continue a season’s worth of self-destruction, driven by Kent’s inability to comprehend that racing is a physical and emotional game requiring endurance and nerves of steel. After enduring his whiny, useless performance for eight weeks, I cannot help but hope that Vyxsin dumps his ass for a more robust Boy George wannabe (Boy George, who been through some adventures, would label Kent a “petulant cow”).
  3. Another man I know, age 37, is about to unleash a storybook marriage proposal on his girlfriend of two years. The moment will be fairytale in every way. The only problem is that the entire relationship is based on lies. The man is a closet smoker, drug user and womanizer, and though the couple cohabitates, he has managed to keep his true self under wraps for their entire courtship. As a woman just exiting her own committed relationship that was built on a foundation of quicksand, I see this bride-to-be’s future and it isn’t pretty.

Now of course women of my generation and beyond, myself included, are not perfect. We tend to suffer from the same type of extended adolescent wish fulfillment that appears to be the hallmark of those born after 1975. BUT (and it’s a big but) we have managed to cultivate a kind of independent cultural savviness that endows ample internal resources in the event that traditional marriage and motherhood elude. We have careers, knitting classes, bike races, girl’s night out, networking, you name it and some woman is doing it. We must deal with pain, of the internal and external variety as we endure men who don’t call, work environments where we continue to make 77 cents on the man’s dollar, and diseases that are specific to our gender (cervical, ovarian and breast cancer among others).

Meanwhile, nearly 50% of single men under 25 live rent-free and 5% percent of bachelors of all ages still call Mom to clean their house. What gives with the enfeebling of the male sex?

Thoughts? Angry missiles you want to throw at me? Let’s discuss.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Bicycle Bumper Cars Part II

Some of you who have been reading my posts for awhile may recall this one from last October, Bicycle Bumper Cars, which recounted the experience of being knocked off my bike by a heartless hit and run driver.

Since that time I have upgraded bicycles (see photo above) and to say that I am having a love affair with my 2011 Schwinn Madison is possibly the understatement of the year. My Facebook friends are absolutely weary of endless bragging about my mode of transit's speed, attention grabbing proclivities and general adorableness. Tough for them. I won't stop.

I used part of the cash settlement I received as an outcome of my separation from Eddie to invest in the cycle. I no longer have a car (one of many things I have had to relinquish post-marriage) and my bicycle is now my primary form of transportation. I needed something light (so I can carry it to my third floor walkup), fast and naturally, aesthetically pleasing. The Madison satisfies all of those requirements.

But apparently, it can't do much to protect you from other people. Shame.

Yesterday after work, I took advantage of a rare sunny, and somewhat warm Chicago spring day to enjoy a leisurely ride around my neighborhood. I live on a side street in the Rogers Park community and the road is fairly narrow. At one point there was a large SUV that wished to pass me, so I scooted slightly to the right, nearish but not adjacent to a row of parked cars.

I was humming along, enjoying the feeling of warm rays on my face, eyes firmly engaged on the pavement ahead when it happened....

BOOM! Car door! Had I ridden by one second later, it would have missed me altogether. Had I arrived a second earlier, I would have swerved around the careless parkers. Just one of those perfect timing things.

The impact sent me flying over my handlebars. My front right thigh bears a blackened imprint that bears a perfect resemblance to the bar. I landed on the backs of my hands and slightly to the left of my keister, so there are swollen bruises in both of those general areas. But seriously, apparent bad bike karma aside, I must have a guradian angel watching over me. It could and should have been much worse.

My assailants clearly knew they were guilty of attention deficit, because you never saw men so solicitous for my well-being. The real tragedy only became apparent after I stood up and realized that I had not broken any limbs. My beautiful, beautiful bike suffered some scratches, a loosened handlebar grip and – horrors! - a realigned front end. The men held the bike in place and readjusted the forefront of the cycle to a point where I could adequately finish my ride. However I will have to stop at a Schwinn shop for a full workup. Yes, I helicopter parent my bike. What of it?

The gentlemen did have the integrity to ask if I wanted to call the police, but given that I was alive, if shaken, and my baby (Lil' Red) was operational, I thought it best to put the incident behind me.

I think this narrative provides an accessible metaphor for my life at the moment – a journey into the unknown equally fraught with danger, excitement, and the occasional fall. The bruises adorning my body reflect interior contusions that I often struggle to articulate. I can achieve moments of assured self-confidence yet turn into an insecure sobbing mess just as quickly. There are many things that are exhausting and painful in a divorce, but the sudden removal of a stable identity is among the worst. It presents a tabula rasa on the one hand, yet a sense of failure and isolation on the other.

I mean who are we really as individuals, independent of others? Is such a question even answerable? I am slowly becoming aware, through ample self-reflection and quality therapy, that so much of the construction of “I” is based upon relationships: personal, professional and otherwise. Is there a consistent “Becky” that I could identify, had I been a feral child raised alone in the wilderness, a woman who never met parents, sister, husband or colleagues? Would she have any traits that I would recognize, that would remain after 32 years of being smacked by the car doors of culture and society?

I admit that I am a little more fearful and cautious in my heretofore bat-out-of-hell riding style after yesterday's dethronement, so perhaps that answers my question.