Wednesday, December 26, 2012

I'd Like to Buy the World a Coke Zero


In 2003, at the age of 25, I had to admit that I often struggled mightily to catch my breath after climbing just one flight of stairs. I had no cardiovascular strength of which to speak and everytime I looked in the mirror, I saw an image reflected of my obese, chain-smoking mother Gloria, who at 40 years of age looked not a day under 50. It was a frightening counter-example to the kind of healthy, vibrant adult life I wanted to live and I vowed to turn things around. I adopted the faddish but successful Atkins diet to kick start what would eventually turn out to be a 60-pound weight loss. I also began exercising, slowly at first, not much more than a little yoga and the occasional treadmill sprint, but it was enough. In the ensuing months I lost the weight and have kept it off for nine years.

One of the greatest challenges I faced after the end of the Atkins-era was a wholesale lack of knowledge of how to eat properly. I was a child of the 80s, raised by busy working parents on a steady diet of convenience foods: Dunkin' Donuts for weekend breakfasts, white bread bologna sandwiches with sugary juice boxes for lunch, and McDonald's for dinner. Soda was served in cans all day and snacks usually involved some form of potato chip or the now-defunct Jell-O Pudding Pops. I never met a carb I didn't adore, knew naught of portion control and if my sister and I were bored, a trip to the fridge or pantry usually followed.

The twin influences of determination and a temporary job processing conference registrations at the American Dietetic Association, commenced a long overdue education of the ins and outs of a sensible meal plan. One of the first, yet toughest things to relinquish, was a long-treasured adoration for soda pop, more specifically Dr. Pepper, Strawberry Crush and my old friend Coca-Cola Classic. One of the first rules of a weight loss plan: don't drink your calories. And the calories of my favorite sodas are as empty as they come. More than once I was given the advice to simply switch to diet. But why would I do that? I drank soda because it tasted GOOD and Diet Coke, that chemically-developed can of nastiness, never held any appeal. Thus I resigned myself to a carbonated beverage-free life, chalking it up to a necessary health sacrifice.

And then in 2007, it happened: Coke Zero. Fully of the opinion that this impostor was just another shitty variation of the same Diet Coke I'd been rejecting for years, I had Zero interest (Get it? Ha!) in sampling the new product. I was further turned off when I came across the following information on Wikipedia:

"Coca-Cola Zero or Coke Zero is a product of the Coca-Cola Company. It is a low-calorie  variation of Coca-Cola specifically marketed to men, who were shown to associate 'diet' drinks with women."

Bah! There's nothing that turns me off faster than sexist marketing and I managed to go nearly five full years without being pulled in by Zero's siren call, its claims to taste almost exactly like its parent product. How could this be? If I could enjoy the taste of Coca-Cola Classic without sacrificing flavor or adding inches to my waistline then why, by cracky, had the company waited so long? Fool me once New Coke (1986), shame on you. Fool me twice....

And what I'm dealing with now is a full-blown Coke Zero addiction. I have never been able to drink coffee (a writer who drinks no coffee nor smokes cigarettes? Clearly I am up to no good) as it makes me feel dizzy and nauseous. I was more than used to dealing with high school all-night study sessions or morning commutes au naturel. Yet suddenly I could not board the daily train to the office without a 12-ounce bottle in hand.

But here's the rub. Although I have come to adore Coke Zero, to depend on the caffeine jolt that it provides my 34 year-old body, I know the absence of calories hardly makes the beverage GOOD for me. If I wanted to identify most of the ingredients listed on the back of the package, I'd need to consult my chemist boyfriend for a little help. My friend and fitness trainer Rob has absolutely savaged me for buying into the hype. Dammit, the hype is tasty!

So what's a girl to do? Can I go back to the woman I was, an imbiber of tap water and unsweetened iced tea (or at least I was until I discovered Splenda, but that's another obsessive food post for another time)? Now that I have been to the top of Coke Zero mountain, am I capable of complacently return to the valley of hydrating liquids with no additives? There seems to be Zero chance.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Seasonal Attitude Disorder


I am really trying to be enthusiastic about the holidays this year. On November 30, 2011 Eddie and I signed our final divorce papers and I was just emerging from a bout with cervical cancer. The complicated and conflicting emotions involved included being grateful for my life while wondering what on earth I was going to do with the rest of it. I was at a loss and that pretty much sapped my close-of-2011 energy. I was lonely, depressed, afraid and reclusive. I sat out December altogether and spent a low-key New Year's Eve with close friends.

2012 has had its ups and downs but by and large, I am healthier and more whole than I can ever remember. The cancer is in remission, memories of an unhappy marriage began to recede and occupy their rightful, proportionate place. I grew professionally as I settled into a day job as the head writer for a housewares company, formulated new and interesting friendships, even took a couple shots at romance again. As the record currently stands, these forays into attachment did not end happily, but there was a time I believed I could never risk my heart. So there's a simple pride in having put myself out there.

More than five weeks ago, as regular readers of this blog are aware, L'il Red (my beloved bike) and I were involved in a somewhat hellacious accident involving an unwise yellow-light decision and a moving SUV. I was thrown from the bicycle, landing squarely on my tailbone and sacrum (the base of the spine) in the process. Both of these bones are fractured but despite the weeks of discomfort behind me as well as the months of recovery ahead, I know it could have been much worse.

And dammit, I like to think of myself as a tough gal but continuous pain, drug side effects and the limiting of my range of motion are conspiring to upend this self-image. I hurt without medication. I struggle to eat and sleep when taking it. And no matter the state of physical discomfort, the holiday season is here to make me feel more pathetic and alone than I might otherwise. It's frustrating because I was bloody determined not to be a humbug this year.

I have a pre-lit Christmas tree in my living room, a gift from the most recent boyfriend. When I find myself in the throes of pain, or sleepless from its relief, I turn on the four foot tall symbol of holiday cheer. Admittedly is is tougher to scowl when surrounded by glittering lights, but this kind of reminds me of those lamps doctors recommend to patients with Seasonal Affective Disorder. The light takes the edge off but it's no real substitute for the sun you know? Likewise the flickering tannenbaum brings a fleeting comfort but it doesn't replace the real sense of belonging, togetherness and celebration that the holiday season portends, and for which I yearn.

I'm writing about these feelings because I wish to master them. Know thine enemy and all that. I feel myself slipping into the usual Christmas despondency and the hope is that by recognizing it, I can hold it at bay. Growing up the eldest child of abusive and neglectful parents, the 12 Days of Christmas usually involved a rundown of why I didn't deserve the blessings bestowed and what I had done to disappoint my progenitors throughout the calendar year. I am 34 years-old now. I don't need or deserve to hear these voices this year - from my lips or anyone else's.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Citizen Cane (and Doughnut)

Many kind, regular readers are well aware of my affinity for riding my bicycle, affectionately nicknamed L'il Red, as I traverse across the great city of Chicago. These same readers also recognize a predilection toward illness, mishaps and other accidents. When these two characters traits, quite literally collide, the results yield equal parts humor and mayhem.

It was a chill and rainy Election Night, lo these three weeks ago, and yours truly was in a damned fine hurry to get back to her (then) boyfriend's house to watch the voting returns. Through the twin effects of overestimating my own importance and a general pattern of running to every appointment as though my hair were on fire, I was convinced that President Obama could not possibly secure a second term without my physical support. Try and tell me a watched pot never boils, will you?

I approached the six-corner intersection of Belmont, Lincoln and Ashland in the city's Lakeview neighborhood and as the once green light began to turn yellow, slick and dark road underneath, I made the poor decision (I can actually recall my final thought before the sickening thud: "This might not be a good idea.") to gun it, as much as one can gun a single speed road bike.

The aftermath was fairly predictable. L'il Red and I crashed into the side of a westbound SUV in the far right lane of the street we almost made it across. I slammed my right leg into the driver side door before being thrown from the bike and bouncing off the street directly on my tailbone. The ensuing white hot, all-consuming pain was unlike anything I have ever experienced. I could not talk or speak for what seemed like an hour, but may have actually amounted to less than a minute. The confused driver asked me repeatedly if I was ok, but in the end I couldn't manage more than the silent "thumbs up" signal an injured football players relays to stadium fans before they are carried off the field.

Kind, regular readers of this blog and those acquainted with me personally are also attuned to my strong aversion to medical treatment. Eventually I adjusted L'il Red's twisted handlebars, hopped back on the bike and made the remainder of a four-mile trip back to JC's apartment that I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy. I cried the entire way. But lest you think that hellacious ride, the ensuing two days of work missed and the near-constant discomfort I felt led to a timely visit with my primary physician, not so. I waited a full two weeks before seeking x-ray services at a local urgent care clinic I was in the process of passing while, wait for it....riding my bike.

I never said I was smart. Turns out that I not only dislocated said tailbone inward, but I had also broken my sacrum, which is defined by Wikipedia as "a large, triangular bone at the base of the spine and at the upper and back part of the pelvic cavity, where it is inserted like a wedge between the two hip bones." I didn't even know it was possible to break that shit. I think you have to really want it. So I am looking at a minimum two to six month recovery, with the dangling of a possible surgery in front of me by a concerned doctor who (rightfully) suspects I may not hew closely enough to the treatment plan, which basically consists of rest and a lot of pain medication. I have no problem with the latter. It's the former I don't do very well and quite seriously, strenuous exercise has been my raison d'etre, an substitute antidepressant for the last decade. In order to learn something constructive from this highly destructive experience, I repeatedly query myself in a dry, sarcastic tone: "Was it worth it? What is the worst thing that could have happened if you'd waited through the red light?"

Certainly not the humiliation of trading standard bicycle and backpack accessories for a cane and an inflatable doughnut pillow upon which to rest my broken butt. Definitely not the indignity of senior citizens more than twice my age offering to help me board the commuter train, nor the shame experienced when young people graciously offer their CTA seat to the poor, unfortunate cripple. Ah! I do not warrant these kindnesses as the result of my own stupidity. But how to share this with the well-meaning without offending their altruistic sensibilities. The worst punishment of all is having to endure undeserved benevolence.

There is a lot more to say about all of this: the humorous outtakes of last weekend's two-day Tramadol fog, the collapse of my relationship in the aftermath of the accident and the ongoing suspense regarding the prospect of non-surgical healing. Feel free to take the journey with me. I promise to proceed with caution. I have no other choice.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

"Don't Trust Anyone Over 30"


Jack Weinberg issued these words of caution during the heady, tumultuous and revolutionary 1960s, a period of American history that witnessed the explosion of the Civil Rights movement, popular rebellion against the Vietnam War and post-World War II economic growth that provided members of the middle class with enough material comfort to consider issues larger than their own immediate survival.

Weinberg, a student at UC Berkeley at the time of the famous quote, uttered the ubiquitous line to a columnist working for the San Francisco Chronicle. In an era when the phrase "going viral" had yet to be invented, Weinberg's legendary soundbite quickly became the unofficial motto of 1960s youth culture, a warning against placing faith in those with a vested interest in the status quo and the reproduction of dominant ideology.

As a child growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, a would-be agent of change in my own right, I often found this phrase catchy but terribly ageist and limiting. The passage of time couldn't fundamentally change my worldview. Wherever dishonesty and injustice lurked, there would I be. I had been arrested once by cracky! What's more anarchistic than that? Then it dawned on me that as a 34 year-old woman, my formal education long complete and somewhat established in my career, there's nothing I fight harder to achieve than a solid night's sleep.

I make this observation with tongue-somewhat-in-cheek, but dammit the realization that I have become "the man" to a certain extent is horrifying. I am not wealthy, yield no political power and have borne no children that will be raised as Mini-Me ideologues, but nonetheless it's hard to remember an act of protest more strenuous than saying "no" to the overpriced, tasteless sushi at Whole Foods.

Perhaps even more agitating: I am beginning to identify with the paradox of the now-sedentary Baby Boomers, the ones who stood up for change only to mature into the mutual fund managing, SUV driving helicopter parents that a portion of American society now blames for decades of entitlement and irresponsible spending, the upending of the fiscally conservative, cautious habits of the Great Depression. That's not to say I'm ready to cash in my rebellious chips for good, but I can see where age and years of routine blunt the edges of urgency.

By speaking my fears aloud, is is possible to forestall the inevitable? The only thing that scares me more than risk is obsoletion. Must I go the way of Ray Bradbury, Milton Friedman, Dennis Miller and Laura Schlessinger, all former stars of the liberal movement, or is self-awareness the ultimate weapon in the battle to stay forever, idealistically young?

Monday, November 5, 2012

T’was the Night Before the Election


T’was the night before the election, and all through Ohio
Margaritas were flowing like Cinco De Mayo.
Because Buckeye State residents were confident no matter who won,
Their days in the swing state spotlight were temporarily done.


Camp Romney retired its campaign of fluff,
Hopeful that the Etch-a-Sketch shaking had been enough.
To overcome the ire of chicks,
Who believed in their reproductive freedom, even without dicks.


Team Obama was bolstered by last minute polling,
That saw the incumbent ahead, and his opponent’s effort stalling.
Healthier job creation, increases in home sales, residential,
Images of a post-Hurricane Barry looking Presidential


Gave Obama a boost in the waning days
That claims about Jeep production in China just couldn't sway.
Jon Stewart and Colbert toasted a winning season of lampoon,
Almost (but not quite) wishing Romney a boon.


Because jokes and puns write with ease
When your campaign platform has more holes than Swiss cheese.
From "extreme conservative" to moderate and back
While crying foul over ads that attack


One's revolving positions, so hard to cement
Except for that business about the 47 percent.
"Borrow money from your parents" just doesn't seem to be
A responsible education policy.

The Tea Party zealots, clutching copies of Ayn Rand,
Hoped that they'd filibustered enough to render Obama an also-ran,
When out of the blue from the sound bite penalty box
Came Joe Biden with Paul Ryan's socks.


That was the only thing left of the GOP candidate, you see,
After Biden leveled him in debate, cheerful as could be.
"Medicare won't change" promised Ryan, as long as you're a Boomer,
But the rest of you will be screwed much sooner. 


Romney/Ryan failed to learn the lessons of Bush
That entitlements turned vouchers have the appeal of stale tush.
Romney ran away fast from his running mate's "serious" clunker
And all but banished him to the Cheney bunker. 


But hide and seek is no game to play
With middle class voters still clawing their way
Back from the failed policies of Bush Number 2
That left the economy of '08 a rancid stew.


"He's had four years and his policies haven't worked,"
Claimed Cantor and Gingrich and Boehner the Jerk.
Hoping upon hope if they said it was so
The voting public would forget the party of "no"


So off to the polls went John and Jane Public
In between looking for jobs and food for the stomach.
Because things are not fine but they're definitely improving,
With much more to do to get the economy moving.


Believing in change, if slower than desired
Is a certainly preferable to being stuck in the mire
Of endless wars and tax cuts for the rich,
Watching the American Dream stuck in a ditch.


So "yes we can" re-elect Obama and forge ahead
With hope for the country that's far from dead.
So to all you suffragists on the left and right,
"Happy Election Eve to all, and to all a goodnight!"

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Massage Masochism


Several months ago I wrote this post about my ongoing battle with alopecia. The hair loss which follows the line along my left temple turned out to be an aesthetically horrifying side effect of chronic cluster migraines, the condition with which I was finally diagnosed in mid-August. Though the diagnosis brought about irritating lifestyle changes (less wine consumption, reduced outdoor activity in hot weather, more sleep and less demands on my limited free time), the verdict was certainly preferable to that of an autoimmune disease or brain tumor, which were the other two options.

The team of doctors who helped me looked for answers decided upon a fourfold treatment plan: one emergency medication for sudden headache onset and two daily pills, the aforementioned lifestyle changes, a topical steroid spray intended to regenerate hair growth and treatments as often as I could afford them with a craniofacial massage therapist. Through a series of a medical exams, it was ascertained that copious knots located at the base of my skull, scalp, neck and jaw might be limiting the healthy inflow of blood and oxygen while causing a retention of impurities and other waste. It was also hypothesized that these knots developed over time, likely due to the effects of 2011 stress - cancer, divorce, and a schism with close family members.

I went AMA and took myself off those daily pills within a month, The prescriptions were causing reductions in my heart rate, breathlessness and chest tightness. During light jogs, I felt dizzy and lightheaded and worst of all, the tablets did nothing to restrain the monstrous headaches that often appeared out of thin air. I held onto the emergency pill, and still do, as it has proven effective at limiting the discomfort if I act with alacrity.

But about those craniofacial massages. They have been a horrendously uncomfortable miracle. It turns out I had an expert right in my own backyard, a longtime friend with an established mobile therapy business. He specializes in the treatment of those with chronic conditions like arthritis, multiple sclerosis and yes, migraines. Because many of his clients are homebound or otherwise limited in their motility, Pat comes to them. As a sole proprietor with his own equipment, without the expense of office space, his rates are highly attractive.

But I digress. I booked my first 90-minute treatment in the middle of August. Pat started with my scalp before moving to the base of my skull. For a person who has built a career out of presumed self-awareness, I knew not until he touched me exactly how sore, rigid and entangled those muscles were. Hell, I didn't even know they were used for anything. However it wasn't until he slapped on a pair of latex gloves and began digging around my jaw inside and out that the actual tears began to flow. As Pat began to isolate grape-sized kinks in the muscle groups which permit talking, eating, brain and neck support, I couldn't believe I had been walking around living day-to-day life like this. I am certain the tears were shed in equal parts sorrow over the ignorance which led to needless suffering, as well as temporal pain.

At the conclusion of that first session, I had watery eyes, sneezing and a two-day runny nose that ejected copious amounts of weird green shit. Was that mess literally stuck inside my head? Never had the dire warnings that a stressful lifestyle impacts overall health seemed more obvious. I had the mucus-filled tissues to prove it.

As I walked out Pat's front door, I was resolved never to endure another bout of his sadist "massage therapy" again, but I certainly couldn't deny that I had more movement in my jaw and neck than I ever remembered. I also couldn't ignore that as he worked through my jaw, tiny shoots of pain were refracted at the front of my skull - exactly the point from which the migraines emanated.

Nearly three months and one regenerating bald spot later, my belief that prescription drugs often only mask the problem, and bring about their own pitfalls is stronger than ever. I'd stop short of labeling myself a New Age homeopathic hippie, but I am a logical being and if something works, I stick with it. I haven't suffered a migraine in 12 weeks and the new hair growth, even if entirely white, offers encouragement that this past summer's informal wig shopping may have been premature. I no longer obsessively pet the smooth spot that shouldn't be, as if enough rubbing could awaken the dormant follicles.

If short-term pain once every three weeks means getting my life back and a reprieve from repetitive, expensive doctor visits, then it's a true pleasure. 

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Stone Cold Rhymin'



The gift of a child so adorable, good memories lessen the horrible.
My eardrums are bursting, my dry throat is thirsting, your timing is just so incorrigible.

Sinuses strained and throbbing, nocturnal weaving and bobbing.
Normally a machine but you got between. Now I'm weak to the point of sobbing.

It's true that you're fleeting, but also deceiving is your name, the Common Cold.
Because there's something abnormal about the way you're so formal in leaving me out of the fold.

I have work to do and pounds to eschew but can't overcome the wheezing.
Instead I lay prone, a broken drone, disabled by violent sneezing.

When I feel better, I'll get myself together. A honey badger anew, I vow.
I can't breathe when you stay, but you won't go away, so I leave my mouth open for now.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

The Passion of JC


When we began dating several months ago, my boyfriend Jean Claude and I wondered aloud what shape that tell-tale first argument might take. As the early throes of faultless infatuation begin to fade, a couple's first skirmish can say a lot about the pair's respective communication styles, methods of conflict resolution and maybe even provide a glimpse into the relationship's life expectancy. Those that fight in a fair, calm, reasonable and empathetic manner may anticipate a pattern of give-and-take respect and harmony. At the other end of the spectrum, pairings that would cause former spouses Tommy and Pamela Lee to pause and shake their heads may want to consider seeking satisfaction elsewhere.

For JC and I, the inaugural squabble began with a semi-tense evening conversation, a discussion I errantly believed had reached its conclusion before bed. I awoke to start my morning routine and was greeted with a churlish, silent man where heretofore I had recoiled from a Mr. Rogers level of diurnal cheer. Something was not right but as I mentioned, I had believed the preceding evening's tiff to be completely resolved. After repeatedly asking my boyfriend to spill his guts with no success, I decided that perhaps he was simply not looking forward to a day at the office. No big whoop.

Shortly before we boarded the local commuter train, the truth was revealed: JC had not recovered from wounds sustained the night before and was dead set upon the cold shoulder until he did. At this point, mystified, frustrated and angry anew, I uttered the following sentence which has become the stuff of legend in our brief shared history: "You know what? Why don't I build you a cross and you can martyr yourself because that's clearly what you want to do?"

A stunned Jean Claude replied with a simple "I don't even know what to say." It was evident that he was not accustomed to being spoken to this way at 7 am. What can I say folks? I shoot from the hip and as a writer, there was zero chance of ignoring such an appropriate, if obvious, analogy. His initials are JC. He was playing the victim. I told him to nail himself to the cross. Get it? Ha!

I digress. Once my sweetheart had a chance to recoup, he opted to embrace the trope of martyrdom with gusto. It quickly became an affectionate inside joke. Before long, JC would lament a bad day in a whiny tone or request some high-maintenance favor. Just as I would grow annoyed, I would whip my head around to witness him engaging in the pantomime of a forsaken man hanging from nails, wearing an impish grin. This sort of thing tends to take the wind out of my impatience. 

Flash forward to this past weekend when we attended a production of the play Mistakes Madeline Made by Elizabeth Meriwether. On assignment for one of my freelance gigs as a Chicago theater critic, Jean Claude my intelligent, thoughtful and articulate partner has become my companion of choice.

We ventured to the theater on a Friday evening, straight from our respective offices. That meant that we were loaded with bags, coats and other items before I collected my press packet and essential glass of red wine. In the course of business, I thought I had turned over custody of our tickets to JC.

In a harried, sweaty state, I led us to the upstairs theater where the performance would be staged and stood in front of two elderly female ushers with my hand out. Naturally, I was waiting for Jean Claude to fork over the passes. When he calmly insisted that he didn't have them, I grunted and may or may not have threatened to "kick his ass" for failing to produce them. I am an urban Italian woman and intimidating rhetoric is reflexive, like the way one automatically raises their arms to break a fall. By now, Jean Claude is well enough acquainted with me to ignore these peevish ejaculations, but it was immediately clear that the octogenarian ushers believed me nothing short of a monster. JC could not resist the opportunity.

As I rifled through my backpack and press packet, he played to the crowd: "Baby! Why would you speak to me in that harsh tone? Haven't you already spilled wine on me (yes, I had)? Didn't I offer to hold your belongings so you could get organized? I SWEAR I don't have the tickets. Don't hit me again!"

When I discovered the tickets (naturally) were indeed insider my folder, I was red-faced on two fronts. In the first place I had falsely accused my mate of having possession, but even worse, his Academy-Award worthy interpretation of Farrah Fawcett's abused character from legendary TV film The Burning Bed drew appalled clucks of disapproval from his new usher friends. Suddenly I was the Chris Brown to his Rihanna.

And it was then I knew I had learned a valuable lesson. Singular moments of tension are fair game for my boyfriend when it comes to mining comedic material, and nothing is safe. This one's got me on my toes. And I kind of like it.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Cleaning Out My Closet


"You've got your ex-husband's bathrobe hanging on the door, the pajamas, shoes and books of another estranged boyfriend and an office chair donated by yet another former lover. Why are you holding onto all of this stuff?"

Such was the incisive observation and inquisition from my main squeeze, the man who is beginning to help me put away years of frustrated hopes, rejection, pain and sorrow in an inability to foster a requited love relationship of equals. It wasn't until he drew attention to the discarded elements that represent a lifetime of romantic missteps that I finally stopped to ask myself, "How are these mementos, these vestiges of the past serving me in the present?"

The answer, in large degree, is that they are not. Beyond creating environmental discomfort for my current partner when he visits my apartment, I'm not sure the retention of these keepsakes accomplishes much more than laying building blocks of painful memory over which I stumble. My ex-husband's bathrobe, while large and comfortable, has a habit of leaving magenta colored lint on everything with which it comes into contact. Much like the character of the man who once wore it, I can't move about freely for fear of inciting a messy riot which no lint brush seems to be able to contain.

The aforementioned office chair was a thoughtful gift given to me by a gentleman I dated last year. He said that his own body hurt while watching me strain to type at the soda fountain kitchen table, seated atop a backless bar stool. Somehow he procured a supported office chair that can be adjusted to reach the height of my monitor. While this utilitarian item was much appreciated, it clashes greatly with my studio's aesthetic and there's been ample time to search for a replacement. I just haven't, I realized, because I am reluctant to discard tangible evidence that my spinal well-being actually mattered to someone.

As for those pajamas, shoes and books left in the wake of my last relationship: I've hidden them in the recesses of my closet for the better part of five months, preserving them like fossils from an archaeological dig. I deluded myself that the bond which formed with so much promise even as it ended in disillusionment was strong enough to yield an eventual friendship. It's not the first, nor probably the last time I overestimated my necessity to another's equanimity. Having confronted the reality that he and I will never again occupy places in the same social sphere, it is time to gather and return.

It seems somehow appropriate that when I restore these belongings to my former companion, I will be receiving precious little in return: two bottles of shampoo and conditioner and an extra set of housekeys. I never allowed myself to invest in setting up house at his place the way he did in mine. This appears to be a pattern. When the union blows up and after the dust settles, I escape with the essentials in my purse, never having to worry about a painful return to the scene. Swoop in, don't get comfortable, swoop out. Post-divorce, this has been a strategy for avoiding the kind of hurt you can only experience when forced to pack up and move out with only half a life in boxes.

It may be indicative of the transition I am currently undergoing that should my current relationship fail, I will need a lot more than a purse to remove the accumulated personal items I've felt comfortable enough to leave at his place. I am more invested than a spare toothbrush. It is both exciting and terrifying to let go and just enjoy the fall. But I realize this week, as I set about repackaging the remnants of affairs past and returning them to their rightful owners, this form of spring cleaning creates new space, figuratively and literally, for a cleaner and less haunted future.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Desperately Seeking a Dream Catcher


Taking a break from sweating the upcoming Presidential election, and now that the Chicago Teachers' Union has settled its war with Mayor Rahm Emanuel and returned to the classroom, I would like to explore another nagging plague in my current existence: bad dreams.

In college, newly fled from the stultifying influences of a broken home, a paradigm shift from survival mode left my subconscious flooded with psychological disruption. At that period in my life, sleep was not a problem. If anything, I availed myself of way too much of it as an escape from past wounds I had not the tools to heal, as well as present demands that I had trouble meeting. That said, nocturnal adventures were punctuated by disturbing, bizarre, often threatening images that belied the waking image of a good time girl without care. It was at some point during my sophomore year that I began relying on depressants to put me into a deeper trance, providing a certain amount of insurance from waking in a disturbed sweat.

But like any substance routinely ingested, the drugs lost their edge and before I knew it, no amount of chemical shield was enough to stave off the nightmares. In time, therapy, self-exploration and the accrual of newer, less intimidating experiences dulled the edges. The dreams never left completely, but they became less frequent and less menacing.

What was old became new again in the fallout of painful separation and divorce last year. Dormant fears of abandonment were realized in ways that felt inevitable yet impossible all at once. Naive as it sounds to my own ears, to love as much as I did must yield success. And when it didn't despite my every effort, I was right back in the shoes of that broken college student: disoriented, despairing, yet by this time old enough to understand that a youthful pattern of interpersonal injustice and failure was one I might be unable to transcend.

This time even a light sleep was not so easy to attain, and fitful slumbers were accented by violent, wretched visuals that once again had me reaching for over the counter reinforcements. But I couldn't drink enough Nyquil to medicate the root causes of my nighttime horrors: fear, shame and a broken heart.

In 2012, I am somewhat a different woman than I was the year prior. Not only accustomed to, but thriving in a solitary living environment, ensconced in a supportive, healthy and loving relationship, and surrounded by friends and contacts who inspire, buttress and move me to strive for what never seemed possible in the dark ages, this 34 year-old female feels more whole than at any point in the past.

Yet my pesky subconscious continues to remind me that all is not well. Recent weeks have borne witness to a vengeful return of the nightly phantasm. Several evenings ago I dreamt of my estranged mother. In the dream she was scheduled for brain surgery and my sister and I arrived at her bedside only to hear her castigate her unwanted children to anyone within earshot. In a fit of rage, I began choking the patient with a force so inhuman that her head severed from her neck and rolled onto the operating room floor. Blood sprayed everywhere. Have I mentioned that in my waking life I am a skittish pacifist who watches episodes of Grey's Anatomy through her fingers and cries when her boyfriend tries to show her Google images of a spinal tap? Yet when I awoke, I had to confront the reality that I am suppressing a great deal of maternally-directed rage.

I have discussed these sleeping battles and waking aftershocks with my therapist who seems perversely pleased despite a general concern for my restfulness. Dr. T has long held the theory that the internal compartments built to house the pain of childhood neglect were made of the flimsiest plaster. Her theory is that I have to open those hiding places at some point in order to mourn and move forward. I have resisted this work in the diurnal hours but it seems that latent emotions will have their say no matter what locus of control I contrive to own.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

CPS Teacher Strike 2012: Unarmed Kids


Throughout my primary school and junior high years, I attended a little hole-in-the-wall Lutheran school called Pilgrim in Chicago's Ravenswood neighborhood. Though I don't have much use for these skills now (notwithstanding the occasional drunken parlor trick), I memorized the books of the Old Testament in order and recited Bible verses in addition to acquiring more progressive knowledge like sexual education and critical thinking. Believe it or not, challenging our pastor on issues of religious dogma was unpunishable, even encouraged.

I enjoyed eight years as a rather large fish in a small pond. With a graduating class of 12 students, and all of them white except for one Mexican-immigrant kid named Jose Echevarria, it was easy to achieve and maintain social and academic dominance. In the meantime, while I appreciated the humanities-centered education I received, I lamented a curriculum devoid of World Geography, advanced mathematics and rigorous scientific principles. Some topics necessarily gave way in order to save time for the Catechism.

The world appeared set to open for me as I prepared to leave a tiny Lutheran institution in favor of Chicago's public school system (CPS baby!). As a new enrollee in Lincoln Park High School's much-vaunted International Baccalaureate Program (I.B.), a course of study which I must point out, earned derision from a variety of Tea Party crackpots earlier this year for its encouragement of global citizenship, I had access to technology, student diversity and scholarship that I would not have otherwise gleaned by hewing to the religious lines I had been walking.

I recognize that my CPS experience does not mirror that of the City's general student population, where the matriculation rate recently touched a new high of 60 percent but college graduation percentages fall below 10. Post-Great Recession, there numbers do not speak well of students' ability to compete for jobs in a hyper-connected world that requires more education than ever. But let us not pretend that there aren't mitigating factors beyond disengaged students and uninspiring teachers as certain anti-union factions would have it. Poverty and a frustrating lack of modern resources, compounded by children in gang-infested neighborhoods who do all they can just to get to school alive are certainly at play.

As the nation is now fully aware, Chicago Public School teachers voted to walk the picket line this week for the first time in 25 years. I am grateful that I was never impacted by this learning interruptus, a distraction that the City's struggling students don't need, but I understand that the fight between Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the Chicago Teachers' Union is about far more than pay raises. I join many of my friends and colleagues in bemoaning a state of political affairs that has rendered urban children collateral damage in this war. I respect that the Teachers' Union feels the need to put its foot down before issues of classroom size, resources and the recent vilification of personnel render doing the job of educating impossible. It's hard to sympathize with a Mayor who appears so little invested in the City's school system that his own children attend high-priced private institutions.

It's difficult to escape the impression however, that there will be no winners once both sides have laid down their arms. Educators will remain underpaid and overtaxed with too few resources. School administrators will not glean the increases in standardized test scores so desired without addressing systemic failings that put the City's children at a disadvantage before they set foot inside the classroom. One outcome however is certain: as the strike completes day two and families without alternative childcare options struggle to provide their offspring with productive, often unsupervised, methods of spending their newfound free time, it is the kids who pay the long-term price.

May this standoff conclude with utmost alacrity. Children who have seen their parents lose jobs, homes and more deserve a break.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Bill Clinton Restores Democrats' Lovin' Feeling


No matter on which side of the ideological spectrum you sit, it's difficult to avoid political engagement this week. The Republican National Convention, which resulted in the official nomination of the Romney/Ryan ticket, has been followed thus far by the blinding spectacle of the Democratic counterpart. A thought occurred to me last night after the conclusion of Bill Clinton's return to convention glory, a nomination speech punctuated by a virtuoso display of GOP myth debunking that must have left leaders from the right reaching for the Neosporin.

The thought was this: not only do the 2012 Presidential election and the respective nomination fetes offer a"clear choice" that candidates and pundits love to discuss, but moreover there is a clear dichotomy in the motivations of the two conventions themselves. Simply put, Mitt Romney and his team sought to recast their robotic candidate as a human being with middle class appeal(a goal that arguably fell totally flat). The idea, after a brutal primary season in which the former moderate sold his record as a compromising Governor, for the opportunity to appeal to the dogmatic Tea Party zealots which now represent GOP leadership, was that Mittens hadn't moved so far to the right that he'd lost touch with regular middle-of-the-road America.

Contrast this with the mission of the DNC. A report from my hometown paper, the Chicago Tribune, shared the results of a Reuters/Ipsos poll yesterday which indicated that the POTUS doesn't have any trouble with popular appeal. To quote the article, "The online poll showed that voters found Obama more likable than Romney by 50 percent to 30 percent. Forty-one percent said they believed Obama 'understands people like me,' while 28 percent said that about Romney." It's only natural that voters would tend to gravitate toward a man of modest beginnings, with the power to elicit action and emotion with relatable personal anecdotes and a wondrous oratory gift. It's almost unfair to place Barack Obama's considerable magnetism and think-on-his-feet intelligence next to a wooden, scripted man who looks like the enemy from Wall Street and admits to loaded offshore bank accounts. No matter how hard he and his team try to prove otherwise, Mittens is not one of us.

Nevertheless, Barack Obama faced a considerable challenge heading into this week's events in Charlotte, NC, one faced to a lesser degree by Romney. The President and other scheduled speakers had to re-energize the Democratic base, the disillusioned who voted for "Yes, We Can" in 2008 only to see the slogan perverted into "Yes, We Can...But Only if House Republicans Cooperate." Over the last four years, hope and optimism have taken many hits in the face of unprecedented Congressional gridlock that seems to worsen with each important issue requiring decisive action.

Though one may disagree with the right on many, many issues, no one doubts the party's commitment to unseating the President by any means necessary. For reasons ranging from respectful academic disagreement to the worst kind of racial intolerance, there is little doubt that the GOP can anticipate record turnout at the polls this November. However, there is ample reason to suspect that some of the interest groups which carried Obama to victory in 2008 - voters under 25, women, the gay community and the impoverished - may not be motivated to complete their registration applications this round. In addition to disappointment in the Obama agenda's success already mentioned, nefarious attempts by Republicans to disenfranchise minority groups and the poor have already met with a great deal of prosperity.

Against this backdrop, the primary goal of the DNC must have been abundantly clear to Team Obama: get those 2008 voters, many of whom cast a ballot for the first time, back to their polling centers. See San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro deliver a rousing speech about his immigrant family and the hard work and sacrifice required to make it in America. See Michelle Obama, the most capable First Lady since Hillary Clinton, humanize her cerebral husband with tales of date nights in a rusted out automobile. See Elizabeth Warren's massive appeal to the 99 percent with a stirring repudiation of the GOP's obsession with treating corporations better than people.

And last but not least before the current POTUS has the opportunity to address his constituents directly, see former President William Jefferson Clinton bring a convention center and millions of voters to their feet with the answer to all our disillusioned liberal prayers. Bill Clinton is considered a political genius for many reasons but his ability to meld lofty policy discussion with a relatable, folksy charm that doesn't talk down to Americans...well last night's speech was simply a master class in connection. All that was wanting was a microphone drop to complete the President Emeritus' triumph.

I am one of those voters who has occasionally felt letdown by the conflict between the theoretical Obama of 2008 and the practical limits of governing. However if the endgame of this week's convention is a restoration of enthusiasm, and a renewed commitment to ensuring a second term for the President, then mission accomplished. Whatever the roadblocks of the past four years, the current Commander-in-Chief is the only candidate who cares about the recent decline of the middle class and possesses the policy tools to put it back on the road to success. I'd like to thank Bill Clinton for the impassioned reminder.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Fantasy Football Fraud


There are numerous forms of sexism which irk me: the assumption on the part of some that we are mentally and physically the weaker gender, the presumption that women should be overruled when it comes to decision-making power over their reproductive cycles, the corporate glass ceilings that still exist which often permit women to do the same work for less pay, with fewer opportunities for advancement. These are among the more obvious examples and there are plenty more from which to choose. But as a lifelong sports fan about to welcome the official start of the football season, I am reminded again of the generally-accepted prejudice when it comes to women and sports. And I am not talking about small-minded attitudes about our individual athletic ability, although that rankles as well. My personal tale for the week revolves around a male-dominated office environment and a 2012 NFL Fantasy Football League.

I was born into this cruel world a Chicago Cubs fan and an ardent student of professional baseball, mentored by a statistic-loving father. Baseball will always be my first love in the sporting world, but several years ago, my enthusiasm for that particular game met its match when I gave football a serious look. Up to that time, I had written off the occupation as unnecessarily violent and complicated, code for "It makes me feel dumb." I could sing-rap every verse to the 1985 Chicago Bears' playoff anthem, "The Super Bowl Shuffle," but I didn't understand the roles of the men on the field that weren't quarterbacking or field goal kicking, nor did I care to try. It seemed like too much  investment.

But decades of disappointment experienced at the hands of The Loveable Losers (Where were you during "The Bartman Incident?" Every Cubs fan has a memory.) and some initiation into the world of office sports pools turned this woman into a hyper-competitive gridiron addict. I have written about my up-and-down emotional journey with a Pick-a-Winner (PAW) contest in which I have participated for the past six years. I join New York Jets fans the world over in detesting Brett Favre. Long story short, after a deep immersion in the NFL for more than a half-decade, I know my shit.

This season in addition to regular participation in PAW, I am branching out my sports wagering empire to include a Fantasy League Football team through my current workplace, via Yahoo! Sports. Last year, my company was a little less ambitious, containing efforts to a weekly, straightforward pool, during the course of which I CLEANED UP! I won far more money than any other male participant, and it would be positively indecent to discuss the can of whoop ass I opened up during the special Super Bowl edition. But do you think this success buys any respect or even an admission that I might just be a real football fan? Nope, instead I was treated to the requisite, unimaginative jokes about women selecting winners based on the attractiveness of a club's uniform color.

On Tuesday nights, I attend a kickboxing class, my favorite release of physical aggression, and the Commissioner of the company's league scheduled the draft to begin right around the time I'm jumping rope with my fellow students. I understand that not everyone's itinerary can be accommodated so rather than just rely on the chancy auto pick function, which makes team selections in the event of absenteeism, I asked my boyfriend to stand in for me. Regardless of the lamentable fact that he is an Indianapolis Colts fan, I trust him completely. He understands the seriousness with which I take this and we have been discussing the draft, the order in which I'd like my positions selected and who I would ideally like to fill them, for weeks. It must be mentioned that JC takes his assignment so ardently, he is logging on before the start of the madness to do some additional research. Perhaps a training injury took place this week of which we're not aware. It's really gratifying to have such a partner.

But instead of congratulating me for capable delegation and the investment in a relationship of equals, I am dealing with predictable accusations that I have secured "a ringer." Sigh. Sometimes the chauvinistic ignorance is nearly too much to bear.

I realize that some of the "teasing" is a legitimate attempt to drive me from the League, to turn it into the non-threatening boys' club it was intended to be. Sadly it really stings a certain section of the male populace to lose to a girl, as if that somehow inverts their masculinity. I'm hardly Susan B. Anthony or anything, but I feel I'd be doing a disservice to myself as well as my gender to run from these attitudes simply because they're unpleasant. So once the draft concludes, I suppose I'll have to keep making my point with understated, superior management skills. The "Woman's Curse" is not menstruation. It is dogged, multi-tasking competence and willful patriarchal arrogance.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

A Cry in the Dark

On a late summer's eve I sat at my kitchen table typing away, the sounds of chirping crickets my sole companion. I am not an individual who works well against a backdrop of white noise: no music wafting from Pandora, no CNN anchors relaying the day's events. Just me, my work and the open balcony door in my studio apartment, where the fresh water air from Lake Michigan wafts in pleasantly.

I perched while working contentedly, attempting to ignore the familiar rumbles in my stomach, a reminder that I had once again labored through mealtime in the pursuit of written perfection. Just then a heart-rending wail went up from the alley behind my urban abode.

The source of the cries was a woman in the throes of grief, so caught in its clutches, reeking of a recent pierce, that she had not the self-awareness to withhold the details of its genesis. The familiarity of her ejaculations immediately produced a stabbing aftershock of pain. It is not so long ago that my former neighbors tacked a note to the rented condo door which read: "We are sorry about your domestic disharmony, but your yelling and crying disturbs us. Please keep it down."

This woman's private struggle suddenly made very public, I was drawn to the open balcony door, feeling much like an intruder stumbling upon an intimate moment not meant for my ears, but literally unable to shut out the intensity, the forceful strength of her misery. It seems that only that day, the lady learned from her four year-old child that "Daddy has a new girlfriend," a woman of dubious immigration status who has been seeing her husband for some time. The victim wept and bellowed on her cell phone, and as much as I pitied her predicament, I wondered about the auditor at the other end of the line. Who was it? Were they equipped to withstand this torrent of anguish? Could they be the rock against which she broke herself?

I stopped typing and listened knowingly yet helplessly as the woman wondered about the prospects for her future: how would she provide for her kids, how would she live through such betrayal, what had she done wrong? And though she never wanted to see her tormentor again, how would she survive without him?

I wanted to go to her, put my arms around her and smooth her hair. I wanted to do for her what so many had been unable or unwilling to do for me, in part because I didn't know how to ask. "This too shall pass." Trite, overused platitude though it is, it's repeated so oft for a reason. I wanted to reassure her that 18 months from now, she could very well be working contentedly, alone in her own space with more to keep her company than the feeling of lack.

But I understand from experience that out-of-body sensation that befalls the lost and bereft. So isolated from the normal continuum of human emotion, you forget where you are and what you're doing. An outside reminder from a disinterested party can be jarring and shameful to the point of complete collapse. It's a delicate balance at that stage of grief just to keep taking breaths. Instead I watched the woman retreat back into her apartment. I knew what awaited her: so many complicated decisions over days, months, even years, her life changed forever, every certainty overturned.

I am not a woman of prayer, but I am a human of empathy. Her tears have only begun but may they be granted a reprieve for rest. She's going to need it.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Enamored With Enamel


When I was six years old, I was involved in a controversial radiator accident that remains the stuff of family legend. While engaging in a spirited Sesame Street dance routine with my younger sister Jenny, was I pushed into my grandmother's low-rising living room metal unit or did I accidentally trip and fall? I am sure you can guess who stands on which side of the issue and it is unlikely to be definitively settled. This was 1984 and my Italian granny's Chicago apartment was not wired with surveillance equipment. Regardless of the impetus the immediate result was that my mouth was destroyed.

Over the next 18 months, I lost nearly all of my baby teeth, dislodged as they were by the blunt force trauma of the accident. As the adult teeth took their time growing, there was very little in my gums to anchor them. The end result was a hot, discombobulated mess that left me ashamed to smile for the rest of my maturation. This was compounded by lax parenting and a certain level of poverty that left orthodontic care out of reach.

I have many complaints about my former marriage but one kudo I will grant my ex-husband is that he understood the source of misery that was my smile, or lack thereof, the awful taunting I had endured at the hands of peers. For the better part of 25 years, you could label any display of pleasure more of a wry grimace. I developed a habit of placing my right hand over my mouth when I giggled that stubbornly persists to this day. Nearly every photo, except for the rare snap that caught me unawares, found my chompers firmly hidden behind frozen lips. My upper canines were particularly unsightly and there is a snap in my wedding album, one that otherwise conveys bliss, that brings stinging tears of shame to my eyes whenever viewed. It embodies everything ugly and unsightly that greeted me in the mirror from the second grade until I was a grown woman of 31 years old.

I started a tremendously painful, time consuming and expensive assortment of dental work that involved oral surgery, deep cleaning, cavity filling, and partial tooth replacement, culminating in three years of brace wearing, orthodontic adjustment and permanent retainers. Six years and $14,000 later, I was quite literally a new woman. As I found myself glued to the looking glass, in love with the replacement image like the Narcissus of legend, I wondered if maybe I ought to be ashamed of the price I paid for pride. Ultimately I decided that the time and money spent was not in the quest of self-love but a reprieve from self-hate, funds that had to be well-spent if the production of a camera at friend and family events no longer had me fleeing the scene. So many recorded, shared memories from which I had been formerly absent in mind and body....

But there's been a repercussion I never anticipated. I am addicted to over the counter whitening products, jonesing like a heroin addict for the ultimate pearly grin. I can't stop using them. I have sampled every brand, every sub-variety and am now a one-woman Consumer Reports listing of the merits, demerits, strengths and weaknesses of strips, trays, drops, pastes and powders. Unless I have a scheduled dental cleaning in sight, I am rarely without my aesthetic weapon of choice and I figure like any other good habit done in overkill, I am going to pay an eventual price.

My enamel is in great shape as are my gums, so say the professionals. It's rather ironic however that the pendulum swung from absolute disregard for the state of my teeth, appalled as I was by their appearance for so long, to an obsessive compulsion for their pristine good looks.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Desert Rose


I am not a botanist. I possess the opposite of a green thumb. I can kill the most resilient of houseplants like cacti and bamboo while meaning them no harm. This woman just doesn't speak their language.

I am also the proud resident of a concrete jungle. On a 4:30 am run yesterday morning, I made a semi-serious game of jogging a wide berth around scurrying creatures of the night that I could only hope were rabbits and squirrels foraging for pre-dawn meals. I can't imagine a vacation less relaxing than camping.

I am generally indifferent toward the natural world, yet I can't help but foster a begrudging admiration for this purple flowering plant in my apartment building's courtyard, species unknown. It's been an evil summer in the Midwest - sweltering daytime highs, precious little rain. Yet it seems like the less nourishment it receives the stronger and more beautiful it grows. Each evening when I return home, its colorful buds are just a little taller and fuller, just a little brighter, the stalk reaching ever so slightly higher even as surrounding weeds and dry brush would have it strangled.

This persevering little beauty reminds me of my own journey as a writer, an expedition far from complete. It's a grueling campaign that began with a loud internal thumping, a warning that I was on the wrong path, a crash course with unhappiness predicated upon a willful disregard of personal truth.

This voice was in charge: "You can't be a scribbler. There's no future in it. Climb the corporate ladder. Make that money and your husband and family proud. Writing is selfish, maybe even destructive." That was the sand added to the cement mix provided by my immediate support system at the time. This foundation was almost, but not quite enough to choke the sapling, the murmur that countered, "But you have ideas and thoughts you have to share, even if no one reads them. You are growing weaker and sicker from the effort of pretending to be that which you are not."

Inevitably, an ingrained need to please and maintain the status quo lost to a force much more powerful but there was oh so much collateral damage: a foundered marriage, a splintered family, isolation, depression, fear, regret, cruel words and actions that can never be recanted. So many times I wondered if perhaps writing was too damned selfish and costly. When he said, "I never should have let you," I bristled at the presumption but wondered if I had secretly logged my name amongst the misguided with a "big idea" that proved too expensive.

Marooned, thirsty and malnourished, this plant looked for sunlight and a healthy place to grow with the support of sundry friends and family who believed in the effort no matter how foolish and risky it appeared. And with every little nibble of success - a published piece here, an award there, a reinforcing compliment from a fellow writer - the roots of certainty dug themselves in the sand a little more stubbornly. I am not Gail Collins, David Sedaris or Garrison Keillor yet. I may never have the career of those esteemed wordsmiths and I can live that with it. But I have a career nonetheless. I gave up almost everything I knew to strive for it too - and it didn't kill me.

Like my friend the little purple shoot, I will keep growing and changing, with or without the common elements of growth too often taken for granted. Thankfully as I evolve and learn to believe, the love and sustenance craved is organically materializing. The purple plant, my own desert rose, clearly doesn't need my help, but I seek to pay tribute to her inspiration with a prosaic rain dance.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Vaudeville and Ramen Noodles


I have legitimate stressors. For the past two months, my hair has been falling out and I've been suffering intermittent migraines with attacks of vomiting that seem impervious to mitigation. My symptoms defy logic, appearing at random times of day, regardless of whether I have eaten, slept, exercised, consumed alcohol or feel anxious. I have an appointment with a fancy downtown neurologist next month and in the interim, I ingest three daily medications that lower my heart rate and blood pressure, making exercise and other strenuous activities a challenge, especially in record-setting Chicago heat.

For the third time in 15 months, the ceiling in my third floor walk-up, studio apartment is literally crashing in. The irony is that after months of drought, two days of heavy rains were more than the roof of a century-old building could bear and so once again, I brought out the thirsty towels and called the superintendent. Only this time he uttered the words "structurally unsound" and I may be looking for a new abode less than halfway into my current lease.

I miss parts of my family. The 1-2 punch of divorce and cancer in 2011 and confrontation with historical coping mechanisms that no longer proved effective, led us to a late-year estrangement that was initially necessary but now feels like a pointless, lonely standoff from which I no longer recognize how to disengage. It takes two to tango but only one to hold out an olive branch.

Most likely due to some combination of all of the above, I'm lately plagued with garish, confusing nightmares that represent different stages and elements of my past that converge, overpowering a variety of sleep aids, to rouse me from slumber in cold sweats.

However stubbornly and defiantly, in the midst of so much uncertainty and turmoil, and where in the past, I would have succumbed to inertia and depression, I am energized and upbeat. Why? In a word: love. It's all vaudeville and ramen noodles in my world, all dancing, comedy and ease.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Romney's Latest Scandal: Twittergate?


During the 2008 Presidential race, then-candidate Obama showed his competitors how to leverage the Internet and a variety of social media platforms to reinvigorate the notion of a grassroots campaign for the 21st Century. It was largely upon the shoulders of individuals who reposted and retweeted his messages that the POTUS was carried to victory - by small donors who contributed their last $100, those who believed that the nation could ill-afford another four years of Republican top-down cynicism disguised as patriotism, morally and fiscally bankrupting the nation. Don't like continued tax breaks for corporations and the wealthy during a time of war? Then the terrorists win!

It is a savvy marketing template that ensuing candidates from both parties have sought to emulate, with varying levels of success. Former Maverick John McCain captured the public imagination however momentarily with his selection of social media darling Sarah Palin as his running mate, unfortunately learning the hard way that stupidity is no more appealing in the digital age, but we can never take that moment of cultural zeitgeist away from the Republican ticket. All credit goes to the Obama team for forcing all walks of political dinosaur into accepting new media as part of the deal. It does not matter if one appreciates the value of Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and the like. They are modern campaign tools that one must utilize in order to compete. We can never turn back the clock.

And as social media strategy becomes synonymous with campaign activity, reports of potential misuse become a common feature of the news cycle. For example, this morning Yahoo News ran a story via Mashable: "Mitt Romney Sees Sudden Unexplained Spike in Twitter Followers." At first glance this appears to be an unlikely tale of crashing bore Romney enjoying unexpected appeal in the Twitterverse. Could it be that dull messaging is somehow inverted when permitted only 140 characters?

Ah but no. To delve deeper into writer Alex Fitzpatrick's story is to uncover a common feature of new Republicanism: if you can't engender love the old-fashioned way through sound policy and dynamic personality, just go out and buy it. After Romney's Twitter feed gained a plethora of new followers over the weekend - 23,926 on Friday, 93,054 on Saturday and 25,432 on Sunday - Zach Green of 140elect.com, a blog which monitors Twitter trends relative to the presidential election, couldn't help but notice per the Mashable piece that, "analysis indicates that Romney hasn't seen a noticeable uptick in other metrics, such as mentions, which would suggest Romney was getting these followers organically."

In other words, there are no more people interacting with he of the slick hair on Twitter than before. Well then, what's the dilly yo? Do we really believe that nearly 150,000 individuals suddenly couldn't resist the bon mots of the Romneybot on a weekend when campaign activity was suspended? Sometimes the easiest answer is the right one. For whatever reason, the campaign bought the followers, in a wrongheaded, simplistic attempt to make Mittens appear beloved. As the Mashable piece highlights:

"Zac Moffatt, the Romney campaign's digital director, has denied buying Twitter followers. Moffatt has in the past stressed that his strategy revolves around targeted engagement and not simply accumulating massive numbers of new followers. Buying fake followers doesn't mesh well with that approach (plus, follower totals mean very little for politicians if real voters aren't interacting with the message being sent)."

So the Romney campaign has flip-flopped on a previously stated position? The hell you say! Now granted this is not the type of scandal for which a Congressional investigation must be called. It is merely another example of how very out of touch Team Romney is with reality. Did they think no one would notice this latest shell game? Hide your tax returns! Change your tune on health care reform! Buy some Twitter followers! But all the money in the world can't make you a real, relatable homo sapiens Mittens. The human touch can't be purchased.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Reflex

"Every little thing the reflex does
Leaves you answered with a question mark"

- Duran Duran


On Sunday evening, my boyfriend and I were walking back from a quick dinner at the local Wendy's franchise. It was t-minus two hours until the Season 5 premiere of Breaking Bad, an event I had been anticipating for several months. I was sipping on a Strawberry Frosty Shake he'd gotten "for himself," knowing full well he doesn't have much of a sweet tooth and I'd be likely to consume it. Acquainted with me for years, he intuitively understands that a second hand dessert somehow leaves behind fewer traces of guilt.

We crossed the street, he with a firm grip on my left hand, when we heard the familiar sound of squealing tires. We both rotated just in time to see the pickup truck and SUV collide in the middle of the intersection, a sequence of events that couldn't have taken more than a second. But I can't report on the denouement because like a mother sparrow whose nest was under attack, he used my left arm to whip me around behind him protectively. Then, with a display of Gumby-like dexterity, he moved one hand to shield my face while manipulating the other to retrieve a cigarette from the pack in his front pocket.

Moments is too long a duration to describe how quickly events moved, but as the iconic pop band Duran Duran concluded for us in the 1980s, my boyfriend's reflexes left me answered with a question mark. Of all the options his fight or flight response could have chosen, my safety and smoking a cigarette were the two deemed most critical.

The accident occurred at least 50 feet from where we stood rooted to the pavement with other passerby. But it wasn't until the adrenaline simmered and we saw a dog and a small girl emerge from the wrecked pickup unharmed that I began to reflect on what it all meant for us. We were never in danger, or to put it more succinctly, I never was, but he wasn't taking any chances.

Time was I didn't think I was the traditional type. I didn't want or need a man to hold open a door for me or pull out a chair or even pay the bill. I'm an independent woman and can take care of myself. But was that my genuine ideology or simply a response to a lack of kindly treatment? It's often easier when starved to simply go with a claim to not being hungry.

As the sirens began to wail and emergency vehicles arrived on the scene, I met his eyes and found myself speechless with gratitude. Without thinking I said "thank you." He returned my gaze, perplexed, smoke wafting from his now relaxed right hand and asked "What for baby?"

"I can't ignore what I just saw. You mean what you say. You'll take care of me, without waiting for more information or consent. Thank you. You've told me to judge your love based on empirical evidence (he's a scientist by profession) and you just gave me some."

As we finished the walk to his apartment, I wrestled with the usual existential questions: Why? Do I deserve that kind of instinctual care? Would I have behaved the same way? Until it occurred to me that his reflexes just are. Whatever answers my neurotic mind could spit out are rendered meaningless. Whatever I think of myself, I can't control what his synapses decide is most worth defending.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Scenes from a City Run


Act I: The First Half Mile

Toddler Boy: (Holding onto his mother's hand as he drunk-walks wistfully in front a public park like only the young can do.) "Mommy, why is she running?

Patient, Smiling Mother: "For exercise."

Boy: "But why?"

Mother: "Because adults don't move as much as kids do."

Jogger continues along chosen path, grinning outwardly at the sweet, insightful exchange.

Act II: Mile 2

Jogger: "Hey baby!"

Old Friend Unexpectedly Encountered: (Look of recognition slowly overtaking his face.) "Hey! What are you doing?"

Jogger: (Not breaking stride, competing with the clock and herself.) "I live over here. I'm working on my fitness boo!"

Jogger continues, marveling at the small-world feel of her city. She's didn't even know he was her neighbor.

Act III: Conclusion of Mile 2

Two middle-aged gentleman walk side-by -side in front of a rehabilitation center as the jogger attempts to pass.

First Man: (Muttering) "Yeah..run that ass off. Damn!"

Second Man: (Sardonically) "Oh, one of those types."

Jogger: (Rolls eyes virtually into the back of her head while sucking in a deep, calming breath. She should be used to this after 20 years.)

Boys will be pervy boys at any age it seems.

Act IV: Mile 3

Another Toddler Boy: (Trips over his own feet exiting storefront while harried mother pushes him gently from behind. Points.) "Where is her doggie?

Mother
: (Exasperated and laden with packages.) "What?"

Boy: "Her doggie. Big people always run with doggies."

Jogger did not feel like getting dressed to go for a run this morning, but is glad she did. She carries these little snippets of conversation, these tiny slices of life in an urban climate with her everywhere. They take up residence in her soul.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Box Office Hit "Ted" Holds a Mirror Up to Generation Y


I am a nearly 34 year-old woman with the finely developed humor sensibilities of a 13 year-old boy. Give me your bodily function jokes, your politically incorrect puns and a dash of gallows guffaw and I am a happy camper. Throughout the years I have counted such animated television programs as Beavis and Butthead, South Park, the Family Guy and the Boondocks among my many favorites. But it must be pointed out, I come for the sight gags and stay for the often prescient social and political commentary that these programs offer the already warped mind.

So when I first learned a of a new film directed, co-written and produced by Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane, I was intrigued. When I intimated that said film involved a 35 year-old man (played by the always delicious Mark Wahlberg) and the complex adult relationship between he and his childhood teddy bear, my interest grew. Then I heard that the titular bear, Ted, was a foul-mouthed, over-sexed, drug abusing stuffed animal come to life and I was counting the minutes until the film's release.

The movie did not disappoint in its promise to offer something new yet familiar: a stream of poop and fart jokes, Wahlberg's handsome face and Mila Kunis' winsome screen charm. But the film offered something else too for those willing to look past the veneer of R-rated hilarity. Part of the movie's message served to underscore a point I have been arguing off and on for several years, a pitfall to which I know I am not immune: the members of Generation Y are having an awfully tough time growing up.

To simplify matters, let's work with Wikipedia's definition of Gen Y, shall we? "Generation Y, also known as Generation We...Generation Next, the Net Generation, the Echo Boomers are the demographic cohort following Generation X. There are no precise dates for when Generation Y starts and ends, and commentators usually use birth dates ranging somewhere from the later-1970s or early 1980s to the mid 2000s."

If we accept this explication of terms, this puts yours truly right smack at the beginning of this demographic. It is also worth noting that the bulk of Gen Y's members are the progeny of late-era Baby Boomers, a state of affairs which cannot fail to offer a relationship between the sense of entitlement that myself and my fellow Gen Yers often display. We were raised by our credit-relying helicopter parents (generalizing) to believe we had certain inalienable rights: the right to be special, the right to be happy, the right to warrant media attention and most especially the right to abdicate from situations that are not to our liking. Toughing it out stoically doesn't appear to be part of our vocabulary.

And so it is in Ted. The main character, Johnny, is introduced to audiences as a lonely little boy in the 1980s. Growing up in Boston as the only child of doting parents, his is a case of wish-fulfillment gone awry. He and his parents spend so much time pretending that the teddy bear is the weird kid's real pal that when the fantasy becomes reality, there's no eventual lesson about Johnny trying to improve his relationships with humans - just relief that they don't have to worry about him talking to himself anymore.

Cut to the present-day where Johnny is drinking and pulling bongs on the couch with a now 27 year-old Ted on a daily basis. The man-child is underemployed by a rental car agency while his more stable girlfriend (Kunis) holds down an adult gig and pays most of the rent on their gorgeous brownstone (presumably - I know what it costs to live in Boston).

That the movie has several different happy endings is more than just onscreen fiction. I have plenty of contemporaries who just never emerge from this pattern of underachieving, and they certainly don't do so with six pack abs. Ted is more than a comic film. It's a cautionary tale with a message that could be easy to miss underneath the shock humor. 35 year-olds, by and large, are still babies.

I'm going to go do a tequila shot, cuddle my Cabbage Patch Doll and think more about it.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Bald Insecurity


Boyfriend/Hairdresser 8 weeks ago: "Come on! It's always something with you. I can't see anything!"

Sister 4 weeks ago: "Is it because you dye your hair too often?"

New Boyfriend/Hairdresser 3 weeks ago: "Ok, now I see what you're talking about."

A woman historically known for her wild, curly red locks is starting to part with them, at the ripe old age of almost 34. And with this development, wherefore goes the identity?

The summer I turned 13, I took a long look in the mirror and decided that with the natural attributes of ghostly pale skin, bright green eyes and a smattering of freckles, Mother Nature was in error when she doled out a head of medium brown hair. If I was going to be continually mistaken for Irish, I might as well go all the way with it.

Except for a brief 90s dalliance with black (a huge mistake influenced by Nine Inch Nails and Nirvana) and a foray into blonde highlights last decade (the things we do for love), my hair has held one fiery shade or another for over 20 years. As the tresses curled evermore with each passing year, I alternately cursed the frizzy, unruly mess yet gave silent thanks that I was gifted with a conversation piece, a physical manifestation of my personality: untamed, sometimes glossy, frustrating and colorful.

Though I fancy myself a believer in the overused "beauty is skin deep" maxim, I rarely applied that latitude to myself. It was never enough that I was a smart kid, decent at sports with other accomplishments. I wanted to be beautiful, the kind of gorgeousness that stopped people in their tracks. I wanted to ditch the huge Haray Caray glasses that acted as a screaming billboard for my near-sightedness. I yearned for the day I would have the independence to have my awful, crooked chompers corrected through the miracle of orthodontics. I wondered if I would ever grow big girls boobs (still waiting at 33). I didn't want to be creative and odd. There was a time I would have surrendered everything that makes me, well me, if it meant loving the image reflected in the glass.

As I grew up, sought the services of a good therapist and did the painful work of looking inward, I accepted what I had known all along: you can't have it all and it's a pretty idiotic waste of time to moon over your personal aesthetics. So as I have alluded in other posts, I learned to kind of like and appreciate the rest of me. Until.....

8 weeks ago when I began to notice a spot near my left temple that was hairless. I'm not talking about short baby hairs that might reflect pulling, hairbrush damage, etc. I mean bald - like it had been waxed clean. My eye, long trained to zero in on real and perceived flaws, moved to the spot by the day, then the hour, then the minute. What the hell was happening and why?

Alopecia was the first suggestion offered by the doctor, maybe stress related. Even as it started to be accompanied by intermittent headaches and nausea, I was told I shouldn't worry. Fretting could expedite the pattern, but asking me not to worry about an eyesore which I cannot control is like asking water not to be wet. So as the spot grew in the ensuing weeks, as topical steroids were doled, I started to consider that I might soon be without my signature physical attribute. Would my personality change without the aesthetic weapon that seemed to justify a "take no prisoners" attitude? The absence of my loud hair, an armor to hide the quiet, sad shame often experienced might leave me naked and defenseless in metaphysical and real ways.

A battery of tests this afternoon will shed additional light: autoimmune disease, brain tumor, anxiety disorder. These first of these two diagnoses are obviously somewhat problematic. But all I can think about is my hair. I don't want to lose it - or myself, especially when it took so darned long to be found.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

An Ode to Cancer: One Year Later

You came to my door
When I was getting divorced.
You couldn't have picked a messier time.

I walked around in a daze
Feeling crazed,
Because even after she said the words I felt fine.

Surgery was scheduled,
Estranged spouses bedeviled,
Unable to work together.

Recovery alone
In my studio home.
Thought I'd be "that poor woman" forever.

After a week and a day,
Back on my way,
Like it never happened at all.

Until the divorce was done
And the new underwriter won,
A "pre-existing condition" free fall.

You went in remission
And I accepted the condition
That I had been wasting my hours.

With putting those first
Who were often worst
Letting mind and body go sour.

So I focused on work,
Learned to admire my quirks
Fell in love again with my friends.

And I learned to say "yes"
To almost any quest,
And with past wrongs make amends.

So maybe I should thank you,
You created a milieu,
To foment a real rebellion.

You couldn't hold me down,
And now that I'm found,
I see a lovable hellion.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The Wrong Way


True confession: I am not the most useful person. I hate to cook and have never excelled at it anyway. Please don't ask me to fix or assemble anything. It's like I have hands made of stone. I ride my bike upwards of 75 miles a week but do you think I can master filling the tires with air (Hey! The process involves an adapter!)? Mother Earth help me if I ever find myself stranded with a flat.

When my sister and I were younger, she used to amuse herself by asking me to draw. One time she chose an elephant as the subject, and as I have no trouble making an ass of myself, I obliged. I wish I had a .jpeg of the finished product. My elephant was illustrated from the head-on perspective and Jenny held onto to the artwork so she could refer to it throughout the day while bursting into tears of laughter. I had unironically constructed a rendering of IHOP's Funny Face Pancake.

My friend Rob, a former Navy rescue swimmer and certified RKC Level 2 trainer says that when the breakdown of society arrives and we're all living in trees (Rob is also a well-informed and detailed conspiracy theorist) I will have to sleep my way to survival, else I will be dead in 15 minutes. I think there is a compliment about my looks in there somewhere so I'll take it.

One thing at which I excel, however, is hard, tireless work. And I'm not always certain this is an asset but I am possessed of a stubbornness that rivals that of Tyco Brahe, the 16th century Danish noblemen and astronomer. Brahe died of a bladder infection 11 days after refusing to get up and urinate during the middle of a long banquet in Prague. He felt it would have been a breach of etiquette. This totally sounds like something I would say.

The refusal to back down in the face of adversity is alternately a blessing and a curse. While it parents a survival instinct that has enabled me to process and move beyond vicious life blows, it also begets a tendency to ignore loud, blaring sirens in my head that try to stop me from moving in the wrong direction, figuratively and literally. The "head down and brace for the worst" approach can lead one to misinterpret the difference between necessary persistence and time wasting, bullheaded exhaustion.

I have been contemplating the blinders long worn as a method of getting through the day. It's like a weird sort of empowered learned helplessness. Assuming that a given set of circumstances is inalterable, I have performed miraculous feats of fortitude bordering on masochism in order to prove that I can't be destroyed. It's at once pathological and a condition which instills a perverse form of pride.

The thing is though. It's that downside, the part where I fritter away months or years enmeshed in predicaments from which normal people might sensibly extricate themselves, that plagues my waking nights. It's a pattern I am trying to tackle. Recent decisions made in support of pursuing a healthier me have brought pain to others, but hopefully it's of the quick sharp paper cut kind, the variety forgotten in 24 hours. Because I am trying to recognize that long, drawn-out Puritanical fortitude won't earn me or anyone I care about anything but lost time in a short life.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Motown Meltdown


I want to talk about something in a politically non-partisan way. It's true I am a liberal Democrat by stripe and spend part of my freelance writing life as a hard blue columnist for a popular left website. But I am a human, a woman and an American first - in that order - and sometimes I witness scenes that make me wonder how anyone from any vantage point can believe that this country is on the right track.

This past Memorial Day Weekend I ventured with Steve by Amtrak to the suburbs of Detroit, Michigan. It is here that my partner spent his formative years. He attended college in the late-1980s at Wayne State University in the heart of the city, holding down various jobs before he migrated to Chicago in 1996. I traveled with him to the Motor City, the once-glorious birthplace of the automobile, the R&B Garden of Eden where Berry Gordy established Hitsville, USA and launched the Motown legend. In the 1930s, Detroit was christened the "City of Champions" owing to its successes in the sporting realm. During the first two-thirds of the 20th Century, Detroit was Americana, the symbol of society's mechanization and social evolution.

But then the Motor City fell on some famously hard times, troubles that date back several decades. Between 2000 and 2010, the city's population fell by 25%, plummeting in the ranks from America's 10th largest city to its 18th.  The 2008 housing bubble burst delivered some of its loudest pops in Detroit, where a perfect storm of unsustainable subprime mortgages, crushing unemployment and falling home prices left behind scads of abandoned buildings and lots, often as far as the eye can see. Opportunistic investors can still take advantage of foreclosed homes that cost hundreds, rather than thousands of dollars. The sinking ghost town is a breeding ground for drug activity and violent crime, further eroding home values.

It's true that White House policy over the last four years salvaged the auto industry, Detroit's remaining lifeblood when combined with tourism/casinos and hospitality. But with local budgets strangled and plagued by red link, there are simply no resources left to level the rampant blight that welcomes visitors to town.

I was astonished when I alighted from the city's Amtrak station last Friday evening, a structure no bigger than your average two-car garage, aesthetically dull and devoid of concessions or any comforts beyond a restroom. The station was constructed in 1994 as a replacement for the former Michigan Central Station, which closed in 1988. A quick Wikipedia search of the Central Station revealed more glory come decay. The previous structure was once identified as the tallest rail station in the world, with some 200 trains traveling in and out each day at the outset of WWI, while 3,000 workers held jobs inside the station's office tower. Today exactly six scheduled Amtrak trains enter and depart the city each day, while less than a handful of workers enter the minimalist station.

There is no doubt that the Motown Museum is an impressive tour and a fabulous bargain at $10 per entry. But when Steve and I went in search of food after our Saturday afternoon excursion, we had real trouble locating anything more than a KFC here, a unserviceable Subway outlet with reinforced bullet proof glass protecting the counter there. I suppose I take for granted that when I walk out onto almost any Chicago street, multiple culinary options await.

And oh the heartbreaking destruction of the streets and architecture, the abject poverty, the lack of pedestrian and vehicle traffic that evokes the classic Kurt Russell film, Escape from New York.

I do not fault the citizens of the Motor City or even the local government for a failure to resolve what must seem an insurmountable mountain of challenges. It is possible that Detroit's most glorious days are simply in the past. But that is no excuse at all for our failure to deal with the conditions of this piece of our collective history on a national level. I found myself wondering at several intervals over the course of a three-day visit, "If a tourist from another land decided to stop in Detroit, what impression would it leave of the country as a whole?" Is Detroit's decline a metaphor for the decaying American dream, the death throes of a dynasty that can no longer sustain its promise?