Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Lighhouse

On a quiet side street terminating in one of many far North Side Chicago beaches, lies a hidden gem of a dive bar that, if I have anything to say about it, will be a secret no more. In a way I hate to violate the establishment's privacy, but this is the type of place I assumed no longer existed: a humble watering hole where everybody knows your name, or at least your face. No logo adorns a garish awning (in fact the tavern bears no signage at all), no Groupon deals drive hipster masses to the front door in search of the latest special on PBR. In fact, the Lighthouse Tavern, which opened for business in 1923 as a hotel bar inside of of the neighborhood's then-fashionable resorts, doesn't even have a website.

It is more than likely that the bar's owners won't appreciate this modest bit of publicity, but in a City I love that has become, in many ways, gentrified and chain-business occupied to oblivion, I am utterly giddy to discover a little piece of something authentic.

Yelp reviewers can identify with this paradoxical dilemma: to protect or share? David L. writes, "This bar is so cool you almost don't want to tell anyone about it." Denise P. waxes, "No pretenses here.You get eye contact. The best kind. Tracy behind the bar really wants to know if you want water with your libation, sugarmuffin. Billy remembers you have a cat, too. And he knows you like your wine in a rocks glass, not a wine glass. The beauty of The Lighthouse is that everybody pretty much leaves their weekday personas at home."

The Lighthouse had me at its authentic nautical ambiance. I am not talking Red Lobster kitschy flair here folks. I mean antique seafaring tools, photos, maps - remnants of another century in the Windy City's port of the Midwest past. It secured its grip with the well-preserved 1950s-era twin bowler arcade game. And I was completely gone after two hours spent enjoying the most satisfying people-watching exercise in which I have indulged in recent memory.

The Lighthouse answers the question: where did the front line members of Chicago's counterculture movement end up? Turns out, their coordinates can be pinpointed to barstools within the Lighthouse. The scene was Easy Rider meets Hair: tresses were long, unruly and streaked with gray; leather and denim everywhere mixed with the intoxicating aroma of patchouli and whiskey. At approximately 8:00 PM on a Friday night, the nondescript bar of which I had hitherto remained ignorant was crawling with people drunk on shots and nostalgia.

As one of the youngest patrons by far that evening, I enjoyed an outsider's perspective that simultaneously included me in a sustained toast to the good old days, whatever that meant to these people who survived free love, the Civil Rights movement and the administration of Richard J. Daley. I greedily grabbed snatches of conversation that alternated between lucid and soused, nostalgic and bitter. While gulping down cheap wine, I wanted to drink in the collective memory that coursed through the well-kept space.

I have already mentioned that the Lighthouse boasts very little PR infrastructure. I learned of the place like almost everyone who walks through the doors becomes initiated - word of mouth. I have lived in my neighborhood for over two years, consider myself informed and have passed by its door countless times. But I guess I was invited in when I was finally ready to appreciate its special anachronisms. As I come to value my own quirky, anti-establishment character, it seems I have found a new place to unwind.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Republicans: IB Program's Global Citizenship is Irritating

Earlier today I enjoyed Sunday brunch with two high school classmates, Faith and Gary. Gary and I have been inseparable for the better part of 20 years, while Faith and I always kept in touch as we went off to college, started careers, married, reared children (her case), divorced (mine) and reinvented those careers (both). The three of us were all part of the prestigious International Baccalaureate (IB) program as secondary school chums. The IB curriculum’s Swiss founders, presciently foretelling the coming of a flat, borderless economic, technical and social planet, engineered the program in 1968 with a goal of helping young people “develop the intellectual, personal, emotional and social skills to live, learn and work in a rapidly globalizing world.” There are 3,318 IB schools in 141 countries.

IB, quite literally, prepares one for the multicultural complexities and rigors of life. There are no lazy U.S.-based educational standards to provide students with a free pass to college. I never worked so hard, with such a sense of reward. On graduation day in June of 1996, I held two diplomas in my hands: one from the Chicago Public School system and one from the IB Program. I knew I had earned both and had the skills to compete with any 18 year-old student from any nation. When I walked onto campus as a freshman at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, no slouch an institution of higher learning by any means, I was floored by the freedom and comparatively undemanding workload I enjoyed.

The goal of the IB Program, per its website, is to put young scholars through a “demanding two-year curriculum leading to final examinations and a qualification that is welcomed by leading universities around the world.” Indeed. I took no less than seven, three-hour long IB exams in subjects ranging from French composition to advanced biology to trigonometry, theory of knowledge and psychology. I completed a 4,000 word extended essay in the subject area of my choosing with the help of a faculty advisor, and satisfied the 100-hour requirements of CAS activities (community service, arts and sports). It was a full and diverse life, in addition to the AP exams, SATs and other milestones of the American high school career.

It’s quite true that with all my extracurriculars, scholastic demands and a steady boyfriend, I didn’t have an abundance of free time. But I lived smack in the middle of the City of Chicago and I didn’t have occasion to fall into any of the Windy City’s urban traps for wayward students either. Between the years of 1992 and 1996 when Gary, Faith and I were enrollees, Lincoln Park High School was the only institution within city limits to sponsor the program. Grade school students from all corners of Chicago prepped for the entrance exams, with immense peer competition for the roughly 120 spots. The program was expected to have a 50 percent attrition rate by the time all IB exams were completed. In other words, half of us were expected to fail.

The Lincoln Park High School of the early 1990s isn’t quite what it is today. Low-income students from nearby Cabrini Green outnumbered WASPy, middle-class types. Gang activity was a daily event and Chicago Police were no strangers to the hallways. Yet as a student of the IB program, there was no time or energy, not even the temptation really, to indulge in drugs, alcohol or violent pursuits. I simply had too much riding on my day-to-day effort. I came from a broken home and the IB program, quite frankly, was my ticket out. If my resolve should wobble, I need only remind myself the dropout halflife experienced by my non-IB counterparts.

All things considered and precociously exacting as my teen years were, it was the best situation in which I could have found myself, especially when set in relief against the structure-free, violently unpredictable, toxic environment of my family life. Academics and the other requirements of the IB program were an escape, one that required me to think broadly and forwardly with a clear-head.

Within this general and personal context, who on the planet could view the IB program through the prism of sinister anarchy and unpatriotic indoctrination? Michele Bachmann (R-Minnesota), the Tea Party’s poster crackpot.

Back to brunch with Faith and Gary. Faith mentioned in passing that Ms. Bachmann had publicly decried the program this past summer as a force undermining American unity. I took the Internet upon my return home and found the following explanation from Mother Jones magazine: [Bachmann and other] “right-wing critics argued that IBO was quietly weaning kids off the antiquated notion of national sovereignty and American ideals and pushing them to become world citizens. (This, among other reasons, is why conservatives were so irked by Obama's statement that he considers himself a ‘citizen of the world’). IBO students would be taught to revere the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights and embrace a doctrine of moral relativism that values gay rights, redistribution of wealth, and the notion that the earth itself is a living organism.”

Well we can’t have that now, can we? If American students are to continue their competitive decline and complete their transformation into the ignorant, distracted sheep so valued by Big Business, Big Banks, Big Oil and a corrupt U.S. government, better to keep them away from lofty, radical notions that we’ve only got one race and one planet to protect.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

American Community Onlooker

For my first blog post of 2012, I would like to share the story of a woman who nurtured a late-2011 resolve to feel more even keel about life as a mid-30s divorcee. A wizened chick who had directed much of her considerable energy to achieving independence and a thriving media career, despite tremendous emotional and other personal costs. A gal who had finally started to come to terms with her circumstances and comprehend that though we don’t always live the existence we imagined, there is a way to learn to love the universe you have created.

That is until the American Community Survey showed up in the mailbox to remind her just how footloose and unattached life really is, and how frayed from the nation’s social fabric this renders her. Leave it to the Census Bureau to create revulsion and anxiety even in a year that doesn’t end in “0.”

Though the Bureau states on its website that the ACS is issued annually, I had never been selected as a respondent. Being a curious individual and a journalist by trade, I went looking for information. This is what I found:

“[The ACS is oriented around] giving communities the current information they need to plan investments and services. Information from the survey generates data that help determine how more than $400 billion in federal and state funds are distributed each year…All this detail is combined into statistics that are used to help decide everything from school lunch programs to new hospitals.”

Well that all sounds good and I am nothing if not a civic-minded person. I love my community (the Chicago neighborhood of Rogers Park) and will do gladly do anything I can to better it. Naturally however, I wondered how I came to be selected to complete the survey. I learned I was chosen “as a part of a sample and represents thousands of other households like yours. We randomly select about 3 million addresses each year to participate in the survey.”

I have only lived in my studio apartment for eight months. I happen to know from mail forwarding mishaps that the previous occupants were a married couple. As I sat down to provide the requested survey information, I realized with irony that the Census Bureau may have been coveting the information of the stable ones who came before me.

The survey began benignly enough: questions about birthdate, hometown, occupation, race and income. Standard stuff. But since the well-meaning folks at the ACS plan to use the cumulative data to plan educational resources and other bedrock elements of society, naturally the queries began to get more personal and for me, uncomfortable.

17b. “Is this person blind or does he/she have serious difficulty seeing even when wearing glasses.”

Ok, well I am pretty damned near-sighted (20/1100 vision), but I am not ready for a service dog yet. Let’s continue.

34. “How many minutes did it usually take this person to get from home to work LAST WEEK.”

Please don’t ask me why the last two words are in caps. I am not omniscient. Maybe corporate headquarters move around sometimes like magic? Anyway, I leave my apartment at 6:05 AM and arrive at the office at 8:20. Thanks ACS, I love my work but after seeing the numbers in such stark terms, I am officially depressed about my commute. What’s next?

20. “What is this person’s marital status?”

Fine, it stings, but this is an easy one: divorced.

22. “How many times has this person been married?”

Um, I think I need to open a bottle of wine while I finish this.

23. “In what year did this person last get married?”

How in the world is this important information? Obviously I am divorced. How does it help the community to know when the long process of failure began?

24a. “Has this person given birth to children in the past 12 months?”


24b. “Ever?”

Xanax please. Am I on Candid Camera? Again how does my barren womb aid the neighborhood? Does this open more early childcare spots for families in need if the federal government is reasonably certain that no offspring of mine will ever require one? Just tell me what the endgame is here so I feel slightly better about recording my solitude and loneliness for posterity.

I think you get the picture right? As a dyed in the wool social liberal I want to do everything possible to benefit my fellow citizens. But come on Census Bureau, have a heart. It’s a new year and some of us are trying to convince ourselves that a life without attachments is uplifting and full of promise, rather than empty and simply a matter of counting the days until we become society’s burden.

Come to think of it, maybe those rascals at the ACS are attempting to ascertain when single “households like” mine will be in need of Social Security benefits and a public retirement home. Or perhaps this survey was placed in my hands a true test of my ability to accept myself and my life choices.

Survey says?