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?

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Stranger in the House

I haven't ventured this deep into a steady's territory since January 2007 when I met my now ex-husband Eddie's parents on a visit from Mumbai. I fared alright at the time but that was five years ago. I know it's rote and passe to write in such pedestrian terms but I was, quite literally, a different person then. Or maybe I was exactly the same but I had no grasp of what that shape that ought to take.

I have evolved now - for better or worse. I have come a long, long way in a yet to be completed quest to accept my fractures and quirks, though somehow the incremental certainty has made me less rigid and more relaxed. I'm learning to accept that I might not be everyone's cup of tea and that "everyone" might include traditional sources of unconditional love, but so what? I deserve to sleep at night however unconventional.

And so I take this new and fragile self-awareness to the suburbs of Detroit, Michigan this holiday weekend in an effort to get acquainted with my partner's family. We'll journey by Amtrak, fulfilling a long-felt desire to travel by train in the process. He makes things happen for me that way.

I've been present for phone call exchanges between my mate and his people and it's a heartbreakingly loving experience, from parents to siblings. He is a good man and it follows that he's a fabulous hybrid of nature and nurture. Time was when I would feel oppressively strained and skittish: entering into a situation in which I felt so out of my element, the product of the most unhealthy of environments.

I mean no harm. I'm just a little feral sometimes. A well-meaning superior at the office told me that I'm likable but "need time to grow on people."

But whatever. I have spent too many years psyching myself out of enjoying the moment. I make him laugh. I can make them laugh too right?

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Mother's Day 2012

"Give me a blog topic," she commanded as she prepared one of her standard bachelorette "dinners" - a packet of creamy chicken flavored ramen noodles and some defrosted, pre-cooked cocktail shrimp. No cocktail sauce and the meal eaten over the sink because he wasn't there to sit with her.

"When?" he asked as he devoured a carefully prepared chicken salad on the other end of the line, a healthy, fresh concoction with pan roasted pine nuts, avocado and extra onion. He skipped the fattening but delicious fresh parmesan cheese because she wasn't there to harangue him with her nonstop dairy lobbying. He should have felt relieved.

"Like now," she replied. "I am about to write and you are about to go to sleep. You got up at an ungodly hour but at least you didn't wake me. Anyways, give me a blog topic." An on-and-off insomniac with a penchant for bad dreams, she had slept like a rock next to him the night before.

"Why don't you write about Mother's Day?" He shifted in bed with his work clothes still on, wishing her head was in that sweet spot in the crook of his right arm.

"You mean the Mother's Day that wasn't disappointing because you let me recognize that my mom abandoned me 11 years ago, held me in your arms while I cried for a few minutes and totally neutralized the whole crisis? You told me I was beautiful, smart and loving and she was the loser. Then we went for a bike ride, got massages and you baked me a meatloaf and a pumpkin pie while we danced to Frank Sinatra's 'Polka Dots and Moonbeams' in the kitchen. It stopped being Mother's Day, the annual spectacle of parent-child love from which I feel curiously alienated because my mother is neither dead nor alive. She's just missing - by choice. But after those first few minutes of release you swept me up and none of that mattered. Where's the drama in that?"

As she grilled him, images of Sunday's Malbec, open windows, a warm oven and her cheek against his neck fostered a feeling of reminiscent dreaminess that belied the serious of her inquiry.

"Maybe that's your story," he said matter of factly.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

President Barack Obama, who frequently appears battered and weary at the tail end of a bruising first term, came to Virginia this past Saturday in a vigorous mood. The POTUS chose the swing state he won in 2008 to formally launch his drive for re-election, casting the 2012 race as "a make or break moment for the middle class."

Compare this rousing event, where Obama declared himself "still fired up," in front of a crowd of 8,000 atVCU's Siegel Center, many of whom braved a downpour to get into see the president and first lady, to Mitt Romney's own opening salvo a little over two weeks ago. Romney officially launched his general election campaign in the State of New Hampshire at an afternoon barbecue held at the Bittersweet Farm, operated by Republicans Doug and Stella Scamman. Zzzzz.....

It's true that Ron Paul and Newt Gingrinch had not formally decamped at that time, which may account for some of the event's timidity. But Ron Paul never believed he had a shot anyway and as for Gingrich, this might be the last political office for which he was momentarily considered a serious contender. He was going to roll around in the spotlight and savor every ray before he and third wife Callista retreated to their cynical Catholic piety.

But back to Romney. CBS News noted the symmetry of the campaign's pivot toward the general election in New Hampshire, with reporter Sarah B. Boxer writing, "Romney's current bid for the White House began on June 2, 2011 on Scamman Farm in Stafford, N.H., and the campaign considers his return Tuesday as a full circle moment for the candidate."

Have we REALLY been enduring Romney's second Presidential campaign for nearly a full year? It's like the network television procedural that goes on for seasons while an entertaining, witty gem struggles to find an audience. He is the CSI: Miami of the political playing field. And perhaps for the second time that week, Team Romney selected an ill-advised locale for a photo op. Remember that shuttered dry-wall factory in Lorain, Ohio in mid-April? The one held up as an Obama policy failure that actually closed under the Bush regime? Yeah. Oops.

And it appears that the Romney people, sensing an obvious dearth of triumphant environments in their man's history, were poised to occupy their rightful place once more as fish in a barrel. As CBS News went on to note, "On Monday evening, the University of New Hampshire released a new poll showing President Obama ahead of Romney 51 percent to 42 percent in New Hampshire. Mr. Obama's re-election team is quick to point out that Romney's campaign cleared out of the state immediately following the primary - often noting that his bustling headquarters in Manchester went dark the next day."

By now we're used to this from Romney, right? Wherever he needs to go is where he wants to be! The trees in New Hampshire are so green! The people are so real! And what's that noise? Why it's the shaking of the Etch-a-Sketch, the sound that may preclude residents of New Hampshire from remembering that Team Romney skipped town the moment the State stopped suiting his immediate purposes.

Stop me if you've heard this one before: the Romney folks are strenuously refuting any suggestion that their candidate is out of touch with local voters. Mitt's senior adviser in New Hampshire, Jim Merrill was quoted as saying, "I would characterize what the Obama campaign says as nonsense, complete nonsense."

Ah yes, the "I'm rubber you're glue" deflection, a time-honored tool in the GOP debate arsenal. Game on. Good luck Mittens!

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

And when I talk about therapy...

And when I talk about therapy, I know what people think
That it only makes you selfish and in love with your shrink
But oh how I loved everybody else
When I finally got to talk so much about myself

- Dar Williams, "What Do You Hear in These Sounds"

Though I understand that the relationship began with commercial exchange as a method of trying to alleviate extreme emotional distress, one of my favorite personal connections is the one I have with my therapist, Dr. T. She is a willowy china doll of a human being with giant blue eyes and perfectly straight cornsilk hair. She is tall, well-dressed in a conservative way, articulate, and though I am unaware of her personal origins (part of the deal), she exudes a hoity East Coast Gwenyth Paltrow vibe in appearance and carriage.

One of the reasons I adore Dr. T, in addition to her amazing insight and professionalism, is that in her case, appearances can be deceiving. She is not the shrink I've been observing on the first season of Mad Men, sitting in a lofty leather chair scribbling notes while Betty Draper droningly free associates. She's not charging me by the hour while offering nothing more than "Hmm...tell me more about that." She is deeply involved in the work I am doing - and it's been hard labor.

She's cried while listening to anecdotes from a chaotic and unhealthy childhood. She's been stern when I'm not listening in return. I daresay we have locked horns a time or two. She has been known to use bad language when we're discussing feelings of anger and resentment. It's actually quite comforting. Dr. T is as street smart in her approach as she is learned, all while maintaining full control and invariably helping me articulate an "a ha!" moment with amazing regularity. She's at once relatable and authoritative.

I've been working with Dr. T on and off for over three years now. I came to her a broken 31 year-old woman: utterly dissatisfied in a rote administrative career, burdened and frustrated by a loose cannon of a mentally ill parent and unhappily married. What I thought I wanted and needed at that time was not a way out, a method of setting myself free, but "fixing" so that I could accept my lot. I didn't want to be the woman who chucked it all and started over - in every sense of the word - at an age when most of my friends and colleagues were settling into stability.

But it turned out that's exactly what needed to happen. I needed to set the prairie on fire. I knew this deep down when I sought Dr. T's services. My life today bears little resemblance to the existence I knew at this time in 2009. It's been an awful, harrowing journey in many ways: friends have died, long term relationships have ended, illness, depression, unemployment - you name the source of grief and it's happened. But amongst the rubble of my former life and methods of coping with it, I am building something new, something fresh and healthy. I'm not ready for the ribbon cutting ceremony yet but I can envision a time when I will be.

And though she would frown heavily while insisting I give myself credit for how far I've come, I know very well that Dr. T's partnership is a key element. The fact that I can write about my personal experiences without shame is not a result I could ever have arrived at without a well-trained, supportive push. The miracle of authentic contentment required intervention in my case. As another line from the Dar Williams song I quoted above concludes, "I don't go to therapy to find out if I'm a freak. I go and I find the one and only answer every week."