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.