Friday, August 2, 2013

New Girl

This week, I’m pondering the implications of being the literal new girl at the office, as well as an evolving version of my personal self. No longer the serial monogamist in search of a romantic partnership to verify my lovability and human value, I have made a conscious decision to draw my self-esteem, as I wrote last week, from “multiple jobs well done.”

I have been on the job a full two weeks in my new position as a Marketing Manager for a major insurance brokerage, and only today did I sort out where the kitchen garbage can is located. Until now, I’ve been tossing food scraps in the waste bin under my desk, resulting in some fragrant 5:00 PM aromas for my cube mates. Why then, you may be wondering, did I not ask one of my colleagues to point me in the right direction? For complicated reasons, I associate a high humiliation factor with having to articulate a question and await an answer that should be obvious. I accommodate these irrational emotions by dithering and substituting while I keep vigil, watching the kitchen (conveniently viewable from my seat) until someone reveals the answers I can’t bring myself to solicit. Just beforenoon, I watched a man pull out a rather unassuming looking, large drawer that divulged the trash receptacle.

This pattern of reticence has already produced several minor intrigues as I acclimate to my new professional surroundings: The Case of Locking Myself in the 17th Floor Stairwell, The Quandary of 2nd Floor Gym Entrance, and my personal favorite, The Great Working Overtime Needlessly Debacle.

It occurs to me that this stubbornness in requesting simple information has played a very large role in personal problems I’ve faced over the years. I certainly can’t be helped if I never ask for it, but when I find myself marooned on an island, it’s easier to self-shame for not speaking. The alternative – relying on another only to be let down, a verification that my need didn’t matter enough – cyclically repeated itself throughout an overall hellacious childhood. I learned to navigate bureaucracies on my own through trial and error, leaving myself plenty of time to rectify missteps before the final deadline. If this was inefficient, it was certainly empowering, and from a young age, I started to receive compliments from other adults regarding a preternatural level of responsibility and organization. I became addicted to this type of affirmation and my personal mantra quickly became “ I don’t need anyone. I can do this on my own.”

The thing was, I secretly and desperately wanted to let go sometimes. I wanted to be that kid who could call their helicopter parent to set things right. I wanted Mom and Dad to tell off the person making my life hard, without making a scene or ending up in jail (as happened more than once) throw money at the silly, juvenile jams I’d gotten myself into, let me come home when things got rough and while you’re at it Mom, could you feed me and do my laundry too? But these options were not available to my sister and I. There was no such safety net and we were forced to live by our wits way before we should have been required. My parents lived on another planet when it came to grasping adult responsibility and all you can do when the garbage piles up in your home, when the IRS seizes your family’s bank accounts and the mortgage goes into foreclosure, is plan your escape – in great detail. Survival mode can be useful in the sense that it doesn’t allow much time to slow down and think about the horrifying reality of the moment.

I’ll be 35 next week. I have plenty of time for assessment now. That’s what this blog, and the work I do with my therapist has been about – taking apart all the pieces of me and having a good look at them. And as I’ve stopped running myself in high octane circles, I’m able to sit still and consider that I took the same approach to many of my failed romantic partnerships. I’ve engaged with them in the same way I once interacted with my parents: “I expect you to fail me. I won’t tell you what I need because dammit, you should already know. And when I exhaust myself from doing too much, things I’d like you to help me with that my pride won’t allow me to articulate, I reserve the right to silently resent you.”

I’ve already implemented small changes. With my last ex, I think uttered the phrases, “Don’t go, I need you,” and “I can’t do it alone,” more times in 14 months than the previous 14 years. I gave him the chance to do right, and also the opportunity to disappoint, before I drew any conclusions. The fact that ultimately, our dynamic wasn’t compatible, is the result of fundamental differences rather than self-fulfilling prophecy. I don’t feel weaker for the metamorphosis. I am as capable as I’ve ever been, minus the fear of abandonment I’ve allowed to be mistaken for arrogance. This more balanced approach takes far less emotional toll. When I reach out for help only to have my hand slapped away, the outcome is about the other person’s limitations, not my unworthiness.

It’s a work in progress. I’ve shown marked improvement when it comes to big ticket issues: health concerns, the celebration of personal achievements, reaching out to a good friend when I’ve had an epically bad day. But I’m still working on the trickle down. Maybe this new girl should kickstart that process by asking where the recycling bins are located so I can get all this scrap paper out of my desk drawer….

Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Liger

I titled this post as such because, when I sat down to write it, I was under the mistaken impression that this animal, the offspring of a male lion and a tigress, was sterile, thus unable to mate. A quick web search revealed my error (thanks Wikipedia!) and increased my dispiritedness. The firm belief that at least one other species of red mammal existed, that did not partner or produce children, has been a source of comfort for the last week. Another entry in the diary of shattered illusions.

Relationship number infinity has gone kaput. Though the most recent ex and I remain in love, there were just too many challenges to weather: rushed cohabitation, unemployment, health struggles, addiction issues and the general cynicism that tends to afflict those who’ve traveled around the block more than a few times. We started hurting each other, flagrantly, unintentionally and the gray areas in between, more often than we laughed and learned.

Though there are many logistical issues and emotional challenges involved in the separation process, the question that’s been running through my mind most of the day is this, a variation of an age old conceit: is it better to have loved and lost multiple times than never to have loved at all? What does repeated failure to connect do to a body and spirit, and just how many times can one put themselves out there? The number must be finite, because I feel out of turns. Not because I believe myself incapable of attracting another person after some healing time; because I just don’t want to anymore.

This is not the grief talking. My approach here, I assure you, is purely academic. After my divorce was finalized at the end of 2011, I fell into a dangerous, life threatening depression. I dated as a method of distraction, throwing my need to be loved and accepted in almost every direction, hoping something would stick. To the surprise of no one - my loyal therapist, close friends, and somewhere fundamental within myself - these dalliances born of desperation failed uniformly. 2012 rolled around and as a New Year commitment to developing internal resources bore fruit, healthier connections with the opposite sex formed organically. I was finally on the right track and when these more salutary relationships foundered, the independence and appreciation for my own company I’d harnessed allowed me to weather the breach with much greater equanimity.

I am saddened by the most recent breakup. 14 months is the longest I’ve ever dated anyone without marrying them and in numerous ways, my ex is the man most suited on paper to comprise my other half. We’ve known each other for years and share the same circle of friends. He supports me in my career, nursed me through various health crises and since I’ve no desire to bear and raise children, but love the idea of a family unit, the daughter and granddaughter that came with him as lovely accessories completed a certain idea of what I want my personal life to be.

But as I wander through the world, I’ve come to understand the difference between the laboratory and practical application. In operation, we were two people used to having our own way with very little need to compromise. Without rings, no shared offspring to force collaboration and no financial dependence on either side, walking away was viewed as the path of least resistance. Only at our respective ages, 42 (he) and 35 (I), we’re both aware that the idea of someone better coming along is an iffy prospect. Somehow we’ve both made our peace with it. I’m in an exciting and fulfilling place in my career, and I plan to allow that to consume the bulk of my cerebral bandwidth. The self-love I experience from multiple jobs well done has turned out to be, in many respects, more uplifting than an imperfect, estranged appreciation from another living creature.

And it’s with all this in mind that I made the association between myself and the capable-of-mating-after-all liger. Only I understand now that the comparison was faulty to begin. Is there an animal in the kingdom capable of forming partnerships, but would rather feel successful alone than disappointed inside a coupling?

Monday, July 15, 2013

Florida's "Stand Your Ground" Law: Not Guilty?

Unless you've been hiding in a cave the last 48 hours (and given an increasingly depressing news cycle, who could blame you?), you've heard the news. Florida's George Zimmerman was acquitted of the charge of second degree murder in the February 26, 2012 shooting death of 17 year-old high school student Trayvon Martin. A six-person, all-female jury found the prosecution unable to create reasonable doubt around the self-defense argument, and this was compelling enough to return a "not guilty" verdict. 

If you spent any amount of time on Twitter over the last two days (full disclosure: I don't tweet and never will), you might be tempted to confuse "not guilty" with "innocent," but such is certainly not the case. No one, not even George Zimmerman, claims that Trayvon's young life was brought to a premature end by another's gun. No one disputes that the two men struggled during an altercation precipitated by the armed, hypervigilant chase of Zimmerman, even as 911 dispatchers cautioned him to relinquish pursuit. Not a soul contends that Martin was himself armed with more than a package of Skittles and a beverage on that fateful night.

A nation weary of gun violence, divergent police response in relation to ethnicity, and fearful of the implications of the verdict on the safety of young black men has come largely together to bemoan a miscarriage of justice. The problem, however, is that as current Florida law stands, the verdict was right on the money. And if we wish not to open a Pandora's Box of similar tragedies, a growing gang of armed vigilantes deciding for themselves that any sort of perceived threat is license to open fire, we must focus our attention on repealing the law that begat this catastrophe. 

In the interest of unedited disclosure, I am reprinting the terms of the Florida statute ("Stand Your Ground") in full:

Home protection; use of deadly force; presumption of fear of death or great bodily harm.—
(1) A person is presumed to have held a reasonable fear of imminent peril of death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another when using defensive force that is intended or likely to cause death or great bodily harm to another if:
(a) The person against whom the defensive force was used was in the process of unlawfully and forcefully entering, or had unlawfully and forcibly entered, a dwelling, residence, or occupied vehicle, or if that person had removed or was attempting to remove another against that person’s will from the dwelling, residence, or occupied vehicle; and
(b) The person who uses defensive force knew or had reason to believe that an unlawful and forcible entry or unlawful and forcible act was occurring or had occurred.
(2) The presumption set forth in subsection (1) does not apply if:
(a) The person against whom the defensive force is used has the right to be in or is a lawful resident of the dwelling, residence, or vehicle, such as an owner, lessee, or titleholder, and there is not an injunction for protection from domestic violence or a written pretrial supervision order of no contact against that person; or
(b) The person or persons sought to be removed is a child or grandchild, or is otherwise in the lawful custody or under the lawful guardianship of, the person against whom the defensive force is used; or
(c) The person who uses defensive force is engaged in an unlawful activity or is using the dwelling, residence, or occupied vehicle to further an unlawful activity; or
(d) The person against whom the defensive force is used is a law enforcement officer, as defined in s. 943.10(14), who enters or attempts to enter a dwelling, residence, or vehicle in the performance of his or her official duties and the officer identified himself or herself in accordance with any applicable law or the person using force knew or reasonably should have known that the person entering or attempting to enter was a law enforcement officer.
(3) A person who is not engaged in an unlawful activity and who is attacked in any other place where he or she has a right to be has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.
(4) A person who unlawfully and by force enters or attempts to enter a person’s dwelling, residence, or occupied vehicle is presumed to be doing so with the intent to commit an unlawful act involving force or violence.
(5) As used in this section, the term:
(a) “Dwelling” means a building or conveyance of any kind, including any attached porch, whether the building or conveyance is temporary or permanent, mobile or immobile, which has a roof over it, including a tent, and is designed to be occupied by people lodging therein at night.
(b) “Residence” means a dwelling in which a person resides either temporarily or permanently or is visiting as an invited guest.
(c) “Vehicle” means a conveyance of any kind, whether or not motorized, which is designed to transport people or property.

If we cut through the legislative and legal jargon, what Florida's law means in absolute practice is that an armed individual need only suspect possible illegal activity in relation to another's personal property before drawing their weapon. And upon engaging the suspected perpetrator, if the investigating party feels at any time that their person or life is in jeopardy, they may proceed to open fire without the risk of prosecution.

In other words, any lay person with a gun in the Sunshine State is deputized and fully invested with the authority to check into malfeasance, and put an end to it with no training other than the guide of gut and emotions. The surprise then, is not that Zimmerman was found "not guilty" of second degree murder, but that he was even charged in the first place. 

And indeed, local authorities initially declined to press charges before public furor erupted, rendering the possibility of doing nothing so much PR hari kari. 

And exactly who do we have to thank for the increasing prevalence of "Stand Your Ground" type laws, which now exist in some form in 24 U.S. States? The gun lobby of course, more specifically the NRA, which occupies its usual place at the intersection of Second Amendment overreach and the compromise of public safety. Permit me to quote from a March 31, 2012 ABC News story: "Do a quick search for 'Stand Your Ground' on the National Rifle Association’s website and the first video result features the story of a Florida man exonerated of murder charges in January 2012 under the State’s 'Stand Your Ground' law." 

Writer Michael Ono goes on to observe: "The pro-gun group championed the passage of the original law in Florida back in 2004 and lobbied to pass similar legislation in other states, according to the Center for Public Integrity. In light of the recent controversy, the NRA has stalled its lobbying efforts in to pass the law in Alaska, according to Bloomberg News."

The NRA has long been aware of the emotion of fear as a great motivator, and in most cases, the motivation is increased gun sales. When will we as a nation get wise to the truth? Though the NRA membership includes thousands of sane, law-abiding citizens who are safely in observance of their Constitutional rights, the Association's bureaucratic and lobbying arms are not reflective of these ideals. Were I a gun owner myself, I might consider it high time to withhold my annual dues until Wayne LaPierre and his ilk get out of the business of state sanctioned death as a method of increasing sales.

George Zimmerman: "not guilty," according to strict tenets of the law maybe, but by no means innocent. The NRA and "Stand Your Ground" laws: Zimmerman's accomplices with Trayvon Martin's blood all over their hands. 

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Four Years and 60 Days

Although the seeds began to germinate long before, the title reflects the exact length of time it took this blogger to realize her fullest potential.

It was May 2009, age 30, when I finally located the chutzpah to relinquish a stable career in corporate operations to strike out as a professional writer. Three people who knew me intimately enabled this Great Leap Forward: my beloved sister Jenny, well acquainted with my bookishness and passion for social issues, as well as a frustrating tendency to play it safe; the tireless Dr. T., my longtime shrink, who patiently retrained me to believe it ok to want for myself; and my ex-husband, who provided the financial safety net without which I could never have considered the risk. Two of these three people are still very large parts of my life, and while the ex is now past, I am forever grateful to him for believing in my talent enough to temporarily underwrite it.

Those first efforts at professional writing were low paid, plentiful, and in retrospect, somewhat embarrassing. There wasn’t a job I didn’t say “yes” to, and apparently, no such thing as a run-on sentence. I stumbled upon an amazing female mentor, the Editor-in-Chief of StreetWise, a local Chicago newspaper, who trusted me with six feature stories that year, despite a wholesale lack of journalism experience. She also introduced me to the accomplished ladies of the Illinois Woman’s Press Association, an organization of communication professionals founded in 1885. Upon joining the group, I enjoyed regular fellowship, networking opportunities and lo and behold, state and national awards for the urban agriculture pieces Suzanne challenged me to write.

As the demands of a nascent career expanded to include Chicago theater criticism, a weekly political column and achingly confessional blog, my profile began to rise, spare time began to fall and my marriage started to unravel. My version of Sophie’s Choice became clearer: relinquish heretofore-inexperienced professional satisfaction or the love of my life. Gut wrenchingly, painfully, debilitatingly, I opted for the latter. To say I never looked back would be a colossal lie. For the better part of a year after the initial separation, my head turned in circles with alarming speed, like the possessed child from The Exorcist. Alone, broke and panicked, I waited for someone with authority to bless me, to provide reassurance that I hadn’t thrown it all away for nothing.

Two and a half years of progressive responsibility followed: a temporary resume writer, an entry level web content production and project management position at a small publishing firm, culminating in a Head Writer role at a successful Direct Response TV marketing company. In the latter two spots, I became a better communicator. I learned to craft marketing content with succinct, actionable clarity (run-on sentences, never a solid sales pitch make). I learned to edit and revise not only my own work, but that of others. I found my voice and learned when to say “not yet,” beginning to trust my skills and experience. I felt it slowly, in increments. Yes, I was born to do this. I was in the right place.

Until I wasn’t. Until I found myself suddenly and spectacularly unemployed 60 days ago and I worried that the incremental growth of my career might come to a screeching halt. Hadn’t I spent hours reading anecdotes and talking with talented, amazing friends who’d been out of work for six months, a year or more? Didn’t I know a plethora of fascinating people who struggled to have their resume viewed? I was no different from any of them, and in many cases, far less accomplished.

I did have one advantage. After just three years of regular membership and two years of serving on the board as the group’s Newsletter Editor/Social Media Strategist, my fellow IWPA colleagues saw fit to elect me as the Association’s 47th President, a stunning development I have yet to fully comprehend. Though the work is volunteer in nature, work it certainly is: administrative manager, cheerleader, public relations, recruitment and retention, strategic planning. Sworn in just days after I lost my full-time job, the IWPA promotion seemed to lend a legitimacy I struggled to feel. I’d been vetted and verified by the vaunted. 

I filed for unemployment insurance. I applied ad nauseum. I temped. I took to the bed a couple times, unwashed, unfed, existentially haunted. Planning is impossible for those waiting in the crosshairs.

Then yesterday: the phone call. The Human Resources recruiter I’d been working with sounded stern and serious. Like a World War II widow shakily opening a telegram with Earth-shattering news she can already sense in her marrow, I braced myself to hear that I’d be the bridesmaid again. Stoically, I uttered the one word question: “Yes?”

This time was different. I was chosen. No screw that. I’d made it happen. Three interviews, one personality test, a nationwide background check, written references and a credit report later, I’m the new Marketing Manager at a multi-billion dollar, privately-held company. I’m President of the IWPA and in late August, I’ll travel to Salt Lake City to pick up an award from the National Federation of Press Women – Best Personal Blog of 2012. At this very instant, I find it difficult to believe it gets any better. It was all so worth it: the loose ends, the divorce, the ensuing depression, migraines and cancer, the poverty, the estrangement, the obscurity, the lost health coverage, fear and shame.

Four years and 60 days of doubt and recrimination. Four years and 60 days of “You’ll never make it. You’ll be sorry. Who do you think you are? How do you dare? (a voice that sounded remarkably like my own).” Four years and 60 days of introductions, writing samples and oh so much rejection. Four years and 60 days of growing-pain filled evolution that makes today a brilliantly lit vindication of a neurotic 30 year-old’s wonder. “What if there’s something else I’m meant to do?”

Monday, June 24, 2013

Supermoon and the Stanley Cup

Since May 9, 2013, "normal life" has been in an extended holding pattern. That was the day that I unexpectedly lost my full-time job and embarked on an exhausting scramble for temporary solvency and long-term employment security. These two goals overlap in the slightest of ways: the former designed to supplement unemployment insurance benefits and keep my household afloat, the latter a strategic, big-picture mission intended to provide career and bottom-line satisfaction for the next five years or so. The tension between these two immediately necessary concerns has resulted in late nights temping at a digital advertising agency in downtown Chicago, while slotting in phone and face to face interviews wherever possible. I have in the past likened my daily life to that of a plate spinning act on 1970s oddity fest, The Gong Show, but now the analogy has never seemed more appropriate.

The plates that I've had to let drop over the last six weeks include some serious sacred cows: the more-effective-than-antidepressants exercise routine, the bandwidth to visit my Cousin Carla and her latest arrival, my new nephew Bradley and the treasured romantic partnership, currently molting between first year infatuation and the steady, cohabiting rhythm of daily routine. Under different circumstances, today would also be a day of hitting "refresh" every five minutes on, awaiting a series of key decisions from the Supreme Court of the United States that relate to marriage equality, affirmative action and the college admissions process and more. Instead, I am staring at my Gmail inbox and waiting for the phone to ring, having completed the final interviewing stage with two very different, yet equally exciting companies. The fact that both of these outfits gave me a Friday deadline for determining a soul-crushing return to square one, versus a buoyant restoration of dignity, has done little to stop me from staring at the kettle. 

As I stumbled in the door last Friday afternoon, bleary-eyed and exhausted after four consecutive days of branding and advertising in front of committees with the power to render me professionally relevant again, I promised myself a break. Two days of relative normalcy where I would sleep, immerse myself in the Chicago Blackhawks' Stanley Cup run and see what all the supermoon fuss was about. The edge-of-seat freneticism would surely return Monday morning (yep).

Wikipedia describes the supermoon phenomenon as "the coincidence of a full moon or a new moon with the closest approach the Moon makes to the Earth on its elliptical orbit, resulting in the largest apparent size of the lunar disk as seen from Earth." I think this makes a great metaphor for the professional crossroads at which I sit. Will the specter of possibility, looming large above my head, sit with fleeting promise before retreating unmemorably back into its regular position? Or will I be able to capture and hold that energy, bigger and brighter than I was before?

The Stanley Cup Series offers another accessible parallel for present circumstances. For it was Summer 2010 when I last cheered the black and red on their way to an eventual championship - the last year I faced a fork in the career road. Inside a foundering marriage, underpaid and underwhelmed in a full-time position afield of my stated goals, I channeled hope into the Hawks' improbable ascent. If a team that had been so terrible for most of my life could reach this ascent, surely anything was possible.

The last time the supermoon was visible was May 2012. So here we all are again: the bright, beautiful celestial body reminding humans of their innate smallness, the upstart sports team attempting to prove that their first trophy of the decade was no fluke, and me, the struggling writer desperate for additional career path vindication. The moon left its aesthetic imprint on those who ventured outdoors, not to be seen again until late 2014. The Hawks return to Beantown for Game 6 after dominating the Bruins at home last Saturday, momentum decidedly on their side. And me? Well, even I have learned never to count myself out. 

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Mad Men Season 1: The Temp

Although I have 12 years’ expertise in the fields of Corporate and Marketing Communications, I have historically been locked out from positions where “agency experience is preferred.” I’ve never understood this. What is the difference, I ask you, in positioning a brand for an internal client (your own company) versus an external one? In either scenario, failure to get it right puts you at risk of losing the “account.” In fact I would argue that when the client is your boss, you have a lot more at stake, like your job and health insurance. As the character of Don Draper likes to say, “The day you sign a client is the day you start losing them.” At an agency, client dissatisfaction is a blow, but there will be others.

Officially, I should not face this exclusion dilemma anymore. I’m heading toward the end of my fourth week as a temporary Proofreader at a high-profile digital advertising agency in downtown Chicago. Initially, I was only supposed to last five days but after converting a weeklong job into half of that time, the invitation to stay another week has been regularly repeated.

Of course as a rabid fan of the popular AMC drama Mad Men, and gifted with a wistful imagination, I was certain this was my chance to make like a swinging Madison Avenue power player. Visions of barking at my “girl,” commanding “Get me Jaguar on the phone! Now!” swam in my mind. Late morning cocktails, afternoon naps on the office couch, exquisitely tailored suits. Oh the fun I would have – minus the constant plumes of cigarette smoke.

Turns out that life at the bottom of the ad agency food chain is not the flashy glamour fest I envisioned. While I do get the late nights at the office and the free catered dinners that accompany after hours drudgery, I am not exchanging witty banter with Roger Sterling, getting soused on Old Fashioneds or engaging in blame game pissing wars with the accounts team. I look and feel much like Peggy Olson did on that very first episode of MM – nervous, ponytailed, possibly overdressed and eager for adventure, only to experience it vicariously by observing the insiders.

At the very least my expectations of boisterous office horseplay have come to fruition. It is Thursday afternoon and I have witnessed all of the following this week:

1.     A gentleman doing a non-contextualized soft shoe atop a conference room table.
2.     Mail cart drag races down the hallway, complete with crashes, injuries and first aid relief.
3.     A sleep-deprived intern walking into a glass door.
4.     Furtive office flirting replete with closed doors and hushed whispers.

It turns out that being an observer of chicanery, a chronicler if you will, rather than a direct participant, suits me. I don’t know these people and when my assignment ends, they will fade into my memory just as I will escape their collective consciousness. I have no real stake in the game and that permits me to let the experience wash over me, evaporating on my skin, leaving no permanent stain. I pause. I share a good-natured grin with other bystanders. I go back to my temporary desk.

Only an updated resume will prove I was here. 

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The Best Blog in America?

Four and a half years ago, in the middle of January 2009, I began my blogging career with these words:

"I'd like to thank my dear younger sister for letting me in on this action. I don't know about all that 'smart one' stuff since she is the one who got something off the ground that I have only talked ad nauseum about doing myself. I may have the Master's in English Lit., but sometimes we overeducated end up being the most stagnant."

And it's true, without that first push toward online confession from my younger sister Jennifer, I have good reason to doubt that I would have let a closet writer's burning ambition see the light of day. I earned a comfortable living in those days as a manager of corporate standards, and came home each evening to make dinner for my then-husband. I had a clearly defined purpose that hid rather well some painful internal chafing. I was not! (screamed my buried soul) cut out for paperwork, motherhood and meal planning. There is nothing inherently wrong with those roles and for many women, filling them provides intense personal satisfaction, but the farther I traveled down the path of rote domesticity, the closer I moved to its expected tollgates, the more certain I became that I was lost.

Jenny knew it. And she wouldn't let me pretend otherwise. If I were lacking in personal bravery, well then she'd start the blog, give it a name and a theme and set me up as an administrator. No slouch a communicator herself, she produced the first few posts - in the voice of a harried, swamped suburban career woman, wife and mother - and challenged me to set myself apart.

That original blog, Which End is Up!?, "An in-depth look at the life of two very different Chicago sisters as it happens," evolved over time, eventually becoming the one-voice forum that I secretly believe Jenny always intended it to be. Months passed and as I gained a following, confidence and a certain amount of prolificacy, I migrated over to the Open Salon platform where Contemplating the U.S. Navel was born.

Through practice and self-discovery, I discovered a genuine passion for deconstructing our nation's increasingly fractured and broken political system. A long series of posts examining these themes led to professional recruitment from RootSpeak magazine in the form of a weekly column. When RootSpeak went on hiatus, I landed at PoliticusUSA where I've enjoyed my largest readership to date. That first push toward blogging from my baby sister has led to a diverse and satisfying professional writing career that includes national awards for journalism (the explosion of urban agriculture), newsletter editing (PenPoints, the quarterly communication of the Illinois Woman's Press Association) and theater criticism.

And now it is in June 2013 that I have a sense of a fledgling communications career (because a writer can never be too comfortable or established) coming full circle. For it is this year that the contest judges of National Federation of Press Women have deemed this very blog the best in the nation.

I still can't quite process and accept the mind-bending honor. For writing without varnish (and some in my life might argue, too nakedly) about the triple challenges of alopecia, cancer and divorce in 2012, I will travel to Salt Lake City to receive a honor the Becky of January 2009 could only experience as a daydream.

It's beautiful and satisfying whenever one's work is recognized by an esteemed body, but when that work is the very lifeblood and selfhood capsized across the screen, the victory becomes so much more gratifying - and humbling. The award I will collect from the NFPW at the end of August is not just a celebration of my words, it's a vindication of my voice, my experience. The emotions and thoughts I vomit onto the keyboard nearly every week are my most authentic self and somehow, a conglomerate of respected peers have deemed that worthy of consumption and acknowledgment.

I never got into blogging with ideas of grandeur. I always assumed that if anyone outside my immediate family read the words, I'd already won. Blogging was therapy, a way of wondering aloud on so many topics: "If this is how it's supposed to be, then how come...?"

But it now appears that the attempt to make sense of my self and the world around me has spoken to others. When I read this judge's feedback, I cried for that young, inexperienced 2009 self who had no idea she could use prose to speak to faceless others, badly inept at self-expression as she'd been to that point:

"This writer has no problem tapping a vein and bleeding onto the page, but she does so with humor and style. My kind of writing! Definitely worth the prize.""

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

A Weekend At the Movies

The Great Gatsby occupies a place on my Top 10 List of All-Time Great Novels. The number assignment changes according to an assortment of variables. For example, if I am feeling particularly frustrated with the indefatigable dominance of patriarchal ideology, Gatsby and another favorite, Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, suffer the consequences. While my rebellious streak can never condemn them as other than brilliant works of literature, the books' abhorrent depictions of female silliness and vapidity (not, to be forthright, that the male protagonists fare much better), tend to grate with more intensity during these moods.

And so it was that I suspended a healthy dose of skepticism and nurtured some genuine excitement over the release of Baz Luhrmann's take on the F. Scott Fitzgerald classic. Luhrmann, director of such favorites as Romeo and Juliet (starring Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio) and Moulin Rouge (Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor), is known for dazzling visual spectacles and over the top musical numbers. Gatsby, a cautionary tale of fame, delusion and excess, seemed ripe for the Aussie maestro's cinematic touch.

I did some investigating and discovered that the local movie palace just two and a half blocks from my apartment building, small, affordable and boasting a full bar (you really haven't lived until you've seen the epic Lincoln on the big screen while piss drunk), had gussied itself up with 3-D technology. But while I took a look at the show times for the day, working up an impassioned plea for companionship to deliver to my partner JC, my eyes fixated in horror. Just under the listings for Gatsby, I saw it: Star Trek Into Darkness. Shit.

JC is a man of science: an avowed atheist, purveyor of logic and the man who bored me to tears just last night with exclamations of wonder over a formula for predicting the likelihood of random molecules generating life. We've both got the left side of the brain working (Hey! Creative types like logic too!), but I prefer to wallow in the intuitive, thoughtful, subjective realms in general. But as I mentioned, I tend my left side too and I suddenly knew with absolute certainty that there was no way I could talk my man into visiting the Jazz Age without a quid pro quo. I would need to travel to space: the final frontier.

A deal was struck and we did Star Trek Saturday evening, the legend of Jay Gatsby on Sunday. Here's the result for which I wasn't prepared. I really, really liked Into Darkness. I had made a diet-busting selection of giant popcorn, Raisenets and a trough of fountain Cherry Coke before we settled into our seats. The idea was that if the film bored me, the food coma would carry me through the credits. But the backup plan proved unnecessary: solid dialogue and character development with some really cool visuals in service of a good story. Not much more I could have asked. Also, I like this incarnation of sexy, struggling with his humanity Spock. Yum.

The same, depressingly, could not be said of the much-anticipated Gatsby. There was, by comparison, a curious lack of humanity. Like the titular character himself, the film was all glitz and no substance. I was intrigued by the Roaring 20s meets Hip-Hop soundtrack, the screen presence of Leo and the amazingly youthful face of Tobey McGuire, but all other elements were either too much or not enough. Too much party, too lifeless a Daisy, too much delusion and ennui (on the part of the filmmaker), not enough fidelity to the original narrative or respect for the unspoken nuance.

And so I learned an important lesson about presumption during this weekend at the movies: don't judge the prospective validity of art by source material prejudices. I would read The Great Gatsby in Pig Latin a hundred times over before I'd touch a science fiction tome. But literature and film are two different mediums, and after four failed attempts from big Hollywood heavyweights, maybe it's time to leave the cautionary tale of Jay Gatsby to print.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

I Don't: Unmarried, Ignorant Bliss

As many know, by the age of 33, I was a two-time loser at matrimony. The second divorce was particularly shattering and in the fallout, I sort of arrived at the conclusion that I wasn't entirely sure why I'd said "I do" in the first place (or second). To be certain, love was the motivation in both cases, but I'm not much for orthodoxy. I never looked at marriage in the more historically traditional sense - a strategic alliance of families, the consolidation or gain of wealth and status.

I did not require a legal union to provide me social cover or legitimize my life choices, though I failed to understand this at the time(s). Neither failed relationship produced a child, perhaps one of the few decisions rendered with foresight. For all I can figure, and the reasoning feels as weak in the present as I always sensed somewhere that it was in the past, I married for love because well, I didn't know any other way. It's what you were supposed to do according to the WASPy values with which I'd been raised. The fact that these values had borne themselves out time and again to be nefarious and illusory didn't quite register for a young woman of age 23, and 29, searching for acceptance and legitimacy.

After the ink dried on the second set of divorce papers, I vowed to hang up my wedding dress (pleather skirt and sari, in practice) for good. I'm not bitter. For those who seem to know what to do with it, the institution of marriage is a powerful and wonderful phenomenon. What could be bigger than standing in front of a crowd swearing lifelong allegiance to a mate, to feel that level of confidence in oneself and another? But for a woman with whom permanence was always more of an ideal than a reality, starting with derelict, absent parentage, I've found myself far more comfortable with transitory commitments. At the age of 34, I've reinvented myself nearly as many times as Madonna. Though a more definite idea of who I am has begun to coalesce in the last couple of years, I can't expect a binding commitment from another when I have yet to bestow one on myself.

None of this means I have shut myself out from the opportunity to attach to someone and grow with them. That's precisely what I am doing with JC. I have thrown out the faulty road maps and guide books. There's no timeline or real plan. The controlling, information gluttonous aspects of my personality were initially uncomfortable without an answer to the question: "Where is this going?" For the first time, I've decided to participate in the journey, enjoy it rather than fast forward to the conclusion. Because I've trudged on with the nagging realization that things will not end happily in the past and where did that leave me other than exhausted? If this show is a tragedy, I'll find out at the end like everyone else. The mutual love and friendship are there. That's all I need to know today.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Keep Your Thongs & Heels

During the summer of 2010, I suffered a stress fracture on the underside of my right foot, the product of overzealous running in poorly padded shoes. The break took over a year to heal completely and as I rehabbed, a metamorphosis that began in my late 20s completed its cycle. Never a fan of sky-high, welt-producing footwear to begin, a full-on conversion to sensible shoes became the new paradigm. If the shoe wasn't hiking boot, sneaker or flip flop, color me uninterested.

I considered my general, lifelong aversion to the platform wedge anew as a result of the thoughtful piece What's up with high heels?, written by my friend and fellow author William Quincy Belle. In the essay, Belle delivers scientific insight into the popularity of kitten heels and a theory as to why both sexes are drawn to their effects on the feminine shape. Citing the biological phenomenon of "lordosis behavior," Belle wittily describes it as "a physical sexual posture seen in female animals. The back is arched inward (ventral arching) which helps to elevate the hips as an invitation to mate and as an aid in intercourse. Yes, this shows up in the Kama Sutra but is better known on the street as doggy style."

It is hypothesized that that simple act of stepping into heels creates a sexual environment - for wearer as well as audience. With the arched posture that only a heel can foment, a woman harnesses her powers of attraction, directly and indirectly eliciting an aroused reaction from admiring menfolk. We can't help this pattern we're told. It's wired into our DNA. Belle makes a rather compelling argument.

But how then to explain the outliers? The ladies like myself who have generally tended to prize function over form? When Belle circulated his post via his personal Facebook page, I found myself participating in this brief but enlightening discussion:

Becky Sarwate: I am immune to the apparently siren call. I never find discomfort sexy. Guess I am alone in that amongst my gender.

Friend of Belle
: Right there with you Becky Sarwate... I think I can generate plenty of sexual heat w/o heels.

Becky Sarwate: Friend, maybe we should start an awareness group. There must be more of our kind. Sexy in Sneakers!

So I'm wondering, are there more of us out there? Is there a small but vibrant minority of women who reject the very notion that we have to move through the day in pinched irritation in order to look and feel our best? If so, where are my sisters? In my own circle, I have several talented, educated, brilliant friends who will walk over hot coals in rocky terrain wearing four-inch heels, women who otherwise use logic to spin the various plates of life, as a matter of course. When queried as to why good sense goes out the window when it comes to sartorial aesthetics, the answer is generally some version of, "Because I look fabulous!" But ask why again, and the speaker invariably reverts to a defensive crouch of justifications that ring hollow, as if they've broken the assertive control displayed in other daily spheres in order to read from a script.

Maybe Belle's theory is right and the lure of heels is simple, unavoidable biology. But why then have I found them, and their companion in shapely vexation, thong underwear, so repellent? Yes, I hate physical discomfort but after careful consideration, I own that my distaste is more sharp and visceral than simple malaise.

I bristle at the suggestion that by forgoing the spikes, I've chosen the persona of tree-climbing tomboy, or have given up trying to follow the rules of attraction. I enjoy an active, diverse sex life and find nothing shameful in the declaration. Sex has never been taboo for me, nor has it been psychologically verboten to consider new ways to attract members of the other gender. I like to dress thoughtfully and apply makeup with care. I just don't see the point of primping below the kneecaps. I want my partner's gaze trained on my eyes and mouth. I don't find feet very sexy.

So is that it? A desire for comfort combined with an anti-foot fetish (with all respect to NFL coach Rex Ryan and his wife)? Perhaps another chapter in the story of patriarchal ideology rejection that is increasingly coming to define my life's journey?

Thursday, April 25, 2013

April 2013 Is the Cruelest Month

I have been struggling this month my friends. Struggling to write, struggling to exercise. Many days I'm struggling to get out of bed, though insomniac tossing and turning allows no comfort. It's not exactly a state secret that I war with depression now and again. In addition to emotional ennui's position as the cliched birthright of the author, it's been a full frontal assault and I haven't enough weapons.

The weather is enough to engender a Midwestern Seasonal Affective Disorder pandemic. I saw a Facebook status morning that neatly summed it up, "We've having a lovely winter this spring." Keen observation of the air's lingering chill aside, it really hasn't been lovely at all, has it? My fellow Chicagoans will perhaps join me in observing that it isn't often we can call in "rain" to the office. Yet last week Thursday morning, that's just what a majority of students and workers were forced to do. Mother Nature assailed us with up to eight inches of precipitation in slightly above 24 hours. I have never seen such a sustained downpour, but I was safe and warm in my apartment. The thousands still grappling with flooded basements and ruined memories are the source of my sorrow.

Then we have the terrorism, ricin letters, explosions and public executions which are becoming the stuff of daily domestic headline. It's not Tel Aviv in 1984. It's Boston in 2013 replete with high speed chases, car jackings and robberies. Honestly, I am more comfortable than ever with my decision to remain childless this month. I don't want to have to explain this broken, deadly partisan and cruel society to anyone. We're hyperconnected yet increasingly isolated, more mercenary than Gordon Gekko could have imagined. And we're being led down the rabbit hole by national leaders who cannot pass reforms approved by 90 percent of Americans, laws designed to make purchasing an instrument of death slightly more challenging than obtaining cold medicine

This pungent month does not want to stop at threatening weather and dysfunctional, destructive events that make one assume a whimpering fetal position. Nope. On top of the regular global warming and existential human questions, myself and many of my loved ones have been gifted with disquieting personal challenges. I can say for myself that my romantic partner was injured and rushed to the hospital earlier this week in an industrial accident, which included a total information blackout and mindless race to his side that stopped the world for an hour (mercifully, JC is going to be fine). I've undergone tremendous professional upheaval and today, April 25, marks the four-year anniversary of the premature death of my high school mate, Jesika Thompson. My best friend lost an egregiously short 17-day battle with ovarian cancer at the age of 30 and while we share many happy memories, none of us who loved her will ever be the same.

I am not trying to justify my lethargy. It's there whether I want it or not, and honestly, I'd prefer the distraction of the constant movement to which I'm accustomed. By my mind and spirit are trapped under multi-ton boulders this month and it's making it hard to breathe.

I realize that the simple transition to May has no direct correlation with the shift in toxic anti-mojo I desperately desire. On behalf of myself and the Newtown families, the Boston bombing victims and their loved ones and everyone else facing an exhausting cluster of defiance this month, the movement of a couple dates promises no release. But let's try it anyway, shall we?

Thursday, April 11, 2013

What Margaret Thatcher Meant to Me

As an American child born in 1978, I recognize that I was not personally impacted by the "Iron Lady's" apparently cold personality and extremely conservative views and agenda. I cannot identify with the vindication presently experienced by the "Battle of Orgreave" miners, a group who appear to have ample reason to wish ill upon Thatcher's soul. While I feel a certain level of repugnance toward a group of men who have adopted the slogan, "I enjoy a good swim. But if someone asked me what my favourite stroke was I'd say Maggie Thatcher's," I understand that I haven't walked a mile in their shoes. I wasn't there when Thatcher's anti-union reactionarism all but decimated a number of English working-class towns, and the livelihoods that went with them.

I know that in my own country, I have borne witness to the rise and reign of Reagan conservatism, a phenomenon that has stratified personal wealth, creating a seemingly permanent underclass of hard-working, law-abiding citizens even as corporate criminals and the top one percent have reaped exponentially larger profit margins. I know that when my parents came of age, the words "homelessness," "AIDS" and "crack" were not part of the national lexicon and that in numerous ways, the "compassionate conservatism" of George W. Bush only worsened a number of these social crises. I am aware that Thatcher and Reagan enjoyed an intensely warm relationship and I can only infer from anecdotal evidence that the Average Joe has much to lament from this historical meeting of the minds.

But I am also a woman. And I can tell you from personal experience that when it comes to discussing Thatcher's legacy, that's a tough space to occupy.

As an impressionable grade school student and avid reader in search of role models (finding none at home), I came across a series called Women of Our Time in the library of my tiny Lutheran place of learning. Marketed to children in the third to sixth grade range, the series offered abridged, age-appropriate biographies of some of the most important, female public figures of the day. The book devoted to the life and career of Margaret Thatcher was the first selected and devoured. I went on to procure every other title in my parochial school's limited holdings, and was thus introduced to such figures as activist Winnie Mandela, painter Grandma Moses and humanitarian Mother Teresa.

For profound reasons, and despite the fact that I have read thousands of novels and biographies since that time, I have never forgotten that series, or the first female subject I encountered. I was able to take for granted that it was perfectly normal for a woman with Aqua Net helmet hair, a string of pearls and a handbag to oversee the business of the second most powerful democracy. From the vantage point of 2013, I envy my younger self, as yet unaware that there would be presumptive lawmakers, overreaching religious factions and male supervisors ready with a hair trigger finger to ignore, roll back or otherwise void the advances of my gender. 

As an impressionable third grader, the simplified biography of Margaret Thatcher taught me that I could be a tough as nails prime minister - or not. It was my choice and nobody else's. I carried that self-confidence with me everywhere and used it as a blunt instrument to protect myself when family, society and religion began to tell me "no."

And that's what Margaret Thatcher means to me - a symbol, an idea, an ambition. I've progressed passed the junior lit. phase of my academic discovery. I do not canonize Thatcher. She stood for much that I abhor. But I cannot join in some of the hyper-liberal celebrations of her demise. To do so would be to wrong the opened vistas her very existence promised my younger self.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Roger and Me

Not since the 2008 passing of former Meet the Press moderator, seasoned journalist and accomplished author Tim Russert has the death of a celebrity or public figure hit me this hard. I am referring of course, to the sad news of legendary film critic Roger Ebert’s expiration yesterday, following a long and public battle with various cancers. I spent most of last evening drinking wine and reading some of Ebert’s classic meditations on the afterlife and the collapse of Chicago’s once grand movie palaces through sorrowful tears. As was the case with Mr. Russert’s untimely demise, I felt bereft, quite as if a friend or family member I knew intimately had left a gaping wound that could only be treated by traveling backward and savoring the witty, intellectual memories.

During the course of this binge, I ran into an essay Ebert wrote for The Wall Street Journal in 2010. Entitled “Why I Loathe Top 10 Film Lists,” it turns out that the man who rose to fame in part for his ability to determine quality via rank, actually had no taste for the task. But among many wonderful attributes the icon possessed, a sense of humor was decidedly one of them. So it is with a purposeful mix of gratitude, respect and good-natured ribbing that I present my parting gift to the man whose erudite musings on film, politics, pop culture and life in general will inspire my own work for as long as I am able to do it.

The Top 10 Things I Learned from Roger Ebert

1. Be a Lifelong Student

Did you know that Ebert was a doctoral candidate at the University of Chicago in the 1960s, studying English Literature, even while employed as a general reporter for the Sun-Times? I didn’t until yesterday and dammit, this little nugget only increased my respect. But beyond traditional academic learning, the critic was a pupil of the world. Long after he lost his audible voice, Ebert was still looking for information and answers to some of life’s greatest mysteries. Complacency and arrogance are boring and lead to mental stagnation. He understood this - a huge reason his work continued to connect across a career that spanned nearly half a century.

2. Writers May Enjoy Diverse, Satisfying Careers Without Moving To New York City or L.A.

Robert Ebert was born and raised in Urbana, IL, enjoyed most of his career highlights in the Windy City and literally put Chicago on the film criticism map. To this day, most aspiring writers are under the impression that a stint in the traditional publishing and Hollywood scriptwriting centers is the only way to be “seen.” Ebert did it his way and in process, collected a Pulitzer Prize, a hit syndicated television program and millions of enthusiastic readers. Following his example, I have cultivated a four-year freelance theater criticism career – over 700 miles away from Broadway.

3. Late Bloomers Rock

I didn’t get my first period until I was almost 15 years old, kept growing until I was 20, had my braces removed at age 31 and didn’t form a functional adult romantic relationship until I was 33. As odd as these delayed milestones sometimes made me feel, I was in good company. Because my hero Roger Ebert segued into the genre that made him famous only after trying and discarding several other journalism ventures. He also married the love of his life, wife Chaz, at the ripe old age of 50.

4. Collaborating with Rivals Can Be Inspiring

Ebert famously said that when he was originally asked to co-anchor the popular show that eventually became At the Movies with his contemporary, Chicago Tribune critic Gene Siskel, he had little inclination to team up with “the most hated guy in my life.” Imagine all we would have missed had Ebert not reconsidered. Taking a page from Abraham Lincoln’s formula for greatness, Ebert was self-aware and gracious enough to comprehend that butting heads with adversaries produces the need to consider and articulate one’s viewpoint in ways that surrounding oneself with sycophants cannot.

5. You Can Have Strong, Divisive Opinions and Still Be Universal

This claim would seem to be an oxymoron in the overly politicized and hyper partisan 21st century, but Ebert personified it. An avowed atheist and liberal as well as a stinging pundit gifted with a turn of phrase, the icon nonetheless engendered almost universal esteem. Film director David Wain, a frequent target of Ebert’s negative reviews, still felt compelled to tweet: “Roger Ebert was an ongoing inspiration (if not always a fan) to me and I am truly, truly saddened by his loss. I will miss him."

6. Be Human First

While Ebert made a livelihood out of sharing his unvarnished opinions with the masses, he was never cruel. The legend always understood that real people stood behind a piece of work – people with thoughts, feelings and emotions who poured themselves into a finished product, no matter how wobbly. As producer Chris Weitz said yesterday, “Rest in Peace, Roger Ebert. You were a gentleman. Sometimes loved my movies, sometimes hated them, but you were always fair."

7. Step Outside Your Comfort Zone

If he so chose, Roger Ebert could have played it safe. As a beloved critic and public figure, there was absolutely no reason for him to risk popular rejection by accepting director Russ Meyer’s 1970 commission of the screenplay for cult film Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. But he did it anyway, and even though the movie was almost universally panned upon its release, Ebert harbored no regrets. According to a report in the New York Times, “the film seemed a point of pride for Mr. Ebert, who was paid $15,000 and never tired of talking about it.”

8. Embrace Change
At the time of his death, Ebert had over 800,000 Twitter followers and was a frequent tweeter. He had an active Facebook fan page and was an avid blogger. It is important to remember that the man was 70 years old and began his career when “status updates” meant pulling out the electric typewriter and mailing the finished product via USPS. Ebert, rather than running scared from New Media, used it to share his topical musings and promote his brand, even after cancer had deprived him of the ability to speak. By jumping into the 21st century with both feet, Ebert was able to regain his voice.

9. Physical Challenges Are Only Limiting As You Allow

See above. And there’s this: two days before his death, Ebert took to his blog to announce a “leave of presence,” that included never-realized plans to continue reviewing the films he loved. It seems he never got the memo that illness and disfigurement require you to retreat and watch life happen from the sidelines. Literally nothing short of dying could get between Ebert and his work.

10. When You Can’t Talk About Anything Else, There’s Always the Movies

There are many good reasons why it’s best to steer clear of religion and politics as conversation topics in mixed company. But everyone has an opinion about film and, should discourse come to a screeching halt, they’ll be more than happy to share them.

On a personal note, Ebert’s annual film review anthologies offered me a platform for connecting with a confusing father when it often seemed impossible. Overrun by mental illness and debilitating addictions which included gambling and hoarding, sports and a love of film were the links that bonded my dad with a daughter desperate for common ground.