Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Spring That Wouldn’t Come

Today is March 27th. It’s a full week after the official inauguration of spring. The sun is shining but the air temperature hasn’t risen above 43 degrees Fahrenheit in the Windy City. It must be mentioned that the daytime high soared to 80 degrees on St. Patrick’s Day in 2012, a strange anomaly that took Chicago’s love for green beer to extremes. I recall sending my boyfriend at the time out for a bottle of wine to complement our meal of corned beef and cabbage. This was early afternoon. He returned from a four block round-trip walk shaking his head. If you have to step over more than one drunk in broad daylight, hedonism has clearly won.

This year, the Chi-rish were significantly more subdued. With windy, cold conditions and the barometer stuck in the 30s, I can personally report a more humbuggish approach to the drinking holiday.

The irascibility has yet to wear off given spring’s stubborn refusal to approximate its normal self. And it’s not just me. Allow me to quote recent Facebook status updates from my circle of acquaintance:

“Just because I'm giving you a shot doesn't mean I'll ever like you, cold weather running. I hate you, I hate you, I hate you...I hate you...I. Hate. You.”

“Spring starts tomorrow, right? Right? RIGHT?!?!?!?!?!?”

“Really, 19 degrees?!? Full of S***!”

“Have officially reached my limit, this weather is B.S. where is spring? #overit”

“Glad it's rain, not snow.”

“Mighty happy I don’t work for Yahoo! This is the second Tuesday in a row I have waited for the snow in my PJs”

“How am I supposed to start running again when winter NEVER ENDS!!!”

And on it goes. I must remind my gentle readers that these protests emanate from hardened Midwesterners used to winter’s cruelty. But we’ve had enough now. My fellow Chicagoans are angry at this tardy season to the point of mutiny, if only we knew who to tie up and threaten. Our current mayor, former Obama administration Chief-of-Staff Rahm Emanuel, is accustomed to hurling obscenities to get his way, but thus far Mother Nature seems unmoved by our collective epithets.

St. Louis received another 11 inches of snow this past weekend. It seems prudent to assume we’ll be wearing ski jackets to Seders, Easter dinner and other springtime celebrations.

With that dreary thought in mind, I leave you with these lyrics from the K.D. Lang song, “I Dream of Spring:”

“This is world is filled with frozen lovers
The sheets of their beds are frightfully cold
And I've slept there in the snow with others
Yet loved no others before
These cold dark places, places I've been
In cold dark places, I dream of spring”

Friday, March 22, 2013

Things Fall Apart: How Chinua Achebe Opened My Eyes

Growing up in the 1980s, it was easy to believe that the United States was the only country in the world, or at least the only one that mattered. During the Reagan era of total cultural insulation and paranoia, Cold War indoctrination was barely questioned. That the Soviet Union was a jealous, constant threat to our national security was a given. Africa was the beneficiary of telethons and fundraisers, not the continent from which all humanity sprung. Think “We Are the World,” “Man in the Mirror” and the AIDS epidemic. I didn’t even learn of Lucy the Australopithecus until I went to college.

Part of my worldly ignorance during the “Me” decade can be blamed on a parochial Lutheran education more concerned with churning out students who can list the books of the Old Testament rather than master geography.  But upon reflection, there was also a pervasive national arrogance that rather discouraged intellectual curiosity outside our borders. We had MTV, Diet Coke and we were winning the Space Race. Why bother with anything else?

In the mid-1990s, twin influences began to transform my limited perspective. As a member of the Chicago Children’s Choir, I played, rehearsed and traveled with a multi-cultural group of peers that afforded me the opportunity to perform in countries as far-flung as Russia, Poland and South Africa. And it was as a student enrolled in Lincoln Park High School’s International Baccalaureate (IB) Program that I became acquainted with curriculum and texts outside the Euro-American canon.

Junior year, as part of a World Literature class, I was introduced to novel entitled Things Fall Apart by an African writer named Chinua Achebe. An Achebe obituary published today in The New York Times provides the following plot summary: “Set in the Ibo countryside in the late 19th century, the novel tells the story of Okonkwo, who rises from poverty to become an affluent farmer and village leader. But with the advent of British colonial rule and cultural values, Okonkwo’s life is thrown into turmoil. In the end, unable to adapt to the new status quo, he explodes in frustration, killing an African in the employ of the British and then committing suicide.”

I am almost ashamed to admit that this book was the first perspective suggesting that white imperialism might be other than a boon to the infiltrated nation, to which I had been exposed. In the same way that primary school education managed to juxtapose “Manifest Destiny” and studies of Native American Culture while deftly sidestepping suggestion that one was responsible for the annihilation of the other, so too did subversive Anglophilia ignore the stains left by British colonialism across the globe.

I was never able to bury my head in the sand again, and I am certainly a more well-rounded individual for it.  Much as the biblical Adam and Eve became suddenly aware and humiliated by their nakedness pursuant to eating from the Tree of Life, so too did I grow embarrassed by bilingualism in my sphere of influence that began and ended with Spanish-language segments on Sesame Street. Achebe’s work included a focus on the ways in which language can act as a barrier between two cultures, or perhaps more malevolently, the ways in which imperialist nations can leverage their tongues and customs to suppress the “other.”

This awakening dovetailed rather perfectly with the 1980s-era social arrogance and hubris I had only recently begun to contemplate. Those nations with a command over the English language participated in ideological reproduction and took their place in the international hierarchy. And by what merit had that happened? Is there any skill involved in having bigger guns and more Bibles? The French classes which were part of my personal IB curriculum track thus took on a new importance. I did not want to be “that” American anymore, the one who assumed that everyone in the world worth knowing would speak in my tongue.

Young Americans in the 21st Century take globalization for granted. The world has been flat for as long as the Internet and cell phones have made neighbors of us all.  The U.S. ability to set the world agenda is no longer assumed to be part of the national birthright. Today’s youth are often enrolled in learning institutions where white English speakers are the minority.  As a result of many influences, including immigration, it is estimated that 20 percent of our citizens speak at least a second language at home. And though he cannot be exclusively credited for our collectively growing cultural awareness and evolution, Mr. Achebe, who died today at the age of 82, is directly responsible for one woman’s removal of the “American Way” from an unquestioned pedestal.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Fight or Flight: Near Death Does Not Become Her

I consider myself a fairly street smart woman. I was born and raised within Chicago city limits, moving across several different neighborhoods. I wear this as a badge of pride and honor and have been known to get mighty huffy with suburbanites who claim to be “from Chicago,” while oftentimes living in privileged unreality an hour or more from the city’s boundaries (you know who you are).

To choose urban life is to tacitly agree to occasional disturbances and harassments. It’s a trade off for the sort of cultural instant gratification that only life in a major city can offer. Do you want sushi at 4am? We have an app for that. Storefront or big budget theater experience? Take your pick. Want to engage in outdoor exercise and an automobile-free existence while enjoying a plethora of transit options? Move to the burgh.

Of course to enjoy the benefits necessarily means accepting the disadvantages. When I was in kindergarten, our home was burglarized (though this episode did give birth to a triumph of positive rationalizing, when my mother offered that perhaps our father merely took the giant-80s era, top-loading VCR with him to work). In high school, my younger sister was followed home from a CTA train ride by a nasty creeper who was not expecting to come in contact with a protective 140-pound beast by the name of Max. The largest, dumbest, sweetest Golden Retriever changed temperament on a dime if his girls were threatened. Signs and property get vandalized, wailing sirens might wake you in the wee hours and crazies are all about. Thankfully most of them are simply eccentric rather than dangerous, a population that deserves more empathy than fear. That’s city life. And I love it.

But I could have used Max’s snarling gate keeping when I encountered a situation last Friday night for which I possess no paradigm. After reunion drinks with a girlfriend I hadn’t seen for over three years, I happily climbed into a taxi and headed home. The archetype of cab driver malfeasance is the subject of much discussion as well as general acceptance. I have regularly been subjected to erratic driving skills, overly chatty professionals, the directionally impaired, what have you. But this time, several minutes into my ride, I became aware that this driver had no intention of taking me home – perhaps not ever.

I admit that I was distracted and slightly intoxicated, but as I said, I know my way around. Thus it didn’t take long to become aware that the driver’s route was circuitous at best. Initially I suspected that I was merely the target of a cabbie trying to make a few extra bucks, but upon voicing my concern with our path, I was greeted with a snarl. The driver pulled over and as I sat perplexed, he turned around to lunge at me. That’s when I knew it was time to exit the vehicle.

I took off running down a major Chicago thoroughfare and momentarily looked over my shoulder to see the driver continuing to give foot chase. He overtook me and grabbed my right shoulder as I started to scream: “Somebody please help me! Call the police!” It was quite honestly the first time I felt a genuine threat on my life from another human. Fortunately, as it was a busy street just before midnight, a man emerged from a liquor store and seeing my distress, shouted the driver away. Panting, I recounted the horror of the last couple minutes (it seemed that long but probably wasn’t) and my Good Samaritan said he would wait with me until the police arrived. He had actually witnessed the shoulder grab and may have been required to give a statement. Upon reflection, I can’t say for certain that the call to the police was ever placed.

And that became important to me as well as another passerby who stopped to learn the cause of the fuss. As the three of us were chatting and I was still taking deep breaths, the cabbie elected to make one last go of stuffing me back into his vehicle. After turning around, he screeched the taxi to a halt at the intersection where we stood and got out of the car again. At that point, the Good Samaritan placed his body between my attacker and I…..then he pulled a huge knife seemingly out of thin air, slashing the assailant’s front tire while uttering a hideous racial slur.

(Fade to black as Becky’s mind snaps).

I squealed, “Why did you do that?”  The Good Samaritan (who no longer appeared so benign) retorted with a sneering, “Why do you care? Just run.”

And I did. Over a mile all the way back to my apartment. I raced with tears of shock, shame and fear in my eyes, as fast as I could, angling for the small nook of safety that my living space represented in that moment. I ran without thought until I finally shut and locked the doors behind me. Then I broke completely. My partner unreachable at the time, I called two married friends who happened to be awake and willing to talk me through delirious, incoherent downloading. For mystifying reasons, it was imperative that someone more together than I confirm that I had done right with my flight, rather than waiting for police who might never have come. Because after all, I am a Midwestern woman raised on Protestant values. The appearance of wrongdoing is every bit as traumatic as an actual faux pas.

The husband, a trained military assassin and Jiu Jitsu black belt, assured me that I had no reason to believe anyone on that scene had my personal safety in mind. Obeying the automatic response of my body had been sound.

As I said, I had no paradigm accessible that could help me process what had happened. Violent predators I understand, but bloodthirsty “heroes” with their own racial axes to grind are less familiar territory. There was no clear picture anymore of the victims and villains. I needed assertive ideas of right and wrong like I needed oxygen.

The cabbie was a maniac and needed to be locked away, but does that make a hate crime the warranted response?  Was my rescuer just out looking for an excuse to fight? Was I blameless for fleeing the scene? The two men may well have killed each other after I turned and ran. Did that make me complicit in whatever followed? In this instance, ignorance is not bliss. It’s psychological torture.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Let’s Do It Like They Do on the Discovery Channel

Although I work in a creative field, one of the personal attributes that instills the greatest amount of pride is the ability to think logically and rationally. Although knee-jerk instinct is often emotional or sentimental, I am proud of the fact that I am usually able to take a step back and evaluate the potential short and long-term effects of a decision.

Yeah, but all of that good sense goes right out the window when we’re talking about anything involving a trip to the doctor’s office. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a young mother takes her 5 year-old daughter for booster shots right before the start of the kindergarten school year. The mother’s 3 year-old daughter needs a shot too and comes along for the outing. The mother has chosen a Catholic charity as the vendor for the immunizations as the family is on a tight budget. The nun in full habit (this was the early 1980s) who has been assigned to the little girls decides to start with the younger one, surmising that she may be the more scared patient. She whips out her air gun and gently walks the toddler through the procedure before the injection. The 3 year-old barely moves and doesn’t make a sound. The perfect disciple.

The 5 year-old witnessing this exchange decides that, despite her sister’s fortitude, she wants nothing to do with what’s coming and takes off at a full bore run. Cue Hollywood-style chase scene with mother and a pack of nuns hitching up their skirts in hot pursuit of the runaway kindergartner. Our heroine manages to evade the villains for long one stretch of hallway and a full flight of stairs before being snatched by her angry and embarrassed parent. With mom virtually sitting on top of the hysterical child while clucking Sisters lament the little one’s irrationality, the nuns finally manage to disperse the inoculation.

I will leave it to the reader to decide which child was me.

This anecdote was chosen for its physical comedy as well as to drive home the point that not much has changed. Several years ago my ex-husband Eddie drove me to the emergency room to seek help for a violent gastrointestinal infection. The IV inserted into my arm dispensed necessary electrolytes as well as antibiotics that would immediately start to attack the bacteria. In principle, I understood this. In practice, the unnatural feel of a tube extending from my arm won and it was only by calling in nurses with restraints that the IV was permitted to continue its work. If you think I bore Eddie’s traitorous behavior with silent resignation, then you haven’t been following this post. I am the nightmare, worst case scenario patient about which medical students are warned.

Tomorrow morning, bright and early, I am to undergo to CT scan with contrast in an attempt to identify the underlying causes of a chronic, cluster migraine condition that has grown persistently more acute and resistant to treatment. I have scheduled the procedure first thing in the morning so as to decrease the amount of time I have to overthink, perhaps even flee the scene, before the doctors can do their work. This strategy will in no way prevent me from spending a sleepless night imagining all sorts of innovative horrors that cannot possibly live up to the hype, but this is the best I can do to work around an absurd and delirious self that I barely recognize.

When it comes to enduring emotional trauma, I am a veritable Odysseus with a seemingly endless capacity to pick myself up and move forward. Yet the idea of a pinprick elicits foolish hysterics of which I would otherwise be ashamed, if I weren’t too busy dropping banana peels while bolting out the door. 

Pity the long-suffering partner who has volunteered to escort (perp walk) me to this appointment. Neither one of us has had much time to consider the actual possibility that the CT scan will reveal a larger problem, busy as JC has been deflecting my attempts to evade the whole experience. So manipulative has this baser self been this week that, well aware groundless emotional appeals will fall upon my partner’s scientific-minded deaf ears, she has resorted to more logical-sounding budgetary concerns. As we know America’s health care delivery system sucks, and even with a “Cadillac” insurance plan, the CT scan will still run upward of $1,000 dollars I don’t have. JC says this is why God made credit cards (an avowed atheist, this retort is an obvious dig at my willingness to grasp any straw to avoid the scan – harrumph!).

I have worked for years in therapy sessions, through writing and silent contemplation to attempt to understand and overcome this situational Dissociative Identity Disorder – to no avail. A simple comprehension that the CT scan is a pathway to unlocking a year’s worth of on and off pain and misery is not enough to calm Crazy Becky, or dissuade her from concocting ever more desperate plans. As calmly as I sit here analyzing and disavowing her refusal to engage reality, I also understand that when the moment comes, all bets are off.

Why is rational self-control so difficult, especially for a grown woman in possession of her faculties, completely aware that the actual discomfort of the scan cannot outlast the torture she inflicts on herself and others? Just a drop of fortitude would expedite everything for everybody. I hate Crazy Becky just as much as everyone else does. But she takes control at the mere smell of hospital antiseptic. It’s at moments like this that it becomes starkly clear when all is said and done, I am not the cosmopolitan thinker I imagine. I’m just a dumb animal obeying a carnal flight or fight response, a lemming going over the cliff, unable to understand she’s running toward her own, avoidable misery.