Stepping Out

This is going to be my last post on BeckySarwate.com for a few months. As readers who know me offline are aware, I’ve been contracted to write my first non-fiction book with friend, colleague and Lost in the Ivy author, Randy Richardson. We’re headed into the intensive drafting phase (at least I am – the always on top of things Randy is already six chapters in), so I have to step back from my baby here for a bit.

The book, with a working title of Cubservations, will be a collection of perspectives from high-profile fans about what it means to bleed Cubby blue. Naturally, the work was greenlit because in November 2016, the team permanently shed the Lovable Losers mantle and millions of long-suffering fans were granted a dream fervently nurtured, but scarcely imagined. When Randy, who has published multiple novels in his career, first told me about the project, I thought myself audacious in volunteering to serve as a reader. The moment I comprehended his offer to co-write remains frozen in time, an unbelievable, overwhelming flash of unreality.

Since April, supported by the solid research and detection skills of our own Brian Walsh, I have interviewed a collection of talents and personalities admired, in many cases, for decades. How is it possible that the weird, snaggle-toothed nerd who pored over fantasy league stat sheets with her father throughout the 1980s and 90s, a young girl who wept openly over Cub heartbreaks in 1984, ’89, ’98, 2003, ‘08 and ’09, would get to discuss 2016’s unbridled joy with the legendary Bob Newhart?  A combination of amazing fortune and most excellent taste in friends and collaborators.

The time for conversation with Mr. Newhart and others with whom I never imagined corresponding, is winding down. Now I must start organizing all of this rich material to tell the stories of these successful Cub fans – locals and transplants, genetic die-hards and rebels, believers and skeptics. It will be hard, rewarding work and I look forward to resurfacing when the book is ready for primetime.

In addition to expressing my gratitude to Randy and Brian for opportunities and support already amply given, it would be an egregious oversight not to recognize my fiancé. I said at the beginning of this post that it would be my last for a while. But I haven’t published to the blog section of this website since October 2016, not for lack of anything to say.

Today is Bob’s 37th birthday. And in just 17 more turns of the sun, the love of my life and I will marry in front of 32 of our dearest ones. For years I bled my feelings, struggles, tragedies and triumphs all over the Internet. I had to in order to survive. Writing my life was more than therapy. It was a guarantee that the story would be told and recorded, that I would not be forgotten across almost a decade of lost isolation. With word and reflection, I looked for the escape hatch from a vortex of bad decisions, health struggles and a continually shattered heart.

I’m not finished searching. I am not done with blogging. And those who know me away from the screen can confirm I’ll never have surfeit of oversharing. But I’m evolving, growing into a better woman and hopefully, a more stable, confident creative.

Nearly a year ago, Bob and I began intensive discussions about our future, our home and our time together. In tandem, I made an unconscious decision to reclaim a complicated, messy, busy and satisfying analog life. I continued writing about politics, sports and the Chicago theater scene. But it no longer felt necessary to process my relationships and trajectory via the World Wide Web. Instead I can turn around and talk to a smart, loving and loyal friend, who’s also, I might add, pretty to behold. The computer can’t compete with that.

Anyway, I’ll still publish the occasional theater review even as I shut down for what is certain to be a novice author’s anxious and exhilarating writing, editing and publishing process. And I’ll still have plenty of succinct commentary to share on Twitter and Facebook. In the meantime, Brian will keep the lights on here with regular Missing in Action updates.

I appreciate your constant support of this website and my journey as a writer. See you soon.

The Ogilvie Arches

mcdonalds

I’ve resided in the city of Chicago nearly my entire life. A toddler’s stay in Virginia here, a college move to Urbana, Illinois there. And one exquisitely awful year wasted with the wrong man in Bensenville, a suburb next door to O’Hare Airport. Oh the noise, so unlike the sonic cornucopia of sirens, bus recordings and general boisterousness that are the soundtrack of urban living. The sky screaming of planes, the smell of jet fuel in the air. Roaring, toxic monotony – much like that relationship.

I’m a committed Windy City concrete jungler. Nevertheless, I’ve spent many years traveling the Metra commuter train lines that ferry suburban workers to and from Chicago’s downtown. The operation serves more than 100 communities with 11 routes and 241 stations, a few of which can be found well inside city limits. I have a lot of love for the Chicago Transit Authority for many reasons. It’s another story for another time, maybe a novella. But two things which a trip on the subway or elevated train is not: comfortable or permissive of personal space. With cushy benches that double as nap mats during off-peak hours, upper deck seating and a smoother ride, Metra delivers a generally preferable experience to standing crushed between sweaty bodies while hanging on to a piece of metal for balance.

And the Ogilvie Train Station, which serves as a hub for many North and West Metra lines, has a few cute shops, some valuable services and a pretty amazing food court. This third wonderland has provided the backdrop to many quick office lunches, drink dates and post-happy hour carb loads over the years. Several businesses sell portable adult beverages to go for one’s Metra trip. How can the CTA compete, I ask?

Anyway the food court offers meal options both healthyish…and not. For every Subway or salad venue, there’s a Taco Bell, Arby’s…and of course, a McDonald’s.

The Ogilvie Mickey D’s has been a curious emotional foci, a place I find myself after incandescent episodes of grief. It’s completely disproportionate to my overall McDonald’s experience. Normally I eat at a franchise maybe twice or thrice a year? But when I do, it’s statistically likely the incident will occur at the train station.

  • In spring 2011, I bellied up to the bar after a stranger than fiction near miss with my soon-to-be ex-husband. The intrigue found me hiding behind a train station dumpster, crouching low to the pavement to avoid being seen. Thus forced to engage. Every second of the standoff included acute awareness of juvenile, humiliating behavior. Others saw me and possibly had a few questions, but it wasn’t their eyes I feared. After abandoning defensive crouch, I ate my weight in French fries while waiting for the next train back to the safety of my bachelorette studio.
  • While battling acute migraine headaches between 2012 and 2015, a period marked by many shameful episodes of public vomiting, fried potatoes were often one of the few foods my body would accept. Ensuing visits to the train station McDonald’s counter, where I was oft and understandably mistaken for a hungover mess. There was an advantage to the confusion. On several occasions, I was allowed to cut in line because other patrons feared my sick.
  • In February of this year, I made half a dozen grief trips on the way home from my current employer. Regular readers of this blog, as well as those close to Bob and I personally, know that this was the month where we lost two of our beloved fur babies within a three week timespan. Dead of winter devastation. Daily movement and functionality were hard-fought battles. I began 2016 on a low-carb diet, losing 15 pounds, and kept the regiment up more or less until Memorial Day. But February contained several days without any other fucks beyond immediate survival to give. There were some Quarter Pounders with cheese at the train depot.
  • In April, Prince died. I left work that day around lunchtime, a grief-stricken, sobbing wreck grappling with shock over the loss of an artistic inspiration. Double Quarter Pounder with cheese while feverishly reading online coverage of the Purple One’s untimely demise.
  • I’ve already mentioned Memorial Day. The next day, Tuesday, I threw low carb diet and exercise routines aside upon learning that my dear friend Todd had died. We’d spent time together the previous weekend and he was perfectly well. Six years of unflagging support, sardonic wit, music and political discourse – gone without warning. I can’t even recall what I ate that day. I just remember feeling pulled to the same particular fast food counter on autopilot. Ingesting my emotions in a familiar place had by now become a source of comfort through complete internal chaos.

It might be inferred (because accurate) that 2016 has been a challenge. Separately and together, Bob and I have had a lot of loss to experience and process. Certainly the complexity of it all has spilled over into our personal dynamics. Though we’re stronger and more bound than ever in our second year, the Terrible Twos aren’t just a toddler thing. Last month was hard. And of course it included an Ogilvie McDonald’s culinary therapy session. For whatever reason, I took a picture of the marquee and posted the image to Facebook with the caption “I’ve given up on life.” I suppose it was a cry for some kind of compassion and community during a moment of weakness.

My friend Meg observed, “the Ogilvie McDonald’s is a ‘special’ kind of giving up.” I knew exactly what she meant. What’s a more anonymous, pulsating and lonely experience than a train station? Add a toxic, fatty, solo meal to the mix and one has all the trappings of bad fiction. I don’t write bad fiction. I don’t write fiction at all.

I think the unreality of the scene keeps me coming back. It’s not the real Becky. It’s not my life. Those visits to McDonald’s represent a false sense of willful control during delirium, a way to organize tragic events that are lawless and messy. It’s a second’s consolation, an indulgent, fleeting fullness before beginning long, empty grief work.

A Laborious Summer

Summer in the City

Today is Labor Day, that celebration of the American worker that falls on the first Monday in September. In a lovely explanation provided by the United States Department of Labor, we dedicate the national holiday, “to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.”

These fine laborers also form our communities, our circles of friends and family. I remember my maternal grandfather Eugene Bosiacki, a WWII veteran who later drove a streetcar for the relatively nascent Chicago Transit Authority. Poppa was robbed a number of times on the job – an era in which drivers carried cash, expected to make change for riders. He was a man of few words so I’ll never know if these episodes frightened him half much as his time spent as a teenage POW in The Philippines. Somehow I doubt it. In the mid-1980s, Poppa was forced into retirement from his final career as a cable salesman. The company was moving out of state. He was well into his 60s and gee, management would love to extend him an offer to relocate after decades of service. But everything is being computerized and well, of course you understand….

I think of my paternal grandmother June Crowley, who juggled multiple waitressing jobs while raising six kids as a single mother in Chicago. After she retired to her own little cottage across the Illinois border in Wisconsin, June had bunions and painful arthritis from years on her feet. But she also relished the satisfaction of having earned her rest and peaceful homestead. No one had handed her a thing.

I’m reflective of my own academic, non-profit, corporate and volunteer labor. The years of under pay and few (if any) benefits. The career reinvention at age 30 that found me pursuing a dream of writing just as the George W. Bush economy fully cratered. The moments I felt hopeless and crushed under the weight of agendas not my own. And the relative career autonomy and satisfaction I enjoy today, a direct result of timely opportunities and relentless self-advocacy.

But Labor Day 2016 is full of other thoughts beyond the worker and his or her struggles and gains. The holiday also traditionally marks the unofficial end of summer and this one, for me, has been unusually hot and painful. I love the heat and any other year, the Windy City’s months of sultry humidity would be received as a blessing. However when one is physically and psychologically stunted by grief, the languid heaviness of the environment depresses an already weak will to engage.

On Memorial Day, recognized as the informal commencement of summer, my dear friend, theater companion and liberal political debate partner Todd died from a sudden heart attack. Prior to his jolting death, we’d been enjoying beer and pretzels at a local German bar in my neighborhood (where incidentally, Grandma June was employed for many years). We looked forward to a series of concerts and other plans for the coming months. We gave each other a warm, long parting hug. Then Todd went home, enjoyed some of his favorite music (per his final Facebook posts), went to bed and never woke up. I’m still struggling to process that such an important part of my daily existence is gone for good.

This past Thursday as Labor Day weekend approached, a colleague for whom I had enormous respect died after a short battle with eye cancer. Her medical leave was just announced that Monday. Three days later she was gone, leaving behind two young children, a bereaved husband and a legion of befuddled colleagues. Didn’t we just have a drink with her at the office summer outing a few weeks ago? Kristin, like Todd, was in her early 40s with so much left to do. When I return to work this week, there will be an interim director in her seat. Why does life move on with sterile logic when it feels like everything ought to stop?

These bookend summer tragedies created a strange, surreal layer of additional thickness, overlaying Chicago’s muggy air. Air that already stifled from winter’s loss of my fur babies, Dino and Meko, as well as the April death of creative muse and master of individualism, Prince. Bob mourned the passing of his beloved godmother in June.  Death is of course, part of life. But how is one to deal with such an endless conveyer belt of emotional punches? I laid down often this summer. I didn’t always get back up without strenuous effort.

I see much celebration over the advent of fall in my Facebook newsfeed. Normally I regret the end of summer too much to welcome the change of season. Because fall has this annoying habit of leading to winter – a cruel set of Midwestern months indeed. This year feels different. My grief will travel with me as I watch the changing leaves fall to the ground, but I feel the sensible need for a rotation of scenery, of a different energy charged with autumn static. The promise of a difficult year approaching its denouement.

The Purloined Play Lot

Play lot

In 1984, a tiny Lutheran grade school on Chicago’s North Side received an infrastructure upgrade in the form of a small rear play lot. This was an exciting event for the student body. At the time Pilgrim Lutheran did not have a gymnasium (I believe it still does without) although the auditorium was suitable for physical education because there was no permanent seating to be considered. But a new park, hidden within the school’s property like a small faux green oasis! For a then-working class, inner city neighborhood institution, it seemed so luxurious.

The two most vivid memories I have from my days on the play lot both involve music videos. This is as it must be. In 1986 Madonna’s “Open Your Heart” from the True Blue album was everything. It definitely was for young Becky. I recall sitting on the tire bridge with a few of my little gal pals having one heck of a singalong. Knowing every lyric and note as though they were the Gospel read in First Communication class, I was the envy of all. A self-aware eight year-old with a rough home life rarely experiences that level of peer triumph.

That same year, I was enthralled by Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer” – song as well as MTV experience. Trying to duplicate one of the band members’ high-wire stage floats, I stood atop the play lot’s multi-colored, metal geodesic dome structure. I’m an infamous klutz so you can probably predict what ensued. I did a half flip off the dome that concluded with my person lying on the AstroTurf in an ignominious heap, head colliding hard with the bottom rung. I escaped concussion but the Jon Bon Jovi stage diving career was over.

Last week Tuesday, the day after birthday number 38, Bob, Jude and I walked down the alley behind our building to find the play lot lying on the school’s basketball court in disassembled pieces. From my vantage point since moving in with Bob in June 2015, I’ve watched my alma mater grow in population and funding, using its resources to make positive investments in facilities and programming. I’m proud to see the institution that counts my maternal grandparents, mother, sister and I as emeritus, surviving and thriving.

But I wasn’t ready to say goodbye to the play lot without warning. Self-inflicted head injuries aside, nothing bad ever happened to me there. There aren’t a lot of environments about which I can say this from that period of my life. I took a disbelieving Bob for a viewing of the site on our first date. He’d lived 150 feet away from the mini-playground for three and a half years without ever suspecting its existence. It was a safe, happy space that felt like the special secret of 22 years’ worth of children who passed through Pilgrim’s hallways. Kids like myself who had no other place to channel Madonna with abandon.

I have no idea what they plan to do replace the old turf and dismantled equipment. I was hoping that the project workers would move pieces of the geodesic dome into the alley dumpster, where I’d look for an advantageous time to swipe a memento. A metal bar that may once have supported my small head. But it seems like there was an independent pickup of the play lot’s remains. I hope it means the stomping grounds of my early childhood will be rebuilt somewhere else, allowing spirited little girls to perform modern musical acrobatics.

Change is a necessary part of life, although it would be swell if it were less painful. I’m keeping an open mind. For all I know the old play lot simply made way for something even more thrilling. A place to build new memories. School starts again next week and Bob and I can always use a date night.

August 1980

1980 dice

This past Tuesday, my beloved partner Bob turned 36 years old. Next week Thursday, my adored baby sister Jennifer will reach the same milestone. My two favorite people of all-time made their worldly debuts a mere nine days apart. August 1980 was a hugely important month that impacted the trajectory of many lives for the better.

In between the 2nd and the 11th lies my own birthday number 38 – on Monday the 8th. I often joke that I was born first, therefore Bob and Jenny ought to pull up stakes and find their own months. But the truth is I wouldn’t have it any other way. I don’t feel lost in the shuffle or stuck in the middle. I’m also not a big believer in destiny but this year more than others, I’m awed by the quirks of timing.

Since meeting and falling in love with Bob, and following our unspoken commitment to remain by each other’s sides, an incidental gift is enjoyed each summer. For a week plus the three of us and our families are afforded the opportunity to give thanks for our own lives as well as two others that fill it with so much joy. Those nine days are a hectic flurry of planning, shopping and well-wishing, but it’s important to sit still for a moment and be in that place of gratitude. To wonder at the happenstance which insists my love for these two sit at the conscious forefront for an appropriate two percent of the year.

Birthdays can be a selfish time. As a woman who in her 20s publicly wore a crown every August 8th, and promoted what I now recognize was a completely obnoxious “Shopping Day Countdown” for friends and family, I know a little something about self-immersion. I’ve grown and changed in so many ways and one of these evolutions is a downsize in celebratory approach. It’s not that I enjoy my birthday any less. Rather I understand that I can’t fete myself in a vacuum. It is the other people who render my existence as fulfilling as it is. Were there no August 2nd and August 11th 1980, I don’t know where I’d be.

Nope. My day is not lost. I no longer carry the resentment of a child who hated sharing parties and presents with her kid sister who, oh by the way, was six weeks early and should have been born in the fall! I am thrilled to have my birthday sandwiched between the arrivals of my own dynamic duo – the comedians, support network and good, kind people who challenge me and everyone around them to do better.

Two nights past, Bob asked me where I want to go, what I’d like to do on my day. I told him the truth. I look forward to Monday morning’s contest between Bob and Jenny over who gets to wish me “Happy Birthday” first. Last year Bob had to wake me at dawn to get the edge. Afterward I’ll go work. In the evening, I’d like to sustain our Monday night routine of grocery shopping with drink in hand (bless you Mariano’s) as we talk and laugh.

There have been years filled with mounds of material presents when all I really wanted was the sort of satisfying, messy normalcy (punctuated by much lovable oddity) I savor every day because of two babies born nine days apart in August 1980. There’s nothing more the world can give me to guarantee health and success over the next 12 months that I wasn’t already gifted 36 years ago this week.

The Face of White Privilege: Mine

Boston_Protester_White_Privilege

My childhood was troubled. I grew up in a dysfunctional and dangerous home. When I was 13 years old, I started acting out. As eighth graders at a small, inner city Lutheran school, my best friend and I were queens of the neighborhood hill, even if I felt invisible to the rest of society. We embarked on a series of thug-lite adventures that included stealing hood ornaments, drinking Jack Daniels while playing Truth or Dare with local gang members (not high up in the hierarchy, but still) and shoplifting. Though I certainly asked for it often enough, I escaped any real trouble.

I settled down a bit in high school and did fairly well. But I still skipped class to drink rum pilfered from my dad’s pantry with a new best friend. And after sampling marijuana for the first time junior year, I sat in the backseat with stoned passivity as another pal attempted to drive onto the highway via an off-ramp. No one, including myself, was injured.

During undergrad at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, I was hanging out with a townie buddy at her place when the DEA suddenly burst in to conduct a drug raid. After I was searched and found clean of any weapons, contraband or large amounts of cash, I was allowed to walk to my then-boyfriend’s car and roll away – though I was driving with nothing more than a learner’s permit. Before graduation, I was arrested for two 21st birthday misdemeanors. I was in and out of jail in a couple hours with no incident. After a small fine and some community service, my record was expunged.

In my early 20s, I wrapped a car around a pole at 2:00 am in a rough Chicago neighborhood. Of course, I was under the influence. When the police showed up, my best sober face was used to inform them a tow truck was imminent. The cops never asked me to get out the vehicle. They bid good evening, God speed and drove away. The words emanating from my slurry white lady mouth were satisfactory enough.

All of these episodes are many years in the past. I no longer have any communication with my parents, the first step on a long road to finding the healthy, successful adult waiting patiently in the wings. I’ve had years of individual and group therapy. I have a thriving career, a loving partner and an amazing support network of friends and family. At nearly 38 years of age, I’m proud of the life I’ve built and the opportunities I’ve been given to reach my potential and grow into a leader.

Change the gender and race of my story’s protagonist however, and it plays out in an entirely different way. I’ve been awake to my relative privilege for some time, early biographical roadblocks notwithstanding. I am part of a system that, beyond my parentage, is constructed to benefit, part of a society that mostly roots for my success. I’m a liberal feminist with an advanced humanities degree. I read vociferously. I purposely surround myself with people of different backgrounds and experiences. I want to make the world a healthier, safer and more understanding place for my nieces and nephew. Whatever actions I take must begin and end with listening and learning.

But for a long time, a sort of purposeful forgetfulness took root. I stopped thinking much of my spotty youthful past, except for considering how the events might one day be framed in a memoir. There was no need to dwell. Present circumstances afford the luxury of physical and psychological movement.

Because I am not a person of color. I am particularly not a male person of color. This week especially there’s no hiding from the truth that any one encounter detailed above could have ended in injury, long-term incarceration or death – were I other than a woman with WASP heritage. I’ve been granted leniency in judgment simply by fortune of birth and the benefit of the doubt that comes with it.

And I’ll never let myself forget it again.

#BlackLivesMatter

Missing Friendly Fire

Friendly Fire

I sat watching Hillary Clinton’s speech at the Navy Ship Yard in New York on Tuesday night with tears streaming. As a 37 year-old woman who’s followed the career of the former First Lady, Senator and Secretary of State since junior high, #ImWithHer completely. I may have voted for Sanders in the primary (that makes two election cycles in a row with a plurality of quality Democratic options), but come on. To quote another of my political heroes, Vice President Joseph R. Biden III, Clinton’s status as the 2016 presumptive nominee is a “big fucking deal.” This is the first woman EVER to go atop a national ticket. I’m nowhere near as high-profile as Mrs. Clinton but as a career woman and ardent feminist, I know her journey has been filled with roadblocks. She’s not in the Oval Office yet (bring it Trump) but she’s done something historically important. It warranted an emotional release.

Toward the end of Clinton’s soaring address to supporters, I began crying a lot harder. Because I knew someone who would have hated everything about Hillary’s victory, a friend with whom I would have had a spirited debate about moving on from #FeelTheBern to unite the party. Because Trump is the alternative for crying out loud, and though Clinton is an imperfect candidate (as they all are), she’s a proven, pragmatic worker who genuinely cares about the country. He would counter with “Clinton is an evil crook” rhetoric and declare his support for Jill Stein. I would spit the names of Nixon and Dubya. “Misogyny” would be interlaced throughout as both accusation and social commentary. He’d insist anarchy is preferable to another machine leader. We’d probably go a few days without speaking before sheepishly picking up the phone or sending a text.

That’s what should have happened after Clinton’s landmark speech. But Todd died on Memorial Day, six days before I sat on my couch cheering Hillary, paradoxically wishing for the wet blanket he would have enthusiastically offered.

We met on the Union Pacific North Line Metra route in 2010, commuting to the same downtown Chicago office (although not explicit colleagues). I was barreling toward the end of a troubled marriage and near-permanently distracted. As I’ve explained to Bob in recent days, Todd did the initial work and though I’m eternally grateful, I’ll never understand why. Yes we both loved theater, considered ourselves ardent liberals (though he was bitterly disappointed in President Obama – another source of contention) and resided in the same neighborhood. But Todd had roughly a zillion friends as one of the most energetic and likable people in the free world. And me, at least at least then? Pretty much this.

As Todd and I became better acquainted, I learned he’d survived illness, relationship loss and death. Over the course of our six-year friendship, he also recovered from a very serious car accident. Todd didn’t even drive, mind you. He was struck on the sidewalk. Anyone else might have sunk into bitterness at the cruelty of fate. This man had tenacity, spirit and yet counterintuitively, was rather blasé about it. Todd casually and unaggressively knew he was awesome – beaming that certainty at everyone he loved. This made him the best kind of friend – one always there in crisis, with the authenticity to tell when it was time to stop singing the “Big Railroad Blues.”

Todd was a huge Grateful Dead fan and a socially conscious, fun-loving hippie aesthetic infused everything he did. I’ll never know for certain but I think he found my own existential struggles toward inner peace amusing. I’ve made progress but you can’t wash the Type A out of a girl entirely. When my friend felt in need of a red-faced, arm-waving, outside voice volume rant (say, when Mitt Romney made his infamous “47 percent” remarks), he knew where to turn. And though we were temperamentally different, we loved each other symmetrically.

My pal died just a few hours after we enjoyed soft pretzels and cider at a neighborhood German pub. He was feeling great: excited for a boatload of summer plans he’d made, philosophical about a recent breakup and ready for whatever came next (as always). We exchanged affectionate hugs and as we parted, I thought about how glad I was that I was in a place to do more of the emotional work in our friendship. Although Todd carried me over the starting line, over time we walked hand in hand. Once in a while he even did the leaning.

Todd was buried in his home state of New Jersey last weekend. On Saturday June 18, Chicago friends and family will have their chance to gather and celebrate his life. Todd was a super connector, fond of introducing people he loved to one another. As a result, perhaps one of his final gifts, I’m not alone in grief.

But we won’t argue about Hillary Clinton’s candidacy. Ever. And I hate it.