A Haunted House Can Be a Home

A Haunted House Can Be a Home

I hadn’t set foot on the property since completing a stealth moving process during the winter of 1995. At that time, the ruined brick bungalow in the Northwestern Chicago neighborhood of Dunning was nearly seven miles away from my widowed grandmother’s apartment in North Center. That’s where my younger sister Jennifer resided with our mother Gloria, who’d left our father Gregg in 1993. The home-turned-hovel that mom and dad destroyed together was also nine miles from the high school Jenny and I both attended.

I missed my sister. I was tired of getting up at 4:00 am every weekday morning to catch the Irving Park bus to Nanni’s place – for a shower and some breakfast before classes started. And because my father hadn’t paid the gas bill for several years running, I was also tired of being cold, eating food from a microwave and living beholden to the mood swings of a bipolar, hoarding, gambling-addicted father.

The cover story I used for my escape involved our cat Snuggy, a pet that Gregg seemed to love almost as much as himself. The Windy City winter of 1995 saw an average daily temperature of four degrees Fahrenheit – a climate not fit for animal or teenager. But I knew that appealing to my father on the basis of my own discomfort was a non-starter.  I had no appetite for a tirade about loyalty, abandonment and weakness. So I told Gregg that I was moving Snuggy to Nanni’s house, “just until spring,” with no intention of ever returning. This was not the first or the last survival scheme I would orchestrate before legal emancipation at age 18.

Without a cat carrier, and toting a minimal amount of personal belongings to avoid suspicion, I cradled Snuggy in the passenger seat of my dad’s latest beater as he drove us to Nanni’s place. I wouldn’t be welcome there either, and in fact a few months later, Gloria outright suggested was “time to go back [to what, Mom???].” But for as long as I could manage it, Snuggy and I would be clean, warm, fed – certainly safer than we were living in the fire trap shanty.

The house on Eddy Street was finally repossessed in 1998 and sold as a foreclosure in 2000 – the year I graduated from college. Never one for realism, Gregg failed to accept his eviction until the very end (because banks are famous for tolerating property damaging freeloaders). He took very little with him when the proverbial sheriff showed up, and the rest of us were never allowed to return. Mentally and spiritually, Jenny and I said goodbye to the haunted house where our photos, mementos and formerly treasured personal items were sacrificed on an altar of failure, built with reams of newspaper, animal waste and cigarette butts.

I still see the brick bungalow in dreams. Sometimes it looks as it did before we took over in 1984 – well-cared for by the previous owner, and full of promise. At other times, I’m frantically trying to clean and organize the place, racing an unseen clock. I never reach my goal.

For many years, the house on Eddy ceased to be a living thing for me, and it remained so until last Saturday. En route to a tour of the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio in Oak Park with my husband Bob, I looked up and noticed our coordinates. I tried to keep my voice even as I mentioned familiarity with the neighborhood. My partner looked at me with puzzlement, and we exchanged the following brief dialogue:

Bob: “Yeah? Where? When?”

Me: “It’s that house and it’s around the corner.”

Bob: “Oh. Oh…..Do you want to show it to me on the way back?”

And for some reason, after years of running, I did want to stop and open this literal and figuratively dark, cold space to let Bob and his light in. Instead of a drive-by, I felt strong enough to get out of the car, grab my husband’s hand and engage that crepuscule in a staring contest. But I left Eddy Street that afternoon with much more than I expected.

I failed to anticipate how it might feel to meet Mike, a Polish immigrant newly arrived in America in 2000, full of hopes and dreams, presented with a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to buy a foreclosed home, sight unseen. According to the man who painstakingly rebuilt and improved the brick bungalow from the ground up, a shady lawyer paid Gregg a sum of money to give up his claim, took possession of the property and resold the dump to Mike.

It would be months before he could move his own family in. He’d been given no indication of the ruin he’d find. Some people destroy and walk away with cash and a clear conscience. Others create from less than nothing. And none of it is fair. As Mike and I conversed, an old and familiar shame returned. I wished to hand over the money my father was paid to walk away from the mess.

It was also impossible to predict the overwhelming gratitude that accompanied Mike’s lack of personal animosity toward me. The child of the cretins who’d played a large part in his fleecing shows up unannounced and he’s…welcoming?  Although I’d been a kid with little control over my parents’ behavior, the stubborn codependent in me will always struggle with feelings of responsibility for, well…..everything.

And if given hours to absorb the news, I couldn’t have stalled the emotions that overtook me when Mike dropped a bombshell. 18 years after decluttering the foreclosed home of most of its contents, he still had several boxes of books that belonged to my family. He didn’t have the heart to relegate Encyclopedia Britannica volumes, Time Life animal publications and other literary treasures to a dumpster. He went into the house, gathered these materials (in surprisingly good condition) and handed them to me. It was like a second chance, a return to the day in 1995 when I absconded with little more than a beloved pet and the clothes on my back. This time, I could carry some of the images and words that shaped me.

The house on Eddy Street is much changed. I didn’t go inside, and didn’t want to. Seeing the exterior was more than enough for one day. Mike built upper and lower decks at the rear of the property, perfect for enjoying western sunsets. The yard is planted and full of life. But the biggest change of all is the warm and gracious man caring for the place, raising a happy family and making new memories to replace the frightening ones of last century.

I returned to the car with Bob, convinced as I walked away that this was no longer a haunted house. It’s the happy place of people more deserving of being entrusted with its care.

And I left that old shame on the curb.

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Through the Elevated Line

Salar-Ardebili-foreground-Joshua-J.-Volkers-Catherine-Dildilian-and-Alison-Plott-background.-Photo-by-Airan-Wright

“Somehow in my theatrical wanderings, I’ve never read the script, nor attended a production of Tennessee Williams’ ubiquitous A Streetcar Named Desire. So after seeing Through the Elevated Line, the latest offering from Silk Road Rising, I took to Google to familiarize myself with the material’s themes and plot summary. The world premiere by playwright Novid Parsi bills itself as containing “echoes” of Williams’ work and indeed, Parsi nails the fundamental disagreeability of the three lead characters. I’m not sure what’s in the water cooler within the Chicago theater community, but antiheroes are having a somewhat dominant moment.

In Elevated, the dishonest and self-awareless Blanche DuBois becomes Razi (Salar Ardebili), a slight, openly gay man fleeing unknown hardships and haunted memories to join his sister and her husband in Chicago. The Stella to his Blanche is Soraya (Catherine Dildilian), a budding dermatologist Americanized by her Western education and complicated marriage to Wrigleyville Bro archetype, Chuck (Joshua J. Volkers). Chuck is an odd hybrid of 21st Century social liberalism and toxic maleness that is sort of perfect for the current cultural debate around gender dynamics. Volkers does good work portraying the big, bullying man with repellent hints of sexiness.”

Read the full post on The Broadway Blog.

An Enemy of the People

 

“Goodman Theatre Artistic Director Robert Falls has chosen well in selecting Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People for a new adaptation, currently onstage in the Albert Theatre. One hundred and fifty years after its debut, the play’s themes feel ripped from today’s headlines. Press materials succinctly describe Ibsen’s complex masterpiece as follows, “When a water contamination crisis puts their community in peril, two brothers—Dr. Stockmann and Mayor Stockmann—face off in a battle of political ambitions and moral integrity.”

If this synopsis evokes visions of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster, which dumped millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, or if it reminds one of the Flint water crisis, which is approaching its fourth lead-fueled anniversary, this is no accident. Falls’ staging of An Enemy of the People tweaks the timeless source material just enough to leave absolutely no doubt that we’re looking at today’s sociopolitical climate. Ibsen was ahead of his time but he didn’t coin the term ‘fake news.’ Audiences will see terrific actors in comely period costumes rather than MAGA hats, but Falls and his production team won’t let us leave Trump’s America.”

Read the full review on The Broadway Blog.

And For My Next Trick…

I have a problem. One that is entirely First World in its privilege, but challenging all the same.

I’ve been a personal blogger longer than I’ve been any other kind of writer. It was the easiest place to start on a campaign that began in 2009 (however unwittingly) to finally figure out my truths and learn to live them. Then as now, blogging platforms were democratically accessible and mostly free. In addition, I was in such a bad place nine years ago – personally and professionally – there was no want of material for such a creative endeavor. I was so lost in life, so inexperienced with the craft, I didn’t know enough to feel self-conscious – about fledgling skills or the nakedly intimate topics doubling as cries for self-help.

I actually went looking for my first-ever blog post on Which End Is Up Today?, a brief project on which my sister and I collaborated. It was a fun union of two close, but distinct voices – Jenny’s suburban mom with a broadcasting career; I the childless, urban dwelling, semi-starving artist. However the platform has been dormant for so many years, Google stopped indexing the site. That’s probably for the best.

My early work, while charmingly guileless, is fairly cringe worthy in form, structure and content. For one, I wrote under a pseudonym, a handy metaphor for the near-complete lack of self-awareness with which I was stumbling through life at the time. For example, if you dare, just gaze upon the hackneyed, uninteresting and fundamentally dishonest bit of autobiography on display here in early 2009. There are reasons beyond artistic self-flagellation for keeping these early efforts alive. I have always believed that the road to self-improvement is paved with recycled asphalt from wrong turns and dead ends.

Back to my present problem. While I remain an unmalleable square peg, with the help of abundant group and personal therapy, as well as hard labor, I’ve found the holes where I fit. I’m not only comfortable in these spaces, I luxuriate in them. Although it’s taken years of repeating empowering mantras until the syllables lose meaning, I deserve this recent comfort in my skin, this confidence about my place in the world, at home, at work and in Chicago’s literary community.

But though it’s an amazing feeling to discover one’s own version of equilibrium, it’s taking a while for new order to jibe with the fight or flight panic that characterized 36 years. Sometimes I’m still unsure what to do without the consistent, existential burn caused by fear, lack and overwhelming envy.

So it was that during a moment of unattached boredom, I found myself Googling, in vague search of answers to a question I never thought I’d ask.

“What’s next after achieving all your goals?”

The precursor to this interrogation of the World Wide Web was wrestling with a few philosophical queries on my own:

  • What’s next after marrying the love of my life last year, my true spiritual partner in all things, the one who respects and supports my complicated past and present quirks of character? I chased the wrong men for three decades. This self-defeating past-time consumed a great deal of energy. Three years into a more healthy and balanced love, how do I channel old frenzy into the new, healthy maintenance habits our marriage deserves?
  • Bob and I have a beautiful home that is fully representative of us. We’ve spent three years converting his divorced guy bachelor pad into our mortgaged happy place – paint, furniture, linens, multiple rounds of decluttering, infrastructure repairs. Our condo is clean, everything works as it should and I’ve had ample time to let go of old fears that I could be dumped/evicted/foreclosed upon, forced to rebuild alone. What’s next after achieving hard won domestic security? Am I supposed to set goals higher than what’s already more than enough?
  • After years of toiling as a poorly paid freelancer, working temporary or otherwise unstable jobs to make ends meet as I waited for my “real career” to begin, I recently confronted a truth. “One day” has fully arrived. Once certain I’d never find fulfillment in a corporate setting, I work for a publicly traded company that entrusts me with challenging work matching passion and skill set. My day job provides me with the financial stability to underwrite riskier, less remunerative creative efforts to which I’m no less committed. Like say, teaching an adjunct English class at my alma mater that’s designed to help students turn liberal arts degrees into jobs. Or publishing a once-in-a-lifetime charity book project about the Chicago Cubs’ 2016 World Series with a friend and colleague. I sit on the boards of two vitally important Chicago-based communications organizations that put me in regular networking contact with brilliant creatives. As a whole, my career is more well-wounded and rewarding than ever seemed possible. But I am a born striver. Do I even know how to stop wanting more than I need?
  • After sustained efforts at breaking toxic, co-dependent relationship habits, I’m blessed with healthy, supportive friendships and good relationships with the family members I choose to include in my life. For the most part, I’ve given over obsessing about the estranged, broken and bizarre bonds with my parents that used to make me feel ritual, low-grade shame and discomfort. Is it ok to let go?

If you’re are wondering why the hell one would overthink success and contentment, I couldn’t agree with you more. But I suspect this quote from a recent article on the Lifehack website gets at the heart of the real issue. It’s about fear – of losing what I’ve gained, rather than failing to accrue addition:

“What do you do once you achieve your big goal and make it to the top? This can become a big problem if it looks like the only way you can go is down…The problem can be one of maintaining the position [if this is what you want], or figuring out where to go next while avoiding a big letdown.”

I’ve worked so hard to get to this place, I don’t want to disappoint anyone, myself most urgently of all.  After a life of operating (correctly) like I had nothing to lose, I’m somewhat confounded by today’s emotional, physical and spiritual plenty.

After Decades of Investigation & Litigation, Will Stormy Daniels Finally Rid Us of Trump?

“Let’s be real though. Out of personal mendacity and sheer, repetitive volume, Donald Trump is obviously not afraid to go to court. A goodfella moves through the world with confident impunity. He has screwed over numerous contractors to the tune of millions of dollars while building his gold-plated real estate empire. Trump has defrauded investors and students, and deceived members of his own family. He has publicly disparaged Gold Star families, Senators currently dying of brain cancer and any number of real or imagined opponents. He has said, awful, barely repeatable things about women, famous and otherwise, demonstrating that the opposite sex is his preferred target for vulgarity and disrespect. Donald Trump – and the cheeseburger he reportedly takes to bed – lose sleep over none of this.

But there’s one woman, a singular litigant, who’s demonstrating a weird, unsettling power over Donald Trump that none of us fully understands yet. I speak of course of Stephanie Clifford, aka Stormy Daniels. She and her lawyer Michael Avenetti are giving Team Trump the full court media press over her alleged affair with POTUS 45 – and confirmed $130,000 payout. And what has Trump said of the unfolding scandal – and the lady who has him by the literal balls? Nada. Nary a tweetstorm or press conference tangent. Things that make you go hmmmm…”

Read the full post at Contemptor.

Time Is On Our Side

Maggie Scrantom and Rashaad Hall in About Face Theatre’s Midwest premiere of ‘Time Is On Our Side.’ (Photo: Michael Brosilow)

“It also must be said that Annie and Curtis are pretty terrible people. Whether this is intentional or not, Thomas can’t resist writing the friends into broad generational stereotype. Annie is not quite the independent and woke lesbian to which her twentysomething self-aspires. An aversion to information and the truth about her idealized grandparents (a mystery that propels the script) smacks of petulant, subjective privilege. Annie lives rent-free in the family homestead and repays the boon with hypocrisy. At least initially, she pretends to historical contribution by neutering the stories of loved ones – as an act of warped self-preservation. It is unappealing.

Curtis pursues career ambition through dishonest, obsessive and mercenary behavior that makes his network of friends uncomfortable. And the character can afford this “problematic” (one of Curtis’ favorite words) approach, without a steady income, because of another type of privilege he’s young enough to take for granted—marriage equality. Curtis’ never-seen husband underwrites his amateur, and ultimately fruitless quest to mine Annie’s past for personal gain.

It’s a good thing then that, in a neat trick of narrative creativity, Annie and Curtis’ stories are not the point. They are mere cyphers for taking a fresh look at the complicated and colorful tapestry of living Baby Boomer gay in post-World War II America. And though Scrantom and Hall turn in serviceable performances, they and their characters ultimately take a backseat to the fine work done by Esteban Andres Cruz and Riley Mondragon in multiple, poignant roles.”

Read the full post at The Broadway Blog.

 

Mary Stuart

“The storytelling parallels, the dramatic tension involved in understanding “right” while secretly lusting after “wrong,” are what brought my thoughts to Black Panther as I exited the theatre after last week’s premiere. Unfortunately, the corollary does not pull through to the pacing and denouement of the respective works. At two hours and 45 minutes with one intermission, Mary Stuart is unreasonably long considering stretches of tedious dialogue that fail to move the action forward. I’ve no objection to sitting for almost three hours when fully engaged, but Thompson would have been wise to exhibit more editorial leadership.

And since audiences, ultimately, endure no real suspense about the ending, as Mary entertains with her colorful flaws, the final scene feels incredibly ham-fisted, if technically impressive. I don’t believe in spoilers, so will say no more. However Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s Mary Stuart, like its namesake, is an imperfect experience.”

Read the full post on The Broadway Blog.