The Best Blog in America? (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 alopeciacancer 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.””

Post-Op Political Musings (June 10, 2011)

A little over two years ago, I began my life on this blog as “Becky Boop,” anonymous, citified political commentator known for her thoughts on the peaks and valleys of the Obama agenda and slice of life pieces on day to day existence in a big metropolis.

I came out from behind my pen name in an effort to be as real a writer as I am a person. The death of a close friend, a long bout with unemployment, an impending divorce and surgery this past Tuesday for Stage 2 cervical cancer left me with a sudden desire to stop hiding behind a pseudonym. All in all, I feel I am better for it. Becky Boop may have been a lot of fun, but she was certainly no reflection of “me.”

However as I go over some of my posts from the last six months or so, I have a hankering for some of Becky Boop’s former silliness, the journalistic joie de vivre that seemed to come so naturally to my alter ego. I have gotten pretty far away from aiming my torpedo at the cultural and political movers and shakers who depend on bloggers and the media to state the obvious, to shout with definitive clarity that the Emperor, is in fact, walking around naked.

I spent a large part of the week in post-op convalescence, and since it is the summer and most of the network’s regularly scheduled programming is on break, I made CNN my constant companion. Even in a haze of discomfort and drugs, it was hard not to notice that this was a pretty fucking strange week, politically speaking.

  • Rep. Anthony Weiner – It is my privilege to report that today, June 10, 2011 is the first in many that Mr. Weiner’s name has been absent from the front page ofThe New York Times. While I find the congressman to be an epic, tasteless pig and a truly unworthy husband, folks, there’s nothing illegal about lying to your wife and the press. I am hoping that his absence from the headlines and Weiner’s refusal to resign means we are reaching the end of this sad, if titillating spectacle. I do not think Rep. Weiner should heed panicked Democratic calls to vacate his post, any more than I believed it wise when Governor Eliot Spitzer called it quits after the Ashley Dupre scandal. Is there anyone living in the State of New York who believes David Paterson was an upgrade? Weiner was voted in to do a job, and only his constituents have the right to decide his ultimate political fate.
  • Hillary Clinton – Former First Lady, Presidential candidate, Secretary of State, and future head of the World Bank? Yes! The fact that this story materialized so fast, and was just as quickly quashed by the State Department, leads me to believe that it’s probably true. Nobody expected Clinton to stay on for two terms as the nation’s top ambassador, and since she can’t launch another Presidential bid until the 2016 elections, why the hell not?
  • Newt Gingrinch – Yesterday was certainly a busy news day. Blink and you may have missed Gingrinch’s nascent presidential campaign imploding in a huge way, losing his campaign manager, spokesman and senior strategist before disembarking from an ill-timed Greek cruise taken with third wife Callista. From the outset, The Ging struggled to stay on message with the official Republican party platform (frankly, one of the few good qualities he had going for him), labeling Paul Ryan’s Medicare voucher plan a piece of “right wing social engineering.” Rather than play the game and work the media rounds until he had done successful establishment penance, Gingrinch said “eff it” and jetted off to work on his tan. John McCain, take note of a real maverick. While Newt technically remains in the hunt, it’s going to be tough to mount a credible campaign with no donors or staff. I for one will miss him.
  • Sarah Palin – Will we EVER be rid of this woman? For those who believe she is going to give up her various soap box perches and millions in speaker fees to re-enter the icky world of public service, a place where people tend to be held accountable for their ignorance (though certainly not always), I have a bridge to sell you. However, this week the focus was not on Candidate Sarah, but former Alaskan Governor Palin. After a nearly three year delay that no one has adequately explained, thousands of pages of emails sent in the first two years of her term were made public. There doesn’t seem to be anything as exciting as Palin’s version of Paul Revere’s ride in there. The story is in what’s missing. According to a report from Yahoo, the emails “have been heavily redacted, while 2,275 pages are being withheld for reasons including executive privilege.” Whatcha hiding Sarah?

That’s Not My Name (December 16, 2010)

When my sister Jen suggested we collaborate on a blog in early 2009, I wasn’t sure I was up to the challenge. An instantaneous and persistent fear of having nothing to say, of trying to sustain my creativity, but finding the well barren, almost kept me from trying.

On this point at least, it seems I worried for naught. Apparently, I have plenty to discuss. In May of this year, I took my musings to Open Salon at the suggestion of fellow blogger Mad Typist. Rather than reinvent the wheel, I post the exact same content in both forums – the joint venture I operate with Jen, as well my personal space there. In the spirit of streamlining, I also took my avatar, Becky Boop, with me.

Jen suggested we take pen names for security reasons. She is a mother of two young daughters, and she wanted to keep the personal information contained in her posts to a bare minimum. There’s just a lot of creeps out there. We were never arrogant enough to believe we’d become the next Huffington Post, but why invite trouble? For my part, it seemed expeditious to hide behind a persona different from my own while I worked to locate my voice.

Becky Boop, like the cartoon Betty she evokes, was initially quite the boozy, citified, fun-loving girl. Most of my initial posts, which tend to embarrass me upon reflection, were silly. I think I imagined myself a 21st Century Carrie Bradshaw: traveling, happy hours, a free wheeling spirit – my best, most interesting self. And there is definitely the bar trivia, Meet the Press side to me. But that’s not really the whole picture, you know?

As I have tried to maintain a strict thrice-weekly posting schedule the last two years, I have learned goo gobs about myself, first and foremost, that I am introspective and personal. I am not sure if my small audience always agrees, but I came to believe I am at my best artistically when I am confessional. As time has passed and I have grown more brave with my words, the list of taboo experiences that I will not publicly examine grows shorter. I have written about the mental illness that runs in my family, the infidelity that once haunted my marriage, my own social awkwardness, death, pain and unemployment (which often feels like a combination of the two former words). With the unyielding and patient support of my closest friends and family, I have been encouraged to expose myself. I now take great pride in this rawness, even as Bambi continues to find her footing.

I write what I mean to say most of the time, and even when the floodgates of criticism open, I can’t backpedal. In that moment, as I typed those words, it’s how I felt, or what I believed, or the facts I understood. As I try to grow more comfortable with me: the writer, the woman, the human, it has begun to gnaw at me that I am still hiding, in a very real sense, behind a character.

So it’s time to let go, to really put myself out there. I am Becky Sarwate. A work in progress. A mess oftentimes certainly, but I am willing to spill the blood and work up the sweat. No more closets.