37 Summers (September 1, 2014)

Today, Labor Day 2014, marks the unofficial end of my 37th summer on the planet. I don’t remember much about the first given that I was just a blob of drool and other bodily functions, having been born in early August. During the second, I was trying to get a handle on that walking and talking stuff. Many cognitive psychologists believe that memories won’t fully develop until one has the language to describe and store them for later recall.

And so it was during the third summer, shortly after the arrival of my baby sister Jennifer, that seasonal reminiscences began to coalesce. Another August child, my first strong recollection is of being pulled from a friend’s backyard pool to visit little Jenny. Then, as now, I did not like the party to start or stop without me. If you’re now envisioning a 1980’s toddler precursor to Ke$ha, well that’s embarrassingly accurate.

Happily, my father knew how to manipulate my stormy baby moods and let me have control of the radio on the way to the hospital. I had strong (positive) opinions about the canon of Christopher Cross as a young lass of two years and three days old. Thus I belted out “Ride Like the Wind” through drying tears, sort of a joyous prompt for the complete awe that would dominate when I finally beheld the newborn girl. That summer I learned that it might not always be a bad thing to get out of the pool before you’re ready.

Summer is my favorite season, for a multitude of reasons. The hardened Chicagoan’s stoic survival of harsh Windy City winters begets frenzied exultation at three months of beaches, sidewalk seating and outdoor exercise. The melancholy writer struggles with seasonal affective disorder and craves Vitamin D furnished by 14 hours of daylight. The anarchist within adores the sense of limitless possibility. And for the student of life, there are always lessons and wisdom to absorbed as people literally and metaphorically throw off their coats.

It was during the summer of 1984 I learned that the arbitrary work of a moment, a face first implant into a living room radiator, could affect every moment thereafter. Self-esteem, opportunity, even the literal shape of a jaw went on another trajectory after an accident that took 25 years from which to fully recover. I also learned that even if I’d been born cute, I might not always be so. Looks can go at any time. Decency, intelligence and hard work became unconscious driving forces as the meaner kids mocked my crooked teeth and thick glasses.

During the post-Communism heat of 1994, I left the U.S. for the first time, and learned that the world is a large, diverse yet strikingly level place. Journeying to Russia and Poland on a cultural goodwill tour with the Chicago Children’s Choir I added the following essential truths to my life book: underage traveling without parents is awesome, there is no amount of dirtiness or fatigue that can prevent a teenage crush and everyone likes Ace of Base.

I wrapped up high school with another CCC tour in the summer of 1996, this time a five-week sojourn to Nelson Mandela’s South Africa. It was there I became aware that family can be chosen, appearances can be deceiving and that the summit of Table Mountain is a great place to use a pay phone.

Ensuing summers taught tougher lessons. 2009 was the summer of prematurely burying friends and coming to understand that desire alone is not strong enough to open a heart that’s closed. The warm months of 2011 were the season of illness that doesn’t make you appear sick and the crippling realization that two people in love can be genuinely, horribly toxic together.

But as I move into my late 30s, the conclusion of my 37th summer, the instruction remains poignant, and the circle is opening more fully. This was the season of horse back riding, wedding singing in Spanish, running races in Canada, hiking, outdoor music, bike rides through the forest at dark, murder mystery theater, new friends and fedoras. It was the summer of saying “yes” to everything external after Chiberia 2014’s confinement and discovering the joys of other terrain besides the concrete jungle.

It was also the season of writer’s block. Or was it? Is the living I’ve done over the last three to four months fodder for more exciting, experiential work? Perhaps I’ll find out next year. Because another lesson my 37th summer has taught me is that I don’t need, or maybe even want, all the answers today. The rewards is in the search, not the explanation.

Things Fall Apart: How Chinua Achebe Opened My Eyes (March 22, 2013)

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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’sInternational 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 StreetAchebe’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.

Opposites Attract: A Story of Friendship (November 17, 2010)

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In the Fall of 1996, after a five week whirlwind summer tour of South Africa with the Chicago Children’s Choir, I found myself amidst the cornfields and animal dung that comprise the sights and smells of the University of Illinois campus at Urbana/Champaign. A concrete jungle girl through and through, and a self-described seasoned traveler, I was instantly dismayed by my new surroundings, so close to my hometown of Chicago (2.5 hours driving time) yet so far removed in the way of stimuli and heterogeneity.

The depression I felt upon unpacking my last box in the closet of a dorm room I had been assigned at the Florida Avenue Residence Hall (abbreviated, “FAR” which also ironically matched the domicile’s lengthy distance from campus) had little to do with missing my family and high school friends. It’s like I sensed that the public transportation taking, museum exploring, library wandering, sensory overloaded childhood I had enjoyed was about to come to a four-year screeching halt and I was helpless to do anything about it. A girl who refused to adhere to the U. of I. motto of “Go Greek or Go Home!” had little choice but to keep her head down, get a job and study hard. Graduating and moving back to Chicago swiftly became my raison d’etre.

Completely unable to tolerate living with my mother for longer than necessary, I arrived on campus a few days earlier than the bulk of my fellow incoming freshman. The benefit to this domestic twitchiness is that I had a head start on securing one of the better paying off campus jobs. My work experience comprised to that point of volunteerism and the occasional Sunday selling newspapers, I knew I would need the advantage of time to convince local managers to take a chance on me.

I walked my way along the Campustown thoroughfare of Green Street one determined morning, hitting up every fast food joint I passed. Food service seemed like a noble and poetic start to my career. Surely Jane Austen had worked in a kitchen at some point. She did after all, have seven brothers and sisters in an era without microwaves. After a lengthy and measured debate between McDonald’s and Wendy’s, I accepted a job at the latter for the King’s Ransom of $4.75 an hour.

During my second week of employment, as I entered the back door and assumed my usual place at the fry station, I noticed a new girl working the grill. The way she handled a spatula told me this wasn’t her first time flipping hammies. I was instantly impressed, but simultaneously intimated by her short but solid stature, black lipstick and natural white blonde hair. Unsure how to introduce myself, this dynamic person beat me to the punch. Within a few minutes I learned that Theresa was a fellow freshman and resident of the same dorm. She was from a town about 45 minutes south of Champaign called Mattoon and had the most beguiling hint of a southern twang. When Theresa went on to inform me that she was a Wiccan, I nodded my head in befuddled agreement, realizing that there was an awful lot this supposedly worldly urbanite had to learn.

Over the course of the next four years, a lot of things would be taught to me by the woman I grew to know as “T.” She in turn affectionately labeled me “Becca Jo,” a tongue in cheek nod to my transplant from the nation’s third largest city to a town of 60,000. I would say that T and I became the yin to each other’s yang, but she always seemed a few steps ahead of me. T taught me how to smoke pot in a dorm room without eliciting notice (her trick involved an elaborate setup of dryer sheets and empty Mountain Dew bottles). I went on my first drunken hayride with Theresa and her family (and right afterward, stole my first golf cart), flashed truckers on the Interstate, went skinny dipping, hosted an epic Halloween party that remains the stuff of Chambana legend, and learned the meaning of the local “country run” pastime. I never knew living in the middle of nowhere could be so much fun until Theresa showed me how to survive.

Shortly after graduation, Theresa married her college sweetheart, a wonderful man named Jake, and they settled in Shelbyville, slightly father south than Mattoon. I returned to Chicago to start my career in corporate communications, and the City proceeded to beat me up a little harder than my idyllic childhood memories would have predicated. Adult life turned out to be every bit as difficult a transition as the one from high school to college. In the Fall of 2000, we had the benefit of email, and as the years passed, FaceBook, but T and I have always stuck to our pattern on keeping tabs on each other with old fashioned U.S. Postal Service delivered letters, a la the Bette Midler and Barbara Hershey characters from Beaches. There is no comparable feeling in life to that of getting an unexpected missive, tearing open the envelope, unfolding the pages and greedily consuming the private thoughts of a loved one.

Though we are separated by more than four hours driving time, and T has an all-consuming life that includes two young sons, a demanding job and a large extended family, we still find opportunities, stolen moments to reunite and reminisce. This week was one such occasion.

Anyone who has read my recent work knows that this is a particularly trying time. I am unemployed, at a crossroads in several personal relationships, and ready to be honest with myself about the fact that I may never be ready for motherhood. While that sits ok with me, there are a lot of implications in my world: disappointed in-laws, well-meaning friends and family who believe I have made a hasty, childhood-scarred decision, and a husband who wants me to leave the door open to adoption when I am not sure that I can. I can never express what a welcome refreshment it is to be able to sit across the table from a woman who knows me better at times than I know myself. Someone who has seen me at me worst, has watched me fail over and over again, yet still assiduously leaves a sense of the pride and affection she carries with my name on it.

Well known, long-term friendships are the ultimate gift – the present of unconditional love.

See you soon T. It’s about time for me to make my way through the corn again.

Love at Second, or Third Sight (September 21, 2010)

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I am definitely a believer in instant connections, and no I am not talking about those made through the relative safety of computer terminals. I am referring to the phenomenon eloquently described in the novel, The Godfather, as “the thunderbolt.” You lock eyes with an attractive person across the room and blammo! Something indescribable happens. An electric charge passes between the two of you and all of the sudden; you are flooded with want, need, desire. Even more empowering – you feel that same energy returned to you. It’s exciting and not a moment we are rewarded with often enough in life. Most acquaintances we make are rather uninspiring. Can I get an “amen?”

I have seen the thunderbolt effect in play throughout a lifetime of observing others. While it makes one feel invincible, it can also lead those who have never experienced it before to do things that are a bit heedless. Think Howard Marshall II, the Texas billionaire who married former Playmate and Guess? Jeans model Anna Nicole Smith at the ripe old age of 88. Though both parties are now long since deceased, the battle for the Marshall fortune continues to play itself out in the courts due to this ill-advised union – that could only ever have been based on one-sided lust (Marshall) and concerted gold digging (Smith). It can be especially damaging when the thunderbolt doesn’t strike both ways, so to speak.

So yes, love at first sight exists and I respect the awesomeness of its power when it happens. However, my own personal life hasn’t featured this occurrence. When it comes to potential love matches, even platonic friendships, my affection is of the slower growing kind. And by that I mean I often loathe, detest and completely forsake those that ultimately turn out to be my greatest soul mates. In some cases this aversion has been known to stubbornly persist for years, until a breakthrough of some kind exposes the true likeness of my character with another’s.

Let’s start with my husband Eddie. I met Eddie in the early summer of 2005, when we both worked at the same downtown Chicago office. I was a part-time administrative assistant for one of the company’s Executive Vice-Presidents, while Eddie worked as an IT Consultant. Though others in the secretary pool continually remarked that the good looks and sexy smile of my future husband reminded them of “an Indian Cary Grant,” I was decidedly unimpressed. In fact when Eddie labored under the impression that his charm could get him anything he wanted at the company, I rather delighted in shutting him down wheresoever I could. I distinctly remember remarking a time or two, “that young fool needs to get over himself.” At the time I was a very “mature” 28 to Eddie’s 25.

We have been married for almost three years now, so evidently, I changed my mind along the way. But it took a year before I was able to step back from my initial judgment. I realized that Eddie could, and often did laugh at himself. I noticed he was witty, good at pool and oh yeah; he was pretty handsome after all. It must be noted that Eddie was equally disenchanted with yours truly. He often referred to me amongst his colleagues as that nasty word for females that rhymes with “witch,” a woman on a conference room space power trip.

Of course we can both look back and laugh about this now, but it is not the only instance of a great relationship that began with a mutual slowness to warm up. Case in point: Jessica, my dear friend who lives with her husband Nick in jolly old England. If you are a fan of the hit Fox television show, Glee, Jessica was once the Quinn to my Rachel.

At the age of 16, Jessica and I were both members of the Chicago Children’s Choir, a prestigious organization that has performed all over the U.S. and the rest of the globe. When Jessica returned to the group during our junior year of high school, after a leave of absence, I was happily ensconced as the “flavor of the month,” within the choir. I had a ton of friends, a cute and popular boyfriend – all the privileges I didn’t enjoy inside the halls of my own high school. As for the singing, that came second to my social life as far as I was concerned. I was just happy to belong somewhere, and in the summer of 1996, I was terribly grateful for the opportunity to spend five weeks touring South Africa with the group.

Until Jessica made the touring assembly as well. Not only was my current boyfriend her previous one (leading to gossip within the ranks that I was happy to pick up Jessica’s “sloppy seconds”), but even worse! She was slowly making inroads with my thriving group of young gay admirers. This impudence could not be tolerated.

[Insert montage of cat fights from Bring it On, The Craft and Mean Girls here].

Oddly enough it only took a bout of motion sickness (mine) at a South African ostrich farm, and a silently proffered glass of 7 Up (hers), to bridge our differences. Since those formative teenage years, Jessica and I have traveled together, peed in public places together and done more body shots than we can feasibly count.

So do I make an impossibly awful first impression? Am I a judger who finds it hard to let down her guard and reconsider her first reaction? Maybe, and maybe. But what’s so great about love at first sight anyway? Some of the most treasured relationships I enjoy today started off with a healthy dose of conflict.

South Side! (October 13, 2009)

As a near lifelong resident of the City of Chicago, I have an embarassing confession to make. Though I have driven around over the years, the only neighborhood on the South Side that I could ever lay any real claim to knowing was Hyde Park. This is due to my involvement with the Chicago Children’s Choir in the mid-90s, when home base was still at a progressive Jewish synagogue in that neighborhood (so progressive in fact that the Temple held its worship services on Sundays). Some may be tempted to level accusations at me of not caring much what goes on outside the upper middle class North Side lakefront that I have called home for quite some time. I will not try to defend the indefensible because my lack of South Side awareness is just pathetic. However, rather than a lack of interest or concern, I have been guilty of laziness.

However, I am pleased to report that my ignorance has been somewhat reduced in the course of the last week, through my work with the Chicago Office of Tourism. I have fully explored no fewer than four neighborhoods in the last five working days, and three of them were almost entirely new to me: Chinatown, South Chicago and Pullman – all to the South.

I had eaten dim sum with my family in Chinatown a time or two as a youth, but I hardly think this qualifies as real experience in the neighborhood. Let me tell you, I used to think I knew a good deal about this City, but a wonderful new world has opened up to me. How could I never have been to Pullman? Such a rich history as the first planned industrial town. A place of gorgeous architecture and culture. Did I mention you can actually call yourself the owner of a gut rehabbed Pullman row house, a national historical landmark, for the price of about $150,000? You can’t buy a rundown shack on the North Side for anything close to that. Talk of a possible Red Line extension out to 135th street only sweetens the eventual return on your investment.

In South Chicago, and I can hardly believe I never knew this, there are 576 acres of lakefront shoreline, sitting, undeveloped, since 1992. The former site of the massive (and now defunct) U.S. Steel plant, the empty space is enough to fit the whole of Chicago’s downtown inside with a little room to spare. Can you imagine!? And it’s just been sitting there for the last 17 years. When I think of how vital the lakefront is downtown, on the North Side and in the parts of the South where beaches are prevalent, this is literally mind boggling. Certainly efforts to do something with the space would trickle out and benefit the economically depressed South Chicago neighborhood.

But not content to wait for the City or Big Business to make something happen, South Chicago is perfecting its own cottage industry. I was surprised to learn that the area is one of the “greenest” neighborhoods to be found in our town. Low income, modern, ecologically sound housing sprouts left and right, community gardens pepper the area – I know my good friend Kevin is laughing right about now, marveling at my naivete.

If you read Kevin’s blog, he just finished waxing poetic on his own love for the South and consequent ignorance of the North. We are like the geographic gift of the magi, me making him come to Lincoln Park for hot dogs, him whetting my whistle for the South Side with promises of a Indian fried chicken place. No, that is not an oxymoron. Such a magical place apparently exists and Kev says it does booming business.

It’s 2009. Why is there still such a divisive imaginary line between the North and South Sides?

Tomorrow, I make my way to South Deering. I love my job, in no small part because it is turning me into a more whole Windy City citizen, as I always should have been.

An American Boop in London (August 21, 2009)

So tomorrow night is the night lambs. I am on a plane overseas. As my good friend Jessica so crudely puts it, “Becky Does Britain.” Now, now, in the film of my life (what, you don’t imagine your existence as one long art house picture too?), it’s not going to be THAT kind of scene.

Jessica moved to London a few months back to join her new husband Nick. I will be spending my days and nights catching up with my old friend, including a meetup with two other gals that toured South Africa with Jess and I in 1996, as part of the Chicago Children’s Choir. In the past, Jessica and I going out for a night on the town was akin to waving grain alcohol in front of an open flame – plenty of danger of spontaneous combustion. But we are older married ladies now and our kicks have taken on a new form.

As our loyal readers may or may not know by this point, Boop has both a BA as well as an MA in English Literature. What this means is that I dedicated seven years of my life to studying the history, geography and literary culture of a land which I have never seen. While some might find this odd, I must own that for awhile I found it to be one of my more amusing biographical idiosyncracies. There have been a few near misses in the past, but as of Sunday, the suspense will finally end.

I have no doubt I will love the place and everything I do to amuse myself: a Shakespeare walking tour, morning jogs along the Thames, a Jack the Ripper nighttime crime excursion – even one of those red, double decker bus rides. I have heard London is a painfully expensive place to visit, but as my plane ticket, hotel and tours are already paid for, I think I’ll be able to watch my funds. I want to live as Londoners do: taking the Tube rather than taxis, fish and chips and warm beer at hole-in-the-wall neighborhood pubs. This, my friends, is life.

If I run into Amy Winehouse or the Queen (equally appealing to me), I will be sure to send your regards. I am bringing my laptop with me overseas, and provided my hotels have free WiFi, I will be able to post some of my photos, thoughts and notes, as I did when I went to Israel in April.