Rahm the Edible (February 25, 2015)

Almost exactly four years ago, I wrote a piece for the now-defunct online magazine RootSpeak entitled, Rahm the Inevitable. The column was published just before Chicago’s general Mayoral election that year, a time when Rahm Emanuel’s march to City Hall had the pre-ordained feel of a Hillary Clinton 2008 – without the Barack Obama spoiler. Here’s a snippet of my February ‘11 observations:

“Now that the wide variety of political shenanigans that have come to exemplify the 2011 Chicago mayoral race have been exhausted, it seems there’s nothing left to do but wait for Tuesday’s electoral returns. At that point we may stop referring to former U.S. Congressman and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel as the ‘presumed favorite,’ move beyond his Goliath campaign and start seeing the new CEO of Chi-town in action.

After all, there’s no way anyone could take him at this point, right? Rahmbo has five times more campaign funds at his disposal than nearest fiscal competitor, Gery Chico. His slick print ads and television spots depict the handsome, well-dressed former ballet dancer as a family man who cares about the middle class, ready to make the ‘tough choices’ that will put Chicago back on the fast track to claiming its status as an affordable, world class city. A few of his TV plugs contain public endorsements from not one but two U.S. Presidents, current POTUS Barack Obama, as well as immediate predecessor William Jefferson Clinton.”

Back in 2011, Emanuel emerged as the Windy City’s clear victor, logging 55.35 percent of the total vote count, compared with Gery Chico’s limp 23.97.

Well kids, what a difference a leap year makes, eh? Over the course of his first term, “the ‘tough choices’ that will put Chicago back on the fast track to claiming its status as an affordable, world class city” turned out to be a complete gutting of the Chicago Public School system, while siphoning funds to promote North Side charter schools for the elite. South Side children that were redistricted without their consent have been forced to hoof it through dangerous gang territory.

Another of those “tough choices” was the privatization of the Chicago Transit Authority’s payment operations, with the 2013 debut of the Ventra card system. I think Rick Perlstein of The Nation spoke for many of us when he observed:

“The problem is not just the profusion of private contractors who do the public’s business so poorly; it’s the fact that the public’s business is being so relentlessly privatized by the government executives in charge. Slowly, the perceived imperative to privatize has become the political tail that wags the policy dog. The results are before us. Why, indeed, was this massive change in how Chicagoans pay for their bus and train fares initiated in the first place?”

Coming off predecessor Mayor Daley’s absurd parking meter lease “deal” which screwed Chicago for 75 years, a repeat of this type of performance wasn’t interpreted as very populist of Rahm. But if the ravaging of public education and the city’s transit system were not enough, there was plenty else about Emanuel to rankle Chicago’s largely blue color spirit: the close ties with new Republican Governor and enemy of organized labor, Bruce Rauner, the arrogance, the bullying, the closed door meetings. The antithetical “man of the people” conduct that exemplified the Mayor’s first term finally led Rolling Stone to declare, Rahm Emanuel Has a Problem with Democracy.

Well after yesterday’s general re-election performance, in which Rahmbo was forced into a surprising April runoff against second place finisher, Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, he certainly has a bigger problem with democracy now.

Here’s the pesky thing about voters. Sometimes no matter how hard you try to persuade them that you’re in their corner, they take a look at your record and decide not to believe you. The tide of public sentiment was running against Emanuel before the first polling place ever opened its doors. And here’s what else changed since I wrote about Rahm’s first Mayoral run in 2011.

  1. This round, Emanuel had THIRTY times more campaign funds at his disposal than his nearest fiscal competitor.
  2. He is the sitting CEO of Chicago, and incumbents are generally considered the electoral favorite with few exceptions.
  3. It seems unbelievable even as I type, but Garcia entered the race a mere four months ago. Rising from relative obscurity as a member of the Cook County Board of Commissioners, he took an astounding 33.9 percent of the popular vote compared with Rahm’s 45.4.

    That last number is the most important one. Because having failed to secure the required 50 percent plus one vote, the former Rahm the Inevitable must now face an April 7 runoff against Garcia in which nothing is certain. All that money. All that love from the political elite. And yet it’s more than possible that Emanuel could be out of a job in six weeks.

The people spoke yesterday and I suspect they’ll raise their voices even louder in the coming days. Anecdotal evidence suggests that Tuesday’s near record-low turnout was a combination of bad weather and voter apathy. When folks stop believing they can change anything, they tend to stay home.

By any measure Rahm Emanuel already lost on February 24, 2015. A megawatt celebrity sitting Mayor with 30 times the budget, and infinity political supporters (including the POTUS), is back shilling for votes today. But he’s been wounded. The previously scared but hungry can smell his blood. I relish the pile-on, not out of spite or schadenfreude, but because like most citizens, I understand that what’s good for the Windy City is good for me. And another four years of Rahm is a bad deal. I’m grateful that my fellow Chicagoans finally feel empowered to reject it.

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CPS Teacher Strike 2012: Unarmed Kids (September 11, 2012)

Courtney Sinisi (cq), left, stands next to her daughter Mia, 7, while the second grader holds up a sign in support of the Chicago Teachers Union at the CTU "strike headquarters" outside Teamster City Local 705 in Chicago on Saturday, Sept. 8, 2012. Teachers, paraprofessionals, school clinicians, parents and supporters picked up picket signs and other strike materials. Members of the CTU plan to strike Monday if contract negotiations fail. (Keri Wiginton/Chicago Tribune) B582362464Z.1 ....OUTSIDE TRIBUNE CO.- NO MAGS, NO SALES, NO INTERNET, NO TV, CHICAGO OUT, NO DIGITAL MANIPULATION...

 

Throughout my primary school and junior high years, I attended a little hole-in-the-wall Lutheran school called Pilgrim in Chicago’s Ravenswood neighborhood. Though I don’t have much use for these skills now (notwithstanding the occasional drunken parlor trick), I memorized the books of the Old Testament in order and recited Bible verses in addition to acquiring more progressive knowledge like sexual education and critical thinking. Believe it or not, challenging our pastor on issues of religious dogma was unpunishable, even encouraged.

I enjoyed eight years as a rather large fish in a small pond. With a graduating class of 12 students, and all of them white except for one Mexican-immigrant kid named Jose Echevarria, it was easy to achieve and maintain social and academic dominance. In the meantime, while I appreciated the humanities-centered education I received, I lamented a curriculum devoid of World Geography, advanced mathematics and rigorous scientific principles. Some topics necessarily gave way in order to save time for the Catechism.

The world appeared set to open for me as I prepared to leave a tiny Lutheran institution in favor of Chicago’s public school system (CPS baby!). As a new enrollee in Lincoln Park High School’s much-vaunted International Baccalaureate Program (I.B.), a course of study which I must point out, earned derision from a variety of Tea Party crackpots earlier this year for its encouragement of global citizenship, I had access to technology, student diversity and scholarship that I would not have otherwise gleaned by hewing to the religious lines I had been walking.

I recognize that my CPS experience does not mirror that of the City’s general student population, where the matriculation rate recently touched a new high of 60 percent but college graduation percentages fall below 10. Post-Great Recession, there numbers do not speak well of students’ ability to compete for jobs in a hyper-connected world that requires more education than ever. But let us not pretend that there aren’t mitigating factors beyond disengaged students and uninspiring teachers as certain anti-union factions would have it. Poverty and a frustrating lack of modern resources, compounded by children in gang-infested neighborhoods who do all they can just to get to school alive are certainly at play.

As the nation is now fully aware, Chicago Public School teachers voted to walk the picket line this week for the first time in 25 years. I am grateful that I was never impacted by this learning interruptus, a distraction that the City’s struggling students don’t need, but I understand that the fight between Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the Chicago Teachers’ Union is about far more than pay raises. I join many of my friends and colleagues in bemoaning a state of political affairs that has rendered urban children collateral damage in this war. I respect that the Teachers’ Union feels the need to put its foot down before issues of classroom size, resources and the recent vilification of personnel render doing the job of educating impossible. It’s hard to sympathize with a Mayor who appears so little invested in the City’s school system that his own children attend high-priced private institutions.

It’s difficult to escape the impression however, that there will be no winners once both sides have laid down their arms. Educators will remain underpaid and overtaxed with too few resources. School administrators will not glean the increases in standardized test scores so desired without addressing systemic failings that put the City’s children at a disadvantage before they set foot inside the classroom. One outcome however is certain: as the strike completes day two and families without alternative childcare options struggle to provide their offspring with productive, often unsupervised, methods of spending their newfound free time, it is the kids who pay the long-term price.

May this standoff conclude with utmost alacrity. Children who have seen their parents lose jobs, homes and more deserve a break.

Republicans: IB Program’s Global Citizenship is Irritating (January 15, 2012)

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Earlier today I enjoyed Sunday brunch with two high school classmates, Faith and Gary. Gary and I have been inseparable for the better part of 20 years, while Faith and I always kept in touch as we went off to college, started careers, married, reared children (her case), divorced (mine) and reinvented those careers (both). The three of us were all part of the prestigious International Baccalaureate (IB) program as secondary school chums. The IB curriculum’s Swiss founders, presciently foretelling the coming of a flat, borderless economic, technical and social planet, engineered the program in 1968 with a goal of helping young people “develop the intellectual, personal, emotional and social skills to live, learn and work in a rapidly globalizing world.” There are 3,318 IB schools in 141 countries.

IB, quite literally, prepares one for the multicultural complexities and rigors of life. There are no lazy U.S.-based educational standards to provide students with a free pass to college. I never worked so hard, with such a sense of reward. On graduation day in June of 1996, I held two diplomas in my hands: one from the Chicago Public School system and one from the IB Program. I knew I had earned both and had the skills to compete with any 18 year-old student from any nation. When I walked onto campus as a freshman at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, no slouch an institution of higher learning by any means, I was floored by the freedom and comparatively undemanding workload I enjoyed.

The goal of the IB Program, per its website, is to put young scholars through a “demanding two-year curriculum leading to final examinations and a qualification that is welcomed by leading universities around the world.” Indeed. I took no less than seven, three-hour long IB exams in subjects ranging from French composition to advanced biology to trigonometry, theory of knowledge and psychology. I completed a 4,000 word extended essay in the subject area of my choosing with the help of a faculty advisor, and satisfied the 100-hour requirements of CAS activities (community service, arts and sports). It was a full and diverse life, in addition to the AP exams, SATs and other milestones of the American high school career.

It’s quite true that with all my extracurriculars, scholastic demands and a steady boyfriend, I didn’t have an abundance of free time. But I lived smack in the middle of the City of Chicago and I didn’t have occasion to fall into any of the Windy City’s urban traps for wayward students either. Between the years of 1992 and 1996 when Gary, Faith and I were enrollees, Lincoln Park High School was the only institution within city limits to sponsor the program. Grade school students from all corners of Chicago prepped for the entrance exams, with immense peer competition for the roughly 120 spots. The program was expected to have a 50 percent attrition rate by the time all IB exams were completed. In other words, half of us were expected to fail.

The Lincoln Park High School of the early 1990s isn’t quite what it is today. Low-income students from nearby Cabrini Green outnumbered WASPy, middle-class types. Gang activity was a daily event and Chicago Police were no strangers to the hallways. Yet as a student of the IB program, there was no time or energy, not even the temptation really, to indulge in drugs, alcohol or violent pursuits. I simply had too much riding on my day-to-day effort. I came from a broken home and the IB program, quite frankly, was my ticket out. If my resolve should wobble, I need only remind myself the dropout halflife experienced by my non-IB counterparts.

All things considered and precociously exacting as my teen years were, it was the best situation in which I could have found myself, especially when set in relief against the structure-free, violently unpredictable, toxic environment of my family life. Academics and the other requirements of the IB program were an escape, one that required me to think broadly and forwardly with a clear-head.

Within this general and personal context, who on the planet could view the IB program through the prism of sinister anarchy and unpatriotic indoctrination? Michele Bachmann (R-Minnesota), the Tea Party’s poster crackpot.

Back to brunch with Faith and Gary. Faith mentioned in passing that Ms. Bachmann had publicly decried the program this past summer as a force undermining American unity. I took the Internet upon my return home and found the following explanation from Mother Jones magazine: [Bachmann and other] “right-wing critics argued that IBO was quietly weaning kids off the antiquated notion of national sovereignty and American ideals and pushing them to become world citizens. (This, among other reasons, is why conservatives were so irked by Obama’s statement that he considers himself a ‘citizen of the world’). IBO students would be taught to revere the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights and embrace a doctrine of moral relativism that values gay rights, redistribution of wealth, and the notion that the earth itself is a living organism.”

Well we can’t have that now, can we? If American students are to continue their competitive decline and complete their transformation into the ignorant, distracted sheep so valued by Big Business, Big Banks, Big Oil and a corrupt U.S. government, better to keep them away from lofty, radical notions that we’ve only got one race and one planet to protect.

A Generation X Bedtime Story (July 20, 2010)

Once upon a time, there were three high school girlfriends who planned to grow up and cut impressive business figures. All were students in a prestigious International Baccalaureate (IB) program at a respected Chicago Public School (that didn’t used to be an oxymoronic statement in the mid 1990s). Each had their own field of study where they planned to make their bones.

Ally, a lover of history and politics, attended the University of Chicago, and graduated in 200o with honors before entering the consulting field with a renowned Windy City firm. She worked long hours but traveled to many places and amassed a solid wad of cash that she hoped would prove to her conservative, immigrant parents that she had, in fact, made it. Meanwhile, she attempted to quash the persistent voice that periodically yelped, uninvited, “but I am not making a difference!”

Becky attended a respected Big 10 University, earning a Bachelor’s in English Literature, followed several years later by a Master’s. In the interim, she told herself that writing was just a hobby, certainly not lucrative enough, and that degree collection was just something to check off her “bucket list.” By way of distraction, she tried to content herself with climbing up the corporate ladder, having reached middle management at a giant non-profit, and the security that comes with it (high salary, 401k, and 5 weeks vacation time).

Carol also attended the University of Chicago, and stuck around after earning her B.A. to take up a law degree. Carol married young and started a family but balanced these demands with those of a well compensated, high power corporate attorney. Like Ally, Carol’s parents were also conservative, hard working immigrants, who looked at their daughter’s full plate and satisfactory income with a strong sensation of pride. But Carol lay awake at nights wondering if her young daughters would ever feel the same about all the time she spent away from home.

Ally, Becky and Carol, as close as friends could be, inevitably drifted a bit in their 20s. Marriages were celebrated, babies born, and relocations carried out. Through the time honored tradition of the 10-year high school reunion, aided by the social bonds of Facebook, the three women reconnected. On a Saturday night in July of this year, the ladies met at Carol’s place for a dinner party. Husbands and children (one of them the unborn baby that Ally is expecting in December) completed the former threesome.

But for these new family members and the obvious passage of time, Ally, Becky and Carol found that their dynamic was relatively intact. Conversation, laughs and intimacies came as easily as ever. However, when the inevitable question presented itself – “So, what are you up to?” – it was apparent for the first time that evening that in fact, a whole lot more than anyone suspected had changed.

Ally relayed the news that several years back, she had left consulting to return to school, earning her education certificate. She now lives in the Jefferson Park neighborhood of Chicago, teaching math and science to middle school kids. She earns considerably less than she once did, but owned that if she had been honest with herself as an undergrad, this is the career she always wanted. The happy smile that set her face aglow, as she held hands with her husband and discussed the impending birth of their first child, served as testament that Ally had found what she was looking for.

Becky mentioned that she had toiled in a variety of corporate operations positions, with a number of successful outfits that granted her incremental increases in title and salary. Becky would begin each role, flush with enthusiasm, only to find herself curiously bored and burnt out in two years or less. One could, in fact, set their clock by this pattern. In May 2009, after the death of a very close friend, she indulged the long haranguing voice that told her life was too short to let this cycle continue. She left corporate America to strike out as a freelance writer by night, publishing in a number of circles, then took a huge pay decrease to manage communications and social media for a human service coalition by day.

Carol just returned to Chicago from Boston, where she moved with her family to accept a lucrative law firm position. She had lived on a property she co-owned with her parents, and could never understand why she wasn’t happier. A few months ago, Carol and her husband finally figured out that Beantown was a dead end. Carol resigned, sold her share of the property and returned to the Midwest. Her hubby accepted a full-time position which covered the family’s immediate financial needs, and Carol was able to tell her daughters that she’d never miss another minute of their lives.

Meet Ally, Becky and Carol – the anti-hippies. Whereas the flower children of the 1960s have been castigated for fomenting the freewheeling, idealistic social revolution of the time, before promptly “selling out” and morphing into the very institutions they once decried, it would seem that certain members of Generation X are playing out this drama in reverse. Raised in the 1980s “Me Decade,” they went through their formal education with tunnel vision, like good little disciples of Gordon Gekko. “Make money, earn awards, plan for retirement,” was the mantra, and they sure did their best to stay on the train to financial and professional glory.

But at some point, independently, and often in separate parts of the nation, these three woman took a good look inside and realized that unhampered ambition may have been good for the bank account, and great for the bragging rights of their folks, but awful for their souls and life satisfaction.

For years now, the death of idealism has been mostly accepted as fact. But the conversation which exposed these changes in destiny gives pause, followed very closely by excitement. Is this idealism in its new form? Not the college-aged anarchistic and rootless version, which is destined to burn bright before blowing out. What we find instead is a slower, more methodical, but eventually, more certain feeling that we must do more for our communities, our families and ourselves?

It seems there is hope yet – hope for more than a predetermined greedy, lazy, shortsighted, and selfish path through life. Lives are changing one mid-30s crisis at a time.

Sleep well.