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.

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.