The Ogilvie Arches

mcdonalds

I’ve resided in the city of Chicago nearly my entire life. A toddler’s stay in Virginia here, a college move to Urbana, Illinois there. And one exquisitely awful year wasted with the wrong man in Bensenville, a suburb next door to O’Hare Airport. Oh the noise, so unlike the sonic cornucopia of sirens, bus recordings and general boisterousness that are the soundtrack of urban living. The sky screaming of planes, the smell of jet fuel in the air. Roaring, toxic monotony – much like that relationship.

I’m a committed Windy City concrete jungler. Nevertheless, I’ve spent many years traveling the Metra commuter train lines that ferry suburban workers to and from Chicago’s downtown. The operation serves more than 100 communities with 11 routes and 241 stations, a few of which can be found well inside city limits. I have a lot of love for the Chicago Transit Authority for many reasons. It’s another story for another time, maybe a novella. But two things which a trip on the subway or elevated train is not: comfortable or permissive of personal space. With cushy benches that double as nap mats during off-peak hours, upper deck seating and a smoother ride, Metra delivers a generally preferable experience to standing crushed between sweaty bodies while hanging on to a piece of metal for balance.

And the Ogilvie Train Station, which serves as a hub for many North and West Metra lines, has a few cute shops, some valuable services and a pretty amazing food court. This third wonderland has provided the backdrop to many quick office lunches, drink dates and post-happy hour carb loads over the years. Several businesses sell portable adult beverages to go for one’s Metra trip. How can the CTA compete, I ask?

Anyway the food court offers meal options both healthyish…and not. For every Subway or salad venue, there’s a Taco Bell, Arby’s…and of course, a McDonald’s.

The Ogilvie Mickey D’s has been a curious emotional foci, a place I find myself after incandescent episodes of grief. It’s completely disproportionate to my overall McDonald’s experience. Normally I eat at a franchise maybe twice or thrice a year? But when I do, it’s statistically likely the incident will occur at the train station.

  • In spring 2011, I bellied up to the bar after a stranger than fiction near miss with my soon-to-be ex-husband. The intrigue found me hiding behind a train station dumpster, crouching low to the pavement to avoid being seen. Thus forced to engage. Every second of the standoff included acute awareness of juvenile, humiliating behavior. Others saw me and possibly had a few questions, but it wasn’t their eyes I feared. After abandoning defensive crouch, I ate my weight in French fries while waiting for the next train back to the safety of my bachelorette studio.
  • While battling acute migraine headaches between 2012 and 2015, a period marked by many shameful episodes of public vomiting, fried potatoes were often one of the few foods my body would accept. Ensuing visits to the train station McDonald’s counter, where I was oft and understandably mistaken for a hungover mess. There was an advantage to the confusion. On several occasions, I was allowed to cut in line because other patrons feared my sick.
  • In February of this year, I made half a dozen grief trips on the way home from my current employer. Regular readers of this blog, as well as those close to Bob and I personally, know that this was the month where we lost two of our beloved fur babies within a three week timespan. Dead of winter devastation. Daily movement and functionality were hard-fought battles. I began 2016 on a low-carb diet, losing 15 pounds, and kept the regiment up more or less until Memorial Day. But February contained several days without any other fucks beyond immediate survival to give. There were some Quarter Pounders with cheese at the train depot.
  • In April, Prince died. I left work that day around lunchtime, a grief-stricken, sobbing wreck grappling with shock over the loss of an artistic inspiration. Double Quarter Pounder with cheese while feverishly reading online coverage of the Purple One’s untimely demise.
  • I’ve already mentioned Memorial Day. The next day, Tuesday, I threw low carb diet and exercise routines aside upon learning that my dear friend Todd had died. We’d spent time together the previous weekend and he was perfectly well. Six years of unflagging support, sardonic wit, music and political discourse – gone without warning. I can’t even recall what I ate that day. I just remember feeling pulled to the same particular fast food counter on autopilot. Ingesting my emotions in a familiar place had by now become a source of comfort through complete internal chaos.

It might be inferred (because accurate) that 2016 has been a challenge. Separately and together, Bob and I have had a lot of loss to experience and process. Certainly the complexity of it all has spilled over into our personal dynamics. Though we’re stronger and more bound than ever in our second year, the Terrible Twos aren’t just a toddler thing. Last month was hard. And of course it included an Ogilvie McDonald’s culinary therapy session. For whatever reason, I took a picture of the marquee and posted the image to Facebook with the caption “I’ve given up on life.” I suppose it was a cry for some kind of compassion and community during a moment of weakness.

My friend Meg observed, “the Ogilvie McDonald’s is a ‘special’ kind of giving up.” I knew exactly what she meant. What’s a more anonymous, pulsating and lonely experience than a train station? Add a toxic, fatty, solo meal to the mix and one has all the trappings of bad fiction. I don’t write bad fiction. I don’t write fiction at all.

I think the unreality of the scene keeps me coming back. It’s not the real Becky. It’s not my life. Those visits to McDonald’s represent a false sense of willful control during delirium, a way to organize tragic events that are lawless and messy. It’s a second’s consolation, an indulgent, fleeting fullness before beginning long, empty grief work.

My Life as a StepGILF (February 22, 2013)

My Life as a StepGILF

 

 

As many of my friends, family and readers know, I made the decision somewhere along the way to bypass motherhood. A large piece of that resolution stems from a childhood and young adult years spent as the caretaker of several key people in my life: parents, maternal grandparents, younger sister and to a more brief degree, oldest niece. There is a certain amount of resentment involved in being the forced custodian of adults who really should have been looking after me and my sibling, but we all have our juvenile crosses to bear and that was one of mine. Nevertheless, having to think strategically about the safety and security of others, before I was really ready for the job, left an aversion to the responsibility that comes with shepherding a child from womb to world.

There are certainly other factors that influenced the resolve: a sustained and deep-seated fear of the birthing process (that Miracle of Life video in my high school health class was no help at all), the selection of romantic partners during prime childbearing years who lacked the maturity to function as successful co-parents, and yes, I will admit it, the recognition of selfishness on a grand scale. It took me 29 years to finish my formal education, 30 to figure out what I had to do to earn my bread, 32 to actually start developing said career and nearly 34 years to find a man I could trust to do right by me and any child we might create. That’s a late start certainly, but compounding the ticking of the biological clock is a realized preference for my career and personal life over the 24/7 demands of motherhood.

I am a happy and devoted aunt to the children in my circle. My oldest niece and I share happy memories of sleepovers, trips to McDonald’s and many other activities throughout the years. She has also experienced the shame of enduring my tears of pride as she competed in beauty pageants, karate tournaments and school plays. First question when Aunt Becky is invited to an event: “Is she going to cry again?”

But I digress. Two paragraphs ago, and sprinkled throughout other written posts, are mentions of a special man with whom I entered into a committed relationship nearly 10 months ago. In March we will begin the process of looking for a new apartment – the first home we will share together. In ways too numerous to detail here, JC is the one. A lifetime pattern of self-doubt and second guessing has been completely upended by this alliance. As sure as I know the sun will keep rising, Taylor Swift can’t sing live and the U.S. Congress will leverage its inertia to run the nation into the ground, I know that my future lies with this man. How do I know? I just do. I don’t need to wonder – and that’s freaking refreshing.

Of many elements from our growing love and companionship to treasure, one in particular stands out today. Planning a life with JC involves immersing myself in the worlds of the two other most important people in his existence: his 22 year-old daughter and three year-old granddaughter. That’s right. For all intents and purposes, I am a stepmother and stepgrandmother.

JC’s daughter is a grown adult with a full and demanding life. She also has a mother with whom she enjoys a very close relationship. Our association thus far has been quite warm and open, and in time I hope that she’ll be able to look upon me as a trusted friend/older sister figure.

Ah but the little adorable granddaughter! I met her early last summer and I am pleased to report that it was mutual love at first sight. Precocious, loving and impossibly cute, I was responding to calls of “Grandma Becka!” before the first weekend of our acquaintance was out. I might also add she came up with that moniker of her own accord.

At first I reveled in the perverse delight of walking down the street, a 34 year-old white woman holding the hand of a small mixed-race darling who unironically addressed me as “Grandma.” But as the relationship grew, I found the role of granny to be rather a natural fit. I skipped right over the less glamorous aspects of parenthood (rule setter, disciplinarian, moral role model) to the fabulous privileges of grandparentdom. I never say “no” when I can possibly say “yes.” I coddle, spoil and indulge with the best of them. I think “Grandma Becka” is the role I was born to play.

As JC and I plan an out-of-state road trip this weekend to visit the girls, it occurs to me that circumstances have required me to walk unconventional and circuitous routes where interpersonal relationships are concerned. I have been the parent where I should have been allowed to be the dependent. I have been the mother where I might have preferred to be the sister (through no fault of my sibling). I’ve been the divorcee where I would have much rather remained the devoted wife. But this time idiosyncratic situations have yielded wonderful results. Though I never asked for or planned it, I am now a de facto stepmother and grandmother…and I’m overjoyed.

I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke Zero (December 26, 2012)

In 2003, at the age of 25, I had to admit that I often struggled mightily to catch my breath after climbing just one flight of stairs. I had no cardiovascular strength of which to speak and everytime I looked in the mirror, I saw an image reflected of my obese, chain-smoking mother Gloria, who at 40 years of age looked not a day under 50. It was a frightening counter-example to the kind of healthy, vibrant adult life I wanted to live and I vowed to turn things around. I adopted the faddish but successful Atkins diet to kick start what would eventually turn out to be a 60-pound weight loss. I also began exercising, slowly at first, not much more than a little yoga and the occasional treadmill sprint, but it was enough. In the ensuing months I lost the weight and have kept it off for nine years.

One of the greatest challenges I faced after the end of the Atkins-era was a wholesale lack of knowledge of how to eat properly. I was a child of the 80s, raised by busy working parents on a steady diet of convenience foods: Dunkin’ Donuts for weekend breakfasts, white bread bologna sandwiches with sugary juice boxes for lunch, and McDonald’s for dinner. Soda was served in cans all day and snacks usually involved some form of potato chip or the now-defunct Jell-O Pudding Pops. I never met a carb I didn’t adore, knew naught of portion control and if my sister and I were bored, a trip to the fridge or pantry usually followed.

The twin influences of determination and a temporary job processing conference registrations at the American Dietetic Association, commenced a long overdue education of the ins and outs of a sensible meal plan. One of the first, yet toughest things to relinquish, was a long-treasured adoration for soda pop, more specifically Dr. Pepper, Strawberry Crush and my old friend Coca-Cola Classic. One of the first rules of a weight loss plan: don’t drink your calories. And the calories of my favorite sodas are as empty as they come. More than once I was given the advice to simply switch to diet. But why would I do that? I drank soda because it tasted GOOD and Diet Coke, that chemically-developed can of nastiness, never held any appeal. Thus I resigned myself to a carbonated beverage-free life, chalking it up to a necessary health sacrifice.

And then in 2007, it happened: Coke Zero. Fully of the opinion that this impostor was just another shitty variation of the same Diet Coke I’d been rejecting for years, I had Zero interest (Get it? Ha!) in sampling the new product. I was further turned off when I came across the following information on Wikipedia:

“Coca-Cola Zero or Coke Zero is a product of the Coca-Cola Company. It is a low-calorie  variation of Coca-Cola specifically marketed to men, who were shown to associate ‘diet’ drinks with women.”

Bah! There’s nothing that turns me off faster than sexist marketing and I managed to go nearly five full years without being pulled in by Zero’s siren call, its claims to taste almost exactly like its parent product. How could this be? If I could enjoy the taste of Coca-Cola Classic without sacrificing flavor or adding inches to my waistline then why, by cracky, had the company waited so long? Fool me once New Coke (1986), shame on you. Fool me twice….

And what I’m dealing with now is a full-blown Coke Zero addiction. I have never been able to drink coffee (a writer who drinks no coffee nor smokes cigarettes? Clearly I am up to no good) as it makes me feel dizzy and nauseous. I was more than used to dealing with high school all-night study sessions or morning commutes au naturel. Yet suddenly I could not board the daily train to the office without a 12-ounce bottle in hand.

But here’s the rub. Although I have come to adore Coke Zero, to depend on the caffeine jolt that it provides my 34 year-old body, I know the absence of calories hardly makes the beverage GOOD for me. If I wanted to identify most of the ingredients listed on the back of the package, I’d need to consult my chemist boyfriend for a little help. My friend and fitness trainer Rob has absolutely savaged me for buying into the hype. Dammit, the hype is tasty!

So what’s a girl to do? Can I go back to the woman I was, an imbiber of tap water and unsweetened iced tea (or at least I was until I discovered Splenda, but that’s another obsessive food post for another time)? Now that I have been to the top of Coke Zero mountain, am I capable of complacently return to the valley of hydrating liquids with no additives? There seems to be Zero chance.

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

weird_animal_friendship_9

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.