The Purloined Play Lot

Play lot

In 1984, a tiny Lutheran grade school on Chicago’s North Side received an infrastructure upgrade in the form of a small rear play lot. This was an exciting event for the student body. At the time Pilgrim Lutheran did not have a gymnasium (I believe it still does without) although the auditorium was suitable for physical education because there was no permanent seating to be considered. But a new park, hidden within the school’s property like a small faux green oasis! For a then-working class, inner city neighborhood institution, it seemed so luxurious.

The two most vivid memories I have from my days on the play lot both involve music videos. This is as it must be. In 1986 Madonna’s “Open Your Heart” from the True Blue album was everything. It definitely was for young Becky. I recall sitting on the tire bridge with a few of my little gal pals having one heck of a singalong. Knowing every lyric and note as though they were the Gospel read in First Communication class, I was the envy of all. A self-aware eight year-old with a rough home life rarely experiences that level of peer triumph.

That same year, I was enthralled by Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer” – song as well as MTV experience. Trying to duplicate one of the band members’ high-wire stage floats, I stood atop the play lot’s multi-colored, metal geodesic dome structure. I’m an infamous klutz so you can probably predict what ensued. I did a half flip off the dome that concluded with my person lying on the AstroTurf in an ignominious heap, head colliding hard with the bottom rung. I escaped concussion but the Jon Bon Jovi stage diving career was over.

Last week Tuesday, the day after birthday number 38, Bob, Jude and I walked down the alley behind our building to find the play lot lying on the school’s basketball court in disassembled pieces. From my vantage point since moving in with Bob in June 2015, I’ve watched my alma mater grow in population and funding, using its resources to make positive investments in facilities and programming. I’m proud to see the institution that counts my maternal grandparents, mother, sister and I as emeritus, surviving and thriving.

But I wasn’t ready to say goodbye to the play lot without warning. Self-inflicted head injuries aside, nothing bad ever happened to me there. There aren’t a lot of environments about which I can say this from that period of my life. I took a disbelieving Bob for a viewing of the site on our first date. He’d lived 150 feet away from the mini-playground for three and a half years without ever suspecting its existence. It was a safe, happy space that felt like the special secret of 22 years’ worth of children who passed through Pilgrim’s hallways. Kids like myself who had no other place to channel Madonna with abandon.

I have no idea what they plan to do replace the old turf and dismantled equipment. I was hoping that the project workers would move pieces of the geodesic dome into the alley dumpster, where I’d look for an advantageous time to swipe a memento. A metal bar that may once have supported my small head. But it seems like there was an independent pickup of the play lot’s remains. I hope it means the stomping grounds of my early childhood will be rebuilt somewhere else, allowing spirited little girls to perform modern musical acrobatics.

Change is a necessary part of life, although it would be swell if it were less painful. I’m keeping an open mind. For all I know the old play lot simply made way for something even more thrilling. A place to build new memories. School starts again next week and Bob and I can always use a date night.


The Voracity of Death (November 16, 2014)

Early this week, a former colleague from the American Dental Association died suddenly. He went in his sleep after telling his wife in the evening that he didn’t feel well. The cause of death has not been made public, but it’s presumed to be some variation of heart attack/aneurysm/stroke. The arbitrary kind of turn that the story of life and its ending takes everyday.

Ed was in his late 50s. A few years ago, my friends and co-workers Diane and Jimmy volunteered for an Association charitable activity with me, as a change of civic pace from our usual happy hour/sushi bonding. Ed gave us all a ride in his car, which was just coated in dog hair, evidence of his pet devotion. He wasn’t the least bit concerned that we’d show up for duty at a food dispensary matted with health code violations. Ed was a weird, smart dude who loved a good debate and really didn’t worry about what people thought. I like weird, smart dudes. The world will be a little less interesting without him.

Later in the week, semi-famous reality TV star Diem Brown died at age 32 after a nine-year battle with ovarian cancer. This was on my radar in part because of a long and somewhat embarrassing love affair with MTV’s The Challenge, a competition series featuring former cast members from reality groundbreakers The Real World and Road Rules. I have a ceaseless appetite for frenemy tropes and the drunken, televised antics of my generation (and slightly younger people). It has a way of reinforcing that my own life choices are imperfectly acceptable.

There have been a bevy of seasons over the last decade with absurd “storylines,” fights and stomach churning behavior. What can I say? I traffic in highbrow and lowbrow in equal parts. But one narrative elicited no schadenfreude from viewers: the ongoing health battles of Diem Brown and her touching on again, off again relationship with ultimate sexy bad boy, CT Tamburello. Diem was always a competitor first, a conflicted lover second and a cancer patient third. CT brought out the best in Diem and never allowed her to hide her feelings or her chemo-induced baldness, even as he continued to make mistakes that drove them apart. They were an easy and beautiful pair for whom to root, and I always believed that once they finished sewing their respective wild oats, these two crazy kids would figure it out.

As of Friday, it is clear they’ll never have the opportunity. After her third battle with ovarian cancer, Diem succumbed to the disease, after devoting the best years of her young life to fighting it.

Of course all of this made me think of Jesika. Of ovarian cancer and how I might hate this killer above all others. The silent, hungry assassin sneaks up on the body, even the most carefully monitored and healthy ones, eating them slowly until it’s too late. All the while, the host feels just fine…until she doesn’t. And in too many cases, as the disease’s average age of onset continues to decline, she doesn’t get to marry the love of her life, or reach the full height of her cultivated career, or make a huge mess of it all and start over. She doesn’t get to do anything at all.

Ovarian cancer also claimed my paternal grandmother June, when she was in her 60s. I was there in her Wisconsin home-turned-hospice staging area in the summer of 1991. I was 12 years old watching her waste away, struggle to breathe. Grandma Crowley had six full-grown children and numerous grandkids. She’d been a great beauty who loved a good Manhattan. She’d lived. But that didn’t make it any easier to bear the live and needless suffering of one of the few adults who really gave a damn about my sister and I.

So much pain and death this week – for the living and those who experienced a karmic fluke or lost a war. So much futile anger and fervent wishing with no outlet. Such an inability to pull out a more profound lesson than the trite and oft-repeated warning to make every moment count.

Planning for the future is important. Some of us excel in the exercise, obsess about it. It’s a comforting illusion of control, a ritual we must repeat instead of scanning our environment fearfully or repeatedly rushing to the exam table. We will make our imprint. We will not be forgotten. We will not succumb to panic.

But the acts of living, of building, of wanting and working can, and often will be interrupted, painfully and prematurely. And there’s nothing we can do about it. That’s the truth. And it hurts.

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

Things Fall Apart_How Chinua Achebe Opened My Eyes



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.