The Real America (August 26,2010)

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It seems that the modern political trend is to never unchain ourselves from the madness of American election cycles. The moment the ballot box is emptied and the winner declared, campaigning starts anew. This leaves little time for say, governing and serving the people, which is the ostensible job of legislators. More and more it seems that our politicians look at messaging, photo ops and pandering toward the “middle” as their full-time jobs.

Thus every couple of years, we are treated to divisive, nonsense “issues” that are designed to unite each respective party’s base and distract the electorate from the truth – that since the last time we cast our votes, in effect, nothing has changed. In 2004, we were treated to Republican rhetorical humdrum about attempting to rewrite the Constitution to formally outlaw gay marriage. This was a lot easier than having to account for the systemic intelligence failures and increasing body count of the Iraq war of choice. Though the effort to insert discrimination into the Constitution would never have worked, Republic strategists got what they wanted. Their base, newly mobilized and energized by the terrifying thought that the mechanics of romantic partnership might be above their pay grade, turned out in droves to re-elect W. Because nothing, not the impending burst of the housing bubble, the long practice of corporate off-shoring that disemboweled opportunities for the American work force, or the hundreds of billions of dollars wasted on unnecessary combat, is scarier than same sex couples running around willy nilly without the blessing of the far right.

I know I am coming off rather partisan here, and admittedly I lean pretty far to the left in comparison with the right-hooking trend of today’s voter. But I am equally disgusted with Democratic leadership. As it was in 2004, they have assumed the defensive position (has nobody told them they actually WON both houses of Congress in 2008?) and allowed their foes across the aisle to determine the talking points.

Instead of using the run-up to the November elections as an opportunity to clarify their positions, to explicate the complicated pieces of legislation passed in the last two years – really important work in the areas of health care and financial reform that John and Jane Q. Public have yet to fully comprehend – they are allowing the conversation to veer once again toward disharmony. Thus instead of conveying in clear bullet point fashion what health care reform really means for the average American family, how their lives and balance sheets will improve incrementally, Obama and the Democratic leadership are permitting themselves to be dragged into the Tea Party trenches. When conversation turns toward repealing the 14th Amendment say, or the current outrage du jour – the “Ground Zero” mosque plans, Democrats inevitably fumble. How happy was I when Obama stood up and declared that the planned center was the very essence of freedom of religion and unity that makes this nation great? Yet how soon that pride turned into sadness the following morning when the President flinched, bullied by Fox News into clarifying that he was not commenting on the “wisdom” of following through with the planed mosque.

Sometimes it gets so that I lose my sense of reality. Following the news cycle, reading punditry online, watching the President who was elected in a wave of “change” enthusiasm, punt on the potentially politically unpopular, it is easy to get sucked into a demoralizing listlessness. Have we all become so angry and dogmatic that there is no room for a true dialectic anymore?

However I was witness to ample evidence this past weekend, in my own backyard, that perhaps many of us are just tired of talking. It appears that if there’s one thing we can all get behind, in a mutually respective and tolerant way, it is the right to party. I watched the happenings of a two-day street festival from the comfort of my balcony. Rather than experience the event on the ground, my bird’s eye view of party goers acted as nectar for the writer’s muse.

I live in a rather eclectic and diverse community by any standard, one of the northernmost neighborhoods in the City of Chicago. The vibrant area is marked by a huge population of recent African immigrants, Latinos, artists, musicians and a sizable LGBT enclave. I wondered, given the toxic socio-political environment in which we wade, if any of the current intolerance and anger would find its way to the streets of Rogers Park. I sat for two days like an armed sentry guard, on high alert for the first signs of unrest. I was people watching until my eyes hurt. I was determined not to let anything escape my notice.

You know what I saw instead of the looked for disharmony? Good fathers with healthy children of all races and sexual orientations, with excited youngsters running into their arms. I saw older men of every religious bent drinking too much and embarrassing their wives with outdated dance moves. I saw an energetic member of the counterculture perform an impromptu rhythmic hula hoop routine to the delight of the neighborhood children. I saw kids of every conceivable background, uniting to do what kids do: chase each other around and throw trash into large puddles of water. No angry, bigoted word emerged from any corner of this raucous event.

And that’s when I wished with all my heart for recording equipment and my own national TV station. I wanted to capture this colorful embrace of summer, and life itself, and make this the headline story on the evening news. “This just in! People still know how to get along and have fun! Film at 11.” Sadly, this has become the untold story in a nation that has lost its appetite for setting the standard of civic engagement in the free world. But maybe, just maybe if we could release ourselves from the chokehold of politicians and the media, the habit of being told who we are and what we want, we could learn to enjoy each other again. Maybe if the rancor were cleared from the air, we could begin to start solving the numerous problems facing our nation. The energy is out there, and some of it, lo and behold, is hate free.

Confessions of a 32 Year-old Control Freak (August 19, 2010)

Control freak

Those of you who check-in with my work periodically, or know me personally, may be aware that I am just a wee bit of an exercise fanatic. And by “wee bit” I mean, a complete slave to my physical fitness routines. I can never quite decide if I push myself so hard because I love having an outlet for my considerable energies (and there is definitely something to that), or because I am compelled by my own phobias: weakness, aging, dependency, wasted time and potential. Somewhere in the messy recesses of my mind both schools of thought fight for dominance, but on the days where I feel grumpy, bloated and unmotivated, it’s definitely fear that keeps me going.

In 2010, I made a concerted effort to push myself harder than ever. In registering myself for an 8k race, I set out to try something in which I never fancied an interest: running. Previously believing this activity too boring and repetitive, I never realized how much I’d love it until I took myself outdoors, in the dead of winter. Forget about the bracing cold: I had serious people watching to do. I was also able to stay abreast of the latest developments in my neighborhood, and made a mid-January game of jumping over ice patches and drilling through snow drifts. All I needed was my iPod and 45 minutes. In fact some of my best thinking was often done with red cheeks, a full sweat and the open air.

From January until the end of June, I was the Little Boop that Could: running ever farther, faster and making up new courses for myself in order to sustain my interest. I’d run in the sand at the beach near my apartment. At 5 AM, I’d take a turn past the row of nursing homes on Sheridan Avenue in Rogers Park. The elderly are notoriously early risers, and a great many fascinating conversations were held as I stopped to catch my breath and imbibe a swig of G2.

One fine Saturday morning just as summer had begun, I knew something was terribly wrong. I stepped out of bed to start my day. My usual morning routine of feeding the cat, sweeping the floors and checking in with the New York Times columnists (routines are clearly huge with me) was rudely delayed by an agonizing, hot pain I felt on the underside of my right foot. I was taken aback, but as the discomfort disappeared almost as quickly as it came, I did what I always do when confronted with the possibility of my own physical limitation: I ignored it.

My trainer, the long suffering and loyal Rob, asked me nicely to stop running until we could figure out what was going on. Bah! What does he know anyway? He is only a perfect physical specimen, trainer, and veteran of the Navy’s Search and Rescue Program. I am, after all, invincible. Can’t he see that? So for the ensuing seven weeks, I disregarded every obvious signal that I should slow down on the cardio and see a doctor.

Flash forward to Sunday, August 8th, better known as the day of my 32nd birthday. After wearing insensible shoes to my birthday party the evening before, the bottom of my right foot was on fire – worse than ever. Naturally, I decided that the only thing to do was throw on a pair of flip flops and head out with my friends to a street fest. Four hours later, I could hardly walk or stand. I drew the conclusion that it might finally be time to lay off the running. Ya think?

However due to my lifelong phobia of all things medical (stories of me running from nuns with needles, and ripping IVs out of my arm in the emergency room abound), it was going to take a lot more than lameness to motivate me to seek a doctor’s opinion. This is when a ridiculously patient Rob threw his hands in the air and said, “It’s bigger than me Becky. Get an x-ray.” I wish I were able to include an image of his obvious fatigue and disgust as he uttered these words, with the resignation that can only accompany a long acquaintance with yours truly. To say I am stubborn and bull headed is an insult to the relative pliancy of that animal. Even more unendurable? I am usually not a bit sorry to be so.

When I had exhausted every conceivable option (like wishing with all my might that the injury would heal itself), I finally agreed to go to an urgent care facility after work last Friday. The doctor was very thorough, taking multiple x-rays and asking questions that clearly exposed my complicity in aggravating what was likely a minor issue at the outset.

I have deep tissue tendonitis at the front of my right foot. It is very painful and very debilitating, even though it sounds silly (and feels that way too). I have been prescribed two weeks of anti-inflammatories, with an absolute ban on any avoidable walking or standing. At the end of a fortnight, if all is not much better, then I compelled to undergo an MRI, which will likely reveal a tear requiring surgery.

So off I hobbled for the necessary quiet time to heal and castigate myself for my own stupidity. Eddie graciously offered to pick up slack around the house, and I have a group of wonderfully supportive co-workers who have generously assisted me with a variety of mundane tasks that would otherwise require movement.

Am I grateful for these blessings? Most certainly not. Instead I am angry at myself, ashamed of my dependence on others and well aware that this is a crisis of my own making. I do not even have the grace to trust my husband to manage the household in my stead. The mean part of me worries he’ll just mess everything up that I have worked so hard to keep in order. And forget about setting him loose unsupervised in the grocery store. Instead I had him push the cart while I was holding onto the back of it, feet up on the rails. When you are limping through Whole Foods while wearing a pair of men’s slippers, you tend to stop worrying about your image.

General, we have met the enemy….and it is us.

Gang Members Get Schooled in the RP (July 29, 2010)

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I grew up in Chicago, and couldn’t be more proud to call this busy, diverse metropolis my home. Most of my youth was divided between the neighborhoods of Ravenswood (where my tiny Lutheran grade school sat) and Portage Park, where my folks bought a home in 1985. I attended a fairly rough Chicago Public high school, but no venue was better suited to teach me the street smarts that are necessary in life. Instead of lamenting my lot, I celebrated it, somehow realizing that overprotection doesn’t well prepare one for the adult world.

Thanks to my secondary education, I learned a lot more than how to write an essay or dissect a fetal pig. I learned how to jostle myself and my heavy book bag through a tight crowd, without letting the bigger, meaner looking kids intimidate me. I learned how to focus and avoid the distractions of cross clique trash talk. I learned how to look beyond graffiti and grime to appreciate the architecture beneath. Most importantly I learned that all of us kids, regardless of race, religion or socioeconomic status, wanted the same things: good grades, parental approval, freedom and a love life. We also rebelled against the same influences, albeit in our own different ways: authority, convention and the status quo.

Though there were some dicey and violent incidents that occurred on school grounds, I developed a sixth sense for staying away from trouble, in ways I might not have had I attended a more pristine institution. Gang activity was always around, but if you steered clear of the people sucked into that world (and you well knew who they were), everything was copacetic. I learned to feel sorrow, rather than disdain, for the peers who found their lives over before they really began- often from broken (and notably fatherless) homes, victims of world weary hopelessness at an age that should be flush with promise and opportunity.

Several months ago, I relocated with my husband to the lake front neighborhood of Rogers Park. This area, from the 1970s until fairly recently, was well known as one of the most dangerous places North of downtown. But like every other waterfront locale in Chicago, Rogers Park has enjoyed a boom in development and gentrification. However, this economic rise is exclusive, and one of the many reasons I take issue with the policies of Mayor Daley. It is not difficult to walk the streets and encounter the faces of those who have been left behind: the homeless and mentally ill who line up to solicit change from commuters disembarking the Red Line, the pre-op transsexual, shabbily made up, and furtively looking for love at the local bars, the exhausted mother with five children who walks down the street, heavy with grocery parcels paid for with limited WIC card means.

Part of the reason I was drawn to the area is that it reminded me so much of my high school experience. But now, unlike then, I am in a position to advocate on my neighborhood’s behalf. I am enjoying the diversity, the richness of my daily experience and I do not want to see people with limited opportunity and resources driven from the area. Through my day job as an activist for human services, my involvement with the Rogers Park Business Alliance, and through connections with the local alderman’s office, I am striving to make sure that the wealthy white collar crowd doesn’t make diversity an endangered species.

However, just as it was in high school, gang activity in the area threatens to encroach upon the collective peace of mind, and efforts to uplift the community. As a student, as I mentioned already, I knew who the players were and how to keep my distance. I do not always have this same benefit today.

On Tuesday night, around 9 PM, not an hour after alighting from the train and walking through my front door, on the same street that serves as playground to scores of unburdened neighborhood children enjoying long summer hours, two rival gangs (the Latin Kings and the Grand Disciples – well known to residents of Chicago) decided to open fire on each other on the crowded block. After talking with my neighbors, I learned that the melee was started over the same tired “turf wars” that have always accompanied gang activity. I am happy to report that no civilians were injured in the event, but that was just dumb luck, rather than deliberate consideration on the part of enemies, who might otherwise be friends if not for the brainwashing of their organizations.

I stood on my porch watching as Chicago’s finest chased, and then apprehended the gunman. This was met with a loud whoop of approval from my apparently fearless fellow citizens. A few brave and sporting souls even assisted the police by loudly tracking the suspect’s movements. The victim was loaded into an ambulance, and witness statements taken, before the police moved onto to deal with the next violent crime.

These bystanders, my neighbors, were the true heroes of the evening. Not only did they set aside concerns for their own safety to aid and abet the law, but they stood their ground on that street corner – at times the crowd six people deep. They were sending a message to those who would engage in violent crime: “This is OUR turf damn it and we are not afraid of you!” Is it any wonder I love the neighborhood?

The recent Supreme Court decision to strike down Chicago’s handgun ban, and the City cash crunch that is increasingly forcing the layoff of public servants, seems to suggest that incidents like Tuesday’s may become more frequent. I already overheard some of the people in my building (notably white and upper middle class) discussing plans to relocate. That would be a shame. Stay and hold your ground. Learn through exposure, as I once did, not to let the bigger, meaner kids intimidate you.

The Homeless Woman Who Hates Me (July 15, 2010)

Each morning, I walk down the same side street in Rogers Park, en route to catch the Metra commuter train downtown to my office. Each morning, at exactly the same time, I pass a mentally unstable homeless woman who appears to have a standing, important appointment. Unwashed, slovenly and usually muttering to herself, our paths intersect at the same moment, and I have paused to admire her punctuality, given that I am a creature of habit myself. I know not where she goes, what her name is, or what her back-story might be.

However, this woman seems to be under the impression that she has me all figured out. I noticed this oddity about a week ago, but as a characteristically self-conscious person, I attempted to blow off the ideas creeping into my head, believing that I should not read too much into the actions of a mentally ill lady in a hurry. But when my husband, iPod permanently fixed to his ear, attentiveness of an unmedicated ADD patient, noticed the same phenomenon, I knew there was something there.

Last week, as Eddie and I traversed the sidewalk, I made an effort to step behind my husband, clearing a path for my unnamed acquaintance to pass by unmolested. Instead of appreciating my good manners, I was treated to a pause, followed by a purposeful look of scorn before she sighed heavily and resumed her rush down the pavement. What had I done? I took it in stride and went about my day.

This past Monday, a bright and sunny morn, I could see Lady Supersonic approaching for the better part of a city block, and evidently she could see me too. Again I attempted to clear a path for her to pass without Eddie and I acting as sidewalk hogs. To my utter astonishment, Lady S. took this movement on my part as an invitation to play an impromptu game of “Pavement Chicken.” After my first move, she made a move of her own to align head-on with me. I stepped again to the left, and she followed. As we came closer to each other, I began to wonder if she was seriously intent on crashing into me.

Seems so. After two tries at waltzing out of her way, I held my ground, leaned forward and vowed to deal with whatever happened next. We were less than three feet apart when Eddie grabbed me roughly by the arm and shoved me behind him. He then asked me if I had gone mad myself. What was I to do? I don’t WANT to have a collision with Lady Supersonic, but ought I to allow her to continue acting as my sidewalk bully?

And exactly what is this all about anyway? Why me? My husband is handsome, well-dressed and looks every bit the part of a Wall Street player (though he is, in reality, just an anomalous IT hottie). Why doesn’t she hate him? I realize that sounds childish, my wanting Eddie to get sucked into Lady S.’s vortex of hate, but seriously, it’s not fair!

Supersonic knows nothing about me. She doesn’t know that I spend my working days fighting for human services in Illinois, making twice minimum wage in the process, when there are certainly other jobs I could take. I suspect Supersonic’s morning appointment may in fact have to do with some kind of outpatient services she is receiving – services I devote my life to funding and protecting.

Lady S. also has no idea that the image she chooses to see each morning, that of a corporately attired woman in sunglasses with a fabulously attractive husband, belies my background, where I rose above growing up in the most dysfunctional and abusive of homes, to become a responsible citizen (of sorts).

As I say, it is wrong of me to expect clarity of mind from someone who has her own problems to deal with, but if there is any sensation I find most uncomfortable in life, it is that of being egregiously misunderstood. I long to stop Supersonic and ask her what it is about my person or mien that immediately strikes her with such disgust. But my husband says that would be crazy. Would it?