Champaign Dreams and Resolution Wishes


To say that I did not enjoy my undergraduate college experience is a huge understatement. When I was working with my therapist, Dr. T, I referred to September 1996 – August 2000 as “the lost years.” Ones full of missed opportunity, regret and dangerous behavior.

There are many reasons for the crushing depression that overtook me as a young adult attending classes (sometimes) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. For the sake of brevity, I’ll mention two. I’d spent most of my childhood in a constant state of distress and/or high alert. I had precious little time to process the abusive, neglectful upbringing I’d experienced and frankly, I’m not sure I could have survived long enough to actually leave home if I’d stopped to let it wash over me. But when I found myself dropped in the middle of corn fields and farms, a quiet place where there were few immediately threatening distractions, I came silently unglued.

At the same time, I severely underestimated the climate shift from pulsing, vibrant, stimuli everywhere you turn Chicago, to the slower, muted lifestyle of Central Illinois. I didn’t know enough to predict the tremendously negative impact this would have on my energy and intellectual curiosity, though in retrospect of course it couldn’t have been any other way. I recently watched an episode of Sex and the City. The protagonist Carrie Bradshaw finished a conversation with a handsome sailor, and then observed in voiceover: “If Louis was right, and you only get one great love…New York may just be mine.” I feel the same way about the Windy City. It fascinates, frustrates, challenges and beckons me. I am Chicago and Chicago is me.

So there I was in Urbana/Champaign gaining weight, phoning in my English Literature degree with Psychology minor (with a complete and ironic lack of self-awareness), drinking, taking drugs, hanging out with townies. I can admit now to a disgustingly passive death wish, but what bugs me the most about it is not the risky conduct itself. Risk I can do – always have in some form.

It’s the indifference, the lack of agency with which I dithered. It’s not who I am. I utterly, completely lost myself on the flat plains of the Midwest. I didn’t care about much. I’ve learned to forgive myself for most of it because I clearly had issues to work through and didn’t know any other way to cope. But still – sometimes it gnaws. The “best” years of my life flushed away with little to show for it except a degree I know I didn’t really earn.

I’ve spent 15 years pulling myself together and today, I’m rather proud of the life I’ve built. I have a talent (words) and I make a diverse, fulfilling career of it. I am healthier – mentally and physically – after many, many hours spent in individual and group therapy. The volatile, unstable parents are out of the way for good and amazingly, my sister and I came away from the experience holding hands in unshakeable solidarity. I live in a good home full of adorable animals and the perfect partner. I have a large network of talented, supportive friends.

And yet…

In my dreams, sometimes I still go back to Champaign.

It’s a few days before graduation and I haven’t completed a class. I won’t receive my diploma. And then they’ll come for the Master’s degree I earned (the right way) from Northeastern. I can’t have the latter without the former.

My father is badgering me for money and he’s in pursuit as I run through a monstrous, Gotham-like version of Campustown.

Bob doesn’t love me anymore. He’s leaving, and he’s driven us down to Urbana to break the news, leaving me behind in an empty dormitory.

I still grapple with nightmares. And they often occur within the context of four years a part of me will always want back up and redo.

In late April, Bob I went to Urbana-Champaign for the weekend. He ran a marathon and I wanted to support him, despite my trepidation. The experience was positive and cleansing in a number of ways, but most importantly for me, I no longer recognized the place that has been demonized by my subconscious. Like so many of my beloved Chicago neighborhoods, the towns have experienced the frenzied build of gentrification. Where once stood empty cow pastures near Memorial Stadium, there’s now a Houlihan’s restaurant attached to a large hotel. I also spent the time engaged in healthy activities utterly foreign to the emotionally stunted self of the late 1990s – writing, running a 5k, and notably, in the company of a man who has earned my complete trust and confidence.

The frequency of the dreams lessened afterward.

Tomorrow morning, Bob and I will pack the car, drop the dogs off at Grandma and Grandpa’s house (Bob’s parents) and make our way to Central Illinois once more. His friend’s wedding will take place at beautiful Allerton Park outside Champaign. Bob bought a new suit, I’m bringing my favorite gown and I already know we’ll have a splendid time. We always do. With every healthy return visit to a patch of earth so pregnant with personal trauma, the demons incrementally recede.

I expect to sleep soundly.

The Lighthouse (January 31, 2012)

On a quiet side street terminating in one of many far North Side Chicago beaches, lies a hidden gem of a dive bar that, if I have anything to say about it, will be a secret no more. In a way I hate to violate the establishment’s privacy, but this is the type of place I assumed no longer existed: a humble watering hole where everybody knows your name, or at least your face. No logo adorns a garish awning (in fact the tavern bears no signage at all), no Groupon deals drive hipster masses to the front door in search of the latest special on PBR. In fact, the Lighthouse Tavern, which opened for business in 1923 as a hotel bar inside of of the neighborhood’s then-fashionable resorts, doesn’t even have a website.

It is more than likely that the bar’s owners won’t appreciate this modest bit of publicity, but in a City I love that has become, in many ways, gentrified and chain-business occupied to oblivion, I am utterly giddy to discover a little piece of something authentic.

Yelp reviewers can identify with this paradoxical dilemma: to protect or share? David L. writes, “This bar is so cool you almost don’t want to tell anyone about it.” Denise P. waxes, “No pretenses here.You get eye contact. The best kind. Tracy behind the bar really wants to know if you want water with your libation, sugarmuffin. Billy remembers you have a cat, too. And he knows you like your wine in a rocks glass, not a wine glass. The beauty of The Lighthouse is that everybody pretty much leaves their weekday personas at home.”

The Lighthouse had me at its authentic nautical ambiance. I am not talking Red Lobster kitschy flair here folks. I mean antique seafaring tools, photos, maps – remnants of another century in the Windy City’s port of the Midwest past. It secured its grip with the well-preserved 1950s-era twin bowler arcade game. And I was completely gone after two hours spent enjoying the most satisfying people-watching exercise in which I have indulged in recent memory.

The Lighthouse answers the question: where did the front line members of Chicago’s counterculture movement end up? Turns out, their coordinates can be pinpointed to barstools within the Lighthouse. The scene was Easy Rider meets Hair: tresses were long, unruly and streaked with gray; leather and denim everywhere mixed with the intoxicating aroma of patchouli and whiskey. At approximately 8:00 PM on a Friday night, the nondescript bar of which I had hitherto remained ignorant was crawling with people drunk on shots and nostalgia.

As one of the youngest patrons by far that evening, I enjoyed an outsider’s perspective that simultaneously included me in a sustained toast to the good old days, whatever that meant to these people who survived free love, the Civil Rights movement and the administration of Richard J. Daley. I greedily grabbed snatches of conversation that alternated between lucid and soused, nostalgic and bitter. While gulping down cheap wine, I wanted to drink in the collective memory that coursed through the well-kept space.

I have already mentioned that the Lighthouse boasts very little PR infrastructure. I learned of the place like almost everyone who walks through the doors becomes initiated – word of mouth. I have lived in my neighborhood for over two years, consider myself informed and have passed by its door countless times. But I guess I was invited in when I was finally ready to appreciate its special anachronisms. As I come to value my own quirky, anti-establishment character, it seems I have found a new place to unwind.