Thicker Than Blood

“You can kid the world, but not your sister.”
– Charlotte Gray

“An older sister helps one remain half child, half woman.”
– Unknown

As the oldest of two in my immediate family, I fantasized often about having an elder sibling. Brother, sister, it didn’t matter much. The point was that in an unstable, unhealthy environment, it was a warm reprieve to imagine an older, stronger, loving person whisking Jenny and I to safety. Like Charlie Salinger from Party of Five.

It’s not that I resented being my kid sister’s de facto protector. Quite the contrary. I relished being the one dependable person she could always turn to, trusting I’d never leave her defenseless. But sometimes, many times, I needed an older, wiser hand and was left wanting.

As I grew up, I found surrogates that subsidized many of the lessons and unconditional support I lacked. In high school, my academic decathlon coach and history teacher Mr. Smith and my best friend Christian’s parents were vital adult influences. Mr. Smith once buried a quarterly absence report because I’d cut a class and he knew about the embarrassing, unpredictable wrath of my father. Christian’s mother Marnie took me to a nice salon for my first manicure, invited me frequently to family dinners and vacations and to this day, uses the instant connectivity of Facebook to remind me of her consistent pride and love. It’s an incredible, enduring gift.

I have a number of close friends with whom I enjoy some form of brotherly or sisterly relationship. But until I met Andrea through work 18 months ago, that secret yearning for an older sibling someone to love and look out for me, to understand, support and admonish me with equally passionate involvement (because it’s for my owned damned good), seemed just that. A quiet wish that must go unfulfilled.

I’m not exactly sure how it happened – only that the bond formed easily, quickly and robustly. Yes we share complicated upbringings, acerbic wit and a mutual love of sightseeing, but it’s more than that. I trust Andrea like I trust myself. It’s often the case that I don’t need to articulate my thoughts and feelings. They are intuited before I can form words.

Knowing that I am generally cold in temperatures below 90 degrees (tough way to live in the frigid, Windy City), I opened my mailbox last holiday season (Andrea is Jewish, I’m Protestant turned Hindu turned atheist) to find the longest, warmest, prettiest scarf ever knitted. Andrea made it herself. I’m able to wrap this thing around my head and neck five times with length to spare. It can be used to lasso errant co-workers, be folded and fluffed into a makeshift pillow – all of these variations have been successfully tested. Someone loves me enough to want to keep me warm from across the country.

I will be wearing this scarf when I greet Andrea in the baggage claim area at O’Hare Airport this evening. I haven’t seen my adopted sister in a full year. A lot has happened and I’ve missed her. I look forward to hugging her close and relish her baby talking to my pets while I answer questions. Am I getting enough beet juice? Do I like my new job? Is Dino not the sweetest snuggle sandwich on the planet? (The answer is “Yes” to all). She will finally meet Bob, who was not part of my life when Andrea and I were last together tromping through the streets of San Francisco. I am eager for them to love each other the way I adore them both.

And for the next few days I’ll let go – just a little bit – of the constant need to manage (fill in your favorite noun or activity here – like a Mad Lib). I’ll relax, overeat and entertain a whole Saturday that as yet still has no definitive plans. It’s ok to wing it. My big sister is on the way. She’ll know what to do.


Cubs NLDS Game 4: A Fan’s Four-Mile Fugue

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Very early this week, Major League Baseball made the supremely frustrating decision to schedule Game 4 of the Cubs/Cardinals Division Series at 3:37 PM Central on Tuesday afternoon. Working stiff citizens of Cubs Nation, such as myself, groaned inwardly (ok, outwardly too). I’d be stuck behind the desk when the first pitch was thrown.

Making matters “worse” (tragedy is all relative during this most excellent post-season run), I’d exhausted my digital data plan the previous Saturday evening. Enjoying the unseasonably warm Chicago weather, Bob and I invited some friends over for a BBQ. Our iPad was docked on the picnic table, transformed into the world’s most exciting centerpiece. As we noshed and gabbed, the whole group (which included some supportive South Siders) watched the Cubbies come back from Game 1 disappointment, beating the Cards 6-3 to claim Game 2. When my provider sent a system-generated email informing me I’d reached my data limit for the month, I shrugged. Totally worth it.

One of the pitfalls of being so fully enmeshed in the Cubs’ fortunes is a stubborn inability to think ahead. All that usually matters is NOW, that moment. But on Tuesday morning, the dawn of Game 4, I realized my folly. My thought process went like something like this: “Sure, I’ll be at the office, but I can’t be the only person sneaking peeks of the game on my iPhone….OH BLOODY HELL I’M OUT OF DATA!”

As I left the house, additionally hampered with an after-work commitment I could not escape, the dejection was all over my face (Botox shots shall never be strong enough to counter the emotions of a long-suffering Cubs fan). Bob promised to text me with scoring updates, and the venue for the post-shift event would certainly have a television. But, but…bah. Is there any substitute for watching every exhilarating, excruciating second for yourself?

Diligently I worked through the morning. I could do this. I am a full grown adult with responsibilities. It’s not as if the Cubs couldn’t finish off the Cardinals without my eyes on the action. However as the afternoon approached, the façade crumbled, much as it did on November 6, 2012.

On that evening, I was riding my bike home from a kickboxing class in Lincoln Park. President Obama faced a tight re-election campaign against Mitt Romney. I’d been cool like Fonzie all day but as class ended (and my adrenaline pumped), I pedaled furiously to reach home and watch the returns. Obama needed me. Yes we can…run a yellow light at the corner of Lincoln, Ashland and Belmont. I shattered my tailbone and sacrum when I met the business end of an SUV, and it took nine months to heal. Obama won of course, but my frenzied superstition lost big time. I vowed to learn a lesson.

Back to Tuesday evening. My work day ends at 5:00 and the Cubs were down. The event started at 6:30. Google Maps informed me that it would take 40 minutes to reach the venue by train, 80 minutes to walk. In my squirrely state, without a data plan, I could not handle the CTA. Not then. So walking it was. How responsible right? I’d channel my nervous energy into positive exercise, staying out of the road and avoiding an “Election Night” (the new metaphor for self-inflicted disaster) in the process.

The walk was four miles, the weather continuing unpredictably pleasant. I had no control over my Cubs-less situation, but I could control my feet. And I had Bob’s reliable text updates to fortify me until I reached the event (sample: “Schwarber smash! Babe effing Ruth baby!”).

Four miles is a lengthy stroll at any time. But when it comes with the challenge of trying not to think about something consuming every conscious reflection, it might as well be the Appalachian Trail. Total agony. However I ended up with an unforeseen and satisfying byproduct.

I am a Windy City native. I attended a small Lutheran school in North Center as a child before graduating proudly from the CPS system as a high school senior. There is no corner of the north lakefront area and due west disassociated from a memory. As I continued my feverish pace to the event, I paused periodically to stare at a place infused with the ghosts of Cubs past. Thoughts of my paternal great-grandmother, who died before I was born, endlessly thirsty for the Cubbies to go all the way. But she never stepped inside the park. My father’s mother, who worked for decades as a waitress at several Chicago establishments, often serving members of the Cubs roster. But as a single mother with six kids to raise on no budget, a day at the game was a rare luxury. The undying passion of my father for the men in blue through so many disappointments.

Before I finally arrived at my destination, in time to witness the Chicago Cubs send the St. Louis Cardinals packing (I will NEVER tire of writing that sentence), I realized I was carrying a lot through my four-mile fugue state. The hopes and dreams of others whose blue Cubby blood courses through my veins. I wanted it for them as much as myself. Maybe more. And perhaps that’s not so crazy after all.


Rahm the Edible (February 25, 2015)

Almost exactly four years ago, I wrote a piece for the now-defunct online magazine RootSpeak entitled, Rahm the Inevitable. The column was published just before Chicago’s general Mayoral election that year, a time when Rahm Emanuel’s march to City Hall had the pre-ordained feel of a Hillary Clinton 2008 – without the Barack Obama spoiler. Here’s a snippet of my February ‘11 observations:

“Now that the wide variety of political shenanigans that have come to exemplify the 2011 Chicago mayoral race have been exhausted, it seems there’s nothing left to do but wait for Tuesday’s electoral returns. At that point we may stop referring to former U.S. Congressman and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel as the ‘presumed favorite,’ move beyond his Goliath campaign and start seeing the new CEO of Chi-town in action.

After all, there’s no way anyone could take him at this point, right? Rahmbo has five times more campaign funds at his disposal than nearest fiscal competitor, Gery Chico. His slick print ads and television spots depict the handsome, well-dressed former ballet dancer as a family man who cares about the middle class, ready to make the ‘tough choices’ that will put Chicago back on the fast track to claiming its status as an affordable, world class city. A few of his TV plugs contain public endorsements from not one but two U.S. Presidents, current POTUS Barack Obama, as well as immediate predecessor William Jefferson Clinton.”

Back in 2011, Emanuel emerged as the Windy City’s clear victor, logging 55.35 percent of the total vote count, compared with Gery Chico’s limp 23.97.

Well kids, what a difference a leap year makes, eh? Over the course of his first term, “the ‘tough choices’ that will put Chicago back on the fast track to claiming its status as an affordable, world class city” turned out to be a complete gutting of the Chicago Public School system, while siphoning funds to promote North Side charter schools for the elite. South Side children that were redistricted without their consent have been forced to hoof it through dangerous gang territory.

Another of those “tough choices” was the privatization of the Chicago Transit Authority’s payment operations, with the 2013 debut of the Ventra card system. I think Rick Perlstein of The Nation spoke for many of us when he observed:

“The problem is not just the profusion of private contractors who do the public’s business so poorly; it’s the fact that the public’s business is being so relentlessly privatized by the government executives in charge. Slowly, the perceived imperative to privatize has become the political tail that wags the policy dog. The results are before us. Why, indeed, was this massive change in how Chicagoans pay for their bus and train fares initiated in the first place?”

Coming off predecessor Mayor Daley’s absurd parking meter lease “deal” which screwed Chicago for 75 years, a repeat of this type of performance wasn’t interpreted as very populist of Rahm. But if the ravaging of public education and the city’s transit system were not enough, there was plenty else about Emanuel to rankle Chicago’s largely blue color spirit: the close ties with new Republican Governor and enemy of organized labor, Bruce Rauner, the arrogance, the bullying, the closed door meetings. The antithetical “man of the people” conduct that exemplified the Mayor’s first term finally led Rolling Stone to declare, Rahm Emanuel Has a Problem with Democracy.

Well after yesterday’s general re-election performance, in which Rahmbo was forced into a surprising April runoff against second place finisher, Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, he certainly has a bigger problem with democracy now.

Here’s the pesky thing about voters. Sometimes no matter how hard you try to persuade them that you’re in their corner, they take a look at your record and decide not to believe you. The tide of public sentiment was running against Emanuel before the first polling place ever opened its doors. And here’s what else changed since I wrote about Rahm’s first Mayoral run in 2011.

  1. This round, Emanuel had THIRTY times more campaign funds at his disposal than his nearest fiscal competitor.
  2. He is the sitting CEO of Chicago, and incumbents are generally considered the electoral favorite with few exceptions.
  3. It seems unbelievable even as I type, but Garcia entered the race a mere four months ago. Rising from relative obscurity as a member of the Cook County Board of Commissioners, he took an astounding 33.9 percent of the popular vote compared with Rahm’s 45.4.

    That last number is the most important one. Because having failed to secure the required 50 percent plus one vote, the former Rahm the Inevitable must now face an April 7 runoff against Garcia in which nothing is certain. All that money. All that love from the political elite. And yet it’s more than possible that Emanuel could be out of a job in six weeks.

The people spoke yesterday and I suspect they’ll raise their voices even louder in the coming days. Anecdotal evidence suggests that Tuesday’s near record-low turnout was a combination of bad weather and voter apathy. When folks stop believing they can change anything, they tend to stay home.

By any measure Rahm Emanuel already lost on February 24, 2015. A megawatt celebrity sitting Mayor with 30 times the budget, and infinity political supporters (including the POTUS), is back shilling for votes today. But he’s been wounded. The previously scared but hungry can smell his blood. I relish the pile-on, not out of spite or schadenfreude, but because like most citizens, I understand that what’s good for the Windy City is good for me. And another four years of Rahm is a bad deal. I’m grateful that my fellow Chicagoans finally feel empowered to reject it.

The Year After “Next Year” (December 31, 2014)

In 2006, filmmaker Ouise Shapiro released the documentary, Wait ‘Til Next Year: The Saga of the Chicago Cubs. describes the movie as follows:

“Using the frame of opening day, 2006, this documentary examines the Cubs’ 100 years without a World Series title.”

The film is almost a decade old. Midnight tonight officially marks 107 years since the Cubbies last found themselves in the winner’s circle. There is no one alive who remembers that glorious day. Yet the consistent elusiveness of victory has not proven deterrent enough to dampen diehard enthusiasm. Each fall, fans exit the Wrigley Field turnstiles for the final time until spring, proudly offering, “Just wait ‘til next year.”

I’m not quite 107 years old. But maybe because I grew up in the Windy City, and was born into a family situation that was consistently defeating, “Wait ‘til next year” carried special mantra significance. No matter how tough the current moment, I survived it by mentally moving the goal post. In fifth grade, when I thought the isolation and intellectual stagnation of a botched home school experiment might kill me, I looked forward to fighting for a classroom return the following year. When I was 15 years old and tired of waiting for a persistently tardy father to collect me from school or choir rehearsal in his latest trash-filled hoopty, I anticipated 16, when I could legally acquire my own driving privileges.

No matter how bad things got, it was usually easy to formulate a vision of something better that would encourage me to grit my teeth. I wasn’t who I wanted be, didn’t have the life I desired, didn’t necessarily know how to get there, but I would dammit…maybe next year.

At the close of 2014, I find myself wrestling with an unprecedented psychological dilemma. What do you do the year after “next year” arrives? Don’t get me wrong. I’ve got plenty to anticipate in 2015 and am bursting with energy to get her started. But 2014 was seismic.

I’m pretty sure now that I know who I am and what my limitations are. I accept them. I’ve grown fond of my quirks. I’m often creative, usually a hedonist, individualist and passionate. I have a hard time sitting still. I’m not great with romantic relationships, but make a pretty solid friend/aunt/sister/colleague. I hate failure. I am stubborn, clumsy and sensitive. And I’m finally ok with not being perfect. Not that I was ever close, mind you. It’s just stopped frustrating me.

The life I always wanted? Check. I could be younger, richer and healthier. But I am free. I do exactly as I wish for the most part, with a clean apartment that has morphed from a post-divorce prison into a sanctuary of peace, kitty cuddles and Pilates. I write, which is a must. But more often than not, I get paid to do it. My words are my profession. Enough people have chosen to read them. That’s more than I ever dreamed possible.

As for how to get there. I am still traveling, but learning to enjoy the scenery and finally beginning to trust the internal compass. A solid year of slower, adrenaline-free decision making will do that.

I’m not miserable. Most days I’m pretty content. I don’t need saving. Dread and anxiety are no longer constant companions.

The only way to weather the past was to live for the future. Today I quite enjoy the present. I’ll see next year soon enough of course because time moves on. But I’m no longer urgently waiting for it as reprieve from now.

Now’s just fine.

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.