The Spring That Wouldn’t Come (March 27, 2013)

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Today is March 27th. It’s a full week after the official inauguration of spring. The sun is shining but the air temperature hasn’t risen above 43 degrees Fahrenheit in the Windy City. It must be mentioned that the daytime high soared to 80 degrees on St. Patrick’s Day in 2012, a strange anomaly that took Chicago’s love for green beer to extremes. I recall sending my boyfriend at the time out for a bottle of wine to complement our meal of corned beef and cabbage. This was early afternoon. He returned from a four block round-trip walk shaking his head. If you have to step over more than one drunk in broad daylight, hedonism has clearly won.

This year, the Chi-rish were significantly more subdued. With windy, cold conditions and the barometer stuck in the 30s, I can personally report a more humbuggish approach to the drinking holiday.

The irascibility has yet to wear off given spring’s stubborn refusal to approximate its normal self. And it’s not just me. Allow me to quote recent Facebook status updates from my circle of acquaintance:

“Just because I’m giving you a shot doesn’t mean I’ll ever like you, cold weather running. I hate you, I hate you, I hate you…I hate you…I. Hate. You.”

“Spring starts tomorrow, right? Right? RIGHT?!?!?!?!?!?”

“Really, 19 degrees?!? Full of S***!”

“Have officially reached my limit, this weather is B.S. where is spring? #overit”

“Glad it’s rain, not snow.”

“Mighty happy I don’t work for Yahoo! This is the second Tuesday in a row I have waited for the snow in my PJs”

“How am I supposed to start running again when winter NEVER ENDS!!!”

And on it goes. I must remind my gentle readers that these protests emanate from hardened Midwesterners used to winter’s cruelty. But we’ve had enough now. My fellow Chicagoans are angry at this tardy season to the point of mutiny, if only we knew who to tie up and threaten. Our current mayor, former Obama administration Chief-of-Staff Rahm Emanuel, is accustomed to hurling obscenities to get his way, but thus far Mother Nature seems unmoved by our collective epithets.

St. Louis received another 11 inches of snow this past weekend. It seems prudent to assume we’ll be wearing ski jackets to Seders, Easter dinner and other springtime celebrations.

With that dreary thought in mind, I leave you with these lyrics from the K.D. Lang song, “I Dream of Spring:”

“This is world is filled with frozen lovers
The sheets of their beds are frightfully cold
And I’ve slept there in the snow with others
Yet loved no others before

These cold dark places, places I’ve been
In cold dark places, I dream of spring”

Migraine Season (February 7, 2013)

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This is the kind of winter that migraine sufferers dread. Take last week for example. Here in Chicago the temperature touched 61 degrees on Tuesday, the warmth punctuated by springlike showers. By Thursday morning, the mercury stopped climbing at 10 degrees with brutal winds and icy road conditions.

Remember when the El Nino weather pattern was the subject of much news coverage back in 1997 and 1998? Well as a native Chicagoan, I never saw what the fuss was about. It’s El Nino here all year-round. Many times we cycle the four seasons all in the same Windy City day. As a child and young adult, the varying climate was either a fun adventure or a wardrobe challenge, but as I enter my mid-30s, in peak mental condition, but somewhat hobbled physically, the volatile elements have a similar effect on my temperament.

Back in November of 2012, on Election Day to be precise, I fractured my coccyx and sacrum in a bad judgment call involving L’il Red, a yellow light and an SUV. As an avid gym goer and infamous pain intolerant, the long recovery of this injury, aggravated by the bipolar nature of a Chicago winter, has left me rather short on patience – with myself and others. Midsummer last year I was also diagnosed with a debilitating cluster migraine condition that has been stubbornly difficult to regulate. The worst fate for a control freak is the body’s capricious tendency to dive into a tailspin of throbbing pain and nausea that can endure for days. In the worst moments of these episodes, I cannot talk or write. The ability to communicate, an attribute I value so highly, drowns in suicidal levels of painful inertia. To look at my scientific, solutions-oriented partner in the eyes and see a helplessness I can’t comfort may be the cruelest turn of all.

As I sit here typing these words, it’s a manageable 32 degrees outside but freezing rain has been dropping in sheets since the middle of the night. I know this because I awoke with a dull pressure ache in my sinuses when the downpour began. My physician, the eminently patient and kind Dr. Gong, has theorized that the parts of my brain which trigger a migraine don’t seem to know how or when to shut themselves off. This could explain why the headaches can last for days and are immune to all the usual remedies. My brain just ignores what’s good for it. Wouldn’t be the first time.

Throughout two years of recovery and convalescence, which began in early 2011 when I said goodbye to my ex-husband and our broken marriage, I was warned about the mind-body continuum. While I was in survival mode, on constant high alert, the ability to function without food, sleep or emotional balance was a phenomenon to be taken for granted. It was only paradoxically as I began to relax and morph into the new, less self-defeating person I am on the inside that the body started to give way: a battle with cervical cancer, the cluster migraines, alopecia, insomnia. If my psyche is in large degree healed, why can’t my body get with the program? It seems it feels the need to follow the arc of this typical Chicago winter: up, down, all-around and completely outside my jurisdiction.

Jumping the Shark (July 15, 2011)

Living in Chicago, some form of sexual harassment, however mild, tends to be a typical facet of the average woman’s day. I was inaugurated into this confusing and often humiliating world of gender politics at the age of 13, when I began to receive car horn honks and wolf whistles from older teenage boys and grown men as I navigated the streets solo, or with a girlfriend. For many reasons, I could not begin to comprehend the behavior of these gentlemen. I was cognizant of the fact that I was still a child, and not a very attractive one at that (then as now, I was a frustrating mix of social awareness and shallow insecurity).

As with any minor annoyance, it began to recede into the background over the years, one of those tradeoffs you have to accept as a devotee to urban life. Boys will be boys and all that.

As I entered my 30s, and paradoxically gained more confidence in my overall appearance (Botox injections, adult braces and a brilliant hair stylist and personal trainer were undeniable assets), I noticed, with a surprising degree of disappointment, that the incidence of wolf whistling began to decrease markedly. Where I should have been grateful for the opportunity to traverse the streets in peace, I was instead petulantly annoyed that the Neanderthals of the Windy City had ignored my realization of true pulchritude capabilities in favor of younger, fresher targets.

My temporary salvation from increasing awareness that I am growing older, and thus less attractive to immature fellows seeking temporary diversion, arrived at a rather unlikely hour. Last night I left the gym after a strenuous group Russian kettlebell class, and took to the streets sweaty and unkempt. I was wearing a damp t-shirt, yoga pants and an exhausted look as I waited for the Northbound Red Line train that would take me back to my studio in Rogers Park.

I was engrossed in a copy of Jonathan Franzen’s marvelous Freedom, when out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a rakish, extremely drunken young man approaching me. He could not have been 25 years old, yet with his confident smirk and Max Headroom sunglasses, he instantly reminded me of Tom Cruises’ character Brian Flanagan from Cocktail. The boy was a staggering, inebriated wild card and I was mostly concerned that I was about to witness someone die via third rail electrocution.

However, Mr. Flanagan had other plans in mind for a sweaty and irritated yours truly. “Whatcha reading beautiful?” he slurred over my shoulder.

Since I have already exposed myself as a shameless, compliment-seeking source of vapidity, does it surprise you to know this brought a smile to my face? I quickly displayed the cover of my book and figured that would be the end of the over served fella’s attentions. Not so.

“You’re pretty,” came next. Clearly, in the condition which I have described, I was as far from gorgeous as my new friend was from sobriety, but he really was adorable. In another decade, this story may have had a different ending.

I thanked my suitor politely and turned my attention back to the book as the train approached. Mr. Flanagan went quiet as well as he weaved perilously close to the tracks. However, he was apparently just saving his strength for his next attempt to engage me. This was executed via a comical attempt to pretend as though he was opening the train car doors with superhuman strength, just for me, as he loudly shouted “Move aside people, pretty girl coming through!”

The train was packed, as was the platform of would-be passengers, and by now, for a multitude of reasons, people were staring at us. They leered at Mr. Flanagan, curious as to how a young kid commuting alone could be so dead drunk at the early hour of 8pm. They were staring at me too, wondering what this disheveled aunty had done to arouse such attention.

And where I ought to have been embarrassed and revolted, I was instead pleased by this display. Clearly, this says nothing attractive about me whatsoever, but there it is.

The battle to achieve and maintain some sort of consistent self-esteem has been one of the prominent features of my time on this planet. My ego is a fragile as gossamer and subject to others’ approbation to a completely unhealthy degree. This state of affairs extends not only to my personal appearance, but my work, my social standing and family relations as well. I am introverted and standoffish by nature until I am teased out with some sort of approval. It is one of the parts of my character that I view with the most disdain, but I am actively working to resolve it.

Clearly however, my personal growth arrives in peaks and valleys. I had gleaned the wrong kind of attention from the wrong person for all the wrong reasons, yet I slept soundly knowing that I hadn’t yet jumped the catcall shark.

Work/Life Balance (June 21, 2011)

I have been throwing around this terminology and thinking about this dynamic in my life quite a bit in recent days. I have let the spectrum get out of whack. With the physical and emotional turmoil I have been experiencing this year, time was I was very grateful to have my work to occupy my hours. That’s still true to a large degree. I am challenged, and experiencing growth as a person and as a professional in my day job as well as the diverse freelance projects I have undertaken.

As a working writer, I am never able to shake this fear, and I imagine artists, dancers, actors and other creative types can relate. The fear is that if I say “no” to a particular job, I may be daring karma to turn against me. I will never be offered a gig again. The freelance world is very feast or famine by nature and all I need is to conjure memories of those 4-6 weeks stretches where I can boast nary a byline. The periodic blackouts are scary enough that when multiple editors approach with projects, I am almost too grateful to consider whether or not I can deliver in a healthy manner.

Very recently I have resumed my post as theater critic in the Chicago market. The website for which I submit reviews had dropped Chi-town as an outpost in April of last year, but there’s just too much good stuff onstage in the Windy City for any arts and entertainment outlet worth its salt to ignore. So I’m back on, in a big way. I have four shows to cover between last weekend and July 19. Since it’s summer, ‘tis the season for urban agriculture stories, one of my bread and butter journalist beats. I sit on the board of a women’s press collective and edit the group’s quarterly newsletter, so that has taken a lot of my time and labor. I could continue to delineate specific commitments but you get the idea.

I am living my dream. I never asked for the riches and fame of a J.K. Rowling or Stephen King, and as I am neither a novelist nor seek media attention, I don’t think there was much risk of that happening anyway. I long to be Gail Collins of the New York Times when I grow up, but that may never occur. Honestly, I can live with that. My ambition was to be a writer. That’s all. I never attached any imaginary barometers for success to my goal. Could I write full time and pay my bills? Yes? Cool.

But I am having some trouble leaving enough space in my new world for myself. I am not allowing the time required for rest, strategic planning, friends and family. In my quest to keep myself honestly occupied, this was never my intention. I have a couple of aunts in Wisconsin who are going to be really disappointed in me this weekend. They understand my deadlines, but I used to complain vociferously when my estranged consultant husband would continually prioritize work over family. I have unwittingly become that of which I always disapproved.

I know a lot of smart people out there in the writer’s community. How do you folks achieve and maintain a work/life balance? How do you do it all without depleting yourself or failing the most important people in your life?

Winter Wanderlust (December 2, 2010)

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Yesterday Chicago experienced its first “measurable snow fall” of the season. The words in quotes are presumably the local meteorologist buzz terminology, since I heard them from no fewer than three weather people during an afternoon of channel surfing. Anyway, the old familiar routine is back: tying a scarf around my head, and over my winter hat and the hood of my ski jacket, just so I can survive a walk of three blocks or so. The high yesterday was a balmy 30, but factoring in the wind chill, the air temperature felt like 12 to citizens of the Windy City.

I have returned to a dilemma I have wrestled with since my high school years. How can I love Chicago in all its multi-cultural, stimulating fabulousness yet endure six months of weather that appears to be some frozen demon’s diabolical plan?

As I am unemployed and typically have some extra time on my hands each day, I have taken to obsessively watching reruns of Notorious and City Confidential on the Bio channel, the sister station to A&E. Once I recovered from the awesomeness that is Bill Kurtis in a leather bomber jacket narrating the former show (put Bill K. and the deceased Robert Stack and his trench coat in a head to head walk off – I know who would win), I remembered how much I used to love the latter in my college days. Although the 2004 death of City Confidential’s host Paul Winfield basically ensures that no new installments of the program will ever be produced, this does not at all hamper my enjoyment of the greatest hits.

City Confidential’s format is a brilliant hybrid of geographic history and the true crime format. For the first 30 minutes, we get the location and backstory of an American city or town: its founding fathers, sustaining industries, local customs and quirks. Once that is out of the way, the attention turns to a heinous and sensational crime that, according to Winfield, “shook this sleepy, neighborly town to its core.” If you are not ready for this gear shift, it is easy to believe you may have accidentally leaned on the remote and changed channels.

This week, among many episodes I have ingested, my interest was particularly peaked by the “Brownsville, Texas” installment. Although I didn’t much care for the town’s penchant for superstitious hexes and the murders that tend to follow, I found myself suddenly willing to overlook this flaw, as well as the state of Texas’s love for the death penalty and concealed weapons, when Paul Winfield informed me that daytime highs in this Mexican border hamlet are typically in the mid to late 70s in December.

Now we’re talking.

In my quest to find the right second home for my snow bird fantasies, I also learned of a potential mentor right here in my home town. My friend and personal trainer Rob was recently bequeathed a downtown apartment and all the furniture and fixtures inside of it by a childhood acquaintance, a bartender by trade who simply decided to board a plane to Hawaii and be done with it. This gentleman, Chris, landed a position at a Hyatt resort in Maui, looked at the potential expense of moving all his belongings to paradise and said “Fuck it, who needs that stuff anyway?” So he asked Rob to take over the remainder of the two-year lease to his tony, trendy convertible unit, at a steal of a sublet price, packed his clothes and toiletries, and literally flew off into the night.

While I adore the free spirited nature of such a move, I am not sure I have the balls. Unlike me, Chris is unmarried, does not have a car payment or local family, but in the end, those are really just collateral excuses to hide the panic I would feel if I were to undertake such a shift. I’d be like an anxiety ridden third grader who was forced to change schools. “What will I do when I get there? What if nobody likes me?”

So it appears that, lacking Chris’s pioneering spirit, I am going to have to find a way to get through the next six months, until mid-May when Chicago starts to feel inhabitable once more. It would be cool if I could morph into a brown bear and hibernate the time away. It’s not like I have a job to miss me.