Sunday, September 10, 2017

I'll never leave Chicago

First, a confession. I did, actually, leave Chicago last year. I moved 50 feet north of Howard Street, and now live in Evanston. It wasn't on purpose--I couldn't find a house in Chicago that met my needs of neighborhood, price, and timeline. But "stone's throw" was pretty much invented to describe how close I am to the city.

I came to Chicago nearly 40 years ago for a man. In the intervening years, I lost the man, but added a couple of great native Chicago offspring, who came to the same conclusion that I did: you don't have to leave Chicago, because everything you need is here.

We have bars, music, theater, art, from the scruffy neighborhood to the world class variety. We have a popcorn-worthy political sideshow, and some of the nation's most inspiring public figures like Barack Obama and Jesse Jackson Sr. (We also do corruption the best.) Our architecture is unparalleled anywhere in the world. Great housing stock and actual zoning laws, because of that whole thing where the city burned down that time, and instead of just giving in to the moneyed interests, we actually did something about the danger.

We have a forever open and free lakefront, with the greatest stretch of free public beach in the world.

It's not all sunshine and lollipops, of course. Although I've spent my whole time in Chicago in the last truly diverse neighborhood of Rogers Park, we have some of the worst segregation in the country, as well as pockets of bad violence (though not the citywide apocalypse that the national media would have you believe), a dysfunctional school system (again, not the sewer that is widely reported), and racist police system (this one is worse than reported.) It would be really nice if people on the west side could get somewhere other than the Loop with public trans other than nausea-inducing buses (circle line anyone?). But our neighborhood system means that we actually know our neighbors, and have honest-to-god local shops, and even, still, some light (and even heavy) manufacturing.

We have jobs, and summer youth programs; the museums are free to residents in February, and the beaches are free always, to anyone. We're midwesterners, too, so we're super friendly, and have a Goldilocks attitude toward pace--not too slow, not too fast; we're just right. Our downtown sidewalks are crowded but not packed, and there's always room for a picnic or a pick up game in one of our beautiful parks. We'll start a conversation, even with a stranger, with a little bit of hobnobbing, and then get down to business before you get uncomfortable, or bored. And we're pretty good at business, too.

This is not to say we're pushovers. Never ever ever tell a Chicagoan that the Pacific Northwest, or Texas, or New York does X better, or does it in a certain way (which we also do exactly the same way here, so that's always a little puzzling), at least not if you ever want one of us to feed you ever again. Don't disrespect our pizza, our hotdogs, our ice cream, our beer, or our sports teams, all of which are the best (science fact). Don't like them? Don't consume them. And remember we're laid back midwesterners, so we'll be cool with that!

There's lots of reasons to leave Chicago.  It's not "home." You want to be close to farflung family.  You can't handle the weather, which I hear they also have in other places, sometimes accompanied by things like hurricanes, nor'easters, and earthquakes. We'll be sorry to see you go, as long as you're leaving for personal reasons, and not because you feel the need to blame someone.

Chicago's a great place. There's really no reason to leave. But if you do, check in on Facebook every now and then. If we're not busy at the beach, or the ballpark, or a downtown festival, or a museum, or having a great time with our friends, we'll be sure to say hi, and see how you're doing.

Monday, November 14, 2016

This is my America.

This is my America.

Because until the Civil Rights Act, for the vast bulk of our history, racial animus, racism, has been the entrenched social and legal norm.

I was born before Loving, before the Civil Rights Act, before Engel. I was made to stand outside my 2nd grade classroom during the Pledge of Allegiance because my parents didn’t worship God the right way.

But the beauty of 20th century America is that the people in it decided to look at the Constitution and instead of using it as a bludgeon of oppression, to see it as a way to create a new human being. An inclusive, better human being. 20th Century Americans decided to expand the tribe in a way that’s never been attempted in all our 60,000 years of organized human endeavor—a tribe that includes everyone.

They took the flawed document, and noted that while it was full of subtle and not so subtle cues to suppress our brown and black brothers and sisters, because they could only be cues, because for the most part it couldn’t come right out and say “oppress this group because of their ancestry” we could also decide that this is not what it meant at all.

And we did.

Incredibly, against the heavy weight of human history, experience, and psyche, 20th Century Americans said ENOUGH.

And even though the “originalists” wanted that other, less noble interpretation, even with 60,000 years of civilization screaming “tribe”, we did it. We listened, at last, to the better angels of our nature and called all people family. All men brothers. All women sisters. All children ours.

It’s only been 50 years. I don't know about you, but I like those odds.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

The Pope John Fish Memorial Rose

I got the call at about 8:30 on a September evening.

“Can you call Dana? She’s really upset. The power went out. The dog is going to defrost.”

I’m known for my big backyard, but less known for the fact that it’s actually a graveyard. Several rabbits, four fish, and two cats have ended their journeys there, fertilizing the roses. We named one after a fish. A rose that is. When Pope John Fish died, he (she?) went under there, joining the cats, for whom it never occurred to us to name a plant, for some reason.

Katiedog was a sweet, ancient, and in fact apparently immortal dachshund who lived well past her use-by date, and was beloved by all. She started life with Grandmother, and moved in with Moira when Grandmother couldn’t take care of her anymore. When Moira lived near us, I often met her and Katie for walks. Later, my daughter moved in with them. So Katie was sort of my stepdog.

When Moira got married, her wife adopted the dog wholeheartedly. (Everyone adopted this dog. This was the world’s sweetest dog.) And when the dog finally died at the age of,  I don’t know, 30? she was old, Dana couldn’t bear the idea of taking her to the vet in a box for cremation.

So they wrapped her up and put her in the freezer until they could find a solution.

Eventually, Moira got the bright idea to call me. I researched it. It’s actually illegal to bury pets in the backyard, but the internet helpfully explains that if you bury a small animal like a cat or a weinerdog at least 3 feet down no one will ever know. (Full disclosure and responsible caveat: you are supposed to call “Julie” anytime you dig more than about a foot down, to make sure you’re not hitting any gas lines.) However, as I knew I would be moving in autumn, I suggested we wait and bury her at the new place, where they could come and visit.

And then the power went out.

So one warm early fall day Dana brought Katie over just as the sun was going down and a light rain started to fall.  I removed the rose entirely, and we dug down in the dark, thigh deep (no cat bones!) laying Katiedog to rest. We said a little prayer and replanted above her. Moira came by and we sat on my porch and lifted a beer to her sweet life.

The Pope John Fish Memorial Rose now lives beneath my new kitchen window, a transplanted memorial to the lives of several sweet companions.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

On 30

Today my son is 30.

At 30, there is no hiding from the idea that you're an adult, that the torch has been passed. It's the last "interior" milestone. Subsequent age milestones are exterior, relative-- a co-worker who doesn't have personal recollection of a significant historical marker outside of history books, a president your age, a president younger than you.

Your oldest child turning 30.

It's not a Chinese milestone. The Chinese acknowledge just three birthdays: 1, 10, and 60. The ones in between are just time you spend figuring it all out.

Seng started trying to figure it out before he was even born, dipping a toe in and pulling it back. After four false labor starts, the goddess took things into her own hands and broke my water. It still took him almost a day to get going.

Once here, he still wasn't convinced it was a good idea. He cried for 5 months. And then that was it. He pretty much had it figured out by the time he was 10. You never met a sweeter toddler. He's spent the subsequent years as a cautious and sweet-hearted child, youth, and man.

At 30 you are who you are. I wish I had realized this when I was 30. Of course, when I was 30, I became a mother, which throws everything you knew about yourself into chaos.

What is Seng like, or more to the point, what does he think he is like? A little cautious, with an unconventional view of ambition that means he wants to do what he wants to do. This might make him famous, or rich, but if it doesn't that's okay. He's loyal and loving, but now finds himself navigating this idea that love and loyalty might not work the way he thought they worked.

I don't mean to be sad on his birthday. All my children's milestones make me sad these days. It's hard to know if that's because it's so bittersweet for your children to grow up, or because he'll be reaching new milestones with a family he's trying to figure out all over again.


Saturday, March 19, 2016

On grieving

Grief is a selfish emotion.

My grief for Jack Kearney is so interwoven with my grief for my marriage, for my mother.

It's tinged with guilt because I was not able to be there for Jack, due largely to the nature of illness, but also to the paralysis that serious illness imparts on the well. It's tinged with guilt because of my envy for his family, whom I also love. It's tinged with guilt because some of that love is pride.

Grief brings out your flaws.

The Kearneys treat me as much like family as one can do for someone who is not the family. But here I'm the outsider, the uncomfortable one whom they want to accommodate, except in this most family of times, I don't belong.

Grief should be shared.

The fact that I can't share it makes it feel false and self-indulgent. It adds a tinge of anger, not the typical anger at the loved one for dying, but at my loved one who isn't here to make my grief a public thing.

Who am I

I have four names.

Sandy. Xan. Alex. Alexandra.

I can tell how people know me by what they call me.

Sandy is the child. I was not supposed to have a nickname. The story is when my mother saw me, she said that I was so small it seemed awful to hang such a long and grand name on me. My grandmother was horrified. "Why would you name a child after a dog!?" (Sandy is the name of Little Orphan Annie's dog). I was Sandy from birth until I was 17.  I really think having this name warped me, because I was never much of a Sandy. Sandy is fun and cute and compliant. Sandy's pretty mainstream. She dreams about her wedding and gets a degree in English.

Xan, ironically, is the name my mother always called me. I look at it now and I don't recognize myself in it, even though it's the name I used the longest.  I tried to change from Sandy when we moved to Illinois when I was 14, but my brother sabotaged the effort by telling everyone I was lying; my name was Sandy. Meantime, he changed his use-name from Andrew to Drew. When I got to college, without him, I left Sandy behind. There are still people I'm fairly close to who never knew she existed. Xan fits me well- hard to pronounce, absolutely unique, short and difficult. But Xan is part of Bill, which makes it tough.

Alex came about when I tried to have an art career. Sick of explaining "Xan" and unable to get a hearing as Alexandra, I masculinized it. Presto- art career. That's another whole blog, right there. Only one person still calls me Alex. Alex did not make much of an impact on the world.

Alexandra is what my father always called me. It's interesting that they gave me this nickname, Sandy, which never really suited me, but then didn't use it themselves except in public. I brought it back because Xan felt like "Bill and Xan"-- in a way she doesn't exist without him. So I killed her. I chose the name I was born with, who I was never allowed by the world to be.

I wonder who she is?

Friday, February 12, 2016

Raggedy Ann

The last time I was single, I was 19 years old.

I look at that number and can't make it real. I don't know how to wrap my head around the different person I was. At 19 I lived in 4 rooms and slept on a mattress on the floor. Everything I owned was a hand-me-down. The only things that I own now that I also owned then are Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy.

When a marriage lasts as long as mine did–and I'm going to count the 9 years we were together before we got married–one really does cleave unto the other. You become one flesh, from sheer attrition. A long marriage is a unit, Plato's half-spirits joined.

It isn't that from the start. At the start it's just an experiment: sex and a fight over whether it matters that you never screw the toothpaste cap back on, or make the bed. At ten years it's a really long date. At 20 it's comfort. At 40 years you don't exist without the other. I don't mean that in a bad way, or that one personality is subsumed into the other. It's that the shared experience is of such long duration that it becomes a single memory. It's marital Alzheimers-- half my memory is gone.

Raggedy Ann has been sitting on my shelf for almost 60 years, but Raggedy Andy had gone missing. While I was spring cleaning the house this year I found him. They sit on my shelf, together again like they were when I was 19.