Sunday, October 31, 2010

Art Party

I went to a rally to restore sanity this past Saturday. My own sanity, that is.

This was actually a work event: A celebration of area murals, some restored, some new, all of them in places you might not expect -- on the side of concrete buildings, in doorways of affordable-housing complexes, across from an Auto Zone, under a viaduct. Even the event site was unlikely: the parking lot of a building that houses the mentally and physically disabled.
We had a dozen interactive art exhibits, including my shaker-making workshop. I brought all the stored jars and containers in our house; some dry beans, lentils, and rice; a box of ribbons, buttons, glue, and notions, then showed folks how to put it all together to make their own musical instruments. We eventually paraded down North Avenue, and adults and kids shook those rattles while a drum group played along and a couple of guys with Moroccan horns kept things interesting.

I wore a costume.

Now . . . I'm going to say something I never would have said, wouldn't have even whispered, as recently as two years ago. But there was something pretty liberating about being part of a work event that wasn't overtly ideological.

If you know anything about my job, you know that I spend a minimum of eight hours a day, every day, shoulder-deep in the throes of politics. I don't work for the government, but I work in a community (and am accountable to that community) that's in a political fight for its life. Its response to this fight has been a strident rise in nationalism. There are many who find themselves in a constant state of confrontation, and to give that up is to give up the ghost altogether. At times this response is downright inspirational, and I'm proud to work in a community that is unafraid to raise its voice and demand fairness, equity, and endurance.

At other times -- and in recognizing that I (or what I represent, or how some might interpret what I represent) am often the target of these confrontations -- it gets exhausting, depleting, and sometimes, for me, deeply deeply sad.

I don't want to wrestle these demons here. I've wrestled them internally for the last couple of years, and let me just say there's no easy answer to the questions.

I'll just say that it was refreshing, as a change of pace, to see black, brown, and white kids together -- making shakers, painting on canvas, assembling costumes from prop boxes, making god's eyes, sampling fresh-fruit smoothies and 'ants on a log,' then taking those healthy recipes home with them -- and not having to think or talk explicitly about what it means to have those black, brown, and white kids together, making art that might or might not be reflective of their heritage, and what this all means for their identity or the identity of the community as a whole.

For a few hours of a sunny Saturday morning, groups came together from every background and simply made art. They sang, they danced, they drew, they paraded. Together. No, of course it's not as simple as that -- the personal is the political, and there's no pure space outside of ideology. I believe those things fully in both my heart and mind, but let me tell you it's a heck of a lot easier to be a graduate student talking about those issues than a working person living under their weight, and within their inscription, 52 weeks a year.

Because in the end, simultaneous with those truths, there's also this kid, and this shaker she just made, and the light, thin air around her that filled up her lungs, and mine too.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Doing a lot with a little

When many of your surroundings look like this, it's nice to see someone go the extra mile.

There's a little strip near us -- full of potential once the economy catches up with itself -- zoned commercial on the bottom, residential on the top. Only thing is, there's not a whole lot of commercial development of any stretch these days, at least not in our neck of the woods. Just ask the guys who stopped me yesterday while I walked to the mailbox. "Hey, is there anyplace to grab a cup of coffee and kill some time around here?"

Umm . . . head scratching, mind going blank, then directing them to the troubled Mexican restaurant down the street, which I'm not even sure is open anymore. Sorry, gents. I'm hopeless.

So my hat goes off to a handful of our neighbors, transforming their retail display space into at least a little something. In one case it's a law office under renovation. The owners put black curtains in the windows and oil paintings in front, creating a nifty exhibit for a local visual artist. You probably can't see her landscapes very well, but these are all scenes from the neighborhood, making this window gallery something of a comment on itself.

In another case, well, I don't know what that is. But trust me it's better than the previous exhibit: 'Exposed nails and cobwebs: A Retrospective.'
None of these displays are going to win any awards. And believe me, a Chamber of Commerce is a long way away. But it's a little something to look at while walking the dog. And when the daycare center finally opens in the former Super Pollo space, that stretch will be filled with color and noise and laughter and breathless running around: The stuff of any thriving corridor, bad economy be damned.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Melon Watch

You may recall my giddiness earlier this summer, when the zucchini I thought would never bloom turned out to be rogue cantaloupe and butternut squash, sprung forth from the compost we'd added to our soil. For what it's worth, the zucchini never grew, but we ended up with two tasty cantaloupe -- harvested long ago -- and three chubby butternut squash, one of which is helping me fight a cold as we speak in the form of a fragrant soup.

We've had a nice, prolonged summer in Chicago, tricking our tomatoes into continued yields. Still, it's time to start thinking about putting the garden to bed.

But wait, not so fast! As I harvested a large bowl of cherry tomatoes yesterday, I nearly tripped over the little guy above, making a surprise appearance.

If his earlier bretheren are any indication, cantaloupe takes a loooong time to ripen. But the quickness of this cameo may hint at some rare will to live. Maybe he'll mature rapidly, racing the frost we're sure to see by the end of October.

I'll keep you posted on his development, of course, but in the meantime, I ask for your collective good will -- rooting for daily growth visible to the naked eye, for a breakneck transformation from fragile green skin to mottled brown husk. If this cantaloupe makes it, I promise to share.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

On mourning an object I didn't know I loved

I'm a bicycle widow. Last weekend I buried (in the back of the basement) the 21-speed silver hybrid I've had since just 2006. I remarried quickly -- too quickly, perhaps, for what's thought proper in civilized company. This was an arranged marriage, after learning the pain in my left shoulder wasn't a muscle knot at all, but a permanent "cervical disc group protrusion at C6 and C7."

I hate you, C6 and C7.

My newly betrothed -- mandated by my physical therapist -- is a pearly green 8-speed comfort model. Pretty as it may be, it's not the same, not by a long shot. And my reaction to the loss of the old bike? I think I'm actually grieving.

The first bicycle I owned as an adult was a snazzy turquoise number my parents gifted me for my 30th birthday, after I'd met a dreamy guy (whom I'd later marry) -- a former bike messenger and impassioned cycling enthusiast. I doted on that bike. I feminized her. I gave her a nickname (my "velocipede"), tore off all her branded decals, and decorated her frame with silk flowers. She was a tool, sure, but she was mostly an accessory.

When it came time to trade her in ten years later, I never looked back. I didn't mourn. I was excited to meet her new owner, a lanky Frenchwoman who looked far more quirky and exotic riding her than I could ever hope to. I breathlessly collected the credit toward my new bike: A workhorse (see above), the same bike I would ride through my early 40s, that would carry me through 50+-mile days in Maine a couple summers back, and that I moved into storage last week, because riding it exacerbates my symptoms and could aggravate my injury.

That second bike? Eh. It never aesthetically pleased me. It was no kind of showstopper. I never much thought about it to be honest. It ran seamlessly and needed little maintenance. I went through a stretch of flat tires last year, but that I blamed on all the broken glass on our lousy Chicago roads. Never on the bike. In truth, I sort of took that bike for granted. But isn't that, in a way, the best kind of bicycle to have? One that rarely crosses your mind? One that becomes such an extension of your body that riding it is second nature, maybe nature itself?

Day 1 on the new bike, Bike #3 for those keeping track, nearly broke me. I had trouble getting started from a stop position. Once I got rolling, I couldn't pick up any steam. I've never been a particularly fast rider but could generally hold my own. On the new bike, though, people on rickety three-speeds blew by me. Parents carrying their children in kid seats, a blur in front of me as I trundled along, trying to find the right gear with this damn internal gear shifter.

A friend of mine, far more wracked with injury than I am (but nothing that affects his riding; he's a demon on wheels) caught up with me on his way home from work.

"So that's the new bike? What do you think?"

"I feel like I'm riding a Rascal."

I didn't tell him I'd just been crying a little.

But a funny thing happened on Day 2 and 3. Day 2 I learned to get a running start, and hopping on was far less teetering than my inaugural ride. My pain and numbing were even subsiding a little. On Day 3, I actually started enjoying the pace and the upright posture, noticing things I wouldn't have otherwise with my body angled forward and my eyes on the prize: beating that yellow and getting through the light.

Then a bike-shop bad-ass told me a generous story. He's swapped out all his old road bikes for upright models. The reason? "It's the city," he said. "I want my head up and my eyes forward. Otherwise I get reckless. Mistakes get made."

It was the nicest thing a tough guy has ever done for me.

So I guess in a way I'm coming around, a little. Change is tough, and sometimes I want to shout from the rooftops: "I'm too young to be this old!" But of course these changes are part of the roadmap. You live, you experience, you age, you remember. You take what comes, and you make adjustments. And if you're smart and marginally graceful about it, you stay alert to the spoils of that bargain.

I may never ride as fast or as far as I could six months ago. But slow and steady, I continue to ride.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Ho Hum

(during and

Dear Neighborhood,

The thrill is gone. Please find ways to delight me again.

- Your melancholy former fan

In fairness, it's not the neighborhood's fault. It's the same old burg it's always been. Sure, a heap more gentrification to the east, but some pleasant hold-steady closer to home. I guess it's hard not to compare it to where I've just been -- history, topography, majestic vistas, human kindness, street dogs and chickens roaming free.

We even came back to some little gifts from the City. Permit signs in the windows of derelict buildings. The new playlot, finally and gloriously installed at the local P.S. And what ho? The crumbling sidewalk adjacent to us, finally repaired after eight long years of griping about it. (Shall we say it together? 'Election year.' Whatever the reason, I'll take it).

It's been tough to be moved by any of it, though. Maybe it's the news we got: Two great sets of neighbors, moving away in quick succession. Or maybe the fact that my body's falling apart -- a grumpy knee, and now a disc-group herniation in my neck (a permanent condition that requires morning stretches, no heavy lifting, and the unplanned purchase of a pricey new bike). Maybe it's the casually discarded chicken bone that got lodged in Inez's throat this morning, causing gagging/choking/expelling that I thought might be the end of her. Maybe it's the end of harvest season, saying good-bye to our bounty of eggplant and tomatoes. Or some recent frustrations at work? -- Frictions I thought had long ago subsided seeming to rear their ugly heads again.

I guess I could point to a host of causes, but we all know these things are matters of perception. Right now, that repaired sidewalk seems like a dull gray slab of unforgiving concrete. But I remain committed, dear neighborhood, to watching it morph into some kind of tabula rasa, all the more amazing for having not a single flaw -- not a single carved name or set of pigeon prints (in our neighborhood?!) -- in its surface.

Of course it'll be the same old sidewalk. But when my view of it changes, I'm home.