Sunday, February 27, 2011


I'll always remember 2011 as the year my body and I stopped getting along. I've already written about the herniated disc in my neck, which has bulldozed me with pain and prevented any real exercise, including the physical therapy that might actually help resolve my symptoms. I'm getting soft around the middle and thick in the thighs.

Then there was last week's spill on my bike -- trying to ride in the ice after running late on election day. The plummy bruises on my knees are nothing. It's the extra twinges in my neck and left arm that worry me. Was this the over-reaching that will lead me to the surgeon's table?

Strangely enough, my mind and I seem to be friendlier than ever, as if we've reunited after a long hiatus only to realize we're still in love. Mind, you had me at 'hello.' You make me want to be a better person. And damnit, you complete me.

It's a funny thing that happens when you have to work around pain. It's a little like the series of steps that get people past grief or an alcohol habit.

At first, there's denial: I'm sure this is just a pulled muscle. It'll be gone in another day or two.

Then the bargaining: Let me get through the day. Just today. Tomorrow I'll stay home from work if I have to. I'll call the doctor. I'll even consider the surgery, if I can just make this deadline and find a comfortable chair for that two-hour meeting.

(And somehow I do make that deadline, and I do find that comfortable chair, and I'm stronger for having done so).

Finally there's the acceptance: This is my life now. The show must go on.

But above all, and this is where a pain condition starts to do its own thing, I have a very focused sense of empathy, not to mention the fact that tiny human scenes seem to play themselves around me on endless reels.

Take last Tuesday's bike crash.

There I was, in the middle of the street, unable to move my bike or even pick myself up to get to the sidewalk. A pick-up pulled up behind me. No one got out of the truck, and I could see traffic lining up behind him.

Then, a van, driving past the intersection and pulling over to the side of the road. A woman, more specifically a Muslim woman in full robes, got out of the van, rushed to my side, physically moved my bicycle out of the street, then held my arm as she escorted me to the sidewalk, dragging her long skirt through the slush.

The woman asked if I needed a ride. She said she'd put my bicycle in her van and drive me wherever I needed to go. I wasn't even a block from home, so I thanked her and headed back to the house.

I've been haunted by her kindness ever since. She didn't have to stop. She was a petite woman, but she lifted my bike like it was nothing at all. She didn't have to trust me enough to invite me into her car. Her hemline got dirty because of me. She didn't know where I worked -- it could have been miles away -- but still she offered to take me there. And it's not lost on me, and somehow not irrelevant, that this woman is a Muslim and I am not. She overcame our differences to offer help to a person in need. It's something that doesn't come easily these days in America, and I'm going to be honest: It's something that doesn't always come easily to me.

I've replayed that episode over and over, and the immensity of her gesture never gets old.

So in some ways, this experience of pain has amplified my experience of the world, both good and bad. I'm not a religious person, but I take that as a blessing. And I'm not a pedantic person, but I see it as a lesson.

Monday, February 21, 2011

When Dennis Throws a Party . . .

There will be funny hats.

Tea will be served from elegant china found in a dumpster.

Canapes and sweets will be scattered about the house on servers fashioned from scrap metal and ax handles.

Random strangers will take over the small kitchen, stirring pots of homemade soup.

And Mabel will play John Cage's "Suite for a Toy Piano" to heartfelt applause.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Down with "Dibs"

You can't make it through a winter in Chicago without encountering one of the ugliest customs of the season: Dibs. This is the process by which a car owner digs his or her car out of the snow, then claims that parking space on the street with broken chairs, paint buckets, or some other form of detritus from the basement. Moving someone else's objects to park in that spot is tantamount to theft -- snow turns public space into private, I guess -- and I've often been surprised that someone hasn't been killed over violating another person's dibs.

I realize that opening may lose me a few friends. Dibs are fighting words in Chicago, and they've divided more than a few neighbors, more than a few communities. I also know that our recent 2-foot snowfall has turned a few dibs detractors into reluctant embracers. It's a matter of necessity, they say. These are extraordinary circumstances. If you don't claim the spot, you have nowhere to put your car.

Nevertheless, I stand by my position. Dibs is bad policy, and yet another example of how vehicle ownership can breed the kind of thnking and action that separates folks from one another.

What's especially sticking in my craw about this debate is the assumption -- and many have said it out loud to me -- that since I don't own a car and don't have the challenge of parking it, I don't have a right to a position. Essentially I don't have a horse in this race.

Quite the contrary. First, I feel I have a right to be bothered by other people's garbage accumulating on my street and in my neighborhood. It's litter, plain and simple, and it's illegal . . . but worse yet, it's unneighborly.

Second, it's been interesting to see the link between chairs in the street and unshoveled sidewalks running parallel to those spaces. People will dig out their personal automobiles and lay claim to the space, but they often won't extend the same courtesy to their neighbors at large. They want their mode of transportation to be respected, but they're unwilling to respect other people's need to walk to the train, the grocery store, or the local elementary school.

And you know what? Lots of people can't ride their bikes through two feet of snow. They can't walk across an icy stretch of sidewalk, so they find a new means of getting to work. They take the el, or they find a new route. The need for adaptability is an occupational hazard of living in Chicago in winter. We all need a little ingenuity from time to time.

One of my new heroes is a guy who posted the following to our neighborhood list-serve, generally a hornet's nest for political infighting and ideological puffery, but now a home for this little gem:

I should give you fair warning. I shoveled off part of the monument [the famed statue in the center of the neighborhood] and it is now MINE. None of you are welcome on it or near it. If any of you question the veracity of this statement, as proof I left a Skittles wrapper there to hold my claim (shoveling is hard work and you burn a lot of calories). Also, if I find anyone's else's Skittles wrappers or other junk on my spot don't be surprised if they are set on fire.

And this spirit of levity leads me to share a fantasy of mine. There are some awfully nice chairs left in excavated, slushy parking spots. Witness Exhibits A, B, C, and D.

If I had more skill and more time, I'd be gathering up those chairs, then starting a business -- perhaps I'd call it Dibs -- of refinishing and reupholstering the discards, then selling them for cost into the living rooms where they belong. I figure I'd be cleaning up my neighborhood and turning this rotten practice into something good.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Guarding the Crosswalk

I used to hear people talk about their back trouble and feel terrible, of course, but not have any of my own reference points. That was until a few months ago. After a prolonged spell of what I thought was a pulled muscle, I learned I actually have a pronounced herniation between two vertebrae in my neck. Since January 3 I've had constant shooting pains down my shoulder and arm and some nagging tingling in my left hand and index finger.

This creates some major quality-of-life adjustments, not to mention low-grade depression, but since a blog isn't a journal I'll spare you the weepy details.

What I can say is this: I haven't been able to ride my bike since January 3. I haven't been able to exercise, enjoy a dinner out, or sleep on my stomach or side. I go to sleep in pain. I wake up in pain. But I'm adjusting. One thing I've started doing is walking the 45 minutes to work -- a little exercise, a little scenery. Plus a daily visit with my favorite crossing guard, there at the corner of Albany and Fullerton in her yellow slicker, stopping 6 lanes of traffic so pedestrians can get across.

If she doesn't love her job, you could've fooled me. Every day she offers up a heavily accented "Good morning!" or "Be careful, sweetie." Then she'll point to the same slushy pile at the mouth of the sidewalk, as if to say, "Don't slip. Take it slow."

There are hazards aplenty at that corner. Six full lanes of traffic on a route designated for semi trucks. Snow piled up so it makes the crosswalk impassable. That same snow turning to sheets of ice as it's packed down.

But the crossing guard is always there, making sure we don't fall off those cliffs of rye. Every last one of us -- schoolchildren, seniors, dogwalkers, people in wheelchairs, and plain old grown-ups like me -- is safe on her watch. She wouldn't stand for less.

People in Chicago talk about legendary bus drivers or el operators, with their affirmational messages and charming quirks. But my kudos go to the protectors of those of us who rely on the sidewalk. Hardy though we may be, we are sometimes fragile creatures.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Snowpocalypse 2011

People pitching in.

Kids reinventing space.

Sidewalks cleared for passersby.

Not a bad test of humanity. We passed.