Sunday, December 21, 2014

Twenty-six years ago today

I’d finished my classes for the semester and my dad had come to pick me up from college for the holiday break. 1988 had been an emotional roller coaster for our family. We’d lost four family friends in a small plane crash Easter morning, my mom had undergone a radical mastectomy in October and she was just starting her first rounds of chemo before Christmas. I was in the middle of my junior year in college, and I’d finally found a major I was willing to stick with: English. But since I’d waited a full two years to admit to myself I always should have been an English major, I had a lot of catching up to do. And my first-semester courseload had been heavy.

December 21 is the winter solstice—the day of the year with the shortest amount of sunlight—but it was beautiful and sunny in Eastern Iowa that afternoon in 1988. And Dad and I had a nice chat over the 40-minute drive home. My family has always been close, so when we saw Mom standing in the driveway as we pulled up to the house, I figured she was just excited to see me.

But she was sobbing.

I assumed she’d gotten some bad news about her cancer while Dad was gone, so I jumped out of the car before it even came to a stop and I ran up to hug her. But the bad news was something entirely different: Miriam’s plane had gone down.

Miriam was a friend of mine who had spent the semester in London studying under the auspices of Syracuse University. I’d just visited her over the Thanksgiving break, and we’d had an awesome time seeing the sights, exploring the museums and taking in all the shows we could afford on our college-student budgets. Among the four we saw were Les Misérables and an extraordinary revival of Stephen Sondheim’s Follies. Sondheim was just starting to appear on our collective radar, and we both agreed that seeing Follies together was a mountaintop experience for us to have shared over our magical week together in London.

But by December 21, I’d come home, a whole month had passed and I’d been so caught up in my finals and holiday preparations that I’d had no idea Miriam was flying back to the States that day—much less what flight she was on. Neither had my mom. But our friend Jody in Ohio did. And when the initial reports that Pan Am flight 103 had disappeared out of the sky over Lockerbie, Scotland, started washing over the newswires, Jody had called everyone she could think of.

Mom and Dad and I raced to the family room and crowded around the TV that crisp, sunny Iowa afternoon to see what we could find out about Miriam’s plane. It was the early days of CNN and 24-hour news, so we were able to get (spotty) information right away about the mysterious crash, along with grainy images of the wreckage shining dimly in the emergency lights that were working so hard to pierce the solstice blackness six time zones away.

Over the next few months and weeks, the world came to learn about the bomb, the Libyans, the retribution, the embargoes, the bankruptcies. We cautiously wrapped our brains around the unthinkable efficiencies of global terrorism at the dawn of the Information Age. And the friends and families of the victims of the 103 bombing started experiencing the bizarre dichotomy of watching our personal tragedy play itself out on the world stage.

In the years since Miriam’s murder, I’ve befriended her parents and friends. I’ve gotten in touch with the roommates she lived with in London, none of whom had been on her plane with her that day. I’ve written pieces about my relatively removed perspective on the bombing that were published in newspapers and scholarly journals and read on NPR. And since I had been in London and had hung out with a lot of the Syracuse students a month before the bombing, I’ve actually been interviewed by the FBI.

And as I’ve grieved and matured over the last 26 years, I’ve discovered that I now tend to be efficiently emotionless when I hear about epic tragedies like the 9/11 bombings and the Newtown massacre ... but I’ll still burst into tears over emotional pablum like Christmas cookie commercials.

Twenty-six years ago today, the world learned what a volatile mix misanthropy and religion and blind nationalism can be in a global melting pot.

Twenty-six years ago today, Miriam and her fellow passengers and their families and friends learned violently and unwillingly about harsh brutalities that the rest of the world got the relative luxury of absorbing over time.

Twenty-six years ago today, I learned that the distant tragedies that so often happen to “other people” should never be observed as abstractions.

I discovered that news of plane crashes and acts of terrorism that play endlessly in 24-hour newscycles can be both disturbing and strangely comforting. I learned that life is precious, that there are no guarantees, that people who waste your time are just robbing you, that small gestures can make heroic impressions, that your pain and suffering and anguish and heartbreak do not make you special, that no matter how bad it gets you should find solace in the fact that it will probably get better … or at least easier.

Twenty-six years is enough time for someone to raise a child and send him or her off into the world. Enough time for six presidential elections and four new Sondheim musicals. (Six, if you count Saturday Night and The Frogs.)

It’s enough time for a gangly, unsure college boy to cycle through four cars and seven houses and six jobs and three cities as he grows into a successful (more or less), confident (more or less) man.

It’s enough time for him to realize that the world is not fair. That bad things happen to good people. That the bad people who did them don’t always get punished. That horrible tragedy gets easier to accept over time, though it remains impossible to forget. That the hate that some people burn into your heart never entirely leaves, and that the smug, satisfied self-righteousness you feel when you finally see images of Moammar Gadhafi’s bloodied, abused corpse feels powerfully good.

I often wonder what Miriam would be if she were alive today. Famous actress? Influential journalist? Stay-at-home mom? She was among those people you just knew were going somewhere big with their lives. I’m sure that wherever the fates would have taken her, she’d be someone people knew about.

I also wonder if we would still be friends. We’d met that summer when we were singing and dancing in the shows at Darien Lake amusement park just outside Buffalo, New York. Our friendship lasted just seven months until she was murdered. I’m only barely in touch with the other friends I made at the park that summer. Miriam’s family and I aren’t in touch nearly as much as I’d like either (though her mother recently published a book of Miriam's writings along with essays from people who knew and loved her, including me).

Would Miriam and I have drifted apart as well?

Since at this point I’m pretty much in control of our story, I choose to believe that by now I’d have sung in her wedding and helped her decorate her baby’s room and given her a prominent link on my blogroll and kept her on my speed dial from the moment I got my first cell phone.

And I’m pretty sure she’d have written the same story for me if our fates had been reversed.

Twenty-six years ago today was the last, devastating act in a year that had shaken my family to its core. It was the day my worldview changed from naive to guarded, from optimistic to cynical, from insular to secular.

It was the day my friend Miriam was murdered.

And it was just another day for most people.

And though the world continues to spin forward—as it should—and people’s memories continue to fade—as they do—I will never forget.

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Grant Wood, Regionalism and my kitchen wall

Grant Wood, best known for his iconic American Gothic, lived and worked most of his life in and around my home town: Cedar Rapids, Iowa. His legacy in the area—in addition to an exhaustive collection of his work in the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art permanent collection—includes an annual art festival, a grade school (my alma mater!) and even the entire region’s public education agency—all in his name.

Of course, no Cedar Rapids student’s education is complete without thorough coverage of Wood’s stylized, iconoclastic, humorous and sometimes political oeuvre. And this Cedar Rapids student came away with a lifelong love of his work.

Grant Wood was a pioneer in a loosely coordinated artistic movement called Regionalism, which eschewed modernist, abstract trends like Impressionism and Cubism in favor of stylistic, romanticized views of everyday rural life in the 1930s. The Regionalists were less concerned with promoting the leftist politics of 1930s Social Realists than with renouncing the hegemony of popular European culture and celebrating the honest work ethic and modest demeanor of the Midwest.

In 1928, Wood received a commission to create a giant stained-glass window for the American Legion in Cedar Rapids. In preparation, he traveled to Munich to study ancient stained-glass techniques under Germany’s famed master craftsmen. The window he created, featuring a 16-foot Lady of Peace standing over six life-size soldiers representing the Revolutionary War through World War I, was a masterpiece of technique, form and color.

Fun fact: The model for the central figure was his sister, Nan Wood Graham, who was also the model for the female figure in American Gothic.

Despite the window's unmistakable American themes, it drew fire from misguided patriots who criticized Wood for studying with the Germans—the enemy!—so soon after the first World War. One of the most vocal groups was the local chapter of Daughters of the American Revolution.

Wood’s elegant response: Daughters of Revolution, a satirical painting showing three dour spinstresses standing self-righteously—one, pinky extended in haughty indignation, holding a teacup in my grandmother’s china pattern—in front of Emmanuel Leutz’s famous Washington Crossing the Delaware.

Wood’s point, lost completely on the knee-jerk reactionaries the painting so elegantly mocked, lies in the fact that Washington Crossing the Delaware—that beloved icon of American patriotism—was painted by a German.

I loved this painting before I even knew its story. The smug women drew me in because their spiritual progeny hung just a few branches over on my family tree. The Blue Willow teacup fascinated me because its cousins served as my grandmother’s everyday dishes. (Have you ever eaten green Jell-O off a blue plate? NOT so appetizing.) And that shape—that relentless horizontalness—made the painting such a challenge to display in any setting.

But I've accepted that challenge. Gladly. And my very own Daughters of Revolution print today occupies the place of honor over my collection of Norwegian family artifacts in my kitchen.

Thursday, January 09, 2014

Women I would switch for

Kate Hudson
She’s the cute neighbor and the mischievous best friend and the sexy vixen all wrapped in one. She has a killer body and a goofy smile and versatile hair and it all totally works together. She was born 11 years and one day after me, so we’re practically twins. She starred in Fool’s Gold with a shirtless Matthew McConaughey and politely never rubbed my face in it. She played the troubled, frustrated, bitchy Cassandra July – which sounds almost as fake as Julio Iglesias – on Glee. And when she shook her sexy self all over the “Cinema Italiano” number in Nine, forget about it. She was the hottest woman on the planet and she was shaking it all for me. I could just tell. We’d make a fabulous Hollywood power couple – her with her acting and me with my blogging – and our kids would be adorable, charming and above average. Plus my mother-in-law would be Goldie Hawn and that would be a gay wet dream, without the actual wet dream part.

Julianne Moore
She does accents! She has cheekbones! She’s 53 and she doesn’t look a day over 30! And that hair! It is her muse, her co-star and dawn’s crowning glory all in one. I’ve always thought she was beautiful, but her turn as a desperate, suicidal 1950s housewife in The Hours made me love her as an actress. Her portrayal of a liquor-soused best friend in A Single Man made me love her as my best friend. And in Game Change she managed to give a level of humanity to the one-dimensional train wreck Sarah Palin without playing her as the cartoon she is. Plus she can pull off dry comedy as the comic foil to the comic foil Alec Baldwin in 30 Rock. She’s the thinking man’s actress and the discerning man’s arm candy and if she’d give me her damn phone number so I could complain that she never returns my calls, I think we’d make a strikingly well-cheekboned couple.

Alexandra Cabot
She’s not only an assistant district attorney on Law & Order: SVU, but she’s a graduate of Harvard Law School. And she wears glasses. And she has a strong, commanding voice. And she keeps her hair in that perfect balance between intelligent-no-nonsense-attorney and glamorous-lady. She’s a distractingly attractive woman. Who cares that she faked her death in a car explosion to enter the Witness Protection Program to escape notorious drug lord Cesar Velez? Who cares that she popped out of the shadows before she disappeared (more or less) forever to show Benson and Stabler that she was not, in fact, dead? Who cares that doing this totally undermined the point of entering the Witness Protection Program in the first place? She’s beautiful and I’d switch for her, but only if she promised to prosecute me relentlessly.

John Cena
Well, technically, he’s not a woman and he’d be doing the switching, but those are just quibbles. John Cena is a textbook example of hella-mega-hotness. Except for the part where he rassles in the WWE, which is something I’d have to get used to in our marriage. Which means I’d be doing some switching too. I give and give and give. I don’t mean to denigrate the WWE – and for any of you who are WWE fans, denigrate means to belittle or disparage – but for all its macho bluster and admittedly dangerous stunts, the whole WWE thing is just … silly. If I want to watch insanely hot men roll around all sweaty in tiny swimsuits, there are websites that show these activities without pretending they’re not way totally gay. But despite all its laughable denial and goofy posturing, the WWE does bring us regularly 98% naked specimens like John Cena. So it can’t be all bad.

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Letter from Chiberia


So it’s cold here. Purportedly colder than the South Pole. Or Mars. And while I agree that it’s been hella-freaking cold, I don’t think it’s been all that horrible … but then again I’ve spent most of the cold snap under a blanket on my couch.

The cold shut down my office on Monday, but I ventured out to meet my trainer in the Loop anyway. And since I went at an off-peak time, the CTA trains were not working in my favor. My first train took 15 minutes to show up. My second train took 10. And then we sat at the Belmont station for another 10 minutes with the freaking doors open.

But that wasn’t the worst part. Sometimes, for reasons known only to the travel gods, a train will suddenly “express” to some far-off location and bypass all the stops in between. Passengers are usually notified of this change at the last possible moment so we have very little time to figure out alternate ways to get to our destinations. And on the coldest day in the history of witches’ tits yesterday, my train announced it was going to express when it was one stop away from my destination. So I got to walk what I estimate to be half a mile to the gym. But I looked at it as my pre-workout cardio, even though it was in relatively brutal cold.

I had a great workout with my trainer, who is an enthusiastic young man dedicated to kicking my 45-year-old ass into fighting shape by summer. I actually think quite highly of him; in the few months I’ve been working out with him, he’s found ways to work around – and strengthen the muscles around – two chronic gym injuries that have held me back in my workouts for years. Plus he’s good visual motivation, if you know what I mean. And by that I mean he’s pretty hot.

I ended up on the drunk train on the ride home; there were two loud, slurry guys holding an endlessly inane conversation across the aisle from each other, breathing a great effluvium of liquor into the air and cracking themselves up by shouting Happy New Year! every time the conductor made an announcement. Thankfully, one of them got off the train one stop from my stop, giving me a half mile of relative quiet before I had to go out trudging in the cold again.

But before we left the station, it happened. The announcement came that my train was expressing to some far-off location beginning now, so I had to get off the train and trudge an extra half mile back to my place. For those of you keeping score at home, that makes two trips in a row where the CTA expressed one stop before mine and forced me out into the cold for a long freezing walk. There was no end to my suffering.

Bonus story!

My sister came to visit for the weekend and somehow made it back home safely in the snow and cold on Sunday. But while she was here, she cooked tons of food for me and divided it into single servings and stocked my fridge and freezer with enough meals to last me through winter. For the record, I know how to cook. And when I do, I’m not half bad at it. But I’m fundamentally more lazy than hungry and left to my own devices I’ll eat peanut butter and jelly for every meal for the rest of my life. So my sister’s cooking and portioning and freezing of food was a welcome gift. Besides, I have only eight knives so I can make only eight peanut butter and jelly sandwiches before I have to start washing things and washing knives can sometimes be overwhelming.

But that’s not the bonus story! On Saturday we wandered out in the snow and toured Millennium Park and the Art Institute and had a lovely touristy time. Spirits were so high, in fact, that not one but two homeless guys complimented us on what a cute couple we made. One even told us he could tell we’d been together for a long time. Which, having been siblings for 43 years, is technically true. But we hardly qualify as a couple. At least not north of the Mason-Dixon line. But since two guys had commented on our cute coupledom, we figured maybe the world knew something we didn’t. So we got MARRIED!* And this picture of us in Chicago’s famous bean sculpture (called Cloud Gate by purists) is our joyous wedding photo:

I’d normally register for extra peanut butter knives, but since I now have a wifey who can cook, I’ll be registering instead for pots and pans for her. And Chipotle gift cards for date nights. I can be selfless like that.

* Not really.

Thursday, January 02, 2014

Have I lost the will to blog?

Only the pundits can say for sure. But scores of recent evidence suggest my blog is among the detritus of a growing disinterest in lots of things on my part.


It’s a new year. Resolutions must be made. Attention must be paid. Blogging must be gayed. (I don’t know what that means either; it just had a nice rhythm to it.) And I’m trying to will myself back into a state of blogging enthusiasm.

First, let me catch you up on the interesting things that have happened since I last blogged with any semblance of intent:

I ran the New York Marathon! It took four years to get in (it’s based on a lottery system with a brutal curve) and it was a tough run (New York City is WAY hillier than you might think) but I did it and loved it and am officially counting it as my last (and most glorious) marathon. Limping my last few miles through a shadowy, late-afternoon Central Park – where the temperature abruptly dropped exponentially and I was still in my relatively skimpy running garb – is truly a cherished memory for me. I finished in my worst time ever (5:14:35) and I hadn’t packed any warm clothes (or cab cash) in my gear-check bag but I was positively euphoric as I limp-shivered over a mile back to my hotel on what turned out to be the wrong side of Times Square, given the location of the finish line. And – contrary to my normal policy of never wearing a marathon medal in public once I’ve taken a shower – I proudly wore mine on the plane home the next day.

I ran two Disney half marathons! My I.T. bands and I may be done with marathons, but I can still limp through a half marathon or two if I put my mind to it. And if you run half marathons at both Disneyland (in California) and Disney World (in Florida) in the same calendar year, you get a third finisher’s medal – officially called the coast to coast medal, but since neither park is on a coastline and you actually run through the iconic Disney castles in both races I think it should be called a castle to castle medal. But no one asked me. Of course, both races were filled with Disney magic, whether we were running through empty parks at dawn (Disneyland) or after dusk (Disney World) or stopping to pose for pictures with myriads of costumed Disney characters or just hearing Disney songs blaring over loudspeakers along lonely stretches of road. And the Disney World race, which you may recall from the previous sentence was after dusk, ended in the Epcot Center parking lot … and culminated in three more hours of private access to all of Epcot for the runners and our guests. Which translates to NO LINES. But lots of gamey park guests. Still, if you run and have even a modicum of fascination with all things Disney, I heartily recommend running a Disney race. It’s well-organized and fun and entertaining and magical … plus you’re at freaking Disney! What’s not to love? What’s especially TO love is the big yellow buttons I pinned to my red running shorts, which made me look EXACTLY LIKE MICKEY.

I got another tattoo! I’d been holding myself to the one-tattoo-per-marathon rule for quite some time. But the year I ran the two Disney half marathons I also ran a third half marathon. And three half marathons = one tattoo, right? Right?. This one is in a place that could spark a morality riot if I showed it to you in its entirety, but I’ll give you a peek and let you fill in the blanks mentally. To help you picture it correctly, I’ll give you a hint: It’s over a foot in diameter:

I rappelled down the side of a 30+ story hotel! It was terrifying and I can't even say I'm glad I did it. Do you see the happy smile I have in this picture? It's a LIE.

I’m single. After six and a half years, the boyfriend and I parted amicably and are maintaining a friendship that I sincerely hope continues to grow stronger.

I’m bipolar. I forget when exactly I was diagnosed, but the diagnosis was applied retroactively to a large number of years, given the history I presented to the psychologist who diagnosed me. So I’ve been a mess for quite some time. At first I was embarrassed and actually quite ashamed to have a mental illness. But it slowly became a kind of cool secret I told to only select people. And then I couldn’t turn my filter off (which I don’t think is a symptom of bipolar disorder but I’ll blame it on being bipolar anyway) and I started telling everyone. And now it goes a long way toward explaining my manic swings (which are intense in a 100 mph kind of way, though they only last about four hours) and my depressive dips (some of which quickly become depressive collapses). And at least I finally have a name for my long-time adversary and I know what I’m up against when it makes an attack. To make my medical problems even messier, I also have a pituitary adenoma (a tiny benign tumor on my pituitary that causes marginal problems with its performance) and hypothyroidism. And at my peak, I was on 10 medications to control everything. I’ve since been downgraded to my current level of seven daily meds, and I hope if I demonstrate good behavior I might soon get paroled down to even fewer.

I’ve run outside in December in a Speedo and a Santa hat! Three times! My picture was even used in the promotional materials for the second annual Most Fabulous Santa Speedo Run.

Whew! I think that’s enough catching up for now. Check back soon; I hope to make this blogging thing a regular habit and there just may be another post when you visit next.