A Memory Palace of Fear

November 4th, 2016

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The “projects” page has been updated. Go there to read all about A Memory Palace of Fear — a haunted house, about housing, that I’ve been working on for the last howevermany months.

Reporting from the RNC in CLE

August 1st, 2016

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In July, I spent a week in Cleveland coordinating coverage of the Republican National Convention for Belt Magazine — and I even managed to write a few stories myself. Our entire package can be found here. For my part, I covered a group of clowns protesting Trump’s denigration of their good name and the toxic crowd scene at an auxiliary event featuring Milo Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter. I also contributed reporting to this fascinating feature on the strange confluence of Tamir Rice and Pokemon Go, and the evolving ways we mark history.

Tiny Bubbles

August 1st, 2016

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Bubbles are derided as the refuge of elites who can afford to remain deaf to views and values counter to their own. But as once-marginal hate speech is given a national platform, it’s critical to keep popping the bubble, to step forward and watch the ugliness of the world unspool. It may not lead to understanding, exactly—some of it is simply incomprehensible—but awareness is a virtue in itself.

After a week covering chaos around the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, I offered some thoughts about bubbles, and the merits of popping them, and then blowing them anew, at the Sunday Rumpus.

Fathers, and Stories, and Stories About Fathers

June 21st, 2016

This time last year I sat for days with my father in his room at Virginia Mason Hospital in Seattle, recording his voice as he narrated the story of his life. “She’s helping me write my memoirs,” he quipped to the endless parade of nurses passing through to change the dressings on his legs, take his blood pressure, administer meds. It wasn’t the first time he’d been in one of these rooms, and it wasn’t going to be the last, but by then he was well known to the staff on the eighth floor, as well as their allies down in the ER and upstairs in the CCU, and they took my winking iPhone in stride. 

 

In honor of Father’s Day I wrote a little bit about my father, and other fathers, and stories about fathers and, well, patriarchy — at the Sunday Rumpus.

Tiny Homes & Homeless Youth

May 4th, 2016

“Homeless young people are often stigmatized in ways that veterans, for example, are not: they may be seen as drug addicts or troublemakers, they might be pregnant, they may be gay or gender nonconforming. Chicago’s SHED Studio works with young Chicagoans to creatively address questions of homelessness and affordable housing. Speaking at the summit, people who had participated in a recent series of SHED workshops emphasized the importance of autonomy and choice. They noted that shelters have curfews, and ‘sometimes we want to stay out late!’ as one participant said.

“That may sound trivial, but, added another participant, ‘People don’t understand that being homeless is a psychological thing.’”….

I wrote about a recent Tiny Home Summit at UIC, and the promise and challenges of “tiny homes” as a strategy to address youth homelessness, for the Social Justice News Nexus blog.

Funding Housing First

April 20th, 2016

Since the advent of health care reform in 2010, Illinois Medicaid enrollment has grown to over 3 million people. The bill for that care came to $14 billion in 2014 alone. But almost half of that was spent on care for just 100,000 people—many of them emergency room frequent fliers who are poor and suffer from high rates of diabetes, kidney disease, congestive heart failure, mental illness and substance abuse. Of those 100,000, an estimated 4 to 5 percent are homeless.  

This year, University of Illinois Hospital & Health Sciences System and partners are testing a program to reduce these costs. It is modeled on a strategy known as “Housing First” that is catching on across the county, and it works like this: Take people who are chronically abusing drugs and alcohol, resisting help, unable to keep a job and committing petty crimes. Give them an apartment, no strings attached. Even buy them furniture and appliances. And watch their use of emergency rooms drop. … [Crain’s Chicago Business]

This piece on an initiative to fund supportive housing for chronically homeless Chicagoans was published April 2, 2016, in Crain’s Chicago Business. The story comes out of work I’ve been doing as part of a fellowship reporting on housing issues from the Medill-based Social Justice News Nexus, and I’m very happy it found such a good home.

The Ground Rules: A Manual to Reconnect Soil and Soul

January 8th, 2016

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Very happy to announce the publication of Nance Klehm‘s The Ground Rules, a 70-page newsprint broadside inspired by her ongoing community composting project (of the same name) in Chicago. I’ve been helping Nance and intern Jacob Blecher structure and edit the book off and on for the last six months. It’s a holistic, hands-on guide to composting and DIY soil remediation — covering everything from healing the soil with fungi to the tenets of restorative and environmental justice. It’s thoughtful and lovely — and a good read for all urban growers and anyone else getting down and digging in the dirt. Pick up a copy online today, or if you’re in Chicago, stay tuned for details on a release party later in the winter. join us on April 20 for a release party at the Hideout.

Poseidon’s Children

December 5th, 2015

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[A revised version of July’s Letter in the Mail, performed for the Marrow series at Chicago’s Whistler on August 16. A work in progress.]

Have you noticed there aren’t that many good stories about Poseidon? Here he is one of the most powerful gods in all of Greek mythology – Brother of Zeus! Lord of the sea! – and all I can come up with is that he was grumpy and not terribly popular, though he did do all right with the ladies, as he left kids scattered all across the Aegean. And I wonder, does Poseidon’s lack of a memorable storyline have something to do with the fact that his tale unfolds mainly under water, where it’s hard for even the other players to get a grip on what’s happening, and harder still to communicate the details to those back on land?

I was thinking about Poseidon because I’ve been thinking lately about Greece, and about water – its abundance and its absence.

When I think of Greece, a place I have never been, I think of white sandy beaches and grilled octopus. I think of Odysseus trying in vain to find his way home to his family, thwarted for ten years by Poseidon’s rage, and of democracy, and of war, and of the thousands of migrants now washing up on its shores. And, of course, I think about water. Because, have you been following the Greek debt crisis? The language of global finance is drenched in water. Debt is “underwater” rather than, “underground.” Assets are “liquid.” The economy must be kept “afloat” — through a “bailout” of course. Is it because being “underwater” holds the promise of resurfacing, and the chance to catch your breath, while “underground” carries the finality of the grave?

This all also makes me think of Detroit – where things are so underwater that the city has at times cut its poorer citizens off from the otherwise abundant natural resource of water from the Great Lakes. And of New Orleans, still under water ten years after Katrina drowned the city in despair, despite what the Chicago Tribune editorial board might think. And that for every drowning economy there’s a parched ecosystem to balance the scales. Like poor California, where last month it came to light that Tom Selleck had been stealing water from a Ventura County hydrant and trucking it to his ranch in the hills. Apparently, austerity does not apply to Magnum PI.

To the north, even notoriously rainy Washington has declared a drought emergency. Just last week, Seattle and the surrounding cities asked residents to cut their water usage by ten percent. Beyond that, the drought’s had little visible effect on humans, but the water table is all out of whack, and in hot and shallow rivers across the state migrating salmon are dying by the thousands. The situation is so dire that in some areas the state is trucking stranded fish to safety in hatcheries upstream.

I’ve been out in Seattle, my hometown, for the last several weeks, and I was riveted by the salmon story. The under-watered fish somehow provided a strange counterpoint to my reasons for being there. Because out there in the west, my father has been under water for months – his damaged heart and lungs struggling for control of a system as out of balance as the Columbia River.

Until this spring, I didn’t know a whole lot about edema, but it’s a brutally common side effect of heart failure: As the heart struggles to pump blood, fluid backs up in the body, thanks to a little miscommunication with the kidneys. Thus: my father’s feet regularly swell to unrecognizable shapes. Water floods his lungs and seeps from his pores, blisters flower and burst through his skin. We wrap his weeping legs in gauze and in an hour it is drenched and needs to be changed again. He is drowning in his own fluids – dying, in inexorable and weirdly mundane fashion by the force of something as elemental as water.

From the moment I got the call in March – “Something happened. Come now.”  – I’ve been underwater as well. That day I couldn’t figure out how to work the Internet, or how to buy a plane ticket. I just stared dumbly at the screen, the white noise of surf flooding my ears. Eventually I managed to enlist a friend to come over and help me pack. (“OK, underwear,” she said, “put it in the bag. Next: socks!”)

In the Critical Care Unit of the hospital, my father floated on a raft of tubing and machines. Sedated and unable to speak, he squeezed my hand and raised his eyebrows, trying to swim to the surface. Once he did, days later, and the tubes were removed, all he wanted, with furious desperation, was a sip of water – but of course that was not allowed.

Now, six months later, he rides the tide of chronic illness: in and out of the hospital nine times and counting, choked with water one week; dehydrated the next, stranded between Scylla and Charybdis, the only thing certain the ceaseless uncertainty.

The roar of surf in my ears has quieted to a dull pulse, just rhythmic waves lapping distractingly, hypnotically, at the shores of consciousness, barely audible but nagging enough to keep me from working, from remembering to answer email, from reading a magazine let alone an entire book.

In May I went to Puerto Rico, another island with white sandy beaches and grilled octopus, where the underwater debt stands at $72 billion, and where another crippling drought has left neighborhoods on a rotation system – one day with water, one day without. I was sitting in a plaza in San Juan when I got another call. My father was back in the hospital, for the fourth time, or the fifth. He was, unsurprisingly, feeling pretty down. He wanted to talk about his funeral – about who should speak, what music we should play. I want you to write my obituary, he said. Here’s what you should say.

That night I went out to a bar and drank Cuba Libres, and every time I went to the bathroom I had to stop and remember why the toilet wasn’t flushing. That water was being carefully rationed. That that was why there was just a sad little bottle of hand sanitizer sitting in a dry sink.

What does it mean to bail someone out? And who deserves it? OK, obviously the salmon are blameless. But what about Greece, or Puerto Rico – those lands of sunsoaked, day-drinking layabouts who brought crisis upon themselves and are now being scolded to suffer the consequences? What about Detroit, or New Orleans? What about my father? Did he seal his fate the day he started smoking and drinking and eating salt, rejecting austerity for not just the needs but the pleasures of the moment?

Moralizing comes easy on land, but once you’re in the water things get murky. Questions don’t really have good answers – and bailout means to simply do anything you can to stay afloat. Who deserves it? Everyone.

When my dad was hospitalized in June, for some medical complication the details of which have already drifted away, I went out for a quick visit, and spent four days sitting by his bed with a digital recorder, helping him narrate his life story. A life story in which the sea plays a large part and in which, sort of hilariously, his children seem to barely factor at all. But collectively, as a troika, my sisters and I have decided to forgive that debt, and he now holds onto it like a flotation device. Daily, he harasses me – it’s a running joke: “Have you finished my biography yet?” And of course I haven’t, because if I do – who do I tell it to?

Just a few weeks ago, while I was again out west, my father developed an internal hemhorrage and, going into shock, was resuscitated with a massive transfusion of blood and other fluids; he gained 18 pounds overnight. The next day, still shaking the water from my ears, I was talking to a guy I knew only vaguely at a party for a friend’s 50th birthday. Haltingly, I gave him a rundown of the last 24 hours – minus the gory details. He cocked his head, and looked at me and said, “Is he dying? I know where you are right now.” I wanted to kiss him, I was so grateful he could hear me from the shore.

In a devastating 2011 essay chronicling the illness and death of his infant daughter, Aleksandar Hemon likened the isolation of those days to life inside an aquarium. I can’t imagine the horror of Hemon’s experience, but I do know that an aquarium is a precise metaphor for the climate-controlled, rigorously monitored bubble of the hospital, whose watery byways and language are incomprehensible to those on the outside looking in.

When you’re dealing with the everyday crisis of a dying parent, though, things are less contained. Though the challenge of communicating the texture of the experience stands, you can’t sit in Critical Care forever. So when the conditions of life leave you underwater for the long term – in economic crisis, in ecological distress, in medical limbo – you, like Poseidon, have to figure out how to both swim in the sea and walk in the world. To get on with things on land but also, maybe, to accept that under water is the place where your story makes the most sense. That Poseidon’s children – the naiads and the salmon and the strangers you meet at parties – will, in the end, be those that hear you best.

Here, there

July 14th, 2015

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I looked at a calendar the other day and realized that since New Year’s I’ve barely been home in Chicago for more than four solid weeks at a time. Some of this travel was for fun, some for work, some for family — and while it may sound wildly jet-set, I have to say all this bouncing around has left me a little scattered.  So I sat down to figure out what I’ve been up to in an attempt to get some of the pieces back in the box.

This month Ms. Fit – a great online (and Chicago-based) magazine dedicated to “real world feminist fitness” — published an essay I started almost two years ago, now titled Almost There: Trusting My Body Again, One Lifeboat at a Time. A lot has changed since I started working on this, and in some ways its very odd to see it finally out in the world, but I’m really happy this piece found such a good home.

Also this month I was asked to contribute a personal letter to the Rumpus’s Letters in the Mail project. If you’re a subscriber, some free-associative popcorn on what it means to be “underwater” (economically, medically, emotionally, ecologically) should be landing in your mailbox sometime soon. Once the letter goes out I’ll see if I can post it here as well. You can squint at it here.

Last month I interviewed Jon Fine — a writer, musician, and my long-ago college boyfriend — for Belt magazine about Oberlin, nostalgia, the Midwest, how to write an honest memoir, and god only knows what else. That interview, ridiculously long and riddled with conflicts of interest, can be found here: Your Band Sucks: An Interview With Jon Fine

Speaking of Belt, I sacrificed my vanity to appear via Skype in the video for Belt’s current Kickstarter campaign. We are trying to raise $10,000 to expand our freelance budget and our pool of freelancers to better bring readers (like you, right?) excellent writing from across the postindustrial Midwest. If you would take a look and consider a donation, I’d be very grateful.

If you’d like to know more (or would like to see me with my hair brushed), Belt also has two events coming up in Chicago in the next week. On Friday (July 17) we host our first-ever Chicago happy hour (though technically we’re not supposed to call it that) from 5:30-7:30 pm at the Hideout. I’ll be there along with publisher Anne Trubek, and we’ll have books and other merch for sale, while DJ Bobby Conn spins the music of the Rust Belt. Then on Monday (July 20) I’m moderating a post-screening discussion as part of the experimental documentary series Run of Life at Constellation Chicago. Screenings of Kevin Jerome Everson’s The Island of St. Matthews and Fe26 will be paired with a printing of Jacqueline Marino’s essay “A Girl’s Youngstown,” from Belt’s recently published From Car Bombs to Cookie Tables: The Youngstown Anthology, and we will try to find the resonances among them all.

Also this weekend I’m one of a host of women reading a section of Anne Elizabeth Moore’s Sentimental — a contemporary reinvisioning of the Seneca Falls “Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions” as part of an event called “Feminism: Then and Now” at Defibrillator Gallery on Saturday. (Info seems to only exist on Facebook, sorry.)

And then, well, I’m leaving town again for a while. But I’ll be back by August 16 for that month’s installment of The Marrow reading series at the Whistler, at which I will present some further thoughts on water and its absence and excess. It would be great to see you here, or there, or somewhere, friends.

Words Fail

March 26th, 2015

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I wrote about running away with the circus, and about the end of empires and the functions of nonsense, for the Rumpus this past week. I’ve been trying to write about circus for a while, and my first few tries read like very stiff and random book reports. This piece is different (I hope) — and pretty personal, on some perhaps not immediately obvious levels. I was happy to see it published, and even more so when I found out it had been picked up and circulated in the actual circus community. So thrilling.

The Sunday Rumpus Essay: Words Fail