Friday, June 07, 2019

This is 50

The milestone birthdays are supposed to be special. At least, that’s what we’re told.

Eventually, the gravity of turning 50 will punch me square in my nose out of nowhere. Two days in, however, it’s mostly been a continuation of the reflective mood I’ve found myself in recently.

That reflection is a result of the whirlwind that was my forties — easily a decade of growth that far exceeded my modest expectations. If my twenties were the equivalent of a lost weekend and my thirties were mostly a period of stagnation and obstinance, my forties were when I showed up, did the work and reaped the rewards. These were the years when, whether by design or dumb luck, I chose to live in the world, leave myself open to possibility and opportunity, and grew as a person.

I’m not proud of the person I was when I was younger. I was fueled by anger, envy and hubris which held me back. My forties were where I made up for lost time. I found my career. I found love (a couple times). I found my tribe. And I found that I don’t need my past to define me, but inform where I’m going and what I want to become. This has been a decade of hard work, life lessons, therapy sessions and humility

If I have any wishes for my fifties, it would be to continue on this path. As my birthday neared, people have asked if I’m looking forward to it. I believe we ask this because we’re ingrained to believe that 50 is the acme of our life’s journey — that it’s all downhill from here. I’m not sure that’s true.

Gray hair may have settled in my temples and my beard. My quadriceps muscles feel like wet cement after my bike rides these days. My doctor keeps hounding me to stay away from any combination of chocolate and peanut butter. But there are so many things I still want to do and I remain motivated to putting in the effort.

So yeah, I’m looking forward to 50. And 60 and 70 and 75 and every second I’m fortunate to live. Because life is in the living.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

The Gift

A couple years ago I was telling some friends a funny story about my mother. When I finished, one of them gave me a puzzled look. I asked her what was on her mind.

"I only think about your mom in abstract," she said. "I assume she exists, but not in the way our moms do; I don't think I could ever picture what she looks like."

Painting an abstract picture of my mother is light years ahead of how I used to acknowledge her existence. I tried like hell to erase her from my life. My brother, sister and I all left home at 16, each for a different reason. My sister was married and pregnant. My brother's budding juvenile delinquency had him bouncing between home and foster care. 

Me? Tired of being beaten by my stepfather, I was fighting back — often with whatever I could get my hands on. One time he took a swing at me and I split his head open with a fireplace iron. Another time, he was working on the car after kicking the shit out of me, so I followed him outside and tried to kick the jack out from the bumper while he was underneath. If I remained in that environment, there were two ways it would have ended: both scenarios end with my not being able to write this.

My mother saw this and signed over custody of me to my Uncle Stu before my junior year of high school.

I was angry and confused at what I saw was my mother choosing an alcoholic redneck asshole over me. Even though I knew I was in a better place with my uncle and aunt, I felt as though my mother washed her hands of me and getting rid of me was the best way to keep the family together. Worst of all, I felt there was something wrong with me and she had no patience to help me work through it.

As I entered adulthood, it was easier for me to acknowledge my mother’s existence in passing than to tell the details. I really didn’t want to talk about her, or with her. As I entered my thirties, I had effectively written her out of my life and didn’t want to talk to her again. That bitterness has softened over time. We chat regularly, catch each other up on what is happening in our lives, and tell each other we love each other.

The biggest change in our relationship came when I realized she saw giving my uncle custody of me as an opportunity. I could have vacillated between “foster care or whatever,” as John Kelly so callously put it last week. But both Mom and Uncle Stu saw a very gifted, budding young man who needed a chance to live up to his potential. This was a Hail Mary play: even though I was in a stable home environment with my uncle, there was no guarantee I would apply the life lessons he and my aunt were teaching me, as an adult. My teachers always told Mom I was gifted and my talents needed nurturing, but as a widow during most of the 1970s, Mom had a succession of second-shift factory or retail jobs and wasn't available much of the time.

Being honest with myself has allowed me to see my mother in a different light and recognize the traits I’ve inherited from her. 

I get my impatience and anxiousness from her.

She listens more than she speaks, and only interjects herself into conversations when she feels she has something to add.

She sings along to the radio while she cleans and cooks.

She makes the best banana pudding on the planet, even though most of it comes from a box of Jell-O pudding.

She’s independent and loyal.

She has great hair.

She knows how to stretch a dollar.

She loves her children and grandchildren.

She instilled in me a love of baseball.
We both wish for the best for the people we love, even if we can’t provide it.

The biggest trait we share is a stubborn nature and an insistence on self-sufficiency. Neither of us wants to ask others for help, but we’ve both come around to understanding that asking for advice or a helping hand is not a sign of weakness. It’s a lesson my mother imparted on me when I was sixteen, although I didn’t recognize it for decades after.

Saturday, April 28, 2018


With Art Shay at an exhibit of his photography in River North, January 2014.

Art Shay liked to tell people that I begged him to write a column for Chicagoist. In fact, his archivist, Erica DeGlopper, begged me.

Erica said it was Art’s idea, but I was skeptical as to why a then-87-year-old photographer wanted to write a weekly column on a website geared to a millennial audience. I was even more doubtful when Erica assured me Art would be OK with not being paid. All I knew was only an idiot would turn down a golden opportunity.

Art’s first Chicagoist column was published on December 22, 2010 but it wasn’t until his third column, a story of a chance encounter with Elizabeth Taylor, that it truly took off and I remembered good stories find wide audiences. That was also the first time I spoke with Art on the phone. I shared traffic numbers for that column with him, where the traffic was coming from and ideas for future installments. With business complete, I then asked Art to tell me about himself. 

For the next 20 minutes I listened and cried as Art told the story of his wife, Florence, their seven-decade relationship, her battle with ovarian cancer and how he felt powerless to see her in such pain. During that call, I realized the real reason Erica proposed the column: it distracted him from Florence’s deteriorating illness.

It was my first lesson that being an editor is more than fixing typos and shepherding stories from pitch to final proof. Sometimes, it involves being a therapist, managing egos and crises of confidence, knowing when to be gentle and when to be blunt, and when to simply shut up and listen. With Art, I recognized I had to be a protector as well as an editor.

Ever the professional, Art filed his columns every week for four years, even after Florence died in 2012. He wrote about covering Dr. Martin Luther King's assassination, Studs Terkel, famous Chicagoans, tailing the mob, being an Air Force navigator in World War II, race relations in 1960s suburban Chicago, his mentor, how to edit a photo, his hobo friend, faith, the life and tragic death of his son Harmon and his friendship with Nelson Algren more times than I can count. He saved his most inspired columns about Florence.

By the end of 2013, he and Erica were increasingly busy with gallery exhibitions and a new book, and the column eventually ended as Art had other, emotionally and financially rewarding, distractions.

Art Shay died today, one month after celebrating his 96th birthday. Last year, I attended his 95th birthday celebration at an Italian restaurant in Highland Park. I had only seen him a couple times between Florence’s funeral and then, and he barely recognized me. At his 95th birthday, he was confined to a wheelchair but his mind was as sharp as during our first conversations. We caught each other up on our lives and careers. It was the last time I would speak with him. He outlived Florence by five-and-a-half years and I don’t think that would have been possible without Erica nudging him on. She was the driving force in Art’s late career renaissance and helped cement his already daunting legacy as one of America's best photographers. I’m thankful for her today for bringing Art into my life and for my playing a role, however small, in that victory lap.

In my living room, I have a framed photo of Muddy Waters and his wife that Art took in 1954 at some club on 47th Street in Bronzeville. Ever mindful of the value of his work, Art autographed the matte along with the inscription: “For one of the best editors I ever worked with — Chuck Sudo.”

Thank you, sir, for being an example to look up to when I'm feeling low.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

The Winter of 'Meh'

“Do you think it may be time for you to consider medication?”

I’ve been seeing my therapist for four years because I deal with anxiety, anger management issues and depression. Through behavioral modifications and cognitive therapy practices I’ve made progress, but not without the occasional backslide. We settled on this program because I look at mood altering meds as a last resort. But whenever I find myself stuck in a rut and with no breakthroughs, she’ll broach the subject of meds.

After this extended winter, I’ve been thinking about it more.

When 2017 ended, I received a middling performance review at work and was considering perusing job listings. I had nearly $22,000 in credit card debt, spread across three accounts. The gasket in my gas furnace wore out, covering the walls of my apartment in fine black soot. I could only open one window to allow fresh air inside because the others were covered in plastic insulation. At least one of my three daily meals was takeout. A hip pointer kept me from ice skating for exercise, and my dog contracted a urinary tract infection. There was a publishing break at work between Christmas and New Year’s where I felt if I could just stay away from anything related to my job, I could recharge my batteries for a bit and seize 2018 by the short hairs. I committed myself to seizing control of my credit card debt this year and putting in a good faith effort at work, and if I still felt like hot buttered blah come spring, I could begin the job search in earnest.

Instead, this winter has been one constant shoulder shrug emoji.

Oh, those early weeks were good. I was able to stock my freezer with the fruits of my crockpot labors. I’ve made steady progress on the credit card debt and am on target to cancel two of the three accounts by September. Mira is fit as a fiddle.

Work is another matter entirely. I started the year well, but a series of unforced errors a few weeks back landed me on a 30-day “performance improvement plan.” There is a good chance I may not have a job in a couple weeks, even as my editors are adding me to special projects months from now and I have my own editorial calendar set deep into May. For someone who constantly deals with impostor syndrome, this has been a crisis of confidence.

My dissatisfaction with work has a ripple effect over everything right now. When I left Chicagoist three years ago, I promised myself I would never find myself in another position where I needed to stay at a job because I couldn’t afford to quit. I took this job for a few reasons. I wanted to hone my reporting skills. The pay was much better than editing Chicagoist. Bisnow was a small, scrappy editorial staff that reminded me a bit of the early days of the –Ist. While I didn’t have a passion for reporting about real estate, I believed I could find stories that tied that to other interests like architecture, public planning, government, business and design. And for a while, I was able to do that.

Yet here I am, coming full circle.

A couple weeks back, my friend Michelle and I were catching up on things and I told her about what was happening at work. Michelle has a way of offering honest assessments while still being supportive. “You need to realize that you are an accomplished reporter and editor, and that is marketable,” Michelle said.

After that call, I sat down and completely rewrote my resume for the first time in years, focusing on those accomplishments. What I discovered was I’ve been a practicing journalist in some form, for 17 years. The parts of my resume I feel are weak, mainly a lack of education, are more than balanced by my accumulated experience. At my last therapy session, my therapist reminded me of my promise to launch a spring job search if things at work did not improve. She also reminded me that work has been a constant source of my anxiety for longer than I realize.

“I don’t believe you were ever really passionate about this job like you were at other points in your career. This is the kick in the ass you’ve needed,” she said.

I’ve always told aspiring writers of all stripes looking to make that professional jump the most important thing they needed was passion. If you can marry the passion of what you’re writing about with your technical strengths, you will make your readers passionate about your writing.

This probationary period has seen me go through the full range of emotions, from fear and anger, to disgust and sadness, to surprise and anticipation. It’s also reminded me that I’ve been disconnected from my own passions for some time. As I go deeper into this job search, I’ll be looking for the ways to connect the two again.