Thursday, December 31, 2015

Just Breathe

I used to half-joke that I considered every day I lived past 21 to be a miracle, given the circumstances surrounding my childhood. I’m a quarter century past that high water mark now and long stopped referring to my adulthood as the exception to the rule. Since today is New Year’s Eve, the conditions are ideal for some added reflection.

A few months ago, I would have written that 2015 was marked by loss: not only a job, but some friendships I treasured not because of where they stood at the time and where they were going, but because I couldn’t let go of what those relationships used to be. Many of the wounds were self-inflicted. Pema Chödrön wrote: “As human beings, not only do we seek resolution, but we also feel that we deserve resolution. However, not only do we not deserve resolution, we suffer from resolution.”

I demanded resolution and, in doing so, opened myself to more conflict. My efforts to build bridges burned more down instead, and I reached a low point I hadn’t felt in years. The last time I felt this shitty was when I was 30; similar extenuating circumstances combined to form the same critical mass. Then, I ignored it by saddling my bike, pedaling until I was past the point of exhaustion, insulting everyone in my path and living in a state of arrested development. Now, I’ve been able to face this honestly and identify it for what it was.

Depression isn’t a word that’s spoken in my family. Growing up, we took the “rub a little dirt on it” approach to dealing with problems—some of us still do. The thing about seeing a therapist and truly putting in the work to improve oneself is it forces you to be honest about the issues holding you back. For me, it was the first time in my life I faced issues like anger, insecurity, inferiority and loneliness without my standard shield of sarcasm to attack others. That’s hard enough to do when you’re younger; try doing it in your mid-40s. Surprise! Old dogs can learn new tricks.

It also helps to have a good therapist. Mine is excellent. In our first sessions we worked on basic behavioral modifications, like taking five-to-ten minute breaks during the workday for myself. Another one was to simply breathe whenever my anxieties or obsessive tendencies arose. One of the seeming simplest tasks, that’s been among the hardest to master. When my brain was a muddy stew over the summer, I forgot to do that. During the summer sessions where I regaled my doc about my shitty weeks, her first question was always, "Did you take the time to breathe?" I allowed that I hadn't. She arched her eyebrows and didn't say anything; we both knew.

Eventually, I returned to the business of living again. I gave my new job an honest try and discovered the same instincts and lessons I learned at Chicagoist serve me well at Bisnow. This time, however, I know when enough is enough and when to walk away. I can shut down the laptop at any time. I stopped stewing in my funk and reached out to friends old and new, who were there all along with open arms.

All I had to do was breathe.

I make the same New Year’s resolution every year: I resolve to not make any resolutions. My rationale is that’s one resolution I can honestly keep. I’ve added another for 2016. I resolve to take steps back to breathe; to take the time to assess my surroundings. That will open me to new opportunities, interests, friends, romantic interests and overall growth.

I’m also hopeful there will be opportunities to repair some of the friendships that ended this year. This time, that isn’t tied with resolution or rose-colored memories of what was. Sometimes you just need space to heal. There’s an old military tradition where friends who have not seen or heard from each other for long periods of time never question their friendship. These friendships resume at the same time they left off regardless of distance, time and what transpired between them.

We call these friends "family."

PS I’m kicking off 2016 telling tales out of class with my pal Andrew Huff at his monthly “Tuesday Funk” 7:30 p.m. Jan. 5 at Hopleaf. If you’re free, y’all should show up. I’ve been spending some free time finally getting back to the task of writing more personal stories and looking for outlets for them. This will be a great way to dip my toes back into that pool. 

Wednesday, December 09, 2015

While You Weren't Looking...

Teachers at Healy Elementary in Bridgeport receive support from motorists during the 2012 Chicago teachers strike.

It seems as though Chicago is reaping a ton of bad karma lately. The actions of the Police Department are playing out on a national stage and are now the focus of a Justice Department Investigation. Rahm Emanuel’s carefully crafted national narrative as a take-charge, no-nonsense mayor has gone up in flames of the flash paper on which it was drafted. As I type this, protesters have blocked Congress Parkway demanding further justice in the police murders of LaQuan McDonald and Ronald Johnson. The drumbeat for the resignations of Emanuel and Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez grow louder.

Amid all this, another chicken has come home to roost. The Chicago Teachers Union began voting today on a strike authorization. Odds are solid that, if you’re the parent of a Chicago Public Schools student, you’ll be looking for a babysitter in a few short months. Those of you reading this thinking, “didn’t they just strike a while back?” and wondering why they may walk out again, haven’t been paying attention to how the mayor and his allies have treated the teachers union since signing that 2012 contract.

Here are the Cliff’s Notes: almost immediately after settling the strike, Emanuel and the Chicago School Board orchestrated the closing of 50 neighborhood schools, the largest mass public school closures in American history. CPS laid off teachers in each of the years following the strike, citing a need to balance the system’s budget. The district increased class sizes, added an hour to the school day and cut funding and services at neighborhood schools, effectively making teachers glorified babysitters. The “safe passage” program intended to protect students making the trek from shuttered schools to schools outside of their neighborhoods was met with varying results, and incidents of violence in the safe passage zones. 

Meanwhile, the school board asked for—and received—the maximum property tax levy allowable to help balance its budgets and promptly pissed it away. It’s dipped into capital expenses and used voodoo economics to present balanced budgets to City Council. Public resources that could have been used to strengthen neighborhood schools continued to be funneled to charter schools and IB programs which perform as well, if not worse, than district schools. Former CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett pleaded guilty in a kickback scheme related to a no-bid contract. Conflicts of interest have arisen with members of the mayor’s hand-picked school board and companies (in which they have a vested financial stake) doing business with the district. Debt swapping schemes initiated by former school board chair David Vitale have eroded CPS’ bond rating. Gov. Bruce Rauner, who emerged from the 2012 strike as one of the most hawkish anti-union agitators, offered CPS pension relief in exchange for a property tax freeze, union busting measures, limits on public workers’ rights to compensation and a new education funding formula one can safely assume won’t work out in the neighborhood schools’ favor.

Yet, CTU is seen as the villain by some. As with most Chicago political landmines, it’s rooted in racism. From the Wilson wagons of the 1960s to the voluntary busing programs of the late 1970s, Chicago Public Schools has reflected the hyper-segregation of the city proper. We see and hear black CPS students speaking in stilted language and we crow they aren’t “getting the education my tax dollars are supposed to be funding.” We see mostly black and Hispanic teachers picketing and protesting and assume they should shut the fuck up, be thankful they weren’t among the layoffs and get back to work. CTU president Karen Lewis, who managed to whip a previously disorganized rank and file into a unified force, and still remains the only labor leader to beat Emanuel at the bargaining table, is viciously attacked for her gender, her race, her appearance and her politics. 

Organized labor has been under siege for years, teacher unions especially. We’ve been trained as a society over the decades to beatify teachers for doing the Lord’s Work in teaching Johnny to read, but condemn teachers unions as the root cause of why Johnny isn’t reading at his grade level. CPS failed to meet the pension payment obligations it agreed to under previous contracts with CTU for years, but it’s the teachers union that’s seen as a greedy drain on resources. That plotline is once again rearing its matted, rotten head. 

Here is what CPS is offering CTU in its current negotiations:  a 7 percent pay cut over three years; eliminating the lane and step compensation system for teachers; and massive increases to health care and pension contributions. CPS will not budge on decreasing class sizes, will not cut standardized testing and won’t discuss a lack of wraparound services and clinicians at neighborhood schools. The combination of the pay cut and increased teacher contributions to healthcare and pension payments would amount to teachers actually seeing a 17-20 percent cut in average salary over the course of a proposed four-year deal.

Emanuel, who's waged a war on public education since his first inauguration, is already working to shape the discussion in the public eye. He’s made the media rounds bellowing that a strike authorization vote “distracts from the solution.” Emanuel is a plutocrat who aligns closer to Rauner than the common man, so knowing how organized labor works may be a stretch for him. A union’s power is in its ability to withhold work. Unions don’t look to strike; they’re fighting for an equitable labor system. CTU knows first-hand what obstacles stand between your children and the quality education the city is supposed to provide. And the union isn’t one of them.

The last time CTU voted to authorize a strike, it had widespread support from the public. Things haven’t improved in the past three years and I’m certain they’ll find solidarity from those of us who remember when a quality education could be obtained in a Chicago public school.

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

We Must Do Better

I’ve debated weighing in on the LaQuan McDonald murder and cover-up ever since the video was released. If you're reading this, you know what I ultimately decided. But I felt it prudent to be measured in my response, this being the age of the hot take and all. Even as I file this, I’m not sure it's worth sharing. But that’s never stopped me before.

Am I angry? I am. And that anger can help one dig a deep hole when processing thoughts on a subject such as this. The calls for Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez to resign in the wake of the dash cam video’s release grow by the minute. While their resignations would be a welcome holiday gift for those of us calling for justice, it won’t solve the problems that will continue to exist after they’re gone. In some cases, their resignations would worsen some of the existing circumstances. 

It’s like the hydra: cut off one head and two will grow to take its place.

I’m talking about issues like the culture of silence in the Chicago Police Department that enables the actions of police officers like McDonald’s killer Jason Van Dyke, and Dante Servin, acquitted of killing Rekia Boyd when he blindly fired into a crowd of people in an alley. Or the 10 percent of Chicago police officers with multiple misconduct charges on their records, who account for 30 percent of all complaints, who almost always walk away scot-free. CPD’s “no snitch” policy is as bad, if not worse, than the one they’re trying to break in black neighborhoods.

I’m talking about issues like the multiple independent reviews of police shootings that are deemed justifiable, from 21-year-old Tamir Rice’s murder in Cleveland to the several instances debated (and I use the term loosely) by CPD’s Independent Police Review Authority.

I’m talking about issues like the militarization of police departments across the country the past quarter-century. The motto “to serve and protect” has largely been abandoned. Police officers these days act more like an occupying force than one sworn to keep the peace and preserve life, even those of the criminals they arrest. Foot patrols have given way to armored vehicles, SUVs, surveillance equipment and LRADs, and cops like Van Dyke who unload an entire clip into a teen walking away from him.

I’m talking about issues like allowing police unions to intimidate critics and simultaneously claim persecution, as NYPD Patrolman’s Benevolent Association president Patrick Lynch has recently. Or to control media narratives whenever an officer fires his weapon, as Chicago Fraternal Order of Police spokesman Pat Camden does at the scene of every shooting involving a police officer.

I’m talking about issues such as how media outlets with limited resources accept the nonsense coming from Camden’s mouth as gospel.

I’m talking about the issue of how CPD may be overworked and stressed out, thanks to the hundreds of millions of dollars in overtime pay the past four years, that is the linchpin of former Superintendent Garry McCarthy’s crimefighting initiative. Or the FOP’s claim the Police Department is understaffed, despite a 2012 report showing Chicago has the most police officers per capita of all major American cities.

I’m talking about issues involving the goosing crime stats to give politicians, if not the public, the perception the city is making headway on major crime.

I’m talking about the tone deafness of Emanuel, who said last week the culture needed to change, then immediately headed to Millennium Park to light the city Christmas tree. Or how his administration waited until after he was re-elected to approve the $5 million settlement with LaQuan McDonald’s parents. Or how the City Law Department fought to prevent the video from being released.

I’m talking about the vindictiveness of Anita Alvarez, a “tough on crime” prosecutor who regularly refuses to investigate misconduct cases involving CPD or the Cook County Sheriff’s Department. A prosecutor who almost never doubts the thoroughness of police investigations, even as actual evidence—from the David Koschman cover-up to McDonald—are examples of why she should.
I’m talking about neighbors and residents who justify their ignorance and intolerance of what’s happening by bringing up bogeymen like “black on black crime” or “why don’t they protest in their own neighborhoods?” (They do. Every day.)

I’m talking about the issue of Chicago’s historic and ongoing hyper-segregation that leads neighbors and residents to take a “NIMBY” attitude.

I’m talking about the complete breakdown in the checks and balances between this city’s executive and legislative branches of government that has allowed the mayor to act as an Elective Majesty for as long as I’ve been alive, with the exception of four years in the 1980s.

We can do better. We must do better. I vote like clockwork because, evidence to the contrary, I believe in the power of the ballot. I believe sustained protests can effect positive change. I believe politicians who consider their seats to be family heirlooms should regularly have the fear of having to find honest work instilled in them every four years. I believe in One Chicago, in Building a New Chicago in the neighborhoods that need the boost the most.

If we lose that belief, everyone loses.