All Clear

Here’s the TL/DR version: Check your boobies ( . ) ( . )
(and anything else that needs checking)


When I scheduled my mammogram for June 11, the receptionist faltered. “Are you sure you want to come in on your birthday?” But it was the first available and after last year’s mini-scare I had vowed to never fall behind on screenings again.

As the daughter, granddaughter, and great niece of breast cancer survivors*, I’m in a high risk category. Doesn’t help that I’ve never been pregnant. I was advised to start annual screenings at age 35 because baseline images are key for noticing changes over time. In the beginning, I averaged about every 2-3 years. As I eased into my 40’s, closer to the age my mom was diagnosed, I was supposed to be more on top of it.

But for the last few years, dealing with my brain and some other significant issues has been the priority. My capacity for wrangling with the health care system was strained. I’d get referrals from my PCP and they would expire and ugh now I have to call and ask again? I know that’s a feeble excuse. We do our best in our stumbling ways.

When I finally managed to haul myself to an appointment last May, it had been awhile since my dense boobs had been contorted and squeezed into the x-ray clamps. (If your first mammogram is on the horizon, read up or talk to others about what to expect. Maybe the technology will improve one of these days.)

Because I am in the higher risk pool, my screenings include ultrasounds. I remember feeling a sense of dread when the technician kept sweeping the wand over an area on my right breast. Just being thorough I figured. When she completed her survey of the left side much more quickly, my worry deepened.

The bike ride home was a little shaky. I wasn’t so much afraid that something was wrong.** The heart pounding was about feeling like once again I had screwed up. How could I have let something so important slide? What if my inaction had jeopardized chances of early detection? How could I face my family? Mom and Michael had been reminding every few months. If I was sick, it was my fault. Failure, failure, failure. As always.

When I got the call to return for more testing, I was a wreck. The appointment was initially for the following week, but when I reached out with some questions, they sensed my panic and invited me to swing by the next day if I didn’t mind waiting to be seen. I showed up bright and early.

They wanted to look more closely at my right breast. The lump was probably just a cyst–nothing to worry about. There were also two grainy areas. Calcification? Carry on. Ductal carcinoma in situ? Hmm, that’s what my mom had. Early stage, highly treatable, and she has been clear for 20 years. Probably no need to freak out.

But when they mentioned the two enlarged lymph nodes, my eyes popped. I was quickly assured this was probably nothing, especially given their symmetry–one on each side, same position and size. They asked about other health issues. I wondered if all my brain pills could be a factor. Not likely. They countered: Rheumatoid arthritis? Thyroid disorders? A recent cold? Nope. Allergies? Yes! Maybe it was just some low-key inflammation. I’m a baseline itchy, sniffly person, even with my allergy medication. And it was peak tree pollen season.

Given my family history, they suggested genetic testing and an MRI to get a better baseline. The genetic testing was clear and the MRI didn’t sound any alarms.

Come back in six months. Which I did. No changes.
Come back in six months. That was yesterday’s appointment. I still have the cyst, spots, and swollen nodes. But, they haven’t changed.
Come back in 12 months. A new birthday tradition.

I took myself to the nearby Ann Sather’s for brunch to reflect and start writing this post. I indulged in warm, dense, sugar-shellacked cinnamon rolls–a special departure from my “healthy June” goals. My waitress was statuesque, a little older and grayer, with a sharp, short hairstyle. Noticing the yellow “next steps” sheet in my hand, she gently said: “Looks like you have been to the doctor.” I explained I was celebrating because I had just graduated back to an annual mammogram schedule. She paused. “I’m six months out from treatment and just got my all clear for now” results.

I stammered out awkward pablum about how I was sorry and how is she doing, oh goodness do you mind if I am asking you questions. She was happy to talk. She’s doing well. Chemo had been rough. She lost all her hair. When I mentioned I had been admiring her cut, she laughed and patted her head. “I always keep it short anyway.” On the receipt, I wrote: “Hope to see you next year.”

On the way home, I ran into two friends, fellow Goethe moms. When I cheerfully shared my news followed by a tentative question about whether they are current with screenings, one paused. She is having surgery next week. Early detection. Her words said not too worried. I am worried about what her heart says. But we moved on to chatting about our kids.

One of my best friends from growing up was diagnosed in her late 30’s. When I called last year with questions, I realized I had not been tuned into her ongoing pain about the experience. There are many people, including my mom, who I have not listened to well enough. I will do better.

Last summer, another dear friend got the “come back for more tests” call the same week I did. Biopsies. Surgery. Chemo and radiation. Medication that pummeled her mental health. She marched through the school year serving kids as a school social worker with a smile and humor. She also keeps reminding people: Check your boobies ( . ) ( . )

I am keenly aware of my good fortune to have great health insurance and the scheduling flexibility to make appointments. Even with these advantages, I still dropped the ball. Who wants to go to the doctor, especially when you’re not sick??? Plus, the guidelines around screenings are ever shifting.

Even so, if you have been avoiding that colonoscopy, mole mapping (eek, that’s next on my list), cholesterol test, breast pancaking, or other routine check-ins, today is as good a time as any to pull out your calendar and make some phone calls.

*My mom likes to remind me that all the women in her family got breast cancer, but didn’t die of it. Her mom and aunt were diagnosed in their 30’s, both had dual mastectomies and lived on for decades.
** Per above, I’ve always figured the odds were high I would follow suit, that the question has been more when than if.

June Rules

I use WomanLog Pro to track my weight and period. The consistent irregularity of my period suggests I have entered perimenopause. Ah, ages and stages!

On May 31st, I splurged on the top shelf red wine at Armitage Produce—10 vs 5 bucks. And as the evening waned, I pawed through the bag of “for my students” goodies for some Little Debbie Nutty Buddy Bars.* I even tried to savor instead of snarf them.

Per my therapist’s orders, during the month of June, I am going to. . . I want to say try, but ugh I need to be more ambitious. For the next 30 days, I am going to:

  • exercise a lot more
  • eat a lot better? less? more strategically?
  • write it all down

I have gained almost 25 pounds since last spring, after having lost almost that much in the previous two and a half years.  This 19% relatively rapid increase is a puzzle and is starting to become a concern because the chart keeps trending up. It’s a big shift for my 5′ 1″ inches.

Many variables might be at play. Perimenopause. Having been depressed. Being back on an anti-depressant. Working mostly from home.

And. . . perhaps. . .my dietary choices and activity levels. The truth is that I have been lazy with exercise and lax with portions, sweets, and wine. Last year, stabilizing my mood was the paramount health concern. Mission mostly accomplished, which is why we are reluctant to mess around with the medication. My annual physical is next week, so maybe that will yield more insights.

It’s aggravating to keep gaining weight even as I have eased back into running (but not enough to blame increased muscle on the scale–the waistbands don’t lie). Maybe what they say about age and metabolism is true and I simply need to adjust accordingly, not only in terms of behavior, but also outlook.  If I have to accept a new baseline weight and  build a new wardrobe, I can do that, though I am embarrassed to say it will be emotionally challenging. More on that another day. 

In the meantime, I am going to (not try to) focus on the variables that are very much in my control: what I eat and how much I move. I don’t do well with restrictive rules, so instead of cutting booze, I am cutting wine. Instead of avoiding all sweets, I will stick with anything homemade and maybe the occasional square of dark chocolate. I am not going to freak out about diet, but  am tracking via My Fitness Pal (under Velo_chicago). It’s amazing how quickly calories add up.  And with that, I guess I should go for a run. Wahhhhh!

*It was a three hour class, so I always brought power bars and sweet treats. Next semester, perhaps I should lean more towards fruit.

Writing a Way Forward

When I last wrote, I was desperately trying in my plucky way to hold on, to power through the deep depression that I have been in for a long time.

It didn’t work, and I continued to fall, with a plateau here, a branch there. I haven’t been this low in a while. The difference now is that I no longer have hope that someday I might feel better in any kind of sustained and sustainable way. And so I am more terrified than I have been in the past.

I have been yearning to write, because it is one of the few activities that brings a sputtering of ease, but have hesitated because:

  • There are already so many words in the world, covering this same ground with more eloquence and insight than I can muster (not that it’s a competition)
  • It’s embarrassing that I struggle given all my resources and support (even though I know mental illness strikes all kinds of people)
  • I don’t want to alarm the people who care about me (but I assure you that I am safe and reasonably functional)

Of course, I could just journal privately but blogging keeps me sort of organized and it helps me feel a little more connected. Even if bookshelves and the internet are bloated with the same stories, there always seems to be room for one more.

One challenge is that writing can also turn into a form of avoidance, especially because of my tendencies towards a kind of perfectionism. It’s not that I strive for some kind of seismic prose, but that the care I give to my words is often disproportionate to need and with diminishing returns. The output to effort ratio is way off, and that can lead to another cycle of self-recrimination.

I’d like to experiment with just doing frequent, short, unedited pieces within a 30-60 min (tops) timeframe with a focus more on raw content than overwrought craft.

Speaking of, I should probably stop here and put the laundry away. It’s hard to resist going back to check for sentence structure variety and overuse of forms of “to be” or to look up what we call it when writers overuse forms of “to be,” which I just did but nothing popped out right away so. . . onward. Or onword? Or rather offword? Heehee 🙂 See, I feel a little better already.  (Oh wait, should the w be capitalized in the title of this post???? And egads, I used the phrase kind of at least three times, twice in one paragraph!)

Fall Back into Momentum: Part 4 (Mood Boosts)

It was raw and gloomy last week, so I haven’t experienced the ballyhooed morning sunshine boost, but I did practice acceptance of minimum expectations while making progress on the Must Dos.* Exterminator came yesterday. Mammogram appt is on Tuesday. The feral cat feeding area has been winterized. Because somehow we are already tangoing with temps in the 20’s. Today I hope to dig in the hundreds of bulbs I impulsively bought (on sale!) because the promise of spring flowers helps drag me through winter.

Click the pic for the Chicago Weather Center’s alarming graphic.  “A wintry weekend’s on tap, more like Jan & Dec—then a windy cold blast hits later Mon/Tues.” Grrr.

This garden task is an example of another important category for the To Do list:

Mental Health: Which projects, while perhaps not-essential, will buoy your spirits? The sky won’t fall if I don’t get these all into the ground, but it will feel less gray if I do. Another example: For better and worse, my level of cheer is tightly linked to the condition our home. If keeping the TP stocked is part of scraping by, keeping the bathroom clean helps preserve my sanity.  When feeling overwhelmed, picking a few spots to hold to high standards allows me to ignore–for now–other messes, literal and figurative. Manicured nails, bright lipstick, seasonal decorations, and blogging also add a bounce to my step. Although frivolous, they help fend off the blues.

Clear surfaces
If we keep these main surfaces clear, I can screen out other clutter, even when it means shoving the clutter from these surfaces somewhere else, such as the small counter under the kitchen window sill or the not-shown hutch behind the table. I am also ignoring our filthy ceiling fan.

Another big bang for the buck mood booster can be to tackle a small, odious project that will make you feel like a bad ass while improving your quality of life. Or as Marie W. wrote: “Will I feel more miserable in the long run if I don’t do the thing??” Congrats to her for last weekend’s deep clean of the cat box area: “including the gross mat that picks up litter.”

Ideally, mood boosting tasks are relatively manageable, like planting 20 instead of 200 bulbs! But in the spirit of forgiveness, if I don’t get them all in, I am just not going to worry. I can always donate what I don’t get to. The ground isn’t going to freeze super soon, is it? Oh, please no! I am not ready.

too many bulbs
What was I thinking? At least I did pack up all of the Halloween decorations. . .

*And bravo to Dena K for taking care of the rain barrels before the freeze. A big job, indeed!

Fall back into Momentum: Part 3

For sundial, shouldn’t it be move 100 miles or so?

Huzza! The latest sunrise of the year, 7:25am, is behind us. Mornings will be a lot easier this week with day breaking before my son’s alarm instead of while he’s biking to school.

After a long night out dancing, where we turned the clock back to the 80’s, I used my extra hour to sleep in. It’s a cold, wet, standard issue November day, so maybe I’m overselling the idea that shifting daylight back to the morning can give a productivity boost. I keep walking past the bag of laundry guarding the front door. If I don’t leave the house, I can avoid taking it to the basement.

OK, I did leave the house to drop Miguel off at a bday party and was even able to find the rain pants with minimal scrambling. Success! I did walk past the laundry, though. Oh well. It is not a crisis.

Which brings me to the main principle of the “F It!” approach to goals for the next less than (eek!) two months. But I am switching the alliteration:

Minimums: This is what I talked about yesterday. What are the most essential tasks and routines required to grind through the next few weeks? What are the lowest standards you can hold yourself to? Maybe it’s OK to eat mac and cheese more frequently than you shower.  Some green beans on the side and spot cleaning  and congrats, you’re doing just fine. Give yourself credit for taking care of the smallest, must mundane chores. As Clare reminds, you can always write them down after the fact and cross them off  with a flourish. Resupplied *and* changed the toilet paper!

changing the TP1
Pardon the gendered language, but this was the image that best captured the TP changing continuum.

Musts: Ugh. These are the critical non-routine tasks and projects that tend to easily slip off the daily radar either because they are dreaded or require a bit of effort (real or perceived). Inaction might not be creating problems now, but has longer term risks. Or maybe they are just really critical for other reasons.

My list is heavy with this category, but I am forcing myself to focus on the ones that are the most important right now, such as: getting a mammogram, keeping a mood journal*, paying the annual life insurance premiums, calling the exterminator, and checking all the smoke alarms and fire extinguishers in the building.  Gah I am soooooo tempted to add more, but these are the big ones. And they are doable.

Cracked Caulk
The current window situation in my office.

Uh-oh, I need to add one more: caulking the baseboards and windows. While the sky won’t fall if I skip this job yet another year, it would help our heating bill fall. And I so very much hate being cold. And I promised Michael I would do it.** And I even bought a power caulk gun. So. . . this is a must. Ugh.

Oh, and I am also likely starting a new job in January–teaching a foundations reading/writing class at Malcolm X College. Yay! But also yikes, I need to prepare for that too. There’s a training in mid-December and so I’m going to try not to overthink it this month.

This can be an overwhelming category.

In a few days, I’ll write about other kinds of goals ranging from modest to monumental, but for now maybe I’ll hide under the covers with some tea and cower at all the musts do the laundry and maybe even put it away and then triumphantly cross those tasks off the list. Alas, we are out of mac and cheese. Cereal for dinner?

* More on this another day.
**A note about my wonderful husband. He takes on more than his share of domestic duties, especially considering that he works full time and I do not. I don’t want to leave any impressions that I do all the housework. And he cooks more than I do. Thank you, Michael!

Fall Back into Momentum: Part 2

muddyshoesPart of my mental health profile is an enduring belief that I am an epic failure, terrible person, and overall waste of carbon. I realize this is not a fair or useful way to look at things. It’s a hard mantra to shake, but I am trying.

I have long brandished my irreducible to do lists as evidence of my dismal performance as a life form. So many unmet goals. So many small tasks that take forever. Why has “remove muddy running shoes from the back steps” been on the agenda for almost a month? Why did this even make it onto a list?? Cleaning them will take less than two minutes. I could probably just run in them a few times and let fresh air and friction shake off the dust.

I know I am not alone. Recently I read a piece about “impossible tasks,” those seemingly small things that are challenging to manage, especially when you struggle with depression. It was helpful to see examples of people’s small things: paying the bills, feeding the cats (yikes, I haven’t fed the cats yet today–BRB), taking a shower. Sometimes just scraping by feels like climbing a mountain.

Before we embark on any goal setting for the next seven weeks, I think it’s important to honor the effort it requires just to get out of bed each day. More on this at the end.

clean clothes
Putting the laundry away is one of my many inexplicable impossible tasks.

In Celebration of Long Lists

I’ve decided that all my goals and to dos are not evidence of failure but rather creativity, ambition, and the good fortune of a rich and interesting life. Take that, Eeyore mindset.

The other night I could not sleep. Sometimes my body just craves an all nighter. Maybe it’s a bi-polar feature (feature is more pleasant than disorder), but I enjoy the  clarity that settles in around 3am and tend to have plenty of energy the next day.

I used the time to scoop up all the reminders scattered around the house, flip through my quasi-bullet journal (more on that another day), and joyously brainstorm all kinds of things I need and want to do in the short, medium, and long term. I used a table with columns for task, time, scope, category, importance, and “do stat??” But I mostly focused on dumping out the tasks, categorizing them (such as home, garden, career, civic engagement), and then using the categories to squeeze out more ideas. Entries range from the frivolous (decorate for the holidays) to the formidable (organize the basement, which includes finding homes for all the holiday decorations). From modest (stop gaining weight) to momentous (run a sub-two hour half marathon).

Early Halloween
Seasonal decorating gives me, and apparently Rusty, great joy. . .packing it up, not so much.

I’m at about over 150 items and could add 20 more right now, but I need to hack at some garden tasks (on the list!) because it looks like the weather is only getting worse. Alas, autumn, we hardly new ye.

A few months ago, I was very depressed. It was bad. I was utterly hopeless. I’m still struggling and muddling and might always.  But I am doing a little better and am sort of excited about having hundreds of things to do and accepting that I don’t have to do them all right now and, in fact, could probably get by with doing very few of them.

Which cycles back to not setting ourselves up for emotional evisceration about all that we do not do. Before you make any huge lists, give yourself some credit for persisting, acknowledge that it takes effort to get to work, keep kids and critters safe and healthy, and do the laundry. Extra credit for putting it away before doing the next load.

So I invite you to bloat up your list if you promise to let it lead more to optimism than feeling overwhelmed. Tomorrow I’ll share how I am picking a few, only a few, modest, medium, ambitious, and must-do items before the solstice.

Fall Back into Momentum: Part 1

steep solstice
Over-dramatization of the harrowing descent into darkness between Chicago’s summer and winter solstices.

When it comes to roller coasters, I am the first to volunteer to stay below and guard the backpacks. I especially fear the lurching, juddering, teetering, oxygen grasping moment before gravity and leaps of faith take over.

But when it comes to Chicago’s seasonal rides, there is one steep crest I look forward to: the end of Daylight Saving Time. This Sunday, we scoop up some morning sunshine to ease the final plunge to the winter solstice. Many folks dread the early nights, but if we are going to ration daylight, I’d rather have it for breakfast. My mood depends on it.

Slide into Solstice Challenge
The scheduling sleight of (clock) hand serves as a wake up call, prompting fervent action on my ever backlogged and bloated to do list before midwinter dormancy takes hold.  As a yoga teacher once explained, our hemisphere’s new year is a terrible time to start ambitious plans. (Getting back into yoga is always on my resolution list. Hasn’t happened this year–yet!) However, there’s something to be said for hitting the holidays with momentum or at least minimal self-flagellation.

Will you join me in using the temporary reprieve from sleepy mornings to tackle some “F it!” goals over the next 2 months? These are not your B-suite SMART ambitions. I’m talking about a tiered approach that gives credit for basic functioning and allows for failure and forgiveness. That balances fun and frivolity with the frustrating and formidable. That perhaps leans on friends and family more than fierce, focused individuality. And that is understanding of those of us who can be frantic procrastinators. There’s nothing like some sunshine and a deadline to force me into high gear. I’ll lay out the plan in my next blog post, which, er, I hope to get to before Sunday.

A less sensationalized representation of Chicago’s annual shifts in daylight taken from which shows how the sun shines around the word.

Snow and Steady

View from the sunroom–today and two years ago.

The book of face may be undermining democracy, but it’s still great for cat pictures and capturing fleeting gestalts*, such as today’s breaking point with the weather. After a few weeks of near silence about the spring that has yet to arrive, my feed exploded with snowy photos and exasperation and then exasperation about snowy photos. Yeah, yeah, we live in Chicago. This happens. In fact, FB also reminded that we were bumming about snow on this date in 2016.

The persistent chill has had some benefits. For heat hungry folks like me, the taste of warm March days sharpens the bitterness of April frosts. Even rugged spring perennials can suffer from the weather roller-coaster. Last year, my hellebores were budding in early March. Although cold hardy (called a Lenten Rose for a reason), they are still vulnerable to hard freezes. Recalling the previous year’s late season damage, I sheltered them during a dive into the teens March 11-12. A week later, they were in full bloom.

This year, our garden is moving slowly and that’s OK. Due to some changes in my personal life, I’m moving slowly, too. These pics, including the tentative hellebore on the left, are from the last few days. They’ll be fine when the snow melts, just like we will. Now, let’s play ball! Oh wait, the Cubs home opener was pushed to tomorrow. Drat.

*Not sure if I am using gestalt correctly, and maybe it’s a little pretentious, but I’ve always liked the way it sounds. It’s one of those words which have a sound? heft? shape? that matches their meaning or mood. I don’t mean in an onomatopoeia way. More of an overall form/content alignment. I am sure there is a word for this.

Winter Sowing: Finding Containers

My gardening season begins in the alleys, scavenging for milk jugs. They become the mini-greenhouses for winter sowing: aka plant them and mostly forget about them until it’s time to transplant.*

imag0184I had to walk my bike towards the end of this harvest. Dexter is impressed! Also, in contradiction of everything below, I couldn’t pass up the giant cake platter.

You can start seeds in pretty much any food grade item that holds soil and lets in light—even ziplock bags. Last year, I experimented with 2-liter soda bottles, cake boxes, strawberry clam-shells, commercial vats of cooking oil. . .my yard was a riot of shapes and colors.

That’s one of the reasons I am now sticking with lightweight, translucent, plastic, gallon (LTPG**) containers. The consistency is soothing to my eyes. They sit quietly, unassuming, not competing with spring’s first acts. I also find they are the easiest for me to set up and manage.imag0065That large container of kale. . .so tempting for planting kale seeds. Would not even need to relabel. But no! I resisted.

Labeling: This is always a hot topic on the winter sowing facebook page. You need something that will not fade over time. I’ve settled on grease pencils. Since I bought a pack of 10, I am committed for the long haul. However, they work best on slightly textured, slightly colored surfaces. They do not grip clear plastic well, and whatever dim marks manage to stick are hard to read.

imag0179These cheap, bought in bulk, grease pencils are great for labeling, but I have to hack at the paper. Neighbors, let me know if you want a few so I can justify trying another brand.

Cutting: The thin walls yield easily to my crude methods for prepping the jugs. I just bore the bottom corners with scissors, and pinch a corner sidewall to start a cut. Hard slippery plastic repels scissors. But since I tend to be too impatient to dig up a better tool, I stab and hack away. This not only takes too long, it makes me worried that I am going to need to dig up the band aids.

Soil: The smaller containers dry out more quickly and the larger ones use more soil than necessary. When they are the same style, they tend to need water at the same time, not just because the amount of soil tends to be the same, but so does the surface area and light level.

imag0178When the widgets are the same, the assembly line runs more smoothly, or something like that.

When I started looking for jugs last month, I vowed to only have eyes for LTPGs. In fact, I was going to avoid LTPG’s with the sidewall divets common to milk jugs. Even better, why not avoid milk jugs in general, since they reach peek reek so quickly? (I wonder why folks tend to keep caps on the empties.)

Within the first few blocks, I realized I could not build my garden on gallons of distilled baby water and orange drink. The pickings were slim for milk jugs as well. I think it is partly related to gentrification, and partly because the recycling trucks seem to be on the prowl more frequently.imag0112

Divets make it harder to tape the jugs. More on that later. Also–gross! Do you see the dried milk in the handle? This one required some vigorous shaking and rinsing.

So, I am back to grabbing whatever LTPG’s I can find. My bike can easily carry six, and I enjoy straining capacity. Carrying by hand used to be hard, until I picked up this tip from another winter sower: use string or a broom handle. For unplanned alley jaunts, I just look for a pole or a stick. This also helps me root around at the bottom of bins. . .because I can’t afford to pass any containers up!

imag0205Bent the end of this strip of metal I found near the garbage, and went fishing!

It ends up working out since small batches are easier to manage anyway. There’s a limit to how many milk jugs I can rinse out at once, especially when they are bulging with fumes!

* (I already wrote a bit about how to set the containers up. Instructions are also at the milk jug page of
**I couldn’t think of a clever acronym. LTPG sounds kind of like Lit Pig. Pigs like garbage. Gardening lights me up. So, LTPG it is!

PS: Some of the Dwarf Siberian kale, planted 2/8,  is already popping.

Alley Findings

The recycling bins in our alley used to overflow with empty gallons of milk, water, and juice–perfect containers for starting plants. Yesterday’s four block search yielded only four, all from one house. Instead, I found plenty of cans of La Croix and craft beer–indicator species of a gentrifying (ied!) neighborhood.

The original intent of this post was to offer tips on what to look for in a winter sowing container. But sometimes we find more than we expected when lifting a lid. The stats tell us that families are being displaced from Logan Square. Longtime Latino residents are leaving, and white folks are moving in or maybe it’s more accurate to say it the other way around. The alleys show the changes. We’ve gone from distilled water for babies to fancy soda water for people who like to say pamplemousse.

It’s a serious, heart aching, complex issue, and my family is part of the tangled web.

Through his work at Bickerdike, one of Chicago’s strongest community development corporations, Michael has helped preserve and construct scores of affordable housing units within blocks of our home. We can see the solar panels from one of his award-winning projects from our kitchen window.


Peer into our kitchen window (and recycling bin), however, and you will see another part of the story. We took an affordable unit off the market when we duplexed the 1st and 2nd floors of our 3-flat. We strive to keep the 3rd floor rent stable and below the booming market rates, but our tenants have tended to be single people without children. Even if all have a low income, affordability looks different to three roommates pooling rent than a family with three children.

This is not guilty hand-wringing. There are so many variables and I’m being simplistic and broadbrushing. For example, I know white folks aren’t the only ones buying La Croix at Armitage Produce. For more nuanced and action-forward information, check out the Logan Square Neighborhood Association which, like Bickerdike, does terrific housing and education work with the goal of preserving the ethnic and economic diversity of Logan Square.

Back to the alley: During a recent hunt, I saw a grizzled man with a granny cart rifling through our recycling. “Looking for cans. . . ” he said, somewhat sheepishly. I always feel a little awkward too, when I’m caught looking in someone’s garbage. I walked to my neighbor’s bin, turned around, and smiled conspiratorially: “I’m looking for plastic jugs to start seeds.” He grinned back. “I love the plants.”

Garbage to garden. It’s a small, simple act that brings joy to me and the neighbors and  energizes me to take on harder, more complicated work related to the neighborhood. Dirty hands keep the sleeves rolled up!

imag0038Guilty as charged. Lots of cans in our bin for him to take.