Month: June 2014

Acknowledging fatness

I don’t remember a time in my life where I haven’t been fat.

Or whatever word you want to use: chubby, husky, stocky. I’ve used them all.

When I look now at most pictures of myself as a kid, I don’t see a fat kid staring back at me. In most shots, I look pretty damn standard for a child — especially if I compare those shots to kids of today.

But I was never that rangy, thin kid who could climb, jump and bounce everywhere. I was never the kid who ran around from sunrise to midnight, a ball of burning energy.

And at some point, the numbers got out of balance and I was, indeed, fat.

My weight is something I’ve struggled with my entire life.

This particular post isn’t about having an online therapy session, or to elicit sympathy. It’s really not even about the struggle itself, or the cultural lenses through which we view fat and fatness in this country, at this time. (Another post, another day.)

What I’m examining here — what I’m finding interesting, what I’m finally acknowledging — is how much I’ve distanced myself from it.

45899_420627588423_332431_nIn many ways, it’s similar to the ways I lived my life when I was still ‘in the closet’ as a gay man. It’s there, but it’s something that has to be carefully navigated, discussed and presented.

I came out as gay many years ago, but I don’t think I’ve ever acknowledged the reality of my size, of my fat body, before.

It was such a source of teasing as a kid that disconnecting from it all was a survival tactic. (Helpful note for parents: if you think your kid might be fat, don’t name him/her with anything that rhymes with the word ‘fat.’)

That may have had a silver lining; shrinking into my own head helped my creativity and my storytelling capacities. While others were teasing or ignoring me, I was in another world, my rich inner world — writing and directing my own TV show in my head.**

But I’ve had an epiphany recently about my fatness and my creativity, and it’s this: that protective distance is getting in the way of a lot in my life, but in particular, it’s affecting my writing and my creativity.

There are so many fantastic, amazing writers I know that talk so honestly about their lives, or so bluntly about the shitty, messy parts of life just as skillfully as the joyful moments. They serve up that authenticity in a way that’s impossible to ignore.

A few of those fantastic writers – Samantha Irby and Laurie Ruettimann – are on my blogroll here.

Hell, Irby refers to her body as a “meatbag.”

But I’ve always had a protective distance in my writing. Every editor I’ve had in the last ten years told me that I write “too safe.” Or that I bury the lede.

My most recent journalism professor, a newsman with decades of experience, called me on it many times. He asked why I felt like I always had to explain everything before I got to the point — to the news, to the lede, to the focus of the story.

At some point in the last few months, it hit me: that’s also the way that I talk.

A guy I dated called it my ‘language’ – something he always had to interpret. I’m all metaphors and hints and setup, and only after I’ve set the stage — and determined that I have a trustworthy audience — does the lid come off.

This spring, when I professed surprise in one of my classes that anyone could see me as aloof, another professor offered this: “It’s clear that you’re thoughtful about what you say, that you consider it carefully before you say it.”

Well, she was right.

The pieces are coming together. I’m understanding it now.

I’m probably still doing it here. I can’t tell you how many times during the composition of this post I had to remind myself — no, force myself — to put the word fat in the first sentence, the first paragraph. Attached to me. I wanted to build up to that revelation, you see. (As if it’s a surprise to anyone who meets me!)

I’m sure it’s affected my career, my ability to start new friendships — in short, every part of my life.

And it’s all sort of hit me: I’m in the closet, with the light off.

Again.

It’s hard to write about ALL THE FEELS from an icy altitude, a huge emotional disconnect.

I’m fighting my fatness and working on getting healthier, because it’s something I want for me and for my partner. And if I can graduate from college after a hundred years of being away, then damn it, I can do this too.

But first, I have to come out, again. Into the sunlight. I have to acknowledge my fatness, own it, and understand it’s my reality right now.

And so, this post.

Step one.

 

** Though my retreat into inner life was never so severe, it’s often been a tool others have deployed to cope with trauma or abuse. It’s not uncommon for gay men, in particular, to make arch humor of sad or challenging things in their lives. Films like Jonathan Caouette’s Tarnation are examples of this sort of utter disconnect from the current moment, and framing events as something happening to someone else — or something you’re watching, not experiencing. 

EDITED TO ADD: I just Googled “fat closet” and wow, there’s a lot of people who have had similar epiphanies. Worth checking out if you’re interested.

The worst urban studies student ever……

My freshly minted college degree includes a concentration in urban studies.

While I have no plans at the moment to become an urban planner, I’ve always felt that many of urban studies’ core ideas — about the ways we live and the demographic groups that define us — were deeply relevant for the 21st century and are applicable to just about every industry and every part of our country.  I found that it encompassed many of the things I’d been writing about for years, the changes in how we live and work.

In my personal life, I’d been doing a lot of things we’d discussed in class. I have never owned a car and, perhaps more shockingly, have never held a license to drive. I’ve walked or taken public transportation for most of my life, and I always lived in the core of a city, so I could have an existence that allowed for walking and mass transit.

Three years ago, my partner and I bought a home in the middle of a neighborhood close to Chicago’s Loop.

Our neighborhood (the West Loop) has growing density, a great walkability score, access to multiple channels of mass transit, two parks within a few blocks, and more restaurants and nightclubs than I can count.

Yes, it's true: The crane is the official bird of the West Loop. (Internet photo)

Yes, it’s true: The crane is the official bird of the West Loop. (Internet photo)

There’s only one thing: I’m really unhappy living here.

Some of the things that I’ve always endorsed? Are driving me crazy.

I am the worst urban studies student EVER.

The biggest negative impact for me has been noise pollution. While we live in a nice building, literally every flat space surrounding us has been under construction for three years. THREE. YEARS. That’s three years of not being able to sleep past 6 a.m., of constant drilling and hammering and bulldozers and cranes.

A new company has moved into a neighboring commercial building (formerly part of Harpo Studios), and promptly installed a motion alarm on their parking gate that I am pretty sure can be heard in Aurora. Possibly in space.

Indeed, our neighborhood is BOOMING. Google’s Chicago headquarters are moving just a few blocks north. A hotel is opening just east of us, and many of the small, nondescript factory spaces dotting the West Loop are being snapped up by developers. A company called Sterling Bay has, to a large degree, bought the West Loop and is now developing its use.

Of course, beyond the noise, which feels as if it will never end, many of the issues that are emerging show the wisdom of good urban planning and the repercussions that happen when it’s absent. It’s nearly impossible to cross Madison Street now with the boom in traffic, and lack of pedestrian crosswalks near us.

Parking has become a huge issue. The West Loop, like the South Loop and Andersonville, desperately needs a dedicated parking area. Instead, patrons who think nothing of spending $200 at a Restaurant Row eatery or at a Blackhawks game will insist on parking for free on one of our streets. (With car alarms set to stun; the West Loop is a symphony of sounding car alarms every day.)

Parking in the city is its own nightmare (Google Chicago parking meter deal)  but I’ve never understood why parking doesn’t come *before* or *as part of* planning here. There’s a huge, hulking half-built building at the west end of the West Loop that would be perfect to retrofit into a neighborhood park house, with shuttles running up and down Randolph.

Residential development has been the main part of the boom thus far, but as commercial development continues, a conflict is emerging between the two camps. I haven’t seen any movement to define patches of the West Loop as solely residential or commercial. We’ll have two rooftop bars opening soon near us – far closer to residences than they should be.

The other main irritant hits a little closer to home.

In my mind, I always thought that living in close quarters with your neighbors would lead to that kind of engaged community, where neighbors became friends, where people socialized and looked after one another.

A few homeowner’s association meetings have disabused me of that notion.

With precious few exceptions, our neighbors create more drama than Downton Abbey, and are guilty of more metaphorical backstabbing and bloodshed than Game of Thrones. It’s a toxic batch of entitlement and manipulation. (While we’re on the pop culture references, the most entitled and manipulative ones bring to mind Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.)

There’s still much to be said for sustainable urban living, and I haven’t changed my stance on those ideas, those policies.

I think it might just be that we’re outgrowing this place. This neighborhood is becoming a huge cluster for clubs and nightlife, and will be a fast-paced hub for twentysomethings. My twenties are a bit in the rearview mirror for me, though.

My partner and I want something quieter and calmer for our next home, and will likely move out of Chicago to find it. But I think we’ll be sticking with urban settings, or the “cosmoburb,” where access to walking paths, bike paths and mass transit still exist.

Of course, I also know that I’m ridiculously lucky. Lucky to have a home, lucky to have a choice to leave a place that isn’t a good match.

We’re in Chicago, where bad planning and years of discriminatory zoning and lending policies have created neighborhoods where basic life, liberty and safety are harrowingly hard to come by. Lots of people don’t have the choices we do to change neighborhoods, or to move at all.

Rahm Emanuel has followed in the footsteps of the Daleys, enacting or sustaining policies that stand in the way of evolution or change for disadvantaged neighborhoods. 2014 feels a lot like 1974 in some of these neighborhoods. It feels impossible to effect change here.

Hopefully, our next home will be in a place where we can take advantage of good planning and great living space — but also contribute to our community, where we can become advocates for everyone who lives there.

I’m going to brainstorm about this right now! You might not be able to hear me, though, with the noise in the background…….

 

Making the message make sense

Something very cool happened last weekend.

I finally earned a college degree — a little later than planned, but it happened. I’m incredibly proud of that accomplishment.

The days before graduation and the day itself were filled with speeches and talking – a whole lot of communication goin’ on.

I wasn’t part of the traditional group of graduates, so I was able to shift my focus and observe what was happening. (That’s also the journalist in me emerging and taking notes!)

I noticed a few interesting things about the ways that people communicated — what worked, what didn’t, and why.

AUTHENTICITY RULES: Several students spoke at the Saturday morning baccalaureate service, and while everyone was thoughtful and prepared to speak, I found the response from students fascinasting. The speakers that elicited the strongest response weren’t necessarily the smoothest speakers. But they were the ones who were willing to be vulnerable and real in front of a crowd, and they got a lot of respect from the audience.

I was stunned by one student. I’d been in a class with him and he always seemed nervous when he spoke. But that day, he stood in front of 500 other people and delivered an amazing set of remarks. It was all authentic, all him, and all heart.

SELECTING THE RIGHT MESSAGE: On the other hand….well, how do I say this diplomatically? Our commencement speaker, for all his accomplishments and good intentions, missed the mark.

I suppose I could be thankful that he didn’t launch into a flood of Commencement Clichés, but….I’m not sure WHAT it was that he said to us. I think it would be best described as a speech for a Kiwanis Club meeting, or maybe something you’d deliver at an industry conference or a job interview.

After a promising beginning with a few jokes, the speaker essentially recapped the minutiae of his career for what seemed like forever — in front of 500 graduates roasting in the sun, all waiting for That Guy To Stop Speaking. (Heck, I knew a bit about his line of business and *I* was praying for a strong wind to carry the stage away.)

That can’t in any way be called a success.

Anyone on the speaker circuit probably has a core speech they give to everyone, with alterations here and there based on the audience. But it’s important to remember that whether it’s a commencement address, an annual shareholders meeting or a town hall debate, the message has to fit the event. Too often, we try to plug a one-size-fits-all set of remarks into an event that needs to have its own story told.

SIMPLICITY IS BEAUTY:  Students often take the same approach to a speech that they do to writing a term paper: more is more. But the simplest communication can be the most effective.

The graduating class always collects money to start a scholarship fund, and this year’s seniors had been hounded via e-mail to make a contribution. Those efforts were falling short.

A class leader who had the mic at an event asked everyone who had received scholarship money to stand. It was ninety percent of the attendees.

THAT made an impact, and the senior class ended up collecting well beyond its goal.

Sometimes, the simplest message is the strongest one, and the one that can make the biggest impact.