Vacation, all I ever needed

Shirley poked her head deep in the woodchuck’s burrow and shouted “Hey, cuz! Are you home?”

Home-home-home echoed off the dirt walls, and then silence filled the deep hole as dust floated through a rogue sunbeam that was trying to infiltrate the darkness. Shirley sighed and waddled off to find another woodchuck to gossip with, but she was worried; she hadn’t seen her cousin in weeks.

Far beneath the meadow, in a side tunnel that had been dug specifically for this purpose, the woodchuck chuckled to herself and ate another Snickers bar. A few months ago, she had planted a sign at the top of the burrow that said Gone Fishin!, a little hint she hoped the other groundhogs would understand meant that she wanted to be left alone. Instead, animals kept dropping by to put in orders for scallops or tilapia. 

We live in the dirt, miles from water thought the woodchuck. Did they really think she was going to bring them back scallops?

This time, she had told Shirley that she bought a jet ski and was planning a real vacation to try it out. It had been like posting a notice on Groundhog Twitter; the news had spread faster than monkey pox, or as she called it, the chimp bumps. The woodchuck hated chipmunks intensely and used every opportunity she could find to mock them. The little beasts had been by several times before asking where their tilapia was.

But the jet ski story seemed to have done the trick, and she had been left alone in her cozy burrow for some time now. The silence had been wonderful, the lack of information regularly stuffed into her head by Shirley about her cousins and other woodland animals freeing up space for her to think deep thoughts and to watch that Harry Styles spitting video many times over. She didn’t think he would really do that to Chris Pine, but she would have to watch it a few hundred more times to be sure. 

The problem with watching cutting edge crime scene videos while scrolling for other angles was that it was hard to ignore the rest of the internet. The place with all the sunflowers kept popping up, and she found herself worrying about the grain that was going to waste that could have fed so many. The wildfires everywhere seem to be spreading, and sometimes she thought she could smell smoke even deep in her burrow. That ice shelf that was about to collapse was keeping her up at nights, and she knew once it went, she really was going to be able to get tilapia for everyone because they would be swimming in her burrow.

The worse thing was that the Weasel was still everywhere, despite having been driven out of the forest. Why was everyone still talking about him instead focusing on more important things, like how few monarch butterflies there were this summer, and democracy?

The woodchuck was slowly coming to the realization that it wasn’t her cousins and friends she needed the vacation from—it was the constant stream of fear and bad news that churned through her mind both night and day. It didn’t seem fair that she should have to worry about this stuff; her brain was the size of a walnut and it’s not like she could fix any of it. Besides, she really wanted to discuss the Harry Styles Spitting Video with Shirley. She just had to figure out how to let everyone know that she was back from vacation without letting any of them ride on her jet ski.

tick . . . tick . . . BOOM!

The woodchuck shifted uncomfortably in her burrow. It was usually snug and cozy in there, but lately she had been scratching herself obsessively. She had made peace with the various parasites that roamed freely through her fur—she was, after all, just one cog in the great forest ecosystem where the circle of life was often represented by uncontrollable itching—but something about this invasive feeling was more draining than usual.

She cursed her lack of neck as she craned her head around as far as she could, but still could not see her hindquarters. With no reflective surfaces in the burrow, it was impossible to get a glimpse of what was going on back there. She’d once had a tiny compact with a mirror in it, but it had been accidentally left outside and smashed to bits when a raven pecked itself to death in a fight with another bird who looked exactly like him.

She knew she was going to need another set of beady eyes to help out here, so reluctantly, she texted Shirley. Her cousin was the biggest gossip in the meadow and would no doubt share this with everyone she met, but the itching was driving her crazy.

When Shirley arrived, she was already talking non-stop about a variety of subjects that held no interest to the woodchuck, such as drought and fires and climate change. She interrupted her cousin with a scolding hush, and explained the weird creepy crawly feeling she had on her haunches. Shirley sighed, for she knew her cousin was the most narcissistic groundhog in the field. “Turn over,” she ordered, and started searching through her fur.

“Holy Vampire Weekend,” Shirley murmured under her breath. “Well, honey, I hate to tell you this, but you are the host of some uninvited party guests. There are about a dozen ticks snacking on your backside.”

The woodchuck’s mouth opened in a silent scream. For a creature who lived in a dirt hole under a meadow next to a forest filled with deer, she had an unreasonable fear of ticks. 

“Getthemoffame! Getthemoffame! Getthemoffame!” she shrieked, twirling and squirming in a frenzied dance of revulsion. 

“Now, calm down, girlfriend,” Shirley soothed. “Eventually they will drink their fill of your blood and let go. Why don’t you just let them have their fun and leave them alone?”

“Shut your damn mouth and take these tweezers,” the woodchuck muttered between gritted teeth.

“How am I supposed to use tweezers to remove a tick when I don’t have opposable thumbs?” 

Moments later, after the woodchuck had duct taped the tweezers to Shirley’s paw, a snarling tick was slowly eased out of her haunch. Shirley popped the gnarly insect into her mouth and bit it in half with a loud crunch.

“Oh my God, you’re eating them,” moaned the woodchuck.

“They’re very satisfying; they explode with a pop!” chuckled Shirley. “It’s like an amuse bush before dinner—you know, one of those little appetizers that has sticks and twigs in them? Only this one has ticks and twigs!” She collapsed into giggles, slapping her leg; Shirley thought Shirley was the funniest groundhog in the forest.

After the final insect had been removed, the woodchuck lay on the floor of the burrow, weak with blood loss and terror. “Ok, honey, you’re done. You can stop moaning now.” 

Shirley took one more quick look at ­­the rash on her prone cousin’s now tick-free backside and murmured, “That reminds me, I have to go to Target later.”­

Just because the author of The Blind Woodchuck occasionally writes about real-life scenarios in no way means that she came home from a camping trip with an actual tick in her ass. Stay out of the woodsnature is terrible!

In the Forest Primevil

The woodchuck hadn’t slept well. A strange fog hovered over the meadow last night, and an occasional moan had slipped into her burrow. It was probably the wind, she told herself, trying to dismiss the uneasy feeling.

But a text from her cousin Shirley confirmed her suspicions; there had been a baby bunny massacre in the next meadow. Four tiny furry rabbits had been found scattered near a burrow, the nest of sticks and feathers and dryer lint pulled from the hole; something had dug down and pulled them out one by one. Shirley said the forest was in an uproar because a predator was obviously in the area. Some were pointing paws at an owl or a hawk because of the strange noises during the night, but Shirley had her own theory: feral cats. 

“They are so entitled,” she complained. “They think they can have it both ways. They get to live outside but someone supplies them with food and a box of hay, so they aren’t exactly surviving on their own.” Shirley hated feral cats.

The woodchuck didn’t really like them either, but she doubted the cats were involved. Most of them were too fat and unwilling to go after an entire burrow of bunnies. She paced around her snug quarters, wondering what she should do.

“Hey!” A shout right next to her ear made her jump straight up. She realized that the Fox had stuck his head into her tunnel and was staring at her upside, like Spider-Man. “What are you doing in here?” she shrieked.

“I’m investigating that murder that took place last night. Those babies were over six weeks old, and that means there was an illegal procedure in this meadow. Have you seen the mother rabbit? If you help me find her, I’ll give you some of the $10,000 reward.”

“There is no way I’m helping you,” sputtered the woodchuck. “The mother rabbit had nothing to do with that. She was probably out looking for food and is now devastated; you’re just making it worse. And what are going to do with money? You already know they won’t serve you at 7-11.”

The Fox stuck out his tongue at her and disappeared. He and his kind were becoming quite ruthless, and it was worrisome. They seemed to think they had the power to set rules for the rest of the forest, even though woodchucks made up more than half the population. For all she knew, he had been the one to drag the bunnies out of their burrow. Foxes liked to munch on the little ones, and there had been rumors that they were hoping to ensure a domestic supply of snacks.

The woodchuck was not particularly maternal, so she hadn’t paid much attention to what the foxes seemed to be trying to do. She’d born a litter before but once was enough for her—it had been way too crowded with five extra little groundhogs in her burrow, and she’d been happy when they were old enough to leave. She really didn’t want to do that again. Plus, her cousin Shirley had nearly died from having too many in a litter, and the Fox seemed to think that was just fine.

She enjoyed mating season, though, and wasn’t planning on stopping that no matter what they told her to do. It was none of their damn business. As she pondered her past escapades, the woodchuck wondered if she had mated with any of her cousins. There were just so many of them and they all looked alike, so who really knew? Trying to avoid her own species, she’d once gone out with a hoary marmot, but its name was a little too close to what she’d seen scrawled on the bathroom wall. The meadow had a complicated dating scene.

She felt like she should do something to protest what the Fox was trying to do, but that seemed pointless. There were woodland animals marching all over the place and it just made them easier targets for hawks. She was starting to see those flyers again that told her to Get Out the Vole, which she now understood was not a small rodent. She’d always had a problem telling L and T apart, but it was hard to read in a dark burrow while wearing sunglasses. Besides, she would be hibernating in November, and it was just so much easier to stay asleep. It wasn’t like not voling had gotten them into this situation in the first place.

The woodchuck is by nature fatalistic, but that doesn’t mean we have to be. Keep marching, keep writing letters, keep using sidewalk chalk in front of Susan Collin’s house! And in November, Vote Blue all the way down the ballot!

Road(ent) Rage

The groundhog was mad. No, mad didn’t seem to be a big enough word. Angry? she thought. Pissed off? Infuriated? So many different synonyms, yet none of them seemed to capture the bowel clenching fury that filled her squat body and made her fantasize about infecting others with rabies.

The calendar was just a few weeks past the drunken burrow blast she had attended where Shirley had poked and teased her until she had finally come up with a resolution. “Okay!” she had shouted at Shirley, who was her dearest and most annoying cousin. “I will be nicer in 22!”

“We’re gonna need some kind of new metric to measure that,” Shirley slurred. “Because you are the least nice woodchuck I know! Uh, I mean that in a good way,” she laughed/snorted, and then hiccupped.

The groundhog was offended by that assessment of her character and vowed to never speak to her cousin again. Upon further reflection, however, with less alcohol in her system, she recognized that her reaction unfortunately supported Shirley’s statement.

I used to be nice, she mused. Well, nic-er. What had happened to her? She should be deep in hibernation now, not dreaming about leaving claw marks on the ankles of little girls picking the daisies that grew around her burrow in the meadow. Obliviousness would be a welcome state right now. 

Instead she was worrying about that damn plague again, nervous about the gossip that the deer were infecting each other. It would be rutting season soon, and then the damn germs would be flying all over the woods as the idiots locked antlers and tried to prove who had the biggest horns. It was like watching Below Deck; you couldn’t look away.

She’d also heard from her cousins in Arizona—they didn’t seem to be too concerned about the most recent disease strain, as they already had hantavirus and possibly bubonic plague. They were comfortable with the 120 degree temperatures that were the new normal in the desert, saying it was a dry heat, and not mentioning that a rodent could be cooked to a crisp if they didn’t wear a hat.

But now they were worried about some human named after a movie house who had decided to destroy democracy by stopping all legislation from being passed. The groundhogs who lived in the mountains of Appalachia that had been strip mined bare knew of one of those, too. Apparently stupidity was contagious as well.

Focus on something nice she told herself. Think about baking sourdough bread or creating a vision board that would manifest a brighter future. She could do this, she could, and with kinder thoughts, perhaps a kinder woodchuck would emerge.

Her phone buzzed with a text, and she saw that it was from the Mayor of Punxsutawney. It read that with February 2 just a few weeks away, she would need to report in person for her job. The working at home option was off the table.

She was going to bite him when he lifted her in the air.

The writer behind the woodchuck has no advice on how to be nicer in these trying time, although she is trying.

The Adventures of Woody the Dog and Grandma CatFood

Woody stuck his head out the window, his ears flowing horizontally with the rush of speed. He was very excited. He loved riding in the car! There were whiffs of new smells everywhere as they zoomed along, and each one held the promise of adventure! He sniffed again, but now something on the road seemed familiar. Wait! There was the big lake he loved to swim in! He hoped they were going there! Nope, they passed it. Darn.

They traveled on. Wait! That was the dog park where he accidently peed in the wading pool! He hoped they were going there! Nope, they passed it. Too bad. He was quite certain he saw the tennis ball he had left in the weeds when they drove by the big grassy area, but they did not stop there, either. Woody was a bit disappointed, but he knew wherever they went, he would be thrilled. He paused a moment to consider if they might be going to the vet, but then put the thought out of his mind. It was too nice a day for a shot!

He saw a tree he was sure he recognized and let out a bark of joy. He hoped they were going there! Nope, they passed it. No, wait! The car was slowing down! It was stopping! He knew where they were – It was GRANDMA CATFOOD’S HOUSE! He loved going to Grandma CatFood’s house!

He stood impatiently as his mom connected his leash. Why was she so slow? Didn’t she know where they were?! He pulled her along as fast he could and up the steps to the porch. The door was flung open, and Grandma CatFood exclaimed, “Woody is here!”

Woody didn’t even pause for a pat. He raced through the house, not even slowing at a delicious smelling sock. He passed the two horrified cats who knew what was coming but were helpless to stop the inevitable. He came to an abrupt halt in front of two small ceramic bowls, and before anyone could grab them, completely licked clean the crusty remnants of cat food all around the edges, as well as the mat they sat on and the floor all around it. The area was pristine, as if it had never once known tuna.

“Oh, dear,” said his Grandma CatFood. “I forgot to put the bowls away again. Woody is just too fast.”

Woody smiled his great doggie grin and licked her hand with his smelly Purina breath. Of course he was fast. She wouldn’t be called Grandma CatFood if he were slow!

Lin Manuel Miranda Was Wrong

            The blind woodchuck was absolutely furious, stomping back and forth in her burrow and swearing like a trapped beaver. It was Groundhog Day, and she had been betrayed.
            She’d thought about skipping it. Her burrow was always so cozy in February and it  irritated her to no end that she had to rouse herself from hibernation to participate in this stupid spectacle. Because that’s really what this was; she wasn’t a psychic— how the hell was anyone supposed to know what the weather was going to be in six weeks? She was a rodent, for God’s sake.
            But then the woodchuck had remembered how grateful people were when she told them winter was almost over. The attention she got from the other woodland creatures who were jealous of her success warmed her all over. She had decided to go, if only for the sake of the crowd waiting in anticipation.
            She had hauled herself out of bed and started the coffee. Maybe she should wear a little mascara, just to accentuate her lovely eyelashes, since her picture would probably be in several newspapers. 
            There was dawdling as she groomed herself; she would admit that was true. But she hadn’t been THAT late, and when she arrived at the scene, the woodchuck was horrified to see the mayor struggling with a new groundhog. The idiot crowd was cheering and laughing as if they couldn’t tell this imposter apart from the real thing, which was her. It was like all the woodchucks were mall Santas and it didn’t matter who the stupid mayor hoisted up in the air.
            Back in her burrow, it felt like the walls were closing in as she paced back and forth. She hadn’t been outside in months because of the stupid plague and now she had blown her one chance to shine. She wanted to bite someone.
             “Yoo hoo, Philomena!” Her cousin Shirley never knocked; she had to make an entrance. “Didn’t Kevin do a great job today?! We were worried when you didn’t show up, but he stepped right into the role like he’d been playing it for years! A classic Broadway trope where the understudy becomes a star!”
            “That was Kevin?!” The woodchuck could never tell any of her cousins apart. “Shirley, I was on my way. Why didn’t they wait for me?”
            “I may have mentioned that you were afraid to leave your burrow because of the plague. But wait!” she rushed on. “I have great news! I know where you can get a shot!”
            “Why on earth would I want to get shot?! It’s bad enough that I have to wear that ugly orange vest during hunting season.”
            “No, Phil, this is THE shot. The one that stops the plague! Hurry, go to the burrow at this address; they’re almost out.”
            There was a line stretching through the forest as she found the site where they were apparently shooting people. She still wasn’t sure about this, but she was worried about how much weight she had gained in lockdown so she felt she should give it a chance. She stood with the other animals in the snow, little sprays of yellow appearing off to the side as the hours dragged on. Being last in line was unnerving, so she was glad when another woodchuck got behind her. It was her oldest cousin Maud whom she hadn’t seen in ages, and they chatted as they neared the front. The woodchuck had to shout since Maud was nearly deaf.
            “There are only four doses left!” announced the racoon who was in charge of the shots. The woodchuck counted quickly and was relieved to see that she was number four. A groan went up in the line behind her and the other animals trudged off to try find to find another site. “This is a stupid way to run a public health crisis,” grumbled a rabbit.
            Maud was still standing behind her. “Cousin, I’m afraid they don’t have any more right now. You’ll have to come back another time,” she said loudly.
            Maud just smiled. “No, I have to get a shot. My son told me not to leave until I get it.”
            The woodchuck’s turn was next. Her cousin did not seem to understand that there wasn’t enough for her. Maud was very old – surely survival of the fittest had something to do with who should get this shot
            The blind woodchuck knew she was not perfect. She fought for what was hers and did not share any of the Snickers bars that she had hiding in her burrow. It was the law of the forest that only the strongest would live.
            And yet—long ago, Maud had taught her to recognize the cry a hawk makes just before it grabs you in its razor-sharp talons. The sound was a cross between a victory shriek and a yummy noise; recognizing it had saved the woodchuck from being devoured many times. She looked back at Maud as the raccoon rubbed Philomena’s fur with alcohol, preparing to plunge the sharp stick into her arm.
            “Stop!” she shouted, hoping she wasn’t going to regret this. She pushed Maud ahead of her and fled up the burrow before she could change her mind.
            As she trudged through the snow back to her tunnel, she found, much to her surprise, she wasn’t sorry about what she had done. In fact, she felt kind of good about it. She started humming a song from Hamilton, as she often did. Lin Manual Miranda wrote great lyrics, she thought – but sometimes you do have to throw away your shot.

For anyone standing in line in the forest and frustrated beyond belief about getting an appointment, Illinois has just introduced a new site that consolidates various vaccination sites in one place. Fingers crossed that it actually works.

https://www.zocdoc.com/vaccine/screener?state=IL

Sighs Matters

The sigh floated up through the tunnel, a dark wisp twisting and turning through the winding dirt until at last it reached the surface. It hung there briefly, a small, dark cloud, before dissipating into a thousand droplets of despair.

Far below the ground, the woodchuck lay on her back on the dirt floor of her burrow. It had been a bad week. Actually, it had been a bad three and a half years, but somehow everything seemed compounded in the last few days. She was tired of being sad, sick of watching the news and even more terrified of not watching it. She knew it made sense to back off a bit and take her ignorance into hibernation, but if she didn’t stay informed, how could she call herself a citizen? She sighed again, and watched the exhaled breath float above her head, already starting to surf the current of breeze that occasionally circulated through the tunnel.

“Philomena, it’s going to be okay,” a soothing voice whispered next to her ear. The woodchuck startled at the sound of her cousin’s voice, sitting up quickly and banging her head on the ceiling.

“Shirley, how did you get in here?!” she shrieked, rubbing the rising bump. “And how did you know I was worried?”  

“Phil, I know you so well that I always can tell when you’re upset. Also, there was a toxic cloud of black vapor that looked like a dementor just imploded hanging above the entrance of your burrow. No one does despair quite as visually as you do.”

“Shirley, I heard there was going to be a coop! It must be the chickens — you know they get very protective about where they lay their eggs.”

“Phil, it’s a coup, which is not exactly the same thing, and it’s a fowl thought but the chickens are not involved. It’s about claiming the election is rigged, but nothing is going to happen if we all vote. There are more of us and we just have to get organized and make sure everyone knows what to do. Here, I brought you something.”

Shirley thrust a paper into the woodchuck’s paw. It was a list of names of animals from various parts of the forest. “It’s part of a letter writing campaign. We’re sending hand-written messages to try to convince all of our relatives to vote.”

The woodchuck considered the list before her. Damn, she had a lot of cousins. “I can’t write to all of these groundhogs!” she exclaimed. “I don’t have an opposable thumb!”

“You don’t have to write to all of them,” Shirley replied. “Just take the top five on the list and start with those. Doing something will give you a sense of control, and maybe that cyclone of sighs hovering over your burrow will finally dissolve.”

After Shirley had crawled up the tunnel toward home, the woodchuck sat and thought for a long time. Could this possibly make a difference? It really didn’t seem like it could. This was a waste of time, because who would listen to a simple woodchuck? What a dumb idea.

She noticed something sitting on her dresser. It was a delicate, white lace collar. She touched the fragile piece, and then slowly tied it around her neck. She inhaled deeply, but her exhale this time was not a sigh, but a deep, cleansing breath. She picked up her pencil and began to write.

You may not get a letter from the woodchuck, but you could write to some other groundhogs —or voters! Go to https://votefwd.org/bigsend and check out The Big Send!

The Fascist and the Furious

The woodchuck was sleeping heavily, her beanbag body a mound of relaxed fur, when she suddenly snorted and sat up. She had been tense when the pandemic started and had decided to try yoga to find some inner peace. At the end of the video, she closed her eyes for shavasana. This was always her favorite yoga position, the one where you lay on the floor of your burrow and don’t move. Unfortunately, she had shavasana-ed a little too hard and accidentally gone into hibernation. She glanced at her iPhone and realized she had been asleep for five months.

“It’s August?!” she screeched. “How is that possible? Didn’t this thing start in March?” Assuming there must be some kind of mistake, she crawled up the tunnel and cautiously poked her head out. Hoping for the chartreuse vibrancy of newly leafed out trees and the floating perfume of cherry blossoms, she instead found parched, yellow grass and dead cicadas, the signs of the end of a long, hot summer. A red leaf floated down, landed briefly on her head and then swirled away, caught in the updraft as an adult rabbit rushed by. The woodchuck watched it in astonishment.

“Hey, when were you born?” she shouted. The meadow should be full of baby bunnies, not hares who rudely ignored you. It suddenly occurred to her what this fully-grown rabbit meant. She had missed mating season.

She fell back into the deep burrow, finally landing with a thump in the TV lounge. She felt unsettled and restless – a whole chunk of her life had passed by while she had been doing yoga (sleeping) and watching Netflix (sleeping). She paced across the dirt floor and thought maybe a little television would distract her. Groundhog Day was on.

She threw the remote at the screen. She HATED Groundhog Day. It was on every streaming channel at all hours of the night. Who was programming this crap? Everything about this movie irritated her, although she did like the part where the groundhog drives.

She decided she needed to put her disapproval in a strongly worded letter. There was nothing more effective than voicing your opinion in a well-written complaint, especially if you had beautiful penmanship, which she did.

A few hours later, she had envelopes addressed to the heads of Netflix, Hulu, HBO, Amazon Prime and Disney Plus. She didn’t really have a subscription to the last one, but she was on a roll and felt like everyone would be interested in her thoughts on this subject. (She had actually watched Hamilton on Disney, but that had been using a borrowed password from her cousin Shirley. She hoped this letter would not cause her cousin to change the password.)

The woodchuck crawled back up to the surface and cautiously started across the field to a nearby mailbox. She stopped in confusion when she got to the spot where she usually mailed her Christmas cards. There was nothing but an empty space and four mangled bolts in the sidewalk. That was strange, but she knew there was another one a few blocks away. She serpentined between parked cars, watching carefully for scooters.

She was relieved to see that the mailbox was still there, and as she got closer, realized that there was something spray painted on the front of it. In white letters, someone had stenciled This Machine Kills Fascists.

The woodchuck had no idea what a fascist was, but she had heard this expression before. Her cousin Woody used to sing this all the time. She had always thought Woody was a dumb name for a woodchuck (would you name a horse horsie?), but the Guthrie side of the family had always been kind of odd.

She noticed there was a leg missing from the mailbox and heard a scraping sound. There was a weasel gnawing at another leg, his razor-sharp teeth causing sparks to fly like a blow torch. If he got through this leg, the whole mailbox was going over.

The woodchuck knew it was up to her to save the mailbox and preserve her cousin’s legacy. As quietly as a rodent with 80 percent body fat can move, she snuck up behind the weasel and bit him hard on the ass. The weasel howled and leapt in the air, smacking his head into the undercarriage of the mailbox. Yellow cartoon stars circled his noggin.

“Why did you do that?!” screamed the weasel, collapsing onto the sidewalk. “You made me break a tooth!”

“Because my cousin says the only way to fight fascism is with this mailbox! Now get out of here, and tell your friend the Fox we won’t put up with this anymore!”

The weasel picked up his broken fang and slunk away. There was going to be hell to pay back at the office — he’d only managed to gnaw down one mailbox so far. Those metal legs were a lot harder than he had thought they would be.

The woodchuck mailed her letters and dashed back to her burrow. She felt a sense of accomplishment as though she was part of something bigger than she was, although she had no idea what that might be. She was also really bummed that she had missed mating season.

(This fable was inspired by a real mailbox with the words of Woody Guthrie stenciled on it. You know what you have to do. Get those ballots in early! And buy stamps!)

Heinz Sight

(A brief pause in The Ripple Effect—
it’s been an intense few weeks)

Last summer, on what started as a lovely stroll along the lakefront, a friend of mine who was born and raised in Chicago scoffed at me when I attempted to declare my citizenship of the city. “This has been my kind of town for over forty years!” I protested. “Doesn’t count,” she declared. “You didn’t grow up here, so that makes you a poseur.” We waved goodbye and headed off in different directions, with me hoping that she might get swept off the shore by an errant wave. How long do you have to live in a place before you can claim it as your own? I wondered as I walked away. True, there had been a stint in the suburbs that many Chicago natives would consider disqualifying, even though I had lived in a variety of city neighborhoods both before and after that jaunt away from the lake. People here are such sticklers —just the fact that I put ketchup on my hot dog is enough to get me kicked out of my zip code.

I felt a bit rebellious as I wandered among the patches of native plants and wildflowers that flourished in the great garden next to Millennial Park and thought about how much I loved  Chicago. This memory is pre-pandemic, so my defiance was not of the rules announced by our mayor—she had shut down the lakefront after hordes of people descended upon it the first warm day of spring. It was my own need to push back against the perception that I hadn’t earned the right to claim the city as my own. I may be an outcast because of my condiment choice, but my memories are powerful and the connection I felt was one I refused to deny.

The prairie looked like a Monet, all pastels and smudged edges, fitting since some of the originals hang in the Art Institute across the street. When the garden was first installed, the iron girders that enclosed it were black against the sky, an ugly framework that mirrored the railroad tracks that had been filled in to accommodate the park. The hedges within them were mostly twigs with a few pops of green, but posted signs assured us that one day the bushes would obscure the iron lattice. Next to the garden was the great lawn that was open to the sky and stars, and concerts were held there that filled the soft air with music that fed your soul as you lounged on quilts and fed yourself fried chicken.

Even when we lived in the suburbs, my family always came back to the lakefront when the weather warmed up. I remember one perfect summer evening when we parked in the underground garage and then climbed the ramp leading up to the grassy sitting area. My six-year-old son had been allowed to bring a large bucket of Legos as his distraction of choice, provided he carry it himself from the car. Joyful at the prospect of a picnic and possibly ice cream, he swung the bucket in a circle over his head. Alas, centrifugal force had taken the night off, and we watched in horror as a thunderous storm of primary colors rained down on our heads, red and yellow and blue plastic bricks bouncing maniacally in every direction, sliding down the ramp toward the very bowels of the parking garage and through God knows whatever may have been on that cement floor. Remember life before Covid19 germs? We scooped up the Legos with our bare hands and threw them back in the bucket, and my son played with them for the rest of the evening. I told myself it would strengthen his immune system.

My children grew up on these lawns, watching fireworks and concerts from huge blankets covered with friends and food and decks of Uno cards. Seeing those hedges fill in as the years went by was like having a piney growth chart to measure their march toward adulthood. Now the greenery obscures the framework, with the parental support barely peeking through.

The Chicago that is immortalized in print by writers like Carl Sandburg or Studs Terkel has a palette that is primarily dark – lots of gritty browns and steely grays and bloody stockyards, with blue collar workers and blatant racism against black families. But it also has a lake with hues as varied as the Caribbean, aquas and indigos that seem impossible in a body of water with a mud bottom and a booming population of zebra mussels. The city is full of contrasts and inconsistencies across the full color spectrum, and its reflection through a prism would be a rainbow of people and problems.

I recognize the flaws of the city, even as I claim it as my own. We all have issues that are embarrassing, I thought, as I held the hot dog in my left hand and firmly squirted a wavy line of the forbidden red nectar. It mixed with the bright yellow mustard and a relish so green that it glowed in the dark.