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TODAY

Sunday, September 22

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Airbags

When my son is battling another player in an online roll playing game, I often hear the comment: "he owned me" or "I totally owned him," which for the old folks out there means that he was either beaten or he was the one doing the beating. I feel like that in my own real-life role playing game, in which I am an adult who owns a house in a city and has to go about my daily business, interacting with a revolving cast of citizens, exchanging money for goods and services, keeping several living beings alive and healthy, all the while negotiating a landscape of shifting rules and petty annoyances. My game goal is to own my life, and not get owned by it. Negotiating the travails of urban life is the biggest challenge of the game; sometimes I get owned, and sometimes I am able to rise above the potholes and see the big picture of what it is that we are doing here, and do the owning.

When the going get tough, it's easy for me to start waffling about my commitment to my neighborhood and to Chicago. Should we stay or should we go now? I spend a fair amount of imagination and time thinking about how much more suited to child raising a rural existence might be. Book reading doesn't always do me any favors, allowing me to escape into other, more perfect lives and away from my own which is often too cluttered and involves a lot of crosstown commuting. I recently read Barbara Kingsolver's book Animal Vegetable Miracle, which was a chronicle of her familiy's year of living off of their garden and locally grown food. It was a nice read, written in that classic Kingsolvery way — lots of lovely turns of phrase, romantic and wholesome tales of bumper crops, adorable 8-year-olds, agreeable and helpful teenagers. But I think it was one side of the story, and not the total picture, leaving out vast sections of the petty troubles and disturbances that most people struggle with in their lives. I suspect there there is probably some hired help over on the Kingsolver place, which would certainly help allow anyone to spend entire days writing and canning tomatoes.

If we lived rurally, I can pretend that we'd have this amazing garden and our little farm would be this dreamy, storybook perfect place, with well-cared-for outbuildings and healthy animals. The reality is that we might have a cool old house, if we sold our current house for the ridiculous price that people are asking for average Chicago frame houses. Sadly, it would most likely fall into disrepair since neither of us have been blessed with the compulsive tidyness required for farm upkeep. The grounds would start out with the best of intentions for old fashioned cutting beds and organic vegetable gardens, and end up weedy and overgrown, just like my garden here in the city. The outbuildings would begin collecting odd, random bits and pieces of metal, toys, furniture, tools, machinery and the effluvia of the early to mid last century like giant magnets. Eventually the barn doors wouldn't close, and we'd start parking stuff in the yard. Animals would probably do all right, as long as they didn't require lots of particular care and were happy laying around under the porch. The interior of the house would be perpetually dusty, there would be books piled randomly, laundry would never really get finished or put away. Things hung on the line to dry might stay there through a rain storm, and then hang there some more. The neighbors would be afronted by our devil-may-care attitudes and fancy city ways. The boys would grow even wilder with their free range life, and probably go even longer between haircuts. Having spent all of her life as an urbanite with an extreme propensity for all things technological, my daughter would most likely spend her days irritated by spotty internet service and a lack of Tom Kha Kai.

Still, there are many city days when even the most thorough going over of that reality checklist doesn't stop me from pipe-dreaming up a peaceful little farm life out in some bucolic portion of the country. The one thing that makes all of the overwhelmingly endless pile of work that farm life must be seem absolutely worth it is the lack of close neighbors. I'm not referring, of course, to the friendly sorts of neighbors who you chat with and have a beer with, or go for a walk with, or the ones who hug your kids and give them candy even though they don't speak the same language. I'm talking about the other kinds of neighbors. The pit bull neighbors, and the illegal auto body shop in the garage neighbors. The honk at the curb every morning at 6am neighbors. The ones down the street with the sometimes nice, sometimes mean kids who steal your toys and shoot fireworks at people pushing baby strollers down the sidewalk. The ones who park on the lawn, and the ones who have a car alarm that goes off roughly once every 40 minutes, and has done so for the last nine years. It is these kinds of neighbors that have the ability to own me. Totally.

Maybe I don't do as well when the temperature rises above 90, or perhaps it's that I am just a grouch, but I find summer to be challenging. I'm not insane, of course there is a lot to love about summer, starting with pleasant weather. It's front porch and garden season, time to go to the beach, movies in the park, farmers market, garage sales and long evening bike rides; certainly lots of good things on the pro-summer list. But, oh the humanity. In good old winter people make themselves scarce after 4pm, so you can walk your dog in peace. In the summer there are people everywhere, in the park, on the street, wandering about day and night, including the teeming hordes who love nothing more than blowing shit up. I remember talking to my mom on the phone shortly after Memorial Day, and she could hear firecrackers going off in the background.

"What's that?" she asked.
"Fireworks," I said.
"Why are people setting off fireworks, is it some city holiday?"
"yeah, sort of. It's getting close to the fourth of July."

My mom lives in Iowa where people only blow stuff up when they are supposed to, not three months out of the year from the crack of dawn until the crack of dawn.

There is no sentence I love to say more than "Go out and play" ...thinking every time that my kids are just going to run outdoors and find something fun and wholesome to do. Unfortunately going outside to play means negotiating the politics of the street: age segregation, toy stealing, bullies, dollar store lighters and fireworks and differing family values all come into play, and keep the kids from being able to do just that — play. After numerous episodes of my kids going happily out to play only to return home moments later sulking or sobbing, I've realized that this is exactly why my next door neighbors, who have a boy about the same age as my oldest boy, never allow their son to come outside to play. Never, ever. That is unacceptable to me, the definition of being completely and totally owned. If shutting everyone inside turned out to be the best option for my kids, we'd be living in Podunk, Iowa faster than you can say Buyers Market.

You hear the phrase "block to block" when folks are discussing their Chicago neighborhoods, meaning that one block is fine, but the next block down or over is bad. We live on a good block, but probably to the people one block north, our block is considered bad. But not as bad as we consider the block just south of us. The grass is always greener, I suppose. When I'm feeling particularly sorry for myself, I think about how great it must be to live in Galewood. Life looks grand in Galewood! Or Edgebrook. There is an ice cream shop in Edgebrook, and Cut Rate Toys. Those people in Edgebrook, they are so lucky.

A while back I went to an area CAPS training promoting block by block community organizing and had a cold bucket of water dumped over my head. We live on the north end of the 29th ward, which is a long narrow swath of city that stretches along the west side from Laramie to Austin from 290 to North avenue, where it expands west to Moody and north to Nelson. Most of the ward is made up of the Austin neighborhood, which is like saying that most of this apple is made of an orange. There were women at this meeting who could not stop rolling their eyes at me whenever I opened up my mouth, which I quickly decided to stop doing. They were talking about neighborhood programs to get their kids to school and back without being shot at. They started their sentences with crack houses, junkies and prostitutes, and ended them with dog fighting, child abuse, arson and poverty. My neighborhood isn't perfect, but it's pretty darn good. That was made abundantly clear to me.

The big message I got out of that day of community training is that we all have to take personal responsibility for our neighborhoods, particularly those of us in neighborhoods, like mine, that are mostly good with a rough edge. To keep that rough edge from going further, we need to come together and become a community, not just a random grouping of strangers. We can take our crime issues to the alderman and to the police, but have to know that the city isn't necessarily going to solve our problems as long as they aren't serious crimes, and that when resources are being used in one area, they are likely being taken from someplace else. If there isn't an existing block association, some average citizen has to step up to the plate. That's a tough pill to swallow. Wouldn't we all like someone else to solve our problems for us? A hired hand to do the dirty work and allow us to go about our pleasant lives? The thought of organizing my neighborhood has been one that I've long avoided, hoping that someone else would step up and go for it. In fact, I'm still avoiding it. Nine years have passed, it sure looks like no one else is going to do it. Anyone?

We've got a neighbor who has opened an illegal auto body shop in his garage. He sprays toxic paint all afternoon on weekends while his customers hang out in the alley getting drunk. It's not something that I can just ignore, since the whole operation takes place about 5 feet from my kids' swingset. Ideally some nice cop would come along and give him a stern talking too and a great big ticket, but in reality nothing is going to happen unless I make it happen. It's one of those damned if you do, damned if you don't situations. It would easier, certainly, if the whole neighborhood were outraged — imagine what would happen if someone opened up an auto body shop on a nice street in Oak Park. The whole town would get out their picket signs and eco-friendly torches and storm the place. My neighborhood has a very strong MYOB ethic going on though. I think for the most part people would rather just ignore the little annoyances on the street, and allow everyone to do as they please, including us. I'm 100 percent fine with that as long as no one is hurting anyone else; in fact, that's on the pro's list for staying in the city. The difference between the usual annoying but ignorable bullshit and an illegal bodyshop, though, is that while overly sensitive car alarms are irritating, they don't give your kids cancer. I suppose I'll have to put on my Neighborhood Captain hat pretty soon.

I like living here. I like my neighborhood, even its rough side. This is where our life is. Most of our time is spent here, two of our kids were born right here, in this house. We've lived here long enough that we're some of the old timers on the street, not that it really matters. I want my kids to grow up having been the sort of kids that played outside and had friends on the street, so I've made it my business to be out there, not playing with them, but available. I care about the kids on the street, even the ones who act unlikable. I don't tolerate certain behaviors — meanness to little kids is at the top of the list, seconded by stealing — but every kid gets a chance for a do-over, not just once, but as many times as it takes. We have a lot of people moving onto our street and only staying for a little while. It's not always easy to tell who is living here and who is just visiting, but we are definitely a given. Our house has that relaxed, totally comfortable-in-its-surroundings sort of look. Please, sit on the porch and read a magazine, pet the dog, have a popsicle. We really live in this house, in fact, we totally own it.

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About the Author(s)

Lori McClernon Upchurch lives on the far Northwest Side in a house that's overflowing with books, kids, pets and too much stuff from the thrift store. She is a proud member of Team Upchurch, a family of multi-talented unschoolers. She can generally be spotted driving around with a bunch of kids, not all of them hers, looking for someplace fun to get out and play.

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