Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Memory Journal: "Ice Water!"

The books and photos are down and the boxes are piling up. “The Move” to Chicago has officially begun.  With the impending loss of 300 square feet, I’ve been exploring the dark crannies of dusty plastic storage pins and narrow dresser drawers, purging the never-used and under-sentimentalized trinkets I tucked away a long time ago.  But when I found one item obscured in the darkness underneath the kitchen sink, I couldn’t bring myself to throw it in the donation pile next the yoga weights and VHS tapes.  My mom gave it to me for my first apartment five years ago, but that’s not why it’s sentimental.  I’ve never used it, but that silly little yellow plastic contraption always brings a big smile to my face because it reminds me of a fun family memory - one that my parents and I still reference often.

When I was little, I liked juice.  Apple juice, to be precise.  I liked apple juice, and my parents liked me.  So whenever I was lounging on the couch in the basement family room watching Sesame Street and my sippy cup slurped empty, my spoiled little self would hold out my arm, my cup in hand, and loudly call out to my parents in the kitchen upstairs, “JUICE!!!” - an Annie line now lovingly parodied by some members of my family.

I eventually outgrew my proclivity for apple juice and transitioned to the healthier beverage choice of plain ‘ole ice water.  But my preferred method of beverage delivery has stayed the same: I like it when people get it for me.  My husband now carries that burden.  Indeed, if there’s one question you’re guaranteed to hear at our house at least once each evening it’s “Sweetie, can you please get me a glass of ice water?”  Unsurprisingly, he’s started referring to me as the "Signs girl," referencing the movie character who mysteriously leaves glasses of water all over the house.  

Like crazy Mel Gibson in that scary movie, my parents were the original ice-water providers.  I’d regularly call out from my bedroom upstairs, “C’YOU GET ME A GLASS OF ICE WATER PLEASE?!”  And they’d go all Jimmy John’s on me and deliver a glass of cold filtered ice water in a frosty mug freaky fast.  Even when I’d come home from college or now when I visit from out of town, they always offer to get me a glass of ice water.  It’s a simple act, but it feels - and tastes - like home.

One warm evening when I was in high school, sitting on my bed doing homework / practicing viola / listening to my new Coldplay CD, I felt a familiar parch in my throat.  I looked to my water bottle: it was empty or worse, luke warm.  Time to make my familiar nightly request, so I called out to parents downstairs:

“Yes, Annie?” My mom responded, sounding farther away than normal.
“Can you please get me a glass of ice water?”
They must have been two floors down in the basement because they couldn’t hear me well.  So I turned my head to face the door and tried again: “Ice water, can you get me some please?”
I sighed as my teenage stubbornness took over, “I need ice water, please!” I shouted louder.
“Okay! I’ll send your Dad up!”
“Okay, thanks!”

Freaky fast.  My Dad knocked on the door.

“Come in!”

He bounced in with both feet landing on the ground simultaneously.  Before I could even hope that he didn’t spill any water on that jumpy entry, I realized that he wasn’t holding a glass in his hand.  No, my parents mistook my request for ice water for something else.  My Dad hurried upstairs and jumped into the room like a mock superhero because they thought I was in the midst of a winged assault.

“What are you doing?”  I asked with a smile on my face.
“I thought you said you needed this.”  He said, hanging the plastic object in defeat.
“No, ice water!” I laughed.

We haven’t stopped laughing since. So what was he holding in his hand, and what did I find under my sink yesterday?

A fly swatter.  

Monday, April 16, 2012

Amazon Wish Lists & The Joys of Gifting

When I was little I liked to read the Reader's Digests that my parents always had lying around the house.  I usually flipped through to find the joke sections like “Humor in Uniform” and the vocabulary builders.  But one time I stumbled across a parable from spiritualist Max Lucado.  I liked it so much that I wrote it out and taped it to my bedroom wall:
I’ve seen you searching for a gift.  I’ve seen you stalking the malls and walking the aisles.  I’m not talking about the obligatory gifts.  I’m not describing the last-minute purchase of drugstore perfume on the way to a birthday party.  Forget the blue-light specials and discount purchases; I’m talking about that extraspecial person and that extraspecial gift.  I’m talking about … staring at a thousand rings to find her the best diamond; staying up all night Christmas Eve, assembling the new bicycle.  Why do you do it?  You do it so the eyes will pop.  You do it so the heart will stop.  You do it so the jaw will drop.  You do it to hear those words of disbelief, “You did this for me?”
That’s why you do it.  And that’s why God did it.  Next time a sunrise steals your breath or a meadow of flowers leaves you speechless, remain that way.  Say nothing and listen as heaven whispers:  “Do you like it?  I did it just for you.”
I’m not very religious, but I love that quote.  And now when I see a beautiful sunset over the cornfields in Indiana or am marveling at the pinkness of the cherry blossoms, those words remind me to take a moment to entertain the possibility that this was all designed by something/someone, for us.

But enough with the ethereality. I want to talk about the first part of that quote: the “blue-light specials” and the not-so-great gifts.  You see, I’m starting to think that, with the dilution of time to assuage disappointment, a gift can be like pizza: even when it’s bad it’s good.  So with deepest love and affection for the gift-givers, let me reluctantly share the two worst gifts I ever received:  

1.  Christmas, 19 years old: A metallic pink quilted vest that looked like the lovechild of Hello Kitty and StarTrek.

2.  Easter, 15 years old:  I have never seen this movie.  I never wanted to see this movie nor listen to its music. Yet, the Easter Bunny left this soundtrack of the oft-forgotten animated Disney movie The Road to El Dorado next to the Reese’s eggs in my basket.

Even when they’re bad they’re good; reminiscing about those gifts is bringing a big smile to my face today, and I’m grateful for those memories and for the loving faces behind those gifts.  Nowadays, I think I’m pretty easy to shop for.  Like I told Ian as Christmastime: “If I all I get for presents this year are Chipotle giftcards, I won’t even be disappointed.”

I was not disappointed come December 25th, but not because a plethora of Mexican grill-ness rained down upon me.  Nope.  Because Ian and I set up an Amazon Wish List.  You can add items from Amazon as well as any other website!  So instead of obscure Disney movie soundtracks, I got a travel crate and water bowl for Teddy.  Instead of a pink vest, I got a gorgeous spring dress from Shabby Apple.

I realize that there is a special beauty in the pure, unprompted, well-planned gift. In the past two years alone, I've been gifted two little herb gardens from family members/blog readers for Christmas; Ian took me to a vegetarian cooking class for Valentine's Day; my parents bought us a pet-hair vacuum for our Christmastime Newfie puppy; and my in-laws have positively spoiled me with gorgeous handbags and wallets. I'm a lucky duck.

But unless you're the kind of person that jots down every little "Oh that'd be nice!" and "This is so cute!" that you hear throughout the year, gifting can be hard. Maybe even stressful. So perhaps, every once in awhile, we should give each other a leg up and digitize our suggestions. Besides, why should weddings and baby showers get to monopolize gift registries?  Let’s Carrie Bradshaw this thing and spread the joy of gifting all around.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Testify! (on Illinois prisons)

Tuesday morning I was folding laundry and vacuuming up dog fur.  By Wednesday I was sitting in front of members of the Illinois General Assembly testifying on overcrowding in the state’s prison system. Early this week a family member asked me to speak in support of a friend at the Illinois House Judiciary-Criminal Law Committee’s subject matter meeting on prison overcrowding and meritorious good time credit, an early release program that the Governor suspended in 2010.  (You can read about his decision and the House Committee meeting here.)  I didn’t know much about the details, so I figured it would be an informal informational meeting with a few Illinois representatives held in a small austere government office room.  But because my straight-A self doesn’t know how to put a cursory effort into any task, I researched the heck out of the Illinois prison system and wrote a 7-minute-ish long speech in one evening.  

Good thing, because this meeting turned out to be much more formal than either of us realized.  Wednesday morning I found myself in a big, bright wood-panelled committee room at the Bilandic Building on La Salle Street with about 80 other people, including journalists, a cameraman, the Director of the Illinois Department of Corrections and staff from the Governor’s office, and several members of the Illinois House of Representatives.  And when the committee called forward those testifying on “proposed solutions,” I became a little star-struck as I sat down next to the Soros Senior Justice Fellow at Northwestern Law School, whose articles I had referenced in my research (and who was quoted in the above article link).  The last to speak, I read my statement - with gusto - into the skinny table microphone, glancing up purposefully at to the two-tiered panel of Illinois representatives sitting under the state seal: “State Sovereignty, National Union.”  
Afterward, a few people shook my hand and the Senior Justice Fellow said I gave an “excellent speech.”  I was just happy to have had the opportunity to participate so directly in an important civic dialogue. But I shook their hands and took the compliments because they were right: I friggin’ nailed it.  

Here's what I said:

I live in Lincoln Park here in Chicago, and I’m reminded of Chicago’s crime legacy every day.  Not because of gang violence or drug deals in back alleys.  No, because of tourists.  You see, I live near the Biograph Theater on Lincoln Avenue, where John Dillinger was shot dead.  So a few times a week I see long buses of out-of-towners drive by on Chicago Gangster and Untouchables Tours.  So when I was asked to speak here today, I couldn’t help but wonder, in that hugely celebrated era of rampant organized crime and violence in this country, how full were our prisons?

US Justice Department data reports that there was an average of 145,000 inmates in the United States every year during the 1920s and 1930s.   Following that trend and adjusted for population growth, there should be around 350,000 people in our prison system today.

Except there aren’t:  Today’s US prison system houses 2.2 million inmates.

Clearly those tourists on those buses in Lincoln Park are grossly misinformed.  The real era of crime is happening right now apparently, right?  Wrong.  Here in Illinois, between 1995 and 2007, we saw a 44% drop in violent crime and a 30 percent drop in property-related crime.  BUT, during that same time, the incarceration rate grew by 20 percent.

Crime is down, but imprisonment is up.

As if that paradox wasn’t troubling enough by itself, we don’t have enough room for everyone we want to put behind bars.  And Illinois wins the bronze medal of the Prison Overcrowding Games: according to a recent white paper on Good Conduct Credit in Illinois, “only California’s or Alabama’s prison system is more crowded than Illinois’…” Indeed, The Taylorville Correctional Center in downstate Illinois, designed to hold 600 prisoners houses 1,200.  The Lincoln Correctional Center is designed to hold 500 inmates, but today it holds almost 1,000.   In total, 25 of the 28 state prisons are over capacity, and the system currently contains about 50 percent more prisoners than facilities were designed to hold.

So why are our prisons so overcrowded?  When I asked Google that question, its glaring white search results page shouted answers like punitive sentencing laws, the war on drugs, and over-zealous efforts to lock up criminals for minor offenses and parole violations – not to mention the profit motives that drive the prison industrial complex.  All of which increased my admiration for the scope of this committee.

But though the solution may be complicated, prison overcrowding’s impact is simple: it’s bad for everyone.
Prison overcrowding increases costs, increases violence, and reduces rehabilitation.

For me, the taxpayer, it increases costs.  The Illinois Department of Corrections already has $1.4 billion budget, which is greater than all other state government departments excluding healthcare and human services. While each student enrolled in a public school costs the state of Illinois around $6,000 a year, each inmate in an Illinois state prison costs us $25,000 a year.  Considering that at least half of prison inmates are there for non-violent crimes like drug possession, it’s worth noting that – again, while we spend $25,000 to house one inmate per year – the cost of treating a low-level drug offender ranges from $4,000 to $7,000.  We thus must allow ourselves to consider alternative rehabilitation efforts for non-violent offenders, especially when we’re stretching our state prisons and our state budgets so thin.

For prison staff, prison overcrowding means they’re outnumbered and overworked.  When there aren’t enough officers to watch over the inmates, the guards must work overtime.  The East Moline Correctional Center reports that their guards are putting in collectively 200 to 300 hours of overtime per week on each of the prison’s three shifts.  Of course, those overtime hours cost the state thousands of dollars of wages and pension payouts.  One officer noted: “You’re paying retirement on a correctional officer who would normally make $55,000 a year, but because of overtime you’re going to end up paying them retirement for $90,000 to $100,000 per year.”

But we might need to consider that they deserve such a hefty payout because, when prisons get overcrowded, prisons get dangerous, for guards and inmates alike.  The John Howard Association found Illinois facilities that were so crowded that administrators had no choice but to house hundreds of minimum-security inmates in flooded basements and vermin-infested dormitories with broken windows, leaking pipes and dilapidated roofs.  And when inmates are stressed, violence erupts.  In December 2009, one Illinois correctional center inmate took an employee of the prison library hostage for seven hours, and a fight at another center in Canton left one guard with a broken eye socket.

Unfortunately, it seems that the state of Illinois is on its way to attaining a California-level of prison overcrowding, which the US Supreme Court declared unconstitutional last summer:  The court ruled in favor of the inmates because, it said, the medical and mental health burden of prison conditions amounted to a violation of the eighth amendment protection against cruel and unusual punishment.

But overcrowded prisons might endanger people outside the prison walls as well.  Several studies have suggested that overcrowded prisons lead to increased recidivism.  For example, one study conducted in England in the 1980s found a strong relationship between overcrowding and prison effectiveness.  Prisoners released from overcrowded prisons were more likely to be recommitted for subsequent criminal infractions.  The relationship could not be explained away by other variables, leading the head researcher to recommend a reduction in prison overcrowding in order to improve the ability of prisons to reduce crime.

In consideration of these results of prison overcrowding, I find it puzzling that the state would ever enact a policy that would immediately overcrowd prisons.  But that’s what happened in 2010 when Governor Quinn suspended the state’s 30-year-old Meritorious Good Time program that rewarded inmates’ good behavior with a 180-day early release.  This early release program was a humane and cost-effective way of managing prison populations.  But it fell because of partisan politics and the manipulation of public fears.  But we must re-establish Illinois citizens’ confidence in this program - that that the state will always take proper precautions when awarding early release to inmates - – because incentivizing eligible inmates to return home early is a good, logical policy that should be reinstated.

I sit in admiration of this committee because of the scope of the problem you are addressing.  Prison overcrowding is a sticky-side effect of a system where the status quo is overly-punitive and under-funded, and peppered with a heavy dose of partisan politics every time the Governor runs for re-election.  But prison overcrowding is treatable.  We should certainly address punitive sentencing, drug laws, and minor parole violations.  But there’s something we can do right now, something we already did 30 years ago, to ease the burden of prison overcrowding on every Illinoisan.  As a taxpayer and concerned citizen, I urge the state of Illinois to restore the Meritorious Good Time Program or to create a comparable good-conduct program that enables low-level offenders to earn time off their sentences.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The Man of My Dreams

I love being married.  It’s not flowers and love notes all the time, but I find specialness in the everyday-ness of my life with Ian.  The soft crunch of barbeque potato chips being tossed next to the rice milk in the grocery cart; Mike & Mike in the morning and the Real Housewives at night; sharing a bed and toothpaste and movie popcorn with each other...  Newly alone in my Indiana apartment while I wait to join Ian in Chicago, I miss him and all the beautiful comforts of our marriage.  I’m in love.

But, occasionally I miss the feeling of falling in love.  

My step-brother-inlaw (work through that relationship web for a second) is fast falling in love with his new girlfriend.  When we met for dinner last week, he showed us her picture on his phone, smiled coyly whenever we asked about her, and blushed pink when I asked if we should expect to receive a “Save The Date” card in the next few months.  In the most pleasant of snowball effects, his happiness made us happy that night, and I’m even writing about it here.

Revelling in his feelings of young love, I couldn’t help but privately reminisce about that special time in my relationship with Ian.  I remember - with vivid delight - falling in love with him.  My heart would jump with excitement every time the dull ringtone gave way to his deep voice on the phone.  Happy butterflies filled my stomach every time I got to see him, and the feeling was so addictive that I sometimes went out of my way to make sure I’d run into him on campus after our classes.  When he first held my hand, my whole body smiled; and our first kiss made my soul light up.  Indeed, falling in love is a feeling of unparalleled specialness.

Our fun-filled infatuation eventually blossomed into the less-celebrated but infinitely more meaningful capital L Love.  So now when I miss the stomach butterflies, I only have one place left to get them: my dreams.  And I had a really nice bout of nocturnal infidelity a week ago.

One morning last weekend in Chicago with Ian, I was having the most wonderful dream ever: I was falling in love with William Mason, the oh-so-nice and cherubically handsome footman on Downton Abbey.

In my dream, William joined me in the modern day.  Unplagued by World War I and the melodrama of his former employer, he was free to fall in love with me. And I fell in love right back.  My subconscious brain filled with thoughts and feelings of young love as my handsome beau hugged me and held my hand, making my heart jump in excitement and filling up my stomach with happy butterflies.

Then I woke up.  

In my morning stupor, I couldn’t help but feel sad - about the lost dream, the lost love.  So I called out to Ian watching Mike & Mike in the living room: “Baaaaaaaabbbbbbbyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy?!”

“Okay, hang on.”
Ian walked in and climbed in bed with me, nudging my poutey cheeks with his fingers.
“What’s wrong? Did you have a bad dream?”
“No, I had a great dream,” I said sadly,  “I was falling in love with William from Downton Abbey, and we really loved each other and were holding hands and everything, and then I woke up and it’s not real.  Hmph.”  I pouted again.
“Aw, it’s okay Annie. I know William’s really nice. But you still have me.”
“Yeah, I do.” I smiled.

And that’s the thing.  I may miss the feelings of falling in love when I wake up from my Downton Abbey fantasies.  But, to paraphrase a line from 500 Days of Summer, Ian’s better than the man of my dreams; he’s real.