Mental Health

Bus Stop Stacey

I’m waiting for the Damen bus when he descends, and descends isn’t the right word because this dude is short. I don’t like to rip on height, being a stubby individual myself, but yeah he’s short and anyway you’re not gonna have much sympathy for him in about thirty seconds. Short, white, graying, maybe in his early 40s. The girl I’m sharing the bench with is maybe a little younger than me. Mid to late 20s. She’s wearing those black exercise pants everyone wears and I can’t blame her, they look good, and a strappy pink tank top and she’s pretty, chill, just hanging out waiting for the 50.

She turns to me, “Are those flowers?”

I’m carrying a bouquet of dried flowers and I promise you, my life is not as manic pixie dream girl as all that. I was sweaty and had recently finished eating several tacos, hunched over one of those picnic tables at Big Star like a blonde raccoon but their fried fish game is strong. Those zanahorias with spicy tahini sauce are pretty good too. That plus an al pastor and I’m walking slowly to the bus, surreptitiously rubbing my swollen stomach. I am no one’s spritely projection right now, unless they’re into cumin-scented bus naps.

I show my bench companion my flowers and she nods and we smile at each other.

Then he’s there, hovering at the side of the bench.

“Can I just say, you have a beautiful Afro?”

Okay. I mean, he’s right. She does have a beautiful Afro, it’s swaying gently in the late summer breeze. This is not a terrible thing to say but my hackles are already bristling because I have seen this man, he’s black or white or brown or yellow but no matter what he is, he is the worst. But maybe he’s fine. Maybe I need to chill the fuck out.

She’s smiling politely. Her face is pleasant and open. I feel all the saltiness of my recently 30 years rise up (happy birthday Rose, you feel way too old for male bullshit), the catcalls and hisses and creepy fucking conversations I’ve had with strange men who want to say something about my face, or let’s be real my titties. But maybe he’s just tipsy and flirty, and that’s not a crime. I slump back and try to be chill. He is talking and she’s nodding and then-

“So my ex-girlfriend, she was black, and she-“


[GUEST POST] Swimsuit Season

Swimsuit season.

Or as I like to call it, nipple-slip camel-toe permanent wedgie season.

My large-bottomed sister and I joke that our asses like to eat, because no matter the swimsuit style, after three steps toward the beach all we have left is a Sisqo fold and an overdressed butthole.

I’ve never found a bikini top with triangles that didn’t shift around like Scrabble pieces. The knot at the top pushes so hard into the nape of my neck that it aches for a day afterwards. Because of this, I’ve resorted to buying bra-style suits that manage my boobs like a cartoon grasping at a slippery bar of soap.

Maybe I should go back to the tankini. I was so relieved the first time I found a full-length top to cover what my brother lovingly used to refer to as “the black hole.” (My bellybutton).

At age 11 I found a purple printed swimsuit at Old Navy, a sort of half-tank with a flattering cinch to highlight my brand-new breast buds. I showed my mom and said, “I like it, but I’m just self conscious about my stomach.” She replied, “Why don’t you go lay outside for a little bit so you don’t feel like a beached whale?”

Her intention: A tan may make you feel slimmer.

My teen understanding: I’m a beached whale.

At 13 I wore my first bikini, one of many hand-me-down swimsuits from my flat-abbed older sister. The swimsuit was orange, with a hazy painted sunset. The bottoms never quite fit right and would at times slip side-to-side, providing a locker-room visual if I didn’t quickly readjust. It had pilling all over the butt from sticking to the side of the pool, but I loved it.

The first time I put it on, I weighed 74 pounds. Orthopedic surgery to correct my uneven legs kept me out of the eighth grade and on heavy narcotics (an excellent weight loss plan). I remember limping into the bathroom to look at myself before going out into the yard, and sucking in my stomach. I could see every single rib, and quickly let out my breath to hide them again.

By 16, I had put on enough weight to go through puberty a second time. I went on a trip to Israel with a hundred other horny Jewish teenagers, and nearly sharted in astonishment when I heard that boys liked me. Up until that point, boys had primarily treated me as the unavoidable tumor on a group of pretty girls, providing me with creative elementary nicknames such as “pot-belly-socks” and “peg-leg.”

Suddenly, these hot underage Jews wanted to rest their heads on my stomach, and invite me for back stairwell “PCs” (private conversations). My weight was almost healthy, nearing the triple digits, but I was still reeling from the sudden weight gain. The constant attention made me feel safe enough to wear a bikini, whereas my best friend on the trip ate one-third of every shwarma and wore Soffe shorts three sizes too big. We were two peas in a pod.

At 19, twenty pounds and s-e-x brought on a horror of self-awareness I had never experienced before, even in a bikini. Fucking was like reading a graphic novel featuring a fatter, clumsier version of myself. Captions read SMACK, CLAP, and SQUISH, and every issue ended with the heroine crying in the shower.

Looking back, my entire life revolved around looking in the mirror and seeing my body for the first time, every time. My life was like a really shitty dubstep version of “Mirror Mirror On The Wall”. I lost all ability to see myself clearly, and began depending on compliments- my clues to what I really looked like.

I wish I could say it was the strength of girl-power that changed my feelings towards myself, but the truth is that it took falling in love to disrupt my body dysmorphia. My post-college boyfriend honored my body with zeal that bordered on worship, and over time I began to see parts of my body the way he saw them. He didn’t call my legs “long” or my body “thin”, but he treated my ass like the third member of our relationship. I trusted his opinion of my body when I couldn’t form my own.

Now single and in my mid-twenties, the funhouse mirror has mostly straightened out. I have a general understanding of what I look like, but sometimes I still study pictures of my body hungrily, searching for new clues. In those moments, I try to recall the confidence I felt with a man who praised my cellulite, and helped me stop fucking in the dark.

When it comes to swimsuit season – accepting my body and all that – I may not have the confidence to buy a thong bikini, but my hungry ass will always be looking for a snack.

Lena Kazer is a Chicago writer best known for her platform shoes and affinity for swearing. An avid over-sharer, you wouldn’t call her an open book so much as a never ending gag reel. Her composition is 75% whiskey and 25% gummy vitamins.

Check out her personal blog at

I Think Your Diet is Stupid (But I Get It)

I really like to make fun of paleo. Sorry not sorry, it’s bullshit. Unless you have a real allergy or Celiac (as in you have been diagnosed by a doctor), you have no hard and fast, logical reason not to eat bread. Wheat is a solid energy source, processed food isn’t always bad, and a move to an agrarian society is responsible for a lot of human civilization getting where it is today. Humans have survived eating a varied diet for hundreds of years. Most people can eat most foods and they will probably be fine. It’s expensive and impractical, less a health choice and more a way to muddle up a basic and delightful human activity. Here are some articles by people smarter than me explaining why paleo is peak Caucasity foolishness.

I feel that way about most other diets, too. From veganism to Atkins to Ornish, I’ve yet to hear of one that sounds reasonable and sustainable. I don’t see the point in doing something you can’t keep up for, well, the rest of your life, and doesn’t leave room for beer and french fries. Heavily restricting what goes into your face is exhausting, and unless you have a medical reason I don’t get it.

The only concept that makes sense to me is lots of fruits and vegetables, lots of lean protein, easy on carbs and dairy and sugar. This seems reasonable and flexible. This makes sense. This isn’t easy. I want to eat pizza and funnel cake until I pass out in a sugar-cheese coma. Mmmm.

And I lied, I do get it. I really get it. You want to lose weight. You want to be healthy, aka live forever. You want to be attractive and therefore good and okay. I get it because I feel that way sometimes too – except for maybe the live forever part, we are all living on borrowed time and we’re all going to die which is terrible but very inevitable.

But I get it. It is near-impossible to be a woman and not feel intense pressure to control and portion and measure and try and do the right food and exercise thing, because if you are right about food that makes you a better, more worthy person. If I choose carrots instead of chips, I am morally superior. If I use coconut oil instead of butter, my skin will look magazine-pretty. If I run five miles instead of watching Game of Thrones, my waist will be smaller and men will like me and therefore I’m capable of being loved. If I choose a salad over a cheeseburger every single time without fail, my colon will shine with the glory of a thousand suns, it will be intestinal Khaleesi but instead of dragons I’l have the fiery power of slightly lower blood pressure. If I feed myself some bullshit unscientific theory about eating like cavemen, I will be healthier, skinnier, radiating goodness and light.

I can’t let go of paleo. I love pasta and hate pseudoscience.

Where I’m going with this, aside from House Targaryen-butt metaphors, is I think paleo’s ridiculous but it makes sense. From childhood you’re bombarded with images and words from the media, loved ones, and strangers that pretty is good and very important. And pretty means white, thin, young, symmetrical. If you’re fed that psychological food and drink for years and years, reaching for a fad diet that promises live well, live longer, gluten is the root of all evils and p.s. your acne will go away…it makes sense.

It is hard to accept that there is no catch-all solution. In a state of desperation, people (myself included) like to glom onto something that promises to stop the psychological hemorrhaging, an idea that gives you something to work towards. It’s harder to think that maybe there may not be an end goal to work towards, that you are okay the way you are right now, that eating better and exercising is a series of small and incremental changes that take place over time and are an ongoing thing. That being thin and conventionally hot, or even healthy, will not solve all your problems.

I’m a 20-something female-identified cis white lady with an okay face and average body. I am playing Appearance Donkey Kong on the lowest difficulty setting. And what this means is a lot, from small to the horrific: Clothing is a pain in the ass but not a waking nightmare. My size is right there on the rack. And when I’m out there looking for clothing that will probably fit me fine if not flatteringly, I’m not going to get followed in the store, or otherwise suspected of criminal acts. Society may not find me beautiful, but it will probably find me acceptable. I feel shitty about the way I look sometimes, recoiling from the mirror when a waistband is too tight. This is from Level One. As much as I mock having a case of the wheat-crazies, the urge to change yourself feels so familiar it hurts.

Paleo is a fad diet. Like most fad diets, it will pass. But denying yourself a tasty, affordable, and potentially nutritious food group to fit into an idea of what is okay is strange at best, ugly at worst. You are demonizing something neutral, packing fear and self-loathing into an innocuous little grain. Wheat is one thing. Grains don’t feel pain. But it is not a stretch to apply this misplaced disgust to something with more consequences, like another human.

Also, pancakes are delicious.


Green Ghost Golden Hour

There are specific places that make me step back for a minute. It’s more than location. It can be a time, a temperature, a smell – those sensory details that give physical places weight and context. Sometimes these places are far-flung and exotic, either through distance or unfamiliarity: The sweaty, garlicky heat of a Taipei night market. A dusty stretch of Austin highway in a caramel Fiat the sales rep is still pissed you chose instead of a giant SUV. Pretty much anywhere in the South. Sorry Toronto, I know you’re technically in another country but it felt a whole lot like home.

Right now I’m really into my living room late at night. Early morning is good too, but like 10:30 or 11 at night is best. I do my stretches and look at the curtains.

They hang like green ghosts, illuminated by streetlights. I start by doing that thing where I walk my hands forward, feeling the stretch in my always-tight shoulder blades. I think about all the places I’ve lived that I wanted to be good so bad, but I was pretty bad at making anything good. I never wanted to come home. Home was screaming and immovable clutter growing up, then ants and roommates, then-

I do those weird chiropractic exercises that my boyfriend calls carpet-swimming. It hurts but it’s that good pain. Muscles and tendons shifting, I think about the guy who wouldn’t move in with me because he said my taste sucked (okay, there were other reasons too but come on), and all the stupid, shitty fights. How I never had my boyfriend over to my place because I was ashamed that I couldn’t do it, that trying to make my domicile cute inevitably ended in rage and crying and one time a punched wall.

I lift my head up to revisit the curtains. They’re cheap, gauzy numbers from Urban Outfitters seven years ago, sun-bleached and slightly shredded in places by our asshole cat. I bought them during a time when I was scared to do anything with my apartment because I felt like (I knew) I’d fuck it up. They sat there for years, never leaving their shipping boxes.

For the first time, I like coming home. I move into child’s pose and my gaze swivels up to the ceiling, but I can still see them out of the corner of my eye: something delicate and fluttering, a thin but present protection.


small talk

Agatha (not her real name) and I went to college together, but we didn’t meet until much later, at the home of a mutual friend who had invited us both over for a St. Patrick’s Day feast. My notes indicate that we had corned beef made in a crock pot, Irish soda bread, and dessert from a now-closed Sicilian bakery in Andersonville. Also that we talked about the Duggar family because then, as now, they are never far from my mind, apparently.

Alex Chilton died that night. I might have gone home from dinner to stay up late, scrolling through Tumblr, liking everybody’s posts of the same three Big Star songs over and over again.

Zen and the Art of Meat

Cooking was definitely something I grew up with, but I wasn’t interested in doing it myself until well into my 20s. I knew homemade food was good and sometimes better, but I didn’t care. There was a McDonald’s under the Loyola stop and a value menu with my name on it, Gharweeb Nawaz with one-dollar lentils and saag paneer, and about six million good Mexican places. I was set.

(if you don’t care about food or cooking, now might be a good time to revisit some other posts)

But sometime around my third apartment I started to miss it. So I started doing it, and long story short I am an okay cook. I don’t do anything fancy but my cookie and casserole game is solid. I don’t suck at vegetables either, especially the roasted and slaw variety. Every once in awhile I’ll bust out the food processor and make my own crackers. They’re basically teeny cheddar pie crusts and make me feel a lot more “foodie” than I really am.

The term “foodie” makes my teeth hurt, like to the point where I don’t want to say I like to cook because people get all oooooohhhh do you make your own seafood broth with leftovers from your homemade beer-steamed mussels then save them for later? (no, though I’ll happily eat the delicious bi-valves at Revolution or Hopleaf). And okay, I went to Sean Brock’s pre-fixe dinner at The Publican and I still think about those freaking heirloom carrots and crab-studded hushpuppies. I like herb-flecked artisanal goat butter as much as the next guy. But copping to making your own food and not blowing at it feels like aligning with a sanctimonious culture that doesn’t have a lot of room for being human or White Cheddar Cheez-Its, my one true love.

Despite not worrying too hard about the origins of my asparagus and a deep and abiding affection for Duncan Hines Butter Recipe Golden, I like cooking. I read a lot of food blogs. The abundance of Mariano’s excites me. I think it’s taught me some things too, which I will now share with you in a hopefully non-preachy manner.

The Dress

This weekend, a friend of a friend posted a dress on Twitter and I fell in love. Parrots and palm trees on smooth white polyester. Size 8. H&M. Shift cut. Dreamy. It made me think of bare arms and good times. Pool parties and Lost Lake. Not waking up in icy darkness with a head full of dread.

That dress was a tropical vacation in a long and shitty winter.

It’s at the Unique on Irving and Kimball, she tweeted back. If you go it might still be there. I went back to her post and looked at it. Looked at it again.

And I went. And I ruffled through a million other inferior and just plain weird dresses but I got it. It was $3.40 because Unique has half-off days. And then I got fancy cat food for my fancy cat and the bus came on time and it was perfect.

Sometimes when I’m in a particularly bad one, I complain to my dude that I need a big win. A really big win, a windfall, my ship finally coming in, a Powerball-level punch to my racing heart and sad sack mind and all the things I want to change or go away. And then I realize I’m an educated white girl of average build with features in a more or less okay arrangement – my whole life is a win. (I still want to win the lottery. I still want everything to suddenly work out all at once.)

But sometimes it’s not the big win. It’s a three-dollar dress. And sometimes it’s not even that, although yes it is perfect. It’s the walk there, the anticipation, going slightly off path and succeeding. It’s breaking routine – a reward and more often, a necessity.


i’m the one that i want

I was brushing my teeth last night before crawling into bed. I’d already taken off my makeup, washed my face, and put on my pajamas.

My face was sallow in the light, and the zit on my chin was taking longer to go away than I wanted it to. I leaned forward, tilted my chin down to spit toothpaste into the sink, then stood up and examined my face again. I tugged at my bottom lip with an index finger, checked my teeth and gums, frowned. And then it dawned on me.

Red Line Rubdown

It was light jacket weather when that guy jerked off in front of me on the Red Line. Kind of chilly but not quite fall. I was heading downtown from Edgewater. It was late afternoon. I was 18. I remember these things, but mostly I remember that I denied what was happening up until the point of no return, and let me spoil it for you: His dick was out. His hand was on it, moving up and down. He was jacking off just across the aisle. I turned away so fast my neck cracked.

I’d seen strange peen in the wild once or twice before, the odd crazy or perv exposing themselves.  And there’s always dudes grabbing their denim-clad junk, either at you or in the general sense, offering their dong to the world. I should have been prepared.

In fact, I should have been super prepared, because my friend and I had talked about this the week before. We were on the Red Line. Mid-Loop. She was telling me about some dude who’d whipped it out on the train recently. She’d stared straight at it then looked away. It took his power away, she said, to not react to it. She was older and wiser. I was impressed. What a badass, I thought. She’s so much better than me.

But in that moment I was in mild shock. Again, maybe because I’d been lying to myself hardcore from the moment he stepped on the train.

It was an empty train car. He took the seat directly behind me.

That’s odd. But not super odd.

I went back to texting on my cool new Nokia brick phone.

His breathing sped up. He leaned towards me, so close I could feel his breath on the back of my neck. My stomach churned, but still I refused to believe it. I needed to see it with my own eyes. I was about to get my wish.

The train stopped. The doors opened. As they closed, he moved like a snake to the seat directly across. I didn’t have time to contemplate how someone so short and stocky moved so fast because his hands were fiddling with his pants.

Maybe he’s just fixing his fly FUCK it’s out, his dick is out, yup it’s totally out. FUCK. 

Not only out, but fully hard and getting more so by the second. He didn’t look at me, but stared straight ahead the entire time. This was somehow worse.

I swallowed. I said nothing. I did nothing. When we got to Argyle, I ran to another car.

Sorry, older friend. I wasn’t strong or feminist about it. I was scared and grossed out. He won. But I think it’s like when people yell at horror movies: “Don’t go into the basement!” “Why don’t they stay together?!” “Hide all the knives!” It seems obvious from the comfort of your couch that duh, you’d make the right decision. But really, shock and adrenaline make a person all kinds of confused and cowardly. You might run into the basement. You might do nothing while some dude jerks off a few feet away.

And that’s the point, isn’t it? Fear and disgust addle our smart and brave parts, pulling the focus off you and onto in my case, some creepy fuck with his dick hanging out of his pants.

Trust your instincts. If you think he’s going to jerk off, he is going to jerk off. And however you react is okay. I’m not going to judge you. But if you can, don’t let the dick-monsters from the Red Line Horror Show win. Take a picture. Raise your voice. Send it to the police. Put it on the Internet. Do something. Don’t make the world safer for creeps and pervs, and worse for girls and women. The world doesn’t really need your help.


Mindful Spirits

I just finished Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill, a Southern Gothic, heavy metal ghost story. I barreled through the plot like the main character’s cherry red Mustang, clicking my e-reader device furiously into the night and feeling that sweet pain when you don’t want a story to end but can’t stop reading because you like it so much. It hit a lot of notes for me on both a genre and personal level. The tropes are familiar (aging rock stars! the occult! family dysfunction! Goth chicks!), but so well-written and fun they never feel corny or cliché. It’s also really scary, starting off uneasy then dropping suddenly into something much worse.

This wasn’t supposed to be a goopy book review. Heart-Shaped Box got me thinking about the nature of ghosts, an idea that hovers in the background of my mind next to 90s teen sitcom plots, then gets shoved front and center when I read or see something spooky and affecting. It also got me thinking about beautiful old cars and chicken-fried steak. But mostly ghosts.

In Heart-Shaped Box, the main character notes that the ghost’s power lies in getting in his mind, that it’s as much him as the specter sitting in his living room. If he can keep the ghost out of his head, he wins. The idea that ghosts are both mental and supernatural makes sense to me. Souls of the departed, sure. But really, a spirit is something internal made otherworldly and powerful – your insides taking form and hovering in the mirror, on the bus, in the corner of your eye when your thoughts start to wander and skip.

Sometimes they’re sweet, light particles that float through office windows on late, gray afternoons. I am watching Sinbad in Ida’s apartment. I am maybe six or seven. She is my Aunt Louise’s mother, who’s not really my aunt (she’s my mom’s friend) but she pretty much is so I call her my aunt. My aunt calls me in to visit with great-aunt Ida and I am scared by her pale, thin face and glowing eyes, she looks half on the other side. We talk about something and she gives me a macrobiotic cookie. The cookie is weird and I’m still nervous, but she’s nice to me and it’s a real kind of nice, which brings my shoulders down. I sit on the corner of her bed and she tells me about her special diet, how it’s supposed to be good for cancer. I don’t know exactly how cancer works but I know she’s going to die. And she does die, and they have me sing something in Hebrew at her funeral, and I remember rehearsing, “This is a song Ida would like.” in my head. Like, not liked. She’s dead but she’s still there, and as I sing the ghosts of funny old Jewish ladies protect me, Ida and great-grandma Sophie who I never met and all the rest, lined hands and lively eyes and Rosie, come over here.

And then there there are the ones not dead, just long gone but vivid as ever, that girl from 7th grade and your dad who you haven’t talked to in over a decade and that guy you were with for a fairly miserable eight months. Long gone but alive (you keep them alive). Her face was smooth and impassive save for a little smile when she told you they were walking away now and then they did, but you kept trailing them and then she turned around and bellowed, you jumped and they snickered. His movements were quick and jerky as he walked through the house, saying he was leaving. You could not see his eyes, he moved too fast, but if you could they would be hazel and strange. You’re watching a movie on your former boyfriend’s couch and he’s telling you how all girls have daddy issues. All of them. Sometimes in the early morning or late at night you feel their cold hands on your shoulders, creeping up to your cheeks and chin, filling your mouth so you can only scream inside your head.

The only way to get rid of a malicious ghost is to confront them head-on, again and again, throwing words and movements and therapy at the poltergeists of the past and present. Until then, they remain. Behind the door, at the bottom of a bottle, threaded throughout everyday interactions like gray tendrils. If you can’t make them go away, all you can do is not let them in.