Saturday, August 9, 2014

Treasure In The Trash

Tonight I will cap off my glorious birthday week vacation by telling a story at a wonderful show here in Chicago. (, check it out) Alongside me will be my trusty story buddy, Jill Howe. Earlier in the week Jill gifted me with a copy of Stephen King's "On Writing" and I cannot put it down. He recounts writing the first part of "Carrie" and throwing it in the trash can, proclaiming it to be complete crap. His wife found the pages, shook off the cigarette ashes, smoothed them out and read them. She insisted that he finish the story, as she told him, "You've really got something here. I really think you do." He did finish the story, of course, and eventually it opened every door for him, after he sold it for $400,000.

A quote from the Stephen King book I keep returning to: 

“Writing isn't about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end it's about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life as well. It's about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy: you can, you should, and if you're brave enough to start, you will. Writing is magic, as much the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink. Drink and be filled up.” 

The story I'm telling tonight at the show was pulled out of the trash by Jill. Not from an actual trash can, but from that piece of my mind where I put things I believe to be of no value. She convinced me to do it at the first Story Sessions show in April of 2013, I subsequently used it as my writing sample to be considered to go to Italy to study with Wally Lamb. 

Jill has a birthday party every year where she asks people to read stories. I missed her birthday last year as I made that trip to Italy, but I wrote this piece for her the year before. I share it here in hopes that it will encourage you to show and tell someone how much you love them today. You never know when your support will be all that's needed to change the course for another, to help them to get over, to get well, to get happy.

ODE TO JILL - A Year In Whiskey and Words

I met Jill not so long ago, on April 10th of last year at Hopleaf. Yes, people, I took the time to look that shit up.  She was, as always, friendly, talkative, one might dare say she could be described as chipper.  As I don’t speak chipper, I was immediately suspicious of her motives.   What did she want from me? I continued to run into her at story shows and in short order we became quite smitten with each other, in that Laverne and Shirley kind of way. Her plucky Jane Austen became the better half to my cantankerous Dorothy Parker.  Against all odds, really, considering the fact that she lives on the complete opposite end of the city from me and she’s technically young enough to be my daughter, if we were residents of Alabama.  But we had so many fundamental things in common, like loving T.S. Eliot and tater tots and reading too much into things. I met her at a particularly pessimistic time in my life, when the weather in my head was perpetually made up of black clouds. I was going to story shows as some sort of research project in understanding the human condition, an area where I was struggling to find hope.  I wrote about the absurdities that were my personal life at the time as I wasn’t sure what else to do with myself. The highlight reel of last summer’s train wreck included: going on dates with conspiracy theorists, polygamists, germaphobes, and corporate bankers who like Nickelback.  In hindsight, some pretty flawed decision making.  Jill would always tell me that it was fine if that’s what I needed to do as it was simply where I was at for the moment. I was insistent that there was nothing else to hope for, that my only joy could be derived from chasing cheap thrills for story fodder. When she got older, I figured she’d wise up and come around to my way of thinking.  

Through all this, we drank whiskey and talked about what’s wrong with the world and and shook our fists mightily at the sky and wrote a bunch and we shared some E.B. White infused highs and some Tennessee Williams style lows.  She brought me flowers and sent me sweet cards and drove me all the way home even though it is the dictionary definition of out of her way. She greeted me with waffles one morning after I decided to drink Jameson for dinner and woke up with a screaming headache on her couch, I thanked her by breaking her coffee mug. That’s the kind of stuff brown liquor makes you do. After a long, hot summer full of these sort of shenanigans, I found myself exhausted. On September 11th I decided for a myriad of reasons that I simply could not go to work; I just couldn’t fathom getting on an airplane. I was wiped out from a whole season of having a shitty attitude.  I made plans to do what any good Chicagoan would do under the circumstances, I would get drunk at a White Sox game.  On that same day I received an email from Jill entitled On My Love For You, with the following quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald:

“I fell in love with her courage, her sincerity, and her flaming self respect. And it's these things I'd believe in, even if the whole world indulged in wild suspicions that she wasn't all she should be. I love her and it is the beginning of everything” 

 I took a screen shot of the email, which I keep on my phone to this day.  The White Sox lost to Detroit that night, but that email combined with a baseball helmet full of nachos made me feel a whole hell of a lot better about the world and my place in it.

Through the fall we kept on with the stories and the writing and whiskey and fist shaking. I wrote a piece for a show we did together where I defiantly asserted that monogamy was an outdated concept that could seriously suck it that evolved people should give up on. Jill suggested in the most diplomatic terms that I might want to soften my stance on that score as not only would I alienate nice, normal people who still believed in such lofty ideals, but moreover, I MIGHT NOT ALWAYS FEEL THIS WAY. I begrudgingly complied, in the spirit of compromise, thinking, wow, when she gets older, she will realize how right I am.  

Over Thanksgiving, Jill took me to her family celebration.  It had been a very long time since I had a genuine sit down turkey dinner with a whole table filled with people wearing sweaters that were made for photo opportunities.  Her family was friendly and talkative, on the verge of chipper, which I was beginning to comprehend as a second language.  They asked me how I knew Jill, I told them I met her in prison.  It’s nice when people who live in a Norman Rockwell painting greet you with a Knob Creek and apple cider and accept you without question. It was then it finally sunk in there was genuine joy in surrounding yourself with people who treat you with respect, who believe in you even when you don’t believe in yourself. Those who bear witness to your mistakes and your sorrow, and react with patience and flowers and rides home and waffles, understanding that you are not defined by your black cloud, it’s just where you are at for the moment.  Such people can change the way you think and they can make you so happy to admit that you were the one who was wrong.  No matter how far gone you think you are, that sort of divine love really is the beginning of everything.

Well, Shorty, it’s your birthday.  We’re gonna party like it’s your birthday.  If I could, I would buy you a pony, if I did, knowing you, you would ride it around your apartment.  You’ll have to settle for this instead. Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”  Let us go and make our visit. Here’s to Jill, chivalrous heart, unconditional believer, storytelling superstar.  May your future always provide you with wonderful things to write about, and if you get stuck, pour some whiskey on that situation, story problem solved.

Photo credit: Happiness capturer Eric Cain

Monday, August 4, 2014

The State At 48

I recently spent thirteen hours in Raleigh, NC, in a newly renovated Four Points Sheraton off Highway 40, next to a Hooters AND a Bojangles. Jealous, I know you are. It was uneventful, except that every service person that I came in contact with, the sparky desk clerk, the van driver, the older cashier with a terrible limp at the Starbucks all said the same thing when I asked them, “How are you today?” They each replied, “I’m blessed.” I found it especially charming, as Yankees don't use expressions like that.

I have not written for this space in quite some time as I generally only post here when I feel particularly inspired to share something meaningful, an insight I feel might be helpful to others, a story with a positive message. The last few months I’ve spent stewing in my own juice, simply struggling to get by. But today I turn 48 fucking years old, so I figured I’d make a point to cobble a few words together.

TBTYA (Throw Back Thirty Years Ago)

YIKES. Orwell's dystopian vision of 1984 isn't as scary as this 1984 hair.

Even at my advanced age, I often channel that moody girl with too much eye makeup, drunk on wine coolers, dancing with a mopey smirk to the Smiths on heavy rotation. In many ways, my 48 year old life style isn’t too different from your average 18 year old. I currently live with roommates, I am struggling with my weight, I have no major responsibilities, I am prone to bouts of heavy sulking (although I’ve traded Morrisey in for Leonard Cohen. UPGRADE!)  To top that all off, it's summer, so I’m sporting my usual hormonally jacked up sun mottled face, a condition that gets worse every year. I am on week 34 of 42 weeks of Invisalign. Wearing a mouthguard made of teeth shifting plastic in my piehole for 20+ hours a day has guaranteed that if I’m tired or I’ve had a drink or two (let’s be honest, one or both of those states is most of my waking life) that my speech sounds like I suffered a minor stroke. I guess what I’m trying to tell you is that I’m coming into 48th tour of the sun suffering from a bit of an 

This all brings me down a bit, hence the stewing and pouting. But I’m slowly sensing a shift happening, and I’m doing everything I can to keep that momentum going. I could choose to focus on what I no longer have; a creamy complexion, a flat stomach, a love interest, the ability to function without sleep, an automobile, a job that values my personal space, feet that can run without pain, clear enunciation, a mindset that allows me to smile and shut up in the face of life's fuckery. All these concepts are in the rear view mirror for me, some temporarily, some are most likely gone for good. But to lament these lost blessings seems like a misguided waste of spirit.

I choose to look at what I do possess, right now, on this day, on this morning. I celebrate that am physically and emotionally well, that I have enough money and flexibility to come and go as I please for the most part, that I live in a house with people who always have my best interests at heart, that I am surrounded by friends who bolster me, who find my signature blend of hope encrusted cynicism refreshing. And I have this, my most cherished jewel. My writing.

In the last four years, I’ve accomplished more than I ever thought was possible in terms of writing. There have been projects that are considered to be under the traditional “success” umbrella; reading a story with loving Story Sessions friends at City Winery, dabbling in fiction for a WBEZ podcast (, having Wally Lamb, a writer I’ve admired since his first book was published, offer me words of encouragement about my work. These accomplishments write my name in the sand, briefly exclaiming I WAS HERE! These are the stuff of Facebook “likes”, the kind of things my mother can tell her friends that I’ve done, thus proving I'm more than a sky waitress. But writing to me is so much more than those treasured moments, writing has provided me with an unprecedented feeling of being HEARD. It has been life altering for me to interact with people who make themselves available to listen or read what I have to say intently. I am continually touched by the kind souls who attempt to understand me through my stories. The most meaningful gift I can ever receive is the trifecta of your time, your eyes/ears, and your mind, and staying worthy of that will forever motivate me to keep writing.

I’m not exactly sure where my words will take me in the future. I feel like I’m living the E.L. Doctorow quote: “Writing is like driving at night in the fog, you can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” I'm only focusing on the projects that are right in front of me that make me feel whole. My only clear goal is to keep working diligently, looking ahead through the headlights' beam, trusting that I can find whatever trip I’m destined to make by that light.

So here I am at 48, a little tired, sun dappled, not so toned, with a mouth full of plastic teeth. How do I feel? Absolutely, positively, extraordinarily blessed.

Enjoy the rest of your summer, people. I'm on a quest to see friends all around the country these days. I hope our paths cross somewhere soon.

Photo credit: black and white photo by Jill Howe (