YBR Blog

  • NO BABIES by Brooke Allen

    Cells divide, and, here’s the key, reproduce.  Create.  Creation. We create.  Recreate.  Everybody and everything has babies!  Little selves!  Little MEs! Birds do it, bees do it….

    Well, what if you don’t wanna do it?

    A lot of things sound really great in the abstract. Having a mansion sounds nice, until you really think about it in a day-to-day sort of way. Vacuuming all those rooms, paying taxes, dealing with potential ghosts flying around.

    Exercising is another one of those things that always sounds really great in the abstract. “I’m gonna run a marathon!” (No, I can barely run errands). “I’m gonna do 30 days of hot yoga!” (No, I can’t do 30 minutes of sitting on a lawn chair in the heat) “I’m gonna climb a mountain!” (No! I don’t even climb the stairs up to the El platform if there’s an elevator available.)

    Having kids is also one of those things sounds great in the abstract. When I was young I made endless lists of names for my future babies in my diaries. Three boys and three girls. That’s six children! Sounded reasonable. Colin, Jacob and Taylor for the boys. Beatrice, Isabella and Gabriella for the girls, the Ellas, of course, being the twins. As my diaries went from being covered in pictures of 1980’s pink kittens to being covered in 1990’s celestial motifs to being the bare moleskin journals of the millennium, these kids started dropping like flies. So long twins! Adios, three cherubic-faced sons! Just the idea of the one sweet daughter remained. And I held onto the idea of her for a long time. I liked to think of being pregnant and even of delivering a baby. Naturally, of course, because I’d watched a documentary about how great that was (and as we all know, the only real experience you need to understand a thing is the experience of having watched one documentary about it.) And I would be a single mother if I had to because surely it wouldn’t be that much more expensive than say, having a cat. I liked the idea of taking my little mini-me to the park or out for ice cream or even sleepily wiping my forehead in the kitchen after slaving over another box of Kraft Mac and Cheese while sipping a well deserved glass of Pinot Grigio and thinking to myself, “I’m so tired, but it’s all worth it for little Bella or Savannah or Juniper,” or whatever the hell name I was into that week.

    It all sounded so charming and easy, until babies started appearing in my actual life in the forms of my nieces and nephews. For the sake of clarity, my nieces are not actually my nieces, they are my best friend Sarah’s daughters, but I don’t know, if a little girl calls you “Aunt” and has at one point or another pooped all over you, that’s basically enough to be considered your niece. I went to visit Sarah after her first baby was born and while she looked really happy she also looked sort of shell-shocked. Like she had been taken to another planet and brought back nine months later, the same but…altered. I brought a bottle of wine for her and a tiny hilarious fur vest for the baby because those are the sort of obnoxious gifts single childless people bring to new mothers, and after staring at the baby for about twenty minutes I thought to myself, “Ok, cool. Now what are we gonna do?” I quickly learned that the answer to that question is a resounding NOTHING ELSE. I realized then that when you have a newborn baby the only activity you can really participate in is “having a newborn baby.” I remember Sarah staring at me from behind these wide eyes that hadn’t slept in at least a week and saying, “I just want to take a bath, so much, more than anything in the whole world.” I told her that she could because I would be happy to sit on the couch and hold the baby the whole time and her eyes filled up with tears of gratitude. She then got in the tub and stayed in there a really long time. I know it was a really long time because I was just sitting there holding her baby the whole time doing nothing and even though she’s a hilarious six-year-old now, she was really a huge bore back then. When Sarah got out of the bath she came back into the room looking momentarily relaxed. “Thank you!” she said. I felt like a real saint. “You’re welcome.” I said. And then I handed her back the baby who promptly woke up and projectile vomited onto herself, and myself, and Sarah in her clean post-bath clothes. It was traumatic. We all screamed. We took off the baby’s shirt and our own shirts and just sat around topless and weeping for a few minutes. “I had no idea this would be so hard!” said one of us who wasn’t Sarah.  “I am not cut out for this!”

    She has two girls now and I love them so very much. I love when they braid my hair and send me letters covered in princess stickers. And I love them when they take naps and I love them when they go to bed and I love them when I go back to my house and they aren’t there anymore.

    My brother has two boys, my actual nephews. And they are darlings. And I love them so very much. I love when they leave me phone messages and draw me pictures and say weird things and laugh. But I still love them most of all when they take naps, or go to bed, or when I go back to my house and they aren’t there anymore. I volunteered to babysit them once for two hours. That’s just two hours more than no hours. It shouldn’t have been hard. It started off just lovely. My older nephew and I playing Candyland, (I kicked his ass, twice) while my little baby nephew slept peacefully. “This is easy,” I thought to myself in a jinxy hexy sort of way. So then, of course, suddenly, the baby woke up and started screaming because he had…I can’t think of a better word…popped? Every hole in his tiny body had something shooting out of it. Snot? Yes. Vomit? A lot. Poop? You got it. Pee? Absolutely. Plus screaming. He looked so helpless but also so gross and for one shadow of a second I remember thinking to myself… “How do I fix this baby without getting any of its business on me?” But then I remembered you can’t think that way, because baby always comes first, so I scooped his soggy disgusting little body up and held him, like a wriggly little fish I’d caught and was still debating whether or not to throw back into the sea. I sat him down in a chair, like an actual adult chair, and creepily dug in his mouth to make sure he wasn’t choking on any vomit because…I don’t know, it seemed like that was what you were supposed to do? I mean, it’s not, really, babies aren’t the same as drunk college kids who fall asleep on their backs, but it seemed like the thing to do. I didn’t want to leave him to go get a rag so I turned to my older nephew who was standing nearby looking bored and holding an empty upside down tube of Gogurt and I said “Can you help me?”

    “No.” He said. “But it looks like someone spilled some Gogurt in your purse.”

    This voice came surging up from the deepest deepness I have inside of me straight into the front of my brain and shouted, “YOU ARE NEVER HAVING KIDS.” Luckily my brother walked in the door at that exact moment and laughed so hard he almost fell over. “What’s happening here?” he asked. “Your baby burst and I didn’t even know how to begin cleaning him up,” I admitted. Like a pro, he grabbed the baby with one arm and had him cleaned up in no time. I followed my brother around asking what I should do about the dribbles of baby vomit on my favorite jeans until he threw me a damp rag and said, “Just wipe it off. You can’t do laundry every single time a baby pukes on you.” Oh my god, you can’t?

    It was in these moments, and the millions that came after, in which I realized that last little girl I was holding onto in my diaries was fading away. I found myself saying, “If I ever have kids”…… instead of, “When I have kids”….. and then finally let myself spend some time grieving the loss of an idea of something I thought I wanted. Something I thought I was supposed to do. It was sad. But not as sad as the idea of changing my life completely to be a parent. For me it’s not just the poop and the vomit and the constant-ness of kids that gives me doubt. It’s the fact that I had been told since I was very young, through the TV I watched and the toys I played with and through everything around me that I just WOULD. That it was what you do as an adult woman, have kids. “Someday, when you have kids,” was a common expression. We played “House” and collected plastic baby dolls to practice mothering and compared notes about the names of future babies scrawled into our diaries and the whole time it never occurred to me that I had a choice. That it was something I could decide to do or not do.

    And I decided it’s something to “not do.” I respect the hell out of everyone who makes another choice and the passion and love that goes into parenting but I’m going to opt out. Because I’ve created this life for myself that I adore and am not ready to hand that over to a darling screaming tiny version of myself. I don’t want to resent that little person. I don’t want to be responsible for her. I don’t want to watch her play in the park or make her Mac and Cheese and I don’t really feel bad about this. I already have two little girls and two little boys I’m going to watch grow up, as a cool aunt, and I still get to spend my Fridays doing like, whatever the hell I want, so it all works out.

    My mom talks about this moment in her struggles to get pregnant when someone suggested maybe she was supposed to be someone else’s mother and a light goes off. (Although I see it a little differently and know that she was always my mother, my birth mother was just carrying someone else’s kid). I have a similar thought in my head, which is that maybe I’m not supposed to be anyone’s mother so that I can continue being a lot of different people’s full-time friend and sister and daughter and aunt. So I try to be those things with the passion and love and ferociousness of a thousand mothers. And I think I do a pretty good job.

    “Aunt Bea,” said Sarah’s little girl last time I visited. “How come you don’t have a husband or any kids?”

    “Oh, because you don’t have to have any of that if you don’t want to.” I responded. “Only if you choose to. I’m too busy doing other fun stuff right now.”

    She seemed to be pretty content with that answer, and so am I.

  • Flunking Biology by Lynn Wilde

    So, let’s talk about biology.  You know, the thing that makes the world go around.  WE are science—a mass of cells that are blood, brains (sometimes), and everything else.  There is nothing happening without biology. We all exist because of it.  Cells divide and become frogs and wolves and babies.  We are created by it.  We the human race, and everything up and down the food chain.  Cells divide, and, here’s the key, reproduce.  Create.  Creation.  Sounds good to say that in a theatre, no?  We create.  Recreate.  Everybody and everything has babies!  Little selves!  Little MEs!  And there are no grades for that because everybody can do it!  Birds do it, bees do it….

    Well, what if you can’t do it?  That in the realm of biology, you are definitely getting an F.  I don’t get Fs!  I was good in school, I was smart, and of course I sat in front of Eddie Wolff in math and science and I could always turn around and say, “Eddie, I don’t get it!”  And he would roll his eyes a little and fiddle with the pens in his shirt pocket, and then patiently explain everything!  So this getting an F thing is definitely not in my wheelhouse!

    This is how it starts.  You’re just out of college and newly married and living in rural Missouri because that’s where your husband is going to medical school and you have a job with the welfare department driving around visiting seniors living in, yes, literally, chicken coops, and hoarders with 40 pound rabbits that jump on your lap when you’re sitting there trying to solve problems for a very old couple and their very odd daughter.  So, after a while, you get the idea that you should go off the pill—you’ve been taking that pill all through college because of course the last thing you wanted is to get an F in life and end up not graduating or working part-time in Walgreens, but that’s another story—so you for some reason think that it’s a really good idea to HAVE A BABY.  After all, doesn’t that beat commuting to Milan, Missouri and trying to figure how to get to someone’s house by turning northeast at the red barn—I’m from New York, what does that even mean?  Whatever happened to turning left or right?

    So you stop taking the pill.  And you don’t even think about how you and your husband are going to live on nothing—he’s a student!!  It just somehow seems like a good idea—time for a JOLT!  And…nothing happens.  You don’t worry, because why would you?  Anybody can get pregnant.  You will.  And you’re busy, your husband’s busy—he’s cutting up a cadaver named Earl and you have to commute to that little town and walk through pastures avoiding cows to that chicken coop where that crazy guy lives and you kind of adore how creatively he lives even though everything he does makes no sense, like his Rube Goldberg contraption for running water and some kind of odd creation of pipes and tubes for a hot plate. He’s not safe, what if he falls, what will happen to him if he gets sick, he should move into assisted living, but he certainly doesn’t want to so really, just leave him alone in his pasture.  He’s happy!

    Meanwhile, back at home, you are giving it the old college try.  You’ve discovered that you should take your temperature first thing every morning and keep a chart and there will be these certain days where your temperature will go up an eensy bit and those days are THE DAYS TO DO IT.  Now this all sounds well and good, but there are a couple of issues here.  First of all, your temperature chart looks like shit. It’s all zig-zaggy! It doesn’t look ANYTHING like those graphs in the books (yes, it’s the 1970s, you have to go to the library and read books about this, there is no internet).  So you’re not sure when THOSE DAYS actually are—you know when they’re supposed to be, and you have to mark them on the calendar and you have to add a few days on either side, and hope for the best.  That’s the first problem.  The other is that your husband has to participate.  And it’s not just that there’s an optimal day.  There might also be an optimal time of day, and he just might still be in the lab with Earl.  So there’s that.  And of course, even though he changes his clothes and takes a shower, he still smells like Earl.  And Earl is one foul-smelling dude.  And the other thing is that if you do actually manage to accomplish the deed in what seems to be a more or less romantic fashion is that you can’t move and youhave to lie around with pillows under you for quite a while to make sure one of those little suckers “takes.”  And this is SO BORING.  Even if you have a library book. So let’s just say that the whole process becomes rather mechanical.  And really defeats the idea of what you’re doing.  Because you’ve tried it the “let’s be romantic and see what happens” way, and you’ve done it the “check the charts and get home in the next 20 minutes way” and NOTHING IS HAPPENING.  Not to mention the fact that you are always encountering other women who say stuff like, oh don’t worry, I thought that too, and then I sat on his lap one day and the next thing you know, I WAS PREGNANT.

    So once you get going on the idea that you want a child, it’s pretty hard to let go.  You’re going to try every damn thing you can think of—

    You go to the doctor, but you’re in a town in northern Missouri, and even though there’s a medical school, it’s the 1970s, and the I-word (infertility) isn’t really a thing.  But the doctor examines you, and of course, because of where you are, wants to have student doctors examine you too, and even though you might have run into them at a party, you say okay and, because of course, medical science, and everyone has to learn sometime, so there you are with your feet in the stirrups and you’re getting tested and probed and everyone gets a turn and you’re staring at the ceiling and there’s a lot of nodding, but NOBODY HAS A CLUE.

    Trust me, you only do that once!  Your desire to be a guinea pig for medical science vanishes.  And then suddenly, the kindly doctor dies. Not pretty!  Scandal, affair, suicide,  but that’s another story, never mind!  So you’re on your own and time goes by, years actually, and you get out of Missouri and you’re in Ohio now, and there are new doctors, and suddenly there are shots, fertility shots, you get these monthly hormone shots (all the while thinking, can this be good for you—many years later you learn that it definitely wasn’t) and still NOTHING HAPPENS.  This is the new normal, but you’re still half-heartedly trying, and emphasis on the heart part, it’s gotten really old.  Nine years, to be exact.  And you’re done.  Just done. No more monthly BIG RED F.   It’s clear: You are not the one, the birds/bees one/ the sit on my lap and let it happen one/ the just relax one.

    You get out of Ohio and move to Wisconsin where the husband gets to be a doctor and you’re working in his office and you start to think about what you might do.  You have no children, you have no career.  What might you DO?

    Well, one day you might be at a cocktail party and you might have had some wine and you might be so exhausted and frustrated and sick of being a failure, AN F, and you might say that to someone who just happens to be standing next to you, (and you definitely might not remember who that person was, cue the angel music), and so you might tell this person your sad, sad tale of your “JOURNEY” and you might finish by saying, “I guess this means that God doesn’t think I should be a mother” (this was back in the day when you might have believed that God was some cosmic guidance counselor with an individualized plan for your life).  But then, that person next to you at the party might have blinked and without pausing might have replied, “Well I think it means that you are supposed to be someone else’s mother.” BINGO!  That apparently had never seriously occurred to the person who had been for years entirely focused on proving that she was completely normal and whole, that she could accomplish what a squirrel, a chicken, or a randy teen could, that everyone in the world except her could by just  blinking! 

    And so, wonder of wonders, you find yourself visiting your best college friends in Evanston, and you say you’ve been looking into adopting a baby but it seems to be a long, difficult and very iffy process, and your friend Sandy says to you, “but there’s an adoption agency right down the street, let’s go check it out!”  So you and Sandy walk into this building on Ridge Avenue, a rather forbidding stone building, and you tell the nice lady why you’re there, a process begins, there are interviews and home visits and physicals and references and essays to write and photos of you to file, and suddenly there’s a glimmer of hope, and then, for some unimaginable, unfathomable, astonishing, exhilarating and thrilling beyond measure reason, literally nine months from the day you walked into that stone building, you get a phone call that informs you that you can meet your new son in three days.

    You have barely allowed yourself to think about this!  You haven’t bought anything, because you didn’t want to be the person with a decorated yellow nursery and stacks of yellow clothes and a raft of stuffed bunnies and teddies and mobiles sitting there, maybe for years.  And the reality of actually being a parent has been so exquisitely remote that you haven’t given it any thought!  You’re getting a baby who will be starting his fourth week of life, who’s been at the agency’s nursery since birth and has been taken care of by professionals, by nurses, and you have NO IDEA what to do.  So you definitely add a copy of Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care to your massive shopping list, and it will become really, really dog-earred very quickly.

    It is hard to describe the emotional tsunami that occurred that day when I met my incredible son, and, wonder of wonders, would occur again about two and half years later when my amazing daughter arrived in the same fashion.  You go from a person who had invested in this nutsy idea—originally for pretty shallow reasons—to accomplish what biology requires of the human race, to a person who accomplishes not the biology but the absolute irrefutable reality that a child is now and will always be your life.  You are handed this beautiful little thing and the grades go out the window—you are responsible, you are spectacularly grateful, and you are awed with the notion that this is for you the most singular event ever to occur in your life.  This child, these children, are absolutely yours.

    In the dance of official adoption proceedings that occurred that day, the meeting with the lawyer, the appearance in the county clerk’s office and then before the judge, I cannot stop looking at this miraculous baby. And there is this one incredible thing, believe it or not, that’s the tangible result of this experience that washes away everything that preceded it—you are given a rolled up document, rather like a diploma, actually, that those officials touch to the baby’s head to announce that the child is yours, is MINE —and it reads:

    “Not flesh of my flesh; not bone of my bone; but still miraculously my own.  Never forget for a single minute, you didn’t grow under my heart, but in it.”

    That’s an A+, I should say.

  • Jack London-Level by Ian Belknap

    I knew this guy. Outdoorsy type of guy – into hunting, ice fishing, that kind of thing. He was out snowmobiling one time. He’s on his own, out in the woods – the CANADIAN woods, so not like some punk-ass Forest Preserve. This is before cell phones. He’s out in the powdery hush, all by himself, tearing around, having a great time.

    Guy takes a jump, over this fallen tree, but his angle is off and he rolls midair.

    Snowmobile lands on top of him. His leg is busted. Compound fracture – his snapped-off femur is poking out the front of his snowsuit.

    A fucking spear. Of his own bone. Is jabbing out of a bloody hole in his leg.

    And he is miles from anyplace. His Ski-Doo is totaled – one its treads is shredded, so he is not riding that thing to safety.

    So his choices are narrowed to exactly two option:

     

    1. Die in the snow. From shock, or hypothermia, or blood loss.
    2. Haul himself out of the woods. With his arms. Like a wounded crab.

     

    Which is what he did. He scooched himself out of the woods. He planted his hands and dragged his ass for almost three miles. It had been dark for hours by the time he got help.

    I believe I do not exaggerate when I say that this is where we are right now. I don’t just mean those of us on the political Left. I mean all of us.

    I believe that we have – through our own deliberate actions – landed ourselves in a snow bank with a pike of our own bone protruding from our leg. We are hobbled. We are bloodied. We are nauseated and dizzy. We bit our tongue pretty bad and maybe cracked a tooth.

    We are hurt. Badly. Dangerously. Lethally, maybe.

    We sit, rattled and cold, in this snow bank, a claw of bone testing the air above our leg.

    And we are presented with a stark choice:

     

    1. Die in the snow in the woods.
    2. Haul ourselves to safety.

     

    I feel as though we are too dazed, still, to have made our decision.

    But this much I know: when you are injured and cannot walk, to remain where you are, in the snow, is to die.

    My dad killed himself in 1986. As a consequence, I have always held a pretty dim view of suicide prevention and its prospects for success.

    But since we are all of us plowed into the same fucking snow bank, and since all our fucking noses are stinging from the smell of spilt gasoline, it is not fucking suicide that your inaction represents – it is murder suicide.

    If you have concluded – understandably – that you wish to remain still and permit death from shock or the cold to overtake you, I can appreciate your position. I can. It’s rational, even, in its way.

    But your inactivity also consigns me to death. And my children. Because my arms are BARELY equal to the grueling job of dragging myself to safety and my kids to safety. My wife and I will be dragging till our shoulders are burning in pain. 

    And that effort MAY be enough. If we persist, and get lucky. We MAY be able to summon the strength to drag ourselves out of these darkening woods.

    Unless. You find yourself too defeated to contribute to the dragging. It is conceivable that we can drag ourselves. There is no way we can drag you, too. Your shock and disbelief – I understand these entirely & feel them myself. My wife feels them. And so do my children.

    But shock and disbelief also are feeling luxurious, to me. Shock and disbelief and the release of death that they bring in their wake – these are a GUARANTEE that we perish. All of us. All of us on the political Left. All of us on the Right. All of us who are apolitical. All of us.

    And maybe you’re like: “It’s different now. We’re not like your friend. We have cell phones. We can call and get rescued.” We’re in the middle of the woods. No bars, no signal. To wait for a chopper to airlift us out is to die.

    And maybe you’re like: “Hang on. This shard of bone won this snowmobile ride fair and square. Maybe we should give him a chance.” The shard of fucking bone has been telling you straight up for two goddamn years – “If you place your trust in me, I will bring you gangrene and death,” and now that’s what we’re getting.

    And maybe you’re like: “Whatever, man – you’re a white male. What possible difference can this make to you? You’ll stay safe.” NO ONE IS SAFE. Am I white? Yes. Am I male? Yes. But I am also left of fucking Trotsky, and am as lippy as I can get. The fact that I will follow you up the fucking chimney does not matter – my skin and my genitals will delay this, not prevent it. The sequencing of how we each perish doesn’t mean squat because we will all fucking perish.

    And maybe you’re like: “Dude. Your metaphor has really gotten away from you, here – you’re kind of all over the place.”

    Which is fair. But it is also true that we are STUCK IN A FUCKING METAPHOR THAT HAS SPUN OUT OF CONTROL. A dense thicket of badly constructed metaphor.

    But here’s the problem. As I attempt in vain to tamp down the fucking dry heaves that have been plaguing me since Tuesday night; and as I gaze into the eyes of my trans son who is old enough to understand with appalling clarity that half his fucking countrymen have deemed him unworthy and unequal; and as I have watched my social media feeds get clogged with reports of all forms of intolerant bullshit LESS THAN A FUCKING WEEK AFTER THE FUCKING ELECTION, MONTHS AWAY, STILL, FROM INAUGURATION – the situation is so fucked and so various in the ways that it is fucked, and will require so much to un-fuck it that it cannot be contained in a single fucking metaphor.

    But I stand by the essence of it:

    It is WE who drove ourselves out into these woods.

    It is WE who gunned the motor and didn’t stick the landing and got our fucking leg crushed.

    And it is WE who can either stare down at the femur sticking out of fucking leg and wait to die, or we can for fuck’s sake start dragging ourselves toward town. Speaking for myself: I have no fucking intention of getting claimed by the cold or the wolves or the shock. Fuck this femur. And fuck this hypothermia. And fuck this leg wound that is fizzing with infection. I’d sooner cut my own leg off and eat it than to succumb to this idiocy. I’d sooner dine on nothing but cannibal flank steaks from now until the midterms than lay down and die for this.

    I get it. I do. It’s fucking easier to lay back and watch the fog of your breath get carried away by the cold wind. It is seductive, watching your blood bubbling around the baffling lance-tip of your bone. There is an allure to the looming embrace of oblivion.

    And it may well be that the effort it costs us to drag ourselves out of these backwoods will come to nothing. Maybe we’ll give it our all, and still we will die. Maybe the expanse of these trees and the bitterness of this cold will prove too much for us. Maybe our wound is too cruel and our will is too weak.

    But. Even it’s futile, even if it’s pointless, even if my arms give out by the time I can get out of these godforsaken woods, I will by god die crawling.  

  • Skeletons by Margaret Dunn

    I was raised in a small, mountain town in Utah, the child of two devout Mormons. My entire family, including all my grandparents, cousins, aunts, uncles are all active, down the line Mormons. I was raised in the LDS faith and spent my entire childhood being a part of the Mormon culture. I loved the Church.  I went to primary and Young Women’s and even received my Young Womanhood of Recognition Award at 17. When I was a child, I thought I would be Mormon forever. My family would be eternal and I would see them all again when I entered the kingdom of heaven.

    Then my father came out of the closet and all hell broke loose.

    It was the day after my 19th birthday, at 6:47 in the evening. My father asked me to go for a drive. I remember we were standing in the kitchen of my family home, my mom and dad were standing by the white cabinets and I was seated at the dinner table, a fresh piece of buttered toast in my hand.  I saw a look pass between my parents that I didn’t understand but definitely did not like. It was my first year of college and in my ego-driven teenaged mind, my parents had somehow found out about the 5 Zima’s I had consumed and that I had made out with one of the stage hands at my first Theatre Department party.

    Third base.

    I was a scandal.

    In any case, I had no interest in hearing another rendition of the condom talk so I tossed my father a glib, “NahthanksI’mgood” before going back to studiously crunching on toast and pretending I was still the pure Mormon girl that had left for college a few months earlier. My father looked askance for a moment and then pressed again.

    He really wanted to go on that drive.

    And I knew I was beat. I could never say no to my father. He is my hero, I love him. So, with an internal sigh for what I was sure was going to be an awkward dad talk, I got into the car and off toward the canyon we went.

    My family has always gone for long drives when there was an important conversation to be had. The beauty of the canyon, the quiet, the fact that you are trapped together in about a ton of accelerated steel. And you don’t have to look at each other, which helps a lot.

    We got to the mouth of the canyon. It was a snowy night. Big snowflakes, fat with mountain spring water flew across the windshield and made the warm interior of the car seem like a safe little oasis in the middle of a lazy storm.

    I sat quiet, not wanting to incriminate myself by offering any evidence, I waited for the old man to make the first move and get on with the recriminations already.

    But my father, a handsome man in his 40s, blue eyes fixed on the road ahead, was unusually quiet. He has a PHD in Exercise Physiology, runs triathlons for fun and has always been bigger and stronger than all the other dads. And all my dates. He lifts weights for 3 hours a day and trains the best athletes in the state. He is gregarious and smart and people respect and love him.

    But he was silent.

    I started to worry.

    “Dad,” I said. My palms starting to sweat. “Dad, is everything. . . “

    And then he began to talk. He talked about growing up in his tiny Utah town. About going on his mission. About loving my mother. About loving the church.

    And then he brought up the boy.

    A boy that he had met through the high school swim team. A boy that was his very best friend. A boy he thought was beautiful. A boy who thought he was beautiful too.

    They persuaded themselves that they weren’t gay. That the sweet and tender feelings of first love that they were sharing had nothing to do with the lecherous and creepy men they had seen in the health films. The ones that would show a man with a bad moustache invading the space of a blindly innocent young man. They weren’t perverts. They just loved each other. Dad’s boyfriend begged him to go away with him to New York but Dad was young and deeply religious. He couldn’t bear the idea of never seeing his family again. So he stayed.

    I had gotten quieter and quieter as the story poured out of him. He had gone to his bishop and begged for help. They told him that he was just confused. That he just needed to find some nice girl and get married and all these feelings would go away.

    So he did. He found my mother. Adored her. Married her. Had 5 children with her.

    And the feelings never went away. They stayed.

    And he had felt so lonely. So lonely that he wanted to die.

    That is how my mother found out. He had been working on his suicide note and she found one of his research books by their bedside table, “Loving Someone Gay”. In it, my father had written notes in the margins. Things like, “Yes! This is me!” and “Exactly how I feel!”

    She was devastated. She was heartbroken.

    But she was not afraid. She knew my father is a good man. She loved him. So she threw them both into serious therapy and didn’t say anything to anyone for a year.  They worked it out. And they had decided to present a united front that said, “Steve is gay, and we love and support him. That is all.”

    In that time and space what they were doing was radical. It was shocking. It was dangerous.

    I watched my father tell me this story, his eyes welling up with tears and his voice cracking when he asked me what I thought. I had never seen him like that. My father was never afraid of anything. He caught spiders with his bare hands to set them free and taught me how to pet bumblebees. I remember the horrifying moment I realized that he was afraid of ME, of what I might say, of how I might respond.

    And I looked at him, the man who had loved me and supported my every move. The man who taught me to jump off the high dive and took me on my first roller coaster. The man who owned the complete Barbara Streisand collection. The man who once made my sister and I learn an entire “Oklahoma!” medley, complete with choreography. I looked at that man and said the only thing that came to mind,

    “Oh Daddy, I already knew that.”

    And I did. I had asked my mother a year before if she thought it was possible that Dad was gay. At the time, she changed the subject rather quickly, but I knew, in my little theatre major heart of hearts, that he was gay. No straight man loves musicals that much.

    Afterward, we hugged and I told him I loved him. There was never any recrimination because I already understood that he could not help who he was. That to be dishonest about who you are is soul-crushing.

    The rest of my siblings had a similar reaction to mine. We all had understood for years that Dad’s depression and anxiety had to be symptoms of a deeper issue. Every teenager knows what angst looks like.

    Unfortunately, the rest of our family on both sides were less than understanding when my father was outed by a reporter. They had been doing symposiums on the subject of homosexuality and the Mormon Church and campaigning that the church change its stance on homosexuality when they met a reporter eager to do a story on gays and the LDS church. My parents spoke to her on the proviso that they remain anonymous as Steve was not out to the extended family. That reporter deiced instead to publish not only my father’s name and place of employment, she revealed my mom’s name and where she worked, all the children’s names and where we were going to school.

    It was chaos.

    My mother called me at college to tell me she was turning of her phone and she suggested I do the same. It was insanity. Both families freaked right the fuck out. Her family screamed for her to leave him. His brothers said they didn’t want him near their children. People wrote us hate mail. My brothers got into fights. We all left the church.

    It was like a bomb had gone off. Afterward, the smoke cleared and we all left Utah to find ourselves. I went to Chicago, my father and brothers went to Kansas, my sister moved to Alaska. My mother had died after a long struggle with cancer, my father never leaving her side as she fought the good fight. They only had each other toward the end, disowned by both families, the church now threatening to take away the memberships they had forged over a lifetime. He held her hand through the chemo and radiation and hair loss and fear and she held him up when his family told him he was disgusting and disinvited him from the annual family Christmas party. She loved him. And he loved her. They didn’t care if it made you uncomfortable.

    My father gave us a gift, you see, when he threw his skeletons out of the closet. By freeing himself, he gave us all permission to be free, to pursue a life of authenticity and love. He did it because he loved my mother, he did it because he loves us, he did it because he is a hero and that is what heroes do: they get up and fight, even when the game is rigged, even when they lose. Because it is the fight that matters.

    And my parents are heroes. 

  • Picking At My Face by Ali Kelley

    I love picking at my face the way other people love a shot of tequila. I get this immediate rush of adrenaline and a brief, but intense satisfaction before, during and after I rip a hair out or pop a zit. In a word, it’s euphoric.

    When I’m tweezing I fall into a catatonic state, I leave my body until the cat knocks something over or my boyfriend walks in on me and I snap out of it. I always do it with the door closed because although I’ve been living with my boyfriend for 7 years, this is not an area of my life I want to share with him. It’s how I remain mysterious after all these years. This is how we keep the magic alive. 

    When I first started tweezing, freshman year of high school, I practiced on my eyebrows. They became my first casualty. I repeatedly carved them down into little fingernail slivers, until finally I looked like the porcelain doll on my bookshelf with the painted on brows. When I stepped back from the mirror I didn’t recognize myself. But that was good. That was the point. I was trying to reinvent myself.

    I looked like my father, I still do, but back then we shared the same wild and wiry eyebrows, the kind you can’t tame with a comb, the kind of deeply rooted hair follicles you need to clamp down on and summon an inner strength to free.

    This is not how I wanted to enter high school. I had dreams that I would be the opposite of the person I was in middle school. I would have straight hair, straight teeth, and straight A’s. And I, for the first time in my life, would be confident. But then a month into school, I received my class photo and a familiar face looked back at me.

    I didn’t want that face, resented its masculine and unkempt features, so I created a new one. I ditched my glasses and started wearing contacts and I stood in front of my full-length bedroom mirror, the one glued to the back of my door, and tore big chunks of hair out of my eyebrows using my mom’s dulled Revlon tweezers. With each hair I pulled I felt a relief; a tiny weight had been lifted.

    Eyebrow growth has slowed considerably since the high school massacre, but the hair is not gone, it has just relocated to my upper lip. Every month I get this single, black hair that sprouts from the corner of my upper lip. You wouldn’t know it though. The hair is microscopic. It’s the iceberg that lies under the skin that is the darkest, coarsest, most durable and goddamn resilient strand of hair you will ever meet. Removing it from my face consumes me. I must get it, it is my Moby Dick.

    I anticipate this monthly sprouting like a farmer awaiting his harvest. And when the time comes, when the hair has broken through the skin just enough that I can take hold with my precision tweezers, I run into the bathroom, push my face up against the mirror, push my tongue up against the corner of my mouth so the skin is taught, and I pull. Often it takes a few tries. I revel in it because I know that all the effort will equal a greater reward. And it’s true.

    When I finally tear this jet-black hair out, my hand is shaking. I let it sit on my fingertip for a moment and I inspect it like a prize catch. I’ve landed a big one. I have done my monthly duty and lived to see another day. The cycle begins again. It’s day 1 of the stray hair growth and we have 30 more days to go. I can’t wait.

    I learned how to tweeze from my mother, the master plucker. She taught me the ideal conditions for removing hair from your face and/or scalp. You want afternoon natural light and car mirrors work surprisingly well. You want to be parked in an Old Navy/DSW/Panera strip mall, leaving enough open spots between you and the next car so you can do your thing in relative privacy. You can cover lots of ground under these conditions.

    Growing up I used to stand on top of the toilet and help my mom pluck out the white hairs from her head, the ones that she couldn’t reach herself. This was my task and I felt so qualified for the job I didn’t even mind that it pulled me away from my shows. I felt like a surgeon isolating the white hair from the black and keeping a steady hand so as not to tear out any “good” hairs. I didn’t always do this and my mom would wince in pain. There was little time for apologizes though, we had lots to get done.

    Though I grew up helping my mom maintain a certain aesthetic, I was never that interested in making my own beauty routine. There wasn’t enough incentive. In middle school, boys had not reached my group of friends yet, not in the all-consuming, take hold and never leave your thoughts for 8 periods, way that they did in high school. I was still in a bubble. I put on a sports bra and Chapstick and that was the extent of my beauty regimen.

    But then a month into my freshman year of high school I got back that stupid class photo and suddenly my glasses looked so lame and my hair, ugh god my hair, it was pulled back so tight to my head it would be right to assume I was wearing a hairnet. My face was hiding and I wanted it to show, so I stabbed contacts into my eyes and landscaped my brows.

    Tweezing can be destructive and may cause long-term damage, but it’s nothing compared to the carnage of a zit massacre. And that’s why I do it, every single time, because there is something so strangely satisfying about seeing the result of your obsession. You gave it your best shot and what you have to show for it is a swollen, red mound, partially scabbed over and suffocated in concealer. The delusion that a drugstore concealer has the power to cover up anything, let alone your carved up face, is just another darkly humorous and gruesome part of the ritual.

    I once picked at a zit in the middle of my chin cleft for so long that the scabbed over remains resembled a recent, albeit amateur, piercing, and my cousin called me out at a family picnic. I was pretty humiliated; it was bad and it took a long time for the wound to heal (both emotional and physical).

    In college, 1 year after I got my nose pierced, I tried to remove and replace my silver stud but underestimated the complicated corkscrew backing. When I finally ripped it out of my right nostril, I immediately jammed a fake diamond stud into the hole for fear that it would close. But it would not go in, so I pushed and punctured, the earring stem was too wide for the hole, so it was as if I was getting repierced. By the time the stem made it into my nose, there was blood pooling around the piercing, the inflamed skin was raw and red and swelling. But I did it. I fucking did it. I accomplished what I set out to do.

    Shortly after I went to the cafeteria like nothing was wrong. I looked cute rocking my bloody, cubic zirconia, nose jewelry. But then in line for stir fry, I ran into a kid that lived on my dorm floor. And just like the incident at the family picnic, this kid called out my self-inflicted wounds. “Is your nose ok?” he asked, a question he clearly already knew the answer to. “It’s a new ring,” I said and quickly exited.

    I kept the diamond stud in for a few weeks after for pride’s sake but then ultimately took it out when the word “infection” started to be floated around. 10 years later and my right nostril is permanently scarred from my mania and my stubbornness and my pride. Still worth it, though.

    And that hasn’t stopped me.

    I am most satisfied in the moments after I’ve removed a hair or a zit from my face. I feel accomplished in a way that cannot easily be matched. If I still got slivers, I imagine the process of digging one out from under my skin would give me a similar feeling. It is something incredibly simple that I am solely in charge of.

    There is little I can control in this world. Which is terrifying for a control freak like myself. But you know what I can do? Remove that single, relentless, black hair from my face, every single month. I can also take down whole families of zits that set up camp on my face, even in the weird outer reaches like on my neck and ear. There is a great comfort in knowing that I will always have these things to tend to and that keeps me sane.

  • Bodies by Brooke Allen

    I wrote this piece after the election, but I don’t want to stand up here and talk about politics.  We’ve had enough of that this week. Why just this morning I was told by a man on facebook that I was “extremely arrogant” for expressing my political views. So I’m not even going to mention the election or even tell you who I voted for. It will have to remain a yuuuuge mystery. I promise this piece will be absolutely unbiased toward any candidate or gender.

    Just kidding, I love Hillary Clinton and this piece is specifically all about women’s bodies.

    Here we go.

    Having a body is incredibly hard. I suppose it’s better than having no body, though. Having people care about your body can also be hard. Although I suppose it’s better than being cared about by…no…body.

    Having a female body is especially hard. As a little girl I had an extremely tall body. I towered over all of my other friends all through grade school. “You’re only 8? You look so much older, you’re so much bigger than everyone, you’re only 10?” Most of my friends that I didn’t grow up with don’t even know that about me. Doctors projected that I would be 6 feet tall as an adult. But as we all know, sometimes projections by really smart people aren’t correct in the long run. Around the time I was 14 or 15 my tall body engaged with my teenage spirit by saying, “Meh, this is probably good enough” and just stopped adding inches, vertically anyway. Everyone shot up past me but I still used the language of tall people. “Let me get that for you, I’m tall” “I’ll stand in the back for this picture, I’m tall” “Do you have these jeans in a tall? I’m tall.” When I got to college and made a bunch of new friends they teased me, “Why do you always say you’re tall? You’re actually kind of short.” I still had, and have the muscle memory of going through my entire impressionable childhood being told repeatedly that my body was hilariously out of place, but that I was lucky because one day as an adult I would enjoy a long giraffey-gazelle body that everyone would be jealous of. I’m 37 so it should be here any day now…tick tock, gazelle body. No, what really happened was I had to look in a mirror for a long time one night in college and explain to myself that I was wrong about who I thought I was. That I was only 5’6 and would only ever be 5’6 (a height everyone referred to as “average.”) I remember then breathing a huge sigh of relief, after all, gazelles are animals of prey.

    Having a female body is especially hard. As a little girl my mom brought me a book she had purchased which explained what was going to happen to me during puberty. I sat, mouth hanging open and argued with her ferociously. “That is bullshit! I am NOT doing any of that!” I probably said. She seemed concerned about my complete rejection of the entire idea of growing up. I forced her to take her stupid “changing bodies” book and get the hell out, but a year later, despite all my efforts to prevent my body from changing, it did anyway. I sheepishly walked into her room one night and said, “Can I have that book now? And can you buy me some of those whatevers? And also I guess I need deodorant and razors and bras now, too. And NEVER TALK ABOUT THIS TO ME UNLESS I TALK ABOUT IT FIRST.” Which is a line most of my friends are familiar with me still saying to this day. It’s not that I live in denial it’s that I have a sort of exaggerated fight or flight system built into my body and need to ease myself into a lot of new ideas and changing bodies.

    Having a female body is especially hard. Everyone wants to talk about it and look at it and think about it, which is really the worst because who knows what kind of trouble you’re getting into in other people’s heads.

    I went to college and made friends with a ballet dancer who had weekly weigh-ins as part of her curriculum. “We should start taking ephedrine” she suggested casually while grocery shopping one night. I said “sure” because it was college and you say “sure” to everything people suggest and also because the ephedrine was right there in the grocery store in a yellow box enthusiastically labeled “Fat Burner!” If it was sold in a grocery store it had to be safe. We took ephedrine together for a while and then she stopped and I continued taking it by myself. I went back to the grocery store and bought an endless supply. I took it for almost a year. Instead of gaining the “freshman fifteen” I lost nearly 60 pounds in a matter of months and you could see each of the bones in my back when I wore a tank top. Everyone told me I looked amazing and that they were so proud of me. I got a boyfriend. He told me to keep it up. I nibbled mindlessly on junk food for dinner and survived mostly on Mountain Dew and coffee. I was taking up to twelve fat burners a day and then sleeping pills at night, or no sleep. Sometimes I would lose track and just have one long continuous day. I started failing school. But I wasn’t fat, at least. The thing is, I hadn’t really been fat to begin with. I had just been comparing myself to a teenage ballerina who had said “we” should try ephedrine and if HER body wasn’t good enough, mine must have been terrible.

    Someone once told me that I should try to look the way I did my first year in college. They said “I thought you looked really great, then.” And I laughed and said “Well yeah, man, everyone looks really great when they are eighteen and on speed.” And then when he walked away I cried because, fuck.

    One of my female professors pulled me aside after class one day and said, “You’re eating the inside of your mouth during my class, you’re a shaking jittery mess and you are starting to disappear. Don’t do that.” And then she walked away. It wasn’t a beautiful heart to heart; she wasn’t a concerned mother-figure. I don’t even remember her name. I thought it was sort of bitchy, actually. And yet, it seeped in slowly over the next few months as I slowly removed the boyfriend and the pills, which are now considered an illegal drug and no longer sold in grocery stores.

    Having a female body is especially hard. Having a fat one is even harder. I can say that but you can’t. You also don’t need to call me big or heavy-set or plus-size or round or hearty or chubby or “funny” if you really mean fat, or “sassy” if you really mean fat. Unless you are my sister, and by that I don’t mean one of the four skinny broads I grew up with, I mean unless you are also a fat girl, you don’t need to call me anything but Brooke.  One time I was eating an exceptionally delicious apple and I said, “Mm, this is an exceptionally delicious apple!” And my very thin, very well intentioned friend responded with, “See! Fruit is delicious!” To my surprise I didn’t shove the apple core directly into her eye socket but instead calmly explained to her that no one, and I mean no one, knows more about fruits and vegetables and salads and smoothies and calories and diets than a fat girl so don’t even play. I started gaining lots of weight quickly after I finished losing lots of weight quickly in college. I have alternately cared and not cared about this. When I’ve cared I’ve worked really hard and focused all my time and attention on it. I’ve trained like a marathon runner with diets and special groceries and pep talks and what feels like almost constant sacrifice. When I’ve not really cared I have sat and listened patiently while other people talk to me about my body and how they are just concerned for my health. I have been mocked and monitored and told I should dress differently. But listen, I’m always gonna wear tank tops because they are comfortable and what does arm flab have to do with anything anyway?

    When you are fat people assume you hate yourself as a full time job. They assume you have no confidence and then when you prove them wrong they become sort of angry. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been asked out on dates by men who have said in the asking, “I actually like women your size” and “I’m really into big girls” only to be shocked when I immediately turned them down. There is a fat community, and only other fat or formerly fat people belong to it. It exists when any two or more fat people find each other. We don’t all stand around talking about how much we love cake or how we wish we were thin. We mostly talk about all the ways we’ve experienced people just not being able to handle us. When a fat woman starts to lose weight people are really supportive until she starts edging too close to being average size. Then everyone looks at her and thinks, “Oh, you’re real? You’re an actual person? And you’ve been here this whole time?” And I can try to explain it but only people who are here tonight who are members of the fat community are going to understand this, that the way people treat you when you are gaining weight is tough, but nothing is as tough as the way they treat you when you are losing it. Being fat is something I don’t love and it’s something I don’t hate, it’s just something I am. I’ve lost almost 25 pounds in the last three months because I’ve decided it’s time but DON’T TALK ABOUT IT AGAIN UNLESS I BRING IT UP. Got it?

    Having a female body is especially hard. There are so many things you’re supposed to do with it. Dress it up, squeeze it into tight clothes, paint it, rub different types of lotions all over it at different times of the day and night. Wash it, dry it, inspect it for flaws, cut it, curl it, shave it, wax it, press your cool hands against your warm face to take down the blushing when you get embarrassed, dig your fingernails into the palms of your hands so you don’t cry, or sit on the edge of your tub and heave big uncontrollable sobs that feel like they are coming from the center of the earth. Walk your body down the street and hope no one grabs it. Try to stand with your ass against the wall so no one grabs it. Always keep one hand on your purse so no one grabs it.  Go out of your way to disguise the fact that you fart and pee and poop and bleed and burp and vomit and blow snot out of your nose and if anyone catches on that you might engage in these activities, apologize. Always have, in the back of your mind somewhere, a plan for what you will do if you are raped by this date, or this cab driver, or this guy walking down the street towards you. Walk up a steep flight of stairs in heels. Walk down a steep flight of stairs in heels. Lose weight. More. More. Put elastic bands in your hair and around your chest and around your waist. Smile too much, see a picture of yourself smiling, think you have an ugly smile and practice smiling in the mirror. Smile too little, be told you don’t smile enough. Be told to smile. Be told, every damn day and night by every damn stranger on the street to SMILE. That you would be so much prettier if you smiled. Be reduced to nothing more than a decoration, like a flower or a vase, and then still feel like you are failing when you disappoint strangers for not being a good enough object. Have cramps. Have a baby. Be unable to have a baby even though you want one. Become pregnant with a baby you don’t want. Have it painfully but safely and legally removed. Have it delivered and then feed it milk from your breasts which, whoa! And also, what?! Have a baby and give it away. Have the U.S. Government decide for you what you should do about having or not having a baby. Get highlights. Get low lights. Go gray. Turn in to your mother. Cry with pride in a voting booth when you vote for a woman as president. Cry with grief on the street outside an election party when she loses. Wear spanx. Have your heart swiftly broken into a million shards while you stand there in uncomfortable shoes and smile and smile and smile forever.

    Having a female body is especially hard. But it’s not impossible. The thing to never forget is that a female body is also incredibly capable and beautiful and magical. If you have a female body you have a choice about what to do with it. And if someone takes that choice away you have a choice about how you want to handle it.

    Your body is not too tall or short or fat or thin or old or anything else, it’s just a reflection of you, where you are today, and it belongs to you completely, and that’s all that matters.

  • Oops by Alisa Rosenthal

    At the end of my freshman year of college, I befriended this girl named Alison. She had hair down to her butt and wore glasses with frames in my favorite color of RAINBOW. We met in a comparative literature class at the University of Iowa called Camp and Drag in Film and Literature. I mean, even though it was an upper level course and I was just a freshman, obviously I had to take it because I couldn’t believe the MANIFESTATION OF MY BRAIN existed in a class that I could actually take at a Big Ten school in Iowa.

    This class had everything a straight girl with a love for gay culture could want. We watched “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” and Tilda Swinton swap genders in “Orlando” (which is really, really bizarre if you haven’t seen it), read for camp in “The Importance of Being Earnest” and my-now-favorite book of all time “Little Me,” and spent hours debating the difference between high camp and low camp in John Waters movies. But absolutely NO ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW. As my professor sardonically explained, we get it. It’s too obvious.

    The material from this class has come to play in, quite honestly, a good portion of my relationships. If you’re a straight guy who can get down with drag queens, we are going to get along JUST fine. I was in the process of breaking up with a guy a few years ago who stopped the break up conversation, stunned, when he saw a certain book on my bookshelf. “I can’t believe you own this. This is such an important book to me.” And it was a book of essays on camp featuring that famous one by Susan Sontag. I basically had to date him a few more weeks after that.

    And then there’s my senior year of college boyfriend, who I met working at the Iowa City Public Library. I was a circulation page and he was in adult services - which is just a naughty-sounding way of saying “media slash CDs and DVDs.” Adult services, god they were pretentious. Within the first week of us dating, we were swapping different books we loved. Gender and sexuality came up, and I was like, “oh you HAVE to read ‘Myra Breckinridge’ by Gore Vidal! It’s nuts! It’s from the ‘60s and the protagonist changes genders and it’s totally crude and graphic and bonkers.” I lent it to him, only to shortly after realize that since it’s my copy from Camp and Drag class a few years before, it’s completely underlined, highlighted, and annotated. And I had decided to write my final on anal fixation in “Myra Breckinridge.” So I can only imagine him reading through my copy of the book, horrified at how literally EVERY BUTT REFERENCE is underlined. OOPS. He spent the next two and a half years meekly trying to be game for butt stuff. I mean I wasn’t, but that’s sweet, isn’t it?

    But back to freshman year, and meeting Alison. She’d walk me back to my dorm every week after class, and we’d spend forever talking about the books we were reading and movies we were watching. A friend! Making friends in college is HARD. And I was busy falling in love with gay boys so. I had a lot of time to myself. She invited me over for dinner one week, to her TOTALLY GROWN UP APARTMENT, and it was great! I didn’t have to eat dorm food, she’d cook, we’d talk. It was awesome.

    This went on for the entire semester. Once a week, every week.

    It was then I realized that we were dating.

    I remember explaining our setup to a friend, and them telling me yeah, that sure sounds like dating. But no, we don’t kiss or touch or anything. She just… really likes cooking me dinner. And showing me episodes of Firefly. I hang out with her cat and we talk about gender studies.

    Oh shit. We ARE dating.

    Looking back, I like to think that we both had a certain amount of awareness of what was going on. I really liked her friendship, but didn’t want anything more. I assume she wanted more, and found me a tolerable friend at the least. I remember being aware of her feelings, and this frustrating internal pressure that I couldn’t explain myself or articulate how I was feeling. I didn’t want to hurt her feelings. But also…

    I’m someone who’s been so excited about gay stories and romance from a such young age. Who didn’t want to be the cute, gawky British teenage boy who the closeted hunky football player fell for, in a secret but pure love that only existed between you two, and also your fabulous best gal pal who was the only person who truly got you. There was something I could identify with about being different or weird - as a weird and different kid who liked showtunes and oldies and punk and openly talk about masturbating before it was cool for girls to do that. Philosophically I got it. I wanted to be gay, or bisexual, or I wanted that to be a part of my identity. Or, oh whatever we all know it’s a spectrum.

    The semester reached it’s end, as did all 14 episodes of Firefly - cancelled too soon!! We sat next to each other on her couch, knowing this was our last hang before school let out for the summer and she graduated. She put her head on my shoulder - the first time we had ever had any physical contact. I tensed up, filled with anxiety and guilt. I think I understood a lot about being Jewish in that moment. Did I let this go on too long? Am I a terrible person? Ok Miss “I understand this philosophically” - do you want to put your face on her face?

    And then… nothing happened. She took her head off my shoulder and began cleaning up from dinner. We silently got in her car and she drove me back to the dorms.

    It’s fitting that nothing climactic happened. Here we were, two basically kid-adults who had no vocabulary or even experience to articulate what was going on. I’ve had full on romantic relationships where this same thing happens. You just… get better at dealing with it. More experience. More vocabulary.

    She double parked in front of my dorm. She asked what I was going to do after I graduated. And I responded “Oh, I’m just a freshman.” It hadn’t occurred to me that that had never come up before. And she had assumed I was older than I was. I could tell she was kind of miffed and freaked out that I was significantly younger than she realized. (But I mean. Dorms. And how we never went to a bar or anything because I couldn’t drink in them.) (Even though it’s Iowa so I probably could have.) (Ok and did.) But I think her big reaction to my age was also her accepting nothing was going to happen. Yeah. This is a straight girl. With really short cropped hair, and hairy legs, and a penchant for wearing things with rainbows on them.

    I got out of her car, and that was that. I think I saw her once at an Olive Garden. I learned a lot about myself during that time. That life is too short to not say how you actually feel. But also, there was something nice in mutually lying that let us be friends for a little longer than we might’ve been otherwise. Also, I still get really excited when I make new female friends so ladies, watch out.

  • Shabban by Julie Cowden

    I am about to blow your tiny mind. 

    This is a map. A map of the city of Paris, to be precise.

    Back in the dark ages you carried these around to know where’s what.  At one time, I was not very good at reading them.  I got an effective education when I traveled Europe and had to figure out things like trains, busses, escape routes and whatnot.  Here, I’ll give y’all a crash course in the ancient art of cartography.  That box in the bottom left hand corner is the legend.  It shows you the scale of the map.  Useful.  But not as useful as the compass.  Up is north.  Down is South.  Right is East.  Left is west. If you had told me then that soon our phones would interpret these concepts for us I might not have believed you.  And for some people, including my friend Jay, interpreting a map was never part of life’s plan.   

    Jay and I both studied abroad our junior year of college.  I was in London, he was at Cambridge.  Jay is a very Smart Person.  Smarter than me by a long shot.  Buuut …..  have you ever heard the phrase “book smart?”  Have you ever heard the phrase “bless his heart?”  Jay falls directly between the two.  It was clear from the beginning of our journey that I was going to be the navigator.  When Jay tried to figure out where the market across the street from our hostel in Prague was, he got hopelessly lost.  This is what I was dealing with.

    We had been travelling together for a month by the time we reached Paris.  Both of us were tired and a bit bored with each other.  The first day we strolled around the vicinity of our hotel until dinner.  I took the map along anyway.  Let me clarify, I took the GOOD map.  We had two maps of Paris.  A good one and a crappy one. We made the decision to split up the following day.  Looking back on the routine conversation we had about going our separate ways is haunting.  You never know what banal decisions set the course for a truly ridiculous “life” moment.

    We had been to So.  Many.  Museums over the month we had been travelling.  I saw David.  I saw Guernica.  I saw SOOO MANY Virgin and child-s.  Jay was dead-set on going to the Musee de Orsay.  I wanted nothing more than a walk down the Champs-Elysees with a chocolate croissant and a cigarette.  For the first time in our entire European adventure, we would go our separate ways and meet at the Louvre in the afternoon.  The decision that I made next would chart the journey of my future. 

    “Jay.  For obvious reasons, I want you to take the ‘good’ map.  Look, here is the spot we agreed to meet at 3:00 pm.  It is the Southwest corner of the Louvre.  Do you feel ok with that?  Here, I’ll circle it for you.”

    I circled it for him.  I put the crappy map in my purse for the following day’s adventure.

    Jay is an early riser.  I am ...not.   I slept in for a bit, rode the Metro, rolled into a patisserie, purchased a chocolate croissant and started my leisurely stroll down the Champs-Elysees.

    Paris is a beautiful city.  I felt positively local wandering around with my cigarette and coffee.  The weather was nice for December so I didn’t have lug around a heavy coat.  I thought about stopping at a cafe, but didn’t want to miss my appointment with Jay.  At the southwest corner of the Louvre.

    I made it to the appointed spot about fifteen minutes early.  Jay always runs about ten minutes late, but I didn’t mind.  I was on the edge of the river Seine, it was an amazing day, and I contented myself with people-watching.  There I was.  Smoking a cigarette and minding my own business.  Looking out over the river.  And then…..

    You know, sometimes in life, you are in the exact right place at the right time.  Sometimes, you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time.  And other times, you are in the wrong place at the right time.

    A smarmy middle-aged man walked up to me.  I was perched on a concrete column overlooking the river.  He stood below me, and looked up at me.

    “You are very beautiful sitting there.  I would like to take your picture.”

    My internal alarm should have sounded there, but I thought “Hey.  I’m in Paris.  Lassiez bon temps roullez.”  Dude didn’t even have a camera.

    We started chatting.  His name was Shabbban.  He was originally from Egypt but had lived in Paris for five years.  I gave him a fake name.  He didn’t need to know my real one.  I told him I was travelling and Paris was my final destination.

    I was obviously waiting for someone because I kept one eye peeled at all times for Jay.  At one point, Shabban asked me if I was married.  I said no, but that I WAS engaged.  This was untrue.  I had a boyfriend back home in the States who would never actually ask me to marry him.   At one point, I was looking for Jay and he asked me who I was waiting for.  I said “A friend.”  Looking back on this experience, I think this was Shabban’s moment of clarity.

    He had let me smoke a few of his cigarettes (Seriously, internal alarm.  You have one job.) And now he was holding my hand.  What?  It was now fifteen minutes after 3:00.  Goddammit, Jay!  Do I have to pin a note to your shirt?!?  I decided that maximum visibility was in my best interest, so I strolled over to the edge of the plaza.  Shabban followed.  Then he kissed the back of my neck.  Oh!  There it is!  Hello, internal alarm!  I have missed you!

    “Shabban.  I am engaged, and I am waiting here for a friend.”

    “So….kaput?”

    To me, the word “kaput” meant “no.”  “Done for.”  “Finished.”  I replied

    “Yes, Shabban.  Kaput.”

    To Shabban, the word “kaput” meant “have sex.”  Do it.”  “Fornicate.”

    Just in case I didn’t understand him, Shabban was prepared to show me with the ol’ universal finger hole “Ahh!  Kaput!”

    I can’t believe I was actually shocked, but I was.  If I had been wearing pearls, they would have been clutched up real tight.

    “Shabban, I don’t know what made you think...I am engaged…”

    He pulled an ancient condom out of his wallet, almost like an offering.  “We can use a condom.”  Like that was some kind of gift to me. 

    “No.  Nononono…”

    The moment that happened next was what all the decisions - to split up for the day, to give Jay the good map - had been leading up to.  Shabban smiled a prideful little smile and said,

    ‘Are you sure?  It’s twenty-two centimeters.”  Aaaand once again, Shabban came through with the completely necessary gesture, showing me that his dick was roughly the length of his wrist to his elbow.  In my mind, I was busily converting centimeters to inches.  But sadly, I had been raised in America so I was incapable.  In case you’re curious, and I know that you are, Google says 22 centimeters is 8.66142 inches.  Not too shabby, Shabban.  Also, aaaaalmost believable.

    It dawned on me that Shabban thought I was a prostitute.  How does a hooker let someone down easy?  Is that in the handbook?  I think I missed that day of class.

    I squared my shoulders up, offered my hand and said “It has been an interesting conversation.  But now I need to go find my friend who is probably looking for me.  Goodbye, Shabban.”

    Shabban took it in stride.  He looked at me a bit wistfully, smiled and said “Goodbye” and turned and walked away.  Just like that.

    I took a deep breath and giggled to myself.  Cross one off the ol’ life list...get mistaken for a hooker in Paris.  Check!  But where the hell was Jay?  He was over 30 minutes late by this point.

    I pulled out the map of Paris.  The crappy one, if you will remember.  And it was at this moment that I discover I have been waiting in the wrong place the whole time.  The Louvre is a big squared-off horseshoe.  Looking at the crappy map, it looked like I was at the southwest corner of it, just as Jay and I had agreed.  But there are two buildings that are separated from the core of the rest of the museum.  I was standing at the southwest corner of one such building.  I turned east and jogged to the entrance of the Louvre, and there he was.  Jay.  Wonderful, blameless Jay.  Bless his heart.

  • Zebra by Archy Jamjun

    My girlfriend Nicole and I were sixteen, in my parents’ basement, and going at it.  We were dressed, but Nicole, with her trademark high bun, was straddling me on the prickly grey and brown carpet.  We were enjoying foreplay the way only virgins can, and Nicole was proving that male nipples actually do have a purpose.  Suddenly my mom’s thick, Thai accent came wailing down the stairs, “Archy, get up here now!”

    There’s nothing like the shrill voice of your mother to kill an erection.  I jumped up, straightened my shirt, and ran upstairs.  My mom was waiting for me at the top pacing in place with a frantic look on her face.  “What is she doing to you?” she yelled, “She’s an animal out of control.  I saw her on top of you.  You must tell her to go home!”

    I realize no mother wants to witness their child’s sexual activity, but I felt like my mom was overreacting.  First of all, we still had our clothes on.  Second…I thought my mother would actually be relieved to see me with a girl.  Throughout childhood, I was accused of being gay.  People knew I was gay before I knew what gay was.  I was aware, around age six, that I was drawn to men but I didn’t know what it meant.  Knowledge of sex and its urges didn’t become clear until later so when I was a kid I simply thought I wanted to be like the men I was drawn to, as in, Gosh, I want to be just like A.C. Slater.  I knew that this was that stood out negatively, and it wasn’t a tangible, external ailment I could try to hide either.  I didn’t have ugly ears that I could hide under a hat.  It was something inside me, something in my existence that people noticed.  My sister, Anny, insisted there was no possible way I could be straight.  Relatives raised an eyebrow at my parents that said, “Your child is gay.”  I was so obviously gay that one day my mom pulled the car over and asked, “Arch, do you want to become a woman?” 

    I replied with the only answer I could think of, “Anny showed me her pubic hairs the other day!”  When in danger, always deflect my aunt had taught me.  So you can understand my confusion at my mother’s reaction.  Nicole was proof! Archy “The Fag” Jamjun had a girlfriend!  More than that, I had an erection around her!  This was a miracle to me.  My mother, however, forced Nicole to go home.

    A couple nights later, my parents told me they wanted to have a talk.  I cringed and prepared myself for the birds and the bees talk.  “Your mom,” my dad said flatly, “has something she wants to say.” 

    I look over at my mom and she screamed, “Why do you have to date a black girl?!”

    “What?” I responded, “I thought you’d be proud I was dating a girl.”

    “I don’t want to have zebra grandchildren!”

    I was in shock.  While my mother had never had a love affair with black culture, I’d never seen or heard anything to make me believe she was racist either.  How, I asked myself, could a woman who immigrated from Thailand, be racist in America?  How could she, the constantly discriminated against, discriminate against someone else?  As naïve as it sounds to me now, at sixteen, I didn’t realize minorities hated other minorities.  I associated racism with skin heads and KKK members.  I realize the irony, but I kind of thought racism was a white thing.  I didn’t know we, Asians, could do that too.

    “What are zebra children?” I asked my mom

    “Your children will be zebras because they will be half black and half Asian,” she said.

    Wouldn’t that make them bumblebee children?   

    “And,” my mom continued, “The black gene is so dominant and the Asian gene is so submissive. You, your children and Nicole will have such a hard life.”

    At the time, I only understood this on a surface level, and I thought my mom was overly concerned with what other people thought.  I knew she was imagining herself, dying of shame, returning to see our relatives in Thailand with milk chocolate and honey-toned grandkids.  I told my mom she was a hypocrite, backwards, and an embarrassment.  It didn’t occur to me then, that although wrong, my mom was trying to protect me.  She was trying to protect me from an interracial relationship that she saw as the makings of a disaster, an invitation for tragedy.  To my mother, black people were the ultimate target of America’s racism and adding her experience, as an Asian woman, to what she saw as the black experience seemed like a nightmare to her.  She put it so eloquently too, she said, “If you have to date outside of your race, just date white people!”

    The argument ended with no resolution.  My mom continued to insist I break up with Nicole, but I told her it was my life, this was America, and I would date whomever I wanted to.  I did, however, promise her that we wouldn’t have children anytime soon.  It was an easy out.  I couldn’t even get myself to look at or smell a vagina, fertilizing one was out of the question.  A few months later, my mother’s hopes came true anyway.  Nicole and I broke up and she lovingly, and with a big smile, cooked my favorite dishes for a week.

    The next summer I returned home from my first year of college and was a new man.  I hadn’t just come out of the closet; I had busted down the door (and fallen into a room filled with penises).  I hadn’t, however, come out to my parents yet.  In a classic, passive-aggressive, Asian move, I had one of my boyfriends at the time stay with me in my bedroom for a few days.  When we engaged in activities, I didn’t bother to turn on music or the TV.  I figured the noise would be my coming-out speech.  When my boyfriend left, my mother approached me with slouched shoulders and doe-like eyes, “Archy, are you gay?”

    “What makes you think that?” I asked.

    “Friends do not sleep naked together.”  We both stood there uncomfortably for a moment looking everywhere but at each other.  Then her eyes locked back on mine in a plea, “Are you sure you’re gay?  I, mean, maybe it’s my fault.  I think really you love black women but I’ve suppressed you with my anger and now you are gay!  Maybe you call Nicole?”

    “What about the zebra children?”

    “I will love them!” my mom exclaimed as if she was making headway.

    “Well, mom, remember when you asked me if I wanted to be a woman?”  Her face dropped like I had shoved an anchor into her mouth.

    “It’s not that I want to be a woman; I just want men to treat me like one.”

    “Archy,” she said softly, “I think you need to see a psychiatrist.”

    Assuming my mom wanted to send me to conversion therapy, I yelled, “You think I’m mentally ill because I’m gay?  We’re Buddhists from Thailand, the gayest country on the planet!”

    “No but you need someone to talk to, and I don’t know enough to help you” 

    Everyone in my family has been to a psychiatrist and we’ve all been medicated at some point.  I don’t think that means my family has poor mental health.  I just think that means we’re highly assimilated to suburban America.  When I returned from the doctor, I had a prescription to Paxil, which was a widely prescribed anti-depressant.  Obviously, the psychiatrist didn’t prescribe it to me because I was gay.  It was the way I was coming out of the closet. 

    Coming out is hard to navigate on your own.  Now, slightly more than a decade removed from the experience, the twisted roads have become clearer.  In a clinical sense, realizing I was gay simply meant I accepted that I was attracted to other men.  Emotionally, however, there were years of self-hate, shame, isolation, and repression to sort out.  Sometimes it felt like I didn’t even belong in my own family because I knew I wouldn’t live up to their expectations.  Also I’d spent most of my life and thoughts trying to figure out who I was just in terms of my sexual orientation.  Now that I had, it wasn’t like I magically figured out the rest of who I was too.  That’s a lot of heavy stuff and at the time, I was too cute and thin to realize those issues were even there.  I found it easier to focus on the clinical definition of being gay, and thus I was amassing lovers as if I was trying to populate a village.  With the emergence of the internet and especially the website Manhunt this was easy to do and 95% of the time it was really fun.  That other 5%, however, led me to unsafe places from which I did not emerge unscathed mentally or physically. 

    When I came home from the psychiatrist with my prescription for Paxil, my mom saw it and told me she wanted to talk, “Now Arch, there is something you need to know about this medication.”

    “OK,” I replied and nervously approached the couch she was sitting on.

    “I take this medication too,” she reached for my hand, “and sometimes I cannot have an orgasm with your father.”

    “Mom!” I jumped back.

    “No, no, no,” she said scooting towards me, “I just want you to know it’s not your fault if you take this medication and cannot have an orgasm.”

    “Please stop!” I begged, covering my ears.

    “This is important,” she took my hands off my ears and made sure we had eye contact, “It’s not my fault when I can’t have an orgasm and it’s not your dad’s either.  We really try.”

    Perhaps my mom wanted revenge for the way I announced I was gay because in my mother’s sexual revelation as teaching moment, I lost an innocence I did not know I needed to cherish.  However, from that point on, a new and stronger relationship started.  My mother realized that even though she’d lost some idea of a masculine son she’d never even had, she’d gained something better: the gay son—the confidant, the outfit-checker, the one who will never love another woman as much.  It took years to get there but now she turns to me for a friend who could not have been there before the dust settled and the zebra saw its own stripes.          

  • The Best Time I Drank My Friend's Contact Lenses by Claire Zulkey

    I spent my junior year of college studying in Italy in a program that encouraged us to travel as much as possible, so after a field trip to Naples, many of us made plans one weekend to tour southern Italy.  After seeing the ruined city of Pompeii, three friends and I checked into a hotel in Sorrento.  We were excited because our room, which had two sets of bunkbeds, had a miniature patio attached to it. My friend Chris and I posed for photos on said patio before we headed out to carouse with our other friends.

    I wasn't feeling well that night so we stopped in a Farmacia to find some cold medicine. My Italian wasn't strong enough to discern whether my meds were the type one could drink on, but Chris, who I should mention was kind of an a-hole, told me not to be a pussy and go ahead.

    So, we drank several bottles of wine at dinner, and then we drank more afterwards at a bar with some friends.  In fact, we all got pissed. I remember sweet little Iona, who hailed from New Jersey, going berserk when we met an Italian guy who asked us the following joke:

    "What's the difference between trash and a Jersey Girl?"

    "Trash gets taken out once a week."

    It was on the way back from the bar that I realized something was wrong.  I very quickly went from feeling buzzed to feeling very, very intoxicated.  However, I was with a bunch of people who were also very, very intoxicated so nobody seemed to notice or care. There was a party in our room, everyone screaming and yelling, which was fine, until I suddenly realized I either had to go to bed or throw up and everyone had to leave. Immediately.

    We tossed everyone out of the room which we needed to do anyway since we had to catch the hydrofoil to Capri early the next day.  We all headed to bed, me putting on the hospital scrubs I used for pajamas and climbing up to the top bunk.

    I tried to sleep for a while when suddenly it became apparent: I was going to throw up. It was imminent. It was just a matter of when. The problem was that Chris, the a-hole, thought it would be funny to remove the ladder from the top bunk of the bed. I'd have to yell to him to wake up (hence waking up Iona  and our other roommate Emily in the process) or jump down.  However, there was no way I could hold my barf, jump down, and then make it to the toilet.

    For some reason I decided to be polite at this moment in time: I held my shirt away from my body and vomited into it.  ThenI jumped down.  Everyone was still passed out, so my plan of being unnecessarily polite was working.

    There was no way I was going to travel with a set of pukey pajamas, so I threw the soiled scrubs onto the patio we had earlier enjoyed so much.  I wasn't so clean myself, so I washed away my shame in the shower.  Afterwards, I was spent and dehydrated, so I re-got ready for bed, gratefully gulping down some glasses of water that were on the sink.

    Finally, I fell asleep.

    The next morning we needed to hustle to catch the hydrofoil but I wasn't feeling bright and alert, so I stalled as long as I could before leaving bed. Iona and Emily packed, and somewhere in the haze I heard Emily complaining about how she couldn't find something, but my brain was a black hole and I couldn't focus.

    "Y'all, I can't find mah contact linses," Emily, who hailed from Mississippi, said again.  None of us really paid attention.

    "I had 'em right here on the sink," she said.  Then she told some story about how she couldn't find her contact lenses case the night before, so had stored her contacts in two drinking glasses.

    Suddenly it occurred to me. But I didn't want it to be true.  I liked Emily a lot. She had never done anything wrong to me. She was no Chris. And as a nearly-blind person myself, I knew how lost one could be without their lenses.

    I scrunched down in the covers. "Emily?" I said. "I have to tell you something. This will be funny in several years, I promise."  I told her the story of the night before.

    "You drank my contact linses," she said, a statement more than a question. I don't think she was even that angry, just amazed.

    "How did you drink saline solution and think it was water?" asked Iona, and I had to explain that when you're so sick that vomiting inside your own pajamas seems like a good idea, anything is possible.

  • Three Coins in the Fountain by Jo Gilbride

    July 22, 2004

    I stood barefoot in a threadbare flannel nightgown, coffee cup in hand, staring at the sunlight streaming through the kitchen window.  I was astounded that the sun had come up that morning- that the laws of the universe were still in play.  The earth still spun on its axis; the sky was still blue; Chicago summer still hot.  It was as if I believed that the whole world stopped just because Dan’s heart stopped beating at 9:10 last night.  I felt for my own pulse and was repulsed by its strength and regularity.  Why wasn’t I dead too?  I felt dead; glacier cold, numb, senses dulled by a sense of surrealism.

    The reel of last night’s events played relentlessly in my head.  The paramedics doing CPR on the altar of our church where Dan had just finished practicing a rock rendition of the Lord’s Prayer for the upcoming Sunday service:

    They can’t get the tube in.  I’ll tube him.  I know how to do it.  No, I’ll call the hospital and activate the heart team. What’s his rhythm?  Damn it, tell me… She’s a nurse, I heard someone say.  Agonal rhythm… agonal…. dying heart…..

    At the hospital “Meggie, your Dad has had a heart attack.  He’s in cardiac arrest.  It doesn’t look good.”

    Dr Richards looking like he’d rather be anywhere than this small bare room where they take the code families.  He started to hang crepe.  I’ve done it hundreds of times.  You don’t want to just blurt out bad news, so you assault them with medical details and jargon they can’t possibly understand.  Except that I did understand.  I saw in his eyes that he knew that I knew.  I felt sorry for him. He finally said it.  “We weren’t able to resuscitate him.”  He escaped from the room, dripping relief and failure.  I turned to Meg to make it real, “Daddy died.”

    The parade of family, friends and dignitaries begins.  Kelly, my other daughter and her husband Jeremy arrive, faces gaunt and gray with shock.  I’m an administrator at this hospital.  They called in the hospital president, my best friend Sandy who was vice president of nursing, Horace the huge black chaplain that I danced Motown with at every hospital function.

    The charge nurse comes in “Do you want to see him?”  Yes, yes, of course.  I make everyone go see him. He looks like he’s sleeping.  I kiss his face over and over, hold his hand, this husband of mine, 33 years together, and realize that the warmth is leaving his face, that this is real.  I take care of everybody else; hug their heaving shoulder, wipe their tears.  “Thank you, thank you”.  I thank every staff member, everybody.  I make arrangements for the body.

    One last look.  I desperately want to tell everyone to get out so I can be alone with him.  I want to crawl up on the hospital gurney and lay on top of him, hold him and pretend that he could still hold me back.  I didn’t ask.  I still wish every day that I did.

    The wake, the funeral, the procession of respect and love.  Blazingly stupid things said.  “He’s singing with the angels now.”  “How wonderful he passed in church.” “At least he didn’t suffer.”  The only one that rang true was his frat brother who said, "I can see him singing with John Lennon.” 

    I wanted to scream at everyone “He didn’t pass, you insensitive morons!  He didn’t fly by me in a red Corvette jauntily waving good-bye on the way to some celestial band gig!  He didn’t PASS AWAY!  He promised me he would never, ever leave me and then he FUCKING DIED!!! …..He fucking died.

     

    Sept 27, 2008

    I sat on a metal folding chair in the farthest corner of a spartan room with a large central table and chairs.  I was trying to melt into the metal and stop my hands from shaking at the same time.  I finally sat on my hands and stared at the filthy, rusty red concrete floor.

    “Hi.  My name is Mike and I’m an alcoholic. This is a closed meeting.  Anyone with a desire to stop drinking is welcome at this meeting.  Is this anyone’s first meeting in life?”  Oh, FUCK no, I’m not declaring myself.  The leader of the loonies paused expectantly and then droned on. I heard words that formed into sentences that dripped into my consciousness.  That sounds like me.  I looked up and met some old lady’s eyes. “You just don’t need to drink today,” she rasped, “You just don’t need to drink.” I don’t know why but I believed her.  I had drunk myself to black out oblivion every day for three years, but I believed her.

    I didn’t drink that day and I haven’t had a drink since.

    I told the people in that room things I didn’t think I could speak out loud without bursting into flame or imploding into dust.  I told them I felt like a fallen humpty dumpty in an endless cave, shattered into a thousand pieces- crawling around in the dark slashing myself on the shards of my old self and my old life.  I told them about the searing ache ever present in my heart, the continuous slideshow of Dan’s death that played in my head.  I told them about compulsively wandering in the night, searching, searching, every room, every closet, peering anxiously out every window.  About sleeping with his Bear’s jacket wrapped tightly around me for months, until I couldn’t convince myself that it smelled like him anymore.  About David, the man I had asked to live with me, who I hated but was afraid to ask to leave because I was afraid that I would drink if I was alone.  About hating what I had become and having no idea who or what I could be or how to get there.

    And they listened.  And they taught me how to live again; a different way, without running from myself or life, without drinking, without Dan.

    They gave me hope.

     

    July 2015

    I live in Indiana now- in a little blue and white cottage on two acres in the country- with trees, a pond.  I cohabit with two unbelievably cute dogs, flora and fauna, where the background music of my days is the wind in the trees, tree frogs peeping and birdsong.  My little piece of heaven on earth.

    I got really sick three years ago and can’t work anymore.  I can’t hike like I used to or dance the night away or even stay up past 9 o’clock most evenings.  I have Swiss cheese holes in my short and long term memory.  “Did I say that? When did we do that, Kelly?  What’s that box thing that you put things in to stay cold?"  A language of riddles and charades that everyone close to me has learned to accommodate.  I’m tired a lot, and in pain some.  I wobble Weeble-like, but rarely fall down.  My hair is a becoming shade of gray.

    I like myself now.  I know myself.  A crazy quilt, patched together physically and emotionally, but present, engaged, curious about life, mine and yours.  I’m very spiritual, as many of us get as we age, one of those tree-hugging, meditators at one with the universe that I used to mock.  I paint and write.  Putter and garden.  Go to book clubs and 12 step meetings.  I have two amazing daughters and an outrageous and incredible granddaughter named Danni.  I love some people and some people love me.

    It’s a quiet, pretty peaceful life; the only real chaos fabricated in my head for my own edification and entertainment.  I try to take it one day at a time and live every day fully aware.

    It’s been eleven years now since that day...you know…that day that Dan passed.

  • Eat Your Crackers by Jeremy Owens

    The greatest rabbi of the shtetl, a sage famous throughout the land as the foremost mind in Jewish thought, is approached by two young seekers of knowledge.  They have traveled for weeks, a great distance, on foot, in order to sit at his feet.

    “Rabbi,” asks one, eager for wisdom.  “What is the meaning of Passover?”

    The rabbi reels back, shmushes his face together, looks over his glasses and exclaims, “They tried to kill us.  We survived.  Let’s eat!”

    It’s funny because it’s true.  No holiday sums up the Jewish need to celebrate with food quite like Passover.  While this Jewish Proverb does condense the massive scope of Jewish history and suffering into a single pithy statement; it is also true that it explains what’s at the heart of most of our holiday celebrations.  From Pharaoh to Haman, from Hadrian to Hitler and beyond we are a people on the run from vicious and pathological enemies.  Once we’re safe?  What can we say? We like a little nosh.

    Passover, for those of you who were asleep in Hebrew or Sunday School, celebrates the dramatic and narrow escape from slavery and genocide of the Jews of ancient Egypt.  After spending some 400 years in bondage God finally got off of his ass and sent Moses to the rescue. 

    Mo threatened the Egyptians with the wrath of God (i.e. the 10 plagues) if the Jews weren’t set free.  Of course their Pharaoh didn’t listen, so we let them have it.  Frogs.  Lice.  Pestilence.  Boils.  Hail.  Locusts.  Darkness.  Wild Beats.  Blood.  Eventually we got all Angelina Jolie on their asses and slayed their first-born male children.  This final little stunt got the job done.  The Egyptians were so freaked that they chased us out of their country.   We had to pack and get out of town so fast that we didn’t even have time to bake bread. 

    Oy, what a shanda!

    We won our battle for freedom and since we’re a creative people we’ve decided to commemorate the occasion for the rest of eternity by creating an entire holiday centered around eating the only food we got to pack on our way out of Egypt:  poorly made almost-bread.  We were enslaved for four hundred years before we were set free and each year we eat crackers to celebrate.  Crackers.  The chosen people?  What exactly were we chosen for?  After reviewing the Jewish Laws of Passover, one might assume the answer to this question is Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

    Normal, everyday kosher laws, which, by the way, only about 20% of Jews actually follow any more, are pretty basic.  To make it simple enough for you to wrap your goyisha little minds around here’s what you need to know:  meat and dairy items can’t be served together in a meal and shellfish and pork are both strictly forbidden. 

    During Passover this mishegas gets kicked up a notch.  In addition to the everyday no meat and dairy together and zero bacon and lobster there’s a whole slew of extra items that are also off the table.  This list includes:  wheat, oats, rye, barley, spelt, rice, corn, millet, beans, lentils, peas, green beans, soybeans, peanuts, sesame seeds, poppy seeds and mustard.  Basically we can’t eat anything that might kinda sorta almost imitate bread rising or fun.  Don’t worry we can have cake; it just has to be made from delicious potato starch and Matzo flour.

    Passover meals also cannot be served on plates or cooked in pans that have ever touched any of the filthy foods on this list.  That’s right, friends.  Separate but equal pots and dishes.  If, God forbid, you have an accident and serve a little edamame on your Kosher for Passover dishes?  Jewish Law says that the offending dish must be buried in your yard for one year.

    Crazy, right?  It gets better.  Here’s the real fakakta part.  This list of unmentionables (known as hamets) can’t be in your house once Passover begins.  The night before Passover, immediately after sundown, the search for these non-kosher items takes place.  The aim is to insure that none of the hamets has been left behind after the cleaning of the house.  The procedure for searching is very specific.  A single candle is lit.  One candle.  The law is precise on this.  More than one candle would resemble a torch, which is totally not acceptable. 

    The search for crumbs of bread is started by candlelight and since by this time the house has been cleaned thoroughly and the chances of finding any bread are minimal, it is customary to put a number of large crumbs of bread in places where they can easily be found because you have to find something.  These crumbs are gathered and put aside for breakfast the next morning.

    I promise I’m not making this up.

    If you happen to have a restricted food in your house and don’t want to burn it, which is what you’re supposed to do.  There are options available.  Namely, sell these disgraceful foods to a non-Jewish friend with the full knowledge that it is a temporary sale.  This sounds like a joke, but there is a contract involved complete with a bill of sale administered by a rabbi.  Once the 7 days of Passover are done, the food can be bought back for whatever price was agreed upon.

    Exhausted yet?  How do you think we feel?  Since our days in Egypt we might have developed a few control issues.  There are other rules and they are just as hair splittingly specific. That’s what happens when you’re left alone in slavery for 400 years.  It leaves a mark.  Do think of us this week while you’re sucking on a Cadbury Egg while waving palm fronds to welcome the baby Jesus back to the cross or whatever it is Christians do.  We’ll be scrubbing our houses down and eating crackers.  Chag Sameach, y’all!

  • You Are Beautiful by Brooke Allen

    That’s what I’m seeing written all over the city.  It started as chalk scribbles on sidewalks and has moved onto signs, billboards, large letters attached to fences.  I see it on iphone cases and t-shirts.  You being “beautiful” has become the new oversized Michael Kors handbag.

    And I hate it.

    The first time I was aggressively faced with one of these signs was while waiting for a bus by myself one night.  I was feeling pretty low for one reason or another and I looked up and saw the words staring down at me.  “You are Beautiful.”  And my immediate out-loud response was, “Oh shut the hell up, sign.”  I hated that this sign assumed I needed that reassurance.  I hated that this sign was using the same pick-up line on all the girls, I hated that this sign is really talking about inner-beauty because that’s “what really matters” ugh…my eyes were in so much pain from the eye rolling.  That “You Are Beautiful” sign made me so angry and here is why:

    I am so totally sick and tired of dealing with the idea of “beautiful.”  Inner or outer. And I am so sick and tired of beauty being the highest possible commodity a person has to offer.  I’m here tonight to offer a threatening counter point…what if we aren’t beautiful?  And that’s ok.  What if we shifted the value from beauty to something else more important?  What if beauty could exist in the world but not be the ultimate goal?  Those are the signs I want to make.  “You are not beautiful, and it hasn’t affected your ability to be kind.”  Or “Your physical appearance makes no impact on your potential to be a good person,” or “Just be better than Donald Trump.”

    I am not beautiful.  Just kidding, yes I am and so are you.  Or, I don’t know, maybe some days you are and other days, kinda iffy—the point is, who cares?  Like, actually CARES in the sense that it actually matters to them how beautiful they or other people are?  And inner-beauty—well let’s break that down for a minute.  When we talk about inner-beauty we are really talking about a combination of other positive traits, right?  Like confidence and kindness and compassion and all that junk so why can’t we just use those words to begin with?  I would definitely rather hear someone say that I have a lot of confidence over a lot of “inner beauty.”  And let’s not just default “inner beauty” to every single person who walks by a sign on a street.  Those things require skill and perseverance and trial and error.  It requires effort and work to be inwardly beautiful.  Now the sign should say, “You have successfully shown a great deal of compassion, insight and goodness in the past, strive to continue along that path although there will definitely be times when you stumble and that’s all part of it,” right?  Maybe shortened a little?

    But no.  It’s “You are Beautiful.”

    Here’s another way to explain why I loathe these signs.  A month or so ago a flower bloomed at the Chicago Botanical Gardens that drew in thousands of visitors.  It had an official science-y name, but everyone referred to it simply as “The Corpse Flower” because of its aroma, which was said to be similar to that of rotting human flesh.  The smell and the unattractive dark color of this large plant are meant to imitate a dead animal in order to attract insects to pollinate.  It also attracted my fantastically weird friends to stand in line for two hours just to see it and get a sniff.  The corpse flower is not beautiful.  Not on the outside and certainly not on the stinky inside.  But it sure is interesting, and rare, and cool.  It certainly is worth waiting for.  Beauty is not at play here, and that’s just fine!

    Chicago Corpse flower, you are not beautiful. But you are everything else.

    Another approach—my friend and I were recently talking about butterflies.  I think they are fascinating because they start as wormy little caterpillars and slowly turn into butterflies.  They are fragile and symbolic and brave little creatures.  But what my friend and I were laughing about is that we would never go to the butterfly house here in Chicago because, at the end of the day, despite all those nice things I just said about them, I would absolutely 100% smash a butterfly dead if it landed on me.  And that goes for you too, ladybugs!  People love both of these bugs because they are beautiful.  But wake up, people, a butterfly is nothing more than a cockroach in a cocktail dress.  I’m confused about why I’m supposed to want to sit on a bench and have these things flop around in my hair or whatever, but it’s perfectly acceptable to slam my heaviest shoe into any centipede who dares scale the walls of my apartment.  Do you see?  We are even giving BUGS special treatment based on their appearance.  You either have to be like the sign and think all bugs are beautiful including those hairy ones that look like dancing unattached eyebrows or you have to be like me and respect bugs for their purpose on earth, think they are cool in their own creepy ways and still be okay with smashing them dead if they touch you or come inside your house.  No discriminating!  People think it’s good luck to have a ladybug land on them.  I think it’s the pits.  The last time a ladybug landed on my knee I yelled “gross!” and flicked it off fast.  You don’t get a pass for your cuteness, lady.  Bug.  Your beauty, like everyone else’s, is irrelevant to me.

    Beauty might be a part of you, but it is not the defining part of you.  When someone says “He is beautiful,” or “She is beautiful,” I hear it the same way I hear “She is blonde,” “He is wearing a plaid shirt,” and I wonder why beauty bears so much weight.

    You are beautiful.  Maybe this story is a better example.  I was sitting at the front desk at my new job not to long ago and an attractive woman came in and almost immediately said to me, “Ohh, what’s wrong with your face?”  (My face was really red that day because I have rosacea).  So I answered, “My face is really red today because I have rosacea.”  And then I felt terrible.  Like my face and I had perpetrated this terrible crime against beauty simply by not wearing make up that day.  And then she spent the next ten minutes telling me all her cures for rosacea.  She wanted me to write down a new product she swears by that was guaranteed to “really help me,” and “fix me,” and “change my life,” which I suppose she assumed must be awful. Unbearable.  I thought of the “You are Beautiful” sign and how it maybe was meant for everyone else except people like me.  I thought about how shallow and naïve that “You are Beautiful” sign was, because in reality there was a complete stranger standing in front of me essentially saying “No, not you.”  I could feel the tears coming and the hardening feeling I get whenever people make comments like this to me, which they seem to do a lot, these “helpful tips” people have that feel more like reminders that I’m not at their level.  I felt the feeling of closing myself off a little bit more.  I wanted to laugh it off but I couldn’t shake this feeling of, “Maybe she’s right…why do I even have a job where a lot of people are going to see my face?” I went to the break room to shove all the feelings and the woman into my internal storage space marked “lash out about this at something unrelated later on” when I heard my new co-worker saying to the woman, “You know, that was really inappropriate, she’s at work, she’s not here to talk about her skin with you.”  And then the woman apologized and wrote me an apology note (full of spelling errors) suggesting that I forgive her for being out of line but also really consider using the product she recommended so that I can “heal” and “be happier” and it was all very surreal but I remember how strange it was when I finally realized that the whole situation balanced out differently than I expected.  I had nothing to feel bad about; I hadn’t done anything besides exist. That woman was out of line; she did owe me an apology.  And my strong, confident, loyal co-worker made both her and me realize it.

    I am not beautiful.  And for a long time I punished myself for it.  I mean I’ve had moments of beauty, we all have.  These moments tend to be really private where there is not a person or sign around to comment on it.  When I’m cooking alone I sometimes feel beautiful, or when I’m sleepy and I’ve just gotten out of the shower and I stand in front of the mirror for a while, these are moments of feeling beautiful I suppose.  For a long time, long past my impressionable teen years I tried unsuccessfully to weigh my worth in terms of beauty and could never figure it out, so I gave up.  In terms of inner-beauty I never seemed to live up perfectly to those standards either.  And in a society where we are focused on either being beautiful or inwardly beautiful, the danger is that if you don’t feel either way, you can get really damaged and start yelling at signs on the street.  The damage comes in the form of wanting to make sure the world understands that you understand the rules, you just aren’t playing by them.  So you beat them to the punch.  You make fat jokes about yourself and you stop putting forth a ton of effort in how you dress and you decide for everyone else that you aren’t beautiful enough to date or really to even be loved and in your infinite wisdom you have beaten everyone to the punch.  You have outsmarted them all.  You have stayed ahead of the game by simply not playing.  But really, you’ve lost.  And you do find yourself standing on a street corner yelling at a sign that is trying to tell you that you are still this frightening overwhelming crushing thing that you don’t want to have to be.

    But then one night, as I was halfway through writing this very story about the irrelevance of beauty in my life, I started talking about these ideas with a friend.  He has heard me go on about this more than once and now, exhausted by my never-ending treatise on the issues with the value of beauty, or perhaps just fueled with confidence from a great deal of tequila he proclaimed, “You’ve now created this idea of yourself being totally not-beautiful, which you aren’t, in order to still be special.” It was a little more slurred than that but I still heard it loud and clear.  It stung pretty hard, but in a good way.  “If I’m not beautiful, and I’m not hideous, then what am I…just…regular?” I asked him.  “I don’t know…” he said while using his mouth to find the straw of his blue whale margarita, “You’re awesome, you’re just you. Wanna get more salsa?”

    That’s the thing, isn’t it?  We all want to be beautiful, or wild, or talented or kind or maybe even hideous or cruel.  We all want to be special in some way and to avoid being the worst thing, “regular.” Maybe that should be the sign, “You are Seen.” “You are Relevant.” “You are YOU.”

    So I don’t know.  I’m going have to keep working this out.  Maybe you are beautiful. It’s most likely, at least sometimes.  Maybe you bloomed unexpectedly or worked really hard to get out of a cocoon or defended a co-worker who got mistreated or spit some helpful truth out to a friend one night—those are all beautiful things to do. Maybe you have long flowy hair or an adorable stripe in your fur behind your ear like my cat or really cool clothes or piercing eyes or some other beautiful thing on you—that’s cool too.  Maybe you are overweight and have a reddish face and one big weird leg but you secretly know that you also have the most amazing eyelashes in the history of eyelashes so you start wearing really expensive mascara…and I’m talking about myself here because you guys, I do have really beautiful eyelashes.

    I read back over this story that I just told and it dawned on me how many separate times I mention my different friends.  And how they are always making me laugh or helping me, or standing up for me, and I remember a little card that I have posted on my bedroom wall.  It’s a little card my friend mailed me once when I was having a rough time and I’ve completely forgotten about it until right now.  It has brought me an enormous amount of comfort and it makes me laugh realizing that I’ve spent this entire piece trying to rewrite a sign I saw on the street when the answer has been there, literally hanging over me all along.  Maybe some people do need a sign to remind them of what is truly important.  It’s just that mine is very small and simply says, “You are loved.”

  • A Baby? No thank you, please. by Diane Kastiel

    It was an ordinary Friday night (pizza night in our house) and I was making a salad when my husband walks in from work. I looked at him and was seized by a longing so sudden, so intense, it literally made me dizzy. Right then, practically right there, we had sex – which is typical when you’re young and love is new – but we’d been married for nearly 20 years (two kids!).

    Afterwards, when he could catch his breath, my husband said, “Wow – where did that come from?”

    I had been wondering the same thing myself. 

    I was at the age when women sometimes skip periods, an annoying precursor to menopause.  So when I didn’t get my period that month, I thought nothing of it. When I started feeling queasy in the morning, I dismissed that too, as work-related stress. But the day I pulled on a T-shirt on without a bra and the soft cotton hurt my nipples, I thought, “Oh, shit.”

    I had just celebrated my 46th birthday.

    This is crazy, I thought – I cannot be pregnant. I already have my kids. They are 13 and 10, and I am done. Sure, a few years earlier I really wanted a third, but I talked myself out of it: Too old, too broke, too overwhelmed.

    Then I remembered some reading I had done on fertility, hoping to encourage a friend who was trying to conceive at 40. But the news was not good. Odds are infinitesimally small of conceiving at that age. Six years down the road, it’s about as likely as an immaculate conception.

    That’s what I kept telling myself as I drove to Target for a pregnancy test.

    I felt so stupid even buying the thing at my age. So I grabbed the test, then got a cart and walked around Target for half an hour, piling in whatever I saw: tube socks, monkey wrenches, Raisinets! I threw in anything to give the impression that I just was a normal mom shopping for her family, instead of a 46-year-old woman who may have gotten herself “in trouble.”  I even had a cover story ready in case the cashier questioned me about the test. “Not mine,” I’d say. “Just…holding it for a friend.”

    I finally made it home – but couldn’t bring myself to take the test.  Because I had spent the entire car ride back freaking myself out, thinking things like, “I’m 46 now, but I’ll be 47 when it’s born, and on ‘baby’s first birthday’ I’ll be 48 years old!” I also figured out that, the year we finally send our oldest to college, this child would be entering kindergarten. With my mind on the subject of college, I calculated that my husband and I would be able to retire…never.

    This was not the life I planned. So I did the thing any mature, responsible person would do. I hid the test at the bottom of my sock drawer.

    And it there it lay there all day long, all through the night – like the Telltale Heart beating under the floorboards, like that freaky raven squawking, “Nevermore!”

    By the next morning, I couldn’t take it anymore. The minute my husband left for work, I ran into to the bathroom, tore open that test, and peed on the stick. And as I’m bringing it up to put it on the counter – to wait for the few minutes it’s supposed to take – out of the corner of my eye, I see that red line. And not just red, but stop-light red, fire-engine. I could practically hear the siren: rrrrr, RRRRR, pregnant, PREGNANT.…NEVERMORE!

    I called my husband at work. He’s a high school teacher, so this meant pulling him out of a classroom of freshmen to receive this news. And I will never forget his response. One word: “Really?” Just like that: happy, hopeful. His spontaneous reaction was one of joy.

    I slapped that shit right out of him. “Don’t sound happy!” I said, “This is terrible! I can’t have a baby – I’m practically 50!”

    “Oh,” he said, “Sorry about that.”

    My mind began to turn on me. I went to some very dark places. At one point, I actually consoled myself by thinking maybe I will lose this baby.  That is a terrible thing to admit, and I apologize to anyone who has gone through that, but it just shows how powerful fear alone can be, how destructive.

    Eventually I made an appointment with my midwife. And the first thing she said is, “How this this happen, Diane?”

    “Are you kidding?” I said, “You don’t know? This is why people don’t go to midwives!”

    She told me to calm down. She’s said I was perfectly healthy and things would probably be fine. But she also urged me to take a test for birth defects that can be done as early as 10 weeks.

    When I was pregnant with my first child, at 32, the chance of a problem was one in roughly 1,000 – so low I didn’t even bother getting tested. When I was pregnant with my second child, at 35, the odds were 1 in 400. Again I passed on the testing.

    But now, the odds of having a baby with a birth defect were one in 20. And, even though the chances of getting pregnant drop precipitously each year after age 40, the odds of a multiple birth – twin, or even triplets – increase substantially.

    With visions of twin babies in wheelchairs keeping me in a state of holy terror, I go to take the test.  As I’m filling out the forms and get to the section on age, I see the last bracket is 40-45. There is no 46. When I turned in the form, I made a joke about this “discrimination against senior moms.” But in truth, it felt like a judgment, an omen. 

    There was nothing left to do but wait – the three longest days of my life.  Finally, the midwife called me with the results.

    “The baby’s perfect,” she said, “A little girl.”

    And just like that, that’s what this pregnancy – this “problem” – became: A little girl. My daughter. On the spot, I decide to name her Catherine Grace. (I wanted something unusual.)

    Catherine Grace turned 10 this year, and now, all I want is to turn back time. The pregnancy was a breeze, she was the easiest baby, and I had more fun with her than I think I’ve had with anyone in my entire life.

    And all those fears? Mostly just noise. Be careful of that noise. It drowns out so much of what’s good in life. It tempts us to do some really foolish things. And it seems to get the loudest right when we’re on the threshold of what, it turns out, we really want.

  • Oops I Forgot to Get Married by Kris Vire

    I was on the bus a few nights ago, on my way to spend a fancy night in a fancy hotel just off the Mag Mile. I wish I could say I was going to be spending it with a fancy gentleman. But no, this was part of a work project for a feature story on "staycations," and my perpetually single ass was going to be enjoying this hotel suite three times the size of my actual apartment all by my lonesome.

    Perhaps with that in the back of my mind, I was occupying my idle time on the bus trip the way I often do on the CTA or in line at Starbucks: browsing one of the five dating (and/or hookup) apps I have on my phone. This time I was on Tinder, which, for the happily uninitiated, is a fun game where you look at pictures of another person and swipe right if you think they're cute or left if you wouldn't give them a second look even if it was last call at a 4am bar on Valentine's Day. If you swipe right on someone who's also swiped right on you, Tinder gives you the option of sending that person a message, but this feature is rarely used; mostly, Tinder is the 2010s version of the old self-worth-murdering website Hot or Not.

    I'm swiping mostly left, like the picky, shallow monster that I am, when I come across a guy who's pretty attractive; I tap into his profile and he seems smart and funny, and we have a handful of mutual Facebook friends—Tinder ties into Facebook to show you how you're connected, because there's nothing Zuckerberg doesn't have his hands in these days.

    The guy is 27, which is, let's say, a significant number of years younger than me. But—and I don't know if you guys know this—it's been scientifically proven that 90 percent of the people on Tinder are 27, and most of them are also repeat marathon runners and world travelers who work hard to play hard and are looking for the proverbial "partner in crime." By which I mean, they're the worst.

    Sidebar: What I really can't figure out are the gay guys who live in the suburbs. Why? It's one thing if you're married and have children and want your own yard to mow or have a Metra fetish, but if you're a single gay man, what are you doing out there?

    This Tinder guy, despite the age difference, seems like not the worst, and sometimes you have to deal with what you're dealt. So I go to hit the "like" button, when the bus hits a jolt and I accidentally tap the dreaded "super like."

    The "super like" is a recently introduced feature of Tinder that's basically the "coming on too strong" of dating apps. I'm not completely sure how it works, but I think it actually calls the other person's phone, even if it's in airplane mode, and doesn't stop ringing until it can inform them that some really desperate person is trying to get their attention. I would never purposefully employ the "super like," as it would betray my sense of myself as simply a busy and successful and discerning…perpetually single person.

    I have "super liked" this poor guy. And yet Tinder says we're a match, meaning at some previous point he's at least swiped right on me. I decide I should save face by immediately sending him a message, the gist of which is, "Haha, didn't mean to come on so strong but glad we matched!" And eventually I get to the hotel and use my Facebook ninja skills to figure out who he is—and discover to my horror that he works for a company that my company works with, and it's suddenly even more awkward than I thought, and oh, the horror, the horror.

    So this is the state of my current dating life.

    Jump back a couple of months to Christmastime. I'm back home in Arkansas for a visit, and on the last night of my trip we have a big get-together with the extended family. My mom's side of the family has for the most part all lived in the same town for most of my life, so I grew up very close to my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins; we frequently got together for birthdays, holidays or college football games.

    While we're eating dinner, my younger cousin Michael—a kid I used to babysit for when I was in middle school—and his wife, both of whom I adore, confide in me that they're expecting their first child. I'm the first person, aside from their parents and Mike's sister, to whom they've decided to spill the beans. I couldn't be more honored. And then Michael realizes they have to tell the rest of the family now; if our grandma gets the idea that she's been left out, there'll be hell to pay. Everyone's obviously elated; there's a toast. I'm delighted, but there's something at the back of my brain wondering what exactly I've done wrong.

    My Dad and my Mom were 25 and 19 when they got married, and my Mom was 21 when I was born, the first grandkid on both sides. So I'm the oldest of all the cousins, but I seem to be the most single of us. My youngest cousin, who's 24, is the only one besides myself on my mom’s side who's not married—and the fact that I'm saying so on a stage right now probably means her boyfriend is proposing to her as I speak. I've never been all that bothered by it before now, but, I don't know, maybe it's the knowledge that now I could legally get married back home that makes me wonder if I've missed the boat.

    The idea of same-sex couples being able to get married was so far outside the realm of possibility when I was figuring out my sexuality that I would never have thought of it. One of the reasons I struggled with accepting being gay back in the early ’90s was that it Obviously meant giving up on the idea of marriage and family. That was for straight people. If I came out, getting married would disappear from my list of options, or so I believed.

    I wonder if that deep-seated dogma plays any part in how terrible I am at dating. I've only had one relationship that lasted more than a year, and it shouldn't have. I tend to go on two or three dates with someone new and then I just get ~really busy~ and forget to text them back, or else I never hear from them again. The only significant other I've ever brought home to meet the family was my last girlfriend, 20 years ago. With the exception of a couple of bad breakups, I'm friendly with all of my exes. I have a Master's degree in "let's just be friends."

    Now I'm nearing 40—god, that sounds so much more ominous when you say it out loud—and I'm starting to think all the "good guys" my age are already married off. That's why everyone on Tinder is 27, right? Of course I don't put all my online dating eggs into one basket. I have, over the years, had profiles on match.com, nerve.com, gay.com, ManHunt, Grindr, Scruff, Jack'd and Hinge. I see some guys on OkCupid who I've been seeing on dating sites for like ten years; I mean, you have to wonder what's the matter with those guys, right? Wait…

    A few weeks ago I spent a day hanging out with several of my oldest friends when I realized that I was the seventh wheel. These people I love individually are also three couples, and I've attended and/or stood up at all of their weddings. And though it didn't keep me from enjoying the company of some of my favorite people, the thought crept into the back of my mind: Is this how it's always going to be? Am I just The Single Guy? Whoops, I forgot to get married?

    I look around my circles of friends and family and I see so many incredible couples. I want what they have. I think. But it hasn't found me yet, and the more time goes by, the less sure I am that it will.

  • Wonder Woman by Natasha Tsoutsouris

    I am 4 years old and in the midst of my very first identity crisis. My parents have enrolled me in Montessori pre-school, where independence and creativity are highly encouraged. I can read AND write the entire alphabet and I have a ton of friends. I am practically the mayor of Montessori!

    But most importantly, I have an amazing boyfriend named Aaron. The first person I ever chose to love, he is adorable with his big ears, goofy smile and high pitched giggle. I am no slouch myself with my auburn curls and couldn't-quit-if-we-had-to dimples. We spend our time gleefully coloring outside of the lines and sharing a blanket at nap time.

    Despite my popularity and academic success, I know that the real me has yet to be fully unmasked; like a piece of my puzzle hasn't been flipped over. The only time I feel unbridled wholeness is when I wear my Wonder Woman pajamas. They consist of blue underwear with white stars and a red camisole with a gold bustier emblazoned on it. Come to think of it, they're pretty seedy pajamas for a 4 year old. Nevertheless, they are fucking dope and they are my only chance at showing the world who I really am.

    But how am I going to wear my Wonder Woman pj's to school without my mother knowing? She always chooses my clothes because she claims I “simply don't know what works.” Always at the height of fashion, my mother has impeccable taste – for herself. Never one to leave the house without a full face of makeup, she is the envy of the other Montessori mothers, with her penchant for high heels and Gucci bags. But it does not occur to her that she doesn't know me or what I like. Every night as I crawl into bed, the ritual begins:  my mother goes through my dresser and picks out my clothes for the following day. She lays them on the rocking chair in the corner of my room where they hang lurk like a younger, yet no less acerbic, version of a Sweathog.

    I can not let this continue! I need to discuss it with Aaron. His quiet strength is infallible and I have come to rely heavily upon it. The next morning we are playing in the sandbox. He is always doing something that just dazzles me and today is no different. He's making an enormous castle, complete with a drawbridge, while I let sand trickle through my fingers.

    “Aaron, I don't like the clothes my mommy makes me wear.”

    “You should do what she says. She's your mommy.”

    “I know. But they're not me!”

    “Your shirt today has a lion on it! That's you,” he says, while dragging his finger in the sand around his castle to make a moat.

    “Thanks. The furry face is kinda itchy, though. I wanna be Wonder Woman. Do you like Wonder Woman?”

    Aaron fills up his moat with water from a blue plastic pail, watches the water mix with the sand and says, “I love her.”

    The next morning, I wake up before my Mickey Mouse alarm clock goes off. My pajamas still warm with sleep, I sit on the edge of my bed, head in hands, glaring at the ghost of Horshack present: brown corduroy pants and a mustard yellow turtleneck. My mother raps on my door, “Natasha, it's time to do your hair.”

    I look at the clothes. I look at the door. In a flash, I throw on the clothes and zip up the pants just as she walks in. Standing in front of my unicorn mirror, my mother separates my curls into two uneven bunches, or “buffies”, as she calls them. Cringing as I watch myself morph into something I do NOT want to be, she pulls them tight and fastens them with mismatching elastics. I look like a very full colostomy bag. With crooked buffies.

    I finally get to school and immediately run to the alcove in the back of the classroom; it's also where the mini-trampoline is. It faces the whole classroom and it's the perfect stage for my unveiling. I hop on it and survey my audience, searching for Aaron. I finally spot him fashioning a paper towel roll into a sword. Yet again, dazzling. I take a deep breath and slowly start to jump, my uneven buffies bouncing in rhythm.

    I peel off my brown, corduroy pants and toss them on the green shag carpeting. Part Wonder Woman, part my mother's me, I jump a little higher, with a bit more confidence, my legs bare and proud in my blue starred underwear. No one is even giving me a second glance. That's the problem with Montessori. You have to do something pretty unorthodox to get noticed. I remove my mustard yellow turtleneck and fling it across the room, revealing my red camisole with gold bustier. The stale classroom air swells up under my arms as I jump higher. I close my eyes and tilt my head back, my crooked buffies tickling my shoulders.

    All of a sudden, I am jarred out of my revelry by the crude poking of my ribs. I open my eyes to find that Dimitri Shedakis, an unruly classmate of mine, is jumping next to me. And he's poking me with his Cheetos stained fingers.

    I am WONDER WOMAN! I rise women up and bring men to their knees. I fight for justice! And there is certainly no justice in allowing my moment of greatness to be tainted by some renegade with a Kool Aid mustache. So I push him off the trampoline.

    “There's no ROOM!”

    Justice served, I resume my jumping but keep an eye on Dimitri, who runs to our teacher's desk, grabs something off of it and scurries back to the trampoline. He stares right at me, his brown eyes snapping like two rabid Dobermans. His right hand, holding a stapler, is raised. I hold Dimitri's gaze while I continue to jump. He purses his lips like a duck and lowers his right hand to his mouth.

    I slow my jumping.

    His stare unwavering...Dimitri staples his mouth shut.

    Four. Times.

    I stop jumping.

    Dimitri tries to scream but he can't because he has STAPLED HIS MOUTH SHUT. He manages to squeak out a few muffled cries from a little unstapled pocket in the corner of his mouth. Aaron comes racing over to the trampoline and recoils in fear when he sees Dimitri. He looks over at me and does a double take upon seeing my Wonder Woman outfit. Finally! He gives me his trademark goofy grin, looks at Dimitri and then back at me. His pride for me outweighed by his fear of Dimitri, the look on his precious face clearly asks, “How did we get HERE?”

    Our classmates rush up and form a ring around Dimitri, pocket full of crazy. Is this unorthodox enough for ya?? When everyone realizes what's happened, full on bedlam erupts. Dimitri is bleeding everywhere, kids are crying hysterically. But I don't move from the trampoline. And it's not because I'm worried about getting trampled by 20 rioting kids. I'm pissed. I'm pissed that after having the plums to show the world who I really am, it is eclipsed by Dimitri going Deer Hunter. I stand there, seething, when Aaron takes my hand in his. He doesn't get on the trampoline; he lets me be me. He stays on the green shag carpeting, intertwining his fingers with mine.

    We stand together, holding hands and watching our Rome burn. Our teacher, Mrs. Shulack comes over, takes one look at Dimitri's stapled lips, gingerly cups his face with her hands and says, “Ohmygodwhatdidyoudowhatdidyoudowhatdidyoudo????”

    Everything is a complete blur and the next thing I know, my mother comes running into the classroom and races towards me as fast as her wedge heels will allow, her gold crocheted top billowing behind her. The classroom looks like a war zone with blood splattered on the floor, bean bags asunder and parents swooping in like fighter jets. Aaron is terrified of my mother so he drops my hand the instant he sees her. She scoops me off the trampoline and darts through the minefield of blood droplets and smooshed cookies.

    I am watching Aaron over her shoulder and see his mother fly in through the side door, yanking him to safety. My mother carries me to her maroon Chevy sedan, snaps my seat belt in and peels out, leaving a thick cloud of dust in her wake. Keeping one hand on the wheel and one hand on my leg, my mother's breathing evens as we get further and further from the crime scene. She looks at me, the sight of me in my pajamas finally settling in and I see her mouth begin to curl in anger.

    I brace myself for what's about to come. But just at that moment, she notices a little smear of Dimitri's blood on my arm and shuts her mouth as quickly as she opened it. That’s right!! I. AM. WONDER. WOMAN.

  • Dog Bite, or How I Learned to Quit Worrying and Forget the Beauty Standard by Julie Cowden

    It is my studied opinion that there is nothing more boring than listening to a person complain about their physical flaws.  At best, it ends in the feeling that the person thus afflicted with a long nose or shitty hair is not-so-subtly begging you to tell them what is acceptably attractive about them.  At worst, it devolves into an echo-chamber of self-flagellation, where the listener can’t help but chime in with their own appearance-based neuroses, and so both members of this damned conversation drown themselves in a sea of ridiculous self-pity.  

    But … Since I have this special opportunity to engage in this “conversation” without either:

    A) the immediate assurance from my listener that “But, Julie….you are BEEEE-YOOOO-TIFUL in so many ways!”,

    OR

    B) fearing that my listener will delve into their own “issues” and focus will be diffused away from MY problems………….

    Well ……. let’s just say I hope you brought a life vest, because it is about to get reeeeeal deep up in here.

    When friends used to come over to my house for dinner when I was in middle and high school, at the dinner table I would always warn them, don’t look down.  Our family dog was a master manipulator by that time, having lived with my family for over fourteen years.  She would softly rest her chin on your knee and position her head just so.  The overhead light would catch her cataracts and the unlucky victim would be completely sapped of will, laying their plate on the floor so it would be easier for her to eat.  That dog knew how to serve face.

    My family lived in Hawaii before I was born.  Assholes.  They got the aforementioned dog there, and they named her Poio, after ‘poi,’ the indigenous mashed taro root dish.  She was a beautiful collie mix.  A few years later, my family relocated to Arkansas and I was born.  Once again, assholes.  Poio did not take kindly to my arrival.  Or maybe Arkansas itself pissed her off.  Understood, Poi.  While never overtly aggressive, she was suspicious of the little pink naked mole rat that was dividing the family’s attention.  We reached an uneasy truce throughout my toddler years, and she came to tolerate me, even like me, by the time I was three years old.  I adored her, and spent countless hours sitting next to her and petting her soft strawberry blond and white coat.  That is, until she bit my nose off.

    Just the tip, as the joke goes.

    One day my mother called the teenage girl across the street to come babysit me while she took a shower.  Looking back on this now, I’m sure that “taking a shower” also included “smoking a joint,” but who am I to judge?  The neighbor girl, Sheila, was my hero so I was happy to spend time with her.  We settled into my family’s living room and Sheila stood up with that week’s issue of TV Guide, and walked ACROSS THE ROOM to go change channels until we found something to watch.  I was sitting on the floor next to Poi, and I leaned over and gave her a hug.  I must have squeezed her too tightly or surprised her because she turned and snapped at me like a flash.  She just caught the tip of my nose and part of my upper lip.  I remember looking up, seeing Sheila turn around in slow motion, and the TV Guide fluttering to the floor.  Sheila scooped me up into her arms and raced back to the bathroom where my Mom was, surprisingly, actually taking a shower.  Sheila banged on the door and was screaming - I had no idea why she was so upset.  My mother, sopping wet and wrapped in a towel, threw open the door, took one look at me and went as white as a sheet.   She tried to pull jeans on over her wet skin.  Sheila ran across the street to get her Dad to help get me to the hospital.  My mom must have been quite wild-eyed, because when he got there he jokingly asked who needed to be taken to the hospital - me or my Mom.  It was me - I was the three year old with blood pouring out of my face.  My mother did not find that question amusing and from that moment on harbored a deep mistrust of Mr. Krajewski.

    I have only one distinct memory from the hospital - they had to restrain me because I was not going down without a fight.  I couldn’t move my arms.  But there was a nice nurse who kept bringing me lollipops to console me.  First red, then purple..then my favorite - green.  Which of course she dropped on the floor just before reaching me.  I was having my best day.

    If it sounds like I remember all this stuff remarkably well for being only three when it happened, the memories I have shared with you so far are nothing compared to the next one.  I got home.  And I don’t know who wasn’t watching me or whatever, but I made my way into the bathroom.   And I looked in a mirror.

    They had wrapped most my whole head in gauze.  I was purple and swollen around the mouth.  There was blood seeping through the bandages on the tip of my nose  I looked like the Mummy.  I was a monster.  I didn’t cry.  I just stared into my own eyes and let that feeling sink down into the part of me that will never hear different.  I stood there for what felt like forever, just staring at my poor, bandaged little face.  I started becoming me.

    What happened to Poio, you might ask?  Nothing.  My family shunned her for a few days and it was obvious that she knew she fucked up.  I know it was my fault and that she probably didn’t mean to hurt and only to warn.  When we finally got over all the hullabaloo, she kept right on being a spoiled Cowden dog and continued down that path for fourteen more years before finally dying in her sleep.  The feeling I got while looking in the mirror that day still lives.  And that beast has been fed plenty a delicious morsel since then.

    Choice tidbits include being on Accutane so long I experienced suicidal ideation.  “No, really,” I thought to myself, “if I just looped some a belt over one of those beams in the ceiling I could do it.”  Or once hearing that someone whose opinion I didn’t give two shits about would only fuck me if I wore a bag over my head.  I didn’t care about this person!!  Why did that still feel like a punch in the gut?  Or, at least two times a year since I’ve been married to my husband, some stranger congratulating me.  For locking that down.   Every time I see a picture of myself I am reminded that that’s a picture of me.

    Blah blah boring.  This shit has happened to every person on the planet at one point or another.   

    I was still pretty young when I decided the only way around it is to be amazing in Every.  Other.  Way.

    I didn’t know that emotional triage was happening in my tiny little mind as I looked at myself after the bite.  But my coping strategies took root soon thereafter.  First - be the funniest person in any given room.  Second - get smart, because that crafty little brain is all you’ve got.  And third, and this was perhaps the most important if also the most difficult - cultivate a definite air of not giving a fuck.  I was lucky in the first strategy in that my family is pretty funny, so I had a leg up.  I worked really hard in school because I knew that was an arena in which I could excel, even dominate, most of my peers.  As far as not giving a fuck...I’m still working on that one.

    I grew up as a girl in the South, where there is an early expectation of physical perfection.  I started wearing a full face of makeup in seventh grade.  Until I smoked pot for the first time, I would get up every morning and spend thirty minutes painting a more “acceptable” face over my own.  Then, miraculously one morning toward the end of ninth grade, I looked in the mirror and let myself catch a glimpse of my bandaged face from so long ago.  I realized that life is short and fucked up, so who gives a shit?  I also figured I could get an extra thirty minutes of sleep if I cut this time out of my routine.  Boom.  It was gone.  I had made a choice that would separate me from the majority of girls I went to school with - that is - I would never wear makeup regularly again.  Now that I’m older, I realize that sometimes the ritual of makeup is worth it in itself, even fun.  But I also realize that it is not a necessity as I was taught to believe.  The almost defiant act of wearing a bare face daily is a definite pillar of the zero fucks to give strategy.

    Another pillar of not giving a fuck is not listening to my grandmother, who was in turn brainwashed by her own mother to vocally judge other women on their appearance.  The last time I went home, the first thing my grandmother said to me when I went to see her was “You cut your hair!  I don’t like it.”  She really thinks I care!  I used to.  I used to let comments like that sink right down into me in silence.  Now I respond “Well, it’s a good thing that you didn’t get this haircut then, so you don’t have to live with the horror.”  When I’m on the phone with her and she starts loudly declaring that “so and so would be so much happier if she would just lose weight,” or “so and so is so pretty,” or “why doesn’t so and so just put a little more effort into it,” I roll my eyes and let her talk it out without responding or egging her on.  Hopefully soon I’ll get to the stage where I can ask why she feels the need to say such things.  Still working on it.

    So I move through the world as a straight, white woman born in the United States.  With all the privilege and disadvantage that come along with that fact - a fact in which I had no choice.  The choices that remain to me now are how I navigate this reality.  I lift heavy weights, I wear perfume.  I play a man onstage, I paint my toenails.  I am grateful for the knowledge that there is more to life than the narrow ideals that our culture defines as  “beauty.”  An idea that has taken me a lifetime to internalize.  As I move into middle age, I look forward to settling into myself even more and maybe letting that little face off the hook.  She did what she had to do.

    Poio was a beautiful dog that lived the final years of her life nearly blind and stinking to high heaven with mange, her beautiful strawberry blonde coat patchy and coarse. But she remained happy to get a scratch behind the ears or trick you out of your dinner until the very end.  No one ever told her any different.

  • The Ballad of a Girl Who Prefers Not To by Eileen Dougharty

    SONGS ARE STORIES, I write on the board in sunny yellow chalk. I’m about to teach a workshop on advanced songwriting, which seems improbable as I don’t know anything about writing songs.But I’ve been assured the girls I’m going to teach already understand their musical mechanics, and I can use my storytelling knowledge to teach them about writing lyrics.

    I am a counselor at Girls Rock! Chicago, a day camp for girls aged 8 to 16. The campers spend a week putting together a band, learning instruments and writing a song to perform, as well as attending workshops about topics like body image, bullying, and social media. I volunteered to be a counselor because I was enthralled by the notion of young girls being encouraged to make noise. I spent my youth fantasizing I could be a rock star, which was in major conflict with my worth as a girl in my house. My mother gave me the message I was probably pretty enough to marry someone important, which was the goal, or maybe smart enough to have an impressive “career”, which was the consolation prize, but most likely not pretty or smart enough to have both.

    I officially hated all of these options. I turned to the dark haired ladies of rock and roll to guide me. Chrissie Hynde, Joan Jett, Ann Wilson; they were my official consultants through adolescence, at least on a fantasy level. But in reality I still toed the line, doing what everyone expected of me, all the while keeping my mouth shut. I I took the camp counselor gig determined to teach the girls what I didn’t know at their age; that they could grow up to be anything they wanted, that they didn’t have to put up with the same shit that I did.

    I find out my "advanced” designation for this workshop turns out to be no reflection on their songwriting expertise, it just means they’re the oldest girls at camp, the 15 and 16 year olds. The girls shuffle into my classroom, all wearing the current apathetic teenage girl uniform: tank tops with bra straps showing, jean shorts the size of underwear, Converse low tops and Adidas. Some have colorfully streaked hair, many have braces, all have the same sullen expression as they settle in and turn their eyes my direction.

    I explain that although I am not a musician (cue audible disdain), I have experience writing and telling stories. I tell them a story, by definition, is “an account of imaginary or real people and events told for entertainment.” But I expound that stories can be more than entertainment, they can be used to educate and make connections with other people. Like happy songs can spread joy and sad songs can make you feel less alone when you’re feeling down. Can they give me an example of a song that makes them happy? Blank stares. A song that makes them sad? Nothing. Can they tell me a song that’s had any effect on them of any kind. Any. Effect. Of any kind.

    Finally, I say, “It’s going to be a really long and painful hour the way things are going. Anyone want to humor me?”

    One green haired girl takes pity on me and raises her hand. “How about that Sarah McLachlan song they play on the commercial? You know, the one with the dogs? It’s pretty sad, but mostly because of the dogs.”

    I agree. Sarah McLachlan's “Angel” combined with the doggie downer is a serious bummer.

    Anyone else? No?

    I then launch into talking about songs that are calls to action. Songs that inspire, songs that make people really think about things. I mention having my mind awakened by Patti Smith and Liz Phair and Ani Difranco. Anyone have a call to action song? Nothing? Okay, what might those songs be about?

    One girl raises her hand and says, “Getting pissed off?” I start waving my hands, “YES! About what?” “I dunno, things that aren’t fair?”

    I write on the chalkboard, ANGER next to a big arrow pointing to the word UNFAIR.

    “Okay, what else might you be pissed off about?” “Getting screwed over by a guy?” Sure. Same girl says, “I write most of my songs to get even with guys who’ve wronged me.” “Well," I tell her, "that certainly worked out for Adele."

    I write REVENGE on the board in big letters. The adults in the back of the room now have their arms crossed. Another girl mentions she is upset about the state of the American political system.

    I then launch into a semi-coherent ramble about when these girls go to write songs, they need to keep in mind their words can affect people. I tell them “You should recognize that even before you can vote, you can start changing the things you’re pissed off about if you take your responsibility as an artist seriously. Know that your art can shape the future. It’s not so much about becoming rich and famous as it is about being SEEN and being HEARD."

    The whole room stares blankly at me, but I am strangely unstoppable.

    “Women are 51% of the population,” I tell them. “This means YOU ARE NOT A MINORITY, so do not accept being treated like one. If you write a song or a poem or a story about sexism or politics or relationships or whatever, and you share it with other people, and they talk about it, THAT IS WHAT CHANGE LOOKS LIKE. ”

    With that, I run out of steam and I feel like a goddamn lunatic. I look to one small wiry girl with a blonde streak in her dark hair and a sour expression who is the only person in the room who hasn’t moved a muscle during the entire class. Coming down off my rant, I turn to her and say, “You’ve been awfully quiet. Can I ask you to share something you’re angry about? A song you like? No wrong answers, whatever you'd like to contribute.”  She stares at me and says unwaveringly, “NO.” “No?" "NO."

    Who does this kid think she is? I was a snarkasaurus at her age too, but I never said NO to an adult. Fuck this shit.

    I wrap up with some half assed speech about how girls have come a long way from being “with the band” to being “in the band,” and they all look at me like “Duh, lady. Can we go play our instruments now?” I glance at the clock and mercifully, my hour is over.

    It’s 2:30 on Monday afternoon, the first day of camp and I cannot believe I have to spend four and a half more days with these bratty bad asses. Great plan, Eileen, tell me again why we’re not drinking Pinot Grigio and reading the New Yorker during our leisure time like a normal middle aged broad?

    I head out to discover what band I’ll be working with for the rest of the week. Great, more teenagers. On guitar is a familiar face: Sage, the girl who just said NO. Sage is a pint sized powerhouse; what she lacks in stature, she more than makes up for in attitude. Melissa, one of the camp’s founders, will be our band coach, who the girls respect enough to break their sulky expressions to greet her with a one second smile.

    As the teens don’t need much from me, I spread my love around camp talking to the younger girls who are yanking each other around by their friendship bracelets and writing songs about unicorns. When we meet for Tuesday’s band practice, I tell Melissa that Sage didn’t want to participate in my songwriting class. She says, “Consider yourself lucky if she stayed through the whole thing. But she’s so much better than last year. She’s interacting with the other girls a lot more, and I’ve actually seen her smile a few times.”

    The day marches on and my girls are making progress putting a song together. I find out Sage didn’t go to Tuesday's afternoon workshop at all. Eventually I track her down, she’s hard at work with her laptop open, writing furiously in a notebook.

    “Everything going okay?” I ask. “Yeah,” she replies.

    Wednesday I attempt to physically coerce her into participating by walking her all the way to the workshop door when it’s time for it to start. She tells me she has to use the bathroom, and I know she won’t reappear until band practice. When I discuss it with Melissa, she tells me she doesn’t believe in making Sage do anything she doesn’t want to do, that she’s been coming to camp for years and she just prefers to work on her music. Every time that I find her, she shows me she's working hard, writing down ideas for lyrics, working on arrangements on her laptop, and when she comes to band practice, her work really shows.

    Thursday I see Sage bright and early in the hall heading towards the morning assembly. She smiles and waves “Hi,” which throws me for a loop. She shows up at a silkscreening workshop, much to my surprise. When they ask her to take her turn making a design, she shakes her head, no, she doesn’t want to. As the other girls go to town with the paint on the canvas, Sage sits in the corner with her laptop and goes back to working on her projects. I feel like I’m supposed to tell her to either participate in the workshop or leave if she’s going to do other things, but she knows she's free to go, yet she hasn’t.

    Then I have to ask myself, why am I so concerned about how Sage spends her time?

    The truth is Sage is my hero. At 16, she’s already at ease with choosing her own adventure. She puts what she feels is important before the expectations of anyone else around her. I grew up believing that to be considered attractive to others, you also had to be accommodating. I thought that being pretty and being agreeable were interconnected. It took me forty years to get where Sage is at; to recognize that my value did not lessen when I deviated from what other people wanted me to do. Sage’s unapologetic spirit is what makes her beautiful to behold.

    At Friday’s band practice, Sage melds what she’s been working on with her bandmates’ ideas, and the results are fantastic. She comes to me with an open box of Chips Ahoy and says, “I’ve found the secret to curing stage fright is cookies. Have one.” I tell her all the work she’s done on her own has paid off, and the song is spectacular. She smiles and says, “Do you really think so?”

    I see before me more than a bratty bad ass, I see a girl who is getting comfortable seizing her power. I take a cookie and tell her, “Yes, I do, Sage. I really do.”

    On my way out the door to catch the bus home, I take in the hundreds of post-it notes the girls have affixed to the walls over their week at camp, making pronouncements like I ROCK BECAUSE I AM DIFFERENT and I ROCK BECAUSE I AM LOUD and I ROCK BECAUSE I AM A GIRL!

    In these post it notes, in these young women, in these five days, I'm so grateful they were able to show me what change really looks like.

  • We Can Work On That by Dennis Frymire

    The Dun Aengus cliff, the island of Inishmore, off the west coast of Ireland.

    I’m standing about fifty feet from the cliff’s edge, on a flat, raised piece of rock, facing out into vastness of the Atlantic Ocean. Betsy, my fiancé is standing next to me, snapping pictures on her camera. She’s one of those rare individuals that actually still carries a camera that is simply just a camera.

    Somehow, we’ve beaten the other 30 or so tourists up the trail, and because of the nature of the way the fort is built up around the cliff, we are alone and out of sight for the time being.

    I am suddenly overtaken by this urge: I want to get naked.

    Before the rest of the group gets here, I want to strip off all of my clothes and stand buck naked in the brisk 40 degree February air, face spread eagle out into the ocean, as if I have conquered all of this and it is mine, and I want Betsy to capture this in a picture from behind me.

    This isn’t for Instagram or Facebook, not even Betsy. This is just for me.

    But before I go all Full Monty on the north Atlantic Ocean, I should go back and tell you how I came to be standing on the Dun Aengus cliff to begin with.

    Two and a half years earlier, Betsy and I were sitting in a bar in Lincoln Park here in Chicago, waiting to watch a friend’s band play. It was our second date. We had started the night off with dinner down the street, and we were already a couple of drinks in. Betsy was talking, telling me some story from her youth. I was totally enthralled with her, but I also realized I wasn’t exactly hearing what she was saying. Not really. I was busy taking everything else in: How she looked in that red sweater, the same one she had been wearing at the party we had met at a few weeks before, how her auburn hair fell around the earrings, the sound of her voice as she spoke, the atmosphere of the bar surrounding us. I hadn’t fallen for her, not just yet, I really, really wanted to. And I wanted her to fall for me. I wanted this to work.

    I was kind of lost in this thought and when I tuned back in, Betsy was talking about her travels, the places she has been. How she went to Nicaragua with her last boyfriend.

    My heart sank a little.

    She talked about the countries she has been to in Europe; it was probably easier to name the European countries she hasn’t been to. She lived there for a while with her family when she was a kid.

    My heart sank a little more.

    Then she looked at me, expectedly, and said, “So…where you have you been?”

    My heart, it hit bottom.  

    The truth was, I had never been out of the country. When I was a kid, my parents rarely felt the need to leave the city limits of our small town of 5,000 in Southern Illinois, let alone travel anywhere for a vacation. We simply couldn’t afford it. Then I went to college. There, and in my early adulthood, all my focus was on being performing. So I had always lived the broke actor lifestyle. The extent of my travels was mostly the southeast part of the U.S. back when I did touring children’s theater – some beautiful theaters here and there, but mostly elementary school auditoriums and Motel 6’s.  Now that I was in Chicago, I was doing all I could just to keep my head above water. The curiosity to travel was always there, I just never made it a priority. When I hit 30, I started to become really, really self-conscious about it.

    The comedian Lewis Black has a bit where he laments how before being elected president – forgive me, before he became president -George W. Bush had never been out of the country. “How is that possible?” screams Black. “Even drunk, on a dare, you make it to Canada!”

    What I’m saying is, I felt as unsophisticated as George W Bush.

    So if I was at a party, and the conversation turned to travel, especially of the international kind, I would get quiet, and try to become as small as possible. I would occasionally nod along with whatever whoever was saying, trying to seem like I knew what they were talking about when they talked about this sight or that in whatever country, just hoping, praying no one would actually turn to me and say…

    “So...where have you been?” Betsy asks me on our second date, waiting to watch my friend’s band play.

    In an instant, I imagine how the rest of the night will go. I’m going to tell Betsy I’ve never been out of the country. A look is going to come across her face, a look saying that she has immediately lost all interest in me, seeing me for the rube, the bumpkin, the uncultured redneck I am. She’ll say, “Oh.” We’ll make small talk the rest of the night as my friend’s band plays. When I drop her off at her place later, we might make out a little; what the hell, we’re drunk. But when I text or message or call her a couple of days later, it’ll take her a couple of days to eventually reply, and it’ll be to say she’s too busy, or I’m nice, but she’s just not interested, and that will be that.

    I imagine all this as I give my best charmingly self-deprecating smile and say, “Well, Betsy, that’s my dirty little secret. I’ve never been out of the country. Not even to Canada.”

    I wait. I wait for that look of disinterest to cross her face. For her to say, “Oh.” For my chance with her to be over. Instead, she smiles and says, “It’s okay. We can work on that.”

    A year later in September, we moved in together. Two Septembers later, a custom-designed engagement ring sat in my office closet, waiting for me to take it out and propose. But in our whirlwind love story, we still hadn’t had a chance to travel together outside of the country.

    Then one afternoon, she forwarded me an e-mail from some travel website about ridiculously low airfares from Chicago to Dublin in February and March, on the airline Aer Lingus. (I had never heard of Aer Lingus. Aer Lingus sounds to me like that crude gesture you make with your first and second fingers and tongue to indicate going down on a woman.)

    We shot some e-mails back and forth that afternoon of the “ha ha, wouldn’t that be nice” sort, not really taking it seriously. But then we got home that night, and we both had a rough day, and we started drinking. Whiskey. We talked about that e-mail some more. We drank about that e-mail some more. And before long, we started doing the math. Let me tell you how Whiskey Drunk Math works. In Whiskey Drunk Math, you add up the first column, carry the one, and that equals, “Fuck it, let’s go for it.”

    I woke up the next morning, heading throbbing. I rolled over to Betsy and said, “Did we book an international trip last night?” She rolled over, her head throbbing too and said, “I think we did.”

    I logged into Facebook, and saw that over 100 people had liked a photo I had posted the night before of the Ha’Penny Bridge over the River Liffey in Dublin, with a caption that read, “May or may not have just drunkenly booked a trip to Ireland over Valentine’s Day week. Hashtag ‘no regrets.’”

    Okay, so we regretted it for a couple of days. We freaked out for a couple of days. But we figured out how to make it work. And a couple of weeks later, I got down on one knee in our dining room and proposed. We had always talked about eloping, so my thought when we booked the trip was that going to Ireland would be our honeymoon immediately after our low key wedding. But wouldn’t you know it, as soon as she got a ring on her finger, Betsy wanted an actual wedding. A woman’s prerogative. Ireland would be our pre-honeymoon of sorts.

    I could tell you at least a dozen stories from our trip. I could tell you how I got my first taste of real jet lag that first day, having been awake for over 24 hours, looking down at my traditional Irish breakfast, and realizing for the last few seconds, I had been shaking pepper into my coffee. I could tell you about that first night, how we stumbled into a bar, exhausted, just planning on a nightcap before going back to our bed and breakfast to pass out, but instead ended up getting drunk with some locals, laughing and singing for over three hours. They even put a guitar in my hands – I’m a decent singer, not so great a guitar player – but they let me perform a couple of songs for the bar. I could tell you about going to mass on Valentine’s Day in the church where the actual Saint Valentine’s remains are enshrined, or about going horseback riding in Galway Bay. Or about visiting the Dun Aengus cliff. But the essence of all these stories – even the story of the night Betsy got food poisoning and spent the night in the bathroom vomiting while I watched House of Cards on my iPad - is the same. It is about me finally being able to say I had finally stepped foot outside of my own country, being in awe at any given moment that my feet were touching ground on the other side of the planet. I know that just one week in a European country is nothing compared to the stories of much more well-traveled people, and I know that in the grand scheme of things, being able to say you’ve traveled internationally is a petty, trivial personal accomplishment. But to a kid from the poor side of a small rural town, a kid who grew up in a trailer and was once told by his old man that anything he ever needed could be found at the local Wal-Mart, this trip, with the woman I was going to spend the rest of my life with, it meant much more.

    All of that is what’s going through my head when I’m standing on the Dun Aengus cliff, and I suddenly become overwhelmed with the notion of stripping naked on a raised platform of rock, looking off into the vastness of the ocean, and having a picture taken to capture the moment. A primal feeling I couldn’t articulate then, and honestly, can’t even quite articulate now. A primitive way of marking my territory. A way of saying, “I was here.”

    I tell Betsy what I want to do, and I’m already unzipping my jacket, and she grabs my hand, stopping me, telling me not to do it. I tell her we have time, we have at least a couple of minutes lead on the rest of the group, but she emphatically begs me to keep my clothes on. And realizing how terrified she is of getting embarrassed, of getting caught, I realize whatever moment of glory I would get from having such a picture taken wouldn’t be worth the distress it would cause her. So I let it go. Instead, we take a video that we post on Facebook later. Sure enough, thirty seconds after she talked me out of my scheme, the tourists came up through the fort entryway. Betsy was right; I would have been caught.

    Nevertheless, Betsy feels bad when I tell this story. She says if she could go back, she would take my picture they way I wanted, damn the embarrassment. She promises that if we ever make it back to the cliffs, we’ll make sure to get ahead of everyone so we have enough time to make it happen. She feels bad for not being as daring and spontaneous in the moment as I might have liked her to be. The same way I felt bad about not being well traveled. In either case, there is a simple beauty in the words she said in the bar that night on our second date.

    “It’s okay. We can work on that.”

  • I Hugged Ellen DeGeneres by Jason Smith

    I hugged Ellen DeGeneres this summer.

    My brother and his wife are animal people. Devoted animal people. One might even say they are CRAZY animal people. They volunteer at the local cat shelter. They feed the family of raccoons that live in their neighborhood. They have 7 or 8 cats. My sister-in-law dresses up these cats in various cat costumes and takes pictures of them. They even have a pet rat. Yuck! His name is Martin. He has a Facebook page. He has more friends than I do.

    My brother’s love of animals is one of the many ways we are very much the opposite of each other. He is 5’10’. I was 5’10 in 8th grade. He is straight. I was straight in 8th grade. He loves all animals. I don’t really care for animals at all. That’s not entirely accurate. I love animals, as long as they are a safe distance away. A safe distance is usually 10 feet away with a cage.

    So, while visiting my brother and his wife in Southern California. I was surprised with a trip to a place called The Gentle Barn. The Gentle Barn is an animal sanctuary near Pasadena, California. They rescue farm animals. Horses. Pigs. Chickens. They’re usually taken from some horrible cowshwitz type factory.

    We go with their cat shelter friends. So it’s me in a super cute hat I bought at the renegade craft fair and my new white sunglasses from Target. We are with a group of older, very nice, cat ladies and their husbands. And my mom. My mom, who is over the whole thing, and stays in the car reading her Bible.

    Truthfully, it’s kind of fun. We hug the weird, sad cows that are covered in flies. All these crazy ladies are talking about the energy from the cows and how it appreciates being saved. I go with it. When we feed the horses right out of our hands, I go with it. The horse’s tongue licks my hand, and I totally go with it because, I am a good person. I don’t want this horse to be glue. It’s happy here licking people’s hands. It’s not nasty at all.

    I was pleasant and calm.

    Then we walk to the pig pen. Actually it was the pig AND poultry pen. That was awful. I asked to leave. Please get me out. Please... I have an unhealthy relationship with all fat, feathered, wobbly things. . .

    I hate birds. All birds. Well, I like Big Bird. I mean he is tall and big and yellow and in a homosexual relationship with Snuffaluffagus. He sings, so I like it him. I’m a giant, how could I not like him? My relationship with non-Sesame Street birds came to a screeching halt on my 10th birthday. My entire extended family spent the day at the Minnesota Zoo. It was amazing. We saw the dolphins and the beluga whales.

    Then my whole family entered the tropical bird sanctuary.

    You know that part in a zoo where you walk through strips of plastic and the birds are flying on fake jungle trees? My brother noticed it first. There was a gigantic fake branch hanging over the exit and it was covered. It was completely covered, almost like it was painted on, with bird poop. Lots and lots of bird poop.

    My brother says ­ I hope we don’t get pooped on, and then we all laugh.

    HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

    Then it happened. I heard it first.

    SPLAT.

    I couldn’t see anything. I was wet. Very wet. Covered in smelly, smelly wetness. The gigantic tropical pelican had taken a dump ­ a giant bucket full no less ­ right on my 10 year old head.

    The zoo staff was awesome. They hosed me off in the seal area. At least I think it was the seal area. My brother and cousins were crying, you know, from laughter. I got a free Minnesota Zoo sweat pant outfit and a free lunch.

    Ellie, the woman who runs the Gentle Barn, is an Earth Mother Goddess. She is a Zen animal whisper. She is basically Doctor Doolittle. Ellie sensed that my bird button had been pressed in the pig and poultry pen. It was sense memory. It was the gobbling sound.

    I screamed, TURKYS ARE MEAN!!

    She answered, Yes, the male turkeys are horrible.

    Ellie so kindly grabbed my hand. Jason, have you hugged a turkey?

    ARE YOU KIDDING?

    Our turkeys here at The Gentle Barn are so sweet, and they just loved being hugged.

    I was bullied in high school just like every other gay kid in the United States and some parts of Canada. But I wasn’t just bullied by the jocks. I was also bullied by WILD TURKEYS.

    These wild turkeys lived in the hills behind our house. My first encounter with these monsters began simply enough. I was watching Leave it to Beaver, and I heard this incredible loud sound coming from all sides of the house. I got up from the couch and looked out the front bay window. Our house was surrounded by wild turkeys.  Thirty or forty wild turkeys were in our yard. I couldn’t leave. And the noise was growing louder and louder. I called for my mom.

    MOM THE HOUSE IS SURROUNDED I CAN’T GET OUT WHAT DO I DO?? THEY ARE EVERYWERE! HELP!

    These turkeys were gigantic hideous monsters. They would meander through the town pooping and gobbling wherever they felt like it. It was my job to clean up after these MONSTERS. Their poop was the size of a small dog. The male, the pretty one with the big feathered tale would charge at you.

    I would run screaming. MOOOOOOOOOM

    So here I am 20 years later and Ellie wants me to hug her big white turkey. I’m surrounded by the cat ladies. They’re all like... OOOHH Jason you have to hug a turkey. My sister in law starts to snicker.

    You should totally do it, Ellie explained, this white turkey, her name is Ellen DeGeneres in honor of Ellen’s big donation and support of The Gentle Barn.

    Now I am thinking. Oh my god this turkey is a gay turkey. I can hug a big white gay turkey. If I am every going to the do this it’s going to be with a lesbian turkey. She matches my hat and glasses.

    YOU CAN DO THIS. YOU CAN BE BRAVE.

    So, we are in the poultry section. The ground is covered in chicken poop. It’s slathered in it. I am wearing nice jeans and a gingham dress shirt (with my cute hat and glasses). AND SO I AM GOING TO DO IT!! And so I sit. .... JUST BREATHE JASON... I sit right in the middle of the chicken poop covered floor. My hands are now covered in poop. AND I DONT WANT TO GET THE TURKEY COVERED IN CHICKEN POOP. I mean ­ she’s white.

    OH GOD.

    I reach out my arms.

    AND I DO IT.

    I hug Ellen DeGeneres.

    I hug Ellen DeGeneres, the turkey.

  • Where Have All the Cowboys Gone by Jeremy Owens

    Hey there. Hi. Remember me? I’m your old friend the homosexual. Yeah, I know. It has been a little while; I thought I’d drop by and remind all of you that I am still here. Nearly six months have passed since Obergefell v. Hodges. Do you even remember what that is? It’s a very big deal, which bears repeating, so I’ll remind you. It’s the landmark United States Supreme Court case in which the Court held in a 5-4 decision that the fundamental right to marry is guaranteed to same-sex couples by both the Due Process Clause AND the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteen Amendment to the United States Constitution. WOW. That’s really just a lot of fancy words to say “we all have to get married now.” So, you know, thanks for that. YAY.

    Decision Day: June 26, 2015 was a very big day indeed. The ruling caused the entire gay community to eat its weight in Chick-fil-A while waiting around for Mike Huckabee’s predictions of fire raining from the sky. We do love a show, but not one single set of interesting curses or plagues has befallen our little racist nation. No one has turned into a pillar of salt. Obama hasn’t thrown any Evangelical Christians into jail, Texas has not succeeded from the Union, pedophilia is still illegal, my next-door neighbor has yet to propose to her goats, and for reasons beyond anyone’s comprehension Pat Robertson is still breathing.

    No, so far as anyone can tell, our Bible thumping friends got it all wrong. In the months since the Supreme Court’s decision, all that has happened is that we gays have become completely beige and have faded into the ether like so many seasons of American Horror Story. The only question that has come up in the last six months is, to borrow a line from Paula Cole, “Where have all the cowboys gone?”

    One might think that all of us have vanished. I don’t mean to scream fire in an old speakeasy, but we’re beginning to blend in with the rest of you. It’s not so easy to pick us out of a crowd anymore. All of you are wearing skinny jeans, lip syncing on the Tonight Show and look like George Surat. Musicals are full of rap and my grandmother has seen Justin Beiber’s penis. The world has turned upside down, and if I have to attend one more baby shower or watch any more recently married queens dancing to Adele I’m going to pop a blood vessel.

    Sadly, our little tribe of miscreants has become so culturally insignificant lately, so mundane, so mainstream that the only person who has gained any traction by harboring resentments toward us is that old lady in Kentucky whose hair thinks it’s 1993. Famously mouthy Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump can’t even be bothered to say a disparaging word about us. In fact, he hasn’t taken the time to slight us at all. Nothing. Not once!

    The queer brothers and sisters among us might rightly suspect that this has far more do with his wife Melania’s glamor squad than anything else. Piss those folks off and the gig is up. Those poor souls are taxed with keeping Mr. Trump from looking anything more like Cousin It; they’re also the only thing keeping the world from realizing Melania’s true identity: Obviously she’s Russian Spy Julia Child.

    Donald Trump is a man who has become notorious for his unapologetic insults to Latinos, Asians, veterans, and people with vaginas. Just last week, he reached the pinnacle of his buffoonery by openly mocking a disabled New York Times reporter at a campaign rally. Friends, if this dude doesn’t have anything defamatory to say about us we are toast. Our fifteen minutes are over.

    Big D, that’s what I like to call him, with his penchant for name-calling and plans to deport every undocumented immigrant living in the United States, has not exactly established a reputation for tolerance. Yet his record suggests that he might actually be the most LGBTQ-friendly Republican running for president.

    Yeah. Let that one sink in.

    When asked whether private companies should be able to fire employees simply because they’re gay, Trump told “Meet The Press” host Chuck Todd that he didn’t think sexual orientation “should be a reason” for letting workers go. As far back as 2000, Trump was advocating the idea of amending the 1964 Civil Rights Act to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation . . . something the currently–pending Equality Act would basically do if any of those jerks in Washington did anything other than take turns blowing Mitch McConnell.

    None of this is said to imply that the real estate mogul and reality TV host doesn’t have miles to go. He was consistently opposed to marriage equality and has remained relatively silent on transgender rights. He has been despicable to women and just about everyone else on the planet, but if the guy who is leading the pack and setting the tone is not coming after us what does that say about our place at the table? Would we get one?

    Are we witnessing the death of gay culture? Will this mean that I won’t have to dodge bachelorette parties at Sidetrack? How long until they put up a plaque in front of Roscoe’s? When we said, “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it,” This is not what we had in mind. Listen, I understand how lucky I am to live in a world where I can have a husband and eat cheese imported from France, but I miss the old days. Way back when you could tell which side a man’s bread was buttered by the color of handkerchief in his back pocket. Way back when we were a sure fire hit at all of your parties. Way, way back before we became invisible.

  • The Sacred Act of Giving by Keith Ecker

    Welcome congregants. Today’s sermon is a timely one. Giving.

    Tis the season of giving. So much fucking giving. Giving gifts. Giving your time. Giving a damn. Giving a hello! Giving a shit. Giving a fuck. Giving yourself. Giving peace and blessings, peace and blessings to all. All this giving, swirling around in the air like little snowflakes just demanding to be gobbled up by the fat fucking maw of an Indiana cherub strolling down Michigan Avenue with his sweat-panted parents as they mouth breathe upon window displays of Chinese-manufactured garbage. But even with such a flurry of generosity, there is one form of giving that reigns supreme above all others, the Christ child of giving, as it were - this is the sacred giving of opinions.

    Bless your little inconsequential opinions though they are weak and small and they amount to nothing but the beating of a housefly’s wings in the midst of a jet engine. They are fragile and malformed, built from frail materials like whatever you just read on ThinkProgress or Breitbart.com or your cousin’s social media feed, with all of its Drake memes and Miley Cyrus hot takes.

    But neigh, though your opinions may be meek, they become loud, amplified by the miracle that is Facebook, which serves as a divine echo chamber in which your tiny critiques can flutter around like heavenly angels, fraternizing with like-minded thoughts until what once was your little opinion becomes an earthquaking tidal wave of dogma hellbent on crushing any naysayer under the heel of its blessed boot.

    Oh praise thee Mark Zuckerberg for casting light onto what was once a dark and barren earth in which the Lord’s flock was forced to sit isolated in thought, captive with our own opinions. We were islands of judgments, secluded from giving our points of view, save for the occasional phone call or dinner party that we never really liked going to anyway. We were little powderkegs of ideas, bottled up with our observations, just waiting to explode like a geyser blasting pithy musings and political rants into the stratosphere. And so the world suffered because its people would never know that you thought 9/11 was an inside job or that you went to the Girl and the Goat and ate some delicious savory foam thingy.

    But now, now with His holiness the Facebook accompanied by the celestial Twitter and Instagram, we have sledgehammered the walls that separated us, breaking down the dam to unleash a torrent of thought across the jagged stones of reality. Now - with “likes” raining down upon us like manna from heaven - we dance in merriment atop our shared opinions like an Italian grape stomper smashing out sweet sweet nectar of the gods, but instead of our toes, we use our fingers and instead of wine, we are producing think pieces about how white women feel about black women in yoga studios or about how that one white woman thought she was a black woman or about how that one dress looked black and blue. And those aforementioned stones of reality? They become ever-smoother, ever more uniform in nature as the tide of opinion erodes all edges, diminishes every nuance, until your opinion and my opinion and the opinion of your neighbor become one unified and indistinguishable holy trinity.

    What evolves is a passion play of partisanship, with two opinions, one being good - and the good opinion being yours of course - and one being evil. And so the struggle for good is a struggle for purity of thought. And so good versus evil becomes not a thing of Biblical fable but of real consequence, where if you give prayer at the alter of social media hard enough, perhaps you can convert the opposition, or at least banish the evil opinion back to the depths of whatever fiery hell - or Internet troll - from whence it came.

    And who has bestowed this right upon us to pass opinion like so much hot flatulence? Why divine authority. Just as the trees sprout leaves and the birds give way to song and a guy on Tinder fills your inbox with dick pics, our minds - manufactured in the assembly plant of the eternal in the time before we were born - naturally formulate opinions. If you have a thought, then you have a right to share it, no matter how air-filled that thought may be. Obama is a Muslim? Lean cuisines are food? Rahm is a heck of a mayor? If your mind thinks it, your fingers can type it and we can all read it. And thus your ideas become enshrined in the temple of our collective consciousness.

    And it is here where we must pause to reflect on the true gift that is giving one’s opinion. For we do not merely espouse our thoughts just to hear the beauty that is our own voice. Neigh, opinions are the tools by which we craft society, by which we modify our realities. We wield opinions like kitchen mallets, pounding the chicken breasts of the mind into delicious piccata because it is our earthly duty to save others from having brain porridge. We fling our opinions into the ether of the Internet to let humanity know we are alive, to cry out, “I exist, and I have a thought about Justin Bieber!” We give our opinions as a form of charity, expecting nothing in return save for complete agreement. And should we encounter the demon that is opposition or - the lesser imps of follow-up questions and requests for clarifications - we must stand strong with opinions deeply rooted in the ground like a mighty oak, an oak that believes racism is a card pulled by lazy welfare queens and that Mexicans are taking all of our jobs.

    So remember, God has given you the power to formulate and cast opinion as a way to shape His kingdom and his flock. Do not disappoint God. Give your opinion freely. Give it often. Give as Jesus gave his life on the cross. And if one day you come to find your opinion is wrong, do just as Jesus did upon his death and pull a total 180. That way, you will always be right - not just right with God - but just right.

    Amen.

  • The Time I went to A Naked Party by Catharine Savage

    I went to a fairly liberal institution of higher education. To demonstrate our liberalness some of my classmates liked to host what were called “naked parties,” parties where people were naked… pretty self-explanatory. As a young college student with very limited experience being nude (publicly or privately), I regarded these naked parties like a 12-year-old girl would: I giggled and exclaimed “oh my god, weird.” I had no problem with other people getting naked, but me? I’ll stay fully clothed in my dorm room watching glee and eating oreos dipped in peanut butter talking about how hard it is to meet people. Thanks for the invite, though, I said to no one because no one was inviting me to these parties.

    But when I returned to campus for Junior Spring after studying abroad in the Fall, I was a new woman. Having acquired a more global worldview, substantial knowledge of feminist theory, and 20 pounds, I was bored with my reserved and predictable former self. I was sick of having body image issues because that seemed way too trivial. I was tired of being shy and quiet because I had way too much to say. And most of all, I was truly, sincerely, absolutely done with considering myself a boring person. And what better way to confront all of that than to attend a party where I would be required to let it all hang out?

    My opportunity arose a few weeks into the semester when a few friends were talking about going to a naked party that night. I inserted myself into the conversation and garnered myself an invite.

    We arrived at the door to the naked party and I was smacked with a wave of doubt. I’m not the kind of person who goes to naked parties, I thought. I should just head back to my dorm… and maybe get a pint of Ben & Jerry’s along the way, and maybe some peanut butterBut NO, I thought. This is my chance to do things differently. We opened the door and no one was there. At first we thought we were in the wrong place... until three naked humans suddenly emerged from the basement. Those naked humans started hunting down their clothes while my friends and I slowly took off ours: first shirt, then pants, then bra, then underwear. We were officially naked. We awkwardly crossed our arms to cover as much of our bodies as possible and headed for the basement.

    Then came The Grand Entrance. Because we were heading down to the basement, we had to descend a rough-wood staircase while the rest of the party-goers looked up at our naked bodies.

    I made it to ground level and was visually assaulted by all the wagging, bouncing penises. Welp here I am, I thought. A Naked Party. We made our way to the keg, because even naked parties have kegs, and we gathered our red solo cups just to have something to hold on to. We stood in a clump trying not to stare too hard and any single wagging penis for too long. One penis approached us. It was attached to a grad student named Brian. “Crazy party,” Brian said. It was comforting to know that opening lines were the same at naked parties as they were at frat parties. We all mumbled “yeah” and nodded. He put his arm around my friend Elizabeth and told us he was earning his Masters in Math. We all mumbled “cool” and Elizabeth took his arm off her and went to the other side of the room to say hi to a friend. Without missing a beat Brian put his arm around my friend Maddie, who promptly squirmed out of reach and left the group. So then Brian moved toward me, indicating that he considered me the third most attractive woman. He looked me up and down and said, “you look pretty uncomfortable.” This was not the positive, affirming experience I thought it would be.

    Not wanting to be rude-- and more importantly, not wanting to walk across the room in all my nakedness looking for someone I knew while also being terrified that I’d run into someone I didn’t ever want to be naked with-- I continued to talk to Brian. He did not improve. He drunkenly talked about how he hadn’t been able to meet anyone. He asked me how this whole naked party thing worked if people wanted to “go home together,” as he put it. He told me he did like my boobs. And he did so in a way that indicated that he only liked them a little bit and he liked nothing else. Then, he pulled me in to dance and whispered in my ear, “it’s convenient that we’re already naked.”

    Hell NO, I thought. Brian had crossed the line. I came to this party because I was sick of the obliging, reserved, scared-of-life version of myself that I had occupied ever since I became aware enough to have insecurities. I came to this party because I wanted to feel beautiful exactly as I was. I came to this party because I knew I was more of a badass than people acknowledged and I wanted actual, tangible proof that I was brave and daring and bold. I did not come to this party to have some drunk grad student tell me I would suffice for the night if no one else was available. And at that exact moment, as if the heavens were opening up, and God herself was reaching out to tell me, “you can do better than this,” Beyonce’s “Countdown” began to play.

    In a fit of self-saving heroic passion, I pushed Brian aside, took command of the dance floor and began to bust a move. At least, that’s how I like to remember it. In reality, I probably said something polite to Brian, like “excuse me” and desperately searched the crowd for my friends to come dance with me. And sure enough, they appeared and we all jiggled vehemently to “Countdown,” while staunchly blocking Brian out of our dance circle. Maddie exclaimed, “we are so beautiful.” And we all woo’d in response. And with that woo, I finally got that we-are-beautiful-just-as-we-are-and-right-now-we-are-naked kind of moment that I had hoped for. 

  • Have a Seat by Gina Watters

    The only bar near my gate was packed and every seat was taken. After the Tolkien-esque journey that is getting to O’Hare during rush hour on a Friday, all I wanted to do was sit down and unwind before my flight. I weaved my way through the dense crowd and waited patiently for a seat to open up. When one finally did, I sank into it and happily paid the staggering airport-bar price of $20 for a glass of shitty domestic Sauvignon Blanc. I sipped my wine and quickly became lost in a fascinating article of great cultural significance….which is to say I was reading about ‘90s sitcoms on Buzzfeed.

    I was startled from my reverie when the seat next to me opened up and a woman came out of nowhere and practically flung herself onto it. She asked me if anyone was sitting there. I shot her a big smile and told her it was all hers. Yes, my seat sister, I thought. Sit down and come to know the happiness I have found. But instead of picking up on my good vibes, she heaved a huge sigh and said loudly to no one in particular, WELL, I GUESS MY HUSBAND WILL HAVE TO STAND”.  

    I paused mid-sip. Was she talking to me?

    Determined not to shatter the peace I’d created for myself, I ignored her and went back to reading “20 Things You May Not Know about Saved by the Bell”. But the loud sighing continued until the long-fabled husband finally arrived, and she greeted him by announcing, I’M SORRY HONEY, BUT THERE ISN’T A SEAT HERE FOR YOU. YOU WILL HAVE TO STAND”.

    No ambiguity that time. This woman definitely expected me to offer her husband my seat. Ignore her, I thought. I mean, I have – on more than one occasion – pretended not to notice someone having a bowel movement in the middle of a city sidewalk in broad daylight. This should have been a breeze. However, unlike sidewalk defecators, ignoring this lady only seemed to increase the amount of crap that was coming out of her.

    I’M JUST SO SORRRY THAT THERE ISN’T A SEAT HERE FOR YOU, HONEY.” Although she was addressing her husband, I could feel her eyes burning into the side of my face. I MEAN, YOU’D THINK SOMEONE WOULD MOVE.

    Excuse me? I was here first. Why should he get a seat instead of me? I glanced to make sure he was not elderly, on crutches or – I don’t know – wearing high heels or something. But of course he was not. I had earned that seat. I’d waited patiently for it and paid $20 for the right to sit in it. The bad taste in my mouth was no longer due to the shitty wine.

    This was not garden-variety rudeness. No, this was a phenomenon I’d been encountering since around the time I turned 30. To this woman, her need to sit with her husband outweighed my need to sit. Period. It’s not always the case of course, but to a lot of married folk, single people eventually start to look like spare parts, kicking around, taking up space that could be occupied by “real people”. 

    Now, maybe this woman in the bar was just an asshole. Maybe she would have been just as worked up if she’d been prevented from sitting with her sister, her manicurist. Her pimp. I don’t know. But I was skeptical. When you’re a single lady of a certain age, once you’ve been expected to move, to step aside, to give something up (if only your dignity) enough times, you start to notice a pattern.

    I am unmarried. I might get married, but I’ve chosen not to yet. I’m not 22. Or divorced. Or a nun. I’m not a psychopath or a shut-in. I’m not Oprah. I don’t fit neatly into a demographic box and, let me tell you, that ambiguity makes people uncomfortable. Whenever I meet someone new, and they find out I’m 35 and single, they assume something must be wrong with me. That I am incomplete. That I am a half who somehow failed to become whole.

    And trust me, this stigma is real. If you don’t see it, congratulations! You’re either married, in your twenties, or a man. It’s real and it’s annoying. It’s annoying every time we single ladies get a wedding invitation without a “plus one” because those are for spouses only; every time a family visit means that we dine at the kids table and sleep on an air mattress while married couples eat with the grownups and sleep in beds; every time someone asks us why we haven’t “landed a man”; every time we have to work late for the same pay, while our married colleagues get to leave at 3:00 for their kids’ soccer practice; every time we pay more for insurance and taxes than married people do….

    Every time we’re expected to move so “real people” can sit together.

    I was in that airport in the first place because I was flying to yet another out of town wedding. Alone. At said wedding, I knew my married friends would ask when it’s going to be “my turn”. I knew whenever a slow song came on I’d have to duck into the bathroom to avoid being left sitting by myself in a sea of empty tables, like a character in the first half of a bad romantic comedy.

    I knew complete strangers were going to look at me and see one half of a whole.

    There was a time when I would have just given up my seat to avoid the whole ordeal. But that particular Friday night, in that particular airport bar, I just wasn’t in the mood to feel like a spare part. As I watched the woman and her (apparently feeble) husband try to somehow eject me from my seat using sheer will, I finished the last of my $20 glass of shitty wine, and ordered another. 

  • Making New Friends at Camp | Jennifer Peepas

    When I was nine, my parents sent me to sleep-away camp for two weeks. It took me only one week to bring the place to its knees.

    Now the prospect of sleep-away camp was awesome, because when you are a painfully awkward, try-hard bag of weird with no friends and mean stupid brothers, summer camp is basically your one hope for positive human interaction during the summer.
    Possibly, just possibly, there will be a cool counselor who will teach you about Dungeons & Dragons, and, by extension, life. And possibly, just possibly, there will be other kids who don’t already know what a loser you are and by some miracle won’t be able to smell it on site. And possibly, just possibly, for a week or so, you’ll fit in somewhere.

    However, the actuality of sleep away camp was that my tent was full of exquisitely groomed and extremely judgmental nine-year-olds who all went to school together and were already friends. They could smell my weird on sight.

    Here’s how meeting them went:

    Counselor: “Girls, this is your new bunkmate, Jennifer.”

    Me: “HI I’M JENNIFER I LIKE READING AND SOCCER …and sometimesscienceandEscapefromWitchMountain…”

    Them: “Why does sheeeeeee have to be here? Can’t we have Leeeeeetha?”

    The camp administrators had cruelly assigned one of their friends from home, Lisa, to a different cabin. So not only was I Jennifer, official weirdbag, with a last name that contains both “Pee” and “Ass,” I was the cruel instrument dividing them from a perfect summer of hanging with their bestie, Lisa.

    I tried really hard to be friendly.

    They tried really hard to let me know it would be better if I killed myself.

    It did not start small. Within the span of about two days, they put dog shit in my sleeping bag and put weird, gross things on my face while I slept. They stole my underwear and festooned it around the camp so that I had to go collect it from trees. They put my hand in warm water so I would pee the bedroll (that totally works, by the way). Worst of all, the Buddy System completely broke down where I was concerned, so I had to swim alone, eat alone, hike alone, and worst of all, pee in the creepy latrines alone. 

    Our tent counselor, Pammie, was busy learning to blow smoke rings and lose her virginity, or whatever she did at night, and was no help whatsoever. The other adults had the usual adult solutions: Ignore them. Be nicer. They are good girls from nice homes, I’m sure they will be reasonable if you just ask them. Are you sure you’re not doing something to antagonize them? Subtext: Be less weird, kid.

    I begged them to let me switch with Lisa. I just wanted everyone to be happy and to sleep through the night again. But in the name of “learning to get along,” they left me there. 

    They stranded me.

    So they deserved what they got.

    My opportunity for revenge came unexpectedly. The girls had started telling spooky stories at night, and one night one of them passed the flashlight to me. I didn’t want to, at first, but for the first time they were actually talking to me like a person, so I tried to rise to the occasion.

    You see, there was a ghost of a camper, and sometimes you would hear her footsteps behind you, or feel her ghostly hand in yours in the lake, or hear her weeping late at night in the bathroom. Her parents had been in a terrible accident when she was at camp and never came to pick her up, so she stayed here, forgotten about, until she died.

    The next night, they asked for more of the story. What happened to her? Where was she?

    It was the bathrooms, I said. The latrines were haunted. And I mean, seriously fucking haunted.

    You see, late at night you would go to the bathroom alone and hear someone crying it the stalls. And you might want to say "Psssst, are you okay?" but you must never do this. You must never, ever speak to that girl, because it's not a girl, it's the ghost. And right there with the ghost, is the thing that murdered her. It would wait until some girl answered back, and it would slither under the stall partitions using the sound of your voice to find you in the dark. It would reach out under the side of the stall with its claw—or was it a shiny silver blade?—and slash through your Achilles tendon. Now that you were immobilized, it would drag you away, into the woods, into its cave or shed or nest, and it would eat you and dress up in your clothes. 

    You'd be a ghost, then, and you'd be bound to it, and it would use you to lure in another little girl. You had to stay with it until you helped it capture someone else. Then you could go to heaven.

    How did I know this, my bunkmates wondered. 

    “Well, I have to go to the bathroom alone all the time, and one night I heard her in the next stall. “

    “Are you kidding? That was probably just a kid.”

    “No, she told me. She warned me what would happen. “

    “But you talked to her, so why aren't you dead?”

    “I pulled my feet up out of the way, so when it reached under the stall it couldn't find me. It couldn't get me, so it gave up. “

    “Are you saying that you saw this thing?”

    “Yes. And it's not a claw. It's a knife.”

    The knife I described was silver, and curved, and vaguely ceremonial in nature. It was also something that conveniently was in the display case of Genuine Indian Artifacts from the camp's "history" exhibit.

    I told them that after it left she said it was angry, and that now it is making her get two campers instead of one. So she's on the lookout.

    That night, three girls in my tent wet the bed.

    The next night, five of the eight of us wet the bed. The rest of us peed in the woods, holding each other’s hands and whispering comforting words.

    By the following day, the story had spread through the campers. The latrines were silent, completely empty, as 200 girls began to pee in the lake and bury their shit in the woods and form pee platoons to guard each other.

    On Day 5, I watched the ringleader of my former tormentors wet her pants in front of me because she had held her pee too long and was too scared to go outside or to the bathroom. Also on Day 5, campers had begun calling home in hysterics, asking their parents to come get them. Girls were fainting, having weird crying episodes.

    By Day 6, I was the most popular and interesting girl at camp. EVERYONE wanted to sit by me, to know me, to hear more about the bathroom ghost.

    On Day 7, the administrators sent me home from summer camp with seven days left to go for causing "a disturbance." They apologetically refunded my mom's money, said some words about it being a "bad influence" and kicked me out. My mom was both livid and embarrassed. She wanted to know what I did. I told the truth: I told a ghost story, and it freaked the other kids out. But they had ASKED. They asked me for a story. 

    Day 8 passed without incident at home. From the phone call that my mother got on Day 9, something like "chaos" and "mass hysteria not seen since the Salem Witch Trials" was going on at camp. The camp was very sorry they'd sent me home, and they'd like to invite me back, if perhaps maybe I could come and tell the girls that it was just a story that I'd made up and that it wasn't really true?

    Did I even want to go back, my mom wondered? Oh yes, I said. 

    On Day 10 I found myself back in my old cabin. It didn't smell good in there. It smelled like fear. And pee. My former tormenters surrounded me, white-faced and worried. When I had left so suddenly, they were sure the monster had gotten me somehow, and that the camp was just lying about kicking me out. So the rumor had spread that I was dead. These bullies who had hated me so much had turned my bedroll into a small shrine, with flowers and stuffed animals. 

    Here is where I was supposed to take it all back.

    Here is where I was supposed to apologize for scaring them, and tell them it was made up.

    Here’s where I said, “It's all true." 

    Jennifer Peepas is a writer & filmmaker who has lived in Chicago since 2000. Her obsession with advice columns led her to start one at CaptainAwkward.com. This story first appeared in Story Club Magazine
  • Beginning of an End by Brenna Kearney

    I’m currently at the starting line of a brand new journey. So far, there’s been no growth; I’m not a better a person for the struggle; and I can’t see the light at the tunnel. It has been exactly six weeks since my boyfriend came over to my house on a Friday night, ate my pizza, drank my wine and ended our relationship, which tragically kept me from watching an episode of Dateline NBC. So … here I am, facing a rather unhappy beginning, one I truly believed I wouldn’t have to face again: the beginning of an end.

    I’d forgotten just how heavy heartbreak feels. My entire body is dead weight, like Weekend at Bernie’s level, only there’s no Andrew McCarthy and that other guy to carry to me around. I have to do it all myself. These days, it takes all my remaining strength to throw my four tons of dead arms and legs onto the couch after work and not move for an entire evening while I listen to sad songs from the Fault in Our Stars soundtrack. Ed Sheeran is my ginger-haired shaman and he’s doing his best to carry me from darkness to light, but it’s a big job and this particular heartbreak feels so heavy that I can’t seem to get out from under it long enough to step back, gain some perspective and recognize it for what is, which is temporary.

    Aside from the overwhelming heaviness it’s hard to put the rest of my feelings into words. When I was out of full-time work, I spent a lot of time sitting in coffee shops, drinking bottomless cups of $2.50 coffee while applying for jobs and jotting down ideas for a mystery novel. One afternoon, I was staring out a window that faced Broadway in Edgewater and this old man who just looked like he was tired of life shuffled by very slowly. He stopped in front of the free newspaper containers on the corner, the Red Eye and the Chicago Reader, bent down, gathered up as many papers as he could fit in his arms and then threw them, all of them, all over the sidewalk. He just kept grabbing papers until they were gone. It was windy that day too and the papers floated across the street and hung in the air long after he shuffled out of view.

    At the time I had no idea what to think. I laughed, at him, which I regret now. What would drive someone to do this? He wasn’t angry; he didn’t yell; he didn’t cry. I didn’t understand, but now, when I think of how I’m feeling or someone asks me how I’m feeling, that scene is what comes to mind. And that’s not some allusion to American Beauty and that asshole filming a plastic bag or that Katy Perry song about an empty plastic bag representing how empty you can feel sometimes. It has nothing to do with the beauty of the floating paper or emptiness. Sometimes you need to throw something, sometimes things are messy and you need to mess it up more. Sometimes words aren’t enough because they just can’t do justice to an emotion. That old guy found a truly inspiring way to express what he was feeling, which I’m guessing was along the lines of, “Fuck this. Fuck feeling like this.” Or maybe that’s just what I’m feeling.  Anyway, thank you, crazy old man, for that valuable lesson.

    And that’s really the only progress I’ve made so far, making that connection. I don’t know the actual order of the stages of grief; I just know that there are stages because my mom keeps sending me articles to remind me that I’m going through stages. “You’re bargaining, Brenna,” she tells me, or, more frequently, “You’re in denial.”

    And yeah I am. For a couple of weeks, I actually thought that I could convince him that he was wrong. I thought if I kept telling him, and by telling, I mean texting him because that’s the world we live in now, that he’d made a mistake, he would realize it. He would realize that love doesn’t happen all the time, though it might look like it—I’m speaking now to all of you summer lovers who are holding hands and kissing in the sunshine, which is making me very very unhappy. Please stop. The problem for him seems to be that he doesn't know what love is, except that he believes the universe will show him the way to his one and only, or so I finally learned while he ate my pizza, drank my wine, disrupted Dateline NBC and ultimately ended our relationship.

    I wouldn’t trust the universe with something that big. First there’s a lot of evidence to lead one to believe that 1) there is no such force and 2) if it does exist it might not be benevolent. I mean what if the universe decides you should be with an asshole?  Too bad, universe picked, so enjoy your life with an asshole. When it comes to love, I don’t know why you would want to take yourself out of the equation.

    I think love takes you by surprise, not like a lighting bolt, like oh god; this must be love because it’s scary and it hurts. That’s not love or at least not the kind that lasts. I think real love just occurs to you. One night, he is dropping you off in front of your apartment after dinner and suddenly saying goodnight feels insufficient. Instead, the only thing that comes into your brain is, “I love you.” It’s your head that knows long before your heart, and from that point on it is a choice you make every single day, a decision to love someone else.

    But now that I’m over a month into awful shit, I can finally admit that I did see this coming. Yes, it came out of nowhere in the sense that I thought we loved each other enough to work a bump in the road, but now I see that I loved him enough to work on any bump in the road but he grew up in Chicago and in Chicago, you don’t fix a bump in the road; you wait until it becomes a pothole large enough to swallow an entire car and then, and only then, do you dump some asphalt on it, making it much larger and more destructive bump in the road.

    Scientifically, I know the heart is only a muscle. It just pushes oxygenated blood to the edges of your body. I know this. I know that is its job, the beating, is just to keep your organs going and your brain functioning. But I feel this there, in the center of my chest. My heart is still so full of him and my head is full of memories and expectations for the future, which makes his absence … breathtaking.

    Time and space. Stay busy. Go out every night. Drink as much as you want. Cry hard and don’t be embarrassed. Don’t cry. Don’t talk to him. Don’t text him. Don’t see him. Get out there right away. The best way to get over someone is to get under someone. Try Tinder. Go on vacation. Watch something that makes you laugh. Surround yourself with friends. The firsts are hardest. Don't be alone. Time and space. Time and space. The only thing you can do is give yourself time and space.

    I feel like I should know how to handle this by now, but, I’m really no better equipped to face loss in my 30s than I was in my 20s, which was the last time I had something possibly enduring come to an end. I imagine this is where I will be for the foreseeable future because love takes its time to develop and to dissolve.

    I do know that healing starts with forgiveness. And I don’t mean forgiving him, the one who walked away without even trying. I have to forgive myself. I loved where it wasn’t wanted and that’s okay.  Love is a gift, as much in the giving as in the receiving.  So I’m working on forgiving myself and focusing on the positives. I mean won’t miss another episode of Dateline NBC now. 

  • When My Mom Was an Astronaut by Jennifer Peepas

    Perhaps you too are obsessed with the theory that there are infinite parallel universes, some nearly identical to our own but diverging to contain all of the tiny choices and chances that almost happened, but didn’t. One theory goes like this: every choice you make creates a universe where you made a different choice. Each of those decision points also diverges. Multiply that by every human, animal, fish, flea, and atom and you have the concept of infinity. This is why people believe in bullshit like soulmates. Think of all the choices and the entire chain reaction of events that first brought you face to face with the person you love the most in the world. He wrote to you on that dating site, and you wrote back, and circumstances led you both to be there at the same time in the first place. And then, you caught this bus and not that one. You were late but he waited for you. Now go back further. His parents met, and after they did, that cell collided with this one. And your parents did the same for you. And so on and so forth, backward and forward through time, infinitely, forever. How tempting it is to think there is some force, guiding us irrevocably toward the people or places that will make us happy. How close we come to never existing at all.

    My name is Jennifer L-e-i-g-h Peepas. It was almost Tammy L-e-e (Something Else). I have two birth certificates, one with each name, the date on the second one dated eight months later than the first because it was changed when my adoption went through. I have always known that I was adopted — my parents didn’t keep it from me, though the adoption was closed and I didn’t know that Tammy Lee was my alternate name, specifically, until a few years ago. But I have always been aware of her, this other self, who belongs in a completely different family, hanging out like a shadow in my blind spot or on the other side of an invisible wall. Adopted kids understand parallel universes instinctively.

    Once, when I was about seven, I decided to go and find them: my “real” parents. I would follow the little stream near our house until it became a river and then I would find a talking bird/a kindly wise woman/seven dwarves who would recognize me and lead me to the castle, where my parents, the king and queen of Central Massachusetts, would welcome me with a feast lasting seven days and seven nights, and I would meet my sisters and brothers and aunts and uncles and cousins and we would dance under the stars and ride in fine carriages through our sparkling, possibly Emerald, city. I put on my Brownie uniform, packed some supplies in a little red wagon, put a leash on our Great Dane, Muffin, and told my older brother where I was going so that he wouldn’t get in trouble for losing me while babysitting.

    My brother, who is also adopted, knew something about this kind of quest, though his story is more of a Hansel and Gretel tale of a family where there was not enough of anything to go around. He and my younger brother, aged 7 and 4 when they came to us three years before, had developed many impressive life skills over the years, like hiding canned goods between the loose boards in the back of their closet and slowly removing all the quarters from my piggy bank but leaving the smaller change so that it would still seem full.

    As a lost baby princess, I was glad of my brother’s wisdom as he helped equip me for life on the road. Peanut butter. Jelly. Bread. All the canned goods and crackers in the house. A 50-lb bag of dog food for Muffin. Then we added my favorite toys. I tried to tell him that my real parents would buy me all new toys, and that he could keep the old ones, but he made a pretty good case that I’d want at least some to get started with. So on went the Barbie camper, the Legos, the Lincoln Logs, and a knee-high battery-operated Godzilla who breathed plastic fire. Then we needed books, of course. The Secret Garden. A Little Princess. Heidi. All the Lost Rich Kid Classics. An old sleeping bag of my dad’s. Some changes of clothes.

    I don’t know how much the towering stack of all I held dear in the world weighed, but I do know that our driveway is a hill. When I lost my grip on the overstuffed wagon, it rolled down that hill and crashed into one of the garage doors with a spectacular sound. My brother helped me put everything back in the cabinets and my room and together we dragged the giant dog food bag back to its spot. “I think the Dukes of Hazzard is coming on, if you want to watch it,” he said. I said, “Okay,” and hugged Muffin so tight that she yelped and bit me.

    That doesn’t mean I stopped looking for my other family. Left alone in other people’s houses, I opened wardrobe doors and checked the backs for snow-filled woodlands. I stared into mirrors for hours to see if I could fall in. Every trip to the city was a chance to possibly glimpse them or their trail, and if we’re being honest, finding them was becoming more and more about findingherMy. Real. Mom. She could be anyone, anywhere! The lady with the cool beehive in line at the bank. The one with the pixie cut and the bicycle who rode alongside our station wagon and waved back at me when I waved to her. Other real-mom-crushes included, in no particular order, Anna Devayne, a character on General Hospital played by Finola Hughes, Natalie Jacobson, a local newscaster, and Jennifer Beals’ character from Flashdance who needed to give me away so she could follow her dreams and be a dancer, just like I was gonna be, wearing my bathing suit as a leotard and executing sexy dances with my four-poster bed as a ballet barre/stripper pole. My imaginary real dad in all of these scenarios was Peter Jennings, anchor of World News Tonight.

    This all reached a fever pitch in 1985, when Christa McAuliffe, a teacher from Concord, New Hampshire, was chosen to ride the Challenger space shuttle on a mission. I fell completely in love with her. She was a mousy brunette with brown eyes, like me. She was from New England, like me. Yeah, so she had a husband and other kids and was nowhere near Leominster, Massachusetts in 1974, but don’t bother me with facts. As The New York Times wrote, she ”emphasized the impact of ordinary people on history, saying they were as important to the historical record as kings, politicians or generals.” Ordinary people, like me and Christa, my real mom, ordinary women, we were as important to the historical records as kings, politicians, and generals. I watched all of her TV appearances. I got my hair cut and permed so it would look like hers, and I learned to imitate how she sat and spoke. I brought her up in every single conversation. I studied photos of her to see if I could see her hands, because I have weird bent pinkies and I’ve always thought that if I’m ever in the same room as my birth mom, that’s how I’ll know for sure. I stared also at her husband, Steven, and her children, Scott and Caroline, looking for a resemblance and wondering if they’d like me when they knew the truth about Christa’s long-ago fling with Peter Jennings.

    My chance came when my 6th grade class wrote letters to congratulate her for being chosen for the space program. For months, all of my diary entries had been addressed to her, so it was tough to boil all the information down to fit on an index card sized cut-out of the space shuttle. In the end I went with:“Dear Christa McAuliffe, you are my hero and my favorite woman on earth (and in space.) Love, Jennifer P.S. Please write back I have something very important to ask you. P.P.S. My home address is on the back of this card. P.P.P.S. Thank you.”

    I don’t know if she ever read my letter. I do know that she never wrote back. On January 28, 1986, my twelfth birthday, she got into the space shuttle with six other astronauts. My classmates and I ate the birthday cupcakes my mom had baked for everyone and watched the launch on a TV that had been wheeled into the classroom for just this occasion. High on sugar and on the rush of seeing the greatest person in the entire world do the coolest thing that had ever happened, for exactly 73 seconds I was (secretly) THE happiest and proudest person on the planet. My heart nearly exploded. Seventy-four seconds after launch, the shuttle exploded. Everyone on board was killed. The newscaster narrating the launch talked calmly about “a possible malfunction.” But our teacher had seen what we had seen. She got up and stood awkwardly in front of the TV, blocking our view, and all of us did what any human would do in that moment; we tilted our heads and tried to see around her. The wailing came later. I heard it dimly, at first, as if it came from outside the classroom, from outside of space and time. I have had to take other people’s word that it was coming from me.

    That night I took all the pictures of Christa down from the bulletin board near my desk, and, for good measure, ripped out all of the pages from all of my diaries and tore them into tiny pieces. My mom found me doing that and tried to stop me, and I yelled at her that she wasn’t my Real Mom and what did she know, anyway? This is the nuclear option in adopted kid-adoptive parent fights, one of those things that is both true and not true in a way that makes it the worst thing you can possibly say. I’m not a monster — I had done my best to keep my constant Are You My Real Mommy? auditions incredibly secret from my MOM-mom, whom I loved — but in that moment she clearly knew that I needed to destroy something. She backed slowly out of the room so that it wouldn’t be her.

    I found my actual birth mom, a few years back when Massachusetts opened its adoption records. We’ve never met in person, but we write letters and are very evenly matched in online Scrabble. My birth dad’s name is Richard Smith. She didn’t know him well, and lost touch with him after they hooked up. Sometimes I send her an image from one of the 57,000,000 Google results for Richard Smith, the goofier the better, with the subject line “Dad?” You never know. I have a half-sibling who doesn’t know about me. I study the few Facebook photos she’s uploaded that aren’t of her dog to see if her pinkies look like mine. Maybe someday I’ll find out.

    A signature on a form and I am not Tammy L-e-e, but Jennifer L-e-i-g-h. Two horny teenagers fail to meet in a finished basement in Massachusetts in 1973, and I don’t exist at all. Or they meet, but bad unsexy music is playing on the stereo, or their parents walk in on them, or (unlikely, but still possible) they’ve actually had some kind of sex education talk and gotten their hands on birth control. There are so many possible universes where there is Tammy Lee, no Jennifer, no me. In some of the other universes, that faulty O-ring didn’t break on the space shuttle that day, and Christa McAuliffe taught her lesson plans from space and went on to do many more great things. In one of them she answered my letter, and okay, maybe she wasn’t my mom in any of the universes, but in one of them she did become my best friend and we went on tour together teaching kids about history, space travel, and science, with Muffin the Great Dane and Steven and Scott and Caroline along for the ride.

    I still think about accidents, parallel universes, and fate. I think that what we have is not a destiny but an infinite series of choices and an even more infinite series of accidents. In the universes where we are happy, we claim the accidents we love best, hold them tight, and know them for miracles.

  • Push It by Eileen Dougharty

    Panama City Beach is the crown jewel of the Emerald Coast of Florida, known to many as “the Redneck Riviera". The hotel van is quiet as we take in the flashy sights of highway 98; miniature golf, herbal ecstasy, tattoo parlors, and go kart racing as far as the eye can see. My crew and I have no interest in talking after being stuck in an airplane together for ten hours. I cannot wait to get to the hotel and proceed with my post work ritual: stripping off my flight attendant uniform, getting some food to go, and doodling on my phone.

    I have a rather unsettling relationship with my phone, especially when I travel.  I resent the pull of it, this device that lulls me into thinking I might have something unique and special to offer my cyberspace community, masking the fact that I’m bored and alone in a hotel room. But when work is over, I cannot wait to turn it on to see what I’ve missed, marrying solitude and companionship in the palm of my hand.

    We check into our rooms and I waste no time getting upstairs to zone out with my electronic pacifier for an hour or two.

    My email tells me I have a doctor’s appointment next Tuesday, a package being delivered tomorrow, and a reminder my antivirus program is about to expire. I open Facebook and scroll through the newsfeed, in search of just ONE thing that might give me a little dopamine surge. My high school crush is at the gym, and a friend of a friend is eating a burrito. There's no shortage of inspirational quotes, quizzes, listicles, rants, and humblebrags, as well reminders for events I'm not going to hosted by people I'm not sure I really know. Twitter is 140 characters of #whocares. My phone service begins to drop in and out, and with it my internet connection. Even the local clock keeps waffling, as we’re straddling the line between Central and Eastern time, making the phone incapable of doing even its most basic job.

    It’s clear I need to put on damn pants and venture out to find some food, so I can take a sleeping pill and be done with this day. Only eleven more hours and I am so out of here.

    The phone’s almost dead from my quest of trying to find anything worth a damn so I turn it off and leave it charging in my room.

    When I hit the street, I see a billboard screaming “Pineapple Willie’s, next right!” Close enough for me.

    A perky teenage hostess greets me with “Just one?” “Yep, just me.”

    “You wanna sit at the bar?”

    “Sounds good.”

    The scene outside is a vacation postcard come to life. Sun soaked college students playing volleyball, kids building sand castles, older people reading books under huge umbrellas.

    I eat by myself fairly often, but not without my phone or a book. Certainly I can bear to be alone with my thoughts for as long as it takes to get food to go.

    I order a beer and some deep fried alligator, noticing that the bar is not particularly busy. I have it all down to a science, how to finish the beer right as the hand me the plastic bag and the check so I can be on my way.

    “Alligator’s a good choice,” says the guy next to me.

    “Yeah?”

    “Yep. Local favorite. You ever had a pineapple upside down cake shot?”

    “Can’t say that I have.”

    “Well, we’ll just have to right that wrong right now. I’m gonna buy you one.”

    His name is Ron and he’s just come from getting a tattoo across the street. He peels back the bandage to show me the Air Force symbol, with the words “AIM HIGH, FLY, FIGHT, WIN” on his chest, still bloody and covered in Vaseline. I tell him it looks great, because Ron is so damn proud of it, I can't help but like it too. Ron appears to be in his late thirties and he doesn’t seem to have a care in the world besides drinking cake shots and showing off his new ink.

    Ron and I make small talk about big things. He’s a master sergeant after 17 years of service, so he gets being in a plane all day. He doesn’t know anyone in town yet as he recently moved from San Antonio. He's not married, but he does have a pit bull named Cletus.

    Bartender asks if I want another beer and tell him I do, and tell him I’ve changed my mind about the food, that I’ll eat it here.

    I ask Ron what he does with his time, and he says he spends most of it working. I ask, “Don’t you get lonely sometimes?”

    “I sure do.”

    “What do you do when you feel that way?”

    “I go out and talk to people.”

    “You mean, like, strangers?”

    “Yeah, sure. Strangers are just friends you ain’t met yet. Even if I don’t feel like talking, I just come down here to the beach and watch people. They’re on vacation, man. They’re so alive...this is their time they’ve been saving up for and dreaming about.  They’re just so damn happy; you can’t help but feel it too. It gets all over you if you let it.”

    “I like how you roll, Ron.”

    “Walk the beach on your way back to your hotel, you’ll see.”

    Ron finishes his drink, says he has to get up early. He writes his number on my hand and tells me I can only use it to call because he has a flip phone, and T9 texting is a serious bitch. I laugh and thank him for the drink.

    After dinner, I walk the beach as the sun is setting and I’m surrounded by people smoking cigarettes, packing up their beach bags, yelling at their kids to get out of the water. Ron’s right, their joy is contagious when you really tune into their frequency. When I cut back up to the highway, there’s a dive bar with a sign that reads "KARAOKE NIGHTLY! ICE COLD BEER, NO COVER.”

    If only I had more time.

    My instincts were right about my phone providing me with connection. The secret was in the OFF button, all I had to do was push it.

  • Come and Knock On Our Door by Eileen Tull

    I experienced my first pangs of sexuality at the tender age of seven. I was sitting in my friend Sarah's living room and we were watching a movie, a movie that I wasn't supposed to be watching. I was always watching movies I wasn't supposed to be watching at Sarah's house because her parents were "Protestants." To me, full of original sin from birth and full of Catholic guilt ever since, it was a "free-for-all." Meat on Fridays! Taking the Lord’s name in vain! And watching dirty movies. I was and always have been a bit of a rule-follower, so I wasn't totally comfortable watching this inappropriate film, laden with sexual references and overt bathroom humor. But, as you can probably tell, I have a bit of a bad girl streak in me. So, I was enjoying it, this movie, this forbidden flick: Problem Child, starring John Ritter as a guy who adopts a child who turns out to be...a problem.

    In this film, there are a few moments of implied sexuality, tame by today's standards, but at the time, I felt like Eve being tempted in the Garden of Eden. I can't remember the exact moment that triggered my blossoming sexuality to bloom, because, truthfully, I haven't watched the movie since. I just know it'll never be as good as the first time. But there's some hinted sexuality, I think John Ritter falls into a lady's cleavage or there's a moment of open mouth kissing with some over the clothes heavy petting. And as seven-year-old Eileen witnessed these images, something started to happen. A heat started rising up from...you know...the bathing suit area...up into her tummy, what is this feeling? Is she hungry? Scared? Both? Yes, both. The feeling dissipated as the next broad comedic sight gag came into play, but it had happened. Sexual feelings. And you know that when Three's Company's John Ritter playing a put-upon father figure is the person who ignites fire in your loins, you're in for a rough ride.

    Seven-year-old Eileen took those sexual feelings, and politely buried them deep into shame, like all good straight-A, white, heterosexual suburban Catholic girls from Ohio should. I had a pretty dirty sense of humor as a teenager, always the person to push a joke to its extreme, find the dirty context in any comment, queen of "that's what she said" quips, ending many sentences with "if ya know what I mean." But when it came to real discussions of sex and actual sex acts that real people were undertaking, I was suddenly uncomfortable, squeamish, and bashful. It was very confusing for my high school friends, we who were just about to come of age in the Sex and the City-era of sexual openness with the girls over cocktails (or in our case, Starbucks Frappuccinos). I talked like a Samantha, walked like a Charlotte, and generally hid in an emotional corner.

    I was sixteen and I had, yes, already been kissed. I had kissed my first boyfriend a year earlier whilst sitting in a room full of our friends, all watching Orange County in the heyday of Jack Black comedies. My Catholic guilt had kicked in swiftly after the first time we "Frenched," and I wept in his car when he drove me home. But at the same time, I enjoyed it. It felt bad to feel good, good in that sinful, way-of-the-flesh way. Does tongue-kissing my boyfriend make me a slut? Is that what a slut is?

    But this is sixteen-year-old Eileen. So much older. So much wiser. I had just arrived home, before curfew, from a date with a handsome older man, a senior at a neighboring high school. We had watched A Fish Called Wanda and dry humped furiously after. I was still hopped up on hormones and the raw sexual magnetism of Kevin Kline. And John Cleese. And Michael Palin, let's be real here.

    So I decide that this night is the perfect night to try my hand at what the women from Sex and the City called "masturbating." I had very little know-how of how to go about...doing that thing. I had never done it before, because it seemed so absurd poking your own vagina until you screamed? What’s the appeal? But tonight I was still feeling hot in the bathing suit area with that scared-hungry emotion in the pit of my stomach.

    I decide to take action to get me some action. Action being the Internet. This being the early 2000s, my Internet access is limited to a dial-up connection to a large desktop computer in our living room, the most public room in the house. "Googling" is not yet a verb, so I “Ask Jeeves” to search for "porn." A lot of results come up.

    Too scared to click on any actual videos or images, as my parents sat in the other room watching Fox News, I find myself reading an erotic Xanga Journal. If you don't remember Xanga, it was an early blog type of website for people with too many feelings. I, of course, have a Xanga of my own. This erotic Xanga chronicles the adventures of Terri, a bored but buxom housewife who goes on a ski trip for the weekend, and subsequently gets descriptively banged by like twelve guys at once. It is pretty upsetting, but naughty enough and I learn a few things about how ladies like to get banged. So I feel ready. 

    I go back into my room, ready to consummate my love with myself. I turn the lights down low (yeah, I had a dimmer switch in my room, no big thing). I turn the ceiling fan off so it could get real, real hot in here. I sprawl lusciously across my bed, which is covered in a quilt I had inherited from my dead grandmother. Awwww, yeah. It's go time. I fumble with the radio, trying to find something real sexy, like Al Green or Barry White or Marvin Gaye. Thankfully, WGGR Oldies 103.5 obliges me, and starts playing Let's Get it On. Awwww, yeah. Let's. 

    I begin. To...do the thing. It is weird. It is a little bumpy, the process, not my...vagina. It isn't intuitive for me, it feels like those things in museums where you put your hand in the box and try to guess what texture you're feeling? Or like a haunted house where they tell you're touching guts, but it's really just a plate of spaghetti? Well, it's kind of like that. But I keep going, valiantly pawing around down there, wondering if I'm doing it right. Think sexy thoughts, sixteen-year-old Eileen tells herself. I start thinking of Terri the housewife getting gang-banged in the ski lodge, eeegh, that's a little too intense. I try thinking of Kevin Kline in A Fish Called Wanda, but I just keep picturing Jamie Lee Curtis there, too, and you know what they say, three's a crowd.

    Unless...unless three's company. And then he pops into my head. The man that started it all. John Ritter. Awwww, yeah. That's the stuff. Come and knock on my door, John Ritter. I’ve been waiting for you. My seven-year-old sexual spark returns and everything starts to fall into place: the rhythm of my body matches the music, the mood is perfect, the atmosphere is perfect, John Ritter...and then...the song changes. 

    What had started off as the unequivocally sexy Let's Get it On transitions into an incredibly familiar tune. It starts with the violin, a deep rich fiddle sound setting you up for a plummeting piano beat, bringing together copious amounts of instrumentation, weaving traditional Irish tunes with modern American folk, the constantly quoted, the overly referenced, the one-hit-wonder bane of my existence by Dexy's Midnight Runners. Come on Eileen. At full blast. In all its suggestive and double entendre-d glory.

    I was almost there, Dexy's Midnight Runners. I was almost there. But I had to stop in my tracks. Because the humor and irony hit me all at once, and I had to burst out laughing, a physical sensation which, in many ways, I feel more comfortable accessing. And of course, that's my life. Of course this is how this happens. Of course that's how it goes down while I'm going downtown. Of course, this event and those before it set up a continuing routine of sexuality intertwining with hilarity, most of the time in the best way possible. And I swear what I mean, at that moment, it was almost everything. Almost. I was right there. So close.

  • My Channing Tatum Story by Adrienne Gunn

    This is a true story. 

    I spent my thirty-first birthday in Los Angeles with a group of my sorority sisters and Channing Tatum, in a bar situated perfectly in the shadow of a Channing Tatum billboard.  And when I say with Channing Tatum, I don’t mean he was at the bar we were at, but that we were with him.  

    There were five of us.  Six if you count Jenna Dewan-Tatum.  We were waiting for our table in the bar of a LA restaurant when she arrived, looking every inch the star of Witches of East End and Step Up and Channing Tatum’s wife.  She wore an enormous white fur vest, leggings, huge sunglasses, and her hair pulled back into a giant bun.  I hugged her tightly and said, “you look like a furry ballerina,” and she looked at me like she had no I idea who I was.  We’d met many times before, even way back in the early 2000’s when she was still a backup dancer and not married to Channing Tatum and I was in a phase where I would rap Salt N Pepa’s Shoop any time there was a mic and a boombox and she’d seen me do that at a gay bar during karaoke night, and trust me, that shit’s memorable so I don’t know why she always pretends she doesn’t know me.  We share a bestie, Jenna and I.   She and Channing had seen me give an amazing maid of honor speech at this bestie’s wedding and he’d said to me after, “Great speech,” and I’d said, “Thanks.”  And I’d seen them on the big screen and in the pages of US Weekly; obviously we know each other.   So I looked at her like, oh hell no, bitch this is my birthday party, and then it was time to be seated.

    Following Jenna’s lead, we ate very tiny bites of food and were quickly very drunk. The bill came and Jenna Dewan-Tatum subvertly/obviously called someone on her cellphone (her manager?  a publicist?) and a man in a suit ran over and took the bill away to make some adjustments. The end of the night was near.  But then Jenna took another call and said, “Do you guys want to meet up with Chan?”

    Fuck yes we did. 

    It was my birthday, so I rode with Jenna Dewan-Tatum in a gigantic SUV that she practically had to be hoisted into by a valet man.  I wanted to pump her for information on LeAnn Rimes and Eddie Cibrian, since she was on a short-lived show with him called The Playboy Club where she was given the kind of heavy actorial lifting of throwing tampons at the other bunnies. Jenna says that Eddie Cibrian is the stupidest man on the planet but not to quote her on that and we agree that he’s still pretty fucking hot.  

    We arrive at the bar, and as we join the crowd of people waiting to get in, Channing’s gigantic face looms over us from the 21 Jump Street billboard.  None of my friends seem to find the meta-ness of the billboard all that interesting.  There’s a razor with its head snapped off in the gutter, and I’m like, you guys, it’s all about buying things, you know?  Like this razor?  We’re shaving our legs because of this Channing Tatum billboard – and they’re like, dude, shut up.           

    Channing comes out in a trucker hat and we saunter in with him, cool as fuck. The bar is packed and I’m hyper aware, like, do these peons know this is Channing Tatum?  Are they staring at us?  Why aren’t they taking our picture?  Do they know my dress is from the Gap?  Do they see this Channing Tatum billboard right there?  People try to stand by our group, try to chat up us underlings, to get a glimpse of greatness.  Channing’s pounding beers and by the way, he’s so nice, he’s always so nice, but you can tell he’s a wild, like the kind of dude who would start doing drunken back flips or keg stands and he gets occasional warning glances from the fur vest.

    I’m talking to Chan’s producing partner and I’m like, what do I need to do to get in the biz, bro, because I could write a better movie than The Vow. And he’s like, yeah, Chan wanted a chance to work with Rachel McAdams, he thought he could learn a lot from her, and I’m like totally, totally, I could see that.

    Some guy comes up to me and is like, hey, what do you do, and I’m like, I’m a writer. And he’s like I’m a writer to, I write for The Glades.  And I’m like, what the fuck is The Glades?  And he tries to explain it but it’s loud so he googles it and apparently this is a crime show on A&E with the tagline “Sunny with a chance of Homicide,” and I’m like Oh my god, did you write that? And I’m dying, I love LA so much.

    All of a sudden the bar is closing, there’s a flurry of activity, hugs and empty promises to read spec scripts, and we’re hustled into a cab and we settle in for the drive back through the valley to West Hollywood, resting our heads on each other’s shoulders and closing our tired eyes, awash in the fading glow of celebrity.