Last Thursday I produced and hosted a show called Story Club
. This show has been going on for almost four years and Thursday night was a typical production. The show was comprised of me hosting/hustling to think of amusing things to say, featured performers, open micers, and an audience. And it was, by far, the best show I have ever been a part of, just as every single Story Club for the past four years has been best show that I have ever been a part of. But this seems to be an impossible thing. How can each show be the best? How can every show be my favorite? How can this heavy work of producing, which requires hours and hours of work on evenings and weekends without a salary, be the thing that I most want to do?
I know the answer. Because at each Story Club, at every single show, a singularity occurs. At first, things are normal: the show is running along, I’m drawing names from the hat, open micers are stepping up to the stage, featured performers are sharing their stories. During every Story Club show there is a person on the stage, alone in the spotlight, and people in the audience, alone in the dark, and they are strangers to each other. The fourth wall is in place, a membrane between them. The fourth wall exists in all theatrical production and is the name for that invisible yet tangible distance between the audience and the performer. But then the story gets good. The audience leans towards the performer, wanting to know what happens next. The performer leans towards the audience, needing to tell what happens next. There, in the slanted back room of the Holiday Club, our neurons begin to mirror each other, we start to breathe in and out simultaneously, and we all begin to feel the exact same thing at the exact same time. And suddenly, without fanfare, the membrane ruptures, the fourth wall shatters, and the gap between audience and performer is erased. The audience is on stage and the performer is listening. We all move towards each other, mouths open, speaking the same story at the same time. We need to know what happens next. We need to tell what happens next. We make what happens next. We are at a storytelling show but we are also in church and this telling and this listening is like prayer. I cannot tell you why it occurs, or what prompts it to occur, but I know when it has occurred. And it always occurs.
This moment is made all the more magical because we start with such a large distance between us. Today, in America, we are told that “real” life goes like this: childhood, happy, school, happy, college, happy, job, happy, married, happy, procreate, happy, buy things, happy, buy things, happy, buy things, happy. But this is not what life is like. We lie to ourselves and each other about what that reality actually is and we constantly feel that we are the ones who are doing it wrong, clumping along incorrectly, not achieving the proper goals in the proper manner at the proper time. We assume that everyone else is adhering to the script. We don’t think that our lives are supposed to look like this. We think that we are failing.
But each of us has moments every day that can remind us that there is more to existence than thing, happy, thing, happy, thing, happy. Each of us has moments every day that remind us that the thing, happy, thing, happy, thing, happy script is an illusion. So we gather in a room and tell each other our own true stories. We tell each other what life is actually like. We feel empathy for strangers and we learn again and again that we are not isolated. And this moment of connection, where we realize that a stranger’s experience is our own, is why I crave my next storytelling show like a drug.
But this moment of communion doesn’t jut happen at Story Club. Storytelling shows are exploding in Chicago because this singularity occurs consistently at every show where there is someone in a room telling a story. And this moment is why you need to go to a storytelling show as soon as you can. It’s good for your soul. It will tell you things about the world. And, if you’re lucky, when it’s over you’ll realize that there, for a moment, you were wholly connected with every other person in that room. And it felt kind of tingly.
Each week I go to the grocery store and as cashier hands me my receipt she brightly says, “Thanks for shopping at Mariano's! You’ve earned 43 ham points!” Each week I smile and take the receipt and wonder, “What the fuck is a ham point?” Sometimes I’ll say this out loud, to my husband, who will respond, “I really don’t know. But we have 43 of them.”
I look to the grocery receipt for answers, but it only repeats: “You have 43 ham points! Turn in your ham points between 3/24-3/31 for ham!” Each week the number of ham points increases, along with my confusion.
My grocery store is clearly running some sort of a promotion where they reward loyal shoppers with an Easter ham. So far I have accrued a 92 total ham points. This weekend my ham points will mature so I can finally exchange them for…an unknown quantity of ham. Because at no point during the chipper weekly declarations of my ever-increasing tally of ham points has anyone ever mentioned exactly what form of currency comprises a ham point. How many points equal a ham? How many hams equal a point? Am I going to turn in my 92 ham points for one giant ham? Or 18 normal sized hams? Or 92 tiny hams? What am I going to do with 92 tiny hams?
Even more distressing is the fact that this promotion assumes that on Easter I will be eating ham. But confession time: I don’t like ham. I know this isn’t a popular opinion but I truly don’t care for it. I can tolerate ham on sandwiches if it’s sliced so thin that you can read through the meat (which is actually how I order it at the deli counter. "No - THINNER.") The thought of a whole hunk of pink ham meat sitting in my fridge makes me gag. Because ham, a chunk of ham, is gross you guys. My family always served it for Easter because that's something white people are required to do by law and I always ate rolls instead.
I hate ham because it's weirdly sweet and it has fat running through it and you can’t cut the fat tendrils with a knife so they hang from your cut meat like springy strings and ham is the same color as people flesh and I don’t want to feel like I’m eating sweet people on a day when I’m supposed to be thinking about Jesus.
Every week I searched the grocery store for clues as to what a ham point is and every week I came up with nothing. I finally Googled “Mariano’s Holiday Ham Points” and found an answer. My 92 ham points enable me to buy a ham this weekend for $0.99 per pound. So I am being rewarded for my loyal shopping by being allowed to buy a thing that grosses me out. At a discount.
I want to give up and not participate at all in this Holiday Ham Points madness but my husband is insistent, “It’s free money! We can get so much ham!” He has no problem with ham and is blinded by the images of endless ham sandwiches dancing before his eyes. So I'm probably going to just buy the damn ham and donate it to a food bank. I'll affix a note to the ham, "Please don't think of cannibalism when you eat this."
I went to the AMC Best Picture Showcase yesterday. It started at 10am on Saturday and they showed each of the 9 Best Picture nominees until the event ended at 9:30am on Sunday. I showed up in yoga pants, three layers of shirts, a hoodie, glasses, no makeup, my hair in a braid and determination in my heart that I would MAKE IT THROUGH ALL NINE. Amour - 10am Saturday
The showcase started with this French film and thank God because if it would have been shown at any other point I never would have watched it. I would have taken an extra long break and gone bowling or something. But the fact that I had to show up for this film in order to secure the movie theater seat that I'd be sitting in for the next 24 hours meant I had to see it. And the movie was - slow. There was a scene of a woman vacuuming, one of an audience at a concert, one of a man snipping flower blooms into water. But since this film was the first thing I saw all day I tried to not be critical and relax and really feel the joyless ache of our slow yet inevitable descent into death that the movie was trying to convey. And I felt it. I also felt that apartments in Paris are amazing - so much crown molding!Lincoln - 12:20pm Saturday
I had seen this one before so I spent most of this movie hoping that someone on the internet has already made a Daniel Day-Lewis as Bill the Butcher vs. Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln mash up. And they have
. My husband and I also killed our first large bag of popcorn which is not really "pacing oursevles." Argo - 3:20pm Saturday
I've already had waaay too much popcorn so I dig into the backpack of snacks my husband brought with and kill an entire box of grape tomatoes. My body knows that something wrong is happening and I suppose it needs surplus of lycopene to get me through. I spent most of Argo 1) admiring the hair, 2) hating on the glasses, 3) recognizing TV actors. The doctor from the Mindy Project! Walter White! Coach!Django Unchained - 5:35pm Saturday
They have trivia during the bathroom breaks between each movie and they ask the question "What does AMC stand for?" I guess "animal muskrat climax" and I am not correct. I visit the concession stand for the third time in the marathon and I do something I promised myself I would never ever do: I purchase concession stand chicken strips. Which I shouldn't do because there's no way that's real chicken but, counterargument: HUNGRY.
The movie is ridiculously violent and makes me wonder if historical revenge revisionism is going to be Quentin Tarantino's new thing. Also, Quentin does a really good Australian accent. Les Miserables - 9:30pm Saturday
I show up 15 minutes late to this showing because it comes right after the dinner break. We ran next door to a super fancy shushi restaurant where people look very Saturday-night-nice while my husband and I look like we just sat in a movie theater for 10.5 hours in our pajamas. We explain our situation to the waiter ("Movie marathon. All of the sushi now, to go.") and he obliges which is how I find myself eating a salmon roll during Les Miserables.
That movie made me way too familiar with Anne Hathaway's teeth. Eventually I fell asleep during this movie because I don't care too much about musical misery and no one was answering my question, "Why are the students so mad now?" and the screening was taking place during my normal bedtime.
But my main take away from Les Miserables on the whole is that Eponine's waist is out of control. If that was photoshop I would be MAD AT IT because it is UNREALISTIC except IT APPARENTLY EXISTS. How does she make all those good singing noises with only that much space to work with? Where does her liver go? Such a puzzle.
Zero Dark Thirty - 12:30pm Sunday
You guys! We discovered a secret hallway with a secret bathroom! All of the main bathrooms had been getting increasingly funky/toilet-paper-less as the marathon went on. Peeing without smelling the pee of everyone else! It was such a treat.
I spent this movie admiring Jessica Chastain's hair, waiting in fear for things to blow up, falling asleep, and being disappointed that Chris Pratt didn't get more funny lines.
Life of Pi - 3:20am Sunday
They showed this in 3D which THANK GOD because even though I spent the break running around the halls/doing sun salutations as best I could remember/failing to do pushups I was getting super sleepy but the picture was so captivating it kept me awake. The 3D was beautiful and watching a man lost at sea deal with a boat full of wild animals was just riveting. However, once he was rescued I totally nodded off so my husband had to explain to me afterwards that it turned out that the hyena in the boat was really Gerard Depardeau. Go figure.
Silver Linings Playbook - 5:40am Sunday
I love movies where complicated/witty characters loose their shit all over each other and I also love movies where people just want to DANCE. So I really enjoyed this movie. The end was hokey but I had stayed up all night so I was feeling it. I also drank coffee and the rye whiskey my husband brought with in a flask throughout the whole film, but I don't think that colored my opinion. LOVED IT.
Beasts of the Southern Wild - 7:55am Sunday
I almost left before this movie started because, really, they don't hand out prizes for staying through the whole marathon and I was tired and the buses had finally started running again but I stayed and THANK GOD because THIS MOVIE. THIS MOVIE. I love mythology and magical realism and any story told from the point of view of a little girl with curly hair. And this was the only movie that made me cry, which may have more to do with my sleep-deprived state than the movie, but I'm going to give the movie credit because it wasn't one of those overly emotional heaving cries. It was one of those slow cries, where tears just stream down your face and you don't even need to wipe them away because they're just going straight down. I want this one to win Best Picture very much.
When it was over I stood up and put on my coat and it smelled like I had been butt sweating into it for 23 straight hours. Because I had been. When we exited the theater they had left out boxes of posters for us. PRIZES FOR VICTORY. I carried my poster proudly onto the bus and I was fairly disappointed that no one out in the real world knew what it meant. And they also all seemed so well-rested, like they just woke up or something. Jerks.
I slept for four hours and now I'm writing about this experience which currently feels like time travel. Like, "What did you do on Saturday?" "Nothing."
This piece was originally performed at Write Club for the bought Pride vs. Prejudice
I was 23 years old when I started grad school in Religious Studies at the University of Chicago. I went into grad school right out of undergrad because what do you do when you’ve just finished 17 consecutive years of schooling? Immediately start more school. And that was my choice because I LOVED SCHOOL and I was damn good at it. I got As without even studying. Another reason I started grad school right away was because I wanted to ensure that I would never, ever have to work in an office, like my parents. I was never going to become some cubicle monkey - I was going to become a scholar of religion. I was going to study the major religions and discover the exact point at which they intersected and in that intersection I was going find a precise pure moment of absolute truth. I would then publish brilliant papers and teach classes and I would never have to learn how to use Microsoft Excel. EVER.
My first class in grad school was The History of Christian Thought. It was in an old stone building with a coffee shop in the basement that sells t-shirts, “where God drinks coffee.” I arrived at that first class in my standard undergrad student uniform: flip flops, a long black skirt I’d worn every day since 1999, and my faded high school gym shirt. But the other students – they were in tweed jackets, had freshly ironed creases in their pants and the women were wearing chunky rings I would never be able to pull off.
I sit down, the professor starts talking, we all start taking notes, and I start to realize that I have no idea what is going on, both with the high level of the outfits and with the content of the class. The questions the students are asking are, “Can you please expand on the hermeneutical aspects of the author’s approach?” The fuck did you say?
I write down the words I don’t understand, go home and look them up. But even after looking them up I’m still not sure of what they say. I prepare for the next class, panicking as I read the same sentence over and over again, “Sacred doctrine does not argue to prove its first principles, which are the articles of faith, since they cannot be proved to one who denies the revelation on which they are founded.” The fuck did you say?
St. Thomas Aquinas, a theologian from the 13th century, said that pride, “is the cause of every sin.” He considers it the worst of the 7 deadly sins. Aquinas believed that pride caused the angel Satan to want to be equal god, caused Eve to reach for the apple, caused man to fall away from God’s grace, caused me to attend a graduate school in religious studies cause it seemed fun. According to Aquinas the sin of pride causes us to want things that we don’t deserve and then, in our struggle to earn these undeserved items, we commit all the rest of the sins.
At grad school, the classes got increasingly difficult. I sat in my bedroom every night, trying to force myself to study, but in the next room I could hear my roommate watching wrestling and drinking Old Style tall boys. I thought I wanted the life of an academic but right now all I wanted was a life where I drink beer and I watch Rick Flair go “whoo!”
In undergrad I had loved studying religion the way you love a cupcake and now I’m at the big dance, at the cupcake factory. But I have moments where I feel so anxious I want to tear my skin off to escape. I’m barely passing my classes and I’ll be $60,000 in debt from just one year. I visit the school therapist and she puts me on Zoloft. I had scoffed at office jobs but… no one makes you read Derrida at an office job and they pay you money to go there. Instead, I’m paying $60,000 to go to a factory where they shove cupcakes into your mouth nonstop while yelling, “YOU SHOULD BE CHEWING MORE CRITICALLY.”
Aristotle has another thought on pride. He believes that pride is, in fact, the greatest of all virtues. He defined pride as the ability to soberly evaluate yourself and them claim what is yours by right. For Aristotle, pride is concerned with honor. You see, it’s the sin of pride that makes someone yell “history in the making” on a rap song only 5 people will ever hear but it’s the virtue of pride that makes that same someone realize that his song sucks and he needs to go write a better one. The sin of pride causes us to fail but the virtue of pride then causes us to then improve. The sin of pride caused me pursue a degree I was in no way suited for and the virtue of pride caused me to finally realize, oh: I’m not an academic. I actually hate this shit and want it to end.
I decided to push through my coursework and submit a Masters thesis after only one year. I wrote my thesis on the play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and how it deals with ideas of suffering because a) it’s my favorite play and b) fuck em.’ I worked on my thesis feverishly for weeks.
It’s a Wednesday afternoon and I’m about to walk into my thesis defense. I take a moment and remind myself of what I now know: I’m not an academic, I’m not going to be published in any journals, I’m not going to be remembered by a single one of my professors, and, even more importantly, today I am the only person in the room who knows that, underneath my long black skirt, I am not wearing any underwear. I consider it a psychological advantage. I sit in my thesis defense, really feeling that leather chair, and calmly answer my professor’s questions, calmly argue my points, calmly refute their arguments while repeating in my head, like a mantra “The fuck did you say?”
I believe that pride is a virtue and when used well it transforms us. It makes us become worthy of the things that we initially do not deserve. And it is through the virtue of pride that I learned this absolute truth about myself: I am a cubicle monkey. With a Masters in Religious Studies from the University of Chicago.
In September I joined a gym that’s one L stop away from my house. I joined this gym with the hope that I would attend one of its numerous free classes or use its free workout assistant program or maybe, finally, run on the treadmill vs. simply walking very fast. But none of that has happened because I don’t go to my new gym.
I, like everyone else you’ve ever met, have resolved to be healthier in the New Year. So as a part of this New Year's resolution I sat down and asked myself: why am I avoiding this gym?
I thought about the aspects of the gym: the folks who swipe my gym card are nice, it’s not too crowded, the people who work out there don’t try to talk to me so in many ways it’s perfect. But my only available route to the new gym involves me walking along a large highway underpass. And this underpass is like a scene from I Am Legend. There’s a roar of traffic above me and orange city lights cast odd shadows against the concrete pillars. There is a chain link fence installed all around the perimeter of the underpass so transients can’t find refuge behind the pillars that hold the highway up above. There are also several holes in the fence where transients have found refuge anyway, along with a few mattresses which I try very hard not to look at because I don’t want to know. These underpasses are also where pigeons go to have all of their diarrhea - the sidewalk is streaked with green, white and brown pigeon shit. I slide in pigeon shit and kick up bunches of feathers as I walk along. There are broken bottles and empty plastic fifths of Smirnoff and the whole scene makes me so nervous that if I see another human, even some chick walking her dog, I just want to run turn around and run home.
And while I think that I should walk to the gym and I even convince myself that today, today will be the day that I finally do get over it and walk to gym after work it is always, always, actually the day where I go straight home after work and eat tortilla chips while reading all of buzzfeed.com.
Real talk: if I am going to work out I am going to do so only after I have been delivered directly to the gym by an automobile. I know that the point of the gym is exercise and walking to the gym is exercise so this would make the entire endeavor exercise plus but PIGEON SHIT AND HOBOS AND I CAN’T. I JUST CAN’T.
So I’ve accepted this about myself. I’ve started waking up earlier in the morning and driving myself to and from the gym. And I have successfully woken up at 5:45am three times in a row and accomplished this goal. I have also woken up my husband three times in a row with my loud fumbling searches for my sports bra. And the new morning ritual confuses the hell out of my cat. He watches me while I awkwardly put on my gym shoes in the dark and asks me quietly, “Meow?” which I believe means, “The fuck are you doing right now?”
I still haven’t actually “run” on the treadmill and I have also discovered that I shouldn’t watch my favorite HBO shows on the big treadmill screen via my iPod because every single one of those shows has sudden bare ass nipples and then I have to unplug my iPod real fast before someone else notices that I’m the person watching sex at the gym. But still, at least my awkward ass is finally at the gym.
Here I continue my exploration of the stack of old Sassy magazines I found in my parents' house a few months ago. And I'm very excited because I've discovered FASHION SPREADS FROM THE EARLY 90S.
This is a punk rock girl, circa 1994. She has a white-blonde pixie cut. Her necklaces, rings, and bracelets are CHUNKY AS HELL. She is wearing a white tank top with ... a cross and a bleeding heart of Jesus? Did not see that coming. Regardless, the thousand-yard stare shows that she's conflicted about it. Do I love Jesus? Or do I love my fishnet tights? You gotta pick, lady.
YES. This is how I like my punk rock girls. Not all introspective "is there a God and if so does my t-shirt offend him?" but instead "WHEEEE: ROPE SWING."
This is what I wanted to look like through most of high school but did not have the balls/blue hair dye to pull off. Leather jacket. Silver tights. Shit-kicking boots. Blue hair. AMAZING EYE SHADOW. And the caption "It undermined every relevant discourse" can only be describing her MIRROR MINI SKIRT.
Also: does the rope swing appear to be a repurposed noose? THAT'S SO PUNK ROCK.
This model needs to sue Blake Lively for stealing her jam. Unless this is Blake Lively in which case: damn girl, you age well.
Why did sweater half-shirts ever go out of style? They were crucial for those moments when your shoulders needed to be fully insulated but your stomach wanted to ROAM FREE.
She's wearing fingerless black leather gloves and whole doing a Jacob Marley thing with the chains there. It's Gossip Girl meets Catholic school girl meets A Christmas Carol meets a gay pride flag minus the color green. She's so 90s hot that the ghost of Jordan Catalano is lurking behind her like, "let me blow on your exposed stomach patch PLEASE."
Now we transition from one extreme to another by moving from punk rock to overly girly floral prints.
A few weeks ago I got mad at a random woman for having the gall to wear overall shorts in public. She was standing in front of me in line for coffee and I just kept glaring at her and thinking, "How dare you." Why did it make me so mad? Because THIS IS POINTLESS CLOTHING. If you need overalls you also need to have your knees covered. If you need shorts you don't need overalls because you aren't being covered over all. And now that I see this example of old school overall shorts I feel fully justified. This shit is just as ridiculous back then as it is today. Plus, here, you have the addition of a peasant blouse, flowered clogs, and a CHAPS SITUATION. Look at the front of those pants - they make her look like she has a long blue jean dick hanging between two flowered fields.
At least the camera angle makes her legs look nice. AND THAT IS THE ONLY GOOD THING.
Same model, new questions:
1) Why are you wearing ALL of the blue flowers?
2) Why are you trying to pass off a painting smock for a shirt?
3) Why are you lifting your skirt up in a way that says, "Yes," but looking at me in a way that says, "I'm just airing out my junk so don't get any ideas"?
The horoscope section of magazines has always been my favorite. I used to buy the December issue of Cosmopolitan magazine every year just for their pull-out Bedside Astrologer guide. I'd read it like an oracle and every year it predicted that I'd have lots of sex with several interesting men. Instead, every year I managed to not quite hold hands with a boy. The Sassy astrology section is better for teenage girls than Cosmopolitan because it's focused less on sex with randos and more on becoming an interesting person on your own.
I'm an Aries and this is the April issue so here my future IS IN BOLD. According to this I am , "strong, straightforward, independent, dynamic" which is completely correct in my current life on days when I've gotten enough sleep. However, when this issue came out I was 15 years old and my description should have read, "shy, passive, dependent, easily frightened by loud noises." But still: they're trying to make teenage girls feel better about themselves so good show.
According to this horoscope 15-year-old me will grow up to be a "firefighter, bass player, emergency room doc, 90210 cast member." Currently I'm currently an account analyst at an industrial supply company. So, not quite right.
I recently discovered a stack of Sassy magazines in my parents' basement. For those of you who don't know: Sassy Magazine was THE magazine for teenage girls in the 90s. It had beauty tips and fashion spreads but it was different because it also acknowledged depression and how maybe you don't want to be thin and pretty all of the time and maybe you just write poetry and feel weird about yourself.
I couldn't even believe that I had actually saved them for all of these years and they were all still in amazing condition, except for the pages I had torn out and taped to my bedroom wall. I am going to go through these magazines, one at a time, and post the highlights of each issue. This one is a two-parter because THERE IS SO MUCH OF THE GOOD I CANNOT PICK.
First up: the cover. Remember when magazines just had pictures of normal people on the cover? Granted, this cover model is a lovely teenage girl, but she is also admittedly a non-famous person. I also appreciate that her hairstyle is preposterous. Is the braid supposed to rest on her head like that? Did someone really style it that way? Or was the photographer just bored? Regardless: there is Evan Dando inside of this magazine so we will open it no matter how obscene the hairstyle on the front may be.
This ad is the reason I begged my mom for a perm. HOW AMAZING DOES HER HAIR LOOK? Like perfect ringlets of happiness. Also, according the ad, this woman lives "somewhere between MTV and the beach." So, in a meth trailer on beach?
Sassy had a column called "Dear Boy" where they would have famous alternative music musicians answer teenage girls' questions. This particular column is written by Evan Dando of The Lemonheads and his advice is pretty solid. In every case he's just telling the girl to go ahead and talk to the person she's upset with. He also tells the cutter to try wood carving and to seek therapy.
For some reason, on this page and this page only of this issue, the word "really" is spelled "rilly". As in, "I've been rilly depressed lately..." I actually remember reading this column when this issue first arrived in my mailbox and thinking, "That is so alternative and cool I am going to spell it as 'rilly' from now on." And then my English teacher told me to knock it the fuck off and I stopped.
Bonus points for the Reality Bites soundtrack ad.
Sassy used to publish POETRY. Poetry that was written by TEENAGE GIRLS. This was a NATIONAL MAGAZINE. Can you imagine a national publication today giving away any portion of their text to angsty teenage poetry? I just – I’m so impressed. And the poems...don't really hold up. They're all quite literal, especially with the titles. "Insomnia" is about insomnia. The editors use different fonts for each poem, the way we used to at my high school literary magazine. I remember arguing that Comic Sans was the only way that we could fully express the MEANING of a poem. Maybe everyone felt that font was evocative in the 90s?
Honesty: I submitted about ten poems to this column. They never accepted any. Thank God.
Also - Always is trying to tell teenage girls to run while wearing maxi pads. YOU MONSTERS.
OK, this is an example of the way back times for the youth of today. Sassy magazine had music hotline and you could call this phone number and punch in a code to listen to the songs that they talked about in the magazine. So, for $0.95 a MINUTE you could LISTEN to a song ONCE. Maybe, if you were industrious, you could push your boombox up to the phone receiver, push "record" and try to capture the worst Pavement recording ever made but that was only if you YOU TIMED IT PERFECTLY. And, still, YOU WERE PAYING $0.95 PER MINUTE. This is just - wow. How did we live? IT USED TO BE SO HARD YOU GUYS.
An Open Letter to the Man Who Rode Past Me on His Bicycle Last Night and Said, “Smile, pretty lady!”
1) I don’t take orders from you.
2) I’m not going to smile just because you tell me “smile.” You don’t even know me, you don’t know my life, you don't know why my face looks this way and I don't I think you really want to know. I'm not smiling because I'm thinking, "Is the Indian food in the fridge still good? God I hope so because I'm going to eat it regardless." Did you really want that window into my mind, stranger?
3) Thank you for calling me pretty.
4) No, but seriously, you can’t just tell people how you wish their faces looked. I don’t walk by you and yell, “Use some moisturizer old man!” Because that’s not OK. It's rude. That’s not what we do.
5) I bet you think that since you're telling me to do something positive that you're being nice. I bet you think you’re putting a little kick in my step by reminding me that life is short and we should all enjoy it by grinning everywhere we go. But you're wrong. All you're doing is putting a little punch in my fist.
6) Maybe I am smiling.
7) Do we all get to tell each other how our faces should look now? Because if so it is ON. I have some OPINIONS.
I’m going to walk down the street like:
“Cross your eyes church lady!”
“Stick out your tongue emo youth!”
“Bite your lip business man!”
8) Do you think that women exist to only pump beauty into the world and men exits only to appreciate it? Because let me tell you that both of us suffer from that binary. It means that I have to constantly monitor myself to make sure that I’m providing adequate decoration every time I’m on the sidewalk while you carry the burden of having to constantly evaluate every female face you see and call out possible improvements. How are we supposed to get to work on time?
9) If you want to talk to me just make it a real talk. Ask me what time it is or where Superior St is or if you can have a quarter or how long I’ve been waiting for the bus. Say anything you want that doesn't mean, "You're a woman and I'm a man and that means I have some say over what your face looks like!"
10) STOP TELLING WOMEN TO SMILE. All it does is make us angry.
It’s the longest car ride of my life. I’m in the back seat of my grandparents’ Lincoln Continental, sitting on the plush maroon upholstery. We are driving to Peru, IN, the circus capital of America, and it is taking FOREVER. For seven interminable hours all I have is the backseat of their car, the static Indiana landscape, and the Prairie Home Companion episodes they listen to over and over on audio cassette tape.
Now, Garrison Keeler is a practiced showman and he possesses a melodic baritone that is one of the top five male voices in the universe , but his stories of quiet fortitude aren’t entertaining you’re nine years old. I listened to his tales of men and women politely striving against life’s injustices - only to be thwarted again and again by an angry, unnamed Norwegian god - and I thought only, “This is making me sad.” My grandparents, however, loved it. They smiled and laughed looked back at me to make sure that I was also enjoying the subtle Scandinavian humor. My grandparents got it, of course, because they had both grown up on farms in central Illinois, both the grandchildren of immigrants. They understood this Prairie Home Companion because they had grown up in the prairie state.
Except my grandparents didn't grow up on a prairie, Garrison Keeler has never seen a prairie, and no person for four generations has experienced the awe and dread of walking across an endless prairie. The great American prairie has been dead for over 150 years.
A prairie isn’t the land you see out your window when you’re driving down I-55 - those are farms, that’s corn, and that's not what I’m talking about. A prairie is a vast landscape without crops, without trees, grassland that stretched for 677,000 continuous miles across North America. That’s 677,000 miles without a single tree or bush or object for your mind to grab a hold of. All you can see is the grass, waving, rolling on all side of you, the sky above, dense root-filled soil at your feet. There is no shelter. There is no wood for building shelter. There is you, alone on the prairie, walking, walking, and never seeing anything but the endlessly stretching expanse of grass.
Ecologically speaking, a prairie is a liminal space – it’s a rest, a beat between barren earth and the dense forest. Left alone, a prairie will evolve to become a forest. But nature does not leave the prairie alone. Animals graze on the tops of the grass and every fall fires streak across the drying fields, clearing the underbrush and killing everything that does not belong. And then, from the ashes, the prairie bursts forth an even more vibrant life. The prairie must continually be destroyed – eaten and engulfed by flame – in order to maintain itself. It balances on the edge of a knife.
When European settlers in America first encountered the prairie they were terrified. They built their homes on the edges of prairie, up against the woods, because in the woods you have trees, water, food, a sense that life has edges and rules and can be managed. When you stare into the woods your vision has places to rest. On the prairie there is no rest. To stare across the prairie is to look into vastness, eternity. Americans don’t do well with the concept of eternity. Those who first ventured out and dared to build solitary homes in the prairie reported experiencing prairie madness. Left alone in their shelters in that vast expanse month after month – wind whipping by them, the snow blowing through the cracks in their cabin, the summer sun beating on them without mercy, hoards of insects feeding on them and then, in the fall, the fires come, tearing across the land from all sides, no escape. And when it’s a nice day, a pleasant 72 degrees, there is still, as Walt Whitman said the, “…limitless and lonesome prairie.”
These early Americans, when faced with the unrelenting isolation and harshness of the prairie, went insane. The prairie shows us that there is no end, no beginning, no moment where our tiny footsteps will resonate apart from this fleeting moment. And we, as Americans, do not like that feeling. So what do we do? We figure out how to take this thing that is so terrifying and eliminate it. We do this in two ways:
1) We figure out how to plow the prairie. The wooden plows that worked so well in the forest just bounced off of the dense prairie dirt. In 1837, a man in Grand Detour, IL named John Deere invented the steel-bladed plow and with it the possibility of converting the prairie into farmland.
2) In 1862 president Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act which offered 160 acres of land free to any man who promised to “improve” the land.
The conversion of prairie to farmland was swift. In 1861 soldiers left their prairie homes to fight in the Civil War and, when they returned in 1865, like the Pretenders song says, their prairie was gone.
An iconic image of America is the oceans of grass waving us across the continent, beckoning us to cross from the Atlantic to the Pacific. But the prairie you see in your mind, the long spaces without pause, is our collective memory of the prairie. We have since installed pauses. We have filled the prairie with our people and our plows and our farms and our railroads and our airports and our exurbs and our pre-fabricated homes and our interstate 70s and our Dennys and our Anne Taylors.
Today .01% of the prairie remains. My husband spends eight hours a day restoring a patch of prairie near Joliet, IL. He removes invasive species and cuts down trees while bulldozers dig up the irrigation trenches that were dug by farmers hundreds of years ago. He's trying to get that ocean of grass back but he stands on the prairie remains he doesn’t feel engulfed. He can see the edges. To his left are train tracks. To his right, a BP plant.
The prairie once filled us with awe but it was that Old Testament awe that came with fear and trembling and was followed by the very American desire to conquer the fear. But the prairie cannot be conquered - touch it and it disappears.
The prairie was a seemingly endless landscape of birth and death and rebirth. It was an undulating Hindu god spread out across the land that we slowly, one plow at a time, removed. The prairie is quintessentially American because we converted it before we even knew what it was. And maybe, one day, when we’ve made a better peace with ourselves, we’ll get to see it again. This piece was originally performed at Write Club in the bout "Prairie vs. Mountain" as part of the Chicago Humanities Festival , November 4th, 2012.
I hate horror movies because I don’t need them. I know that other people get a delicious thrill from being scared but that's only because they’re not normally scared. I, however, start out scared. When they showed me the “Don’t Talk to Strangers” film strip in the first grade I refused to go outside by myself for months. MONTHS. Even now, every morning I walk to the L thinking, “Is someone going to hit me in the back of the head with a brick?” So clearly I have an abundance of anxiety and I don't need horror movies' help.
But even though I have no use for them, I still think that horror movies might be important. I think they may reveal what we all, as a culture, are most afraid of. Therefore, by studying these movies we may be able to identify a secret terror lurking within our country that we're all too afraid to name. I'm not entirely sure about this theory because I absolutely refuse to watch horror movies.
But in the name of science I am pressing forward and investigating my theory by watching the trailers of horror movies currently in theaters with the sound off.
Silent Hill 3D
A girl with a mid-90s Meg Ryan haircut moves to a new town. Now we all know that we should never, ever move to new towns because new towns are where the devil lives. This town has an idyllic-looking high school, and smash cut to some dude WITHOUT A FACE and smash cut to a little girl with black eyes who makes snow tornadoes behind her which seems to me more like an X-Men thing than a horror movie thing.
Meg-Ryan-haircut is a teenager and she lives with her Dad who's played by Sean Bean, the guy who plays both Boromir in Lord of the Rings and Edward Stark in Game of Thrones so you know that guy’s gonna die because that’s what he does. Oh – spoiler. And then Meg-Ryan-haircut's boyfriend is the guy who plays Jon Snow in Game of Thrones and I’m like: did the Khaleesi direct this movie?
And Meg-Ryan-haircut keeps having dreams that she’s in some sort of devil basement and – oh no, a door handle is jiggling, that’s not good. And then Edward Stark is kidnapped cause that’s what he does. And there’s a message on the wall in – blood? It’s too dark for blood. Tar? Tar would be the worst – so hard to clean up – telling her to go to Silent Hill. And then Jon Snow gets kidnapped too and then Meg-Ryan-haircut has to go to Silent Hill to get the cast of Game of Thrones back. And then there’s a guy crawling towards her who is MADE OF SPIDERS and I’m going to see that the next time I try to go to sleep. And now there’s a carnival? Where Edward Stark is forced to work by the devil? And Meg-Ryan-haircut is on a carousel and it’s on fire? Maybe it makes more sense in 3D.
Paranormal Activity 4
The preview starts with home movies of toddlers which is just cute. The trailer tells us that these home movies were taken in 2006 and that is an extra creepy year because that was when Dick Cheney shot some guy in the face. And then we switch to night vision shot of a crib, and then to another night vision shot that shows that there’s water in their basement, which is terrifying because that causes mold.
Cut to the present day where a blonde teenager is talking to the camera, doing the old school Brooke Shields eyebrow thing and NOT PULLING IT OFF. And then she and her mom are making breakfast in a kitchen that is nicer than any I will ever own and that's the real horror, people.
Then Eyebrows is online video chatting with her boyfriend, presumably two seconds away from making an unwise sex tape, when she stops because she sees a toddler standing outside on her driveway. Good job toddler! Way to keep that girl’s boobies from being posted on Reddit! But then the exterior lights of the house go out. And then the interior lights flicker. And then there’s a figure behind Brooke Shields eyebrows and – oh no! And the screen goes black. End of trailer.
This movie doesn’t really seem that scary. I mean, toddlers are scary, but only when you’re baby sitting one and she pours glue on the couch.
The exterior of a house. With porch lights. Maybe it’s scarier with the music but as an image it just looks like a episode of House Hunters: Night. Now there are kids playing and a child’s drawing of people hanging from a tree. Maybe the elementary school is assigning homework about historical oppression? No? Maybe the family that lived in that house was all hanged to death? Oh.
Nine months later a new family moves in to the house. Which just goes to show you guys: never move because whatever new house you choose, that’s where the murders are. Oh, there’s Ethan Hawke! I found him! Hi Ethan Hawke! He has a terrible beard and is wearing a big gray cardigan. I bet he’s a college professor in this movie. Or an old woman.
Ethan has a red haired daughter and he lets her draw on the walls – bad parenting, Ethan. He’s tucking his creepy kid in and going up to the attic and discovering a box of old-school films. Don’t watch those! They’re 70's amateur porn! Nope – they’re home movies that show kids playing and then a whole family hanging, dead, from a tree. Ick. So of course Ethan uploads these films onto his product-placement Mac and starts watching them obsessively, and he calls Vincent D'Onofrio for a consult.
And then Ethan starts seeing this creepy guy in all of the movies – the guy is especially creepy because he has a black and white clown mask on, which makes him look like a member of the Insane Clown Posse. And then the guy starts showing up in Ethan's real life so instead of just TAKING OFF THE CARDIGAN Ethan freaks out and burns the film but then his kid starts drawing creepy things on his wall which: don’t get mad, you enabled that behavior. And then his daughter comes out of a moving box backwards and there’s lots of running through the house at night. Ethan runs up to the attic but - gah! - there are five kids sitting up there, waiting for him. And they're all wearing Juggalo face paint and putting their fingers to their lips like, “ssssh” And then the Insane Clown Posse mask guy jumps in front of the camera like, “MAGNETS ARE MIRACLES.”
Four stars.What We've Learned
Based on my careful review of these films’ trailers without the sound on I believe that in 2012 America is most afraid of:
This piece was originally performed at The Paper Machete on October 27, 2012.
- Moving to a new house/town
- High school
- Red heads
- Having to repaint the walls
- Our own children