The Cold, Cold Heart of the Big Apple



There are few men who can live up to your first big high school crush. Unless, they are in fact the same crush ten years later. He had shoulder length shaggy brown hair, perfect shoulders, a thrift store chic look, he rolled his own goddamn cigarettes. I hated smokers! It was so hot. Now when boys play the drums in high school they are called percussionists, when men play the drums and are unemployed, they are called drummers.

What do you call a drummer who breaks up with his girlfriend?


What you say to a drummer in a three piece suit?

Will the defendant please rise?

When Mike August and I reconnected ten years after high school in that place of all possibility and romance (Facebook) I felt I was living in a dream. My crush was made of ancient teenage yearnings, silent communication, longing glances across the 9th grade band room from my flute section to his percussionist section. He was just like my favorite literary bad boy, Heathcliff. Dark, silent, full of a hidden depth of passion only I could see. I never got up the nerve to declare my love, I pined, as high school flutist are prone to do.

But here he was in my dining room, we were 28 now. And so, we were aggressively optimistic.

After he left, I called up my best friend from high school, we still mutually wondered on the whereabouts of the elusive Mike August.

Oh my god, Mike August was just at my house. Yes, I made him dinner. Yes, he ate it! Mike August kissed me! I know! Mike August!

I was 16 again, hardly capable of thinking more than a minute down the road. Oh, and he went by Mikey Lightning now.

I don’t go for stereotypes. I was a teacher after all and taught British literature to high schoolers in Chicago Public Schools. Black suiting and hair in a bun was my specialty. “You really got that whole hot librarian thing going on”, Mikey Lightning laughed. Critical thinking and a lot of Jane Austen told me, this could work, this could totally work. My love could like for sure inspire him to the greatness he clearly has just bubbling below the surface or liking down a little deeper maybe. I mean, he’s not homeless. He just stays at my apartment. A lot. All the time.

I looked at him and the stray cat I had at that time, napping on my bed; all curled up together. I felt an equal urge to bathe them both.

“So where is your home exactly?” I asked

He rolled over onto the cat, “The road is my home.”

Jesus Christ.

He told me to “be cool”, “chill out”, and leave my piles of grading behind for late night shows in bars and clubs when he was playing in town. Even in 2009 Chicago Public Schools was already falling apart and I feared daily and deeply that my job would disappear at any moment. Another part of me secretly fantasized about the job’s demise, I loved hanging out with the “artists” and pretending like what I made and thought mattered, not some 16 year olds plagiarized essay on Macbeth. And lesson plans on dangling modifiers made me want to leave myself dangling.

Be cool, I can totally be cool. It was always made easier with a leather jacket lying around my apartment and a free ticket to every show. I went out to bars and hung out with the musicians. They were tall and loud, vegan and bohemian, the lead singer didn’t wear a bra. And she didn’t need to.

Then something happened that made me lose any ounce of cool I had. I got laid off. Like any burn, whether in career or love, I played the “Yeah, well I didn’t like you anyways” card. “Those who can’t do, teach. I’m going to do”.

I’m an artist. I should run away, join the circus, date a drummer…

Wait! I was dating a drummer! I had almost forgotten as he was on tour so much I hardly ever saw him the past few months. But, just like in high school, when a passed note would suffice for love, our bond had appeared to endure. I was still considered to be within the sacred circle of “band wives and girlfriends”. Only a man’s whims away from non-existence.

Mikey Lightning’s next gig was in NYC and I bought the plane ticket there. NYC like LA or Las Vegas, holds the possibility of greatness and discovery. I had numerous months of school left with the kids all asking me “What are you going to do, Ms. Howe?” because the Napoleonic principal had announced the layoffs school wide. Every day was like playing a part, a part Meryl Streep would revel in, quiet and calculated with the promise of epic and poetic breakdown.

Yeah, I got laid off, but Mikey Lightening, my drummer boyfriend, is bringing me to NYC. The road was my home now.

Then, after weeks of fantasizing that this trip would reassemble all of my woes, that love, love would keep us together, the weekend was upon me. Days away from what I considered the only escape from the hell of my doomed life, a blizzard hit the East coast that prompted newscasters to report “If you’re planning on traveling east any time soon, don’t” The tiny, aggressive icons of snow and lightning bolts mocked my plans of escape.

I am going east. I am going to NYC. The road is my goddamned home.

That’s when I stopped watching the news, and started bargaining with the Universe.

 Universe, friend, these past few months have been pretty bad, would you not agree? But biblical sized blizzards that shut down the city that never sleeps? Stop being so fucking cleaver. Be reasonable, bitch. I’m going.

 And I proceeded to ignore all signs of imminent defeat and scheduled to meet Mikey Lightning in New York City. I had my poor mother drop me off at the airport, she went along with the farce and parked in the waiting lot for me as she was sure I would return an hour later, head hung low. I was raised to play it safe, and as much as my parents love me, when I fail, it does fit nicely into their suburban ideas about dating drummers and going to NYC during blizzards.

Walking confidently through the airport with my weekender bag (I had packed light, like an artist), I ignored the tired bodies of stranded travelers that littered the long halls of O’Hare. I bought a trashy magazine, walked right up to that gate, and popped a pre-flight Xanax with a determined gulp.

My flight was the last to leave O’Hare and only one of a handful to land at LaGuardia that day, finding some miraculous thread of calm through the storm.

I walked out of the ghost town LaGuardia, into a waiting cab that took me directly and swiftly, through eerily empty snow piled Manhattan streets, to Mikey Lightning. He stood, leather clad and smoking, on the curb in Brooklyn, like an ink blot test against the dirty snow bank that piled three feet over his shaggy head.

We ran up the twelve flights of black wrought iron stairs, up and up and up; to the warm apartment we rented from the Hare Krishna’s. A young man with a shaved head in a soft orange robe gave us our tasseled key.

And for two days I pretended to be something I was not, a carefree artist, a lover, a fan of hipster folk music, unafraid of what the future held.


One of the nights we were in DUMBO, down under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass, at a club the size of a Chicago closet. The music was too loud for me, the reality of my trip back to Chicago a bit too clear, too sad, the weariness of the last few months had caught up. I stepped out onto the slushy cobblestone street, alone, in an unknown place. There were cavernous tunnels lit and steaming like a scene from Tim Burton’s Batman and the quivering bridge loomed ominously away from the borough into the heart of the cold, cold city.

I looked back into the bar, at the traveling gypsies, like Scrooge contemplating what his life could have been like. I had gotten so many things that I thought I wanted, the job in teaching, the boy from high school, the flight to New York City.

It all left me cold, and in an attempt not to cry I remembered a joke about teachers.

What do you call a teacher without students?


I laughed, forgetting the slush creeping into my boots and allowing myself to revel in the sweet cold misery. For a moment, I almost felt like the road was my home.




Teacher observation notes:
A phone rings during journal entry

(which is more than half of this remedial English class)

It’s the teacher’s phone
She answers it.
A skinny boy in a smudged and baggy uniform raises his hand
“How do you spell incarceration?”
Teacher hangs up phone and spells it for him
Incorrect spelling
I observe.

I must teach. I must do better than this.

Von Steuben High School. I teach World Literature.

It involves two things that teenagers hate most, both the World and Literature.
I decorate walls with posters the students make about Beowulf.
There is only neon green Shrek colored paper in the supply room.
Neon green walls full of love for Beowulf.
I never answer my phone. Students text under their desks while looking straight at me.
Brittany comes in late every morning and applies deodorant in the front row.
Kenyatta teaches me a cool handshake.
You dope, Ms Howe.
Wusef throws a desk at me; his body is segmented and hard like a wasp.
Fuck you, Ms. Howe.
He reads at a fourth grade level in 9th grade.
I make a fake campfire and we read Call of the Wild on the floor with a soundtrack of wolves howling in the background.
How does that help the test scores?
Wolves howling at the door
The test scores
The test scores
The test scores

I must teach. Even if the test scores aren’t good. They are better than they were.

Second year. New school. Numbers. Enrollment. Hope we have the numbers to keep you. Lake View High School.
Long hallways filled with dirty murals. History, but whose history?
“This school used to look a lot different, you know what I mean?” sneers a co-worker who reads the paper during all of his history classes, and glances sidelong at all the baggy pants.
A hip-hop Shakespeare is painted in chipping colors outside my department’s lounge.
Lounge. Windowless. Dirty. Copy machine. Pray it works. Pray there is paper.
My alarm is set every day for three years 4:45 am
Dear god in heaven, please let this copy machine work today. God, I will do anything for 200 copies today.
Ms. David every morning, complaining of the cold, the heat, her back,
“Who are you student teaching with?
I work here. I am your colleague.
Next morning
“Who are you student teaching with? Ms. David, I work here.
Next morning,
Ms. David, we have gone over this
“Child, I broke that damn machine again”.
“Child, I left the LCD projector on all night.”
Bulb is burnt out. We cannot afford a new one.
I cry over it’s loss. CRY. OVER. A broken LCD projector.
I spend the $100 on a new one myself.
I hope we have the numbers to keep you.
Who are you student teaching with?


Ariel sits in the front row every day.
She loves class. I told her I went to a My Chemical Romance concert.
She tells me she has decided to like me, no matter what the other kids think
7:30 am please take out Romeo and Juliet.
Yes, the LCD projector is back. I know you like it, Michael.
He cannot see unless the font is very, very big.
Michael is from China, he started speaking English two years ago.
He recites,

Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.

He recites the Prologue from memory with a smile of victory like he may never have again.
Again, I cry. Ariel cries in the front row.
Frederick sleeps. SLEEPS?! Not in my class! WAKE UP!
Later that year in parent teacher conferences,
In a basement, windowless,
His mother, my age, tells me Frederick witnessed her boyfriend try to murder her, strangle her to death.
She is back with the boyfriend and she allows him to live with her and her kids again.
Frederick cannot sleep. He has to watch over his mother.
I let him sleep for 15 minutes every morning.

Two households, both alike in dignity

I must teach even if Fredrick sleeps.
The numbers again. I am transferred back to Von Steuben.

Again, no desk, no classroom.
Remember these colleagues
Principal in expensive suits tailored to his short stature, standing in front of a ten foot painting of the school’s namesake Friedrich Wilhelm August Heinrich Ferdinand von Steuben
Hand in coat, Prussian-born warrior of the American Revolution.
History, But whose history is it anyways?
I hear about Lake View High School still.

One of Ms. David’s students climbs out the window and into another classroom and she does not notice.
Sure, this happened when I was there.
“Who are you student teaching with?”
She hits a student.
Two day suspension.
I am told, in whispers, she makes almost 85,000 a year.

I should get involved.
I pay dues.
I do not understand why they whisper so much.

I must teach, over the whispers.

Othello with costumes I find at the thrift store
Copies for everyone.
I write grants.
I do not sleep.
I get in two separate minor car accidents that year.
I fall asleep at the wheel while driving down the long river of tail lights that is Foster Ave.


I must teach.
I must sleep.

“What’s wrong Ms. H?”
I must teach.
I make them read the most violent Romantic poetry I can find.

I wonder if Frederick is asleep at Lake View.

I find a wing, a whole hallway, hidden like in the secret garden. There is an empty corner office. No one is allowed here. I use it every day and make sure I leave it empty. There are windows.

The principal napoleon reads me lay off papers, reads it rote, never looking at me.
Almost two thousand teachers got laid off that day, I am told as consolation.

You should have made more friends, not taught so much.

Eight minutes and I have to teach journalism
He lays me off three months before the end of the school year and eight minutes before my first period class.


The test scores.
The numbers.
The windowless rooms.
“Who are you student teaching with?”
Is Frederick still sleeping?

I have an interview at another school that looks like a prison.

I’m hired.
But they cannot staff my employee number in the system.
The system.
Call downtown
“I heard there’s a Do Not Hire list. All 2000 of us find we cannot be staffed.”
“We cannot confirm that”, a dead soul downtown says to me.
If we were staffed we would get that tenure, going into our 4th year.
They are blocking us.

The Union.

Now, I cannot teach. For a year at least, then I can go back and start tenure track all over again.

I beg in meetings, this is wrong
Will someone please help me?

Please help me.

Papers are shuffled.
Tenured gazes averted.
Kids cry.
Parents write letters

Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean

I cannot teach.

I put everything in my apartment that has anything to do with teaching in a huge plastic bin

and I throw it into a dark, windowless storage space.

Focus. Move on.

Last year I read an article about Lake View. A gym teacher I knew, Tirado friends with Fernando who always told me I was looking fine and once gave me a love bird that died two days later, Tirado had been caught stealing half a million dollars over the last ten years. Outside vendors for the tech program he ran.  Tirado was under investigation.

He tried to focus.


But there were no windows. No air there in the long, muraled hallways of Lake View.

He went to Mexico and stopped breathing in a Tijuana motel room.

The article also talks about numbers. Ghost numbers. Fabrications of student records to make it appear there are more students at the school.

But they are not there, and money goes to expensive suit pockets lined with satin in offices that have windows.

When I taught people used to say to me, as a sort of compliment that I morbidly relished,

“I’m glad you do it because I sure couldn’t do it.”

But I couldn’t do it anymore. I failed my own test, I aborted the mission to teach in CPS.

Sometimes on Sunday nights I still get anxiety of an overwhelming phantom week ahead. I remind myself I don’t have to go back, and then I pray. I pray for those still on the mission:

Dear god, please let their copy machines work today.

The Boundary

One year ago, amidst the rolling farmlands outside of Rockford, IL, I checked myself into a Zen prison. A ten-day Vipasssana silent mediation retreat, assigned to Illinois Vipassana Center, on Fish Hatchery Road, Pecatonica. I had heard that Vipassana meditation, akin to Buddhist meditation is sometimes taught to prisoners in the Deep South for rehabilitation. “It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” said a man who has served 8 years on Death Row.

During these ten days there would be no talking, no reading, no writing, no computer, no television, no exercising, no music, no religion, no meat, no booze, no sex, no drugs, no touching (not even yourself), and not even any eye contact! It would be extraordinary, radical boredom.

The gong sounded at 4am and by 4:30, after the 400 steps from the dorm to the Dhamma Hall, I was meditating, followed by breakfast, more meditating, a walk around the small, grassy campus, meditating, lunch, meditating, tea and fruit for dinner, a video of an old Burmese dude talking about… you guessed it, meditating… then, more meditating and 9:30 lights out. All in all, eleven hours of meditation a day with “breaks” of nothingness in between.

When the gong initially sounded to announce the beginning of the ten days, I started crying immediately. What had I done? This was by far the worst idea I had ever had. Look at all of these yoga people. Look at their perfect posture and quiet breathing. Oh, you’re all so Zen. I’m never going to make it. I’m going to be that girl who has a breakdown at Buddha Boot camp. Of course, I looked like I was meditating while I thought all this.

Monkey mind is a Buddhist term referring to those novice untrained thoughts that are unsettled and restless, whimsical and confused, most of all completely uncontrollable.

I am so into that guy’s…posture.

God, I want some chocolate!

I had studied my impending self-imprisonment online, and read that some centers had no sugar at all. Now as much as this seemed like both enlightenment and lightening the size of my ass all in one, I had been on a juice fast before. No sugar turned me crazy, like how the zombies were all cuckoo for sugar in World War Z, scaling walls and stampeding children to get it.

I could hear the Zen masters, “Well, grasshopper Jill, that’s an addiction. We are here to overcome those.”

Yes, it’s an addiction, but these 10 days would be addressing every single addiction at once. My addiction to technology, Facebook, talking on my phone, writing 100 emails a day, no boys, no attention, no sex, NO NOTHING! So really, wasn’t sugar the least of my problems. Of all the things that backsliding would be ok to do, wouldn’t that be chocolate?!

They won’t check my bags! I’ll just tuck away two of those dark chocolate covered caramels sprinkled with seas salt. The ones from whole foods, you know what I’m saying. It made me feel better just knowing they were there. In case, ya know, a chocolate emergency were to arise.

In the dining hall two flimsy light blue sheets separated the room. Men on one side, women on the other. I could hear the masculine clank of their silverware and occasionally see a manly boots from under the sheet.

When you know nothing about the people you are living with, sleeping with, meditation with all day long. How they eat becomes a sherlockian endeavor, a clue to their secret personalities. I was careful not to rush in line at 6:30am breakfast. I mean, let’s draw this out people, we have time!

Breakfast was the best steel cut oatmeal I had ever had, with steamed prunes to mix in. Yeah, steamed prunes. You’re supposed to be like “Gross prunes!”No, Not Gross. So tasty And I’d put yogurt, and sunflower seeds, and brown sugar on it. Yes, sugar! We were not going to turn into the zombies from World war Z!

One woman hardly ate at anything. Her plate always had a scant piece of fruit on it and a green the side. Oh you’re so going to try to get to Zen fast than the rest of us, Zenbi (as I referred to her silently). And her butt looked really good in those $100 lululemon yoga pants too.

Then another woman, about 60 years old, piled her plate high every time. She ate everything all mixed up together, and went up for seconds and even thirds. The old Burmese dude advised against this, and he was right, overeating did make it harder to concentrate. That’s why surprisingly, I loved 4am meditations. My stomach was empty and my mind could just focus.

The food seemed to indicate that our captors, I mean spiritual guides, knew what rabbit hole we about to go down. The food started out hearty and plentiful and then dropped off (I was sure to curb miss three helpings a meal). There was a lot of kale. Zenbi had no problem with this, but Big Mama sure did, and soon enough she was solely hitting up that sugar bowl, piling sugar on her food. Sugar was gone. Big Mama, look what you’ve done!

Now the 11 hours of mediatation have this way on breaking people down. First it’s topical sadness, loss of technology friends and family, then curiosity and for me an “I can figure this out” attitude, then entrapment (this is a cult, I am at the beginning of some weird cult movie and I am the character who dies here), then worse than being held captive, true self-reflection. Anything you have been shoving down, bottling up, sweeping under the rug, it surfaces, slowly, like a dead body in a muddy river. Unless you’re like the imagined perfectly abstaining, self-masochistic Zenbi over there, a reckoning will come unannounced, screeching out of the silence. I had seen two people freak out and leave and numerous others, jump from their mats and run from the room gasping with hands held over their mouths to muffles their cries.

On the sixth day, patience was running low. I could feel it in the air. We were over halfway there, but it was incomprehensible to believe it could last four more days. I had suffered a tremendous heartbreak that year, one of the many reasons I thought just checking out of the world for a bit might be a good idea. I had yet again dated the red flag guy, red flags mistaken for party streamers. Things went wrong, confusion, anger, tears, good intentions turned around and around like a terrible carousel. A lot of this, I had swept under the rug or maybe even I was rolling in the dust on a hardwood floor.

While working so closely and so strangely without any distraction with my own mind, I realized it was not a monkey mind, but rather a horse mind I had. Just like a cowboy, I needed to break it, but with compassion. I wanted to be like that guy Buck, the one the film The Horse Whisperer is based on. I had patience and I reined that horse in day after day, meditation turning the circle I walked it in to a deep groove. I can do this all day long, I told that wild horse. Because I did have all day long.

And on the 6th day, it happened. The horse stopped running, it slowed, and slowed, bowed its head. It was time for me to put on the metaphysical saddle, This is great! I am totally the Zen whisperer. I went over to lift the saddle over the horse’s back. I had never seen my mind this closely. And as I was priding myself, that horse reeled on me, taking full advantage of my vulnerable proximity, and laid a bite on me on the form of a memory that scared the shit out of me.

The man I had loved said something so negating, so hateful, and I had forgotten about it completely, rejecting it as too painful to carry. My mind played it back as if on a recorder, it was as if he was in that room yelling it at me again. Just that real. I’d tell you what it was now a year later, but I can’t remember. Some stories just don’t want to be told.

I ran from the room. It was almost lunch time, and I ran as far as I could, which was not far as tiny signs reading “course boundary” were only about 20 yards from any given point. No matter because my mind was still with me. I paced, I reeled, I felt like I was being liquidated from the inside. It was real. It was how I really felt, not how I projected I felt to friends or in status updates (everything is great! #yolo).

I went to the lunch line, and it was as if the captors knew! There was miraculously homemade mac and cheese and at the end of the line… a bowl of Andes mints!

Now normally you see an Andes mint tucked into your bill at a mid range restaurant and you’re like “hey, it’s better than a star mint”. But here it was a shiny green tile of hope.
AND it had letters on it. I had not seen printed words in almost a week. Beloved words! Andes with the little mountain range behind it. Yes, mountains. I was mentally climbing a mountain. Yes, Andes, yes you get it. I took the chocolate. I had smuggled the chocolate in and here they were just giving it to me! In finished my gooey mac and cheese and walked out to the boundary, a little grassland next to a dead cornfield. The same place the fear and shame and sadness had driven me. I threw myself down on a clump of thistles, opened the crisp wrapped edges as if it was a gift from the universe itself. The words! The chocolate! I ate that Andes mint like it was ambrosia.

There is always something good around the corner from the bad. There is always abundance of what you think is scarce, what you feel you must steal or smuggle.

I breathed in the chocolate mint and placed it on my tongue, letting it melt as I watched the spiders spin silvery webs across the corn stalks. I breathed deep, knowing the only thing I needed to do in that moment was eat chocolate.

The Next Big Thing Project

Attending and performing at many events in Chicago that attract writers and creative folk, most every night I develop an artistic crush on some new future friend (you may call them strangers). The night I performed a story at Reading Under the Influence I met Connie when she came over to kindly compliment me on screaming as a blind professor in public (read, Blind But Now I see in previous post). Connie has a sparkle in her eye that will one day be a novel. I saw it in there, and I instantly liked her. We talked excitedly about projects we want to work on and writing in general. Yesterday, she asked me to pass along the project below and answer some questions myself. It’s call The Next Big Thing and it’s meant to push people along at that critical first step when writing a book seems the most daunting and ridiculous task. And it is both of those things, in spades, but one needs to get over it.

I couldn’t even say I wanted to be a writer or (gasp) proclaim I am a writer until I was 30 years old. I have earned degrees in literature, writing, philosophy, education. I have supported and helped out countless artists in their own quests to achieve their creative and competitive goals.  I am who I am because of this education and I will always collaborate with a large, loving, and ever-growing group of creative people who I consider to be my second family at this point. That said, it’s time to get selfish. At least that’s how it feels right now. What the hell do I want to do? What do I want to write? What work is in me that if not honored and cultivated will be a regret on my death bed. Yes, death bed, that’s where we need to go. I don’t want to be there (if I am so lucky to have it be a bed and be so far off) and think, “Why did I never write that book?! I had all of the resources.”  So, here it goes: my next big thing. And big, I want to also say, does not necessarily mean popular or fame-seeking. The best way to get approval is not to need it. This comes from my heart though and may it find a voice through this project’s line of questioning. Thanks to Connie for the kind request of my participation.

(Questions for The Next Big Thing Project:

1. What is your working title of your book?

Zen Prison (working title,  as my writing group keeps calling it that)

2. Where did the idea come from for the book?

I try to make myself uncomfortable. I am interested in the edge of things, the bravery of going to those places.  Situations that make me think I might go insane, or that might be awesome. I have completed a ten day meditation retreat where I did not talk, write, or read and meditated for 11 hours a day. I have competed in the Illinois Yoga Championship through Bikram Yoga, a particular vein of yoga for masochistic zen troopers. I have been on a grand jury for two years,  indicting all of the Chicago Mafia (no choice there). I have dated men, enough said. I have left a career in the public schools that proves the upside of quitting. I perform personal stories in public, despite having terrible stage fright and no theatrical experience. And, next up, I was chosen to spend a week in a dune shack near Cape Cod as part of a community collective’s mission to support artists. There will be no running water, no electricity, and I hear there are coyotes for companionship. I am planning to bring a friend with to this zen prison. Any other uncomfortable ideas? Send them my way. If I think it sounds crazy and awful, I just might do it.

3. What genre does your book fall under?

Creative Non-Fiction, Memoir, Self-Help, Personal Essays

4. Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

Well, it’s me so that’s weird. Let’s go for the gold, Rachael Weisz (we both have brown hair, what?) or my friend Blaine always calls me Gina Gershon after about 20 whiskeys. Of course, Ricki Lake will probably play me on the made-for-tv movie and that is fine by me.

5. What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

I might go insane, or this might be awesome.

6. Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I would love an agent who knows way more about all this than I do.

7. How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

I have been writing components of it for the past 6 months. Most of these pieces are for performance though, so work this year will go towards published format.

8. What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

I am reading Sloane Crosley’s work right now and I find her humor delightful. David Rakoff’s Fraud is a new inspiration. I enjoy Elizabeth Gilbert’s work, especially The Last American Man, and I adore Susan Orlean. I also find the self-help/memoir genre to be interesting. Martha Beck and Gilbert inspire me in those areas.

9. Who or what inspired you to write this book?

Arlene Malinowski, may the story gods bring everyone a cheerleader like her. I tried to make my stories always fit into a 7-10 minutes “live lit” piece. She told me to honor the story, and see where it takes me. Expanding the form feels much more natural to me, and I’m glad she gently pushed me in that direction.

10. What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

It’s not all about happy endings and putting a bow on it. My tales of risk involve both gain and loss. Keeps you on your toes, I hope.

All’s Fair

“You up, asshole?”

An early morning text is a common initiate from my unlikely new friend. Bill, though a crass-talking bald-headed rebel in heavy metal t-shirts akin to a modern day Henry VIII, is also a laid back, cantankerous old fogey who goes to bed early and rises before many of his companions, including his wife. He calls this time of the early morning his “solitary confinement”. Bill and I share the belief that a life without people, lots of them, is a prison indeed.

A new friend is like uncharted territory. That sprawling font on the map that reads “unexplored” excites some dormant cartographer’s blood coursing through my veins. My unlikely friendship with Bill began in a similar spirit to Lewis and Clark embarking from St. Louis. There was great hope of finding an easy water route to the Pacific. And then there were the Rocky Mountains, but this journey stays closer to the Mississippi than that.

Most early adventures include a matter-of-fact lesson from Bill on why everything is an asshole. It’s like high school, 1st period starts at 7:30 am. A photography trip to the Botanic Garden makes for a great classroom as we wait for dragon flies to hover so we can snap a photo. “They hover, Jill. These dickbags never land, not in their whole life. It’s fly, kill, or be killed.” By 8am, it’s time for a quiz. “Jill, look at this tree. Biggest asshole of all.” I look at him blankly, “Root systems, Jill. Root systems will get you every time. And they don’t give a shit, they will wait for decades to fuck you over.”

As a romantic about dogged exploration against the odds, Lewis and Clark have often fueled my tenacity. Did you know Clark was an ambitious, mission propelled energizer bunny and Lewis a perfectionist prone to over-thinking things? Perhaps that’s a friendly dynamic that works for me and Bill as well. Imagine Lewis traversing the West as he was sidetracked with bone crushing perfectionism. “Clark, can we ford that river tomorrow please? I just want to sit here and draw birds.”

Ever the buoyant asshole Clark too my precise Lewis, Bill proposes a new mission one sweltering summer morning. “Burp! S’cuz you. You wanna go to the fair?. I gotta press pass. You’re like my assistant or some shit”. I bolster my inner Lewis and let Clark drive us an hour to the Lake County Fair grounds in Greyslake. As we drive, I realize I have accepted this mission as it conjured up images of longed for happiness; children petting cows, eating corndogs, and riding Ferris wheels. What I had not realized until arriving at the fair, is that the most threatening thing for a reluctant, over-analytical explorer like myself, is happiness. Corn fed, white bread, cow raising, demolition-derby loving unadulterated happiness. President Jefferson called Lewis’ darker side a “sensible depression of the mind”. He probably had the Lake County Fair in mind.

Bill exits the car, an ant in the expansive parking lot, grabs his camera, and utters the beautiful declarative sentence,

“We’re headed to the banana derby.”

The banana derby is, simply put, a monkey riding a dog in a race. “If y’all love pig racin’, you’ll go APE for the banana derby!”

This destination is worth the voyage!

As we walk to the fairgrounds, I excavate the simple joys of my childhood. Here was everything once so important to me as an avid 4-H-er. To get to the banana derby we walk through the bovine barn. Cow hand teens languish in the heat of the last day of the fair. I pet the beautiful cows, spotted like nations on map, and I know they will go to slaughter soon. Mainly because such signs reading, “Eat beef” are above the prize winning steer. He is under fans, being treated as a king. As a group of children and their overprotective protective parents walk up to the stall to admire the steer’s immense glory, Bill exclaims “This fucker is food! Check out these fans! You’re food, man!”

Next I bolt excitedly towards a petting zoo. Bill thinks all farm animals are assholes, so he sums up his non-involvement with one grunt, “Germs”. I head into the fenced area and lay my hands on a transcendentally adorable baby alpaca. It’s body is hard, but the tawny fur is softer than all of the pink angel hair cotton candy for miles. I close my eyes for a moment with my hands on his long neck, my cheek on his sweet alpaca cheek and I feel happy.

“Jill, that goat’s eatin’ yer camera strap. I can’t even believe I need to tell you this, but look in their devil eyes…total assholes.”

We discover the banana derby on a break ,the mini-racetrack empty. One chain-leashed capuchin monkey remains, outfitted in a red and yellow satin jockey costume, sticking his small human-like palm out for tips. A wholesome blond mother of identical twin girls, all three costumed in the same hot pink and purple summer dress, lets the monkey kiss her hand, while her daughters get a photo with him. The monkey strikes a pose I know all too well, faking a smile.

Pressing on, not satiated with the discovery of the mysterious banana derby, I nod to a group of Vietnam veterans while Bill gives a different kind of nod to a group of honky-tonk coeds in jean cutoffs. Bill and I walk up to an apiary of bees at a table selling jars of honey. I preempt another quiz.

“Let me guess, total assholes?”

“No”, he says incredulous, ”a complete non-asshole. They fly around collecting pollen and take care of their queen. God save the queen!”

My favorite discovery of all, this crass self-proclaimed jerk is no jerk at all when in the presence of Beauty and Order.

Our random adventure senses a close, like when Lewis and Clark finally spot a glimpse of the Pacific. The mirage of the fair will shimmer and disappear, the tents taken down, only the bare marred earth left without borders to indicate where it began and ended. My unlikely friendship with Bill will only last until the fall. He’ll summon new troops to his cause of resisting being solitary in the early morning hours. Sometimes a new friend is like uncharted territory. For those explorers among us, it’s too tempting an adventure to deny. I think of that spot of earth, empty and cold now, and remind myself that those genuine joys will spring from that exact lonely patch of land next year. It’s an adventure I look forward to rediscovering, always intrigued by the unexplored places on the map that people only whisper about.