Awesome piece in the Trib’s Printer’s Row literary supplement about 2nd Story: “In vampire lore, the undead often have the ability to ‘glamour’ humans: They focus an intense type of hypnotism on humans, forcing them to believe what the vampire says. Being in the audience for 2nd Story, one of Chicago’s premier literary reading series, is kind of like being glamoured.”
Recently, I had dinner with my friend Jeff. We’d been trying to schedule this dinner for weeks, but there are always things, mostly my things, the wonderful, impossible, messy juggle of my four-year-old and my job and my husband’s job, plus the art we both make when we’re not with our kid and/or working—“You’re out on Monday? I’m out on Tuesday, are you out on Tuesday?”—and there’s never any time. Inevitably, though, I hit the proverbial end of the proverbial rope. It had been building for a while, this overwhelming need to explode like a fizzed-up two-liter, and Jeff is my go-to in these situations. He knows I have to sit with my back to the room so no one else can see me cry. He knows when to ask for the bottle, instead of just a glass. He knows how to listen. This particular night we were at the Hopleaf, a delicious, edgy little bar on Chicago’s Northside full of good booze and beautiful people and swanky comfort food like duck reuben sandwiches and octopus carpaccio, both of which I ordered along with some wine.
“Actually, can you make that a bottle?” Jeff asked the waiter, and I immediately started to cry.
How to explain this? It wasn’t any one thing. I was exhausted, stretched everywhichway, too much stuff to do any of it well and in the middle of everything was my little boy. Didn’t he deserve more? Should I quit my job, mail the housekeys back to the bank, and move to a farm? With like… goats? We could plant a garden, I could finish my novel—I had a novel! Wasn’t I a writer?—and maybe even see my husband occasionally. I’d have a to-do list that read like blue light saber, red light saber, organic apples, instead of curriculum development, book contracts, student work. I’d slow down, engage fully in every moment instead of using the time I was supposed to be living to plan what happened next, but on the other hand—always another hand!—there’s the fact that I love my work. I’m good at it, too. It’s who I am, and it’s important for my son to see that part of me, right?
I went on.
I went on and on.
Jeff listened, waiting for the moment when the words and tears stopped, and when it finally arrived—when my breath came relaxed and quiet instead of gulpy, gaspy sobs—he said, “Are you talking to any, like, mothers?”
I reached for my wine.
“’Cause it seems like lots of mothers go through this. Mine did, I know, and my sister-in-law, too. And maybe if you talked to some you wouldn’t feel so—”
“Batshit crazy?” I said helpfully.
“—overextended,” he finished, leaning back in his chair. “Honestly, I don’t think any of this is a you thing. I think it’s a mom thing.”
Over the past four years, I’ve learned that there are many mom things : indescribable love and indescribable fear; lots of laughing; lots of weird bodily fluids and bourbon and crying to our best friends about being overextended; guilt about being overextended; times of utter loneliness; feeling totally connected to any mother in Target with a screaming toddler and if anybody gives that mother a nasty look I will come over and cut you because you know what? If you have a problem with crying children, don’t shop somewhere that sells diapers! It’s common sense, people! Not to mention that no one—no one—wants that toddler to stop screaming more than his/her mother in part because it hurts us to hear our children cry but also because OH MY GOD WHY IS THIS KID STILL CRYING?!; exhaustion; crazy libidos; guilt about working and writing and going out when we should be building super ramps on the carpet 24/7; watching episode after episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer free-streaming on Netflix because killing vampires is sometimes the only thing that can quiet the noise in our heads; lots of noise in our heads; feeling what Stacy refers to as Mother-induced-anxiety; feeling very calm and level-headed in a crisis even if we’re crazy the rest of the time; knowing the U.N. should be made up of mothers ‘cause if we can balance the insanity in our google calendars, why not the f’ing world, and P.S. if I am expected to juggle raising children and educating this country’s children and keeping this country moving with my money and my vote and my hope and faith and perseverance, than you can be damn well sure I have the intelligence to decide what happens to my own body—Dear Washington: LISTEN TO YOUR MOTHER!—and I’ve only been a mother for four years! I haven’t even begun to experience the mom things! I’ve just scratched the goddamn surface!
When I decided to auditon for Listen To Your Mother, a national reading series in honor of motherhood and benefitting moms in need, I had no idea what—of the many mom things I’ve felt/experienced/written about—to audition with.
Through my work with 2nd Story, I’ve been lucky enough to tell stories around all sorts of themes: heartbreak, politics, faith, sexual identity, dodging bullets, fear, marriage, fantasy, and regret, to name just a few. Usually, I’m commissioned for these shows. I’ll get the theme assignment and then, for a day or two or three, I live with it, reaching down the line of my life to find the moments, experiences, and lessons that fit the idea. I write about it in my journal, talk about it with friends, talk about it with myself when I’m stuck in traffic—
Sidebar: stuck in traffice is an essential part of my writing process. It’s when I think things through and figure out what I want the work to—as they say—say. One time, my son was in the backseat and he said, “Mommy, who are you talking to?” This was it: the moment when I explained to my child that I hear voices, not voices like Sybil Dorsett and all of her alters or The United States of Tara, voices like characters. Like, as perhaps more graspable for a four-year-old, imaginary friends. Many, many imaginary friends. “I’m talking to myself, baby,” I told him, and you know what he did? He leaned forward on his booster seat and said, “You don’t have to talk to yourself, Mommy. You can talk to me!” Imagine a huge tidal wave crashing over Lakeshore Drive and engulfing our car—that’s the pride I felt for this little boy. Pride and gratitude and awe. He is Just. So. Awesome.
—Anyhow. I’m stuck in traffic, thinking about stories. I’ll think of one or two or five connected to whatever theme I’ve been assigned, and then I’ll grab whichever one is most taking my attention, that big proverbial YOU ARE HERE sign, and on from there. But motherhood? Motherhood shook the living hell out of me, not because I couldn’t come up with anything; rather the opposite. I couldn’t stop. My usual one or two or five ideas was now twenty, twenty-five, forty, all those mom things I’ve written about in some way or another for the past four years suddenly clogging my brain: stories about Caleb’s infancy, turning one, turning two, the many times I’ve questioned myself, the many times I’ve felt literally breathless with joy. Which one to walk into the audition for Listen To Your Mother? What were the producers looking for? How on Earth was I supposed to choose?
In the end, I didn’t. Auditions were held in the back of Uncommon Ground on Clark, and I arrived with six stories in my bag. At the bar, I had a glass of wine and narrowed the six down to four. Then my name was called, and as I walked into the room, I cut it to three, then two as I introduced myself to the two lovely, hard-working, visionary women producing LTYM Chicago (Hi, Melisa! Hi, Tracey!). “What will you be reading for us today?” they asked, and I did that thing where you open your mouth without knowing what you’re going to say, just trusting that it will be the right thing, and what came out—very fast and nervous and slightly wine-induced—was this:
“Actually, I brought two stories. I’m not sure which one you’d rather hear? One of them is about this tumor I had but maybe you’ve already heard like two thousand tumor stories today in which case can I buy you a glass of wine? ‘cause that’s a lot of tumors and I don’t know about you, but I had a lot of wine with my tumor. P.S. I’m fine now! I also brought this other thing about trying to get pregnant, but I wrote it in the present tense so maybe it wouldn’t work ‘cause it’ll sound like I’m trying to get pregnant now which totally isn’t the case, thanks, I already have one kid I can barely keep up with plus our condo is the size of a closet so where would I even put another baby let alone like taking care of it? Hi. I’m Megan.”
These two lovely, hard-working, visionary women? They didn’t even flinch. It was eight p.m., they’d been there all day, had seen Lord knows how many mothers telling Lord knows how many thrilling/beautiful/awful/hopeful/hilarious stories about motherhood. They must have been exhausted. Their ears must’ve been exploding already. And you know what they said? They said, “Let’s grab some more wine and hear them both.”
I am grateful for their kindness. I’m grateful for the trust they’ve placed in me to be a part of this amazing performance, one of many Listen To Your Mother shows happening all around the country in honor of the many diverse yet utterly relatable mom things that we all experience. I’m grateful to stand on stage tonight at Victory Gardens  with our lovely, hard-working, visionary cast. Turns out, I didn’t need to worry about choosing a single story that would exemplify the many facets of motherhood.
All of us, together, make that happen.
I’m also grateful to have all these new mothers to talk with. About time I gave Jeff a break.
 I use the word mom because that’s what I am, but I think this can also apply to Dads and Grandparents and Foster Parents and any Significant Adult working with great love and commitment to raise healthy, happy, awesome children.
 The show tonight is sold out, but all the Listen To Your Mother performances both in Chicago and around the country will be filmed and up on youtube.
Here’s an Ignite talk I gave at ORD Camp about loving both print and digital publication.
The Domino Effect
About ten years ago, I waited tables at a brunch restaurant in Wicker Park called the Bongo Room, known for its insanely amazing Chocolate Marscapone French Toast and the insanely large crowds of people waiting to eat it *. Every Sunday these guys would come in—we’ll call them Steve, Jim, Mark, and Chip. Steve, Jim, and Mark were cool: they talked about last night at the Hunt Club, dressed in head-to-toe Ambercrombie and Fitch, and tried to buddy me up for faster service. “Hi, what’s your name?” they’d say when I got to the table; then, “Hi, Megan! We’re Steve, Jim, Mark, and Chip!” I didn’t bother saying they’d told me before, told me last week, told me eighteen thousand times so can you just get on with the pancakes and Bloody Marys ‘cause the wait for a table is over an hour, the guy at twenty-three is bitching about his benedict, I just got a nine-top on twenty-four, eight of whom want soy lattes—soy, for chrissakes!—and I don’t have time to yak it up so can you order?
But of course, they couldn’t.
“You see her?” Chip said, nodding at a girl a couple tables over. She was perfect—shiny hair, great body, big smile; imagine a television commercial for toothpaste or hairspray—and I looked back at Chip and said, “Yeah?”
“Can you find out if she’s married?” he asked, and, right away, Steve, Jim, and Mark started laughing. I should point out that Chip wasn’t like the other three. He was kinda chubby, kinda balding, kinda boring—Like, if I say tax attorney, you might imagine a guy like Chip.
“You wanna date her?” said Steve, Jim, and Mark. This was always how they treated him—sometimes he was the punchline; sometimes the punching bag—and while usually he’d turn red and laugh along with them, today he gripped the edge of the table and said, “No, I don’t want to date her. I want to marry her.”
The reaction was immediate: That girl wouldn’t be caught dead with a guy like you, That girl eats guys like you for breakfast, an appetizer for the main course, know what I’m saying? Ha ha, jab to the ribs—and Chip looked at me and said, “Please.”
It was the please that did it.
I went by her table, planning on doing a quick left hand check—ring or no ring?—and then back to Chip with the verdict, but it wasn’t that simple. The girl was sitting with her left arm crossed over her stomach, her left hand tucked underneath her right armpit. I watched her for nearly a half hour, and the whole time she ate, drank, and gestured with only her right hand.
“Well?” Chip asked.
“I’m working on it,” I said. Then I walked to her table and dropped a napkin on the floor, squatting down to hands and knees on the ground and looking up at her lap—no go.
“What are you doing?” asked my friend/co-worker, Molly, once I was back in the sevice station.
I told her.
“That’s so romantic!” she said, jumping up and down and clapping. “It’s like when you’re on the subway and you see someone, and you lock eyes, and it gets too intense so you have to look away, and when you look back, they’re looking away, and what I always wonder is, what would happen if you just kept looking?”
I didn’t know.
“We’ll never know,” Molly said, “because nobody ever tries!”
Before I could fully wrap my brain around that idea , I saw that Chip’s girl was standing up. She was reaching for her jacket. She was dropping her left arm down and—no, there wasn’t any ring—because there weren’t any fingers. There was a hand. And some stumps of varying sizes where fingers ought to be but weren’t.
I went to Chip’s table. “She doesn’t have fingers,” I announced.
They looked at me blankly, so I held up my left hand and folded my fingers into my palm. “No fingers,” I said again.
Steve, Jim and Mark nearly died laughing. Leave it to you to fall for a— and Guess she’s not so perfect anymore— and The one time you have balls enough to— but Chip didn’t hear any of it. He just watched as she left restaurant, and then, when the front door closed behind her, he did the last thing you’d ever expect from a punchline or a punching bag: He got up and ran after her.
About six months later, I was walking around the restaurant refilling coffee and there, at a two-top by the front window, was Chip—who FYI looked fantastic: he’d shaved his head, muscled up a bit, dressed more cutting edge, like if I say CEO of New Social Media Empire, you might imagine a guy like Chip. It was easy to see the reason behind the change, because sitting across the table from him was—wait for it—the girl. His beautiful, fingerless, perfect girl.
It took everything I had not to cheer.
They told me the whole story: how he caught up with her on the sidewalk; how he didn’t have know what to say because he’d never done anything like that before but, dammit, he tried; and how, when people ask where they met, they talk about the crazy waitress at the Bongo Room who crawled around on the floor.
Hearing that story, for me, was a gift. At the time, I was single, sort of bitter—just done with it. Have you been there?—and knowing that these two people were giving it a go—that they were trying—had a huge impact on me. Enough to start trying myself. Enough to tell this story over and over to friends of mine in similar situaions. Enough to write it for a storytelling series I work with called 2nd Story, where we tell our stories aloud in the hopes that they will inspire our audience to consider their own, and how—even as we celebrate our differences—there are still multiple connections in our lives.
For me, this is what theatre does: it gives me a story, like a gift (I imagine it wrapped in shiny paper with the bow, the handmade letterpress card, the whole nine yards) and in that gift, I find parts of myself that have been missing, parts of our world that I never imagined, and aspects of this life that I’m challenged to further examine. Then I take that gift and share it. In the work I make myself, sure, but the kind of sharing I’m talking about here is the domino effect: how I hear/watch/experience a story, and then tell everybody and their mother about it, and then they tell everybody and their mother, and somewhere in that long line of people is someone who, at this exact point in their life, needed its message more than we’ll ever know.
We do this all the time: “Oh my God, I just saw [Liza Minelli’s Daughter or the Brother/Sister Plays or Star Witness or Write Club or the Chicago Landmark Project or Fa$hion or The Ghosts of Treasure Island or Queertopia or Filet of Solo or El Nogalar or The Encyclopedia Show or 2nd Story or insert one of a thousand plays and performances and readings that Chicago offers] and it made me think about—”
What did the last piece of theatre you saw make you think about?
Did it help you find parts of yourself that have been missing? Parts of our world that you never imagined? Aspects of this life that you’re challenged to further examine?
My God—what a gift.
And now, you wrap it up and give it away. Somebody out there really needs a good present. Maybe your friend, maybe a co-worker, maybe that random person sitting next to you on a bus, or maybe the crazy waitress at the that restaurant you go to every single day, the one who’s ready to crawl around on the floor if it helps you find the love of your life.
* For the record, The Bongo Room should not only be known for the French Toast. It should be known for the kindness and generosity of its owners—Derrick Robles and John Latino—whose friendship and business supported me while I put myself through school, made art, kicked off a teaching career, and generally figured out what the hell I was doing. I’d wager there are many theatre artists and literary artists and visual artists and artists who can say the same. So, on behalf of us all, I’d like to say thank you to service industry for helping us pay our rent and live our dreams; for allowing us the flexibility to audition and finish projects; for giving our audiences the space to discuss our art over yummy food; for our after parties (!); for coffee; for wine; and, most of all, the lifelong friendships.
I am interested in how different people define the same word.
In another lifetime, I had a Critical Thinking teacher who tried to explain the difference between denotation and connotation. “This,” she said, pointing at her desk, “is the denotation of the word desk. The connotation of desk is how we all individually feel about desks.” She paused, letting that sink in, and then asked, “How do you all, individually, feel about desks?” There were sixty-some of us in this class, all college freshmen. I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say that, at the time, desks were not a primary focus of significant emotion response. Sex, maybe. Money. Grades or jobs or fear or art or all sorts of crazy things. Think back to yourself when you were a college freshman. What did you think about? Me?: my folks were splitting up, my boyfriend back in Michigan was seeing another girl, and I shared a 10X10 dorm room with a girl looped on esctasy three nights a week, I’ll tell you what, desks were the last thing on my mind!
sidebar: this all happened over a decade ago. Now, I have very strong feelings about desks, primarily A) I don’t ever want one in a classroom because pedagogically I find that it unecessarily divides my students and I and B) I’m dying to have one in my house so I can have a place to put all my shit. Right now, it’s everywhere, and I can’t ever find what I need, and my poor husband, he’s got to contend with my paperwork all over the place, and also my kid is at that phase where he wants to draw spaceships on everything, which is awesome except that now there are spaceships on my teaching contracts and time sheets and student work and story ideas and lesson plans and tax forms and schedules, and, yes, I know you’re thinking Get the kid some paper, whydon’tcha? and I promise you, he has it! He has every art supply you can possibly imagine! But why would anyone want to draw on paper when they can draw on the bathroom wall? Or Daddy’s web designs? Or mommy’s… everything? Also: last week, at his school, one of the little girls did orgami for show-n-share and now my kid is convinced that paper is for folding, not drawing, so my tax forms are now little birds. Which is actually pretty cool—birds are way more interesting than tax forms. Also: I’ll never again be able to think of taxes without thinking of birds. Which would mean that birds are now my connotation of taxes! Huzzah! Right back to the point!
Anyhow—desks were, at the time, not quite as ripe for connotation as some other words, words like love or race or faith. I remember, years after this whole connotation/denotation thing, reading One Hundred Years of Solitude and thinking about all the different connotations of the word solitude and how all of them were given to a different member of the (fictional) Buendia family:
You’re so brilliant that no one can understand you, so you’re alone.
You’re so beautiful that everyone’s intimidated by you, so you’re alone.
You’re so old that no one even sees you anymore, so you’re alone.
Your penis is so big that women are scared and men are jealous, so you’re alone.
And on and on.
sidebar: Dear Marquez I love you.
Anyhow—connotation. It’s mind boggling to think about how many misunderstandings I’ve had over the years because of differing connotations. On the flip-side, I’m in awe of what I learn by listening to the connotations of others; how much I’ve grown as a human being and widened my world view. I’ll listen to how different people—friends, artists, the guy sitting across from me in a class—define words like marriage and protest and illegal and and parent and education and life. Our connotations of these words shape our politics, our values, how we spend our money, how we love—and the thing that creates those connotations are our stories.
A few years ago, there was some big case in the news about parents who were seeking revenge for something that had happened to their teenage daughter—the clincher was, she didn’t want them to. She wanted it to just go away. I remember talking about the ethical implications of this over and over again: what was justice in such a situation? There’s another word with multiple connotations—justice. Justice for whom? For her, or her family? Did her parents have the right to move forward with something she didn’t want? I remember wondering why she didn’t want revenge. Or maybe she didn’t want the kind of revenge they were seeking—the legal kind. Maybe she wanted a different kind?
What exactly is revenge? When I wrote the story Shot to the Lungs and No Breath Left, I was thinking about my connotation to that single word. And—as often happens in writing—the story became about other things, as well: revenge, and the relationship between a parent and a child, and gender roles, and all this other shit that sort of surprised me, but hey—what the hell. This is what came out. It’s here, let’s examine it.
For over a decade, I’ve worked with a Chicago theatre director named Amanda Delheimer Dimond. She’s the Artistic Director of 2nd Story. She’s my friend. She challenges me to look deeper with every project, to really figure out what the hell I am talking about. I knew I wanted to make some sort of video for Shot to the Lungs, so I brought the story to her and the very amazing Kyle Hammon of KBH Media, whom I can’t suggest enough if you want to explore video/audio/multimedia in your own stories, personal or professional. The three of us got to talking about revenge, and we thought it would be intersting to ask some very different people to speak to their own connotations of the word.
I am grateful to Kyle and Amanda for creating a piece that digs into this question of how different people view the same idea, and what might happen if we take a moment to listen to each other. I am grateful to Ada Gray, Lauren Kelly-Jones, Nic Dimond, Aaron Stielstra, Jennifer Shin, and Coya Paz for sharing their time and their stories. I am grateful to a Faculty Development Grant from Columbia College for helping to fund this project, and to all of you for giving it a look and maybe a share.
My very awesome friend Khanisha Foster and I, telling (parts of) stories for 2nd Story at the &Now Literary Festival in San Diego.