It is often frowned upon in art school to say your work is bad before you present it. They say “you are setting yourself up for disappointment and you should appreciate whatever you create.” While I agree with that statement, I also don’t.
Before I present this blog post I would like to say: I am a bad writer and this writing is bad.
I don’t like half the words I put on a page. I don’t have great grammar skills or a sophisticated vocabulary. I am writing for a blog called “Semicolon” and I don’t even know how to use the damn thing. I don’t read as often as I should. There are days where the pages in my journal are as empty as dorms during winter break. My work often lacks emotional vulnerability and contains a messy structure. Pure chaos lies between the one-inch margins of every paper. My heart twists its way into my stomach each time I have to read my words aloud. Embarrassed by my voice and by my words, I want to crawl into the double-spaced, 12pt font and die.
I am such a bad writer that my fear of exposure prompted me to skip class the day this blog was due. I was afraid to let my classmates and my professor know that I’m a poser. I walk around with my caffeine addiction and yellow legal pads, but I’m not one of them¾I’m not a good writer. So instead of embarrassing myself, I sat in Grant Park staring at my blank word document and felt it staring back at me. The glowing white screen was blinding. Occasionally, I would type out some insecurities with my writing that didn’t make my skin crawl. But it never felt good enough.
I closed my eyes and put my hands on the grass behind me and leaned slightly back. I tilted my head upward to stare at the sky between the tree branches above me. The sky was so blue that day and I knew Chicago winters would soon take away sunny days like this. My friend sitting next to me was writing like a machine. The words were flying out of her fingertips and I wished I had that confidence. She poured life onto the page with reckless abandon.
I asked how she did it. I read the first couple paragraphs of this blog for her and said I was embarrassed to turn it in. She said that I would always be my worst critic and that no one will ever hate my work as much as I do.
I loved that. It sounded like a challenge.
As long as I hate my work the most, no one’s opinion will ever touch me. Maybe that mindset won’t be helpful long term, but it got me to start writing again.
I procrastinate writing even though its my true passion. The writer Gaby Dunn said her therapist once reassured her during a session that “Procrastination is a part of the creative process”. Maybe I needed to wallow in self-pity in Grant Park that day. But procrastination and doubt can only hold me back for so long before I start writing something I hate again.
Rachel McCumber is a student currently pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree in Creative Writing with a focus in Nonfiction at Columbia College-Chicago. This will be her first published work, but she has made some really funny tweets and Instagram captions. However, she also enjoys writing personal essays that explore her ethnicity, pop-culture, and the reasons she is in counseling.
When You Learn the Alphabetis Texas native and Columbia College Chicago alum Kendra Allen’s debut essay collection.
I met with Kendra Allen at a coffee shop, near her alma mater in the South Loop. The following exchange was edited for length and clarity.
Ruby Orozco: Can you talk about the process of writing the essays in this collection?
Kendra Allen: It was not on purpose; most were written during my undergrad at Columbia College Chicago. The collection contains about twenty essays, some poetry, but nineteen of those I wrote here in undergrad. It was just like I’m completing my class assignments because I have to write stuff in order to graduate. (Laughs) I noticed that my entire time at Columbia was like the first time my generation was seeing injustices of people of color thrown in our faces; I was writing about the same things for four years.
I could not stop writing about race, my dad, my family, and about what happened with Michael Brown. It kind of came together like that. I never thought I was writing a book. I was just doing my writing assignments.
RO: What are you writing about now?
KA: I gotta do my [MFA] thesis¾you’re in grad school, right?
RO: Yeah, I am also going into my thesis year.
KA: My thesis is a passion project I really want to do. It’s about the myth of virginity and how we say that virginity is a broken hymen when that’s not true: you can break your hymen in a lot of different ways and then your hymen has an opening. . . . There are different types of hymens. Some of them have different openings in them. [The broken hymen] is all a myth that controls women and our sexuality.
RO: It definitely does. I also grew up with those myths about virginity.
KA: I did a lot of research about virginity myths, so that’s something I really want to write about, but I don’t think I can do it in a year. So, I think I am going to do a poetry collection on the desegregation of swimming pools in Alabama. They wouldn’t let Black kids go into the pool with white kids, but if the white kids were drowning, then they wanted the Black kids to help them. Everything in Alabama is named after the Black Warrior River. The school magazine is Black Warrior Review.So, it’s like everything is named after this river, but no one talks about all the slaves that died in it, how all the frat houses are old plantations, and how many of the trees near campus had people hanging from them.
RO: Was religion a really big factor in your childhood?
KA: Yeah, growing up I would go to church four times a week for no reason. My mom got back into church when she had me¾she was almost 30. I grew up in a Baptist church; it was my uncle’s church and everyone knew everybody. I heard things like, “You can’t wear this, and you can’t wear that.” If I came to the church with a skirt on and no stockings, it was always like, “What are you doing?” And I was a kid, you know? Why does it matter? And why are you telling gay people that they are going to go to hell? It’s weird. I grew up in church but I’m not that religious.
RO: On page seventy-two of your book, you write, “I want to talk about anything other than what we’re comfortable talking about.” Can you talk a little bit about that?
KA: When my family and I get together, I’m known as the radical one, so whenever I say anything, they are always like, “Okay, here she goes.” And I am like, “Can we talk about how all the men in this family are misogynistic and put women down?”
The women tell other women how they gotta act in order to get men. My family was raised to remain silent about issues, and that’s the problem. I just want us to be very aware, and I am never going to stop talking about these things.
RO: And you shouldn’t stop talking about these topics especially since people of color are always being left out of these conversations.
KA: And that’s the thing about being a writer. There are different subjects that you have to talk about and you have to be willing to talk about them, especially as a woman writer because nobody else will.
RO: Are you exhausted or energized when you write? How do you feel after you write or as you are writing?
KA: I feel the most energized when writing, because I feel like I finished something. That is the best feeling about writing. I feel like I am done even though I know it’s never done. It’s the hardest thing starting something. I don’t need to know the complete story of what I’m going to write when I start. I just figure it out as I’m writing.
It’s kind of like the game Tetris¾I’m always trying to put the pieces together and try to make them fit until they do.
I am not like a long essay writer; I tap out at around twelve pages.
RO: I’m the same way. I don’t have any more to say past twelve pages. I also write shorter pieces. I admire the way you just say stuff in your writing. It feels like you say what you want without really caring how anyone will respond, and I think that’s really cool.
KA: Oh, thank you, thank you.
RO: That’s something I really struggle with just because I feel guilt-ridden about what I’m talking about, especially since I talk a lot about my mom and often think to myself, “Oh is it okay to say that? Is it my story to tell? Should I be saying these things?”
KA: Yeah, that’s a real fear. That’s something I struggle with, especially in terms of my dad. Like me and my dad have just gotten into a better relationship in the past two to three years, but in his mind he’s thinking, “Why would she still be mad about this?”
But accountability, you know? Just because we are cool doesn’t mean this stuff didn’t happen. And he told me I villainized him in the entire book and it went back to us not speaking.
So, I would say that because you write a lot about your mom, you should have a conversation with her and let her know what you’re writing about and ask her questions about what she remembers and feels. But be okay with what you write before you show anybody else because you could be made to change your mind and change the whole perspective. My advice is to keep writing about your mom.
RO: In many of your pieces you play with form. Two specifically that intrigued me were, Legs on his Shoulders, and Boy is a White Racist Word. Can you talk about the form of those essays?
KA: Yeah, Legs on his Shoulders, was written in Jenny’s [Boully] class. I was inspired by Kanye West and how a lot of people be looking up to this man and will make a lot of excuses for him. Of course, he has a lot of mental health issues and I get that, but I like to keep him accountable. It was inspired by Kanye because I was just like, “Oh my God, is this the man that made the albums Graduationand Late Registration,which I listened to, and how do I feel about listening to it now? I went into that essay thinking I wanted to have a rhythm to it. I also wanted it to have repetition, and I talked to a lot of women about conversations on their boyfriends’ and husbands’ expectations. I love the spacebar. I don’t like how it looks in standard essay form, so I thought about how I can break it up to make it flow and it felt like I was teaching myself poetry.
ForBoy is a White Racist Word,that didn’t start off as columns. It was only one column and I felt like it was too long with too much white space, and it all came down to “I just really wanted it to look nice more than I am doing this on purpose.”
RO: So, you also write poetry?
KA: I try (laughs). It’s not that good, but I want to get good.
RO: Could you talk about the title of your collection?
KA: It’s named after the essay When you Learn the Alphabetand I remember getting the idea for it during poetry class my sophomore year in undergrad. That semester, I had a nonfiction workshop and then I also had a poetry workshop.
I wrote a draft in, like, two hours and then I went to class and during class I wasn’t paying attention I was just writing and thinking about what I can do for this essay. I just remember it becoming a metaphor and it became one for the whole book: Lessons I learned throughout different seasons. I was also thinking about how albums usually have a title from one of the songs in the collection.
RO: I think it’s really cool how music has inspired your writing. What do you see next after grad school?
KA: What do yousee next?
RO: Oh, I don’t know either. It’s such a weird question. I came to grad school to seek answers.
KA: I didn’t come to grad school to seek answers. I came out of fear. After I graduated undergrad I was like, “What am I going to do now?” And I wouldn’t have known you can go to grad school. I thought I ain’t got money to go to school and then I talked to Jenny Boully, and she told me yes there are fully funded programs.
A lot of people think you need to go to grad school to write and make it as a writer, but my advice is to just write. For me, grad school has been really hard and I am just going to be happy when it’s over (laughs). I don’t even think it’s hard work, it’s just hard being there. I’m kind of over school. In a dream world I could get my thesis published, but it’s all poetry so I won’t make a lot of money. I am just happy that this even happened. [publishing my book] I would really like to be a writer for a living, but it’s really, really hard. People don’t read like that anymore.
RO: Yeah, that’s unfortunate.
KA: I will probably find non-profit work, just something that will allow me time to write.
RO: Can you tell me when you found out that writing and language was powerful?
KA: When I changed my major for the third time . . . (laughs). I always knew words were important and I have always been the person listening to music for the lyrics more than the music. I always questioned, “Why do I like the song?” So, I have always studied musical lyrics. Do you know who Jhené Aiko is?
RO: I love her!
KA: She was a huge influence on me. I was obsessed with her in high school because that’s when her mixtape came out and I was like, “Oh my God, I want to put words together the way she does.”
I thought I was going to be a music journalist and that’s why I came to Columbia. I didn’t even know what Creative Writing was. When I got into my first writing workshop class, it was during my sophomore year and the professor was telling us about the essay. I remember thinking, “I don’t want to write essays.” But then she introduced us to the personal essay.
We read How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America, and that changed my whole life. That made me realize I could speak how I speak, talk like where I am from, and use music the way I want. I didn’t realize people wrote essays like that, and that made me think, “Oh, I can do this. I can write an essay just as well as Jhené writes lyrics, or just as well as Stevie Wonder writes a song.”
RO: Are musicians your biggest inspirations?
KA: For sure! I tell people that all the time about myself. My favorite writers write songs. If I am making a list of my favorite writers, then they are all going to be people who write songs because it’s amazing how they use metaphors.
I always bring up Lil Wayne, although he is very problematic now, but when I was a kid, he changed my life. I listen to a lot of rap music. I think like a rapper in my head. I ask, “What did Lil Wayne say and how did Nas tell thisstory?” And then I will go from there.
Interview by Ruby Orozco
Ruby Orozco is a Chicago native and is currently working on her MFA in Creative Nonfiction at Columbia College Chicago. This is her first publication. When she is not writing or working, she enjoys time with her friends and family.
In the self-checkout lane, the man ahead of us couldn’t scan his milk and eggs. He smelled like smoke. The clerk tried to fix the jam, but he exploded, that fucking machine! She repeated the insult under her breath as she hurried past. She was shorter than me and her hair needed washing. All we’d needed was a half-pint of fudge ripple. When she returned with a manager, I watched my daughter watching the three of them, running her tongue over wires and brackets that hadn’t been in her mouth an hour ago, the familiar landscape altered, painful and strange.
Picture of a Young Elk
It weighs nothing, this picture of a young elk tangled in a barbed wire fence in Montana. All four legs caught up at the ankle, eyes so glazed with shock it looks dead, and I almost don’t play the video you sent. To spare myself. Though now my pleasure weighs something, as I listen to you tell and retell how you found a rancher with wire cutters and gloves in his truck and nearly in one motion cut the fence and spun the elk toward the open field, across which, after it staggered and shook itself, it ran until it disappeared.
We had our share of beautiful days
It was only a squirrel that dashed in front of our car, it made only the smallest thump. My faith in uncertainty never wavers. Last night, as I watered the roses at dusk, a hummingbird hovered near the spray, waiting to enter the shower of drops.
Kathleen McGookey has published four books of prose poems and three chapbooks, most recently Instructions for My Imposter (Press 53) and Nineteen Letters (BatCat Press). She has also published We’ll See, a book of translations of French poet Georges Godeau’s prose poems. Her work has appeared in Copper Nickel, Crazyhorse, December, Field, Glassworks, Miramar, Ploughshares, Prairie Schooner, Quiddity, and Sweet. She has received grants from the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Sustainable Arts Foundation.
The Day Kylie Jenner Became the Youngest Self-Made Billionaire
“Hi. I’m calling back from Student Counseling Services. Is this Rachel?” I turned the volume up on my phone because two men next to me on the train were talking loudly about how Kylie Jenner wasn’t “self-made.” I gave the lady on the phone my informa -tion and she told me I would be put on the waitlist. I guess I wasn’t the only sad, anxious student at my school who needed help with their mental health. The news made my heart sink. The last time I was waitlisted, my mental state went from bad to writing suicide notes. She told me to have a good day and hung up. The men on the train continued to fill the otherwise silent, morning air with their opinions.
“Okay your copay fee for your birth control consultation is going to be $80, is that okay?” The waiting room felt stale. I knew it wasn’t Planned Parent- hood’s fault that my insurance charged too much, but it still stung. It ached when I texted my dad and asked to borrow money and prayed we would not have the awkward conversation about why I needed the money. My phone’s notifications lit up that he sent the money¾he always does. Another notification in my dock was a tweet with the Forbes article about Kylie. My fingers burned as I transferred money from my savings account to my checking. I would pay him back with my next paycheck.
“Girl, your lipstick looks so good! I could never pull that off, could I?” The lady at the payment counter was referring to the dark brown color I had painted on my lips. I thanked her and told her of course she could pull it off too. She rolled her eyes and smirked as she took my debit card out of my shaking hands. The fact that I worked part- time at a makeup store somehow came up. She asked if I had tried the Kylie lip products and I hadn’t. They sold them at the store I worked at, but I refused to buy them and help Kylie become a billionaire. At least that’s what I told my coworkers, when in reality, I just couldn’t afford it. Looks like Kylie didn’t need my help though.
“How do you all think consumer culture has changed in the last 100 years?” My 1920’s history class was always awkward with one opinionated student talking like a God. A biracial girl and I were some of the most “ethnic” people in the class and I didn’t get her. She often compared the plight of being biracial nowto a black person in the 1920’s, which I never thought was a fair com- parison. She started going on a tangent about how Kylie Jenner created an empire off lip injections. That she marketed it as something you could achieve with a little lip liner. While I agreed with her, I wondered if anyone would have been complaining about Kylie’s success if she was a man.
“Rachie! I need you to get two people to sign up for credit cards tonight! You up for it?” I nodded at my manager and ignored the awful nickname she gave me. She squealed as she turned on her heels to continue watching people she thought were stealing. It’s not uncommon for big retail companies to ask their customers to sign up for a credit card, but it felt wrong and saturated with capitalism. A middle- aged woman came up to my register with a few Kylie Cosmetic “Lip Kits” in hand. Her delicate fingers threw the $29 products on the counter. I scanned them and informed her about the in-store credit card. She interrupted me before I could finish my half-assed sales pitch and told me she didn’t need it. Then her card got declined.
This is so sweet. But why am I crying? I sent this tweet to my friends followed by a video from my hometown. Though every tweet on Twitter was either trashing or praising the Jenner/ Kardashian empire that day, there was a video on there that made me cry. A basketball player on the team for the university in my hometown got a surprise visit from his mom, who he hadn’t seen in two years since he left the Dominican Republic. My eyes overflowed with tears as the six-foot tall young man sobbed in disbelief as his mother walked down the stairs of the empty stadium to greet her son. I’m not a big sports person, but it was magical to see his mom glowing as she got to watch her son play. Haven’t we gone over this? Self-made: Having succeeded in life unaided.
Dictionary.com’s twitter account sent that message the day after. Even the damn dictionary doesn’t think Kylie is deserving of her title. While it was petty, it made me laugh when I saw it on my feed. As I walked down a stair- well, having left class, I saw I had two notifications. One from Chase, that my minimum wage paycheck was directly deposited into my account. It wasn’t much, but it was enough to pay rent and pay my dad back. The other one was an email from Counseling Services. They sent the list of available times for an intake appointment for the following week. I was off the waitlist and my shoulders didn’t feel as heavy any longer.
The day Kylie Jenner became a billionaire seemed to be the topic on everyone’s minds. Was it because she came from a family of millionaires so the term “self-made” left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth? Or did she truly work hard and deserve the title? Does it really matter? I imagine on that day, Jenner sat in her Hidden Hills mansion with her collection of sports cars asleep in her garage. I imagine a fresh manicure and a set of long acrylics glued to her nails as she holds her baby daughter in her arms. Her child has no idea of the con- troversy and comments her creator has caused. Kylie pays little attention to the explosion of notifications on her phone. She only enjoys the company of the storm she created.
5 years old. Leander, TX.
I was wrapped in a beach towel sitting on the edge of the pool. I traced circles with my feet as they dangled in the cool water, and squinted to see from the bright sun while laughing at my family who swam nearby. As I looked down at the small waves I was making, I noticed how dark my legs were in comparison to the bright blue waters that surrounded them. My bright pink towel and swimsuit only seemed to amplify the contrast. I thought my legs looked like hot dogs without buns. My sister, Caitlin, called over to me, saying something about how crazy my hair looked. It was a lot thinner and curlier back then, so when it dried, I looked like a discount, brown Annie. Her smile beamed as everyone laughed at whatever she said. Like always, I ran off crying because I didn’t know how to take a joke. The laughter of my family rang in my ears as my sister tried to call me back over, so I wouldn’t go tell mom.
My brown-ish feet took me back across the hot concrete, up the deck, and into the kitchen. The inside of the house was completely dark as my eyes adjusted to the indoors. My mom saw me, “Hey lovie, what’s wrong?”
I half-blindly ran over to her and tattled on my sister. She started to laugh and contained it. “Why can’t I look more like Caitlin?” I asked between my tears.
Caitlin got the traits I envied from my dad: fair skin that was decorated with beautiful freckles and golden-brown hair, while I got more similar looks from my mom: easily tanned skin and my mom’s dark, mexican hair. My mom was angered that I complained about my looks because, I guess as far as faces go, my sister and I looked “just like her.” She sent me back outside and I went and sat in the shade, awaiting my sister’s apology that never came.
15 years old. Lubbock, TX.
My arms started to get tired from using my friend’s mini-flat iron to straighten my hair. As I got older my hair lost most of its curl and it became so thick I had to get it thinned out every six-weeks. I was getting ready in my friend Kamryn’s bathroom while the rest of my friends sat down the hall in her room. They were discussing our most recent obsession with a new boy-band. Their laughter echoed down the hall as I yelled at them, cursing at my hair for making me take so long to get ready. Her bathroom was cluttered with all the makeup we borrowed from each other and no one bothered to clean it. The mirror contained my reflection as well as drawings of me and my friends that one of them had drawn with a dry-erase marker. I envied the doodles of my friends that had the hairstyles I wanted, but was told I couldn’t pull it off. I finished the last section and my hair looked just like all of my white friends’ hair¾pin straight.
I ran down the hall and they were all laying across Kamryn’s bed on their phones sending back and forth pictures of the boys in the band that were “our boys.” Rolling my eyes, I reached into my bag to grab my lotion. They continued to gush about the punk boys on their phone screens as I lathered up the lotion and glided it across my skin. I hated the smell of lemons, but I had mixed in lemon juice into my lotion because I had read online that lemon juice made your skin paler. Closing the lid to my lotion, I threw it back into my bag and threw myself onto the bed with my friends. They then showed me the punk band member that was “my guy.” He was really cute but didn’t look like the rest. He had dark hair, small brown eyes and olive-colored skin. The other members of the band were fair and had light colored hair with choppy fringe.
“That one is yours,” Kamryn proclaimed, like she was claiming The New World for me. I pointed out that he was the only one who wasn’t white. They laughed and said that’s why he was mine. I rolled my eyes and joined in their laughter.
19 years old. Chicago, IL.
The world was really dizzy. The girls at the party made a drink called “Jungle Juice” that I had only ever seen on Twitter and didn’t know it was a real thing. It consisted of pouring juice, fruit, and roughly 3 tons of liquor into a large container. Needless to say, I had quite a lot of it. It was a cast party for the show we had just closed earlier that night. It was an all black cast and we were all extremely proud to have sold out every night to share the story with others. I was only the set designer, so I hadn’t really had much time to get to know the cast as much as they did with each other. They all laughed at their inside jokes and broke away from the group to have their own conversations. I sat with another designer and gushed to her about how we needed to hang out. The majority of the party sat around the living room laughing and trying to explain the rules of the drinking game over the loud music playing. I was only half-listening and playing with the soft waves in my hair I had recently started to embrace.
The rules of the drinking game had been something along the lines of drinking if a statement applied to you. For example, if the statement was “whoever has been arrested” or “whoever is the youngest,” the person who that applies to would have to drink. They had started to play a few rounds of the game and I would just drink whenever they told me to. I leaned my head back on the wall behind me and started to sing the words to a Selena song that came over the speakers. I don’t know Spanish so I was probably saying the wrong words, but the music was so loud no one cared. Finally I heard one girl say my name over and over and I looked over at her and tried to make sense of what she was saying. “Rachel, you have to drink now” she yelled over the music. She told me to drink again and I laughed and obliged as I asked why I had to drink. “Because it was ‘whoever is white’” she yelled back. I tried to explain that I was only half white, but that my mom was hispanic. No one heard me over the music, so I kept drinking and we all kept playing the game.
Meditations on the Color Yellow
I asked my mom what her favorite color was. She told me it was yellow. I made a noise of disgust and asked why. She said it was a happy color.
My sister walked out in her satin, pink, and silver-beaded prom dress. She had decided the day before her junior prom that she was going to attend and it was the only dress she could find last minute. I was about to tell her she looked like a bottle of Pepto Bismol when she started to let all her friends in the door. I had never seen her friends wear anything but jeans and t-shirts and they filed into our living room like troops ready for battle. The girls all had on full-length gowns and I was in awe of the girl with fair skin and light brown hair with soft curls. Her dress was quite large and a pale yellow that reminded me of Belle, from Beauty and the Beast. So I was confused when I heard someone whisper under their breath that it wasn’t her color.
My mom tied my hair up in the tightest ponytail¾like she always did. She yanked a brush through my hair like it wasn’t attached to a 5 year-old’s head. I coughed and coughed as she doused my hair in hairspray, and she told me to stop being so dramatic. My hands were laid on my lap and I played with the skirt of my dress to distract me from the pain. The fabric was stiff like parchment paper. It was a white and yellow plaid pattern that had little yellow flowers sewn into the hems. I knew since it was such a light color I wouldn’t be able to play outside with my cousins. As my mom finished the only hairstyle she was capable of putting my hair through, she grabbed a scrunchie off the dresser that was the same fabric as my dress and put it in my hair.
We sat around the kitchen table having breakfast and my dad yelled at our cat for trying to catch flies that landed on the cracked, yellow-painted walls.
I walked barefoot down the hospital hall, clinging to the railing meant for the actual sick. My family’s car wreck didn’t do much damage to me, but my seven-year-old body was so sore it hurt to even laugh, though I wasn’t doing much of that. My Aunt Mary saw me coming from the waiting room and greeted me with a relieved sigh¾I think I might have been the first victim of the accident she saw, other than my parents. When I finally made it to the waiting room she handed me a bright yellow Wendy’s bag and told me I needed to eat something. I sat next to my cousin and he asked if I was alright, I might have said yes. Then I threw up into the Wendy’s bag.
There were baskets that were filled with things no one would normally buy at the raffle contest my neighborhood had. Everyone was putting in their tickets for the basket with candy and DVDs. I put all of mine in a soft-yellow, woven basket filled with jewelry and I won. When I brought it home, my mom kept most of the jewelry because it was “too grown up” for me and told me I could keep the basket.
My grandma drove to my school to bring an outfit for me to wear to my friend’s dad’s funeral. It was the same dress I had worn to Easter mass¾mostly black with yellow flower petals printed on the bottom half. My seventh-grade class walked from the school over to the church and filed into a pew toward the back. I had never met her dad before. It was the first time when they brought him down the aisle in a coffin. The pamphlets they handed out were a faded beige and felt like napkins. It had his picture on the front and inside there were pictures of my friend and her family. Their smiles were beaming. As they walked in after their dad, my friend and her mom had puffy red eyes and her five-year-old sister’s face was blank.
My grandmother on my dad’s side was a character to say the least. Garage sales were her nirvana. The last Christmas that she was well enough to mail out presents, she boxed up random items and shipped them out to her relatives across the country. That year my mom got a fake diamond ring in a black suede box (my parents were already separated), my sister got an expired bottle of purple Listerine mouthwash, and I got a shiny, yellow piggy bank with the word “Botox” written across the side in black cursive letters.
At my confirmation I picked out a yellow lace dress to wear because I was only doing the ceremony for my mom, so I figured the dress could be for her too. Afterward, she didn’t congratulate me on letting the Holy Spirit into my soul, but how nice I looked in yellow.
My head rested on my first boyfriend’s shoulder as we sat at my best friend’s graduation party. He laughed at something I said and put his hand on my thigh, like it was a pat on the back for me saying something funny. His pale, veiny hand started to slide under the dark yellow fabric of my dress. He smirked as I allowed him to touch me, he didn’t know I just didn’t want to embarrass him by telling him to stop.
My drunk, but cute friends went around in a circle to decide on what everyone would be, if they were a color. It was unanimous that I would be yellow.
I haven’t read many books this past year, but I’ve read countless menus. I’ve learned something about storytelling through eating.
Eating from a tasting menu at a fine dining restaurant is like reading a novel: it’s divided into chapters that linger and carry on into one another. The experience will begin and build and end.
It begins with the menu.
A well-written menu is withholding many key pieces of information. Many fine dining restaurants list only the ingredients of the dish with no words for preparation or hints toward texture, or flavor of the ingredient. The cooks and chefs I work with tell me this is intentional. No jargon, no nonsense, nothing for guests to wonder about. The work done in the kitchen should be mysterious. I am reminded of Roland Barthes’ “The Death of the Author,” as I eat delicious food while knowing nothing of who prepared it. People should only question the craft if the food is so divine that it seems impossible. The well-written menu will leave a guest guessing and hungry.
The amuse-bouche, French for “mouth amuser,” lights up the palette. In a book it is the prologue, or even a review written by Maya Angelou printed in italics on the first page. It is what reads,this is going to be interesting, this is going to be good.It is simple in its focus: to prepare. It touches on the range of flavors, hints at reach and ability.
The first course is designed to be light on its feet. It introduces flavors and makes a statement. It is a thesis statement. The first course establishes voice, so to speak.
Some tasting menus will have ten courses, others just three. The basic parts do not change, they may just be drawn out. Either way, there’s a beginning, middle, and end. The entrée courses are plot peaks, climaxes. They are typically rich, flavorful proteins. The main components may be familiar: lamb, beef, fish. A good restaurant will use this stability and tradition to play off of and be creative. In writing, it is the classic plot arc, where toward the end of the book two characters might learn they are in love with one another, or where a character hits rock bottom and has to come to terms with his situation. The story is familiar but is special in its context.
The dessert (I think many would agree with me) is the best part. Some flavor from the beginning of the meal lingers and appears again. Fennel from the first course appears dressed in fruit compote. Motifs dance on the tongue in harmony. Dessert can’t be too sweet. There may be many textures and they must play well together.
When I leave the restaurant: get up out of the seat, stretch my legs, and refocus my eyes. I adjust to my immediate reality. I process¾I talk to my dining companion about the details or I just think about them. My senses have experienced new combinations of colors, smells, tastes, and feelings and my mind has yet to fully acknowledge them.
Actually, two of them got the chop that day. They were joined at the hip, a ropy, ossified root hidden beneath the soil where no one could see just what they were up to until the chainsaw execution was well underway and their shallow grave had already been dug.
The funeral, myself officiating, started the following week. Place—cracked, broken sidewalk. Time and duration—every morning for an indeterminate period. Other attendees—absent. Interment and other solemnities—lacking.
Nothing prefigured their demise. After all, I was used to the Jacarandas. There they were, anytime I walked outside—lush, firm, loyal, magnificent. But early that June morning I caught sight of the first of the municipal henchmen suspended in air, a hard-hatted workman, Lego-sized in a white metal box at the end of a long extendable arm, wielding a chainsaw amid the age-old knobs and gnarls of the grayish brown branches, pieces of the trees in the street, lacy green fronds heaped on the opposite sidewalk as if the Green Giant had leapt out of bed and torn off his tunic and then some to jump in the shower.
“Careful, walk on the other side,” a workman warned.
“Tell me,” I said before complying, “why are you taking down those beautiful trees?”
“They were putting the sidewalk at risk,” he replied amiably.
But almost all the sidewalks in Mexico City somehow live buckled. Things change, over time. Bleating SUVs and belching semis multiply tenfold on narrow streets and side-streets, your favorite quiet little café disappears, muscled off the scene by a blaring, two-story saloon franchise. But the rumpled nature of the sidewalks—that remains the same.
“The building in back of them was also in danger,” the man added at my gawking stare.
That flat ugliness behind him, two stories of smoke-tinted-window office space, was apparently what they were saving. I sidled slowly off, my neck craning toward the dwindling fronds. The last intact sheltering arm of the tree they were working on, a noose of looped rope around its midsection, took a crashing vertical plunge to the pavement as the grind of the chainsaw whirred to a moment of silence.
I’d told an anxious friend the previous year when a steady old oak in her yard in D.C. was putting her home at risk, “You did the right thing, taking it down. Protect your life, protect your property.” But this was different. Or was it?
You bet your last can of Green Giant green beans it was.
My trees had stood waiting for me to come home late after work whenever I was lonely, throwing me a peak of a round pearly moon in a forbidding cloudy night sky through a purposeful break in a darkened leafy canopy. My trees had cushioned my path with bell-shaped lavender spring blossoms when I least expected it in the morning crunch. We had history, you see. Those trees were mine. That’s what was different. They were mine.
In the evening after the execution, what was left of them was a gray mass of lifeless limbs, one of the larger branches carved with an oval gape like a pale frame for a woodpecker’s mirror, another lying like a baby elephant trunk cut into pieces, pocked flesh still breathing, curving upward as if to make a last trumpeted plea before the chop. The rest was hacked swirls of debris. The main trunks had yet to come down.
The Jacarandas had stood side by side planted in a rectangle of earth lodged in the sidewalk, their seamless lace canopy sheathing the air some fifty feet above them after the rainy season had peeled off their last lavender blooms. That evening a turtledove stood probing and pecking for bugs atop the tallest trunk, now transformed as if by fiery conflagration to a stiff mimicry of a soot-colored giraffe’s head peering over the other tree, that now just a few sticks of conjoined splintered wood. Only the turtledove’s tail feathers could be seen from below in the street, spiking upward in spasmodic delight.
The next morning the hard-hatted men were back with the grinding chainsaw. This time they had a crusty flatbed truck to load all the pieces, some already sticking out from folds of what was left of the Green Giant’s frontispiece. I marched onward to the other side of the street, the roar of the chainsaw angrily slapping the air over my head where the silent fronds had once waved me along.
In the evening, nothing but wood chips, a coating of fine yellow sawdust all over the street, and the final remains of the two trunks, each now less than a foot tall, stumped in a long trashy block of black, disturbed, whipped-up soil. A thick exposed root about a foot in diameter still held the lopped trunks stubbornly together.
And that´s when they literally got the ax. The following day was a Saturday, but still the thwacking went on for hours, as if the workmen just couldn’t quite get to the core of that mule-minded root. But get there they did, uprooting everything left, loading roots and all into the back of another truck, leaving behind a moist earthy odor, bits of plastic, splintered wood chips, concrete rubble, and two broken segments of the tattered lime-green casing of some torn underground piping.
The trees were gone.
I waited the following Monday under another Jacaranda at the corner where I usually flagged a taxi. But it wasn’t the same. The trees were irreplaceable, like a love that doesn’t come again, a hole in its place, even after a new love has long come along.
Dorothy Walton writes fiction, drama, and creative nonfiction. She works as an aide at the Bank of Mexico, Mexico’s central bank. Born in Colquitt, Georgia, she holds a B.A. in English Lit from the University of Chicago, where she served on the poetry staff of the Chicago Review. She later taught English in Madrid and worked as a financial journalist in Mexico City. When she’s not writing, she’s usually dancing. “Funeral for a Tree” is her first published literary piece.
Beyond Measure Rachel Z. Arndt
It might be fitting, given Beyond Measure’s subject matter, to critique it by ascribing a point value (ignoring for a moment that Punctuate. doesn’t employ a Pitchfork-style rating system). For Rachel Z. Arndt’s debut essay collection concerns itself with measurement: how we as modern citizens quantify our own desires, how society determines our worth, how numbers do and don’t capture the nuances of lived experience. Oh, how we burden our measurements with so much meaning.
The collection kicks off with “Sleep,” which covers Arndt’s sleep studies she had to undergo to “prove” her narcolepsy to doctors and insurance companies. Except that in Arndt’s experience, the results of these studies never settled anything. If the results did not mirror her experience, does the fault then lie with the tests, or with her perception? This question provides the springboard for an incisive and frequently profound collection of essays, one that pulls apart how modern personae depend on frequent self-measurement using evolving and sometimes suspect criteria. In this way, much of the collection acts as a riff on Eulas Biss’s classic “Pain Scale,” another essay concerned with how we quantify and communicate individual experiences.
In “Elliptical,” Arndt elevates the well-covered subject of exercise by probing its contradictions of utility and progress. Gyms offer machines to keep oneself in place while promising individualized progress. “We measure ourselves so we can compare who we are now not with other people but with previous and future versions of ourselves.” This sentence goes to the heart of what Arndt finds fascinating about the landscapes of gyms, where rows of machines make the user both the worker and the product. In her hands, the drab gym becomes a post-modern dance in which personal meaning is only available through endless measuring.
Arndt builds and deploys her sentences with great care, and many unfold in surprising ways. Consider how she describes her experience taking Xyrem, a narcolepsy medication that moonlights as GHB, colloquially known as the club and date rape drug:
The lack of control while under its effects seemed sickeningly fitting, as if the only way to treat a disorder is with more disorder, entry against entropy, all control wrested from the patient’s hands and given over to pharmaceuticals that tempt with the sweet waft of warm chocolate chip cookies.
As the clauses progress, Arndt captures the bind narcolepsy puts her in, one in which pharmaceuticals promise both relief and also a further loss of control.
The best essays use the rituals and yardsticks of today to probe existential and eternal questions. In “Match,” Arndt deftly articulates the ways in which the merry-go-round of available options can often ultimately compound loneliness. The measurement in this case is one of comparing every current or potential mate against the theoretical ones offered up by gamified apps. But for me, not all of the essays wrenched insight and texture out of their subjects. Arndt’s essay on Bed, Bath and Beyond, for example, attempts to tease out the narrator’s feelings about becoming an adult by analyzing her habit of endlessly exchanging cooking and houseware. There’s no shortage of wit at play, but Arndt couldn’t quite manage to make her toothbrush purchasing decisions interesting to me.
As a whole, Beyond Measure pulls off the surprisingly powerful trick of articulating and then undermining our current metrics for living. Without a point or star value to lean on, I’ll simply say that days after finishing it, Arndt’s collection of essays has me reassessing the world through her eyes.
Timothy Parfitt is an essayist and critic whose work has appeared in Contrary, X-R-A-Y, riverbabble, Thread and Newcity.