I was on a 300 mile round trip to my hometown of Chicago, and for a day in the middle of February, and the dead of winter, it promised to be unusual all ’round.
For one thing, the weather was balmy. Not relatively balmy for a section of the country often referred to as “the frozen tundra,” but absolutely balmy. I was wearing a sleeveless summer dress and a pair of sandals. By mid-afternoon at 69 degrees, even the sweater I’d brought was extraneous. Though in the “be prepared” vein of a Wisconsinite, I was certainly prepared for anything. I had two coats in the car as well, winter gloves, and a pair of furry earmuffs.
I grew up in Chicago, but my family moved north to Wisconsin when I was a teenager. For the rest of my life—except for a year working in downtown Chicago before I started college—I’ve stayed and made my life in Wisconsin. But there have been no end to the round trips I’ve made back to Chicago over the years.
I’ve driven the route with a minivan full of kids to visit family and tour splendid museums. I’ve driven it like a bat out of hell with at tool kit, cordless drill, and funeral-ready black suit in the car to respond to family emergencies. I’ve made the trip every summer since 2008 with a car full of books and promotional materials to hang out at the Printers Row Lit Fest, which I have often described as the most fun I could have as an author without being arrested. I was just there a few weeks ago with a bus full of other writers for a tour of historic literary places like The Cliff Dwellers Club and the Billy Goat Tavern (think “cheeseborgers” and John Belushi and Saturday Night Live) And I’ve driven down there on occasion to perform “live lit” at venues like Essay Fiesta and That’s All She Wrote.
This time I was on the road to do something I hadn’t done in Chicago before, which was to audition for an essay-reading series called “Listen To Your Mother.” As a mother of four, when I heard the title, I just could not resist! I’d submitted an essay called “Tiger Beat” that I’d written some years before, on the theme of motherhood and the primal “mother tiger” gene that kicks in when a child is sick, and the event’s organizers liked it enough to at least warrant an invite to read it out loud during two days of try-outs.
I couldn’t help but smile at the realization at how very far I’d traveled in a couple of decades when it came to talking in front of a group. For my entire life, I’d suffered from a tremendous fear of public speaking. Panic attack level. Hyperventilation level. Struggling to breathe level. This wasn’t a problem in my first profession—newspaper journalism where my thoughts were expressed in newsprint—but it certainly was in my second—law. A friend of mind can tell the story, in drawn-out and incredibly witty fashion, of how she thought she might have to perform CPR on me during one of our “appellate arguments” in law school in front of a panel of judges. Still not quite so funny from my perspective! But I worked hard at beating back the fear, at least in a courtroom setting.
Reading in front of a group of assorted strangers was something else, and when I first read at Essay Fiesta at The Book Cellar bookstore, it was definitely stepping out of my comfort zone. I’d brought a posse of girlfriends to lend moral support. I actually dressed in an outfit I could wear in a courtroom. I calmed myself by thinking “imagine the audience is the state supreme court!” And despite the initial throat tightening and quaver in my voice, it eventually went just fine. And now here I was several years later, and I didn’t feel nervous at all.
The spires of Chicago’s skyline rose from the prairie like the Emerald City in Oz as I hurtled along in the express lane, keeping an eye on the traffic on the rest of the interstate beside me. As a Chicago native, I have certain default navigational settings that will override any temptation to let Google choose a path for me. Such as, understand that the center of the universe radiates outward from the intersection of State and Madison Streets in the heart of the Loop. And if you discern a sea of red brake lights start to clog at the bottleneck leading into the city center, leave the freeway north on Ohio Street and zigzag your way along city streets the rest of the way to your destination.
I zigged and zagged, over the Chicago River and under the tracks of the elevated trains,
and eventually found my way a few minutes early to the Overflow Coffee Bar where the auditions were being held in a back room. I ordered a coffee that involved chocolate and whipped cream, and filled out the rest of the necessary paperwork for the audition.
The organizers—a pair of young women named Melisa and Tracey who were…wait for it…young enough to be my daughters!!—had this system down to a science. They’d booked three readers per half hour slot spread over the course of two days, so every audition was pegged for ten minutes. Five of those minutes were devoted for the actual reading itself. I introduced myself, explained that I’d had laryngitis the day before, and croaked and squeaked my way through the “Tiger Beat” piece. They graciously offered me chocolate on my way out, and soon after I was heading north again.
Not to Wisconsin just yet—on this warm and gorgeous day I first stopped at Millenium Park to do some “photobombing” with my children’s book Finnigan the Circus Cat. Folks everywhere who would normally be holed up in their homes and cursing the snow and ice everywhere were walking around in shirtsleeves and shorts and summer dresses, basking in the sunlight and flooding the park with smiles. I snapped a few photos—Finnigan with the giant bean! Finnigan with the skyline! Finnigan with one of the Art Institute’s legendary lions!
And then I went back to my default navigational settings, and wound my way back to the interstate via the Ontario Street ramp, which I’d been traveling since I was a little girl in the front seat of my godmother’s black Chevy Bel Aire.
After an entire day and three hundred miles, do I know if I’m going to be in the show? I have absolutely no idea. Auditions are still going on today as I type. I know I’m not everybody’s cup of tea. Nobody can be everybody’s cup of tea!
But at the end of the day, I was happy that I “went for it.” It was something new, and something different, hinging on words that were dear to my heart, and that’s what really mattered.