Fathers, and Stories, and Stories About Fathers

June 21st, 2016

This time last year I sat for days with my father in his room at Virginia Mason Hospital in Seattle, recording his voice as he narrated the story of his life. “She’s helping me write my memoirs,” he quipped to the endless parade of nurses passing through to change the dressings on his legs, take his blood pressure, administer meds. It wasn’t the first time he’d been in one of these rooms, and it wasn’t going to be the last, but by then he was well known to the staff on the eighth floor, as well as their allies down in the ER and upstairs in the CCU, and they took my winking iPhone in stride. 


In honor of Father’s Day I wrote a little bit about my father, and other fathers, and stories about fathers and, well, patriarchy — at the Sunday Rumpus.

Tiny Homes & Homeless Youth

May 4th, 2016

“Homeless young people are often stigmatized in ways that veterans, for example, are not: they may be seen as drug addicts or troublemakers, they might be pregnant, they may be gay or gender nonconforming. Chicago’s SHED Studio works with young Chicagoans to creatively address questions of homelessness and affordable housing. Speaking at the summit, people who had participated in a recent series of SHED workshops emphasized the importance of autonomy and choice. They noted that shelters have curfews, and ‘sometimes we want to stay out late!’ as one participant said.

“That may sound trivial, but, added another participant, ‘People don’t understand that being homeless is a psychological thing.’”….

I wrote about a recent Tiny Home Summit at UIC, and the promise and challenges of “tiny homes” as a strategy to address youth homelessness, for the Social Justice News Nexus blog.

Funding Housing First

April 20th, 2016

Since the advent of health care reform in 2010, Illinois Medicaid enrollment has grown to over 3 million people. The bill for that care came to $14 billion in 2014 alone. But almost half of that was spent on care for just 100,000 people—many of them emergency room frequent fliers who are poor and suffer from high rates of diabetes, kidney disease, congestive heart failure, mental illness and substance abuse. Of those 100,000, an estimated 4 to 5 percent are homeless.  

This year, University of Illinois Hospital & Health Sciences System and partners are testing a program to reduce these costs. It is modeled on a strategy known as “Housing First” that is catching on across the county, and it works like this: Take people who are chronically abusing drugs and alcohol, resisting help, unable to keep a job and committing petty crimes. Give them an apartment, no strings attached. Even buy them furniture and appliances. And watch their use of emergency rooms drop. … [Crain’s Chicago Business]

This piece on an initiative to fund supportive housing for chronically homeless Chicagoans was published April 2, 2016, in Crain’s Chicago Business. The story comes out of work I’ve been doing as part of a fellowship reporting on housing issues from the Medill-based Social Justice News Nexus, and I’m very happy it found such a good home.

The Ground Rules: A Manual to Reconnect Soil and Soul

January 8th, 2016


Very happy to announce the publication of Nance Klehm‘s The Ground Rules, a 70-page newsprint broadside inspired by her ongoing community composting project (of the same name) in Chicago. I’ve been helping Nance and intern Jacob Blecher structure and edit the book off and on for the last six months. It’s a holistic, hands-on guide to composting and DIY soil remediation — covering everything from healing the soil with fungi to the tenets of restorative and environmental justice. It’s thoughtful and lovely — and a good read for all urban growers and anyone else getting down and digging in the dirt. Pick up a copy online today, or if you’re in Chicago, stay tuned for details on a release party later in the winter. join us on April 20 for a release party at the Hideout.

Poseidon’s Children

December 5th, 2015


[A revised version of July’s Letter in the Mail, performed for the Marrow series at Chicago’s Whistler on August 16. A work in progress.]

Have you noticed there aren’t that many good stories about Poseidon? Here he is one of the most powerful gods in all of Greek mythology – Brother of Zeus! Lord of the sea! – and all I can come up with is that he was grumpy and not terribly popular, though he did do all right with the ladies, as he left kids scattered all across the Aegean. And I wonder, does Poseidon’s lack of a memorable storyline have something to do with the fact that his tale unfolds mainly under water, where it’s hard for even the other players to get a grip on what’s happening, and harder still to communicate the details to those back on land?

I was thinking about Poseidon because I’ve been thinking lately about Greece, and about water – its abundance and its absence.

When I think of Greece, a place I have never been, I think of white sandy beaches and grilled octopus. I think of Odysseus trying in vain to find his way home to his family, thwarted for ten years by Poseidon’s rage, and of democracy, and of war, and of the thousands of migrants now washing up on its shores. And, of course, I think about water. Because, have you been following the Greek debt crisis? The language of global finance is drenched in water. Debt is “underwater” rather than, “underground.” Assets are “liquid.” The economy must be kept “afloat” — through a “bailout” of course. Is it because being “underwater” holds the promise of resurfacing, and the chance to catch your breath, while “underground” carries the finality of the grave?

This all also makes me think of Detroit – where things are so underwater that the city has at times cut its poorer citizens off from the otherwise abundant natural resource of water from the Great Lakes. And of New Orleans, still under water ten years after Katrina drowned the city in despair, despite what the Chicago Tribune editorial board might think. And that for every drowning economy there’s a parched ecosystem to balance the scales. Like poor California, where last month it came to light that Tom Selleck had been stealing water from a Ventura County hydrant and trucking it to his ranch in the hills. Apparently, austerity does not apply to Magnum PI.

To the north, even notoriously rainy Washington has declared a drought emergency. Just last week, Seattle and the surrounding cities asked residents to cut their water usage by ten percent. Beyond that, the drought’s had little visible effect on humans, but the water table is all out of whack, and in hot and shallow rivers across the state migrating salmon are dying by the thousands. The situation is so dire that in some areas the state is trucking stranded fish to safety in hatcheries upstream.

I’ve been out in Seattle, my hometown, for the last several weeks, and I was riveted by the salmon story. The under-watered fish somehow provided a strange counterpoint to my reasons for being there. Because out there in the west, my father has been under water for months – his damaged heart and lungs struggling for control of a system as out of balance as the Columbia River.

Until this spring, I didn’t know a whole lot about edema, but it’s a brutally common side effect of heart failure: As the heart struggles to pump blood, fluid backs up in the body, thanks to a little miscommunication with the kidneys. Thus: my father’s feet regularly swell to unrecognizable shapes. Water floods his lungs and seeps from his pores, blisters flower and burst through his skin. We wrap his weeping legs in gauze and in an hour it is drenched and needs to be changed again. He is drowning in his own fluids – dying, in inexorable and weirdly mundane fashion by the force of something as elemental as water.

From the moment I got the call in March – “Something happened. Come now.”  – I’ve been underwater as well. That day I couldn’t figure out how to work the Internet, or how to buy a plane ticket. I just stared dumbly at the screen, the white noise of surf flooding my ears. Eventually I managed to enlist a friend to come over and help me pack. (“OK, underwear,” she said, “put it in the bag. Next: socks!”)

In the Critical Care Unit of the hospital, my father floated on a raft of tubing and machines. Sedated and unable to speak, he squeezed my hand and raised his eyebrows, trying to swim to the surface. Once he did, days later, and the tubes were removed, all he wanted, with furious desperation, was a sip of water – but of course that was not allowed.

Now, six months later, he rides the tide of chronic illness: in and out of the hospital nine times and counting, choked with water one week; dehydrated the next, stranded between Scylla and Charybdis, the only thing certain the ceaseless uncertainty.

The roar of surf in my ears has quieted to a dull pulse, just rhythmic waves lapping distractingly, hypnotically, at the shores of consciousness, barely audible but nagging enough to keep me from working, from remembering to answer email, from reading a magazine let alone an entire book.

In May I went to Puerto Rico, another island with white sandy beaches and grilled octopus, where the underwater debt stands at $72 billion, and where another crippling drought has left neighborhoods on a rotation system – one day with water, one day without. I was sitting in a plaza in San Juan when I got another call. My father was back in the hospital, for the fourth time, or the fifth. He was, unsurprisingly, feeling pretty down. He wanted to talk about his funeral – about who should speak, what music we should play. I want you to write my obituary, he said. Here’s what you should say.

That night I went out to a bar and drank Cuba Libres, and every time I went to the bathroom I had to stop and remember why the toilet wasn’t flushing. That water was being carefully rationed. That that was why there was just a sad little bottle of hand sanitizer sitting in a dry sink.

What does it mean to bail someone out? And who deserves it? OK, obviously the salmon are blameless. But what about Greece, or Puerto Rico – those lands of sunsoaked, day-drinking layabouts who brought crisis upon themselves and are now being scolded to suffer the consequences? What about Detroit, or New Orleans? What about my father? Did he seal his fate the day he started smoking and drinking and eating salt, rejecting austerity for not just the needs but the pleasures of the moment?

Moralizing comes easy on land, but once you’re in the water things get murky. Questions don’t really have good answers – and bailout means to simply do anything you can to stay afloat. Who deserves it? Everyone.

When my dad was hospitalized in June, for some medical complication the details of which have already drifted away, I went out for a quick visit, and spent four days sitting by his bed with a digital recorder, helping him narrate his life story. A life story in which the sea plays a large part and in which, sort of hilariously, his children seem to barely factor at all. But collectively, as a troika, my sisters and I have decided to forgive that debt, and he now holds onto it like a flotation device. Daily, he harasses me – it’s a running joke: “Have you finished my biography yet?” And of course I haven’t, because if I do – who do I tell it to?

Just a few weeks ago, while I was again out west, my father developed an internal hemhorrage and, going into shock, was resuscitated with a massive transfusion of blood and other fluids; he gained 18 pounds overnight. The next day, still shaking the water from my ears, I was talking to a guy I knew only vaguely at a party for a friend’s 50th birthday. Haltingly, I gave him a rundown of the last 24 hours – minus the gory details. He cocked his head, and looked at me and said, “Is he dying? I know where you are right now.” I wanted to kiss him, I was so grateful he could hear me from the shore.

In a devastating 2011 essay chronicling the illness and death of his infant daughter, Aleksandar Hemon likened the isolation of those days to life inside an aquarium. I can’t imagine the horror of Hemon’s experience, but I do know that an aquarium is a precise metaphor for the climate-controlled, rigorously monitored bubble of the hospital, whose watery byways and language are incomprehensible to those on the outside looking in.

When you’re dealing with the everyday crisis of a dying parent, though, things are less contained. Though the challenge of communicating the texture of the experience stands, you can’t sit in Critical Care forever. So when the conditions of life leave you underwater for the long term – in economic crisis, in ecological distress, in medical limbo – you, like Poseidon, have to figure out how to both swim in the sea and walk in the world. To get on with things on land but also, maybe, to accept that under water is the place where your story makes the most sense. That Poseidon’s children – the naiads and the salmon and the strangers you meet at parties – will, in the end, be those that hear you best.

Here, there

July 14th, 2015

rainbow plane

I looked at a calendar the other day and realized that since New Year’s I’ve barely been home in Chicago for more than four solid weeks at a time. Some of this travel was for fun, some for work, some for family — and while it may sound wildly jet-set, I have to say all this bouncing around has left me a little scattered.  So I sat down to figure out what I’ve been up to in an attempt to get some of the pieces back in the box.

This month Ms. Fit – a great online (and Chicago-based) magazine dedicated to “real world feminist fitness” — published an essay I started almost two years ago, now titled Almost There: Trusting My Body Again, One Lifeboat at a Time. A lot has changed since I started working on this, and in some ways its very odd to see it finally out in the world, but I’m really happy this piece found such a good home.

Also this month I was asked to contribute a personal letter to the Rumpus’s Letters in the Mail project. If you’re a subscriber, some free-associative popcorn on what it means to be “underwater” (economically, medically, emotionally, ecologically) should be landing in your mailbox sometime soon. Once the letter goes out I’ll see if I can post it here as well. You can squint at it here.

Last month I interviewed Jon Fine — a writer, musician, and my long-ago college boyfriend — for Belt magazine about Oberlin, nostalgia, the Midwest, how to write an honest memoir, and god only knows what else. That interview, ridiculously long and riddled with conflicts of interest, can be found here: Your Band Sucks: An Interview With Jon Fine

Speaking of Belt, I sacrificed my vanity to appear via Skype in the video for Belt’s current Kickstarter campaign. We are trying to raise $10,000 to expand our freelance budget and our pool of freelancers to better bring readers (like you, right?) excellent writing from across the postindustrial Midwest. If you would take a look and consider a donation, I’d be very grateful.

If you’d like to know more (or would like to see me with my hair brushed), Belt also has two events coming up in Chicago in the next week. On Friday (July 17) we host our first-ever Chicago happy hour (though technically we’re not supposed to call it that) from 5:30-7:30 pm at the Hideout. I’ll be there along with publisher Anne Trubek, and we’ll have books and other merch for sale, while DJ Bobby Conn spins the music of the Rust Belt. Then on Monday (July 20) I’m moderating a post-screening discussion as part of the experimental documentary series Run of Life at Constellation Chicago. Screenings of Kevin Jerome Everson’s The Island of St. Matthews and Fe26 will be paired with a printing of Jacqueline Marino’s essay “A Girl’s Youngstown,” from Belt’s recently published From Car Bombs to Cookie Tables: The Youngstown Anthology, and we will try to find the resonances among them all.

Also this weekend I’m one of a host of women reading a section of Anne Elizabeth Moore’s Sentimental — a contemporary reinvisioning of the Seneca Falls “Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions” as part of an event called “Feminism: Then and Now” at Defibrillator Gallery on Saturday. (Info seems to only exist on Facebook, sorry.)

And then, well, I’m leaving town again for a while. But I’ll be back by August 16 for that month’s installment of The Marrow reading series at the Whistler, at which I will present some further thoughts on water and its absence and excess. It would be great to see you here, or there, or somewhere, friends.

Words Fail

March 26th, 2015


I wrote about running away with the circus, and about the end of empires and the functions of nonsense, for the Rumpus this past week. I’ve been trying to write about circus for a while, and my first few tries read like very stiff and random book reports. This piece is different (I hope) — and pretty personal, on some perhaps not immediately obvious levels. I was happy to see it published, and even more so when I found out it had been picked up and circulated in the actual circus community. So thrilling.

The Sunday Rumpus Essay: Words Fail

Halloween with Leslie Jamison

November 18th, 2014

In which the author of the bestselling essay collection The Empathy Exams and I discuss Frozen, Taylor Swift, the limits of empathy, the problem of happiness, and why we listen to sad songs over and over, with critical attention given to the importance of acquiring your own “personal flurry.”

The Sunday Rumpus Interview: Leslie Jamison

Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights

November 7th, 2014

I was honored to be asked to review Katha Pollitt’s latest for the Tribune’s Printer’s Row books supplement this fall.

Seed or weed?

June 13th, 2014


[Originally written for and performed at Theater Oobleck‘s June 3, 2014, residency at the Hideout. Perhaps to be revised, or turned into a chapbook. We’ll see. Gently revised version republished September 22, 2014, by Belt Magazine.]

Down the street from my apartment there’s a community garden on a vacant lot owned by my landlord — although, of course, “vacant” is a bit misleading. It’s home to a dozen raised beds of flowers and vegetables. There are hoses and a rain barrel and two rotating compost bins and a mess of stakes and tomato cages under the porch of the house next door. In the spring mushrooms push up through the dandelions

In the first warm weeks of May I sowed buttercrunch lettuce and mesclun and red romaine, along with beets and chard and kale and carrots in the plots I’d claimed as my own. I had the best intentions, I had carefully ordered an array of exotics from the heirloom seed catalog — Chantenay red core carrots; bull’s blood and golden beets. I amended the soil with compost and an extravagant layer of topsoil. I even drew a map in a little spiral notebook. But, perhaps dizzy with the sudden onset of spring, when I got down in the dirt itself I quickly abandoned any attempt to impose structure on nature and began sprinkling seeds with abandon. I figured I’d thin them out once they’d germinated, after I saw what stuck.

One month later the lettuces are coming up thick in nice straight rows. But the bok choy and the chard are sketchy, their sprouts emerging from the soil in curves and clumps, if at all. Only four of dozens of golden beets have germinated, and cilantro has invaded the carrot patch. Samaras from the maple towering to the east have rained down on the garden, blanketing it with little brown propellers and every morning I crouch over the beds, contemplating clusters of inch-high shoots, wondering, are you kale or crabgrass? Are you seed or are you weed?


I live half a block north of this garden, on Humboldt Boulevard practically on top of the Bloomingdale Trail. That’s the colloquial name given to the elevated tracks stretching 2.7 miles west across Chicago from Ashland all the way to Ridgeway, along Bloomingdale Avenue, about midway between Armitage and North. Once it was a spur line for the Canadian Pacific Railroad, but regular transit stopped on the line in 2001 and in the years that followed the tracks were reclaimed by fast-growing plants. Bull thistles and pokeweed grew thick along the railings while pineapple weed choked the tracks – as did broken glass, beer cans, dead rats, abandoned shoes, needles, condoms, and yards upon yards of VHS tape, scenes from Ghostbusters unspooling on the breeze. Catalpa and gingko stretched their branches overhead. Wildflowers rioted in July.

From the ground the trail didn’t look like much – a few miles of dank, crumbling cement held together by graffiti. But from above it was a magic highway. A thin strip of rough scrubby green easily accessed at strategic points along a poorly maintained fence line, the Bloomingdale Trail gave sanctuary to drinkers, dog walkers, joggers, junkies, and anyone seeking shelter from the streets below. It was an interstitial wilderness, opportunistic plants holding tight to rocky soil, and for much of the 00s it was the city’s best-kept open secret.

These days the weeds are gone. Last August the city broke ground on construction of a long-planned network of parks and trails along the railway that’s now called The 606. In the works for more than ten years, it’s set to open in its first phase this fall, and I’ve watched over the last six months as small trucks and front-end loaders zip back and forth along the viaduct past my second-story windows. On the ground, the bright murals that marked the passage from Humboldt Park to Logan Square – whose neighborhood boundary the trail passively polices – have been sandblasted away in the name of lead abatement. The quiet man who lived underneath the overpass all last summer has moved on. If you trespass on the tracks these days you’ll get a ticket.


Almost exactly 19 years ago I was homeless in Chicago, sleeping on the floor of a friend’s loft at Grand and Wood. I spent hours each day, those first weeks, adrift in a strange town, drinking coffee at the old Wishbone on Grand and poring over the Reader classifieds looking for a job, an apartment, a map, a clue.

In the afternoons I walked the streets of greater Wicker Park – Grand to North; Ashland to Western — building a muscle memory of Chicago’s geography with every step. I didn’t go west of Western on my own back then. In 1995, to the new in town, west of Western was the wild unknown, best approached only with a trusted guide.

One night we threw a party. My friends were moving out of the loft, moving on, and I needed to as well. We posted a sign in the kitchen, bold black Sharpie on butcher paper: “Martha needs a place to live.” It was a party with intention, at which I had to introduce myself to strangers over and over until, by accident, one of them stuck. I moved into Carla’s apartment at Augusta and Damen two weeks later.


Accident or intention.

Seed or weed?

For as long as there’ve been gardens, gardeners have pondered the epistemology of weeds.

Because a weed famously is defined by what it’s not. A weed is just a plant growing where it’s not wanted, right? A hardy plant with the tenacity to thrive, neglected, in inhospitable turf.

A weed competes for resources – for space, sunlight, and water — with more desirable, intentional plants. It provides shelter where pests can overwinter. Early-season weeds offer sustenance to sap-sucking aphids and other insects, enabling them to grow strong enough to attack your tomatoes when the time is right.

In the proper context a weed can be a tincture, or a tea, or the main ingredient in your pasta with wild ramp pesto. If it roots in the right place it can fix nitrogen in the soil or anchor unstable ground. In fact there’s a famous story that the first life to return to east London after the devastation of the Blitz came in the form of weeds. According to Richard Mabey, author of the book Weeds, by the end of the war braken carpeted the nave of St. James Cathedral and ragwort scrambled up London Wall. The spread of the lowly rosebay willowherb was so thick and rapid it was welcomed with the nickname “bombweed.”

But what’s a weed on land no one cares about? In the loose taxonomy of common weeds, railway weeds are their own low category: tenacious, craven plants that have staked a claim to the roughest most embattled turf around. Yarrow and curly dock. Pigweeds prostrate, Russian, rough, and smooth. Spotted knapweed, hoary cress, Western goatsbeard, and toothed spurge. They all have names and properties, but in the ledger of urban improvement count for nothing.


Last summer I walked the Bloomingdale Trail a lot, climbing the fence at Julia DeBurgos Park over on Whipple and more often than not heading east. To the west, near where the tracks split at Ridgeway, vegetation gave way to a ground cover of small hostile rocks, and long-abandoned freight cars offered privacy for all manner of illicit human activities.

To the east, though, the path grew soft and lush and where, from the street, the tracks seemed a dark mass of decaying concrete, from above they vibrated with the full flower of midsummer.

Accident or intention?

Seed or weed?

Which is better in the long run? Is it even possible to quantify their relative good? Intention builds bridges; accident coats them with rust. Intention drops bombs; accident turns the rubble green. Intention sows spinach; accident raises lamb’s quarters instead.

But, wait a minute. Weeds grow from seeds, same as radishes. Lamb’s quarters are just wild spinach. You can eat them too, just as well.


My friend Amy used to live on Monticello, just south of the Bloomingdale tracks, and she swore for months that from her garden she could see trains passing along the tracks overhead. We scoffed. Those tracks haven’t been used for years! She was seeing ghosts, we teased, and Amy’s ghost train was a running refrain until, one day, I saw it too – a freight train, real as steel, moving smoothly west.

I did some poking around and the most likely explanation for this is that the trains were delivering flour to a nearby industrial bakery that, though warned of the imminent redevelopment of the trail, waited until the very last possible minute to make alternate shipping arrangements. The least likely, though most lovely, explanation is the legend told by longtime trail neighbors, who swear that the circus used to use those tracks, sending carloads of animals towards the United Center, giraffes poking their necks out the top and nodding to condo dwellers as they passed.

This, of course, is a fairytale. No record of such a train exists with either the railway or the city. It turns out, in fact, that Amy’s ghost train may have been delivering neither bread nor beasts. Rather, in order for Canadian Pacific to hold onto the air rights above the tracks all these years, they were required by law to keep them in use. And so every once in a while, for no reason, they’d run a train bearing nothing slowly by.


In April the Chicago Department of Transportation removed the old railway bridge at the Ashland Avenue end of the Bloomingdale Trail. It was taken to a work yard, scrubbed clean of rust, repainted, and then driven slowly, at dawn, one mile west to Western, where it was reinstalled, and now connects Humboldt Park to Bucktown. The video of the bridge’s transit reminds me of footage of the journey of Michael Heizer’s Levitated Mass, the 350-ton granite boulder Heizer – a reclusive land artist perhaps best known for his 1970 earthwork Double Negative — had excavated from a Southern California quarry in 2012 and trucked over ten nights, at a stately 2 miles per hour, to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Over those ten nights crowds of thousands gathered to marvel and clap, and others to mock and jeer. It’s just a rock, the skeptics scoffed. Why waste all this time and money staking a claim to art? But like “Double Negative” – which is basically two big gashes cut into the earth atop a remote Nevada mesa – the appeal of the big rock, which now sits suspended above a deep trench cut into the LACMA plaza, is as much about what’s not there as what is.

Weed or seed?

Can’t a plant – a rock, a trail, a home — be both at once?


For weeks now city crews have been working on the viaduct over Humboldt Boulevard, spitting distance from my door, jackhammering away every morning at the unhappy hour of 7 am. When this phase of construction is done, there’ll be a new access ramp over on Whipple and bleacher seating installed along the Humboldt overpass that will give visitors a place to sit and rest, and look down at traffic on the boulevard, and in my front yard.

It’s a long arc to this yard from that first apartment I stumbled into, the one that anchored me in Chicago. I was only there a year, but in the 18 years since I haven’t strayed far from that central square, even as its perimeter has expanded, pushing past Western to California and beyond, and north to the edge of the Bloomingdale Trail, whose rocks and weeds inscribed new memories into my muscles as recently as last year.

According to the plan recently unveiled by the landscape architect for the site, the trail will be home to an elaborate new ecosystem of native plants, with hanging gardens of forsythia, thickets of poplars and maidenhair ferns, and meadows of blue flax and bee balm, goatsbeard and yellow mullien — desirable, intentional, weeds no more. A spiraling observatory — an earthwork built from soil and rubble — will anchor the western trailhead, its access points marked by evergreen spires. A tunnel of paper bark maples will open onto a public arts space at Ashland, and magnolias will bloom over Julia De Burgos Park.

Like the circus train, it will soon be a fairytale that once upon a time in the city you could climb a fence and take a long walk through nothing, along a trail of beautiful weeds.