Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Food for Thought

           This vignette is meant to be read while this song plays: Los Angeles by Peter Bradley Adams

            A beating, bloody heart throbs in her chest as she sleeps. Her chest rises and falls in her innocent state of slumber as a young boy muffles piercing cries under his pillow two blocks away. His father pulls down his pants and shoves the boy’s head into the pillow, and it’s right on schedule, as always.
            Four blocks away, a mother sits in front of her desk with a candle that reflects light off her chin. She stares at the handwritten paper in front her; a line that says groceries, a line that says rent, a line that says Gracie’s tuition. She bites her tongue as a pregnant tear dwindles over her swollen cheek and she crosses a thick, red stroke through her baby girl’s education.
            Six blocks away, a man lies with his hand over his husband’s chest. He gazes at those beautiful, sleeping eyes and feels love. Real, true, tangible love. But his heart aches with an empty hole that he can’t fill with money, sex, or the bottle of whiskey under the sink.
            Her beating, bloody heart still beats, and beats on as the dark fields of the republic roll on under the night.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

A Smile

I got pregnant nine months and six weeks ago.
You bought the booze, you gave me more than I could handle, and you took away my innocence.
            A few weeks went by, and I told you. You cradled me in your arms and said baby I’ll never leave you.
            You stayed around for a while. You ran your fingers along the creviced stretch marks on my belly. You supported my back with your hand as I stood up. You sat next to me and pressed my stomach until a little foot nudged you. You smiled.
            Eight months went by, and you left.
            My mother and father huddled in the corner whispering drugs, cocaine, meth.     
            My friends gathered in circles whispering scared, I knew it, should’ve known.
            I sat cross-legged on the floor thinking alone, alone, alone.
I went into labor and the person standing next to me squeezing my hand was my mother. You never showed up.
            It’s not like I didn’t try. Texts turned into phone calls which turned into getting in my car and searching the streets. I hovered over my phone staring at the three numbers I dialed and pressed end. I wasn’t going to keep looking for someone who left me alone.
            Now it’s been six weeks and here you are. You’re standing at the edge of my room, my mother and father hovering over you like maggots to rotten meat.
            My baby is wrapped in cloth, cradled in my arms. His cheeks are pink and his lips part to let out a soft huff as his eyes crease and he looks up in childlike wonder.
            I should’ve spit at you. I should’ve shielded my baby with armor. I didn’t know what you were going to do.
            But here you are, inching closer to me, eyes glued to our baby boy.
            You reach out your arms for him, and in that split second I lift the baby from my bosom and hand him over to his father.
            You cradle him in your arms, he looks up at you, and something happens that I never will understand.
            His lips part, showing his gummy mouth, and he smiles for the first time.
            Nausea fills my throat and my toes crinkle under the sheets. Jealousy fills my heart and my knuckles turn white.
            He loves you. More than he loves me.
            And then the words come out of your mouth.
            You look up to me, eyes dull and complacent.
            “I feel nothing for this baby.”
            You give him back, you turn around, and you leave.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Server Tipping Rubric

     City: Lahaina. Island: Maui. State: Hawaii. Restuarant: Ono's Grill.
     My sister, Bethany, and I just experienced the worst service of our lives. After waiting over 10 minutes to be greeted, we were checked on only once when we had completely finished our meals.
     We decided it was time. 
     We created a detailed rubric for all customers to use when eating at a restaurant. There are 10 criteria, which include greeting, refills, and server competence (just to name a few). For each criteria, there are three categories: failed, average, and outstanding. (If a certain criteria is not applicable, the server automatically receives the outstanding column.)
     Each category is given a specific percentage, and when all criteria are added up, the final tip is calculated. 
     If all criteria are awarded an outstanding rating, the server receives a 19% tip. 
     There is a bonus box, where an exceptional server can rack up an additional 6%.

     Back to Ono's Grill. We tipped him $2 off of a $24 bill (8.3%). After completing our rubric, we went back to see how accurate we were. According to our rubric, he should have received 9.5%.
     Needless to say, our rubric is accurate and helpful.

   We all know what we like and don't like about our servers, but they tend to be clueless. Print off our PDF and take one to fill out at each restaurant you go to from now on. If your server sucked, this rubric will not only notify them of why they got a bad tip, but how they can improve for next time. If you would rather not leave this for the server to see, ask for a manager at the end of your stay and give them your finished rubric with your server's name on the top. This will not only inform the manager of what is good and bad about their service, but it will stop any unwanted hurt feelings towards your server. 


     Better servers, happy customers.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Blue Lights, Drunken Nights

My bright blue wallet is cool against my hand. The metal clasp sends a wave of chills over my bare arms in the still night. Leda steps out of the car and catches up to me as we walk up the solemn, moonlit sidewalk.
The neighborhood is full of two-story family homes. Neutral and sellable.  Oak trees tower over the street creating a tunnel as each tree catches the glimmering eye of its parallel neighbor, holding hands at the branches. The damp, earthy smell rubs off the leaves and swells into the humid night, reaching up to the clouds that billow over the town.
The grass perks up through the slits in the sidewalk and causes a hitch in my step. I attempt to dodge the clumps, but a particularly thick patch causes me to stumble nearly to the ground.
My hands reach out in instinct, and a rush of moist air brushes my bangs away from my face. My balance steadies, and I look back at Leda who stands half gaping, half staring in awkward silence.
“I’m good,” I say, and she bursts out in fits of giggles.
We link arms and make our way to the very end of the last block in the subdivision. Her perfectly curled blonde hair brushes against my arm as we walk. There have been no empty parking spaces along the streets since the spot we claimed as our own. I can feel the bass of the music through the pavement.
“I told you it was smart to park a couple blocks away,” Leda says.
“Yeah, I guess you were right.”
Pushed farther back into the trees than the rest of the homes, our destination is everything but family friendly. Floor-to-ceiling panels of glass run along the entire front of the house, which looks to be about four stories high and double, if not triple, the width of the other houses in the neighborhood. The mansion illuminates a radiant bright-blue atmosphere that glows the pavement in front of us. The second story juts out farther than the first, creating a textural effect that makes my eyes dance. Small patches of bamboo-colored wood streak the areas in between the glass. Perfectly placed bouquets of pink peonies color the wrap-around porch, which causes Leda and I to look at each other, mouths gaping open at the magnificent masterpiece.
We near the entrance to the house and take one last breath of the fresh soil before touching the cool, metal handle of the tall, bamboo door.
And we step inside.
The room is lit in blue with a crowd of people so thick I can hardly wriggle my way through the front entrance. The music deafens me as I speak out loud and realize my voice is lost in the commotion.
I grasp Leda’s hand and lead her to the back of the house, where Jonny and Rob said they’d be.
Dank sweat penetrates the air, and I attempt to hold my breath as we squirm past body after body.
We squeeze through a hallway that leads into another ballroom-sized dance area with speakers in the ceiling. The crowd thins after another hallway, and music slowly softens until only a few people scatter around leather couches and loveseats in a respectively small room about the size of a hotel lobby.
A small wave of conversation penetrates the thick air, and every few seconds, a loud giggle towers over us like a swaying banner.
A waving hand catches my eye, and I lock eyes with Jonny.
“There they are!” Leda says, squeezing my hand as she rushes towards them.
She hops on Rob’s lap and slaps her lips against his. I quickly look to Jonny and see a tired, disgusted expression as we lock electrified eyes again.
“Hey Elle,” Jonny says.
            He looks up at me from underneath his long, brown eyelashes that beautify his striking green eyes. His cheekbones are thick and his jaw is tight. Brown curls sway against his face with every small move he makes. His deep, yet thin voice puts me in a daze as I start to swirl in and out of consciousness.  His eyes grab my wrists and pull them taught. I try to wriggle myself free, but I can’t move. My lips part, and I take a small, forced breath, struggling to think of something to say—anything to say.
            A silence thickens like mucus between us, but he moves closer to me, and it dissipates.
            “I said hello, Ella,” he says, his lips parting into a warm smile.
            My heart tugs as it beats underneath my skin, trying to claw its way out of my chest. My blood is thick as it drudges through my veins, and my head lightens like a feather.
            I push myself away from my hot, unconscious reverie.
            “Jonny,” I nod.
            His huge, masculine hand reaches up to mine, and he gently pulls me onto his lap.
            My body is on his. My heart swoops into my ears. My belly is churning. My toes are curling, and I don’t know how I can think or move or…
 His warm, thick legs support me, and his strong hands surprise me as they brush my hair away from my ear like a curtain.
He whispers, “Can I get you a drink?”
My wrists are hot, my eyes are blurry, my muscles are weak.
“Sure,” I say as cool as I can.
Jonny taps the small of my back, and I stand up again. He walks away, and I sit back down, looking at Leda like I just got attacked by a pack of hungry bears.
“Look at you, Ella,” Leda says, giggling, “I knew you two would warm up to each other.”
Rob gives his reassuring nod underneath his furrowed eyebrows, “Told you they’d be a good match.”
I blush so hard my chest turns pink and Leda grabs my wrist, “Don’t be embarrassed, Elle! It’s a good thing! You like him, right?”
“I mean, I’ve only gone on one date with him. I guess he’s fine,” I decide to say.
Leda sits back against Rob’s chest and looks horrified.
“You guess? You two look like you’re ready to pounce on each other!”
Rob releases a chuckle for what seems like the first time in his life and mutters, “That’s an understatement.”
“Good God, you guys. We’ll see what happens,” I say.
They give each other a look and raise eyebrows.
“So where exactly did Jonny go?” I ask, looking into the long, elaborate hallway that leads into a maze of rooms full of blue lights and half-drunken dancers.
Rob furrows his dark eyebrows, and a glimmer of light hits the side of his black iris, “You haven’t seen the bar?”
Leda’s sharp grin turns into a full on smile stretching from one ear to the other.
She looks at me and sends shock waves of excitement into my bones.
Our mouths part at the same time, and we practically scream, “A bar?”

The bar stretches from one end of the room to another. The wood is a light bamboo, and small blue lights cast streaks of light down the bottom of the bar. The bar chairs swivel while four bartenders—two women and two men—dash across the breadth of the bar. The women wear short-sleeved white button ups with bow ties, and the men mirror their image with long-sleeves. The women seem to only wait on men, and men on women. It’s an open bar.
“We’ll have two margaritas on the rocks,” Jonny says.
My cheeks blush. I’m not 21. I wait for her to ask for my ID, but she simply says, “Salt on the rim?”
He nods, and she turns around, making up our drinks.
I lean close to him so he can hear me over the loud music and the constant stream of voices.
“I’m surprised she didn’t ask for my ID,” I say.
“They don’t care here, Elle. No one ever has.”
“How come the cops haven’t found out about it? Don’t you think it would have leaked somehow?”
His lips touch my ear as he speaks, and the vibration causes my heart to flutter.
“Don’t ask so many questions, just enjoy it while it lasts,” he says as the woman returns with our margaritas, and he hands me mine.
I lean forward and see Leda and Rob to the right of us sharing a jumbo margarita with two straws.
Leda looks up and smiles at me, the pink straw between her pearly teeth. She gives me a thumbs up and yells, “Good!”
Jonny and I sip our margaritas, and we talk. He asks me questions about my college classes.
They’re fine.
I ask him questions about his graduate schooling.
It’s hard.
And my time at home.
 I hardly see them, but when I do they’re yelling at me for my dirty dishes and my undone laundry.
Would you like another margarita?
And how he met Rob.
I met Rob in kindergarten, and when I switched schools my freshman year of high school because my parents were too poor to afford the private education, we never spoke again. We had done everything together. We grew up like brothers. Three years ago, I saw him walking down the frozen food aisle at the grocery store, and ever since then, we’ve been inseparable.  
And my job as a waitress.
I can’t make tips unless I flirt with the old men, and college students don’t leave me anything.
Would you like another margarita?
And where he sees himself in the future.
I’m open to anything. I’ll go where life takes me.
My head starts to buzz, and my lips become numb. Jonny grabs my waist and leads me to the dance floor. The music winds down into slow, rhythmic pulses, and we move together in unison. My body is melting in the warm room, but his cool fingertips send chills down my spine.
The striking sapphire lights twirl above my head, and the bum, bum, bum of the heavy bass travels from the soles of my feet to the core of my heart. My body rests in Jonny’s arms, and my head buzzes, unable to go anywhere but here. Just this moment.
The lights enthuse me, and I draw into the song again.
“Nothing could kill this moment,” I say as I lay my head on his shoulder.
He runs his hand up and down the curve of my waist and says, “Nothing at all.”
I look up into his glimmering eyes, my head slowly moving back and forth as my balance tilts in either direction.
“I think I love you,” I say.
He takes a step back, letting go of my waist, and I feel my heart lift into my throat. It turns into quick, splintering sobs that escape my parted lips without notice.
“You’re drunk, Elle,” he says.
“I understand,” I look down at the floor, biting my lip and enjoying the bitter pain it causes when I bite too hard.
“I’m gonna get some fresh air,” he sighs, and he leaves me standing in the midst of a  slow-dancing crowd relishing a love song.
“Leda I need you,” I say to the empty air, as I watch the breadth of his back move farther and farther away from me.
I turn and my eyes don’t keep up with my movements. I push myself back to the bar and find Leda next to Rob. They sit side by side, facing each other.
“Leda,” I cry. The word barely comes out of my throat.
“Oh my god,” she says, her words slurring, “What’s wrong?”
“Where’s Jonny?” Rob asks, his eyes looking ferocious under his black eyebrows.
“Where?” I shrug my shoulders, ready to slump down into a heap on the floor.
Leda’s face explodes into a laugh, and in between fits of giggles, she says, “He probably just went to the bathroom. Calm down, Elle.”
Tears pour down my cheeks, and I just want to melt.
“But I said, he left, and I—I don’t know where,” I say, and my face shrivels up into a waterfall of tears.
I turn around and leave them. They’re not going to help me. No one is going to help me.
I reach into my wallet and find the cool hard key. I slip through slurred voices, sweaty forearms, and an overweight man who stands in front of a sconce, his eyes glowing, mesmerized by the blue light. I finally make it out the door and attempt to run past neighborhood after neighborhood, stumbling over patches of grass.
I finally see my car on the side of the road. My eyes are watering on top of my dizziness. I feel a lurch in my throat. I bend down next to my car door and let out chunks of vomit that slide down the sloped road.
“I’m sorry Jonny,” I tell my car.
I rev the engine, and the car shoots off faster than I wanted it too. My eyes see doubles of the dividing line, and I try my best to keep on my side of the street.
I turn into an unknown neighborhood, and my sobs start to climb higher and higher.
Road after road, turn after turn. I’m lost, and my chest is heaving in bursts of despair.
I’m about to give up as I turn onto Willow Dr., but I see a figure walking away from me in the middle of the road. My sobbing cries reach a climax as I stomp on the gas and yell, “Jonny!”
Standing in the middle of the street, he turns.
I reach him faster than I expect, and in drunken panic, I slam my foot down expecting to hit the brakes. The car lurches forward instead of halting and I let out a sharp cry.
I look up through my windshield and see one last glimmer of blossoming hope distinguish from underneath his long, brown eyelashes that beautify his striking green eyes. 

Thursday, May 9, 2013

The Awkwardness of Church

Do I clap?
The lady in purple has her eyes closed and she’s clapping.
The man in blue has his arms folded and looks at the ground.
Do I clap?
I slap my hand against my thigh to the beat.
Does this count as clapping?

Do I raise my hands?
The lady in purple stopped clapping to raise her hands.
The man in blue has unfolded his arms. He looks at the ceiling now.
Do I raise my hands?
I lift my arms and fold them in front of my stomach in an upturned manner.
Does this count as raising my hands?

Thank God the songs are over.

A baby cries behind me.
Another baby responds from the other side of the church.
The baby in the back disagrees with them.
The first baby’s feelings are hurt.
The responding baby is mad.
The baby in the back tries to calm them down.

I have to pee.
Is it considered rude to get up during the sermon?
If I get up, people will look at me.
When I walk down the aisle, what will I look at?
Will I look at their critical eyes or stare at the ground?
I cross my legs, but the pressure forces me up.

I walk up the aisle.
They stare.
Some are sleeping.
Kids sit on the floor, playing with crayons and bulletins.
I make it to the back of the church.
Outside the door, mothers pace back and forth patting the backs of their babies.
The babies are silent.
One mother opens the door to go back into the sanctuary, but the baby starts crying again.
She turns around and sighs, succumbing to stay in the lobby.

I enter the bathroom.
It smells of acid and unsettled burps.
One stall door is closed.
She coughs and then an echoing spatter plunges into the toilet water.
Are you okay in there? I ask.
She coughs again. I’m fine. Late night last night.
I raise my eyebrows and pee.

I pass the mothers and then the critical stares.
I sit down on the hard, wooden pew.
The preacher prays and it’s time to go.
I’ll be back next Sunday.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Peach Trees and Pipe Dreams

Kissing my four children on their foreheads, sending them off to school with their brown paper bag lunches and stepping out to my wraparound porch that looks out on hill after rolling hill of lavenders and tall, drooping trees.
That is what I want for myself 10 years from now.
I almost forgot to mention my lovely husband who turns and smiles as he hears the clink of the door shutting. He’s picking peaches from the peach tree.
The wraparound porch is white, and there is a rustic desk with a warm, padded chair. On this desk sits a luxurious laptop that plugs into the ever-so-conveniently placed outlet. Built-in speakers hum legato melodies of husky voices and whiney guitars. The smell of the flower fields lift up into my nose, and the small scent of sweet peach juice swirls around me.
A bottle of white wine sits on the desk next to the silver laptop. The cooling breeze flips my brunette bangs away from my face. I take my seat and begin typing. It says “Chapter four.” I’m writing my second novel. It’s Daniel’s day off from work, because he is a firefighter and works 24 hours on and 48 hours off.
He walks toward me with a basket of orange, ripe peaches with pinkish spots. He smiles and says, “Good morning, my love.”
I think back to where it all began. I graduated high school, got my associates degree and finally my bachelor’s degree. I was an English major with a minor in writing. I might have gotten my MFA, but it depended on the success of my first novel. Maybe the short stories I wrote and submitted to Reader’s Digest helped pay for it.
I was patient in waiting for a publisher to pick up my novel. I waited year after year, the looming threat of “self-publisher” racking my brain.
There were obstacles. Daniel and I had a rough start to our marriage. It was always
“money this” and “money that.” We worked through it.
I might have had to work as a waitress for a few years before my dream really bloomed. It’s not the most realistic plan in the world, but it’s as realistic as the reality of the 50 or so years I have left to live.
I didn’t have a fallback plan. This was my plan. I stare at that peach tree, the sweet aroma coming back to me as I finish the fourth chapter of a book that sells out.
Daniel Bennick, my fiancĂ©, envisions his future as well. He fits right in to my picture perfect plan. He says, “I would like to have a family with my wife and some kids. I would like to be a firefighter with a side job—maybe something related to fitness or sports. Fully settled in a nice house and financially stable.”
He didn’t mention a peach tree or a field of lavender, but deep down, I hope that’s what he pictures. 
Pondering what still needs to be done between now and the 10-year deadline, Bennick says, “I already got half of it down with finding a nice woman to start a family with.”
What a sweetheart. He may have only said that because I was staring intently at him.
“I feel like I do need to get my bachelor’s degree, but I also need to get a paramedic license in order to have a better chance to get on the fire department. Getting a good job and saving money is definitely a huge priority in order to reach my future financial stability,” Bennick says.
Being on the fire department requires Bennick to be physically fit, dedicated and compassionate. Bennick says these attributes are not as big a concern as money.
When asked what his biggest challenge will be, he says, “Money. Finding a job on the department because it’s so competitive. What can I do in the meantime while I’m waiting to find a department to get on?” That question stumps him, and he admits he won’t know the answer for a while.
Bennick faces the possibility that he won’t ever get on a fire department. His backup plan is getting his bachelor’s degree in renewable energy. “There’s tons of jobs out there for that,” he says.
Even though his dream career is competitive, he doesn’t think it’s too far-fetched. “It’s realistic. Definitely realistic. It’s just knowing which path to take. What are the right steps?”
            A wife, kids, a nice house and a stable career—it’s the American dream. Bennick says, “This is the American dream, but that’s not all of it. You gotta go for a little bit more.”
            He doesn’t quite know what the “more” is yet, but he says he will push harder and keep striving for something better.
How do we know when we’ve reached our dream? Bennick sums it up: “You won’t know until you get there.”
            Hopefully, “there” is standing under a peach tree smiling back at his ever-youthful wife.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Lullaby Trio

            Her lips part and the melody blossoms.
            A love song, a ballad, a lullaby.
            The whirring softness of her small voice lilts into the air, swirling in legato hums, tipping out the windows and soaking into the damp earth.
            Spring sings back as a lone skylark spits out the prim, prim, prim of its serenade.
            She taps her finger on her belly, counting to the beat of her tune.
            One, two, three, four, and-a-one.
            Humming, humming, humming, soft and sweet and fragrant.
            Sunshine seeps through the sheer drapes; pins of light highlight her cheekbones. She smiles in the teal room, feeling the warmth of the sun and the duet of the skylark.
            Taps her belly.
            Hums her tune.
            Taps her belly.
            Hums her tune.
            One, two, three, four and-a-one, two, three—
            She jerks up straight, her hand flat on her belly.
            Wisps of loose hair untwine from her braid as she leans forward. Her humming stops, the skylark takes a breath, her hand is firm.
            Her swimming eyes dance as she cups both hands around her growing stomach.
            Tap, tap, tap.
            Humming, humming, humming.
            A skylark singing.
            She leans back in her chair, closing her eyes.
            Her lips close, and she hums her precious lullaby.
            A lullaby trio.

Inside the World of Journalism: Tips from Lisa Kernek

Lisa Kernek, past reporter and current assistant professor of Journalism at Western Illinois University is dressed in professional purples and grays as she stands in front of the classroom. Her brown, shoulder length hair frames her high-cheekbones as she admits that she has brought an embarrassing PowerPoint presentation that she shows her college students.
She flicks to the first slide. A small girl holds up her middle finger in an old newspaper. “This is me when I was 4, holding up my middle finger to the world,” she laughs.
            She caught her middle finger in her scooter’s handlebars, the handle was cut off by a hacksaw. The picture was taken on the porch steps of her home in England.
            Kernek was born in Australia, moving to England at the age of 2, and moving to the United States at the age of 5. “My father, [a history professor], had two job offers,” she says, “either Macomb or Lafayette, IN.” Her mom made the decision for them, choosing the Midwest.
            At a young age, Kernek thought she might pursue a career in art. “I thought about being an artist until a teacher told me I had no artistic talent.”
Kernek decided when she was 16 that she would be a reporter. She wrote for the school newspaper and took journalism classes in high school. However, the news room is the reason she decided to be a reporter. “This is gonna sound like a dumb reason to choose a career, but I thought the news room was such a fun place to work in.”
As a reporter for several newspapers from 1989-2006, Kernek has witnessed the evolution of technology. She explains the process of writing in her earlier years. “We had to type all our stories twice and then type [four spaces] to justify it—like how many spaces to finish the column. Then you have to go back, and it was very tedious.”
Even the idea of editing on a computer seemed other-worldy to Kernek. “I remember taking a photojournalism class in college and my teacher said, ‘Someday everything will be edited on a computer.’ It seemed so futuristic to me.”
Kernek stands at the front of the classroom as she answers questions from a set of Lincoln Land Community College students in a Journalism 101 class.
She gives advice on the beginning of a news article, called the lead. “I suggest that you start with an anecdotal lead or a descriptive scene setter lead showing the person in their work environment.”
When asked about how to successfully use quotes, she advises, “Quotes are most powerful when you use them really sparingly. Just use your best ones.”
In interest to brevity, narrow paragraphs down to one or two sentences.
The most common mistake Kernek sees in the classroom is the transition from term paper to news story. Students are often accustomed to ending a paper with a summarizing paragraph. In journalism, there is to be no summary—it is seen as wasted space.
Other mistakes that she deems as “pet peeves” are grammar slip-ups. She hates it when the words “definitely” and “defiantly” are mixed up, when “comprise” and “compose” are misused and when “lying” and “laying” are not in proper form.
However, she focuses on the concept of just getting what one can on the paper. “The first draft is going to be pretty mediocre. The writing is in the rewriting.”
Kernek says the best way to end a news story is by closing with a quote, an image, or the subject’s plan for the future.
She tucks her hair behind her ear and looks into the eyes of a dozen aspiring journalists. She looks strikingly similar to the young brunette holding up her middle finger to the camera. Bluntly, she says, “Give yourself permission to be terrible.”

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Grace St. John Berger: Ordinary Woman, High Profile Model

It’s the day of the photo shoot. You wake up in plenty of time to drag yourself out of bed, making sure to leave your hair and makeup entirely natural as you arrive at the call time of 6 a.m. You sit around and sip coffee while treating yourself to the nice, catered breakfast. It’s time for hair and makeup. You make light conversation with your stylist as she gets slightly annoyed with you for talking while she attempts to cake on your makeup. This lasts three to five hours. Then, somewhere in there you try on all your looks. Finally, you put on your first look and pose away until dinnertime.
You just lived a day in the life of fashion model Grace St. John Berger. Previously modeling for Elite Chicago, The Rock Agency, and Wilhelmina, Berger now models for Muse, traveling all across the globe striking poses for Glamour, Italian Gioia, Nike, Liz Claiborne, Rinaldi, Allure Prom, and many more. How did this Springfield, IL native make it big? It all started with a bet.
“When I was younger, I always said I wanted to be famous, but my sister got so annoyed with hearing me say that, so she made a bet with me that I wouldn’t audition for AMTC [Actors Models and Talent for Christ], and I don’t like losing so I accepted that bet and it all spiraled from there.”
Berger explains why she recently switched from Wilhelmina to Muse. “Wilhelmina has a really good name which is a pride thing for me to let go of, but they wanted me to sign for another four years, and I just couldn’t commit that long to one person. I switched to a smaller agency, so there’s only like 20 people on the board. I figured I’d get more attention and more work, because I wouldn’t just fade into the background. And I’m the only redhead even though it’s not real.”
            Berger has found that the switch has proven to be a smart move, because her new agent is brutally honest with her. “When I was with Wilhelmina, I went and saw Ralph Lauren and they told me I was on hold for this job and they loved me. When I switched, I gave Muse a list of all my contacts and [my agent] called them and [then she told me], ‘They hated you… I don’t know why they told you that they liked you.’”
The agencies that hire Berger appreciate her front-to-back knowledge on the art of posing, which Grace explains as clockwork. “It’s more facial training. More than anything, you just have to be comfortable moving in front of the camera. Every time you hear the click of the camera, you move your face one way or reposition your arms or walk.”
And when she runs out of faces to make and poses to strike? She thinks to herself, “I’m running out of things to do over here and [am trying not to] look like a crazy weirdo. There’s the awkwardness of ‘what do you want from me now?’ Sometimes they pause and wait for you to move, and I’m just like, ‘Push the button, I’m thinking about it!’”
At a healthy size 4/6, Berger is not emaciated or towering. The lack of these qualities makes it challenging for her to land jobs in the modeling world. “I’m not really that thin, but I’m not really that big. My market is very small. I get a lot of hair and makeup. I pretty much never do runway, because I’m only 5’8 and you have to be 5’10. Any job I can get is a godsend.”
            Berger has a quality that sets her apart from her competition. “Something my agent always tells me is, ‘There are lots of pretty people out there, but your personality is what sells you and sets you apart.’”
In discussing the behind-the-scenes details that most magazine readers don’t know, Berger says, “Makeup—they cake it on. Even when they say it’s natural.”
Berger did a photo shoot for Fitness magazine on how to look good when leaving the gym. “Little did anyone know I was in hair and makeup for three hours just getting my hair braided and curled. Then they did my makeup perfectly and said, ‘Okay, you’re leaving the gym.’”
Despite the hypocrisy of photo shoots like that one, Berger says it’s not the Glamour or Fitness magazine shoots that pay well. “Editorial pays nothing. Well, I mean it pays something. Glamour was two 16-hour days, and it’s just $250. When I went over to Italy for the Persona Max Mara Campaign, they flew me there and paid for my hotel and food and everything. That was $2,500… Sephora was $3,000. If you’re selling a product, it’s thousands. If you’re taking a pretty picture, it’s maybe a few hundred.”
There are definitely perks that come along with being a model, but what about the not-so-bright side of the industry? Berger remembers a Glamour shoot that she did with five other models. One catty blonde in particular fires her up. “I was the biggest one in the bunch and was [also] the shortest. One of the blonde girls made little comments to me like, ‘What agency are you with? How did you get signed? Do you work a lot?’ I’m like, really?”
According to Berger, snide comments from other models are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the dark side of the modeling world. “70 percent of models are naturally the way they are, but that 30 percent darkens the whole grid, because they don’t eat and they will just drink and smoke and do cocaine. They give everyone that bad name, so that’s the dark side, I suppose.”
Berger separates herself from that dark 30 percent by following her Christian-based morals. “I live in New York and I still go out a lot, but I never drink. I’ve never had a sip. I’ve never smoked. I’m like a walking oxymoron.”
Being in such a cut-throat world might push Berger farther away from her religion, right? She shakes her head and says she sticks to her roots. “I’m still very Christian. I go to church two times a week. Even if I went out the night before, I will get myself to the church service. I’m not pushy about my faith at all, but it’s definitely something I’m willing to talk about. Every job I go to, I’ll say something about how I’m blessed to be here and people pick up on that.”
Starting in the early years of middle school and continuing her modeling through high school, Berger always felt too shy and humble to admit she is a model. “I think people have this picturesque idea of a model in their mind which is a very tall, slender, stunning person, and I was just the soccer player/swimmer from Springfield High. Every time I'd have a job, I told my teachers and friends that I had an out of town appointment. This girl brought in this magazine and said, ‘She looks just like you,’ and I said, ‘you're right, she does!’ She'd ask, ‘Is it you?’ I'd say, ‘Umm, no.’”

Berger balances modeling with her college career at Hunter College. “I am kind of killing myself a little bit. I’m taking 18 credits every semester, so I go to school from eight in the morning until 9:45 at night two days a week, which is ridiculous. I leave those other three days open to work. I expressed to all my professors that this is how I’m paying for school so I have to work if I have to miss, but I have to keep my grades pretty high, otherwise I can’t miss.”
Living in New York has caused Berger to have ties with celebrities such as the Jonas brothers, Leonardo di Caprio, and Emma Stone. The Jonas brothers are Berger’s friends. “We hang out. I watched the super bowl over at Nick’s and we go ice skating. They’re just cool, down to earth people.”
Berger met di Caprio in a club, and as for Stone—well, Berger hasn’t met her, but she gets mistaken for her constantly. “People tell me I look and sound like Emma Stone. There was this one family in Times Square that was very persistent that I was her and they told me I was rude for not taking a picture with them.”
This Emma Stone-like red hair has advantages in the modeling world. “Any color care ad usually uses a redhead, because red is the hardest color to keep.”
Berger addresses celebrities as ordinary people, which makes it easy for them to relate to her like a normal person rather than an avid fan. However, Berger admits that there are a select three that she would jump up and down in excitement for. She half giggles, half whispers, “Ryan Gosling, Justin Timberlake, and BeyoncĂ©.”
Berger looks forward to her future. “Eventually I want to try acting. Just to say I can. I don’t want to have any regrets. As soon as modeling becomes who I am, and that’s all that I do, I’m gonna quit.”
She smiles and gives her best piece of experienced advice—the advice she lives by day after day of photo shoot after catered photo shoot. “Never be ordinary.”

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Ten Minutes

   10:51. Gonna be late for work and I still need gas, ____ thinks.
               She sips her coffee. And my coffee is cold.
               One mile faster. Two miles faster. Let’s push the limit. 75 miles per hour.
               An orange flash in her left eye. The gas light is on.
               10:52. Gonna be late for work, cold coffee, out of gas, she thinks.
               A white flash in her right eye. Her phone.
CNN: Woman Rams SUV in Drive-Thru for “Slow Ordering”
               10:53. Gonna be late for work, cold coffee, out of gas, stupid news story.
               Swerving, squealing, apologizing to the windshield. The red minivan flashes down the interstate.
               One mile slower. Two miles slower. I’ll be late anyways. 72 miles per hour.
               10: 55. Turning off at the exit. Gas light seems brighter.
               Station in the distance. $3.59. You’re kidding me.
               Sighing, ____ pulls in and parks at pump seven.
               10: 57. Wallet open, orange credit card. Swipe, caching caching, she thinks.
               The numbers go up together. One gallon, three. Two gallons, zooming past seven. Money comes, money goes.
               Black in her left eye. A woman walking closer. She’s speaking.
               “Miss,” she says, “Miss.”
               ____ turns her head to the woman. Medium height, stringy brown hair. Gray, sagging clothes. Her eyes. They’re full of gray and crawling towards the anticipating pool of anxious wetness that ____ can’t take her eyes off of.  
               “No thanks, I’m busy,” the words crawl up the back of her throat, but she swallows them. Those eyes.
    Okay, I’ll let her talk.
               “Ma’am I just move here from Chicago and I don’t have a car and I been tryin’ to provide for my kids I have six of ‘em and I went to try and get some financial help—“
               Here we go. She probably wants drugs. Or alcohol.
 “—and they said they’d give me a little money for groceries even though they don’t normally do that for people but they said they’d make an exception and all I been tryin’ to do is get enough money to buy a bus ticket and I done started over this is a new life for me and I do anything to just get a bus ticket and—“
“Ma’am,” ____ stops her.
“Yes ma’am,” the woman takes a breath, rolling back on the balls of her feet.
“I don’t have any cash with me. All I have is my debit card,” ____ says, “and I’m gonna be late for work.”
10: 59. Gonna be late for work, no gas, cold coffee, stupid news story, homeless woman.
The words seem salty and bitter. They swish around in her brain, puddling up into clumps of mud, drying into clay that falls apart.
The woman starts to frown, breaking eye contact. “I understand ma’am, I’m sorry to bother you for too long.”
Gonna be late for work, no gas, cold coffee, stupid news story, homeless woman.
Homeless woman.
Homeless woman.
Two arms, two legs. We’re all humans on this Earth. Two arms, two legs. All in this together.
“I just want you to know that I’ll be praying that things get better for you and your children. God bless you, okay?”
The words choke out of ____’s mouth before she thinks twice.
The woman looks back into her eyes. Eyes locked. Tears pooling. Both crying. A moment.
An unmoving moment.
The numbers on the gas pump stop moving, the coffee disappears, the impatience of this world is gone.
Slow. Patient. Stopped.
“God bless you too, ma’am,” she whimpers, “That’s the nicest thing anybody said to me today. God’s truth.”
You reach out your arms to hug her, her swishing jacket rubbing against yours, her body pressing into yours like a cushion.

               But everyone knows that’s not how the story goes.

                   “I can’t help you,” and in that one, unforgiving moment, you turn your back.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Talking Pets: Dr. Evan Kirk

Fielding questions from a class of news writers at Lincoln Land Community College, Dr. Evan Kirk is asked about a cat of many mood swings.
Kirk lights up and goes into doc-mode, “Does he lay his ears back, does his hair stand up, do his eyes dilate? Does he growl or scream?”  When he receives a resounding “no,” he says, “Some of that may just be him being a kitten. He’ll settle down if that’s what he’s doing. If that’s just wild kitten behavior, he’ll probably outgrow it.”  
Working as one of the three DVM’s of Brewer Animal Hospital in Springfield, IL since 1990, Kirk has had many ornery experiences with customers, the most irritating being money complaints. “When you’re dealing with the public, anything can happen. People will be exceedingly rude to the staff and when the doctor comes into the room, it’s a totally different story. They may complain about money every time.  When they’re seeing a doctor and we ask them ‘do you want to do this and this and this with your pet?’ they want to do everything, but then they complain about the charges to the receptionist.”  
One of those charges could possibly be pet food available only at the clinic. Kirk explains the difference between their pet food and the brands at the store. “The prescription food would be different from the store. They’re only available through the vet. We got out of trying to sell dog food to people because we can’t compete with PetSmart and places like that. That’s not what we’re there for—we’re there to practice medicine, not sell food.”
Kirk never recommends specific brands to his clients. He says, “Just stay away from store brands and generic brands. Stick with a pet food that’s from a company that’s in the business of making pet food and that’s it—something that’s been around for a while and has a track record.”
The hardest thing Kirk deals with in the office is putting animals to sleep.
“The death of a pet is always really difficult. It’s part of the job. It’s just like anything else in life. You have a certain number of girlfriends when you’re younger and they break up with you and you get used to it, you know,” he laughs.  Kirk notes the toughest part of putting animals to sleep—the people. For him, widows are the most emotionally challenging to deal with. “This is all she’s got left of her husband or this is all she has. It breaks your heart.”
After the pet is put to sleep, the body is most often cremated. “We have a contract with Kirlin-Egan & Butler here in Springfield and they’ll cremate them.”
Other times, the family will request the animal and then bury them in their yards.
Kirk talks about the wonders of dogs and their olfactory sixth sense. “So much of a dog’s world is made up of what they smell. Everything they see is in terms of what it smells like.” He says they can even detect certain kinds of cancer.
Cats on the other hand, have a sixth sense with smelling pheromones.  “If a female cat comes in heat and goes outside—I don’t care where you live—the conception rate is pretty much 100 percent.”
Kirk lives a busy lifestyle working 50+ hours a week and also balances hobbies like reading, gardening, boating and riding his Harley.
As he stands up to enjoy his precious day off, he reminds us all that through the hard and sometimes annoying moments of working as a vet, he loves his job. He looks up as if reflecting on a precious memory and says, “I had that dream as a kid.” That dream has come true.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Jane Hartman: The Beauty of Music

When a Lincoln Land Community College student asked musician and teacher Jane Hartman to play the Leonard Cohen song, “Hallelujah,” she said, “I’ve never played ‘Hallelujah’ before, but let’s do it in a Mozart style.”

Her fingers flick over the keys, high tones flipping around and twisting back on themselves. Its pure, pristine quality flirts with our ears.
           “Let’s try Beethoven.”
Her hands pound the low chords, the high chords responding. It’s a dramatic, harsh sound resounding against the walls and echoing through the room.
“If I were to do it in Debussy—“
The song sounds distorted, the wistful, dreamlike notes quickly moving up and down.
“How about a tango?”
Jane Hartman, leader of the Jane Hartman Trio and teacher at Lincoln Land Community College in Springfield, continues on and on, displaying her quick, instinctive knowledge of the piano.
The most common question asked of Hartman is: Why music? Hartman says, “Growing up, music was so much of my family’s atmosphere. It was like the wallpaper on the wall that you didn’t notice—you just heard stuff. My dad had a [country-western] band, and his buddies would come over on Sunday afternoons.”
One thing changed Hartman’s entire life. “I got a piano. My grandma was moving from the farmhouse to someplace in town, and they couldn’t take the upright piano. I was in kindergarten. She had probably 20 grandkids, and she gave that piano to me.”
Growing up in Divernon, Hartman had trouble finding a piano teacher. “There was a wait list for the teacher that my mother wanted to put me with. The wait list was a year. We were on our way out of church that day and my mom said to the new pastor, ‘I couldn’t get a teacher for Janie; she’s on a wait list.’ The pastor said, ‘Well, my wife will take her,’ and the rest is history.” At her first lesson, her mother said to the teacher, “Don’t mess with her ear, I think she’s got a good one.”
Hartman is still in contact with her piano teacher. “Her daughter married one of the fellas that runs the Abraham Lincoln Museum, so she comes to town frequently,” she says.
The oldest of nine children, Hartman sums up her chaotic childhood in one word: “pandelirium.” “There was no bathroom. There was an outhouse. We were so little, my mother was afraid we’d fall in, so she put a potty-chair on the porch, and that’s where we went. We were just toddlers, you know. But the next house we moved to had a bathroom, but only two bedrooms.” With only two bedrooms, her parents and a baby slept in one, and the six remaining children (three had already moved out) slept in the other.
In talking about her musical career, Hartman comments on stage fright. “I still get stage fright. Always. I just suck it up. There’s nothing to do with it. Sometimes it can make me too shaky to play well, but sometimes it’s helpful.”
Hartman says she’s never really had a complete bomb of a performance. “I’ve had times when I don’t think I’ve played very well. I used to practice all day, but now I don’t. I teach all the time.”
The hardest piece for Hartman to play is “Winter Wind” by Chopin. Upon being asked to play a snippet from it, she blushes. “Oh no, let’s see. Let’s do another Chopin: ‘Fantaisie-Impromptu.’”
Again, she hammers away at the piano, the notes gliding and retracting. The simplicity and confusion shock the classroom full of students into smiles and awe.
When she’s playing, Hartman tries not to think about anything. “If I think about things like supper or grocery lists or class, it encroaches in your mind. You have to just throw it all away. A lot of it is muscle memory. If you have to worry about the notes, then you’re probably not ready to play it out in public. Most of piano music is memorized. If I started on a new piece, I don’t know how long it would take. Usually memory just happens. I was thinking you would have to do hours and hours of daily practice. Maybe four hours a day minimum to be able to really learn new material like that.”
Hartman says becoming a piano expert is time consuming. “To become a musical expert on anything, you have to have thousands of hours of practice. Perfect practice makes perfect.”
Beethoven is a favorite of Hartman. “You could feel [his] emotional state as you listen to [him]. You know if he’s having a good day or a bad day.” She continues, “Here he is, he’s been dead a couple hundred years. He’s still talking to us through those black dots on the page. It’s kind of a miracle.”
Hartman thinks deeper about the origins and beauty of music. “Music was used to build up and edify humanity. It brings us into a calmer state in a way. It brings us into a ‘Be Still and Know that I Am God’ state.’”
Hartman switches gears and discusses her teaching at LLCC since 1984. “I had a rough spell for a couple years when students weren’t attending. At that time, there was no precedent set for students having to attend. If students were consistently missing class, it was very difficult to teach, because you couldn’t continue on with your process to systematically teach anything.”
She says students tend to veer toward the guitar now more than the piano. “A lot of students don’t want to take the time to learn it, which takes years. Maybe it’s just not as popular with younger kids.”
Jane Hartman takes a deep breath, reflecting on one last piece of herself to offer to the classroom of students. “Find the truth for yourself and follow it. Seek some sort of transcendence. Seek something higher and better than just what you can see and touch. That’s where the truth really does lie.”