Hot Off the Press!

“Lil’ Jenny, surround yourself with people who inspire you creatively, and you’ll live a happy life,” my grandfather once said to me, as he watched me methodically trace copies of Donald Duck and Goofy from the pages of my well-read comic books.
Okay, so perhaps my grandfather never actually told me that – he mostly just asked, again and again, if I combed my hair with an eggbeater in the morning, to which I would reply, “Yeah, good one, Grandpa. What smells like limburger?” – but I’ll bet someone’s grandfather told them something along those lines. And that grandfather would have been right.
Somehow, though, I instinctively heeded the sage advice of this phantom grandfather, and through the years have been fortunate to befriend a multitude of creative and intelligent and inspirational people who constantly remind me how essential art is.
And now I’m so thrilled to be able to brag about one of these people – my dear friend Jen Benka – as her long-awaited book of poetry has finally been published. (I say ‘long-awaited’ because I pre-ordered my copies on Amazon like, four months ago! Damn, girl – you know I don’t like to wait!)
Aside from being blessed with my favorite name, Jen is a woman of many talents: poet, musician, activist, actor, humanitarian, philosopher, ornithologist, cartographer, and given the right combination of microbrews and music, she can invent all sorts of new dance moves. But mostly, she’s an amazing friend, and someone who continually inspires me to be better. And if that doesn’t make you want to own a copy of her book, then perhaps this synopsis and excerpt will:

A Box of Longing with Fifty Drawers: A Revisioning of the Preamble to the Constitution
A poetic exploration of the Preamble to the Constitution that consists of one poem (in sequence) for each of the 52 words that comprise it. Benka takes us on a re-imagining that cuts through the psychic landscape of America and explores the United States as “a box of longing with fifty drawers.” She delves not so much into the growing cynicism of Americans as to the deep bewilderment and sadness of us. She asks the deepening question of what is happening to core values such as economic justice, civil rights, a humane foreign policy, freedom and a decent life for everyone — and below that, what is happening to the individual psyches within a nation that has lost faith in itself.
an unsolved mathematical equation:
land plus people divided by people minus land
times ocean times forest times river.
escape and the delusion of discovery:
across the mad ocean to the rocky shore
step foot onto land call it yours.
promised land lemonade stand.
auction block stew pot.
the dreams:
of corn field wheat field tobacco field oil
of iron cage slave trade cotton plantation
of hog farm dairy farm cattle ranch range
of Mississippi Mason-Dixon mountains
of territories salt lake lottery gold
of saw mill steel mill coal mine diamond.
topographic economic
industry and war.
a box of longing
with fifty drawers.

When I inventoried my bookshelves and discovered that my literary collection was sorely lacking in US Constitution-inspired poetry, I immediately ordered seven copies of this book. So this means that six of my friends can expect autographed copies for Christmas, but I’m not saying which six of you, so you should all still buy your own copy. Then if I give you one of mine, you can give that other one to someone else, and it will kind of be like Amway. Ultimately, as with any good pyramid scheme, I’m the only one who will get rich.
Oh yeah – Jen is returning to the welcoming embrace of the Midwest in a couple weeks to do a few readings in Wisconsin, so maybe I’ll see you here:
Broad Vocabulary (Milwaukee, Oct 12, 6:30pm)
or here:
Wisconsin Book Festival (Madison, Oct 13-14)
Congratulations, Jen – first round in Madison is on me!

Best Little Whorehouse in Illinois

I’m not sure if I forgot to set the alarm, or if I just didn’t hear it go off, but when I finally woke up on the morning of my flight to LA, I was feeling completely disoriented. I shuffled into the bathroom, flipped on the light, and saw an unfamiliar image in the mirror. When I fumbled for my glasses, I realized that I was face-to-face with someone who looked a bit like Liza Minnelli after an all-night bender.
Why did I have these enormous black circles around my eyes? Why was my head pounding? Why did my hair smell like an ashtray? And then I remembered – Natasha’s birthday party.
A few weeks ago, Natasha, Dee-Dee, Nat’s little sister Baby G, and I all went out for dinner and drinks to celebrate Natasha’s birthday. In order to squeeze the most out of her birthday, we started off the evening early by meeting at Natasha’s house for the pre-party, which involved drinking wine from giant juice glasses and nibbling on a tray of crusty French breads, expensive Italian meats and exotic cheeses, followed by Chex Mix and peanut M&M’s.
I was sitting in Natasha’s living room watching the end of some cooking show, when I heard a commotion coming from the bathroom. I grabbed my wine glass and a handful of M&M’s as I got up to investigate further. I saw Dee-Dee sitting on Natasha’s commode, while Nat hovered around her with some sort of waffle iron type implement.
“What’s going on ladies?”
“I’m flat-ironing Dee-Dee’s hair. Hey! Let me do yours next, Jenny! You can wash your hair right away if you don’t like it. Just let me do one piece!”
“Nat, we’ve been through this before. You are never, not now, or ever, going to flat-iron my hair.”
She pointed the steaming flat-iron in my face and yelled, “It’s my birthday and you’ll do what I say!”
My cheeks burned from the heat of the iron, and Nat had an intense look in her eye that bordered on crazy, so I could see that arguing wasn’t going to work. Instead, I tried distraction: “Is there any more white wine, or should I crack open the red?”
Behind the newly flattened locks of hair that fell in front of Dee’s face, I could see her eyes widen a bit as she said, “Ooh – open the red! I think it’s going to be a really good one!”
After filling up my glass with red wine, I retreated to my comfort zone, which was in front of the platter of cheeses and cured meats. Just as I was sampling a French triple crème that was not unlike eating butter, Baby G came over, carrying what appeared to be a small suitcase.
“Hey Baby G! We thought you got stuck in traffic.”
“No, I just had to go back for my makeup kit. Nat said she and Dee-Dee wanted me to give them smoky eyes for tonight.”
Baby G, although ten years our junior, had always been highly skilled in the area of makeup application, particularly when it came to creating the perfect smoky eye. I witnessed many a New Year’s Eve preparation that involved lines of women waiting outside Natasha’s bathroom to receive the ultimate Baby G sultry look. She had developed quite a reputation among our circle of friends.
As the three of them giggled and clinked glasses and spritzed in Nat’s bathroom, I sat alone on the couch, picking at the aged cheddar and popping an occasional red seedless grape into my mouth. I started to feel something in the pit of my stomach, but it wasn’t hunger. Was it jealousy? That was odd. I had never wanted to get all gussied up like that before, but hearing them all bonding in Nat’s tiny bathroom made me want to be a part of something.
I peeked my head into the bathroom and saw that Baby G was just finishing up with Dee-Dee’s right eye.
“Hi girls. Whatcha doing?”
“Giving Dee smoky eyes. Doesn’t she look sexy? I’m almost crossing her over into trampy!”
I shoved my hands into the back pockets of my corduroys, shrugged my shoulders up a bit as I looked at the line of eye shadows on the sink, and asked shyly, “Can I get smoky eyes, too?”
Natasha, who had been leaning into the bathroom mirror, trying on different shades of lipstick from Baby G’s kit, suddenly froze.
“Jen – what did you just say?”
I looked at the ground, smiled a little and mumbled, “Maybe I want smoky, trampy eyes like Dee-Dee, too. Can I get whore eyes?”
Natasha clapped her hands together wildly and screamed, “Yay! Jenny’s all grown up! Jenny gets whore eyes! Jenny gets whore eyes! It’s my birthday, and I say we all get whore eyes!”
When it was finally my turn to get made up, I felt an energizing rush of excitement mixed with a little fear. As a kid, I wasn’t one of those girls who played dress-up or tried on makeup with her girlfriends. We didn’t do each other’s hair and talk about boys, well, because no one really knew what to do with my hair. So this was finally my chance for a do-over.
Baby G sat me down on the toilet, grabbed her kit, and selected the perfect shade to bring out my natural tramp. “Are you ready?” she asked.
“I’m ready. Eyes open or closed?”
I tried not to flinch as she brushed and smudged and patted layer upon layer of sparkly eye shadow onto my lids.
“Are you done yet? Do I look good?”
“Oh, we’re getting very close. Okay, now open.”
I opened my eyes and she came at me with a fat stick of eyeliner. I looked up, then down, then to the side. It was almost like being at the eye doctor. Although scared, I somehow felt safe in her gentle yet skillful hands.
But then she brought out the mascara, and I got a little nervous. “Is that a new mascara? Did… did you just use that on Nat’s and Dee-Dee’s eyes, too?”
“Yes, we’re all using the same one. Don’t worry, we always do this.”
Even before she touched my lashes, I could feel my eyes start to itch and burn, the first signs of pink eye setting in. I distinctly remember learning in health class that girls should never share eye makeup with each other, yet here I sat, eyeballs ready to be contaminated. I convinced myself to look at this as a sort of initiation – a rite de passage, as the smoky-eyed French whores say. So I just took a deep breath, and let her go at it.
When it was all done, I looked around the room at my lovely friends and felt such unity. I was one of the girls. The girly girls. And we all had whore eyes. We put away the cheese tray, took one last look in the mirror, and headed off to continue our evening of birthday fun.
In order to protect certain members of our party who got a bit more intoxicated than planned, I will cut short the final details of the evening. However, I can say that it involved a dangerous combination of the following drinks:
(4) Key Lime Pie martinis
(4) Margaritas
(2) Bottles of wine
(1) Singapore Sling
(1) Sidecar
(1) Champagne Bubbletini
(1) Neon Bluetini
(1) Strawberry Something-tini
(1) Kir Royal
[I know you’re all wondering – Singapore Sling? Sidecar? Were you out with your grandmother? No, that was me. I’m on a classic drink kick, what can I say? Don’t even get me started on Old Fashioneds.]
Dinner was excellent and as I recall, it involved meat of some sort. Or maybe squash. But it was delicious, I’m sure. As the evening came to a close, the group of us walked past a Salvation Army donation box while searching for a cab to take us home. In a move that will haunt me for at least a few more weeks, a particularly inebriated friend of mine offered me $50 to try on some of the donated clothes that were lying in a giant heap of dirt outside of the drop box. When I laughed off this absurd offer, she grabbed an enormous pair of old jeans that had some suspicious stains located in the buttocks region, and held them up to herself as if to model them.
We all screamed as soon as she did this, yelling at her to drop the toxic pants and step away from the clothes pile. She just laughed and shouted, “It’s my birthday and you’ll wear what I tell you to wear!” (Oh wait – did I just reveal the offender? My bad.)
My last clear memory is that of being chased down the street, as she threatened to touch me with her contaminated hands. I squealed and ran, until she finally caught up with me. I told her that she was going to get a disease from those nasty pants, at which point she covered my mouth with her hand and said, “Shhhhh.”
“Okay, you did NOT just touch my mouth with your crappy pants hand! Tell me that you didn’t just do that!”
“Well, Jenny, I could tell you that, but I think we both know what we just saw.”
“Dammit Nat! Now I’ve got e.Coli! I caught the e.Coli from your poo jeans! Really nice!”
The evening ended with some incoherent yelling at a cab driver, late night cheese consumption, and apparently no makeup removal, or I wouldn’t have awoken looking like a tweaked out former Broadway star with conjunctivitis and a possible case of Dirty Pants Hepatitis. I guess I had to learn the hard way that the rapid descent to rock bottom apparently begins with whore eyes.