Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story
(on a postcard)

The Dollar Store Tour and I Will Smash You

I have two events coming up that I've been looking forward to for a while:
(1) The Dollar Store Reading on July 11th @ 730pm @ The Lof/t.
(2) Smashing for Success on July 18th @ 2pm @ the Contemporary Museum.
I hope to see you there or there.
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#176 Cyndy Taylor: Miss Lancaster County

If you google Miss Lancaster County, the wonderful Cyndy Taylor's postcard life story is the first hit.

Cyndy Taylor mostly grew up in Lancaster, PA, where her childhood was both wonderful and horrible. Her parents were generally good, smart, and meant well. Cyndy had lots of freedom to run around with her friends. There was enough money to be comfortably middle class. But things went haywire in Cyndy’s later childhood, especially as her father's alcoholism progressed. Once, during a family fight, her father shot a shotgun in the basement and pretended to kill himself. Another time, her father lay down in front of the car to prevent Cyndy and her mother and her brother from leaving him. Her brother screamed at their mother—Drive, drive. After that, her parents separated, and, during that time, Cyndy and her brother would sneak back in the family house late at night after their father passed out; they would take clothes, TVs, all the unopened Christmas presents, and, once, even a recliner. So her best memories from older childhood are of being very active in plays and musicals and spending time immersed in novels. Cyndy was always in the chorus at school. She loved being so good at singing and acting, the magic of transcending her daily life. Another thing that happened in high school: Cyndy’s boyfriend and the guy she was cheating on him with had an affair with each other. So Cyndy left as much of that behind as she could when she went to college—where she was a theater major before switching to social work. In 1980, Cyndy won the title of Miss Lancaster County. She always crushed the talent portion. The period after college was difficult, though, especially when Cyndy had to fix herself, her eating disorders. Being hospitalized didn’t cure her, but it was a catalyst for getting healthy. After she got better, Cyndy was in a singing group that lived on a cruise ship. After that, Cyndy moved to NYC for the musical theater. She loves that time in her life, though she wishes she would have had some kind of large-scale success. She would have liked to see if she really enjoyed it or not. In 1990, she married her first husband, but they divorced in 1994, which was horrible. She felt as if it were her fault, but eventually felt relieved of that guilt once he was happily re-married. During that time, Cyndy started working in college publishing even though she didn't have an English degree (but she was brought up in an editorial environment; her father and brother are both English profs). In 1996, Cyndy married Rick Davis, the drummer in her rock band. He's as different from her as she could imagine, but they have similar core values. For years, they tried to have children, but their girl wasn’t born until Cyndy was in her 40s, and it was a few years after for the boy. They are glad they kept trying. Having their beautiful children is the best thing that ever happened to them. Cyndy is proud to be bringing up her son and daughter to be the cool people that she now feels pretty sure they are going to be.

#102 The Ecstatic Shanti Perez

Shanti Perez grew up at the top of a mountain—without running water, electricity, or plumbing. When she was 8, she fell out of her grandpa's truck and she was out cold for a long time, but never went to the doctor. Shanti’s mother always wanted her to go away, so Shanti ran around in the woods—first with pigs and then with dogs. As a child, she was terrified of balloons and gym class. Her grandparents were like parents to her. One of her favorite toys growing up was a pond that her grandpa dug out with the backhoe. Shanti has always liked looking at tiny things, so she would set up her Breyer horses in front of a bush that resembled a full-sized tree, or a creek that resembled a raging river, and then photograph them so that she could see how real the scenery appeared to be in the photo. Shanti thinks in pictures. She knows where everything is located because she can picture everything. Sometimes Shanti blurts out random things in public, and she can have rigid expectations that make things difficult for those around her, but she completes every task with an amazing degree of thoroughness. When she was 14, her mother kicked her out of the house and Shanti traveled the homeless circuit. Nothing bad happened. A few years later, Shanti had two wonderful boys—Ki Song and K.C. Later, Shanti went to college where she studied anthropology, computers, and business (now she has an MFA in creative writing and an MA in management). Sometimes, college was difficult; to cope, Shanti kept her pet snake in her bra when she went to class. Around this time, Shanti met a boyfriend, a relationship that lasted 10 years. She didn't understand a lot about having a relationship then and thinks her boyfriend grew tired of trying to get close to her. Shanti still hasn’t recovered from that, but it was her two dogs, Lou and Greta, helped her to cope. Greta protected Shanti and sometimes when they sat on a hill together, Greta would lean into her and that was a great comfort. Now Shanti sees that decade-long relationship as a lesson and is grateful for it. Now she is with her boyfriend Phout, who sat behind her in 6th grade, who she is very attracted to, who accepts Shanti for who she is. With this relationship, Shanti also has two wonderful stepdaughters, Kia and Khay. Recently, Shanti was diagnosed with autistic disorder. Her family consisted of so many eccentric individuals that the autism went unnoticed until she was in her 30s. Now Shanti raises turkeys and chickens, plays with her rottweilers, hosts a show on blogtalkradio, writes fiction, reads, paints, studies hobo spiders and grizzly bears. Most days, she is ecstatic.

More Shanti Perez

One of the Things I Love

[Note: One of the things that I love about the postcard life story project is that I've met a bunch of fascinating people and that they keep in touch after I write their postcard life stories. We become friends and I like getting life updates from them. With that in mind, here is the first marriage of two people who were single when I wrote their postcard life stories. Now they are Katie and Patrick King.]

Kathryn Jachowski has lived her whole life in Maryland. When she was a little girl, she loved animals so much that she had to pet any animal that she saw. She would stick her head in holes in the ground and talk to the worms. When Kate was 10, her parents divorced and then she lost contact with her father. Her mother told her that her father was clinically depressed, but this wasn’t true. Her new step-dad was a pastor, which was fine since Kate was always religious. Later, she learned that her father had a drug problem and was in jail. During her teen years, Kate told her friends that her dad was dead so she didn’t have to explain it. Kate always got good grades, but never liked school. Kate never got into trouble, but she did things like drugs that other people didn’t know about. She never told anybody because she always wanted to be the good girl. Eventually, Kate wrote her father a letter in jail, explaining why she was angry with him and enclosing a Get Out of Jail Free card from her Monopoly game. After he got out, they talked on the phone and eventually decided to see each other in person (Kate hadn’t seen him since she was 11), but he died from a drug overdose before that happened. Kate always got along with her mother, but she had a hard time realizing that Kate was growing up. Kate started dating Pat, an atheist, which her mother had a problem with. Kate had a breakdown and told her mother that she hated God. Kate moved out of the house and her mother abandoned her. But, really, all Kate wants is to be happy. She says she’s about 75-80% happy now that she doesn’t live at home, so she’s almost there.

Patrick King was born in San Antonio, Texas, where his dad was getting military training, and the family kept moving for his dad’s Army job until Pat was 6--New Jersey, Germany, then Frederick, Maryland, where he spent kindergarten. On the first day of school, he remembers holding hands with Mandy Devis as they got on the school bus. After that, the family moved to Upstate NY, a small town outside of Ithaca while his dad finished his PhD in biology at Cornell, after which the family moved to Thailand for his research. Pat spent one semester of 4th grade in Bangkok, Thailand. Then his mom left his dad that summer and his dad sent Pat and his two brothers back to the states to be with her in Upstate NY. His parents divorced soon afterward, which, secretly, Pat liked. It was something that the other kids didn't have, but he did miss seeing his dad. After his 12th birthday, Pat turned inward, got shy and depressed, cut himself off from his friends. His only friend for 2 years was his brother Dave. It was a horrible time, but it was also when Pat started writing in notebooks. Just before his 15th birthday, Pat’s mother moved the family to Birmingham (where her family was) and he was insanely glad to be leaving Ithaca. He decided he would start over with a new life and make new friends. He threw away his notebooks and decided to make up stories about his past. Pat always hated the structure, and, in 7th grade, he almost flunked out. In high school, Pat’s grades always ranged from terrible to decent. He never got an A in anything until college, but, eventually, he dropped out. Pat has nightmares where he flunks out of college—though that isn’t what happened. He thought he had learned all he needed to learn and could do the rest on his own. In early 2006, Pat left his wife. Their lives were going in different directions—she wanted the bourgeois and he wanted the bohemian. So one night around 1am, he packed his stuff up in his brother Mike's car and they took off for Philadelphia. Pat left her with all the bills and the cats and an empty apartment. It was probably the cruelest thing he’s ever done. He didn't care then because he was going on a crazy adventure (and he wouldn’t be his dad's son if he wasn't an adventure-seeking, book-loving, half-mad artist), but he’s ashamed of it now. By 2007, Pat was divorced, living with his dad, and back in Maryland to start over again. He met Katie online and liked how smart she is and what a great artist she is. Also, she doesn't mind his vices. Right now, Pat works in a grocery store and is also working on a book of essays about his travels and the women in his life. Pat would like to marry Katie (there is something special about being legally bound to somebody else) and produce weird offspring and go on adventures together.
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#167 Ken Baumann Was Discovered

Ken Baumann’s mother was diagnosed with cancer and given 3 weeks to live before he ever existed. Luckily, his mother recovered and Ken was born some time after that, though extremely prematurely. Ken was supposed to be dead and blind, and he does have horrible vision, but his hearing is intact. For all these reasons, Ken was a miracle baby. For many other reasons, Ken’s parents have always known he is special. Ken had a great childhood growing up in Abilene, Texas, but didn’t play football. He was always skinny and read a lot, mostly fantasy books. When he was 10, wrote a book about a boy wizard who is recruited to a wizardry school so he can fight the evil wizard (Ken was incredibly pissed when Harry Potter came out). When he was 15, Ken wrote his first full-length novel and it felt like a huge accomplishment to finish something so large. Through these years, Ken continued to read and write fantasy books—until he read Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat's Cradle, which changed the way he thought and read for good. Ken’s acting career began after he was discovered at a Model/Actor Search and later was signed by a talent agent in NYC, where he moved for 3 months. After that, Ken was set up with another agent in Dallas and started auditioning for commercials and modeling for area department stores. But it wasn't until Ken played Nick in A Thousand Clowns at a local theatre that he felt passionate about acting. He gave up the modeling thing and went to Los Angeles for pilot season. The second year he went for pilot season he booked the lead in a pilot for Fox called Don't Ask, and he has been working ever since. Even though he was just 14, Ken wanted to take care of the family and find enough work to convince his dad to move out with his mom and his little sister. Ken wanted the family together and thought it was his responsibility. Recently though, Ken realized that his parents are incredible and smart and ten times more capable to withstand life's difficulties than he is. He loves how supportive they have always been. There was never any stage mom or stage dad from them and they never put any expectations on him. Ken met his girlfriend while working on a film called Spring Break '83. He felt the most joy, the most innocence, in the 6 weeks that they were together on set. She is an intelligent, generous, talented, loving person—and he loves her purely. She has inspired him to do so much. His second novel, Interim, and the feature film that he’s working on now are both dedicated to her. Last year, Ken started work on The Secret Life of the American Teenager, bought a house, and is now living by himself. Ken feels powerful and alive, and Ken is.

More Ken Baumann

[Update: The second season of The Secret Life of the American Teenager premiered earlier this week (and the blog has been getting a lot of hits from Ken’s fans, so I thought I would make it easier on everybody).]
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#133 The Survival of Rahne Alexander

Rahne Alexander was given a different name when she was born in 1969. She was raised Mormon in Central Valley, California, and the early grade school years were a blurry time. Rahne remembers feeling displaced and fearful as the boys and the girls were divided into separate groups. At 8, the age of accountability, Rahne let herself be baptized even though she was skeptical about the church. She knew the family would be ostracized otherwise. In the late 70’s, Rahne’s mother (an artist, dancer, painter) was diagnosed with MS and, so, at an early age, Rahne took on more of a caretaker role in the family. In high school, Rahne became more social but, at the time, it wasn’t okay to be out and gay, which caused difficulties even though Rahne wasn’t a gay boy. Rahne had done some research and there wasn’t much anecdotal information back then, but she had at least a medical understanding of transexualism. There were times when Rahne snuck her mother’s clothes, but this felt weird (probably not because they were woman’s clothes, but because they weren’t Rahne’s style). To get through, Rahne threw herself into school. She was just trying to survive until she could leave for college. Rahne attended USC and met her first girlfriend there; she was the first person Rahne came out to; she was so open and helped Rahne to explore her identity. It was weird, but great. Rahne didn’t think it would be possible, to do what she was doing, but it became okay over time. The next year, they both transferred to Redlands and Rahne studied philosophy, psychology, and women’s studies. Rahne delayed her public transition until she graduated. Then, in 1992, she legally changed her name to Rahne Alexander (see Rahne Sinclair, Wolfsbane of the New Mutants, and Alexander Woolcott, who sometimes cast himself in female roles) and had to invent Rahne’s self. And so it was during her time in Santa Cruz that Rahne began to figure out how to live her new life, figured out how to dress differently, how to present herself as a woman to the world (also to be employable). At first, she dressed in pleated slacks and pastel blouses from thrift stores, but then Rahne developed her own sense of style. This transition also involved bureaucratic steps (DMV, SS#), as well as living in the role for a year while seeing a psychologist. Rahne came out to her family, started taking female hormones (Rahne hasn’t had the surgery, prohibitive cost), and seeing an electrologist for facial hair. Rahne thought it would be harder than it was, and the threat of discovery, of violence at any point, still exists, but Rahne is prepared for it, has the language for it, the strength. In 2002, Rahne moved to Baltimore and slept on a friend’s couch. The move was impulsive, but Rahne has become more herself in Baltimore—writing stories, writing music, starting a band (The Degenerettes), meeting her wonderful partner Kristen (the drummer in the band). Rahne didn’t think it would be possible, but, in under 40 years, she has become comfortable in her body. People have told Rahne that she is brave, but she has always thought of it as survival.

Update: The Degenerettes just released a new CD Bad Girls Go to Hell.
More Rahne Alexander here.

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I Made Fiona Robyn Cry (Again)

Back in April, I made Fiona Robyn cry when she read Dear Everybody. I made her cry again when she read How Much of Us There Was, which she calls "a distillation of what it is to be human."

#195 Kaya Larsen: 8 lb, 3 oz; 20.5"

Kaya Larsen’s parents tried to get pregnant for 4 years before she was born (Boo died in the womb at 6 months), so part of Kaya’s Kayaness is that she was so wanted. They had dreamed of her for years. They picked Kaya’s name months before she was conceived (while paddling a kayak in the Prince William Sound). Kaya was born by unplanned C-section after her mom went through 15 hours of heroic, unmedicated labor. At some point before or during labor, Kaya was infected with Group B Strep (GBS), which caused fetal distress. After the delivery, Kaya was attached to a ventilator in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). The first 3 days of her life were pretty rough. The doctors and nurses didn’t know if she would live. The uncertainty was terrifying for her parents. Kaya was so fragile that any stimulation could throw her vitals off. It was agonizing for her parents to visit her and not be able to hold her. She wore little eyeshades and had cotton balls over her ears. Eventually, she began to move her hands and feet, her arms and legs. She opened her eyes, briefly. Kaya’s parents didn’t get to hold her until she was 13 days old. A few days later, Kaya was breathing on her own and making her first vocalizations—beautiful little gurgles and throaty cries. After 3 weeks, Kaya still needed to learn how to eat. For Kaya's 1-month birthday, her parents baked cupcakes for the NICU staff. After 5 weeks, Kaya began to eat consistently. 2 days later, Kaya went home. She was fussy leaving the hospital, but the moment they got outside she became quiet, awestruck that the world is so much bigger than a hospital room. At 3 months, Kaya laughed for the first time when her parents were tickling her and her squeals of delight morphed into a giggle. At 6 months, Dr. Perez pronounced Kaya too healthy for his high-risk clinic and said he never wanted to see her again. Kaya’s first word was either Bartleby (the dog) or Uh-oh. Kaya’s favorite toys are her pink blanket, anything she can knock over, and anything out of reach. She loves bananas (nana), raisins (ree-ree), and turtles (tuh-tul), and Bartleby (Bobby). She loves the stuffed turtle that Bartleby also loves and she loves books. She asks for a book as soon as her mom or dad comes into her room and she is partial to lift-the-flap books. She loves playing hide-and-seek, even though she isn’t very good at hiding or seeking. She thinks that all animals say, Moo. Now Kaya is 22 months old. For 21 of those months, she has been supremely happy and healthy (the only remnant from her being so sick is a little bird-shaped scar on her left hand, a pressure sore from all the tape holding down her tubes.). In fact, part of Kaya’s Kayaness is her supreme happiness. Another part of Kaya’s Kayaness is her unbelievable fearlessness (she’ll try nearly anything headfirst). In about 3 months, Kaya’s parents will bring home a brother or sister for Kaya and she will be a great big sister.
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An Act of Severance; Or, How Unsaid Magazine Became What It Is

I interviewed David McLendon about editing his great literary magazine Unsaid and the interview appears at another great literary magazine, elimae. David and I talk about what he looks for in a submission and why he loves some of the writers he loves.

The issue of elimae also has work from Brian Allen Carr, Elizabeth Ellen, Harold Bowes, Mike Topp, Eliza Walton, Michelle Reale, Stacy Muszynski, Darby Larson, and a bunch of other fine writers.
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#129 Matt Bell Is One of the Coolest Things Ever

Matt Bell mostly grew up in a house outside of Hemlock, MI, where there was enough isolation to grow up odd, but not too odd. In 3rd grade, Matt won a certificate for writing the best pirate story set in outerspace, which is part of how he became the writer he is today. For the longest time, he wore Velcro shoes because he thought they were the coolest things ever and because that is what the astronauts did. That’s how he was 12 before he learned how to tie his shoes. That is, Matt was a nerdy kid. He read D&D rulebooks on the school bus, played lots of computer games, and read tons of science fiction and fantasy books. In 7th or 8th grade, Matt wrote a 200-page fantasy novel, but then he stopped writing in high school. After that, Matt went to Saginaw Valley State University and dropped out. After all, he had only been tying his shoes for 6 years and he didn’t know what he wanted to do yet. He went to Delta Community College, a 2-year school, where he had the distinction of placing 3 years in a row in a writing contest. Then Matt went to Oakland University, which was the closest university he could drive to, and received his English degree. Over this time, Matt worked as a bartender (he may have gotten the first internet-posted job anybody got) and then as a restaurant manager. These jobs were good for him personality-wise. He lost his shyness. He met characters and had experiences that he wouldn’t have met or had otherwise. Then Matt met Jessica on Valentine’s Day, which was a kind of sign. She was the roommate of two women he worked with at the restaurant, and, as soon as they started dating, Matt wanted to spend all his time with her. Instead, Matt went on a camping trip by himself. He drove across the country, which gave him a sense of scale and changed his perspective. After that, Matt and Jessica were engaged within a year, got married on the beach in Port Austin, and had one of the best weddings ever. It was amazing to stand up in front of all those family and friends, and for everybody to be so happy for them. Then everybody cried. By the time Matt finishes his MFA at Bowling Green State University (2010), he will have finished writing a short story collection and a novel. He will also have an even happier marriage and remember even less of what his life was like before he met Jessica.

[Note: I'm sending out two congratulations to Matt Bell. (1) Matt's first full-length collection, How They Were Found, will be published with Keyhole in 2010. (2) He's been named the editor for the new literary journal, The Collagist.]

[Note #2: This postcard life story was originally written as part of a series of postcard life stories that will appeared in Keyhole #6 (guest edited by William Walsh), where all the contributor bios will be postcard life stories--the idea being to make every possible aspect of the magazine literature.]

#192 M Created a New Life

M was born in Toronto, Canada to immigrant parents. Her mom was from Hungary and her dad from Poland. She always felt different growing up—everything from the clothes her parents bought her to the radishes and pate in her school lunch. M longed for bologna on white bread and Oreo cookie lunches. She felt a mixture of embarrassment and shyness when friends came over to her house and wished that she lived in a house with thick carpeting and velour wallpaper. She wanted to be either a veterinarian or an airline hostess. One summer she was Mr. Cookie and dressed in a huge cookie outfit. M went to university in the town where she grew up and she kept the same friends that she had always had. After university, she thought about what it would be like to sit at the same job, gradually growing wider and wider and wearing increasingly nubby sweaters. It terrified her and she started sending out resumes everywhere in the hopes for a job that was something different. One of her job offers was in Copenhagen—though it could have been anywhere—and so, on a whim, M sold or gave away nearly everything she owned and moved to Copenhagen with her gigantic suitcase and whatever she could fit inside it. Copenhagen felt strange and different, but beautiful, so it was an easy, and now she works there in advertising as a writer. She was able to figure out who she was, since nobody around her had any preconceived expectations of who she was. M created a new life for herself. She found new friends and new things to do. For instance, she likes to pet strangers’ puppies. M also recognized that her life had been pretty good back in Canada, but she loves her new sense of independence. In fact, M just went freelance and now she is on her own in every part of her life. And she loves that. She’s smiling just thinking about it.
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#184 The Art That Is Stephanie Barber

Stephanie Barber was born on Long Island and her childhood was complicated, chaotic. She didn’t enjoy that. She moved more than a dozen times as a child and chunks of time were lived in Florida and Pennsylvania. There were times when she swam in the ocean and there were often a lot of musicians around. When she was 6, Stephanie knew that she wanted to be a writer and started typing out her poems because she thought published poems were typed. When she was 8, Stephanie had a ballet recital that went particularly well, and, after the show, as she was driven home in her father’s convertible, she stood up in her seat and pumped her bouquet-filled fist into the sky in triumph. Sometimes, Stephanie thinks of that moment and how she never feels that unadulterated pride and joy after a performance or a screening. Stephanie regrets not having become a child star. Growing up, Stephanie was bizarrely serious and very religious (even though nobody in her family really was). She decided she was Catholic and walked by herself to church on Sunday mornings. She even talked her way onto a cheerleading squad at the Catholic school, which she did not attend. Stephanie thought that she was cheering for God or Jesus. Eventually, the Catholics realized that she was not one of them and wouldn’t let her cheer anymore. When Stephanie was 12, she fell out of the church and today she is a sort of lazy spiritualist. In high school, Stephanie studied playwriting and ballet at a performing arts school. In college, she studied film and anthropology and poetry. In graduate school, she studied film and poetry. Stephanie became interested in making films because the more experimental films she had seen seemed rooted in poetics. Stephanie reads a lot. She is an artist, a filmmaker, a videomaker, a performer, a writer, and, sometimes, a musician. The way that Stephanie believes in art has a religious fervor. There is a purposefulness that sometimes assuages the angry muddled tenor of her existence. As an adult, Stephanie has lived in 9 different cities. Whenever you see her anywhere, she is almost always smiling or laughing. To get by, she always gets different funny jobs for money—shoveling gravel, selling snakes, teaching water aerobics to senior citizens, college professor, street performer, freelance editor, adoption counselor at an SPCA, phone psychic. Other than where she is living and what job she has and who she is romantically involved with, Stephanie is pretty consistent. She doesn't have too many decisions to make. When she moved to Baltimore, she bought a house that used to be a corner grocery and leaks. It was full of groceries when she moved in, but the groceries are all gone now. Soon, she will move again. She will get her first professional job and win a large grant. She will write a novel and fall in large love.

More Stephanie Barber
Photo Credit: Joe Milutis
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