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Filtering by Category: Narrative

The Unexpected Outcome of Googling Yourself (and Other Adventures in Modern Technology)

Bree McKenna

By Bree McKenna  |   Illustrations by Leah Roszkowski


A few years ago, a concert alert arrived in my email. It said Tacocat was coming to the Empty Bottle in Chicago.

This is standard inbox activity, since I get alerts like this all the time. This one, though, was different. Tacocat is a Seattle pop-punk band with quirky lyrics and a bassist named Bree McKenna. That's my name, which makes her my name twin.

In my world, she is the other Bree McKenna. 

Oddly enough, a few months earlier, I actually had reached out to her. After Googling myself and finding out another one of us existed—someone who's way cooler than me, it appeared—I had emailed her, via her band’s website. I wanted to see if she had ever Googled herself and found me—or if this was simply one-way curiosity on my part.

I never heard back.

But now her band Tacocat was coming to Chicago. Here was my chance. It sounded stalker-y, I admit, but I decided to go to the show, introduce myself and see what happened. I was on a mission.


When the day arrived, I dragged two friends to the show. It was energetic and great. Bree was up on stage, rocking the bass guitar like only a badass lady musician can. During the last song, I beelined it to the side door where I had a chance of meeting the band and introducing myself. 

I was more than prepared for a blasé reaction. An, "Uh, oh, hey." Or a "Cool, nice to meet you." I was sure our meeting would fall short of the dramatic buildup I had constructed in my mind.

I wasn't going to let that stop me.

Bree was there, to the left of the main stage. I walked up to her and said, "Are you Bree? Bree McKenna?" She nodded yes. I responded earnestly, with my hand on my chest, "I'm Bree McKenna.” And then I waited nervously for her to respond.


I GREW UP WITH AN UNCOMMON NAME. Not long after my parents found out they were expecting a second child, they went to see the 1971 film Klute. In it, Jane Fonda portrays a prostitute named Bree Daniels who gets involved in a police investigation of a missing executive. If you’re connecting the dots right now, yes, I was named after a prostitute. My parents didn't share that detail with me until I was older. 

At the time, Bree wasn't in the realm of normal names. Nothing had my name on it. As a child, I longed to buy one of those cheesy personalized bike license plates when we vacationed in Florida. Or a key chain with my name on it even though I had no keys. Thank God for a custom nameplate necklace my Godmother gave me as a gift. I still cherish it to this day. 

As I grew up, I encountered a few other Brees but never another Bree McKenna. Mine was a truly original name . . . or so I thought.

Then one day, I Googled myself and discovered another Bree McKenna.

If you've ever Googled yourself, perhaps you understand how it feels to stumble upon your doppelganger and be hit with the feeling that, well, your doppelganger is way cooler than you. Maybe it's because I've always loved music and am quite the rock star in my own mind, even though I’ve always lacked any real musical talent. In the artists I've always appreciated most—the Breeders and Juliana Hatfield when I was younger, and more recent favorites such as Waxahatchee, Courtney Barnett and Bully—I could always see my alter ego: the badass chick who doesn't give a fuck.

In reality, though, I always have given way too many fucks. In high school, I toed the line between arty and mainstream, balancing my Doc Martens and Kool-Aid dyed hair with good grades and lots of sports. Even now, I'm pretty much the same. So when I looked at the Google images of the other Bree McKenna, I saw a rock star. So she had reddish hair and bangs, like me. But she had an edge.


STANDING AT THE SHOW, MY INTRODUCTION HUNG IN THE AIR. Then her eyes widened with excitement and she yelled out to her bandmates: "Hey, guys! It's the other, more successful, Bree McKenna!"

I was in shock.

"What? No! You're the cooler Bree McKenna!" I protested.

She admitted she had gotten my emails but didn't write back. She had “so many feelings” about it, she said. Then she told me to wait while she ran back on stage with the rest of the band for the encore. There, she grabbed the mic and shouted, "This goes out to the other Bree McKenna that's here tonight.” Beaming, I cheered and woo-hoo’d. I did not expect that reaction. At all.

After the show officially ended, we chatted some more. She told me that she, too, had been Googling me for years. She thought some of her former art school classmates might have mistaken the two of us. I introduced her to my friends and we snapped a picture together. Then the night was over.


SINCE THEN, I'VE PLAYED THE NIGHT OVER IN MY HEAD. I think that's because the whole idea of another “me” out there in the world is weird. We spend so much time—our whole lives really—being in the bubble of our own minds. We know our own hang-ups, worries, strengths and desires, and we measure ourselves in certain terms, eager to be a little more one way and little less another. We believe that if we were just a bit more “fill-in-the-blank,” we would be more interesting and appealing.

And then there she is, a twin in name, filling in those gaps. As I write this in a Starbucks, I even consider how the other Bree McKenna would probably have chosen an independent coffee shop to work. Here I am again: mainstream, pedestrian.

THEN RECENTLY, I RECEIVED AN IPHONE ALERT FROM VENMO, one of those payment apps where you can easily send money to people. Someone was sending me money. The note attached simply said, “Christmas Trip.”

The name attached to it wasn’t familiar, so I wrote the sender, telling her she'd sent money to the wrong person. She messaged me back, explaining that she was trying to send money to her daughter. Her daughter shared my name and even resembled me in her small profile picture.

I asked: “Your daughter isn’t from Seattle and in a rock band, is she?”

The answer: “Yes, she’s in a band called Tacocat. How did you know?”

I told her to say "hi" to Bree for me.

I’ve come to accept that there are two Bree McKennas in the world. She’s the rock star, traveling the world playing music, going to bed late, living out of a tour van—and borrowing money from her parents to visit for the holidays. I’m the responsible one living here in the Midwest, working a day job as a designer, practicing yoga a couple times a week and generally going to bed by 10:30 p.m. My only connection to music is getting concert alert e-mails and being in the crowd.

For rock star Bree, maybe there will be a day when she settles down to a more quiet life.

For me, well, there’s always karaoke.



Moving Back to My Big Dumb Hometown

Bree McKenna

by Claire Zulkey


I had a great childhood. But like most kids, I didn’t know it at the time. I knew, of course, that I had it better than the proverbial starving children in China, than the kids in war or natural-disaster-torn places I saw on the 10 o’clock news. But it wasn’t until I became an adult, and then a parent, that I understood the actual cost—money, time, planning, emotion—as well as the extraordinary good luck that goes into making a happy childhood.

Until I reached the stage of understanding and gratitude that marked the end of my adolescence, I took a flippant, even resentful, attitude toward the place where I grew up. And toward the parents who gave me everything I needed and held back just enough to teach me how to work for the rest. When I graduated high school and moved away to college, I thought bitterly, I’m blowing this pop stand. The pop stand in question is Evanston, Illinois.

I conflated the drama and angst of being a teenager with my hometown—blaming my location, not my age, with the growing pains that accompany a growing frontal lobe. I was ready to move on and start a new, exciting adult chapter in my life. I would forge a new identity outside the walls of my dumb high school, where I felt wronged for not receiving the awards (literal and otherwise) I secretly craved. I proudly wore a Georgetown t-shirt under my graduation gown to advertise the fact that I was noisily leaving (nobody noticed because it was under my gown.)

It took only a few weeks to realize that maybe Evanston wasn’t so bad. Georgetown has very nice qualities, but it wasn’t until I went there that I met true snobbery. I grew up in a place that’s home to thousands of privileged children, but it was not cool to brag about it, even if you lived in a legitimate mansion. But at Georgetown I met young adults who carried Louis Vuitton bags and laughed about crashing their parents’ luxury cars. Also at Georgetown, the black students and the white students didn’t mix very much, whereas Evanston has “Portlandia” levels of self-congratulations, deserved or not, about its own diversity.

What’s strange is coming home and reliving the childhood I originally wanted to escape.

After graduation, I moved back home because I received precisely one job offer, one that didn’t pay very much. I butted heads with my parents and squabbled with my high school best friend because while living back home felt familiar, it wasn’t the same. It was like trying to suck your thumb again after quitting.

I eventually escaped a few miles south to Chicago. I allowed myself to come home to Evanston to do my laundry at my folks’ place and to get my hair cut, but that was it. I was a city girl.

But gradually, I became a city woman and then a city mom. Over a span of 13 years and three Chicago addresses, I acquired a husband, two cats, a mortgage, a dog, a baby, and then the due date for a second one. I wanted a back yard. I wanted schools that would be good, yet not tremendously challenging to get into. I wanted the lake. I wanted to be close to my parents. I wanted diversity and community.

I wanted to go home.

For a lot of people, moving back home is something you do with your tail between your legs, or with a hands-thrown-up, minivan commercial embarrassed grin—what are ya gonna do? But the fact was, I suspected I’d move back home pretty much since we had our first child. My husband and I went through the motions of discussing raising a city family, but it was fated—in part because of the schools, since Evanston’s system is drama-free compared to Chicago’s, and because of all my former classmates whom I saw living back home and loving it. They made no apologies. They didn’t seem like they had given in. If I could sacrifice nothing and make life easier by moving to a place where I could enjoy an active suburban life—with the built-in knowledge of where to go for beach tokens, pancakes or Fourth of July fireworks—and still stay adjacent to the city, why wouldn’t I?

And now here we are, and I love it. The city teems with well-organized events and opportunities for community-building. There are beautiful houses and the lake and a lake path featuring conveniently-placed recycling bins. It feels like a community, which is a funny thing to care about all of a sudden.

Even though 25-year-old-me would never give a crap about this, I appreciate knowing my neighbors and that there are free events at the nearby park on the Fourth of July. The 25-year-old-me still is alive inside, just a little bit. Sometimes I read the community newspaper or peruse the catalogue of senior computer classes and think OK, we get it, you're a suburb

What’s strange is coming home and reliving the childhood I originally wanted to escape. I take my son to swimming classes at the same Y where I learned to swim. There I see women who I once attended preschool with; now they’re with children. Newly postpartum, I saw them at the very same beach where I so self-consciously used to try to suck in my belly. When we put our dog down, I cried on the breast of a high school friend who now works at the vet’s office. I still feel 18 sometimes, and yet I relish the fact that I am not.

I graduated college in 2001. My friends and I were the cool older sisters and brothers of millennials. We invented moving home after school. Then, we moved away. And now a lot of us are coming back. We’re putting our children through the very same pipeline we went through, and we feel good about it, too.

The key will be trying not to feel hurt when they turn 18 and get the hell out of here.



Claire Zulkey is a writer from Evanston, IL.


Coming Back from the Wild

Bree McKenna

By Esther Kang

Just over a year ago, before K was born, I imagined that I would strap her into a baby carrier and ride the L everywhere. In my mind, I would read a magazine while baby slept beatifically on my chest—on our way to doctor’s appointments, to Maggie Daley Park, to summer music shows, to friends’ homes in various neighborhoods. I imagined that my husband, Zach, and I would take baby on our travels: We booked Hawaii for a friend’s wedding; perhaps Korea, Argentina, Lebanon would soon follow. Baby would fit seamlessly into our life. I imagined I’d be the kind of mom everyone wants to be—going with the flow, taking baby anywhere, finding time to shower and work and host fabulous dinners.

It turns out I am not that kind of mom.



When K arrives via Caesarean section at Prentice Women’s Hospital in downtown Chicago, her cries pierce the quiet of the operating room. Zach and I are overcome with emotion at the sound of her entering this world. K sucks her fingers, and we do skin-to-skin with her because we were told by the nurse in the breastfeeding class that it will help her latch on and feed better.

Our third night at the hospital, a friend advises, “Send her to the nursery so you and Zach can get some rest.” After nursing her, with Zach fast asleep on the pull-out cot next to the window, I hand K over to a sweet nurse. She wheels away baby, who is swaddled tightly like a burrito. Instead of using that precious time to sleep, I walk the halls and make my way over to the nursery.

Peeking through the glass, I expect to see K sleeping soundly. But I spot her in her little cart at the end of a row of babies, next to the waste bin, her face scrunched up. She is crying, while all the other babies—babies that look bigger and healthier—sleep soundly. I burst into tears as I watch a nurse pick her up and put a pacifier into her mouth.

Spotting me, another nurse asks if I’m OK. Still sobbing, I lie: “My baby is in there crying and waking up all the other babies. I feel bad. I can just take her back with me, it’s no problem.” The nurse reassures me: “They all take turns waking each other up, and we love holding them! Don’t worry, we’ll take good care of her.” I shuffle back to my room and sob some more as Zach snores a few feet away. The image of my crying baby is seared into my mind, and I am certain that if she were in my arms, she would be dozing snugly. I don’t understand or recognize the intensity of this feeling. Motherhood is wild.


ELEVEN DAYS LATER, the day after Mother’s Day, I’m back downtown, at my ob-gyn’s office across the street from Prentice. I have, quite literally, a hole in my stomach. Thinking myself some sort of superhuman, I’d sprung into action immediately after K was born—lifting things heavier than baby, climbing stairs and stepstools, driving. Now an infection from an opened staple has rendered me unable to walk. Zach drops me off in front of the building and waits in the car with baby; she’s sleeping, and he will need to keep driving around the block so she doesn’t wake up. I hobble to the door, wrapping my scarf around my neck. It’s May in Chicago—windy, gray, cool.


Albany Park, Chicago

We’re home. We’re always home. The only time we’re not home is when we take K on walks in her stroller. We walk to Kedzie Avenue and polish off ice cream cones from the paleteria in two minutes flat, before rushing back home for the next feed.

For the first three months of her life, Zach and I sit on the couch from 7 p.m. until about 10 or 11, or whenever baby goes down for the night after alternately nursing and snoozing for hours. She has acid reflux from an underdeveloped flap over her stomach, which means we have to hold her up for at least 20 minutes after each feed. Each time we think she’s in deep sleep, we swaddle her and gingerly carry her to the Rock ’n’ Play. Should she wake during this process, we start the cycle all over again—nursing, holding her up, etc. We have no idea if this is what we’re supposed to do; we just know this is what works for us.

Parenthood, so far, is a huge pain in the ass. A black box, Zach calls it. “People disappear for a while at the beginning, and you think they’re happy,” he says. “But it’s hard. Then they come back.”

Most days, it seems, Zach and I take care of K out of love for one another—not so much for her. We don’t know her yet, but we do know and love each other.

I TAKE PHOTOS—LOTS OF THEM. This baby is the most photographed child on the face of the Earth after maybe Suri Cruise. One of my favorite shots is a poorly-composed iPhone selfie of the three of us in our bedroom. Zach is lying with his head at the foot of the bed with his T-shirt hiked up, revealing his belly, and he is reading an article on his phone. I’m splayed out on the other side, nursing a face-planted K, my legs paler than they’ve ever been. Our bed is covered with pillows and bags and clothes. The indignity of it all makes me chuckle every time I see the photo.  

Zach, whose job requires some travel, goes back to work after his paternity leave. I begin flying solo just as things get really hard. The hormones, my brain, the lack of sleep, the drastic life change, the isolation, the baby’s reflux, an acid elimination diet that means no milk or soy, the lack of control over anything K does—these swirl into a potent postpartum maelstrom. I don’t know if it’s anxiety, depression, or a combination of both, but I cry—a lot—almost every day. I try to do it when she’s asleep, but sometimes I can’t control it, so K sees me cry. I worry that I’m traumatizing her. I have trouble resting even when baby’s sleeping, and disturbing nightmares haunt me for days. I hear phantom cries and wake up anxious about nursing, about tummy time, about the weird noises K makes, about whether or not she’s developing as she should.

One breezy summer day, while walking K in my carrier around our block, a car speeds by me and clips a curb. A thought pops into my head: It wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if we got hit by a car. I don’t dwell on the idea because it’s stupid and scary.

On another occasion, I am sitting on our living room floor while standing K up. This is her pooping stance. Her eyes begin to water, and her face turns red. She sneers like a bull and strains. Zach is finished packing, and he brings out his suitcase and grabs his jacket; the cab is waiting outside. He comes over to kiss me, and tears start streaming down my face. “Oh,” he says, with sad eyes. I don’t want to cry, but I can’t help it.

THERE IS NO RATIONAL THOUGHT LEFT AT THE END OF A LONG DAY where baby has cluster-fed and not slept more than an hour. That evening, with Zach out of town again, I concoct a brilliant plan: “I’ll check myself into the emergency room. Someone there—yes, one of the nurses!—will watch K, and they’ll let me get some sleep.” Somehow I have the presence of mind to run this idea by a friend. She texts back, “???” It occurs to me that if I proceed with my plan, the Department of Children and Family Services might come and take K from me. I call another friend, and she offers to come spend the night—to give baby a bottle of pumped milk and hold her to sleep while I string four or five hours of sleep together for the first time in months.

The next evening, Zach comes home from his work trip. He unpacks his suitcase, changes into a T-shirt and shorts, and joins me on the sofa, where I’ve been nursing and waiting for K to fall into her deep sleep. Holding her with one arm, I reach for his hand. He squeezes mine tightly, and I begin to cry.


MAGGIE IS MY FIRST FRIEND TO SPEND THE NIGHT WHILE ZACH IS OUT OF TOWN. Jane comes the next week, and then Monica, who is in her third trimester of pregnancy but cheerfully offers to help like it’s no big deal. And during the following month, as K sleeps longer stretches at night, I don’t so much need help with a late feeding as I want the company when Zach’s gone. Being home alone with a baby terrifies me, and having a sleepover with a friend helps. So other gracious ladies get acquainted with our couch: Markeyta, Diane, Megan, Dawn. Some weeks I even make dinner for them.

In parenthood, I find, every cliché is absolutely true. It takes a village, truly. And in the absence of blood relatives living around us, I am thankful for the village Zach and I have cobbled together here in Chicago—and through the web, around the world. Friends bring us food, watch K while we go on dates, offer invaluable advice, listen when I call them panicked, sobbing, desperate. They email and text me regularly, with choruses of “I love you.” “Let me know how I can help.” “We are praying for you.” “It will get better.”

I begin flying solo just as things get really hard. The hormones, my brain, the lack of sleep, the drastic life change, the isolation, the baby’s reflux, an acid elimination diet that means no milk or soy, the lack of control over anything K does—these swirl into a potent postpartum maelstrom.

Ravenswood, Chicago

With Zach regularly out of town, I grow desperate enough to call a hotline for postpartum anxiety and depression. The young woman on the other end of the line kindly gives me names of counselors covered by my insurance plan. I search them all and find the one nearest to me—a woman who also appears to be the most stylish, which is a plus.

Every Wednesday afternoon, I strap K into her car seat, and we drive to the therapist’s office. The baby nurses and naps while I talk about the dread I feel, the sense that this harrowing slog will never end. I talk about the bad dreams and the worst-case scenarios in my mind. I describe the fear that comes over me when K stirs in the morning as I watch through the baby monitor.

My therapist, Lisa, is reassuring: All this is temporary. She tells me she loves how I talk about Zach, that I have great support systems in place, that she can tell I love K by the way I interact with her. I ask, more than once, where I fall on the spectrum of postpartum anxiety and depression; Lisa tells me I’m on the milder side, and somehow that’s enough to help me get through each week. She says I can pursue meds if I want them, but they won’t be a cure-all, and they’ll take some time to kick in. I’d rather not. I’m not a patient person, I tell her. “They’d have to be some magic-ass pills.”

I can never find parking in front of the therapist’s office. And on street-cleaning days, I walk four blocks carrying my heavy car seat with my even heavier child in it. She has catapulted from the 20th percentile in weight to the high 80s. It doesn’t help that I’m short, and the car seat barely clears the sidewalk when I carry it. I know someone somewhere in this neighborhood is watching me and thinking, “Why is a 12-year-old lugging a fat baby down the street?”

A couple of months after my first counseling session, Nashville actress Hayden Panettiere announces that she is receiving treatment for postpartum depression. She had a baby with an older gentleman twice her size, a world champion boxer, and a few months later, she checked herself into a treatment center. There was a time, I’m ashamed to say, when I was skeptical about women’s claims of postpartum woes. But not anymore. I find myself relieved that a B-list actress is raising awareness about the issue.


Evanston, Illinois

Friday of Independence Day weekend, we drive up to the lakefill on the Northwestern University campus in Evanston. It would be easier to stay home and go from feed to feed, nap to nap. But Zach thinks we should venture out for some fresh air. And I want to take photos so I can look back someday and say that I tried—I really tried.

Zach gives K a tour of my old college campus—an abbreviated version of one that I gave him when we were dating years ago: “This is where Mama fell asleep during lecture….” He is trying to get me to smile, but I am stressed out: Where will I nurse her? Am I wearing the right shirt to nurse her? What if we don’t have enough wipes? What if she doesn’t fall asleep in the car and cries the whole way back?

Thankfully, we make it through the day. It’s nothing like the dozens of other times Zach and I came here. Before K, whenever we had a free Saturday, we would drive up, walk along the lake, take a nap on the grass, and watch the sailboats. I loved our former life so much, but there is no time to mourn it properly. We are sprinting just to keep up. As Zach puts it, even trying to have fun is stressful.

I look back on photos from that day and see two kids who don’t know what they’re doing, but trying. We’re in our mid-30s—hardly young—but we are definitely making it up as we go. Maybe years down the line, I’ll see those pics and think, “Oh, that was a fun outing.” But today, I know better.

When I watch a Nora Ephron documentary in which she describes her young son as ‘a dish of ice cream,’ I feel jealous that she came up with that phrase. K is a dish of ice cream.


K is four and a half months old. It has been a particularly difficult week: Zach has been dealing with stresses at work, and K has been staging a nursing strike, a deathblow to my already fragile psyche. We are sitting, again, in the dark on our couch. We can’t go to Hawaii. We just can’t. K’s nursing strike, the logistics of pumping and washing bottles, jetlag and living out of a hotel for a few days, then returning home and adjusting back to life here—it’s too much. I am disappointed in myself yet again. But when Zach himself agrees it would be too much, that our little family needs time to regroup, we cancel our trip to Hawaii and breathe a sigh of relief.

Zach still takes the next week off. We sell my beat-up Corolla and buy a more suitable family car. We sleep-train K, who takes to it quite well, and we agree that not spending a week on beautiful Waikiki Beach is the best decision we’ve ever made as a couple.


North Kenwood, Chicago

With more sleep, therapy, the passage of time, and help from those around us, the fog begins to lift. The things I wrote in my journal during those traumatic early months start becoming unrecognizable. I begin to delight in my daughter: her protruding, smooth forehead and receding hairline, her little diapered butt, her downturned lips, her peachy jowls, her funny personality, the bizarre babbling, the propensity to summon her tears on a dime—then turn them off as soon as she gets her way. I find her so exceptionally adorable. When I watch a Nora Ephron documentary in which she describes her young son as “a dish of ice cream,” I feel jealous that she came up with that phrase. K is a dish of ice cream.

The second half of Year One flies by; I jot down a few notes each month about how we’re doing, and the entries get shorter and shorter. Almost daily, I experience times with our daughter that I can only describe as moments of grace. It’s as if the wasted early months are being restored.

I feel balanced enough to take on freelance projects—an exhausting but much needed addition to my schedule. Zach and I begin hosting dinners again. I go out with my girlfriends. We are back at our church regularly. I’m singing and playing the guitar; Zach is back on the keys. We fly to see my folks in D.C. one weekend; then to Florida for our niece’s birthday. We visit both sets of parents for Christmas—an eight-hour drive to Columbus, Ohio, (including breaks for feeding baby), another eight hours to the D.C. area, then back. We are OK. We still don’t know what we’re doing, but we’re doing so much better. Doing well, even.

Our little condo in Albany Park, which I bought when I was 25, is bursting at the seams. On days Zach works from home, he does so on a makeshift desk along our bedroom window ledge because K occupies his former office. When family members visit, they stay at an Airbnb nearby. So we go house-hunting and put an offer down on the first condo we see—a duplex in a South Side greystone just a few blocks from our church. I take pics of Zach and K that morning at the property because I have a feeling this will be our home.

We close on the condo in April. We start making repairs and hope to move in soon. As I write, K is babbling and rolling a soccer ball on the floor with Zach. I imagine them kicking the ball in our building’s yard. I see us riding bikes along the lakefront trail, walking to church on sunny Sundays, riding the bus up Lake Shore Drive to visit the Art Institute, getting a membership at the nearby Museum of Science and Industry. And when she’s old enough to remember, we’ll take her outside of the country to someplace cool.

I can’t be certain we’ll do all these things, but I think we will.


Esther Kang is a journalist in Chicago.

Becoming a Full-Time Illustrator (Gulp)

Bree McKenna

By John Kenzie

I am lying in bed, pretending to be asleep. It is about 4 a.m., and it is my daughter’s cat that I am trying to fool. The air in my apartment is very dry, and as the cat walks across my comforter, I can see arcs of static electricity flashing off her feet. I don’t really understand the science of it, but I know that if I touch the cat a much bigger shock will get both of us, and she will take it as betrayal.

I slink deeper under the covers, pulling all my exposed skin in with me. I fall asleep quickly, and the next thing I know, I am waking up in pain. The cat has returned: I feel her claws find me thru the comforter as I spring up in bed, and she rockets away. It is now 4:30 a.m. I just get up because I have drawing to do.

I call it my apartment, but it is my building. My wife lives upstairs. We are divorcing. It is her building, too. We have a daughter who moves back and forth between us. She has a bedroom in the same location on both floors, and the difference between those rooms is stark. Upstairs is tightly organized, and filled with reminders of what she likes and what she has done. Downstairs is kind of a poorly formed grouping of media she has consumed already and clothing looking for a proper storage solution.

My daughter is 11. She has a computer in both rooms, and if she is in that space on either floor, that is where she is. This living arrangement seems to have taken most of the sting out of the impending divorce. For many reasons, things will probably stay this way for awhile. It makes sense, and seems best for our kid. I try to imagine myself explaining things to a woman I don’t know yet, and I don’t really have the words. It seems like this situation can’t be entirely unusual, but I also can’t think of anyone I know who has lived anything similar.

I have recently made plans to leave the job that I had for 25 years. I am 48, which is not young, but is young to have been in one workplace for so long. I am very proud to be leaving by my own decision, because I spent about 20 of those years worried that this would not be the case.  I have done illustration on the side prior to—and during—my employment, and it seemed like it might be my last best chance to make a go of it. I say by my own decision, but it was part of a voluntary layoff program. Once it was offered, I became set on it. There have been other non-voluntary layoffs in the past few years, and the worry of being culled does not dissipate when you turn into one of the people left behind. I figured 48 is a better time to start again than 55.

I am not sure why these are such clear distinctions. I know that if I were still living upstairs this would not be happening. I would not be able to cast our shared fates into uncertainty. Downstairs, it is just one of many changes we are all going to roll with. My daughter is thrilled because it will mean we can spend a lot more time together. This always makes me smile, but every time she says it, I worry that I don’t know what am doing.

I keep adding small things to my new life docket and, as a list, it all sounds really good. I am going to eat less meat and give up soft drinks again. I drink a lot of those and have stripped the enamel from my teeth. I listened to a podcast where a man who survived cancer talked about drinking a Diet Coke afterword and could not finish it. He said something akin to “Why did I just go thru all of that, if I am going to return to drinking a chemical slurry?” That was all paraphrased, but the words chemical slurry were there. That is what I call it now. I am going to miss it.

Through word of mouth, I have gotten a lot of illustration work lately. It is very gratifying and takes the edge off leaving the old job. The timing is not perfect, though. I am still burning the candle at both ends, and now I am worried that the illustration part is not as good as it would be if I had more time to spend on it. This was never a concern before—but it was also nothing I could have done anything about.

Now that it is going to be the center of my work life, I am feeling a lot of pressure to improve. My hope is that the people giving me work will return again, and I will be able to give them something profound. This is not something you can tell people, but I am thinking it at them very hard. My other concern is that this flood of work will taper off, and I will wake up on my first morning at home with nothing to work on. I am near obsessed with making a little bit of money on that first day. Just to set the tone right. I have some things lined up. It should not matter, but it still does.

In mid-December, just as I began my plans to escape the office, my father came back to life. I have no memory of him since he was gone before I remember anything. Then I heard from an aunt that I do not know through Facebook. She tracked me down thru LinkedIn somehow, which is more use than I have ever gotten out of LinkedIn. I knew of her existence because it was one of the few details I ever got from my mother. I was drawing at my computer, where nearly all drawing is done now. My daughter was watching Netflix on the couch just a few feet behind me, and a Facebook message pops up from a stranger. Simple as that.  

Within a few minutes I found my father’s Facebook page. Hidden in plain sight.  

I can look him directly in the eyes in his pictures, comfortable with them being unable to look back. He is bald, and I am very much not, but I recognize my features. He has all of the ones I have instinctually disliked, and now I am wondering why. His Facebook page creeps me out by proclaiming a love for me and my mother on his “about” page. There are pictures of my mother and me that I had never seen before on there. It all depresses me.

Nothing has come from it, but my original thought was that he wanted my kidney or something. He apparently does not know my aunt found me. She appears to be a very nice woman. I am just putting this all aside for a bit, fully aware that time could end many possibilities at any moment.

I am great with that.


I HAVE BEEN FREELANCING FOR A MONTH NOW FROM HOME. Pretty busy even. I have not looked for work yet, or even had time to get a portfolio together. One job just seems to lead to another. I gave up my Cokes without much effort. I thought I was going to taper them off and be miserly with the last few, but in practice I just guzzled them. I switched to lemonade and seltzer, and now I drink two liters of seltzer and a quart of lemonade everyday. My stomach is an acidotic crucible. I get up in the morning and write something for 15 minutes because that wakes me up. I look at the new sketchbook I bought, and I decide not to draw in it. I exercise for a half hour with a dancing video game that makes me feel ashamed, and then I sit down and draw. I take breaks and watch YouTube videos where people explain how to use the software I already own, or the software that I want to own. The day is broken up when my daughter is able to visit.

The things I want are becoming better as they become smaller.

Right now I want spring to come, so that I can open the window behind my desk and get a particular cool breeze on my neck. That sounds trite, but I think about it every day. I worry about my eyes. They are a bit blurry close up now. I make a point of going out on my porch and looking at stuff further away. I just need glasses, but I have not done anything about getting some.

I know a guy from England. He now lives in Japan. I have not seen him since the early 90s, and we have not talked actively ever. I typed his ancient email address into my messenger program and sent him a note thinking he would not get it. He responded and has now become someone to whom I send non sequiturs every few days. He says things like, “I'm almost double what I was when we met. But still a sickly pencil” and I say things like, “Dang! That sounds very glamorous.” My thing was not a direct response to his thing. It is just an example. I am using him to indirectly solve problems. I say things, and in advance of his reply, I determine that if he answers one way I will do this, and if he answers in another way, I will do that. My desire for things to happen randomly will never be satisfied. I always feel like I am putting my thumb on the scale.

This is everything I know about freelance illustration. I hope it helps you in your future career as a freelance illustrator!


John Kenzie is a freelance illustrator living in Chicago.

The Renegade Farm

Cassie Burke

By Cassie Walker Burke  /  Photos by Bree McKenna

A hunter is walking up the drive, and that spells trouble. So begins the slow dance of damage control: The farmer scoops the last pancake from the griddle onto his wife’s plate, slides in socked feet to the door and yanks on rubber boots. He charges into the yard, and the farmhouse door slams shut behind him. Breakfast is now an afterthought.

Hunters and farmers share the land here in stark northeastern Michigan, but their interests often collide. The point of conflict this morning is a dog—actually, two—owned by the farmers, 32-year-old Lindsay Steele and his wife, Katie Cooper. Sometime in the early morning hours, Apollo, a fluffy white Great Pyrenees, and his sidekick Maia, a Border Collie mix, stealthily escaped the welded-wire fence that encloses the couple’s five-acre farm and hightailed it to a duck-filled marshland nearby. The hunters, who pay for the privilege of hunting that land, don’t react kindly to such disruption—particularly when they’re trying to stock their freezers on one of the last decent weekends of fall.

Most of the morning will be lost while Steele and Cooper search for their dogs, anxious to find them before one or both meets a bullet. “We patch one hole and then they make another and get out again,” Cooper says. “All we do is make constant mistakes,” she adds, laughing, “and try to live with them.”

Five years ago, Lindsay Steele was a graphic designer at a Chicago branding agency, and Katie played in a rock band. Their only brush with agriculture was a produce-stuffed CSA box they got every week or so from a Wisconsin farm through a city drop-off program. How they ended up taking the plunge and exchanging their urban lives for five acres in eastern Michigan is a story powered by equal parts stubbornness and serendipity. That—and a lot of farming videos on YouTube.

Then, just as the couple started making the final rounds of markets last fall, Katie discovered she was pregnant, and a whole new set of priorities slid into view. Babies have a way of forcing their parents to shuttle serendipity, especially in light of a particularly tough-to-swallow fact: It's still tough to earn a living off the land, even in the era of farm-to-table everything.

THE FARMHOUSE ISN'T JUST ANY FARMHOUSE. It’s a century-old, worn in many parts and currently missing most of the wall between the linoleum-covered kitchen and the modest living room with a warm wood-burning stove Steele installed himself.  
The work on the house—well, that has to happen in the cold months. Since the couple moved here in 2012, the farm has been a whirlwind of sunup to sundown workdays from first thaw until winter. “Farming is a challenging choice. It just is,” Cooper says. “There is a really daunting place, where you start with whatever you have, which is usually next to nothing and really small—

Steele jumps in. “—you have to be crazy. If you look at it on paper, it is so complex. There are so many variables—how am I going to find land? how am I going to find equipment?—that are so expensive. There is an insane amount of questions, and you can’t always answer all of them. You have to just do it, and be OK that you don’t have all the answers.”

They are sitting on a hillside on a beautiful fall day, describing what may be the world’s hardest job in a practically perfect Midwestern setting. Crop beds line up in perfect geometric formations every direction we look. Chickens cluck an acre or so over, and a light breeze delicately blows their warbling your way. The air is crisp enough to sting our nostrils.

The setting wasn’t always so bucolic. When the couple moved here in 2012, the land hadn’t been used for farming in more than a generation. All possibility was buried under quackgrass, an invasive weed with a persistent root structure. There wasn’t even a garden.  

Besides quackgrass, other things that needed clearing—namely, some dark corners of Katie’s childhood. The property actually had been in her family for a generation. Originally, the plan had been to crash and save some money before taking the plunge and buying land elsewhere. But a pit stop became a long-term residency once the cost of buying a plot of land elsewhere began to make their dream seem impossible. Not long after, Katie’s father signaled he might want to sell to the couple.

“I’ve always loved this property, and I do remember, when I was really little, actually thinking about owning this place one day,” she says. “I started thinking this could be a really empowering experience for me, to take something that has a lot of good memories—and a lot of not-so-good memories—to face those and turn them around a bit and build on that.”
Standing inside an old garage that he intended to convert into a greenhouse for winter seed starting, Lindsay handed Katie and her sister a sledgehammer. Clear out the ghosts of her parents’ fighting, her father’s depression, the ensuing divorce. Make it theirs.

Today that greenhouse is full of light and, in late fall, full of empty seed trays that will come into service around the first signals of spring.

STEELE IS HOLDING A PLUG OF SOIL THE SIZE OF A GENEROUS ICE CUBE. The cube is his own adaptation of a recipe by Eliot Coleman, better known as the "godfather" of the organic movement. It contains peat moss, compost, a healthy dose of the native soil, perlite, kelp meal, and, for PH balance, lime. Like the cube of dirt that he is slowly turning around in his hand, each deliberate action is a building block for a tightly choreographed system that the couple describe as “moreganic.”

There are other words for it that are clinical-sounding words—but they don’t really capture the warm, fuzzy feeling of rolling hillsides, homemade chicken coops and a simple and stubborn conviction that peppers any discussion about what happens here. Call it regenerative farming. Call it agro-ecological. Just don’t call it organic.

The conversation at the farmers’ market in South Lyon typically goes like this. A shopper comes up to the couple and asks if their farm is organic. No, they reply, "We’re 'moreganic.'"

"What’s that?" the shopper asks.
"Better than organic."
"What’s better than organic?"

Steele has his answer down: Organic farming is a great idea philosophically but at some point it was hijacked by laws and big ag. Today, for example, organic farms in the United States can still use certain pesticides, which he refuses to use.

In a 2012 survey, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s census of organic farms tallied slightly more than 14,000. States such as California and Wisconsin and Minnesota led the pack with the low thousands. Michigan, with nearly 332 in 2012, fell in the middle.

Of those 14,000 farms, 3 in 5 reported annual sales of less than $100,000.

Steele’s farm doesn’t even get counted in those numbers since it isn’t organic by government standards. This is what you call renegade in a region known more for auto parts than heirloom squash. “There are lots of different interpretations for what we’re doing,” Steele says, going on to explain how their farm operates as close as it can to closed-loop agricultural system. Their chief mode of fertilizer is a moveable chicken coop—a homegrown shit delivery service on wheels that prevents them from having to purchase manure or chemicals from the outside. They use intensive planting techniques such as cover cropping, crop rotation, aggressive composting and all that chicken manure to maximize soil health and deter pests. Data—reams and reams of data that Steele has laboriously catalogued—determine how much of which crops to plant and when and what seedlings should be rotated in. Nitrogen to nitrogen, dust to dust. That, and a heavy reliance on Wi-Fi.

For all of the ancient techniques the couple employs here, they readily recognize the virtues of technology. Their WiFi-enabled soil whispering is informed by a Facebook group of like-minded farmers who happily dispense advice to one another; by YouTube videos from clean farming advocates whose advice is hallowed in certain agricultural circles; by podcasts with quirky titles like Permaculture Voices; and by detailed crop rotation charts that Steele designs on the graphic design software Adobe Illustrator. This is a talent from his former life in Chicago that has proved particularly handy.

Try unpacking all that in a quick conversation at a farmers’ market when someone stops to quickly buy fresh-farmed eggs. Bending customers’ minds at small town markets, Lindsay says, is “exciting—but challenging. There are people out there who know we are growing this produce the way we are, and they understand the quality that it is, and we have them hooked.

“But it’s a challenge—because the other side of that is that people are used to the other vendors at the farmers’ market," he continues. "There is this one big farm: They grow 40 acres of produce, they spray it all the time, they sell their produce really cheap. Sometimes they’re just straight up undercutting us, like, ‘Oh he’s selling his peppers for $1.50 a piece, we’ll sell ours three for $1.’”

He adds: “I don’t want to sink a farmer, but I want them to farm better.”

As he explains, you hear more examples of Steele’s former ad agency life proving useful in other ways. Rather than a past life, his agency work is essential DNA upon which he is building something new, from the clever name of the farm—Garden Fort—to the logo that is stamped on each box of fresh-laid farm eggs. He and Katie even have a tagline for Garden Fort: the really real.

When the couple describes their farm of the future, they don’t talk in terms of acquiring more acreage. Rather, they dream of fostering an experimental station that can be a stop along the way for others who, like them, are the wayward agricurious—be it renegade beekeepers or goat farmers with dreams of being artisanal cheese mongers. Land is hard to come by, and expensive. But they can help others crack the code and share what they've learned. Perhaps this sort of residency program can even become part of the business plan and yield modest rental fees or more goods for market. 

Already, an artist friend of theirs has been driving in on occasion from Chicago and painting her signature flower motif on the sides of their barns and fences, in essence bartering her talent for a quiet place to recharge. Like the seed trays in spring, she's an early sign of what could be a budding agri-art commune on property that was, a decade ago, just an old dilapidated house surrounded by lots of grass.

STILL, AS MUCH AS STEELE HATES TO ADMIT IT, FARMING IS TOUGH ECONOMICS. After three years, the couple was first able to pay themselves a wage this past summer. Consider the math: a good week of farmers’ markets and some wholesale to grocers and restaurants can yield $1,200 to $2,000. Multiply that by 25 or so weeks of produce-rich summer and fall for a combined annual income that is in the five figures—one that has to cover mortgage, equipment repair, seedlings, before anything goes to the people tending the land.

To make the numbers work, Steele picked up freelance graphic design projects. His wife worked in the off-season a natural food market in nearby Brighton.

The numbers were barely adding up when Cooper found out she was pregnant. It was around the time the root vegetables were going to market. Talking about the plans for the baby, she was glowing, Lindsay was glowing, the dogs—which had come bounding back safely after their adventure with the hunters—were practically glowing. But the coming baby forced a reckoning with reality for two people who had previously let creativity and serendipity be their guides.

Lindsay considered some hard choices: try to muscle through another season short a laborer—that is, his wife, who'd be occupied tending to the baby. Or he could take out a loan so he could invest in some critical tools, irrigation materials and manpower that would help the farm be more productive—but require an undesirable lien on the farmhouse. There was a third option: step back, dive back into his old life as a freelance graphic designer and steadily try to build back his bank account. The trade-off would be putting the farm on hiatus for the coming year.

"Flying by the seat of our pants, being creative, using what we have, and muscling through has been a good approach while we figure out exactly what it is we're doing and continue to learn," he said. "But we aren't going to survive without establishing better systems and putting in place the infrastructure needed to be more efficient and productive," from better irrigation and hoop houses to some equipment essentials such as a walk-in cooler and a proper pack shed.

When a little girl arrived two weeks early, on Easter Day, the right direction seemed immediately clear. Here was a new life around the time of the first spring plantings. Only Steele wouldn't be planting much this year: He decided to plunge his energies into graphic design and being a new father. He'd still farm but mainly for his growing family; any spare cash and spare time he'd pour into infrastructure improvements on the property with the hopes that Garden Fort would be fully operational again in 2017. 

Before Steele decided to slow down operations, he had been thinking of taking on an employee. A cousin of his wife's—a young German woman—had paid the farm an extended visit and become an indispensable resource while the expectant mama had been sidelined by first trimester nausea.

At night, Steele says he and their visitor had plenty of conversations about whether she could start something similar in Germany. It’s tough to say what’s more daunting to an aspiring farmer: The cost of land, and the lack of farmland in general, or the knowledge gap that has widened as the number of farmers dwindled over generations. If those things don’t scare people away, the idea of toiling away 80 hours a week for a barely livable wage can.

Still, Steele says he coached his wife's cousin to take the plunge and let instinct lead her. “Once you start doing it, people start to believe you.” He points out that, once he did, plenty of small miracles happened. Other farmers willingly offered critical advice. He used real estate records online to find the owner of the land adjacent to his farm, and she let him use it for free. Ultimately, Katie’s father decided to sell the house to the couple.

“This isn’t what we envisioned,” says Cooper. Steele picks up her thought. “Trying to come to terms with your life—trying to come to terms with what you actually have to do to do it—is hard.”

“Which is interesting,” he says, “because I am waiting for that person, for those people to show up and say, should I do this?”

What would he say?, you ask.

Yes, he says. “I would say yes.”