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You Cheeky Monkey

Apparently, it’s been a month since I joined the University Club of Chicago. My good friend Tom Andreeson was a member there, and he had hosted me on several lovely occasions while we conducted some mutual business. It’s a quick drive down Michigan Avenue from the condo, and I get four free parking days per month. I was looking forward to a quiet writing place away from Michigan Avenue, with its Bucket Boy Brigades and all the PETA protestors. (If I’d known a Canada Goose store was going to locate next door I might have had second thoughts when selecting my future home.) And worst of all, the idiot drivers who think they are on a drag strip. How much speed can you actually get between the traffic lights at every block? Growing up in Indiana we’d shake our heads and decide folks like that couldn’t afford new mufflers.

Most of all, I was looking forward to making some new friends. Friends my own age. After ten years in the non-profit sector, I was done with earnest young millennials who think work is about finding personal fulfillment. Or creating social justice. Hey, that’s what you do in your off hours! Work is about economic independence!

I just got a letter informing me I have a gift coming if I stop by the Membership Office. Gee. Wonder what it could be.

If you detect some sarcasm in the previous sentence, that’s because it’s there. Good on you! Things haven’t worked out quite as planned. The new member work space is noisy. I forgot that “work,” for non-writers, involves lots of Zooming and phone conversations, and the “soundproofing” is a joke. I head upstairs to the Library when I need quiet and cross my fingers it’s not closed for a private event. I’m not meeting very many like-minded people, but I’m not making enough effort. I’ve yet to attend euchre or bridge nights. I’ve heard there are always people playing cards in the new game room. The food is good, and if I want to do work-related hosting it’s usually easier there than at home. No clean up! But I detect a little attitude, a little “old money” stuffiness.

So why am I still there? Did I mention the non-refundable retainer? But more important, I’ve discovered the Writers’ Society. Probably the last people left in the world who will notice the correct use of the apostrophe in the previous sentence.

I wasn’t sure what to make of this group at first. Regular lengthy emails from the head of the group were entertaining but confusing. They seemed to be doing monthly “craft” exercises that were, I thought, designed to get people thinking and inspire them to write something short that could be shared at the monthly gatherings.

The first craft exercise I shared was the Halloween craft suggestion, which was to take something from our experience and give it an Edgar Allen Poe twist. I wrote a quickie about waking up in a dungeon surrounded by demons. It was based on my experience during chemo when they found my asymptomatic pulmonary blood clot and rushed me to the ER. I realized that by sharing it live with the group I’d have to at least mention that it was based on something that happened to me during cancer treatment, and I did. It was a small group that evening (I wouldn’t have opted for the live reading otherwise) and they seemed stunned. Sympathetic, but stunned.

I worried that I had thrown too much Jean at them. Too much, and WAY too soon.

I should have probably stepped back a bit. Instead, when I read that they were looking for some fun stuff to share at their Christmas party, I decided it was an opportunity to share my favorite of my parody songs, “Who Was I Doing New Year’s Eve?” I almost changed my mind at the last minute, but someone else shared a Shakespeare parody, and I took it as a sign.

Well, they loved the song. Maybe it wasn’t too much Jean after all.

The next time a shared a craft exercise was a few months later. We had been given a news story from Indonesia about finding the body of a woman inside a dead python. Who couldn’t be inspired by that? In response, I wrote a short, quick piece I called, “The Girl Whose Mom Was Swallowed by a Python.” It was based on my childhood memories of what it was like after my father and brother died in a plane crash. Again, I was wary of sharing it live, but again it was a small group, so I went for it.

Guess what happened. No one had even a clue that it was inspired by real life, until I told them. And here I thought it was so obvious. Lesson learned. My writing isn’t always as transparent as I tend to think it is. I like that.

The Writer’s Society then devoted a few meetings to memoir. Whoa, I thought. That’s what I do! Although I’ve since learned that there are seven or eight subcategories of memoir, and my stuff seems to fit the criteria for “personal narrative.” Hey, I can work with that.

I wanted to share a poem from Heavy Metal, but that was even scarier for me. I chose “Essence,” the one I consider the centerpiece of the book, which contains the most important lesson I learned in dealing with my mother. Don’t expect dragons to be anything but dragons. In other words, no one, including mothers, can give you what they don’t have to give.

I took the plunge and read it out loud. To my surprise, the group spent the next ten minutes trying to decide whether or not the first verse was in perfect iambic pentameter. I was baffled, but unfazed. No one was going to shake my confidence in the Heavy Metal poems. I’d spent way too much time on the rhymes and the meter to worry about their reactions. They asked me to reread that verse several times, and each time someone would say something like, “Well, the meter seems perfect when you read it.” I finally figured out what was going on. I told them, “I sing jazz.”

So, again, I learned something valuable about my writing. As I’ve always maintained, I don’t write poetry. I write verse, and I write lyrics. Even my prose writing is musical. And in music, meter depends on the singer. ESPECIALLY with jazz. Jazz singers have permission to mess with melody and meter as much as they want. Hell, they’re supposed to! It’s called improvisation!

Once the group finally got past the metrical sticking point, one woman said, “You know, we’re getting to know you a little now, and I’m thinking the Dragon in the poem is someone in your life.” “Yes,” I replied. “My mother.” “Did she ever find peace?” the woman asked then. I answered, “No.”

Since then, at meetings, someone usually tells me how much that poem has stuck with them. So, job done. Guess these folks are OK after all.

I think the only thing keeping me at the University Club these days is the Writers’ Society. Or maybe it should be called The Writers’ Club. Same apostrophe applies, which is all I really care about. Apparently The University Club has rules regarding the use of “Society.” Not my business. Although now that I’m writing this, I’m thinking there might be some parody lyrics in here somewhere. Any good rhymes with Society?

Speaking of rhymes, back to the title of this piece. Our fearless leader, Dr. Andrew Baker, asked me once about my rhyming, and I referred him to Every verse writer’s best friend, right? His response? “You cheeky monkey.”

I’m still trying to figure that one out. Some verse in there, perhaps? Funky, chunky, clunky…

And plenty more at For all the other Cheeky Monkeys out there.


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