On the Radio: an ABC


The pun is the lowest form. It was inevitable that I pun. "Some good people kicked my ass (pun intended) to apply to the Public Radio Exchange talent quest." Years ago, a woman foretold my voice on the radio, taking on the King of All Media, my personal oracle blitzed on Schlitz and wearing a vehicle air freshener around her neck (the foam kind, emblazoned with an eight-point buck in a winter landscape). "Erika, I can just hear you on the air, telling off Howard Stern or something," she said, slouched in the corner of a striped couch in a stripped loft on Milwaukee Avenue in 1994.

It was very touching to have friends demonstrate such optimism and faith in me. I possess neither.


The reason why 'ass' is a pun is because I currently hold a job where I talk to a robot donkey, among other things. "Burro," a manager insists. "It's an animatronic burro." Nonetheless, sitting at C's computer -- the friend who sent me the e-mail and encouraged me to apply to the PRX competition -- I improvise 'The Donkey Whisperer' as the title for my submission demo. Some will later say that it sounds pornographic. Others don't get that impression at all.

I like my job at the Venerable Cultural Institution very much and want to keep it, so I'll stop now, except to say that when I write it, the title of the piece will be either 'Pee on the Coal,' or 'Why do they have that big animatronic, and why don't they get her a better wig?'


Although I am not selected as a semi-finalist, I am forced to acknowledge that I belong to many supportive communities. I attempt to generate votes, although I know that I am the longest of long shots, and most likely have better odds with the judges. But I have an occasional hit. Some 8th century Japanese zen monk called Banjo or something said, "Fall down seven times, stand up eight." But I can't help but think that I've fallen down enough. I still keep falling down.


I am not allowed to have dreams.


C's brother is a Professional Sound Engineer. He has a studio in his basement. He donates an hour for my demo, having assured me in an e-mail exchange beforehand that he'd make me sound "big and warm." "Just like me," I respond. "Like Marilyn," he types.

I stop to pick up mineral water at a Serbian Café and am running late and call ahead because I would have been five minutes late. There are a half-dozen guitars in the dining room, and twice as many harmonicas on a shelf in the basement.

The recording room is padded with foam. The mic is so sensitive that we have to re-record when my stomach gurgles, We re-record. Note: no carbonation before recording. I flip a page, and it sounds like a bulldozer taking down the wall of an abandoned warehouse. We re-record. I repeat a word in my spiel. We re-record. The Engineer is particular. We re-record. I have the face and body for radio, and before we leave, C and her brother and I chat about vegetarianism and weight loss. I leave with my demo on an orange disc.


Once the submission is downloaded and appears on the site, I forward what I hope is a polite, self-deprecating e-mail soliciting support to various contests. An editor of a non-academic ethnic quarterly forwards it to his network and CCs me, Of course, the national population of Finland is four million, so it is not particularly surprising that the e-mail distribution is a dozen. I am touched by the vote of confidence and forward a copy to my mother, with the comment, "With allies like conceptual artists, poets, writers, feminists, and Finns, how can I lose?"


The editors of a prestigious literary journal send me a personalized rejection e-mail in which they say that they all really enjoyed the piece, it just wasn't for them, and to please keep sending work. If they do ever accept a piece, I might receive two free copies of the publication. The personalized rejection e-mail is the highlight of my week.


I contact Chicago's best band in the early 90s, The Handsome Family, winners of the 1993 " Dipsomaniac Song of the Year" Award from GQ, and solicit their support. "Done," the singer types back. I was at their first show at Phyllis' Musical Inn on Division, and for the subject line had quoted, "I want a pony/a big fat pony/ I want to feed him carrots," a tune that had its origins as a Nirvana parody. INERTIA

Inertia may be the strongest force in the Universe. My odds of any sort of results from my multitude of creative endeavors range from infinitesimal to non-existent, but those are better odds than doing nothing, or sitting on the couch watching TV.


The day before the friend e-mails me the Public Radio Exchange competition information, a participant in a writers' group reviewing a prose vignette asks me if I like Joe Frank, whose dark and absurd radio program airs at 11 p.m. on Sundays. "This sounds like something he'd do," she says.

"Do I like Joe Frank?!" I exclaim, and confess that I have aspirations as a monologist and that she has just made me high for the next forty-eight hours.


I did a twenty-minute stand-up set in the Loop the week previous. I didn't 'kill' necessarily, but I got pretty consistent laughs for the duration. Some improv, some riffing, some physical comedy. Some of my best lines are ad-libbed. A friend in the audience later informed me that women in particular laughed. As I leave the stage, one of the organizers says, "I feel your pain."


There's no high like getting a laugh.


Me on the radio is my Mother's nightmare, most likely.


In my explanatory blurb accompanying the demo, I explain that all my jobs have been karma-enhancing, but that I would be willing to host a public radio show even if it meant coming back as a newt.

A very sweet friend posts, "If Erika comes back as a newt, I'm going to learn newtglish."


If you tell me that there's going to be music, I anticipate an orchestra. During this period, I participate in an event where the e-mail says that there will be food and music. Food, I visualize a full buffet table, garnished, laden with fresh flowers, including a glazed suckling pig with an apple in its mouth. I arrive to find a basket filled with little bags of potato chips and some pop. Music, I expect a five piece band. There is one competent, pleasant singer with an acoustic guitar. I record one demo, and my mind instantly puts me onstage at Carnegie Hall. I might have a problem with expectations.

But how do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, man. Practice.


Years ago, I participated in a reading for a literary magazine, POM squared, in New York. It was an excuse to visit New York. Scouring my e-mail box for possible contacts who'd vote for me in the PRX competition, I discover an old message from a nice couple that I hung out with after the reading. We sat in a bar called 'Crime Scene.' The lights were red and the city had just instituted its smoking ban. They reply and assure me that I have their vote. People are kind. Their first child, a son, was born the thirteenth of this month.


I am the Queen of Chicago, people just don't know it yet.


I want to be a class act and give the Engineer a 'thank-you' for his time. I ask C if her brother has a favored food or beverage. She suggests rum. The man at the Hyde Park Binny's recommends a particular brand, Jamaican private reserve. He also suggests that I get a particular sugar syrup to be served with as a special concoction, with lime garnish. I stop by the co-op and buy a bag of key limes to use as packer. I pride myself on being able to gift well. Recently, I noted that a friend cooking us dinner lacked a timer, and mailed one as 'Thank you.' At a florist's in Logan Square, Manicella was obviously admiring an olive glass vase with cut oval indentations, so I returned to purchase it and held it until her birthday. The Engineer sent a 'thank you' e-mail for the thank you. Apparently he had houseguests that weekend and the rum was not wasted.


My standard web photo is one a friend took in front of a shower curtain. It has been described as "wistful and seductive." My take is "flatteringly blurry." The orange shower curtain backdrop flatters everyone so it is frequently pressed into service for web photos. The shot that shows a goofy approachable facial expression coincidentally also maximizes my cleavage.

Did I mention that it's probably my Mother's nightmare that I get on the radio?


In the text tag, I describe my career trajectory as resembling "a mobius strip as used for a cat's cradle by a juvenile baboon."


A coworker at my job last summer was immersed in a rant. "Never underestimate anyone. Never!" he said. Mario then switched from his 'street' Latino pronunciation to fluent and flawless American standard English, corporate dialect, and delivered a two-minute monologue in which he explained to J.P. how they would maximize return on investment to exceed projected fourth quarter earnings through the ritual slaughter of staff offspring. I wound up on the floor screaming with laughter.


I want to hear violins all the time. Something pretty. Something good.


Why? Why me? Why not me? Well, other than the utter lack of relevant experience. I've never let that slow me down before.


I have this compulsion to explain myself to everyone at all times. Not that anyone should care.


I allow myself the luxury of hope in the final twenty-four hours of the PRX competition, even though I know better, that my hopes are false. I cannot help but wonder how I would be contacted, remind myself not to forget my cell phone the day of notification. Of course I don't get it.


You have to start somewhere. Instead of plummeting towards an emotional bottom, I just consider all the encouragement and compliments I'd received in the two weeks previous. It's all good. Fall down seven times, stand up eight.


- Erika Mikkalo