My letter to President Obama, as he leaves office

screen-shot-2017-01-20-at-9-58-05-amDear President Obama:

Hi! My name is Jenn McKee. I’m a Michigan-based arts reporter/critic who’s been scrabbling together a freelancing career since getting laid off about a year ago. I have two young daughters, Lily (8) and Neve (5), and I’m married to a good man I first befriended when we both played trombone in the University of Michigan Marching Band – back when a Rose Bowl trip was an almost annual occasion. 🙂

I know this letter, if you receive it at all, is late in coming.

I know by now you’re transitioning to civilian life, and moving, and de-compressing. And you should have all the time and space you need to do so. You’re definitely earned it.

For after years of long days and hard work, and feeling a responsibility to represent the interests of millions of Americans, I’m sure you’d like to just be a husband and a dad and a “regular person” for a while.

But I nonetheless felt compelled to write this letter to you. I’ve been meaning to do so for many weeks, but the craziness of the holidays (my husband’s Jewish, so we celebrate both Hanukkah and Christmas), my tendency toward procrastination, and the fact that writing this letter would somehow make the end of your presidency more real all conspired to delay me until today – the day before the inauguration.

A day that fills me with anxiety and dread.

But I’m not writing to tell you about my concerns. I’m writing to thank you for your many years of service, and tell you how much I appreciate the dignity, intelligence, compassion, love, and openness you demonstrated in office. Even when I sometimes questioned your choices, my belief that you were a good man with a good heart, and that you were always seeking the best path forward for the country, never wavered. I trusted you, and as you leave office, I still do. Continue reading


Remembering Mom, 8 years after her death, by way of kitchen hair rinses and ‘House’

Screen Shot 2017-01-09 at 1.16.30 PM.pngLast night, Neve got out of the bath, and I realized that she hadn’t gotten all the shampoo out of her hair.

It was bedtime, and the kids had already driven me and Joe a bit crazy – they’d both been acting like Kelly Ripa on meth, all afternoon – so we needed a quick fix.

“Let’s go to the kitchen and do that thing where you lie down on the counter, and I rinse your hair out in the sink,” I said.

Neve happily agreed. She loves doing this. She thinks it’s fun. And she likes hearing about how my own mom washed my hair like this when I was little.

In my childhood home, my neck and lower head would rest on a folded up towel at the kitchen sink’s edge. My mom would cup one hand over my hairline, to shield my eyes, and work the sink’s nozzle with the other. Then, after massaging shampoo onto my scalp and rinsing it out, she’d squeeze as much water from my hair as she could and hold it bunched in her fist as I sat up on the counter. The dry-me-off-like-a-dog phase came next, where Mom opened up the towel onto my head, gripped it, and then vigorously rubbed my scalp, so that my whole body vibrated. I often uttered a low tone that would start to sound like a motor, and this would make me giggle.

As I rinsed Neve’s hair with our nozzle, she said, “Did you wash my hair in this sink when I was a baby?”

I said, “Sweetie, I gave you your first baths in this sink. Your whole body fit in here, and I’d soap you up and sing to you.”

“Was I this small?” she asked, holding her hands about 8 inches apart.

“You were bigger than that, but small enough to fit. OK, kiddo, the shampoo’s all rinsed out.”

I squeezed the water out of her hair and helped her sit up. “Now do the doggie thing,” Neve said, beaming.

After every bath now, Neve comes to me with a towel and asks me to dry her hair like my mom dried mine. I do. And she giggles helplessly. Continue reading

Reflecting on post-employment life, one year later


It’s official: gas station coffee makes me sad.

Not because of the taste. (Don’t judge me for confessing that 7-11 specialty drinks are actually pretty yummy.) It’s because, when I was running errands in single digit temperatures a couple of weeks ago, and a mocha from the nearby Mobil station suddenly sounded irresistible, I realized, as the first sip singed my tongue, that I hadn’t had one of these drinks since before my layoff nearly a year ago.

This immediate sensory memory stunned me into a dark mood, despite the drink’s sweetness. A taste from the past viscerally reminded me that, whenever I’d savored this hot drink in my car in the past – the cloud of my chilled breath mixing with a latte’s steam – I’d been rushing to or from work, my days filled-to-bursting with purpose. After more than a decade at the job, I’d still felt so proud that a company recognized and appreciated my talents and paid me to write. I’d still felt lucky that I got to talk to artists, and experience and think about their work daily. And I’d still felt thankful that my daughters got to see their mom working at a job about which she was passionate.

Because it was never just a paycheck for me. Being an arts reporter felt like a mission. I believed in the value of what I did, even though it could get objectively silly at times (looking at you, fairy doors and “Bachelor” recaps).

But on that day, sitting in my cold car, I decided that instead of pathetically crying onto the plastic cap of my 7-11 mocha, I needed to just, well, “shake it off” and turn the ignition.

No, I’m not the harried working mom I was a year ago, but somehow, I still have a full schedule most of the time. It’s an unassailable truth, especially when you have kids, that whatever time you might carve out for yourself mysteriously, consistently fills up. The key, though, is whether the things that are taking up space in your calendar make you feel fulfilled. For me, the answer to that is a firm “sometimes.” Continue reading

Letter to my daughters during an emotionally fraught election week

14925760_10154214115062632_9220519340659118834_n (1).jpgDear Lily and Neve:

I wanted to write you a letter about this past week, because although you’re sentient little humans now, not babies, you’re still young enough that you haven’t absorbed the full impact of what’s happened.

In some ways, of course, that’s a blessing. But it also makes me feel as though one day, you may approach me and ask, “What did that election feel like?” Because you likely won’t remember much about it yourselves.

You won’t remember how you slept in last Tuesday, because your school was closed for election day.

Neve was first to rise. Wrapped in a blanket, I held your hand as we made our way downstairs. You sat at the kitchen table, eating Gogurts, and then we splayed ourselves across the living room floor, playing Sleeping Queens until Lily woke and appeared in the doorway. Once she’d had breakfast, too, you guys watched your allotted half hour of cartoons while I went upstairs to get ready for the day.

It was the first time in my life that I’ve ever dressed up to vote.

I was inspired.

I paired black pants with a black blazer and white blouse. My body giddily hummed with a quiet electricity like hope. Election day was finally, finally here, and a potential moment for change, and perhaps the shattering of a glass ceiling, had arrived. Continue reading

Open letter to Amy Schumer about her Detroit stand-up show

14449725_10154106669752632_5403396263249465478_nDear Amy:

Let me start by saying I’m a big fan. (I originally wrote “huge,” but that word feels like it’s been co-opted by a certain Presidential candidate lately.)

I love the unapologetic feminism that runs through your work; I admire the candor with which you revealed tough things about yourself and your life in your book, “The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo” (which I pre-ordered and read immediately); and there’s no small number of sketches from your Comedy Central show that I’ve watched and howled at repeatedly (“Football Town Nights,” “12 Angry Men Inside Amy Schumer,” “Lunch at O’Nutters,” “Last F**kable Day,” “Girl, You Don’t Need Makeup,” and “Compliments” – which actually helped alter my own reflexive, self-deprecating behavior).

So when your stand-up comedy tour stop in Detroit was announced several months ago, I got so antsy about getting tickets that I checked out on a big group of lady-friends who were figuring out what they could and were willing to pay in terms of ticket levels, how many would go, etc., in order to cash in on the pre-sale. I did not want to miss this show, and I wanted a good seat. Continue reading

“Your problems aren’t bad enough”: Privilege and the personal essay

eatpraylove.jpgBefore leaving home on an April Sunday to drive to an Elizabeth Gilbert lecture/workshop in Detroit, I got into a small argument with Joe about, well, Elizabeth Gilbert.

“I hope you have a good time. Personally, though, I can’t imagine ever wanting to read that book,” Joe said, referring to “Eat Pray Love.”

“This event isn’t about ‘Eat Pray Love.’ She’s got a new book out about creativity,” I said.

But then, like a scab you just can’t stop yourself from pulling off, I asked, “But why would you never read ‘Eat Pray Love’?”

“Because this woman basically took a year off of work to travel and go to all these amazing places, and it sounds like all she does is complain,” said Joe. “Nobody else can just take a year off on a whim. Other people with real problems have to just keep going in their lives.”

“That’s pretty reductive, and it’s not really fair,” I said. “You haven’t read the book. She was going through a divorce when she sold the idea for the book, so she got an advance and used that and her savings to travel for 9 months. But even if she had been rich, does that mean she has nothing meaningful to say about her experience? I mean, you’re right, most people aren’t able to do what she did. But that made me all the more curious to read about what it was like, and what insights she managed to take away from it.”

The debate continued, though the time when I’d have to choose between continuing this verbal cage match and being late for Gilbert’s talk was fast approaching.

But my face burned, and I was all in. And there was a reason for that. Continue reading

It’s just not in the cards for me: greeting card fatigue

IMG_0578Today’s confession: I’m that annoying person at a kid’s birthday party who calls out, “That’s from us!” when our gift is being unwrapped.

And a couple of years ago, when someone in my family suggested that we all stop buying birthday gifts for each other, and instead just send cards, my reflexive sadness/anger took me by surprise.

Why? Because I kind of hate greeting cards.

I know, I know – put down your pitchforks and hear me out on this. I’m not saying I never buy or send them (see family mandate mentioned above); and for some people, cards serve an important function and articulate things they may not otherwise be able to say face-to-face.

But waste of any kind drives me batty – particularly after living with kids for 8 years, and seeing how they suddenly, arbitrarily decide to reject the clothes or the kid’s meal you’ve purchased for them. These childish refusals strikes me as random and picky. But the apathy kids universally feel toward the envelope that’s standing between them and a gift (and that we adults urge kids to study politely before tearing into the package)? I totally get that.

And I think, if we’re honest we each other, most of us feel the same way. Continue reading