When I was a child and my mother brought something new to the dinner table, I’d sulk and push it around my plate until she sighed and said, “If you’re not going to eat that, go get a yogurt.” She probably thought I would get sick of yogurt eventually and try different foods. But back then I was not a risk taker.
I anguished over doing anything that lead to teasing, which meant gym class was my personal hell. I even panicked when pushed too hard at things that I was good at it. I was assigned Dr. Doolittle in a gifted program in second grade. The words were too big, the teacher too demanding. It’s a miracle I came out with my love of reading intact.
The first thing I started to take risks with was fashion. At some point in junior high, I decided I would just be me. If loving funky clothes, the written word, and punk rock made me an outcast among most of my Oak Park peers, so be it.
Around the time I hit puberty, the switch within me flipped from self-preservation to self-destruction. I started taking all kinds of risks – mostly stupid ones that should not be discussed in polite company.
And yet at the same time, I still would not eat mushrooms – except for on pizza, which made them magically tasty.
In my early 20s, I finally tried and loved mushrooms, and talked myself into going to college for writing. Though I loved to write, I feared failure like I had at 7, when confronted with Dr. Doolittle. But I took the risk and, after several years of struggling, I got a novel published.
Two years ago, Josh Adams, former editor of the Forest Park Review, came to me with another challenge. He asked if I’d write a column. I thought, is this man crazy? Has he seen the way I ramble in my blog? But I wanted to hone my nonfiction as I had my fiction. So I accepted.
The biggest catch: I had to write about Forest Park. I had some thoughts on our town, mainly that I preferred it to Oak Park because I’d spent my youth feeling ostracized and bored there. But writing the column forced me to get out and explore.
Physically speaking, I grew up in Oak Park, but Forest Park is where this shy, reclusive girl blossomed. I went to village events like SummerFest for the first time, felt welcome, and had a blast. All of the residents that I’ve worked up the nerve to interview, from derby girls to community gardeners, have been interesting and friendly. People -including village employees – have gone out of their way to tell me they enjoyed my columns. I’ve noticed that strangers even say hello to each other on the street here.
Forest Park feels like a big version of the block I grew up on, the only place I felt at home as a kid. And we have a lot of great block parties.
The more I participate in our community, the more I love it, and want to be involved. I was thrilled when the folks at the Forest Park Library invited me to be part of a new event. I’ll be your host at the Beacon Pub for the library’s monthly trivia and quiz night beginning June 9.
My love of our town must show in my writing because recently I won an award for these columns. But I can’t take credit for that. The award belongs to you, Forest Park. Thanks for coaxing me out of my shell.
Stephanie is the author of “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone” and “Ballads of Suburbia.” She’s a proud Forest Parker who holds a master’s in fine arts degree from Columbia College Chicago. She also works locally at the Beacon Pub and loves to hear from people through her Web site www.stephaniekuehnert.com.