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Signs of mental illness

So this was a little weird. Matt and I are sitting on our "stoop" eating our Matt-made ginormous sandwiches when we hear shuffling gravel. A shrinking old woman appears through the hedges. It is hot. She is wearing heavy black trousers, a white wool sweater and heels. She is carrying a purse in one hand and clutching a cigarette pouch, lighter and white wool blanket in the other.

"Where ist das funf street?" She asks in a thick German accent. Um. She whips a folded newspaper out of her purse and waves it at us. She explain in mixed German and English that she is looking for a garage sale and has been walking and walking and can't find the house. And now, she pants, she just needs to "sitzen." And promptly parks herself on a stack of bricks beside me. Um.

"Mochten sie eine tasse wasser?" I stammer, is it der, die, das? I don't know but it's hot, surely she needs some water. She answers without noticing that I was speaking to her in her native language at her random stop in Carlton. This is odd to me. I mean, it's not the only thing that's strange in this little scenario, but still. And then, typical European, she takes the glass of water to be polite but never takes a sip. (well, how many Europeans do you know that drink water?)

Okay, so I'm thinking signs of mental illness here include the blanket and the wool sweater on a hot, hot day. Also the garage sale she was walking all over town to find advertised only one thing for sale: a ping pong table.

What was she going to do with it? Hump it on her back?


Deadline Day

Excerpt from my journal, July 2004 - reflections on one of the hardest articles I had to write. More to say but it's late and I just wanted to get this out there. Just my notes, nothing polished yet. It was such a strange experience meeting this man through the memories and stories of those who loved him. If you had soup in one of the locally owned restaurants in Nehalem or Manzanita during the years he worked there, odds are you enjoyed some of Doc's soup.

Tuesday was deadline day

yours and mine

i heard about the accident on the scanner

madly typing to meet deadlines

life flight called in

and then i got an email-

pray for Doc – it looks bad

and then –

life flight canceled.

Tuesday morning – soup in the pick up

list of errands in your lap.

then came the interviews but it was you

i wished i could talk to

what were you thinking?

do you know how loved you were?

they told me in private, but everyone said

the same thing

love was what you sought

a partner in love and life

you were complex – they said – joyful and sad

and game for anything.

were you having a good morning?

did you go out whistling or muttering under your breath?

i tried to turn down the story

who am i to write a man’s life?

how do i know what to include?

what to cut?

how do you write a man’s story in

1,500 words or less?

who should i talk to?

and i prayed to you for help.

and they came.

people who knew you

people who knew of you

people who didn’t know what to do without you

we talked for hours – crying, laughing and talking

reading the letter to your grandmother

the honesty and self examination

so painful

but without which there is no growth.

you were not afraid to live.

the day you died is one i’ll never forget

though we never met.

you taught me to put love into my own cooking.

your memory will be an ingredient peppering my soups

for years to come.

i learned that someday it will be my deadline day

i hope to know i’d done the best i could

that loved ones knew i loved them

and words left unsaid were few.

Doc, Tuesday was deadline day for you but

your life’s story carries far beyond the details

of that day – a lifetime of experience is never erased

or even stopped

it continues in hearts and minds

never ending

friends saw what can’t be forgotten

but time will temper the horror

time will allow the memories of your smile

to overshadow the visions of that Tuesday

deadline day

yours and mine


Dear Diary: March 2004

My Flashback to Fifth Grade post was buried in this journal entry written on a plane ride home from visiting my parents. What's interesting to me is that so much is said between the lines. As I flip through old journals, it's the unsaid that amazes me. Even though it was only a couple years ago, re-reading this entry I was surprised to see I thought having a baby within the year was a reasonable goal. And that writing a book in the same time frame was a possibility. Also, until I wrote the scene in Kickin' it with Ralph where Ani questions her dad about whether or not he has buyer's remorse regarding her adoption, I didn't really realize how much that bothers me. That maybe I'm not who my parents would've picked if they'd had it to do over again. And people can minimize that worry all they want but like I wrote in this entry - the whole being grateful enough thing is my own issue. But I got it from all these years of people telling me how lucky I am that someone wanted me. The thing of it is, I KNOW I'm lucky. It would just be nice to love my parents and trust they love me without worrying that I don't show enough how thankful I am. It would be nice to not have to feel so damn grateful for something most people take for granted. And it would especially be nice to be able to avoid people who tell me how to feel.

March 25, 2004

Flying into Texas - slightly tanned, relaxed and happy to have visited Mami & Tati. I have to sum up our relationship as emotionally complex. And express my gratitude to Matt who keeps it in perspective and intuitively knows what to say and what not to say. I cried saying goodbye to them at the gate because, although we drive each other crazy, I am always scared that it'll be the last time I see them and I won't have expressed enough how much I love and appreciate them. This is not based on logic, I know but it gets me really upset. I'm learning to allow it to wash through me and recognize the fear and also to acknowledge that they do know I love them. And the grateful enough thing is my own issue. It is interesting to think about the changes that will occur between now and when we see them again - they go to Bratislava in April and come back to Florida in October. And by then we'll have our house, hopefully in McMinnville, and maybe by then a book sold and a baby on the way.

It occurred to me talking to mom the other day that my kids are going to speak English and then a Goulash language with bits of Hungarian, Latin, German and, of course, Slovak mixed in. Bistos. Sicher. Bastante.

I am amazed that not once this entire trip did my dad didn't say a word about my weight or what I ate.


Fifth Grade Flashback

March 25, 2004 (excerpt from a journal & material for my collection of stories: The Thing About Bullies)

Flashback to fifth grade: I gave a speech in Social Studies. A quote I used referred to Japs and Jews. I swear to GOD this material was in the books I was quoting. By the time I got to my seat in math class, it was clear to me I'd fallen out of grace with the new group of friends I'd finally made at my new school. I was baffled as to why I was suddenly being treated with such hostility. And it wasn't a subtle matter of ignoring me - it was a full scale, systematic freezeout. I ceased to exist, save a few icy glares and shoves in the hallway. The bus ride home was painfully embarrassing as the girls whispered and shot poison glances my way. What had I done? I saved my tears as long as I could. I got off the bus, eyes brimming, and walked ahead of several of my friends turned tormentors listening to whispers punctuated by an occasional hissing of "bitch."

By the time I got home, to my mother waiting to drive me to swimming practice I was crying hysterically, it was a full ten minutes before I could tell her no one was hurt. Mortally anyway. I tried to tell her what happened "what did you do?" She kept asking. While now I might call that victim-blaming, back then I just sobbed harder, trying to figure it out, ticking off all my faults and possible reasons for them to hate me. My mom shook her head looking at her watch. "Go get dressed," she urged. I shook my head and sniffled a quiet no. She gently pushed me toward the hallway. "come on, you can't let it get to you." I remember wondering, "Is she crazy?" And shook my head again. I was far too traumatized to take more abuse at the pool. That stuff I never told her about but today I couldn't cope with it. Even at ten I knew I was on the verge of a meltdown and wasn't about to have it in front of a group of mocking, snobby ten-year-old bullies disguised as daughters of the rich and famous. I risked my mother's anger. But there was no way I was leaving the confines of my house.

When the phone rang at dinner, I watched my mother answer it hopefully. Normally I couldn't take calls at mealtimes but she must have sensed I needed to take it as she excused me from the table. It was Naomi B., Paula R.'s sidekick, calling to tell me that a racist like me isn't welcome at their school. Paula's grandma was Japanese - and she was offended by my use of both the words Jews and Japs. But that was the whole point of my paper! That we have to be careful what words we use because they could hurt other people! I exclaimed in my defense. Naomi laughed - you should've thought of that before you offended Paula, she said.

"Maybe she didn't hear my whole speech?" I suggested. "Could you explain it to her?" I was desperate not to be misunderstood. And horrified that the very point of my speech was misconstrued and held against me.

"Yea, sure, but you're out. Maybe you're communist parents can take you back to the communist country they came from."

I sucked in my breath. My teacher asked me to share their immigration story. I didn't expect it to be used against me. Now I was indignant. Again, they hadn't listened. My parents escaped communism, risked their lives to protect their children from it and here was some girl calling them communists. I puffed up my chest ready to defend myself when I realized she'd been calling from the very slumber party I'd been ceremoniously un-invited to. She thought I'd already hung up. The girls were giggling hysterically.

"Communists, that was a good touch," I heard Paula say. I heard "ugly" and "foreign" in the background, wondering who all was there. "She was really scared you were going to kick her ass." Naomi laughed. I held the phone to my chest, tears spilling down my cheeks - but I couldn't put it in the cradle - holding it back up to my ear, I heard N. say "she believes you're pissed." Paula responded, "And I'm not even Jewish or Japanese." My mom's heels clicked along the hallway - I heard the echo of my brother's laughter. I hung up just as my mom appeared.

"Everything alright?" She smiled, wanting the answer to be yes. I'd changed schools several times and my parents wanted me to make a better effort to make friends. "Is everything okay? Do you understand what happened now?"

I shook my head yes. As I sat in front of my cooled Hovedzja Polievka, my brother asked me why I cared so much what other people thought.

It's a question I ask myself to this day.


Remarkable Response

You know what kind of person you want to be, right? But when will you let yourself be that person? It's like one of my favorite posts of Rosie's where she is looking at a picture of herself as a little girl and and wonders if she's doing right by her. I watched a Dateline episode this weekend that just stunned me. It was an interview with the parents of Emily Keyes, 16 - the girl who was killed in the school shooting in Colorado last month. I wish everyone could've seen it. It was a truly remarkable response to the reality of their daughter's murder. In our sue-crazy culture to find a pair of parents who can respond with such generosity and grace to the tragedy leaves me shaking my head and deciding to start living up to who I am in my heart. Today.

So they're clearly devastated as they're describing the day's events, yet they still have the presence of mind to respond, "it doesn't matter" when they asked what they think about the murderer (who killed himself immediately after killing Emily). Essentially, they said it doesn't matter. It's a waste of energy to dwell on it. How amazing is that?

After hours of this psycho having the girls hostage, in the face of an ominous threat that something was going down at 4 p.m. the local Sheriff - Fred Wegener - made the call to send in the SWAT team. The gunman still had two of the seven hostages. One was saved. The other was killed. The Sheriff talked about how he will have to live with that call and the what-ifs for the rest of his life. But the girls parents immediately hugged him and thanked him for what he'd done to try to save their daughter. No second-guessing, no what-if game, no blaming. Just sadness, grief and a message of peace. This is what they asked of us: go about your day performing random acts of kindness to counter the random act of violence that took their daughter from them.


New York says no - for now

I was itching to hear back from the agent I sent my work to this summer. Consider it scratched. I knew when I got my mail today -hello! I'm sick. Kick me while I'm down why don't ya! But I guess the Folks in New York didn't know I'm sick. Because, remember, it's not personal. As I was saying, I knew when I pulled the self-addressed envelope out my mailbox that it was from her. It was too thin to be anything other than a thanks, but no thanks. But, I must say, it was the nicest rejection letter I've received to date. First of all, it was on very nice stationary. Not the dittos I was starting to become accustomed to. This is fancy paper. Crane & Co. if you must know. And, my name is spelled right. Also, it is signed. A real signature. Signed by the agent's assistant. But still ...

Dear Nathalie Hardy,

Thank you for your query letter and the partial manuscript for TALKING TO STRANGERS. A. has reviewed your materials, but doesn't think the book is right for her. She feels that to do an effective job of representing a client, it is essential to be totally committed to a project, and without such enthusiasm the  project and client can suffer. Fortunately, this is a very subjective business and hopefully someone else will fall in love with your work.

I wish you the best.

Sincerely,

Assistant to A.

When I first held the letter, knowing it was a no, I waited for the tears to come. They don't call it rejection for nothing. But I just blinked and waited and finally opened it, realizing that I'd grown a lot since my first rejection letter. Hell, I've been rejected by a real agent in New York. Which means that I actually got it together enough to send my stuff out into the world. So I'm disappointed but Assistant to A. is right. It is subjective and who's to say the next person I send it to won't say yes? Also, I'm too sick to give a shit. Tomorrow maybe I'll cry.


Got one for ya

Okay so here's the scene:

I'm at the local grocery store (yes the same wonderful place one can still buy defunct items like Pee-Chees and Nightime Theraflu) and I'm on my lunch break. I'm still sick, so maybe a little um ... testy. Cute little boy about fourish with his pregnant mom who also seems to be um ... testy. So as I'm making my way through the store said cute little boy proceeds to point and then shoot his little toy gun at me. That's right, point and then shoot. Once. I ignore him. Twice. I give him my sternest "tell me why you're really tardy" expression. His mom, meanwhile, makes no eye contact with me and smiles lovingly at him as he's pointing and shooting his cute little gun at me. The third time, I can't help myself and say, "Please don't point that at me." And give him my look. Then I look at mom, wanting my expression to convey "I don't mean to correct your parenting, but are you aware that Little Tiger here is pointing and shooting his little gun at strangers? And really, that's not okay." But she can't make eye contact with me because she's still gazing adoringly at her little darling. Am I crazy? That's not okay, right? I mean, just ask the guy who was shot in Vancouver this week for pointing a (fake) gun at police. Oh, wait. He's dead.