Tag Archives: Alphabet: A History

M is for Mourning: Ziggy the Wiener Dog, 1996 – December 17, 2013

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Ziggy the Wiener Dog’s cremains had been ready for pickup for several months. For three months, in fact.

“Do you want to pick him up?” I made the rare call to him to ask.

“No, can you?”

“All right. You okay with waiting?”

“Yes.”

And I took my time. After wading through the raw emotions when I picked up Scarlet the Wiener Dog so immediately after her death, I learned my lesson and took my time in carrying him home. I wanted to be ready. I waited. I waited months. I waited until the trees blossomed, and then after the blossoms fell.

I picked him up a couple weeks ago, my grief long processed in a grueling succession of bad news after next. He was in a box. A small box. He was a good dog until the end, always low maintenance and accommodating. His life with me bookended an amazing chapter in my life.

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I adopted Ziggy a couple months after my fiance broke off our engagement–there he was, a trembling little dachshund in my life. It was February 1998, in the middle of a rainy El Niño season; he had been found wandering the streets with his sister-dog. I was alone, too. Next year, the fiance and I got married.

I had no idea what would happen ten years hence, but I knew I would have a dog. He ended up being my constant for fifteen years. And he died a week after my husband asked for a divorce. If I had made this timing up and workshopped such a story, I’d be criticized for being too “device-y” and the timing too coincidental. But it happened. He came and went with my marriage like a wedding ring.

Ziggy just–died one evening. He rose, teetering, from his bed. Since Scarlet died, he spent a lot of time in that bed, napping.

My mother’s helper asked, “Um, is Ziggy acting weird?”

We were sitting in the den, playing with my baby before bedtime. I looked over. Ziggy was not walking straight. He had trouble standing. “Yes,” I said. So much had happened in 2013, I didn’t want to look yet another other Bad Thing in the eye. So I looked away. “I think he’s dying.”

“Really? What should we do? Shouldn’t he go to a vet?”

It was 7pm. He would have to go to the emergency vet. I shrugged. “I don’t think there’s much we can do. I’ll take him to the emergency vet. But he’s probably going to die.” I know I sound cold, but if you were there, you’d have heard the pathos in my voice. Also, I’d given up on all good news by that point.

I emailed my husband. I typed, If you want to see your dog, you should come see him now. I don’t know if he’ll live another week or another hour, but now’s the time.

So much had already happened.

I drove Ziggy to the vet, about 5 miles away, across town. The drive took the length of an Adele song, “Someone Like You.” At some point during the drive, my husband called.

“Are you serious?”

Yes, I said. Your dog is dying. Where are you?

Far away, he said.

Ziggy stopped breathing as I handed him over to the pet emergency veterinarians, a team of UC Davis doctors who then asked me, “Do you want us to resuscitate him?”

Why? I asked.

Because he’s stopped breathing.

Oh, I said. He was over 17 years old. It was time to let him go. No, I said. He’s an old dog. He had a good life.

“What’s happening?” I could hear the husband on the phone. This intertwining of my lives. The present, the past, the near and the distant.

“He died.”

“What?”

“Probably from a heart attack or stroke. My guess is a stroke.”

And then my ever-stoic husband started crying.

So much had happened.

My life was officially a country song.

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***

Joining Heather’s Abecedary, Fog City Writer, and other writers like Susan Ito in working through the alphabet with short, memoir-like pieces. Except I’m going to go in reverse, beginning with “Z.” It’s called Alphabet: A History.

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N is for New York City

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Once you fall in love with a place, you can never leave it, because the place never leaves you. NYC is such a place. It is the city where I feel like I belong.

NYC is more than a city to me–it is a being, and presence, in my life. NYC has taken care of me in ways I never thought imaginable, has watched my back, and changed the course of my life. It has saved my life. It has made my life. It is where I learned who it is I truly wanted to be, at the fulcrum of my life. Even if who I wanted to be would entail great fundamental change.

Even if the great fundamental change would nearly kill me. Even if NYC would bring about that fundamental change in spectacular fashion. It is the place that brought truth and forced me to see things around me as they really are. It is the place that brought me many great, true friends. Loyal and smart and courageous people.

I was born in New York City–Queens, to be exact. I spent my early childhood years in a nondescript brick apartment building overlooking the Long Island Railroad, spending days wheeled around by my grandmother in a stroller to a Korean-owned karate studio down the street, to chicken and pizza down the hill, to a sewing factory down the hill and around the bend, and a playground down the hill opposite of the sewing factory and pizza.

The pulse of life there is a tempo to which I set my life.

One time, a few years ago, I got on the 7 train to Queens. The train made a certain tha-thunk on the elevated tracks once we hit Queens–in that subway car I felt a great reunion between time and space; that sound, that rhythm has been with me my entire life. That specific tha-thunk. Tha-thunk. Tha-thunk.

I thought I’d imagined that sound.

But no, it was real.

I returned to NYC to reside as an adult, a few years ago. My husband at the time came home and said, “We need to talk.” I didn’t know about what we had to talk, but I was worried–could I have missed something between us? (Little did I realize). But then he said, “My boss wants us to move to NYC part time–would you be okay with that? It would be immediate.”

I think I said yes before he ended his question. I don’t know. All I heard was “EeeeeEEEEEeeeee!!!” in my head.

NYC was a centrifuge.

Some of the best times of my life were spent in the setting of that great city. I didn’t even mind the jackhammering (okay, I did). And I loved that I could step out into the sidewalk into a din that said with absolute certainty that this city was the center of the world.

I even loved the summers–the hot heat off the concrete, the water dripping off air conditioning units, and the balmy evenings walking the East Village sucking on popsicles.

I loved brief Spring, with the elation New Yorkers feel when the weather turns warm and the trees turn pink and white with blossoms. When New Yorkers ditch their boots and parkas and sweaters and don dresses and woven shirts. And walk around in shorts when it is 65F, just because it is no longer 30F.

I thought Winter, with its Christmas lights and frigid air and sidewalks slippery with ice or gritty with salt, was most charming. Especially when the snow fell and hushed the city.

And Fall. Of course Autumn, when I rifle through my drawers for my scarf, long buried through Summer, so that I can walk outside look up at the trees turning flame in Tompkins Square Park or Washington Square.

I loved running into friends on the streets of NYC, a thing that happened way more often than you would think in a city of millions. It made the world seem small, and my friendships large.

I loved that the city never slept–that I could have dinner at 11pm on a regular basis, if I so wanted. That food could come to me. That services were top notch. I loved apartment life.

I loved the honking cars. I loved that people honked cars.

I counted my rat sightings my first year in NYC. One time, when I was walking on 1st and 1st, a rat wove expertly through my feet as I walked. I did not scream. I giggled.

I wrote the bulk of my novel draft in NYC, at the Writers Room and at downtown cafes. I was so inspired.

And last month, I said goodbye to my NYC apartment. I did not say goodbye to NYC, because I plan on returning–but the lease was up, and I had to move my things out. I moved my possessions into a storage space into which the movers expertly fit a life. Everything went in. They shut the door, and I put a lock on it.

We were not sure all would fit in that small space, but nothing in my life was left behind.

That evening, we met with a friend at a bar, across the street from my now-empty apartment. I wasn’t sure how I felt–but that empty apartment did not feel as bad as I thought it would feel. I was leaving it as I left it. It felt like a fresh start for someone else, and a clean slate for myself.

A chapter had ended in my life, in more ways than one. I was a mom. I was newly single. I had fresh vows, all to myself. But I wasn’t sure if I felt hope or relief or elation or grief. In hindsight, I realize I felt them all.

The three of us were drinking whiskey at the bar. Toasting our lives. Talking dreams. Talking goals. Flinging jokes. Teasing each other. But at some point, it became too much. My grief welled up, and at that bar, I found no room for tears.

I excused myself and sat inside a bathroom stall and cried. I didn’t know for what I was crying, only that I was. But now I know. I was leaving New York. And it hurt. It felt like cleaving.

I had to leave NYC again. But the city will never leave me.

***

Joining Heather’s Abecedary, Fog City Writer, and other writers like Susan Ito in working through the alphabet with short, memoir-like pieces. Except I’m going to go in reverse, beginning with “Z.” It’s called Alphabet: A History.

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O is for Outhouse

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I was thirteen years old and spending the night on a farm. We arrived after dark, and in the darkness that smelled like manure and grass, I could hear my Reebok high tops sucking mud as we approached the door of a humble house.

“These are distant relatives,” I was told. The distant relatives greeted my brother and me–to him, they said, “So very very handsome!” and to me, they said, “She looks so sturdy!” This, before they sat us down to eat rice steamed with beans. My brother and I looked at my mom, helpless.

“This is special rice,” said Mom, “they cooked it especially for you.” Which was her way of saying, “You better f*cking eat this rice.”

So I ate a bowl. Finished it. And then they gave me ANOTHER bowl of that damn rice. I finished it. And they gave me another. It turned out that if you don’t want another bowl, you’re supposed to leave a spoonful of rice in the bowl.

If they thought I was sturdy before, I was getting sturdier with every bowl of rice and beans.

At dawn, my mom woke up with stomach pains from an ulcer. She was doubled over whimpering. I heard dogs howling in the distance. They hadn’t stopped howling throughout the night.

So many dogs.

What were they? Who has so many pets, I asked, wishing to distract my mother from her pain.

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P is for Postpartum Depression

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I never thought I would get pregnant.

I had an easy pregnancy. Easier than I thought anyone with high risk factors like I had, could anticipate. No morning sickness. No bloating. I was able to wear my wedding ring until the very last days. My feet stayed the same size throughout. I even went off blood pressure medication and my blood pressure stayed low for almost the entire duration of my pregnancy. I was glowing. I gained weight only in my belly.

Birth was amazing, too. I was induced because my blood pressure climbed in the last three weeks of pregnancy and could not be managed. And so a week after my due date, I checked into the hospital, clutching my yoga ball and a huge bag of snacks for my husband. They started me on cytotec, gave me an Ambien, and I went to sleep (well, I thought I went to sleep–my husband said I started dancing and falling and dancing on Ambien). The next morning at 6:30am, they started me on pitocin, and what felt like the worst diarrhea cramps in the world paired with the ultimate in constipation, hit me. I breathed through the contractions. I had no desire to scream–I just rode the waves of pain with deep breaths. I felt calm and ready. I wanted to meet my kid.

Every time the pump clicked, I knew a contraction would hit me. My contractions reached two minutes long, with less than a minute rest in between. I got an epidural. I felt no contractions from that point on, amazed when my husband read the monitor and announced, “That was a huge contraction you just had!”

Really? I couldn’t feel it.

Little did I know, that I would have to get very used to feeling nothing.

I took a long nap. I woke up and said, “Hey guys–I have to either fart, take a giant poop, or the baby’s coming out. One of those things is not acceptable right now.” The baby was coming. I was 10 cm dilated. Time soon to push. They called my doctor, who arrived and had to tell me, “Stop pushing! I haven’t scrubbed in yet.”

I was bearing down and counting to ten. Breathing. Bearing down and counting to ten. My amazing doula coached me, coached us. It was calm and peaceful. They brought in a mirror. She was coming. And then at 6:35pm I pushed her into the world of oxygen and light.

She was here.

And I felt nothing. When they handed her to me, she felt like someone else’s child. I waited for the gush of joy, and I felt blank.

I had a great pregnancy, and a great birth, but had a nightmare first year of motherhood, instead.

I had no idea I had postpartum depression. It took me months to realize I was in over my head. I told people it was like walking into the ocean step by step holding my child on my head until I was underwater, struggling to keep her alive holding her aloft. I felt like I was dying.

Not until I had the darkest thoughts a new mother could have (wishing my baby didn’t exist–wishing for SIDS), did I pause and think, “This cannot be right.” My OCD was off the chain (obsessing over the sterility of bottles was crippling). I was unable to let my baby go into anyone’s arms but mine. I forced everyone to wash their hands well beyond the first 6 months before handling my child. Still, I waited. I thought the postpartum depression would lift. I waited.

Meanwhile, my daughter thrived. My husband went back to work.

My friends told me I cried when they visited. They said I told them I felt hopeless. I couldn’t get myself to shower. I went days without showering. I tried to go on walks, and went on walks everyday with my baby, but came back so exhausted, I crawled right back into bed.

I pumped in bed. I ate in bed. I slept in bed. I cradled my child in bed. I did not leave that bed almost all year. I begged my husband to stay in bed with me. He resisted.

My daughter thrived. My husband was going to work. My husband was traveling. My husband said he was traveling. My husband said he was out of town. My husband said he could not come home.

I was at pre-pregnancy weight by 3 weeks postpartum. I stopped being able to eat. I couldn’t figure out how to make food and take care of a baby. Food no longer tasted good. I dipped down to the lowest weight since junior high. Clothes started to fall off my body. My wedding ring slipped off my finger.

I hired help. The help didn’t work out. I hired more help, and found I could not let my daughter out of my arms. The help, who has now turned into one of my dearest friends, kept me company. That was help. We watched movies while I sat in bed with my daughter. She washed the bottles, the G*dawful bottles. Did the laundry. Got me food, which I only nibbled.

My friends dropped off food (posole, pasta, tomato sauce, minestrone, eggplant parmigiana). When they left, I would cry with gratitude, but I could not get myself to eat.

My friends emailed me. Texted me.

I walked. I tried to do yoga. I tried to be happy again. I used every tool in my toolbox to overcome my depression.

My husband was no longer coming home except on weekends. Where was he?

My best friend happened to move nearby. We met for a meal, for coffee, for a walk, everyday. I was at the bottom of a well, and my best friend met me at the bottom, and stayed with me in the dark.

I looked up from the bottom of the well. I could see the sky. I knew I had to get up there, somehow. I could hear my baby’s laughter, like a distant bell.

I started wearing makeup again. Tried to pretend. Fake it until you make it. I faked it and faked it and faked it.

I held my daughter. I fed my daughter. I survived each day.

My friend met me at the bottom of the well.

My friends brought me food.

I turned 40. I planned my own birthday party. I woke up so exhausted, I didn’t shower. I put on a dress and some makeup and attended. Faked it. I could not look my husband in the eye.

The postpartum depression did not dissipate. It was now October. I read somewhere that postpartum depression could last 2 years. I couldn’t last that long, I knew.

I called my husband and cried each night. Told him I was dying. He asked “What are you dying from?”

And I said, “I don’t know. I’m dying,” before bursting into tears. I needed help.

He said, “I can’t help you. I’m not coming home for a year.”

I cried until I lost my breath. I’d never felt more alone. I’d never felt so helpless. I had to save myself. And I was fighting a creature I had never before fought. I needed help. I cried. I needed help.

“I can’t last a year,” I said.

“You have to,” he said.

“I don’t think I’ll last 3 weeks.”

Silence.

And so the next day, I called the doctor. “I have postpartum depression,” I said to the receptionist.

“What’s that?”

I had to explain.

I waited and waited and waited for the return calls. The help.

I called and called. And finally, the help came.

And then my life changed. I started climbing out of the well. And my best friend–my friend climbed out, too.

Forever grateful to all who saved my life in 2013.

***

Joining Heather’s Abecedary, Fog City Writer, and other writers like Susan Ito in working through the alphabet with short, memoir-like pieces. Except I’m going to go in reverse, beginning with “Z.” It’s called Alphabet: A History.

UPDATE (Resources):
There are resources out there–here are a couple, which the Postpartum Resource Center of New York, provided me this morning:

You are not alone. You are not to blame. With help, you will be well.

Postpartum Support International (PSI) is dedicated to helping women suffering from perinatal mood and anxiety disorders, including postpartum
depression, the most common complication of childbirth. They also work to educate family, friends and healthcare providers so that moms and moms-to-be can get the support they need and recover.
Helpline:  800-944-4PPD (4773) or email support@postpartum.net
www.postpartum.net

In New York:
Postpartum Resource Center of New York provides emotional support, educational information and healthcare and support group resources for New York State families.  Free and confidential support including Moms on Call and Family Telephone Support available
Helpline:  Toll-free and State-wide at (855) 631-0001 (Hablamos Espanol)
www.postpartumny.org

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Q is for Quest

Rain + sunshine = rainbow

You go where you gaze.

This is the lesson, along with “slow in, fast out of the apex racing line” pounded into one’s head when one learns to race cars. Where I look is where I end up heading, where I carve my racing line.

I’ve raced at Thunderhill and Laguna Seca–eyes always on the destination coming out of turns. Steady. Unblinking.

Turn #8 at Laguna Seca is the infamous “corkscrew.” It is a blind turn and if you’re on a motorcycle, it is two turns. But in a car, you set your eye on a tree at the horizon, and even though the earth dives down so you can’t see what’s directly ahead so for a moment you feel like you’re flying as you aim the car towards the distant tree, the tip top of which is visible throughout. You have faith in your gaze. You rip through the corkscrew in a straight line. You do not look at the track. You look at the top of the tree until you come down, until you can see it in its entirety. And then you adjust your gaze again, to another destination.

Your gaze is your quest.

Even six years later, at a point in time I feel very few ill-effects from my left thalamic stroke, I’ll still have occasional post-stroke brain burps. Like when I walk down a flight of stairs; I’ll “lose track” of which foot I’m stepping. And “losing track” of which foot you’re stepping with as you walk down a flight of stairs means a potential tumble down the stairs.

I’ve tumbled down a flight of stairs and wrenched my rotato cuff–it is not fun. I remember envisioning myself falling and then I did just that.

The way I get out of this “brain confusion” is to gaze at where I want to go. I’ll just look at the next step. I refuse to imagine a fall. It helps me reset.

This is how I write my novel. I envision it finished.

Your quest is your dream.

***

Joining Heather’s Abecedary, Fog City Writer, and other writers like Susan Ito in working through the alphabet with short, memoir-like pieces. Except I’m going to go in reverse, beginning with “Z.” It’s called Alphabet: A History.

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R is for Rabbi

Eldridge Street Synagogue

It took three tries, as expected, for him to return my call.

“Hello, this is a message for Rabbi F. My name is Christine, and I want to convert to Judaism, and study with you. I would like to discuss next steps. Thank you.” I was nervous and overeager.

If I’d known better at the time, I might have, among other things, winced when saying my name, Christine, the most Christian (i.e., non-Jewish) name out there. I certainly winced for the next several years when introducing myself at shul. And sometimes the congregants would also wince and add, “Do you have a Jewish name, dear?” No, I did not. You don’t have one until you finish your conversion.

I called two more times.

After the third message, Rabbi F invited me to meet with him at the synagogue. I sat outside on the steps, intimidated by the doors of the synagogue. I couldn’t bring myself to knock on those huge wooden doors, or to open them. Eventually the rabbi came out looking for me. He wore black slacks and a white short sleeved shirt. He had a large white beard and wore eyeglasses and a kipa. “There you are,” he said, and introduced himself. His voice, the tempo of which was of someone who chose his words carefully, was higher than I’d expected. He did not put out his hand to shake. This was an Orthodox rabbi, and touch between men and women is forbidden. That much I knew. Thank goodness.

He led me inside. It was an old building, and his office was a small room off of the main room, steps from the wooden bimah. The three walls without a window in the office were covered floor to ceiling with books. The window faced north, so that the office was covered in the cold blue northern light I love.

I’d just graduated from college, and the bookshelves were familiar to me, even if the synagogue was not; I’d sat in offices like this before in Wheeler and Dwinelle Hall, during office hours with professors. Throughout my five years studying with Rabbi F, he would often stand up and pull a book off those shelves to seek answers.

He expected me to ask questions. This was a major paradigm shift for me. I was coming from a culture in which learning occurred by passive listening and memorizing what I was told. In which authority should not be questioned.

What do you mean? I asked. I was scared. Intimidated.

He replied by asking me a question. He asked how I expected to learn if I didn’t have any questions. He also said that by coming with my own questions each week, I would direct my own learning.

It made sense.

So each week, I came up with questions. I felt self-conscious coming up with questions, and even more so when I dared ask them. But I was rewarded; these questions would lead to lengthy and enriching discussions with the rabbi. And over the next few months and years, the questions begat more questions, and I began to feel more at ease with my curiosity. I became an actively curious person.

Years later, when I started teaching freshman comp, I remembered going through this paradigm shift. And I channeled the rabbi and shared the above anecdote, in hopes that my students would take the leap, dare to ask questions, and become more active learners.

And when I came across challenges, Rabbi F’s advice was always three dimensional, sometimes quite literally so. When it came time to consider meeting the Beit Din, he told me something that sticks to this day. “Identity is not just one thing: it is comprised of legal identity, community identity, and self identity. The Beit Din will approve your legal identity, the community, which includes your family, will define your social identity as a Jew, and last you have your self identity as a Jew. If you self identify as a Jew, that is the most important of all.”

Rabbi F changed my life in so many positive ways. He was my guide into Judaism (a world that did not always welcome me with open arms–and a world in which I often stumbled, like the time I saw a salmon fish cake and before I could think asked, “Is that a crab cake?” I had already hung my head by the time the cook uttered a disdainful “No.”), and I will be forever grateful to him for his wisdom and kindness. In so many ways (maybe all ways) my conversion process was a major paradigm shift–not the least of which was turning me into a more active student. I am a bolder, more curious, and more confident woman today having studied with Rabbi F. And perhaps I would not have become a writer if had not unearthed an adventurous and curious self.

*****

Joining Heather’s Abecedary, Fog City Writer, and other writers like Susan Ito in working through the alphabet with short, memoir-like pieces. Except I’m going to go in reverse, beginning with “Z.” It’s called Alphabet: A History.

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Y is for Yard

Our Yard

When I was a little girl in Queens, our yard was the street, the playground, the corner store. It was in Queens where I gained an affinity for the tempo of a city, the rat-a-tat-a-tat metronome of jackhammers, car horns, manual cash registers, and games of punchball that forever set my personal pace for all things to come.

And where I finished growing up in the Los Angeles suburbs, our yard was the fenced-in portion of our property where I meandered without interaction. It was there that I built a keen interest in botany and gardening, as I learned the names of flora and learned to grow vegetables like only a girl without companions would. All the time reading book after book on companion planting and plant diseases and the various shapes of leaves, trying to satiate the rat-a-tat-a-tat tempo in my bones.

In Berkeley, home of naturalized[1] yards filled with twisting rosemary bushes and overgrown abutilon and bushy waist high heather, I learned to neglect our yard. And cook and eat lots of yummy good food[2] instead. And try to be a hippie and fail at doing so. And start writing a novel. Rat-a-tat-a-tat.

In NYC, our block is our yard. On our block is a photographer’s studio where lanky, underweight, freakishly tall women models venture, sometimes holding black leather folders. It is a warehouse where street food carts go to sleep at night, pushed there by weary East Village vendors of hot dogs, pretzels, nuts, and Halal dishes. Sometimes I want to sneak in there in the nighttime and see all the carts parked, and hear what is the vendors discuss at the end of their days.[3].

Our block is where construction forever takes place. It’s not unusual to find a backhoe on our street. Sometimes the street is neatly sealed, but weeks later, the street is re-opened and construction resumes. Our street is restaurants I’ve never visited.[4] It is a bar at which I always consider nursing a hard apple cider, but never do. It is the bar I’ve always fantasized about growing up–the place so convenient that it’s like a second living room.

Our yard is things yet undiscovered. Windows behind which anonymous people live. A brownstone that later turns out to be an understated B&B. A museum. An empty lot.

Our block is our yard. It is smeared with dog shit on some days, splashed with vomit and beer others, and then the rain comes and wipes it clean. Thousands of people cross our yard in an afternoon. It is never quiet. There is always a brisk breeze. In every minute, something changes in the yard.

Every yard becomes a part of me.

Every yard becomes me.

[1] Weedy

[2] The food in Berkeley is tremendous! You’d ditch gardening as a hobby and head straight to the farmers’ market for incredible meal ingredients and various restaurants for amazing food, too.

[3] They don’t tweet, so I don’t know. I know that @BigGayIceCream tweets their whereabouts and celebrity customers–do they talk about who visited their carts? Do they greet each other as friends? Do they go straight home? Do they arrange for a nightcap together?

[4] Wherever I live, if there’s a restaurant adjacent to me, and even if I live in the place for years, I find I never go to the place across the street. So weird.

***

Joining Heather’s Abecedary, Fog City Writer, and other writers in working through the alphabet with short, memoir-like pieces. Except I’m going to go in reverse, beginning with “Z.” It’s called Alphabet: A History.

*I inadvertently skipped the letter “Y”–it’s here now, albeit out of sequence.

**AWGH. And this is when I realize I *did* do “Y” (Y is for Yellowstone).

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S is for Stallion

aspens + sky

“The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.” –Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms

I will never forget my first day of nursery school in New York City. My mother and I engaged in a weeks-long prelude of excited preparation, coordinating an outfit (a red dress with a peter pan collar, paired with patent mary janes–though as the diva I always was, I really wanted RED stride rite mary janes), and memorizing important phrases (“Where is the bathroom?”); there was enough anxiety and anticipation and focused effort to know that this was a Big Deal.

I was born in the U.S., but I didn’t speak a word of English. My mother and father carried me as a toddler years previous to the preschool and asked the principal for advice on how to spare me the handicap of accented English. “Leave her to me,” the principal had said, “I’ll teach her English. Don’t teach her a word yourself.”

That this is a testament to the suffering of my mom and dad in the still-blatantly-racist-1970s makes my chest and teeth clench.

And so it was that I learned to speak English with a southern twang, inherited by not my family legacy, and not my cultural history, but someone’s name I no longer know and a face I do not remember: GEED-tar, for guitar…PRAW-doos, for produce…IN-sur-ance for inSURance…

It was an English that drew lots of teasing once I moved to California.[1]

On my first day of school,[2] I held the bus driver’s hand. I had never left home on my own before. And here I was, leaving home for the first time in an unfamiliar bus with an old white dude wearing oversized sunglasses that looked like cataract sunglasses who looked nothing like my parents. Pictures in which I was not smiling were taken as I stood next to the bus driver who held my hand in his strange big bumpy warm hairy hand before I walked onto the bus. I was the only child on the bus.[3]

And after he pulled away, I panicked and I began to scream, because I felt like I’d never get back home again, because I thought I was getting fucking kidnapped by a man who had conned my parents into believing he was a bus driver, because I didn’t know who this man was, because I was going into the unknown. I began to slam the windows, demanding egress with my body and voice, because I didn’t know the words.

He stopped the bus. I quieted. And he buckled me in. Tight. He said harsh words to me, ones I understood as anger, ones after which I sat trembling and sobbing hiccups.

I’d never used a seatbelt before–when my father took us on drives, I stood upright in the footwells of the backseats, my hands wrapped around the headrests of the front seats (I still have a fond nostalgia for this dangerous memory). Seatbelted as I was, I felt pinned down. Tied down. Trapped. And I wept. I was going to die. And I had given up.

That was the first time I remember being broken.

You have to break to get stronger. Like stallions, we must be broken.

I got to school. These were the pre-ESL instruction days of 1977. The teachers had no idea what to do with a small child who spoke only a few survival words of English. They didn’t even have the wherewithal to at least point to crayon colors and announce the word for the color. They waved their hands in exasperation. And therefore, I became exasperated. I couldn’t tell them what I wanted and they couldn’t tell me what they wanted.

And so I screamed, “Bullow me!! Bullow me!” Which I’m sure sounded like, “Blow me! Blow me!”[4]

But what I was trying to assemble, as I recall, was a way to tell them to pay attention to me. “Bul-low” is a semblance of the Korean word “call,” and “me” was one of the only English words I knew. I didn’t let up.

And so they picked my body up, carried me across the nursery school room, and threw me in the bathroom stall, like a horse. When I recount this story, people are horrified. But it’s true. I was locked in a bathroom stall all day of my first day of school. Periodically, they would come by and say words that I surmised to mean, “Are you ready to come out now and behave?”

If you know me, then you know my response was a resounding wail. And a kick to the door.

They let me out at the end of the day for the bus ride home. I never told my parents what was happening at school. I am not sure why I never told them. Perhaps I thought it was my personal battle of wills. My desire to never be broken.

The next day, I must have been uncooperative yet again, because I ended up in the bathroom stall. I stayed there all day. I ate my lunch in there.

And then the next.

But eventually, and I do not know after how many days, I got out of that stall like any stallion brought into training. I had been broken. I behaved.

I learned the language in bits, and I’m going to say that I learned it on my fucking own, because no one knew how to really teach me until I reached a minimal level of competence. When they sang “This Land is My Land,” I hummed along, catching words here and there until I could assemble a lyric.[5]

I have been broken many times in my life. I have been brought close to death. I have been brought to wanting death more times than I can now count. Junior high and high school were torture and nearly killed me. I loved college, even though it nearly killed me too. I learned to grow a thicker skin, to experience new things broken and healed, like my heart. Each time, I was brought to my knees, emotions choked to within an inch of my life, stabbed so that the blood has flowed from my back and brought me to close to exsanguination, voice smothered so that the world has gone gray, my heart broken so that it could barely beat, but I survived. With scars. But stronger for the weakness.

—–

[1] HAHAHAAAA! Plan backfired! Dammit, we all come from somewhere! We might as well claim the places from which we come! Decades of California schooling and several boyfriends and a husband later, much of that dialect has been erased. I kind of miss it.

[2] That morning was a day that I believe was very much like this morning in NYC, because when I stepped outside and felt the cool air on my face and the determined and cool breeze rip through my cotton dress, I got a deja vu/flashback of my first day of school. These moments give me great delight and satisfaction, because they make me feel like I am FROM here, that I BELONG somewhere, that I CONNECT to this earth.

[3] Yes, it was a yellow SHORTBUS.

[4] In hindsight: how fitting! So precocious!

[5] To this day, I am hilariously awful at song lyrics. Instead of Van Halen’s “Panama!” I thought for years and years the song “Cannonball! Cannonball!” Or that Sting was singing, “I’m a pool heart ace, with every break you take…” But, I can hang in a Jewish synagogue without feeling awkward, making up Hebrew words as I sing along with the cantor and the congregation. No one has to know.

***

Joining Heather’s Abecedary, Fog City Writer, and other writers in working through the alphabet with short, memoir-like pieces. Except I’m going to go in reverse, beginning with “Z.” It’s called Alphabet: A History.

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T is for Ten Years

when did they change the back of the penny?

This evening, after a day of errands and a lobster roll dinner, we parked our truck in front of our home and saw a pair of teva-sandaled feet pointing toward the fence, the body hidden by the hedge, next to our wooden gate. Someone was peering into our yard. Strange, especially on our very quiet street.

I stepped out of the truck as I called, “Can I HELP you?” to see a small eight year old child come out from behind the bushes. Followed by a gangly eleven year old girl. Followed by a middle aged woman with a white cane who I recognized as the previous owner of our house.

She, the previous owner, whom I will nickname “Jill,”[1] pops by every now and then (though I haven’t spotted her in a couple of years) to visit her old home. I’ve found her unapologetically wandering our backyard over the years, full of regrets (and boundary issues), holding a small girl’s hand and then a few years later, an additional younger boy’s hand.

I wondered what it was that brought Jill to the house today–and then it became crystal clear: that tomorrow is 9/11, the tenth anniversary of the day that terrorists hijacked commercial planes and flew them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon…and let’s not forget the plane that, thanks to its passengers, crashed into a field instead of the White House/Camp David/?.

The WTC buildings fell–they exploded, they crumbled, they melted, they pancaked, they flattened, they imploded. And along with them, thousands of innocents. And all day, all I could do, as I sat a nation’s width away from Manhattan, was watch the television, and write blog updates on my blog. [2]

9/11 was the day that escrow on this house was supposed to close (and didn’t, because the banks all closed, because our world as we knew it, was falling apart, and things would never ever be the same again). Our escrow actually closed unceremoniously a couple of days later, when the banks reopened.

And so Jill roamed, a decade later, the grounds of her previous and our current home with her children in tow on the anniversary of the day this house changed hands. “I should have never sold this house,” she said.

We briefly updated Jill–and she, us with news of her divorce, a new home, her children’s names. I told Jill we’d painted her muraled nursery room, the very one she and her husband-at-the-time had so cherished and that we’d promised to preserve–that well, we had wanted to have children when we bought the place, but heartbroken, we painted the colorful nursery room a very adult light green and turned it officially, into an office.

What a difference a decade makes. [3]

[1] Her name is not really Jill.

[2] I deleted my old blog, but as we all know, nothing on the internet is ever truly deleted, especially with things like the web archive site. So, if you care to read it, my blog post from 9/11/2011 is here.

[3] I thought about doing a blog post exclusively about 9/11, but I couldn’t bear to–I’ve thought about, and lived it, everyday for the last ten years. I’ve never forgotten, will never forget, and do not need reminding. And there are so many wonderful memorial posts, like Meg Cabot’s brilliant and tear inducing recollection of her NYC 9/11 or Steve Almond’s amazing Rumpus essay on the decade following 9/11 that make me feel like others speak with much more eloquence about this dreadful anniversary.

***

Joining Heather’s Abecedary, Fog City Writer, and other writers in working through the alphabet with short, memoir-like pieces. Except I’m going to go in reverse, beginning with “Z.” It’s called Alphabet: A History.

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U is for Urgency

"i miss the old new york..."

My father keeps telling me how many years he has left to live, recalibrating his estimate each year, based on his general sense of wellbeing. He will occasionally announce like he did this year, “You know, I am 78. I have maybe 3 more good years left so I can travel. After that, maybe 5 years taking it easy. Then gone. Okay. Change channel to ESPN, please.” So far, he has outlived his original estimate years ago.

This does not alarm me–as my parents have been announcing their impending deaths my entire life, from the beginning of my remembering days. I once repeated Margaret Cho’s lines back with Korean accent-inflection and all to my mom, who began to giggle hysterically, seeing herself in Cho’s recollection and imitation of her Korean mother’s voicemails:

“BOOP! I have to tell you something. I just wanna tell yoooooou that Grandma and Grandpa, they are gonna die. *pause* I don’t know WHEN they’re gonna die, but sometime! So Mommy just tell you now, so when they die you’re not surprised. *pause* But don’t tell them! That’s not nice, that’s not nice! BOOP!”[1]

This is hilarious, because it is pretty much verbatim what my mother has told me. Except that in our household’s case, she kept telling me that she and Daddy were gonna die. Someday. And we should not be surprised. And that we needed to be independent. Because we could not depend on them to live forever. Because they could die tomorrow. (And let’s not even get started on my parental grandmother, my childhood live-in caregiver, reciting her funeral preferences to me as I fell asleep each night).

Of course, as “normal” as this all was to me, I started going to church on my own as an eight year old girl, surprising my atheist parents. It was a relief to discover the concept of Heaven and announce to my parents, “I am not afraid of Death!”[2] Humans are incredible at coping/adapting.

Ah, the things that war and early childhood suffering engenders! My war-surviving parents were blindsided by Death left and right, and they never wanted me to be blindsided. Perfect preparation for raising a writer, really.

This sense of impending death is useful in that it has provided me with an incredible sense of urgency and impatience my entire life. When in your head is the clear expectation that you or your loved ones could die any day and that the world could explode in guns and warfare, things get super crystal clear. And also, you make sure your pantry is never empty….just…in….case.[3]

When I got sick…this became less of a theory and more a reality. I really did have a stroke and it came out of nowhere, a freak event of a clot hurtling into the core of my brain, through a freak, previously undetected birth defect hole in my heart (which the doctor perfunctorily closed). I lost the ability to retrieve memories, and I had a fifteen minute short term memory (which eventually extended to a 60 minute short term memory, and then the ability to read a short story and remember it, after 6 months, etc., etc).[4] I couldn’t write fiction, let alone read fiction. I couldn’t return to writing my novel for two years.

The only thing I thought about, throughout my recovery, was regaining my ability to write. And in fact, the optimist in me was determined to come back as a BETTER writer, as inspired by Lance Armstrong (blood doping or not) as I was. I wrote in my diary everyday–sometimes it was gibberish. But mostly, it was a supplement to my damaged short term memory. Unlike Memento, I did not tattoo all that I had to remember (seriously inefficient!)–I wrote it down in my Moleskine journal, with timestamps, so that when someone would allude to something, I would rifle through the pages of my Moleskine until I found what had happened/been said previously.

But mostly, it was a record of my recovery, and it was my way of writing every single day. Oftentimes, I had to nap for hours after writing a single journal entry, because that very act would exhaust me/my brain. But I still did it. I wrote in an anonymous online journal about my recovery, where I gained some incredible friends who are still very good and close friends to this day. I just made sure to write. I was convinced that by doing so, I could reinforce writing capabilities and form new pathways in my brain that would make me a stronger writer. I wrote and I wrote. And I slept and slept afterward. And then I’d write. And sleep. Until I found myself itching to write fiction again, first in short spurts of descriptive paragraphs, and then finally, a short story.

Throughout this time, I was told I was back to normal more times than I could tolerate. But if I could not return to my novel writing, there was no way I was fully recovered. And I wondered about a life without writing fiction. I despaired. Deep inside, I knew I still had trouble remembering things, that part of my ability to retort wit/spontaneity was missing. I felt like a dull blade.

…and then, after two years of struggle, I woke up and blinked and everything was bright and sunny and calm and I realized I could remember things that I couldn’t previously remember. That I could remember people’s names again. That I could read something, and remember exact quotes and remember the exact page on which these quotes resided. That there was still a dark hole in my memory around the dates of my stroke that I had trouble remembering, but I could memorize license plates again while bored behind the wheel of my car.

And I could write my novel again. I nearly wept. But I didn’t, because my thalamus by that point had finally healed, and my coping ability had returned.[5]

The road back to my novel was graciously short, and yet simultaneously, way too long for my own comfort.

In the end, my novel benefited from that break. I returned with a greater urgency to finish and complete this novel. With a greater urgency about life and love itself. With a great understanding of this exigency. It’s been years since my stroke, and I still think about that time whenever I need to summon that need to finish/urge myself to move forward.[6]

[1] The thing is though: you can never prepare for Death. It sucks when it happens.

[2] I am no longer church-going or Christian. And I, like many Jews, am not really sure Heaven exists.

[3] On 9/11, right after the planes flew in to the WTC, my dad called me up and the first words out of his mouth were, “We are going to war! Prepare yourself! Go to store and buy water!”

[4] The only thing I was able to read and retain in those early months of stroke recovery was People magazine.

[5] Until I had fully healed, I wept with great ease. I just couldn’t control my emotions. Like a small child, I cried when I missed someone, and I cried when someone hurt my feelings, helpless without response.

[6] I try to engender the same sense of urgency in my students. I tell them we don’t have a lot of time. That we are in this basic skills class to remedy the last 10 years of ill preparation. That we have one semester, just a few months, to make up for all that lost time. That we are in it together.

***

Joining Heather’s Abecedary, Fog City Writer, and other writers in working through the alphabet with short, memoir-like pieces. Except I’m going to go in reverse, beginning with “Z.” It’s called Alphabet: A History.

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Filed under Alphabet: A History, Memes, Stroke, Writing