Survey Responses from Byron and Virginia

In the next week or so, I’ll be posting the survey responses of those who have given me permission. Let’s start that roll with the responses of Allegra’s pappy and our family best friend, Virginia. 

Quick aside: the first sentence of Virginia’s #6 (her ideal day) made me teary. Twenty years going back and forth with cancer; currently on her I’ve-lost-count round with chemo; pain with a lot of types of movement due to loss of cartilage in her joints from radiation and chemo; crazy messed up bowel and urinary systems as a result of the cancer treatments; a nephrostomy tube attached to one kidney; unable to sit comfortably without an inflatable donut pillow under her bum; a palliative pain pump the size of a hockey puck under her skin at her waistline…and in the midst of all that, she remains hilarious, uncomplaining, and insightful. You want some life perspective? Take in her first sentence to question #6. 

Anyhow, now that I’ve tantalized you, let’s start with Byron’s answers.

Name: Byron Johnson

If you could remove one thing from your life, what would it be? Why?

The feeling that there is never enough time in the day to do all the things that I want to do. Every day I want to create, cook good food, be physically active and/or be outside for hours, make a difference at my job, and spend time with people I enjoy. Every day consists of tradeoffs, choosing one thing to focus on or trimming down the time spent on each activity. Making those decisions is hard. Sometimes the flow of the day dictates what happens and what does not. I would love to be able to control my days so I did not have to make these choices.

What has been the best trip of your life? Why?

Spending a year in Turkey with my family. Why:

  • It was long enough to be immersed in the culture and to begin to understand some aspects of it. I left wanting to learn and experience more of Turkey.
  • It had extremely high spots and extremely low spots, mentally. Experiencing a high spot after being low really heightens the experience and gives it more meaning. I think of our trip to the Mediterranean in the spring of that year and how we really did not realize how much we needed that experience until we were experiencing it. That trip within our year abroad was magical.
  • The experience has rippled out into our lives far beyond the year we were abroad. We all came back changed and with a different outlook on the world and life. It was transformative, as all good travel should be.

What has been the hardest decision of your life? Do you think it was the right one?

Making the decision to leave my first full-time, permanent, job because I was miserable. I had worked for 3+ years in my field and finally had the opportunity to not work seasonally and live and work in communal situations. I was making a salary, had benefits, and a possibility for stability for the first time since I graduated from college. But I hated what I was doing and I wasn’t very good at it. I was lonely. I was sick a lot during that year, mostly from the stress of the job and not being very happy. I agonized for months about what to do, consulting with my parents and going on long runs just to think. I spent hours watching “The Simpsons”, doing sit-ups, and waiting to go to bed because then the day would be done. I worried about what would happen after I quit my job. Would I get another? Was I done in my field? How would I make money? I felt like I would let my employer down and in a tough spot if I left. But, eventually, I knew I had to leave or things would just get worse for me.

It was the right decision. While it was hard to make, I realized that things work out. Three months later I was employed in my field and in a position that suited me perfectly. I realized that people and organizations move on and personal happiness is more important than an organization.  If I hadn’t made that decision I might not have met your mother and I would not be answering this survey right now.

What have you worked hardest for in your life? Was it worth it?

For me, what I have worked hardest for is somewhat sideways and not a stated goal I set and achieved in my life. The hardest thing I have worked for is the knowledge I have NOW of the things that make me satisfied, challenged, and fulfilled in my life. I have gone through a lot of trial and error, time and energy, money and sweat to discover the few things I need in my life to be happy. I’ve tried rock climbing, subsistence gardening, canning, hunting, pottery, journaling, ultramarathons, and many other things. From these experiences I learned a lot and gained perspective on the world, but the biggest take away has been that these things do not fulfill me. By ruling out what does not satisfy me I have discovered the few things that deeply and truly make me happy—cooking and eating good food (with people I love), stitching, physical activity (with people I love), crossword puzzles, and the access to the world my library card gives me.

It was totally worth it. I have experiences that tie me to lots of people and can connect with them because I have experienced something that may be their passion. I also have a lot of years ahead of me and I now have a succinct idea of how to fill that time.

What is the best museum you have ever been to? What made it so good?

The Smithsonian’s Museum of American History.

It was so good because it brought together so much of what makes us Americans in a way that really touched me. I cried at least three times during my visit. I feel like I could visit the museum weekly and still be in love with it like I was after my first visit.

What would your idea of a perfect day entail?

  • Coffee
  • Physical activity—it could be running, hiking, biking, or swimming.
  • Good food, shared with people I love
  • A surprise experience. Having something unexpected, yet wonderful, makes a day super special. It would not have to be big. It could be finding an unexpected patch of wild blueberries on a hike and gorging until we were full.

What’s something you wish you would’ve learned when you were younger?

To dance.

What is your favorite word?

Inshallah—Arabic for “if God wills”. I love the way this word rolls off the tongue and the sentiment of hope, yet uncertainty, with which it is used.

What is your favorite place that you’ve ever gone swimming?

Lake Superior, which I swam in earlier today.

If you have been to college, where did you go and did you have a good experience? What was the best part? Any advice?

Grinnell College. It was a tremendous experience. The best part was expanding my worldview beyond what I was exposed to growing up. I met people I would not have known otherwise. I heard new music. I realized people approached life and living differently than I did. College allowed me to realize that the world is a giant place to explore and something to always learn from.


And now Virginia’s answers:

  1. If you could remove one thing from your life, what would it be? Why?  My habit of speaking before thinking about the possible short-term and long-term effect of my words.  I have often wished I could “unsay” something.  “Be impeccable with your words” is the best advice I continually try to follow.
  2. What has been the best trip of your life? Why?   To Peru with Kirsten.  It was well planned and well executed between Kirsten and this tour company.  I was not in charge.  My reactions went from skeptical to reluctant to neutral to surprised to delighted to very grateful.  The bonus was that I caught a pirhana fish, walked beside a tapir, had my shoes pecked by a wing-disabled red, white and blue parrot, allowed feathery-footed millipedes to crawl up and down my forearm after a rain, and got to hold a young three-toed tree sloth in Inca village along the Amazon River.  It peed on my tshirt and I vowed never to wash it.  It somehow got into the laundry, but I have a photo, which is actually better.  Easier to share.
  3. What has been the hardest decision of your life? Do you think it was the right one?   To marry a man, because I wanted to do “the right thing” and that’s what seemed like the right thing.  It was in June of 1964.  I left this wonderful man in the summer of 1966 and went to Germany to study for a year.  Was divorced “long distance” in January of 1967.  Very amicable divorce and we were both better off.  Douglas eventually married the right woman.  They are still married, so I don’t feel bad on his account. And I am definitely in the right relationship now!
  4. What have you worked hardest for in your life? Was it worth it?  I worked hardest to acquire a good command of the grammar and an authentic-sounding pronunciation in several languages, but mainly in German and French.  It was definitely worth the effort!  
  5. What is the best museum you have ever been to? What made it so good?  Le Quai d’Orsay museum of impressionist art on the Seine’s left bank in Paris.  It’s an old train station, huge, with great natural lighting from above and a huge clock with gold hands and numbers.  It has an excellent restaurant and the WCs are very clean. But most of all, I love to stand in front of the works of artists like Monet, Manet, Van Gogh, Seurat, DegasCezanne, Gauguin, Mary Cassatt, Pissarro, Bethe Morrisot, Renoir, and others and let it sink in that these are the very paintings which they created with paint and brush strokes and their particular way of seeing life.I am so touched that sometimes tears well up and then even I see things differently!
  6. What would your idea of a perfect day entail?  It would include waking up feeling grateful that I live in safety and have choices.  I would accomplish what I intended to accomplish on that day so that by bedtime I would have no regrets for misspending my time and I would be satisfied that I had caused several people,including strangers, to smile and perhaps laugh. 
  7. What’s something you wish you would’ve learned when you were younger?  How to navigate in Facebook and how to speak and write Japanese.
  8. What is your favorite word?   cherish
  9. What is your favorite place that you’ve ever gone swimming?   The Indian Ocean off the SE coast of Madagascar, among coral reefs
  10. If you have been to college, where did you go and did you have a good experience? What was the best part? Any advice?  I graduated from St. Olaf College.  It was a wonderful, life-affirming experience.  The best part was exposure to new ideas, to poetry and literature, to interesting, deep-thinking people (both professors and students, and one German war-bride living a challenging life in Northfield and who hired me to tutor her in English).  Advice?  If you need advice about ANYTHING, ask your mother or your dad, or both, because they know you better than anyone and they are not judgmental.  I predict that you will love being a college student and you will make good use of your new and stimulating environment.

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Tell Me Something: What I Told Her

Thank you to everyone who responded to my last post and completed a survey for our rising senior in high school, Miss Allegra. She’s at the point where she has around 60 surveys from folks, with new ones still trickling in. Eventually, when it feels like “time,” she and a good friend of ours who has a Ph.D. in public health and teaches at the U here in town will sit down together so that Allegra can get a primer in qualitative data analysis — how to make sense out of and find meaning in the variety of responses she has received. If you haven’t yet completed a survey but would like to be part of our burgeoning social scientist’s learning experience, please feel free to write up your responses and email them to!

As I’ve posted pleas for survey responses on social media, a few people have mentioned that they’d be interested to see responses other than their own. I get that. Whenever a survey has come to me rather than Allegra, you better bet I click on it and read the thing. FASCINATING STUFF.

Anyhow, I’m happy to start the sharing of answers with my own. If any of you reading this have written answers and wouldn’t mind me sharing them on this blog, give me a shout, and I’ll put them in a future post.

So. Here:

  1. If you could remove one thing from your life, what would it be? Why?

After first reading this question, I started thinking of things in the world I’d like to get rid of — violence, famine, ham-fisted toddlerian blusterers — but then I reread the question and saw that you are asking very specifically about what I would remove from my own life, not how I’d change the world. So, after way too much mulling, I’ve come up with this: I’d get rid of complicated relationships. The best relationships for me run clean and clear and are free of grey layers and unspoken tensions that simmer without acknowledgment. In fact, few things are more destructive to my day-to-day, hour-to-hour functioning than having had interactions with people where the dynamic isn’t clean and clear. That’s why I prefer you and Paco and dad over all others; it’s so easy with you guys: I like you, I love you, I respect you, I enjoy your company, and I feel safe with all of you. Similarly, this is the way I feel about my best friends in life, like Colleen. It’s clean. It’s clear. It ain’t complicated.

  1. What has been the best trip of your life? Why?

The whole year in Turkey can’t count as a trip, I presume. More specifically, our family trip down to the southern coast when we stayed in Çirali was my favorite vacation EVER. In a year full of constant negotiations and trying to find our way, we all just relaxed on that trip. The scenery was stunning; the swimming was perfect; the lazy, laid-back single street village was all we needed. I loved eating lemon/sugar gozleme, riding bikes into town, swimming two or three times a day, doing the day-trip boat tour where we jumped off the deck and into the water, and walking out of the Mediterranean and right into the ruins of Olympus. We had no idea it would be perfect, and that lack of expectation is exactly why it could be perfect.

  1. What has been the hardest decision of your life? Do you think it was the right one?

Breaking up with a man I still loved was probably the hardest decision I’ve made, emotionally. And, to be honest, it wasn’t really a clear-cut decision at the time; it was more me trying to finagle ways for us to step back from each other — while still assuring him we were a couple, to avoid straight-on heartbreak — because my gut was thrumming with an unformed thought: “This needs to be over.” It was only once we were done that I realized I had been wanting the relationship to end. My brain was slow to catch up to my intuition. And, yes, it was the right decision. Absolutely. My relief was immediate and palpable. I didn’t want to hurt him, but I needed liberty — so I could regroup and get on with the rest of my life.

  1. What have you worked hardest for in your life? Was it worth it?

There are seventeen ways I could answer this; I could flick the spinner and just write down whatever it lands on, so…flick. I am still engaged in the work of overcoming childhood conditioning that taught me to be judgmental. Part of why this is hard work is that I enjoy being judgmental — it feels like part of my nature, so deeply ingrained is it. But in recent years I am consciously working at acceptance and empathy and an attitude of “What the hell do I know about any single person on Earth except myself?” Currently, the reality is that I judge, but I’m quicker to spot that tendency in myself and to consider if it’s fair, if it’s necessary, and if there is anything constructive that can come out of it. Usually, I’m being judgmental for my own amusement, so it’s best to keep it inside and let it roll around in my own head. Or, well, y’know, to express it to a limited few. This ongoing process is definitely worth it, as it’s teaching me, as Kendrick Lamar would advise, “Bitch, be humble.”

  1. What is the best museum you have ever been to? What made it so good?

First answer: The Peggy Guggenheim in Venice — the setting of it right there on a canal, the fact that it was her house, the unbelievable collection of art on the premises…I didn’t even care that it was packed as hell when we visited.

Second answer: The Hatay Mosaic Museum in Antakya, Turkey. Mosaics thrill me to the core, as does the feeling of standing in front of something made so many thousands of years ago. There is texture, and there is amazement, like, “People actually walked on these things. This stuff hung on people’s walls.” Plus, I bought earrings in the gift shop that have a “meander” around the border, and that’s always a plus.

  1. What would your idea of a perfect day entail?

I would wake up in a foreign country, and I would have no classes I was teaching online (so no need to check in and fight for workable internet and spend hours of my “vacation” grading stuff). A tray of food and good coffee would be awaiting my readiness, so I could stay in bed while I got up to speed. You and Dad and Paco would be there, and once we were all ready, we would head out to explore some new city. There would be pastries, cold drinks when we got hot, and excellent people watching. Later in the day, I would go for a run in a shady park. We’d all eat dinner out at a restaurant with crazy good food. There would be drinks. There would be buskers on the streets. There would be a bag of sweet treats bought on the way back to the hotel, ready for eating at midnight.

  1. What’s something you wish you would’ve learned when you were younger?

It’s taken me fifty years (so far) to get to a point where I don’t need everyone to like me. People-pleasing is full-time work, and it requires a person to sacrifice a whole lot of “self” so that others don’t feel uncomfortable. The first decades of my life were spent working at making those around me feel easy, at the expense of what I, myself, often wanted. But as I’ve aged, life experiences have burned away the noise so that I have reached a point where I’m better at valuing the way I feel and making choices based on my own feelings, rather than on what others want and expect. Still, of course, I do capitulate on some occasions, as life is also made of compromises, but I’m getting there, closer and closer, to the clarity of “I know how I feel, and I’m going to go ahead and act that way.” And people who find that difficult? Can make their own choices about how to respond. In current common parlance, all of this is known as “giving no fucks.” I wish I’d learned at a younger age how to release all the fucks to the sky, so they could flap off into the clouds, squawking as they ascend.

  1. What is your favorite word?

You know me — that I’d like to respond “all of them!” But, to narrow down: there are words that I like because they are the symbolic representation of things I enjoy, like “beer,” “sleep,” “backrub.” I suspect, however, that most people will answer this question with a word that they like the sound of (or the sound + the meaning), so to follow that, I’ll say that I have always liked the rhythm and slither of “verisimilitude.”

  1. What is your favorite place that you’ve ever gone swimming?

Okay, since my brain is a warehouse of nonsense, the swim I’ve done the most in my life is simply a replay of a scene I saw at an impressionable age when I watched a movie called The Poseidon Adventure. In it, a ship is hit by a tidal wave, most everyone is killed, and a scrappy band of survivors tries to stay alive long enough to be rescued. Anyhow, at one point, an actress named Shelly Winters — playing an old, past-her-prime matron — does this amazing swim through flooded corridors to save a guy who’s stuck, and I’ve never gotten over it. So I’ve done that swim with her, mentally, about a thousand times. Except the Shelley Winters character, at the end of her swim, has a heart attack and dies. I don’t.

Please, you will watch it now:


Now for a real one: A good swimming memory is from when I flew into Mexico to meet Auntie Kirsten when she was doing the Peace Corps in Belize; we spent some time in Mexico before bussing into Belize, including a jaunt down to Cozumel. I remember really liking the swimming there, in particular because it was the first time I ever snorkeled, and there was a statue of Jesus down in the water, amongst the coral and fish. Now that I’ve had Lasik, I’d like to snorkel again, as I’d actually be able to SEE the stuff now. So maybe let’s take a trip?

  1. If you have been to college, where did you go and did you have a good experience? What was the best part? Any advice?


Allegra, I went to a small private liberal arts college called Carleton. It’s located in a town of, hmm, 23,000 people called Northfield, Minnesota. I definitely had a good experience there, although I cried a lot during my four years and even considered taking time off after freshman year. But college was such a feeling of release after high school (which I had enjoyed a great deal, btw) — I was so glad to be free from the clique hierarchies of “popular people” and “geeks” and “freaks,” so happy to be just myself and not someone who was trying to be someone. And college is where I found my tribe of lifelong friends; they taught me so much and made me feel perfectly enveloped.

So the very best part was and still is the people. But in addition to that, there were the classes and the chance to learn about so many new disciplines and the freedom to monkey around with different ideas and areas of knowledge. My junior and senior years are when I was able to focus on English classes and, even more importantly, to take a bunch of film and media studies classes. Those film classes brought me a kind of intellectual joy that I had never experienced in high school. I still remember visiting professor Dana Benelli giving an overview of “the conventions of cinema” — one of which I still remember writing down in my notebook: “transparency” — and there was a dizzying sensation inside my skull that went something like, “THERE ARE CONVENTIONS OF CINEMA? AND THE BEST FILMS MANAGE TO BE TRANSPARENT? WHUUUUUUUUUUT?” Sure, learning to look at the ways that we, the audience, don’t “see” the work of making the movie — so that the medium of conveyance doesn’t interfere with the storytelling — was a hyper-specific skill set. However, the beauty of the liberal arts, of learning to think about things, is that I have applied the lessons of “learning to note transparency,” along with seventy-eleven others from those college classes, throughout my life.

My advice to you, beloved daughter, for college is this:

  1. Avail yourself of every opportunity you can. Go to the free movies; go to concerts and plays; do those semesters abroad; actually attend class regularly (unlike your mother); try new languages, new sports, friendships with people who seem bizarre.
  2. Don’t get freaked out when it’s hard. I was so lonely the first few weeks of freshman year; after the long-standing friendships that populated my first 18 years, it was so much work to make myself get out of the dorm room and go to painful-sounding things like “mixers.” So force yourself to go to the painful-sounding things. There will be others there who are lonely and feeling at odds, too. Eventually, you’ll knock elbows with one of them, and one of you will say, “Sorry. I’m so awkward at stuff like this. I kind of hate it but feel like I need to try.” And then your fellow elbow-knocker will confide, excitedly, “Oh my God, me, too! I’m go glad it’s not just me.” Thirty years later, that person just might be on your “Will Donate Kidney To:” list.
  3. Be aware of the dangers. There is rape on college campuses. There is assault. There is drinking. There are drugs. There is sexual exploration. So even though we’ve talked about this stuff some, I want you to know more about how to be aware and how to live defensively while living openly. I want you to figure out if you like to drink (and/or take drugs) without dying from it. I want you to enjoy an entire life of sexual satisfaction — but know how to protect yourself against STDs. I want you to say “yes” to invitations without ending up hurt and broken. So I would recommend you do some of your famous internet research about how to live smart on a college campus. And I want you to know you can ask your mother anything and know that I will mail you condoms and check in on you at 4 a.m., if you just want someone to be sure you got home safely.
  4. Finally, take notes by hand, on paper. I mean, typing notes is okay, too, but there truly is no better way to get information to stick in your brain than to funnel it through the physical act of writing it down. If you have never used the Cornell Note-taking System, I would recommend it.

Now that you’ve seen my answers, gentle reader, don’t you want to write your own? YOU KNOW YOU DO

Also, now that you’ve seen my answers, I imagine you are left thinking two things:

1) Can “noise” be “burned away”? (See my answer to #7. I think it might be terrible writing, but I also had no desire to change it after I wrote it because, somehow, it conveys what I meant, so if it’s bothering you, go have a shot of Jagermeister and chill the hell out, Peachie);


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Tell Me Something

When Allegra was seven, she — for the first but not the last time — created a survey. She had questions, and she wanted to know how a bunch of people would respond. And they did. After a few weeks, she had collected survey responses from folks around the globe, and her entire second grade class had been roped into participating. Then, surveys in hand, she spent hours reading them, talking about what people had written for their answers, ultimately alphabetizing them and storing them in a three-ring binder.

A few months later, she had more questions. Another survey. And after that? Another. Each time, the responses from friends, family, and strangers have been treasured (and three-hole punched).

Now, ten years after her first survey, our girl has come up with another, this time one she created while sitting in a car in a Swedish grocery store parking lot, waiting for someone who was taking FOR.EVER. Her aim, now that she’s seventeen, is to ask “better” questions than in previous surveys; to practice posing queries that yield more complex responses.

AND THAT’S WHY I COME TO YOU HERE TODAY, BROTHERS AND SISTERS. She is looking for as many responses as possible to these latest questions. Should you choose to put some time into filling out the attached survey, not only will you benefit from some moments of reflection, your words will be absorbed, read aloud, mulled upon, appreciated for years, and FILED INTO A THREE-RING BINDER.

Thank you in advance for your participation in this important project. All ages and interested parties are welcome. Responses may be sent directly to the author at: And thank you for supporting the development of a budding social scientist!

  1. If you could remove one thing from your life, what would it be? Why?
  2. What has been the best trip of your life? Why?
  3. What has been the hardest decision of your life? Do you think it was the right one?
  4. What have you worked hardest for in your life? Was it worth it?
  5. What is the best museum you have ever been to? What made it so good?
  6. What would your idea of a perfect day entail?
  7. What’s something you wish you would’ve learned when you were younger?
  8. What is your favorite word?
  9. What is your favorite place that you’ve ever gone swimming?
  10. If you have been to college, where did you go and did you have a good experience? What was the best part? Any advice?

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The Gap

I parked in the lot by the grocery store so I could buy a few things after my run. I had an hour and a half before the afternoon’s storms were to hit, giving me plenty of time to get some exercise, buy scallions, and be home before the skies unleashed.

It was a good plan.

But then. The thing happened that sometimes happens: just as I reached the far point of my run — when I was high up on the trails, miles from the parking lot and the grocery store — the sky turned black, the darkness interrupted only by bursts of lightning, and what the folksy weatherman calls “thunderboomers” started making it hard for me to hear my podcast WHICH WAS SUPER FRUSTRATING BECAUSE MAURA MURRAY HAS BEEN MISSING SINCE 2004, the night when she cleaned out her bank account, bought a bunch of booze, and crashed her car; thunderboomers needed to shut the hell up so that I could hear about the eye witness who saw someone smoking in the front seat of her car just after the crash. Or maybe not. Because eye witnesses…BOOOOOM!

Running is supposed to elevate the heart rate, but running in the woods during massive thunderstorms does the job even more effectively. For half an hour, hustling my way to safety, I slipped down mud slides and leapt over puddles. Every few minutes, passingly, I considered the concept of “God.” Even more frequently, I prayed to Thor for the continued health of my iPod, my phone, and my corporeal being.

Thor’s my bitch.

Dude totally ran interference between the storm and the skin sack of shuddering meat called The Jocey. I MADE IT TO THE PARKING LOT ALIVE, thank the great hammer-thrower in the sky!

Although I considered going home to change clothes, what with the ten pounds of water weight that were pulling the shorts off my hips, it seemed silly not to dash into the grocery store and grab them scallions. Sugar snaps. Asparagus. Bananas, like Maura Murray probably enjoyed for breakfast at West Point before she was expelled on the grounds of questionable moral conduct. A cucumber. Maybe some feta.

Squelch, squelch, squelch went my shoes, with every step. A waterfall cascaded from my body as I grabbed a basket and headed in. Such a sight as I merited comment. I was no further than the cheese display when a friendly worker ran his eyes over my ridiculousness and noted, “Looks like it’s pretty wet out there.”

Perhaps in his job at the grocery store, this fella was, as we say, “working to maximum potential.” Yes, it was very wet out there. And that’s why you’re meeting my nipples here by the gruyere, New Gap-Toothed Friend in an Apron.

A few minutes later, as I brushed droplets out of my eyelashes, all the better to differentiate zucchini from cucumber, NGTFiaA came up behind me and cleared his throat. Turning, I saw him extend something: a towel.

“I ran to the back room and found a dry one,” he offered. Quickly, I apologized for dripping all over and making the floors wet. “Oh, not to worry,” he assured me. “You just look uncomfortable and cold, and it was nothing for me to grab a towel.”

Chatting pleasantly while I scrubbed rivulets off my arms and legs, he stacked a few rogue tomatoes and empathized: once, he had been caught in a downpour outside by the Red Box and gotten wildly soaked in the time it took him to cover the fifteen feet to the door of the store. So he totally understood and knew a dry towel could make the difference between despair and okayness.

Significantly less drippy, I handed him the now-damp towel, thanked him again, and promised I’d be out of there quickly, before I made the floors dangerous. He tossed the towel onto his shoulder and smiled, flashing the full, glorious gap, before shrugging. “It’s no big deal, and don’t you worry about the floors. They’ll be fine.”

I picked up my basket. He turned to a box of nectarines that needed unloading. Squelch. I stepped towards the asparagus. Squelch. I grabbed two thick bunches of spears. Squelch. I thought about the continuum between despair and okayness. Squelch. I decided he was wrong.

It’s not a dry towel that can make the difference.


The difference is made by an easy shrug, a quick trip to the back room, and the thoughtfulness of a gap-toothed produce worker in an apron.

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Things I’m Liking

  • That Duchess Kate takes her own pictures of her kids for press release rather than having a professional photographer manipulating their little selves into pleasing moments. It’s possible I’m a fan of mothers with cameras stop calling my children “long-suffering” admire this birthday portrait of Princess Charlotte

  • That the nieces of Chimimanda Adichie (the author of Americanah) are running an Instagram account featuring her Nigerian-based fashion, and it is joy

  • That Blondie has a new album out — uneven and fun and full of surprising collaborations. Pitchfork’s review concludes it’s “…an album that shows one of the most crucial American rock bands searching for footing in a chaotic, collapsible pop landscape.” Note to self: all the most dynamic music is searching for footing, all the better when it’s made by a group whose sound tugs at the heartstrings of youth      

  • That I’ve been cranking on some extra work that pays a stipend — earning my way towards shoes with so much personality they distract me from reality; one day soon I shall wear these as I hold hands with my best friend Michelle Obama while we stroll through the herb garden we planted together

  • That Sally Yates has agreed to be my Prom date next year; I’ma make Ted Cruz be our limo chauffeur that night and require him to wear an organ-grinder monkey costume behind the wheel. Lolling in the back seat of our ride, I will hold Sally’s hand when I command “Pancake-Faced Monkey Man, take us to the convention center so we can toss some dice and celebrate this year’s theme of ‘Crapped out in Las Vegas’.” As he replies, I will roll up the divider window, slowly and decisively

  • That my daughter’s Prom caused me once again to wonder where all the bitches and drama have gone. The 1980s were teeming with rude comments and cruel behaviors dismissed as “funny.” Now, in 2017, I understand a fair amount of Bitches & Drama may be hosted by the volleyball and basketball teams, but not one whit of it exists in my girl and her friends, and that is the most beautiful thing I didn’t even know how to hope for

  • That the 8th grader loves his new tall-kid softie jammies so much he lays them out on the bed like some sort of fleece-conjured Flat Paco. “I don’t want them to get rumpled because then they won’t be as soft.” This from a boy who is hard pressed to find two matching socks within the walls of his personal castle of chaos

  • That I have latched onto a few new podcasts as I seek voices to fill my ears:

Up and Vanished — I’m not necessarily a fan of true crime, except when I am, and right now, I am. The first season of this podcast revives the “cold as Alaska” case of Georgian beauty queen Tara Grinstead, missing since October of 2005. Although the host’s speaking style isn’t my favorite, and although he sometimes has “my friend Rob” do incredibly not-on-purpose-cheesy readings of character profiles and transcripts, I decided early on to give the creator my “Bless your heart; you’re young and figuring out how to make a podcast” seal of patience. I’m glad I did. The case of Grinstead’s disappearance is resuscitated episode by episode as listeners learn about the men in her life, question the presence of a latex glove on the front lawn, wonder about that broken necklace on the floor of her house, and yowl with frustration over unreleased cell phone pings. Basically, if you were into Serial, Season 1, this show will scratch the same itch. CAUTION: don’t google the name Tara Grinstead or do anything beyond downloading the show…because someone was recently arrested with regards to her disappearance, and it’s all over internet!

The Read — Listen, most of you will hate this show, so I’m only mentioning it for two of you. Then again, if you’re itching to expand your understanding of the racial conversation in the U.S., this podcast, hosted by Kid Fury and Chrissle — both gay, both black, both fresh outta fucks except for concern about why the plate of edibles went missing — you might open yourself to these smart, funny voices that, each episode, devote a segment to “Black Excellence,” make well-deserved fun of white people if they give whites any time at all, deconstruct the politics of The Real Housewives of Atlanta (I’ve never watched a half-second of any Housewives show but no matter), weigh who’s winning current rap beefs, and close each episode by “reading” the nonsense of a chosen person, event, or behavior. Three things in particular appeal to me about this podcast: 1) I rarely am able to say what I REALLY think, so hearing Kid Fury and Chrissle be straight-up about all things is vicariously therapeutic; 2) Chrissle’s laugh is as welcome and satisfying as Nutella on warm toast; 3) I am grateful to all forms of social media, including podcasts, for making it possible to hang around the edges of dedicated Black Spaces and learn. some. shit. 

DTR — This is a “branded” podcast from Tinder — “about defining relationships in the digital age” — so I was wary. However, all worries swooned gently to the braided rug on the floor within five minutes of the first episode. The storytelling is good; the inside glimpse into the dating zeitgeist eyebrow-lifting; the flow engaging. YOU’LL NOT WANT TO MISS THE DICK PIC EPISODE, Mavis

  • That the library finally had a copy of The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas available for my hands to hold. I’m not necessarily a fan of YA, except when I am, and for this book, I was. Having heard raves about its ability to give life to the story behind news reports, I cracked it open and fell into the charm of 16-year-old protagonist Starr as she lives through the realities of having one of her best friends shot by a police officer — killed for the crime of being black while driving. Fiction does it every time: it puts us inside the stories that our brains might otherwise skim across. For me, during a week when I had to grade a paper that argued the Black Lives Matter movement, the Black Panthers, and Standing Rock protesters all have been in the wrong for putting “blue lives” at risk, this book was particularly welcome. It is reaching people. It should. During the days I was reading Starr’s story, 15-year-old Jordan Edwards was killed by a police officer for hopping in a car and driving away from a party. This book reminds — teaches? — readers that boys like Jordan have family and friends whose lives are defined by senseless violence

  • That Aziz Ansari released Season 2 of Master of None, and it is so good — taking the hackneyed tropes of a half-hour comedy and turning them into something like art. Full disclosure: the acting is uniformly terrible. But I’m willing to argue the acting isn’t the focus of this on-point program that follows a young Indian-American man through his days. More important is its sense of exploration and authenticity. When we watched Episode 6, “New York, I Love You,” I kept saying to Byron, “This is so fun!” At the end, Himself noted that it felt much like our favorite episode of Broad City (Season 3, “The Lockout”), wherein the characters spend most of the show wandering around the streets of the city, engaging in the micro-moments that make up a day. Turns out I’m hardcore for micro-moments, Moby 

  • That my husband is able to dash away from the library at lunch time and attend some classes at the Y with me. When we do moves that really hurt, I sometimes slither over to his mat and whisper, “Can you please make it stop”

  • That you are here right now, reading these typings, because as much as I’m one to drop to all fours in Aisle 8 and skitter behind the #10 cans of tomatoes rather than encounter the guy who lives down the street, 




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The Word “Gullible” Doesn’t Actually Appear in the Dictionary

Teddy said it was a hat, So I put it on. Now dad is saying, ‘where the heck’s the toilet plunger gone?’

–Shel Silverstein

In Northern Minnesota, winter is long and spring capricious. By April, residents’ moods correlate to the thermometer. 

That’s why, on a rare, glorious, sun-drenched Saturday when I was out for a run, I decided to pull off at the beach and sit for a spell on a driftwood log. 

And by “sit for a spell” I mean “people watch,” and by “on a driftwood log,” I mean “and eavesdrop.”

To my right was a mother with her two young sons. Languidly lying on the warm sand, the mother kept one eye open, watching her boys make ruts in the sand with the tires of their big plastic truck. As is the way with preschoolers, their chatter and energy were ceaseless; Mom had more than earned a few horizontal minutes. 

Increasing my delight with this family scene was the fact that the younger boy had a dream, a fervent wish expressed when he ran to the edge of the lake and yelled, ten times in succession, “I weally want to go potty in da wake! Mom, I weally want to go potty in da wake! I weally want to go potty in da wake! I weally want to go potty in da wake, Mom! Mom, I weally want to go potty in da wake! I WEALLY WANT TO GO POTTY IN DA WAKE! Mom. Maaaawm. I weally want to to potty in da wake! I weally want to go potty in da wake! Mom, Mom, Mom: I weally want to go potty in da wake! Hey, wake, I weally want to go potty in you!”

As he yelled, amused because he wasn’t my problem, I snapped a quick photo of his earnest posture and posted it online, using his words as the text.

Later, when I got home, Allegra asked me, smiling but not completely certain, “Did that really happen? Did that little boy actually yell ‘I weally want to go potty in da wake’ like you posted?”

Heck, yeah, he did. Why would you need to ask, daughter o’ mine?

“Well, I never know with you. Sometimes stuff seems like it could be real, and then it isn’t. Sometimes stuff isn’t real, but then it seems like it is.”

Fair enough. I’m nothing if not a steadily spewing font of bunk. However, I would have thought by now the 17-year-old would have learned an attitude of healthy skepticism. Ah, but life has given us a great gift: she’s still beautifully gullible.

Years ago in a quiet seaside town, my younger brother and I were paddling in the sea, and a thing that looked like a giant plug floated past us, so my brother took it to my mom and dad. My dad proceeded to shout “Quick, put the plug back in; the water will drain away!” I’d never seen my brother run so fast — to get this ‘plug’ back in to nothing.

I have a wicked big sister. Who told me that vermicelli (sprinkles) on top of fairy cakes was actually vermin jelly and was really disgusting and made of rolled up rat jelly and since she was my kind big sister she would eat it for me. So for years I scraped off the topping off fairy cakes (cupcakes) and gave it to her.

My mom convinced me that if you don’t leap off the end of the escalator, you get sucked in and have to go round again.

My sister used to work with a really gullible girl in a kitchen. There was a block of ice in the sink one day from where they’d been cleaning out the freezers. When she asked what it was there for, the head chef told her he needed it cleaning. Poor girl scrubbed it for ages and kept getting upset that it was getting smaller.

We took our South African friends to watch Greyhound racing at the famous “Walthamstow Dogs” (or “to the digs” as we all fondly called it, thereafter). I told my friend that greyhounds ran, but that if you were lucky you might get to see a “freestyle” race, where any breed of dog can run, where they have poodles and chihuahuas racing against corgis and Alsatians and Labradors and everything. She was disappointed that in the several visits we had there, not one of the races was the Freestyle one.

My two older brothers and I convinced our younger brother that tornadoes happened spontaneously anywhere, anytime. So every time we wanted to distract him, we’d just point and shout, “Tornado!” He’d drop whatever he was holding and fall into the crash position. It was really handy, actually. Also, I may or may not have convinced him that speed bumps were where they buried dead policemen.

When my oldest was riding in the back seat of the car on a long trip, he started bothering one of his siblings. I told him to stop bugging them. He couldn’t figure out how I knew what he was doing behind me. I told him that I had “eyes in the back of my head.” Later I found him searching my head, trying to find them. I told him that they were very small so that they could be covered by my hair, but still see. He believed it for a while. The backseat was much calmer for the rest of the trip.

On holiday with my Other Half, walking along in my flip flops, I stumble, and he says, “Well what do you expect, as you’ve got one of those defective pairs.” So I ask what he means, and he says, “Well obviously, they’re called flip flops, as that’s the sound they make when you walk in them, but the defective pairs aren’t made properly, and they are the flip flips or flop flops, depending on the sound. And they trip you up.” So, I spend the next hour or so telling him to be quiet so I can figure out which ones I’ve got.

Last summer I convinced my brother (whom I hadn’t seen in a long time and was quite lit from moonshine) that my friend Kristine — who had traveled with me to visit — was my sister. We called her Ophelia. We look similar in appearance. My cousin and other brother took it up with, “Your dad was a player.” We kept it up the entire visit and never told him the truth. He still thinks he has a half sister and wonders if there are more.

My all-time favorite story of Allegra’s gullibility involved, fittingly for the girl who adores office supplies and organizational tools, a whiteboard.

For years, we’ve kept an easel in our bathroom, one side of which is a whiteboard. The presence of that equipment in the bathroom has been an ongoing source of familial fun — we pose questions, draw pictures, send good-luck wishes, make to-do lists, always using the space as a place for play and interaction.

One time, Allegra wrote a prompt at the top of the board:

“Illustrate your favorite song.”

In response, I drew:

Next to my drawing, I wrote:

No, it’s not ‘Singin’ in the Rain.’ Yeah, maybe that rain there is purple. But, actually, my favorite song, as illustrated here, is a little-known ditty called ‘I Like an Umbrella I Could Hide a Dead Horse in, if the Occasion Ever Came Up.’ It was a huge hit in 1948 when Bing Crosby first crooned it.

In my mind, that song title was so nonsensical that no one could mistake it for real.

No one has never met Allegra.

That night, she accused, “Your song on the whiteboard isn’t real.”

Well of course not, silly. Who could possibly have thought it was?

She continued, her eyes lit with humor as she shook her head, “Well, I wasn’t sure. I mean, at first, I just though it was ‘Purple Rain’ because PRINCE, but then you threw me with the part about Bing Crosby; I felt like I’d heard of him, so it seemed possible.”

There is a kind of laughter I occasionally fall into. It’s deep and barking, and I can’t control it — a sort of joyful hysteria — the kind of hooting that would get someone sent to the principal’s office for disrupting history class. When this laughter sets in, I can’t stop it until I’m crying, wiping away tears as my belly continues to pip with giggles. As Allegra continued her confession, that laughter started, and I had to grab at the desk for support.

“Anyhow, I googled Bing Crosby + 1948 + umbrella + song. And it was really confusing because he did have an umbrella song recorded in 1948, but it was called ‘A Fella with an Umbrella,’ so then I thought ‘Oh, so that’s the song Mom likes. She just got the title wrong.’ But it still didn’t seem right. I mean, you drew a woman, not a guy. And there was nothing about a dead horse in it when I listened to it. So then I decided you might have made it up. Your favorite song isn’t really ‘I Like an Umbrella I Could Hide a Dead Horse in, if the Occasion Ever Came Up,’ right?”

No, sweetheart. You dear, open-hearted love bug. My favorite song is not “I Like an Umbrella I Could Hide a Dead Horse in, if the Occasion Ever Came Up.”

My oldest brother made me swear off Chinese food for years by telling me that the slimy bean sprouts in Chun King’s canned chow mein were actually tiny penises taken from Chinese boys.

My dad convinced me that a small bump on the side of his face was actually where a spider had crawled up his face really, really slowly, and his skin had grown over it.

When my older brother and I told my little brother his head was too fat to fit in between the bars on the teeter-totter-swing-thingy, he plunged in. And got stuck. Totally stuck. Screaming his head almost off stuck. Almost. Our parents arrived. All the situation did was enrage my father, who tried pulling the bars apart, getting angrier every minute. Our little brother was hysterical. Mom, enabler of father’s rage, rubbed a stick of margarine on the side of my brother’s face so he might be slippery enough to be yanked out. A few feet away, my older brother and I were almost dying of laughter, so glad it wasn’t us there in the chaos.

I believed for years elbow grease was something you brought from shops and looked for it in stores everywhere until I finally asked a woman in Woolworth’s where I’d find it. Everyone laughed for hours. I felt so dumb as I was 24.

When I was eight and my middle brother was almost three, I told him if he put Red Hots up his nose he’d be able to fly. He believed me, at least long enough to try it. Fortunately we did not have to go to the emergency room to get the Red Hots out, but I still got in big trouble.

I convinced my children when they were small that McDonald’s was ONLY for travelers. You could only eat at McDonald’s if you were away from home. They didn’t ever even ask if we could go there, they were so convinced. Until my oldest was about 8 and spotted some friends pulling out of the drive-thru. “Wait, Mom! How can they be at McDonald’s? They just live down the street! They’re not allowed to go there!” That ruse lasted so much longer than I ever dreamed it could, and I laughed so hard at her outrage, I shot coffee out my nose. I had to pull over. I was weeping. The children were, remarkably, not amused.

My husband convinced my best friend that the castle was in ruins because it was the place the first elephant was kept, and it got angry and knocked down the walls. He then went on to say that that is how the pub called the Elephant & Castle was named. She was so convinced it was the truth that she went and asked in the gift shop if they had any books about the elephant that destroyed the castle!

I would tell my best friend’s daughter that I determined her sex by tapping her mother’s stomach over and over again while saying the word “girl.” Somehow she believed this long after she knew about sex.

Later on the same day when I had seen the boy who weally wanted to go potty in da wake, Allegra and Paco and I were laughing about how Allegra is so smart and such a practical person, yet she has this charming purity that allows her to believe whatever people tell her.

As we reviewed her best moments, Paco and I were in the kitchen while she sat on the couch on the back porch — communicating through a screen, with me the priest and her the sinner. At one point, laughter and body converged in Paco, and he emitted a long string of bubbles from his nethers. 

“Oh, crap!” I said, mock-despair in my voice. “There’s a gas leak in the kitchen.” Paco and I smirked at each other. When are fart jokes not funny?

On the porch, immediately alarmed, Allegra fretted, “WHAT? We have a gas leak?”

A tribal elder was telling me about the kinds of animals they trapped and ate when he was a kid. I asked him if they trapped and ate muskrat. “Yup,” he grunted, as he was a man of few words. I asked him if they trapped and ate beaver. “Yup.” After a long silence – several minutes – he asked me, “Did you ever eat crow?” I said, “No, I’ve never eaten crow.” Two days later, I got the joke.

My husband used to tell his sister she was adopted. She’s nearly 40 years old and can to this day recount the way he’d take her by the shoulders, point her toward the mirror and say “Look at you.. You don’t look like EITHER of them.” She entertained nagging doubts for years.

I have a scar on my forehead from my first chicken pock. I used to tell my new friends that my brother tried to pierce me with a one hole punch.

My brother convinced me that I had the sled (our trusty Flexible Flyer) twice as long as he did because I got it on the way up, and he got it on the way down.

My mum had this pretty necklace and convinced me that it was filled with sleeping gas, so I had to be very careful not to touch it, or I might release the sleeping gas. She also had me convinced that she used it to rob banks on occasion. And that she was an alien and had been born from an egg. And that all the people and images in magazines and commercials weren’t actually real, just computer generated representations of something that miiiight be made someday.

Whilst on holiday, we went on a boat trip past this giant rock that mountain goats live on. My boyfriend told me that the goat’s legs are shorter on one side to make it easier for them to walk round the mountain, so they don’t fall off slopes. About a year later we were randomly having a conversation about goats at work – I thought I was being super-intelligent telling everyone my ‘fact’ about mountain goats…..but they all burst out laughing, and someone said how do they go the other way round the mountain?! I was like “Well, I guess they just walk in one direction.”

I believed it when my older brothers told me that you MUST wave hello to a police officer whenever you see one or that they can arrest you on the spot. For years I’d panic if I forgot to wave, so I’d turn around and wave frantically so that they knew I was a law-abiding good boy.

My sister and I fought pretty much every day of our life. No one really liked being around us. We had a beach house about five hours away, and all parents can attest to long car rides with kids saying, “She touched me,” “She’s looking at me,” etc. They put a cooler and other stuff between us. When we were young, maybe about 8-9, my father nonchalantly said he needed us to count the telephone poles silently, so we spent a majority of the ride counting telephone poles.

A few weeks ago on my way down to the Twin Cities, I stopped at some outlet stores, thinking I’d take a wander around The Gap. One can never stay too much on top of cargo-pocket-based fashion, after all.

45 minutes later, a heap of clothes in my arm, I headed towards the check-out. Ever the magpie, I noticed a bottle of lovely purple nail polish on a shelf by the cash registers. Whispering, it told me it would wike to come home wif me.

Back at home a few days later, I put the bottle onto the shelf of polishes that Allegra and I share. Not too long after that, I noticed she had pulled that new polish and set it on her dresser in the spot where she stages her “soon-to-use” bottles. 

Semi-predictably, because some teenagers lead with awkward coltishness, gangling their way through their days, it didn’t take long before a CRASH followed by an “Uh-oh” emerged from her room.

I didn’t need to ask. I knew exactly what had just happened. “So I’m guessing that sound was the new nail polish breaking?” I called as I skittered down the hall.

Wow. Nice. It looked as though a steam-roller had done gear-shifting practice all over Barney the Dinosaur. 

Allegra was already on the floor, picking up pieces of glass. “I’ll grab tissues ’cause that stuff is going to dry quickly,” I offered. 

“Yeah, it’s already drying,” she added. Within minutes, we were wiping her floor and our hands with nail polish remover. Soon, the crisis was over, and the ribbing could begin.

For the next few days, I’d periodically drop some guilt on her — “We hadn’t even used that new polish yet. It was so pretty. I drove two hours to find exactly that shade, and now we’ll never get to enjoy it.”

Eventually, I realized that Allegra and her team had an upcoming track meet in the town where the outlet stores are located, so I was able to add to the teasing: “That’s going to be so awesome on Friday when you ask the bus driver to pull over at The Gap for a quick minute so you can dash in and buy a replacement bottle. I’m sure your teammates won’t protest.”

The day of the track meet came. On such days, Byron and I usually text her to check in on how her races went, to see what they’re having for dinner, to find out if there is an ETA and if she’d like someone to head to the high school to meet the bus and walk home with her.

That Friday, I also texted:

It seemed clear to me I was joking.


The next afternoon, the guileless girl checked. “Did you really think I asked the bus driver to go to the outlet stores? I feel like you actually thought I was bringing home a new bottle of nail polish — I mean, you were so serious with what you wrote in that text.”

No, sweetpea. Yer old ma was just joshing you.

“Oh. Well, I couldn’t tell. I thought you were going to be disappointed.”

Staff at camp convinced me that fish don’t have babies but, rather, they divide in half down the middle and grow their respective missing parts. They convinced another that the first thing you do when building a fire is make sure their aren’t any rocks in the fire that could explode from the heat.

Our little sister was making chocolate-covered raisins one evening. Lib convinced her to make some chocolate-covered dog food and took it to school the next day to feed to her friends. To this day she swears some of them loved it.

When he sprained his thumb, I told my son they may have to amputate it and give him a hook. Later, when concerned mothers from the PTA were calling about his “upcoming surgery,” I realized it’d gone too far.

My brother’s father-in-law convinced my now-wife at Thanksgiving that John Madden’s six-legged turkey was a real turkey that they created with a mix of breeding and nuclear mutation. She believed us for half a football game.

I bought Catholicism hook, line and sinker. Eating and drinking blood and body of Christ. Devil potentially inhabiting every person I met, just trying to trip me up. Saying prayers in succession would earn me forgiveness for pouting when my mom made me brush my teeth. Brimstone and fire for those who didn’t attend church.

My kids (probably until they were 12 or so) thought that time ran wonky on New Year’s Eve. I think they assumed that because it was the end of the year the flow of time was unpredictable, or something like that. In reality, hubby and I were setting all the house clocks back by two hours so the kids could celebrate at midnight but we could still go to bed at a decent hour.

From Santa Cruz, California, it’s possible to see Monterey across the bay, and when the fog is in it looks like an island. The family joke is to tell people new to the view that it’s Hawaii and then try to keep a straight face while they ooh over how close it looks. My husband fell for it (years ago), and we’re still teasing him…

My roommates put raisins in my toothpaste, and I thought it was bat shit (which they encouraged). They egged me on to call the Crest hotline. Then they sat in the other room laughing while I was on the phone freaking out asking if the people who stirred the batch were eating Oreos.

I love Allegra’s innocence so much, and while I want her to develop a nose for hogwash, I also hope, in the soft corners of my heart, that she is allowed a life so fortunate her defenses never have to be raised higher than an arched eyebrow.

Fervently, I wish for her continued artlessness — mostly so I can tell her:

“That means you are a person with an appreciation for art but who doesn’t own any pieces of significance.”

I can’t wait to watch her face as she nods, absorbing a new word into her vocabulary.

Tip of the hat to contributors on Facebook and from the forum who shared tales of gullibility.

If you care to share, click a square:

No Shit

It’s almost midnight when I notice the hummock of wet tissue resting in the bottom of the hotel toilet.

Two quick thoughts careen through my brain: “Where did all the water go?” and “Why would the Michelin Man come here to die?”

My brain isn’t functioning at its peak; twenty minutes ago, I took a half-dose of a sleep aid, hoping it would help me nod off before my usual 2 a.m. bedtime. I need to get up in the morning, push past my hatred of speaking words out of my mouth before noon, and interact with colleagues. The faculty union is holding its annual delegate assembly, and if I have any hope of tracking the amendments to the amendments to the resolutions tomorrow, I need my brain to reboot overnight.

Achieving a turned-off brain while staying in a hotel is remarkably difficult, in truth. A chronic night owl, I am also someone who doesn’t have cable, someone who loses her mind when she sounds out the letters H-G-T-V because H-G-T-V stands for “Somebody with a limited budget wants to buy a tiny home!”

Even more, my brain is zinging because I’ve had dinner with friends from the college where I used to teach. I’ve had a steak avec pommes frites. I’ve had a couple of drinks. I’ve had my friend Kirsten hanging out in my room for late-night snacks and giggles.

Even even more as I rattle restlessly around my room, natural nocturnal energy pushing against dissolving sleep aid, I’ve discovered a new program on the Discovery Channel, and every time I think I’m going to shut down and try to zzzzz, a new episode starts. 

You guys. Guys. You. Guys. Hey, guy. YOU. Have you ever heard of a show called Naked and AfraidHave you?


Comforts stripped, the modern-day ratings-driven Adam and Eve are each allowed one thing: a woven bag, ostensibly to hold the video cameras they will need for filming daily grubby, gaunt-faced confessionals in front of sandstone backdrops, but more to cover their genitalia so that the entire show isn’t merely an extended shot of blurred-out testicles. Additionally, each competitor may bring along a single helpful item, usually a knife, a fire starter, or a pair of Fluevogs. But outside of those things — oh, and the accompanying crew of individuals filming the show and calling in the EMTs in case of radical dehydration or heart failure — our Adam and Eve are entirely on their own, left to swat mosquitoes for three weeks while tossing covert glances at each other’s taint.

The premise is seductive; the reality is stomach-growling tedium edited to interest. There in my hotel room, enjoying a previously unrealized opportunity to watch naked people crab at each other and poke sticks into the mud while alligators lurk in the murk, I. am. riveted. To my detriment, every time one episode ends, a new one begins. On the clock with commercial breaks, I tear into the bathroom, empty my bladder, and rush back to press my face against the massive screen.

Essentially a toddler, I am easily overstimulated. By this point in the evening, what with food and friends and tv shows, my brain has grabbed a handful of markers and started scrawling all over the white walls, one hand tucked into the back of its Pull-Up. 

Ideally, my actual body should be wearing a Pull-Up. That way, I could urinate in front of the television, alleviating the bathroom race, a slapdash trip that keeps me from noticing — until the third back-to-back episode starts — that there is very little water in the toilet yet a goodly amount of toilet paper. Huh.

Perhaps, in my haste, I’ve been hitting the flusher too quickly? Maybe it needs a holding. 

Crikey. That water level sure gets high when I hold down the handle. 

But also, out in the other room the Mormon guy who has promised his new wife he won’t hook up with the naked lady with whom he is starving for 21 days is about to start his morning prayer, which goes something like, “Dear Father, I have done no cuddling, so please help me kill a snake today. But first, may your bounty allow us to find the right kindling to make sparks.”

A toddler-woman can hardly be expected to stand in front of the toilet, idling away the minutes watching water levels, when there’s Mormon prayer for snake happening in the next room.

Thus begins a late-night session of interval training. Every twelve minutes, I bang into the bathroom, notice the water level has subsided while all the toilet paper remains, and flush again, my heart as full of hope as a Latter Day Saint snatching at the back leg of a scampering lizard.

To be honest, the toilet holds me in thrall as much as Naked and Afraid does; it’s a game of chance, isn’t it, repeatedly tempting a cranky toilet to overflow and then watching it fail? Persisting through six or seven flush cycles, the natatory toilet paper is mesmerizing: like Tibetan prayer flags lining the trail of an Everest ascent. Every flush is a gamble, a heart-rate elevating pull of the lever. Because I am both simple and an optimist, part of me believes that enough flushes will clear the obstruction, and Adam, Eve, and Jocelyn will live to begat another day. 

It’s almost 1 a.m. when actual reality and not just reality-show reality floods my sleep-aided consciousness. Finally feeling like I can turn in, having had a firm talk with myself about how Big Girls turn off the television sometimes, I head once again into the bathroom. As I brush my teeth and apply ineffective anti-aging night cream, I admire the red wine stain rorschaching across the front of my green shirt and contemplate 21 grim days without wine or shirts. NAH. 

Naturally, as my last act of the evening, I visit the toilet. Over my tinkling, I hear words: Mormon Adam is shocked by how fully yoga-loving peacenik Eve has committed to burning a colony of black widow eggs in the cave where they have been sleeping. Frantically wiping, I slam a quick flush and torpedo back to the screen, vowing I’ll turn the thing off the second all spiders are confirmed dead. 

Within five seconds, I am confused. If I’m still watching tv, how come I can hear the babbling brook sound that I stream from a white noise app on my phone when sleeping in hotels? 

Casting about for my phone — because I do not need the brook to babble until the spiders die — I look towards the bathroom.

Well now.

Eventually, every gambler loses, and my hand has gone bust. Water is streaming over the top of the toilet, waterfalling from all sides. Momentarily, I consider recording the sound because I’m pretty sure I can sell the recording to White Noise App, Inc. and rake in a hot $4 over the course of the next few years. In the next moment, however, I realize I’d best step into some shoes and hustle my underwear-free, wine-stained self down to the front desk — which, fortunately, is mere feet away. 

Breathlessly, I reach the front desk. In short order, the clerk tells me the problem can’t be fixed until morning, as there is no engineer on duty over night, and then he issues a key to a new room and asks if I could turn off the valve on the wall, should the toilet still be running.

It’s 1 a.m. My boobs set to flappin’ as I truck down the corridor. The sleep aid has fully kicked in. I am not looking forward to packing up the random explosions of crap that populate my room. But, hell, it’s not like I’m naked or afraid, just bra-less and woozy.

Suddenly, though, I am very afraid. Ten feet from the door of my room, I become afraid like a peacenik yoga lover who hears a rustling in the back of the cave, and it ain’t Brigham Young skinning a snake.

I become afraid because there’s a two-foot semi-circle of water-stained carpet outside the door of my hotel room. 

Which means probably that. Uh. If that much water is outside my hotel room door. Um. Do I really want to open that door?

However, although I play the toddler when it comes to tv, I have my Big Girl Pull-Ups on, so I can do anything Big Girls do.

Like open a door, behind which might be black widow spiders, Tibetan flags, or,

as it turns out,

a biblical flood. 

Slogging across swampy carpet, I wade into the inch of water standing on the bathroom floor; I turn off the valve; I swim into the bedroom; I slop across the bog of a floor; I catch my breath when I see that the water has seeped under the first bed, leeched out the other side, and made way towards the second bed. Briskly, I grab the remote and turn off the television (let’s presume Adam and Eve make it out alive, and humanity prospers) before I start hefting my clothes and bags off the floor, packing in a wild-yet-efficient scramble.

Exasperatingly, as I hit my flow, there’s a knock on the door. Arghghgh. I pause packing, snap on my snorkel, and dive across the ocean of carpet. It helps that the scruffy-faced, concerned hotel employee standing outside my room could well have been an extra on EastEnders. His accent buys him a full cup of patience.

Yes, I realize the carpet outside my room is wet.

Yes, I have turned off the valve so that the toilet stopped spewing buckets of water for which a certain thirsty Mormon in Madagascar would thank his Heavenly Father. 

Yes, I am vacating the room.

Yes, this is a problem that must be tended to tonight even though there is no engineer on duty.

Yes. Thank you. Yes.

Letting the door slam on his departing figure, I sidestroke across the room towards my belongings. Just as I am zipping the fifth bag, there is another knock. 

Being stranded in arid Madagascar isn’t looking so bad right now. JEEZUS. Give a Big Girl five minutes, wouldya?

It’s the same extra from EastEnders, and this time he’s brought a friend. Hi. Yes. Still wet. Still packing. Out in three minutes. Yes, water under one of the beds. Yes, water across half the room. Yes, so much water in the bathroom that it’s running into the bedroom.

They are wonderfully solicitous, but it turns out I rather like to be left alone when preparing a hasty exit from somebody else’s problem. Dudes. My dudes. THREE MINUTES AND A LITTLE SPACE, and then you can throw down all the towels. Still, they are kind. EastEnder asks, “Can we help you move your bags to your new room?”

Without thinking, I shuck off their offer, announcing, “Thanks anyhow. I’m good. I have very few gifts in life, but I’m a born mule.”

As soon as the words are out, the three of us are suspended in one of those bizarre life moments when individual brains derail simultaneously, in the same direction, yet, because we are strangers, no one can acknowledge it. 

No, I don’t mean I am gifted when it comes to swallowing condoms bulging with heroin.

But we all thought it.

A literal three minutes after the lads depart, I am mulish with bags, ready to splash and trudge to my new room.

It is 1 a.m. I am hauling wine and unworn bras and a laptop and Starburst gummies and a bottle of sleeping pills. As I plod, I smile.  

There is a lesson imparted by Naked and Afraid. It has something to do with how people react to stress, how we change when our circumstances control our behaviors, how we push past irritations into the grace of acceptance. It has something to do with tender mercies. 

For ratings-driven Adam and Eve, that process means they are first awkward, then resentful, ultimately grateful.

As it turns out, even though I am wearing a wine-stained t-shirt and have seven pounds of snacks tugging at my scapulae, I too am experiencing tender mercies. 

I don’t have to deal with the aftermath of a clogged toilet.

I am walking towards a room that is clean and welcoming.

I am safe, warm, well fed, embarrassingly coddled. My smallest needs are indulged. 


As I leave behind one mess before creating the next, as I watch kind hotel workers scurry around my now-empty room, as I watch fans blow both inside and outside it for the next two days, as I witness a harried, defeated-looking manager with a clipboard enter standing in the doorway, as I wave brightly at the clerks behind the front desk,

I am living the tenderest of mercies:

when that toilet overflowed, it vomited only toilet paper and urine.

But for a world of tender mercies, it could have been worse.

I could have been a drug mule who’d just used the porcelain for offloading.

Or I could have been a regular English teacher lady at a union meeting, merely needing to void her bowels before bedtime. 

All I can think as I walk down the hall at 1 a.m., as I feel bags thumping against my buttocks, their drape saving my show from being nothing more than blurred-out genitalia, is that I should get up early to pray outside the cave (Room 103) and thank The Goddess for lack of public feces.

Indeed, life at its best is a series of back-to-back episodes of tender mercies — strung together, one rolling into the next, each reminding us to keep our noses pressed against the screen. 

Of course, I already knew that, even before the toilet overflowed, so my sunrise prayer will be brief. A few doors down from my original room, dropping to my knees on the faintly moist carpet outside Room 103, I will murmur — with gratitude in my heart — two short, heartfelt words:

“No shit.”

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The Week I Turned Fifty

Saturday: The Orientalist paintings of Ottoman artist Osman Hamdi Bey are my absolute favorites when it comes to puzzlin’. Each image conveys a snapshot of life from an era that now seems ancient but which, technically, only ended a hundred years ago — when my maternal grandfather was in his twenties. While some argue Osman Hamdi Bey’s paintings are revisionist, his perspective imperialist with regards to the outlying regions of Turkey, what matters to me is that his work is striking and captures very specific moments. I do love me a specific moment well captured. For the past few weeks, I’ve been working the edges and closing the gaps in my puzzle of Kahve Ocagi (loosely: coffee hearth), a puzzle I paid a nice man named Petr in the Czech Republic to send, thus putting temporarily to rest my anxiety about having completed all the Osman Hamdi Bey puzzles available for purchase in the United States. As the puzzle progresses, so does my obsession with its eleven shades of beige, its detailed tile work, its nuanced kilims. It’s good I don’t have a newborn, as that hungry babe would have to howl through the equivalent of “Bohemian Rhapsody” before I’d lift my head from this jigsaw.

Cup of coffee, you lazy bastard?


Sunday: My absorption in the puzzle is causing back pain, and my feet hurt, too, since I alternate between standhunching and squishing my tush onto a step-stool. The same way a masseuse or a hair dresser needs to be aware of body mechanics if he wants his career to last, I am finding that I need to develop new puzzling postures if I hope to be connecting pieces into my 90s, and what the hell else am I going to do in my 90s if not work on jigsaw puzzles and take up drumming?

Fortunately, Paco’s fencing class in the afternoon pulls me away from the lure of the flowered tiles. The kid isn’t feeling well, but he decides — in a noble decision doweseehownobleheisbeing? that emerges from the mist of a days’-long dramatic health sulk — to attend class. Incubating whatever crap laid his sister low a few weeks ago, he lacks energy, his throat hurts, and he thinks he might be getting a fever. None of this is obvious as he thrusts, parries, and bouts, his attention to detail apparent even as his system swoons. Front toe leading, knees bent, he glides across the wooden floor, back, forth, quick stepping with his partner in the give and take of the sport. As he sweats under his mask, assuring he’ll have a home-from-school fever by morning, Byron and I run and walk on the track that circles the class. Sometimes we stop and lift weights or stress our abdominals. Mostly, I spend the hour with one eye on my kid and the other on the crazy quilt of humanity that shows up on Sunday afternoons to use the track. For sixty whole minutes, my puzzle obsession recedes, only to rear again once we get home. I have to make myself take breaks to grade student work, to feign conversation, to watch an episode of The Great Pottery Throw Down (think The Great British Baking Show but with ceramics). Fortunately, Kiln Boy Rich is particularly charming on today’s episode, and Judge Keith pleases me by having a quick cry when he sees a contestant’s exemplary final product, so I manage to turn my back to the puzzle table. Later, much later, once the week’s grading is wrapped and everyone in the house has gone to sleep, I find homes for another ten puzzle pieces before heading upstairs to my other current obsession: The Turner House by Angela Flournoy


Monday: My phone has been broken for a month + a day, and the duo in charge of fixing it is proving so epically poor at communication and running a business that I’m happy to leave my Nexus 5x in their hands for as long as it takes for them to implode. In an alternate scenario, it could turn out that they hand the phone carcass back to me in a few more weeks along with a hefty bill and an apology that it’s still nonfunctional. Either way, these boys have me completely

Home sick, Paco enjoys the recounting of my latest conversation with the owner of the phone repair shop. Uncharacteristically, Owner Boy has reached out to give me an update on the status of my phone. His bowl of Fruity Pebbles must have been particularly satisfying this morning. What I enjoy most, as he details the new issues they’ve just unearthed with regards to the phone I zapped dead with boob sweat, is when he says, “And so we cleaned up the corrosion on the board. The whole process should have started with a moisture recovery.” Because I am the very soul of discretion, save for when I’m recounting stories to my family and on my blog, I do not tell Owner Boy that the day I dropped off my phone and explained the problem to Pony Tail Tech, he told me, “The first thing we’ll do is a moisture recovery.”

I do not tell this to Owner Boy because, a week ago, a few days after he’d hollered at me for calling the company to ask about my phone, he called to let me know he was tightening the screws on my replacement screen and that it could be picked up any time…except then he called me back again to ask if I could bring my charger cord when I came in since the phone was dead…except I had left my charger cord with them when I initially dropped off my phone…except Owner Boy couldn’t find it anywhere, but he was sure he had a cord at home that would work…except when I came the next day to pick up my repaired, charged phone, it wasn’t charged, and it was only when Pony Tail Tech came out to my car with me and plugged my phone into the cigarette lighter that he discovered it wasn’t fixed at all…and so that’s when they ordered another replacement screen…after which they discovered the screen wasn’t really the whole problem…because they should have started with a moisture recovery.

I do not tell Owner Boy he is the star of a narrative that opens and closes with the line “We should start with a moisture recovery.”


Tuesday: The day alternates between sitting and moving. Hell, they all do. But the shifts are dramatic, with Paco still home sick — a wan Victorian heroine on the chaise longue, his stays loosened, smelling salts on the feather-inlay hand-carved side table — contrasting with my commitment to a weekly long run. Glacially, I scratch out 11.36 miles (The .36 is important as it’s the part where I make deals with myself like “Just keep going until you get to the flag pole, girl, and then, if you really need to stop, you can”) before grabbing a shower and flinching at the red half-blisters left by my running bra, despite having applied a liberal swath of Vaseline along the underboob before heading out. Not incidentally, never, ever ask my phone about the traumas of Booblandia.

Legs tired, torso sore, I kick back during a global education committee meeting, particularly enjoying the part where I work in a three-minute summary of a novel I just read, The Association of Small Bombs, pushing it as pertinent to faculty who discuss terrorism with students. After the meeting, I dash to the optical store, pick up Allegra’s new glasses, stop at the grocery store for more of that delicious new Angie’s BOOMCHICKAPOP Real Butter Popcorn, and run into a friend in the parking lot. I know she’s a true friend, not mere acquaintance, because it takes no time before I’ve announced “women are exhausting” and she’s countered with “melatonin” and “moody.”

An hour later, during that rare window when we four in our family are all in the kitchen, hanging, debriefing, snacking, Allegra stands in front of me, as she sometimes does, angling for an extended hug. She will have to live another three decades before she has any inkling how much such embraces mean to me. After the release, we hook fingers and hold hands during a discussion about that evening’s band concert. She will be 17 next week — “You had me when you were 33, and now you’re almost 50, which means I’m almost 20, and none of that seems right!” — and already we know she will finish out her high school requirements next fall at the University of Minnesota-Duluth before graduating early. Already we know she will work and save money so that she can travel for a few months before college, wherever college ends up being. I am indeed almost 50, caught in the maternal half-held breath of “Every event feels like a ‘last’ at the same time everything feels possible.” Whenever I use the word “melancholy,” Allegra says, “At the end of our year in Turkey, when people asked how you felt about returning to the States, you always told them you were ‘melancholy.’ So even now, whenever I hear that word, I think of Turkey.” Whenever I hear the word “melancholy,” I think of my kids getting ready to fly.

At 7 p.m., the band concert starts. It is nearly one of her ‘last,’ yet I bend my head. Instead of staring at the far-away stage where my girl’s shining hair is barely discernible, I use a dim book light to read for an hour and a half, trying not to cackle out loud at Paul Beatty’s observational satire in The Sellout.


Wednesday: We drop Paco off at school a tidge late, confederates and compromisers in his desire to avoid riding the bus when he’s been oh-so-sick-hack-hack-cough-cough, and I have to clench fists to thighs to keep my arms from embracing the secretary in the school office who greets him with, “Oh, Paco, it’s so good to see you back. Are you feeling a little better, then?” There are 536 students who attend Paco’s school. PAY HER MORE.

Clicking our heels with kid-free abandon, Byron and I attend a boot camp class together, an hour that taxes and elevates in equal measure, an hour that rewards the peasant DNA which gifts me with the ability to hoist heavy things while being shouted at by an overlord, an hour where my husband and I literally yoke ourselves together with a strap and run a Spouse Yank around the track.

Yes, the Spouse Yank jokes are writing themselves, smutheads, and you’re very clever, aren’t you? 

After boot camp, as we drive to the bike shop to drop off Byron’s new tires for “truing,” the hero of my Every Spouse Yank drops an anecdote that makes me question if we know each other at all. How can he claim to love me and yet have kept this story to himself?


One time, some half long time ago but maybe more like two years, Byron was in the locker room at the gym. And there was this guy. About 70 years old. Naked. Chatting.

As he held forth about, say, catching a particularly large walleye with his grandson, he casually lifted his foot onto a nearby stool, allowing his personal walleye a good dangle. It turns out he was propping his foot so as to improve air flow.


He fluffed. He chatted.



I may be pushing the years, but still: I’m full of wonder. 


Thursday: Mike Birbiglia is this season’s “token white male” on an episode of the Sooo Many White Guys podcast. As I listen to him talk with host Phoebe Robinson about Don’t Think Twice — his film in which an improv troupe cracks apart — I consider the implications of striving and failing in front of witnesses.

I am walking, stepping over cracks, up curbs, over puddles; the cadence of my feet propels thoughts about the control that “fear of making a public misstep” exerts over so many people’s lives. Living guardedly certainly assures a person never appears stupid. If one doesn’t put anything out there, one can never be wrong. Yet. There is power in the willingness to look a fool. To be vulnerable in front of others requires trust — that the audience will be kind. Often, they are not. But when they are, the payoff is incomparable. As I walk, still listening, I think back to the try-hard wrecks that some of my writings, classes, and comments have been over the years and decide I’m glad to continue making public mistakes — because at least it means I’m working from courage, exposing vulnerability, trusting strangers, learning where and with whom I am safe. 


Friday: It’s a great week for logistics: Byron and I manage a second gym date, this one a “circuit” class of high-intensity activities that leave participants regretting that banana they ate an hour before. Himself is cramming the class into his lunch break, so I arrive early to set up our equipment and stay after to deconstruct our stations of risers, Bosus, weights, medicine balls, and mats. Dealing with props alone feels like plentiful workout to me, but I soldier through the actual class, as well, keeping my gaze carefully focused on the teacher, not my charming mate. Dude can run thirty miles and get stronger with each passing hour, but when he’s asked to raise his right knee to a steady beat, well,

he works from a place of courage, exposing vulnerability, trusting strangers, learning where and with whom he is safe.

He is safe with me. 

Some hours later, I snatch Paco out of school a bit early so that he and I can get to Allegra’s first track meet of the season. She runs a relay early on and then the mile quite some time later, which means Paco and I stand at a balcony railing for a total of three hours, looking down on the track, shifting from foot to foot, chatting with a neighbor about the tough crop of sixth graders at his school this year. It is during Hour Two that Paco announces, woefully, “I can tell my medicine has worn off.” Despite his fatigue and low-level pain, he makes it to the end because “I want to see Leggy run.”


Saturday: I am standing downtown, waiting to cross the main street, when a blue car screeches up next to me. It’s a sometimes-colleague, the mother of one of Allegra’s classmates, a woman with whom I’ve sat at big, round tables during sports banquets. “Where are you going?” she asks after rolling down the window. 

The answer is never easy. Where am I going? Well, in the next 25 minutes, I am going into that parking ramp down there, dropping my bag, grabbing my computer, walking to the library, doing a quick bit of work and saying hi to my staffing-the-checkout-counter husband, hoofing back to the car, jigging up to the gaming store where Paco has been playing Dungeons & Dragons with his friends, grabbing him, shopping for six things at the grocery store, getting a freebie birthday coffee drink, and driving home. “Where I’m going” is never brief.

In return, in a beautiful twist, she then asks me where she’s going. 

That is, she doesn’t know where exactly to find the school where her daughter has been attending an ACT prep course, and do I know? For once, I actually know where something is, and when I give her directions, it becomes clear we’re both interested in covering the same 100 yards in the next two minutes. “Get in!” she commands. “I’ll drive you down a block.”

The second my rump hits the seat, I am glad to be there. Cruising the downtown streets, this friend has been in high snack mode; Wasabi almonds and dried mango cover the gear shifter, and a container of peanut butter pretzels is open on her lap. “Have some!” she exclaims, gesturing to the front-seat buffet. And I do.

Previous to this random encounter, to this impulsive moment, to this intersection of “Hey there, you,” I have often enjoyed Wasabi almonds and dried mango, but my experience with peanut butter pretzels has been limited, perhaps non-existent. Deep inside me, something protective has always whispered, “You have enough issues, girl. These things could be dangerous for you. Maybe don’t open this particular Pandora’s box of temptations, ‘k?”

It is my birthday, and I am 50 which feels like 26, and I am doing 12 things in the next half hour, yet suddenly I am in a car, engaged in rapid-fire exchanges with a lanky blonde, eating my first peanut butter pretzel —

it is my birthday, a day of reckoning with past voices, winking away protective whispers, walking within and outside my skin, laughing at a full and changeable agenda, giving over to quicksilver trust, collecting colorful stories, embracing fancies, puzzling my way from edge to center —

and every last bit of it couldn’t be more wonderful.


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A Lion, a Giraffe, and a Picnic by a Lake

Introduction from Diane

First, a bit about me. I was born in Boston and spent my teenage years wrestling with an urge to get out and see the world. For almost 20 years, I’ve taught linguistics at the University of Leeds in England. In 2004, I took a career break to go backpacking and met a Turkish man. We got married, had two children, and then the marriage came to an end. Along the way I learned to speak basic Turkish and met a collection of friends, both Turkish and foreign, who are still an important part of my life. I love Turkey and go there once or twice a year so that the children can spend time with their father and his family in their village. Some of my friends there are now involved in the efforts to help the Syrian refugees living in Turkey. There are an estimated 3 million Syrians in Turkey (probably more, since many are still undocumented). Only about 10% live in the UN-funded refugee camps near the Syrian border. The rest are distributed throughout Turkey. They’re not entitled to any housing or financial support directly from the Turkish government but can get support from charities and NGOs working in the country. Most Syrian adults speak little or no Turkish, and a lot of their children aren’t enrolled in schools. This year I spent my Christmas vacation talking to people who are running projects to help the refugees. I wanted to tell their stories, the stories about what happens after the newspaper headlines die down, the stories about lives passed  in years of limbo, waiting to go home or to feel at home in a place that is not home.

I first met Léonie in April 2016. Months later, we met at her house for a long chat about her work and her life. She is one of the most inspiring women I’ve ever met. The house she shares with her husband Zaki is modest and dim, and it suffers from the chronic power cuts and water shortages common in Turkish villages, but she’s transformed it into a beautifully white, ethereal, gauzy space. Talking to Léonie lowers my blood pressure. I asked her to tell me her story.

Léonie grew up in France, travelling back and forth to Greece to spend time with her Greek father. She studied Fine Arts in Paris. In art school her professors told her that her work wasn’t “arty” enough; instead of focusing on aesthetics, she was preoccupied with social issues and activism, driven by an urge to do something more meaningful. At 18, Léonie started volunteering with disabled adults, and she later went to Lausanne in Switzerland to study art therapy for 4 years. Her first professional experience was in a psychiatric hospital in France, but the civil system, with its emphasis on pills over therapy, started to kill her passion, so she left.

Léonie set off for Turkey and travelled around for a while. Eventually she encountered Mehmet, a local businessman in a village in central Turkey who had a son with Down Syndrome. She helped him set up the Shining Star Center for children with autism, Down Syndrome, and other learning and behavioral difficulties. Léonie took an alternative approach to education for these children. Using art and hippotherapy (with horses), she was able to spend a lot of individual time with the kids, and she invited other local children to the center to integrate them through play and art. It worked. In a part of the world without much support for kids with special needs, they blossomed.

During her travels around Turkey, Léonie had fallen in love with a Syrian named Zaki. An aspiring filmmaker from Aleppo, Zaki left Syria when the atmosphere became “poisoned.” He left Syria for Istanbul in 2013. His family are in Turkey (in Mersin) and have been able to support him. Zaki had studied economics in Syria, but without the right paperwork, he couldn’t transfer his credits to Turkey, and it took two years for him to be able to start over again at university. He started studying English, but he struggled with the new country, the new language and the new system. After a year, he met Léonie, “stuff happened,” and he decided to head for the village in central Turkey where Léonie was running the Shining Star Center so he could help out sometimes.

Léonie quickly realized that her work there had come to its limits, and she wouldn’t be able to achieve her goals at Shining Star. She and Mehmet fell out, and Léonie left the center to work on developing new projects with Zaki, on a smaller scale but more faithful to their values and vision. In the meantime, they found out that several hundred Syrians were living in the area, and, wanting to support and empower these displaced refugees, started running art therapy sessions with the Syrians.

I watched Léonie in action when we went to visit the center for refugees run by Open Arms in Kayseri in April 2016. The plan was to help the children create their own movie. When we arrived at the center, the place was full of people, and children were running around noisily. Our Syrian friend Ahmet acted as Arabic interpreter for the day. Léonie started by commandeering a room for the art project and building a table for a work space. She spent a lot of time creating a calm, safe space for the group of 7 boys and girls, using a minimal amount of materials. She used her quiet voice to settle the children down from the noisy chaos. When they were ready, Léonie opened the cans of Play-doh and explained that they were going to make a movie telling a story, and the story would be theirs. The children chose their characters: a lion, a giraffe, and some fish. She told them to play together with the animals for a few minutes to create a narrative. They decided to set the story next to a lake.

Meanwhile, Narjice, the director of OAK, took Léonie aside, pointing out one of the children in the group, a silent, beautiful dark-eyed 4-year old girl named Shahed. Narjice had been contacted in late 2015 about a cold, hungry family who had just escaped from Aleppo with nothing but the clothes on their backs. A Russian bombing next to her family’s house had left Shahed in shock, too traumatized and afraid to speak or make eye contact. OAK helped the family settle in to their new house with food, bedding and heating, but several months later Shahed still wouldn’t speak or interact with other children, and she screamed and cried if she was separated from her mother.

Léonie was trained to deal with children like Shahed. She didn’t bring attention to her, and she let the dynamic of the group create connections between the children. The more outgoing kids, like one bespectacled boy, helped the shyer ones to open up. Léonie didn’t expect Shahed to talk that day, but she decided to try to communicate with her using art. Shahed was playing with Play-doh. Léonie sat down next to her and started to copy the shapes she was making. Shahed started to smile, and Léonie knew they had a connection. Léonie went back to the rest of the group, and they started to work on the story for the film together. The kids were shouting and jostling to get their ideas in. Shahed sat in silence, watching them, clearly frustrated. In the end, the kids couldn’t learn the script by heart, so Ahmet read out the lines one by one, and Léonie recorded the kids repeating each line in unison. While this was going on, Léonie saw Shahed’s lips moving. Then the words came out of her mouth, and she was saying the lines with the others.

Léonie says that in one-to-one therapy it would normally take months for a child to make this much progress, but the group dynamic is much more powerful. While the kids waited for their parents to collect them, they played with Play-doh together. Shahed started to speak Arabic to Léonie. She talked about how she was making cookies and she wanted Léonie to copy her. (Almost a year later, Shahed is the happy, confident alpha child at the OAK play sessions, fluent in Turkish, and always smiling.)

When she’d finished editing and animating the movie, Léonie posted it on social media. The boy with the glasses annoyed his mother by watching it over and over again. In the story, a lion and a giraffe are walking by a lake. They’re tired and bored, so they decide to have a picnic with some fish. Then a bus arrives and takes them to Istanbul. Léonie says that first workshop couldn’t have been more perfect; the kids told their own story, the tale of a journey with a happy ending.

Léonie and Zaki have big plans. They’ve set up their own small-scale NGO called Handic’Happy, a mobile art therapy center that will travel to refugee camps and wherever there’s a need. With Zaki’s filmmaking skills, they’ll keep making movies, retro style, low-tech animated films with sets and props made from trash and found materials, like backgrounds painted onto rolls of paper that move across the screen as the narrative unfolds. (The movies are hilarious, surreal brightly-colored creations, well worth watching.) Léonie points out that making a movie is a perfect therapeutic tool for working with these kids because visual media is such a strong part of their lives. And her experience with disabled children shows how successful this approach can be.

On a recent trip back to France, Léonie did a hippotherapy film project with kids with learning disabilities using a green screen and costumes. Each wrote a different story and came up with a character. One boy with autism was clumsy and shy. He was passionate about video games, so they made a hat for him and drew on a moustache with a pen. From the moment he put his costume, he wore the character of Mario. His whole body language changed as he went completely into character, totally confident. Another boy, one with Aspbergers, didn’t like to be touched. He chose to be a robot and built a huge costume like a protective box around him. In the movie, his robot was an architect and went into the future to build eco-houses. He loved being a robot and talked about it constantly with his mother. The third boy had Down Syndrome. Obsessed with mayors, he was desperate to meet them and get their autographs. The other boys – who were autistic – struggled to work with him, but he was the powerful one in the story, a wizard. He told his mother he was a hero, and she saw him blossom into a confident child. Léonie sees her role as helping children find their voices by telling their own stories. Being stars in a movie makes them feel valuable because someone is listening to their story. They’ll remember the experience for the rest of their lives.

The way Léonie sees it, most NGOs working with refugees focus on basic needs, but therapy is also essential. She and Zaki want Handic’Happy to be itinerant and mobile so they can reach as many kids as possible. As with other similar projects, they’ll act as a service provider to get contracts with bigger NGOs. Léonie wants to run different kinds of workshops in the field to make these movies, with puppets, Play-Doh, and live action, using whatever materials she can get, with the kids choosing the characters, storyline and scenery. The plan is also to upload the movies to a YouTube channel, where the families can watch any time. For the Syrian kids, it’ll be a really important way for them to keep contact with relatives still in Syria. The refugee project will be called Nomadic Heroes. Léonie wants the kids to see themselves not just as refugees trying to survive, but as heroes of their own stories (on tv!). They’ve already overcome obstacles through creativity and resilience. Léonie sees creativity as one of the best tools in life; Nomadic Heroes will remind children that in life they’ll have challenges, but they already have the tools to meet them.

Léonie’s ultimate aim is to collect materials for a book project, a book to be written and illustrated by these kids to give them a real voice. She says, “We never sit next to these kids and ask, what happened, how do you feel about it? They might feel like puppets, and maybe their parents don’t explain to them what really happened. There’s so much emphasis on surviving, they never process the events.” For the book, she wants to work with the children to ask the questions, What is war? How would you illustrate war? Not with guns, but with something totally imaginary. Zaki comments, “The regime is about stripping people of their dignity. Their parents have been humiliated in Syria and then again in Turkey. The kids will grow up, but with what kind of model? This generation is growing up scared, without a sense of justice.” Léonie wants the kids to make this book to give them a sense of control and to give value and meaning to the journeys they’ve made. She’s looking for a publisher already and plans to distribute the book in schools to help Turkish kids understand the background of their Syrian classmates.

Back in the village, Léonie and Zaki have tried outaseries of new projects with the Syrian children. They’ve done drawing workshops about animals making a journey, and they’ve had puppet workshops with painted hands and shadow puppets. For the Cuddles for Syria project, Léonie and Zaki collected a donated pile of soft fabrics. The children were asked to choose their favorite textiles to design a toy, an imaginary friend, a best buddy who they wanted to comfort them when they felt upset. Léonie used the drawings as a pattern and constructed cuddly stuffed “buddies” for each child. One drawing workshop with two sisters was particularly difficult. The girls were painfully shy and too nervous to make much eye contact. A week later, Léonie gave the sisters the cuddly toys that they had designed. And a small smile appeared on their faces.

They are heroes. They have crossed to this place, and they are still alive. Soon, Léonie and Zaki will say goodbye to these children and take their project on the road.

Handic’Happy is a non-profit organization run by a volunteer team and relies entirely on private donations to carry out its work with children. They need your support. All the donations will be used efficiently and effectively towards pursuing their goals and to sustain and develop new programs that will directly benefit their participants.

You can follow Handic’Happy on Facebook and YouTube and make a donation at :

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Introduction from Diane

First, a bit about me. I was born in Boston and spent my teenage years wrestling with an urge to get out and see the world. For almost 20 years, I’ve taught linguistics at the University of Leeds in England. In 2004, I took a career break to go backpacking and met a Turkish man. We got married, had two children, and then the marriage came to an end. Along the way I learned to speak basic Turkish and met a collection of friends, both Turkish and foreign, who are still an important part of my life. I love Turkey and go there once or twice a year so that the children can spend time with their father and his family in their village. Some of my friends there are now involved in the efforts to help the Syrian refugees living in Turkey. There are an estimated 3 million Syrians in Turkey (probably more, since many are still undocumented). Only about 10% live in the UN-funded refugee camps near the Syrian border. The rest are distributed throughout Turkey. They’re not entitled to any housing or financial support directly from the Turkish government but can get support from charities and NGOs working in the country. Most Syrian adults speak little or no Turkish, and a lot of their children aren’t enrolled in schools. This year I spent my Christmas vacation talking to people who are running projects to help the refugees. I wanted to tell their stories, the stories about what happens after the newspaper headlines die down, the stories about lives passed  in years of limbo, waiting to go home or to feel at home in a place that is not home.


The village sits on the high plateau in the center of Turkey. Until recently a conservative and insular agricultural town, its 2500 residents now rely heavily on tourism. A few foreigners live there, drawn to the beautiful landscape and the slow pace of life. For the past three years, a steady stream of Syrian refugees has quietly arrived in the village. Early in 2016, some local residents got together to set up a small-scale organization to help the refugees settle into their new lives in Turkey. One of the residents provided most of the funding, and a lot of advice and help came from Narjice from Open Arms in Kayseri, another charity in the area. The day-to-day organizing is done by a Syrian named Ahmet, who came to the area because his friend Juju grew up there, along with Juju’s mother, Nell, and other friends in the village. These grassroots projects are springing up all over Turkey to help the roughly 3 million Syrian refugees living there, and they all face the same kinds of challenges. Our news headlines are about dramatic raft landings on Mediterranean beaches or evacuations into UN camps, but for the refugees, getting out of Syria is only the beginning, the first step in a much longer process. I spent some time in the village in December 2016. Nell is an old friend of mine, and I spent long hours in Nell’s cozy kitchen while the snow fell outside, talking to Juju (who works for a refugee NGO in Ankara), Ahmet, and Nell herself. I wanted to hear all about their project.

Before starting work in the village, my friends tried to get official permission from the kaymakam, the governor of the provincial district. They sent in a project proposal in Turkish, and then another one in English. The kaymakam replied to their request in a terse email. The answer was no, with no reason given for his decision. The mukhtar, the elected local leader of the village, was just as unhelpful. Ahmet was demoralized, but the others gave him a pep talk, and they decided to start work anyway. The first stage was setting up a database of the Syrian families in the village, to count them and assess their needs. In the beginning, it was hard to find them, as it is in the refugees’ best interests to avoid attention. As is the way of grassroots organizers, Ahmet walked around the narrow streets with a paper questionnaire, but abandoned that system when he realized that the forms made most of the refugees uncomfortable; a lot of them are illiterate, and they’re wary of visits from officials. To gain their trust, Ahmet stopped using paper forms and broke the ice by telling them about his own experiences in the war. Once he had talked to a few families, he tracked down the others through word of mouth, until he had made contact with all of the Syrians living in the village.

In the space of 3 months, Ahmet found 37 families (around 340 people) for his database. Another 7 families completely refused to talk to him and are still off the register. In order to get a sense of each family’s real situation, Ahmet made a point of going inside their homes and counting their children. Some families had enough money to live pretty comfortably. Other families were destitute, living in absolute poverty in substandard housing. Most families were large, some with 7-8 children, and he found 7 orphans being raised by relatives among them.

It turned out that most of the Syrians had been in the village for around 3 years and were from the same area in eastern Aleppo (the part now being flattened in the war). The first families came to find work in the village, the men in construction and the women in agricultural jobs, attracted by cheap rents and a low cost of living compared to other areas of Turkey. Once safely in the village, they had contacted neighbors, friends, and relatives back in Aleppo, who followed them to settle.

Turkey is famous for its hospitality to outsiders, and the Islamic faith strongly emphasizes the importance of helping the needy. When the Syrians started to arrive in the village 3 years ago, the local belediye (town council) gave them free coal to heat their houses in winter, their usual policy to help any struggling family. Villagers brought food to the Syrians, gave them jobs, and helped them set up their homes. The belediye also started out by giving them a living allowance of 300TL/month (about $85). But things started to change. However, the monthly payments were quickly stopped by the hostile mukhtar. In the past couple of years, as perceptions and portrayals of Muslim countries have become increasingly negative in Western countries, the Turkish economy has gone downhill, tourists have stopped coming, and local people have started to struggle financially. The Syrians still need to pay their rent, but there aren’t enough jobs to go around. In this tight-knit village, where most people are related to each other, life is far from luxurious. The Turkish villagers see the Syrian children hanging around in the street, and they see the adults who still only speak Arabic taking charity, and they feel like their own needs are being overlooked. Thus, anyone working with the refugees in the village needs to keep a very low profile to avoid stirring up even more resentment.

Once Ahmet had finished counting up the families, the obvious next step for the project organizers was to think about education and schooling for the children. Most of Syrian kids in the village were not in school, but everyone working with refugees in Turkey sees school as vital for social and language integration into the community, and groups of Syrian kids playing in the streets is not good for PR. This turned out to be a tricky problem. The local elementary school at first refused to take the children, arguing that they had full enrollment and no extra support for refugees. But, legally, schools aren’t allowed to turn children away, and in other parts of Turkey schools are splitting the school day into two sessions to create class time for the influx of extra children. More pressure was put on the school, and eventually they agreed to accept the Syrians. Yet at the same time, it became clear that the Syrian parents were not pushing very hard to enroll their kids. In Aleppo, most of them had worked as casual laborers selling vegetables, in restaurants, or at construction sites. They have little education themselves and are illiterate. As a result, getting their kids into school isn’t high on their priority list, especially for girls. At the time of this writing, only about 17 of the 93 Syrian kids in the village are enrolled in school.

The project organizers considered trying to run Turkish lessons for the kids but decided to wait until their more basic needs had been met. They collected second-hand clothes and distributed them to the families. Then they heard about ASAM (the Association for Solidarity with Asylum Seekers and Migrants), a charity that gives out monthly food cards to each family and hires lawyers for refugees who need legal representation. Ahmet managed to register all of the families with ASAM. As winter set in, he visited each house, and if the family seemed to be in bad shape, he gave them food parcels. Winters are bitterly cold in the village, and when the weather turned last fall, most of the children had no winter clothes. Nell and her friends took up a collection. They bought new winter coats for 93 children and shoes for 69.

A few of the Syrians also need extra medical care. One 21-year-old man came to Turkey maimed in the war. His leg is badly fractured; he needs surgery, and maybe amputation, but his leg has developed a chronic infection, so he needs to wait. He is in constant agony, but his family can’t afford strong enough painkillers or regular trips to the hospital for treatment. Another family had been living for three years in substandard housing: 15 people in two rooms. While a contractor was working in the development above their house, the roof collapsed on them in the middle of the night. The neighbors dug them all out alive, but they suffered terrible injuries: the grandmother had 3 broken vertebrae and broken hips, and the 33-year-old uncle injured his groin and can no longer have children. The worst victim of the roof collapse was an orphan boy of 10 years old; he lost his foot, suffered smashed buttocks and internal injuries and now lives with a colostomy bag.

This has been a hard year. With work drying up, most of the Syrians in the village are destitute. At first, landlords were gracious about tenants who had fallen into debt, but as the local economy nosedives, more landlords have started evicting families. The atmosphere in the village is tense. Last summer there was a drunken squabble between a group of local men and two Syrian teenagers. One of the Syrians pulled a knife and stabbed one of the Turks in the neck. The boys were chased into a nearby hotel while a lynch mob formed outside. Someone called the jandarma [the local Turkish army] and they managed to discreetly put the boys on a bus to another town. Soon afterwards, in July 2016, there was an attempted military coup in Turkey. The coup failed, but President Erdogan embarked on a brutal purge of suspected plotters and whipped up nationalist feelings against perceived enemies of the state. For a few weeks after the coup, he asked his supporters to take to the streets to demonstrate their loyalty. Every night in the village, men roamed the streets banging drums to intimidate anyone not quite patriotically Turkish enough. The mukhtar and his supporters drew up a petition to evict all of the Syrians from their homes and throw them out of the village. Several of the local landlords stood up to him and refused to evict their tenants. Meanwhile, Ahmet contacted a friend at the UN. Someone high up contacted someone higher up than the mukhtar, and he was forced to back down. The Syrians stayed.

So I spent 2 weeks in the village, listening to these stories and more (and I take responsibility for any mistakes in my retelling). I did what I could to help, which seemed like a drop in the ocean, but at least a tangible drop. With some donations from work colleagues, I helped give out warm gloves and hats, bought food to give to the families whose food cards still hadn’t arrived, helped with some medical bills, and bought some more winter coats. I met a series of small children as they turned up asking Ahmet for mittens and shoes and groceries. I wished that I could speak Arabic so that I could ask about their lives. The good news is that these children’s stories have been heard and drawn and painted: just after I left, I heard that Léonie, an art therapist who works with refugee children, was about to start running art therapy workshops with them.

In his own way, Ahmet has become the mukhtar for the Syrians in the village, the fixer, guy who can solve everyone’s problems. I could see how hard this role was. His phone never stopped ringing, always with a human drama at the other end of the line. As tempting as it was to give candy to Samar (an especially cute little girl) when she turned up at his house, he couldn’t do it; playing favorites would make the other kids feel bad and would make him seem less impartial. Ahmet doesn’t know how long he’ll be able to stay in the village or who will be able to take over from him if he leaves.

I left the village feeling overwhelmed by the scale of the refugee crisis. I’d seen a tiny sample, 350 out of millions of displaced people. Nobody has counted up how many Syrians are living in places like this, out of sight of most tourists and aid agencies, and experiencing a mixture of kindness and unkindness from the Turkish people who took them in while the West looked away. There’s no end to the war in sight, and there is every chance that these families will still be here in 20 years.

The more I think about it, the more I’m sickened by the waste of this war: the waste of so many adult lives and of so many children who are missing out on a childhood. Most of all I’m sickened by all of the profiting-from-human-misery going on. Turkey has used its Syrian refugees as a bargaining chip to negotiate deals with the EU, which doesn’t want to take any of them. The weapons manufacturers, like the ones based in the rich Western country where I live, are making billions. Further billions are pouring into Turkey for humanitarian aid, only for big chunks of it to get siphoned off by corrupt NGOs and politicians. And just like in Iraq, private contractors in Turkey and Russia have already sealed deals worth further billions to reconstruct Syria when the war eventually ends. Interested parties are profiting from a longer, more destructive war. Someone is making money from every apartment building in Aleppo that gets flattened. In the middle of this maelstrom of cash and favors are the Syrians, disconnected from their homes and their livelihoods, not knowing if they’ll ever find sanctuary.


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