Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Sometimes love means saying you're sorry

Yesterday morning I was in Vacation Day 1 mode: Ramping up my calculated rest campaign, filling out holiday cards, flipping through Facebook. I saw a post on my friend Naomi's page giving tips to those whose loved ones are grieving this holiday season and I thought, this is great! Maybe my friends have other friends who are grieving right now; this is a great public service post. 

So I clicked share and wrote a little something about my experiences with grief during the holidays. I wasn't sad or anything; I was actually kind of happy to help people. So I went back to writing my holiday cards (which by the way no one here is going to get; I'm sorry, they're for a group I work with). And when I flipped back to Facebook, I saw that my friend Molly had liked it and my throat caught. And then she messaged me: "Hey, how are you? Just checking in." And by then I was weeping uncontrollably. It was a really dumb cry, too, one where I got up and got one tissue from the kitchen and sat back down, over and over again, never registering that I was maybe Having a Thing and could use the whole box. I just never saw it coming. I couldn't even tell you exactly why I was crying; was it that I was grateful for the friendship and support? Was it the timing -- thinking *about* grief during the holidays, which is around the time my mom died? I mean, I think probably both those things contributed, but I don't know for sure; it was purely emotional. My mind was completely free of words. I'm not really used to that -- feeling -- but it turned out to be the first of several sudden-onset ugly cries yesterday, so I guess I needed it. 

Molly sat with me on chat through that cry, and my friend Lori reached out to me a bit later. I've been on the other side of that situation before, listening and trying to help someone through a rough time. And I realized relatively recently that I'd done it all wrong. For a long time I thought help was the best I could offer -- tips and things -- and the conversation was often over when I ran out of ideas. But then one day a couple years ago I was talking to Molly about some situation and she just said, "I'm so sorry, Judy. That sounds rough." End of statement. It really knocked me back. It was the first time I can remember anyone saying that to me, or maybe it was the first time I was ready to hear it. It was so simple and powerful -- something I had no idea I needed to hear. No tips. Just: That sucks and I'm sorry. And between the lines a validation that it was acceptable to feel the way I was feeling. That it was OK to not be OK. It may seem simple, but it was a profound lesson to me, one I think about often and am very grateful for. 

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Upon buying an Instant Pot

It’s those feels when you’re up super late watching how-to-make-pho videos because you grew up wanting to be white so bad and you called it “being more American” AND YOU ALREADY WERE 100 PERCENT AMERICAN, but even your American name wasn’t enough, you know, because you have eyes that see and ears that hear and your best friend did that slanty drawing of you. And you did every damn thing, you tried a clothespin on your round, flat nose, you tried to keep everything straight in your head but there was that one time in second grade when you said a Vietnamese word out loud, you were seven and horrified with yourself. And so you let that language of your heart die from your mind that loves language, devours it, sorry, them's the breaks, you can’t go around sabotaging your whiteness. Oh, and you refused to learn to make the dishes your mom made so well, that she loved you with, that still embody home to you. No, fuck that. Already you had to teach yourself in secret to eat with a fork and knife but that wasn’t enough because a waiter at a fancy restaurant called you out, reached across your body to hand you the fork you should have been using, you were on a job interview and so then you stopped participating in specialized-utensil courses with unsafe people, just better that way, you think everyone would agree. But then one day you luck into seeing Junot Diaz talk about what kids like you had to do to survive and you finally admit to the deep shame. You start to ugly cry and you can't stop and a lovely black woman hugs you and Junot hugs you and you start to start to rediscover the part of yourself that you’ve denied for ever but what does it matter, it doesn’t matter. Because now you've bought a pot and you're watching the videos and you’re going to make pho the way you like it, with the tendon, they never give you enough at the restaurant and you’re embarrassed that you can't carry on a conversation with anyone there, you see the way they look at you. And it’s never going to be as good as your mom’s anyway and you're sorry — that is one thing you do remember how to say. 

Thursday, August 24, 2017


Do you remember Trapper Keepers? With the revolutionary gutter-facing pockets and the helpful facts and all that? My brothers and sisters had those when I was wee so I learned my times tables pretty early. It always delighted me that the factors of nine were all mirror images of each other -- 18 and 81, 27 and 72, and so on. And so sometimes I just liked to sit and think about that, about how the ones and tens digits would round the bend between 45 and 54.

Sometime in the middle of elementary school, maybe, I figured out that since the difference between any two factors of nine would be evenly divisible by nine, the differences between these mirror-image factors were also always going to be divisible by nine. This delighted me even more, and for years when my mind wandered I'd just flip and divide, flip and divide. 18 and 81 were my favorites. Sometime in my early twenties I tested and discovered that it applied to all two-digit numbers, and then any number of any size, then any number of any size in any base (the difference will be evenly divisible by [the base-1]). When I'm bored I like to do these problems still; there's something very comforting about its absoluteness.

But you know what I cannot fucking do to save my life? Any math that involves years or time. I can do zero percent of that shit. Not on paper, not with fingers, not ever. I recently had to figure out when to leave to get to a 12:15 reservation 2 1/2 hours away. Relatively simple for most. Computational nightmare for me.

Saturday, April 01, 2017


[This is a very long post. I'm sorry. But TL/DR: My X power is random coincidences.]

So, several years ago one of The Pilot's photo editors left journalism to start a chicken farm. Like, with coops and everything, near Charlottesville. This guy Norm. I met his wife, a lovely tall woman with white hair, at his going-away party. I hadn't seen either of them since I moved here a couple years ago, so I was pretty excited when I saw her at Target today. I was heading to detergents, and she was heading the opposite direction, to area rugs. 

I kept walking a few paces but kept thinking, then figured it would be nice to say hey to Norm through her, since I'd worked with him for more than a decade and he was always a nice guy. So I turned around and chased her down, something I can't recall ever having done before. When I came upon her I said, "Hey, this is super random, but are you Norm's wife?" To which she responded, "No."

This came as quite a surprise. A super awkward silence followed, which she broke with, "But you look very familiar to me." So I said, "You too! My name is Judy Le." And she said, "I'm Kristen Hallam!"

OMG Kristen Hallam! THE MANAGING EDITOR OF THE DAILY NORTHWESTERN MY SOPHOMORE YEAR. Whom I haven't seen in more than 20 years! Who was living in England last I checked! At the Target where I live!

Turns out she moved here a month ago and needed an area rug and a bunch of other housey things. I was there prepping for our trip to Legoland tomorrow. We talked a bit, exchanged contact information and went on our respective ways. When I got out to the parking lot, I saw that they were parked NEXT to my little car with the Medill Northwestern University sticker on the back. And I don't even ever park on that side of the parking lot, but several months ago Jeffrey suggested that I use a different turn-in to get to Target so I tried it today for the first time.

I mean, crazy, right?!? But here's the thing: I think I am a person to whom these things happen. 

I know. But suspend your disbelief for a second.

I don't have a ton of friends here. That's actually an understatement because I literally have one outside-of-work friend. It's probably why I chased Norm's wife down in a Target. I was used to having a lot of friends at The Pilot because I worked in a newsroom of 300 people (when I started, 100 when I left), the vast majority of whom I did not oversee and did not oversee me. Close friendships, partnerships, all that were really common there. And then I left, and started working in a room of 10 people, all of whom either were my boss or reported to me. It's not the best way to make friends. Also, I don't get out much. But my dear friend Brianne, whom I met early on at The Pilot, came here for grad school a few years ago and offered to set me up with a couple of her friends when I started here. She sent a couple emails introducing me to her old roommate, who seemed perfectly nice but since I'm a garbage person I didn't follow up with much. (Also she was getting married and was busy!)

Fast forward a year and a half to November 9, the day after the election. I was sitting out in my car in the parking lot of one of the gyms I have access to through work, scrolling on my phone and feeling despair. It finally got to be time that I needed to be serious about taking a shower and going to work, so I hustled in to the locker room. A random woman came in right behind me, caught my eye and asked me how I was doing. She was incredibly thoughtful and kind, and we talked about the election, and about women, and about Howard Zinn, and it was probably the best talk I had that terrible day. And since I don't have any friends here, I asked her if we could have coffee sometime. So we, too, traded contact information. She said, "That's so funny; I already have a Judy Le in my contacts." [You see where this is going, but I have to tell the story.] I laughed and said, "Oh, there are a million of us." (There are -- check LinkedIn or Facebook.) A minute later she said, "Wait, are you Brianne's friend?" to which I said "YES ARE YOU BRIANNE'S FRIEND?!" 

I should also say that while I go to the gym every day, I NEVER talk to anyone there. I'm just there to get swoll and that's it, you know? And no one talks to me. And this was the first day my new friend, Erin, had even gone there. Anyway, since that day, we've become friends and I joined a women's discussion group she runs. It's amazing. She's amazing.

See what I mean? I believe these things happen to me. I feel very weird saying this, but it feels magical. And these are only the incidents that have happened in the past 6 months. In 2009 Jeffrey and I went to Prague sort of on a whim (well, really because I am super easily influenced and someone mentioned it once). The afternoon we got there we ventured out into the gigantic historic Old Town Square, filled with hundreds if not a thousand people, and I said to Jeffrey: "Hey, isn't that Dave and Shannon?" Walking in front of us were two of our old friends from The Pilot nightside -- a subset of the newsroom with about 40 people -- who had gone to The NYT several years before. In 2000 I got into a plane in Virginia and found myself seated next to Heather Harris, with whom I'd gone to school -- in Iowa -- since fifth grade.

The biggest aggregate example of these weird coincidences is my friend Jake. Also from The Pilot. He was born in Iowa, where I grew up -- and half a country away from where we met and became very good friends. He pretty randomly ended up in The Pilot's library about six months after I very deliberately ended up on its design team. My son, Abbott, was due on Jake's birthday in 2010; his son Wynn was born a couple months later, on my actual birthday. His second son, Teddy, was due on Abbott's birthday. But here's the craziest thing: The night my family was escaping Vietnam in 1975, his uncle was in the very same airport, trying to get out as well. 

I've talked to people about these coincidences before; I know a lot of people don't believe in them. And there's not a ton I believe in, truly. But I'm starting to think there is something there.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Surprise, surprise, surprise

There's this line in Infinite Jest that the longtime sober sponsors say to the AA newbies: Don't worry about getting in touch with your feelings; they'll get in touch with you. 

That shit is severely correct. Mine came at me Tuesday.

It's been nearly two decades since my mom died, and years since I cried seriously about it. (Two is years.) But I legit lost my shit that day. I was messaging with a friend about something entirely unrelated -- congratulations on an award we'd won, for god's sake -- 
and then this now-painful memory busted its way out of me and onto my phone. 

I started crying at my desk before I sent that msg. Then I booked upstairs and sobbed ugly in a bathroom stall for 20 minutes. Then off and on all day, ending with another big jag in front of the keyboard that night. I'd told no one, and then one person, and then everyone.

Grief is supposed to be private, right? Or maybe it just is, whether or not it's supposed to be. Anyway, as such, I don't really understand it. I don't understand how other people experience it. I don't understand why it's taking me so long to get through it -- when I honestly thought I largely was. But sometimes shit will just pop up and get in touch with me, as it were.

A lot of people have reached out to me since I posted that story, and I'm so grateful for all of them, and for anyone who read it. As I reason through it, I see that it was a necessary and painful healing step, and that the fact that I was finally ready for it is a really good thing. I do feel a lot better having let it out of myself, and I urge everyone else to do the same. I'm just bracing myself for the next hit.

Tuesday, June 07, 2016

The baby

When I was very young, evenings in my family were spent on the one couch we had, watching the one television we had. My mom would lay on it, always in the same spot, and because I was the baby, I got to be the one of us seven kids to lay on top of her. It was an incredible feeling of comfort and protection and warmth; when I want my mommy, that is the distinct feeling that I seek.

I remember laying there one evening when I was about the age my son is now. She called me her baby, as she always did, but this time I asked her how long she'd be calling me that. She said I'd always be her baby. I asked if she'd be saying that when I was an adult, even more so not a baby. In good humor, she negotiated with me a cut-off date: when I turned 81. (This had been her counter to my opening offer of 80.)

In the year that she was sick and in the years since she died, I've thought of this moment very often but have never been able to speak of it. When I allow myself to wade into the emotional depths, I wonder what she thought of that conversation. Did it make her sad to know, even on that day, not quite two decades before she got sick, that we weren't going to make it there? Or did she even think about it in those terms? Was it just some crazy thing I was saying, on top of all the other crazy things I must have been saying? I really hope it was that last one. I hope for her sake that she never, ever thought about it again. Because having lost her, thinking about that conversation -- just the conversation -- with Abbott is unbearable to me. I can't even write this without crying.

My mom would have turned 74 today. Happy birthday, mama. I miss you. And I am still your baby.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

But what if ...

the whole gratitude movement is a ploy to quell outrage and make people placid?