Monday, February 19, 2018

If I love you, you know it

See, when your mom dies too soon—it's always too soon but I mean too soon after you lost your shit on her that one day, too soon to say you're sorry, too soon for you to even realize you were wrong—you don't touch that memory. You talk about your grief for decades, and there's this one thing you don't go near. 

And who needs it, right? Plenty of anguish to go around.

But then one year the flu gets really bad. It's killing people all over the place. And it happens that you're having kind of a rough time with a friend. And before you know it you're saying, "Don't die while we're like this."

And even you know this is not the usual response to such things.

And it's so obvious. Your writers have been asleep at the keyboard again.

See, when your mom dies too soon, you spend the next years secretly terrified that someone you love will die without knowing. So you say it over and over, like you're some kind of affectionate person or something. You hide behind it, you give it away too freely sometimes, to everyone at once. You put it in your voice mail and Tess K. from benefits administration hears it, your boss hears it. But you leave it there because if you say it enough maybe your mom will know. Somehow.

And she knew. Of course she knew. She knew that day, when you were breaking her heart. She knew that night in the living room, when she sat on the edge of her sick bed rubbing your back and telling you it's ok, she forgives you. 

My god, how she knew you.

So for the first time ever, you touch that memory. You cry your eyes sore for a week and you make lists: the ones who already know—who must already know—and the ones who maybe don't, who have not heard the words from your mouth. You find those three people and you tell them in the most certain terms you have, you don't make a joke, you don't change the subject, you tell them knowing for the first time, really, why. You cry telling them.

And when you're done you still cry. You cry every time you're driving, and some times when you're not. But you feel different, complete, at peace. There's no one who doesn't know now. It's been such a long time.

Sunday, February 04, 2018

Oh yeah, that

We're hiring a couple positions in the office right now; it's taken a while, so we're working with an outside firm to help us fill one of them. They set up a bunch of Skype interviews for us yesterday. I had a few things working against me when I walked in the room for those: 1. My boss had been doing all the coordination with the firm, so I'd never met its representatives until that minute; 2. I'm an introvert, so talking with strangers is my least favorite thing; and 3. On my very best days I have some difficulty being entirely professional. I mean, I can do it, but it just takes a lot of energy. And this was Friday afternoon, when energy is already in pretty short supply. 

Things went relatively well, though, until the end. I was caught off guard when one of the candidates asked us what it looked like here on August 11 and 12. My boss threw the question to me, I suppose rightly so. I went about trying to answer it honestly, but also super concisely and professionally, and with 3 complete strangers watching—including the person asking the question. I told her that like most people, I'd watched the events of August 11 unfold on social media, so I'd seen the same things she had. But what I tried to condense and explain about August 12 was that there was a huge number of journalists and other people with cameras and phones there—it can't be overestimated how much still and video coverage there was—and that the entire thing was chaotic and stretched across a somewhat large and disparate area. Because of these facts, what she and everyone else was seeing on their feeds was in some ways more concentrated than what I could see in person; I only have two eyes. And that was about all I could say without getting in too deep, you know? I said it was disheartening and then we moved on to something else.

But I've been thinking about it today. I don't talk to new people much, and no one else had really asked me about August 12 in a while. Which is fine. But yesterday was the first time I had considered the act of being there in months. You know, I went, I got kinda messed up, I got trauma counseling, and then I just figured I'd healed. But now I wonder if that's quite the case. Right this second it feels more present and difficult to me than it did when I stopped thinking about it a few months ago. I was telling a friend today that I was maybe not all the way OK about it and he said he wasn't even sure what all the way OK would look like. And that seemed an excellent point.

I'd always thought I'd write about it at some point, you know? And here it's 5 months out and I haven't, really. That day someone reached out to me and I wrote back what I thought were my thoughts on the day but what I now know were only my very first impressions. And in fact, I had planned to write My August 12 Story tonight. But here it is, 11:29, and I've only got this intro done and I've downloaded a pinball machine game on my computer. I'm hopeful that soon I will be able to write about it, and see how close to OK I can get.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Popped Secrets

Did you ever have that day in school, usually near the end of the year, when the student teacher brought in a slightly oil-stained paper grocery bag filled with home-popped popcorn and you'd each get a little torn-paper-towel-ful on your desk to eat while you watched some so-called children's classic? It was so fresh and crunchy, very slightly oily, and perfectly salty—and you thought, what fresh heaven is this? 

That popcorn—Miss Hupfer's fifth grade popcorn—is probably one of the reasons we take popcorn so seriously in this house. We pop up an obscene amount—enough to fill our biggest mixing bowl, plus maybe one of the middle-sized ones if I'm being completely honest—at least once or twice a week. And of course every member of my family is eating some right this second.

My popping methods have shifted a lot over the years, but I finally feel like I have recreated that delicious, simple popcorn from decades ago. Please allow me to present:

This would be a reasonable amount. It is of course just for show.

Miss Hupfer's Fifth Grade Movie Popcorn Approximation

Notes: This makes an extremely large amount of popcorn, but it scales down easily. You can start with half the popcorn and then work your way up, especially if you have a smaller pot or eat reasonable amounts of snack foods or any food, really. I wouldn't reduce the oil too much if you scale down, though. Oil is sort of the overhead of this whole production; you just have to have a certain amount of it for it to work.

Pot: I use an 8-quart stainless steel stockpot (it says "sauce pot" on the bottom) with a glass lid just because that's what we have. The glass lid comes in *really* handy, though, as you will see below. I used to use a cast iron dutch oven but I like being able to see what's going on in there and I found that I needed a pot that could heat quickly from the beginning, not necessarily one that retained and distributed heat; the whole thing takes less than 6 minutes. I also used to use Alton Brown's method of putting aluminum foil over the top and just poking little holes in it to release steam, but it ultimately seemed like a waste of foil, even when I wiped down the foil each time and reused it until it got really gross.

- 1 cup of popcorn (You guys, I said this was a lot.) (Whatever kind you have is good; I get the plain yellow popcorn from the "country store" up the way. We have also tried mushroom popcorn, which works perfectly in an air popper but strangely not that well in this method.)
- 2 tablespoons of peanut oil (We use it because it has a high smoke point; if the peanut makes you uneasy for any reason, you could try grapeseed [though that's expensive] or coconut.)
- a pretty severe glop of ghee, probably around 1-2 tablespoons (This is hard to measure because a measuring spoon can't wedge into the mouth of the ghee container we buy from Trader Joe's. I like the ghee because it has a nice buttery flavor and also has a high smoke point. You might could use butter instead but I've never tried it.)
- popcorn salt (I was trying to use regular salt on this but there's not quite enough traction for it to stick.) 

1. Make sure you have a gigantic bowl or two ready, and ideally near the stove, before you pop any corn. Once it's done, you'll want to throw it right into the bowls to keep it from scorching. Also, keep your salt shaker nearby. Salt seems to stick better to hot popcorn. 

2. Set some timer that will be in your line of sight for, oh, 10 minutes. You'll be done in about 5-6, but who needs the stress. I use the microwave kitchen timer; I tried using my phone once but it kept turning off. Not opportune.

3. Put your pot on top of the burner and start it up. I have found 7 to be perfect, but at our old house, about 6 3/4 was perfect.

4. Into your warming pot, put in order: the oil, then the popcorn, then the ghee. Cover with the lid. I usually don't swirl anything around at this point.

5. You'll start to see condensation through your lid pretty quickly; moisture saddens popcorn so I start venting the lid ever so slightly here in the beginning. You'll have to be pretty careful with it after things start popping, though; flying popcorn is a burner and a bummer. After you hear a few initial pops, start giving the pot a side-to-side shake about every 10 seconds, carefully venting the lid when you're not shaking the pot. 

6. If you're making a large amount, you'll see that as the bottom of the pot fills up, the popped kernels create sort of a dense popcorn canopy that prevents any of the newly popped corn from shooting up into the lid. As soon as you see kernels stop shooting up, take the lid off. This is optional; please only do it if you pop enough corn for your particular pot. I do encourage it because it does allow all the steam out, which helps with crunch. As soon as you remove the lid, begin shaking the pot continuously until you hear the popping slow down. Some people say to wait until a couple seconds pass without popping sounds but I am pretty conservative; scorched popcorn is not worth a couple fewer unpopped kernels!

7. Immediately remove from heat and pour into bowls; salt and enjoy!

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 knew, because you have eyes that see and ears that hear and you found that slanty drawing that your best friend did 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 on a job interview to hand you the fork you should have been using. And so 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.