one hundred word story #101

The girl had been living in the staff lounge three weeks before they found her stash. She’d bundled her jeans and sweaters behind the biggest lounge sofa and stuffed granola bars and candy wrappers beneath couch cushions. The office building was brand new; they’d only just furnished the third floor. All the administrators worked behind locked doors. “Does she work here?” the building manager asked, watching as the small woman put on her hat and slunk outside. “No,” said the janitor. “But how did she get in?” the manager pressed. “The same way you did,” the janitor said. “She applied.”

Isn't it ironic

My childhood: a study in unironic tie-dye.

Remember when irony wasn't a thing? Or if it was a thing, it was a dramatic thing? Saved only for moments of sheer theatricality. So far as I know, it didn't come in the form of skinny jeans and mustaches and vinyl and expensive espresso. Somewhere along the way, irony came to replace nostalgia and sentimentality. It was a way of recalling the past by making fun of it. It's something we all do, almost mechanically.

I recall an old friend from abroad whose layers of sarcasm were piled so thick that I could rarely understand what he was saying. There were jokes, but they were dark, and there were cutting, knowing observations, and there was bitterness, and there was anger, and at the very heart of it all, a kind of sadness so entirely swaddled in emotion that it would spill out at the most unexpected moments, little bursts of honesty that when unfurled, would wipe away all the bullshit. It was those moments that made him my friend. There was a brilliance to the way he cloaked it all in, an irony to his self-deprecation and occasional malevolence, and yet it was an irony I have yet to truly understand.

I wonder, though, if things in him had settled, and if all the caustic one-liners were swept away, if we had been better friends.

I've written before that irony is a thing that emerged in my generation in response to eight years of George W. Bush. I still believe this, and feel within me a deep-seated sense of political unrest whenever I think of those eight long years. Perhaps because that era is over, and because my personal life has achieved some semblance of stability, I don't burn with that glimmer of political dramatics the way I once did.

It's still curious, then, that during that period irony transformed into a cultural aesthetic, one that can be spotted cycling through San Francisco's Mission District on a fixie, sipping a four-dollar espresso, sporting expensive jeans with carefully-torn holes on the knees. But I could be wrong; surely I am. Some of them wear tie-dye.

The wild rumpus

I saw Stephen Elliott read tonight. He read a lot of beautiful words, one after the other. He read from The Adderall Diaries and the screenplay-in-progress for Happy Baby, a film based on his novel of the same name. I wish I could remember the delicate and abrupt way the words turned. But instead I remember this: sitting in the front row watching him describe what it meant to write nonfiction.

"When you're in your twenties, you are so worried what everyone else thinks about you," he said. "When you're in your thirties, you don't care what they think. When you're in your forties, you realize they were never thinking about you at all."

I've heard versions of this over the years, from teachers, writers, friends. But tonight I heard it differently. I thought of how much I long not only for the impulse to write, but the knowledge that I have something actual to say. I spend my days reading and re-reading and editing and revising technical texts that have the practical strength to make things happen, the same way a recipe writer jots down precise instructions for other chefs to follow. But when it comes time to write my own things, to spoon up my own emotional grit, I keep feeling like I'm coming up empty.

I know why it's happening, too. It is the obsession that writers sometimes have that someone is already looking over your shoulder, that each word must impress, that an idea must be fully formed before it is worth, well, anything. When I was a teenager, I'd sneak into my parents' den to write on our family computer, and anytime someone opened the door, I'd growl. They'd never be there to snoop; half the time they wouldn't even notice I was writing until I'd snapped in my chair. That's the great paradox about writing; nobody cares that you are a writer until you have written, and why shouldn't they? Few people are as impressed by someone training for a marathon as they are by someone who has just completed one, in record time, no less.

Perhaps the greatest irony of all is that all I seem to write about these days is how much I want to write.

It's similar to the desire for immersion. You want to understand the words, the cultural cues, the accents, the subtlety of exchange, before you can even conjugate the verbs. The only way to learn is to let yourself be helpless; to hang in limbo, not knowing if what you're saying is absolute crap, or culturally insensitive, or idiotic, or just plain unintelligible, until the day comes that you actually stop thinking about the words themselves, and instead you focus on the meaning behind them.

And that is what I learned (or, rather, learned again) from Stephen Elliott.

The gospel of stories

"When he was a small boy his father at bedtime told him the great wonder tales of the East, told them and re-told them and re-made them and re-invented them in his own way--the stories of Scheherazade from the Thousand and One Nights, stories told against death to prove the ability of stories to civilize and overcome even the most murderous of tyrants; and the animal fables of the Panchatantra; and the marvels that poured like a waterfall from the Kathasaritsagara, the 'Ocean of the Streams of Story,' the immense story-lake created in Kashmir where his ancestors had been born; and the tales of mighty heroes collected in the Hamzanama and the Adventures of Hatim Tai...To grow up steeped in these tellings was to learn two unforgettable lessons: first, that stories were not true (there were no "real" genies in bottles or flying carpets or wonderful lamps), but by being untrue they could make him feel and know truths that the truth could not tell him, and second, that they all belonged to him, just as they belonged to his father, Anis, and to everyone else, they were all his, as they were his father's, bright stories and dark stories, sacred stories and profane, his to alter and renew and discard and pick up again as and when he pleased, his to laugh at and rejoice in and live in and with and by, to give the stories life by loving them and to be given life by them in return. Man was the storytelling animal, the only creature on earth that told itself stories to understand what kind of creature it was. The story was his birthright, and nobody could take it away."

--Joseph Anton, Salman Rushdie

Doc in a Box

Sometimes stories present themselves.

It was just past 11am, Sunday, a sunny, beautiful day. They were leaning against the railing that separated the sidewalk from the train tracks, a middle-aged woman with a sallow face and a similarly-aged man in a polo shirt.

"Are you from around here?" the woman asked. Her face was weirdly calm. She was holding her forearm at an odd angle.

"Uh," we said, but we stopped walking.

"I think I might have broken my arm," she said. Some part of me had instinctively avoided looking down. There, in the middle of her forearm, was an uneven ridge, three or four inches long, purple and swollen. It looked like an eggplant was sprouting from her arm.

"Our ride's coming," she said, nodding back to the street. Somehow I doubted that this was true. "Can you tell me where there's a doc-in-a-box?"

I didn't really know where to direct her--what exactly is a doc-in-a-box? I half expected to point to a dumpster and see a man with a stethoscope emerge. So many questions. I directed her to the clinic across the way and she smiled and nodded, cradling her arm closer to her chest.

"Have a nice day," she said.

We kept walking, and the further we got from her, the more I kicked myself for not getting the full story. They were positioned just so on the train tracks--maybe they had hitched a ride on the Starlight and she'd barrel-rolled out the side? And what had happened to their mysterious driver? Had someone dropped them off on one street, and they'd somehow gotten ensnared in some urban imbroglio by the next street? I could just imagine their driver, a flustered familiar, maybe a niece or nephew, rolling up alongside their aunt and uncle and sputtering, "But I JUST dropped you off!"

Michelle was with us and she pointed out that their clothes were not too soiled; perhaps they had not jumped the train but rather been jumped by someone. "That arm was broken hours ago," she said. "They had to sleep it off, whatever it was."

All the potential explanations swirled in my head for the rest of the day. It was Choose-Your-Own-Adventure reversing in my mind. Surely there was some simple explanation for it; she probably just stepped off the curb wrong. There was something to the very ordinariness of it all; as if this was the kind of thing one did on any given Sunday--leaned casually against a fence along the train tracks, nursing an arm the size and shape of a small eggplant.

By the time we had walked back at the end of lunch, the couple was gone. It gave me pause. Maybe their ride had come. Maybe they found a box with a doc in it.

Or maybe, they'd hitched a ride on the next train out of town. I think I hear it now.

On commitment

I've been to a lot of weddings recently. And I've also seen a lot of dogs.

We live by a dog park and every day when I bike home from work I see them, big and small, black, brown, and white, terriers and mutts and pit bulls and collies and purebred poodles, French bulldogs and scruffy chihuahuas with legs like sticks.

I imagine Mitt Romney driving with his dog on the roof of his truck. I wonder if that dog sees the world the way I do: leery of what could happen with his owner at the wheel.

I remember the dogs I saw in Chile; emaciated, scrappy things wandering the streets.

I think of the dog my father broke out of the pound when he was younger than I am now, and how, years later, he stayed up all night on our lawn, cradling Tommy when there was nothing else he could do.

I think of what our dog, this hypothetical, imaginary thing we call aimlessly around the house, would do to fill long afternoon hours. I measure the height of things in our apartment to see if tails would knock them over. I worry about how long it would take to train her. There's a narrative for her forming in my mind. I plan for her the way others plan weddings. It seems like these are parallel choices: here you are, making a decision that will dictate who you spend your time with, and where, and how, and just what all that means, and there you are, welcoming a living, breathing, beautiful thing into your life, making space for it where maybe there wasn't before, learning its tricks, eccentricities, preferences, vocabulary. It seems like the kind of decision you labor over until it is made, and once you are sure, that yes, this is person you want and need by your side, and yes, this animal belongs nowhere else as much as it does right here, maybe then you learn to accept the things you can't predict will happen. Because they will happen, with or without him, with or without her, and who knows how much richer your life could or would be.

The metaphor stops there. People aren't dogs, though I like to imagine that they are. Dogs can't talk; they can't rub your back or buy you blood glucose monitors when you lose them (again). They can't make the kind of babies you might someday want.

But they sure are awesome. Dogs, that is.

Termite church

I can't stop thinking about the termite church down the street.

I noticed the church the first time a few weeks ago, midday on a Sunday, when the carillon bells were ringing and a ragtag crew was huddled under the patio awning. It has a beautiful steeple, elegant and sharp, its tones resonant and comforting amidst the slight chaos and confusion of downtown San Jose. That first Sunday I figured that people were gathering to pray, but then I noticed that many of the parishioners had that same skinny lean to them, and that some of them resembled the regulars who spend their nights in the public park across the street. I half expected to see a friar breaking bread, his head bald in the sunlight. I wish now that I had stopped walking and gone inside.

A few nights ago Ryan and I went walking and I noticed a thick blue fabric wrapped snugly around the steeple. It looked like a giant band-aid, a gauze so thick even the glass windows were smothered in its red and blue. As we drew nearer I saw that the entire church was cloaked in awful stripes, the telltale advertisements for pest control hanging loosely to the facade. It looked like God had spun a colorful spiderweb around a church and left it to catch flies.

"Is this a sign?" I asked.

"It's a sign that there's termites," Ryan said.

I wonder if they pray. We kept walking but my impulse was to turn back, to get up close, to zero in and see if they were inside, thousands of small, fluttering, invasive pests, huddling closely together, praying. How did they know? Did they know? What was it about that old, bitter wood that tasted better than the buildings across the street?

Even now, days later, I wonder what the inside of that steeple looks like, with thousands of creatures turning ever inward, and what would happen if one day a divine hand pulled back the fabric and let them loose.

Do you think they would go?


We went to the Oakland Coliseum today to see the A's smash the Seattle Mariners. I believe they won because I spent the last two innings drawing Coco Crisp and Yoenis Cespedes as dogs. That, and they are professional ball players.

Sometimes I think the world looks better when you close your eyes and pretend everyone is just a big, barking animal. Then I open them and remember, oh yeah, that's not so far off. And what's better - we can both catch balls.

My JDRF pitch

The leaves are turning. The wind is shifting. The universe holds its breath: it knows. It is fundraising season.

Every October my family and I raise money for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, a nonprofit whose funds go directly to research that affects the lives of people living with type 1 diabetes. If you've ever read this blog, or perchance glanced at the machine on my hip, you know why we do this. That song never changes. This year, instead of appealing to your pocketbook for my own benefit, I want you to shift your focus.

This year I want to raise money for JDRF to support the parents and caregivers of people with type 1. For decades type 1 diabetes was known as "juvenile diabetes" because it is typically is diagnosed in children and adolescents. Type 1 is autoimmune, which means that the body develops uber-powerful antibodies that destroy the islets of Langerhans -- those oh-so-special cells that create insulin. Insulin is the hormone that makes it possible for us to metabolize all the sugar we eat. It is what lets us use what we put in our bodies for energy. It is also easily destroyed by digestive enzymes, which means that for those of us who no longer make it, the best way for us to get the hormones we need is to inject them through the skin. The go-to method for treating type 1 is multiple injection therapy; depending on your age, size, metabolism, and the kind of insulin you take, you could be taking anywhere from one to five shots a day. An increasing number of diabetics take insulin through an insulin pump, an amazing little machine that requires daily upkeep. Not to mention testing your blood sugar, which must be done with minute lancets that pierce through the fleshy skin of your fingers.

This is a lot for a little kid to think about. I can only imagine what it must feel like for their parents, siblings, and caregivers.

I think about all the things my parents have done for me -- regular parent stuff, like making me dinner every night as a child, or teaching me how to assemble a tent, or shlepping across the state with my rowing team in high school -- and somehow it is all raised to the power of three when insulin gets involved. How they must have worried when I left the country - alone - not once or twice, but three times. What must have been going through their mind when I'd call them from somewhere far away because I'd lost my blood sugar monitor or gotten low at work or been denied coverage or gotten food poisoning and threw up my dosage. I remember the way my parents handled health insurance companies, and the graceful way they taught me to be unashamed for this thing that sidled its way into our lives.

I think about the kids I met at camp, many of them still too young or unprepared to give themselves their own injections. Somehow it was one thousand times harder for me to give them their shots than to take my own. I remember their parents at the end of the week: the ones that called to hash out dosages with camp nurses, the ones who took advantage of five days without carbohydrate counting to go on a little vacation of their own. What must that be like?

I think about my older brother, Josh, who years later is a fabulously popular high school teacher, and how he'd sit with me until I felt better, this big wonderful sensitive goofy person who innately knows to make the big things small again.

I think of my best friends growing up, who sat through my gigglefests whenever I got low, and quickly perfected the subtlest way of asking, "...Are you sure you don't need some juice?" And the reasonable, honorable way they taught me to see type 1 for what it is -- a thing as outside me as it is inside.

I think of my cousins and aunts and uncles and neighbors and grandparents, the ones who donate every year, who attend JDRF research meetings in other cities, who don't mind when I pass up the Christmas pie, but are ready with a slice in case I change my mind.

I think of my boyfriend, whose patience is a thing of wonder. A few weeks ago I was standing in front of the bathroom mirror, staring at my abdomen, which was decorated with a pump infusion set on one side and a continuous blood glucose monitor glowing on the opposite hip. Sometimes it just looks ugly to me. I asked him what he thought and he said, I can't even really see them anymore. They are a part of you, so I like them.

These are the people I want you to donate for. Or if you are these people - do it for yourself. There are millions of worthy causes worth your time and money, but few whose impact spreads quite as quickly as this one.

My family is raising money for the JDRF Walk to Cure Diabetes on October 7. To donate for our cause, visit our team page.

Thank you.

A moment

These are the things she thinks about when no one is looking:

the perfect size dog
the Gobi desert
every person she has ever loved, in consecutive order
the smell of iron
how her Oscar speech would start
why it's called Dr. Pepper
Calvin and Hobbes
her grandfather's face that day

And when others ask, this is what she claims to be thinking about:

the heat
the stock market
that crisis in another country
the circumference of the Earth
endangered whales
that sale at Macy's
the latest cover of the New Yorker

On the rare occasion that these things overlap, that's when she realizes she's hit a moment of truth. Either that, or she's found the perfect size dog.