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Musings from the road, or why I’ll stop saying “the middle of nowhere”

I spent the past weekend traveling to and from the places of my husband’s youth. First, we drove to his hometown in western South Dakota, via Northern Colorado and Eastern Wyoming. From there, we went to his college town, on the southeastern tip of South Dakota, crossing the southern half of the state to get there. Finally, after a couple of nights laughing and drinking beer with old friends, we made it home to Denver through Nebraska and Eastern Colorado. 

During our time on the road—about 22 hours total—we saw little but one long loop of green out the window, interrupted by a farmhouse here and there, and the occasional two-stop light town, population something in the low four digits. 

The places that I lived in, growing up in the United States, were not so far away from all this, figuratively speaking. In elementary, then middle and high school, I lived in towns with residents that numbered in the tens of thousands, but they were places where your parents were taught by the teachers that now taught you (well, not mine, specifically, but you get what I’m saying) and where Applebee’s was a good night out. 

I left these places as soon as I could, which in my mind was as soon as I could afford to live somewhere else that was bigger, more crowded, with wide sidewalks full of people trying to dodge tourists. 

Now, almost 15 years since I lived somewhere I would have considered the middle of nowhere, I get how judgmental that phrase is: “the middle of nowhere.”

People live there and choose to do so, even if I would never (ever) go back. There is—at least for some—enough to connect you to the rest of the world so that if you really want to leave, maybe you can. If those places felt disconnected in my youth, it’s only because I was disconnected. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, where I needed to go to do it or how to get there. I just knew that I wanted to get out. And I didn’t really go all that far, in the grand scheme of things. (Where I am, my kids can dream about cities that are bigger still.) At least, I didn’t go so far that I can’t look back now and appreciate that the smallness I left behind was formative in a good way. 

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On the drive home, during the legs I was not behind the wheel, I started reading Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward, which takes place in rural Mississippi in poverty so profound that you might think it takes place a hundred years ago—until a character walks around trying to look for a cell phone signal.

That world, like the world of endless farm and ranch land through which my husband was driving as I read, is real. It’s not a cliche or a postcard. We—and by “we” I mean “I”—can’t ever think of it as the middle of nowhere, because if we do, the people become nobodies. And, to them, so do we. 

I don’t want to live in a country of nobodies. 

40 things that I am, in no particular order:

  1. a mother
  2. a wife
  3. a Latina
  4. a Colombian
  5. a cat person
  6. a writer
  7. an editor
  8. a public relations professional
  9. a person who isn’t crazy about the title “public relations professional”
  10. a talker
  11. a listener 
  12. a person who reminds herself she needs to listen more
  13. a reader
  14. a book collector
  15. a TV watcher
  16. a movie watcher
  17. a Mac person
  18. a successful person
  19. a person who has failed at a lot of things I wish I hadn’t failed at
  20. a hard worker
  21. a person who sometimes phones it in
  22. a runner
  23. a person who is surprised that, looking back, high school cross-country meant a lot more than high school soccer 
  24. a former flute and clarinet player
  25. a person who wishes she hadn’t given up playing an instrument as a freshman in high school
  26. a college graduate
  27. a Davidson wildcat
  28. an English major
  29. a person with an ethnic studies concentration
  30. a holder of a master’s degree
  31. a UNC-Chapel Hill graduate
  32. a Tar Heel
  33. a Tom Wicker scholar
  34. a former journalist 
  35. a former Senate (deputy) press secretary
  36. an activist
  37. a (proud) bleeding heart liberal
  38. a person who once saw Barack Obama in the halls of the Chicago Tribune
  39. an introvert
  40. a 40-year-old 

My favorite things about 2017 and the lesson I’m taking into 2018

This year often felt like one long politics-induced panic attack. But if we learned anything from Harry Potter is that to give in to that panic, to let anxiety take over and to shrink into a hardened nihilist shell would be to let the death eaters win. So with that in mind, I give you the most important lesson this year taught me and the things that made me hopeful and happy.

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To my daughter, on the occasion of her first day of kindergarten

Listen, kid, if you’re anything like me (NEWSFLASH: You’re a lot like me. Sorry.), the next 12 years of years of your life will be long, challenging, boring and painful sometimes, embarrassing and emotional sometimes, and a probably more than a little bit awkward. But there will be laughter in there (some of it at my expense—I forgive you) and also lots of love and fun.

You’ll be older and wiser at the end of this. Smarter, too, if you continue to love to learn and continue to be so good at it. And if your dad and I hold up our end, making you do your homework, traveling with you to cool places, taking you to nerdy museums, and quizzing you on your addition and multiplication tables just like your abuelo did with me.

And if you have good teachers.

That’s the good news. On this long journey to your high school diploma and what comes after, we will have help. I don’t know what your teachers will be like, but here’s what I wish for you:

I wish for you a teacher who recognizes when you’re not good at something, but doesn’t treat you differently or make you feel stupid because of it. Like Mrs. Williams, my first teacher after I moved to the United States, who never let on to me or anyone that she thought I spoke poor English even though I did.

I wish for you a teacher who goes above and beyond, so you can participate in something you love. Like Mr. McGregor, my elementary school art teacher, who taught an evening sculpting class I took and shared his dinner with me on the nights that mom had to work late and couldn’t pick me up between the time after-school care ended and the class began. (It was always a tuna sandwich. I friggin’ love tuna.)

I wish for you a teacher who trusts you and gives you extra responsibilities because he knows you can handle them. Like Mr. Ackerman, who signed me up to be on the popcorn staff in 6th grade even though this meant missing one period of social studies every week. He said he picked me because he knew I could do the job and keep up with the class. I managed it, if only because I wanted to prove him right.

I wish for you a teacher who teaches you that life is hard and sometimes you can’t have everything you want all at the same time. Like Mr. Thornton, who was teaching while he put himself through law school. He was also diabetic, and the stress of everything was affecting his health, so he gave up the thing he loved the most, his students, because it was what had to be done. When he told us he’d be quitting, half-way through the year, I put my head down so others wouldn’t see that I was crying. Until I heard a sob, and then another, and then another. All of us cried. But we also learned something: life is hard and sometimes you can’t have everything you want all at the same time.

And I wish for you a teacher who points you in the direction of the rest of your life. Like Mr. Powell, who was my English teacher in 10th and 12th grades. My high school years were an embarrassment of riches in the good teachers department, but in his class, what I learned the most about was myself.

Sofi, I don’t know what you will remember of the coming year or the ones that will follow. (Well, you’ll remember your first day, if nothing else, because I’ll be taking a million photos.)

You’re not going to recognize the teachers who are going to change your life when you meet them. You’re probably not going to realize that’s what they’re doing when you’re sitting in their classrooms. Maybe, you’ll understand that’s what they’ve done for you as you leave them behind. It’s possible that you’ll read this when you’re 18 and think, “Jesus, mom, were you really this fucking sappy?”

On this night, though, before it all begins for you, all I only know is what my teachers did for me. And, damn it, kid, I really, really hope you are this lucky.

Love, your mother

That time Growing Pains taught me about racism

I watched a lot of TV when I was a kid. Also, my memory works in weird ways. So it is that I remember, surprisingly clearly, an episode of Growing Pains in which Mike gets a job at a convenient store. It was one of those that came to be known as a Very Special Episode.

I’m not sure if I recall all the details exactly, but it goes something like this: Mike’s coworkers are two young men who are black and about his age. The owner of the store is an old white guy who seems nice but says all these platitudes about “taking care of our own” that set off alarms even in the somewhat dim Mike.

The convenient store is open 24 hours, but despite being the new guy, Mike notices how he’s never asked to do the “graveyard” shift. He also notices how accommodating his boss is to him, but not his black coworkers. When he tells his parents, they seem to get right away that the dude is a racist. Then, a funny thing happens. (Not funny, “haha,” alas.) Turns out, that Jason and Maggie Seaver don’t want Mike to have to do the graveyard shift because they’re afraid it’s unsafe. They’re genuinely torn about how to confront obvious racism that is resulting in something they want and that benefits their son. (I may not remember everything about this episode exactly right, but I remember their moral dilemma. Through the decades, their unease about the situation stuck with me.)

Ultimately, through conversations with one of his black coworkers, Mike’s eyes are opened to the unfairness of the situation. Meanwhile, the store owner insists he’s just giving the new kid a break. Mike eventually takes matters into his own hands and deliberately messes up at work. When the boss finds the mess Mike made, while Mike is standing right there watching him, he immediately suspects one of the black employees and proclaims that the kid is fired. Mike confesses after this proclamation, and the boss shrugs it off and says, “um, OK, in that case, no biggie.” Mike immediately calls out the guy’s racism and quits.

The moral of the episode—because there was always a moral to Very Special Episodes—was that even when something that was racist, unfair or immoral helped you, it was still racist, unfair or immoral and had to be treated as such.

Growing Pains was the kind of show that is easy to laugh at now and to enjoy only if you do so with a sense of irony, one that acknowledges that it was actually terrible television.

Was it really terrible, though?

In this era of “Peak TV” wherein our stories are all subtlety and nuance and our heroes are dark and complicated and often make morally questionable choices, where would we put a half-hour of sitcom television in which two white, otherwise thoughtful and decent parents are forced to confront their privilege and resulting moral apathy? In which it’s the teenage ne’er-do-well, not the well-educated grownups (Maggie was a journalist and Jason was a psychologist), who realizes that racism is wrong and needs to be pointed out, even and especially when it’s giving you a leg up?

Nuance in art is a thing that I appreciate. And the reason we don’t like Very Special Episodes is that they rarely offered any. The lessons hit you over the head, and the bad guys were unmistakably so. There wasn’t a whole lot of nuance to Growing Pains, or this particular episode. We knew what the right thing to do was right away, and once Mike figured it out, he did it immediately and with admirable resolve.

In today’s cultural context, there would be nuance. The racist boss would be a hard-working blue-collar guy who had been left behind by the political ruling class and wasn’t a monster out to get black people. He’d hired black kids, hadn’t he? Maggie and Jason would be parents just trying to do right by their kids—their inner conflict about doing the right thing would be more complicated, more drawn out.

But their inaction would still be wrong. No matter how much more layered and subtle the story, ultimately, that would remain true. I know that thanks to, among other things, this Very Special Episode of Growing Pains that I watched when I was a kid. Yeah, After School Specials and Very Special Episodes and the ham-handed story-telling of the 1980s were all  terrible television. But would I have remembered any of this, otherwise? Would I have learned anything? These stories hit us over the head with their lessons, but sometimes, dare I say, I needed it.

Certainly, it feels like we all need it right now.

On prayer and kneeling

I’m not a super religious person. I used to be, but I’m not anymore. Well, I don’t know that I was ever SUPER religious. I only ever did slightly more than the bare minimum of what was required. What I mean to say is that religion—or rather, adherence to the tenets of one—used to be more important to me than it is now. I like to joke that I am a recovering Catholic. But this post isn’t about the complicated (and not so complicated) reasons I left the church or even about what I believe (and don’t). This post is about why I still pray.

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On celebrity death and loss

My first real memory associated with Prince does not involve listening to his music. First, I should point out that I am a child of the ’80s so Prince’s music (and Michael Jackson’s and Whitney Houston’s—both also gone from this earth) was playing in the background everywhere as I grew up. The kind of stuff that you recognize the moment it comes on the radio, that you know, even when you don’t KNOW. And I didn’t KNOW Prince until this particular moment.

It was 1987. I had moved to the United States from Colombia with my mom that year. We lived in upstate New York, in a small town called Watertown, where we knew exactly one family when we arrived. The dad, an American whose name I don’t remember, had worked with my mom in the past and was married to a Colombian woman. He had two children from a previous marriage. Both of them were blond and blue-eyed and looked to me exactly like what gringos were supposed to look like. The younger of the two was Dusty. He was 12, I think. Older than me (I was 9) but not so much older that he was too old to play with a 9-year-old girl who barely spoke his language. We got along fine for the short time we knew each other, though I bet he probably doesn’t remember me the way I remember him. His older sister was a teenager. I can’t remember her name. Or how old she was exactly. I have a single memory of her, but it’s a vivid one.

The memory is this: We are in their dad’s car, going I don’t know where. Dusty and I are in the back seat, and she’s in the front. I’m behind the driver’s seat, so I can see her face when she turns toward her dad. At one point, he asks about the music she is listening to on her Walkman and she turns and looks at him with the kind of surly look only teenagers are capable of and spits out, “PRINCE!”

I know that I had heard his music before that moment, but I didn’t KNOW who Prince was, what he was and what he gave to young people. At 9, I was too young to get it, but in retrospect, it’s easy to see why that memory—of all possible memories to have of the first friends I remember mom and I having in the United States—has stuck with me for almost 30 years. Prince, his music, his persona, his artistry—all of it is freeing. Listening to him makes you just want to let go in the best possible way.

I think of that memory now and I think of a girl asking to be left alone to listen to music that lets her be herself by herself. And I think, “Leave her alone, dude, it’s PRINCE.”


Some time later, while we were still in Watertown, Gary Shandling hosted the Grammys. He did so for several years in a row, and at one point, he told a joke about the accountants who tally the votes. The accountants were standing on stage smiling and awkward, and Gary Shandling says, “Accountants all over the country are saying right now, ‘Those guy are hot!'”

It still makes me laugh. He still makes me laugh. He’s also dead.

Celebrity deaths hit harder now because the ones dying now are ones I recognize, ones whose work I know and sparks a flood of memories and emotions. I remember the accountant joke, but what’s worse, I also remember laughing about the joke. And I remember how the laughter felt, which makes me remember being a child. I can still go back to the memory. I can still watch old episodes of The Gary Shandling Show or The Larry Sanders Show. I can still remember Gary Shandling bantering with David Duchovny at the Emmy Awards. I can still listen to Prince or David Bowie (or Whitney Houston or Michael Jackson). I can still watch Hans Gruber fall in slow motion on YouTube. I have every Harry Potter movie and could rematch every “ob-viously” Alan Rickman ever uttered until I wear the DVDs out. So in effect, I haven’t lost anything. They are all gone, but I didn’t lose anyone I knew personally. I still have them in my life in the same form the existed in before they died.

So why do their deaths make me sad? Because I don’t exist in the same form I existed in when they were alive. That’s what I’ve lost. The piece of me that they made a little bit more alive is only a memory now. All I have left is to be grateful that they made me laugh and dance and be a little bit more myself.

Easing on down memory lane

I’m emerging from my almost year-long blog hibernation for a short memory in honor of tonight’s live performance of The Wiz. (Well, live for the east coast, anyway.)

I moved to the United States when I was nine years old, a few months before I started fourth grade for the second time. (The first time was back in Colombia, where I was so smart, I was a year ahead of where I was supposed to be in school.) About a month (or was it a week?) after I started fourth grade, three girls came over to the apartment mom and I lived in for a sleepover. One of them became my best friend. Her name was Trilbey. She was into music and acting, and played Annie in the local community theater’s production of Annie when we were in fifth grade.

Also in fifth grade, she was the only kid in our class to vote for Michael Dukakis over George H. W. Bush in the class election. Now that I think about it, there may have been two Dukakis votes. I can’t remember. This was upstate New York, so everybody was Republican. Everyone except Trilbey’s parents. Naturally, she followed suit. It was supposed to be secret ballot, but everyone knew who everyone was voting for and from what I remember, she didn’t mind that people knew. (I voted for Bush for no other reason than everyone else was. Politics and what it all means wouldn’t come into my life for a long, long time.) Anyhoo, Trilbey was cool in a way that was wholly impossible for me to be at the time. We were friends until 7th grade, which was when I moved away. I was sad about the move when it happened, but it was just as well because when I left she was well on her way to becoming one of the popular girls at our school, something else that was impossible for me to be at the time, so we were likely going to drift apart eventually. We wrote for a few years, and then she moved also. At least, I think she did.

So what does my childhood best friend have to do with The Wiz? As I said, Trilbey was into theater. Once, we went to see the local high school’s production of Pippin. Totally her idea. I had no idea what Pippin was, and to be perfectly honest, that didn’t change much after having sat through the show. Our houses were about a mile apart in the town we lived in and like most kids who grew up in the ’80s, we were allowed to walk alone a lot. When we did, she used to sing “Ease on down the road.” I didn’t know where it was from. (I didn’t know a lot back then. Everything, pretty much, was new to me, and it took many years of living in the United States before that changed.) But for years after, I would sing that song to myself without thinking about it. Sometimes without realizing it. When I did I would think of her and smile.

I hope wherever she is she is smiling too.

But Don’t Call Them Resolutions

I intended to post this right after my birthday in June. If you look at the date of the last post on this blog, you can see how well that went.

Anyway, last year (and by last year, I mean 2014—Happy New Year!), I turned 36. When it happened, I started to think about what I wanted to do for my 40th birthday. I’ve never been one for big celebrations on my birthday. In fact, there are only a handful that I remember especially vividly:

  • 15, when my stepmom insisted on throwing me a quiceañera
  • 16, when I made tie-dyed shirts and camped out in my back yard with a bunch of my friends from school
  • 21, when I went out with my mom and I ordered a cosmopolitan for my first legal drink; the bartender realized it was my birthday and offered to give me my next drink free and then said I was crazy for ordering a white Russian.
  • 27, when I threw myself a party and hung out with hubby for the first time

Still, 40 is one of those numbers that looms especially large on the calendar for everybody and, therefore, necessitates special acknowledgement. Truth be told, I’m really looking forward to my 40s. No, really. I am for all sorts of reasons, but mainly because after I turned 30 I realized that all the things I didn’t do in my 20s, I could still do, with the added benefits of experience, wisdom, greater financial stability and a husband and kids with whom to enjoy them. So the thoughts of what I’d do to mark my 40s turned into thoughts about what I wanted to do once I turned 40, which, in turn, became thoughts about what I could do now.

The result was this list—40 things I want to do before I turn 40.

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