Sorry

I apologize too much.

Recently, a man came out of a coffee shop, texting while he walked, and slammed his shoulder into mine.

“Sorry,” I said.

He didn’t say anything.

Last week a bartender forgot to make my drink. “Sorry,” I said when I reminded him.

“Sorry” to the Uber driver who had a hard time finding my obvious location. “Sorry” to the grocery store cashier when I decided to not buy a bag of broccoli that was rotting. “Sorry” to my neighbor when I asked her to do something about her constantly barking dog.

I’ve had this compulsion – to apologize for things that aren’t actually my fault – since I was young. And I’m not alone. I’ve known many people – women actually – who do the same thing.

I’ve tried to consciously stop using the s-word but it leaps, unbidden, out of my mouth in every situation. It’s so deeply ingrained in me that it’s almost physically impossible to stop.

When I was ten-years-old I attended a manners camp for girls.

While there, I learned many important lessons like: A lady eats chicken drumsticks with a fork and knife.

On the first day of camp, I showed up in purple khaki shorts, a purple and yellow sleeveless denim shirt, and my giant glasses. In other words, I was looking my best.

During check-in – after they’d determined what ‘season’ of colors most complimented my skin tone (autumn) – a woman asked me to stand against a wall as she took the “Before Picture.”

“Before what?” I asked.

She smiled brightly.

“Before we make you beautiful.”

Do you hear that? It’s all the feminists in the world screaming.

I’m screaming too – but only on the inside, like a lady.

A few days later I posed for my “After Picture” with no glasses, my face caked with make-up, and wearing a white and blue pants suit.

I looked like a 10-year-old Murphy Brown.

I felt uncomfortable but I supposed that was just what beauty felt like: Awkward, not quite right, and not at all what I started with.

Even then, I was learning to apologize for who I was.

Young girls are taught this kind of thing all the time in various forms – that maybe we’re not good enough, smart enough, strong enough without some simple additions.

Now, twenty-two years and many-more-stories-like-that later, that message for me is slowly fading.

I’ve learned a few things. Important things like I don’t look good in pants suits.

And I don’t have to apologize for who I am.

So lately, I’m really focusing on stopping the constant apologizing. I know it’s just a leftover word from my less-confident days but I’ve realized that by keeping that little habit in my language I’m actually saying something much bigger.

I’m sorry for being here. I’m sorry for having an opinion that’s different than yours. I’m sorry you feel threatened by my confidence.

I don’t want to give the impression that I’m sorry for those things. Because I’m not.

Not anymore.

Sorry.

 

This piece was originally written for the Fargo Forum.  You can find them (and me) here.

Sentimental

I’ve always been sentimental.

Even as a kid I was thinking about preserving special moments. When I was twelve, my friend Jenny and I buried a time capsule in my backyard. We filled it with friendship bracelets, tapes of us talking and singing, and photos of us in matching jean overalls. We even hid a map in my house titled “A Map To The Greatest Treasure You Will Ever Find: Friendship.”

Jenny – if you’re reading this – we should go dig that thing up. I’m getting emotional just thinking about it.

Now an adult, I save everything – placing it in one of my many “memory boxes.” My husband, Jason, calls this hoarding – I call it preservation.

Recently, my hoarding – er, I mean preservation – had gotten a little out of control. I wasn’t able to go into my office without having a small panic attack. My closet was stuffed with old prom dresses, my drawers were filled with birthday cards from 1997, and my childhood books were gathering dust under the bed.

I decided I couldn’t live like this.

I had to cut down, to weed out the memories. Armed with grim determination I turned on the most inspiring music I had (Celine Dion’s 1996 Album “Falling Into You”) and began pulling things out, one by one. The things I found included:

Plastic jewelry, an outdated atlas, every single Christmas card anyone has ever sent me, printer ink for a printer I don’t have, a flip phone, dry markers, one tennis shoe, and every handbook from every job I’ve ever worked.

Buried under all of that crap were wonderful, touching things as well. So touching, in fact, that when Jason opened the door he found me sitting on the bed, surrounded by old pictures, sobbing.

“I can never go home again, you know?” I gulped, waving around a photo of me in a bowl cut and no front teeth. “I can just never go home again.”

I picked up another photo of me in a bikini from high school.

“And I used to have abs!” I wailed.

After I blew my nose and calmed down I got to thinking about what really made me so emotional.

Lately, my life has been moving forward at what feels like lightning speed. I got married, I’ve made career leaps – things have really started to fall into place in a way that makes me feel like I might be on the right path.

It’s all good, it’s all positive, and it’s all incredibly terrifying. I want to grab time by the collar and slow it down. I want to stand still for a second and soak in a little bit of my life as it is right now.

What I realized, crying over the photos in my office, is that I will never be able to come back to this place in my life. Just like I’m not able to go back to that place when I had abs.

Or the place before I knew about future heartbreaks and future triumphs, the place when almost all of my grandparents were living, or the place before I knew my metabolism would slow down.

That’s what I’m really trying to hang on to in all my saving and hoarding. I’m trying to preserve the impossible.

Time.

The truth is I can never go back.

In order to move forward in our lives we have to leave things behind. We have to keep flying at warp speed, keep striving and dreaming.

Even if I still lived in North Dakota, in that same farmhouse, outside of that same town I wouldn’t be the same person.

That night, I slipped the photos back into the (now very organized) drawers, and went to snuggle with my husband.

Because someday I’m going to look back at these days and cry too.

 

This piece was originally written for the Fargo Forum.  You can find them (and me) here.

Fear

For as long as I can remember I’ve been afraid.

Not of anything in particular. Actually, that’s not true. I’m afraid of many particular things. In fact a list of the things I’m afraid of include (but is not limited to):

Thunderstorms, The Dark, Hang-up Calls, Parking Garages, The bulls that lived behind the rickety fence in my grandparents’ backyard, Flying, Toys coming alive at night, People in cartoon costumes, Sleeping with the windows open, Balloons, Snakes, Robbers, Firecrackers, Basements, and Sharks.

It’s amazing I’ve survived this long.

In sixth grade, I once answered the phone to a man who asked to speak to my father. I accidently told him my dad “wasn’t home” instead of my usual safety line of, “He’s in the shower.” The man hung up without saying goodbye and I spent the rest of the day staring out the window, grasping a steak knife, convinced he was coming for me.

This kind of imaginative fear was manageable when I lived in a safe, remote community but now I’m in Los Angeles – a city in which police sirens are as common as crickets in North Dakota.

To deal with this change I took precautions. While I lived alone, I made my apartment as safe as possible. I lived on the second floor and had only one, dead bolted, entrance. It felt safe, impenetrable, and cozy.

But now I live in a house – a house with multiple entrances and ground floor windows. Most people’s dream is my living nightmare.

When we first moved, in my husband, Jason, installed motion lights and screwed in door chains but nothing helped. I would lie in bed at night and listen for every unusual sound, sure something was out there.

Of course, nothing ever was – until a few months ago.

Jason went out of town for work and I tried to self-medicate with a few glasses of cabernet and re-runs of ‘The Office.’ I’d finally fallen asleep in a red wine haze only to be awoken three hours later by a noise.

A very loud scraping noise.

My dog, Linus, heard it too and we both sat up, our ears perked. Something or someone was definitely on our back porch.

I knew this was my time to be brave. To enact the plan I had gone over with myself countless times. Escape Route Number 7: Intruder On The Back Porch.

Move. I told myself. Get up and move.

Instead, I sat frozen. Blood pounded in my ears and I heard the noise again.

I yanked on the light by my bed and the noise stopped. My fear spiked. Without taking my eyes off our bedroom door I grasped for my phone. Who lived close? Who should I call?

I stumbled through my contacts until I found Jason’s friend Frank. He and his wife lived right down the street. Ignoring the fact that it was 3am I dialed.

It rang. And rang. (The sound outside started up again.) And rang.

“Hello.”

My heart leapt into my throat.

“Frank. It’s Jessica. I think someone is trying to break in.”

He was awake immediately. Instructing me to stay where I was. To not move. To stay on the phone with him. He was in his car. He was two minutes away. He was at my door.

I was so afraid I almost couldn’t get out of bed to let him in. Eventually, I stumbled through the dark house and flung open the door to my hero: Frank, in his pajamas, with a bat.

I hugged him and he moved me aside. “Hug me later. I need to be prepared.”

He stalked through the house, bat raised, and pulled open the door to our porch. A chair had been moved but other than that there was no sign of an intruder. After canvasing our backyard he announced that I was safe.

I was too shaken to stay the night in my own home so I rode back with Frank. His wife, Nancy, was waiting up for me with a hug and a marathon of The Real Housewives of Orange County.

I fell asleep that night in their guest bedroom thinking about fear. How was it that a scaredy-cat like me had come to live in Los Angeles?

That was fear too. Because there is something else of which I’m afraid – more than sharks or balloons or snakes.

It’s never having tried.

That’s the good kind of fear, the kind that pushes me and keeps me going.

For all the other kinds, I have Frank. (And a new alarm system.)

The next day I returned home and after a little of my own detective work, and a much less terrifying daylight encounter, I figured out who my midnight stalker had been.

A raccoon.

You know what I’m not afraid of?

Raccoons.

This piece was originally written for the Fargo Forum.  You can find them (and me) here.

Melting Pot

A few weeks ago my in-laws came to North Dakota.

They had wanted to visit ever since their son started to get serious with a Midwest farm girl who had an unbridled love of below zero temperatures.

I had wanted them to visit ever since they told me they’d never seen a tractor.

So when my husband Jason and I traveled home for my cousin’s wedding, we all decided it was the perfect opportunity.

As I’ve mentioned before, my family is mostly made up of Norwegian immigrant farmers (or at the very least, Germans.)

My husband’s family is an entirely different story.

My father-in law, Ron was born in Tucson, Arizona and spoke Spanish until he started school. My mother-in-law, Lynette, was born in the heart of San Francisco to an Italian mother and a French Basque father who owned a French laundry.

In other words, our cultures were worlds apart.

After landing in Minneapolis and navigating their way to my parent’s house with directions that included “go ten miles before you see a stop sign” and “turn by the large tree” they were finally here, safely in our Midwestern clutches.

The next morning, we stopped to get some fresh lefse and then headed out to the North Dakota farmland on which I’d grown up.

The entire drive to the farm Ron and Lynette ooh-ed and aah-ed in all the right places and I felt a hot surge of pride at the unending flat land where the crops sprouted healthy and green.

After a few two-lane highways and then a one-lane gravel road, we arrived at my families’ farm.

My cousin’s dog ran out to greet us and the air smelled like wide open space. Eventually the owner of the dog – my cousin Ross – and his dad Leif came out to give Ron and Lynette a private tour.

I think they were excited to show my in-laws around but because they are male, Norwegian, farmers, I couldn’t be sure.

Ross let Jason drive the combine in the yard as Leif and my father explained to Ron and Lynette what a combine was. Lynette snapped pictures and they both asked all the right questions.

Later, we all gathered around Apple Kuchen – making sure my in-laws got to experience a little of the German side too.

As we drove back that night, exhausted but happy, I looked around at everyone in the car and thought about what a motley crew of cultures we were.

Jason and I both had grown up in families who still brewed in the traditions of their native homelands – separated by just a generation or two from the old countries of our ancestors.

If Jason and I have children, only a few slivers of each culture will run in their veins. They will visit their Norwegian relatives on a farm, travel to San Francisco to see their Italian and French families, and arrive in Arizona to visit their Mexican cousins.

They will steep in no particular culture other than that of the country in which they were born.

They will be Americans who happen to like lefse. Americans who have a soft spot for San Francisco and long for a chilaquiles Christmas.

It is both exciting and heartbreaking. To our ancestors who came here hoping their children would learn English more quickly and blend more easily than they ever could, our children would seem like the achievement of the American dream. But there is something sad about letting go of the purity of those traditions. A loss that breaks a little piece of my heart while it moves me forward.

If Jason and I have children they will not have as strong a tie to our heritage as we did. They will belong here, in the U.S., completely melted into the pot of the American dream. They will belong here even more than Jason or I do – more than our great-grandparents ever did.

And when we tell them the story of when their paternal grandparents first saw a combine, my hope is that they will smile and think what a long time ago that seems. A time when cultures could still live so separately.

A time before they bound us all together.

This piece was originally written for the Fargo Forum.  You can find them (and me) here.

Number Five

I’ve been in Los Angeles for seven years.

After living in L.A. for that long – a city whose residents fill their face with chemicals but their bodies with only non-dairy, organic, locally grown things – it’s easy to lose perspective. Easy to forget how much I had wanted to be here in the first place.

When I start to have doubts it helps to remember exactly how I was able to come to L.A. in the first place.

I donated my body to science.

Right before I moved, I was living with my parents, trying to save money. The small jobs I was able to pick up here and there were not helping me save very quickly so when I heard about a fourteen-day medical study that paid $3,500 I signed up before I even knew what they were testing.

The more my mom and dad learned about it, the more they begged me not to do it but just like begging me to get that Business minor in college, I wouldn’t listen. I saw this as my chance to follow my dream and all I would have to do was take non-FDA approved drugs and have my blood drawn sixty-four times.

Easy.

This is probably a good place to mention that I have an unreasonable fear of blood draws. My Aunt Marcia – a registered nurse – once tried to draw my blood as a kid while I sobbed and screamed accusingly, “WHY? Why would you do this?”

I thought about that as I stood outside the doors of the facility with sweaty palms and a pounding heart. I took a breath and pushed the open the door. I could handle this. I was older now. And more accurately, I was desperate.

After filling out a few forms and presumably singing my life away, I was led to a large room with fourteen other beds and given a paper number (five) to wear throughout the study. A nurse checked my blood pressure, and reminded me of the most important rule: I was not allowed to miss a blood draw. If I did – for any reason – I would be kicked out.

The first few draws weren’t bad. I just closed my eyes and imagined one day telling this story on Jay Leno. But when the nurse announced that they were going to start drawing our blood every two hours for twenty-six hours, things started to go downhill.

The phlebotomists seemed to be getting younger and more inexperienced and the bruising on my arms was starting to make every draw more painful than the one before.

My most recent draw had been carried out by a guy who looked like he’d rolled up on his skateboard after Chem Lab to draw blood for extra credit. He’d spent five minutes digging in my veins until he thew his hands up in the air and told me I had, “Like, impossible veins, dude.”

I tried falling asleep that night beside fourteen strangers, knowing I was going to be awoken in two hours to give away two more vials of my blood.

2am came around quickly and I stumbled out of bed bracing myself for another painful draw.

But something felt different.

I was hungry. Desperately hungry. More hungry than I’ve ever been in my life. I mentioned it to Number Four and she told me I looked pale.

My name was called.

“Number Five!”

I stood up and started to walk to the phlebotomist’s table. I was dizzy and all I could think about was eating a sandwich. Or ribs. Or an entire chicken.

I looked at my phlebotomist and my stomach started churning. It was the skater-kid who hadn’t been able to find my vein.

He tied the cord around my arm as he jammed out to his iPod and ripped open an alcohol swab while blowing a bubble. The smell of the rubbing alcohol, his gum, and the memory of the last time he’d tried were just too much.

Suddenly there were two of him and then there were two of everything.

Right before I passed out, as my eyes rolled back into my head and I started to fall off my stool, I had two thoughts.

“I hope they don’t kick me out.”

And.

“I could eat a horse.”

A few minutes later I woke up on the floor surrounded by concerned faces.

A nurse was taking my blood. I looked up at her and whispered hoarsely, “Please don’t kick me out, I have to get to Hollywood.”

She gave me a strange look and patted my head. “We won’t make you leave as long as you can keep giving blood.”

And I did.

Two hours later, during the next blood draw, I was so weak I couldn’t get out of bed. But I didn’t give up.

I wanted it too badly.

Eventually I became stronger and when I left the study I was four pounds lighter and had arms that looked like I’d done a copious amount of drugs. But I carried that check all the way to the bank.

Now, when I get lost in the ins and outs of ‘making it’ in Hollywood I tell myself that story in my head.

Pursuing my dream is a privilege. A dream very few people get to experience.

Even when it’s hard or heartbreaking I try to appreciate it just a little bit.

It’s what Number Five would have wanted.

This piece was originally written for the Fargo Forum.  You can find them (and me) here.

Guilt and Tequilla

Last weekend I went on a last-minute, one-day, surprise trip home.

My cousin Adam and I are more like siblings and in a few weeks he’s getting married. His bachelor party, as well as his fiancée Karrisa’s bridal shower and bachelorette party, was happening on Saturday. Thursday, he sent me a text.

“You should come home this weekend! I’ll buy the ticket. I want to surprise Karissa.”

When you live as far away as Los Angeles, an opportunity like that rarely presents itself. So after a lot of “No ways” and “I couldn’t possiblys” I decided to take him up on his wildly generous offer and take the plunge.

That night in bed, I couldn’t sleep and felt a familiar feeling working its greasy hands into the pit of my stomach.

Guilt.

I shouldn’t be going away for the weekend. I should be working on my career.

This week, I celebrate my seventh year in Los Angeles and when I look around I see people who have dedicated their entire lives to try and make it in Hollywood. Putting relationships on hold, digging themselves into debt, working around the clock, and almost killing themselves for a piece of this city.

Living in that kind of high-octane environment, I constantly worry I’m not working hard enough. Not killing myself enough. How maybe if I hadn’t watched that episode of Game Of Thrones or spent a Saturday baking cookies I would be further along in my career.

To mitigate that fear, I use guilt as motivation, which I’m sure any good therapist can tell you is not that healthy.

I tossed and turned under the covers in wild panic and was certain this trip was going to prove to the universe that I was not committed enough – that I didn’t deserve success because I take wild-haired trips across the country when I should be sitting down, chained to my desk, pumping out best-selling books and hit TV shows.

The next morning I was exhausted but promised myself I would work on the plane, something I’ve never been good at since I’m usually too worried about falling out of the sky to focus.

Our flight was delayed for a ‘mechanical issue’ (which sent me into a mental tailspin) and after we were in the air I had asked our flight attendant if she knew what had been wrong.

“Oh you know,” she chirped “just the main navigation tool. The thing that makes sure we don’t-“ she wobbled her hands wildly about. “That whole thing had totally gone south.”

I stared at her a moment in shock.

“Beverage?” She asked, brightly.

Miraculously, I made it and even managed to get a little work done.

When I stepped off the plane and breathed in the fresh Fargo air I knew I’d made the right decision.

The surprise was everything we’d hoped it would be and after laughter (and a few tears) we got down to why we were really there – celebrating the marriage of two people I love and tequila shots.

It was wonderful to be around my family, back home with no planning and no plans other than to spend time with them. It felt wild and unexpected.

The tequila shots helped too.

I didn’t think about work once. I didn’t feel guilty for a single second.

The whole day was a flash in the pan, an unexpected bright spot. A reminder.

As I flew back to LA on Sunday – deliriously tired but so happy – I realized maybe that was exactly what I had needed.

Working hard is important but so is living life. So is pulling your head up from the path, looking around, and recognizing why you are actually doing it. And that is so easy to forget in a city like Los Angeles.

I crawled in bed next to Jason that first night home and it felt so different from the last night I had spent in this bed. My body hummed with ideas and I felt excited to write. Excited to sit down and be creative again. Excited to spend the time pursuing my dream.

The guilt and it had been replaced (at least for now) with the exciting reminder of why I was here.

It only took one day in the Midwest to remind me of that.

And maybe a tequila shot.

This piece was originally written for the Fargo Forum.  You can find them (and me) here.

Neighbors

Jason and I had moved into our house a year and a half ago and still hadn’t met our neighbors.

I had waved at one once as he drove his Tesla into the garage and I had asked another if her dog could stop barking. But I don’t think that really counts as meeting.

This situation was fairly typical in Los Angeles. For a city built on the back of an industry that peddles exposure, its residents want little of it in their personal lives.

Jason and I had a shorthand for all of them.

There were the people who lived in the ‘Radio Shack’ house – a house sided with stark white boards that we knew was supposed to look modern and trendy but to us looked like the peg holders in a Radio Shack.

There were the neighbors who would get high and sing opera at the top of their lungs, the notes floating over the fence along with the faintly sweet smell of high-priced weed.

There were the road bikers, the artist compound and of course, the house with the barking dog.

We didn’t know any of their real names.

I decided to change that one night after I woke up, alone in our house, and thought I heard someone outside. Jason was out of town and I lay in bed, frozen to the sheets. I realized I had no one to call that was close – no one on our whole block that would know who I was.

For all I knew, the person trying to break in could actually be one of our neighbors.

The intruder turned out to be a curious possum but after that I decided I needed to change things.

Armed with fresh baked cookies, I walked up to the Radio Shack house and stood in front of their first locked gate (there were two). I rang the buzzer and waited.

No answer. I looked up at the towering house. Should I open this gate and walk up to the second gate? Why did they have two gates? Did this first buzzer even work?

I glanced up at the house and noticed a security camera blinking back at me.

I smiled into the camera, thinking maybe they were watching me and then realized how ridiculous I must look.

I sighed and gave up.

At the next house there was another gate and another buzzer. I rang the bell.

Silence.

Just as I was about to walk away a voice crackled through the speaker.

“Yes?”

“Hi! It’s Jessica, your neighbor from across the street.”

There was a pause and then the voice came through again, suspicious this time.

“Yes?”

I blinked and considered. I had expected my status as ‘neighbor’ would be enough to breach the locked gate. Clearly it wasn’t.

“I made cookies?” It sounded like a question.

“You did? Hold on.”

When she came around the corner she looked shocked, asking me why I had done this. She was thankful and mumbled guiltily about how she’s been meaning to throw a block party. After a few minutes it became clear from her slowly backing away that she didn’t want to chat. I handed her the basket and wished her a good day.

I considered giving up but felt encouragement looking at the last house. There were no fences and no buzzers – just a normal enough looking door. The front window was covered with stickers asking me to “Give Peace A Chance” and “Save the Oceans.”

I rang the doorbell and heard shuffling inside.

A man in his 60s opened the door and looked at me curiously.

I launched into my spiel of wanting to get to know my neighbors but he interrupted me halfway through and smiled.

“Come on in!”

I blinked, shocked, and then followed him.

He called back to his wife, announcing my presence and she came around the corner and greeted me warmly – like she had been expecting me.

“Have you had lunch? Here, sit, eat.”

I sat down at their table and felt like I’d discovered a little bit of home. Over salad and cookies we chatted and by the time I left we had made plans for happy hour in their backyard.

As I walked back home, I glanced back at the Radio Shack house with the two gates.

People today are building homes like this all over town. Places with double fences, minimal windows, and extra security cameras.

While privacy and safety are important in a city as sprawling as Los Angeles, I also wonder what we are losing in building all of these walls.

Back home, farms were so spread out I couldn’t see any of our neighbors’ homes. But I knew every one of them.

Here in LA, I live smashed up against our neighbors, and I could not tell you most of their names.

As a little girl, my mom used to strap me into the car seat and bring me along when she delivered homemade buns to our elderly neighbors. When I asked why we were going for this drive she used to say simply, “Maybe they just need a little visit.”

That kind of openhearted community doesn’t come as easily here. We build fences around our houses just as quickly as we build fences around our hearts. And I knew first hand that living inside them can be less terrifying than knocking on a neighbor’s door.

I smiled up at the security camera again.

I’ll be back.

And this time, I’m going for the second gate.

This piece was originally written for the Fargo Forum.  You can find them (and me) here.