There’s No Present Like the Time

Dear Lindsay,

This year we both face our first birthdays without Mom, and I’m sorry I let you down. Big sisters are supposed to do the really hard stuff first and tell their younger sisters about it so they don’t have it quite so rough. I’m so sorry that because of the way the calendar falls, the tables have turned. I can’t imagine what it’s like to celebrate the day Mom did all the work when she’s not there to enjoy it. I am here to listen to you vent, but I am sorry that I can offer no words of support that would equal what you must be feeling.

But I can tell you that when Mom told me she was pregnant with you, it was the happiest day of my life next to meeting you for the first time. I was too young to understand exactly what “pregnant” meant, so Mom and I spent my bedtimes reading books on “the birds and the bees,” and what it would look like to be an older sister. I wasn’t there for your actual birth, but I remember Mom telling me that she was so surprised that her obstetrician, Dr. Ritter, stayed in her room with her all night, the first to see your seven pound, nine ounce glory.

Our age difference is larger than a lot of siblings I know. I may have not had the specifics down pat, but I did know that our family was getting a new little person… one in which I was old enough to learn to take care of, making sure that your bottles were just the right temperature and your diapers always fresh. Just so you feel safe about this, it was all under adult supervision.

My first real memory of you is dad picking me up so that I could see you through the nursery glass at Methodist Hospital… and then everything fades until a few months later. You were sleeping soundly, and I sneaked into your room and put a teddy bear under your arm.

By then, we were living on Galveston, and I remember that every time we went to the beach, you would approach the water cautiously, and as the waves rolled in, you would run away from them, yelling “don’t! Don’t! Don’t!” After the crash, there you went, running back into the water just enough for it to lap over your toes.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

I started kindergarten the September after you were born, and I remember you and Mom coming to pick me up every day at Parker. It was the highlight of my day to see you in your Muppet Babies leotard and tights, complete with headband just like Jane Fonda.

After that, my memory goes to Baybrook Mall, where we had an airbrushed sweatshirt made for you that said “HYPERWOMAN” in a jittery font. You wore it until it was in rags, because it was you. Getting you to be still in any capacity was (and is) beyond my capabilities. But when you made the choice to sit still with me and actually talk, it meant more, because I knew how much effort it was taking on your part.

The next thing that comes to mind is the chicken pox story.

You got what you called “the chicken pops,” and Mom made a cake that had a little blonde girl with red hots all over it and invited all the kids who hadn’t had it yet for a party, because their parents were eager to get it over with, too. I admired your strength, because it was the worst case I’d ever seen. You had them both externally and internally, the most uncomfortable being down your throat. But did that stop you? Nooooo…….. You were the life of the party.

Come to think of it, you are the life of every party.

Taller, more muscle mass, and faster than I’ll ever be is the inspiration that gets me out of bed in the morning. My younger sister is someone (I have) to look up to. Not only is your career inspiring, I’ve always been a little bit mad that you can reach the top shelf and I can’t.

But despite that “anger,” I’ll always jump in. I will never forget going on our cruise when you were three and I was nine. We were sitting on the ledge of a saltwater pool, right beside a sign that said “four feet deep.” You fell over backwards like a SCUBA diver, and I have never moved so fast. I jumped in without thinking. The water was so deep that I thought I might drown trying to get you to safety, not having had the clarity to think, “ok, I’ve got her. NOW what do I do?” We were so close to the edge that I swam under you, your diaper pressing against the top of my head, and kicked my legs to propel you upward. You popped up on the deck like some sort of magic trick (oh, hey, look…. flying baby) as I tilted my head and set you down. My neck hurt from the strain, but that was sort of the good part. It burned that memory into my brain, saving it for a time in my life that those years are slipping away.

Mom & Dad will never know how much danger we were actually in, because they weren’t there… but the superhuman strength of seeing your sister in danger is limitless. I will always be the tiger in your corner, claws sharpened, because now Mom will never be there. I can’t replace your loss, but I am always here to help.

I hope you know it’s a strength that will last a lifetime. I will always jump in, I will always protect you, I will always bite the ankles of your enemies… no matter the personal cost. This is because just by being around you, I become a better me.

Again, I’m so sorry that of all the things I didn’t do before you, going through this is one of them. I wish I had more to offer you than words on “paper” and a piece of my heart. It’s not much, but it comes from a completely unique store.

Love,
Leslie

Craft

Last night’s dinner with Pri-Diddy was relaxing and just what I needed. Oh, how we laughed. It was good to get back into the normal swing of things. For instance, I found a really cheap parking garage next to the Metro that’s WAY less expensive than Lyft, and because we were meeting at 5:30, I can’t think of a less desirable place to be than searching for a parking place in Dupont Circle during rush traffic/Happy Hour. It was nice to have someone to “drive” me into the city, and I played games on my phone until I got there. Just for kicks, I looked up the route from Silver Spring to Dupont by car, and in addition to time to find parking, the route at that hour said anywhere from 28 to 58 minutes. This is partly because of traffic, and partly because the speed limit on 16th Ave. is mostly 25.

Going anywhere inside the Beltway during rush hour is a nightmare, because there are no freeway exits where I’m located that would drop me off where I need to be…. and yes, for those who don’t live here, I am talking about THAT 16th Ave… the one that when you arrive at Pennsylvania, you see a large, white house with many dubious occupants.

I don’t want to publish my exact address, but what I will tell you is that I’m a few blocks inside the Beltway between University and Colesville. Getting across the river into Arlington/Alexandria or toward Baltimore is easy.

Driving into the city would take away my sanity without my incredible lists of podcasts and the Bluetooth connected to my phone, so that I can talk to my family unimpeded. I don’t tend to listen to music because I’d rather have my brain engaged. It keeps me from road rage (not that I ever really had it to begin with), because there are often moments in which I like traffic because I want to finish a story. I have lots and lots of driveway moments.

And though I don’t drive it that often, I like being stuck in traffic on 395 between the Pentagon and the city, because it is breathtaking. You see every monument on the way in, and traffic is just an excuse to gawk at that beauty. I also enjoy the Baltimore/Washington and George Washington Parkways, because they are both beautiful- green space everywhere and, on GW, the thrill of passing Langley.

Now, I don’t know the difference between the George H.W. Bush campus and the one in McClean (or perhaps they’re the same thing and the road I’m looking at takes you to McClean, but I do know that on one of my favorite TV shows, Covert Affairs (on Amazon Prime now), Annie Walker works at GHWB, and she drives this little red Volkswagen that reminds me of my own little “spy car,” Eggsy (named after the main character in Kingsmen: The Secret Service… also because she looks like an egg). I think I’ve said this before, but every time I pass the entrance to Langley, I hear Austin Powers’ voice saying, your spy car’s a Yaris?

I don’t have any desire to work there. First of all, they’d never hire me, anyway. There are two main reasons I wouldn’t be able to get in, neither of them bad for a civillian, but not up to snuff when you’re talking about working for the government. I’d tell you what they were, because they’re not secrets of which I’m ashamed, just better saved for an in-person conversation rather than blasting it all over the world.

However, if there’s one thing I know I’d be good at (with the exception of only being able to speak English [and REALLY bad Spanish]), it’s interrogation. For all of my life, I’ve been one of those people you can sit down for a conversation and let the other person get up later not having realized the sheer amount of information I’ve been able to gather.

I know the questions that get people talking, because what do people like to talk about more than anything else?

Themselves.

I can’t see myself in a room with HVTs (High Value Targets) and having to do shit to them to make them talk. I am better at a party or a dinner in which I disappear with one person at a time, creating intimacy that makes people spill. It’s a game I don’t even know I’m running, because I am genuinely curious about people and want to know them, know their stories, their backgrounds, what makes them tick… but you don’t get that information without being willing to be vulnerable about yourself, either.

With my friends, I will spill as much information as they do. We are on equal ground. If I was actually in a position with the FBI or CIA, I’d be poring over alibis to be able to be vulnerable as someone else… spilling their details rather than my own.

But it is a fantasy, because I know where I really belong… outside of all the danger, outside of all the intrigue, outside the Beltway, period… unless my government job was the same thing I’d be doing for a private IT company.

I’m just a geek and a writer. I can live out my fantasies through fiction while my day job is tame and relatively uninteresting.

I’d rather fly under the radar than be a part of it. My great uncle worked for the C and DIA before I was born (or shortly afterward). I would have loved to hear his stories, but he was high enough up that he couldn’t have told me anything, anyway. Now that he’s been dead for 40 years, I might be able to get a FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) casefile on him, hoping that his ops are declassified now. It would be great to have snippets for my fiction that echo my real family. But what I think I would get is a few sentences and a lot of black sharpie.

But there is a cost… and that is possibly finding out more shit than I would ever want to know. Would it make me a stronger writer, or wrap me uplike a burrito in fear?

Supposedly, he died in a coup in Africa… but the jury is still out on whether that’s what actually happened, or whether he disappeared off the grid like a Man in Black… putting on the last suit he’d ever wear. In my mind, he could have been Agent F…. he didn’t die, he just went home.

By now, there is probably a star on a wall for him somewhere… another thing that goes through my mind as I’m driving toward Alexandria, because GW Parkway is the shortest path.

Escaping into this fantasy world is one of the things that lifts me out of my grief, and I’ll take anything that will do it. Yes, it’s dark, but at the same time, all-encompassing, like a novel taking place in real time… If I could get away with it, though, I’d want to write a biography, because I am much better at writing in first person than trying to create a fictional world. I’ve proven that to myself over and over. I don’t want to give up on trying to learn to write fiction, but I’m not there yet.

Part of the reason I’ve started so many novels without fleshing them out is that I get stuck quickly with plot holes and transitions. This will change over time as I get more and more experience at it, but right now I am not confident enough in my abilities.

The parts that stick with me are the character analyses, because I can imagine a person, but not the environment where they live. I am trying to read more fiction these days, but the reason I haven’t in the past is that I tend to pick up other writers’ voices quickly, and the fiction I write down sounds like the last writer I just read instead of me.

When I first started with Clever Title Goes Here, my ideas were all my own, but the style echoed Ernie Hsuing, Heather Armstrong, Mrs. Kennedy, and all the other popular blogs I devoured on a daily basis. Clever Title doesn’t exist anymore- it’s a link to the Wayback Machine, where you can look at my old entries as archives. I owned the domain from 2003-2015, and the entries are still there, but the comments aren’t always because the links to them are broken. The only one I lost that really meant a lot to me was from Wil Wheaton. I was talking about a singing audition and feeling amazing about it afterward, saying that it felt like flying. He replied that it was the same for him after an acting audition.

I didn’t have a very thick skin in those days, and after a few comments from my friends, torched the entire thing… an impetuous, grave mistake because there were so few daily bloggers that I became very popular, very quickly… as evidenced by Wil Wheaton knowing my work.

I met Wil at Powell’s Books when he came to read snippets from Just a Geek. I introduced myself as Leslie from Clever Title Goes Here, and he smiled, then wrote in my copy, “To Leslie… Clever Inscription Goes Here. Love, Wil.” I can’t think about what might have happened if I’d kept my blog going from 2003 until now, because getting into the blogging crowd before everyone was doing it was paramount to real success.

In writing fiction, I don’t want to fill someone else’s shoes. I brought my own.

So,for now, the idea of “bringing my own shoes” exists in this space alone. In most cases, I’m doing okay work, with a few outstanding entries. That is mostly because I don’t work on them as craft. It’s a brain dump, unedited, all stream-of-consciousness all the time. Even my article on marriage took about 15 minutes to write, and it is the one thing I’ve done that’s consistently been shared all over the world, because I wrote about something so universal that anyone whose ever been married and read it have had the same comments, boiled down to #me #same.

Sometimes I imagine what I’d be able to do if I really put some thought into all this, but then I think, “nah.” My blog works for me because of everything it isn’t. It’s not for anyone else but me, being able to look back over my past and see with glaring clarity all the flaws and failures I need to fix, as well as the great moments along the way. If I took the time to worry about craft, I’d get stuck in Virgo perfectionism, and I’d never publish anything… Editing gnaws away at my courage until I think “it’s not good enough,” and the thousand or so words that I’ve written get erased with one CTL-A and one backspace.

I just try to tell my truth, which isn’t anyone else’s… something that’s gotten me a lot of kudos and a lot of anger all at the same time, as if I have a problem with someone calling me out on my own bullshit.

I don’t.

People are free to disagree with me all the time, and I appreciate comment threads that do so. This is because I appreciate people who are willing to see all the things I don’t…. the part of the story I don’t know, because it’s not mine… it’s theirs. It’s not my job to tell their stories, and it’s not their job to tell mine. I am responsible for my words, but not their responses… but I do take them in as valid, because all emotions are. It’s a clinical separation, a step back to hear people without internalizing it into the fear of never saying anything ever again… the reason I torched Clever Title to begin with.

What I didn’t know then that I do now is that writing on the Internet is like getting a tattoo on the face. I didn’t know that even if I torched everything on my own server, a cached version like The Wayback Machine even existed. There’s nothing I will ever be able to do that erases past mistakes. The only topic I am not willing to publish is how I’m doing at work. The term “Dooced” is so popular that it was even a question on Jeopardy! For those of you who’ve been reading Heather Armstrong since the beginning, who didn’t love her take on the Asian Database Administrator, et al?

I have to believe, though, that getting fired is what launched her into this higher plane, that the worst thing became the best over time. That being said, I’m brave, but not THAT brave… and I believe that Heather intended to teach all bloggers from her mistakes, and I’ve taken them to heart.

Although this entry from The Bloggess about work is my absolute favorite of all time, bar none. It was written in 2008, and still makes me fall out laughing, because had I been sitting next to her, I wouldn’t have been able to hold it together, either… like looking through the Methodist hymnal as a kid during the service and finding out that one of the composers/lyricists was named P.P. Bliss.

Now, had I been on the committee who put the hymnal together, I would have suggested we just go with Phillip, because I’m betting I’m not the only kid who’s ever had tears running down her face trying not to cackle in church… and then, knowing it was inappropriate to laugh while I was supposed to be paying attention, almost asphyxiating because I couldn’t pull myself back together.

It was absolutely as funny as some of the things Pri-Diddy and I joked about last night… but those are unprintable. 😛

Folded into the Family

I can’t remember the exact moment Prianka came into my life. Somehow, she has just always been here. We connected because we were both bloggers at the time (Prianka says she’s gotten bored with her life) and became fans of each other. That led to chatting online a bit and talking on the phone for hours at a time. As I have said before, we have never done the whole crush thing, because we each needed that space to talk about our lives to the other. I wasn’t the girlfriend, and neither was she- we were both the people for each other that got to HEAR about the girlfriend. At the time, I desperately needed a friend in that area. I had met Dana by that point, but she wasn’t my friend. Just some chick I saw at church and thought was a little bit (lotta bit) craycray. As Dana and I gelled, though, so did Prianka and I. In 2004, Prianka called me up and said, “my friend Nina has a conference in Portland and I’m coming with her. Can we stay with you?” I was thrilled. Nina and Prianka spent the weekend with Dana and me because Dana’s wife, Carol, was out of town and there was no where Dana wanted to be more than with the three of us. We made an EXCELLENT foursome.

We ended up watching Clueless, playing Trivial Pursuit, and eating junk food….. a lot of it. That weekend in 2004 cemented us for life, because it’s 10 years later and we’re still going strong. Stronger, even, because this is the first time in our lives that we’ve been able to have the kind of relationship where either of us can say, “let’s meet for lunch.” If you’ve been following me on Facebook, you know that we meet for lunch most Mondays at Native Foods Cafe, which has become an exercise in just how much food I can stuff in my face at a time. I am fascinated by vegan food Fascinated. To me, it is where food becomes art- like taking cashews and turning them into Alfredo sauce. These Mondays have become very, very important to me because Prianka has the mindset of an elite athlete, and she pushes me without pushing. She sets ideas down and I just have to Keep. Up. It’s working. She is inspiring me to be a better version of myself one tofu peanut butter parfait at a time.

Because her wedding had been planned for so long before I considered moving back to DC, I did not expect an invitation to their wedding, but as it happened, last Sunday she and Elena had a cancellation, so when we met for lunch on Monday, she literally stopped me on the street and put down her stuff and said, “I HAVE TO DO THIS RIGHT NOW.” She texted someone and a few hours later, she texted me. “Do you have time to talk?” I said, “sure- call or write away.”

A few seconds later a very apologetic Prianka said, “are you ok with being invited last minute?”

Ummmmmmm. YES.

The emotion didn’t hit me until she and Elena walked into the restaurant as a married couple. They’d had a private ceremony with their families, and they were wearing traditional Indian wedding dresses- Prianka in deep red and Elena in gold and green. I cried like a baby. She was gorgeous. Everything I’d ever wanted for my friend and she got it, wholeheartedly. The room was FULL of people just celebrating her and her marriage to another beautiful woman. I’d never met Elena before, and she welcomed me with open arms into their family. That was the best part. Getting to feel like the family I felt with Prianka extended to both Elena and the brothers Nandy (Avik and Amit) that I’d heard about for the last ten years but was just now putting faces with names….

Amit’s toast was hilarious- he talked about when the Nandy family used to go back to India in the summer where her parents had a four-level house that looked out onto the neighbor’s roof, and one day he and Avik were being pests and threw all Prianka’s clothes out the window onto the neighbor’s house. He said it was only funny because she got most of the clothes back, and I found myself wondering what happened to the rest of them…….

Speaking of India, that’s an interesting fact about Prianka you ought to know. Avik and Amit were both born in the US, but Prianka was born in Calcutta at the same hospital where Mother Theresa worked. Honestly, it shows. Prianka is just power, grace, and style in a tiny body. You can’t even believe the huge ideas that come out of someone so small. For instance, Pri is on a mission. She does IT and spreadsheets and analysis for the World Bank. She takes her gifts and funnels them into a larger mission, which is everything you want in life, really…. to take tangible gifts and turn them into spiritual ones. I got to meet Prianka’s parents and I told them that I thought their daughter was the greatest thing since sliced bread.

I am looking forward to getting to know Elena well enough that I can say that to her parents, too. From what I have seen so far, that’s going to be no problem.

It was also a joy that Nina was at the wedding, too, and brought her husband with her- a thrill because I’d heard about Jeremy for the last ten years and this was the first time we’d ever shaken hands. I liked him immediately. IMMEDIATELY. In a “you’re my new best friend call me every day” kind of way. He’s a lawyer. He’s a pit bull of a lawyer. He told me how to go after Silver Spring regarding their inane homeless shelter policy in about 30 seconds, in a way that I know I’ll win. Hands down. If he runs for something, I’ve got a job in a speechwriter’s stable. That was when I melted inside. I told him that we needed to spend time on the phone together and visiting each other because in order to speech write for him, I needed to learn his “voice.” He and Nina live in “Luevul,” so I imagine that there will be much Skyping as we get campaigns off the ground. I am already formulating the Dog Catcher campaign in my head. We have similar backgrounds- his mother was a Baptist minister and my father was a Methodist minister and even though the doctrine is different, the experience is the same. I told him that I’d like to meet his mother, and he said that she died in 2013, but that he would find a way for me to meet her in another way by giving me access to her writing. Do you see how that just reached into my heart and squeezed? I looked at him and said, “that’s why I write. THAT. I want to live forever.” I want to live forever, as will all of the “characters” that come into my life, for the short-term or for the whole run.

In terms of blogging, Prianka HAS been there for my entire life. She’s seen my writing career blossom from three followers to 30,000, and will hopefully be there for three million as well. She said something that I have to write down here, because it is so beautiful that I need to record it. She said, “all day, you have been my lodestone.” And it’s true. I was that person she could reach out to for a hug when she needed to get back into her body and back down to earth. To make sure that she was, as I say, “God to head, head to feet, feet to floor.” It was magnificent to be there for someone I’ve loved for so long in a way that defies odds. I was joking that the reason we’re so close is that we met online and then discovered that neither of us wanted to murder each other in our sleep so we’re golden. We talked about how when Prianka came to visit me, that was WAYYYYYYY before that shit was normal. We each just took a leap of faith and trusted that the care we felt over the e-mail and the AOL Instant Messenger and the phone would translate.

It did.

Yesterday, I went to her wedding. And now she is officially invited to mine, if and when it happens. And on that day, she’ll be the one I reach out to for a hug, just to remember that I am “God to head, head to feet, feet to floor” as well.

I love you, Prianka. Truly. And I can’t wait to get to know Elena so I can be there for her, too. You brought Elena into my life at a time when I really needed friends, and she is as gorgeous as you are. I am so blessed to share in your family, and I hope you know that you have long been a part of mine.