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My latest piece for Oregon Humanities Magazine  is out – it’s a long read, but I think there are some decent tidbits, especially for people who have struggled with performance anxiety.  Enjoy, and let me know what you think!

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They gave me a cap and gown. I looked like this. Approximately.

A couple weeks ago, I was asked to give the commencement address at the Oregon Episcopal School here in Portland.

Here’s the audio version of my comments:

And here’s the wordy word version:

Hey Overachievers! Try Failing!

Graduating class, faculty, parents and friends. Thank you for inviting me to speak to you here today – I’m so honored at the opportunity, and also curious as to whether the internet was broken the day I was asked, because I have a lot of incriminating tweets out there. I also appreciate the cap and gown, and that you chose to give me one of the black ones. Black is super slimming. The giant tent shape, however, less so.

I’d like to start off with a huge congratulations to the OES graduating class of 2012. I’ve heard from your college counselors that your class has 100% college acceptance this year, which is a tremendous accomplishment, and one you should be very proud of. But it also brings me to my first advice for tonight, and that’s that no one likes a showoff. Think about maybe 99% next time around, just not to seem so flashy.

So now you’re off to college. 100% of you. What sort of knowledge can I impart that will help you survive?

First off, the Freshman 15 does exist. It was actually the Freshman 40 for me, but don’t be intimidated by that because I’ve always been an overachiever. Just don’t beat yourself up if you gain a little weight in college. Your weight doesn’t define you. And the world is a rough place, so just think of it as building up your protective shell, like a tortoise or IronMan.

Secondly, there has never been, in the history of mankind, a person who did a series of Jagerbombs, and thought the next morning, “I’m so proud of the choices I made last night. I really feel like I’m growing as a person.”

Third, college is possibly the only time in your life when it’s not only okay to be terrible at things, it’s advisable.

Let me clarify, before your parents rush the stage and tackle me.

Ira Glass, the host of This American Life said a great thing about creative pursuits. He talked about this gap that happens when you start your first project. This gap between your taste, which is probably impeccable, and your talent, which is raw, and sometimes, in the beginning, nonexistent. It’s that period where you know good work when you see it, but you’re not making it yet.

It’s an uncomfortable gap, filled with self-doubt and frustration, but if you find something you love, you’ll endure it. For instance, maybe you’ve always thought structural engineering was your thing but in college, you discover a love for robotics. So you take a class, and you make a robot. And for no discernable reason you can point to, your robot starts spouting expletives at inopportune moments (I don’t know when an opportune moment to spout expletives is. A Wu Tang Clan concert?). First of all, that’s a pretty cool mistake, but second of all, GOOD. Wear that failure like a badge of honor. That failure says “I’ve been brave enough to be horrible at something, and to trust myself enough to know that won’t always be true. I’ve reached beyond my comfort zone, and look what I’ve found: a completely profane robot. I rule.”

Eleanor Roosevelt said, “Do one thing a day that scares you.”

I say, “Shut up, Eleanor Roosevelt. Do you have any idea how many things scare me already?” Double dip recession, people eating other people’s faces off, the fact that leg warmers were fashionable not once, but twice in this country – I don’t know who’s in charge of this stuff, but it’s terrifying. So no, don’t do one thing a day that scares you. Do one thing, say, every two weeks that scares you.

That’s the schedule I’m on. I’ve been hosting a radio variety show in front of a live audience for eight years now, and every single show, every single time I stand beside that stage waiting to go on, I’m petrified. Of what? You name it. Will I ask a dumb question? Will my monologue bomb? Is my skirt tucked into my underwear? Will one of my castmates eat my face off?

Here’s something I didn’t know until just a few years ago that I wish I knew when I was your age.

Everyone is scared. No one has it figured out.

We all look at people at the top of their game, and we’re envious. We wonder what it would be like to be that successful, that self-assured, that certain of every choice that we make.

But let’s take one of those top-of-their-game people as an example – Judd Apatow. Judd is the director of The 40 Year-old Virgin and Knocked Up; and the producer of Bridesmaids…let’s call him the Francois Truffaut of movies with awkward lead characters and uncomfortable bathroom scenes that make a basquillion dollars.

Here’s what Judd said in an interview just last year:

“In every situation I walk into, I feel like the weirdo. The awkward guy…I feel that way on the set of my own movies. I never feel like I own the moment, even when I’m everyone’s boss.”

Every time you struggle, and you think you should be skating along, you think you should be smooth, and unflappable and full of nothing but self-assurance, remember this: if you’re not afraid, you’re not doing anything interesting. And b: Everyone is afraid.

And remembering that part is a good thing – it’ll help give you empathy when you run into people in your first job out of college who try to make you feel small – that’s just fear telling them that making you tiny somehow embiggens them. I may have just made that word up. But it doesn’t. Embiggen them.

In fact, here’s a secret for when that person is eventually fired and you get their job. It’s yet another piece of advice that’s going feel scary: always surround yourself with people who are smarter than you. Hire them. Befriend them. In college, ask them to work on projects with you.

It will be uncomfortable. It will make you feel not-so-smart. Fight that feeling, because in fact, hiring people who are smarter than you proves that, at least when it comes to hiring people, you are smarter than them.

When we first started Live Wire, I asked my friend Stacy Bolt, who I knew was a better writer than me at the time, to be on the show. And there was a hesitation, of course, because we have this strange, uniquely human fear that if someone around us looks good, that automatically makes us look bad. But it’s really just the opposite. Stacy became a huge fan favorite, and just sharing the stage with her made me, and the show, look smarter and funnier (and because she has an incredibly impressive shoe collection, almost 37% more stylish!).

But it wasn’t just her presence that made all that happen, it was the fact that creativity is a lot like sports—our game rises to match the game of those around us. Sometimes, if we work hard enough, we can even surpass them. So if you keep surrounding yourself with people who are smarter than you, eventually, you’ll be the smartest one in the room. But don’t get comfortable in there. As the saying goes, if you’re always the smartest person in the room, you need to find a better room. Preferably one with a comfy couch and a 100% employer-matched 401k.

And another thing – while it’s important to be aware of where you stand educationally and professionally, don’t spend a lot of time on those comparisons. Comparing your life to other people’s lives is the most immediate path to unhappiness you can take. The only life you should ever use as a comparison is your own ideal life. The question isn’t, “Am I as happy as she is?,” it’s simply, “Am I happy?”

Because you will never truly know how happy anyone is. Life is like Facebook – we all project an image of our best selves and leave out the parts where we feel awkward, or lonely, or wonder if we’ve chosen the right college, or life partner, or toilet paper. Are you happy with it, regardless of how it looks in comparison to your friend’s thicker, more luxurious toilet paper? Then yes. You made the right choice. (Although I hope it’s recycled, because this is Portland and if it’s not, the police may show up at your house.)

It’s just about time for you to get your diplomas and start partying like the rock stars that you are, but just a few more things before I go:

Be kind whenever possible, because you will always remember, and always regret the times when you were not.

Think of your life as a story, and ask yourself, “Is this a story I’d like to read? Do I like the protagonist? And which parts do I want to edit out?”

When you fall in love, be the one who loves more at least once. It will feel like a position of weakness, but it is not. You’re the brave one.

After college, you are going to go through a period in life where you wonder what the point of it all is, and whether or not you’ve made a huge mistake. That period is known as “adulthood.” Embrace it.

Yes, it’s all been done before. It just hasn’t been done by you, and that will make all the difference.

And this might be the most important thing I say tonight, so please remember it: don’t get a duvet cover for your bed. The only time the corners of the duvet and the corners of the comforter will ever line up is the very first time you put the comforter in, and after that you’ll be constantly fighting to keep the comforter from bunching up into one side of the duvet and you can get those metal clips that supposedly keep it in place, but inevitably those will annoy you too, so…y’know, just get a bedspread and be done with it.

In closing, I wish you luck, I wish you patience and happiness, and the bravery to ask the world for what you want from it and give it what it needs at every turn. And I’ll end with words from someone far more eloquent than myself, e.e. cummings:

“To be nobody but yourself in a world that’s doing its best to make you somebody else, is to fight the hardest battle you are ever going to fight. Never stop fighting.”

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Until I was 21 years old, I had a sneaking suspicion that dumplings didn’t exist. This belief had been lurking under the surface for most of my life, but my first conscious awareness of it happened while I was standing in the fluorescent-light-flooded soup aisle of a Manhattan grocery store. I was a junior at NYU, and found myself squinting at a can of Campbell’s Chicken and Dumpling Soup for far too long.  Why was I suddenly baffled by a can of soup? And how could Campbell’s sell a product with imaginary ingredients?

I flashed back to four-year-old me, approaching my father as he sat at our dinner table reading the paper while my mother cooked.

 “What are dumplings, daddy?”

And either because he didn’t want to take the time to explain how one makes a dumpling or (the more likely reason) because he didn’t know himself, he went with the next logical response.

 “Oh, sweetie. There’s no such thing as dumplings.”

After that day, dumplings lived in a sort of limbo in my head. They were like the Tooth Fairy of foods – I had physical evidence of their existence, in the form of, y’know, dumplings, but I’d been told they weren’t real by the second-most-trusted source of my childhood.  (My mother was #1, my brother was #8,765. Right after John Wayne Gacy.) My misplaced trust is the only way I can explain how this massive piece of misinformation managed to dig its heels in next to true things, like “salt tastes salty” and “you can actually hypnotize a man using only boobs.”

And that wasn’t the only time my father played fast and loose with the truth with me.

One night when I was nine, I was sitting in the bright yellow beanbag in our TV room watching one of the more complex episodes of Three’s Company. You may remember it – Chrissie’s cousin the police officer had come to investigate a noise complaint and had inadvertently left his handcuffs behind.

 “Uh-oh,” my dad said. “Jack and Chrissie are gonna get stuck handcuffed together and Jack’s gonna have to take her with him on his date.”

And then, what happened was, Jack and Chrissie GOT HANDCUFFED TOGETHER AND JACK HAD TO TAKE HER WITH HIM ON HIS DATE.

I was flabbergasted.

 “How did you know that??”

 “I write for this show,” he responded.

The same thing happened later that week, but during a different show. So when I was nine and my friends asked what my father did, I told them that he was trying to be a doctor while simultaneously writing for Three’s Company and Charlie’s Angels. It seemed far-fetched, but how else could he have possibly known what was going to happen on an Aaron Spelling show?

And it also made sense because I almost never saw him, so he must’ve had three jobs.

There are two things about these stories that are strange. One is that in both of them, my father appears to be funny. My father wasn’t generally funny. He tried. He really tried. But he was usually only funny inadvertently, like the time he wore his one-piece navy blue pajama jumpsuit with the built-in belt and matching corduroy slippers to the grocery store thinking no one would notice. FYI: I noticed. Which is why I spent that particular grocery store trip trying to crawl onto the cereal shelf behind the CoCo Puffs.

Or the time he walked out of the bathroom wrapped in one towel, while holding another and exclaimed, “These are the softest towels I have ever felt. We are never, ever getting any other kind of towel. These are our lifelong towels.”

The second strange thing is that he lied. It’s not just that Dad was a “do the right thing” kind of guy, it’s that he really believed in the goodness of people and took them at their word.

Even carpet salesmen. When I was 25, I went shopping with him to find carpet for the first new house he’d bought after he and my mother divorced. The salesman had shown him two virtually indistinguishable berber piles, and Dad was trying to decide between them. Right before leaving him alone with his carpet thoughts, the salesman smiled at Dad and said, “Tough, isn’t it? It’s like trying to choose between a Cadillac and a Mercedes.”

When the salesman got out of earshot, Dad turned to me and whispered, “Oh my god! He’s RIGHT. It’s EXACTLY like trying to choose between a Cadillac and a Mercedes! How do people come UP with these things?” I sat there and wondered how I’d become twice as jaded as my father at half his age. And how he’d escaped our household as the only snark-free member.

It was quite easy, as it turns out. With two tours in Vietnam, medical school and a residency, my father all but ensured he wouldn’t be able to speak the common language of our household. But he would try, right up until the end. 

The last time I saw my father I was 27.  I’d flown from Texas to his hometown of Kent, Ohio to visit him after he’d moved back to start a medical practice there.

For most of my teens and into my adult life, my father played that familiar game of paternal catch-up with my brother and me. Just as somewhere in me I knew that dumplings were right there in the damn can, Dad knew that a few visits weren’t going to make up for an entire lifetime of missed dinners and sitting on the outside of inside jokes. But he seemed to want to make whatever headway he could, and this trip was no exception.

He’d arranged for a trip out to Put-in Bay, which is an island in Lake Erie. Only my father would trust a brochure that touts an island in Ohio as “The Key West of the North.”

Shockingly, it turned out to be a rather pleasant day. I fought the urge to tell him we were on the shores of a freshwater lake when he bought us saltwater taffy. I sat and listened to his girlfriend’s anecdotes, even though she was one of those people who had a difficult time differentiating between a “passing random thought about how Ritz Crackers got their name” and an “anecdote.”

I even went with him to Perry’s Victory and International Peace Memorial, a 352-foot Doric column built to honor soldiers who fought in the battle of Lake Erie in the war of 1812.

Why would anyone battle over Lake Erie, I thought. Don’t they know it’s in Ohio? All I knew was that I didn’t want to climb that memorial.

But Dad thought it would be fun for just the two of us to do, so after he balked at the $5 admission price, we huffed and puffed our way to the top of the column.

And when we got there, it was beautiful. We stood there for a moment, staring silently in opposite directions at the sparkling, rough waters hundreds of feet below us until Dad said, “Well, the view from this direction is worth about 65 cents. I’m gonna go all the way around and I figure it’s gotta eventually add up to five bucks.”

He had a point. I followed him to every corner so we both got our money’s worth.

When it came time to get on the ferry to leave, there was a torrential downpour. We were trapped in a t-shirt shop, but we had to get on the ferry or we would’ve had to stay overnight. So we decided to make a run for it.

I ran out first, and I was immediately soaked. I stopped being able to see through my glasses after two steps and took them off to run the rest of the way through the deafening blur.  And about twenty feet behind me, between puddle stomps, I heard Dad yell, “It’s a bonding experience!”

As I sat freezing on the ferry with him, and he tried to make conversation, I tried to imagine what it must feel like to live with that kind of regret; to have so many years you can never get back, and to grasp so hard for a connection that at one time was right there in your hands. 

A month later, without warning, my father died. And as I thought of that silent ride on the ferry and all the other moments he reached out for a connection and I didn’t reach back, I suddenly knew exactly what it felt like to live with that kind of regret.

***Note: This post is in honor of my extraordinary mother’s 70’s birthday. Thanks for making everything that’s good in my life possible. ***

Sally Hameister, badass.

I really should hate my mother.

She screwed up any chance I might’ve had of becoming an important writer by giving me what can only be described as a normal childhood. Such. A. Jerk.

My favorite memory of her is from when I was four years old and my family was living in Shaker Heights Ohio in a 1925 colonial that had been completely 1975’d. It had gold shag carpet throughout and a kitchen in shades of bright orange, avocado green and “have a nice day” yellow. It was in this house that she and my father had these epic dinner parties that started with casseroles and cocktails in the dining room and ended at 4 a.m. with people strewn around the living room in plaid polyester hiphuggers and varying states of consciousness.

The parties always seemed to start after my bedtime, so my memories of them are only what I could hear…a combination of music and conversation punctuated at fairly regular intervals by my mother’s laughter. It was a full-on, throw-your-head-back joyous cackle that sometimes began with a little scream. There was almost a rhythm to them….chatter, chatter, chatter, cackle, dull roar, cackle, shush, whisper-yell, “Shut up, Tom,” and it would start all over again.

Essentially what happened during those years is that my mother’s laughter became my lullaby. It would hitch a ride upstairs with the smoke from her Virginia Slim Lights and get caught up in the slats of my canopy bed.  The combination proved intoxicating, and maybe it was the lack of oxygen to my brain, but eventually, I would fall happily off to sleep.

After four years in Ohio, we moved to Aurora, Colorado, to a house right behind the tennis courts in a glamorous new subdivision, “The Dam West.” In the summertime, mom and all the neighborhood tennis ladies would whip up a batch of peach daquiries and go to what they called “the hang.”

There, still in tennis dresses from their earlier matches, they’d reserve the next day’s court and catch up on the latest divorces. From our house at the other end of the court, the women sounded like a gaggle of snark-infested geese. My mother’s giggles would always rise above the cacophonous fray, echo across the court and come through our screen door. It was, I think, the first version of Mommy GPS

Because my brother and I adored her, my mother’s laughter became a commodity in our house. Scott, older and wiser than me by two years, could elicit laughter from her with stunning precision. I was too young to really understand all the nuances of his comedy – that, and the fact that I never mastered the art of making fart sounds with my armpit was a definite source of frustration.

I wanted to be the one making her laugh. And eventually, I just wanted to be her.

For a stay-at-home, do-everything-for-us-but-wipe-our-asses mother, our mom had become really glamorous. She’d traded her wire-rim glasses for contact lenses and her long, salt-and-pepper hair for a blonde, remarkably accurate Farrah Fawcett ‘do. She wore shiny Nik Nik disco shirts and Candies slides exactly like the ones Olivia Newton-John wore at the end of Grease. She was, in the vernacular of the day, a Stone Cold Fox.

So I wanted to grow up to look just like her, but it turned out that growing up was exactly the problem. She was 5’ 2” and 100 pounds, so by sixth grade I was already taller than her. And in eighth grade when I had to buy a pair of size 14 knickers, (which, by the way, looked really sharp with my argyle socks and jauntily-askew newsboy cap), I knew I hadn’t inherited her looks.

But, I thought, there’s a lot of ways you can be just like a person without looking like them. Maybe I got her meticulous housekeeping skills. As I gnawed on the half-Snickers bar I found on my bedroom floor under my mud-encrusted soccer cleats, this theory seemed less-than-likely. When she went back to school and turned in her Greek Lit paper two weeks early while I finished my past-due English paper on the bus, I checked “proactive pre-planning-type” off the list. And as I watched her flit through life, easily making friends wherever my father’s military duty took us while I snuck my lunch into the library and a had a permanent commuter pass on the train to Moodyville, I decided I wasn’t destined to have her sunny disposition either.

In middle school, perhaps in an attempt to find some way to prove I was my mother’s daughter, I joined the tennis team. I was a decent player, but my persistent belief that nothing would ever really work out in the end somehow kept me out of the winner’s circle. On one hot September afternoon, I was on the bleachers after being bounced from a tournament due to severe heat wussiness. I sat with my friends and giggled rudely while the other played finished their matches.

I heard my mother laugh and turned to see that she’d arrived to pick me up and was chatting with some of the other mothers. As I gathered my gear, I saw my tennis coach approach her and offer her his hand.

“You must be Courtenay’s mother,” he said.

She shook his hand.

“Yes,” she said. “How’d you know that?”

He smiled. “You kidding? She has your laugh. I mean, exactly.”

I’d never noticed it before, but there it was. The thing I got. And he was right – it sounded exactly the same, and was, in fact, the only thing about the two of us that matched.

And when you think about it, what sort of moody eighth grader has a laugh like that? It was the laugh of an un-self-consciously joyful and self-possessed person. That wasn’t me. Except that it was. At least in short, happy bursts.

My mother and I and our laugh lived mostly harmoniously with the rest of the family until I was ready to leave for college. That’s when I learned that my father had been struggling with a pretty severe case of manic depression since he was a Junior at West Point, well before he met my mother. He saw his disease as a weakness, which made him avoid treatment and ask my mother to keep his secret – even from her closest friends.

So for all those years, while she was hosting dinner parties and covering everything in our house in red gingham and glitter at Christmastime (including the dog), she was also covering for him. She managed to explain away the manic phases where he would play the piano at 3 a.m., or suddenly imagine himself a Bluegrass star even though he’d never picked up a guitar. And she somehow hid the darkness, too – it was probably somewhere under the glitter or the piles of clean laundry or the mountains of baked goods she would produce for every occasion. (I think we all know how effective baked goods are at hiding sadness.)

When I think about it now, I realize it wasn’t just the sound of the laugh she’d given me, but the very existence of it. In the face of ridiculously difficult odds, she’d given me a normal childhood – better than that, really, she’d given me a happy childhood, and I’ll probably never know what that cost her.

Her laugh has served me well through my life – comedians love me, and my friends can always find me at a crowded bar. And now I have this job on the radio, and my mother is in the audience every single show, laughing louder than anyone in the theater. A friend says her laugh sounds like “sunshine gargling rainbows.” If you listen to the show on the radio, you can actually hear her. Every show. And you can hear me, too. Laughing.

The following is my piece from What Was I Thinking?: 58 Bad Boyfriend Stories on St. Martin’s Press.

Reading the paper on ecstasy

This woman appears to be reading the paper on ecstasy. This is not normal.

I’ve thought about it a lot, and I’m pretty sure the man I think was the love of my life probably wasn’t.

See, he loved me and I loved him, but I think the Me he loved wasn’t really me, and the him I loved was a Him I’d made up in my head a long time ago, and then dressed him up in it like a Love of My Life suit.

The Me he loved was a person I’m sure no one else in my life would recognize. I was like a gratitude machine, always trying to make up for his being such a generous humanitarian, what with the whole “loving me” thing and all.

Every day, I’d be glad to add something of his to my to-do list. “Honey? Is there anything you need? Pick up your dry cleaning? Clean out your garage? A lifetime supply of earth-shattering blow jobs? Because, seriously, I don’t have anything else to do right now.” Who wouldn’t fall in love with that person? I was like Julia Roberts in “Pretty Woman.” Except he wasn’t paying me. And I wasn’t in thigh-high patent leather boots. Well, at least not all the time.

The Him that I loved—well, the real…let’s just call him Judgy McSex-a-lot—was chock full of contradictions. He was a runner, but he smoked. He was supportive, but judgmental. He seemed emotionally distant most of the time, but at other times, his sweetness would put me into a blissful sugar coma.

I awoke one morning to find him watching me sleep. He smiled and just said one word: “Pretty.”  How does a person not get sucked in by that?

In possibly the only instance in my life in which I might have been deemed a Pollyanna, I chose to concentrate on only the good things. So what if he smokes, he’s great in the sack! So what if he’s quiet, he’s so smart!  So what if he’s probably an alcoholic but always gives me shit about not being able to fix my relationship with food. He’s got good hair!

I wouldn’t say that I was looking at him through rose-colored glasses – in fact, it was just the opposite. I chose to take my glasses off to look at him. That way the looming clouds of our uncomfortable dinner conversations, his utter lack of a sense of humor and narcissism just looked like pretty fuzzy marshmallows, floating happily above our heads. It may have been the one time I was finally able to put my astigmatism to good use.

I was still squinting happily through our days together when he dumped me after a year.  It was an ugly break-up that left me emotionally hobbled for upwards of another year.

Immediately after the break-up, I got re-acquainted with all my old friends. Mrs. Fields was as much of a hoot as she’d ever been. The Entenmanns were still the most charming couple to have over for breakfast, or lunch, or any one of the three dinners a person might have in one night. And Oscar and, really, the entire Meyer family, were nothing if not staunchly supportive.

I started gaining weight, and fast. And as soon as I could see it on me, I knew I could never see Judgy again. Not that I wanted to – after the dumping, I avoided seeing him like the plague. Well, not like the plague, because I don’t do a lot to avoid the plague these days. I avoided seeing him like the AIDS. I steered clear of his neighborhood, all of our shared friends and anything having to do with his business, environmental geology. This was the hardest part, it turns out, because you can’t swing a dead piece of tofu in Portland, Oregon without whacking an environmental geologist in his holier-than-thou head.

But thankfully, we never crossed paths those first few months, since the last thing I wanted was for him to see me. Six months post-breakup, I’d gained 15 pounds. Glasses still off, I continued, inexplicably, to be devastated by the loss of him. Right around then, the radio show I work on started getting some attention from the press. A local magazine decided to run a feature article on us. I was mortified. I told my therapist, and she was perplexed by my strange reaction to this great news.

“We’ve been in the paper before,” I told her, “And I felt the same way. I just keep picturing the same scenario. He’s at work, reading the paper with his co-workers at lunch. They come upon the story and the picture of me and he says, ‘Wow. Look how fat she got. I guess I dodged a bullet there, huh?’ And then, in my head, he laughs in this cruel, frat-boy way. Even though he was never in a frat.”

There were lots of times I could see my therapist editing herself; sitting in her warmly appointed office surrounded by colors and fabrics designed to make me feel comforted and accepted, and trying everything in her power not to fly out of her comfy leather chair and throttle me until I returned from my year-long vacation in Crazytown. (Which by the way, is only a quick train ride away from Funkytown, which I’ve heard is much more festive.) She managed to hold herself back, but I could see her frustration as she rubbed her forehead.

“How often do you imagine this scenario?,” she asked.

“Every time my picture’s in the paper. Or on our website. And he always says the same thing: I dodged a bullet, there, huh?”

“Did you ever hear him use that phrase in real life?” she asked.

“Never,” I replied.

“So what does that tell you about the likelihood of that scenario happening?”

“Um. It makes it less likely?”

“Exactly.”

I didn’t buy it. She told me to offset that image with one that most non-crazy people have when something swell like getting good press happens to them – one of smiling, supportive strangers and friends reading it and being happy for me. What a crock of shit. No one smiles while they read the paper.

Six months later, I was better. 15 more pounds heavier, but better. I could see him a bit more clearly, but his foibles were still fuzzy. Looking back on our relationship, it was as if I had mental TiVo, watching the good parts over and over again while fast-forwarding through the bad.  I wondered if I’d ever get over him and so did every person in my life. They’d gotten over him immediately…what the hell was wrong with me?

That spring I took a weekend trip to New Mexico for a film festival with a group of friends I’d worked on a short film with. We were all set to go to one of the illuminating seminars when someone mentioned margaritas. It doesn’t take long to weigh the respective merits of those two words against one another. Seminar. Margarita. You try it and see where you net out. I’ll wait.

We drove around the outskirts of Albuquerque until we found the perfect hole-in-the-wall spot to drown our boredom. As we walked to the restaurant, we noticed that there was a psychic across the street. After a few margaritas, getting a psychic reading was deemed a necessity and not getting a reading was, apparently, “for pussies.” So I knocked on her door.

I walked into an environment not unlike my therapist’s. A thirty-something woman with much better hair than me sat at a rustic wood table surrounded by tasteful southwestern art. Dressed in a khaki skirt and a sweater set straight out of J.Crew, she looked surprisingly not nuts.

I sat down and she asked me what I wanted to know.  I desperately wanted to ask her the standard, “When will I find love again?” question, but I didn’t want to seem…y’know. Desperate.  “Whatever you want to tell me,” I replied.  She whipped out the tarot cards and smiled.

“Well, let’s just see what happens.”

She laid out the cards, periodically making “hmph” noises. When she was finished, she looked concerned.

“Wow,” she said. “I see a very charismatic man here who’s really informing your life.”

I couldn’t think of who she meant.

“He’s charming, but he’s got a lot of rules.”

Hmm…nope. No one comes to mind.

“It looks like you got involved with him thinking that it would be good for your self-esteem, but now you just feel small.”

That’s…okay, that’s weird, but that describes about half the relationships I know.

“He tried to make you think you had a problem, that you were a mess…but it looks like he was the one with the disease.”

She took one last look at the cards and then really looked at me – made sure she had my full attention.

“You know you dodged a bullet with that one, right? You would’ve lost yourself completely.”

My breath caught in my throat, and suddenly I was totally sober. At the same second, I was slapped with two harsh realities: one, she was absolutely right and I’d wasted almost two years mourning a relationship that never really existed, and two, psychics were totally real.

I walked out of her storefront realizing that this stranger had just said the exact same thing that every person in my life had been telling me all along. It’s just that she spoke my language.

And so it was there, standing in the hot New Mexico sun, dazed from shots of tequila and truth, that I put my glasses back on. And in the smallest possible way, things started coming back into focus.

The Friendly Period

An initial test model, circa 2010.

An open letter to the person in charge of new punctuation:

I have invented a new punctuation mark, and I am writing to ask you to consider introducing its usage into the American Punctuation Lexicon.

I would also like to check up on the status of the interrobang (also known as the quesclamation mark). You may not remember it, but it was the combination exclamation point/question mark invented by ad executive Martin Spekter to help us with such sentences as “WHAT did you just say to me?!” and “Lindsay Lohan’s suing WHO?! Over WHAT?!”

The interrobang, in punctuation limbo since 1962.

The fact that it was invented in 1962 and you’re still considering it doesn’t give me much hope for it, or for that matter, for the Irony Mark, or “Snark,” – the backwards question mark that some are hoping can indicate sarcasm in our increasingly digital world. I think it sounds like a great idea. Whoever thought of it is a genius.

But onto my idea.  Get ready for it: The Friendly Period (exclamation point!)

Sorry. What I meant was, the friendly period! Period.

Am I talking about an era of increased kindness? No. A new, more pleasant brand of menses? No. (We already swim, ride horses on the beach and run through fields of daisies – how much more pleasant can menstruation get?)

No, I’m talking about a period that says, “That sentence, the one right before me, is as affable as they come. That sentence, in fact, wants to buy you a beer.”

Here’s the problem: increasingly, we’re using very cold, technological ways to communicate. No one wants to actually go through the long, drawn-out process saying hello and how are you on the phone, or, god forbid, having to see someone in person. There are germs in every handshake, and people get bad haircuts that you have to lie about. So emails and texts have become, for many, our primary means of communication. But reading something on a screen makes everything colder, so we try to warm up our communications with annoying emoticons, or, in my case, the gratuitous exclamation point.

In a study entitled “Gender and the Use of Exclamation Points in Computer Mediated Communication,” (for reals!) Carol Waseleski (exclamation point!) deciphered that woman use exclamation points 45% more often than men in e-communication.  But it’s not because we’re more excited than men. Women use exclamation points online as indicators of a “friendly interaction.” We’ve been socialized to try to make people feel comfortable and to keep the peace. Hence sentences like, “Bill, I can’t wait to see the 4th quarter EMBO Report on the new 12-gauge ball bearings!”

She’s not excited to see that report. No one is excited to see that report. She’s letting Bill know that she’s not angry that it’s late yet. When she’s angry, she’ll use a period.

I used to abhor exclamation points, largely because I am not a perky person. I am a person who assumes a day is going to blow until the world convinces me otherwise in the first five minutes by handing me a 16-ounce skim half-caf mocha in bed, which never happens, so you do the math.

So you can imagine my increased usage of exclamation points is extremely disconcerting both for me and for those who are forced to endure my emails and texts.

A sample sentence from a recent email:

“Yay! Dinner at McFuddernutters sounds great!”

In this case, the exclamation points are preventive. Because the person receiving the email knows that I can be a sarcastic bitch, periods would have made it read:

“Yay. Dinner at McFuddernutters sounds great. I just hope their neverending salad bowl will fill the bottomless pit of despair I feel because I’m sitting in an establishment called McFuddernutters.”

Now, what you might say is, “Hey, why don’t you stop being a sarcastic bitch (interrobang?)” Good exclamated question. Answer: because I don’t want to, friendly period!

The friendly period is here to solve all our communication problems.

Picture this: a larger, slightly squished period that’s big enough to see that there’s a half-moon of a smile three quarters of the way down its jolly round body. It’s simple, it’s not nearly as annoying as those bright yellow happy faces, and it’s stylish. Because what’s more stylish than black and white? Nothing, stupid. (Friendly period!)

I implore you, punctuation person…don’t make us wait 48 years for the friendly period to take off (friendly period.) We need help now in getting rid of the scourge of gratuitous exclamation points, and I, for one, would have significantly less punctuation shame in my life.

Please get back to me at your earliest convenience (friendly period.) Our future depends on it (irony mark.)

Sincerely,
Courtenay Hameister

Mean girls

Actual Hate Prom photo. Apparently the girl in the red dress thinks there's going to be an ice skating rink there.

Last month a Fulton, Mississippi high school girl, Constance McKinnen, had her high school cancel her prom because she wanted to bring her girlfriend. She and the ACLU sued and she won – with the judge’s understanding that Constance would be invited to the new prom that the parents had organized.

Well, Constance was invited to a prom, it was just a fake one at a local country club. She and five other students, two of them with learning disabilities, were chaperoned by the principal and teachers, while the majority of students partied at an undisclosed location their parents had arranged.

Now, pictures of the “real” prom have surfaced on facebook, with kids clearly having a blast at the Hate Prom – engaging in long lines of hate freaking, the homophobic robot and the Electric Adam and Eve, Not Adam and Steve Slide.

As I looked at the pictures, I realized that this town’s story is the new Footloose.

Constance is John Lithgow’s character, Reverend Moore, who’s trying to impose her beliefs on an entire town. And the parents of the kids, well, they’re all collectively Kevin Bacon’s character, Ren McCormick. They’re all plucky rebels who just want what all real Americans want: to worship at the church of their choice, to watch Thursday night television uninterrupted, and to find new and interesting ways to persecute gay people.

I picture all those parents, as soon as the ACLU won the case against them, driving their VWs into an empty warehouse to dance out their anger like Ren did. They throw their tape of Michael Bublé in the stereo and start rockin ‘out. As the sun breaks through the slats in the warehouse wall, we see their appliqué sweatshirts and husky dockers silhouetted as they run and punch the air in frustration. And when they get to the part where they leap onto the high bar that just happens to be in the warehouse, which is weird, and do gymnastic swings around it, none of them really nail the dismount, so they just start landing on each other, ending up in a giant pile of mom jeans and newscaster hair before someone finally says, “Hey! We don’t need to do this! We can solve this the American way – through duplicity and massive, organized, publicly sponsored passive aggression!”

So just like Ren and Ariel (and Sarah Jessica Parker) they create their own rebel prom, with lots of twinkly lights and extra sparkly intolerance. (And speaking of sparkly things, I’ll bet these kids would’ve invited Edward Cullen to their prom in a second – how is it that they can be in love with vampires, but terrified by a couple of lesbians?)

But in all seriousness, it’s not the kids in this scenario that terrify me. It’s the adults who engaged in this behavior that’s straight out of Mean Girls.

And the memberships to Christian churches they listed on their facebook pages just makes me want to ask them, “Have you seen this one other movie? It’s called Jesus Christ Superstar, and it is AWESOME.” It’s a sort of biography of this very cool guy who may or may not have lived a long time ago, and there’s singing and dancing and stuff (which I don’t think really happened), but anyway…he said all this great stuff about not judging people lest you be judged, and not persecuting people for their beliefs and most importantly, that those people who are sent to fake proms? They’re going to inherit the earth, so you’d better get your resumé together.

Well, he sang most of it, but that’s not the point.

So, Fulton parents, go ahead and rent that Superstar movie, and when you’ve finished watching it, maybe we can talk about what you’ve done.  Oh, and while you’re at the video store, rent Carrie.  ‘Cuz Stephen King? That guy knew how to throw a hate prom.

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