Separate Stories Project No. 5

New to the separate stories project? It goes a little sumpin sumpin like this:

My friend Julie and I wanted to draw more, and write more stories. So each week, we come up with a theme to draw to.  On Mondays, we swap drawings, and during the week, Julie comes up with a story based on my drawing, and I come up with a story based on hers.

It’s all about the buddy system, buddies. I tell ya.


This week’s theme: Something that flies

Julie’s drawing:

separate stories project

Nicole’s story about Julie’s drawing:

Looking up from his laptop, Peter reads to Bob:

“By tying thousands of balloons to his home, 60-year-old Gene sets out to fly above the wilds of New Zealand. Christopher, a neighborhood boy scout 50 years his junior, unintentionally becomes his hostage.”

“Hostage, Peter? Sounds a bit extreme, don’t you think? What about ‘becomes an accidental travel companion’ or something less terrorizing—we’re trying to make a comedy-adventure film, not some psychological thriller with a Liam Neeson cameo.”

“I’ll have you know that I was at the edge of my seat during Taken.”

“We all were.”

“Right. Well, here. Take two: By tying thousands of balloons to his home, 60-year old Gene…”

“Let’s make him older. And give him a new name, too, the last Gene I knew went through two tubs of pomade a month and smelled like PetCo.”

“By tying thousands of balloons to his home, 78-year-old Carl sets out to fly above the wilds of New Zealand—we need a reason why. Why would any old man do that?”

“The local senior retreats are all full for the summer. His urge to travel the world matches his desire to die in his home. An unusual fear of airports has hindered his travel for far too long and finally, he’s taking matters into his own hands. His daughter’s a kiwi and she’s getting married to the man of her dreams, a Swedish expat with hair to his shoulders and a PhD in Geology.”

“Or” Peter says slowly with both eyebrows raised, “the love of his life, a woman who’s been by his side since he was a boy, just died a calm, old-woman death. And now, Carl is going on the journey they promised each other they’d take.

“If that’s the case, it should be South America. I’m picturing Carl’s wife with a lovely, colorful collection of Peruvian and Bolivian trinkets, though New Mexico was the farthest south she’d ever been.”

“So… By tying thousands of balloons to his home, 78-year-old Carl fulfills a lifelong dream to see the wilds of South America. To his chagrin, an earnest boy scout accidentally tags along—the boy needs a name. An ironic one that, by and large, you wouldn’t associate with a kid.”


“Absolutely not,” Peter says without so much as a glance in Bob’s direction.

“Calvin. Claude. Bruce. Terrance. Gordon”

“I like Gordon. I also like Dustin. What about Dustin?”

“Russell. It’s Russell. Russell the wilderness explorer! One hundred percent. Read it again.”

“By tying thousands of balloons to his home, 78-year-old Carl fulfills a lifelong dream to see the wilds of South America. To his chagrin, Russell, a Wilderness Explorer 70 years younger, becomes an earnest stowaway unexpectedly along for the ride.”

Staring at the screen over Peter’s right shoulder, Bob eases his arms into a gentle fold.

“Pixar is gonna eat this up.”

Nicole’s drawing:

Processed with VSCOcam with b1 preset

Julie’s story about Nicole’s drawing:

They named me Gold, the little one with the chubby fingers thought it was hysterical.

He acted as if it was the most original of all the names that anyone had ever given to a gold fish.  He liked to stand and poke at the glass that protected me from his jammy hands, leaving his fingerprints everywhere.

When he talks to me, I can see orange flaky remnants of his ironic choice of snack lingering in his mouth. He always talks while he chews. It’s enough to make me wish I had a stomach so I could return the favor.

The bigger woman, I can only assume this is his mother, said I looked bored so they plopped a plastic castle right in the middle of my tank a few weeks ago.

There are three towers, two on the right and one on the left. Each side connected by a dilapidated and rustic bridge that I can only assume is there for the humans benefit and not for mine. I have heard, on occasion, people say it gives the castle character. This always makes me wonder what kind of world they live in, where a plastic fish castle needs character.

I don’t mind the castle much anymore, I like to pretend that I am a bird when I swim under the bridge suspended in “mid air” next to the tower. When I look down, I see rolling waves of vibrant green grass. Diving down, I try to get as close to the grass as I can before pulling up at the last second skimming the tops of the blades. Then I rocket myself up towards the sky. When I am imagining, it is the clearest and bluest sky.

You dear reader, can’t even imagine how spectacular the sky looks, as fish can see colors that you cannot. How free it must feel to be a bird. How warm it must be to feel the heat of the sun.

But alas, when I look down, the grass is really blue rocks. The air is really musty brown water, and the sun is just a flickering light trying desperately not to be swallowed by the black ceiling of my limited world.


Leave a comment with what you think our next drawing theme should be!

Separate Story Project No. 3 and 4

Week 3 of the Separate Story Project brings to life “Something with potential”

Julie’s Drawing:


Nicole’s story about Julie’s drawing:

My grandfather, a most-famous Hungarian magician, had two possessions on his person when he died: a locked leather-bound journal in which he wrote detailed descriptions of his every illusion (both practiced and performed), and a key—a skeleton design which weighed heavily on a faint gold chain around his neck.

He, in his old age, had become hermitic—fearful, and rather paranoid. I remember the last time we saw each other at Café Montemarte, it was an unusually warm night in February and his attention was fractured with nearby distractions. People walked too closely, spoke too loudly, brushed up against his shoulder too purposefully. His eyes darted eagerly, shooting from them blades of suspicion.

Only my mother knew of his address, and on the afternoon that he passed, she closed the brass door quickly behind her; the entry room was dark with the exception of one band of slanted light. Dust floated at an angle from window slat to amber rug. The air was thick and drowsy, even more so as she stepped towards the back of the apartment to where his bed had always been. Through thin windows she heard the sound of life continuing outside of death—the steady hum of cars and conversations sang with the tick of a second hand. She acted with haste to gently remove the key from his chest and journal from his grasp—she couldn’t bear that just anyone could uncover his secrets.

Within hours, news rumbled through the allies of Budapest, over the lakes of Slovenia, across the islands of Norway, down the streets of Stockholm and London and Montenegro and the island of Sardinia; people cried in the streets. His death threw the entire world into mourning, and as they wept, my mother and I—his only living descendants—opened the journal.

She flipped through the pages slowly at first, rubbing them stiffly between her thumb and forefingers to separate front from back. Her pace quickened, until, unexpectedly, she turned the journal so that the back cover was on top, and fanned through the pages, end-to-start. All but one page was blank.

His handwriting was spidery, thin and angular across the center of the sheet:

“It is true that those who do not believe in magic will never find it. My darling Kate, you must watch the whole world around you with glittering eyes–the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. The bottled ship, my finest accomplishment, is yours.”

Nicole’s drawing:


Julie’s story about Nicole’s drawing:

Her head hit the pillow like a train on a track, heavy and fluid.

Her eyes ached and burned even when they were shut, but her mind didn’t seem to notice. It was her escape, this bed, the place where she could just be. She loved the idea of dreaming, the hope that she would wake up with a deep and epiphanic understanding of it all. Everything she wanted to be was kept in her dreams.

The disconnect between her eyes and her body was magnetic. Normally a sweet escape, her bed slowly started to feel like a prison taunting her pulling her in and out of the want for sleep. Eyes closed, and arms raised above head, she pulled her spine as long as she could. A refreshing cat-like stretch to wind down her rapturous mind.

Sleeping was hard. Wiping away the tear that fell for no reason other than necessity, she sighed. Every inch of her body felt heavy. At last, she said a silent prayer, turned off her light, and decided to try again.

Week 4

Drawing theme: “Sunday Brunch”

Julie’s Drawing:



Nicole’s story about Julie’s drawing:

“We bought a truck and gutted it one summer. Slept out of it for an entire month, too. At night, your mother would cozy herself in one of my old flannels, she’d be completely swimming in it, but she loved the way it wrapped twice around her–said she felt ‘snug as a fox in a den.’ On the night of our first wedding anniversary, we drove the truck out to Todd County to camp by the lake. I remember going out about a half-mile from camp to gather wood for the fire—I couldn’t have been gone for more than an hour before I trudged back in with logs and stray branches up to my beard.

I had the workman habit, then, of running my forehead with the inside of my wrist, and I’ll never forget the way she came up and kissed me on the cheek after I had rubbed the sweat from my skin. Told me she had a surprise for dinner. Your mother, I tell you, was full of surprises. From behind her back she revealed a bundle of butcher paper tied in the center with thin twine…and you know what she said to me?”

I shook my head no.

“She said, ‘Bacon. Bacon and eggs and pancakes. And every year on our anniversary, we’ll have breakfast for dinner just like tonight.

She was so pleased with herself. She had my heart in her hand. Still does. I remember the way the oil crackled in the pan, and how her eyes dropped and her lower lip came out just like this, all childlike and weary when some of the shells accidentally mixed in with the eggs.”

“I miss her,” I said looking down at the empty space between my napkin and knife.

Walking over with two plates full of bacon and eggs and pancakes in his hand, he recited it again:

The moon turns its clockwork dream.
The biggest stars look at me with your eyes.
And as I love you, the pines in the wind
want to sing your name with their leaves of wire.

He switched on the light overhead, handed me my breakfast for dinner, and sat lightly to my right. His glass of orange juice looked frightfully out of place, but he picked it up and leaned its rim in my direction.

“To your mother. To strong love and silly tradition.”


Nicole’s drawing:

Processed with VSCOcam with c2 preset

Julie’s story about Nicole’s drawing:

She could move through the recipe as effortlessly as humming the tune to her favorite song. She loved Sundays, and Sundays loved her right back. Sunday was the day they had brunch. It started as a tradition back when they were dating, Bloody Mary breakfasts. Even now in the early morning, with three bedrooms and two beautiful children, they still managed to find time to clink their glasses and relax.
She needed a lemon. She opened the door and walked to the backyard, the grass was still wet with dew and the sun was breaking through the branches of the Oak tree in the corner with glorious beams of light. The air had a distinct smell of summer. She returned to the kitchen with the biggest lemon the tree could offer her, and set to work.
Her feet seemed to glide across the floor as she gathered the pepper, the horseradish, and the creole seasoning. She wasn’t quite tall enough to reach the spices in the cabinet so she had to use her tip toes.
“Fourteen years of ballet and it all comes down to this” she said to the dog.
She laughed to herself as she put the spices down on the counter next to the glasses, and continued to dance through the choreography. Her movements were graceful and precise, she never looked at the glasses she relied instead on muscle memory.
As she mixed, she closed her eyes and started humming “Here Comes the Sun” it seemed like an appropriate choice for her favorite day of the week. The soft clink of the cubed ice against the glass set the rhythm as she stirred. Somewhere around the second verse, she opened her eyes and saw him sitting at the table watching her. She smiled with her entire soul and his soul smiled right back. She brought the finished drinks over to the table and sat next to him.
“Happy Sunday” he said.
“Happy Sunday” she said, and they clinked their glasses and sipped their drinks, both enjoying the peace and quiet.

Separate Story Project, Edition II

Back again with the second edition of the separate story project–an exploration that is quickly becoming my favorite creative outlet.

Nicole’s Drawing:

Separate Story Project, Week 2

Julie’s story about Nicole’s drawing:

It was 11:45 p.m. and I was at one of those 24 hour diners. You know, the kind with the kitschy checkerboard floor that matches the black and white pieces of “history” on the wall. Pictures of all the almost famous people who might have eaten at the diner before

Photoshop was invented, but almost definitely didn’t after? Yeah, one of those. I was jonesing for a chocolate malt milkshake and couldn’t sleep so bibity bobity boo I found myself sitting at the counter.

It was 11:45, and I was sitting at this very counter when I saw it. I remember it like it was 2 seconds ago. There was this old lady walking to her car. She was wearing a tickle-me-pink velour sweatsuit, white cross trainers, and had a slight hunchback. I remember her because while she looked like she had just crawled out of hibernation, her hair was perfectly coiffed. And when I say perfectly I mean perfectly, it was the most amazing do I had ever seen, not a single curl was out of place! So here I was a quarter to midnight, sitting at this counter, sipping my milkshake, wondering how I could get ahold of some hair like that when, all of a sudden, she was falling!

I kid you not, this sweet little old lady (who probably could have just robbed a bank for all I knew) was having a heart attack in the middle of the parking lot of the 24 hour diner! Bank robber or not, no one deserves to go that way. So, I did what any self respecting person with a mouthful of milkshake would do. I started waving my arms above my head like a wild banshee producing a low guttural noise from the back of my throat, since swallowing and screaming for help wasn’t an option.

It was 11:45 and suddenly, this Superman of a specimen came flying in out of thin air and was running through the doors to save her! One thing lead to another and somehow an ambulance found its way to the scene and brought the poor little lady to the hospital. Don’t worry, she was up and talking  the whole time (I guess she had just tripped off the curb, classic mistake) and it was just a precautionary trip. At this point I was still, good samaritan that I am, sitting at the counter sippin my shake. All was right in the parking lot so Superman came and plopped his cute batoot on the leather capped stool right next to mine. And I mean right next to mine, I could practically smell his angelic sweat as he turned towards me. Everything had happened so fast earlier that this was the first time I really had a chance to notice just how chiseled his jaw was, just how imperfectly perfect his nose was, and just how tired his eyes were. Not tired in a mom-of-five-kids-I-wish-the-icecream-truck-sold-wine kind of way, but tired in an intelligent I-just-need-chocolate kind of way. His silence spoke to me louder than any words I had ever heard.

“Aw what the heck,” I said, slightly moving my shake towards his patient hand “You need this a lot more than I do.” Then he smiled at me, and that was all it took, and I was paralyzed. Hook, line, and sinker, he had me. And he has held me for the last 41 years, that was the night I met my best friend, my one and only, the man I like to call the cupcake to my sangria. My James…..I’m sorry, what was the question again?


Julie’s Drawing:


Nicole’s story about Julie’s drawing:

It was the summer of 1985 that I scattered her ashes over Crater Lake. We were twenty-eight years old.

To see anything through her eyes was to see it in brighter colors than usual—I remember the first afternoon of our honeymoon, there at the water’s edge, how she tugged the hem of my t-shirt at the sudden, almost painful loveliness of two children chasing each other in wide figure eights, faint dust clouds trailing behind their tiny feet. Just an ordinary scene you might see anywhere, one that I’m sure I wouldn’t even remember had she not died so soon after.

 I think about it again and again, the way her fair skin freckled and the light shone from her almond eyes as she watched them, laughing. Everything came alive in her company—and I, without it, come here every morning at eleven, in bleak homage to her favorite painting, a hanging landmark of my love.

The Separate Story Project


About a month ago, while my friend Julie and I were wine tasting in Edna Valley, we expressed a shared desire to draw and write more.

And instead of letting that urge linger above our busy lives, we decided to pull that dream down to earth with a collaboration–one that I’m (temporarily, depending on Julie’s stamp of approval) titling The Separate Story project. It’s simple, really:

  1. One of us picks a topic to draw
  2. We both have one week (drawings due Monday) to put that subject to paper
  3. We take a picture of what we sketched and send it through the internets
  4. Julie writes a story about Nicole’s drawing; Nicole writes a story about Julie’s drawing (up to 200 words)

It’s wild to see how differently we interpret a subject. Take a look, the topic Julie selected for this week was:

an umbrella in an unusual place


Julie’s Drawing:

Umbrella in an usual place


Nicole’s story about Julie’s drawing:

Two o’clock on the lower acre.

I meet Anton for our afternoon lesson.

He waves at me from the putting green, his rolled canary sleeve falling up towards his elbow.

The air feels filmy and clammy as a cod, and I pause one stair shy of the bench to extend my hand so that it’s facing upward, creating a tight valley between forearm and bicep.

Anton’s eyes follow an invisible path from my palm to the close grey cover above.

His hair looks more wiry than usual–like it had already received the hint that dampness is upon us.

I know he won’t cancel; we wait all week for this hour together.

I rest my umbrella next to his club and bend over, reaching into the basket of balls. My fingers move over them loosely at first, the sound of rattling plastic continues until I pinch a single sphere between thumb and index.

I face him with it on display:

“What do you say that if it rains before 2:15, we take shelter in the wet bar. I’ll make you a martini and you can tell me how you got this job in the first place.”



Nicole’s drawing:


Julie’s story about Nicole’s drawing:

Cash sits alone. The train is picking up speed, winding through trees and sheets of rain.
He is motionless as if on display, practicing. You had to be special to be in the circus, but special was never the word people used to describe him.  The train rumbled over hills and through mountains, bragging to the surrounding nature about its power and strength. Cash wondered what it would be like to feel power like that. Is that how people felt when they watched him, powerful? Whatever it was he could see it in their eyes when they passed.
They felt superior and secure knowing that he was marked as less. Looking at him probably made them feel smart and majestic, things he could never be. Circus freaks could never be a full person. What if it was contagious? People needed verification that they were safe from such a monstrosity. Validation that they still had the power and control to protect themselves from behind the glass. Because to them he was the unknown danger.
So, Cash sat silent and alone waiting for the end of the night when he would walk to his bed where the darkness would settle and his dreams could take him. The rain was falling harder now and the train wasn’t slowing. Trees passed by in muted shades of green and gray.

Word from my windshield

The first time I saw her do it, she was wearing blush colored cat-eye sunglasses that she found in the sale acre of Forever 21. “Four bucks!” she shared with her sister over the phone. The lenses on them had a bashful tint, and I could see that below them, her eyes skipped along points on the low hills to her left, then snaked between the dash and side mirrors in a lopsided infinity loop. She pulled down the sun visor. Flipped up the flap and pursed her lips. Given the opportunity, she would deny this behavior, saying instead that she had been inspecting the aftermath of a break out flare-up. Regardless, she looked kissable.

One stoplight past the airport, it started.

“There’s a minivan turning.” She said with reservation.

“Those guys, in orange, they’re closing down the left lane. Now, I’m turning my right blinker on. I’m drifting right, drifting right, drifting right. Here I am in the right lane without having checked my blind spot.

Tangled now in the wires of narration, she committed.

“A wide worker man with a goatee is stacking all the cones. One in the other. Then the other in another. Then three into four but four’s all he’ll go ‘cause five’s one too many cones for a wide worker man to…

I’m braking. My foot is on the brake.

Hello, lady in the silver Jetta, I see you got your car at Perry Ford. Was that a good experience? I bet you wrote a check for it. I bet your name is Georgia.”

And then I saw her breathe in deeply; her seatbelt shifted upward on her collarbone and music followed the exhale out of her lungs.

“Georgia. Georgia. The whole day through. Just an old sweet song keeps Georgia on my mind.”

Through two verses of nonsensical lyrics that she made up on the spot, I listened. It was throaty but tender. At one frame, she pounded the heel of her right palm against the steering wheel—not to keep time, but to alleviate the tension when there’s

“No peace. No peace I find…

…just an old, sweet song…

…keeps Georgia on my mind.”

I recognized the look in her eye when she rolled onto the gravel in front of her driveway. Under the rose lens it whispered, I don’t remember getting here. Her left hand crossed her body and reached down for the red release button. The belt slid slowly over her twin badges of femininity, and found its place coiled in the car door. A steep driveway separated her from home, and she called her Mom to swap stories about their days. While the phone rang, she peeled off her sunglasses from behind her ears and leaned her body to the right with an elongated spine so that her eyes met their reflection in the rearview mirror. She tilted her head back and widened them slightly with both brows raised and both lids flat and without crease.

“Hi baby.” The sound came over the Bluetooth Speakers.

She shot back into her bucket seat. “Hi momma. How was your day?”

For ten minutes they talked about the ducks that keep breaching her mom’s HOA contract to break in for long dips in the pool.

“A Mallard and a…what’s it called when it’s not a Mallard? Anyway, they keep showing up, the pair of them, and I’m not sure what to do about all the swimming and pooping they keep up to. Raul, he’s the new pool guy—you gave him the check last time you were home, remember?—he’s not much help. How was your day?”

While her mom spoke, she raised her left elbow chin-height to give a light scratch to the back of her neck.

“I watched this video today, one of my favorite authors gave a talk about Self Delusion in the creative process. It was that whole “fake it til you make it” kind of thing, but much more eloquent and really… applicable.”

“What… does that mean, self delusional…?” she asked. The same shake in her voice that was present two summers ago when she wondered out loud about what, exactly, a beer bong is.

“It was all about faking confidence and security in your art, until eventually you start to be confident and secure in it. He said that he gets really anxious about his books, and their deadlines, and whether or not the stories will come together by the end of it all—and instead of egging on self doubt, he asks himself ‘what would an extremely confident person do in this situation? What would that person say? Whatever the answer, that’s how I react.’”

“Sure, okay. That makes sense, I do that everyday.”

“Well la-di-da!”

I heard them smile through the speakers.

“So he’s got you feeling, all…loony, I take it?”

“The loony tooniest, momma. No, but, okay, so then he said that he also tried meditating. But his sessions were completely half-assed and frustrating, so he made up his own type of meditation by talking to himself. Out loud. In the middle of central park—to get out of his head and into the present moment.

“Nutjob. Go on.”

“…narrating everything around him, he said it was the best way to stay present, instead of letting his mind wander to the stacks of blank pages burning pathetic frown-faces into his desk.”


“So in the car, today, I tried it. I just talked out loud to myself and narrated everything going on around me. And by the end of it I was singing, and suddenly I was home, and nowhere along the way was there a thought or worry in my skull. It was nice. It was wonderful, actually.”

The exchange went on like this for a short while longer, until finally, they said their talk-to-you-laters and she clicked the off-hook button on her steering wheel to end the call. From where I was looking, the space between her shoulders and ears seemed wider. Her neck was long and smooth below her jaw and her mouth curved instead of pursing towards me. I thought to myself, if this is what self-delusion looks like, it looks a hell of a lot like confidence.

Wave parade Nicole Varvitsiotes


Tango at Luna Red

My intent wasn’t to to sit fireside at a Spanish tapas restaurant

on a day that commemorates Mexico’s triumph over France.

It wasn’t to sink sweetly into Argentine nostalgia,

while pulling salt from the rim with a light touch of tongue.

But when a couple on the patio excused itself from the only set table

to tango under suspended lights,

I dissolved into inky darkness

and watched, invisible, as they traced the outlines of their kingdom.

Reina, his only subject.

Rey, her every move.


Travel at Home



Best paired with Eyes on the Prize – Julia Easterlin. (make it through the first minute, you won’t regret it)


Yesterday, I wanderlusted myself sick.

Thinking about the world and all its roads and caves, mountains and people, all the spices I’ve never tasted and languages I’ve never heard–Mother Mary, it was like suddenly I was standing in a glass box. I held that ground for a while and ate up all the air. When I exhausted the exhales for inhales, I got up and got out, to Starbucks of all places, for a change of pace.

I sat in a dark chocolate arm chair figured maybe eight inches from its twin on the side wall and wrote for hours. In the time spent seated, the world came to me through a string of serendipitous conversations with strangers. One by one, they warmed the chair next to mine, and each offered me unsolicited advice.

1. Travel

He wore a faded polo, medium blue jeans and the kind of sensible New Balance shoes men wear after fifty. He thumbed through the Wall Street Journal, tilting his head back and lifting his brows, his lips split slightly as he followed the story down the page before flipping it. He looked over at me, his skin tan and narrow mustache grey. He  asked, “Are you a student?”

I said no, I’m a writer.

We talked about my job for a bit and he asked, flippantly,  if working in advertising is sexist like it is on Mad Men. Before we finished sharing our laugh, he told me about his daughter who was a freshman at Tufts University, how she was an incredible writer–so great, in fact, that NPR called her to read a piece she wrote on air.

“She has trouble with research papers though. Her writing it too literary, she loves to use metaphors.” Then he proved his point by telling me when she was writing college essays, her professors asked her to “dumb them down” in order to be accepted anywhere, that her audience wouldn’t appreciate, let alone understand, that she was describing her parents heritage through surgery tools.

“I’m jewish, grew up in New York. My wife, she’s German. If you know anything about the Germans, they’re very black and white. I met her through a brazilian friend when I was traveling the world at 18. I started in Greece, beautiful country, walked all over the Parthenon–in those days they didn’t have much security or construction, spent a month in Crete, went up to Mykonos, and finally hitched my way to Switzerland.”

He liked to talk, so I leaned in a bit from where I listened.

“Now, i’m 62, I’d look like a bum if I hitched a place. But you, you’re young. Go now. If you wait, kids and family and things get in the way and you never end up going. Travel. I always tell my girls go travel.”

For a few more minutes, we talked about his daughters, his quest to get them to Israel on birthright, and his PHD in physics. I didn’t have much to say, but I didn’t need to. I heard what I needed to hear, and as he stood to go, he shook my hand. At the same time we said “pleasure meeting you” — I laughed and said, take care.

2. Help

A self-described business woman, in her late sixties, with a Ringo Starr haircut looked over to me and said,

“Your shoes are darling. Where are those from?”

“Thank you. Oddly enough, they’re from Target. Can’t tell, though, they’re actually pretty comfortable, too.”

“Oh I hope they still have them, I want a pair like that. I’m a size 3. See? I have to order all my shoes from Italy, and they’re $800 a pair. I try to buy them on sale, but then they’re still $500–from the minute I wake up to the minute I go to sleep, I’m in grotesque pain.”

She unfolded her hands and flipped  her palms up, then down, like a magician showing a successful trick, and said with a slight break in her voice, “the arthritis is killing me.It’s all over my body, I’m in constant pain.”

I sympathized the best I could, and I think she felt comforted. Maybe not comforted, but comfortable–comfortable enough to ask me if I’d write copy for her website once she found out that I write.

“I need the site to help me fundraise to sue the FDA for not allowing me the right pain medication.”

I listened as she spoke poorly of her doctor, and about her ugly ugly pain. It was clear that she was arrested by aches and just needed to be heard. For about five minutes, she combed through her mind’s files to deliver me the right adjectives for her life. Filthy words. All of them. And as she said them, tears came and left her eyes quick as a Denver storm. She clutched her heart as she whispered to me,

“I’ve even thought about jumping out of a building.”

At which point my thoughts spun and I tried to pull at the right selvage to say the right thing–only to realize that in this case, the only right thing was to show I was  listening and to make her feel less alone. Occasionally the espresso machine overpowered her, so all I could do was hold eye contact. Before leaving, she wrote down her name and phone number on a paper for me and asked that I get in touch to write her website for her. All she wanted was help.


3. Write Your Book

About 15 minutes before I was about to pack my things and head home, a middle-aged man took the hot seat. He wore a light blue shirt with opal snap down buttons tucked into working pants above working boots.

“I normally don’t dress like this. I was at my ranch with my wife and the students. She’s an AP environmental science teacher, so we took the kids for field research to prepare for their big test in May.”

He turned out to be the Mathematics Department chair, and before that, the Principle of his school for 12 years. Our conversation started by him leaning over to joke about how he has to carve time in his day just to answer emails. At which point he closed his computer and we spiraled into a web of shared sentiments on the topics of:

  • technology in the work/place classroom
  • attention spans and instant gratification
  • perseverance
  • family and traditions
  • how to be neighborly
  • travel
  • being greek (him half, I full)
  • the Oakland church where he grew up and my parents were married
  • Book themes, the best ones showing how adversity is overcome
  • His accidental children’s book about mice
  • My upcoming book about (stay tuned!)

I mean really, I was dumbfounded. The ease of conversation, the instant sense of trust and familiarity–this man was so animated, and so eloquent–his thoughts left his mouth like golden ribbons. And I sat there, with the sun in my eyes listening to a perfect stranger tell me,

“you have a gift.”

How does he know? How can he tell?

And then he said something that gave him away. He said,

“Honor differences, validate similarities.”


After I packed up, I walked home right at 8 o’clock. The sky was still full of leftover light. Rounding the corner to my house, I saw a single deer, strutting in the high grass. It was out of sight as quickly as it fell in, and I smiled to myself knowing the significance the deer has for George’s girls ever since his passing.

Maybe we see what we want to see, and hear what we want to hear. Maybe our senses compensate for a mind in need. Why and how my evening happened doesn’t concern me. That it happened is enough to break me out of that glass box and renew me.