That Time I Analyzed The Shit Out Of My Twenties

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After Commencement, speaking with one of my favorite professors, Dr. Jerry, who once threatened to lock me out of the library. (Age 22)

Dear Abi,

Happy twentieth! This is me, Abi . . . or rather, this is you, Abi, at age thirty. So, yes, this is one of those letters from the future-self to the past-self, and I know you think that’s kind of barfy, but get over it, because I have things to say to you.

The first and most important thing is this: Everything just keeps getting better.

Bam. There you go. Happy birthday.

Of course, I don’t mean everything is a little better every day. Twenty-two is going to kick. Your. Ass. And that will be nothing compared to twenty-five. Twenty-three will be loaded with uncertainty, and twenty-eight is going to start out rough and turn into a glory-fest by the end. You know how life is. It comes in waves. But everything you go through is always building toward a greater Awesome.

So keep that in mind as I say other things in this letter to suggest that the life you have at thirty is not the life you currently think you want.

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As Mabel in Pride’s Crossing. (Age 21)

I caught that. Yes, I did. I saw that flicker of a smile and that tiny, barely-perceptible exhale of relief. Don’t play with me, Wurdeman. I know you’re still intrigued by alternatives. I know the thing you need most in your life right now is permission to be unsure, and I know how unwilling you are to offer yourself that.

You want to know exactly what you want. You want to be the kind of sexy-ass, powerful goddess who heel-clicks her way through life without ever indicating doubt . . . about who she is, about what she deserves, about the correctness of her own understanding.

You have to let that unattainable ideal go. Actually, “ideal” isn’t even the word, because this image doesn’t fit who you are, even the ideal version of who you are. You have it in your head that strength is a matter of what you feel, when actually, it’s a matter of how you handle what you feel. You think you’d be more influential if you were more authoritative and less into relationships. Wrong again. You’ll be surprised how much you can accomplish through empathy and connection. You worry that your introverted nature makes other people perceive you as insecure and weak. Yep. Sure does. But that has less to do with your introversion, and more to do with the way you carry it right now.

The point is, you weren’t built to be a heel-clicker, drawing envy from those around her with her perfect manicure, powerful presence, and sarcastic smiles. No, my dear, you are as soft-hearted, affectionate, and over-thinking as you fear you are, and every minute you spend worrying that those things make you weak is a minute you lose figuring out how to be effective because of those things. By the time you are thirty, you will be a sexy, self-possessed, flat-wearing, non-goddess who knows her own mind, gets things done, and doesn’t let moments of self-doubt defeat her, because she’s totally cool with the fact that she’s human. Does that sound awesome? It should, because it is. Stop wasting time.

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Veiling my College Angie, so she can marry the love of her life. (Age 23)

Learn to use the phrase “I want.” Don’t cringe like that. I’m not telling you to whine or make demands. I’m suggesting that you state your un-hedged preferences out loud from time to time. “I want to go hiking today.” “I want this job.” “I want to date you.” You won’t always get these things, but you’ll be a lot closer than you are when you try to hide your ambitions.

Same deal with “no.” Just a pure, direct “no” without any “maybe later” or “let me think about it.” Seriously with this. No one will be as bothered by hearing your “no” as you are by the idea of saying it. That should tell you something.

And for the love of Nancy, stop thinking about yourself. That is almost always the problem. You feel insecure? Stop thinking about yourself. You feel stuck in a rut? Stop thinking about yourself. You’re inexplicably sad out of nowhere? Stop thinking about yourself. Or go on a Facebook fast. (You’ll know what that means later.) Excessive thinking will bring you down. Doing things will pick you up. Always.

Love your friends. Make an effort to connect with relatives you don’t know that well. Assume strangers are interested in knowing you better, even when the instinct for self-preservation makes you want to assume otherwise. And when you discover that someone doesn’t like you or doesn’t respect you or misunderstands you? Give it time. Some people never come around, and that’s fine, but most people will.

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With my Original Angie and her amazing little girl, reminiscing over the friendship scrapbook I made her for high school graduation. (Age 24, I think)

By the way, when you graduate, you’ll wish you spent a little less time studying, a little less time with Nick, and a little more time with your girlfriends. Obviously, the time you spend with Nick is really important, but the time you spend having a life of your own is important, too. Also—so sorry—Nick is going to be a Facebook friend in a few years. He’s going to be living in Seattle with a beautiful woman who isn’t you, and you are going to think it’s wonderful. You will. So go ahead and take a break from this letter to go put on his blue sweater and cry in a corner, because I know that’s where you are right now. When you’re done, though, I’ll be here, waiting to tell you again that it’s going to be fine. It’s going to be good, actually. It’s going to be wonderful.

You’ll be single at thirty. And you’ll be happy. Not happy because you’re single, but happy because you’re a well-rounded human being who has amazing friends, a supportive family, a career you’re passionate about, a strong grip on your identity, and no maternal longings whatsoever. You’ll have moments of loneliness, but you’ll also have glimpses into painful mother/daughter relationships and discord among siblings and rocky marriages. You’ll see that most people don’t get to have the whole perfect picture, and despite what you usually lack in romance, the amount of love you have in your life is insane.

Now, I know you’ve never really been “out there” in the dating world, so here’s what you can expect:

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Nora’s Grey Gardens Champaign Party. Things . . . happened. (Age 24, 25, something)

As I previously mentioned, it turns out you’re sexy. Granted, this is not an opinion held by men the whole world over, but you’ll find that you don’t care, because you’re not interested in men the whole world over. You care first and foremost about the way you feel in your own body, and you care secondly about the opinion of the one man who holds your interest in a given moment. Some men will be into you, some won’t, and you’ll be perfectly happy with the balance you’ve struck.

Over the course of your twenties, you’ll have plenty of bad dates, and that’s okay, because bad dates are hilarious.

On rare occasions, you’ll fall hard. You’ll get a glimmer of a feeling that you’re on to something real. You’ll hit road blocks, you’ll be forced to examine and question what you really want, you’ll resist letting go like you think your entire life will implode if you can’t make this work, and when it ends, you’ll know that everything is going to be fine, and you’ll feel like everything is broken forever and ever and ever and for all time, world without end, amen.

Then you’ll discover that everybody in your life has your back. You’ll remember how much love you have, how many relationships in your life do work, and you’ll realize you want something like that. Not something perfect, because you’re not an idiot and you know perfection’s not a thing. But you’ll want something that doesn’t require so much fear and uncertainty and breath-holding.

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Solvang trip with Nora and my handsome wooden Viking man (Age 28)

Your taste in men will change, just slightly. You’ll still value kindness and intelligence and humor, but by your late twenties, you’ll know which compromises are possible, and which are not. You’ll understand the difference between a “nice guy” and a kind one. You won’t just search for someone you admire; you’ll also look for a man who expects to learn from you. And one day you’ll wake up and realize that an even temper and a well-adjusted personality aren’t just admirable; they’re also hot. They’re the things that make a heart-thumping, tongue-tied mess of you.

Yes, you’re still single at thirty. But, Little Miss Frustrated-By-Constant-Uncertainty, you know what you want. And because of everything you’ve already been through and the mistakes you’ve already made, you have a fighting chance at being a really good partner for the man you want once the man you want shows up.

In the meantime, keep reading constantly because it fills your soul and makes you a better person. Work your ass off. I say that with some degree of caution, because you shouldn’t work to the detriment of your personal life—you still have to be human at the end of the day, after all. Just never underestimate how much the work you love can fulfill you.

Call your grandma. Write letters to your great aunts. Give blood more often.

Don’t obsess over other people’s progress. Some people are ahead of you. Some people are behind you. This is how everything is always, so stop looking around at everybody else. You did that on the sidewalk once and you ran into a parking sign. It hurt and you looked like an idiot, which is why you should just watch where you’re going.

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Scraping out a coconut in St. Maarten, a few hours before marrying Nora and Andy. (Age 27)

When someone says something about you and that thing has two possible interpretations, choose the positive one. It’s the scarier choice, but it’s 1) likelier and 2) the only choice you stand to gain anything from. Even if you’re wrong, the joke’s not on you; it’s on the person who tried to insult you and failed.

Keep in mind that the way people treat you has as much to do with them as it has to do with you. More, in some cases.

Also keep in mind that this same exact truth applies to the way you treat others.

Love this time in your life. Love it. Don’t try to outrun it, and don’t shame yourself for not being above the mistakes you’re about to make.

I know you. I know this advice is annoying the hell out of you, because you think I forgot what it was to be twenty. You think I’m underestimating you, that I don’t see that you already know all this. You pride yourself on being “wise beyond your years,” because that’s the generous compliment people give you. But here’s the thing:

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With my niece and her ridiculous eyes, just before my brother’s wedding. (Age 26)

“Wise beyond your years” is, in some sense, an impossibility. Wisdom is different from knowledge. It’s a form of understanding that lives under your skin. It’s something we speak of earning because it can only really be attained through experience.

You’re smart, Abigail. You’re going to make mostly good choices. You’re going to make good use of the “pre-wisdom” you currently have. But you’ll also be surprised by some of the stupid decisions you make. You’ll be surprised by your cowardice at times, then by your courage at others. You’ll think you’ve found reasons to second-guess your strength, and then you’ll turn around and prove yourself wrong. Then right again. Then wrong.

You’ll spend late evenings in Due Gatti, drinking coffee and discussing professors and papers and women’s rights with your girlfriends, because that, my dear, is who you are. You’ll say your final goodbye to the supposed love-of-your-life in a gazebo after a wedding, with your hair all up and your long, floral dress on, thinking of how terribly romantic this tearful goodbye would seem if it was a Jane Austen novel and not, you know, the heart-stabbing events of your actual life. You’ll spend a year in a van with strangers, you’ll move to a city that overwhelms you, and you’ll sell your soul for rent money in a seedy casino. You’ll be kissed on rooftops and in libraries. You’ll laugh in wineries and at your best friend’s kitchen table. You’ll cry on the floor of your closet. Oh! At some point, you’ll have a walk-in closet.

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Modeling retro waves for Nora, which she styled while I drank a French 75 and vented some things at her. (Age 29)

You’ll win awards and not win awards. You’ll find your calling and move your furniture and live with strangers you found on the Internet. You’ll belly dance on the Queen Mary and wander bookstores in Solvang and form friendships with your relatives. You’ll host parties and cook turkeys and sing karaoke in your living room, which is crazy, because last you checked, you hated karaoke. You’ll break hearts and have your own heart broken and you’ll feel like the failure is yours in both cases. You’ll realize that’s how everyone feels.

You’ll get wiser, Abi. Because as much as you hate to admit it, there’s plenty of room to get wiser. You’ll get stronger and braver and kinder. And by thirty, you won’t have completely nailed being a person, but you’ll be closer. You’ll also be grateful for the messy decade that came before, and in rare moments, you’ll kind of miss it.

I wouldn’t trade positions with you for anything, because as I said, everything gets better, which means I’m on the good end. But the road here is remarkable and precious and you only get to travel it once.

So happy birthday to you, Abi Wurdeman. And happy twenties.

~Abi

P.S. The pimples are because of the dairy. Everything else is because of the gluten.

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That Time I Stalled For Time Again

Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeep.

Like the sound the TV made when there was nothing on it . . . you know, back in the day . . . when you’d just get the colored bars and the long beep?

Anyway, whatever, never mind. The point is, there is nothing on this channel tonight. I have nothing for you right now. That opportunity from last week? Still focused first and foremost on it this week. Also, I finally came down with the cold I’ve been flirting with off-and-on since February. A lot of Ny-Quil this weekend. Beautiful, heavenly Ny-Quil.

Stay with me, though. Barring any unexpected developments on the career or health front, I will be back with a new story next week. And it involves a Caribbean island, a new romance, the worst wedding toast known to humankind, and . . . you got it . . . this girl making a grand speech about what it all means.

See you soon!

That Time I Had To Stall For Time

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A message to me from my brother Phil during yesterday’s Summit. “This is nice because your mouth has been zipped for a while.”

Hello Foxies!

There’s no new post this week, because Phil and I have been happily slammed with preparations for a new opportunity. And any spare time I might have had to write a post this weekend was absorbed by the day-long T.V. Writers’ Summit we attended yesterday. It was a good day. I got a nice refresher on developing pilots, learned some new things, had lunch with my friend David, and continued to perfect the craft of Doodling-While-Listening.

I used to watch my mom doodle all the time when I was a kid. The message pad by the phone was always decorated with transparent boxes and flowers if the most recent call had been brief, or with people interacting with strange, unidentified creatures if the call was longer. Apparently, this is genetic. When Phil and I get off the phone with our manager, my notes are heavily adorned with spider webs and character names spelled out in ornate lettering. Our brainstorming notebooks look the same way. And it’s almost guaranteed that at any panel, seminar, or workshop we attend, I’ll fill the margins of my notebook with doodles and he’ll offer up silent feedback, either by tapping what I drew and laughing, shaking his head in shame, or just taking the notebook away and writing something next to it like “disturbing,” “I’m really angry right now,” or just “NO.” And then at some point, he’ll also write me a note requesting that I shut my yapper or zip my lip. It’s our routine.

Anyway, in the spirit of offering you some measure of my creative efforts this weekend, I am sharing my doodles from this weekend’s Summit.

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Just a good, God-fearing egg, headed to church.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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I’m not good at drawing money. Also, the original dream was to draw the side of the penny with Lincoln’s face on it, because then the money lady would have a bearded face, but I got to that part and realized that I couldn’t draw Lincoln AT ALL, let alone that small. So instead she’s a sloppy paper creature with a demon mouth on her face. Honestly, this is my biggest creative failure. Just a total embarrassment.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The speaker referenced a “cops and mobsters” show, and for a half-second, I mis-heard and got really excited. I soothed my disappointment through art therapy, thinking of what might have been.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Just a little body positive doodling. A young woman, loving her unique head-shape in a round-head-shape-obsessed world. (That last word is “sassy.”)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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My only regret here is that I named the BunnyWoman “Bethany.” I really like the name Bethany, and the BunnyWoman seems too unpleasant for it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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I wanted to find out if I could draw a stapler. So I drew one, and I was like, “You know, that’s actually a better bird face than a stapler.”

That Time I Talked About Poop Really Loud So The People In The Back Could Hear

This isn’t a regular blog post, this is just me sharing something with my readers  and saying thank you, because you guys are the best.

As I mentioned a few weeks ago when I skipped a post and just gave you uggo photos of myself instead, I recently won a Storytelling Competition at the Los Angeles Scripted Comedy Festival at iO West. I’m not going to get into how fun and valuable the experience was, because I was thirty at the time and I have to honor the sanctity of my twenties-themed blog. Also it’s Wednesday night and I’m tired.

I just wanted to share with you guys the story I told at the Championship, because it did come from my twenties, and, more importantly, because you guys–you people who make the blue bars on my reader stats happen, you who leave your comments, email me privately, and share with your friends–you are a big part of the reason this great experience happened for me. It’s easier to try the things that scare us–the things we worry we’re not ready for–when we’re surrounded by people who offer validation and help us learn. People like you. And like Dorothy, Lauren, Jaclyn, and Aaron, who came out at 10 pm on a Monday night and went “Woo!” when I went on stage. And my fellow storytellers* who showed up to support me that night and inspire me all the time . . . setting the bar high so I can’t get lazy.

You people rock.

Anyway, here is my story, shot by Phil Wurdeman on his Android. It’s called “PoopPoopPoop,” and the first sentence–which got cut off, because Phil didn’t know I was going first–is, “The great thing about babies is that they have basically no life experience whatsoever.”

*In no particular order:

Phil Wurdeman: writer, improviser, big brother, living room motivational speaker. I can attest that he’s been a comic genius at least since I developed the ability to comprehend language. He has access to creative pockets in his brain that are completely absent in mine, and our writing partnership has seen good days not just because of his talent, but because of his drive and relentless optimism.

Nora Novak: actor, writer, director, editor, producer, set designer, costume designer, stylist, photographer, layer of concrete (seriously). You name it, she’ll figure out how to get it done. She’s professional, efficient, and hilarious. Check out her YouTube channel and her web series, Chronicles of Zombia.

Andy Novak: Like his wife, Andy does everything. He has some hi-larious shorts that show off his solid writing/directing chops and the sense of humor that landed him a broad like Norbs.

Nisha Ganatra: writer/director. Her work is subtle, compelling, and insightful. She’s also a wise, grounded powerhouse of a professional. Phil and I are hell-bent on working with her.

Carol Chrest: writer. Ridiculously driven writer. Her storylines are riveting, her characters are engaging, and she rocks magical motifs and historical periods like . . . someone who would rock those things really hard. Again, Wednesday night. I’m tired.

Jim Woster: writer/comedian. He does this thing where he makes sophisticated, intellectual humor completely accessible and relatable. Oh, and terribly, terribly funny. If you get the chance to see his stand-up, do it. Do. It.

David Radcliff: writer. He’s a multi-award-winning writer and a gifted public speaker. He’s also all up in my genre with his hilarious concepts and memorable characters and rock-solid dialogue, so when I met him I had to decide if I wanted to make him my nemesis or good friend. I chose the second one. Everybody chooses the second one.

Rob Manuel: writer. He was the first person to convince me that video games can be masterful stories. He remains the only person who can talk on the subject in a way that engages me for an hour and a half. Also, he’s a genuinely kind human being with a strong interest in making the gaming world more female-friendly.

That Time My Family Turned Out To Be Epic (Part Two)

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Listen, no wedding is perfect. Sometimes your wedding happens to land in the middle of a grieving period. Sometimes your sister warns you she might throw up halfway through. Sometimes a guy shows up in a cheesy tuxedo shirt and starts grabbing other people’s drinks. Sometimes that guy is a baby. You just have to roll with it.

Those of you who tuned in last week know that in Week One of Jolly Fisherman 2010, our deeply loved Great Aunt Ruby passed away. She passed away almost exactly a week before my brother Phil’s wedding, which was unfortunate timing, but Phil has a gift for attracting moments of loss immediately before his moments of personal celebration. It happens to him a lot. Case in point: his birthday is September 12th.

The wonderful thing about Aunt Ruby, though, was that she loved things like life and family and merriment and hardy, American resilience, so a period of solemn, humorless mourning would have irritated her. She came up to Minnesota—bad health be darned!—specifically to party with family. And honestly, the need to honor her inspired me to infuse as much energy and revelry into Week Two as I could manage. I’m going to take a wild guess and say I probably wasn’t the only one who felt that way.

Cousins and aunts and uncles and nieces and nephews and grand-somethings of all kinds greeted each other with wide smiles when the Third Generation arrived for that second week. I resolved to be less mousey this year with my cool cousin, Jenny, my intimidating med student cousin-in-law, Courtney, and my cousin, C.J., with whom I was shyly discovering a new friendship.

I met C.J. and Courtney’s baby for the first time and had my most graceless baby encounter ever, only because they put him on my lap with his back to me, and when he turned to see who he was on top of, I found a shockingly familiar face staring up at me.

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Courtney, baby, and C.J., apparently playing a game of “Close your eyes and guess what I just handed you.”

“Oh my gosh. It’s Uncle Chuck! This is so weird. I don’t . . . I don’t know how to handle this.”

“I really think he looks more like C.J. when he was a baby.”

“I don’t know anything about that. I’m saying he looks like Uncle Chuck now.”

Uncle Chuck is the uncle everyone is required to have—the uncle who loves M&M’s and had his picture taken with Vanna White and forwards you emails containing cartoons of old people wearing Speedos or jokes about how women take forever at the ATM. He is hilarious and giant-hearted and probably one of the wisest and most empathetic grade school principals in the history of elementary education. He also has a kind face that is admittedly really cute on a baby. But it’s still very alarming to suddenly have your uncle sitting in your lap, crying at you with his sweet, snotty face because you’re accidentally looking at him like he’s a monster.

“Nobody warned me!” I said as my Aunt Diane took him back. “I think he’s adorable and awesome and everything, it’s just . . . nobody told me! I wasn’t ready! I wasn’t ready.”

Once I got over the shock of it, the baby forgave me, and we have since become friends, enjoying books together and—once he was a little older—deep discussions that centered around him telling me, reminding me, and then clarifying one more time which people in the room were his daddy, mommy, and Bapa.

Because of the wedding, even my lake-averse Aunt Deb came up with Uncle Wayne and their daughter, Emily. My new sister-in-law Kelli came up a little while after Adam did, and I got to have my first heart-to-heart with her one night when she waved me out onto the deck, where she sat smoking at the patio table. We talked for a couple hours, and she filled me in on her family background, her views on raising a daughter, and her complete and total terror over her baby spending two weeks in the wilderness.

“This is new to me,” she said. “This is not what camping is in my family.”

“We don’t really think of it as camping, either,” I said. “I mean, it’s not like we’re in tents.“

“When I was a kid, camping meant we were getting a hotel in Florida.”

“Oh. Oh, so this is really rustic for you.”

“And I don’t see how everyone’s so calm about Adam carrying the baby out on the dock. I’m just sayin’, what if he drops her in the water? And he says your mom brought him out on the dock when he was that little. I’m like, ‘I really doubt that. People don’t bring their four-month-old babies out on docks. Who does that?’”

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Kelli and her baby, warming up to Wurdeman culture.

I felt a sudden thrill over the fact that this was all new to her . . . that I was getting to see my family and my family’s culture through someone else’s eyes. I realized that my generation was now in the Introductions Phase of life . . . bringing in spouses and children, fusing them with our family and traditions. I loved Kelli for being here. It’s not easy to spend a vacation you don’t really get with a swarm of in-laws, no matter how friendly they are, when everything around you is, in your eyes, waiting for an opportunity to devour your young. But my sister-in-law rolled with it like a champ . . . a lovable, sarcastic, kind of paranoid champ.

For my soon-to-be sister-in-law Stacey, however, The Jolly Fisherman Resort was totally her thing. And that’s good, because she already had plenty of introductions and adjustments to think about, as this was the week she joined the tradition, joined the family, and met the in-laws, all while worrying if the clearing we had was big enough for the canopy she’d ordered and if the caterers could even find the place.

Phil met Stacey—I shit you not—like a week after he said to me, “You know what? There’s no reason I can’t meet someone cool. This city is full of women. I’m going to do it. I’m going to find someone awesome.” Soon after that, he had a date with a surgical dental assistant—a smart, funny, self-possessed single mom who lived in the Valley and had insane dimples. He arranged a first date, and I was given the sisterly chore of texting him an hour into it.

“I told her I have to leave after an hour to pick you up at the airport. So text me. If I like her, I’ll tell her your text was saying you found a different ride, so never mind. If I don’t like her, I’ll say you just landed and I have to go.”

When he told Impossible Dimples his sister had found a ride, she good-naturedly called him on his bullshit, then stuck around anyway, because she understood the need for an exit-strategy, however obvious.

They spent another couple hours together, and when he walked her to her car, she gave him a bunch of toothpaste samples and toothbrushes she had in the back seat.

“Because she’s a dental assistant,” Phil reminded me when he told me about it later.

“So she ended the date by handing you dental hygiene products.”

“Yeah. That’s what happened.”

“I don’t really know why, but that makes me love her a little bit.”

When he came home from their second date, he was antsy. Happy antsy.

“I shouldn’t be thinking the things I’m thinking,” he said.

“That you want to marry her, you mean?”

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Stacey

Yes, that he wanted to marry her . . . a fact he didn’t have to keep between us for very long, because the feeling was mutual. They shared a love of fishing and a similar balance between a laid-back lifestyle and a sense of personal responsibility. They both enjoyed a good, spontaneous adventure, and, perhaps most importantly, they both hated magical creatures like trolls and wizards and kind of wished everyone else hated them, too.

I was excited that Stacey and her teenager, Drew, were in Phil’s life. I loved them both, and I was honored that Stacey asked me to be a bridesmaid in their wedding. So, naturally, I felt lame about spending the night before embracing the toilet.

Phil and I both have a gluten intolerance.* It took us years to figure that out. Years of constant exhaustion and dizziness, perpetual hunger that starts to feel like a burning void, headaches, stinging muscles, etc, etc, etc. Doctors treated us for acid reflux, parasites, stress—because your body’s inability to use the food you give it is probably the effect of stress, not the cause.

The thing I hated the most was the out-of-nowhere vomiting. Seriously. Out of nowhere. I’d just be living my life, and suddenly, I’d feel a deep hunger, which eventually morphed into intense stomach pain, which led to lying on the bathroom floor, drenched in sweat. The first time it happened, I considered the possibility I might be dying. Not seriously enough to call for help, just enough to say to myself, “I think this might be how dying feels.” Once I figured out the routine—that the pain was just something to endure until the purge, and then I’d be more normal than I’d been for weeks—the situation wasn’t so terrifying.

But it always sucked, because I had no idea when it was going to hit me. Just once every few months: BAM! And then everyone around you is going, “Oh, it’s that flu that’s going around,” and you’re like, “No, there’s something wrong me.”

“I know. It’s that flu. Everyone has it.”

“I know what the flu feels like.”

“Yeah, nausea and vomiting. What you’re doing right now.”

And then you feel like a jackass if you press the issue, because it’s like you’re trying to say, “I’m special. My suffering is special. Let’s all take a minute to worry about me.” But you still know what you’re going through is somehow different, and you’d really love to fix it, but now you just feel like a crazy person claiming that heavy sweating and puke sessions do not a flu infection make.

That’s where I was the night before Phil and Stacey’s wedding . . . also known as Day Ten in a vacation binge of coffee cake at the lodge and Aunt Liz’s baked goods and morning bagels with my mom.

We had plans for a major cousin game night that night, which turned out to be understandably impossible, because the bride and groom wisely decided a night of drinking might make their wedding day less enjoyable than it could be. Or, as Jenny put it when Stacey ducked out of a game of beer pong, “Yeah, you don’t want to be hauling ass down the aisle tomorrow.”

I was all in for moderate partying, but after three sips of beer, I felt the familiar hollowness in my gut. I tried to focus on Cranium, cure the situation by keeping my mind off it, but thirty minutes later, I was in the fetal position on the bottom step of the staircase, foiled in my effort to get up to my room by the crippling pain in my gut.

Phil passed by me on his way to bed.

“Aww,” he said. “Did you drink too much?”

“No! I wouldn’t drink myself sick the night before your wedding!”**

“I’m not mad. You can do it. I just can’t do it.”

“I can’t do it; I’m in the wedding.”

“No one cares. It’s fine.”

“But it isn’t what happened. I’m just doing that thing. This is our weird, feeling-like-shit-all-the-time thing.”

“I’m not mad.”

“I’M NOT DRUNK!”

Then I ran to the bathroom and puked while Med Student Courtney settled in beside me to tell me why she though it was either an undercooked burger from that evening’s barbecue or French onion dip that was left out too long.

Courtney is now a doctor, and I know she’s good at it . . . not because I’ve ever witnessed her treating anyone, but because a) she never half-asses anything and b) I’m not even kidding—she comforted me by describing in complete detail how bacteria thrives in ground beef and unrefrigerated sour cream. I’m not sure why it was comforting. I think it was partly because the more I learned about the nastiness of undercooked burgers, the more at peace I was with the process of removing it from my system. I also think it was because watching people vomit was part of her job, so I didn’t feel like I had to apologize for anything. I smelled awful and leaned on the toilet seat without shame, and she just sat there, talking about the body rejecting disease and watching with casual kindness as I illustrated the point she was making.

After a long and exhausting night, I did my best to perk myself up for the wedding day. Since my stomach had been through murder the night before, I decided to feed it something plain and mild. Like a bagel. So, you know, poison. When the time came to get dressed, I recalled with some degree of horror that I had brought my Homecoming bra.

As we’ve previously discussed, I am not a woman with a Swiss army knife wardrobe. I do not own a bra for every occasion. I own bras with straps, bras without straps, and one low-back, corset-style bra that I bought at the age of fifteen—you heard me—specifically for my freshman Homecoming dress. When I discovered, at twenty-six, that all my strapless bras rode too high for my bridesmaid dress, did I run out to Macy’s and get a new low-back bra or one of those weird sets of floating boobs? No. I sure didn’t. Because those things are like fifty bucks. Instead, I sucked it in, forced my Homecoming bra closed on the farthest clasp, and said to myself, “So I’ll feel a little cramped for one day. Victorians used to do it all the time. I can handle this.”

Now I stood in front of my mother, holding fifteen-year-old Abi’s bra against my chest and feeling my insides grind that bagel like I was digesting rocks in there.

“So this still fits you, huh?” my mom asked.

“You have to pull tightly,” I said. She did. I wanted to die.

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“I don’t have to ralph. I don’t have to ralph. I don’t have to ralph . . .”

An hour later, I was sweating inside a lumberjack’s chapel in the woods, waiting for the bride and her family to show up and pre-apologizing to my brother for the very real possibility that I might run outside to ralph while they lit the unity candle.

“I’m going to try really hard not to,” I said.

It was totally cool with him. Phil was about to marry the most amazing woman he’d ever known, so really, I could have charged through the wedding on the back of a vomiting elephant; he wouldn’t have cared.

“So what happened?” he asked. “You just drank too much?”

“Oh my go—NO! It’s that thing. Whatever’s wrong with us . . . that thing that make me throw up sometimes.”

“It would have been fine if you were hungover.”

“I’m not, though. This day is really important to me. I wanted to be totally normal for it.”

I really, really did. I didn’t get into it then, because it wasn’t going to help anything, but I was really disappointed to show up to my brother’s wedding like a sickly lump. I knew how much he loved Stacey, how much he loved her son, how huge this day was for him. It was huge for me, too, because I was crazy about all of them, and because Phil and Stacey’s relationship was and remains one of those relationships you look at when you start to wonder if love is even real and if people actually are “marrying their best friends” and if it’s possible to find someone who totally gets you and loves you the way you come. I wanted to honor this union with a graceful and reverent presence, not with my red, sweaty face, as doubled over with stomach cramps as my rigid bra would allow me to be.

Luckily, there’s a wonderful moment in weddings where everything else is forgotten . . . whether the thing weighing on your mind is the traffic it took to get here, the sudden fear that you forgot to sign the card, or the worry that you might involuntarily purge on the string quartet to your right.

It’s the moment the bride steps in the room. It’s a moment that has been cheesed up and overplayed by romantic comedies and television sitcoms and Men’s Warehouse commercials, but it’s a moment that can never be destroyed by cheap reproductions, because when it’s real, it’s real. It’s the moment you get to see two people look at each other, move towards one another, in full commitment to face everything from here on out as a team.

And that day, it was the moment I looked at my brother and saw one happy bastard.

He proposed to her at like eight in the morning, by the way. He’d been trying for days to devise some clever, polished proposal, maybe on Valentine’s Day, but once he had the ring in his possession, that dude could not wait. He nudged her awake at eight in the morning. She said yes, and they celebrated by going out to buy an engagement cactus, which they decided was a thing because they wanted it to be.

40069_509805155271_5348614_nThis was what he had to look forward to. Spending an entire life with the woman he’d wanted to marry since the second date, the woman he couldn’t wait to commit to, the woman who embraces the part of him that says things like, “I think this calls for a cactus” and “You know what we should get? A silkie chicken.”***

Yes, I wanted to throw up before the wedding. And a little bit, I wanted to throw up after, too. But sometimes life offers us so much beauty that we momentarily forget about the grinding nausea. We forget about the giant lake the baby might drown in or the bears that could eat her. We forget about the insulting way a person’s cousin irrationally freaked out over a child’s genuinely adorable face.

And while you can’t quite forget that only a week before, this exact same pastor was praying the exact same prayer with your family as you let go of a beloved aunt, you don’t feel the same ache anymore. Instead, you hear those monotone words and feel the joy she would have felt in this cozy Lutheran chapel in the woods, watching a new chapter begin and an entire family swell with more love.

Life is huge. I mean, I know that’s like the most obvious, borderline-meaningless sentence I’ve ever forced upon you, but Guys, it is. And never have I felt the truth of that more heavily than I did that summer. Over the course of two weeks, I learned my family history, lost an aunt, held babies, connected with sisters I’d waited my whole life to get, and rescheduled a flight so I could attend a crowded funeral in Kansas City. I cleaned fish with my dad, had tea with my mom, and discussed books with my cousin on a rainy day. I threw up. I sprained my index finger. I demonstrated a dance I invented called the “E-Walk” so I could get a point in Scattergories. I grieved and laughed and felt insecure and proud and affectionate.

It was easy to still celebrate through the loss of Aunt Ruby, because I watched that woman crack jokes with the medics as they checked her blood pressure. She was a woman who knew that hardships never stand alone; they’re an uncomfortable part of a well-rounded life. No moment is perfectly beautiful, and no moment is devoid of love.

The entire ride of life is one vomity, joyful mess. And you know what? I’m just going to say it. It’s epic. That shit is epic.

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When the bride and groom aren’t actually going anywhere, there’s no reason to run through bubbles. So everyone just kind of stands around blowing bubbles because they make cute pictures. Also, the added bonus of a destination wedding is that both sides get to spend a lot of time together. From left to right: Stacey, her sweet and hilarious son Drew, her brother Adam, her dad, the photographer, and Megan.

*According to an endocrinologist, it’s almost certainly Celiac Disease. Neither one of us will get officially tested, because you have to eat gluten for three months, and we don’t want to go back there. That was a nightmare. 

**Or ever. I don’t get the point of drinking to the point of vomiting. Once mild queasiness sets in, I’m all over the ginger ale and gluten-free bread. Nora teased me for bringing a loaf to our last birthday party. I, for one, thought it showed foresight. 

***They got one and his name was Bernie and he was so sweet. He cuddled like a puppy. But with eye-pecking, so you had to be careful.

That Time My Family Turned Out To Be Epic (Part One)

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Jolly Fisherman 2010

I don’t usually like to say things are epic. Not anymore, since it doesn’t really mean anything these days. I love hyperbole, but there has to be regulations. A cat falling off the back of a piano can be epic. Sure. That’s funny. Nice hyperbole. But if a cat falling off the back of a piano is epic, and a beer gut in Wal-Mart is epic, and mom jeans, the Dos Equis guy, and the poetry of Homer are all epic, then we’ve gone beyond charming exaggeration and now we’re just saying this one word a lot. To the point that it sounds like we have no idea what it means. It’s totally random.

So, I won’t tell you that our family’s 2010 trip to The Jolly Fisherman Resort was epic, because you’ll just assume I mean it rained a lot and then at some point someone farted and we all laughed because it sounded kind of like a dying cat. This is what epic means now.

Instead, I’ll just tell you that our 2010 trip to Big Elbow Lake was huge. Unforgettable. A two-week journey through the full experience of human life—a tapestry of emotion, a study in family unity. There was laughter, there were tears, and there was an outrageous amount of vomiting, due to illness, the presence of infants, and this girl glutening the living daylights out of herself.

Even without the twists and turns and surprises, Elbow Lake 2010 was already set up to be a big deal. It marked a huge expansion for our family. I would be meeting two new relatives for the first time: my brother Adam’s four-month-old daughter and my cousin C.J.’s seven-month-old son. It would also be my first chance to spend a good chunk of time with Adam’s fairly new wife, Kelli, and I’d gain a new sister-in-law and step-nephew during the trip, because Phil’s lake-loving, laid-back bride had agreed to get married at Elbow Lake. In a lumberjacks’ chapel in the woods. Sight unseen. Because she’s amazing.

A lot went down that year—both the planned and the unplanned. So this one will have to be a two-parter, counted as two separate stories.

I present to you now:

WEEK ONE

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Aunt Naomi and Aunt Ruby, taking care of America. Also featuring my mother’s manicure.

“I brought Tom Sawyer with me,” I told Aunt Naomi as she settled back into the car at the first rest stop. “You know, Mark Twain. I got it at the library on CD. I thought we could listen to it if you ladies were interested—“

I glanced in the back seat to see Aunt Ruby already closing her eyes, oblivious that I was speaking. I looked back at Naomi, who was looking at the disc in my hand, powerful disinterest evident on her face.

“—or not so much?”

“Not so much.”

I put the CD away, now officially at a loss. I was driving my two great aunts up to Jolly Fisherman from Kansas City, Missouri, and—crazy as I was about them—I had never been alone with them for that long. It had been my experience that they loved discussing baseball, the stock market, Kansas City area casinos, and the weather. I had something to contribute on exactly one of those topics. After “So summer sure is a hot season, huh?” I had nothing.

My dad had asked me to drive my great aunts up to the Lake when he learned I’d be coming early—staying for the full two weeks, which was unusual for my generation. Because of work, school, or budget constraints, my cousins, brothers, and I usually came in for the second week only. But this year I splurged. And splurging like a Second Generation Wurdeman meant looking out for the First Generation like one. So I flew up to Kansas City instead of Fargo and played chauffer for my late grandpa’s little sisters while my dad drove his mom and her sister up in his car.

Aunt Ruby and Aunt Naomi were the lone survivors of the eight Wurdeman siblings. They had lived together their entire lives, except perhaps for the short time Ruby was married to Vic, a sweet, handsome young man who was killed in World War II soon after they wed. Ruby never married again, and Naomi never married at all.

There was almost no life experience The Girls hadn’t tackled as a team. Together, they’d survived the Great Depression on a struggling farm. They’d buried parents and siblings, played side by side on bowling leagues and baseball teams, shared nylons, and worked together as riveters during the war. By their Golden Years, they had each become a necessary and natural part of the other.

They had also become incapable of telling a story without arguing between themselves about how things really went down. We once visited them shortly after their sister Dee-Dee’s stroke, asked them how Dee was doing, and got back:

“Well, we went to visit her today. She was having lunch when got there–“

“Breakfast.”

“What’s that?”

“She was having breakfast. I don’t believe they’d serve her lunch at 10:30.”

“I don’t believe they’d give her breakfast at that time, either.”

“She had eggs.”

“What’s that?”

“Eggs, I said.”

“That wasn’t eggs.”

“What was it?”

“Well, I don’t know, but I don’t believe they’d serve Jell-O with eggs.”

“Oh, I don’t believe she had Jell-O.”

“Mashed potatoes, I think it was. Not eggs.”

“No, it wasn’t mashed potatoes.”

And there’s us, standing there like, “No, by all means. Get to the bottom of this. Dee-Dee’s prognosis can wait.”

I was actually hoping such banter would keep us occupied for a good portion of the drive, but Ruby slept the entire way. She was pretty ill, having only recently recovered from some major health issues. My dad asked her about twelve times before leaving Kansas City if she was sure she wanted to go.

“Oh, yes,” she said, in that always-chipper Aunt Ruby way. “Don’t you worry about me. I’ve got this oxygen tank and I’ll just sleep the whole way.”

So it was just me and Naomi, alone in consciousness. She took charge of the station, flipping back and forth between Sean Hannity and baseball, while I prayed for the radio antenna to miraculously snap off the back of her car. When we mercifully drove beyond the coverage area for those options, she turned off the radio and we sat in silence. Until an idea struck me. And I felt like a total idiot for never having thought of it before.

“My mom says you and Ruby were riveters,” I said. “Can you tell me about that?”

She seemed confused by that question at first . . . and by my first few questions about The Great Depression, about what Grandpa was like as a boy, about rationing during the War. Naomi was not the storyteller; that was more Ruby’s domain. Naomi was the quieter one, chiming in to correct Ruby or add a forgotten detail. Ruby was in charge of humor; Naomi was there to take things seriously. Ruby provided the sparkle; Naomi provided the hard-edged practicality.

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The back of this photo claims it’s Aunt Ruby and my dad. I’m going to just take its word for it.

Her stories were short and factual at first, but gradually she got into it, until she was describing her parents’ personalities with uncharacteristic detail. She told me about losing all their cattle to a sugar cane binge, about their first car, about her Great Depression Christmases. She laughed as she told me about the year Santa confused her by giving her a pack of playing cards she already owned.

I asked her what Ruby’s husband Vic was like. He was sweet, she said. Very kind and always happy. Ruby loved him so much. They all did.

“He was home on furlough,” she said, “and they were all going to go bowling. I said I believed I’d stay home because I was tired, but he said, ‘You’d better come, Naomi. This might be the last time you get to bowl with me.’ I believe he knew. I suppose he’d have to know. They put him in the infantry, out in front.”

“Did you go?” I asked.

“I did, yes. And I was glad for it.”

We pulled into a gas station two hours from the Lake, and Naomi woke Ruby to ask if she wanted anything. They walked into the station arm-in-arm, and came out again the same way, Naomi opening the door for her ninety-one-year-old sister, fastening Ruby’s seatbelt, and settling in herself. We were just pulling out of the gas station when Ruby said, “They have ice cream here?”

“You want ice cream?” Naomi asked. “They have it. They sell it at the counter in cones.”

“I believe I’d like an ice cream cone,” Ruby said, her voice weak.

“Vanilla?”

“I believe I’d like vanilla.”

When I look back on this moment, I see that I was a less-than-dutiful grand-niece. Obviously, obviously, I should have volunteered my youthful energy. But I was momentarily transfixed by this reversal of roles. I’d watched this sisterhood all my life, always seeing Ruby as the caretaker and provider. She was the older sister, the storyteller, the social butterfly, the letter-writer on birthdays and holidays, Naomi taking up the pen only to scratch her name at the bottom, as if to say, “I’m Naomi Wurdeman, and I approve this message.”

It was something new, knowing Naomi this way—seeing her care for Ruby and give voice to the family history. And what was more, the more stories she told, the more I felt I could connect with her . . . the youngest child, the single sister, the natural introvert.

I was less than forty-eight hours into vacation, and already I felt profoundly linked to Wurdeman Past. And once my brother Adam arrived* after a grueling drive with an infant (including a poop explosion story that his teenager, Megan, told and retold with remarkable, disgusted vigor), I indulged in a little Wurdeman Future—interrogating Megan about her college dreams and holding my brand new niece for the first time ever.

The first day of that trip was exactly what I was hoping for. I fished with my dad, I snuggled with the baby, I sat on the dock and discussed boys with Megan. We played dominos on the porch and set up the annual puzzle in the living room, picking at it as we passed through to grab M&Ms out of the bag on the end table and listen to the menfolk snore in their chairs between fishing excursions.

The one rather significant letdown, however, was how little we saw of the woman who’d been so fiercely determined to make it up to the Lake one more time.

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Aunt Ruby (left) meets her great-Godbaby (whatever, it’s a thing) for the first time.

Aunt Ruby managed to join us for breakfast the first morning, getting her first look at her Godson’s baby girl and doing her best to contribute some of her sparkling humor before going back to bed. By the middle of the second day, her discomfort was audible. A handful of us sat together in the living room outside Ruby and Naomi’s room, making small talk about our plans to go into town while Naomi murmured to her sister in comforting tones behind the closed bedroom door.

I think that was when we knew. Just like Uncle Vic, when he talked Naomi into going bowling. We’d spend the next several hours assuring one another that we were being overly cautious, but I think that was mostly talk. I think that moment in the living room, the moment before my dad decided to call for an ambulance “just to be safe,” that was when we knew.

There were moments of doubt, like when the Waubun medics arrived in a stubby, makeshift ambulance that looked like it belonged in a Yogi Bear cartoon and Ruby emerged from her bedroom, clear-headed and steady. Her heart rate and blood-pressure were respectable, and they took her to the hospital “just in case.” Just for an overnight stay and to replenish her fluids. Dad and Naomi followed, called to let us know she was doing great, then called again to let us know she’d had a minor heart attack and was being moved to Fargo.

“She’s awake and talking,” Dad reported. “She says she’s feeling okay. She just has to rest now, so we’ll come back, get a little sleep, and then I’ll take Naomi back to see her first thing in the morning.”

I sat in the screened-in porch after everyone in the cabin had gone to bed, ignoring the opened journal in front of me, feeling like I should be writing because I had things to say, but realizing I had no words. My phone buzzed—a text from my friend Ryan . . . about what, I don’t remember. I responded, told him about Aunt Ruby, and thanked him for the good hopes he offered. I stared at the phone. Picked it up. Called him.

“What’s up?”

“Can I just . . . “ I walked out to the front steps and sat down. “I mean, everything’s fine. She’s going to be fine. I just want to talk about her. I don’t know why.” Yes, I did.

“Okay,” he said. “What do you want me to know?”

A loon’s wail echoed across the lake. I leaned on the railing beside me and looked up at the freckled sky—all the stars I could never see in L.A. peppering the blackness overhead.

“When we were kids, we called her Lily. I have no idea why. There’s a story to that; I just don’t know what it is. She loves to gamble. Responsibly, I mean. She’s really good with investments . . . she’s shrewd and intelligent and she and Adam are really close because they’re so much alike. They both really love baseball and business and that kind of stuff. She loves kids. She’s so good with kids. Probably because she smiles like ninety-five percent of the time. Her husband died in the war, and she never married after that. She never loved anyone like that again.”

I wasn’t entirely sure why this was necessary, but whatever. I needed it. I think I must have felt something slipping away, and I wanted to be sure I knew what it was—knew and understood exactly who Ruby was—before she was gone.

I heard the front door close and said goodnight and thank you to Ryan so I could check on my dad. It was two a.m. and he was exhausted, having woken up at five that morning to fish. I had to assume that the responsibility of the whole thing took a toll on him, too. He was an oldest child and had a take-charge personality anyhow, so in situations like this, the lion’s share of the decisions fell to him. Calling the ambulance had been his decision, taking care of Naomi was his job, and the hospital had his number, so if the call came in . . .

And it did, three hours later, at five a.m. Because we waited until everyone was there to rent a second cabin, I spent the first week sharing a room with my parents—a top floor bedroom equipped with three twin beds, like some kind of inter-generational summer camp.

So when the call came in, I heard it. My dad’s ringtone was “Xylophone.” I know this because when I got the same phone a year later and tested all the ringtone options, “Xylophone” made everything inside me cold and still.

“Xylophone” is not the sound of your best friend calling to get together. It is not the sound of your manager reaching out to say he got you an important meeting. “Xylophone” is the sound that cuts through your sleep in the dark morning hours, the sound that precedes your father’s groggy voice saying, “Hello? Oh, she did? Okay, we’re coming from Waubun. We’ll be there in two hours.”

I sat up. My mom said, “Bruce?”

“She’s had three more heart attacks.” In the dark, I could still make out the shadows of his hands rubbing his face—a waking up gesture I’ve caught myself adopting. “They’re coming about once every hour now.”

“Would it help if I came along?” I asked. “I can take over if you get too tired to drive.”

“I’d love for you to come along,” he said, “but you haven’t really gotten any more sleep than I have.”

“I slept more than you the night before, though. And at least I can be there as an option. Just in case.” It was less a gesture of kindness and more a need to be a part of this. This was my dying aunt and my exhausted father. This family was the single most important thing I’d ever been a part of, and I wanted to own it . . . to give what I had and play my role.

It occurred to me from the road—where I ended up supporting Dad from the far back seat of an SUV containing not only him and Aunt Naomi, but his sister and brother-in-law as well—that this might not be my role to play.

Adam was still asleep. We’d decided against waking him because he had the baby to worry about, and he’d likely already been up half the night with her anyway. I should have woken him up. I should have gotten instructions about feeding times and nap times and sent him off to Fargo. I loved Aunt Ruby and Aunt Ruby loved me, but not all relationships are created equal. Adam and Ruby had an understanding. They were the same, and his admiration and love for her was something enormous and unique.

I think a similar realization was forming in my dad’s mind, because just as I was sinking into a gentle regret, I heard, “Abigail? Do you think we ought to call Adam now?”

Ten minutes later, Adam was on his way. And my dad was getting another call. Another heart attack. Please hurry; there were forms to sign.

When we arrived, a nurse gathered our clan of five into a room where a gentle-voiced doctor explained the situation.

She was on a breathing tube. The heart attacks kept coming. If she ever regained consciousness—which was highly unlikely—there would probably be severe brain damage from the constant resuscitations.

“I’d encourage you to sign the DNR forms,” he told Naomi in a tone that was somehow both gentle and frank.

Naomi looked to my dad.

“Do Not Resuscitate,” he said. “So if she has another heart attack, which she probably will, they’ll just let it happen. They won’t interfere.”

Naomi signed the forms in what looked like a quiet daze, and we waited outside ICU for the next heart attack, due any minute. I flipped through a magazine about lakeside real estate and my dad called his youngest sister with an update.

The doctor called us in again to tell us the expected heart attack had not occurred. Now we had to decide if we were ready to take her off the breathing tube. We were. Once Adam got there.

I watched through the glass wall of the third floor waiting area as my brother sped into the parking lot and stopped in the first available spot, Megan emerging from the passenger’s side as he released the car seat from the back in a manner both quick and gentle, as only a seasoned father can. I watched the trio book it to the main entrance, Megan matching her father’s same solemn expression, his same skill for moving quickly and looking unaffected at the same time. I realized that the baby was there out of necessity, but my teenaged niece was there in solidarity . . . because after years of skinned knees and tuition payments and broken hearts and battling those painful adolescent fears of not being smart or pretty or lovable, when there’s at least the slightest possibility that the man who’s been looking out for you all your life could use a little back up, you’re there. You’re dying to be there.

Around the time Adam arrived, a local Lutheran pastor showed up, too, introducing himself to me as “I’ll be doing your brother’s wedding next week.” We all went in to gather around Ruby’s bed, Megan standing dutifully at Adam’s side, Adam feeding the baby a bottle as the pastor offered a few words of spiritual comfort and led us in prayer.

He asked us to hold hands—a suggestion that seemed to momentarily confuse the whole clan since holding our own hands had always been plenty intimate enough for the Wurdeman family . . . and for all Midwestern Lutherans I’d ever known, frankly.  But we did, and it was special, even if we all felt a little like Care Bears. We formed a ring around Ruby’s bed, the pastor at her left, Naomi on her right. Eight monotone, dry, Lutheran voices joined together in speaking the words that had marked every baptism, confirmation, wedding, and funeral in the history of our family:

Our Father, Who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy Name . . .

I’ve said before that faith has been a messy mystery to me in adulthood. But I was grateful to have that prayer, that touchstone, something we shared and could collectively offer Ruby when we had nothing else to give her . . . something we knew mattered to her.

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I love this picture, because it looks like she’s holding my hand. She’s actually trying to push my hand away, though, because she hasn’t learned about the Theory of Gravity yet, so she doesn’t understand that if I’m not holding the bottle, it’ll flop out of her face and she’ll be pissed.

We were a family who—like all families—lived to take care of one another. In fact, every trip to Minnesota was evidence of the fact. No one cooked alone or washed dishes alone. It was even rare for anyone to clean a fish alone. No one was needy or dependent, but everyone knew how to accept support.

Three separate times that day, my dad said something to me that ranks among the most valuable words in our relationship—from my perspective, anyway.

“Thank you for coming along today, Abi. I’m really glad you’re here.”

It was a lesson I would continue to learn and refine over the years:

Taking care of someone accounts for only half the work of love. You actually give something that’s just as powerful when you allow someone else to take care of you.

It seemed especially appropriate that I would learn this lesson while uncommonly linked hand-in-hand with my family, encircling the woman who’d taken care of all of us for years. It was a brilliant final act of love on her part . . . the choice she’d made to make the trip, to be with us, here, to let us at least make our best effort at evening out the balance of love.

We stepped out while the nurses removed the breathing tube, and we came back to total stillness.

“It was immediate,” the remaining nurse said gently, in her light Fargo accent. “She was already gone.”

We said our goodbyes German-style: with few words and restrained tears. Naomi laid her hand on her sister’s and offered her a sweetly casual see-you-later. “Say hello to Vic for me,” she said.

We got lunch at Applebee’s, then headed back to The Jolly Fisherman to brief the others on the details, make plans for the funeral that would be held in Kansas City eleven days later, and finally go to sleep.

When I woke the next morning, the air was still heavy and my heart was still broken, but I also felt an unexpected joy. I thought about the stories Naomi had told me on the way up, and my gosh, the life my aunt had lived! Ninety-one years of successes and challenges and hilarity. And love! So much love she had!

I sat at the table on the screened-in porch, watching as my aunt and uncle delivered bacon and eggs from the kitchen.

“Have you had any yet, Mj?”

“Did you get enough sleep last night, Miss Abigail?”

“Adam, if you want to get out on the lake tonight, I’ll be happy to babysit.”

“Ruth, why don’t you take my seat? If you’re having trouble with your knees, I believe that other one will be easier for me to get into.”

“Has everyone had enough bacon? We can always start some more.”

“Oh. Ugh. Well, I’m the one holding her so, I guess . . . this diaper is mine.”

So. Much. Love.

How does a lady get so lucky?

Abi's Minnesota 064

This girl knows what I’m talking about.

*His wife had to work, so she joined us four or five days later.

That Time Online Dating Taught Me To Be Real

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This is my current profile picture,* but I’m thinking of adjusting my online image. Let me know what you think of the other options.

Online dating has been one of the most productive adventures of my twenties. Not because I found love that way—though I can think of at least five married couples who met online—but because it enabled me to date my ass off, and when you date your ass off, you learn things about yourself, you narrow down what you want, and you come away with some pretty good bad date stories.

The old, online dating clichés have not been true for me. I’ve never had anyone show up looking worse than his photo. In fact, I once agreed to meet with a guy who was definitely bald in his profile pictures and showed up wearing a hairpiece.

I’ve also not found the Internet to be overrun with socially dysfunctional basement-dwellers who can’t find love in the real world. A good percentage of online daters are regular people who know finding the right person is hard, so, you know, why not cast a wide net?

And lastly, I’ve never been murdered by a guy I met online.** I’m not saying I never could be, I’m just saying it hasn’t come up yet.

Yes, there is weird . . . like the occasional messages I get from couples (seriously, there’s a box for that, and I did not check it) and messages from gentleman such as BearSauce, who apparently wants to cover me in mayonnaise.*** There are the d-bags, who send such charming messages as, “Do you like getting spoiled?” (No, because I’m not your granddaughter) and sport such classy names as “MercedesBenz” and “Fat401K” and basically any handle that ends with “69.” During my brief experiment with Pentyoffish, I got an email alerting me that “Bud Stoner” was checking me out. Bud Stoner. Classic.

I also get a lot of attention from fellows who fancy themselves particularly deep or well-read, including the guy who saw I was a writer and wrote to me letting me know he stood with me in the fight against the death of the written word. I’m not completely sure where he thought the written word was going, or how he’d never been inside a Barnes & Noble or ridden a subway or considered how all those people on T.V. come up with the lines they say, but whatever. The point was, we were going to start a revolution, and we would “type so loudly they’ll have to listen.” My (unexpressed) question was, “Why would I make anyone listen to me type?”

I could go on, because you do get a lot of Crazy online. But as our good friend Sam has shown us, you get Crazy in real life, too, especially if you live in Los Angeles.

Really, these days, the selection online is pretty close to the selection you find anywhere else. The Internet is no longer the last resort of the desperate. It’s more like the extra option of the eligible. And it’s the option where you get to at least see if you have matching interests and values before you start flirting on the basis of foxiness alone.

It was this last thing that really drew me in. I don’t particularly like dating. I like having dated, for this is how stories are born. But I’m your classic introvert—the one all your other introverted Facebook friends keep posting articles about in what began as a wonderful movement toward mutual understanding and sort of sunk into an unnecessary cry for special treatment. (“How To Approach An Introvert?” What are we, abused kittens in a shadowy alley?) Anyway, I hate small talk. I do enjoy meeting new people, and if we’re talking about life philosophy or our religious backgrounds or Leslie Knope or how our hometowns have shaped our identities, I can happily go on for hours. But if we’re forty-five minutes in and we’re still—as the great Liz Lemon would say—“smiling and nodding and sibling-listing,” you can bet I’m exhausted and wishing I was home with my laptop and some precious, precious shutting up time.

For me, the option to get things started online seemed like kind of a miracle. All the small talk questions were already addressed in his profile, so I could delve right in, test the potential for real, meaningful discourse, and get a steady dialogue going all before the first date.

Photo on 2013-03-11 at 23.20

MyWebCamThinksI’mFunny
29/Female/Straight/Single

And I could edit! It wasn’t that I was looking to misrepresent myself . . . actually, I looked at it as an opportunity to reveal the true version of myself—the version that got buried underneath all the missteps of real-time, face-to-face interaction. You see, I was (am) an over-processor. So many opinions went unexpressed, so many jokes untold, because my brain wanted to edit them a few times first, check them against the context, and reevaluate the listener’s personal background and tastes to make sure I was approaching the situation the right way. Before I knew it, the opportunity to contribute would be gone, and the other person would walk away, probably remembering me best for my outstanding ability to nod.

But now, thanks to the Internet, I could make my first impression a complete impression. An accurate impression.

The first guy I met online was a comic book writer named Tommy. We had several witty, well-structured conversations before we met in person. Tommy’s initial idea was to take me to a hockey game, as he knew I loved the Blues, and they’d be in town playing the Kings. I adamantly refused, on the grounds that hockey games are expensive, I couldn’t afford it myself at the time, and I am wildly uncomfortable with a man spending more than fifteen bucks on me without knowing if he even likes me. It makes me feel like somebody’s princess when I’m trying to be a partner.

He was relentless, insisting that he was dying to go and had no one else to go with. He’d get the cheap seats.**** I still felt weird, but I also felt we were getting into Accidental Rejection territory, so I accepted.

Once I managed to forget the cost of the tickets, I had no regrets. Tommy was great. He was sweet and funny and open. Conversation was easy, even as we took the escalator up three stories, my hand gripping the rail as the rest of me tried to look casual. One of the great shames of my life is my irrational fear of multi-story ascending escalators. I’m not afraid of anything the machine might do. No, I’m afraid that I’ll forget how to remain upright under pressure. Seriously. I am so great at not spontaneously falling over in every day life, but put me on an escalator and suddenly I’m like, “Come on, Wurdeman, don’t over think this. It’s just standing. You’ve done it before and you can do it again.”

Luckily, I managed to get through the date without disclosing any such irrational phobias to Tommy, and we arranged another date, which we spent at an old diner in my neighborhood, swapping details of our very different lives. Tommy looked like a boy from back home with his big, blue eyes and his t-shirt and baseball cap. But he was born in L.A., born into a wealthy family, and as an adult who had both family money and a successful career (which his grandfather initially funded) he never really had a sense of what it meant to worry about money or the discomfort most of us go through at some point to earn it. He’d listen to my stories about my many past jobs with sweet fascination. “I could never work for someone else,” he told me once, as though I’d waited tables in high school because nothing brought me joy like serving flattened, overcooked steaks to sweaty patrons who were all angried up after a day of standing in lines at Six Flags St. Louis.

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NeverFartedInMyLife*
29/Female/Straight/Single

That was a small point of frustration in our budding romance. One day I’d think our drastically different outlook on work and money was a small detail, one day it was a dealbreaker. One day I’d find it completely charming that I was the first person he’d ever washed his truck for, the next day I’d feel weird about the fact that his typical approach was to just buy a new truck when the old one got too dirty.

Ultimately, these differences were not what made me let go, because to Tommy’s credit, he was always eager to understand where I was coming from. It was more a blending of things—a mix of details that told me this match wasn’t right. He pulled into my driveway to pick me up for dinner one night, and when I climbed into his passenger’s seat, I told him I didn’t think this was going to work out.

He told me that sucked. I agreed. We had the necessary conversation about the whys and what-ifs, and then he handed me a small gift, wrapped in tissue paper.

“I got you this for Christmas,” he said. “I still want you to have it.”

I unwrapped the paper and my heart dropped so hard I swear I could hear it “clunk” in my gut. It was a vintage, brass pencil sharpener, shaped like a roll top desk. I was silent for a moment, then:

“I don’t even remember telling—“

“It was in your Myspace profile. You said it was one of your goals to own an antique roll top desk. I figure you’d be pissed if I spent money on the real thing, so.”

I rested my head on the passenger window and ran my fingers over the tiny drawer pulls. I flipped open the roll top and found two brads inside, a tiny “A” written on the top of each one in silver Sharpie.

“Oh yeah,” he said, “I put lucky brads in there for you.”

“Tommy, this is easily one of the most thoughtful gifts anyone has given me.”

I meant that. And it killed me.

If movies have taught us anything, it’s that you’re a blind, superficial d-bag if a man’s kind gesture doesn’t make you fall in love with him. If this was a movie, this would be the moment I realized how sweet and attentive Tommy was, that he wanted more than anything to see my dreams come true, that he was willing to stop spending money on me when it freaked me out. Movie Me would have busted a one-eighty—probably in the rain—and made a teary speech about how very, very wrong she had been.

Photo on 2010-03-13 at 19.29

AbandonedInABasket
29/Female/Straight/Single

The trouble with movies, though, is that they don’t always get into the complex layers of the human heart, so they have to settle for storylines where a man can win over a woman on the basis of being a good person or being a self-sacrificing person or being the only guy who bothered to remember how she likes her eggs. Real life doesn’t look like this, because for one thing, most of us see the good in another person before we let them go. I already knew Tommy was capable of something so thoughtful.

But I wasn’t only looking for goodness, and neither is anyone else on this side of the screen. Al Roker seems really nice, but that doesn’t mean I can see myself confiding in him and subtly conspiring to skip out on boring parties with him and having epic, all-night fights that end with us watching the sunrise from our front porch, where we sit, still angry, but wearily holding hands, united in our belief that we can make this work.*****

Compatibility isn’t something you can recognize just by knowing a series of facts about someone, and it certainly isn’t something you discover—not with any accuracy, anyway—through a series of witty, well-edited OKCupid messages. The more online dating I did, the clearer it became that the Internet is best used as a tool for learning who’s out there. That’s it. You’re not going to know if you might connect with someone until he’s sitting in front of you with his tone and his mannerisms and his flaws.

And that goes both ways. It turns out, the option to edit wasn’t actually helping me. By attempting to block potential failure—potential vulnerability or humiliation—I was depriving myself of the memorable, oddly special experiences that come of being a messy, blatantly imperfect human being. In other words, I was depriving myself of connection.

I don’t remember the witty things I wrote to Tommy, or to anyone else I first wooed online. But I remember forcing smiles on the escalator, hoping he wouldn’t notice I was holding my breath in terror. I remember the way he looked at me as I stood outside his truck, saying our final goodbyes, and I remember feeling heartbroken over something I had chosen, thinking, “Now I know something new about being a person.”

I also remember that time I tried to meet Felix for drinks, heard one story about how he briefly dated another girl, then grabbed my coat while giving a heavy-hearted apology for thinking I was ready to be friends.

That time a crush asked me to find the garlic press and I just took every damn thing out of the drawer because I somehow thought that was better than admitting I didn’t know what a garlic press looked like.

That time I walked away from a crush’s car after unsuccessfully asking him out, feeling an odd mix of disappointment over the rejection and delight over our honest exchange—I showed him who I am when I’m clawing at courage, and he showed me what his “What the hell is happening right now?” face looks like.

The journey of romance is fraught with failure, and not even the Internet can save us from that. The best it can do is delay real connection, offering us the opportunity to pretend we are the movie versions of ourselves—a condensed set of likes and dislikes, of religion and workout habits and feelings about cat ownership. But at some point, you have to set the time, choose the café, and show him who you are . . . the good, the bad, the insecure, and the awkward.

After all, we don’t connect with people when they impress us. We connect with people when we can see ourselves in them.

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FearIsHealthy*
29/Female/Straight/Single

*Hair, make-up, and photography by Nora Novak. The first is a headshot I hired her for. The other two were the fun results of, “Hey, do you mind if I try some stuff on you?”

**Seriously, though, safety is no joke, and I don’t want to act like the normalization of online dating means it’s a completely safe game. Meet in heavily-populated, well-lit places. Make sure someone knows where you’re going and what time you’ll be there and has access to the name and photo of the person you’re going to meet. Don’t get in cars, don’t meet at your house, and gentlemen, don’t joke about rape, even if she starts it. You may think we’re uptight, but we’re uptight because it’s a real thing that has happened to multiple friends, if it hasn’t happened to us. If we get the sense a guy doesn’t take it seriously, we’re probably backing out. Danger is far less sexy than it gets credit for.

***No, I know. I Googled it. Pissed, but not surprised. “I’d love to degrade you” is not the most common opening line, but it’s definitely out there. 

****One section removed from the ice, behind the Blues’ bench. “You said you were getting cheap seats.” “I said cheaper. I wanted to sit in the front section. Right there, actually, where that woman is getting a hockey stick from one of the Blues. Huh. That could’ve been you.”

*****For all these images, you are most welcome.