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  1. Friends by Default: Confessions from the Seventh Grade

    February 19, 2017 by Diane

    team huddle in color

    In seventh grade, I played quarterback in gym class. This was remarkable, as I usually landed on a team by default. When it came down to me and the girl who played tuba in marching band, tuba girl got picked every time. But one day Mrs. Wattenburger, our P.E. teacher who resembled a football, assigned me to play quarterback for one of the teams. And the other girls looked at me like, “Who are you again?”

    Football for girls wasn’t the same as football for boys. We didn’t make actual body contact like boys did, pitching ourselves onto whoever carried the ball, piling up like dirty laundry. What the girls played was flag football, a delicate version of the more masculine butt-slapping, full-body tackling sport. The “flags” were two strips of cloth hanging on both sides of our waists, Velcroed to a belt. To tackle someone meant ripping off a flag, holding it aloft, and doing a happy dance.

    My job as quarterback, in addition to pitching the ball, was to generate plays. Since the only athletic feat I had at the time was balancing on one foot, my ability to dream up plays involving pigskin was somewhat limited. But I soon discovered that I aced the huddle. Stick me in a group, and I’ll seize the leadership role, barking orders.

    In the huddle we draped our arms over each other’s shoulders, something I hadn’t experienced since third grade when Stacey and I paraded like big shots around the playground, forever linked, until my family moved to the mountains and I never saw Stacey again. But in the huddle, we nestled under each other’s sweaty armpits—the cheerleaders, the drama club members, the science geeks, the tuba player, and me—all eyes focused on me, just me, for ten seconds while I spelled out the play.

    “I’ll pretend to throw the ball to you, but instead I’ll run with it myself.”

    And everyone nodded like this was a solid idea.

    We clapped once to signify the end of the huddle, and got into position.

    I hunkered over the ball, counted down, “Hike one, hike two, hike three,” then tucked it under one elbow and plowed head-first into a solid mass of female. When I picked myself up, still hanging onto the ball, I ran in the opposite direction, toward the wrong goal, then doubled back, everyone shouting and trying to catch up until the tuba player, who hadn’t moved since she took her position as tight end, ripped off my flag as I ran past and did the happy dance. My own teammate!

    At least that’s the way I remember it. The reality is probably somewhat different.

    But I do remember the huddle.

    And calling the play.

    And flubbing it.

    The next day, the girls promptly forgot who I was, and I went back to slinking from class to class, berating myself for having failed to reach yet another dream. Not that I dreamed of being quarterback. But still. Anytime a dream seemed within reach—like when that curly-haired guy at the school dance settled his gaze upon me and it was love at first sight until his gaze skittered elsewhere, yeah, that close—when I failed to reach the dream, I kicked myself in my bell-bottom pants the whole way home. I muttered stuff like, “You stupid-head. Nobody wants to dance with you. Nobody wants to go out with you. Nobody wants you on their stupid, stupid team.” With a lot of sneering. Because failing wasn’t bad enough.

    I did console myself with the fact that at least I wasn’t google-eyed over Tom Jones, like Jill Slater. She owned all his records, and watched his weekly variety show where he sang “It’s not unusual to be loved by anyone,” as he snapped his fingers and swung his hips, head slung back, white ruffled shirt split open. Because she hung out with me, I overlooked that minor flaw. Because I hung out with her, she probably overlooked my striped bell-bottoms, and the chain I wore around my wrist for three days thinking it was cool, until it turned my skin green.

    Sometimes we don’t pick our team. Sometimes we’re the last two standing on the sidelines and we look at each other and say, “Wanna play?” I knew my friendship with Jill wouldn’t last long. The only thing we had in common was being misfits. And at some point we’d drift apart, when one of us met a girl who really was our tribe.

    Secretly, I hoped I’d be the one to meet her.

  2. One Good Reason to Stay Alive

    February 12, 2017 by Diane

    Praying Woman

    On Twitter, I saw this plea:

    Could someone please suggest reasons it’s a good idea I should keep being alive?

    Reasons to keep being alive. In 140 characters.

    This was a challenge I couldn’t pass up.

    Chocolate. If you’re thinking of checking out, you won’t be taking your taste buds. So stick around for chocolate.

    Okay, I didn’t tweet that. There was nothing humorous about the tweeter’s question, although sometimes humor can be the lifeline we need when drowning in despair.

    I knew of a comedian who worked the suicide prevention hotline, and when asked “Give me one  good reason I should stay alive,” he told the caller, “Give me a break. You called me.”


    Isn’t it interesting, the plea is always the same? Give me a reason to stay alive. Because being alive, in and of itself, isn’t reason enough. Being alive, for the person pleading, has become too horrible to endure.

    What we really want, when we’re that desperate, is a reason to endure the pain.

    I heard Bruce Lipton, the author of The Biology of Belief, say: we live in order to experience life through our senses, for God. (Or something along those lines. I jotted the phrase in the back of the book, but the book is stashed away, along with about a hundred others, in storage.)

    If indeed it’s our duty to experience what God can’t, that seems like a pretty swell reason to stay alive.

    Provided you believe in God.

    And provided you accept that experiencing life sometimes involves the sense of pain.

    I read recently: to strengthen and build muscles, we need to tax them, break them down a bit, give them time to recuperate, then tax them again. That’s how they grow.

    It’s the same with people. We’re given circumstances that tax us and break us down. If we take time to recuperate, then we build our strength and grow with each new challenge.

    Now, I could come up with a long list of good reasons that are meaningful to me and don’t mean squat to the person on Twitter. But somewhere in her vast file cabinet of life experiences there’s one thing that matters. Deeply.

    If I had more than 140 characters, or we were talking on the phone or in person, I might have said: “Instead of thinking about ending it all, sort through your memory banks, or take a look around you, and track down that one thing that matters. By the time you find it, whatever brought you to despair will have shifted. Just enough, so the light can shine in.”

    But this person chose to plead for her life on Twitter. So I replied:

    Don’t choose a permanent solution to a temporary problem. The pain will pass. You’re meant to contribute something positive to this world.

    Last I checked, the tweeter did find a good reason: she chose to start painting again. That one thing, painting, helped crack open the darkness.

    If you ever find yourself backed into a corner feeling like your only option is to throw in the life towel, please please please remember this: that one thing—whether it’s your spouse, your kid, your parent, your sibling, your friend, your cat, your art, your dream, or that philodendron in the windowsill—it needs you.

    Then drive down to See’s Candies, pick out a luscious piece of chocolate, and savor it. For God.

  3. Heading to IKEA? Bring a Map and a Compass

    February 5, 2017 by Diane

    man box prefabricated parts designer
    I needed a new set of Pyrex. My old set broke in the kitchen sink because my trigger finger acts up at times, and things slip from my grasp. I had leftovers to freeze, and nothing to freeze them in, so I did the smart thing.

    I headed to IKEA.

    I’d heard they sell Pyrex, or something like Pyrex, cheap.

    I should have stayed home and glued the old set back together.

    In case you’ve never been to IKEA (and trust me, you never want to), let me enlighten you on the IKEA experience.

    First, the parking garage.

    If you enjoy driving around a concrete maze following signs that point to an entrance which never actually materializes, then you’ll love the parking garage at IKEA. The entrance, I concluded after twenty minutes of driving deeper and deeper into the bowels of the garage, is a mirage. Or a rumor. There is no entrance to IKEA. I was ready to follow the exit signs instead, exits leading NOWHERE, I might add, when lo and behold I spied a bank of glass windows, and what looked like an escalator, and people going up.

    At last, I had arrived.


    Miraculously, I found a parking spot nearby, before I lost sight of the entrance altogether. The parking spot may have been a loading zone. Or slotted for emergency vehicles. No matter. I calculated that I’d be in and out of the store in twenty minutes. No harm, no foul.

    Little did I know.

    Little did I know what awaited me inside the hell known as IKEA.

    I took the elevator. It was steps from my car, and seemed like a quick way in and out of the building. So I pushed the button to call it forth.

    And waited.

    And waited.

    Finally, the doors opened.

    A man emerged, pushing a flatbed longer than the New Jersey Turnpike, loaded with boxes and lumber and some kid riding on the back. Next was a woman with a modest-sized cart the size of a city block. A third cart, loaded so high I couldn’t make out whether there was a man or woman pushing it, nearly ran me over. I began to wonder about the size of the elevator, when at last it was empty.

    I got on, with a geeky-looking man. “Which button do I push?” I asked. He pointed to the one labeled “Main Floor/Showroom.” Up we went.

    The doors opened. I followed a line of people and found myself on an escalator, and stepped into what appeared to be a gigantic dollhouse.

    The Showroom.

    The Showroom is a series of model rooms, furnished with IKEA chairs and tables and bookcases and beds and couches and paraphernalia, made to look like real rooms in real homes in real neighborhoods. The Showroom is a fun place to browse.

    For about sixty seconds.

    After ten minutes of living rooms, it’s bedrooms. Then bathrooms. Then kitchens, kids’ rooms, family rooms, dining rooms, guest rooms, closets, cupboards, and IT NEVER ENDS! On and on it goes, a maze of showrooms, and there’s a fat guy in sweatpants lounging on a red couch looking dazed. In one of the fake bedrooms, I saw a man wearing pajama bottoms. I think he had moved in.

    The scary thing is, there’s no way out. You’re forced to follow the arrows which go left, then right, then left again, then right, then left, and left again, and right, and right again, and after thirty minutes of traipsing through The Showroom, everyone is shuffling like zombies, pushing big empty carts.

    And then it’s The Marketplace.

    The Marketplace is where you fill your big empty carts. By this time, you’ve been brainwashed into believing you actually need everything you’ve seen in those model showrooms, so you start grabbing. Wooden hangers, eight to a bundle, $4.99. A bamboo cutting board, $7.99. Aha! Pyrex! I loaded up. Sheets. Pillows. Lamps. A cart would have been handy.

    Staggering around, I looked for the registers. I asked a young fellow wearing a yellow IKEA shirt.

    “Take the shortcut,” he said, pointing the way.


    The shortcut led through a vast warehouse of cardboard boxes containing ready-to-assemble IKEA furniture designed to drive a sane person squirrelly. To find the right box you need to consult a computer screen, follow a map, and climb ten stories to balance something the size of Trump Tower on your shoulders as you make your way down the ladder to your cart.

    I soldiered on, rounded a corner, and saw lines so long I knew I had found the registers. Undeterred, I stood at the end of what appeared to be the shortest line.

    And waited.

    And waited.

    The woman in front of me read Chinese on her smartphone.

    The man behind me napped on a pile of lumber.

    A kid jumped up and down on a mattress.

    We moved forward an inch.

    I thought about the book in my car, the one I read at stoplights. It would have been handy to have reading material to pass the time. But alas, the only reading material I had was the Chinese text on the smartphone, and the signs that displayed the food one could purchase beyond the registers. A cinnamon bun for a dollar. A hot dog for seventy-five cents. A Coca-Cola for fifty cents.

    We moved forward half an inch.

    I eyed other lines. Thought of switching. And then I counted heads. There were more heads in the other lines than in my line, and in my line there were FIVE HUNDRED AND FIFTY HEADS. And they were all imagining that cinnamon bun, hot from the oven, sticky on the fingers. They were imagining that hot dog for seventy-five cents, and that ice cold Coca-Cola, because nobody had seen food for thirty days, and I came to the awful realization that WE WERE NEVER GOING TO EMERGE FROM IKEA ALIVE!

    “That’s it. I’m out of here,” I announced, and stashed all my goodies—the bamboo cutting board, the eight-pack of wooden hangers, the Pyrex, the sheets, the pillows, the lamps, the make-it-yourself fifteen-foot bookcase, the entire bathroom display—on top of all the other IKEA goodies that had been discarded, and rushed for an exit.

    I found the elevator.

    I located my car.

    I headed for an exit.

    And waited.

    And waited.

    I’m still waiting. Writing this missive behind a long line of cars.

    I have one piece of advice to leave you with:

    Never go to IKEA.


    Unless you have eight weeks to kill. And a sherpa guide.

    Send food. Please.