When I was a teenager my mother kicked me out of the house. It was Christmas day. She “let” me stay in the house until Christmas was over (thanks, I think?) and the next day, she told me to pack my things and get out. I stuffed as much as I could into a suitcase. Sweaters billowed out of the sides as I sat atop the suitcase, wrestling with the zipper as tears streamed down my face. A few months later, I was legally emancipated and homeless.

As you can imagine, when the holidays come around, I don’t feel particularly warm or fuzzy. In fact, I try to avoid them at all costs. Not Christmas carols, no holiday cards, no parties or mistletoe. Just an ordinary day. For a long time, I worked every holiday. It was easy-I was in the food and beverage industry and while other people resented the task, I looked forward to it; the routine, the process, the policy and procedure. I was one of the younger shift supervisors to be promoted to Assistant Manager at Starbucks-I was 22 at the time, which doesn’t sound terribly young, but it is when you’re overseeing the operations of 40 employees and a $25,000 a week business, which is a lot of coffee.

When I was promoted, I moved to the Starbucks in Beth Israel Hospital in Boston. I hated that store. I hated that store with every fiber of my being. My previous stores were lively and cheery neighborhood stores. The customers were friendly and welcoming. I knew them, the names of their spouses/kids/pets/in-laws. I knew when they were going on vacation. I knew exactly what temperature they liked their lattes, how many pumps of mocha went into their drinks. And then I was transferred to the BI store… “The Deathbucks,” we called it. It was cold, the customers were rude-doctors don’t want to talk to lowly baristas after they’ve been on call for umpteen hours. And sick people aren’t exactly in the mood to chat.

So, I did what any mature 22-year old would do: I whined to my District Manager who told me that he’d try to transfer me out as soon as there was an opening at another store. I spent about four months at Beth Israel Hospital store. My last week was the first week of January in 2005. It was right before Christmas, and I was certainly not looking forward to the nurses coming in 5 minutes before we closed, order 27 drinks and not tipping. Truth be told, I always gave those bitches decaf. I had a couple of favorite customers-I always did, wherever I went. They’re the customers who I treated more like friends than patrons. They had something sparkly inside them that called out to me. Dan was my first favorite at that store.

Dan had stage four melanoma-he’d lost an arm and had Had sterotactic brain surgery three times by the time I met him, but he never stopped smiling. One Saturday afternoon before Christmas, I was in the back doing the security deposit. I heard my coworker Dave’s voice from behind the wall.

“Karen is in the back,” Dave says.

I poked my head around the wall. “Do you need me?”

I saw Dan and his friend, smiled and stepped away to put the deposit back int he safe. I’d be scolded for not doing the deposit on time, but it wasn’t important. Not as important as Dan. “Hello, Handsome!” I squeal. I called Dan “Mr. Handsome” one day on a whim and he blushed like a schoolboy, so it stuck. Dan was worn down by the treatments.  Dan perked up and gave me a smile and a wave. He looked so tired and his voice was hoarse. We’d gotten really good at pantomiming to each other at the register, speaking in points, nods, and smiles.

“How are you doing?” I asked. He nodded side to side and looked towards the floor. He was having a bad day, but he never unloaded that information onto anyone. I tried to think of something I could do to help. I already knew Dan’s order. I poured a red eye (a shot of espresso in a cup of coffee) and walked back to the register. “Anything else today, handsome?” He was looking through the glass into the pastry case. I see him eye-ing a Cranberry Bliss Bar. I grabbed the pastry tongs, and pointed them towards the pastry. He shook his head, but I knew better. Even if he didn’t eat it, even if he ate the tiniest bite, it made me happy just to give it to him.

I placed it in a bag and slid it toward him. He took his credit card out of his wallet and I looked away, coyly, like I didn’t see it there. I started whistling and look away. “Handsome, it’s on me today. I looked back at him and he’s beaming.

“How come?” he said, his voice just above a whisper.

“Because you’re my favorite! And I wouldn’t say it if it wasn’t true.”

“You just made my heart smile,” he says. He puts his only hand over his heart. It’s the sweetest thing I’d heard in a long time. I could feel a lump in my throat forming. I dug my fingernails into my khakis. I refused to allow the tears to well up in my eyes. A man who was dying spent a moment with me and I made his heart smile with coffee. “You’re very special,” he said. “Thank you.”

He walked over to the condiment bar to added milk and sugar to his coffee. I let out a sigh and headed back into the office to finish the deposit. I took a trip to the bank, dropped it in the night box, and stopped at CVS to my baristas some treats for working so well with me this morning. I forget sometimes that other people enjoy the holidays.

I got back to the store and Dan and his friend were sitting at one of the tables in the cafe. I gave him a wave and made a heart shape with my two index fingers and pointed to him and winked. He smiled and laughed. I realized I hadn’t done much in the store, so I started fiddling around with the brewers, cleaning and checked on the status of the store, which was kind of a mess. Dan walked over to the counter.

“You made my day. Thank you so much. You really don’t understand how special you made me feel.” His voice was so hoarse that I had to lean close to him so I could hear what he was saying.

“Dan, you make my day every time you come in here. I have to tell you though, I’m going to a different store next week.” He looks shocked and says, “I’ll see you Wednesday…”

I never saw Dan again. I moved to a new store and got “too busy” with life to check in. Dan passed away a couple of months later in March. And I wish I’d told him that he made my heart smile before he died. So this year, my Christmas wish is that you let people know when they make your heart smile.

For more information about Dan’s story:
Boston.com Running in Spirit

It’s difficult to write when you’re happy.

I’ve thought about writing. I’ve scribbled down some ideas. I’ve even entered text in a note on my iPhone, but I haven’t taken any time to dive into the feelings required to make something good. There have been bad days here and there, memories and anniversaries of things I’d like to forget, but there have been so many good days, so much laughter, and so many firsts to celebrate I haven’t invited my past to come along. Sure, it’s here. It’s in the background like white noise, but I choose not to acknowledge it because I’m afraid if I let a piece of the past into my present that it will slowly start to infect my happiness like a cancer and kill off the good feelings one by one.

The choice to be happy is just that-a conscious decision that can fishtail out of control like an old Buick in a snowstorm. Most of the time I am more than content, but sometimes there is a crippling, hands-around-my-throat feeling this will all be taken away. Is this normal? Did I spend too much time in college reading philosophy books? I’m asking myself questions like “Who should die first?” and my knee-jerk answer is “Me,” so he would have a longer life and I tell myself to write down the recipe for gluten-free peanut butter cookies and detailed instructions on how to make risotto in case someone changes lanes on the 405 without looking and smashes into my car on my way home from spin class. I think about it again and decide it should be him so he wouldn’t suffer or grieve. I think about it long enough to realize that the only thing scarier than facing your own death is facing life without the person in the world you love most. Perhaps love is a combination of things you add to the person’s life and the things you protect them from.

In the ignorance of my youth I thought it would be easier to grieve when you’ve had more time with a person, but now I know the more time you spend with someone the more intertwined you become. You finish each other’s sentences and anticipate their needs. You invent words and have inside jokes. You know their body. All of a sudden forever doesn’t seem long enough. We’ve only just begun, but I don’t ever want there to be an end. I find myself asking for more time even though I haven’t run out. It all feels like a Mad Tea Party.

“Take some more tea,’ the March Hare said to Alice, very earnestly.

‘I’ve had nothing yet,’ Alice replied in an offended tone, ‘so I can’t take more.’

‘You mean you can’t take less,’ said the Hatter: ‘it’s very easy to take more than nothing.”

I used to think that the greatest tragedies are the kind you read about on the front page of the paper- a bride killed in a car crash on the way to the reception. Now I think the tragedies reside in the subtext of the obituaries, like “Survived by his wife of sixty-five years” and we say things like “He lived a good life” as if that is that somehow rationalizes the loss into not hurting. How do you even go on? Who will understand you? I decide the only fair thing is to die in our sleep while holding hands at age 103 and 101, seventy years from now. Even that seems too soon.

I ask myself: am I doing enough? If I have spent ten minutes a day for the rest of my life lightly rubbing my nails on his back over the spot that gives him goosebumps would it be enough? Over the course of a year I will have spent two and a half days of my life rubbing his back. If he and I are lucky enough to live for another sixty years I will have spent 219,600 minutes (152 days). Is it enough? Can I be better? Instead of agonizing about it I realize that I am doing everything I know how and remove my hands from the keyboard to hold his hand. I could write more, but no one writes a happy memoir.

(Not so tiny) #tinystory He was in my apartment for the first time. "You have great style," he said. "Oh, thanks," I casually replied. He was looking at pictures on the walls and all of a sudden, as if he had an epiphany, exclaimed "you must have been a really cute kid! Do you have any pictures?" My stomach twisted into a knot. "Do you want something to drink?" I hesitantly asked, hoping he would forget about his question. "Sure, we can have a drink over pictures." My palms started sweating and my hands shook as I dropped ice cubes into our glasses. I relished the final seconds of silence as the ice crackled under the room-temperature bourbon. My posture was hunched over as if I was an old helium balloon; I surely felt deflated. The glass made a loud CLINK when I set it on the coaster and I leaned into my hallway to grab the photo album from the shelf and sat next to him on the couch. It was a meager, wilted, shabby book that was no larger than half inch thick. Most people's photo albums are like the September issue of Vogue; this was the thickness of a Wednesday grocery coupon book. "Here you go," I said as I lowered my eyes to the floor. I could not look at his face as he derived the abridged version-the only version-of my childhood. "You really were adorable," he gushed. He put his arm around me and I could smell the bourbon on his breath and the pomade in his hair. He made no mention of the inadequacy of the photo album. I collapsed into him, breathed a sigh of relief, and closed my eyes for a moment. My throat clenched and I could feel the tears beginning to well up. My eyelids felt like a dam about to break. I waited a moment for the feeling to pass. He finished his drink and got up for a refill. Upon entering the kitchen, he saw this collage on my fridge. "You're more sentimental than I thought," he remarked. And in that moment between that statement and the silence, he deduced that there was a missing piece of me that could not be replaced and he was kind enough not to point it out.

A photo posted by karen (@shortymcsnorty) on

He was in my apartment for the first time. “You have great style,” he said. “Oh, thanks,” I casually replied. He was looking at pictures on the walls and all of a sudden, as if he had an epiphany, exclaimed “you must have been a really cute kid! Do you have any pictures?”

My stomach twisted into a knot.

“Do you want something to drink?” I hesitantly asked, hoping he would forget about his question.

“Sure, we can have a drink over pictures.”

My palms started sweating and my hands shook as I dropped ice cubes into our glasses. I relished the final seconds of silence as the ice crackled under the room-temperature bourbon. My posture was hunched over as if I was an old helium balloon; I surely felt deflated. The glass made a loud CLINK when I set it on the coaster and I leaned into my hallway to grab the photo album from the shelf and sat next to him on the couch. It was a meager, wilted, shabby book that was no larger than half inch thick. Most people’s photo albums are like the September issue of Vogue; this was the thickness of a Wednesday grocery coupon book.

“Here you go,” I said as I lowered my eyes to the floor. I could not look at his face as he derived the abridged version-the only version-of my childhood. “You really were adorable,” he gushed. He put his arm around me and I could smell the bourbon on his breath and the pomade in his hair. He made no mention of the inadequacy of the photo album. I collapsed into him, breathed a sigh of relief, and closed my eyes for a moment. My throat clenched and I could feel the tears beginning to well up. My eyelids felt like a dam about to break. I waited a moment for the feeling to pass. He finished his drink and got up for a refill. Upon entering the kitchen, he saw this collage on my fridge.

“You’re more sentimental than I thought,” he remarked. And in that moment between that statement and the silence, he deduced that there was a missing piece of me that could not be replaced and he was kind enough not to point it out.

#tinystory "Are you sure you want this one? The pot is chipped and the leaves are a little brown. I can grab another one for you." "No, that's alright. Thank you." It was on the bottom shelf next to the basil plants-tucked away, and out of sight, but I saw it there all alone, no other succulent friends in sight. Yes, the pot is chipped. Yes, leaves are a little brown. But it looked so sad sitting all alone. "I'll try to give this one some love," I thought "maybe nobody else will." This is not the first time I have had that same exact thought. It's in my bathroom, soaking up the sunlight that pours in through the window of the east-facing room and it seems to be getting more green. I can't change the fact that the pot is chipped, but I don't mind. We all have imperfections.

A photo posted by karen (@shortymcsnorty) on

Are you sure you want this one? The pot is chipped and the leaves are a little brown. I can grab another one for you.

No, that’s alright-I’ll take it. Thank you.

It was on the bottom shelf next to the basil plants-tucked away, and out of sight. I saw it there- all alone, no other succulent friends in sight. I’ve always gravitated toward the loners, the ones who go unnoticed. Whenever a new kid would start at my elementary school, teachers would introduce them to me first, knowing that I would show them around and be their friend when no one else would. They knew I’d take responsibility for them on the playground and in the lunch room. Those memories flooded my mind as I bent down and gently placed the succulent in my basket.

Yes, the pot is chipped. Yes, leaves are a little brown. But it looked so sad sitting all alone. “I’ll try to give this one some love,” I thought “maybe nobody else will.” This is not the first time I have had that same exact thought. It’s in my bathroom, soaking up the sunlight that spills in through the east-facing window and it seems to be getting more green. I can’t change the fact that the pot is chipped, but I don’t mind. We all have imperfections.

I’m sitting at the airport in Rome with some time to kill. It’s been an incredible trip so far and I’ve learned a lot about myself on this solo adventure. First and foremost: I’m not nearly as good at being alone as I thought I was. I’ve been without a cell phone for almost three weeks; the only outside contact I’ve had with the world is via iMessage, email, or (insert social network here) and I really miss talking to people. I don’t speak French (besides ordering food) or Italian (except for ordering food, asking for directions, or singing someone an aria), and I feel bad for the first person I speak to when I get back because I’ve been mostly silent for this entire trip. I’ve been talking to myself in my hotel rooms. It’s getting weird.

I am also not as friendly as I’d like to be-I haven’t made a single friend on this trip-I don’t know if it’s the language barrier or what, but besides men who approach me (I am um….how do you say….very *popular* in Paris), I haven’t struck up conversations with any non-Americans. It’s difficult for me to embrace the fact that I have a monosyllabic vocabulary in French and Italian, and not as many people speak English as I thought there would be. “Everybody speaks English there” they said. THEY are wrong, and I asked nicely if they did in their language first before assuming that everyone speaks English just because I do.

Living in big cities is a blessing and a curse-I was very aware of pickpockets, which are all over the place in Rome), I can navigate any public transportation system, and I don’t find eating dinner at 9pm that weird, but I have been really underwhelmed by the food (honestly, I’ve had better Italian food in Boston than I did in Rome) and I’ve only bought a couple of trinkets because anything available here I could get at home for 30% less because the dollar is so weak right now. I’ve been on the lookout for regional treats I wouldn’t be able to get at home, but they’re nowhere to be found. We’ve done such a good job globalizing brands that hand-crafted goods are a thing of the past. I was expecting incredible leather in Italy, but everything was imported in with a couple of exceptions along the way. Paris was a bit of an exception to the rule, and it has been my favourite part of the trip by far.

Last thought for now-I didn’t realize how much I love art and music until I got here. Sure, I go to museums here and there, but when I was in Paris I went to ten museums in five days. I went to L’Orangerie twice because it was a life-changing experience (a separate post on that to come-planting it in here would dilute the story) and I wasn’t museum’d out during the trip. I took a tour if the Ufizi gallery in Florence with a tour guide and of St. Peter’s in Rome and I learned so much, which reminded me of how much I love learning and I need to find a way to stimulate my brain when I get home. Maybe it’s time to take a class for fun to get some brain cell exercise. Right now I’m ready to go back to work-to share ideas and brainstorm and solve problems and contribute something. While I surely needed a break, I’ve realized that I love working. I love being surrounded by smart people and challenging each other and processes and building things together. Being away only makes me more excited to go back, and I feel the same about going home to LA on Monday.

I feel so fortunate to have this trip-to learn about the world and myself. Although I can put a price tag on it (so says my bank account), the experience has been priceless.

Puerto Rico 2011. Didn't think to buy any souvenirs along the way. Why bother? All the memories I need are in my head… Until I saw this. The anchor! This is where the obsession started-the need to be grounded, the need for stability. When I saw this I remembered the time We were in Hawaii and You bought me a necklace- so I'd always remember the trip when I wore it. I tried this one on twice and I realized I only had $40 left and we were flying out in just a few hours. It was marked $68. I left and had lunch, but I couldn't stop thinking about it. I went back. Would you take $40 cash for it, I asked timidly. Sure. It seems to really speak to you. I'm sure you'll give it a good home. We hugged. Strangers. Now friends. A memory of the trip, buying the necklace, and that time we were an Us. The things we take with us when we go are beautiful #souvenirs. #travel #tinystory #necklace #jewelry miss you @linji @city_lights_studio Casas Blancas! Let's go on an adventure!

A photo posted by karen (@shortymcsnorty) on

I didn’t think to buy any souvenirs along the way. Why bother? All the memories I need are in my head- the inside jokes we have from the trip are priceless, we laughed until we cried, and we stayed up until all hours of the night giggling. I thought I had everything I wanted from the trip until I saw this necklace. Puerto Rico. April 2011: This is where the obsession with anchors started.

I tried this one on. I looked at the price tag: sixty-eight dollars.  I tried to convince myself that I didn’t want it. I tried on again. and I realized I only had $40 cash left and we were flying out in just a few hours. It looks nice on you, the shop owner said. It did, but I didn’t have enough money, so I put it back and headed out. I smiled, waved, left the store and had lunch with the group, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the necklace. After lunch I went back.

Hi again!

You’re back!

Would you take $40 cash for it, I asked timidly-I was embarrassed and thought he might be insulted by my question.

Sure. It seems to really speak to you. I’m sure you’ll give it a good home.

We hugged. Strangers-turned-friends; the way we all start out-a good reminder as I put the final pieces into my carry-on luggage and set out for twenty-three days in Europe alone. Strangers are just friends we haven’t made yet.

“Since the disintegration of her parent’s marriage she’d only love two things. The first was her long dark hair. The second was how easily she could cut it off and not feel a thing.” –500 Days of Summer

March 13, 1992. I remember the day vividly. My father crouched at the foot of the stairs, tears streaming down his cheeks. Me, sitting there, silent. Wanting to cry, but tears would not leave my eyes. I was eight years old and my parents were getting divorced. I was acutely aware that this moment would be forever etched in my mind.

History repeats itself.

He and I hadn’t spoken in a couple of weeks, which was awkward- we worked for the same company on different teams,  avoided each other except for one brief passing in the hallway. Hey Tiny, he said. I loved that he called me Tiny-next to him (6’4″) I (5’1″) was very tiny. Usually Tiny is an ironic nickname-one for a 300 pound man, but in this case it was honest. He was honest. A few days later, a text message: Meet me at the ICA tonight? 

Sure. 

We wandered around the museum, barely speaking and I knew that this was goodbye. The silence broke: The museum will close in five minutes, a voice threatened over the loud speaker. No, please, just give me more time I wanted to yell, but time would not change things. We poured out of the museum with hundreds of other patrons and wrestled with our coats, gloves, scarves, hats, messenger bags, and our feelings. February in Boston is very complicated.

He’s standing in front of me and I try to hold his hand inside his sleeve-our signature move. He does not make room for my hand. I look up at him, my neck craning to meet his gaze. I don’t want to end up hurting you, he said, which is what someone says as they’re hurting you.

I immediately feel it-the lump in my throat, so I look away and then it’s gone. I understand. I have never been one to beg. Well, I guess I’ll see you around I say casually, as if I were talking to my dry cleaner. He starts to back up and I lift my head to look at him one last time.  I’m going to leave now- before I cry. He had never seen me cry before-most people haven’t. It’s just not something I’m very comfortable doing in front of people. He lowers himself toward me, hopeful to see my tears. Just like the day I sat on the stairs in front of my father, the tears would not leave my eyes.  

Tiny, you are the strongest person I know. If you ever feel anything, you sure do a good job of hiding it. 

Later that week, I cut my long dark hair. I felt nothing.

It's just as easy to be happy on Valentine's Day as it is to be sad. This morning I woke up and sent some small Facebook gifts to several friends. I mailed out cards a couple of weeks ago. All in all, I think I managed to get 25 friends. I skipped over holiday cards. Valentines day is more my speed-spreading love where it's needed and where it's wanted. Platonic. Romantic. All of it. When I was 15, my friend Bryan gave me roses on valentines day. We weren't dating, but he knew that I was single and he didn't want me to be the girl walking around without flowers all day. That random act of kindness left a permanent footprint in my heart-a reminder that everyone has someone in some capacity and it's our job as humans to make one another feel loved, accepted, wanted. I belonged that valentines day. It wasn't a grand gesture or a declaration of love-simply a reminder that I mattered to him. I hope that someone, in some way, shape, or form reminded you that you are wonderful, because you are. You are beautiful and unique and special. And if nobody told you this today, consider this your reminder. Even if we've never met-there's enough room in my heart for infinite one more's. if you'll excuse me now, Walter (my elephant) and I are going to get ready for bed. #valentinesday #journal #personal #mine #love #elephant #stuffedanimal

A photo posted by karen (@shortymcsnorty) on

I skip over holiday cards every year-there’s so much that has to get done around Christmas and I just cannot deal. A holiday email doesn’t have quite the same effect. Every year I receive holiday cards from my friends and family and instead of feeling loved, I am reminded that I suck at being an adult because I could not get myself to the store to buy cards, put a pen to paper, and lick envelopes like a normal human. Oh, I’ve forgotten the worst part-the STAMPS. Why is it so hard to find stamps and why don’t card companies make envelopes with stamps built into the paper? Is this a stupid idea or am I a genius? My ideas are usually bordering on a little of both.

This year is no different-holiday cards are just not happening, no matter how romantic an idea it sounds in my head. Valentines day is more my speed-spreading love where it’s needed and where it’s wanted. Platonic. Romantic. All of it. And the gestures that go with it. When I was 15, my friend Bryan gave me roses on valentines day. All of my friends were coupled off. We weren’t dating, but he knew that I was single and he didn’t want me to be the only girl walking around without flowers all day, so he got me flowers-how sweet. That random act of kindness left a permanent footprint in my heart-a reminder that everyone has someone in some capacity and it’s our job as humans to make one another feel loved, accepted, wanted-whether or not the recipient of these feelings acknowledges their presence is their responsibility, which is another topic for another day. I belonged that valentines day. It wasn’t a grand gesture or a declaration of love-simply a reminder that I mattered to him. I hope that someone, in some way, shape, or form reminded you that you are wonderful, because you are. If nobody told you this today, consider this your reminder. Even if we’ve never met-there’s enough room in my heart for (infinite) one more(s). if you’ll excuse me now, Walter (my elephant-that cute lil guy in the pic) and I are going to get ready for bed.

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