I could read at age 2 and 1/2; I could write at age 4. Writing was always my retreat—what I did when I was excited or confused or sad or angry or not wanting to do something less fun.
Cleaning out boxes several months back, I discovered so many of my own writings that gave me pause. Here are just a few of the things I found:
Poems about my stuffed animals, created before I was enrolled in school (so I must have been 4).
Lists of names for my future children (I was dead set on a daughter named Abigail Rhode so I could call her “Abbey Road” for short; and a son named Lincoln Paul, after my favorite president and my Grandfather/favorite rock stars).
Lists of names for the pets I’d have if I wasn’t allergic (the somewhat basic “Champ” for a dog; “Drama” for a llama; “Buttermilk” for a bunny, named for a favorite book). Hilariously, there are no names for cats. I always hated them, even as a kid.
Stories about my Sea Wees having all kinds of oceanic adventures after they “escaped” the bath through the drain (Sea Wees were bath toys—little mermaids that floated on sponge lily pads).
Lists of the fireworks my dad bought for the 4th of July one year, and what order I thought he should set them off in (not sure he listened, but he was probably glad the writing kept me busy while he barbecued).
Lists of my favorite Beatles songs (divided by lead singer).
Transcriptions of favorite TV shows and film scenes. These came only when we finally got a VCR and I could pause and rewind what I missed—I wasn’t typing; I was hand writing every word.
Fan mail (I kept copies of what I sent, so I could match up replies and see if the celebrities actually read them before responding).
… and the “list” goes on. As you can see from above, it wasn’t all narrative work. Much of what I was doing was putting things in their place. Sorting something mundane or hypothetical, just so I could keep it organized. I’ve always been creative, but I also came out of the womb very “Type A.” I’m a planner. I like to bring order to chaos. I like to fold laundry and organize my closet by color; I get perverse joy from making agendas and researching trips and watching everything fall into place.
So, as often as I wrote stories or essays about my experiences—especially when I was younger—I also made lists. I don’t remember ever doing anything with these lists, other than feeling an immense satisfaction at their completion. And from the dust that’s gathered on them, once I finished them, I must have just tucked them away, or wrote another list a few pages later in the same notebook.
On a cleaning spree when I last moved in 2013, I remember ripping out pages of notebooks that were gibberish or outdated so I could utilize any remaining blank pages. Start fresh.
One of those notebooks I shoved in my hall closet only to be discovered again today. What was inside? The photo you see above. The first week of MTV, catalogued by hand, complete with time stamps.
I have no idea what compelled me to do this nor do I have much practical use for it (I’m sure the VHS that must have contained these gems is long gone by now), but it was a kick to see after all these years.
It’s interesting to look back on my younger self and wonder what she was thinking.
When I was young I wanted to be many things when I grew up: ice skater, rock star, ballet dancer, wife of Michael J. Fox, etc. but when I got to be a teenager, I really had a feeling I’d end up a writer. Writing always came easy to me, and it was something I couldn’t physically stop doing, no matter what the situation.
Of course, when I was young, we still had those things called newspapers, so I naturally wanted to be a reporter. I found chasing stories and asking people hard questions to be an exciting job.
I would take my fashionable Minolta Disc camera (it was green, silver and awesome) to take important photos of whatever I was supposed to be covering. But of course, I had to wait for the roll of film to be finished, so it always seemed like a lifetime before we got the actual photos back.
This is what a roll of film looked like post-developing:
Thankfully, when I became the editor of the paper in high school (it was called The Verdict, because our school was named for a Supreme Court Justice), I had photographers with real SLR cameras to accompany me on my assignments, and they always took better photos like the one below this paragraph. This was the day we got to ditch class (with the journalism advisor’s permission) and head to downtown Portland to catch a glimpse of Madonna filming Body of Evidence with Willem Dafoe. We didn’t meet her or speak with her, but I wrote a review of the film and Jason snapped this great picture. I wonder whatever happened to Jason.
Also important in a young journalist’s life were the obligatory Steno pads. In the days pre-digital-recorder, and pre-laptop, we had to resort to good, old-fashioned paper and pens, and because I’m painfully nostalgic, I kept my favorite two Steno notebooks: the one I had while working at The Oregonian and the other one I received at journalism camp my junior year.
What was a high school student doing at The Oregonian? Working hard, that’s what! No, really, I was living out a geeky dream. I had been chosen to write for a city-wide student newspaper called Youth Today and our advisor was Judson Randall, a senior editor at the paper back then. We met and worked in the actual Oregonian newsroom, and the summer after I began there, I was chosen to attend a journalism workshop in Washington DC, which led to me meet some lifelong friends and contribute to another student newspaper called Young DC.
Apart from the actual fun of reporting news and crafting stories, those experiences marked my first real moments of independence as a young adult: I took a bus (or drove myself) downtown to work at the newspaper, signed myself in with a security badge and taught myself how to use the prehistoric (but at the time very cool) computer terminals. I would walk down to Powell’s Books and research stories for hours; I took my first solo plane ride to Washington DC at age 16 and have been a frequent flier ever since.
One of my favorite articles back in the old days was a piece I did for the traveling exhibit that featured Anne Frank’s actual diary on display. That had been my favorite book since I first read it in 6th grade and I was obsessed with Anne for many years, identifying with her in many ways (though I wasn’t Jewish). When the show came to town I literally got goosebumps just reading a flyer for it, so I knew that assignment had to be mine. I contacted the American Friends of the Anne Frank Center (they were sponsoring it), and they gave me a guided personal tour so I could enjoy the full scope of the presentation. I was moved to tears and promptly went home to write the article you see below. It made the front page.
Less than a year later, I had applied and been accepted to the famous University of Missouri-Columbia journalism school. I worked briefly a real newspaper before deciding that I couldn’t earn a good enough living doing that and became an advertising writer instead. Hence, my career today.
The money is certainly better, but marketing will never take the place of a well-worn Steno Pad.
Being the baby of the family, I was often talked into things that seemed like a good idea at the time, but later proved to be ridiculous.
One example is the Sunday that my sister spent dressing me up as a “punk rocker” when I was four years old. No, it wasn’t Halloween. No, there was no costume contest to attend or pageant for tiny fake whores, just a barrel of laughs at the expense of the littlest Kokkoris, who was more than game to get gussied up in the fashion of some of her favorite rock stars.
In fact, I distinctly remember liking the getup so much that I begged to dress that way on a permanent basis. Thankfully, my mom vetoed that wish and the next day I went back to being Sweet Little Tassoula.
Maybe that’s why I turned out to be such a groupie?
When we’re young, there are always clubs that we want to join. The big one for me was the high school dance team, the Marshall M-Ettes. I had taken dance classes all of my life and was sure I’d make the team at my first audition freshman year.
And I did. But I made 2nd string, which at the time was like being benched on the basketball court (and hurt me deeply).
I didn’t make first string for two reasons: 1) I could do the splits on both sides (right, yes — with practice; left, not so much) and 2) I had absolutely no self-confidence when it came to flaunting my body in front of large groups of people.
I was always an excellent public speaker, and loved being in front of an audience, but dance was different — I was raised in a home that dictated I should not make myself attractive to boys, and much of dance team dancing at my inner-city school was very sexual and flirtatious.
So I had trouble leaving what I’d been trained to act like at the steps of my house and bringing it to the audiences of Marshall High School. It didn’t help that we had a horrible bitch of a coach who did her best to humiliate me every chance she got, or that my dearest friends were co-captains and 1st string dancers, but somehow I got through it.
At the heart of it all, I loved to dance. I would practice with the team every day for two or three hours, then go home and practice some more. I practiced my way to 1st string (finally, in my junior year) and lettered in the sport (a big deal to me when I was 16), then went on to become a captain my final year.
Some of the best and worst times of my high school years were spent with my fellow M-ettes — many who I’ve remained friends with and some who I’ve been lucky enough to reconnect with on Facebook.
Two more items of interest popped up as I was sorting through a pile of childhood papers tonight. My marriage certificates.
These were apparently something we did at the Sadie Hawkins dances in what would’ve been my sophomore year of high school.
The funny thing? I have a memory like an elephant and I have absolutely no recollection of this whatsoever. I apparently married my friend Scott (not once, but twice), though we never dated in reality. Perhaps he lost a bet?
Now I also wonder what else I have forgotten from those events. Did I register for gifts? Wear a pretty dress? Had I known at the time it would be my only wedding, would I have done things differently?
Folks older than me seem to assume that I identify more with the 90s because those were the years in which I graduated from high school and college, but really, I consider myself a child of the 80s. To me that decade was much more interesting and colorful — if given the choice to revisit either, I’d easily pick the 80s.
And what would the 80s have been without Cabbage Patch Kids? I remember yearning for one of these in a way no other toy had previously captured me. They were overpriced, ugly, impractical dolls that flew off shelves most likely due to their clever adoption gimmick. Whenever you purchased a doll, it came complete with its own name and adoption papers, and the company that manufactured the dolls would keep in touch with you if you properly completed your paperwork. In addition, to validate the authenticity of the dolls, you had to find the Xavier Roberts signature on its bum. It was all very important and official.
But these dolls were hard to come by. Not only were they easily out of the price range of most middle class families, they sold so quickly, the company couldn’t keep up with the orders.
I had all but given up on getting one when my 9th birthday rolled around. I carefully examined all of the wrapped gifts and saw that none of them bore the famous shape of the Cabbage Patch box, and I didn’t want to make my parents feel bad by showing my disappointment, so I acted especially excited about a lavender terrycloth robe that my mom presented me with, and rejoiced when I saw the solar powered calculator that was supposed to help me improve my math skills. At least there was cake, I figured.
Then my mom and my sister disappeared into my parents room and returned triumphantly carrying my new Preemie™ and my mom told our guests the story of being afraid to walk it home from Fred Meyer for fear she’d get robbed.
My baby’s given name was Marleen Berty, which I thought sounded terrible with “Kokkoris” so I promptly re-named her Marlena Charisse. Marlena after my favorite character on Days of Our Lives, and Charisse after one of my close friends at the time.
In this photo you can see Marlena with her adoption papers and her first birthday card. She still sports the outfit she came in.
In the 80s I also begged for another toy I never got: Atari, the revolutionary home video game system that pretty much all of my friends had. Instead of giving in to that desire, my parents and grandmother supplied me with a steady stream of quarters, which I rapidly fed to the arcade across the street at the Eastport Plaza mall. My games of choice: Tempest, Centipede and of course, Pac Man (or more specifically, Ms. Pac Man). Below you’ll see a sticker from one of my stationery collections featuring the character.
Above the sticker is my book about Olympic gymnast Mary Lou Retton. Mary Lou was what kept me glued to the ’84 Olympics and also what made me take gymnastics for the next four years. I had a bodysuit and training suit identical to hers and practiced my winning smile (another thing she was famous for) in my bedroom vanity mirror on a daily basis. I still watch and enjoy the Olympics, but I don’t remember ever liking another athlete as much as I liked her.
When I was young, every Easter I would beg for a bunny. Since I was allergic to cats and dogs, and rabbits could stay contained in one room, I thought having one would be ideal. My parents thought otherwise.
They showered me with Easter baskets full of Cadbury Mini Eggs (my favorites), magazines with Michael J. Fox on the cover and various token gifts. But never did I receive a bunny. Mom claimed that rabbits smelled, I was most likely allergic to them too, and it would be too devastating when someday said pet passed away.
Though she was right on all counts, that didn’t stop me from wanting one and visiting the rabbit cages at the pet store across the street. I also made a friend of Diamond, a sweet grey bunny that belonged to my 6th grade reading teacher, Miss. V.
Diamond lived in our classroom and we often made a game out of letting her out of her cage. I was one of the trusted few who was allowed to leave the room to retrieve her because I was calm enough to coax her back (I know, me, calm?!)—I took this privilege very seriously and was rewarded tenfold.
Miss. V. sometimes went on vacation and needed students to board Diamond while she was away. Each time she helped try to talk my mom into letting me take her home and each time my mom responded with a resounding “no.” I would get too attached, my Dad (the biggest animal lover of all of us) would relent and get me my own after Diamond left, etc. She never caved.
But Miss V. remained a favorite teacher, and recognized my way-above-level reading and writing skills. She was the first to introduce me to Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl and the first to encourage me to read forbidden works by the brilliant Judy Blume. Really, she was a hell of a teacher.
Yesterday, in my peripheral vision, I caught a glimpse of something grey in my backyard. It turned out to be the neighbor’s cat who often visits, but for a split second I thought of Diamond. Then I thought, “I wonder whatever happened to Miss V.” So I did what we all do these days: I Googled her.
I first saw an image that I recognized as her staff yearbook photo from my years in middle school. Next, I noticed she had married, as she had another last name tacked on to the end of the one I knew her by. Then, a horrible discovery: Just a few lines down was her obituary.
The vibrant, young, strong teacher who I loved so many years ago had battled several rounds of cancer and lost. She passed away in 2010 in a small Oregon town.
A flood of emotions came over me: disbelief, curiosity, grief and guilt. Why guilt? Because I hadn’t thought about her in over 25 years. Because although I know I was a good student for her, I don’t know if I ever conveyed how much her kindness meant to me during those tough years. I’m not sure she ever knew I succeeded as a writer—or even just as an adult in the work force. Many of my classmates in our low-income neighborhood most certainly did not.
Then I thought about why I was getting so upset about it. Why this cat in my backyard triggered a memory that sent me spiraling back in time and seeking out a ghost from my youth. I’m a firm believer that we’re all here to learn how to be better people, so I knew there was a reason.
This memory reminded me to make sure that the people in my life know how much they mean to me. That because of social media, there’s really no excuse for not reconnecting or staying in touch. That I should make more of an effort to learn more about the people I care about; not just what they do for a living or other things I could find out by looking at their profile pages. That I let them get to know me as much as I hope to know them. It’s not something I’ve always been good at, but I’m making a conscious effort to be better about.
There are a lot of patterns in our lives. Behaviors, careers, romantic partners, financial habits, health — everything has a rhythm.
Unfortunately, not all of them are positive. One such pattern in my life is that of loving people who get breast cancer.
When I was young, my aunt had it (and survived it), then my best friend’s aunt got it (she didn’t survive it), then my hair stylist (survived), my former boss (survived), two of my mom’s friends (one survived; one didn’t) and one of my good friends now is currently battling it.
That’s not counting the dozens of “scares” in my friends and family, where women had a mammogram that showed something that turned out to be nothing (yet scared the heck out of them in the meantime).
Though I’ve never personally had it, I’ve hurt for each of these people in my life (and those close to them who suffered, regardless of the outcome). Breast cancer changes everything.
My dear friend Debbie (the former boss, listed above) fought the good fight and won, emerging strong and determined to help other women who experienced breast cancer at a young age. Even with wonderful support from her family, she quickly learned what it was like to juggle treatments and still manage to run a household.
She founded The Pink Daisy Project to alleviate the financial burden for young women battling breast cancer. I’m proud to be a volunteer for this organization and thrilled that we’ve launched a new campaign that helps drive donations and lets contributors have a little fun on social media in the process.
As you can see in my photo above, I’m sporting a temporary “pink daisy” tattoo. A $2 donation to the cause will get you the same one; all that we ask is that you snap a selfie of yourself wearing yours and use the hashtag #2fortat when you share it out.
Every little bit helps, and so does making both women who need help — and those with the power to help them — aware of the Pink Daisy resource.
We want breast cancer to stop trending in the lives of amazing people, but if it doesn’t, let’s confront the trend with help and hope and compassion.
I recently lost a member of my immediate family. It was the first time that’s ever happened to me, and considering my immediate family consists of just four people (including me), it predictably turned my world upside down.
Now that I’ve had some time to reflect, the only way I know to cope is to put some thoughts down on paper (or on the inviting screen of a MacBook Pro, in this case). So here goes.
On Witnessing. I had the fortunate (or unfortunate) luck of being able to sit with my loved one as he passed. At first I was horrified by the suffering he was enduring, then relieved when the nurses “made him comfortable” with his final cocktail of medicines. We felt right about respecting his Do Not Resuscitate wishes, but no part of it was easy. For hours we waited, by his side, as he grew quieter and thankfully, more peaceful. Throughout the day, small signs of normalcy infuriated me. The pleasant cleaning lady mopping the floor under his bed; the large family in the waiting room giggling at the television overhead; the cafeteria staff ringing up our tiny bowls of vegetable soup as if it was just another day at work. Of course, my loved one was oblivious, but I resented the fact that life was going on around us when such despair was imminent. I made several trips to the brightly lit, bubblegum-scented restroom either to cry or try to throw up. I was always too hot or too cold; never in between. The nurses couldn’t have been more wonderful, checking on all of us, ensuring his comfort right up to the very end. I kept watching him, thinking his final breath would be some sort of morbid announcement that he was gone, that it would be noticeable and obvious, but it wasn’t. In fact, he lived on several minutes after he took his final breath — the nurses informed us he still had a pulse. When they returned to check again moments later, one on each side of him to be absolutely sure, they behaved just as the hospital staff on Days of our Lives always does. One said to the other “I’m calling it,” as she looked at the clock and noted the time. And then they hugged us and left us alone for a final goodbye before the nursing supervisor came in to walk us through the next steps. It was nothing short of surreal.
On the Next Steps. Thank God for Six Feet Under. I interviewed Alan Ball once for my podcast years ago, and I know I told him I was a fan of the show, but it can’t be understated how much watching it helped prepare me for my first-ever visit to a funeral home. It happened just as it used to for the fictional Fishers and I’m grateful I knew what to expect. Every interaction was very compassionate, yet matter-of-fact; dark, yet calm. As the associate went to print out paperwork, I absorbed my surroundings, wondering how they chose the odd artwork on the walls. The Kleenex on the table begged for us to break down and at one point while we were alone, we did, but thankfully the meeting took less than an hour, because we knew exactly what the deceased wanted.
On Processing. Different people grieve in different ways. Some people collapse into dramatic sobs; others lash out in unprovoked fits of anger. People like me, however, quietly shrink in disbelief and struggle to form sentences when necessary. All I know is that no matter the reaction, no grieving person should ever be held responsible or accountable for anything they say or do in the weeks following a tragedy.
On Condolences. It’s very nice to let someone who has suffered a loss know that you love them and are there for them. I was incredibly moved by the flowers and cards that arrived once we announced our sad news.
On Condolences, Part 2. One of the things that was hard for us in the early days was the fact that many friends didn’t have my parents’ current address (though I had told folks to message me privately on social media for it). Instead of simply asking me, they went ahead and sent the flowers, etc. to the address where my parents had lived in 2009, so it inconvenienced the people who currently live there, and it made for some logistical juggling for us to retrieve the items. We were grateful for the gesture, but stuff like that isn’t what we wanted to be focusing on while we were still adjusting to the shock. For future reference, if you don’t absolutely know for sure where to send something, please do the bereaved the courtesy of asking.
On The Tradition of Food. One of the most customary things to do for those in mourning is to deliver hot meals. We received everything from creamy soups to grilled cheese sandwiches and cookies the weekend after our tragedy. We appreciated all of it and ate nearly none of it. We just weren’t hungry and couldn’t force our bodies to cooperate. That said, the frozen items are beginning to be thawed out and enjoyed now, so if your heart tells you to prepare food, make it something that can be preserved for later.
On Unconventional Gifts. Personally, these things helped me most. The pal that sent me a funny clip from one of our mutual favorite shows; the couple that had their young children draw pictures for me; the friend that treated me to a relaxing pedicure; my former colleagues who sent a customized care package complete with chocolate and a bottle of whiskey. All of these things made me feel loved and treasured because I felt like the givers really knew me. They realized that I would need to laugh, feel comfort and allow myself to indulge because I’d been purposely depriving myself of all of those things.
On Survivors’ Guilt. Even though I was several decades younger than my family member who passed, I felt guilty for my healthy body and mind. I didn’t think I had permission to continue enjoying life. I didn’t feel right about reading the lighthearted book I brought with me or going to a movie (always my greatest escape) because I knew he couldn’t do those things anymore. It may not have been rational, but it was real.
On Social Media. I’m thankful for it. Unlike decades past, I didn’t have to make 30 phone calls or sit down and write a dozen letters letting people know of my loved one’s passing — I simply posted it once to a carefully curated list of friends and family on Facebook and let the Internet take it from there. It was a great relief to only have to write those words once.
On Privacy. Despite the fact his obituary was only in a few local newspapers, I still received very personal condolences from acquaintances that never knew of or met the deceased, and barely know me. I couldn’t help but feel awkward about this — their hearts were in the right place (I hope), but somehow it didn’t feel quite right. A message via Twitter would have sufficed if they felt moved to respond. I just took this as a lesson to myself that if I see someone grieving from a distance that I don’t know very well, I will most likely say a silent prayer for them and just give them space.
On Prayer. Whatever your religion or lack thereof, there have been studies done that imply that those who are prayed for (whether they know it or not) are more likely to heal faster from trauma — mental or physical. I can safely say, having been the recipient of a mountain of prayers these past few weeks, that in my case it’s true. The positive energy our family received was almost tangible and I’m certain those moments of calm we would feel, where we realized the sun would again someday shine, were a credit to those who kept us in their thoughts and meditations.
On Messaging. It’s natural to want to be there for someone who you care for in their time of need, and many of my friends and family expressed this via the quickest way they knew to reach me: text message. I can’t say I blame them, for I’ve done the same thing. But what happened was this: every time I would hear the ping of my phone going off, I was right back to my most raw point of grief, no matter what progress I’d made on composure that day. I knew that the instant I read whatever sweet message they’d written, I’d collapse into another puddle of tears. It became so exhausting, I quit responding at some point and turned the phone to vibrate, hiding it under pillows so I wouldn’t even hear the buzz. I hope I didn’t offend anyone with my silence.
On Emails. I felt very comforted by emails. The thoughtful, personal messages and offers for help were perfect because I could tend to them whenever I felt strong enough to read them. And I did read and respond to all of them at my own pace, unlike texts, which I felt obligated to answer immediately.
On Breathing. In the fog of grief, it’s sometimes hard to remember to breathe. With everyone hovering around the first few days, I felt very suffocated by the attention. Again, it’s not that I didn’t appreciate the sentiment; it’s just that I wanted some distance while I adjusted to my ‘new normal.’ Perhaps other people are different, but I’m used to solitude so that’s my quickest path to healing.
On Friendship. The saying is true: you really do find out who your friends are in times of trouble. My heart is swollen with love by the amount of people from every stage of my life who have stepped up to support me and my family as we grieve. My high school BFF telling me to call her anytime — day or night —and knowing she meant it, despite the fact she has two young children to look after; my Seattle BFF offering to join me for a hike or whatever I need to make me feel better, though she also has two small children to parent; my ex-boyfriends that reached out though I haven’t spoken with them in months (or years, in one case); the atU2 staff that I’ve considered family for the past decade that sent me lyrics or quotes to accompany the flowers… the list goes on. I’m so incredibly blessed to have such compassionate people in my life.
On Kindness. From my longtime hairstylist who refused to charge me for my haircut to colleagues I’ve only known for a month sending me messages of hope and help, I’ve learned there is a deep well of kindness in human beings. No matter how many horrible things are happening in our individual lives or the greater world, the good really does outweigh the bad.
On the Cost of Death. Insurance doesn’t cover everything. From hospital bills to arrangements for the deceased to obituaries to death certificates to transportation for errands, death is really expensive. I will need to take a break from my social life for a few months, not just to heal mentally, but to recover financially. I hope everyone understands why I’m denying their well-intentioned invites.
On Paying Respects. One of the best ways we felt to pay tribute to my loved one was to request donations for a cause he was passionate about. Since he was always feeding the hungry (whether it be driving meals to families in the inner city around the holidays or taking a hot plate of food to a neighbor less fortunate), we felt it best to honor him by asking for contributions to the Oregon Food Bank. If you’re moved to do so, they (and we) would appreciate the donation.