My arm is broke off.

2015 is kind of a big year for me.  This is the year I turn 50, as do all my girlfriends with whom I graduated high school.  We’re getting together for a week in October at a beach house in Oak Island, NC, to celebrate and/or commiserate.  By that time, only one of us will still be in her forties, but she’ll be the one who gets to have her birthday while we’re all together.  Maybe it’ll be less traumatizing for her that way.

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I kind of lost focus on my memoir.  You’ve probably been wondering, “Geez, when is she going to post another one of those notes?”  Well, wonder no further.  Below is one of the oldest notes in my possession, written in seventh grade by the friend who most recently turned 50.  (You know who you are.)

It is now my goal to have every note transcribed and an agent procured by the time we get together in mid-October.  I’m going to need you to help hold me to that, since I am, at heart, an incredibly lazy person with the attention span of . . . well, Happy Dog.


(Whose attention span, by the way, has not increased one iota in the past two years since we adopted her.)  I’m really good at starting things with the appropriate amounts of enthusiasm and focus, but not so great at finishing them.  Truly, this is one of my greatest and most crippling faults.  But publishing this book is incredibly important to me, and I fully intend to see it through.

So, without further introduction, I give you:

Oh merd!  Dallas just lost
MERDE & double merde!)

Superbowl Sunday 1/21/78
High!  I will be when Dallas wins.  They’re behind now, they had better win.  If they don’t I’ll lost a whole 50¢!
Today would be 7 months.  In this one song on my Helen Reddy record it goes “love and I were strangers til you and I were friends.  Into the shadows of my life, you have brought sympathy and sunshine.  I wish that we could still be friends.”  They later it goes “Broken hearts will mend.”  Maybe, but it sure as hell takes long enough.  (excuse my Français)  Oh, great!  35 to 17.  Looks like I had better get my 50¢ out.  This just helps make all the other little events lately, even betterly worse!  That includes last night; I was going to Grand Visitation with D.G. and another girl, with a lady from our bethel.  We had to go to Alexandria.  As we got close to the off ramp the cute little decided it didn’t want to go.  So here we are all dressed up sitting in the car off the side of the Hiway.  We sat there for about 40 min.  There was another car behind us w/ problems.  We kept watching him get in & out of his car, hoping that if he got his car started he would help us, only if he was nice.  The lady that was driving us is about 25 & her mother had given her this scream thing to have in case someone was after her, so were safe.  (har har)  So finally a tow truck stopped & after about 10 minutes got the car started.  So now we go to Landmark Center & she calls her husband, now it’s about 8:15.  He says he’ll be there in a half hour.  So we’re sitting in the Sears automotive parking lot.  D. starts to read “Cruisin for a Bruisin’” then gets tired of it about 8:30.  So I start reading it.  About 9:20 the ladies husband get there, he’s going to follow us home.  So for starters we get on the wrong road.  I continue using the headlights behind us to see.  Finally we get here at 10:15, I stepped out of the car & into a cute little puddle about 20 (maybe 30) feet deep, in my good shoes and freeze my feet off, but the husband guy got out of his truck to tell his wife something and thought it’d be cool to just skate on over . . . so he crashed to the ground.  The End.
My arm is killing me to death.  I have to go to the dentist at 9:15 to get my teeth cleaned.  My dentist, Dr. Repole, is the foxyest (sp) guy!  Tall . . . Dark . . . &&&&& HANDSOME!!!!!!
I have to go.  My arm is broke off.
C-ya round
Now to fold this sucker!
K’s playing restaurant, Miklshakes are $10 & Chinese food is $50!!!!

The appeal of the posse

In the interest of doing pretty much anything rather than studying for my Spanish 101 class, a couple weekends ago I spent about ninety minutes on something I’ve been putting off for the past year.  Now that my personal statute of limitations has passed on this particular event, I think I’m ready to write about it.

If you’ve seen the ultra-cheesy 1997 sci-fi flick Starship Troopers, you’ve seen a movie on which my friend Darren Rydstrom worked as “loader, second unit.”  (Oddly enough, his first name is misspelled in the credits.)  Parts of this movie were filmed in Badlands National Park, just an hour east of where Darren and I lived, 30 years ago, in Rapid City, South Dakota.


The urbane, golf-playing, cocktail-sipping, cigar-puffing camera operator/ director of photography Darren was known in the biz as “Daz” Rydstrom.  I didn’t know that Darren.  My Darren was a year younger than me, lived across the street and had a three-legged tabby named Tripod and a trampoline in the backyard.

young man holding video camera

Later on he had a motorcycle instead of a trampoline, but Tripod-lovin’ backyard trampoline Darren was the Darren I knew best.

man and motorcycle

My Darren and I did silly, fun stuff like flying a kite with a glow stick tied to it at dusk, so that neighbors who drove by and saw us looking up asked if there was a UFO in the sky.  We climbed Little Devil’s Tower with a friend visiting from the east coast, camped overnight and, the next morning, found our camp covered in ladybugs.

man and woman in forest

young man sitting atop rock looking through video camera

We spent college breaks together:  on summer nights, we laid on the trampoline, looking at the stars and talking for hours, scaring ourselves when we heard deer moving nearby in the dark.  Or, with a group of friends, we’d take blankets out to the middle of a horse pasture adjacent to our neighborhood, and do pretty much the same thing.  One time, the two of us were sitting in my driveway, watching lightning and sharing a clove cigarette–which is what you did in the 80s, right?–and my mom happened to come out of the house right when I was taking a drag.  And it was no big whoop–I was in college, and I knew that she knew that I wasn’t a real smoker.  Plus I was with Darren, who could do no wrong in my parents’ eyes.

During Christmas break, we’d bundle up and drive around Rapid City, stereo blasting Midnight Oil’s Diesel and Dust or whatever 80s cassette happened to be in the tape deck at the time, shooting whatever looked interesting:  him with his video camera, me with my 35mm.   When we were back at our respective schools, we wrote letters and called each other occasionally.

In July 1988, our families were evacuated from our neighborhood, caused by the locally famous Westberry Trails Fire, which burned within about a half-mile of our homes. Darren, of course, spent a significant amount of time before evacuation filming the blaze from the roof of his house, and then fought the fire with his mom, Jerie, as a Doty VFD volunteer.

Once when I was living in Reston, Virginia, we met up in Washington, DC and spent a day walking the National Mall and visiting the Smithsonian.

young man and woman in reflection

young man seated in front of fountain

It was around this time when we finally decided to kiss, just to see what would happen.  I’ll refer you to a specific scene in P.S. I Love You for the outcome of that ill-conceived experiment.

Darren’s Grandma Harriet lived in Denver the same time I did, so we got to see each other several times during the 1990s.  Grandma Harriet drove us around in her Audi sedan, and once took us to lunch at Denver Country Club.  (She was a classy lady in more ways than one.)  One time, Darren took me to the mansion in which his dad, Don, had grown up.  He walked right up and knocked on the door, introduced himself and asked if we could come in so he could show me the house.  And, because he was Darren, the current occupant was delighted to comply.

Over the years, we saw less and less of each other.  After moving around quite a bit, I eventually ended up back in Rapid City.  Darren would come back to the Hills for visits at Christmas and during the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in August.  He’d call and leave a message, and I’d be busy or out of town (especially during the Rally!).  I kept meaning to visit him in SoCal, but never did.  Once in a while we’d e-mail each other.  Then Facebook came along, and I was at least able to stay more current on his adventures.  I was amazed at the places he wrote about visiting, the people he met and with whom he worked, and the way he was blossoming professionally.  I was so proud of who he’d become and what he was accomplishing.  He was living the dream, as far as I could tell.

One of the things he told me most consistently over the years was how much he wanted to be married and have a family someday.  In fact, some of our more contentious (for lack of a better word) discussions concerned my determination to never have children and how that could possibly be the case.  I always wanted so much for him to find the perfect woman–not a glamorous, superficial, affected wannabe.  But that never seemed to happen.

I should probably mention at this point that Darren was killed in a helicopter crash two years ago today, while filming a new Discovery Channel reality show.  Sadly, like the way I find out about so many things these days, I learned this devastating news on Facebook a day or two after the accident.

This was the second time in six years a close friend had died abruptly.  Both deaths occurred in early February.  Both friends were healthy, active men in their forties.  Both of them were world travelers who packed more living into less than fifty years than the majority of us could in twice that time.  One was married with a young daughter, and happened to be my boss, as well as my friend.  The other was Darren.

young man squatting on wall with pine trees in background

Back to what I spent those ninety minutes on.  I had a couple VHS tapes with footage from 1988 and 1989 that Darren had put together for me a long time ago, and, around this time last year, I asked Loving Husband if he’d record the content onto a DVD for me.

I finally it watched it, and now I can’t decide if I’m glad to have this access to the past.  I think, ultimately, I am–but it definitely comes with a price.  That price is to relive us–our friendship, our youth, our carefree banter and laughter, our total disregard for the inevitability of adulthood, old age, and eventual death.  To see a youthful Darren briefly and falsely brought back to life on a TV screen.  To see myself as a beautiful, young college student without a care in the world.  Maybe it’s better, as Death Cab For Cutie so eloquently puts it, to “depend on that faulty camera in our minds.”  I’ve forgotten much more than I remember about us and our friendship and the time we spent together.  But I’m grateful for every moment.

man and woman smiling together

This morning I looked at a text on my phone just as I was leaving for work.  The message was from my dear friend, Wayde, with whom I exchange random Seinfeld quotes several times a day.  My boss who died suddenly in 2007 was Wayde’s boss as well, and when Darren was killed, Wayde was one of the first people I called.  This morning’s text read, “With Darren’s help, we’ll get that chicken.”  The time stamp was 3:14 a.m.  (Wayde doesn’t sleep well.)  According to Los Angeles County officials, Darren’s death occurred at approximately 3:40 a.m.  I knew immediately who had really sent me that message and why.

I called Wayde on my way to work and, between sobs, told him what he’d inadvertently done–and how grateful I was that Darren had chosen to communicate with me through him.  And as sad as I was this morning, for the rest of the day, I was comforted by the knowledge that everyone and everything is connected, there is no death, and Darren is an integral part of my Nonphysical Posse, if not the ringleader.

Looking at the hundreds of pictures posted on Darren’s Facebook page by his friends around the world, it’s hard not to feel jealous and left out of all the places he’d been and good times he had with so many people who aren’t me.  But I also read messages from people who’d only met him once, for a few hours, and considered themselves fortunate.  They too were deeply affected by his death.  That’s the kind of person he was.  As with my brother, I always felt better for his physical presence with me.  I’m certain every one of his Facebook friends, his parents and his sisters would agree.

We all knew and loved a different Darren.  I loved my Black Hills Darren best.

And with his help, we’ll get that turkey.

Man stabbing at turkey with pitchfork
Darren Arthur Rydstrom        |       11/13/66 – 2/10/13


There goes my hero

I was taking my favorite back road home from Corvallis one day last week and thinking about lots of stuff–like what a gorgeous day it was, and how long it had been since I’d blogged, and how much I missed my brother in South Dakota (I was listening to the Foo Fighters–which always reminds me of him–at top volume), and, as usual, on top of it all, feeling supremely sorry for myself.  Pathetic, right?

So, with darling husband off on a business trip in San Diego this week,  I finally decided to open a bottle of wine, tackle all those things at once and write a post about my little brother, whom I adore and miss like crazy.  He just celebrated his 45th birthday, and it hurt that I wasn’t able to be with him to toss back probably more than a few whatevers, celebrating with him, my sister-in-law and our parents.  I’ve gotta tell you:  even with all the modern technology available that supposedly enables us to keep in touch with each other better than ever before–even Skype, which allows us to see each other while we’re talking–none of it is a remotely good substitute for actually being there.  My brother has this . . . presence.  And I just love being with him.

Though we have a lot in common, my brother and I are very different people.  I don’t think we look at all alike, but others tell us we do.


We had a similar upbringing–obviously–but had very different experiences as young adults.  My brother attended one university, had one major, joined a fraternity, partied like it was 1999, got engaged to a hippie chick but broke up before they graduated, married a different woman shortly after graduating, and then got divorced.

I attended four schools, declared two different majors, mocked frats and sororities, partied far less than my brother, graduated in . . . um . . . eight years, also got engaged and broke it off, then married someone else more than twenty years later.  Oh yeah, and I started two graduate programs at two different schools, neither of which I finished.  I could be a fucking doctor by now, but I only have a bachelor’s degree in geography to show for all those years of school.  My brother has the same degree from the same school, and he got his in five.

Like most big sisters, when we were kids, much of the time I hated my brother like poison.  He was a typical little brother:  following me everywhere, touching my things (imagine!) and being a general pain in the ass.

Dude & Mocha

You know how it is.  I wrote hateful things about him in my diary (what big sister didn’t?),  and once my dad read it and reprimanded me, seriously worried about what I’d written.  (I was maybe 10 or 11 at the time, by the way.  An ex-fiancé violated that privacy as well, years later, which literally caused me to throw out all the diaries and journals I’d kept up until about the age of 23.  God, how I wish I hadn’t done that.)

By the time I was in high school, we had become pretty good friends.  And when I went away to college, we both realized we missed each other a lot.

Beach sibs 1983

[Sigh.  I was so skinny back in the day.]  We worked a summer job together at Silver Lake Family Campground outside Haymarket, Virginia, cleaning up “goose poopies” and renting pedal-boats as part of our daily tasks, and listening to Purple Rain and When Doves Cry on the jukebox.   I withdrew from college at the beginning of my second year, worked full-time, then went on an extended trip to London with a friend and talked about how I might not come home.  More long-distance bonding with brother.

Then, in 1985, came the event that, I believe, guaranteed our permanent bond from that point forward:  my parents moved our family from northern Virginia to Rapid City, South Dakota.  (They bribed us with waterbeds.)  We moved within a few weeks of my return from London, offering me an opportunity to experience the culture shock of a lifetime.  Mom and dad drove in one car, and my brother and I drove in mine.  I was 19 at the time; he was 15.  I have a very clear memory of us driving across South Dakota on I-90, looking at each other, horrified, and asking, “What IS this place?  Where the HELL are mom and dad taking us?”

Amazingly, we both survived–although my brother, at his impressionable age, sometimes allowed himself to be swayed by the local trends


while I strictly adhered to a more cosmopolitan 80s fashion and hairstyle.

80s sibs

I commuted to a local college, and my brother finished high school.  After graduation, he left to attend the University of Wyoming.  Meanwhile, I transferred to my third school as an undergraduate, this time back in my home state of Pennsylvania.  He and I wrote to each other and talked on the phone a lot.  Somehow he convinced me not only to transfer–one last time–to UW, but to share an apartment as well.  It was during this time we started calling each other Dude.  To this day, I call him Dude.  And so I will refer to him as Dude from here on out.

For the longest time, I seemed to be the mature one.  Being the firstborn sibling, I was supposed to be the responsible one.  And for a while, I kinda was–in my mind, at least.  Dude was the frat boy, the partier, the rock climber, the shooter of paintballs–the one who got in trouble with mom and dad.  Though I was clearly incapable of committing to one school, I had always received high grades and rarely got in trouble.  That is, until I got engaged to George.  No one liked George:  neither my parents nor any of my friends thought him worthy.  But my brother stuck up for him–and for me.  And when I broke up with George–for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was him reading my journal without permission–Dude didn’t say “I told you so.”

A lot more long-distance bonding occurred when I supported him through the breakup of his first marriage.  As divorces go–especially since there were no children involved–it maybe wasn’t the most traumatizing one on the books.  But at the time, it was the end of the world as he knew it.  And he did NOT feel fine.  It was worse than awful for him, and I performed my role as Big Sister to the best of my ability from 1300 miles away.  But I regret not being able to actually Be. There. for him.  It’s really hard to only be able to offer a shoulder to cry on over the phone.

Christmas sibs

Since then, however, my brother and I seem to have switched roles.  He’s become the stable career professional, working his way up through the ranks of the U.S. Forest Service with co-workers who love and respect him.  He remarried and has lived in the same town for the past twenty years.

D & K

He bought his first house on his own after his divorce, and has almost completely remodeled the one he bought with my sister-in-law more than ten years ago.  He has never lost his job, experienced the humiliation of calls from a collection agency, or been on unemployment like yours truly.  He’s learned to hunt with a rifle and crossbow, successfully parents two dogs,


has owned a business and climbed Devil’s Tower, builds his own furniture and makes his own German sausage, and is a fabulous cook.  He doesn’t gain weight or need glasses, over-analyze, obsess over every little thing or live in the past.  He’s brilliant, irreverent, afraid of nothing, and he can make me laugh till I cry.


On the other hand, it took me eight years and four schools to finish a bachelor’s degree.  I’ve put myself in debt to attend graduate school and never finished, have owned four homes in three states, haven’t held a job for more than two years since 2007, been on unemployment twice in the past four years, work 19 hours a week for $12.56 an hour and haven’t had medical insurance since last summer.  I’ve struggled with my weight for the past twenty years and am more nearsighted than anyone I’ve ever met.  I question everything, beat myself up continually, feel like I can’t do anything right and usually wish I were anywhere but where I am.  And recently I yelled at my husband about how angry and resentful I am that he has a better job than me.  I’m a real prize, aren’t I?

Valerie the witch

I’ve posted this photo before:  as long as the shoe fits, I’ll continue to wear it.

The bottle’s almost empty, so before I start bawling all over myself, I need to let the Universe know how grateful I am for my family, Dude in particular.  I love him more than I can say, and I am unspeakably proud of the man he’s become and the life he’s built for himself.  There are days I miss him so much it makes me cry.

My brother has made an ordinary life extraordinary simply by living it and being who he is.


Valerie photo courtesy Act III Communication