Storm Cellar

I was around 8 years old when Grandma & Grandpa bought a brand new brick home in the nice part of town. They had snagged one of the bigger yards in the area and spent many a day in their gardens as they babysat us during the summer months.

The greatest novelty to their house, though, was the 12-person large storm cellar. When a wall cloud appeared in the sky or there were high winds, my grandparents would lead us out into the backyard where the storm cellar was. They’d lift the heavy metal door, and we would head inside.

I remember that it was a kind of game, how quickly we could load ourselves into the cellar. We set up blankets, flashlights, and a handheld radio on the concrete benches during the non-tornado season months.

We’d get the neighbors involved during some of our drills. We understood that when the time came, not one, but two families would come to this cellar to hunker down. (Anyone who lives in tornado alley has had their fair share of confined spaces during the months of May to July.)

In 1982, our NE Texas little town was hit by a mighty F4 tornado. 10 people lost their lives, 170 people were injured, 435 homes were destroyed and a thousand people were left homeless. It’s the kind of tragedy that brought people together back then. Not long after that, storm cellars were required across every 3 homes built, because if another tornado like that hit, we were not willing to take the human losses like that again.

I’ve been thinking about that storm cellar this week and what it signifies about the human spirit. About how when catastrophe strikes, humans inevitably try to help one another and work together towards a common goal.

In 2011, on the other side of the world, I was around to see another natural disaster and its effects, in the Queensland floods. Thousands of homes flooded in the span of a day. In the days following, thousands of people returned to homes to empty it of all their contents. It was quite the sight to see friends and strangers come together to help with recovery efforts.

Fast forward to 2020, and things seem so different. That belief in the inherent goodness of people has faltered. Social media may have had its part in building the divisions amongst us, but how much of that has been social engineering? I want to believe that this darkest timeline will end sooner rather than later, but until that happens, I’ll keep dreaming about that storm cellar and all that it represents.

The Last Volley

I stood on the edge of the court and watched as the volleyball spiraled towards me. I threw up my hands and covered my face with my arms. The ball hit my elbows and crashed to the gym floor. The group of nine- and ten-year-old girls groaned at me.

“Melony, pick up the ball and serve it,” the gym teacher, Ms Graham, said with no small hint of annoyance.

I picked it up, threw it into the air, flailed my arms to hit it and grazed it with my pinky finger. I watched in horror as the ball landed onto my forehead.

The frustration of the room transformed into laughter. The gym teacher blew her whistle to return to a state of calm and called Christi to my side. “Show her how it’s done.”

I watched in awe. She threw the ball straight up, jumped, and at the exact right second, she smacked the ball with her palm. It flew over the heads of my classmates onto the other side of the net.

The game continued until the whistle sounded again, only it was the period whistle to announce the end of class. Thankfully, the ball never came my way again.

I gathered my belongings and skulked past my classmates to make my way out. Ms Graham caught me as I tried to sneak past. Her hand landed on my shoulder and three words came out of her mouth I didn’t want to hear, “A word, please.”

I stopped and walked closer to her. Out of every teacher I had ever had since kindergarten, Ms Graham was the only one that didn’t like me. Aside from being able to run fast, I was perhaps the example of a bookish nerd with no skill in athletics. 

“I tried,” I said, “honest, I did.”

“I know. But trying isn’t enough in my class.”

I flinched. I didn’t know how I could improve on this one thing.

“I feel I need to be upfront with you. If you can’t get this right, I will have to give you a C this term,” Ms Graham said.

A C! No, nonononononono.

“But-“ I said.

“No. Listen,” she crossed her arms for added effect. “This is how you get an A. You need to serve the ball and get it over the net. And you have to hit bump the ball, again over the net.”

She must have seen the terror written all over my face, so after an uncomfortable break, she continued, “You need to do this once before the term is up.”

I gulped and nodded before I realized what I was doing. She showed me to my homeroom and apologized to the teacher before leaving.

I couldn’t focus on class for the rest of the morning; instead, I spent my time planning. Two weeks to master these two simple little things. But first. I’d need Christi to help me.

The next morning thirty minutes before school began, I entered the gym and took a volleyball out of the equipment locker. Christi agreed to help me, for the price of a nutter butter every day. 

For two weeks, I would leave the gym with red palms and fresh new bruises on my forearms from the force of the ball. And every day for nearly two weeks, I would walk away certain that the C inched that little bit closer.

When the end of the term came and I hadn’t heard from Ms Graham about her requirement, I went to her office.

“Uh, Ms Graham?” I said. “It’s the end of term.”

“I’m aware,” she said. Her eyes met mine. “I know I told you trying wasn’t good enough. But you’ve changed my mind. I’ve watched you over the last two weeks try very hard to get it. Your arms are covered in bruises to prove the point.”

I tried to hide my arms into my sides.

“We both learned a valuable lesson, I think. I’ll let you decide what that is. Anyways, you’ll be getting a B+ this term.”

I never considered fighting back. I accepted her grade and her reasoning and walked away with a half smile on my face. I would never be a natural athlete, but if I worked hard enough, I could pass as an below average one.

Layers of Guilt


Pre-COVID happy space

CW: Mental Health - ish

Every week for at least a month, I have sat down at my desktop computer to write. The blinking cursor surrounded by white space taunts me, “You have no words.”

But I do. Just not the right ones.

For a while now, I have felt guilty that the pandemic has not affected me much. I’m exceedingly lucky to have a job from which I work from home. I even have a separate room that allows me to switch on and switch off from work. I’m healthy and everyone I know is healthy. I live in a state and a country with far fewer cases than those of my friends and family in other countries. And all of this. Every single bit of it. Gives me such overwhelming guilt.

It has been that guilt that has stilled my hands, and so the blinking cursor’s rhythmic taunts continue.

After an impromptu chat with some of my best writer friends, I decided I need to ignore that guilt. Every story is different, and why shouldn’t I talk about some of my experience with this cursed year?

I have wanted to talk about how much harder it is to write in 2020, the year of COVID-19. At first, I thought my writer’s block was because I am feeling the inequality in the world all that much greater (it’s so bad!) . And then I thought it was because I’m addicted to video games again (over 665 hour on Animal Crossing). And then I thought it was because I’ve turned lazy and incapable of doing anything productive.

The truth is: While all of those things, and the layers of guilt that come with them, certainly have something to do with it, the primary reason is because of the loss of my writing space.

I mentioned before that I have a separate room from which I work 40 hours a week. That room, once upon a time, was my creation space. The place where I built worlds and spent hours fighting inner demons. But in March, all of that changed when I went from one-day-a-week working from home to five days a week.

When I first started working from home full-time, I started at 5:30am and finished around 6pm. I felt I owed it to my company to get the most out of my day as possible, since they were trusting me to do this abnormal working arrangement. I would forget to eat lunch or take breaks; I’d sometimes even forget I hadn’t gone to the bathroom in hours (yikes). (I should note that at no time did the business ever require this of me; it was completely self-imposed.)

In May, the company started sending out mental health communications. It seemed I was not alone in doing too much. At an online seminar, a psychologist told us tricks to stop this vicious cycle. They were simple:

  1. Set your start time and do not turn your computer on until it’s time.
  2. Set a lunch hour in your calendar. That way no one will schedule a meeting when you’re “switched off.”
  3. Set your end time. Turn off the computer and close the door to the room, if you have a separate office space.

While these tips didn’t help most people in the company, since finding a spare room is near impossible in most households, they helped me. I spoke with my manager and set my boundaries. 7am start time, 12pm lunch break, 4pm finish time. It was a great setup, which I have largely maintained since.

Only, I didn’t realize at the time that it had reprogrammed my brain to think my creative space is now a work space, and I continued to sabotage my desk by putting post-it notes around my monitors to remind me of color codes for Power BI and formulas I wrote “just in case,” spiral notebooks filled with minutes and ad hoc notes, and a calendar with meeting times and reminders (because I’m old and like to duplicate what’s already in my Outlook calendar).

Still, as I mourn the loss of my creative place, I’m also riddled with the guilt of having an office and work and health (sorta – I’m fat, ya’ll) and the privilege that comes with all of that. But I’m also incapable of knowing how I can help change my world, let alone this world.

Layers of guilt is healthy, right? Sure. Yep. Totally.

Recovering racist

CW: Racism

It was March 2002. This morning’s topic of conversation: the 2002 Oscars. It had aired the night before, and I was excitedly talking about my favorite moments. I (a white-appearing part Native American) was sitting on my white male manager’s counter-desk with my heels hitting his overstuffed filing cabinets.

“I was so glad Halle won!” I said. I pumped out my chest as the head chef, a Texas-bred black man, walked by and nodded at us.

“Yeah, same,” my manager said. His smile half-seen as he focused on his computer screen. “And Denzel.”

I shook my head, “Nah, dude. He didn’t deserve it. It was only cuz-of that Affirmative Action bullshit that he won. Denzel should’ve won for The Hurricane in ‘99.”

My manager swung his chair around, stood up, passed me, and closed his door. On the other side, the chef walked past again, eyes narrowed.

“You can’t talk that way!” my manager said. He crossed his arms.

“Uh, what?” I asked, oblivious. I didn’t want to admit that I had mimed the words my father had said earlier.

“It makes you sound racist,” he said with a stern expression.

“I’m not a racist!” The knee-jerk reactionary words rang in the closed-in space. “My best friends in high school and college were black.”

He shook his head and walked back to his chair. He sat, posture rigid, practically imposing.

“That’s exactly what racists say.”

“But it’s true.” 

I jumped off his desk and landed with a soft thud on the ground. “I’m done here,” I swung open the door and crossed its threshold.

He called back to me, but I ignored him. I stalked into the ladies’ bathroom, cheeks burning. I’m not. I’ve never – Who does he think he is?

I didn’t know it then, but he had sown the seeds of doubt in me. 

I think back now to my high school and college friends, the ones I so boldly misused as mascots to my non-racism. I think about the trombone player with broad shoulders and a broader smile. I think about how instead of playing football as he would have been “suggested” to do, he spent his days practicing his instrument and playing Mario Kart with his white friends in his upper-middle-class home. I think about the half-black girl adopted by two white parents and how she never sounded “black”. 

Did they code-switch to match their environment? Probably. Did I know what code-switching was back in 2002? Absolutely not. 

I think about my college friend. His blackness was the butt of every joke he told since he was the minority in our circle of friends. “Horror movies have it all wrong. As a black man, lemme tell ya. There ain’t no way in hell he’s walkin’ into that house. He’s high-tailin’ it outta there.”

He’d laugh, we’d laugh, and I just wonder now if that wore away at his racial pride at all.

I didn’t do or generally say the things overt racists do, but that does not mean that it wasn’t there. From an early age, I learned from my parents to keep my feelings hidden. I’d hear Dad say things in the privacy of our home. It would be a natural occurrence for him to say the n-word or other slurs that should never be uttered. Raised in a strict and sheltered household, it was normal. This was how everyone acted. I was too close to it to see the truth.

It took one closed door and a frank word for me to realize I might be racist.

It would take longer yet to overcome the deep programming of my youth, and it would take distance from my family for me to see the source of my hate. It would take reading other people’s stories to understand how generational trauma occurs and affects people. And it would take documentarians to show me the truth about racial profiling and incarceration.

I can’t say I’m the best person to talk to about racism. I’m probably not the ally that people of color need right now. But I do know, sometimes all it takes is one nudge to change a person’s heart. 

So you can be damned sure I will speak up if I hear a racist comment. 

Island Escape

It would seem I am not okay.

Until yesterday I had assumed I was. But as another day settled and all I did was work and play Animal Crossing, I realized the truth. I’m escaping from this solitary existence into a game with ten imaginary friends.

For those not “in the know”, Animal Crossing: New Horizons is the latest in a long-going series of games developed by Nintendo. The aim is, well, nothing specific. It’s a simulation game where you pretend to be a creature living on an island. It’s pure imagination-fueled. You are given an island, basically, and you have to catch fish and bugs and garden and spend copious amounts of currency (on bridges, furniture, inclines) until you can make your island less, you know, island-y. As you travel through the game, you get cute anthropomorphic residents (my favorites are a sheep, a zebra, and an anteater). None of them have jobs or do much of anything except sometimes sing or pretend to fish and catch bugs or ask you weird random questions or give you clothes for no reason. It’s cute, it’s relaxing, and best of all, it’s all yours.

I have logged over 250 hours into the game already (released 22 Mar). It’s been all-consuming. Over a 4 day weekend, I planned to write, do some weeding, read a bit, watch a couple of movies, and finish crocheting a scarf (because: cooler weather, yo!). I managed to do… none of those things. I was caught in a vortex.

I woke on Friday morning with the best idea. Make a secret hidden amusement park at the back of my island. Once I went down that rabbit hole, it turned to adding a bamboo forest and moving all the residents into their own little village, and the list goes on.

It seems I’m not alone in my not-okay-ness. The sheer volume of people talking about it on Twitter and Facebook and Reddit, and so on, is just mind-boggling. It was my therapy, but no more. I know it for what it is. It’s an addiction.

So now that I’ve said it, did I reach the first step? Am I cured? I both hope so and hope not. Because, I love my little island and it brings me such joy. (Pictures because why not?)


(Also, for those that do play and wanna be friends, my friend code is SW-3080-7022-4167)