Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Small Town Girl

A few weeks ago I flew home for a family wedding.  

I took my boyfriend, Jason because I needed to win an argument we’d been having. (I also love him but that’s not important to the story.)  For most of the year, he’s been insisting that he grew up in a small town, just like me.

The small town he’s referring to is Tucson - population 1.2 million. 

You can understand why I needed to take him to North Dakota - population 700,000.

We packed our winter hats, apologized ahead of time to our livers and arrived in Valley City, ND ready to celebrate.  The morning of the wedding, Jason and I drove to my hometown of Wimbledon - population 250 - so I could officially win the argument. 

After almost an hour in the car where we have not seen a single stoplight (or person) I could feel him beginning to concede.  We arrived in Wimbledon and pulled up to the local grocery store where I had once accidentally locked myself in the meat locker.

We walked in and were immediately greeted by my (surprised) elementary art teacher. She was working at the store now and showed us around, eventually leading us to the newly renovated cafe where five women sat around a table, chatting.  One of them looked up and blinked at me, confused.


It was the woman who used to babysit me.  The woman who let me collect eggs from the chicken coop and who taught me that purple cabbage was delicious.  And then all the women glanced up.  

I knew every single one of them. They sat us down, fed us hot coffee and homemade caramel roles and welcomed me home.

Eventually, we said goodbye and I took Jason around the rest of Wimbledon pointing out important places - the kickball field where I’d kissed my first boy, the whispering willow tree I used to ride my bike under, and the school that my grandfather, my father, and myself had all attended.

We left town and drove down the long gravel road to our families’ farm. Even though I had grown up here, I was startled how quiet it was. The cars and rush of Los Angeles seemed far away. 

On the way back to Valley City, Jason admitted I had won.  I’d like to say I hadn’t needed to hear that, but let’s be honest - if felt good. 

Later, surrounded by friends and family at the wedding, I danced to Journey with my cousins, polkaed with my Uncle and tried to save Jason from the men who kept warning, “You better take care of her…” 

I had forgotten what this was like.  To be known - deeply and for a long time - by most of the people around you. To be able to see a part of your history in the faces staring  back at you. Hollywood felt so far away.  I jumped up and down to John Mellencamp and things felt easier and warmer and more possible.

The next day at breakfast I bounced my little nephew on my lap and thought about how lucky he was to be growing up here. Yes, I had moved away from this place and no, I’m not sure I’ll ever move back but the groundwork this town set down for me gives me something to stand strong on in Los Angeles.

I realized as we flew back to California that Jason might be right.  I’m actually not from a small town at all.  I’m from a giant family.  

Population 250.  

This piece was originally written for the Fargo Forum.  You can find them (and me) here.

"The Exes"

A few weeks ago I filmed my first sitcom.

I’m going to be honest and say it was pretty exciting to just write that sentence.  

It was even more exciting because this was a role I never thought I would play. “Ashely” was described as a “sexy, party-girl.” 

I usually play that kind of girl’s nerdy, socially awkward, best friend.  

But I tapped into that one time in college when my roommates and I threw a giant party (before I cried and left the house) and it went well.  The producers must have thought so too because a week later I was walking onto the set of “The Exes” (watch it on TVLand!)

I was led to my dressing room and greeted by the cast (people I have watched and admired on TV for years.) I looked around at the cameras, the crew, the actors and I couldn’t help but remember the very first time I was ever on a studio lot.  The very first time I ever auditioned for a big role.  The very first time I ever came close to my dream.

And it hadn’t been like this at all.

I had just signed with my new manager and it was my first network audition.  Before that, I had only been auditioning for student films and films that made sure to start every audition with the words, “we can’t pay you but…”  

So I wanted everything to go perfectly.

The morning of the audition I rehearsed and rehearsed. I had chosen the perfect outfit - a salmon colored dress with short sleeves - and decided exactly how to wear my hair.  But as I stood in my pre-planned outfit reciting my lines, I happened to glance in the mirror and realized my perfect dress highlighted something unfortunate: My sweaty arm pits.

I panicked. Changing my dress was not an option.  I had planned on this dress after trying and rejecting everything else in my closet.  

My audition was in an hour and I needed a solution immediately.  Just before I thought I might have to go buy a new dress, I remembered something.

A minute later I was digging through my bathroom drawer.  Finally, I pulled out exactly what I was looking for: Maxi-Pads.

I had read that you could use the pads to line the armpits of a dress.  Plus, it said right there on the package they had “moisture-locking protection.”  It was perfect.

As I crossed onto the Warner Brothers lot I was confident. I knew my lines, I had on the perfect dress, and I had moisture-free armpits.

I strolled to my audition and I noticed that everyone was being incredibly kind to me.  An important looking man held the door, a producer I knew waved kindly at me, a a complete stranger said hello.  If this was what big-time Hollywood was like, I thought, sign me up.

A few minutes before my audition I ducked into the bathroom to do a final check.

Teeth – check!  Hair – check!  Make-up – check!  Armpits -

I stopped.


There, hanging out of the sleeve of my dress was one of the bright pink maxi-pads.

I couldn’t breath, I couldn’t even look at myself. 

This was why people had been so nice to me.  This was why people had smiled at me with, what I know realized, was sympathy - not kindness. 

I stood there, staring at myself in the mirror, humiliated. 

But now, as I stood in my dressing room about to film my scenes for “The Exes” I thought back to that day, almost three years ago.  

I realized none of that mattered. 

I may never be the girl who has it all together, who doesn’t get nervous and who never makes mistakes. I am not the sexy, party-girl with the perfect hair and the perfectly dry armpits.

But I play one on TV.

This piece was originally written for the Fargo Forum.  You can find them (and me) here.


This week I turned 30.  

For any woman, this tends to be a big milestone.  

As a woman living in Hollywood, surrounded by other women who are young, and beautiful, and young, and YOUNG, it can feel like an even bigger deal.  

As an actor, I’m forced compete with young twenty-somethings for roles like “sexy roommate” or “hot friend.” The young twenty-something inevitably shows up wearing what appears to be a few rubber bands strung together while I’m in a dress that hides my soon-to-be thirty-something thighs.

I’m sorry, what?  Oh, no I haven’t thought at all about how turning thirty affects me. 

To be honest, I have spent a lot of the time leading up to my birthday pretending I was okay.  Pretending I was above all the cliche worry of moving into a new decade.  But as the day crept closer, I started to feel a squeeze of panic in the back of my chest.  As a distraction, I threw myself into planning my party.

I had thought a lot about how to celebrate the big 3-0 and it occurred to me that what I really wanted was to be home, celebrating in the Midwest.  So, I decided to bring the Midwest to me with a “Midwest Style” birthday party.  

To make it really authentic, my parents flew in with twenty-six pounds of deer sausage and five pounds of lefse.

The morning of the party my dad grilled up the meat, my mom made five of my favorite hotdishes and my best-friend Noah made meat cigars.

It was a big hit.

My LA friends were impressed with the “organic” deer meet and the “grass fed” beef and I floated around in a dirty martini and tater-tot hotdish dreamland. 

So when my boyfriend, Jason, started ushering everyone into the living room I was confused.  This was not part of the plan.  We were supposed to eat our weight in deer sticks and fall bloated into bed. 

Jason sat me on the couch, turned on the TV, and two of my very close friends appeared across the screen.  I immediately downed my martini and looked around for tissue.

As they screamed “HAPPY BIRTHDAY” into the camera white letters flickered across the screen and straight into my heart.

“Jessica, you’ve often talked about missing a place that feels like home. But home isn’t a place.  It’s the people who love you. On your 30th birthday a few of those people wanted to remind you that home is already with you wherever you go.”

Oh no. I had not planned to cry on my birthday but I figured it’s my party and I’ll…well, you know.  My eyes burned as I watched friends from childhood, friends from LA, family back home, and roommates from college wish me a happy birthday.

I was stunned.

I thought about the secret panic I had felt, the worry about competing with rubber band-dressed women, and the emotion of leaving behind a decade that has been exhausting but also pretty great.  As I sat watching the video, I really thought about whether or not I was terrified to turn thirty. And the answer was so obvious.

Not at all.

If turning thirty means I have spent that time fostering these friendships, finding these people, and shaping my life into what it looks like now, then 30 is nothing but a gift. 

Sure my twenties were exciting and adventurous and life changing but they were also incredibly exhausting. And I’m ready.  I’m so ready for the next decade.  

As the last images faded from the screen I took a big bite of hotdish and smiled.  

Because I have a ton of friends who love me and a the perfect dress to hide my thighs.

This piece was originally written for the Fargo Forum.  You can find them (and me) here.


Nothing makes me miss the Midwest like autumn.    

Growing up, I loved the crisp air, changing leaves, and trying to figure out how to hide my snow pants under my Cinderella Halloween costume. 

Here in Los Angeles, it has been 90 degrees for the last week and autumn colors are only found on ad campaigns for Bloomingdales, not on actual trees.  

This always makes me a little sad, so to fight the melancholy (and for my boyfriend’s birthday) I decided to do something that always gets me in the fall spirit: Bake a pie. 

I dug out my grandma’s piecrust recipe and headed to the local grocery store for the ingredients.  Now, if the women in my family have taught me one thing, it’s that you cannot make a decent piecrust without lard.  

After a few unsuccessful attempts at finding this essential ingredient, I finally decided to call ahead to the next store to save myself a trip.

“Hi, I was just calling to check if you sold lard?”

There was a long pause at the end of the line.  Finally, the grocer responded. 

“Um, how do you spell that?”

“Lard.  L-A-R-D.  Like, animal fat.”

There was another long, much more judgmental, pause.

“…No, we definitely don’t have anything like that.”

I hung up the phone and was so frustrated that when I finally did find L-A-R-D (at a specialty grocery store hidden behind their last lamb chop) I had to resist the urge to hold it over my head and give some kind of Midwest war cry.

After that, I was on a mission. I was determined to have a lard-filled Midwest-style fall, despite the obstacles.  I wore scarves and leggings, I drank hot pumpkin spice lattes and defiantly put a pumpkin on my porch to wither in the sun. 

In the midst of my fervor, I decided I needed a garden. A garden would make me feel better, a garden would remind me of late autumn nights with my mom.  I pulled on my heavy black boots and my wool scarf and headed out into the 90-degree heat.

Two hours later, I was on my way back. I breathed in the scent of my back seat – beet plants, peas, winter tomatoes, and the flowers that reminded me of the farm. 

It felt good.  It felt right.  If I closed my eyes to the palm trees I could almost imagine I was home.

As I came over a hill, my breath caught in my throat.  From the top of the street, I could see the ocean sparkling in the sun.  It was beautiful, and stunning, and something I could only get in Los Angeles.

I pulled my car over and stared at the sea.  I sat there with the sun on my face and realized that what I was actually trying to recreate wasn’t about autumn at all.  It wasn’t about the changing leaves or the pies or even the weather. What I missed, what I sometimes felt desperate for, was the community.  The traditions that made me feel a part of something bigger – that made me feel at home. 

Sometimes mourning so deeply for things from the past stops you from seeing the future that is sparkling right in front you.  

I felt something inside me unlock and I pulled off my scarf and boots and rolled down the windows so I could breathe in the ocean.  The salty air mixed with the smell of tomato plants and I smiled.  This was something new and different – and it was just as lovely.

I drove home feeling lighter.  I had fall vegetables in my car, I had the ocean in front of me, and in my freezer were pie crusts made from lard.  

This piece was originally written for the Fargo Forum.  You can find them (and me) here.

Love Life

Last week I moved in with my boyfriend.

If you are picking up the phone to call my grandmother, you can hang up.  I’ve already told her and she promptly proposed a double wedding with my cousin and his fiancĂ©. 

I’ve never lived with a boyfriend before; in fact I hadn’t planned on living with someone I loved until I married them. It had nothing to do with my religious views or any moral compass issues but came down to one simple thing. 

That’s not how I was raised. 

Growing up on the farm, everyone around me got married before moving in.  Like getting the day off from school for the opening of Deer Hunting Season, it’s just what you did.

And now, even though I’m twenty-nine and Los Angeles is a long way from North Dakota, my heart had to really consider. This was an even bigger decision than when I chose to get serious with a man who didn’t know what lefse was. 

When I started to think about it (and put aside the obvious fact that I was madly in love) there was another truth that was much harder to admit.  

Los Angeles can be lonely.

After a particularly bad audition, a rejection letter, or even just bad traffic it can start to feel like it’s me against the city.  I come home to an empty apartment and there are times when watching Netflix in bed feels a little empty.

My grandfather knew a little about this too.

Before meeting my grandma, he had been a bachelor for forty-two years and knew what it meant to be lonely.  He knew that finding and fostering love took time and care.

Before he died, he was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to find love in Los Angeles among the “crazy hippie Democrats.”  Every time we spoke he would ask the same question. 

“How’s the love life?” 

And when I thought about answering that question now, I realized maybe taking this step was exactly how I was raised.  I was taught to move towards happiness and that when you are lucky enough to find love you wrap your arms around it and try not to let it slip away.

So I packed my boxes, painted my walls and said goodbye to my sweet little apartment. 

And so far, it’s been great.

Sure, all of his furniture is dark and heavy and looks like it washed up on a beach after being at sea for a hundred years and my furniture looks like a little old-lady named Loretta used it to cross-stitch doilies for her multiple grandchildren.   

But we’re working on it.

Now, if I’m having a particularly intense bout of writer’s block or a more-hurtful-than-normal audition I don’t come home to an empty house.  I come home to a man sitting in a dark, heavy chair who loves me. 

And yes, even though living with a man before I’m married might have made my grandpa shake his head, he would also have shaken my boyfriend’s hand. 

Because he would have known that finally, my love life is pretty great.

This piece was originally written for the Fargo Forum.  You can find them (and me) here.

Marcia, Marcia, Marcia

Two years after moving to Los Angeles to become a writer and an actor I became a server.

I had been working full-time at a technology company but as my auditions started to pick up I had to find a job that was more flexible.  So I left my comfortable, salaried position, in a nice office with nice people and started to wait tables at an Italian restaurant.

When I tied on that apron for the first time I felt like I was doubling down on my dreams.  It felt good – like I was proving to myself that I was willing to do anything to succeed. I was not out in LA to have a career at a technology company but to do something I had dreamed about since I was a little girl and waiting tables would allow me to do that.

Sure, I had two bachelors’ degrees and wasn’t going to be using them but I was determined to stay positive.  Serving wouldn’t be so bad – and think of all the fun new people I was going to meet!

That was three years ago. 

These days that technology company is looking better and better.

The noble notion of ‘doing anything for my career’ has worn off a little and it’s a lot more difficult to keep my chin up. True, I am closer to my dreams.  But it’s also true that I am not close enough to quit my “day job.”  

And I really want to.

A few weeks ago, I waited on four gentlemen in their early sixties and when I went up to their table for the first time I said what I always say. 

“Hi gentleman. Welcome. My name is Jessica and I’ll be taking care of you tonight.” 

I said my name a few more times throughout their dinner and at the end of the night, as they walked out of the restaurant, I opened the door and thanked them for coming.  

One of the men patted my arm, looked right into my eyes and said sincerely, “Thank you so much, Marcia.”


Not even ‘Jennifer’ or ‘Ashley’ or any other common top-five girl name from the early 1980s.  

I didn’t even correct him but just grinned and said, “You are SO welcome.”

A few days later, over some cocktails, I related this story to some of my friends.  When I got to the big finish, instead of laughing, a giant lump rose in my throat and before I knew it I was crying into my gin martini. 

I wasn’t upset about a stranger forgetting my name after too many glasses of wine.  I was upset about the fact that I was still in a position where a stranger could forget my name after a few glasses of wine.  

I moved to Los Angeles to write and act, not to wait tables and while I am lucky to have a job, there are times when the giant leap I took moving here can feel like a big mistake.  Like I landed so far from my goals that I might not get there at all.

I’m embarrassed and tired.  And worst of all, I feel a little like a failure.

A failure who knows entirely too much about Italian cheese and wine.

The next morning I woke up with puffy eyes, a massive headache, and an email from my manager.  I had an audition.  

With that simple email, I felt a little hope – hope that’s easy to lose in plates of pasta and demanding customers – creep back in.  

That night at work I tied my apron on tightly, closed my eyes, and took a deep breath.  This will not be forever.  This is temporary.  This is a choice that I’m making because that’s how much I’m willing to bet on myself.

Because I believe – I have to believe – that one day my customers are going to turn on their TVs or open a book and see my face.

And they’ll think to themselves, “Wow. Marcia really made it.”

This piece was originally written for the Fargo Forum.  You can find them (and me) here.

18 People - One Bathroom

Here in Los Angeles, anxiety is my cardio.

And I’m in really good shape.

I wasn’t always this way. In college I may have stayed up all night writing a paper but I was pretty relaxed doing it. 

Somewhere along the way – between struggling through LA traffic and facing constant rejection– anxiety started to creep into my daily life until it seemed as natural as my blonde hair.  (And there’s nothing natural about either one.)

It’s not until I go home that I remember the tightness in my chest isn’t supposed to be how breathing feels and I can relax.

This time was no different.  

Last month, I decided after almost a year of dating, it was finally time for my family to meet my boyfriend.  

The only place Jason (aforementioned boyfriend) had ever been in the upper Midwest was Minneapolis and, as my father pointed out, ‘that just doesn’t count.’  So we packed our bags, left my anxiety in a safe place, and flew to Minnesota for my family’s annual Lake Cabin Family Weekend.

I thought this would kill a lot of birds with one giant stone, not thinking that Jason might have some anxiety of his own meeting eighteen of my family members at one time. I happily chattered to him about the joys of the lake cabin as we flew toward Minnesota, describing each of my family members in vivid detail.  

I quickly sped through the part that included him sleeping in a loft, with no air conditioning and no walls, with my parents at his feet. I also made sure to breeze by the section about there being only one, very finicky toilet. 

That’s right, eighteen people, one bathroom – which will also be the title of the memoir Jason’s sure to write about this experience. 

As we rolled up to my aunt and uncle’s cabin I couldn’t contain my joy to be in the place that had shaped so many childhood memories.  I squeezed Jason’s knee as my family began to move toward our vehicle like a pack of Scandinavian wolves, curious about the newly imported meat from California.

“Isn’t this great!”  I kissed Jason’s cheek and pushed him out of the car.

And it was.  Even Jason will tell you that.

About five minutes after meeting everyone, my cousins decided to initiate Jason into ‘lake culture’ by taking him to Zorbaz and taking a group shot out of a ski – a shotski. 

That really set the tone for the whole weekend.  

Despite the lack of bathroom facilities, my warm, wonderful family accepted my warm, wonderful boyfriend like he was one of their own and I felt that last, secret piece of anxiety I’d been holding onto release.  

On the last night, we all sat around the low campfire as the lake lapped against the rocks and a few yards away a Loon called. I took a deep breath and the grassy, musky lake air smelled like happiness.

I tilted my head back and looked at the stars.  There were millions and the peace I always feel in this place washed over me.

And too soon, it was over.

When Jason and I arrived back in Los Angeles, my anxiety was right where I left it. The city was hot and noisy and so far away from the log cabin with one bathroom.

I slipped into a deep melancholy, which I tried to ease with cheap red wine and re-runs of “Sex and The City.”  I pushed my suitcase into a corner and couldn’t bring myself to unzip it.

After day number two of wine for breakfast and staring at my unpacked luggage, I decided maybe what I needed was a really long walk.  I grabbed my dog and headed out into the evening.

The city was quieting down and I could hear dishes being washed and families laughing through their open windows. A few blocks into our walk, I stopped and looked up at the sky.  I couldn’t see the stars and when I breathed in I didn’t smell the lake.

Then I realized, what I could see were the sparkling lights of the city.  And if I took a deep enough breath, it smelled like ocean.

And that’s something pretty special too.

This piece was originally written for the Fargo Forum.  You can find them (and me) here.