first person & essays

“Strange People, these Americans,” Christian Science Monitor

More than a decade ago, I found myself leaving a small, warm European country where I grew up – Moldova – for a cold place called Alaska, where winter claimed half the year and strange Americans walked around with permanent smiles on their faces. I was about to attend the University of Alaska, Anchorage, and had looked forward to my trip for many months. But when the customs door slammed behind me at Anchorage International Airport, it took me a moment to recover from a faint thought: I was all alone in a strange land, with strange people, houses, and trees, and even a strange sun.

I was only 18, and my longest stay away from home so far had been summer vacation at Grandma’s village. I left behind a tightly knit family, a fiancé who would never become my husband, and a promising career – all for a new adventure on the opposite side of the globe.

Read complete article


“The Need for Speed: The Tale of a First-Time Autocross Racer,” Port Orchard Life

“Gas, gas! Turn, gas! A little brake … Turn! Gas, gas, gas!”

I cling to the wheel of an ’87 Porsche 944, trying to obey the commands that Michelle Miller, sitting in the passenger seat, is shooting at me. She’s hollering, partly by necessity — to overcome the thrum of the engine and the helmets we’re both wearing — and partly due to the urgency.

I hear the wheels squealing as I make a sharp turn without slowing down, and I floor it as soon as I clear the last turn.

I’m at the Bremerton MotorSports Park off Old Clifton, and Michelle is my autocross instructor for this round around the ¾-mile track. I’m one of 40 students signed up for the Bremerton Sports Car Club class, held the day before the club’s last race event of the season.

We have 15 instructors, who are volunteering their time to share with us, novices, how the action is done. The course design is fairly similar to a regular race, minus a few traffic cones to make it simpler. Seasoned drivers can take this one in 50 seconds or less. My first round was 81.22 seconds — not the last turtle but probably pretty close.

“Have fun,” said my husband to me this morning when I left the house at 7 a.m.

“I doubt it,” I replied.

I didn’t exactly jump for joy when Miller and Duff Stolberg, the school’s co-chairs, along with Barb Sykes, another racer, suggested I take the class –after having watched a race and interviewed people for an article. I am not fond of speeds, or any adverse driving conditions for that matter. One too many years of driving on ice and snow in Alaska, and a few close calls (the spin-on-ice-into-oncoming-traffic kind) were not very conducive to settling my nerves.

But I was curious enough, so I agreed. I’ve done some interesting things as a reporter before — lunched at the exclusive Columbia Tower Club on the top floor, “toured” the Tacoma Narrows Bridge under construction, visited the home of a well-known best-selling author — but racing, I thought, was pushing it.

Download article PDF

“It’s a Mad, Mad (Caterpillar) World,” Key Peninsula News

Upon returning home one sunny mid-May afternoon, I found a large party of uninvited guests. A few dozen of them stretched out leisurely on my porch, most of them opting for the premium spots, in the shade.

The tent caterpillars, as they like to be called, betrayed barely a wriggle at the sight of my temporary disorientation. How bad is a little party, I thought to myself as I walked to the door, careful not to step on anything squishy. Later, I would pay for my ignorance. But not yet.

It took a couple of days to realize that word went down the grapevine about the delicious rose and other accommodations in my front yard, and guests started arriving by the dozen. Trouble was, someone forgot to notify the hostess that the great caterpillar convention was under way. I could have prepared appropriate snacks at least, perhaps some BT.

I don’t like confrontations but I figured the least courtesy I could get was to be able to walk to my door undisturbed. So I tried gentle persuasion via the hose. It worked! For about five minutes. The sweeper? Another five. I watched in desperation as my annuals, freshly planted, were terrorized.

I can live through this, I said, I am resilient. I lived through communism, childbirth, in-laws and $2.35 per gallon of gas. Caterpillar Woodstock can’t be worse, can it?

Download article PDF

“Accent or Not, My Voice Counts,” Key Peninsula News

It used to be the most annoying question.

“So, where are you from?”

I still answer it now and then, but I’ve learned to accept it. Just like my slight accent.

The accent comes out occasionally, especially when I am tired or nervous. And when it doesn’t, my name— Rodika — does the job just as well.

Some say the accent is nice. Others try to guess — is it…Russian?…German? Over the years, I’ve rehearsed them answer so well it comes out in one breath. “I am from Moldova, between Romania and Ukraine. It used to be part of the former Soviet Union.…”

I don’t mind those lessons in geography. I don’t blink if people feel compelled to raise their voice, speak slowly or restate the question. It doesn’t happen that much any more. But the memories from more than a decade ago, when I was FOB — fresh-off-the-boat — still remind me that my accent, not much thicker then, was perceived as a shortcoming.

Download article PDF

“When Death Becomes a Matter-of-Fact Topic,” Gig Harbor Life

I was about 12 when I attended my first funeral. My grandpa died of heart disease, and despite being an agnostic, he was sent off in full Orthodox tradition.

I don’t remember much except the hours-long procession on foot, in the dead of winter, from my grandparents’ home to the cemetery through the village. And the loud wailing.

As it was custom, extensive wailing preceded and accompanied the journey to the final resting place. It’s not uncommon in their culture to bring in women specifically to wail for the dead — and for a 12-year-old child, witnessing that ceremony was quite dramatic.

Having lived far away from my family for nearly 20 years, I have been sheltered from death, in a way. I have attended funerals of friends and acquaintances here, but they do not compare with the intensity of losing someone you love.

Read complete column



Freelance journalist, writer, editor and multimedia producer Rodika Tollefson creates and plays near Seattle, Washington. She welcomes assignments from publication editors as well as work-for-hire from anyone who needs writing, editing, video or communications/media consulting work.

a little creative writing break: ‘writing tIme’

An impromptu unedited piece about writing

By Rodika Tollefson

All those writing books by seasoned professionals tell you: You must have morning pages. That’s when you get up 10 minutes early and before you go about your day, your first thoughts pour into the pages for 10 minutes. Write junk if you want to, the advice says. Complain. Make shopping lists. Plan your day. Write whatever comes to mind, just write.

I have resisted so far giving in to such advice. I plan my day all day long already. I have little time for shopping so the lists would just there, unspent. I get to write junk already plenty, being a paid writer with lots of assignments they call “fluff.”

It’s that fluff writing that pays the bills -- not those wonderful literary masterpieces that undoubtedly are waiting inside me, waiting to be discovered, waiting for me to become the next Hemingway. Well, maybe I could become famous posthumously; it seems a lot of writers die first before getting noticed.

Where were we? Oh yes, writing time.

No matter what they say, writing is still a lot about inspiration. Maybe good writers just learned to be inspired instantly as soon as they get a hold of the pen and paper. After many failures, they disciplined themselves to write beautiful prose instantly. But me, the average scribe, I need inspiration.

And I do get it at least once a day, but it’s usually in odd places. I’ll be driving one time, be in the middle of a deadline the next time, or in the middle of a book whose sole purpose is to inspire me -- which it does -- but I ignore its pleading to drop it and write. I’m too tired. Too busy. Too whatever -- the explanation changes each time.

And so those fleeting moments of inspiration take off from inside me, hover in the air as if making sure I don’t change my mind, and move on. Maybe to another writer, another universe, another day. With them goes my masterpiece, my brilliant piece of writing that instead will end up with another writer’s name on it -- a writer who was smarter than me, more disciplined. Maybe a writer who does morning pages as a self-exploration or an exercise to get all the junk out of the brain so he or she can move on to the more brilliant stuff.

Once in a while, I do get lucky. Those fleeting moments of inspiration take mercy and instead of flying away forever, they get tucked in back inside my soul. I do love them, for they are patient…knowing…hoping that some day I too will be smarter, more disciplined, more motivated to listen to them, give them freedom. They yearn to guide my pen toward that next wonderful story.

Writing time. Part inspiration, part luck, part the ability to ignore the outside world in the whirlwind of children needing help with homework, husband waiting for dinner, clients waiting for their collection of fluff, deadlines waiting to mess up what you’ve managed to have left of a social life, bills waiting to be paid. This outside world must be what writer’s hell is like -- that perpetual agony between snatching the inspiring thought and finding the time to make it fly and go for a ride. Writing time. Maybe it’s just a curse?