Friday, December 18, 2009


I'm thinking of Carly Little. I do tend to do that when I fall off of my high horse. Carly was in my fourth grade class. Strike that. Carly was in just about every class I ever had starting with Mrs. Clarks a.m. kindergarten class and ending with 12th grade AP English. We were in AIA, Academically and Intellectually Able. I'm told that in many other school districts this program is/was referred to as G&T, Gifted & Talented. I wonder if after the self-esteem war in schools these lofty monikers went the way of red pens and first place trophies.
Anyway, it's 1991 and The Board of Ed. gave us a funny acronym and kept us separate. We were out in annex trailers for 6 hours a day. We got to join the other kids for an hour a day in rotating "enrichment" classes; library, gym, art, music, and I can't remember. I do remember it was just long enough for the gen. pop. to call us Assholes In Action and not pick us for teams.
So the Queen of AIA was Carly Halstead. She was the smartest of the smart. A superlative wrapped up in superiorty. But all of that was put on her. Adults framed her that way and she took the praise and ran with it and there was simply no competition. She would later emerge in High School as a hell of a soccer player, but for now all she's got is freckles and Smart across her forehead. I was Pretty. I sat next to Fat and Funny.
So one day we're about to take a test. It's a social studies test about the desert. I remember mesa and plateau and trying to hold on to the difference long enough to scrawl it out on paper yet to be delivered. Everyone's putting books away. There's the sound of shuffling and scooting those awful chairs across that awful linoleum. When the last of this noise dies down I hear a weird noise. A ragged breath. Everyone hears it. We look up. An audible body shudder. It's Carly Little unprepared. It's a little girl about to fail a test. It's a nine year old about to lose her identity. It's the first time I saw a panic attack. No, we weren't taught how to deal with failure. We were smart. When smart failed we diversified. Carly found soccer. I found boys. I hope every kid in that trailer found a new identity. Smart's a slippery bastard.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009


“Well, I didn’t tell you what happened with Jenna*…”

“No, what happened?” I ask, knowing that Sara will have some story, full of South Beach insanity, and a fix-it solution to boot.

“Well, there’s this doctor who comes in with his girlfriend, who’s a bitch, and eat at the place. Well the bitch forgets her Chanel bag that has TWO iphones in it at the restaurant.”

Already crazy. Who forgets a $3,000 bag anywhere? Sara forgot to add “dumb” to her colorful adjective of the ladyfriend.

“And Jenna started playing with the bag and broke the clutch on it. So, she freaks and takes it home to fix it.”

“What! That’s bullshit! Why would she play with it? And WHY would she take it home?” I am already annoyed in the direction this is going. Jenna sounds like she has a lot in common with the Chanel-less girlfriend.

“No, Vicky. It’s not what you think, she didn’t steal it. But wait, it gets so much worse. The girlfriend called the restaurant and threatened to press charges because they GPS’d the phone location and the last ping located it there. So the woman called and freaked out and threatened to press charges. When Jenna got home she threw the bag out.”

Are people really this stupid? I am getting ready to verbalize the utter nonsense of this whole story but realize it’s not my problem so I let Sara continue on, but first ask, “Did they get her on surveillance taking the bag out of the restaurant?”

“Yes, it’s so obvious, she had it in another bag and was trying to conceal it while passing the cameras.”

“Did your boss fire her?” He better have, I’m thinking to myself.

“Of course, and he’s embarrassed because he knows the people. So I told Jenna that I would lend her $2500 with a legal IOU so that she can avoid the legal charges.”

“You did what? Are you crazy?? That’s so much money!!! Do you even ha…”

“Yes!” Sara cuts me off. “And I will make sure that there is a signed document so that she gives me the money back.” She states matter-of-factly.

“That’s money you probably won’t get back, IOU or not.” I interject.

Here’s the thing about Sara, she’s an angel. Instead of minding her own business, she is reaching out to take care of someone else’s. Turns out Jenna is not a US citizen, but in the states with a green card or something, so if she gets in trouble, she’ll probably be forced to leave the country. And Sara worries, “She’s so young, only eighteen. She doesn’t have parents like ours who have always helped us.” Sara also worries that, if left to her own devices in this situation, Jenna will turn out being a young pregnant girl, go down a wrong road, or God knows what else.

I see that Sara wants to reach out and help this young girl, but Sara’s my friend so I want to protect her. And considering Sara’s history of benevolence, I know that she needs to be protected from herself more than anyone else. She bends over backwards, gives like it doesn’t matter, and loves just because. There’s not a person that Sara won’t positively influence just by her angelic presence, comforting nature, and beautiful soul (except maybe the “dumb bitch”).

“I know in my heart she didn’t steal it, Vicky. She just made a mistake and freaked.” Sara says completely confident.

I start to think about Jenna now. She is one lucky girl to have someone care about her so much, and probably doesn’t even realize it. The girls only work together, are ten years apart in age, and come from very different backgrounds. But Sara will change this girl’s life forever now. There will always be a reminder of this situation to Jenna every time she passes a Chanel bag, breaks something, or makes a mistake. But the memory or thought of Sara’s good character will interfere in Jenna’s mind and provide comfort. The mistake will be carried forward as a lesson instead of a lonely guilt that will radiate negative energy and regret.

Even though stealing would never cross my mind, I think of instances where I wish I had someone there to “fix-it” for me; we all need that sometimes, even over trivial matters. And I smile with thoughts of Sara, she has done the same for me, just in other ways.

I hope Jenna will be ok. It was just a mistake.

Please Take a Number

“Seventy-two and seventy-four,” called the woman behind the information desk. Two men stood up and shimmied their way through the crowded room to the front desk. “Excuse me, sorry, thanks,” they repeated each time they knocked knees with another person or their coat brushed a stranger’s face. Once the men reached their front, a few words were exchanged with the young woman. Then they disappeared into one of the back rooms.

I opened my hand to see a small crumbled white piece of paper with the number 96 written on it in big, black ink. Great, I thought. This is going to take a while. I turned my wrist over. The little hand on my watch rested at eleven while the big hand had just passed three. My eyes struggled to stay open.

Earlier this morning, my sleep was interrupted by the house alarm sounding. I leaped out of bed at 4am, only to realize the bad weather had set it off. Though I was relieved to know there was no one downstairs in the closet waiting for me, I was upset that my sleep had been interrupted for the night. And no amount of will could get me to doze off again.

The temperature rose a few degrees under the fluorescent lights. The lady across from me fanned herself with a piece of paper. I crossed my right leg over my left, pulled my purse and coat closer to me, and closed my eyes.

“Seventy-five and seventy-six.”

I guess she does two at a time. Maybe it will go faster that way.

I looked at my watch again, a few minutes elapsed. Then I remembered the meter outside. The maximum was two hours. I had already been at the office for an hour and a half. Prior to this, I had attended an hour briefing for my new job. I then was shuttled over here to get a company ID. My eyes longed to close, but my meter needed quarters. So, I took a walk.

By the time I got back, the woman behind the desk was in the late eighties.

Not much longer now.

I found a new seat next to a woman who sucked her teeth. She made this horrible, wet-sounding, high-pitched noise. I felt guilty for being annoyed by it. I couldn’t imagine what she thought of me as I dug through my oversized purse searching for my granola bar and chopping down half of it before seeing the mauve sign above the front desk with large black letters that read: No Smoking or Eating.

“Eighty-nine and Ninety.”

The anchor man on the tv perched in the corner of the room informed the crowd that Tiger Woods had been dropped as a spokesman by Gatorade. My mouth grew dry.

“Ninety-one and ninety-two.”

The crowd was starting to thin. I was beginning to notice other people. An older man sat a row over from me. He wore huge earphones with no cord or antenna. His head and shoulders slumped to the left and his eyes were closed. Now, he has the right idea. Shut everyone out and get some sleep. I was jealous.

The woman at the front desk was rolling now. Just a few more numbers and I’m up.

I pulled out my phone to send a text spilling the contents of my purse onto the floor making a small scene in the process. Not wanting to be noticed myself, I quickly put everything away except my phone which I had in my hand.

“Ninety-five and ninety-six.”


I walked up to the front desk. The woman took one look at me and said, “Cell phones are prohibited in this area. You’ll have to secure it before going to the back. There’s a security desk out front just drop it off with the guard and come back and get another number.”

Everyone stared.

A late night encounter with Miss Havisham

This summer, I shopped for wedding dresses. Having found two that I liked, I stalled and put off the decision. Late one Saturday night, Alex, my fiancé, and I were walking home from a night out. It was a warm night in early September. The flowers were still spilling out of their large clay pots as we passed a newly renovated section of brick row houses, down the hill from our own home.

A door opened just a few steps before we passed it. A flurry of white fabric encased in a clear, thin plastic bag took up the entire doorway, as a woman’s head peered from behind and maneuvered it down the brick steps in jeans and heels. Behind her, a taller woman of about the same age – late 30s – followed.

“Anybody know anyone getting married?” she asked.

“We are next year,” Alex blurted as we passed by and kept walking.

“Do you have a dress yet? We’re giving away this free wedding dress.”

I stopped.

“Really?! Why are you getting rid of it?”

“Well, I’m divorced,” the shorter woman said.

I wanted to ask ‘Are you Miss Havisham?’ remembering the jilted bride from Great Expectations. But I had the good sense not to.

“I’m getting married again next weekend and I already have a dress. It’s upstairs. This is a beautiful dress. It’s all silk. It’s a six-thousand dollar dress that I got for a thousand at Betsy Robinson,” she said.

As she continued to sell the dress and I resisted, it grew awkward. The social etiquette for getting a free wedding gown from strangers on the street at 11 p.m. escaped me. I started asking random questions that only seemed inappropriate after the words were out of my mouth.

“Is it bad luck for me to take it?” I asked. “Was your marriage that bad?”

“Well, it wasn’t pleasant,” she said.

“Don’t you want to sell it? You could probably get a lot of money for it.”

“No, it’s not about that. I would love for someone else to have it and wear it on her wedding day.”

“Well, if I take it, I have to give you something for it. I wouldn’t feel right just taking it,” I said.

“No, I don’t want anything. This is your dress,” she said pushing the huge bag filled with poufy crinoline, satin and silk into my arms. I didn’t know how to handle the dress and felt uncomfortable taking it, so I draped it over an arm and held the hangar up with my other hand. I realized I had only seen a dim, blurry version of the dress through the plastic under the small streetlamp. It was pretty, but poufy.

“Well, I’ll try it on and if it doesn’t work out, I’ll give it back,” I said with the dress now in my arms.

“NO” both girls said in unison. “We don’t want it back. We are actually on our way to a party where we were going to destroy the dress,” the friend said.

Again, feeling awkward and not knowing the proper etiquette, I said: “Well, in that case, I’ll take it. Am I ruining your fun for the night?”

“No, this is a much better option,” the divorcee said.

“Well, thank you,” I said. A hug seemed necessary, so I threw one arm around her shoulders while supporting about 15 pounds of fabric with the other.

We congratulated each other on our upcoming nuptials and went our separate ways. As they walked down the street behind me, I heard a smack and turned around to see them giving each other a high five.

I couldn’t help but wonder what was in that high five. They both seemed a little too eager to get rid of the dress.

I ripped open the plastic and tried on the dress the same minute I got in the door. It was pretty, and it fit like a glove. The top was simple and strapless, and covered in embroidery. But from the waist down, it was too much - a ball gown with layer upon layer of crinoline that swished when I walked. The dress required several feet of clear space on all sides. I could barely make it down our narrow staircase. Upon closer inspection I noticed a small, faded brown stain on the front, hidden in the folds of the silk.

I wavered back and forth as I looked in the mirror. It wasn’t either of the dresses I’d picked already, but it was free and pretty. I could put the money I’d saved for a dress toward the honeymoon. Unable to decide, I took the dress to my fiancé’s parents’ house, pulled it out of the plastic and hung it on the doorframe in the archway to the living room. It floated there, turning on its hanger all night.

“It really is a beautiful dress,” Mary, Alex’s mom, said.

“I just don’t know what to do. It was such a strange experience,” I said. “They high-fived as we walked away. I’m not sure what that meant.”

“They probably were just really happy to have done something nice for someone,” Alex said.

“Maybe it was hot,” Jim, Alex’s dad said.

“No, I really think this was from her first marriage. There’s a tiny stain on the front. Why would they give it away if they’d stolen it?”

“The whole thing creeps me out,” Mary said. “It looks rather ghostly floating there in the doorway. I don’t think I could wear it. You don’t want to be worrying about anything like bad karma on your wedding day.”

When I got home, I laid the dress out on the spare bed. It took on a life-like form, the bodice propped up on the pillow and the wavy folds of silk flowing down the length of the bed, as if there was a pair of crossed legs under the cloud of fabric. Each time I entered the room, I startled at the sight of it. My initial perspective was that someone was lying on the bed.

I decided against wearing it and stuffed it deep into my closet and then pried the accordion doors closed. I’ve thought about trying to sell it on eBay and putting the money toward the wedding, but I haven’t been able to open that side of the closet and look at it since.

"No Instruments We Use"

Sonos is a new a cappella group from Southern California trying to break away from the labels of average doo-wop groups. On an NPR interview, the announcer called them “not your average barbershop group” and added that a cappella has really come a long way over the years. Hearing this, I’m thinking, a cappella groups have been deviating from tradition for ages. The deviations have just been hiding in obscurity.

However, the mainstream media is pulling the genre into the popular scene, much to the chagrin of those transcendent groups like Sonos who want to keep the “kitsch” out. But the new Fox show Glee uses a cappella melodies to transition scenes and build dramatic tension. NBC is showcasing an a cappella reality series, which Entertainment Weekly believes is “not as lame as it sounds.” Many do have a connotation with the genre as being lame or cheesy, but my association is just a little bit unique.

My dad introduced my sister and I to the genre in the summer of ’98. A group he knew was singing in Hershey Park in Hershey, Pennsylvania. And we thought we were going to the park for the rides. Turns out for a cappella fans, they might just see their favorite group perform. The group’s name was the Trenchcoats, an energetic and joyful group of gentlemen from Seattle. Unfortunately that little thing called the mainstream media falsely labeled the quartet as having affiliations with the “Trenchcoat Mafia.” The following summer at Hershey, the lead singer told their story, how their website crashed from the hate mail and they had to change their name to just The Coats. This was especially sad for a singing group that harmonized about trust, equality, and “brighter days.”

This was of course just a prologue to the many groups that would enter into our lives through concerts and the ever-popular Harmony Sweepstakes A cappella competition, which we went to for four consecutive years. Groups with names like the “Tone Rangers,” “Toxic Audio,” and “Minimum Wage” performed in fifteen minute sets and the audience chose their favorite, most of them not barbershop groups. Of course many of them brought out their best renditions of “Come Together” and “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” The avid fans laughed when one member would say, “We’re about to perform a song, never performed a cappella” and then they would burst out with the “wee-ma-ways.” We always went home with one or two new a cappella albums and pictures complete with group signatures. Even though they weren’t famous and no one at school would know the group, it still made me feel special to have a stack of pictures personalized and signed by the musicians.

Over the last ten years, I have gone through stages where I stayed away from a cappella music. There have been times when I want only the original classic rock versions of songs and times when I listen to only instrumentals. My sister has also gone through a similar stage, since she had to experience the college a cappella on a regular basis. College a cappella means a huge group of eager 20-somethings bounce happily with the consistent “do-do-do”s - with the beat boy off to the right with a microphone in one hand and his other stuffed in his pocket - while one soloist belts a rendition of a Madonna, Britney Spears, or Kelly Clarkson song (of course plenty of college groups have transcended this stereotype too).

My sister and I joke about how the mockumentary A Mighty Wind, while being about folk music, resurrects the spirit of a cappella concerts for us. It probably has to do with groups booking gigs at theme parks with roller coasters whooshing through the melodies.

The media is starting to invest in it. NBC wants to make a franchise competition of the genre, so my sympathies go out to the people who audition. I hope they can leave the conflict at the door because a cappella groups promote harmony, not the drama of the average reality series. While Rockapella had their Folgers coffee commercials (I can sing the whole ditty on cue), Toxic Audio went to Broadway, and Justin Guarini jumped from the Midnight Voices to the American Idol stage, a cappella has largely stayed away from the mainstream. Part of me wants it to stay that way, but I will be fascinated if the obscure groups my dad exposed me to ten years ago suddenly become part of everyone’s Itunes playlist.

The Truth About Fairytales

I am a bridal anomaly.

My dress was made by a well-known designer, yes, but I bought it at a sample sale at the first shop I visited as the second dress I tried on. No deliberating, no a-ha moment. It looked good, it was different, I bought it. My fiancé and I picked our wedding venue, the Peabody Library in Baltimore, without even visiting or looking at any others. Pictures were gorgeous, the price was good, why bounce from venue to venue, meeting with event planner after event planner, when the Library was cool and it worked? So, we signed. Same went for catering, invitations, bridesmaids’ dresses, and flowers. Proposals were not scrutinized, samples weren’t necessary, bridesmaids could pick whatever shoes they wanted.

I am the casual bride. The go-with-the-flow, do whatever you think, I trust you bride. I don’t have a crystal-clear vision in my mind as to what the day will look like, rather I’m fine with it being a surprise.

Even with my laid back wedding planning approach, there has been no question in my mind that the day will be magical. You know, Disney movie princess magical. Best-day-of-a-girl’s life magical. I’ve grown up, as many girls have, knowing that the day I get married will be one of the most memorable of my life.

So, in the midst of signing contracts and OK-ing vendors, we did make it to the Library for a visit. It was on the day of another lucky girl’s wedding, and the venue had tables spread throughout, linens laid, and dishes so carefully placed. I caught a glimpse of the bride leaving for the ceremony, having just finished pictures. She was a whoosh of white as she floated down the steps and into her awaiting chariot (ok, an old trolley car). Her bridal party followed behind in green silk, silent, almost in awe of her. As I stepped into the marble-laden hallways of the foyer, through the exhibition room, and into the breathtaking four stories of stacks, the room where all that magic happens, I took it all in for a few minutes.

My parents talked numbers and payment dates and options for dance floor placement while I stood perfectly still just taking it in. Instead of being filled with a feeling of overwhelming excitement and anticipation, all I felt was disappointment. I had just seen the bride and now I was standing in the place where the best day of her life would take place in a few short hours, and I could think was, “this is it?” It wasn’t because the venue lacked grandeur, or because guests hadn’t arrived yet, but it was the build up. I had just seen the holy grail of childhood myths and my sneak-peek was core-shaking, hope-shattering, and anger-inducing.

At 25 years old, I came to the realization that my wedding will really just be a big party with friends and family, and I will just happen to be wearing a white (or in this case, ivory) dress. I won’t be swept away by a prince, or ride in a magic pumpkin, or wear a glass slipper. Why hadn’t anyone told me this before? Of course, I wasn’t expecting any of these things literally, but the feeling that they lend.

My wedding is just six weeks away and my casual brideness may have subsided a bit, as deadlines are approaching and at least ten daily wedding-related emails permeate my work inbox everyday, but my expectations are what have truly diminished. My wedding hopes were shattered, but I am so grateful that it happened on someone else’s day. I know now what my day will bring; friends and family gathered together over great food, drinks and our favorite songs, while my fiancé and I commit to one another in front of all the people who matter in our lives. Why doesn’t that fairytale qualify for proliferation among young girls?

A Gift of Memories

How brilliant the sun shown on the snow that covered the branches of the pine trees from top to bottom, as if the latest winter storm had wrapped them in a thick winter coat. The newly fallen snow under my feet was deep—so deep that if I had not bloused my pants with rubber bands, the snow would have packed the open crevices of my boots. The woods—with its clean, crisp cold smell; its holly berries clinging to bushes, splashing red against the snow; its chickadees and blue jays pleasantly scolding each other and flying here and there, knocking snow to the ground—was thick with the pine trees. Their scent filled the air with Christmas as my sisters, my brother, my foster parents, and I tromped through the woods looking for that perfect Christmas tree.

Almost everyone has that one Christmas memory that is held close to the heart, the one carefully put away and unwrapped only for special occasions. I’ve unwrapped this memory more often lately; I don’t know why. Perhaps it’s because I’m getting older and am becoming more sentimental (or just plain sappy, I suppose), or perhaps it’s simply because it was the last Christmas I spent with my siblings before our lives were forced in different directions. In three short months, we would be torn apart and placed in different foster homes. So that last Christmas together was the best gift I could receive.

When we had arrived at this foster home after being taken from our mother three months earlier, Betty and Harry opened their home to all five of us children with ease. It was the grandest house that I had and have ever seen. Well over 100 years old, its two-story massive wooden structure, nicknamed the “Club House,” sat well off the road at the edge of the wood line on the lake. Outside were several outbuildings; I can only guess what their purposes once were. Nearby were various sized cottages that were houses themselves—probably for guests or even servants of long ago. We slept in the largest of these cottages, along with Betty and Harry. I never did know why they didn’t sleep in the Club House.

The Club House was stately. The entry opened into a large foyer, and to the left of the foyer was a great wooden staircase that curved as it reached the second floor. Upstairs were fourteen bedrooms and several bathrooms. Downstairs, the formal dining room held a table that sat twenty-two people comfortably. This room led into another huge room that could have been the setting of a sports lodge: fox, bob cats, deer, and a variety of birds and other animals were mounted to the walls as if ready to pounce, spring, or fly away. Bear rugs (with heads) and zebra skins were scattered about. It was fittingly called the Club room. Several windows on the right offered a clear view of the beach and lake waters. At the far end, a stone fireplace seemed to span the length of the room. This room was my favorite—it offered a quieting comfort I craved.

Christmas at the Club House was one that could only be imagined. Betty and Harry— particularly Betty (a born craftswoman)—brought such spirit to decorating the house. Tromping through the woods that bright wintery afternoon, we found the perfect Christmas tree, and when we arrived home from school the next day, Betty had spray painted the tree a gleaming gold and stood it next to the fireplace in the Club room.

In the days that followed, the Club House was transformed into a Christmas House. Betty adorned the banister with a mixture of pine and holly from the woods, adding red ribbon and white lights. With the leftover sprigs, she fashioned centerpieces for the tables, doors, and mantel. She taught us to make 10-point stars in various sizes from colored strips of paper, dipped in wax and sprinkled with glitter. These we hung on the tree, along with paper chains, cranberries, and colored popcorn. Betty crafted a partridge in a pear tree from a tree branch with handmade ornaments representing the 12 days of Christmas. As we helped cut and glue the pieces, she taught us to sing the 12 days of Christmas. Glistening garland and sparkling lights were strung everywhere.

The kitchen was warm with the smells of Christmas—cookies, cakes, and breads always seemed to be baking. One evening, Betty had us in the kitchen helping her make hard candy. She brought each batch of the sugary concoction to a boil, added a flavor of cherry, orange, mint, root beer, or anise (a licorice flavor), and poured it onto the table over powdered sugar. Then everyone, armed with scissors, cut the rapidly hardening candy into bite-sized pieces until our hands and fingers hurt.

Betty and Harry filled our last Christmas together with such spirit and love. Their kindness was a gift beyond compare. They gave us a Christmas memory that I treasure—one that I can unwrap and rewrap for all Christmases to come.