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.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Rachel, I have to pee

Twenty-something females visit public bathrooms together and share the same stalls when they’re at bars. They just do. Ask any girl you see at the bar but don’t ask why. I’m not excluded from this statistic. After all, I am a girl. And so, whilst sharing a stall in the bathroom, my friends have noticed my fear of public stalls. They have also noticed my routine:

The Preparation:

(1) Survey the area.

(2) Pull up legs of jeans if needed and balance gingerly on toes of heels if area flooded by sewage and/or spilled drinks.

(3) Hold breath.

(4) Wad an extreme amount of toilet paper in hand. Wipe down toilet seat and make sure wad of paper is thick enough so nothing can, or ever will, seep through and touch said hand.

(5) Layer several sheets on left side of toilet with care so that no portion of the seat is exposed.

(6) Repeat step five but apply layers of toilet paper to right side of seat.

(7) Sit down.

The Act:

(1) Pee.

The Aftermath:

(1) Kick toilet paper in toilet with point of right heel while balancing on left.

(2) Flush toilet.

(3) Get upset when someone is standing in front of the sink fixing her hair or makeup when, clearly, I need to use the sink.

(4) Scrub hands with soap and hot, hot water.

(5) Use paper towel to get out of door.

* * *

One night at the bar, I realized that nature was calling. Or, maybe the three glasses of wine and the Dirty Girl Scout Slut were calling (that’s a shot, my friends).

“Rachel, I have to pee,” I flatly stated.

She rolled her eyes. She knew the routine. She ended her conversation with another friend and we briskly walked to bathroom at the back of the bar.

The line to the two stalls (one handicapped, one non) was approximately ten people deep. I tried to pull my thoughts away from the fact that I was about to release the equivalent of Niagara Falls into my jeans and tried to focus on other things, like how my heels were suddenly shooting searing pains up through the balls of my feet.

What if I were to just cut in line? Would anyone have the nerve to ask me to wait my turn? What if I offered each person a dollar so that I could stand at the front of the line? Do you think that would work?

Fifteen minutes later, the line barely seemed to budge. Meanwhile, my urge to pee was almost unbearable. My stomach was cramping and I was starting to hunch over. I began wiggling my knees back and forth out of anxiety. Girls slowly exited in and out of the bathroom stalls in pairs. While they were in the stalls, I heard giggling and talking. I saw cameras flash and drinks spill from underneath the stall doors.

Are you kidding me?

Before I had a chance to lose my cool and my bladder, it was my turn. Rachel and I entered the handicap stall, and I was in the midst of commencing step one of The Preparation. But to my dismay, I realized that I could not go through with the said Preparation. There was not enough time.

I did what any rationale-minded person would do in fear of peeing herself:

I skipped The Preparation and (gasp) squatted over the toilet seat.

The Act was going fine and the squat was staying balanced. But I noticed Rachel began moving towards me, closer, closer.
Suddenly, she stretched out her right arm and with the palm of her hand, forcefully pushed me on the seat.

The unprotected seat.

“RACHEL!” My initial gasp of horror soon turned into a maddening shriek.

She began cackling and fell with her back against the wall. Stunned, I stood up mid-pee. I slowly regained my balanced, back to the squat. I finished and mentally evaluated the damage: Clamydia? Gonorrhea? Swine flu? I couldn’t even fathom.

“Shut up! Get over it!” she said and laughed harder. Then, she added, “Hurry up! There are people waiting!”

As I stumbled out of the stall, my routine now thrown in shambles, the girls waiting in line began glaring at me.

They thought that I was socializing! That I was one of those in-the-bathroom-camera-snapping-girls!

I walked up to the sink and quietly waited for a girl to finish applying her make-up. By then, Rachel realized my face was washed of all pleasant expression.

“What’s wrong?” she said.

“Cladmydia’s what’s wrong!” I snapped.

I suddenly noticed that girls began staring and snickering at me. I glared around, tossed my hair over my shoulder at them, and left.

* * *

Later that night, Rachel asked to use some of my hand gel. Out came the Vera Bradley cosmetic bag stuffed with alcohol wipes, burn gel, band aids, and hand wipes. I dug past these items and pulled out a mini-sized hand gel.

“Just don’t say anything. You know how I am,” I stated.

Oh, I know.

Before she could squeeze a dollop of that germ-fighting miracle gel into her hand, sensory alarms began ringing in my head.



I could feel those four words edging their way out of the pit of my bladder, up against the back of my throat, until...

I spilled out: “I have to pee.”

She rolled her eyes. “Fine, let’s go.”

* * *


I came home late one Monday night to find a package at my front door. The package was pleasantly large and heavy; bigger than a box of shoes and heavier than a bag of groceries. It wasn’t Christmas, or my birthday, so I was taken aback. No matter the reason; I knew I wanted whatever unexpected contents lay within. I brought it indoors and quickly shut the door behind me, herding the cat back inside with my leg. In the kitchen I started at the top of the box, ripping back the packing tape and peering beyond the carton’s flaps. Inside, Styrofoam packing peanuts lie in waiting, and as I plunged both hands into the box they made their escape, scattering about the linoleum floor in a great static-charged flurry. Strewn in the minor explosion was a gift card, printed in cursive to replicate the hand of a person, which read:

Congrats on the house. Enjoy all the projects you will know have.

Before I even read the name, Dan’s face flashed in my head. The worst speller I knew. He was mid-way through a six-month assignment in Afghanistan. Dan, who I had known since adolescence, had volunteered to go as a civilian. And he was being paid a sum; so much, in fact, that he’d be nearly able to pay off the house he’d bought a few months before his departure. Before Dan left, I asked my Father, who had retired after 20 years in the army, whether he would jump at the opportunity like Dan had. I was surprised by his answer.
“No, I wouldn’t.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Battle is an admirable mission. I don’t see any other reason to go.”

I suppose I didn't fully understand. But Dan had placed himself in some degree of danger, and an even greater deal of discomfort. He’d vowed to stay on the Army base he was assigned to the entire time he was in Afghanistan so his options were few. “But how is the food?” I asked him the first time I spoke to him on the phone since he flew out of Baltimore. “It’s ok,” he said. “It’s a mess-hall, pretty take-it-or-leave-it.” Looking through the pictures he would send a month later I would realize the gravity of that understatement; the curves of Dan’s once youthfully rounded face had sharpened, and I’d later find out that he’d lost ten pounds. Ten pounds seems like nothing when someone else loses it. But if I lost ten pounds I’d be out celebrating and buying new pants.

Now, burrowing my fingers through the Styrofoam bits, my hands met something rough; asymmetrical. Spiny even. I poured some more of the peanuts out and saw… foliage. There was a tree inside. In miniature. The technical term, bonsai, doesn’t quite get across the full meaning of its embodiment. For the bonsai contained in that box was nothing like the bonsais I had seen for sale anywhere. Those impostors were houseplants carved down into the shape of trees in miniature. They were like pineapples fashioned into colada cups, or fruit baskets made of melons. Novelties.
I set the bonsai on the kitchen table and sat down, transfixed. The trunk had a serpentine twist to it, like the trees you might see on a safari in the African savannah. I wondered how long it had taken its trainer to cultivate such a shape. Green moss grew up one side of the tree’s trunk (ah, so this was the side that faced North), and sprouting from it grew gnarled branches, some thinner than bits of straw. Looking closely, I was startled to find a tiny white flower, no larger than a pinky fingernail, perched among glossy deciduous leaves.

The trunk’s base was surrounded by rice-sized grains of gravel. I narrowed my eyes and I could picture a tiny man walking among the rocks up to the tree for its shade. He was ancient, dressed in the clothes of a Chinese peasant, and he carried a wooden cane that perhaps he’d carved himself. I sat for a quarter of an hour, playing with perspective, when it dawned on me. The bonsai – it was here in front of me, a houseplant. Change the perspective – it was far away from me, a tree out on the horizon. Here. There. It was both, all at once.

Monday, December 7, 2009

My Claims to Fame

When I was 11 years old, my mother decided she wanted a Himalayan cat. My sister and I went along with her to meet a breeder in Maryland who told us she had a new batch of Himalayan kittens, all balls of gray and white fluff with pink noses.

They were so adorable that my mother decided we'd get two. As we were picking out which kittens we wanted, the breeder happened to mention, between "They are strictly indoor cats," and "If they jump on counters, you can spray they with a little water," that their great grandfather cat was a movie star.

He had appeared in the 1971 James Bond Film, Diamonds Are Forever, as Blofeld's cat - the one with the diamond collar.

* * *
When I was 15 years old, I sailed aboard the Queen Elizabeth 2, or "QE2," on a 6-day transatlantic crossing from New York to Southampton in June 2001 with my parents, my two siblings, and my grandparents on my dad's side.

I can still vividly recall the QE2's elegance - the ice sculptures in the middle of the midnight dessert buffet, the spas with the ultimate pampering, and the tea room with the white-gloved servers and tiny sandwiches. But I digress...

One evening, after indulging in lobsters, my siblings and I decided we'd take the elevator to our deck with our grandparents, who were beginning to have a difficult time getting around, especially on a rocky boat. As we stepped into the elevator, we were greeted by Julia Child.

At the time, I didn't realize how famous she was, but I'll always remember her tall height and the sound of her high-pitched voice as she cracked jokes with my grandfather. I wish I could remember what she said.

We later learned there was a theme to the cruise - "Chef's Palate," - and we got to see her again while on board, though when we did, she was speaking in front of an audience as a chef prepared some of her favorite dishes.

* * *

About a year ago, my grandfather was reunited with his sister who lives in Louisiana. They were never very close growing up, and they hadn't spoken in years, so they had much catching up to do.

They traded stories of their family, and she mentioned a relative named Marguerite Clark, who had passed away in 1940. My grandpa learned that she was a famous silent movie star who had appeared in many Broadway shows and films from a young age, winning numerous awards.

Turns out, she starred in the first film version of Snow White in 1916, and she made such an impression on Walt Disney, he chose to base his classic version, the one we all know so well, on Marguerite, my great aunt's sister's child - a distant cousin of mine.

I'm related to Snow White.

Sleigh Ride

My favorite time of year has arrived. I’ve strung my lights, decked my hall, surrounded my windows with garland. I’ve hung red glass ornaments from red organza ribbons. I’ve eaten two bags of colorful foil-wrapped Kisses, minus the foil. Someone’s nestled my mother’s sculpture of a banana-eating orangutan into the angel hair of our nativity scene, where he squats reverently between the sheep and the camel. And why not? Let him visit the Holy Child, too.

My mother also has a nativity scene, which she displays year round, and for well over a decade, my son has been swiping the baby Jesus from his comfy cradle and stashing him beneath the removable blanket that covers the hollowed-out camel’s back. The first time he did this, he was too small to tell us what he’d done with the tiny figure; my niece thought he’d swallowed it. We looked everywhere, and he watched our efforts, likely detecting our concern. When someone finally found Jesus, safe beneath the camel’s blanket, we laughed and praised his cleverness. We retold the story. All the attention surrounding his simple child’s act bestowed it with something he hadn’t intended: meaning. And out of that meaning, my son shaped a tradition. One of many traditions to be gathered like kindling for a fire.

Part of the beauty of this season lies, for my family, in its many traditions, because these are the things we take comfort in remembering and look forward to perpetuating. Traditions are connectors, grounders, knowns. They mean “always” in our changing lives. Intuitively, we know when to discard traditions that lose their meaning or cause us pain. We keep the customs that bond us to people we love and to our histories, and we pass them like torches.

My friend Ingrid and I were born a day apart the week before Christmas. As girls, we shared delight in the happy circumstances of our friendship and our good fortune to have a ready-made celebration occurring all around us on our special days. The decorations, the lights, the music, the bustle of the holidays made our birthdays extra joyous, and we often celebrated by buying pints of ice cream at the convenience store near our homes, driving up to the top of the mountain where we lived, and watching the city lights blink below us while we spooned French vanilla against our palates and talked.

Our tradition lapsed when we each left home. We live far apart now, with kids, dogs, husbands, and responsibilities unlike any we could have imagined then. A special birthday – one of those milestone numbers – awaits Ingrid and me this year, and I have thought about driving the distance to see her, showing up at her door with a pint of vanilla, grabbing her by the arm and saying, “Let’s go. The mountain awaits our recollections.” But I know that true traditions seldom fit comfortably into spontaneity’s gay apparel.

With each passing birthday, I’ve grown used to change, and find that tradition – always accommodating – morphs with me. I may gather different tinder, but the fire still warms the hearth. What I do this year for my birthday will be forged from things I’ve always done and loved, and things I’ve never tried. I’ll still shower a white cake with a sweet snowfall of coconut and eat a slice late at night. But since I can’t have ice cream with Ingrid, I may do something new, something I’ve always wanted to do. I want to ride in a big sleigh, with fuzzy mittens on my hands and a warm yarn scarf knotted around my neck. I want to smell the wet horses harnessed in front of me and see the icicles in their ropy tails. I want to hear the bells shake out their music when the horses trot through cold, deep snow, and I want to feel the icy wind chap my skin.

I know that sleigh rides are touristy things now, that they probably carry some of the artifice of a carnival ride. But I want to go anyway, close my eyes, and transcend the anachronism. I’m hoping for a small adventure to mark the year, a thrill far short of the terror experienced by Willa Cather’s doomed bride and groom in My Antonia, whose sledge horses make a futile attempt to outrun ravenous wolves. And whether or not my safe and gentle sleigh ride becomes a tradition depends on what it ends up meaning to me.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Losing Ruthie

Last Thursday night, cotton towels tumbled out of our upstairs hall closet as I tried to stuff in a set of flannel bed sheets. The towels’ domino action roused a memory from December ’95, when my father-in-law, Albert, had just died of congestive heart failure. The day before the funeral, I sat refolding towels on my in-laws’ family-room floor, while my mother-in-law, Ruthie, sat dazed in Albert’s rattan armchair. She looked down at me and said hoarsely “I fold the towels into thirds so they’ll fit in the closet.” I was comforted by her attention to something so mundane. It gave me hope that despite her heartbreak, she would eventually move on.

Now, I’m hoping I can move on when the expected happens. Ruthie is in hospice care, bleeding from an unknown source, her energy leeching out with her blood. She’s too frail for anything heroic to be done anymore; all the do-not-resuscitate papers have been signed.

The impending mourning period, however, may be shorter than the one we’ve experienced these last few years.

Seven years ago, we started losing Ruthie to Alzheimer’s. Sometimes she forgot places where she’d been a million times: “What a lovely home you have. How come you’ve never invited me here?” Or, after everyone had eaten dinner and we’d picked up their plates, seeing the now-empty setting in front of her, Ruthie would ask, “Aren’t you going to give me something to eat? You’re feeding them.” I often detected that undertone of hurt.

In the 27 years I’d known her, I’d never seen any reason why Ruthie should hurt. In fact, I’d always been a little jealous of her. Her four children and their spouses (including me) and her seven grandchildren had loved and pampered her. We filled her closets with stylish clothes and dressed her like a Barbie doll for special occasions. We framed her family photos and mowed her lawn. We funded shingles for her roof, the Nutcracker at the Kennedy Center, and her trip to California. We drove her to the drug store, grocery store, ophthalmologist, and cardiologist.

Over time, Ruthie sank deeper into Alzheimer’s, forgetting her husband of 54 years, our names, and her age. We welcomed her into our homes and gave her books that she’d read over and over and over. We bought her medicines and new underclothes. We took her for wheelchair rides among azaleas, treated her to decaffeinated coffee at a diner, and escorted her to all the family dinners and parties.

Thanksgiving last year, I was sitting next to Ruthie on my brother-in-law’s sectional sofa, my hand on her shoulder. I had just served her a plate of turkey and potatoes and a decaf coffee the way she always drank it: black with one-and-a-half packets of Sweet and Low™. She said, “You didn’t have to do that, but I really appreciate it. I don’t even know you, and look how well you’re treating me.” Then, she leaned over conspiratorially and, stabbing the air with her index finger, said, “You see those people?”


“They’ve known me since I was a little girl, and they won’t even give me the time of day. I don’t care what they think of my parents.” I looked up at the room full of everyone who loved Ruthie most: her children and spouses, her grandchildren, her great grandchildren—generations of a family all originated with her. “By the way,” she said, “are my parents coming?”

“Who are these people?”
Ruthie, front and center, surrounded by family,
Thanksgiving 2008

Wednesday, November 4, 2009


More people need a Greek mom like mine that can home-cook her ass off. I’m not joking either; she puts everything into it and must lose some weight doing it. From a pumpkin spice roll to dover sole, from that clean white fish to an assortment dish—this woman does it all and it’s always amazing, always alluring, always….awesome. That’s my mom—she’s sen-sational!

I believe that garbage food has inundated our lives, that there are truly horrible things that people are putting into their bodies, and that there are waaaay too many fallacies out there concerning the things we eat. We are constantly bombarded with messages that recommend we eat this or that for whatever effect. “Use splenda,” buy “fat free,” make sure it’s “sugarless.” It never ends! I grew up eating organic without even knowing it, before it was the latest fad, and during the time of McDonald-mania. And yet, I never appreciated the goodness that exists in a meal that is made with love and from scratch. I appreciate it today, mostly because I can’t cook anything like my mom, but also because I’m realizing the sudden urgency to want to know how to cook….exactly like her.

When I was around seven or eight, I went to Greece to visit my maternal grandmother. It wasn’t my first or last time but I do remember this time in particular when considering cuisine. My yaya (grandmother) lives a couple of hours outside of Athens in a small town, the type where everyone knows everyone and eachothers business. Anyway, I remember her asking what we (my mom and sister) wanted to eat and chicken being the unanimous answer. Well, imagine my surprise when I walked to the back of the house and witnessed yaya beheading a live chicken! I was horrified. I won’t ever forget seeing the headless chicken’s body aimlessly walking around for a few seconds before collapsing. I could not believe my eyes. I had always eaten chicken, was aware that it was an animal, but didn’t quite put it all together quite like my grandmother did for me that day. But the point it is—it was organic, straight from her home farm to the kitchen table—no antioxidants, no pesticides, no toxins—just right, just the way it should be. Try that one on for size in a commercial, Mr. Perdue.

Today, some twenty years later, I realize that my eighty year-old grandmother is living proof of what eating healthy farm fresh food can do: she is not fat but fit; she is not weak but wild; she is not run-down but radiant; she is healthy, she is old and she is still kicking with a strong foot forward! And she’s not the only one, the Greeks in her town who didn’t smoke, like my papou (grandfather), are also the same way; it’s a way of life and one that I want to embrace. Greeks are passionate people who are centered around their kitchen tables—it’s where they bond while filling their bellies. Eating is not done in front of a TV or in a hurry.

The older I get the more I realize how special it is to have good food. I love food, I love eating it and I want to love making it just as much. My beautiful Greek mom doesn’t behead chickens in our backyard but she does the best she can to always have home-cooked meals prepared for us. The funny thing is that we own an American steakhouse—ah, the irony! So this is where I stand on my beliefs:

1. Cook from scratch. Home cooked meals are healthy, hearty, and irreplaceable. Canned soup pales in comparison to the kind that is made over a stove. And, the aroma of cooking food can excite the memories or create new ones that can last a lifetime.

2. Food heals. Whether they’re labeled cancer-fighters, prevent aging, or can cure common ailments, food has unbelievable properties that we can all stand to benefit from—and the kind of food I’m talking about are foods that are farm fresh and natural.

3. TV dinners are a sin. I could vomit thinking about them. Processed foods gross me out and I regret their conception. I know people don’t have time and this shit is supposed to make things easier, but get real. They’re not that good, not good for you, and don’t hold a match when compared to the real thing. There are several alternatives for those who are faced with time or money constraints.

4. When you can’t cook, eat at a good restaurant. This coming from someone that owns one, but still, hear me out. I have witnessed people’s eating behavior and habits on a regular basis and am appalled to think that eating has become a task. When I eat out, I take my time and relax and ENJOY myself and my food; I can’t be bothered, take my time, and relish in every delicious moment. Follow suit. Our lives are busy busy busy, separate the time you eat and when you eat out from that mentality, and allow yourself to have fun with your friends or family while breaking bread.

I’m so blessed to have a mother that has cooked such exceptional meals for me my entire life. I’m saying this as a daughter who wants to emulate that talent; I’m saying it as a girlfriend who wants to dazzle her boyfriend with amazing cuisine; and I’m saying it as a person who believes that eating and home-cooked meals don’t get the credit they absolutely deserve.

Mellowcreme Hangover

This time of year, pumpkins sag on their stoops with sullen, warped expressions, choking on slivers of wax, wick, and cool air. And many bats, cauldrons, cobwebs, ghosts, gravestones, and witches on broomsticks remain fully intact in yards and in windowsills.

Halloween has come to an end, and the next holiday is rounding the bend, but I, like many others, haven't let it go just yet. I think sometimes people get stuck in that awkward "Should I leave it up for a few more days or take it down now?" period that comes along with the conclusion of any holiday. Or maybe people just feel fatigued.

Fatigue must be the case for me because I've been staring wearily at the Halloween-themed Martha Stewart catalogs taking up room on the couch, the haunted house with tea lights sitting in the living room, and the string of pumpkin lanterns in my bedroom for days now wishing they would put themselves away.

The only items I don't mind having around are the sugary ones in the kitchen: the Brach's Mellowcreme Pumpkins, the vanilla-frosted cupcakes with orange and brown sprinkles, and the bag of leftover candy with Hershey bars, Reese's Cups and Whips, and M&Ms.

Then again, the cupcakes are starting to get stale, and the thought of eating another Mellowcreme makes me sick to my stomach. I hate to admit it, but I've been eating them since September. After all, that's when I usually begin my Halloween festivities.

By mid-September, I had already scoped out most of the costume stores nearby and online, the Halloween shows that were to air, the craft and decorating tips in magazines, the haunted houses in the surrounding areas, and, of course, the goodies in the grocery stores.

By mid-October, I decided to gather up some friends and drive them to a haunted house in Pennsylvania called "Haunted Mill Scream Park." The roads were windy and there was a bad rain storm that started an hour or so into our trip. But, I suppose it was worth the drive because we were scared out of our minds in four different houses by masked people chasing us with chainsaws.

A week before Halloween, I volunteered to work in a haunted house in my hometown. This was a bad decision. I ended up stuck in a fake well for hours pretending to be Samara from The Ring. Being in there for so long with flashing lights, loud, creepy noises, and screaming children made me have a panic attack. My heart began to palpitate out of control, and I thought perhaps I would die in the well.

By the time Halloween arrived, all I wanted to do was sleep, but my parents had other plans. We were to go to the Charles Theatre in Baltimore, Maryland, an old movie theatre with a curious choice of films. At noon, we were to see Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, a movie my dad used to play for me when I was much younger.

As the movie started, I lightened up and began to laugh along with the rest of the audience. I was stunned by how many lines and scenes I could recall after nearly 15 years. As we left the theatre, I thought of my younger days when Halloween seemed magical without having to try so hard.

That evening, I decided to stay home and give out candy to the trick-or-treaters, knowing that it was their turn to enjoy the magic.

Send out the clowns

I am 31 and afraid of clowns. I don’t remember the incident that sparked this fear, but my grandmother told me that I was two when she was with me in my living room, while my parents got ready for a Halloween party upstairs. When my father came down the steps, unrecognizable in clown makeup, I ran to the corner, screamed and cried.

Today, things aren’t much different. I’ve given up the screaming and crying, but when I see a clown or scary character at a party or bar, I dash for the nearest corner and cower. I need to put as much distance between me and the clowns. Walls and corners are the best protection, preventing surprises from behind. I think it’s a clown’s unpredictability and sudden movements that scare me most.

About eight years ago, I went to Fells Point for Halloween with friends. I dressed as a scarecrow, but soon realized I should have gone as the cowardly lion. I dreaded the experience, but wanted to see my friends, so I went. On the way, we picked up a couple my friends knew. When we got to their house, they were in the basement, getting ready. I knew the guy was going as something scary, but nothing more. I crept down the stairs into the dark basement behind my friends. A single red bulb in the bathroom provided the only light. When I saw the creature in question, I knew it was going to be a long night. Not only was he dressed as a clown, but an evil one. He had grown a Mohawk just for the holiday. His entire head, except for the black Mohawk was painted white, with a black evil smile painted in place, along with a black mask painted around the eyes and a perfect red circle on the tip of his nose. He wore a one-piece gray jumpsuit and carried a plastic meat cleaver. By the time we got there, he was painting a similar face on his girlfriend, who wore her long brown hair in two ponytails, one on either side of her head, like a child would. I was not as afraid of her, because she looked cute in a creepy sort of way.

He seemed friendly enough, even polite.

But when he stepped aside to let everyone go before him up the stairs, I stopped and shook my head.

“You have to go first,” I said.

I just couldn’t walk in front of him.

In the bars, I was able to stand closer to him, but had to know where he was at all times. I couldn’t relax knowing that he could surprise me from behind.

The fear of clowns carried over to anything in costume when I was a child. My parents had to spoil the tooth fairy for me when I lost my first tooth. I didn’t like the idea of something strange hovering around my bed while I slept. I can remember a couple years of not wanting to go to sleep on Christmas Eve for fear that Santa might decide to venture into my room. I never sat on his lap in the mall, but chose to tell him my wish list from a distance, through letters.

I still get that initial quiver in my chest when I first see the Oriole bird nearby, at a game, but then walk by him with ease once I remind myself that I am an adult.

I only went to Fells Point on Halloween once after the occasion with the evil clowns. I went early with friends and we staked out a spot in a corner on the second floor of a bar. We stayed a little too long and as we descended the stairs to leave, I felt the need to return to my corner. The first floor was packed with ghouls, skeletons, monsters and clowns. I gave myself an internal pep talk and held my breath as we pushed our way through the crowd to the door.

Last year, I went to dinner at a Canton corner bar. Of course our waiter had to be in clown makeup and we had a table in the middle of the floor, near the kitchen. He rushed by surprising me from behind all night. At first, I couldn’t concentrate on the menu, but as I reminded myself of my age and watched everyone else enjoying dinner, oblivious of the clown in the room, I began to relax.

I was almost proud of myself as I left the restaurant, glad to have gotten through an entire dinner, served by a scary clown. I thought I had conquered my fear, but a few months ago my friend and I went to McDonald’s for lunch. As we were walking through the parking lot, my friend said, “Oh, Ronald McDonald’s here today.”

I almost stopped in my tracks.

“You saw him. . . in there?” I asked looking at the restaurant.


“I don’t think I’ve ever told you, but I don’t like clowns.”

My friend looked at me and laughed a little. “Well, do you want to go somewhere else?”

Remembering my age again, I said “No, I’ll be alright.”

As we waited in line, he got closer and his sudden movements in those floppy shoes made me want to run, but I looked at him hard and could see the wrinkles that were accentuated by the white makeup caked on his face. I tried to imagine how old he was and determined mid-50s. Once I could see some of the human details beneath the makeup, I was fine. But I knew I had not completely conquered my fear.

This year I got invited to a lavish Halloween party in a big old house in Bolton Hill. I warned my friends that I get scared easily and hate Halloween.

“It’s OK. We can leave if you get scared,” my friend said.

“No, I won’t need to leave. I just might need to find a corner to survey the room from.”

It was the most enjoyable Halloween yet. There was not one clown or scary mask and the number of people in sleazy costumes had dwindled. Everyone put thought into their costume. I dressed as Julia Child and mingled easily with Abe Lincoln, Edgar Allen Poe, Frida Kahlo, and Rosie the Riveter. I envied Amelia Earhart for her boots and leather jacket.

I noticed everyone at the party was at least in their 30s and most worked for the Associated Press or the Baltimore Sun, which explained the more creative costumes. I may not have conquered my fears, but I have come of age - the age when my peers no longer want to dress sleazy or ghoulish for Halloween.

'Salvaged' Part II: The Child Within

“Objects Found” is a labyrinthine antique collection with something for everyone in the heart of Catonsville: any turn down one hallway could lead you to a dead end, so you have no choice but to back yourself into another tiny alcove. Treasure boxes are scattered throughout, filled with postcards or photographs. One black and white photograph is of a young toddler in large breeches and an even larger tunic; his head seems to sink below the surface as he stares with big eyes. He is no doubt eager for the posing to be finished so he can eat or play.

Wander away from the pictures and up a short staircase into a room with two open closets, one with Christmas ornaments (on sale) with a Baltimore Hon flamingo to greet you. The other closet is devoted to music (Schuberth’s Serenade), records (“Learn to Hustle” and “French Folk Songs”), and Elvis.

Here in this closed in space of note scales and purple wooden mouth harps, I found my object.

My intent in visiting was to study the vintage clothing, the ones they advertise for Halloween (dress like a 19th century bride!), but I fell in love with a small wooden piano sitting on a shelf. It was not really a piano, but a jewelry box in the shape of a piano (I am reminded of my middle school grammar teacher stressing, “Things are not always as they seem”). The designated place for A through G hold no black and white keys, but blue fuzzy material for a small bracelet to rest in. When you open up the top of the grand piano, it transforms into staircase for storing pearls and earrings. On a whim, I considered buying this authentic looking commodity. I set it back down and then picked it up again, turning it on its back. Sure enough there was a rusted key at the bottom, revealing its true musical nature. How could a person ever make a piano jewelry box and not make it a music box as well? I almost put it back without turning the knob. It’s as if the object was too fragile for me to test it out. It’s not one of those green and white singing Christmas bears in the department stores that say “Try Me.” This was something different, something valued and beautiful, something rare.

Deciding I would regret not playing the song, my hand rotated the key slowly and gently just to get a brief sample of the tune, to see if I even recognized it. The first few notes were slow twangs amid the clash of Frank Sinatra in the background but the tune was a pleasing version of “La Vie En Rose.” I was in awe of the tiny bell notes turning out the French medley immortalized by Edith Piaf. Again I had the crazy impulse to buy it, it reminded me for some reason of being younger and using jewelry music boxes as houses for my tiny dolls I made from yarn and string. The box unleashed the child within, so to speak.

I was perhaps like the toddler from the old photograph sitting on a bench waiting for a picture to be taken, so he could go back to his imaginary world... The tune ended and I returned the grand piano music box back on the shelf to collect dust. My journey continues throughout the cluttered maze of ceramic, quartz, and nostalgia.

Gram Belle

I wake up in the dark to the sound of my grandmother’s voice coming loudly from my cell phone which has slipped down my pillow. “That damned husband of hers had better not mouth off again. He really doesn’t want to mess with me, does he Boo?”

Pretending I have not dozed off and have no idea if we’re talking about a family member or a soap opera character I say, “No ma’am. He sure doesn’t.” I look at the alarm clock across the room and when my nearsighted squint clears the red digital glow I see that it is almost 3am. Gram picks up the conversation and after five minutes of context clues I determine that we are talking about my aunt and her newish husband, who really is turning out to be a no-count dick.
This isn’t an odd scenario for us, we’ve always been abnormally close. My mother is a career woman who took her only child to her mother’s house to get on and off the bus while she worked her way up the corporate ladder. It was in the hours after school that Gram taught me how to play poker, Foxtrot, and walk the line between a lady and a good time. On some rainy days when a particularly good sale was going on or a major story line on General Hospital was slated to unravel, Gram would call my mother to tell her I had developed a strange cough and would need to be in for the day. My mom caught on quick, but reprimanded us only when I got close to the absentee limits. My grandmother loves to tell stories about how I would bring her flowers, statuettes, and other treasures stolen from the yards of neighbors. She leaves out that she kept them all.

As we both grew older our relationship changed. I became a latchkey kid and she went a little nutty, confining herself to her bedroom. I visited to gossip, help her balance the checkbook and file her mail. After I started driving I would sign myself out of school to take her to a doctor’s appointment. At seventeen, I became anxiety ridden and depressed and she was the only one with the sense to give me a Vicodin and a splash of sherry and really really listen to what I was feeling.

When I left for college My Gram and I had both evolved into creatures who consumed mind altering substances and kept strange hours. We became the best of late night phone friends and in ten years our conversations haven’t really changed. She tells me about her aches and pains and reads me letters from her first love. I sing Patsy Cline on request and we discuss the escapades of day time television characters. Occasionally though, one of us slips up and the benign conversation gets interesting. Our loose lips bond us and on nights when we are both particularly bored with life and our drugs of choice. We enter the walk-in closet and toss family skeletons back and forth.

These calls are where I learned that my aunt was pregnant, my grandfather had cancer and my uncle was getting divorced. It was during one of these calls that I found out that my mother was born out of wedlock and that my Pa-Pa was not my biological grandfather. My grandfather is a retired lawyer who lives in Chicago and was a prick to my mother when she went to meet him the year she turned sixteen. My Pa-Pa was the submarine sailor who went AWOL to marry my nylon model of a grandmother in 1960. He adopted my mother and raised her as his own, his “Ichiban Baby-san.” Two children followed my uncle and aunt, and the family moved to Aiea, Hawaii to reside on the naval base.

The woman has lived three lives in seventy-two years and I wonder what it must feel like to be done. I want to be done. I want to know if I’ll ever have babies and what they’ll be like when they grow up. I want to know if I’ll marry and to know who will die first. I want to know my happiest time and my saddest time and know that everything else is going to fall somewhere in the middle of the road. I want to sleep when I want, eat what I want and tie a scarf around my head before I leave the house.

On the other end of the phone, I hear her light another cigarette and I reach for one of my own.

Grace-ful John

I was sitting gin a hotel room in New York City last Thursday on the second day of the PhotoPlus convention I was attending with my colleagues. As a pro photography lab, our company was an exhibitor, which meant 10 hours on our feet each day, no time for breaks (or eating for that matter) during the show, and horrendous color coordinated outfits. On Thursday night, we all drudged back to the hotel exhausted and ready to finally sit down for a meal. My cell rang as we were deliberating whether or not to make reservations or venture out onto the street without them, and my Dad was on the other line.

"John Shank passed away," he almost whispered. I didn't understand what he said at first and asked him to repeat it. "John Shank passed away," he said again in a slight yell. I think he must have been terrified knowing that John, just a few years older than himself, dropped dead without warning.

John was the father of Carrie Shank, a dear childhood friend and friend to this day. Although we lead very different lives, mine in the city and hers in the country, we always manage to reconnect whenever it is that we see each other again. Carrie is expecting a baby in mid-December and I actually visited her just two weeks ago at the baby shower. We had spoken when she found out she was pregnant and again when she found out baby Grace's sex, but I hadn't actually seen her with that tummy. I teared up as I wrapped my arms around her for a hug and that bump hugged me back. She looked just gorgeous.

That Shanks were the family always brave enough to invite all the kids to their house, so growing up, their farm was the epicenter of parties, sleepovers, and swimming in the summer. Mrs. Shank, Sharon, loved a busy house and John just went along for the ride. Although there was a time or two when my Mom dragged me away from such parties because the Shank's weren't home to supervise, John and Sharon were always on their way home or not far away and would call my Mom to explain and ask if I could come back.

Sharon was so proud at the shower and thrilled to see me there. We too hugged and she asked about my upcoming wedding, my parents and brothers. It had been a long time since I had seen her so happy. She had a particularly hard time when Carrie, the only girl in the family, went away to college. She shut down and just looked empty when I happened to bump in her the few times I was back in our hometown. Yet, at the shower, she was surrounded by several old girlfriends with whom she had reconnected, laughing and telling stories.

When I got the news, I collapsed back on the hotel bed and asked a blur of questions. John had celebrated his 55th birthday with his entire family and headed home after dinner to fix the mailbox he had accidentally run over with his tractor. A neighbor found him minutes after he collapsed. He died at the end of his driveway from a massive heart attack. When I got as many answers as there were to be had, I hung up the phone and started to cry.

I wasn't exactly what I would call "friends" with John, he was my father's age after all, but he was a part of my life as a teen and most importantly, Carrie's Dad. What hurt most was that my friend had lost her father. It stung even more knowing that baby Grace was just a few weeks away from meeting her grandpa. And what about Sharon? I'm sure when Carrie left home for college and eventually got married and moved out, Sharon turned to John for support. I am confident he was an integral part of helping her cope and bringing her back to life. Now, he had left her too, but this time it was forever.

Of course friends and family asked the typical questions, "why did John have to die?," "why was he taken at such a young age?," but all I could think was "why right now?" People die, I've come to terms with that, and it can sometimes happen when least expected, but didn't John deserve to live just two more months to see the birth of his first grandchild? Kiss her just once? What could the family have done to be punished so severely? This is something I don't think I'll ever be able to wrap my head around.

I am not a religious person, but I think I am spiritual, and I truly believe that John will be a part of baby Grace, beyond simply genetics. I want to hope that he will be felt in the hospital room that day in December and when Carrie and Sharon look at that precious newborn, they will also see a rebirth of John.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Of Mice and Yen, or: How I Learned to Use My Japanese Washer and Dryer

What do you fear most?

I fear that “technology” has left me so far behind that I’ll never catch up. I don’t Twitter, I don’t have a My Face Space . . . Book, whatever. And until this class, I didn’t blog.

I’m also afraid of being eaten by a shark.

Dying in a plane crash sounds horrific. Not the dying part, but the screaming-on-the-way-down part, knowing I shall certainly not land softly and unharmed.

I’m terrified of mice, and their chubbier, pinker-tailed cousins, the rats.

So my worst fear might be boarding a doomed flight piloted by two mice so busy linking on their laptops that they overshoot their landing zone and run out of fuel over the sharky parts of the Pacific.

But it’s really the rats that make me feel the icy hand of fear at the small of my back.

I don’t think I had this problem when I was very young. No mouse trauma that I can recall. Once, when I was in college, living at the illustrious Wentworth Domicile and Partyshack, a mouse scrambled over my roommate’s foot while we were standing around discussing the latest panty-raid. I don’t remember being particularly troubled by witnessing this event, but then again, the mouse was smaller than some of the Palmetto bugs that used to crunch under our bare feet as we stepped into the shower.

No, I believe I can trace the origins of my fear to a summer night in 1988. I was a newly married girl-woman fresh off the boat in Okinawa. Consider that the first year of marriage is daunting enough in familiar surroundings, and then ask yourself: Who would want to make that any harder? The United States Marine Corps, that’s who. We’d barely crossed the threshold when some crusty CO handed my husband orders for the aptly named “unaccompanied tour” on an island in the South China Sea. This is when I came to understand the military maxim “if we wanted you to have a spouse, we would have issued you one.” They can’t tell you that you cannot follow your beloved, but they can make you wish you’d never set foot in the land of monsoons and bike-rusting humidity. Uncle Sam does not pay, on unaccompanied tours, for your stuff to follow you, nor does he pay for you to live with other Americans in the womb-like comfort of the base. You are on your own, baby, living with the locals, scrounging for furnishings and friends, and as an added incentive for never attempting to buck the natural order of unaccompanied tours again, the Corps waits until you’ve been on your new island just long enough to remember what your spouse looks like, and then whisks him off to some place you are most definitely not allowed to go. Ha! That’ll show you.

I was undeterred. I loved our apartment that smelled like soy sauce from the restaurant below. I loved my bilingual neighbor from Nagasaki who told me Hurry up! A Marine just left all his furniture in the dumpster! I grew to love the caribou, hooked by a nose ring to a post by the road. I even loved my stupid little red car that fostered a new kind of independence in me – that of a young woman who knew how to put clutch fluid in the proper receptacle so she could make it home, and who knew how to hitch a ride when she ran out of clutch fluid. I taught English, got paid in yen, ate a live shrimp, read a bunch of bad novels and some good ones, and missed my husband. I was alive.

I was not, however, of a mind to learn to use the washer and dryer in our apartment. It was a tiny, stacked model, with the operating instructions written in Japanese, so I just bundled up my weekly wash load and drove it out to the base for a rip-roaring evening of standing around the laundry facility, watching whatever baseball game the Marines happened to be playing on the field by the bachelor officer’s quarters.

The washers and dryers lined each wall of a small cinderblock hallway, with a bank of sea-salted windows on the side overlooking the field. A door, always left open in the humid summer, led to the parking lot. I was usually alone when I got there, and sometimes lonely. The smell of soapy laundry mixed with ocean breeze soothed me. Since I’d worked my way through a summer Physics class at a laundromat, I considered myself a professional laundress, and I kept hoping some feckless Marine would come in needing my assistance, perhaps some advice on how to determine if those middling colors belonged with darks or whites. But no one asked for my help.

One evening, as I rested my hip against the pulsing dryer next to the open door, I saw from the corner of my eye a large something waddling through the doorway toward my feet. I looked down in time to see the biggest damn rat I had ever seen in my life just before it disappeared, with some difficulty, beneath the dryer on which I was leaning. Because it did not streak or whip or zip or any other fast verbs that I usually associated with vermin, I had ample time to see the fat, plodding gray body squeeze itself under my dryer, long fleshy tail in tow.

I believe I screamed. I know I jumped on top of that dryer with complete disregard for any damage it might incur. As blood drained from my head to protect my vital organs, frantic thoughts vied for top position in my mind. Could I fit through the window? What would I do for clothes? How the hell did it fit under there? Was it still there? I needed to look, but I couldn’t look. I was afraid if I saw it again I would faint and drop onto the floor where it would surely attack me. Paralyzing fear froze my innards, and I was unable to move voluntarily, though shudders kept racking my frame.

Just as I had resigned myself to standing on the dryer and screaming until someone heard me, Grant walked through the open doorway. Grant was another Marine and a friend from the States, not to mention my savior in a white polo. He wanted to know what I was doing on top of the dryer with a very pale face.

“There’s a rat under here.”

He laughed and leaned on the dryer.

“No, I mean a really big one.”

But Grant just continued to smile. “We used to have mice and rats in the walls of our house in Oklahoma,” he said. “He’s more scared of you than you are of him.”

I felt that was an arguable and imbecilic point, but I refrained from hysteria and from asking him if I could ride out on his back. He talked me down from the heights of fear like a psychologist does a jumper, and after a time, I became convinced my nemesis was gone – probably having slunk behind another machine. If he felt it, Grant never once showed the slightest squeamishness. He helped me get my clothes out of the dryer and walked me to my car, though I sprinted and he walked.

I learned to use that washer and dryer in my apartment. I learned to keep from overreacting whenever I thought I saw movement in my peripheral vision. I learned how to calm myself when visions of that gigantic rat encroached upon my nights alone. And I learned a useful technique for vanquishing fear. Nothing less than this, my friends: Send in the Marines.

Rotten Baby

The books, veterinarians, and our friends warned us that Bichons were known as attention-cravers. “High maintenance,” they said, “don’t let their small size fool you.” My parents took note of everyone’s advice, but their curiosity took the better of them when she was born on December 6, 2007.

The litter was unusually large. Bichon litters tend to consist of three to four pups, but she was from a litter of seven. “The more, the merrier!” I thought, even though they said large litters can create overly hyper, aggressive puppies. Still, my mom fell in love with her when holding her in the palm of her hand. I fell in love with her when I bathed her at the breeder’s house and her delicate white curls melted away in the sudsy water.

After much thought, we settled on the name “Missy.” She was, after all, going to be the proper miss-priss, well-trained type that would wear bows in her ears and pink princess t-shirts. But when we took her home, she knew we were mere fools at her disposal and “well-trained” flew through the doggy-door. If the pink fleece blanket, array of soft, plushy beds, or scattered bones didn’t give us away, well, maybe the fact that the house looked like PetSmart upchucked in it did.

It only took a couple of weeks for Missy to learn that her pleading, black-eyed stares would earn her scraps of steak and cheese at the dinner table, which soon transcended into packages of cheese bought especially for her at the grocery store. She learned when I ate a bowl of icecream that she could nuzzle her way onto my lap with a kiss and then freely dip her head into my bowl for licks. And she learned to sit at my father’s feet at night, when he read and ate snack mix.

After a couple of months, we quickly learned that bathroom doors must be kept shut. If a door were inadvertently cracked open, she’d edge her way in to snatch the ends of the dangling toilet paper. She’d then run through the bedrooms and down the hallway, all the while keeping yard upon yard of the quilted, perforated squares intact. I always knew when Missy had assailed the toilet paper, because I’d find mounds of it looped back into the holder by my mother.

It also didn’t take long for our clothing to accumulate small holes and tears from Missy’s constant nips and gnawing. I no longer have elbows on my favorite burgundy sweater or embroidery on my sweatshirts from Missy’s attacks. “No, no” my mother would sternly warn Missy while holding up her index finger. “Be the alpha male,” they said. But Missy would have none of it. She always responded with growls that ended with her lounging in to tap my mother’s finger with her nose as a final act of defiance.

And chase her tail? Oh no. Missy’s too smart for that. She literally catches her tail, even if it’s paired with a couple of yelps here and there. And when she’s done, she’s beaming, with clumps of hair hanging from her mouth.

These days, we are quite accustomed to Missy’s affinity for shredding paper. In fact, just the other day, she stumbled upon my father’s stack of insurance records that he hadn’t had time to file. Shredded paper can’t even begin to describe the mayhem in his office, which was reminiscent of the annual winter wonderlands in malls. Think of his office as layered with the plastic, artificial snow mounded around Santa’s chair.

“Rotten bay-beeeeeeee!” my father says every evening, when he steps in the door from work. “No touch, no talk, no eye contact,” they say. But he follows this with an upwards scooping of Missy who is still squealing and wriggling in his arms. She licks him everywhere—up his nose, in his mouth, on his glasses, in his ears. After my dad sits her back down on the floor, she runs in laps, faster than Danica Patrick could drive, around the house: through the hallway, kitchen, family room, living room, then back through the hallway, all the while half-shrieking, half throaty-growling this “raaaa—raaaaahh-raaa—rahhhhh!” of hers. This has been their routine for the past two years.

At night, Missy always curls up against me, and she nuzzles her nose in the nape of my neck. We share the same pillow, and I cover her up with my comforter until only the tip of her black nose peeks through. Her baby breath lands in soft poofs against my cheek, and I hear her snores. “I love you,” I say, “you’re mine.”

Par For The Course

I recently read an article about a mother and son who were kicked off of a Southwest flight because the child was unruly. What was most surprising to me wasn’t the crew’s decision to have the women ousted rather the reaction from people who read the article and posted comments. Most folks agreed with the crew but took it a step further and attacked the woman for allowing her two year old child to disturb others. Moreover, they expressed their disgust for passengers who show little if any consideration for the people around them. It got me thinking about all of the different times I’ve flown and the people I have encountered along my journeys some kind, some mean but all interesting.

My first flight was over thirteen years ago out of Dulles on British Airways. It had stormed all morning. The traffic jammed on the Toll Road leaving me with an anxious stomach and little time to get through the airport for my afternoon flight. I checked my bag and ran to the gate. Passengers were already boarding and my friend was restless waiting for me. “Finally,” she said. “I was getting worried.”

“Well, I’m here, so let’s go. Europe or bust!” I replied as my stomach turned.

We boarded our flight in very different states of minds. I was a nervous wreck and Em was calm. She was a seasoned traveler and wisely took Dramamine while waiting for me. As we settled into our seats, which were the middle two in a row of four, Em fell asleep. The rain continued and pelted the plane amplifying my anxiety. Forty five minutes later our flight ascended and the turbulence that followed turned my stomach against me for good.

No more than thirty minutes into the flight and I had filled up my barf bag and was searching for Em’s. She was fast asleep and unaware of my condition. The man next to me kindly offered up his bag. I smiled sheepishly and began to fill it. I wanted to crawl under the seat in embarrassment or at least get up and go to the restroom but the turbulence was so bad I couldn’t. The flight attendants weren’t even walking around. I just hunched over in my seat and cried. The kind man next to me rubbed my back and told me it would be okay. He was only a few years older than me and spoke with a British accent. And over the next five hours, he talked to me about home, travel, family and life and helped me get through my first flight.

The following Fall I moved to Charlotte and alternated driving and flying home. I also began to travel more with business, so flying became a common occurrence for me. It happened so often that I rarely got sick. Plus, the flights were short and didn’t allow much time for my stomach to attack. Closing my eyes and sleeping became my fail-proof remedy. One time though I sat next to a kid who had gas. It was the longest hour flight of my life. He didn’t say a word the entire time just smiled uncomfortably. If it wasn’t for the rancid stench coming from his direction, I would have felt sorry for the kid, who was about nine years old and travelling by himself. Instead, I did everything in my power not to look at him or utter a sound in his direction. I knew if I opened my mouth something embarrassing would come out. So, we both sat in silence.

In an attempt to drift away to another place, I closed my eyes. But the only thing in my mind was the scene from Tora! Tora! Tora! when the Japanese dropped bomb after bomb on Pearl Harbor. My eyes stayed open for the rest of the flight. My fail-proof remedy crashed and burned, and the short flight home was plenty of time for the boy’s stomach to declare war.

I eventually moved to Atlanta and flying became my only means of transportation home. There were planes of plenty in and out of Hartsfield-Jackson and they were always packed. I was flying back to Georgia from a long weekend with the family when a young blond woman asked if she could have my aisle seat. She said that her husband was sitting next to me and they were unable to get seats together. I agreed and asked where she was sitting. The woman pointed to a seat several rows back. I reached up to get my laptop out of the overhead as I was planning on using it in flight when she snapped, “Why do you need your bag? You’re just going over there. It’s not like anyone will take it.”

Several things ran through my head to say to her at that moment: I plan on using my laptop once we take off. I want to have my belongings near me during the flight. It’s none of your business. I’m giving you my damn seat, back off. I didn’t say any of them though. Instead I replied, “What does it matter?”

She barked back, “You don’t need your bag. You’re just going a few rows away.”

Why did this woman care so much about my bag? After all, she was getting what she wanted -- my seat. Did it really matter if I took a few extra minutes to remove my bag from the overhead? It wasn’t like we were taking off at that very moment.

My patience had faded and I regrettably retorted, “Do you want my seat or not?”

Her hands flew up in the air and she started yelling things I can’t recall. Her husband stood up and got involved. People were staring. I grabbed my bag and ran. I wasn’t ready for all that excitement. I just wanted to get home.

For the rest of the flight all I could think about was that woman and what happened. My stomach cramped from anxiety. I had sweat marks on my t-shirt. And I never opened my laptop bag.

Nowadays, I hardly ever fly. The few times that I do, I usually sleep or try keep to myself. When I do fly, I don’t want to be inconvenienced just as much as the next person but that is kind of par for the course. We can’t control what happens in the plane anymore than we can control the elements outside of it. You just have to go with the flow and hope the ride is full of sunshine and roses. Lots of sweet smelling roses.