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.