I Hate You, Michael Landon

[Originally posted on November 11, 2011. Surprisingly, this is the most viewed and shared post I have ever written. The internet is mesmerized by Pa Landon's apple-cheeked death gaze.]

An essential part of growing up for any virgin to life is to have your spirits lifted, then promptly trampled on by Michael Landon.

Growing up, I was a Little House on the Prairie nut.  From episode one, I cared about the Ingalls family and their trials and tribulations.  I ignored the fact that Pa had a perm; I ignored the tire tracks appearing on prairie shots, or how the Midwest looked like a California desert.  At 5 p.m. every weekday, I turned on WPIX to become a part of the syndicated Little House world.  I cheered for the characters when they triumphed and wept when they struggled.

And Lord, how they struggled.  You see, everyone views Michael Landon as this great guy who created wonderful family shows to inspire us and give us hope.  Let’s be honest – Michael Landon used his magical powers of story-telling to rip out our hearts with his mangled claw-hand, leaving black rot to form and kill off the remaining niblets of innocence and whimsy hiding deep in the recesses of our souls.

…Okay, that’s a slight exaggeration; but the man was a grim reaper.  I present to you, my lovely reader, exhibits A-Z4 in My Childhood Innocence v. Pa Landon – a list of the actual trials and tribulations that occurred on this show:

- When the Ingalls wheat crop failed, Pa went to work in mining.  He befriended a man.  The man was funny and nice.  The man was blown up by dynamite.  The camera showed a close up of Pa doing his typical heart-wrenching, apple-cheeked quiverface, telling all actors that if you are kind enough to be a guest star on a Michael Landon show, he will reward you with death.  On the plus side?  Emmy reel!

- Ma had a baby; Laura was jealous of the baby.  The baby died, and Laura thought she caused it due to having Pa Death in her genes.  She ran away to live on a mountain that miraculously appeared in the middle of the prairie.  On Miracle Mountain, she met a Special Guest Star Angel.  Pa couldn’t kill the angel, because an angel by definition isn’t alive.  Pa was disappointed.

- Ma cut her leg on a wire.  Pa and the kids conveniently travelled somewhere without her for the only time EVER on this God-forsaken show.  She developed a staph infection and slowly rotted away in the Ingalls house.  To further tease us, people would check on her by knocking on the door.  We the viewers would think, “She’s saved!”  But no; her neighbors wondered why she wasn’t answering and they’d just take off.  As their carriage clippity-clopped off into the sunset, we’d see Ma’s ashen sweaty hand desperately reach up to the door knob to catch their attention.  Of course they acted like they didn’t see her.  But watch closely: Doc Baker totally hit the horsey gas pedal when that door opened.  He’s like, “So long, bitches!  Call me when penicillin’s invented!”  She almost died, but Pa figured she’d be more useful to him alive.

- Mary gave Laura a pet raccoon.  How could this end well?  Of course, the raccoon had rabies, bit Laura, so Pa shot and killed it.

- Laura had a horse named Bunny.  She sold it to Nellie Oleson to buy Christmas gifts for the family.  Once she won the horse back, she was showing her grandfather her riding skills, and ran Bunny into a barbed wire fence.  Grandpa shot Bunny.  She died.  Laura hated Grandpa and wished him dead.  Pa gave his apple-cheeked Quiverface, but reveled inside, for this was the Grand Slam of Anguish for Pa.

- Laura had a terrier named Jack.  The dog was annoying her and she wanted it to go away.  Pa realized this was the perfect moment to further torment Laura, so he killed Jack and claimed it was old age.

- Mary went blind.  Now, in actual history, Mary went blind when she had scarlet fever.  On the show, Mary had scarlet fever long ago, and went blind as some weird aftereffect.  I had scarlet fever twice as a child.  Thanks for keeping me up at night, Pa.

- After going blind, Mary kept her childhood reading glasses in her pocket at all times as a reminder of what Pa Ingalls does to people who have hopes and dreams.

- Mary fell in love with her dreamy blind teacher Adam Kendall, and when they got married, a surprise dust storm struck and almost took out the entire wedding party.  No one saw it coming.

- Mary got pregnant.  She miscarried.

- Mary and her dreamy blind husband had to take a stagecoach ride somewhere.  The stagecoach flipped.  The driver died.  Dreamy Adam got pinned under the stagecoach.  Mary went for help and almost burned to death in a brush fire caused by her childhood reading glasses.  Pa found her just in time to save the day.  HOW CONVENIENT, PA.

- Mary thought she was regaining her sight.  It was just Michael Landon fucking with us.  She remained blind and was devastated.

- Mary and her dreamy blind husband had a baby.  They were finally happy.  Then their school for the blind burned to the ground in the dead of night, thanks to no-good Albert smoking a pipe in the basement.  Pa’s message: Smoking kills, kids.  NO PA – YOU KILL, YOU SICK APPLE-CHEEKED BASTARD.

- In said fire, Mrs. Garvey realized Mary’s baby was still in their bedroom.  Because like, EVERYONE FORGOT ABOUT THE BABY.  Like, really.  Mary and her dreamy blind husband spent like, 20 minutes on the lawn eating cold fried chicken and playing blind man’s bluff AND HAVING A MERRY LITTLE FREAKING TIME WITH 10 RANDOM BLIND KIDS, ONLY TO REALIZE ALL TOO LATE THAT UH, YEAH, BABY IS STILL CHILLIN’ IN THAT FIREY WARM BLOB ON STAGE LEFT.  Ahem.  So anyway, Mrs. Garvey went to get the baby.  Since the baby had the Pa Death in his genes, he used his rudimentary Pa Death powers to cause Mrs. Garvey to freeze like a deer, stare at him for too damn long, and they both got trapped in the room.  As the students and staff stood outside in horror, Mrs. Garvey used the Kendall baby as a battering ram* to bust through a window to try and escape.  She didn’t.  They died.  That little baby was a Pa Death Kamikazee. (*that description is courtesy of the fine people who brought us the now-defunct jumptheshark.com)

- Mary became catatonic and lost her everlovin’ mind for like, three episodes.  Seriously.  She held her dead baby and creepily hummed a lullabye.  Of course, no-good Albert wussed out while Mary lost said mind.

- Dreamy Adam Kendall regained his sight, but Michael Landon only did that to screw with Mary’s head.  After this, dreamy Adam went on to create shows like “Malcolm in the Middle,” so he did well for himself.  Poor Mary landed B-rate horror movies, like “Happy Birthday to Me,” where she would slaughter people on her birthday in a rampage.

- No-good Albert shacked up with a girl named Sylvia.  They were in love.  She was raped by a mime.  The mime got her pregnant.  Albert told her they’d get married and he’d raise the baby as his own.  When the mime attacked her again, she tried to escape from him and fell off a ladder (a real ladder, not a mimed ladder, which is kind of a letdown to be honest with you).  The mime died.  Sylvia and her fetal-mime died.

- James (played by a young Jason Bateman) and Cassandra were the children of a wonderful couple who needed help moving, so Pa “helped” them.  They came across a steep road on a mountain.  Pa went down first with the kids.  The parents then went down on their covered wagon.  Pa decided the show needed more young children so he sabotaged the brakes on the wagon.  The couple’s wagon tumbled down the mountain as James and Cassandra watched their parents die a bloody, gruesome death.  Cassandra became a mute.  Greedy Pa gobbled up the children like Saturn and they became a part of his clan.

- More kids means more trauma!  So naturally, James was shot by a bank robber.  Pa took him up to Miracle Mountain, where James got all clammy and dead-like.  Another Guest Star Angel appeared and to Pa’s dismay, saved little clammy James by feeding him something from a bowl.  I think it was Pa Death Antivenom.

- Mr. Edwards married and they adopted three kids.  Note: EVERYONE ADOPTS AN ORPHAN ON THIS DAMN SHOW.  IT’S LIKE THE JOLIE-PITT/MIA FARROW ACTION HOUR, BUT WITH MORE DAMN KIDS.  You guessed it; the oldest kid became a reporter and was murdered.

- Mr. Edwards was devastated that his oldest son died, so he went back to drinking.  His wife and two remaining kids left him, so he only had Pa to turn to.

- Mrs. Whipple had a son we’ve never seen before, and he served in the Civil War.  He had PTSD and was a drug addict.  In typical Little House fashion, the only purpose to have this person on the show was to kill him.  He died.

- No-good Albert became addicted to morphine.  He didn’t die from that. Instead, he got leukemia.  Thankfully, the show didn’t last long enough to watch him die, because you totally knew where that was going.

- Shannon Doherty was on the show and almost drowned to death.  How did she get on the show?  Oh yeah.  Her parents died.  She was an orphan.

- On the final episode, the townspeople rebelled against Pa and blew up the town [Note: Husband who never watched Pa Landon’s Little House of Horrors read this and asked me, “Really??”  My response: “Yes.  Really.”].

I could go on and on, but you get the message.  The evidence is overwhelming.  I was thoroughly traumatized by Pa Landon and his moral anvils.  I mean, sure, I could stop watching… but…but then I wouldn’t see town party vs. country party!  I wouldn’t see when Percival melts Nellie’s mean girl heart.  I wouldn’t see Laura become a woman, damn it (and a real woman, not a girl who stuffed her bra with apples), and I sure as hell wouldn’t have seen my dreamy blue-eyed Adam Kendall waving romantically (sniff!) to Mary as her carriage rode away.  Sigh…dreamy, 70s-hair, hydrophobic Adam Kendall…(swoons).  Yeah, okay, if taking away my Little House takes away all that, I suppose I’ll exchange my innocence for your paella of death, despair, and inexplicable wholesome and timeless charm.  {{shakes fist}} Curse you, Landon and your ability to reach into my soul!!

Angry Birds

I am a huge football fan.  A big reason for this was how I was raised – my dad was a high school football coach for nearly 30 years, and I have been going to games since I was a fetus.  I remember being a kid and not wanting to be a cheerleader because they always faced away from the game.  I remember a few exciting last-second wins and my mom and I waiting on the sidelines while my dad finished up interviews.  Oddly one of my strongest memories was from when I was about 7 or 8.  For one particular game, some guy sat in front of me in the stands.  I never got a good look at his face, but saw the back of his head.  He was balding, and I watched his entire head turn purple from anger.  He sat alone.  He screamed onto the field, as if someone could hear him and would throw the playbook to the ground to take his advice.

“RUN THE BALL THROUGH THE SEAM! RUN IT UP THE SEAM!”

“DAMN COACH DOESN’T KNOW WHAT HE’S DOING! PROTECT THE POCKET! PROTECT THE POCKET!”

“BLITZ! YOU NEED TO BLITZ MORE, YOU BUM!”

Between these brilliant suggestions for a high school team from the state known for its great football legacy – that’s right, Connecticut, bitches* – he had a mantra:

“IMPEACH THE COAAAACHHHH!!!! IMPEAAACHH THE COAAACCHHHH!!!”

Behind me of course, was my mom and a couple of the other coaches’ wives muttering under their breaths, “this is high school football, asshole; not the NFL”  Not loud enough for him to hear, of course, but loud enough for me to hear and smirk.

“IMPEACH THE COACH!!!”

The word puzzled me.  I pictured a bunch of people throwing peaches at my dad, and it didn’t really make sense, so I turned to my mother.  “Mom? What does impeach mean?”

My mom looked frustrated and kept her eyes on the field while responding to me.  She deadpanned, “It’s a word used by people who don’t know what they are talking about.”

“But what does it mean?”

Mom explained the definition to me.  And that is how I learned what the word impeach meant.  I kid you not – every time I hear that word now, I flash back to that jerk’s angry, purple-y bald dome screaming his rage towards the field.

Maybe it’s this memory that makes me grumble inside when I hear about fans booing their own team, like this past Sunday in Arizona.  If you follow football at all, you know Arizona has a bit of a quarterback issue; long story short – the Cardinals paid a large price to acquire Kevin Kolb, who was beaten out for the starting position by John Skelton this year.  Admittedly, on the field, Kolb didn’t look like the player fans hoped he would be.  His passes lacked zip and accuracy and his decision-making looked poor.  Skelton had similar problems, but he seemed far more patient and relaxed on the field.  The offensive chemistry seemed to be better with him on the field.

In the first game of the season this past Sunday, Skelton went down with an ankle injury and had to be carted off.  When they bring out the cart for you, that’s kind of a bad sign. Like, players start praying and shit. You could call the cart the You’re Fucked Wagon, because that’s usually what it means.

Anyway, Skelton was writhing in pain, he got YFWed [he’ll be okay – low ankle sprain].  So, anyway, you kind of need a quarterback on your team if you want to play this grand game known as football, yes?  So who comes in? Kolb.  And what do some fans do?  They boo.

They freaking booed.

So let me ask you this – what kind of person boos the players on the team they are supposedly rooting for?  I just don’t get this.  Okay, if someone killed a man, raped someone or kicked puppies – yeah, fine; boo.  Those are serious things.  But booing someone because they didn’t have a good year? And booing them when they are replacing an injured player at a critical moment in the game?  How exactly do you think this helps “your team?” Do you really think a coach rubs their chin and says to himself, “well gee, I guess that fan booing between drunken Miller Lite vomit attacks was right; let’s just fire the guy and throw away a few million dollars for no reason whatsoever. Boooo! Boooo!”  Do you seriously want a coach who would listen to you and your stupid ideas? I sure as hell don’t want them listening to mine.

I’ll tell you who these Boo Birds are: they are the trolls on the internet.  They are the random angry drunk bros who pick fights at 1 in the morning on the Vegas Strip because some other bro looked at them funny.  They are the people who feel like the world owes them a favor.  They are the people who belittled me when I waitressed at Friendly’s.  They are men who sit by themselves at high school football games in Connecticut and scream from their perch.  They don’t even have a “favorite team” – they have a vessel that keeps them angry, raging and indignant every Sunday.  When you look at it that way, you kind of feel sad for them.  Because this thing – this angry, booing, screamy, trolly thing?  This is all they’ve got.  This and bad, cheap beer.  Tragedy.

And one ticket to Sucksville for them – Kolb kicked ass yesterday and won the game. That’s the best kind of “F-you” a person could give; remember that when you run into your own Boo Birds.

*I say this noting the exception of Greenwich High alum Steve Young. As a side note, Young had one loss his Senior year.  That loss? My dad’s team. Not like that is a huge event in the grand scheme of things, but as a coach’s daughter, I always thought that was kinda cool.

Image: FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The Ways I’d Show My Parents

As kids, there is nothing we want more than to taste sweet, sweet revenge when we don’t get our way.  As for me, I was a 7 year-old Count of Monte Cristo – when someone wronged me, I had an overly elaborate plan to get back at them.  I knew it would take time to really blossom, but oh, the payoff would be mine.  MINE I TELL YOU!

There were certain things I would do whenever my mother said “no” or yelled at me for something:

1. Stomp and Slam  
I learned this one from my teenage sisters.  Our rooms were on the third floor of the house, which made for exceptionally dramatic exits.  If the argument took place on the main floor, it would end with someone yelling “FINE!”, then STOMP-STOMP-STOMP-STOMP-STOMP-STOMP SLAM!  And our doors were perfect for slamming – they were made of cheap paneling and had zero weight or drag to them.  They echoed when you slammed them, and were perfectly aerodynamic for the angry daughter.  A basement rage was the best, because it was basically Stomp and Slam in two acts.  And you had to slam the door harder, so mom and dad could hear it.

2. Hiding and/or Never.Talking.Ever.Again.
Stomp and Slam, though therapeutic, was not incredibly effective for me.  I suspect because my parents went through it many times before with my sisters.

When you are 7 or so, you think that hiding or never talking is the cruelest thing you can do to your parents, because you believe you are the center of their universe.  In reality, they are just thankful you are off quietly doing something without them for a period of time.  This makes stewing in the laundry hamper for two hours way less satisfying, let me tell you.

The one exception to this is when I freaked the shit out of my family by hiding.  Let this be known as the Last Time I Did This:

My family was a big fan of hand-me-downs.  If the item lasted, the clothing would be passed from my cousin Cathy, to my sister Chrissy, to my other sister Melissa, to my cousin Susie and finally to me.  That was generally okay, despite looking like a fashion pariah.  The Cardinal Sin was when boy clothing was thrown into the mix – one time I received a shirt in the hand-me-down bag that was clearly a boy’s shirt, and clearly belonged to one of my male cousins.  I absolutely did not want to dress like a boy any day, especially not the day celebrating our independence.  I cried and squirmed as my mom forced me to wear it.  I could not be seen wearing this ugly pale yellow boy’s shirt, so I decided to show them – I hid behind my dad’s Mustang in the garage.

About 15 minutes or so after guests arrived, I suddenly hear someone say, “Where’s Anne-Marie?” (they actually used my childhood nickname which I will NEVER EVER REVEAL TO YOU because of its 70s-sounding disco-style embarrassment).  Someone said, “I don’t know.  Anne-Marie!?” And people began calling my name.  I sat there thinking, yes, motherfuckers! This is what you get for putting me in a boy’s shirt!  Someone walked into the garage and I held my breath like I was Linda Hamilton and they were the Terminator.  They walked out and I felt like I was home free.

Then people started freaking out.

They split up and tried searching the neighborhood and asking neighbors if they saw me.   Through a window in the garage, I saw someone walking up our driveway, desperately calling my name.  It was the first time in my life I thought, shit just got real.  I thought about calling back and ending the search, but realized I’d get in trouble.  I didn’t exactly have a plan B, or even a next step, which is typical of all of my revenge plots as a child. I just sat there, wondering how the hell I was going to get out of this one.  I couldn’t sneak out – they had someone stationed right at our patio.

Finally, my dad wandered into the garage.  Dads somehow know these things…as I heard his footsteps approach, I played possum and pretended to be asleep.  He “woke” me up, and I feigned grogginess telling him I was sleeping.  He picked me up and called off the search.  I started crying because I in part felt shitty for scaring everyone, and I still had to face the world in my ugly yellow boy shirt.  Everyone “awwwed.”  I was such a shit.  I never had to wear that damned shirt again, though.

3. Running Away
Since Hiding was removed from my wheelhouse, I had to turn to actually running away.  I pretty much cover this here.

4. Flushing the toilet over and over
When all else fails, get them on their cheapest utility bill.  At least I think that was my reasoning – I remember being really angry and thinking, I’ll show them! and flushing the damn toilet repeatedly.  But this was no big-city toilet – we lived in the ‘burbs of Connecticut – you had to wait forever for the tank to fill.  To reenact:

I am so mad at them! How dare they tell me I can’t play outside! I’ll show them!

Flushhhh…..
shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh(3 minutes later)shhhhht.

Pause.

ANARCHY!

Flushhhh…..
shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh(3 minutes later)shhhhht.

Pause.

This is getting boring.

Voice from other side of door: “Anne-Marie, are you okay in there?”

“Yeah, mom.”

Grrrr.

Flushhhh…..
shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh…

Oh, forget it.

 

Picture Pages, Picture Pages

Back in the 80s and early 90s, Nickelodeon used to run a little short between shows called Picture Pages, with a very 70s-looking, groovy, (possibly stoned or more likely severely fatigued) Bill Cosby.  I used to get excited when these little shorts came on, but I felt a little left out.  I wanted to get my Picture Pages, and I’d want to get my crayons and my pencil.  The problem? No one had this damn book.  Did you? I’ll bet you didn’t.  In reality, Picture Pages was bad filler, wedged in there to pass some sort of educational programming standard.

I can almost hear the rage flowing across the internet to me:  How can you say anything bad about a Bill Cosby short? Bill F-ing Cosby.  Look, I get that he’s a national treasure and the face-popping and wow-faces are endearing; but are you telling me you enjoyed watching a grown man do a connect-the-dots for five minutes, and basically instruct you on how to do this task for a book no one owned?  If anyone can pull it off it’s Bill, but this is dry material, people.  At his best, he would throw himself into it:

“And so we’re drawing the bird house, see, go from one… to two [cue TRS-80 doople-doople-doople sound effect for the magic marker] to…anyone? That’s right…three! Now… we have… a bird house! And there’s the cat, Mr. Catimus Maximus, he’s down here saying, ‘Shnazzle-dazzle! I can’t get to the Bird!’ and the bird, Mr. Borderline B. BlueBird, says, ‘Shmackum-whackum! I’m in my house!’ [face pop]”

He tried so hard to make this exciting, despite probably filming 800 of these damn shorts in a single 24-hour period.  At least that’s how they came across:

[and tell me at 2:52 Bill was not high]

He and little Mortimer Marker didn’t only do connect the dots; apparently that was too complicated for kids.  So, they had kids draw lines to a happy earth and a sad, garbage-filled earth.

My train of thought as I watch this:
Hey! That’s one psychedelic fez Bill is wearing.  He’s like Doctor Who – fezes are cool!  Oh, it’s a dunce cap.  That’s disappointing.  Camille! OMG! The famous Camille.  She’s so pretty! She looks a little like a cross between Lisa Bonet and Maya Rudolph.  That’s kind of weird…wow, that’s some uninspired line-reading there.  I wonder if they film this in their basement.  Aw, he loves her. How cute.  Okay, maybe she doesn’t look like Lisa Bonet so much… oh my God, I’m eagerly anticipating the Mortimer sound…I wanted that marker so bad as a stocking stuffer.  Yeah, they don’t even care at this point – with pages like J-5 and Uu-1, how many picture pages were there anyway?  I bet they did these all back to back, and when they started botching lines they were like “f- it, the kids don’t give a shit, they’re probably eating their crayons right now anyway.”  Of course they wouldn’t really say that, because Bill Cosby doesn’t curse…I bet page Zy-43 broke his soul. I want to see that outtake.  Not that I relish in Bill Cosby’s broken soul – that’s pretty f-ing un-American – I just want to know how much worse these can get, because they are close to rock bottom right now…it’s kind of like when your least-stable relative is trying to keep their shit together at Thanksgiving and they’re like, “I’m happy! Everyone is happy!” and they’re just itching to run out of the dining room to smoke five packs of Camels on the patio…I bet they brought in Camille at last minute to help Bill “get through” this last stretch.  I can’t believe we make fun of Asian TV shows.  There’s a dude in Kyoto right now laughing his ass off at this, wondering why American programming is so weird…There’s a top comment on YouTube saying “the generation today needs programs like this.”  That is such a YouTube comment.

All that said, if someone could auto-tune this, I think it would be the most awesome thing ever.  Just saying. I have a submissions email, you know.

The Queens of the In Crowd

*Names with an asterisk have been changed

Our bus rolled up to the campgrounds, and we all filed out of the bus in the most angsty teenager way possible.  Too cool for school, too cool for nature.  I looked around.  For one week, I’d be stuck in the middle of the woods with a bunch of kids I tried to avoid every day.  Great.

They had let us know ahead of time that there would be two cabins per gender, and we got to pick our bunkmate.  I shared a bunk with my best friend Rachel, who gave me the top bunk.  That’s a good friend, because everyone knows the top bunk is the shit. We crossed our fingers hoping we’d get to bunk with our friends Jenique and Kelly, but we wound up being placed in a cabin with some of the Queens of the In Crowd and girls from some school in Vermont.

When dinnertime came, the teachers and counselors called us up to the common area.  We entered in, selecting our seats at long tables.  The counselor-type people explained the rules of Nature’s Classroom.  For example, we couldn’t add sugar to anything, because they wanted to torture us.  They also made a big deal of ort.  Per Merriam-Webster, ort is a morsel (or morsels) of leftover food.  They told us that all of the ort we left on our plates would be weighed, then placed in a trough and given to the pigs.  Even though it likely made the pigs happy, ort was a bad word; it was waste.  It was evidence of our spoiled culture of over-consumption.
During the ort speech, I looked over to watch one of my teachers, Mr. Leed*, standing alongside the counselor-type people at Nature’s Classroom.  I knew he was totally eating this up, leaving no ort behind.  If he had his way, he’d live at Nature’s Classroom and never leave.  Mr. Leed was an ex-hippie who often would break from his teaching to yell at us for being so spoiled and horrible.  A lot of what he said was true, but the lectures would get tiring and somewhat insulting to some of us who weren’t wealthy.  He’d go off on a rant that usually started off with, “you all go home to your four televisions and three VCRs…” Rachel would literally plug her ears.  He would often ask to see a show of hands for those of us who had cable or more than one television, then berate us for being so over-privileged – as if everyone who raised their hand told the truth.  There were a lot of well-off kids in our school, and your family’s perceived lack of wealth could be used against you.  In Nature’s Classroom, however, we were all equals – until we decided we were better than the kids from Vermont.

After eating and braving through a gaggle of 13 year-old girls trying to shower with a limited hot water supply, Rachel and I arrived back in our cabin.  The Vermont Girls were on one side of the cabin, and the Queens of the In Crowd were on the other.  There was a lot of whispering and sneering.  One of the Queens who usually looked me over as if I wore a dirty potato sack gave us a catty smile and waved us over to the group.  “Hey guys, come over here!”  We walked towards the circle, and they filled us in on the atrocities the Vermont Girls had committed in the short amount of time it took us to take a shower.  “They looked at us and rolled their eyes!” One said.  “I tried to talk to one of them and they were all like, ‘ugh’” Said another, mimicking extreme snootiness.  Even though a little voice in my head was warning me that these girls were up to no good, the larger voice in my head thought, “the popular girls are talking to us; This is our chance to get ‘in’ and be perceived as normal! Maybe they’re not so bad!” So I widened my eyes, and replied with astonishment.  “Oh, my God; Really?? How rude!”  The battle lines were drawn.

We all side-eyed each other until the lights went out.  Once it was dark, the nastiness began.  It started with whispering, chatting and giggling even though we were supposed to go to sleep.  The chaperone in the room was a teacher from the Vermont school, so clearly she was the enemy.  When the Vermont Girls would giggle, one of our girls would giggle back loudly, mocking them.  One Queen threw something over to their side of the cabin.  This went on for a couple of hours, despite being yelled at by the chaperone several times.

The next morning, I felt bad.  I’ve had my moments of nastiness before, believe me – but I did not want to be a Mean Girl.  I just wanted to have a lot of friends, and I felt pretty horrible that I stepped on a couple of seemingly nice strangers to try to get there.  Rachel engaged in this activity the least, because she was an awesome person.  She listened to the Queens and smiled, but she never engaged in cattiness.  I, on the other hand, laughed at the jabs, and woke up knowing I was a jerk.  Why did we attack these girls?

As we began to assemble for a very important and educational class on bubble-making, two of the Vermont Girls walked up to me.  “Why is everyone being so mean to us? We didn’t do anything.”

“I don’t know. It doesn’t make sense. I think we thought that you were being mean to us? It’s really stupid, isn’t it?”  Yes. I appointed myself Ambassador of the In Crowd.

A couple of Queens walked up to join us.  Before you know it, everyone was laughing and chirping, and everyone suddenly acted as if we were all the bestest of friends.  A détente had been reached.

Once Nutmegger v. Green Mountaineer was settled, we had other moments of drama to contend with.  As usual, the sub-group I was placed in for a number of activities was punished for being horrible human beings.  The worst punishment occurred during a nature walk while it was raining.  The counselor had it with people acting up, and she made us get in a “human knot” to get us to work better as a team.  We were drenched, annoyed, and weren’t allowed to head back for dinner until we could get out of the human knot.  My aversion to any and all team-building activities can be traced directly back to this moment.

The majority of activities we had to do were your typical summer camp activities; we had nature walks, put on a talent show, and had an archaeology dig where we excavated a mud-caked can of Schlitz and a cigarette butt.  The highlight of the activities was learning how to sign to the song “The Rose,” which we all showed off and performed for our classmates.  This appealed to many of us, because every young girl wants to learn sign language and/or Braille after reading a book on Helen Keller or watching Mary go blind on Little House on the Prairie.

As Nature’s Classroom progressed, the mood deteriorated.  Rachel and I got snippy with each other because quite frankly, I was a bitch.  Jenique and Kelly were getting irritated as bunkmates because Kelly had to crack every last joint in her body before she went to sleep each night.  It rained too much, and the shower situation was on the verge of creating an all-out pimp-slapdown.  Then there was the ort.  Oh, yes, that freaking ort.

After a meal on one of our last days, the counselors stood in the front of the commons area looking devastated.  Mr. Leed was slowly morphing into the Incredible Hippie Hulk.  A Sadface Counselor made the announcement – the ort weighed in at a whopping 10 pounds.  Our waste was the size of a large baby; a large, granola-crusted, raisin-eyed, sugarless baby.  According to them, this was unprecedented in the history of Nature’s Classroom.  Sadface Counselor looked like we just sacrificed a baby polar bear before her eyes.  Mr. Leed, ever the bastion of self-restraint, couldn’t hold back his wrath for another second.  He tore into his most impassioned “6 televisions, 4 VCRs” speech yet, craftily working in global hunger and the destruction of mankind, attributing all impending evil in the world to my selfish, wasteful, ortful generation.  We were evil.  We were horrible, evil children with too many VCRs!  It was one of those rage-induced speeches where the room is so awkwardly quiet at the end, your Asshole Brain wants you to say something incredibly inappropriate and sarcastic just to see if the screamer completely loses their shit and starts flipping tables or throwing chairs.  Even in my preadolescent angst, a.k.a. the Golden Age of Asshole Brain, I valued my life enough to remain quiet and pretended to look shamed and mournful.  It’s not that Mr. Leed was completely wrong in his message; it’s just that it’s inappropriate to blame an entire group for things a few people do.  Or conversely, blame a few people for the ills of their entire generation.  You’d think an ex-hippie would get that.

On the last night of Nature’s Classroom, as usual Vermont hung out on their side, and we hung out on our side.  Despite the giggly détente earlier in the week, the damage was done.  We sat on a Queen’s bed and talked about things.  We sang “Kokomo,” and told secrets.  We talked about the boys we had a crush on.  They prodded Rachel and me for our crushes – Rachel never gave in, but of course, I did.  I’ve always said that I was a naïve kid; if you told me you’d keep a secret, I’d believe you.  I felt like I bonded with the Queens; I didn’t think we’d all exchange phone numbers and become besties, but I figured I talked enough with them to earn “fellow breathing human” status.

The morning after Ortgate, we were all overly conscious of what was on our plates.  No one wanted to be yelled at for 20 minutes again.  A couple of the Vermont girls sat across from Rachel and me and we chatted over breakfast.  We talked about music, and one of the girls said her two favorite bands were The Cars and Van Halen – my two favorite bands, both decidedly “uncool” in my junior high (it was Van Hagar era, mind you).  As we talked, I realized that I really blew an opportunity to get to know a very nice person who shared my interests.  I was the worst kind of Mean Girl – I was a follower.

At the end of the meal, Mr. Leed had the look of supreme self-satisfaction.  The counselors stood up to make a joyful announcement:  We hardly left ANY ort, and it weighed in at an unprecedented low number.  Do you ever feel this sort of thing is planned? Anyway, I guess the pigs starved.  Yay, nature!

We said goodbye to the Vermont Girls, who were probably (and rightfully) thinking, “whatever, bitches,” and hopped on the bus to go home.  As we pulled away from Nature’s Classroom and made our way back home, our lives slowly morphed into the people we were prior to the trip.  We turned on 7 of our 8 televisions, kicked 3 of our 4 VCRs, took long, hot showers, and still had occasional food fights in the cafeteria.  I apparently put my dirty potato sack back on as we all went our separate ways and fell back into the cliques we were meant to be in.  I’d say I was disappointed, but it didn’t really bother me.  Everything I really wanted in friendship I found in Rachel and my other friends, and I didn’t have to laugh at other people to stay in their good graces.  So, I accepted my potato sack status, shrugged my shoulders, and learned that some people just won’t accept you as you are; and you know what? That’s their problem.  I was lucky to have friends that did, and truthfully I didn’t want it any other way.

Image(s): FreeDigitalPhotos.net

When a Grandma Isn’t of the Cookie-Baking Variety

Despite not growing up in a religious household, I was a pretty spiritual kid.  I was baptized as a Catholic, and that was the only time I was in a church until I was 15.  I’ve always had an odd relationship with Christianity.  I was out of the traditional fold of religion, but tended to be very religious and spiritual nonetheless.  As a child, I wanted to be in that fold.  When my grandmother lived with us, there was a period of time where I would hold a “Sunday Service” in her room.  I’d bring my stuffed animals into her room to act as parishioners, we’d sing a few hymns from my grandma’s hymnbook (“Onward Christian Soldiers” and “Battle Hymn of the Republic” were my favorites, likely due to Little House on the Prairie), and I’d read a random bible entry.  My grandma got a kick out of it.

Grammy Gene was an interesting part of my memory.  She lived with us from when I was in Kindergarten until some time in second grade.  As an adult, I have snapshot memories of her.  After my grandfather died, our family offered to care for her and we all moved to a more accommodating house closer to where my father worked.  She had two rooms in the house, even though she never spent time in her second room.  She had MS and stayed in bed all day.  She’d use a walker to get up and go to the bathroom.  Before she lifted herself up from her bed,  she would often curse her legs, slapping them to the point where they would bruise.  She could be what my adult mind would define as “histrionic,” and she could be very nasty to people, however I had a pretty good relationship with her as a child.  She’d happily tell me we were both Pisces, and I think she saw a connection from that.  When I told her about a parrot that had a black tongue, she told me it must be a liar.  I’d spend a lot of time hanging out in her bedroom with her, watching TV shows on her Zenith.  Occasionally, we’d watch the 700 Club together.  There would be a segment where they’d tell everyone to hold hands and pray.  I’d place my stuffed animals in a circle and have them all hold paws as we prayed for something I didn’t understand.  I could never put my finger on it, but the 700 Club scared the crap out of me.  The praying part was the only part that didn’t seem scary.

Grammy Gene had a kind of mystical belief in Jesus.  Next to her nightstand, she had metropolis of pill bottles on a tray table – fat bottles, thin bottles, tall bottles and short bottles.  Some of the pills were pretty colors.  Some I never saw her take, but they sat there like trophies, souvenirs of every ailment that ravaged her body over the decade.  Among Pill City there was one resident that didn’t fit in – a relic that looked a little like a pearl.  One day she showed me the relic and told me it had a piece of the cross in it (or Jesus’s hair? I can’t remember).  She said whenever she had an important prayer for Jesus, she would hold it tight in her hand and pray.

“When your dad had to kick the winning field goal against Villanova, I held this tight and prayed hard to Jesus. He made it!”

Wow, I thought.  That is some powerful stuff right there.  My greedy little mind thought of all the stuff that could swing my way with that relic. The Power!

When Grammy looked away, I grabbed the relic and held it tight in my hands.  I closed my eyes and prayed in my mind.  Dear Jesus, how are you doing?  How’s your dad? Please bring me a pony and a…

“PUT THAT DOWN!” She hissed at me.  Apparently, the relic had limited juju, and she didn’t want me to steal it from her.  The Pisces blood only goes so far, I guess.  And for the record, all childhood prayers to Jesus from me involved buttering him up, then asking him for something as if he were Santa.

Things deteriorated over time with her living with us – I don’t remember the specific circumstances, but it wasn’t as much fun hanging out in her room over time.  She was unpredictable, like a game of Perfection where you know everything is going to blow up on you at any moment.  As a kid, I didn’t understand it; I was always sensitive to people yelling at me or around me, and I decided to hide away in other parts of the house.  I stopped having my church services with her, which I think disappointed her.  In part, I could never find a good story to read for “service” – I’d hit the begats and even the stuffed animals seemed to nod off.  Also, her unpredictability scared me. My entire family struggled with her – she was mean, demanding, thankless, and a hundred other things my childhood brain couldn’t comprehend.

When my mother told me Grammy Gene was going to move out of our house and into a place where people could take good care of her, I was both sad and relieved.  It was an odd combination of feelings to have at such a young age.  I loved her and I feared her.  She was at times grandmotherly, other times so full of anger.  I don’t really remember the day she left.  I wish I remembered it a little better, because it was the last time I saw her or spoke to her.

As a grew older, I’d wonder about her.  There were a few times I was tempted to write her a letter, but never did.  As you can imagine from the circumstances, there was a huge rift between her and my family that I still don’t know the specifics of.  It seemed like she had rifts with everyone in her life – she didn’t speak to my dad’s sister, either.  I didn’t know if she would even want to hear from me.  I couldn’t decide if it would be better to communicate or to remain a memory.  Typical for me in adolescence, my indecision made the decision for me.

When I was in high school, our phone rang off the hook in the middle of the night.  I finally answered, and someone asked to speak to my dad.  I told them he was sleeping, and they told me to wake him up.  I knocked on my parents door, and let my father know someone was on the phone for him, and they wouldn’t take no for an answer.  It turns out it was my father’s uncle, calling to tell my dad that my grandmother passed away an hour or two earlier.  I had an odd feeling of guilt.  I thought of our little Sunday services and what I learned about being what people call a “Good Christian” – a version I most certainly did not learn from the 700 Club. I realized that my fear of her unpredictability was selfish.  I regretted not writing a letter to her. While I have no doubt my family was justified in never speaking to her again, and it was apparently mutual, I personally never had that justification; I was a kid, and somehow others’ experiences with her became the expectation for what my experience would likely be.  It was very likely for history to repeat itself, but I’m disappointed in for not developing my own experience to judge from.

As an adult, this is a theme that has lingered with me.  I think about that regret when I am tempted to pass judgment on people.  I do my best to reserve judgement until I’ve established my own relationship with someone and I try to keep an open mind when a negative person from my past reappears. Judgement can be very tempting, because it functions as a protective shield.  There are times I fail at suppressing it, which disappoints me; thanks to my experience with my grandmother, I at least try hard.

Tales of an Almost Runaway

I was very young when I first wanted to run away.

When I was two or three, my mom bought me a black raspberry ice cream cone at Friendly’s while she chatted with one of her friends for lunch.  The ice cream was delicious and the prettiest color of purple I had seen.  I joyfully ate the treat while my mom and her friend talked grown up stuff that was of no concern to me.  Once ice cream time was over, we walked out of the restaurant and the most id, primitive thought entered my little mind – what would happen if I ran?  I was right beside my mother as she was chatting her goodbyes to her friend.  She wasn’t holding my hand – she had no reason to distrust me.  Until now, muahahaha.

Without any further thought I ran with all my might down a pathway.  I heard my mother call after me, and I began to laugh.  I did it! I did it! I had no idea where I’d go, but it would be new and fun and different.  It felt like I ran a block, but in reality I probably ran about 15 feet.  My mom’s friend jumped out in front of me.  I hit the brakes and turned in the other direction, only to find my mother standing over me, her arms extended.  Trapped! I sighed, and my mother scooped me up.  She was more amused than angry, surprisingly.  Knowing what a wuss I was as a kid, I probably cried when I realized my plan was foiled, however I don’t remember that part of it.

This is the earliest memory I can recall of my desire to run away.  From that point on, as I went from toddler to child, I fantasized about all the adventures I could have if only I could cross the street. Whenever a flood warning came on the television, I would excitedly go to my playroom in the basement to make an ark for myself and my stuffed animals.  I’d string together a bunch of cardboard boxes and milk crates to make my boat, placing only my most beloved and trusted confidants in the same box as me – Fifi the cat, Ricky the raccoon and Herman the monkey.  After Fifi’s frequent weddings and divorces to both Ricky and Herman, one would think this would be a bad living arrangement for a long journey to the unknown, but I understood relationships about as much as I understood buoyant materials.

As I built my ark, I would imagine it being lifted by the flood waters, carrying me and my animals away to some place I had never been before.  Maybe they would take me across the Sound to New York! It seemed so exciting.  Much to my disappointment, the floods never came and my cardboard boat would never be tested on the rough seas.

Once I got past my ark stage, I entered the runaway stage.  Around the same time I read about dinosaurs and outer space, I began to look at things differently.  I suddenly became aware that the universe was large but my world was small.  When my family would go to visit relatives, we’d hop on the Merrit Parkway and I’d look out the car window longingly.  I’d see the endless forests and wonder if anyone would ever find you if you hid in them.  I’d see cliff-like hills carved out by dynamite to make room for the freeway, and I wanted to jump out and climb them like a jungle gym.  Hills and mountains begged to be traversed.  I wanted to take roads to their end.  I wanted to see the larger universe.

When I felt like I had to get out and find those hills to climb, I would grab a baby blanket to put my things in and tie it to the end of an aluminum curtain rod – only in middle class Connecticut would a hobo purse be constructed in this way.  I’d take my favorite Underroos our of my dresser, grab socks and a shirt, a few stuffed animals, and I’d prepare two butter sandwiches for my journey.  Sometimes, my mother would ask me what I was doing.  I’d tell her I was running away, and she’d give a disinterested “okay,” puff on her cigarette and return to reading her book.  You could say I did this sort of thing fairly often.

I’d start packing my blanket with all of these items and quickly realize very few things fit in a hobo purse, and I wouldn’t use a bigger blanket because well, that would look stupid, wouldn’t it?  Ultimately, my plan would end with me staring at a pile of junk atop my blanket while eating both butter sandwiches in one sitting.

As I got older, my runaway plans became grand and wonderful.  My friend Jenique always seemed to be my partner in crime around this time.  Our adventurous spirits were temporarily satisfied by cutting through people’s yards to get to each other’s houses; we’d climb fences, fight our way through pricker bushes, and stealthily avoid getting caught by the homeowners (most of the time).  Soon, the adventure became routine, and it only made sense that we’d want to run away.  We both wanted to see that world that existed across the street and wanted to live by our own rules.  We decided it would be ideal to live in a forest somewhere far away, eating berries, mushrooms and fish.  We’d get a tent and make it our home, live off the land and be free.  Probably thanks to Mork and Mindy, I decided our magical location would be Boulder, Colorado.  When I pulled up the entry for Colorado in my family’s 1967 Encyclopedia Americana, the map of Colorado looked like there was a huge forest around Boulder, and it was also near the mountains! You can’t beat that.

We looked at JC Penney catalogs and decided what kind of tent we wanted.  We decided to create a runaway fund and went around the neighborhood trying to sell my father’s old books.  Being seasoned lying liars, we claimed we were girl scouts trying to raise money for our troop. No one bought the story or our old, musty books.  We had a plan for how to get to Boulder – her parents had an old, beat up Porsche that sat on the curb next to her house.  They weren’t using it – we’d just take it and go! Never mind we obviously couldn’t drive, wouldn’t pass for a legal driving age, and I think the Porsche had a bees’ nest in it…when you’re young you don’t think of logistics or obstacles; you are simply certain you can make it so.

As I grew up, my runaway fantasies mostly subsided, replaced by more practical adventures and grown-up responsibilities.  I’d have a spark here and there – like when I stood on the western side of Hanalei Bay on Kauai’i.  I watched ten-foot waves crash onto the shore’s soft sand, and I thought for a moment that I would love to live on this isolated stretch of the island in a little hut surrounded by mango and avocado trees, walking barefoot and allowing the crashing waves to sing me to sleep every night.  Grown-up reality set in when I recognized a tiny hut on Hanalei Bay costs at least twice as much as my current home, and my romantic runaway fantasy didn’t include working an 8 to 5 for a living.

Despite that realization, it occurred to me that the world offers so much more than what we allow ourselves to have.  As kids,we want to have it all simply because it’s there.  As teenagers, we want it because someone said we couldn’t have it.  As adults, well, we get so caught up in our lives we don’t even see that it’s there anymore.

We don’t need to be beach bums in Hanalei Bay to live our adventure – there are still forests to explore and mountains to climb in our backyard.  We may have forgotten they were there, but they’ve been waiting for our arrival since we were children.

The next time you’re driving somewhere and an old road captures your attention, or you see a field of daisies or dandelions, and that little voice in you that tells you “explore”? Allow that voice to be heard and be the adventurer you dreamed of being for just a few minutes of your life – it’s okay to be a kid sometimes.

How Tom & Jerry Made Me a Vengeful God

[Warning! Sailor-like language and imagery that may either upset children or give them a sense of the sweet, sweet taste of evil revenge.]

There were a few cartoons in my childhood I watched religiously but hated the designated “good guys:” He-Man, She-Ra, Josie and the Pussycats, and Tom and Jerry all come to mind.  The “Good Guy” characters were moralizing and seldom experienced adversity – shit always swung their way.  They were often goody-goody, never capable of making a mistake.  Even as a kid, I hated black and white characters.  I felt bad for Alexandra on Josie and the Pussycats, because she was clumsy and wasn’t as cute as Josie.  I felt bad for Skelator because he didn’t have a fucking face.  Yet I watched these shows every damn day because my naïve little mind thought maybe today Alan would give Alexandra a chance, or maybe He-Man or She-Ra would realize that maybe they’d be a little touchy too if they didn’t have eyeballs.  But no cartoon riled me up the way Tom and Jerry did.

I think it would be really interesting to do a scientific poll to see who rooted for Tom and who rooted for Jerry growing up.  I suspect most Jerry fans were either brutally attacked by a cat as a child or are Cowboy/Yankee fans.  Tom is the underdog…er… undercat; he’s just trying to live a normal, quiet, life as a housecat.  Jerry, the little diseased rodent, is constantly trying to steal from Tom’s family.  As if stealing wasn’t bad enough, he antagonizes and tortures Tom in the process.   Jerry is a little freaking grifter, and I for one wanted to see him lose.

Tom and Jerry, being the classic “this vs. that” cartoon, was ubiquitous not only throughout my youth, but throughout the youth of generations before me.   In addition to getting the cartoon, there were a number of ways you could get your Tom and Jerry fix.  When I was in elementary school, they would pass around leaflet-sized catalogs of books we could buy.  One time, my mom let me order three books, and one in particular stood out to me as a must-have: “Tom’s Happy Birthday.”  The cover showed Tom gleefully digging into a birthday cake.  After watching Tom get tormented day after day, it was good to see him get his due.  If I wasn’t lucky enough to see one of the two episodes where Tom beats out Jerry, then I’m going to get a book where he wins and I can read it whenever I want.  One damn day a year, Tom deserved to have a piece of cake and a little moment of serenity.  When the orders were handed out in class, I couldn’t wait to go home and read this story recounting justice for Tom.  I eagerly opened up the book and began to read.  Jerry, the little f-er, decided he needed to ruin Tom’s birthday.  Tom’s day.  Along with his grifter cousin (and by the way, Jerry had a lot of freaking grifter cousins), they did their typical torture and torment of Tom.  They did a lot of that “oh I’m going to be nice to you! Psych your mind!!! HAHAHAHA YOU STUPID NAÏVE FOOL” shit that I always hated as a kid (probably because it was all too familiar, really).  I got angry, but the cover showed Tom happily eating a birthday cake.  Surely that would happen, right?

As I turned to the last page, I learned with horror that you really can’t judge a book by its cover:  Jerry and that grifter cousin ate Tom’s cake, and Tom didn’t even get a damn bite.  They locked him out of the house, or some bullshit.  I threw the little paperback book down on the table, my young blood boiling.  I was as angry as could be.  No! IT WAS HIS BIRTHDAY DAMN IT.  Who writes a children’s story about someone who is bullied and has their birthday cake stolen from them? Whose idea was this shit, anyway?

I turned the page and saw the typical blank page at the end of the book.  I stared at it for a moment.  A light bulb went off in my head – this is a work of fiction; there is no rule saying I can’t write my own ending to the book.  Fiction can end any way you want it to, right?  I ran to my room and grabbed my Crayolas.  I would not let this awful book end in that way.  I scribbled furiously on that page, penning the only ending that seemed appropriate to me: 

MGM has been protecting you for years, Jerry.  Now?  Not in my house, you mean little bastard; not in my house.

The Bartered Bribe

[As always, * indicates a name change]

A 0?  A 0?!?  But I actually tried this time.

Mrs. Veruca* had us grade each other in class by passing our papers to the left.  I handed the latest Grammar homework to my Elementary School Nemesis.*  After grading, she handed it back to me with a solemn look on her face.  I got every question wrong, and she wrote a big, fat “0” on the top of the paper.  Mrs. Veruca had a system down – after we went over our assignment as a class, she’d go down her grade book and ask each student for their score.  If you didn’t want the class to know your grade, you’d say you wanted to show her the grade, and you’d do the Walk of Shame up to her desk and quietly show her your failure.  It would only be for you, your grader and Mrs. Veruca to know, and for the rest of the class to speculate.

I looked down at my 0.  I felt so ashamed – it’s one thing to just guess and get it wrong, but I thought I did the assignment correctly.  As Mrs. Veruca read off each name, the same cast of characters approached her desk to give their grades privately.  Some kids struggled more than others – we all knew that.  I didn’t want to approach her desk.  The few instances where I had, she’d shake her head as she wrote in her grade book.  It was humiliating.  She got to my name.  “Anne-Marie?”

I stared down at my 0.  I didn’t want to show it to her.  What would she think?  What would she do?  “I… I didn’t do the assignment.”

Mrs. Veruca sighed and made a mark in her book, then moved on to the next name.  Nemesis shot me a look, knowingly.  I didn’t care.  I’d rather be perceived as lazy than be perceived as dumb.  I wrote Nemesis a note and passed it over to her.

“Please don’t tell.”

Nemesis stared at the note for a moment, considering my request.  She wrote something down and passed it back to me.

“Do my homework tonight and I won’t.”

I didn’t have to consider it.  “Okay.”

And thus began the dumbest blackmail in the history of blackmailing: I just begged someone to not tell the teacher I did my homework, and in return, she agreed to have someone who just got a 0 do her homework for her.

That night, I dutifully did her homework.  One little-known talent I had growing up: I was quite the forger – of course, if you looked closely, you could tell that Nemesis had a different curl under her Gs, but since Mrs. Veruca never collected homework, we were in the clear.  So as not to draw suspicion, I would typically change a couple of answers between Nemesis’ homework and my own.  Lucky for Nemesis, I gave myself the wrong answer.

At the end of the following day, I felt good – Nemesis seemed satisfied with my work, and I felt it was a fair penance to keep my secret.  Nemesis passed me a note.  “You’re going to do my homework again, right?”

I looked at her, frustrated.  I scribbled back furiously.  “The deal was homework for last night.”

“I’ll tell Mrs. Veruca what you did.”

Shit!  I’ve got a little Don f-ing Corleone on my hands.  Say what you will about Nemesis, she was shrewd and ruthless.  “FINE.”

Considering I often skipped doing my own homework, doing two sets of homework was a royal pain in the ass.  I decided to not do some of my own, so I could play outside and watch Little House on the Prairie when it came on at 5.

The next day, Nemesis was pleased – I gave her straight As and Bs on her assignments, while Mrs. Veruca shot me lasers of death for not doing half of my homework.  At recess, Nemesis approached me on the Horsey swings.  “Hey.”

Now what? I got off my Horsey swing and walked up to her.  “Give me Now and Laters tomorrow.”

“But I don’t have Now and Laters.”

She grabbed my collar and pulled me close, speaking under her breath.  “Then get some.  Make the Now and Laters happen, Pleau; you don’t want to wind up with cement Reeboks, do you?”

I shook my head.

“Good, good.”  She released my collar.  “Watermelon, so I don’t get caught.”

Okay, two quick things – yeah, I don’t remember that exact conversation, but it definitely felt like a mafia dealing.  Also? The watermelon thing was absolutely real – in fourth grade, one of the kids at my school was caught dealing candy to other kids.  He was the brainy teacher’s pet, no less – I’m sure he’s the head of a hedge fund now.  When his operation was discovered, the school had an all-out ban on candy.  Under no circumstances were you allowed to bring candy to school.  This resulted in a surge in popularity of Watermelon Now and Laters.  Now and Laters were THE candy of 80s children, and we all loved green apple and grape.  The problem was, those flavors colored your tongue green or purple.  Watermelon, on the other hand, resembled the color of your tongue.  If the teacher suspected you were eating candy, they’d ask to see your tongue – you’d press the watermelon Now and Later to the roof of your mouth and stick your tongue out.  Home free!

When I got home, I walked up to my dad.  “Can we go to Syl-May?  I’d like to get some candy and a new notebook.”

“I’ll take you tomorrow.”

“Please can we go today?”

My dad looked up from his newspaper and raised an eyebrow.  “Why?”

I thought for a moment.  “Well, I really need a new notebook, and tomorrow is my friend Nemesis’ birthday, and I want to give her a pack of Now and Laters because they’re her favorite.”

My dad sighed and took me to the drugstore.  I looked at their glorious selection of candy.  No watermelon Now and Laters!  I pictured Nemesis clubbing me in the knees, shouting with each blow, “I. said. WATERMELON!” I looked at the other flavors nervously.  Strawberry.  A little too noticeably pink on the tongue, but Nemesis is sneaky – she’ll pull it off.  I grabbed the pack and had dad buy it.  Dad was a man of few words, but there were two things you could always count on him for – taking you to the store for snacks, and, as I learned when I got a little older, buying you the mattress-sized Obviouspak of Stay-Free Maxi Pads without blinking an eye.

The next morning in class, I placed the pack of Now and Laters under a few papers and casually pushed it over to Nemesis’ desk.  She glanced at them, and I could tell she was disappointed they were Strawberry.  I motioned for her to look at the top piece of paper I passed them with.  She read my writing.  “They were out of Watermelon.”  She nodded approvingly and snuck them in her desk.

Was I done?  Was I finally done?  Were we even?  I felt so.  I didn’t want to do anything else for her.  I knew the more I did, the more likely it would be that I’d get caught.  That’s how it always worked.  She approached me again in gym class.   “Homework.  Tonight.”

I was done with my part.  “No, we’re even.”

She was displeased.  “We’re not even.  You need to do my homework.”

I got mad.  She got freaking Now and Laters – I never got Now and Laters!  I looked into her cold, black eyes, and instantly learned something some people don’t learn until they are much older and possibly dealing with an actual mafia leader (or worse, a politician): bribes never work.  Anyone who is willing to accept a bribe isn’t trustworthy, and they will have one foot on your head until you can obtain something of equal value to use against them.  I looked at Nemesis and it occurred to me that this servitude could go on forever.

But I had something of equal value.

I crossed my arms defiantly.  “No, I’m not doing your homework!  I’m done!”

She narrowed her eyes at me.  “I’ll tell Mrs. Veruca…”

“Go tell Mrs. Veruca!” I smiled wickedly.  “Then I’ll tell Mrs. Veruca you’ve been making me do your homework and that you’re eating Now and Laters in class!”

Her eyes widened.  You could see the wheels turn in her head, playing one algorithm after another, testing how she should proceed. She clenched her teeth and settled on a particular algorithm.  “Fine!”  Oh my God…I actually scared Nemesis – yes!!  She was my nemesis after all, and it felt like she Nellie Olsoned my entire childhood.  But now?  Who’s got two thumbs and can turn a table? This girl!

As she walked away, I felt something in addition to relief and a rudimentary sense of schadenfreude; I felt like a bigger zero than what I got on that homework assignment.  You see, there are two types of failing in this world – the kind where you get a lousy score, and the kind where you don’t face the music when you struggle.  A lousy score is embarrassing but temporary; not facing the music will haunt you like the Tell-Tale Heart for as long as you hide from it…

…Or until summer starts and you’re no longer under the oppressive thumb of Mrs. Veruca.  Because then? You are home free, my friend.

What; you actually thought I’d tell Veruca after I got away with it?

Team Sugar

My sisters stared at the wall of sugary cereals at the local grocery store for guidance.  My mother told them to pick me up a box of cereal, but did not specify which one to buy.  They thought about the different cereals I ate in the past, and asked themselves, “what is the most artificial-looking, sugary, grossest cereal we can get?”  Thinking of these criteria, one cereal stood above all others.  They laughed at how disgusting it looked, and naturally, they bought it for me to ingest into my noodly, weak little body.  The cereal was none other than Circus Fun.

Circus Fun

This cereal, famous for its “horses and hoops, balls and bears, elephants and lions” was a giant sugary explosion of artificial dyes, crunchy speckled things, and menagerie of freeze-dried marshmallow animals.  If you didn’t eat it fast enough, the combination would make your milk a fleshy color.

In addition to the artificial nastiness, it was a really bad concept for a cereal.  In the 1950s, maybe kids would get excited for a circus-themed cereal, but in the 80s? The time of cocaine, fast love, and cross-promotional toys?  Bad idea.  Plus, circuses are creepy.  They have clowns.  No child post-Poltergeist wants to face anything like this after a nighttime of clown-related nightmares:

 

Seriously, just put John Wayne Gacy on the box; it might be less disturbing.

When I ate Circus Fun, I thought about why my sisters chose it for me; this amalgam of semi-edible chemicals was a caricature of what they believed I liked to eat.  Was this a joke, or an intervention?

If you are what you eat, what does eating Circus Fun make you? It makes you a clown.  A fake, creepy, sickly sweet clown.  Who wants to be a clown?  I didn’t.  That Saturday morning, I turned on the television for guidance – surely the commercials between my cartoons would give me sound advice on what to eat.

A commercial for Total came up.  I rolled my eyes.  Total was an arrogant bastard, with its whiny little “mehhh you need to eat 900 bowls of your cereal just to shit out one Total flake” byline.  Yeah, it was healthy, but one? It tasted awful.  And two?  I don’t eat smug.  Fail.

Oh, hi sugary Trix cereal.  Since I’m looking for something that is healthy, you are so obviously out.  While you are here, let me remind you why you are dead to me; see that rabbit there? That poor rabbit who only wants one damn bite of your shitty cereal? Your horrible cartoon children mock him and won’t let him have any, instead stuffing their gaping overindulgent maws with pellets of colorful carcinogens.  In the 80s, you let kids vote on whether or not the rabbit could have bite of cereal.  We voted a resounding YES! And then you bastards backed out of the campaign.  Thanks for creating a generation of disillusioned voters, jerks. Big Fail.

Ahh, Kellogg’s Corn Flakes.  You are delicious for the nanosecond you are crunchy.  You have the lowest milk-life on the cereal spectrum.  And your box doesn’t have anything fun on it. Fail.

Then the sun peeked out from the clouds, and the chickadees chirped merrily in a blooming Dogwood tree nearby.   A single ray of sunbeam landed gently on the television set as an angel choir “Ahhhed” in revelry.  The Frosted Mini-Wheats commercial came on.

Frosted Mini-Wheats didn’t have a creatively-named cartoon character; in their later days, they had a cartoon bundled nugget of wheat shreds with a bad case of Multiple Personality Disorder fight with itself in the attempt to determine whether it’s frosted or unfrosted personality was better.  Prior to the cartoon nugget, they simply had random cereal-eaters declare that bundled nuggets of wheat shreds are nasty – but when the nuggets are covered in a sugary plaster, they become irresistible deliciousness.

I watched the commercial and nodded in agreement – yes, yes, I too wanted to eat something that was good for me! But I still needed sugar, sugar, sugar! I am a child of the 80s, and therefore sugar is my cocaine; give me my fix!

After I choked down my Circus Fun, I had my parents purchase a box of Frosted Mini-Wheats.  Noticing the lack of sugar in the ingredients, my mother second-guessed my decision.  I assured her that I wanted this cereal and I would eat it.  That morning, I poured the Mini-Wheats into my bowl.  I flipped all of them to the sugar side because if there was one thing I learned from growing up in the Reagan-Era Cold War is one must pick a side, and damn it, I was firmly on Team Sugar.

I poured the milk over Team Sugar, and each Mini-Wheat sponged up the milk like a Sham-Wow.  A lot of the sugary plaster washed off from the milk, sending me into a panic.  I don’t drink the leftover milk in my cereal bowl, because, ew.  Milk is gross, and it’s even grosser when cereal remnants are swimming around in it.  Sending my sugar to the milk is like sending it to Siberia.  It was soon discovered that this was a cereal with a very quickly deteriorating milk-life.  It was essential that I had to eat it as quickly as possible, before the crispy wheat shreds turned to mush.  Oh, I learned from you, Corn Flakes, I learned.  I loaded my spoon with as many Mini-Wheats as possible and shoveled them into my face.  As I chewed, I realized I chose the wrong team – Team Sugar retreated, leaving behind the limp, soggy wattle-and-daub of Team Healthy to celebrate victory in my mouth.  My mother watched me skeptically as I choked down Team Healthy.  She preempted any vocalization of complaint by saying simply, “you asked for that cereal – you eat it.”

I did my best to fight for Team Sugar – the next day, I put half as much milk in my bowl, hoping to stave off the sogginess.  This worked to a point, but instead of being mushy, I felt like I was eating the roof off of our nativity set.  I moved to desperate measures and sent in reinforcements – I doused the Mini-Wheats with spoonfuls of sugar.  While this made an impressive mortar, it remained unsatisfying.  I wondered, why am I miserable?  I am denying who I am.  I need to be okay with who I am – no, I need to be proud of who I am!  That’s what the school counselors tell us every day.  Be proud of who you are.  And who am I?  I AM TEAM SUGAR FOR LIFE!  And I am going to pick a cereal that will win that battle in my mouth every damn time.

 

Peanut Butter Cap’n Crunch?  I will be your lieutenant any day of the week.  You’ve got a strong milk-life, sugar so potent it shreds your gums, cartoons and goodies inside and outside the box.  What else could a child ask for? Besides – peanut butter is healthy, right?  Smug Total says it takes 342 bowls of Cap’n Crunch to get the same nutrition it offers.  To that, I say: proudly reporting for duty, sir!