Does He Like You? A Junior High Guide

[Note: While I'm pulling my hair out house-hunting, long-distance romancing and dealing with the other wonderful blessings befallen on me at this joyous time, enjoy this older favorite, originally published on August 28, 2011]

Let’s face it; dating is never easy.  The first lesson we Virgins to Life all learn, thanks to Head & Shoulders commercials, is you never get a second chance to make a first impression.  When we’re in junior high, we begin to not only become aware of the opposite sex, but we learn there is a delicate protocol one must follow so that first impression isn’t ruined by tomfoolery.  Armed with considerable peer research and an unfortunately high level of personal expertise in the gangly/flat-chested/awkward teen phase, I compiled this standardized guide to finding out and acting on the most important question you will face in your life: Does he like you?

Now, you may think this has a simple course of action.  Your instinct may be asking him for his phone number.  DO NOT DO THIS.  While there is the possibility you may actually get his phone number, this breach in protocol is far more likely to shift the universe out of your favor.  Seas will rise, volcanos will erupt, he will laugh at you and his friends will start a rumor that you are a slut.  If your name starts with an “S” or can even loosely rhyme with a body part, your chance of failure is exponentially worse.  And that will be the end of it.  Do you want that?  Look, I’m going to tell it to you straight: if you fail, you will never kiss that boy you like, let alone marry him.  And you know what?  Junior high school rumors are just like your “permanent record” – they will follow you through college.  You can’t escape them.   So, on to:

Step One: Identification of your crush

The Guy probably said a funny joke to you.  You realize he is kind of cute and seems sweet.  His eyes are kind of dreamy.  Good.  That’s a crush.  On to the next step.

Step Two: Is he looking at you?

So when you’re sitting there in class, look at him.  Is he looking at you?  No?  Well, keep looking.  Is he looking at you yet?  Not yet?  Well keep at it, sister!  Ooo!  Ooo!   He looked!  Now look away quickly.  QUICKLY! For God’s sake, don’t hold his gaze!   Look bored.  Ok.  Now look casually back at him…is he looking at you?  Repeat this process as needed until you are satisfied that yes, he looks at you on occasion.

Step Three:  Determining Astrological Compatibility

The next step is to find out his sign.  This can be pretty tricky, but through proper reconnaissance it isn’t too daunting.  The most common way to get it is to talk about birthdays or astrological signs with a group of people near him, and a trusted confidant can ask him on your behalf.

Once you have secured his birth date, consult the Bible for Teen Girls: “Love Signs” by Linda Goodman.  Yes, your hippie, ceramic-making aunt probably owned this book at some point, but despite the groovy 70s prose, it is quite useful for determining compatibility.  Proof?  It told me I was not compatible with River Phoenix, Brett Michaels, or the drummer from Stryper.  I was heartbroken at the time, but look at me now – was it not correct?  “Love Signs” saved me from a yellow and black attack.

Step 4:  Tarot Cards

So you’ve already dipped a toe into the dark side by messing with Astrology.  Why not dip the whole foot in and try out Tarot Cards?  Yeah, people say you’re summoning the devil, but like, you’re doing it for love.  That can’t be bad.  Plus, you listen to Stryper, so that has to off-set some of that evil, right?  Buy the deck, hide it from mom and dad and get to work!   Go on, shuffle them, cut them, lay them out…

The Death card.  Well… death doesn’t mean death.  It means…rebirth?  The end to something?  It could mean that he’s in a bad relationship and it’s coming to an end.  And you could help pick up the pieces.  Aww.  See?  Ok, keep on flipping.  Okay, yeah.  The Tower looks pretty scary.  But see, this is all about interpretation: maybe those people falling out of the tower represent falling…in love?  Next card.  Oh.  The Devil.  Well… that’s…it could mean… okay, let’s move on to the next thing, shall we?

Step 5: Ouija Boards

Yes, I know you heard that this is also a tool of the devil, but if it were, why would Parker Brothers make one?  Are the makers of Monopoly and Aggravation devil-worshippers?  If they are, why are they so successful?  Huh?  Go ahead, ask the Ouija Board if the Guy likes you.  NO, DON’T DO IT ALONE! HAVE YOU NOT SEEN “WITCHBOARD?!”  Oh, you haven’t?  Okay, go watch “Witchboard.”  If nothing else, it will teach you how to properly say Ouija.  I’ll wait here until you are done.

Okay, okay, calm down.  That didn’t end well, did it?  Yes, I know Patch died and the lady from the Whitesnake videos got all crazy, but she’s all right now, isn’t she?

 

Oh, um.  Yeah.  Okay, we are damaging your chances here with all the dabbling in the Dark Arts; let’s do an emergency next step to undo the bad luck we created from having you ask lesser demons if a boy likes you:

Step 6: Listen to Stryper Music and Throw Away Your Motley Crue Tapes

This is true: reading Stryper lyrics is just like reading a prayer.  It makes the Devil go back to Hell.  No, you don’t have to dress in yellow and black until God forgives you.  To be perfectly honest with you, I’m not sure where that whole thing came from.  Yes, I read the bible verse they put on their logo.  No, the yellow and black thing doesn’t make any more sense.  Just go with it.  Read their lyrics.  Feel better?  Ready to get see if he likes you?  Okay.  Let’s continue:

Step 7: Is he still looking at you?

Does he still occasionally look at you?  Do you casually avert his gaze?  Good.  You’re learning!  On to step 8.

Step 8:  The Amway Approach

This step is really tricky, because you need to have a few confidantes you can trust, and in the world of junior high girls, the odds are against you.  So here’s what you do: have a friend tell another friend that they heard he likes you.  That friend tells a friend, and that friend tells a friend, and it keeps on going until it gets to him, and you can find out if he laughs at the rumor, or is cool with it.  This works best when there is a long line of friends telling friends before it gets to him.  If you have too few, then it’s obvious you started this yourself.  If you have too many, then you risk becoming the class joke.

What?  He actually seems interested in you?  Congratulations!  On to step 9.

Step 9: OMG He likes you.

He likes you.  Oh my God.  His friend told you so.  His friend just walked right up to you and sweetly told you that the guy likes you.  Yes, the friend was really cute about it…he did look kind of shy.  But, hey, your guy likes you!  You’ve achieved success!

Step 10:  His friend is kind of cute.

Yes, he made a really funny joke about how the guy likes you.  Yes, he is good-looking and has chocolaty-brown hair.  But let’s talk about the next step here; the guy likes you, we still have work to do, we…

Step 11:  His friend seems really sweet.  The Guy is kind of a dork, actually.

You think so?  But why did you like him in the first place?  Oh, you feel a special connection to the friend because he talked to you.  You’ve gotten to know him, and now you really like him?  But you spoke to him once… ok… fine…

Step 12:  Is he looking at you?

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.

 

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!

Little Tiger

“Never start a fight; but if someone hits you, hit them back.”

This was the sage advice of my dad.  My father – teacher, coach, former athlete and protector of his scrawnier friends, understood something about bullying and the way kids are: people are always going to try to walk all over you, and they’ll only go as far as you let them.  The one message dad got through to me loud and clear was that few things are more important than standing up for yourself.  As an adult, I can attest that my life can be divided in two categories: the times I stood up for myself, and the times I should have stood up for myself.  When I stood my ground, it didn’t always work out as planned, but when I didn’t, the problems always seemed to grow exponentially.

Dad was a big fan of boxing.  When I was a little girl, he would teach me how to box.  He’d hold up his hands and tell me to make two short punches with my left hand and one big punch with my right.  He’d make a sound to emulate what he wanted me to do: “bip.bip.POW!” I would respond enthusiastically.  Bip.bip.POW! Bip.bip.POW!  I’d get really into the POW, and dad would play along and act like I was beating him up.  I had the form down and everything.  I looked like a little Sugar Ray Leonard, pouncing around with my fists up.

When I was in 5th grade, I was in P.E., and we were running heats where two kids would pair off and run 50 yards.  I was a pretty good runner, and always enjoyed doing the heats.  One girl in particular, My Elementary School Nemesis*, was one hell of a runner – easily the fastest runner in the school, never mind the grade.  On this particular day, the PE teacher decided to challenge her for fun, and they ran the heat together.  As they set up, the rest of us picked partners to run against.  I picked my friend Irene – we were pretty close in ability with running, so I figured it would be a good race.   As Nemesis and the gym teacher took off, Irene and I waited in line to race.

Greg Jasperson* walked up to me and stuck his chin up.  “Let me race Irene.”

I heard my dad’s voice in my head.  I looked Greg in the eyes.  “No.”

Greg looked at me, surprised.  The skinny beanpole just told him no – unthinkable! Look, I was lanky, shy and awkward – an easy target to many.  Kids like me just don’t say “no” to the tough kids.  That’s not the way the world works.

“What did you say?” He stuck his face in mine.  I felt my heart race.  Oh no.  I don’t want to fight.  But I’m not going to let him tell me what to do.  I kept eye contact with him.  “I said no.  I’m racing her.  Wait your turn.”

In retrospect this seems like some Old Western where two people fight for someone’s honor, which is kind of hilarious.  Especially since Irene could have easily kicked either of our asses if she wanted to.  Me on the other hand?  I was low-hanging gangly fruit and we both knew it.  “You’re gonna let me race her.”  He got even closer to me.  The kids formed a wagon circle around us.  I had no idea what they were saying or how they were reacting – my blood was pounding in my ears, and I could hear nothing other than Greg’s words.  I could see nothing other than his eyes.  I was petrified, because I knew neither of us would back down.  I really didn’t want to fight.  Where the hell is the teacher? “Wait your turn,” I repeated in a meek voice.

“Do you want to fight?”

By now I was completely shaking.  I didn’t want anyone to see me shake, and I was angry with myself.  I kept on thinking about my boxing lessons with my dad.  Just imagine that I’m practicing with dad.  Bip.bip.POW! Except instead of dad’s hands, I’m using this kid’s face.  That’s all.  You can do it.  “Yeah.”  Wait…what? Did I just say, “yeah” as in “yeah I want to fight?” What the hell is wrong with me? Then again, dad never taught me Fight Club etiquette beyond not talking about Fight Club.  There are Rules of Engagement for these things, and I didn’t know what I was doing.  I clenched my fists, and held them up to my face – Sugar Ray, bitches.

Greg swung at me and missed.  Whew!  I swung at him and missed.  Gee maybe this fighting thing isn’t so ba-POW! He got me clear on the nose.  It didn’t really hurt, but made my face feel fuzzy.  I took a step back, and swayed a little, like one of those clown punching bags you can’t knock over. I got my bearings, swung again and landed a punch on his jaw.  There was no strength behind it.  Damn you, noodle arms!  Finally, the gym teacher got to us and broke us up.  He started yelling at us and pulled us aside.  He sounded angry and panicked.  “What happened?  Can anyone tell me what happened?”

I scanned my classmates.  They looked around in every direction except for the teacher.  They all remained silent, even though they knew what happened.  Yeah, I know, no one likes a rat, but damn it, I was pissed that no one would say anything.  My emotions got the best of me, and my face got hot.  I knew I was going to start crying.  Damn! No!  I had a bad habit of crying whenever my emotions hit an extreme, and it was embarrassing.  I used to lie and say it was allergies, but no one ever believed that and they certainly wouldn’t believe it now.  I really didn’t want to cry at that moment – I couldn’t show my weakness; I knew how these things went.  I felt the tears stream down my face.  The teacher pulled us away from the kids and asked us again what happened.  I looked at Greg.  Well, shit, I don’t want to be a rat either… we were both elusive.  “I’m going to tell Mrs. Veruca* what happened, and Greg, you need to go to the Office right now.”

Being sent to the Office in elementary school was no different than being sent to the Ministry of Love, and it evoked the same reaction.  After all, your Elementary School Principal is the Big Brother of your childhood.

I continued to cry. Oh, God, how embarrassing… I started thinking about what would happen next.  I had been sent to the Principal’s office only once before, but it was standard protocol – she’ll talk to Greg, she’ll talk to me, she’ll talk to us together, then she’ll talk to our parents and we’ll both be in deep shit at home.  The combined image of Dr. Savage (yes, that was her real name) and my mom made me start to heave-cry.  The class started walking up to where we were to return to class.  No! Give me a minute! Damn it!

It didn’t even matter.  I could hear the chatter – I was the hot topic amongst my classmates.  “Did you see how Greg beat up Anne-Marie?” “Anne-Marie got beat up!” “Greg beat her up and she cried!”

Jesus Christ, people, he only landed one punch, and my nose didn’t even bleed.  See what crying does? Crying + Lanky Awkward kid = Beat up.  It was totally not fair, and I cried even harder out of embarrassment and for not landing a better punch.  The teacher snapped at me, telling me to calm down.  That didn’t help things.

I headed back to class, listening to everyone talk about me as if I wasn’t there.  In reality, my mind was elsewhere.  I was waiting for my turn to be called into the principal’s office.

Oddly, it never came.

I suppose the gym teacher knew us for the last 6 years and recognized that one of us got into trouble often, and the other seldom got into trouble.  Regardless, I was confused.  I realized two things – it wasn’t fair to Greg that I didn’t get called into the office, and all that crying really made me look like a victim.  I didn’t like how either felt.

When I walked home from school that day, I remained on edge.  I assumed that the principal or someone would call my parents.  My dad was a teacher and knew everyone, it seemed.  Surely he would find out.  It was far better for me to tell him right away.  When he got home, I lowered my head.  “Dad, I got into a fight today.”

He looked at me somewhat amused.  “What happened?”

I told him the entire story concluding solemnly,  “…I think the principal is going to call you.”

Dad looked at the terror on my face.  He laughed and ruffled my hair.  “Little Tiger!” He left the room.

What?

Well, mom is really more of the disciplinarian.  When she got home, dad relayed the story to her.  He closed up the story by referring to me as Little Tiger again.  She looked at me.  “Good for you.  Do you want Chinese for dinner?”

Wait…what???  Everything I thought I knew about parental discipline was thrown out the window.  Chinese?  Little Tiger?  I’m getting rewarded for punching someone?

We went to Hunan Garden and I devoured a Pupu Platter all by myself – while I didn’t understand what was going on, I wasn’t about to let it affect my appetite.  Besides, Little Tiger’s gotta eat and put some meat on those noodles!  My mom puffed on her cigarette and laid it all out for me.  “You know what your father says – never start a fight; but if someone ever starts a fight with you, you have to defend yourself.”

I see.

“Besides…” she mashed out the cigarette, “this probably isn’t the last time someone picks a fight with you; you’re probably going to get into a lot of fights when you get older. ”

I paused mid-chew, a piece of fried shrimp hung out of my mouth.  Huh?

I pictured a bigger version of me clawing, punching and pulling people’s hair in high school (at this point, my only reference for lady-fighting was soap operas).  Eek.  Well, at least I knew what to expect next time, I suppose…

I grabbed a spare rib off the pupu platter and gnawed away as I reflected on my day.  I wondered what would have happened if I just let Greg race Irene.  I wouldn’t have cried, I wouldn’t have been yelled at by the teacher, and I definitely wouldn’t have been teased by my classmates – well, not for that incident at least.  At 5’5 and 70 pounds, they had quite an arsenal on me.  And yet, as I sat and pondered at the Hunan Garden, I knew I would never have changed my decision.  I couldn’t have.  I realized at that moment if I hadn’t stood up for myself, I would have lost far more than a fistfight.  My only regret was not clocking Greg a good one on the face.  Now I proved everyone’s suspicions that I was a class-A weakling.

The pupus were devoured and the waiter gave us our fortune cookies with the check.  I watched my dad, eagerly anticipating his go-to Chinese restaurant joke.  He had the same schtick every time, and honestly?  It never got old: he opened his fortune cookie and squinted down at the fortune.  “Huh.  It’s written in Chinese…” pause.  “Oh! It’s upside down!” He flipped the fortune over and read it to us.  Dad’s go-to fortune cookie joke was reassuring, letting me know these people were really my parents and I was not in some alternate reality where pod-parents were okay with Fight Club.  I defended myself, and it was good that I did so - I just needed to be ready for next time.

When we arrived at home I went to my room and looked at myself in the mirror.  Tomorrow seemed scary.  Would the kids at school still insist I got beat up?  Would Greg want to fight me again, now that we were sworn, fightin’ enemies?

I clenched my fists and held them up to my face.  Bip.bip.POW! Bip.bip.POW!

Sugar Ray, bitches.

watch?v=VgSMxY6asoE

The Lying Liar

[Alert!  There is mild cursing in this post. “*” indicates a name that has been changed]

“I want you to draw a picture of what you did over the summer, and in a little while you’ll share what you did with the rest of the class.”

It all began with this simple assignment given by Mrs. Dorgan* on the first day of second grade.  My little 7 year-old mind reflected on the last 3 months of unadulterated summer slacking and overall uselessness.  I had nothing.  Toys?   Yeah, I played with my toys.  I ran around in circles outside and watched ants.  I pretended my dog Dunder was a pony and tried to convince him to let me sit on his back.  I wrote a letter to my great-grandfather, and forgot how to spell “of.”  That was it.  My family didn’t go anywhere and my neighborhood didn’t have any kids my age, so I played by myself all summer long.  How would I draw that?

I decided to stretch the truth a little bit; prior to that summer, I made a fort with a girl the neighbors babysat.  It was a really cool fort made out of all of the dangerous materials my neighbors dumped in their backyard.  That would make a decent picture – I’d say I made a fort over the summer.  Yeah, that’s it.

As I drew a picture of me making a fort, I looked around at the classmates whose desks neighbored mine.  One girl was drawing a picture of Greece, because her family took her there.  Another kid was drawing a picture of Disneyworld.  Another kid was drawing a picture of a tent and fishing.  I looked down at my pathetic drawing of me laying a piece of sheet metal against a boulder.  This would simply not do.  How can I jazz this up a bit?

At the time, I had a fascination with rainbows.  I desperately wanted to see one, and I wanted to look for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow (Don’t judge.  It’s no more out there than Santa Claus).  I told my father this, and asked him how you get to the pot of gold.  My dad smiled and said, “well, you just walk on the rainbow, and slide down to the pot of gold.”

“You can walk on rainbows??”

“Yup!  It’s real easy.  You just have to walk quickly because they disappear fast.  The leprechauns make it tricky for people.”

“Wow…Have you ever walked on a rainbow?”

“I have.  But it went away before I got to the pot of gold.”

And like that, dad was God.  He also gave me an idea; an idea that would let my lame summer compete with Greece and Disneyworld.

After we finished with our drawings, we had to go up in front of the class and present them.  Everyone had the best summer – horseback riding, camping, traveling… then it was my turn.

I stood in front of the class and everyone looked at my picture curiously.  Mrs. Dorgan looked annoyed.  I began to describe my picture and summer to the class.  “This past summer, me and my friend Krista made a big fort.  We saw a rainbow.  My dog walked on it.  It was neat.”  Yeah.  That.Just.Happened.   Sure, Greece is cool; does it beat a Labrador Retriever walking on a rainbow?  I don’t think so.

A couple of kids giggled.  My teacher sneered.  Her eyes narrowed as she looked at me.  “These were supposed to be true stories.”

“But it is…”

“You can’t walk on a rainbow!”

I paused.  Damn it!  I scrambled.  “Well…Dunder didn’t really walk on a rainbow.  We made a bridge over the fort, and he was walking on that.  And it looked like he walked on the rainbow.”

“Sit down, and stop lying.”

I sat down quietly.  From that moment forward, Mrs. Dorgan hated me.  For my part, I continued to give her plenty of reason to hate me for being the pathological liar that I was.

On another occasion, we were at recess.  Two of the girls were playing a game they made up called “I have a secret.”  One girl would whisper something to the other girl in front of me, and then they’d tell me that it was a secret and they couldn’t tell me.  The secret always seemed really crazy and mysterious.  I didn’t have any secrets, so, I made one up.  “I have a secret!”  I leaned over to one of the girls, Jean, and whispered, “Peter was pushing Angela on the tire swing, and she showed him her underwear!”

Jean squealed with delight at this scandalous secret.  “Ooo!  I’m telling Angela!”   No!  She jumped up and ran off.  I yelled after her.  “Stop!  It’s a secret!  You’re not supposed to tell!”

She ignored me and ran up to Angela, who was clear across the playground.  Angela looked over at me from the distance and screamed at the top of her lungs, “that’s a lie, Anne-Marie!  I’m telling Mrs. Dorgan!”

Oh, shit.  Mrs. Dorgan was going to kill me.  I looked at the eager eyes of my nearby classmates – not everyone knew what I did, but they all knew I was busted for something.  Only one idea crossed my mind at that moment – run like hell.  I took off, my gangly legs running as fast as possible towards the western edge of the playground.  There was a fence there.  Maybe there was a hole in the fence – I could squeeze through there, or I could even scale the fence.  I’d get away, and Mrs. Dorgan wouldn’t murder me; or worse, yell at me.  Or even worse, tell my mom.

A few of the kids in my class chased after me like a bunch of bloodthirsty little bounty hunters.  I got to the fence, but couldn’t find an opening.  I tried to scale the fence, but my spaghetti noodle arms failed me.  No!  One of the bounty hunters, My Elementary School Nemesis, grabbed the back of my shirt and pulled me down.  My attempted prison break failed.  Nemesis looked at me sympathetically.  Although she was thirsty for The Hunt, she knew it could have easily been her in my shoes.  “Mrs. Dorgan wants to see you.  She’s mad.”  Mrs. Dorgan was always freaking mad, but I knew I was doomed.

I slowly made my way to the tire dragon where Mrs. Dorgan sat.  Angela was standing next to her.  All the kids stared at me, knowing my fate; I could have sworn I heard chants of “dead man walking…dead man walking.”

I stood silently in front of Mrs. Dorgan.  Her black eyes glared at me with a wrath I had never seen.  “Why did you lie?”

“I don’t know…”

“Do you know what happens to little girls who lie?”

“No…”

“They have no friends and nobody likes them.”

I started to cry.  Mrs. Dorgan looked disgusted with me.  “Tell Angela you’re sorry.”

“I’m sorry, Angela.”

Angela shrugged her shoulders, nonchalantly.  “It’s okay; we’re still friends!”

You would think after these two instances I would have learned my lesson, wouldn’t you?  About a month later, we were studying geography, and Mrs. Dorgan went around the class wanting students to share what the BEST trip they ever took was.  My heart sank – I never took a trip before.  What was I going to say?  Everyone had great answers – guess who brought up freaking Greece again?  Of course, Disneyworld was mentioned, and a magical land called Philadelphia…I remembered my favorite Dennis the Menace comic book…

 

Mrs. Dorgan got to me.  “Anne-Marie, what was YOUR best trip?”

I smiled.  “I traveled around the world with my family!”

The class “ooo-eed.”  I don’t know how Mrs. Dorgan could believe a word out of my mouth after the web of lies I weaved up to this point, but she inexplicably believed this one.  Her eyes widened, and for once, she didn’t look at me with anger.  “Oh, how wonderful!  Where did you go?”

I thought of where Dennis the Menace went.  “You know… France, the Netherlands, England, China…”

Her eyes closed in delight.  “What a wonderful trip.  How lucky you were!”

I felt uncomfortable.  She was way more into my lie than I expected.  I should have just stuck with Paris.  “Yeah…I guess.”  She moved on to the next kid, and I thought I was done with it; until my mom met Mrs. Dorgan at a parent-teacher conference.  I dreaded the day, knowing it was very likely I would be exposed.  My mother came home, and as soon as the door closed, I knew I was in deep shit.  “Anne-Marie!

I walked up to my mom.  She was furious with me.  Apparently, Mrs. Dorgan started asking my mom all of these questions about our travels, and my mom looked at her like she was crazy.  Mom told Mrs. Dorgan that I made it all up.  Now, mom was yelling at me for being such a liar.  When I got to school the next day, Mrs. Dorgan pulled me outside of the classroom, her mouth finding its natural home in a deep and wrinkled frown.  I was so dead to her.  “You lied to me.  Your mother said you never went traveling around the world!  Aren’t you ashamed of yourself?”

I lowered my head and didn’t say anything.  For the rest of the time Mrs. Dorgan was our teacher, I feared going to school almost every day.  Mrs. Dorgan truly despised me and would occasionally blow up at me in class.  In her eyes, I was the devil.  I wished I was invisible, and that I could take it all back.  But I couldn’t, and I had to live with the consequences of my actions for as long as she was our teacher.  I began to think that I really was a bad person.  I was a lying liar, and I couldn’t keep myself from lying.

A little after the mid-year, Mrs. Dorgan had to leave for personal reasons, and she was replaced by Ms. Axelrod.  I was afraid Mrs. Dorgan filled her in on what a demon child I was, but as soon as Ms. Axelrod talked to me, I felt like a weight was lifted.  Unlike Mrs. Dorgan, she smiled a lot, and she entrusted me with responsibilities.  I liked her.  Life suddenly seemed different; for the first half of second grade, I felt like I couldn’t do anything right.  Now, I felt like I was a really good kid.  I wanted to be good, and do good things and I didn’t want to let Ms. Axelrod down.  My grades went up.  I looked forward to going to school every day.

I’d say my lying was over, but I’ll admit, we had to write another non-fiction story in class, and I had to make something up again.  She knew I was making it up – it was an absurd story about how God gave me a pine tree for my birthday, but she never questioned me and even encouraged me.  I wrote with a fury, and she praised me for it.  The only story that was as long as mine was the story the one girl wrote about her trip to Greece (it was that girl’s ace in the hole, no doubt).  I was sad when school year ended, knowing that Ms. Axelrod was no longer my teacher.

Thanks to my experiences as a 7 year-old lying liar, I learned an important lesson in life.  I could be sentimental and preachy and tell you that I learned that lying takes far more energy and time than telling the truth; I could tell you that Ms. Axelrod taught me everyone deserves a second chance.  Oh sure; these are lessons I carry with me to this day, but the real lesson I learned?

For God’s sake, if you are going to make shit up, fact-check that bitch and keep it small.