The adventures of a New Jersey college professor with very strange friends, colleagues, and family members.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

And The Walls Came Down

"It is impossible to fully comprehend the evil that would have conjured up such a cowardly and depraved assault upon thousands of innocent people."

-- Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien

Everyone over the age of 15 most likely remembers where they were on this day ten years ago. Many of them were frightened, many confused, and many horrified. But I’m willing to speculate that no matter where you were, what you were doing, or how you ultimately reacted, your very first, knee-jerk reaction was one of absolutely stunned incredulity.

In 1983, I was a sophomore in high school and heavily involved in my school’s competitive forensics team. One of the speeches I used in competition that year dealt with nuclear disarmament (I was in favor of it). The speech was very melodramatic, filled with sobering statistics and horrifying descriptions of radiation sickness and eventual total global death. I’m not entirely sure what made me choose to write about such a cheery topic; perhaps I had seen WarGames too many times.

But despite the speech’s statewide appeal (I won more awards for that one speech than for any other piece I ever competed with), deep-down, I really, really didn’t think that any country (or any planet, really) would ever actually attack the United States. I knew about Pearl Harbor, of course, but after all, that had been in 1941, which to my 15 year-old reasoning was only slightly after the First Crusade.

In 2001, I was working at a computer engineering firm that was subcontracted by the FAA (probably the weirdest government agency to work for on 9/11). That Tuesday had started out oddly for me even before the first plane hit. The previous night, my mother had been admitted to the hospital for an upper respiratory infection, and I was coming down with something nasty and bronchial as well. Still, I deluded myself into thinking I was indispensible and hobbled my way in.

By 9:30, I knew I wasn’t going to make it. I dragged myself up the stairs with the intention of going to my boss’s office and telling him I was calling it a morning. As I passed the receptionist’s desk, she looked at me, blinking in confusion, and said, “A plane just hit the World Trade Center!”

When you work for the FAA and you hear that, the thought of terrorism doesn’t enter your mind right away, which is why I naturally thought it was some bizarre aviation accident and asked; “Was it one of ours?”

No one on my floor seemed as much worried as they were confused as to how such horribly inaccurate reporting could possibly have been allowed to air. We figured that something had happened at the Twin Towers, but it couldn’t possibly have been two jets purposely flying into them with the intention to level the buildings and kill thousands of people.

We then remembered that my boss had a TV in his office, so we joined the dozen or so other stunned engineers watching the news from there. As more information came in, we still didn’t really grasp that we had been attacked. It was just so unthinkable that it never entered our minds. Phones rang, unanswered, then almost simultaneously, everyone’s pager went off. An announcement came over the PA that we were shutting the site down.  This all seemed to happen at once.

I spun the radio dial on the way home trying to piece together as much information as I could, without much success. I was now running a very high fever, and coupled with the weirdness of the day I felt fairly sure I couldn’t trust my own mental faculties. When I got home, I turned on the TV and fell into bed.

You remember the news footage.  It was surreal. For the next week through my antibiotic haze, I watched those towers fall over and over again and it never got any more real. I felt like I was watching an apocalyptic science-fiction movie with really awesome special effects.

And in the weeks that followed, when we all tried to make sense of the whole thing by flying the flag, playing Kate Smith records, and asking “where were you?” I began to think of some very strange and picayune things, such as that every single photograph, picture, and film of the New York skyline was now incorrect, and that it would be very awkward for a radio station to ever play Bruce Springsteen’s “Darlington County” from now on.

And I found myself thinking about a very peculiar group of people. Yes, of course I think of all of the fallen, and they and their loved ones are always in my thoughts and prayers, but I think about certain people a little more frequently.

I think about the receptionist at a marketing agency who was on vacation that week.

I think about the temp that was supposed to cover for that receptionist but whose agency gave him the wrong start-time.

I think about the civil engineer who wasn’t able to get a cab in his usual spot and whose having to walk five extra blocks put him half an hour behind schedule.

I think about the investment broker who, at the eleventh hour, admitted to herself that she was just legitimately sick enough to call out.

I think about the cafeteria worker who had retired the Friday before and was now playing Dominos with his granddaughter.

I think about the maintenance man who fell asleep on the subway and didn’t wake up until the end of the line because his neighbors had kept him up all night screaming at each other.

But this is who I think about the most:

She is 22 or 23 years old, and her name is something like Sarah, or Emily, or Marian. This is her first “real” job since graduating college with a marketing degree, and this is only her third week. She still gets up an hour earlier than she has to in order to try on and reject different outfits, chose understated jewelry, and have something resembling an adult breakfast. Her dark hair smells of lavender and she has a French manicure. She arrives at her train stop in plenty of time.

She’s standing next to her new boss’s desk (one of those shiny chrome tables with a heavy glass top) in a tailored navy blue dress and shoes that are just a little uncomfortable, but she’s trying to “dress for the job she wants, not the job she has.” She’s trying to pay attention to everything the boss is saying, but she’s had a bit too much coffee and is twitchy. In fact, her coffee mug—which might have Dilbert, or Ziggy, or Snoopy on it—is still in her hand, complete with a coral-colored lipstick stain.

And the boss is explaining something she needs to do in Excel, or Adobe, or PowerPoint or something, and her mind is jumping around from her work to what color accent pillows to buy for her new living room set to wondering if the vending machine has a Zagnut bar, to how much she really wishes she had worn different shoes. And then she hears the noise, which is now drowning out the boss.

And she looks out the window, bewildered, and lowers her coffee mug. “Hey, Russell,” she interrupts, curiously, “isn’t that plane getting awfully clo—

Tuesday, July 12, 2011


“Don’t you want me baby?”

--Human League

I met someone today. I’m sure I broke Olympic records getting home to blog about it.

My father discovered he needed a refill on his cholesterol medication, so he dispatched me to the Walmart with instructions to pick up a few other sundries like vitamin-D and some corn plasters. While I was waiting for his prescription to be filled, I sat next to a heavy, slightly sweaty, balding man with glasses of about 35. He was reading a pamphlet about psoriasis (which he didn’t appear to have, at least not on the parts of him that were visable). He turned to me, flashed a smile and said, “Hello!”

“Hi,” I said. After all, I’m a friendly, agreeable person.

“Do you have psoriasis?”

I thought this was an odd thing to lead off with, but said, “No.”

"Neither do I,” he declared, tossing the pamphlet aside (leaving me to wonder what kind of opening that was). “How long have you lived here?”

I assumed he didn’t mean in the Walmart. “About ten years.”

He smiled. “I’m new.”

I knew that he was about to ask me the traditional “new-guy-on-the-block” questions such as where the best Chinese food was, which dry-cleaner wouldn’t shred his pants and what bars to avoid, so I tried to summon up some enthusiasm for my town. However, in another four seconds, all of my travelogue information was driven from my mind. “It’s so hard to meet people,” he said, slightly sadly. “And I have an especially hard time. Because of…well, because of the lifestyle.”

I wish I could say that there was a swelling of dramatic danger music, but there wasn’t. He very obviously wanted to ask me about his “lifestyle,” and when I didn’t right away he added, quickly, “Oh, no, it’s nothing too weird or perverted or anything. Let me give you our website address. He proceeded to dig in his wallet and handed me a card, which simply listed this website.  (But don’t click on it yet. Wait for it. It’s worth it).

“What is this?” I asked curiously, examining the card.

“I’m an AB,” he said, in an explanatory tone.

“I’m sorry, I don’t know what that is,” I admitted, wondering if I really wanted to get into it.

He cleared it all up for me. “I’m an Adult Baby.”

There was a moment of silence.

“It’s not as uncommon as you’d think,” he went on, hastily. I was about to tell him I didn’t think anything about Adult babies, but apparently having gathered courage from my not screaming and running away yet, he continued. “We’re really misunderstood. A lot of people think we’re pedophiles or like to have sex with children, and we don’t do or want anything like that.”

I began to wonder what was taking so long with my dad’s medication. He kept explaining: “See, we like to be treated as babies. We sleep in cribs, drink from bottles, and wear diapers.”

I started looking around for Rod Serling. “Okay,” I said, fascinated.

Obviously feeling he had found a sympathetic ear, he continued. “The diapers are really expensive, actually. Personally, I like the Wellness Briefs Adult Baby Plastic Pants. I get them from eBay because they’re really discreet.”

“Well, they’d have to be,” I said, nodding sympathetically.

He was obviously frustrated. “If only people would try it before they judged it!” He said. “It’s such a comforting, reassuring lifestyle. We’re gentle, passive people. We’re not hurting anyone.”

“Of course not,” I said, trying to be soothing. And with that, I realized I had gone too far in my empathy.

He paused, then began, hopefully, “I don’t suppose you’d—“


“No, really, if you’d just—“


“Well, do you know anyone who’d like to—“


“Will you please at least go to the website?” He seemed so desperate.

And then, like a blessed deus ex machina, the pharmacist yelled my dad’s name.

(You can go to the website now.  You're welcome).

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Honorary Griswold

“Everything is contingent…and then there is chaos.”

--Spalding Gray, Impossible Vacation


CAPTAIN PICARD:  I hate being on vacation.

DR. CRUSHER:  No, you hate going on vacation.  Once you’re there, you have a good time.

“This is the worst trip I’ve ever been on.”

--The Beach Boys

I just came back from a vacation in Austin, Texas, where I visited my wonderful friend Deb.  Because she lives 1,700 miles away, Deb and I only get to see each other once a year.  Last year, we met in Atlanta…this year, we agreed I would go to her house and meet her family for the first time.  I was psyched.

I was scheduled to fly out of Philadelphia at 9:55am.  I would land in Tampa Bay at 1:30pm, then at 2:50 I’d get on the connecting flight to Austin, where Deb planned to pick me up at 5:50.  I checked my luggage and got my boarding pass—it looked like it would be an easy flight.

I arrived at the airport early enough to get a very dry, dusty, and tasteless cinnamon-raisin scone and some tea at Starbucks.  As I was choking it down, my father called me and told me that Southwest Airlines had just called him, looking for me.  I then remembered that I had given the airlines my home number as a contact number, since I don’t always have my cell phone turned on.  Apparently, they told Dad that my flight had been delayed until 11:00.  I didn’t understand why, as it was only drizzling, but okay…I still had time to make the connection.  I finished the awful scone and pressed on to the departure gate.

After being fondled at the TSA checkpoint, I got to the gate and found many, many angry people.  I looked at the flight board—my plane was now delayed until 12:35, and there was no way I would land in Tampa soon enough to make my connection.

One of my fellow angry passengers told me that apparently there was a tornado in Tampa, causing them to shut down the airport.  I was also told this is the first time this has happened in 11 years.   I went to the ticket counter, telling them I had to be in Austin that night.  I was told that the only way that would happen is if they sent me to Chicago first—7 hours later.  Not only would I have to stay in the beautiful Philadelphia airport that entire time, but by the time I actually got to Austin it would be 10:40pm.  I would be exhausted and cranky, and Deb would have to be out until all hours schlepping me around, but that was the only option so they ticketed me for that flight.

Disgusted, I plopped back down and angrily listened to Sixpence None the Richer for a while.

At about 11:30, though, there was good news—the Tampa Bay airport had re-opened, and there would still be time to make my connection.  The angry passengers were appeased, however, I was still ticketed for the Chicago flight.  I managed to have the tickets changed again, and happily boarded the plane.

Once we were all onboard, we were told that the Tampa airport had closed.  Again. We sat on the tarmac for an hour and ten minutes. The man sitting next to me, who was also connecting in Tampa, pointed out that if no planes could land in Tampa, none could fly out, either, so we’d both probably still make our connections.  I agreed with this reasoning, and once we finally took off, I promptly fell asleep.

Three hours later, I woke up to discover that we had been circling the Tampa airport for over forty-five minutes.  Not only were we not cleared to land, we had also run out of fuel.  We had to divert to Panama City (which I’d never even heard of) in order to refuel and wait out the tornado.  We weren’t going to be allowed off the plane, so there was no way I could go to a ticket agent and try to make other arrangements.  I was able to use my cell phone, however, so I called Deb and Dad and told them what was going on.  After an hour of sitting on that tarmac (they gave us “complimentary water”—seriously), we finally took off.  I have never in my life been afraid while airborne, but I found out that I would be just fine without ever getting to see jagged bolts of lightning zapping menacingly out the window of my plane again.

I eventually arrived in Tampa Bay at 6:40—more than 5 hours after I was originally supposed to.  I never thought I would ever be on a plane in which the passengers applauded when it landed, because, really, you know that isn’t going anywhere good.  I ran to the ticket agent.  My connecting flight to Austin had left 20 minutes prior.  There were no other flights to Austin that night.  I would have to stay there for the night.  However, even though I had missed my flight, my luggage hadn’t, so it was winging its way to Austin without me, taking things like a clean change of clothes, my toothbrush, makeup, and various medications with it.  I asked when the first flight to Austin the following day was, and of course there wasn’t one.  But, apparently, I could get a 6:55am flight to Houston, then board a flight to Austin (it’s all of 70 miles away) which would get me in at about 10:00am…well, okay. At least if I missed that connection it was close enough for Deb to drive out and get me.  They ticketed me for that flight.

I decided to try to find out where my luggage might be.  I took my claim ticket to the baggage claim office and they told me that it was, indeed, on its way to Austin, and that I could pick it up at the Southwest Airlines baggage claim office.  I wasn’t optimistic.

The ticket agent said that there was a Marriott right there at the airport.  Fine.  I then realized that I hadn’t eaten in about 12 hours (the crummy scone had been the last, and it had long since worn off), and as I certainly wasn’t going anywhere, I treated myself to a long expensive dinner in one of the airport restaurants (and a drink or five), while listening to the mildest and calming thing on my iPod, which turned out to be Steve Lawrence.  By this time, all the adrenaline had crashed (probably helped by the drinks and Steve), and I was exhausted.  I headed off for the airport Marriott.
When I got there, I had this conversation with the guy at the front desk:

ME:  Hi!  I’d like a room for the night.

GUY:  I’m sorry, we’re all booked for tonight.


GUY:  It’s Spring Break—every college student on the east coast is in Florida this week.


GUY:  If you want to take the bus, there’s another Marriott a few blocks from here.

ME:  (sobs)

Well, it wasn’t as if I had much of a choice—it was either that or sleep in the terminal, so I headed for the bus.  Of course, since the tornado was still somewhat going on, there was torrential rain and wind, which I’m sure made me look even more like the undead than I already did.  There were two men also waiting for the bus, and one of them was ridiculously cheerful.  I really wasn’t in the mood for it.

The bus came.  We got on.  The other two men (who I don’t think were together, but who had apparently bonded in the wake of the airline stupidity) started talking about the weather, and asked me what my deal was.  I explained everything, and that’s when I found out that the cheerful fellow was one of those “It-could-be-worse!” guys.  Unfortunately, he was one of those obnoxious “It-could-be-worse!” guys, in that we had this exchange:

HIM:  It could be worse!

ME:  Well, this was definitely one of the worst travel experiences I’ve ever had.

HIM:  My daughter had a 26 year-old friend who was killed in a snowboarding accident last week.  I’m sure he would love to trade places with you.

ME:  Okay, you know what?  That really isn’t helpful.  I’m sorry your daughter lost her friend, but you know nothing about my situation, and nothing about the circumstances under which I’m traveling.  Perhaps I had a funeral to go to tomorrow that I’m now going to miss, or a job interview, or a wedding.  Please don’t try to throw perspective on something you know nothing about.

He shut up.  We rode in stony silence to the hotel.

At the front desk, I told my tale of woe and the woman there told me that I definitely qualified for their special “Distressed Traveler” rate (which I found hysterical, but I might just have been punch drunk), and she even gave me a toothbrush and toothpaste (I almost kissed her).  All I wanted was a shower and a bed, and, mercifully, I got both.

The next morning (well, only technically, as it was still pitch dark), I put my disgusting clothes back on, finger-combed my hair, and got on the bus again.  When I got to the airport, I found out that my flight was actually leaving a half an hour early. Fortunately, I was in time, so I got on the plane and passed out.  I also managed to get on my connecting flight to Austin without any problems and landed on time.

Deb, who wasn’t allowed past the TSA checkpoint, was going to meet me at the baggage claim.  I spotted her, waiting with all the other chauffeurs who were of course holding signs such as “BILLY-BOB BOJO,”  ‘SADIE-LOU SALLY-JO,” and “RICKY-WAYNE JIMBOB”—she was holding a sign that said, simply, “YANK.”  It was the first thing to make me laugh on the whole trip so far.  Much hugging, hand-flailing, and babbling ensued.

  Of course, my luggage wasn’t there, but when I brought my ticket to the baggage claim office, they brought it out.  It looked only a little mangled, so we schlepped out to her car and on the way to the hotel I bitched about the airline, finally happy to get it out of my system. We wanted to go to lunch (I hadn’t had breakfast), but I said that I absolutely had to go to the hotel first because the clothes I was wearing were now so disgusting that they were actually trying to bolt off of my body on their own in search of a Laundromat.  Also, I had no makeup on and looked like I’d been in my own mausoleum for two weeks.  We got to the hotel, and that’s when I made yet another interesting discovery.

The luggage, which had looked relatively unscathed on the outside, was a complete wreck on the inside.  I had one suitcase which held nothing but clothes and a second that contained all my other “stuff.”   The clothes were wet.  I don’t mean that “cold and damp from being in the unpressurized hold of a plane for 8 hours” wet, I mean actually waterlogged.  They also smelled of mildew.  I looked in the other suitcase, and everything in there was equally wet, but because I had packed everything (makeup, toiletries, electrical stuff, etc.) in various cosmetic bags, they were more or less okay.  Unfortunately, all the gifts I had brought for Deb and her family were completely trashed—the wrapping paper had actually somehow fused itself to the boxes.  Fortunately, the gifts themselves (plaques and mugs) were ceramic and thus okay, but I certainly couldn’t give them to anyone in that condition.  The packages were so unbelievably awful that I actually took  a picture of them.  I figured out what must have happened.  Because I wasn’t there to claim the luggage the previous night, they had sat, outside, all night.  In the tornado.  Lovely.

Deb called her parents to tell them what had happened, and her mother got on the phone and absolutely insisted that I bring the soggy  laundry to their house so she could wash it.  I was horrified and said that I simply couldn’t allow this woman, whom I had never actually met in person, to wash my underwear.   No, she insisted, she didn’t want to wait one more minute to meet me, whereupon I told her that I simply would not let her see me in my current condition.  She blackmailed me by saying that if I would allow Deb to bring her my clothes, she would loan me a shirt and shorts.  Well, it was either that or go to lunch in my bra and panties, and I wouldn’t subject anybody to that, so I reluctantly agreed.

Deb took my squelchy duffel bag to her house while I showered, then brought me back a t-shirt and shorts.  We went to lunch at a BBQ place, and then I finally got to meet Deb’s family.  They were absolutely wonderful, and sort of made the whole experience worth it, and, hey…at least I got some good material.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Not A Holiday Inn

“Son, you’re gonna drive me to drinkin’
if you don’t quit drivin’ that Hot Rod Lincoln.”

-- Bill Kirchen

Here’s one I think you’ll like.  It’s about this guy:

On any given day, anyone who wants to can go to Union Square and see Saravuth.  You will probably be asked to play chess, but believe me, it’s worth it to hear the story.  You can’t tell from the pictures, but Saravuth is quite diminutive.

There are six people in this story, and five of them aren’t me, so here’s a score card:

David: You’ve already met him in I Dream Of Men With Pink Hair:

(Scroll down past the entry about Philip, though that one is a good read as well).

Lola:  The best friend I mention in the entry about David.  Has a good heart, but prone to histrionics.  She went around the bend completely about a year after graduation when her mother died

Yarworth:  An extremely rich guy who thinks that every problem can be solved by throwing money at it.  He’s often right.

Sharon:  The vice-president of the forensics team and more than a little stupid.  She’s also hopelessly in crush with David, who may or may not know this depending on the combination of drugs he’s taken that day.

And, of course, the aforementioned Saravuth.

In October of 1986, the team was slated to compete in a tournament at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia at the first tournament of the 1986-87 season.  Because we couldn’t afford six airline tickets, we decided to rent a car.  The problem was, you needed to have a driver’s license (of course), a valid credit card, and be over 21.

David was 22, but had no driver’s license.  I had a license, but was only 19.  Sharon was 21, had a license, but no credit card.  Yarworth had maxed out his credit cards earlier that year.  The only member of the team who met all three of these criteria was Saravuth.

Saravuth proceeded to rent the absolutely ugliest car he could find—a 1980 wood-paneled station wagon, which we of course dubbed the Family Truckster.  On the Friday before the tournament, we piled our luggage and ourselves into the car and took off for Virginia.

Saravuth, of course, drove, as he was the one who had rented the car.

And so it started.

We were only about half an hour out when it became obvious to all of us that Saravuth had no driving skills at all.  He was all over the road, didn’t use his directionals when he turned or changed lanes, and was incapable of sticking to the speed limit.

Lola insisted we pull over at the next rest stop.  We did.

Lola took off for the bathroom, and I followed.  She then told me, tremulously, that a few months prior, she had been involved with a car accident and was now a bit skittish.  I assured her that if Saravuth’s driving didn’t improve, I would take over the wheel.

About five hours later, we arrived in Fairfax, Virginia, mostly unscathed.  Saravuth, Yarworth and Sharon stayed at the hotel, while David, Lola and I went in search of food.  Lucky me got to drive the Family Truckster so I could get used to it.

The minute we got in the car, David said; “Now that we’re alone, can we talk about how awful Saravuth’s driving is?”

Both Lola and I fell over ourselves in agreement, and I at once volunteered to drive the Family Truckster home at the end of the tournament.

The tournament itself was uneventful, as only David won anything, and at 9:00 on Monday morning we prepared to head back.  There was a grey, miserable looking sky.  We all got back in the car to schlep home.  Despite what David, Lola and I had decided, Saravuth once again captained the Family Truckster and we set off at a dangerous speed down the Interstate.  David sat up front, Lola, Sharon and I shared the middle bench, and Yarworth was positioned in the back, writing his will on the back of his ballots.

Of course, it began to rain.

Of course, Saravuth’s driving was even worse in inclimate weather.

And it was only a matter of time before the inevitable happened.

As the rain got harder, Saravuth took more and more chances with the car (and, consequently, our lives) until he actually swerved over the yellow line and into oncoming traffic.  An 18-wheeler beared down on us, sounding its air-horn at top volume.  I screamed and threw my hands over my eyes.  Yarworth, who couldn’t see anything due to where he was sitting, also let loose with a shriek.  We ended up on the [wrong] side  of the road, amazingly unhurt (physically…mentally was another story).

“Jesus Christ, Saravuth!”  Lola screamed, as the Family Truckster came to a screeching halt on the gravel.

Saravuth said:  “Don’t worry…I’m driving.
“That’s exactly what I’m worried about!” Lola shrieked.

Inexplicitly, Saravuth advised:  “Go to sleep.”

Lola countered with: “Go to hell!”

We abandoned the car like it was on fire.  The sky opened up full throttle.  We almost had to shout to be heard over the torrential rain.  David tried to make peace by asking Saravuth if I could drive the next 50 miles.  Saravuth kept repeating; “No, no…she is not on my insurance.”

David sighed in slight annoyance and ran his hand through his pink hair.  “Saravuth, you are being such a jerk.”  This was the first time we had ever hear David say anything even remotely disparaging about anyone.  Saravuth made a frustrated face and came out with;

“This is so inconvenient for me.”

This is where Lola loses it.

“Dammit, David!” she hollered, “I am not going to risk my life to spare someone’s short, little Cambodian feelings!”

“Wow!”  I said, impressed.

Yarworth spoke up.  “How far are we from Dulles Airport?”

We all looked at each other.  “I’m not sure,” I said.  “Why?”

“I have enough money to fly us all back to New Jersey,” Yarworth said, way too calmly.

“David,” I urged, “let’s do that.”

“We can’t,” he said, sadly.  “We have no way of reimbursing Yarworth from the team’s budget—we’d bankrupt ourselves and not be able to compete anywhere for the rest of the year.”

“I don’t care!”  Lola yelled.

“Wait,” Sharon piped up, “what about the train?”

The five of us looked at each other with why-didn’t-I-think-of-that looks.

“I could go for that,” said David.

Of course, this was long before cell phones, so the first order of business was to find a way to get us off the side of the road and to a pay phone so we could call a cab.  Knowing that it was highly unlikely anyone would stop for us in the middle of the monsoon, David solved the problem by hurling himself into traffic.  Sure enough, that did the trick.

The young man who had nearly mowed down David was named Kirby, and by a happy accident of fortune, he was also a college student.  Naturally, he didn’t also have a Family Truckster, so he said that he could drive four of us back to his campus, where he would get his roommate to help with the driving.

Of course, that meant that one unlucky person would have to stay behind with Saravuth, who was now casually smoking by the car and looking irritated and, well, inconvenienced.

“Should we do rock, paper, scissors?” Sharon suggested.

“How about one-potato-two-potato?” Yarworth asked.

“No, let’s do odds-and-evens,” I said.  Lola was too furious to give us any suggestions, but David solved the whole thing by volunteering to wait with the Family Truckster.  The rest of us agreed that out of the five of us, David was the least likely to get violent, so we headed out with Kirby.

Kirby was a history major, and the rest of us shared our curricula with him as well.  By the time we got to his dorm, the rain had subsided a bit.  He went into the building to talk to his roommate, whose name was Neil.  Neil was so intrigued by the story of Saravuth that he insisted on helping us.  Sharon and Yarworth rode back with Neil, while Lola and I stayed in Kirby’s car.

When our posse got back to the site of the Family Truckster,  we saw that David’s normally pink hair was now closer to burgundy due to the rain.  Saravuth was still smoking.

Kirby and Neil didn’t know who was more interesting-looking, David or Saravuth.  Lola refused to have anything to do with Saravuth and stayed in Kirby’s car, while Yarworth, Sharon and I went to collect the luggage.

We begged David to come with us, but he insisted on staying with the Family Truckster (since he was president and all), so we all hugged him good-bye, certain that we would never see him again.  Kirby and Neil drove the rest of us to the train station, which was about an hour away, and Yarworth not only was able to purchase four tickets to New Jersey, he also handsomely compensated Kirby and Neil, who didn’t even want to take any money—they said the experience was worth it.

So, as I said, anyone who wants to can go to Union Square and play chess with Saravuth. 

Be sure to tell him that Lola sends her love.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The W Biz

“I promise
To love my Ws,
To honor them every day,
To never say ‘hate’ to a W,
And to never, ever write
‘I hate Ws.’’”

--The W Club pledge, c. 1973

I’m taking a big risk with this entry. It’s liable to stir up a lot of old ghosts which should have remained in their crypts. I can hear them rattling their chains already.

I decided to write this entry because of a conversation I’ve been having on Facebook with someone who attended the same elementary school as I did. This person began asking me questions about events that took place almost 35 years ago, and I suddenly realized that even I wasn’t sure what had exactly went down. I contacted (via Facebook) three people who had been there for the long haul and asked them what they remembered and what the hell happened. With a few (sometimes painful) reminders, I managed to cobble this together.

The whole thing started in 1972, and it started in my living room.

I was five, and, like most children at that age, I watched Sesame Street forty times a day. My mother used to get me up a full hour before I had to go to school just so I could get my daily fix of Oscar, Big Bird, the Count, and Gordon and Susan (haven’t you always wondered what really went on there?). As you know, each episode was “brought to you” by a certain number and letter.

It was an ordinary day (in winter, I believe), and I was up early watching muppets caper about, when suddenly a sketch began that took place in a dark alley with a full moon, illuminated only by a streetlight. Out of the darkness came a giant green W, a muppet policeman hot in pursuit—apparently the W had broken a very important law. The W, which was a lot smarter than the cop, disguised itself by turning upside down to make an M, and then tilting on its side to make an E. The sketch ended with the felt-covered police officer blowing his whistle and yelling, “Hey! Somebody stop that letter!”

In case you don't believe me, you can see it for yourself here:  My totally awesome friend Jason actually did the legwork and found it!  Rock on, Jason. (Come on, isn't the W kind of cute?).

I didn’t know then, and I certainly don’t know now, why that particular sketch impacted me so powerfully. I had seen hundreds of Sesame Street sketches that were funnier and more clever, but for reasons beyond every inch of sanity, I became obsessed with the letter W.

And so, I was off to the races.

If you went to elementary school and junior high with me, you will no doubt remember the W Biz (as I called it), and also remember how I was treated. I have often wondered if I would have still been the school pariah if I had not shoved W down everyone’s throat, and I’m forced to admit that yes, I would have been—there was just too much else “wrong” with me to overshadow the whole W Biz.

So much has been written on the subject of bullying that I didn’t intend on mentioning it here, but as I thought about it I realized that, at age 43, I’m still very damaged from the constant teasing, ridicule, “jokes,” jeering and mockery. It is very much a part of my adult makeup. I can’t pass two people laughing at a private joke without the knee-jerk reaction of they’re laughing at me. Absolutely everything I said or did was looked upon with shame, derision, and scorn. I didn’t like the “right” music. I didn’t wear the “right” clothes. I didn’t watch the “right” television show. I was clumsy, awkward, and very bad at sports.

It did, however, prepare me for a life alone.

But my biggest crime, I think, was simply this: I didn’t give in. Not once. I’m weirdly proud of that now.

I realized very early that I was the school chump, so I figured as long as every person I came into contact with thought I was “corroded” (remember that? And the “anti-corrosion spray?” Don’t worry…I do. That was really mature, wasn’t it? Did it make you feel important to single out the weak and destroy any chance they have at any kind of self-esteem? You should be proud of yourself, and at least I know now where to send the hospital bills), I would at least give everyone a good reason to treat me like a leper.

So I formed the W Club.

It was, apparently, very easy to get a membership to the W Club—all you had to do was recite the insipid pledge at the top of the page, and learn the “secret signal.” To make the secret symbol, simply make the Peace sign with both hands. Now bring the hands together so that your fingers are making a W. Yeah, I know. Rocket science.

Of course, the W Club had its own language, which consisted of simply putting a W in front of every word. Wit was wuley wembarrassing, and not likely to give Pig Latin a run for its money.

Contingent on membership, everyone had to write “The W Book.” It wasn’t hard—just take a piece of manila paper, fold it in half, and fill it with bright colored Ws. Keep adding pages until you get caught wasting art supplies.

While all this was going on, my parents were really, really worried about me. They tried to humor me, thinking that I was going through a “phase” and would grow out of it. I didn’t. In fact I got even more manic and made up “burying dead Ws.”

This had to be seen to be believed. I would find four sticks of approximately the same size and dig a (shamefully shallow) “grave” (in the shape of a W, of course), bury the sticks, and then pray over it. In Latin.

(Did I mention the Ws had names? Oh sure they did.  Sitting here, I can recall only a few of them; Wubbit, Dubbit, Wuberina, Wubberiska, Wub-Dub, and…uh…a bunch of other names that are bastardizations of W).

My teachers (with the exception of my third grade teacher, who was peri-menopausal and a huge bitch that got off on teasing me along with everyone else) tried very hard to get me to “pack away W” (poor Mrs. G.). The more I was harassed, the more gung-ho I got. There was no end in sight.

The end did finally come, and it ended as abruptly as it began. I literally woke up one morning and had no more interest in Ws. I did, however, have a great deal of interest in other things, not the least of which was regaining my self-respect.

Yeah, I know.   *sigh*

I’m still working on it.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Oh, Madonna SO Owes Me For This One!

“Every few years I try to re-invent myself. You know, change
my hair (laughs) I’m surprised it hasn’t fallen out by now!
I love experimenting with new music, working with really great musicians,
and learning from them. I loved doing the ‘Material Girl’ video
because I got to pay homage to Marilyn Monroe, one of my idols.
That was probably the video I had most fun doing.”


I advise all of you with whom I went to high school who are drinking any beverage—especially a carbonated one, to set it down, because if you laugh with beer in your mouth, it will come out your nose.

For my high school Facebook friends, I need not explain the absurdity of what is about to follow. If you didn’t attend my high school, let me try to explain what I was like. I think a bullet list will sum it up:

  • Glasses wearer
  • President of French Club (yay, Mrs. Young!), Editor-in-Chief of both the school newspaper (yay, Mr. Kruzel!) and the literary magazine (yay, Mr. Donahue!) A member of Latin Club (yay, Miss Emhoff!) typing editor of the yearbook (another kudo to Mr. Kruzel!) High honor society, President of the Thespian Society (yay, Mr. Saginario!) and God knows what else.
  • Wore hand-me-down clothes from my older cousins. Not cool.
  • Absolutely no athletic ability whatsoever (Mrs. Yuzuik was the only one to understand this)
  • Never saw the inside of Mr. Bates’ office.
  • Had 20 million words in my vocabulary and had to use them all before I could start all over again.

Yeah. That was me. A nerd, a geek, a dweeb, you name it.

Okay, now that that’s set up, we move on to the hideous embarrassment.

My high school was kind if structured pretty weird—instead of grades 9-12, it housed grades 7-12. Whoever came up with this plan deserves to be hanged from the highest yardarm. 7th &; 8th gradewas “junior high,” and 9-12 was legitimate high school.

The principal of the junior high was a nice man named Mr. Spain. Because he was in charge of discipline and I had never broken any rules, I had very little to do with him aside from passing him in the hall and saying, “hi, Mr. Spain, how’s it going?” and he’d say fine and then ask me where I was supposed to be and why wasn’t I there yet.

Mr. Spain was in charge of the junior high school graduation dinner, held at the new defunct Roosevelt café. I have to admit, he went all out; the restaurant (which sort of resembled a VFW hall) was covered in streamers and silver glitter, and I always had to suppress a laugh because it reminded me of the prom scene in Carrie.

It had long been a tradition at this banquet to have music entertainment, although absolutely no one danced. Mr. Spain, apparently not connected to any DJ’s, always asked good old Victor if his seniors who had starred in the musical that year to perform a song from the play. This worked out fine; in my junior year, I watched Joe and his cronies happily singing “Luck Be A Lady Tonight” from Guys and Dolls. Then, Joe and I did a duet of “I’ll Know When My Love Comes Along.” Neither Joe nor I had a problem with this since everyone in the audience knew these songs.

And then Victor lost his mind entirely, and for my senior year he put on The Unsinkable Molly Brown. Don’t even bother looking it up; there are no songs you will know in there. Having had the lead, I couldn’t imagine how Mr. Spain was going to get out of this one. I was soon to find out.

In spring of my senior year, Mr. Spain called me into his office. I was stunned that Mr. Cameron, my art teacher, was also there. Mr. Spain then explained to me in graphic detail what he wanted me to do. He wanted me to wear an exquisite red silk dress (from wardrobe) and sing Madonna’s “Material Girl,” while Mr. Cameron (who was also musical, it seemed), played his Casio keyboard.

I nearly hacked out a lung, then stared at Mr. Spain as if someone has spiked his coffee with LSD. Mr. Cameron was new to my high school, so he didn’t know my reputation of being the one everyone bullied and made fun of and teased. I tried to reason with Mr. Spain, reminding him of who I was (after all, he’d known me six years), and that there was no way in hell anyone would buy someone with my face and my body doing a Madonna cover. I was the one everyone in school reviled. I explained that his fancy banquet would be ruined by catcalls, laughter, and possibly thrown baked potatoes.

Mr. Spain, who saw he was being cornered by logic, reluctantly agreed, and asked if would consider it if I had two boys dressed in tuxedos flanking me, just like Madonna did in the video. He was so desperate that I finally relented (I figured they could block the potatoes). Mr. Cameron and I began practicing after art class (I had study hall the next period, and was excused), and eventually the tuxedo guys (underclassmen) showed up. As they both had the same first name, I’ll call them Thing One and Thing Two.

The red silk dress had been custom-made for me in New York, and, dripping with diamonds, everyone said I looked great. It also cost Victor a small mint. Thing One and Thing Two were so excited that they, as a sophomore and freshman respectively, got a chance to strut their stuff they paid no attention to the amount of Valium I was taking.

Now, I had two things working in my favor:

1) I had a superbly trained voice from all those years in theatre, and could reach from first soprano to low alto. Madonna sings a combination of mezzo-soprano and first alto, so I had no trouble with her notes.

2) By the time I, Thing One and Thing Two, got around to performing (during dessert) all the parents of the graduating 8th graders were so sloshed that I could have performed Camper van Beethoven’s “Take The Skinheads Bowling” and they wouldn’t have known the difference.

Thing One and Thing Two stood peering out of the curtain (rookie mistake—didn’t it dawn on them that if they could see the audience they could see them? And finally, my moment of truth came—Mr. Spain went up to the microphone and deftly said that instead of a ballad from the music, BeowulfGirl would be performing a hit rock and roll song. I prayed desperately for a meteor strike.

I honestly don’t know how I did it. Yes, there were catcalls and smart-ass remarks. My parents were there, sitting at the same table as Thing One and Thing Two’s families. Mr. Cameron grooved on his Casio. There was nothing to do but to try to become Madonna.

Thank God for Thing One and Thing Two—they mugged so dramatically that I happily let them take over. It seemed to last for days. Finally, it was time to promenade back stage.

While explaining my woes to my friend Sue the next day, she gave me a clap on the back and said, “well, it could be worse. Mr. Spain might have asked you to do a Joan Jett song!”

Oh, the horror…

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Holiday Road

CASINO PIT BOSS: Sir, we have reason to believe you’re cheating.

PATRICK JANE: I’m not cheating, I’m just memorizing the cards.

FRUSTRATED CASINO PIT BOSS: Well…well…well, we don’t like people to do that!

--"The Mentalist"

There is a wonderful writer named Mark Clayton who wrote a wonderful essay entitled “A Whole Lot Of Cheatin’ Going On.” This essay exists in a textbook titled The Presence of Others, and since I’m in bed on my laptop and it’s 5:30am, I’m not going to haul myself up and do the citation in correct MLA format.

In this essay, Mr. Clayton discovered that over 80% of college students have admitted to cheating (or plagiarizing) in one form or another in high school and college. And now your mind is going to have to corner like a Lamborghini because I’m going to talk about religion.

For my Facebook Friends, you will see on my profile that under “Religion” I have written “Zero Sum Theologist,” which is a term my most erudite, eloquent and elocutionary British friend Mark suggested. Zero Sum Theology is ridiculously simple. It’s basically the theory that the universe has to maintain balance at all times or it will cease to exist. (Mark didn’t come up with that part—he isn’t quite as insane as I am). Some people call this “karma,” or, as we say in New Jersey, “payback’s a bitch.” Now get ready to corner again because now I’m switching to expensive, high-end electronics.

Machines, in all their forms, see me coming a mile away. Because they cannot move, they can’t make a run for it, which they should if they see me there. The things I most often destroy are copy machines and printers. Usually, the way to get them to work again is “smacking and pounding.” If this doesn’t work, “taking off the back” is a close second.

The more expensive and complicated an electronic device is, the more likely I am to futz it up. In the 1980’s I went through three Walkmans. Computers laugh as they give me the blue screen of death. My iPod has a mind of it’s own. VCRs and DVD players just keep spitting out what I try to put in there. My cousin Annemarie is trying to get me set up with a digital camera, but I know that somehow I’ll burn the lens (and my retinas) out.

My father is a retired engineer, and cannot comprehend why I have this affliction. All he knows is when I go to purchase something very fancy and costly, I get the highest maintenance agreement possible because I know that in a week I’ll be dragging the confounded thing back to the store.

And earlier this week it hit me. All the planets aligned in perfect symmetry. Cheating. Zero Sum Theology. Electronic kryptonite.

Ready to take a journey back in time? Those of you with whom I went to high school with laugh so hard you’ll cough up your own skull.

When I was in the seventh and eighth grade, everybody was required to take shop. I didn’t want to take shop. I knew, even then, that I wanted to be an English teacher of some sort and that knowing how to use a precision grinder, spot welder, coping saw, or a drill press wouldn’t be necessary skills. But I did know that I had to get good grades in shop, otherwise my GPA would tank, I wouldn’t get to be valedictorian six years later, never get into college, be unable to get a job, be disowned by my parents, and die. Alone. On the sidewalk. In a box.

My shop teachers were kind to me, grade-wise. I started electricity shop with good intentions. The teacher was a middle-aged, soft-spoken African American man named Mr. George Holiday, who, thank God, gave out books. Books I could do. I learned all about amps, volts, watts, and joules. There was practical work, too (I was especially fond of soldering). And then he announced that we would all make…a motor.

A motor? Like in a car? Was he insane?

He gave us all the parts, which I vaguely recall being a D-cell battery, some copper wiring to wind around the armature, a bolt or two, and what looked like scrap iron. Passing the class was contingent upon the motor working.

Six weeks into it, I knew I couldn’t do it. I followed Mr. Holiday’s instructions. I looked at the pictures in the book. I asked the guy next to me for help. I couldn’t get that motor stared for a billion dollars. So I decided to do the only thing that would prevent me from dying alone in a box.

I decided to cheat.

One afternoon after electricity shop was over, I pretended to put my little motor back into my locker, but sneaked it into my purse instead. And I took it home, in tears, and gave it to my father. The engineer.

He took one look at it, tried not to laugh, touched two wires together, did something with a soldering iron and maybe a glue gun and within five minutes, the motor was whirring along prettily.

I stuck it back in my purse. The following day, I showed up for school a half hour early, and luck was with me! The electricity shop room was open and unmanned by Mr. Holiday!

I shoved “my” motor in my locker, and proceeded along to Social Studies with Mr. Toci.

When it was time for shop, I sauntered—well, okay, swaggered—into the room with the rest of the class, headed for my locker, and got out the motor for inspection. This was it! If it worked today, I would pass the class!

Mr. Holiday walked up and down the aisles, appraising each aspiring Thomas Alva Edison’s motor. He got to me and he already had a hangdog look. He knew he was going to have to fail me, and it was killing him.

When I touched those two wires and the motor turned on, I honestly thought Mr. Holiday (who I prayed didn’t have a pacemaker) was going to have an apoplectic attack. His eyes got as wide as ping-pong balls. His jaw dropped and his upper dentures clicked. The expression on his face was of one who was actually seeing Jesus. 

And he said to me, “Oh, dear Lord. I can’t believe this. This motor is going in the Project Hall Of Fame!” He was so proud of me. I passed with a very respectable 3.3, and (seriously) never, ever cheated again. If you went to high school with me, you probably suspect that I didn’t have to.

Years went by. (This is the part where the screen gets all wavy).

Going back to earlier in the week, I suddenly had the revelation. The reason I have had nothing but bad luck with electrical appliances for my entire life is because I cheated in electricity shop! Zero Sum Theology! All I had to do (according to the voices in my head) was find Mr. Holiday, wherever he was, and tell him what I had done and apologize for it. If he gave me absolution, maybe I would be able to get the remote for my plasma TV to work!

I immediately jumped on Facebook and shot a message to Mrs. Yuzuik, the most awesome Physical Education teacher I have ever had (and she remembered me!). I asked her if she knew the whereabouts of Mr. Holiday.

Well, you can see what’s coming.

Yes.  Sadly, Mr. Holiday died recently, so therefore I couldn’t apologize to him. But I vowed to do the next best thing. Write out my confession, blog it, and post the link on Facebook so everyone in the world will know.

And maybe now I can get. . . a cell phone!

N.B.  The font is all funky and weird here on my Dashboard--I apologize if it looks weird in the blog.