• DRINK TO THE LASSES: Notes from a Woman's College Womb
    DRINK TO THE LASSES: Notes from a Woman's College Womb
    by Mary Beth Ellis
  • Twentysomething Essays by Twentysomething Writers
    Twentysomething Essays by Twentysomething Writers
    Random House Trade Paperbacks
This area does not yet contain any content.
Saturday
Aug022014

Total Reconstructive Surgery

Those of you who read Drink to the Lasses might recognize some of the ladies of Two North from Saint Mary’s College here.  We’re in Regina Hall, watching a Notre Dame away game. Apparently one of the few things to go Notre Dame’s way that football season has happened.  Or I’d just made a particularly fine 90210 reference.  We invoked any and all causes to celebrate, there in Regina.

Notre Dame was, at the moment the photo was taken, in Columbus, playing Ohio State.  They were on a field where I would later kneel—not at my Catholic brother college, but here at this land grant institution, both knees sinking into the soft rubber pellets of the endzone.  I was facing north, and therefore looking towards South Bend, but in my immediate view, there at the top of the stadium ramp, was the 2011 Ohio State University Marching Band. 

I’d said to them, all of them, into a microphone and everything on the day I formally introduced myself as a writer embedding for the season, something like this:  “My brother school, Notre Dame, hurt me very badly. Imagine how you would feel if your school, the Ohio State you love so much, broke your heart. But when I watch you, I feel... I feel like there really are people out there who believe in something larger than themselves. And I need that right now.” And 225 solemn faces looked back at me, politely listening, humanely concerned, but not fully understanding.  

I was glad, grateful that these talented, passionate, intelligent, deeply committed people did not seem to know that kind of pain, could barely conceive of this place they loved hurting them in such a fashion.  I hate it; I hate that if we were all in that room together again, and I said those words, they would feel the cold thud of recognition.  And I now stand looking at them, trying to comprehend the depths of what they currently suffer, and I wish I could shift the balance of grief back to my side of the room.

When this photo was developed (for, you see, it was taken in an era in which photos had to be “developed”), I was disconcerted by the odd streak down the middle of the shot.  It’s not in any other pictures on the roll, and frankly ruins a right wicked high-ten between me and my best friend. Instead of smacking Carah The BFFE in the whitest, Catholicist, most suburbanist way possible, I look like I’m trying to flail my way through a wormhole.

I wonder sometimes if I actually did.

The picture is sliced oddly in half, an unearthly dividing line separating me from the flesh of the life I knew, when my brother school was in the marrow of my identity, when I was barely aware of the marching band of the host team, its pure brass rendered background noise by the television speakers. Just so, after the slice, there was a Before, and an After, with much of the events of my life pegged in relationship to that moment, whether I want it them be or not. Girl, look at that watch when you put your hands down, because you are running out of time there on that hideous, wonderful sleepy-comfortable dorm couch.  You’re going to get hurt. 

It’s coming, the day when your brother school will wander into theological thickets where you just can’t follow.  That cap you’re wearing, the one you got at the Student Union where you worked at the campus newspaper, will be packed away with that tee shirt and the giant leprechaun flag and all the rest into a squat plastic storage bin, one with opaque sides so you’re not bombarded with the reason why it’s there every time your eyes roam past it while rummaging through the closet for a makeup bag.  Packed away—but not thrown out.  Folded and saved.  For, you see, my convictions did not change just because the football team had a good season.

You are going to get hurt.  That is what happens when you hand over your heart, that poor underworked muscle.  Removed from its hard calcium cage, it beats unprotected in hands not your own. 

And so, band, dear band, I see your Facebook posts and your tweets and your rebuttals and links and interviews and the petitions and the signs and the Photoshops, and I see how hurt, how utterly gutted you are.  How violated, how angry, how stricken all of you feel, all at once. Your wound, like mine, was self-inflicted, but in a far worse way:  Name by name.  Your heart, freely and happily handed over to the care of The Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio, where you thought it was safe, where you sweated and cried and screamed and pushed yourself aside for its benefit—that heart has sustained a grievous wound.   Not from Michigan.  Not from an outsider.  From within. 

I can’t know exactly what you’re feeling, but having had the honor of your company for so many hours, days, months, I think I can glimpse a faint shadow of it.

There’s the band shield on the six o’clock news.  There’s your face.  There’s your rookie name, there is your brother, your sister, your row.  There is the giant, roaring headline:  BAND SCANDAL.  You wonder how your blood is still circulating without the intact heart to move it.  You know the truth but you’re not sure how to phrase it, and to whom, and when you finally figure something out, it’s like you’re just screaming into the howling internet void, because when you check your timeline a few hours later, there it is again:  BAND SCANDAL. 

It constantly surprises me that I am asked what I saw at the BAND SCANDAL.  Was I offended by the BAND SCANDAL? What precipitated the BAND SCANDAL? 

Honestly, why do you ask?  I told the whole entire universe what I saw as I was seeing it.  Everything is right here.  I wrote it all down.  As I’ve explained, Blonde Champagne is and always has been pretty much a psyche dump. The resulting book itself (under renovation now, for obvious reasons) is a set of essays about the emotional experience of a complete outsider moving through a single season with TBDBITL. 

But if I saw, as the University report intimates, entire rows writhing across the practice field in a nekkid Jello orgy, I think I would have allotted that a paragraph or two. I do believe that would have moved along the manuscript bidding process somewhat.

That stack of paper—three years of my life, the rest of my career on hold, months at a time away from my family—does not include a detailed analysis of the occasional college student throwing down ribald humor no worse than what I experienced when walking the halls of  the mens’ dorms at Notre Dame. Because that’s not the true essesnce of this band.

As a matter of fact, would you like to know what I once saw at this bastion of Catholic college education?  I saw—and I somewhat suspect alcohol was involved here-- an undergraduate disrobe and run through a packed mixed-company auditorium, screaming, “I’M FREE!  I’M FREE!”  His Holy Cross rector was in the audience, you'll be pleased to know. 

You will note that my wilty, lavender-scented feminine sensibilities were not so mortally wounded that I ceased to be, for I knew that Notre Dame—its history, its people, its chapels, its high gilt ceilings–was in no way defined by this particular moment in testicular history.  No, I save my Outrageous Outrage for much more than a sadly flapping set of Irish tackle.

If you doubt me on this, feel free to ask the MFA prof I once reported for sexual harassment.

Well, but, Miss Belle, Miss Catholicism USA, what are your current thoughts on the BAND SCANDAL? On what happened since you stopped embedding?  Even though the fired director didn't even hold that position at that point? Doesn’t this band represent your home state? Aren’t you ashamed of associating yourself with these people?  Because you really should be ashamed.

Darlings, I live in constant paralyzing fear that this band will be ashamed of me. One reason why this manuscript is yet a manuscript, rather than a book, is that I am petrified of it all going wrong, of not accurately presenting the great depths of what I experienced.   

Another question: Is the band ashamed of Ohio?

I mean—all that pollution, all those criminals, waterfront decay, rural poverty, urban blight, homelessness.  Unemployment.  The Browns.  Ohio State itself has had its share of nasty little realities.  This band, which has patiently and zealously loved its school despite it, continues to  spell the name of the state containing aaaaaaaalllllllllllll this at every single football game.

Ohio was a new landscape to me as I travelled it with this band; the tiny towns with murals painted on the flat orange brick, the wide sweeping farmlands, one gazillion McDonalds, Columbus salons with cool green fountains in the lobby.  Rednecks. Endless Lake Erie and graffiti and rolls of hay, overzealous parking lot cops, strip malls, billboards stamped with the Ten Commandments. Cows and shiny cars.  Avon Lake, Bucyrus, Westerville. Ohio has sausage festivals and corrupt politicians and Memorial Day parades and, from time to time, LeBron James.

It is a human place.   You might say that Ohio was the first place to which my heart was entrusted; it was physically formed here, cell by cell along the riverbank.

Here’s the good thing, though, about when the heart is sliced straight through, as I was in that photograph:  It leaves an opening, a space.  Room.  Our hearts can expand, but rarely do they split open, leaving a gap for total reconstructive surgery. 

We don’t want total reconstructive surgery. It’s excruciating.  It takes a very long time to heal.  It can lead to geomagnetic reversal, the North Pole drifting south and the South Pole assuming the Northern position.  Total reconstructive surgery takes you into the endzone of Ohio Stadium, faces you towards the brother school you still so dearly love, and drops you to your knees before the marching band of a former enemy. 

That was my wound and my recovery. No one else hurt by Notre Dame has formed scars exactly like mine, and mine is not like theirs.  Mine was a snaked Ohio River line which happened to flow into that endzone. And the OSUMB, each alumnus and each current member, all on their own trajectories, will heal in their own time and in their own ways. 

But I have a luxury the current band members do not:  They cannot, will not, pack all this away in a plastic box.  What I endured and what they’ve already suffered in the just past week is the difference between the Appalachian Mountains and the Rockies—a few thousand feet of pain verses miles of vertical jagged anguish.  And although its own university has shredded its reputation, they will work twice as hard to lovingly represent it.

My readers, you have seen the YouTube videos, the marching, the backbends.  You were impressed, justly so.

This band, though—it is about to enter its most spectacular, laudable moment, and it’s going to do it merely by putting on its gloves, picking up its instruments, and playing love songs to the very university which just struck it to the core.

Friday
Jun062014

70

This first ran in November of 2006 on the original Blonde Champagne, as part of a series on a business trip to France and Monaco.

After Omaha, we stopped at the American cemetery in Normandy.  The French have ceded this land to the United States, and so, half a planet away from where I was born, I stood on American soil.

The plots are on a hill near the sea where the landings took place.

It's very quiet.

We didn’t have time to examine each grave, although each cross and star deserved it. Here are a few.

There are over nine thousand just like them.

I passed one of a private from Ohio. A bird had left its mark; I pulled tissue from my pocket and wiped it clean. The sleeve of my jacket was good enough for my own eye-wiping.

This is the ceiling of the cemetery chapel. A mosaic shows America blessing her young men, sending them off to war...

…and France placing a laurel wreath on the brow of her gift.

We passed several school groups, and a few veterans– fewer each year. Here is a gift from some who left just before we reached the Memorial. The card reads: “This wreath is placed in recognition of your bravery in the Normandy campaign. From the English veterans of the Sword Beach.”

It was laid at the foot of this statue, called “The Spirit of American Youth Rising From the Waves.”

Every hour, a bell tolls “Faith of Our Fathers”.


And then, again, it is quiet.

These are the gates to the Garden of The Missing, which is ringed with walls bearing the names of soldiers whose remains were never recovered.

Here is how closely the names are spaced.

And here is how much wall there is…

…one side of it.

No one is ever the quite the same, after Omaha and Normandy.

Monday
Feb242014

Holly Hobbie, Snowboarding Uniform Fashion Designer

The Olympics are over, which means I have my life back.  And I’m also suffering post-Sochi hangover. But, as we all know, the best cure for seven straight tequila shooters is a giant breakfast of vodka-infused Jello.

 Olympics recap over at OnHerGame

Saturday
Feb152014

Seven Reasons Why You Need To Watch Ice Dance This Olympics

Yes, ice dancing.  Yes, this Olympics.  Now live over at On Her Game.

Tuesday
Jan282014

Raw

It's a sign of exactly how far the Earth has traveled, I guess, from January 28, 1986, that on this year's anniversary I feel compelled to have a sit-down with Beyonce Knowles about it. 

One of Ms. Knowles' new songs includes a recording of NASA Public Affairs Officer narrating the loss of Challenger after the fact: “Flight controllers here looking very carefully at the situation… obviously a major malfunction."  The man is named Steve Nesbitt and he is now the beginning of a Top 40 track entitled "XO."  One of the lyrics goes, "I love you like XO."  And then the next part goes, "You love me like XO."  Then there's a line that says "Baby love me lights out," and then it all ends with "You can love me lights out." 

There followed, as you might imagine, a controversy.  NASA wasn't happy.  Commander Dick Scobee's widow, June, was hurt and "disappointed." This guy decided it was all okay because other people have sampled this audio clip before and because Beyonce said "Houston rock it" in a previous song and sang another called "Liftoff" and besides she's from Houston and this one time recorded a wakeup call for shuttle astronauts, so leave Beyonce alone, everybody, as this is all very "trumped up." End quote. 

I waited to hear from Beyonce, and she said that "the songwriters included the audio in tribute to the unselfish work of the Challenger crew with hope that they will never be forgotten."  And I thought:  well, there you go.  "The songwriters." She was singing someone else's words and this was overlaid without her knowledge.  It's the songwriters' fault.  How old are they?  Do they remember? 

So I looked up who the songwriters were, and-- oh.  Beyonce was one of the songwriters.

So I thought, "Well, maybe in this newfangled autotuney samply new world we've got, somebody other than Beyonce put the audio in.  Maybe it was the producer's call.  Producers do the whole visiony, arts-o-rama thing, don't they?  Why would a producer do this to to such a talented superstar?" But I might have to hear from Beyonce some more, because she's listed as a producer, too.

Well, now I'm confused, because Beyonce said in her response statement that "(t)he song 'XO' was recorded with the sincerest intention to help heal those who have lost loved ones and to remind us that unexpected things happen, so love and appreciate every minute that you have with those who mean the most to you." But then she also mentioned that the "XO" video shoot  "captured raw, fun and being in the moment."  Because if there are two adjectives this world associates with the loss of Challenger, it's "raw, fun."

The question here is whether or not this was exploitation or an actual tribute. The families of the people who died that day, I'm thinking, seem to lean "exploitation." The woman who sang and partially wrote/produced the song says "tribute."  NASA, which these days specializes in Above All Not Offending, says "exploitation." Trumped-Up Guy says "tribute," in part because the clip was played at the beginning of the song and then never referenced again, and... I'm not positive how that bolsters his cause, exactly, but he seems really sure about it.

What do I think?

At first I thought that it doesn't really matter what I think; I'm one of those dust motes floating through a shaft of sun, a person who for a living downloads student essays and types on them and then loads them back online, who occasionally pours apple juice for her nephews and considers it a productive day if she remembered to shower at least once in a 24-hour cycle. I walk the aisle of Wal-Mart, not the red carpet.  I was born in the cold in Ohio and I'm trying to write a good book and maybe if I do it well enough it will make some people pause or laugh or think; and, if I'm lucky, I'll write some more then I'll get old and then I'll die and, if I'm really lucky, a few very fine people will remember I was once here and say, "She was once here, and I'm glad of it."  The Super Bowl does not stop halfway through on my behalf, is what I'm saying.  So maybe I don't have any right to tell Beyonce what I think about a six-second audio piece that I didn't create moments after people I never met just died. 

I do know what I have a right to:  The fact that I do remember when Challenger was lost, and when the people I never met died, I was horrified, and shocked, and very, very sad.  It wasn't just because I was nine years old. Everyone else who was alive and sentient at that time, they were horrified, and shocked, and sad as well.  And they processed that information and those feelings and they absorbed it and when Columbia too was lost they were very, very, sad, but not quite so horrified and a little less shocked.  It wasn't that they felt the loss of the crew less; it was that we now lived in a reality in which astronauts climbed into a space shuttle and did not return alive. The blow, as a nation, had been cushioned. 

It certainly wasn't cushioned for the Columbia crew's loved ones, or for those of us in the NASA family, but if you ask anyone where they were and what they were doing when Challenger was lost, they will know.  They will always know.  They will remember the shoelaces in loopy bows on their feet and the hiss of the radiator.  If you ask the average American who was old enough to remember the loss of Columbia, they will, if they can even recall the moment, perhaps remember the sharp sadness, but not necessarily the shock, the horrible sudden rush of knowledge we did not want to have.  It is part of that folded-in, fully absorbed psyche of a nation.  I don't have to lose a President to assassination to know that losing a President to assassination can happen, and that it's terrible.  But I have inherited this awful knowledge without truly experiencing its cost. 

That is the easement those of us who were witness to Challenger passed on to people Beyonce's age and younger.  So for you, when Columbia was destroyed, it hurt, but it did not coldcock. You already lived in a world in which this was a demonstrated possibility. The Challenger crew had already bought that knowledge for you--and a thousand other greater purposes-- with their lives.  They bought that knowledge for you in the same way the Apollo 1 crew bought for me the knowledge of the dangers of a Moonshot. 

I say all this assuming that Beyonce has no memory of the loss of Challenger.  Maybe she does. She was four; I remember being four, and that what hurt as a four-year-old in many ways also hurt as a thirty-four year old.  Maybe Beyonce experienced all this in exactly the same way I did and this is her way of paying tribute, of reminding us to live in the moment of loving our dearests because we don't know if we'll have another.  Maybe the way she does that really, truly is to write a song to honor the crew that never mentions the disaster, and then star in a video of said song featuring closeups of her butt and images of fireworks and people screaming for her to wave at them.  Or maybe she doesn't remember a thing, but she still feels the phantom cultural weight of it all in the same way I feel the phantom cultural weight of the Apollo 1 fire.

But I don't think so.

I don't think so because she did not take ownership of her own art when it began to garner bad press.  Her liner notes say that she helped write the song.  That she helped produce the song.  That she knew words spoken in horror were laid over images of her smiling and dancing in an amusement park.  She did not say "I included the audio..." No, "the songwriters" did.  She did not say, "I recorded..." No, the song "was recorded."  Everything, everything in passive voice.  She who has no apparent need of a last name now hides behind the group project.  I have no way of knowing if Beyonce wanted this clip included for shock value, or because she thought it underlined the message of the song in a grim, ripped-from-reality kind of fashion.  I'm really not sure which is worse.

Beyonce has a right to create.  Beyonce has a right to express.  Me, I prefer not to mark the sudden deaths of seven people every 45 minutes during drive time between Pitbull and "Thong Song." Perhaps that was the aim of it all, to intersperse a constantly looping reminder of tragedy in the midst of a grocery run, but the problem with constantly looping reminders of tragedy is that they soon melt into background noise. In any case, the Challenger disaster doesn't belong exclusively to me any more than it belongs exclusively to her, or our parents, or the generations that will scatter the footprints of all of us.

As this story scrolled out of the newsfeed and I sat facing a wall off and on for a month wondering what I would write about it, I mostly dwelt on the fear, as I typed at the beginning of the post, that maybe I was alone in feeling this way.  Maybe 1986 was just too far away, and people my age are occupied these days with explaining to their nine-year-olds why a man with a gun killed 26 little kids right in their classroom, and the loss of Challenger is now fully lodged as a generational touchstone rather than this awful, real moment that happened, complete with the principals clicking in over the PA's and the news anchors cutting in on the late morning game shows.  And the only way anyone would talk about it anymore was if a pop star sampled the horrified words of a PAO struggling to do his job into an album she named after herself, her one-word self, no surname necessary.

And then I saw this story

It's not, really, a happy story.  It's about a man whose grandmother died, and, while looking through some family photos, stumbled across a set of prints that were his grandfather's.  They were of a space shuttle launch.  The shuttle launch was Challenger's last.  His grandfather was a former Kennedy Space Center employee.  It's likely the roll was shot, developed in a sense of shock, and, for obvious reasons, packed silently away.

This man--his name is Michael Hindes-- scanned them, put them online, wondered if anyone else would really care, and went to bed.

When he woke up, the photos had half a million views.  And comments... so many comments.  "This is how I learned about flags flying half staff." "I can remember being in the kitchen watching on the little Hitachi TV..."  "I still can't bear to see those images. I was in my 10th grade bio class..."

They all remember the context of that audio clip.  Michael Hindes says he's even heard from Christa McAuliffe's family.  That weight we all feel, it's not a phantom.  It's real.

But it's shared.