• 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.


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.


The Hot Room

In the building where I attended grade school, a poster hung over the main hall water fountain which never failed to not motivate me.  It said:  “I AM ME AND I AM OKAY.”

This was the prevailing educational sentiment. One day, all 847 of us received buttons in the school colors proclaiming “I’M A WINNER.”  I wore mine to gym class and went about my usual business of falling over a lot.  I picked myself up from the basketball court as my classmates shrieked past, busy about being competent:  Someone was pulling a fast one on me and my bloodying tube socks.

Which is probably why I paid cash money twenty years later to enter a room heated to 107 degrees and 40% humidity, stare in a mirror and fold myself in half as a mostly-naked man stood on a podium, insisting into a microphone that I relax and relax right now.  It was Bikram hot yoga, all the world could see the back of my thighs, and my body positions were so far from assuming the proper figure skater shape that it could readily be considered a tacit declaration of war on India.  And yet, and yet… I knelt on the floor, I tipped my head and spine over backwards, I grasped my heels.  And the mike boomed in my direction:  “Relax your facial expression.” 

At last, at last, I was honestly being told how much I in fact sucked.   My facial expression was Not Okay!  This guy just said so! 

Bikram yoga advocates the opposite of every single thing I’ve ever been told about exercise and self-worth, whether by the softly lit aerobics nymph on a DVD or a shrieking “You can do it!” Zumba instructor in a clanging community gym.  It’s the George Costanza of yoga.  “Lock your knees.”  “Don’t drink right now.”  “Push beyond your flexibility.”  “If sweat is running into your eyes, you’re doing it right.”  Also:  “This is going to hurt.” 

Then again, the first page of “Bikram’s Beginning Yoga Class” asks, “Why did you pick up this book?  What is your problem?“  

It truly is an hour and a half on Dagobah.  “I want to leave,” a woman in front of me once announced to the instructor.

He regarded her serenely.  “That,” he said, “is when you stay.”

Bikram demands utter surrender of ego.  If you’re determined to mask cellulite, muffin rolls, or backfat, you’ll just suffer more in the heat, and anyway the entire class is grasping so tenuously to survival that no one has the energy to compare varicose veins.  In this manner, Bikram yoga is the ultimate form of exercise for raging introverts like me, who pretty much hate other people.  Poses and rest periods are so regimented that the entire class is told to face the same direction while lying on the floor so as to avoid the horror of accidental eye contact.  It’s paradise for those whose most dreaded order in life is not “Go directly to jail” or “Forward into enemy fire,” but “Everybody choose a partner.”

Vanity is cruelly punished.  Once I committed the near-blinding error of rubbing tinted moisturizer on my face just before leaving for class, and, as titanium dioxide–tinged sweat rained into my pupils, I realized that I should probably just go unmoisturized next time. (A fierce debate is currently raging in the Bikram community over whether or not hand towels should be permitted during class, and if so how large, and whether or not it undermines the practice, and how much sweat is good sweat and how much is just gross and what it says about your approach to yoga ‘n’ life if you think it’s just gross.  I continue to enter the studio, without a hand towel:  I’m Catholic.  We wage cruel war over altar flag placement.  These are my people.)

Meanwhile, there’s nowhere to go with my hair, which, when left to its own devices, hangs to my bra strap.  Since the poses demand resting the head on the back, with the crown to the floor, or pressed against either ear, the best hairstyle in a Bikram class is baldness.   

In the beginning I reported for class in an elegant, sweeping dancer bun.  And my hair was a gigantic lie.  It created the impression that I am a graceful person, which, as I proved each day as escaping wet strands flopped in my face while I attempted to wrench my toes above my shoulder, I am not. I’ve settled on two braids crammed into tightly wound clumps just above my temples; I leave the studio strongly resembling a wringing wet and defeated Charmin Bear, but at least my hair is honest.

Sometimes the class seems designed to burrow into each insecurity, such my learning disability, which affects spatial relationships:  “Everybody place one foot parallel to the mirror and the other at a 45 degree angle… Great job! Look at this, I must have a class of geometry students! Except for Mary Beth.  Move your foot, Mary Beth.” 

I moved my foot, and did not dissolve into a heap of low self-esteem.

Throughout the first days, as my mat began to mildew and my car began to smell like my mat, I was unable to decipher the Sanskrit names of each pose, so I assigned my own:  There’s the Gotta Pee,  a twisting posture demanding the twining of one leg behind the other while squatting; the Double Travolta, which involves clasping both hands above the head, index fingers pointing skyward; and my personal favorite, the No F-ing Way, in which we are asked to place one foot high on the opposite thigh, sink to the ground, and hover there, no hands. 

I found my own ways to hit back against the heat and the humidity and the pain, until I realized that maybe my biggest stumbling block was that I was hitting back in the first place.  Oh, just suck, Mary Beth, just let yourself suck, and not Be OK.


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


Seven Reasons Why You Need To Watch Ice Dance This Olympics

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



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.