• 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
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Wednesday
Jun252008

Homeland Security

Greg The Reader passes along this article about a teacher who was booted right out of the European History AP reading for not producing the proper ID credentials for her I-9 form, the lucky bastard.

Her mistake was that she attempted to switch from one subject to another, which made her a new hire, which meant she was regarded as a non-citizen until she produced the proper documentation proving otherwise. Good. However, policies such as this resulted in frantic security guards at our site: "Ma'am? Ma'am, you need to be wearing your nametag at all times while in the facility." Bad.

This extensive security measure consisted of a piece of plastic around the neck and a tiny, entirely copyable square of white paper bearing our names, our school of origin, and--this was the true anti-terrorist stopgap--the word READER in bold type across the top.

Now, I get the need for us to show our credentials. However, what happened was that I started seeing readers wearing their nametags all the time, even while not reading, even while not in in the building. I cannot tell you how much, and why, this pissed me off. Possibly because when I was in grade school, I was that kid.

EXTRA PLACES READERS WORE AROUND-THE-NECK PLASTIC NAMETAGS



Fitness room


Hotel pool


Shopping after dinner


AT THE FREAKING AIRPORT ON THE WAY OUT OF KENTUCKY


Jogging along the Ohio River


Churchill Downs


Downtown bars (It's the pickup line which builds itself!)

Tuesday
Jun242008

You Had to Be There

The Great Stack may be behind me, physically, but mentally and emotionally, it takes a while to recover. A very long while. It's kind of like childbirth, I guess; absolutely horrific while it's happening, and you never want any human being to touch you ever again, but then the baby (stipend check) arrives and you're all, "Yeah, well, it wasn't THAT bad" and go ahead and have sex (teach) again anyway, like the idiot you in fact are. And nine months later you're back on the table (seated in a very large, very cold room), screaming for morphine all over again.

 

I took no pictures this year, which as you know is a very major thing for the archival dork. I left the camera-- probably because, also like childbirth, some things aren't meant to be viewed by the general public without a great deal of warning. But one of my tablemates, the lovely and talented and patient Barbara H., braver than I, shot her way around Louisville:

 

 

This is where the maaaagic happened. The Kentucky International Convention Center was about four blocks from my hotel, which, when elevator delays were taken into account, made for a good twenty-minute walking commute in the mornings. Elevator delays happened a lot; the entire hotel was crammed onto exactly the same schedule, which meant that otherwise stable professionals were wheeling oxygen-tank patients into the river to get at the first car to the eighteenth floor.

 

 

Here's a panoramic view of the converted trade show space where we ate. The food was very nearly as appetizing as the ambiance. Normally I'm a carbnivore-- I order my potatoes presented inside a roll, dipped in macaroni, and rolled in rice.

 

But under these trying circumstances... not so much with the carbs. Carbs lead to food coma, and attempting to coherently score essays scribbled in serial killer handwriting at two in the afternoon often leads to that head-snap thing-- you know, that thing where you're totally concentrating, and completely paying attention to what you're doing, and all of a sudden snap WHOAH why was my head so close to the table? So I tried to back down on the carbs, particularly at lunch, which was a mite difficult when the main entree was Batter-Dipped Noodles.

 

The caterers then attempted to balance this out by sugaring us up during the breaks--doughnuts, cookies, brownies. By the weekend they were totally done with us, and began heaping marshmallows on every tray, mixing them in with the ice cream and cake samplers: "Screw it, just dump a big vat of sugar on the table and let 'em lick it."

 

Those of us scoring Question Three spent the week with students attempting to discuss literary foils, sometimes without in fact understanding what a foil actually is. A lot of the students hung the essay on Dr. Frankenstein and his monster, which was admirable at first and downright screamable by the middle of the week, particularly when they'd, for instance, mention the part where the monster danced to "Puttin' on the Ritz."

 

On Day Three, somebody showed up with a roll of Reynold's Wrap.

 

 

You just reach that point, you know? After a while, *&#^ like this even started to make sense:

 

 

 

 

This is me on in the last hour of the last day, waiting for the much-anticipated signal to return to the highly restful hotel elevator line. My eyes say "Huh?" but my body says "Former Human Being Once Resided Here."

 

Just beyond my elbow is the cord of the headsets we wore. All the EngLit readers were in the same ballroom, but each question had a different leader, different break times, different model essays to use as rubric calibrators. So the questions were split into three locations, by means of a bunch of poles and blue curtains, which for some reason didn't provide the world's best soundproofing. Sometimes a question leader tried to talk to his group and start a calibration session while another was settling into reading live books, and if you think an adult voice booming over a tinny sound system set against concrete walls is soothing, try concentrating with the backecho of it from half a football field away.

 

The solution to communicate amongst the readers without disturbing the rest of the room was UN-style headsets, each tuned the frequency of the assigned question. The upshot was the incredible creepiness of four hundred people sitting in utter silence, facing a person speaking into a microphone but producing zero sound. Occasionally we'd smile or break into applause or wail "NOOOOOO, this is NOT a nine!" with apparently no provocation. At first the question leaders attempted to get people to put on their headphones by shouting "HEADSETS!" into the headset mic, before they figured out that we kind of had to be wearing them first for this to be effective. Then we tried waving what looked suspiciously like the Girl Scout Quiet Sign, but that didn't work, either. Finally they'd turn on the general sound system mic and boom "HEADSETS!", which got our attention, as well as the attention of every single other person in the other two questions. And then we'd fumble into 1984 Mode. Other than that, hey, thumbs up on the headsets.

 

 

"Next year, I'm bringing the air horn."

 

very nice erasers, though at: mbe@drinktothelasses.com

Sunday
Jun222008

The Last Week In June

It's been posted more than twice, so that must make it a Blonde Champagne tradition. Here it is: The Last Week In June.

This week was, in my childhood, what kept me alive throughout the other fifty-one. It is what pulled me to Colorado, horses and dust and pine trees and creeks of freezing mountain runoff. Even if I've been conducting my June unconsciously aware of the anniversary, I suddenly will feel a strong rugged pull as the Fourth of July approaches and look at the calendar and realize, "Oh. The Week."

Although it's now priced right out of this world, it wasn't back in those days, and from the year I was six until the year I was thirteen, this was It. I have never known a place I was happier. College comes a close second, but four years are impossible to conduct without at least some semblance of tears and heartbreak. There were no tears in Lost Valley except for the following Sunday, when there was always near-hysteria. One year I sobbed as the plane departed from Colorado Springs at the thought of another twelve months of waiting in Cincinnati: Were we going to Ohio for a funeral? the woman sitting behind me wondered to my mother's horrified humiliation.

A part of me is literally seared there, burned into the walls of the main dining room. Each family creates its own brand as it passes through, adding checkmarks each returning year. Our brand sits high on a far wall overlooking the mountains and the hummingbird feeders. The brand is a boot representing the brief fact that we all rode that first year, even my mother, who bravely lasted until Wednesday, when she gripped the saddle horn of Colt 45 so tightly that tendinitis followed. Our initial stands in the middle of the boot over wavy lines representing the Ohio River. As I was fully lame even at an early age, this was my civically proud suggestion.

When I grew up and went to stay with my then-boyfriend in Colorado Springs for a month, he drove me there along a narrow shelf road I thought wondrous at the time and now, returning as a driver myself, recognized as terrifying. On one side is a drop of many thousands of feet through trees and jagged scenery; on the other, pure mountain. When two cars meet going opposite directions, one driver has to back up, slowly and with much tense cursing.

"This place is kind of cheesy," the ex announced as he got out of the car and looked upon cabins named "Jessie James" and "Diamond Lil." And I knew then, somehow, although the end was yet months away and much sobbed over, that I could never, ever marry this person.

It is kind of cheesy, in a City Slickers sort of fashion, the way the wranglers greet the suburbanites at the cattle guard entrance on horseback and canter away in front of the car to guide these unleathery dudes to the check-in lodge, but when you are six and you are miserable, this is wondrous to behold. It announced horses to me, the very ones I write about today, and it brought seven days of the social acceptance I never found in the classroom. I heard God in the pines and I inhaled; this was where my soul has lived for so long. This was where the kid picked last for the kickball team won rodeo awards for booting her quarter horse around the barrels the fastest.

Terrible fires raged five years ago all around this little green valley I have always thought of as cupped in God's palm. The ranch was evacuated, the horses herded to safety. I was reunited via phone with one of the kiddie supervisors who cared for me twenty years ago and have exchanged Christmas cards with ever since (it is that kind of place) and she described to me what happened.

"The fire got to the cattle guard," she told me, "and it split. Burned everything around it, but the ranch was untouched. The areas in the mountains where you rode as a child are scorched, I'm afraid."

I would be scorched, too, if I returned right now. I know towering pines and thick tangles of wildflowers, and I prefer to keep them alive inside of me rather than replacing them with black and charred reality.

The regeneration has already begun, I am sure. It will be well underway a few years from now, when Jim the Small Child Nephew will be old enough to ride with a plastic cowboy hat on his head and a face full of sunblock. We will go, I think, the last week in June.

this time from DC at: mbe@drinktothelasses.com
Tuesday
Jun172008

What, No Cup Holders?

I've never had a pet more complex than a beta fish, which committed suicide on my Spanish homework. So maybe I really don't have a concept of WHY IN THE NAME OF ALL THAT IS HOLY THERE'S A NEED TO PUSH SMALL DOGS AROUND IN A PADDED ROLLING LITTER AS THOUGH THEY ARE SUN-SENSITIVE AND PRECIOUS CHILDREN WITH NO LEGS INSTEAD OF FOUR.



Clearly, as a society, we have achieved the pinnacle of innovation. I mean, it folds compactly.

Monday
Jun162008

Liability

"We're okay and the car is drivable, but we were in an accident."

For once, I wasn't driving. For the third time since I've owned this car, it came away damaged. For the third time, it wasn't my fault. When I hit something, I make positive-sure it's inanimate.

Burger King! Nothing bad can possibly happen at a Burger King! Except for when you look both ways, make the right hand turn, and slam! I felt it but I didn't see it, the back of the car, the left-back side of the car.

"What was that, what was that?" I say to Josh, who was already pulling over and making darkly angry but fully polite gesturing motions to someone behind us to pull into the turn lane.

The dent on the front bumper from six months ago where the deer (a deer!) had rammed into the driver's side hadn't been touched. We couldn't afford the deductible or the out-of-pocket. We still can't. I fumbled around for our the thin little slip of paper, the insurance information. Florida policy, expired... Virginia... there.

"We're okay and the car is drivable, but we were in an accident."

"It's okay," says Josh. "The other driver made an unsafe lane change. She's at fault. She sideswiped us. Her company will cover."

I do not look over my shoulder as he pulled off his seat belt to converse with the driver in the car behind us. I don't even look in the rearview mirror. Somehow, if that car remained driverless, a friendly Herbie type of robocar, there remains some chance that any and all unpleasantness will be avoided, forever.

"Where did you come from?" Josh says. "I looked. You weren't there."

Seventeen year old on a cell phone, driving Mommy's Saturn on the first weekday of summer vacation. "I was in the lane," she says stoutly.

Josh calls the sheriff's office to file an accident report. The insurance adjuster will want it with the claim, the claim from the at-fault driver's company that will pay to fix my car. We sit and wait.

"The pattern of the damage is all on the back left hand side," he says. "And he'll take one look at my license, see I'm a CDL. He'll know I wouldn't do anything stupid like pull out in front of anybody."

"White Toyota Corolla," I say on the phone to our insurance agency. "No, we're fine."

"We're okay and the car is drivable, but we were in an accident."

The sheriff pulls up, occasional honkings of the lunch rush flying past. License and registration. Josh pulls out his wallet. Regist-- glove compartment, in here somewhere... what did it look like?

"What happened?" says the sheriff.

"She claims she was in the lane," Josh tells him, "but I would dispute that." And then shuts up. I burn holes in my dashboard with my lowered eyes, the glare of amazement. "I would dispute that?" He's going passive-voice on this? Tell him more, yell it, tell him about the crash to the back, tell him that you're a twenty-seven-year old who has a second job delivering pizza and the fact that we can meet the mortgage depends on the fact that you don't make a practice of screeching into the right-hand lane of a six-lane road without, you know, looking first. But he still remembers the second the brakes failed on a delivery truck he once drove, how the lawyers called, how he gave his only work break over to depositions.

There's a hubcap gone-- two now; the first one left this world with the deer. Angry gray scrapes on the side, tire marks on the bumper, crumpled metal runners. My car, my bridal getaway car, the first car I was able to put in my own name, is a redneckmobile.

The Saturn is missing a mirror.

The sheriff returns to lean into the driver-side window as I hang up from the first phone call of many informing various people that we're okay and the car is drivable, but we were in an accident.

"Well," he says, "without witnesses, I won't ticket anyone, but if I were going to issue a citation, it would be to you." He does not say, "You may now express your gratitude." But might as well.

I stare very hard, very hard out my own window, twisting my neck away, to avoid looking at him as he issues this almighty verdict, seeing my husband rigid with the utter wrongness of this thing. Car wash, tossing trees. Nursing home down the road.

Josh, in lieu of demanding an explanation, says something in even tones about damage patterns. The sheriff responds that he has reached his decision based on the fact that, quote, "the way they built this road is stupid." He's going on leave for ten days, so if we have any questions, leave a message, 'kay? Take care.

We sit for about five silent seconds, then Josh starts the car and we ease back into traffic.

"We're okay and the car is drivable, but we were in an accident."

"It could have been a lot worse."

"At least you won't have any points on your license."

"At least the car still works."

"At least we're okay."

"I hope her daddy's not a lawyer."

"The important thing is nobody was hurt."

"Are you aching anywhere?"

"No."

"We'll take the car to a body shop when we can afford it."

"So basically... never."

Back home, Josh backs into a parking space and inspects the damage again, some more, until I am ready to throw...something...somewhere. I can't look at it, the crumpled silver lining, the bare wheels. The insurance company, our insurance company, calls with the announcement that since ours was the car pulling into traffic, our policy will pay the damage on the Saturn. Rate hikes to be determined later.

It's two o'clock in the afternoon, and I lay down on the bed still with my purse over my arm, because even though we're okay, and the car is drivable, we've been in an accident.

bright side at: mbe@drinktothelasses.com