• 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
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    Twentysomething Essays by Twentysomething Writers
    Random House Trade Paperbacks
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How a Prince Should Conduct Himself So As to Gain Renown 

Today, Will The Baby Nephew becomes Will The Small Child NephewHe is two.

Sometimes he sits in his high chair; sometimes he grabs my hand to direct it to a picture of an orange cat.  "A tiger!"  he'll say.  Curious George gets "A monkey!", and all trains, model or actual, are Gordon.  (Not to re-open the jagged wound which is  The Great Thomas The Tank Engine Debate of last January, but aunting gave me the opportunity to view a Thomas music video, and I was treated to ten minutes of cheerful British children singing about "accidents and incidents" as engines crashed through station houses and railcars burst into flame.  It was about as soothing as a nice glass shard massage.  Is this an England thing?  I mean, if I were only two generations removed from Nazis lobbing V-2 rockets at my major city, I suppose my bedtime stories would be less ponies playing in fields, more smallpox epidemics.)

I took time to just sit and watch Will today.  It helps that I am laboring under some sort of phlegm-throwing allergy thing, and to move requires immense forethought, so beholding a two-year-old who insists upon pitching himself upside down in my lap was precisely my speed.  ("'Side down!" he says, hurling himself over my legs and head-first at the floor.)

When Jim The Small Child Nephew was born, he was the first grandchild on either side of the family, so all the adults would arrange themselves in a large crescent of admiration and behold his existence. Not so with Will, who arrived in the midst of several cousins and a brother who knows enough to watch his back.  I flew from Florida to Ohio on a last-minute ticket when my godchild was born; Will, choosing to enter the world as I taught a summer sprint class, was greeted from a Daytona Beach apartment as I held down the pause button on a Texas Instruments game I'd just rescued from eBay.  It's not that I love him less.  Of all people, a fellow second child understands:  He is the continuation, not the novelty.

Will's aunt is a toner-stained wretch, but The Prince is a quiet man of action, an iceburg of concentration as his older brother shrieks about sock fuzz nearby.  He is loved for himself, but serves as a two-foot foil of The King:  "He's talking more than Jim did at this age."  "How old was James when he transitioned to a booster seat?"

As a result of his position as "the spare," Will is left with the toys his brother is coerced into tossing his way, the used high chair, the divided attention.  He combats all of this via extra cuteness and stellar aviary identification skillz.  Every family ought to have a Will-- but you can't have mine.

first presence at an actual nephew birthday party at:  mbe@drinktothelasses.com


And I Feel Fine

I never watched Project Runway until I happened upon a marathon of the most recent season, at which point I saw a fellow human being look straight into a camera and use the following term in a non-ironic fashion:  "Apocalyptic trench coat."  This needs to be an entire clothing line:  The prophetic tweed pantsuit, a world-ending handbag.

This is being typed by a person who defines her wardrobe as "cottony," so I don't even pretend to understand high fashion.  But during the same episode, I saw this coming down the runway:

This was subsequently described as "amazing" and "remarkable" by every single judge.  Call me hopelessly redneck, but I'd rather not pay out the current market rate for a small to medium personal island in order to wear a ruffle-coated satellite dish out on the town.

polyester at:  mbe@drinktothelasses.com



Even though we're well past the last week in June, Colorado has been much in mind lately. Perhaps it's because I applied to, and was promptly rejected for, a day job which would have made a great deal of financial trouble go far, far away, even leaving space in the budget for such absolute necessities of life as leather-fringed garments. Perhaps it's because I'm doing some intensive aunting right now and had a very serious conversation with Jim The Small Child Nephew concerning horses, and whether or not one's butt hurts after riding one.

For some reason, until this week, it never occurred to me to search YouTube for recent videos of Lost Valley, even though I've whiled away entire days thoroughly enjoying entertainment of this caliber. I suppose I've put a subconscious prohibition on the endeavor: There's no way to get there from here, so why tighten the screws on the Wistful Writerly Yearning?

Then again, I've never subscribed to the "staring at it won't help anything" school of thought. Ask my college freshman crush, poor soul, who always seemed to run into me at the library: "What, you're into eighteenth century upholstery techniques too?" So I started typing and clicking and watching and... oh.

The perennial "Last Week In June" post mentions the 2002 Hayman forest fire. I knew it happened, I knew it was awful, I knew the areas where I rode as a child had been deeply affected. I knew the ranch itself escaped with only miraculous intervention--that the fire reached the property line, split for precisely the 500 acres of the spread, and continued with all proper furor on the other side of the valley. Blackened trees here and there, a few pockets of wasted vegitation: That is what I expected.

What I did not expect was Afghanistan.

Oh my people, this used to be all green. It was green.


The emerald splash along the lower gulch in the first picture-- that was the entire landscape, everywhere, forever, and the quiet was alive with it, and the horses and the sun, they picked their ways through it-- it was the kind of green you could smell. And this brown, it has its own stark loveliness, I suppose; Buzz Aldrin, as he stood upon the surface of the Moon, called it "magnificent desolation." Even when nature has rendered nature barren, beauty quietly runs along the breaklines.

But not when your body has lived there, and your mind returns to it on a constant basis as a touchstone for peace and dreams fulfilled, the memories well-known but no less sharp for the constant returning.

I know this place. I know Lost Valley; I know it as mine.

But I don't know this:


Where... is this place? Low Ridge, right, yes, I've been there. The caption on the video makes sense, it's all very proper, but my eyes... don't... register the land where these horses are cantering.

And then there's this:


"You'll have nightmares," my mother warned, watching me watch it. I shook my head and stared the thing, all eight minutes, a hand at my mouth. I didn't cry and I wasn't in shock. Still haven't, still aren't. I was riveted by the truth, the mesmerizing cocktail of terrible danger visited on images which I usually turn to for motivation, nostalgia, comfort. It was so close. It was so close. At the 2:45 mark, a grinning firefighter holds aloft a charred metal "LOST VALLEY RANCH" sign, one attached to the cattle guard, one my family likely drove past for nine years in a row. The other half of the cattle guard isn't shown, because, I am told, the other half was completely untouched.

That...sky, which I never fail to picture as rock-steady blue, to see it a flickering, furious orange-- the same shades I pumped my fist at when pouring from the double tail of the solid rocket boosters. Those colors belong in Florida, shifting and gaudy and loud. They are not meant for the singing creeks, the humming birdsong of Colorado. A late-fall slide show looks odd, too--I was last at Lost Valley for a one-hour visit in the early spring of 2001, and the muddy remnants of a recent snow were melting down the silent mountainsides. Even though I've never seen the ranch in full winter finery, I prefer these images, prefer the cold and the fact that the swimming pool would be of absolutely no use. The landmarks are frosted and silent, not burnt, gone.

In the snow, the fire never happened.

Am I sorry that I went there? Have the memories been altered, the tiny slow ache which has been a part of me since I left it for the last time? I'm not, they aren't, and the ache is lessened now, replaced with a hard, stubborn knot of denial. It's good that I can't afford to go there, because there... is not there. It's better that I not see it like this, limiting myself only to returning when the place is frozen in temperature and time, safely covered with a blanket of white lies.

Pictures on the ranch's official website are as verdant as the day I was first set in a saddle, and while the FAQ page gently addresses the fire, it ends on a cheerful note about refreshing rains and reappearing wildflowers. No doubt, no doubt there are some cacti and other hardies around, aspens rustling in the wind. I am quite sure that any person booking a trip to Lost Valley today would have a perfectly dudetacular time, and take little notice of the difference. They'd have no measure of comparsion. But when I first heard that the ranch had been spared, that undergrowth was slowly returning, I very happily allowed it to guild the mental pictures I had already generated of a slightly crispy, but largely untouched, childhood. I want to be there, that Lost Valley, the one I know. The green one. The soil of memory does not provide for wastelands of needleless, stripped-down pines.

I have YouTubed myself into honesty.

In the '80's, the Lost Valley wranglers used to take us to ride in a pocket of Pike National Forest called "the burnout"; it, too, had suffered a forest fire. The wind was stronger there, and the scattered carcasses of whitish stumps and logs made for good jumping practice. A few new trees, little twigs in the ground, dotted the landscape. Every now and then, we'd see deer or birds or bugs. There were flowers. It was scarred, long ago scarred, and hugely different from the other places we rode, where the tangles of pine branches whipped in the faces of the rider behind if we didn't hold them properly and the sun dappled down through the thin, wispy sky.

"The burnout," I said to my father last night. "When was the fire that left the damage, do you know?"

"Counting back from the time we were there?" He thought for a moment. "Twenty years, I'd say."

Perhaps I'll one day I'll conduct a very long conversation with myself, or just spread some jelly on slice of wheat some ordinary morning and settle into it all: It's gone, the place I knew. It is gone.

I've seen devastation and pain on a far larger scale, seen New Orleans just months after Hurricane Katrina raged through. But I did not love New Orleans. I couldn't have. I had never even seen New Orleans before that day, seen it as others knew it and lived it. I felt for New Orleans as a human being feels for another human being in the hospital, bare bones sticking out, tubes for every vital organ. You go for a wet washcloth and make soft noises of comfort, but you don't let it interfere with the mechanisms of the inner soul. And I imagine that's what 99.99% of you out there are experiencing at this moment: "Sucks. Really, that sucks, but... seriously, now. They're trees." Four dollars and seven cents for a gallon of gas, yes, and a The Pilot of my very own and a roof to call mine, and these... are trees. You don't have to say it.

I know.

Jim The Small Child Nephew saw me staring out at air molecules today as he watched his daily dose of Curious George, thumb in his mouth. He offered me half his blankie.

"You hold it like this," he instructed, gathering it in his fist.

"Thank you," I said.

"You suck your thumb?" he asked.

"Aunts don't do that," I told him.

They blog instead.

blue and green at: mbe@drinktothelasses.com


The Big Shake's Day Job

Here's my very, very favorite thing about William Shakespeare: He had a day job. He was a glover in his father’s shop, pulling the leather on a post to make fine kid gloves. Later, in Twelfth Night, he spun a gorgeous analogy about stretching the truth like a kid glove, one which might never have existed had he spent his life locked away in an ivory tower.  


Sometimes we are wrapped in discontentment, furious that we aren’t where we want to be. Doubtless young William would rather have been on the stage or eating meat directly off the animal, or whatever they did at parties back then, instead of glove pimping for his wealthy neighbors. But notice how he turned what was likely a frustrating chapter in his life into a moment of high art.

Expect, then, a world-class sonnet about A Life Without Internet shortly.

appointment pending at: mbe@drinktothelasses.com


Bring on the jambalaya!

Hi everybody, Josh The Pilot here! I think Mary Beth is starting a monthly habit of making me a bachelor for a week. Last month she had the Great Stack, and this month she has gone to Ohio for a much needed five day nephew-fix. Please congratulate Mary Beth on summoning up the courage to drive, all by herself, from Virginia to Ohio, despite the pouring rain all along her route. Carah The BFFE was supposed to go along, but had to cancel at the last minute. However, MB would not let that (or me) stop her from seeing her two favorite little guys.

I'll miss my bride, but this means I get to eat all the spicy foods I can't have when she's around. Yesterday I picked up some jambalaya mix at the grocery store, and I plan to eat it almost every day she's gone. Very few positive things resulted from my time in Louisiana, but I did learn about jambalaya.

Pass the onions!