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    by Mary Beth Ellis
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Total Reconstructive Surgery

Those of you who read my first book, Drink to the Lasses, might recognize in this picture some of the featured ladies of my alma mater, Saint Mary’s College.  We’re freshmen 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 when placed in hands not your own. 

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, you'll be pleased to know, was in the audience. 

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.  I tend to 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. 

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