• 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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Entries from February 27, 2011 - March 5, 2011

Saturday
Mar052011

Vital Ohio State Marching Band Book Update

I really can't get over how amazing these people are.

I fully expect, some humid Sunday afternoon, to find myself in the middle of a Columbian rainforest, with the entirety of D-Row frantically scrubbing Matt's fingerprints right off his hands, Josh squinting through the trees in search of the F-22 backup he has just ordered, and Stew The Kind of Big Deal defusing a suitcase nuke using nothing but one of my ponytail holders and shrapnel he's just dug out of his own leg.  And Jason, calmly wiping the blood of bin Ladin from the business end of his baton, will glance over at me and say, "I need to borrow your phone, Moneypenny," and I will say, "Yep," and traipse over to my laptop for a perfectly charming 1500 word report on what Matt once told me about what kind of shoes a proper Drum Major must wear. 

Wednesday
Mar022011

Buckeye Battle Cry

On Monday night, the cell phone of Carah The BFFE-- military wife, mother of three boys under the age of 5, currently moving cross-country-- began to ring. 

"Hello?"

"Carah?"

"...MB?"

"Yeah..."

"Are you okay? Where are you?"

"Sitting in a parking lot at Ohio State."

"What are you doing?  It's late!"

"Well, I was wondering if you could tell me why I am crying."

This was Carah's cue to laugh at me, because she was absolutely not surprised by the fact that I sat through my father's funeral utterly dry-eyed but absolutely fell apart in a rental car in a campus parking lot.  "Can I just remind you," she said, "what you've been through in the past two years?  And do you remember what I told you the day you first told me you were writing about this band?"

I fished around in my backpack for tissues.  "You said I was fizzing."

"You were fizzing!  And you were writing!  Because for the first time in months and months, you were happy!  And when's the last time you were this happy?"

"When I was working for NASA."

"And Discovery was just launched for the last time.  When else?"

"That one time a couple months ago when I went home for a week and I came back and there were eight new episodes of Top Gear on the DVR?"

"Okay, let's focus. When else?"

"...College."

"And where have you been doing this wonderful writing for the past week?"

"...At a college."

"Has everyone been nice to you?"

"Yes, very."

"So while still bleeding from several deep emotional wounds, you've met some very nice people in their musical and athletic element while you yourself have been in your creative element, at a college, and now it's over for a little while, and you're calling me in the middle of the night wondering why you're crying?"

"...Yes."

"See, this is why it's good that only one of us is blonde."

And, well, when you start the day with a tornado warning, continue it with the heady mixture of wine and Stew The Kind of Big Deal, and end it by watching four Ohio State Drum Majors in the very act of ensuring that they replace themselves with adequate, if not superior, successors, this is what happens.  The first two days I sat in on training sessions, I stayed far from the younglings, fearful of corrupting them with my Drops Everything All The Time presence.  By Monday, however, I felt that their immunity was secure, so I left my high heels in the bleachers and prowled after Jason The Ridiculously Young Drum Major to discover what kind of collected wisdom he had to impart to his charges (Gold Award Sentence which six weeks ago I never thought I'd hear come out of one male's mouth to another male:  "You gotta twirl smarter, dude.")

Mostly it consisted of encouraging them to suck less, keep their head up more, and ordering them to present their parents for his inspection and approval.  The focus was still squarely on Strut America!, with Josh The Supposedly Subdued leading a determined line of students around the track, batons in hand, counting out the four beats of "Buckeye Battle Cry."  Life is now quite literally full circle for Josh, and it is Good.

I heard that song in many, many forms on Monday--insistent mono beeping from a gift shop in the Student Union; from the iPod and speakers providing Soothing March Music to Twirl By; and from Matt the Badass and Jason themselves.  They were attempting to teach the entire Drum Major ramp entrance, from sprint to strut to salute to backbend to That One Thing With All The One-Armed Baton Stabbing.  The band starts playing the verse portion of Buckeye Battle Cry on his way through the band, and everybody starts storming the far end zone on the chorus.  Last words of the verse are the title of the song, and this is what Matt and Jason were half-talking, half-singing as they crouched down beside their charges to prepare them for the great cue.  So for an hour, from both ends of the fieldhouse, as my stocking soles were shredded on  the fake turf, this is what I heard:

(clapclapclapclap clapclapclapclap) "Buckeye Battle Cry, ba da da da da da... no.... no.  Just... stop."

It's a blessing I spent a decade or so studying every nut, bolt, and urine dump portal on the space shuttle, because it's the only roughly comparable thing to learning this ramp routine.  On the field the whole smash goes by in maybe seventy seconds; what I'm watching develop will take months to perfect-- or, if you are me, a lobotomy, a miracle, and a total coordination ability transplant.  A zillion things can go wrong, and, throughout this slow construction of the young drum majors' own personal Training Montage, they usually do.  The elbow isn't correctly angled, the transition from sprinting to strutting isn't smooth enough, the beat is lost.  I am watching a live human dissection of perhaps the most difficult presentation tradition in all of college sports, and it is stunning in its purity and in its parts.

When they had wearied of reminding everyone that if one snaps a femur bone during a performance, it must be done on the downbeat so as to avoid throwing off the snares, the senior Drum Majors gathered everyone in a circle.  This concerned me; unless it's a football huddle, nothing good ever happens when people are made to form a circle.  So I hid behind Josh.

But what happened was that Jason The Young launched into a closing soliloquy which was clearly an essential part of the training session as much as the patient arm repositioning and the water breaks and the "just... stop"s.  He'd heard it before, he was saying it now, and whoever takes his place someday will likely repeat it to kids now struggling with shoe-tying skills.  And this is what Jason said:  Ask the alumni questions, practice at home, and why haven't any of you introduced me to your parents?  Don't be ashamed of your parents.

At this point I was very glad indeed of the unwitting Josh's protection, and turned on my heel to examine a far wall for a little while.  As a person who once received an email from a graduate student which consisted of "Hay prof, when is R xam?!" hearing this from a twenty-year-old told me more about what really goes on atop this fake greenery than all the backbend attempts in the world.

So at the end of it, when I crammed my heels back on, saw Matt off to study and Jason and Josh off to dinner and keyed "Mom and Dad" into the GPS, I placed my fingertips on the steering wheel to rest a moment, just for a second, before subjecting the mid-central Ohio corridor to me and the loaned Honda Civic.  At this point my entire body, all at once, realized that for the past ten days I had been sleeping about three hours a night, but never caffeinating; sitting but not resting; driving and walking and searching and talking, but not eating unless the alarm I'd set on my cell phone insisted that I do so in order to avoid slumping into a hypoglycemic faint right into the mostly-empty wine glass sitting between me and Stewart Kitchen.  Even then, I resented laying my head on the pillow and tearing open the little packages of crackers. I had more important things to think about.

I was doing things I'd never done before, things like driving from Columbus to Cincinnati and back again in utter silence, punching off the radio and watching the counties roll past, river to river, plunging every neuron back into what I'd seen and who I'd met and trying to piece together why it felt as if the entire span of it seemed carefully scripted, smartly paced, and perfectly cast.  Once I sang all the way from the campus border to the first Skyline Chili sighting. I did not figure it out. 

Maybe I am not meant to.

Sunday
Feb272011

Supposedly Subdued

Okay, kids, you've finished your screwdrivers and only marginally yelled at the help, so you get a present.  An epic present, a grand finale present, a present which I do hope will result in fewer lawsuits than the last one:

You are fortunate that Ohio State Drum Majors occasionally allow themselves to be moved by pleas for mercy and twirling videos.  Jason The Ridiculously Young Drum Major, Matt The Badass, Josh Halter, and possibly even Stew Kitchen The Kind Of Big Deal have agreed to answer some questions and show off during a baton-measuring contest demonstrate some tricks. 

Obviously this is Almost Too Big For the Internet, so please email them to me.

Last time on As The Gray Baton Twirls...

* While attempting to fully understand from scratch a program, a mindset, and a tradition so singlemindedly bent on world domination by pure awesomeness that it's pretty much the only thing stabilizing the Earth's rotation... don't even try to fight it.

* This effect is best achieved in sub-freezing weather. Wear ridiculous shoes.   

* Josh Halter does more warming up than the entire Roman Empire did in 1500 years.

* The Baton of Stewart Kitchen is optimally deployed only for rejuvenation and aid, never aggression.  When he is at rest, it is best stored with the Lost Ark of the Covenant.

* ...Seriously, do not mess with Matt The Badass.

Still with me?  Good.  I do a lot of standing around listening to my blood circulate these days, myself.  There's a lot of "What just happened?"  and "Did I honestly..." and "Whelp, relative sanity was fun and marginally profitable while it lasted."

How was my Wednesday night on campus?  You may best understand my Wednesday night by understanding my Thursday morning, which began with my mother asking in determinedly neutral tones, "Did you wear a tan bra to Columbus yesterday on your interviews?"

"...Yeah."

"Well, it's outside on the sidewalk."

The gentlemen I met with were in no way to blame, for they are too much the gentlemen to abuse their powers in this way.  The first time we met, Jason The Ridiculously Young Drum Major escorted his predecessor, Josh Halter, to my seat in the bleachers during a training session, and in addition to his polite expression ("I have heard many things about you.  In my benevolence am choosing not to remember any of them"), Josh's carriage made it clear that he was not many days removed from an athletic existence, one in which he kicked many asses and took many names.  The surety of his walk told me he was acutely aware of the physical space around him, and now that I was in it, he would do his level best to ease my awe of his righteousness.  Noblesse oblige.

For one thing, he picked up a conversation we'd apparently been in the middle of in a former life when the meteor arrived or the riverboat exploded or the pirates fired the cannon.  He'd started the interview without me and rarely have I felt such gratitute for dispensing with my usual Interview Opening Ceremonies of several repetitions of "Um..."

"Everybody does this wrong," he announced, as though physically pained, while a high schooler flailed past us mid-strut.  Today Josh and Matt The Badass are asking them to match the high bicycle kicks to the GET OUT MY WAY OR I'MA STAB YOU arm motions of an Ohio State Drum Major in full strut during a pregame show.  "See that?  The arm is a four-beat thing.  And they try to do it in three beats.  I used to run this track with my baton just-- one two three four, one two three four, one two three four, burning it into my head."

Here's one tiny iota of an ice crystal in the iceberg in what makes the gutwrenchingly amazing Saturday afternoons possible-- Monday mornings of a young Josh Halter battleramming a scruffy grey baton around an indoor track over and over and over again. I was, at last, beginning to understand why I have heard so many band-associated people over the past several days fling the words "Get better" in just about every context from marching precision to FaceBook status update timing to tableside salad delivery.

Above us were banners featuring Ohio State grads who were also Olympians.  These were accompanied by smug and enormous text:  "OHIO STATE:  WHERE OLYMPIC DREAMS BEGIN."  And it seemed to me that if you get to Ohio State and begin to have the kinda sorta vague notion that, well, maybe it might be rather spiffy to be the Drum Major, perhaps I should get myself one of them-there twirly sticks... chances are fairly good that you aren't going to be the Drum Major.

Josh knows all about this.  He initiated the position at his high school and was permitted to design the uniform.  He spoke to the company who measures out Ohio State's.  Dude he was talking to had the OSU Drum Major entire get-up in his car.  And Josh was all, "One, please." He told me, "I wouldn't change one single thing about it."  The man bloody well earned his epaulettes, and he would like to keep them.

Josh is taller than Matt The Badass, Jason The Young, and Stew The Kind of Big Deal.  That fundamentally changes his twirling style.  It makes him less of a gymnast and more of a man who must have his say with baton control.  You would think this might extend to other parts of his personality.  You would be maybe 28% right.

"I'm probably one of the more subdued Drum Majors of the past several years," he said when we met again a couple of days later.  This is like saying that underwater nuclear explosions are preferable to underground ones:  Even your allegedly standard model subdued Ohio State Drum Major, when he is on, is going to triple dog dare you to look away from him and his band.


I have seen enough footage of Josh Halter as Josh The Drum Major to know that even fully hatted up and standing dead center of his home field-- I mean, like, quite literally in the center of an enormous "O" on the fifty yard line as the whole band rotates for thirty yards around him in either direction-- he is going to be approachable, as though you could invite him to a potluck mid-ground bounce.  His predecessor, Stew, exudes a barely-contained nitroglycerine sense of explosive energy, to the point you get the idea there's a very real danger that any given moment he is going to start tearing the whole entire f-ing room apart; his patient successor, Jason, lulls a person into a false sense of relaxation in the presence of his guy-next-doorness before he stabs you clean through the brainpan with a perfectly timed shake of the head or sidelong glance; and his one-time assistant, Matt, is laid back in his badassness, a person you will want to buy beer for life, for several lifetimes, simply for converting oxygen into carbon dioxide in such a fun and interesting way.

But Josh Halter?  You will sit down to talk with the supposedly Quiet One and then he'll point to the ceiling of the fast food joint you're sitting in and and he'll say, "Actually, I'm thinking about what tricks I can do in this space," and you won't even know what hit you.

Because here's how ingrained in the very electrons of his being his former student job is:  While training for his new-grad, Corporate World job after graduating last spring, he underwent a public speaking evaluation, and was slammed for his posture, which was perfectly straight, but with his hands at his hips... Drum Major style.  He then crisply slid one foot square against the other when finished with his presentation... Drum Major style.  And, also Drum Major style, he says to me now that he could probably throw a respectable trick in maybe three attempts.  I beg him to do this, out there on the rainy downtown Columbus sidewalk, but he claims to be hampered by a lack of baton at the moment.

For the transition is supposedly complete, now; Josh is sitting before me in a suit on lunch break from a white collar wonderland at which he is, quote, "rocking the cubicle, " and says he used to prop a baton in the corner up in there, but doesn't anymore.  Now he stands well clear of the spotlight, playing in the Alumni Band and giving Jason the occasional directive semaphore flash from the sidelines when requested.  And once a week he puts on a tee shirt and and shorts and yells "Balls of your FEET!" as previous drafts of himself tentatively kick past, because that is his role in the show, now-- back to the indoor track.  And that is okay.

For the most part. 


There's a YouTube video afloat of Josh marching with the band in the near the end of the seven-mile Rose Bowl parade route in 2010.  He is exhausted.  The twirling is slower than usual.  There are near-drops.  He and Matt, identically attired in tight busby hats, are somewhat over flirting with the crowd on the route because they are otherwise occupied trying not to black out.  They can no longer feel their arms.

And someone commented:  "The guy they had during football season was noticeably better."

This angered Josh Halter before he settled into an amused sense of peace about the whole thing.

"The only difference between those two guys," he said, "is seven miles."  And the only difference between Josh Halter and your average ordinary mortal is a long red coat in the closet, you bet.

I told him what I was doing there in Columbus and why, how I used to work in an office building like this with an Au Bon Pain in the lobby, with the automatic peach iced tea dispenser and the plastic to-go containers and the BlackBerrys in constant motion.  And he let me hug him good-bye, and thus returned to rocking the cubicle, leaving it up to me to piece my own story together with fact that he withstands trips to the dentist by mentally rotating through the anesthetic counts of Script Ohio.

And still, I really don't know what hit me.