Category Archives: Real Life

Things My Dad Says

When I was in middle school, I fancied myself an aspiring poet. Instead of gently pushing me toward other more lucrative career choices, Dad bought me an album to collect my poems. I wrote them on all on different kinds of paper, you see, and he wanted to make sure that I kept them all together.  He read all the poems and complimented all of them and always asked me, “What did you write today?” Though I’ve moved on from poetry (let’s all be thankful), Dad still always asks me what I’m writing. It’s just one of the great things about him; he’s always supportive and always encouraging of creativity.

Today, Dad, I’m writing about you.

Dad has a sentimental heart, but I know he likes lighter fare better than sappy tributes. In that spirit, I’ve collected and defined some of Dad’s most often used and most amusing expressions (with the help of my charming older sister A).  Feel free to adopt these for yourself– you’d be in good company.

Later than skunks Usually said in a cartoonish voice  and with a fake startle reaction. You might guess that he says this when he is running late, but only when he’s not really upset about being late. If he’s really upset, he paces in the kitchen and checks his keys and yells, “COME ON, MARSH. WE GOT TO GO.” (“Marsh” would be my mother. She’s more likely to be tardy.) I googled this expression and I can’t find it online. Congratulations, Dad, you are an original.

Let’s blow this taco stand. You probably know this one- it means, “let’s leave.”  Why it’s a taco stand, I can’t be sure. I looked around online, and it might reference an obscure 70s song, a Mork & Mindy episode, or it may just be an alternate for, “let’s blow this joint.” I think it’s probably the last one.  Dad went through a phase when he had to change all of his favorite expletives and expressions because my sister was repeating them in context and that didn’t fly at her preschool.  Which brings us to….

Manischewitz! (man-ih-shev-itz) Dad uses this in moments of frustration, and it’s usually hissed under his breath.  I believe it’s a replacement for “mother effer,” only that “effer” would be more explicit.  As to why he chose a Jewish wine, it has something to do with the Polish community he grew up in, but none of them were Jewish so I still don’t totally understand.  While we’re on the subject of being Polish, he also likes to say…

Don’t be such a dupayosh (spelling??) When I was little, Dad tossed this one off to my sister and me when we were acting like brats. He told us it was Polish for “ass” and his old aunts would say this to him when he was acting up as a child.  When I got to college, I gleefully told a friend from Poland about this. He gave me a confused look and said, “Is you dad’s name John? Because that means, ‘John is a pain in the ass’.” John is my dad’s name, as it turns out.

Bummeruski  You may have guessed that we’re a Polish family by now. As such, we like to add “ski” to many common words when talking to small children. “Helloski!” and “Oh No-ski!” are favorites with my nephew. “Bummeruski” is the original example of this practice, and my dad uses it with people of all ages to describe a variety of situations ranging from an emergency vet visit to a broken glass.

I’ll give you a cox in the hoisin (again, spelling?) As I typed this one, I realized it sounds kind of dirty. But I’m confident the meaning is closer to, “I’ll tan your hide.”  Actually, this also sounds bad. I want to be clear: my father was never ever abusive. This was more of an empty threat when one of us was being frustrating. Like, “Quit repeating the word ‘bambino’ or I’ll give you a cox in the hoisin.”  I can’t begin to guess where this originated.

Let me see if I get this straight… A) yes, B) no… I rest my case. This is usually delivered with a sly, superior smile.  Dad loves to use this one to win an argument or point out something he thinks is ridiculous.  It’s his ultimate way of shutting you down because he takes away your gray area and gives you two choices: yes or no. If you try to say “yes, but…” or “no… but,” he’ll interrupt you and say, “Oh no… A) yes, B) no.”  It goes something like this:

“So, let me see if I get this straight: you and you friends got together and decided to have a party in an abandoned house and you brought alcohol with you even though none of you are 21. A) yes, B) no.”

“Well, yes, but it’s not really abandoned and I didn’t–”

“Ah, ah, ah… I said A) yes, B)no.  Which was it?”

(disgruntled and begrudging look) “A) yes.”

(arms folded over chest in triumph) “I rest my case.”

I’m beginning to get the picture and it’s not a very pretty one. Delivered in his best Sherlock Holmes voice, and it means you’re explaining a situation to him that is sounding worse and worse. He likes to use this when we escalate with him. You might start off telling him that you need help picking something up from the dry cleaner. Then once he has his keys, you tell him you also need some milk and eggs and special shampoo from the store.  Once he writes down your list, you tell him to stop by the bank to get some cash. And this is about when he starts talking about the picture and what it’s really showing him.

Jim Dandy When you ask my mom how she is, she’ll answer honestly: “Tired,” “Oh, not great,” “Fine I guess.” My dad almost always answers “Jim Dandy.” Most people use this as a noun and it’s supposed to be old school slang for someone who’s very pleasing.  Dad uses it as an adjective to mean basically the same thing.  So I guess he’s always saying that he’s pleasing to everyone.  Real modest, Dad.

Jee-man-eez This is another one that he uses in lieu of the curse word he actually wants to say. I don’t have any idea what this one actually means because it doesn’t sound like any curse words I know. I most often hear it during the holidays when my mom gives him an errand list or when he sees all the stuff he has to carry down from the attic.

Work! Said in a high pitched shrieky voice that you might also use when jumping away from a mouse.  He likes to use this often since his retirement a few years ago, and it’s in the spirit of, “Oh, you have to work for a living?  How horrifying!”  He thinks it’s hilarious. And I also think he’s a little smug that he had to work all those years and now he doesn’t have to but everybody else does. It goes something like this:

Dad: How was your day?

Me: Okay, I guess. I just went to work.

Dad: WORK!?

It’s my belief system that… This is another favorite debate tool.  I think it’s his way of softening his statements, like he’s making it clear that this is just what he thinks.  There’s something very moral high groundy about it, though.  Usually when he uses this he’s really saying, “Well, you’re a total idiot and I’m about to say something that sounds really simple and is way more logical that you can ever hope to be.”

I’m innocent! He says this whether he really is or not, so it’s hard to know when he’s being truthful.  He usually says it while making the surrender gesture.  Some things he might be “innocent” of: not putting more Diet Coke in the fridge after drinking the last one, breaking something while washing the dishes, or leaving the back door open and letting all the bugs in.  He likes to use this one when he is falsely accused and he follows it up with some variation of, “That was lousy, Missy.” (“Missy” would be his nickname for my mom.)

If I’m  lyin’, I’m dyin’. Used when he just said something outrageous. Dad is a good storyteller and he likes to tease, and he’s done enough strange things in his life that it’s often difficult to tell when he’s making stuff up. Sometimes we accuse him of fibbing about something particularly spectacular, and he’ll reply with this.  My dad is a pretty honest guy, so when he says this, you know he’s not messing with you.

Dad: And then my friend drove his motorcycle down the hall.

Me: No way. Dad, you’re making that up.

Dad: If I’m lyin’, I’m dyin.

Happy Thanksgiving Day to you… You won’t understand why this is unusual until you realize that Dad sings this to the tune of “Happy Birthday” and he does it every Thanksgiving when he gets us out of bed.  He loves Thanksgiving because he doesn’t have to buy anything or go any where and the point of the day is to eat with his family. He sings this song with gusto, and there is usually an accompanying dance.

Cat-as-trophe! Yelped when something only moderately bad happens. For example, one might  drop a lightbulb or spill a glass of milk, and this would be the reaction. If a child falls and splits his or her lip, he wouldn’t yell this, but he would take said child outside to bleed on the concrete until my mom shows up to deal with it. True story.

Happy Father’s Day, Daddy. You really are the best guy I know and the best dad for me. If I’m lyin’, I’m dyin’.

Building a Better Bookcase

Currently, I have about 50 unread books in my possession.  A handful of those are e-books, but the rest are hard copies.  It should come as no surprise that I’m running low on shelf space in my home.   This weekend I finally decided to bit the bullet and build 2 IKEA Billy bookcases for my home office. I have the scraped arms and bruised knees to prove it.   That little graphic instruction manual doesn’t mention that, you’ll notice. It also doesn’t  include a bottle of wine under the needed tools, which is a severe oversight.

 You’ll notice Abed and Jeff Winger in the background. They were extremely helpful.

To give the bookcase a little zing, I decided to put my Pinterest account to good use and attempt an “Ikea hack.” I followed the instructions put together by The Nearest Future to attach fabric to the back of the bookcase.  I want to point out here that the backing of a Billy bookcase is just cardboard. I thought I might need a staple gun to do this, but your average Swingline desk stapler works just fine.   I’m pretty concerned about the longevity of this bookcase given that it is partially cardboard.

For those of you feeling crafty. I found the fabric at Whipstitch, which has by far the cutest and most whimsical fabric selection in Atlanta. Go throw some money at them!

After several hours and a couple of moments I thought would surely lead to Single Girl horror stories in which I would get trapped under heavy furniture for days until someone found me,  I ended up with this:

I put a couple of the shelves in backwards on the right hand shelf, and I had to paint the exposed particle board white. I suppose I could have unscrewed the pieces and done it the right way, but when you’re putting together an IKEA bookcase, you hit a point where you’re like, “Eff this,  I just want it to be over.”

And with the books:

You’ll notice the Girls Gone Wild hat. It was thrown to me by a That 70s Show cast member during Mardi Gras one year, and I only had to show my smile to get it.  Seriously, what kind of girl do you think I am?

Tomorrow: How I chose to organize the books.

A Mental To Do List for the Zombie Apocalypse

A few years ago, I read World War Z by Max Brooks and it changed my life.  At that point I realized the very real possibility of a Zombpocalypse thanks to the author’s documentary story telling. Starting from patient zero and tracing the path of the virus over the oceans and then the government reactions and the military states that arise– it just sounds so possible! It’s one of those books that makes me go all crazy-eyed when I talk about it and try to convince people that they should read it and get on board. Since then, I’ve been working on a mental checklist of how I should prepare… just in case.

from the author’s website

In the wake of the recent rash of cannibalistic attacks in the US, the CDC actually released a statement last week reminding us that zombies aren’t real. I love this so much.  This is like JK Rowling having to release a statement to remind us that Harry Potter is a work of fiction because so many people are getting concussions from trying to run through platform walls at King’s Cross Station. (JK Rowling: Please never release this statement. A part of me will die.) My logical adult side says that a zombie outbreak could never happen, but my imaginative more childlike side is shouting, “OH YES IT COULD.”  I indulge the childlike side with my list.

Here is an excerpt

–  Learn the martial arts. It doesn’t matter which one. Whichever one allows me to kick off someone’s head.

This is my friend and she’s going to survive. I want to be on her team.

–  Buy a bike. My car will run out of gas while fleeing the walking dead, but I can power the bike myself.

Anyway, I like cute with a bike.

–  Make friends with someone who has a sword.  This person should live nearby so I don’t have to go long without access to a sword. No need for actual sword in home as I will definitely hurt myself with it if left to my own devices.

Maybe a light saber would also work?

–  Study map for best escape route from city.  Figure out most safe rendezvous point and communicate to friends.  Possible site: Family farm in south Georgia?
–  Subpoint: Convince friends they should meet me. Convince friends will be asset rather than liability.
– Subpoint: I mean, I should leave the city, right? The CDC is here, but it’s not like they’re going to let me in.

– Don’t have children.  Children will only slow me down when escaping from city.  Second thought: have children and use as buffer when zombies are chasing me.  Third thought: I’m a horrible person. Re-frame before spiral into self-loathing… okay, children would be useful at survivor camp to convince them to let me in based on guilt factor. Also, my kids can help re-colonize the US.  Still, try not to have kids til we’re sure the outbreak won’t happen.

Her cries will only attract the Undead.

– Learn useful survival skill.  Am rubbish at hard labor tasks… consider learning to cook for large numbers for when I hook up with survivor camp. Is it hard to make one’s own bread?  Learn edible plants a la Katniss in Hunger Games.

I made this bread once. It was basically edible.

–  Train dog to alert of zombie scent in air. Will be difficult as there are no zombies yet to use for practice. Also, dog not very smart.

She looks like she could kill a zombie right?

–  Get land phone line for apartment and get a non-cordless phone. If the power goes out, phone will still work if connected to ground-line.  Also useful in case of hurricanes, which might be more likely.

You think I’m kidding, but all of these things have legitimately crossed my mind since I read that book.  Many of the surviving characters have these advantages when the virus hits, and I don’t plan to mess around when the world goes mad.  In fact, Max Brooks has helpfully written The Zombie Survival Guide with these and other tips. He’s really thought this through, you guys. If I knew him in real life, I would make sure to bring him lots of baked goods so that he would choose me for his team after the chaos begins.

But then I stop and take a step back and remind myself that none of it is possible anyway and my over-active imagination is a blessing and a curse.

But I still might buy a bike.  Cause I like bikes. No other reason.

Strawberry Fields Forever

My friend N e-mailed me on Friday and proposed that we go strawberry picking and make jelly this weekend.  N considers herself domestic when she adds siracha sauce to her mayonnaise and she only bakes things that come in a tube, so the situation seemed ripe for hilarity.  I agreed without blinking.  My grandfather used to run a farm and worked insane hours so that his children and grandchildren would not have to pick their own food for a living. The irony of picking my own food for recreation is not lost on me.

Saturday morning bloomed spectacularly with the kind of blue skies that you usually only see in crayon boxes, and the temperature never rose above a breezy 73 degrees. In short, it was the Holy Grail of Georgia Summer Days. After a few minutes cruising down some rural roads and a few speculations that N might not be the best navigator, we arrived at Warbington Farms.  The staff there advised us it would be the last day of the strawberry season and we might have trouble filling a full gallon pail.  We decided to take our chances. We are, after all, special unicorns.

If you’ve never done it, I highly suggest strawberry picking– it’s extraordinarily satisfying.   You crouch down among these green plants and push leaves to the side and there’s a magic red strawberry, just laying there bright and happy as if waiting for you to find it and take it home.  Every time you swipe aside a tangle of green and find a little splash of red, a little whoosh goes through your heart. It’s like being in sixth grade and seeing your crush from a distance at the mall.  In the end, we were champion pickers and easily filled the small plastic containers given to us by the staff.  N was named MVP for her overflowing containers until her husband pointed out she was also picking the muchy berries and disqualified her.

N’s husband B ambled down a row and commented he could get a job doing this. I bit my tongue, but it wasn’t that hard to repress my natural inclination to snark. When you’re under a wide blue sky and you’re breathing fresh air and you’re doing something productive that isn’t back-breaking with people that you genuinely like, it’s hard to work up to sarcasm.   Like the Grinch, my heart grew three sizes that day.

Pleased with our haul, we started back toward the city, but we stumbled across a roadside produce stand.  Still high on sourcing and picking our own fresh food, we threw a bit of business at this nice local guy.   I felt like a character in a tv show or a movie– like the kind of person who lives in the world and not in an air-conditioned, fluorescent-lighted, hermetically sealed box.

We returned to the interstate with the sun roof and windows open and 90s music blasting through the stereo. With our cache of Micheal Pollan-approved produce and the glow of accomplishment about us, we flew home in the kind of bubble of happiness that doesn’t come along often in adulthood.  I don’t know if they actually spray those strawberry fields with ecstasy, but something calm and light seemed to follow us back to Atlanta.

In the end, N chickened out on the jelly, which is really too bad because I promise everyone would have been really amused by that story. I ended up using my strawberries to make a recipe I found a year ago on Smitten Kitchen for Summer Strawberry Cake.  Absolutely delicious- highly suggest it with whipped cream. As I baked it, I fancied myself to be Sarah Michelle Gellar in that otherwise awful movie where she is a chef that bakes her feelings.  I wanted this cake to taste happy, and it did.

Before

After

And yes, the strawberries were delicious, which almost seems beside the point, doesn’t it?

Heidi’s Little Emergency

Yeah, this is a post about my dog. I know it’s annoying to some people, but if people I only know as passing acquaintances can post pictures of the insides of their uteruses (uteri?) online, I think this is okay.  

In all photos, Heidi appears to be contemplating serious questions of great importance. If not for her lack of opposable thumbs and her inability to speak English, she could be figuring out the cure for cancer.  It’s just the schnauzer beard and those gruff little eyebrows because I can assure you she’s kind of a lazy C-student and the camera can’t capture her dopey look.

Heidi at full ear attention.

She can be smart when she wants to be: she learned how to sit and lay down just by viewing hand commands, but she regularly runs into glass doors.  I think  of her as a doggie version of Phoebe Buffay from Friends: an oblivious free spirit with some flashes of brilliance.

She is a special unicorn.

She’s not  particularly motivated to be Lassie because she gets by on her looks 90% of the time. She’s abnormally small for a schnauzer, and she looks like a perpetual puppy.  Here’s a picture of her with her best frenemy Bailey for comparison.

Heidi likes to share with Bailey. Bailey likes to destroy Heidi.

So, she’s tiny and therefore cuter, and she has unusual coloring for a schnauzer which makes her even more interesting to strangers.  She’s like a more active stuffed animal.

LIke a great stuffed animal, you can dress her up too.

She’s grown accustomed to universal admiration (with the exception of her best frenemy who kind of hates her), and she swans through her doggie life under the assumption that everyone wants to cuddle her or give her treats. Frankly, she’s sort of indifferent to praise at this point.

This is Heidi sleeping through your admiration.

A couple of evenings ago on our nightly constitutional, I noticed she wasn’t actually peeing and that she was instead dribbling blood.  I assumed a UTI, but it seemed wise to call the emergency vet and they told me to bring her in.  Nobody thinks peeing blood is a good sign.  Suddenly dumping the second glass of wine into the sink felt like a prescient choice.

Don’t worry- I think that drink is mostly juice. I think.

We drove to the all night emergency clinic. I watched the digital display of my remaining gas miles dwindle with some discomfort (why didn’t I fill up after the grocery store!?).  I imagined running out of gas a mile from the vet and walking down the dirty streets of Sandy Springs at midnight with a lame dog.  Heidi yawned at me and blinked her impossibly long eyelashes, totally nonplussed.

See all the Effs she gives?

At the clinic, the staff ushered us to a room where I bit my nails and Heidi started to get a whiff of something unpleasant happening to her. She doesn’t fear the vet like other dogs, but she’s not a fan of discomfort in any variety. She usually ends our walks by sitting primly in the grass and refusing to budge once she decides the heat is not to her liking. The staff fussed and fawned over her and the word “cute” was tossed around multiple times while I waited forever for the vet to return with a diagnosis.

Luckily, the vet pronounced her to be UTI positive.  Heidi stood on the exam table with her ears thoughtfully perked and her nose quivering, but she was entirely unfazed by the large needles they poked in her leg for pain meds and antibiotics. They could have been giving her acupuncture for all the concern she showed.

Isn’t that the cutest bandage you’ve ever seen?

We made it home where I read the vet’s directions word for word and Heidi leaped on to my cream duvet  and smeared some drops of blood on it.  When I gasped and hissed, “Heidi!”, she froze mid-circle turn and looked up at me with enormous deep eyes and quirked ears.  She flicked her ears like little antennae trying to read my mood, and then she flattened them and wagged her tail a little.

Sigh, I’m an easy mark for her.

That little manipulator. She really does get by on her looks.

What to Expect When You’re Not Expecting

Don’t worry-  I have permission for the story I’m about to tell. The subject of it the story (we’ll call her N) asked me to write this because she says that she needs to laugh about her situation. If you know N in real life, please refrain from posting on facebook to congratulate her, but she honestly doesn’t care if you know. As always, this is not a perfect reconstruction of exactly what happened, but it’s basically for real. 

On Wednesday, I came home from work and went to my friend N’s apartment to pick up my dog and commiserate about our work days. I walked in to find two highly excited schnauzers, but N was not sitting in her customary spot on the sofa with her trademark glass of white wine.  I called out for her, and she replied from her bedroom, her voice high pitched and thick with hysteria. As I approached her bedroom, several scenarios occurred to me: she got laid off, her dad is sick, she lost her ongoing battle with the condo management over her insistence that her dog go leashless, and so on.   I rounded the corner and found her sitting on her bed clad in her pajamas with her hair in disarray. She gestured toward her dresser and said, “I have a problem.”

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How To Host a Baby Shower

1) Find out dear friend is pregnant.  Agree to host shower about 4 months before it will become a reality.  Feel optimistic.

This is going to be someone’s mother.

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The Pacey Story

Today is the birthday of one of the greatest friends I’ve ever had.  Happy birthday, Diette. This one’s for you.

Editor’s Note: This is how I remember it. But we all know that memory is a tricky thing. If you were there, if you remember more, forgive my liberty with details.  Also, enormous thanks to Marcie Maxwell for allowing the use of some of her fantastic pictures.

To paraphrase a line written by the great JK Rowling, there are some things in life that you can’t experience with someone else without becoming very good friends.

In my case, we were already good friends, but this cemented the deal.

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Animal Crackers and Cocoa With Ms. Balkom

A friend from high school emailed me today.  Our senior year English teacher died.   It wasn’t a total shock– I heard at my reunion a couple of years ago that she was ill. All the same, the office went still for a moment.  There are people we don’t see for years, that don’t cross our minds for months, but we still feel real loss when they leave. Ms. Balkom was this kind of person.

There are a lot of things to be said about death and loss and English teachers so often being the people that impact our lives the most, and I could probably write some things that would make her cringe about sparks burning in our hearts or whatever.  Instead, I’m just going to honor her with my favorite Balkom story.

English IV AP in our all-girls school was a strange place.

First, we met in a forgotten annex off the main room of the library. They used to store dusty VCRs there and the only windows were near the top of  only one wall in the room.  We sat in tottering desks under fluorescent lights during the last period of the day. We resented that– the school allowed seniors with study hall during 8th hour to leave. We suspected they purposefully scheduled English AP during that block to sabotage us.   There might have been 15 of us all crowded into that space meant to be a closet. Our numbers shrank considerably when Ms Balkom visited our junior year English class and barked that it didn’t matter if we called her class “Honors” or “AP”- she was teaching the same course and we should be prepared to sweat.  From two classrooms of 20 girls each in English III Honors down to 15 total. We were the brave few.

Second,  those brave 15 were a motley crew. We were a mix of the usual, “I must take every honors class I can so I can get a scholarship and go to college and be successful and preserve my class ranking” (um, yeah, guilty) and the artsy types who eschewed other honors classes but excelled in English.   There was a cross section of high school hierarchy- an athlete or two, some student council busybodies (again, guilty),  almost the whole drama club, some borderline goth girls, a girl nominated for Homecoming Queen… you get the idea.  But under the flat gaze of Ms. Balkom, we were all best friends for about an hour a day. In that room, we perfectly understood each other. We were in the trenches together.

Third, and most important, our fearless leader contributed to the general strangeness. Ms Balkom looked the part of the crazy English teacher: short, thin, salt and pepper hair cut in a wispy bob, oversized sweaters, and shark eyes.  She never once smoked in class, but I always visualize her sitting in her desk with a cigarette dangling from her hand as she rasped that we would be reading Richard IIIagain because we clearly missed the point.  (Years later I contend that we did not miss the point. It’s a sucky play. There’s a reason most schools stick to Hamlet and Othello and such.) She alternated between blunt academic and whimsical artist.  She filled our papers with chicken scratch critique, told us “not to be stupid” when writing our essays for the AP test, and once shut down my interpretation of poetry with a simple, “No” before asking someone else to answer (no explanation, no “well, poetry is subjective,” just, “No”).  But she also read us poems about animal crackers and cocoa, she dressed as a cheerleader when we played the junior class in puffy polo, and she had the best throaty laugh– like something out of an old Hollywood movie.

So, there we were. A stuffy gray room, a group of misfits with a shared purpose, and a salty middle aged woman who was nearly mythical at our school for being a difficult teacher.    Since it was an English class, she didn’t put much stock in tests. She preferred essays and response papers. By the second semester, we hit a groove. Most of us already knew what college we would attend so we weren’t that concerned about grades (except those of us with high anxiety… again, guilty).  We settled into a comfortable routine– we would gather our desks in a circle and discuss that day’s reading like a really great book club. I remember that class fondly, naturally. But then came the drama test.

Ms. Balkom announced she would be giving us one test that 9 weeks. We would mostly write essays, but we could count on one test– the drama test.  We spent several weeks learning about the history of drama, learning the terminology, reading excerpts from plays. I think most of us saw it as an opportunity to get an easy good grade. Essays could be subjective, but there’s one right answer to a multiple choice question, right?

A little foreshadowing: you might think that, but you would be wrong.  Dead wrong.

So we actually studied. By this point in senior year, I won’t say we were phoning it in in other classes, but let’s just say I spent most of Honors Physics founding the Boys R Stupid Club with my lab partners.  This test felt important though. We liked the class, we liked the drama unit even if it did involve reading Richard III TWICE,  and I think most of all– we just liked Ms. Balkom. So for this test, I made flash cards. I think there was a study group at a coffee house. The day of the test, I sat outside the gym with my best friend and we quizzed each other.  I remember thinking we were ready, that we had actually worked hard and it would pay off.

In college, I took a stats class that left me spinning. I took a psychobio class that literally made me scream. I had to memorize all the parts of the brain and their functions for another class and explain the  physical mechanics of a flip flop for another But this… this might be the hardest test of my life.  There was a matching section with something like 30 concepts with corresponding definitions, but we wouldn’t use all terms so it wasn’t a simple one-to-one match as we were allowed to use some concepts more than once. There were those dreaded multiple choice questions with answers like, “D) A and B only, E) All of the above, F) A, B, and E only.”   There were True/False questions that made no sense.  For once, the short answer responses felt like a recess.

That afternoon, we all handed in our tests to a smiling Ms. Balkom. I think it was a Friday. I think she told us to have a good weekend as she gathered all the scantrons. I think we all exchanged looks as we left and knew that it would be our last weekend on the planet.

On Monday, you could have easily picked out the members of English AP by our faces: pure, unadulterated terror. We all knew we bombed. Every last one of us. Nobody left the test thinking, “Well, I think I guessed right…”  I remember going back to my notes that weekend, aghast that I could have forgotten so much, and found that many of the concepts tested couldn’t be found in my notes. I wasn’t alone. A cloud settled over us, we passed each other in the halls between classes with shared condolences in our eyes, and for once we did not pray that the day would end.

We whispered amongst ourselves– did she know yet? Did she grade them over the weekend? Did she run the tests through the scantron machine at school yet?  Would we have to pretend it went fine? We watched for her in the school halls throughout the day; a rumor spread that she was cursing in the teacher’s lounge.  But she was the type to curse anyway, so it could be nothing

How could this have happened? We weren’t dumb. There were National Merit Scholars in our midst. Our valedictorian sat next to me during the test. For the love of  everything good, we actually studied for this one.

We finally met in our annex. For once, we did not chatter. Mary did not try to show off her dance moves. Erin wasn’t harassing Clare about what she was doing after school. Diette wasn’t making fun of me for generally being lame. We just sat in our desks, quiet as mice. Anne Boleyn must have felt that way in her tower.  Maybe when you were little, your mother would get really angry with you and shout, “Just wait til your father gets home!”  It was exactly like that.

Lizzy finally broke the ice. She said something like, “She’s  going to come through the walls like lightening and KABOOM.”  She pretended to explode something in her hands. Balkom’s rage would incinerate us all. How could we have let her down?

In the end, she came into the classroom with a flat expression. We tracked her progress to the front of the room and she dropped her stack of papers and books on a desk.  She looked up at us, a room full of basset hound eyed 18 year old girls quaking in our scruffy tennis shoes.  I’m not sure exactly what she said, but in my memory, she always says in a voice dryer than the desert, “Well. That didn’t go well.”

And that was it. In the end, I can’t remember if she yelled at us. I think she handed back our tests and, sure enough, the highest grade went to our valedictorian and wasn’t any higher than an 85. Most people were much lower than that. I think we went over the test, she agreed to grade us on a curve, and there might have even been a make up test or extra credit or something.   There’s not a profound big finish to the story or  a punch line.  It’s kind of a lame story, actually. We took a really hard test and no one got an A or even a B.  That’s it.

I’m sitting here with my hot cocoa (but no animal crackers), and I’m trying to figure out why this story comes to mind, why this is the tribute story.  Other than producing a ridiculous, nonsensical test, Ms. Balkom isn’t even featured that much.  Years later, I’m not even facebook friends with everyone in that class, but I know that if I only say, “drama test,” to any of them, we’ll have plenty to say to each other. Any one of them would groan and then laugh. And maybe that’s the key to any good teacher- someone that scares the shit out of you but then leaves you laughing.

The first day of class, we sat in our desks like petrified bunnies. The last day of class that year, we sat outside and had a tea party. I still have the plastic tea cup… and a picture in which Balkom the Great and Terrible is wearing someone’s hula skirt.

She  was always interesting, always thought-provoking, always witty, always honest. I’m glad to have known her and even more glad that I learned from her in the equivalent of the cupboard under the stairs. Cheers to you, Ms. Balkom. Thank you.

“Animal crackers and cocoa to drink, 
That is the finest of suppers, I think; 
When I’m grown up and can have what I please 
I think I shall always insist upon these.”


All-Girls School Confessional #3

The list of “Stuff I Picked Up at Catholic All-Girls School  That May or May Not Be Good For Me in the Long Run” continues.  Tonight- a Very Special Edition.  For part 1 of my list, see here. Part 2 is here.

I should probably call this All-Girls School Confessional #3: Sex Ed. But then I feared what element that title might attract. It sounds like a kinky porn, doesn’t it?  Like maybe I’m wearing a tiny plaid skirt with nothing underneath while I suck on a lollipop. Sorry– everybody knows that the hem of your uniform  skirt should be no more than 4 inches above your knees and all Catholic schoolgirls wear shorts under their skirts.  In fact- let’s make that part of the list.

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