Getting Through

Oh no love! You’re not alone

I had thought it would be dark.

I had thought it would be quiet.

I had thought it would feel like being inside a phone booth. Close. Encapsulating. Perhaps calming, in the way a compact, dark, quiet space can be. Like hiding in a closet during Hide-N-Seek when the edges of the world fall away, leaving behind a sheltered island of welcome isolation.

I was wrong.

Instead, it’s bright, with two long tubes of light running the length of the scanner; it’s loud, with thwacks and thumps and creaks and hammers drowning the music piping into my ears through massive headphones.

I don’t feel encapsulated but, rather, entombed. This must be what it’s like to be alive inside a coffin: arms pressed against sides, ceiling six inches from face, a weight of “don’t move” pressing the body into unnatural stillness.

Within thirty seconds of being rolled into the MRI machine, panic rises. My heart is galloping, frantic. The silly thing is: the shoulder that’s been ailing for eight months has actually been feeling significantly better lately. However, on some recent flights, I experienced bizarre, unprecedented pain during the descents–head-in-vise “ohgodamIhavingananeurysm” tears-in-eyes fire-through-my-teeth clenching-at-my-neck-cords firing-up-exactly-the-route-of-shoulder-issues agony–so I’ve decided that some scans of my right side might have value. I’ve willingly entered this tomb.

They’d asked me, three times, if I’m claustrophobic. Naw. Naw. Naw.

In the off chance that confined space did bother me, thinking it would add an overlay of peace to the experience, I had requested classical music when the technician advised, “You can have music or ear plugs, but your hearing has to be protected because the machine is loud. What would you like to hear? We get all the local FM stations.” It would have been a singular kind of hell to be strapped inside a cylinder, passive and unmoving, while Katie Perry’s voice assured me I’m a firework. Classical, please.

Unfortunately, as my MRI begins, the piece playing on the classical station is syncopated, staccato, nuttily nuts. It’s the kind of composition that, when Saint-Saëns’ friends heard it performed for the first time, elicited comments of, “You been hittin’ the absinthe again, Poodle?”

I am engulfed by hectic beats and clackings, music and machine, anxiety and shallow breaths.

Protectively, my eyelids shutter. Always, on the screen of my forehead, there is a white pinpoint of light I can imagine and focus on when I close my eyes. Even better, I know I can quiet my heart with yogic breathing, counting in for five and out for seven, feeling the air move from my belly up to my clavicles and back down again.

Except. That type of breathing is too physical for a motionless situation. I have been told I can inhale, exhale, and swallow, and that is all. In this situation, meditative, chest-filling breathing is as dramatic as hurling a plate into a fireplace. Even worse, every time I conjure up a pinpoint of white light, the jackhammering of the MRI machine splinters it into a million jettisoning fragments.

Held tight, deliberately still, my body is invaded.

The music in the headphones stops, and I hear a voice. Immediately my heart rate drops. It’s the technician. “How are you doing?” she inquires.

“Fine,” I say to the ceiling six inches from my face. I am fine. There’s no scream inside of me, threatening to rise. It’s more that I’m in the process of adjusting to current circumstances, and in this case, that means sorting through a reaction of “Whoa, this is more of A Thing than I’d anticipated” and realizing I won’t be able to distance myself from the experience.

“We’re going to start the first scan now. It’ll last about a minute,” she tells me. As she speaks, it is everything; it’s stunning how effectively that single voice reaches through the machine and spirals into my brain. Her syllables reel me in, pull me to her, her to me. If she would just keep talking, this would be–

the machine shudders, adjusts me a few inches, and revs up its intrusive clamor. There is no distracting myself from what’s happening.

Not a fan of creating my own tension, I give over.

Thump, thump, thumpa thump. Thump, thump, thump, thumpa thump.

Quickly, I realize what I’m hearing is basically the driving beat of electronic dance music. I love to dance. On whichya, I urge my brain. Get out there. Take a spin.

Setting down its Long Island Iced Tea, my brain obliges. As long as it’s heading out to the floor, it decides to hang a disco ball, spruce the place up, create some atmosphere.

Just as it begins to consider what shirt Imaginary Jocelyn is wearing at the club–I’m lobbying for bell sleeves–the first scan is over. The technician’s voice, that astral anchor, floats into my ears again. “Still okay?” she checks. Yes. I was just about to befriend two guys under the disco ball, in fact. Their open collars and sweaty chests signal rollicking good stomp partners. “Okay, the next two sets of images will each last about three minutes.”

I wish she’d talk more. When she’s talking, everything’s okay, and I don’t have to play at Desperate Pretend. When she’s talking, I dare to open my eyes. In a moment of sweet mercy, just as the machine shifts into its jackhammering again, the host on the classical station breaks in with station and song identification. The act of his speaking is unaccountably reassuring. I love him. I would like him to identify the station over and over, for half an hour. As his soothing tones pour into my ears, my eyes open and cast about. His company gives me the courage to take stock of this space pod I’m inhabiting. In addition to the long, tubular lights, I can see three hatches with screws. Hey, I could be in a movie. Just keep talking, Classical Music Host Guy, and I can believe I’m starring with Matt Damon in this winter’s galaxy-based blockbuster: Pod People. Just keep talking, Classical Music Host Guy. You’re Ground Control to my Major Tom.

It is not to be so. Host Guy stops talking, and my eyes slam shut. Too soon, the thump, thump, thump, whack, crash, bang pummels my space again. This time, though, the beat doesn’t take me to the club. It takes me to the past.

What I hear flickering through the thunking rhythms is this:

What I hear in the thunking rhythms, in those guitar chords ingrained into the crinkled nooks of memory, in those beats that transported my painfully permed fourteen-year-old self, holed up in a wood-paneled basement, leaning against plaid upholstery while sitting on orange carpet, sipping Tab and chewing Beechnut gum–what I hear in the industrial noise pounding into my senses, taking me back to 1981, when I sat, rapt, in front of the television screen–

what I hear is a promise that if I hang in there, I will get through.

I grew up in Billings, Montana, a city of 70,000 people–the biggest in the state. In the 1980s, it was the kind of city where teens drove pick-up trucks with gun racks to high school. It was the kind of city where the height of daytime socializing happened in the wide corridors of a new thing called “the mall.” It was the kind of city where the height of nighttime socializing happened around open fires next to free-running kegs at a spot called The Badlands. It was the kind of city, bordered by the Rimrocks on the north and the Yellowstone River on the south, where a young person could stay inside all day, watching re-runs of The Beverly Hillbillies. It was the kind of city where a girl’s father could teach choral music at a college while she lay on a waterbed at home, listening to April Wine wail “Just Between You and Me” on her clock radio. It was the kind of city where young women entering one of the high schools would have to walk, each morning, past a long cement bench in the main foyer, a thing called Jock Rock, and get “rated” by the guys lounging on that throne. It was the kind of city where I started going to high school really, really early, before most of the other students showed up, where I’d sit in a recliner in the corner of my favorite English teacher’s classroom and read or chat or laugh until the hallways filled and the school day began.

Growing up in this city, my childhood was unremarkable, in the best possible way. I had a bike, a neighborhood, friends, family, safety, security, enough to eat, good teachers, Girl Scout cookies to sell, a mother who was willing to buy 16 boxes of cookies from me and 16 boxes from my sister, a car to drive when I got my license, freedom, independence, an enormous sky to bear witness.

Could all that still not be enough? In such a city, in such a time, inside myself, yes, it could not.

I was happy, but I cried a lot.

I had friends, but I imagined others.

I thought a can of mandarin orange slices was intoxicating, but I wondered what other people, in other places, ate.

I found the ragingly popular The Official Preppy Handbook to be hilarious, a guide to who I wanted to be, but maybe not actually funny or aspirational.

I read Albert Camus’ The Stranger and was fascinated by the concept of existentialism, but I couldn’t quite figure out why the protagonist had been walking on the beach or why people would actually cleave to a philosophy in which there’s no payoff at the end or how existentialists functioned at a potluck or found comforting words at a funeral.

I dressed like Madonna, if Madonna had starred in Flashdance, but I sensed that something like sophisticated clothing might exist elsewhere. Maybe across the ocean. In Europe. Where they wore chignons and pearls instead of Nikes and torn sweatshirts.

As a teenager, I didn’t know people who were “weird.” In my yearbooks, friends commemorated our time together by scribbling affectionately about my “weirdness”–because I was goofy and had comments and made jokes–but, realistically, all of my energies went into cultivating myself for the mainstream. I wanted to dress right, talk right, look right, be right. To me, “edgy” involved being tardy for physics, asserting that Neal Peart wasn’t actually rock’s greatest drummer, or neglecting to add bleach to the mop water at the ice cream shop’s closing time.

No one at my high school had an asymmetrical haircut or had heard of the Meat Puppets.

Fortunately, there was never a question, never a discussion that I can remember, never a debate: when I turned 18, I would go to college, and when I went to college, it would be far away. The only question was this: until then, how could I weather the years of pick-up trucks and kegs and Beverly Hillbillies and April Wine and having my physical worth assigned a number by football players? How could I sit contentedly with my present while revving up for a leap into the future?

But then. Those guitar chords, those beats, the thumpa thumpa thumpa thump of MTV poured out of the television’s tinny speakers, Nina Blackwood’s curls filled my vision, The Buggles informed me that video had killed the radio star, and I heard words like “new wave” and saw women with shaved heads and heard fetishist lyrics and felt my feet tap to pub bands and sat, agog, as men in drag sang that “Boys Keep Swinging” and watched whips wave in the air and laughed at flower pots on heads and–

suddenly the world Beyond was right there filling up a Montana basement, a Beyond teeming with carrot-colored hair, discordant noise, tattooed fuck yous, confident disenfranchisement, beautiful countercultures, all delivering the loudly sung promise that, yes, oh yes, there were alternatives to gun racks and jocks on rocks.

Every day, two feet away from the screen, I would sit on the old steamer trunk that my grandmother had used when she traveled to Europe but which had become a basement “coffee table.” Plucking at the swoosh on my shoes, I’d watch The Vapors, Ultravox, Bowie, Blondie, The Pretenders, Split Enz, all of them beaming the message of MTV across the grid of Manhattan streets, past the Limelight, gaining speed over the Great Lakes, waving at the Midwest, blasting across the plains, landing near the Rimrocks, tunneling into my psyche.

It was stunning how effectively MTV’s voice reached through the machine and spiraled into my brain. Engulfed by its hectic beats and clackings, the power of music and machine, I was freed from anxiety, from the need for shallow breaths. 

With it, MTV brought the deep expanse of a full inhale.


“Still doing okay?” The technician’s question, so intimate through the headphones, pulls me out of my woolgathering.

“Yup,” I respond, smiling at the ceiling six inches from my face.

“Great,” she responds. “A little bit longer, and then it’ll be over. Just hang in there, and then you’ll be good to go–and it’s so sunny and gorgeous out there today, isn’t it?”

“For sure,” I confirm, counting down the minutes until my release. “It’s gorgeous out there.”


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Get a Job

Wayne County Community College

I slip into the high school classroom a few minutes late–hell if I could find Room 3031, tucked back there in the Foreign Languages suite. Since when do high schools have “suites”? Did the demise of the smoking lounge make way for the rise of the language suite?

Most of the chairs are occupied already, so I whisper “Excuse me. Sorry!” a few times as I step over legs, hunching, attempting to minimize my certainly-not-a-sophomore frame as it moves through the rows of plastic chairs. I don’t want to block anyone’s view of The Senora.

She’s sitting on her desk, carefully casual while welcoming both parents and students to the informational meeting about next summer’s travel abroad program. As my rump lands in an open seat, she is gesturing to a slide being projected on the Smart Board at the front of the room.

I’m a terrible audience member when slides are projected. Instead of taking in the information, I spend the time sitting on my hands so that they don’t wave wildly in the air. Were the presenter, upon seeing my raised hand, to call on me, I would become her least-favorite person in the room, for I would offer, a tidge too loudly, “You need an apostrophe at the end of students; it’s both plural and possessive, you see.”

Then, as long as I had the floor, I wouldn’t be able to refrain from, “Also, you need to capitalize europe. Names of continents are capitalized. I’m sure you knew that but somehow missed seeing it when you proofread the slides before tonight’s presentation.”

In the space of ten seconds, my helpful notes would freeze the presenter–who, let’s be honest, never proofread her slides–while simultaneously casting a pall over the room. Clearly, it’s essential that I sit on my hands during presentations, particularly those given by educators who can’t write a clean sentence.

It’s the least I can do, this business of refraining from blowhardy corrections, especially since, when I sign a field trip permission form, I edit the thing and send it back signed and with a full mark-up of the errors.

There is this: I give the teachers something besides the principal to complain about. You are welcome, The Principal. As a resentment deflector, I’m here for you.

So there I sit in the Spanish classroom, hands shoved under my glutes, taking in the scene. In under a minute, the feeling of restraining my impulses so as to not create trouble; the cloying atmosphere created by feel-good posters peppering the walls; the tension between wanting to chat with my neighbors while knowing I should pay attention to the teacher; the hope that if I hold one eyebrow down, I might learn to raise the other, elegantly, archly; the subcurrent of “I should care more about this topic than I actually do” making my shoulders sag; the drifting of my brain to Paisley Park and wondering if I will ever dance with Prince there,

all are eerily familiar hallmarks of time spent corralled in a hard high school chair.

Slumped on the plastic, resting cheek on fist, groaning inwardly at the hokey phrases The Senora has cross-stitched into the samplers that stretch across the whiteboard’s eraser tray, I am 16 again.

My eyes read:

Nice Cross Stitch

My mind responds:

Cross Stitch 16

No doubt.

I am the worst student in the room.

The other parents and the few random teenagers attending the meeting are into it. Naturally and easily, they are accepting and interested in the discussion about how travel abroad can create friendships for a lifetime. They jot down the suggestion that teens on the trip bring along $65-$100 per day for spending money, preferably on a Visa gift card. They ask questions about how many students will fit on the bus, the number of tour guides, the range of cell phone service. They nod appreciatively when The Senora assures them, a measure of scorn in her tone, that while the kids won’t be staying in five-star hotels, the accommodations will still be quite good: “It’s not like they’ll have a bathroom down the hall or something.”

A body language analyst’s dream, I fold my arms across my chest. Really? These kids will need $65-$100 per day for spending money? Certainly, I understand not all meals will be provided and that they might want to buy souvenirs. But $1000 spending money for a 16-year-old on a ten-day trip?

As the conversation continues, my arms tighten across my chest. My right leg crosses over my left knee.

Really? Parents and teen travelers are worried that the group from our high school will have to share a bus with groups of teens from other schools around the country? Really? They need assurance that a quorum of trained natives in each country will be handling the actual speaking and communication? Really? They despair that their family cell phone plan won’t cover unlimited daily conversations with their children?

My right foot twitches in the air.

Really? Everyone in the room is relieved that their kids won’t have to walk down the hall to use the toilet?

Hearing all this, my inner Sid Vicious loads up a syringe and methodically pushes the plunger into his rail-thin arm. Three minutes later, as he falls unconscious, his bladder releases, saturating the mattress in Room 822 of the Chelsea Hotel.

Sid may have escaped the meeting, but the rest of me remains alert, teetering between annoyance and amusement. Uncrossing my legs, I shift forward on the unforgiving chair, resting my heels on the book basket below, and apply myself even more fervently to archly lifting a single eyebrow. REALLY?

Well, yes, of course.

It’s not like my daughter attends a tough school. In fact, she attends a privileged, dominantly white, well-off school, the kind of school where taking a crew of kids on a trip to Europe (europe) is possible–expected, even. Of course these are the discussions that take place in the language suite at such a school.

And it’s not like I am truly stunned by the topics being discussed. All of it is standard stuff, aimed at promoting the trip as a safe, well-planned, positive experience.

Nor am I genuinely some sort of misfit in the crowd. In lifestyle, geography, background, and culture, these are my people.

The only thing that is a misfit is my attitude.

This is a common problem.

I can walk into a friendly meeting, an hour meant to clarify plans and answer questions, and within three minutes, my inner Sid Vicious is crawling on all fours towards a used syringe, praying to OD.

My attitude is a damn punk. The rest of me, at best, is aspirationally punk. I like thick-soled shoes, angry music, and a good Fuck You. But, really, to be honest? I’m not so much with needing to pierce, break, neglect, and savage things. I definitely don’t need anyone to whale on me in the mosh pit, either, because owie.

Instead, I’m a Privilege Punk, a woman who snarls in her head while swirling the nutmeg on top of her latte, a woman who reads about Henry Rollins and Black Flag while sitting in a bathroom full of Aveda products, a woman who blasts The Buzzcocks while typing feedback to students about their inability to follow rules.

Indeed. There is something annoying in the language suite at the parent meeting. ‘Tisn’t The Cross-Stitching Senora. ‘Tisn’t the assurances that our children will travel without stress. ‘Tisn’t the other parents, hoping to nail down the details so that they can provide their teens with something they, themselves, didn’t have.

Rather, the annoying thing in the parent meeting breezed in late, sat on her hands, and cheered for the unfolding tragedy of Sid.

It occurs to the annoying thing that maybe she can shape up. Stop pretending to be counter-culture simply because she’s okay with travelers walking down the hall to use the bathroom. Uncross her arms. Stuff her 16-year-old self into a locker.

For 15 bright, upbeat seconds, I do it. I become kind, open, receptive, connected. Instead of correcting The Senora’s slides, I try appreciating how much energy she is bringing to this end-of-day meeting. Even better, I realize that if I mentally white-out her hair and focus on only her face, SHE LOOKS EXACTLY LIKE MY SISTER. Same eyes, same skin, same everything. Whoa.

But then, peripherally, I see on the wall a poster of a kitty. Hanging in there.

In the same moment, someone asks a question about fundraising to offset the cost of the trip, and The Senora tosses up her hands and says, “Fundraising is totally possible. We did a couple things last year–I think five students worked the day we had a car wash, and they each made about $40.”

The car washers had made out better than the kids who volunteered to work at a protein shake shop a different morning–my girl included–each of them netting a cool $6 for their mornings’ efforts.

Continuing, The Senora announces, “I won’t be organizing any other fundraisers, but you could have a garage sale or come up with other ideas, for sure. Whatever you want to do, you should go for it.”

I find myself admiring The Senora in that moment. In a very passive Minnesota way, she is telling the fundraiser enthusiasts to fuck off in their efforts to take over her life by expecting her to orchestrate money-making activities for their kids.

Her message is slow to sink in.

“Have any of you done a pizza fundraiser before?” asks the brown bob next to me. “Like, on a Wednesday, the kids go work at Papa Murphy’s, and they get 5% of the sales.”

With great equilibrium, The Senora affirms, “Yes. I’ve heard of that. If you’d like to call Papa Murphy’s and arrange that, I’m sure some of the kids would benefit.”

The pizza fundraiser discussion gains momentum, with three other women chiming in, “They do something like that at Sammy’s, too” and “Oh, my son’s hockey team did that at Pizza Hut” and “I know Little Caesar’s has a link on their website for fundraising.” As their words fade away, they look expectantly at The Senora who, again, says, “If you want to call those places, you should. You can make a plan for the kids.”

The fact that no one in the room realizes they are being told to fuck off is beautiful. The Senora? Is kind of a badass. Suddenly, in her, I see a Nancy to my Sid.

For the first time that evening, I wish I had pen and paper to take notes.

With 95% of attendees still oblivious to the “Fuck you, fundraiser zealots” subtext, ideas continue to pour out.

To a fantastic degree, I am with The Cross-Stitching Senora: uninterested in, recoiling from, rolling my eyes at fundraising. C’mon over, Nancy; have a perch on Sid’s knee. It’s bony, and his wasted skeleton won’t be able to support you for more than a few puffs on a blunt before he sends you sliding to the floor, but c’mon over, Nance. Give us a cuddle.

The business of fundraising starts early in schools these days, when kindergarteners are sent home from school clutching packets of catalogs, order forms, and listings of prizes they can win if they are effective at emotionally blackmailing their grandparents into buying wrapping paper and frozen artichoke dip.

For the first few years, we tried. We blackmailed relations, guilted neighbors, convinced ourselves we NEEDED a little red clay thing to put into our brown sugar container so that it would stay soft.

The whole thing felt bizarre. Wrong. Bad. At some point, we decided to take a page from Sid’s book and “Undermine their pompous authority, reject their moral standards, make anarchy and disorder your trademarks. Cause as much chaos and disruption as possible but don’t let them take you ALIVE.”

We talked to our kids, explained why selling crap to people who don’t want it is disingenuous and a convoluted type of profiteering. We talked about understanding that schools’ budgets had been cut, and therefore families were being asked to contribute more. We talked about opting to write a check and drop it off with the nice lady in the front office. We talked about recycling the fundraiser packets the day they came home.

Without protest, we had complete buy-in on our new approach of, um, making anarchy and disorder our trademarks. Every last one of us was relieved.

So. No. To. The. Fundraising.

Thus, when our daughter approached us about going on this school trip next summer, we had clarity. The cost was not something our finances would bear. We would not be selling junk to help her raise funds. She would need to earn the money herself.

Because she is diligent and always on-task, she immediately started gaming out the finances. If the group of kids did fundraisers, she intended to participate. Until, well, she learned a big lesson after a morning of not really making protein shakes and not really making money. More fruitfully, yes, we would allow her to tap into love and apply that emotion to a grandma and step-grandpa. She could use some of last Christmas’ gift money from my mom; she could accept a generous check from my mom’s husband. As is the way with grandparents, they were delighted to be of help, and all the better that they didn’t have to order a clutch of holiday-themed dishtowels as part of the bargain. Their support would get her a quarter of the way to the final amount.

The next step was finding a source of income. Last spring, we drove her around the city, stopping at 20, 30, maybe 40 businesses likely to hire a 15-year-old. We brainstormed; we asked other teens; she made lists. Often, after working up her courage to walk into a restaurant or store and ask for an application, she came out empty-handed, explaining, “They only hire 16 and older.”

Eventually, she accrued a stack of applications, filled them out, returned them. She had an interview at Dairy Queen. Crickets.

Ah, but then. She scored an interview with a popular, established sandwich shop. The manager called. She would start the following week.

Throughout the summer and still, now, during the school year, my daughter works as a dishwasher. She scrubs the soup pots, carves the congealed cheese off the nacho plates, breaks the occasional pint glass. She clocks in and out. At the same time, she runs cross-country, does her homework, takes babysitting jobs. She deposits her paychecks into our bank account, from which payments for the trip are made each month.

She has sketched out her past and projected wages and will hit her target.

When she rides with her friends on a big bus through Italy, Germany, Switzerland next summer, she will have earned the hell out of that trip.

These are my thoughts as I sit in the Spanish classroom, watching The Senora duck while fundraising ideas are thrown at her. Only now, it’s not just the parents who are tossing out ideas.

Excitedly, a teenager in the room waves her hand. Frick. Is she about to point out that missing apostrophe on Slide One and steal my thunder?

Nope. She has an idea. For fundraising. Which she’s been doing for the last few months.

She’s been selling scented candles to friends and family and strangers who didn’t realize they needed more scented candles in their lives until she showed them her catalog of scented candles.

As this perky girl speaks, the Sid in the back of my brains reaches over Nancy’s slack body and grabs an unscented candle from the windowsill. Clicking his lighter repeatedly–damn thing’s about out of fluid–he gets enough spark to light the wick.

Then, locking eyes with the scented teen as she explains the details of Pumpkin Spice and Gingerbread Maple and Berry Trifle, Sid moves his palm over the candle’s flame. Holds it there. Watches, transfixed, as his skin changes shade.

Little knowing she’s engaged in a grudge match with Sid Vicious, the burbly scented candle girl wraps up her spiel. A minute later, The Senora wraps up the meeting. Licking his palm, Sid leans over and, with a puff, extinguishes the flame and his presence in my head.

Released from the room, I don’t need him any more.

What I need now is to get my bearings and look at my daughter’s daily schedule. It’s almost time for that night’s Open House to commence. I’ll be attending First Period (Honors English!) by myself, as my husband has a work commitment. He and I will hook up in Second Period, and by hook up, I mean HOOK UP.

Who says I can’t go back and do high school right this time around?

Fourteen minutes and two shortened class periods later, my husband and I wander the halls together, trying to find the stairs down to the band room. In the process, we pass the suite of language rooms.

Hissing to him, I say, “We gotta whizz through these hallways for a quick sec. I need you to stick your head into The Senora’s room and take a particular gander at her. Your job here is to hold up your fingers so that they cover her hair. Just look at her face. She totally has my sister’s face, right?”


Making goofy expressions at each other, feeling startlingly at home in the corridors of the high school, we grab hands and, like the head drum major and majorette, tumble down the stairs to band.


A few hours later, I’m chatting with my daughter, debriefing her on the evening. Yes, I understand her feelings about her English teacher, noting that I do like the lady’s glasses. Oh, yea, we really liked her math teacher. And do not even get me started on the awesomeness of her AP U.S. History teacher.

Eventually, she asks what I learned in the parent meeting for the trip to Europe. ONLY THAT THE SENORA LOOKS EXACTLY LIKE HER AUNT. THAT’S WHAT. Oh, and also a few other things about buses and bathrooms. Plus, there’s a lot of talk of fundraising.

My girl and I take a quiet moment to roll our eyes and exhale disgustedly.

I mention the perky candle seller, which elicits an even more dramatic eye roll. “Yea,” my daughter tells me, “she’s been pushing those candles for months now.”

“I wanted to stand up and shout about the fact that scented candles are actually bad for you,” I added. “It was all I could do not to yell, ‘Those candles do terrible things to people’s lungs.'”

Feeling me, my daughter agrees. “She’s always talking about this fundraiser she’s doing, and I always want to tell her, ‘Hey, if you’re trying to earn money, here’s a tip:

…get a job.'”

And with that suggestion–one that recommends a very traditional path to success–I realize something.

In her willingness to challenge the dominant mindset, to question the legitimacy of group thinking, to look at her peers with skepticism, to reject the energy in the room,

my reliable, studious, self-disciplined fifteen-year-old

is a bit of a punk herself.


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sometimes a banana split's not just a banana split

Merry Banana-mas to All, and May Your Pants Be Skin-Tight

“I’ll have a banana split,” said the nondescript man in the Member’s Only jacket, placing his order.

A banana split?

For high school girls working the counter of Rimrock Mall’s Hipster Doogan ice cream and corn dog emporium, an order for a banana split was cause for excitement. Sure, we scooped a lot of single chocolate almond fudge cones. You bet, we dipped a lot of the store’s specialty item: the Doogan Bar (a rectangle of ice cream on a stick dunked into warm chocolate and rolled in crushed nuts). On the other side of the store, we ladled cheese for nachos; we popped bags of corn; we made taco salads, we fried chicken nuggets and corn dogs.

We fifteen-year-old mall workers were diverse in talent, high in energy, and well able to fulfill the store’s Mission Statement (with a liberal dash of personal interpretation overlaying corporate intention):

To ensure that each guest receives prompt (once we stopped comparing notes on curling irons), professional (dripping with lip gloss), friendly (if he was cute) and courteous (lowering our voices before observing, “She’s so stuck-up”) service. To maintain a clean (slopping bleach water on the tiles of the floor while singing “Sweet Dreams Are Made of This”), comfortable (go ahead: lean on the counter while we fill your Dr. Pepper) and well maintained (only minor chips in the industrial counter top laminate) premises for our guests (like YOU, Members Only Guy!) and staff (wait, who? OH!). To provide at a fair price (not like that wallet-gouging movie theater down by J.C. Penney’s)nutritional (popcorn’s a whole grain, People, and there are many important mystery nutritions in a corn dog, not to mention positive fats–the kind that’ll make your hair shiny–in two scoops of Strawberry Cheesecake ice cream), well-prepared (we crushed the chips on your taco salad with our own hands) meals – using only quality ingredients (the ever-liquid nacho cheese that comes in a 96-ounce can). To ensure that all guests and staff are treated with the respect (hey, Sailor) and dignity (“A chocolate milkshake made with vanilla ice cream and chocolate syrup? I commend you on your sophisticated taste”) they deserve. To thank each guest (“You were rad. It was bitchin’ of you to stop by!”) for the opportunity to serve them (“The napkins are in the dispenser on the counter. Help yourself”). By maintaining these objectives we shall be assured of a fair profit (our boss Connie barely made it through 8th grade but could count out that till each night like someone who’d taken and nearly passed algebra) that will allow us to contribute to the community (Billings, Montana! And surrounding regions! Including Upper Wyoming!) we serve.

Mission Statement Fulfillment aside, we teenagers on the Hipster Doogan wait staff also spent countless hours standing around, wiping the same patch of counter repeatedly. We sprayed the mirrors. Wiped them. We stirred the Doogan Bar dipping chocolate. Restocked the butter pats. Compared notes on our various high schools. We counseled the older workers, women well into their twenties, when they came up pregnant or missed their bus. We joked around with our bosses so that they’d like us and give us lots of hours on the next week’s schedule. We punched in, scooped, wiped, chatted, took a break, punched out.

Thus, when a customer stepped up to the counter and ordered something unusual, something we had the chance to make maybe once every two months, something like a banana split, it was a thing–

especially when such an order was placed on a quiet weeknight during which my co-worker, Jamie, and I had already exhausted our troves of gossip. We’d already replaced the getting-low barrel of Fudge Ripple ice cream, and we’d wiped the grease off the doors of the popcorn machine. Stacks of cups were towering next to the pop machine; to add any more would have been madness. Possibly, we’d swept. For sure, we’d already decided Jamie should dump her boyfriend.

So what to do? Hmmm? What to–


Why, yes, it would be our pleasure to get right on that.

Fortunately, we had a bunch of bananas right there on the slightly chipped counter top, just waiting to be sliced. I grabbed the best looking of the bunch (which is, incidentally, also how I scored my husband seventeen years later), peeled it like I was removing a pair of toe socks after a long night of dancing to Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love,” and ran a knife down its center. Huzzah! The fruit was split! And if this customer ate enough banana splits, so would his pants!

Jamie reached under the counter to retrieve a banana split boat while I peered into the lowboy, trying to spot the can of Redi-Whip. As we both bent down, I slipped on the banana peel that had fallen onto the tiles, and our heads clunked.

And with that, Member’s Only Guy found himself witness to a spontaneous bit by the Two Stooges. Jamie dramatically rubbed her noggin while I mock fell to the floor. Looking up at MOG, I managed to suggest, “While my colleague here restores her rattled brain, and while I hoist my polyester-smocked self off the floor, perhaps you’d like to peruse the flavors of Montana’s own Wilcoxsons ice cream? You get three scoops in your split, so what flavors would you like? Myself, I cannot recommend too strongly the combination of Bubble Gum with Licorice offset by a scoop of Mint Chocolate Chip. You will never regret a choice that bold.”

Looking dubious and entertained in equal measure, the man made his way up and down the line of flavors, putting his nose to the case. “I tend to be more classic in my tastes, so let’s go with vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry.”

Hiding my exasperation at his lack of imagination, I dusted off my rear end and moved to the sink to wash my hands. “Okay, Jamie, are you good to scoop?”

As her eyes uncrossed, Jamie noted, “There’s more than one scooper here for a reason. I’ll get the vanilla and the chocolate while you round up the outlier that is strawberry.”

As it turned out, having one of us hold the banana split boat while the other lobbed ice cream in its general direction was infinitely more fun that an easy division of scooping labor. Jamie hucked frozen balls my way, and I–only missing the first two (more to mop up after closing while humming Annie Lennox)–eventually caught three balls with the boat.

Smashing the scoops gently into some sense of order, and cradling the two halves of the banana around them, I then turned to Members Only Guy and ushered him to his next decision: “All right, Sir. Now: you can have two flavors of syrup on your ice cream. We have hot fudge, butterscotch, pineapple, and strawberry.” Lowering my voice, I whispered, “To be honest, if you have a strong feeling about all of them, I believe something can be arranged. I can be very bad at counting, if you feel you need the synergy of four.”

“Naw, I’m good with two. Let’s go with hot fudge and strawberry.”

What’s awesome about hot fudge versus strawberry, as sauces, is the difference in their consistencies. Hot fudge is all “I’m late for the office” runny, whereas strawberry is more “What’s your hurry, Mr. Type A?” in attitude. Jamie and I proved this, systematically, by having a sauce race wherein she held a ladle of fudge three feet above the split, and I held a ladle of strawberry at an equal height. On the count of three, we began to drizzle, and it would’ve made Albert Einstein sit up in his grave to see the hot fudge hitting the scoops first because SCIENCE.

Comfortable enough to comment, Member’s Only Guy noted, “That little experiment there was kind of messy, wasn’t it? I hope you don’t have to stay late tonight, cleaning up.”

“Never fear,” Jamie assured him, “for we’re experienced cleaners. A little strawberry sauce in the cracks is nothing to us. Now, butterscotch in your bangs is another story, of course.”

Watching the ice cream begin to wilt, I jumped in, “We’re almost done with your masterpiece. Next, I’d like to offer you the option of a cloud of whipped cream atop your sauces. Would you like a cloud? Are you a Cloud Man?”

“Why, yes, I’m very cloudy,” he affirmed.

Those words were all the permission Jamie and I needed to use up the rest of the can of Redi-Whip. First, we built a foundation of cream; then, handing the can back and forth between us, we tacked on a scaffolding, after which we sculpted a three-tiered tower of cloud.

“Wow,” we all breathed together in wonder. “That’s just…beautiful.”

“It makes me believe in God,” Member’s Only Guy confessed, his eyes lifting to the top of the banana split and, therefore, the heavens.

He was ready to convert, but we weren’t completely done proselytizing there at the Cathedral of Banana Split. An eyebrow cocked, almost as a challenge, Jamie offered up the crowning glories: “It may be beautiful, and you may see God in that rapidly melting whipped air, but there’s more. Might I interest you in a scattering of peanuts and a spoonful of sprinkles? We also have maraschino cherries. Think of them as the angels.”

“Oh, yes,” he confirmed, still rapt. “Whatever you’ve got, put it on there.”

As I stood a few feet away and lobbed peanuts onto the cloud, Jamie added three tablespoons of jimmies and a handful of cherries to the white peaks.

Then, slowly, carefully, each of us taking an end of the boat, we moved our creation from the back counter to the front. Setting it next to Member’s Only Guy, we stepped back with a flourish, grabbed hands, and took a bow.

“Here’s a spoon. You might need about fifty napkins out of the dispenser on the counter there, too. Oh, and there are bathrooms down the hall and to the right, in case you need to stick your head under a faucet after you’re done,” I told him.

“Thanks for the fun,” Jamie said, wrapping up the transaction. “That’ll be $3.50.”

Taking a ten-dollar bill out of his wallet and sliding it across the counter, our satisfied customer smiled. “Watching you two make that banana split is the best time I’ve had in ages. Keep the change. You deserve it.”

With that, he slurped at the whipped cream, picked up his boat, and, like a banana, split.

Jamie and I couldn’t believe it. We generally didn’t get tips at the Hipster Doogan, and if we did, it was the odd nickel or dime. But this man had just gifted each of us with $3.25 of our own, simply because we’d been goofy, and he’d been good-natured. For Jamie and me, in a year when the federal minimum wage was $3.35 per hour, his tip was huge.

Indeed, the tip he gave us was a tremendous gift. It was like Christmas, only it wasn’t December, and no one had declared it was Mandatory Gift-Giving Day. No one had announced, “At this pre-ordained time, everyone should feel happy and full of togetherness.”

Rather, the delight, the happiness, the togetherness, the zest, the generosity

all just happened.

By virtue of being unplanned and unexpected, those ten minutes of making a huge mess at the Hipster Doogan were my idea of a perfect holiday.


And that’s my wish for you, dear readers:

May all your best holidays come out of nowhere,

requiring no orchestration or planning.

May they be free of expectation

and full of surprise.

May your heart overflow with freedom and whimsy,

and may you marvel that life is grand–

simply because it’s a Wednesday night

or a Thursday afternoon

or a Saturday morning…

no day in particular–

simply because people are good,

and the fun of it all puts you in the mood to see Possibility in whipped cream.

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