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The Time I Had a Meltdown in Language Arts

May 5, 2013 2 comments

reality_show_meltdown

In 9th grade, all students at my school were required to take Language Arts. To my dismay, this turned out to be a public speaking class disguised as a writing class, which meant that my easy A was about to become a desperate C. Though friends have pointed out that I can be loud as fuck in public, especially while talking about embarrassing stories, I suddenly lose the ability to be coherent when placed in front of an audience.

I start talking about a mile a minute, sweating all the while as my face either turns as red as a drunkard’s, or as pale as someone about to pass out. My eyes will dart all around the room as if trying to identify who from the crowd is about to get up and shoot me. Whatever latent paranoia I have (which is a LOT) kicks into high gear, and I become convinced the audience is plotting my downfall at all times.

So yeah, public speaking and I don’t really get along.

But sadly, this class forced me to do it on a regular basis. It all culminated on one unfortunate day when we had to read a short story that we had written out loud to the class.

The assignment was to write a “funny” retelling of a classic fairy tale, and we all had to choose different ones. As a somewhat angry and depressed teenager, my idea of “funny” was a dark as shit Goldilocks and the Three Bears that took place in an apocalyptic future where weapons were as common as loose change. The body count in my story was startlingly high, and I was probably only saved from arrest by virtue of this being written before Columbine. My tale ended with both Goldilocks and the bears burning to death after Goldie’s flame thrower showers the house with fire. Goldie manically mutters that the temperature is now “juuuust right” as her hair bursts into flames.

I did not know in advance that we would have to read this out loud.

I heard about the change in the lesson plan during lunch, as students who had the class earlier in the day recounted their classmates’ “hilarious” stories. My only thought was, “I’M FUCKED.” I knew very well that my story was going to be seen as the ravings of a homicidal maniac, and I ran to the computer lab to shit out a different story in the ten minutes remaining before class.

I was unsuccessful.

And thus I found myself perched on a stool at the front of the class, having to read out loud some of the most disturbing shit I had ever written. As the bullets began to fly and blood ran from one end of the bears’ cabin to the other, I started to feel like I was watching a car wreck from afar. Try as I might, I couldn’t stop the brutal scene that was unfolding before me. Soon enough, my anxiety crested and I completely lost it. I began to laugh hysterically, describing the deadly fire between giggles as I gasped for air. I actually started crying as I plowed through the morbid tale, laughing so hard that my words about graphic murder came out as squeaks. I eventually slid off the stool to the floor in a desperate attempt to abort the insanity. The teacher insisted I continue reading from the cold linoleum. He did not much care for me.

In the end, I received a C- on the story (my teacher cited disliking “black humor”), and I gained a reputation for being batshit INSANE for the rest of my freshman year of high school. Fucking fantastic.

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Three Checks Walks the Deadman (Part 2)

October 29, 2012 Leave a comment

Click here to read Part 1

We now continue my brother’s 1980s Ohio paddling saga…


 
So, I went home that weekend and told my Mom I was going to be paddled. She’d always thought it was barbaric. She said if it ever came to that, she wouldn’t allow it. She asked what I’d done. I said, “Talking, basically.” She nodded.

Saturday, Sunday. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep. I had a migraine the whole time. I thought of nothing else as the hours slipped away towards Monday morning. I’d never been hit. By anyone, or anything. Never been in a fight, never been punched or slapped or beaten by my parents. I’d avoided conflict wherever I could. I suppose I knew my days were numbered; that sometime, somewhere, I’d have to take a punch like everybody else. I never imagined, though, it would come from someone I trusted and obeyed, never imagined it with a piece of wood.

My mom said she’d intervene if I wanted her to.

I thought of her charging into the front office with me in tow, stabbing her finger at the secretary, then the principal. I’d stand behind her, quiet, incapable, impotent.

I thought of Tuesday morning and the questions. “Why doesn’t he have to get paddled?” “Because Damian’s mommy won’t allow it. Because Damian can’t take it. Because Damian is special.”

I told her no.

Monday morning came. I rode the bus to school. No one brought it up. Maybe they’d forgotten. Maybe everyone had forgotten.

After the bell, the Teacher called roll. I said, “Here,” and a few kids tittered. They hadn’t forgotten.

I’d have a shot at that badge of courage after all.

After roll, the teacher looked at me, not unkindly. The rage she’d felt 48 hours ago had abated. But rules were rules and everyone knew them. Three checks walks the deadman. No waiting. No reprieve.

“Damian?” she nodded like a rancher about to put down her favorite horse.

Thirty faces lit up. They’d have their show. And on a rainy Monday, of all days, first thing.

I stood on wobbly legs.

I lifted the top of my desk, took the inhaler out of my pocket and held it a moment.

“Damian can’t take it. Damian is special,” I heard the voices.

I placed it inside the desk next to my books and fruit. Then I closed the lid.

I stepped to the open space between the tall bookshelves. The teacher and her Witness came up behind me. Then I walked around the corner.

Teacher said, “Everything out of your pockets, please.” I took out my milk money, an orange-colored eraser shaped like a Volkswagen, and a tiny Rubik’s Cube keychain and put them on the floor by my feet.

I stood again. The teacher made no speeches, no pronouncement of guilt, though she and the Witness wore the same smile as always.

“Bend over, please.”

The world inverted as I took the small bones of my ankles in each hand. The blood rushed to my head and dampened all sound. Blood throbbed in my neck. My heart counted down the seconds. I heard the engine of the entire world humming all around me. I remembered my Mom’s “A’right, then,” remembered her resigned look and the pat on my knee when I told her I’d make the walk alone.

Then the first hit came. It sounded like someone had dropped a book three rooms away. The walls around me shuddered as my body took the force, then steadied. I was still standing.

The second hit, I didn’t feel at all. There was heat, a rather cozy-feeling heat, actually. I could see the impact points perfectly in my mind, two paddle-shaped infrared slaps across my backside.

“You’re done,” she said. I stood up and smiled at her. Not a belligerent kind of smile but the kind that comes when you realize that the world is still there, and that it isn’t all that bad.

Teacher and the Witness parted and I passed between them. I turned the corner and saw the thirty faces, some grinning, some not, many confused and disappointed. I smiled at them, beaming. Immune.

I took my seat and every moment of the life I was about to resume, all the days I’d live in comfort, in safety, without fear, without war, without pain, yawned before me.

“Okay, people. Open your Reading books to page 28, please…” said Teacher.

I got out my book and, like everyone else, turned the pages.

Three Checks Walks the Deadman (Part 1)

October 26, 2012 Leave a comment

paddling-in-school

Today features a guest blog by my esteemed brother, who has been mentioned on this blog several times before. Keep in mind that my brother was born in 1971, so this story takes place well into the past. Enjoy!


Rex Ralph Elementary. Sixth grade. I’m a quiet kid, I’m a nervous kid. I know too much about Star Wars. Also, my hands shake. They shake from all this asthma medicine I take. Everyone thinks it’s hilarious. “I have asthma,” I say, like that’ll help. One kid grabs my wrists, holds my hands out all the time, “What are you, nervous or something?” He makes a big scene of it; he’s the same one who waves his peanut-butter sandwich under my nose saying, “Go on. Sneeze!” I told him I was allergic to it. He smells the weakness in me. I’m slowing down the clan. He’s got a natural-selection hard-on for me. Somewhere back in time, his ancestors place boulders on mine and leave them for dead.

But yeah, the hands. The shaking hands. I tell everyone it’s the meds and it is, but it’s also this place, this school, the teachers, the kids, everything. Some people can handle it, some people can handle anything, some people are Han Solo. Me, I’m an Ewok. But not Wicket. I’m the one with the hang-glider that dies.

Our classroom is a pressure cooker of E. Coli, Rotavirus, gummy bears, and craft glue. The hours plow forward through the airless haze made by 60 peanut-butter-stinking mouths. The stultifying minutes are differentiated only by the list of names growing down the side of the blackboard: one name for each person caught talking, caught fidgeting, caught giggling, found passing notes. A name for sneezing, a check next to it for sneezing again. Two checks if it was done for comic effect. Names and checks, names and checks, until someone scores three. When that happens, everything stops and the lights come up on the Thunderdome. Then the three-checker gets up and takes the deadman walk around behind the bookshelves. No waiting. No reprieve.

Back there, the teacher makes him take everything out his back pockets, pens, combs, keys. She makes him bend over and grab his ankles. She says a few words about his crimes so everyone can hear it. She concludes with, “Perhaps in the future you’ll learn not to…” Then, in the manner prescribed by the county, she raises the paddle high in the air. She nods to the Witness, the teacher from next door, her smoking-buddy, her trenchmate, her second. Witness smirks, shrugs, “What are ya gonna do?” They grin, despite themselves. Their eyes twinkle like Japanese businessmen at a live sex-show.

We’re all on the other side of the shelves, breathless, waiting for the “CRACK!”, which comes twice. Some of us giggle. Some of us reach for our inhalers. Then the victim comes back in, usually in tears, though sometimes not. The ones who don’t cry, who swagger in, beaming, immune – they’re a breed apart. Everyone knows this.

When the teacher comes back in, there’s a row of dew on her upper lip, she tucks her hair behind her ear but she can’t hide how good it feels. She puts a girl “in charge” for five. She’s gotta have a smoke.

I know all this because I walked the deadman once.

It was late on a Friday, near Halloween, lots of sugar around and names were going up on the board like a murder of crows. Everyone was frantic, the teacher was in a frenzy, nailing people for reaching too abruptly for a sheet of paper. Everyone screaming, laughing, kids sprinting from seat to seat, teacher bellowing something unintelligible into the gale.

Then someone asked me a question. And just as the class fell silent, I answered, “No, ‘droid’ refers to all robots, not just…” Searchlights locked on my position. I’d transmitted in the clear over radio silence. Teacher had me dead-to-rights. I was supposed to be one of the good ones. I never made a peep. I’d betrayed her. She reached for the chalk and next thing, I was staring down the barrel of three checks. I didn’t even know my name had gone up.

Then the bell rang.

Everyone sat, mouths open, looking at me, looking at her, looking at me again, all thinking the same incredible, impossible, delicious thing: Damian Baldet is gonna walk the deadman. Me: shaky-hands, inhaler-boy, Johnny-weak-link. They were looking at a ghost. I’d never survive it.

But there was something else was remarkable about the situation:

It was Friday. End of day.

True, I had three checks. And everyone knew: Three checks walks the deadman. No waiting. No reprieve.

But:

It was Friday. End of day. The bell had rung!

There was room for a technicality here. It was in her power to be merciful.

Pity tapped on the blackened shell that encased her heart. For a moment, she fought her addiction.

In the end, though, it had been a bitch of a day and pity didn’t stand a chance.

Her expression darkened.

“On Monday morning, Damian will serve his punishment.”


Click here to read Part 2

The Time I Almost Went to Law School (Part 2)

August 13, 2012 2 comments

University of Chicago Law School, aka “Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter Here.”

 
(Continued from Part 1, which discussed my terrible reasons for wanting to go to law school, and the LSAT kicking my ass.)

So I eventually sat down and took the LSAT for the second time, and did much better. Luckily, most schools decide to simply accept your highest LSAT score, though a few will average the two (or three) scores together. After taking the LSAT three times, you have to wait a few years before trying again. With my shiny new LSAT score in hand, I could now narrow down where I would apply.

The combination of LSAT and GPA is so powerful that the two alone can practically tell you where you’ll be accepted. There are a few websites out there that will tell you your chances, including the Law School Probability Calculator and the Law School Predictor. Technically, your essays, extracurriculars, and coursework should count for something, but in practice, it seems rare. Unless you’ve won an Olympic medal or something, these calculators are pretty damn accurate, mostly because of the annual U.S. News rankings. Since these rankings are based mostly on test scores, law schools come to value them as well. I have never met more prestige-obsessed people than law students. If you want to peer into the mouth of madness, check out the Top Law Schools Forums, which turn OCD into an art form. And yes, I frequented the forums on a daily basis when I was an aspiring law student, since even crazy advice is better than no advice. Nutty though some of those students may be, they were still extremely supportive and knowledgeable.

I spent ages crafting a personal statement, which was surprisingly difficult to write after not having written anything even vaguely academic in over three years. But I eventually came up with something satisfactory, and applied to 13 law schools in the Fall of 2009. Thankfully, I received fee waivers from 9 of these schools, which meant that it cost me nothing to apply there. Note for anyone interested in applying to law schools: if you ask for a fee waiver via email, you’ll often get one.

My application “cycle,” as crazed law applicants call it, went very well. I got into 8 of the schools, was waitlisted at 3, and only rejected from 2 (Harvard and Stanford, naturally – not sure what even possessed me to apply there). Three of the schools that accepted me were in the top 10 in the nation, at least according to U.S. News, so I was feeling pretty good. I even got some scholarship money, including half tuition at the school I ultimately decided to attend, the University of Michigan (aka “Hogwarts”). I was exhausted and relieved that the application process was finally over, and I gleefully submitted my seat deposit money, officially ending my cycle.

And then came the existential crisis.

I had finally achieved what I had set out to do, and for the first time, I actually had the leisure time to think about what I had done. I would be attending law school, to become a lawyer. For…some reason, surely? A reason I couldn’t seem to remember at the moment. Had I ever had one in the first place?

As the weeks passed and I made arrangements to move to Ann Arbor, I grew more and more uneasy with this decision. The closer I got to orientation, the more sure I was that this wasn’t the right move for me, at least right now. But I was too stubborn to admit this to myself. I had put so much work into the LSAT, and invested myself so fully into the idea of law school that it seemed insane to back out now. The last two years would then just be a waste of time – a run down a street that only terminated in a dead end.

No, I decided, I’d just have to go through with it. Plenty of people head to law school when they aren’t sure about it all, and they turn out fine. What would my alternative be? I had already quit my receptionist job, and was unemployed in the deepest recession of my lifetime. Surely this was the best investment I could make at the moment, even if it meant taking on substantial debt, scholarship or not. I had convinced myself that I really had no choice in this matter anymore, and that I just needed to suck it up and go become a lawyer.

Naturally, I then suffered a complete nervous breakdown, along with panic attacks on the hour, every hour. For weeks. With no coping mechanisms whatsoever.

The week that I was supposed to move to Michigan, I completely lost it and decided I just couldn’t do it. I didn’t want to be a lawyer, and never had. I had simply been overcome with the thought of achieving something more than being an anonymous admin in a sprawling company. I had seized onto graduate school as a life preserver in a dull black sea that stretched out into infinity. At the time, I honestly saw no other way out.

I cancelled the movers, and flew to Cincinnati to go cry my eyes out with my parents. They were confused and somewhat disappointed in my decision, but really just wanted what would make me happy, and so were ultimately supportive. I wondered constantly if I had made a huge mistake, and when I flew back to NYC, I feel into a deep agoraphobic depression. Unemployed and lacking even air conditioning, I stopped leaving the apartment altogether, and withdrew from most of my friends. My meager savings drained month by month as I struggled pathetically to get a job. Seeing as how I could hardly leave my apartment building at that point, I wasn’t much of a candidate.

Only through medical and psychiatric intervention did I eventually emerge enough to get myself employed, a year after I had originally quit my job. Even two years later, I still feel guilt from my decision, and wonder sometimes what life would have been like had I gone to law school. I would have graduated next year.

But overall, I’m satisfied with my decision. I still think it was the right one to make for my mental state at that time, and I still don’t want to be a lawyer. Why else would you go to law school? Just to have the JD on your resume? Though I’m sad it took me two years of nonstop work to figure that out, it’s better that I discovered my true feelings BEFORE I spent a good $80K or so on an education I might never use. It’s still hard to rationalize the joy I felt at being accepted to schools versus the sheer dread at the thought of actually attending one. It’s funny how the human mind works sometimes, isn’t it?

The Time I Did Calisthenics

July 2, 2012 1 comment

Phish-Hoist-Interior_Frontal_old_fashioned_weightlifter

The term “calisthenics” brings to my mind an image of old-timey men and women stretching in place. The men have handlebar mustaches and old-fashioned wrestling suits, while the women have feathered hats and floor-length black skirts.

In Japan, or at least in the small fishing village where I lived, calisthenics were a daily occurrence. Shop keepers did them in their stores, fishermen did jumping jacks before boarding their boats, and the schoolchildren stretched and lunged every day before singing the school song and hearing the principal’s announcements.

I, too, was expected to participate. The movements were slow and deliberate, and had been ingrained into the memory of every citizen here since they were old enough to join in. I’d raise my arms when I was supposed to swing, and swing when everyone else threw themselves on the ground to stretch. I frequently hit the people next to me as I flailed my limbs around in a sad attempt to follow along. My students rolled their eyes at me, wondering why I couldn’t seem to get it.

Physical exertion and routines have never been my strong point, which meant that many aspects of Japan didn’t agree with me much. But I continued to try, and the students would giggle at my pathetic efforts. Field day events are frequent in Japanese schools, and the students compete between their teams to be the strongest, fastest, and most nimble. These undōkai (運動会) were the bane of my existence since they always seemed to occur on the hottest day of the season, and the teachers were required to participate.

I’d run around, carrying massive logs in my business-casual slacks, kicking up dust and sweating like a pig. I was sent out to play a sandbag collecting game with everyone over 70 in the village (which was practically the whole town), and I STILL LOST. That’s how bad I am at games in general – a feeble old woman can beat me in a FEAT OF STRENGTH.

And what do you get for winning at these field days? Why, household items such as washcloths, trash bags, and tissues! Believe it or not, some of the housewives present would have cut a bitch to get the last roll of plastic wrap. I gave my box of tissues to a woman who had a fevered look in her eye. I did not want to be stabbed that day.

But back to the calisthenics. Since 1928, Japan has been airing the Rajio Taisō (ラジオ体操), or the “Radio Exercise.” The current version that you can hear daily at 6:30 am and 3:00 pm on NHK was recorded in 1951 by the Japanese government. It features a stern-sounding man yelling numbers while you do the prescribed motions. According to this article, about 20% of the population still does it each day, along with 76.4% of elementary schools in Japan. Even some businesses make their employees do it daily. Here, you can see the bizarrely militaristic ritual in action.

The Time I Played Video Games

June 13, 2012 3 comments

So I have a confession to make. I am a video game nerd.

Now, I know people who have it worse than me. Way worse. But I spent a good portion of my formative years playing video games. My family’s first system was the Atari 2600, whose polished wood veneer hearkened back to the system’s origins in the 1970s. We children hoarded cartridges like squirrels preparing for winter, though my hand-eye coordination at that age meant that my character in Pitfall! fell to his death every single damn time. Pixellated crocodiles and scorpions were poised to devour his corpse, and when I was at the controls, they ate well indeed.

I later graduated to the NES in 1985, where I continued to fail with alarming regularity. We were such early adopters that our system didn’t even come with Duck Hunt, and instead was packaged only with Super Mario Bros. I was miserable at classics like the aforementioned Mario Bros. (including 2 & 3), Punch-Out!!, The Legend of Zelda, Metroid, and Mega Man. But I was surprisingly decent at Balloon Fight, Bubble Bobble, Dr. Mario, Donkey Kong, and Donkey Kong Jr. I think I was just too young for most of the other games. To give you an idea of my age, one of my favorite games on the NES was Sesame Street A-B-C & 1-2-3, which I remember being shockingly difficult at the time. Later, I eventually was able to play Tiny Toon Adventures and DuckTales over and over again, but I also rented terrible titles from Blockbuster like Mario Is Missing. Even though I played that awful game only once back in 1993 at age 10, I still remember how crappy it was.

But my older sister was a whiz at the NES, and I would spend hours watching her play since I couldn’t play myself without instantly dying. How did she do it? We also got a single Game Boy, which caused much strife between us siblings. The battery life was abysmal, and the graphics were only black and white, but that thing made car trips infinitely more bearable.

We purchased a SNES in 1991, which I proceeded to dominate. I’d beg my parents to rent me new games from Blockbuster every week, and I eventually hit my video game stride. I fondly remember games like ClayFighter, The Lion King, EarthBound (still one of my faves), The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (ditto), Mario Paint (a console game that bizarrely came with a mouse), Pilotwings, Secret of Mana (THE BEST), SimAnt (yeah, I was into role-playing as an insect), Star Fox (fuck you, Slippy), Super Mario World, Super Mario Kart, Yoshi’s Island, Super Mario RPG, Donkey Kong Country, Super Metroid, and Earthworm Jim (I loved this so much I even submitted fan art to Nintendo Power magazine. Yes, my sister had a subscription.). I remember playing stinkers like Bass Masters Classic (UGH, what was I thinking?!), Cool Spot, The Great Waldo Search, and E.V.O.: Search for Eden (an admittedly terrible game that I nonetheless loved so much that I bought it with my allowance). I was never really into sports or fighting games, mostly because none of my friends played video games. What fun are those games against a computer?

My brother meanwhile had bought a Sega Genesis, and I recall playing Ecco the Dolphin on his system and thinking it was the stupidest game I had ever seen. He would go on to buy the PlayStation, while my sister and I stayed loyal to Nintendo and bought an N64. I plowed through Ocarina of Time, Majora’s Mask, Mario Kart 64, Pilotwings 64, Star Fox 64 (Slippy, damn you!), and Super Mario 64.

After this era, I mostly stopped playing video games, only picking up them up again after becoming addicted to rhythm games like Dance Dance Revolution and Guitar Hero. Nowadays, I have a Wii, Nintendo DS, and an Xbox 360. I still play Zelda, Metroid, and Super Mario Bros. on the Wii, and Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption on the Xbox. I’ve shouted at a Nintendog on the DS (not my proudest moment), enjoyed the writing of the Phoenix Wright series, and even tried Pokemon briefly before realizing it was just too damn time-consuming.

Well, now that I’ve thoroughly embarrassed myself, what are some of your favorite games from back in the day? Make me feel less alone as a girl gamer – please?

The Time I Wore Bathing Suits as Underwear

June 8, 2012 4 comments

Adolescence is a tough time for a girl.

Since I was too embarrassed to ask my mom to go bra shopping, I went without until a group of friends cornered me at a middle school dance and informed me that “it was time.” Evidently, my burgeoning bosoms were downright distracting, and required restraint. Check out all that alliteration there. Aw, yeah.

Anyway, I finally managed to work up the courage to ask for a bra, to which my mom responded with a mild shrug. “Sure, we’ll go to the mall this weekend.” But then came the mortifying selection process, which involved my mom running around a crowded department store and holding training bras up to my chest.

For any guys reading, a training bra is an elastic piece of fabric with no underwire. It’s essentially useless unless you’re a AA cup, but it’s main function is to simply get you used to wearing an scratchy new piece of clothing on your chest. Until you grow accustomed to the sensation of a bra, it’s incredibly uncomfortable. You futz with it constantly, waiting until the end of the day when you can rip the accursed thing off your body. Later come underwire bras, which are typically even worse. It took years of shopping before I managed to finally locate comfortable bras, though they cost $50 a pop.

Anyway, though I finally had a few training bras to cover my offending boobs, I still felt extremely self-conscious when changing for gym class. I tried to perfect the tried-and-true “show nothing” method of changing, which involved twisting yourself into a pretzel under your shirt to put on new clothes while showing absolutely no undergarments whatsoever. But pubescent girls are always checking out each other’s underwear, apparently, since I was called out on my raggedy white training bras on a regular basis. I was reluctant to repeat the department store walk of shame again with my mom, and so just kept wearing what I had.

Eventually, I hit on the idea of ordering “bras” from J Crew under the guise of bathing suits. They had several underwire bikini options, which I somehow felt was less embarrassing than asking my mom to order me things from Victoria’s Secret. My new bikini bathing suit never saw the light of day at a pool or beach. Instead, I wore it as underwear every gym day.

At first, I got compliments from the other girls on my new purple bra. But soon, as I wore it day in and day out, people became concerned. Was this the only bra I owned? Finally, someone realized that the fabric was pretty unusual for a bra, and they recognized it as a bathing suit. I had been caught! I retired the suit immediately, worried that the gossip mill would spread around my shameful secret.

The next week I finally just asked my mom for new bras, which turned out to be no problem at all. Ugh, I have no desire to ever go back to that overly self-conscious time.

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