The Mysterious Connection Between Sex and Bowling

bowl sexMy Irish Catholic parents were not people who talked about sex. Ever. My four siblings, as far as I know, had to learn about sex the old-fashioned way–on the streets. My brother told me once that, after he had already been “to the street,” my father took him out for a walk. This alone signaled Important Doings, because my father was not big on walking. The city mailbox was less than one block from our home, and my father used to drive there. Once my dad and Johnnie embarked on this unusual father-son walk, Johnnie could see that my dad was trying to move the conversation in a certain direction. It never happened. Apparently my dad “ran up” on the subject a few times, and then aborted the mission. This unsuccessful attempt at a father-son talk was not exceptional for the times. At least in Irish Catholic families, sex simply wasn’t discussed. Ever. (Even such reticence was a step ahead of the previous generation. When my mother was a child, a boy in her class at Our Lady of Peace School told her what turned out to be the correct facts about how babies are made. Appalled, my mother ran home from school and told her mother what she had learned. Without missing a beat, Mommy Mayme replied, “That’s a dirty lie.” I have no idea when my mother realized that indeed it was not a lie but a Beautiful Truth.

By the time I started in the direction of puberty in the late 1960’s, parents were encouraged—even admonished—to tell their children about sex; learning about it on the streets was no longer acceptable. The sixth grade teachers at Christ King School must have, at some point, informed our parents that we would be talking about sex in Religion class and to be prepared for questions. I think this must be so because one day out of the blue my mother asked me to bring my Religion Textbook home with me. She wanted to look at it. This was an unprecedented and surprising request. Until that moment, I had no real sense that my parents even knew exactly what classes I was taking, much less what books we were reading. Nonetheless, I dutifully complied.

My mother took the textbook from me and took a quick glance at the Table of Contents, then turned to a specific page and read something there. Then she closed the book and handed it back to me, saying “Well, that’s fine.” Deeply intrigued and ever on the alert for Odd Parental Behavior, I noted as best I could where in the book she had looked, and as soon as I had the book back in my possession, I went there.

I found the pertinent paragraphs. It was a section of our book we had not read yet, and it was called God, Sex and You. It was mystifying. Our author started out by telling us that sex is Very Beautiful. Then he said that sex is like a fire. If I put logs into my fireplace and light them on fire, they give the room a lovely glow and lend warmth to all who are gathered. That is, the author pointed out, a Good Fire. A Bad Fire is when, instead of putting logs in the fireplace and lighting a match, I set fire to my whole house.  Such a fire rages out of control quickly and destroys everything in its path. That, the author pointed out, is a Bad Fire. He concluded by saying that sex should always be like the Good Fire and not like the Bad Fire.

I had no idea what they were talking about, and why anyone thought he needed to tell me not to set my own house on fire. I may not have been an “A” student at the time, but I knew not to do that. I didn’t pursue the matter further, though; by that time, I was resigned to the basic strangeness of all adults whenever the word “sex” was spoken.

By the time we actually arrived at this part of the textbook in Religion class, I had a sex5better—though by no means clear—idea of what they were getting at, because my mother had done her maternal duty and taken me to a movie at Christ King School about the Facts of Life.

I do not know the name or provenance of the movie they showed; all sixth grade parents were encouraged to attend along with their child. There were actually two movies, because the boys and their parents were sent to the “big gym” and the girls and their parents were directed to the “small gym.” My father did not go with us, so it was just my mother and me taking our seats while one of the sixth grade teachers welcomed us. I don’t know if the boys and the girls were shown the same film, but I doubt it. Our film involved a lot of information that I realize, in retrospect, would never have been deemed suitable for the boys.

I have only very dim memories of the film, but three things stayed with me: first, it opened with scenes from the Garden of Eden; we saw Adam and Eve looking happy and healthy, and then God pointing out a few trees that were Strictly Off Limits, and then the snake showed up and things spiraled downward from there. It was a familiar story. The one scene from this part of the film that I remember vividly was the moment when Adam and Eve were kicked out of the Garden. There they stood, with their hair and/or hands strategically covering their private parts, looking extremely sad. Behind them a very angry angel glared in their direction and slid a golden spear through the handles of the Gates of Paradise, shutting them out for good.

Having heard this story many times, both at Christ King School and at mass, I admit that my mind started to wander at this point. We had had to leave the house immediately after dinner to make it to the film on time, and so dessert had not been served. I knew there was some butter pecan ice cream in the freezer and some Hershey’s Syrup in the fridge. I was musing on this pleasant prospect when I realized that the film had exited Genesis and was now showing scenes of Typical Young People Doing Fun Young People Things. I was not a typical young person, though I often longed to be, and my ideas of fun almost never meshed with what other young people did, so whenever I was offered a peek into scenes from a typical life, I soaked them up with the passion of an anthropologist.

bowling2The Typical Fun Girls in this movie were, at first, having milkshakes together at an ice cream store (very nearly derailing my focus back to that butter pecan ice cream awaiting me at home), and then they all went bowling together. Over the pictures of these smiling, happy young women, the narrator intoned the information that “something was going to happen to me.” Soon. Now they had my attention. What was going to happen to me?

I am pretty sure I paid close attention at that point but I surely must have missed some crucial bit of information, because now the narrator was telling us that as a result of this thing that was going to happen, there would be times during the month when I would feel lethargic and even cranky. At those times, I would not want to go bowling with the gang. However, the narrator encouraged me, I should go bowling nonetheless; it was very important that I bowl, no matter how I felt.

This seemed to me to be a very badly made movie. I had no idea why we moved from Adam and Eve to this bowling scenario. We were still years away from Rotten Tomatoes back in 1969, but this film would have scored abysmally on my Tomatometer. After the exhortation about bowling, there were some diagrams of what looked like part of the engine of my father’s car—tubes and knobs and a central joining-up place—that the narrator said was my Female Reproductive System. He went on to say that God was amazing, because He had thought so far into my future that I already had all my eggs. “Just think of it!” said the Narrator. “Right now, this very day, you have all of your eggs already in your body!”

I cannot adequately describe how confused I was by this. All my eggs already inside me? I thought. But I eat eggs. Eggs that are clearly outside me and then I eat them and only then are they inside me. They are never “already there.” Should I not be eating extra eggs, since I already have the eggs I need right there inside me? Before I could ponder this weird Narrator Side Trip, however, the lights came up. The movie was over.

On the way home from Christ King School that night, my mother asked me if I understood the film. “Yes,” I replied honestly. I thought I did understand it; I just didn’t think it was very good. I hadn’t been asked for an evaluation, so I didn’t tell her that I had found the movie confusing and not at all well-made. Genesis? Bowling? Eggs? Then my mother asked if I had any questions. I could tell that she hoped that I didn’t, so I did not ask any, but I certainly had some. For starters, I had only been bowling once in my life, and I hated it. I was also terrible at it. Why was it now important that I embrace bowling with my friends? And why was bowling important only at certain times of the month, when I was cranky and out of sorts? Why did we go to school at night just to brush up on the well-known facts of Genesis? And what was the mysterious thing that was going to happen to me? And what was the deal with the eggs?

A few months after the Really Bad Movie about Adam and Eve, Bowling, and Eggs, I read an article in the Milwaukee Journal about a sexual assault. I didn’t know what the phrase “sexual assault” meant, so I asked my mother. She said it was an assault having to do with sex. Well, that was not at all helpful, so I asked her what “sex” was. My brother Johnnie was in the room during this conversation, and he began to chuckle. That was my clue that something was up; I had a clear vibe that information was being withheld.

My mother said that “sex” meant the female sex was a girl and the male sex was a boy. Johnnie’s chuckling intensified, and he said to my mother, “Good one.” Now I was really hot on the scent. They were both holding out on me. At that moment, my mother decided it was time to start making dinner, so she left for the kitchen to assemble grilled cheese sandwiches. I followed her.

I was a child flawed in many ways, but I had some strengths. One of them was doggednss. There was unstated information between Johnnie and my mom, and I was determined to get to the bottom of it. I stood sentinel at the cutting board while my mother methodically placed slices of Kraft American Cheese on individual slices of bread and topped them with tomato, green pepper and onions. I pushed and pushed for the information I wasn’t getting, and finally my mother erupted with, “Ok! Sex is what happens when the penis is inserted into the vagina!” As my mother continued slapping sandwiches together, I felt as if actual dawn were breaking over my consciousness; it was one of the few moments in my life when I felt literally enlightened. “That’s why husbands and wives sleep in the same bed!” I crowed. My mother agreed that yes, that was so, but even then I could see that she thought it an odd response.  She must also have been confused as to why this was such news to me; after all, she had done her due diligence: she taken me to the film at school and she had even asked if I had had any questions.

At some point I made the connection between my mother’s startling fact about intercourse and that time of the month when I would feel cranky and out of sorts. Unlike a lot of girls my age, I was eager for that part of puberty to begin. Everyone told me that it would mark the beginning of My Life as a Woman, and I was ready. Childhood had not held many charms for me, and I was ready to move on.

I kept careful watch for what my mother told me was called “My Period.” No one told me that when that rite of passage was on the near horizon, my body would change in some other startling ways. Thus it was an unhappy surprise when I went to bed one night and realized that my chest has taken on a disturbing life of its own. I didn’t have breasts, but out of nowhere my nipples were starting to swell up. That can’t be good, I thought to myself, and figured I just might be getting cancer. The thought of asking my mother any more questions in this area was not appealing, so I took matters into my own hands, and tried to pop them with a safety pin.

That did not go well. In fact, it hurt. A lot. Still not in the mood to approach my mother, I told my sister Susan I might be dying, and showed her my chest. Susan studied my chest sagely, then said, “You don’t have cancer. And stop stabbing yourself in the chest. It’s weird. It’s all just part of the whole thing that happens when you get your period. And you can’t stop it.”

I asked her if she had already “become a woman.”  “Oh yeah,” she said. “For a few years now.” This was fascinating information for me, as I shared a room with Susan and thought I knew all of her secrets. “Did you know all the facts of life when it happened?” I asked her. “Oh no,” she said casually. “It just came one night when Mom and Dad were out. I thought I was dying of cancer. But I wasn’t. Mom explained when she got home. Then she washed my pajamas.”

Not too long after that conversation, my period arrived. I was so happy. I was a woman. I told my mother and showed her the tiny stain in my underpants. She was prepared, and brought me into her bedroom, opened her chest of drawers, and pulled out a box. In the box were padded things, which she then pinned to a belt she also took out of the box. This was a “sanitary napkin.” I had never seen anything like it. She showed me how to put the belt on, how to pin the pad to the belt, how to pull my underpants up and over this bulky new situation in my swimsuit area. While I was thrilled to be a woman, I found all of these mechanics distasteful and embarrassing. My mother showed me how to wrap a used pad in lots of toilet paper and dispose of it in the wastebasket.

I was not a fan of the mechanics of Becoming a Woman, and by this time, I was eager for the conversation to end. I had no idea how I was expected to live my normal life and still deal with this belt and pin and pad and toilet paper chores. I found out that, in fact, there were now going to be days when I would not be able to go swimming or take a bath. The filmmakers who had been so obsessed with my bowling commitments might have at least mentioned this, I thought.  I actually liked swimming and I loved baths. So far I was hearing nothing pleasant about this great moment when I Became a Woman.

And then I heard some magical words. “When you are at this time of the month,” my mother told me, “You aren’t expected to participate in gym class.” Now there was some good news. I despised gym class for many good reasons. “How do I get out of it? I asked her. “Tell the gym teacher at the start of class that you are having your time of the month,” she told me. I can do that, I thought. I can definitely do that. This news almost offset the creepy parts with the belt and the pins and the no swimming rule.

At my very first opportunity, I told Mr. Landisch, our gym teacher, that I could not participate in gym class because it was my time of the month. Instantly uncomfortable, he nodded and mumbled something and hurried off, clipboard in hand. It was as if I had been given a magical incantation. While my classmates climbed ropes and raced each other on tiny little scooters and picked teams for indoor soccer, I happily sat on the sidelines with my book. As time went on, of course, I could not resist using my Get Out of Gym Free card even when it wasn’t officially required. After a few months of that, though, even Mr. Landisch was not fooled. I used my card one morning, but on that particular day, he bellowed at me across the entire gym, “Maloney, you’ve had your period three weeks in a row!” That was the end of that; I knew I could only use my ironclad excuse once a month. It was still better than nothing.

And as for bowling—I didn’t bowl again for at least twenty years. I was still terrible at it. But I felt just fine.

bowl1

 

 

1968: Viet Nam. Denny Dies.

10245330_10154009475955117_5676306687988169273_nLike most families, we split holiday celebrations between my mother’s family (Christmas) and my father’s family (Thanksgiving and Easter). We spent Thanksgiving at the McCall’s; my aunt Mary Clare was my father’s only sibling and she lived on the north side of Chicago with her husband Fran and their two children, Denny and Dona (I have written about Maloney Thanksgivings, see here). Easter was at our house; once we moved to Milwaukee in 1962, the McCall’s made the drive up on Easter Sunday every year and spent the day with us.

Dona was a bit younger than my sister Marbeth and a bit older than my sister Susan. They sort of “shared” her between themselves. (I had no one to play with on my father’s side of the family, and would much rather have been with my cousin Kathy, the daughter of my mother’s only sibling, Bernadette.) Denny also fell between my two brothers in age, and the three boys were inseparable. As the youngest Maloney, I barely registered on Denny and Dona’s radar screen; they were nearly teenagers by the time I was born, and their lives were utterly remote from mine. I was as uninterested in them as they were in me.

My mother, for reasons that were always murky to me, would turn into a tense and volatile woman about two days before Easter. She and my aunt Mary Clare didn’t have a great deal in common, and they were both outspoken. There were clashes. To my child self, my mother’s reaction to a visit from Mary Clare was mysterious. She would clean and clean and clean the house, and then say, as the McCall’s walked up to the front door, “Mary Clare is going to walk in here and say ‘Oh Merc, the house is so clean!’” My mother’s tone would sound as if she had just quoted Mary Clare saying “’Oh Merc, I hate your house, your dress and you.’” Mary Clare always brought a lamb cake to our Easter feast, and lamb cakes were, we kids thought, really cool. We would ooh and ahh over the sculpted and coconut-iced lamb, only to have my mother hiss later that the cake was stale and not at all tasty.

easter table
Easter Table with Lamb Cake

It didn’t help matters, family-relationship wise, that my father, Mary Clare and Fran enjoyed their drinks and tended to consume quite a few of them. Nor did it help that the McCall’s were staunch Republicans, whereas my parents were Democrats. Every Easter, by the time dinner was over and we were ready to dig into that (stale, my mother would remind us) lamb cake, three of the four grownups were well into their cups and all of them were happy to express their opinions in loud and take-no-prisoners voices.

In 1968, the Easter post-dinner pre-lamb cake conversation lurched into politics. We were only ten days out from the assassination of Martin Luther King on April 4, and America was in turmoil, with riots erupting in Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles, and even Milwaukee. My brother Johnnie, who by then was twenty-one years old, somehow decided it was a good idea to announce to the table that he planned to vote for Bobby Kennedy for President. (Of course, none of us could know that Bobby Kennedy would be assassinated after winning the California primary in June, just two months from that Easter night.)

Mary Clare and Fran were convinced that the Democrats were at fault for getting the United States mired in the Viet Nam War, so Johnnie’s announcement was not received well. He was loudly criticized, and my mother, feeling protective of Johnnie, jumped to his defense. Things escalated from there, until my mother decided her best option was to begin clearing the table in hope that it would end the conversation. Mary Clare was having none of that, and screamed at my mother for being a Democrat when she–my mother–had a twenty-one and a nineteen year old son, and Mary Clare’s son was twenty. She told my mother that if the Democrats won the election, her sons would die in Viet Nam. I was the youngest person at the table that night, but even I knew that a line had been crossed. I have no memory of what followed upon that declaration, but somehow the conversation ended and we all moved on to the living room and away from the lamb cake, the ugly fight, and the specter of Viet Nam.

Shortly after Easter, my mother and father left for Kemper Insurance’s annual “business trip” that was in fact their yearly vacation/getaway from the children. We kids were always very happy about these trips, because it meant that our grandmothers, Mommy Mayme and Mimi, would come up from Chicago on the train to take care of us. Mimi died in 1965, so after that it was just Mommy Mayme, but a week or two under her benevolent and forgiving gaze was always a nice break from the status quo.

About four days into our parents’ trip and Mommy Mayme’s visit, I came home from Christ King School to find Mommy Mayme sitting portentously in the living room. I was nine years old and in the fourth grade; my biggest concern that day was whether my teacher, Sr. Achillea, was going to keep me after school every day that week until I could pass my Music Appreciation Test. Other than dealing with Sr. Achillea, my major preoccupation at the time was my continuing quest to get a dog. (We did in fact have a dog for a short time in 1966, but Connie Jean was sickly and she lived with us for less than a week. Having Connie Jean had only whetted my desire for my own dog. For more about the dogs in my life, click here.)

When I walked in the door that May afternoon in 1968, I knew immediately that Something Big was going on. Mommy Mayme looked more serious than I had ever seen her. Being nine years old limited my capacity for imagining possibilities, and I immediately hoped that she was going to tell me that we were getting a dog. This, of course, made absolutely no sense; my parents weren’t even home, and Mommy Mayme was in no position to make decisions about acquiring new family pets. The ways of the grownup world were mysterious to me, though, and especially in my house, strange things could just happen. (Just two years after this May day in 1968, I would in fact wake up to find out that we now owned a golden retriever named Cheddar because my father had agreed to take him in after a very festive evening of dinner and many drinks with friends; for more about that, see here.)

Mommy Mayme, however, was not saying anything about a dog. She was talking about a car accident. There had been a crash in Chicago, she said, and Denny was dead. She said those words—“Denny is dead”—and sat back a bit, looking at me gravely. No doubt it had been a very long time since Mommy Mayme had been in charge of delivering such important news. As the earliest child home from school that day, I was her first audience.

I am pretty sure that my reaction was a disappointment. After hearing that Denny was dead, I was quiet for a moment and then asked if I could go upstairs. Mommy Mayme asked me if I had any questions about what happened; I did not. Maybe I was in shock, but I was also nervous about how different my grandmother seemed from her usual cheerful self. Not having ever experienced this solemn version of her, I just wanted to absent myself from the situation until I figured out what she wanted from me. I went upstairs and pulled out my book; I was happily lost in the fictional world of Nancy Drew when, a few minutes later, I heard my sister Susan downstairs, wailing loudly and sobbing. So disconnected was I from the drama of Mommy Mayme’s earlier announcement downstairs that I wondered what Susan was so upset about.

Venturing into the living room to find out what was going on in there, I found Susan sitting on the same spot I had occupied earlier near Mommy Mayme’s chair, her face streaked red and her nose streaming with snot, crying loudly. “Susan!” I yelled. “What is the matter with you?” She howled in reply, “Denny’s dead!” Ah, I thought. That. Yes. I could see that Mommy Mayme was much more gratified by Susan’s response to this terrible news. I was grateful to my sister for supplying the drama that the situation called for. Susan told me the details of Denny’s death; when Mommy Mayme had asked me whether I had any questions, I hadn’t thought to ask for the details, but Susan had.

denny diedDenny had been riding “shotgun” in his friend’s car the night before when the friend lost control of the wheel and hit three parked cars. The driver had suffered only a minor scratch on his hand; Denny’s head had been smashed on impact by something in or outside the car. He had been taken to a hospital and he had died there. Mary Clare and Fran’s parish priest had given him Extreme Unction, as the Sacrament of the Sick was still being called in 1968. After Denny stopped breathing, the attending physician removed his class ring and gave it to Mary Clare.

My parents, of course, were called and immediately came home. My sister Marbeth was married and living in Minneapolis by then with her husband Mel and their two babies, John and Sarah. My brother Johnnie called and told her. I don’t know how or when my brothers heard about Denny, though I am sure Mommy Mayme must have told them as well. They were both very close to their only boy cousin, and it must have been a wrenching blow.

It was already becoming unusual in the 1960’s to have a wake that lasted more than one night, but Denny’s wake spanned two nights. We drove back and forth between Chicago and Milwaukee three times in a row—once for each wake, and then for the funeral. By the time Denny died, I had been to several wakes; my Grandpa Din died when I was three years old (for more about that, here) and my grandmother Mimi died when I was six. As the child of Irish parents from Chicago, I had also been to a good number of other wakes as well. By the time I was nine, I was a seasoned wake-goer. Nothing had prepared me, however, for the wake of a twenty year old boy.

Because Denny’s head had been crushed, the casket was closed, with Denny’s high school graduation picture perched on the closed lid.  I had never been to a closed casket wake, and it made the reality seem much more ominous somehow—no opportunity to witness Denny looking peaceful and “at rest”—the fact of that closed lid spoke of violence and harm too terrible for any of us to see. The funeral home was packed with teenagers and young people, and I was bowled over by the drama of their anguish. One young man threw himself on Denny’s casket, wailing loudly. As jarring as all that drama was, however, even more ominous to me was Mary Clare’s serenity. She was sitting in a chair near her son’s casket, greeting guests and even smiling a bit. Seeing that, I turned to Mommy Mayme with my eyebrows raised; before I could even ask what was going on, she leaned over and said, “The doctor gave her some drugs, thank God, and she isn’t having to feel anything.” Oh, I thought to myself. Well, I hope he gave her a lifetime supply.

I could not imagine how Mary Clare was ever going to survive this catastrophe. Denny and Dona were her entire world and now Denny was gone for good. The finality of that closed casket really brought it home to me. On the way home from the first night of the wake, I asked my mother why God had let Denny die when he was just twenty years old.  My mother told me that God has a special plan for every single person, and when a person’s special plan was completed, he went to heaven. Since God had taken Denny, she explained, he must have already fulfilled God’s special plan for his life. Hearing that, I was really sorry for Denny that his special plan meant he would miss so much of life—falling in love, getting married, having kids of his own, all the Christmases and Easters and summer vacations he would never have. That night, I prayed that God had a long term plan in mind for me; I was a lot more wary around God after Denny died, because He seemed suddenly very unpredictable.

The death of a young man is no doubt always a surreal and unnatural experience; our sorrow and confusion over Denny’s death was compounded rather than alleviated by his funeral mass. Denny died just as the changes wrought by Vatican II were starting to show up in the liturgy. The old “Dies Irae” dark-and-gloomy approach to Catholic funerals had been abruptly jettisoned and replaced with a liturgy that focused exclusively on the joy of the resurrection. While this new liturgy might have seemed fitting had we encountered it for the first time at the funeral of an elderly aunt or uncle, it was jarring at this funeral mass. The priest’s vestments were white—for joy–and there seemed to be nothing but constant talk of the Resurrection and how happy we were. My parents were utterly dumbfounded, and even I felt weird about all the joyful talk when this young man was just arbitrarily snatched from his life and his family. My mother said later that the entire experience was just awful, because we had to pretend to be joyful and sing Alleluia when a twenty year old boy was inexplicably lying in a coffin in front of the altar.

After the mass concluded, we got into our cars and drove to All Saints Cemetery. Here, too, things were different. The focus was on new life, not death, and so there was no prayer at Denny’s grave and we did not see him lowered into the earth. Instead, we said our goodbyes to his casket in the little chapel at the cemetery and then we were sent home.  Back at Mary Clare and Fran’s apartment, I was shocked to see platters of food everywhere, as if we were going to have a party. To my literal fourth grade mind, this was no time for sandwiches. Who could eat at such a time? Apparently, as I soon discovered, a great many people. Before long, the apartment was packed with people who were drinking and smoking and acting as if this were just another get-together. I often wondered about the strange ways of grownups but never more than I did on that day, staring at a platter of sliced meats while people stood around drinking high balls and laughing, as if we hadn’t just left my cousin at a cemetery in Des Plaines, Illinois when he should have been in his back bedroom next to the kitchen, listening to his beloved 45’s and goofing off with my brothers.

Unsurprisingly, Mary Clare and Fran never fully “recovered” from the loss of their son; always drinkers, they drank even more after Denny died.  Their loss was unfathomable to us; Denny’s death was the greatest calamity our family had ever suffered. Just three years later, Fran would die of a massive coronary while driving to my brother Johnnie’s wedding, but of course we didn’t know that then. Nor did we know on the day that we buried Denny that in a little over a year the United States would conduct its first Draft Lottery; the order in which young men would be drafted for service in Viet Nam would be determined by a random draw of balls inscribed with birth dates.

Every family in America watched the television that night, mesmerized and filled with

boys
The Boys: Johnnie, Jamie and Denny

dread, fearing that their beloved brothers, sons, and husbands would be the unlucky losers. As the balls were drawn, we Maloney’s heaved sighs of relief–both of my brothers, Johnnie born October 17 and Jamie born October 27, were safe. The second birthday drawn that night, however, was Denny’s—April 24. At our Easter table just two weeks before Denny was killed, his mother had wailed her fear that Viet Nam would kill our family’s sons. When they drew Denny’s birth date out of that barrel and my father repeated it incredulously—almost to himself—I remember thinking that grownups almost always worry about the wrong things.

Terror in Aruba, Or: Another Maloney Family Vacation

use-aruba-posterIn the summer of 1969, my father decided that we needed a family vacation, and chose Aruba as our destination. Aruba was such an obscure place at that time that most people had never even heard of it, much less traveled there. About three hotels had been built, with more to come, because gambling was legal in Aruba.  This vacation meant that all four of us Maloney children were going to leave the country for the first time (my sister Marbeth was married by then, and off on adventures of her own), which was exciting. We had to get vaccinated for smallpox, which was also exciting. My father had to get new passports for himself and for my mother, which was more exciting than it probably should have been. When he asked the clerks of Cook County, Illinois, for a copy of her Birth Certificate, they calmly informed him that my mother didn’t exist. Since he was really sure that she did exist, my father was disgusted with the obviously incompetent clerks in the Cook County Records Office, and he let them know that in some very colorful language.  Despite my father’s best efforts, Cook County was implacable.  There did not exist a birth certificate for anyone named Mercedes Lynch. Frustrated by this Typical Government Incompetence, he stomped home one afternoon complaining loudly (and colorfully) about this situation. My grandmother, Mommy Mayme, was visiting us and she asked my dad what on earth he was going on about. “According to the %^&^ clerks at Cook County,” he said, “Mercedes doesn’t exist!”

“Oh,” my grandmother said serenely. “That’s because her name is Loraine.” My father was not an easily surprised man, but this was a surprise. He had been married to my mother for twenty four years, which was a lot of time to be in the dark about her actual name. Mommy Mayme and Grandpa George had a somewhat unusual marriage in that they often operated in separate orbits that occasionally intersected. Grandpa George was out with his friends celebrating the birth of his daughter when the people in charge of birth certificates made their rounds in the hospital where Mommy Mayme gave birth. They asked my grandmother what her baby’s name was and she told them it was Loraine. From that day forward, Cook County knew her as Loraine Lynch.

Either no one told Grandpa George, or he heard the name and rejected it. When my mother was born, my grandfather was reading The Count of Monte Cristo and liked the name of one of the characters: Mercedes. My mother was baptized Mercedes Marie Lynch. All of this was news to my father. (Years later, we found out that my mother’s sister Bernadette was—according to Cook County—actually named Virginia Alice. My grandparents really did need to work on their communication skills).Once my father knew my mother’s actual name, he obtained a passport for her and we were off on our Aruba Adventure.

I was thrilled to be on this trip. The first thrill was flying in an airplane. We flew KLM and they were very nice to children; I was provided with a free toy (a small toy like a Lite Brite without lights) and as much pop as I wanted. Always interested in food, I was eager to be served a whole meal right there on the airplane. My disappointment was deep when our food came and it turned out to be eggs with some sort of foul smelling red sauce splashed all over them. My father told me that this was a dish called Huevos Rancheros, but to my eight year old self it looked like a crime scene. I stuck to pop.

I am not sure what time we were scheduled to arrive in Aruba, but we touched down very late at night. The late flight was no doubt cheaper, and my father was on the lookout to cut every corner he could: bringing his wife and four children to a Caribbean Paradise must

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I was promised a licorice drink.

have cost a good bit of money. Even though we arrived at our seaside hotel in the deep of the night, I was wide awake. I needed to stay alert, because there was going to be a special licorice drink waiting for me at the hotel, and I didn’t want to miss it. I knew about this special licorice drink because my Dad had shown me the brochure for the hotel when he was planning our trip. The brochure portrayed beautiful men and women strolling along white beaches sipping cocktails. “Come to Aruba!” it said. “When you arrive, we will greet you with our special licorice drink!”

To my considerable dismay, when we walked into the lobby—six exhausted Maloneys and a great deal of luggage—there no drinks of any kind in evidence. There wasn’t even any licorice. There were no beautiful people strolling the beach, or even lolling around in chairs in the lobby. I tugged on my mother’s sleeve as we headed to the elevator and whispered, “Mom! What about our special licorice drink?” Bleary-eyed and pale with exhaustion, my mother said, “What? What are you talking about? Get in the elevator.”  My Aruba vacation began in bitter disappointment and I muttered something under my breath about false advertising. For the duration of our stay, I never stopped looking around for some hotel staff to offer me that licorice drink that was mine by right.

My dad had reserved two rooms: one for my brothers and himself, another for my mother, my sister Susan and me. The rooms were very nice and the beds inviting; after a long trip, we all went to bed. That first night was by far the most comfortable night we spend in our hotel, through no fault of the hotel. Whenever we stayed in hotels, my dad was always resolute that we would squeeze every ounce of value out of his investment. That meant that from the moment we walked into a hotel room until the moment we left, the thermostat was set to temperatures so cold that we would ache with it; in Aruba, we had a balcony attached to our room and every morning as soon as I woke up I scurried out to that balcony to warm up enough to move my arms and legs without pain. We also kept all the lights on until we went to sleep and we always had the television on. Electricity came free with the room, so we made sure to get our money’s worth and more.

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My father took this picture of me from his balcony next door.

The balcony we used for thawing out was lovely; it looked out over the Caribbean Sea and the hotel swimming pool. The moment I saw the Olympic-sized pool and high dive, I knew where I would be spending most of my time. I loved pools of all sorts, and usually had to be called out of the water whenever I was around one, my fingers and toes wrinkled as raisins. To my surprise, the pool in Aruba was filled with salt water. After the first shocking mouthful of salt, I adjusted and then I couldn’t get enough of that pool. The high dive that would no doubt cause night terrors for anyone writing an insurance policy for a hotel today, but we kids adored it, and had a great deal of fun jumping off. We eagerly reprised our stunt from the Three Coins Motel in Las Vegas; (here) we did have the good sense, at least, to confine our “jumping off the diving board while seated on lawn chairs” activities to the low dive. Aruba was a very laid-back place, and the Hotel’s philosophy was apparently “Be Stupid At Your Own Risk.” We certainly took them up on that offer.

My father not only brought us to this Island Paradise; he laid out some serious money so that we could have some Authentic Island Adventures. On our second day there, he announced that he and my brothers would be going scuba-diving and my mother, my sister and I would be renting Sea Jeeps. Since I wasn’t at the Scuba-Diving Event, I cannot tell the story of what happened there. I remember only that my father’s oxygen tank somehow ended up on the bottom of the Caribbean Sea and my brothers are still amazed, fifty years later, that he lived.

I do, of course, remember the Sea Jeeps. My father, finished defying death in Scuba Gear, was there to see us enjoy our motorized frolic in the Caribbean Sea. My mother went first, and she seemed to enjoy zipping around the water at the speed of about twenty miles per hour. Once she was ashore, I think my sister Susan must have gone next, although I have no memory of her on the Sea Jeep. It’s possible that I was so panicked about my turn on the Sea Jeep that I didn’t register what was going on immediately beforehand. I had zero desire to ride a Sea Jeep. From what I could see, they went very fast and needed some serious steering. I was clumsy enough in gym class at home to kill myself engaging in such pedestrian activities as riding a scooter across the gym floor or jumping over “the horse.” (here) I shuddered to think what the risks were here, with an actual motor and a Sea in the mix.

Adding to my considerable anxiety was the fact that the minimum age to ride a Sea Jeep was fourteen. I was nine. My father didn’t want me to miss this Fun Experience, and so he lied to the young man in charge of renting the Sea Jeeps and told him I was fourteen. As with the lounge-chair-off-the-diving-board caper, Aruba was very relaxed about enforcing this rule. They were also lassez-faire about life jackets. I knew I was taking my life into my own hands; emerging from this experience alive was my only goal.

The fellow in charge told me to sit down on my Sea Jeep and put my belt on while he told me how to work it. I sat there listening as intently as I could to his fast patter of instructions: once he started the motor, he said, I should head about fifty feet out or so (how far is fifty feet, I wondered), then gently start to turn left and motor around for a while, enjoying the sea breezes and salty air. When my minutes were up and it was time to come in, he continued, he would signal me and I would then turn the Sea Jeep around and head back to shore. It was important, he warned, that I not turn off the engine until I was about ten feet from shore, because the Sea Jeep would stop abruptly as soon as I turned it off. Too far out, and he would have to wade in to get me, and he did not want to have to do that. My head swimming with questions, I nodded dumbly when he asked if I was ready, and he started my Sea Jeep.

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The people on the boat were watching me with horror.

My first discovery was that Sea Jeeps are very speedy. In mere seconds, I was out plenty far, certainly fifty feet if not more. It was definitely time for me to gently turn left as instructed. In my panic, I didn’t have a clue which way left actually was, so I turned the wheel and hoped for the best. To my horror, I was still heading out to what looked to be the middle of the Caribbean Sea, so I tried again to turn. I was successful the second time, but I was pretty sure I hadn’t gone left because now I was headed directly toward a huge glass-bottomed boat filled with tourists who were looking at me with their mouths open like “O’s.”

Vaguely hearing a lot of screaming from the shore, I turned the Sea Jeep again and missed the Glass Bottomed Boat, though not by much. Thankfully, I was now headed back to shore; there were several people waiting for me who were still yelling and waving their arms frantically. Reminding myself that I was to turn the Sea Jeep off when I was ten feet from shore, I held on for dear life and plowed home to safety. My ability to gauge speed and distance was no better in this direction; I turned the key to “off” about one and half feet from shore. White faced and none too pleased with my father, the fellow in charge barked at me to “Exit the Sea Jeep!” and I gladly complied, grateful to have survived another Maloney Fun Experience.

Our family vacation was divided into two segments: daytime fun and nighttime fun. Once the sun went down in Aruba, my parents and my brothers enjoyed the nighttime fun: gambling in the hotel casino. Unlike the swimming pool and the Sea Jeep Concession, the people in charge of the Casino enforced the Adults Only Rule strictly. Whether because my parents didn’t want my sister Susan to miss the Fun Experience of Losing All Her Money, or because they just didn’t like being told what to do, they decided to dress Susan up one night (she was fourteen) in a dress and my mother’s pearls and high heels, in the hope that she would fool the bouncers and be admitted to the Casino. She was, and so I was alone for one night in Aruba. I missed Susan, and was happy to hear that she had no desire to go back the next night.

Other than the “Let’s Pretend Susan is an Adult” night, I had my sister for company during the long evenings of Adult Gambling. It wasn’t a great deal of fun to be in our hotel room for hours on end, and the Dutch Antilles were not known for their marvelous television programs. Several nights into our enforced room stay, Susan decided that it was time to take matters into our own hands. It was 9:30 at night and we were children in a foreign land, but Susan announced (to my utter joy) that we were going to the beach. Earlier in the afternoon, when we had left the water to come back to the hotel for dinner, Susan thought the surf was just starting to get wavy. We both adore wavy days, and hated to lose what might be our one chance to play in waves, since the Caribbean Sea was almost always as still as glass.

We threw on our bathing suits and grabbed some towels and made our way down to the beach. Once we ran past the pool area and onto the actual sand, the night was as black as ink, and even though we were only feet away from the water, we could only hear it. And we heard waves. Joy! We ran straight ahead toward that siren sound and right into them. These were not small waves, and it was so dark that we could not see each other, our own hands, or the next wave. I remember seeing a sky filled with stars and nothing else. The water and the air were black, and it was easy to lose track of which was which.

Susan, being older and marginally wiser, realized fairly quickly that this escapade was turning very dangerous very fast. Using her most assertive, grownup voice, she shouted at me to head into shore. While things like Sea Jeeps terrified me, I was never afraid of water, even when I should have been. I didn’t want to go in; being in the Caribbean Sea at 10 p.m. in a high surf could was exciting and fun. Certainly mere water couldn’t be hazardous—or, maybe hazardous for other people, certainly not us. It was only when Susan’s voice moved from stern to outright panicked that I reluctantly started paddling toward what I hoped was the shore. It was so dark that we really couldn’t see where we were going.

The only reason we are both alive today is that Susan has a much better internal compass than I do, and she guessed correctly which way we had to go. Even paddling in the right direction, it was an ordeal to get back to sand, because the waves by then were truly impressive. We did make it back, and scampered back to our room to dry off and get back into our pajamas, Susan still trembling. Some sixth sense told us not to mention our late night caper to anyone, and it was years before we told our parents about that night.

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Deep Sea Fishing: The Dream

My father wanted to make sure that we had a lot of Fun Experiences while in Aruba; the Sea Jeep/Scuba Diving Caper wasn’t the end of our Caribbean fun. He decided that we should all have the experience of Deep Sea Fishing. This entailed making arrangements to hire a local fisherman and his boat; our Captain would take us all out into the Deep Sea and provide fishing lines and bait for us. Until I was in Aruba, I didn’t even know that there was such a thing as Deep Sea Fishing, so this did indeed sound like an adventure. We were to meet our Captain at the docks at 5:00 in the morning. Anything that entailed getting up at 5:00 in the morning sounded exciting to me, so when dawn was breaking and my dad woke us up, I bounded right out of my cot and onto the balcony to get the feeling back in my arms and legs and greet the day. My teenaged brothers were less enthusiastic about this awakening.

My dad had directions to the proper dock and knew the name of our boat for the day, so off we went. We found the place and the boat, but there was a man passed out cold on the dock, which was not a sight I had ever seen. My father woke him up, which I thought was a rude if not dangerous thing to do, especially because when the man opened his eyes he looked pretty ill and disheveled. My dad knew something we didn’t know; this man was our Captain for the day. The man pulled himself up, adjusted his pants, and gestured for us to get onto the boat. We were off.

The Caribbean Sea was beautiful, and the early morning air was salty and mild. We all sat in the boat and basked in this loveliness and peace for at least ten minutes. Then my brother Johnnie lurched up, turned around, and vomited over the side. My mother had a fragile stomach, and the sight of Johnnie throwing up, in concert with her own mounting queasiness, had her up and around in no time, also heaving over the side of the boat. My dad, Jamie, Susan and I were grimly holding our own, trying to enjoy the beauty of nature and ignore the hot saliva rushing up into our mouths, when our Captain starting cooking our complimentary breakfast. To our noses, breakfast smelled like fried offal with a side of rotten fish. That was it for us. Only my dad managed not to lose his previous three meals to the Caribbean Sea. The rest of us enjoyed a close-up view of the water directly beneath our streams of vomit.

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Deep Sea Fishing: The Reality

After my dad and our Captain enjoyed their breakfast, accompanied by the soundtrack of Five Heaving Maloneys, it was time to fish. My mother, my siblings and I were in no shape for any activity other than praying for death, but my dad had paid a great deal of money so that we could have this Fun Experience, and we couldn’t bear to let him down. We somehow pulled ourselves away from the sides of our boat and our Captain handed each of us a fishing line, which he had helpfully baited for us. Our bait came out of a big bucket of dead fish under our feet, the sight of which sent my brother Johnnie back to the side of the boat. So far our biggest discovery was just how much a human being could vomit without throwing up his own stomach. Our lines properly baited, we threw them into the Deep Sea and started to fish.

Unluckily for us, the fish in our corner of the Caribbean Sea had extremely high fish I.Q.’s, because every single fish we nearly caught simply ate our bait up to the dead fish head and them swam merrily away, no doubt taunting us as they departed. My brother thought he really had one at one point, and he enthusiastically pulled his line in; our collective thinking was that if we could only each catch a fish, my dad would be satisfied that we had had a Fun Experience and we could get back to what we really longed to do, which was vomit some more and hopefully pass out. When my brother pulled his line, though, once again he had only a dead fish head on the end of it, which swung wildly toward the boat and slapped me square in the face. That was the end of Deep Sea Fishing for me. I thought I had been close to foul smelling fish before, but having one directly applied to my face was enough to finish me off.

Having lost his best shot at catching a fish, my brother was forced back to the side of the boat for the vomiting, but while he had been struggling with his fish, apparently the wind changed direction. We realized this because he vomited into the wind this time. His vomit blew right back in his face and shoulders instead of falling into the Caribbean Sea. He was officially finished with fishing at that moment as well. Along the way, my mother and other siblings had given up and were cradling their heads and moaning softly. My sister Susan started singing under her breath; I heard snatches of The Beach Boys song, “I Wanna Go Home.” We still had a few more hours on the boat, and my dad had paid for the full day of fishing, but even he could see that he was not going to get his money’s worth on this adventure, and that if he insisted we stay the full time out at sea, several of us just might die of dehydration. He told our Captain it was time to go in.

After our day of Deep Sea Fishing, we took a few days to just relax at the hotel and not attempt any Fun Activities whatsoever, which was just fine with me. I loved that pool and the Caribbean Sea was kind of fun, too, even during the day. It wasn’t long  before our last night in Aruba had arrived.  My parents and brothers went to the Casino, and Susan and I were left to entertain ourselves in our room. As on the night of our Wave Adventure, we were bored very quickly. Knowing better now than to go down to the pitch-dark beach, we decided that it couldn’t hurt anyone if we just went down to the pool area. The pool was open but empty, and we didn’t have our bathing suits on, but it was very pretty there with the pool lit up and the Divi-Divi trees swaying in the breeze. My brother Johnnie wandered over and saw us there, and Susan asked him how things were going in the Casino. Not well—not for Johnnie, anyway. He had lost money, and he was feeling downcast. I figured he must be really sad, because his disappointment seemed to have robbed him of the power of speech. He was slurring a lot of his words and stumbling over easy words like “blackjack” and “bankrupt.” Eventually he wandered back off, and Susan told me that no, Johnnie had not suffered a sudden stroke as I feared; he had been drinking. Ah. I knew all about that. I just hadn’t recognized that as something Johnnie did. Lots of things were just different in Aruba.

Susan and I went back to our room, and decided to sit on our lovely balcony and enjoy those sea breezes for the last time. For some reason, my dad came back up to the room, probably to get something he needed down at the Casino, like more money. I did know how my dad seemed when he had been drinking, and I could tell that he had been drinking. Even stone cold sober, my father had a habit of tempting fate in ridiculous and dangerous ways, thus terrifying his children, and a few cocktails only made this side of his personality stronger. My dad started leaning out over the balcony rail, commenting on our lovely view and this lovely trip that was ending the next day. Foolishly, I said, “Daddy, please step back from the railing. You aren’t steady on your feet.”

Of course, that was the worst thing I could have said, because my dad heard it as a fun sort of challenge. He promptly climbed over the balcony rail and stood on the ledge that jutted out about two feet from the rail. There was nothing between my father and the pavement 17 stories below except air. Now I was frankly terrified, and I whispered, as if the very breath of my voice might blow him over, “PLEASE, Daddy, come back over the railing.” His blue eyes twinkling with mischief, he started to bounce softly, up and down, on the two feet of cement. I saw no way he was going to live through this, and I didn’t know what to do. I froze. I don’t know where Susan was, but I don’t think she was there. I couldn’t move or speak—it was, I think, my first moment of utter terror. Seeing no escalation of my challenge—what he took to be a challenge, anyway–he climbed back over the rail, told me to get to bed, and went back downstairs. I didn’t tell anyone about those ten minutes on the balcony, and I am not sure my dad even remembered it. I am very glad that he didn’t die in Aruba in 1969, but I am still amazed that he didn’t fall. Perhaps God didn’t want my poor mother to have to figure out how to transport a dead body and four children back to the United States, and He had mercy on her. As our mother and the wife of Jack Maloney, she had certainly earned a few favors.

Our flight out of Aruba was the following morning, and we were late getting out of bed. The “Farewell to Aruba Tour” had taken a toll on both of my brothers and my father, and they were not feeling so hot. By the time we actually got ourselves to the airport, we had missed the final boarding call. Out of the plate glass window, we could see our plane taxiing away from the gate and gliding toward the runway. My mother gasped, stunned at the sight of her ticket home leaving her behind with all of us and no money.  I have no idea to this day what my father said to the ticket agents at the gate, but they called the plane and the plane stopped. All six Maloneys, suitcases and all, hurried through the gate and out the door of the airport. A portable set of steps was wheeled out from somewhere, the plane door opened, and we climbed aboard. That was fifty years ago, and I have never since seen a plane stopped and reopened for tardy passengers. Say what you will about my father, but he was a heck of a salesman.

poster-arubaMy father wanted us to have an unforgettable and Fun Experience in Aruba. That we certainly did. In fact, certain parts of that vacation are seared into my brain, and I can be heard talking about some of those moments in my sleep even to this day. I think of our Aruba adventure whenever I see a Glass Bottomed boat, a Sea Jeep, a fish head or a man jumping up and down on two feet of cement suspended seventeen stories in the air. Oh wait; I never saw that sight again. Thank God. Satisfied that he had done his fatherly duty and given us a great vacation, my father headed back to home and ordinary time with his lovely wife Mercedes. I mean Loraine.

 

My Love of Barbie Leads to a Criminal Act (and a Vision of my Future).

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Me with Mimi and my Grandpa Din Shortly Before He Died

From the age of four onward, I was an ardent Barbie fan. My first Barbie doll was a gift from my grandmother Mimi and my Grandpa Din on my fourth birthday. Actually, it was my sister Susan’s ninth birthday, but we celebrated both birthdays on the same day. Moving a birthday to the nearest convenient date was never a thing in my family; my parents reasoned that a birthday is a chance every year to say to the celebrant, “You matter deeply to us and so we are stepping out of ordinary time and celebrating the day you were born.” Such sentiment lost considerable steam, they thought, if the postscript was, “So let’s find a convenient date for us to tell you that.”

So it had not been the plan back in 1963 to combine our birthdays. The original plan had been to celebrate my birthday on November 11 with a family trip to the Milwaukee Athletic Club for “Family Swim.” I loved the MAC and adored Family Swim, because it was the only time that women and girls were allowed to use the Men’s Pool, which was huge and had a high dive. As if that weren’t spectacular enough, there was a snack bar right next to the pool that sold things like hot dogs and pop. I could not imagine a better birthday. We never got to go, however, because on November 10, my Grandpa Din suddenly died. His death was a profound shock to my parents and siblings, but I was four years old, so my reaction was deep disappointment at the loss of my birthday party.

The next few days were taken up with Grandpa Din’s wake and funeral in Chicago, so by the time everyone was ready to celebrate my fourth birthday, it was Susan’s ninth birthday and we celebrated both. I was thrilled when I opened my present from Mimi—my first Barbie doll, “Bubble Cut Barbie.” I was also confused, because the card was signed, “Mimi and Grandpa Din.” I knew Grandpa Din was dead. My theology was a bit fuzzy, as is true, I think, for most four year olds. Still, I was pretty sure that the people in heaven did not purchase Bubble Cut Barbies and sign birthday cards. I remember looking at the card and saying, “But Grandpa Din is dead,” and Mimi telling me that he had sent my gift from heaven. So apparently heaven was a place that gave eternal happiness and provided Bubble Cut Barbies. It was years before I sorted all of this out.

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Grandma Barbie

I loved that first doll because she was mine, but she was odd. Unlike any Barbie I had ever seen, my Barbie’s Bubble Cut was silver. When I played with my friends, they snickered at my “Grandma Barbie,” and I didn’t blame them. I envied Susan, whose Bubble Cut Barbie had orange-ish hair. Looking back, I am not sure why orange hair was more appealing than gray, but it was. A recurring story line in those years was one in which my silver haired Barbie snagged a boyfriend and brought him home, only to have him stolen away by the more beautiful and alluring orange haired

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Susan’s Barbie

Barbie.

Right from the start, I loved to play Barbie; it was a way to make up stories in my head without the nasty repercussions that often followed when I did that in my real life. These stories were limited, however, by the fact that I had just the one doll. I needed a cast of characters. I filled the void by imagining an entire world for my Barbie; this entailed some awkward moments. Susan and I, for example, had to pretend to be our Kens, which wasn’t always easy, especially when it came to kissing. Kissing our own Barbie dolls while pretending to be their boyfriends was just weird.  I was really happy on my fifth birthday when I unwrapped my first Ken doll. About six weeks later, I received Skipper, Barbie’s little sister, for Christmas. Things were looking up.

skipperSkipper was a big hit in Barbie World, and so it wasn’t long before Mattel introduced  yet another sister, this one named Tutti.  Tutti was adorable, and of course I wanted her very badly. My mother thought that Barbie, Ken and Skipper were more than sufficient for my needs, and I despaired of receiving a Tutti doll anytime soon. Luckily for me, however, a birthmark on my neck starting to morph into something ominous right around that very time, and I had to go to the hospital to have it removed. That hospital visit turned out to be my ticket to a Tutti doll.

I had been born with the birthmark, and it was impressive. By the time I knew I had it, which coincided with the time when other children started pointing it out, it was the size of a silver dollar pancake. My cousin Kathy, who loved me, called it my “chocolate mark,” but everyone else was considerably less kind. The doctor told my mother that my birthmark, while ugly, was not dangerous unless it began to get bigger, darker, or start growing hair. When I was nine, it started to do all three, and in the summer of fifth grade, he said it had to go.

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Tutti

I was thrilled. That birthmark had been nothing but trouble for me. It was just one more thing that caused other kids to steer clear of me or worse, make fun of me. I couldn’t wait to see it disappear. Its removal required an overnight hospital stay, and while I was convalescing, the wife of one of my father’s clients at Kemper Insurance sent me a present—Tutti. I was thrilled. My Barbie family was complete for several months, and I happily incorporated Tutti into my storylines. I couldn’t imagine needing anything more to enhance my Barbie Universe. Then I saw an ad for Barbie’s cousin Francie.

Whereas Barbie was a bit formidable with her heavily made up eyes, red lips, permanently misshapen feet, narrow waist and huge bosom, Francie seemed younger, sweeter, nicer, and prettier. Francie had longer hair that fell softly to her shoulders, and flirty bangs. My cousin Kathy had a Francie, and I wanted one, too.

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Ever-Stylish Francie

Always on the lookout for an opportunity to inspire me to lose some weight, my mother seized upon my lust for Francie. She promised me that if I lost ten pounds, Francie would be mine. I readily agreed to this plan, and I was determined to lose the pounds as quickly as possible by eating less and exercising more. Uncoordinated and lazy, I had never been a fan of exercise, so I decided to walk a mile or so to Mayfair every day after school, where I could gaze at Francie dolls and deliberate about which one to take home when the weight was gone. Blond? Brunette? I couldn’t decide but it didn’t matter, because all of the Francies were adorable. Even Francie’s clothes were cuter than Barbie’s.

Despite my sincere attempt to cut back on eating and ramp up on exercise, I wasn’t losing any weight. This was a distressing situation, and I railed at the injustice of the universe. My grandmother, Mommy Mayme, was visiting, and one day she found me crying in my bedroom. When she asked me what on earth was wrong, I told her the whole sad tale: my need for Francie, my mother’s bargain, my body’s stubborn unwillingness to do anything I wanted it to do, my general misery. For a moment, Mommy Mayme didn’t say anything. Then, she said, “Maybe you should just dial the scale back before zero; that’s the fastest way to lose weight.” I have no idea why Mommy Mayme thought this was a good suggestion to make to me; for all I know, she was joking. If she was being facetious, however, I was not. This plan actually made sense to me.

My entire weight loss was being done on the “honor system.” No one else was looking on as I weighed myself every morning; my mother trusted me to let her know when the pounds were gone. Despite the fact that no one was checking the numbers on our pink bathroom scale except me, I began to dutifully move the dial incrementally back behind zero so that it looked as if I were losing weight.

I figured it was plausible that I would lose ten pounds in about a month. So I paced my francie1scale-managing system to create this faux ten pound weight loss about thirty days into our agreement. On the appointed day, I turned the scale back to negative ten and announced my ten pound “weight loss.” My mother seemed disappointed that I looked no different, and none of my clothes fit any better, but a deal was a deal and she trusted me. She gave me the money to buy my Francie, and I did; I bought a brunette Francie whom I adored every bit as much as I thought I would. Francie became the ingénue in all my stories, and Bubble Cut Barbie was relegated to the role of wise-cracking older sister. My mother never asked if I was regaining the weight, and she never challenged my claim to have lost it. It was, however, her last attempt to bribe me into going on a diet.

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Twist N Turn Barbie

I was content in my Barbie universe for a while, and then Mattel revolutionized the world for young girls everywhere by coming out with “Twist N Turn” Barbie. Before the advent of Twist N Turn Barbie, all of the dolls were made entirely of rigid plastic. Barbie and Ken always had

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Awkward Hug

strange hugs and kisses, because their arms stuck straight out every time they “embraced.” They also sat in a weird way, because their legs didn’t bend at any point. Twist N Turn Barbie changed all of that.  Her knees bent! Her waist twisted! Her arms were still ramrod straight, but this was major Barbie progress.

I didn’t hold out much hope of receiving a Twist N Turn Barbie, because I already owned more Barbie dolls than my mother deemed necessary, but when I found out that my cousin Kathy had received one for Christmas, I was bereft. I wanted one, too. My mother took pity on me when she saw me gazing at Kathy’s doll, and she relented. My Confirmation gift in March that year was my first Twist N Turn Barbie. I had become a Soldier for Christ, and it was already paying off.

Once I had my Twist N Turn Barbie, my other Barbies seemed more problematic. I still loved Francie, because she was so cool that she could overcome anything, even unbendable legs, but my Bubble Cut Barbie was dated and old; after all, she had always had grey hair. I wanted another Twist N Turn Barbie. I had no means to obtain one, but that didn’t stop my wanting.

Then, one day my mother and I were visiting my sister Marbeth at her apartment building on the south side of town. That building seemed like heaven on earth to me, because it was a high rise on Lake Michigan with its own swimming pool and a little grocery store in the lobby. Whenever Marbeth ran out of something or needed something small, she could just pop down to that little store and buy it, which was a big help to someone who was home all day with two babies under the age of three.

On this particular day, we needed something at the little grocery store. My mother fished a five dollar bill out of her purse and sent me down to get it.  It might have been a loaf of bread; I don’t remember what it was, but I do remember that I handed the clerk the five dollar bill and she gave me change for a ten. I saw immediately what she had done, and I had a very fleeting impulse to say something to her. I said nothing, though. I took the change and made my way upstairs, thinking I would tell my mother and sister about it and go right back downstairs to give back the extra five dollars.  But a Twist N Turn Barbie cost four dollars. I could keep the money and buy myself the new Barbie I coveted.  I kept the money and said nothing to anyone.

The following Monday after school, I took the bus to Mayfair (no walking that day; I was

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Raven-Haired Beauty

flush with cash) and I bought my new Barbie at Gimbel’s Department Store. With the money I had left over, I went to the in-store lunch counter, named Tasty-Town, and ordered myself a plate of French Fries and a chocolate milkshake. I felt very strange, sitting at the counter all by myself, ordering and paying for my own food. I also felt guilty, and worried that the clerk at Marbeth’s store had gotten into trouble when the money came up missing at the end of the day. I wished, sitting there in Tasty Town,  that I could feel happy about my new Barbie; she was the most beautiful Barbie I had ever seen, with waist-length glossy black hair and big blue eyes, but I couldn’t shake my worry and guilt. I decided, by the time I finished my snack, that what was done was done. I had kept the money, bought the doll and consumed the food. Now I had to forget about the clerk and the fact that the money wasn’t mine and move forward.

That wasn’t easily done, especially in my Catholic world of mass, examination of conscience and confession. (For more about my adventures with the sacrament of confessions, click here) I knew I had to confess about the five dollars, and I dreaded it. I was terrified that Father would tell me to come clean with my mother and/or pay back the store. Either possibility terrified me. I was so worried about my potential penance, in fact, that I went to confession a few times without confessing the theft, which only made things exponentially worse. Not only was I still carrying the sin of stealing, but now I was adding on the sin of knowingly concealing a sin in the confessional. I was soaking in sin.

After a few months, the anxiety of all this sinning overtook the anxiety of my sin’s possible ramifications, and I confessed the whole sorry tale—the clerk, the money I kept, the Barbie, the French Fries—I let it all out. Father Stommel, on the other side of the grid in the confessional, asked me how much money it was, and I told him it was five dollars. I held my breath, heart hammering wildly, and Father said, “Well, that’s not a mortal sin. A mortal sin is a theft of more money than that.” Really? This was news to me, but welcome news it was. For my venial sin, I had only to say two Hail Marys and two Our Fathers. Nothing was said about restitution or telling my mother. I think the “kinder, gentler” Vatican II approach was thoroughly in play by then, and I was only too happy to be coddled by the “Spirit of Vatican II.”

Even though I had clearance from On High, I always felt a nagging dissatisfaction with my raven-haired Twist ‘n Turn Barbie. Her most beautiful feature was that long hair, and one day I decided out of the blue that she needed a haircut. I cut off all of her hair, almost certainly a form of self-created penance. I never stopped playing with her, though.

I played Barbie by myself a great deal, but I also I loved playing with my sister Susan and my cousin Kathy. The summer of fifth grade, Kathy and I stayed at Mommy Mayme’s apartment in Chicago for two glorious weeks. It was one of my best vacations ever, and we had a very specific routine for our days. Upon waking, we would amble down to Lake Street and stop at Woolworth’s for lunch. (We slept late.) Kathy would order a hamburger, fries and Coke and I would order a hot dog, fries and Coke. After we polished off lunch, we would stop at the candy counter and buy a pound of Tootsie Rolls each. (My father used to call our time together “The Bobbsey Twins Visit Calorie Farm.” He had reason to do so.) The bag of Tootsie Rolls was our sustenance until dinner, or until we reached the Carriage Trade, an ice cream shop on Lake Street. We loved sitting inside actual carriages and ordering our Junior Hot Fudge Sundaes. On Carriage Trade days, we often had some trouble working up our appetite for dinner. Usually, though, we managed. After dinner, we would set up our entire Barbie universe in my grandmother’s front hall and play for hours and hours; one night we played until dawn, creating story after story together.

I did enjoy playing Barbie with Susan and with Kathy, but as the years went by, first Susan became too busy and grown up to play Barbie; then my cousin Kathy ‘outgrew’ Barbie. I held on much, much longer than anyone else, until my mother finally laid down the law and told me it was time to pack it up. Externally compliant but feeling frustrated and sad inside, I began the task of wrapping Barbie, Ken, Francie, Skipper, and Tutti in tissue paper and boxing up their clothes, shoes, houses and cars. My father happened by my room as I was doing this, and he quoted the Bible to me approvingly: “When I was a child, I had the things of a child, but then I put childish things away and became a man.” Since I was doing this task under protest, however, I scowled at him until he went away.

Putting away my Barbie dolls was not easy. I mourned all the stories I had invented and acted out with them, and I wondered where I would ever again find such an outlet. I was, so much of the time, ill at ease and unhappy in the “real” world. Anxious and clumsy, I felt awkward nearly all the time. I didn’t fit into my own skin, and I felt as if everyone else had been given a playbook at birth with the rules of how to behave and how to live. When I made up imaginary worlds, all of that awkwardness and anxiety disappeared. Those moments of make believe were some of the best moments of my childhood, and I had no idea how I was going to survive without them.

writer-gilrSitting on the floor, surrounded by the dolls I was sending to their final rest, I was suddenly struck by a lightning bolt. “I could be a writer.” I stopped dead in the middle of my sad chore and gazed down at my dolls, now wrapped in their tissue-paper burial clothes. I could, I realized, still make up stories, still imagine alternate worlds. Instead of acting out those tales with my dolls, I could write them down. If I wrote the stories down, they wouldn’t be tall tales any more, or the lies for which I used to get punished on a regular basis. With utter clarity, I saw my future. Barbie had been my Muse for many years, and my love for her caused me to sin and even to enter a life of crime. I could redeem my criminal past—and survive my actual life—by bringing my Barbie stories inside my head and writing them down. I would grow up and become a writer.

Lane Bryant And a White Nightgown: My High School Graduation.

 

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I was a chubby child from the time I was seven years old, always hovering at about twenty-thirty pounds overweight. It was in high school that my weight started to increase exponentially rather than arithmetically; when I received my driver’s license at the age of sixteen, I was able to get to grocery stores and bakeries that were once too far away to walk or bike to. I had a greater variety of “goodies,” and with a car, I had to exercise a great deal less in order to obtain them. When I started high school, I weighed 133 pounds (I was 5’7”) but by my senior year, I weighed about 190 lbs.

Food was my steadiest, most loyal friend, but it was a friend who called far too many of the shots in our relationship. I didn’t want to binge, but I did. I didn’t want to hate how I looked, but I did. I didn’t want my thighs to chafe whenever I wore shorts, but they did. I was consistently miserable in my own flesh.

At Divine Savior-Holy Angels High School, we wore uniforms; for freshmen and sophomores, it was a green plaid skirt with an ugly long green vest and for juniors and seniors, a blue plaid skirt with a more palatable navy sweater. My first uniform was no problem, because I was a size 10 when high school began. When the time came to change uniforms for junior year, however, I was rigid with dread. Size 18 was now a tight squeeze, and I was positive that there would be no uniform skirts that fit me. Of course, I should have known that was a ridiculous fear, since there were plenty of DSHA upperclassmen fatter than I, and none of them came to class naked. Nonetheless, I fretted, and I was hugely relieved when I discovered that the uniform store did indeed stock skirts in my size.

By the time I reached the end of my senior year, even my plus sized uniform skirt no longer fit, and I had to resort to closing it up with a chain of safety pins. Luckily, my blue sweater covered my waistline, so no one was the wiser. I knew it, though, and I hated it. I had to pull my sweater down many times a day in order to cover the open zipper, and I lived in fear that my secret would be exposed. For some reason, closing my skirt with safety pins resulted in one side being shorter than the other, so I was also constantly yanking at the one side to keep it from hiking up any further.

Having a uniform at all was a blessing, because I didn’t have many other clothing options once school ended for the day.  In the 1970’s, regular department stores did not carry any clothes larger than size 18, and I had no idea that there were stores with nice clothes for fat people. This degree of ignorance seems impossible today, or at the very least monumentally stupid, but there was no social media in 1976, and no Google Shopping. We shopped at Marshall Field’s and occasionally at Gimbels, and I had no idea what would happen if I should gain even more weight and no longer fit into size 18. I shuddered at the thought and hoped I would never had to find out.

DSHA was an all-girls’ Catholic high school, and the tradition there was for graduates to wear long white dresses and carry long stemmed red roses. A lovely ritual, but for me just another cause of Great Fat Dread. By the spring of my senior year, I weighed 184 pounds. Other than my safety-pinned uniform and a blue sweater from the Men’s Department at Marshall Field’s, my entire wardrobe consisted of the few size 18 outfits I was able to find.  My shopping trips were never about what I liked or what might look good on me; the only criterion I really had was: did it fit? If yes, I bought it.

Starting in March that year, I started casing the stores in search of a long white dress that would fit me. There were none. I never told anyone that I was going on these reconnaissance trips; I was humiliated enough. As far as I could see, no one made long white dresses in anything approaching my size. What was I going to do? I had no idea. Apparently, I was too fat to graduate from high school, and as May loomed ever closer, I resigned myself to the brutal reality that I was not going to lose enough weight to solve my problem.

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These were going to fool no one.

Finally one day, I hit upon my only solution: I would have to find a white nightgown and pass it off somehow as a dress. This would not be an easy task; I didn’t have to look around Lingerie Departments for long in order to realize that they had no size 18 white nightgowns that even remotely resemble dresses. I was terrified that I would have to choose one of these nightgowns to graduate in, and the other girls would howl with laughter when they saw me. Seeing no other alternative, I pressed on, visiting mall after mall in search of a “graduation dress.”

 

About three weeks before the big day, my mother announced that we were going to Lane Bryant to find a graduation dress and then out to lunch at the Milwaukee Athletic Club. I had heard of Lane Bryant, and seen their ads in the Milwaukee Journal, but I was pretty sure they would have nothing suitable for me. Their newspaper ads convinced me that Lane Bryant was a store for grotesquely lb-uglyobese old women who had a fondness for rayon, polyester and lots of wild prints. (It is much easier now to find cute clothes in plus sizes; in those days, I think the mindset in the fashion world was that fat women either didn’t care how they looked—I mean, there they were, fat—or that fat women did care how they looked but needed to be punished for being fat in the first place.) My nightgown strategy was not working out, so I agreed that yes, lunch and a trip to Lane Bryant was in order.

On the appointed day, my mother and I drove downtown, parked the car and walked over to Lane Bryant. I was rigid with shame as we walked into the store. It was awful enough that I had to walk through those doors; much worse was knowing that my chic and stylish mother had to cross that threshold because of me. As we entered the store, a sales clerk said something to my mother and her whole face lit up. She turned to me and said, “Did you hear that? She just asked if I was looking for the Tall Section! She thinks we are here because of me, not you!” My mother was so happy that she was the assumed shopper, that the clerks didn’t find me fat enough to warrant being in the store for fat people. I loved my mother in that moment with a purity I can still feel. As much as she hated the idea of being fat, of being around fat, of having a fat daughter, she was happy to be mistaken for a Lane Bryant Shopper if it meant I would not be marked as one.

The sales clerk directed us up to the Junior Department on the second floor. As we exited the escalator, I was stunned at what I saw. There were racks and racks of clothes, some of them very cute, all of them in sizes I knew would fit me. I had had no idea. They had an entire rack of white dresses, including several that I had seen in Seventeen Magazine, my book of dreams—just in larger sizes. I was actually in the smallest sizes in this store, and what a feeling that was! I tried on several dresses, and bought one of the dresses I had seen in Seventeen—a long white eyelet dress with a simple bodice and a ruffle at the hem.

I was happier that day than I had been in a very long time. I felt beautiful, and—even more wonderful—I felt normal. My mother was happy, too, and she triumphantly handed her credit card to the sales clerk, who put my new dress in a shopping bag and handed it to me.  We sailed out of Lane Bryant, and I felt positively buoyant, a rare sensation for someone who weighed 184 pounds. The Milwaukee Athletic Club was just a few blocks away, so we walked over there to have lunch together and celebrate.

We took the elevator to the dining room and I sighed happily as I placed my shopping bag on one chair and sat down in another. My mother ordered a martini and I ordered a TAB, and we talked about the upcoming graduation party and who would come. The waiter came over to take our order and I eagerly ordered my favorite thing on the MAC menu: a cheeseburger and french fries.

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Truly wonderful cheeseburger and fries.

Without realizing it, I had broken the spell of our happy day. My mother’s forehead furrowed, and she sighed, “I don’t understand why you would eat that after what we’ve just been through.” I was hungry, and now I felt defensive; for a moment, I considered changing my order to the MAC salad, but I wanted that cheeseburger. I wanted those fries. When our food came, I ate every bite, but the buoyant feeling was gone for both of us.

Even though the mood of the day had changed, I was grateful to have my beautiful white dress and relieved that I could stop shopping for nightgowns. My mother had really come through for me by taking me to Lane Bryant. Thinking about that amazing Junior Department, I asked her why she had never told me they had cute things at Lane Bryant. My mom thought for a moment and said, “I was afraid if you knew that, you would be less likely to lose the weight.” Ah.

I felt beautiful on the night I graduated. I kept my dress for years; I even had it remade to be a smaller size when I lost a lot of weight later on. After taking in the dress, the seamstress gave us the yards of extra fabric she had removed, and my mother used it to have Christmas ornaments made for her grandchildren—little babies with white eyelet Christening gowns.

I no longer have even one picture of myself from my graduation night, although I know that there were a few taken. Years later, when I had lost the weight, my siblings and I were looking through some family pictures. We came across one of our family’s infamous “couch pictures”—we all jam ourselves onto the living room couch for a family portrait—and there was a picture of me in my graduation dress, surrounded by my brothers and sisters.  “Oh God,” my brother Jamie laughed, “Who is that in the big white dress?” We all laughed, but I couldn’t help but sneak a look at that girl in the big white dress and amgelremember how very pretty she felt that night. I don’t know what became of the picture, but after that night I never saw it again. To this day, the only place I can find a memento of my high school graduation is on my family’s Christmas trees, in the form of tiny eyelet-clad baby ornaments.

 

The Job I Love and How It Found Me

gread-eWhen I entered Marquette University’s Graduate Program in Philosophy, I had no idea what I was going to “do” with an advanced degree in Philosophy, but I was sure that I wasn’t going to teach. Accepting Marquette’s scholarship and fellowship was a way to postpone a future in which I would certainly be expected to shape up, grow up, and find something useful (and profitable) to do with my life. My hazy plan was to get my Master’s Degree and then go to law school. When I was accepted into the Ph.D. program, I made sure that I could “opt out” after two years with Master’s Degree in hand.

Before my first term at Marquette, my mentor at Mount Mary College warned me that graduate school would bear little resemblance to my undergraduate classes, where we had read wonderful books and asked fascinating questions.  Graduate school, Dr. Conlon told me, would be about learning a specific set of skills. I would be taught how to think, write and speak like an academic. What we studied would matter less than what I learned about how to do research, how to write for publication, how to defend my ideas in public at conferences.

I didn’t care. Maybe graduate school wouldn’t resemble my undergraduate experience, but from where I stood, it was as close as I was going to get. At least I would still be reading philosophy and talking about it with others. I was sure it would be superior to any alternative I had. As the summer ended and my first semester at Marquette drew closer, I grew more excited to begin my classes and my research work. I had graduated Summa cum laude from Mount Mary College in May, and I felt certain that I was ready.

I was not ready. The first class I walked into was a Philosophy of Freedom seminar—an entire course about free will. On that first day, Dr. Anderson informed us that each student would be writing a major paper on a topic of our choice related to free will. In addition, we would be writing a critique of a fellow student’s major paper. Each major paper would be presented in class, followed by the critique. We would not have access to the critique until the day we presented; part of Dr. Anderson’s evaluation of us would rest on how well we responded to criticism “on our feet.” Our grade would depend on how well we defended ourselves; the grade of the student writing the critique would depend on how thoroughly he or she filleted us. Those two scores—our paper and our critique—would be the sum total of our semester grade.

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David Hume

I wrote my paper on David Hume’s philosophy of freedom. I logged hundreds of hours writing that paper; the final version was forty-four pages long, and I felt confident.  Not only did I have a strong paper; for the occasion, I had gone to Marshall Field’s and purchased a new Pendleton skirt and matching cashmere sweater with my initial embroidered on the breast. I was set.

The critique of my paper had been assigned to a fellow student named John; he was a Sartrean. He also looked like Tom Cruise, and I was pretty sure that he liked me. He had asked me over to his apartment after class so he could make me dinner; clearly, I was sailing high with this whole “graduate student” experience.  After I presented my paper, John-the-Cute-Sartrean began his critique, and I simultaneously experienced my first—and only—case of hysterical deafness. John’s mouth was moving, things were clearly being said, but I heard nothing. And then his mouth stopped moving, and the members of the class, including Dr. Anderson, turned in unison to look at me. “Um,” I stuttered, “Could you repeat that?”

Silence. Then Dr. Anderson nodded at John and said, “Repeat your main objections.” John did so, and I could hear his words this time, but they were not strung together in any way that made sense. He may as well have been reading a shopping list. From the planet Bajor.

Silence. I knew I couldn’t ask John to repeat his critique yet again, so I stammered out some sort of response, relying on my undergraduate knowledge of Sartre to carry me through. It must have been alright, because the conversation moved on from there, but I was badly shaken. I begged off of dinner at John’s; the thought of spending the evening with the fellow who had carved me up for lunch was distinctly unappealing. I went home instead, and spend the evening whimpering, listening to Paul Simon songs, and eating chocolate peanut cluster ice cream. I had taken a major hit. And I was, more than anything, confused.  In my classes at Mount Mary College, I had always been confident, calm and self-possessed. I still had warm memories of the night before I graduated–first in my class. All the seniors had stood on the steps outside Notre Dame Hall carrying Japanese lanterns and singing “Climb Every Mountain.” What had happened?

I wasn’t sure. But I had gone to an all-women’s high school and an all-women’s college, whereas the free will seminar consisted of nine men—and me. My last experience of being with men in the classroom had been Christ King School, and those “men” had been twelve years old. These graduate student men were considerably older, and seemed like a different species. They talked—a lot. It seemed to be their way of figuring things out—talking, jousting, thrusting, parrying. They were thick skinned and aggressive, and not one of them was inclined to say, “I totally see where you’re coming from,” or “I hear you,” or “Wow! Your hair is so shiny today!” I was used to my fellow students using language to establish continuities and connections, to understand my point of view, but these beings were using language to make distinctions and establish dominance, to defeat my point of view. It was a new world, and no had given me the Instruction Manual.

My Plato seminar was more of the same, but without any instances of hysterical deafness. There were three other women in that class, and one of them—Mary–befriended me. She had been around for a while, and was dating one of the dominant primates in the group, so she was a kind ally, my Virgil as I navigated the first graduate school circle of hell. But the class itself was incredibly difficult. Each student had to turn in, by semester’s end, an eight page single spaced summary and analysis of ten separate dialogues, excluding the Republic, in addition to a short paper on the dialogue of our choice and a longer (20-30 pp.) paper on a topic of our choosing.  I had made it through college never having pulled even one “all-nighter,” and was convinced that students who stayed up all night studying were just poor time managers. I was never so smug again after my Plato Seminar. There were several nights of driving to Open Pantry (open 24 hours) to re-up on Diet Coke in order to finish an analysis of the Gorgias or the Meno just as dawn was breaking over Milwaukee.

I was also taking Metaphysics, taught by the most enthusiastic atheist I had ever encountered. Dr. Algozin was one cheerful, relentless atheist. I was the only woman in that class as well, but it was smaller than my other two classes, and more comfortable. The other students included a young man who dressed every day in three piece suits, carried a briefcase and a rolled up Wall Street Journal, and sweated profusely. The other two students included a farm boy from Iowa who wore overalls to class, quoted the Misfit from Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find at least once a day, and glowered at our atheist professor. Rounding out our little group of metaphysicians was an eerily quiet fellow who slouched back in his seat, took no notes all semester, then blew everyone away in the last week of class with an analysis of the flaws in the arguments of Errol Harris. (Years later, I married him. The quiet fellow, not Harris.) Dr. Algozin, the professor, loved George Santayana, and so I learned more about “tropes” in the philosophy of George Santayana than I had ever expected—or wanted—to learn.

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Darth Vader: Not Dr. Vater

Those were my classes. For my research assistantship, I was assigned to Dr. Vater, also my Plato professor. (And yes, we all called him “Darth Vader.”) He gave me what he took to be an ideal job: I was to spend ten hours a week learning how to use Marquette’s fancy new computer so that in the spring semester I could type his book manuscript into it. This was well before the days of the personal computer. Until Dr. Vater gave me this assignment, the only computer I had ever even seen was the one at Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance when I worked there the summer after high school. That computer was a behemoth, and only the very most trained Computer Shamans were allowed to go anywhere near it.

My first research task: find the computer. This task I completed successfully; the madeline-kahn-in-whats-up-docdepartment secretary gave me directions to a large and drafty old garage at the edge of campus, near the freeway. Approaching the site of my new job, I felt a bit like Madeline Kahn in the movie What’s Up, Doc?” The whole scene felt forbidding, strange and weird.

Inside the garage was housed The Computer, walled off from all of us by glass walls. Around the circumference of that walled-in machine were desks with terminals on them. The terminals were, of course, connected to the main frame computer behind the class. They each glowed a ghostly green, and on the unused terminals flickered a tiny cursor: on/off, on/off.

Bravely, I grabbed a terminal and sat myself down. The person in charge of the terminals came over when I beckoned, and showed me how to log into the giant computer behind the wall. He also handed me a dog-eared manual listing all of the prompts and commands I would need. He might as well have handed me the operating instructions to a space shuttle—written in Cyrillic. I knew I was in for a long semester.

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Me Before Graduate School

By the time the annual Christmas Party for the Graduate Students came along, I knew that I had done well, earning two A’s and an A-. On the other hand, my eating disorder was back with a vengeance, and I was a far more rattled and anxious girl than the one who had stood on the steps at Mount Mary College the previous May singing “Climb Every Mountain.” Apparently, it is much easier to sing about climbing mountains than it is to actually climb them.

In the Old West, when a cowboy gets shot, his friends make the decision whether to take him along or leave him to die by asking one question: “Can you stand?” If the cowboy could still stand, he had a decent chance of surviving his wound. I was

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Me on my Last Day of Classes: Thinner and A Bit Shaken

wounded, but I was still standing. At that Christmas party, I walked around in a bit of a daze, and whenever one of the professors asked me “How are you doing?” I said “I survived.” When I said this to the Chair, he twinkled at me, and said, “This is all part of the process. You come in thinking you know it all and we spend the first semester destroying you so that we can build you back up to be stronger.” I thought Dr. Coffey sounded a bit like a deranged educational Cartesian, but I smiled and said, “Oh. Hah. Hmmm.”

My second semester as a graduate student was better; I became friends with some funny and wise fellow students, and my second semester professors were not as much from the Nietzschean School of “What does not kill me makes me stronger.” Even better, Dr. Vater had looked over my work on the Marquette Computer, and immediately informed Harry Klocker, S.J.—my Aquinas professor that Spring—that I was far more suited to his needs. Fr. Klocker agreed, and I happily ensconced myself in the library, studying Church Latin for Fr. Klocker while another graduate student hiked over to the Garage with the Giant Computer and typed in Dr. Vater’s manuscript.  What with the nicer professors and the more amenable research project, I was actually looking forward to coming back for my second year.

Before we all broke away for the summer, Dr. Coffey summoned me into his office. “I have good news for you!” he beamed at me. “We had our meeting about all the new students, and based on your grades and evaluations this year, we are moving you from Research Assistant to Teaching Fellow one year early! Starting next Fall, you will be teaching two full section of Logic! Yes! You’re Welcome!”

Wait. What?  “You mean, I will be a Teaching Assistant for one of the Professors?” I asked. “Oh no,” Dr. Coffey said. “The Philosophy Department doesn’t have TA’s. We give our students their very own courses to teach, after they have earned the equivalent of a Master’s Degree. In your case, we are saying that you are ready to move up now.”

I knew that after two years doing research, graduate students were moved up to Teaching Fellowships. But I had assumed I would be sitting in a classroom at Marquette Law School by then. Teaching was not ever supposed to be part of the plan.

“Oh, No,” I responded. “No. I am not. I am not ready. I don’t want to teach. I didn’t come here wanting to teach. I like research. I love research. I have never wanted to be a teacher. Thanks so much, but no. I decline.”

Dr. Coffey paused for a moment, then scowled. “Hmm. You’re not catching on. I’m not asking you. I’m telling you. The Graduate Committee has moved you forward. You aren’t a Research Assistant anymore. If you want your scholarship and your 660.00 a month stipend, you are a Teaching Fellow. In Logic. Two sections. Next Fall.”

I had no idea how to even begin to picture myself as a teacher. I was twenty-three years old; many of my students would be just one or two years younger than I. Watching my own professors at Mount Mary College, I was keenly aware that they were possessed of vast amounts of knowledge. I knew next to nothing, and yet I was going to be plopped down in front of two sections of thirty students each with the expectation that they would emerge in mere months with a working knowledge of modus ponens and modus tollens?  Oh God, I thought. I have a lot of work to do.

Over the course of the summer of 1981, I chose the textbook I would use for my classes, opened the book up to the first page, and worked my way through the entire text, completing every problem until my memory of how to do symbolic logic was fresh. I made meticulous notes on each chapter and outlined lectures for the semester. I went back to the syllabus from my Logic class at Mount Mary College, and used it to model my own versions of paper assignments. When the first week of September 1981 rolled around, I was as prepared as I was ever going to be.

“Prepared,” however, is not the same thing as “Ready.” In no way did I feel ready to stand in front of a classroom and act as if I knew anything. I drove to campus that first morning and wished the tires would fly off the car so that I’d have a reason not to show up. To my consternation, the car remained sturdy, and I arrived at Marquette with time to spare. Before heading over to Marquette Hall, I stopped at Coughlin Hall to drop off my coat and books; there I ran into my old Metaphysics professor, Dr. Algozin, the cheery atheist.  He was on his way out of the Men’s Room. “Oh Hi!” he chirped. “How are you?”

“Well, Dr. Algozin,” I said, “I am pretty awful. I have to teach for the first time in a few minutes, and I am a mess.”

“Oh, yeah,” Dr. Algozin laughed, slapping me on the shoulder. “That never goes away. I’m almost twenty years in, and I still get nauseous on the first day of classes.” He swung his head left to indicate the door of the Men’s Room. “I teach in a few minutes, too. First class of the term. I just threw up! You’ll be fine! See Ya!” and off he went, whistling under his breath.

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Marquette Hall

With no more tasks to distract me and no other professors to cheer me on in whatever way they saw fit, I trudged over to Marquette Hall. Room 100 was a lecture hall with desks on risers and a blackboard at the front of the room. There were thirty bodies in chairs when I entered the classroom. I placed my notes on the lectern, cleared my throat, and said, “Good Morning. I am Miss Maloney, and I will be your Instructor for Logic this term. I am here today because I am getting paid to talk about Logic. What are you doing here? Why should anyone study Logic, anyway? How is all this talk about Logic not a waste of time? What good will it do any of us? What’s the point of this?”

I looked up. At least seven people had their hands up. I called on them, and other hands went up. I started to write on the board, and every time I responded to one student, another hand would rise, another student would ask a question. I was talking about ideas with intelligent people just a bit younger than I was. They were asking good questions. I was answering them, often by asking other questions. I was going to get paid to do this. I couldn’t believe my good fortune. I was home.

The bell rang. I couldn’t believe that forty minutes had passed. It had seemed like ten. On their way out the door, several students said, “Great class! Good conversation! See you Wednesday!” I couldn’t wait. I could use some of the great ideas and questions from this day to make my opening for the next class even stronger. I started scribbling down new ideas, imagining how I would start class on Wednesday, imagining how I might move into the opening chapter of the text.

There were, of course, some bumpy days ahead of me. I was teaching two sections of Logic, but I had never in my life crafted a syllabus, made up an exam, created a paper assignment, or graded student work. I learned some necessary skills the hard way; when I created my first Logic midterm exam, I figured that if it took me thirty minutes to “take” my test, the students should be fine in their allotted forty-five minutes.

That turned out to be a wildly wrong assumption; none of my students finished in the allotted time. As the minutes ticked past, the smell of panic and sweat permeated the classroom; two girls cried. One fellow was in ROTC and it was uniform inspection day. The test freaked him out so badly that he threw up on his dress shoes and I had to write a note to his commanding officer explaining what happened. No one passed the exam; no one even finished it.

The following class period, when I handed back the tests, I apologized to the students, and told them that there would be another exam in a week; I would be throwing this one away. They forgave me. They took the makeup test and mostly did fine, and I learned that an exam that takes them forty-five minutes should take me about five.

Another time that semester, I realized after I got home from my day’s classes that I had taught Aristotle’s Square of Opposition incorrectly. After two nights of agonizing about my error, I walked into class and told my students to rip out the pages in their notebooks from the previous class, because I had messed them up bigtime. Then I retaught the Aristotle, and they were fine. From the beginning of my life as a teacher, I have found that, when I admit my limitations, acknowledge my mistakes, and make sure the students never suffer because of my errors, they are generous, kind and forgiving.

I taught Logic again the following semester. I loved it just as much, perhaps more. In May, Dr. Coffey called me into his office to tell me that my grades were excellent and my teaching evaluations impressive; the graduate faculty had decided to promote me from teaching Logic to Philosophy of Human Nature for the next academic year.

I now knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to teach philosophy. I hadn’t been certain of much up to that point, but I was certain of that. This new certainty, however, meant that I would be staying at Marquette for my Ph.D. Because I had always operated under the assumption that I would “opt out” at the Master’s Degree level, I had blithely ignored the Ph.D. requirements. Now that I wasn’t leaving, they were pertinent.

I would have to complete at least one more year of coursework, pass proficiency exams in both French and German (neither of which I had ever studied; I had six years of Latin under my belt), pass an eight hour written comprehensive exam on the history of Western philosophy and a three hour oral exam on two areas of my choosing. When that was behind me, I would be writing a dissertation on some original idea in philosophy; I would have to find a topic, choose a director and a dissertation board, write the thing and then defend it publicly.  In short, I was in for a long walk through several more circles of hell.

I didn’t care. I knew what I wanted to do. My life’s work was to teach Philosophy, and I had nearly missed it. I had ended up in Room 100 of Marquette Hall in September of 1981 either through a series of coincidences or the whimsical turnings of God’s will for my life. (For more evidence of this whole “God-in-my-Life Thing, see here.) With no real idea why, I had applied to graduate school, and I went only because I knew that I loved doing philosophy and would do it for as long as life let me. Good Catholic girl that I was, I saw in the twists and turns that led me from a required Core Course at Mount Mary College when I was seventeen years old to a cavernous lecture hall at Marquette University five years later a plan whose author wasn’t entirely me. I decided then and there that the God who somehow got me to Room 100 would show me the way through the forest of obstacles that now confronted me. I was ready.

 

 

Jobs I Have Loathed, VI: Jumpin’ Jumpin’ Hayes

law-firm1After she graduated from law school, my sister Susan joined a law firm called Godfrey, Trump and Hayes. It was a small firm, but it had an excellent reputation, and so the office was consistently busy. Whenever incoming calls started to pile up, the GT&H receptionist moved through them very quickly. Often when I called Susan at work, it sounded like the receptionist was answering the phone saying, “Jumpin’ Jumpin’ Hayes; how may I direct your call?” It was such an apt description of that busy little office that I got in the habit of calling Susan’s workplace “Jumpin’ Jumpin’ Hayes.”

Not only Susan, but also both of my brothers had gone into law; for a time, I thought that would also be my fate. It wasn’t, though: after college, I went to graduate school to study philosophy. Marquette paid me a stipend for my work as a Research Assistant; it was a generous stipend compared to other universities, but it wasn’t enough to pay my mounting medical bills. (For this story, go here). I needed to supplement my research assistantship income by getting a summer job.

Godfrey, Trump and Hayes had an opening for a deposition summarizer, and Susan

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SRA Reading Program: 1964

recommended me. Summarizing depositions was something I knew I could do and do well: after all, I aced the entire SRA series in grade school. (For those who weren’t around in the 1960’s, SRA was a reading program. Students read little articles about such topics as Amelia Earhart, Eleanor Roosevelt, the Nez Perce Indians, or the Great Wall of China and then answered reading comprehension questions about each one. As soon as a student scored 100% on a “level”—the levels were color-coded and increased in difficulty—she could move on to the next level.) I was not a good student at Christ King School (see here and here and here) but I loved SRA. Reading comprehension was my strong suit, and I finished the entire series in record time. Since my job at GT&H would involve reading depositions and summarizing their important points, I was confident that I could do this job and keep my doctor in Hush Puppies for a few years at least. (Yes, my doctor wore Hush Puppies; click here for that story).

The three attorneys who interviewed me were nice, but they struggled to get their minds around the idea of someone studying philosophy as a life choice. One of the partners, Wayne, just kept scratching his head—literally—and saying, “Philosophy? Hunh.” The second partner, Ed, tried to relate to me by saying “I think it’s just great that you are studying philosophy. I think that everyone in college should major in something completely useless.” I was unsure what my best response to this statement would be. Thanks? Or: I’m not in college? Or: Useless isn’t a positive descriptor? I just smiled and said, “Okay.” The third partner, Jim, didn’t say much but he smiled a lot and made a ton of eye contact. I was pretty sure I would have a decent summer working with this crew.

They asked me to start the next day. Since my classes were over for the semester and I had just completed my final research project, I agreed to be there at 8:30 a.m. sharp. I drove home feeling good about the shape my summer was taking; I would have preferred to spend those months reading novels and going to the beach, but reading actual legal cases and summarizing them would be kind of fun. The pay was good and the office was air-conditioned; best of all, my sister worked there, so I had an instant on-call partner for lunch.

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Me in my “LA Law” Best

The next morning I woke up early, ate breakfast, dressed in my best “L.A. Law” outfit, and caught the #31 bus for downtown Milwaukee. When I

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Grace from “LA Law”

arrived at Godfrey, Trump and Hayes, the receptionist told me that one of the partners had “a project” for me, and that I should wait for him in the Conference Room. Hmm, I thought. Project? That doesn’t sound like “deposition to summarize.” Maybe they just call unsummarized depositions “projects? Before I could ponder the meaning of “project” any further, the attorney named Jim shoved the door to the conference room open with his hip and entered, carrying a large box filled with papers. He heaved the box up onto the shiny conference table, and said, “Hi. Welcome to the firm. Glad to have you. These are fire reports. I need them organized by the end of the day.”

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Actual Fire Report

Fire reports? Wait. What? I had no idea what a “fire report” even was, much less how to organize a whole box of them. Where were my SRA-like depositions? Where I would demonstrate my excellent reading comprehension skills, if not learn more about Amelia Earhart? I looked at the box, then looked at him, cleared my throat and said hesitantly, “Umm…organize in what way?” As if he had been waiting for just that question, the-attorney-named-Jim dug through the box and pulled out a stack of binder sheets, each of which was accompanied by a little colored tab with a tiny strip of paper inside. He slapped those down on the table, and then pulled an actual binder out of the box. “Okay,” he said. “Here’s the drill. I am working on a case that has to do with faw faw faw faw faw faw.” He didn’t actually say “faw faw faw,” but that is what I heard, because he was talking about a lawsuit of some sort having to do with fire reports, whatever they were. Having grown up listening to my siblings talk incessantly about law, I had by that time perfected my habit of fixing an attentive look on my face while I visited the Playground in my Mind. Thus it was that my brain just sort of automatically shut down as soon as it heard words like “writ,” “discovery,” “due diligence,” “cause of action,” and “compensatory damages.”

“Okay, then; we’re good to go.” The attorney slapped the table in a friendly way and started for the door. “Wait!” I said. “I—um—I’m still not clear as to what my organizing principle is, and what I have to do with the actual fire reports.” Trying not to appear impatient, the attorney came back over, dug through the box, took out a sample fire report and said, “All you do is skim the report; if you see that this one is pertinent to my case, binders-plastic-tabsthen put it in this binder here and separate the different months with these binder sheets. Write the name of the month on each binder sheet tab and you’re done!” He raised his eyebrows as if to say, “I can go now, right? I need to get to my Important Lawyering Business.”

I had one more question. “How do I tell if a fire report is pertinent to your case?” The-attorney-named-Jim reached into the box again and took out a sheaf of papers clipped together. “Here’s a description of the case. That will tell you all that you need to know. Thanks!” He winked at me and left the conference room.

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Grace  Being Plucky in “LA Law”

Okay, I thought, so these aren’t depositions and this project sounds nothing like SRA, but I am a plucky person just like Grace on LA Law.  I would have gone in search of my sister, but it was her day off, so I was on my own. Trying to stave off a burgeoning sense of panic, I took several deep breaths and poked my head out of the conference room to ask the receptionist where I was supposed to go to work on my “project.” I assumed that I would have a cubicle somewhere, or a quiet corner. “Oh, just stay right where you are,” she said. “Generally, we’ll just plant you in whatever office is empty that day, but all of our attorneys are in today so the Conference Room is our only open space.”

While it was a lovely space with large windows looking out over the Milwaukee skyline, conf-rooma shiny mahogany table that could have seated the entire cast of Downton Abbey, and wall-length bookcases stuffed with impressive-looking legal tomes, it was also located in the middle of the office and had glass walls. Everyone who walked by would see me sitting there at the mahogany table organizing fire reports. I felt the way that a goldfish would feel if it had self-awareness: trapped and watched.

Looking down at the box of fire reports, I quickly realized that location was the least of my worries. I had to read through the clipped-together papers and understand them well enough to develop a rubric for organizing all those pieces of paper. Determined to remain calm, I took another deep breath and started reading.

Possibly as a result of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: Law Firm Version, I have no idea now what the case was about. I must have gleaned some sort of theme out of my reading, because I did start to read through the fire reports and make different piles depending on what they said. By the time I had finished, it was lunchtime, but I was pretty sure I had already taken too much time reading the fire reports when the attorney needed this project to be finished by 5:00 p.m., so I skipped lunch. I wasn’t hungry anyway, as my head was pounding, my throat was dry and I was a tiny bit queasy.

When I was certain that the fire reports were as organized as I could make them, I turned

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Neatly Lined Up Tabs

my attention to the binder sheets. What did he say? Separate the months and write the name of each month on the tiny colored tab affixed to each binder sheet? Yes. That is my next task, I thought. But wait. The binder clips are moveable. They slide up and down the binder sheets. I have to make sure to fix them in place as firmly as I can, so that they all line up in one nice row down the binder. Carefully, I slid each binder clip to a spot about ½ inch from the top, so that when I laid all the binder sheets down together, each clip rested precisely on top of the one beneath it.

Proud that I had already completed at least half of my assigned task, I then turned my attention to the tiny slips of paper inside each clip. I knew I was supposed to write on those slips, but first I had to get them out of the plastic they were encased in. I picked, poked and prodded at the tabs for a while, to no avail. Finally, I went out to the receptionist and asked her for a pair of scissors. Without batting an eyelash, she opened a drawer, got out a large pair of scissors, and handed them to me.

Back in the conference room, I began the painstaking labor of prying each and every colored tab open with the scissors, no easy task with such large scissors. Once I had pried each tab open, I dutifully wrote the name of each month on each tiny piece of paper. Then I confronted my next challenge: now that the colored tabs had been pried open, how was I supposed to keep the little slips of paper from falling out?

Ever-resourceful, I again stepped out to the reception desk and asked for some Scotch Tape. The receptionist may well have wondered whether I was engaged in some sort of Girl Scout-type craft project back there (which would not have been good news, by the way, given my talents as a Girl Scout; see here), but she asked no questions. I headed back to the conference room with my tape, jubilant at my newly discovered problem-solving skills.

Tape in hand, I laid out each colored tab, secured the slip of paper in each, then heavily taped each one of them shut. What with some rough edges from all the prying-open-with-scissors and some awkwardly taped corners, the tabs were not exactly a thing of beauty, but I thought I had done quite well with the limited tools I had at my disposal.

Once all of the tabs were firmly taped shut, I re-attached each to its binder sheet and lined them up so that each clip once again rested directly on top of the one beneath it. That task completed, I was ready to load the whole pile into the designated binder and congratulate myself on a job well done. And it was only 3:30! Proudly, I left the conference room to find the-attorney-named-Jim and show him the result of my day’s work. He was on the phone when I knocked on his office door but gestured to me that I should wait for him in the Conference Room and he would be right over.

I am pretty sure I will never forget the look on the attorney’s face when he saw the finished Fire Report Project. I remember that there was a long moment of silence as he gazed down at the table where I had placed it. “Okay, so…” he began. Uh-oh, I thought.

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Tabs: More Useful When Staggered

“The idea of binder tabs is that you clip them to the binder page in a staggered format, so that they can actually be used to find the section that I would be looking for.” Ah, I thought. That does make sense. As I had arranged things, the only binder tab whose label was visible was the one on top.  “Also?” the attorney went on. “Why, exactly did you purposely break and then repair each tab with tape?” Okay, I thought. I have an answer for that question.

“Well,” I said, “I knew you wanted each tab to have the name of a month on the little slip inside, so I had to figure out a way to get at the slip of paper, write down a month on it, and then put it back in the plastic so it wouldn’t fall out again.”

“Ah,” the attorney said. “But why didn’t you just slide the piece of paper out through the opening on either side like so?” And sure enough, he picked up an unused binder tab and easily slid the slip of paper out of the side opening.

I don’t remember how I responded to that question, but I do remember thinking that if the apocalypse was inevitable, this would be the ideal time for it to happen. I must have said something in response, and I do remember the attorney taking a deep breath and then saying nice things to me about “first day stress” and “getting the hang of things.” To his eternal credit, he didn’t point out that a first grader of even dubious intelligence would have known (1)how to get the paper out of a binder tab without needing a scissors to cut it open and (2)how to stagger binder tabs so that they could actually have a purpose. At that moment, I felt nothing like Grace on LA Law.

The-attorney-named-Jim looked at me for a moment and said, “Why don’t you kick off early today and head home? You can get a fresh start tomorrow.” I interpreted this to mean, “Go away! Get out of my sight! You are an incompetent fool! Leave!” I was powerfully tempted to do just that. Not only had I spent hours making clownish mistakes on the Fire Report Project; this was my sister’s law firm and I had besmirched the family name with my nearly comical level of incompetence. I wanted to run straight out of the law offices of Godfrey, Trump and Hayes and straight into a bowl of chocolate ice cream, but I had family honor to defend. I asked the-attorney-named-Jim if I could stay and redo the project, this time staggering the binder clips and opening them up instead of smashing them to bits and repairing them with tape. He agreed to let me do that, so I did.

When I got on the #31 bus for home that day, I was absolutely determined not to go back to Godfrey, Trump and Hayes. Ever. I had remedied the Fire Report Fiasco as best I could, but I had hated every minute of my day. I felt tired, stupid and embarrassed. I wanted to go home and stay there. When I arrived home, my sister and my mother were eager to hear about my first day on the new job. I burst into tears and told them the whole story. Not only did they not share my anguish; they both burst out laughing when I described opening each tab with a scissors.

“But how could you not know that there was an opening to slip the paper out? That’s hilarious!” my sister said.  “That’s not stupid. That’s epic stupid!” Now feeling rather aggrieved after my difficult day, I told them that I was not going back the next day, or ever. I would write a nice note thanking them for the opportunity and saying goodbye. My sister stopped laughing and looked at me with steel in her gaze. “Oh no you don’t,” she said. “They were really nice to give you this job in the first place; no way is my sister going to be a quitter. Nope. Uh-uh. Not happening.”

I turned my most sad-eyed and mournful gaze on my mother. “Mo—om? Please? I can’t go back there. I’ll die if I have to go back there ever again!” My mother wasn’t going there with me. “Oh no,” she said. “None of that drama is going to work. You have a job. You did it badly. You will show up tomorrow and try to do it better. That’s it.” I cried. I begged. To no avail. And so it was that the next morning at 8 a.m., I was on the #31 bus for downtown, filled with dread, self-pity, resentment and fear. More than anything in the world, I wanted to jump off the bus, go home, get under the covers with my book and some chocolate, and never come out. But I stayed on the bus. I went to work. They were nice to me, and the attorney even said that once he got past all the mutilated tabs, I had organized the Fire Reports quite well.

I worked at Jumpin’ Jumpin’ Hayes until my classes began again in September; they were very gracious and let me come back for several more summers after that one. I even came to enjoy the work and my bosses. I did, in fact, get to eat lunch with my sister now and then. I made enough money to pay my doctor bills. After that first day, I completed a variety of projects, but did indeed spend most of my time summarizing depositions, which I enjoyed nearly as much as I had once enjoyed SRA.

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Me Being Plucky Like Grace in “LA Law”

Because of all that summarizing, I learned a great deal about the relationship between above-ground swimming pools and the incidence of broken necks. I learned that if a company slaps a DO NOT JUMP OR DIVE sign on the side of their above-ground swimming pool but then runs newspapers ads showing people diving into said pool, well that company is in a heap of trouble. I learned that when lawyers at a deposition start to yell at each other and call each other names, I should record it in the summary as “colloquy.” I learned—from the lawyer named Wayne—that the way to win trials was to prepare about 225% as much as you think you will need in order to prevail. When I law-lawstarted to teach philosophy, I never forgot that lesson, and I am always about 225% prepared for each class I teach. That has turned out to be a good thing, because I am rarely thrown by whatever unexpected questions students ask. Best of all, years later when I assembled my portfolio into a binder before entering the job market in philosophy, I had already learned that I didn’t have to pry open all those tiny tabs. The slip of paper actually slides out quite easily. That’s good to know.

 

 

Jobs I Have Loathed V: Going a Little Crazy Costs Money

crazy1When I began my graduate studies in Philosophy at Marquette University, I had a full tuition scholarship and a Research Assistantship. I was assigned to two professors in the department, and ordered to carry out ten hours of research a week, five for each professor. For this work I was paid 66o.00 per month, which was nothing to sneeze at back in 1980. Since I was living at home, I was able to devote my entire salary to cases of TAB, new clothes, novels and movie passes. It was pretty close to an ideal situation for me, except for one thing.

In my last two years of college, I had dedicated myself to losing weight, successfully taking off 100 pounds with a rigorous regimen of diet and exercise. Once I had lost all that weight and returned to “normal” eating, the weight started to come back, and quickly. I had become accustomed to overwhelming positive feedback from people about my new body, and the experience of being a fat person who became a thin person was terrifyingly instructive. When I weighed 228 pounds, I heard myself described by others as “loud,” “belligerent,” and “aggressive.” At 124 pounds, suddenly I was “vivacious,” “lively,” and “charismatic.”  A neighbor (ironically, the very same woman who started my mother’s fixation on my weight with a comment about my stomach when I was 7 years old—see here) saw me at my new weight and said, “I always thought you were a nice person deep down.” To which I replied in my head, “Deep down beneath what? Fat? Fat made my niceness questionable?” Out loud, I smiled and said, “Thank you.”

It came as no surprise, then, that I was grimly determined not to gain the weight back, which is what had happened on every other diet I had been on. I was a thin person, yes, but I was also a spy from the Country of The Fat, and now I knew what people were actually thinking when I was fat and they said I had “such beautiful skin.” When I started to regain weight, I not only went back on my original diet; I cut back even on that rigid regimen, taking myself from two meals a day to one. Because I was eating so little, I guarded that meal with religious zeal: the food had to be exactly right, weighed and measured, and I had to eat it by myself so that I could savor every single bite. This routine threw a serious

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My Daily Intake

wrench into my social life, but I didn’t care. Whereas Scarlett O’Hara clutched a carrot in Gone With the Wind and vowed that she would “never be hungry again,” I clutched my 1 ounce of low-moisture/part skim mozzarella cheese, my hard boiled egg, my Akmak cracker, my 1/2 cup of strawberries and my 1/2 cup of broccoli and swore that I would “never be fat again.”

skinny2I was, of course, hungry all the time, sometimes so hungry that it was hard to sleep at night. I stopped dreaming about potential boyfriends and dreamed only of food. I planned “someday” meals in my head, food I would eat “someday” when I was so thin that I could risk gaining a few pounds by eating normally. I fantasized about baked potatoes with butter and salt, a kosher hot dog on a bun, a Morning Bun from La Boulangerie, chocolate covered peanuts. I stopped reading novels and started reading calorie counters, figuring out how much I could eat and still consume less than 900 calories a day. I was slowly going nuts, but of course I didn’t realize that. In my mind, I had never been healthier.

In my first year of graduate school, my weight dropped to 104 pounds. I was 5’7”, yet when I looked in the mirror I still saw fat. I concentrated ferociously on my coursework and my research, using every ounce of energy I had to continue my track record of earning straight A’s. Socializing with my fellow graduate students was torturous; not only would I not eat while all around me my normal new friends ate pizza and grazed at all-you-can-eat fish fries, I would order tea while they drank beer: tea has zero calories whereas a Miller Lite had 90 calories.

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Me Not Having Any Fun

I forgot how to have fun. I forgot how to relax. I forgot what “normal” felt like. I knew I wasn’t happy, but my starving brain managed to convince me that the problem was that I wasn’t yet thin enough. Whatever weight was five pounds less than my current weight was the magical Golden Snitch, always just out of my reach no matter how doggedly I pursued it.

Every now and then, my body would stage a full out rebellion against my crazy mind and stage a coup d’etat, and I would eat all the foods I had been craving. Near-instant remorse would kick in almost immediately, and I would be terrified at the thought of the weight I would surely gain as a result of my weak will. I developed a strategy of swallowing a handful of laxatives after such binges, which forced everything through my intestines at breakneck speed and carried a lot of water weight out with it.

One particular night during that year, I was in my bedroom, feeling sick from all the food I had consumed and the laxative chaser. I couldn’t tell anyone I was sick, because I didn’t want anyone to know that I had eaten all that forbidden food, and I certainly didn’t want anyone to know I had swallowed a handful of Correctol. On this night, however, something new was happening and I could tell that it was Very Bad. My heart was flipping around inside my chest and I thought it might even be skipping some beats. I really, really didn’t want to die, and so I pulled myself out of the bed and lurched into the family room, where my mother was watching television.

“Mom,” I croaked. “I feel really, really sick.” I stumbled over to the couch and fell onto it, clutching my stomach. My mother got up and started asking me questions. What had I eaten? Did I have a fever? Was I nauseous? I answered her last question by turning my head and throwing up a pile of bright green bile on my mother’s couch.

That spurred her into instant action. My poor mother had not a clue about how to deal with a daughter who was starving herself to death before her eyes. She had no idea how to talk to a daughter who cried if she dared to eat one Pepperidge Farm Cookie. She had no idea how to broach the topic of laxatives when she cleaned the toilet and found empty boxes of Correctol in the trash. But one thing my mother knew, and knew well: how to respond when someone makes a mess of her couch. When she saw the vomit spew out of me and onto the couch cover, she screamed, “MY COUCH!” With the strength of ten men, she picked me up and dragged me down the hall to the bathroom, heaved me into the bathtub, pajamas and all, and turned on the shower to COLD. Then she went and got the couch cover and scurried down to the basement to get it into the washing machine before the stain set.

Other mothers may have reacted differently to the situation, and when I have told this story in the years since, people have often said that my mom’s response was….odd. Whatever her motivation, whatever her limitations, my mother did what she knew how to do, and somehow it turned out to be the right thing. The cold water roused me, the nausea passed, and I got out of the bathtub under my own power. As I toweled myself off and put on some dry pajamas, I admitted to my mother, who was by now up from the basement, that I was in trouble and had no idea how to fix it.

The next morning at 9 a.m. I was in the office of Dr. Hayes Hatfield, our family doctor. He told me—and my mother—that I was anorexic and needed to go to a psychiatrist. Despite her overwhelming distrust of all “head doctors,” my mother trusted Dr. Hatfield and really wanted me to be better. I walked out of there with an appointment for the following day at a place called “Dewey Center.” I would be seeing someone named Dr. Bedi.

I drove to the Dewey Center the next day and checked in at the reception desk. My mother’s daughter, I was very skeptical about this whole endeavor. We simply were not one of “those” families who went to therapists. The only person I knew who had ever gone to a therapist was Woody Allen, and (1)I didn’t actually know Woody, since we had never actually met, and (2)Even in my hunger-addled stated, I could see that Woody Allen was no poster child for mental health despite his thirty years of psychiatric care.

As seen on a Sussex Directories Inc site
The Dewey Center

Nonetheless, there I was. I had exhausted all my other “go-to” strategies: will power, denial, prayer, self-help books. Dr. Bedi was the only thing left. As I sat in the waiting room, staring at the carpet in order to make sure I didn’t make eye contact with any other lunatics in the room, I saw a pair of legs moving toward me. The legs were connected to feet, and on the feet were an aggressively ugly pair of Hush Puppies. “Please,” I prayed. “Let those Hush Puppies not belong to the man who is going to be in charge of my mental health for the forseeable future.”

The Hush Puppies stopped in front of my chair and I heard a lilting Indian-accented voice say, “Are you Anne Maloney?” Reluctantly, I tore my eyes away from the carpet and looked up to find a slight, formally dressed Indian man with an inverted bowl haircut and round

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Dr. Bedi in 1980

rimless eyeglasses. Dr. Bedi. I stood up and followed him back to his office, where I sat on the couch and he sat in his chair and he asked me, “Why have you come here?”

My response was a twenty minute diatribe about how we didn’t believe in psychiatrists in my family because they were expensive, useless and probably pretty nutty themselves. In fact, I continued, we didn’t have much use for doctors in general, and for good reason. My grandmother broke her arm once and they set the wrong arm. My great aunt died when she was 34 years old because the doctor let a bubble into her arm when she was getting a transfusion. As a young woman, my mother visited the doctor and was told she would never have children. I am the fifth of five children. Another time, my mother went to the doctor with a chest cold and he put her in “the neck-stretching machine” because they got her file mixed up with someone else’s. In my own life, I suffered through serious pain for years because of an ovarian cyst that was diagnosed by my pediatrician as a “spastic colon.” (For that story, see here)

“So, believe me,” I said to Dr. Bedi, “I’m not here for some frivolous reason. I’m not here because I think you can help me. In fact, I’m pretty sure you will be useless. But I’m afraid I’m dying, and I don’t want to die. You’re my only option.”

After I finished this Charm Offensive, Dr. Bedi said, “So you need to be very sick in your family in order to get medical care? Medical care is the last resort in your family? This is correct?” “Well, yes,” I said. He leaned forward a bit. “And you became very sick the other night, yes?” Yes. “So you are now sick enough to justify finding some help for yourself without forfeiting your family identity?”

Whoa. This guy just met me, I thought, and he already seems to have met my family. Growing up, the family motto when any one of us spoke of seeing a doctor for whatever ailed us was “You had better be really sick.” We said it to each other so often that it could have been etched into our Coat of Arms. And this doctor had talked to me as if he knew that already. I was officially prepared to take Dr. Bedi seriously.

dewwy2My visits with Dr. Bedi every week for two years did, in fact, help me a great deal. He was worth every penny he charged, but he charged a lot. I had health insurance through Marquette, and my policy covered some mental health treatment, but not 100%. I had to satisfy my deductible, and then pay 20% of every charge thereafter. Suddenly my 660.00 research stipend didn’t seem like very much money. As the summer of my first year in graduate school approached, I realized that I was yet again going to have to get a summer job.

My sister Susan had joined a law firm several years earlier, and they needed someone at their office to summarize depositions for the lawyers. Since summarizing depositions was a close cousin of all the Reading Comprehension Exams I had always excelled at in grade school, she suggested me. I took the #31 bus downtown and met with the three attorneys in charge of hiring someone. They liked me, but even more importantly, they liked Susan and trusted her recommendation. I was hired.

Jobs I Have Loathed IV: The Good Dentist

cover-melThe summer before I started graduate school, I had to find a job. I was responsible for paying half of my college tuition, and I still owed my father for my senior year at Mount Mary College. My sister Susan had worked for several summers at our brother-in-law’s dental office, and my parents saw this as the ideal job: Mel would drive me to and from work, he paid a good wage, we knew I would have a reasonable boss, and the hours were steady. What more could I want?

I wanted to spend my summer reading novels, watching the ongoing saga of Luke and Laura on General Hospital and going to the pool. I was a twentieth century version of Bartleby the Scrivener; my go-to response to “Get a job” was “I’d prefer not to.” Bartleby didn’t owe money to my parents, though.  I did. It was fated to be my summer with The Good Dentist.

I thought of Mel as The Good Dentist because of my mother. When my sister Marbeth got married, my mother often worried out loud about her new son-in-law’s dental talents: what if he was a terrible dentist? Would we have to go to him anyway, because he was family? And ruin our teeth? How far must family loyalty go? Would we have to lie and tell him he was a good dentist, even if he was a terrible dentist? Would we need a Stealth Dentist to keep our teeth healthy and only pretend to entrust our teeth to Mel? And would he give us a family discount?  Luckily, my mother’s concerns were put to rest once she actually had Mel perform dental work on her; he was an excellent dentist. For the rest of her life, my mother would periodically remind us what a stroke of good fortune Mel’s dental talent was, sparing our family from all manner of angst and possible dental infidelity.

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Beautiful Downtown South Milwaukee

As a brother-in-law, I liked Mel a lot; I just didn’t want to work for Dr. Foley. Mel’s office was in a depressing place called South Milwaukee; he was located in the heart of that city’s downtown, which was approximately 2.5 blocks long. From Mel’s office, one could walk to the bank, to Walgreens, to the tavern, or to Lloyd’s Lunch, a decrepit looking diner where the glitterati of South Milwaukee dined every day. The office itself was small and beige, tucked in right next to an insurance agency that reminded me of the Ardlou Insurance Agency, the job I had abandoned for my dental apprenticeship. (For the story of my one-day career at the Ardlou Insurance Agency, see Jobs I Have Loathed, III: The Ardlou Insurance Agency)

I had visited this office many times as a patient, and not once did I think, “What a fun place to hang out! I wish I could stay longer!” Mel was a good guy, his staff was nice, but the music playing in the background made my teeth hurt and my sister Marbeth ordered the magazines. For reasons I never understood, she offered the dental patients of South Milwaukee Chicago Magazine, Golf Digest and The New Yorker. I was willing to go to Mel’s office at appropriate intervals for teeth maintenance, but I was always happy to leave after an hour or so and go home.

Mel worked really, really hard. Two summers of watching Susan come home taught me that when Mel worked hard, everybody worked hard. And Mel always worked hard. I had been hoping for a less intense summer job experience. My sister Susan had dealt with the stress of life as a Dental Assistant by stress-eating her way through many tubs of ice cream. Having finally lost 100 pounds the previous year, I was determined to fatten up only my bank account that summer. Graduate school was on my horizon and was certain to feature at least a few brilliant-yet-soulful young men. I wanted to greet all potential boyfriends with my newly svelte figure. I would be a Dental Assistant for three months, but I was determined to transition from my Dental Summer to my new career as a graduate student in size six blue jeans.

Once I started working for him, Mel was no longer Marbeth’s husband and my affable brother-in-law; he was now Dr. Foley–my boss. On the first day at my new job, I walked to their house (they lived just one block from my parents’ house) and together Mel and I made the forty minute drive to South Milwaukee. It was a very hot summer, and Marbeth and Mel didn’t believe in air-conditioned cars.  They had grown up without air-conditioning and figured they had turned out just fine without such frivolous excess.

One of my Dental Assistant Tasks was to man the reception desk, and so I had to dress well every day. In 1980, that meant wearing pantyhose. There is no experience quite like sitting in an oven-hot car in pantyhose, feeling little tributaries of sweat snaking down one’s legs to puddle in one’s shoes.  We always rolled down all four windows, but that merely allowed the sauna-like air to blow directly in our faces and hair. By the time we arrived at the office, I was at least one pound thinner from water loss, which I actually counted as a real plus in my whole “weight maintenance” program.

The office, thank God, was air-conditioned, so arriving at work felt good. We always arrived well before Dr. Foley’s first patient, so it was quiet and cool when we walked in, a state of affairs that changed fast. Every day was a busy day at the Dental Office, which was great for Mel’s bottom line but hectic for his staff.   Several of Milwaukee’s biggest factories were located in or near South Milwaukee, and the women and men who worked in those factories had very good medical and dental benefits. (Which, in my mind, they richly deserved; we drove past some of those hulking factories enroute to the dental office, and they were clearly places where a great deal of hard physical labor was going on.) Those factory workers and their families were Mel’s patients; there were a lot of them, and they took good care of their teeth.

My place at the Dental Office was behind the reception desk; I answered the phone, ushered patients back to the inner sanctum when it was their turn, and at the end of the day, I “balanced the board,” which meant that I made sure that the amount of money we took in matched the amount of money that was charged that day. There were two columns of numbers on “the board,” and if they didn’t match at the end of the day, we stayed until they did, no matter how long that took. Balancing the board was definitely the task I worried about the most. I dreaded those times when the board didn’t balance and we couldn’t leave. The Dental Office was already devouring most of my life, and on those late days it snapped up the precious few hours I could still call my own.

It was pretty clear to me that Mel loved being a dentist. It’s a good thing he did, because he was at the office all the time. That meant, of course, that I was at Mel’s office all the time as well. And I did not love being a Dental Assistant. Five mornings a week, we jumped into the SaunaMobile and drive to South Milwaukee in time to greet Mel’s first patient at 9:00 a.m.  On a routine day, his last patient came in at around 5:00 p.m.  But there really were no “routine days” at the Dental Office. Mel probably saw the various “surprises” that cropped up during the day as interesting new challenges that kept him fresh. I viewed them as random sneak attacks on my personal life.

Teeth are not as predictable as one might like, and peoples’ mouths can go all to hell whether they have an appointment or not.  Mel had to deal with “emergencies” as they happened, which they did with infuriating regularity. A Dental Emergency meant that everything else on the schedule had to be pushed back to a later time. I started to secretly despise those people with their broken teeth, their cracked crowns, their smashed up dental plates, and their bleeding gums. Their emergencies robbed me of my evenings. I had to work hard not to glower at them and mutter under my breath about stupid people who did ridiculous things to and with their teeth. I had to stop myself from saying things like, “You thought it was a good idea to rip that tag off the pillow or open that beer bottle with your teeth? You’re an idiot! A fool! And now it is I who must pay the price!”

Mel gave the office staff an hour for lunch, but of course I rarely ate lunch, because I was terrified of gaining weight. I would use my hour walking the hot and dusty streets of South Milwaukee. Not exactly a thriving metropolis, the city had little to offer me as diversion. By the end of my first week as a Dental Assistant, I had “seen the sights” in South

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A Busy Day in Downtown South Milwaukee

Milwaukee, so I spent my lunch hours on a bench outside the bank, reading and sweating. In a dental version of the Stockholm Syndrome, I would long for my free hour to end so that I could get back into the air-conditioned office. Once in a while, I would stop at Walgreen’s and buy an ice cream sandwich, but then I would castigate myself for endangering my new Graduate School Svelte Self for mediocre Walgreens food. Had I remembered that I was surely going to sweat that ice cream sandwich off on the ride home, I might have relaxed more.

Each day at the Dental Office was a strange combination of stress and mind-numbing boredom. The stress would flare up when a patient called or came in with a Dental Emergency, or the board wouldn’t balance, or a patient’s bridge came back wrong from the lab but didn’t fit in the patient’s mouth. Sometimes a patient would come in who hadn’t paid anything on her bill, and then my job was to be The Enforcer. When this part of the job was explained to me, Jeanette the Office Manager told me that I really had to impress upon the patient that this nonpayment was a Serious Situation. I wondered if I might have to come out from behind my desk and whisper in my best Marlon Brando voice, “Nobody sees Dr. Foley without putting some the money in the till.” “Well, no,” Jeanette replied. “Not like that. But Dr. Foley does let us say, in a very stern voice, “PLEASE.”

Whereas stress resulted when the schedule was ruined, epic boredom accompanied a routine day. One of my responsibilities was answering the phone. The phone never actually rang; it did a sort of “ding-dong” thing. All Day Long. Then there was the “soothing background music” that was piped into the office from radio station WEZW—thus named because, according to the breathy low-voiced announcer, all of their songs were “eee-zeee.” Much of this “eee-zeee” music was produced by a band called The Living Strings. In the odd quiet moment at the Dental Office, I would contemplate the irony of this band name and imagine more accurate monikers such as “The Embalmed Bodies,” “The Very Dead Strings,” “Theme from the Myth of Sisyphus,” or “Music to Listen to living-stringsWhen You Wish You Were Already Dead.” If I am ever put in charge of getting classified information out of a government source—not likely, but I am prepared just in case–I am going to force that source to listen to WEZW—“eee-zeee”–for forty hours a week. I guarantee results.

When I wasn’t busy renaming The Living Strings, I conducted internal debates about which days were worst: the stressful days where Anything Could Happen If It Involved Teeth, or the boring days when the monotony was so relentless that I awaited my bathroom break the way a four year old awaits a trip to Disneyworld.  My answer changed from week to week. Even though emergencies made for a less rip-my-own-eyeballs-out boring day at the dental office, I did long for the steady boredom of an ordinary day when confronted with Dental Chaos. One day about halfway through the summer, the schedule had been interrupted by two emergencies, which meant we were hopelessly backed up. The waiting room was filled to the rafters with increasingly cross patients waiting for their delayed appointments. Every chair was filled and people were standing. There was so much noise we couldn’t even hear The Living Strings, which was actually kind of a bonus. Mel was harried, the staff was harried, the phone was ringing and I felt like an air traffic controller at O’Hare Airport during rush hour.

As we were trying to juggle these many crabby balls, the office phone rang. I picked it up, trying to sound less cross and panicked than I felt, and I said “GoodAfternoonDr.Foley’sofficeHowCanIHelpYou?” A woman’s voice at the other end of the line breathed, “Luke Lives.” Just as I was trying to puzzle out who was calling and who Luke was, an elderly gentleman walked into the office, strode up to my desk, and handed me a tissue. Inside the tissue were several bloody teeth.

mel-7Holding what I assumed were this man’s teeth (unless he had stolen them from someone else, which seemed unlikely), I said to the caller, “Excuse me?” The mystery caller turned out to be my cousin Kathy from Chicago, giving me an update on the adventures of Luke and Laura on General Hospital.  I told my cousin that I needed to hang up now and give Dr. Foley some teeth that I was holding. No one in the office that day made it home on time, I lost complete track of Luke and Laura, and I hurt my cousin’s feelings.

When we were finally finished for the day, Mel and I would jump back into the SaunaMobile and head for home. It was almost always well after 6 p.m. when I peeled my damp legs from the seat of Mel’s car, waved a weak “Hey there” to my sister, and walked back to my parents’ house.  Sweaty and exhausted, I would shower and eat dinner, which just about brought me to bedtime where I could rest up for the next day’s Sisyphean Dental Labors.

It was a formative summer. I learned how to balance a board. I swore that I would never buy a car that didn’t have air conditioning. I concluded that The Living Strings were almost certainly the cause of most migraine headaches in the greater Milwaukee area. And I saw my brother-in-law in a new light. While I groaned and complained and drowned in self-pity enroute to South Milwaukee every morning, Mel hummed cheerfully along with the radio.

When the summer ended, I was more than ready to get back to school. But it was an education to have spent the summer watching someone else love work that seemed utterly unlovable to me. And despite those occasional ice cream sandwiches from Walgreens, I only gained three pounds. My debts paid, I was ready to be a student again. Even during my Summer in Dental Hell, though, I had learned some important things: Walgreens makes inferior ice cream, silence is better than bad music, people do incredibly stupid things with their teeth, the only fun thing in a New Yorker magazine are the cartoons, there is a point at which panty hose will actually start to melt, and human beings are lucky that there are some among us who are willing—even eager—to put their hands in our mouths and fix our teeth. Or, as my mother would say, “Thank God for Good Dentists.”