Oct 24, 2010

How to Kill a Werewolf - A Memoir

Werewolves of London

I spent most of my late elementary years dreaming of the wonderful life of an orphan. The battle with my parents was over chores. I was the oldest, so there was no precedent, yet I knew their requests were unreasonable. Real parents wouldn’t force their children to labor. It was through this pathway of logic that I figured out that they weren’t my real parents. They were werewolves disguised to look like them.

I had a recurring nightmare in which I begrudgingly took out the trash. My mother stood at the top of the Astroturf-covered stairs with her arms folded, watching me as I lugged a full garbage bag out of the house, past the Bougainvillea bush and into the metal trash bin. As soon as my back was turned, she peeled off her fleshy mask to reveal fur, fangs, and blood red eyes.

Thereafter, to avoid giving my werewolf mother the chance to surprise me, every time I took out the trash I walked backward.

Living with werewolves, however, was not my biggest problem. At school, I had to deal with the dilemma of Colin, with whom I was deeply and passionately in love.

Colin was new at Montalvo Elementary School and thus very attractive to all the girls in the fifth grade. Even then, I understood the ugliness that can occur among girls in competition for love. So, to protect myself, I kept my love for Colin a secret. This caused the dual problem of how to conceal my love, and at the same time, get him to like me.

Colin was tan and athletic. He wore khaki shorts and polo shirts, and he had blond hair that was always parted on the left side and combed with enough gel to keep it in place through a sturdy wind. Although Colin was small, he was fast and good at sports. During recess, he was always on the soccer field. I, on the other hand, was scrawny as a wishbone and un-athletic. Since fourth grade, I had preferred to avoid the embarrassment of being picked last for team sports, and instead played hopscotch with a nice but boring girl named Andrea. With Colin’s arrival, however, my interest in hopscotch diminished.

One day when Andrea was absent, I walked nonchalantly to the edge of the blacktop. A short, steep hill separated the blacktop from the soccer field. I sat down at the top of this hill where I would have the best view of the game.

I pretended to be sunning myself and examining the grass. However, despite my efforts to act disinterested, I became engrossed in the game. Colin scored two goals and I had to control my desire to jump up and shout, “Yes!” My life couldn’t have been better at that moment. The sky was clear and blue and I was in love with a soccer star.

A few minutes later, however, my heart crumbled when the ball hit Colin in the mouth. He cried out and covered his braces. I wanted to run to him, but I sat still. Kids gathered around, and the teacher on duty asked if he was bleeding.

“No,” he said, scowling, his mouth hanging open.

She told him to sit out for a while anyway.

Colin fell into a heap at the bottom of the hill below me. I had a perfect view of the top of his head. I watched him pick at the grass and throw it absently in the air as I thought of things I could say to get his attention. “Are you alright?” “Is your mouth OK?” “Do you want to kiss me sometime when your mouth is better?” He must have felt me staring, because he rolled over and looked up. I held my breath. As I struggled to make my voice say something clever but distant, Colin drew his eyebrows together and down. He squinted at me from under them and curled his upper lip. I tried to smile, but his expression was so disdainful, I was immobile. Then he turned back to the game.

I took a breath. I wasn’t sure if it was my presence or the pain in his mouth that had caused Colin to contort his face at me. I decided that he loathed me. My heart sank to the bottom of my feet and I dragged it around in my shoes the rest of the day.

At home, I paced around. I looked out the windows and tried to see the ocean. I walked around my room, lay on my bed, and paced again.

“Why don’t you go out and play, and quit moping?” my mom said. She was sitting on the couch in the living room, sewing arms onto a doll.

“I don’t feel like it,” I said, kicking the shaggy green carpet.

“What’s the matter?” she asked. “Did one of your boyfriends look at you funny?” Her green eyes sparkled above her pointy nose.

I stiffened, and opened my eyes wide. “Um, no.” I sidestepped out of the room, glancing quickly back at my mother, who shrugged and went on sewing.

Once out of her sight, I fled to my room, threw the door closed and lay on the bed. The knots in the wood ceiling stared down at me as my heart banged like the percussion section of the high school band. My suspicions about my parents were much worse than I had thought; not only was my mother a werewolf, but she was also a mind reader.

I wondered if she could read my mind at that moment, and I tried to clear it. Naturally, the first things I thought of were the diagrams I had seen in Sex Ed., a page torn from a Playboy magazine I once found on the playground, and the image of my mom on the back porch peeling off her mask. I tried to focus on the backs of my eyelids, but my mind was still unmoored.
I reasoned that she probably couldn’t read my mind unless she was in the same room—but staying in separate rooms forever was impossible. I thought of the catastrophes that could result from her knowing I knew she was a werewolf. Soon, all I could think about was the first Ghostbusters movie when all of New York City was nearly destroyed because Dr. Raymond Stantz thought of the Stay-Puff Marshmallow Man at just the wrong moment.

I needed a plan—something to think about when my mom was around. I finally decided on something that I used to keep away bad dreams. In fact, it was my mother that gave me the idea years before. She knelt at my bedside one night after I awoke from a nightmare and told me that the best way to forget bad dreams was to concentrate on something nice. The nicest thing I could think of was butterflies.

I imagined myself on a hill near the ocean. Blue and purple butterflies swirled around me in a great cloud—floating, darting, and fluttering—their wings brushing warm air in my face. They would land and alight in undulating patterns on Jasmine and California poppies.

At dinner that night, I chewed slowly, avoiding my mother’s gaze. I appeared entranced by the striped wallpaper, but really, I was surrounded by colorful, winged insects.

* * *
My mom turned out not to be a werewolf. She may have had mind-reading powers, but I soon forgot that as I transitioned to middle school, Colin moved away, and my mother became sicker and sicker with cancer. I didn’t forget about the butterflies, though, and I still summon them occasionally.

In college, I had a butterfly tattooed on my lower abdomen—a choice I couldn’t explain at the time. When I decided I wanted a tattoo, I looked through pages of pictures at the tattoo parlor, but none of them were right. I ended up bringing in my own image.

“Why a butterfly?” my roommate asked.

I shrugged. “I just like butterflies,” I told her.

“But why did you get it there, specifically?” The small blue and purple butterfly is below my swimsuit line, where I am the only one able to admire it regularly.

I explained that I liked to have hidden things—things no one knows about me. I didn’t need mind reading powers to know what she was thinking: everyone has hidden things, and not in permanent ink on their bodies.

I realize now, twenty years after my mother’s death, that my butterfly tattoo, besides rebellion, is a symbol of something else—a remnant from my childhood that I tried to hold on to, make permanent, and safeguard in some way. Something I look at only when I am alone and naked.

Oct 18, 2010

Elementary Justice

The freezing rule was serious business. If any of us were caught moving after the first whistle, the punishments could be as severe as no recess for a week or a note sent home to our parents.

I once saw Nolan, the tall ringleader of the group of boys that called me Skinny-Bone-Jones, dragged off by the teacher on duty for moving after the whistle. At the next recess he sat on the blacktop against the blue cement wall of the school building, scowling at the teacher who stood watch over him.

I was usually a good girl. But you couldn’t give me a rule and expect me not to think about it good and hard. If I learned anything in Social Studies, it was that rules were meant to be challenged.

The freezing rule had a flaw, and I soon found it. “What if the whistle blows and I can’t stop moving?” I thought. “What if I was on a swing, or jumping in mid-air? Surely they couldn’t punish me for coming down to earth after the whistle.”

I tried various ways of challenging the rule by attempting to be in a mid-air position at whistle time. The problem was that I still couldn’t tell time, so I didn’t know exactly when the whistle was going to blow. I tried dallying on the high bar, spinning around and around, but other girls were waiting in line, and I missed the whistle every time. I finally came up with a perfect strategy: I would do cartwheels around the playground all recess long.

The next recess, I circled the field like a pinwheel of bony arms and legs. The grass was still damp from the overnight fog that had blown out over the ocean. Blades of it stuck to my wet hands. I counted to myself, so that I would know for future reference how many cartwheels long was morning recess.

“What’cha doing?” asked Andrea, a girl whose constant hunger made her chew her hair.

“Nothing,” I said, panting.

The playground and the sky swung in and out of the horizon as if on a hinge. After thirty cartwheels, my head felt strange and wobbly. I righted myself and shook it fiercely until the far chain-link fence came into focus, then I continued. I passed a group of boys playing marbles; each time I passed, they looked up.

The sounds of recess echoed far into the neighborhood. Dizzy now, I felt somehow far away from it, as if watching myself. I heard the tether ball chain clang against the metal pole, and the swarming, chirping sound of kids playing.

After cartwheel number one hundred, I began to imagine the scene as it would surely play out. The straw-haired teacher with the mole on her lip would drag me by the elbow to the office. My classmates would watch from their statue-like poses, as I kicked and screamed and asserted my innocence. In the principal’s office, I would stand in the middle of a wood-paneled arena, where I would have my say in front of my judges and prove that the rule was flawed.

When it finally happened, and my feet came down after the whistle, I closed my eyes and waited for my destiny. I felt all eyes upon me, and I waited for the teachers to swarm in. I smiled, knowing I had already outsmarted them.

This is not me. My parents stopped taking pictures of me after age 5. But it's a great shot.

Aug 9, 2010

Flushing America

Last week, I was talking to my friend Marianne, a biologist, about things that are irreversible—a sent e-mail, a burnt pot of beans, death—things like that.

"It’s called the Flushed Toilet Principle,” said Marianne, using a term from one of her college professors. "In science there are processes that, once begun, can’t be stopped—like a flushed toilet. The water is going to go down.”

I was amazed to know that scientists thought about toilets, what with all the other scientific stuff they think about, and it reminded me of an obsession I had when I was eight years old. Many of you may remember the song “We are the World,” which played every hour on every radio station in the late eighties. What you may not know is that it was the theme song to a movement called “Hands Across America.” The idea was to get Americans all over the country to grab hands on some specific date along a predetermined route to form a chain of people from coast to coast.

Hands Across America was all the rage in my town. In fact, my grandparents liked the idea so much they decided to join. They flew to Iowa to grab hands with some strangers and add to the chain with was supposed to reach Long Beach, California. Those of us who couldn’t participate in this manner, showed support in other ways. Our elementary school had a special assembly, and afterward, the teachers led all the children to the playground. To the blaring music of “We are the World,” we were instructed to grab hands with our neighbor and form “Hands Across the Playground.”

Looking back, I suppose that the concept of this mini-gesture was to show that all
cultures, religions, and races could come together for peace. To me, however, the meaning was not so deep. I saw the coming together as a way to do something big—in this case, as big as America. I began to wonder what would happen if all of America got together on another issue. Specifically, I wondered what would happen if everyone in the country flushed their toilets at exactly the same time.

I became obsessed with the idea. I told a friend about it over the telephone; we both went into our bathrooms to flush, then came back to the phone. As we suspected, nothing happened. We needed more people behind the idea—but without the fame or the technology to make it happen, I eventually abandoned the idea.

As I was talking to Marianne, I wondered again: What would happen? With many well-connected friends and email technology, I could certainly create a chain letter that might get around the United States. But even if the letter circulated, would people actually flush just to satisfy an eight-year-old’s curiosity? Or would they need some greater cause to motivate them?

Flushing for Peace and Flush Drugs were my first choices. As far as the date, I settled on a temporary date of October 14, 2007 at 7:00 p.m., P.S.T. Why did I choose my birthday? I figured it might be more exciting than going out to dinner. When trying to choose a theme song, however, I became bogged down in stacks of CDs. I began to wonder what would happen if the outcome was catastrophic—such as earth-wide flooding and rising ocean levels? What if the CIA traced it all back to me? What if environmentalists came after me for encouraging improper use of fresh water?

These concerns never occurred to me as a child. I decided to sleep on it, (because, after all, an email can’t be unsent) and saved the draft on my computer.

I slept fitfully, and dreamt that my cat (I don’t have a cat) walked across my keyboard and sent the email to everyone in my address book.


I only wish she had chosen a theme song.

This piece was originally published at MadasHellClub.net sometime in 2007. R.I.P. MAHC.

Jul 1, 2010

How I Learned to Play the Name Game

Last Friday, I went to a party where I didn’t know anyone except the person I came with. Here is a sample of the introductions that followed: a square block of man with no neck introduced himself with a wet kiss on my hand; a fumbled double bisou from a lovely French woman who said, “Nize to mit you;” near the food table, a man in gray sweats stared at me for a full minute before approaching me with this one—“Hi, I just got a ticket for being in a bus lane. I’m not really a bus lane kind of guy.”

I remembered two of three names, but as my luck would have it, I ran into the third (bus lane guy) yesterday at my local supermarket. It was a bit awkward, since he remembered my name, but I escaped by remembering I was late for an appointment.

In college, this happened frequently, so my best friend and I developed a system that eliminated the problem. Since we were often together, when someone we didn’t remember approached us, we would introduce each other to the name-unknown party first.

Jackie would say, “Have you met my friend Felice?” And I would say, “Hi, nice to meet you. What was your name?” as if Jackie had said it, but I didn’t catch it.

This trick went seamlessly, and Jackie would continue to chat, using their name as if she had always known it. We did this for each other hundreds of times.

I also had a system to help other people I knew had forgotten my name but were too embarrassed to ask. I’d stub my toe and say, “Good one, Felice” or “Come on Felice, get with it.” If they didn’t catch on, then I’d talk about how many times in my life people have sung the Feliz Navidad song to me, or about the time I met someone with the same name as me, and had then met her again in a different city 12 years later.

You might think that I’m pretty smooth, but I was not always so. I first began experimenting with different methods of introduction in the second grade. Prior to that, parents or teachers introduced me to my friends. This was how I met Olivia, who lived next door to me on Hoffman Street. Olivia and I played together every day.

One day, a new family moved in down the street. Olivia and I saw a girl about our age playing in the front yard while her parents unloaded the U-haul. We watched her from a distance most of the day. We decided we wanted to play with her but weren't sure how to go about it.

We figured that we couldn’t play with her unless we knew her name, so we tried to guess what it might be. I thought that she was definitely a Jennifer, but Olivia was sure she was Ashley. This led to our next course of action. We decided that we would walk by her front yard, say hello, call her the name we thought was hers, and see what happened.

As we walked slowly past her house I gave Olivia the signal.

"Hi, Jennifer.”

"Hi, Ashley," we said at the same time.

The girl looked up from her doll with a look of total confusion. She did not respond. She only stared at us, and we continued to walk down the sidewalk as if nothing had happened. Olivia and I spent the rest of the day in our back yards out of her sight.

A few years later, I learned the "Hi-my-name-is-Felice,-what's-yours?" method of meeting people. From there on out, things were much smoother. In fact, it is still my standby greeting, when I am not feeling up to anything fancy.

This piece was originally published in the July 1, 2004 issue of
The Christian Science Monitor.

Mar 15, 2010

Playing Ball Like a Girl

I saw a girls little league team playing today when I took my daughter to the park. They were sporting purple uniforms. I watched them as they squinted against the sun, dug in their toes, smacked their mitts. They were maybe, ten, with skinny arms and long ponytails rapunzeling out of their purple caps. The left fielder mindlessly tap danced as she chanted "Hey Batter."

I might not have noticed them had I not seen my little daughter look that way. And I suddenly remembered that what I wanted most desperately in the late eighties was to play Little League. There were no girl teams, then. But once, at my brother’s game, I saw a player with waist length blonde hair, too pretty to be a boy, and my jaw burned with jealously. And hope. I knew if she had found a way in, I could too.

I begged my parents. I pleaded. I threatened to quit bathing. They were resolute, however, and refused to fight my first feminist fight with me. I don’t think they were being mean. I just don’t think they realized how obsessed I was with baseball.

Every day after school I played catch with my brother for hours. I caught fastballs, sliders, pop flies. Marshall, our neighbor, said I had “an arm,” to which I replied that I had two arms: one to catch and one to throw. When neither brother would play with me, I wore myself out with the lightening paced return of an upturned trampoline.

In the summer, my brothers had games every week at the Boys and Girls Club field. I have heard it said, and I agree, that baseball is the only game you can enjoy without paying attention. This fact is what makes the snack bar so important. It is the center of the Little League universe, around which all fields orbit. To me, nothing says baseball like a cinder block building with a metal roll-up window and a mom inside selling nachos and candy bars.

My own mother did not approve. However, I had other financial recourses: recycling, found pennies, and grandma. Every Saturday, I was happy to spend all of my money on chips and processed cheese.

Another great thing about baseball is the lack of time limits. Anything can happen. There is nothing quite like being at the ball field when the sun goes down and the stadium lights come on, and no one is rushing home for bedtimes. We knew our parents would sit on the cold aluminum bleachers as long as it took.

I collected baseball cards, too. Every week, I walked to the liquor store and bought a new pack. I wanted Orel Hershiser’s card bad. He had pitched two shut out games in the 1988 World Series and it was all any Dodger fan could talk about. I opened each pack with anticipation. I tried not to be disappointed when his card wasn’t there.

My dad told me that Nolan Ryan was a better card to have than Orel. I had a card that pictured Nolan mid pitch. It was a violent and moving pose. I liked to imagine the follow through, and the batter’s stunned expression. Nolan was fast. I liked him, that was for sure—but he was old, and he didn’t pitch for the Dodgers. The Dodgers were the only sports team I really believed existed, because I had been to see them play the Cardinals. The Cardinals only existed for that game, and they lost.

For how much I loved baseball, I am surprised at how completely I later forgot it. I felt some of the old fever, years later, during the Subway Series in New York, and during the Giants-Angels Series. There is nothing quite like the bases loaded at the bottom of the ninth—a chainsaw couldn’t cut that tension. Then, there are the hundreds of hours of outfielders digging their toes in the grass. I like that part, too. It’s slow, like life, with sudden bursts of activity. It’s graceful and brutal—I don’t think I can say anything about baseball that hasn’t been said before—but that’s what’s so great about it. A lot of people think about baseball an awful lot. Maybe someday Phoebe will want to play too, and I’ll pull my shift in the snack bar or on the cold bleachers.

The piece was originally published in October 2008 at the ezine MadasHellClub.net

Walking Around in Someone Else's Green Pants

In college I had a professor who said something that resonated with me at my very center—he said, "You don't really know a person until you walk around in their green pants for a while."
The reason this particular slice of wisdom resonated with me is because in the second grade, I was forced to wear someone else’s green pants.

I switched elementary schools mid-year, and by the time I arrived in Mrs. Roux’s class, my classmates had already formed their circles of friends, and I was on the outside. My teacher only added to my intimidation. First, there was her name: Mrs. Roux. Any name with an X in it was cause for awe. Some of the kids spread rumors that she was from France, an exotic place none of us had been. She was also young and beautiful with long legs and straight brown hair. Her one strange behavior (which probably helped me in the end) was that she would often excuse herself—sometimes mid-sentence—to go to the restroom. We all sat in silence and listened to her high heels click across the hall to the girls’ room and then click back a few minutes later. As a group, we never spoke of this. It was too strange to think that teachers had the same needs we did.

One morning, still in my inaugural month at the new school, I had to pee during class. In most of my elementary school classes, there was always plenty of activity going on, and asking the teacher for a bathroom break would not have been difficult. But that day, Mrs. Roux was standing in front of the class, talking on and one, in more of a lecture style.

In order to be excused, I would have had to interrupt her, and the entire class would have stared at me. The thought of being caught in a circle of gazes terrified me. So, I folded my hands together on the desk and concentrated on the letter R, written in chalk on the board. After a half hour of trying to hold my bladder, my eyes began to glaze over. Mrs. Roux did not intend on stopping. I was strained almost to the breaking point.

Finally, I released a little. I felt some pee leak out, and I realized that I was too late. Letting go felt too good. My bladder slowly emptied while I sat in the same position in my wooden chair, staring at the chalkboard.

The warm liquid oozed slowly under my thighs to the edge of my chair and then followed the curve of the metal post down to the floor. A dark circle slowly grew outward on the avocado green carpet.

Had I thought things through, I would have realized that what I had done was probably worse than interrupting Mrs. Roux. But I wasn’t thinking. I was staring forward trying to become invisible until lunch recess, when I hoped to come up with a plan. I was still staring at the chalkboard when Mrs. Roux was by my side.

She whispered, "Sweetheart, do you need to go to the office?"
I nodded and carefully looked around. The class was involved in an activity and didn't notice our exit. Mrs. Roux walked me to nurse’s office, and the principal’s gray-haired assistant called my house.

My mother was not home to come for me or to bring clean clothes. I couldn’t believe it. How could she be away from home in my time of need?

The assistant went to the lost and found and brought back some abandoned clothes for me to wear—a red shirt and green, bell-bottom pants.

At the time, I was too self-conscious about the bellbottoms to think about whose they might have been or how they came to be abandoned at my elementary school. Through some unspoken communication, though, I knew that Mrs. Roux had once been in the same situation, and because of it, I was spared much embarrassment. When I got back to class, I dreaded the worst, but Mrs. Roux had somehow covered for me about the water on the floor. There was nothing she could do, however, about the pants.

Me and my brother. Circa green pants era.