Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Day the Perfume Bottles Danced

Last night I saw Ainsley playing with the little bottles and tubes and jars of little-girl lotions and potions she keeps on her dresser. She told me they were a family and that she had named them; her Johnson's 24-hour moisture lotion, with her tallness and curves, was the mom; the fingernail polish, lip gloss, deodorant, and body glitter were her kids with names like "Brittney" (that was the body glitter, natch) and "Evan."

This sounds weird, I know. But it wasn't weird at all to me; I did the same thing when I was little.

I think it's because both Ainsley and I were/are the only young children in our houses, and had/have very active imaginations. She is populating her room with imaginary characters because she doesn't have to share it with any real ones. I also think we both have the storytelling gene; we like to invent little dramas out of the ordinary and everyday.

My mom, a certified cosmetic addict, had a dresser full of lotion, makeup, and perfume that I used almost every day as a small child to act out a grand soap opera. I've always been a fan of ongoing storylines. Because I was an early watcher of Guiding Light and As the World Turns, my literal soap opera had my dad's aftershave cheating on his lovely wife Jean Nate with the elegant young tube of Avon red lipstick. Perfume and body spray bottles that didn't at all look like each other were discovered to be long-lost sisters, and the eccentric old vixen was a bottle of foundation that was emotionally and physically half-empty.

When Mom completely used up one of her cosmetics and needed to throw away the empty bottle, it was quite an ordeal. It was like I'd lost a member of the family. Mom would roll her eyes as I staged an epic funeral for Mrs. Secret, who had lived a long life and was loved by everyone...but did anyone really know her? Only after the rest of the cast had said their goodbyes could she be thrown away, to be replaced by...(duh duh DUH) ...newcomer Feelin' Fresh, who was going to raise a little hell. You could just tell by her shape and the intoxicating way her aroma filled the room.

Once, as a 4-year-old who should have known better, I got so mad at one of my villains that I had another character throw her across the room and break her. God bless my parents; I was not an easy child to live with.

Things came to a dramatic conclusion, though, on July 27, 1980.

I was six years old. It was a hot, summer Sunday, and Mom had just called me in the house to cool off and to have a late lunch. Dad had the Reds game on, so I headed back to direct the latest episode of As the Noxzema Turns.

No sooner had I rounded the corner into the master bedroom and positioned myself in front of Mom's dresser and its huge mirror did the scene descend into chaos. I heard a loud clap, like thunder, and suddenly the little glass bottles began to dance, moved my a violent unseen force.

I can still see my little skinny bowl-haircutted reflection in the mirror as it, too, began to shake. All of my actors began to jump and move towards me, those closest tumbling off the edge of the dresser as if trying to escape doom by jumping off a cliff.

I ran.

"Mom, mom, there's a ghost in your room! There's a ghost in your room!" I'd seen enough horror movies to know that ghosts moved things when they wanted to scare the shite of out of the living.

As soon as the words came out of my mouth the gallon of milk Mom has placed on the counter suddenly pitched into the middle of the kitchen floor.

"It's not a ghost, it's the damn washing machine." Mom ran over to our washer, which got out of balance and shook the kitchen regularly. But I knew better; no washing machine in the world could have caused what I had just seen in her bedroom.

Things got eerily quiet. Mom realized the washer wasn't out of balance about the time I noticed that I couldn't hear any birds chirping outside or the TV in the living room; the screen had suddenly gone dark. The three of us looked at each other for a split second, all three of us feeling a sense of doom.

See? I wanted to say. Told ya we have a ghost!

Then life started up again. And by that, I mean the Reds game came back on. But we all three heard the announcer say that those of us watching in Cincinnati had probably just felt a tremor, and to stay tuned for more details.

Turns out a 5.1 quake with an epicenter just southeast of us was what had rocked our world. Not a ghost, not an out-of-balance washing machine. A real-life honest-to-goodness bit of drama had presented itself to my little theater of beauty products.

The rest of the day we were, if you'll pardon the pun, shaken up a bit. There were reports of minor damage across northern Kentucky, but all Dad's inspection found was a lot of spilled milk, a loose mirror above Mom's dresser, and some seriously misplaced perfume bottles. Later most of the neighbors gathered outside to swap stories of what they were doing when the ground started shaking.

"Cranky thought it was a ghost," Dad told them, and all the adults laughed and took another sip of their PBRs. I made eye contact with my best friend from across the street, and we didn't laugh; we both knew that things moving of their own accord is not hilarious when you're 6 and alone in a bedroom.

I could never quite handle being alone with my cast and crew making up scenes after that. I knew it had "only" been a minor and rare earthquake, but the horror I felt at seeing inanimate objects suddenly become animated was lingering. It's one thing to imagine a perfume bottle engaging in dialogue with a lipstick in my mind's eye; it's another thing altogether to see these things come to life and march toward you as if getting revenge for years worth of bad storylines and uneven plotting.

At 8, I don't imagine Ainsley's stories with Brittney and Evan and the rest will last too long, anyway. For all I know last night's play was an isolated incident brought on by boredom and her having a bit of an upset stomach and nothing better to do.

At any rate, I hope her cast never quite comes to life for her like mine did.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Taco Boats and Pizzas Shaped Like Stop Signs: Oh Whither Thou, School Lunches Of Yore?

I am having one of those days where I want to eat everything that's not tied down.

Is this just me? 'Cause sometimes it worries me. For no rhyme or reason there are just some days that from the moment my feet hit the floor I have one ever-consuming thought on my mind: What do I get to eat next?

It's a good thing this doesn't happen very much, and that I am a disciplined exerciser with a genetic predisposition to being thin. Because I have pretty much been grazing on something or other all day.

I wanted a hot lunch so I found myself on a rare lunchtime voyage to the school cafeteria checking out their choices. Hamburger and fries? No. Chicken sandwich? Not from here, thanks. Fish sandwich? Get real. Rectangle pizza? Nope, not feeling it.

I settled on the classic Friday entree here at my school: tomato soup and something that gets called grilled cheese. You remember these "sandwiches", right? The ones that can only be eaten with a generous bowl of tomato soup, which I ordinarily despise, but which serves as a softening agent for a food item that could actually be used to scrub your backyard grill.

While I was waiting for the lunch lady to set me up (we actually have a couple of hot lunch ladies who bear no resemblance to the hair-net wearing Chris Farley characters of our youth) I had a sudden, inexplicable craving for a school lunch room item I haven't seen or tasted since May of 1992:

Octagon Mexican Pizza.

Do you all remember these? We didn't start having them until my sophomore or junior year in high school, but dear Lord, they became my favorite school lunch offering ever. There was nothing to them; the crust was something between an unnaturally-shaped corn tortilla and a soft, doughy, standard pizza crust. I don't know exactly what it was made of, but it was a perfect octagon and it was Bright. Orange. There was a little "taco meat filling" on it and some yellow processed cheese and maybe a half teaspoon of something that might have once been a red pepper. Oh, heaven on a melamine tray.

It was always served with corn. I remember that. Sometimes the funky Mexican corn you buy in a can with green peppers in it. You know. For 'tude.

On those days in my high-school cafeteria, I was ruthless. If you stood between me and my Mexican Pizza, I would have become very un-valedictorian-like and called you a 'ho and maybe stab you with my spork. It meant that much to me to have something in that cafeteria I actually wanted to eat.

Had it not been for Mexican Pizzas (I have to capitalize, because it was unique and special) and taco boats (a taco in a flat, pontoon-like shell you could eat with a fork and not get all over your Hypercolor t-shirt) I might have starved in high-school. The food was just ba-ad. It had been almost good in elementary and middle school, but then someone had to go and complain about there being meal worms in the chicken noodle soup that one time, and they changed a bunch of their ingredients and suppliers for most everything and by senior year we were all begging for them to just go ahead and bring the worms back.

My mom didn't particularly support me packing a lunch every day, so unless I was ill or just really in the mood to get up a few minutes early to throw a P B & J in a brown bag, I was completely at the mercy of the school caf for midday sustenance. Plus, I spent a few years in the good graces of the federal free and reduced lunch program, and I've always been taught you don't turn your nose up at a free (or reduced) lunch.

Things reached their boiling point one day senior year. I was coming off of a stomach virus for like the 3rd time that year; I know there was a nosy junior English teacher who was convinced I was pregnant because I kept leaving the class across from hers and throwing up, but it was just my crappy immune system that got worse with the stress of college applications and my first job. Little did she know I was still pure and would remain so for one more year, thank you very much. Suck it, Mrs Jones.

Anyway, I was having a day much like today after recovering from that virus: I was starving. I needed food. And chicken noodle soup (worm free!) was on the menu. It was looking to be a good day.

But the stuff the hair-netted harpy put in our indestructible plastic bowls bore no resemblance to any chicken noodle soup I had ever seen before. If there had ever been any noodles in it, they had dissolved to nothingness after God knows how many hours of sitting in the broth. Someone had perhaps tried to make it cream of chicken at some point, perhaps after realizing its inherent awfulness, and that just turned it into a thick, pasty mess that my sister could have used to hang the blue-and-mauve paisley wallpaper in her entryway. I tried it, and the taste reminded me of the time I tried to eat the "ice-cream cone" I had made with my friend's Play-Doh McDonald's play set.

I was a senior in high-school, therefore my sense of superiority knew no bounds. I tried to stage a revolt among my friends, but no one was biting. They were all too busy copying their physics homework off of Charlie. I did the only thing I knew to do.

I walked up to the lady who took our trays, a poor dishwasher who never spoke, probably had nothing to do with the preparation of our lunches, and was just there to make minimum wage with our town's limited employment opportunities. She wasn't the right person to call to the mat, but I was young and foolish, and she was quiet and there.

"This," I said, dramatically dipping my spoon into the paste and making a big show about how it didn't easily come off the spoon, "This is NOT soup! I don't know what this is. It is INEDIBLE! How do you sleep at night knowing that this is what you're feeding children?!" And with that, I stomped off.

"How'd that go?" one of the homework copiers asked.

"I don't know. She didn't say anything." But I still was convinced I'd had an impact; for extra effect, I'd written "NOT FOOD!" on my napkin and left it there. Surely, it would get all the way to the manager and she would change her ways.

Change didn't come.

As much as I moaned about those 80s and 90s school lunches, I would have loved to have had a Mexican Pizza, a taco boat, or the "old" chicken noodle soup from the days before the meal worm incident for my lunch today.

Instead, I had canned tomato soup with a grilled cheese sandwich that was baked in an industrial oven roughly 5 hours before. It was almost bad enough to make me write something on my napkin.

I am all for healthier school lunches and better choices since some of our kids only get one hot meal a day. There is an obesity crisis among our children, and I see it everyday. Someone needs to step up and make these meals better.

But in the meantime, can we please bring back the stop-sign-shaped pizzas?

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

To My High-School Music Teacher, On the Occasion Of His 60th Birthday (And My 37th)

Last week, I was contacted by my high-school choir director's wife and asked to write a letter to her husband as part of a birthday surprise in honor of his 60th birthday. She wanted to get a large number of his friends and former students to bombard him with good old-fashioned snail mail on that landmark occasion.

My first thought: holy crap. I remember when we decorated the band room/chorus room with black balloons and streamers in honor of his 40th birthday, and it seems like yesterday. No way was that 20 years ago.

My second thought: of course I will do this. After all, this teacher and I first bonded over the discovery of our shared February 12 birthday way back when I was in 6th grade. I'd be honored to write an actual pen-and-paper letter for this momentous event.

The following is the text of a letter I am mailing today to the best teacher I ever had and the single most important educational influence of my life.

Dear Mr. Durham,

Sometimes Jason and I sit around and wonder how on earth we got where we are. We grew up in families that were sometimes unstable, to say the least. Based on our socioeconomics, the odds were not in our favor for a high level of educational success. How did we grow into the two well-educated, well-adjusted people I like to think we are?

Well, our friends, for one thing. They exerted positive peer pressure, making it cool to be smart; they also made sure we had rides home from whatever after-school activity they roped us into joining. We became a team with that special little group of classmates, and we helped each other clean up the messes when we screwed up. (Those messes included, but were not limited to, the broken shards of a large glass trophy case that once lived in the band room.)

We also had some great teachers. Jason and I had adults standing behind us and encouraging us those times when our parents could not. They told us that we were smart and talented and capable and had such high expectations for us that we dared not disappoint them. They didn't tell us we could go to college; they told us that we would go to college, and do well there. When you come from parents who are not college-educated and struggle sometimes just to put food on the table, that's an important difference.

Then there's a person who was (and remains) both friend and teacher.

Every day from 6th grade through 12th grade, I spent an hour a day with him (Jason spent slightly less time in his company after defecting to the Beechwood Singing Tigers.) I learned a lot about music in those hours. For instance, I know enough to be able to say with authority that my favorite symphony is Tchaikovsky's 6th and can tell you in great detail why the 4th movement's struggle and failure to climb out of the depths of despair is so cathartic for me. I also know that there's nothing more beautiful than being one of twelve voices singing "Ave Verum Corpus" quietly and in tune; it makes every hair on your head stand up.

I learned a lot about myself and the world outside my front door. I was not a talented singer, but I became a very talented listener. It doesn't matter that my parents couldn't afford and were not remotely interested in taking me to Music Hall or a touring Broadway musical; I grew to love good music and good theater and had the pleasure of hearing something beautiful every day for seven years.

Some of the most important lessons came after the bell rang at 2:30. This person could not only teach music, he could also turn a fundamentally shy girl into Bonnie the Moll and The Artful Dodger on stage (and encourage her not-shy partner in crime to commit to a really convincing chair fall that to this day is the stuff of high-school theater legend.) He taught us that singing on our band-room stage for a room full of applauding people was thrilling, but singing Christmas carols at a nursing home was a whole different kind of rewarding. He was knowledgeable about things other than the performings arts; one cold winter night, dropping us off after Honors Chorus, he pointed out the Pleiades, and taught me the trick of averting my eyes when looking at a celestial object as it appears brighter that way. That little cluster of stars amazed me. How had I never noticed that before? It's amazing what wonderful things you can see when you stop looking so hard.

And once, he even taught me that my best response to an infuriating practical joke (which he may have been a party to) is to simply stick out my tongue and flounce out of the room. That'll show 'em.

A lot more years than I care to think about have passed since those days. This person is no longer technically my teacher, but remains a friend. Last year, we caught up over a favorite symphony (not Tchaikovsky's 6th, but his 4th, which isn't too shabby) and a favorite beverage and talked about music and spirituality and beer and old times and new times. This year, we went out caroling with other former chamber choir students and found that singing "Silent Night" for a handful of homesick truckers is as hair-standing-inducing as "Ave Verum" ever was. As he told the altos and tenors to sing out more, I saw that I still have a lot I can learn from him.

In my current school, we are told by our administrators to address each other as "Mr." or "Mrs." or "Ms." in front of students; that title, they say, is a sign of professional respect and a good model for our young people. Because of this, this special teacher and friend will always be "Mr. Durham."

I cannot call you by your given name. You have more than earned my respect. (Though I must say, when we get together with our other chamber choir friends, we still sometimes call you "Daddy Ron."  Which is still respectful, in its own way.)

On February 12, 1986, you heard from my 6th-grade girlfriends that it was my birthday; you told me it was yours, too. You said something like, "Great people were born on February 12."

You've no idea.

I wish you a very happy 60th birthday, and very many more. Here's hoping someday we can go to Tchaikovsky's 6th together (and have a Unibroue afterwards.)

Friday, February 4, 2011

Make a Run For the Border

There was a time in my life when I absolutely positively adored Taco Bell.

In high school, Taco Bell was where I went when I felt like I'd done something particularly noteworthy and needed  to reward myself. The day I tried out for and made my school's select Chamber Choir for the first time, I asked my mom to take me to dinner at Taco Bell to celebrate. Sad, but true. It was almost always in my price range; I could usually find a total of $3 in my house if I checked pants pockets, under the couch cushions, and in my dad's loose change cup. Three dollars could get you quite a bit of food back at the Bell in the late 80s and early 90s. I could usually get 2 soft tacos, a Chilito, and a small Dr. Pepper for all that loose change. If I was feeling really crazy, or found an extra quarter somewhere, I could swap out one of the soft tacos for a MexiMelt. Jason and I started many a date there. On those occasions, when he was buying, I splurged and got a Burrito Supreme. Romantic, no. Cheap and tasty, usually.

When a good friend of mine started working at the Bell in our mall, and could buy food for me with her discount...oh, don't even get me started. Not only could I get the discount, but she could make my food for me and put extra cheese on everything. Joy! The fact that around that time is when I stopped being super-thin and started having to exercise to be able to look cute in my jeans is perhaps a coincidence, perhaps not.

This friend used to tell me more than I really wanted to know about how the food was made and how it came to them frozen and pre-packaged and totally and completely processed beyond recognition. We still ate most of their menu items, though, and when we both went away to college at Centre we craved it enough to occasionally make Taco Bell runs all the way to Lexington. That we used to drive all the way to Lexington for Taco Bell still gets me; our classmates were making beer runs, we were driving ridiculous distances for $.49 tacos.

And now it's come out that the "beef" in the tacos we were eating all those years wasn't really beef at all. At least, over 60% of it wasn't. Here's my shocked face:                 (See, not really shocked at all.)

I can't decide whether or not to be disturbed by this. The fillers that occupy the space where the beef technically should be don't particularly gross me out. Oats are okay, soy is okay. To be completely honest, I thought that the day I learned Taco Bell had been misadvertising its "beef" would be the day we all learn it's made of chihuahua or something. Oh, don't make that face. How else did you think they were making profit from $.99 chalupas?

I know that when I make tacos at home the final "taco meat filling" isn't 100% beef, either. By the time the fat cooks out and I add some water and spices back in, who knows what the percentage really is?

But I still have to shudder when I read that Taco Bell's product is only 36% beef and doesn't even technically meet the requirements to be "taco meat filling."

I think I feel disappointment more than anything, even though I haven't been a regular Taco Bell customer in over a decade. I remember when I was a kid that you used to see Taco Bell workers actually frying up ground beef behind the counter and chopping real lettuce and grating real cheese. When me moved here from Knox County, Mom preferred Taco Bell to any other fast food restaurant when we found ourselves needing a quick meal that she didn't cook. We could see how the food was made and it seemed less shady than the local McDonald's which was worked exclusively by stoned teenagers. I loved that I could afford Taco Bell in high school; but what did we sacrifice by demanding cheap quantity over good quality?

Real beef, apparently.

That Taco Bell's food doesn't even taste the same now as it did in the already-processed-beyond-belief 90s, and that it didn't taste the same in the 90s as it did when I was a kid, speaks a lot about how our standards for food have fallen. I have no delusions that fast food was ever a healthier option than a home-cooked meal. But even fast food used to have standards and tried to be actual, you know, food. Not a formless prepackaged substance that stretches the limits of the government definition of "meat."

My family is more of a Chipotle family when it comes to fast Mexican-ish food, so it's probably not going to hurt Taco Bell too much when I say that I will never choose to eat there again.

And yet I really hope that this thrust into the headlines and controversy over how much beef it takes to actually be beef makes them question their own food and their bottom line. It's probably unrealistic, but I would love to see Taco Bell (and other fast food establishments, for that matter) get their act together and serve us real food again by the time my daughter is a teenager who goes through pants pockets and couch cushions in order to treat herself to a couple of soft tacos and a Chilito. Of course, doing so will mean that she will have to scrounge up a lot more change than I did.

In the end, though, knowing what exactly we're eating should trump $3 value meals.