My Silent Sentinel

When I was in ninth grade, we played baseball for P.E. They put the boys and girls together, flabby-armed beginners with junior varsity. I wasn’t especially good, but I could hit a double.

On my team was a boy named John. He also played on the school team. When he threw the ball, you heard it go by. He was tall and lean, with the most incredible dark brown hair thanks to at least one Latino parent. No question he was a cool kid. I was thirteen, skinny and awkward long before they were virtues. John and I didn’t breathe the same air. It was nothing hostile—just two people on separate planes of reality. John shaved, while I could pass for eleven. He had 20/20 vision, while my glasses were so thick I could have killed insects with them. Continue reading

My Brush With…Anger

I’m starting with anger because it’s my first memory. Well, part of my first memory. The furthest back I can remember is when I was a baby, I’m guessing around five or six months. I wasn’t old enough to sit up, and I couldn’t roll over yet. I lay in a crib, with a mobile over me, and that awful popcorn ceiling that encapsulated the 70’s. Since I couldn’t talk, I only felt. I felt something on my feet, and it wouldn’t go away. I balled my fists, looked down the expanse of my baby self and seethed. My feet were trapped, encumbered, and I couldn’t stand it.

Many years later, my mom told me how she used to put me in one-piece pajamas with the plastic feet built in. As she told me how cute she thought I looked in them, I had an epiphany: I hated those things! The built-in slippers trapped my feet

See these? Don't fence 'em in.

See these? Don’t fence ’em in.

and I couldn’t stand them. If I had been able to speak at the time, I would have said ‘Mom, these pajamas are killing me. Enough already.’ My mom also said that I cried a lot as a baby. More than other babies. Might some of my wailing been contained if I could articulate the resentment within?

In this first memory of mine, I don’t recall winding myself up for a crying jag. But I remember the burn in my chest, the one I still get when I’m angry. It’s the same fist-curl and setting of my jaw. It’s only now that I can categorize the viscera incited by my imprisoned feet.

I often wonder if our earliest years are blocked out because of trauma. Our brains take in truckloads of information and don’t know what to do with it. We are subjected to the emotions that will accompany us throughout life, but our only weapons against them are screams or a spit-bubbled ‘goo’. The bulk of our memories seem to occur after we have learned to talk, when the floods of frustration break the dam and we can share our thoughts with the tall people.

I have happier memories from my toddling years, of course. But it’s neat to go back to that first moment I separated from the cosmos and realized I was ‘me’. It also exlplains my love affair with sandals.

NEXT BLOG: My Brush With Empathy


My Own Private Turandot

The other day I watched the opera ‘Turandot’. Its most famous aria is ‘Nessun Dorma’. You know, where the guy yells ‘vincero, vinceRO, vinCHAAAAAARRRROHHH’at the end. Anyway, it happens to be my favorite opera – set in ancient China, the untouchable princess Turandot beheads every suitor who can’t answer her riddles. It’s her way of honoring a past princess who was raped and murdered. Along comes Calaf, a prince who can bob and weave around Turandot’s deadly riddles. Turandot can’t believe it and vows to never marry him. She and Calaf banter, and Calaf gets close enough to plant a big one on Turandot’s icy lips. In a dizzying moment, she goes from frozen man-hater to a woman in love. The peasants rejoice, T & C get hitched and the curtain falls.

Really?Just like that? He kisses her and she goes all gooey, eh? Riiiiight. Those were my thoughts as I watched with my over-30-and-living-in-the-real-world sensibilities. I’ve seen the opera before, but that light-switch moment had never irked me before. There are lots of moral questions raised in that opera,but right now I’m focusing on the inanely ridiculous notion of hating all men one minute and being swept off your feet the next. As Turandot sang of her change of heart, I found myself sneering from my tower of superior writing ability. And just then, something came galloping from the furthest fringe of my memory. I recalled that I, yes I,had once played the role of Turandot.

For reals, this pic came up when I googled 'Turandot'

For reals, this pic came up when I googled ‘Turandot’

I was five years old. At this stage of life, it’s a given that boys are icky and have cooties. No self-respecting girl would deign to be touched by a boy, let alone kissed. One day our teacher asked for volunteers to re-enact the nursery rhyme Georgie Porgie. Now we all knew what Georgie Porgie did – he was a vile girl-kisser. Yet for us girls, our dreams of stardom drove this detail to the back of our minds. We fumbled over ourselves to be chosen as one of the girls who would wind up in tears at the hands of this pioneer of sexual harassment. The full horror of our fate became clear when the teacher chose Matthew to play Georgie Porgie. Matthew, a blond-haired, blue-eyed fellow whose perpetual cheer made him especially distasteful. He was never not smiling, and he never bit or hit anyone. In other words, a total freak. And we girls, who were instructed to be grossed out at the prospect of being kissed by Georgie Porgie, had no trouble finding our motivation. Undaunted, Matthew made his way down the line of girls. I stood near the end, my stomach prepared to launch its contents.What had I gotten myself into? Whyyyy had I volunteered for this? Then, like a death row pardon, the bell rang. I was spared! No dreadful kiss from the dreaded Matthew. I was driven to the day care center, disaster averted.

But relentlessly upbeat Matthew went to the same day care as me. Surely what happened in class stayed in class – didn’t it? You didn’t talk about school at day care – it was another world and the 3-year-olds weren’t ready to hear about it. But for some reason, indefatigable Matthew gathered an audience and discussed the day. Some girls and I stood about five feet away as Matthew bragged about his role and the relish he took in playing it. Then he said “Joye was one of the girls, but I didn’t kiss her.” To which I said something like “That’s right, you sure didn’t.” Then, in his happiest tone, Matthew turned to me and said “I’m gonna do it now!”

The world and everything on it froze as Matthew’s Dutch Boy determination propelled him toward me. “NOOO!!!!” I broke into a run as chaos rained–girls were screaming, boys were hooting, all of them following Matthew as he chased me around the gated playground. He was taller, with longer legs, and his cheery “I’m gonna kiss you Joye!” sounded over the pounding of my heart. I put all I had into escaping him, but in slow motion his arms caught around me. I put up my hands to block him, tried to bury my face, but my doom was sealed. His lips landed on my forehead, just over my eye. Again the world and everything on it stopped. Matthew was a boy. A yucky yucky boy who was extra yucky, even for a boy. I was a girl, and no boy would ever contage me with his boyness. I would never suffer the fate of being kissed – especially in front of all the day care kids! But the nightmare had come true in every particular. Except…it was awesome.

Matthew’s little red lips met my forehead in the softest, most tender way, in spite of the chase and grab. I expected to fall down in convulsions, but stood in confusion instead. What was this rushing sensation? Why did it feel like Matthew still kissed me even though he had run off to another part of the yard? Why did I suddenly wish he would come back? And why couldn’t I move? It made no sense; I had nothing to compare these new feelings to. All I knew was that everything I’d been told about boys was a lie. Oh, I kept up the charade, crossed fingers to show my cootie spray was ever at the ready. But my heart wasn’t quite in it. I began to have boys as friends, and was even open to playing House with them. And all because of Matthew. If this had happened nowadays, Matthew would have been sued by the school or written up on a thousand blogs for assaulting me. But we were five and kids got spanked back then, so I’m sure he turned out all right.

Now the final scene of Turandot plays – amid a thunder of voices Prince Calaf and Princess Turandot join hands and rule the empire. Turandot stops beheading people and Calaf handles his woman without manhandling her. There’s no telling what Puccini had in mind, but having lived the opera myself, this seems the only way to end it.