Saturday, July 30, 2011

"Hurts So Good?"

As has been previously established, there are so many things I love about the 80's - things like big hair, bright colors, and John Mellencamp (with or sans the "Cougar" I think he's divine).  His songs are catchy and to this day get respectable radio play, can be heard at baseball games and firework shows, and represent all that's good and bad about American culture.  His song "Hurts So Good" has been stuck on repeat in my mental iPod all day.  And then it dawned on me...oh, this song is so much more than a catchy tune.  It's truth.

This morning I woke up with a headache and a tummy ache, both of which were foreshadowed last night when I overindulged in garlic-laden Italian food and wine at Pasquini's and other alcoholic beverages at Herman's Hideaway and Black Crown Piano Lounge.  I knew at the time that over-indulging in the present would mean future physically uncomfortable consequences, but I ate, drank and was a little too merry anyway.  Hurts so good.

I know I'm not alone.  When I woke up and browsed my news feed this morning I saw status update after status update of Facebook friends nursing hangovers, battling insomnia or grogginess from too little or too much sleep, and forming plans to do it all over again tonight, even though we know better.  Hurts so good.

Last night, one of my single friends that I'm itching to set up, remarked that she is, "So over dating dumb-dumbs."  She emphasized intelligence and politeness as two of her only non-negotiables.  As I reassured her that I'd IQ background check before giving out her digits, I couldn't help but ask, "'ve dated a lot of 'dumb-dumbs'...why?  Were they hot?"  Her guilty smile, definitive nod and raised eyebrows were all the affirmation I needed.  I thought about my own dating track record in my 20's and how so many of the smart and beautiful women I knew knowingly date men they know won't satisfy any sort of long-term relationship standards for short-term fun.  Hurts so good.    

Why do we want and enjoy what's bad for us?     And worse, why does what's bad for us feel so darn good? 

I love to run.  I'm learning to love to sweat.  I love the feeling I get after a leisurely jog or an intense hour of kickboxing.  But make no mistake, I love ice cream more than exercising.  I love it even though I've figured out that dairy makes me ill.  I'll gladly concede the calories and the constipation for a double scoop of mint chocolate chip on a sugar cone.  If I had to choose between working out or eating ice cream, I'd pick ice cream every time.  Even though I know it will make me feel terrible later.  Even though I know it's not good for me.  Even though I know that the endorphins from the run are better for me (emotionally, physically and spiritually) than the 31 flavors of tubs stretched tauntingly before me at Baskin Robbins.  

Hurts so good.  

Monday, July 25, 2011

School "Daze"

True confession: I may have entered the field of education for two reasons -- 1) I love the "first day of school feeling" and I get satisfaction out of experiencing it again every year, and 2) I'm addicted to office supplies.  If this makes me a less-than-noble educator, or a full-blown nerd (or both) be it.  A+ for honesty.

First Day of School Feelings
You know what I'm talking about - tradition, ritual, routine.  A secular baptism.  A new backpack full of possibilities and hope. Jitters that keep you up the night before and cause nervous dreams where you show up to school without a schedule, without a pencil, or in the most severe cases, without a shirt (or skirt).  These dreams jolt you out of sleep and force you to check your alarm clock (again) because heaven forbid you are tardy on your first day.  

The first day of school is the rawest of first impressions for teacher and students alike.  It is crisp bulletin boards and clean desks.  It is genuine smiles, summer reunions, and sack lunches.  It is books and dreams and above all, it is the most beautiful of beginnings -- life's annual blank sheet of paper.

On Office Supplies
I believe it was a Tom Hank's line to Meg Ryan in "You've Got Mail" (of course, all credit for the snappy dialogue goes to writer/director Nora Ephron) that captures it best.  The line, written in an email exchange between the two, was about presenting Ryan with a "bouquet of newly sharpened pencils" to celebrate fall, the initial stirrings of their online flirtation, and the "back-to-school" season in New York City.  That pretty much sums it up...some girls want roses, lilies or wildflowers, but I, much like Ryan's bookworm character, would rather receive newly sharpened pencils any day.      

I realize it sounds foolish, but there's something really satisfying about the smell of paper and the feeling you get walking and breathing in the rows of Office Max or Staples.  Maybe it's in my blood.  My paternal grandparents owned  a small, local chain of office supply stores ("Fawcett Office Supply") and as a child they carved out a space for me in the back of the shop where I could sit at an executive sized desk and doodle on legal pads, or twirl around and around in a computer chair, growing dizzy as the rows of paper clips, thumb tacks and Elmer's blurred with each rotation.  If I close my eyes, I can still hear my grandfather's fingers drumming away on a typewriter or adding machine, a photocopier and Mr. Coffee whirring in the background.  A symphony of order and comfort.  Home.

Today was my first day back at work - the start of a new school year (minus the students) for me.  Last night I packed a lunch, a new notebook, and a stash of newly sharpened pencils in my messenger bag.  I set the alarm, checked it twice, and even had a couple jittery first day dreams.  I carpooled to work with a friend, hugged and re-united with co-workers, swapped summer break stories, and wrote dates in a fresh calendar.  Today I had butterflies of excitement and possibility swirling in my stomach, and even though it's only late July, I began to smell the crisp, cool potential of the fall.  

What if we treated every day, like a "back-to-school" day?  

Monday, July 18, 2011

You Are Who You Meet?

We all know those people.  The couples that after so many years together begin to merge mannerisms and facial features, until they look more like siblings than husband and wife.   Pet owners who, in both obvious and more subtle ways, have animals that mirror their owner's habits of mind and expressions.  The pert, prissy woman walking a poodle in heels (no, that was not a grammatical oversight -- in this scenario likely both the woman and the poodle are wearing shoes) or the burly guy who makes eye contact that just feels a little too much like the gaze of his bulldog, man and canine lumbering side-by-side down the street in definitive strides.   

Unsettling and a bit creepy, yes, but an undeniable fact just the same -- it is nearly impossible not to become to some degree like the people (or animals) that surround us.  I'm sure this is where adages like, "Choose your friends wisely," originated.  I'm also sure this is why perfectly normal, plain-speaking Mid-westerners start saying things like "Y'all," after visiting relatives in Texas, or "Brilliant," upon returning from a holiday in Britain.  In our unwavering independent American quest to be "unique individuals" we wake up one day only to realize, we sound just like our mothers, fathers, friends, lovers, and yes, perhaps even our Labrador retriever.  

I had one such moment today.  After returning from a leisurely lunch, lamenting the fact that my summer vacation is dwindling (less than one week left), I entered my tornado of a house and thought, "Who lives here?"  This residence cannot possibly be owned by me -- the calendar-driven, checklist loving, slightly "type A" me.  I'm organized.  I write things down and pay bills before they're due.  I was raised by a stay-at-home mother who was raised by her Slovenian Catholic mother who believed that dust was one of the seven deadly's, a neglected sin that surely deserved to be on the list just as much as lust or avarice.  

The chorus of barks emanating from the study jolts me back to reality.  Yep, I live here, but the place looks a little like, my husband's apartment when he was he and I was me -- in those long-forgotten days before we were "we."  Slightly cluttered, slightly messy, things not put away in their place, empty pizza box on the counter, unfolded heaps of clean laundry on the dining room table, books stacked everywhere, dusty, lived in, and in dire need of a vigorous vacuuming.  

You see, among the many favorable and even enviable traits possessed by my mate -- things like generosity, kindness, a wicked sense of humor, a contagious laugh and a real knack for fixing anything, from a bad day to a leaky faucet, he has also perfected something else -- the art of procrastination.  It is this art that allows him to sleep in on weekend mornings, not worrying about what he's missing or what has to be done, while I putter about (loudly) making coffee and planning how I'll use my time off.  It is also this trait that makes grocery shopping an all-day affair, and why I'm fairly certain that prior to sharing a refrigerator fresh produce never resided in his.  Despite my ongoing struggle to understand his procrastinating ways, today I realized that this very trait seems to have seeped from the very pores of his skin and burrowed itself deep into mine. 

I have officially become a procrastinator.  I am writing this blog right now, merely as a diversion to housework.  I know I should be dusting, the cobwebs and dead skin particles on dark furniture surfaces are mocking and baiting me, and yet here I sit, blogging so as not to face mopping.  Everything else on my list today is done -- 2 mile jog, 9:30 Zumba class, lunch with Kodi, schedule windshield repair appointment, and catch-up on email from the weekend - check, check, check, check, and check.  But the housework?  I just can't face it -- I don't have the energy, the will, the desire.  I'd rather listen to Pandora, blog, and aimlessly read status updates and Tweets, until my fellow procrastinator-in-crime comes home.  I really should make dinner.  But take-out is so convenient.  I really should fold and put away that laundry.  But I am on summer vacation.  I really do want my life in order before starting back to work next Monday...but how badly?  Enough to squander a summer day on housework?  Enough to pay a housekeeping service?  Enough to resign myself to living in the dust or train myself not to look at it?  

I fear there is some truth to the "you are what you eat," maxim -- in fact, it is this fear alone that stops me from surviving on a diet of ice cream, tiramisu and cocktails.  But could it also be true that , "you are who you meet?"  If this is the case, than I am truly thankful that I have chosen wisely when it comes to friends, am blessed to be surrounded by a loving family, and indeed, am sharing a life with a person who makes me want to be a better woman, and who reminds me that really there is really very little of importance in this life that can't wait until tomorrow.  

And since imitation is the highest form of flattery, I think I will let the dust settle for a few more days.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Knee-Deep in Nostalgia-ville

Is life really about living in the present, carpe diem and all that jazz, or is it sometimes necessary and even rewarding to re-visit the past?

This summer has been one of nostalgia and remembering the past for me.  In most cases, doing so has helped me figure out the present, and maybe even the future, and in all cases it has made me realize that indeed, time goes by too quickly, and moments and memories are fleeting and precious.  Cliche, yes...but also true.

Examples of being "knee-deep in Nostalgia-ville"

Example A: As mentioned in previous posts, I spent a month writing alongside 19 other K-12 teachers in the Denver Writing Project.  I have a notebook filled with quick-writes and exercises, many of them snippets of childhood memories that manifested themselves in poetry, prose, or at least words on the page.  I worked through the life and death of my grandmother, and some hilarious and horrifying childhood moments among other things, and for the first time I felt like I had "real" and "raw" creative material to work with - stories to tell...most of these stories are from faulty but lasting memories.

Example B:  Favorite movie of the summer (and no, I haven't seen Part 2 of the 7th Harry Potter saga yet) - "Midnight in Paris."  Why?  Many reasons, but one is that Owen Wilson's character time travels to Paris in the 1920's (coincidentally moi's favorite time period) and meets legendary figures like Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Cole Porter, Salvador Dali, Gertrude Stein, etc.  I loved the movie because I, as the viewer, also vicariously traveled to a time when bobs, sequins, fine writing, and even finer music filled smoky salons - any writer's paradise.  Saw it on the big screen - twice.  Now, I'm waiting for the DVD -- because you never know when escaping into Paris in the 1920's will come in handy.

Example C: I found out this week that Cyndi Lauper is playing in concert in Denver at the Ogden Theater.  My very first cassette tape was her "She's So Unusual" release - the girl who paved the way for Madonna in many ways, and a real-life Betty Boopish kind of vocalist.  Naturally, I talked one of my best friends into going so I can look forward to re-living the 80's - all that hair and leg warmers - in the fall.  

Example D: And speaking of 80's, this year for our anniversary we escaped into the 80's via the Denver tour of "Rock of Ages," - lots and lots of big hair, make-up, Poison, coolers.

Example E: Last weekend, members of the Regis class of 2001 gathered together for our 10 year reunion.  While there was some conversation about the present - who we are and what we're doing now, along with the inevitable celebration (weddings, babies, careers, bla, bla, bla) as well as devastation (separation, divorce, illness, unemployment) - most of the talk focused on reminiscing about who we were and what we did...10 or more years ago.  The experience itself was in many ways like stepping back in time - most people looked the same (or even better in a few cases - fitter, tanner, filled in, and well-dressed), and time had a way of erasing any of the negativity, drama, break-ups and fall-outs, and replacing it with, well, fondness and nostalgia.  

At the Friday night gala there was a shocking lack of dancing as an ambitious band attempted to tackle seven decades worth of music (to hit every represented group's era).  We requested Dean Martin's "That's Amore," and you could hear the giggles and snickers from the class of '71 before the opening accordion notes sounded.  "Oh, how cute...look Fred, the young people requested Dean Martin."  P.S.  We may have been among the youngest ballroom dancers on the floor, but I'm fairly confident we had the best waltz, and I certainly had the best partner - my husband - who was not a part of my life at Regis and who I wouldn't even meet until January of 2006 in a post 9/11 world, but who willingly stepped back in time with me to glimpse who I once was to better understand who I would become.  Yep, that's amore all right..

So, is it better to remember the past but live in the present?  Can we do one without acknowledging the other?  

Off an isolated stretch of I-70 between Kansas City and St. Louis, there's a place called "Nostalgiaville."  It is, as the name implies, a nostalgia shop, where antiques and collectibles, relics from bygone eras, line the cramped shelves. Crossing the hardwood threshold a silver bell on the door jingles, signaling to the clerk that a patron has entered the shop, another weary traveler who needs to stretch his legs or pick up a last-minute souvenir.  For a brief moment, if your cell phone is silenced and it's the off-season, you can breathe in the history of the retro objects, and a little dust, and literally experience stepping back in time.  

I visited "Nostalgiaville" once, more than a decade ago, so I'm not sure if it still exists, and if it does, if the floors indeed are really hardwood, and the bell, silver and tarnished.  Memory has a way of romanticizing the past, but then again isn't that the point?  If we didn't, how would we ever move through the grieving process, survive a broken heart, forgive others, form new relationships, and ultimately, become the people we are supposed to be?  

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

DWP & Figment Fiction Contest - Story Starter, "I wish spoken words..."

Okay, so I learned many things in the Denver Writing Project, but perhaps the most important lesson I learned is just to write more and write often.  So, I had hoped to make some sort of "real" writing (beyond emails, Tweets, and status updates) a part of my daily routine.  So far, today is the first day (since the project ended last week) that I've written - between oil changes, eye appointments, Zumba, lunches with friends and happy hours, I have already begun to slip off the "writing wagon."  This little contest - a 750 word challenge that requires contestants to use the opening lines:  I wish spoken words were things that could be erased, forgotten.  But now I knew, and we could never go back, is my self-imposed challenge for today.  I admit it.  I love YA (Young Adult)'s short, snappy, and can often bring universal themes (both adolescent and adult) to the surface.  The prompt and contest specifications lent themselves to a a "YA" teen angst/acceptance type of story so here it's not as deep, universal or original as I'd like it to be, but some days you just have to write...something and anything.

Confessional Scars

I wish spoken words were things that could be erased, forgotten.  But now I knew, and we could never go back.  So instead, I replayed the two-word phrase over and over in my head, and like a deep wound that refused to heal, each time it left a new ache in my heart.  I wanted those words to be a lie or a practical joke.  But deep down I knew they were the truth. 

There were other words that had scarred me over the years.  Words like “divorce,” and “last,” and “mistake.”  Words like “fat,” and “ugly,” and “worthless.”  But between those words I had found comfort in putting my head into my mother’s lap and dumping all of the words that had been dumped on me into her patient ears, seeking solace in between bites of Oreo cookies.  

“Things will get better,” she always said, “Tomorrow is a blank slate.”

And until now, I had believed her.    

Things had gotten better when my father finally left us to pursue other women and other interests.  Relieved of the burdens of a wedding ring, a mortgage, an overweight adolescent daughter and an aging Labrador retriever, he had freed us to move out and start over – just the two of us, well three of us: my mother, lumbering, loyal Duffy, and me.

Things had gotten better when we moved to the city and I switched to Roosevelt High, where droves of students, in all shapes, colors and sizes, helped me disappear behind hooded sweatshirts and baggy jeans into the back rows of overcrowded classrooms.  Invisibility is a security blanket after years of being a target.

Things had gotten better after meeting shy and studious Simon in AP Biology.  A lab partner who became a friend, and then a friend who became my first kiss outside the movie theater on 10th and Trenton, his lips tasting of Sour Patch Kids and comfort.  That kiss had turned into others, and into soft, unsure hands traveling under my shirt and up my back in hurried, gentle bursts that left me breathless.  Things were definitely better with Simon.

That’s the trouble with wanting to be wanted.  You set yourself up.  It was then, when spring’s buds were turning into summer’s warmth, that I began to get comfortable in my own skin, a skin that was fitting into jeans better, responding to lip gloss and suntan lotion, enjoying the daily dog-walk with Duffy, the feel of his coarse leash around my wrist and Simon’s hand inside my own, damp with sweat and anticipation.  It was then, when for the first time in my life my skin felt beautiful because he wanted to touch it, that I began to believe that I could in fact be like other girls.  Girls who were blonde, slender and freckled, who giggled in carefree waves that consumed cafeterias and shopped in packs, brushing up against boys with confidence that oozed from heavily mascaraed lids.  Girls I had stared at with wonder and awe in locker rooms, and secretly listened to in bathroom stalls, waiting for their tales of that week’s flirtations and fashion mishaps to dwindle and disappear, before daring to flush.

Simon had changed everything.  And then, he uttered two words, from the same lips that had first kissed me at 10th and Trenton that left me right where I had started.  A chubby nobody, a nothing, a fraud.

It was at the end of one of our daily walks, when our hands parted and I reached out to pat Duffy’s head and scratch behind his ear, that a hesitant sigh escaped Simon’s lips.  “I need to tell you something, but I don’t want to hurt you.”

Puzzled and suspicious, I met his gaze, words escaping my lips in a forced, robotic fashion, “You can tell me anything.  It won’t change the way I feel about you, what you mean to me.”  For added emphasis and support, I leaned in for a peck, his sheepish withdrawal my first indication that indeed the next words he uttered I did not want to hear.

“I’m gay.”

And just like that, all of the hesitant kisses and touching, the progress I had made in meeting my own gaze in the mirror, the internal beauty I was beginning to trust, shattered by those two words.    Words that sent me straight to cookies and my mother’s arms.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Denver Writing Project - Piece #3

Tomorrow, the 2011 Denver Writing Project Summer Institute comes to an end.  It has been a great journey and a professional development experience that changed me as a writer and as a teacher of writing.  Below is my third piece for the project.  We were charged with writing a total of three pieces (two "creative" and one "professional" piece).  One of my long-term goals is to write a research-based article for submission to an education journal on a literacy related topic.  But time constraints being what they were (and this being summer vacation after all) I couldn't muster the energy at night to do the research that it would take to draft a "professional" journal article by the end of the project.  So instead, I chose to write a (creative) reflection (yes, I'm breaking the rules!) of my experience in the project.  One of the many things we discussed in this project is the power of writing across content areas, and we were challenged to think about and play with writing the way that mathematicians, scientists, artists, historians, etc. might think about "texts" and "writing."  So, in that vein I attempted to "quantify" or write a reflection that is also a "mathematical calculation" of my DWP Summer Institute Experience.

Author's note: All numbers are rough estimates and any errors in calculation are the result of overzealous creativity and wordplay....please don't count this against me!  Also, any confusing figures might be inside references that only this summer's DWP participants will fully understand (for example: our T-shirt tagline slogan for this year is "write more.")  So, without further apologies or additional comments, here's piece #3:

How Do You Measure A Writing Teacher?
Calculations & Reflections of the DWP Summer Institute Experience
By: Jessica Cuthbertson
Jonathan Larson, writer and composer of the pivotal 1996 musical, Rent, asks how we measure a year in the memorable song “Seasons of Love.”  Is it in daylight, inches, miles, cups of coffee?  Or, as the catchy chorus suggests, is it in the calculation of 525,600 minutes?  After 19 days, approximately 114 hours (or 410,400 seconds) of learning in the Plaza and North Classroom buildings, 19 hours in lunch breaks, and 760 miles commuting to and from the 2011 Denver Writing Project’s Summer Institute, I’m wondering how to measure what I learned about teaching and writing.  How do I quantify a professional development experience that exceeded both my mathematical capabilities and my greatest expectations? 
The Human Equation
Perhaps it is the people that count above all other factors in the Denver Writing Project.  In fact, without the human variables there would be nothing to plug into the DWP equation.  This summer, 16 teachers that spanned grades K-college counted as participants.  An additional 4 teachers counted as facilitators, mentors and coaches, and 4 guest presenters humbled us and helped us become better writers; 1 of these guest presenters performed 3 slam poems that moved 80% of the audience to tears at a rate of 2 to 10 teardrops per participant.  Another guest presenter facilitated 4 intense quick-write exercises that explored hermit crab forms – and generated an average of 500 words per exercise.  An additional 3 content area specialists expanded our vision of texts by walking at least 4 tenths of a mile to support us in noticing the world around us.  10 techies collaborated with us on at least ½ dozen digital tools in a computer lab that was a comfortable 75 degrees, the warmest indoor environment on campus.  Over the course of 4 weeks, 16 teachers shivered through 16 captivating demonstrations, at a rate of 1 per day, with the exception of July 5th which squeezed in 2 sub-zero demos before lunch.  The demonstrations, while all unique (think prime numbers) shared the following patterns: engagement, audience involvement, research and thought provoking instructional implications for a range of learners and grade levels.  Indeed, in a myriad of ways, the people do make a difference and are the sum and heart of the DWP. 
The Fun Factor
Despite their importance, human variables gathered together cannot stand alone.  The fun factor was a key element in sustaining the 16 teachers over the course of 19 days.  Fun was measured in laughter, at a rate of at least 1 to 3 outbursts per day, with outbursts increasing in frequency as the project progressed.  Fun was measured in food: 4 distinctly themed potlucks and 18 mornings of snacks and caffeine sustained writers who generated at least 3 polished pieces each (48 total, 32 “creative,” and 16 “professional”).  In most cases, the daily word count exceeded the daily calorie count per participant, except for on Fridays when the ratio of calories to words was likely quadrupled due to the constant temptation of a 3 x 8 foot table sprinkled with nearly 20 delectable dishes.  On these days, words were read aloud by various writers at a value that far exceeded the excess calories consumed.
The Infinite Remainders
And so we are left with infinite remainders…countless things that don’t fall neatly in the human or fun factor equations described above, but instead are additional rational numbers that exist beyond the DWP Summer Institute experience.  Remainders like the online network that will extend far beyond the 19 days of the writing project, but that requires a minimum of 1-2 weekly postings to exponentially increase the activity and comments necessary to keep the online community alive.  Remainders like the ongoing writing groups that will continue to meet at a regular, equitable rate after July 8th.  Remainders like the lists of books, ideas, genres, exercises, professional tools, and contacts that will spill into classrooms this fall.Remainders like the pages of notes (electronic or hard copy) kept by each participant that will live as a permanent point of reference for the learning, and a reminder of all of the solved problems and puzzling questions that remain.  Remainders like the two books studied in reading groups and the discussions they generated.  Remainders like the $700 stipend per participant that may already, in fact, be a negative number in many participants’ checkbooks – subtracted in the form of parking fees, fuel, groceries, professional resources and classroom library books purchased from the list of titles scribbled in the margins of notebooks.  Remainders, like the last deviled egg at the third celebratory potluck meal that secretly all 20 participants wanted to reach for, but that no one participant felt comfortable taking away from the greater whole, leaving the plate a big, empty zero smudged with homemade mayo.   Remainders, like the anthology that calculated a series of words from each of the 16 participants, and that will live, loved and worn, on cluttered bookshelves in each participant’s home or classroom. 
So, how do I measure the DWP experience?  In friendship, food and fun.  In words, written, re-written, revised and re-read.  In 19 summer days on campus and 19 evenings at home spent writing, learning, thinking and being.  And of course, like all compulsive counters – whether mathematicians or wordsmiths, I measure this experience in the above 1000 word, 5 paragraph essay, but allow my 19 new friends the freedom to measure your learning in the number of words, paragraphs and punctuation marks you need, on whatever paper matches your intended purpose and audience, and in whatever genre (or genres) you choose. 
At the end of the 19 day journey, it's simple addition…write more.  

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Piece #2 - Denver Writing Project

Note: The Denver Writing Project challenges participants to complete three pieces during the course of the project - two creative (any genre) and one "professional."  This is my second "creative" piece - a series of three autobiographical vignettes from the perspective of my 8 to 12 year old self.  The concrete object connecting them is shoes, and the abstract themes swirl around coming of age, competition and fitting some ways, (unlike shoes) these are things we never seem to completely outgrow.  Enjoy...

Scuff Marks
By: Jessica Cuthbertson
Patent Leather Blues
            It was after recovering from the inevitable crushing childhood rite of passage – when Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy tumbled from reality to fantasy in one fell swoop, that I readied myself for more grown-up affairs.  The next biggest event in the life of an Irish-Slovenian Catholic second grade girl would arrive on Sunday – First Holy Communion.  A sacramental milestone that involved not only the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but friends, family, gifts, bread, wine, and above all, a beautiful white dress, unlike any a pasty, skinny eight-year-old girl would wear until her wedding day, assuming someday that day comes.
            As a first grader I had watched the second grade girls parade down the central aisle of the church, dressed in white from head to toe, adorned with lace and sequins, hair curled in long, black ringlets behind veils, glistening rosaries peeking out from delicate gloved hands.  I sat in awe as they approached the altar – the Sonias, Juanitas, Yolandas, Lupes, and Marias – each girl gracefully opening her mouth to receive the host, and sipping wine slowly from the chalice before gliding back to her respective pew where la familia gathered together in pride, flashbulbs bouncing off of gleaming gowns. 
            Finally, it would be my turn.  Too excited to sleep the night before the event, I pull out the brand new, white, buffed patent leather flats my mom picked up for the occasion the day before, and slide them on my feet.  Walking slowly back and forth the length of my small bedroom, hands folded piously, I role play the moment when bread and wine will meet my own gloved hands.   Lifting and planting each foot carefully and decisively in a stately march, making sure the shoes don’t rub together and cause an unseemly scuff before they make their official debut.  Tomorrow, I will shine – from head to toe. 
            In the morning, a white garment trail stretches across my bottom bunk bed that begins with the shiny new flats, safely placed back in their box, followed by a pair of new tights, and ending with “the dress,” cocooned in layers of plastic, protected from wrinkles and dirty fingerprints.  Scrambling down the ladder from the top bunk, I race to the mummified garment, lifting the heap of plastic off the bed and running through the house, pleading with my mother to unwrap the dress and allow me to begin getting ready.  I know better than to dismantle the plastic sarcophagus myself and spoil the ritual of pressing, starching, and smoothing.  With a weary sigh, my mother acquiesces, slowly shifting and lifting the layers of plastic casing from the garment and onto the floor. 
            My jaw drops. 
            “Where’s the rest of it?” I ask, voice tentative, chest tight.
            “The rest of what?”
            “The dress?  That can’t be my First Communion dress – it’s so, so…short.”
            “Knee-length dresses are appropriate for girls your age,” she reasons.
            “But…but where’s the veil?  The sparkle?  The lace?  It’s not even white,” I sputter, cheeks flushing, tears shining in the corners of my eyes.
            “You’re eight.  This is the dress you’re going to wear.  And you’re going to look precious,” she adds, her words prickling my skin.  
            Unable to contain my horror, I spit, “Well, I hate that dress!” and storm out of the kitchen.  I bite back the second remark, knowing full well the Holy Trinity would frown upon it, but get some satisfaction from saying in the privacy of my bedroom, under my breath, “…and I hate you!”
            It was a simple, pleated, ivory gunnysack.  No sequins, no lace, no sparkle of any kind.  Plain.  Plainer than the host that would rest on my tongue before disappearing down my throat.  Sitting in the pew that day, amidst friends and family members, proud grandmothers and envious cousins who knew the promise of a party waited on the other side of the service, I longed to disappear.  To sink down by the kneeler and hide until the following Sunday, maybe until Advent.  I had never felt so self-conscious, so misplaced, and so white.  My skin pale and sallow against my off-white, dingy dress.  The outcast in a group of bedecked brown-skinned girls, who appeared to me as immaculate and perfect as the Virgin Mary herself. 
            That morning, somewhere between the Preparation of the Gifts and the Lord’s Prayer, I looked down, in bitter disillusionment, at my feet.  The new, white patent leather flats, the only part of me that began the day with any sort of shine, were already scuffed, small black marks stretched across both toes.  Marred and wounded, the shoes matched my broken second-grade spirit. 
            The rest of the service was a blur.  A dry, chalky host I choked down, a bitter sip of wine.   
            Dear God, why can’t I look like the other girls?
*     *     *

Flip Flop…Thud
The morning is warm, a faint crispness in the air, the way the days are in Colorado in late May, when the sun is demanding the consistent heat of summer, but the breeze is clinging to the cool cloak of early spring.  Pulling on shorts and flip flops, I hastily brush my teeth, wanting to escape the stagnant house and breathe in the fresh air of the Southeastern plains.  The Oswald trio, three disheveled, stair-stepped boys from next door, sit on the porch, waiting impatiently to launch the morning’s adventure.
“Ready to race?” Chris asks, confident that he’ll be first, a position he’d grown both accustomed and entitled to as the oldest in our group.  He’d been pushing my buttons ever since he’d turned twelve last winter. 
Nodding abruptly, I slip into the garage and push my hot pink Charm Huffy two-wheeler across the lawn and into the circular driveway.  As I prepare to hop on and take off, I see it – a rusty, metal tack planted in my front tire, flattening it beyond recognition.  “Shoot,” I mutter under my breath, the only word aside from a choice four-letter one that I can use within earshot of my own address.  My father wouldn’t be home for lunch for two more hours, and my mom, while expert at laundry, lunch, and dusting, was no help when it came to matters like flat tires. 
“We have an extra bike you can borrow,” Benji chirps, the middle Oswald boy closest to my age and therefore most trustworthy in my eyes.
“Okay,” I concede reluctantly, hating the idea of having to cast my trusty pink friend aside for a boy’s bike.
Benji wheels out the loaner, with little brother, Tony, trailing behind with his own bike.  I look with growing disdain at the replacement bike.  It must have once been red, but the finish has long since rubbed off, leaving a dull silver and small remnants of crimson on its frame.  The tires are plump with air, but as I take hold of the handlebars I notice another problem…the height of the bike seems a better fit for someone at least six inches taller than me, someone even bigger than Chris, and the bar that stretches across the bike from handlebars to just beneath the seat requires my best can-can kick to clear. 
“It rides fine,” Benji adds, noting the skeptical look etched across my face.
            “Are you sure you want to ride in those?” Chris questions haughtily, pointing to my polka-dotted flip flops, sizing up the clear advantage he thinks he’ll have with his tree-trunk legs encased in sturdy lace-ups.  When he puffs his chest out, it makes him taller and even more irritating. 
Suppressing an eye roll, I survey the boys’ bikes – Tony’s small-framed two-wheeler, Benji and Chris’s sleek black framed matching bikes.  No sweat, I think.  I’m not going to let a little thing like riding a lame loaner bike bug me.   With a committed grip, I grab the handlebars and launch my ten-year-old frame over the top of the bike, landing gracefully on the seat.  Fumbling for the pedals, I turn sharply in the driveway, yelling over my shoulder, “Last one to the cemetery gates is a rotten egg!”
Pedaling furiously down Washington Street, wind blowing in my hair, like cotton balls tickling my forehead, I feel three bikes gaining on me, trying to recover the ground from my driveway head-start.  “No fair!” Tony whines, “I wasn’t ready…you never wait for me!”  Unlike the confidence and comfort Chris feels in being the oldest, Tony never submits to his position as the youngest.  He hates being last, forever in the shadow of his two older brothers. 
Smiling smugly I glance over my shoulder to gauge my lead.  I can see the black wrought iron gates of the cemetery looming just ahead, within reach.  I begin to taste victory, a sweet nectarine just beyond my reach, and feel my body connecting with the loaner as if I’d owned it all my life. 
With less than 50 yards to the gates, our designated finish line, I stand up on the bike, legs perfectly balanced on both pedals, coasting down the gradual hill that will lead me straight to bragging rights.  How is Chris going to explain losing a bike race to a girl who is using a loaner?  I wonder, preemptive satisfaction filling my lungs. 
Losing myself in the moment, I crouch down to pick up my pedaling speed for an impressive finish.  Suddenly, the heel of my flip flop catches on the pedal and slides swiftly off my left foot, sending the colossal loaner out of balance.  Thud.  Tears spring to my eyes as my crotch connects with the bar in a moment so abrupt and forceful it sends me gasping to a stop.  A bright burning between my legs leaves me speechless. 
“What happened?” It is Benji’s voice that I hear approaching, along with three sets of tires that gather around my collapsed bike that rests, wheels still in motion, next to my collapsed body. 
“Nothing,” I wince, willing myself to stand and upright the bike.  Head held high, biting back tears, I turn on my heels and begin the walk back to my house, not daring to look back. 

*     *     *

Turning “Pointe”
I remember the car ride and the butterflies gathering in my stomach on the drive from small, rural Arkansas Valley to the Mile High City.  The seemingly sophisticated teenage girls stuffed into my mom's Chrysler mini-van, their Walkmans turned up to hear White Snake and Sinead O'Connor, their shiny Lipsmackered mouths humming softly to the music.  I stare out the window, a singular thought on my mind, and begin a silent prayer...Please God, let my legs be strong enough for the shoes.  For as long as I could remember I had wanted to dance on Pointe, to feel the height and grace that only those shoes, could give me.
After the 3 hour road trip, the girls burst out of the van, chatting and gum popping their way into “Motions” a retail paradise for dancers.  This trip was like so many others to everyone else.  The other girls, all one or two years older than me, had their shoes.  While they casually flip through catalog order books and finger racks of leotards, skirts, sweaters and leg warmers, I wait patiently, willing the knots in my stomach to loosen and relax.  Stretching gently and raising my heels to stand on the balls of my feet, I glance sideways in the full-length mirror, imagining what my legs and feet will look and feel like when they are wearing the shoes.  
At long last, the slender, tall saleswoman, looking very much the part of a weary, retired ballerina with dark and silver-streaked hair gathered in a low bun, calls my name.  She tenderly unwraps a pair of soft, peach satin Pointe shoes and holds one firmly in her palm.  She cocks her head, motioning me to insert my foot into the opening.  With a nervous gulp, I hastily spread a clump of lamb's wool over my toes and try to slide my foot to the top of the shoe gracefully.  Pulling the back of the shoe onto my heel, I gingerly grasp the two perfect satin ribbons at arm's length and catch my breath before wrapping the ribbons around my ankle and lower leg in a criss-cross pattern, tying the ends together into a workable knot.  In a seated position I place my foot upright and pivot it to the side, so that I can see what my foot and stringy adolescent leg look like in the shoe.  With a slight blush, I hastily put on the other shoe, inhale sharply and slowly stand up, rolling onto the tops of my feet in both shoes while keeping my legs turned out.  
A blunt pain begins on the tips of my toes and travels up my legs, a gradual path of numbness that floods my entire body.  But in that moment I know, I can stand like this forever.