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The Indignity Between 6 and 8.

Ahhh, the Marigold.  It was an awesome, completely townie, dive-bar-bowling alley on the corner of Grace & Broadway on the North Side of Chicago, just East of the heart of Wrigleyville.

It was dingy.  It smelled.  It was most likely last renovated in the 60’s, and that’s being generous.  It was open 24 hours on Fridays and Saturdays.  It catered to a distinctly non-yuppie crowd considering its location, and it had the best karaoke bar ever in the entire world, where it was standing-room-only by Midnight.  They tore it down in 2004.  I believe outrageously priced condos now stand in its place.  Fucking gentrification.

It was the late 90’s, and big groups of us would go to the Marigold and bowl, get drunk, sing karaoke – not well, of course – and then walk across the street to the IHOP for pancakes at 3 a.m.  I really loved that place.  Those were some great times.

I’m a pretty good bowler, actually.  Even sauced.  I was pretty competitive when I bowled, so I was, hmmm, a stickler about scoring.  One friend thought it was cool to “round-up” each score to keep it easy.  Um, no.  And there were no fancy, George Jetson-y computerized scoring machines at this place.  There were barely cup-holders.

I liked to win.  But I didn’t like to keep score.  I’d do everything I could to avoid keeping score myself.  When it was my turn to score, I’d go to the bathroom.  Or walk away.  Or suddenly “see” someone from across the lanes who wasn’t really there.

“Where are you going?  It’s your turn to keep score!” someone would yell to me.

Me, thinking furiously,  “Uh, yeah…I see Ja..m..mer over there.  I have to go say Hi”.

“Did she just say she’s going to say hi to Jammer?  Is she making that up?”

I don’t know why I never just said George Glass.  Whatever.  I’d check it over later.  When I had some time.  I usually took the score sheets home.

Still there were those times when I couldn’t get out of it.

When I couldn’t get out of it, there I’d sit.  Nasty little stub of a pencil in my right hand with Neanderthalic bite marks cracking through the heavy, blue, most assuredly lead-laden paint, hoping to God whoever was up would gutter ball.  And not just because I wanted to win.

I’d start tapping my fingers on the table.  Start shaking my legs back and forth nervously. I’d pretend I was engaged in the laughing and conversations going on.  I’d crack jokes.  I don’t think anyone ever noticed what was happening to me physically.  This was just a fun night out.  And it was, until I had to sit there.

I’d look at the score sheet and pray there weren’t spares or strikes in the previous frames.  And damn it all to hell if there were.

They’d throw their ball and wait to throw it again, all the while I was getting more and more anxious.  Irritated.

After the second ball, they’d walk back to me and look over my shoulder waiting for their frame total.  I’d distract them.  “Hey, look over there!  Is…is…. that JAMMER??”

“Who the hell…is she kidding with this Jammer person?”  More laughing.  It was just me being funny.  I was always being funny.  Anything to buy time.

When I scored, those sheets would look like a 1st grader’s homework, and not in a good/cute way.  It’s not that other people didn’t add things up on the sheet.  They occasionally would.  But not like I did.

It’s not that I can’t add.  I certainly can.

It’s just that something happens to me, has always happened to me, when I am under any sort of pressure – imaginary or real – to deal with numbers.  It goes beyond fear.  It’s more like phobic.  Paranoia.

I don’t embarrass easily.  I’m a pretty confident person.  Ballsy even.  No one takes the piss out of me more than I do myself, but I was internally embarrassed of my phobia and tried never to let on that I panicked at the thought of someone watching me add up a basic bowling score.  But I absolutely did.

Numbers…MATH.

Mathematics.  The most universally linear and logical of applications, unwavering in its stringent adherence to its own principles…1 + 1 always, always = 2.  Yuck.  I don’t think I have a truly linear-thinking bone in my body.  I think abstractly.  I live abstractly.  Math…has always caused me to sweat, my heart rate to increase and head to throb…my whole. damn. life.

Fucking math.

My earliest memory of this physical and mental reaction to math is from 3rd grade.  I do not remember having any thought either way about math prior to that.  In 3rd grade I very clearly remember taking a math test.  The first one I ever remember taking. For any test the teacher put the test sheets upside down on our desks and we had to gently lay our pencils down on top of them and fold our hands in our laps.  We had to wait for her signal, at which time we could turn our sheets over and begin.

But this time before she said we could start, she reached into her drawer and pulled out a timer.  A big, shiny, metal egg timer.  We all kind of ooohed and ahhhed over it.

The teacher explained that she would set the timer and when it went off we were to immediately stop writing and put our pencils down and fold our hands in our laps again.

I sat two desks down from my teacher.  I was a great student.  I loved school.  And I really liked her.  She liked me too.  Teachers liked me.  It made me proud that I got to sit so close to her.

So I got a clear shot of the timer.  I thought it was neat, and I was excited to start.

She wound it and told us to begin.  You could hear the rustling of papers, chairs skidding slightly as we all pulled them in closer to our desks in anticipation, the inevitable dropping of a pencil and some kid laughing at the other kid who dropped it and the “shhhhh” from the teacher serving to aim our focus.

Once wound, she placed the timer on the front, left corner of her gargantuan, wooden desk.

I remember I was wearing a dress that day.  I could feel the coldness of the metal seat on my legs.  I picked up my pencil and started the test.  I remember that it seemed pretty easy.  I was not having a difficult time with the equations.

About half way through is when I started to run into trouble.  I’m not sure if it was an actual problem with an equation, or my mind was simply wandering.  I don’t know.  But what I do know, is that all I could suddenly hear was the ticking of the timer.

Tick tick tick tick tick.  I suddenly zeroed in on this sound, like when you’re in your house and there’s noise all around you but the only thing you can hear, what your mind picks out, is the dripping of a faucet.

Like some sort of torture this ticking mesmerized me.   I’m not sure, but I might have been hypnotized.  I lost complete track of time, which is ironic since a timer inherently exists to remind you of time.  I didn’t catch the irony then because, come on, I was a stupid 3rd grader.

The next thing I remember was the teacher saying, “One minute, class.” which apparently snapped me out of my wide-eyed, vacant stare.  I then distinctly remember looking down at my paper and thinking some age-appropriate variation  of “Holy SHIT”.  I’d hardly finished any of the problems.  I looked around and noticed that most of the kids’ papers were upside down with pencils on top as they struggled to keep their hands in their laps.  They were done.

I worked furiously to finish my test, but it was too late.

“BRRRRRRRRLLLLLLAAAAAAAANNNNNNNGGGGGGG”, went the timer.

“FFFFUUUUCCCCCKKKK MEEEEEEEEE”, went my mind.  You know, or some age-appropriate variation thereof.

To this day when I hear an egg-timer go off, I pee myself.

***********************

Okay, that’s not true.  But I do know from that time forward I never looked at numbers on a sheet of paper with glee or anticipation again.

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I clearly do not have a natural predisposition for comprehending higher math.  I SUCK at it.  SUCKITY-SUCK-SUCK.  Just ask my poor, beleaguered parents, especially my Dad on whose shoulders it fell to tutor me night after night throughout High School.

Now I’m not being cutesy here when I say this, but is Algebra a bunch of sick, twisted shit or WHAT?

Give my Dad a medal, because damn if he didn’t try to help me to the best of his ability.  Both of my parents are far better than average I would say, in their math comprehension skills.  Why I fell off that genetic apple tree I’ll never know.  Not only did I fall off, I careened down a hill, got ran over by a truck and stepped on by the bully ten year old down the street.

I can so clearly remember my father putting his head in his hands, eyes wide, glazed over and unblinking – very “A Clockwork Orange” – and muttering to himself something like “You’ve got to be kidding me”, at the fortified wall that was my brain when dealing with Algebra.  At some point he’d hit the table with his hands, walk to the sink and splash cold water on his face and then take a swig of something, very likely alcoholic.  At least I hope it was.  I recognized and understood his frustration.  I’d sometimes sit back in my chair and laugh at myself which only pissed him off.  I didn’t mean to laugh.  But what else could I do.  I just didn’t get it and I didn’t see the point in getting it.  “You’re smart!  Why can’t you get this?  Arghhh!!”  And he’d leave the room to take a well-deserved break.

He was right, I was smart.  When it came to the Humanities I was a bit of a rock star, in my own mind anyway.  I’ve been a writer since I was a little girl.  I’ve won many writing awards for both fiction and non-fiction.  I’ve been chosen to read essays I’ve written on national radio.  I’ve won Language Arts awards.  I never got anything but straight A’s in English, mostly the same in History, Social Science, and even Science-Science (Biology/Health classes…notice I’m excluding Chemistry).   When I was in 5th grade I was tutoring 8th graders in Reading, Writing and Language Comprehension.  In those areas I was in advanced placement classes all of my school years.  I have a decently high IQ.

But you put me in front of numbers where I’m required to do anything but add/subtract/multiply or divide the simplest of equations…where I actually have to use X’s and Y’s, tangents and cosines…Algebra, Trigonometry, Calculus – it’s like one of those annoying black-and-white cartoons from the 30’s starts playing in that part of my brain on a relentless loop – you know the one, with the rudimentary-drawn animal singing some folksy “blahblahblah” song complete with scratched-record sounds crackling through – proving an extremely effective barrier to any sort of understanding…at all.

***********************

Long story longer….it’s High School and it’s time to take either the SAT or ACT, or both.  I’m not sure why I didn’t take the SAT to be honest, no recollection.  But I did take the ACT.  I was excited to take it actually.  I enjoyed taking tests for the most part, and while I’d basically scraped by or cheated my way through math for years in a desperate effort just to get through it with passing grades, I wasn’t worried about the ACT.  I’d kick-ass on everything else, which would negate the probable 15-17 out of 36 I’d get in math.  No problemo.

We took the test in the school cafeteria.  I remember it like it was yesterday; the subdued atmosphere tense with anticipation.  Everyone nervous but ready to get on with it.  This was it, the culmination of 12 years of education which would have a major impact on your future, right there encapsulated in those little ovals you had to fill in with the graphite of a No. 2 pencil.

I flew through most of it, finishing well before they’d tell us to put our pencils down.  I felt really good.

But the dread, oh the dreaddddd.  I don’t remember when the math part came in the sequence of the day.  I was as ready for it as I’d ever be.  When I started it, I was truly sick to my stomach.   I wanted to vomit.  God, I just wanted it over with.  I had studied enough, my ass off actually, to get through some of the basic Algebra questions with apparent ease.  But then, it became more advanced.  Much more.

I distinctly recall resting my head in my left hand realizing the time was ticking down, hearing that fucking egg-timer in my head, and panicking.  I looked around and it was me and maybe five other freaks who weren’t done yet…100 other people already done for an hour just watching the rest of us from the adjacent room as if we were zoo exhibits.  I just knew I had to finish all the questions.  I did my best.  I did.  I tried to reason out the answers with the basics I knew.  It didn’t help.  I finished with a few minutes to spare.  And by finished, I mean filled in the ovals on a wing and a prayer: the wing belonging to a buzzard circling over the carcass of my dignity, and the prayer being only to avoid puking all over the lunch table.

It was done.  It was done.  I was done.  Let the chips fall where they may.  If I could have cheated my way through it I would have.  I’m not proud of that fact, but I’m nothing if not self-aware.  I didn’t though.  The proof of that would come some weeks later.

***********************

I don’t know where I had been when I got home one afternoon and my Mom was holding the test results in her hand.  She was excited and kind of waved it at me.  I was excited too.  There’s nothing like having the single most determining factor in where you’ll be allowed to attend college typed out on a little sheet of paper.  Weeee!

I was nervous though.  Really nervous.  I opened it, looking at the overall total score first. I deflated like a balloon and closed my eyes.  It wasn’t good.  It wasn’t the worst ever, but it wasn’t what I wanted at all.  And I fucking knew why.

Deep, deep breath.

7.

Math.  7.

Out of a possible 36.

7.

Holy fuck.  What the FUCK!?

“What?!” my Mom said as she noticed my face turn varying shades of green.

I couldn’t even say it.  I just handed it to her.

I don’t even remember what my Mom said about it other than something like…it’s okay, everything else is great, it’s okay.  God bless her.

I think I laid on my bed in the fetal position wanting to die for the next few hours until my Dad came home.  Come home he did.  I didn’t have the heart to show it to him, my Mom did.  He knocked on my door and asked me to come into the kitchen.  I felt so bad for him.  That’s really what it was.  I had hoped that maybe I’d come through like one of those kids they’d do “60 Minutes” specials on; who triumph over a lifetime of poor expectations.  I really did.  But worse, I knew he did too.  I wanted him to feel like his countless hours of attempting to knock through the cement-blockade I had put up against math had worked, at least a little.  It didn’t.

My Dad has been an educator his whole life.  He knew the power of positive reinforcement, coupled with the power of my mother warning him to be nice to me, and when I walked into the kitchen he smiled at me holding that piece of paper.

“Hi honey.  It’s okay.  It’s good, it is.  It’s okay.  But…what happened here?”

I smiled weakly, trying not to cry.

“Gee, I don’t know Dad.  It could have been worse.”  I said with thinly veiled sarcasm.

He laughed warmly, took a step toward me and said quietly over the top of his glasses…

“A monkey could have done better, pointing randomly, with its eyes closed.”

It made us bust out laughing, and started my tears in full force.  I put my head in my hands, leaned back against the kitchen sink and sobbed a decade’s worth of frustration and futility.  He hugged me.  My Mom hugged me.  They knew how I felt.  It was an indelible moment.

***********************

My father later determined that regardless of my obvious mental incapacity in the area of mathematics, there was no way I could have gotten that low a score.  I must have somehow, somewhere screwed up the sequencing of the problems/answer ovals and answered out-of-order for a good part of the test.  Yes, that had to be at least part of it.  He wanted me to take it again.  Good GOD. But maybe he was right.

So I did.  I took the entire motherfucking exam over again.

I scored even higher in one of my already high areas.

Math?

Wait for it…………………………………………..7.

***********************

I don’t know, I think in some ways it’s pretty awesome that I literally scored lower than the expected score of a person, or simian, randomly guessing at the answers blindfolded.  If you’re gonna fail, fail big I say.  It took me a long time to admit to people what my score was.  And I’ve never told a single person who didn’t say “No, come on.  Seriously.  What did you really get?”  That’s the truth.

I suppose I wear it as some sort of pathetic badge of honor now.  Like saying, “Hey…do you have any idea how much more room I have in my brain for the pursuit and absorption of random knowledge while yours is bogged down with number montages like Russell Crowe’s from that scene in “A Beautiful Mind”?

I’m kidding.  It sucks.  And it’s embarrassing.  I’m highly intelligent and math is my Achilles Heel.  So be it.  I’ve taken a lot of lessons away from this lifelong scourge; acceptance of what I am and am not capable of, how to deal with defeat despite my best efforts, and never judge people based on a singular aspect of their intelligence.  There’s almost always more to it than meets the eye.

Oh also…never, ever go bowling without computerized score sheets.

It makes for a much more relaxed evening.

15 Minutes

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A long time ago, in a lifetime far, far away…I was 14 years old.  It was an unusually warm, October day during my Freshman year in High School.  I was a cheerleader and we were practicing on the football field.  I distinctly remember being hot wearing the white, short-sleeve, wool sweater with the big blue “R” on it.  It was snug, and scratchy – being wool – and fairly uncomfortable.  We had been warned by our coach not to wash the sweaters or skirts, or to get them soaking wet, ever, or they would shrink to a Barbie doll size and we’d have to pay for them.  They could only be dry-cleaned.  They were cute, old-school uniforms…complete with pleated white and blue upper-thigh-high skirts and yes…saddle shoes.  Boy, how I hated those clown shoes.

I only lived about five blocks from the school, and three blocks from the football field.  Practice that day was right after school and it was still fairly light outside when it ended.  I should have been home within a few minutes, but I had forgotten one of my books in my locker.  I ran back to the school, got my book, and walked out.  It had been a really beautiful day.  It was one of those Fall afternoons when the nearly setting sun glowed enormous and orange, and the warmth made the scent of the season’s change hang potently in the air.  It was my favorite season.

But in the ten minutes it took for me to run back to school, retrieve my book and walk out again – thick, dark, puffy clouds had gathered low in the sky.  I had no coat, no umbrella and the raindrops were beginning to fall.  Huge, round, cold raindrops.

Before I even reached the street it began to pour.  A hard, steady fall of cartoonishly-splashy drops.  I started to run.  And panic.  I was carrying my math book, and even though the very word “math” made my muscles tighten in tandem with heart-palpitating dread, I didn’t want my book to be ruined.

However, the real panic was reserved for my cheerleading uniform.

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My coach, well she was an…odd woman.  She was also my English teacher.  I didn’t much care for her, and she didn’t much care for me.  She was hard on me both in class and in practices.  She made “examples” of me in class, and not in a good way.  The most recent talking-down from her had come in class when she made me stand up and display my hands in order to show everyone that nail polish should never be chipped and old-looking like mine was.  Another was when she read one of my journal entries to the class as an example of “how not to write”.  She made us write in those things every, damn day.  The horror.  And one day she asked us to write about what animal we’d most like to be and why.

I felt like she was sitting at home drunk and thinking up crazy shit for us to write about and it annoyed me.  I’d been a “writer” literally my whole life, so I wrote what I thought was a brilliant thesis on how I’d be a “seal”, and explained why.  It was ridiculous, albeit I felt very well-supported and elaborated upon.

She knew I was writing it as a joke, and a joke on her at that.  Still, she couldn’t prove it.  What animal would you be…puh-leeze…so juvenile. Regardless of my convictions as to her lack of teaching skills, she then had me read it in front of the class.  Everyone laughed at the flowery language I used to describe how much I’d enjoy having warm blubber, eating live fish and swimming simultaneously, being able to dive to great depths with a single breath and how I felt in a past-life I might have been one.  She told the class it was disingenuous, it hadn’t come from the heart.  What did she know?  Maybe I really LOVED seals.  Eh…she rightly called me out.  I rolled my eyes and couldn’t have cared less.  I liked making people laugh so it was a win-win for me:  they laughed and she couldn’t embarrass me.  So…we had that kind of relationship.

Still, I was a good girl, and my uniform couldn’t get soaking wet.  Or she’d have my ass.

**************************

I crossed the campus and reached the street.  My heart was beating wildly, I was panicking.  I could feel the uniform clinging to me with its scratchy wooliness.  I couldn’t see any cars or people on the street at all.  It was like everyone had advance notice of the torrential downpour but me.  I ran and ran, thinking to myself that the less soaking wet it got the better.  I ran through puddles I tried in vain to avoid, then slipped and almost killed myself trying to jump over one up onto a curb.  My meticulously permed and then blow-dried-to-perfection hair was now just long, wet curls.  I was whining aloud periodically…”Shit!…oh come on…Shit!”.

I ran two blocks that way.  So scared of what would happen to my uniform, my book, that I’d get in trouble, that my parents would have to pay for new ones.  When I got to the beginning of the third block…I stopped at the park which still exists at the end of the street I grew up on, close to the football field.

I just stood there.  Breathing heavily.  Book held loosely in my right hand down at my side.  I brushed the drenched hair from my forehead, put my left hand on my hip and leaned on my right leg.  I remember it all so clearly.  Then I shook my head, leaned forward and yelled out “HAH!”  I think it was to the Gods.

Then…I let go.  I just had to let it go…the stress and panic of ruining my book and my uniform.  There was nothing I could do about it.  I had no control.  I simply had to let it go.  And when I did I felt so, incredibly…happy.

The rain was cold but I wasn’t.  I felt warm and I felt liberated.  I was alone on the street, possibly in all the world; just me and the rain and everything else that ever was.

I ran some more, toward nothing really.  Not toward home or school or shelter of any kind.  I walked in circles.  It suddenly felt so good to be drenched and free of my immediate worries.  I felt strong.  I began jumping around.  I jumped with both feet into a puddle sending mud and muck up my legs, inside of my hideous shoes.  I laughed out loud.  I yelled aloud at no one, and no one could hear me.  I felt powerful.  I wiped the rain away from my eyes and realized I was breathless from laughter.

I stood in front of the park and looked down my street with its big orange-leaved maples hanging over on either side touching at their tops to create a beautiful tunnel.  And then I walked…straight down the middle of the pavement.  No people, no one.  I felt free.  I carried my book close to my chest with my right hand and I swear to you I could not stop giggling.  I zig-zagged back and forth between each side of the street, up onto the sidewalk and back to the middle of the street.  No one was watching me.  No one could hear me.  I was alone, and I loved it.  I walked back to the park and then started to run again.

Mid-way down the first of two blocks toward my home I stopped and leaned over with hands on my knees, book under my right armpit, to catch my breath.  Water was running off of my face and the back of my neck in a torrent.  The pelting water from above was loud…I couldn’t hear anything but its pounding on the ground and parked cars on the street around me.  It felt like minutes, but in probably only a few seconds I lifted my head and looked up, still breathing hard.

There was a familiar car right in front of me.  I hadn’t heard it approach at all.  It had stopped and not hit me, which was nice.  I didn’t flinch.  I didn’t stand up.  I squinted through the sheet of water and insanely fast-moving windshield-wipers to see if I could determine who was driving it.  It was my Mom.  She beeped and held her hands up as if to say “Get in the car!”

I knew she or my Dad would come looking for me.  Still, I didn’t want anyone poking through this bubble I was floating in.  I walked to the passenger side window and she leaned over and slowly rolled it down.

“Hi!”  I exclaimed, smiling.

“Oh my God, get in the car!” she yelled.

“No…please…please.  Let me just run home.  It’s okay.  I want to.” I pleaded.

My Mom sighed, irritated that water was pouring into the car.

“What?  No, you’ll get soaked…and sick!”

I shrugged and said “Too late.”

I expected my mother, usually very forceful when it came to protecting my health, to protest and demand that I get inside.  But she didn’t.

She paused and said, “You’re crazy.  But okay.”

I love her so much for that.

I smiled and walked past her car as she slowly drove the opposite way.  I turned and watched her round the corner and drive out of sight.

Then I ran again.  I kept going until I got to the grade school across the street from my house.  I walked up onto the black-top of the school yard and looked West.  As torrential downpours are wont to do, they come on hard and fast…and abruptly end.  The rain was slowing and it was clear with an orange glow on the horizon.  It made me feel sad.  I didn’t want it to stop.  I didn’t want the moment to end.

I turned and looked at my yellow-bricked house with the crab apple tree in front.  I tilted my head.  It looked a little different to me somehow.  Smaller.  Suddenly…impermanent.  As the rain subsided to a drizzle, I crossed the street and went inside.

************************

All told, from leaving my school to walking through my front door, it was about fifteen minutes of my life.

But it was the first time I remember having the feeling of surrendering to a higher power, of having no choice but to let go of expectations and fear and consequences.  It was the first time I remember truly feeling free, and feeling alone in the world.  It was the first time I remember feeling peaceful and joyous amidst “chaos”.

There have been countless, much more important and life-changing fifteen minutes I’ve lived through.

But of all the fifteen minutes in all of my life, I remember very few with such clarity.

It was fifteen minutes of nothing.  But it meant everything.

What I wouldn’t give right now, nearly 29 years later, to be able to achieve that letting-go moment once again.

I’ve thought of that afternoon many times during the course of my life.  It’s stayed with me.  In some small way, it began to change how I viewed my life and my place in the world from that point forward.  I felt bigger, less afraid.  More…grown-up.  And it reinforces for me to this day that sometimes the smallest things make the biggest difference.

I will always encourage my children to experience those kinds of moments, but I know you cannot manufacture an indelible memory.  They simply…happen.  They spring forth from nothingness into somethingness.

I’m betting my mother remembers very little, or nothing, of that afternoon.  Other than me possibly recounting it to her at some point, she’d have no reason to remember it.

I can tell you that I look very forward to the day when each of my children asks me, “Mom, do you remember that afternoon…you know, when I……?”  I’ll think back and try to remember, shake my head and say sweetly, “Nope”.

But I’ll smile, my heart will swell, and I’ll hope they had their fifteen minutes running in the rain.

******************************

Then again…maybe my mother smiled to herself as she watched me in the rear-view mirror.

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