A Brief History of Bad Hair (Part One)

Bangs: I had long straight hair and heavy blunt cut bangs for most of my early childhood. My own mother was entirely responsible She was a competent amateur hairdresser, (also tending to my father’s hair, my sister’s hair and sometimes, between trips to the actual salon, her own). Photographic evidence shows that Mom was pretty handy with a straight line, even if my own hair—straight, fine, prone to ghastly tangles and gravity defying cowlicks—failed to live up to her vision a solid 90% of the time. Part of the problem was that I hated brushing my hair. Another part of the problem was that I hated having my hair blown dry, which my mother insisted on, citing a consistently high threat of incipient, possibly fatal pneumonia in every season save the sultriest months of summer. The combination of de-tangling and blow-drying that followed every hair-wash as a child was a real emotional experience for everyone involved. I frequently cried and screamed. Mom would try to coax me into compliance with animated singalongs to Tin Pan Alley standards, classic Broadway showtunes and lightweight 60s folk, hence I learned to harmonize over the whine of an ancient Conair hairdryer as we belted out duets in the upstairs bathroom. The night would usually end with me relieved the torture was finally over and Mom grumbling about how it would be infinitely easier if I just had short hair. I found this notion even more intolerable than hair-drying. Not because I was opposed to short haired women—many of my then-heroes had short hair (Julie Andrews, QEII, my Nana, Aretha Franklin and at times, Elizabeth Taylor) –but because I worried any step down that androgyny road prior to puberty might end with me accidentally and quite literally turning into a boy. This was a fate too tragic and ghastly to even countenance. Boys struck me as inherently weak creatures with narrow-minded views about things like tulle and sparkles, and to be on the safe side even with long hair, I avoided wearing trousers until I was about eight years old, at which point I figured the pale pink pink pleated pin-striped jeans/legwarmers combo required to stay on-trend in the third grade would not force me to stop loving old Cary Grant movies and start caring about sports, cars or guns instead.

Braids: There was a girl in my ballet class with cornrows. I idolized her. I used to watch her dance around the classroom, braids flying, beads clacking, and think she was the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen. I came home demanding similar braids. My mother insisted my hair wouldn’t do that, in a veiled reference to race, and from my clear perspective, an obvious falsehood. In the late 70s and early 80s, lots of different kinds of people had cornrows. Bo Derek! My hippie ballet teacher for a minute! Everyone cool on Soul Train! I’d already been disappointed to learn that it would be hard, if not impossible to coax my hair into a perfect afro, like mid 70s Diana Ross or Roberta Flack or any halfway fashionable disco diva. It seemed obvious to me then that I if would spend many evenings of my adult life as I intended–twirling the night away on some illuminated dance floor in strappy gold sandals and some kind of sparkly chiffon jumpsuit situation surrounded by beautiful weirdos and glitter–long hair and blunt cut bangs were not going to cut it, nor were the pinafores, smocked dresses and (god forbid) monogrammed sweaters and the actual kilt(!) my horrifyingly out of touch mother forced me into me into. Not a single, solitary sequin among them. Not even the slightest hint of lamé.

In Kindergarten, I got to be friends with LaShawna, who had as much trouble keeping still during naptime as I did. She had magnificent braids, that looked almost like a tiara, glittering with brilliant, gem-cut beds on the ends of her figure-eight-shaped hair ties. I spent hours sitting on the bathroom counter trying in vain to make my hair do what LaShawna’s did.  My mother came home and found me sobbing and once she calmed me down long enough to figure out what was going on tried to explain to me again that your hair won’t do that, honey. Still, I balked.  The next day I put my mat beside LaShawna’s during naptime. I tried to explain the situation to her. Is it possible that my hair will never be like yours? She didn’t know, but she told me she’d told her Mom she wanted hair kind  like mine. Long. Straight. With bangs. But, you know . . .blonde.  And her mom had told her the same thing mine had your hair just won’t do that, honey. I was indignant. It’s not fair, I said. It’s really not fair, she said. Then we both got in trouble for talking during naptime.

Comb-Over: Early in my third grade year, I told my mother I was through with bangs. She sighed and helped me fasten two awkward barrettes on each side of my that would pretty much stay there like two plastic tortoiseshell sentinels guarding what I would soon come to believe was a dangerously oversized, widow’s-peaked, zit-prone forehead for about a year. I also submitted to a haircut, the shortest I’d ever had, that left me with what the girls now refer to as a shoulder-grazing “lob.” I’d recently read some novel—maybe “Little Women”—about how some girl had cut her hair and it had grown back thick and lustrous. I believed mine would end up looking like a cross between Kerri Green’s in “The Goonies,” and J. W. Waterhouse’s “Lady of Shallott,” you know all lush and curly and rich auburn, instead of stringy and flat and mousy. I believed in transformation. I’d been raised by a mother who read me stories from Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, which she said wasn’t real but sounded at least as credible as what I could be bothered to work out about Christianity.[1] I knew I might be at risk of getting turned into a spider or a tree or but it was also true that I might become or a goddess or a constellation of a lithe, impossibly gorgeous, tanned (it was the 80s) teenager who would  arrive at prom in a rose dress with chiffon panels like rose petals, with my Pre-Raphaelite hair floating around me like a fiery veil. As it happened, transformation was real, to a point.  My bangs grew out and I transformed into a fat pre-teen.

Short Hair (Vol. 1): I became weirdly obsessed with “The Legend of Billie Jean,” a b-movie about sexual harassment and class and getting ripped off on scooter repair featuring Christian Slater, Lisa Simpson, an earworm of a Pat Benatar song, and a pixie cut. Around the same period of time, Madonna and a bunch of the cool girls in my class got these feathery short haircuts that could were somewhere between Princess Di and Alex P. Keaton. I couldn’t decide if I wanted that haircut or not. For one thing, I couldn’t tell cool girls even liked me enough that they might have it in them to like me better with short hair. And what would this do to my burgeoning (Community and children’s theatre) acting career? Best case would be to luck into a role that forced the issue. Like getting the lead in “Peter Pan” or like Alyssa, my cast-mate from from “Annie” who played young Patrick in “Mame” because boys were so unimaginably dull they couldn’t even be bothered to put aside soccer practice for long enough to audition for the theatre, the greatest thing in the whole world. What poor deprived idiots! What fools to never know the thrill of performance, the transcendence of applause, the glory of doing the grapevine beside the pancake-wearing prosecutor who would one day take Jim Bakker to trial! I never got one of those roles. Instead, I hemmed and hawed until my Mom cut my hair pretty short one night after dinner. It was not her finest work, nor, by a considerable margin, a flattering haircut. A couple of days after I got it, we ended up at Showbiz Pizza, where I was already out of sorts because I was informed that I was too big for the ball tank. My mother tried to make me feel better about it, that ball tank is for little kids, you’re just too grown up. But I suspected the real deal was that I was just too big, too tall, too fat and didn’t my jeans feel too tight and didn’t everybody look at me with pity and disgust when I asked if I could have another piece of pizza. At ten years old, I was just beginning to feel ashamed for taking up space—a rite of passage for most all girls, especially the not-pretty ones. So instead I sulked and played Skee-ball. I took my tickets to the prize booth. The visor-ed teenager behind the counter gave me a long look, “What can I get you, sir?” he asked. Horrified, I dropped my tickets and ran off to hide in the women’s bathroom until my mother promised that we could go home.

Perms: Years ago, I was showing a picture of myself at my dead-level worst—early seventh grade, braces, baby fat, zits, short sleeved mock turtleneck with shoulder pads[2], aged twelve in 1988 in all of its most horrific excess—to a friend I thought might find it funny. “Oh God,” she said, “You had Jersey hair! You had like total Jersey hair.” I did, though at that point I don’t think I’d even been anywhere in actual New Jersey (though my mother did have an intense fling with several Bruce Springsteen albums for a while in the 80s, which may have imbued the house with a kind of gasoline-scented ennui and general lingering Jersey-ness). I don’t know who exactly is to blame for popularizing the spiral perm and its accompanying mall claw and frankly, I’m a little disappointed that in the decades since we haven’t delivered this monster to justice. I guess I should be thankful that in all the retro love for the 80s hasn’t sparked a desire to bring back big hair.

What I can tell you is that everything and everyone I ever wanted to be had big hair. My grandmother, Nana, was the first to talk me into what she called “a permanent wave” when I went to spent June with her in Virginia when I was about eleven. I went to a fancy salon with lots of black and white  tile and neon pink signs and stylists with new wave haircuts  (it  was in the new mall–the one with the Benetton in it–so you knew it was cool) and let this chain-smoking stiletto heeled woman named Crystal, who told me  she’d recently left her husband because he visited a hooker (a mostly new concept[3] for me) as she twisted my hair into tight rollers, doused it with urine-scented chemicals and shoved me under a hot space helmet for a couple of hours until everything felt brittle and crispy. Once the curlers were removed, my hair (chin length, roughly, grown out from its brief flirtation with non-glamorous androgyny) resembled a swiggly triangle,  teased with a hair pick and shellacked into place with a heroic amount of some overpriced, aspirational Aqua-Net clone.

I didn’t look like romantic riot of gorgeous curls I’d always dreamed of, but it did look just about as willfully shitty as everyone else with a shitty perm at the time. And as this included most of the popular girls in my class, I was like, sure, this crispy squiggle horror with scorched bangs is just the kind of quotidian horror that might convince the popular kids to like me.  

I spent the next three years going for every-six month chemical ordeals at a series of increasingly disreputable salons (none even approaching the pink and black grandeur of the original)  getting increasingly baroque versions of the same deep-fried, dippity doo’ed spiral perm, with increasingly deleterious effect to both my hair quality and social life. Both were failing miserably. I remember sometime around Christmas of my seventh grade, Mom dropping me off at a place with “Beauty” (unironic) in the name that was  located in a corrugated metal shopping center beside an auto-parts store and a video arcade so famously shady I long believed “Playing Galaga” was a universal euphemism for “buying a dime bag from some dude named Randy looked sort of like Axl Rose if Axl Rose were near-sighted and maybe sixty pounds heavier and had a brother in prison for animal hoarding.”  I endured a round of literal barking from the Casanovas  smoking behind the arcade when I exited my Mom’s car. I entered the salon through a curtain of beads, dropped my things off in a room full of wicker thrones and tanning booths and let a middle -aged  woman with an accent like white lightning and blonde hair teased into the unexpected meeting place between Monument Valley and Probable Victim of the Reign of Terror give me my last ever perm. I didn’t know it was my last ever perm then, though I perhaps intuited it. The 80s were winding down. There was literally nothing left to pleat, no shoulder unpadded, no sock unslouched, no poor person yet to demonize. And thus I started the second half of seventh grade with a tsunami of  a bang that sat over my forehead like a giant flower or a cyclops eye. To maintain it required early rising and spending the gray dawn coaxing it back into shape with hairspray and a curling iron, which regularly burned slug-shaped blisters onto my zitty forehead. After a while, I realized that if I did not curl the bang into its intended shape, I could completely hide my scarred and brutalized forehead from the world, thus I shaved about half an hour off my morning routine and spent the rest of the year slinking  around hoping to disappear entirely.

By the time I turned thirteen a few months later, I’d long accepted out that I would never be the prettiest girl in the room, that I would, with alarming frequency, end up maybe the opposite. I’d mostly stopped feeling relentlessly bad about it.[4] As my perm grew out from brittle and cracked and tightly curled to just brittle and cracked and sort of frizzy, I spent a lot of time exploring the fascinating world of not fitting in alongside this nanny my mother had hired to drive us around in the afternoons.  She was maybe twenty years old and inhabited that musky velvet cross-section of Goth, Punk and hippie that ceased to exist in the civilized world after the mid-90s (though persists to this day in my hometown). She had a nose ring and this rambling old Arts & Crafts rental house with a vast living room furnished with only a shiny green electric guitar, a stereo, a Pee Wee Herman doll and a giant old clawfoot tub spray painted silver and filled to capacity with black balloons. Sometimes the nanny would come over when I faked a cold to get out of school and drove me around in her incense-scented burnt orange Pontiac full of shredded tutus and actual doll parts and Siouxsie and the Banshees tapes. We went to thrift stores and the foam and fabric outlet and  bought black lace by the pound. She introduced me to her friends who definitely looked about 5000x cooler than anyone at Middle School and not a single one of them had a spiral perm. Eventually she was fired for the perfectly sound reason of colluding with me in my plans to skip school. My mother and sister viewed her dismissal as a good riddance/bad rubbish and to this day, collectively roll their eyes when I bring her up (“she was (pause of polite distaste) very weird”). I always felt guilty for getting her in trouble (it was my idea, not hers, to repeatedly low-tech Ferris Bueller my way out of the 7th grade), because she was literally the only person who believed me when I told her that I thought middle school was killing me. She tolerated what must have been an exhaustive level or neediness and desperate attention-grabbing from an obnoxious twelve year old she was getting paid slightly better than minimum wage to hang out with. I credit her with reminding me  me that there were , quite simply, other, equally valid, ways to be than those discussed around my dinner table or in the middle school lunchroom. And thank god for that because I was never very good at following the rules and I’m pretty sure another perm would have caused all my hair to fall out.

[1] A snake invented apples. Sex and Murder.  Moses was put in a shopping cart and floated down the Nile where he was adopted by mummies. Sex and Murder.  Mary had a thing with an Angel that might have been God then Jesus! Who was killed by an airline pilot and then rose again to visit Scrooge on Christmas Eve. Somewhere in there Noah went on a zoo cruise. A whale named Jonah ate a lion named Daniel who taught him important lessons about sharing and David traded his mother’s cow for beans and slayed the giant and married Bathtub. Then, Esther! Wait, where is Esther? She’s my favorite because she’s both a princess and an excellent synchronized swimmer There’s a swimming number, right?  And the shepherd saw the Christmas star that probably wasn’t a plane or a satellite because they didn’t have those then, but might have been Santa’s sleigh! And according to some of my friends, if you skip the New Testament entirely you can have an additional seven days of presents at Christmas and a Bar Mitzvah with a reggae band , but you maybe don’t  get to go to heaven, according to some other friends Not 100% clear on that one.  According to one Sunday School teacher, all you have to do to go to heaven is to memorize the books of the bible in order. You’ll also get a gift certificate for free french fries at McDonalds. In heaven, you can have ice cream whenever and  you get  hang out with your racist great-grandmother that everyone says was mean and crazy but maybe you don’t get to see your old pets. And the somewhere in there is both a heresy and a schism. But you do have a guardian angel named Lily who probably looks exactly like Farrah Fawcett and brings you tiny doughnut from 7-11 if you stay in bed for lord’s sake because it is way past your bedtime, Alison, and you really need to go to sleep. There’s also hell, which is kind of like a department store for bad people, and is a probably metaphor unless you’re Hitler. Hitler is definitely in hell. What about Napoleon? Your parents don’t know about Napoleon. But there’s probably a better chance you’ll go to hell if you do end up being an evil dictator than if you don’t. So, like, don’t be an evil dictator.  Jesus will totally forgive me if  I play in your yard, crazy neighbor. Catholics think your crazy neighbor’s yard is literally Jesus. Presbyterians think you’re predestined to use your crazy neighbor’s yard. Evangelicals think your crazy neighbor is completely sane and the rest of you are probably going straight to hell.  Episcopalians will probably divorce your neighbor’s yard but in a classy way, like, with gin and boat shoes.  Quakers helped Harriett Tubman build a railroad. Mormons worship Donny and Marie Osmond inside their Pumpernickel! Kingdoms!  Power! Glory! In A Galaxy Far, Far Away! The world ends when Jesus rides four white horses and wins the Kentucky Derby and you should either sing the Johnny Appleseed Song or thank Grace Kelly when you eat! Stand Up! Sit Down! AND ALSO WITH YOU!

[2] I’m not holding out on you guys it’s just that I genuinely can’t remember where I put this picture. Next time I find it, I promise to edit it into the photo above

[3] The women in my family had, up to that point, referred to them as “ladies of the evening.” A euphemism so redolent of fancy gowns and beautiful star-scattered parties that I spent most of my young  life wishing I could be one of them. The business of the world’s oldest profession was so unclear to me that years later, I could only nod in sympathy when my younger sister, interrupted my mother on the way to pre-school  one morning to ask the difference between a prostitute and a debutante. Mom, nobody’s fool, answered with something pithy like, “Vassar and a trust fund.”  And I, a world-class know-it-all, followed up with “God, Mom. Vassar is co-ed now.” My four-year-old sister, for her part, remained confused.

[4] There’s something weirdly refreshing about realizing, from a young age, that you’re going to have to find some other way to attract people (in both platonic and romantic scenarios) because you’re nobody’s idea of a hot date. Sure, you won’t get the free drinks and accommodating clerks and job interviews and cute clothes your conventionally hot friends do, but you’ll mostly (I mean, mostly) be able to travel through the world without harassing dudes, cat-callers and worrying about ever ending up a trophy wife.  You’ll figure out that most people either define beauty as being so utterly generic that it’s boring as hell or so completely individualized that it’s sort of wonderfully meaningless.  And when those same conventionally hot friends gain a few pounds or start freaking the fuck out because they’re afraid of turning invisible when they hit middle age, you can be all, it’s no big deal. Honestly you’ll probably stay pretty hot, at least hot by your standards, because youth is not the only component of beauty and you really just won the genetic lottery with metabolism and the bone structure. But even if you were to lose your looks, you can just go be kind and listen to people and do your schtick and fake your swagger and pretend brave like the rest of us who, despite having weird noses and moles and fat rolls and downright UnAmerican teeth, have the audacity to want someone to talk to us too. It’s amazing how well it works. And as a bonus, there’s so much you can do when you no longer have to worry about being hot. Like, you can wear whatever crazy shit you want! You can get the haircut you’ve always wanted even if it’s unflattering! You can have completely uncomplicated platonic friendships with heterosexual men who will never, ever try to hit on you! It’s like magic!


Ahoy, Matey

As a child, more than anything else in the world, I wanted adventure. I didn’t call it that exactly because I had the sort of parents that sought to minimize any and all crises by calling them “adventures.” Like, your dad runs out of gas on the side of highway on a snowy Christmas day? Adventure. The kitchen ceiling falls in during a dinner party? Adventure. “The doctor thinks you have spinal meningitis.” Adventure. “Kids, your father is having a midlife crisis.” Adventure.

But while these “adventures” would provide plenty of fodder for drunken anecdotes and future therapy sessions, I longed for the real thing. New Worlds. Strange  and Marvelous Wonders. Entire civilizations of people I’d never met, talking about things I’d never even heard about for reasons I couldn’t yet imagine. My favorite story as a child was always the “Wizard of Oz”, because it was about the journey and the people you meet along the way and the journey is always so much better than the destination because once you get there it’s almost time go home again and tell your unimaginative color blind Kansas relatives that I saw an emerald city. I slayed the witch. My new best friends include a talking lion with hair ribbons and is a sentient scarecrow who is sometimes Michael Jackson.

 My mountainous hometown marketed itself as some kind of adventure mecca. I was dubious. The mountains to me always felt claustrophobic and isolating and the communities among them built for the comfort of those seeking to escape the wider world as opposed to immersion in it. Besides, I wasn’t exactly stirred by a steep incline through the woods. Sure there were nice views from mountaintops, but there were also nice views from the terrace at the Grove Park Inn, where they had Shirley Temples and ample opportunities to pretend to be Katherine Hepburn. The way you do as a child.

But while I was, at best, indifferent, if not outright hostile to the charms of Appalachia, I was enchanted by the sea. It seemed to me to be a vast, mutable and thrillingly tempestuous path to anything and everything full of risk and reward. On summer vacations, I would stand agog at the lapping edge of the Atlantic fascinated by what lurked beyond the horizon. Spain? Morocco? Could I even imagine Morocco? Casablanca?  Tangier? The straits of Gibraltar where all of Europe nearly touched all of Africa? Two whole continents full of cool shit!  Between them, what unimaginable splendors! And sure, there were things on the other side of the mountains too—like Waynesville, North Carolina and East Tennessee—which didn’t exactly stir the same dazzling flights of fancy as all of Africa.

I suppose it was inevitable that I would become fixated on pirates. I liked striped t-shirts and statement earrings. I adored boats and Han Solo.[1] I had a mother whose own childhood obsession was Peter Pan, which we consumed in multiple formats throughout my young life. Mom liked the title character. I find him to be an insensitive blowhard in with terrible fashion sense and dangerously ill-formed ideas about gender politics, human development and Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. But I was utterly charmed by Captain Hook, a gorgeously attired, witty, delightfully evil man who seemed like the sort that could plunder a continent and host an elegant dinner party without so much as a wrinkle in his impeccable waistcoat. And from JM Barrie I moved on to Robert Louis Stevenson and from Treasure Island to a paperback book titled PIRATES! at the school book fair. I read it about 4000 times. I learned all the ships by name, all the captains, Blackbeard and Black Bart. Captain Kidd and Madame Ching. Francis Drake, Grace O’Malley, Jean Lafitte and the Barbary Corsairs. I imagined them a ragtag group of misfits, operating out of some collective anarchic spirit, stealing ships, treasures and headlines in order to survive on the on the outside convention, on the high seas, where it wouldn’t matter what you wore or who you loved or whether you thought Calico Jack was the dreamiest or whether you got off on setting fire to your beard in order to scare the pants off the British Navy. Piracy seemed the ideal profession for people society hadn’t made room for yet. You could be an 18th century woman in uncomfortable period underwear waiting to die in labor as you endlessly popped out babies for the husband that basically owned you, or you could be Anne Bonny, pirate. Likewise, you could be a chubby, unpopular eleven-year-old with a bad perm and almost no friends because even the nerds thought you were the wrong kind of nerd or you could be Alison Fields, swashbuckling scourge of the seven seas.

All of this goes some way in explaining how it is that I ended up at sailing camp. My mother was astonished when I told her I wanted to go. The word camp hadn’t crossed my lips willingly since I’d suffered wretched weekend at girl scout camp sharing a Conestoga wagon shaped tent with my grade school nemesis. She took great pleasure in my profound misery, as I shivered through long days of forced marches while my terrifying Valkyrie troop leader led songs about being about being happy whilst hiking– a bitterly ironic sentiment in my case– or getting dressed down for my failure to wear the uniform (which was hideous and inexplicably designed to make me look exactly the same as everyone else). I was told I was the worst girl scout in North Carolina. This was probably true.  I couldn’t build a birdhouse. I thought selling cookies was demeaning. And there no badges available for things I was good at—like the lyrics to the Cole Porter songbook or knowing the order of succession to the English throne back thirty places or impersonating Diana Ross and/or Barbra Streisand whenever I was close to anything remotely resembling a stage.

But when my best friend said sailing camp, seaside, no uniform, I recognized the siren’s song of destiny. I told my mother I’d need a foot locker and a clip-on fan, a deposit and a generous stack of trashy novels about prim governesses being menaced by a stately home with dark secrets. Two months later my mother drove me all the way across the state of North Carolina to Morehead City as I hummed a mix of “Water Music” and the the Go-Go’s “Vacation.”

The Camp occupied a grassy patch on the western edge of Bogue Sound, just south of Morehead City. The shuttered clapboard cabins were divided by age and gender, clustered on either side of a long pier, a bunch of primitive knuckleball tables and a whitewashed boathouse, where the camp unofficially held a dance every night they did not show “The Goonies” and old James Bond movies. Across the wide expanse of water was a strip of barrier island (Atlantic Beach). From the end of the pier, you could make out the slender silhouette of the causeway across to the island and, by night, the distant flickering lights of Morehead City and Beaufort, in whose harbor Blackbeard’s ship, the Queen Anne’s Revenge, had long ago sunk into the fathoms on the orders of a colonial governor I was evidently distantly related to. We were there at the least assuming edge of the North American continent, just south and inland from the Graveyard of the Atlantic and the wilder outer parentheses of barrier islands that lured Elizabethan colonists to settle and promptly misplace their first colony.

At eleven, I was among the youngest cadre of campers and our days were loosely structured, though we spent most of our time on or around the water, taking out tiny sunfish and officially learning the glorious poetry of both nautical terms (starboard, boom, alee) and curse words, so that if even if we did not become great sailors we could at least swear like them.  There’s a particular thrill to when you find your wind and the sail goes taut you fly over the water, forming temporary alliances with currents as you navigate through the ever-changing tidal topography of the sound. I touched a jumping porpoise that surfaced beside our catamaran and endured a drenching squall while bringing a boat to harbor with a counselor. I spent long blue afternoons floating out into the sound and violet dusks digging up clams in the grassy tidal pool by the pier. I wrote long, intricate letters, crushed on a sandy-haired, blue-eyed seventeen-year-old sailing instructor with an impossibly WASPy nickname (Quad). I drank green bottled cokes and decided that though the Violent Femmes were the best band ever, “Stand By Me” was the most romantic song.

Bad things happened, of course:  I wasn’t a natural sailor for one thing and I got bleakly seasick on a deep sea fishing expedition, which was humiliating. We went barefoot for three weeks, save the occasional visit into town, which led to all manner of horrors lodged in the soles of my feet. I was cut to shreds by the barnacles that grew on the pier pilings and the diving platform.  related. I was dragged out by a riptide while swimming in the actual ocean and scraped all the skin off my chin the same day trying to body surf. It was often incredibly, unbearably hot and the fresh water, kept chilled in giant coolers and drunk out of paper cones, tasted and smelled of sulphur. I had a falling out with a mean girl in my cabin that ended with me slapping her in the face during dinner one night. At the end of the first week, I was so sunburned I couldn’t sleep.

But after three weeks, I started to tan and my hair turned blonde without chemical enhancement. I returned to Asheville, triumphant, empowered, soon-to-be notorious pirate queen and captain of my destiny. I’d faced a gale in open water, hadn’t I? Middle school would be a walk in the park.

The thing about being in a small boat on a large ocean is that it’s completely unpredictable. The idea that can really control anything that happens is at best a transactional fiction. Every time you successfully navigate a sailboat back to port is a razor wire, best case scenario evasion of forces bigger and more powerful than anything you can summon. The sea treats all with the same brutal indifference. You can be the best captain in the world and still get smashed to smithereens by a rogue wave. You can be a complete idiot, mistake the Dominican Republic for India, kick of a continental genocide and become an international hero. There are no guarantees. There’s no such thing as a safe passage. You hope for the best, take nothing for granted and hope you survive in one piece.

Which is also a pretty accurate description of middle school. By the end of the second week of the sixth grade, whatever iota of confidence I’d gleaned from summer camp had all but evaporated. By the beginning of the seventh grade, I was quite sure I was the most hideous, grotesque abomination to slither up out of the fetid slime and have the audacity to present as human. And it certainly appeared that most the student body and some portion of the faculty agreed with me. Even my best friend from summer camp pulled me aside one day, when she knew no one one could see her talking to me and said she’d rather not sit with me at lunch anymore unless I could stop being such a pariah. No offense, she said. Nothing personal. I asked why. What did I do? Why did they hate me? She didn’t know, but she thought I might reclaim some ground if I tried to be more normal and stopped being so weird. And I tried, I really tried to take her advice. But the harder I tried to be normal, the harder I failed and failed again and again. And I spent a lot of time sitting in the blue tiled bathroom stall with my feet propped against the handicapped bar so no one would see me—any one-time hope of friends of fame having long been abandoned in exchange for an earnest desire for invisibility.

When I told my mother I wanted to go back to sailing camp at the end of my seventh grade career, she was uncertain. I’d been anti-social and depressed for months. I told her my best friend was going, which seemed to make mom feel more relieved. I didn’t tell her that my best friend and I were barely on speaking terms and I wasn’t sure we had anything in common or that a not incidental number of kids that hated me from my middle school were also going. But I couldn’t spend another summer waiting around for no one to call, afraid to see anyone for fear that they’d smile with poison and slip tiny notes into my jacket pocket you’re disgusting you smell like shit and look like it you’re an ugly dyke if I were you I’d kill myself.

I packed myself this time and Mom drove me to the airport. I took a collection of tiny planes to a tiny airport in New Bern and then tiny bus to the camp. My age coterie had over-enrolled so my friend and I were placed in a cabin of girls a year or two older at a stage in life when a few months of age difference can feel like decades (even if you didn’t happen to be, as I was, a late bloomer). The girls in my cabin were fourteen and fifteen and looked about twenty-six.  I was thirteen and looked about ten. They gazed at me with as much suspicious disdain as I did at them with pure, unadulterated wonder. I thought I had never seen such dazzling beauty and sophistication in one place at one time.  Our counselor, a platinum blonde with a unisex name stomped into the cabin, shucked off her street clothes, put on a strapless bikini and asked if any of us had a light.

A girl with a spiky ponytail pulled a matchbook from her cut-off pocket. The counselor took it and walked to the screen door by the front stairs. “Three rules,” she said. “One: Don’t smoke inside the cabins. The Roach Lodge a total firetrap. Two: If I don’t see it happen, it doesn’t happen. So be smart. Hide you bottles, your cans and your roaches. Use condoms. Three: don’t try to steal the motorboats by yourself. They’re adult staff only. And if you’re gonna try to be pirates, let us know. Most of your counselors are very good at commandeering vessels.” With that, she saluted and thudded, barefoot, down the splintery front stairs. I don’t think we saw her again for the rest of the session.

I looked around the cabin at the other twelve girls, slouched, all shabby insouciance in cut offs and band t-shirts.  I’m sure I looked gobsmacked. This was not sailing camp of two years ago. I looked over at my best friend. She looked horrified “I think we should switch cabins,” she said to me. “I think we should try to get back into the cabin with our friends from home. They’re normal. And they’re not dangerous. And they’re the right age”

They sure were. They also hated me for being weird. And here, in this cabin, even among the Glamazons I could sense a touch of weird, the kind of weird I wanted to be. Was that a Cure CD? An asymmetrical haircut? A Sassy magazine? And Holy Mother of God, was that Wuthering Heights atop a short column of Anne Rice novels? I saw my cabinmates as a ragtag group of misfits, operating out of some collective anarchic spirit in order to survive outside convention, on the high seas, where it wouldn’t matter what you wore or who you loved or whether you thought Morrissey was the dreamiest or whether you got off on setting fire to hairspray in order to burn a ZOSO into the cabin floor. Piracy seemed to be the ideal profession for people middle school had yet to make room for.

“You go on ahead,” I said to my friend. She scowled adjusted her shirt and walked stiffly out of the cabin. I waited for a moment and then grabbed my book, the first of a two volume history of the French Revolution courtesy of Uncle Bob. He said he’d send along the other half, but only after I sent him a letter telling him what I thought of Robespierre. I thought I could sit on the pier with my feet in the water and knock out a few chapters before dinner.

Outside a couple of my cabin-mates were sitting on the railing, smoking cigarettes to the sound of a Michael Stipe singing about the end of the world as we know it and feeling fine about it

“Your friend seems pretty uptight,” said one of the girls.

I shrugged.

“She seems like a narc,” said the other.

“What about you?” asked the first. “Are you a narc?”

I looked out over the railing and watched my friend’s retreating figure cross the field into the welcoming embrace of the girls from home. They giggled and smiled and hugged and squealed. It was the kind of welcome I’d last gotten from someone sometime around never. I felt a wave of hurt followed by a wave of fury, or maybe vice versa. I tried to steer my ship back into the calm, cool waters of blasé and considered new lands, strange and wondrous marvels, the fact that there were civilizations full of people I’d hadn’t yet met that talked about things that I didn’t know about for reasons I couldn’t even imagine. I thought I want adventure. I thought I’m not a narc. I’m a fucking pirate.

 And I must have said it out loud because the girl on the railing raised her cigarette as if it were a glass and said “Yo ho ho.”

[1] I was exactly the right age to see “The Goonies” in the theater several times when it came out, but the single greatest swashbuckling pirate movie of my childhood was the original “Star Wars” trilogy, complete as it was with daring smugglers, taverns full of buccaneers, exotic ports, strange new lands, a young sailor hearing the call of the sea and an ever-threatening Imperial Fleet.


That Shocking Time Of Year

As a small child I was particularly partial to the “Camelot” soundtrack (a fact that will surprise exactly no one). My mother had a well-played and  much-loved LP of the Broadway cast recording and my paternal grandfather owned the 8- track (one of two, his other was Nancy Wilson—not that one— singing the Gershwin songbook) which he played loudly in his giant Lincoln, as he alcoholically slalomed round the mountainous curves between Bristol, VA and Asheville, NC.

There was a lot about “Camelot” I struggled to puzzle out as a child. Like I couldn’t figure out why Merlin wasn’t more of a character or why Guinevere would pick Robert Goulet over Richard Burton. And what was going on  with Richard Harris’ eyeliner in the movie version? Also, I wasn’t sure what part of the story was about JFK (maybe Act II?)[1]. But I liked knights and I liked Guinevere and I loved to sing along with Julie Andrews.  I was particularly partial to the St. Genevieve song, because St Genevieve’s was the name of a parochial school in Asheville where approximately half of my friends went. It didn’t surprise me that Guinevere was an alumna.  St Genevieve’s had nuns, which struck me as fascinating and kind of glamorous. Also, according to my friend Amy, St Genevieves had a Soft-Serv machine in the lunchroom, which was the kind of mind-boggling extravagance my young mind could hardly comprehend. Of course, the Queen of Camelot would go there! And I would do what the simple folk do. Attend public school and eat hard ice cream from Dixie Cups with those wooden spoons I was irrationally afraid would give me splinters in my tongue.

But my very favorite song was “The Lusty Month of May,” even though I wasn’t entirely clear was “lusty” meant except that I surmised it involved either boobs or mustard. Possibly both.  Also something about a pole with ribbons, which always looked more fun in illustration that I assumed it would be in real life. Altogether, it seemed as if May might be a worthy month if Guinevere seemed so happy about it, maybe even the best month, and (as it relevant today) has held on to the #1 Slot in My Favorite Months list for a record number of years.

There’s something so gloriously anticipatory about May, the gradually warming, increasingly light threshold of summer, full of all the best flowers and newly verdant streets and twilights that last for hours and hours. I could spend my whole life in May and be perfectly happy about never resolving into blushing June or falling back into dour April. Just leave me here with the  heroic, Puritan-trolling pagans and the righteous rabble-rousers. I’ll bring the pink wine and the strawberries and  cue up the “Camelot” soundtrack. Don’t worry. We can totally turn it off before it gets to the part with the Kennedys.

These elisions did not create the unambiguously happy endings my mother intended. I was a curious, precocious child, perceptive to edits, inclined to do her own research and visionary of Worst Case Scenarios. Mom ended up having to tell me, in detail, the actual plotlines of movies I was not allowed to see so I wouldn’t sit up, terrified at night, envisioning something worse. Still, I never really believed the Von Trapps didn’t die in Dachau until I finally watched the end of the movie, which happened sometime around my tenth birthday. I was so indescribably relieved that I cried.

[1] I was convinced there must be another volume to the soundtrack that had Marilyn Monroe singing “Happy Birthday, Mr. President.” I figured my mother had hidden because she thought I couldn’t handle the assassination, just like she always turned off the TV when Maria and Captain Von Trapp got married in “The Sound of Music,” but before the Nazis got involved.