The Reason Why My Mouth Hurts When I See Whisks

With a whopping 67% of the vote, “The Reason Why My Mouth Hurts When I See Whisks” won this week’s reader-selected topic.

Now, this story would make sense if I were a toddler or even under the age of six. Alas, when the whisk incident went down, I was ten, which makes it a bit embarrassing and even more amusing.

For Christmas 2003, one of our neighbors gave us a beautiful Christmas card and an ornament. It was a very nice, thoughtful gift–the stationary was thick and glossy, depicting Mary holding baby Jesus in her arms, face aglow at the wonder of his birth (though quite frankly every new mother I’ve ever met has looked that much in awe and in love with her baby), and the ornament was a very small whisk, hung on a thin red ribbon, a reference to how much my mother loves cooking.

My mother was thrilled, propping the card up on the windowsill in the dining room and immediately hanging the miniature whisk on the tree. I was almost equally as excited. Sure, the card was lovely, but that wonderfully shiny whisk was just the right size for my American Girl Dolls’ hands, large enough to look a little strange and unwieldily in the way that all whisks do, yet the right size to make eggs or flour light and fluffy.

The moment my mother left the room, I snuck over to the tree and untangled the ribbon from the branch. This whisk was clearly destined to be mine. I selfishly fondled it in my hands for a moment, tracing my fingers over the twisted metal.

And then, I did something unexplainable.

I put the whisk into my mouth and bit down.

I was long past the age of putting things in my mouth to figure out how they worked. I wasn’t even teething.

Perhaps it was the shiny steel or how deliciously devious I felt wedged between the wall and the tree. Maybe I was hungry.

But whatever the reason was, I had abandoned all common sense. Whisks, even miniatures ones that almost fit, do not belong in mouths, and you most certainly should never bit them.

As I released my jaw, I discovered that the whisk was stuck. A tine was jammed between each set of my front two incisors–top and bottom–making me unable to open my mouth. I tugged at the handle, but it was no use. That whisk wasn’t going anywhere.

I may have just made an incredibly stupid decision, but I was not entirely lacking in intelligence. I knew that if I left my hiding place and sought help, everyone would know that I had been trying to nick the ornament, and I would get in trouble. So I tried to dislodge it again. And again. And again. It didn’t budge.

After five minutes of fruitless tugging, I began to cry. Having a whisk stuck in your mouth is painful. My teeth were being shoved apart, and my gums were throbbing. I was suddenly sure that I was going to be stuck with a whisk in my mouth for the rest of my life. The kids at school would call me whisk-head or something else ridiculous, but not ridiculous enough not to make me upset. My life was over, and I was going to have to starve to death behind the Christmas tree. I wondered if the pine scent would hide the smell of my decaying body.

A few more minutes of silent sobbing later, I gathered what was left of my courage and ran into the kitchen, crying and pointing at my mouth. My parents were shocked to see their ten-year-old daughter, who earlier that day had been sitting upside down on the couch reading Fast Food Nation, with a whisk stuck in her mouth and bawling like a banshee.

Thankfully, I was not subject to any questioning while they helped me dislodge each of the metal tines from between my teeth. Even though over eight years have passed, I can still feel that horrible scrape of the metal against my enamel as my mouth was slowly released. It was a horrible, disgusting feeling, not only because I knew that I had most likely caused permanent damage to my front teeth, but also because everyone was going to know just how stupid I was. And I was so determined to be finally be taken seriously and be allowed to sit at the “adult table” at dinner parties*.

When I was finally freed from my tine-y prison**, I ran down the hall to the bathroom to look at my teeth. They remained perfectly straight, still guaranteeing me entry into the no-braces-ever club, but there was a noticeable, albeit slight, space in between my top two teeth and another one, even smaller, between my bottom two incisors. My gums were, surprisingly, not bleeding, but looked red and angry all the same.

The ornament was washed and placed back on the tree within the hour, dangling from a branch, reflecting the white glow from the fairy lights almost too innocently. I glared back, willing it to look at least a little guilty for hurting me, though the entire experience had, admittedly, been my fault.

The next day, when I walked into the kitchen to make myself breakfast–two glasses of orange juice and all of the oatmeal I can consume, please–I noticed one of my mother’s people-sized whisks mixed in with other cooking utensils in crockery next to the stove. I raised my hand to my mouth and winced as I briefly had a flashback of the pain, the panic, and the terrible scrapping. Later that day when I saw the whisk, I winced again, and it repeated every time I looked at the ornament or the unoffending ones in the kitchen.

These unfortunate whisk flinching and flashback moments have not decreased over the years, and every time I think or see a whisk, my mouth briefly hurts with phantom pain. Christmastime and seeing that ornament again only makes it worse. This year, I succeeded in jamming it back into its box before anyone had a chance to hang it on the tree, which has made the holiday season considerably more enjoyable.

So there you have it: another example of why you should never be greedy and nick ornaments off of a tree.

An alternate take-away from this post is that Ella is sometimes very foolish.

Or we could all have a laugh about ornaments and the silly, silly things we did as children.

Do you have any funny Christmas stories? Feel free to tell them in the comments!

*Ten-year-old Ella, one day you are going to be eighteen and still be forced to sit at the folding table in the sunroom. However, you will be allowed to stay up as late as you want and talk with adults starting when you’re about fourteen. So stop complaining and go eat the pint of blueberries you hid under your bed again.

**Hahahaha. Puns, I can make them, you guys! Puns! (I should start writing these posts sometime before ten p.m. when I start to get giggly.)

I’m putting up another poll for next week’s reader-selected post down below. A lot of people want me to talk about food, so I’ve added that as an option as well. Hopefully, I’ll get my post about going to see John and Hank Green up before the end of the weekend. And as always, you can also find me on tumblr at http://emleng93.tumblr.com/, if, you know, you’re into that kind of thing.

Five-Year-Old Ella and the Time She Got Caught on a Fence and Ripped Through Her Underpants

As I am feeling particularly goofy tonight, I thought that I would tell a funny story.

When I was a child, we had a backyard that could be accessed via a very tall (close to seven feet, if memory serves me well) wooden gate. But for the longest time, I could not figure out how to opperate it. So instead of going through the house to get into the backyard, I would climb up our neighbors’ chain link fence, grab hold of the top of our fence, and very awkwardly drop down into the yard, hopefully avoiding a hydrangea bush.

Unsurprisingly, this very bizarre and inefficient method never worked very well, and I had a tendency to get stuck in the process. Now, pretty much any five-year-old will panic in this situation, but I would also start to flail, in an attempt to get free. Normally, I would tumble down fairly easily and go on my merry way, but I once got caught by the hem of my dress on the top of the chain link fence, and somehow ended up hanging upside down, suspended by my dress and underpants.

When I finally fell face-first into some ivy, I discovered that while my dress did not appear to be harmed, I had somehow managed to rip through my underpants. However, we’re not talking a little rip around the hem, here, they actually had ripped horizontally through the crotch. It looked like a weird sort of loincloth.

Amusingly, because I was only five at the time, I just got up, walked through the house, and went to play in the backyard without mentioning the rip to anyone or changing my underpants. I cannot remember how I ended up getting rid of the underpants–whether I tried to toss them or bury them in the backyard (Person who purchased our house, please do not dig under the pine tree in the corner, or you’ll be very, very sorry. Also, there is a dead cat in a trash bag under the butterfly bush, who was layer to rest with a proper Christian funeral, complete with a eulogy, so you might not want to mess with that, either.), like I did the time I ripped and bloodied a shirt while messing about with a curtain rod and slate roofing tiles.

I wish I could say that this was the last time I ever got caught on a fence, ripped through a pair of underwear, or fell on my face, but alas it is not. Fortunately, with the exception of a very unfortunate experience in the pond at summer camp, none of these repeat experiences have been very awful.

Note: When deciding whether or not to hurdle over a fence, it should be taken into consideration that fences are often higher than they look. This especially applies to the one in the yard of my beach house. I do not know this from experience or anything.

In the spirit of democracy, and because I’m very curious to know what my readers think, why don’t you scroll on down to these three polls and vote.

 

 

And as always, you can also find me on tumblr at http://emleng93.tumblr.com/, if, you know, you’re into that kind of thing.

In Which Nine-Year-Old Ella Officiates a Gay Wedding for Dogs

This evening, Pippa reminded me of a funny story from our childhood in which Lee, Pippa, and I held a gay wedding for two stuffed dogs.

On the day after I threw Pippa’s American Girl Doll out of the window (we’re all sure that I did it for a reason–but no one can recall what it was) Pippa and Lee decided that it was high time we have another wedding. I called dibs on being the priest and went to go retrieve a copy of The Book of Common Prayer while Pippa and Lee decided who was getting married.

Pippa wanted her stuffed Huskie named–wait for it–Huskie to marry another dog, and Lee wanted the same thing for her golden retriever named Sammy. However, Sammy and Huskie were both boys. A lot of arguing ensued between the two over who was going to have to select a different dog until it was decided that gender didn’t matter, and the two boys were going to marry each other. Sammy wore a veil and Huskie had a hat, all of the stuffed animals and dolls were trotted out in their very best clothes for the event, and we roped my dad into playing the music.

After a brief evacuation from the backyard, where the ceremony was being held, after Lee supposedly spotted a wasp, my dad played the wedding march, and I read the wedding ceremony. We all prayed, I stumbled over the readings, Sammy and Huskie were pronounced husband and husband, and we all boogied back down the aisle while my dad played I’m a Believer by Smash Mouth on the guitar. The animals and dolls were then dumped on the couch while we ate cubes of frozen apple juice in front of the air conditioning vent in the dining room (a regular activity if you live in humid D.C. during the summer).

I’m very proud that at such a young age, the three of us held a gay marriage without even questioning if gay marriage was wrong. Sadly, Sammy later got married to an oversized ferret of undetermined sex, thus nullifying his original marriage. But it still says a lot about our upbringing that we married Huskie and Sammy. I’m very thankful for parents, teachers, and other adults in our lives who encouraged us to be so open-minded.

(It should also be noted that at five, Pippa and Lee also seemed to have no problem with polygamy as they both got married to Joseph in one large ceremony that Zach and I officiated. Zach and Lee’s mom was highly amused during the proceedings, and we got tricked into eating a large amount of vegetables when she told us that adults only eat celery and carrots at wedding receptions.)

Today in obvious news, I bring this story straight from the dinner table. Apparently, even when you’re speaking philosophically, sixteen-year-olds don’t like it when you point out to them that they could die at anytime and that just because their birthday is eleven days away, it doesn’t mean that they’re going to make it. It may get you kicked later. The kicking will also hurt.

And as always, you can also find me on tumblr at http://emleng93.tumblr.com/, if, you know, you’re into that kind of thing.

Ella and Writing

I was eight when my teacher handed me a sheet of paper and told me to write to a pretend pen-pal about 9/11 for the school’s writing competition. So I selected my favorite pencil, sharpened it twice, and wrote to Clara in France that “I couldn’t bear to look at the wrecked Pentagon or World Trade Center,” and that “life was a road to death.” I signed off in heavily butchered French, and placed my stapled sheets of paper in the “finished” purple plastic bin.

Two weeks later, the principal’s voice, sounding robotic through the outdated P.A. System, announced me the third grade winner. And three days after that I was standing on a step-stool behind the podium in D.C.’s Politics and Prose bookstore, the very same podium used by dozens of award-winning authors. But instead of shaking and speaking in a voice too soft to be heard, the way the kids before me had done, I looked up at the crowd and grinned. I tightened one pigtail and read in a clear voice, “Dear Clara…” While the audience clapped as I got handed my certificate, I knew that this was what I wanted to do with my life—I wanted to write stories that made people as happy.

When I moved from Washington D.C. to New Jersey as a preteen, I channelled all of my sadness and anger into writing a play about leaving behind people and a place you love, discovering in the process that writing was an incredibly effective method to cope with any overwhelming emotion—both positive and negative. The blank page has become my refuge, and for years I’ve made time to write for at least an hour everyday.

Surprisingly, writing, a solitary and often lonely activity, has ended up bringing me more attention than I ever could have imagined. My fourth grade fantasy serial story led to kids passing my journal around under the table in class and questioning me about the next addition during recess. In middle school, I made most of my current closest friends in a creative writing class. And in high school, I discovered the community of young adult fiction writers and immediately knew where I belonged in the literary world

In the past year, I’ve kept a daily blog, posting both fiction and stories about my childhood and present, participated in National Novel Writing Month, where participants write a 50,000 word novel, and written numerous short stories, young adult book reviews for Watchung Booksellers, and a novel I hope to query in the spring. I’ll also be attending the The Society of Children Books Writers and Illustrators’ Winter Conference. Writing has become my entire life, and I have never been happier. I am an honest to goodness writer, and I am sure that if I continue working hard I will be able to make it my profession.

Ella and Free-Range Parenting

I grew up on a street where the kids ran free. It was long before Lorraine Skenazy created the term “free-range parenting,” but our parents practiced it just the same. It’s not neglect to let your children play unsupervised as long as no one is getting emotionally or physically hurt. In fact, I would argue that giving children independence is the most important and caring thing a parent can do.

We were allowed to make mistakes and learn from them. When I attached our Red Radio Flyer Wagon to the back of my bike with a jump rope, had someone sit in, and biked down a hill, we all learned a very important lesson about physics and the danger of riding in things without brakes on slopes. Skinned knees will do that to you.

I could grocery shop by myself at nine, and I know how to carry a carton of eggs while biking. You learn quickly when breaking an egg means biking back to the store with yellow yolk dripping down your arms. Natural consequences tend to be stronger than any parental punishment.

I became comfortable around adults at a young age, the result of placing orders over the phone, asking salespeople for help, and talking to teachers and other parents without having my parents do it for me. I could carry on a conversation with adult that did not sound like a question-and-answer session. Later, that confidence translated into a love of public speaking and debate. Speaking off the cuff in front of strangers is immensely fun for me, and I’ve won seven awards at Model U.N. and Model Congress conferences.

I can also mediate an argument and compromise thanks to years of solving childhood disputes. King Solomon’s solution works pretty well when it comes to books. It’s possible to learn respect and empathy without constant adult guidance.

But most of all, that freedom gave me a wonderful imagination. We played “Kentucky Derby”, galloping about with tomato stakes between our legs. Once, we stormed a nearby Civil War fort holding sticks as if they were rifles, only to die dramatic deaths.

This immersion in the world of make-believe led to a love of writing. I wrote plays for us to perform and countless stories. As the years wore on, my writing became more ambitious. I won a few contests, took creative writing classes, and joined a writing club. Now, I have a blog I update daily and am spending my gap year writing a novel I will query in the spring. In January I am attending The Society of Children Books Writers and Illustrators’ New York City Winter Conference. I’m also in touch with award-winning authors, Libba Bray and Laini Taylor, who have read my blog and are impressed with the quality of writing.

I would not be who I am today had my parents hovered over me and filled my childhood with supervised organized activities, the way most parents do. I wouldn’t be able to live independently or travel extensively on my own during school breaks. I wouldn’t have the confidence, skills, or interest to engage in any of my favorite activities. I cannot think of anything in my life that I am more grateful for than having been a free-range kid.

And as always, you can also find me on tumblr at http://emleng93.tumblr.com/, if, you know, you’re into that kind of thing.

Ella Applies to College and Talks About That One Time When She Was Nathan Detroit

Oh, excuse me, I couldn’t hear or see you over my excessive giggling and victory dancing, because, tra la la, I’ve completed quite a few college applications today.

I considered telling you what schools I’m applying to and what all of the supplement questions were, but then I’d have to deal with public disappointment and shame if I didn’t get into any of my top picks. It’s better to keep cranking out the essays privately, knowing that with most of the schools I’m applying to, getting in is a complete crap shoot*.

So let’s just roll the dice and see what happens. Mum’s the word until spring rolls around and figure out where I got in.

*Surprisingly, I actually know how to play craps, thanks to being Nathan Detroit in my school’s sixth grade performance of Guys and Dolls. I wore a fedora, a man’s suit with the sleeves and pants rolled up, and my hair very carefully pinned back. I spoke in what I thought was a New York accent (it was not) and fell over at one point by running into someone. The bench I was standing on also toppled over, but that’s a whole other story. Other than those few instances, it was a very good performance for a sixth grade, and I was not as terrible as I just made myself sound. Someday, someone is going to find the DVD of the show and royally embarrass me with it.

And as always, you can also find me on tumblr at http://emleng93.tumblr.com/, if, you know, you’re into that kind of thing.

Ella and the Very Unfortunate Childhood Mullet

I am going to begin by saying that my mother had some very questionable fashion sense when it came to Pippa and I, so this mullet haircut I had at the age of three is just grain of sand on the Ella-Looks-Ridiculous beach. You’ve yet to see the herringbone jumpers with the black and white swirled tights ensemble.

Thankfully, it nearly wasn’t as bad as this mullet, as sported by a elementary school classmate of my father’s.

And as always, you can also find me on tumblr at http://emleng93.tumblr.com/, if, you know, you’re into that kind of thing.

Stories About Joseph: Fairly Dangerous Adventures in the Garage and Car and Other Shenanigans

I continue to feel under the weather, but the fever is gone and with it my inability to do anything of consequence. I have laundry in both the washer and dryer, it’s a little past midnight, and I’m ready to get down to business.

Pippa called earlier to ask me to tell some stories about our adventures with Joseph, so I’m going to do exactly that.

I’ll begin with the garage of which there are three tales, though one is infinitely more disastrously than the rest.

Here’s story number one.

Like most young children, we loved make-believe, and one of our favorite games was called “car,” in which we would persuade some parent to let us into their car so that we could mess about and do things like pretend to go on road-trips and escape from “bad guys”. However, we were not known for our ability to not lock each other in the trunk, causing general pandemonium and arguments, and we tended to leave things a little messier than we found them. All that considered, it wasn’t a game that we were allowed to play often, so when we were, we milked it for all it was worth.

One of the times we had managed to beg our way into the cars, we decided that we were going to be a group of orphans escaping from an evil orphanage lady, à la Annie. It did not begin auspiciously. First, we loaded a ton of things into suitcases and stuffed them into the trunk, which inevitably would have been forgotten about and left there until some adult found them and wondered who decided to load up a duffel bag with CDs, bags of chips, and the contents of Lee’s shirt drawer. Then, we all piled in. I was in the passenger seat, hiding under a blanket, Lee and Pippa were hiding under more blankets in the back seat, and Joseph was pretending to drive. It was going pretty well. We had gotten out of sight of the orphanage and had just about shaken the “bad guys” off of our trail, when Joseph got the brilliant idea to actually start the car and take it out of park. Enough screaming ensued to break the eardrums of at least twenty adults, and we lurched forward, coming precariously close to slamming into the garage door. I believe that Joseph was grounded for the rest of the day, and our car privileges were revoked for several months. In a way, I suppose we did not end up escaping the evil orphanage after all.

Let’s move to number two, the potentially truly terrible one.

Following Hurricane Isabel, we were without power (and by extension, also school) for about a week, and after day four of not being allowed to hang out outside or able do any activity requiring electricity, we decided that we desperately needed to watch a movie. To solve this, we got Joseph’s new portable VHS player (It weighed over ten pounds, had a screen smaller than an iPad’s, and only worked when plugged into the car or the wall.), stole the car keys off of the key hook, and went into the garage from the door connected to the kitchen. We turned the car on, plugged in the VHS player, popped in a tape of Parent Trap, and Lee, Pippa, Joseph, and I all jammed ourselves into the back seat to watch.

About ten minutes into the movie, Joseph’s dad came running into the garage in a bit of a panic, opened up the big garage door,  turned off the engine, and made us all get out and stand outside. We were throughly confused as to why we couldn’t stay there and watch the movie—If anything, the grown-ups should have been glad to have us silently sitting in the garage and not bothering anyone! We had just gotten in trouble for playing on the stairs and making “witches brew” by putting the contents of the fridge into a giant pot and stirring it with wooden spoons and had been sent to “find something quiet to do.” Then, we all proceeded to learn that carbon-monoxide was very seriously B-A-D bad for you and that car batteries can run out of energy and that when they run out, it’s a problem.

And here’s number three:

(Pippa’s very fond of this next trick of Joseph’s.)

Now, Joseph’s family, unlike us, had an automatic garage door, and fairly early on, Joseph discovered that if he held onto the handle and someone pressed the button for it to open, he would be carried up along with the door. So he would have one of us stand next to the keypad, press the button so that he would go all the way up and be suspended many feet in the air, then drop to the ground, run to one end of the garage, have us press it again, and see how many times he could run in and out before being hit by the dropping door. We could usually only get away with about five minutes of quality garage door time before being asked to stop, but considering that we played this game whenever we wanted to get something out the garage, which was very often, it is incredibly surprising that the door did not break.

It was sort of like what happens when you give a present to a very young child—they only care for the wrapping paper and not for the carefully selected gift inside. We couldn’t care less about the countless toys in the garage, that door was where it was at, and we were going to have a blast with it until it was forcibly removed or we got distracted by something else.

Continuing in the theme of dangerous games, we were, as I mentioned earlier in Back Flips Off of the Sofa, Daredevil Stunts, and Childhood Dance Shows: The Story of Ella, the Gang, and the Merits of Free-Range Parenting, incredibly fond of a game we called “Gladiator.” Essentially, we would all grab a cushion from the couch, run full tilt at each other, and attack. If you fell over, you were “dead.” Once again, it’s a miracle no one cracked their head open or got seriously injured. This, unfortunately, was partially my brain child, the result of reading about Ancient Rome, but the attacking component was all Joseph’s.

I’ve always been very focused on strategy in games like Gladiator and discovered early on that if you planted your feet in a slight lunge and stayed slightly in the corner—thus preventing attacks from the rear—you could usually end up being the last one standing or have the most effective position from which to start barreling across the room, knocking over everything in your path. Pippa, however, didn’t have much of a battle plan and was typically our biggest pacifist, so it was a huge surprise when she went running towards Joseph who was sitting, crouched on the couch. He brought his feet up and kicked her squarely in the middle of her chest (which was thankfully covered by a pillow) with both of his feet, launching her into the air almost horizontally, before she slammed back down onto the mat, cushioned by her pillow. When I did some fact-checking on these stories with her this evening, she said that it felt like she was flying for a few seconds before the panic set in, and she landed hard on the ground.

Here’s the evening’s last story.

Joseph, if you haven’t already surmised, was prone to impulsivity and thus, bad decisions. We once walked into his house to discover him in his dining room, sitting on a chair with his foot stuck clear through a pane in the glass door as his dad propped his leg up with phonebooks and broke enough of the glass away so that they could remove his foot and take him to the hospital for stitches. No one has ever discovered the reason for why or how this happened, but at the time, it was just accepted as something completely normal and not a real cause for concern. It was just “you know, one of those things that Joseph does.” And if you’ve read In Which Ella Discovers A Cat Underneath the Deck (spoiler: it involves Joseph, his cat (named after himself), and a bathing experiment), you’ll probably understand that explanation even more.

So there you go, Pippa, you now have five different Joseph stories for your reading enjoyment. Any one else have story requests?

Tomorrow, depending on how well I feel, I’ll either do the day-in-my-life post I referenced in Back Flips Off of the Sofa, Daredevil Stunts, and Childhood Dance Shows: The Story of Ella, the Gang, and the Merits of Free-Range Parenting, finish writing about the book launch for Maureen Johnson’s In the Name of the Star I went to back in September (You can find earlier stories about that awesome day here: A Scintillating Story in Which Ella Nearly Loses a Boot, Takes a Train, and Eats Lunch and here: In Which Ella Has a Costume Change), or finally get around to writing about the time I went to the Laini Taylor signing in the beginning of October (a bit about that day can be found here: In Which Ella Refers to the Morning as Yesterday).

For the month, you can find me updating my word count on NaNoWriMo here. (I need to do it more regularly so that it doesn’t become flat for a few days, only to receive an enormous spike, indicating that I somehow magically wrote about twelve thousand words in one day.)

And as always, you can also find me on tumblr at http://emleng93.tumblr.com/, if, you know, you’re into that kind of thing.

Back Flips Off of the Sofa, Daredevil Stunts, and Childhood Dance Shows: The Story of Ella, the Gang, and the Merits of Free-Range Parenting

Somewhere in my family’s deep video archive, there is quite a bit of video footage from the “dance shows” I used to direct as a young child. We staged around two or three a year, but I’m going to focus on what was probably our most ridiculous performance.

From left to right: Lee (age 6), Pippa (my sister, age 7), Zach (Lee’s brother, age 10), me (age 9), and Joseph (age 7)

(Don’t worry, Lee’s arm isn’t broken or deformed. She’s just double-jointed in her elbows and wrists.)

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, Mary Queen of Scots’ Beheading, The Commodores’ “Brick House,” and Other Odd Things My Parents Exposed Me To, Pippa and I did not live in a house that celebrated pop music, specifically of the Disney Channel stars variety. So we made up for this deficit by listening to the Now That’s What I Call Music! compilations at Joseph’s house where his sister had them all.

Joseph’s sister was also a nationally ranked gymnast, and they had a huge playroom filled with balance beams, tumbling mats, exercise machines, and mini trampolines. We LOVED that room. Mostly, it was because it had two high-speed computers (well 2003 high-speed) that we could play on in one-hour long intervals and because we were allowed to roughhouse and climb on everything. (One of these days I’ll write about a game we called “Gladiators” and our very odd way of playing computer games that involved much more imagination and make-believe than actual gaming.)

When we first began working on our shows, they’d be performed in the living room while we hopped about in a very uncoordinated manner for close to an hour while all of the onlookers we had managed to coerce pretended to be impressed. But this time, this time, we had decided that our performance was going to be epic. We were going to pull out all of the stops, and it was going to require the playroom and its wealth of gymnastics equipment.

After much discussion and argument, many declarations of “I hate you, and I’m never going to talk to you in a million years,” and a very surprising amount of quitting only to return fifteen minutes and beg for reentry to the group, we chose four (I think) songs. I’ve put the links to their music videos below.

We clearly had “excellent” taste.

Then, the “choreography” began. And I’ve put choreography in quotes for a reason, because the extent of planning that went into the dance pretty much only extended to the opening and closing poses and first and last twenty seconds of the song. Also, we weren’t doing too much actual dancing. You see, we wanted the basement playroom and all of its gymnastics glory because we had recently discovered how to do flips and flying leaps from an eight-inch wide window ledge about two and half feet down from the ceiling onto the couch and from there onto the mats or one of the trampolines. For a while, the sit-up machine and the stationary bike were weirdly involved, but once we discovered that we could also pile up the cushions from all of the other furniture in the house and use it as an even cushier landing pit, we ditched them for even more daredevil stunts.

(I’m very proud and relieved to report that in all of our years of dangerous activities, the only bad injuries that were sustained were Lee’s broken collar bone when she stood too close to the swingset while we were swinging, cuts on Joseph’s leg when he kicked his foot through a glass door, Pippa’s badly cut eyebrow when I accidentally bucked her off of my back while we were playing “horsie,” and Beth’s sprained ankle when she got pushed down the stairs headfirst while completely trapped in a sleeping bag. Zach also badly broke his arm while riding on a defective scooter, but that doesn’t really count because he was wearing pads and the scooter broke, causing the fall.)

But because I had recently been Annie in my class’ abridged production of the musical, I had decided that we also needed to perform a song we were going to sing entirely by ourselves. I held a long audition process, only to cast myself as Annie. Pippa was Molly, Lee was Kate, and Joseph was Pepper, who I managed to convince him was a boy (Note: Joseph had seen the movie before, so this “convincing” must have either involved very carefully crafted persuasion, threats, or brain-washing. I suspect a mélange of the three.). While we did sing it a cappella and pretend to clean, and there was actually a set in stone series of moves we did, there were also a copious amount of flying leaps and flips from the ledge, trampoline, and sofa, which, you know, is totally in the spirit of a musical set in the Great Depression.

Additionally, we would frequently get into arguments in the middle of our routines when we would crash into each other or want to do moves that someone else didn’t like or want to do them at the same time. I’m pretty sure that the whole point of our “dancing” was to one up each other and get as close to breaking our necks as possible without becoming paraplegics or requiring trips to the hospital. Joseph was by far the biggest ham.

While we did know the lyrics and would sing along, the music would always end up being too loud and drowning us out. Besides, by the end of the song, we would be so out of breath that the actual singing would have been atrocious, anyway.

On the day of our performance, we created some “awesome” costumes. I wore—and I kid you not—teal and puce horizontal striped bellbottoms with flower appliqués and a matching teal and puce horizontal striped shirt with a purple bow at the neck. And—get this—I thought I looked incredibly “cool.” (Oh, Ella of yesteryear, how you’ve since changed.) Joseph’s sister also did our makeup, Joseph was included in this, amusingly, and we were plastered with sparkly powders. For the final touch, we also stuck smiley-face stickers on our ears and cheeks. There are pictures of this somewhere, but I suspect that Joseph’s parents have them back in D.C. Otherwise, I would have a full slideshow of the shots.

From the get-go, Zach had refused to have anything to do with our dancing and had instead been relegated to the roll of D.J. where he terrified many by testing how loud the speakers would go and got fired numerous times by us for not being able to play the right song. He was always hired back the next day with a, “you can’t do it again or it’s going to be for real this time, okay? And we won’t talk to you for two million years.”

On the night of the performance, we invited everyone in the neighborhood to come and then sold the contents of Joseph’s parent’s pantry at our “bake sale” at intermission. I believed we also signed autographs and charged admission.

The next day we spent at Lee’s house singing the Battle Hymn of the Republic while marching around the house with musical instruments and practiced our skating routine (also known as shoving all of the furniture to the edge of the room, rolling up the rug, and sliding around in leotards and tights or socks and shorts) to Paul Simon’s album, Graceland.

A few years later, when I was twelve, I began writing plays, using the songs from various musicals, for us to perform. Beth’s parents built a huge wooden stage/playhouse in their backyard, and we would perform them there. Unsurprisingly, the increased quality of our performances drew more audience members and the Southhampton Players (I gave us the name by pointing my finger at a map of England after having read a book about Shakespeare and The Globe Theatre. My understanding of how theatre companies were actually named was more than a little off the mark.) had a healthy two year long run.

The best part about all of these mostly goofy and bad productions of ours was that we were given free reign and a copious amount of encouragement to do them. If we wanted to make a backdrop, some adult would supply us with the paper and paint and let us cover the porch with newspaper while we painted. If we needed assistance assembling mats, someone would help us move them. And we were only rarely stopped from doing risky stunts. I can recall leaping off of the back deck onto the trampoline was vetoed, as it would have been a drop of about twenty feet, and playing with spears was also off limits, but that was almost the extent of our restrictions. As long as no one got hurt—emotionally or physically—and you were home for supper, you were in the all clear.

And I think that this is the way that childhood should be lived. You have so long to act in almost reckless abandon without societal conventions holding you back. Now, as much as I would sometimes like to, I can’t spend large portions of my time practicing my bannister sliding abilities (They are very superior, let me assure you.). I’m eighteen, an honest to goodness legal adult, who is expected to be calm and composed and not to wear crazy outfits and do flips off of ledges, sofas, and trampolines while listening to pop from the early 2000s.

There is also a great deal to be said about “free-range” parenting, which is what all the parents on our street practiced long before it became a thing. We kids had a lot of of confidence to do new things, solve our own problems, and to entertain ourselves without adult intervention, organized activities, or tvs or computers. In fact, I didn’t regularly use a computer until I was thirteen. But starting when Zach and I were eight, we were allowed to walk over a mile, across three busy avenues, to eat lunch and ice cream by ourselves, as long as we came back before dark and didn’t talk to strangers. We didn’t even have cell phones, and we lived in a city. We went for bike rides in Rock Creek Park and played in creeks and in huge piles of mulch, and no one batted an eye. We would even go grocery shopping for our mothers by dragging a red metal Radio Flyer Wagon along that one-mile route. And unless we were going some place in public or it was freezing, we could wear whatever we wanted (I once wore a very fancy velvet dress to a playdate, and another party dress when running around the block.) and didn’t even have to put on shoes (though as I later learned, just because you could leave the house without them, didn’t mean that you should, especially when going exploring in construction sites. But that’s another story for another day.).

We were allowed to be ourselves and didn’t have our parents’ anxieties projected on us, as they tried to mold us into what they viewed as the perfect child, the way so many kids are today. And you know what? The whole lot of us has turned out pretty well. Lee is in a private school and riding competitively, Joseph is very passionate about music, Pippa is at a prestigious prep school, Zach and Soccer Boy are off at excellent universities, and I’m doing an extraordinary amount of writing during my gap-year. We’re very well adjusted and (I’d like to think) interesting individuals.

If there’s anything that you should get out of this story, besides some entertainment (which I hope I’ve provided), it’s that you should let your kids have freedom and independence, and encourage all of their crazy ideas, as long as they are, of course, non-life threatening. Have a little faith. They’ll still live if you aren’t always within hearing or seeing distance. Falling down teaches you not to do what you just did or to do it more carefully. Kids have a surprising ability to work things out for themselves and invent their own, happy worlds. You just have to let them have the opportunity to do it.

I’d love to know if you are finding these story-telling post interesting, and if there is anything you’re interested in reading about.

Tomorrow, I plan on live blogging my day, because, guys, what could seriously be more fascinating than knowing what I’m doing every single second. I mean, you’ll finally get to know how much time I spend staring at the wall daydreaming when I’m supposed to be focussed on working. Also, I’ll have to be truly accountable for all of my actions, like I’m probably going to have to cut back on non-essential research. But don’t worry, it won’t read like a schedule, I’m going to offer you all sorts of stunning INSIGHT and tell ENGROSSING stories. It’ll be like me yammering away all day into your right ear. I’ll be that kid you had to sit next to in third grade who just wouldn’t shut up, only I’ll be a gazillion times better and more interesting.

For the month, you can find me updating my word count on NaNoWriMo here. (I need to do it more regularly so that it doesn’t become flat for a few days, only to receive an enormous spike, indicating that I somehow magically wrote about twelve thousand words in one day.)

And as always, you can also find me on tumblr at http://emleng93.tumblr.com/, if, you know, you’re into that kind of thing.

Never, Ever Hide in a Dryer: In Which Ella Tells the Story of the First Time She Babysat

I had a wonderful time babysitting last night, so I thought that I might tell a story from one of the first times I babysat when I was eleven.

Now, babysat might be an exaggeration of the word since the parents were just one house away, but I was still in charge of five kids all under the age of nine.

At the time, a number of the parents on our block were in a book club, and they would meet every month for lunch and a discussion. But instead of doing sandwich platters and lemonade and talking just for an hour, they would get really into it and serve full, gourmet meals in the theme of whatever they just read and talk for hours. All of the kids were banished from the house and put under the care of some older kid on the block. But by the time that I was eleven, it was decided that high schoolers were no longer necessary and that I and another boy my age could handle the responsibility ourselves.

In order to tell this story properly, I’m going to need to introduce you to the cast of characters.

First, you’ve got me. I was eleven, rather bossy and a bit too precocious. I was also over the moon about having the chance to be a “real-live babysitter,” which was a sure sign that everything was going to get out of hand. My boundless enthusiasm for something I know little about usually ends up turning into a disaster story. (Thursday’s post, The Time Ella Decided to Celebrate Saint Lucia’s Day and It Went Horribly, Horribly Wrong, is a great example.)

Then, there was Zach, a boy who lived down the street and one of my good friends. He was less enthusiastic about the idea and really just wanted to go back to his treehouse where we were in the process of smashing an old telephone to bits with hammers and taping the pieces to a tree with duct tape (This was one of our favorite things to do at that age, for some unexplainable reason.), but he was still game to help out.

Pippa, my sister, was nine, and both too old and self-sufficient to really warrant a babysitter.

Lee, Zach’s sister, was eight and did not fancy the idea of having anyone in charge of her. She could take care of herself, thank you very much, and did have any problems alerting anyone to this fact.

Grace was two and entirely too smart for her own—or for that matter, anyone else’s—good.

Jonah was five and perfectly willing to play with his trains in the corner and not bother anyone. He was also at that age where he completely idolized Zach and would try to copy his every move, much to Zach’s annoyance.

And finally, there was Tobias, Jonah’s brother, who was two and very easily influenced. He had also been fairly recently adopted from South Korea and was having some trouble understanding and speaking English.

We had been set up in the basement of Jonah and Toby’s house and instructed not to bother anyone unless there was a serious injury. And things were going generally well for the first fifteen minutes. Grace and Tobias built with blocks, Pippa and Lee argued over what movie to watch, Zach sat in the corner with a video game while Jonah hung over his shoulder to watch, and I marched around checking in with everyone every few seconds. I was not going to let anything go wrong.

Then, Grace started throwing blocks at Tobias, who started throwing them back. I was secretly thrilled. I get to solve a conflict now! Being a babysitter is awesome! I thought. But when I knelt down to try to gently tell them that throwing blocks was unacceptable and that they needed to apologize to each other, they began throwing the blocks at me and wouldn’t stop no matter how many times I asked them to.

I began to freak out as I held my arms in front of my face to block the flying wooden rectangles. Lee started yelling at them,and  I started yelling back at her to “just let me handle it, alright? I am the babysitter, not you!” until finally Zach stood up and suggested that we play hide-and-go-seek.

I had forgotten about the power of redirection in my attempts to stop the block flinging, and began to feel like a bit of a babysitting failure. I was supposed to be the best babysitter ever! I had read the American Girl Doll book on it and most of the parenting books my parents owned. (At the time, I slept in our finished attic, which was a huge, beautiful room that also held an incredibly large amount of books. Once I moved in there at the age of nine, I started reading books that were way beyond my comprehension or maturity level. I was particularly fond of the pregnancy, parenting, and environmentalism books, for some peculiar reason.) I was a babysitting theory expert! I should have been amazing at it in practice, too. But Grace and Tobias had stopped throwing the blocks, and I wasn’t going to be so prideful as to refuse Zach’s suggestion. Besides, hide-and-go-seek is awesome.

What I had forgotten was that when playing hide-and-go-seek everyone except the seeker has to hide, and hiding means that you don’t know where all the kids you’re supposed to be in charge of are or what they are doing. And that was going to be my downfall.

I agreed to be the seeker first and closed my eyes and slowly counted down from fifty. When I opened them again, I heard giggling from the bathroom where Grace was standing in the shower. I found her just as she was about to turn on the faucet and drench herself. Phew! Crisis averted. With Grace in tow, I proceeded to hunt around the basement. Pippa was in a closet with Tobias, Zach was underneath the laundry sink, and Lee was behind a door. All was well, and we were ready for round two.

This time, though, things got bad very, very quickly. Grace had army crawled underneath the sofa and gotten stuck, bursting into tears and getting her legs covered with rug burn as I dragged her out by her ankles. But darling Pippa was just behind the TV and reappeared as good-natured and calm as ever. Then, I heard yells from the furnace room.

Lee, in some sort of attempt to hide behind the furnace (which is a horrible idea to begin with), had somehow managed to snag her dress on a pipe, but instead of relaxing and working it free, she was trying to use panicked brute force to wrench it off. Frustrated and anxious, she kept snapping at me as I freed her and then stomped off. But none of us could find Tobias or Zach.

As it turns out, Tobias had managed to lock himself in the closet in his dad’s office. I was stuck trying to explain via yelling through two sets of doors how to unlock the closet door and let himself free. The minutes dragged on, and he began to cry. English sounds garbled when muffled by doors, and to a young child who doesn’t speak the language well, it must have been even worse. He was sobbing, and I was entirely freaked out. I was not going to be responsible for his permanent imprisonment, but there was no way for me to get into the room to fix it.

To top that fiasco off, we began to hear yells and odd banging from the laundry room. It sounded like someone had stuck a bunch of sneakers that had the ability to yell into the dryer. It was all very strange, and I started to fear that there was some sort of monster lurking in there, waiting to attack all of us. Maybe it had already eaten Zach. The yelling got louder and louder, until I bravely opened the door to the dryer and discovered that he had managed to lock himself in there as his hiding place and had then proceeded to become very scared that we had forgotten about him and were going to leave him in there forever.

Kids, get out your notebooks. Never, ever use a dryer or a washer as a hiding place. Those doors lock and will stay that way until someone lets you out. Also, you know how dryers have those pieces of plastic that divide up the metal drum to keep the clothes fluffy and wrinkle free as they dry? Well, they also hurt like heck when you’ve had them pressing into your sides for around fifteen minutes.

It took us quite a while to get Tobias out of the closet and almost as long to get him to calm down.

But here’s the thing that really gets me:

WE KEPT PLAYING THE GAME! 

I have no idea what was wrong with me to okay this, but we continued playing hide-and-go-seek for the next hour until the parents came to pick us up. And it wasn’t even like it was smooth sailing from then on out. People kept getting into these awful scrapes every single round. I got more and more anxious, and my voice got higher and higher, but it never occurred to me to stop the game and do something else.

All in all, it had not been a successful venture. I went home to go sulk in my room and finish a book on global warming, clutching my very hard earned six dollars (Ah, the days when my parents knew that I thought that two dollars an hour was a very generous offer. I also only got one dollar of allowance a week and viewed that as quite the bounty. Then, I discovered what minimum wage was, and things changed.) in my fist. In an hour or so the ice cream truck was going to come, and I needed a King Kone something bad.

Note: I have never since had a babysitting gig go so poorly. I mean, I’ve been thrown up on and have had kids refuse to go to bed, but nothing has ever compared to the stress and ridiculousness of that first time. In fact, I consider myself a good babysitter now. I love kids, and they seem to like me back. And while there is the occasional temper tantrum or out of control defiant rampage, all of those parenting books seem to have paid off, and I can get everything fixed up pretty quickly. I’ve even managed to get my most difficult sleeper’s bedtime dramatics down to about forty-five minutes as opposed to the two and a half hour ordeal we used to go through when first I started with her.

For the month, you can find me updating my word count on NaNoWriMo here. (I need to do it more regularly so that it doesn’t become flat for a few days, only to receive an enormous spike, indicating that I somehow magically wrote about twelve thousand words in one day.)

And as always, you can also find me on tumblr at http://emleng93.tumblr.com/, if, you know, you’re into that kind of thing.