By Michelle Railey
Updated 11 Mar 2019
Welcome to Church Camp. (A Fish Hook Called Wanda)
Hey, welcome to Church Camp. It’s 1986 and I know you’ve just spent a month organizing your plastic glitter bracelets, sipping on Cherry Cokes in the glass bottles, buffing your Walkman, writing in your diary, and catching up on the adventures of Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield at Sweet Valley High. Still, it’s time to unpack your travel-size VO5 and your Sears swimsuit in teal, hot pink, and purple. And your Bible! You’ll need it because your shorts are too short and it’s time to pray and welcome to Church Camp, 1986. There are spiders in the bathroom and high expectations for moral behavior. (Pro tip: Don’t sit next to a boy.) Crafts are from one until three: you can swim, fish, or do crafts, but only one at a time, for five days running, so choose wisely.
Crafts are good because, as it turns out, it’s a rainy and unseasonably cold week. Also, the one girl who went fishing sat on her hook and now she’s been driven to an emergency room far, far away, and everyone knows who she is, and how clumsy*, and my god, she literally sat on a fish hook and it stuck there so bad she had to go to emergency, so don’t go fishing…plus, the water is mossy and cold and there are live fish in there who will nibble your toes and bite your skin off…so you’re better off with crafts, which at least you can take home to your mother, who will dutifully hang it/them on the laundry room wall and pronounce that your varnish, acrylic, baby-food-jar, sculpy masterpiece is the most beautiful thing she’s ever seen.
It’s just too cold for that Sears swimsuit, no matter how many ruffles it has.**
So…in the mornings, while you’re at “church,” you’ll secretly be memorizing your “Verse of the Day” so when Warty Wanda (who did not actually have warts)*** comes to “examine” you after lunch, you won’t break a sweat, you’ll just recite. And then you will still have time to grab a Snickers before Crafts. If you don’t please Wanda, you will not make it to Crafts, let alone to the commissary to get a candy bar. Plus she’ll tell you your shorts don’t please God. (Memorization notwithstanding, she’ll tell you that anyway. Probably daily.)
And that’s why it’s a really good thing to spend your morning memorizing the verse of the day. There will be no fun allowed for you until you do. So get it out of the way early: after the bacon and during the sermon. The sermon is not the point. The verse. The verse is the point and the only point. Just ask Warty Wanda. She’ll tell you. (Actually, don’t ask her. She’s mean. Just recite the verse. Perfectly. Preferably in long pants and on the first time.)
Warty Wanda has the tightest curls you’ve ever seen. They match her personality, which is also tight. And maybe her name is Marsha or Jane or, well, you don’t really know, because she is cold and mean and hates you if you can’t rattle off the V.O.D. (verse of the day).
But the way to make Warty Wanda hate you, really and truly hate you, so much so that Snickers lose their flavor and Craft time loses its pleasures (Sculpy notwithstanding): try out for talent night and sing “The Greatest Love of All” by Whitney Houston.
Sure, you’ve spent your week making up a song that Amy F. tells you is “so good.” It’s called “Dancin’, Dancin’, Dancin,”**** and even Tracy in the top bunk thinks it’s neat. But at the last minute, you chicken out and sing “The Greatest Love of All.”
Because children are our future. Treat them well and let them lead the way.
Which is approximately the moment in the song at which Warty Wanda, hallowed be her name, loses her mind.
“That song doesn’t celebrate Jesus.”
“But it’s about love and children who were made by …”
“That. Is. Not. A. Godly. Song.”
At which point, despite your perfect record on Bible Verse Memorization, you will not be allowed to be in the talent show. Children are not the future. Children are a bane and a curse: their shorts are too short. They sit on fish hooks. They sing “Show them well and let them lead the way” instead of “His eye is on the sparrow.” Children are heathens. They think of her as Warty Wanda and Wanda knows. Of course Wanda knows.
Wanda hates children. Wanda hates church camp.
And still, despite Wanda, Tracy, Amy, and you will be singing, late into the darkness, with Sears flashlights and Coleman sleeping bags, you all will be singing “Dancin’, Dancin’, Dancin’” because sometimes even Jesus likes it when 11-year olds make up their own songs and sing them, even if they are about music and godless dancing for fun, and not about Jesus or God or sermons or the V.O.D.
If he didn’t, he wouldn’t have made Wanda such a hard sleeper.
And he did. Praise Jesus. He did.
*Not clumsy. Sitting on a fish hook could happen to anyone. Anyone who’s fishing, anyway.
*** Who am I kidding? She had a big wart on one cheek. Possibly one on the forehead. (Sorry, Wanda)
****My own version. This is not like that time I thought I invented the word “incognito.” This was an original song with a common title.
That Time My Sister and I Detasseled*
My sister and I, as it turned out, had delicate hands. And no patience for flies.
And yet. It being Indiana and we, being pre-teens with much desire for the latest fashions as advertised by Sassy and YM, we signed up to detassel. A summer job for Hoosier kids. Get on the bus at Zero-Early a.m. and ride the combine until dusk, doing some job called detasseling. The rumor is it’s essential for the pollination and therefore the fruiting of the corn.
How bad could it be, we asked, in between singing along with Lisa Lisa and the Cult Jam, making mix tapes combining Rick Astley and Wang Chung, “Walk the Dinosaur” and “Toy Soldiers.” We are Indiana girls. We can do this.
So my sister and I, we pack our cooler, with Lunchables (totally adequate sustenance for a day in the fields)  and Diet Faygos (Frosh and Redpop, some cream soda for late in the afternoon).  And we board the yellow school bus, labeled by the name of the farm.
We’ll make money, you betcha. And with plenty of time afterwards to watch Say Anything. Again.
The day is hot. The corn is endless. There are kids there who are made of steel. They don’t have time for your Children of the Corn jokes. By 9 a.m., they do not – do not – give a shit about “Malachi.” They are unimpressed by your Nike saddle-style cheerleading shoes. They brought gloves and they’re ready. By 10 a.m., these kids are looking at our bleeding hands and laughing. They are drinking their water and their Gatorade and I am wishing Faygo had been invented for the purposes of hydration and not pleasure. My sister might have been wishing the same. If I had had any spittle left in my mouth, I would have asked her. I did not.
My hands. The palms of my hands were scratched. My face was sun-burned. My shorts clung to my legs in ways I could never have predicted. There was possibly chafing. There were bugs. And then there were bugs. And some more bugs. And walking, sticky and shaking and interminably, between rows and rows of six-foot tall corn, bathed in bugs.
The first knuckle on the insides of every finger on both hands: rubbed raw. I looked at them in horror. I could see, or so I thought, bone and tendon; lashed naked by endless rows of sturdy Indiana corn, emerald leaves with knife-edges. I still don’t know what a tassel is. I think I’ve pulled some. Not enough to please the 16-year-old screaming at me from the combine. But still. I look at my hands. I think of death. I think of Skeletor. I think of my sister, eating Doritos after school, and watching She-Ra. The Princess of Power would not bow to this. She would look at her bleeding, open fingers and still pull tassels.
I am not She-Ra. I could not possibly care less about Lunchables. Where’s my sister? I want to go home.
Eventually, my sister and I go home. We do not return for Day Two of Detasseling; the part where we took Lunchables instead of gloves  is proving our summer income downfall.
We do, indeed, watch Say Anything. My sister and her friend Kim learn how to puncture Dr. Pepper cans with pencils and guzzle them (they do this, considerately, in the bathtub, so as not to make a gloppy, sugary mess in the rest of the house. The shower curtain has drops of candy-like soda, smelling like Lip Smackers lip balm, for weeks).
I sit in my room, on my peach bedspread, and wonder how the summer, so early in, could so possibly have gone so very wrong. And how I will use my hands in the next couple days.
I dreamt, when I was younger, of being Laura Ingalls Wilder. Of being a farm girl, a pioneer girl, indomitable and tough, as sturdy as well water, as the plains, as Indiana corn or Frances Slocum being all strong and Quaker-y and not minding a bit when she’s kidnapped. I am soooo nothing like these things.
Neither is my sister, which is no consolation. If the prairie is calling, our bleeding and exposed fingers can’t answer. We’re not made of sterner stuff.
But the summer is young. If detasseling is impossible, well, we can always read an obscene number of books. We can paint our nails peach and then pink and then iridescent. We can page through the Sears and Penney’s catalogs, looking at clothes and models and daydreaming of having perfect hair, even teeth, perfect legs, and the best, tightest jeans, as we laugh, shaking our hair off our shoulders in front of a very clean locker, holding a pom pom or some color-coordinated books while a hunk in a letter jacket adores us, hygienically, but still. We can set off firecrackers we bought from Village Pantry. We can spend entire evenings weaving friendship bracelets from embroidery floss.
We can dream of being cheerleaders or honor students, pop stars or presidents.
We can wonder what it would be like to have palms and fingers of titanium, able to withstand any number of corn stalks, making a bazillion dollars pulling tassels from corn.
We can always watch Say Anything. Maybe someday the boombox will be for us, and not Ione Skye. Heck, maybe we can be sorta like Ione Skye.
Summer is forever. Summer is for self-improvement. And learning how to punch a pencil into a Dr. Pepper and chug, chug, chug. Summer is for making sense of what happened in the fall, in the winter, in the past, in the future.
Detasseling? Well, that’s for better people.
Say anything. Our Skeletor hands will heal. Our minds will expand. We’ll draw lots of hearts and globes with Crayola markers in an ’80s palette. We’ll write bad poetry and fight with our sister about clothes. We’ll hitch-kick and pirouette to “Rhythm is Gonna’ Get You” and…we won’t detassel.
We’ll – I’ll – always feel inadequate about that.
And yet, summer and makeovers and the sense that anything other than the damned cornfields is possible….
Adequate. More than adequate.
Tassels aside, you’re okay, kid. It’s a brand-new school year in front of you. Practice your handwriting. Practice your hurkey . Ignore the tassels and get ready for the year when you finally get everything right.
You have a khaki skirt in the closet. Press it.
Remember that Sassy magazine said that pale pink eyeshadow is classy, subdued, and unexpected.
Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation is right around the corner. So limber up.
The world is your oyster. Corn is for other people.
Summer is going. Paint your nails, improve, and prevail. No one will know you screwed up at detasseling if you don’t tell them. So don’ t.
Detasseling? What’s that?
I never did it. Neither did my sister.
Don’t look at my hands. Just don’t look at my hands.
*Fun game: this article doubles as a word search, drinking game or both. Drink/circle the word every time a 1980s pop culture reference is made.
1.) It is entirely possible our mom made us include fruit and sandwiches with our sodas and Lunchables. We were teens and old enough to know better. There’s no excuse.
2.) There were probably some Capri Suns in there, too.
3.) Always listen to your mother. If she says to take gloves, take them.
4.) Fancy cheerleading jump.
When I was a very young child, there was no night in the entire year like Christmas Eve. We had an annual dinner at my grandparents’ house. The only lights on in the entire place were Christmas lights and candles. The atmosphere had a hush-secret-whisper. The lace curtains in the dining room took on shadows that were anything but mundane. There was possibly an ice cream cake in the shape of a log. Christmas music would be playing on the big wooden hi-fi stereo. The daylight ferns would shade themselves into large, primitive, otherworldly shadow fronds on the wallpaper.
Magic was in the air. Mystery was palpable. Anything could happen on Christmas Eve: reindeer could fly. Santa would come. Sure, we’d perform the family’s gift exchange that night, which would be plenty magical (my sister and I were ritually spoiled every December), but the best part was knowing the best was almost there, within reach, but not yet arrived, let alone passed.
The lights were off and everything carried a dusky, moonlit joy. Family around a table; linens, candles. Christmas would be busy, fun, and long, but Christmas Eve was full of magical suspension, an endless feast of delights and anticipation, with a sensory barrage of ceaseless beauty.
Christmas Eve was better than Christmas, though I would never have admitted it when I was a kid.
We would go home from my grandparent’s house, laden with gifts, with the near-certainty that there would be more glittery, paper-wrapped, ribbon-festooned gifts in the morning. My sister and I would change into pajamas. We would, assisted by our parents, leave out a simple junk-food feast for Santa and the reindeer: cookies, Diet Coke or regular (whichever was handy and sometimes with a glass), and Chex Mix (the deer enjoying wheat-y, bran-y sorts of things, we guessed). And then my sister and I would go to bed. I looked out the window, listening to my sister’s deep and drowsy breathing. Was that red light in the distance Rudolph’s nose or just a plane? It doesn’t look like a plane…Santa is coming.
I’d always think I was going to stay awake until the last moment; that I would find out exactly which red light was Rudolph and by which witchy methods it was that Santa entered American houses lacking fireplaces.
Morning would come and I’d be more gifted but none the wiser.
But before morning, always, there was Christmas Eve, and questions and beauty and wonder.
In candlelight, the angel wings in the creche on the piano quivered a bit—plaster giving way to mystery.
In candlelight, colors are – were- deeper, the eyes of one’s family pin-lit and distinguished, on alert. The food is darker in candlelight: known entities that are aesthetically different, somehow richer and more fragrant. In candlelight, anything is possible and waiting for Santa mingles with Wise Men from the East arriving in a stable, bearing lavish, spicy things and the one is the other and everything is amazing. Anything is possible.
So when my aunt suggests that if I stare long and hard enough into a candle flame, I will actually see exactly where Santa is at that very moment, I look.My eyes water but I refuse to blink. The tension is taut and nearly unbearable, but has its own fearsome and spectacular appeal. Look in the candle. Was that Santa? What does China look like? Was that a pyramid? Is that a sleigh?
The eyes water some more and in the background, the ears that used to be my own hear my mother say, “Stop it; that’s so mean” but I’m looking for Santa and I’ve almost (almost!) got him in my sights.
Wax drips on the tablecloth and it’s like being in another universe.
If you’re me, you eventually look away (someone blows out the candle, damn it, or turns on a light, ruining everything): you almost saw Santa in the candle flame, just like your aunt told you was possible.
Thirty more seconds would have done it.
But, you’ll see Rudolph’s nose in the sky outside your window (it could be the water tower or a plane, but I bet it’s Rudolph) later that night. You’ll see Santa this year; of course you will. It’s Christmas Eve and anything is possible.
The candles told (tell) you so.
The love around the table told (tells) you so.
There is nothing in the world like being a kid on Christmas Eve. Unless it’s being a human on Christmas Eve.
Light a candle tonight. Perhaps you’ll see exactly where Santa is at the moment you are looking.
It will work. You just have to look long enough. Be patient, even if your eyes are burning. You’ll see him.
Santa Claus is always there for those who want to see him. Or so I hear.
February 28, 2019
Something’s been building- maybe my entire life- and not it’s truly broken.
I always thought I was either a Twinkie or a cockroach. (The common wisdom decreeing that these are the only two things that can truly withstand, say, a nuclear holocaust.) That I’m, at root, a pile of chemicals or/and an insect but, either way, you know, hearty peasant stock somehow. Weebles wobble but they don’t fall down. I’m not talking about living or happiness or fulfillment; only that it somehow seemed to me that I could survive basically anything and just live on: damaged, irradiated, diseased, soulless, possibly wrapped in plastic.
This isn’t an invincibility story. This is about what happens when you and/or everyone/thing you love are gone and somehow, you, Twinkie/cockroach, can still breathe or be eaten.
I’m not so sure anymore. It feels like I will always survive beyond my use-by date. But anything that’s real or worth living for? The things that matter aren’t guaranteed.
Well, and now we’ve entered a universe I had never considered before. After the apocalypse, the Twinkie/cockroach survives. But what happens when they must work 40-60 to even marginally do that? What happens when they’re so emotionally spent from the aftermath that they can barely get out of bed most days; can work less than half-time? Survival is much less certain then. Cellophane and crunchy exoskeleton not withstanding.
We’ve officially hit DEFCON level “fuck” for this evening. I need to keep going; I need to stop for awhile.
You never know what you need until it’s too late to acquire it.
Las Vegas Traveler’s Notes, 2016: Lists are Fun.
1.) So last year, it was a Starbucks cup in the “G” of the Giada sign. This year, it’s a pint glass (nearly invisible but it’s so there) in the “s” of Drais. Apparently the Cromwell’s exterior is where all the cool kids stash their drinkware. I can’t wait to go back to Vegas just to see what cup is next: a holy grail in the “D?” Perhaps the Kool-Aid Man reclining on Giada’s “A.” I almost want to put my Fat Tuesday cup there. But I’m too gosh-darned polite.
2.) Speaking of Fat Tuesday (Fat Tuesday is a chain of stores offering frozen daiquiris and other frozen alcoholic delights. Pro Tip: Buy a refillable cup from them on day one of your Vegas trip and then visit every day for reduced-price refills. Can Fat Tuesday and its near-twins, Numb and Purple Zebra please, please work out a deal so that refillable tumblers can get reduced prices at all locations, even though Numb and Purple Zebra are not affiliated with Fat Tuesday? I mean, it’s all frozen drinks. I’m just saying, do it for the good of the people.
3.) Geez, Paris (Las Vegas), could you get some light fixtures? You’re embarrassing yourselves. You’re not a parking garage. Get some lights, would you?
4.) So, on Fremont Street, there’s a street performer called Dyno Staats. You’re going to want to catch his “Weird Science” magic show. He’s very good. He’s very smart. He’s very funny. Also, he’s steampunk on a milk crate. I really can’t emphasize this enough: catch his show. It’s one of the best things I’ve ever seen in Vegas.
5.) Sure, amateur traveler, you could go all the way to Ireland to touch the Blarney Stone. But if you’re in Vegas, there’s a chunk of it downtown at D’s. D’s is a little seedy but worth going into: they have vintage games upstairs, plus a hunk of the Blarney Stone. It’s, um, well-worn. And lucky.
6a and 6b.) Big Golden Nuggets on display at…(wait for it) the Golden Nugget Hotel and Casino, downtown Las Vegas. 6a is “The Hand of Faith Nugget,” found in an Australian trailer park in October, 1980. It weighs 60ish pounds and is the largest golden nugget on display in the world. Also? It’s on display, rotating in front of mirrors, so if you catch it at the right angle, there are three of them. 6b is the so-called “Robin’s Nugget,” found in 1975, also in Australia. (If you’re going prospecting, might I suggest starting with Australia, maybe 40 years ago?)
7.) So, on the off-chance you weren’t aware, heaven has no social class. This guy with a large sign saying “Repent Tonight” was standing near Wahlburger’s with a bullhorn and he was pretty convincing. I hadn’t really considered before how class would figure into the great beyond but it turns out: there is no social class. I think that must be a good thing because the bullhorn was really excited about it. While I wanted to ask him how his keen attention to status has affected his life, I didn’t. He just seemed a little preoccupied, you know? So I walked across the street and Bullhorn’s arch-nemesis was there. His sign read “Repent tomorrow. Titties tonight.” High class titties or low, I wondered? And that, friends, is the question for the ages, isn’t it?
8.) Crystals, a couple stories high, at Planet Hollywood. They sure do sparkle, don’t they?
9.) There are philosophers everywhere in Vegas. Some of them are mumbling to themselves on the streets or selling fake roses made from palm fronds to tourists. Here, though, at the Cosmopolitan, are all of the Heavy Hitters of ancient philosophy. In bronze. Handily, right in front of the restrooms.
10.) Hey, speaking of the Cosmopolitan? Visit the Sports Book Bar while you’re in Vegas. Hands down, the best service I have ever received anywhere. Plus, if you cadge a box of matches (they want you to take them!), they’re purple with silver tips. And seriously, a finer afternoon of chatting and video poker was never had anywhere because the staff is lovely.
11.) Chicken and waffles at Hash House a Go Go. I waited a year to experience these. And they were worth it. Just go, get, eat. The sauce is chili’d maple, the waffles have bacon baked in to them, and the whole mess is topped with fried leeks which somehow makes a magical green taste on top of all the warm and crispy savory. I can’t tell you how delicious this is. Magical freaking food. Just go and eat it.
12.) Now, you can’t eat chicken and waffles every day you’re in Vegas. You’re going to need one meal off. So, for your one non-Hash House meal, might I suggest that you venture over to Ellis Island? It’s a skosh (technical term) rough in there, sure. You don’t care: (a) there’s karaoke if you want it, (b) cheap table games and (c) glory of glories, once you get your player’s card you have access to $14.99 full rack ribs. And while Ellis Island is a microbrewery, the beer is not what you’re there for (it’s, umm, so-so). The ribs are a meat-filled miracle; an adventure in happiness. They’re off-the-hook fantastic (a full rack!). Tender, juicy. Served with fresh from the freaking farm corn on the cob, vinegar slaw, beans, and garlic bread. (Not that you’ll touch much of the sides, because, ehrmegerd, the ribs are to die for.) Best ribs and corn I’ve ever eaten. No contest. And $14.99, are you freaking kidding me???
13.) Mountains. In Las Vegas. Like, all natural and stuff. The sun shines on them and everything. Look past the neon for a second and check them out. They’re not golden nuggets or chicken and waffles or barbeque. Still, they’re kind of pretty. Even if they don’t light up.