Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Jungle Jitters

The day of the big contest was finally here. I was in fifth grade, and I was a fantastic speller.

I had won our school’s 5th & 6th grade spelling contest and was now heading to the regional contest in our area. It was my parents, my fifth grade teacher, and me riding in the car, and I was beside myself with excitement and nervousness. I couldn’t believe even my teacher had decided to come! I had barely slept at all the night before, and now my heart was racing with anticipation.

As we arrived at the contest and checked in, they quickly ushered me to the stage area, while my parents and teacher took their place in the audience.

I took my assigned seat amongst my fellow contestants, and then looked down from the stage. My eyes grew big as I surveyed the large crowd that was gathering in the audience. Having grown up in a small town, I was pretty sure that I had never seen such a big crowd before in my life. There were probably hundreds of people there! My hands started shaking, as I waved at my parents and teacher and smiled nervously.

But no matter how anxious I felt, I also felt confident that I was a very good speller. I thought back to my school’s spelling contest, and how I had overheard one of my classmates spell the word “ballet”, B-A-L-L-A-Y. I laughed to myself, feeling a little superior, and thinking that surely, I would do well in this contest. Now if only I could convince my hands to stop shaking…

Finally, the big moment had come. It was time for us each to step forward on stage and spell our first word. I was the fourth speller, and I listened eagerly to the words that the other contestants had been given. They were simple words, like “whistle” and “volcano.” I took a deep breath. I could do this.

My name was called, and I stepped forward. Suddenly, my heart started thundering in my chest, and I felt like my chest was going to explode. I took another breath, trying to steady myself.

“Your word is ‘jungle’,” said the announcer.

I felt a wave of relief wash over me. What an easy word to spell!

Quickly, I spelled the word, and began walking back to my seat.

“That is—incorrect,” the announcer said.

I stopped dead in my tracks.

“What?” I asked incredulously. “I spelled it right.”

“It’s spelled J-U-N-G-L-E,” said the announcer.

“I know!” I insisted. “That’s how I spelled it.”

The announcer just looked at me.

“Would you like to review the tape?” he asked.

“Yes, please,” I said.

They replayed the tape.

And standing there, on stage in front of hundreds of people, I very clearly heard myself say:


I was stunned. I felt my face burning red with embarrassment, as I stumbled backstage, tears springing into my eyes.

How could I have said that? I knew how to spell the word jungle, for God’s sake! Now everyone thought that I was a big idiot—and then I had even asked them to review the tape! And my teacher had given up her Saturday to come to this contest, and my parents and she had driven more than an hour to be there with me.

I felt like I was going to die from embarrassment.

Very quickly, my parents and teacher showed up backstage, and I burst into tears as my Mom and Dad both gave me a big hug.

“It’s okay,” they both said. My teacher looked at me sympathetically.

“But I know how to spell the word jungle!” I exclaimed through my tears.

My teacher nodded. “It’s okay, you were just nervous,” she said understandingly. “Everyone knows that. This kind of thing happens to everyone sometimes,” she added, putting her arm around my shoulder.

I sighed, trying to stop crying. I knew she was right, but it was just so embarrassing! I knew that it would be a little while before I felt better about this.

That was twenty-five (yikes!) years ago, and I still remember it like it happened only yesterday.

But nowadays, when I tell this story, I always end up laughing about it. And it reminds me that no matter how awful and embarrassing some things seem to be while they’re happening, usually you end up laughing about them in the end.

That’s e-n-d. End.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Miss Quarter

There is a homeless guy that hangs out outside our apartment building that Iwanski and I call "Goddammit Guy." We call him that because he often paces back and forth on the sidewalk outside our building, occasionally belting out swear words (usually goddammit) at the top of his lungs.

Some days it really catches me off-guard, as I walk out of our building, don’t realize he’s there, and jump about a foot in the air when he suddenly yells out "GOD-DAMMIT!" in a really deep, extremely loud voice.

Other days, I see him from a few blocks away, pacing back and forth, and I ready myself for the barrage of swear words—but no swear words come. He just paces back and forth, back and forth, not saying a word. And he rarely asks for money. He just paces.

Iwanski and I think he probably has Tourette's Syndrome, but who knows. Maybe he’s just crazy.

But I really don’t think he’s dangerous or anything; except for the swearing, he seems to pretty much mind his own business.

So anyway, this past Saturday night, my friend Diane and I were standing in line at 7-Eleven, when Goddammit Guy got in line behind us.

He began muttering obscenities and other unintelligible words under his breath, and Diane and I did our best to ignore him as I paid for my food.

Then he began asking for money.

"Do you have a quarter?" he asked.

"No, sorry," I said. It was a total gut reaction on my part; I get asked for money by homeless people usually at least once or twice a day, and unless I decide to give a dollar, my standard response is "No, sorry."

The cashier handed me my change—three crisp dollar bills—and he stared at me angrily.

"You don’t have ONE quarter?" he insisted loudly.

He was making me nervous, so I shook my head no as I shoved the dollar bills into my purse.

"Mother f**cker!" he yelled out, and then kept cursing me out with every other swear word he could think of.

Diane and I ran out of the 7-Eleven and back into my apartment building. But honestly, I’m pretty sure Goddammit Guy is more bark than bite, so at that point, I was feeling more irritated than anything.

"I don’t like it when people accost me for money when I’m in line at a store," I said. "It’s annoying. And he apparently thinks I owe him a quarter or something."

And then I remembered another "quarter incident" that had happened several years earlier.

My sister Sheri, Iwanski, and I had gone to a Bulls game one night, back when I was pretty new to the city. Sheri and I decided to go get a beer, so we went to the concession stand.

We each ordered a beer, and the cashier said, "That’s $4.75 each."

I gave her a $5.00 bill for my beer, and waited for my quarter in change. I didn’t even think about tipping her; I hadn’t been to many sports games before, and I didn’t even know that tipping at the concession stand was something that people did sometimes.

As I was waiting for my change, I accidentally spilled a bit of my beer on the counter, and the cashier glared at me, clearly annoyed.

Meanwhile, Sheri gave the cashier a $10.00 bill…and I was still waiting for my change.

"Did she forget about my quarter?" I whispered to Sheri.

"I don’t know," she said, "Ask her."

I decided to speak up. "Um, I think you forgot to give me my change," I said.

The cashier glared at me again, and this time glared at Sheri, too.

Then, she took the $5 bill that was part of Sheri’s change and dragged it through the spilled beer on the counter as she handed it—and a quarter—back to Sheri.

"Whoa!" Sheri and I both reacted in surprise. We could hardly believe she had just dragged the money through the beer.

Then she slammed my quarter in change on the counter in front of me and snarled, "There you go, Miss Quarter," and turned away.

Sheri and I were both shocked. We didn’t know whether to laugh or to get angry.

So, we chose to laugh.

And for the rest of the night, I was referred to as "Miss Quarter."
So this past Saturday night, after the incident with Goddammit Guy, I asked Iwanski, "Is there something about me that makes people think I owe them a quarter? Do I have ‘Miss Quarter’ written on my forehead?"

I’m beginning to think I really do…because this morning, I was sitting at my desk doing my work, when my coworker Kevin came up to me and asked, "Do you have a quarter?"

I looked at him in surprise, laughed, and then told him of the misadventures of Miss Quarter.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Gift That Keeps on Giving

My husband is normally a very logical and skeptical person.

While I tend to believe in things like chakras, energy healing, and psychics, he finds those things kind-of funny and sometimes jokes with me about my believing in them.*

In fact, recently, when we were playing the game “Apples to Apples” at his aunt’s house, and he had to match the word “hilarious” with the card that he thought had the most hilarious thing on it, he picked the word “psychics.”

But when it comes to ghosts, he seems to have an odd fascination with them. That doesn’t mean he believes in ghosts—on the contrary, he does not believe in them in the least—but he finds ghost stories extremely interesting. He owns two Chicago ghost story books that he’s read from cover to cover, and he regularly Tivo’s and watches the show “Ghostly Encounters.” He also intently listens when his sisters talk about the ghosts that they’ve heard in the past. (Yes, both of his sisters claim to have heard ghosts. They’re a unique family.)

Anyway, a couple of months ago, Iwanski’s obsession with ghosts led to us going to Bachelors Grove Cemetery in Midlothian, Illinois.

Bachelor's Grove is a very old cemetery, founded in the mid-1800's, now part of the Cook County Forest Preserves. And although the cemetery is now abandoned and hasn’t actually been used for burials in a long time (the last burial there was 20 years ago—but most of the graves are from the early 1900’s), people regularly flock there to see if they can see any of the reported ghosts.

There have been many reported “sightings” at Bachelor’s Grove. People have claimed to have seen a ghostly woman dressed in all white, and some claim to have seen a horse pulling a plow behind it that is steered by the apparition of an old man. People also often claim to see “orbs”—floating balls of light—in the air.

Iwanski had been wanting to see Bachelor’s Grove for a long time…so finally, on a warm July day, we decided to check it out.

When we arrived at the Forest Preserves, we started on the half-mile walk to the cemetery. It was a beautiful day, and the trail leading to Bachelor’s Grove was lined with lovely trees, plants, and flowers.

We hiked a half-mile through the woods and found the cemetery.

It was surprising to me how overgrown all the graves were, and how far apart each of them was (they were not right next to each other, like in a “normal” cemetery). And it was interesting to see how old some of the gravestones were. But other than that, it honestly just seemed to me like a pretty little spot in the woods. We didn’t see any orbs, or a woman in white, or a horse and an old man. So much for the supernatural.

Or so I thought.

We came upon a gravestone labeled “Infant Daughter,” which was surrounded and covered by toys and trinkets that people had left for the baby girl.

“Wow,” we both said.

“I wonder how she died,” I said softly, imagining her poor parents that had to bury her. And I looked with amazement at the countless little gifts that people had left for her.

I wanted to leave something for her, too, but I didn’t really have anything on me for a baby girl. (I know it seems silly, but at that moment I felt like I really wanted to leave her something.)

The only thing I could think of to leave her was the ponytail holder in my hair…so that’s exactly what I did.

“Rest in peace, Baby Girl,” I said, placing it on her gravestone.

Iwanski and I looked around the cemetery some more, but my thoughts were still with the baby girl. How tragic it must be for parents to lose an infant daughter or son!

Finally, we had seen all the graves, and it was time to leave.

As we trekked through the forest back to our rental car in the 85-degree heat, I started to feel really warm from my hair not being in a ponytail.

“Damn, I wish I had another ponytail holder!” I said. And just at that moment, I looked down and saw a ponytail holder, sitting there on some rocks right in front of me.

“Oh my God, look!” I said and picked it up, showing it to Iwanski.

Iwanski looked at me. “That’s weird,” he said.

I looked up at the sky. “Thanks, Baby Girl!” I said, and put the ponytail holder in my hair. It fit perfectly.

Iwanski and I went about the rest of our day and the rest of our week, but I never forgot about the baby girl.

And over the next few weeks—and still today—I have noticed something strange happening.

Almost every single day, I see a ponytail holder lying on the sidewalk.

Even last night, as I was walking with my friend Jonathan, I saw one on the sidewalk right in front of us.

When I told Jonathan the story, he asked “Are ponytail holders easy to lose?”

“I don’t think so,” I said. “I’ve never lost one. Maybe kids might lose them, though?”

Maybe it is just a coincidence, but I would prefer to think of it as the baby girl’s spirit having fun with me.

*Although he must love me, because one Christmas, he bought me a CD called “Chakra Suite.” What a guy.

Monday, September 14, 2009


Remember that Giant Massive Work Project that I was dreading working on a couple of weeks ago?

Well...(drum roll please)...I finished it today!

Here's how happy and excited I feel right now.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Finer Than A Frog's Hair

I have to say, I’m pretty amazed at how quickly my Dad has progressed since his quadruple bypass surgery a few weeks ago. The guy is walking up and down stairs and walking on a treadmill, and getting more and more active every day.

I shouldn’t be surprised, though. My Dad is one tough cookie. I don’t think you can live through the Great Depression, two World Wars, serving in the army, and raising eight children and not be a tough person.

I’m sure his sense of humor helped a lot, as well. He has a lot of “sayings”—and I’m beginning to notice that my siblings are starting to use those sayings, too.

Like whenever you ask my Dad how he’s doing, he pretty much always says the same thing:

“Finer than a frog’s hair.” (Think about it—that’s pretty fine!) The funny thing is, I heard my husband say that the other day. It’s even starting to rub off on him!

Or when you ask my Dad how he knew something or figured something out, he often points to his head and says:

“Kidneys.” That always makes me giggle.

And then there’s the one line of German that he’d sometimes yell at us kids, that wasn’t so funny—and that we all dreaded hearing when we were kids:

“Dooner vetter knockemout!” I did some research a while back and could at least translate the first two words of this phrase—actually spelled “Donner Wetter”—which literally means “thunder weather.” As far as I could tell, it meant that if we didn’t stop misbehaving, then “thunder weather” was gonna come soon!

And when Dad said “Dooner vetter knockemout!” in his big booming voice, we knew that he meant business.

That’s one thing that reveals his true toughness—and made all the neighborhood kids scared of him—he has a very loud, deep voice. Even though he is not by any stretch of the imagination a large man, that voice could make all the kids in the neighborhood run away in fear.

And yet, truth be known, he’s also quite a softie at heart. But I never minded that all the neighborhood kids were scared of my Dad. It sure helped keep the bratty kids from messing with us—at least most of the time. On the rare occasion when those kids were mean to my sister or me and we went crying to Dad, all he would have to do is step out into the driveway, and the bratty kids immediately took off.

And when I got older and made new friends in high school, my Dad’s voice and boldness sometimes made them nervous, too—especially when they called to talk to me.

You see, my Dad was adamant about teaching us kids to speak correctly. Using good grammar was one rule in my house—which I think was a very good thing. Unfortunately for my friends, though, they didn’t always speak with correct grammar, and my Dad couldn’t resist correcting (i.e. messing with) them.

So usually when my friends would call me, it would go something like this:

My friend would ask “Is Carla there?”

Dad would reply, “Yes” and then wait. And wait. And wait. (He was very patient when it came to messing with my friends.)

Finally, my friend would—most of the time—catch on and ask, “Well, may I talk to her?” and Dad would reply, “Oh, sure.”

But woe be to the friend who, instead of asking “May I talk to her?”, instead asked:

“Can I talk to her?”

To which my Dad would reply, “I don’t know, can you?”

Then came the longest silence of all, when my friend fumbled around, trying in vain to figure out what the heck to say.

Finally, my Dad would end the torture and say, “You may” and then put me on the phone.

Hmm, looking back, I wonder if that’s why I didn’t have very many friends in high school?

Anyway, nowadays it makes me laugh to think of those days. And every time I hear “finer than a frog’s hair,” it immediately makes me smile.

I am so grateful for these gems that my Dad passed on to my siblings and me.

And I’m grateful to his heart surgeon for helping him stay around longer, so we can continue to enjoy him and his silly phrases.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Castle Blanco

During every weekend for the past two years, Iwanski has tried to get me to go to White Castle for lunch…but I have always refused based on the Healthypants Principle.

Recently, I finally relented, and we took the half-hour train ride to the Thorndale stop on the red line—and then walked four blocks to the friendly neighborhood White Castle.

There, we indulged in cheeseburgers, jalapeno cheeseburgers, pulled pork sliders, chicken rings, onion rings, and fries. Not at all healthy, but the yummiest freakin’ food on the planet. I especially enjoyed the pulled pork sammich and the chicken rings—fan-freakin-tastic!

Hmm, I have this feeling that it will be much sooner than two years from now when I return to the Castle Blanco.

Screw the Healthypants Principle. That shit is good.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009


Today started out just fine.

I got a really good night’s sleep last night, and I woke up feeling better than I had the day before, with only a slight sinus headache. (Believe me, this was a huge improvement over the previous three days of sinus hell.)

I ate a yummy bowl of apple cinnamon oatmeal and took a nice long hot shower.

I did my hair and it actually turned out really cute. (I am normally hair-styling challenged.)

I headed off to work, and the weather was bright and sunny and finally starting to feel more like summer again. (Note to Mother Nature: You do realize that summer doesn’t end until September 23rd, right? Just checking.)

I walked into my office building trying to think positively about how much I might be able to get done today on the Giant Massive Work Project that I have to have done by the end of next week.

Then, I got to my desk.

Immediately, my coworker informed me, “The network is down.”

Translation? We had basically no computers. And so I would not be able to work on the Giant Massive Project until our network came back up. Grrrrrrr…..

Okay, take a deep breath, Carla. I’m sure the network will be up soon.

Then, another coworker came by and reminded me that I was late for a 9 a.m. meeting that I totally forgot about.


The 9 a.m. meeting was followed by another spur-of-the-moment meeting, which ended up lasting almost until 11 a.m.

I got back to my desk, and miracle of miracles, the network was up!

But naturally, all the programs I needed were moving WAY too slowly for me to actually use them. Grrrrr….

I called our IT Department and was told to shut down and re-start my computer, which I did. Then I tried to sign on to our network, and it wouldn’t work. That damn hourglass just sat there on my screen, mocking me. Grrrr….

By this time, it was 1:00, and I had gotten nothing done on the Giant Massive Project.

So what did I do? I went to lunch.

I put on disco music on my MP-3 player (disco music is usually good for what ails me) and went for a very fast walk around the neighborhood.

Once I calmed down a bit, I tried to think about all the things I’m grateful for in my life. Like my wonderful husband who makes me laugh every day, and my fantastic friends that I can always count on. And my loving family…and my Daddy-o!

Yes, I am so very grateful that my Daddy-o is doing so well these days, and recuperating very quickly from a heart attack and open-heart surgery. I can hardly believe that it’s been only two weeks, and already, he’s up and about and has even been walking up and down stairs! Thank God, Thank God.

And so, as I began counting my blessings and enjoying the Village People, my frustrations melted away, and I was left feeling very lucky and blessed.

And when I got back to my desk, the network was working perfectly.

I guess taking a break and listening to disco music helped me remember to count my blessings and not sweat the small stuff so much.

Yes, disco truly saved the day--as it always does.