A Zoo Story

If someone had asked me a week ago to tell them what a “hellbender” was, I’d have guessed that it was a term for a wild night of drinking that inevitably results in a killer hangover and a deep sense of regret. I now know that a “hellbender” is actually a gigantic, aquatic salamander.

Hellbenders live in the eastern part of North America, and they can grow to be over two feet long. Also known as “devil dogs,” “mud-devils,” “mud dogs,” “Allegheny alligators,” and “snot otters” (my personal favorite), hellbenders are slimy, hostile and reclusive. Unless they are mating, fighting, or trying to eat one another, hellbenders don’t even really mingle much with other hellbenders. They spend a lot of time under rocks, hiding from everything. Even though they are perfectly decent swimmers, hellbenders often stubbornly choose to walk at the bottom of streams and rivers, schlepping over rough pebbles and gritty sand. Their creepy little toes look like E.T.’s fingers.

A hellbender giving a...high five? Seems very out of character.

A hellbender giving a…high five? Seems very out of character.

My husband Jon and I met a hellbender at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore this past weekend. He was difficult to spot at first. The hellbender’s skin blended in extremely well with his aquarium furnishings, and he was attempting to conceal his bulky self under a large stone at the bottom of the tank. The moment I spotted him, I gasped. He was hideous! And huge!

“Whoa!” Jon yelled, “That is not what I was expecting.”

We spent quite a bit of time at the hellbender’s tank because it was fun to watch people react to him, usually in absolute terror.

“There’s nothing in here!” one horrible child pouted, stomping her foot.

“Look under that rock in the left corner!” I prompted.

“I don’t see any – AAAAIIIIIIIEEEEEEEEEEEEE!” she screeched and clung to her father’s perspiring leg.

The hellbender croaked and cackled in a raspy voice, “HEH. HEH. HEH. GOTCHA, YA BRAT.” He sounded an awful lot like Harvey Fierstein.

“He’s an ugly monster!” the little girl cried.

“HEY! TAKES ONE TO KNOW ONE, KID!” the hellbender proclaimed.

Hellbenders are not even the slightest bit cute, but that’s totally fine. They prefer it this way.

Lots of folks run screaming from the Snot Otter House of Horrors, and I think that’s because the hellbender legitimately looks like an alien. People are scared of what they don’t know. If a friend whispered in my ear that there was a secret Martian from Mars on display at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore, I’d 100% guess it was the hellbender. No offense to any hellbenders out there, but y’all are some freaky critters.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the chimpanzee exhibit at the zoo was extremely popular. I’d venture to guess that this has something to do with the fact that witnessing chimps in action is essentially like watching a reality TV show. You get to watch a bunch of funny-looking, hairy almost-humans do their thing. What fun!

One of the Maryland Zoo chimps, Louie, seemed to actively enjoy the fact that people were looking at him. He plopped himself down right next to the glass barrier and chomped on a giant lettuce leaf as he stared us all down, totally relaxed.

“I feel like he’s watching us instead of us watching him!” one woman declared.

“I think he wants some Thousand Island Dressing for that salad! Haw haw haw!” one dude joked.

I walked over to Louie after he was done with his lettuce. He made a funny face at me, relaxed open mouth, no teeth showing. Chimpanzees use facial expressions to communicate and this, apparently, meant, “HEY, I JUST MET YOU, AND THIS IS CRAZY, BUT I’M A NICE GUY, SO LET’S PLAY, MAYBE.” He wanted to be friends! My heart skipped a beat. I was a little bit in love.

Bonding with Louie, my new BFF.

Bonding with Louie, my new BFF.

“Look at that guy,” Jon said, pointing to one of Louie’s chimpanzee pals. This chimp was also situated fairly close to the glass, but he was dangling from the ceiling, flashing a big, toothy grin at the crowd, not unlike The Mad Hatter from Alice in Wonderland.

“He’s smiling!” I said, excited, waving stupidly at the beaming chimpanzee. As if he’d wave back.

“Isn’t smiling a sign of aggression in chimps?” Jon asked.

For the second time in less than ten minutes, my heart skipped a beat, but this time it had nothing to do with being in love. I was petrified.

Ooh. Right,” I said, “Yeah. He hates us. Let’s get out of here.”

I was jogging after work on Monday evening. It was muggy out, and I was feeling cranky about “having” to run. Sometimes running feels good, sometimes it feels terrible. That’s just the way it goes. The payoff however, is that it always feels great when you are done, no matter what.

I was way too many minutes away from being done when I took a pit stop at the community center restroom near my neighborhood. While washing my hands, I took a good, long look at myself in the mirror. Woof. I looked horrible. Even though I’d only been jogging for fifteen minutes, I was bright pink all over and slimy, completely drenched in sweat. Bits of dirt and pollen clung to my skin and hair. Who could love me? I was creepy and gross, more creature than human.

I WAS THE HELLBENDER.

I continued my run, feeling surprisingly confident and strong in my new hellbender body.

I used my hellbender mind power to telepathically yell at a group of sneering, skateboarding youths: “DON’T EVEN THINK OF LOOKING AT ME, YOU JUDGMENTAL TEENS! I EAT MY OWN KIND FOR FUN.”

“I COULD DRIVE A COMFY CAR TO GET FROM PLACE TO PLACE, BUT I OPT TO USE MY OWN FEET INSTEAD. WHY? I’M STUBBORN AS HELL!” I said to myself as I huffed and puffed, attempting to scale a particularly steep hill.

“NO WAY ANYONE’S GONNA CATCALL ME WHILE I RUN,” I thought, “THEY WOULDN’T DARE. I AM THE HELLBENDER.”

About ten minutes away from the end of my run, a guy in a car pulled up next to me. I kept running. Hellbenders do not socialize.

“Hey!” he said, driving alongside me, “Why you run?” His command of the English language was not fantastic.

“Huh?” I asked.

“Why? You run. Exercise?”

“Yep!” I said, short and sweet, hoping that would be the end of that.

“You. Beautiful!” the man exclaimed.

The unthinkable was happening. Hellbender was getting hit on. I wanted to hide, but there were no rocks to bury myself under.

“Uh, thanks?” I said, picking up speed.

“Is like…!” my gentleman caller continued.

“Is like what?” I asked.

“Is like…!” he repeated.

“IS LIKE WHAT!?!?” I yelled. Hellbender was getting irritated and flustered. I just wanted to finish my run in peace, and this clown was ruining it for me.

“I like,” the Most Romantic Man in America explained, as best he could, “I like…you.”

These words cast a magic spell of sorts, and I shed my gross salamander skin. I was no longer The Hellbender.

I WAS THE AGGRESSIVE CHIMPANZEE.

I grinned at the idiot like an absolute maniac.

“THANKS, BUT I’M MARRIED!” I hissed at him, all 28 teeth glistening in the sun.

The man’s eyes got huge and he put his hands up in surrender.

“Oh, sorry, sorry!” he bumbled, before driving away in a panic.

“HAVE A GREAT NIGHT!” I shrieked at him as he fled, pounding my chest and jumping up and down. I picked two crickets up off the ground, ate them for fuel, and finished my run.

(Okay, okay. The cricket-eating thing didn’t actually happen. On a serious note, are there any hostile, sweaty single ladies out there looking for love? I might know a guy...)

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Victory Truffle Shuffle

The beginning of 2015 was exceedingly rough. I spent way too much of the harsh, bitter winter cooped up indoors, turning into a sad dough person. I was just like Pillsbury’s Poppin’ Fresh, except depressed. Had some plucky, stupid soul dared to playfully poke my stomach during this time, there’s no way I’d have let out a “hoo hoo!” giggle. I’d have simply burst into tears. And/or possibly punched said tummy-poker in the face. Actually, come to think of it, never poke my belly, anyone, ever. It’s weird and uncalled for. Always.

BUT I DIGRESS.

Anyway, the Melancholy Dough Girl eventually decided enough was enough. Wallowing in misery had grown tiresome. I wanted to find an actual, tangible aim, and I needed to do something fun and healthy. So, a few months ago, I signed up for the Maryland 5K. The race was going to be close to home (great!), there was an optional fundraising component so I could raise funds for the University of Maryland Marlene and Stewart Greenebaum Cancer Center if I wanted (wonderful!), and the race wasn’t until May, so I’d have plenty of time to train (perfect!)…

On Saturday morning, May 9, 2015, I will be running that 5K. I’m pretty pumped, but also a bit nervous. The facts are these:

THE NOT-SO-GOOD

• The last race I ran was the Marine Corps 10K in October 2012. Approximately five seconds in, I tripped and fell, twisting an ankle and scraping both knees up something awful. I decided to keep going. I didn’t want to look like a sissy in front of the Marines. This was probably foolish, and the universe reminded me of this fact, when, at halfway point water station, I tossed back a cup of what I thought was good ole-fashioned H2O. It was Gatorade. This, for some reason, was a huge shock to my dainty system. My gag reflex went haywire, and I ended up violently puking in a nearby trashcan. I completed the 10K, somehow, but the experience as a whole was scarring.

• The first day I went jogging specifically to prepare for the Maryland 5K, I hurt my right foot (cue: sad trombone “whommmp whommmp” sound effect). I ignored the pain for a little while, as per usual (see above re: opting to complete a 10K sans knee skin), but finally caved and made an appointment with a podiatrist after explaining to my husband, “It’s fine as long as I don’t go down stairs!” The issue, as it turned out, was not super serious, but it required a fair amount of “limit yourself to just walking for the time being” and “don’t put too much stress on the foot.” So, I haven’t been able to train quite as much as I planned. My foot is almost 100% better, but I’m not in the best running shape, per se. Oh well. It’s fine.

THE GOOD

• The weather is supposed to be nice. I think. I hope. Fingers crossed, y’all.

• I’ll get some exercise, and running with a pack of people is exhilarating.

• I got a cool t-shirt!

• It’s only a 5K. Five kilometers. Three point one miles. Not a big deal. Also, there is no rule that says I can’t walk if I need to. Ain’t no thing.

THE AWESOME

• Thanks to the generosity of several amazing people, I was able to raise some money for the Greenebaum Cancer Center, which is thrilling. In fact, I’ve already exceeded my fundraising goal, so hooray for that!

So, yeah. Lots of excellent positives that far outweigh the negatives, but I’m still a little antsy. It’s just been so long since my last race, and I really don’t feel as physically “ready” as I should be.

Whenever I feel anxious, I try to remind myself to simplify. In that spirit, I have set the following modest goals for myself regarding the Maryland 5K:

1) Do not hurt yourself.
2) Do not throw up.
3) Try to have at least a little bit of fun. (If you’re not having fun, fake it. Smile at least three times – at the end of each mile, perhaps?)
4) Try your best not to come in last place, but, if you do, that’s fine. Just finish the race.

That’s it. Just finish the race. When you do, you’ll get your Victory Truffle.

See, if I was an actual superstar athlete, I’d be trying to come in first place. The sheer desire to beat the other runners would motivate me to move my legs as fast as possible. Giving up mid-race would be unthinkable. Race winners don’t quit. They can’t quit.

I’m not a loser, but I’m also not a winner – at least, as far as running is concerned. Winning the Maryland 5K is not an option. It does not motivate me.

Chocolate does.

After I cross the finish line on Saturday, I will receive no cash prize, no ultimate champion trophy. I will find my husband in the crowd, and he shall present me with my Victory Truffle. I picked it out at the Godiva store this afternoon.

“How can I help you today, ma’am?” the friendly Godiva employee asked.

“Let’s see,” I said, carefully examining the lovely little chocolates under glass, “What truffle would you most want to eat at the end of a 5K?”

“I don’t run,” she said, laughing, “But I like the coffee flavo- ”

I cut her off impolitely.

“UH, NO. COFFEE’S GOOD, BUT LEAVE IT OUT OF MY CANDY, THANKS,” I declared, a little too loud, “I’ll take a double chocolate raspberry, please.”

“Good choice!” the Godiva lady exclaimed, apparently unfazed by my rudeness.

“Food should never be used as a reward!” lots of folks say. I think that’s malarkey. If a Victory Truffle will help me complete a 5K, what’s the harm in that? If you know there’s pie at the end of a bike ride, and, therefore, you pedal just a little bit faster, is that such a crime? If the promise of a big bowl of steamed kale gets you out of bed in the morning, WHAT THE HECK IS WRONG WITH YOU? EAT SOME ICE CREAM, YOU MONSTER.

Whoa, sorry I got hostile just then. The No Longer Melancholy Dough Girl wishes she was motivated by kale…

The Victory Truffle. Ain't it glorious? (I tried to make it look like a trophy.)

The Victory Truffle. Ain’t it glorious? (I tried to make it look like a trophy.)

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Children Will Listen

I got to hang out with an awesome baby boy (let’s call him “B.B.”) on Sunday afternoon. B.B. is almost two years old, and he is incredible. He’s a big fan of pretending to be shy before revealing the fact that he’s actually a huge flirt, sprinting like a wild man in his living room, and repeating everything he hears.

Seriously, say it, and B.B. will parrot it back to you, inflection and everything. He is a master of mimicry.

Monday morning, I stopped at a Shell station en route to work. I rolled up to the pump closest to the station’s storefront, got out of my car, and began to fill my car with fuel. Business as usual. Ho-hum.

A few moments later, two men, both Shell employees, came out of the store. They were speaking to each other in hushed, agitated tones. The smaller guy was holding a receipt, and they were both staring at a mean-looking, SUV-driving hulk of a dude a few pumps down.

“I got your back, bro,” Taller Guy said to Receipt Holder, patting him on the shoulder, “I got you.”

There was a change in the air. An Incident was about to happen.

“Sir? Sir!” Receipt Holder yelled, attempting to get the Mean Hulk’s attention from the safety of the store front.

Sir!”

Mean Hulk would not acknowledge him. I wondered if his giant ears were broken, deaf to average-sized human speak. I quietly and urgently willed my car to please drink the gas faster, so I could get the heck out of there. This was not working.

Receipt Holder took a quick, deep breath, and marched right over to Mean Hulk.

“Sir, you have to pay,” he explained, “Your card did not work, we cancelled the charge…”

I PAID YOU ALREADY!” Mean Hulk bellowed, furious.

Oh dear. Mean Hulk was not a gentle giant. On the plus side, his massive ears worked just fine, so yay! Bully for him!

“Sir, I’m sorry, but your card was declined. If you look at your statement, you’ll see- ”

THIS IS HOGWASH!” Mean Hulk screamed. (Note: He didn’t actually say “hogwash.”)

Receipt Holder was doing his best to remain calm, but I could sense that he was starting to crack. When profanity is shouted into one’s face, it is often difficult for one to respond pleasantly, regardless of station or circumstance. Yell a cuss in the Queen of England’s face, and she will likely karate chop you in the throat.

“Sir, you did not pay,” Receipt Holder insisted, his voice starting to break slightly, “You must pay-”

I FLUFFING PAID YOU ALREADY, MUFFLER-FLUFFER!” (Again, expletives have been redacted.)

Mean Hulk was seriously about to blow a gasket. Veins were popping in his tree trunk neck, and he may or may not have been frothing at the mouth. He was the most visibly angry person I’ve ever seen in real life, probably, which should give you a pretty good idea of 1) what a cushy, sheltered existence I have led compared to far, far too many people in this far, far too scary world and 2) how fluffing terrified I was. On a scale of 1-10, 10 being oh-so-very afraid, and 1 being easy-breezy and cool as a cucumber, I was at 8.5: PEEING A LITTLE BIT.

As Receipt Holder and Mean Hulk continued the unnecessarily heated “You need to pay”/”I ALREADY PAID” debate, I surveyed my surroundings. My fellow gas-buyers looked a lot like me. There we stood, horrified and helpless, mouths agape as we tried to pump our fuel as fast as possible with trembling hands. No one wanted to be a witness to the ultimate beat down that was seeming more and more inevitable with every passing second.

I glanced over at Taller Guy. He had remained silent throughout the majority of the exchange, but his fists were clenched. He was ready to pounce. I thought I might faint.

GET THE FLUFF OUT OF MY FACE BEFORE I HIT YOU!” Mean Hulk snarled at Receipt Holder.

Annnnnd…that was my cue. Time to flee. My gas tank was full, and I had just finished paying at the pump, so the timing really couldn’t have been better.

Then, I saw a kid. A young kid, maybe three or four years old. I hadn’t noticed him when I looked around earlier. He was watching the awful scene unfold, just as intently as everyone else. I thought of my little friend B.B. and his sponge-like penchant for soaking things in. Whatever he sees, whatever he hears, he remembers. He imitates.

Would this small boy watch Mean Hulk’s behavior and learn that it’s okay to scream and pound your chest and be scary to get your way? Or, even worse, would he witness an act of violence? An actual honest-to-goodness chill ran down my spine. I couldn’t in good conscience drive away without at least trying to stop this nonsense. I was involved now. Great.

What could I do though? Start belting out “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” a la Ethel Merman to create a diversion (A Merman diversion! A “diMersion!”)? Fake a heart attack, maybe? My powers were limited.

“How much is it?” I asked Taller Guy.

“What?” He was confused.

“How much is it?” I repeated, louder this time so that everyone, Mean Hulk and Receipt Holder included, could hear me, “His charge. How much is it?

“Twenty-five dollars,” said Taller Guy.

That was it? This whole kerfuffle was over a measly twenty-five bucks? Good lord.

“OK, I’ll pay it then,” I announced, “I’ll pay it.”

A hush fell over the Shell station. All eyes were on me. Mean Hulk’s lips curled so his teeth were showing. He pointed at me with a meaty finger.

“Oh my God,” I said to myself, possibly out loud, “He’s going to eat me.”

NO!” Mean Hulk hollered, “YOU’RE NOT GONNA PAY THEM ANYTHING.”

I swallowed my fear. It tasted like battery acid. Also sand.

“I will pay if it will stop you from hitting someone!” I declared boldly.

Well, at least I attempted to declare boldly. In actuality, this statement probably tumbled out of my mouth awkwardly, in a high-pitched squeak, a chirp. I’d have to listen to the audio playback to be sure. In any event, the words were there. I think.

Mean Hulk had no reply whatsoever, which was great. I’m not sure my fragile nerves could have taken much more. He actually looked docile. Dejected. Deflated. Hold on, had I actually just defused the situation…?

Suddenly, another player entered the scene. An exasperated woman (Mrs. Mean Hulk, perhaps?) opened the door of the SUV. She was holding wad of cash.

“I got it, I got it,” Mrs. Mean Hulk said, shaking her head as she handed over bills to Receipt Holder.

Mean Hulk hung his head in shame.

He wasn’t such a big, bad muffler-fluffer after all.

An artist's (my) rendering. This is pretty much exactly how it went down.

An artist’s (my) rendering. This is pretty much exactly how it went down.

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Go Into Your Dance

My most vivid (and insane) memory from a middle school dance has little to do with dancing. It involves running with a pack of girls. We were chasing a boy.

Sprinting around the gymnasium in a mob of hormonal wildebeests made me feel giddy and feverish. We screeched over the DJ’s music as we scampered, which was especially fantastic because shredding your vocal cords while also rupturing your eardrums saves “permanent damage” time in the long run. Two birds, one stone and all. At least we were getting exercise.

Since I was near the back of the herd, I wasn’t entirely sure why we, as a group, were trailing this young man. We might have been trying to get him to dance with someone, actually. This just makes sense, as there is nothing that says “YOU SHOULD DEFINITELY DANCE WITH A GIRL RIGHT NOW” quite like being aggressively pursued by a shrieking mob of pre-teen lady hyenas. Ah, middle school.

As for me, I knew exactly why I was going after this kid. As long as I was running, I wasn’t dancing. This event was a “dance” in name only. I needed to avoid dancing at all costs.

The frenzied, Lord of the Flies-esque action sequence came to a grinding halt when our petrified target finally got wise and dashed into the boy’s bathroom, a.k.a. the source of all things gross and cootie-related. No way were we going in there. The gaggle of girls disbanded, and I moved on to something else, anything else, that didn’t involve dancing.

I really, really wanted to dance, but I forbade it. I was not to dance in front of others. I didn’t want to look uncool.

This may come as a huge shock, but I was not, am not, and will never be “cool.” I even knew this back then. I was woefully unfamiliar with most of the music played at that middle school dance, as I spent most of my free time listening to show tunes and belting along with Broadway cast albums. Going up to the DJ and requesting “Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats” was out of the question.

I also had no idea how I was supposed to dance. My childhood tap, jazz, and ballet lessons were not helping here. I’m not a great dancer by any means, but I’m decent, and, with practice, can execute steps and choreography. The trouble with the middle school dance was there was no choreography. Everything was freestyle, and weirdly oversexed. Left to my own devices, I tend to dance like a member of the Peanuts Gang or the dancing baby from Ally McBeal. I did not fit in.

My father and I, showing off our Ally McBeal "dancing baby" moves.

My father and I, showing off our Ally McBeal “dancing baby” moves.

For years, I held onto this notion that I should limit my dancing at group functions to a minimum. Wedding receptions were often painful two to three hour exercises in desperately longing to dance, but avoiding it as much as possible. I pretty much stuck to slow songs, and would purposely sport uncomfortable footwear so I’d have a go-to excuse for not dancing too much.

FRIEND: Come on, Malinda! Dance!
ME: Oh, sorry. I’m wearing Bee Shoes.
FRIEND: Huh?
ME: BEE SHOES. You know, the shoes with actual bees in them. Don’t want to make ‘em angry…

At some point, blessedly, a shift occurred, and I had a revelation:

DANCING IS ACTUALLY ONE OF THE MOST FUN THINGS IN THE WORLD.

I think this has something to do with growing older. With every passing year, I become exponentially less self-conscious, and I no longer give a single damn about how silly or uncool I look when I dance. Oh, and best believe, I do look silly and uncool when boogying down. I am a person who just used the term “boogying down,” after all.

Modern dancing does not work for me. It’s too racy. If I try to dance provocatively, it honestly looks like I’m in medical distress and/or trying to work out a wedgie — with no hands. SO VERY SEXY, HUH?

Since I’m more “sock hop” than “nightclub,” I tend to go old school when it comes to dancing. I’ll do the Twist, regardless of whether or not Chubby Checker is singing about it. If Nelly’s “Hot in Herre” starts playing and I bust out into the Charleston, so what? The tap sequence I learned as a ninth grader in Anything Goes fits shockingly well with Beyonce’s “Single Ladies” – not using it over and over again would be a waste.

Some folks truly hate dancing. That’s fine. Don’t dance if you hate it.

Some folks have health conditions that prevent them from dancing. That’s unfortunate, but understandable. Don’t dance if it might kill you.

If the only thing holding you back from dancing is a crippling fear of looking uncool, well, I’m going to let you in on a little secret: APPROXIMATELY 98% OF PEOPLE ARE UNCOOL DANCERS. It’s true. That popular soccer player you had a huge crush on in high school? The only dance he knows is the Macarena. It’s his default dance, even for slow songs. And that maddeningly clear-skinned cheerleader who used to make fun of your acne? She drank too much, tried to do the Worm at her little cousin’s bar mitzvah, and ended up with twenty stitches in her chin.

So boogie down, ya nerds. Yea verily, boogie down.

Magical things can happen when you dance at weddings, including, but not limited to, whatever the heck is happening to my arm/hand here. Contortionist much?

Magical things can happen when you dance at weddings, including, but not limited to, whatever the heck is happening to my arm/hand here. Contortionist much?

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WHAM, BAM, THANK YOU, HAM.

My New Orleans grandmother was an unapologetic eccentric and a devout Catholic. Grammy attended Mass regularly, and also went to church on what I liked to think of as “bonus days.”

“Grammy goes to church on weekdays too?” I’d ask my mother, perplexed, “Why?”

“She likes it,” Mom would explain. And that was that.

Mass was a religious experience for my Grammy. Praying the rosary and belting out hymns in her nicotine-tinged baritone helped her feel closer to the Lord — the more she could do it, the better. Church also provided a much-needed social outlet. It was good for Grammy to get out of the house and hang out with folks who weren’t her husband. Grammy and Grampy tended to drive each other up the wall from time to time (read: a lot). My grandmother loved to gab. Grammy was a very funny lady, and people like folks who make them laugh. She made friends easily.

One morning many years ago, my mother, sister and I attended a Christmas Mass with Grammy. Grammy was sitting solemnly, eyes closed, bowing her head in silent prayer, minding her own business, when, all of a sudden, PLOP! Out of nowhere, a bakery box containing a perfect banana cream pie landed on the pew right next to her. Grammy was stunned. It seemed as though this banana cream pie had fallen from the heavens — a special delivery sent from the archangels themselves. She cast her eyes upward in deep gratitude and humble appreciation, as though to say, “Thank you, Baby Jesus. Thank you for this banana cream pie.

The pie was actually a Christmas present, but it was one of her many church buddies who had tossed it her way — to be clear, this was an actual human buddy in the flesh, not a spirit, holy or otherwise. Even though this experience was not, as it turned out, a supernatural one, it still taught me a valuable lesson. Go to church and pray, but also make friends wherever you go, and, one day, if you’re lucky, delicious food will fall from the sky.

This time last week, I found myself waiting for the whole “magically appearing food” phenomenon to happen to me, except, instead of a banana cream pie, I was hoping for an impeccably prepared ham. Easter Sunday was four days away and, despite my fervent supplications, no ham had materialized. I was starting to sweat.

You see, my sister and brother-in-law had graciously offered to host Easter dinner at their house, and I had volunteered weeks ago to bring a ham. I figured they were going to be busy prepping food of their own, and a ham seemed like a pretty heavy-duty task in and of itself. Furthermore, my sister is not even a ham-eater, so it didn’t seem fair to expect her to make one. One tiny snag: I had no earthly idea how to make a ham. Every ham I’d ever eaten had been provided by someone else. Ham just happened.

Once I realized that no ham was going to magically fall from the sky, I whimpered a teeny bit before conducting some Internet-based research on how to actually do this ham thing.

Oh, Google. Thanks for you. Thanks for being a thing. If not for Google, I might not have realized that most hams you can buy are cooked already. This prevented me from going with my original idea of slow-cooking a ham in my Crock-Pot. Now, that would have been something. Imagine me on Easter Day, ladling globs of salty pink goo, frantically trying to force them onto my fellow dinner guests.

“Care for a bowl of ham slime?” I’d offer, grinning like a maniac.

They’d decline politely, trying to disguise their horror.

“Oh, no. No thanks…”

Online recipes were only increasing my anxiety. Homemade glazes seemed complicated. One recipe suggested cutting a criss-cross pattern into the skin of the ham before strategically placing a tiny, adorable clove in the middle of each flesh diamond. Little bumps were starting to stick out of my skin too, but they were not cloves. They were hives.

SERIOUSLY?

SERIOUSLY?

I was driving to work on Good Friday morning, still not sure how to handle my ham situation. Easter was fast-approaching, and I was starting to worry that there would be a ham shortage. Wasn’t everyone and their mother and their mother’s mother trying to get a ham for Easter? Would I have to bring a plate of cold cuts to my sister’s house? Actually, that idea was sounding better and better with every passing second…

Then, suddenly, it happened. An ad for HoneyBaked Ham played on the radio. No actual ham had literally flown down from heaven, but it did feel a bit like the universe had, in fact, tossed a ham into my lap. HoneyBaked Ham! That was my answer. My deus ex machina.

During a work break, I relied on my trusty friend Google again, and located the HoneyBaked Ham store closest to my home. I called them immediately to see if I could place an order for pick-up. A fellow named Jake* answered the phone, and the following exchange took place:

Jake: HoneyBaked Ham, this is Jake.
Me: Hi, Jake. I’m not really sure what I’m doing.
Jake: Okay…?
Me: I need a ham.
Jake: Ah! Well, we got plenty of those here. How big?
Me: Um…8-10 pounds? Bone-in? Do you have any left?
Jake: Oh, yes, ma’am! Absolutely.
Me: Do I need to order it now or could I just stop by and get it?
Jake: No need to order ahead of time, you can just swing by. Were you planning on coming in today?
Me: Well, actually, my husband will be picking it up. I have to sing for Good Friday church service this evening. (Not sure why Jake needed to know this. I tend to overshare when I’m nervous.)
Jake: Okay. Here’s what he’ll have to do. Tell him to ask for a “Code A.”
Me: A…“Code A?” Are you serious?
Jake: Yep. And what are you looking for, closer to 8 pounds or 10 pounds?
Me: I…I don’t know.
Jake: Well, if you want a smaller one, tell him to ask for a “Code A, on the light side.” If you want a bigger one, he needs to ask for a “Code A, on the heavy side.” Got it?
Me: “Code A. On the heavy side. Or light side.” Got it.
Jake: If anyone gives him any trouble, tell him to let them know you talked to me.
Me: Okay. Thanks. Have a great day.
Jake: You too ma’am.

I hung up the phone, stupefied. What was this “Code A, on the heavy side” talk? Had I just arranged for a ham purchase or a drug deal?

This HoneyBaked Ham store was a mysterious place, indeed.

I gave my husband Jon instructions for the HoneyBaked Ham pick-up, and he followed them perfectly. He got the ham we wanted — “a Code A, on the heavy side,” just FYI. No problems, no hiccups. No trouble at all.

I was relieved to have a fully-prepped-and-ready-to-go Easter ham in our fridge, but I was actually a bit disappointed that the transaction had gone down so smoothly. Part of me hoped there would have been an issue of some sort, so that Jon would have been told to “come back tomorrow.” That way I could have gone with him to see the enigmatic HoneyBaked Ham store with my own two eyes. My conversation with Jake had left me so very curious.

“So, was it crowded?” I asked Jon the next morning.

“Not really,” he said.

“Oh, I guess that’s because you went at night. I imagine most people buy hams during the day. Don’t you think most people buy hams during the day…?”

“Sure.”

“Did they have lots of hams…?”

“Yep.”

“What else did they have there…?”

“Side dishes, desserts, stuff like that. Do you want to go?”

“No. No. That’s fine. Where do they keep all the hams…?”

Oh, best believe: the second Jon went out to run his errands for the day, I hightailed it to that HoneyBaked Ham store.

honeybaked storefront logo

The place was packed, which was not surprising. It was the day before Easter, after all. I walked in, and was immediately greeted by a young woman who was wearing bunny ears and handing out turkey samples. “I think I’m gonna like it here,” I sang in my head, not unlike Little Orphan Annie when she sees Daddy Warbucks’ mansion for the first time.

endless hams text

The Turkey Sample Bunny was not entirely unique. All of the HoneyBaked Ham employees were wearing rabbit ears. It was like being in the Playboy mansion, except not at all. There were free samples everywhere, so I helped myself to several.

I was sampling a bite of a dinner roll when it dawned on me: OH, NO. OH, GOD. I AM IN LINE. I AM IN LINE RIGHT NOW.

The free samples had lured me, naive and unsuspecting, into a line. The line was long, narrow, roped off, and would have been difficult to snake my way out of, so I decided to just go with it. I’d treat it like a tour. A HoneyBaked Ham store tour.

A few minutes into my “tour,” I realized that I’d feel pretty foolish if I got to the end of the line with nothing to buy. I already had a ham at home, and purchasing another one would be insane. Almost as insane as, say, going to the HoneyBaked Ham store the day before Easter just to see what it was like, but who can say, really?

I scanned the “Heat & Serve Sides” display, and pulled out two things of frozen cinnamon apples. Cinnamon apples. Perfect. That’s what I would pretend I came here to buy. Who needed ham anyway? Not me, that’s who! (Because I already had one at home. Again, there was absolutely no legitimate reason for me to go to the HoneyBaked Ham store that day.)

For sure reason, when the line finally led me to the ham counter, the pièce de résistance of the HoneyBaked Ham store, I felt extremely self-conscious. Everyone shopping in that store was buying a ham. I was not. My cinnamon apples and I did not belong.

“Can I help you, miss?” asked a helpful Ham Bunny.

“N-no,” I stammered, “I-I’m just getting these apples.”

“Okay,” she said.

And that should have been the end of it. But it wasn’t. Awkwardly, I felt the need to overcompensate, to justify my presence in the HoneyBaked Ham store one day before Easter Sunday.

“I JUST LOVE THESE APPLES!” I gushed.

This was a lie. I had never had these particular cinnamon apples in my life. The Ham Bunnies blinked at me. Several people in line were staring now. I’d inadvertently caused a mini-scene. It was a positive scene, but a scene nonetheless.

“Are they really that good?” one woman asked, about five bodies behind me.

“OH YES,” I proclaimed, sticking with my lie, “THE APPLES HERE ARE GREAT.”

“Hmm,” she murmured, before instructing her husband to worm his way back to the freezer section to get some cinnamon apples of their very own.

About fifteen more minutes passed before I made my way the register to pay for my apples. During those fifteen minutes, I chatted with some folks in line about Easter plans, how happy we were that Spring is finally here, and how miserable allergy season can be.

I might be a weirdo, but people seem to like talking to me, and I like talking to people. I’ve never had a hard time making friends, even in unlikely places. It comes naturally to me.

“You’re the Apple of my Eye,” my Grammy used to tell me.

The cinnamon apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

(*Employee’s name was not actually Jake.)

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Fowl Play

My husband Jon and I were staring out the window, watching the snow fall during a recent winter storm.

“It’s so pretty!” I exclaimed.

“Mmm-hmm…” Jon replied. He was distracted. Distant.

“What’s wrong?” I queried.

“The birds,” he said, “They’re hungry. Look at them. They’re freaking out.”

It was true. Approximately one gazillion birds had congregated in our yard to panic and fret. They screeched at each other as they flitted about erratically in the snow. The poor little creatures had forgotten how to be birds, and instead had transformed into feathery pudge-balls of senseless worry and aggression. I thought it was hilarious. Jon, however, tenderhearted soul that he is, was concerned.

“We should get a bird feeder.” he said.

And so we did. As soon as the snow melted enough to escape our home, we ventured out and ended up buying two modest bird feeders — one to hold seeds, and one to hold suet cakes.

“What’s a suet cake?” I asked Jon.

“It’s a solid little block of things birds like to eat,” he explained, “Seeds, fruit, corn meal, bits of bugs…”

Gross!” I declared, “What holds all that stuff together?”

“Animal fat, usually,” Jon answered, blasé.

“EWW!” I screamed, “WE’RE GONNA HANG A LARD BRICK IN OUR YARD?”

“Yeah!” Jon answered, unfazed by my revulsion, “Suet cakes are like crack to birds. They love ‘em.”

Jon, risking life and limb to feed the birds. What a guy.

Jon, risking life and limb to feed the birds. What a guy.

When we got home, Jon happily hung the feeders on a tree outside our best “watching window.” He filled them with delicious, disgusting snacks, and we waited for the birds to come.

It didn’t take long.

Mere moments after our feeders went up, several adorable feathered friends gathered to feast — cardinals, chickadees, wrens, mockingbirds, woodpeckers, and juncos, just to name a few. It was awesome to watch, truly better than television.

House of Cardinals.

House of Cardinals.

As winter dragged on, Jon and I spent quite a bit of time indoors, contentedly watching the birdies feed.

“We’re like gods to them, you know,” I murmured.

Jon said nothing, which was fine. The single eyebrow he raised spoke volumes.

“We’re benevolent deities to these birds, Jon,” I expounded, “We are literally feeding our flocks.”

“They do depend on us,” Jon admitted.

“They love us,” I cooed.

Again, Jon was silent.

Oh, what a naïve god I was! But how was I to know how quickly things in our small, idyllic world, our bird Garden of Eden (“Garden of Seed-en?”), would change?

“Look!” I continued, pointing to a little spot of grease and grey feather on the window pane, “One apparently loves us so much, he tried to fly into the house!”

In a horrific moment of silent, mutual revelation, we both looked down below. Neither us was prepared to gaze upon the crumpled, lifeless body of one of our bird children on the ground below. Thankfully, we didn’t have to. There was no bird corpse to be found.

“Maybe a cat got him?” Jon offered.

No!” I cried, “I’m sure he just bumped his head and flew away. It’s fine. It’s fine! Everything is fine! Boy, oh boy, watching these little guys eat is making me hungry. Let’s have lunch!”

Everything was not fine. I’d been misinterpreting the popularity of our bird feeders, big time. I foolishly believed Jon and I had given rise to a beautiful micro-universe, a tiny paradise where our feathered disciples could eat in peace and sing hymns praising Jon and me, gracious divine beings that we were, from the treetops. Instead, our offerings of seeds and suet — the bird drug of choice, apparently — were creating hostile communities of crack heads with wings.

Mr. Woodpecker, getting high on suet cake.

Mr. Woodpecker, getting high on suet cake.

Dangerously confident, with bellies full of nourishment and brains high and scrambled, our once glad and thankful birds were growing resentful of the outdoor feeders.

They longed for human food and lodgings.

They wanted IN.

One Saturday morning, about two weeks ago, Jon and I were eating our breakfast when we heard a peculiar scratching noise.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“I have no idea,” Jon replied. This was disconcerting. Jon usually has an answer for everything. I rarely have to use Google, even.

We searched the house briefly, hoping to find the source of the odd sound, but it eventually stopped.

“Houses make strange noises all the time,” we concluded, stupidly, “La la la, let’s watch some T.V.” We opted to think nothing of it.

Several hours later, Jon woke me up from a 45-minute nap.

“So,” he said, “I figured out what that scratching sound was.”

Shortly after I had fallen asleep, Jon heard the mysterious scratching again. He investigated every nook and cranny of our house to try and figure out where it was coming from, and eventually narrowed it down to the wall behind the range top/dryer vent. When Jon went outside to get a better look, he noticed some straw and leaves on the deck below the vent. The scratching started again. It was coming from inside the vent.

“HEY!” Jon yelled, pounding on the vent. The scratching stopped.

HEYYYY!” he yelled again. This time a fat, angry starling emerged from the vent. It flew away quickly in a perturbed frenzy and perched on a tree nearby. As Jon carefully repaired the now-damaged vent opening with duct tape, the starling stared him down with its cold, beady eyes.

A starling had broken into our home. At best, it was simply hoping to raise a family in our dryer vent. However, I understood that this was a declaration of war, the first attempt at a hostile coup. It was clear to me: The Birds were banding together.

“YOUR ABODE IS OURS FOR THE TAKING, DUMMIES!” they shrieked from on high, “SURRENDER NOW, OR ELSE!”

There have been a few more signs of unrest over the past several days. A finch was witnessed picking at the duct tape covering damaged vent opening. Jon came home after work one late afternoon to find a newly built nest on a ledge outside our front door. The clay pot that once resided on that ledge was now in a thousand pieces — shards of it were strewn about our front stoop.

One evening, I was jogging around the neighborhood, when I heard a chorus of terrible honks behind me. I spun around and let out a blood-curdling scream. To my horror, a formation of curiously low-flying Canada geese were heading straight toward me. Recalling the photos of how gnarly Fabio (yes, that Fabio) looked after getting smacked in the face by a goose while riding a roller coaster (yes, that happened), I covered my own mug with my hands and fell to the ground. The geese flew over my helpless, frightened body, honking raucously all the way. I could actually feel the breeze generated from their flapping wings on my skin as they passed — that’s how close they were.

I limped home, shaken. A smug robin ogled me from a dirt mound in our front yard.

“The geese,” I hissed, “ You sent them, didn’t you?”

The robin puffed its feathers a bit, chirped as though to say, “CONSIDER THIS A WARNING, FRIENDO!” and flew off into the twilight.

When I got into my car this morning, a blue jay was in the passenger seat. She was holding nunchucks.

“TAKE ME TO THE PATUXENT RESEARCH REFUGE!” the blue jay demanded.

How are you holding those nunchucks? You don’t have thumbs!” I cried.

“JUST DRIVE!” she squawked.

Okay, so that whole “getting carjacked by a bird” thing didn’t actually happen. Yet.

It’s only a matter of time.

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A Joyful Noise: My Interview with Calvinia Shryk

Sorry, House of Cards. I simply have no time to get into you. I’m too busy binge watching another show on Netflix – specifically, The Andy Griffith Show. Oh, and by “binge watching,” I actually mean “watching one episode over and over and over again.”

Confession: I’ve watched the “Barney and the Choir” episode of The Andy Griffith Show four times this past week. And probably about 47,366 times before that. I can’t help myself. It’s just too good.

I have been an Andy Griffith Show devotee for years, but this particular episode (Season Two, Episode 20) speaks to me. I’m hesitant to even write a synopsis because you really just have to watch it for yourself. If you haven’t seen it before, stop reading right now and watch immediately. If you have seen it before, watch it again. And again and again. I cannot recommend this enough. The episode is only about 25 minutes long (if that), and it’s super accessible. If you don’t have Netflix, that’s fine – I’m pretty sure the whole thing is actually available on YouTube.

Barney in the choir (getting some serious side eye from Aunt Bee).

Barney in the choir, getting some serious side eye from Aunt Bee.

Basically, it goes down like this: The Mayberry Choir has a concert coming up, and they are in need of a tenor. Deputy Barney Fife (played by the late, great Don Knotts) happens to be a “tenor,” and happily offers to join the choir. The choir director is delighted until he finds out the terrible truth: Barney cannot sing. Everyone realizes this but, of course, Barney himself. Choir director wants to fire Barney. Kindhearted Sheriff Andy knows this would absolutely crush Barney, and, therefore, desperately tries to figure out a way to keep the choir sounding good a) with Barney in it, and b) without hurting Barney’s feelings. The way Andy finally succeeds is fantastic and seriously “laugh out loud” hilarious. Even though “Barney and the Choir” first aired over 50 years ago, I refuse to spoil the ending here. Again, I insist, you must see/hear it for yourself.

I adore choral singing, and I’ve spent more than half of my life doing it. I currently sing with a wonderful church choir, and we are lucky to be a BFF (Barney Fife Free) organization. That is to say, every one of my fellow choir members is an excellent singer. This is kind of a miracle, seeing as how there are technically no auditions required to sing with most church choirs — this one included!

Oh, that’s right, dear reader. In case you were not already aware of this, one does not have to be a great vocalist to join a choir. In fact, one can be actively bad at singing and still be a member of a choir. Give me your tone deaf, your pitchy, your frog-throated masses yearning to sing free — for they can all join any volunteer choir that does not hold auditions.

I believe just about anyone can benefit from singing in a choir, regardless of vocal ability, but I fear that too many self-conscious shrinking violets stop themselves from doing so. To anyone out there longing to add your voice to a mighty chorus: What in the world is stopping you? Church and community choirs are looking for new members all the time! If you feel like you’re not any good at singing, odds are you’re probably not as bad as you think you are. Heck, even if you are worse than you think you are, who cares? Isn’t it fun to sing in the shower? Singing in a choir is even more fun than that. I promise.

But don’t take my word for it. Take my good friend Ms. Calvinia Shryk’s word for it. Ms. Shryk (pronounced “shriek”) is the self-professed “Absolute Worst Singer” in the Blessed Hope Church of the Merciful Angel chancel choir, and she agreed to meet with me on Sunday afternoon for a sit-down chat. I thought Ms. Shryk would have some helpful hints for any similarly weak singers out there looking for advice on how to thrive in a choir. Our recorded interview is transcribed below.

Malinda Markland: Good afternoon, Calvinia.
Calvinia Shryk: Well, hello, dear. So nice to see you again.
MM: You too. It’s been too long. Oh, before we get started, are you okay with me using your real full name for this article?
CS: Hmm?
MM: For this interview. I’m going to post it on my blog.
CS: Hardly anyone reads your blog, dear, I’m sure I don’t mind.
MM: Harsh, but valid. OK, first question. How long have you been singing with the Blessed Hope Church of the Merciful Angel chancel choir?
CS: Goodness gracious, let me think. About eighteen years now.
MM: Eighteen years, wow! That’s impressive.
CS: Thank you, dear. Thank you.
MM: It’s especially impressive considering that you are – and this is according to you, just to make it perfectly clear – the w-…the worst…
CS: Oh, the absolute worst singer in the choir. Hands down, no question. I’m not ashamed.
MM: So, why did you join the choir?
CS: Well, I’ve been a member of Blessed Hope Church of the Merciful Angel my whole life, and I’ve always admired our wonderful choir. They sound so beautiful and their robes look very sharp. I’ve never been any good at singing, but I always sort of dreamed of being up there with the choir. Shortly after my 57th birthday, I felt brave enough to join. I wish I’d done it sooner. My best friends Fran and Eunice Dimple — they’re twins — reminded me that the Bible just says to make a “joyful noise.” It doesn’t have to be a good one! They welcomed me into the soprano section with open arms.
MM: So you’re a soprano, then?
CS: I started out as a soprano. Douglas Miron [the Blessed Hope Church of the Merciful Angel chancel choir director] thought it would be good since I couldn’t read music when I first started, and sopranos get to sing a lot of melody.
MM: That didn’t work out?
CS: Oh, heavens, no. I don’t have any high notes. I’m much more comfortable being an alto.
MM: So, you can read music now?
CS: Hmm?
MM: You’ve learned to read music? You can sing alto harmonies?
CS: Well, I’ve learned that notes going up means “sing higher” and notes going down means “sing lower,” but, no, to answer your question, I still can’t really read music, dear.
MM: So what about the alto harmonies?
CS: I’m going to let you in on a little secret. They really don’t matter.
MM: Oh, really?
CS: Nope. Not for me. I usually just pick a low note and sing it over and over throughout. Or if I’m really at a loss, I just move my mouth along with the words and smile.
MM: You lip sync?
CS: Yes, exactly. I lip sync. I smile. No one notices. All the other ladies in my section are so strong, I don’t barely have to sing at all.
MM: But what if people are missing? Like, if you have to go to a rehearsal and no other altos are able to make it but you…?
CS: Oh, that’s happened a few times before, actually. The solution is simple, and I learned it from some of my more serious singing friends. I pretend I have allergies. I wear a scarf and sip hot tea even if its summer and say I’m on “vocal rest.” No one ever questions it.
MM: Fascinating. Have you ever done a solo?
CS: No! I would never. Everyone in the congregation would faint. I would faint. Mother Mary would faint. Baby Jesus would faint. I did get to do a special part in last year’s Christmas concert though.
MM: Really? What was that?
CS: Well, Douglas always gets fussy about our enunciation. He says we always swallow up the consonants and no one can understand the lyrics. He was really frustrated after one rehearsal, so I went up to him and volunteered to do only consonants. Let me tell you, he was thrilled with my idea. He named me Consonant Master for the Christmas concert. It was in the program and everything.
MM: So you only did consonants for the Christmas concert? No singing?
CS: Consonants only.
MM: I’m not entirely sure how that would work. Can you demonstrate…?
CS: Yes, of course. Sing a few lines of “Silent Night.”
MM: OK. (singing) Silennn-
CS: -TUH!
MM: (singing) Niiiiiiiiigh-…
CS: -TUH!
MM: (singing) Holy niiiiiigh-…..
CS: -TUH!
MM: Ah, yes. I get it now.
CS: See? Only consonants. You have a beautiful voice.
MM: Oh, thanks! You have a great…letter T.
CS: Thank you.
MM: So, do you think it bothers anyone in the choir that you can’t sing?
CS: No, I don’t think it does. I also bring homemade goodies to rehearsal now and then, so I don’t think anyone’s angling to kick me out anytime soon.
MM: Yeah, these cupcakes you brought to this interview are incredible.
CS: Mmm-hmm. My baking skills more than make up for my lack of vocal talent.
MM: Definitely. OK, one last question. What is your favorite thing about singing in the choir?
CS: I have too many favorite things about choir. I can’t list just one. All the friends I’ve made. Learning about music, even though a lot of it goes in one ear and out the other. Being a part of something special, even just a little part.
MM: Well, thank you so much for doing this interview, Calvinia. I really appreciate it.
CS: It was my pleasure, dear. And won’t you take the rest of these cupcakes home?
MM: No, thank you. I’ve already had seven.

So, there you have it! You heard Calvinia. Be a part of something special.

Join a choir and get to singin’! And/or moving your mouth and smiling. And/or bringing baked goods to share with friends.

It’s all good.

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