Nuclear Family Warhead

I was in third grade the first time I heard it. My mother had given me a new book for my birthday; its condition was still such that I felt guilty turning the crisp, perfectly bound pages. I pored over the novel until I finished it, stumbling over every carefully chosen syllable. The vocabulary was far beyond even that of an advanced third grader or her accompanying dictionary, so I had to seek out the dusty crimson Webster’s edition that lived like a prize in our living room. It was there that I was introduced to it. Sesquipedalian.

It was rather ironic to me that the longest word I’d yet to read happened to mean “characterized by the use of long words.” At first glance (in the mind of a third grader, of course) I had pictured a kind of Martian, a Sesquipid alien with googly eyes hanging from its long purple antennae. And although this was not the case, I was relatively satisfied by its Latin etymology: sesquipedalis, which means quite literally “a foot and half long.” I giggled at the thought of the word reaching off the page and extending eighteen inches into space, wrapping itself around the dictionary and extracting the juiciest words into the air.

I cannot say that at nine years of age I was truly a sesquipedalian. I had a fascination with language and words, but my understanding and sophistication was relatively limited. The most complicated novels I had explored to then were the Harry Potter series; my classmates were astounded when I used such simple words as “tenacious” and “epitome” (two of my favorites at the time). But as my classmates caught up with me, I was forced to discover new gems to show off in conversation: serendipitous, ecclesiastic, supercilious, defenestration. Each addition made me eager to experience new language and literature.

To this day, as I devour each of my favorite books, I look for the grandest and most unusual words: words that will someday impress fancy folks at cocktail parties and give the semblance of an interminably sophisticated education. For now these words are kept pent up in a storage site, leaking only once in a while into my everyday conversations. Yet as my collection continues to accumulate more verbal oddities, I feel that I am becoming worthy of my word-loving title.

Unfortunately, the word “sesquipedalian” no longer brings me the humorous images and ideas that entertained me as a nine-year-old, yet it still manages to bring me joy. It reminds me of my determination to be well-read and well-versed; to bask continuously in the delight of language and learning. In it I find the comfort of the person I have always been and the unfamiliarity of the person I will become; it joins the two in a harmonious, ubiquitous present.

Perhaps I will develop into an unencumbered artist, or perhaps a magnanimous philanthropist. I may be perspicacious or idiosyncratic or convivial; I could change the world in one colossal moment or with copious little things each day. With my vocabulary, I have learned how to describe all the intimidating and electrifying possibilities that exist for me, but there are also parts of my self that I have understood – eccentricity, fastidiousness, sentimentality, earnestness – and that I would never have been able to realize if I weren’t such a sesquipedalian. Although the scarlet Webster’s dictionary has since become superfluous with the advance of technology, I still open it sometimes and turn the delicately crinkled pages to see where it all began. Sesquipedalian.

The Importance of Being Hopeless: Written December 6, 2009


“Five, six, seven, eight!” comes the frustrated call of the choreographer from his perch on the lip of the stage. He has spent hours trying to drill into our heads the footwork which he calls “simple” and I call “the devil’s work.” As my feet hit the floor with a variety of unmetered rhythms (none of which were intended), he jumps up again with an aggravated sigh to correct me. Step, jeté, chassé, jump, pose – he floats with the grace of a professional ballerina and I thunder with the grace of a wandering elephant. When he finally calls a water break, I collapse, sweaty, sticky, and impossibly exhausted.

My dancing career began at the age of five when I begged my mother to let me take ballet, tap, and jazz at the local dance studio. It ended that same year. I despised dancing. I would rather have eaten an entire can of preserved green beans than fumble through a plié or fake a shuffle-ball-change. I was already awkwardly gangly with long, skinny limbs; it would have been impossible for a klutz like me to learn grace and discipline. I finished out the year before tossing my ballet shoes. Dancing was not mentioned again.

Unfortunately, when I began to indulge my passion for singing and acting, it became inevitable that I would have to dance. My skill level was disastrously low; I had only grown taller and more awkward through the years and while I had rhythm, my lack of grace contributed significantly to the number of times I tripped over myself. The first time I was ever a part of a dance number, and not a very difficult one at that, I severely sprained my foot and maneuvered crutches for four weeks. I bungled auditions, ruined beautiful dance steps, and embarrassed my choreographers. There was no nice way to say it; I was a terrible, clumsy, laughable, and virtually hopeless dancer. So when I heard that my award nomination for the 2009 musical required me to learn a complicated dance number, I was petrified.

“Five, six, seven, eight, again,” he calls out. Then quieter, “Gwen, let me talk to you for a second.”

Immediately, dread fills my stomach. I just know he is going to tell me not to dance in the number, that I am too clumsy to share the stage with such talented and worthy students. But instead, he looks at me and tells me to take the front row. Not the center (I take a moment to thank God for that), but not hiding behind rows of more skillful performers, either. “I want you to stop watching,” he says. “You’re insecure and you think you don’t know the steps, but you do. And I’m going to prove it to you. Take the front.”

At the next count, I can’t stare at anyone’s feet or wait for the best dancer’s first snap to start my pony-step. I frantically rehearse each move in my head as I wait for the downbeat, praying that I won’t trip over myself or chassé right into my neighbor. The music starts too soon; I miss the first step. Taking a deep breath and a quick glance to the left, I recover my place and start the snaps. The rest of the dance is a blur; I don’t remember much but the panic pulsing through me with each eight count. But I don’t knock into my fellow dancers or find myself on the ground at an untimely moment, beaten by unsuspecting kick-lines. I finish in a pose that looks relatively normal in comparison to the remainder of the stage, regardless of how I got there. Quickly, I remember to smile, and a huge grin crosses my face as I recognize that my steps were more or less correct. Regardless of how choppy or unprofessional I may have looked, I have done exactly what had been asked of me. The choreographer is right, of course. He gives me half a smile as he claps his hands twice and yells, “That was good, guys! One more time for greatness.”

I am confident this time that the steps are cemented, at least as much as they will ever be. And this time, I think of the most important advice I’d ever been given – smile and fake it. If I can’t be graceful and skillful, I might as well look like I’m enjoying myself. I belt out the lyrics and twirl with energy and enthusiasm. A few steps are lost in the jumble; I am temporarily rattled. Yet I do not allow myself to falter in defeat, and I begin to understand the pride and bliss that can be found in just letting go.

Perhaps in the performance I will fumble some steps or trip as I spin; after all, an incurable klutz cannot metamorphose overnight. Through this experience, I have not realized some unmet potential for dancing. I have not been inspired to go into musical theatre after all, and I certainly won’t find myself tripping over my awkwardly long legs any less. Perhaps the true lesson I have learned is that it’s perfectly okay to be terrible at something even when you persevere. I have always hidden myself in the back row when I am unsure, following the lead of those more skilled and talented than I. But if I can just push aside my insecurities and appreciate the things I should appreciate, I will have fewer regrets. Maybe it’s true; I am not a dancer – but you can be sure I will enjoy the dance.

Paper Boats: Written January 3, 2008

It wasn’t like it was my first time walking that way.  Everything seemed friendly and familiar, from the crunching of the dry, papery leaves underneath my feet as I walked to the wind crackling through the barren tree branches.  I recognized almost every empty, disintegrating cigarette carton and jagged glass beer bottle that was strewn about on the crooked, thin dirt pathway.  But it was strange to be walking there by myself.  I remembered hours of adventure in those woods with Paige, jumping rocks over the creek, hearts pounding with pure adrenaline when we managed to hop the fence that led to the small, dilapidated dam.  I remembered being terrified the first time we saw someone else “stealing our woods,” smoking by our beloved log fort.  All these adventures, but I’d never been in our woods without her.  It seemed strangely empty, the ghost of Paige’s laughter evident in the quick whistle of the wind.  The times of our woods were gone with the advance of various high school activities and the slow collapse of our friendship.  I felt like I was home, walking along that path, but also strangely like I’d outgrown it, like the vivid memories were only drawing me backward.

The last time I’d walked that path was almost two years ago, and little had changed.  The familiarity was astounding, the rough initials carved into tree branches, the tall, spindly elm that grew out of the ground completely sideways.  Every turn brought to mind a flashback that made me smile.  The deep silence made it easier to concentrate and lose myself in the phantoms the woods held.

SPLASH.  I came out of my reverie.  I certainly recognized where I was, two turns and I’d reach the pond.  The pond was always my favorite part of our woods, the place where I could think freely.  It held the peace Paige never seemed to understand.  She would always run ahead looking for new settings or new phenomena, but I would pause for a minute in front of the water.  It stayed icy cold and bright blue year round, matching the vibrancy of the rest of the woods in the summer but contrasting it completely in the winter.  To me, it seemed magical.  I set off at a curious pace, eager to see what had caused the disturbance in the quiet.  It had been a distinctively heavy splash, but had sounded pretty concentrated, like a brick.  My legs seemed to take themselves to my destination with little guidance from my brain.  I stood on the very tips of my toes as I rounded the final corner, trying to silence my steps so they couldn’t be heard by anyone if they were in the vicinity.

The water was rippling like the smooth surface had only just been broken, but there wasn’t anyone or anything around that I could see.  I crawled onto the top of a tall, rather sharp boulder on the edge of the pond and looked down into it.  I could see things people must have lost a long time ago – a single shoe, a rusty silver and purple necklace, even an old menorah.  I wondered if the people who lost them knew that they lost them, or if they lost them on purpose, or even if they cared at all.

“Careful. You look like you’re about to fall.”

I jerked my head around, nearly toppling off my pedestal.  Someone was walking towards me.  It was a boy, maybe fifteen or sixteen, a year or so older than me, but I’d never seen him before.  He looked a little bit dirty and rough, like maybe he hadn’t showered or changed his clothes in a few days.  He was dressed appropriately for the cold day, in a sweater, jeans, and a skullcap, but one of his beat-up sneakers had a huge hole in the toe.  The oddest thing about him, though, was that in his left hand he carried a package of printer paper like the kind you pick up at Staples or Office Max.

“Thanks for the concern.”  I climbed down from the top of my rock.  He didn’t appear fazed at all by my presence; he just hopped the rock shelf and sat down with his feet dangling inches over the water, which rippled furiously as the wind picked up again.

“Do you come here a lot?” I asked him as he shifted aside an old broken fishing rod to make room to set down his printer paper.  Really, what I wanted to ask him was, “Why are you sitting on the rock ledge with an unopened package of printer paper, who are you, and just in general what are you doing?” but that seemed inappropriate at the moment.  He looked at me for a minute before answering.

“Yeah, sometimes.”

He busied himself tearing open the package of paper, first with his bare hands, and then when it refused to rip, his teeth.  Then he took a pencil from underneath his cap and began to scribble a few words on every paper.  This process took an extremely long time.  I didn’t disturb him; he seemed to be lost in whatever he was jotting down on these pieces of printer paper.  I just sort of stood behind him.  I didn’t get distracted, either, though.  My body and mind seemed to be pulled toward him in rapt attention, waiting for the next thing he would do.  I watched his long, thin fingers fly over the pages holding the chewed yellow pencil, observing everything from the funny way he held it between two fingers and curled them around it to the broken scrawl that touched the pages.  I could tell that his writing slanted to the right and looped together, like a mutant form of cursive, though I couldn’t read exactly what he was writing.  I watched the back of his head shake with his wrist movement, noticed every blond streak in his shaggy, curly brown hair.  Finally, after what seemed like hours, he looked up from his work.

“You’re still here,” he commented.

“I’m still wondering why you are.”

He laughed.  Although I could tell his face was sunken, his smile brought a sort of brightness that almost made me forget how terrible he looked.  “Touché.”

He turned back to his handiwork, but before he could start whatever he was doing next, I finally wrought the courage to ask, “What are you doing?”

He grinned again.  “I was actually wondering when you’d ask that.”  He motioned for me to join him on the rock ledge, clearing away a few other brambles and pieces of litter that were in the way.  I sat down next to him.  The thought suddenly occurred to me that he could be a creep and I might be in danger, but pure instinct told me that thought was wrong.  He picked up one of the pieces of paper and showed it to me.  It had only two words on it, written rather illegibly.  I had to squint to read the word “Kat.”

“Kat?” I asked him.

“My sister.  Here, that was a bad example.”  He grabbed another from the stack.  “Mom’s dealer.”

“That’s awful.”

“Yeah, but you understand that one.”

“Yeah, I do.”

“So here.  I take these papers and I write down things.  Things that bother me, things that are wrong, things that make me want to give up. Everything and anything that I want to let go of, I write them on these papers.”

I processed that information.  It seemed odd to me that this boy, this unkempt and troubled boy, had come to our woods to write things on paper.  So I asked the next obvious question.  “Why?”

He threw back his head and gave another laugh, but a free one, one that had a chilling but comforting sense of being completely legitimate.  “I wonder that, too.”

He took both the paper he first gave me and the one I was still holding and began to fold them, faster than I’d ever seen anyone fold anything.  It was like he was doing origami, but he didn’t seem to even be thinking about what he was doing.  In a minute he was holding the most beautiful and elaborate paper boat I had ever seen in my life.  Kat’s name was nested in the very bottom of the boat, and the mast rose from it.  It was astounding and terrifying.  He handed the boat to me.

“I let this go.”

I looked at him and with a nod of encouragement, set the boat gently onto the water.  I didn’t even know there was any sort of current in the pond, but it drifted rather quickly, doing a few loops before setting off down the creek.

“Where does it go?”

“I don’t know, and frankly, it doesn’t matter.” He folded the next one and this time let it go himself, giving it a gentle push towards the creek.

“But I still don’t understand why.”

“Do you really not?”  He looked at me again, and I sort of did understand.  Watching something float away, something beautiful held in a paper boat, was like letting it go.  It was like saying that it was now the world’s to take care of completely.  I smiled at him to show that I understood.

“Yeah,” he sighed.  “I don’t really believe in God, I don’t think he’s here anywhere.  But I’ve gotta believe in something.  This entire stack of papers is filled with things that are wrong.  But someone’s gotta be able to fix them, you know?  There’s no way we’ve just been left here with our own mess.  And I think maybe it’s enough sometimes just to let them go.  If it’s that easy, I gotta believe in something.  I dunno,” he finished, shrugging.  “I probably sound stupid.”

“I think,” I replied, “you just said one of the smartest things I ever heard.”

We sat there for a long time.  I don’t know exactly how long it was, but I don’t think I cared.  He folded each paper, pausing sometimes to reflect on whatever message was hidden in the boat.  Then he handed each one to me.  I’d read the message, “Failed again” or “Let her walk away.”  Every boat he made was unique, and each was more beautiful than the one before.  And one by one I’d let each boat go, watching it wave down the creek, getting caught on stones and spun around.  Finally, they had all been set free.  But I noticed one small one that had gotten stuck between the rocks underneath us.  I picked it up gently and looked at it.

“I’m scared I might be okay,” I read aloud.

“Out of all the ones that could have been left behind!” he exclaimed.  “It’s like something out of a cheesy magazine story, you know, like the world wants that to be worked out all on its own.”

“I’m not going to lie,” I said to him, “this whole thing is like something out of a cheesy magazine story.”

He pulled out one more piece of paper and the chewed up pencil and handed them to me.  I wrote something on it and gave it back, watching him fold it up into the most exquisite of every boat he had made.  We let it go like it was the most important one.  And it was gone.  And he was gone, without saying another word.  Every phantom that had chased me through our woods was gone, too, my grab into the past had turned into nothing more than good memories.  I felt at home again, without the awkwardness of one who was no longer welcome.

Our woods, the woods that I’d shared leg-scraping, time-traveling adventures with long ago, had bled into our new woods, the woods where a boy I never saw again taught me more about life than a thousand exciting adventures ever could.  The ghosts were gone, I knew Paige was gone, my log fort would never again be a princess’s castle.  But I knew things would always be okay, because they had been cast to the cares of the world, floating away in one wonderful paper boat.