Surly Girlie

Writing to figure things out and just because she likes it

Archive for the month “December, 2010”

Tiny Dancerina: A Ghost from Christmas Past

A little ballerina ghost came to remind me of Christmases Past, wrapped in shredded paper, and given a mini-makeover by my mother. Her tiny plastic hand was popping up out of the packing, and the minute I touched it, I knew. It was my beloved ballerina doll from forty years ago. I still have the picture:

This was taken at my Grammy’s house on Christmas eve, 1970-ish. Usually, I wanted a doll for Christmas and usually it was a very specific doll. Baby Tender Love. Baby Feels So Real. Baby Alive. Dancerina was no exception. It was her or nothing. Santa had better not mess this one up.

Her trick was that you could press the pointy part of her plastic pink crown (which looks very similar to an old-fashioned juicer)  up and down and she would spin around, or to be technical, pirouette. Amazingly, and this is why I love the internet, I was able to find this video of her from someone else’s 1970 Christmas.

I imagine she was highly advertised for on all of the cartoon channels and that I had looked at her picture many times in the JC Penney catalog, which back in the day, was the BIBLE of TOYS.

Her tights, and even the little rosebuds on her outfit, are still in remarkably good shape. My mom tied little pink ribbons around her ankles

My mom is always so crafty and knows the little touches that matter.

because her shoes were probably lost in the first half hour of me owning her, much like I lost Mrs. Beasley’s eye-glasses on one of my birthdays thus leading a search party hunting through the green grass of my Gram’s front lawn.

I would not have imagined ever meeting this little pink friend again, but as life is so often more bizarre than anything the imagination can conjure, there she was and there she is now, sitting under my tree in a Tinkerbell chair.  My mom found her at my Papaw’s estate sale, along with my beyond-repair life-size Raggedy Ann doll.

What is so overwhelming to me about this gesture is not that the doll has survived all of these years in an attic on a farm in Benham, Indiana. What is so overwhelming to me is that my mother is thoughtful and sweet enough to know how much this would mean to me. What is so overwhelming to me is that she, like me, has survived.

We are both, perhaps, a little worn for the wear, but still basically in tact and fond of the dance. My love affair with ballet and my horrible attempts at it is another blog altogether, but suffice it to say that this little beauty with her cute signature Mattel-turned-up nose and perfectly posed hot pink legs is welcomed home.

I always wanted a Mattel-doll nose.

Toys are our most intimate childhood possessions, they are the one thing we can control and they understand our lack of power in life. They befriend us when we need it, occupy us when we are bored, and sleep with us when we are lonely. When I touched Dancerina’s hand, it was like touching a piece of the past and took me riveting back to all of those grand parties and wonderful times at my Grammy’s house, and to the myriad thoughtful gestures my mother has performed for all of us over the year: the Valentines’ gifts when she knew I had no boyfriend, the “I love you; you’re special” notes on napkins in my lunch, and always including a little something from Grammy’s and Grampy’s house in our Christmas stockings.

Thank you, Mom, for always putting such love and care into your Christmas gifts and for finding Dancerina. We both send you our love. Mom, you are the spirit of Christmas!


lesson #17: what i learned from spandex ala whitney houston circa 1988 and from my two-year-old niece

Sweet Hayden.

The other day, I was lying next to Hayden on the Hogan family bed watching Shrek, when she quietly said to me, “I like your body.”

I was a little taken aback by this, but Hayden, you were always a snuggle-bug and I guess I probably felt soft or smooth or something like that—I mean I do moisturize religiously! I responded by saying, “Did you just say you liked my body?”

And Hayden said, “Yes” and so I said, “I like your body, too.”

And she said, “I like my body, too.”

This is probably one of the few positive conversations I have ever had about my body! Seriously! And it was initiated by a two-year old.

A couple of times in my life, I have managed to have what most would call a “good” body. It was not easy, and to be truthful, took every shred of my self-discipline and energy, which is why I have a “normal” body now (meaning fluffy and soft and healthy-enough).

One of those times was when I was in college. I had suffered through a torturous summer of Weight Watchers, aerobics, and broccoli and had finally managed to sweat away enough poundage to feel like I really belonged at the Alpha Chi house. I was curvy in the right way and only twenty years old. I felt like a legit hottie.

The bad news is two-fold. First of all, being skinny or feeling “hot” only brought me a shallow happiness. Oh sure, I loved buying and wearing that gray and white striped spandex mini with matching top and boat neck that somehow reminded me of Whitney Houston. I wore gigantic hoop earrings with it and an acid-washed bolero jean jacket.


I was something.

Whitney Houston from "I Wanna' Dance with Somebody"

And I loved wearing it to an A E Pi frat party that night and acting like a divalicious thing on the dance floor. It was a lot fun to be so taken with, well with my new, thin self.

HOWEVER, being skinny or hot does not make one good or better than or virtuous or (and this is the big one) happy! So many times in my life, I was brainwashed enough to think that if I could just get the right hair, face, body, skin color, I would achieve some sort of permanently happy frame of mind. That is not how it works. In fact, sometimes when I would lose weight (especially when it was from a crash diet and not exercise), I would feel sad, disappointed that no one really felt any differently about me and that I didn’t feel any differently about myself.

That particular year, I think it was my junior year of college, I was soooooo infatuated with my hotness that I purchased too many new outfits and overdrew my bank account. All of the birthday money I got for my twenty-first birthday went to overdraft charges. I gained all of the weight back because no matter how hard I tried, I wanted to have fun! Which should be a good thing. So, I drank keg beer and ate pizza and finally decided to be divalicious anyway.

As a wise friend of mine, Chante, always proclaimed, “Happiness is an inside job.” I am sort of old now, and still struggle with my “outside parts,”  but as Hayden reminded me, we should like our bodies. They serve us. They make us go and we should take care of them, no matter what size they are.

Sure. There are still those disappointing moments when I wish I had the body that I think I should, but there is no virtue in thinness. There is only virtue in acceptance and health, trying to take care and exercise and feed yourself good food because you like your body because it is good to you, and there for you, and clothes are mostly made for women built like twelve-year-old boys (and there is nothing wrong with that either).

So, please be good to your bodies and if you are currently a hottie du jour, be modest enough to not let it go to your head.  Or, as my very thin Grammy was wont to say, “Skinny girls aren’t pretty girls.”

But I think what she meant was: “You’re pretty just how you are.”

And that is what I mean to say, too.

To this day, I cannot eat broccoli.

lesson #25: the victoria station dress

Remember earlier when I said that Grandma Ruth told me to buy things that were special even when money was tight? Well that rule applies to the next fashion tale I am about to tell as I was truly broke when I decided to take a thousand bucks and an airline ticket and live in London, England. My glamorous-to-me, intellectual-wanna-be, punk-rocking, weed-smoking boyfriend was coming to visit me in London. I had been there for three months or so and it had been tough. I had worked three or four jobs, lived in a couple of places, and was basically constantly thinking of HIM. I had lost a bunch of weight because living in London you walk everywhere and because I was so depressed and freaked out that I ate nothing but potato chips, drank nothing but tea, and smoked a gazillion expensive SILK cigarettes. Healthy, I know.  Anyhoo, I was simply thrilled beyond belief that this important fellow was coming to see me and I wanted to look, you know, completely irresistible.

So, I splurged on a black crêpe dress

My version of literary Euro chic.

with a jaunty tie like fixture that hung in the cleavage area. It was short-sleeved and knee-length and I wore it with dark black tights and these pointy witchy ankle boots. It was my version of literary Euro chic– emphasis on the literary. It felt very important to look smart, sort of like when I wore John Lennon glasses in college to my Shakespeare class.

I was meeting him at Victoria Station, which was then one of the busiest transportation hubs in London.  It seemed to clang and bong every millisecond and there were a ton of shops (like in an airport), one being The Knicker Shop (which sold only cotton underwear and that’s the British in a nutshell for you!). I stopped at a pub to have a nerve-calming tonic and was hit on by some “old” probably thirty year old guy. He said something ridiculous about my eyes, to which I blew smoke in his face and said, I’m waiting for my boyfriend.

I kept wondering what it would be like to see Boyfriend again. We had written all of these swoony love letters back and forth and he was a bit of a poet. Maybe if I get brave, I’ll insert some of them here, because they were good enough to keep. However, back to the story. So, I really had myself worked up and the station was humming and buzzing and here I was, in Victoria Station, drinking vodka tonics, in one of the world’s largest cities, and looking for a boy with a dark fringe (that’s British for bang) and a trench coat and most likely a Clash tee-shirt.

Truthfully, we (meaning myself and the boyfriend) were both posers of a very ordinary breed. We both posed at being hip and artistic and erudite and he was always keen (that’s British for thrilled) to let me know that he had me whipped in all of the above categories.  There I was in my literary Euro trash dress and tights, my hair slicked back in a dark head band, my lips a strike of maroon. And there he was with a copy of something clichéd like Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and his duffel bag and his scarf wrapped around his neck like the French do. Oh, I really had it bad for this guy.

The point is (before this story gets very long and boring):

I used to blame him for putting himself constantly in a superior category than myself. I thought he came from a wealthier background. His family was better educated. Yet, I was the one with the college degree. I was the one living on my own in England, while his dad still paid his rent on my old apartment!  I guess I really had blinders on. Back to my point, at this stage of my life I can see that I also LET myself be put in that inferior category.  I vaguely idolized certain qualities about his life that would never be a part of mine. Like, he could speak fluent French (so he said, how would I really know?). Like, his family “owned” a small island in Canada on Stony Lake and he had glamorous cousins who went on cruises around the world for their 21st birthdays. Like, his dad was an appointed minister of health in Canada and former economics professor at Indiana University. I guess I aspired to be, not of a higher socio-economic standing, but cultured in a different way. So, I let this boy-man convince me that I was sooooooooooo lucky to be his girlfriend. And he did have his finer points, however, thinking back to that Victoria Station moment, where, incidentally I walked right past him (actually that was a good thing, because it humbled him a bit) and then hugged him madly, I guess I had been a little out of balance on a couple of things. One was the superiority/inferiority complex. Two was the fact that I made him my world. I truthfully had a shitty time in London because he was all I cared about. What a waste. If I had been honest with myself, I would have taken my father’s advice, gone on a quickie tour of Europe and come home to Bloomington and my safe happy used-to-be college life.

I can still see:

That dress, those shoes,

My wide-eyed self posing

there for him,

thinking I was what he wanted me to be

That Clash tee shirt and Jack Kerouac book.

His scarf-wearing self posing

there for me thinking…

who the hell knows what he

was thinking!


In the end, such madness is exposed. But it was fun pretending with him. I suppose we were both trying to figure out who we were. And that’s okay.

Because now, I have these memories.

These lessons.

I gave the dress away.

Maybe we were both just lost and searching for ourselves in each other?

lesson #3: say yes to faux fur!


My sleeping bag was hot pink, but you get the idea. It's amazing!

Is there anything less natural than pink and purple fur? Indeed, is there anything that says “slumber party princess” more than pink and purple FUR? I guess my point here is that it’s okay to be a little over-the-top. If your gut tells you it’s a good thing, your gut is probably right. Many of my fashion decisions were gut decisions, and I must admit, sometimes I probably crossed some line, but there truly are NO fashion police and I was never in a Glamour “don’t” photo, so all is well.

In the second grade or thereabouts, I wore a purple fur winter coat. It had white trim down the front and around the hood and toggle buttons. No one I knew had anything like it and I loved that about the coat. I have no memory of buying the coat, but my Grammy keeps popping in my head as I recall it, so perhaps she took me shopping for it and then we both had to con my grandpa into buying it for “us.”


Grampy never said no—at least not to Grammy!

My other grandmother, Ruth, bought a hot pink fur sleeping bag with yellow lining for me and, again, no one I knew had anything like that either! Lucky me. I was destined to be an original.

Sure there were times when it would have been easier to blend in, to have the icon-du-jour sleeping bag, lunch box, winter coat, but looking back on it, I genuinely loved those ostentatious pieces and also genuinely love that my grandmothers on both sides were totally pleased to share said fashion audacity with me.


Come to think of it, they both were quite the style mavens. Grammy had a closet full of shoes, high heeled only. She wore girdles (the old fashioned version of Spanx), panty hose, blouses made from shiny material, the whole works. For awhile she even had one of those hairdos that was an updo and had to be professionally done.

Grandma Ruth had a totally different style, but high heels were a part of her fashion repertoire as well. I recall one hiking trip (ugh, I hated those) where she hiked a trail at Turkey Run State Park  in wedgy corkie sandals. So, if you find yourself in such situations, you come by it naturally. I have been known to sport some interesting nature gear myself. I once hiked up a ski slop in Vermont with full make-up and hair, and probably some sort of ridiculous accessories. It was hell, but I still tell people that I did it.

Would you go hiking in these?




lesson #23: the gingham sundress

…From my fashion- meets-wisdom letter/novella to my nieces

lesson #23: gingham sundress

Once upon a time, a long, long time ago,  there was a gingham sundress that took me through my bohemian phase. I purchased it at a store called Cactus Flower on Kirkwood Avenue in Bloomington.

I was probably twenty-one or two, living with my first serious boyfriend, in a house I loved but that was really the narrow back-end of a professor’s home,  working at restaurant called The Porticos, and trying desperately to hold on to the freedom of being young and untethered.  This was a time o’ poetry (yes, written by me, very badly, if I do say so myself, and by my then-boyfriend who was rather swoony and handsome), of Van Morrison’s “Moon Dance”, and chocolate mousse eaten with stolen bottles of Louis Jadot Pouilly-Fuisse. This was a time of  falling in love with aforementioned boy and with a part of myself that I had never met before: the free-er me.

The freer-me didn’t care if she exercised or got good grades or went to church or any of the stuff that I truly thought would make me happy and virtuous. This dress began a phase that I guess you could say has never ended, because it is THAT part of me that is me at my most content. Truthfully, for some reason, the dress also reminded me of my Granny Finke who used to wear handmade sun frocks, and in my mind, the black-and- white checked fabric took me back to black and white photographs of the leaning barn in her backyard and the way the sun would streak in through her kitchen window, the peace of her summer kitchen from which I still have a table.

I could try to struggle for some poignant connection between the two: the bohemian and the memory of Granny—but there is none. The truth is, my mind free associates randomly and quickly, and the truth is the mind of the universe does as well. Connectedness makes the world go around. (Now, I sound like a hippie, and that’s okay, too).

So today as I sit in my conventional suburban home, the one you, my dear nieces, most likely remember, with my reading glasses and my list of important things to do, the doorbell rings and here arrives a present from one of my Bread Loaf friends. It is a purse that her mother in law made that reminded her of that gingham dress. And as Bread Loaf was another serendipitous phase of my life where I felt happy and free and authentic and appreciated, I realized just how much that dress had carried me through. And I was whisked briefly back to a former self that had so much life still to be lived and who was ready to take risks, and throw away old ideas and replace them with new ones. The self that is so hard to resuscitate consistently through middle age when the heart grows soft and a bit weary. I say this with a genuine nostalgia and appreciation for my wonderful life, and my wonderful friends like Aerie, who remind me how great people can be. I say this to remind myself and to remind you that there is still living to be done and it is important to question your self, your ideas, the traditions that you were raised in, your thoughts about your self and others. For without this questioning, you are merely a robotic cog in the wheel (and who wants to be a cog?) and the wheel keeps on spinning man, the wheel keeps on spinning.

Fractured Fairy Tales: That's Aerie with the hotdog.

What to Do When Your I-tunes Christmas Playlist Makes You Cry…Or, Why Nostalgia is Like a Mix Tape of Your Soul

Me with Santa & Cheap Sunglasses...

Mid-life reminds me of junior high. For starters, your body betrays you. In junior high it was pubic hair. In mid-life, it’s the muffin top. Next, you outgrow old fashions and habits. (In junior high, you must wear a training bra; in midlife you can forget the juniors department altogether, sister). And, in midlife (as in junior high) you find yourself constantly perplexed by this new layer of complexity added, well, to everything.

However, one of midlife’s quirks surprised even me, this holiday season. Me: the great over-analyzer. Me: the annoyingly reflective type who actually enjoys self-evals at work. And I hate to inform you, but this newfound revelation?  It’s a bit of a downer.

So, there’s your Debbie Downer spoiler alert.

This new sensation is a heartbreaking feeling (not dissimilar to liking the wrong boy in 8th grade).

This is an ache (not dissimilar to liking the wrong boy in 8th grade).

This is (drumroll) mid-life NOSTALGIA.


This holiday season, bits and pieces of my childhood come floating back to me through the radio as if it is my very own personalized mix-tape for the soul, my own Pandora-esque station guaranteed to well, overwhelm.

Frosty’s “thumpety thump thump” takes me back to my clunky ten-year-old fingers on my Grammy’s green piano and my proud grandparents watching me plunk away. (Yes, my grandmother painted her piano, red and then green).

“Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” reminds me of how we would trick my little brother and sister in the car by flashing on the interior lights and saying, “There’s Rudolph! Did you see him?”  Their little eyes as big as saucers with the wonderment of it all.

Loggins and Messina’s “Celebrate Me Home” brings my mother right to my frontal lobe smelling like gingerbread and vanilla candles and wearing a plaid jumper with a snowman turtle neck.

The relish tray I make every Thanksgiving takes me back to the annual family Christmas open house where my lovely Grammy would have a plethora of libations and appetizers, and always–always at the very end of things, around 2 am– there would be some very “happy” adult drinking a watered down highball while snacking on mini-gherkins, philosophizing no doubt on the ways of the world.

“Oh Christmas Tree” is me and my grandma skipping around their duplex singing at the top of our lungs, “Oh Christmas Tree,” my bare feet scraping across the old-fashioned furnace grate in between the kitchen and the living room– the warmest spot in the house.

There was my Grampy teasing me that Santa wasn’t very nice, which really upset me even though I secretly feared Santa maybe wasn’t very nice, as I feared God, Jesus, and the Holy Catholic Church might not be so nice, and had a sneaky suspicion that if I got on the wrong side of Santa, it would be very similar to getting on the wrong side of God– a very big, very bearded Old Testament style God.

There were the college Christmas eves (still at my Grammy’s, always at my Grammy’s)  at which holiday celebrations involved pitchers of Long Island Ice Teas or shots of Schnapps with Bloody Marys for breakfast. (Yes, I’m not only Catholic…I’m Irish!) Some small child sitting on my grandmother’s exercise bike while sucking on candy canes, me still trying to play the piano so that the family could sing “Silent Night.” Interestingly enough, this ritual always evolved into my brother playing “Hotel California” on the guitar while my cousin Kathi sang along– the rest of us following their lead. Then we would segue into John Cougar’s “Small Town” (because it ain’t a Hoosier Christmas without some Johnny Cougar) and that would be about it for the musical portion of our evening.

So, this holiday season, to and from work with the 24/7  holiday music radio channel on, I am finding myself swept into the past and thrust into the future.

I am weepy at the thought of what is behind me that is no more


simultaneously feeling weepy with gratitude for the love of the present


simultaneously feeling bereft with the knowledge that time keeps on slipping slipping slipping into the future, and I bet I won’t fly like an eagle to the sea.

And so in this Prufrock frame of mind, with my trousers rolled and a peach in hand, I walk the edge of the sea and try to embrace the precipice. And I open my arms and sing.

One of my favorite movies is a little-known gem called “Once Around” starring Holly Hunter and Richard Dreyfuss. In a nutshell, Hunter plays the old maid big sister who finally finds love in an older goofball (Dreyfuss) who sweeps her off her feet only to suffer a heart attack shortly thereafter. As his heart weakens and she fears his early death, they celebrate Christmas at her parents’ home (Gena Rowlands and Danny Aiello) and proceed to get falling down drunk. Hunter’s character breaks down about Dreyfuss’s character’s health and he delivers this amazing monologue about how he is going to kick death in the nuts. If death has nuts, that is.

and so, that is the only strategy I think we can take friends.

Kick death in the nuts.


Enjoy a relish tray and a highball.

Tell stories.

Write corny blogs.

Send Christmas cards ESPECIALLY because of this SUCKY ECONOMY.

Crank up The Eagles and Johnny Cougar.

Make an I-tunes playlist with every heart-wrenching holiday song your little heart can stand.

But above all:

Let your heart be light.

(My favorite Christmas song incidentally, sheerly for the lyrics…)

Let your heart be light, my friends.

Let your heart be light.

My arm looks fat, but I'll post this anyway because I'm letting my heart be light.

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