Monthly Archives: March 2009

Fish Out of Water

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And now…presenting…

Fish out of Water


Christina Williams

“Maryland’s got new uniforms,” she said.

It was in the woman’s locker room at the YMCA, a lounge area before you got to the actual lockers. I was doing sit-ups. The silver-haired woman seated behind me in her tracksuit was looking at the TV mounted on the wall.

There was nobody else in the room but me so I squinted at the TV. Tall glowing men where trotting around on a basketball court wearing two distinct color schemes. “Which one is Maryland?” I asked.

“Oh honey,” the woman drawled. “You aren’t from around here are you?”

She had that right.

I had moved three times in two years. I should have been better at this. But Raleigh was different. I didn’t know a soul. It was technically The South and I was the opposite of Southern. A friend had warned me they took their basketball seriously.

The paper in this town also took itself seriously. It was where Journalists came to launch their Careers. And here I was. Thinking it might be a good idea to launch one of my own.

But when I left the bunker-like newspaper building every night, I had nowhere to go but home to my shabby-chic Southern rental with the banging screen door and uneven wood floors. I watched classic movies, read Southern novels, stretched my legs out the full length of the couch and tried to revel in my solitude.

I was lonely.

Determined, I dug in. I joined the Y. I went to movies. I went to the same Harris Teeter every time I needed groceries. It was a small enough town, I reasoned, that if I just kept showing up, I would eventually belong.

The plan worked. I started recognizing people. I’d get a nod in the produce aisle. A group of blue-collar guys in their 50s even adopted me as their mascot at the Y. We worked out together and they regaled me with stories of their college glory days.

But, still lonely, I decided I needed a date.

I went on, interviewed three prospects and found a boyfriend. He was the good-time guy with the party house: disco ball in the living room, hot tub on the back deck. He had a huge circle of friends coming in and out at all hours and they were nice to me.

I was working as hard as ever but my attendance at the Y fell off in favor of happy hours, cookouts, parties and trips to the beach. It was a whirlwind that lasted almost a year.

But it was a play life, play friends. It was something so entirely separate from anything I had built on my own that it made me anxious and sometimes that anxiety seeped out and ate away at the edges. Eventually it dissolved the relationship.

Alone again, I panicked. I was back in my apartment, which had been all but abandoned for the last 10 months. The silence rang in my ears and the dust was everywhere.

I went back to the Y.

The guys were still there, every evening after work, and didn’t seem to mind that I’d been an absentee member of the group. Doug, Mike and Artie: they had once owned a contracting business under the name DMA Construction. Doug was outgoing and just showed up at the gym for the fun. Mike was now in the mortgage business and knew everyone in town. Artie was the quiet one of the trio, slight and silver haired.

They always left the Y and went to a bar. To watch the game, drink light beer, talk about their kids, wives and girlfriends and give each other a hard time. They invited me along and, faced with the option of my drafty, silent apartment, I started going.

I liked the way they didn’t ask questions. I enjoyed sitting silently or taking up the razzing, depending on my mood. I liked to hear their stories about growing up in the South: long car trips without air conditioning, school outings to Civil War battlefields, crazy uncles and sports, always sports.

One night, Doug showed up late and didn’t bother to change before finding us in the gym. His mom was sick, dying. He was flying out in the morning to see her. There was a quick discussion of where we were going to drink and I drove over to meet them, thinking on the way at how these guys had become my de facto best friends, worrying about Doug and what to say about his mom.

They were all there. They’d ordered my Coors Light. Their chairs were swung toward the TV screen. Basketball: NC State and Maryland.

I kept waiting. I had my comforting words all ready. But the conversation was no different than any other night. And as I watched them watch the game I knew this was all they needed.



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Fish Out of Water

by Kathleen McDade

The first time my dad and grandfather took us fishing, only my brother caught a fish.  When he pulled it out of the water, I was shocked to see Grandpa grab a piece of wood and knock the fish in the head.  It bled out onto the rocks, with its eye staring at the sky.

A fish out of water is screwed. It’s not like a “fish out of water” sitcom.  The fish doesn’t adapt to its new environment.  It doesn’t do anything funny.  It’s going to die, but it will flop around first, so if you plan to take it home and eat it, the easiest (I can’t say kindest) thing to do is to bash its brain in.

For a long time, I worked as a Girl Scout camp counselor.  I started working at Camp Arrowhead right after I graduated from high school, and worked there off and on for seven years, eventually becoming the camp director.  This was my natural environment, where I thrived on teaching campers to love living outdoors (even when they had to pee in a hole in the ground).

But eventually, it was time to leave.  It wasn’t entirely my choice.  We had a difficult summer my last year, understaffed and stressed the whole season. My immediate supervisor left before camp had finished, and I had conflicts with other Girl Scout council staff.

The next spring, I was told (off the record) that I might not be re-hired.  I was devastated, partly because I was being thrown out of what I considered my home, and partly because I knew I hadn’t handled everything well the previous summer, and I felt badly about that.

However, I’d already been searching for jobs elsewhere, because my husband and I were thinking of moving to California.  That same day, I was offered a job as assistant camp director at another camp.

It was a Girl Scout camp.  I figured it wouldn’t be too different.  I didn’t expect to be totally shut out.

The first day that the entire staff was in camp for training, we had groups of staff making the rounds of various areas to learn the routines.  Each group was headed by a unit leader (these are the head counselors; there’s one for every group of campers).

I was at the dining hall when one group arrived for their orientation.  A kitchen staff person was there to explain the procedures, but the unit leader started running through it herself (perhaps they’d done it that way in the past).  The kitchen staffer looked uncomfortable and unsure of herself, so I spoke up.  “Oh, sorry – I think Sally’s supposed to go through the procedures for you.”  The unit leader looked surprised, and said, “Oh, sorry, go ahead.”

I didn’t think anything of it, but apparently after this all of the unit leaders got together and decided I was evil, because I had corrected the situation in front of the assistant unit leaders.  Like, I was undermining the unit leader’s authority with that one comment.

The whole summer was like this.  I couldn’t do anything right.  And my mid-summer performance evaluation was like a kick in the chest.  I got low marks for “being a good role model.”

That’s one thing I’d always gotten high marks and compliments for, even informally from other staff.  But not here.  Why?  Because, feeling unappreciated and unwanted, I’d been spending my time moping around and avoiding people.

This was feedback I needed, even though it hurt.  The camp director also wisely suggested that I help people with things that I was good at, and I started teaching songs and folk dances and helping out in the units more.

That got me through the rest of the summer, but I still never felt appreciated, except by a few people.

I was hired back for another summer, but for a variety of reasons things went even more poorly. At my final evaluation, the camp director gently told me that I wouldn’t be coming back next year.  After a lot of struggling and gasping for oxygen, that part of my life was dead, and part of me wanted to die as well – but there was no one to bash me in the head.


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Fish Out of Water

The Free Bus


Aaron Walker

Going to college is a free pass to reinvent yourself. You’re no longer bound by the same social scene that remembers your Garfield lunchbox or that horrible bowl cut you inflicted upon yourself. This is an entire campus full of people who don’t know what skeletons are in your closet; they don’t know a thing about you. This could be, I suppose, interpreted as a freeing situation, each moment full to the brim with potential.

I, on the other hand, found the entire idea terrifying. I visited a college in my junior year – Caltech, to visit my girlfriend, and I was immediately intimidated by the open-ended, open-scheduled, chaotic blur of it all. We meandered through a dormitory filled with broken furniture and forgotten takeout containers and made our way onto the free shuttle bus into Pasadena proper. A guy my age wandered onto the bus, brown corduroy jacket, porkpie hat, briefcase, and looked at the two of us holding hands over the top of his tiny ornamental sunglasses. He made a casual pass at my girlfriend and then implied something about narcotics before skipping off the bus to god knows where.

The entire experience unnerved me. This was college, the uncharted waters beyond the edges of my map and, quite clearly, here there were monsters.

I stepped into my own dorm room a year later, with enough canned goods to feed a small village, palms clammy as I cross the threshold. I spent most of those first months with friends from high school, staying in their dorm rooms, safe and sound. Each time I returned to my dorm there was some new terror, someone wanted to know my name, to smoke a cigarette, to get to know me. I spent this time studiously avoiding any parties, any social contact outside that of living in the same apartment as other people. I spent each night on the internet, emailing my friends from high school who had gone to other colleges or wishing that I had more homework to do. I read ravenously everything I could find, doing little more than grumbling a reply when anybody tried to ask what I was up to. Sometimes I would go to the library and get a private study room, just to sit in.

I mostly came back to my dorm room to make food for myself, and my roommates would comment on what I was cooking. I’d sweat bullets each time one asked me to go do something. They were built for this, and I wasn’t. I was no party animal, I was no social butterfly. I wasn’t cool or interesting, I wasn’t fun. I turned down invitations, but I knew eventually, I’d have to go. I’d have to “let my hair down.”

Finally, I had enough of this agonizing anticipation. I wanted to be done with it, rip that Band-Aid off. I’d swim with the sharks for a while and then maybe they’d be happy. Yes, terrifyingly charismatic guy from Chicago, I will go to your party tonight. Yes, I do want a bong hit (and yes, I will pretend like I have done this before). Yes, I do want to do a keg-stand. Yes, I will make crude comments to that girl. Yes, I would love to do this again tomorrow night. Yes, I will make out with you for a few hours. Yes, I do want to drive down to Mexico and get so painfully drunk that I’ll throw up four times my own body weight. Yes, this party has somehow turned into a three day event. Yes, I would like to shower with the two of you.

And then one day I woke up, realizing it had been a month since I’d seen anybody I knew from high school. My hair was bleached white and standing out like straw, the back of my hand still smudged with the stamp of a booze buffet in Nogales, a pair of women’s sunglasses perched inexplicably atop my head, and eight digits of what looked like a phone number were scrawled down my arm. I looked up into the mirror and laughed out loud at what looked back at me.

I was in the uncharted waters, off the edges of my map, and here there were monsters.


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A Few Stories from February’s Show

Thanks to Brewcaster for filming!

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