It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s…

In the spring of each year, my high school held an Awards Night, where academic prizes were bestowed, and newly-elected student, class, and athletic council members were sworn in. Only the students who were receiving these honors (and their parents) were invited. It was kind of a big deal, especially if you were winning an academic prize, because those weren’t announced beforehand, so it was a surprise to see who won what.

At the end of my sophomore year, I received an invitation to Awards Night. And I’d just lost a heated election for Junior Class Council Vice-President, so I knew I wasn’t going to be sworn in for anything. That could only mean one thing — I was going to win an academic prize.

As you might imagine, my parents were thrilled. I was thrilled, too, and a little shocked — academic prizes were reserved for the creme de la creme of the student body, and while I was smart, I can’t say I always applied myself. But maybe I’d just been selling myself short, I thought. Clearly, someone had finally recognized my unassuming genius. No doubt it was going to be an English prize; that had always been my best subject (only because forging signatures to get out of gym class was not yet officially sanctioned by the Board of Ed).

On the evening of Awards Night, my family and I got all dressed up and headed over to the high school auditorium. My parents and sister sat in the audience, while I sat up on the stage with the rest of the invited students. I felt proud to find myself among these smart, driven, popular kids. They were clearly winners. And now, I was one, too.

I don’t remember exactly when I realized something was wrong. It was probably after the English prizes were awarded, and my name wasn’t called. I KNEW my name wouldn’t be called for math, or science, or foreign languages, or history. And as I hadn’t attended gym class all year, I knew I wouldn’t be recognized for athletics. One after the other, the awards were announced, and the students around me went to claim their prizes, as their families clapped and cheered. And then the officers of the various councils were sworn in, which meant the evening was over.

Don’t ask me to tell you what it was like to face my parents afterwards, because I’ve clearly buried the shame and humiliation pretty deep. But I do remember being approached the next day at school by Ms. Eyerman, who ran the Awards Night, and apologized to me for the mistake. Evidently my name had been added to the list of invitees accidentally, and for that, she was deeply sorry. Did it make me feel better, to know I’d accidentally and regretfully been labeled a winner? It did not.

But it did make me feel something else.

One year later, it was Awards Night again, and I was sitting up on the stage, looking out at my parents in the audience. Only this time, it wasn’t a mistake. I was there for real, being sworn in as Student Council President. I’d spent the whole year planning and plotting, carefully assembling my council slate, devising a campaign slogan, creating posters and radio commercials and speeches. And all that concerted effort paid off.

This might seem like a sappy After School Special ending to the story, only it’s not the end. Since that victory, I’ve gone on to experience a lifetime filled with many moments of defeat and disappointment, moments that made me feel like even more of a loser than I did on that first Awards Night. Not getting into ANY of the MFA programs I applied to the first time? Check. Having to move back in with my parents after college? Check. Having a boyfriend break up with me ON my 21st birthday? Check. Being laid off? Check. Bad reviews? Check. Numerous rejections of my work? Check, check, check, check…

But something happened to me after that first, fated Awards Night; it’s as if my exposure to that level of radioactive disappointment altered me chemically, and infused me with extraordinary resilience and determination. It made me, in effect, a super loser.

Now, when disasters strike in my life, I am momentarily sullen, like anyone else. But then, I spring into action. I get back to work, and I work TWICE as hard. Usually, the extra effort pays off. But if not, I just pick myself up, dust off my super loser costume (which features lots of padding for my many falls, a crash helmet, and a utility belt with Band Aids for my bruised ego) and try again.

For those involved in yesterday’s contest, the “winner” is Brooke Anna Roberts of Purdon, TX. Congratulations! And many thanks to all who entered — you’re all winners in my book! (More contest winners to be announced tomorrow…)

Bathing beauty photo c/o The Graphics Fairy.

The Silver Lemon

As you probably know by now, my book, OTTO: The Boy Who Loved Cars, is about a boy who loves one thing (spoiler alert: cars!) a little too much. Though my husband is a huge car fan, and the inspiration for Otto, I can’t say I’m as delighted by all things automotive. This may be due to some formative experiences in my past. Allow me to share just one with you…

My first car was my parents’ Chevy Chevette, which was only a couple of years old when I drove it during my senior year of high school. It was pretty solid and serviceable and unassuming. But the car I really wanted was a red VW Golf. It was cute and bright and zippy and fun, and, in my estimation, the essence of my teenaged self in car form.

That year, when it came time for me to apply to colleges, my parents (in particular, my mother) limited my scope to schools in Connecticut, where we lived. This was, I believe, my mother’s way of directing me to her choice for me: Fairfield University, which happened to be 20 minutes from our house. This was the LAST school I wanted to attend, mostly because it was just too close to home. But my mother kept pressing it. She took me on a tour of the campus. And then, because it had been overcast the first time, she had me go on another tour, when the weather was nicer. Neither changed Fairfield’s proximity to our house, where my mother would keep an eye on me the way Sarah Palin now believes she monitors Russia. But then, my mother sweetened the deal.

“If you go to Fairfield,” she said, “we’ll buy you a car. Any car you want.”

Of course, being a materialistic, short-sighted, naïve teenager, I fell for this blatant bribe. I applied to Fairfield, eventually got in, and signed the acceptance papers, expecting the keys to the Golf shortly thereafter. When my outstretched palm remained empty, I reminded my mother of “our” deal.

“Oh, the car?” she said, with a dismissive laugh. “That’s only if you live at home and commute to school.”

Evidently, I had forgotten to read the fine print. Living at home at that point in my life was just…well, let’s just say it would have cost me more than a shiny new Golf was worth. So my college experience began without a car, in on-campus housing, and with a lingering bitterness, the feeling I’d been the victim of a ruthless bait-and-switch con.

Four years later, just before Fairfield’s commencement, my phone rang. Both of my parents were on the line, and they sounded excited.

“We have a graduation present for you,” my mother announced breathlessly. “We got you…a CAR!!”

I couldn’t believe it. I felt a deep sense of gratitude for and renewed faith in my parents, who had promised me the car of my dreams years before. Here they were, finally coming through on that promise. And here I was, after sticking it out at the school they chose for me, on the verge of accepting their very generous (though, in my then-opinion, wholly deserved) gift.

A flurry of “thankyouthankyouthankyou” from me followed, and then I asked,

“So, it’s the red Golf?”

“No, it’s a Toyota!” my mother said. Something in her voice now seemed off. A little too enthusiastic, maybe. But I was still excited. Even if it wasn’t a Volkswagen, Toyotas were great cars.

“What kind of Toyota?” I asked.

And then, there was a pause. A suspiciously long pause.

“It’s a Corona,” my mother said.

“A Corolla?” I asked. Clearly, I had misheard her. The only Toyotas I knew of at the time were Corollas and Camrys.

“No…it’s a Corona,” my mother confirmed. Her voice sounded cagey, hesitant. My father no longer seemed to be on the line at all. I began to have flashbacks to the VW Golf Long Con of 1988. Now, my college-educated mind was ever-so-slightly less gullible.

“I’ve never heard of a Corona. What year is it?” I asked, maintaining my composure.

This was followed by the longest pause yet. And then my mother responded.


“You — bought me — a 1979 — Toyota — CORONA???” I sputtered. My gratitude quickly faded, and was replaced by a new kind of disbelief. They’d bought me a used, thirteen-year-old car? This was what my graduation had earned? And if they weren’t giving me the car they knew I wanted, couldn’t they have at least involved me in the process of picking out what they WERE going to get me? I was a college graduate now, after all. An ADULT. I deserved to have some say in the matter, didn’t I?

At this point, I made the mistake of sharing some of these sentiments with my mother. I don’t remember her exact response, but I recall the words “spoiled,” “ungrateful,” and “brat” were uttered, with great fervor, before she hung up on me. I was left with the dialtone echoing from the receiver in my hand, and a growing mix of confusion, anger, and guilt rising within me. (This would be the emotional cocktail that infused my twenties.)

The bottom line was that my parents bought me a car. No matter the details, it was an incredibly thoughtful and generous gesture. And it was 1992, and we were in the middle of a recession. Like everything else, I just needed to suck it up and be an ADULT and make the best of it. I called my parents and offered profuse apologies and reaffirmed thanks. I graduated from FU, packed up my stuff, and moved back into my parents’ house. That’s when I actually saw the Corona for the first time.

It was technically silver, but so faded, its finish had reverted to an almost primer-level matte. The interior fabric had once been red, but the sun had bleached it out to a mauvey-pink. And it was what Toyota called a “liftback,” which meant it was shaped like a generic sedan’s slope-shouldered cousin. But looks aren’t everything, right? This is what I told myself, while still trying to maintain my mature composure and sense of gratitude. This is what I told myself, even as I sat at my first traffic light in the car, and it idled as if it were having a grand mal seizure. This is what I told myself, as I attempted to merge the sputtering car into highway traffic, one of the first near-death experiences I would face in my life.

The Corona was, in short, a big, matte-silver lemon.

As my new post-collegiate job (Barnes & Noble in Westport, CT, holla!) required a highway commute, even my parents eventually conceded: I would need a car that I could actually, you know, drive. So I traded cars with my mother, who had a 1988 Mercury Tracer hatchback, a scrappy little thing I ended up driving until I got married (and made the mistake of lending it to my father during the weekend of my wedding, another tale of automotive woe for another time).

And what became of the legendary Corona? My mother managed to drive it for a while, and then my sister inherited it, and tried to make the best of the situation, as I did. She even gave it an ironic nickname: The Bullet. Eventually, the car required so much repair that my family decided to get rid of it, until one of my cousins volunteered to take it off our hands. He left the Corona at our town train station overnight, where car thieves attempted to steal it. But clearly, the Corona refused to be taken alive. It was found by the police a few hours later, fully expired and abandoned and blocking the commuter parking lot exit.

The Corona died as it lived…in a haze of confusion, disappointment, and exhaustive backfirings.

Dangling keys image by Ambro