My First Time

Keith and I started watching “Friday Night Lights” on Netflix this summer and quickly became addicted.  If you’ve watched the show, you know how intensely it sucks you in. You start to feel like you’re living right there in the small, football-obsessed town of Dillon, TX.  You find yourself motivating co-workers by saying, “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose.” You crave Alamo Freeze. You realize you actually know what number and position each of the Panthers plays.  Especially Riggins. And if you’re me, you are mentally transported back in time to the trauma that is high school.  So it struck me as rather uncanny that Mama Kat’s weekly writing prompts would include “Your first panic attack” – which, in my case, took place at the end of my senior year at Spiffy High.

Nowadays, the classic panic attack is almost de rigeur.  (I mean, have you really even lived until you’ve experienced the joy of clammy hands, sudden onset hot flash, racing heart, severe tremors and impending sense of unidentifiable doom?) I think about panic attacks a few times a day in my modern life.  But in 1990, anxiety was simpler.  We didn’t know from panic attacks, as Grandma Ethel would have said.  I just always understood that I was a nervous person who worried a lot and lived under a cloud of melancholy.

With graduation looming on the horizon, I felt totally isolated (which may or may not have actually been the case); I absolutely could not bear the thought of choosing a college and then leaving home to go to it; I was in a bad relationship; and I despised myself more than you can imagine. So really, things were fabulous!

You won’t be surprised to learn that “my first time” took place in gym class, the morning after I lost a huge fight with my high school boyfriend, B.  I had barely slept and probably skipped breakfast, but gym stops for no man. I had no choice but to hit the weight room circuit, and made it through two or three of the machines. Then came the leg press. As I situated myself, I felt my stomach drop to my feet. My heart was pounding so hard I could hear it, and sweat began pouring down my face. I tried to push the five-pound weight into the wall, but found that my legs were rubber.  I would have stood up and run to the bathroom, but I was pretty sure I’d pass out. I froze in place.  Clearly, I had some sort of sudden onset virus and would need to be airlifted out of school. Perhaps they would even quarantine me. It never occurred to me that this was anything other than physical.

I headed to the nurse’s office post-haste, and felt better as soon as I sat down among the derelicts with faux migraines.  My pulse seemed to have slowed to no more than 200, but still, I was obviously quite ill.  I waited for the nurse and when I went in, she asked me a lot of questions about my health in general.  Then  she asked what was going on “at home.”  As a regular watcher of after-school specials, I was compelled to assure her that no one was beating or molesting me, and that neither of my parents drank heavily or abused drugs. Strangely, I also felt compelled to tell her about my college angst and B – and then, for dessert, started crying.

Hmm.  I’d never known that to be a symptom of the flu.

The nurse looked at me with sympathy and said, “I think you had an anxiety attack.”

Wait, I’m not being airlifted?! You don’t have to call my parents? Frick on a palpitating stick and Panic McNervoustein!

She had me lie down for a few minutes and told me to go back to class when I felt up to it.  And sure enough, I was fine. Except that now, I had a new bully in my life … one that still follows me everywhere I go.

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My First Time

My Life in Hurricanes

If you need a suitcase to make your escape, you're not getting it here.

At the risk of jinxing the course and force of the impending hurricane, I must say that it’s hard not to be a little skeptical about all the hype.  In pre-Irene New York City, you’d think Armageddon was upon us. The subways have shut down. Stores and restaurants have now taped and boarded up their windows, and posted signs saying they’ll be closed for the next two days. Prior to closing, the supermarkets had lines out the front door and wouldn’t let anyone in until another person came out.  There is nary a flashlight, battery or can of food to be found. Evacuations are underway in all five boroughs. We have been told to fill our bathtubs, for some reason, and pack a “to go” bag.  We have stocked up on wine, junk food (anything ingested during a state of emergency doesn’t count) and non-perishables.  (Jan’s favorite category of food, it should be noted.) Friends who don’t want to ride out the storm alone are coming over for what I hope will be a successful taco night.

We’ve had hysteria like this before – albeit, not quite as intense – and it’s turned out to be much ado about nothing. In other cases, like one of the 27 blizzards of this winter, we’ve had no hysteria and gotten weather-screwed. In these parts, death by hurricane strikes me as pretty rare. So is all this really necessary, or are we just panicking for nothing? With actual work to do but no motivation, I thought it would be a good time to look back at the defining hurricanes of my life. I hope this trip down insignificant memory lane provides all you hurricane fearin’ folks out there with a port in the storm.

Hurricane David, September 1979:   Just a few days into second grade, our school district closes due to the impending hurricane. I assume that if school is closed, something really bad must be about to happen and find myself too nervous to eat my Apple Jacks. It rains heavily for about 10 minutes then clears up. Jan takes us to the Woodbridge Mall, where she buys us tiny, fuzzy Paddington Bear figurines. Ever the proper English bear, Paddington is sporting a duffel raincoat and removable rain hat.

Hurricane Gloria, September 1985: Once again, school is closed due to threat of hurricane. I am thrilled, but concerned. Not only is it Jan’s birthday, but, more importantly, I am scheduled to attend a Sting concert at Radio City with my friend Jennifer K. and her dad. Jan and Lew tell me the concert will definitely be cancelled. I maintain that Sting would never let that happen. Anxiously, I watch heavy rain fall for about 10 minutes outside my bedroom window. The winds fail to damage even one wysteria vine on the uber-80s wallpaper Jan chose against my will. The weather clears instantly and Jennifer’s dad says he is willing to drive into the city for the concert. After I suit up in my black Guess jeans and white pumps, Lew deposits me at Jennifer’s house, where Jennifer and her mother are fighting about the amount of make-up she has on. Mrs. Jennifer asks me if I too think Jennifer looks like a drag queen. I do think Jennifer looks like a drag queen, but am already too close to full middle school ostracization that I can’t possibly risk offending Jennifer.

Hurricane Chef Cho, October 1992: Hurricane Chef Cho is actually a Category 3 cocktail, which I make the very bad mistake of drinking out of a scorpion bowl at this Cambridge, MA chinese food establishment. Let’s just say I’m surprised FEMA wasn’t called in.

Hurricane Floyd, September 1999: I am in the city now, and have been battling very bad panic attacks. Because of this, the world has a surreal feel to it. Mass transit is shut down and I refuse to walk 80+ blocks to work at the weekly newspaper where I have a mediocre column.  This hurricane actually causes some severe damage and chaos in central New Jersey. When the National Guard is called in and water has to be boiled, I am fairly confident the end of the world is upon us. For weeks after Floyd, there are horrible stories in the papers about small children dying from contaminated water they drink at sad county fairs and the like.

Hurricane Katrina, August 2005: Katrina comes nowhere near Philadelphia, but its breadth is felt everywhere. I am mortified that a disaster of this scale could take place in the U.S., and haunted for weeks by images of pets who have been abandonned. I make the first of my now regular donations to the ASPCA.

Hurricane Earl, August/September 2010: Nothing happens, except that the Dixie Chicks’ Goodbye Earl starts to torture me.

Hurricane Irene, August 2011:  Keith and I partake of the noon-ish meal at Viand, along with Kiki and Chris. Kiki and I head to Q Nails for a pre-storm mani/pedi. Keith and I return home to await our guests, and our fate.

My Life in Hurricanes

What’s in a Name?

Over the course of my wedding-bearing years, I’ve had friends who fall everywhere on the name change spectrum. I’ve known girls who were so excited about making sure everyone knew they were married getting married that they adopted their future husbands’ last names before the royal blue bridesmaid dresses could even ship from China. I’ve known girls who were militant about keeping their maiden names.  My cousin Cathy and her husband both use both last names, with a hyphen. There are many ways this could go, and as is the case with all life changes, I remained ambivalent about the matter.

I’ve never loved or hated my maiden name. It is innocuous. Its ethnicity is not obvious, it doesn’t rhyme with any part of the digestive or reproductive system, it doesn’t belong to any serial killer (that we know of). At times, I’ve been mistaken for someone of Irish descent (really? REALLY?) and/or the heiress to a soup fortune, but I can think of worse problems. Perhaps if I’d been born with a name like Dickwat or Ashweip, or into the Rockefeller family, I would have felt more strongly one way or the other. But my maiden name was in fact the name I’d had all my life – it was just who I was: Traci Melissa K_____.

I knew Keith wanted me to use his last name, but he never pressured me about it. He asks so little and puts up with so much, I felt it was the least I could do for him. And in many ways, I looked forward to having his last name. I viewed it as a new beginning, a fresh start. It made Keith and me an official family, and it linked me to my new extended family – something I’d never had but always wanted. I liked that idea.

On the other hand, I couldn’t help but veiw shedding my maiden name as shedding my parents, sister and roots. I hated that idea. I didn’t want to be the only one of them with a different last name. It didn’t help that my sister and I are the end of our last name’s line. I also felt, despite my best efforts not to, that taking your husband’s name was a smidge old-fashioned. I’m hardly a feminist, but it just didn’t seem necessary. Furthermore, while I haven’t accomplished anything much, the things I have done – survive journalism school, work at a real live TV network, create this blog – I’ve done with my original name — as me. Was I losing my past if I lost part of my name? Was I still going to be a short neurotic Jewish girl from New Jersey if my last name was suddenly Italian? Did I want to be a short neurotic Jewish girl? Was this really such a big identity crisis or was I, as usual, making a mountain out of a molehill? Who cared if I was Traci  Melissa K_____ or Traci Melissa D______?

Frick on a name-changed stick.

A good solution seemed to be this: I’d legally change my name to include Traci, Melissa, my maiden name, and Keith’s last name. It would appear as a mouthful on paper, but I’d use my maiden name at work and Keith’s in general. In the eyes of the law and in my head, I wasn’t getting rid of anything. I was merely adding something.

I had designated last week’s Summer Friday for the name change task, which involved stops at the Social Security office and DMV. I awoke with a mix of excitement and melancholy (which was due in large part to the fact that my current driver’s license photo is relatively smokin’, and I really didn’t want to fork that up with a new picture). As I rode the subway and made my way through Times Square en route to the Social Security office, the morning felt very momentous. In a few hours, I would have one more name. I would be someone else. Kind of.

My turn at the counter came quickly. I presented the clerk with a certified copy of the marriage license, my tattered blue Social Security card and the form I’d filled out ahead of time.

She looked at the form and then asked, “So you’re adding a middle name, ‘Melissa,’ and then your husband’s last name?”

Um …wha?!

Evidently, as far as the Social Security Administration and U.S. government were concerned, my middle name had never been Melissa — just the initial M.  She handed the card back to me as proof – I’d never noticed it before, but she was right.  I was Traci M (sans period, no less!) K_____.

For a few seconds I was upset by this revelation. It made me sad that Social Security believed my cute little parents had  only chosen a random letter for my middle name and not even bothered to punctuate it. My parents would never do that! They’re nice people!  They care! They love me! Then I was stunned  – my name was a sham! My life was a sham! Who knew what other parts of my identity were nothing more than an initial? Did I even exist, or did I just e?  I’d obsessed for months about changing a name I never actually had.

But then I caught on to the valuable lesson the Social Security deities were obviously trying to impart. I had gone about my business and lived a good (albeit angst-ridden) life believing I was Traci Melissa, regardless of what name the government had on file. Would I have turned out any different if the Social Security card had said “Melissa” instead of just M? Highly unlikely. Would I suddenly transform into a calm, care-free person who shuns chocolate and falls right asleep at night now that “Melissa” was really part of my name? Even more unlikely.  Surely, the same held true for my last name(s). 

Apparently, the answer to the question “What’s in a name?” is, “Not that much.” It doesn’t matter what you go by — it matters who you are. So now, I am a four-named neurotic Jewish girl from New Jersey with parents who DO care enough to have given me a proper middle name and a very patient husband who doesn’t mind being married to a pizza bagel.

What’s in a Name?