Fantasy Meets Reality

Trash television is a way of life. It is now known as the era of reality TV, the time of true entertainment, and (presumed) no scripts. I am a well-known enthusiast of reality television; it is my home away from home, and my ultimate guilty pleasure. If I had to choose one of my beloved shows to star in, it would be a Real Housewives series, hands-down. These shows follow around a group of women who pick fights with one another about their latest Botox scandals and other deeply important topics. The Real Housewives series document women who live in certain states like: California, Texas, Florida, New York, Georgia, and New Jersey. 

 

Real Housewives of wherever they are from, started on the Bravo channel many moons ago. It has grown so popular, that these reality stars are paid to clash with one another over who has the better car, bigger house, and prettier facelift. These women feed off of drama and the money that rolls in while they do it, so I ask you: who wouldn’t want that life?  

 

I imagine I would be a part of the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills- a favorite among many audiences. They have the biggest diamonds, the flashiest handbags, and, my god, the shoes are worth more than my tuition at JMU. 

 

As I’ve watched this show for nearly a decade, I’ve imagined my own life as a real housewife, and boy is it fabulous. I have a pool the size of Kentucky in my backyard, a huge closet bursting with clothes, and of course, maids and a chef because I am just too busy to clean a house that size or even cook for myself. I mean, I most likely just had an extremely expensive manicure, and I’m expected to cook? I don’t think so. 

 

Each housewife on the show has their own tagline during the opening sequence, which is basically a 10-to-15-word phrase to describe themselves as human beings. Mine would be: “Caring about what others think is just as exhausting as counting my money.” I think that would sum up my outlook as a housewife nicely. 

 

Can you imagine being paid to live a glamorous life in Beverly Hills? It sounds amazing to me. Imagine the clothes you’d get to wear, and the jewelry! So, all I need to do is become a millionaire, or marry one, or somehow accomplish both of these goals, then move to Beverly Hills and enjoy my time in the spotlight. What could go wrong? 

Friendship Without Limits

I’m a difficult person. Introverted, hyperactive, pedantic, anxious, and chronically ill, I’m neither easily likeable nor particularly dependable. Chances are, I’m that kid in class or at a party who makes you grit your teeth and roll your eyes in irritation—a relentless know-it-all who doesn’t know when to shut up. Social anxiety and ADHD ensure that I’m usually off-balance in social situations, and my conversation topics of choice tend to be more scholastic than casual. That’s not to say I have no good qualities—I’m open-minded, loyal, and fiercely protective—but it can be challenging to be my friend, especially if you aren’t equally nerdy.

After taking a year off of school to recover from a traumatic brain injury, I switched schools for my junior year. Nearly an hour away from my house, I knew absolutely no one at the new school. I was uncertain about the return of my intellectual abilities after my head trauma, so I decided to take regular physics instead of honors. Though it turned out to be a mistake academically (physics is actually the one science I’m skilled in, and I was mostly bored), I can’t regret taking that class—it’s where I met Munkhjin.

Munkhjin did not like me at first. My interest in the subject and general desire for knowledge meant I constantly asked questions that made the concepts we were learning more complicated, and my incessant Hermione-Granger-ing did nothing to endear me to my classmates. Eventually, through a mutual friend, we ended up sitting at the same lab table, and she gradually warmed up to me. We were on amicable terms by the end of junior year, but not close.

Then, senior year, we both ended up in a special magnet program for digital photography; though we initially stuck together from familiarity, we quickly became fast friends, bonding over photo excursions. We spent countless hours positioning lights and playing with props, exploring the surrounding areas, and peering over each other’s shoulders making edits. It easily could have been a school-friendship like any other—you see each other in class, and when class is over, you go your separate ways—but then she did something that changed the way I saw myself forever.

Me and Munkjihn, senior year.

As I said before, my know-it-all-ness makes me a hard person to get along with. I know it, accept it, and don’t really expect others to ignore it. So, when Munkhjin relayed a story to me about our mutual friend bashing me at lunch, calling me “pretentious,” it stung, but I was prepared to accept it. But Munkhjin? She was furious. She ranted and raved about the unfairness of it, saying it wasn’t my fault that I was smart, or that I liked school, or didn’t know how to talk to people. To her, it was so obvious and simple, an innocuous occurrence, but to me, it felt like absolution.

For all the years of adults praising my intellect, I’d never had a peer tell me that it was okay to be me—that loving knowledge didn’t make me a bad person, that I shouldn’t have to watch what I say to avoid being labeled strange or condescending, that I could have real friends, true friends who weren’t like me. In that moment, I realized that Munkhjin may well be the best friend I’ve ever had.

I’ve had friends in the past who were willing to overlook it, of course, as well as friends who were similarly bookish, but she was neither of those. (To be clear, that’s not to say that she isn’t smart. She is, much more than she gives herself credit for.)  But for the first time in my life, someone was looking at me and all of my flaws and saying that they cared about me for and with them, not in spite of them. Something changed for me that day—I didn’t know that I’d been waiting my whole life for acceptance until I had it.

TAD: Thankful for All the Days

Thanksgiving does bring that idea of thankfulness, as everyone probably has guessed from the name. Yet, no year has ever made me feel quite as thankful as my senior year here at JMU and at Technology & Design. At this point I’ve been at TAD for about three years, but when I first started, I was an awkward second semester sophomore who didn’t know anyone in the office except for the team lead at the time, Elaina. I would spend my office hours quietly behind a desktop computer, channeling Harry Potter and “making no noise and pretending that I don’t exist.” As junior year began with the craziness of training week and a whirlwind of laughing taddies who were quickly becoming some of my closest friends, I settled into my place on the Writing Team.

The Writing Team my junior year, was composed of mostly seniors who would be leaving TAD when they graduated, and I was given the opportunity to be the Writing Team lead for my senior year after the current team lead left. In addition to this amazing offer, I was also given the chance to stay in Harrisonburg and work at TAD throughout the summer. Full of hot days, and possibly reaching the limit of tea a human can drink, this past summer was full of amazing experiences; I was able to help Lindsey (the current Assistant Director of TAD) plan training week, write team handbooks, and even design a new webpage for TAD and our clients.

Even though this fantastic quilted collection of times makes me thankful for TAD and all the wonderful people it contains, nothing hit me harder than when all of my crazy Trello board organizing, calendar planning, and handbook obsessing came to head in my wonderful, productive, amazingly talented Writing Team. They inspire me every time I scroll through the list of things that they’ve accomplished just this semester on our editorial calendar. I have to confess, I obsessed over every single list, every card, and every comment on every board for the entire week before training to ensure that everything was ready for them at training week.

Right before Thanksgiving Break my senior year, I convinced a few taddies to put up the TAD Christmas tree, listen to a few carols, and spend a couple minutes decorating as a group. When I left for class in-between decorating, a few people created a tree topper star and an ornament for the tree with my face on them.

TAD's 2017 Christmas Tree
TAD’s 2017 Christmas Tree

Coming back into TAD and seeing my face splashed all over the tree, listening to my friends laughing and Christmas music playing, and sorting through past taddie ornaments to arrange carefully on the tree brought little pinpricks of tears to my eyes. I’ve had Christmases, birthdays, a summer, Valentines days, and everything in-between at TAD, and each one is full of happy memories and special topic monthly blogs.

TAD has become my home here at JMU. Each and every taddie has pushed, helped, and inspired me to become the best version of myself I can be at this point in my life, and I could not be more grateful for this crazy, quirky place. More than that, each person in this second-floor office has been my friend, and I don’t know if I’ll ever find a place quite like TAD ever again. So, thank you, TAD. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. I know I joke a lot about living at TAD, but I hope the spirit of hard-work, team collaboration, and friendship lives in me (as cliché as it is) for the rest of my existence in this wild life and I couldn’t be more thankful for anything as I am for that. So, I know the rest of the seniors (new and old) and I will be cherishing every meeting, late night Slack, and missed Trello update until graduation.

 

Thanks for everything, TAD <3.

What Love Really Is

My senior year of high school was a very lonely time for me. I had once been excited to go to school and start every day, but by the end of my junior year, I could barely get out of bed. I would smile, act normal, and bear it, but my heart ached and my stomach felt like it was ripping in two, especially on my drive to school.  

That year began with one mistake that led to an even worse one. A boy in my class asked me out because he thought I was pretty, and I said yes. I believed him every time he said he liked me, when he actually just wanted arm candy. I even believed him when he ordered me around, saying “this is what couples do.” Those five months were a whirlwind of confusion, exhaustion, and sadness. For a while, I couldn’t understand why I was so unhappy with him. 

In September of my senior year, I broke up with him on a whim. I sobbed, screamed, and regretted it, but he got over me in a week. In about three months he would get another girlfriend of his same moral standing, by that I mean none, and start a long-term, actually respectful relationship.  

I was in more pain when he began ignoring me. It was even worse after I saw him actually caring for someone else, someone who wasn’t me. Instead of going to my friends and family, I made the wrong choice and didn’t.  

My friends knew I was unhappy, but I refused to reach out. He had already distanced me from my close friends when we were together, but I found out that several of them knew he was a bad person and didn’t tell me. I was enraged, became very paranoid, and chose to silently distrust and hate everyone.  

By the time the school year was over, I learned a far different truth. When I finally opened up, I was greeted by so much love and support from my best friends that I cried happy tears instead.  

They took care of me, listened to me, and took the time to understand. They helped me drive away my persistent negative thoughts and worked hard to convince me that the way he treated me was not my fault. I would drop by their houses at random so that I wouldn’t have to sit alone and think about how worthless I felt. My friends let me vent even if I was just repeating myself and never complained about me dragging them down. Most of them still don’t know everything that happened, but they still sent me late night texts to help me sleep and always helped me have fun despite the pain. 

Graduation was one of the tougher times that my friends got me through. It was supposed to be special and exciting, but I couldn’t understand how my horrible ex was happy while I was still so miserable. But my friends were, and still are, so loving and understanding that they convinced me to go to prom, graduation, and even the all-night grad party hours away from home. My ex was at the grad party too, having fun with his friends and girlfriend. If I didn’t have my friends, then I know I would have hidden and cried all night. Instead, my friends stayed by my side and we had a blast. That night of dancing, playing games, and laughing until no sound came out at Dave & Buster’s became one of my favorite memories. 

The next few months before college were still hard for me because being home brought back bad memories, but I can’t imagine recovering from this without my friends. I am truly thankful for these friends who showed me what loving someone really looks like.  

Thankful

The day my parents dropped me off, I didn’t even let them stay for more than an hour. I rushed them out of Harrisonburg. I walked them down three floors and told them, “This doesn’t have to be a sad moment.” I hugged my mom and dad. They drove four hours back home. I went upstairs and cried alone in this new room that didn’t feel like my room quite yet. I wiped my face and walked across the street and bought a sub and ate by myself in a Jimmy John’s booth. Growing up was a lot harder than I thought.

I was still 17 that day– my 18th birthday would be the first Wednesday of class, but I still had to get through orientation.

I wasn’t sad about being alone until I realized that JMU was not the best fit for me. It took me about one day after moving in until I came to this conclusion– when the girls in my hall were still acting like girls and not women, when I wasn’t a part of the “cool” crowd, when I realized that people stay the same except for their bodies, and, depending on the body, it’s their bodies that allow them to stay the same.

Fit, nubile and playful, my hallmates were impatient to be used as currency by men in jerseys who would stare at them hungrily. I was, too– or at least I wanted to be ready for this. The tour of greek row, vodka in water bottles, hiding from the RA: these things were rites of passage for college women. I guess I never got there because instead of hitting the frat houses, I watched an open mic night with my new friends Cheryl and Tatum on Thursday of orientation week.

I remember seeing something in them that was so much like what I was feeling; they expected something much different from higher education, they wanted to become more of themselves. We didn’t hate the women in our hall– we just didn’t understand them yet, nor they us.

Instead of roaming dark, foreign streets pining for free Keystone and desirous glances we sat on couches and admired people with acoustic guitars who wanted what we wanted, who felt what we felt, this visceral desire for self-completion, self-actualization. After hours of sitting in a circle, singing and ripping grass out of Godwin field as we giggled and put on our own talent show, we sunk into our beds and I remember wondering how long it would be until I didn’t feel lonely anymore.

I don’t remember the first time I spoke to either of them; I guess you don’t often remember the moments you meet people– you just remember the moments when they made an impact on you.

After four endless days of orientation, school began and I sat alone every day to eat lunch, which was something I’d never done before. I would get pizza because it was self-serve and sit quietly in D-hall. The days all melted together and suddenly, I was 18. Oh yeah, it’s my birthday, the first Wednesday of classes. Yet, not much felt different. I was still just going to class, eating alone, missing home. Nothing automatically changed. I guessed this is what adulthood is, eating alone and sleeping alone and sitting in class alone, not saying hello to the people who live in my same building and screwing my earbuds so far into my ears that they wouldn’t come out, not even for sleep.

I climb the stairs lethargically to my bed after a day of long-winded thought in between classes, but I see Tatum and Cheryl, who usher me into Tatum’s room.

They bought me a cake. In the middle was a candle that we didn’t light. I was presented a red paper crown that I wore proudly during my little birthday celebration with Tatum, Cheryl, and two boys we had just met. The cake was chocolate and rich, and of course we had leftovers– it was only a few of us.

When I went to bed that night I felt something different. I still felt lonely, but something was changing– or, I knew it was going to change. The moment I walked into Tatum’s room and looked at the birthday cake, bought by strangers to celebrate my loneliest holiday yet, I began to think things were going to be okay. When we cut the cake and I wore the crown and we stood in a circle and talked about our new classes and new lives, I knew things were, eventually, going to be okay.

I’m thankful for my two sweet friends for giving me that moment.

Silver Lining Surgery

Once upon a time, my health wasn’t nearly as good as it is now. My freshman year of college was a time of new experiences and meeting people- it was also a time I suffered the worst pain I’ve ever felt in my whole life. I’m a klutz, so I’ve encountered broken bones and a great deal of discomfort before, but this pain I felt at 18 years old was something I’d never felt before.

 

One morning I woke up and there was a sharp throbbing in my lower abdomen that was unbearable. I was nauseated and in agony, so my RA at the time was kind enough to drive me to the emergency room. After a few tests, I found out I had multiple kidney stones tearing their way through my body and an ovarian cyst the size of a baseball.

 

The kidney stones would pass on their own time, and were the main cause of my pain, but the worst part of it all was that I would have to have surgery to remove the cyst. I was extremely lucky though; the cyst was benign and the c-word (cancer) were nowhere to be found. Although this was good news, I was terrified. Having surgery was something so foreign to me-something I only could only correlate with movies and TV shows.

 

The worst part was the date of my scheduled surgery. Christmas Eve. There I was, doped up in a hospital bed during my Christmas break, going through one of the most traumatic incidents of my life. Nearly everyone else outside of the hospital was celebrating the holidays, while I was pressing my pain pump for more numbness.

 

I was so focused on having the surgery, I didn’t realize how difficult the recovery would be. I could barely walk afterward, and the pain made me grateful for the invention of Vicodin, but I left the hospital and I was healthy and had my family to take care of me. Knowing I had a support system in my family and friends made me realize that my life was something to be thankful for, and I found the silver lining in my situation.

 

Looking back on that time now, I don’t take for granted that my diagnosis could’ve been so much worse. The fact that I had only one surgery and my cyst was benign was extremely lucky. As I look forward to Thanksgiving break, I am tremendously thankful that I have my health and I always make it a point to send happy thoughts to those who are not as fortunate.

The Ghost of 44 Russell Avenue

According to my mother, I wasn’t exactly the kind of kid you could trick with ghost stories. Precocious, shrewd, and more than a little bit of a skeptic, I asked too many questions to be fooled for long. Or I asked too many questions for any adult to successfully stick to the story for long.

Despite being an analytical child, I avidly engaged in fantasy. Playing pretend wasn’t enough, oh no—I quickly branched out into making up fantastical tales and sharing them as fact. (This tendency would get me into trouble numerous times as a child.) I found myself stumped when trying to think of scary stories I believed as a kid for this blog, so I turned to my mom. Unfortunately, she couldn’t think of any either. She did, however, share that “I used to believe many of your tales, but inevitably, a unicorn would appear in the story and that was when I knew we were in fantasy land.”

Spinning scary stories was never my favorite pastime, but my house at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey (I’m an Army brat) was ripe with opportunities for ghost stories. Built in the early 1920’s, it was a large brick home with a roomy attic and plaster walls. It had tall, slender wooden doors with small, brass knobs that creaked in the winter, and a spooky basement with an old-fashioned cellar door that pulled open from the outside.

The last house on the right is 44 Russell Avenue.

The attic had obviously once been used as a bedroom, and the exposed pipes and supports that crisscrossed the room had been painted in bright bands of red, white, and blue. The ceiling leaked in one spot near the dormer windows, and an old tin bucket was already in place collecting errant rainwater when we moved in. The steady metallic “plink” of water into the bucket, the sound of wind around uninsulated walls, and the creaking and settling of the old wood were the soundtrack of the room. Long rectangles of light streamed in from the dormer windows, but the sloping corners of the rooms were constantly in shadow. Though I found it rather charming overall, it was all too easy to twist the generally cheery ambiance of the room into something sinister.

I started constructing the story of the little boy who lived in the attic room not long after we moved in. Reginald, I thought, was a fine name for a little boy born in 1932. I imagined Reginald to be much like myself—prone to exaggeration and flights of fancy, fiercely patriotic, and convinced that his father could save the world.

A consummate history buff, I delighted in associating him with historical events. Reginald was nine years old when the US entered World War II, I decided. He would work in the family’s victory garden and volunteer with his mother and three older sisters, of course, but he wanted more. He wanted to fight. So, the intrepid Reginald snuck off base one day and enlisted. Apparently, my imminently practical eight-year-old brain did not find it difficult to believe that an Army recruiter could be fooled by a ten-year-old.

By the time I was this far along with my creation of Reginald’s life, we were approaching our first Halloween at Monmouth. I’d already gained a bit of a reputation for my storytelling, and more than once other children asked me to tell scary stories. I didn’t have any. One day, as my friend Emily pestered me for a spooky tale, it hit me— Reginald. Poor, poor Reginald, run-away-to-war Reginald—dead Reginald? And so, the ghost of 44 Russell Avenue was born.

The Harvey family ca. December 2003. Author is on the far right.

I told them of Reginald as though he was real, as if he still swung from the painted pipes and crowed with me over games of marbles. At first, it was benign. I’d created an image in my head of a boy who might have been my friend, and I was loathe to let go of it. But children are bloodthirsty, and my friends wanted something more frightening than a friendly ghost. Tales of ghostly heads popping out of walls or non-corporeal fingers dragging icily across a neck for a laugh only went so far.

Too proud to disappoint, I reluctantly turned my purported interactions with Reginald sinister. No longer did he appear to me bright-eyed and well-groomed, with a pressed uniform and a jauntily-angled hat; instead, he was dirty and bloodied, with ragged clothes and a thousand-yard stare. Reginald, you see, did not make it home from the European theatre alive. I started doing research on the second world war, looking at haunting images and reading frightening accounts of soldiers who were never the same.

My stories turned dark. Reginald no longer waited for me to come up to play, but haunted me at all hours of the day and night. I told my friends that sometimes he kept me awake with whispered pleas—to apologize to his mother, to watch out for his sisters, to bring them peace of mind—crying at my bedside, begging with tears in his eyes. Other nights, I said, he would scream—at the enemy, at his fellow soldiers, at God—angry and broken and desperate to move on.

At some point, even I started to forget that the stories weren’t true. A boy with haunted blue eyes and a torn uniform began to haunt my dreams. Every rush of water through the pipes or creak of the sighing house made me flinch, wincing in anticipation of a ragged voice that would never come. My friends were no longer so excited for ghost stories, the images of a boy destroyed by war a bit too close to home on a military base. Halloween passed, and they were happy to return to games of make-believe, no ghosts allowed. They forgot Reginald and my haunted attic.

I never did. Reginald would follow me for years, the embodiment of a story taken too far, a constant reminder not to forget the line between fantasy and reality. The attic, once the focus of my romantic notions of a garret hideaway on top of the world, never regained its appeal. My escape was irrevocably tainted with the specter of a little boy who never was.

The Heart and Soul of James Madison University