It was inevitable.
Wandering the aisles of the grocery store I suddenly realized that the background “elevator music” playing to inspire me to buy frozen fish sticks was actually a song from my high school days, and it hit me: I had officially entered that shady period known as “middle age.”
But it wasn’t just any song. It was Madonna’s “Like a Virgin.” For me, hearing this song wasn’t just about getting older. It was about something far more sinister: pizza bagels.
Like Raymond Shaw in The Manchurian Candidate, I snapped.
I made it through the wilderness/Somehow I made it through
It is 1985, my sophomore year of high school, two days after Christmas. There is a huge ice storm and we are awakened in the dead of night by my father, who fears the heavy ice will cause tree branches to crash through the roof while we sleep. He herds us like bleary-eyed sheep, my mother, sister and I, into the living room. My father’s logic dictates that as long as his frantic pacing keeps us awake we cannot possibly be killed in our sleep.
We are at the end of the power grid in the middle of nowhere, so the electricity is gone and we know we will not see it again for some time. We have a small generator, but it can only run a few lights or the refrigerator or the water pump. My father does not even consider running the furnace; we will build a fire instead. Except for a twice daily toilet flushing, the generator runs the refrigerator, despite the fact that there is ice everywhere. Two gallons of milk and five pounds of frozen chuck must be preserved.
Didn’t know how lost I was/Until I found you
The days that follow are pared down to a surprising simplicity: we gather wood, we tend the fire, and we make pizza bagels.
The pizza bagels are my mother’s inspiration and I blame her for them entirely. She was able to get the ingredients into a cooler before my father put the refrigerator on lockdown. The stove and oven are gas, so by candlelight we make tomato sauce and toast bagel halves covered in a tablespoon of cheese and four slices of pepperoni. Well, warm them up, anyway – the broiler doesn’t quite work. But the bagels get hot enough to bring the grease up to the surface of the pepperoni quite nicely. This will be our only food for the next six days.
My sister and I are glad to get out of the house to haul split wood in our sleds even though each trip outside means we have to endure a lecture from my father. His warnings touch on points like, “Don’t walk under trees because the weight of the ice will send heavy limbs crashing down on your head” (which is good advice, but we live in a forest. Where does he think all this wood we’re hauling comes from?) and “You two have to stop fighting so that you can gather wood to heat the house” (my sister and I both instinctively know that nothing warms the blood like a good spat, and we are happy to keep one another from freezing to death).
But it’s worth this lecture to get away from his more paranoid ruminations, which all seem to begin, “People die in situations like this!” My father’s greatest fear, just edging out the “Tree Branch to the Head” scenario, is that we will have to defend our 2200 watt generator against the neighbors or a mob from Detroit (which is an hour away on a clear day). However, unless the Horde drives a Zamboni machine, nobody will make it down our winding gravel road coated in three inches of solid ice anytime soon.
I was beat/Incomplete/I’d been had/I was sad and blue
At first I pretend that I am Laura Ingalls trying to make it through the Hard Winter, but the pizza bagels are anachronistic. I try reading, but this requires light. This also seems to annoy my father, who feels I am not taking the situation seriously enough. I try to take my father seriously without succumbing to his sense of doom, but as the days pass I realize that all I can do is lay low and keep warm. Paranoia, like pizza bagels, becomes monotonous.
The real question is, can I survive listening to Madonna? Because while we desperately scan the radio dial for weather reports (if another storm comes and we don’t take it seriously we could all die!) and news about when Consumers Power will restore electricity, every station between Detroit and Flint plays “Like a Virgin,” at least four times an hour.
But you made me feel/Yeah, you made me feel/Shiny and new
The contrast between Madonna wearing a fishnet tank-top and me wearing the same five pound yellow-orange sweater for six days straight does not escape me. But after hearing “Like a Virgin” over and over, I at last achieve the kind of mental clarity only a diet of pizza bagels can bring. I see beyond the vulgar lyrics, beyond the images of the Material Girl acting slutty on a gondola to the true meaning of the song: you’ve already lived through Hell, so hold out for the one that keeps your dream alive. In the meantime, get on the boat and start dancing!
Like a Virgin/Touched for the very first time/Like a Virgin/When your heart beats/Next to mine
I came to in my shopping cart, surrounded by more than a dozen 8-packs of D-cell batteries, countless boxes of frozen pizza bagels, and a carton of Ohio blue tip matches clutched against my chest. My head was pounding in time to the chorus, a sort of mnemonic hangover from a week lost twenty years ago.
Yes, the power lines were put back on the grid and the ice melted. I went on to have my senior picture taken wearing the five pound yellow-orange sweater and a pair of enormous gold earrings. And in the highs and lows of the years that followed, no matter how bad things got, there was always one question I could ask myself that put everything into perspective: Have you had any pizza bagels lately?
As long as the answer is “no,” I know I will be okay. You can’t stop aging, but you don’t have to give in to it. Get on the boat and start dancing.