Discovering My Voice

This one’s an oldie but a goodie…

Siamese Val

My Name is Val Brkich, and I Am A Circus Freak
(first published in 2004)

Well…I had my first speech therapy session this week, and I have some startling findings to share with you:

Apparently my fake voice – the low one that I use when I’m in a loud room or when I’m trying to sound manly – is actually my real voice. The voice I thought was my real voice is actually some fake voice that has been hi-jacking my vocal chords since right around puberty. What this means is that, from now on, I will have to speak in my real voice, which used to be my fake voice.


According to my therapist, my high, scratchy, downright disturbing voice has actually been damaging my vocal chords, not to mention scaring away scores of attractive females during my high-school and college years. And if I don’t stop using my fake voice (which I thought was my real voice) at once, I will someday require surgery. How nice.

She also seemed strangely excited during my initial session, and added that she’s only read about cases like mine in text books.This revelation not only surprised me, it also made me feel like a freak in a circus sideshow. However, unlike the Bearded Lady or Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy, my peculiarity has little or no marketing value.

For those of you who only know me from my writing, I have always had a scratchy voice. Actually, “scratchy” doesn’t really give it justice. It’s a weak, high-pitched, irritating, sounds-like-I’m-running-my-vocal-chords-on-a-cheese-grader voice. As long as I can remember, I’ve been greeted by people with the same five words: “What’s wrong with your voice?” Even my closest friends and relatives frequently ask me if I’m sick or if I’ve lost my voice. My voice is so high that when I call for pizza they always say: “And what would you like on that, ma’am?”

As hilarious as this may sound to you, it’s actually quite annoying to me. So annoying, in fact, that I decided to have my throat professionally examined.

First I visited an ear, nose, and throat specialist named Dr. Matt, who, after I explained my problem, informed me that the best way to examine my throat would be through a special type of camera that he would insert into my nose. After picking me up off the floor and reviving me, Dr. Matt tried to calm me by saying that the nose camera “actually sounds worse than it is.”

This was a lie.

After numbing my nose with some kind of nasal Novacaine, Dr. Matt then inserted a long, skinny tube into my left nostril and carefully navigated his way into my throat. I then made a series of disturbing noises and tried not to vomit while he examined my vocal chords.

After a few seconds, Dr. Matt removed the nose camera thingy and told me that “everything looked fine”. I was frustrated that I still didn’t have an answer, but I was also relieved to hear that the scratchiness of my voice wasn’t due to some tumor or, even worse, a small slimy amphibian.

As Dr. Matt wrote up my prescription, I began to notice that the nasal Novacaine was moving down through the roof of my mouth and into my upper lip and front teeth, rendering them completely numb. The good doctor informed me that the numbness was natural and “would wear off in 10 to 15 minutes”, which apparently in medical terms equates to 6 or 7 hours. After slurping my dinner through a straw that evening, I finally regained feeling in my front teeth around bedtime.

And this is how I found myself in speech therapy.

The good news is that, after a while, my voice should actually become clearer and stronger. The bad news is that, for the next several months, I will be freaking out my friends, relatives, and co-workers with my new masculine voice. This will be a challenge for my friends, many of whom have made lucrative careers out of ridiculing my scratchy effeminate voice.

It’s kind of sad really. Painful and humiliating as it may be, I think I’ll miss my ridiculously high, scratchy voice. It’s been a part of me for so long, and it will be difficult to let it go. No more singing along with Celine Dion in the shower; no more Axl Rose impersonations at karaoke night; no more hearing “What’s wrong with your voice?” on a daily basis.

(Oh, wait…that’s a good thing.)

So this is it, loyal readers: the last time you’ll read an article written by Valentine Brkich—the writer with the freakishly high, scratchy voice, who sounds like a woman. From now on, you’ll be reading articles written by the new and improved Valentine Brkich —the writer with the much lower, more masculine voice, who used to sound like a woman.

See you on the other side.

(PS: You probably didn’t notice, but I’m actually writing in my lower voice right now. Impressive, huh?)

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Posted by on October 9, 2012 in Uncategorized


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Kielbasa, Beans, and Tomatoes

“Mom just took Dad to the E.R.” said my sister. “He’s having trouble remembering anything. He doesn’t even remember going to work today.”

I hung up the phone. Numb. Cass would be at yoga for another hour or so, her cell phone off. I was at home with the kids, right in the middle of bedtime madness. I couldn’t leave, but I didn’t want to stay either. I thought about calling the neighbor to come over to stay with the kids, but I just couldn’t subject them to the wrath of Hurricane Isaac.

I sent out an A.P.B. prayer request to my tight-with-Jesus friends. One of whom, George, is a pastor, and I was hoping he might have a little extra oomph in his petition.

When Cass got home I debriefed her on the situation. She immediately called the neighbor and asked her to stay with our sleeping and now harmless children while we dashed to the hospital.

When we got there, Dad seemed relatively fine. Mom, my sister Nicole, and my friend George were already there. Mom seemed weary, and I was about to find out why.

For hours now Dad had been repeating the same line of questions every 2 minutes, in almost the exact same order:

Dad: Did I go to work today? And I rode the bus home? Then what?

Mom: We had dinner.

Dad: What did we eat?

Mom: Kielbasa, beans, and tomatoes.

Dad: And then what?

Mom: You went out and cut the grass.

Dad: I cut the grass? The back or front?

Mom: The front. With the push mower. Then you put water in the pool.

Dad: I put water in the pool?! And then what?

Mom: We talked to the neighbors and then you came in and took a shower.

Dad: So I guess I must have been incoherent, that’s why you brought me here?

Mom: No, not incoherent. You were just having memory issues.

Dad: Yeah, no shit. I cut the front yard and put water in the pool?

Mom: Yep.

Dad: Wow. I don’t remember any of that. Now I’m scared.

Then tears would well up in his eyes, both out of fear and frustration, and seconds later it would start all over again:

Dad: So I went to work today?

Mom: Yes.

Dad: And then I rode the bus home?…

And so it went, hour after hour. He was like a record that would skip at the same spot and then jump back to the beginning. Just as we’d explain everything to him, he’d suddenly forget it all and we’d be right back at the beginning. We tried to keep a straight face, but after you say “Keilbasa, beans, and tomatoes” for the umpteenth time, you can’t help but laugh.

“What are you laughing at?”

“Don’t worry about it, Dad. You won’t remember in a minute anyway.”

The doctors weren’t sure what was going on. They had done a cat scan and an EKG as soon as he arrived and everything looked clear. No signs of a stroke, bleeding on the brain, or anything serious like that. The funny thing is…I knew what was going on almost immediately.

About a month ago I was out on a long run, listening to a podcast called Radiolab. The particular episode I was listening to was about different kinds of loops. One of these “loops” was the story of a young woman whose mother had called her one day and was having trouble remembering things. The woman immediately took her mother to the hospital, thinking it was a stroke. Then, over the next several hours, the mother repeated the same set of questions every 90 seconds or so (Sound familiar?). Eventually, as the hours passed, the mother’s short-term memory slowly began to expand and she began to remember more and more until she had made a complete recovery. They determined it was a rare and relatively harmless malady known as Transient Global Amnesia (TGA).

When I got to the hospital and observed my dad, TGA immediately came to mind. All the signs were there: the repeating questions, the lack of any other symptoms, and the fact that he had probably overexerted himself mowing the lawn in the 90-degree heat.

“I think I know what this is!” I told my mom. “Transient Global Amnesia!”

About an hour later the doctor came in and gave us her expert opinion. “We think it may be something known as Transient Global Amnesia.”

Way ahead of you, Doc. I locked eyes with my mom and smiled.

Hearing this gave me some peace, but it was still exhausting — and somewhat freaky – to answer the same questions over and over again for someone who seemed otherwise normal. At one point Dad didn’t remember that I had a son or the fact that we had moved to a new house almost three years ago. Another time he asked if his parents were still alive; they passed away more than a decade ago.

Around midnight we all agreed that it would be best if we just went home and let Dad try to get some sleep. Thing is, it was hard picking a good moment to leave. As soon as you’d get up to go, the line of questioning would begin again. So I went out and asked the nurse for a pen and paper and I wrote Dad a note explaining everything, should he get confused in the middle of the night.

Or two minutes after we left.

It was difficult falling asleep that night. As I lay there, I thought to myself, What if it never stops? What if he just keeps asking the questions over and over…forever? (“For the millionth time, Dad—KIELBASA, BEANS, AND TOMATOES!!!”)

But eventually morning came and I headed back up to the hospital to see how he was doing. When I walked in his room, he was sitting up, hands folded on his lap, a confused look on his face.

“How you doin’?” I asked.

“You tell me.”

“Do you know why you’re here?”

“Well, I know I’m here for a reason. I just can’t remember how I got here. I know I went to work yesterday, but after that it’s all fuzzy.”

He remembered he had gone to work! He remembered! Thank God.

I began to fill him in on what had happened, totally expecting him to turn into a broken record again. But he never did. He just stared at me, amazed and bewildered. For him, the previous day never existed.

Soon my other family members (and George, too) showed up, and they were all thrilled that Dad was doing so well. We spent the morning laughing and joking about the previous day, as Dad wiped away the tears—this time from laughter rather than fear.

Was it a coincidence that I had heard that podcast just weeks earlier? I don’t think so. Some things are just too coincidental to be a coincidence.

Welcome back, Dad! We love you very, very much. To celebrate, Mom’s making us all dinner!

Guess what we’re having?


Posted by on September 21, 2012 in Uncategorized


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Weenies From Heaven

I’ve always had this vision in my mind of what it would be like the first time I took my kids to a Pittsburgh Pirates game. There’d be oohs and aahs as we emerged from the corridor out into the open to see PNC Park spread out before us in all its splendor. There’d be plenty of nachos and hot dogs and cotton candy (and beer for Daddy). We’d root, root, root for the home team, and maybe I’d even snag a foul ball to the amazement of my adoring offspring.

This past Sunday I hoped this vision would become a reality. In my grand vision, however, I forgot to include the part about carrying Isaac on my shoulders several blocks from our bargain ($12) parking space to the stadium and then all the way up the never-ending ramp to the nose-bleed section. By the time we got to our seats, I was ready for a nap. Coincidentally, so was Isaac, which made keeping him in his seat for more than three pitches a near impossibility.

Meanwhile, as the scent of nachos and hot dogs and other ballpark delectables filled the air, Cassie took out her Tupperware container of spinach and feta salad and passed me my almond butter and real-fruit spread sandwich on whole wheat bread. You see, not only was this my kids’ first Major League Baseball game, it was also our first day of the 100 Days of Real Food Challenge—an health and wellness program based on self-inflicted torture and food deprivation, into which my wife had so graciously enrolled the entire family. So, as my friends around me feasted on melted cheddar, French fries, ice cream, beer, and other normal desirable foodstuffs, I choked down my dry sandwich and sipped on bottled water.

But then a miracle happened. Somewhere far below, one of those crazy people who try to keep you entertained between innings, took out her hot-dog bazooka and fired a frankfurter high into air. As the wiener projectile screamed across the blue September sky, I could see that the wind was blowing it in my direction. Then, as the meaty meteor fell back to earth, I reached over the guy next to me and snagged it right out of mid-air! Willie Mays would have been proud.

I held the hot dog triumphantly above my head as the crowd cheered in approval. It was like my entire life had led up to this one glorious moment.

Ah, but glory is fleeting.

Apparently hot dogs – especially hot dogs blasted out of a cannon – do not qualify as “real food”, and therefore I was not permitted to consume my coveted prize. My friend Don tried to convince me to eat it, saying that it was most certainly a sign from God, much like the manna that fell from heaven to the Israelites. But alas, my wife was not swayed by this obvious act of Divine intervention and instead offered me some carrots and humus.

I don’t remember much of the game after that, partly because I was delirious from starvation and partly because we missed several innings as we watched my kids navigate the chaos that was the ballpark’s indoor playground. We could’ve saved some money on gas and tickets if we’d just stayed home and played in the park across the street from my house. But then again, I never would have caught that airborne weenie.

And what would my legacy be then?


Posted by on September 12, 2012 in Uncategorized


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A Bad Case of the Runs

Don’t ever let me do this again—ever!

That’s what I said to my wife back in 2007 after slogging my way through the supposedly flat and simple Outer Banks Half Marathon.

After spending months training along every street and alley in my little town and feeling confident that I could breeze through 13.1 miles, I struggled most of the way, especially up the steep, mile-long Washington-Baum Bridge, which they had strategically placed three miles before the finish. In the end, I stumbled across the finish line a good half an hour slower than I had planned.

Whatever you do, I told my wife afterward, never let me forget what a painful, exhausting, miserable experience this was. I never want to run again!

This past Sunday I ran 17 miles as part of my training for the Columbus Marathon in October. It was the farthest distance I had ever run. I guess time really does heal all wounds. Either that or all the red wine I’ve imbibed over the years has broken the part of my memory that remembers pain.

To be fair, the OBX half marathon shouldn’t have been as difficult as it was. I’m not one to make excuses…but if I were, I’d tell you that I had been sick for the two weeks leading up to the race and therefore never completed my training. That I was woefully uneducated about proper running nutrition. That it was really windy that day. And cold. And that I had a side stitch. And, oh yeah, my nipples were raw. But like I said, I don’t like to make excuses.

Anyway, immediately after the race I announced that I was officially retiring from running, at least the long-distance variety. I had no desire to run that far ever again in my life. I had accomplished what I wanted to accomplish, albeit barely, and that was good enough for me. From then on I’d stick to the occasional jog around town. Or better yet, watching TV.

But as the years passed I gradually forgot about the pain and began to go farther and farther on my regular runs around town. Then, this past spring, I ran 10 miles, just to see if I could do it. And you know what? It wasn’t that bad. It actually felt great. Pretty soon I was getting up at 5 a.m. on Saturday morning, just so I could have the quiet, peaceful avenues of my still-sleeping town all to myself.

Then one day it hit me: I want to run a marathon! The big 26.2! Never mind that half that distance had almost killed me years before, when I was younger. This was something I wanted to do. It was something I had to do. Maybe it’s because I’m approaching middle age and I feel a need to prove that I’m not over the hill just yet. Maybe I like the idea of challenging myself and shooting for something that scares the bajeezus out of me. Then again, maybe I’m just nuts.

But hey, literally thousands of people run marathons every year. People of all ages and of all shapes and sizes. I mean, if Oprah can complete a marathon, surely little old me can do it too, right? I guess we’ll see.

My kids have no idea what Daddy is doing. All they know is they wake up to find me sprawled out on the living room floor, way too tired, sweaty, and smelly to play horsey just yet. Of course they’ll probably run a marathon themselves throughout the course of the day, just in their normal running, jumping, and bouncing around the house. And then they’ll put up a fight when it’s finally time for bed. The little jerks.

So if you happen to be out about town in the early morning hours and you see me lumbering by, please beep your horn and say a little prayer that I’ll actually follow through with this thing. Either way, when it’s all over with, I’m going back into retirement.

At least until next time.


Posted by on August 30, 2012 in Uncategorized


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That’s Not Water!

Yes, that’s a butterfly net on his head.

I’ve always known it was coming. Like a slowly approaching storm, far off on the horizon. Ominous and inevitable. I’m talking, of course, of the day when we’d have to start potty training my son.

My daughter, you see, was no walk in the park. We started when she was 17 months old and didn’t finish until more than a year later, thanks to a three-month period when she decided that she preferred the convenience of diapers after all, and went on a potty boycott.

Labradors are more easily housebroken.

We decided to wait a little longer with my son, for various reasons. For one, his “hardware” is a little more complicated. Secondly, he’s more Tasmanian devil than toddler. But when he started waking up with a dry diaper, we begrudgingly admitted it was time. So I dragged the dusty old Elmo potty up from the basement, and so began the training.

Our first attempt to civilize our young man was relatively successful. It was a challenge, however, just keeping him on the potty until nature took its course. Then, after reading every book in the house to him and entertaining him with every toy I could find, his patience had worn thin. I actually had to physically hold him down as I pleaded with him to stay put. Finally, nearly two hours in—Hallelujah!—we had pee.

Since that first marathon struggle, it really hasn’t been too bad. Oh, he puts up a fight at first. But then we just bribe him with M&Ms, and suddenly it’s Niagara Falls. Pavlov would be proud.

Surprisingly, he has been relatively cooperative when we go out to eat. However, the strange, horseshoe-shaped toilet seats you sometimes find in public bathrooms can leave a parent dangerously unprotected from a boy’s unpredictable stream, which can make for a shameful, soggy walk back to your table.

Funny thing is, every time he’s finished doing his business, he immediately stands up, points to the potty and says, “Look, Daddy…water!” My wife and I try to make it very clear that the liquid in the potty is not water. This is the kid, after all, who licked the bottom of his shoe, which had been resting in the street gutter, just so he could get a drink. This is the kid who, whenever we give him a shower, lies down flat on the floor to suck the warm, filthy water into his mouth. We understand that he has a drinking problem, and we’re terrified that we’ll walk in to the bathroom one day to find him slurping down the freshly squeezed contents of his red-plastic bedpan.

One thing I’m looking forward to, personally, is teaching my boy about the joys of peeing outside. There’s nothing quite like “watering” the flower garden late at night, beneath a clear, moonlit sky. It’s a liberating experience and one of the greatest gifts a father can share with his son.

So despite getting peed on daily and living in fear of the dreaded public accident, my wife and I both understand that if we just put in a couple months of hard work, we can be free from diapers forever and be able to use that money for more important things.

Like red wine and babysitters.


Posted by on August 1, 2012 in Uncategorized


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A Family Tradition

“Com’on, honey…you can do it! I know you can. We’re almost there…just one more push…”

“I caaaan’t…I’m too tired!”

“Yes you can! You’re being so brave! Com’on…just one more big push—I promise!”

There are moments in your life that you’ll never forget; ones that are so dramatic, so emotional, that they become permanently embedded in your memory. Like when your children are born.

Or that time when you spent an hour and a half in the bathroom with your bawling four-year-old, as you coached her through a successful and freakishly large bowel movement.

Unfortunately, the latter has become a commonplace occurrence in our house. I’m not sure if it’s hereditary or a lack of adequate fiber in her diet, but my daughter is on a once-every-five-days schedule. As a result, I’ve had to hone my plumbing abilities over the past couple of years.

If the plunger was a musical instrument, I’d be a virtuoso.

It was during this most recent bathroom marathon that I was reminded of this one time when I was around six or seven years old. My grandparents were babysitting my sisters and me, when I was struck with a terrible stomachache. Such abdominal pains were common with me, since I’d do everything in my power to put off going Number 2 for as long as possible. Of course, after about a week of squinching, I’d be more backed up than the DMV on a Saturday morning.

My grandmother, however, was a firm believer in maintaining a healthy bowel, and she was determined to end my suffering. She immediately took me to the bathroom and sat me on the “commode”, as she called it. Then, the devoted Catholic that she was, she knelt before me and began to pray the Rosary, beseeching the Almighty to help me “move my bowels.”

Despite my grandmother’s earnest pleas, an hour or so went by with no progress. Apparently the Good Lord had more pressing matters to attend to. But Grandma was resolute. While continuing to pray, she resorted to Plan B: the dreaded enema. I have no words to describe what happened next, so I’ll just leave it to your imagination. (You’re welcome.)

Another hour or so went by with more Rosaries and more enemas. By this time I was exhausted and ready to throw in the towel. But Grandma was steadfast in her mission. She said we were going to stay there as long as it took, no matter if we had to say a thousand Hail Marys and Our Fathers.

Finally, about three hours into the ordeal, Grandma’s prayers were answered. Sweaty and completely pooped, so to speak, I stumbled off to my bed. Although it was only 7 p.m., I slept straight through ’til 10 o’clock the next morning.

I didn’t say the Rosary or resort to Plan B with my daughter. But I did say a few prayers during the process. I even asked Grandma, wherever she was, to use her good standing with the Almighty and ask him to give my baby girl some assistance, as long as He wasn’t off saving some shipwrecked sailors, smiting the wicked, or helping Tim Tebow throw a touchdown.

It must have worked because not long afterward my little angel was relieved of her burden and bouncing around the house like a normal 4-year-old again.

Meanwhile I was back at work with the plunger, working my magic.


Posted by on July 2, 2012 in Uncategorized


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Battle for the Books

The Battleground.

I arrived forty minutes early, hoping to be first in line. But seven others had beaten me to the punch.

It was the Beaver Area Memorial Library’s annual book sale, my most anticipated day of the year just ahead of my birthday and the first day of the Steelers season.

The three women in the lobby didn’t particularly scare me:

  • Girl with sketch pad: Probably into chick-lit.
  • Teen girl playing with iPhone: Definitely a Twilight devotee.
  • Middle-aged woman with large bag: Obviously a seasoned veteran, but most likely an Oprah Book Club disciple.

On the other side of the room, however, there were four older gentlemen who from my past experiences I recognized as serious book hounds. You could tell by their appearance: unshaven, dowdy, showing an obvious disregard for society’s conventions. And each was wearing a distinctive hat: a fedora, a railroad engineer-type, a floppy farmer-style, and a camouflage ball cap. Two of them also sported long, grey ponytails. For those of us in the book-hunting world, these are all common traits among book-hoarding hermits. My guess is their scruffy appearance buys them reading time from their wives, who want nothing to do with them in such an unkempt state.

Looking around, it was easy to pick out the newbies who foolishly failed to bring along a bag or other container in which to put their book sale finds. Rookie mistake. Once you get inside and the elbows and books start flying, trying to hold your books is futile. What worried me was that each member of the Hat Crew was carrying a large cardboard box, which could hold a lot more books than my Giant Eagle reusable grocery sack.

Railroad Engineer sneaks a peek amidst the shrouded books.

Twenty minutes before the beginning of the sale, the crowd had grown from eight people to over 40. Meanwhile, Railroad Engineer and Farmer were up by the entrance to book sale room, peeking in the window to survey the layout and plan their attack.

I turned and saw another unfamiliar face carrying a plastic storage crate. Obviously this wasn’t his first rodeo. We exchanged glances and nodded—a subtle acknowledgement of each other’s presence. He was younger than any of the Hat Crew guys, which meant he’d be able to maneuver better in the crammed confines of the bargain book room. But at the last second he got into the vintage book room line instead. Crisis averted.

Two minutes before the sale began, the room fell quiet. The excitement was palpable. My heart was pounding as I counted down the seconds. Fortunately I had skipped my afternoon coffee in order to avoid any last-minute “emergencies.”

As the clock struck five, the madness began! The poor old library volunteer barely escaped being trampled to death as she opened the door to the bargain book room. Pushing my way inside, my original intention was to head straight for Non-Fiction. But seeing Camou Hat and Fedora make for History, and Railroad Engineer and Farmer dash for Biographies, I altered my strategy and headed instead for Trade Paperback Fiction.

Scanning each table, I carefully navigated the narrow aisles, politely nudging people out of my way. Within the first 10 seconds I managed to grab three great finds: a Cormac McCarthy, a Chuck Palahniuk, and a Dave Eggers—Score! A minute in I was up to seven. Meanwhile, the other rabid book hunters jockeyed for position.

After snatching a couple Children’s titles, I tried to navigate my way back to Non-Fiction to scavenge for anything Civil War. But it was just too risky; I couldn’t chance getting cornered in the Self-Help section. So I back-tracked to Fiction, scrunching down to scan the books beneath the tables—a commonly overlooked area only we experienced book-salers know about. You just have to be careful not to get stepped on. Or worse.

In the end, the Hat Crew wasn’t much of a threat after all. Who knows what they stuffed in their boxes to haul back to their dilapidated shacks in the woods? Hopefully just a bunch of Zane Greys, George R.R. Martins, or random volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary to complete their sad collections.

Suddenly the adrenaline rush died down and I decided to call it quits. In less than 15 minutes I managed to collect 17 great books and one DVD for the kiddos, all for under $20 bucks.

Best of all, I emerged uninjured. Which is always a plus.


Posted by on June 15, 2012 in Uncategorized


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