You may not know

The apartment was a studio, with an alcove just big enough for a queen-sized bed. The main living space was taken up by a large leather sofa and an equally large Doberman Pinscher named Freda. There was a desk catty-cornered to the sofa and behind that, a mattress on the floor. The name on the lease was Ronnie D. He lived there with his girlfriend, Judy, Freda, and his brother, Larry, my boyfriend.

During my late teens and early twenties, I spent a lot of time visiting that crowded apartment. Ronnie was older than Larry by enough years that he went to Vietnam and Larry stayed home. I was eight years younger than Larry. Since there was already a Judy at 525 Beacon Street, I became Little Judy. Big Judy worked in reservations for Delta Airlines. She gave me an over-sized coffee mug imprinted with the Delta logo and my nickname.

little judy

I was exceedingly fond of both Ronnie and Judy, in spite of the fact (or perhaps because of it) that they had personal histories of which I was only vaguely aware. For instance, I knew Judy had children that lived with her mother, but not why. And while Ronnie never spoke about Vietnam, his circle of friends seemed to be mainly veterans.

Eventually, Larry and I broke up. He married someone else and started a family. Time marched on and I lost touch with Ronnie and Judy. Many years later, in 2011, married, with a daughter of my own, I stumbled across Ronnie on Facebook. I messaged him and asked after Judy. He responded, “Sadly, Judy lost her 10 year-long battle with cancer in 2004.” She’d been gone for seven years and I hadn’t known. How was that possible? And why hadn’t Larry contacted me when she died? I was bereft.

When I thought about my time at 525, I’d picture all of us as we were then: everyone on the leather sofa, Freda with her head on Ronnie’s knee, Big Judy with her legs curled up under her as she drank tea. It was a shock to realize that I had been remembering happy times, ignorant of the pain Judy had suffered and the loss I had yet to experience.

I always check the obituaries in the Boston Globe. I look to see who passed away in the town I live in, and the one I grew up in. If I have time, I’ll scan the photos, stopping to read about someone who looks too young to have died. Sometimes a name I recognize will pop out. That was how I found out, at the tail end of 2012, that Ron had passed away, too.

There was a memorial for him at a funeral home, but he wasn’t there. It was winter and his remains were to be buried in the Massachusetts National Cemetery in Bourne. I scolded Larry for not calling me and reminded him that I wanted to know when people from our shared past died. He shrugged and allowed as how he just wasn’t very good at that sort of thing. I hope his wife will prove better at it when the time comes.

Every couple of weeks, I use my Little Judy mug for my morning coffee and think about Ronnie and Judy. I wonder how many people from my past are gone, and if there’s any way to prepare for the inevitable feelings of loss. I hope Big Judy remembered me fondly from time to time, even without a mug to remind her.

delta mug

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Fear vs. awe

When the lights went out, we watched Bozo the Clown shrink to a tiny dot on the television before he disappeared entirely. It was early November, 1965, and a power glitch in Canada had thrown much of the Northeast off the grid.bozo

I was seven, home alone with my four-year-old sister. It was early evening and we could see perfectly well by the light that came in from outside. Nonetheless, perhaps knowing that the sun was setting and fearing worse to come, I was frozen to my spot on the sofa.

I sent my sister out to the kitchen to find a flashlight and she dutifully trotted off. Soothed by its presence, however unnecessary, I was able to follow her back to the kitchen where we stood at the open door to wait for my mother to return.

While my initial response to the power outage was debilitating, I have a warm, visceral memory of the sky that night. It was beautiful; dusky pink and vast. I imagine the scene as a filmmaker might: two little girls holding hands, staring at the sky, as the camera pulls back and frames them in the doorway.

The upset I experienced that night was real, but I recall it in an abstract way. When I tell the story, I don’t relive the feeling.

There was another time, as an adult, that I responded to fear by freezing.

My husband grew up reading Babar the elephant books and always envisioned flying off in a hot air balloon with his own Celeste. It was never a fantasy of mine, but when I gave him a hot air balloon ride as a birthday present it was understood that I would play the part of Celeste.

Hot air balloons typically fly at dawn or dusk. I booked our outing for an early morning, in Rhode Island. I was a bit nervous, but nothing unusual given that anxiety precedes me everywhere. And my husband’s excitement was so palpable that it distracted me from my own misgivings.

We watched the crew lay the balloon out on the ground, attach it to the basket, and inflate it with air. When it was suitably robust, they turned the burner on to heat the air and slowly it rose, pulling the basket upright. We clambered in, the pilot shot more flame into the balloon, and up we went.

I immediately regretted agreeing to participate. The further away the ground got, the whiter my knuckles. My husband tried to put his arm around me and I hissed, “Don’t touch me,” convinced that any movement, however slight, would send me hurtling to my death.

After a while, when the cars were as small as they were going to get and we had floated along without incident, I began to breathe. I even relaxed enough to turn my head to marvel at the beauty of the scenery.

hot air balloon

We have lots of photographic evidence of that outing, and in many of the pictures I’m smiling. I also remember that after we landed and scrambled out of our wicker conveyance, I was giddy with exhilaration. But for all that, my strongest emotional memory of that day is not my awe at the wonder of it all, but how terrified I was as the balloon lifted into the air.

So why do some emotions live on in memory while others don’t? Perhaps when I was a child, even though I was scared, I knew I wasn’t in mortal danger from the power failure. There have, however, been deadly hot air balloon accidents, so that particular fear was not, in fact, entirely unfounded.

Today, if I want to remember what the world looks like from a hot air balloon, I pull out the photo album. If I want to remember the beauty of the sky the night the lights went out in ‘65, all I have to do is close my eyes.

Put your phone down

At our house, the dinner table is a device-free zone. There are, however, occasional challenges to our equanimity. For instance, my husband and I might debate something that could easily be resolved with a quick fact-check. He will offer to ask Siri, with just enough wistfulness in his voice to let me know that he wants me to say, “Yes, please do.” But I don’t.

My daughter’s phone, always within reach, may buzz with a text. She’ll reach reflexively, but after stealing a look at me will murmur, “Probably not important,” and pull her hand back.

Growing up, there was a television on the kitchen counter. It was there, ostensibly, so my mother could watch the news while she made dinner, or keep an eye on developing weather patterns. But when there’s a television in the kitchen, it insidiously displaces family members as the focus of attention. In my own home, there is no television in the kitchen.

My husband uses his iPhone to hide in plain sight, an ostrich-like behavior that works nonetheless. My daughter, who was given her first phone when she began to walk alone to middle school, learned quickly that it could replace her parents for virtually everything, even as her teachers were explaining that Wikipedia wasn’t valid source material for homework.

My phone is invariably in some other room when I hear it ring, beep, or chirp, which is not to say that I don’t depend on it as much as anyone. I use it to send texts that say I’m on my way and spoken directions that let me keep my eyes on the road while I get there. I check the weather and play the occasional game of Cribbage, but there’s not much that it can offer that outweighs my desire to engage with my husband and child.

Families found ways to make themselves unavailable to each other long before smart phones arrived. They buried themselves in work; hid behind newspapers; shushed each other when the TV was on. Smart phones, however, create the most effective barriers. They should come with warnings, like cigarettes. Beware, this object may impair your ability to appreciate your family.

It’s time to put down your phone—and talk.

A raccoon with a jar on its head

One Sunday afternoon, I came home to find a neighbor in our backyard.

“There’s a raccoon with a plastic jar on its head,” he said. “I called the police. Animal control doesn’t work on the weekend.”

Indeed, there was a small raccoon in our garden with its head stuck inside the kind of jar that might once have held peanut butter. It was young, with long skinny legs, like a gangling teenager. We watched each other intently until the policeman showed up.

baby raccoon

Not our visitor, I was too busy fretting to take pictures. This is another raccoon in the same predicament that I found on the web. 

“I don’t really want to touch him,” the policeman said. “They carry so many diseases.” Nonetheless, he pulled a pair of thin, black gloves out of his pocket and put them on. “Okay, let’s see if we can get this thing off him.”

He stepped forward and the raccoon backed away, its ears flattening against the top of the jar. Aren’t raccoons supposed to be good with their hands? Would an older animal have known what to do? And where was its mother? I was distressed, although probably not as much as the raccoon.

We spent the next few minutes trying to corral the poor thing while it skittered up and down the length of our back fence. The neighbor had a flash of inspiration and ran home to get a hockey stick. That almost worked. For a heartbeat, he had the raccoon pinned down with the short end of the stick, but before the policeman could grab the jar, it wriggled out from under—and went up a tree. The plastic jar went tump, tump, tump. I thought my heart would break.

The policeman sighed. “There’s nothing else we can do for now. Try to ignore it and I’ll let Animal Control know in the morning.”

Ignore a raccoon with its head stuck in a plastic jar, in a tree in my back yard? Not likely.

It sat, with its plastic-covered head resting in a convenient fork, for a long time. Every few minutes, distracted and worried, I’d check to see if it was still there. Just as the sun started to set, I heard, tump, tump, tump, as the youngster climbed down the tree. It wobbled off across the lawn and I followed. When it disappeared behind a house down the street, I had to finally admit that there was nothing I could do and went home.

As it happens, on the town website, there is a page of other resources we could have contacted. One is for North East Wildlife Animal Rehabilitation Coalition, an organization of volunteers who work out of their homes (including one in our town, Arlington, MA) to help with situations like the one our little visitor had experienced the night before. While I hope not to need them again, I’m determined not to forget that they’re there should the need arise.

In case you, too, are feeling anxious now, there’s no need. I called Animal Control the next day and was told that someone else had also reported the raccoon and another police officer had been able to free it from its plastic prison.

Writer’s pity party

There is nothing attractive about a person who spends all their time bemoaning how hard it is to do whatever it is that they’re having a hard time doing. And it’s doubly annoying when the person in question hasn’t actually been doing anything for months. Sometimes, however, it can’t be helped. I perused my blog backlist to make sure I hadn’t subjected you to this before (which would make the behavior even more egregious) and determined that I was overdue for a pity party.

In 2010, I wrote a post called The end is just the beginning. I had finished my first manuscript and was excited about my prospects. You might want to revisit that post if you need a refresher course on how publishing works, but in short, you send a cover letter and the first ten pages to agents to try to convince them how marketable your book is, and then it’s out of your hands. It doesn’t matter if your manuscript took three months or ten years to write, it all comes down to the thirty seconds the agent (or their assistant) spends with it. (It should come as no surprise that writers spend an inordinate amount of time rewriting the first chapter.)

keyboard and ms

My current manuscript is a middle grade, contemporary fantasy. I’ve submitted it to quite a few agents. While many are never heard from, some have been kind enough to provide the rationale for their rejection. Comments I’ve gotten include:

  • “This is a fun and fresh story but to my ear, the voice isn’t hitting the right notes.”
  • “I love your opening descriptions and felt Megan’s impatience viscerally, but some of the submission read as a bit dramatic and choppy.”
  • “You’ve nailed the family dynamics in this story, that’s for sure… Even with this potential, I’m afraid I found the story a bit too simple and wished it were more developed…”
  • “Right now, the story gives us a little too much play-by-play… This will make the pacing seem slow…”

This manuscript has been critiqued by fabulous readers, published writers, and a few honest-to-goodness industry professionals. I’ve listened, learned, and revised. I’ve taken classes, attended conferences, and yes, paid for professional help. I’ve tried to address the agents’ concerns, some I didn’t agree with, and some have been too overwhelming to think about. In any case, unless an agent invites you to revise and resubmit it doesn’t really matter, because, as they all tell you, another agent may feel differently. But then again, they may not.

You can see how crazy-making it can be.

I have a few options at this point. Give up my dream, start a new project, or pull up my big girl pants and go back to work on my current manuscript.

I know what I should do. The question is, can I motivate myself to do it?

Ready to respond

When it comes to friends, people fall into two categories, those who reach out and those who respond. Some responders find it difficult to reach out because they have been emotionally hobbled in some fashion that they have yet to overcome. I know, because I am a responder.

As all fellow soul-searchers know, it is impossible to look deeply at one’s self without running smack into a parent’s influence. Since my mother is alive and well—and reading my blog—I write what follows with some degree of guilt. However, I trust that she knows that I love her and that I am not casting blame, just seeking clarity. That said, let’s start with my father’s part in my inability to reach out. (He’s alive, thank you for asking, but unlikely to read this.)

As children, my sisters and I were allowed very little time on the phone. My father, the doctor, was often on call and in the days before call-waiting he was loathe to risk the phone being busy because the answering service might need to reach him. When your father barks, “Get off the phone, I’m on call,” you learn quickly not to get on the phone in the first place. That early training accounts for my phone-phobic nature, but is not the entire story.

The fear of reaching out can also be a learned behavior.

My mother is a responder who often exhibited an unwillingness to do even that. We would give her a message, “Mom, so-and-so called and wants you to call her back,” and she’d say, “Oh yes, I really must do that,” and then wouldn’t.

After my grandmother died, I suggested my mother get in touch with her aunts. Her response was something like, “Oh, they don’t want to hear from me. I’m just their sister’s daughter.” I was, as the British say, gobsmacked. We rarely saw our extended family, but I experienced my great-aunts as warm, loving women. I am certain they would have welcomed a call from my mother.

When I was no longer living at home, I rarely spoke to my mother on the phone. I asked once why she never called me and she said, “I assumed if I wasn’t hearing from you that everything was fine and I didn’t want to intrude.”

You see the problem.

What I’m trying to say is that even if I don’t reach out, I’m here for you, as my mother is for me. I scan Facebook to see what you’re up to, read your blogs, occasionally even Google you. I cherish our shared memories. But I don’t want to impose, to bother you.

Perhaps the people I consider friends will tire of reaching out one day. Maybe you already have. Maybe you’ve always been a responder, like me. Whatever the case, I don’t judge. If I don’t hear from you for years at a time I will assume you are well and happy. If not, and you need me, reach out. I promise to respond.

Curmudgeon in training

It’s quiet and peaceful on my back porch today, but it won’t last. New neighbors are on their way, a couple with three young children.

It was inevitable that someday we would get new neighbors. The couple next door are 94 and 95. (I struggled there with whether to use “are” or “is.” I know a couple is a singular thing, but when I turned them into individuals to tell you how old they were, they turned plural. I have a dear friend who blogs about words. This minor dilemma doesn’t rise to the level of interesting language usage that she writes about, but I’m sure she’ll appreciate the diversion.)

In any case, our lovely, elderly neighbors moved to an apartment in the center of town so they wouldn’t have to deal with stairs anymore. He’s been going back and forth to clean out the house and ready it for sale and now, I’ve heard, the deed is done.

Once upon a time, the house was a barn. It’s built into a hill and the back door, which appears to be upstairs from where I sit, opens onto a flat bit that’s blocked from view by a fence. The side yard is separated from that bit by the same fence. A picture should make that clearer. Here you go:

neighbors house

The gazebo jumps out at you, doesn’t it? In twenty years, I’ve never seen either of my neighbors sit there. Because no one uses it, I’ve been able to enjoy it as the bit of backyard kitsch it is. Once filled with children, however, I have no doubt that it will lose its dubious charm.

Maybe the new neighbors’ children will be quiet, clean, charming little things. But when they move in it’s likely that I’ll spend more time on my front porch where there’s no gazebo in sight.