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.

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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.

People watching – short fiction

 

A tall man in a blue work shirt yanked open the door to the bank. He pulled off his yellow, Caterpillar baseball cap and whacked it against his thigh. He ran his hand through his hair and looked around before making his way to the coffee bar near the front window. After contemplating the setup for a moment, he picked up one of the disposable coffee pods and brought it close to his face, squinting as if he couldn’t read the label. He returned it to the counter, not bothering to put it back in the bin it had come from, and chose another one. Satisfied, he put it into the machine and pushed a button. With no haste, he put a plastic-coated cup in place just in time to catch the hot stream.

When the cup was full, he took a sip. No sugar, no cream, no need to stir. He didn’t remove the spent pod, either.

On his way back to the door he paused. “You’re outta Southern Pecan,” he said.

“I’ll make a note of that, Sir,” said one of the tellers.

He flipped his cap back on and left.caterpillar hat

Mia must have been staring, because the teller who was helping her said, “It happens all the time. We’re like Starbucks, only free. Did you want a cup?”

“No, thank you. Why don’t you tell them it’s for customers?”

“Because,” she replied as she fit a stack of bills into the automatic counting machine, “that guy could be worth millions to the bank one day.”

That guy?”

“You never know,” she said.

The other teller, a young Indian woman wearing a blue blazer, came hurrying out from behind the counter. She held open the door for a man in an electric wheelchair. He had no legs, not even stumps. He was a torso with arms. There was a tray across the front of his wheelchair, the kind you’d find in the seatback in front of you on a plane.

The young woman followed him to the counter, but didn’t go behind it. Instead she stopped with him and asked, “The usual?”

Mia couldn’t hear his response, but he reached into a black leather bag hanging off the side of his wheelchair and pulled out a ten-dollar bill. The teller took it, went behind the counter, and returned with a roll of quarters.

“There you go, Mr. Price. All set?”

He must have said yes, because she said, “Right then. Let me get the door for you.”

Mia watched as he rolled to the sidewalk and waited at a cross walk. When the traffic stopped, he propelled himself across the street onto the opposite sidewalk. She watched until he was out of sight.

“Miss?”

She turned back to the teller, who handed her her cash with a small envelope.

“Is there anything else I can do for you?”

“No, thank you,” she replied.

“Sure you don’t want a cup of coffee?”

Mia smiled. “Maybe next time.”