Sunday, June 26, 2022

Not Even Not Zen 261: Biomythography - Note 33, Stopping for Roadside Accidents

Biomythography - Note 33
Stopping for Roadside Accidents

There I was, sitting in the back seat of a sports car with two pretty girls. Unfortunately, I was fifteen and I couldn't drive. My swim coach sat in the front with a pile of his coaching gear by his side. Otherwise, he would have sat me next to him, away from the young women. He seemed to consider himself a chaperone of sorts. He kept the conversations mild.

As he pulled through a stop sign, I hardly noticed. Brenda was sitting next to me, both of us in swimsuits although I had pants on over mine and she had a towel draped over her shoulders. I wasn't looking forward or backward but sideways. There was some sort of noise behind us while the girls were telling me something.

"What was that?" said Andy, the coach. He glanced into his rear view mirror.

"What was what?" I turned to catch his gaze. His eyes had gone wide.

"Look!" He pulled onto the shoulder and hit the brakes. 

When I turned, I saw parts of cars lying all around the intersection behind us. There were other pieces of debris, too. After a second or two, I realized that most of the debris was people. I was looking at human bodies. 

Andy fumbled with the latch for a second. His arms trembled. He got out of the car and focused on me.

"You're a lifeguard," he said. "Do you know first aid?"

"Yeah."

"I do, too. Come on, let's get over there."

For a minute, we walked from body to body. Andy was careful to not make me touch anyone although I took pulses off of two wrists without asking him if I should. We tried to rate the severity of each person's bleeding. He was relieved that I found pulses both times I checked.

I noticed a small body, a long ways away from the accident but in the middle of the road. After looking back at my coach to catch his eye and nod, I started toward it.

"No!" he yelled. "Don't touch the kid."

After his shout, I took another look. In a second or two more, I understood what I was looking at. The unmoving form was a toddler who had been ejected out the front window of his parents car. I couldn't see the face. I didn't see the chest moving. No breathing. 

"But ..."

"I'll do it in a minute," he said. "But there's no blood there. I don't think we should do anything except stop bleeding. We don't know enough. The ambulance is on the way. They can do the serious stuff, all right? Do you know how to make a tourniquet?"

"Yeah." Technically, that was true. I'd made bunches of them in Boy Scouts. I'd even participated in a first aid relay race where I tied on two tourniquets in a hurry.

"Go back to the car. Bring out some towels."

"Okay."

"We have someone trapped in her car. I'm going there next."

Back at the coach's sports sedan, the two girls I liked so much refused to give up their towels. 

"You're going to get blood on it?" one asked.

"I guess so." It had never occurred to me anyone would refuse. I started rummaging through my swim bag. "That's the idea."

"Use your own."

When I returned, I had a towel too large to make a tourniquet, another one just the right size, and a cloth scouting belt with a military-style buckle adjustable to any length. At the direction of my coach, I went to the heaviest bleeder, who was still unconscious, and tried to make a tourniquet with the too-big towel. After a minute or two, I got the leg tied off. I'd done it exactly as I'd been taught in scouts. It looked about right. I felt sort of surprised. 

"Can I help you now?" I called to him.

"No." My coach had kept talking with me off and on as I worked. It became apparent he didn't want me to see the body of a swim team parent even as he tried to help her. She sometimes moaned or fell quiet, as if dazed. Sometimes she spoke to him in a whisper. Her main problem was that she had been pinned by the crushed door of her car. Her legs were trapped inside the crushed steel and a sharp edge of it had cut her deeply. When I heard her voice, I could hear the pain in it. 

The accident response in me had triggered my willingness, even at my constantly-contrary age of fifteen, to follow orders. Here I was, executing the instructions from a swim coach who I teased mercilessly for being so nice to me, nice to the parents, nice to everyone. Now he seemed like he was doing everything right. A sort of respect for him was blossoming in me. But I didn't have time to think about it.

He kept saying we didn't know enough. Of course, he was right. When I asked if I should put a tourniquet on another person lying in the road, an unconscious woman, he made sure I meant on her arm.

"Okay," he said. "I really hoped the ambulance would be here. But she's bleeding? I remember her. Lots of blood."

"Yeah."

"And it's her arm. Go ahead."

By the time the ambulance arrived, I had finished the second tourniquet. I had kept direct pressure on the wound, too, until it stopped bleeding. Hands on hips, I paced in a wide circle and looked for something else to do. The coach insisted that I had to avoid doing anything I didn't know well and we both realized it meant not much more. The bodies on the ground, except maybe the child, were breathing. We had made sure they wouldn't bleed out. He had me watching for tongue-swallowing or other emergencies. When the ambulance crew got out of their vehicle, my coach did something extra nice. He told the men to come talk to him. He sent me back to his car. In that way, I suspect, he meant to protect me from the crew yelling at me if I'd done something wrong.

Back at his car, I stalked the ground outside the doors. After a few minutes, one of the girls apologized for not giving me her towel. I kept marching back and forth, watching the adults handle everything. All the time I'd been working, I'd been oblivious to them but some of the swim team parents had walked out into the traffic to prevent anyone from running me over or hitting the coach or the bodies on the street. I saw a team mom who I had thought of as ditsy standing in the middle of the road as a traffic cop. She was giving directions and talking calmly with someone who had gotten out of his car to stare aghast at the scene. 

I'd been in car accidents before. I'd witnessed collisions. This was the first time I'd done anything about anyone being hurt. The incident still didn't make sense to me. But I admired the parents who had taken charge. They'd known what to do. 

Although I had no way of foreseeing it, helping accident victims was going to become a habit. Getting into the practice was, for me, a product of the times. During the 1980s and most of the 1990s, there were no cell phones in cars. There were only bystanders. When you saw an accident, even on the other side of the road, you pulled over to help. You had to. At the least, you needed to check on whether anyone had driven off to make an emergency call from the nearest payphone. 

"Not yet," is something I heard many times. "I meant to."

In some of those cases, the only thing I did was peel out make the ambulance call. If traffic wasn't too bad to make a return, I would let everyone know. Otherwise, if I couldn't come back, they had to trust me to do what I said. Surrounding most accidents were traffic jams, so there was a lot of trust going on.

Once, after an accident next to a mall in Hadley, Massachusetts, I helped the driver get out. We stared in fascinated horror as the underside of his car started to catch fire. The flickering orange flame began to spread. We looked at each other and backed away. I walked him to the nearest payphone and he made the emergency call himself. I waved to him and marched onward to the girl waiting in my car.

A year later, on a bridge to Northampton, I came across a car that the driver had managed to turn over onto its hood. She was stuck inside. But she said she wasn't hurt. After a couple of careful pulls, I managed to open the bent metal of her door. She popped her seat belt. (I remember being slightly amazed that she was wearing one. It wasn't usual at the time.) Careful not to hurt herself, she emerged with help from another bystander, who lifted her to her feet. Since we were at the foot of the bridge next to a gas station, someone else had already made the emergency call from a payphone. But she was glad not to be upside down for any longer, she said. 

A lot of times, there were four or five other folks trying to help the victims. The first person on the scene usually would be the one coordinating us. That one would say something like, "Can you search the floor of the car for her wallet? It's not in her purse." It would become one of my chores. Sometimes a bunch of us would sort through items the driver wanted saved from the trunk. Or we'd re-package groceries and commiserate with the victim about the eggs or the tomatoes. 

You had to leap in to help. A lot of people did. It wasn't everyone. There might be two hundred people watching from the traffic jam and only five of us commiserating with the victims of the accident. But I think in all cases, if there weren't enough helpers, others got out of their cars to join. 
 
That's the way people are. 

The situation is better now, faster and safer because everyone has a cell phone. But I'm glad I had the experience of needing to help and of seeing other people pitch in. There seems to be less reliance on strangers now and more reliance on the professionals who, after all, respond faster than ever. 

But I'm glad I got to know this part of how people are.

Sunday, June 19, 2022

Not Even Not Zen 260: Biomythography - Note 32, The Telltale Heart Part II

Biomythography - Note 32
The Telltale Heart, Part II


In the morning, I got up with the dawn. My window didn't face east. Nevertheless, light crept in. I didn't need to go to work because it was a Saturday. But I felt motivated. I put on my backpack with gym clothes in it. It had been a week since I'd practiced Tang Su Do. I'd promised my teachers that I would keep up with the katas and one-steps.

"Hey," to my surprise, there were a couple other people in the gym, a guy and a girl. When I walked through the open doors and glanced around, it looked like they were running laps. Above us, I heard distant, metallic clanks. They echoed. Someone was using the universal weight room. "Mind if I take the corner next to the pool?"

"Sure!" the guy shouted. "We're set up at the other side."

"Thanks." Belatedly, I realized he was one of the students from the Shotokan karate class. I had watched his class but it simply wasn't Tang Su Do. It wasn't right for me. The kicks and punches all instilled the wrong reflexes for my style. Even a traditional Tang Soo Do class would probably have seemed weird since my instructors had customized our forms.

My body needed a warm-up before all the kicks. After a few push-ups and sit-ups, I ran through a series of martial arts stretches. Then I started the forms. First kata, second kata, third. Eyes closed, I took a meditation break. When I felt fresh and calm, I began the fourth kata.

Two steps in, something went wrong. My body died. But I was standing. Although I didn't move, actually couldn't, my awareness increased. The back of my head seemed to expand. My spine felt warm. The ligaments around my elbows strained. Everything fell quiet.

The blood in a human body makes a noise. I'd hardly ever noticed that before. Now I noticed. Because it was missing.

My heart was silent.

As I listened for my heart to re-start, I felt my body collapse. I blinked. The karate guy and his girlfriend were standing over me. My head had fallen all the way to the floor, it seemed. My heart kick-started with a racing sound. It sounded so loud, I could barely hear anything else. Inside my chest, it revved like a galloping horse or a dam bursting to release a flood.

"Fine?" The guy above me in his white t-shirt started to smile. I became aware that he had been talking.

"Are you all right?" asked the woman next to him. "Why did you fall?"

The smile on the guy's face started to fade.

"You're not okay," he said as he reached out for me. I stretched toward him. Something felt wrong with my arm. It wouldn't lift far enough. He grasped it. "Wait. Don't stand up yet."

My legs weren't obeying me. I'd felt this way before when my body was exhausted from long workouts. Push, push, push, and eventually my legs and arms would resist the push. They would refuse. For a moment, this felt like it. My mind refused to accept the horrible rebellion, the limbs giving up. My built-in reflexes from athletics pushed against my dead extremities. After a second, my right leg kicked out. Then my left.

The horrible flooding in my ears receded a bit.

"You're cold," he said. "But you were sweating a minute ago."

"You fell down like someone shot you," the woman said. "I thought you might have broken a tendon."

When I let go of the fellow holding my arm, he let go, too. My hands went to my sides on the polished, wood floor. I tried to turn and press myself into a sitting position. The effort would have knocked me down if I'd been standing.

For a few seconds, I sat, panting. My mind went back to a scene in the doctor's office when I was a teenager. I'd had pneumonia. The clinic had taken an x-ray of my chest. The films of my session arrived while I was sitting in a chair on a white tile floor in a salmon-painted room with my doctor and my mother. The doctor smiled for the assistant who handed him the packet. He snapped the films up onto the whiteboard one-handed. He leaned back and frowned. He crossed his arms. His mouth fell open.

"Your heart is too big," he announced. He closed his mouth and seemed to recover.

"That's good, right?" I laughed.

"It's really, really big and heavily muscled." He did not laugh with me. He did not crack a smile. "Um, you're young. You're an athlete, right?"

"Swimming and karate, I guess."

"Do you do lots and lots of it?" His eyes searched the images of my chest.

"He's not ready for the Olympics," my mother explained. "But he trains with a national group. There are some Olympic swimmers in his lanes."

"Maybe it's normal." He stepped away from the x-rays. He nodded to me more like he was reassuring himself than anyone else. "It's probably normal. Still, some people with big, muscular hearts have been having heart attacks. They're young, too."

"Oh, what's doing that?" asked my mother.

The doctor seemed reluctant to guess. Eventually, he mentioned 'drugs' as a factor. There had been a former college basketball player in the area whose death had made the news. I'd read a couple of articles about him myself, and I knew he died playing basketball on a playground. The doctor said he felt that stimulant drugs and large hearts didn't mix. That player was one example. The doctor knew others.

"That's not a good combination," the doctor told my mother.

The death of Len Bias was three years in the future when I lay on the gymnasium floor. But there had already been a different basketball player who had died from snorting cocaine and from playing his sport not long after. He'd had a large, muscular heart. Like in my x-ray.

There I sat. After a minute, I felt better. I rose to my feet.

"Wait, wait!" the couple next to me shouted. Too late. I stood and started looking around, hands on my hips, trying to judge my embarrassment level. At the top of the cinderblock walls of the gym, next to the universal weights, stood a young man staring down at us. He had noticed, too. I had no idea how. But he stood on the balls of his toes, hands on the rail, and watched me with sweaty concern.

There was no one who had come in to play basketball yet. That was good. The plexiglass-backboard hoops raised and lowered on a crank. The one behind me to my left had been down in playing position. I wasn't on a playground but I was on a basketball court, a weird parallel with my thoughts. I had fallen twenty feet from the hoop. Funny.

"Can you walk?" the woman next to me said.

"Probably." I paced a few feet. My legs trembled. I almost fell. I stopped, turned, and tried again. I walked back and forth. Already, I felt stronger. Good.

"You should go to the doctor," the karate student advised.

"Well." I didn't like the sound of that. My gaze went to the clock on the wall. It was five minutes before seven. The nurse's office didn't open until noon, I thought, on a Saturday. "I don't think they're available."

"Go anyway," he urged.

For the moment, I decided to walk home to my dorm room. Along the way, I rested. I got more rest later. All the rest of the day, my physical improvements continued. By dinner time, my body felt nearly normal. Only a few close friends had noticed my weakness. Two of them, Thomas and Liz, urged me to go to the nurse. But it was a long hike and I didn't feel up to it. After dinner, my strength returned but the medical office had closed for the evening. We had only one nurse for the whole campus, after all. I promised Liz I'd go the next day to make certain I was fine.

The next day the nurse said that all my vital signs looked fantastic. I was in great shape.

#

In retrospect, I never took legal or illegal drugs without people around me doing them first. That pattern didn't come from any conscious choice I made. It seems to come from my instinctive level of trust (or mistrust). If no one is dropping dead, how bad can it be? Everything - alcohol, coffee, marijuana, tea, tobacco, prescription medicines, just everything - has fit the same social pattern of my life.

My friends in college kept telling me I acted the same under the influence. No matter how much alcohol I drank or pot I smoked or whatever, my behavior stayed the same. Maybe it was due to my secular buddhism or stoicism. Regardless, hearing the judgment so often affected my attitude. I assumed that, because I didn't care about the drugs, they weren't affecting me. After all, everyone kept saying so. But blood chemistry is different from behavior. The whole time, every drug and piece of food I ingested was doing whatever it did in me. The chemicals weren't paying attention to people's opinions.

I've used some recreational drugs, like coffee, in a medical way to stop asthma attacks. I've also inadvertently overdosed on coffee and benadryl (both vasoconstrictors) to give myself bloodflow attacks that resulted in literally blinding headaches. (I couldn't see clearly and needed to lie down in the dark for a few hours.)

When I get criticized by my friends for not trusting that a drug isn't having an effect, I have reasons for my attitude. When I regard legal drugs, like coffee, as if they need to be controlled, it really comes from the same reasons. And yet I still fall prey to social accommodations.

It would be smart to say that I stopped doing cocaine after a single, serious event. For a couple weeks, yes, I did. But it was a drug that seemed to be everywhere around me. My friends and girlfriends said I should do more. So I did. Dozens of times. I had the day-after reaction again, too, twice more. And still, for the sake of friendships and socializing, I kept going.

Sunday, June 12, 2022

Not Even Not Zen 259: Biomythography - Note 31, The Telltale Heart Part I

Biomythography - Note 31
The Telltale Heart, Part I

Our dorm room walls had been painted a shade of off-white, which was a color that captured every scuff mark. Our furniture was made of pinewood. It felt heavy, boxy, and fragile. But it was modular. You could fit it all together to make different room settings. That aspect may have been limited by the ugly materials but it was still smart. Students got creative with the furniture. Some brought in art for their walls. Some of their rooms looked good.

My room didn't have art, not even a poster. It would not have won design awards. I cannibalized the cabinets, shelves, and nearly all other surfaces to make desks. I liked having lots of writing and drawing space. I grabbed extra bed pieces and turned them into more desks. I had a cassette player for music, which I sat on the back of one of my desks and ran more or less continuously.

That was the setting in which I met women. Some of them, anyway.  

"You're not taking advantage of me. I'm offering." One of my friends, a beautiful girl from down the hall, walked in to offer me a sample from her stash of drugs. She often made gifts to me. I felt awful about them.

"Are you sure?" I asked.

One of the ways I felt bad was that I didn't like drugs. I had gone sober for a year and I was getting back to small amounts of alcohol. I didn't drink coffee because it was too strong. After a while in college, I felt willing to smoke pot if everyone else was doing it but only enough to make other people relax around me.

"It's a trade," she insisted.

For another, I didn't like her drugs in particular. One of her favorites was cocaine. Another was cocaine and heroin together. She had switched to it on the advice of her dealer. 

"There's a difference in price." My hands spread out wide to my sides, a pleading gesture. She knew I was right. What I brought to parties was nitrous oxide. It cost pennies.

"I can afford it," she said.

But the most important reason I felt awful and confused was my huge crush on her. I'd met her the previous semester in my quantum mechanics class. Now, at age twenty, she made me wobbly in all sorts of bad ways. Somehow, my timing with her was always off. When I offered to take her out on a date, she backed away. When I gave up, she approached. She physically chased me at times, usually when she was stoned or drunk.

Sometimes the turnaround in her attitude was so quick that I would lean in for a kiss and she'd dodge. I'd apologize and leave. She would show up at my room a minute later bringing drugs to share with me. All in all, it was confusing.

"Hah! This is so dumb, it's great!" she shouted when we traded hits of nitrous oxide. Laughing gas, no real surprise, made her giggle. She handed me her deflated, green balloon. I wrapped her fingers around the stem of the next balloon, an orange one I'd filled for her.

"It's silly," I admitted. After all, that was the point.

"Hah! Woo!" She took a deep hit, one right after another. "I'm seeing colors this time. Is that supposed to happen?"

"Are you dizzy?"

"I don't know. I'm sitting down." She started to rise. Her hand slapped the back of the chair as she took half a step and tripped. She steadied herself. "Yes. Wow, I'm tripping."

"Colored lights means slow down," I decided.

"Aw, no fun." She pretended to pout. She sat and folded her arms. Then she burst into laughter.

A few weeks into the future, she would push her way into my room while drunk and naked. It could have been a breakthrough moment for us but actually, it wasn't. She had probably made the decision based on the theory that I wouldn't be able to resist her. Under normal circumstances, it's true that I found her irresistible. But that time she got herself so drunk that anything besides emergency medical procedures seemed out of the question. I did, in fact, resist. A few minutes into her visit, after I wrapped her in one of my blankets and she was trying to explain herself, she started throwing up. So that's how it would have gone anyway if I had welcomed her with more enthusiasm.

On this particular night, she plied me with cocaine. Since I was hoping it would lead to something more interesting with her, like kissing, hand holding, or almost anything, I agreed.

"This is the best stuff," she asserted. "It's pure."

"Sure." I'd heard that from her before.

"This time I got it before he cut it."

"Okay." That probably wasn't true but I wanted to trust her.

Unfortunately, after she used up half of her cocaine she seemed to get nervous. She announced that she wanted to go for a walk with me. That sounded worthwhile, I thought. She took me by the hand. The body contact felt reassuring, almost promising. She pulled me down the hall and out the door. 

Her spontaneity gave me hope. At night under the stars, we walked hand in hand for a few minutes. Then her hand got sweaty. She pushed me away. Usually, I was the one who got sweaty. It was weird to realize it happened to girls, too.  

We walked through nearly half the campus, which is eight hundred acres in total. That meant we hiked a few miles through fields and woods, across roads, along the bank of a tiny stream, and in the grassy alleyways between buildings. We stumbled together in the dark. She held my hand again, for a while, until she seemed to feel awkward about it. She talked for most of the time, hours of talk, sometimes about quantum physics but also about her family, which made her nervous and she tried to explain why. I listened, answered her questions, and occasionally ventured opinions in response to her ideas on physics. She was taking an astronomy course, too, and after she mentioned it, she laid down on the grass near the campus apple orchard. She pulled me down with her but she froze up when I tried to kiss her. After I backed away, she relaxed. She took my hand, pulled me closer, and pointed out stars for twenty minutes, giving them the names she'd learned and asking me for physics opinions.

After a few hours, we said goodnight, which seemed a shame but gave me some hope, too. She squeezed me in a brief, awkward hug outside her room.

Since I wasn't tired, I did school work for a while. That is, I tried. Mostly I thought about the walk with her, which had made for a friendly but frustrating evening. I felt like we might be close to romance. Maybe. If I could be patient with her swaying between "I hate you and I hate myself" and "you're great and I like you," I would get to find out.

But it was a crush. I knew myself enough to know there was nothing I could do about it. I was helpless for a few months or until she started kicking puppies for fun. Although I didn't trust myself entirely in that case to not pretend to like kicking puppies. 

Sunday, June 5, 2022

Not Even Not Zen 258: Biomythography - Note 30, Infinite Light in a Box

Biomythography - Note 30
Infinite Light in a Box


"You can't do it," Richard said.

"Well, I want to try." I put my hands on my hips and wished I'd brought my light box. Then I could show it to Richard and maybe he'd understand. I'd made a drawing for him with a good pencil on his elementary school lined paper. I'd tried to show him the angles of the light rays.

"It's impossible." He leaned closer for emphasis.

"Light is particles. It bounces. And it bounces off mirrors." My drawings weren't finished but I was sure about the concept. Since light bounced between mirrors, I could shut the door of the box at any time and capture the light that was inside. The photons would keep bouncing around off mirrors until I opened the box.

Something was wrong with my box, though. It never seemed to capture light in a way I could detect. The problem might have been in my detection method. (It was: open the box in the dark.) The issue might have been in the tape and mirrors. My mother wouldn't let her eight-year-old son cut up her mirrors to fit exactly into the box. There were gaps between the reflective surfaces.

Actually, I wasn't sure how to cut a mirror. One of the neighbors was a rock collector. He had a diamond saw. I wanted to try that. My next idea was to break a bunch of mirrors and tape the shards together.

"Mom!" Richard called. "Tell him it's impossible."

That was unfair. Calling a parent into the debate was like bringing in a tank against the infantry. But I was ready with my description and my drawings. I was sure my ideas matched with what I had read in physics articles. Richard's mother, Mary, kept saying something had to be wrong. To her irritation, I kept insisting the principles were fine.

"It won't work," Mary said. "I can't explain it in terms of photons but I'm not going to argue about it anymore. I know someone who can. John!"

She called her husband over. Now it was Richard and two adults against me. But I was sure I was right. I had been reading about photons all year. John, a tall and normally quiet man, ambled over.

"Tell him that this is impossible," said Mary. Richard added extra 'impossibles' for emphasis.

"Well, let me hear him say what he's trying to do, first."

For the third time, I tried to draw it. I described the light box and the basic idea of photons bouncing endlessly off mirrors until I released them.

"There are a few things wrong with the experiment," he said. Maybe he suppressed a chuckle. It was only for a second and, if that's even what it was, he kept it muted. Rather than growing scornful, his voice grew extra careful and gentle. "For one, did you know that mirrors aren't perfect?"

My eyes widened. Whatever he was getting at, I knew it had never occurred to me. Mirrors reflected light. I knew they did.

"Lightwaves aren’t particles or at least they're not just particles. But never mind that. You do understand a lot of what you've read. The problem is that, even if photons were exactly how you think, your box would fail because the mirrors can only reflect a percentage of the particles each time. I don't remember what percentage it is for standard, consumer-grade mirrors but it doesn't matter. Even if you capture eighty percent of the photons each time, that still means you're losing twenty percent. And the light bounces so fast. You're losing all of the light in less than a second. In less than a tiny fraction of a second, even.”

"It's impossible, right?" Mary said. Richard nodded. "Just tell him that it's impossible."

"Well, hate to say that because there are a few labs trying to do this sort of light capture right now." He couldn't keep from showing a twinkle in his eyes. "They have better equipment than cardboard and mirrors. Even the best scientists couldn't do it with that. So with the tools you've got, I'm sorry, it isn’t feasible."

I felt slightly crushed but not as much as I might have been. Mostly, I felt confused by the word ‘feasible.’

"But this is a really good experiment to try," he continued. He spoke as if he wanted to get that part in quickly before I lost heart. "There is a team at University of Maryland using specially focused lenses to coax light into a circle. They've got that part done. What they really want to do is something you mentioned, too, and that's to isolate a single photon. They haven't achieved that yet but they think they're close.”

He went on to say that it was a very interesting problem to a lot of physicists.

“How do you capture light?" He rolled his shoulders, less than a shrug but definitely a gesture of uncertainty. "It’s difficult.”

John Price, as usual, seemed a bit like someone else had dressed him but he didn't mind. He was always well put together and yet seemingly indifferent to his clothes. This time, he'd worn a plaid shirt that didn't look like something he would pick for himself. It was too busy and too bright. The sleeves were short, though. The fabric was light and he looked comfortable on the warm day as he explained photons for a few minutes more.

He talked about light being a wave and a particle both. I wasn't happy with his ideas. How could light be more than one thing? That didn't match with the binary logic my father was teaching me. And what did it mean for a fundamental particle to be a wave? At no time in the discussion, though, did he make fun of my cardboard box with mirrors taped inside.

John said there was nothing wrong with my detection method of opening the box in the dark.

"If a box like that could work, you'd see a flash of light." He half-shrugged again. "Or maybe it would happen too fast and it would be hard to see but that part is really not bad design."

The most critical thing he reiterated was that I was trying to solve a multi-million dollar problem. Other good experiments might be done with my limited materials. If I thought of those, I should do them.

“Anyway, aren’t you worried that breaking mirrors could cause bad luck?” His voice took on a teasing tone but still with gentleness.

“No.” That sounded like something one of my uncles would say. But I hadn’t thought of it.

“Oh, that’s good.” He nodded to himself. 

Sunday, May 29, 2022

Not Even Not Zen 257: Biomythography - Note 29, Progress Too Slow

Biomythography - Note 29
Progress Too Slow


When I was eight, I spent a lot of time in my friends' homes. It was the age of fireflies in jars and sleepovers with our faces pressed to the glass.

One of my best friends, Joe Wood, lived down the street. In one of the rooms of his house, his parents hung a mercator projection map on the wall. It showed the entire surface of the world. Their map was one that's now a classic, seen everywhere, but derided for its larger scaling around the northern and southern edges.

Joe's family map had almost invisible country lines. When you stood in the middle of the room and looked at the wall, you couldn't see anything except the earth features. What stood out most were the geographical reliefs, the heights and depths, green parts and deserts, mountain ranges and lakes.

Like many children before me and after, I noticed how South America fit neatly into Africa. North America fit pretty well into western Europe, too. Even the mountain ranges on the continents seemed to match as if they could be zippered up together.

When I mentioned it to Joe, he said, "Yeah, I saw that, too."

When my father came to pick me up, though, I pointed it out again and got a different response.

"Well," my father grumbled. He crouched down a little to see the world map from my point of view. "Yeah, this is good artwork for that. But it's a controversial theory."

“It’s a theory?”

“It's called the Continental Drift. It's not what I was taught in school. Geologists like it now. Look, we've got to go. I'll tell you about it on the way home. And then you have to get ready for a big drive."

"Okay." I let him pull me away from the wall-sized map. He didn't say much about it on the way home. The real explanation came during a conversation with him and my mother on our trip.

My parents had graduated college. They enjoyed learning and they'd made it happen. Although they had become teachers, not scientists, they appreciated reading about scientific progress, controversies, and discussions. They kept track of what was going on.

"I have to say, I don't think continents drift much," my father said. "I've never seen it. If it happens, it's very slow."

"It's not what I was taught, either," said my mother.

"But this guy, Wegener ..."

"Alfred Wegener." She talked like she had read about it.

"He was a German. He had this weird idea, like you, that all of the continents could fit together. He tried to prove it. No one believed him."

Although my father didn't say it, Wegener had gotten support from European scientists during World War I. His ideas got earnest discussion even though he was a German and despite his low rank in the various science communities. Albert cut out maps of the continents and stretched them to pull out the mountains that had crumpled them. He fit them together into a supercontinent he called Pangaea. He showed how animals and plants on opposite sides of the oceans were the same. Not only were the marsupials in Australia and South America essentially identical but so were their parasites. He found layered geological formations that ran along on one side of an ocean and picked up again on the other.

It was the Americans who came down hardest against continental drift. They had invested their careers in the steadiness of the continents and Wegener proposed no clear mechanism for moving them. Especially during World War II, the American geologists launched attacks against Wegener's 'fairy tale' theories. For decades afterward, older American geologists warned younger ones that showing an interest in continental drift would end their careers.

"But then came this stuff on the sea floors," my father said. "I'm trying to remember how it came up in the discussion."

"Divers keep finding places under the oceans where the crusts are expanding," my mother added.

"New lands are rising up and pushing around old stuff. It's slow but now they say everything is moving. All the lands. They're calling them plates."

"Tectonic plates," said my mother. "It was in Science News."

For a moment, I pictured an earth ringed by a crust of thick dinner plates. The naming of the concepts involved could have been easier for eight-year-olds.

"So now we're pretty much just waiting for everyone to agree."

"Why isn't this settled yet?" my mother asked. "When am I going to see continent movement lessons in my textbooks?"

"It's the older generation of geologists." My father clicked his tongue. "They hate this stuff. What I've read from the younger ones is they've given up on convincing the skeptics. They're waiting for the older generation to retire and let continental drift become an accepted theory."

"Why don't the older ones just admit it?"

"People, Ann." That was my father's answer for a lot of academic absurdities.

It may not seem helpful but it's an accurate summation of why societies get anti-science stridency from professional scientists. It's because scientists are people.

Alfred Wegener wasn't an insider. He trained as an astronomer and he worked at weather stations as a meteorologist. His proposal may have seemed like the local weatherman publishing in a journal. In addition, anti-German biases were strong in English-speaking countries during Wegener's lifetime. His lack of a proposed mechanism gets cited as the reason other scientists resisted but that looks irrelevant in hindsight. Darwin didn't propose a mechanism for evolution. Galileo didn't come up with one for heliocentrism, either. Other scientists proposed mathematical models to support them later. The resistance to continental drift appears totally social and generational.

Our societies often seem to come around to the reality of the situation late. My parents were brought up to see the continents as fixed and static. They were told other untruths, too, many of them harmful. They unlearned a lot of those untruths. But it took them time.

Humans reinforce their beliefs in what they think they know. Our old assumptions need to die off in the most literal of ways. When I was nineteen, I got my hands on a copy of a book called My Secret Garden by Nancy Friday. She conducted a reasonably structured study, survey style, about women having sexual thoughts. That seems ordinary today. At the time, people were outraged. Experts thought she had mental problems for suggesting that women had such thoughts. Any women participating in her study were assumed to have problems, too.

A review in Cosmopolitan asserted: ‘Women do not have sexual fantasies, period. Men do.’ The American Psychiatric Association declared that women having fantasies was a sign of mental illness. A decade after her popular book changed the narrative, it was acceptable to admit that a woman having sexual thoughts could be normal. That seems quick - a faster response than Wegener got - but her book didn't come out during World War I. She wasn't a contemporary of Jung; she didn't get shouted down by Freud. Her book came out in 1973.

These changes always come later than it seems they should.

Sunday, May 22, 2022

Not Even Not Zen 256: Biomythography - Note 28, Running Away

Biomythography - Note 28
Running Away from Home

There was a knock on the apartment door. When I looked up from where I was playing on the floor, I saw four pairs of feet at the outside entrance. Two belonged to my parents and one to a man with white socks, another to a woman with white shoes.

"Come in, come in," said my father.

These memories are fragmentary. My father said something like that. There were other words spoken. My awareness was not great. By my collection of remembered clues including the location, the clothes, and the smells, I was a bit more than two years old. I saw the world from a position low to the floor, looking up. Except for my mother's face, I don't remember or didn't notice any adult faces.

Nevertheless, two adults came in. They left the apartment door ajar. My parents invited them to sit on the chairs and couch. The grown-ups talked. They ignored me. The visiting couple had an infant with them. Something about the situation made me feel insecure. I wanted to touch my parents.

"Go play," my father said when I tried to interrupt. He turned me around and pushed me back towards a few square feet of rug with a wooden doll, a pile of spelling blocks, and a toy truck.

After a while, I gave up trying to get their attention. I wandered to the closet next to the kitchen. I unwound the vacuum cleaner cord. Although I wasn't big enough to move the body of the machine, I knew how to plug it in and play with the suction hose.

My father dashed into the kitchen and pulled the plug after a few seconds. I had just started having fun making the hose pull on my shirt. He swatted the attachment from my hand.

"You can’t do that now," he said. "It’s too loud."

In our apartment living room, the baby started to cry. The strange woman, a new mother, decided to solve the problem by breast-feeding.

That looked good to me. I marched into the living room and climbed onto my mother's lap. From the arm of the chair, I tried to squeeze into a position to breast-feed.

“No, we are done with that.” My mother pushed me away. She and my father told me again to play.

The adults talked more. And kept on talking. I don't know how long it took. All the little frustrations made me look for someplace else to be. When I wandered in the direction of the kitchen at the front of the apartment, my father reminded me not to play with the vacuum. For a while, I danced in a circle. I noticed the hard metal front door, which was not quite closed. With one hand, then both, I pushed on it. The door swung open. A breath of warm city air washed over me. Freedom.

Carefully, I stepped out onto the concrete landing. Noises from the street filtered up the stairwell. Traffic. Children yelling. Everything sounded big. Too grand for me. Even the quiet footsteps of an adult leaving the building echoed in the wide space full of hard surfaces, metal and stone.

Scared, I backed into the apartment. The adults laughed. A moment later, I heard my name. More laughter. I remembered that I was mad at my parents. I marched back out to the landing.

There, I sat on the top stair. I thought about leaving my parents for good. They wouldn't let me play with the vacuum. They liked the new baby. Everything was frustrating. And I was bored here.

My hand rose up to the lower half-railing, the part that kept kids like me from falling. Using it to steady myself, I took a step down. Another step. "Only little kids go down the stairs on their bottoms," I remembered an older kid telling me. And I always went down on my bottom. Or held my mother's hand. But I was running away. I had to be bigger. I had to stride down the stairs by myself.

A half-flight of stairs took me to the next landing. My arms and hips felt slow. I had to rest. Each stair was too big for my body. I didn't think I was going to make it standing up. But I couldn't bear to go back. Since no one was looking, I decided to slide on my bottom the rest of the way.

Three flights. Good thing I had a cloth diaper underneath my pants or the stairs would have hurt more. At the ground level, I rose to my feet. The bright sunlight lay ahead. Our first floor apartment door had been propped open. With one hand against the doorframe, I emerged onto my home street in Bitburg, Germany.

Cars rolled by. A child on a bicycle. I hid behind a streetlamp until the unsteady bike swerved past. I glanced down the lane where it had gone. A moment later, I followed it.

At a stoplight, I tried to cross. A lady across the street looked sternly at me, so I stopped and waited. When she started to walk, I did, too. I passed her going the opposite way. A few feet later, I took a big step up onto the sidewalk. Still mad, I kept plodding onward but now I felt tired and puzzled. Nothing looked familiar. Farther down the bright concrete path, I saw a couple walk out to their car, a man in a dark suit and a lady in a lighter color. The lady flashed me a puzzled expression.

I kept looking for my friends. Nothing seemed right. There was no one I knew.

At the next light, I stepped off the street but I waited. No one could go onto the black asphalt without the walk signal. I nodded to myself.

When finally I crossed, I climbed onto the opposite curb and my hands clutched the pole of the crossing signal. I needed a break. My body wanted me to sit down. My hips and knees were cramping. But there was no chair, not even a flat square of grass in view. Then I thought about the laughter at my expense. A wave of anger swept through me. I staggered farther down the sidewalk.

The surge of energy wore off in about twenty steps. My mouth needed water. My belly wanted food. My legs cried for a rest. Finally, I spotted children sitting out on a front stoop. They weren't doing anything but somehow they were busy. There were toys littered around them, unused. An older girl, the ringleader, sat on the top step while two younger girls listened to her. A boy, maybe someone's younger brother, shifted in place as if he'd rather be anywhere else.

"Juice," I reached out my hand for the older girl's glass bottle.

"Where are you from?" she asked. She made no move to give me anything. The other girls turned to gawk at me.

"Juice, please?" My hand waved around in her direction.

"You're pretty small. I haven't seen you before." She dodged my hand. She protected her drink, removed the cap, and took a swig. Then she smiled. Her teeth were crooked.

"Please? Bitte? Bitte schon?"

"Polite baby." She rolled her eyes. She took another drink, which very nearly finished the juice. She left a half-inch of spittle-filled dregs remaining. "Okay, you can have the last. No one is going to want it after you."

"Hey, I wanted some," the boy said.

"He's a baby. And he's more polite than you." She handed me the glass bottle. I grabbed it with both sets of stubby fingers, leaned, and chugged. "Where are you from, baby?"

"Ah." I finished, burped, and tossed the bottle back to get more. There wasn't any. The sweetness of apple juice haunted my mouth. I could smell it.

"You really are little." The girl started to frown. "Where's your momma?"

"Danke schon." I tried to hand the bottle back.

"Do you speak English?"

"Yes."

"Where's your momma?" She motioned for one of her friends to take the empty bottle from me. Then she stood to search the street with her gaze. "Is she around? Did you run away from your momma?"

I nodded. I had run away. It was wonderful to be understood. The big girl started to wander from the front of her apartment. One of the smaller girls followed. The younger two, the boy and a girl, sat on the second step of the staircase. I noticed something behind them, a red fruit with a bite taken out. Someone had left it by the rail.

"Apple." I pointed.

"It's mushy." The big girl returned to the front of her tenement. She leaned down, face to face with me. "I tried it. So did my brother."

"Apple, please?"

"Don't say I didn't warn you. Here." She marched to a spot beside the steps. With her left hand, she grabbed the apple. She moved to the front of the steps and held it out for me to take a bite.

Maybe she was thinking that it would be easier for me than if I tried to hold it in my grubby mitts. It was harder because she was holding it. The apple moved when I tried to chomp down. I had to grab her hand in mine and the apple, too. Finally, I dug my teeth in hard. But the apple flesh tasted sour, almost rotten.

"Hah!" One of the girls laughed at the expression I made.

"See?" said the oldest one. "Even babies don't like mushy apples."

Now I was angry at the girls and at the apple. I grabbed her hand and took another bite. Another. But it was too much. Too sour. Too brown. Too acidic in my mouth. I had to stop. I chewed what was left between my teeth like a furious, hungry monster, indignant snake in the garden, resentful because the fruit wasn't nice.

"Are you mad?"

I nodded.

"Did you really run away from your momma?" She studied my face carefully. "You can't do that. You're little. You can't be gone. Your momma is going to be worried."

I stared at her without concern. My parents had laughed at me.

"We have to get you back."

My eyes surveyed the buildings and cars around me. I felt momentarily lost. What direction had I come from? My knees hurt. Although the steps were close by, they had other kids on them already. I decided to sit down where I was on the sidewalk.

"Did he come from that way?" The girl turned to her friends. They nodded and pointed. "Yeah."

"He can't have walked far," the boy said. He gave me a scornful glance. "He's a baby."

"Right." She put her hands on her hips. "You guys stay here. If you leave, you'll get in trouble."

"What are you going to do?"

"Hold his hand." Her big girl fingers stretched out to me. They looked thin and smudged with dirt. "Okay, baby. Can you find your way home? If I walk you there, can you find where you left your momma?"

After a moment of thought, I nodded. I knew what my building looked like. Since I hadn't taken her hand, the girl pulled it away from me and stuck it out again. This time I reached up to her. I let her pull me to my feet even though I didn't need help.

For a block or so, we marched on. She made us take a crosswalk going the wrong direction. Fortunately, from that corner I could see my building. I recognized it from my many arrivals at the end of car rides. I tugged on her hand and led her on towards it. She kept pausing to glance back at her front stoop. The distance made her nervous. She had to make sure her mother hadn't come out looking for her.

Finally, we crossed one street and then turned immediately left across another to reach my apartment building. The front door was still open. The big girl stopped to look inside. She did not step past the threshold.

"You climbed all these stairs?" she murmured.

"Ja."

"Do you mean yes?" She leaned down to me, a hand on her hip.

"Yes."

"I'm not allowed to go into other buildings on my own," she announced.

Oh. I didn't want to let go of her hand. I'd gotten comfortable with her. Unfortunately, she seemed certain about not going in.

"I shouldn't leave you. But your momma will understand. If I stay any longer, I'm going to get in trouble."

She shook her arm once. I didn't let go. She gave me a meaningful look. I'd never had a big sister but her expression let me know something about what it would have been like. There wasn't any doubt about her intentions. I let my fingers slip away.

"Go ahead," she told me. With her left arm, she waved me forward.

After a few waddling steps, I turned to stare at her. She insisted that I had to keep moving. I took a deep breath and finished my march to the stairs. I put my right hand on the metal bannister. Tired but resigned to the effort, I climbed the first step on my feet like a big boy.

Behind me, I heard the girl leave. There was barely a sound, just a shuffle and a hop. Those were not adult footfalls. I trudged up another step. Another. My gaze drifted down to my shoes. I noticed that the concrete stairs were dusty here near the ground floor landing. My shoes were dusty, too. The air around me swirled, a mix of the outdoors and the indoors, mostly fresh but a little stuffy.

Partway through the flight of steps, I gave up. My body felt like it needed a nap. I turned, put my left hand onto the metal bar, and eased myself into a seated position.

A few minutes later, I heard someone above me. The sounds, muffled and indistinct, echoed in the stairwell. I couldn't tell what made them. It wasn't shoes. Maybe it was another kid coming down on his butt. The shuffling sounds continued. In a few minutes, a pair of slippers rounded the corner above me. I lifted my gaze and saw my mother.

She stopped for a moment and let out a sigh.

"Here you are," she said. She moved down to the middle of the staircase and bent to take me by the arms. "Where did you think you were going?"

#

A few other memories I have from the ages of two or three:

I met a grey-haired woman on a plane flight. I think my mother was flying me back to stay with my grandmother in Annapolis. The flight was nearly empty, though, with lots of vacant seats around us. A stranger wanted to play with me. My mother was happy with the situation and so was I.

I made several escapes from my crib. I learned to press the release on one side, then crawl over to trigger the release on the other. Every time, the crib gate slammed down. Once, it slammed down on my arms. I wailed so loudly that my mother came rushing in. She said, "There, there," followed almost immediately by, "Would you please stay in bed and try to sleep?"

My first day of nursery school on the army base was a difficult one. The entry hall was brick. The floor was beige tiles. I didn't want to go. When I realized my mother was trying to leave me, I threw at my her leg and wouldn't let go. When she pried me loose, I wailed harder and threw myself on the floor.

"Go ahead," said the lady in charge. "Don't worry. We'll take care of him."

As soon as my mother was gone, the woman grabbed me, fast marched to a different room, and tossed me angrily into one of the cribs. There were a half-dozen of them. For a while, I cried because I was alone. Then I cried because I was getting treated like a baby. Then I remembered that I knew how to escape from cribs.

The latches were different than my crib in the apartment but I figured them out. After I made my escape - carefully avoiding the slam of the gate - I wandered down the hall. The mean lady was reading a book to a room full of toddlers. They looked about my age. I stood next to the doorframe, hidden, and listened to Richard Scary as told by a different voice than my mother's. It was strange. It wasn't all bad. But after a while, I thought the lady was reading it wrong. I stepped into the room.

Suddenly, all eyes were on me. The kids didn't worry me. The teacher, yes. She seemed sly. She wasn't surprised by my entrance. She simply said, "Are you ready to play nicely now?"

Sunday, May 15, 2022

Not Even Not Zen 255: Biomythography - Note 27.5, Hesitation and Fear

Biomythography - Note 27.5
Hesitation and Fear of Rejection


Five:

In the spring after I turned sixteen, one of my plans began to pay off.

Back when I was twelve and thirteen, my father announced repeatedly that he was never going to allow me to drive a car. It hadn't entered my mind until he ruled it out. His steady opposition led me, at the age of fourteen, to start a campaign to get my license. For two years, I made my parents drive me everywhere.

I kept my membership with the national training group at RMSC in order to make my father drive me to their practices at four o’clock in the morning. I trained in the evening, too, to make him take me as late as possible. I asked for rides to the mall. Rides to DC. Rides to Baltimore. To swim meets in other states. To friends at odd times or at inconvenient places. I encouraged my brothers to ask for rides.

Within a year, my mother wore down. She started talking about me driving myself. Not my father. It took more than two years before he relented and allowed me to take a drivers education class.

The course took place in the county school system. Since I normally traveled thirty-five miles to school, I'd never been in my public high school. (My only other public high school class had been typing, which I took it in a different building.) The class started in June on the first day of summer school. I might have been the most excited student who answered 'present' although the others were plenty ready to drive.

I didn't know anyone. There were a few threats in a typical high school way. They didn't matter. I got along with the students well enough. One or two of the guys got as far as being happy to see me. And I found another student who was new, Debi, who was smart-mouthed and liable to punch my shoulder, and we became pals - friends with flirting, really. My mother had gotten me a bicycle two years before as I began my campaign for a drivers license. Now Tucker across the street had gotten a bicycle from his parents, too, and we took rides, seven miles each way, to visit Debi. In contrast to every other parent, including Debi's mother, her father was always delighted to see us and gave us cold beers. I still have a fondness for them because those summer bike rides were hot. And the beer was cold. And the atmosphere was friendly. And Debi.

In the middle of summer when I was sixteen, a lot of things seemed to happen at once. My scholarship money to Sidwell Friends didn't increase to keep up with the tuition. That was the third year in a row. This time, the banks refused to loan my parents anything to supplement the scholarship. My parents took me with them from bank to bank, trying to get me to look bright and angelic, but the financial picture became clear. I needed to enroll in public school, where I had just finished my drivers education class.

My parents didn't let me drive to my school enrollment. But a few days later, I took myself to my first lifeguarding job of the summer. I started to make money again. And this time I wasn't going to give it to my parents. I had a plan.

"I need to cash my paycheck," I said as I walked into a branch office of Maryland Federal Savings and Loan. Inside, the space was narrow, about as big as a double-wide trailer.

"Are you an account holder?" the teller asked me.

"No. How does it work?" For one thing, I genuinely didn't know. For another, I wanted to put the staff in the position of selling me into getting an account with them. I knew that it wasn't strictly legal for minors. (I'd learned it from my previous attempt at a bank.) I also knew that I wanted my own account. I didn't smile. I remained friendly but skeptical as she waved her manager over to talk with me.

He sat down behind his desk, buddy to buddy in his suit and tie. He gave me free matches, a free pen, and he made his pitch. In five minutes, he sold me on depositing my paycheck. He gave me a free book of checks and explained how that worked, too. Now I was sixteen; I had my learner's permit; and I had found a way to keep my money.

But I had to go to public school. It was Jeannie's old school, the one that had scared her. Tucker's school, too. He didn't always like it. As much as I was looking forward to being someplace different, I knew I would have to bluff through. My new summer lifeguard friend, Adam, wasn't in a position to help. He went to our rival school.

"You're here!" Debi yelled when she spotted me in the hallway on the first day. She ran up and gave me a hug. It felt weird to have anyone recognize me. I hadn't thought of it, but I realized then it must have been a relief for her to know someone. We were partners in outsider-ness and she had it tougher. At least I knew Tucker and a handful of teenagers from swim teams. Debi only recognized fellow students from her driving class.

Since she was a junior and I was a senior, I figured we would have no classes together. But we had one, my only elective, Theater.

The teachers were good in most of my subjects. But the theater group was special. We didn't hold the classes in lecture format. We spoke lines from famous plays. We acted in improvs. We got to know each other. The process affected my attitudes towards the other students, some of whom felt bullied elsewhere in school, and I started to feel protective of them. Whatever happened, I was on their side.

"She likes you, maybe," Tucker said after seeing one of the theater girls come over to my locker for a talk.

"Not sure." But I was sure. It was starting to make me panic. I hadn't expected the weird soap opera of trying to decide who liked me best, who I would be able to help, or who would be good for me. Beyond all that I had to wade through the environment of ever-changing packs of girls together, sometimes friends, sometimes suddenly not, laughing with me or laughing at me.

I remembered what had gone wrong before. I'd resolved not only to look for the moment but to make the moment. It couldn't be a matter of waiting for the least embarrassing time to talk to a girl. It had to be talking to her. Making this thing happen. Embarrassing us both. Her turning red with the hideousness of being asked out by me. My voice cracking with courage, shame, and fear. It was going to have to be that way. I had made up my mind. It would take place in front of all our friends and our sneering enemies.

Yet my resolution was weighed down by my habits. I'd known two girls in this school who would have gone out with me after the first week if I'd dared to ask. But I didn't. I was casing the joint as usual, following my careful methods that had experienced no success, waiting for girls to ask me out instead.

After three weeks, I was getting smiles from a few more girls in my classes. After five weeks, I had the sense that I was once again taking too long. Other students were starting to give me puzzled looks.

"So are you going to take out Laura?" Tucker asked as we hiked through a stream behind his house.

"Maybe." My stride took me across a rivulet filled with leaves. "I do like her."

"She's cute. She used to have a boyfriend." He paused before hopping over the leaf-filled rivulet. Five steps later, he reached the larger stream. He looked like he was considering the social scene from a different perspective, as if he had been watching people swimming but now found himself making up his mind about whether or not to put a toe into the water. "Hey, frog eggs."

I'd seen them. When he pointed at the clear lumps, I nodded. They looked like a gelatin spill in the algae on bank of the stream.

"We ought to come back when there's tadpoles."

"Yeah."

"Why not Debi?" he wondered after a minute. "She's really fun."

"I don't know. I'm thinking." That was probably the problem, I thought.

"That blonde-haired girl from your theater class likes you. More than the others, I think. Or maybe she just laughs at your jokes a whole lot."

It was a problem. I tried to be funny and to make myself someone girls would like. But maybe that made it easier for me to fool myself. As soon as I said something sincere like, "I really like you," I would be found out.

I knelt to sift through the wet stones along the stream. It had become a conditioned reflex to push them around and take out whatever seemed interesting. Aside from bits of jasper, there was nothing much, just clay, dirt, quartz, and shale. Minnows darted away from my shadow.

"You think she likes me?" I asked. My eyes followed the minnows but my ears were tuned for Tucker. I was relying on him more, lately. He had become my sanity check at school. If he thought girls liked me and he was wrong, well, of course he still could be fooling himself. But he had lesson reason for it than I did.

"She stops by your locker enough."

"Yeah." It was past time to do something. I would never be sure of myself, so I couldn't wait for that. This year I had a car available to me. I didn’t have to badger one of my parents to drive me on a date like I had when I was fifteen. I didn't have to take her on a stroll through the woods. Not that walking with girls sounded bad. Holding hands and kissing in the forest had a certain appeal.

Jeannie came to mind, dying in her car. If I sulked, if I hesitated and missed a chance, I would never get up my courage fast enough.

"She laughed so hard that one time," Tucker continued, "she tripped."

"Oh yeah." Thinking of her face made me smile. She was smart and she thought I was falling-down funny, sort of. She hadn't been hurt the one time she'd tripped. I'd caught her.

"It was cute."

"Yeah." It was. And when I had touched her wrist, I'd been close. She had smelled nice.

Sunday, May 8, 2022

Not Even Not Zen 254: Biomythography - Note 27.4, Hesitation and Fear

Biomythography - Note 27.4
Hesitation and Fear of Rejection


Four:

In the late fall when I was fourteen, my neighbor Jeannie moved away to Michigan. Her father meant to retire there. Jean and I had a quiet goodbye next to her house in the woods, where she kissed me. Startled, I kissed back.

"I wish we had done that more," she said.

"Yeah." It was another lesson in social bravery. I mean, I'd been constantly aware that I should have done more than to hold hands with her. I had thought about it every day that the weather was good enough for us to meet outside.

Regardless, Jeannie was gone and I had passed up chance after chance to make both of us happier. The next family to move across the street had a teenager in it, a boy who turned out to become a friend. Soon I was sharing complaints about life with him or we were skipping stones in the creek or exploring ruined buildings and half-finished construction sites. That summer, I got to swim in a league where I never lost a single race. To make it even better, I met a couple of girls who liked to put their hands on me a lot. It was nice. It all felt a lot like I had imagined being human could feel.

Minimum wage that year was $2.50/hour, so that was the rate at which I made my money as a lifeguard in August and September, when the college kids left. My parents had taken my savings to pay their bills, so I started plotting my financial freedom from them. My wages got deposited into a joint account, though. I couldn't really stop them from taking it all, not yet.

My job had social benefits, not just financial ones. Although I was fifteen, I could buy mildly alcoholic drinks on the strength of my marching into convenience stores with a wad of cash and walking out with beer and wine. There were no questions asked of big spenders, I'd noticed. I always got as much as I could share or hide. Even though I relied on an older teenage driver, I never took anyone else into the store with me. I pretended to be the driver myself.

"A whole case?" The older teenagers in the housing development couldn't believe their luck in having me as their beer-toting lifeguard.

"Hide some for me." I didn't really want any. What I wanted was friends.

"Done. My parents never look at the closed shelf above my bed."

Also on my job, I met a girlfriend of sorts. Her name was Mary. She had been banished from Iowa for bad behavior, apparently. Well, that was how she told it. Her parents didn't want to bring her back during the summer. Of course, I still wasn't able to build up the courage to ask her out. That would have meant getting rides from my parents or from her brother.

"We're not taking my brother with us on a fucking date," she told me.

Instead, Mary found ways to get me alone. When I was working, she closed the pool to lock out other guests and stay with me. Sometimes I protested because I worried that I would get fired. Sometimes she convinced me to help her close the doors and lock them.

Fifteen was a pretty good summer.

That fall, though, Mary returned to her parents. She wrote me love letters from Iowa and I wrote some back. Soon enough, the dreariness of winter set in. I knew I would have no more chances to flirt or experiment with girls. I asked my parents and neighbors for Jeannie's address but we only exchanged a single set of letters. She said it was hard for her to write.

On the winter swim team, the coaches separated us into men's lanes and women's lanes. Although it took me a few months to realize it, that put an end to my motivation. I coasted all year. At school, I felt the physical distance from my friends even more. Once or twice, I managed visits to their houses outside of school but it always took an hour to get there plus an hour back. I protested the lack of rides from my parents. I protested the need to ask for rides. But my parents usually told me no anyway. More often, I hiked through the woods alone, or with my brothers, or with my best friend Tucker.

One day, Tucker marched straight to my door. He didn't hang around asking if I could come out.

"My father says he got a message for you," he announced.

That didn't make sense. No one was going to call a neighboring house to reach a kid like me. Then I realized it could be his father's way of saying he was mad about something I did, which seemed possible. His father was mad a lot. And I did things.

Tucker didn't seem worried, though, and he usually was. That made the prospect of parental anger less likely but also more puzzling. When his father was upset the whole neighborhood heard it. I hadn't noticed any yelling. So what else could it be?

"From who?" I asked.

"The guy who used to live here before us."

"Mr. Fisher?" It couldn't be anyone else. My hopes of getting a message from Jeannie rose.

I started bouncing on my feet as I waited for more news. Tucker didn't smile. He put his hands in his coat pockets to keep them warm. He bowed his head.

"My father says you should come over to hear it."

I looked at my jacket but I didn't have the four seconds required to put it on. That would have delayed the message. On the way to Tucker‘s house, I started to regret it. It was nice for a winter day but still, it was February.

Tucker‘s father met us outside the back door of his house.

"I got a call from Bob Fisher. He told me his daughter died." He gave me a long, penetrating look that seemed simultaneously pitying and blaming. He stood tall with an almost formal bearing. His gestures were stiff and uncomfortable as he leaned in and lowered his voice. "He said he wanted you to know."

It took me a few seconds. "How?"

"It was her first drive in the snow." Oddly, he seemed to relax as he said that. With the perspective of time, I realize that Mr. Mostrom was a man who was more comfortable with delivering a safety lecture than he was with the prospect of someone like me breaking down in tears. I'm sure he wanted to avoid any displays of emotion. "She hit the brakes. Her car slid off the road and into a tree."

Then he launched into his safety lecture. He wanted to make sure that his son and I understood about pumping the brakes and other rules of safe driving. His gaze locked on Tucker, then me, then Tucker. He warned us about the dangers of driving and how everyone needed to learn to drive in the snow specifically. He was right about that. It’s a separate skill. But I didn’t know that.

While he lectured, I thought about Jeannie and her last minutes of life in the car, dying.

When he was done, I said something, I don’t know what, but I was struggling to be polite. We talked. He seemed impatient with me. I excused myself and wandered back to my house. There, I avoided everyone and took the stairs down into the basement. I closed my bedroom door and laid down on the floor.

Jeannie’s father had sent a message. That was good, wasn’t it? He knew about my feelings somehow. He knew about his daughter's feelings.

But she had died alone, at night, cold and in pain. Died on the scene, Mr. Mostrom had said.

And I had never spoken up. Had been many times too late. Had worried about what others would think. Had been vain. Had failed even in my moments of courage. Had tried to avoid embarrassment. I had tried to avoid having my heart broken.

She wasn't just injured. She was dead. It seemed ridiculous. And completely unfair. Of all of the stupid things that teenagers do, this was one of the least evil, the most excusable. But for some reason, that didn't matter. And she was dead.

I started to wonder why her father made sure to pass the word to me. It was an odd thing for an adult to do - to be aware of some kind of love between his daughter and me. And for him to act.

It felt like he was trying to tell me something, not just to mourn but not to fail as spectacularly again as I already had. I should have let myself fall for her, completely and utterly. Holding back had been a mistake. If I had ever thought of repairing that, and I had often, it was too late. She was dead. We get one life. Hers was over.

It was my failure to take a risk and get hurt that kept us from being a little happier.

Sunday, May 1, 2022

Not Even Not Zen 253: Biomythography - Note 27.3, Hesitation and Fear

Biomythography - Note 27.3
Hesitation and Fear of Rejection


Three:

When I was twelve I wintered at the YMCA. There were no girls of interest in my swim practices there but I was satisfied anyway. It was cold outside and I was glad to keep in shape for the summer. That's when I could be surrounded by girls again and prove that I was good at something. The other kids at the YMCA were still fun. I liked the place. I enjoyed being on the team. My best friend was Aki and even though we had to compete against each other, we managed to share laughs at every meet. But my family moved out of the county. That was the end of swimming there.

My parents found a winter club that practiced in Montgomery Village no more than twenty minutes from our new home. Those kids, too, were fine. The training wasn't the best but it was good enough to keep me fit. When summer league came back, I kept winning. Girls saw me finishing in first place again. I managed to talk with some of them. One got a crush on me and I crushed on her right back. We flirted for months.

I would have been happy to stay with the same practice schedule for the winter. My father wasn't satisfied, though, because my younger brother was talented. He needed better training and that meant I had to move, too. The next fall I joined the Rockville Municipal Swim Center.

At RMSC, a swimmer who started training year-round at the age of twelve was way behind. I had been spoiled by my successes as one of the top three breaststrokers in the county but the RMSC coaches put me in their high school prep level, which was their rating for athletes who had no real promise. Their evaluation could have seemed insulting but, really, I understood it was right. I had no real promise. Puberty was passing me by. I'd grown from 5'2" to 5'5" and I'd gotten a bit more muscular but that was it, athletically.

The high school prep group slotted me into the bottom three lanes. When the coaches put you there, it was because they had decided you would never be good enough to join the RMSC National Training Group. Their NTG squad prepared for the Olympics and for intense national or international competitions. They went to college on athletic scholarships. The higher three lanes of high school prep had the potential to join NTG someday, maybe.

Our practice took place in the Montgomery College pool, where they piped in music underwater. I worked out to the Top 40 hits. That fall, I made friends with other high school level swimmers and acquired a dumb nickname, 'Muscles,' that I sort of hated because it implied I was as stupid as I felt. But my friends used it on me with affection, so it was impossible to protest.

After six weeks, the best swimmer in the fastest lane moved up to the National squad. Some teens got promoted to higher lanes including a girl I had been flirting with. She was the cutest in the pool. Or maybe that was just my opinion but I was utterly sure of it.

"You're slacking," I would tell her. Such wit. And she would giggle.

"Faster than you, Muscles." She'd splash me.

I'd pretend to be wounded. The problem with all of this, in the view of the coaches, was that the girl I liked was an excellent swimmer with at least college potential. She was two lanes faster than I was. And we still splashed each other and flirted across the lanes, oblivious to and annoying the hell out of everyone else.

But she thought I was funny. I thought she was an angel.

After another week or two of us leaving our swimming lanes to splash each other, the coaches moved her up to the next-fastest lane. I wasn't sure whether it was because she was so good - she was - or because it put more distance between us. It inspired me to create a furious plan.

"Why are you cruising so fast today, Muscles?" one of my friends asked. The day after the girl I loved got promoted, I was lapping everyone in my lane. As it turned out, I hadn't been practicing very hard before.

"Got to move up," I growled.

"So you can get closer to her?" he tilted his head in her direction. So much for it being a secret. Did everyone know? It's a good thing I was pink with effort and breathing heavily already. But he was one of my best friends. He wasn't mean.

My look in return must have said everything.

"Well, good luck." He shrugged his large shoulders.

A few days later, all the kids in my lane were lobbying the coach to move me up. During the distance swims and even the sprints, I was lapping them. Because I was furious and executing my plan, I never seemed to get tired, either. They were sick of me.

"Well," my coach's mouth got tight, his expression grim. I don't think any of the other coaching staff knew what I was up to but he sure did. He tried not to look at the girl I liked. For a second or two, he couldn't help it. Then his gaze snapped back on me. He sighed like he knew the other staff were going to give him trouble. "I guess I don't have much choice."

That put me within flirting distance again. I got giggled at and splashed more. But I loved it. Underneath the laughter, I was still furious and executing my plan. My idea was not simply to be close enough to flirt. It was to be in the lane next to her. Or swimming right with her. My main problem was that she was simply faster than I was. She practiced harder, too. I'd never really thought about my level of effort before in any competitive way. In a general sense, I wasn't a competitor at all. I preferred letting my friends beat me. Unless a girl was watching.

"You guys know Eric," the coach said on the next Monday, making the move official. "He's been in this lane before and he had all best times in the last swim meet, so he's moving up permanently."

Instantly, the other teenage boys in my lane asked me for my times. It was what everyone did. They rated themselves against what I'd achieved. After a bit of talk, I understood that they intended to defend their lane. There was nothing they could do about breaststroke. They felt dejected about it but I was the fastest in the pool. My butterfly and freestyle were mediocre. Some of them could kick my ass. And my backstroke was awful. They intended to rub that in whenever they could and keep me as low down on the practice chart as possible.

If it weren't for Furious Plan IV (since it was not my first furious plan), I might have eased up and looked to make friends with them. But they were in the way of the plan. And I already had my friends.

Three weeks passed and I improved my times some more. My practice speed kept improving, too. I had moved to the front of the lane to which I'd been so recently promoted. And I knew that if I could get one more promotion, I'd be swimming next to my crush.

"You are looking so good," she told me during a break in our workouts. One of the girls next to her tittered. "Your butterfly is way better."

"Thanks. Don't slack off so much or I'll catch you."

"I'm still faster than you in butterfly, Muscles!"

Amazingly, my times in freestyle had passed hers. She had not gotten mad about it. Although she remained fiercely competitive with some of the other girls and with her older brother, who was already part of the National squad, she seemed to like it that I was faster than her in some things. She could still train the hell out of everyone, anyway. To my dismay, she seemed to take my improvements as a challenge.

I had modeled my practice habits on hers as much as I could. Now she stepped up her efforts further and I struggled to keep pace.

"Gallagher, another meet with all best times," my coach announced a couple weeks later. He was getting used to it. The other staff members were starting to accept me, too. "Geez, a 1:09.23 in breaststroke. That's best on the team for your age group and you've got a year left."

The coaching group decided to put me into the fastest lanes whenever they did specific breaststroke drills. It was a sideways promotion but it meant I got to swim with the girl I loved. I was ahead of her, even. A few times, I started to lap her in breaststroke but I stopped. She called me on it.

"Did you slow down just so you didn't pass me?" her voice was half flirting, half mad. I had finished a couple laps ahead of her in a drill. When she finished, she strolled over to me with the accusation.

"Maybe."

"Don't do that." She was still breathing heavily. She never eased off her efforts in practice. "It's okay, pass me."

So, over the course of the year, I kept improving my times. I moved up to the third-fastest lane. It was a huge transition and an admission from the coaching staff that they were considering me as worthwhile to train. Their move put me right next to the girl with the cutest grin. For three weeks, she and I hung out on the lane line between us, talking whenever we got a break. On the other side of me, a couple of my old friends moved up, too.

"You're not the only one, Muscles," a friend told me in triumph at his move. He had gotten three meets with all best times, too.

I had friends on all sides. My situation couldn't have been happier. Then one day after my girl and I splashed each other for most of the hour, the coaches moved her into the fastest lane.

Furious Plan IV had never stopped but, with a lane between us again, I cranked it into my highest gear. I was already the second-fastest swimmer in the third-fastest lane. All I needed to do, I thought, was mow everyone down in my way and make the coaches admit I was good enough to elevate again. And again.

The timing toward the end of the swimming season was close but I made it. By the end of that year, I had passed up about forty swimmers to be with the best girl (in my totally objective opinion) in the fastest lane of the practice pool. A couple of my friends had moved up lanes close by me, too. We had all done something more than we or the coaches had expected. At the end, the coaches had to read their announcement of the list of next-year promotions. That included promotions to the National Training Group. Of course, the girl I liked made it in. To my shock, not much farther down the list, I made it, too. Near the end of the list, they read out the name of one of my best friends on the team, the one with so many best times.

Unlike summer league, where flirtations had to end abruptly, the RMSC held a year-end dance. It was sort of a forced socialization event. It was hard to tell who really wanted it. The coaches? Parents? Older girls? Nevertheless, when it was announced three weeks ahead, every guy immediately started pounding me on the back and telling me I had to ask my girl to dance.

I was petrified. No one seemed to understand how ugly I was in clothes. Did the girl I loved not understand that I was a troll? It seemed unfortunately possible.

How would she react when she saw me in the mismatched Sears catalog corduroy outfit my mom bought for me? Could I burn the house down in time to get donations from the Salvation Army and go in random denim and t-shirts? During the lead up to the event, my mind was bursting with a dozen plans per day, some of them involving going to the dance, some of them involving my parents dying from a plane crashing on the house (“sorry, can’t go, I’m an orphan this week”), some of them with me just wandering into the woods and never coming back.

“You have to ask her to dance,” one of her girlfriends told me, inches away from my face on the last day of practice.

“She’s actually going?” Some of my hopes and dream scenarios had been pinned on her not being allowed. She had mentioned that her father was opposed to letting her dance.

“Of course. But she thinks boys are dumb.” Her friend sighed with exasperation. Probably she agreed with that sentiment. “That’s why you should ask.”

On the day of the dance, I panicked and changed outfits. I changed again. Then I mercifully forgot for a while, got into a wrestling fight that smeared my clothes with clay and dirt, and put on my fourth best pants. Ugh.

I looked awful. When I arrived in my mom's car, I expected my friends to point at my clothes or to make fun of me because I couldn't drive. They all arrived with their parents, too. They didn't seem to care what I was wearing. They didn't even notice. We talked and threw a plastic football in the grass. In the back of my mind, I tried to think of the lessons I'd gotten from socializing at school: one, sometimes you've got to speak up; two, girls think dances are important. Eventually, the sky darkened. I hung out with my friends for as long as I could but finally I had to turn and face the inevitable. I marched inside the building like I knew I was going to die there. In my heart, I was doomed. I accepted it.

Inside, about thirty-five girls were standing near the walls of the recreation center. The dance floor was empty. On the far side of the floor, a band played cover tunes. Someone had turned down the hot, bright overhead lamps. That let a spinning, colored disco light array provide its weak illumination.

For a while, I wandered along the edges. That put me with the rest of the crowd and it was awkward. Next, I hovered around the food and the drinks. The prospect of eating made me feel sick. I ate something anyway because I was trying to fit in. I kept looking for the girl who I loved but she was nowhere in sight. My friends had told me she was here. But I didn’t see her or any of our mutual friends. The crowd seemed to be mostly older teenage girls from different RMSC practices. I didn’t know them.

Still, I worried that everyone understood why I was there. After an agonizing fifteen minutes, I saw her come back in through the side door with two of her friends. My heart skipped. My feet, too. But I froze as I studied her expression. She looked grim.

In the green and purple disco lights, everyone looked sickly. It was hard to tell her mood at a distance. I started to approach her, to ask her to dance. Her gaze caught mine. She looked away.

Something was wrong. My resolve evaporated.

I walked around the room once. It was my way of passing by her, just to be close in case she wanted to talk. She said nothing. I tried to nod to her. I wasn't sure she noticed. A minute later, I wandered back outside.

“Some of us are smoking out back,“ one of my friends told me outside the door.

“That sounds good.”

“We can’t go all at once in case the coaches notice.” He said this with a total affectation of disinterest, as if we were spies exchanging information at a public checkpoint, which we sort of were.

“Got it.“ I moseyed along the parking lot in exactly the wrong direction. When I reached a stand of trees I turned to the right. Out of sight of anyone in the lot, the recreation center, or even the road, I hiked around the building and down the hill at the back. I was still within earshot of the cover band in the dance hall.

“Hey, Muscles.”

“Gallagher.”

The group of boys parted to let me in. One of them grimaced at me as if he knew why I was there. But he didn’t say anything. An older boy raised his eyebrow in surprise.

We clustered together and smoked pot for a few minutes. Some kids complained about the coaches always narccing us out to our parents. Other kids complained about their parents. Everyone knew I was chickening out. Eventually, one of the older boys had to mention it.

"You should go back in, man," he exhaled a puff of smoke. "If I had any girl that gave a damn about me, I'd go in."

"She's beautiful," another said. He shook his head, amazed. "You should."

"She's in a bad mood," I said.

"You should still go back," the older, wiser one insisted. He had turned fifteen. "Let her be in a bad mood but with you there."

"Come on, Muscles."

"Yeah."

"All right. We'll see." The older boys passed me the pipe. One of them laughed as I inhaled the coals to bright red. After smoking more and listening to their complaints about life and getting more of their advice, I gathered up my courage and returned to the dance.

When I walked in, the lights had been turned even lower. Green and purple polka dots floated on the walls. Most of the older girls had fled the scene. They could drive. Probably, I guessed, they had left. Had they taken the younger girls?

Carefully, I walked my circuit through the recreation center. She wasn't among the girls who remained. However she had done it, she had gone.

Sunday, April 24, 2022

Not Even Not Zen 252: Biomythography - Note 27.2, Hesitation and Fear

Biomythography - Note 27.2
Hesitation and Fear of Rejection

Two:

During a month of talking with a girl at school, I developed a crush. It was a heavy, serious thing. She became the best part of my day. We could talk about anything and everything. We often did. Her mind was quick. Her smile flashed. She hugged her textbooks in front of her when she laughed.

I longed to make her smile, to keep her entertained, thoughtful, and happy. Her opinion mattered. Every time I saw her in the hall or outside my classroom, my soul eased. When she glanced my way and smiled, it raised my pulse.

I wanted to express how I felt. My problem was that she hung out with a group of us, talking, flashing those smiles, and growing on all of us as the best part of our school lives. She was Chinese-American but then a couple of my friends were, too, so it didn't seem weird - not that any ethnic differences would have occurred to me. (Maybe they should have but I was fourteen. A lot of aspects of life hadn't come into my limited field of view including large social barriers that no one would think I could miss.)

There seemed to be a distinct likelihood to me, however, that this girl didn’t like me so much as she enjoyed our group of friends.

To make the prospect of revealing my crush more intimidating, sometimes she hung out with other girls who were also well dressed and smart. She stood off to the side often, holding a book and making witty comments. Then I would get cut off from her for half a day. I would muse about my unhappy life and write bad poetry. Later, I would see her through the door to my history class and she would notice me and turn with a grin.

And I grinned back and thought cheerful thoughts about her for an hour. Fuck the middle ages. I had that smile to think about.

One afternoon, a group of us sat talking between classes. A couple of the well-dressed young women came over to sit down with us. It wasn't so unusual that anyone raised an eyebrow. But I did get a sense that something was different.

"Have you thought about prom?" one of the well-dressed girls asked. She turned to me, scanned the group of us, and finished by looking at me.

"Not really." It was a thirty-five mile commute to school. And the prom was at school. There was nothing appealing about that.

"Well, maybe you should." She nodded to me. Apparently I looked slow on the uptake. "You really should."

My immune system was hyperactive as a teen and it made me impervious to some things that others could catch, like hints. But even I got the essential idea from the conversation. It did occur to me, at last, that there would be one thing appealing about the prom. And I knew who it was.

There was only one problem: she was going to reveal her disdain for me because my friends were better. Or my friends would hate me for daring to ask her. In fact, maybe there was a more pressing problem: me. I could imagine a lot of things going wrong. I could barely imagine anything going right.

Fortunately, two days later someone said something casually mean to me. It wasn't anything too bad, but it was meant to be an insult. To my surprise, she wheeled on our mutual friend and defended me. For the rest of the day, I replayed the event in my head. My mouth kept falling open. She had spoken up for me, had actually said good things about me right in front of other people.

Really, I knew I should admit to her how much I liked her.

This was different from kissing the girl across the street in elementary school or flirting and splashing with girls in the neighborhood pool or holding hands with my crush in sixth grade. All of that had taken place a long, long time before. Or so it seemed. For sure, it was before I entered this school of impressive kids from impressive families.

I knew. But I spent a week anyway, agonizing over how asking her would ruin my life. Finding out she didn't like me would do that. I had to resign myself to having my life ruined. What was so good about it anyway? Trash it. I could always jump off the bridge over the creek at home and die. But asking her wasn't as simple as falling from a bridge. I spent days trying to get her alone for thirty seconds. That was a challenge. Every time I started, our friends would see us and run up.

Finally, on a nice day, our teachers decided to take their classes outside. I saw my crush heading down the stairs early. I trailed her like the most incompetent spy ever. Out of breath, I caught up to her when she was sitting on the concrete rise that held up a garden bed.

She seemed a little more distant today, more hidden behind the books in her arms. But I had grown determined.

"I've been thinking," I started.

"Really?" She could be sarcastic like all of us in the school. 

"I'd like to take you to the prom."

"Oh. That." She looked down at the sidewalk for a moment. When she looked up, she glared. "You know, I wish you had asked two weeks ago."

"Why?"

"Because I wanted to go to the prom with you." She was angry. I was crushed to feel it. "Now someone else has asked."

"Oh. So you're going with him?" Oddly, I wasn't as hurt by this idea. At least she'd be happy.

"No." She chose her words carefully. "I said I wouldn't go and that I didn't want to go."

What did that mean? Was she free to go out with me or not? I waited to hear the answer. After a few seconds, though, I realized nothing more was coming. 
 
"So you don't want to go?" That seemed the most likely answer given the expression on her face. 

"If I go with you, he'll know I lied."

"Yeah." I knew the mutual friend of our she was talking about. He probably already understood that she had lied to let him down easy. But if he had proof, he'd never let it go. He would never stop reminding her that she'd lied.

For a minute, I tried to coax her into following her heart and bluffing through our social circle bullshit. But hardly any words came out of my mouth, in fact. I had no social bluff of my own. Anyway, it was hard to look at her being unhappy and know that it was largely my fault.
 
She was adamant about honesty, too. She had always been strict with herself and her friends about it, too. Everybody. No lying. 

"We have to go to class," she told me.

"Yeah." I was late already. My class had gathered underneath a tree. No need to make her late, too. I wandered off in the direction of the crowd. It took me a few seconds on the edge of the group before I could make myself ready to enter the circle of other students, though.
 
This was the second time as a teenager I'd gotten a lesson about social timing, And maybe about honesty. But that wasn't enough for me to learn.