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?"


"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.


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


"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


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."


"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


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


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.


"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.”


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."


"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.