Endings and Beginnings

We finished the giant work project that has been consuming so much of my brain space for the last three months. We finished it, in fact, a full day early. I am exceedingly grateful for the massive effort made by the team I work with. There were more than a few times in the last weeks when I wasn’t sure we would reach this place, wasn’t sure we would finish, but here we are.

I spent the evening on zoom working with Fox, my sister, mapping out a project that she and I will be undertaking. I feel as if she and I have just completed a couple of months of pre-reading activities and are about the dive into the book at last. (Today is also Fox’s birthday!}

Today is the last day of the 2021 edition of the Slice of Life Story Challenge. It’s been a long and often difficult slicing month for me. Yes, I’ve posted something every day, but I haven’t been as much a participant in the community as I usually am, and I’ve missed that. I haven’t had the strength to join in, all my energy sapped by work. I’ve missed catching up with some of my favorite veteran slicers, missed getting to discover new slicers. The end to this year’s challenge feels too soon, too soon.

And tomorrow is the start of National Poetry Month, the start of my 2021 poetry 30/30. I had thought I would give this month to exploring the pantoum again, but I’ve changed my mind. I was zooming with my friend Sonia (aka Red Emma) last night for our biweekly writing date, and she introduced me to a form I’d never heard of, the “Golden Shovel.” Apparently, poet Terrance Hayes created this form as an homage to Gwendolyn Brooks. The idea is to take a line from a poem or other text and use each work in the line as the end of a line in your poem. Hayes’ idea was to do this using lines from Gwendolyn Brooks’ poems. Sonia learned about the Golden Shovel in a NYTimes article that introduced a twist on the form: use, instead of a line of poetry, a headline from a news story. Sonia’s going to do a 30/30 using the headline version of the Golden Shovel. And I’m going to do the Golden Shovel, too … but I’m going to use lines from Lucille Clifton poems. We’ll see how it goes.

And maybe, if I don’t chicken out, I’ve got another couple of beginnings on the horizon for April. We’ll see how they all play out.

It’s the 14th annual Slice of Life Story Challenge!
Head on over to Two Writing Teachers
and see what the rest of this year’s slicers are up to!

Original Slicer - GirlGriot

Under the Sea

Okay, one last Grand Cayman story. At the end of yesterday’s post, I mentioned that there was a lot of snorkeling on that trip. It makes sense, of course. We were in the Caribbean, of course a lot of our activities would involve the water and seeing what was in the water with us.

I’m not a great swimmer. I can swim, and could probably swim well enough to swim out of trouble if trouble approached me slowly, but Diana Nyad, I’m not. I’m fascinated by the ocean, however, and by sea creatures.

Backstory on me and snorkeling: The first time I went to Jamaica, I was excited to go snorkeling. My friends and I got gear and marched ourselves into the water. And the ocean didn’t disappoint. I saw lots of fish — including a beautiful moment when a school of silversides swam around me. I saw sea urchins, a conch, lots of coral … After I’d been paddling around a while, I was annoyed because there was a terrible noise that was distracting me from my leisurely sea-gazing. It was a loud, rasping noise, as if Darth Vader was about to tell me he was my father. I kept looking for what could be the source of the nuisance. Finally I realized that I was the source. What I was hearing was the sound of my own panic breathing, loud and terrified, amplified by the snorkel and maybe by the water. I don’t know, but it was LOUD.

Panic breathing even though I was totally fine … and would always have been totally fine because I was snorkeling in such shallow water I could just stand up when the going got too unnerving. Seriously. The second place we snorkeled on that trip was a sand bar. I couldn’t even swim there. I just lay on the ocean floor and looked around.

Why panic breathing? Because I am fascinated by the ocean, but I’m also pretty entirely afraid of it. And when I’m fully in it, swimming around with the beings that live there, I’m out of place. I’m the alien, unable to adapt, inserting myself into someone else’s territory. The landscape is foreign, the atmosphere is inhospitable — I can’t breathe there unless I have special equipment — and no one speaks my language.

And being underwater in the ocean, I discovered, makes me feel claustrophobic. Really, really claustrophobic.

All of this adds up to panic breathing. I consciously calmed my breath and forced myself to keep going. There was so much I wanted to see. And I got to see a lot, but my snorkeling fear took hold from that first day. I snorkeled a few more times on that trip — even had a barracuda swim on his own leisurely path right in front of my nose! I kept snorkeling, but my fear didn’t abate.

So when I agreed to be a chaperone on the Grand Cayman trip, I knew there would be snorkeling on our agenda. I figured it would be like what I’d done in Jamaica, and I’d make it work. I also figured that, with two other adults sharing the chaperone duties, there would be times when I could opt out of being in the water. And then the other chaperones announced that they had no intention of swimming because they couldn’t swim and were terrified of the water. So I would have to do all the snorkeling. All. And keep a brave face on while doing it so the kids who were nervous would feel better about giving it a try.

Our first outing, we got on a boat, and motored out further from shore than I’d ever snorkeled before. Our captain and guide announced that the spot he was taking us to would be great for seeing lots of things … and would be between 75 and 80 feet deep. And, while the kids were oohing and aahing at the thought of such deep water, I was repeatedly confirming for myself that no, in fact I wouldn’t be able to just stand up if I was freaking out. I’m tall, but I am woefully human-sized, so no toes on in the sand and head above the waves options there.

We put on our gear when we reached the designated spot, and our guide and his crew began helping the kids into the water. I descended the ladder and pushed off from the boat and, before I even put my face in the water, I could feel my panic breathing start. Under the guise of monitoring the kids, I treaded water and did some deep breathing exercises to calm myself. I finally got my breath back to something that could pass for normal, and went under.

And I saw lots of fabulousness, including rainbow parrotfish, who I fell in love with instantly, and gorgeous, enormous sea fan coral (gorgonia ventalina), which is one of my favorite corals. I also saw how far the floor was below me, and I had to fight back the panic breathing again. And I saw a stingray … and I decided to swim back to the boat … which at first I couldn’t find but located before a full panic attack could erupt.

I don’t remember how many snorkeling outings we had during that week. At least five, including one day when we snorkeled at two different venues. Vidalys, one of the older girls who had held my hand across the aisle on the plane because she was terrified of flying, told me she was excited to get better at snorkeling because she could see how much I loved it. I almost laughed. Then I realized that a) my “Whistle a Happy Tune” approach to being a snorkeling chaperone had worked for both Vidalys and for me because b) I was loving the snorkeling. I was loving seeing all those rainbow parrotfish and seeing corals and seeing all the other underwater-world things there were to see. And by the last couple of excursions, I no longer had to calm myself because the panic breathing had stopped clawing at my throat.

I’m still not Diana Nyad, nor will I ever be. I am, however, making some undersea plans. I have a gift I want to give myself when I hit my 60s, and it involves some serious undersea activity. Just thinking about it calls up the old panic, but Grand Cayman taught me the cure for that: I just have to keep diving in.

It’s the 14th annual Slice of Life Story Challenge!
Head on over to Two Writing Teachers
and see what the rest of this year’s slicers are up to!

Original Slicer - GirlGriot

Epic Fails in Child-Minding History

After yesterday’s post, I thought of so many other stories from the Fresh Air Fund trip. But SOLSC is almost over, so I’m going to tell the big, dramatic one that comes with a sweet little one embedded in the middle.

First let me be clear that I have always been a terrible babysitter. My very first job as a babysitter when I was a kid, I fell asleep on the couch … so deeply asleep, that I didn’t hear the parents knocking on the door or ringing the bell to be let into the house at the end of the night (no, I have no idea why these adults didn’t have keys to their own home). They had to go to the back of the house and rouse one of their children by banging on his window so he could let them in. I didn’t wake up until they came into the living room and gave me a little shake. (They hired me a few times after that, another unexplainable thing about them.) I was a babysitter all through high school, and trust me when I say that I never got much better at it.

After college, when I was living in Connecticut, I was a chaperone for a church youth group trip to see the tree at Rockefeller Center in Manhattan. I had six teen girls I was supposed to keep and eye on. I lost four of them. I’m not kidding. Yes, it’s true that the four friends made the decision to not stay close to the group, which led to them losing us in the crowd, but it was my job to notice them disappearing, and I didn’t. They were fine — as soon as they realized they’d lost us, they went back to Grand Central and took the train back to Stamford. In those no-such-thing-as-a-cell-phone days, that was a super smart thing for them to do … but it made for some scary time for me and the other chaperone. We imagined all kinds of awfulness befalling them, cut short the outing for the kids we hadn’t lost, enlisted the search-party help of Radio City security guards and several police officers, and finally gave up searching and dragged ourselves back to Connecticut … only to get off the train and find one of the “missing” girl’s dads waiting to a) let us know all the girls were safe and sound and b) chew us out for being such crappy chaperones.

I say all that to make it as clear as possible why I should never be entrusted with the care of anyone’s child. I mean, no child has ever been harmed in my care, but that’s surely more about divine intervention than about my skill as a caretaker.

And then I decided to fly off to Grand Cayman with ten kids and two other adults. Because I don’t learn from my own mistakes. Or I just really believe in the reliability of divine intervention.

The kids were all going to be staying with host families, and the chaperones were all going to be staying at a fancy beachfront hotel. The kids wouldn’t meet their families until dinner the first night. The plan was for us to check into the hotel, for each chaperone to take three or four kids to our rooms and change into swim gear and go hang out in the pool or on the beach for a bit and then go back to our rooms and get everyone ready for the swanky dinner at which they would meet their host families.

The three boys on the trip immediately voted for being assigned to me. “We already know we like you best,” was the explanation given by Bradley, an 11-year-old who’d get to celebrate his 12th birthday on the trip. As I said in yesterday’s post, children can spot me a mile away. While it may have been true that the boys liked me, it’s more likely that all four boys sussed that I was (am) a total pushover and chose me for that specific reason.

In my room, they proceeded to lose their minds — dancing on the bed, emptying the contents of their suitcases all over the floor, trying to lock each other out on the balcony, trying to guess the combination of the room safe and succeeding in making sure it would stay locked by guessing wrong combinations in rapid-fire succession, unpacking the mini-fridge. All in the few minutes it took for me to change into my swim gear in the bathroom.

They all opted for the pool over the beach, as did the other kids and chaperones. I checked in with the other women and we agreed that I’d take a short walk on the beach and then come back to the pool. Gorgeous beach, gorgeous afternoon, way too many people, but really lovely place.

Back at the pool, there were all sorts of shenanigans and everyone was having a great time. And then it was time to gather the kids and go get ready for dinner. I got the boys together — Joshua (of SpongeBob fame), Bradley, and Rafael, the youngest of the kids on the trip) — and we headed back into the hotel.

And then I lost Joshua and Bradley.

From one moment of walking and talking with all three kids to the next minute of only talking to Rafael, Bradley and Joshua vanished. And then it was my turn to lose my mind. And to lose my mind while trying not to freak Rafael out. We retraced our steps, we looked down every path that branched off the path we’d taken, we wandered the whole of the first floor of the hotel.

I went to the front desk to report the boys missing and get some help searching. (And here is the sweet story I promised at the beginning). As we waited to speak to someone, a man beside us at the desk was changing money. Quite a lot of money. He was counting through a stack of beautiful Caymanian money, and Rafael pointed and laughed.

“Look at all that play money,” he said.

“Oh, no, sweetie, that real money. It’s the money they use in this country.”

He looked at me, open-mouthed, his eyes big. “Other countries have other money? Wait til I tell the guys.”

I love that, even though Rafael knew the other boys were lost, he wasn’t freaked out and could still find something to be amused by. I love that the concept of money other than the dollars he was familiar with was so mind blowing. And that it would be a cool thing to tell Joshua and Bradley. And that he was so sure that we would absolutely find Joshua and Bradley. I wasn’t sure of that. I was pretty certain I had really and truly lost my charges that time, but they were little kids instead of teenagers and couldn’t just go to Grand Central take the train home.

We did, of course, find Joshua and Bradley. After getting the hotel staff searching, the concierge suggested I take Rafael upstairs so we could get changed and then come back down. I took my brave-faced-but-terrified self upstairs and, as Rafael and I walked toward the room, Joshua and Bradley jumped out from the hiding place they’d been waiting for us in and scared the crap out of us both.

Because yes, as we’d left the pool, Bradley had had the idea of running ahead and hiding so they could scare us. How did I not notice them running ahead of us? How did no one see these two boys hiding in the hallway and bring them downstairs? Why did they stay there for so long? Joshua said they were sure Rafael and I would come up at any moment, so they kept hiding … but they did wonder what was taking us so long.

I don’t think I’ve ever been as terrified as I was when I thought I’d lost those boys. How could I go back to New York and tell their parents they’d never see their beautiful babies again? Ugh. Such a complete nightmare. And yes, I was furious with both boys … and I was also so happy to see them, so happy they weren’t in the hands of some terrible, kidnapping adult, that my anger dissolved.

The boys turned my hotel room inside out during the shower and dress for dinner portion of the day. Such a disaster that I left and obscene tip for the housekeeping staff and a note of apology with the promise that the rest of my stay would not include such messes. We went to dinner and handed the kids off to their host families, and our trip got under way in earnest.

And aside from that heart-attack-inducing start, things ran pretty smoothly for the rest of the week. Even after it was revealed that neither of the other chaperones could swim or had any intention of getting in the water … on a trip for which most of the planned activities involved getting in the water. This weirdness meant I was the only chaperone when we went snorkeling, and snorkeling, and snorkeling, and snorkeling (SO MUCH SNORKELING!), and playing with stingrays, and … Seriously.

I have had any number of entirely successful child-minding experiences, but losing Joshua and Bradley is pretty glaring, and easily aged me ten years. Don’t ask me to take care of your kids, people! I am not to be trusted.

It’s the 14th annual Slice of Life Story Challenge!
Head on over to Two Writing Teachers
and see what the rest of this year’s slicers are up to!

Original Slicer - GirlGriot

Don’t burst that bubble.

I was watching something on Paramount+ earlier today and saw commercial for some new SpongeBob show. I’ve never watched SpongeBob, but seeing that ad made me smile because it reminded me of a great moment.

Years ago, I had the opportunity to chaperone a trip for the Fresh Air Fund. They were sending a group of ten kids to Grand Cayman for a week. The kids would stay with host families so they could be part of “regular” Caymanian life in the evenings and during the day there would be all kinds of activities and adventures planned for them. One of my coworkers and I were invited to chaperone along with one of their staffers. We were invited because of the partnership between the Fund and my then job. We three adults would be on-call for all the activities and adventures. I love kids, love the Caribbean. Of course I said I’d be a chaperone, right? It sounded like so much fun.

It was fun. It was also unbelievable stressful and beyond exhausting. I had a wonderful time and wouldn’t trade the experience. And … I have to wonder what I was thinking to have said yes to that trip. Manage ten 7- to 12-year-olds? And on the days when the host family children joined us, that meant managing 13 kids. Me, a woman who has not the first clue how to manage even one child, a woman who children can spot a mile away as having no idea how to exercise authority with little ones. And their parents were going to be in another country, unable to step in and lay down the law? Yeah, not the best idea ever. I’m still glad I went.

One afternoon, we were in our mini-bus on the way to a submarine ride. A cute little glass-sided submarine that would take us on a short cruise to see what we could see under the sea. The submarine trip was named after SpongeBob Squarepants. (I’ll just have to assume they had permission to do that, and that I’m not setting them up for some intellectual property/copyright infringement trouble by calling them out here!) When we reached the place, SpongeBob himself was waiting to greet us before ushering us out to the dock and onto the boat. The kids were pretty excited to see him. Pictures were taken and everyone was super giggly.

On the boat, we went downstairs — below decks? — to get seats in the glass-sided section. Joshua, an adorable, quiet and mischievous 9-year-old, sat next to me. He had a crinkle-browed expression on, and I thought he was having some iffy feelings about the submarine (I certainly was). I asked him what was up.

“So, back there, inside,” he said, pointing in the direction of the building we’d just passed through to get the to dock. “That was SpongeBob. But do you think that was the real SpongeBob?”

And here is another thing about me and children. I am fascinated by them and also completely unprepared for them. I mean, this was a question I wouldn’t ever have imagined anyone coming to me with … because it would never have occurred to me that anyone thought there was a real SpongeBob. Anywhere.

But when you get that question, you don’t want to laugh and say that SpongeBob is a cartoon and isn’t real except on your TV. That would be cruel. Instead, you need an answer that allows for the possibility of a real SpongeBob, but also for the likelihood that this wasn’t the man (man?) himself. So I said that SpongeBob probably had a lot of people to help him out, especially for tours like the one we were on, since it was so far away from where he lived.

And I kind of held my breath, waiting to see how that would work. It worked just fine. Joshua nodded and said the SpongeBob we’d seen must have been a helper wearing a costume. The crinkle in his forehead smoothed out, and he settled in to see whatever there was for us to see under the sea. And I released a huge sigh of relief. I hadn’t made any glaring missteps and had left SpongeBob with his potential realness in tact!

It’s the 14th annual Slice of Life Story Challenge!
Head on over to Two Writing Teachers
and see what the rest of this year’s slicers are up to!

Original Slicer - GirlGriot

Psychokiller, qu’est-ce que c’est …

(Before I dive in — all vax shot side effects seem to have passed! I feel like myself again.)

Forever ago, I worked nights as a video transcriber for Inside Edition. This was back when the show was first on the air, when David Frost was the front man and Bill O’Reilly was an anchor (did they call them anchors?). It was my second year living in the City. I shared an apartment with my sister and spent my days working as a word processor (is that even a job anymore?). My sister worked at Barnard College, maybe in Student Services or something like that. Whatever her job, it gave her access to the jobs that were posted for the Barnard girls, and in at least two instances, I applied for and got those jobs. The Inside Edition gig was the first of them. (Should I feel guilty about “taking” a job from an undergrad at Barnard? I don’t. My sister and I had next to no money. We needed every penny we could earn. And, too, both jobs were awful. I think I actually did the Barnard girls a favor by sparing them.)

All of the other video transcribers were guys. We worked in tiny rooms, just enough space for a TV, VCR and a typewriter (yes). It was a miserable job for which I didn’t receive an hourly wage but was paid by the number of tapes I could get through. And I’d leave the Upper East Side studio around midnight and have to make my way to Washington Heights. Because I was a woman, and the only woman on the transcription team, my supervisor gave me permission to add an extra video to my tally each night to cover the cost of a cab home. But since I had that job during the time my sister and I referred to ourselves as “The Poverty Twins,” I absolutely added the extra tape to my tally … and absolutely kept taking the bus uptown after work. Sometimes the trip was unnerving — the long wait for the bus transfer at a super-isolated stop on Riverside Drive — but groceries and rent seemed more vital, I guess.

Most of the interviews I transcribed were painfully stupid — the police chief who was angry because the teenager at his local sandwich shop had put too much salt on his roast beef in what was surely an act of anti-police violence.

Then one night I got a bin of tapes, and it was an interview with Diane Downs. I transcribed for hours. Hours alone in that tiny room just listening to this disturbed and disturbing woman. And I’m thinking about this now because — for reasons only the algorithms know — FB put a link to the Inside Edition episode in my newsfeed this morning. This isn’t the first time I’ve thought about Diane Downs. I think about her far more often than I’d like. Because of Farrah Fawcett’s excellent portrayal in the TV movie, Small Sacrifices — the “Hungry Like a Wolf” courtroom scene in particular — and because that always reminds me of transcribing the interview.

My instructions for transcribing videos were to write down everything that was said, with timestamps, and to include camera movements (close-ups, wide shots, etc.), and flag any interesting responses or facial expressions or bombshell moments that the reporter might particularly want to take a look at to consider including in the final piece.

Clicking through the FB link this morning was the first time I ever saw the piece as it ran on Inside Edition. They should have included more of Downs.

Transcribing the interview that night, watching Diane Downs, was both fascinating and terrifying. I’m being silly with the title of this post (and now have that song as an earworm), but Downs was absolutely a psychopath. I watched her and had no doubt she was capable of anything, no doubt that she was guilty. At one point, she tried seducing the reporter. I mean, “seducing” isn’t quite the right word. Not exactly. But definitely trying to win him, to get him to be interested in her and to like her — so that he’d believe her, I imagine. And her actions with him seemed automatic, as if she didn’t plan it or have to think about it. That kind of seduction was her go-to way of dealing with men. And when it became clear that she wasn’t going to win him to her side, she changed. Nothing dramatic. It was like the really good eye acting some people can do (Gary Oldman comes first to mind). They don’t move a muscle, but something in their eyes shifts and everything is suddenly different. I could watch the moment when she stopped seeing him as useful, when she stopped caring that he existed. He must have seen it and I’d guess that it felt a little unnerving. I don’t ever want to have someone look at me like that.

She scared the crap out of me.

She scared me because she was scary but also because she was so … anybody. She was such a regular person, someone I could imagine knowing, being in class with, working with. And something about the ordinariness of her masking the absolute horror of her upended me, blew my sense of equilibrium. The idea that anyone could be so regular and be a ruthless killer isn’t new, of course. Perfectly normal-seeming people do all kinds of vile and violent things. But something about Diane Downs was different for me. What I saw when I watched her interview tapes settled in me and freaked me out. I left my dark little cubby, dropped off my videos, transcriptions, and tally sheet, left the nearly-empty studio and headed up to 79th Street for the crosstown bus. Every person I saw on the street made me nervous. I could feel fear rise in my throat. I got to 79th Street … and hailed a cab.

It’s the 14th annual Slice of Life Story Challenge!
Head on over to Two Writing Teachers
and see what the rest of this year’s slicers are up to!

Original Slicer - GirlGriot