ZOONADO

If you ever see me at the Detroit Zoo, you may want to plan your escape route.

For my seventh birthday, my parents loaded up the station wagon for a fun-filled family trip to the Detroit Zoo. My grandmother, who lived with us at the time, piled in the car with the rest of us and off we went for the three-hour drive. Windows rolled down for au naturel air-conditioning, three of us kids just rolling around in the back baking in the sun with no seatbelts, no bottled water, and nothing to do but bicker and play endless rounds of “I Spy”.

The zoo’s water tower, rising majestically in the distance, beckoned like Xanadu. Excitement rippled through the Oldsmobile as Dad maneuvered it off the highway and we entered the parking labyrinth. Lips chapped, bladders full, and muscles cramped, we endured as Dad circled the lot looking for the perfect parking spot. Finally, my day of fun could begin.

We hit the ground running. Monkeys, bears, lions, we wanted to see it all. Sated with stale popcorn and lukewarm Pepsi, we made our way in a more or less orderly fashion from one exhibit to the next. Until we heard a siren in the distance. If there had been a “Weather Channel” back then, my grandmother would have watched it 24/7. She stopped in her tracks, grabbed my hand, and yelled “TORNADO!”

Everyone froze. People walking next to us froze. I’m pretty sure even the animals turned to stare. The siren blasted out another eerie moan just as a golf cart full of zoo employees slid to a stop on the path. Through a bullhorn, we were instructed to follow our guide “Mel” who would lead us to shelter. Mel jumped off the cart and we all obediently followed him to wide low-slung cinder block building. It wasn’t until we were all crammed inside that we realized we were in the ape house. Behind thick panes of glass, so were the apes.

The sound of wind and rain soon accompanied the siren, but we were dry and safe with the apes. Until my grandmother decided that the gorilla was going to escape. She was sure of it. The tornado would rend the building in half and the gorilla would be free to gobble up children and rape old women. Without warning, she grabbed the stroller holding my little sister and ran out of the building screaming.

So I spent my seventh birthday with my brother at the lost child station at the Detroit Zoo as my parents searched for my grandmother and my little sister. You’d think that would be enough to keep me away for a lifetime. But, really, what were the odds that it would ever happen again?

Fast forward twenty years or so, I’m married now and have children of my own. Two boys, 6 and 8. In a moment of madness, my husband and I decided that a trip to the Detroit Zoo would be just the thing for a dull summer’s day. Jokingly, as we walk along the exhibits, I tell my sons about my last visit. “You’re bad luck, mom,” my oldest declares. Ten minutes later, we hear the sirens.

I can hardly bring myself to believe it as we are being herded into a shelter. Keeping the boys close the hubs and I press our backs against the wall as more and more people file in. We are in the reptile house. Specifically, we are surrounded by venomous snakes behind glass.

With so many people inside, it’s difficult to actually see the exhibits and the boys quickly became bored of staring at elbows and backsides. We do our best to keep them distracted and entertained, but we can only hold off their impatience for so long. One look at my six-year-old and I know he’s about to blow. We are looking at full-on temper tantrum meltdown in a crowded confined space lined with snakes. Great. He flops down on the floor refusing to rise. Experience tells me to just let him lie there, but there are witnesses and judgmental eyes all around.

People step over him. Other kids try talking to him, one offers him some candy. He won’t budge. I’m about ready to break ranks, gather him up and run outside when my hubs put his hand on my arm and reminds me that it isn’t the end of the world. Then, that amazing, wonderful, clever man told a joke. A bad one. Didn’t matter, our eight-year-old laughed and so did some other kids. Then another dad told a joke. More laughs. Suddenly, there is an impromptu Dad Joke riff-off in the reptile house.

A few jokes later, my six-year-old got up and started talking to some other kids as if he hadn’t spent the last 15 minutes lying face down on the dirty floor. The all-clear eventually sounded and we saw the rest of the zoo without incident. Years later the boys still tease me about being a tornado magnet.

So, while my second visit to the Detroit Zoo turned out better than the first, I don’t think I’ll be pushing my luck by trying a third time. But, as my husband reminds me, we might have grandchildren to entertain one day. What are the odds?

DETROIT ZOO

Taking my Anxiety to the Dentist

I had my teeth cleaned today which means that I couldn’t sleep last night knowing the appointment was coming up. It means that I skipped breakfast this morning in favor of a glass of water because I didn’t want anything in my stomach to throw up. It means I left the house early, so I didn’t have to worry about traffic and that while in the office parking lot I took my anti-anxiety medication before I walked in the door.

I don’t know anyone who enjoys going to the dentist, but I’ve learned over the years that most people don’t dread it quite as much as I do. My parents didn’t have dental insurance while I was growing up, trips to the dentist were reserved for when things were very, very wrong and painful. As soon as I had my own job with my own dental coverage, I took my sorry teeth to a nearby dental office that I’d picked out of the phone book.

So, cavities. Lots of cavities. My phone book dentist was “old school” and by that, I mean he wasn’t big on modern tools and pain relief. Because I valued my teeth, I endured. If I complained of pain, he mocked me. He called me a “baby” and a “whiner.” If I started to cry from the pain, he would loudly proclaim to the rest of the office that I’d “sprung a leak” and laugh. It took me too long to realize I could shop around until I found a dentist I liked and leave Dr. Sadism in the dust.

I’ve had a few dentists since then, a few fillings, root canals, crowns, and even dental implants. I bring a blanket from home and my own headphones and music. I make sure to take my anxiety medication and request the nitrous even for cleanings. This is what works for me and I’ve given up caring what the dental hygienists think about it.

In the waiting room today, a young mother came in with her son. The boy was probably between 4-6. He was a busy child, running from one end of the waiting room to the other, touching everything and talking loudly. I felt a bit sorry for the mother and hoped that she didn’t think I was judging her based on his wild behavior. The front desk staff did finally intervene when he pushed a chair up to the fire alarm and attempted to set it off. I didn’t see what happened after that because I was called in for my cleaning.

I was assigned a new hygienist this visit, one that I hadn’t worked with before, and she questioned my request for nitrous (which was in my file). She seemed to have a difficult time setting it up and I told her that it wasn’t working. She insisted it was. By now my anxiety is starting to rachet up so I give myself a little pep talk and decide to continue. She makes lame joke about the nitrous and I inform her, again, that it isn’t working properly. I’ve had the gas often enough to know what it feels/smells like. I suggest that something is wrong with the mask as it is not a good seal around my nose. She shrugs this off. I give myself another internal pep talk and we proceed.

Hygienist leaves the exam room to rinse off my bite splint, leaving me in chair with faulty nitrous hook up (which she later agreed wasn’t working). Anxiety is making my skin crawl now so I’m trying to do a little meditation to get myself calm for the few more minutes I have to be there. Out of nowhere someone grabbed the back of my head and pulled my hair. Because I have acute anxiety, rather than shouting out, I freeze. I can’t scream, I can’t talk, I can’t breathe. I manage to push the nitrous hook-up off my face and roll off the exam chair onto the floor before anyone comes to help.

It takes a minute to get my breathing under control again and by then I’m crying. I’m angry. I’m frustrated. I just want to get out of there and go home. Go somewhere safe. When my hygienist returns her first response is to tell me that I cannot be ON THE FLOOR. As if being there was just something I decided to do on a whim. She helps me up but I’m still crying and trying not to hyperventilate. She pats my arm and says that it is “okay” because it was “just some kid.”

Just some kid. Well, that’s not the fucking point is it? There are days I have to gather up every ounce of courage I have just to leave the house. I don’t need people to tell me to “cheer up” or “calm down” or “get over it.” My coping mechanisms don’t involve or harm anyone else. I take great care to not let my illness inconvenience anyone else. I wish more people understood that not everyone wants to be touched, startled, confronted, or even spoken to.

I didn’t wake up one day and capriciously decide to have crippling anxiety. It’s exhausting. Other people are the wild card in any situation. When introverts say “hell is other people” this is what they mean.

dentist find a happy place

 

At Least You Have Your Health…

What an odd sentiment. It’s vague, unhelpful with a dash of shame, and a stark reminder that no one wants to hear your problems. Which is, of course, exactly why I’m going to tell you mine.
I suffer from “F” disease. Female. Fat. Fifty. The “F” disease is fatal. Eventually. My physical problems are made more challenging by extra pounds while each of them in their own unique way makes it difficult to lose the extra pounds. When mobility is an issue, even simple exercise can be a challenge. I’ve spent most of 2018 with a cast on my right leg.
I’ve been advised to take naproxen or ibuprofen and drink plenty of water. Prescription pain meds might as well be Bit Coin. I’d like to know where the hell the doctors are who abuse pain med privileges, because my doctors are always sure I can just “tough” it out with aspirin and ice packs. You know, because what I really have is “F” disease.
I was delighted when my cast was finally removed and I was upgraded to “walking” cast. And it was with that ugly, bulky appliance that I made my way to the hospital for an MRI image of the offending leg. I purposely chose a hospital satellite location that had plenty of good parking and 24-hour service for this procedure.
I arrived on time, sans any metal objects, and ready to get to the root of the problem. As I was called back for the MRI, I was informed of two unsettling facts. The building was under construction (rendering the behind-scenes area a dusty maze of plastic draped corridors), and that the MRI machine had experienced what my escort characterized as a “hiccup” that morning. I was led to a small (teeny-tiny) room with two changing closets and a row of lockers, told to remove ALL my clothing and my walking cast, put on a hospital gown, have seat and wait to be called. All of which I did because I’m nothing if not obedient.
Waiting in that very small room, feeling as vulnerable as one can feel while wearing an ill-fitting hospital gown, I was surprised when another patient was led into the room. A male patient, already in hospital gown, took the seat directly across from me while his escort scampered off without a word. Did I mention it was a small room? We were sitting knee to knee. He did the thing. The man s-p-r-e-a-d thing with knees about as far apart as he could get them to make room for what must have been a gigantic ball sack.
I had zero desire to see his dusty old scrotum so I averted my eyes as far as I could without physically snatching them out of my head. I was so relieved when my name was called I jumped up, completely forgetting that I couldn’t bear weight on my leg, and I lurched from the room. I limped down the hallway, through and around the construction zone, never once being offered any assistance. At the end of the trail I discovered that the MRI that would be used was actually located in the back of a semi-tractor trailer out in the parking lot. I wish I was kidding.
Aha, the “hiccup” explained. We had to use the mobile unit. Did I forget to mention it was freezing cold that day? Grabbing the walls for support I made my way over the gap between building and truck, over the metal gangway and into the cargo area for my MRI. I was shivering with cold, everything smelled of diesel and exhaust fumes, and I just wanted to get it over with.
Thirty-eight torturous minutes later, I shimmied off the table, limped back over the gangway into the building and was confronted by an angry old man. I know he was angry because he was yelling that his appointment was “TEN MINUTES AGO” and how dare they keep him waiting. He was wearing a hospital gown but there was no escort with him, he was just there. And angry. And yelling.
Thank goodness I was sufficiently although somewhat immodestly covered. This man (not the same dusty scrotum guy) DEMANDED attention and he got it. Not only did my escort abandon me, his escort came running down the hall. Still without my walking cast, still not offered any mobility assistance at all, I was directed to return to clothes closet, get dressed, and show myself out.
That’s what it’s like to have the “F” disease.

Talent is Tin, Opportunity is Gold

When people hear that I’m a writer, they all ask the same question. A variation of why/how do you write? I will answer, “I write because I have to,” and “One word at a time.” Those answers are the simplest form of the truth and yet still meaningless to someone who’s never felt the urge to fill a blank page with words.

My writing comes from a desire to create, live in, and enjoy a world outside the realm of the limited opportunities of my existence. Writing is my way of working around the old conundrum that while talent is tin, opportunity is gold. Writing creates opportunity. Opportunity to discover, learn, research and investigate things that were otherwise beyond my reach both physically and economically.

Reading is essential to writing. Reading is mining tin and storing up the raw material to later make art. I started as a reader. And I read everything; cookbooks, dictionaries, instruction manuals. I consumed words as if I had a literary tape worm. Somewhere between my Anne Rice phase and my all things Stephen King phase, I started reading biographies. I borrowed them from the library or bought them for a quarter at rummage sales and read them to learn about other lives, other ways of being.

Biographies led me to history and history led me down the path to historical romance. I can hear people sputtering now, but… but… Romance? Historical romance, to me, represents the triumph of heroines over biased social constructs, economic restrictions, and stifling patriarchy. Writing of these victories, one story at a time, is a balm to my own struggles with independence and authority.

Like so many others, I had to find the magic alchemy that would turn what little tin I had into gold. I was born into the sort of large, poor, small town family that rarely gets noticed for anything other than their run-down house or shabby clothes. Like my siblings, I started working while still in high school. I typed up forms at one job before walking down the road to flip burgers at the other job. I cleaned bathrooms, filed thousands of pieces of paper, and answered phones. Still, I had not saved enough to attend even the local community college.

So out I went into the world to greedily collect experiences while reading about lives much more glamorous than mine. The more I worked the less I had time to write but the love of reading never left me. Going to college got pushed further and further out of reach as marriage and then children took up my time. Until one day, a small notice in one of those shopper’s circulars that usually gets thrown in the trash after the good coupons are clipped out, a notice about the meeting of a local writer’s group caught my attention.

I didn’t know anyone there, I had never before been to the place where they met.  I remember sitting in the parking lot staring at the building, watching the other women walk in the doors and wondering if they’d think me odd and untalented. I went in anyway. At the end of the meeting they sat around the table, each reading a page or two of their current work. When my turn came I took the folded sheets from my purse, the scraps from where I pulled them out of the spiral notebook littered the table like confetti as I read. They hated it and told me so.

And yet I went back the next month. Because, while they hadn’t liked it, they had taken it seriously enough to discuss it. That crumb of encouragement was all I needed. Writing was no longer just the secret project hiding in a box under the bed, it was real. Turned out that little group of like-minded women were a chapter of the Romance Writers of America. Joining that group made all the difference in how much opportunity gold I was exposed to.

My reading tastes have changed over the years but historical romance will always hold a place in my heart. Stories of women with little autonomy, straining against rules put in place to keep them firmly within their social class and butting their heads against barriers constructed to keep them low and small, will always call to me. The characters in these books have to be quick and clever to overcome and survive. I read those stories for the triumph and satisfaction of the happy ending.

And that’s exactly why I write them.

I still belong to RWA and still see many of the women from that first table reading. The writing community is like the ocean in that you never want to turn your back on it for too long. RWA, however, will always welcome you home and toast your successes with you.