I need to preface this post by saying the universe has a twisted sense of humor.
First, my dog got a bladder infection. I took Gryphon to the vet, and we came home with a pricey bag full of goodies to patch her up, including a vial of antibiotics. You know how people and their dogs start to resemble each other after a while? Well, the next week I had a bladder infection too. We must be twins. We were even on the same meds, though mine were cheaper than the ones I got for the dog. Thanks, universe?
Anyway, three days after Gryphon was done with her pills, the vet wanted me to obtain a urine sample from the dog and bring it in so she could test the sample and make sure the infection was gone. I’m not in the habit of collecting urine, so I had no idea how I was supposed to do this. I have a friend who recently had to do this for her dog though, and she advised me to use a pie pan or some other container with low sides so it would easily slide under the dog while she was doing her business.
Here was the plan. First thing in the morning, I’d put on rubber gloves, grab a disposable container with a lid, and follow the dog out into the yard to get the sample. Simple enough.
I got up, still in my pj shorts, top, and socks, and slipped my feet into flip-flops before following the dog outside. (Yes, socks and flip-flops. What?) Meanwhile, back in the house, my husband turned to my son and said, “This is not going to go well for your mother.”
The first part of the plan went okay. I had the gloves on and the container in hand. Things went awry when the dog spotted the plastic dish and thought I had food for her. She got excited and started jumping around. Then she landed on one of my flip-flops while I was trying to dodge her. The thong pulled loose from the shoe, rendering it useless.
That, of course, was the moment Gryphon decided she needed to pee. Urgently. She trotted off to a corner of the yard, which meant I had to limp after her wearing only one flip-flop. My shoeless foot grew damp on grass wet with what I hoped was only dew.
I caught up to Gryphon and shoved the container under her butt. She looked up at me, aghast. Could the dog speak, she would have said, “What the heck, lady? Personal space.” Then she scurried off to the opposite corner of the yard, pee still dripping from the spout.
I lurched after her, muttering things that shouldn’t be spoken in polite company. Again, I tried to obtain a sample. I caught a few drops in the container before the dog gave me another dirty look and scampered off. Strike two.
I tried a third time, and got about a teaspoon of pee. Despite the gloves, I also managed to get pee on my hands. I believe there was more urine on my hands than in the dish.
I gave up and called the vet. “So, um, how much urine do you need in the sample to do the test?” I crossed my fingers, hoping the answer was a drop or two. It wasn’t. “Okay,” I said. “I’ll try again tomorrow.”
In hindsight, I see my error. I should have put a leash on the dog so I wouldn’t have to chase her around the yard. Common sense, I know—now. I probably should have worn sensible shoes as well.
I wised up for day two.
First, I put the dog on the leash. Then, I took myself out of the equation entirely, and made my husband do the deed. Voilà! It worked like magic. An acceptable sample and zero pee on my hands.
The husband doubled bagged the urine sample and passed it on to me for delivery.
When I dropped off the sample, the vet’s assistant gave me a smile and said, “Thank you.”
“That’s the first time anyone’s thanked me for handing them a container full of pee,” I told her. “But you’re welcome.”
© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2016
Rejection sucks. We all face it at one point or another, and if you’re a writer, you might encounter it more than other people because you’re constantly making yourself vulnerable, whether you’re submitting your work to agents, publishers, or book reviewers. You can’t make people fall in love with you; you can only submit your best work and hope that someone will like it enough to give you a chance.
Even though I’ve had some of my work published, I’m still pitching projects, and even though I get more positive feedback than I used to, I still get rejections. I like to think I’ve gotten pretty good at dealing with rejection. These days when I get a rejection letter, I don’t even flinch. I can’t afford to waste energy feeling bad about another failed attempt. I’d rather spend that energy creating. I tell myself, “Okay, now move on.” I have a spreadsheet I use to keep track of queries sent to agents and publishers, so I make a note under the appropriate entry, recording the outcome of the query. Then I move on to focus on something productive.
That’s how it works most days, at least. Other days, I feel like the universe’s punching bag.
You’ve probably heard that quaint little phrase people use at such times: when one door closes another door opens. It was Alexander Graham Bell who said that, and he was a man who knew a thing or two about failure and rejection. Here’s the full quote:
“When one door closes another door opens; but we so often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door, that we do not see the ones which open for us.”
A worthwhile notion, but some days, I feel like I’m trapped in a room full of doors that have all slammed shut. I’d love to try another door, but there are none to be found. I’ve exhausted my options, and I’m stuck.
Some days I feel like I’m sailing a tiny boat through a storm, helpless to watch as it is thrashed against rocks by angry waves. My sails have wilted, my mast is cracked, and it’s all I can do to hold on and bail water. Overly dramatic? Probably. But don’t we all feel like that sometimes? Star-crossed heroes fighting against the odds, even if it’s only in our own story? Surely I’m not the only one who has days like this.
There’s another saying: when it rains, it pours. I don’t know who said that, but it’s a good way of conveying the idea of a number of difficult things happening at the same time. On those days, it feels like the universe is cruel, taking pleasure in raining misfortune on your head.
I had one of those days recently—four rejections in a single day. Two of those were hard to shake off. One was for a job I would have been thrilled to have because it seemed like a great opportunity to use my writing skills. That one stung, because I felt like I’d done well in the interview and thought I might receive an offer. The other hurt worse. It was from a publisher I’d wanted to work with, who had been talking with me about the possibility of writing a sequel to the book I was pitching. Hearing no, after a series of conversations that felt like they could be a yes, wasn’t easy.
It’s hard to stay focused on those days, to see the big picture. It’s easy to question why I keep making myself vulnerable to rejection, why I’m even trying. Wouldn’t it be easier to just stop, to be content with all the good things I have in my life? It would, but then I’d always long for more. I didn’t have the heart to write anything that day. I wanted to take a vacation from my own thoughts for a while, to escape those feelings of failure and disappointment.
I told one of my sons I was having a rough day, and he gave me a hug, which is one of the best things in the world. I prayed—for wisdom, for strength, for direction.* Then I went and volunteered at my other son’s swim meet. Focusing on other people was a good antidote for a bruised ego. After that, we went out for pizza and bowling. Spending time with my favorite people was good medicine too.
The next day I woke up, took inventory of what I could do better, and got back to work. I’m battered, but not beaten. I still have hope.
*P.S. During my talk with God asking for direction, I asked for a sign that I’m on the right path, something positive to show me I should keep writing. Five days later, I got a message saying one of my short stories had been accepted in a literary journal. I take that as a sign and a victory. This week, I feel like doors could open, walls could get knocked down. I’m grateful.
P.P.S. Maybe you believe in that kind of thing, maybe you don’t. My point is this—don’t give up just yet. We all face rejection as we work toward our goals, but you never know what’s coming next. Maybe it’s better than you imagine.
© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2016
I now have teenagers. Somehow this is not as scary as I thought it would be.
That may be because I’ve worked in mental health, helping kids, so I’ve seen teens in heart-wrenching situations. I knew a girl who got pregnant at twelve and had a baby at thirteen. That baby is nearly grown now—I hope she had a better childhood than her mom did. I knew a kid who was hooked on meth by the time he was a teen, and another who tried to kill herself with a shotgun blast to the stomach when she was in middle school. So…yeah. The bar for shocking me has been set pretty high.
I’m not a perfect parent, but so far, my twin boys have turned out to be amazing people. They are smart and funny and kind. They are sweet to animals and loving to their parents. They are loyal to their friends and brave enough to speak up if they see someone being bullied. They set goals for themselves and do well in school. I can’t complain at all (even if they remind me I’m not as cool as I used to be because the latest slang is a mystery to me or I’m clueless about dance moves).
I’m thankful to have good kids. Really, I’m thrilled to have kids at all. Back in my twenties, it looked like that was never going to happen. I was diagnosed with polycystic ovary syndrome, which is a nightmare if you want to have a biological child. It’s a horror show for other areas of your life too, wreaking havoc on your endocrine system, but the disease is cruelest when it comes to fertility. This doesn’t say much for my character, but I’ll be honest: working in social services with people who didn’t want to be pregnant was tough when I wanted a kid and couldn’t have one. Still, the hardest part of having PCOS was the shame. Talking about infertility was taboo, and yet, I was at an age where everyone wanted to know why I hadn’t had kids yet. Didn’t I want children? I felt like I was under a microscope with all the intrusive questions and comments I received from people who likely meant well. I felt broken.
Then came the day I found out I was pregnant. Staring at the little blue lines that finally appeared on the pregnancy test felt miraculous. Finding out I was having twins felt too good to be true. I was terrified something bad would happen, that I’d have a miscarriage. We didn’t tell anyone but our family for a long time because I was scared we’d jinx our good fortune.
Confined to bedrest the week before my boys were born, I remember watching fireworks outside my hospital window. That July there was a forest fire, and the mountains around Tucson flickered with orange light, a show to rival Independence Day festivities. Then I had two new people in my life. I remember how miraculous it felt to finally see their tiny faces, how surreal it was to know life would never be the same.
There was more fear when we learned that one baby had been born healthy but the other would have to stay in newborn intensive care. We didn’t get a serene, post-birth moment of bonding. We got a machine, pumping air into my son’s fluid-filled lungs, keeping him alive. We bonded with him as best we could in the hospital, knowing he might not make it, while feeling grateful to be able to take at least one of our children home to live with us. We did a lot of praying. Over the following month, we drove back and forth to the hospital to see our sick baby, while taking care of our other newborn.
This was not an ideal way to start out as a new parent. Between our daily trips to the hospital, I had a lot of guilt about not being able to give either of my children the time or attention I wanted to give them. Things turned out better than they could have though, and for that, I’m thankful. My son did live, and now he’s a healthy, broad-shouldered kid who towers over me. My other son is almost as tall as I am, and often reminds me that he too will soon outgrow me.
The other day I found a bunch of videos of my sons as toddlers, much to their embarrassment. We filmed everything because we were so happy to have children.
One of my favorite videos is of them at age two, playing board games. Operation was a big hit, sending them into fits of giggling every time the buzzer went off. I know I’m biased, but it’s adorable. We also played Jumanji—after watching the movie—which pretty much scarred one of my sons for life. There’s video of him hiding under a chair as his dad reads a card about a hailstorm. (Bad parenting, but darn cute.) The other son (the one who had such a rough start to his life) loved the game. He thought the idea of a rhino crashing through our house was marvelous. He wouldn’t have objected to a rampaging elephant either.
So now my boys are thirteen. Time has gone by too fast, but I’m so thankful we’ve had this time together. We’ve got a few more years before they’re off to college, and I’m grateful that we’re close, that we still take walks together on the beach and talk about our favorite books. I know there are a lot of changes coming, and with those changes, new challenges. I hope, no matter what happens next, they always know how much they are loved.
© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2016
When I was twelve I thought I was cool because I learned how to ride a motorcycle. My uncle Dan, who is a few years older than me and has always been more of a cousin than an uncle, taught me. He was cool because he was in high school and had his driver’s license. Me, not so much. I was just a skinny kid with holes in the knees of her jeans and a fondness for climbing trees and building forts.
One time when I was staying at my grandparents’ house, my uncle took me for a ride on the back of his dirt bike. We went off road, to this cattle pond at the bottom of a pit. It hadn’t rained for a long time, so there wasn’t any water and the mud had dried out, leaving the surface fractured like puzzle pieces. With the engine idling on the edge of the pit, Dan asked me if I wanted to go down there. I looked at the steep incline we’d have to drive down and said no. “Okay,” he said, ignoring my protests, “Hold on.” I wrapped my arms tight around his waist and off we went. It was a whole lot of fun until we got to the middle of the pond. It wasn’t quite as dry as we thought. The first two inches were a dirt crust, and below that was a foot of mud. The bike sank, and we had to wade out, walking the bike.
We got back to solid land, hopped on the bike, and sped off toward home. The problem was the bike didn’t have fenders, so all that mud spinning off the back tire flew up at me. By the time we got to the house, my back was covered with mud, my hair plastered in filth. Grandma was mad. “How did she get so dirty?” she yelled at my uncle. I thought it was hilarious.
My grandpa let me ride the bike on my own. The only real warnings he gave me were to watch out for the tailpipe, so I didn’t burn my leg on it (I did, and one time was all it took for me to avoid it from then on) and to use the brake. Once, I panicked when the bike got going too fast and I forgot where the brake was, so I just put my feet down and let the bike go. That was a bad idea, but better than crashing. My legs got scraped up, but my head was okay. I think someone, probably my mom or dad, told me to wear a helmet. I remember putting one on, and having a hard time seeing because it was too big. I don’t think I wore it after that.
What I did wear were my grandpa’s aviators and his black, rubber irrigation boots (like galoshes but for farmers). Paired with cutoff jeans and my favorite pink shirt* (which read, Girls can do anything boys can do—better!), I made quite a picture, I’m sure. I wore the boots (several sizes too large) because the bike bled motor oil, and I wasn’t supposed to get the sneakers I wore to school oily. Instead, my chicken legs got splattered as the oil ran down into the boots. Still, there was nothing like feeling my hair flowing in the wind, growing more tangled and stringy every time I circled my grandparents’ house at a thrilling pace of 15 miles per hour.
I imagined I was a real biker, even though the dirt bike didn’t look or sound like a respectable motorcycle. Instead of a thunderous roar, the engine whined. Less Bhah—VROOM! and more Vreee, vree, vreeeeeeeee!
I think all this posturing on my part was meant to impress a cute older boy who lived down the road from Grandma’s. Tragically, I don’t think the he ever noticed. He was too busy doing whatever it is cute older boys do.
*With three brothers, two male cousins, and an uncle who was basically a cousin, I became a feminist at an early age.
© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2016
I don’t bruise easily. That’s not bravado talking—I’m really not a bleeder. It’s a problem because when I go to get my blood drawn every six months, it’s a real pain in the rear. Every time, I have this talk with the phlebotomist about how my veins like to play hide-and-seek (mostly hide), and how the best bet is to just take it from the top of my hand. Usually the person gives me a skeptical look and says, “That will hurt more.” I assure them it’s fine. If I’m lucky, the person listens to me and goes for it. If I’m not, the phlebotomist takes it as a personal challenge to hunt for a vein in my arm and I get poked three or four times before he finally gives up and settles for my hand. Even then, my veins are stingy and the blood flows so slowly I’m warned I might have to come in for a second draw.
This last time the phlebotomist was concerned about my hands being too cold and had me use a hand warmer to get the vein to rise to the surface. “You’re so cold!” she said, rubbing both my hands, looking for possible candidates. “Yeah. Sorry,” I replied. “I guess you can tell people you drew blood from a zombie.” She gave me a courtesy smile and inserted the needle, trying to get my vein to cooperate. (At which point I decided if I ever am undead, I should simply tell the truth rather than hide my identity. No one will believe me anyway.) “Did you drink any water today?” she asked, as my blood slowly dripped into the tube. “Tons,” I told her, nodding at my nearly empty water bottle, the fourth I’d drank that morning. “All I’ve been doing since I woke up is drink and drink and drink.”
The silver lining to not bleeding easily is it is super-duper helpful when you’re as accident-prone as I am. I am forever bumping into the edges of kitchen counters and tables, and never have anything to show for it. One time though, the husband and I decided it would be awesome to take our canoe on a creek that twisted and turned every twenty feet or so. We were kneeling in the boat, paddling like crazy, trying to navigate the curves. Then we hit some rapids and really got going. Problem was, we had too much momentum to make the last turn and ended up slamming into the shore. He was all right, and the boat was all right, but I went flying. My thigh hit the bench in the middle of the canoe. I got the giggles and couldn’t stop laughing, even though I had a bruise the size of a fist on my leg. I don’t know how fast we were going when we ran aground, but our collision had to be pretty darn forceful to leave a mark like that. I wore the bruise as a badge of honor.
Another time I went hiking during Christmas vacation with one of my best friends and his brother, and wore boots without treads. I guess I chose fashion over function, or maybe I didn’t know where exactly we were headed and how treacherous the terrain would be. I quickly recognized I’d made a mistake. My friend wanted to hike down this canyon that had been rubbed smooth by the flow of water. It was a gorgeous place, with pools of water about three feet deep, descending all the way down the canyon to a larger pool at the bottom. I took a few steps and realized the soles of my boots were too smooth to get traction against the polished rocks. Figuring I’d slip and break my tailbone if I tried to walk across a narrow section of rock, I sat down on my rear, intending to scoot along until I could stand without fear of falling. A sensible idea, until I started to slide with no way to stop myself. Next thing I knew, I was standing waist-deep in freezing water. That was the end of that adventure. The guys had to drive me back to where my vehicle was waiting, and I was too stubborn to tell them to turn on the heater. Instead, annoyed at myself, I shivered until I got to my own car, and then cranked up the heat. I refused to let on how cold I actually was during the thirty-minute drive to where I had parked, which I suppose is a good way to die of hypothermia. I survived, mostly unscathed except for my pride. We still laugh about the incident. My friend jokes that it wasn’t an adventure if I didn’t come back soaked or injured. That’s okay. We had a lot of fun on those excursions.
This Memorial Day, I had another mishap. My family and I drove to Vernonia to go hiking. There are fossil beds where you can spot seashells and there is also an abandoned railroad trestle. It’s not the safest thing to walk on because it’s a good 80 feet high, towering over the trees. After taking photos of the trestle from above, I decided to climb down a steep hill to get some shots from below.
I got down okay, but as I balanced myself at an awkward angle in the loose dirt, I felt pain in my ankle. I ignored the straining sensation in favor of snapping more photos, and then climbed back up the hill. My ankle hurt a little on the hike back to the car, but I didn’t think much of it. I even walked around a bunch the next day, running errands. By the time I was done though, my ankle was achy and swollen. I iced it that night, but it was tender on Wednesday, and I was forced to bind it so I could go to work. I looked pretty pathetic limping around, my ankle wrapped like a mummy’s. Not to worry though—I’ve been babying it since then, and I’m sure it will be better by the weekend. Just in time for my next misadventure.
© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2016
Remember the Greek myth about Icarus? He and his father were imprisoned in a labyrinth, and escaped by making wings out of wax and feathers. Then, elated by the success of the plan, Icarus got carried away and flew too close to the sun. The wax melted and he fell to his death. I guess the lesson here is to keep one’s hubris in check. Pride comes before the fall.
I can relate. I try not to be an arrogant person, but I do take pride in my accomplishments. I don’t think that’s a terrible thing because I’m goal-driven, and I try to see the silver lining when faced with obstacles. I consider myself an optimist, continuing to strive in spite of challenges. I’m also a realist—experience has taught me that even though I hope for the best, I should prepare for the worst. Something is bound to go wrong.
Seems like every time I think I’ve got it together, the universe is quick to school me in humility. Case in point, my career as a high school cheerleader. I’m not the most athletic person, so some of the jumps we did were a challenge for me. The pike? Never going to happen. I could do a high kick though, so I came up with this signature move combining a hurdle jump with a high kick. I was pretty proud of myself until one football game, when I performed said jump kick and fell on my butt in front of the entire town. I scrambled to my feet, brushed myself off, and pasted a smile on my face, trying to convince myself that only half the high school saw me wipe out.
I’ve come to believe I’m cursed. It doesn’t matter how many degrees I earn or how many awards I win, if I start to soar too high, I’m sure to crash. I guess the universe doesn’t want me to get cocky. Being an author is a continuous lesson in humility by the way—there’s plenty of rejection to be faced even after you get published, between trying to get reviews for your book and trying to find gigs. To say one needs a thick skin is an understatement. You need a suit of armor.
I once approached a venue about a speaking gig, and got turned down. Three books later, I finally earned enough credibility for the venue to invite me to come and speak. I was excited. I came early, armed with an excerpt to read and books to sign. Unfortunately, fate had other ideas. My name was misspelled twice—my last name on a sign outside, and my first name on a poster inside. I think I’m justified in feeling annoyed about that, since my name was right there on the cover of the book, prominently featured. Nevertheless, I was grateful for the gig, and chose not to say anything.
There weren’t a lot of attendees, so when a woman walked in right before the event was set to begin, I was thrilled. She took one look at me and said, “You’re not Melissa (insert somebody else’s last name here).” Her tone was slightly accusatory, as if she had been duped and it was my fault for not being the expected Melissa. “No, I’m not,” I said, giving her what I hoped was a winning smile. I proceeded to explain who I was and what my talk was about. I then invited her to join us. She let me finish my little speech, and then, without a word, turned around and left. Her abrupt exit was so unexpected and rude, I couldn’t help but laugh. Sometimes that’s all you can do.
Then there was the time I interviewed for a position as a professor. I flew out to San Diego and put on my best interview clothes, a navy jacket and skirt with a cream top, and a pair of expensive leather heels I’d splurged on. The stilettos were killer. They elevated the outfit and boosted my confidence. They were also my undoing.
I sailed through the interview, and was feeling pretty good about things when one of the other professors took me to lunch. After that, I was due to come back to campus to make a presentation, so the interviewers could gauge my teaching abilities. We drove to the restaurant in her car, and she parked next to an island dividing the lot. When I got out of the car, I found the woman had parked close to the curb, so I had to step onto the island, which was covered in small plants. I tried to tread carefully so I wouldn’t trample the ground cover, and successfully made my way around the side of the car to where the professor was waiting. We started walking toward the entrance of the restaurant and suddenly, I noticed my foot was caught on something. Someone had tossed a slice of pizza into the low plants, where it was hidden from view, and my stiletto had speared it. As I walked away from the parking island, I dragged the pizza slice along with me. Are you kidding me? I asked the universe, as I frantically tried to keep up my end of the conversation while discretely using the toe of my other shoe to pin down the pizza slice, so I could free my heel. I’m pretty sure the woman noticed. I didn’t get the job.
I don’t know why these things happen. I know bad things happen to everyone, so maybe I’m not truly cursed. The rain falls on the just and the unjust, no? (And of course, things could be worse. Things have been worse, and I keep getting up each time I get knocked on my rear end.) Maybe spearing the pizza slice was God’s way of letting me know that wasn’t the right job for me, that I wouldn’t have been happy on the tenure track. Maybe the challenges I face serve to guide me, to push me in a new direction I wouldn’t have tried otherwise. I just wish I could learn these lessons without damaging my pride.
© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2016
What We Leave Behind
Go Bag Contents:
1 Frying Pan
6 Rolls Toilet Paper (super important for pretense of civilization)
1 Pack Wet Wipes
1 Can Opener
1 First Aid Kit
2 Camp Forks (not just for roasting marshmallows)
4 Sets Plates, Cups, Utensils
3 Fire Starters*
4 Rain Ponchos
2 Swiss Army Knives*
3 Packs Dog Food
4 Mylar Rescue Blankets
1 LifeStraw Water Filter
12 Bottles Water
Dry Goods for 3 Days (note to self: don’t forget pop tarts and top ramen)
4 Missing Persons Posters (plus 1 for dog)
*Not for twelve-year-old boys to use unsupervised. Trust me on this.
Plan for 15 Minute Warning: Grab Go Bag, walk (quickly) to higher ground. Leave dog if necessary.
Plan for 30 Minute or More Warning: Load Go Bag and camping gear (tent, tarp, sleeping bags, flashlights, emergency radio, grill, shovels, etc.) into car, drive to higher ground. Take dog.
In the six years I’ve lived on the Oregon coast, I haven’t felt so much as a tremor. Reality isn’t based solely on my experiences though, and I’d be foolish to assume it does. Our area has a history of earthquakes, so it’s important to be prepared, especially living near a tsunami zone. Emergency management experts for the region say we’re overdue for the big one, an earthquake strong enough to shake the ground for five minutes, causing landslides and a 50-foot high tidal wave. The thought of that is enough to send me into fetal position. Even if the big one doesn’t happen in my lifetime, we’re still at risk for tidal waves originating from across the ocean. That happened in 2011, when there was 9.0 magnitude earthquake in Japan. Fortunately, the waves that reached our shores were small and did minimal damage, but debris from that natural disaster still washes up on our beaches, several years later.
My children regularly practice earthquake and tsunami drills at school, taking refuge under desks for the shaking and then filing out of the building in an orderly fashion to walk up a hill. They know they’ve got about 15 minutes, maybe less, to get to safety, assuming our bridges haven’t crumbled. We know where they’ll be if a quake happens during the school day, and we know where we’ll meet if a different scenario happens, say, they’re at home and I’m at work.
We put together a Go Bag, which is exactly what it sounds like—a bag filled with the essentials we’ll need in an emergency where we can’t stay in our house (earthquake, tsunami, zombie apocalypse, you get the idea). The thing weighs 50 pounds, and it would be tough to carry it alone, but we’ve tried it out and we can all tote it without falling over and kicking the air helplessly like a turtle on its back. If we have a longer warning, we’ve got a plan B, which involves packing more survival gear. We have to assume there will be power outages, and communication will be disrupted if cell towers go down. This is not too scary of an idea though, because every winter we face storms with gale force winds, and we’re used to living days without power.
The most disturbing thing about preparing our emergency kit was creating our own missing persons posters. It was a little like writing your own obituary—a morbid exercise. You have to list your height, weight, hair and eye color, and any identifying characteristics (like birthmarks or scars). That’s so you can be found alive and reunited with your loved ones, best case scenario, but also so your body can be identified if you don’t make it. Like I said, morbid.
Still, we have to assume that one of us could get separated, if somebody is in a different location when the quake hits. We even created a poster for the dog. In an ideal situation, if there can be an ideal in a terrible event like this, we’d have time to get our dog into her harness, or at least attach a leash to her collar, and calmly take her for a walk to our designated meeting point. Odds are, that won’t happen. As neurotic as Gryphon is, she’ll hide under one of our beds the second the shaking starts, and we’ll never be able to coax her out. In that case, we’re just going to have to leave her behind, as heartless as that sounds. We love her, but we can get a new dog. We can’t replace each other. Our piranha, by the way, is toast. The only way Gladiator gets to come along is if he’s dinner.
We’re not really okay with sacrificing the dog and the piranha, but we have to be. We also have to be okay with sacrificing everything else we’re forced to leave behind. I’d love to save family photos, but I just can’t. Maybe, if there’s time, I could grab one or two favorites, but they’ll take up precious room if we’re able to take our car, and there’s no room at all in the Go Bag. Forget about clothing, furniture, or my beloved books—all that is gone in a situation like this. I will grab my lap top if I can, since there are photos on that as well as my works in progress and other information that would be helpful in rebuilding our lives. It’s a sobering thought to look around me and realize all the material goods I depend on—let’s be honest, cling to for comfort—could be gone. But isn’t that going to be the case regardless? I’m not going to live forever, and I can’t take any of those things with me when I die. They’re only material things. What matters—the people I love—those are the things I can’t bear to leave behind.
© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2016
These Are The Days
It’s easy to find excuses to avoid things. Case in point: exercise. I can find a hundred things to do instead of exercising. Start a load of laundry. Wash the dishes. Write a novel. I love to swim, but I’ve found excuses not to do it—the time it takes to drive to the recreation center, the increase in monthly fees.
Forget about running. I don’t run. Unless I’m being chased by a homicidal maniac wielding an ax, I don’t see the point. I’ll walk though, and I’ve found that pairing a treadmill with Netflix works to get me moving. It’s easier on my knees than running, so that’s a plus. I try to get in a couple of miles any day I have time, but sometimes I make excuses to avoid that too.
Before buying the treadmill, I could use rain as an excuse not to exercise. Now I can’t, but I sometimes use rain as an excuse for staying inside. I live on the beautiful Oregon coast, and we’ve got a number of trails meandering through forests or leading to beaches. I love hiking, so it’s a shame I haven’t gotten out every weekend to explore them all. I’m an Oregonian—rain is no excuse. If it were, we’d never get anything done.
Still, I have a bad habit of letting weekends slip away, sleeping in and doing mundane things I won’t care about in the long run. It’s easy to use the time doing things I can justify, like paying bills or finishing household chores. It’s just as easy to get lost surfing the internet. The rest of my family does the same thing, the four of us in our silos, on various devices, spending time in the same room without spending time with each other. All of us—me, my husband, and two sons—are introverted, so we’re comfortable having time to ourselves. We need that sometimes, to recharge from our busy weeks at work and school.
Last weekend we broke free from our bad habits. It was one of those glorious weekends when the sun was shining on the coast. I do love rain—without it the Pacific Northwest wouldn’t be green—but I love our sunny days. Summers on the Oregon coast are a dream. That’s why we have so many tourists, bumper to bumper on the highway. (And we appreciate them all, along with the money they invest in our economy.)
Since the weekend was so gorgeous, we decided to head to the beach. We unearthed our boogie boards from the garage, sorted through the sunscreen, trying to find a bottle that wasn’t expired, and pulled out our swimsuits and towels. We threw in a couple of shovels and buckets too, and then headed to Sunset Beach, one of our favorite places to play.
The boys wanted to build a driftwood fort, so that was first on our agenda. We scavenged the beach for logs big enough to use, yet small enough to carry (or drag), and got to work. A huge log had washed up near the dunes, so we built around that, excavating a bunker, and laying out logs and twigs to fashion a roof. We did a great job, creating a cozy spot to lounge and watch the waves.
After that, we grabbed our boards and caught some waves. We’re not cool enough to be surfers, but we love the ocean. (I keep saying we should at least take a surfing class. Maybe this will be the summer we do that.) The water was freezing. It was actually painful to wade in up to my waist, but I was willing to make the sacrifice for my boys. They won’t be twelve forever, and it won’t be long before they won’t want to spend time with me. They’ll be too busy hanging with friends, checking out girls. The clock is ticking, and I want to make the most of the time we have left.
After a whole lot of yelping and squealing, we finally got used to the cold. Translation: we were numb from the neck down, and having too much fun to care. Playing in the waves is not without risk. Besides the cold, there are riptides that could sweep us out to sea. There are hungry great whites that might nibble on us (unlikely) and sea nettles that could sting us (more likely, though maybe the cold will dull the pain). But there’s risk to everything, isn’t there? There’s risk crossing the street. Heck, there’s risk to eating dessert. If you use risk as an excuse to avoid doing things you love, you’ll never have any fun.
We have a lot of fun in the waves. It’s thrilling to see the perfect wave rolling in, and then to catch it in just the right spot so it carries you to shore. I love feeling the pull of the tide going out, right before a really big wave forms. I love the rush of speeding along, harnessing the power of the water. What I love most is hearing my sons shout with joy when they catch a good wave, laughing until their boards bottom out on the sand, and then scrambling to their feet, hurrying back to catch the next wave. These are the days they’ll always remember. These are the days made for living, and I don’t want to waste a single one.
© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2016
Be This Guy
There’s a story in the Bible about gratitude that has always stuck with me. Jesus was headed to Jerusalem, walking along the border of Samaria and Galilee. He came to a village and encountered ten men with leprosy. Leprosy is caused by bacteria, and if untreated, can cause deformity, crippling, and blindness. It still exists today. What you have to understand about the disease at that time is people with leprosy were considered unclean and cast out from society. This was because the disease was thought to be highly contagious, and people tended to think that if you were sick, you must have done something to deserve it. You sinned, therefore God punished you by giving you leprosy. You had to stay away from your family and friends. You couldn’t get a job. And without a job, you had to beg if you wanted to eat. But, you were an outcast, so who’s going to give food or money to an unclean beggar? Hardly anyone. Basically, it was a lonely, miserable illness.
The men with leprosy called out to Jesus, asking him to heal them. He did, and told them to go show themselves to the priests, so it would be known they had been cleansed and could rejoin society.
It’s a compelling story, but here’s where it gets interesting to me. Only one of the men came back to say thank you.
One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him—and he was a Samaritan.* Jesus asked, “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? Has no one returned to give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.”
Do you get the writer’s sarcasm here? “There were these ten guys, and not one of them came back to say thanks except this guy, and look at him, he’s not even one of us. He’s just this dude, from across the border.”
Here’s the question I ask myself: who am I in this story? Am I the person who skips off happily when somebody does something nice for me? Or do I take time to express my appreciation? I try to remember to be like the grateful guy rather than the others, though I don’t always succeed.
Still, whenever possible, I say thank you for the kind things people do, because no one’s required to be nice to me. Even our parents don’t have to be kind. In a world as dark as ours, sometimes parents don’t even like their kids, much less love them. (I’m blessed to have parents who love me and do nice things for me. Hi Mom and Dad.)
I’m a fan of handwritten thank you notes. Not for everything. I call or email to say thanks for things like birthday gifts, just because my family would think I was being ridiculously formal for sending a note. (Probably they’d think me pretentious as well.) But for some things, yes, I send a note.
This weekend I attended a book fair in Cannon Beach. Jupiter’s Books hosted 24 indie authors so we could chat with readers and boost our sales. This is no small thing for an independent bookstore to do. The owner gave us a generous cut on sales and invested who knows how many hours putting this event together, making sure it was widely advertised. I wrote him a thank you note because I truly appreciate him doing this for us. He doesn’t have to be so nice, but he is.
Sometimes I fear I say thank you too much. Is that possible? Maybe. In one note, I might say thanks three different ways. I can see how that could be annoying. I hope the recipient knows I’m being sincere. I am thankful, and I’d rather err on the side of gratitude, than let someone think I don’t appreciate a kind deed.
*Some things never change. People were pretty horrible to outsiders back then too. Samaritans were considered low-class people and it was taboo to associate with them. Really, the only person who was cool about Samaritans was Jesus. He often casts them as heroes in his stories.
© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2016
This is me waiting to go through security at an airport: long before I get to the metal detector, I’ve got my jacket off, tickets and shoes in hand, pockets emptied of coins and keys, and bag positioned to pull out my laptop. I try to think ahead so things go as smoothly as possible, but of course, there are sometimes complications, especially when traveling with small children. There are two fears behind all this prep—missing my flight and holding up the line, annoying my fellow travelers.
When I stay in a hotel, I tend to keep my belongings in my bag, only unpacking what I need at the time, like toiletries or clothes for the day. I’ll hang up work clothes that might get wrinkled, but I never use the provided dresser drawers. If I do have loose items, like books or snacks, they end up stacked neatly next to my purse. Type-A behavior to be sure, but I wouldn’t say I’m a type-A person. It has more to do with anxiety that if I spread my stuff all over the place, I’ll forget something when I check out, or, if I’m rooming with someone, I’ll hog too much space and annoy them.
There’s a theme here—social anxiety about annoying people—but the other part of this is a desire to be self-reliant. To keep my crap together, so to speak. Self-reliance was a message drummed into me from the time I was young, but it’s also part of my personality. I love being independent, and I hate relying on other people. I want to be seen as competent. I think it also has to do with how kids, especially girls, are socialized. “Don’t make a fuss. Don’t draw attention to yourself. Keep your head down, and toe the line.”
I was a cheerleader in high school, and we performed stunts. I was a base, which meant I was the one with sneaker hickeys on my neck from letting another girl climb on my shoulders, holding her ankles tight so she could tower over the crowd. Sometimes we’d throw a girl into the air and join hands, forming a basket to catch her. It could be hazardous, both for the person being thrown and the people doing the catching. I had bruises to prove it. I never wanted to be the girl on top. It was partly a fear of falling, though I doubt anyone would have dropped me, not on purpose at least. Part of it was this savior complex I have—no one was going to fall on my watch. I knew, as a base, I had the strength to hold someone, and I’d let them crush me before I’d let them land on the unforgiving gym floor.
That attitude has served me well as a parent. I’m overprotective, but my kids have survived childhood thus far. The savior complex has gotten me into trouble a few times too, walking toward bad situations instead of away from them. I did stupid things when I worked in mental health. I was a naïve young woman who wanted to save the world, and that translated to volunteering in bad parts of town, providing therapy for homeless men. It’s amazing nothing awful happened to me, because I spent a lot of time alone in windowless rooms with addicts and parolees. Somebody must have been looking out for me, because none of the guys I worked with treated me badly, though I’m sure they doubted my competence. Sometimes I think about that girl and wonder what wisdom she thought she could offer people with far more life experience than she. Maybe they were kind because they knew more than I did about how vulnerable I was, in spite of my bravado.
Strength is a point of pride for me—I try not to look vulnerable. I’ve been known to brush off injuries for fear of appearing weak. When it comes to helping other people, I’ve gotten better about saying no, but at times I still take on too much instead of letting people know I’m swamped. When I get in a tight spot, I tend to keep it to myself, only sharing how bad things are with those in my inner circle.
Most of the time it’s good to be strong, to help others. I’ve never seen myself as a damsel in distress. For one, I’m not exactly dainty. Two, I favor boots over heels, and I’ll carry my own sword, thank you very much.* Usually, when I get in a sticky situation, I save myself. But what happens when I can’t?
The problem with working to look like you’ve got it together is people can’t always tell when you need rescued. If you’re like me, you don’t actually have it together all the time, but it’s hard to ask for help. I’d rather suck it up and suffer than expose my vulnerabilities. There have been times when I’ve needed saving, and I kept that fact to myself. Sometimes it was because I had a problem nobody could fix. Other times it was because I was so busy keeping up the illusion I didn’t need help, that I didn’t take time to connect with people so they’d be there to ask.
I’m trying to be better about this. I recently read Amanda Palmer’s The Art of Asking, and she makes valid points about giving, receiving, and letting people see you, scars and all. One thing she said that resonated with me was about the act of receiving—allowing people to help you is a gift you give. We need these exchanges, because none of us can get through this life on our own. She also said it’s easier to ask for help for others than it is to ask for yourself. I have found this to be true.
I’m lucky. I have loving friends. I know the closest among them would take me in if ever I showed up on their doorsteps in the middle of the night. But even among my most trusted friends I could stand to show a little more vulnerability, to be brave enough to ask for help instead of trying to save myself.
*I do own a sword. My dad made it for me. See Exhibit A.
© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2016
This week I was talking with a friend about advice. When you’re seeking advice, it’s always wonderful to find someone who can help you, who can say the exact right thing to help you solve a problem or give you a nudge to take a risk you would have been too scared to take otherwise. Sometimes you’re not seeking advice though, and when it comes unsolicited, usually from someone who means well, it can be difficult to digest. My friend related the story of her wedding shower, when someone announced that everyone present needed to share marriage advice with her. Some of the advice touched on topics the guest of honor didn’t feel comfortable discussing in a public setting. I imagine the person who started the chain of advice-giving had only the best of intentions, but my friend still felt like a bug, skewered to the wall and put on display.
I could relate. When I was trying to get pregnant, I felt like I was suddenly in the spotlight, a beacon for unsolicited advice. I have health issues which made it difficult to have children, and that was hard enough as it was, trying to understand what was going on with my body, and grieving the fact that I was never going to be able to have children like a normal person, that I would be lucky to have a child at all. It made me feel like a failure, like I wasn’t a real woman. People with good intentions, who had no idea what was going on with me or who didn’t understand the medical issue, came out of the woodwork to give me advice. A few people asked questions that were shockingly invasive.
Part of the problem is I am introverted, and wanted to keep the issue to myself. I hadn’t gone around telling everyone about my troubles, but some people in my inner circle had. Part of it was I was embarrassed—infertility is a deeply personal issue. It wasn’t my fault my body was screwed up, but I still felt like I had failed somehow. Like I was broken. There was so much pressure to have children—it was part of the culture that surrounded me. That was what a woman like me was supposed to do. No one said it directly, but within all those intrusive bits of advice, there was a message: if you can’t have children, you are to be pitied because you are not fulfilling your role. Never mind that I had a master’s degree and was working toward a doctoral degree. Never mind that I had a good job. Never mind that I was an adult in my late twenties who paid her own bills. It didn’t matter how independent or accomplished I was, it all came back to my ability to reproduce. The barrage of advice was relentless, and made me feel even worse about the situation.
Finally, I got pregnant with twins. I was scared to tell people for a while, worried I’d jinx myself and lose my children. I felt great joy and a sense of relief about finally being able to have children, and I hoped I’d find respite from all the advice and questions. I didn’t.
When you are pregnant with multiples, you start to show early, and my bulging waistline now made me a target for strangers. I worked with the public, providing customer service, and nearly every person, every day, had something to say about my pregnancy. It was exhausting. I was often tempted to hold up my hand, stopping people mid-sentence, to tick off a list of questions for them. “Are you pregnant?” “When are you due?” “Boy or girl?” “Twins? Oh my gosh! You’re so lucky!” The same thing over and over. Every. Freaking. Day. Now and again, I’d get a real weirdo, who would ask something off the wall. One guy wanted to know who my OBGYN was. “Why do you need to know that?” I asked him. Seriously, why did he need to know?
Now the unsolicited advice I got was about what I should be eating, how much weight I should or should not gain, what I needed to know about giving birth, how to get my figure back after birth, and how I should care for my bundles of joy once they arrived. Again, it was all well-intentioned. But here’s the thing: I am not normal. The body I live in is absolutely not normal. I can accept that, but what works for every other woman on this planet is not necessarily going to work for me. For example, I know that carbs are my kryptonite. A low-fat, veggie-only diet is never going to work for my body. I need low-carb protein, dang it, and woe to the fool who denies me. I am a carnivore, and you should not cross paths with a hungry carnivore. Especially one who is eating for three.
I learned to listen to my body and disregard bad advice. I learned that when you care for multiple babies, all those nice little parenting rules go flying out the window. You’re in survival mode, and you do what you need to do to keep those things fed, diapered, and happy, or you’ll lose your mind. When people ask me what it was like to have twins, I’m way too honest. “That first year was hell,” I say with a sweet smile. If they say they always wanted to have twins, I’ll throw in a horror story as a bonus treat (preferably one that involves projectile vomiting or poo—I have quite a repertoire of those). One woman told me she always wanted to have triplets. I informed her she was mental.
Don’t misunderstand me. I love my children, and I’m so blessed to have them. They are awesome kids, and I feel grateful for that too. In spite of my failings, they are turning out to be wonderful human beings. But I’ll tell you the same thing I told my sister-in-law, when she was having a baby shower and someone decided she needed pumped full of advice. “Having a kid is not going to be easy,” I said. “Everyone is going to give you advice. Some of it will be good advice, some of it will be bad. Do what works best for you and your baby, and don’t worry about what everyone else thinks.” That’s the best advice I can give.
© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2016
When I moved to the Oregon coast five years ago, the first place I went was to the wreck of the Peter Iredale. As I stood next to that rusted iron hull and dipped my toes in the frigid surf, I remember feeling blessed to live in the beautiful Pacific Northwest. I felt like I was finally home after wandering in the wilderness for many years. I turned forty last year, and started a new birthday tradition: to revisit that moment each year, sneaking away to the shipwreck to slip my feet into the ocean. A ritual to reflect on my life and express gratitude for the good things.
I celebrated my birthday this week, but didn’t have a chance to visit the Peter Iredale on the actual day of my birth. Twin storms blew in, and with hurricane force winds and twenty foot waves, the beach wasn’t exactly peaceful. I visited once the winds calmed down, but even then, I had to brave freezing rain to set foot in the shipwreck for a few short moments.
By the time I got back to the car, I was dripping—my hair completely soaked and plastered to my face—like I’d just stepped out of the shower and into a wind tunnel. I had a good laugh about my ill-fated adventure as I cranked up the heat and drove home. So much for serious self-reflection.
My forties have been good thus far—maybe my best decade yet. Not physically, as my worn out knees can attest, but definitely emotionally. I’m more at peace than I’ve ever been.
It seems like my twenties were all about reaching milestones: getting my education, obtaining the right job, traveling, getting married, buying a house, having kids. It was a race to be a grown-up, to prove myself. It’s not that I was trying to impress anyone in particular. I had goals for myself, things I felt I needed to accomplish to be whole. I managed to check off my to-do list just before I entered my thirties.
The first half of my thirties were rough, juggling the care of small children with a demanding job. I felt out of balance most of the time, and stress took a toll on my physical and emotional health. A major reorganization at work made things even harder. I felt broken, longing for change, clinging to faith so I wouldn’t lose hope. It was a dark time I wouldn’t want to revisit, but it served a purpose. I started writing and that kept me sane. Then we sold our house, moved from Arizona to Oregon for a job opportunity, and I found respite against chaos through a new life. As bad as things were, I’m glad I experienced them. I’m stronger now than I was, and without those stressful times, there might not have been an impetus to change. I realized I can’t live without writing. It’s something I have to do, even if that means writing late at night after working all day to pay the bills.
In the last half of that decade, three of my books were published. It wasn’t easy. I learned hard lessons, and I’m still learning. I’ve made mistakes, but in the process, I’ve become a better writer, and I’ve learned a whole bunch about marketing and social media. As tough as it’s been, I’ve relished learning. There were moments of self-doubt and despair to be sure—a sense of scaling an impossible obstacle, thoughts about digging a hole and wondering if I’d ever be able to climb out. Overall though, I feel energized by the challenges I’ve faced in building my writing skills and getting exposure for my work. I have lots of ideas for stories I want to write.
So now I’m forty-something. I’ve survived (in no particular order) a close encounter with a rattlesnake (and a bear—though not at the same time, and the bear wasn’t as scary), a fist-fight (I didn’t start it, but I sure as hell finished it), break-ups and make-ups, betrayals from close friends and admired mentors, a boss from the fiery depths of Hades, an equipment malfunction forty feet under the sea, a stalker, a hurricane, major surgery, and an endocrine disorder that will probably kill me if I don’t get hit by a bus first. I have constellations of scars, souvenirs of battle. (And so what? Lots of people have survived worse.)
But here’s the great thing about being in your forties, kids. You just don’t care anymore. I’m not saying I don’t care about people. I do. If I’ve adopted you into my fold, I love you unconditionally. It’s you and me against the world. I’m passionate about the people and things I love. But I’m not out to impress anyone. Not anymore. And that is liberating.
This is who I am. A little odd, probably not entirely sane, but content to be myself, and at peace with my life. I don’t feel the need to apologize for that, and I won’t cave to be something I’m not. I don’t have all the answers I thought I had in my twenties, but I’m okay with not knowing as long as I keep learning. I’m still driven to reach my goals, but I don’t feel the same pressure to make things happen. I’ve lived long enough to know nothing ever happens quite like you plan, and I’ve failed enough to know I can survive and things will work out eventually. This is me at forty one.
© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2016
San Pedro Nolasco Island, Gulf of California, Mexico. The place where I could have died.
Water has always enchanted me. I adore swimming and I love everything about the ocean, even the sharks. I attended Sea Camp my senior year of high school, and ever since, I had dreamed of becoming a scuba diver. Many years later, when I worked for the University of Arizona, the recreation center offered a scuba diving course, with several sessions in the pool and a trip across the border for the open water certification.
I leapt at the opportunity, even though it meant finding a babysitter for my twin boys, who were in preschool, and piling into a van with the instructor and a bunch of college students I didn’t know, who were much younger that me and in better shape than I was. The trip started out great—a few hours’ drive to where the live-aboard boat was docked, and then a ride out to San Pedro, where we’d dive.
The island was a barren rock in the middle of the sea, several hours from the marina. Sea lions lounged on the boulders at the base of San Pedro, and we could hear them barking at night. During our dives, they would swim with us, zooming over our heads. I also saw a moray eel and all kinds of fish. It was an incredible experience.
Our first few dives were without incident. We knelt on the sandy bottom about twenty feet underwater and practiced clearing our masks. We increased our depth during each dive, practicing navigation skills and hand signals. In between dives, we took a couple of kayaks and explored the island. The sea lions would swim right up to us, popping their heads out of the water to check us out. Finally, it was time for our most challenging test: sharing air.
The exercise is simple. You take a breath from your regulator and pass it over to your dive partner. Your partner sticks it in their mouth, takes a breath, and gives you the okay signal, showing that they’ve got air. Then you reach back and grab your backup regulator, stick it in your mouth, press the purge button, and voila! You’re breathing again. No sweat.
We’d practiced this exercise in the pool at the university, and the hardest part was psychological—not panicking while holding your breath. I was mentally prepared for the challenge. What I wasn’t ready for was an equipment failure forty feet below the surface.
I was partnered with my instructor, and the first part of the exercise went as planned. I took a breath and handed off my regulator. He stuck it in his mouth and gave me the okay signal. I reached over, grabbed my second regulator, and stuck it in my mouth. Then I pressed the purge button.
Instead of air, I got a mouthful of saltwater. I might have been able to spit it out, if I hadn’t been so caught off guard while trying to hold my breath. I swallowed the water and pressed the button again, desperate for air.
Nothing but seawater. My lungs burned, and I began to feel light-headed. I swallowed the water again, staving off panic. I tried once more, pressing the purge button…but there was no air. I swallowed yet another mouthful of saltwater. Detached from my growing horror, I thought, “Oh. This is how I’m going to die.”
I pressed the purge button one more time, and finally, there was blessed air. I gave my instructor the okay signal, and then a thumbs-up, communicating that I wanted to go to the surface. When we reached the top, I ripped the regulator out of my mouth and took a deep breath. It felt amazing to simply breathe.
I dove again soon after the incident, even though the saltwater I’d swallowed made me want to vomit. I was worried that if I didn’t, the fear I’d experienced would dominate me. I couldn’t let that happen.
Scary as not being able to breathe was, it made getting my certification even sweeter. Now I know what to do if my purge button sticks. Rather than swallowing a mouthful of seawater, I should have spit it out and started for the surface at the first sign of trouble. The incident was terrifying, but I learned an important lesson.
© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2015
Ping Pong Paddle
When I was in second grade, I got into big trouble at school.
This was an anomaly for me—I was quiet in class and generally obeyed the rules. The only prior blot on my behavior record was in the first grade, when I got shushed by the teacher for talking to a friend during silent reading time. I dutifully returned to reading, but then I was ordered to sit in the corner when someone else made a noise and the teacher thought it was me. Unjust, but even teachers make mistakes.
I had a good friend who lived in my neighborhood in elementary school. We played well together until we got a new girl in our class. Our classmate was someone we both wanted to befriend. The three of us were skipping rope on the playground, and it was my turn to jump while they turned the rope.
At that age, I was one of the tallest kids in my class. I was so gangly, my mom bought me boys’ jeans to wear for the length and fit, because girls’ jeans were too short and slipped off my skinny frame. My friend was petite, and much more coordinated. She’d climb the jungle gym, sling a leg over a metal bar, and flip over and over. The best I could do was hang upside down by my knees and pray I didn’t land on my face.
As I tried to jump rope, my feet got tangled and I stumbled, which meant I was out and had to let someone else take a turn jumping. It wasn’t the first time I’d failed at jumping rope (nor would it be the last), but this time my friend made fun of me to impress the new girl.
That was when I made a mistake. I was angry and I didn’t think. I just acted. I kicked my friend in the shin. I was as surprised by this as everyone else, and as soon as I’d done it, I knew I had crossed a line. I felt horrible about it.
Then, things got worse. My friend went and told the playground monitor. It was my terrible luck that the teacher’s aide on duty was the meanest monitor around. I remember her towering over me, shouting at me to go to the principal’s office.
This was a nightmare. I’d gone from little Miss Goody-Two-Shoes to a hardened criminal because of one thoughtless act. The worst part was that in those days (ahem, thirty-something years ago), corporal punishment was permitted. Teachers were allowed to swat students on the bum. I knew that the principal had a big green ping pong paddle on her desk for just that purpose. It was a school legend.
I also knew I had transgressed, so I lifted my chin and marched off to the principal’s office to take my punishment.
It was a long walk.
Along the way, I thought about what I’d done and what my parents would think. I’d said sorry, but it wasn’t enough.
Humbled, I reached the principal’s office and meekly asked her administrative assistant if the principal was in. The woman smiled and said no.
In that instant, I realized this nice lady had no idea why I was there. The playground monitor hadn’t given me a behavior slip and was unlikely to follow up.
I leapt at my chance for escape. I smiled and said, “That’s okay. Thank you.” Then I left.
My rear end remained unpaddled. I got in a little trouble when I got home. My friend’s mother called my mom and told her what happened at school that day. I apologized, and the girl and I became friends again.
Still, though I truly was sorry for what I did, I wasn’t sorry for cheating fate.
© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2015