A friend in my book club recently reminded me that my tastes in books and movies run a bit darker than most folks’. I laughed, thinking my tastes are different in other areas of my life too. Growing up, I don’t remember my family ever having ham or turkey at Christmas. We might have, but it seems like we always had enchiladas instead, and that suited me fine. I like my food spicy and my books spooky.
Having said that, I’m excited about the It reboot, featuring Bill Skarsgård as Pennywise. From what I’ve seen so far, it’s going to be fantastic. The book is amazing, and by that I mean it’s one of the most terrifying novels I’ve ever read. It hooks you from the beginning as you follow poor little Georgie Denbrough, racing after his paper boat as it goes down the storm drain. I’m fairly certain we won’t be reading It in book club. I don’t want to be responsible for triggering someone’s coulrophobia.
To my knowledge, I don’t have any phobias. There are things that scare me, sure, but not to the extent I become incapacitated. I’m not afraid of heights, but I have a healthy respect for guardrails and I don’t take stupid risks. I love roller coasters and water slides. I’m not terrified by sharks, but I get that some of them are dangerous. Even so, I want to go cage-diving with great whites.
I’m not even scared of spiders, which really annoys my family because I usually let the spiders in our house live, so long as they’re not venomous. We have a lot of spiders on the Oregon coast, but few dangerous ones. Some of them, like zebra spiders with their striped abdomens, could even be considered cute. I know—most of you find them revolting. We’ll have to agree to disagree though, because I like the way my little friends devour mosquitos. As long as they do their job and don’t want to snuggle, I’ll grant them a stay of execution.
My greatest fear is something bad happening to people I love. I’m also frightened of demagogues. And angry mobs. Beyond that though, I like the adrenaline rush that comes from being frightened. I guess that’s why I write scary scenes in my books.
I like watching horror movies, but the jump scares always get me, even when I suspect they’re coming. Still, I’m cool with gore, especially if it’s campy. The one subgenre I’m not fond of is demonic possession—those movies tend to give me nightmares. I’ve never watched The Exorcist all the way through. (Well, I have, but I covered my eyes for some of it.) I don’t play with Ouija boards either. I believe demons and predatory spirits exist, so to me it’s common sense not to dabble in that stuff. Better safe than sorry, right?
But back to clowns…am I afraid of clowns? Not really. Do I find them disturbing? Yes. Partly because of Pennywise, but also because there’s something horrifying about someone hiding behind a mask, whether it’s an actual mask or face paint. I don’t like mimes for the same reason. When people cover their faces, their features are disguised, making it difficult to read facial expressions. Their identity is disguised as well. You don’t necessarily know who you’re talking to. (Which, of course, is the same problem with Ouija boards.)
When I was a kid, we attended a local festival every fall, watching a parade. Clowns would march near the spectators, handing out stickers and candy. There was nothing overtly scary about them except they were strangers, and there was something frightening about talking to a stranger, even if they were being nice. I never quite trusted them, particularly if they were the kind of clown who felt it was a personal challenge to get a quiet kid to talk. I didn’t like going to see Santa either. I liked the idea of Santa Claus, but even as a kindergartener I could see the man in the suit wasn’t the real Santa. He couldn’t fool me, and I wasn’t about to sit on an imposter’s lap.
Years later, when I worked as a counselor, I had colleague who loved clowns. She volunteered as one, and her office was filled with paintings of clowns. She probably had twenty of those paintings adorning her walls. One time, she invited me in to talk over a case. I sat there, trying to focus on our conversation, but all I could think about were those clowns. What did her clients think of her décor? Did they find it as disturbing as I did?
I figured the woman had never read It, but Pennywise wasn’t the only evil clown out there. Had she never heard of John Wayne Gacy, the serial killer who sometimes dressed as a clown? To me, that seemed like reason enough to go with a different design theme, but I guess my mind went to a darker place than hers.
Clearly, our opinions on clowns were polar opposites. I wonder what she thought about spiders.
© 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
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
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