Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Fear of Falling Up and the Little-Big Feeling

I have a fear of falling up. Not because I've read the Shel Silverstein book Falling Up. This irrational fear goes way back beyond that, in fact, goes all the way back to the balloon release incident of 1979. I was four years old and I let a balloon go at the zoo, not on purpose, but for whatever reason I lost my grip and up it went. I asked my mom when it would come back down and she said it wouldn't.
"Where's it going to go?" I asked her.
"Up into space!" she said, like the idea of it was fantastic.
I imagined my blue balloon going up, up, up beyond all control. What if it didn't want to? What if it wanted to come back down and couldn't and it was scared? I told her this and began to cry. She put a hand on my shoulder and said, "Don't worry. It won't really go that high. It'll burn up in the atmosphere at some point."
And I became a frantic mess. I thought of my balloon, my poor sweet blue balloon that had become my friend, bursting into flames in outer space without me there to save it...Mom always did say it was hard to take me places.
I don't think this one incident triggered my fear of falling up. I think it's always been there, that fear of flying out of control and never coming down, and the balloon was just the first time I saw my own fear come to life. To me, it was directly connected to the Little-Big feeling and the Little-Big feeling is even worse than the fear of falling up. Both of them have been hitting me lately, and at no other time does it hit worse than when I drive over a bridge in the dark.

The Little-Big feeling came to me in a fever. I was lying on the couch and my mom was cooling my forhead with a wet rag.
"How do you feel?" she asked.
"Like there are big pillows on my head."
She laughed. "What does that mean?"
"Big pillows. They're really big."
"That sounds soft and nice," she said.
"No," I said, and I remember that my voice was calm and low because I found it strange that I wasn't panicking. "They're too big. They're squishing me."
I imagined that I was a cartoon character, a boy because I always thought of myself as a boy back then, and I was crouched on the ground trying to lift three pillows that were like boulders over my head. They might have looked like pillows but they were cement and I was tiny underneath them. It's funny that I have this problem because even then, at the age of five, I was tall. But it didn't matter. If pillows could be huge and weigh a ton then I could be very, very small.
I got the same feeling five years later when I saw a picture of the Great Pyramids with people standing next to them.
"That," my 5th grade teacher said, "is how big that pyramid is. Look at the size of that one compared to the people standing next to it."
"I don't see any people," I told her.
"They're the dots at the base," she said, pointing to the tiny blobs that weren't big enough to be the pyramid's toes.
I got the Little-Big feeling then, the feeling that I'm being dwarfed by a planet, something that exists in its enormity to simply remind me of how tiny I am. And when I get this feeling I want to crawl on the floor and lie very still so that it won't see me.
This is why I'm not sure if I could walk through any city with buildings taller than the ones in New Orleans. We don't even have skyscrapers and sometimes when I walk past the taller ones I can't look up or I'll feel an overwhelming sickness and an impulse to hide under a parked car. Which is embarassing.
But I don't have to be standing next to something Big to feel Little. If I see two things next to each other with such a size-difference I get the same panic attack, and when the attack happens that's when I feel like I am flying up.
I'm not exactly sure why this happens to me on the tops of bridges, particulary at night and particulary on the top of this bridge:

This is the suspension bridge that crosses the Mississippi River in Luling. Look pretty, does it? Well, it's not. It's a nightmare suspended on cables, bookended by monolithes. Oh and if you want to see what situation would make me throwup, passout, and die all at once it's if I were forced to do this:

This is a picture of two men who are riding up one of the suspension cables on the Luling Bridge, two men who clearly have never let go of a balloon at the zoo and or were burdened by enormous pillows on their heads. Just looking at this picture is making my hands sweat. This is what I feel is actually happening to me when I cross that bridge - that as I ascend, I am going up the cables and shooting into space and I will never come down. I actually get that feeling of rising that I get when I'm going up in an elevator and I have to remind myself that that feeling isn't real. That in reality I'm just crossing a road...a road that just so happens to be suspended over a river. BUT I CAN'T THINK ABOUT THAT! So I try to think of episodes of Seinfeld instead. Remember the puffy shirt one? Man, that was funny. You know, I heard on NPR that that same shirt is in display at the Smithsonian. Really? Yeah. Bet that's a huge building. Shut up! I want to hide under the steering wheel now and close my eyes until we're over the bridge. Well, you can't. You will die, if you do that, you will die. Garunteed. You have to keep control of yourself. But what if I lose control of myself? What if I want to, but I can't and I lose it and I never get home? Um...remember the episode when Jerry couldn't get that smell out of his car?

My anxiety shoots through the roof if I see something next to the bridge that looks even bigger than the bridge itself, like a crane that's about a mile tall so that it can lift people who don't suffer from the Little-Big feeling to work on top of it. The shapes of both things next to each other make my brain bizerk.
And lately, as I cross the Causeway bridge at night, this feeling consumes me. I can't figure out why this doesn't happen during the day but maybe it's because the daytime sky has points of reference - patches of clouds at varying points and different hues of blue. But at night, on a 24-mile bridge with only my headlights shining the way, the sky is the entire universe. Impossibly vast. I look up at it and I'm floating up, and the anxiety that hits me is like my whole body burning up in the atmosphere.

This is a problem. I'm not moving from across the lake until next month. After that I won't have to cross a bridge every day, just every once and a while. But until then, I have to commute every morning and night across that damn thing and since the time change, every evening is a struggle to convince my mind what is real despite what it sees. It sees planets and burning hot stars coming too close. It feels so small and insignificant and out of control, it begins to squirm and dart around the floor like an insect when the lights come on. During these moments when I feel the fear like flames on my skin, I remind myself where I am, how old I am, and that I'm responsible and smart enough to get myself across the bridge. I try to become the mother I need, and most of the time this works, until times like the other day the sick bastard in my head who wants to get me killed reminded me that astronauts say that they can see The Great Wall of China from space. AAAAAHHH!!! LITTLE-BIG FEELING!!! I can't think about astronauts, they shoot into space on a firecracker out of control! I can never go to China and see The Great Wall! It will crush me and I will die 50 horrible deaths at the sight of it!!! Then I get the feeling that my mother must have gotten with me that day at the zoo when I freaked out over a balloon...Genevieve, Genevieve, Genevieve...will you calm the fuck down?
Unfortunately, telling me to calm down doesn't work. Neither does trying to convince myself that my fear isn't real. But one thing has helped. Since I've figured out that my problem is visual - the contrast of Little-Big shapes, I've learned to cut out as many unnecessary sights as possible. One evening when I was crossing the bridge and squinting against the sight of the sky as if it were the sun glaring at me, I lowered the sun visor...and that was all it took. I gave the dark sky a ceiling. Suddenly, it wasn't filling up the top part of my windshield anymore, hinting at infinity. It was managable.

And when I'm able to get a foothold of the sane grownup inside of me, I remind myself that the smallest things can have equal worth to the biggest things. One atom no less important than all of Jupiter. No one person less important than an Egyptian pyramid. I remember that the blue balloon didn't feel anything - I was feeling everything, more anxiety and fear than a child of four should have to feel. More was going on then than I would allow myself to remember for years and years. Until recently. Which coincidently is when the Little-Big feeling returns like a firecracker shot right into my heart - whenever a lot of anxiety is going on. The size of this problem is equal to the size of my life anxiety, so I know that I need to work on it until it becomes Little again. As a sign of good faith to myself and to all of you, my dears, that things will get better, I am pasting a picture of The Great Wall of China as seen from space:

See? That's not so bad. Kinda cool. Gosh, they must be, uhhhh, 30 miles up or...or something. 30...miles...well that's...far.  Excuse me, everyone, I'm going to go crawl under the bed and pass out.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Santa Blasphemy

My son hasn't believed in Santa since the second grade. This isn't a huge chunk of time considering that he's in third, but it seems that this decision has aged him in the eyes of teachers and classmates.
"All the kids in my class hate me," he whimpered when I picked him up from school the other day.
"Oh come on, ALL of them?"
And then I realized that it was possible. My kids go to a very small school, and there are only five other kids in Christopher's class - in fact, in his whole grade. It's great in a way because you know everybody and not so great in a way because a dislike of you can easily become a mob-mentality of "ew he's gross!"
"Yes," he said. "All of them because I don't believe in Santa."
"Oh...well...ALL of them believe in Santa? None of them have older siblings who've, you know, broken it to them harshly?"
"I guess not."
"Well...." I said, years of experience escaping me as I struggled for something wise to say.
"Benjamin says I ruin Christmas."
"Oh for goodness sake, you can't single-handedly ruin Benjamin's Christmas by telling him you don't believe in Santa."
"And the teachers don't like me either."
"Christopher that's not true."
"Well, the first grade teacher doesn't. My teacher asked me to bring her something and when I went in their class William said 'Bejamin says you don't believe in Santa' and the other kids yelled at me and the teacher said, 'Sad.'"

I squeezed my eyes shut and took a deep breath before speaking because I knew if I opened my mouth I would say, "Tell those fuckers that if they want Santa Claus to leave them anything they need to stop picking on my son, and I hope that teacher chokes on coal."

When I opened my eyes I said, "Christopher. I'm going to teach you a sentence. Repeat after me: I respect our differences."
"I respect our differences," he said, giggling. "What the heck does that mean?"
"It means that you respect their beliefs and it's a kind way of saying that they need to respect yours even though you disagree. You're, uh, you're going to use it a lot in life. Let's say it again!"
I led him in another round of "I respect our differences." I don't know if he'll use it. It's kind of nerdy, but bless my son, he is a nerd just like his momma. I didn't think I would have to prepare him for this day when it was him against Santa believers. Usually there's a mix of kids in a class - kids who still believe and those who've already caught their mothers filling their stockings. Christopher is probably exaggerating about EVERYBODY in 1st and 3rd grade HATING him for not believeing in Santa, but I'm sure that they're giving him a hard time about it. This is the time in a young man's life when lines are drawn between those who still believe in imaginary gift givers (Santa, Easter Bunny, etc) and those who don't. What I don't understand is adults who give kids a hard time about this. I believe that teacher told him it was "sad" that he doesn't believe in Santa because I've heard other grown-ups do this and I think the next time I hear it I'll just come out and say, "Why? We're actualy LYING to them. You woudn't tell an 8th grader that it's sad he doesn't believe in Santa. You'd send him to the counselor."

Besides all of these people should know that it is I who am Santa! HA! As proof I will now end this blog post so that I can shop on-line, as all proper Santas do. But nothing for the teacher who hurt Christopher's feelings. She just lost out on scented candles until her behavior improves.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

A Live Literary Panel - on Blog!

I'm standing behind a podium on stage, and I'm arranging a stack of pages, giving them a serious look as if I've written them and understand what they're all about. And there's applause, lots of applause. It's coming from you (this is where you clap).
"Good morning, everyone," I say, and you're looking at me and thinking, "She mentioned that she was tall but, Jesus. I don't think I'm going to be able to focus on anything else she's saying now that I know that she's a giantess."
And since I don't know that you're thinking this, I press on.
"Today we're going to be discussing Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games."
"Which one?" You ask. "There are three."
"All three," I say, grasping all three books with two hands, and dropping one because what I have just tried to do is very awkward. But I pick it up and fan out the paperbacks like playing cards beause I have freakishly long fingers and am able to do this. You are impressed.
"Joining me in our discussion today is literary critic and writer Stephen King..." I nod to my left. The best-selling author sits back in a chair with with one leg propped up on his knee. He has bushy eyebrows, glasses, and looks spooky to us because we know what he's written and it has scared the shit out of us.
"Hiya," he says.
"Literary executioner, Bitina Cleaves..." I motion towards a woman sitting to Stephen King's left. She's wearing a cream-colored suit and matching heels. Her legs are primly crossed, her brown hair is flowing onto her shoulders like a waterfall in a shampoo commercial, there is a dull axe on her lap, and she is covered in blood from the teeth down.
"A pleasure," she growls.
I shift quickly to my right. "Also joining us is my former literary agent, Sarah, and because I couldn't get a sitter, my three kids."
"I told you that I didn't want to come to this," Sarah moans. She is bent forward in her chair with her hand over her face.
"Oh come on Sarah, we get to talk about a book that sold," I whine.
"Unlike yours," she mumbles.
"Sarah, what did we agree to never mention?" I say.
She sits up and sighs. "Fine."
"We don't want to be here either!" two out of three of my kids cry. They are sitting at a table to Sarah's right.
"Too bad!...where's your sister?"
"She's still sleeping," says Emma.
"But she's 13! And she's read the books! She's perfect for this discussion!"
"We need a teenager speak to the love triangle element in the books," says Stephen King. "I can cover the blood and gore because I've been stereotyped for the purposes of this blog to think that way."
"And what did you think of the blood and gore?" I ask.
Bitina Cleaves makes a yummy groan at the word "blood."
"It was delightful," he says, folding his hands on a propped-up knee. "It was the right blend of horrorfying situations, bloody and bruised detail, heart break as in the case of the lilttle girl dying, and death by mutant bees."
I raise my eyebrows. "You enjoyed the mutant bee attacks?"
"Well Gen, you just don't get enough of that in literature."
"Too true."
"Maybe if we'd added that to the end of your book it would have sold," sighs my former agent.
"It's not a horror novel," I say.
"My Girl wasn't horror, it had death by bees, and it was a blockbuster hit."
"That was a movie."
"Think towards the market!!"
"Moooom, what's for dinner?" my son whines.
Betina Cleaves salivates over her axe, and eyeballs Stephen King, mumbling the word "dinner."
"You stay away from me," he says, squirming in his chair.
"Miss Cleaves, Stephen King is an established writer, I doubt he needs a review."
He shoots me a look. "You'd be surprised."
"But we're here to talk about The Hunger Games," I remind them, holding up the books.
My kids double over in their seats. "So hungry! When is this stupid thing over?"
"Later!" I snap. "I'll cook chicken in a few minutes."
The two of them fall out of their chairs and writhe on the ground as if I have told them that I am serving them broiled-frogleg-and-beet salad for dinner because this is what they do when the word "McDonald's" doesn't pop out of my mouth.
Claire, my 13 year old then walks bleary-eyed onto the set. "What's the matter with them?"
"They're hungry. So Claire...what did you think of The Hunger Games?"
She shrugs. "It's ok."
"Ok??" I ask. "You're wearing a Hunger Games T-shirt."
"And you're carrying a bow and arrow, and a life-sized cardboard cutout of Josh Hutcherson."
She shrugs again. "It's, like, whatever."
"Go back to bed."
"What's for dinner?"
"Unsold copies of your mom's book," says Sarah, pulling out a stack of my manuscripts from a bag and a crockpot.
"Hey!" I yell.
"Come on kids," she says, tossing a manuscript into the pot and sprinkling it with pepper. "This is the only way she's ever going to feed you with writing."
"I like your style," Betina Cleaves grumbles at Sarah.
"Guys!" I holler. "This is a series of books that is having a powerful affect on young readers, some of which who are future writers! We need to talk about this. Stephen King, you're still with me, aren't you?"
"Actually, I am kind of hungry." He gets up and strides over to the pot, which is beginning to stew. He sniffs. "Hm...this isn't done, it needs more work."
I sigh and smack my forhead. Then the scent of the book fills the literary executioner's nostrils, and she cries out like Xena. She leaps across the room, lifts the crockpot and drinks everything down in one gulp.
"A sorry attempt for a first novel! Predictable, slow-paced, lame, too lumpy, needs more salt!"
Stephen King pulls a paperback out of his pocket. "My new book on the other hand-"
Bitina weilds her axe and screams, chasing him around the room.
"Oooooh!" my kids whine. "Now what are we supposed to eat?"
"It's ok," says Sarah. "I have all 206 versions of the book that I made your mom rewrite."
She throws them into a cauldron.
I remove my hand from my face, stand up straight, and look back at you guys, the blog audience.
"Well, thank you for joining us today. Tune in next week when we discuss Life of Pi. Special guests will include JK Rowling, a zebra, a random Indian, and Kermit the Frog."
Que theme music, which is cheesy 70's-ish, and fuels my children's overall dissatifiaction. One of them has taken Bitina's axe and is chasing her with it while Stephen King and Sarah discuss different ways of fricasseeing my book.

The unsold copies of which, by the way, you can find here. So get out your forks, bibs, and cooking supplies before diving in....what do you mean, this blogpost has been nothing but shameless promotion? Of course it has! The Hunger Games series hasn't gotten nearly enough attention. I'm just a writer helping another writer out. To prove I'm serious, you can find copies of that poor struggling series here. It's going to be ok, Suzanne Collins! I'll make you famous!