An excerpt from a work-in-progress, SOMETHING’S WRONG WITH LAURIE

“What’s a cemetery?” The insistent question, asked multiple times to penetrate the argument between radio music and the roar of open window wind, comes from Judy from the backseat, the unfiltered older sister, who sits to my right and behind our mother in the front seat with the baby on her lap.

All four windows of the car are cranked all the way down. From the middle of the backseat the wind hits me from both sides, almost taking my breath away and whipping my long stringy hair in a circle around my head, except for the row of inch-long bangs high up on my forehead. I assume this is the purpose of bangs. Daddy’s tanned arm hangs out the driver’s side front window, two fingers pinching his lit cigarette. I am five, and already addicted to nicotine from all the second hand smoke in our house. His other arm, the pale one, steers the car. I watch his wrist hang over the wheel and know this is how I want to look if I ever drive a car, if I’m ever tall enough to see over the dashboard.

To my left sits the brother, called ‘my son’ by our mother, a boy with huge dark eyes and curly brown hair who professionally wears the grin of it wasn’t me like he invented denial. He has the other window, the one that used to be mine (back when Mommy’s lap was his) because if he sits in the middle he’ll make Judy scream. And if she sits in the middle she can’t breathe. And if Jimmy makes Judy scream, Daddy can’t think, so he can’t drive, so we go home instead of wherever the six of us are trying to go. Jimmy fears me, for some reason, so it’s just logical for our exhausted parents to use me as the human blocker, Switzerland, a dependable source of peace. But not today.

Mommy somehow turns her long elegant neck around to answer Judy’s question and adds her voice to the noise. “A cemetery is where you go when you die.”

The pile of plastic flowers on my lap drops to the floor of the car. Judy scrambles down off her seat to scoop them up. We had a fight about carrying them, well she had a fight. I’m Switzerland so the pile was placed on my lap as her punishment for shoving Jimmy and running down the street with the flowers instead of getting in the car. Now the flowers are fair game. In our family if you drop something, or get up from your seat, or leave a half-eaten banana (if we have any) while you go to the bathroom, you lose it. The vultures descend. I didn’t care about the flowers when she fought for them earlier and I sure don’t care now that I know where we’re going and why.

No one responds to Mommy. Maybe everyone is shocked. I look around and change my mind: nobody heard her but me.

The car is going too fast. Even if it’s a holiday and it’s what you’re supposed to do, I do not want to go the cemetery. Daddy’s big blue car usually takes us to the grocery store or Gram’s. If we’re good in the car with Daddy while Mom goes in the store with the baby we can have a banana. On the way to Gram’s we beg Daddy to stop when we see the chestnut trees in the huge park, but he only stops once in fifty trips, because the other times the chestnuts aren’t ready. At Gram’s we get tight soft hugs and wet kisses and we run around her house, inside and out. One summer we went to the fair in this car. On Saturdays in summer we go to the lake. We stop for potato chips and cherries and cigarettes and soda on the way. We play all day and get a sunburn and bury cherry pits in the dirty sand. We all fall asleep in the backseat like puppies on the way home, unbelted because there’s no seatbelt law yet. Once we almost went to the drive-in movie to see Bambi, but Daddy pretended we were bad when he didn’t want to sit in the long traffic line and took us home. Just like Jimmy pretends he doesn’t like what’s for dinner every night so he can have cereal. Why is Memorial Day a holiday anyway? Judy asked Mommy what memorial meant this morning, but I didn’t hear the answer because Jimmy dropped his peanut butter toast on the floor and demanded Captain Crunch. For some reason that made the baby cry, which started another blast of noise.

I do not want to go to the cemetery.

I smack Jimmy’s leg and he swats me away like a flea. I grab his arm and pull him to me. He sees I’m crying. I stare into his infinite eyes, panic rising, and before I lose my breath I whisper, “We’re going to the cemetery.” He nods and kneels up to hang his head out the window like a dog.

I yank him down and whisper in his ear, “There’s dead people. At the cemetery.” His eyes grow even wider before his face turns purple and crumples.

He gasps, “Dead people. The cemetery,” and starts shaking his head violently back and forth in anger. Snot is already dripping from his nose. Jimmy always gets me. Maybe that’s why he fears me.

The car whizzes through the turns of the crazy road while I sob beside my little brother in the backseat. Normally we put our hands up and scream with glee as the sharp turns throw us in a kid heap from one side of the car to the other, back in the carefree days of no seatbelts. Only Judy is squealing.

At a red light at the top of the hill the roaring wind takes a rest, and when mom finally turns around to check on us she sees her two middle children quietly sobbing. When I see her see me, I release the instinctive reaction to a mother’s attention; I open my mouth to a square and sob from my soul.

“Jim. Pull over.”

We stand in a line on the cracked sidewalk, a staircase of heads, the four-year-old, then me, then the six-year-old. By now Judy has joined the sobbing without knowing why. I haven’t been able to speak. Daddy squats and Mommy kneels before us. Behind them, I see the baby. She’s standing on the seat looking out the open window, seriously close to adding her voice to the fray. Seeing the baby makes me wail even louder. I don’t want her to die. Ever.

Jimmy has found his breath and he’s yelling, “Laurie (gasp) Laurie (gasp).” Over and over. This helps our parents understand that I started this. The victim always sobs the perpetrator’s name. They both focus on me. Daddy holds my shoulders with both crooked hands. I grab his muscled forearms and feel a little better. I try to take a breath through my hiccups. When I focus on his blue eyes, I crumple again into sobs. I don’t want him to die. Ever. He pulls me to his chest. They wait while I sob.

When I cry myself dry, and finally lift my head, my family encircles me on the ground. Mommy holds the baby on her hip as she kneels on the concrete. It’s Mommy’s voice that almost sends me over the wall again.

“Laurie. Tell us. What’s wrong? What happened?” She cups my chin in her hand. The baby reaches out and pats my cheek.

Mommy’s dark eyes match mine and Jimmy’s. I know I’ll look just like her one day. I try to speak.

“I don’t… I don’t want… I…” and I’m sobbing again. Jimmy joins in sobbing, but he can speak while he cries, so he starts to plead our case.

“We don’t want to…” he begins, his eyes are wild with fear, and he is overcome by the aching need to square his mouth and howl. Everyone watches, holding their breath, waiting to learn what thing must be avoided.

Finally we say together, “We don’t want to… DIE!”

We fall on our parents in a fresh wave of terror, but I feel a sliver of relief. We’ve laid the problem before our protectors. They’ll know what to do. Either we’ll all live, or we’ll all die together. It’s not up to me.

Judy catches the fear virus. She didn’t seem to know we were going to the cemetery to die. Now she’s crying for real. She’s fresh, at the beginning of the cry, and we all wait for hers to pass so we can have a family meeting. The sky suddenly opens up in a steady drizzly sun shower. Our parents usher us back into the car.

The seats are hot. The windows are still all the way down and rain drips in on the people near them. I’m dry in the middle.

Mommy begins. “Laurie, look at me.”

I do.

“I know you don’t want to die.”

I nod. I feel vigorous nodding from both sides. Daddy smiles and stops smiling in a blink. I didn’t miss the smile.

I look at him and whisper, “I don’t want any of you to die.” It’s the core of my fear—unfathomable life without them. He just nods.

“We’re not going to die,” Mommy insists.

“Yes. We are.”

“But not today,” Daddy helps.

“We will. If we go to the cemetery. Mommy said so. ‘A cemetery is where you go when you die.’”

Their three oldest children sit silently in the backseat, watching them look at each other, deep into each other, and decide without speaking what must be done about this crisis.

To their credit, my parents did not laugh just then. They stored my fear and my literal logic pressed into the pages of their Book of Laurie to take out and examine later, after I was safely tucked in bed, to marvel at the developing people occupying the tiny bodies of their children. As all parents do. But they did heed my warning and turned the car around and took us all home, where we didn’t even start to die for another quarter of a century.

If there’s a future

Think of the humans you turn to when sad, when afraid, when happy, when angry. The ones who listen to you vent and love you anyway. The ones you most relate to because of shared pain and injustice, shared love and laughter. If you’re a woman, your circle is likely female.

In the year I was born, only 40% of undergraduates in America were female.1 Today, 60% of undergraduate degrees are earned by females. In my organic chemistry courses, almost 70% are female. Future doctors and scientists. This is so commonplace today that we take it for granted, but every right women currently have was fought for by our mothers and their mothers. It was not bestowed on us. It was demanded.

There’s a funny Mary Poppins song that goes, “Though we adore men individually…” and “Our daughter’s daughters will adore us, and they’ll sing in grateful chorus…” and “Womankind, arise!”

Women fought for the right to vote, to own property, to go to school, to divorce, to run for office, for birth control, to be Secretary of State and Vice President and serve on the Supreme Court… We’ve made so much progress but still, we are underpaid. Still, men strive to control us. What are men afraid of? Do they think if(when) we take over, we’ll mistreat them as we have been mistreated for hundreds of years?

Do they fear revenge?

That’s it. That must be it.

But is it?

Men do not understand women any more than we understand them. Their drives and our motivators don’t line up. Yet they think if they don’t hold us at bay, we’ll take all their imagined power. (I didn’t intend this post to take me down this path, but such is the nature of the writing process–the path always meanders.) Such supposing about what ifs led me down a winding path to write a dystopian novel a decade ago. The story began from fear. Shootings in schools and on college campuses were becoming more common until one day my daughter hid for hours on campus while police hunted down a shooter who’d killed a cop. That day, the future came for me. What could not touch my heart came too close. From that fear a story grew where females found a way to protect not only each other, but also saved the world from destruction by men, by taking over.

It’s just a story. Just fiction. But a story from the opposite perspective from Margaret Atwood’s THE HANDMAID’S TALE. Instead of women held down, men are taken to their knees, subdued, and controlled in every conceivable way. Take a look at my book, INFINITY LINE, for a horrific tale of single-gender control in a future that’s exclusively female. It’ll remind you how much you individually love your husband, brother, father, and friends. And maybe it can shake up some men to a perspective that females have incessantly fought against for our entire lives and would never wish on anyone.

Available in paperback or Kindle version from Amazon.

start at zero and add

When you have nothing, you want everything. Girls at school had pretty clothes, a lot of them. And shoes. All new and never worn by anyone else. Some even had a car, their own bedroom, and a weekly allowance. I had a job.

I also had mentors. A couple teachers who pushed me. A counselor who looked at my scores and sent me through a door I had not considered to a degree I’d never heard of. What does an engineer even do, and why are they so well paid?

An engineer solves problems. Differently named engineers solve problems in areas like construction or aeronautics or biomedicine or electronics or mechanics or computer science or chemistry.

They are so well paid because their work is so vital and so few can survive the four-year degree–one which is not handed out like candy. Earning that degree proves their worth. Supply and demand are tipped in their favor.

Of course, their jobs require them to work 60 or more hours each week for 40 or more years for their salaries. They work in groups, under deadlines, to fix problems and to back up sales teams who make impossible promises without comprehension, or to stop a bridge from collapsing, or to verify the physics of a future structure, or to regenerate nerves, or to test new medicines, or something else to make life easier on the rest of us. They enjoy the challenge and the like-minded teams of problem solvers. They share credit, learn from mistakes, and shoulder blame. The world rides on their ideas.

Start from your current position and chart a course to what you need. Do you want to teach, create, invest, build, help, lead, share, bake, farm, distribute, coordinate, repair, nurture, and improve the world? Don’t wait for the government to solve your problems with money collected from taxes taken from other workers or you may very well spend your whole life waiting and complaining and end up in that exact same position, pointing your angry finger, after 40 years.

worry capacity

There is a cool demonstration science teachers do in general chemistry classes where we fill a clear cylinder with water to the top and then carefully add paperclips one by one. Students count the paperclips as they are dropped in until the water spills over the edge. When we’re really careful, we can add dozens and maybe a hundred paperclips before the water molecules break free of their hydrogen bonds (intermolecular forces where the electron deficient hydrogen on one water molecule is strongly attracted to a lone pair of electrons on an electron rich oxygen on an adjacent molecule; like the molecules are holding hands; like molecular magnets) and spill over in a stream of molecules.

Those hydrogen bonds work together to keep the water molecules touching and in the liquid state. All of life depends on hydrogen bonds. Don’t get me going. I seem to have lost my point. Hold on. I’ll remember in a sec.

.

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Oh, yes. There’s the thread. The final breaking point of those strained hydrogen bonds when the bubble of water hovering above the cylinder finally flows is analogous to the breaking point of worry when we exceed our capacity to keep the lid on tight. Emotions flow. We cry. We lash out. We hurt for the sake of others. The overflow can happen while we sleep. Dreams wake us up and remind us of the stresses we tamp down all day long. COVID. Work. Family. War. While our side of the world points away from the sun the other side of the world bombs each other. Capacity exceeded. The camel’s back can’t take even one more tiny paperclip.

spring break perspective

From the relaxed energy well of spring break, we (professors and our students) sit at a local minimum in an intermediate state of stability. We can look back along the energy diagram path that brought us here, up and up and up to where our most recent transition state must surely be, but we cannot see that apex, a point where the first derivative of the semester energy function (and thus the slope of its tangent) equaled zero; we have slid down so fast. We remember that unstable transition state position as a sleepless, foodless, chaotic time of breaking and forming bonds, when we peered over the edge of the drop that brought us here. In our current spring break intermediate state, we are well-rested, fed, and relaxed, hence stable. If we dared to peek ahead to the next transition state, we’d see it has a much higher activation energy than the last TS, and there is no hope of seeing beyond it to the end of the semester, though we know the river of time will drag us there kicking and fighting to keep our heads above water.