Thursday, May 23, 2013

Home Style Exposure Therapy

Me. The perfect subject for Home Style Exposure Therapy.

“The frog! The FROG! Noooooo!”

There was a full grown one in the front driveway and it was after me.  I tunneled into the plant bed which was my very best choice of hidey hole.  No one could ever find me there when we played hide and seek. It was full of pointy Spanish sabre spears and smaller prickly succulents that gouged and stung my legs and squished under my bare feet.  

I squatted making myself smaller hoping it-she, wouldn’t see me. 

The giant frog was dressed in a full bib apron and a flouncy white mob cap like an obscene Beatrix Potter/Charles Dickens cloning experiment. I had the vague notion that she was my babysitter and I was being bad making her chase me. I was terrified of the consequences. She breathed a menacing wheeze like hissing, clicking and crickets. 

She was angry. 

Worming further into the foliage, I prayed that she would pass me by. But she only grew closer swinging her webbed feet in a heaving flopping stride. My panicked breathing, ruffling the leaves around me, drew her attention. She slowly turned her misaligned shiny face toward me.  A new stream of crickets, clicking and hissing sounds spewed triumphantly from her wide upturned ruby red lip-stick adorned lips.

“Dere yuh arrrreee.  Yuh neeeeeds t’commmme wit me liddel missssss.…sshhhhhh.”

And she reached out her slippery wart-covered manicured hand. Fire engine red nails tipped her fingers. As her tentacle fingers wrapped around my wrist, I filled my lungs with a huge draught of air preparing to light the fuse on an ear piercing scream.

“What frog? Wake up, Linda. Where’s the frog?”

Mom was sitting on the edge of my bed shaking me awake breaking the grip of that hideous dream. “I keep dreaming about her Mom. She comes looking for me every night! And she’s getting bigger.”

“Every night?” said Dad, leaning on the doorframe, grinning so I could see the distinctive gap between his front teeth. “Why do you think she does that?”

“I don’t know Dad, but I need her to go away. She scares me.”

Mom, her brows furrowed, said, “Now, I told your Dad that this could be a very bad idea, but he has something for you.”   

I hadn’t noticed that he had his hand behind his back, and all the horror of that recurring night terror began to fade into pink and purple unicorn prancing little girl glee. 

I was getting a present!

“I think,” said Dad, “This new friend is in charge of making that bad nanny frog stop chasing you. He made a promise to protect you.”

He tossed a big green frog on my bed at my feet. Not a real one. Stuffed like my Teddy Bear and my Lion. 

But I still jumped up so hard I bumped my head squarely on my bookshelves over my headboard sending a cascade of storybooks to the floor.

The frog. It was a Steiff toy stuffed animal, soft and grinning and sporting realistic markings and a pink tongue, just like a real frog. Its shiny black eyes glinted at me conspiratorially. We were going to be brave slayers of nightmares and bedtime buddies for many years to come.

I loved Frog on sight. 

I was, however, a tad pissed that Lion and Teddy Bear had not stepped up earlier in this saga.


Fort Lauderdale was the city of my birth. My parents were the “Where the Boys Are” generation and as the hipsters of that generation, they loved to hang out on the famous Ft. Lauderdale Beach at Las Olas Boulevard. All of their photos from every angle had the iconic Elbo Room bar in the background. Mom and Dad and my Aunt Polly (Dad’s younger sister) were the original denizens of Spring Break where one could walk into the ocean without touching sand because every square inch was covered with bedspreads and beach towels and prone students slathered in baby oil and zinc oxide. 

There was a strategy to a beach day. We met up with Aunt Polly who would get there early, a cup of coffee in hand, to set up a family headquarters complete with magnetic playing cards for breeze proof bridge and a transistor radio.  She had cool beach toys too, and if I bugged her persistently enough, she would rent a big heavy rectangular rubber raft so I could go out and bob on the waves with her and look for fish.

Young single men who were part of my parent’s social circle would “borrow”a me, a goofy little blonde gap-toothed three year old girl, to “take a walk” up and down the beach. Within ten paces, these dorky Dobie Gillis/Maynard G. Krebs type guys wearing big grass Bahamas hats or sailor caps would magically transform into irresistible chick magnets. All the cute girls in bikinis would mob them cooing.

Looks like one of the guys who borrowed Wing Baby.

At a very early age, I was apparently a “wing baby” the perfect bait for these guys fishing for dates.

“Oh, what a cute little girl! Is she yours?  No?  You are married? No? Wow! It’s so evolved that you babysit…Do you like children? Mind if I walk with you?” 

Wing Baby was 100% successful and I got ice cream if I didn’t fuss too much.

Portuguese Man 'O War and Sargasso Seaweed

There were times when the beach was not so hospitable. The wind would shift and itchy critter- filled Sargasso seaweed would festoon the beach in fishy smelly piles. And, even scarier, big iridescent blue bubbles washed up trailing very long cobalt blue stinging tentacles. Some that hadn’t beached themselves yet would bob on the swells looking like alien sails on otherworldly boats.

Aunt Polly, a beloved and celebrated kindergarten teacher, always made things fun though, even on one of those non-optimum beach days. She taught me how to shake seaweed over a beach pail and observing little crabs, shrimp and even seahorses swimming in the cool water.  And we would find sharp sticks of driftwood to pop the scary big blue bubbles, called Portuguese Man ‘O War, being very careful not to step on the blue strands of stinging tentacles draped for several feet behind the bubble. 

A man ‘o war sting, a neurotoxin shot into the skin via tiny retractable barbs, causes terrible pain. One little detached inch of tentacle on the sole of the foot could ruin a whole day.  So we took pains to just poke the bubbles and enjoy the satisfying pop.

And we never, ever swam with them. 

You never could tell how far those tentacles could play out from the bubble in the water. Could be inches. Could be yards. We found out.

Aunt Polly was absorbed (winning) in a hot game of bridge but I wanted to swim and I was becoming a pain with my requests every 5 minutes. Her friend Joan, a fellow teacher, offered to take me out to bob around on the waves with her.  So we raced and splashed and giggled into the crystal clear ocean water on that perfect beach day.

Schools of shiny silver fish flipped and flowed around our legs and they tickled.  It was pristine, magical and we played mermaid. Joan held me afloat in her arms and I practiced my dog paddle. I stood on her shoulders and jumped off trying to make cannonballs.   

Off in the distance on the top of a wave, I thought I saw a flash of iridescent blue and I asked Joan if it was far enough away. It seemed very far away, but we decided to be safe and head back to the beach anyway.

Wet strands of string and thin threads wound around my legs. Joan looked down because she felt a similar sensation around her legs, waist and chest, like some kind of tangled maypole was binding us both. Quickly, she knew what was happening. She lifted my 4 year old body up over her head like I was a wriggling barbell and began thrashing and screaming toward shore.

On a diabolical synchronized chemical signal that surged throughout the entire organism, every stinging barb in those cobalt tentacles simultaneously fired; my legs were consumed in blue flames. 

Before my vision irised down to a pinprick and winked out, I saw Joan’s anguished face. She was powering though the swells of waves and unimaginable paralyzing pain holding me over her head while the man ‘o war continued to wrap her with new tentacles. 

I saw my legs kicking the sky wrapped in blue electric stinging strings intertwined with red welts moving up my stomach.

I saw my Aunt Polly flinging playing cards into the air and running into the surf to pull us out…

Joan, Aunt Polly and I were off to the hospital where our stings were treated with toxin neutralizing ammonia, and painkillers. Aunt Polly ended up stung badly in the hands and arms from attempting to pull off the tentacles from Joan and me as she dragged us to the beach. 

I still didn’t have a clear idea of what had happened. Trauma does that.

My Dad joked about pee being an antidote for the toxin. 

"We could’ve skipped a trip to the hospital if we'd have just stood in a circle and peed right on you!"   That was not particularly funny to me. Aunt Polly and Joan laughed a little too long and hard about that one. They were both still a little shocky from the incident. 

Patricia Murphy's Restaurant.  
My fave because it was like a fairy garden.

Everyone was particularly concerned about me since, always normally offering up the Lindy Wall of Sound, I had very little to say after the accident. So I waited until we were all at dinner at my favorite restaurant on the Intracoastal, Patricia Murphy’s before I dropped my grenade.

“I am never going to the beach ever again.” 

I grabbed a warm yeasty popover from the basket with a real linen napkin cradling those pull-apart delicacies. I had a jones for those rolls.

All the adults stared at me and an awkward moment was savored by all. They sipped their drinks and tapped ash off their cigarettes. And then, Dad pulled a shopping bag from under the table.

Here came the pink and purple prancing unicorn little girl glee which nullified the darkest of thoughts.  I was getting a present!

“Linda, you love the beach. But we won’t make you go there any more if you are scared. Let’s talk about all the things you would miss out on if you didn’t go to the beach again.”

And Mom said, “Even if you never ever go to the beach again, we have a little something for you to keep your seashells, beach glass and maybe some beach sand in so you can remember how much you loved it.”

“Or you can just make it your purse…” offered Dad.

And from the bag came a sparkling clear blue plastic bubble purse that looked like an unpopped man ‘o war with no tentacles.

Well, ok.  I did have to go back to the beach then.  I needed some seashells and glass after all.

S'me. Ain't 'fraid o nothin'!

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Lost in The Tower

We lagged behind. 

We were now officially those silly lost pain-in-the-bum American women who can’t follow simple instructions to stay with a group.  But in our defense, we couldn’t help but slowly soak in the historically charged atmosphere that permeated the very stone, wood and metal of The Tower of London. 
We were here.  The Tower of London.

It was my fault actually. I was moving slowly having just felt the first twinge of a headache probably caused by jet lag and stuffing myself with real English toffee and gin. This trip was my mother’s gift to me for doing well in college and we were devouring every possible experience we could. For two precious weeks, we kept a whirlwind schedule seeing up to two stage plays a day, including Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice and Tom Stoppard’s Jumpers.  We boarded tour busses and day tripped to Stonehenge, Windsor, and Stratford Upon Avon, the Bard’s birthplace.  We strolled through the British Museum in abject awe and found ourselves losing track of time frequently. 

In some places, like the other minor stone henges, we got out of the bus to see and touch weathered faces of the giant vertical granite monoliths.  The time did seem fluid, flowing and very much alive. 

I attributed the electrical goose-bumpy feelings and the peripheral visions of shadows and flying lights I was experiencing to the excitement of the trip.  Mom, always the romantic, was convinced that my psychic abilities were tuned up and pinging.  I have some latent skills, but all spontaneous. Episodes happen with no warning and often have no relevance until later.

This was not going to do, however, this feeling woozy and fatigued in The Tower of London. So I soldiered on. 

Our Beefeater tour guide, dressed in full red and black formal regalia herded the rest of our group around the corner ahead of us into a maze of hallways and rooms.  His lilting British-y accented schpiel highlighting who was locked up in what cell before having their heads lopped off became ever more distant bouncing and echoing off thick stone walls.

“Come on Mom. Let’s go this way. We’d better catch up.  I hear them up ahead.” 

We went around a few corners but didn’t catch up. The echoing voice receded, a trick of the acoustics, I thought.  And it was getting cold.  We scrambled up a stone staircase and found a door leading into an open room. We couldn’t hear the tour group anymore, and we were fretting and giggling now that we could get kicked out of The Tower for this.  T’would be headlines back in the States.
It was potentially serious for us to be separated from the group because the IRA was busy at that time trying to make a point by bombing historical sites. 

And now we were lost in The Tower after being admonished to stay with the group.  The room was small and had leaded glass windows that overlooked the Tower Green where the headsman’s block once crouched on a platform. The ravens, smart as dogs, strut and peck.

“Well,” said Mom, “They're not here. Maybe we should’ve taken a left instead of a right back there…Hey! You look awful. What’s wrong with you?”

“Headache. Things seem kind of fuzzy. Got some chills.”  

I heard the Tower ravens croak and hassle each other outside the window so I went to perhaps catch a breath of air. I put my hands palms down on the window sill to steady myself and I noticed some very deep grooves etched into the stone below. There is carved graffiti all over the walls in The Tower. Doomed prisoners spent their last times alive chipping messages into the walls.  Most were light scratches and had worn down over the centuries. 

This word was carved into the stone so deeply…It was so deep. 


It hit me hard.  I had no control. Overwhelming floods of sadness and fear cascaded over me and pushed me down to the floor.  I knelt next to the carving and brushed it with my finger tips and burst into tears.  The letters – I A N E -  felt warm to the touch  but the rest of the room was meat locker cold. Sobs spewed out of me and I wept in confusion and pain.  My heart hurt. Mom just hugged me and we waited for the spell to pass.  Many tissues later, I got it back together, for the most part.  A beam of sunlight filled with dancing motes of dust poured in through that leaded glass window and the chill diminished. Peace.

“I know the way out now, Mom.”  

As though I had been there before, in some other space in time, I led us through the labyrinth of twists and turns to find our Beefeater.  We blended back into the tour group as though we were there the whole time.
When the tour ended, the Beefeater lingered to answer questions.  We waited until we had him all to ourselves to admit that we had been lost.  He just smiled and sighed.  “Happens sometimes. Glad you found your way back to us.”  

“We spent some time in a room waiting for the tour to come by and we saw something. You probably know this. What does the word IANE mean?” I asked.

The Beefeater became very still and studied my face which was still puffy and flushed. 

“Well, my dear, that is someone’s name. Jane. Lady Jane Grey. Her husband, Lord Guildford Dudley was held, imprisoned, in the room you, ahem, visited. Lady Jane Grey was Queen of England for nine days once…”


“So he carved her name in the wall?”

“It took Dudley a long time to incise that stone to the extent that he did. He loved her deeply, perhaps to distraction. And she loved him dearly even though their marriage was a political one. The staff and the guards here at The Tower were smitten with their great love story and guards allowed the pair to walk together on the Green when they could get away with it.”

“Mom, we were in Dudley’s prison cell…”

“But in 1554 by order of Queen Mary, Guildford Dudley went to the block first. You see, Queen Mary the First, a Catholic, was politically united with the Pope and Spain, and couldn’t allow any Protestant heirs of King Henry the Eighth to try to claim the throne. Lady Jane was staunchly Protestant and was almost crowned. But she was overthrown by Bloody Mary just before her coronation and imprisoned in The Tower.  Lord Dudley was separated from her and you found his cell. I suspect you had an interesting moment there…We don’t take the tours there for a reason.” 

“To say the least” said Mom, her eyes wide.

“She and her husband were sentenced to death as traitors. It is said that Lady Jane may have broken Dudley’s heart when she declined to have dinner with him the night before his execution. She explained that she just couldn’t face him on the eve of such horror. In fact, Lady Jane watched from her cell window as they took her husband to the headsman. She watched them bring his body back too, his head wrapped in a cloth next to it.”

 I had to sit down.  

“And she was…?” asked Mom.

“Beheaded as well.  She asked her executioner to be careful to do a good job.  Most notably, she didn’t cry or beg on the scaffold. She was blindfolded and politely asked for someone to help her to the block so she could lay her head down for the axe.”

My stomach jumped and my throat went dry. Lord Guilford Dudley is still in that room in Beauchamp’s Tower overlooking The Tower Green. He remains there hanging on the sword point of profound grief for his beloved IANE even to this day, and there I was, a channel for it. It was as though he and his beloved Jane wanted to be remembered, not forgotten. That was the message.
The Beefeater went on, shaking his head:  “Lady Jane Grey, such a remarkable girl. So much turmoil for such a young life.  Lady Jane Grey was married, Queen of England for nine days, and executed – and she was only sixteen years old.”



I was reminded that it was time to write this story recently.  A young girl in a grey hooded cape, the collar encrusted with red rubies and garnets, stood transparently buffeted by an invisible breeze at the foot of my bed limned by the light of a full moon.  She has done so for many years.  She simply smiles.


Monday, May 6, 2013

I'm A Nice Lady

Scene from the motor vehicle tag agency where I just spent an hour of life I'll never get back:

I must look like a "nice lady." This kind of thing happens so often, I feel like there is a sign on my face saying "Park your child here and I'll watch it while you take a bathroom break."

"Would you keep an eye on my kid? I gotta take a pee."

"Ok" I say reluctantly because I know what's going to go down.

She, the mom, took a leisurely 20 minute "constitutional" in the women's restroom and emerged fresh with a new application of makeup and hairdo. She was  arguing loudly speaking machine-gun rapid-fire Spanish into a bedazzled pink cell phone. Not even looking my way, she mooched a cigarette from a tattooed, branded man-boy wearing gang colors and walked out the door to smoke it. Meanwhile I have endured the olfactory and aural privilege of looking after her small squealing completely soiled piglet. The smell emanating from the stroller was really strong..Noisome and fetid. I poked an exploratory finger in to see what was what. This baby's nappy had not been changed for hours and he/she smelled of old ammonia, baby formula that had gone sour and adult human being sweat.

To solidify this experience into something even more unforgettable, the baby suddenly went silent, affixed me with a malevolent demonic stare, hiccuped, hooted and shot an audible rush of doody into his/her dangerously saggy ballooning diaper. The incident caused no less than 6 people to flee their seats to get away from me and the screaming baby dump buggy. I swear that child levitated from the powerful geysering explosion issuing from his/her nethers. Any chance of me picking the baby up to comfort him/her was eclipsed right then and there.
But I wanted to.
I was starting to feel very sorry for the little squidgy faced hobbit. I took his/her little bare feet in my hands and rubbed them gently and took some of the blanketing off so the sweaty grimy baby could get some air and slowly his/her sad little wails diminished.

Finally the mom flicked her cig butt into the bushes outside, said goodbye to the group of men with whom she was flirting, and came over to fetch her giant land yacht of a stroller from me containing that small red-faced baby who was by now crying so hard his/her forehead looked like it would pop. She made no eye contact with me, no expression of thanks, and she never made a move to clean that poor baby up. She just banged out the front door by using the stroller as a battering ram.

"Now serving 855" That was my number. So I renewed my tag.


“You’re an each, and quite my odd, but you’ve filled that hole with sunshine, days at the beach watching it rise, and red faced smeared with Noxzema, it’s nice to have  a friend like you, looking forward to our meeting, you’re an each but so am I, I’m glad our odds don’t matter.” 
 ~ Voni ~

We met in Catholic grade school, both daughters of doctors, sun tanned and blonde, first in birth order, and we rode the same bus home every day. We had loads in common.  And, so much not. 

Voni and me.

We were stone cold fated to become best friends. 

Voni’s house was on my route home every day, so we’d walk together and plan our playtime. Those were the days when hanging out outdoors, invading tree forts our brothers built high up in the jack pine trees and organizing neighborhood hide and seek games was the plan.  No three hour homework sessions or obsessions with team sports took up our time. Pine cone fights, bike riding and skateboarding kept us breathing fresh air and away from television.

Voni’s house was a sprawling traditional two story brick and stucco home jammed with the orderly clutter created by Voni and her five active siblings. Two sisters and three brothers. Big family.  The drumbeat of thundering feet up and down the stairs was constant. Every day after school, there were at least a dozen kids in and around that house visiting. 

When Voni and I first met and I was invited to hang around after school, we’d speed through homework, climb into our swimsuits and jump into the kidney-shaped pool in their back yard.  Eventually Voni’s family needed more room to spread out, though. So they filled in the pool, poured a giant foundation, (upon which we honed our fledgling skateboarding skills until the framing was due to be installed), and built a cavernous family room and dining area over top of it.

              Something was cooking in that wonderful house every day, and not just in Mrs. P.’s kitchen. And at 5 p.m., ever patient and practical, Mrs. P. would clap her hands and patrol the house and grounds shooing all the visitors home so we could eat dinner with our own families.
When weather kept us indoors, Voni, her two younger sisters and I would squeeze into her small immaculately organized room. She actually made her bed, taut enough to bounce a quarter on it, and ironed her school uniform every day.  This astounded me. The little desk in her room was always in impeccable order with books, notebooks and writing instruments in their places by color or function.  Her multi-colored yarn hair bows hung from hooks and her shoes were lined up neatly.

I was a big wrinkled mess and thrived on a certain amount of personal chaos. Voni inspired me though and every fortnight or so I would purge my room and get organized. 

When it rained, we played The Barbie Prom Queen board game. We couldn’t wait to be a big cool teenager like in the game, volunteering for charities, buying prom dresses, and dating cute guys. After multiple trips around the board, the end game was always a nail-biter.  I prayed to every pre-teen popularity god that I wouldn’t draw the nerd, Poindexter, to be my prom date. 

In self-defense, I chattered incessantly about Poindexter’s better hidden attributes and how he was really the cool prince in disguise, a doofy diamond in the rough that a little polishing would reveal.  I always flipped over the card with that ginger crew cut sporting mega-nerd, Poindexter.  He was destined to be my permanent prom date in board game world.  What an omen.

No matter how many times Voni won Prom Queen and the cute guy, I honestly celebrated.  She was my best friend and she deserved it.

Possibly my best birthday party ever. We went to Pirate’s World.
Top: Meg.   Middle: Voni, Sheila, Me, Holly, Janet, Elisa.   Bottom: Kim, Louise.

Me, Meg and Voni in the flying bucket ride. We avoided the Steeple Chase
because of rumored rattle snake infestations. This was WAY before Disney!

As our Catholic elementary school days waned, we were confirmed in the church and got to pick a saint’s name to add to our first, middle and last names.  I picked Kirsten after an obscure 11th century Belgian holy woman “Christina the Astonishing” who was known for having some fairly interesting seizures and visions. I thought that to be groovy and kind of rebellious.
Voni’s parents may still blame me (I hope not!) for encouraging her choice of saint’s name - Monica. That made her full name to be Veronica Mary Monica Perry.  I can still hear Mrs. P. admonishing me to take the sacrament seriously, and I really tried.  I just thought it would be a cosmic travesty to take a pass on this windfall of rhythmic whimsy.  Apparently she thought so too and Voni added St. Monica to her name as the Bishop patted her cheek as a reminder to be strong in the faith no matter who or what whacks us in the head during our lives. 

Me, Voni and Adrienne. 
Meg smiling in the background. Reception after May Crowning.

Always interested in shaking up the status quo, we fluttered our budding social justice wings and campaigned for the first black girl ever to be elected May Queen at St. Anthony’s.  She won by majority of student vote over some of the "holy card girls" (including ourselves) who had been groomed by the nuns for the honor since first grade.

May Crowning  is, quite frankly, a beautiful occasion. Serenaded by lilting hymns devoted to Christ's mom, the May Queen joyously walks down the church's center aisle, climbs a special stair upward and crowns the statue of the Virgin Mary with a circlet of roses in a ceremony on Mother’s Day. A huge honor, indeed. 

The day came and sunlight poured in as the big doors in the back of the church opened to allow the May Queen entrance.  The majestic vision of Adrienne serenely gliding down the center aisle of church, in a flowing sky blue chiffon gown with dozens of daisies poked into her enormous Angela Davis natural afro gave Voni and I reason to grin.

It gave others a near heart attack. 

We knew from the jump that religious piety did not necessarily displace bigotry but there was no way to unring this bell.  Adrienne climbed the steps up to the Virgin Mary and gently placed the flower crown on the statue with poise, just a slight glimmer of attitude and a big proud smile. Some of the parents gasped and whispered to each other. We were not surprised.

Our remaining days in grade school flowed by blissfully full of bike rides to the beach, softball games, pet guinea pigs, crushes on neighborhood boys (Kenny and Joe), and crazy games of Ghost in the Graveyard at night in the open air hallways of the high school where we were both slated to continue our education.   

The imminently frightening transition into high school loomed but the butterflies in my stomach and the bats in my belfry were tamed by the fact that Voni would be there. I had a best friend.  And there were family vacations to distract us during that nervously exciting summer. 

Voni’s family vacationed at the circus camp at Calloway Gardens in Georgia, so naturally, ever prone to fueling their enthusiasms, there appeared a full-on trapeze in the Perry family side yard, where we all took a shot at flying.  I wished I could be as confidently athletic as Voni, but I was no where near as strong and coordinated as she was.  As she swung out, she  pushed her pointed toes into the air and swung back to the platform gracefully.  She understood the physics, cheating gravity at the top of the swing to spin around or catch the bar behind her knees. She knew where she was in space, even upside down. 

What she did naturally, gracefully and confidently on that trapeze, I did screaming in fear with my heart in my throat until, eventually, I was lowered whimpering to the ground by Dr. P. who manned the safety harness.

 This is not me, but it is pretty much 
what I looked like…

I was better at tennis with my feet on the ground, thank you very much. 
Or on stage. That's where I flew.


To be continued…