Embarrassing admission for a writer: I didn’t learn to read until second grade.
My teacher back then, Ms. McCormick, was a fiery-haired Irish taskmistress with a reputation for being a knuckle-cracking disciplinarian. When she realized that I was unwilling or unable to read at an acceptable level, Ms. McCormick made me stay late after school every day, until I’d caught up with my fellow classmates.
One afternoon, Ms. McCormick asked us to write about what we would be doing in the year 2000. This was 1979 or so, and I was 7 or 8 years old. I remember doing the math and thinking “I’ll be around 28 years old in 2000 … an old man.”
In the story, I was hunting tigers in Africa. Crouched in the bushes, I saw one ahead of me … but it was too late. The tiger saw me too, and began running in my direction. Scared, I fumbled with the trigger on my rifle. The essay ended with the tiger jumping towards me just as I raised my rifle … a real cliffhanger.
I left Oklahoma for college in 1990 – headed for the sunny shores of San Diego, CA. That first winter break when I returned home, I bumped into my old teacher Ms. McCormick at a wedding in Stillwater. At nearly ninety years old she didn’t remember me, but enjoyed hearing my story about how I learned to read in her class, and about the millennium essay in particular. Two years later she died; my dad mailed me a newspaper clipping containing her obituary.
In 1999, my wife Lisa was accepted to medical school at the University of Minnesota and we moved from San Diego to Minneapolis. We drove through an early summer tornado which nearly blew us off I-40 as we approached Amarillo. Everything we owned was jam-packed into the U-Haul camper, our trusty Toyota Corolla hitched to a trailer behind the truck. I remember telling Lisa that if things got really bad, we were supposed to jump out of the car and lie flat in the roadside ditch with our hands over our heads. We pulled over and listened to the only radio station we could find, some religious station where old-time spirituals were interspersed with foreboding weather updates. The tornado was on the ground, less than a mile south of us, heading our way. Eventually, it passed over and we continued on to Amarillo, then Minneapolis.
I’d found a job working as an Art Director at an advertising agency in downtown Minneapolis, in the warehouse district, just nine blocks from our apartment. We had large picture windows overlooking the historic Basilica. We had no kids, no mortgage, no debt, no life insurance, no money.
In short, we didn’t have a care in the world.
But as December 31, 1999 approached the day- and night-time airwaves were increasingly filled with talk about something known as “The Millennium Bug” – a glitch in the global IT infrastructure which would cause banks to fail, computer systems to lock up, retirement accounts to disappear, supply chains to break. REM’s “The End of the World as We Know It” and Prince’s “1999” were in heavy rotation on the radio stations. The world was going to end … and badly. People were “going off the grid” – stockpiling canned food and building bomb shelters in the woods.
Lisa and I were one of only a handful of married couples in medical school, and we decided to stay home that New Years Eve for the first time since we’d known one another. We were married in 1996, but had met in September of 1990, the first day of college, after I complimented Lisa on her shoes – a pair of hiking boots with red shoe laces. Obviously she couldn’t resist my Okie charms, and since then we’d spent many eventful New Years Eves together with our friends in San Diego.
But this year was different – for whatever reason, we didn’t feel like partying. What if the world DID come to an end in a few days time? Better to be together, in the warm comfort of our apartment overlooking the warmly-lit stone architecture of the Basilica, than stumbling among a crowd of drunken revelers in the bone-shattering cold that descended upon Minneapolis every night.
I had told Lisa about my second-grade millennium essay several years earlier. That night, we drank champagne on the couch and rented a movie (some romantic comedy, I think, with Sandra Bullock in it). Then we tuned in to watch the final countdown on TV.
Midnight struck. We kissed, then Lisa went into the bedroom. She returned with a gift: a stuffed tiger wearing a Detroit baseball uniform.
“It’s all I could find,” she explained. “The only tigers they had were mascots for some sports team.”
A few months later, Lisa told me she was pregnant. In December of that year, our first daughter Cadence was born. Laurel followed 2 years later. We’ve spent every New Years Eve but one at home since December of 1999, watching movies with our two girls, sometimes talking about the brief but memorable stuffed-animal safari in Minneapolis.
The apocalypse threatens to destroy us each year. Read the signs, and you’ll start seeing them everywhere: 2012, Peak Oil, Nuclear War, Swine Flu, SARS, MRSA, Global Financial Meltdown, Global Thermonuclear War. Zombies.
Name your fear, and someone can (or will) tie it to the end times.
The funny thing is – we’re all still kicking. We get all worked up about nothing, frightened of the future, and forget to focus on the things we DO have, right now. And be thankful for the smallest of blessings. Like chocolate chip pancakes, Saturday morning cartoons, dance recitals, stuffed animals.
If there is anything I’ve learned in the last ten years, it is that fear paralyzes people. Fear of what’s next, fear of change. My fears used to be tied to my own future; lately they’re more concerned with how my children will survive after they leave home, headed for college and the trials of the real world.
In either case, I think the seeds of fear are sown in anticipation. What’s next? How will we respond? Will it be different? Will I like it? How will I have to change to adapt to something new?
Remove the element of anticipation and there is no place for fear to take hold. Seize the day. Don’t worry, be happy. If not now, when? Hakuna matata.
“E-T-C” as my daughter Cadence says.
This December, as the New Year (and a new decade) approaches, I’m reminded of that stuffed Detroit tiger, and am thankful for my great and beautiful wife, and our two daughters she’s delivered into this world. Plus the hundreds more she’s delivered since, in her job as an OB/GYN.
Right now she’s dancing in the living room to some weird pop song our girls love, called “Party In The USA”, and calling for me to come help her with the laundry, which I’ve been putting off for days now.
I’m in here stalling, typing on the computer. Because I hate folding laundry; the mere thought of it fills me with an anxious, creeping dread.
“Dave,” she’s saying. “Now.”
Time’s up, time to fold clothes.
Hopefully it won’t be as bad as I’m imagining it will be.