Toy Story Moments

The first time I saw a toy come to life, I was eight years old. As a child, I was highly imaginative and extremely sensitive, and as such, I was certain my toys – especially the stuffed animals – were alive, had a complex range of emotions, and were simply waiting for the right time to reveal their true nature to me.

As I lay in bed one night, I detected motion in my peripheral vision, coming from the corner of the room where I kept my stuffed animals. My heart skipped a beat as I looked over and confirmed that, indeed, the animals were moving. Then, right before my mystified little eyes, my stuffed unicorn took a step forward! And my eight-year-old brain erupted.

OH WOW OH WOW MY TOYS ARE ALIVE I ALWAYS KNEW IT THIS IS SO AMAZING WHAT HAPPENS NEXT WILL THEY SPEAK TO ME DO I SPEAK TO THEM WHAT SHOULD I SAY?????

But before I had a chance to say anything, my cat Tory jumped out from behind the stuffed animals, sat down, and began licking a paw, casual as could be, as if she hadn’t just crushed a little girl’s dreams into dust.

Hmph.

The second time I saw a toy come to life was much later, when I was in my mid-20s and living in Santa Cruz, California. It was a weekend morning, and I was washing dishes and gazing out the window when I noticed some movement on the windowsill, where JR had arranged a bunch of action figures he’d recently purchased at a yard sale. I dropped my gaze and watched with wide, alarmed eyes as Darth Vader walked along the windowsill, then pitched himself over the edge and into the soapy water.

Since I was no longer eight years old, my initial reaction was more like: Am I drunk? No, I just woke up. What the hell was that? But beneath all the layers of cynicism I’d gathered since childhood, there was still a tiny part of me that gleefully squeaked, See? I always knew toys were alive!

Then JR’s voice shouted, “Get in the doorway, Sweetie!” and I spun around to see him braced in the kitchen door frame. Only then did I realize it was an earthquake, not a spark of life, that had sent Darth Vader bopping across the windowsill and into the sink.

I searched for “soapy Darth Vader,” and this came up for some reason. Now my life will not be complete until I get to fly in a Vader head hot air balloon.

So there ya have it, folks – two incidents in which my MAGIC IS REAL! bubble was inflated, then popped immediately by a hard dose of boring reality.

(Although I suppose earthquakes aren’t really that boring.)

(Also, I’m still pretty sure toys are alive.)

When Dad Was in Charge of My Social Life

I grew up in the 80s – the age of big hair, Jazzercise, jelly shoes, and landlines.

And yes, the transparent phone was actually a thing.

One of the challenges of landlines was having to rely on the members of your household to let you know who called while you were out. While my mom and sister were reliable when it came to delivering messages, Dad was hit-or-miss. Case in point: I came home one day when I was around 10 or 11, and Dad informed me that Bar had called.

I stared at him a moment, then asked, “What?”

“Bar called,” he replied, his eyes glued to the television. (I can’t remember what he was watching, but it was definitely a Western, fishing show, or football.)

“Bar?” I replied.

“Yup.” As if to drive the point home, he handed me a piece of paper on which he’d written: KELLY BAR CALLED.

“I don’t know anyone named Bar,” I said, but Dad declined further comment. As far as he was concerned, his work as messenger was concluded and the conversation over.

I paused to think. Who could have called whose name sounded like Bar? I ran through my friends’ names, and none of them fit the bill. I then remembered I’d been assigned a class project with a boy named Paul. Had Paul called about the project? Did Paul sound like Bar?

“Was it a girl or a boy?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” Dad replied.

Sigh.

Now, I was in a sticky situation. I’d never called a boy before, and the very idea was horrifying, but if Paul had called and I didn’t call back, he might tell the teacher I was shirking my responsibilities. Argh! So with my heart hammering in my ears, I found his family’s name in the phonebook and dialed the number.

His mom answered, and I squeaked out, “Is Paul there?”

“Sure, just a moment, please,” she replied, friendly as could be. “Paul!”

I almost puked in the five-second interval between speaking to his mom and hearing his voice say, “Hello?”

I swallowed hard. “Hi, Paul. This is Kelly Menser. Did you call me?”

“No,” he snapped, snide as could be. His mom’s positive role modeling clearly had no effect on him.

“Okay, bye!” Utterly mortified, I slammed down the phone, then stomped upstairs as my cheeks seared and mind swirled with furious thoughts about my father’s message-taking abilities.

That evening, my friend Laura called. “I called earlier and talked to your dad,” she said. “He didn’t tell you?”

I closed my eyes and heaved a breath out my nose. Dad knew Laura very well. He had probably talked to her a hundred times. “He told me Bar called,” I grumbled.

“Bar?” she replied.

“Yes. He even wrote it down.”

“BAR?” She burst out laughing.

When she’d quieted down a bit, I added, “And I thought it might’ve been Paul, so I called him.”

“You called PAUL?!” she shrieked. “AH HA HA HA HA HA HA!!!!”

So at least Laura got a good laugh out of it. After I got off the phone, I went into the family room to inform Dad that it was Laura who’d called earlier.

“Okay,” he replied. Thinking back on it now, I imagine he had no idea what I was talking about.

A Different Kind of Booster

On a recent walk, I came upon a man standing on the side of the road. He had a pretty creepy vibe, but since I was on a trajectory to walk right past him, I figured I should probably say something. As I passed, I pushed my headphones off one ear, made eye contact, and said, “Hey, good to see you!”

Wait…what did I just say?

Yup. “Good to see you.” That’s what I chose to tell a creepy man I’d never seen before in my life. After two years of limited contact with other humans, my interpersonal muscles have atrophied. I can’t even manage a cliché conversation. At this point, folks, what I need more desperately than anything available from Pfizer or Moderna is a social skills booster.

I envision the SS booster re-instilling basic abilities like:

  • At a store: How to make idle chit-chat with the teller
  • At an event: How to engage in simple, unoffensive group conversation
  • In daily life: How to have a non-mortifying, two-second encounter with a stranger

Given how long the pandemic’s dragged on, I doubt I’m the only socially-impaired person flailing around the world. I recognize a booster shot may be unrealistic, but could someone please open some sort of post-pandemic finishing school?

Look Up

Bert Hubley was one of the best teachers I ever had. Tasked to instill a pre-chemistry curriculum into the minds of middle schoolers, he threw in ornithology and astronomy, as well, just to keep things interesting. His sky-high expectations were both intimidating and exhilarating, and even those daunted by his style couldn’t help but respect him.

Mr. Hubley cautioned his pupils not to be the sort of people who wander around staring at their feet, especially at night when there’s a starry sky to observe. To mark the end of each period, he’d ask his signature question: “What’s the word, class?” As instructed, we’d respond, “Look up.” (Granted, that’s two words, but whatever. He didn’t teach English, or math, and the message was sound: Look up, people. Pay attention.)

I am often reminded of Mr. Hubley’s tutelage about halfway through my daily walk, as I plod along ruminating on my workday, conducting imaginary, mental arguments with random people, or generally fretting about inconsequential crap. At some point during this unobserved trudge through the neighborhood, a kindly voice will break through the haze to ask: “What’s the word, class?”

And I remember his lesson, and I look up.

It can be a real gift, breaking out of one’s head.

Thank you, Mr. Hubley, and to all the great teachers out there. Your lessons have the power to make a lifelong difference.

Maybe It’s Just Me

My little family (two humans + two dogs) is staying at a very cool AirBNB on the South Carolina coast this week. The place is amazing – spacious, beautifully appointed, etc. I love it, except for one thing. The only available cutting board is made of glass.

Lots of people like glass cutting boards, even though they are the absolute worst. Last night, as I cringed my way through the process of mincing a whole head of garlic, I generated a list of other things people like that I don’t understand. (Please know this list is in no way comprehensive. I don’t like lots of things.)

#1 – Porn. From my viewing experience, porn is equal parts boring, depressing, and infuriating. Granted, I haven’t watched porn in many years, so maybe it’s improved….? (Just kidding, I’m sure it’s still terrible.)

#2 – Romantic comedies. See “porn” explanation above.

#3 – Also related to porn, calling anything you like blank-porn (e.g., food porn). Blech. Stop equating good things with porn. Especially food. Food is awesome. Porn is dumb.

#4 – Referring to oneself as a whore based on one’s interests (i.e., “I’m obsessed with shoes. I’m a total shoe whore”). This makes no sense. Whores get paid. Did you get paid to buy those twelve pairs of shoes? No. No, you didn’t.

#5 – Glass cutting boards. FOR THE LOVE OF GOD WHY DO THESE EVEN EXIST? The last thing any cook needs is a cutting surface that’s abrasively loud, ruins knives, and provides a continual stream of nails-on-a-chalkboard heebie jeebies. If I believed in Satan, I would blame him for creating these evil pieces of shit.

#6 – Kombucha. All I have to say about this rotten tea is 🤢 .

#7 – Reality TV and talk shows where people act like complete idiots and scream at each other. Again, see “porn” explanation above.

#8 – Shopping. In theory, I don’t mind shopping. Even knowing myself as I do, when I need to purchase something, I can psyche myself up for it. Right now, for example, I’d like a new pair of waterproof sandals, and I am delusionally telling myself it will be a fun experience to shop for them. But what I also know is this: shopping has a wholly soporific effect on me. As soon as I walk into a store, I want to curl up on the floor and go to sleep. Therefore, in an effort to remain conscious, I spend as little time in stores as possible. My husband is the opposite. He loves to shop, but not with me. On the rare occasion when we do shop together, if he sees me approaching, he’ll run in the opposite direction. This is because I only ever have one question for him: “You ready?”

All right, that’s enough. This type of exercise is a slippery slope, leading inevitably to the land of I Am All Alone in the World, which, I realize, is not true.

I just really, REALLY hate glass cutting boards.

Rise Up Screaming

Ever since I took a job with a heavy lean towards bureaucracy, my dreams have been utter crap. Because a big component of the dream world is “cerebral housekeeping” – essentially, our minds kicking out anything from the previous day that is deemed unworthy of brain space – my dreams consist of subject matter like populating spreadsheets, navigating government databases, crafting cumbersome contracts, and trying to coerce people in leadership positions to respond to repeated, urgent inquiries. In short, it sucks. None of that shit is acceptable fodder for dreams. Or real life.

The other night was different, though. For starters, I wasn’t even in my own dream. Instead, the protagonist was a retired professor in a virtual meeting with a group of former students. Their interactions seemed sinister somehow, then became innocuous and conversational before the scene shifted entirely, now featuring two people closed in a room, watching two other people through a window in the door. When it became clear to the folks in the room that they were imprisoned and their captors were getting ready to abandon them, one of the prisoners put his mouth up to the window to scream for help. The scream wouldn’t come out, though. It was just a muted, slow moan. He tried again. It was a little louder, but no scream. He took a deep breath and tried with all his might. Finally, the scream came forth, low at first, then rising in pitch and intensity: “ooooooOOOOOOOAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHH!!!!!”

And that’s how I woke myself up. As I lay in the darkness, I came to the embarrassing conclusion that I had most definitely been vocalizing the crazed cries of the guy in my dream. This was confirmed as my dog Daisy ran into the room to nuzzle me with clear concern, and my husband tapped my shoulder, then shook it gently.

“I’m awake,” I muttered. “I’m sorry.”

“That sounded scary,” JR replied.

“I’m okay.”

I lay there in silence, imagining JR and the dogs’ sudden shock into consciousness by my strangled moans-turned-screams. As the scene rolled over in my head, including Daisy’s valiant rush to my aid, a burst of laughter exploded out my nose, and that was that. I could not stop laughing. Of course, that woke everybody again.

“What’s up?” JR mumbled.

“It’s just so funny. The sounds I must have been making…”

“Oh, yeah. It was like ooooooowwwwww aaaaahhhhgggg…..”

And then we were both laughing. Titus, the 100+ pound dog who sleeps in our bed, decided these nighttime shenanigans were pretty awesome and started to wriggle all over and lick our faces. Daisy stayed put wherever she was, probably shaking her head and wishing everyone would shut up and go back to sleep already.

To me, there is something so incredibly hilarious about losing physical control of oneself. I’ve written about this before, recounting another time I rocketed myself and the rest of the household out of sleep by wrenching dream behaviors into the waking world. At least this time, I didn’t kick JR full-force in the shin. 🤣

Nadie Sale Vivo, Part II

I have no idea what triggered this conversation 10ish years ago, but the memory will crack me up forever:

[Setting ~ Dad, JR and I watch TV in my parents’ family room]

Dad: “Kelly will be a cougar someday.”

JR & me in unison: “What?!”

Dad: “What?” (pause) “Why, what’s a cougar?”

Me: “A cougar is an older woman who preys on young men sexually.”

Dad: “Oh! Shit. Never mind. I thought it was just a good-looking older woman. Sorry, JR.”

Yup, that’s right. “Sorry, JR.” 🙄 😂

I love this memory of Dad. Simple and lighthearted. Perfect. As the months pass, I find myself treasuring these types of memories the most.

Earlier this week, a group of family and friends traveled to the Marquesas Keys to honor Dad’s life and release his ashes into the waves, per his oft-repeated request. In the photo above, I hold his ashes in one hand and a journal in which I’d written a brief tribute to him in the other. By some miracle, I managed to say the words out loud with a minimum of tearful pauses.

I realize now that I left something out: “Thank you for changing your mind about my future cougar status after you found out what a cougar is.”

It’s interesting to see photos of myself at Dad’s memorial, my arm bearing the words Nadie sale vivo. While people continue to misinterpret the tattoo’s meaning (no, it doesn’t mean I want to kill everyone), for me, it continues to be a helpful reminder to honor each moment of life – each breath, each heartbeat, each moment. It prompts me to hold my loved ones close and leave no kind word unspoken. No one lives forever, not even the dearest dads, and we never know which hug or “I love you” will be the last.

Big Little Things

It’s little things. The dog door breaks. There’s a trail of ants in the kitchen. I find a snakeskin in the backyard. Titus steps on my foot. I knock a bottle of wine off the counter, and it upends into the dishwasher.

Intellectually, I realize they’re little things, but my inner self still curls into a fetal position with each adverse event. I become breathless. Paralyzed. I can’t think. Tears spring to my eyes.

I know what’s going on. For the past several months, my foggy, anxious, grief-ridden state has matched perfectly with that of a populace in the throes of a global pandemic. But as we move out of quarantine, moods brighten, and optimism sparks, my emotions are no longer validated by the population at large. I look around at all the shiny, happy people and think, Well, shit.

But here’s what I’ve decided: It’s fine. I accept it. I’m not going to try to do better, fold in more coping skills, or chastise myself for not feeling hopeful and happy during what, for many, is a hopeful, happy time. My recovery process isn’t attached to the COVID timeline. It’s its own unique beast and will run its own course.

Periodically, I go back in my journals to read entries from past years, and whenever I revisit hard times, I find the written reminders: I won’t always feel this way. And I know that’s true.

For now, though, I’m gonna hide out in trees.

My Dog Ate My Grief Homework

Between grief counseling sessions, I’m given homework assignments. The most recent was to create my “loss history graph” – a detailed report of each significant loss in my life, when it happened, and how intensely it affected me at the time. Needless to say, that wasn’t so fun to do, and once I completed the arduous task, I folded the page and tucked it inside a book for safe keeping.

A few days later, I noticed my dog Daisy munching away on a piece of paper. I sometimes give the dogs junk mail to tear apart, so I assumed that’s what it was, but closer inspection revealed the truth. She was eating my loss history graph. After pulling the soggy, tattered page from her mouth, I assessed the damage, which turned out to be minimal. While she’d chewed the edges and blurred much of the writing with drool, the only segment she’d removed entirely were the words: Dad died.

Later that week, my grief counselor and I both had a good laugh as I held up the pitiful remains of my loss history graph and explained what had happened. I mentioned how strange it was that Daisy had gone so far as to pull the page out of a book, which she’d never done before. My counselor, also a dog lover, spoke of dogs’ intuitive nature and suggested (somewhat tongue in cheek) that Daisy might have sensed that particular piece of paper made me sad and figured she could help me out by eating it.

Her nod to dogs’ intuitive and protective tendencies reminded me of an incident not long after Dad’s death. I’d left Titus asleep on the couch and gone into the bedroom to cry. Soon after I left the room, I heard Titus plop onto the floor and prepared to be tackled by a giant, exuberant puppy, as was his norm. But the wild assault never came. Instead, Titus crept onto the bed, crawled up to my head, sniffed at my face, and gently licked the tears from my cheeks.

“Hello, human. We are here to consume your sadness.”

In light of these two events, I’ve concluded my dogs are super heroes. “Doodlebug” is my usual nickname for Daisy, but in light of her new hero status, she may need an upgrade. I’m thinking: Daisy the Grief Gobbler.

And Titus can be: Titus the Tear Terminator.

I’ve said it countless times over the past year of fear and misery, and I know I’ll say it again.

Thank God for dogs.

Post-Pandemic Plans

In no particular order…

  • Book a massage
  • Hug my friends
  • Go out for breakfast
  • Write OPEN IN CASE OF PLAGUE on the top of a shoebox, toss all my face masks inside, and stick it in the back of a closet
  • See a movie in a theater
  • Go out dancing
  • Take my laptop to a brewery/cidery/coffee shop, sit by a window, and write for as long as I want
  • Stroll casually through a library
  • Walk by other people without trying to measure 6 feet with my eyes
  • Plan a trip that requires air travel
  • When visiting friends, ask to use their bathroom without fearing I’ve condemned them to death
  • Ride a rollercoaster and scream my head off
  • Take a class – any subject will do, as long as it’s not on Zoom
  • Meditate because I want to, not because I have to to keep from losing my mind