I grew up in a blue collar neighborhood. My dad left super early in the morning, drove a truck all day, and made his way back from the city to the suburbs of Long Island well into late evening. He was always tired. We kept quiet and out of his way. Remember The Wonder Years? Yeah, kind of like that.
My mother was always concerned about having a meal ready and waiting for my father when he got home, that the house was comfortable and clean, that he didn’t have to do anything because he worked so hard. She did everything in the house, took care of everyone, and kept an exceptionally clean and tidy home. That takes a lot of time and effort.
My sister is seven years older, so basically I was a flea to her. Pesky, persistent, tag along. She loved me to be sure, but of course, she also kind of hated me because I was such a pain.
So when I had a science project to do, I mostly figured I better figure it out on my own and stay out of everyone’s way.
This means in fourth grade I created the disastrous barometer (is it just me or do lots of things seem to happen to us in the fourth grade? This is also the year I realized I wanted to be a writer. Coincidence? I think not).
Apparently, I missed the barometer episode of Mr. Wizard’s World (I actually did used to watch this show, though my versions of Mr. Wizard’s experiments NEVER worked. I guess I never quite got that science is a science and you really should stick to exact measurements and such.) Anyhow, I succeeded in tracking down a picture of a barometer, but not the instructions. Oh, Internet, all the times you might have saved me had you been invented back then. And to make matters worse I somehow got it stuck in my head that I needed two bottles, one that I could invert on top of the other. I have no idea why I added a second bottle to it all. Whimsy? Who knows. Anyway, it seemed easy so I got to work.
I used was an empty 2-liter soda bottle and an empty windex bottle (note the call for a rigid bottle on the diagram above). I only half succeeded in getting the labels off each bottle because you know, if I’d left them on it would’ve been tacky. And my tube consisted of several plastic straws I lifted from the corner deli and attached together to make one long tube. My airtight seal? If I remember correctly, pretty sure it was bubble gum and rubber cement. Maybe, maybe, silly putty from the corner store, but pretty sure it was bubble gum. Also, let’s not forget, water. If you can imagine this thing in your head, you know I created a disaster.
I sat and stared and evaluated it. It didn’t quite look right, but…maybe nobody would notice? Did it really look that bad? It was possible it might work, right? I’d spent quite some time finding the picture and all the supplies I had needed so starting over didn’t seem like a good idea. I mean, I’d already constructed this thing and I didn’t have another picture of a science contraption to build, but…yikes. I considered doing it over, so I searched for better bottles. No luck. Then I took to perhaps decorating it. Crayons wouldn’t work, but trying to color the whole thing with marker would take forever, and you wouldn’t be able to see when the water evaporated and made it’s way into the other bottle, so no, that would not do either. This would have to do.
Had I the resources, I would have bejeweled this thing and glued wings on to it just to make it awesome and presentable in some way, but I didn’t. Instead I shoved it in my back pack, trekked to school as carefully as possible, snuck the crazy thing out that had started coming apart anyway, and set it on the back windowsill of the classroom. When my teacher came around and asked which was mine, I kinda jerked my head in the direction of the bottles and muttered under my breath, “the barometer.” I couldn’t even look up at her. I was so scared she might start laughing or yelling or pointing at my wretched project. She did none of those things, of course.
Anyway, my point? I guess these are the kinds of situations that eventually made me a writer. I had LOTS of moments like this, of uncertainty, of embarrassment, of fear, and I remember them so clearly. The anxiety I felt in the precise moment I realized this is all I had to turn in, the shame as I placed it on the windowsill, the fear when I had to confess ownership, even the anger I felt when I looked at other projects around me, and finally the relief when my teacher walked past me and never questioned me about it. I think it’s moments like this that made me understand other people, to empathize, to see beyond what things appear to be. I think it’s what helps me create characters, to feel for them as they go through whatever it is they’re going through, to understand them, and ultimately to make it all vivid to the reader, so they feel and understand also.
Good to know all that embarrassment and anxiety came in handy. 😉
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