Basement Magic

I turned my basement into an apocalyptic talent show. The cause of the apocalypse was almost irrelevant — although I preferred natural disasters. The important part was that recovering from an apocalypse required putting on a mixed tape and dancing. Hence, I was very territorial of my reconfigured basement being that it was in the perfect atmospheric arrangement for end-of-the world dance-offs. The space was perfect, and I was definitely going to play this game all week, thank-you-very-much. All my favorite toys (from dinosaurs to Barbies, Disney dolls to action figures) got the invite to rebuild a (much more glamorous) society — with fun and dresses and music.

My grandma’s basement suffered a different fate — that of a roller rink in a magical fantasy world. There were werewolves prowling at the doors, but if you were in the bunker turned skating arena, you were safe. It was an extremely 90s pop influenced Fortress of Solitude. Once again, there was a pathological reliance on CDs, mixed tapes, and the radio (these are clearly what you need to survive in a harsh, barely settled fantasy land). The downside to this was there was always a tremendous number of spiders and silver fish in the basement, and these are way worse than dragons, orcs, or werewolves. Apparently those creepers still inhabit fantasy worlds.

In the real world, I’ve been in a tornado and don’t consider the damages of disasters to be funny in the slightest. But that’s what play-acting is — a cathartic way to deal with fear, shame, and guilt. In our age of Big Disasters, it’s not a huge shock that I play-acted those out. There’s something random and completely inevitable about natural disasters — there’s a lack of control. In fiction, you get that control back. It’s magic — it’s choose your own adventure. You get to pour whatever glitter-infused lotion you want onto the things that keep you up at night. Being separated from your family is no problem when you get adopted into a magic, fantasy bunker of disco-awesomeness. Your house is destroyed, but you can rebuild with Batman, Sailormoon, and their dinosaur friends.

But like all things, the literal days of Basement Magic came to an end. Basements are storage places, workshops, and game rooms now. But the macabre fantasies blended together with the touch of absurd (you really need mix tapes to survive) lives on. We all fear something (from silverfish and spiders to failure and death), and we crave community — a place to be safe from the wolves at the doors in our own heads. You always need someone there to help you pick up the pieces. And sometimes, that person is fictional — an idea instead of flesh and blood. And sometimes, that person is a phone call away, and when you don’t know the way back to the basement, they most certainly do.

I was a teenage weirdo

“Don’t be a weirdo.”

That sentence — in one of its many iterations — was everywhere growing up. It wasn’t ‘Don’t be weird.’ Weird was a way you acted, some one-off thing. Nope, weirdo was something you were. It went beyond actions into some shameful personal transgression. Being weird was a phase. Being a weirdo — a character flaw.

And I was a weirdo.

It’s like having a tumor. You can’t see it, but the x-ray is telling you it’s there, so it must be true. People are telling you you’re weird, so you must be. Sometimes, it was because I was too quiet. I would play alone in my bedroom or read. This, apparently, is anti-social, which is a highly suspicious behavior among normal little girls. Hence, I had to come out and play in front of everyone — something I was loathe to do. You can’t read in a living room full of people. Or you at least can’t read without everyone trying to turn it into a social endeavor. What are you reading? What’s it about? These question were, naturally, followed by judgement. Why do you want to read that? That’s such a boring topic! Here, why don’t you read this book about a nice little girl and puppies. And I didn’t want to play pretend in front of my family after I was considered too old for that. Besides, adults just messed up my over-wrought stories and (poorly) mapped-out imaginary worlds. I did not want to change the way these characters interacted, thank-you-very-much.

And then, there were times when I was conspicuous. These were less frequent — but that’s just how my personality shook out. There were times when I couldn’t stop laughing even though all the funny things were only in my head. That, apparently, was also a problem. Gallows humor in an eleven year-old girl is another thing that’s heavily frowned upon. Morbid stories — with too many deaths and epic battles — weren’t kosher for fifth grade creative writing. Nope and nope. Being shunted aside because your brain poured out of your mouth was just as bad as being dragged from the corner where you’re minding your own business.

This, I believe, is what’s called a ‘no-win’ scenario. A catch-22 for you more literary folk.

At least, when you make a mistake, it’s a temporary slip of mind. People can steer you on the right path, hook you up with your true passion. See, you don’t have to be weird! Here’s a way to be normal. Just do this, you’re good at it, and we accept that. But when everything about you do is off, there’s no way to land on your feet. Gee, you get good grades — but don’t really seem to be paying attention, so you can’t be working hard. Except wait — you’re too over-eager. I guess you should try … try something where you don’t have to work with people. Ever. Like, just work in a box. Yeah.

When you’re a weirdo, you can’t ever really be good at anything. You’re a weirdo — it denies you personality. Words like nice and friendly, smart and creative don’t stick to you. You think you’re made of something different; not flesh, but maybe some type of rubber. But the genius of rubber is you can stretch it into anything, and it’ll always bounce back. This — this undefinable elastic quality — becomes your personality. Your weirdo code-of-arms is a bouncy ball or one of those metallic blobs you throw at the wall — where it slides down with the gait of an amoeba.

And really, is there anything more weird than feeling a personal kinship with an amoeba.

Amoebas will always be happy to see you. They're very friendly.

Amoebas will always be happy to see you. They’re very friendly.

Limping across a railroad bridge — a guide to regret

Some people go to Disney land growing up (for the record, I did that, too). But some people also go see metal railroad bridges in the middle of nowhere. My parents strongly preferred the latter type of vacation. Hence, how I spent part of my summer when I was fourteen. It was spectacularly uncool — like nearly everything I did growing up. I wanted to hang out with my friends and read Harry Potter, not go see a railroad bridge. Specifically, we went to see the Kinzua Bridge in northern PA.

Behold, turn of the century engineering -- last century.

Behold, turn of the century engineering — last century.

And my dad said, ‘Hey, let’s walk across that.’

So we did — go across, I mean. Not really walk. More like use the splitter-giving wood railing as a guide dog. I would have crawled — if there weren’t gaps wide as my foot in the floorboards. Did I mention the thing was built in 1882? And refurbished to accommodate heavier trains in 1900? I was certain that’s the last time the ‘pedestrian walk way’ was built. It was living history; no one bothered to remind it that in 2001, there were child labor laws, standards to be upheld. Your walkways shouldn’t be small-adult hazards. It wasn’t just ‘don’t step on a crack’, but ‘step through a crack and plummet to your death.’

But I didn’t crawl. But I did whine. I also took frequent pauses, and when I did, it was breath-taking. I remember stopping to watch a deer drink in the creek bed below. It’s one of those idealistic Appalachian valleys they put on post-cards. And the bridge? The bearer of the murder walkway suspended me in the middle of it all. That was nice, or as nice this bridge was going to be to me.

I got the other side, and it was just like the side I’d left. And then, I had to inch my way back across — at least this time, knowing the boards should all hold my weight. My dad, of course, is striding across the railroad tracks, looping across the bridge in twice the time it took me to complete the round trip. I’m still glad a train didn’t come along. I would have pressed myself against the railing and cried. If that bridge had been shaking, the sunny day ordeal would’ve turned perilous. I wouldn’t have wanted to be there during a storm.

I crossed the bridge — there and back again. It took several hours, and was suitably thrilling for a fourteen year-old book worm. But my mom didn’t cross. She got out there with us and turned around. When we got back, she asked how it was. I’m sure I said something like, ‘Horrible, and dad just kept telling me it was no big deal.’

Years later, mom mentioned how she regretted not crossing the Kinzua bridge. You see, it blew down in a storm (I did tell you it was old and definitely a bit unsafe). She said she wished she would’ve done it. And that stuns me. It took a few hours! You let your teenager limp her way across it. What held you back — no, really, what was it?

She couldn’t say. It wasn’t that she has a fear of heights. It’s not that the weather was bad. Maybe the thing was just imposing — somethings just are. There are things that are bigger than us that are (even objectively) a bit unsafe. There’s a risk in engaging those things; they’ve got a power of their own, an intrinsic ability to humble you. But to go out there, to risk several hours of questionable walkways, is worth something you didn’t even know existed. It’s a change jar for your nerves — slowly accumulating to a point where you realize you might be stronger than you suspected.

And not crossing a bridge is a silly regret to have. Especially because you can’t go back. That chance is gone — the bridge is literally no longer there.

Kinzua Bridge in 2013. It blew down in 2003.

Kinzua Bridge in 2013. It blew down in 2003.