Thinking fast


Image: 甘 泉 CC BY

A carnival came to town when my older son was three. The highlight of this event, you might surmise, was our elephant ride. If you ever plan to ride a real, albeit relatively small elephant, here are some tips: Be prepared to rock precariously from side to side. Hold on with your knees. Wear jeans, because elephants have unexpected long black hairs that stick straight up to pierce your legs. I felt quite exotic, but, alas, it was not the pachyderm that made the boy’s day.  He was completely captivated by the silver goldfish he won all by himself, playing ring toss.

On the way home, envisioning an inadvertent water bomb disaster involving the plastic baggie and the sidewalk, my husband said, “Son, let me carry the fish for you.”

Our boy, who was walking an inch  or so taller, puffed his little chest out. “I won’t drop it!”

“So, what are you going to name your fish?” I asked, trying not to hover.

“Flipper!” Oh, the power of television syndication. The boy held the bag up to his face, beaming. “Hey, Flipper!”

Transferring Flipper from the bag to a large jar was tantamount to a birth: “Be careful! Don’t let him fall!” Our boy watched with big eyes, nearly holding his breath, as I poured his prized possession into a new living space.

We placed the jar on the living room mantel. I explained: “Fish are not supposed to be carried around. They need a safe place. Flipper will be fine here and you can look at him all you want to.”

The boy seemed content with this arrangement. “All right.”

For the next day or two, he could be found in the living room at random moments, staring up at his fish. I listened from the hallway: “Hey, Flipper! Are you hungry? Do you like swimming in your jar? This is your new home!”

Then: “I love you, Flipper.”

Flipper was the first thing he looked for in the mornings and after his naps. He was taking a long nap later in the week when his dad and I had to leave for a dinner meeting. I prepped the babysitter: “He will want to check on Flipper when he wakes up. The boy loves that fish.”

The babysitter chuckled. “That’s so cute!”

The dinner meeting ran longer than expected. Knowing our son would be in bed for the night, my husband and I entered the house quietly. The babysitter met us at the door, wringing her hands:

“Let me just tell you that as soon as you left, I went to see that fish. He didn’t look so great. I tapped on the jar to see if he would move, but no. A floater. Totally dead. I thought ‘What am I going to do? I gotta get him out of here before the boy notices!’ So I flushed him. I figured I’d think of something to say later. Then your son woke up. He said he needed to use the bathroom so I took him. Just as he was finishing the last few drops, he points at the toilet and goes: ‘Is that Flipper in there?’ Heaven help me! I didn’t know the fish hadn’t gone down! I had to think fast. I said, ‘Wow, look at that! You just peed a fish!'”

Exactly what we told the boy about the absence of Flipper and his jar on the mantel is lost in time; all we remember now is the ingenious save – of the moment, if not of the poor fish.

Reflect: When has thinking fast served you well? When have you switched gears in the middle of something to rescue the moment?







Breakfast Island


Image:  studio tdes CC BY

Somewhere in Maryland’s scenic Severn River is a tiny island that belongs to me.

Not that I have a deed to it, or that the island was even the giver’s to give, but those are minor details.

The transaction came about when I was around seven years old, during a family gathering. My aunt and uncle, avid boaters, decided to treat everyone to breakfast on the beach. In the chilly gray dawn, a bunch of us piled into my uncle’s motorboat and sped across the Severn. Unbeknownst to me at the time, this majestic river connects with the Chesapeake Bay; the U.S. Naval Academy stands at the convergence. I only knew I was cold and hungry. I shivered in the breeze, thinking that going to the beach for breakfast was just about the most exciting thing ever.

The beach turned out to be an island right in the middle of the river. If Huck Finn had seen it, he would have called it a towhead, a mere islet with a thicket of brush in the middle. As the grown-ups busied themselves with building a small fire, I walked the whole sandy circumference in a couple of minutes, marveling at the island’s diminutive size.

“What is this place?” I asked my uncle, who was crouching by the fire with a skillet full of sausage links.

“Just an island where people sometimes stop off,” my uncle answered, as the sausages began to sizzle.

The sun was bright now, the Severn very blue against the island’s golden sand. A few white sails appeared in the distance.

“What’s the island’s name?” I wondered aloud.

“It doesn’t have one,” replied my uncle.

“Why not?”

“I guess it’s too small for a name.”

How disturbing, that such a pretty place did not have a name.

“Why don’t the owners want it to have a name?”

“Nobody really owns this island,” my uncle said, carefully turning the sausages. Thin blue smoke drifted up from the skillet.

“What! How come nobody owns it? ”

“It’s just here, hon. It isn’t like the big islands, where people live. That’s a good thing, because anyone who wants to can stop and visit, like we’re doing now.”

An inexplicable sorrow welled up in me. It wasn’t fair that no one cared enough about this little island to want it or give it a name. It hurt my heart.

My uncle squinted at me. “What’s the matter?”

“It should belong to somebody.”

“Ok, then, why not you?”


“It now belongs to you.”

“For real?”

“You’re the owner of this island. Congratulations.”

Pride surged through me – I owned this island, the prettiest place in the world! I loved it. Somehow I felt it was mutual, that the island loved me back, was happy that I was there, that we were meant to be. Then a fleeting fear struck me:

“Do I need to pay for it?”

My uncle howled with laughter. “Goodness! Well, since there is no other owner, it’s free.”

The sausages were done; someone filled another skillet with apples and cinnamon. I never knew apples could be fried. Their aroma filled the air like incense from an altar, sweet, pleasing, mouth-watering. For the rest of that morning I basked in the glory of possessing my own island,  soaking up the sun and asking for more apples, until they were gone. I never wanted to leave.

I have never returned. I do not know if the island still exists, or if time and weather have dissolved it, the way that relationships eventually dissolved. What I know is that for that one halcyon morning, I was the richest person on Earth; I owned an island, and it was free.

Reflect: In what ways can you take a child beyond the realm of “the usual” to experience something rich and unusual? How can you creatively instill a sense of ownership? 













The unplanned baby

Banjo 8 weeks

Banjo, 8 weeks old

He was born on a Sunday in early November, during the first freeze. For some reason, his mother didn’t seek shelter. She delivered nine puppies out in the open on that bitter night; before they were discovered, five of them died.

Getting a puppy was not even a thought when my husband and I stayed with his sister on her Virginia farm near the turn of the year. Our minds were consumed by the purpose of our trip: consulting with a surgeon on my husband’s rare form of eye disease. Following the appointment, burdened with the confirmation that my husband would soon lose his eye, my sister-in-law drove us by the old hay barn where her son was working:

“Let me know if you hear of anyone who wants a puppy. They’re pure Labs but this litter was unplanned, the second this year. I just want them to go to good homes.”

I was halfway paying attention from the back seat of the Suburban when she rolled the window down and called out: “Go get the big one.”

My nephew slipped into the barn. He returned momentarily with a fuzzy yellow ball, walked around to the passenger side, and placed it in my husband’s arms.

Two sky-blue, baby eyes looked round at me from a face that seemed a hundred years old.

He came home with us, of course, this unplanned baby that cried at the top of his surprisingly powerful lungs the entire three-hour journey back to North Carolina. We’re insane, I thought. We have a surgery to contend with and the surgeon said recuperation would be rough. We don’t even know what the long-term prognosis will be. There’s no puppy stuff at home, he’s going to shed like crazy, a big dog in the house, there’s the whole ordeal of housebreaking, we already HAVE a dog, that’s really enough, dear Lord, listen to this crying, we will never sleep another night…

Our college student/musician son was waiting at the door when we pulled up. He nestled the puppy against his heart and named him Banjo, not after the instrument, but the video game he loved as a child, Banjo Kazooie.  Baby Banjo slept in the bed with him and, incredibly, never made a peep that night or any night thereafter.

It was our darkest winter. Through snow, ice storms, surgery to remove my husband’s eye and his painful recovery, Banjo was the bright spot, an endearing and comical diversion, exactly what we needed. He radiated life, healing, and joy; he drove the bleakness away. His very presence represented survival. Turns out that instead of coming at the worst possible time, the unplanned baby came at the best time of all.

In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C.S. Lewis, the characters sail into a darkness where nightmares come true, with no obvious means of escape. Just as the nightmares begin, Lucy whispers, “Aslan, Aslan, if ever you loved us at all, send us help now.” An albatross appears in the darkness, circles Lucy, and whispers to her in Aslan’s voice: “Courage, dear heart.” Within minutes, the darkness begins to lift; the characters find their way out.

For the record, Banjo looked so like a lion cub that we briefly thought about renaming him Aslan, until we decided that it would be utterly impossible ever to reprimand a creature with that name.

Reflect: When has your life or work been interrupted by something unplanned? Where in that experience might there be an unexpected gift? What chances are you willing to take to find it?

If you’d like to read more about Banjo: Making adjustments.


Update: A condensed version of “The Unplanned Baby” is published in the 2017-2018 North Carolina Reading Association’s Young Authors Project anthology, on the theme of “Show Your Strength!”