Scenes from my life: The once, now and future of birthdays

Years ago, a birthday brought a special sense to me, a frisson. The feeling something unspecific but good would happen.

Not gifts. Not appearances by some exciting person — although that has happened, but never turned out to be more than a one-day affair.

But at midnight on the eve of my birthday, I’d get a soft, emotional glow. I’d go to sleep on it and wake up with it.

It just occurs to me that glow was the same sort of feeling, except larded with pitiful desperation, which I had when I was 8 years ago. We’d moved from the Bronx to New Rochelle and I entered a new primary school. I did not have the type of character which would have led me to succeed in a new school. I was shy; I became a leper, the victim of nasty rejection by a group of girls who much later became good friends.

I’d spend a lot time alone, swinging on a schoolyard swing and dreaming that something magical would happen and suddenly I’d be popular. I became popular, at least by my definition, but not suddenly and not then.

When did the birthday glow fade? I remember one birthday when I’d been working on a complex WWII spy story, Wolves Live On The Wind, and not until midnight did I realize my birthday had ticked away without my awareness.

I’d forgotten my own birthday. I might have sent me a “sorry I’m late” card but I never thought of it, until now.

That was how birthdays, even the ones for which I threw myself a party, faded out of significance. No more glows, no more promise of something ineffable but definitely nice.

Today is my birthday. No glow, but a lot of thought. As today approached, I decided to work on integrating the bewildering number with the person I am. Wisely, I reported my plans to my friend Yola. She said, “Forget about it.” It’d be a waste of time.

I forgot about it, at speed. Thank you, Yola.

I was going to make some nice meal for myself but instead I’m having a wonderful time culling my decades-worth of writing files, reading notes about story ideas.

I had many notes on Brittany, one of earth’s favored places. My cousin Ruth and I planned two weeks in France and it was with her permission we visited places in Brittany which I’d used as locations for that aforementioned complex spy story, but hadn’t visited because at the time I was writing it, I couldn’t afford to.

We spent several days in a small town, Paimpont, in the middle of a huge forest once called Brocéliande, when it covered most of Brittany.

Many of you wouldn’t care to travel around Brittany; it is not a region which focuses on the entertainment of travelers. Not as Hitler did. He’d designated occupied France to be, when improved upon by permanent German ownership, a prime tourist destination for arts and fashion.

Paimpont had a few old buildings and a church, neither of which could be characterized as a tourist destination. What it did have, though, was an unearthly étang, a forest lake, over which there would be sunsets, which we could view and take photos of from our room.

And the forest had mysterious castles. While driving around…

I suddenly see a small sign (it came up fast, no warning) for Chateau de Trécesson (15th century). I brake and back up and turn down a dirt road. Almost immediately, we come to a stone gatehouse and beyond it the absolutely perfect fierce fairytale castle. It rises on its rock foundation out of its own pond and is actually more defensive than magical (described on the local map as “beautiful military architecture”). At the gatehouse, there is a warning of a “chien méchant,” as well as a notice not to enter; the gate is wired as an alarm. But in the early evening light, it is  wondrous. Even more wondrous, only one other car has stopped to visit…

A dog did wander by (an ancient collie) who gave me a threatening look, but I think he was blind. If he was ever méchant, it’s in his dreams.

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Why did the madness take over people’s minds?

For all these years, since 2016, there is that agonizing question: why did people we thought were intelligent and rational vote for Trump?

My current answer — which I admit emerges from a sort of intellectual stupor coming from the exhaustion of trying to understand — is mass psychosis. I don’t blame it on Trump; I feel he and others inspired people vulnerable to heretofore unexpressed and irrational rage. And then came the pandemic and religious theater which further roused these Trumpified people to hand themselves over to the madness.

But how did people get there?

Last week, Sheryl Stolberg, in the Times, provided the best step by step description by telling the story of Randy Witt, an ostensibly reasonable man with a family who did not know about Witt’s secret life, not until after he died from COVID. Then they discovered he had gotten entwined in a social media platform called Gab, which promoted irrationality about COVID, vaccines and “alternative” therapies.

He came to his senses in the hospital, shortly before he died.

I found this piece particularly illuminating, not because it explains why so many people have gone crazy but because it relates how one man, who did not tell his own family or try to pull them into the madness, got into the madness and died from it.

The article does not offer a Why. It can’t.

In the absence of such an analysis, I’m struck by the impossibility that I could enter a platform like Gab and stay there, exploring and buying into the irrationality. Yet Randy Witt did.

So what flaw or anomaly is it in the psyches and/or brains of people who are drawn or leap into this maelstrom? The only potential answer that still makes sense to me is the enlarged amygdala, because it’s neurology, i.e., science.

But whatever it is, it remains prevalent among certain types. There’s a guy on Twitter (I’ll try to grab his name and apologize for not having done so yet) who goes around the country interviewing MAGA adherents and posts the videos. A few days ago, I saw his latest.

Someday, somewhere, somehow, somebody will come up with a persuasive analysis of why the brains of some people find it comforting to believe and speak publicly of such insanity, while the rest of us reject the idea that Joe Biden is actually dead and is being played by actors wearing masks. One of whom might be Jim Carrey.

In the meantime, my default fallback is optimism; it’ll be over. Soon.

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About that reunion between a woman and her boa…

Boa, as in constrictor, not feathers.

How did this meeting go down? I assume the animal investigators called the woman and said, “We think we may have found your boa, the one who was snake-napped a couple of years ago.”  (Remember, the boa’s name is Snek; the woman’s name was not given in the item. I’ve decided to call her Sally, instead of calling her The Woman.)

So Sally, who’s on her cell phone at a café, gets so excited she spills her cappuccino all over the table. Her heart is beating fast. “How do you know it’s Snek and where do I come to see him?”

The animal person says, “He’s got the markings and that chipped tooth you indicated when you filled in Form 839, Missing Possibly Lethal Animal Report two years ago. But he was not responsive to his name. He’s just been curled up in a cage looking woebegone.”

“Has he eaten?” Sally asks, as she dumps money on the table to pay for her cappuccino, goes to the counter and buys a stale croissant which she stuffs into her bag.

“We’re not sure,” says Tom, the animal guy. (You’re right, dear readers; he didn’t have a name in the original story so I’ve given him one.) “He has a lump somewhere in the middle of his expanse but when we gave him a live mouse, he ignored it totally so we’re now feeding the mouse which is sitting on Snek’s head nibbling on Snek. We’re a little confused.”

“No, it’s fine,” says Sally. “It means Snek is molting. He won’t eat while he’s molting.”*

Sally then dashes to the address Tom gave her, the rescued snake office, where Tom escorts her to Snek’s habitat. “OMG,” she said as the tears began. “That is Snek, no question. Looks like he’s grown a couple of feet but he’s still Snek.”

Tom swears he heard Snek sigh, although I’m pretty sure snakes don’t sigh. They molt, but don’t sigh. Other than that, Snek remains impassive and in molt status.

Sally rummages in her bag and pulls out the remains of the stale croissant. “He loves croissants,” she says. Snek blinks. It is a sign. Of something. With Tom’s permission, Sally opens Snek’s cage and offers him the croissant. “Snek,” she murmurs, “Snek.”

Snek continues to molt and does not eat the croissant. And Sally? Well, she’s still crying.

OK, I’ve run out of tale here. I was hoping Snek and Sally would rush to each other and embrace and embrace and embrace…for however long it took Snek to wind himself around her and squeeze his “Yo, babe! I’ve missed you.” But I just can’t envision it, especially since I wrote Snek into a molt.

Leaving me with the question that initiated this romp: how did the animal control people determine that Snek was indeed the woman’s kidnapped snek? Maybe Harper’s will follow up with another Snek story.

By the way, when scooting around to confirm that boas molt, I read that snakes make great pets, especially for people who are allergic to pet dander, which I am. I had a jolly laugh.

*Here, short fiction intersects with short facts. I know from personal experience, when once I had a professional relationship with an Arizona King snake named Basil, that snakes molt and do not eat while molting. After Basil finished his/her** molt, I took him on the subway to the Bronx Zoo, where I donated him to the constrictor collection at the reptile house. One of the most delightful adventures within my exciting life.

**The only way you can identify the gender of a snake is by putting a couple of them together in a habitat and see if one gets pregnant. How did you think it was done?

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