Tuesday, March 22, 2016

The Zoo in My Basement OR What Makes a Story**

I liked to tell stories. Stories that people would believe. Stories that others would help me construct as I gauged their reactions. In my book, I was not a liar. 

I lay on the bottom bunk in my friend’s room staring up at the bars that held his mattress in place. I shifted my attention to the dark blue flannel sheets which covered me. The stars on them nearly glowed as they reflected the night light.

My friend’s mom had told us to be quiet and go to sleep, but I was not ready for sleep. As I took in the smell of a foreign detergent on the sheets, I thought about my sheets at home, the cotton and polyester blend which was so much cooler and smoother than these, and I waited for the right moment to speak.

Thinking about the mystery that lay hidden in that basement, I could not hold it in any longer.

“Hey, are you still awake?”


“I was just thinking about the basement of Room 10.”

Sometimes we would use Room 10 as a shortcut to the yard at the back of the Motel. I knew my friend had seen the dusty, wooden stairs leading to a dark void, but he probably had never ventured down them.

Usually accompanied by my father, I had. 

“There’s a secret room in the basement. It has an orange light.”

So far, I had not strayed from truth. The steep, cobwebbed stairs led to a room filled with gas-lit furnaces and water heaters. The room smelled industrial, like steel pipes mixed with water and heat. Near the bottom of the stairs was a shelf which organized the letters for the motel sign. Usually, that was as far into the basement as I got, grabbing letters for the sign. But earlier that week, I had seen more.

I found a cellar or bomb shelter, an ill-lit, hidden compartment in the basement. This hidden room got my imagination churning. What was it for? Why was it there?

“A secret room?”

“Yeah. We have animals in there.”


I could hear by the tone in his voice that I had his interest, but he did not quite believe me.

“What kind of animals?”

“There’s a pony.”

I always wanted a pony when I was a child, so it made sense to start there.

“A pony?”

“Yeah, it’s a really big room. So big, I couldn’t see the end of it. There’s a pony and a couple horses.”

“What else is there?”

This time, I felt I was losing him. Horses? Ponies? This was a boy I was talking to, and his tone told me that he was not going to be that interested unless I upped the danger factor.

“There’s a gorilla.”

“A gorilla?! What? Wow!”

Now I had him, and as I continued to craft my underground zoo, I envisioned it in my head.

“Yes, a gorilla. And …” picturing what I knew about the jungle and wild animals, “And, a lion.”

“A lion? Wouldn’t he eat all the other animals?”

“No. It’s like a zoo. All the animals are kept separate. The zebras are together. The giraffe is …”

“There’s a giraffe?!” Neither of us had ever seen a giraffe. Our local zoo did not have them. Even the large zoo in the closest major city only had one, and it was mostly kept out of view.

Now, I had gone almost too far with the story. I had captivated him with details that begged to be shown off. I should have predicted what would come next.

“I want to see it! I want to go to the zoo in the basement of the Motel! Can you show me? Can we play with the animals?”

My friend raised his volume to a point where I almost shushed him. I was afraid his mom would come in. She was not the kind of mom you wanted to come in to tell you a second time to be quiet. Her stern voice always made me feel guilty before I could even process what I had done wrong. Thinking quickly, to avoid ruining my storytelling experiment, I countered his proposal with the end of my story.

“You can’t visit the zoo because the animals aren’t there anymore. There was a big flood in the basement …” I had heard of basements flooding, but I had never seen such an event. “Anyway, all the animals had to be moved out. Now there’s just a big empty room. No more animals. No more zoo.”

“Oh man.” Even in his disappointment, I could tell that his mind was still buzzing with the questions, the plausibility of this story.

As we both fell asleep that night, my friend probably dreaming of an underground zoo, I reveled in the satisfaction of a story well told. While I had walked close to the line, he had not once called me out and said I was telling a story. He believed my story, and this meant I had done a good job.

I firmly believed that a good story came from a captive audience, one which could give feedback about the believability of my stories. This kind of feedback only came from an audience which did not know if I was telling a story or not, I never told my listeners I was telling a story. That would take away the spark of imagination, the excitement of possibility, the line between believable and not.

The next week would show that the adults in our lives did not think this way. To his mom, I was a liar, spinning unbelievable tales and taking advantage of the goal-ability of her child. I was a liability. If I could tell this kind of a lie, what was next? I can only imagine the conversation which occurred between my mother and her.

Afterwards, at home, my mom asked, “Did you tell your friend that there used to be a zoo in the basement?”

“Yes, but it was a story.”

“He didn’t know it was a story. If people don’t know you are telling a story, it’s a lie.”

“But, if people know it’s a story, it’s not as fun to tell.”

This was not the last story I told. The next time my mother was much more firm, and I stopped telling fictional stories for good.

**As a note about this story. I do not remember the exact dialog or layout of my friend’s room. Some details may have been extracted from other memories or embellished to tell a better story. Please do not think this makes me a liar.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

The Pink Piano OR Accepting Gifts from Strangers

I often wondered where my street smarts came from. I grew up in a small town, where people did not lock their doors, a place where it was okay to leave keys in the ignition and the door of the vehicle wide open. (Yes, my father did just that.) 

I grew up in a time when children went door to door on Halloween asking strangers / neighbors for candy.

Everyone in my life was trusting, and nothing bad ever happened.

So, when I moved to a big city, how did I instinctively know not to make eye contact with a ranting stranger on the street, subway, or bus?

How did I know to buy purses with over the shoulder straps and ensure that all important zippers faced in?

How did I know that it’s best to just “look like you know where you are going” even if you are lost? 

Was I just born paranoid?


But as I started to reflect on stories of the motel from my childhood, I realized, most of my street smarts came from being raised in the manager’s apartment of a motel on the south end of a small town called Blackfoot, Idaho.

When I was in kindergarten, school only went for a half day. The other half of the day, I spent with my father or hanging out alone. I would help my dad clean rooms. I would walk around the parking lot and pick up cigarette butts, a penny a piece. I would wander around the back yard, inventing stories and going on adventures. I would watch my dad fix the pickup, van, or a sink. I would try to help him install a toilet in a room under renovation.

Not matter where we were around the motel, people would chat with my dad about their room or life or money situation. Everyone knew I was the manager’s daughter. If I was out in the parking lot without my dad, people would ask,

“Have you seen M___?” 

“Hey, is your dad around?”

My parents taught me very early, not to talk to strangers, not to engage. Being shy by nature, this was not a difficult thing for me to grasp. I got it. If you see a customer coming, avoid them at all costs, never answer the office door, and as I learned, one day, never take gifts from customers.

In the comfort of our home or in the backyard, no one bothered me, unless I walked past the back windows of their rooms.

One day, I was walking around the backyard, heading down the alley toward the “back back” yard, under the windows of a few of the rooms. Unexpectedly, a tenant, one of the weekly renters who was fairly new, called to me from his window.

Now, due to the nature of the arrangement, me, a small child, and the window rather far up, I did not feel like I was in any immediate danger. I knew I was breaking the rules, but it did not feel dangerous. This renter was a stranger, but we were separated by a large amount of space. He was just trying to make friendly conversation.

So, despite all warnings, this stranger was able to engage me in conversation. As I remember it, it was a fairly harmless conversation about what I was doing and if I liked music, and it ended with him handing me a little pink keyboard out the window of his room. I took the piano. Thanked him and went back inside to play with my new toy.

The problem came when my parents noticed this toy.

“Where did you get that?” My mom asked.

“The man in number 5 gave it to me.”


“I was just walking to the back, back yard, and he gave it to me through the window.”

I remember that my mother was furious. Perhaps she was embarrassed, but more than likely she was worried or scared. My mom, never fond of raising children around an ever-changing group of wayward travelers, had thoughts of child abduction or molestation.

“You cannot keep that. Do not take gifts from the people staying here. You should not trust them.”

I was confused and scared, as she lectured me about the danger I had put myself in. As at all times in my life when emotions reach a peak, I started crying. I just wanted to keep that pink piano. I had no idea that I had put myself in danger. The man did not seem scary, and there had been a wall between us. I did not think I had done anything wrong.

“And never talk to anyone from the backyard. Just ignore them or tell your dad.”

My parents gave the piano back. I have no idea what words were exchanged, but I do not remember ever being bothered by that tenant again.

I do remember being nervous about passing under those windows. I do remember hurrying because I did not want strangers watching. I do remember being scared of any interaction with a tenant. And when I was old enough that I started cleaning rooms, I remember I would always clean the rooms I knew people had left first. 

I never accepted a gift from a stranger at the motel again.

I also gained my first real taste of street smarts.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Your face will get stuck like that OR A girl named Kim

As a young child, watching Bugs Bunny dig to China, presumably through the center of the Earth, and come out on the “other side”, got my thoughts churning.

I am a bit of a loner. I enjoy sitting alone, thinking to myself, musing about the events around me, watching people. As a child, these observations were budding, my musings simple. 

"What does it mean that Bugs Bunny changed when he came out on the “other side.” Was he still Bugs Bunny?"

Perhaps, it wasn’t actually Bugs Bunny. It is impossible to travel through the center of the Earth. Maybe it was Bugs Bunny’s doppelganger.

If it was, maybe I had a look-alike on the other side of the world, too. A girl named Kim who was exactly like me, the same age, the same interests, the same basic person, only, this Kim had almond-shaped eyes.

Sitting alone, in front of the bathroom mirror, mulling over these ideas, I decided I wanted to have almond-shaped eyes. I thought they would be more beautiful than my round eyes.

Suddenly, an idea popped into my head.

My dad had a way of getting us to stop pouting or throwing a fit, or at least trying to get us to stop.

“Make that face long enough, and your face will get stuck like that.”

Rationally, I may have known this was not entirely true.

The statement should have gotten the same “Daa-aad” response that, “If you stick your lip out far enough, a bird will come sit on it,” did.


Take this concept that a face could get stuck a certain way, and apply it to the idea that I wanted almond-shaped eyes.

The result?

I sat in the bathroom for what amounted to be hours, holding the outer corners of my eyes, trying to get my eyes to “get stuck like that.”

Slowly the realization came that there was no way my face was going to get “stuck”. It became obvious that it was improbable that suddenly I would have almond-shaped eyes just because I wished for them.

Little did I know that in this thought, this wanting to have an eye shape that I did not have, I unknowingly had found the key to what in the future turned out to be “a girl named Kim who was like me.”

Fast forward to my life in Ulsan, South Korea, an industrial city where having cosmetic surgery is the norm and never having had cosmetic surgery makes you an outlier.

Here, I am constantly complimented on my small face and big eyes. Both of these things are thanks to my heritage, and the fact that holding out the corners of your eyes does not change their shape, no matter how determined you are.

In Ulsan, girls are not just holding their faces in a shape hoping their faces will get stuck. In Ulsan, I am surrounded by plastic surgery eyes, by shaved jawlines and “high” noses.

You would think that simply being surrounded by all this plastic would have reminded me of my brief, childhood dream of having almond-shaped eyes, but it wasn’t until winter vacation when a coworker of mine got double eyelid surgery, that I started remembering.

First it was the idea of changing eye shape, and then it looped back to “that girl named Kim who is exactly like me, but she lives on the other side of the world.” If by Kim, I meant a family name, and by exactly like me, I meant wanted to look differently than she did, then I found her. 

In Korea.

As an adult.

Transforming her eyes to look more like mine.