525,600 Minutes: How I Ended Up Taking My Life in My Hands, Part III

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Even thinking about it makes my blood pressure rise. My friend Brad emails me and says he talked to his mother and she’s ready to go up and would love for me to come along. And the biggest surprise of all, Brad’s not going to charge me for it. I was not planning on doing the hot air balloon ride until October, but the space in the bucket is available now. Brad says he, his siblings and his son will all be there at “the ground party” during the flight.     


“Why are none of you going up?” I ask.     


“I want to videotape it from the ground,” he says. I’m suspicious. 


Why would someone send his 76-year-old mother up in a hot-air balloon and not go with her?     


“Um, Brad, did you happen to check the safety record of this company?” I reluctantly ask.      


“I just tried to call the owner to inquire about that info, but he’s been missing for a month,” he writes. “Something about mountains and electrical wires, said his assistant.”     

He’s kidding. Right?     


I tap into Google. Hot air balloons. Frequently asked questions. Is hot air ballooning safe? Yes, that’s a fair question. It says, and I kid you not, “It’s much safer than driving on Atlanta interstates.” Do I dare read on?    


I search “Accident rates, Atlanta interstates” and this is what I find: “Every day, Atlanta’s interstates are the scenes of horrible multi-car accidents because of cars driving too fast.”     

Too fast. I obviously need to make sure the balloon doesn’t go too fast. I read on in the FAQs and find out that sunrise flights tend to be slower than sunset flights. Sunrise it is. I somehow have to talk Mrs. Catherman into a sunrise flight. There is no need to go warp speed in a hot-air balloon.     


Charlie X wouldn’t agree, of course. Charlie X from Star Trek, that is. 


“He needs, he wants. Nothing happens fast enough,” Captain Kirk says about Charlie. 


Yes, you guessed it. I’ve caught up on my early-morning Star Trek episodes.     


“You keep wondering if man was meant to be out there,” Kirk says in the “Naked Time” episode. “You keep wondering, you keep signing up.”     


“I wouldn’t examine a dream too closely. It might not turn out to be very pretty,” says Kirk in “Miri.”     


 “The point is that this isn’t the only life available,” says Captain Christopher Pike, back from the first episode, in “The Menagerie.”       


Good stuff, this Star Trek. I find myself gravitating toward Spock.     


“Has it occurred to you that there is a certain inefficiency in constantly questioning things that you’ve already made up your mind about?” he asks provocatively.     


“I presume my calculations are correct,” he states confidently.     


“Readings indicate that natural deterioration has been taking place on this planet for at least several centuries,” he asserts presciently, a harbinger of things to come in our environment, perhaps.     


My husband, not a morning person, mind you, recently said to me, “Why are you hitting me up on going to cheese farms and operas when I just wake up? I think this List thing of yours is a scam. It’s just your way of getting us all to do what you want. I’m going to make my own list. We’re going to a Yankee game and Vegas.” 


So I try to low-key it around him, and not mention the List too much.      


“Um, I don’t know how ‘The Enemy Within’ ended because the DVD stopped working,” I say, reluctantly, while he pours his coffee in the to-go cup for his long, bumper-to-bumper commute downtown.     


He stops short.  “I love that episode,” he says. “When did it stop?”     


“Right at the point when Kirk is trying to decide if he should risk transporting himself in order to become whole again, possibly annihilating himself.”     


We stand there, in the kitchen, for another twenty minutes. He tells me every detail of the rest of the episode. We launch into a discussion on Kirk as compared to Captain Picard from Star Trek: Next Generation, a show I actually did watch with my husband way back, when we first got married, when couples do such things willingly. And we look up, shocked, to see how late it is, how lost in conversation we had become. And I wonder why I never asked about Kirk before, why I never wondered how Picard compared.      


A week later, my husband gets the flu. He is home, far away from Atlanta’s horrible traffic. I peek in on him and ask the obvious, a question I would have never asked before.     

“Ya’ wanna’ watch a Star Trek?”                                  




And then there’s the ubiquitous Mark Twain, ever present as my bedtime reading, and ever present everywhere else, it seems. The headline in the New York Times book review catches my eye first. It reads Never the Twain and is about a book called My Jim, written by Nancy Rawles and, ever so coincidentally, reviewed by a friend of my friend Michelle’s named Helen Shulman. 


It is the story of Jim, from Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, mostly told from the point of view of his wife, Sadie. Separately, a professor of English literature at Fordham University named Mary Bly writes an essay that says she finished reading Mark Twain’s works by the age of 13. Okay, okay, she has me beat there. 


Then, a correction in the paper states that an acrostic provided an erroneous clue for letter D, seeking the answer “Hannibal.” Mark Twain’s hometown is on the Mississippi River, not the Missouri, it corrects. I even find a reference to Mark in research for healthy living newsletters I write—that he called cauliflower nothing but cabbage with a college education. And finally, my husband leaves me an editorial in the Wall Street Journal by Tom Wolfe about Hunter Thompson’s recent suicide in which he calls Mark the king of all gonzo writers in the 19th century (with Hunter, of course, earning that designation in the 20th).          


I’m glad I have stuck with Mark, and not only because he is, yes, on my list of famous lefties. After being found guilty of hating Innocents Abroad, I actually enjoy A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court—the original time travel story. Could be a Star Trek episode. Next, Pudd’nhead Wilson contains the most wonderful little ruminations at the beginning of each chapter. I particularly like this one:  


“There are three infallible ways of pleasing an author, and the three form a rising scale of compliment: 1, to tell him you have read one of his books; 2, to tell him you have read all of his books; 3, to ask him to let you read the manuscript of his forthcoming book. No. 1 admits you to his respect; No. 2 admits you to his admiration; No. 3 carries you clear into his heart.”


So true. So very true. Although my growing pile of unpublished fiction has put a strain on even my closest friends, Mom and my husband still feign enthusiasm when I tell them I have a new manuscript for them to read. I’ve even started pressing my poor 9-year-old into service.      


“It’s a young adult novel, honey. You’ll love it!” I say. And God bless her, she doesn’t know yet to run in the opposite direction.     


I could plaster roomfuls of walls with all the rejection letters I’ve gotten over the years. Yet I plow on, taking to heart critical advice but not letting the dream die. As Mark says:


“Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great.”     


Scott Joplin became great. He won a Pulitzer Prize (number 24 on my List) for his one and only opera, Treemonisha, which had been a commercial failure, and he won an Academy Award (number 26 on my List) for the film score of The Sting. Of course, he was given both these coveted awards posthumously. There’s hope for me yet.  




“The C chord is C, E, G,” my father-in-law says on his weekly Sunday call when we usually only talk about the latest with his grandchildren. “F is F, A, C. G7 is G, B, D, F…”     


I take meticulous notes as he goes on and on, a self-taught brilliant pianist. An original mambo king from Brooklyn back in the day. An elderly man in Delray Beach, Florida, on an endless search for a nice little trio he can play with and a good cup of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee.      


“But how,” I ask. “How do I possibly do both hands at the same time?” 


This is still mind-boggling to me. How does the right hand know what the left hand is doing?     


“It’s as easy as falling off a log,” he says, but what I hear comes from Star Trek.     


“Captain’s Log 3021.6. A man either lives life as it happens, meets it head on and licks it—or he turns his back on it and starts to wither away.”     


I sit and play. First, the right hand, the melody, the part I know. Then, the left hand, the harder part but the stronger hand. First, the right. Then, the left. Then . . . together. C chord. C7, F. The right hand no longer requires thought. C, C7, F. I do it again and again, until, finally, both hands are flying, not exactly effortlessly, but definitely together. In Pudd’nhead Wilson, Tom writes:      


“Here a prodigious slam-banging broke out below, and everybody rushed down to see. It was the twins knocking out a classic four-handed piece on the piano, in great style. Rowena was satisfied—satisfied down to the bottom of her heart.”     


I play “The Entertainer”, or at least this easy rendition of it. With both hands. And, yes, even though it is choppy and amateurish, I am satisfied.     


“My next decision is major,” says Captain Kirk. “Probe ahead or turn back?”     


I don’t really want to probe ahead. But if I am ever going to really, truly fly effortlessly, I know what I must do next. I must call Mrs. Catherman and finally face my fears. Let’s just hope she likes sunrises.

New installments to 525,600 Minutes will appear monthly throughout 2007! In the meantime, what’s on your Life List?  Tell us about it!   

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