I loved the story, the storytelling and the hope in We Hope For Better Things

A brief review of one of 2019’s finest, We Hope For Better Things by Erin Bartels

This is a review of We Hope For Better Things by Erin Bartels.

Available wherever fine books are sold

Do you ever think about the choices your grandparents made, and how it impacts your life? As I struggle with my own life choices, both as a person and a parent, I often think about what came before that impacted me. This novel weaves together three separate timelines of an extended family, presenting that very situation in relevant and compelling stories.

The storytelling was both familiar and seamless in its execution. Each shift in time left me hanging on some question that, once we returned, I wanted answered. The pacing never lagged, and the stakes kept ratcheting up.

At the end, I was satisfied. (By the way, that's the greatest thing any story can offer us, is the satisfaction of a great story told well.) It all made sense, even the surprises.

Also, it made me happy, which is no small feat these days.

The book is historical fiction, but also contemporary. Probably great stuff for book clubs, or for your summer reading. I'm not going to retell the story. Click through to check it out on Amazon and decide if it's your type of novel. (I hope it is.)

Laboring Under the Delusion of Love, Hope and Good Will

Our cat went missing and I went in search of her, hoping someone would care.

We, like many families, have two cats and two dogs. But let’s be real: the dogs and cats own us more than we own them.

Emily, our daughter, is particularly fond of the pets, and showers them with love and affection. It’s contagious and welcome, as we all enjoy the pets a bit more when Emily visits.

The other night, I went to bed at my normal time but was awakened at 1:30 a.m. because Mrs. Bigglesworth, one of the cats, could not be found. Both our cats go outside, but this is winter and they don’t stay out long by their own choice.

My wife stood in silhouette in our bedroom doorway and asked me at what time I had let the cat outside. I didn’t remember letting the cat out. Downstairs, our daughter was upset and crying because Mrs. Bigglesworth was outside and the temperature was plummeting.

Disoriented from the brief sleep, I went outside to assist in the search.

Earlier that day, the cold snap had broken and much of the previous week’s snow from the blizzard melted off. This day had been the first time in weeks the cats were allowed outside. The good news was that it was cold but not yet bitter at 1:30 a.m. Hoping for a speedy search, I went outside dressed only in my pajamas and slippers and checked the usual hiding places around the yard.

Biggles was not in my neighbor’s shrubs, or at the edge of our property overlooking the school yard, or in the bushes out front near the cul de sac.

Three years ago, Biggles had run off and was still missing after two days. My daughter was distraught, fearing the worst, and I was sick at the thought of having to tell her that her beloved cat was gone. I searched the woods behind the school, biked through all of the neighborhoods surrounding our own, and went out every night at midnight to call for her, roaming through back yards, hoping that I didn’t awaken an asshole with a gun. We plastered notices on every street and on the school doorways. It was a fifth grade girl who saw a notice and recognized the cat hiding in the woods behind her house. Ten days had gone by, and her fur was a mess, but otherwise she was fine.

Fearing a repeat of that tumultuous time, I went back inside for a warm coat and better shoes.

I, my wife and my daughter roamed the vicinity of our house. There are several overgrown areas near the school that the cats frequent. On the other side of our yard, the adjoining properties have gardens. I took to the sidewalks, covering the outer limits of what I thought our morbidly obese cat could reach in the few hours thought to be missing.

 As I walked along the sidewalk, the cold air still, the houses dark, and the streets quiet at 2 a.m., I reviewed the facts as I knew them:

  • My wife had let the cats out in the afternoon when the sun had come out.
  • I let Mrs. Bigglesworth in some time after that, but out other cat, Ja’mie, chose to stay outside.
  • Ja’mie came in several hours later when our daughter arrived at 11 p.m.
  • My wife could not find Mrs. Bigglesworth inside the house, so she was convinced that Biggles was outside.
  • My wife assumed I had let Mrs. Bigglesworth out some time between then.
  • I assumed my wife had let her out, but didn’t remember doing so.
  • It was getting pretty fucking cold out.

Two ideas presented themselves to me as I walked along the street. First was that I was doing this out of love for my family, trying to save them from the pain of losing a loved one. It’s a fool’s errand for a couple of reasons. The pain of loss is part of the bargain of the joy of loving, especially pets. Their life spans all but guarantee that to love a dog, cat, or gerbil is to suffer a broken heart when they’re gone. But here I was, wandering the streets at two in the morning on a frigid winter night, hoping to postpone that broken heart for our family just one more day. I seemed willing to do anything possible to return Mrs. Bigglesworth to the hearth of our home, and let us all have a night’s sleep knowing that all loved ones were present and accounted for.

The other idea that presented itself was that Mrs. Bigglesworth was not outside at all. My wife assumed I let her out, as I assumed she let her out. But I was confident I had not let her out.

I was not so confident in my wife’s ability to thoroughly search the house.

I returned home at 2:30 a.m., cold, tired and suffering the additional regret of not having worn my Fitbit while walking for almost a solid hour. I assured our daughter that I would resume the search in the morning, and that any cat would be fine in weather such as this. Mrs. Bigglesworth, who carries thick fur on a heavier-than-normal frame, could handle much colder weather, in fact.

Then I re-checked her favorite indoor hiding places.

The first (and last) place I looked, I found her behind the television in the family room. Her ample body was spread over the heat vent on the floor. She looked up at me with her signature glance of uncaring detachment.

So my wish was granted, and we all went to bed reasonably confident that all of our loved ones were accounted for this night. I know our hearts will break soon enough as time takes its toll, but there was joy and peace to be savored for one more day.

Floating in a Sensory Deprivation Float Tank for Fun and Profit

Yep. This is how it's done.

I took a float today, which refers to a sensory deprivation float tank. You climb into a coffin-like box (a sarcophagus, for those who love to use a thesaurus) filled with warm salt water. You plug your ears, turn out the lights, and close the lid on yourself. Then you lay still for an hour or so.

That's it. That's floating. The floating part is easy because the salt water allows you to float, like taking a swim in the Dead Sea.

It's warm so you don't feel any temperature change on your skin (but it may remind you, at first, of swimming in public pools in summer with so many kids splashing around that you are certain there's more urine than water).

Why bother?

If you can lay still, and not freak out about being in a coffin, or floating on urine-temperature water, it allows your brain to calm down thanks to the sensory deprivation. This takes a few minutes to achieve because your thoughts have to settle. Your subconscious has to be convinced there's no input coming other than the occasional drip of condensed water from the ceiling.

I find it to be like having a dream while waking. Not a day dream, where you might work out some fantasy or disaster in your mind. More like an actual dream, where your brain interprets stored up thoughts and feelings from the day and you see images that are the brain's attempt to make sense of the thoughts.

In the float tank, my thoughts bounce between being mindful of my breathing, the fact that I'm in a float tank, and various strange images.

After the float, I'm chill as fuck. I've never gotten high, but I'm guessing it's a little bit like that. It's an all pervasive chill. My joints and muscles are relaxed. To me, it's better than my best night of sleep.

Why bother? (I know: I really didn't answer that, yet.)

I've never had a million dollar idea, or a flash of insight on a particular problem from floating. So I've never gotten my money's worth from the floats directly.

It's part of my overall strategy to be mindful, calmer and present. I also walk, meditate and practice yoga. These occasional floats (which are between $60 and $90 a shot) are assuring my brain that I don't have to worry about everything.

Nowadays, that's a critical thing.

Also, I'm hoping it improves my ability to be creative and help me write stories, novels, and screenplays that are entertaining and compelling.

But I can't quite shake the worry that other people have urinated in the float tank before me.

Backwards

My wife and I moved into our first house, almost 26 years ago. We had a lot of stuff, combining our two apartments, but I decided to get a new, great big 27-inch television.

New house, new television.

We'd gotten friends and coworkers to help move things in, so that part was fine. The boxes and furniture were in the house in about two hours. Then my wife went out to buy some food for our helpers.

While she was out doing that, the guys and I decided to set up that new television.

This was America in the 90s, pre-internet, when television still mattered. We had to get that television up and running.

A couple of guys arranged furniture in the front room while my friend Doug and I moved the entertainment center into position. That entertainment center was huge, covering half the wall. That was a thing, back then: make a statement about your house with the entertainment center.

It was big enough for a television, cable box, VHS player, and shelves for a four-piece stereo. At the bottom was a drawer for all kinds of stuff.

Then we un-boxed the new television. 27 inches was among the biggest at that time. This was a huge, heavy tube and it was awkward for one of us to lift. But two of us could move it just fine. But we hit one little snag: the television wouldn't slide into the entertainment center. It wasn't built for these new, ginormous 27" televisions.

The place for the television had this nice fascia over it.  If that fascia weren't there, it would just slide right in.

So with my wife still out shopping, we stared at the problem a while, trying to figure out the best way to remove the fascia.

Finally, Doug asked, "Do you have a saw?"

I did have a saw.

I had a power saw. I knew exactly which box it was in.

Three minutes later, the saw was plugged in, a quick measurement was made, and I was ripping into the wood. I stripped away the fascia on the sides and the top and, lo and behold, the television slid right into that entertainment center.

I cleaned up the mess, put away my saw, and was feeling rather proud of myself.

Then my wife came home.

She came into the living room to admire the work we accomplished, and found us all watching television for a hard-earned break.

"What happened?" she asked.

"Oh, well," I said, "the new television didn't fit in the entertainment center, so I had to make some modifications."

She inspected my craft work, saw how it fit, and how much of the fascia I had removed.

Now, under the glare of her look, I could see how the cuts weren't quite straight, and the exposed wood looked pretty bad really. So I could have done better but, surely, there would be respect earned for having solved the problem so quickly.

She turned off the television and faced us. "You realize," she said, "that the television goes in through the back, right? The opening is larger, in back, by design."

"Nope," I said. "I did not know that."

I've been designing this next story I want to write for going on three months now. I think I'm close to wrapping up. Once I wrap up, I start writing. I'll be writing for at least four months.

I wish writing novels was easier. Well, I think writing novels is easy. Writing novels that tell compelling stories, deliver emotional impact, and resonate with society today is not easy. That's what I want to do, and that's why you won't see a new novel out of me once a month. (Some people actually do that.)

I am trying to write short stories, such as the one above, more regularly. Either humor pieces or these memory pieces, for fun. I hope you enjoy them.

And that's what I have to say about that. (I'm working on catch phrases, so let me know if that one resonates with you.)

Death on a Cold November Night

In November of 1962, my mother’s pregnancy miscarried. She hemorrhaged and soaked the front seat of the car in blood as my father raced through the streets to the hospital. She passed out and he assumed she was dead but there was nothing else to do except keep driving.

It was dark and cold out. The hospital was five miles away, but it seemed much farther as he could only see what was revealed by the street lights, the rest of the city shrouded in darkness.

There were two of us left behind at the house, watched by a neighbor, and he didn’t want to think about raising boys alone.

They had wanted a third child and then that was going to be it for kids because they were 34 at that point. The smell of blood mixed with earth filled his nostrils as he pulled up to the hospital. Obviously, they should have stopped at two.

He got out of the car and yelled for help. As he struggled to lift her lifeless body from the car, orderlies came to his assistance. They situated her on a gurney and rolled her inside.

Back then, hospitals were more like prisons with strict hours and clearly defined boundaries. But you could smoke in the waiting room and that’s all my father had to console himself as he waited.

The doctor joined him in a cigarette as he explained the situation. The baby, a girl, had been lost. But my mother would survive. The bleeding had stopped and they were giving her more blood and then there would be other procedures but she seemed stable. The danger, as doctors are wont to say, had passed.

When my father saw her, there was no talk of how close she’d come to her death. My mother grieved the loss of her baby girl, but they didn't wonder about why this had happened.

Released from the hospital, she resumed her role around the house, and my father resumed his. They still had two boys, and they kept my mother company during the day when my father returned to work.

Duty gave way to routine, which gave way to comfort. There were the holidays, then the seasons. The cycles of life.

A year later, they tried again. Nine months after that, I was born.

I was inspired to write that because I found a notebook in my mother's things. She's been gone for nine years but I still have boxes of her things stored in various nooks of my house.

In the notebook, she lists various transactions for their housekeeping ("Kitchen table, $79"). She also lists the specifics of our births, such as date, time, length and weight. She also made an entry for the miscarriage.

I had heard a few things about that miscarriage from my father in two rare instances when my mother seemed sad. I was too young to really understand it, but the few things he mentioned stuck with me.

I keep notebooks myself. Some are diaries from my childhood. (In one, I mention the premiere of a television show called "Dallas.") I have snippets of situations, people, or conversations I encountered over the years.

None of that stuff is interesting in itself. I always intended to do something more with those little tidbits later on.

And that's what I did with my mother's entry made, probably, 56 years ago.