Saturday, January 22, 2011

I burnt the toast! Talk about hot buttons…

This actual incident ran like a dramatic movie scene. While preparing breakfast recently I did the unthinkable in my home. My husband––a retired fire captain––isn’t a man who easily overlooks the idea of setting our kitchen on fire. This might have happened if the stink of blackened toast hadn’t caught my attention in time to prevent a disaster. Black smoke engulfed our kitchen. We closed the swinging door, preventing the god awful smell and smoke from rushing into the rest of the house. As it stands, a permanent brown tint now mars one side of our refrigerator where the toaster sat on the counter.
What followed reminded me of the various hot buttons people attach to themselves over the years. We turned on the vent fan, opened every kitchen window and the back door. My husband looked around for a few seconds then left me alone. Our meal sat cooling on the table. Smoke billowed out the windows. I think my failure to see this coming––well, that fact overcame him with a mix of powerful emotions. Hot-button time. Rather than accuse me of not “watching” the toaster he decided to flee. Perhaps he cussed out the toaster in the other room, rather than berate me. It might sound unfair, but fairness has little to do with personal hot buttons.
For thirty-two years my husband witnessed people’s mistakes and the cost. He’s alert to every danger in our home. He’d rather die a thousand deaths than have his old fire buddies arrive, sirens blaring, to extinguish “our” house fire. I understand his strong feelings and his pride. I worked five years as a fire dispatcher. But sometimes things happen. God, he hates those words…which is another hot button for him.
I decided to explore the definition of hot button. Here’s one from a website citing The American Heritage Dictionary. Hot button, noun. Slang. Something that elicits a strong emotional response or reaction. My Random House Webster’s Dictionary lists hot-button (hyphenated) as an adjective with the definition: exciting strong feelings; highly charged; emotional; hot-button issues (1985-90).
I’ll skip the political side and focus on the personal. One part of writing I find satisfying is the task of identifying a character’s internal hot buttons. Once you know a character’s back story the hot buttons appear like dandelion seed balls in the grass. Blow lightly and a few seeds drift away. Puff hard and you unleash a storm. Maybe the old French name says it best, “lion’s tooth.”
I view personal hot buttons as paths to “micro-tension.” I’ll quote from the Donald Maas book The Fire in Fiction. He defines micro-tension as “the moment-by-moment tension that keeps the reader in a constant state of suspense over what will happen, not in the story but in the next few seconds.” From a writer’s perspective the burnt toaster episode offered a variety of reactions, from walking away to a conflagration.
Fortunately, I wasn’t writing the scene to hold a reader’s attention. Our relationship remains intact. My husband chose the higher road. The guilty toaster now sits outside on the cement stoop. I wanted to fling this malfunctioning piece of junk into the trash. No, said my ever-curious husband, adding, I want to see why the toaster failed.
He just hit one of my hot buttons. Why can’t he just toss things out?


Grace Rachow said...

Great observations, Sheila.

Sheila Tenold said...

Thank you, Grace. I'm glad to hear from you.

Jill James said...

Sheila, so sorry about your toaster. When I was 10 we had an old toaster that didn't pop up. Now that I'm older and I know how much toasters cost, why didn't we just get a new one? Anyway, you had to count to 100 and pop up the toast. I was toasting and someone came to the door, I started talking, and the cabinet above the toaster started burning. Thank God for the smell of burnt toast, because so smoke alarms in those days. I wasn't allowed to use anything in the kitchen for 3 years after that. LOL

Denise said...

Sheila, I can understand your husband's hot button.

As an RN there are a few things that trigger my hot button.

Smoking being one of them. I've sat by patients beds and family members beds as they struggled to draw a breath, even while on oxygen and after a breathing treatment. It's a painful and fearful way to die.

I'm sure your husband had visions of what he'd seen in the past and it probably scared him silly to think he may have lost you and everything the two of you have together.

Sheila Tenold said...

Sorry I didn't respond earlier. It is our anniversary today and we went out to eat.

Jill, your parents were strict, weren't they? Three years banishment from the kitchen! I'm sure there are thousands of faulty toaster stories out there. And they don't seem to be making them an better today.

Denise, as an RN I know you relate to my husband. In the trenches every day dealing with suffering.

You're right about his hidden fear. Men typically replace their fear with anger. They're so unlike us. Thank God we see through their gruffness.

Paisley Kirkpatrick said...

My husband is an electrician, and my father before him. One of the 'things' they both have insisted on is to pull the plug of the toaster and iron when we are not around and when we are done. I know this wasn't under one of those circumstances, but it does make me understand your feelings. I am so glad for you that you caught it before a calamity. Good for you!

I have a few major buttons that go off, but it was because I went through cancer treatments with my daughter before she died and certain smells, tests, etc. send my into a tailspin I cannot control. I hate the buttons when they take over and hope some day to be able to get rid of them.

My hubby also tears things apart, but he says it is to fix them. :) Sometimes he does, sometimes not. I am glad he tries.

Sheila Tenold said...

Paisley, sadly some hot buttons drag us back in time to a place we hate visiting. I'm so sorry for the loss of your daughter.

I fight visiting friends in the hospital. I hate hospital beds. They are a painful reminder of my mother-in-law's losing battle with cancer and more recently my own mother's pitiful descend with AD.

On the positive side I can happily announce my ever-curious and competent husband fixed our toaster.

Joan Leacott said...

Toasters and toothpaste tubes--such harmless things. Except for the button that lies beneath. Great post, Sheila. Happy Anniversary.

Rolynn Anderson said...

Great topic, Sheila. Funny how it's the micro-tensions that distinguish our characters in our novels...and drive us nuts! You'd think I'd get over this unfairness: we women can't seem to back up vehicles with the skill and ease men use for the task. I swear they learned that ability in seventh grade in the cafeteria when we girls were sequestered in the auditorium absorbing the mysteries of menstruation!

Sheila Tenold said...

Thanks, Joan, for your kind words and well wishes!

Rolynn, I back up glancing a half dozen times, over my shoulder and through both the rear window and typically the RIGHT outside mirror. Why the heck does the right outside mirror make things appear farther away? My husband says that’s to give the driver a wider view. Of what? The car I’m about to run into?

I believe “they” figured it was a great joke on women drivers who lack manly spatial skill. I end up repositioning my car two or three times before I’m properly parked. I’ve watched my husband deftly back a vehicle seventy-five feet in a perfect line down an extremely narrow driveway––using the same mirrors.

Joanne said...

My husband hit one of my hot buttons a few months back. Despite my protests, he insisted on fixing our FIFTEEN year old TV set.
After spending countless hours with the repairman and over $150.00, he admitted he should have bought a new TV to begin with.