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?