Life Lessons from Mary Shannon: Season Four

I love the insightful thoughts from Mary Shannon at the beginning and end of each episode of IN PLAIN SIGHT. I was always looking for them but couldn’t find them all in one place. So I decided to create a “database” by typing them up as I watch and putting them all in this post. I hope others benefit from it too!


Episode 401 “The Art of the Steal”

Make no mistake: buying a car or coping a plea, deal-making’s a blood sport. When a witness lands on my doorstep, he’s trading in his testimony, his hometown and everyone he ever knew for a life at the end of the road. So we set him up. A new name, address, a job we hope he won’t hate. The only thing I can’t give him, the deal I’ve yet to strike, is the one that protects him from the guy in the mirror.

An idiotic Greek philosopher once said, “Nothing endures but change.” But any WITSEC Inspector on the job longer than a week will tell you, it’s resistance to change that truly endures. We cling to the liferaft of who were are, even as pounding sounds of waterfalls grow louder in our ears.

Whether it’s secrets, justice or the Amazon Rainforest, everyone of us protects things a thousand times a day. It doesn’t take a gun. For most of us, protection is as quiet and reflexive as a breath. For some though, for knights in shining armor, the lone ranger, a boyfriend or a mom, protection can be a hard habit to break. As much as we thump the Bible about the vital need to change the fact is, we hardly ever do. We stay here, halfway to happy in our old familiar places with our feet stuck on the ground.

Episode 402 “Crazy Like a Witness”

In my experience, holding out for closure does nothing but prolong the pain. The stoics got it right. Lance the boil, rip off the band-aid. Man up and get on with it. I gotta go.

One of my earliest memories is of a beachfront and a flagpole, and of lightning flashes heading for the shore. As grownups ran around, frantic, gathering beach towels, flip-flops, and five-year-olds, one kid in particular went racing toward the storm. I watched that five-year-old at the beachfront, clinging wide-eyed to the flagpole, as pretty bolts of lightning lit the sky. Then his mom ran up, or a lifeguard, or an aunt, and pulled him down to groundedness, to live another day. As with most things, hanging on to flagpoles is, in the end, a matter of balance, but good to keep you steady while you stay alert for lightning, as it storms across the sea.

Episode 403 “Love in the Time of Colorado”

The little guy. The underdog. David as opposed to Goliath. These are who we’re raised to root for, to climb every mountain, take on all comers, the shock the world with a win at Lake Placid, and once in a blue moon they do. But the unerring fate that every little guy will find love, bring home the gold, or slay the dragon is in reality the stuff dreams are made of, or rather fairytales. Just saying.

From childhood we’re fed a steady diet of ‘once upon a time,’ the ultimate lead-in to love conquers all. No wonder we wind up at bookstores and movies with stars in our eyes, or head in the clouds. Heathcliff, Scarlett, a farm boy, a princess, Affairs to Remember on the 85th floor, but the star-crossed who kiss right before Auld Lang Syne or played by a boombox held over their heads, they’re a pain in the ass. Because love, no matter what the storybooks say, hardly ever conquers all. So when it does, and the grownups, the skeptics, the stable of mind, watch others blissfully fly into the sun, it churns up and riles something deep down inside. We feel something foreign and fleeting, something hard to admit: hope.

Episode 404 “Meet the Shannons”

Everybody fakes it… pretending they like the friend’s spouse, feigning interest in the ozone or christmas carols at the door. Just it seems somehow smarter or nicer. Kinder… funnier. As if we ought to be Canadians or something.

There comes a time when every kid peeks behind a curtain and sees she’s not the only one putting on a show. Fathers, mothers, cops and robbers, every member of the PTA: all playing dress up, all wearing their masks; a constant Halloween. That first peek behind the curtain, the lifting of the mask, it’s a disorienting moment. The solid ground beneath you slips away to quicksand, along with all you thought you knew. But you realize, as days and nights go by, that there’s a kind of truth in the lie. That the mask is often more revealing than the face that lies beneath, because the person you pretended to be, the mother, the father, the sister, the cop, became, somehow, the person that you are.

Episode 405 “Second Crime Around”

Evolution is a funny thing, developing defense mechanisms that work solely on the element of surprise. Case study: When I was seven, Scott Halley and I caught a lizard in his backyard. The lizard was so shocked, it shed its tail in Scott’s hand, at which point Scott started bawling. His dad said the tail would grow back. But before we could witness the reptilian resurrection, his parents split up and his mom moved him to Sarasota. Point is, to survive is to let go… of old habits, new friends, and to shed your tail every now and again. It leaves scars, and it isn’t pretty, but if you look close enough, what is?

Forward progress is impeded by several menial laws: inertia, friction, fear of the unknown, and the impeccable timing of charming ex-husbands. But somehow, improbable as it may be, we find ourselves not quite free of the past, but lurching toward the future, inch by bittersweet inch.

Episode 406 “Something A-mish”

To raise a child, says an African proverb, and one first lady of note, it takes a village, a community. Families splashing at a car wash to support the local school. Seeding a little league field in advance of opening day. That’s not how it went in our house. We never made it to the car wash or the bake sales. Our communal experiences meant ducking debt collectors and the FBI, which wasn’t without its lessons. Shutting all the lights off, a sudden makeshift hide and seek, or moving every month or two teaches you quick to count on a community of one.

Community is not exactly one size fits all. One man’s slice of heaven is another man’s hellhole. The lucky few fit in from the start, like a glove; always with the wind at their backs and a place to call home, surrounded by parents, kids and the green of the grass. For some, though, all the community you’ll ever need can be found on the other side of the room.

Episode 407 “I’m a Liver Not a Fighter”

A week before my father left, we were in the kitchen as the sun came up. Just the two of us. I was six. Mom was passed out in the bedroom in a tangle of sweaty sheets while I scavenged cupboards in a nearly-empty fridge for anything to eat. Dad called me over to the table, told me to bring the milk. We sat there, the last meal we ever shared, eating oreos that he’d left out overnight. Over soft, stale oreos, my father told me we were special because we knew a secret that other people don’t. Like many things, an oreo, over time, becomes the very best version of itself. That was his last bit of wisdom. The final gospel of James Wiley Shannon. Five days later, he was gone.

Growing up sucks. The days of cookies, dreams and the ice cream man do their flickering fade to black, like some wounded firefly or a nightlight on the fritz. Children become parents, parents become helpless, and dreams you thought you’d always dream slip silent out the door. But ultimately, in sickness and in health, for better or worse, when you look at your life with a hard, unflinching eye, there’s only one real certainty: the growing never stops. That and the death and taxes thing.

Episode 408 “Kumar vs. Kumar”

There are times in your life where all you can do at the end of the day is turn out the lights, flop on the bed, and throw in the towel. Raise the white flag. For some that kind of surrender is hard to even contemplate and harder to accept, and there’s a dignity in that, in fighting to the finish, to the red-faced bitter end. But in those moments, in bed, right before the lights go out, solace can be found. The very act of giving up becomes a starting point. You clear your head. You still your beating heart. You navigate the rocky shoals, setting out again. Call it surrender or serenity, it doesn’t matter which, because the thing you never thought you’d do or say or ever have to face, becomes more than what you have to do. It becomes the way it is.

Episode 409 “The Rolling Stone”

Back at our Lady of Immaculata, the nuns taught us that getting into college and/or heaven was a matter of sitting up straight, shutting your mouth, and keeping your eyes in the front of the class. But the sisters’ best intentions didn’t always pave the way to the Ivy League, let alone the afterlife. The fallacy is believing that being good means doing well. That walking the straight and narrow, minding your P’s and Q’s, and following the golden rule will, in the long run, reap rewards.

Scientists and scholars and poets and priests can argue the particulars, but who’s to say, really, how children raised in the exact same house can turn out to be so drastically different? Forget nature or nurture. My guess is it’s the luck of the draw. And that’s the scary part. How smart they are, if they can read a map, or carry a tune, it’s mostly out of your hands. Just add water and hope for the best. Because in the end, as it is in the beginning, a child is going to be who a child is going to be. All it’ll be for sure is a reminder, a constant reminder of who you are, and where you’ve been, and how far you have to go.

Episode 410 “Girls, Interrupted”

The getaway, I guess, is in my blood. Away from the screaming chaos of my childhood home, I would fly out the door and hop on my bike, white knuckling the handlebars with nowhere to go, I’d pedal as fast as it took to feel my hair in the wind and the sting on my face. Whether I wanted to be found or just missed, I’m not sure. But no one ever sent out a search party. Those frantic, furious bike rides never took me more than a few miles from my house. But it was far enough for me to learn that I could get back on my own. And that sometimes the best way to find yourself is to get yourself lost.

Those things we love in childhood, whether it’s taking off on your own or playing the oboe, they’re planted deep in the ground with you. Which is why true transformation takes more than hot rocks and drum circles, wandering the woods for a sign or a path. But I’ll say this: Robert Frost had it right about the road less traveled, because not knowing where you’re headed leads you sometimes to right where you belong.

Episode 411 “Provo-Cation”

The summer after first grade, my neighbor taught me how swim. Mrs. Duane, on dry land, was a sumo-sized single mom and CPA. But five feet from the edge of the shallow end, she was my own personal safe harbor. Holding out her stay-puft marshmallow arms, she’d say, “close your eyes, count to five, take a breath, and jump.” What came next was a frantic mix of kicking and gulping and bubbles and gasps. Slowly, but somewhat surely, I made it through my turquoise-colored panic and into her waiting arms. Not because I wasn’t scared. Because she wasn’t.

Ask any aquaphobic six-year-old. There are benefits to staying out of the pool. You get to mock the nose plugs and the kickboards, eat ice cream without watching the clock for 30 minutes after. And the dry itch aftermath, the bleachy stench of chlorine is someone else’s cross to bear. But sitting poolside as others splash around can tempt even the most timid. If you’re feeling brave, you close your eyes, count to five, take a breath, and jump. And you hope that someone stronger, more currently reliable– your own sumo-sized CPA– will be there to pull through the kicks and the gulps, the bubbles and the gasps.

Episode 412 “A Womb With A View”

I heard this lame-ass, late-night radio shrink once who claimed he could tell everything about you from the car you drive. Your education, or lack thereof, your income, race. He even had a best-guess at the busyness of your sex life, or lack thereof. Everything you are, reduced to make, model, and the choice of air freshener hanging from your rearview. Guy gets an advanced degree in “you are what you own” t-shirt wisdom. His parents must be proud.

They say you can’t buy happiness. What you can buy are the trappings of happiness: sports cars, mansions, friends in high places or in low ones, depending on the view. But all we truly own, ultimately and everlastingly, are the various people in our messy lives. This often has little to do with happiness.

Episode 413 “Something Borrowed, Something Blew Up”

I’ve always been mystified by the mindset of makeup: age-defying, firming, regenerating, micro-sculpting, putting car payments worth of your paycheck into a three ounce bottle. I’m amazed. Honestly, it’s like I’m on safari. I mean, I get it. On some level you want to change, hide, feel what it’s like to be just not you, if only for a night, but at the end of the day, as your haggard reflection will tell you every time, the makeup comes off and all that you’re left with is exactly who you are.

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Heather is a recent West Coast transplant and can't remember what humidity feels like. She spends most of her time (& money) watching movies, marathoning TV shows on DVD, attending concerts, reading, eating vegetables, attending conventions (San Diego Comic-Con, New York Comic Con, Dragon*Con so far!), blogging about her quarter-life crisis, downing coffee and traveling the world. She likes comic books, photography, reading on the Metro bus and wearing cold weather clothes despite the actual temperature in Southern California.

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