NaNoWriMo: The final entry

It timed its entrance perfectly. A peaceful early morning, a little before six. My husband Dave was folding laundry, making piles of towels, jeans, t-shirts, etc., on the bed. Capone the cat had settled onto the socks pile to wait for the blessed moment where someone would try to move him off of it. Sonny was asleep down the hall, enjoying a lie in on his first day off after nearly a week of four a.m. shifts at Target. I sat in my comfy chair beside the window–still dark outside- the windowsill just wide enough for my coffee mug, journal open on my lap. I uncapped the pen, wrote “November 29” at the top of the page, and stared off into space to look for the first word of the day.

A couple of inches from my face, a spider was almost halfway through its commute from ceiling to floor. Large, a soft, translucent brown, the legs in constant motion. The first word of the day was “AAAAAAAAAARRRGH!”

I’d have written it in my journal, except that I’d just thrown it in the spider’s direction and leapt to the other side of the room.

The scream left a breathless uncanny silence in its wake. Capone stood atop the sock pile, back arched and tail bristling. A couple of seconds later I heard Sonny’s bedroom door open, then close.

“Jesus Christ!” said Dave. I begged him to make sure that the spider hadn’t been diverted into my coffee. It hadn’t, nor had it scampered between my journal page. As of this writing, the spider’s location is unknown. Probably off somewhere plotting its revenge.

I recognize that spiders are generally good for the environment. They eat pests, and their webs are wonders of nature and all that. Yet I keep writing about mean things about them in this blog. I blame the spider bite when I was pregnant with Sonny that required hospitalization and IV antibiotics. And I find spiders aiming themselves at my morning coffee (this is the second time!) to be beyond the pale. Clearly this violates the three-foot distance rule and must be some move in an interspecies campaign. I wonder if the situation will escalate…

The three-foot thing, by the way, turns out to be a myth. It probably arises from misinterpretations of a throw-away line from an article by spider expert Norman Platnick, in which he estimated the common human-spider distance to be within “several” yards. I’d made the idea work for me by turning it backwards and thinking that three feet was the distance that spiders want to maintain from people. This has been a helpful courage-booster when I have to venture into the dark corners of the basement. So disheartening when reality appears, waggling its egg-bloated abdomen and extruding sticky thread from its spinneret.

At least no spiders have descended onto my computer keyboard. This past week I might have welcomed some more time to jump and scream. My National Novel Writing Month project was up and down. I started the week a couple of thousand words down and have made up most of the deficit at a pace of around 2K words per day, with a current total as of Sunday morning of 47,236! I worked out a couple of twisty plot problems, and when I couldn’t move the book forward I moved it sideways. Even in the low days when I wanted to abandon every character and the stuttering plot, I typed in my stupid, stupid words in their thousands. Meanwhile I consoled myself with counting down the days to November 30 and mistruths that may be as mythical as the three-foot rule. Winners never quit. You can’t finish if you don’t start. Perfection is the enemy.

Two other things kept me at my writing desk every morning at 7:30. The first was a determination to keep a promise to myself to give this month a good effort. The second was knowing that I would write this blog on November 29. To anyone who’s reading along and trying to win NaNoWriMo thing: Thanks! There may be many spiders between us, but I feel that we’re sharing the struggle.

The uncomfortable questions are ever present: do I really want to tell this story? Yes. Do I have the skills to tell it? Not sure. But as I’m dangling by a thread, six feet from the ceiling, I may as well try to make it to the floor.

First stories

From my father’s capacious basement—possibly it occupied one of the shelves east of the entrance to Narnia–comes another musty box, marked “Jean: misc.” The downsizing process has uncovered boxes packed in the ’70s and not touched since. Not a surprise: stuff builds up over time. If I’d been given this box in the ’80s or ’90s, it would be long gone. I anticipate a weird jumble, as all of the boxes that my father’s efforts have uncovered were clearly packed in the late stages of a move, when people have run out of patience and time and things are thrown in any old way.

Now I think that it might be genetic, my tendency to unpack until I find the toaster oven, the pillowcases, and the clock radio and then leave off with the intent of getting to the rest tomorrow (“tomorrow” = sometime within the next year). Who knows what weird things from 2005 I’ll be mailing off to Sonny one day…

Today’s package goes way, way back. It includes my baby book, with a padded fabric cover and pages for cards and pictures and all kinds of notes, intended to stretch over the first five years. Similarly to my experience with Sonny’s baby book, my mother makes entries with enthusiasm and energy for the first few months. Then things get spottier. The entries thin around three years in. (By that that point she had a second baby) Year four is entirely blank, but there’s a short summary at the five-year mark noting my voracious reading habits and love of drawing and writing stories.

The things I don’t remember! Reading, yes, but that I wrote stories at this age is news to me. I suppose most kids are story-making at that age–Sonny was, for sure. However, I don’t remember writing much until around age nine or ten, when I produced mostly “reports” about animals and insects.

Also in the box was a construction paper drawing of my family, folded into sort of a dust cover for 10 stories that I wrote when I was five and six. Packed away from light for decades, most of the lettering pencil on filler paper, the lines haven’t faded much. A few pages have crumbled corners. Each story is folded or stapled into its own little book. My first grade printing is way neater than I’d have expected. Included is an alphabet sheet for reference. Like the banner that used to hang above the chalkboard in my classroom, the capital letters stretch between two lines, alternating with their lower case versions, AaBbCc, etc., followed by a parade of numerals, 0 to 9.

The stories are modeled on picture books. They have titles, dedications (“To My Family”), page numbers, and illustrations that reveal my art skills haven’t progressed much over time. I love the journey into this little head and her preoccupations: trips to the zoo, bedroom decorations, trouble-making cats and monkeys and sad dolls.

Here’s one of them. The spelling is mostly corrected, though my idiosyncratic punctuation and capitalization are preserved.

Page 1: The Story of Grandma, Jean and Joy

Page 2: Chapter One: By a pleasant Brook with some fresh nice soft grass on its bank. You will find a path that lead’s you through a forest. Once three girls found this Path. The girls’ name’s were, Jean Joy and Grandma and they decided they would. So they did. [illustration: the three girls by the brook]

Page 3: Jean said “This Path looks “strange.” It’s not like the “others.” “Yes,” said Grandma. It’s crooked and the other’s were “straight.” [illustration: the girls look at the path]

Page 4: They did not know that this was an enchanted Rd. It led to a witch’s house. A witch that ate children like them. And– [illustration: witch]

Page 5: She Saw them. [no illustration]

Page 6: [blank]

Page 7: Chapter two: But she did no harm. By that time it was dinner time. And the place that they were there were lots of fruit trees. The fruit was good. [illustration: trees, girls eating fruit]

Page 8: The Road led to a house. They went into the house. The sign said That nobody lived there, but the room was furnished. [illustration: table with candles and plates]

Page 9: The Bedroom was furnished too. This is how it looked. [illustration: a picture, a window, a cradle]

Page 12: They walked away from that, but their faces were different. [Illustration: one girl’s features have turned upside down; another’s have turned into sideways blobs, and the third girl has an X across her whole face].

Page 10: Chapter three: A cat was causing the trouble. [illustration: cat]

Page 11: They told him to stop it. He did.

You may notice that page 12 comes before Page 10 and 11. My theory is that my mother may have exercised some editorial discretion and reordered the pages. (I prefer my original ending.)

Introduce characters and setting, show the equilibrium, destabilize it, add obstacles and opponents, achieve a new equilibrium where the characters have changed.

Storytelling, such a natural thing, but so easily forgotten.

NaNoWriMo 4: an educational week

Moving into the final full week of November, and I have not abandoned NaNoWriMo. Today’s my Sunday review. Last week, after a frustrating week #2, I made these adjustments: write at the dining table. Write in the morning. Drink tea while writing. I achieved the time and location. But when Dave would ask “Do you want another cup of coffee?” I kept answering yes. I’m extra twitchy, but as of Saturday I had cut my word deficit from a bit more than 4K to 2,006 words behind target. So…yay?

7:30’s turned out to be a decent time for me to write. Not much going on in my life at that point in the day beyond the breakfast dishes and the news that makes me angry and sad. Coronavirus triumphant, the loser of the 2020 election occupying his time with golf, complaints, and treasonous plots. Even on the worst days, the days when every word turns out to be crap destined to be deleted from the second draft, writing is better than news-crying.

When I was stuck (after I stopped swearing at the computer screen) I did research. This week’s discoveries included new-to-me information about

  1. Cuckoos. Beethoven, Mahler, and Saint-Saens, and other composers have written music where the cry of the cuckoo is given to the clarinet, so I’ve been imitating these birds on stage for years. One of the rabbit holes I went down this week involved cuckoos that practice brood parasitism, or laying their eggs in the nests of other birds (hosts). Which led to the term coevolution, which happens when two (or more) species reciprocally affect each other’s evolution. Thus, cuckoos, as they evolve ways to get better at sneaking their eggs into the host nest, are matched in an evolutionary arms race by the hosts’ defense tactics. The cuckoos lay more quickly, produce eggs that hatch earlier than the host species eggs, or eggs that look like the host species eggs. In response, the host species evolves new defenses to the cuckoos, such as getting better at recognizing cuckoo eggs, proactively driving cuckoos out of their territory, etc.
  2. Pretzel rides. As opposed to the fast scares of a roller coaster, a pretzel ride gives a slow scare. Pretty much anyone who’s visited a carnival or amusement park has been on one of these. You get in a car that moves along a twisting track through a dark building filled with spooky sounds and glowing scary sights. The inventors of the ride, which debuted in a New Jersey amusement park in the 1920s Leon Cassidy and Marvin Rempfer, reportedly decided on the name after one early rider said he felt “twisted like a pretzel” during the experience. Voila! the Pretzel Amusement Ride Company was born. By the time it went out of business, in the late 1970s, these contraptions had become known more commonly as dark rides or ghost trains, and that’s how people refer to them today.
  3. Queen bees. In the nature shows and books that I read as a kid–pretty much the last time I learned anything about bees–I absorbed the idea that queen bees (who have mated) and virgin queen bees (who have not yet mated) were each others’ mortal enemies, and that a new queen and the old queen would fight each other to the death, winner take hive. If one of them survived, she would have to leave the hive. Now I learn that there are often several virgin queens, and their greatest enemy is one another. It’s the virgin queens who fight each other to the death. A new mated queen doesn’t drive the old queen out. She doesn’t have to, as the old queen tends to weaken and die shortly after a new queen comes along. Also, queen bees and virgin bees communicate by “piping” (vibrating) in their cells at the pitch of G#. Also, to keep track of the queen, beehive keepers often dab her abdomen with a dot of paint, and this paint is frequently color-coded to the year that she was born.
  4. The Berkshires. I first encountered this scenic part of Massachusetts when I drove from Chicago to Boston. (I wanted to shake up my life by moving to a coast; I flipped a coin and drove east. It turned out great.) The Berkshires in August, when I first saw it, is a place of rolling hills, hiking trails, and arts festivals. Even with all the tourists, it feels laid back. However, in the 1770s the Berkshires was the site of civil unrest. A citizen uprising prevented judges from meeting in 1774, just a few months after the Boston Tea Party. The Berkshires were also the forbidding terrain through with Continental Army Colonel Henry Knox moved 59 cannons from New York to Boston in the winter of 1775-76. The cannons had been captured from Forts Ticonderoga and Crown Point, and the journey entailed 300 miles in the miserable conditions familiar to anyone who has suffered through a New England winter. Facing frozen lakes, mountains, and swamps, Knox still managed to deliver the artillery to Boston by the end of January.
  5. My writing preferences. When it comes to pantser or planner, it’s been a scary time pantsing. I enjoy the moments when some interesting twist comes out of my back brain, something I’d never have included in an outline. When I blow yet another tire on a plot-hole, though, I regret that I haven’t planned things out more elaborately in October. Still, I like pantsing enough that I’m going to alternate writing and planning on my next project.

So that was my week, ghost trains, queen bees, and revolution, along with a moderate amount of catching up. On the bright side, if I can stick to 7:30 at the dining table it looks as though 50K might be possible I hope, dear readers, that things are going well with your NaNo projects/other creative work, and that you also learned some cool new stuff this week.

Clash! of! Traditions!

My turn to manage dinner tonight. Our Friday night restaurant habit, which had turned into Friday night takeout during the pandemic, has morphed again. Takeout on Friday nights turned out to be a poor substitute for what we like about restaurants, especially getting out of the house, being around people, and long, loose conversations. Now we’re taking turns to select and prepare recipes a little more complicated than our normal practice (i.e., following the directions on the Rice-a-Roni box). And the person who chooses the recipe gets to order around the others! Bonus! Last week I was sous chef for Sonny’s appetizers extravaganza. This week, I’m in charge of a casserole and a couple of sides, which looks like it will be straightforward. Given where we are in the year, it’s also a warmup for Thanksgiving. Beyond agreeing on no turkey this year, with six days to go we still haven’t decided on the specifics.

Normally when we decide to skip cooking turkey in favor of a different meal or someone else doing the roasting, I’m ecstatic. However, the dashed expectations this year have me missing things I didn’t even like in the first place. Nine-hour road trips, the New Jersey Turnpike, the aunt who insists on marking each cheek with her sloppy kisses, perilous conversations, green bean casserole.

Dave and I had vastly different holiday traditions, and we’ve spent the past 25 years experimenting with mixing them. His Thanksgivings as a kid involved traveling, several households gathering in one spot, and, often, both pumpkin pie and birthday cake, since he was born in late November. Most of his relatives lived within an hour or two’s drive, short enough to make gathering reasonable and long enough to ensure an all-day event. The TV would be tuned to parades and football. Dave and his cousins would play video games or run around the house, and the grownups would do whatever grownups did. As it turns out, once we started participating in these gatherings as grownups: stress about the food, snipe at the in-laws, compare one’s house and children to other people’s houses and children, and try to steer clear of talk about politics and religion. If we gather on Thanksgiving, it’s with friends, rather than relatives. Tradition abandoned.

On the other hand, my childhood was spent hundreds of miles from our relatives. Thanksgiving was usually just the five of us. Sometimes we were joined by a colleague of my father’s. If we had a visitor, there was no television; otherwise, it was parades and football. For anyone not cooking, Thanksgiving was simply an hour of a day off from school as well as one of the three days a year that we ate off of china instead of melamine plates and had lasagne, the true star of the day. This delectable concoction made its way from the china to my stomach much faster than the turkey, sweet potatoes, or quivering discs of cranberry gel. My mother’s lasagne was insanely good; I’ve eaten hundreds, probably thousands, of lasagnes since and never found its equal. It took ages to prep, though, so it only showed up on Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas.

I rhapsodized to Dave many times about mom’s lasagne. One year we decided on lasagne instead of turkey. I fought my way through the grocery lines on Wednesday for bay leaves and tomatoes and beef and the like, returning home triumphant. At 1 p.m. on Thanksgiving afternoon, I laid out the ingredients and realized that I had forgotten to buy the lasagne noodles. Dave headed for the grocery stores: all closed. Three 24-hour, 365-days-a-year drug stores later, he found a package of spaghetti, so that’s what we made instead. It was good, but it wasn’t lasagne. Tradition fail.

There are some years when I roast a whole turkey; some years it’s just a turkey breast. We’ve gone to relatives’ houses, had relatives come to us. With a small kitchen and my mediocre cooking skills, the holiday wasn’t all that fun. Tradition put on indefinite hold.

A couple of times we’ve gone to a restaurant, if we arrange reservations early enough. That might have been nice for this year, but…coronavirus. Tradition deferred.

This year, unless I succumb to guilt or mania at the last minute, will probably involve pizza. Maybe homemade, maybe delivery. This actually harkens back to our first Thanksgiving as a three-person family. It was the day after Sonny came home from almost a week in Boston Children’s Hospital. Emergency surgery had saved his life, but he was fragile and exhausted, and so were we. Dave and I had caught a nasty bug that was going around Boston Children’s Hospital. We got back to our apartment, canceled our visit to Dave’s sister, and asked no one to visit because we didn’t know whether we were contagious. Then we ordered in pizza.

Twenty-three years later, it’s probably time for a repeat. Tradition win.

NaNoWriMo diaries–part trois

When, and how, do you eat your vegetables? (If you eat vegetables) If you love vegetables, substitute whatever element of any meal that you least prefer. I have the palate of a five-year-old, so vegetables are my least favorite. Do you mash everything together on your plate? Alternate bites between main and side dishes? Eat all of one item before moving on to the next dish? The last is what I do. I save my favorite for last. I’m a vegetables first person. (Or, if the meal involves a sandwich, crust first.)

This week in NaNoWriMo my vegetables have been all over the place. Vegetables first, in the middle, last, fork-sculpted into carrot houses surrounded by broccoli trees. I’ve been putting words daily into the novel project, but fiddling around with my work time, location, and accoutrements. Thirty-minute timers or writing until I felt like I had to stop. Coffee, tea, water, wine, cookies, sandwiches. Morning, afternoon, evening, three a.m. (which I don’t recommend). Dining room, study, bedroom, living room with the TV blaring and Dave and Sonny talking about their day.

As of Sunday morning, November 15, I’m a little over 21K words in. Today’s target is 25K. I’m not confident that I can add nearly 4K words over the course of the day, so I’m behind, but not impossibly so.

I write on my laptop, which means research is just a matter of popping to another tab. This week I read even more articles on famous authors’ writing routines. It turns out writers like talking about their habits. I was hoping for something more doable than Balzac’s 50 (or however many) cups of coffee, while also enjoying tales of habits like James Joyce, belly down on his bed, filling pages with blue pencil, Schiller and his writing desk stuffed with rotting apples, Scott Turow’s yellow legal pads on the commuter rail, and, of course, Victor Hugo locked, naked, into his bedroom. We’re having a warm November, but not warm enough for that…

It turns out that many writers work to a somewhat more pedestrian formula: write, every day, in the same location, with the same starting and finishing time. Start writing in the morning. Take a break for some exercise, most usually a walk or swim. Maybe write some more. Finish the day with something fun or social. Go to bed early enough to do it again the next day. Even when the words don’t come, stick to the schedule. Of course there are many writers who don’t work that way at all. There are night owls, writers who have full-time jobs and obligations who write in the little cracks that surround their jobs and obligations, and writers who get stuff done without a schedule.

My paid work is generally done in the afternoons and evenings, and my long habit has been to think of mornings as fun time, when I do some reading, work out, drink coffee and watch the news, scribble in my journal, etc. But as I want the daily novel-writing habit to extend past November, I need a plan that sticks. I read James Clear’s Atomic Habits a few weeks ago. One niblet of advice was to set up a habit in a way that works with your tendencies rather than against them. And this week’s tests showed that for me, writing is a vegetable. Not a main, not dessert. It needs to be tackled early in the day, when my energy level and tolerance for frustration are highest.

The experiments did find the sweet spot. (The hard thing is knowing when to stop fiddling around; I decided that 4K words down is that time.) Write in the morning, in the dining room, with a cup of tea. I have three windows for entertainment; two let in the glittering morning sun and, as the day progresses, I can peek at my neighbors and see what the kids and dog are up to. The other window faces onto the oaks in our back yard, so that I sometimes catch the moment when yet another russet leaf journeys to join its brothers on the ground. I have a spare face mask in case anybody rings the doorbell and am near enough the kitchen to brew tea and be reminded of the vegetables from time to time.

Will it be enough to make up the word count? We’ll know in 15 days.

A Thanksgiving Carol

Cain was dead, to begin with. It had been widely reported on Fox as well as by the mainstream media. Old Grump hadn’t gone to the funeral or witnessed the burial, but someone on his staff had sent condolences, or flowers, or something. Probably. Cain was most definitely deceased, for which Grump took no responsibility whatsoever. It was Cain’s own decision to come to Tulsa. He’d been enough of a rainmaker to qualify for a VIP seat and a photo op, packed in tight with the others while Grump kept his distance. Grump didn’t pause to mourn Cain’s passing. He spent that day as usual, tweeting complaints and conspiracy theories.

Grump proclaimed himself as strong and tough, a born winner. Inside him there was a fiery desire for all others to accept these claims. That internal fire had given his face a leathery, lurid orange cast, though his eyes were ringed with circles of dead white, and his lips were always ready to pout, snarl, or smirk.

Grump had put Cain out of his mind entirely, dropping the memories into a Dumpster already overflowing with inconvenient facts. November was almost done. It was Thanksgiving Eve already. Grump had less to be thankful for than he’d anticipated, but Fox and the MAGAts were still behind him, plus he would get to stuff himself and watch football without the mainstream media complaining about how he wasn’t visibly doing his job on that day. When Cain’s face loomed at him from Hannity’s set on the television in Grump’s private dining room, Grump nearly choked on his Diet Coke. His Quarter Pounder cooled as Cain’s face spoke with Hannity’s voice. The quart of ice cream reserved for his dessert began to melt. The creature on screen repeated the comforting talking points of rigged elections and pending lawsuits and a V-shaped recovery. Grump stumbled to the TV and looked behind it: nothing. He rubbed at his rheumy old eyes and saw that Hannity was himself again.

It was the end of a long day. Grump’s clerk Mike, back from his truncated vacation, had asked again this morning if Grump wanted him to handle the traditional pardoning of the turkey. Grump had declined. “In that case,” Mike had said, “I thought I might leave a little early so that I can help Mother get ready for tomorrow.”

“Woman’s work, Mike?” sneered Grump. “I need you working the phones until at least seven tonight.”

Mike nodded and headed for the door. Grump got out his phone to continue tweeting–he had a couple of hours until the turkey pardon. But Mike wasn’t done: “Do you think you’ll be stopping by the house tomorrow, Sir? We’ll have plenty of food and pie and make some plans for four more years.”

“Stay tuned, Mike. You’ll find out soon enough.” As if, thought Grump, and buzzed the secretary to make sure the White House press corps in its entirety would be covering the turkey thing.

Grump left the remnants of his dinner for the servants to clear and dismissed his security detail at his bedroom door. He began the complicated and private process of unwinding his hair from its pile atop his bald patch. With his long locks down around his shoulders, in his pajamas, he picked up the copy of Mein Kampf that was his usual bedtime entertainment. “They think I don’t read!” he said crossly, and settled into his sentence for the night. After four words his eyes drifted shut, but just as he was about to drift off, he heard a buzzing and beeping.

Grump opened his eyes with a start. Before him stood a figure in a hospital gown and paper slippers, dragging a medical cart. It wore a surgical mask and a red baseball cap pulled over its eyes. With a sudden, terrible lurch to less than six feet from Grump, the figure shouted “9-9-9! 9-9-9!”

“What do you want?” Grump quavered.

“Ask me who I was,” commanded the figure.

“Who were you?”

“In life I was Cain, your supporter. In death I bring a message, and a warning.”

“Fake news! Humbug!” Grump pushed the button to summon his security.

The figure wrenched off its cap to reveal empty eye sockets and a skull rising above the mask. “I came to tell you that you will be visited this night by three spirits.”

“They won’t get past the fence. It’s unclimbable.”

“I did,” said Cain, “even in these slippers. Heed their words…” He faded from sight.

It must have been the burger, thought Grump. He pulled the covers over his head. Maybe I can sue McDonalds….

Midnight. Bathed in the blue glow from Grump’s phone the First Spirit pulled the covers off of Grump’s rotund form. “Awake!”

“Security!” shouted Grump. But no one answered.

“I am the ghost of Covid past,” said the Spirit. It floated in the air, a cheap-looking sphere plastered with suction cups, about the size of a soccer ball. The kind of present that kids would rip open on Christmas morning and trash by Christmas afternoon. “Come.”

And suddenly Grump was in his office, at the Resolute Desk, putting Sharpie to paper and signing from the shoulder down, as was his way. Doctors and cabinet members, generals and other nobodies around him, all standing while he sat. He smiled for the cameras and announced the ban on travel from China. “We have the virus very much under control…We’ve taken the most aggressive actions to control it.” How strong and presidential he sounded. Happy and energetic as he always was once blame had been pinned on someone or something other than himself.

And then, with a start, he was back in his bed. He trembled back to sleep and was awoken immediately, it seemed, by the Second Spirit. “I am the ghost of Covid present.” The virus had become as tall and thick as Grump himself. It extended a tentacle and took Grump’s hand…

His daughter, having a glass of wine, her husband rubbing her feet, in her New York home, saying “We’ve got to talk some sense into Daddy.” A huge maskless gathering somewhere in rural America, people hugging and kissing each other.

Now he was at the vice presidential residence. Mike was looking pensive. Mother had her hands deep inside a turkey, doing something. “Maybe he’ll show,” she said, “and then you can talk about 2024.”

“I don’t know,” said Mike. “I think if the courts don’t help us out with four more years, he’ll be running in 2024, and where does that leave me–I mean, us?”

Grump pounded his fists on the door. “I knew it!” he shouted. Mike and Mother didn’t hear. “He wants to be president while it’s still my turn! The nerve.”

“At least tomorrow we’ll have a lot more pie and ice cream to spare,” said Mother. “Buck up, honey. You can always bring up the pardon thing at the office on Monday.”

“The pardon thing?” asked the Spirit.

“My exit strategy,” snapped Grump, but the Spirit had already gone, and he was back in bed. Mike would come through with the pardon, thought Grump, if it meant spending 24 hours as President of the United States. 2024…well, four years was a long time.

The Third Spirit whistled to him from the darkness. “Yeah, yeah,” said Grump, getting up. The suction cups had ballooned to sofa size, so he settled on one. “I am the Ghost of Covid Future,” the thing rumbled into his brain. “Can I request 2024?” asked Grump, but the thing made no reply.

They emerged into the blinding sunshine near the seventeenth hole. Himself, orange as ever, hair on point, selecting a club and getting ready for a swing. Looking good, thought Grump. His protection detail around him, an actual billionaire and two star athletes completing the foursome. He sighed in relief. This was a warning? Then another golf cart approached and men got out: men with badges and guns and…”I have a warrant for your arrest, Sir,” and the handcuffs, and his security detail not lifting a finger! Grump looked down…there he was, orange-jumpsuited, in a cell… “Take me back, Spirit!”

And there he was, back in his bed, the light just beginning to dawn. Grump sighed. He’d have to put in an appearance at the Pence thing. When he was through with them there wouldn’t be a bite left of ice cream. Or pie.

Stress test

NaNoWriMo report, a quarter of the way through. The good: I worked on the novel every day and am now more than 10,000 words in! A little behind a straight line to 50,000, but not so far behind that catching up will take a herculean effort. Every day I brewed tea, set up the laptop in the dining room, and put words onto the screen. (A lot the words are lousy, but that’s to be expected.) My story is moving forward. The bad news: spending time writing didn’t disconnect me from the world as I’d hoped. It didn’t sent politics and the pandemic and human rights scuttling to the edge of my awareness. Every day still felt like a year.

I managed to keep up with practicing my instruments as well as with writing. As part of my 2020 music practice I’ve been going through the orchestra parts I have in roughly chronological order. This week I was up to 1815-17, which included several Schubert symphonies. Talk about staying productive under stress…

By 1815-17, when Franz Schubert was writing his third through fifth symphonies, Vienna had suffered major losses in the Napoleonic wars. The government reacted to the loss by cracking down on all forms of dissent. The state’s secret police and censors prohibited and punished political speech and made restrictive new laws. For example, males had to make a certain income in order to get married (which kept Schubert single). There were spies everywhere. Citizens reacted by putting their heads down. Or by joining various underground revolutionary movements. The protective, inward-looking choice was to perform a cozy home life with “Hausmusik” around the piano, letter-writing, painting, crafting, and novel-reading, and never any talk of revolution or how societal problems could be managed differently. It reminds me of the apolitical domesticity on display in today’s lifestyle and family channels–and, yes, often on this blog. Artists in Vienna had to avoid any norm-questioning content or risk being forcibly silenced. This must have been incredibly stressful.

Schubert, living in these interesting times, doesn’t seem to have had his creativity much stifled. He wrote piano music and chamber works, much of it appropriate for the Hausmusik set, as well as symphonies and other big pieces. And he wrote songs, quite a few of which put dissenting lyrics to music, also performed as Hausmusik. (He seems to have gotten away with that, maybe because the songs themselves tended to be gorgeous.) By the time he died at age 31, he had composed around 1500 works.

I’m also living through “interesting times.” My anxiety level for the past four years has mostly been stuck at the three-days-before-finals level. For the past couple of months, as the election approached, it’s risen to nightmare-where-I’m-being-chased-through-the-house-by-a-knife-wielding-maniac. Watching my country inch, and sometimes sprint, away from democracy has been draining. Instead of creating things, I’m consuming things: cheese, chocolate, merlot, television.

Yesterday’s projection that Biden will be the winner of the presidency had people dancing in the streets. I danced in the grocery line and put the peanut butter cups back on the shelf instead of in my shopping basket. I wrote in the afternoon and woke up this morning feeling ready to write some more. I will never be a Schubert, but week two: here I come.

Tenterhooked

“On tenterhooks,” the expression, refers to a feeling of uneasiness or suspense. Anxiety being my default state, you’d think I’d be somewhat inured to the feelings generated by the 2020 election. I’m not. This morning my head’s throbbing as if a bunch of tenterhooks were loose inside it. Tenterhooks are devices that attach cloth to a frame (the tenter) that keeps the fabric stretched, so that can dry evenly rather than warp. They aren’t little hammers…Dammit, I know I’d be able to make a better metaphor if I’d gotten better sleep last night.

Exactly a week ago it was snowing and the sun was rising after seven. Now temperatures are in the 60s and 70s for a couple of days, and dawn’s a bit after six. It’s so warm that I opened the bedroom window for the night to keep the room cool. Naturally, within seconds Capone the cat jumped onto the sill. There’s a sad dearth of windowsills for him to perch in once the weather turns cold. The window has to be open so that he can fit, as he’s too, um, “big-boned” to fit on the sill with the window closed.

Capone started out the night with me for a while and then left for his grand wee hours tour, where typically he roams among his humans. He settles with one human for an hour or two, then moves to another. #

I usually enjoy waking up to find Capone’s taking up space near my toes, or curled in the armchair, or looking out the window at whatever cats see in the darkness. But Capone had something else in store for e last night.

The return to standard time last weekend continues to annoy him. Capone chooses not to accept the hour delay in his breakfast routine. He expects to be fed promptly at 5:03 a.m. So we’re getting yowls at around four, most mornings. Dave’s the one who usually feeds him, so Capone will paw the blanket away from Dave’s head, meow, lick his arm. With me, Capone uses meows only and usually gives up after a couple of attempts. I bury my head under the pillow or turn up the volume on CNN, flooding the room with noise. On nights when he won’t stop, I shoo him out the door and shut it; fortunately, Capone has not yet managed to evolve an opposable thumb. Then I try to get back to sleep.

The experts promise I’d get better sleep in a dark, cool, quiet room. I do like a cool room, but these days I seem to need words being spoken by people to drown out the sleep-sabotaging words in my head. As for darkness…I can’t quite stand it. Besides, screen-glow means I can keep an eye out for any spiders that might be spinning in my direction, as well as any cats who might be wandering around the room.

Last night, after a couple of hours sleeping, I woke up a little before three. Capone was in the window. Maybe mapping squirrel nests, maybe watching the leaves move, maybe getting messages from one of the horsemen of the apocalypse. It’s hard to tell. After a while he jumped from the windowsill to the floor with a bit of an oof, he is not a youngster anymore. He meowed peremptorily at me. “What’s up?” I asked, imagining that he wanted a cuddle. I patted the bed, the standard cat invitation. “Mrrwl,” he replied, twitching his tail and making no move in my direction. His eyes reflected the light from the TV. I patted the bed again. He moved slowly to the bedroom door, gave me a final stare, and left the room.

He repeated this behavior four more times over the course of the night: entering stealthily, jumping silently up onto the windowsill, and, when he was done with window time, jumping down and meowing loudly. He timed it so that every meow came at the very moment when I was just getting back to sleep.

Normally this would be cute, if frustrating. During election week, though, I’ve been sleep deprived for days. I’m more hopeful than I was on Tuesday night that the candidate with the majority of the popular vote will win, but ot confident that the current president will be thwarted in his frantic attempts to rig the results.

“Dammit, Cat!” I said, at the third oof-meow. Capone scratched his ear, meowed again, and sauntered out of the room. Those cat claws hooked me, nerves stretched tight, to wakefulness. I sighed and turned up the volume on CNN. Maybe something whispered to Capone in the darkness, keep her awake so she can see when the lead flips in Georgia. Probably not.

I did stay awake long enough for Pennsylvania to flip, also, and to finish this log. Sleep may be easier now.

All tricks this year

Halloween’s here and we are buried in snow! A predicted “dusting”/mostly rain event turned into about four inches. It’s weird, and also beautiful, seeing the autumn reds and oranges peeping through the white. It’s yet another sign, if such was needed, that Halloween is canceled this fall. The town’s holding a “spooky” car procession through one of the parks, concluding with gloved and masked citizens handing sanitized bags of candy, one per car. Not much, but it’s something.

It’s too bad. I always look forward to Halloween. All that candy! The yard displays of the people who really go for it! Squinting through my Cinderella mask, its elastic string pulling at my hair, a couple of inches of jeans and my sneakers visible below where the faux satin blue skirt (somehow both scratchy and smooth) ended. The pillow case as the trick-or-treat bag.

Waiting for nightfall, joining our friends–as did the Charlie Brown kids, we went trick-or-treating in packs, sometimes kids from the neighborhood, sometimes going to a different neighborhood to join kids from church. An adult chaperone swinging the flashlight in spooky arcs, stage-whispering to remind the little ones to say “thank you” no matter what kind of treat they were given (my baby brother tended to object to the houses that handed out Tootsie rolls). Normal houses looked so mysterious by flashlight.

Back in my youth, the contents of the treat bags could be perilous, and I’m not talking about lethal levels of sugar. Packs of candy cigarettes, throat-sized jawbreakers, tooth-busting rectangular slabs of bubblegum, and lots of homemade goodies like popcorn balls, cookies, brownies. And, of course, possibly-razor-laced apples and little cardboard boxes of raisins. It wasn’t unusual to come home with a few full-sized candy bars; those were the days. Then the kitchen table, where we’d warm up our frozen fingers and blow our runny noses while my mom dumped each sack out and edited the contents, throwing out the apples and reserving a few of the treats for her own consumption, then finally letting us each pick a couple of our favorites to eat that very night.

I took a break from Halloween, mostly, as a single adult, except for playing the occasional concert dressed as a cowgirl or ghost. At the grownup level Halloween turns into decorating and horror, with costume parties, haunted houses, and scary movies. I scare easily and don’t like costume parties. But as a parent, I was excited to go trick-or-treating with Sonny. By then the rules had changed. The town website set the hours (6 p.m. to 8 p.m.) and noted how to opt out of the holiday (turn off your porch/front door lights), sternly warning trick-or-treaters to play no tricks. Sonny’s plastic pumpkin bucket filled with fun-size packaged candy, not an apple or anything homemade in sight. At first there were masses of kids on our street, though over the past few years it’s slowed more of a trickle. Sonny aged out of trick-or-treating, but he’s always enjoyed handing out candy to the kids who knock or ring. School or community center parties have substituted increasingly for outdoor trick-or-treating, with every kid getting the same bag of candy, but there’ve still been at least a few kids out of the evening, bypassing more and more dark houses.

This year our porch light will be off. All of the fun stuff is damped down–no parties, few costumes, no handing out of candy at the door–and just the horror is left.

[trigger warning! political paragraph coming] Pandemic, climate change-fueled natural disasters, and, worst of all, bad people who know they’re bad (such as the current US president and his enablers) doing what they can to take away people’s health insurance, civil rights, houses and spoil the futures of all those little trick-or-treaters. Cheered on by bad people who think that they’re good, like the Texas yahoos who decided to try to run a bus off the highway yesterday and the cops who tear-gassed a peaceful march to the polls in North Carolina. The ghoulies and ghosties and things that go bump in the night: they’re walking among us. Put a mask on, vote.

NaNoWriMo’s a Go-Go-Go

National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) starts in two days. I decided to participate last week, on the day I cast my 2020 election vote. With my most important civic duty accomplished, I felt able to commit to try writing 50,000 words in 30 days. Ideally, then, I’ll spend election month buried in my book.

I’ve spent yesterday and today prepping, mostly by watching Authortube (YouTubers who make videos about the writing process). Over at Authortube they’ve been prepping all month, shuffling index cards like riverboat gamblers, screen-shotting nifty programs and apps, covering kanban boards with Post-Its, and sharing their intended writing schedules and novel-tracking spreadsheets. NaNoWriMo’s website is also packed with helpful advice, pep talks, links to writing software, and online support groups.

These questions are of academic interest only, as I’ve decided…to join the pantsers! For book-length projects, writers tend to divide into plotters and pantsers. Plotters write outlines, draw maps, fill out character sheets, identify research topics, etc. Pantsers sit down at the keyboard and start writing. Plotter is natural to me. It reduces the chances of getting stuck a few chapters in and, often, the time required to complete the first draft. But it can also make the writing part of the process feel less exciting and spontaneous. As a pantser, I will probably hit some dead ends and meander, but I think I’ll have a bit more fun.

So there will be no index cards or Scrivener downloads for me. No NaNoWriMo blocks on the schedule, and especially no trackers. (Tracking rouses my internal rebel: I just hate it when I order me around. Who do I think I am, the boss of me?)

The key questions left to settle are environmental.

Laptop, typewriter, pen on paper? Laptop. I’ve seen a couple of authortubers with manual typewriters from the 1950s; cool aesthetic, but also finger-tangling and off-putting, perhaps, to one’s family.

Sitting down or standing up? Sitting down.

PJs or day clothes? Very probably both.

Headphones or playlist blasting? I can’t listen to music while I write. I’ll be blasting white noise videos–rain, waves, crickets, flames.

Coffee or tea? I love coffee, and it’s been important to the work process of many artists, but I don’t want to suffer French writer Balzac’s fate, especially with as much time I’m planning to spend writing. Bad at managing his money and needing to produce lots of content to get out of debt, Balzac wrote about 13 hours per day and fueled this grind with many cups of black coffee (five or six? 40 or more? nobody knows for sure, but 50 seems to be the upper limit of the guesses). When he died in 1850 at the age of 51, caffeine poisoning may have been a contributing factor. It’s harder, though not impossible, to die from drinking too much tea, so: tea.

Snacks? Only if I start writing in the kitchen, which has no places to sit.

Writing in a room with others (family and/or pets) or alone? I’ll try a mix of solitary and writing in a corner of the family room. As far as pets, the authortubers I’ve watched have had dogs, so I assume their pets are happy to stay close by. I pose the question to Capone the cat. He flicks an ear and settles himself more firmly on the TV remote. He’s been lying on it a lot lately–I believe it’s in protest to how I’ve been yelling at the news–but I’m going to interpret the gestures as some kind of tolerance for the idea.