Dopamine hits

Last year’s summer was annoyingly rainy. This year’s summer is maddeningly dry. The town’s restricting water use, so sprinklers are off. Any watering has to be handheld and done early in the morning or after six in the evening. Even the yards of people who are good at lawns have bald patches and brittle brown grass. Sitting outside with my coffee, in the shade of a tree with parched leaves, it was too quiet. There was a feeble, intermittent breeze, but no squirrels chasing one other, no chipmunk on the steps, not even a robin hopping for a worm. I felt worried, weird. In need of a dopamine hit.   

 The cleaners come every two weeks, Sueli and one or two assistants. I stay out of their way by biking in the basement, running errands, or, as today, enjoying coffee and a book outdoors. When they leave, besides a spotless house, there are always a few things in different places. Small rugs on the other side of a room. Pillows on a different chair. Spoon rests and shampoo bottles, coffee mugs and remote controllers—all somewhere else. Also there are many folded things. Sueli is good at all aspects of her job, but she’s especially expert at shaping cloth and paper. I have no doubt that, just for the joy of it, Sueli has made napkins into swans, at the kind of houses where there are cloth napkins in regular use. At my house she turns the top tissue in the Kleenex box into a rose, too delicate and pretty for a nose. My drooping, messy throws become princess gowns draped over chair backs. And every roll of hanging toilet paper features a neat, easy to grab triangle.  

Mostly I move the rugs and pillows and coffee mugs back to their original spots, but sometimes Sueli’s placement makes more sense than my own and I stick with it. On today’s visit she had arranged two extra rolls of toilet paper—of which I had made a short tower on the toilet tank—on a windowsill thusly: 

In their new position the triangles looked like beaks, and the rolls themselves seemed as though they were big-chested birds standing sentry. I like bird sculptures and have collected a fair number. An installation of two more, even if a temporary one, made me smile.  

Late in the afternoon there were birds all over. Robins bobbing, a couple of crows on the power wires, and then suddenly a flock of medium-sized birds. Dozens of them, rounder than robins, with brown backs and white breasts. Maybe some kind of sparrow? They pecked at the ground, fought, flirted, and flapped into the trees, onto the air conditioning unit, onto the roof. They stayed away from the crows’ wires. Many of them seemed to be waiting for a chance at a dust bath in a patch directly below the bathroom window.  Dust baths help birds clean their feathers of excess oil as well as get rid of parasites. The sentries and I watched. Five or six birds at a time whirled and wiggled bird-shaped depressions into the earth, like kids making snow angels. When an impatient member of the flock tried to jump the line, there would be a brief but ferocious battle. One alpha bird settled into the prime spot for so long that I was on the verge of offering it a book and teeny drop of wine to make its bath even more relaxing. A half hour later the flock had vanished. 

The next morning I could see traces of their visit: little bird-sized pits studded with pebbles. That made me smile. I headed for my spot under the tree. There was dew on the grass, and the earth was pale and dry. Grass doesn’t turn the brilliant colors that the trees do, but if I squinted I could see hints of gold in the brown. 

Tickets

Elton John is Sonny’s favorite artist. About a year ago, on the first day tickets went on sale for John’s farewell tour dates at Gillette Stadium, Sonny ordered four. He spent months collecting the elements of his costume. Glitter platforms, heart-shaped, furry glasses, a rainbow vest, piano knee socks, gold lamé shorts and gloves. My husband Dave had volunteered to be the chauffeur for the evening as well as to book rooms for the night at a nearby hotel. It’s impossible to overstate how amped up Sonny was about this event.  

Now it was the day before the concert, and two of Sonny’s four tickets hadn’t been delivered. That is, their electronic versions with bar codes hadn’t found their way to his phone. He’d bought two from Ticketmaster (which had arrived) and two from another vendor. The second vendor had scheduled the tickets to show up by this day, but Sonny still couldn’t access them. I recommended to Sonny to call customer support, with Dave listening in on the call in case Sonny didn’t understand something. At about 1:00 Wednesday afternoon Dave and Sonny sat down with their phones and Sonny’s computer, expecting to straighten out the situation within a few minutes.

A lengthy and perplexing conversation ensued. In hindsight red flags abounded. The customer service rep informed Dave that a $200 Ticketmaster gift card was required to release Sonny’s tickets. He promised that as soon as the matter was resolved the card would be refunded and “helpfully” mentioned that our local CVS had these gift cards available for purchase. Dave, wanting to save time, rejected that idea. The rep then suggested a Zelle transfer of $500, which Sonny set up. Then Sonny’s bank put a hold on the transfer. I’d been checking in on their progress. Worried. Sonny was keeping it together—but just barely. He was breathing faster and heavier and shifting in his seat. I was nervous that he’d go into an outright meltdown and wind up hurting himself or breaking something. 

Therefore I felt relieved when, a bit over an hour into the ordeal, Dave and Sonny drove to CVS for what was supposed to be the final step. You may have guessed it already—they were going to buy the gift card. The rep was still on the phone with them. The CVS cashier told Dave: “Don’t do it, it’s a scam” and declined to make the sale. Dave and Sonny retreated to the parking lot. The rep then suggested that they go for a Target gift card instead. At that point, Dave disconnected the call. 

When Dave and Sonny got back from CVS and told me about the fiasco, I had to agree with the cashier. We’d been scammed.   

People on the autistic spectrum can be more vulnerable than average to some types of cyber fraud, especially those that involve friendships and romantic relationships. However, it turns out that generally, autistic people are as able as neurotypical people to recognize a spoofed website or email along with other kinds of phishing. The flip side of that is that autistic people are just as likely as neurotypical people to be bamboozled by a spoof. I found this a bit reassuring, because this is what had happened to Sonny. When searching for the customer service number, he’d had clicked onto a spoof site rather than the legitimate site.  

The root of the problem—besides the fact that it’s easy for criminals to make spoof sites—was that none of us had been thinking straight. The stakes felt too high for calm, measured judgment. Each of us knew that a gift card quest is not a standard response to “Here’s my order number and receipt: where are my tickets?” Dave should have hung up in the first five minutes. Yet all three of us just kept going along with each step into the ridiculous. 

We may never know what happened to the original tickets—or even if that sale was legitimate in the first place. 

The next step was to contact Sonny’s bank. Dave yelled “fraud” as a keyword into the automated phone system, and who’d’a thunk it? “Zelle transaction” was button number four! Eventually he got to a human being. With luck, after a review, Sonny will get his $500 back. 

While Dave was doing battle with the bank’s AI, we experienced a minor miracle. Sonny was able to buy two tickets, albeit in a different row. They transferred immediately, along with bar codes, etc. The $300 cost by that point felt like a bargain. Our afternoon was gone—it was almost 5:00—but nobody would miss the show. 

It’s amazing and strange how good we felt, despite all of the time, money, and stress. Sure, we’d been reminded that we’re mackerel to the sharks of the world, but our fridge had wine and  Dave’s favorite Pepperidge Farm cake, and Sir Elton John in person was just 24 hours away.  

How was the concert? I texted Sonny this morning. He was still at the hotel. 

MAGICAL, he replied. 

Nobody blames the bears

On a morning of pitiless sunshine I pass a stand of trees across the street from an elementary school and what was, once upon a time, a sheep farm. Not that long ago, either. There were sheep grazing there when I picked up Sonny, then age four, from his daycare. How dark and cool it looks under the trees, and how hard it is to see further than a few yards into that shade. For all I know there could be a cottage containing a witch, a pig, a woodcutter, or three bowls of porridge cooling on a table. 

Once upon a time I would tell Sonny the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. He loved that fairytale. The voices, the motions, the house in the woods. He wished we had woods at the back of our home, rather than a sapling and a chainlink fence. 

Goldilocks, which was originally called The Three Bears, arose from an oral tradition. It’s easy to see why this story survived. The components are economical and easy to remember. Four characters. Three activities. One setting. I loved performing it for Sonny, making my voice deep and growly for the papa bear, using a silly high voice for the baby bear, blowing on the oatmeal, collapsing the chair, jumping out the window…

 The earliest written versions date from the 1800s. There are usually three bears;  there’s always a wood. It’s possible that the original Goldilocks was actually a fox, Scrapefoot, who invaded the bears’ castle. Eleanor Mure’s handmade, illustrated pamphlet of 1831 may be the first time the story was written down. Mure’s intruder is an old woman, no name given. The three bears are friends and of approximately the same size. Instead of porridge, the bears’ kitchen has three bowls of milk. While the bears are out for their walk, having left the door unlatched (because they are too naive and good-hearted to conceive of thieves), the woman lets herself in. She drinks the milk, makes a mess, takes a nap. This version has the most gruesome ending, and I kind of love it. The bears set her on fire, attempt to drown her, and ultimately impale her on the spire of St. Paul’s Cathedral. I find it fascinating that the story ends in such an urban location. The woods must have been much be closer to St. Paul’s than they are today! 

I was 10 when we moved to Richmond and were finally near something that could be called woods. Nothing you could get lost in, but still remote-feeling and cool(ish) on days when the temperatures soared into the 90s. We built forts and clubhouses there in the summer. Sometimes we’d find other kids’ forts, in which case—we being better brought up than Goldilocks—we would not scavenge or enter them. 

 The poet Robert Southey published his version of the story in 1837. His bears are Little, Small, Wee; Medium-sized; and Great, Huge. The intruder is an unpleasant old woman who swears and finds fault with everything. She eats Little, Small, Wee’s porridge and complains that the bowl is too small. There are no illustrations, but Southey uses different typefaces for each bear’s dialogue. Great, Huge speaks in bold, big Gothic type; Little, Small, Wee in tiny italics. At the denouement, the old woman escapes through a window. Southey implies that eventually she comes to a bad end, either by breaking her neck or being arrested for vagrancy.

Just like me, Sonny was 10 when we moved to a house with a nearby wood, or at least more trees in the yard. By that time we’d abandoned fairy tales and were deeply into Star Wars and Doctor Who. The yard had a little patch of trees that Sonny called “the forest.” It wasn’t big enough for a fort or cottage. That didn’t stop me from worrying that he’d figure out a way to break his neck in there somehow. 

Authors kept tweaking The Three Bears. In 1850, Joseph Cundall turned the old woman into a girl with the name of Silver-Hair. This caught on, and Silver-Hair became Goldilocks. The bears turned from friends to family (siblings, then father-mother-child). Sometimes Goldilocks  repented and made amends, though mostly she just defenestrated herself and headed for home. 

As a blonde I’ve occasionally been called Goldilocks, in a kidding way. It’s no compliment. Goldilocks is quite the brat. Most of the retellings emphasize her bad manners and fecklessness. She’s supposed to be on an errand for her mom, not stealing food and breaking chairs! Now that I know she started out as a filthy-mouthed old woman, I should relate to her better—but I don’t.  She’s horrible.  

Nobody blames the bears, not even after the cathedral thing. They’re punctilious about manners and social niceties. The porridge is set out to cool because the bears know that it’s impolite to blow on one’s food, even in the privacy of one’s own cottage in the woods. Their floors are swept spotless. Wee Little’s chair has been repaired. The beds have been remade. The bears pace warily through the forest. Once upon a time they left their door unlatched, but no more. 

Terrace

I’ve written a few more 55-word stories lately. The ”rule” for a 55-word story is that the body of the story must be 55 words exactly, although the title is not included in the word count.* I’m not good at something that needs to be so economical, but it’s helpful to practice.  

Here’s one of mine from a couple of days ago: 

—— 

The Brushoff

Emily, down to her last pair of pantyhose, peeked through the curtains. No Kit in sight. Her car 23 steps away. 

Kit’s harmless, Herb said. Throw him a stick. 

Emily clenched her purse and keys. She stepped onto the landing. Kit bounced up. Emily kicked the ball she’d set by the back door and ran. 

——

I do live next door to a friendly, energetic, and jumpy labrador retriever. As a puppy she often ran full force in my direction as I was departing for a gig in clothes that couldn’t be mussed. I never resorted to any tricks with tennis balls. However, on leaving the house I did keep a sort of wary eye out for her. (Nowadays she’s full grown and much calmer. She’s also realized that at best I’m an ear scratcher, not a stick thrower.) 

This particular story idea does seem to reflect my mental state. I’ve begun feeling a little bit…uneasy…about leaving the house. I still do run errands and go places, but I have to rev up to do it. Am I developing agoraphobia? Probably not. It’s more that the world feels increasingly worrisome, what with the mass shootings, treason, white supremacists pamphleting nearby towns, plus the prices and the climate and that weird ache in my neck. Being outside and focusing on my surroundings can quiet the commotion in my brain, but I have to work harder at it.   

I decided to walk one of the terraces this morning. We have several areas in town where there are a bunch of thoroughfares called “X, or it could be Y (or even Z)” Terrace. The road experts say that a “terrace” involves a slope. It may run along, wrap around, or connect to the top of said slope. Around here the terrace designation seems to have been quite popular in street-naming housing developments from the 1950s-1970s. These areas are among my favorites for walks. They’re usually quiet and green-feeling, with old trees and houses that started out as a batch of chocolate chip cookies but over time have developed into a baker’s display case—cookies, yes, and tarts, eclairs, brownies, cupcakes, and more.      

 It’s tricky to know why terrace was such a trendy word back in the day. Terrace’s meanings—there are many—are generally related to a flat place and a slope or hillside. A terrace can be a raised paved area beside a building. Or a rooftop. A street going up a hill, or a row of houses on that street. Or a group of row houses. My personal favorite definition of terrace is a colonnaded porch. I often wish I had one of those, conjured from an old movie or a novel featuring an English country house with a a baronet lying dead in a locked room. Just imagine! French doors opening onto an outdoor space with columns,  potted plants, little tables, and a stone-paved floor.  Plus, of course, a fancy balustrade beside which I can gaze pensively out into the moonlit garden until Humphrey Bogart or Cary Grant interrupts. 

Today’s terrace was generally flat. It was early enough in the morning for long shadows. I strolled the long north-south streets, waiting for the calm to descend. There were sidewalks on both sides of the street, split-level homes, and the occasional rusting swingset or clotheslines in a back yard. There were flowers, mostly  oranges and golds, a little droopy because of the drought, but not as faded as the grass, which was dotted with brittle yellow patches. Birds in bunches swept from one side of the street to the other whenever someone backed a car out of a driveway. Sadly, not a colonnaded porch in sight. 

I told the sights to myself but my brain didn’t want to cooperate. Calm stayed up in the telephone wires with the birds. At one corner there was a big tree shaped like a trident, its west-most prong stretching out over the sidewalk. A person of average height would need to stoop, but not shorty me. I lifted my arm over my head and knocked as I crossed under the branch, but nothing answered.       

————

*Ideally the story should have characters, a conflict, a setting, and a beginning, middle, and end. It’s a fun challenge, Dear Reader, and I encourage you to try writing a few of these yourself. 

Pockets

I ran across an interesting icebreaker question: If you could store one type of food in your pocket, what would you carry? My mind flitted to the jelly babies that Tom Baker’s Dr. Who handed out willy-nilly. I started watching Dr. Who during the Reagan years, when it was widely publicized that the president’s favorite snack was jelly beans. I’d always pictured a jelly baby as a plus-sized jelly bean. I was wrong! Jelly babies are softer than jelly beans, and they’re not shaped like beans. Jelly babies are shaped like babies, if said baby was goblin-spawned. I suppose this makes it a bit easier to bite off the head, but I wonder if these candies give kids nightmares as well as cavities. 

Dr. Who’s pockets throughout the series have proved fabulously capacious, containing the Sonic Screwdriver, yo-yos, a magnifying glass, a teddy bear, business cards, various musical instruments, swim goggles, playing cards, the Doctor’s Galactic passport, and more. I’m jealous. Women’s pockets tend toward the decorative and delicate rather than the practical, and my wardrobe is no exception.  I always perk up a bit a narrative turns to the contents of a male character’s pockets. 

“What has it got in its pocketses?” Gollum wonders during his riddle contest with Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit. His guesses include hands, string, knife, fish bones, and goblins’ teeth. I laugh aloud at his final, desperate speculation, “nothing.” Who, given a useful-sized pocket, would leave it empty? I consider whether the cool-looking, tiny front pockets on today’s jeans could stretch to accommodate even a baby goblin’s tooth. Probably not. I could possibly squeeze a cough drop into them…would that count as food, though?  

Pockets aren’t a problem for my husband Dave. He wears cargo shorts three seasons of the year and has a vest of many pockets that he wears year-round. This particular VOMP, a khaki-colored, seven-pocketer, is his fourth. Khaki goes with everything, says Dave. Or nothing, say I. The food that he carries in the vest tends to be vanilla-flavored energy gel, although sometimes he goes wild with strawberry-banana gel. Dave’s male friends are drawn to the VOMP the way socialites are to a Birkin bag. “Wherever did you find it?” they ask. The wives try to catch my eye, hoping that I can convince Dave to keep his source a secret. I avoid their glances. I’ve learned to live with the VOMP; doubtless they can, too.   

An argument can be made that pocketbooks are superior to pockets. Since women can carry pocketbooks without social censure, we shouldn’t be bothered by a lack of pockets on our clothing. But pockets are private. They might contain a cough drop, a jelly baby biding its time until midnight, a shopping list, or the One-Ring-To-Rule-Them-All. The pocketbook hides one’s valuables but also highlights their location. 

Admittedly pocketbooks—at least the ones I own—provide plenty of room for snack storage. I could fit crackers, and maybe even a sandwich, in most of my bags, along with a sickbay’s worth of cough drops, plus my wallet, combs, keys, tissues, pens, lip balm, sunscreen, loose change, sticky notes, nail polish, concert programs, etc. If I had to pick one food  always to have in a pocketbook, I’d go for trail mix (nuts, fruit, and chocolate). Tasty, sustaining, and something to throw if the jelly baby brigade decides to attack. 

Fluffy holiday report

I did it again: walked into my studio this morning and wondered “Why did I come in here?” I studied the room for clues: there were instruments all over, but it was too early to practice. A sunbeam striped the floor, which led to a quick peek through the windows: a blue sky and a beautifully green day, thanks to all the rain. Had I meant to make another cup of coffee and wandered one door too far? That’s happened plenty of times…My desktop was a mess—an empty coffee cup, sunglasses, pens and notebooks. Ah, yes: it was time to declutter and then start the blog. 

It was July 1, with half of 2022 behind me. July the month got its name in 44 BCE, when the Roman Senate switched the name of the fifth month in the calendar (the Roman calendar began in March) from Quintilis to Julius in honor of Julius Caesar’s birth month. Caesar had been assassinated earlier that year, on March 15. 

I didn’t want to think about Caesar and all that Et tu, Brute? stuff. My mind felt  as cluttered as my desk. Instead I stuck pens into cups, made a pile of notebooks, and opened my laptop to search for some fluffy, non-bloody holidays. Score! July 1 is National Creative Ice Cream Flavors Day. Suddenly I had a post-blog plan, as I live about a mile away from the ice cream shop Daddy’s Dairy. Daddy’s has around 80 flavors of hard ice cream, plus a lesser but still impressive number of frozen yogurt and soft serve offerings.  Mountain Dew, Grapenut, Cherry Moosetracks, Peanut Butter Pie, Cinnamon Toast, Purple Cow, etc. If I wind up feeling guilty about the binge, I can push that out of my brain tomorrow when I celebrate “I Forgot Day.” 

 Just kidding! I Forgot Day, July 2, is not a day for deliberately forgetting things. It’s a confusing holiday, to be honest. IFD arose from the experiences of an Indiana woman called Gaye Anderson, whose forgetfulness is epic. Far beyond glasses and car keys and the occasional piano lesson, Anderson regularly failed to commemorate much bigger life events, such as wedding anniversaries and her daughter’s birthday. 

I’m not by any means immune to memory slips. Last summer I forgot my weekly appointment to volunteer at the library several times. It was a summer of many car and appliance ailments, and the librarians were understanding, but I felt terrible. I wrote LIBRARY in red letters on my calendar for the rest of the year and set a perpetual alarm for Tuesdays at 10:15 a.m. 

In response to her forgetful tendencies, Anderson created I Forgot Day as a day for a person to relax about being absent-minded while also making amends to those one has slighted. Anderson celebrates her daughter’s birthday, her wedding anniversary, and (I imagine) a multitude of other missed events every July 2. It must be a hell of a party. Not sure how comforting it is to be someone whose special occasion is included in the bundle (it reminds me of one of those rich people who call every assistant Max rather than bother to remember a name), but it seems to work for the Anderson clan. 

Most of the commentary about I Forgot Day ignores the give-yourself-a-break aspect and focuses instead on the amends bit. Recommendations include gestures such as notes of apology,  flowers, cookies, and the like, along with trying aides de memoire like lists and sticky notes. 

One thing that’s not recommended is moving out of our houses, but our homes are conspiring against our memories through something known as the “doorway effect.” My house is in its 90s now and has many doorways: nine on the ground floor alone. This was what had caused my confusion early this morning. I had approached my studio with the intention of straightening up my desk and sitting down to write. Then this intention vanished as I walked through the door, and it took me a small but annoying bit of time to retrieve it.  

Articles about the doorway effect provided technical explanations about memory and the brain that I’m not sure I understood. The gist seemed to be that when we cross a perceived boundary our attention focuses on the new scene before us, possibly to assess for predators or other risks, be they tigers or sunbeams. To aid this focus the brain diverts the thoughts which had preceded the entrance somewhere else.  

I dunno. I wasn’t that having a name for this experience would help me avoid it, though I wished that could be the case. Naming—or renaming—a thing can be powerful, useful, reassuring, but it can’t work magic. The Roman Senate had hoped that renaming Quintilis July might avoid a civil war; Julius Caesar had been quite popular with the citizenry. But civil war was practically endemic in the Roman Republic. From BCE 44 to BCE 40 there were four of them: The Post-Caesarian, the Liberators’, the Bellum Siculum, and the Perusine. 

Oh no! the bloody Et tu, Brute stuff had broken out of its compartment. I figured coffee might help, so I went to the kitchen. Through one of the nine doors. Within microseconds I was wondering Why did I come in here? 

Counting questions

Three things I pondered while throwing things away this week…

1. Whether it was worth going trying to get money back from Walmart for the six-pack of applesauce that turned out to be moldy. I hadn’t kept the receipt. Mold will grow on about anything, even shelf-stabilized Motts cups with an expiration date six months in the future. Sonny’d packed one of the cups into his lunch and texted me that it looked and tasted bad. My inspection of the others in the pack revealed funky little clumps and clusters and a nasty smell. 

The internet assures me that it’s not super likely that eating a little bit of moldy applesauce will make a person sick, although applesauce food poisoning has happened. Not worth the trouble to go back to the store, I figured. I practically never return things, and Sonny didn’t suffer any ill effects from his nibble.  

2. Why we had so much cold and flu medicine sitting in the kitchen cabinet. Half a shelf—the other half filled with coffee mugs—is a motley crew of sunscreen, aspirin, toothpicks, Tums, and cold/flu medicine. Two bottles of orange DayQuil, one and a half cartons of lemon Theraflu, and four packs of cherry throat lozenges, every item having expired in 2020 or 2021. On the one hand this was good, as it reflected how generally healthy our household had been since March of 2020. On the other hand, it was a sizable amount of wasted dollars. 

On a third hand, I had a lingering occasional cough from a summer cold, which unfortunately could be triggered by flute-breaths. As I was playing flute and clarinet on Into the Woods this week, this posed a challenge. Into the Woods runs about two and a half hours and has 72 musical numbers, if you include the underscores and exit music. In the dress rehearsal, things went along swimmingly for a bit. I deployed cough drops and water. Then I triggered a tickle and spent the next 15 minutes fighting the urge to dry-heave a lung and hacking sparingly, one or two barks at a time, during loud tutti bits or applause breaks. Made it a teensy bit difficult to concentrate, which does not go well in a Sondheim score. (I think he makes them tricksy on purpose, so that nobody can go on autopilot.) I resolved to buy one—and only one—bottle of Robitussin. 

3. How many miles I’d put on my Skechers walking sneakers. These were beautiful: shimmery black with pink laces and nice springy insoles. I’d used them for three seasons’ worth of ambles and excursions and shopping trips. The shoes, too battered to put into a charity box, had been languishing beside a bookcase in my studio since the early spring. I tried some calculations to estimate the miles—I have a step tracker on my phone, naturally—but couldn’t figure out ways to separate stocking-footed steps from sneaker-shod steps, assess how many steps I’d taken without a phone in my pocket, what proportion of shoe steps was in the Skechers, etc., etc. The back of my throat tickled. My sinuses throbbed. It began to feel as though I was calculating taxes rather than paying tribute, so I settled on this as an answer:  “Many tens of thousands of steps have I trod in these shoon.” Then I tackled the issue of the final resting place. 

I danced my fingers along the computer keyboard and found that a number of shoe recycling options exist. I could take the Skechers to the very mall from whence they’d come, dropping them off at the Nike store. Nike’s Reuse-A-Shoe Program will accept and recycle any brand of athletic shoes. 

Someday I may tackle the whys of my counting and calculating. Not today, though. 

An appreciation

Crates of Florida grapefruit. Concert tickets. Toblerones. Candles. These were among the items I was expected to sell in high school to raise money for marching band and German club. The candy sold itself; the other stuff not so much. I didn’t have a lot of relatives to tap—grandparents, aunts, cousins, etc., were hundreds of miles away. Most relevant, probably, was that I lacked the social skills to persuade my prospects.

Sophomore year was the worst because the Band Boosters had us kids pushing soap on a rope. I suppose the rationale was that everybody needs soap, and soap on a rope was quite the  fad in the late ‘70s. The price point also helped: soap cost a bit more than a candy bar but way less than a case of grapefruit. So I “sold” a soap to every member of my nuclear family: five down. I found no other takers until I pitched to Ernest T. Parker, my Algebra II/Trig math teacher. 

Mr. Parker was a portly Black man with large teeth and a horseshoe mustache. He  reminded me of a walrus. He wore thick glasses and colorful suit jackets. He called us all by our last names. Algebra II/Trig was the honors class after Geometry and therefore was full of smart sophomores and juniors. Top-of-the-class types to whom academics came easily. Then Mr. Parker happened to us. 

It took me a few weeks to figure out how to copy Mr. Parker’s equations and definitions before he ran out of room on the chalkboard and started erasing. I had to block out distractions—my funny friend Mike, and my crush Harry, with his melting brown eyes. Attention was essential: there was a test coming soon. Mr. Parker gave tests every Friday. These tests were amazingly long. Class was 45 minutes, and on Fridays everyone was early because Mr. Parker let you begin the second your butt hit the chair. There was never time to go back and check your solutions; you had to attack with precision and speed. 

Mr. Parker didn’t expect us to finish the tests, exactly. He graded on a curve. In our class full of honor-roll perennials, the curve could go from a low of 35 to a high of 196, although anyone who scored near 100 (in this example, around the 50% notch on the curve) would get an A, with Bs for scores in the higher 80s, etc. Seeing a 35 on a test was, as you might imagine, quite trying for a person used to being on the honor roll. Mr. Parker was gruff—or, more accurately, beamingly straightforward—but kind, encouraging, and confident that if we kept working, we’d improve. 

I got a B in the first six-week grading period, but by the time I approached Mr. Parker about soap on a rope I was performing pretty well in his class, considering. I’d actually finished a few of the Friday tests, and sometimes I was even the top point on the curve.  

 “Tell you what, Pace,” he said. “I’ll take a red soap if you sign up for the math contest.” 

By math contest he meant the State Math and Science Conference, upcoming soon at a local college. Four or five of us from Mr. Parker’s class attended. We took three of the top four spots in our region. Later in the afternoon I was crowned the Algebra II state champion. We agreed that these were the easiest math tests we’d faced all year. 

True to our bargain, Mr. Parker bought a soap-on-a-rope, bringing my sales total to six. I put him in my repertoire of “interesting teachers I’ve had” stories, and every once in a while I wondered what had happened to him. Recently I was paging through my sophomore yearbook, and there he was, pictured beneath this quote: “Students should work hard in the right direction, and they’ll succeed.” He was wearing a groovy plaid sport coat and a white dress shirt, looking off camera, perhaps towards that right direction. 

I made a to-be-googled list, several teachers and classmates. Most of the results were banal (so, so many realtors) or disturbing, Second Amendment fanatics wearing Confederate flags and excusing mass school shootings as the sad price of freedom, etc. Then, fortunately, I looked up Mr. Parker. 

I learned that he had died in 2005 at the age of 80. In addition to the obituary, which mostly detailed his family and the fact that he’d been a teacher, I also happened upon the Virginia State Senate’s Joint Resolution No. 114, “Celebrating the life of Ernest Parker, Sr.” Mr. Parker had left behind a large family—his wife, five kids, and plenty of grandkids, nieces, and nephews—as well as a legacy of tenacity and excellence. 

He was drafted into the Navy at age 19, served honorably in World War II, and then went to college. In 1951 he began teaching mathematics in the Virginia public schools, which were segregated at the time. That same year Barbara Johns, one of Mr. Parker’s students at Robert Russa Moton School, led a walkout over the school’s conditions, which were far from “separate but equal” compared to institutions attended by white children. In 1952 the litigation over this walkout produced a federal court decision, Davis et al. V. County School Board of Prince Edward County, Va., et al., which was consolidated into the five cases that the Supreme Court considered in its ruling regarding Brown v. Board of Education

In 1955 Mr. Parker moved to Richmond and began teaching math and coaching football at the still segregated Virginia Randolph High School. Permit a little rant here, because history can make me mad. Brown was decided in 1954, but Virginia, like many other states, was run by racists who did everything they could to avoid complying with Brown, including shutting down the public schools for several years and providing private school vouchers to white families. Desegregation began in earnest a decade later with the Civil Rights Act. Unfortunately, a cohort of especially indignant, insecure, racist Virginians then reacted to the notion that other people’s children had a right to a level playing field with a decades’ long effort that’s culminated in the Supreme Court, GOP, and Christian Nationalist movement of today. [End of rant ]

Mr. Parker’s students thrived under his tutelage and high expectations. If you can’t join ‘em, beat ‘em seems to have been their operating principle. The teens regularly took home top honors in district and state math contests. Mr. Parker offered a free weekly night class to assist students struggling with math. He also was involved in the ABC (A Better Chance) program, which recruited gifted students of color for top colleges. 

Despite the racists, school integration eventually occurred, and Mr. Parker became a teacher at Hermitage High School, an integrated school, which is where I met him. He retired from teaching in 1982. 

  Mr. Parker never made his tests shorter or easier. The point of them, beyond practicing beautiful math, was to help students develop speed, accuracy, and the ability to plunge in immediately with the tools we had to hand and see how much we could manage. He taught us a lot, even if it was years until we understood the lessons.  This essay’s a poor substitute for the note of thanks I should have sent him, long before 2005. 

Creatures of the air

Today’s word is lachryphagous. Definition coming in a few paragraphs! 

Once upon a time we took Sonny to the Museum of Science in downtown Boston. We visited the Butterfly Garden, which occupied a glass-walled conservatory with plantings on either side of the path. The sun was in full force that day and the garden was hot and humid. Butterflies of many colors fluttered. Sonny and Dave were hoping for one of the creatures to settle on a hand or shoulder. I was hoping that one wouldn’t get tangled in my hair. 

Butterflies are beautiful, but sharing such a small space with so many of them made me a bit uneasy. I remembered that classic episode of SpongeBob Squarepants, “Wormy,” in which a pet caterpillar turns into a butterfly and terrorizes Bikini Bottom, once the townsfolk get a closeup look at the butterfly’s face. 

I adore the little cabbage whites that show up with the spring, as well as more colorful relatives like the Monarchs and Swallowtails and Eastern Commas.  In the metaphorical sense I’m fascinated by the butterfly life cycle, wishing often that I, too, could turn myself into some fabulous creature of the air. I’m even fond of the hairy, nocturnal branch of the family, moths, except for the ones that throw themselves at our porch lights. Moths are better pollinators than butterflies, which is a point in their favor. 

Even with the most gorgeous and gaudy-winged butterfly I’ve tended to keep a cautious distance, wary of a bite or sting. 

Silly person, said the google experts. Yes, caterpillars have mouths—they are, as Eric Carle noted, very hungry—and some of them will bite when threatened. And caterpillars are often covered with spines or hair that can deliver a nasty sting or allergic reaction. However, by the time it emerges from its chrysalis, the butterfly has shed these defense mechanisms. 

A butterfly doesn’t sting, and its mouth can’t bite. The butterfly stage is not long (in most cases, just a few weeks). As long as it takes to mate and lay eggs. Many butterflies don’t eat at all, subsisting entirely on the nutrients stored by the voracious caterpillar. When a butterfly does feed it uses its proboscis, which is basically a built-in straw. The proper pronunciation of proboscis, by the way, is pro-BOS-siss, which sounds too hissy to my ear. Non-academics say  pro-BOS-kiss, and I like that sound better. 

Thus, behold the butterfly: beautiful, ephemeral, and mostly harmless. If one decided to spend a little time in my vicinity, I should have no worries. No worries at all…

Then I looked further down the “do-butterflies-bite-or-sting” search page and saw the entries about vampire butterflies. Some of these are purely aesthetic. The Blood Red Vampire Butterfly—aka the Atrophaneura semperi albofasciata—has black wings with crimson streaks, along with black and red stripes on its body. 

Other moths and butterflies have earned the moniker of vampire for less pleasant reasons. The Ricania simulans sucks the water (as well as nectar) out of plants. Some milkweed butterflies in Indonesia snack on both nectar and nearby caterpillars. And many butterflies engage in puddling, where they converge on rotting plants, mud, and carrion to feed.

Then there’s our word of the day. Lachryphagous, meaning tear-drinking. Tears contain water, salt, and protein, as well as other nutrients. Some butterflies and moths love the tears of larger animals. Birds, turtles, crocodiles (naturally), and more. Including people. Finally, there’s the Siberian Calyptra thalictri, a moth that drinks mammal blood. This moth’s proboscis is barbed, allowing it to pierce through the skin. Given the opportunity, one Calyptra thalictri dude (the females feed on fruit and nectar; the blood-quaffers are male) was happy to suck on a human researcher’s hand. 

For one reason or another, the Museum of Science isn’t housing butterflies in the garden at the moment. Now called the “Garden Walk and Insect Zoo,” visitors can study leafcutter ants and pollinator plants, stick insects and beetles, tarantulas, scorpions, and carnivorous plants. I believe the curators are planning to add butterflies back at some point, upping the scare factor. Maybe I’ll visit again. In the meantime I’ll get a little thrill every time a cabbage white flutters across my yard. Beautiful, ephemeral, and a tad dangerous. 

The meltdown

Since I can remember one of my favorite activities has been walking in circles, especially while reading a book. I do this nearly every day. It’s a form of stimming (self-soothing repetitive actions) that, depending on the circumstances, can entertain me, calm me down, or help me think. Do you stim? Most assuredly: everybody does. People on the autistic spectrum may stim in different or more noticeable ways than others; this sometimes gets us into trouble. That’s why I perform this particular stim in the privacy of my bedroom. I start at the headboard, pass the bookcase, dresser #1, the fireplace, the writing chair, and dresser #2, on the way to my closet door, then loop back. Doubtless I look ridiculous to other humans as I walk these laps (about 37 steps each).  

Capone the cat, however, loves to be in the room while I read-walk. He stretches himself out luxuriously somewhere along the track, seemingly indifferent to my travels. It’s amazing how much real estate an orange tabby can take up when he stretches his limbs and tail to their fullest. That he’s lying in a spot where Mom’s stockinged feet will be in claw’s reach about once every 30 seconds is, surely, coincidental. 

At some point—always once I’ve passed him, so that my back is to his paw—Capone will strike. He has a stuffed carrot toy that he loves beyond reason, but I’m his second favorite plaything. The claw will catch my sock, or my skirt or jeans, whatever clothing hangs a couple of inches over the floor. I know it’s coming, but Capone seems to sense when I’ve become absorbed in the story and time his attacks accordingly. Sometimes I’ll stumble. Sometimes I’ll stutter step and keep going. Sometimes I’ll play along. “You want a piece of me?” I’ll say, and wiggle my toes next to his paws. Capone will stare up at me with his golden eyes: ’Sup? 

The other day the game went astray. I’d gone deep into the selection for this month’s book club, We Keep the Dead Close, a true crime book about a murder of a Harvard University Ph.D. student in 1969 and was oblivious. Capone’s claw took both of us by surprise, as he managed to get it thoroughly stuck. He’d snagged both my pants leg and my sock.  I stood still while he worked at it, knowing that attempts to help would probably make it worse. The claw didn’t want to come free. By the time he’d freed himself Capone was so mad that he began biting at my ankle.  

I moved to the bedroom door, opening it wide and saying “Bye now,” hoping to walk in peace. Capone didn’t want to leave. It looked to me as if he was having the cat version of a meltdown. I’d seen and experienced plenty of the human kind.  Stimming and other calming mechanisms help, but sometimes the stressors overwhelm and the storm takes over. Responses to the storm vary. I curl into a ball, every limb tucked tight. Sonny flaps and stomps. Capone the cat pads along my walking track, his tail lashing, looking for a fight.

He stopped near where I was standing—the center of the room—and looked up at my hand. I wished for the billionth time that I’d invested in some of those buttons that Billi the cat uses so well (Billispeaks, YouTube), so Capone could express Mad or Hurt or Sorry or Cuddle. 

A couple of weeks ago I had a Very Bad Day. One during which I curled myself into a ball for a bit. Capone had hopped up on the bed, purred at me, and butted his head into my elbow, then settled by my left hip for the next twenty minutes. This had helped me immensely. 

I reminded myself that I had plenty of bandaids in the medicine cabinet and inched my hand towards my cat’s head. He didn’t snap or claw. I scratched between his ears, did the kind of pets that he likes, along his spine through the tail tip. I scratched behind his whiskers, and he leaned his head into my fingers. The storm passes through cats more quickly, it seems. 

He left the room, tail held high. I closed the door. Breathed in, breathed out. Walked, read.