Boogie-woogie-hygge

Hygge has made it to my town library!  Hygge’s a Danish word, pronounced Hoogie, it’s branded as a Scandinavian approach to happiness.   I’d seen references to this trend on TV and in magazines and found it intriguing.  When How to Hygge appeared on the New Books shelf, I eagerly checked it out.

The elements of hygge as presented in the book: get exercise, preferably outside.  Value and treasure hanging out in the house with family and friends.   Take pleasure in eating and drinking, especially homemade pastries, preserved fish dishes, and glog.  Lots and lots of glog.  Wear thick socks and cuddle up in soft blankets, watching the fire.   Have a home that features simple wood furniture, with minimal clutter, but with plenty of books and candles and cut flowers (but only of the same color, evidently two or three colors is not Nordic).  Take pleasure in mastering skills like wood chopping and room painting.

Part 1 – Exercise, preferably outside 

“I just bought these boots this morning,” said Dave, as we hippety-hopped—or, more often splashed–our way along the muddy trail.  Both Dave and Sonny (Sonny was home for Easter weekend) had been up for a family hike around the Ponkapoag Pond.    The pond is surrounded by woods.  The trees were still bare, the spring buds just starting to appear.  The ground was mostly dirt and rocks and fallen tree trunks, some of them obviously recent uproots after a viciously windy set of storms.  April showers had made navigating the trail more of a challenge.  Dave was the only one of us who had appropriate shoes, and he wasn’t yet ready for them to get too muddy.  Meanwhile, Sonny and I wore sneakers, not waterproof.  After about 20 minutes, my socks were soaked through.

We backtracked and tried a different trail, where another few minutes’ hike found us water-logged again.  Where the water hit the trail, though, we got to enjoy a patch of vivid green vegetation, a hopeful vision.

“Who wants to go back to the car?” asked Sonny.

Part 2 – Treasure time spent with family and friends 

“So who wants to hang out tonight?” I asked.

“Hang out and do what, Mom?”

“Make a fire.  Sit on the couch and talk.”

“But it’s 60 degrees outside.  And didn’t we talk at dinner last night?”

“There’s hockey and baseball on,” said Dave.

I would have to finish the hygge experiment on my own.

Part 3 – Eat, drink, and make your house hygge

I decided to conduct this part of the trial in my studio, where I already had cut flowers–some pink, some purple–in a vase.   They were pretty, except for some raggedy bits where Capone the cat had nibbled at them.   While my studio vibe isn’t minimalist or Danish, I do have wood furniture and lots of books.  I put some candles on my desk and started moving them around, trying for a calming arrangement.   Now for the food and drink…The only pastries in the house were individually wrapped Entenmann’s cheese danishes, so I put one on a plate.  No glog in the house, either…I had a sore throat and headache starting, so I made a nice hot cup of Nighttime TheraFlu.  I lit the candles, took my snacks and a book, wrapped myself in a blanket, settled into my comfy chair, and waited for the hygge to hit.

I’m a quarter Norwegian, after all.  I figured that within half an hour I’d develop a contented, maybe slightly smug, happy feeling.  Forty-five minutes, max.

An hour and a half later: book finished, feeling fairly relaxed, but a bit disappointed.  I blew out the candles.  Wax had dripped onto my desk.

Part 4 – Take pleasure in mastering simple skills 

I spent 10 minutes getting the candle wax off my desk.   I can’t say I enjoyed it.

Part 5 – Aftermath

So I’ve failed hygge.  A quarter Norwegian turns out not to be quite Scandinavian enough.  Yes, hygge was pleasant, comforting, but it also felt like sinking in one of those beanbag chairs that kind of clutch at you and force you to contortionist measures in order to get up.

The closest I’ll ever get to hygge, I think, is the time I spend, most afternoons, drinking  a mug of coffee in my comfy chair.   The chair’s by the window, so I can look out at the garden and the street, with all its cars and trucks, and I can look at my office clutter and remind myself of what I’m trying to get done today, and I can enjoy the pictures on the wall, and I can check out Capone snoozing (dreaming of world domination) on the piano bench.  I get a teeny bit of relaxation, but by the time the coffee’s gone, I’m ready to bounce out of the comfy chair and head for the world outside The Nest.  Turns out that I need mess and energy alongside the calm.

Book ‘Em – A Rant

Currently high on my minor crimes against humanity list: anything that drives people out of brick-and-mortar bookstores.  I love bookstores.  Our family spends a lot of time in them.  Nowadays we do this less than previously, not because we have better things to do, but because bookstores are disappearing.   I miss Waterstone’s (long out of business in Boston) and Borders (about five years out of business here) and the many independent and secondhand booksellers who’ve gone out of business.

Sure, I can find just about anything online, but that kind of search takes away everything I love about books except for the reading of them.  Reading is paramount, but I adore walking into a bookstore.  Figuring out how things are organized, browsing.  The floors creaking under my feet as I wander into the cocoon of tall shelves filled with volumes, inviting me into thousands of worlds.  A cat sunning itself in the window.   Children’s books that spark memories of being six years old.  Comfy chairs.   The quiet sense of community that arises from knowing the other customers are my kind of people: book-lovers.

Last week I checked out the Amazon bookstore near me.  It’s organized kind of like the Amazon site, which comes across as charming rather than annoying.   Bare wood floors, which I liked, and a setup that encourages you to wind your way around the store.  Plenty of places to sit, but no comfy chairs.  An employee who greets you at the front of the store and then leaves you alone.

If only my local Barnes and Noble would follow that policy.  Over the past several months, every time I go to Barnes and Noble–which is what I do when I’m in the mood to procrastinate, rather than practice–at least one employee approaches me while I’m walking around the store, asking me if I want help.  No, I don’t want help.  There’s a clearly marked Customer Service desk in the middle of the store.  I’m wandering with my eyes wide because I that’s how I roll in a bookstore.  Plus now I have to wander because my B&N got rid of all of their comfy chairs.  The only seating is in the cafe.  Yesterday I visited B&N, and three–three!!–employees asked me if I needed help.  The third time, I had made brief and accidental eye contact with the employee.  I physically turned away, hunched my shoulders, and picked up a book–I was still asked if I needed help finding anything.  I put the books back and left the store without buying anything.  Now some of this might be spectrum-y of me; I find it stressful to have strangers come up and talk to me.  However, I’ve visited B&N literally hundreds of times in the past, and this level of enforced interaction is new.

I assume that the accost-the-customer strategy has been mandated by B&N management. It’s the kind of thing managers do.  Most bookstore employees are book people; they know that a lot of customers want to browse and commune, that the fun is in looking.   I’m not going to abandon B&N entirely, but it’s going to be a few months before I go back.  I’m hoping that by that time management will have gone back to nagging customers about loyalty cards at the cash register rather than chivvying them through the store.

Interrupting Cat

One way I’ve been getting out of the Nest more this year has been teaching remote piano lessons, where I travel to a student’s house rather than having the student come to me.    Thursday I went to S.’s house.  Usually I see S. on Tuesdays, but a foot of snow fell this past Tuesday and we were all busy shoveling.  S. and Mimi met me at the stairs to her living room, which as usual was cheerfully cluttered with kid toys, cat toys, and sippy cups.  S. is five years old.  I’d guess Mimi, a small brown tabby, is about a year old.  Three cats live here, but Mimi is S.’s cat.   S. is always dressed to impress, and today she wore a headband with a big green sparkly bow in honor of St. Patrick’s Day.  (Last week: Princess Elsa from Frozen.)

S. introduced me to Mimi, as she does every week.  I left my pencil at her house one time and my stickers another, so S. thinks I need help remembering things.  (She could be right.)  Then she put Mimi on the piano bench next to her.  The cat jumped off the bench immediately.  Mimi is not into piano.  Beethoven bores her.  She prowled about the room for a bit before settling into her favorite lesson spot, which is sitting in a bay window, staring at the outside world, thinking whatever cats think.

A half hour later I had collected my things–S. with a keen eye out for any stray pencils or  stickers–S. urged me to hold Mimi.  I scooped the animal up to my chest, and she curled quickly and neatly into my elbow.  Tiny thing, but she purred like a tiger, a deep thrum that vibrated through to my back ribs.

Home a few hours later, Sonny (back from college for spring break week) and I were relaxing, watching TV in the family room.  It’s cluttered a bit at the moment, but with grownup stuff.  Books, notebooks, a wineglass.  No toys.  Sonny sprawled on the couch with his laptop, paying half attention to two screens.  I was curled up nearby in a swivel chair, wrapped in a throw.   Capone came flirting up, his tail high and quivering, mowrling at me.  He stepped tentatively onto my lap, trying to find a way to fit himself into the confusion of knees and ankles underneath.   Ordinarily I would have been ecstatic.  Capone never sits on my lap in the swivel chair.  If Sonny or Dave is on the chair, Capone is purring contentedly on their laps, but not if it’s me on the chair.   Capone likes to play with me, to race me up the stairs (he spots me 10 of the 12 steps and still beats me to the top), to pounce at my ankles, to bat paper balls with me, but unless it’s nap time and I’m in the recliner–different chair, different room–he keeps a discreet distance.  But I had things to do and couldn’t stay.  Interrupting cat, like the interrupting cow in the knock-knock joke.  (Heard it?  Knock-knock.  Who’s there? Interrupting cow.  Interrup–MOO.)  “Don’t get comfortable,” I told him.  He lay twisted like a Mobius strip, purring.  A soft sound that was more the suggestion of a purr, but that’s his way.

I put him on the coffee table and rushed through my chores.  Five minutes, tops.  Locked the doors, brushed my teeth, turned off the hall light, grabbed my book.  When I got back downstairs, Capone was still crouched on the table.  He’d waited for me!  So I arranged the throw on my legs and chirruped invitingly.  He flicked an ear in my direction, but otherwise moved not.

“Come on, you silly cat,” I said.  I picked him up, grunted–he’s 14 pounds, it takes some effort–and put him on my lap.  Capone would have none of it.  I stroked his fur.  Sometimes that works and he settles down, willing to be comfortable and adored.  He didn’t struggle or scratch.  Like Mimi, he waited until he’d been set and the hands were off, and then he jumped away.  Back onto the table, in fact.  The coffee table made of chilly, hard, slate and wood.  Capone settled with his rear towards me, about a foot away.  Maybe staring at Sonny (Sonny is Capone’s favorite), who was laughing at the outcome of my efforts.  Maybe getting ready for a nap.

Sonny laughed some more.  He patted the couch next to him.  Capone didn’t even bother to cock an ear, he just stayed on the table.  “Our cat is a jerk!” Sonny said.

“You got that right,” I said.

All screens forgotten for a bit, one of those little moments that stick in your head.  Timing is everything, I guess, in comedy.  And affection.

 

Love Song

Dave came home a couple of weeks ago and told me he was joining an acapella (singing without instruments) group.   From now on, Thursday nights, he’ll be in a barbershop chorus, on the baritone part.  I sing in a different acapella group, though not barbershop.  Barbershop is its own genre, evidently–I’m fairly new to singing and still learning the lingo.

I’m very much looking forward to attending Dave’s concerts, especially because he hasn’t been doing anything, music-wise, for a couple of years.  He had a bad bike accident that banged up his hands.  He recovered, but his fingers aren’t as agile, and he decided to put down his clarinet for a while.  Time passed.  The clarinet stayed in its case.

With Sonny away at school, I’ve been the only person practicing in the Nest.  Frankly, I’d rather have other people besides me messing up their arpeggios and playing the same tricky measures over and over and over.   Plus there’s our history.  Dave and I met playing the clarinet, sitting next to each other in a community band that gave weekly concerts throughout the summer.  We played the marches, medleys, and light classics on town commons all over Massachusetts.  Sweating through sunscreen, dodging gnats and mosquitos.   Managing tricky page turns and wind gusts that tried to blow over our stands.  Laughing when things went uncontrollably pear-shaped.  Finding our place in the music when we miscounted a rest or missed a repeat.  Finding our place on the atlas when we got lost getting to the venue… By the end of that season, we’d learned to trust each other, and we always had something to talk about.

Sonny’s arrival turned us into a trio while simultaneously sending us all off on solo projects.  We went to one others’ concerts as well as playing them together.   Almost every day, scales, tricky bits, and favorite parts would sound through the Nest.  Once a week we would have family ensemble, a years’-long conversation that began with the simplest of ideas and eventually grew complex and humorous and angry and interesting and better in tune.  Dave on clarinet.  Me on clarinet or flute or piano.  Sonny on bassoon.   All of us on the spectrum, and sometimes we communicated better through our instruments than our words, I think.  But Sonny and his bassoon have left for college, and Dave doesn’t play clarinet anymore.

Dave’s upstairs in his office, working on a song called “Not While I’m Around.”   I’m thrilled to be around, hearing him figure out the notes.  I’m making dinner, feeling virtuous because I got my practicing in earlier.   Sonny’s home for the week–it’s spring break–playing Beethoven in the living room.   When I picked him up at the dorm, he told me about a girl he knows.  A singer.   He sits next to her in piano class.   They have lots of interesting conversations.

Music is the safest, loveliest space.

QWERTYUI-OOPs

Dave was watching some documentary about a sports scandal with old-timey footage, including a shot of the back of a typewriter with a piece of paper resting on one of those rabbit-ear paper supports that some manual typewriters used to have.   I was transported back to high school typing class, where the teacher would put on Sousa marches, turned up loud, and have us type our exercises in tempo, 120 BPM.  Aaa, sss, ddd.  Asd, asd, asd.  Jkl; jkl; ;;;.   Thirty IBM Selectrics in a raggedy rhythm.  It was noisy in there.

Dave and I quickly went into kids-these-days mode.  We’ve seen enough of Sonny and his friends hunting and pecking at their laptops to harrumph that kids these days have terrible typing technique.  “Typing was one of the most useful classes I ever took,” Dave always says.  Me, too.

To be fair, typing on a computer doesn’t really require the kind of skills our generation needed, any more than my Hyundai requires me to be able to crank the motor like a Model T or, for that matter, work a stick shift.   But I kind of miss what I learned while churning out papers on old school typewriters like the Royal manual (already a bit of a dinosaur in the 1980s) that I took to college.

You had to feed the paper onto the platen so that it would be straight; often that took me two or three times.  Mark the top and bottom margins on the side of the paper or use a line guide (six vertical lines = an inch) so that you knew where to start and stop the page.  Set left and right margins and tabs.  Listen for the typewriter bell and decide, every line, whether to finish the word you were typing or hyphenate it.   (Do kids even learn hyphenation these days?)  Sandwich the carbon paper between your clean copy and the carbon without getting smudges everywhere.   And correct your mistakes–or avoid making them by being super accurate.

Sometimes I just backspaced and typed the new letter over the wrong one.  My Royal was so low tech that if you whacked the key harder, you’d get more/darker ink on the paper.  But my college professors wanted the errors to be fixed in a more readable and time-consuming way.  Erased with a pencil-like implement that rubbed the ink off the paper (and often tore a little hole in the paper, too), or painted over with Wite-Out that had to dry before you typed the correction, or typed over with a tape that pasted the same letter over in white powder, leaving a kind of ghostly mistake underneath.  Fortunately my high school typing teacher was a tough taskmaster and made sure that I could type accurately and relatively quickly.

And then there was the typewriter maintenance.  Changing the typewriter ribbon, unjamming the keys when they would bunch up and get stuck in a wad, halfway between the key-bed and the platen, cleaning the ribbon ink that gunked up those keys…

Lots of people around our age, around the 30s-50s, are proud of their typing skills and happy for a typing class at some point.  Knowing how to type made it easier for us to adapt to the computers that started transforming workplaces from the 1970s and on.  For the generation senior to us, the people now in their 60s and up, typing was more problematic.   Managers and executives didn’t type, generally; they dictated or scribbled by hand.  Typing was for support staff.  (They adapted more slowly) The generation junior to us, our kids, has grown up with typing divorced from the physicality of the typewriter.  Computer keyboards where you don’t have to know how to break a line or track a margin, where your spelling mistakes can be easily or automatically corrected.

All of that knowledge and practice Dave and I had is as out of date as knowing how to fill a a fountain pen, or sharpen a quill pen and handle blotting paper.  Amazing, given the effort and time putting down our words has taken, that people have done so much of it through the ages…

Paint the Town Burnt Siena

I’ve always wondered if I’d like to paint, even though I can’t draw worth a darn.  When I was a kid I went through a paint-by-numbers phase, daubing my way across a marked canvas.  My paintings looked fine until I smeared my thumb (or more often, my forearm) across the bottom of the canvas, or until I misread the numbers on the diagram and wound up painting the sea orange or ran out of tub #13 while there were still many spaces on the canvas designated that color.  Then a couple of years ago, I started seeing ads for places where the customers painted and snacked.  It sounded corny, but enticing–and, best of all for someone who is as self-critical as I can be–low risk.

I was able to convince Dave that this was worth exploring, so I made reservations for two at The Paint Bar for Friday night.  According to the website, we would be able to drink, snack, and paint.

“I wonder if it’ll be like Bob Ross?” I said.  Bob Ross had a how-to-paint show on PBS in the 80s where he painted various scenes, incredibly fast.

“Oh, the happy little trees guy,” said Dave.  “I liked Capt. Bob: Drawing from Nature.”

“Never heard of him.”

“His show was on Sunday mornings, Channel 5.   He did pencil drawings of things like cats and horses.”

“You drew along?  I usually just ate a sandwich or did the dishes.”

“Most of the time.”  Dave likes to draw and is pretty good at it.  Sonny gets all of his art skills from Dave, that’s for sure.   “I remember Capt. Bob had a sea chanty for his theme song…”  Dave started humming something vaguely nautical.

“And here we are,” I said.

The Paint Bar was a storefront, brightly lit, with stools flanking long tables covered with butcher’s paper.  Instead of a placemat and silverware, each place setting had an easel with a blank canvas, a paper plate, a red Solo cup half-filled with water, and a rubberbanded bunch of paintbrushes.  There was a bar where you could get beverages, chips, and candy at the front, and a small stage at the back.   We were first to arrive, so we were put in the seats closest to the stage.  We hung up our coats and put on sturdy paint-spattered aprons.  I regretted my princess sleeves.  The stage had a standing easel, a big paper pad, and an example  of the picture we were to paint, “Tuscan Hills.”  A landscape with hills, fields, trees, a couple of little houses, and many flowers.   We visited the bar, acquiring glasses of Malbec and Chardonnay, and sipped a bit, waiting for things to get started.   Soon every seat was filled.

The first part of the process was loading our palettes (the paper plates) with acrylic paint.  “Acrylic is great!” chirped our instructor.  “It dries fast, and it’s nontoxic, so if you accidentally drink your water–though please don’t, that’s for the paintbrushes–you won’t die!  But it will stain your clothes, so if you have long sleeves” (did her eyes flick towards me, with my princess sleeves?)  “try to roll them up.”   (princess sleeves don’t roll up, unfortunately, unless you take them all the way to the shoulder, so I just resolved to be as careful as I could)

At the very back of the room was a paint buffet with plastic pump bottles of various colors.  A sheet directed us to put nine colors on our palettes with specific amounts (nine pumps of white, three of dark green, two of bright red, one of black, etc.).  Not an encouraging start for me, as I couldn’t figure out how to get all of the colors onto my plate/palette without them running into each other.  I wasn’t one of those kids who couldn’t stand to have peas touch the pork chops, but I did eat my meat and veg separately rather than mixing them all together, and I felt disturbed when I looked down at my palette and saw the  yellow brown and the brown brown and the dark blue all touching each other.   Our instructor told us not to worry about this, that the paints were all about to get up in each others’ business, basically.

Then she put the music on–singing along and even dancing in the aisles is encouraged, though we mostly sang–and led us through the process of painting Tuscan Hills.   We made reference dots, outlined our hills, picked up two or three colors with our brushes, did big sweeps and crosshatches and gallery-wrapped the edges…all kinds of stuff.  She taught us to make trees.  You make a line and then smudge around it and then put on other colors, and if you’re somebody who is not me, this turns out to look like a tree.  Dave turned out to be very good at trees, which was fortunate, since the painting featured many trees.  My trees…I think even Bob Ross would have been hard put to call them happy, but I did rock at crosshatching.  At least comparatively to tree-painting.

A couple of cups of Malbec and many tunes later, I had a painting (admittedly, just a copy of a pretty basic painting) and a feeling about painting in general, which was: this was fun, but it’s probably not going to be a hobby thing for me.  But I had a ton of fun figuring that out.

The paintings weren’t dry as we carried them to the car, which was parked across the street.  We waited for the light to change, holding our canvases with the painted side facing out.  The traffic raced by, viewing our work at 40 MPH.  I was reminded of Sonny bringing home pictures he’d drawn in school, always held out proudly, unselfconsciously, to show me what he’d made.   I felt a bit weirder, exhibitionist, but the Malbec helped me not to care too much.  Once we got home, we put our artwork on music stands to finish drying.  Capone the cat sniffed at them and tried to claw at mine, but only a little.   Then he turned his attention to chasing my princess sleeves–which, I’m happy to report, survived two hours of painting without a drip or smudge.

 

The List

How we ended up trying The Brook Kitchen was the Friday night traffic on Route 28, which was especially horrible.   Backups at every traffic light; it had taken us almost 20 minutes to drive a mile and a half.  Dave’s blood sugar was crashing.

“I don’t think I can make it all the way to 18,” he said.  We were almost at the commuter rail station, about seven miles from Route 18, our dinner destination for the evening.   The crossing lights flashed red as the train arrived, another delay.

“Want to try Lynnwood, then?”  The pizza place was a right turn and a couple of hundred yards away.

Dave right-turned-on-red with alacrity.  I felt happy to have had the idea.  Plan B, not always the worst plan.

Friday night dinner out is still the ritual, even with Sonny off at college.  It’s a hard habit to break.  Rituals are always lurking for us.  I’m not sure if it’s a spectrum thing or not, but for our family it seems to be:  once, twice, always.  We do at least change up the Friday night restaurants.  That’s not always easy, constrained as we we are by our shy palates.  When Sonny’s around, burgers or pizzas or chicken tenders are menu mandatories.   Dave’s easier; he just wants the restaurant to have meat of some kind.  Me?  I can usually find something, but I joke (not really a joke) that every restaurant should be required to offer a grilled cheese sandwich.  Throughout my childhood and until I was about 25, I would always order grilled cheese if given the option.   It’s hard to mess up a grilled cheese.

Lynnwood is one of those restaurants that probably used to be somebody’s house.   They have pizza and drinks, that’s it.   Cheap wine and domestic non-craft beer go surprisingly well with the crispy, small pizzas, served piping hot on a metal pan, with paper plates, paper napkins, no silverware.  Red-and-white-checked oilcloth covering the tables.  Takes a while to get your pizza because it’s so busy, but totally worth the wait.

Evidently everybody else in town had the same thought.  The pizza place’s two parking lots were full.

“Back to plan A,” I said.  “Unless you want to try Lucky Lou Lou’s…”

“Ha ha,” said Dave.  “We’ll wave at it as we pass by.”   So we headed again for Route 18–this time going a back way that would be longer, but with less annoying traffic.

Lucky Lou Lou’s was about on about Plan F or G of a restaurant that we have patronized sporadically for years.  Some of the plans involved name changes.  First it was Deann’s.   Sonny loved Deann’s because there was a movie-style popcorn machine by the front entrance.  The hostess would scoop popcorn with a wooden bowl and set it on your table.  As we scanned the menu, we’d race to the bottom of the popcorn bowl.  Deann’s made a pretty good grilled cheese sandwich as well as Sonny’s favorite, the bacon cheeseburger.  One wall had photographs of the staff with a legend on each that showed how long each employee had been working at the restaurant.   Then Deann’s became the Halfway Cafe.  Plan B, just a few tweaks.  Same popcorn, same decor–heavy wooden booths painted a dark brown, a bar in the back, a game room with a couple of arcade machines off to the side.  At some point the employee photographs disappeared.  Similar menu, generic American of burgers, meatloaf, chicken, fish and chips, mac and cheese, etc.

Then one day a couple of years ago Halfway Cafe moved to Plan C.  The hostess scooped the popcorn into the bowl, walked us to a booth, and cleared her throat.  “We have a new menu,” she said.   “Please ask the waiter if you have any questions.”   The new menu featured enthusiastic descriptions of the dishes.  (Usually a mistake, in my opinion–it’s always a pity when the dish doesn’t taste as good as the description.)   Gnocchi, gazpacho, pumpkin ravioli, scallops.  Grilled cheese sandwiches were gone.  A bad sign.   The next time we returned: a new menu again.   Then a year ago, yet another new menu, but without fanfare, no explanations proffered.  And a little sign on the wall once adorned with employees’ photos, saying “Coming soon: Lucky Lou Lou’s.”

We went to Lucky Lou Lou’s once.  No popcorn machine.  No grilled cheese.   Blaring music, a vaguely southern menu featuring things like fried pickles and waffles, and sad, slow waiters.   As we left, the three of us agreed: Lucky Lou Lou’s was off the list.  Even creatures of habit such as we have to draw the line somewhere.  Sonny was the most reluctant.  He doesn’t like to give up on things, even when they aren’t working anymore, even when they’ve become pathetic and frustrating.

Dave and I got ready to wave and pass by, but we saw a different name, a different sign.  The Brook Kitchen.  “Wow!” I said.  “Lucky Lou Lou’s is no more.”

Route 18 was still many miles away.  Dave’s stomach was growling audibly.  “What do you think?” he said.

“Why not?” I said, and we turned the car.   Plan C.

There was plenty of space in the lot, not the best sign, but my worries vanished as we entered.  There was a lovely large bar under a high ceiling so the room feels spacious and grand, the old booths refinished and moved farther apart so they don’t loom, TVs for the sports types but not loud or intrusive, and best of all: a grilled cheese sandwich on the menu.  It was a short menu, not particularly poetic.   I had a burger and sweet potato fries, which were excellent.   The popcorn machine seemed permanently retired, but I didn’t miss it.  I can’t wait to tell Sonny that The Brook has made its way back onto the list.  I just hope that they stick with this plan.  How to figure out when your makeover’s done and it’s time to just be?  That’s a hard one.

Girls Night Off…

One of the things I planned to do once Sonny had flown The Nest was ramp up my social life.   Spend more time doing stuff with friends.   When Sonny was born we moved from an apartment in the city to a house in the suburbs, and a long, although slow, decline in our social lives began.  My old friends had been a walk or a couple of stops on the T away; now I had to drive at least a half hour to see them.  Then Sonny was diagnosed as on the autism spectrum.  Suddenly my life was overflowing with therapists and appointments.

Sonny’s birth coincided almost exactly with Sex in the City and the chick lit craze.  Stories about women and their friendships were everywhere.  Drive into the city to meet my friends? Too often I would make plan and someone in the house would immediately start running a fever, or a pipe would burst, etc.  Make plan, insert catastrophe.   I’d back out and not reschedule.  I rationalized that in any case, I didn’t have the time or the budget anymore for nights out.  But I had cable and a library card.  I settled for envying the SITC girls and their sisters on the page.

“Sometimes I miss your chick lit phase,” Dave says.  “It made for easy birthday presents.  All I had to do was look for a trade paperback with a pastel cover and a graphic of a shoe.”

“I miss your ducks,” I say, although that’s not quite the case.  We’ve been giving each other presents for 23 years and have both run through the easy ones.   I had a couple of bookshelves’ worth of pastel paperbacks, and Dave had about the same number of wooden ducks.   Ducks all over the damn place for a while, there.

Anyway, in my chick lit days, I spent an awful lot of time doing pink-tinged Walter Mitty-style fantasizing.  As I scrubbed the bathtub, I wished for the candle-flanked, petal-filled baths of the heroines–assuredly scrubbed by their cleaners while the women worked at their fabulous publishing (or advertising or journalism) jobs.   As I said goodbye to my parking-lot friends on the last day of soccer season, knowing that was the last time we’d see each other, I wanted the chick lit girl’s three close, perennially available friends/frenemies (always, always the friends were grouped in fours).  While the mac and cheese  bubbled on the stove and Sonny scratched on with his homework,  I pictured myself at brunch, sipping Bloody Marys and nibbling at egg-white omelets.  On my plastic chair in the cafetorium, waiting for the first-grade chorus to line up, I imagined myself instead in a plush seat in a dark theater, the curtain about to rise.

This did not make my life any more tolerable or fun.  One day at the library, as per usual I was scanning a book jacket that mentioned shopping, handbags, and friendship.  Instead of putting it on the pile and heading to the checkout desk, I found myself setting it back on the shelf and walking away.   That was it for me and chick lit.

For years afterward I felt ashamed of my fantasies and envy, and I wondered if I’d been so caught up in these characters’ imaginary friendships that I’d forgotten how to make close real-life friends of my own.  (Though lots of my online friends seem to feel they had a hard time with real-life friendships after motherhood, I was surprised and relieved to discover.)   I speculated, too, whether discovering that I was on the spectrum myself had undermined my confidence about making friends.  At the back of my mind, I still was curious about chick-lit-style social circles.   So I was ecstatic when the women in my singing group decided to start having girls’ nights.  Sure, it’s the wrong number of women (five!), the clothes are not fabulously designer, we can only manage to meet every six or severn weeks, and we’re typically out of the restaurant by nine-thirty p.m. at the latest.  But it’s close enough for jazz, as they say.

Tonight, snow has taken over the role of the sick child/busted pipe.   We’re having a blizzard on girls’ night.  We’re smarter these days and already scheduled a backup date a couple of weeks from now.  The chick-lit heroines don’t let plot complications sunder their friendships–maybe they taught me something after all.

The Joyful Opposition

Dave and I went out for coffee this morning at Montilio’s, a bakery/pizza place.  Ten o’clock: too early for pizza, but just the right time for something sweet to go with a coffee.   The display cases featured an impressive array of treats.  Croissants, muffins, cookies, cakes, tarts, cupcakes, and–as today is the Super Bowl!–many football-themed cakes and cookies.   The servers, used to customers dealing with sensory overload, waited patiently for our decision.

Dave ordered a Bismarck, while I got an eclair–part of my ongoing intensive preparation for our trip to Paris.  (My hope that French pastry sticking to my ribs will help French verbs stick in my brain.  Who’s to say I’m wrong about that?)  The eclairs were next to the Bismarcks in the display case, and the two pastries looked a bit like one another, both being comprised of two pieces of dough with a filling between them.  The eclair was shorter, with a thin strip of chocolate icing on top, while the Bismarck had a fine topping of filling piped in waves, like a child’s drawing of a lake.

We grabbed a table for two at the back of the shop.  It was one of those moments when I was aware of Sonny’s absence.  Not missing him, exactly, just that feeling of difference when I choose the smaller table.  When Sonny’s with us we sit at a table for four and pile  our coats on the fourth chair.  Sonny would have less difficulty with ordering.  He knows he wants milk and a cookie, preferably chocolate chip.

Dave and I contemplated our pastries, which looked a lot bigger on the plates than they had in the case.  I cut my eclair in half.   A couple nearby was discussing flavors and frostings with a wedding consultant, and a mom with teenage daughters in tow was refereeing an argument of some kind.

“So, did you see the news about the appellate court decision?”  And we were off into our new, seemingly inescapable, ritual, complaining about the new administration in Washington and the horrible things happening in the world.   Every conversation with other adults over the past several months has drifted at some point into Trump territory.  Politics is the new weather, and it’s as exhausting, disheartening, and inescapable as a heat wave or an ice storm, or that winter a couple of years back where nine feet of snow fell in little more than a month.

Sonny was in high school then, and his response moved from childhood (yay! school’s been cancelled) to adolescent (I’m bored and want to see my friends) to adult (ugh, now I have to shovel more snow).   “I wish there wasn’t snow today,” he would say, in the same way as he used to say, “I wish there wasn’t math homework.”    It generated the same response from me: “Well, there is.  Now take out your long division sheet/pick up the snow shovel and get to work.”  Sonny would angrily flip open his homework folder on the dining room table, and I would sit beside him, doing some of my own work, taking Sonny through the steps when he needed help.  (At least those steps that I remembered.  Finding out I’d forgotten how to do long division was humiliating, but we figured it out together.)   Capone, always looking to be in the middle of a rumble,  lay on the table batting at the pencils as we wrote, butting his head between Sonny and his book, swishing his tail to knock erasers and loose papers to the floor.   And when we shoveled, he yowled at us from the sun porch windows.

That terrible winter I awoke one day to another foot of snow on the driveway.  Sonny and I went out to shovel.  The sheet of snow, not a footprint on it, sparkled in the morning sun, and on gazing at it I experienced a moment of hatred that left me hunched over the shovel, feeling as if I was going to be sick.  Then we started shoveling.  We pushed that snow around and made little hills where we wanted it to be, and there was a sort of exhilaration as the driveway took back its shape.  Joy in the battle, maybe.

The pastries decreased in size as Dave and I found better things to talk about: sports, friends, schedules for the upcoming week, sports, movies, sports.  The chocolate and custard and pate a choux melted in my mouth, a sweet counterpoint to the bitterness of the coffee.  Conversations all around, the scent of bread baking, people walking in hunched against the cold outside,  relaxing in the warmth and light of the shop.

We got a to-go box for the pastries and headed for the car.   As I put on my seatbelt, I realized that I was feeling happy, even with all of the insanity, even with the battles I’m afraid are coming.   I wish I had a to-go box for joy.  I have a feeling I’m going to need it.

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Winter Break Dance

Winter break is over and the Nest is empty again.  I dropped Sonny at the dorm a week ago, after a lengthy stretch at home.

“Five weeks!” I said to Dave.  We were airing out Sonny’s room, making the bed, that kind of thing.     I found a fuzzy orange mouse and a plastic ball that Capone would be glad to see again.  “When I went to college we were on trimesters.  I had two weeks.  How are we going to keep him busy for five weeks?”

Dave tucked the sheet corner tight.  He’s good; the bed looked ready for inspection by the strictest sergeant.  “Sonny can handle all those little errands that eat away at your time.  Send him for milk at the grocery store.  Have him pick up the dry cleaning.  Now there’ll be nothing to keep you from working on your French.”  (see French Fried)

Unfortunately  cat toys don’t make good projectiles, and they  bounced harmlessly off Dave’s sweater.

The break had me worried about regression, a word that hung over kids on the autism spectrum like a storm cloud.   Every year it seemed like the neurotypical kids took the summer off, but the Special Ed folks always wanted Sonny to do a summer program so that he wouldn’t backslide.  Sonny’d made the big adjustment to college:  working, attending class, doing his homework, practicing his instruments, making and socializing with friends.   Managing his time.  But five weeks was half a summer: was it long enough to regress?

Sonny spent the first few days watching TV, Skyping, and napping on the living room couch with a blanked pulled over his head like a dropcloth, Capone stretched out across his legs.  Not in the mood for conversation.  When I couldn’t take it anymore, I’d send him to the store or have him churn laundry upstairs and downstairs.   We settled back into our late summer routine: Friday dinners out and occasional day trips to the bookstore and mall.

And then after a few days, Sonny pepped up.  He went back to work on the novel that he started writing last spring.  It’s a Norse mythology/space opera.  He’d finished the first two sections of four chapters each before September and planned to get the third section done by the end of the break.  Now whenever I walked through the living room, Sonny was composing on the Air Mac.   He still wasn’t much interested in talking.

“How’s it going?”

“Fine,” he would mutter, two-finger-typing away.

“Am I still kidnapped?”

A sigh.  “You’ll have to wait and see.”

“How about Boston?  Are the aliens going to blow it up?”

“Mom.  Go away.”

Yes, I’m in the novel.  I’m the mother of the heroine, who starts out as an ordinary high school student and finds she has to save the universe.  The heroine lives near Boston, just like us, and  she has a computer programmer father, just like Dave, and a musician mother who is always asking her family to come to her concerts.  (This made me a little embarrassed because it sounds a little nerdy or pathetic.   Yes, Sonny attended his first orchestra concert at three weeks of age, and he’s done plenty of time at rehearsals and concert halls, but that’s mostly because babysitters are expensive…) At any rate, it’s interesting and a little weird to be fictional.  It’s reassuring, too.  Sonny writes kindly about us.  His heroine enjoys being with her parents, and she rescues us in the end and saves Boston, which becomes a very important city in the Nine Worlds universe.

Sonny printed out the whole book (plus illustrations!!) three days before break’s end.  Then it was back to long naps on the couch.  That didn’t bother me anymore.   I’d stopped fearing regression.  Sometimes Sonny’s sitting on the river bank, relaxing near that flowing current of energy and inspiratio.   Sometimes he’s just dipping a toe in the water, but when he chooses to, he’s swimming with that current, going with the flow.