The mystery of page one

Eight days ago I restarted a fresh journal from the stash in my closet. I say restart because, as is the case with many of my closet notebooks, I’d written in it at some point and then torn out those pages. In my intermittent diarist days I did that a lot. This particular journal had come from Italy by way of Barnes and Noble. There were 348 lined, cream-colored pages remaining to be filled. I opened to page one and contemplated my pen cup.  

My current journal frugality has not extended to writing instruments. Indeed, writing every day plus watching YouTubers from the planning and journaling community may have encouraged me to buy more pens and pencils than I need, strictly speaking. Years of marking music in pencil—practically the first thing you learn—also may be a factor. I like to be able to write, highlight, underline, circle, and doodle in any color that appeals at the moment. Therefore, the pen cup on my desk contained a small but representative portion of my collection of colored pencils, markers, brush pens, roller ball pens, ballpoint pens, felt tip pens, fountain pens, etc. I’m always happy to invest in a pen that doesn’t make my hand cramp like the old Bic ballpoints that came in packs of twenty.  

Even the most recalcitrant ballpoint takes way less effort than the first “pens,” the chisels and styluses suitable to inscribe stone, metal, and clay. Writing developed independently in at least four ancient civilizations, but it’s thought that the Egyptians were the first to make paper, which they did using the papyrus plant. They wrote on papyrus with pens made from reeds. The next big development in pen technology was the quill pen, whose tip needed to be sharpened frequently, followed by steel-point pens, whose tips were more durable. All of these pens needed to be dipped in ink. Fountain pens, which can hold a reservoir of ink, started appearing in the seventeenth century, although Leonardo da Vinci may have gotten there first, as he did with so many things. By the 1800s fountain pens were common. The next big thing in pen tech was the ballpoint pen, which used faster drying ink, followed by felt tip pens, roller ball pens, gel pens, and space pens that can write in zero gravity, underwater, and upside down. 

I haven’t yet got hold of a space pen, but I was planning to use every pen class that I own for a pen test on page one. Such a test is practically de rigueur for journal enthusiasts, though it’s more commonly located near the end of the book. However, I prefer it on the first page; it takes away the pressure of writing something profound. 

I picked out a fountain pen, one of the pre-filled ones that Zebra sells in sets of four. I went through a brief fountain pen phase in my mid 20s which led to inky fingers, blobs on the paper, and leaks. Lots and lots of leaks. I bought the Zebras on a whim and found them delightful: they don’t leak and they glide on the page. Or, so they did until Pen Test Day, when the nib scratched over the surface of the paper, barely making a mark. The fancy Italian paper, smooth to the touch, turned out to have the kind of tooth that a great white shark would envy. (“Tooth” being a textured quality in paper that “grabs” the pen or pencil.)  I tried a different angle, a different fountain pen. Same results. 

My dismay mounted as pen after pen turned out to write poorly or not at all. The brush tips, markers, highlighters, and colored pencils worked fine and didn’t show through on the other side. The only pen that wrote well was a gel pen. 

I only had one gel pen in the house. 

I considered returning the journal to the closet, picking another. Instead I went shopping for gel pens. With more than 300 pages to fill I figured I’d need a few extra.  

 Still, I felt a little resentful as I wrote entries with gel pens only. At some point I’d paid $25 for this journal in all its glory. I searched online to see if there were people who’d reported issues with this paper and found…positive review after review, many of which mentioned how great this paper was for fountain pens and practically every kind of pen.  I turned to my current page (page thirty) and tried one of the Zebras. And it worked. I took the same pen back to page one; it didn’t work there. My other fountain pens worked on page thirty, and page thirty-one, and so did the ballpoints, and the rollerballs, and all of the other pens! 

I apologized to the journal for misjudging it. A little part of me was ashamed of my pettiness; another part was thankful that I hadn’t tried a back page on that first day…more pens in my arsenal… 

Tea

Dozing during a long winter’s afternoon, YouTube auto-played in the background…I heard something about tea and tragedy and wasabi…no, wabi-sabi. That rang a bell. I struggled to wakefulness and saw impeccably shot images, set to beautiful music, telling the story of a famous tea master, Sen no Rikyu, from sixteenth century Japan. 

My mother was a coffee drinker (instant), and my father drank tea (Lipton teabags). However, Mom had a Chinese ceramic tea set, consisting of a small pot with a bamboo handle and five tiny tea bowls. The set was a beautiful bluish gray color, with a flower pattern in green and gold. The cups were smooth to the touch and just thick enough so that they didn’t burn your fingers. Every once in a while she’d make us tea in this pot, using the real, looseleaf tea. We would drink it while sitting around the dining room table, not kneeling on tatami mats as in a Japanese painting, but it always felt special. It was nowhere near as elaborate as a Japanese tea ceremony, of course.  

Rikyu became famous for changing the nature of the Japanese tea ceremony. He became tea master to one of the most powerful figures in Japan, Toyotomi Hideyoshi. (This relationship eventually had tragic consequences: Hideyoshi eventually fell out with Rikyu and ordered him to commit ritual suicide, which he did, but this was many years into the arrangement.) At that time, the fashion was for elaborate, whimsical tea ceremonies that used beautiful, ornate, Chinese-made bowls. Rikyu was interested in reviving the original, much simpler form of the tea ceremony from a hundred years earlier. His designs and rituals were strongly influenced by the wabi-sabi aesthetic. He—and that aesthetic—had an immense impact on the tea ceremony going forward.   

As far as my still drowsy brain could understand—I’m still puzzling it out a day later—wabi-sabi joins two concepts. Wabi is the appreciation of simplicity and an attempt to live simply. Sabi is the acceptance and appreciation of impermanence and flaws, because all things change and decay. Rikyu didn’t invent wabi-sabi, but he was one of its most influential advocates. This aesthetic remains tremendously important in Japan (and elsewhere) to this day. In many ways it’s a good organizing principle: do the best you can, but don’t demand perfection, and don’t complicate things unnecessarily. Like many aesthetics, it starts out as a reaction to the status quo that frees people to think and act differently. Like many aesthetics also, it evolves confining/exclusionary aspects. I can find beauty in a crumbling brown leaf. I can value the mended teddy bear, the page that has to be taped back into the book. But I feel that my appreciation of wabi-sabi spaces is flawed, insufficient—because I want the fancy Chinese stuff in my life, as well. 

The dining room hutch held Mom’s tea set, plus a couple of plates with chinoiserie patterns. These and a calligraphy set were the most visible remnants of her aspirations at age 18: 1) to get out of suburban Oak Park, Illinois; 2) to get a degree in Chinese at the University of Chicago; and 3) to become a translator at the United Nations in New York City. By age 19 she’d left university to get married. By 20 she’d had her first kid. She dropped Chinese entirely, although she picked up some Classical Greek through correspondence course. She got out of Oak Park, only to find herself stuck in Virginia suburbs.  

Rikyu’s ceremonies were held in modest spaces and employed rustic bowls, simple decorations, and everyday items, many of which were made by local Japanese artisans. The bowls, to take one example, were made of inexpensive materials. They might have a ding here and a dent there; they might feel a little rough to the touch. They weren’t covered in elaborate designs.  As I watched the video I wondered if there might have been a bit of a personal profit motive for Rikyu in the change to local work, or whether he simply gravitated towards people whose work resonated with his thoughts.   

I shouldn’t be so cynical. I’m stuck for the moment in a mixture of nostalgia and guilt, remembering. The Chinese bowls concentrated aromas and flavors. The tea was spicy and warm, the best in the world, and invited you to sip it slowly and share stories. My mother tended not to talk about her youth much, but sometimes, blowing waves across the tea, she’d give little glimpses into the person she’d intended to be. Sometimes wistful, sometimes wry. UN translator: who knows? She went on to become a lot of other things, zigging and zagging like everybody. I wish I’d taken better care of her stories, put them on paper. 

Bug

Bump. Thump. 

My office is on the ground floor of our house. Dave’s study is directly above it, and I’m used to the noises coming from there—his office chair wheeling between desks, the mumble of conference calls, etc. 

Thump. Draaaag. Bump-bump-bump. Sonny’s room is across the hall from Dave’s study. Most mornings there’s no sound from there, because Sonny’s at work. This week, though, Sonny was on vacation. His very first paid vacation, in fact. And he was using his vacation to…clean out his closet. 

I thought about taking his temperature to see if he was coming down with you-know-what. Eventually the thumps and bumps quieted. I continued with my morning and emerged from my studio around lunchtime to find Dave and Sonny in an earnest conversation about bill-paying, health insurance, and 401(k) plans. Sonny was taking notes on a steno pad. 

I went upstairs. Capone the cat mrrwled at me, seeing if I was in the mood for a siesta, as would usually be the case.  I sat beside him on the bed and scratched behind his ears, but found myself succumbing to a sudden urge to tackle the mess in the cabinet under the bathroom sink. 

I was peering at the expiration date on the Aleve bottle when Dave tapped at the bathroom door, asking for music manuscript paper. He was restarting a long-stalled project to record some songs in French. Optimism. It was spreading through the house like a virus.  

Social contagion—the way in which a behavior, emotion, or opinion spreads, nearly spontaneously, to a group of people—is interesting, though not yet well understood. We worry with good reason about the negative aspects of this phenomenon, such as a crowd becoming a murderous mob, but there are also positives. Researchers at Harvard Medical School, for example, have found that emotions, including happiness, can be contagious within social networks. 

 Social contagion affects everyone, although not everyone in a given crowd. In college I went to an event with a business major friend. W. Clement Stone was speaking, the friend told me, and I had to hear him. Stone was a hugely successful businessman who attributed his rags to riches story to a Positive Mental Attitude (and whose extravagant contributions to the Nixon presidential campaigns both led to calls to set campaign limits and failed to buy him an ambassadorship). There wasn’t an empty seat in the auditorium. He turned out to be a peppy oldster of some 80 years, with a pencil-thin mustache. Stone talked himself up a little bit, told some stories, and reassured his listeners (who were students at an elite, expensive university) that all they needed to succeed in life was a little bit of get up and go. Then he commanded the crowd to stand up, clap, chant slogans, etc. I stood reluctantly and wished for the floor to swallow me whole. My friend, along with most of the attendees was red in the face with excitement; he followed every direction. He knew the content was bunkum, but he clapped and jumped and shouted because it was fun, a good way to blow off steam. I envied his ability to step out of and into his normal persona, which was much more low-key and sarcastic. (Although to me the crowd had felt a little too tippable.) 

What seemed to be spreading (unanimously) in our little group was the feeling of being able finally to move past a stuck point. It’s ironic, maybe, given the Covid numbers and the civil unrest, but we’re in a better headspace. Sonny’s been waiting for his “adulting” moment since graduating college in the spring of 2020, so he’s ready to get going. Over the past couple of weeks he’s upgraded his work schedule to full time, cleared his room of the books, clothes, etc., that he doesn’t need, revamped his wardrobe, and started cooking lessons with Dave (burgers, omelets) and me (everything else). He’s browsing apartment listings already, though he probably won’t move until the summer. Dave got a song recorded and began planning some big cycling trips. I scheduled appointments that I’d been putting off for months and doubled my clarinet practice, so that I’ll be ready when the wind-playing business picks up. 

I’m hoping that our optimism bug turns out to be the long-haul version.  

More Home Shopping

 This summer the family went on a big cleaning-out binge.  Furniture, my defunct treadmill, clothes, toys, computer stuff, bric-a-brac, and many books. All of us—Dave, Sonny, and me—gave away books, but as usual, the majority were mine. 

Ever since I’ve had disposable income, I’ve spent much of it on books and music. So many laps on the cycle of book accumulation and reduction! Giving away a book is usually not hard for me. I keep the ones I haven’t read or know I’ll reread. Every once in a while I have regrets. I once made a thousand-mile move with only what I could fit into the Renault at the time, and donated almost all of my books, and I still regret that I didn’t made room in the glove compartment for my Brahms and Simon ballet mysteries…but mostly I’m happy to pass a book on to another reader. 

After all, then I have an empty spot on the bookshelf and an excuse to visit a bookstore. I hardly need an excuse, though. My favorites are the places that sell secondhand books and have lots of little rooms, with creaking floors, cats, a chair or two, and homemade signs identifying the mystery section, natural history, etc. With art prints for sale, and first editions in locked glass cases. The books in rows or double rows, or stacks, inviting exploration.  

It seems only polite to leave these wonderful (but, sadly, vanishing) places with at least a sample or two—or maybe seven or eight—of their wares. I can’t afford first editions or real antiques, but I can always find something that appeals on the less pricey shelves, or the bargain stacks with more tattered volumes, the ones that seem to have been dropped in the bathtub, on sale for a quarter a piece. It’s hard to resist a book that costs just a quarter. 

Most times I immediately read some of my purchases and save the rest for later. For a long time the best place to stash the extras was on the shelves next to my beloved treadmill. I’ve always loved to walk and read. I logged thousands of miles and hundreds of thousands of pages, and I never worried too much about the fact that the pile of to-be-read books grew faster than the pile of finished volumes. 

Eventually I started to feel a bit guilty about buying paper books. I wanted to follow the “use what you have” trend, albeit imperfectly. It was a little easier to cut back because all of the cool secondhand bookstores near me had closed. (All that’s left is a rather soulless Barnes and Noble that smells of burnt coffee.) I shopped my closets for blank books, tried to wear all my earrings, listen to the CDs. And I plunged into my backlog of TBRs rather than buying new books, feeling a little extra satisfaction as I finished each one.   

The TBR shelf got a little shorter, though not much. After the summer purge of the books I’d finished, I put the TBRs out of my mind. Once the treadmill was gone I didn’t visit that part of the basement much.  Then my father cleaned out his basement, discovered some boxes of my old books, and shipped them to me. 

Trying to figure out a place for the new arrivals, I revisited the TBR shelves. A lot of a successful use what you have effort involves putting the stuff where it’s easy to access. I moved all of the books to the walk-in closet in my bedroom. It’s one of the things that made me want the house, this closet. It’s not a grand one like you see on celebrity house tours, but it’s twice the size of any closet I had before. I put the books wherever they’d fit, in stacks and rows and double rows. To the left of the winter sweaters. Underneath the purses. Over the boots. 

It’s cozy in there. The floors creak, the place smells of paper and leather and ink, and there’s often a cat underfoot.  In the morning I grab a blouse, earrings, boots. And a book. Maybe a 45-year-old Rex Stout, or an 800-page history of England. It seems only polite.  

Queen of the Day

Mother Nature’s been changing up her look. Yesterday’s brilliant blues and browns have been replaced by cool neutrals.  Today’s outfit is Park Avenue matron: whites, taupes, grays. Even the gaudy crimson of the fire hydrant across the street has been muted to a brick brown. The tree branches bend and tremble under its weight.

I hope my friend from last night is happy today. She loves the snow and was sad that her town was only projected to get a couple of inches, but the weather people said the totals everywhere are going to be quite a bit bigger than predicted. The snow is heavy but there’s no wind. Maybe there’s a way to recapture my long-lost snow delight. The world is quiet except for when the plows drive by. Noisy mechanical things, breaking the mood. It’s Snow Queen weather. 

By the time I first read Hans Christian Andersen’s story of the Snow Queen, at around age nine, I was already primed to see her as a villain. That’s what C.S. Lewis made of her in the Narnia stories, the White Witch who forced endless winter and no Christmas. On today’s reread I have a different opinion. My favorite part of the story is still the bit at the beginning. A wicked hobgoblin, who runs a school, invents a magnifying glass. Things viewed through the glass seem distorted and ugly, making the viewer sad. The hobgoblin has great success spreading despair and cynicism on Earth, but then he decides to fly the glass up to the heavens to have a look at the angels. The glass slips through his fingers, though, and falls back to earth, breaking into millions of fragments. It’s just chance, apparently, that as these fragments float around the atmosphere they sometimes make their way into people’s eyes or hearts. A bit in the heart is the more dangerous, often fatal. 

Kay and Gerda are childhood friends who love roses, one another, and the stories told by Kay’s grandmother. One story is about the Snow Queen, who commands the snow bees. “She is the largest of them all, and never remains on earth, but flies up to the dark clouds,” Grandma tells the children. “Often at midnight she flies through the streets of the town, and looks in at the windows, then the ice freezes on the panes into wonderful shapes, that look like flowers and castles.”  

Through no fault of his own, Kay is hit by a double-dose (eye and heart) of the evil mirror fragments. Soon he can’t appreciate natural beauty and becomes absorbed instead in academic studies. Arithmetic and microscopy. He becomes spiteful towards Gerda. Eventually he  encounters the Snow Queen and is taken to her castle. Gerda sets out to rescue him and has many adventures doing so. 

I don’t think that the Snow Queen is a villain. She’s more guardian than jailor. She helps Kay manage his condition by making him resistant to cold. She gives him puzzles so that he can play “the icy game of reason.” She tells him what he needs to do to solve his problem, which is to spell the word eternity. She even encourages him to try by reminding him that if he succeeds, he’ll be his own master. She promises him a set of skates as a reward. But she has other work to do, and he’ll have to manage his challenges on his own. “I will go and look into the black craters of the tops of the burning mountains, Etna and Vesuvius,” she says. “I shall make them look white, which will be good for them, and for the lemons and the grapes.”  

Gerda shows up and rescues Kay. (She and providence do all the actual work.) Reason flees. Innocence is restored. The summer roses beat back the snow bees. “The cold empty grandeur of the Snow Queen’s palace vanished from their memories like a painful dream.” 

It’s too bad that they forget, in my opinion. Summer beauties are fine, but the Snow Queen is also gorgeous. The first time Kay sees her, before his accident, she is “the figure of a woman, dressed in garments of white gauze, which looked like millions of starry snow-flakes linked together…she was alive and her eyes sparkled like bright stars, but there was neither peace nor rest in their glance.” She’s making the most of her situation. She’s protective as well as destructive, and she gets her work done even when she’s feeling a little stressed. 

The snow outside continues steady, like a slow-motion waterfall. I listen for hoof clops and the squeak of sledge runners on the snow. If the Snow Queen in her gauze and furs stopped for me, would I go for a ride? Not knowing the risks or the destination? Yes. Yes, I would.  

Even more about bullet journals…

Last year at around this time I started my first bullet journal (bujo). The bullet journal system, as developed and documented by a guy named Ryder Carroll, is a process at which it’s not really possible to fail. Seemingly. Intended to capture thoughts, plans, and to-dos so that they don’t slip through the cracks, all that you need is a notebook and a writing implement. And while the internet is filled with tips and inspiration, a bujo can be whatever you need it to be. 

The above description is a bit disingenuous, given that the specialty notebook business is projected to grow by $18.8 billion from 2021 to 2025. To say nothing of the market for the pens, the stickers, stamps, and stencils, the paints and pencils. A bujo is almost always more than a random notebook and a pen. In some practitioners’ hands it’s a museum-worthy piece of art. 

In a January, 2021, blog (“The Bullet Ballet”) I admitted that I really, really wanted to buy a new notebook. My closets had many unused blank notebooks, which I was slowly turning into “everything journals” with diary entries, to-do lists, research notes, writing exercises, ideas, and miscellaneous grumbles and aspirations. The prospect of a bullet journal gave me an excuse to shop at a store. I planned for a bujo for 2021 plus serial everything notebooks.     

The above-referenced blog was a bit disingenuous, given that I expected way more from the bujo. A transformation, in fact, into a  more organized, productive, conscientious, and Instagram-worthy being. 

So I did it. I kept a bujo for a year. Here’s what I learned: 

 Discovery 1: Drawing (or even pasting in) monthly and weekly calendars was largely beyond me. My lack of artistic talent—even when using a ruler I have a hard time drawing a straight line—produces a page whose aesthetics are lacking. Further, I found that flipping between monthly and weekly layouts made it more likely I would write a task in the wrong day (or week) or miss a to-do altogether. I missed my Tuesday volunteer slot at the library three times! 

Takeaway: I need to see the monthly calendar at the same time as I’m making a list for the day. I’d like the layouts to look good so I spent $9 for a monthly calendar planner from Target. Daily to-do lists will be scribbled in the everything notebook.     

 Discovery 2: The fancier the layout or tracker, the less likely it was that it would be used for more than a week or so. This was partly due to artistic shame (straight lines, crooked lines, curves: why are they so hard?), but it was also because of creeping perfectionism that makes me want to abandon a page once I miss a milestone.  

Takeaway: No more trackers. Those teeny failures add up and make me feel defeated. On the plus side: many lists make me feel good. The pages I’m happiest with in my 2021 bujo are the ones where I listed the things I had accomplished. Books read, words written, streets walked. Also satisfying were other (non-goal) lists: possible restaurants and road trips, cat-friendly houseplants, elements of evening routines, Covid statistics, etc.  

Discovery 3: I couldn’t color code or work with symbols fancier than checkmarks or line-throughs. My brain didn’t cooperate, plus I kept misplacing my pens. The harder I tried to make turquoise = exercise,  lime = I-ate-vegetables, the more I found myself slipping in royal blue and pine green, then oranges and purples, until the page was a colorful mess.  

Takeaway: I will use color with abandon, for no meaning whatsoever except that blue is beautiful, green is grand, red is ravishing, and pink is perfect. Or the purple pen was the first I grabbed.  As to symbols, I’ll stick to checkmarks and line-throughs.  

 Discovery 4: Keeping lists of what I’d done in a single notebook proved that I’d had a more productive year than I’d realized. I hit mid December feeling as though I’d wasted the last 12 months. Bujo begged to differ. The I-did-it lists reminded me that I’d written 100 blogs, completed 34 videos, made 36 podcasts, made dozens of music arrangements, composed a couple of pieces, and finished the first draft of a novel. I had walked all the streets of my town. Even though I’d missed three, I’d volunteered at the library for 37 Tuesdays. I’d paid big bunches of bills, gone on a little vacation, and kept up with the laundry and dishes and trash day for 52 weeks straight.  

Takeaway: I’m going to keep up with the I-did-it lists. In the same expedition where I found my bujo, I also bought a backup. Smaller, a deep pink cover, dot grid. I’ve already got a glorious bunch of pen colors going. 

My 2021 bujo didn’t give me an Instagram-worthy life. However, the I-did-it lists helped me distill and process a very challenging year, and I learned a few things about myself along the way. If you’re thinking about starting a bujo yourself, I’d recommend it. 

Present

In preparation for Christmas, my husband Dave and I almost always trade wishlists. They’ve gotten shorter over the years, usually just one or two items. For 2021 Dave wanted a non-duck bird sculpture, something to spice up his collection of wooden ducks. I asked for a pair of binoculars. 

I wanted binoculars to enhance my walks.   When my treadmill died in early 2020 (a sad, sad day) I started walking outside more. In 2021 I managed to get to every street in my town. I kept relatively fit, enjoyed the scenery, and came home with a new question every day.  Why are the Blue Hills blue? What kind of person puts 47 gnomes in their front yard? What’s up with five white cars in that driveway? Why are these streets named after robber barons? Why do robins hop so much? What’s the name of that droopy white flower? Can turkeys fly? What’s the name for the roof that looks like a boat? What would it be like to spend a night in that huge treehouse?  I often found myself wishing for better eyesight. Stupid rabbits, hopping away before I got close enough to see.  

On Christmas morning I unwrapped a pair of binoculars, as anticipated, and Dave opened the pair of folk-art birds I’d found at an antiques store, plus a field guide to the birds of eastern North America. Dave got out his own binoculars from the back of his closet and helped me with the calibration and ruffled the pages of the field guide. 

“I’ll always remember this moment from second grade,” he said. A lady was giving a presentation about birds. She had been astonished and impressed when Dave correctly answered her question about what young birds are called. “Juvenile,” he’d said. That’s the term for “fledged birds not yet in adult plumage.”  Little did the lady know that Dave’s father had a cherished and frequently consulted book of Audubon prints and regularly took his son bird-watching. 

Dave opened the guide at random. “Titmouse,” he said. Flipped some pages: “Bobwhite.” Flipped more: “Grosbeak…I can’t believe I remember this so easily!”  

Bird-mad young Dave was a new story to me. (We’ve been together nearly 30 years; we’ve heard many of each other’s stories; new stories are an extra delight.) Due to many family trips to the Smithsonian museum of natural history as a kid, I’d also been interested in birds, along with insects and animals, but my parents weren’t bird watchers.    

 Later on in the week, David and I visited a nearby Audubon Society wildlife sanctuary. Woods, swamp, meadows. It was chilly and slightly rainy. I’d messed up my binocular’s straps and forgotten to bring gloves. As we made our way to the trailhead a bluejay crossed the path. The woods consisted mostly of pine and oak trees. There were baby pine trees just a couple of feet high all over the place, as well as fallen tree trunks covered with the greenest moss I’ve ever seen. Lots of bird calls. We tried out the binoculars and got crisp, clear views. We passed a couple of vernal pools. These are small ponds that form during the rainier season, dry up when it’s dry. As they don’t contain fish, they provide a kind of bassinet for amphibians and insects that the fish would otherwise eat. Underneath our feet were tree roots, pine cones, pine needles, dry winter grass. 

Dave saw a couple of birds on top of a rock, but they flew away before he could identify them. I saw just that first bluejay, but that didn’t matter. My fingers froze a little; no matter either. Next time I’d bring gloves. Next time I’d see more birds.  

We found a little breakfast place down the street—three rooms in a basement, blown up photos of ‘50s movie stars, fabulous food. Dave and I ate eggs and toast, warmed our chilly hands on coffee mugs, and talked about when we might do this again. An extra Christmas present. 

Friday night fright

Friday night, Christmas Eve. Almost time to leave for my singing job. The house was warm and bright and busy. “Smells good,” I said on my through the kitchen, past the stove loaded with pans as Dave worked on a feast of pasta, red sauce, meatballs, and garlic bread. Sonny channel surfed for their dinnertime movie. Maybe one of the Diehards. I did a few vocal slides and hummed while I put on my coat and gloves. 

“Good luck,” Sonny said. 

“Enjoy your dinner, guys!” I said.  “Save a plate for me!” 

The services went well. My voice held out just as long as I needed it to. On the drive home I chose the scenic route and switched the radio from genteel NPR to ‘80s rock as a bit of a palate cleanser, arriving a bit after 11. The house was dark. Not surprising: I’m used to being the only human awake in our home at that time of night. Sonny’s shift starts at six a.m., and Dave gets up around five in order to fit in a 25-mile bike ride before work. (Even on no-work days Dave gets up at five, since Capone the cat, our lord and master, has decreed that hour as his breakfast time.) I stepped carefully and quietly through the back door and into the family room, where Dave is often dozing on the couch. 

“Hi,” he said. 

How sweet. He’d stayed up past his bedtime to wish me a Merry Christmas. 

“I need to explain.” 

My stomach clenched. 

My husband proceeded to unfold a tale that—as the Ghost warned Hamlet—made my two eyes “like stars start from their spheres.” And froze my young blood. Half an hour of head-banging along with 80s hits had already caused my knotted and combined locks to part, but on hearing I need to explain it felt as though each particular hair was indeed “[standing] on end like quills upon the fretful porpentine.”   

One of the burners on the stove had been turned on, but hadn’t lit. I’d walked past it on the way out. Gas hissed out of it on the “medium” setting. Neither Dave nor Sonny nor Capone the cat had noticed anything wrong until more than two hours later. After dinner Dave had gone upstairs to his office. When he came back downstairs, the air smelled funny. Felt funny. Sonny and Capone had been in the living room the whole time. It being December, all the windows were closed. 

Dave turned off the burner. He and Sonny opened every window on the ground floor, turned on all the fans. They went upstairs and opened more windows. What Dave needed to explain was why I’d find a window open with the fan blowing funky air into the night. Also, more importantly, why I probably shouldn’t light any candles up there. 

“Wow,” I said. “I must have walked right past it.” 

Everybody was okay, Dave reassured me. Neither of us could quite understand how one burner stayed on for hours without causing a fire or an explosion. That no one had passed out was more comprehensible. It’s a relatively spacious house, with older windows that are less air-tight than the up to date kind, to say nothing of the gap under the dishwasher that lets in plenty of outside air. It was a near miss, one of those freak incidents. “Could’ve been worse,” understated Dave. 

 I poured a glass of wine and tried to write myself to sleep. All in third person. She’d walked right past the stove. Never even noticed. The Ghost sets off the revenge plot by triggering Hamlet’s imagination. Imagination can lead me terrible places. My hand wouldn’t stop fleshing out other scenarios. She comes home to find the house filled with gas, the family lost. She comes home to the fire brigade, flames outshining the Christmas lights, everything gone. She sets off an explosion by flipping a light switch. A serpent’s nest of poisonous what-ifs. At some point I crawled under the covers.

“Want more coffee?” Dave asked. 

“God yes,” I said. The tepid morning light filtered through the kitchen shades. My eyes hurt. As he poured I wiped down the counter, glancing—surreptitiously, I hoped—at the stove. All four burners were off. 

“I checked this morning; everything seems to be working fine,” said Dave. From the living room I heard an ornament clatter to the floor. Evidently Capone the cat was at full mischievous strength.  

Sonny grinned over his waffles and assured me he felt great. “I guess it was A Christmas Miracle,” he said. 

A cliche barely worthy of a Hallmark movie. When I was 10 years old I slept through a house fire. We kids only knew it had happened because we awoke with black stuff in our noses from the smoke. That event always felt like just a story. This wasn’t the case for my parents, who’d doused the flames with fire extinguishers and wet blankets. Decades later my imagination, and my sense of what’s at stake, were more developed. Sonny’s phrase felt a little embarrassing, but it switched off the hisses of the snakelets. “A Christmas miracle,” I agreed. 

The morning of the night before

December 24. I’m happy to wake up to snow. My mood may surprise readers of this blog, since I’ve written often about my problems with the white stuff. It’s pretty enough, I concede that. But years of dealing with the practical hassles of shoveling and driving in the stuff, plus the lost work from having students and shows canceled, outweigh the aesthetics. By the time the snow piles at every corner and driveway edge have made it impossible to get onto the road safely—aka the entire month of February—everyone hates the snow along with me. But this morning the world looks soft and pretty, and I don’t need to get in the car until this evening. 

Because…all of my Christmas preparations are finished. !! Presents bought, wrapped, and placed under the tree. House relatively festive. All the food and drink ready to go. Christmas cards delivered. No last-minute crowds to fight. Just two Christmas Eve services to sing tonight and then, like the couple in the poem “The Night Before Christmas,” (TNBC) I shall “settle [my brain] for a long winter’s nap.” The poem is inescapable at this time of year, and frankly, I don’t want to skip it. It’s interesting all the way through, the language is vivid, and something new jumps out at me every time I revisit it. This year I looked up the original version at A_Visit_From_St_Nicholas_-_Troy_Sentinel.png.  Boy howdy! 

“The Night Before Christmas” was published on December 23, 1823 in The Troy (NY) Sentinel.  A remarkable three-sentence paragraph introduces this “Account of a Visit From St. Nicholas.” The first sentence is 60 words long. Boiled down to essentials, it says here’s a poem about Santa Claus from an anonymous author; thanks, Anonymous

Nearly two centuries later, people are still arguing over Anonymous’s identity. Most commonly the authorship is attributed to Clement Clarke Moore, who took credit for TNBC in 1837. He said he’d composed it in 1822 at the request of his young daughter.  Moore was a serious man of letters, and it was relatively common at the time for authors protective of their reputation to publish popular works anonymously. Many poems also circulated privately to friends and acquaintaces through letters and commonplace books. Sometimes these friends sent those poems to the newspapers.  It happened to Emily Dickinson! By 1837 the night-before-christmas poem was widely popular, and Moore’s literary reputation was more firmly established, so it wasn’t embarrassing for him to admit to being the author. 

The other major candidate for Anonymous is Henry Livingston, Jr. Like Moore, Livingston published many poems, usually anonymously or under the initial “R.”  He never claimed authorship to TNBC. However, having died in 1828, he wouldn’t have heard of Moore’s claim. Livingston’s relatives said he’d written it and averred that they possessed handwritten manuscripts to back their story. So far these have not turned up. Modern analysis of word selection and phonemes seems to come down on Livingston’s side, but there’s still plenty of controversy. Whole books have been written on the subject! I don’t know if either of these guys wrote the poem, although on grounds of character alone I’d prefer Livingston (Revolutionary War veteran) to Moore (slave-owner, unrepentant anti-abolitionist).  

The newspaper article’s second sentence takes 36 words to convey that this is a charming story. I agree. It’s action-packed, suspenseful, with a sweet ending. Everything is smaller and faster than the images of today. “A miniature sleigh, and eight tiny rein-deer.” “More rapid than eagles.” “In a twinkling.” St. Nick is vividly described. Small, jolly, bearded, a pipe-smoker, and filthy:  “his clothes were all tarnish’d with ashes and soot.” 

The idea of Saint Nicholas haunting the New York area may originate in Washington Irving’s 1809 History of New York, which is a satire of New York history and politics.  Irving (writing in the persona of a fictitious Dutch historian named Diedrich Knickerbocker) relates a tale of  Saint Nicholas appearing in a dream to Oloffe Van Cortlandt in the 1600s. The saint comes “riding over the tops of the trees” in his wagon, smokes a pipe, “[lays] his finger beside his nose,” as in the poem, and gives Van Cortlandt “a very significant look” that helps Van Cortlandt decide to found New Amsterdam. 

The final two reindeer names in the original, “Dunder and Blixem,” are also Dutch, meaning  thunder and lightning. Vixen and Blixem stands is the most strained rhyme in the piece. A later editor changed the Dutch to German (Donder and Blitzen) to fix it.  

The article’s third sentence is 118 words long. Here’s a wee bit from the middle: “…a token of our warmest wish that [the children] may have many a merry Christmas; that they may long retain [their] beautiful relish for those unsought, homebred joys, which derive their favor from filial piety and fraternal love, and which they may be assured are the least alloyed that time can furnish them…”   Apparent meaning:  Merry Christmas, Kids, stay happy if you can. 

I’m confounded that anyone made it through this sentence without a long winter’s nap, or least a mug of strong coffee.  It’s a testament to the poem’s strength of narrative and mechanics—a complete story in 56 lines of anapestic tetrameter—that it became so successful. An anapest is a poetic foot consisting of two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed one: “’Twas the NIGHT/before CHRIST/mas.” Tetrameter means that each line has four feet. This helps the poem gallop along. Another contributor to the poem’s effectiveness is that when it gets to the message, the author keeps it short and sweet: “Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.” 

I like the wishes for happiness and a good night, the repetition of “all.” Tonight I’ll be getting back from work near midnight. Santa Claus time. It’ll be cloudy, so I won’t have a “moon on the breast of the new fallen snow,/[giving] the lustre of mid-day to objects below.” But with street lights, holiday displays, and a sprinkling of snow, if Saint Nicholas and crew are anywhere around, I could spot them. 

Missing Jane

Once a week I volunteer at my local library. I shelve a couple of carts’ worth of books and magazines and browse, reminding myself of authors that I haven’t read for a while and writing down the names of books I might want to look up on Hoopla. Hoopla is a library app that lets me borrow up to 15 books a month and automatically returns them three weeks later. I almost never check out physical books anymore—no worrying about library fines or lost books, the chaotic stuff that sneaks up on me. 

Some days it seems as though every other book to be put away is on an inconvenient shelf. Up at the tippy-top, so I have to get the stepstool. Down at the bottom where I have to sit on the floor. (“Always have a plan to get back up,” semi-jokes Dave, and too often I don’t). One too many brackets holding the books being hard to adjust or making that squeal that sets my teeth grinding. My back aching, I took a little breather in the Hs and noticed a Jane Haddam novel. There was an author I hadn’t read for a while. 

Haddam writes mystery novels. Her sleuth is a former celebrity FBI detective, Gregor Demarkian, who lives in an Armenian enclave in Philadelphia filled with colorful characters. I hadn’t read the series for maybe five or six years. I’m a binger and completionist, but once I catch up on an author’s backlist I can miss the current books. The world is full of good writers and I may have moved onto the  next obsession. Sometimes there’s a bigger issue in play. Favorite songs can be fragile—listen one too many times and the song is ruined for a year, or decades, sometimes. This can happen for me with authors sometimes too. The last Haddam I’d read, 2015 or whenever, I’d wanted to throw across the room; I had a big problem with a fundamental plot point. Sonny was still in high school, then. Still, I’d always enjoyed the multiple viewpoints, the sardonic tone, the community on Cavanaugh Street. Time to revisit this author. 

Hoopla had many Gregor Demarkian mysteries, plus another series, five “Pay McKenna” mysteries. The  latter’s covers read “Jane Haddam aka Orania Papazoglou.” I’d read one of the McKennas in the early 2000s, at that point credited to Orania Papazoglou. The series had been out of print for more than a decade. I’d connected it to Haddam because Orania Papazoglou was on the copyright pages of all the Demarkian books, liked it. Unfortunately it was the only Pay McKenna book the library had. 

I had nine borrows left on Hoopla, so I downloaded the first two books in the McKenna series, Sweet, Savage Death (1984) and Wicked Loving Murder (1985) and settled down for a long winter’s read. 

The books are set in the New York romance publishing industry of the 1980s. Pay (Patience) McKenna is in her 30s, a romance author who writes under a couple of pseudonyms while also freelancing as a journalist for prestigious magazines. If it’s revealed she’s writing romances, her serious-writer cred will be in shreds. She discovers an aptitude for blundering into and then solving murders. The books are busy and humorous and narrated in first person by McKenna. She pokes fun at readers, writers, editors, and agents. The plots stretch, but they’re properly constructed, and the characters are memorable. The books also provide a vivid picture of Manhattan in the 1980s.  The narrator is observant, WASPy, sometimes amusing, sometimes annoying (she smokes too much and is often on the verge of fainting from exhaustion of some kind or other). And she seems, to me…autobiographical. So I googled Haddam to find some clues.  

  Orania Papazoglou was born in 1951 in Connecticut, the same year and state she assigns to McKenna.  Like McKenna, Papazoglou had a WASP-y background and an Ivy League education (Vassar College, as well as University of Connecticut and Michigan State University). In the early 1980s Papazoglou was working in magazine publishing in New York and writing romance and other novels under pseudonyms such as Nicola Andrews and Ann Paris. Her first published novel, in 1983, was a romance by Nicola Andrews called Forbidden Melody

The Pay McKenna series ends in 1989. I haven’t finished all of the books yet, although that will happen soon. These are quick reads. The first three books have landed McKenna with various dead bodies and perilous situations, plus a cat, a pre-war 12-room apartment, a new boyfriend (later fiancé), and an eight-year-old adopted child.  Papazoglou had around a dozen novels published during the 1980s and got married in 1984 to the mystery novelist William DeAndrea. He makes a brief appearance as himself in book number three, Death’s Savage Passion, which came out in 1986. The couple had two boys, Matt and Gregory. Matt DeAndrea is also an author. So on the autobiographical thing, I’m going to vote a qualified yes; there are a lot of similarities.    

Jane Haddam was by far the most successful of Papazoglou’s pseudonyms. Initially organized around holidays, with a light-hearted tone similar to the McKenna books, the Demarkian series began taking a darker turn after William DeAndrea died of cancer in 1996. Papazoglou eventually moved to small-town Connecticut and lived there relatively quietly, continuing to write books and essays, teaching sometimes, and giving interviews. She didn’t like the wild turkeys that wandered outside her window. She wrote a blog (blog.janehaddam.com). The thirtieth Demarkian mystery, One of Our Own, was published in 2020. Posthumously.  

I felt shocked and sad when I learned that she had died from cancer at age 68 in 2019. Gone too soon, and another terrible thing added to the pile. But I’m so glad that my aching back slowed me down enough to give her another read, and I’m looking forward to revisiting Demarkian’s world and completing that series. Once I’ve learned how things go for McKenna.