puzzled by joy

Nearly five months since I’ve worked a jigsaw puzzle.  For me, this is a long time.   I finished a thousand-piece Americana illustration packed with old-fashioned houses, people, and animals during a slow week between shows at the very beginning of March.

My parents liked puzzles of international sites: View-Master-style images of chateaus nestled in the Swiss Alps, the Eiffel Tower, the Parthenon, Capri…pictures with plenty of flora but no fauna or people.   After I became a parent I turned to jigsaw puzzles as a way to relieve stress after especially draining times.  Even though the meaning is different, the puzzle piece as a symbol of autism resonates with me because working jigsaws feels like a reset of my brain.   The sensory details stimulate and comfort:  unsealing the edges of the puzzle box,  combing through the bright jumbled colors of the puzzle pieces, snapping the pieces into their rows, even stirring the soft gray dust in the bottom of the box.   Even more satisfying is assembling a whole from fragments.

During March and April my Facebook feed was flooded with posts about jigsaw puzzles.  We had none in the house, and our finances were uncertain.  Also I was busy and had just discharged with a puzzle not long before, so puzzles weren’t a concern.  By May, though, things had stabilized a bit and I was starting to miss this comfort.   I kept on the lookout, but there weren’t puzzles in stores.  Online, Buffalo Games was closed.  Sellers of dubious provenance were offering some of my favorite lines at three to four times the standard retail price.  I was too cautious and cheap to buy.   

This week, the end of July—I happened upon a Charles Wysocki in a store.  Wysockies are my most guilty pleasure of all puzzle lines.  The puzzle was a thousand pieces, normal price, so I bought it.  At the end of the work week, after teaching my last lesson, I pried open the box and started fishing out edge pieces.  Then occurred pleasant surprise number one: my husband Dave brought me a glass of wine.  (It was a surprise because that morning there had been no wine in the house.)    Then surprise number two: I checked out Netflix for the first time in several weeks and found two new seasons of my favorite docu-series.

This tripling of treats produced pure joy that lasted for many minutes, dulling over an hour or so to a normal soothing feeling.  Joy is fleeting and can’t be scheduled.   It bursts from some activity that I already enjoy,  flushed by the unexpected:  rounding a corner on a morning walk to find a family of deer, being one voice in a rare, perfectly tuned, shimmering chord…    The hard part is enjoying the walk or rehearsal the next time when things go back to normal.

Joy’s opposite is also short, although despair rushes out of the undergrowth more readily.  The pandemic and the US president’s mishandling of it (and everything else that he’s touched) are constants, but every day brings fresh dread surprises.  In misery’s case I’m glad for the transience, but I try to remember the joys fondly.   I try to have confidence that over time, I can piece the puzzle together.

Unexpected Russians, and rushing

In July, 2019, a couple of thousand clarinetists, myself included, descended on Knoxville, Tennessee, to attend the annual International Clarinet Association convention.    I go to an ICA convention about once a decade.    I’d passed Tennessee a few times as a kid on trips from Virginia to Texas, but never lingered.  Knoxville, which is located in the Tennessee Valley, was totally new to me.   I liked it: the downtown area was compact and delightful, with plentiful green space, interesting public art, and fun restaurants and shops, plus a nearby river.    Extremely walkable, which is a plus, with only the minor drawback that I found myself walking a bit faster than the Tennesseans.    City life in cold climates tends to speed up one’s pace.

The ICA events occurred at the University of Tennessee, a bit more than a mile from my hotel.  Free trolleys were available but in the mornings, before the heat came crashing down, I would usually walk over to the university campus.   One day I cut through the World’s Fair Park (Knoxville hosted the World’s Fair in 1982) on the way to UT and found something unexpected, yet serendipitous: a 12-foot-tall, bronze statue of the Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff!  How did it get there?  The answer’s interesting, but sad: Rachmaninoff, who was a pianist as well as a composer, gave what turned out to be his final concert in Knoxville in 1943 and then died five weeks later in California of melanoma; he had also recently become an American citizen.   The statue shows a tall, bony, slender man in concert dress with enormous hands.

Finding the statue felt serendipitous because an excerpt from one of Rachmaninoff’s compositions is on the short list of many clarinet auditions.  Probably at least one of the master classes at the convention would at least touch on this excerpt, which is from the slow movement in Rachmaninoff’s second symphony.   It’s an enormous clarinet solo, slow and with places to breathe few and far between.  The way to get through it successfully is by relaxing, taking a full, humongous breath, thinking through to the end of the phrase, even if it feels as though your lungs are going to burst if you don’t take in more air, and never, ever rush the melody.  

I have to admit:  rushing’s an issue for me in numerous life dimensions.  It’s not just walking faster than southerners.    I always want to get onto the next thing before I’ve absorbed the present—sometimes before I’ve even noticed the present.    Teachers filling out my report cards from kindergarten through sixth grade point out that I “tend to hurry through” my work and turn in papers that are “messy.”      

At UT—modern, stylish buildings, blessedly air-conditioned—I remembered an audition I took once.  It was a practice audition, a warm up for an important one.    I expected that I might make some nerve-induced mistakes and (theoretically) welcomed the idea of critique.  And boy howdy, did the critique come:  after a bit of pro—“you sounded great…your technique is solid”—the conductor gave me the big con:  “but you were rushing like crazy.”   So much that he moved me down from the first section to the second section because of it!  “Unless you were unusually nervous…” he said, giving me an out that I didn’t take.  

I went home and worked like hell on de-rushifying my playing.    The important audition included the Rachmaninoff, which I didn’t rush.  I got the position.   I’ll probably never fully master my rushing tendencies, but I can be aware when I start to get too far ahead of the beat.   I seek out models who have such a solid sense of pulse that they can spin out a melody that’s not necessarily right on the beat, but still syncs with the song.    

After a day of workshops and recitals, I took a different route from UT to downtown.  I was walking at a good clip, thinking ahead to how nice it would be to have a cocktail at the Hyatt’s rooftop bar.   At a zebra crossing I started towards the other side of the street.  As a pickup truck was nearly at the crossing, I broke into my usual pedestrian triple-time shuffle .  That’s what I always do with oncoming vehicles back home in Massachusetts.    The driver leaned out of the window, smiled, and drawled, “Take your time, Darlin’.”  

I’m trying, Sir.  I truly am.

Glass: the last word

I angled my left hand slightly the wrong way, evidently, while setting down my cell phone; instantly there was an explosion of pain in my wrist.   It’s happening every couple of weeks this summer.   I got an ice pack and pillow case and settled grumpily into an armchair in our bedroom.  I hate my wrist, I told Dave.

“I hate my shoulder,” my husband replied from his position in the armchair’s twin, and returned his gaze to Jack Nicholson, but it was too late: A Few Good Men had gone to commercial.  Dave’s shoulder started bothering him a few months ago and worsened; he’s doing physical therapy for it now.

Our bodies—the joints, especially—have become our frenemies.  Coming to the party  and then picking a fight.  I guess it’s understandable.  As a musician who also types a lot, my wrists have a right to protest.   But I don’t have to like it.

The commercials played on.  I scrolled down my Facebook feed.   Then Dave escalated: “I hate my knee.”

Fortunately, I had a comeback.  I hate glass.

“No you don’t, you love glass.”

The commercial break ended before I could defend my position.  Tom Cruise and Demi Moore and other assorted characters in the movie ate pizza and argued.  About what, I wasn’t certain—I’ve never watched this movie as a whole, just bits and pieces.   Dave sipped his wine.  The ice pack had dulled the edge of the pain and I was reluctant to move out of my seat, even to give Dave a closeup of the Band-Aid on my finger.

Dave is right in the main: I love glass.  The poet al-Hariri of Basra describes glass perfectly: “congealed of air, condensed of sunbeam motes, molded of the light of the open plain, or peeled from a white pearl.” Gorgeous!  I have glass earrings,  paperweights, sculptures, containers.  I’m writing this blog on the dining room table, which currently has five glass vases on it.   However…

About an hour before our conversation, while waiting for the rice to finish cooking, I’d emptied a box of  various odds and ends as part of my office reorganization project.  At the very bottom there was an 8” x 11” piece of glass.   That meant the box had been filled several years ago, before I acquired a desk with a glass top.   The glass in the box came from a cheap drugstore picture frame, pried loose from that setting for clarinet reed work.  Adjusting clarinet reeds involves getting them wet and then shaving off little bits of cane.    Glass, being flat and non-porous, reduces warping as the reed dries.   The kitchen timer beeped.  I stuck the glass on top of a piano book and pulled the rice pot off the burner.   I was about to give a final stir when I noticed one knuckle beading Christmas-ornament red in two places.  The glass had cut me as I’d moved it and I’d never felt a thing!    

The exhibition of the Band-Aid, followed by reassurance to Dave that I was confident that I hadn’t bled into our dinner took up most of the next commercial break.   Then more movie:  courtroom scenes, Jack Nicholson erupting.  Evidently a lot happened while I was looking at animal gifs.

“You can’t handle the glass!”  Dave said, chuckling the tiniest bit as he wrapped the glass in layers of paper and packing tape.    

“Where should we put it?” 

“The basement trash.”  It seemed a pity, but I couldn’t think of anything better.  The same trash had served as a repository for various wine glasses over the years, so it was an appropriate resting place.   So there I took it, to spare Dave’s knee the journey, while he watched the ending credits.       

First Day

This Sunday sits just a little more than halfway on the shelf bookended by Memorial Day and Labor Day.  Already I feel the siren call of September.   Even during this terrible year, with school long past, September promises the possibility of a fresh start, a first day of school.

Retailers know September’s coming, too.  Just as Christmas displays and ads appear earlier and earlier, so do back-to-school displays.  When I was a kid, school supplies showed up for sale at the end of August.  Now our Target replaces the patio furniture/outdoor living section with back-to-school stuff early in July.   And as goes Target, so go Walmart, CVS, Walgreen’s, and the rest.   Many of these stores still look like they’ve been hit by a time bomb, freezing the winter merchandise onto the shelves, jumbling displays, and leaving stretches of cold, empty shelves.  People are cautious, languid in their shopping.   No one knows how much time students will be spending in school.  It’s hard to put the unicorn lunchbox in the shopping cart if it will be retired after a month.  

Still, when I go to pick up peanut butter, Sonny’s favorite cookies, and toothpaste, I also trek to the back of the store and linger over the notebooks, binders, glue-sticks, backpacks, pens and folders, pencils and compasses and scissors.   Sometimes a notebook or a pen set finds its way into my shopping basket.   I try to avoid September fashion.  Though a first day seems to demand a new outfit, I can’t see September clearly enough to craft the new me who will thrive in that future.

When Sonny was in school, I loved shopping with him for school supplies and hated shopping with him for school clothes.   Like his fellow millennials, Sonny’s always been particular about his aesthetic.  Three folders?  Easy: a red one, a green one, a yellow one.  The perfect black graphic T-shirt?   “Umm…I”ll text you when I’ve found one, Mom, and then we can go to the checkout.”

This will be Sonny’s first September without school in 19 years.  He has September plans, but they don’t involve shopping for notebooks.  He’s been hunting for an apartment and has found a place he likes about three miles away from here.  Just across from the Target, in fact.  It’s a nice little one-bedroom.  If all goes smoothly, he should be moving in sometime in September.

I guess that makes my First Day outfit easier to choose:   what should I wear for moving day?

September comes through for us again.

Blockity block blocked

Most weeks, I figure out a blog direction on Wednesday or Thursday.   Unfortunately, here it is, Friday morning, and I got nothin’.  Panic!

At the auto repair shop this morning—my car’s brakes are acting up—I text Dave to come get me and check out online topic generators.   I’ve read about them, but never tried them.  Once I get home, ready or not, I will be applying the seats of my pants to the seat of my blogging chair.      

I start at hub spot.com, whose Blog Ideas Generator instructs me to “enter a noun to get start” and generates five blog titles for up to five nouns.  I settle on three:  block, writer, and turtles.  I don’t know why turtles floats through my brain.  Each of the five titles uses just one of the nouns rather than combining them.  All the titles are familiar and, admittedly, clickable.   Block: Expectations vs. Reality.  This week’s top stories about Writer.   The Next Big Thing in Turtles—my strong favorite.  Even though my experience with turtles as an adult has been limited to the occasional encounter in a park or zoo, I’d still want to know what the next big thing in them might be.

As a kid, for a while we had two tiny turtles as pets.   They were almost certainly red-eared sliders, which breed was banned as a pet in the US in 1975 because they were a common source of salmonella  poisoning.  My family dodged that particular bullet.  The turtles lived in a what the pet store sold as an appropriate habitat (unacceptable nowadays): a small plastic tank that could be filled with a few inches of water, as well as a basking ramp rising out of the water and leading to a ledge  with a screw-in plastic palm tree.

Capitalizemytitle.com’s Random Topic Generator and Conversation Starter includes ice-breaking questions, fun to answer (“What do you do after you get done with work?”) and useful as writing prompts.   If I’d tried this site yesterday today’s blog would be different, but the turtles have grabbed me.  Inputting “Turtles” into the blog title generator provides some interesting, if not particularly pertinent, titles.  Number one is  10 Celebrities Who Should Consider a Career in Turtles.  Number two: What Freud Can Teach Us About Turtles, an article that I’d read in a heartbeat.

Our turtles were named Batman and Robin.  My three-year-old brother came up with the names.  Definitely the monikers were not my parents’ choice.  My father tolerated pets but interacted with them very little.    During his between-marriages years, he had no pets; his second wife brought along a dog, Honey, but the dog was very much hers.   My mother named our miniature French poodle Leonidas Menelaus and our parakeet Plutarch.  Freud might have made something out of that…

Essaytopicgenerator.com lets me enter several words, then generates a lengthy list of titles, only the first of which relates to turtles: Ecological effect of ecosystem on sea turtles. It’s not really an intriguing title, is it?   I refresh the list; the top entry now is  Discussion 8: training and staff development.     An ad in the middle of the page promotes custom essays for $12.93/page and suggests that I’ve stumbled onto a term paper factory.   Move on.

Batman and Robin were the first of the animals in our house that my mother let us take care of ourselves.  Like many kids, we were sure we would take care of them every day.  Mom managed Leo, Plutarch, and the cat, Wimpy (named before he came to live with us).  She showed us how to scatter the flakes of turtle food into the water and how to clean our shelled crusaders’ tank.  Tank cleaning was done in the bathroom.   Batman and Robin would scrabbled around the bottom of the bathtub, the claws on their stumpy legs unable to get much of a purchase on the porcelain, while I scrubbed the muck off their home.

Randomlists.com looks promising in terms of writing prompts, ice breakers, but I can’t find a title generator or a place to enter turtles as a search term.  The lists, though, are great.  Eight nouns.  My first pass yields  “typewriters, shoes, dogs, justice, pottery, dentistry, cycling, volcanoes.”

You could get a plastic island with a volcano at the pet store to decorate your turtle tank.  I wanted one, but it cost more than my mother was willing to pay, especially since there were more animals in the house these days.   My sister had discovered rodents, and our room had a cage in one corner with smelly bedding, her first pair of white mice, an exercise wheel, and a mouse house.   I eventually talked Mom into a second palm tree and a pirate treasure chest for the turtles.

Portent.com has a title generator.  I like it immediately because the font looks as though it were typed on a manual typewriter with slightly misaligned keys.  The first title suggested is a listicle—10 Ways Turtles are Cooler than Michael Jordan—moderately click-worthy, as well as annotated with useful writing reminders.   A second title: Why Mom was Right About Turtles.

My mother reminded us regularly that animals were a big commitment.    I was nine and probably not ready.  One day I took Batman and Robin to the bathroom to clean their tank.  I slipped on the rug, the tank angled, and both turtles fell into the open toilet.  At first this seemed a lucky accident; they were both strong swimmers.   I put the tank on the floor and pushed up my sleeves, then stared, horrified, as Batman dove straight for the drain and disappeared into it, followed in a flash by Robin.  I stuck put my hand and arm as far down the drain as it would fit (not very far) (feeling no turtles) and yelled for help.   My father came in, listened as I gasped out the story, and flushed the toilet.

I cried in my mouse-scented bedroom.  My father tried to comfort me by speculating that Batman and Robin possibly could have traveled the sewer system to freedom.   (It turns out that theoretically, turtles can survive a sewer, sometimes.)   Maybe anything seemed better to the turtles—animals that I know now could live into their 50s or even longer—than a 12-inch-diameter world featuring two plastic palm trees and a pirate chest.   I hope they made it, that they’re somewhere in the wilds of Fairfax County,  grown to 10 times their size.

 

Rose gold, kale, and talking small

It was another two a.m. Youtube session, where I stream planner videos in vague hopes of being lulled back into slumber.   Listening with my eyes half-closed to other people making lists for the weeks and months ahead helps.   The host had cleared away her rolls of washi tape and the sticker books and was rhapsodizing about the rose gold rings that would hold her planner together.  I squinted at the screen: the rings, blurry and bright, did look pretty.   Maybe I’d look for something rose gold…not a planner, but maybe a notebook or a pen?  While it’s still in stores, since my interest in a trend is a sure sign the trend is nearly done.

Always late to the party (for trends, at any rate: in real life, I’m always early to the party.  Too early).    By the time I read Bridget Jones (remainder bin), watch Sex in the City  (discounted DVD),  try the kale, buy the Kindle, etc., everybody’s talked out about them already.   I’m even later these days to trends because the food and lifestyle shows are on repeat.    Also our TV is generally set to CNN or Law & Order—no small-talk opportunities there.         It’s already tricky for me to catch the trend as it’s going around, one of the subtle social signs that I tend to miss, perhaps.  This is too bad.   Trends, if I catch them in time, help immensely with one of my challenges: small talk.          

Politics upsets everybody, and once we’re through moaning about the weather and the prices of gas and food, as there are no sports at the moment,  chatter about trends helps fill the silences and lets me participate.  As a teen whose TV privileges were strictly limited,  I could only smile and nod during home room as my friends discussed shows like M*A*S*H and WKRP.   I wanted to be in on the conversation, but I didn’t have the information to contribute.  The stuff that’s currently running through my head isn’t suitable for small talk.  It’s possible that my acquaintances would want to converse about Haydn’s skull, sexism in Ellery Queen, flute articulation, cat-friendly houseplants, the Overton window, or carnival games, but I fear awkward, perilous silences.  Rose gold everything seems more likely to succeed.    

I sure hope rose gold isn’t over yet, as I’ve acquired some interesting trivia on the topic.  Regarding the metal, for example:  evidently you can make gold into lots of colors, but the three major colors used by jewelers are white, yellow, and red/rose.   All of them are alloys (mixes of gold and other metals) because on its own, gold is generally too soft and easy to dent and scratch to make into jewelry.  Rose gold contains gold, copper, and silver.  This gives the gold a hue from deep red to a pale gold-pink, depending on the proportions of copper and silver.   Cool, right?

In nineteenth century Russia, Faberge used rose gold in his fabulous eggs, giving rise to the name “Russian gold” for this metal.   Interesting!  Since then, rose gold has been intermittently popular.  It decorated many a flapper’s décolletage in the 1920s.  Cartier’s famous Trinity Ring  (combining white, yellow, and rose gold) debuted in 1924.   Then in 2015, Apple made a rose gold iPhone and here we are.

I do already have a couple of pairs of rose gold-colored earrings, the inexpensive ones you find in Target—whose website lists almost 2000 “rose gold” products.  Paper clips, candlesticks, necklaces, notebooks, soap dishes, face masks, and shampoo…  Obviously there’s lots of money still to be made here, but I have to wonder whether rose gold is on the way to becoming the what-were-we-thinking? marker of 2010s style cliches,  the way avocado appliances scream bad 1970s fashion.

Millennials supposedly aren’t ready to abandon rose gold because it still reads as luxe, plus pink hues flatter in photographs and on video, an important consideration in these visually focused times.  Will they stay loyal, though, as the color washes down to the level of thumbtacks and toothbrush tumblers, now that their parents and grandparents are carrying around rose-gold-bound planners and pens, or will rose gold become as passé as strawberries-and-champagne cupcakes?

That would be just my luck.

Still want the pen, though.

 

Old favorites, new eyes

“He looks just like you,” my mother-in-law Ann told me, not quite able to conceal her disappointment.  It was Sonny’s first Christmas and her first sight of him.  I don’t know why people do this so much with babies.  Sonny has turned out to look very much like Dave, with similar height, build, smile, and hair texture (he’s got my hair color, though).   Ann would approve.

I noted the disappointment but didn’t mind (much).  I wanted Sonny to be like me in more important ways than the physical.  I especially hoped he was going to love reading the way I do.

I have been a voracious reader and rereader from the age of four.    Lots of kinds of books:  nature guides about bugs and birds; historical fiction like Laura Ingalls Wilder’s tales of life on the prairie and Robert Lawson’s Ben and Me; science fiction by Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Andre Norton; classics from Stevenson, Poe, Conan Doyle; mysteries like Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys, Encyclopedia Brown; the Bobbsey Twins…  Most especially I loved fantasy books.  Some of my favorites included E. Nesbit, Jane Langton, Susan Cooper, C.S. Lewis, and Tolkien, who ruled them all.

My parents read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe aloud to my sister and me in the evenings in our house on Telegraph Road.   That house had unexpected doors—especially the second storey door that opened onto the hillside instead of thin air—and I found that fascinating.   It may have been a reason for my love of stories where people find doors that open from one world into another, as in the Narnia books.   Soon I was reading and rereading the Narnia books all by myself.

I was eager to share with Sonny the stories and characters I had loved and to encounter them again after decades away.   One fun thing about being a parent is introducing your kid to the wonderful stuff, music and books and holidays and ice cream and trees.  We started with board and cloth books and progressed to picture books: fairy tales in Golden Books, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Click, Clack, Moo, Counting Crocodiles, Cat in the Hat, Thomas the Tank Engine.  Sonny got to the point where he didn’t need as many pictures in his books, so I made lists of my old favorites and scoured the library.

Sonny liked fantasy and trains and funny books, so I read him the first Harry Potter—not a book from my childhood, but in the fantasy genre and featuring trains on occasion.  Then we went on to The Hobbit, which went well.  Next on the list was Narnia, so we began The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.        

This shattered my plan.  An impatient twinge turned into active dislike.  Maybe it was the proximity to Tolkien, whose writing style I prefer.  Lewis’s allegory was heavy handed, his tone condescending rather than simply old-fashioned.   I found myself arguing in my head as I read.  Sonny enjoyed the book, but he didn’t ask for more of the series.   I switched to different series, series that were new to me:  Bunnicula,  Percy Jackson, and more.     

Sonny learned to read and had become voracious in his own way.  Fantasy and manga and game guides, lots of graphic novels.  Always bringing a book along in the car or to a restaurant.  

At one point Dave, Sonny and I went down to the DC area and Virginia.  We visited several houses I’d lived in as a kid in that state, drove past my high school, even ate at a real Krispy Kreme.   Sonny had his head in a book for much of the travel time, but he looked up when we asked him to.  The house on Telegraph Road was smaller than I remembered.  Truly tiny, and still packed into the hillside.   Thirty years’ absence and my being a foot taller, time and fresh eyes.  It felt curious but not painful.

It was, though, painful to read about Narnia again with fresh eyes.  I worried that revisiting other beloved authors would be risky.   It’s hard to feel a happy nostalgia about a book when the gilding is faded and peeling.

Every once in a while Sonny YouTubes a bit of an old TV series from his childhood—Teletubbies, Thomas the Tank Engine—and finds it hilarious that he was once very into these.  A healthy attitude.  At some point I’ll work up the nerve to revisit other old favorites.  Maybe to love, and if not to love, at least without pain.

In the USA: Heroes and Villains

On Independence Day, July 4, 2020, the president of the United States called on American heroes to defeat the “radical left” in the same way that they defeated “the Nazis…[and] chased down the terrorists to the very ends of the earth.”  He defined the radical left broadly enough to include anyone who’s supported the Black Lives Matter movement, the removal of public-space statues that reinforce oppression, education that mentions the negative aspects of American history, etc., etc.   The radical left probably wouldn’t include me among its ranks, but the president does.   I guess if heroes are the people who are going to pursue me to the ends of the earth for having different opinions about politics, I—a suburban mom, self-employed, taxpayer, bill payer, law abider, and voter,—am the opposite of a hero.

I’m a villain.

A hero in the classical sense, a muscly, adventure-prone dude like Heracles or Achilles, is different from hero the way we use it today.   Ancient heroes do thrilling things, not necessarily noble things.    Achilles sulks in his tent outside of Troy and lets the Athenians be slaughtered in battle, resuming the fight for purely personal reasons (his best friend killed), not to keep a promise or support a cause.   Heracles kills his music teacher, cheats on his wive(s), and does his great labors to atone for killing one of his wives and their children in a rage—induced by Hera, queen of the gods (who “takes no responsibility”—sound familiar?).  Because the heroes are tied to the Greek gods, who are always scheming against one another and using humans as proxies in these schemes, the heroes don’t really have to be moral.  They just have to be interesting and successful.

It’s my theory that as pantheism was succeeded by monotheism, the concept of hero evolved.  With only one god to give favor, the hero’s actions became moral by default, since s/he was doing the god’s work.   Heroes became virtuous, and heroism became broader yet more stifling.   Currently it’s possible to become a hero simply by choosing a profession.  Maybe some people signed up because they get paid, plus, it’s only 20 years to retirement, or because there’s a union to protect their rights, or because they get called heroes even if most days are spent manning a speed trap just past the town line.   Once a hero, though, you can’t be seen to do bad stuff: it makes the profession look bad.  If one night you rescue a battered wife and the next morning you shoot a guy in the back, the shooting has to be made heroic, in order to protect the hero status of your profession.  If it can’t be spun that way, the profession disowns you and kicks you to the other side.

And there aren’t 25 other gods of the pantheon to oppose the hero’s side.  It’s not Hera versus Athena any more.  On the other side is the devil.  Characters allied with the devil are not just rivals or obstacles: they are villains.   Villains who twirl their mustaches and chuckle evilly while setting bombs and shoving people into gas chambers.

Both writers and readers can find old-style heroes a little stuffy.  These characters don’t change and grow.  Their actions are plot-driven, and if the plot isn’t fabulously studded with surprises amid the monsters and mazes and battles, we lose interest.   More complex heroes who change and grow become protagonists.

The same goes for villains.  Unless brilliantly designed, a villain whose sole function is to stand in the way of the protagonist is unsatisfying.   A villain with depth, complexity, and elements of good becomes an antagonist.

There are exceptions.  We find plenty of one-dimensional heroes and villains in stories aimed at young children, or in movies chasing audiences with spectacular visuals and fast-moving, twisty plots.  Which can be okay.  Less okay is propaganda, which uses broad-stroke narratives with heroes and villains, stereotypes moving towards an emotion-fueled, us-versus-them, god-versus-devil conclusion.

Propaganda like the president spewed twice over the holiday weekend.   Shame on him.

Walking Worried Part Deux

A while ago I made a post about Covid-19-related hypochondria spreading through the house.  Dave and I both had it: that sneaking worry that a low-energy day, headache, cough or sniffle was the beginning of the end.  A reasonable but disruptive paranoia.

Even Capone the cat had a sneezy day.  This happened in April, a few weeks into the shutdown.  I worried because of all the news stories about Covid in felines…lions and tigers at the Bronx Zoo, pet cats in Belgium and Manhattan.   I offered Capone comfort food.  He doesn’t like my favorite, flatbginger ale and animal crackers, so I gave him a morsel of cheese and some cracker crumbs.  He ate it all and swatted at my hand as I took the empty plate, so clearly I’d cheered him up.

Now it’s July.  We’ve followed Massachusetts’ social distancing guidelines, wearing masks, being careful about shopping and gathering.  It recently struck me that none of us has been sick this whole time.  After that one day, Capone’s sneezes stopped.  Sonny’s been bored, but fine healthy.  Dave’s knee bothers him every once in a while, and sometimes my wrist goes a little wonky, but that’s the sum of our physical discomforts.

In my young adult years I got sick only rarely.  After Dave and I became parents, of course, everything changed.  When Sonny got sick, we did too.  Young kids pick up all the fab new bugs and share them freely.   Sonny’s immune system strengthened, but by then I was teaching music lessons and playing in pits, both of which kept me near the germs.   Lessons maintained close contact with the six-year-old crowd.  Pits jammed for three to five hours at a time in a enclosed space the size of a walk-in closet with several other people.

The last time I was actually sick (rather than stressed about a headache or a two-minute coughing episode) was mid February.    Just a head cold, the kind of small annoyance that hits every few weeks from October through May.   A simple cycle of intimations, suffering, and relief.   But oh, that morning when the energy comes back, when the nose is clear and the throat is scratch-free, when Capone leaps onto the bed at a quarter past five and meows imperiously for his breakfast and I smile at the sound of it, because I feel normal again…

It’s been four months.  Four months without a cold, flu, sinus infection, etc.   Nothing but the occasional pollen reaction.   Another tiny star to brighten the Covid-19 night, and I missed it.

I long to play in a pit, even next to a guitarist with a (non-covid) cough; to teach a piano lesson to an eight-year-old with a runny nose; to come down with a terrible cold that I know is just a cold.  To cough and sneeze so much that Capone orders Dave to bring me flat ginger ale and animal crackers.   To wake up a few days later feeling the joy of normal.