The Dread List

Bed: who can get out of it? Not me this morning. Tasks stretch out before me. Trivial/ routine–take a shower, get dressed–daunting. Normal Sunday items: this blog, groceries, practice: overwhelming. One big one: clean the basement, where there be spiders: unthinkable.

Author M. Molly Backes calls it “the impossible task.” Something to be done that seems routine or inconsequential to others, often even to yourself. Something easily completed, at least in normal times. Opening the mail, making the bed, taking a shower. How many showers have I taken in my life? This morning it needs all my strength to throw off my bedsheet and get my feet on the floor. There’s guilt that comes along with the avoidance, throwing a long shadow that’s still not energizing enough. Backes notes that the impossible task often accompanies depression or anxiety. I reassure myself. Surely we’re all a bit depressed these days, given the pandemic and politics.

Today’s trigger is more likely to be anxiety. My birthday is six days away. In an attempt to face another year around the sun with a cleaner slate, I’ve filled up the final week of September with necessary and somewhat overdue appointments. Piano tuning, car inspection, chimney sweeping. One of our fireplaces is in the basement. It keeps the spiders and dust bunnies nice and toasty.

Internet tips for dealing with the impossible task abound. The recommendations are generally sensible and kind and include

  1. If you can’t do all of the task, do a little bit at a time and treat that as a victory. Don’t bundle up all of the work into one horrible block that takes up all the room in your head. Try making a list of steps (maybe something like my Dread List below) and setting a timer for a few minutes to see how much you get done.
  2. Ask for help from friends and family. Instead of any single one of us tackling the basement, the cleanup is today’s awful family project. While we may not be “happy” about it, we’re truly joyful that none of us bears responsibility for the entire chore.
  3. Give yourself rewards for making headway on the impossible task, even if it seems as though you’re treating yourself like a kindergartner winning a participation trophy. We’re going to have turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy and some refreshing beverages this evening as a reward for tackling the grime. If I get through each item on my Dread List, I’m going to add an extra treat and order some music I’ve wanted.
  4. If you can pay someone to do the task for you, or trade someone’s impossible task for your own, try that. I take Capone the cat to the vet; Dave puts air in my tires; Sonny tackles the first wave of dishes when they pile up to the sky.
  5. Forgive yourself if you can’t get the task done. Calling yourself lazy will pile on the guilt, which is documented to increase the weight of bedsheets to 250 pounds each. Try again another day.
  6. Consult a doctor or a therapist when the impossible tasks start to multiply like basement dust bunnies.

The White Queen boasts to Alice: “Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” Can I contemplate that many? In my journal, I write a title: “The Dread List.” The letters are big; I outline them in clashing shades of orange, purple, and green to make them look even more fearsome. I draw stick-figure illustrations and checkboxes. Six impossible tasks laid down onto the page, and then a couple more, because my competitive streak is strong. Eight items. I resolve to complete them before midnight…though maybe not this midnight.

Duke and the serpent

On the pond before sunrise the swan parents were still groggy. The teenager, ready for the day, arched his back and flapped his wings, sending ripples in their direction. Mother pulled her beak out from under her wing, but father kept his head tucked down. He looked like a plastic bag, adrift. If I hadn’t been looking for swans, or if the light had been just a little poorer, maybe I’d have conjured up a monster for our little pond.

Nessie keeps poking her giant head into my journal this month. “Why do I keep drawing the Loch Ness monster?” is apparently a unique Google question. Auto-complete is happy to answer the how, but not why. Nessie’s easy to draw (even for somebody as bad at drawing as I am), and as I like to sketch ponds and seas and rivers, etc., she has popped up occasionally in the past when I go into “here be dragons” mode. Then she started peeking out of the curves of the numeral 2. I found myself piling her curves into a bathtub with a glass of wine, trailing her around a dressing table. She drove the kids to school, compared her to-do list with mine.

Google directed me to pages where I learned the word “cryptid.” (Autocorrect doesn’t believe it’s a word…Suck it, Autocorrect.) Cryptids are animals presumed to exist based on anecdotal (some might say manufactured or suggested) rather than scientific evidence. Bigfoot, yeti, Nessie.

I was familiar with the blurry black-and-white surgeon’s photograph of her, but I didn’t know that stories about a water monster near the loch dated back at least to the A.D. 500s. Supernatural/monstrous water creatures have long been a part of Scottish folklore. The Nessie of the early stories was fearsome: man-eating, bloodthirsty as a great white shark. Ultimately she was repelled by a saint. That temperament might fit Nessie in the car–at least on the roads here in Massachusetts–but the Nessie of the past century or two seems wary of people rather than hungry for them. A flurry of reported sightings in the late 1800s made the local papers and then died down. It was in the 1930s, a decade heavily populated with human monsters, that Nessie reared her lovely head again.

In 1933, George Spicer and his wife claimed to have seen, while driving in their car, a serpent-like creature with a long neck, about four feet high and twenty-five feet long, with no visible feet. The creature slithered or perhaps lumbered or waddled across the road in front of their car and into the loch. The loch itself is 22 miles long at its largest point and has an average depth of 433 feet. Plenty of room for a fabulous beast.

The most fascinating person associated with the 1930s sightings has to be Marmaduke (“Duke”) Wetherell, a British-South African movie actor, writer, and director with crazy eyes and a Vandyke beard 80 years before hipsters took up that trend. While his movie career is documented as lasting from 1918 to 1937, his greatest role may have been convincing the Daily Mail editors that he was a big game hunter who should be put on the Loch Ness story. Arriving at the loch in 1934 with camera and crew, he quickly found tracks. He confidently asserted that these had been made by an enormous beast consistent with the Spicers’ description. Photos document him looking moodily out at the lake, boarding a boat, consulting maps, and #lstanding in long grass and holding up a pair of calipers up to the footprints, a cigaret dangling from his lower lip.

Alas, it wasn’t long before experts determined that the footprints had been faked, possibly using an ornamental hippopotamus foot from an umbrella stand. I personally think it was genius, choosing an animal whose name in greek meant “water horse”; also, how glad I am that I have never lived in a house where there was an umbrella stand made from a formerly living animal’s foot. Following those revelations, Wetherell performed shocked outrage and embarrassment convincingly. It wasn’t until years later that he was suspected of having contrived the footprints in the first place.

Sixty years after the fact, in 1994, Wetherall was revealed to have been connected to the surgeon’s photograph, which was taken by Dr. Robert Kenneth Wilson. Christian Spurling, Wetherell’s stepson, told journalists that the monster had actually been a model, sculpted by himself and taped to a child’s submarine. Supposedly this was done at the instigation of Wetherell out of a motive of “revenge” towards the Daily Mail after it made fun of him for being fooled by the hippo prints. Although…if he wasn’t a real big game hunter, but a movie actor, how much had his pride actually been wounded?

Loch Ness monster sightings continue to this day. As a nearsighted person who hates to wear her prescription glasses, I find this unsurprising. I doubt that Nessie naps in the loch’s frigid waters, but I welcome the ambiguous photos and films. Life is more interesting when the faraway is blurry enough to be fantastic. On a closer view the dwarves may resolve into tree stumps, stags fold into mailboxes, marvelous taletellers devolve into hoaxers. But sometimes rocks turn into turtles, or plastic bags into swans.

Notorious

Friday was a day for ghosts and sad reflections. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the notorious RBG, died at the age of 87. One of my heroes, I’d hoped desperately that this champion of human rights, the first female tenured professor at Columbia Law School, the second female SCOTUS justice, the “great dissenter,” would outlive this terrible administration. Add her to the many fine things 2020 has taken away from us.

The ghost had arrived that afternoon, tucked inside a heavy cardboard box lugged by our mail carrier to a socially appropriate distance from the front door. There were three boxes altogether; my father had found them while clearing out his cavernous basement. His note said they contained “books, dolls, papers, and some of your high school things.”

It was no surprise that a few boxes had lain unnoticed for decades. My final year of high school I and the rest of my family had moved multiple times.

There were books, mostly mystery and science fiction paperbacks, some creepy dolls that opened their glass eyes as I lifted them from the packing paper, a purple ceramic donkey, band concert programs, high school year books, paper flowers, my graduation cap, a music box with a rotting velvet interior, and the ghost.

Too thin, 17 and ready to start her real life, she floats out of a slim leather-bound volume titled “Memories.” The book consists of blank pages with prompts at the top (classes, sports, hobbies, travel, commencement, etc.) along with some end-pages with slots for graduation cards (business cards with students’ names printed in fancy type). She’s filled out the Personal Data page with her address, phone, hair and eye colors, and hobbies (piano and clarinet).

She rates her classes and teachers: “Blake (physics) is a great teacher! Mr. Headley (government) is boring and talks down.” “Band has sadly deteriorated over four years.” She has little good to say about the graduating class as a whole: “My class was so mediocre that we excelled in one thing only: good behavior. In all other areas we came in last or near it.” She’s pleased that high school is done, “but I’m glad I went here.” She’s afraid she’s not completely prepared, but sure that the next thing will be better. She’s betting that she’s ready for whatever. (She’s not. I feel again the regret that I squandered her potential.)

So often in life, things that you regard as an impediment turn out to be great, good fortune. –RBG

My ghost’s friends agree that she has potential: “Good luck, although I know you won’t need it (Brain)” writes. Another: “I know you will be a big success.” Most optimistic of all: “I expect to see you playing first in the Chicago Symphony.” She writes the same kind of thing in their Memories books. Mediocre be damned: they are going to take over the world.

At university my ghost finds dorms full of smarties. Unlike RBG, who would graduate from Harvard Law School and go from strength to strength, my ghost takes a pinballish path from job to job, gig to gig. RBG said, “If you want to be a true professional, you will do something outside yourself…something that makes life a little better for people less fortunate than you.” But Ginsburg had the profession thing down.

First chair in the Chicago Symphony is out, but the ghost keeps making music, starts writing, becomes a parent, teaches. She grows into me. I bounce from bumper to bumper, eventually realizing that I can make a difference in my students’ lives, that people can enjoy my music and words even if they aren’t Chicago Symphony or Hemingway level. My ghost raises sadness partly because of the restrictions of this horrid year, where the activities I love most are largely closed to me. I reassure my ghost that she didn’t have to be great to be good enough.

A second pass at my high school friends’ notes hints that this path was already underway. Amid the “always remember third period and these crazy times” are also “thanks for all your help with physics” (also government, German, and clarinet), other thanks for support (“you know what I mean!” except I can’t remember what that’s about), plus my best friend ordering me to write, write, WRITE. And now I do.

The dissenter’s hope [is] that they are writing not for today, but for tomorrow. –RBG

The last prompt in “Memories” was “The Future.” My ghost left that page blank. Writing wasn’t really on her radar and the future was so far off. Past, future, and present have braided together and ask me to write just a bit more:

RBG has left the building. At a campaign rally yesterday, the current president praised the police for shooting a rubber bullet into the knee of a reporter who was covering a peaceful protest. The Attorney General is urging that protestors be arrested and charged with sedition; while he says the charges should apply only to “violent” protestors, he seems to define leaving the house while liberal as violent. Many of the rights that Ginsburg argued for and helped bring into being are in jeopardy.

RBG wanted to be remembered as “someone who used whatever talent she had to do her work to the very best of her ability…to make things a little better through the use of whatever ability she has.” I’m going to follow that principle. Dear readers: I hope we all do, and that we turn that little better into a giant good.

Toddler at the helm

In 2004, when Sonny was about six, several reality shows focused on families made their US TV debuts. Nanny 911, Wife Swap, and Trading Spouses became regular viewing in our house. Sonny loved them; so did I. Even my husband Dave, not much of a reality TV fan, would watch once in a while.

Wife Swap and Trading Spouses episodes involved swapping spouses (mothers, mostly) between families with opposing “extreme” parenting styles, such as athletic versus academic, controlling versus laissez faire, clean freak versus dust-abiding, etc. The ideal, as constructed by the story-line wizards behind the scenes, was to find some kind of happier medium for each family. The shows focused on child behavior, spousal relationships, household routines, and parenting philosophies. Nanny 911 dealt with parents overwhelmed by turbulent children, so rather than swapping out a parent, a nanny was sent in to save the day. The nannies wore uniforms and spoke in accents reminiscent of Mary Poppins. I loved Mary Poppins the movie from my childhood and also the shows that popped up in its wake, such as Nanny and the Professor. A mysterious, semi-magical outsider who could fix the family: how I wished one would descend, via umbrella or black taxicab, and help my own house.

Like a lot of the TV audience, these shows gave me some reassurance that my situation, challenging as it was, 1) wasn’t so bad, by comparison, and 2) could change, if I worked at it. Being a parent during the elementary school years was tough. Sonny had his own ideas of how to do things. He needed justifications and explanations for every rule, and it took some years to convince him that following rules was more rewarding than not. On the continuum of strict to loose, our family fell onto the stricter side of the middle. We limited screen time, scheduled homework time and bedtime, required piano practice, and had charts and checklists throughout the house.

I wondered if Sonny would gravitate towards the anything-goes onscreen families, the ones who let their kids watch as much TV as they wanted, never checked homework, never set a bedtime. Or if he’d get ideas from the hellraisers on Nanny 911 who screamed no, threw fits in stores to get a snack or a toy, and punched other kids. It turned out that he almost always preferred the structured, relatively uptight families (though he was critical of the crazier ones) to the unstructured, chaotic ones. That shouldn’t be a surprise: people on the autistic spectrum benefit even more than neurotypical people from clear communication of expectations, a predictable environment, and the reassurance of structure and steps for accomplishing things.

The shows got cancelled after about three years. That was okay with us; we’d stopped watching them, too. Sonny’s preteen years had arrived. He was far past the stage of throwing a fit in a store or refusing to do his homework.

I was still a little wistful that a problem-solving nanny had never invaded the house, even though I suspected that she would insist that the solution to problems with children’s misbehavior rested with Dave and me. Parents should present a united front, provide their children with consistent and clear expectations and limits, react to misbehavior in nonviolent ways that a child can understand, etc. We’d eventually figured out that stuff and put it into practice.

I did sometimes miss the shows’ opening montages of bad behavior. The thought of the monstrous adults generated by poor parenting, six-foot-plus toddlers without the ability or desire to self-regulate, was troubling, but mostly in the entertaining way of a scary movie. That was before one of those monsters was elected president, of course.

It’s cute when a toddler hands you a pan and thinks that means he has singlehandedly made dinner. When the chief executive of the US thinks that banning some travel from China and Europe means that he solved the pandemic: not cute. It’s a teaching opportunity and sometimes a cute conversation when a first-grader says math is hard and homework is unfair. When a 70-plus-year-old man looks to his many-times-bankrupt gut and information gleaned from hours a day of TV watching rather than the abundant resources available to him to fight big, tough problems like systemic racism and climate change: not cute.

As on Nanny 911, the “adults in the room” are mostly to blame. The ones who complained behind the scenes to each other and then left, staying silent in real time. And the ones who stayed and bought the toddler-in-chief the damn toy so they could have a little peace and quiet. It’s just too bad, I guess, that we can’t send in a nanny.

addicted to words

I learned a new word this week: auxesis. Look at it: so pretty, with that X in the middle, arms outstretched for a hug, the pair of Ss curling protectively around the delicate i. Listen to it: aww, as though you’ve just seen a kitten, then the rise to the hard palate for the push of the kss, then the gentle finish, ee-sisss, like a ripple on a pond.

I love the look and sound of Greek-derived words like this. My mother spent a couple of years studying ancient Greek (the language of Homer, Aristotle, etc.) via a correspondence course. I remember her intrepid sledge through the Iliad, the soft leather binding of the Greek New Testament that she carried to church on Sundays. In my 20s, I tried for a bit to teach myself ancient Greek. Even though I was defeated by the grammar, stumbling on a word like auxesis is catnip to me.

Not literal catnip; auxesis definitionally has to do with growth and increase and is used in science (biology) and rhetoric. In biology, auxesis is an increase in cell size that doesn’t involve cell division.

In rhetoric—well, you’ll have to bear with me here. I’ve studied rhetoric some (I went to writing school), but a lot of it is, if you’ll pardon the expression, Greek to me. Rules and nuances hard to grasp and easy to drop. Some rhetorical devices (metaphor, hyperbole, onomatopoeia) have been explained to me often enough that I can remember them. More often when I encounter a rhetoric vocabulary word that I’ve forgotten, I simply babble through the beautiful syllables like a toddler. Meiosis. Metonymy. Synecdoche. Epistrophe. Anaphora.

In the rhetorical sense, auxesis involves a crescendo of meaning or impact. This may be achieved through

  • Hyperbole, which makes a molehill into a mountain: “There has been no President in the history of our Country who has been treated so badly as I have…”
  • Amplification, which piles on points like an old married couple: “You don’t care about me. You forgot to mail that bill, and last week you came back from grocery shopping without my crackers. And last summer I had to spend $60 on a taxi from the airport because you forgot to check your texts. Not to mention our anniversary in 2004…”
  • Climax, which orders a series of words or clauses in ascending importance. boom, Boom, BOOM!: “I came; I saw; I conquered.”

I encountered auxesis while doing a writing exercise, a list poem. I enjoyed writing the poem and, maybe even more, having a new, fancy word to associate with my list-making obsession. It’s a bit disappointing that Wiktionary calls the climax sense (series- or list-ordering) obsolete. Especially since this word goes to the heart of a crucial list ordering principle: crucial to trivial, or vice versa? Lists made to be read or watched put the most important or notable stuff last. Ten weirdest museums, top five noir movies, 17 signs you need help for your word habit. Productivity gurus recommend that the important stuff come first. Easy and obvious first works best for me; the important stuff adds itself later. Auxesis all the way.

Orange

The official start of fall is 11 days away. It can’t come soon enough for me, as it’s been unpleasantly steamy here the last several days. I’ve switched out sundresses for sweaters and bought my first pumpkin spice latte. I’ve even changed to a face mask with a falling leaf design, yet summer won’t take the hint.

Capone the cat, suffering like the rest of us, stretches out on the relatively cool wood floor of our bedroom. Some days this would mean that he’s planning to snag me with a claw as I move around the room. Today he’s conserving his attack energy. How much space he occupies, from whiskers to twitching tail tip! I sit down and scritch-scratch between his ears, enjoying the softness of his fur and his fabulous orange stripes. He leans his head into my hand and rumbles his quiet purr.

Fall is the best season, crammed with birthdays, holidays, school, concerts, and new beginnings. No school for my family this year, but the yellow school buses are out, reminding me of sending Sonny off with his notebooks and folders in his favorite colors, orange and yellow. All around us the trees exploding into reds and oranges, tabbies arching their leafy backs into the sky.

Capone, in repose, looks as if he could be the grandson of my parents’ tabby, Wimpy. Capone’s a large cat, friendly cat who likes people and even dogs. Wimpy was a giant who lived half indoors, half outdoors. He had a purr that could be heard several rooms away, and he was tolerant, but mostly indifferent, to the humans in the house. His sworn enemies were my mother’s poodle and the neighborhood cats. His ears were tattered from midnight battles.

Wimpy, battered ears notwithstanding, blended in beautifully with my mom’s decorating scheme, which (it being the 1970s) relied heavily on scratchy fabrics in harvest colors: browns, oranges, golds, and avacado greens. It was always fall in our house. Above the couch in our living room, we had a framed, life-sized tawny lion’s head that my mother had made from a kit by sewing yarn onto a burlap canvas. Wimpy spent a lot of time on this couch, napping regally beneath that family portrait.

My hand propels little puffs of fur off of Capone and into the air, where they float until they find the floor, the dresser, my chair, the bedspread. This pumpkin patch of cat hair does not coordinate with my color scheme, which is more ocean/summer than harvest. My reaction is the same as my mother’s: I get out the vacuum cleaner.

I don’t mind. I can’t count every cat hair in the patch, but the shedding has slowed some since August. Fall is nearly here.

Word choice terrible

I pressed the Publish button with my usual sense of relief.

“Shouldn’t that be ‘streets,’ not ‘roads’?” Dave asked. He’d been reading my last post, Exit from the Sore Losers’ Club, over my shoulder and had gotten to the paragraph where I describe elements of the cribbage board. I’d put “roads” as the name of the line of holes that cribbage pegs travel over the course of the game.

I checked my references and found that I’d reached for lightning and hit a lightning bug, again.

Maybe you’ve run across this famous Mark Twain quote? “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter. ’tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” A piece of advice that’s stuck in my brain alongside of E.B. White’s dictum on the difference between nauseated and nauseous and my address at age 11.

Twain didn’t originate this phrase, though he improved on it. The American dialect humorist Josh Billings, a friend of Twain’s, wrote “Don’t mistake vivacity for wit, thare iz about az mutch difference az thare iz between lightning and a lightning bug.” Twain’s version has fewer annoying misspellings and reorders the consequent so that the bigger and better (right word) matches with “lightning” rather than with the bug.

Although maybe Billings meant to match lightning bug with wit? Lightning bugs (aka fireflies, and more properly, Lampyridae beetles) are fascinating creatures. Garden-level stars, they are purposeful, which lightning is not. As kids, we tried to lure the males–they’re the flashy flyers, signaling in hope of finding a mate; the females respond from the ground, single flashes–into lantern-shaped jars with ventilated lids. Once in the jar, though, the boy bugs would quickly cease flashing. After a few minutes, we would unscrew the lid, hoping for better luck next time. We never learned.

Freed, the males continued their mating flights, a venture that involved greater risks than kids with lantern jars. Adult fireflies are protected from many predators. Evidently the chemicals that produce their glow taste yucky. Lightning bugs’ diet varies by species; some eat pollen or nectar, and some are carnivorous. What do carnivorous fireflies eat? Other species of fireflies!

It’s rare that I see lightning bugs now. When the developers move in with McMansions and strip malls, the fireflies don’t leave; they just die out. Pollution’s also reducing their population. Lightning, of course, is still around. I love to see those magnificent flashes, especially in the summer, from a distance. My favorite is the kind that arcs from the sky to the ground, burning a road in the sky.

That little word “road” snuck in like a bug when I wrote my post about cribbage, flashing at me. My first draft referred to “streets,” but as I jammed more words into the jar, streets flew free and roads stayed.

I understand why it seemed right. A “road” is the name for something that connects one point to another. That would be apropos to cribbage, where there are two points: start, and finish. “Street,” however, is “a public way that has buildings on both sides of it.” There’s also a connotation of a street being within a town/city, so it could be spun as appropriate, given that it’s confined to the cribbage board. (Avenue, boulevard, lanes, alleys, drives, parkways, circles…each one is its own thing–maybe tomorrow’s dive down the rabbit hole?) To my mind road fits the cribbage board better than street. What matters is that “streets” is the true name. The lightning.

I shooed Dave out of the room, hit the edit button, and began to type.

Exit from the Sore Losers’ Club

Tonight I’ll play cribbage with Dave. Over the 25 years that we’ve been together, he’s taught me the game at least eight times. I’ve never been able to remember the rules or figure out the strategy. We’ve been mired in a cycle of teach-play-complain-abandon.

Dave learned the game as a kid; it’s one of his favorites. He’s wicked good and wicked fast at it. Until lately he’d satisfied his cribbage yen at the office; there’s usually a coworker or two up for a game. Six months into working from home, we have been trying to turn to more board and card games and other off-screen activities. Cribbage was bound to come up sooner or later.

As a writer of sorts, it would seem that I’d be attuned to the rules of a game developed by a poet. Specifically, the Cavalier poet Sir John Suckling, who lived a short (1609-1641 or maybe 1642) but extremely colorful life. Suckling’s prowess at bowls and cards was more renowned than his verse-making (slightly unfair sample couplet: “Love is the fart/Of every heart”), but much of his work is still anthologized. His straightforward diction and man-about-town urbanity appeal to my inner city girl. Eventually falling into disfavor with King Charles I, Sir John fled London for Paris. Shortly afterward, somewhere on the Continent, he perished. When, where, and how are uncertain. Did he commit suicide? Was he poisoned by his valet? Executed by the Spanish Inquisition? (I…didn’t expect the Spanish Inquisition, but this is one of the theories about how Suckling’s life ended).

In earlier cycles, no matter how cheerfully I went into a game, my mood and energy would flag in direct proportion to how far behind my spilikens (pegs) lagged Dave’s on the streets (holes) around the paperclip-shaped track. At some point Dave would reference another random rule. My attention would drift. A to-do list would sneak into my thoughts.

I’ve never toppled a game board, stormed off mid game, or declared facts fake news, but passive-aggression still puts me in the sore loser club. My attitude is situation and game-dependent, and I can notice it happening and readjust, most of the time. Not when it comes to cribbage, for some reason.

Sore loserdom being ego-protective, I have plenty of company in the clubhouse, both from home and abroad. Dave can cheerfully lose an occasional Scrabble, Monopoly, hearts, or cribbage match. With candlepin bowling or chess, doing poorly can make him furious. Of the three of us, Sonny seems to spend the least amount of time in the clubhouse–maybe because we put him in youth soccer for a couple of years? He didn’t take to the sport, but he seems to have internalized the good game/high fives at the end of play. On the other hand, I spent my childhood with my nose in a book, and the closest I came to a team sport was high school marching band.

There are many games I enjoy because I know that I’ll never be good at them in a million years. There are many games I enjoy because I’m relatively decent at them–win or lose, it’ll be a game without bone-headed mistakes on my part. I can live with that. As Suckling notes, “A quiet mediocrity is still to be preferred before a troubled superfluity.”

Then there are games I feel I should be good at. If I fail at those games, it’s because I’m stupid (always one of the cardinal sins in my house, growing up). Cribbage had become one of those games. I was afraid that I wasn’t capable of understanding the rules.

In the latest attempt, I determined to shoot for a quiet mediocrity with maximal effort. I took notes during each game. Dave kindly reviewed all of my hands and talked through strategies; he slowed his game speed down while I laboriously counted my 15s. When random rules came up, I wrote them down rather than simply rolling my eyes. Things started to make sense. Getting out of the sore losers’ club took a bit effort and awareness (and will the next time I repeat this lesson), but it was worth it. I achieved quiet mediocrity and reassured myself that my brain still worked okay. Best of all, it turned out the cribbage was…pretty fun, actually.

Therefore I am thankful to Sir John Suckling and give him have the final word: “Joy never feasts so high as when the first course is of misery.”