NaNoWriMo’s a Go-Go-Go

National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) starts in two days. I decided to participate last week, on the day I cast my 2020 election vote. With my most important civic duty accomplished, I felt able to commit to try writing 50,000 words in 30 days. Ideally, then, I’ll spend election month buried in my book.

I’ve spent yesterday and today prepping, mostly by watching Authortube (YouTubers who make videos about the writing process). Over at Authortube they’ve been prepping all month, shuffling index cards like riverboat gamblers, screen-shotting nifty programs and apps, covering kanban boards with Post-Its, and sharing their intended writing schedules and novel-tracking spreadsheets. NaNoWriMo’s website is also packed with helpful advice, pep talks, links to writing software, and online support groups.

These questions are of academic interest only, as I’ve decided…to join the pantsers! For book-length projects, writers tend to divide into plotters and pantsers. Plotters write outlines, draw maps, fill out character sheets, identify research topics, etc. Pantsers sit down at the keyboard and start writing. Plotter is natural to me. It reduces the chances of getting stuck a few chapters in and, often, the time required to complete the first draft. But it can also make the writing part of the process feel less exciting and spontaneous. As a pantser, I will probably hit some dead ends and meander, but I think I’ll have a bit more fun.

So there will be no index cards or Scrivener downloads for me. No NaNoWriMo blocks on the schedule, and especially no trackers. (Tracking rouses my internal rebel: I just hate it when I order me around. Who do I think I am, the boss of me?)

The key questions left to settle are environmental.

Laptop, typewriter, pen on paper? Laptop. I’ve seen a couple of authortubers with manual typewriters from the 1950s; cool aesthetic, but also finger-tangling and off-putting, perhaps, to one’s family.

Sitting down or standing up? Sitting down.

PJs or day clothes? Very probably both.

Headphones or playlist blasting? I can’t listen to music while I write. I’ll be blasting white noise videos–rain, waves, crickets, flames.

Coffee or tea? I love coffee, and it’s been important to the work process of many artists, but I don’t want to suffer French writer Balzac’s fate, especially with as much time I’m planning to spend writing. Bad at managing his money and needing to produce lots of content to get out of debt, Balzac wrote about 13 hours per day and fueled this grind with many cups of black coffee (five or six? 40 or more? nobody knows for sure, but 50 seems to be the upper limit of the guesses). When he died in 1850 at the age of 51, caffeine poisoning may have been a contributing factor. It’s harder, though not impossible, to die from drinking too much tea, so: tea.

Snacks? Only if I start writing in the kitchen, which has no places to sit.

Writing in a room with others (family and/or pets) or alone? I’ll try a mix of solitary and writing in a corner of the family room. As far as pets, the authortubers I’ve watched have had dogs, so I assume their pets are happy to stay close by. I pose the question to Capone the cat. He flicks an ear and settles himself more firmly on the TV remote. He’s been lying on it a lot lately–I believe it’s in protest to how I’ve been yelling at the news–but I’m going to interpret the gestures as some kind of tolerance for the idea.

Mirror

The turkey crosses the road with the dignity of a king. His long neck is stretched toward the far curb, and his snood wobbles with every step. His wings are folded neatly to his body, his tail-feathers down. His eye stares down my headlights, unblinking. His flock of courtiers–there are just five or six–defer to my Hyundai. I pat my coat pocket to be sure I brought the list.

I hate taking a list to buy groceries, but the alternative during the pandemic has turned out to be daily shopping trips to pick up another needed item. In the before times I used to enjoy wandering the store in a kind of haze, while still returning with all we needed. Now I take a list. Not so much to save face–with all of the supply-chain disruption stuff I have a believable excuse for coming home without bread–but to save time.

Last week, Sonny stuck a grocery list on the side of the fridge. Although I expect that this was mostly a reaction to the fact that I keep forgetting the waffles and yogurt, and maybe even some skepticism about my supply-chain excuses, I appreciated the gesture. Yesterday I reminded Sonny that grocery day was approaching. A list would be great, I added.

This morning he shuffled past my door at around 6:30. Did you make the list?

He frowned. “It’s the same as last week.” No surprise there. Those of us on the spectrum often have strong, fixed food preferences.

I don’t have last week’s list.

“What happened to it?”

It went into my pocket and to the grocery store, and then it went into the recycling.

The frown morphed into Debate Face. I took a gulp of coffee to energize my rebuttals.

“I’ll make the list again, but then we leave it on the fridge”…I need to take it to the store…”couldn’t you just take a picture on your phone?”…not with my crappy eyes…“just put it back on the fridge when you get home”…the list will be crumpled and also will have your father’s stuff on it and whatever else I think of …”I don’t understand the problem”…Just spend two minutes writing a list!! Okay, okay…and then I’ll make some copies…”

Both of us retired to our corners, a bit drained. We’d both scored some points: I’d reinforced the idea of the list being a weekly task. Sonny had expressed his skepticism of the concept and devised a workaround. Sometimes spectrum versus spectrum is helpful: Sonny’s working through the idea as well as trying to understand the reasons for changing his routine. I’m jumping (maybe too fast) onto the “once, twice, we always do this” train.

Before I leave the car I reread the list and put on my mask. In the parking lot the air feels great: we’re having the first really cool morning in almost a week. No turkeys in Stop and Shop’s parking lot (this being seagull territory), and no line to get in. Soon I’m dodging customers prancing widdershins down the aisles and employees restocking lunchmeat and peanut butter. All the while I keep an eye out for Marty (picture a Segway-shaped robot with googly eyes and a belt that glows electric blue). Marty glides majestically through the store at a slow swan speed, and like a swan, it’s best to admire him from afar.

At checkout, I realize that there are no waffles in my cart. I check the list: no waffles on it. Rashly, I didn’t check the freezer for the waffles box this morning. As I sling bags full of food into the car trunk I marshal possible defenses. In the rearview mirror, mask pulled beneath my chin, jiggling like a turkey’s snood, I see my face. It’s the worst, or maybe the best, thing, the way a child is a funhouse mirror of the parent. By the time I get back to the house, the turkeys have disappeared, and so has my Debate Face.

The skunk, the girl, and the yogurt

Once upon a time my husband Dave was driving to work when he saw a skunk in the street. The skunk was in distress because its head had gotten stuck in a yogurt cup. It couldn’t see where it was or where it was going, so it was walking in circles in the middle of the road. This was a relatively quiet street near our town’s main street. Worried that the animal might cause an accident, Dave pulled over and called Animal Control, which wasn’t yet open.

Then a teenager on her way to the high school stepped into the road, approaching the skunk. She crouched down and quickly worked the yogurt cup free of the skunk’s head. The animal backed off and turned around…and ran across the street and into the woods.

“Wow, that was incredible!” Dave told her. “It was really brave of you to help that skunk!”

“Skunk?” she said. “I thought it was a cat.”

Many of the most satisfying moments in my life have happened because I thought I was facing a kitty instead of a skunk. Though I try not to make it a habit. Sometimes I’ve ended up (figuratively) drenched in skunk spray, reeking and looking desperately for the tomato juice. More often, though, the skunk gets away, and so do I.

Insomnia and the pursuit of bigliness

Hurled out of a dream involving a hotel, a harp recital, a billionaire’s wastrel children, peanut butter cups that I wasn’t supposed to touch but ate anyway, and someone’s pet cougar, off the leash. The clock tells me it’s 2:25 a.m, but I am violently awake, so I turn to YouTube. Morpheus only visits if he feels I’m ignoring him; you have to play his game.

There’s a video in my feed about McMansions. Excellent! The YouTuber is a kid–maybe early college age?–whose organizing strategy is to look for big, mockable houses in Texas. She opens Zillow and sets the search parameters: 3,000 square feet, five bedrooms, three bathrooms. I wait for hilarity to ensue.

She defines McMansions rather vaguely as big, ugly houses with shoddy construction and invokes McDonalds, which starts my tummy rumbling. I love their breakfast sandwiches. And the cheeseburgers, and fries. I don’t eat them nowadays, but I remember their unhealthy deliciousness. My own definition of McMansion has been more along the lines of cookie-cutter suburban developments with big houses and virtually no trees. In my Massachusetts town, this has been happening for years, mostly on new streets made out of swamp, woods, or abandoned farmland, or on older streets that had houses on just one side. On the modern side of the street now sit houses that rise an extra story or two. High enough to look down on their neighbors. The houses come in white, gray, tan, and a restrained “colonial” blue. The shutters and doors tend to match. There’s a big, fancy window centered over the front door.

According to Google, these can’t really be classified as McMansions. They’re mass produced, but there’s nothing splendidly ridiculous about them. They may share shoddy construction materials with the typical McMansion. I don’t know; I also haven’t a clue whether they’re as hard to heat and cool as the grandly grotesque rooms I remember from early 2000s House Hunters. The new houses do fit the aspirational intent of McMansions–to imply opulence and success by living in a big-ass house (as compared to your neighbors’ houses). Conspicuous consumption was quite the fad among the suburban upper class in the 1980s, when the McMansion trend began.

The houses in my town are oversized for their lots, but generally look as though an architect had something to do with their design. McMansions, in contrast, were thrown up by construction companies and developers who didn’t need no stinking architect. Tudor-Colonial-bungalow plus turrets, dormers wherever, heavy stone facades that crumbled unintentionally, etc. Design principles like balance and proportion were thrown out of the windows, which tended to be of clashing, anti-symmetrical sizes and shapes. Trained architects got the flutters; while people like me thought, Hmmm, that big house looks weirdly off.

Tuber finds an ugly house. Sadly, it has no turrets, but face of the house does suffer from some unfortunate stone breakouts. I chuckle along. Who’d live here? we ask, sarcastically. When I was her age, I thought a lot about what kind of place I hoped to live, veering between two scenarios. One desire was for a city apartment with a huge window in the living room, in a building with a doorman. I’d come home after my exciting job toting a brown paper shopping bag that had a baguette and wine bottle sticking out of the top of it, just like Marlo Thomas in That Girl. Or else I’d live in a New England Victorian-style mansion with turrets, a wraparound porch, and lots of crazy windows, where I would have a fabulous life encountering with ghosts, witches, and closed-mouthed Transcendentalists. It doesn’t escape me that my Victorian mansion has some McMansion-like aspects.

Tuber clicks on a second house. Okay, she says. This one’s not so bad. Google realtor sites admonish that one should not equate all big houses with McMansions. There are “real” mansions and big houses that have been thoughtfully and solidly designed. I’ve been to some real mansions–admittedly, most of the time on the 3:30 guided tour. Sometimes I’ve played background music gigs in them. Every once in a while I’ve entered as an invited guest.

I have 1980s feelings, sometimes, when I cross a grand or grand-wannabe threshold. The people who live here think they’re better than you, something whispers. The poor-kid chip pops back onto my shoulder. The nerve of this house, trying to make me feel bad about myself! Succumbing to this suggestion would be ridiculous–almost as ridiculous as that turret with the Juliet balcony stapled on it–so I try to rise above.

Maybe there is something a bit malevolent about McMansions, the buildings themselves. Their purchasers, poor things, didn’t seem to get much of a status boost. People in regular-sized houses mocked them for going into so much debt. People in real mansions looked down on them for their bad taste.

Tuber clicks on another house. She’s having trouble, even with the unsightly ones, coming up with good lines. Commentary: harder than it looks. I’m bored and tired of being petty. In fact, I’m starting to feel legitimately tired. YouTube goes dark: Morpheus carries me back to the house of dreams. There might be turrets.

Lines

I grab the pint of Ben and Jerry’s and steer my grocery cart to the row of cashiers, studying carts and customers. Looking for clues: a cart piled with lots of produce, guaranteeing a price check on apples or kale. Multiples of soup, cereal boxes, etc., could mean coupons, some of them probably expired or for a different brand. Checkbooks peeking out of coat pockets. Enormous purses. Never line up behind a person with a humongous bag; it takes forever to find a wallet in one of them, especially if the search doesn’t commence until the cashier has finished ringing through every item on the belt.

Despite my efforts, I often find myself stuck, ice cream melting, behind a person who has never used a debit card at the supermarket, or who needs to explain at considerable length to the world’s chattiest cashier each and every reason for the purchase of a box of Double-Stuffed Oreos. Of course the odds don’t favor me picking the fastest line. In a situation where you have to choose among cash register lanes, the odds of any lane being the fastest are 1 in [number of staffed register lanes]. Therefore it’s more likely than not that your line will move more slowly than some; still, I try to even up the odds.

The healthiest strategy is to expect the time suck of a longish line, to keep blood pressure under control and to increase the delight when a wait turns out to be short. There are ways to make line-waiting time pass pleasantly. As an introvert on the autism spectrum, I find the commonly recommended “strike up a conversation with the person next to you” horrible to contemplate, but I have enjoyed browsing through the checkout magazines for cryptid sightings, interior design inspiration, and celebrity gossip. In these germ-conscious times, I’ve stopped that, but often I have a paperback on me somewhere. Snobby experts don’t recommend scrolling through your phone, but I routinely check at least my texts and email to multitask a bit. Sometimes I listen to music on my headphones; I’m thinking about downloading some podcasts or audiobooks, too.

Of course store lines usually involve waits of only minutes to quarter-or half-hours. You need a different set of strategies for lines at amusement parks, rock concerts, the Apple Store, or Black Friday. These lines can go on for hours or even days, so people bring sleeping bags, folding chairs, snacks, homework, chess boards, etc.

I avoid most extreme queueing situations, but this year I’m thinking in-person voting may need a strategy. Early in-person voting starts in my town on October 17. Next week! I’m hoping to vote on Tuesday, since I want to be sure that my vote’s counted, as well and free up a spot for the folks who will hit the polls on Election Day.

I anticipate the line time will be significant because of the pandemic and the current president. Ever since it became clear that the majority of Americans don’t approve of his job performance (at a minimum, since the 2018 elections), he’s been encouraging his supporters to hurdle the line between poll watching and voter intimidation. Rather than watching out for big purses and chatty clerks, I’ll have my ID, just in case, plus my face mask, snug-fitting and properly worn. I’ll have a coat, maybe an umbrella, and comfortable shoes. My phone, fully charged, programmed with the phone numbers of my local police department and the nonpartisan organization Election Protection at 866-687-8683, ready to document any yahoos brandishing firearms, blocking doors, questioning people in line about qualifications to vote, or threatening any kind of violence.

The sad fact is that attempts to keep “the wrong sort” of people from voting have plagued the US since its founding. Poll taxes and literacy tests have been replaced by voter roll purges, disinformation campaigns, dirty tech tricks, fewer polling stations in poor, minority, or opposing party neighborhoods, and more. In-person threats, both im- and explicit, continue to be a problem.

The status quo always tries to protect itself. The less equitable the status quo is, the less legal and principled are the means of protection. Encouraging voter suppression helps keep the status quo politicians in their perk-filled jobs. Tackling the issues that motivate those voters risks those cushy jobs–and requires the politicians to do actual work.

I’m hoping for a peaceful day with a short line, but just in case I’ll also have my headphones, a snack, and a book. In case the line is very long and slow, I’ll download audio book too, just in case. I’m thinking Moby Dick.

NaNoWriMo FOMO

November’s almost here. Holidays, elections, snow…and National Novel Writing Month, NaNoWriMo for short. It’s time for the annual debate: should I enter?

The challenge is to write 50,000 words of a novel during the month of November. Anybody who gets to the 50,000 word count is a winner. You could type “All work and no play makes [your name here] a dull person” 5,000 times and win, though I doubt anyone does. It’s tempting at times, because 50,000 words is a lot, averaging 1800 words per day. This means, essentially, that you spend the month writing rather than rewriting/revising.

The writing period extends from one second after the stroke of midnight on Halloween and ends at 11:59:59 p.m. on November 30. Writers can prepare in advance with notes, outlines, etc.–giving rise to the “Preptober” phenomenon–but the actual writing is supposed to start in November. Participants register on the NaNoWriMo website (this is free), and the prize for winning is a certificate plus a badge that displays on your account. Some years the prize has also included the option of one bound copy of your manuscript.

NaNoWriMo makes the isolated process of writing much more sociable. There are online discussion and support groups and also in-person meetups, which include social events at restaurants as well as write-ins at bookstores, libraries, cafes, etc. Unfortunately in 2020 many of the in-person meetings have been canceled (thanks a bunch, Covid-19).

I found out about NaNoWriMo about 10 years ago. Some of my snobbier writer friends quoted Truman Capote at me (“that’s typing, not writing,” Capote said about Jack Kerouac’s free-flowing, no-revisions style). Maybe so. But I had a bunch of novels in my closet that had been abandoned anywhere from 2 to 40 pages in, and I wanted very much to have finished a novel. I registered my project. Thousands of people around the globe would make the same decision. In 1999, when San Francisco author Chris Baty came up with the idea, there were 21 participants that July. ( November was soon chosen to be the annual novel-writing month because the weather is worse, outdoor activities less tempting.) The 2020 NaNoWriMo website lists 798,162 active novelists and 367,913 completed novels. NaNoWriMo also has a bunch of other months that feature other kinds of writing and other writing activities: editing, poetry, playwriting, etc. And–my writer friends’ disdain notwithstanding–rather than being stuck into closets, some NaNoWriMo novels have been published, everything from self-publishing to contracts with major publishing houses.

Things I hoped to get from NaNoWriMo, that first time:

1: 50,000 words of a novel, or maybe even more!

2: Some real-life writing friends, as my writing friends from grad school had scattered to the ends of the earth.

3: Creative momentum and discipline.

My results were mixed.

1: I got 40,000 words into my novel, a big enough chunk that it generated a sort of gravity. I eventually did finish the first draft.

2: I went to one of the bookstore write-ins at a big Barnes and Noble. Every chair was occupied, as well as the floor space by the walls and windows. Everyone sitting and typing. No eye contact. My shyness kicked in, hard. I walked briskly around the store, bought a couple of books, and left.

3: I wrote every day in November. Not 1800 words, but always at least a few hundred. Discipline achieved! Then on December 1 I took a day off. On December 2 I took another day off. I picked up the novel again…in February. Draft one is resting in the closet.

Most of my NaNoWriMos (I’ve done four) have ended up with similar results. But as November approaches I feel the itch to activate my profile. I daydream about what could happen if I try just once more, especially since I have extra time this year (live-performing music business: still basically dead). Of course I make a list. Pros: might get a novel out of it; could be the Great American Novel?; could meet some compatible online people; would have answer to the question “what are you doing these days?” Cons: could rack up a pathetic word score and fall into depression; maybe will be so shy that can’t meet people even online; am running out of closet space.

I think that by December 1, I will definitely have made up my mind.

Four strings

It was the final round of the TV show Wheel of Fortune. For her final puzzle, the contestant had to figure out a mystery word. She was able to pick five consonants and a vowel, but even with a six-letter spot, the clue was largely empty, reading ” _ _ _ _ E _ E.” She muttered her answer so softly that the host had to ask her to say it again, louder. “U-ku-lele?”

My husband Dave still remembers the look on Pat Sajak’s face. Dumbfounded.

Did you know they sell ukuleles at Target? Inside the actual store! My local Target regularly runs out of toilet paper, sweetener packets, jigsaw puzzles, and Clorox wipes, but the ukulele stock remains current. I discovered this while shopping for Sonny’s birthday last week in the electronics section. A pair of them nestled on the bottom shelf in a short, dusty aisle containing clock radios and boombox CD players. The price for the instrument, instruction manual included, was $39.99. Hmmm, I though: no wireless headphones here. But a few days later, when I was pondering how to allocate my own birthday money (my birthday being the day after Sonny’s)–like cookies on the kitchen counter, I couldn’t get the Target ukuleles out of my mind.

The ukulele will be the third stringed instrument in our house. There’s a violin that I’d like to learn to play (someday) (maybe) and a pink, rarely used guitar that Sonny won at music camp. I learned a bit of guitar as a kid. My mom had one–not pink, sadly. However, the wire strings made my fingers hurt, making clarinet practice difficult. My best friend’s mother was a professional classical guitarist who had a radio program on the local NPR station; she used to say that a decent practice session was when her fingers started bleeding. She wasn’t joking. I preferred my music-related bleeding to remain metaphorical, so I gave up guitar soon after I’d started.

While guitars were everywhere during my childhood, I grew up during a trough in ukulele popularity. The only ukulele player I knew of was Don Ho, mostly from his appearances on the Hawaii episodes of The Brady Bunch. The ukulele is a Hawaiian instrument, modeled on the small guitars (cavaquinhos) played by Portuguese sailors in the later 1800s, whose fingers dancing on the strings inspired the name. Ukulele means jumping fleas. Ukuleles felt fun to me, but a little tourist-trappy, like a plastic lei or a Tiki bar.

As staying at home in 2020 became practically permanent and it became clear that my music-making would be in my living room or by video, I began to covet an instrument more portable than a keyboard. One that I could try for fun. The ukulele is ranked as one of the easier instruments to achieve a basic proficiency–of course, like any instrument, to play it well is a lot of hard work. I also figured the smaller strings would be easier on my fingers than what I remembered from guitar.

Once home the ukulele sat in the box, untouched, for almost a week. When it comes to starting things, I’m better at preparation than execution. After dinner yesterday, though, I took the plunge and opened the box. The instrument features a cheerful red lacquer on the back, a black neck, and white nylon strings; the front of the body is the color of our dining room table. Easy to learn, easy to learn, I reassured myself, and logged on to the Hal Leonard audio course that supplements the beginners’ book.

Five minutes later I was swearing. Tuning: how could it be so hard? About 20 minutes in, Dave poked his head around my studio door. “How’s it going?” My fingertips hurt like hell, I complained. Not as bad as with guitar, but still: ouch! I’m going to stop in a couple of minutes and try again tomorrow. Two chords is plenty for the first day. Forty-five minutes after that conversation I set the ukulele on the piano bench, having added four more chords plus five melody notes. The wonderful thing about a new instrument: the incremental improvements are enormous when you start from zero.

Also I had spent an hour without worrying about politics or climate change or that guy down the block who’s flying one of those racist thin-blue-line flags. Distraction from the horrible present, my search for which is ongoing, had been achieved. For a bit.

It’s close to impossible these days for me to lose myself in a book. Sometimes a game will do it, sometimes drawing, sometimes writing, but the sweet spot of absorbing, focused activity is hard to achieve. With ukulele, for now, there’s enough new information to keep my brain involved, plus sensory stimuli as my fingers learn what to do, plus the comforting feeling of the ukulele resting against my body like a sleeping baby.

My practice session left me happy but wired. My left hand fingers tingled whenever I leaned them into any surface, so my sleep was interrupted. Not exactly painful, but a reminder of what I’d done to them. Even as I type this, they still feel a bit sore. They’ll get tougher–and faster and more accurate–with time. Maybe someday they’ll be ready to run off with the flea circus, though probably never as fast as those old-time sailors, playing their cavaquinhos on the Hawaiian docks. I discovered that another name for cavaquinho is machete and realized also that machete would have been another possible answer for the puzzle _ _ _ _ E _ E! I fall into a fabulous daydream about explorers slashing through the Hawaiian jungle with their ukuleles, watching for feral pigs and carnivorous caterpillars, all the while accompanying the songs of birds of paradise and linnets.

My ukulele waits on the piano bench.

Typhoid Don

It’s finally happened: the US president’s recklessness has caught up to him, and he he’s come down with Covid-19. I have a tremendous amount of sympathy and sadness for the workers he’s exposed to the disease. His personal assistants, one of whom was just diagnosed. Other White House staff, the workers at the venues where he’s been traipsing around without a mask, the plane crews on the presidential aircraft, the White House reporters who have been bullied into taking their masks off (at least three diagnosed). I worry for all people who have to work in unsafe conditions, especially when their risks are raised by having to serve people who refuse to take the simple precaution of putting a piece of cloth on their face.

Most of the people I know personally who’ve been infected became ill under similar circumstances. For example my friend M, a nurse. M worked at a nursing home where there was almost no personal protective equipment (PPE) available. She had to ask her friends to help her find masks. Even now, months after she has cleared the virus, M still has fatigue, mental fogginess, and other long-hauler symptoms.

I have a degree of sympathy for the people who won’t wear masks because of the lies spread by some government leaders, pastors, and internet trolls. Lies that there’s no Covid, that wearing masks is harmful, or shows weakness, or violates some “right.” There’s a fair amount of stupidity involved, but also a lot of peer pressure and plenty of bad examples being set by people who do know better.

It’s hardest to summon sympathy for the liars, who are starting to test positive at the rate of flame spreading through a pair of polyester pants.

A while ago I was trying to figure out the rationale for so many people rejecting masks. There didn’t seem to be a rational explanation. I thought the case of Typhoid Mary might have some clues (see my blog “The Unbearable Thought”).

Typhoid Mary was Mary Mallon, an accomplished cook who was also an asymptomatic spreader of typhoid fever in the early 1900s. She got cooking positions at eight upper class households in New York, seven of which suffered typhoid outbreaks. Mary was eventually forcibly quarantined, tested, and ordered to stop working as a cook. When she was released, she went back to cooking (under a different name) and caused more outbreaks.

The lies and dismissive attitudes about masks in 2020 have come straight from the top, so let’s compare Mary’s situation with the US president’s. Factors that historians cite to explain Mary’s behavior include:

  1. She had little formal education, so maybe she didn’t have the training to understand what she was being told by the doctors. Her main schooling, such as it was, was to be a domestic servant. The president, as he is fond of reminding us, went to “the best schools” and is “a very stable genius.” In private conversations with Bob Woodward, the audio of which is widely available, he has indicated a clear understanding of the dangers of Covid, who it affects, and how it is spread.
  2. The doctors who dealt with Mary didn’t treat her with kindness or respect. Things got so out of hand with the first person who told her that she had been spreading disease that she attacked him with a carving fork. The president, conversely, has a preference for yes men that is so strong that no persons unwilling to grovel are left at the White House. It’s highly unlikely that any doctor has been unkind or disrespectful to him.
  3. Scientific understanding of disease mechanisms and how to prevent transmission was still nascent in the early 1900s. There was no consistent set of recommendations and understanding of typhoid for Mary to parse. In 2020, doctors can and have explained to the president about asymptomatic spread. His conversations with Woodward demonstrate that he got the concept. While recommendations particular to Covid-19 have evolved along with the pandemic’s progress, ways to reduce the spread of airborne infections have been understood and agreed upon for decades.
  4. The New York Health Department told Mary she would have to abandon her cooking career, but did not provide her with help to make the same amount of money elsewhere. The other positions open to her (such as laundress or maid) paid less than half of a cook’s salary. She tried to follow them. She worked as a laundress for a while, but got injured. Eventually she returned to cooking. The president, if he has to abandon his current job, is in a similar position. He’s probably broke, he’s surely in a bunch of debt. However, he is assured of a federal pension and free Secret Service coverage for the rest of his life. And if he eventually winds up in prison–he, too, may work in the laundry.
  5. Doctors weren’t able to convince Mary that she had the disease. Mary often stated her disbelief. After all, she had no symptoms. It seems at first glance to be just a convenient rationalization, but I think also that accepting that she was a carrier would mean that Mary would have had to acknowledge that she’d caused a lot of suffering and death. That was the unbearable thought. Given his demonstrated lack of empathy for others, it’s hard to know if the president would feel any remorse. Whatever drives him, though, has made him unable to acknowledge personal weakness or failure. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’d recited facts about the disease without ever really accepting them.

The stakes were too high to let Mary’s reckless behavior go unchecked. She was removed from her cooking job (this position was at a hospital!) and quarantined again. She died in 1938, still in quarantine. The stakes are too high here, also. Regardless of elections or prison or the economy, the president and all others in positions of authority and influence need to start telling the truth and showing consistent examples of healthful habits. And if they still refuse to give us good examples and truthfulness, we still need to do this, for each other.

Wash your hands. Wear a mask. Social distance. Be better than your president.

Store-bought

Today Sonny turns 23 years old. A few days ago I asked him the most important question about this day: what kind of cake he wanted. I asked rather than assumed because it’s always possible that his tastes have changed. His last four birthdays have been celebrated away from home, on campus. Nothing had changed:

“Blue,” he said, starting as usual with the aesthetics of the icing.

Flavor?

“Vanilla.”

White cake or golden?

“Golden.”

I went to Shaw’s, though not for flour and eggs and whatever else goes into a scratch-baked cake. I walked past the cake mix aisle and headed for the bakery, my eyes scanning the cakes in the refrigerated section for blue. The problem with blue is that most often, cakes with blue frosting are chocolate cakes. I got lucky, though, spying a golden cake with sparkly ombre blue buttercream on the sides, white on top, with a big blue flower in the center.

Possibly my buying a store-made cake generates a frisson of disdain from readers who are foodies/good at baking. I truly admire Martha Stewart-like adepts who make their cakes from scratch, wrap presents so neatly they should be on a magazine cover, and organize champagne garden parties for 25 people at the drop of a hat. Homemade cake can be delicious. I’ve even made cakes from mixes a couple of times (never had the courage to try from scratch) to modest noises of approval from Dave and Sonny. However, we aren’t confident cooks, and we just…like the store-bought cakes better.

Like a lot of the ASD population, we have sensory issues related to food. There are some commonly accepted tastes and textures that we haven’t been able to learn to tolerate, much less enjoy. Over the years, with a great deal of deliberate practice, I can take a lot more bitterness and spice and textural variety than I once could. I willingly eat veggies, even though I don’t like most of them, and I often order salads at restaurants. But if someone puts dressing on that salad (or sour cream on my enchilada), I cannot eat it. I smile and say thank you and thrash the food around with my fork to conceal that I haven’t touched it.

Basically, our tastes tend to be a bit child-like and to favor predictability and consistency. Maybe if elderberries would be an interesting addition to this year’s cake, but we’ll never know. We do know that Sonny will like the store-bought cake.

Next month, November, comes Dave’s birthday. I’m already looking for a Pepperidge Farm Frozen Confetti Vanilla Layer Cake every time I pass a freezer case. Once easy to find, this staple has largely disappeared from the stores around here. A year or two ago I had to go to nine grocery stores, searching. It’s a hazard to be expected when your tastes are formed in childhood while brands change to reflect contemporary tastes. (Plenty of red velvet and coconut, no vanilla…why?)

My birthday preference is a cherry-topped Sara Lee cheesecake. Cheesecake became my favorite dessert when I was about 17, and over the years I’ve had a ton of terrible as well as wonderful cheesecake. Too dry, too big, toppings that look nice but taste weird, flavors that sound good but turn out yucky. With Sara Lee, I know what to expect.

It strikes me that with our red, white, and blue birthday cake preferences, my little family has also achieved American flag colors. I’m not feeling hopeful about America or American democracy at the moment, but I did spend a bit of time googling down the rabbit hole to learn that at least 28 countries have red, white, and blue flags. The countries are a varied bunch geographically and politically, as they include North Korea, the UK, Australia, Iceland, France, New Zealand, and Russia. The symbolism of the flag colors varies by country. Back near the original birthday of the USA, Charles Thomson, Secretary of the Continental Congress, defined the colors of the US seal and flag as signifying purity and innocence (white), hardiness and valor (red), and vigilance, perseverance, and justice (blue). Like a lot of people’s birthday wishes and hopes, these were high targets, maybe unreachable.

My own wishes are modest. I hope I’ll find the Pepperidge Farm cake sometime in the next six weeks. With my own birthday coming up soon, I hope that Dave will find my Sara Lee. Good luck to him! But today I’m focused on Sonny, who is celebrating his first birthday as a full-fledged member of the adult world. His shift today at Target started at 6 a.m. My wishes are for him to enjoy his workday, his presents, and his slice of sparkle-frosted birthday cake.