May need knife and fork

Write what you know. 

As a teenager, I discovered this maxim and realized also that I knew… not much.   I believed, though, that a) one could know everything, and b) a set of books fancy enough to use the “encyclopaedia” spelling must contain all the knowledge any writer could need.  Enter our set of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th edition, big, heavy books bound in brown and gold.  My parents had made a big investment in this set, financially and in shelf space.  The 28 volumes took up a couple of yards’ worth of the bricks and boards that lined my father’s study.  Alternating the short articles of the Micropaedia with the in-depth technical articles of the Macropaedia, I persisted through the letter A, but B proved beyond me.  I suspended the reading project and the idea of serious writing for years.   

Despite what should be a cautionary tale, I still seek out writing advice.  I can get derailed, though, by my tendency to mix up the literal and figurative…    

“Be voracious about collecting new words…”  — Jess Zafarris

I woke up empty-bellied, my word-hoard depleted.   I felt ravenous.   My toes recoiled from the chilly floorboards.  I squinted against the morning light and fumbled for my slippers.     

“Person, woman, man, camera, TV.”  —Voldemort

Window, chair, lamp, bedspread, cat.   Plain food couldn’t provide the sustenance I needed.   Wall, doorway, staircase, kitchen, carpet.   My heart pounded as I searched.  Then I saw it, slumped into the armchair.  Five faded syllables.  A trembling crossbar, collapsed counters and broken serifs, ascenders fallen.  The tittle was missing altogether.     

“It is in your hands.”  Toni Morrison

I touched the thing with my pointer finger, the barest tap.  It seemed as though it might crumble to dust at any moment.  I thought of Toni and dead words  “content to admire [their] own paralysis.”   A serif twitched.  I let the thing lie while I looked for the tittle, which had taken quite a bounce, rolling almost to the radiator.   I chirped to it in its whistling, hoppy tongue, and at last it rolled onto my palm.    

Its color had improved while I was away.  At last I got it spread out over the top of the chair.  I had to press just a bit to set the tittle atop its stem;  it gave a brief squawk as it settled in.      “You’re a fine, fine word,” I reassured the antimacassar.  “Protecting generations of upholstery from gentlemen’s locks lacquered with the “incomparable oil, Macassar,” as the poet Byron put it.    Representative of dusty Victorian propriety as well as the close-up messiness of beauty.”  

“Words, words, words!” — Eliza Doolittle

I stroked its capline gently, and the word plumped and purred.    I wasn’t as confident as my tone, still confused about whether it was antique or antiquated.   Eventually my efforts were rewarded with a susurrus of snores.    “Be right back,” I said, moving softly in the direction of the kitchen.   

The Wall

First cold snap of the 2021, with a projected high of just 19 degrees Fahrenheit.  My mind remembers Chicago winters, how springlike a 19 degree day with no wind felt after weeks of windy days with where the thermometer didn’t crack 10 degrees, but my body doesn’t.   I’ve acclimated all too well to mild Massachusetts and can’t imagine going outside.   

Facing a cold, snowy February, I feel frustrated.  Walking’s one of my favorite ways to self-soothe and think.  I used to spend hours on the treadmill in our basement when the weather was bad, but its motor died last winter.   I paced around the house (barely satisfactory) until the weather improved, then went  outside.    As often happens (possibly it’s an autistic thing),  I soon became absorbed with the idea of systematizing the activity.  It was irresistible, the notion of strolling down every avenue, court, street, circle, road, place, and terrace in town.  This led by degrees from April, 2020’s “Hey, what’s down that side street?” to July, 2020’s daily sessions with Google maps to pick walking routes to January, 2021’s trip to Staples to turn a foldable street atlas made of slippery paper into a 25”x 20” map.   I decided to start from dot (“dot” being my home address, located in the upper left quadrant), this time tracing my progress in markers of many colors.       

January had been pretty mild, so I did a bunch of walking, but now there was black ice on the streets and a frigid wall between me and my project.   I drank hot coffee and cleared out my inbox.  Bulk mail from our town community center showcasing the February calendar, don’t know why I opened it.   Book clubs, craft clubs, activities for seniors and toddlers.  Some chocolate fondue drive through thing.  And then a pair of items that made my clicking finger twitch:  an Around the Town photo challenge and a 1000 Hours Outside 2021 challenge.      

The Around the Town photo challenge involves a weekly mystery photo.  The challenge is to identify the location of the picture, then take and post your own photo.   I won’t be posting snaps, but this contest seems made for me and my map.   It got my toes wiggling, warming up.     

“1000 Hours Outside”  (  promotes the idea that people (especially children) should be spending at least 1000 hours outside per year.  This averages to around three hours a day.    The site feels a bit mompetition-y, as it seems to assume surroundings and resources that not everyone has.   I agree that being outdoors is a good thing.   I easily got more than 1000 outdoor hours as a kid most years.  So did my friends: this was how the moms on the block got some peace and quiet in their days.  While I went to parks with my parents fairly frequently, and brought home the ticks to prove it—ticks luuuurve me—I remember more fondly the interesting indoor spaces they took us.  Museums and concert halls, etc., which doesn’t seem to count for the 1000 Hours people; ah, well.   I think it was the idea of setting an annual time goal, always appealing (even though I know I’ll probably fail).  Plus the 1000 Hours Outside website had a page with dozens of printable trackers, featuring all kinds of designs, plain to fancy.  I found some very pretty ones, but ultimately I figured that my map of many colors would serve me best.    

I can’t wait to see the first Around the Town photograph (set to appear in just three days!).  Probably they’ll start out with something easy: the gazebo, the cannon across from Town Hall, the train station, swans on the reservoir, stuff like that.  I hope they’ll go farther afield, though: the candy company in the industrial park, that former nursing home out by the highway that is now…something mysterious.  The log cabins (I’ve found two—one in at the north end of town and the other in the south).  That house with sooo many garden gnomes.    

I doubled my socks, put on my puffy coat,  tugged a wool cap over my ears and stuck Blue Tooth headphones on top of it, and did a trial stroll.  It was reasonably, bearably toasty.  Thanks, Universe: the very day I hit this wall, you passed me a stepladder.  


Here’s the last week of January.  My wedding anniversary’s on Wednesday.  Twenty-five years!   We’ve talked on and off since Spring, 2020, about doing something special but never got around to making concrete plans until last night.   Four days—should be plenty of time to think of something spectacular…    

We had a fabulous wedding day 25 years ago that came together at almost the last minute, so this situation isn’t exactly novel.   Less than two weeks before the big day I found I’d misread the calendar.  To whit: we had an orchestra concert scheduled for the afternoon of our nuptials.  And Dave and I were two-thirds of the clarinet section.   What to do? 

The Justice of the Peace agreed to come to our apartment an hour early.   Time would still be tight getting to the venue, but Dave had a fast car.  Providing that the Justice talked quickly and neither of our witnesses raised objections, we could get it done in time for an afternoon of beautiful music.  In 2021, delaying our plans for so long turns out to be fortuitous.    The pandemic and politics rule out exotic trips and snooty restaurants, but at least we have no deposits to forfeit.  

Our witnesses were our friends Kevin and Nancy.  Nancy brought a cute cheese plate/knife, while Kevin bought the donuts and coffee for our grand wedding buffet.  Thoughtful and valued gifts, both of them!   It’s hard for me to think of good presents in January, after three solid months of birthdays and holidays.  Making it through another year of marriage (for better and for worse) is its own gift.  That’s what we tell ourselves, at any rate.  Most years we just meet up around 9 p.m., exchange cards, and split a bottle of expensive (i.e., more than $12) wine.   It feels wrong, though, just to let a quarter century of marriage pass without paying tribute.   

Fortunately, there’s a ton of advice to help the gift-blocked.   The traditional anniversary guideline for year 25 is silver.   My initial interpretation was that this reflected a couple’s going gray together, but nope, it’s silver the metal.   Of note, the year 50 gift is gold, and by that point hair of gold on either partner would require chemical assistance or a wig.  Year 75 is diamond.  (I would love diamond hair!  Probably pretty tough to cut, but it would look grand and sparkly in my coffin.)  Anniversary customs date back at least to the Middle Ages.  The modern tradition originated in Germany, where on “Silberhochzeit” a wife wore a silver wreath, while the husband sported a silver belt buckle.    

Most of our wedding day was spent in concert blacks, accented by our shiny gold wedding bands.  We drove crazy-fast through heavy rain and made it on time.  Then we played Wagner (not Lohengrin), Mozart, and Brahms with about 70 people.  The maestro, monarch of the orchestra, gave the two of us a bow.

 Victorian England, whose monarchs were German in background, adopted and developed the anniversary tradition.   Queen Victoria adopted diamonds for her sixtieth coronation anniversary.    The notion spread overseas.  By the early 1920s, there were eight wedding anniversary dates that US etiquette dictator Emily Post listed as significant enough for symbolic gifts: 1, 5, 10, 15, 20, 25, 50, and 75.    Marketers representing many industries have since filled the gaps.  It’s handy narrowing things down to paper, flowers, fruit, lace, copper, clocks, musical instruments, and the like.      

After the concert—musical instruments, gift for year 24, was covered way early—we drove through more, worse rain to the Park Plaza Hotel in Boston for dinner and an overnight stay.   Things weren’t too busy even in downtown Boston; it was the last week of January and the smart set stayed home.  More room for us, plus no rain and easy traffic the next day.  We were home in time to watch the Super Bowl.  

Most years since, including the big fives, we’ve been absorbed in everyday life and parenting, etc.  Big celebrations have been out of budget as well as impractical.  Maybe it’s no accident that the big-ticket items, the silver and gold,  start at a point when many couples will have some breathing room after chasing their kids and careers.   On our tenth anniversary we did step up from a quiet night of cards and wine with a limo with party lights and champagne on ice and dinner at a fancy Italian restaurant.  The traditional gift for year ten is tin, but Dave, not knowing or caring, gave me a diamond ring.  Skipping us all the way to 75!   

Who knows what we’ll think of, given three more days?  Maybe nothing “special,” but that’s okay.  It’s the last week in January.  The weather will be angry and cold.  Inside, cheerful and warm, we’ll sit with our cards and wine and gaze at the silver moon.  

Penciled in

My favorite pencil sits beside the keyboard as I type.  The design’s vaguely Art Deco: black paint with swirly gray squiggles that look vaguely like treble clefs dancing.  The eraser (a good one, not one of those that leaves smudges) is gray; the ferrule is silver.  Embossed in gold on the body, in sturdy capitals, is advice from the Muse:  “Write that shit down.”  I do like a salty muse.  The lead makes nice, dark letters and the point never breaks off.   I sharpen it in using old-fashioned blade sharpener with the same mechanism of the ones I lost annually on the second or third day of school.  This is a fancier one, shaped like an upright piano, surprisingly heavy, with the sharpener in its base.  There’s no reservoir for the wood shavings, which means they scatter like loose tea, but it’s an enjoyable mess.   It produces the kind of point I prefer: enough edge to glide along the page, enough dull so that I don’t  stab through the paper when I speed up or press harder.     

Mostly I use the pencil for marking up music scores (“Always bring a pencil to your lessons!” an echo from every music teacher ever).   My earliest stories were in pencil, but I switched to pen around fifth grade.   My son and husband are also pencil aficionadoes.  Sonny uses pencil for his stories; Dave for work notes and crossword puzzles.    Our house may have more pencil cups than average.   Fine by me: the sight of a mug packed with sharp-tipped pencils makes me want to write.       

 I’m grateful for the brilliant Nicolas-Jacques Conte.  In the age of Napoleon, when embargoes prevented the French from buying pencils from England and Germany, Conte was tasked with figuring out how to manufacture the implements locally.  People had been writing with graphite, the soft-solid that is used in pencil lead, for a few centuries at that point, but figuring out how to contain that material for this use had proved tricky.  

Conte—a dauntingly talented person who worked as an artist, a scientist, a teacher, and a French army officer—solved the pencil problem after experimenting for just a few days.  He developed a mix of graphite, clay, and water and figured out a way to press this mixture between two cylinders of wood.   He patented his invention in 1795.  You can still buy Conte brand pencils today.  

Another thing I like about pencils is that they can be erased.  I’ve tried erasable pens and correction fluid, but pencil erases the best and thereby lets you start again sooner.  Because it’s erase and start over, not erase and leave the page blank, amiright?  Brush off the pencil dust and lay down a new line, and eventually…  

   I bet Conte went through bunches of pencils in the process of developing his various inventions.  He was a practical and productive guy, the kind of person you go to when you need a quick, smart solution.  When he was posted with the French army in Egypt, he fixed lots of logistical problems— while also organizing hot air balloon expeditions in his spare time.   Some of the balloon trips went well, and others were near disaster.   That’s not how he lost his eye, though.  

He lost the eye in a lab explosion; that didn’t stop him.  Sadly, it was grief related to the death of his wife that blocked his desire to invent.  Conte followed her within a year, suffering a fatal aneurysm at the age of 50.   All those pencil cups.  Is it the cups or my family members who stock the cups (or leave the pencils all over the coffee table when the cup is right there, dammit) who spark the urge?   I don’t want to know.  For now, I’ll just write that shit down.      

Excuses, excuses

I wanted to write but I was afraid the basement would flood again.   Passing trucks splashed shiny angel wings of water onto our driveway.  Angry gray clouds made eight a.m. as dark as eight p.m.  I left my study with its rain-streaked windows and crept softly down the basement stairs in my stocking feet, as if I could catch the leaks by surprise.  The sump pump was gurgling merrily and the floor was dry.  For now.        

After a while the sun came out, almost painfully bright.   I wanted to write, but I was afraid the rain would come back soon and I’d miss the opportunity to take a walk.  A brisk 20 minutes would get me around the pond and back, and if I saw the swans it would clear my head.       

I wanted to write, but I was afraid I’d burn the fish.   A word becomes a sentence becomes a paragraph and you don’t always hear the timer.   The house filled with cooking smells.  Capone the cat wove figure eights around my ankles.  Even paying attention, somehow I missed the time to turn the fish by a minute or two.       

Dave and Sonny reassured me that their dinner was still tasty.  Smoke from the kitchen had drifted to my study.  I sat before the computer and wiggled my fingers to loosen them up, then coughed once.  Then twice more, and then I sneezed.  I wanted to write, but I was afraid I might be showing early Covid-19 symptoms.  I left to take a quick temperature and consider how I might handle my last month on earth.  

After a toasty but not feverish reading of 98.9 degrees F, I returned to my desk to find the wifi had gone out.  This happens at many odd times of the day.  I wanted to write, but I was afraid that I would misspell a big word, perspicacious or orrery or diverticulosis, and show myself a fool.   Eleven bookcases in the house; there would be a dictionary in at least one of them.  

As it turned out, our dictionary wasn’t to be found in any of the bookcases.  I eventually located it beside the Scrabble game in the family-room closet.  Capone found our travels fun and placed himself in prime tripping-over position just as I uttered a triumphant “Aha!”  The Monopoly game tumbled to the floor along with me, scattering hotels, houses, $500 bills, and metal playing pieces.   It hurts to step on the Scottie dog.   I limped back to my study and put the dictionary next to my computer.  The lights flashed off, and a long second later they came on again.  The microwave went “beep,” a cry that its clock needed resetting.  I wanted to write, but I was afraid that we’d lose power before I saved my work.  I found a blank notebook.  

Dave and Sonny were hanging out in the living room, watching MST3K.  Seeking the closest my house offers to a coffee shop ambience—good for pen and paper composition—I sat down nearby and was immediately distracted by the adventures of Springee, a malevolent animated goblin who punished any 1950s human who dared complain about springs.  Springee would relent only if the apostate apologized and swore to spread the good word about springs to everyone around him, forever and ever amen.  I wanted to write, but I was afraid to lose the plot.       

Even with Springee placated, the living room vibe didn’t settle for me, so I retired upstairs.  I pulled the bedcovers over my knees, propped my back against the pillows, and uncapped my favorite pen.  The notebook pages looked like monsters’ teeth and felt weirdly smooth, as if a giant tongue had just run over them.  I wanted to write, but I was afraid that the pen would slide off the paper and spatter ink all over the bedspread.    

I turned off the light, hoping to dream of something, anything, to write about tomorrow.

Small axe

Making dinner, talking about Republicans who refused to wear face masks while they were locked down during the Capitol riots.  (They’re probably responsible for this week’s outbreak of Covid-19 in the House of Representatives.)  Dave said, “It’s like when somebody flashes their headlights at you, so you don’t turn the lights on until you’ve passed out of their view.”    

I stared aghast at the man I’ve been married to for almost 25 years.  “What?” 

Dave: “You know, that “f*ck you, don’t tell me what to do!” reaction.”  

“Do you do that?”  

“I used to all the time.  Watch their taillights in the mirror and wait until they’d turned a corner, then put on the headlights.  I don’t do it anymore.”  

“Wow.”  I’ve never done that.  I flick the lights on immediately and breathe a sigh of relief.   I got pulled over for driving without headlights once, a long time ago.  My best friend Emma and I had celebrated our high school graduation with a weekend trip to Virginia Beach.   On our first evening away we we met a couple of cute college boys who invited us to their apartment and plied us with a can of beer each.  Over-handsiness on “my” guy’s part drove me out to the back garden, where I casually clambered up a rusty laundry pole and sat, making somewhat awkward conversation with him, until Emma emerged.   Fortunately the Pinto started on the first try (rather than erupting into flames, like many of its compadres, it tended to the sulky and often demanded a push start).  I pulled out of the brightly lit parking lot sans headlights, a little fast.   The cop gave us a break—white privilege, for sure, as we were two 17-year-olds a hundred miles from home.  We sat through a brief but stern lecture and were sent on our way.     It’s not an experience I care to repeat.   

I speculated that the eff-you response to the headlight reminder might have been a male thing.  Dave polled his Facebook friends and found no support for that theory.  Little rebellions take many forms.  Teenagers in my town amble across Main Street against the traffic lights, at a snail’s pace; Dave used to deny another driver the imagined satisfaction of being proved right.  We all feel the need sometimes.  

There are books and blogs about small acts of rebellion and how they can improve your life.  My brain turns the words small acts into small axe and wonders how such a little instrument can take on such a big feeling.  I love the lists because the items are so disparate: “Unbuckle your seatbelt while the plane is still taxiing.” “Take a bubble bath.”  “Boycott a company.”  “Eat a grape in the supermarket.”  “Read a book.”    “Wear white shoes after Labor Day.”  “Write on a bathroom stall.”   “Turn the speakers up to 11.”  I relate to the impulse if not the items.   

My own rebellions are small, too.   For example, when our local PBS station started showing Monty Python reruns, my stern Baptist parents, determined to shield us from any unsanctioned idea, forbade us to watch it.  They also prohibited shows like M*A*S*H and Three’s Company.   Well into my 20s, even though I had been living on my own for years, I could get a thrill from sitting in my living room, drinking a glass of wine while watching the Pythons on TV.  The memory’s just come to me that the day after our run-in with the police, Emma and I committed another transgression by cooling our sunburns in a blessedly air-conditioned movie theater while watching the Python film Jabberwocky.    

Most of us feel somewhat fettered sometimes, a consequence of being social animals.  It’s funny how long-lasting those chains are and how little actions can bring a feeling of relief.   For a while.  What happens when the small axes don’t cut it any more?   Can some people be set on the road to the murderous yahooliganism of January 6?  

Dave doesn’t keep his headlights off just for spite anymore, and it’s been awhile since I’ve felt the impulse to comfort myself by watching a TV program simply because it was once forbidden to me.  My casual research didn’t find a consensus on whether little acts of rebellion are a safety valve or an accelerant.   Some experts suggest that feeling rebellious signals that you need to figure out what’s bugging you and deal with it.   Yeah, that would be great, but it doesn’t feel doable.   I’ll probably stock up on some wine, find my Python tapes (those guys are freakin’ hilarious), and settle on the sofa, right next to my small axe.

The bullet ballet

After absorbing a ton of tutorials and testimonials, I’ve joined the bujo people.   Bujo stands for bullet journal, and many Bujoistas say starting one has been life-enhancing.  Frankly, the deciding factor for me was the opportunity to shop, though I am hoping that my life will be enhanced as well.    

For the past 10 months, I’ve kept to the resolution to “shop” only my closetful of blank or mostly blank notebooks.  I’ve gone through eleven, filling them with events of my day, daydreams, nightmares, class notes, stickers, washi tape, to-do lists, drawings of stick people, first drafts, and brainstorms.  Sure, sometimes I’d head for the stationary aisle of Barnes & Noble, or Target, or Michael’s, gaze at the cover art, run my fingertips down a wire coil, maybe fan the pages for a little huff of fresh paper.  As you do.   But I’d always walk out of the store emptyhanded.  

Finishing my stash of empty journals will probably stretch another couple of years even at my current rate.   But all of the notebooks in my backlog feature lined paper, while a bullet journal…well, it’s complicated.   

Author Ryder Carroll, who literally wrote the book on bujos (The Bullet Journal Method), says the system’s only requirements are a notebook, any kind of notebook, and a pen.  The many tutorials I absorbed agreed enthusiastically—then showcased bujos on thick dot-grid paper, several classes of pens, plus numerous markers, paints, rulers, washi tape, and stickers.    

I had everything but the dot-grid notebook.  Finally, a rationale to buy something from the stationery aisle!   I set aside a morning in mid December for the trip to Barnes & Noble.   

In the meantime, I did research.  To simplify massively, bullet journaling is a method of getting thoughts from your head, where they can disrupt concentration, increase stress, or go AWOL at inconvenient moments, to paper.    The journal is organized by you so that you can keep up with short-term and longer term commitments and never lose a thought in the process.   Carroll also adds  graphic elements like dashes, crosses, squares, and circles to help keep a bird’s eye view of his productivity.   Bujo enthusiasts range from check-and-list minimalists to those who embellish their journals like medieval monks with special lettering, collage, paintings, and elaborate graphs.  

For me, writing through eleven journals in ten months led to the realization that some things worked better grouped in a single place.  I wanted easier access to stuff like Covid-19 statistics, books read, task lists, complicated projects, writing pieces completed, cool words, and slant rhymes.  Many writers add daily word targets to their task lists and include things like manuscript submission trackers, also.   I decided to find a monster that could live on my desk all the way through 2021.  Specifically: an A4 (8.3” x 11.7,” about the size of filler paper) dot-grid journal with at least 100 bright white pages.    

Barnes and Noble had moved stuff around in order to store more Elf on a Shelf products, but there was still half a wall of shelving devoted to blank books.  Leuchtturms, Peter Paupers,  Moleskines, and more, bound in cloth, leather, cardboard.  The dominant color was basic black, you can’t go wrong there, but with many other hues and designs available as well.   Not a single A4 dot grid among them.     

 I huffed out of the bookstore and headed for Staples, where a somewhat smaller, more muted supply of notebooks is spread over a larger area.  No luck.    Coffee break—large black Dunkins.  More stores; my caffeine jitters made the lights hum louder and made the white paper look way too bright.  At last I found a 96-page dot-grid A4 with yellowy-cream paper and headed for home.  Close enough, and a fine foreshadowing of 2021, which seems to be shaping up so far as a year of compromise and dealing with flawed realities.   

I started the bujo on January 1.  So far it’s working okay.  For now I have my closet journal to make sure I get stuff (the little ideas, the emotional discharges, my stick people drawings) down, and my bujo to make sure that I get stuff done.     And the blister on my left heel to make sure that next time I go shopping, I wear sneakers.  

The Elephant in the Rotunda

 I sometimes wonder why whenever it feels like I’m living in a movie, it’s always the kind of movie I hate.   Why don’t I ever get the romantic comedy starring Benedict Cumberbatch or Taron Egerton?  Nope: it’s always the disaster movies packed with explosions and mass casualties.   I don’t like the ones with “happy” endings because they remind me of the story of Job, where he gets a new wife and kids, but the first wife and kids, etc. are still dead of horrific and painful causes.   Ugh.       

With three events in the past 20 years I’ve had the “it’s a movie” feeling.  The first was 9/11.  The second was in 2013, the Boston Marathon bombing and its aftermath, when Watertown—a place where I went to rehearsals every Tuesday night—was locked down while law enforcement chased the terrorists  down.  And the third was on January 6, 2021, when Dave, Sonny and I watched a sore loser and his gang of enablers incite a bunch of MAGAts to commit domestic terrorism.   

 After the insurrectionists busted windows and battered doors, the Capitol looked like a pack of mad elephants had rampaged through it.   Thomas Nast, the cartoonist whose drawings in the 1870s led to the association of the elephant with the GOP and the donkey with the Democrats, was making a metaphorical reference to politics as a circus.   The donkey was already connected with a Democrat, but not with the party.  That Democrat was Andrew Jackson, who adopted the donkey in a mocking response to his opponents calling him a jackass (which is the term for a male donkey).  Given that Jackson was a slave owner who supported the treaty breaking that led to the Trail of Tears, the epithet is an insult to actual donkeys.       

Is the GOP as much of an insult to actual elephants?  I looked up some elephant facts at the World Wildlife Organization ( to decide.  [Of note, these comparisons concern the political class—politicians and the industry that supports them, not the voters generally.  As long as you’re not supporting domestic terrorism or lying for profit, we’re good.] 

There are two general types of elephant: the African and the Asian.  It’s claimed that there are two types of Republicans, the MAGAts and, a much smaller group, the old school types who have spent the last five years clutching their pearls at the lack of decorum.  MAGAts call the latter RINOs.  Just as the differences between elephants are relatively small, so are the differences between the Republican groups, as they vote in lockstep on most issues.          

Elephants live in a hot climate and have extremely thick skin, with lots of wrinkles that help keep them cool by retaining water.   Dust and mud baths provide a coating that protects elephant skin from sunburn.  Only some Republicans have wrinkles, and they are notoriously thin-skinned, so the comparisons fail there.   For example, just a few hours after their workplace was looted by their supporters, Republicans were shouting down a colleague who dared to call unevidenced election fraud claims “lies.”    Still, politicians in general, including GOPers, make protection from sunlight a priority.   This one’s a draw.  

Elephants, being the largest land mammals, need a lot of food, so they eat constantly.   So do both political parties.   However, GOP Senator/insurrectionist Josh Hawley may have taken this to a new height on Wednesday afternoon, when he sent out fundraising tweets to his supporters, some of whom were looting the Capitol at that very moment.   

Elephants have a large and dense temporal lobe, which is associated with memory; hence the idea that “elephants never forget.”   The GOP’s memories are highly selective.  Lincoln, check!  The Southern strategy, what’s that?  Iran Contra, so far in the past!  Children caged and abused at the southern border, fake news!   Obviously this comparison’s a fail.      

Other fascinating elephant traits: their trunks combine the functions of human hands, nose, and throat.  Their tusks can be used as weapons or tools.  They can communicate seismically.   These remarkable animals are far too noble to be associated with the shameful party of today.   The GOP needs a different symbol.  Maybe murder hornets?  

Persnickety Rockstar

Just when I thought I was done with my New Year’s resolutions, I realized I’d forgotten all about word of the year.  With 99% of 2021 yet to come, I may as well choose…but which word?   

Word of the year seemed cool when I first heard about it, a couple of years ago.  The trend seems to have picked up steam in about 2015, so as usual I’m a couple of years late to the party.  The idea is to find a word that encapsulates one’s aspirations for the coming year as a substitute for resolutions, though a lot of people use it as a supplement.  How focused I might be, if I chose the perfect word and measured myself against it every day! 

My mind clamped shut in panic.  However, there’s lots of help around for those of us who feel stumped.  Guided journals, workshops, and tutorials abound, as do lists of hundreds of words that might suit:  Unstoppable.  Bright.  Magical.  Creative.  Abundance.  Joy.   Grace.   Believe.  Rise.  Grow.  Imagine.      

Also there are plenty of sources for one to buy one’s word, beautifully typeset, on a coffee cup, a fridge magnet, a rock, a coaster, a sign, etc.    I have a little collection of embossed rocks— “Love,”  “Power,” “Act with Inte t,” “First Things First”—buried beneath my collection of eyeglass-cleaning cloths.)  

Even with possibilities laid out before me, I’ve felt blocked.  Maybe trouble picking a word may has something to do with being on the autism spectrum.   The abstractions seem remote, too big.    But I love words.  A rummage through the dusty boxes of my back brain for beautiful words brings up snap, bombast, lamb, bumbershoot, cylinder, helical, quoit, mnemonic, tyger, dramaturge, agate.    

There are words that have attached themselves over time, sometimes after a mild shock.  On a fine fall day back in the pre-plague era, my voice teacher told me I was looking “very rockstar today” as I neared his door,  with my boots and shades and hair.  “Ah ha ha ha, thanks!” I replied, awkward as ever, but I resonated with the word and wound up saying “rockstar” to myself many times as I was getting ready for a scary thing.     

One midsummer at Salisbury Beach, while Sonny and Dave queued for the rollercoasters, I visited a psychic in a dim, stuffy booth near the clam shack.   She took my $20, gave me the usual sorts of malarky, and then gasped and ordered me to come back later—with more money—so that she could lift a curse off of me.  When I declined, she glared at me over her purple candle and declared, “You’re quite persnickety.”   Which is an  Americanism, basically referring to a snobby or aloof attitude.   I’ve heard something like that before (autistic people are not always able to figure out how to make our faces work according to neurotypical people’s liking), and the colorful word stuck in my head.   Persnickety rockstar, though, seems awfully complicated for 2021.   

Therefore as my word of the year, I went for something simpler: bumbershoot.  Bumbershoots are battered, stretched, many-cornered, and protective.  Vulnerable to an ill wind, needing to be held tight.  Mary Poppins’ vehicle of choice.  That is, bumbershoot is an Americanism from the 1870s meaning umbrella.  The umbrella is an ancient invention, dating back at least four thousand years, and one of my favorites.  We have many around the house, but I always have to search high and low to find one when it’s raining.   

Theories about how the word originated speculate that bumber is from “umbr” and “shoot” is short for parachute, since umbrellas look rather like parachutes.   The resemblance to parachutes was more acute in the 1870s than nowadays.   Designs for parachutes have been around since at least the Renaissance–Leonardo daVinci, among others, made one.  The modern parachute, though was invented by Louis-Sebastien Lenormand, in the late eighteenth century.  His first attempts involved a pair of bumbershoots.    

I wonder if I could get that image on a coffee cup…

Resolutions and hopes

Babylon!  One of the first megacities and home to all kinds of wonders: the hanging gardens, Hammurabi and his code, epics, the 60-minute hour, ziggurats…and New Year’s regulations, a many-times-great granduncle to the resolutions of today.  Once a year, Babylonians tried to stay on their gods’ good side by making two promises.  First, to pay their (the Babylonians’, not the gods’) outstanding debts, and second, to return the things they’d borrowed.  

  Four thousand years later many of us are still making promises—or at least plans—at the turn of the year, though these resolutions are a bit different from the Babylonians’.  My theory is that the Babylonian thing arose because some priest with an overgrown hanging garden needed to get his sheers back from a forgetful neighbor. 

Roughly half of Americans commit to some resolutions at year’s beginning.  The success rate isn’t high: by the end of January about 75% of us will have given up. Only about 8% overall will ultimately reach the goals. 

Maybe we’re collectively insane at this time of year.  I’ve had as many as 23 resolutions, some years, while achieving at best a couple.  There’s value in figuring out what I’d like to improve, even if I can’t quite fix it yet.  And I quite enjoy the weird society-wide optimism and support for improvement during the first few weeks of January.  There’s a new school year hopefulness without the mean girls at the lunch table spoiling everything.  

I decided to follow a Babylonian-style plan this year and set just two resolutions for 2021:  1) organize some small part of my space daily, and 2) improve my (visible) patience.      

Also I decided I would write down some touchstones in the general direction of feeling better.  What would that mean?  

Back in elementary school I learned about the five senses: taste, touch, sound, sight, and scent.  During Sonny’s occupational therapy I learned about a sixth sense, proprioception, which is perception of the position and movement of the body.  It turns out, of course, that there are lots more, but six is already plenty, so I stopped there and made this arbitrary list.       

Six Sensory Hopes for 2021   

The taste of raspberries, tart and sweet and surprising.  Here’s hoping I have some ideas that are just as delightful.    

The feel of a river stone, solid, smooth, and ancient.  Hoping that this year’s big stuff flows over and around me.    

The sound of a chalumeau G on the clarinet, resonant with overtones, fading into the ghost of itself.  Hoping to be able to hear the nuances in the conversations around me.   

The sight of a sunset, purples, pinks, reds, and oranges dashed across the sky.  Hoping always to be delighted by something as simple as a cloud.   

The scent of a pine forest, sharp and cool.  Hoping to grow quietly throughout the year. 

To flow inside my body like water.    

Happy New Year!