Oh the pain, the pain…

One of my favorite TV shows as a kid was Lost in Space (LIS).  LIS features the Robinsons, a family of colonists headed for Alpha Centauri whose spaceship goes terribly off course, setting them adrift in the universe.  In episode one, the evil Dr. Smith (Jonathan Harris) programs a robot to damage the ship while the Robinsons are suspended in cryogenic chambers.  Unfortunately for Smith, he gets stuck on the ship after liftoff, and while he’s trying to abort the sabotage and save his own skin, the ship goes off course.  Harris (originally intended only for a short arc on the series) quickly moderated his Smith performance from straight villainy to comical pomposity and became the breakout star of the show.  Lazy and conniving, the doctor could wriggle out of any chore by blaming his aching back.  “Oh, the pain…the pain,” he would cry.    

I’m having a Dr. Smith week.  The last snowstorm had us all shoveling the driveway early in the morning so that Sonny could make it to Target on time.  Dave worked the end of the drive, the heavy stuff the plows throw up, while I handled the middle.  It was a dry, fairly fluffy snow, and I pushed it and tossed it for about a half an hour in time with the tune in my head.  

That tune wasn’t the theme from Lost in Space.  Neither LIS theme has the right energy or rhythm for snow shoveling, although both are appealing.  The first two LIS seasons feature a  twinkly, bouncing theme with lots of piccolo, while the final season’s, one of my all-time favorites, is soaring and energetic and filled with horns.  Both were written by film composer John Williams, back when he was calling himself Johnny and writing mostly for television.   

Sonny left for work; Dave and I went inside for coffee and CNN.  I felt dandy until the next morning.  The day shoveling, sometimes my biceps ache a little.  Not this time; biceps were not the problem.  Three minutes after I got up to write the dread morning pages, Bam! Every muscle in my left upper back spasmed into an agony-radiating knot right at that place I need a backscratcher to reach.  Dave came in to share some weird news story and found me whimpering.  A quick massage didn’t help, so we tried naproxen and a heating pad.  That worked…after a couple of hours.       

I went about my daily activities, just as the Robinsons did.  Once they’d crashed onto the mystery planet, the parents quickly settled into a homey routine (despite the constant interruptions from aliens).  Their three children, Judy, Penny, and Will, did various chores, just as the Swiss Family Robinsons had after being stranded on that Pacific island.  I hadn’t realized that LIS was a bastard grandchild of Swiss Family Robinson, a novel which I’d read as a kid during a Treasure Island phase filled with tales about pirates, shipwrecks, and mysterious isles.  The Swiss Robinsons had inspired a comic book series called Space Family Robinson, which led to Lost in Space.  

Too bad the Swiss Robinsons lived before robots.  The LIS robot was menacing at first, but after its reprogramming it became practically a member of the family and helped with the work of survival.  The robot had its own catchphrases, like “Warning! Warning!” and “This does not compute.”  Dr. Smith hurled alliterative abuse at it (“you bubble-headed booby”), but the robot didn’t mind.  When my back spasmed again that evening, I wished for a robot to knead at the tight spot.  I settled for the electric back massager stored in my closet.  This is a heavy, padded life-vest shaped thing, with a heating element and nodes inside that pound at you, providing a kind of shiatsu experience.  It’s similar, though vastly inferior, to the massagers in nail salons’ pedicure chairs.   It makes a tremendous, rather satisfying noise that annoys Capone the Cat.  

I figured my back would bother me for a day, but the universe had decided that the episode would turn into a series.  The next morning I got up, felt okay, then  Bam! And so it has continued for every day in the week.  I rise, take a painkiller, put the heating pad on the knot, pull my knees near my chin to get the journal to an altitude that lets me  write without bending forward, and do the dread morning pages.  I spend at least a paragraph channeling Dr. Smith, insulting various muscle groups.  Loosen up, you lolly-gagging levators!  Stop sniveling, you rudely ruinous rhomboids!  Tremble, you tiresome, traitorous teres!  

Dr. Smith was my second-favorite character from the series.  I wish I could channel my favorite, Penny.  Played by Angela Cartwright, she was the middle of the three Robinson children.  She didn’t get the most screen time or the best storylines, but she had a knack for figuring out the truth of a situation and taking action to make things better.  And she had a pet, Debbie.   Capone’s come for his morning greeting, and I stroke his orange fur, wondering if I could pick him up and walk around the place, call him Debbie.  The muscles in my back twitch a warning.  I leave him in peace.  Please, in the second season, let me be pain free.  

Capone the Communicator

My latest YouTube rabbit hole is talking cats.  I can’t get enough of Billispeaks, a channel featuring Billi the cat and her human.  Billi is an eleven-year-old cat who has learned to use a system of push buttons on a soundboard to communicate.   Each button plays a word or phrase.  “Billi.”  “Mom.” “Mad.”  “Pets.”  “Food.” “Love you.”  “Noise.”  “Play.”  “Outside.”    

The buttons and board currently used in Billispeaks are from FluentPet.  The board’s made of  interlocking, honeycomb-shaped HexTiles, each with room for up to six buttons.   The FluentPet system was originally designed with dogs in mind, but Billi has adapted to it beautifully.   (Probably it helps that, according to one source I found, “Mom” is a speech pathologist.)   Billie asks for food, pets, catnip, and play.  She complains about noisy neighbors.  Her favorite word is “mad.”    

I showed my husband Dave some of the videos.  “Maybe we should get this for Capone.”  

Capone flicked an ear in my direction.  He’d followed Dave into the bedroom a few minutes before and made himself quite comfortable on a black sweater that I’d left on the bedspread.   

“Are you sure?” said Dave.   “He’s already a bossy cat.”  He pitched his voice up into the range where we all address Capone—it warbles around from approximately the F to the A above middle C—and scratched Capone’s chin.  “Yes, you’re a bossy cat, aren’t you.”  Capone closed his golden eyes and purred.  

I thought about it.  Did I want to know what Capone was thinking as he shed on my sweater?  When he sat on the piano bench in my studio and stared at me?  I recognized that my speculations—maybe he thinks my hair looks pretty today?—were comforting fictions.  What if Capone was happily pondering whether to start gnawing at my flabby upper arms or meaty thighs in case of an unfortunate fall down the stairs? There had been no way to know for certain…until now.    While we wouldn’t be discussing Spinoza or tax reform with Capone, maybe the buttons could help with the mystery meows that he emits sometimes.   He sounds distressed, maybe “mad,”  but his food bowl is full, he doesn’t want to play, and all the humans are in the house.      

Billi starts many of her communications by pressing the “mom” button.   Mom comes over to the soundboard area, which seems to be set up in the middle of the apartment, and taps the Billi button.   In one of my favorites, Billi responds “Outside.”  Billi follows Mom to a door that open onto a deck or patio area, but it’s covered with snow.  Billi takes one look and walks away.   A few minutes later, she presses the “outside” button again.    

Capone would love that button.  He’s an indoor cat, but he seems to enjoy it when Dave or I carry him around the front yard or sit with him on the front stoop.    He’d also favor an “open” button—like many cats, he despises a closed door.    

Leaving the bedroom door open (Capone has us well-trained), Dave went downstairs.  I clicked onto another cat video.  Capone jumped off my sweater and nosed the lid of the ottoman where I store his mice, birds, feathers, balls, etc.     I opened it, and he started digging at the contents. 

“Billi can tell her mom what toy she wants,” I said.  “A mouse, or a bunny, or a worm.”  

Capone, now fully inside the ottoman, paid me no mind.  He clawed with abandon.   Bells jingled; paper crumpled; a felt mouse landed near my foot.  A ball with a jingle bell hit the floor and headed towards the space beneath the radiator.     

It would be hard to figure out where in our house to put a set of HexTiles.   Capone is king of all three levels and issues commands throughout his domain.   Over time, we’ve constructed a sort of language.  We humans pitch our voices up, and Capone uses various mrrrwls and mrwaaaps with us.  We take them to mean things like hello; time to get up, dammit; time to snuggle; or someone has left the house.  There are areas of uncertainty (mystery meows), and a fair amount of our interactions are  nonverbal.   He claws at sheets of paper when he wants to play catch, paws at the window shade when he wants to look outside.  When he wants his food bowl filled, he heads for the top of the basement stairs and gives a piteous.  This dates back to when Capone’s food bowl lived on a card table in the basement so that our golden retriever couldn’t get to it.  Long after the dog passed and we moved the food bowl to a spot on the sunroom floor, Capone uses the same sign.        

 I wonder whether the FluentPet system could constrict the range of human-feline communication in the house.  Because we have so many obstacles to clarity, maybe we pay closer attention to Capone.   If he could just press the “mad” and “food” buttons at 4:30 every morning, when he starts getting hungry for breakfast, that would be fairly straightforward.  Lacking buttons, he conveys this desire by pulling the sheet off of Dave’s head and licking Dave’s biceps.  Creative and effective!    

 I’m probably mistaken.  Billi talks to her mom with cat vocalizations as well as the buttons.  And the buttons do seem to allow for fascinating talks.  In one video Billi calls Mom over.  Mom gives Billi some pets, and then Billi presses the “love you” button.  I’m envious.  Maybe envious enough to order a set and learn what Capone really thinks.  

Compass

Lots of fresh snow over the past day and a half.  The driveway’s been plowed clear, so now I can   appreciate the aesthetics.  The snow is at its most mysterious an hour before sunrise, blurring the edges of everything.  The stars and streetlights cast bright circles and deepen the shadows.   In every direction I see the opening scene of a different movie.  

To the west:  Hallmark.  Neat houses with slanted white roofs, hedges cutting the landscape into rough squares, forming a giant quilt.   I’ve been awake most of the night, worried about my bookstore-coffeeshop on Main Street.   My bills are mounting, and after I rejected Claude d’Eville’s low-ball offer for the shop, he’s sued me.   I’m a simple, kindly widow trying to pass along my love of books and caffeine, helped only by my sassy barista Ginny, dreamy Thom the clerk, and my handsome nephew Ben, who sources the coffee during his off-time from his computer company and shows off his muscles by lifting heavy boxes of books.  Fortunately my young friend Amy’s back in town, taking a break after losing her job at a big-time law firm in the city.   She loves the bookstore and agrees to help with my defense, even though it means she’ll have to work with Ben, whom she finds equal parts annoying and attractive.  She may win the case, but lose her heart…  

South: Indie.  A road curves up a hill to the snow-capped water tower, edged by evergreens and granite outcroppings.  Most of the houses are dark, but one has two lights gleaming.    In the basement, Ben has started carving another block of wood, using his free time before work to keep his hands busy and his mind empty.  (Close-up on a row of carvings, goddesses without faces)   Thom has carelessly left his bedroom light on after sneaking out.  He sneaks for the hell of it, not because anyone cares—he’ll tell you defiantly—and he knows where the fence is loose by the water tower.  Up he climbs.   At the top of the tower is Ginny with her sketchbook, drawing the fading moon.   She says she’s surprised to see Thom; that may be the truth.   From my kitchen, I see Ben’s pickup edge onto the street, and I text Amy that the coast is clear.  She parks down the block and opens the front door with her old key (Ben will never change the locks).  She leaves casseroles in the refrigerator along with a carefully detached and factual note on heating times, props the SAT prep book left on the hall table where Thom will see it.  I’m not the only one watching Amy as she makes her morning delivery.  Claude puts down his binoculars in order to document her arrival and departure in his notebook.  Ben’s faceless goddesses will have their hands full working around this mess.     

North:  Costume.  A broad expanse of gray-white, forest beyond, a small building with a steep roof and side door, with one window throwing gold stripes onto the ground.  My skirts are soaked and heavy and my hands are freezing as I drag the buckets inside.   The room is smoky from the hearth and warm with bodies packed close.    Claude shouts “In the King’s name, close the door, wench!”  while the rest of the drinkers attend to their tankards.   Ben nods towards the fire, which needs to be stirred, and pours ale. I dodge grasping hands and weave among the tables, poke the logs, sweep and listen.  Young Thom is going to get himself in trouble if he keeps mentioning the Sons of Liberty so near to Claude.    Ginny crashes in, not closing the door. “Uncle Ben!  It’s the Mistress’s time…”  “Too early!”  Ben’s face turns as pale as the moonlit snow.  He runs for the house.   I mop and settle the fire, then take a candle for my room upstairs to write my report… 

East: Noir. Two bare trees and a stretch of scrub lining the road.  My heart’s still pounding from the nightmare: Amy crumpled like a doll at the bottom of the stairs.  The terrible angle of her neck.   I pull the curtain and stare at the street lamp; beneath it stands a young man in a black coat, lighting a cigarette, stepping away from the light.   He looks chilly, harmless.   I don’t remember him from Claude’s, and please god that Claude doesn’t know…The youth raises his head.   Can he see me?  All of the lights are off, but my nightgown is white.  I shrink back, wondering if I should call Ben, the detective with the flexible morals and low bank account.  He seemed…intrigued, and willing.  I peek outside, see no one.  I fumble for the phone.  No dial tone.   The old house shudders and creaks, and somewhere I think I hear the turn of a doorknob.          

Once the sun’s up, everything looks itself again.   I get busy with dishes and a grocery run, back to real life, but on the way home the snow flips me another Rorschach test:  a hammock in a backyard, stretched between trees, on it a blanket of white with a patch in the middle as though something has just finished a long, cold nap. 

Hackett on Henry

New word of the week, found in an old book: illuded.  I was tired of staring at screens, and I was looking for physical books, the paper and ink kind, to read.  The local library’s closed temporarily due to an outbreak of Covid, so I raided a to-be-read stash at the back of my closet: a box of books from my teen years, forwarded by my father a few months back.  

I chose Henry the Eighth by Francis Hackett.  Henry glared, beady-eyed, from the cover.  I immediately thought of  Krispy Kreme donuts.  Not because Henry’s face was fat, though it was, but because good behavior at church on Sunday morning and evening was rewarded by Krispy Kreme donuts and Masterpiece Theatre on Sunday night.   Masterpiece Theatre was where I got my first doses of British costume drama and Tudors, in series like Elizabeth R and The Six Wives of Henry XIII.   I remembered intrigue, wood paneling and long corridors, oddly shaped headgear, ladies poking needles into embroidery hoops, men with bobs.

Hackett’s book, organized by royal wife, had 448 pages of dense, small type.   As of this writing, I’ve made it a couple of subsections into Anne Boleyn (the first two wives take up nearly two-thirds of the book).   I believe I read this book at around age 15, but I have no memory of the contents.   Over the years I’ve read and watched lots of stuff on the Tudors, the Wolf Hall books and miniseries, various pop histories, Shakespeare of course.  The era still fascinates.  The Hackett, a Bantam paperback, was showing its years.  No matter how gently I handled it, the brown-edged pages keep detaching themselves from the binding.        

The style took some getting used to.  Hackett writes from a “psycho-historian” perspective, in which he freely inserts himself into the minds of the main characters.  Also he makes some rather breath-taking generalizations on the French, the Italians, the Spanish, various churches and churchmen…  I yipped out loud several times in the first few pages.  Obscure words abounded.  I found “illuded” in a paragraph about Cardinal Wolsey, one of Henry VII’s closest advisors.  Wolsey was a self-made, ambitious man who fatally overestimated his ability to manage his king.  Hackett assesses him as “completely illuded by the wealth of [the Tudors] and the grandeur of [the Medicean papacy].”    ???  Context was not helpful, so I went to the dictionary.  That’s a practice I recommend, but it almost feels like cheating.  I prefer to look up a word to prove I was right about my guess as to its meaning to looking it up without guessing.  “Illuded” turns out to mean fooled by, tricked, or deceived.    Related to illusion, which makes sense.       

 I wasn’t quite sure that I’d understood Hackett’s intent.  At times he writes like somebody two drinks into a three word-martini lunch.    In describing a revolt of London apprentices: 

Theirs was a London of a thousand trades, a London of goldsmiths, silversmiths, armorers, blacksmiths, pewterers; of girdlers, loriners, saddlers and cutlers; tylers and plumbers and masons and plasterers and glaziers and painters; of fell-mongers, curriers, leather sellers, skinners, salters; of pinners on London Bridge, of wire workers and spurriers; fletchers and bowyers and stringers for warfare; joiners, cordwainers, printers; of tapsters and brewers and ale tasters… 

That’s 67 words, and the sentence continues for another 42.    “Loriners” is unfamiliar, but from context I think it’s something horsey.   The dictionary confirms.  The sentence is exhausting and exhilarating, but also it’s as broad and bustling as sixteenth century London.  Hackett also makes some lovely short sentences.  Anne Bolyen’s section opens with “The executioner’s ax is an unsocial tool.”  !!!!  

 Henry the Eighth was published in 1929, and I imagine its vocabulary and style would have been considered a bit astounding even then.  Hackett, an Irish writer who had emigrated to the United States, was well into a long career as a novelist and critic.  He emigrated to America, starting out in New York but soon moving to Chicago.  In that city, he worked as the literary editor for the Chicago Evening Post.  He also lived for a while at Hull House, an institution founded by Jane Addams and designed to help immigrants adjust to the US.  Hackett taught English to Russian immigrants at Hull House, which was on South Halsted Street. (I yipped again, since I lived for four years in an apartment on North Halsted Street.  Same street!)     

 I still enjoy learning about the Tudors.  Despite their undeniable successes at the international level, their willingness to set heads a-rolling makes them monsters to me, Henry maybe the worst, and monsters make for interesting narratives.   Reading this biography in 2021, I’m struck by parallels with a current political figure: both insecure second sons who assume the family business and squander their father’s fortune, both becoming cruel, glittering gluttons, both risky to know.   I’m curious to see how the story ends. 

All roads

Tomorrow, February 15, is Lupercalia, an ancient Roman holiday that focuses on purifying for spring.   Unlike my spring cleaning sessions, approached with mops, the vacuum cleaner, and feather dusters and lasting until I feel I’ve worked off enough calories to enjoy a couple of chocolates, Lupercalia was a three-day event full of feasts and celebrations.  Also the festival included some elements that have me wondering why?  Why would people do this?   Clute, Texas’s three-day Great Texas Mosquito Festival, which includes a contest awarding first prize to the person who is bitten by the biggest mosquito, raises similar questions.  Members of the order of Luperci sacrificed animals, rubbed the sacrifices’ blood onto their faces, and then cut the animal skins into belts called februa (the origin of the word February).   Then they ran naked around Rome, using the belts to whip everyone they met.   Women, especially, shoved themselves into the Luperci’s paths, because it was believed that being smacked by a februa could help with problems with infertility and child delivery.   When in Rome…do weird stuff, I guess.  

Even once Christians dominated Rome, Lupercalia was still popular and broadly celebrated until around 500 CE.  This was probably because festivals are fun and profitable, boosting local businesses as well as attracting tourists and their dollars.   I bet every goat dealer, salve peddler, and midwife for miles around looked forward to Lupercalia.  Just as the lozenge manufacturers of today can’t wait for  Spivey Corner, North Carolina’s annual National Hollerin’ Contest.  

The other big holiday of the week is Valentine’s Day, celebration of romance and other sweet things.  Now that Sonny’s an adult, and given that the pandemic has nixed a nice dinner out with Dave, my Valentine’s Day preparations have been even more minimal than usual.   No longer do I need to count the students on Sonny’s class list to figure out what size valentine pack to buy.  We don’t have to find a free afternoon for writing notes and taping in stickers and candy hearts (sweet, but nowhere near as sweet as the marshmallow creme celebrated in the Somerville, Massachusetts “What the Fluff” festival).    I started prepping for Valentine’s Day roughly 18 hours ahead of time.   

    Of course I headed to CVS.   Drugstores are the one-stop shop for affordable cards, candy, gifts, and flowers.  The store was so crowded that I wondered if I had wandered through time and space to Ohio’s Annual Avon Heritage Duck Tape Festival, which attracts some 60,000 souls a year.  Nope: it turned out to be senior citizens arriving for their Covid vaccines and CVSers from other stores who were touring our store because it’s “going digital!”  Also the rest of the last-minute shoppers.   I edged past the buckets of stuffed animals, roses and baby’s breath, and perfume and headed for the greeting card section at the back of the store.   

I can’t blame the Romans for everything.  The  historical figure who bears responsibility for the lines at CVS is poet, diplomat, and international man of intrigue Geoffrey Chaucer.  His 699-line poem Parliament of Fowls, c. 1382, specifies Valentine’s Day (already February 14th at that point, but with no romantic associations), as the date that birds chose their mates.   “For this was on Saint Valentine’s day,/When every fowl comes there his mate to take.”    I’m not sure if anyone at Elko, Nevada’s National Cowboy Poetry Gathering has ever recited these lines, but quite a few writers took Chaucer’s idea and ran with it.

I paid for my gifts and made my way home, relieved that the holiday would proceed in its cheerful, normal way.  Cards,  hugs, and candy.  Lace and red and white.  The same colors, coincidentally, as those of the New Orleans’ San Fermin Festival, in which Roller Derby girls wielding plastic bats chase happy people through the city streets.     All roads lead to Rome, as they say.  

Happy Valupercalentines Day. 

Attack of the morning page!

YouTuber.  Beautiful morning-light shot after shot as she performed the routines that have made her so successful.  She drank water, took her vitamins, made tea, and set out a notebook and a gorgeous pen on a blond-wood table in preparation for her morning pages.   Watching from home, I gave her a 10 out of 10.   Journaling in the morning is promoted on lots of lifestyle channels, but this was the fourth video I’d seen in less than a week where morning pages were mentioned.  She was also the fourth out of four people who admitted that they hadn’t actually read the book that popularized morning pages, Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity (1992)…  Unlike the others, though, this YouTuber had acquired the book and said she intended to read it soon.  

This felt like a sign.  I, too, had an unread copy of The Artist’s Way, collecting dust on the bottom shelf of my bedroom bookcase!  On round one I’d evidently made it to the end of the introduction, where Cameron describes how she’d become blocked after she quit drinking.    Alcohol had been essential to starting and finishing her writing, though with increasingly destructive effects on her health, and she wasn’t sure how to proceed without it.  When she found coping mechanisms that worked for her, she started teaching them to other blocked creatives and eventually turned the program into the best-selling book.   

When I bought The Artist’s Way Sonny was in elementary school and I’d stopped all professional and most personal writing, although I still had music for a creative outlet.   I remembered trying morning pages, but not how long I’d done them or why I’d stopped.  

The Artist’s Way is a set of activities and prompts intended to be used over the course of 12 weeks.  The preamble before Chapter One discusses the elements of the program.  First, of course, the morning pages:  “three pages of longhand writing, strictly stream-of-consciousness.”  Second, the “artist date,” which involves going somewhere alone once a week for a treat (none of the Youtubers has mentioned this element, so I think I must be farther along in the book already).   The purpose of morning pages is to clear the mind in order to face the work of the day; the point of the artist date is to gather inspiration.   

I didn’t hear about Cameron until the 2000s, but I’ve been free writing since the mid 1980s, when I crept into a church basement for my first fiction workshop.  The instructor started most sessions with exercises based on Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones (1986).   Start writing and don’t lift your hand from the page for 10 minutes, 15 minutes, whatever.  No cross-outs, no revisions, just turn on the spigot and see what happens.    

Like The Artist’s Way, Writing Down the Bones doesn’t try to teach craft.  There are no sections on plot construction, setting, description, showing versus telling, or characterization.  No grammar hacks.  No sample query letters.   The intention is to provide habits of body and thought that get around one’s internal resistance to writing.        

Over the years I’ve done so much free writing that I can meander for as long as my hypothenar and adductor pollicis muscles hold out (along with those pesky palmar interossei).   But practically, it usually only takes a few minutes until I focus on an interesting idea or image, and then I start writing for real (aka the hard way).   

Cameron explicitly positions the morning pages as a meditation.   As I’ve hated meditation more every time I tried it, maybe this explains why I’ve been stuck for years on page 20 of the book, but who knows what might happen this time?  I double my page count with a trudge through “Week One: Recovering a Sense of Safety.”  It’s a struggle at points due in part to her dismissive language towards anyone who isn’t pursuing an artistic career full-time.   The chapter tasks run from the mundane—morning pages, the artist date, and affirmations (which I will skip, as I like affirmations even less than I do meditation)—to the rather thrilling: starting a war between “enemies” and “champions” of my creative self-worth.   There are a lot of rules.     I suppose if I see the morning pages as a substitute for the ritual of drink-writing, the rules are a bit more understandable, substituting for the rituals of bottle, pen, glass, words, sips, connections, words…  

If I’m going to give the method a try, I’ll have to bend a morning pages rule or two.  Handwritten: no problem.  Three pages, okay, that’s a reasonable goal and doesn’t take too long.  Stream of consciousness: nope.  Permission to abandon a line of thought without apology or transition?  Heck, yeah!   By the time I make it to my comfy chair by the journal most mornings I have some kind of question to pose, even if it’s just “How did I sleep last night? or “What fresh hell is this?”   My first morning pages question, three days ago, was why I had hated the Mannerist paintings (I’m taking one of those online art history things).  That led to an exploration of sarcasm and beauty and autism and embarrassment, and after I was done with my three pages, I felt calm and fairly focused.   Success?   

A train of one’s own

In 1885, Robert Louis Stevenson, the Scottish writer who’s probably best known for Treasure Island, published the poem “From a Railway Carriage.”  In addition to rhythms that mimic train motion—“Faster than fairies, faster than witches,/Bridges and houses, hedges and ditches”—Stevenson flings image after image at breakneck speed.  A child, a tramp, a runaway cart, a mill, a river, “Each a glimpse and gone forever!”  It’s quite possible that Stevenson, a frail man but one who loved travel, was on a train while he wrote it.   

It’s delightful to write on a train.  Amtrak or scenic railway or subway, the pluses are similar.  The sense of motion, the engine noise, the coffee-shop feel of being around people without the pressure to interact.  Because while a certain kind of person feels free to ask “What are you reading there?” nobody ever wants an answer to “What are you writing there?”  Sometimes on fancy commuter rail there are even little tables for your laptop, plus outlets for your power cords, and cup-holders.   

 I’ve gotten a lot of work done while riding on trains, although I pale in comparison to someone like Scott Turow, who wrote most of his best-selling debut novel, Presumed Innocent, on the commuter rail.  I started on the Chicago El, drafting my 50 to 200 word assignments for a banking association while I was traveling downtown.   The city was slowly upgrading its subway system, but there were still some cars from the 1940s, and these were absolutely the best for writing.   The seats were arranged in parallel rows.  They had vinyl cushions—some of them with so many rips that they were all fluff and duct tape.  The seats groaned when I shifted my weight.  The cars had windows that could actually be opened.   My stop in Rogers Park was near the terminus at the north end of the city, so I’d grab a window seat and settle in with my notepad.    It took the train about 40 minutes to get to the Loop downtown.   Forty minutes was long enough to get into a writing groove, but not long enough enough to feel oppressive.  Besides, the environment provided lots of opportunities to take a breather or spark a story idea.  We trundled past office windows, back porches with flowerpots and clotheslines, graffiti’d rooftops, elegant hotels, fleabag hotels, skyscrapers, and always in the distance the great lake.  When the train went underground there was a wonderful rushing feeling and a change in the sound, and a short moment when we plunged into black and then blinked as the interior lights activated.  The other riders kept me thinking and wondering as well.   The shell-gamers and Moonies trawling for suckers, the girls dressed as Madonna or Cyndi Lauper, sun-hardened street people, Bears fans, Cubs fans, frottagists pressing, sweat dripping down the backs of necks…  

When I moved to Boston I switched from the El to the T, but the train-writing worked the same.   I rarely ride the subway anymore, but sometimes when I’m feeling dull, I buy a Charlie ticket on the Red Line, made a desk of my knees and backpack, and write until I’m out of juice, then get out at whatever stop is closest and explore.      

The pandemic put a stop to train-writing for a while.   I feel that itch for a change, so bored with moving from my study to the dining room to the sun room.   I have two windows open on this computer.  One is Scrivener, where I’m writing the draft for this blog, and the other is a Youtube video:  Driver’s Eye View of the Royal Gorge Route Railroad, which follows the Arkansas River for an hour and a half.     I’ve maneuvered things so that it looks a bit as it would if I was sitting by a window.  There’s engine noise, and the images passing by create a tiny sense of motion.   I saw a flash of color a bit ago—some people were paddling bright-blue rafts—and then I wrote a bit, and now I see the river’s all frothy.  I remember a day I spent at age 16, white-water rafting on the Youghiogheny River in Pennsylvania with a church group with a couple of pro guides on each raft.   Knees clenched onto the seat, water spraying everywhere, and how loud the rapids were, six foot drops scarier than a 60-foot roller coaster.  Somebody on the boat behind us fell out and broke his leg.   I think there might be a story nugget there..

It’s nice to figure out that with a little help from the internet, I can make my own train.    

Nutty

Poor Marjorie Taylor Greene.  On February 4, the freshman Representative from Georgia was stripped of her committee assignments by a majority vote of the House.  According to Greene’s speech from that day, she’s in her current pickle because she was “allowed [she did not specify by what or whom] to believe things that weren’t true.”   These “things that weren’t true,” she admitted, include statements contending that 9/11, the Las Vegas shootings, and the slaughter of schoolchildren in the towns of Sandy Hook and Parkland were faked or false flag operations, that space lasers owned by the Rothschilds were used on purpose to start California wildfires, that many prominent Democrats have committed treason and deserve to be imprisoned or executed, and that Democrats generally spend a lot of time drinking baby blood.   Nutty!   

Everyone probably believes something nutty, maybe related to religion or superstition, or just one of those “commonsense” things that turn out not to hold, like my conviction that carrying my bumbershoot on a walk prevents rain.   Alternative facts let people rationalize behaviors that  otherwise are weird or mildly self-sabotaging.    For example, flat earthism as an excuse to boycott one’s physics homework would fall among the latter.   But if the flat earther wins a seat on the school board and starts messing around with the science curriculum…  

As Greene tells it, she couldn’t have known that the alternative facts she found on the internet were false, so her conduct after absorbing those facts into her belief system is blameless.   As a parent, I’ve encountered this chain of reasoning many times, and it always makes me think of thumbprints and the War of 2008.  

Thumbprints are peanut butter cookies with crunchy edges, soft in the center, topped with Hershey’s kisses that melted in your mouth the way room-temperature kisses fresh from their wrappers never do.    My stepmother would bake them for Christmas and would send us home with a few dozen “extras.”   Taken in twos or threes, they’re a good way to get through a gloomy January.  

       Our rule when Sonny was an elementary school student was a fun snack once we got back from school—a little sugar-rush before homework, and often in January this meant a couple of cookies.  If he was still hungry later in the afternoon, he was supposed to ask mom, with the usual responses being “dinner’s in 20 minutes” or “here’s a piece of fruit,” (or a yogurt cup, or a couple of crackers and cheese).    In January of 2008—Sonny was nine years old, in third grade—he started filching them.  Grabbing a second snack, another two or three or four thumbprints, without asking, when my attention was diverted.   When confronted, he approached near-Marjorie Taylor Greene measures to position his actions as nobody’s fault (“I didn’t remember to ask for more”) or somebody else’s (“You didn’t remind me that I had to ask”).    Greene—who, I should note, is 46 years old, not nine—seems to be trying for the somebody else’s fault, “somebody else” being both random lie-spewing posters on the Internet and media outlets that didn’t debunk them forcefully enough.  

It was always hard for Sonny to acknowledge that he’d broken a rule deliberately; maybe Greene also is trying to avoid feelings of shame.   When Sonny’s face-saving energy got too high it could spark a meltdown—neither of us wanted that.  I also didn’t want to lock the cookie jar or make him feel like a bad person for breaking a rule.  I just wanted him to learn that thumbprints were treats rather than meals.   I moved the conversation in a different direction, therefore, along the lines of hunger being a legitimate issue for a growing boy, that two cookies is okay but five cookies is too much, what a better choice looks like—and also, most importantly, what the consequences for the actions will be (he got his TV time reduced) and for the next time, if it happens again.    Consequences don’t need to be terrible, but in my experience they need to be lived.   

This strategy worked pretty well for us.  Marjorie Taylor Greene may never clarify why she was so drawn to those antisemitic, anti-science, pro-violence, anti-democratic ideas.   (Some people have divulged that in private, she didn’t seem to be so much of a true believer—that’s terrible if true.)      However, she needs to accept the consequences of the behavior that she rationalized with her nutty beliefs.  She used her social platforms and personal interactions to harass school shooting survivors.  She inflamed hatred against Jews.  She encouraged and supported people who wished violent death on politicians by liking their posts.   She reinforced Trump’s Big Lie about election fraud without questioning her own victory in that same election.  She flaunted Congress’s rules about carrying guns and wearing masks.   And rather than being expelled from the House or being thrown off of Facebook or Twitter, she’s been given a relatively mild consequence.    Consequences are important.  The probability of positive change is small, but a girl can dream.  Maybe, just maybe, Greene will become more thoughtful, discerning, and commit to advocating for her political positions in a way that doesn’t foment sedition, sow hatred, and glorify violence.   If by some miracle that happens, then all of us can enjoy our cookies.  In moderation.