Buzz

It was all over the TV on Tuesday: Breaking! News! The Johnson and Johnson vaccine is being paused due to a rare but dangerous side effect, a blood clotting disorder.     

A little bee started buzzing around my brain.  I’d received the J&J vaccine two days before.  I’d made it through the shot–just a little sting–and the fifteen-minute post-injection period without going into anaphylactic shock.  My only reactions so far had been  shoulder twinges and feeling tired more than normal.  I’d thought I was basically done with side effects.  The prospect of being on high alert for the next couple of weeks set a bee buzzing in my brain.  

The warning signs, said the doctor-commentators, included headache, stomachache, and leg pains.  But don’t worry, it’s a very rare complication.  One in a million—although concerning enough to close down clinics and stop giving the shots.  Rare complications are the ones that I tend to fixate on during bouts of hypochondria.  That passing pain at my right temple: surely an aneurysm fixing to blow.    A morning cough: my first Covid symptom.    

The bee was joined by a buddy.  I began to feel indignant.  I’d just started to relax!  I realize that I don’t have some kind of right to feel relaxed, so this wasn’t a good reason to pout.  Nevertheless I pouted and made a generic “Yikes!” post on Facebook.  Friends rallied around with supportive comments, most of them statistics-based.   One in a million means that the odds are on my side.   Then they gave me more statistics.  I had a much bigger chance of being struck by lightning, or drowning in the bathtub, or being in a car accident.        

The bees weren’t convinced.  Half the hive was in motion.  I started assembling my outfit for the day and took a tumble over an electrical cord, nearly face-planting onto the sharp corner of my dresser and scratching my arm (chances of dying in a fall: 1 in 106).    I swore for a while and then decided on an expedition: a trip to a favorite park where I could walk away the stress.   I grabbed the car keys.  About a mile from the house there’s one of those complicated intersections with a traffic light pattern that ensures left-turn bottlenecks.  I was on my way through in the right lane when the SUV directly ahead of me sideswiped a sedan in the left lane (chances of dying in a car accident: 1 in 107).  I was able to stop without adding a third car to the mess, but now the whole hive was buzzing.  

Someone had planted a row of daffodils at the park entrance.  While I walked I tried to drown out the bees by calculating whether avoiding disaster twice already in the day made it less or more likely that I would get a fatal blood clot.    Probability doesn’t work that way, I’m told, but I’m fuzzy about how probability works in general.  On the one hand, I don’t really subscribe to the idea that “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics,” though appreciate the nice setup and punchline.  It’s mistakenly attributed to Mark Twain and sounds like his style.  Twain himself wrongly attributed it to British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli.   Whoever came up with joke—maybe a different English politician, Sir Charles Wentworth Dilke, maybe the Duke of Wellington, or various others—it went the Gilded Age equivalent of viral in the mid 1890s.   On the other hand, probability and statistics class was the hill upon which my college math major died.  I don’t have a good grasp of the subject.    

   My friends explained that the stats just remind us that we all do way riskier stuff every day than get a vaccine.  Familiarity breeds complacency.  I drive frequently.  I bathe daily.  I trip over stuff every few days.   I go outdoors when it’s raining.  I get a shot once every few years.  

  Ultimately I’m glad I got the vaccine.  The benefits of the vaccine far outweigh the risks.   I’m lucky to have received a shot before the program was paused.  What odds there are of my life returning to normal increase with every vaccinated person.    

However, it took a while—some hours, in fact—to settle the bees.    

Bird

I saw a bird this morning in the top branches of our cherry tree.  All black, songbird-sized, bright yellow beak.  It pecked at the fruit.  I moved closer to the window, and the bird glared briefly in my direction and flew away.    

The best match on an internet search was the common blackbird, aka Turdus merula, aka the Eurasian blackbird.  The trouble, as the last name suggests, is that those blackbirds don’t  seem to frequent the continental US.   They aren’t on The Official State List of the Massachusetts Avian Records Committee or other local bird-identification sites.   Types of blackbirds found in my  state include the red-winged blackbird, the common grackle, the brown-headed cowbird, and the European starling.  None of these looked very much like the bird I’d seen, and the starling was the only one with a yellow beak.      

I wondered what kind of symbolism might be associated with a blackbird.  I’m not particularly superstitious myself, but always curious.  I’m always looking for connections between things.  The connections are constructed, but soothing.   I entered the question “What does it mean when you see a blackbird?”   

Top answer:  death.      

Ruh-roh.  I didn’t need anything to make me more anxious about my coronavirus vaccine appointment, which was 28 hours away.   I’m scheduled to get the single-dose Johnson and Johnson vax.  It engenders a mixture of hope and terror (I’m a baby about needles), and it’s on my mind so everything I hear or see gets connected to it.  In response to news reports about extreme reactions to the shot, some CNN doctor said, “Well, it’s a powerful shot.”  I didn’t find that comforting.   Now I had to work bird lore into the mix.     

The blackbird has plenty of other symbolic associations, most of them vibing with black, bird, or night.  Blackbirds can signify change, mystery, magic, night, singing.  Also they can be the Devil in disguise, evidently.   I looked for something benign that would resonate.  Many of the gurus avoided the death aspect entirely and stressed the “change” meaning.   I looked up starling symbology as well, which like the blackbird stuff, was vague and contradictory.  Starling can stand for family relationships, illumination, luck, etiquette, acceptance of one’s lot in life.   

Is it significant that confusion reigns in the 1968 Beatles song “Blackbird”?   Paul McCartney is clear about where the opening guitar lick originated: it’s based on J.S. Bach’s Bourree in E minor for lute, a piece that he had practiced.  As to where and how the song took shape, accounts vary.  McCartney wrote it in India after hearing a blackbird sing one morning.  He wrote it in Scotland while meditating on the US civil rights movement.  He wrote it in his father’s house to comfort his ailing step-grandmother.  The lyrics are about nature, or love, or justice.   

I like the song, although as with a lot of Beatles tunes I mostly know little bits of it.  Mostly  snippets that play on ads.   The Beatles had been broken up for years by the time I started listening to Top 40 radio.   Early in the pandemic, back when we were still trying to do choir rehearsals on Zoom, the director had us sing along to a karaoke version of Blackbird.   “Everybody knows this, right?” she asked.   Sure, definitely, yup.   She muted our mics so we could sing along without the distraction of sound echoes and delays.   

The guitar lick started.  This will be fun! I thought.  This is a great song!  “Blackbird singing in the dead of night,” I warbled, enjoying the lovely leap of a fifth at the end.    

I got into trouble on the second line,  “Take these broken wings and learn to fly.”  Same number of syllables, but differing in rhythm and melody—I couldn’t quite remember how.   I got back on track with the last lines of the verse  “You were only waiting/for this moment to arrive” and breathed a sigh of relief.    Second verse, same problems.      

Then the background music changed.  More lyrics popped onscreen.  I couldn’t even guess at the tune or the rhythm.   Across the Zoom gallery some of my fellow choristers were smiling and singing, while others echoed my confused expression.  I kept my mouth moving, chanting the words.  “Blackbird fly, blackbird fly/into the light of a dark black night.”    

Time slowed, as it always does when I’m really screwing up.  The karaoke lasts for just over two minutes, but it felt like two months before I hit the safety of the final “You were only waiting for this moment to arise.”   

The director unmuted us.  “How did it go?”  Some of us had loved it.  Some of us had gotten confused.  One of us, a Millennial, had never heard the song before and had been lost the whole time.       

When it was my turn, I said, “I realized I don’t know this song as well as I thought.”   Which, come to think of it, could be my personal meaning for blackbird:   muddling through life’s dark spots.    

Rainbow

April is autism awareness month.  I tend to have mixed feelings about participating, but this year Sonny’s all in.  He’s making a series of videos about his perspectives a young adult on the spectrum, so we’re having more conversations about autism than usual.   

“Hey Mom,” he said, a couple of days ago.  “Are you Team Puzzle or Team Infinity?”   

“Ummm…I’m not sure what that question means,”  I replied.  

“Which autism symbol, the puzzle piece or infinity sign?”  He showed me some artwork a friend had posted on Facebook, a big rainbow-colored infinity symbol beside a little blue puzzle piece with a slash through it.  

I felt a twinge of guilt about my ignorance.  Admittedly I have a rather poor visual memory and often have trouble with pictographs and icons.  This morning, as is not unusual, I opened Safari twice while attempting to check my email.  One’s a circle, one’s a leaning rectangle, but they’re both mostly blue.    If I ever manage to distinguish between Camera and Photos on my first try, it will be a day of rejoicing.    

 If I had been still active on autism parenting sites I’d have been more up to date.  I discovered online support groups when Sonny was about 11.  Life with a young child on the spectrum had been isolating, as many of the moms in my suburb who had neurotypical kids acted as if autism were contagious and shut us out of routine social activities.   It was a relief to find a place where people empathized and gave advice without a sneer at my parenting skills.  Many of us parents eventually realized that we were on the spectrum ourselves, and that also led to a new level of self-understanding and acceptance.    

    When I was active on those sites, the puzzle piece was the dominant autism symbol.   It had originated in the UK in 1963 with the National Autism Society (NAS).  The NAS no longer uses this symbol, and given that its puzzle piece featured a drawing of a crying child, that’s a good thing.   In 1999 the Autism Society started to use a logo with colorful puzzle pieces formed into a rainbow ribbon, rainbow being chosen as a reference to the autism spectrum.   Autism Speaks (AS), an organization founded in 2005, uses a puzzle piece colored blue as its logo.  The blue was intended to suggest calmness and acceptance.  It’s perhaps emblematic of AS that its cofounder, Suzanne Wright, took credit for the puzzle piece becoming a worldwide symbol of autism, despite the fact that it had already been in use for 42 years.    

Autism Speaks is, to put it mildly, a problematic organization.   People correctly accuse it of pathologizing all autism as a disease to be cured or eliminated.   Many in the autism community see AS as more supportive towards distressed neurotypical parents who want their children to behave “normally” than towards the children themselves.    That’s a valid criticism.   

I don’t think the world would be better off with no autistic people.   Many scientists, musicians, and artists have been on the spectrum.  I imagine that some things would have been easier for me if I’d been born neurotypical, but I don’t know that I’d be happier or a more productive member of society.       

Many on the spectrum despise the AS logo for reasons unrelated to the organization.  The blue suggests depression.  The shape implies that autism is a problem that needs to be solved and that autistic people don’t fit in.    I had taken a different message from the puzzle piece, which was that every piece of a puzzle is as important as the others.  I may be a minority of one in that view.  In the course of writing this blog I discovered that there are some jigsaw puzzles on the market that purposefully throw in a few extra pieces that won’t fit, which was disquieting.   In any case, Autism Speaks is so strongly associated with the puzzle logo at this point that I was delighted when Sonny educated me about an alternative.     

The infinity symbol has no missing pieces.  It’s mysterious, like the universe, like a brain, and understanding rather than solution.  but not necessarily a thing that needs to be solved.   Better understood, sure.   It can be any color; though I like the rainbow versions the best.  The symbol also suggests motion, which I hope could remind neurotypical people that people with autism have active brains.   I’ve been in far too many conversations where Sonny was treated like a piece of furniture—something to talk about, not to.   

“Definitely Team Infinity,” I said.  

“Me, too,” said Sonny.   

Bears, bunnies, buds…

Spring’s little green buds are out.  Nary a one on March 31, they were adorning every branch of our garden cherry tree on April 1!   Happy, and restless, I contrived an errand—paper towels—and headed for CVS.   Paper goods and other cleaning products are stashed in a dull aisle at the end of the store.  On the way I detoured to the “seasonal” aisle.  CVS’s definition of seasonal is always colorful and multifaceted.  This week seed packets, bug spray, garden stakes, novelty umbrellas, and the occasional gnome jostled for shelf space with Easter baskets, stuffed toys, egg-coloring kits, and oh the c-c-candy.     

The paper towels slipped from my mind.  A basket, some fake grass, jelly beans, neon-pastel plastic eggs, a big chocolate rabbit and a little stuffed rabbit…I could assemble it into an Easter gift for Sonny.   I did something like that most years when he was a kid.  … Push away the thought that Sonny is 23 years old and doesn’t even like jelly beans … That we already had a package of Peeps and a couple of Cadbury eggs in the pantry …  A woman with a little girl in tow expelled an impatient breath.    She had an eye on a cellophane-wrapped extravaganza on the shelf above my head.  

I socially distanced to the appropriate six feet, which took me outside the aisle.  That broke the spell.   

As I loaded the paper towels into the car, I admitted that the person who wants the pretty basket with candy and a stuffed bunny sitting in plastic grass is me.     

Mostly I want the toy.  I had a bit of a stuffed animal habit as a kid.    A pair of teddy bears, three dogs, a monkey, a red horse, and, yes, an Easter bunny lived on my bunk bed.  My favorite, placed at the center of the bunch, was a lion with a huge, scratchy mane.   Whenever we went to a toy store, I scanned the dollhouse stuff and then lingered at the plush display until it was time to leave.  I longed for an enormous panda bear with a big, soft belly and enveloping limbs, bigger than me, the kind you could barely fit in a car.  Obviously this toy, with its rent-payment price tag, was out of the question.  I knew that.  I could even predict what my mother would say:  “Where on earth would you put that thing?”  

“On my bed with the others,” I would have replied.   I wanted to have enough to cover the bed’s surface completely.   During the day I could look at them, and at night I could crowd them around me, making things nice and cozy and tight and safe.   

 Sonny’s birth was an excuse to troll the toy departments again.   We gave him teddy bears and easter bunnies and took him to places like FAO Schwarz (the plush animals displays, OMG).  He preferred exotic animals, such as the ones for sale at kids’ museum or aquarium gift shops.  Stuffed snakes, frogs, fishes, beetles.  Also he went for TV toys: the Abominable Snowman from the Rudolph shows,  Elmo from Sesame Street, various Teletubbies,  Gary from Sponge Bob.   None of them lived on his bed.   They got played with for a while and then were passed down to various cousins.  

The household member whose soft toy enthusiasms were closest to mine was definitely our golden retriever.  He adored a series of stuffed ducks from the pet store.  When presented with a duck, he’d shake all over, taking time to sniff the toy.  Then, very gently, he’d take the thing into his mouth and carry it around the house.   He’d use it as a pillow as well as something to catch and fetch.  And then at some point he’d rip a seam and pull out half the stuffing.          

For a while I switched to a grown-up version of plush toys, the throw pillow.  This was HGTV-approved (pillows add color and texture to a space, as well as comfort).  HGTV convinced me that one couldn’t have too many throw pillows, which turned out to be far from true.   Having to shift six pillows in order to sit on the couch turned out to be annoying.  Having no room for Dave to fold his laundry on the bed proved even worse.   He started dumping them on the floor and leaving them there.  I put many pillows in a closet and forced myself to stop buying new ones.    

 I’m still searching for comfort in all the wrong places.   Without being forced away from the display, I might very well have bought a toy.   That would have been bad.   I already have two stuffed animals in my bedroom, both on the headboard.  One is a little orange cat, very floppy, with big glass eyes.  Sonny gave it to me for Christmas one year so that I could have a cat that was always there for me.  (I love our evil orange tabby Capone madly, a passion that’s only intermittently requited.)   “My” cat fits nicely on top of a pile of TBR books.  The other animal is a purple hippo.  I was able to rationalize the purchase neatly: 1) I bought it in a store for grownups, and 2) it’s practically a medical device, since it’s infused with lavender and is microwavable so that you can get to sleep more easily.  And two is plenty; two is the last safe number in the one-two-many of my autism.  A third toy could trigger the deluge.  In two months the bed would be covered.    Forget space for laundry: neither Dave nor I would have room to sleep!   Probably better to look to the little green buds for comfort, instead.     

The Kadigan Search

So I was watching this program about Massachusetts that included a map that showed which Native American tribes were most prominent in various areas of the state.  Around where we live the dominant tribe was the Wessagusset. Cool!  Out towards western Mass, the name of a river tribe caught my eye: Podunk.  Time to fire up the search engines…  

I’ve been trying to educate myself about words or expressions that intentionally demean a race or ethnic group, like “thug” and “gyp.”  I would be sorry if Podunk was one of these words.  It’s so much fun to say.  Loaded with plosives!   P fires into the atmosphere, D drops the jaw, and K slams the word shut.  I think it sounds like someone getting out of town for good, which is what people from Podunk often do.   

To my relief, Podunk’s slang connotations don’t directly refer to the Podunk tribe.  The Podunks—the word can mean both the tribe and the swampy land of their territory—had succumbed to Old World diseases and broken treaties by the mid 1700s.  In the tribal sense they are extinct, but the Podunk name is preserved: on a river in Connecticut, on roads and various unincorporated areas, and on towns in several states, including Vermont, New York, and Connecticut.  

Podunk became popular as a placeholder name for a small, dull, backward town in the later 1800s.   (Another term for placeholder name is kadigan, which is my new-to-me word of the week.) In 1846 a Buffalo (NY) newspaper ran a series of Letters from Podunk that became wildly popular nationwide.  The letters satirized the small-town/small-world perspective.  Soon other writers, including Mark Twain, began making jokes about Podunk towns.    

I mentioned the Podunk research to my husband Dave, who grew up in Massachusetts but had never learned about the tribe.  “If it turns out to be problematic,” he said, “you could always use jerkwater instead.”  

I hoped it wouldn’t come to that.  Jerkwater (definition: “small/remote/insignificant”) is a less attractive word, even though it applies more broadly.  Jerkwater town, politician, athletic program, etc. Like Podunk, Jerkwater also became popular in the later 1800s.  Then it referred to towns where trains stopped solely because there was a handy stream to refill the boiler (requiring that workers “jerk” the water from the stream to the train).    

Podunk and jerkwater.  Places that people itch to leave.  I know the feeling.  When I was 11 my family moved from the bustling DC area to Richmond.   Richmond wasn’t small, but it was still Podunk: slow-moving, faded, gossipy, and focused on the past.  My friends who’d grown up in Richmond thought of it as a favorite blanket, cozy and comforting.   To me it was a straitjacket.  I wanted the excitement and possibilities of a real city.     

During the later 1800s America underwent the Second Industrial Revolution, which included a major migration of people from rural areas to cities.  From 1870 to 1920, an estimated 11 million people abandoned Podunks and jerkwater towns for city lights.  During those years the population grew from 38 million to 106 million people.  

My theory is that maybe these kadigans became popular because they were timely.  People wanted to reassure themselves that giving up on Podunk and Jerkwater was the right decision.  1920 was the first time in US history when more people lived in cities than in the country.  There were a lot of people looking for that validation.  

The urban trend’s continued and intensified since.   In 2021, about 83% of Americans live in urban areas (cities and suburbs), while about 21% live in rural (open country/small town) areas.  Yes, those numbers sum to more than 100%; some urban areas contain rural areas within them.  

There’s a growing longing these days for a return to a more community-connected, simpler, small-town life.  Even I, a city-lover, sometimes am overwhelmed with such feelings here in my suburb.  How a town with a horse farm and a number of residents who keep chickens or goats can feel too urban is hard to pinpoint, but it does.  Maybe because there are almost 35,000 of us in 10 square miles?  Besides, it’s easier to go rural now that we can bring along our electronics, sometimes our jobs, and get most anything delivered to our doorstep, even in the most jerkwater of Podunks.  

I wondered if there was some antonym to Podunk on the rise, but I haven’t found one.  We need a new kadigan.  A name for a stodgy city that drives people to rural life, whose location can’t quite be pinned down…

Letters from Springfield?

The kindest cut of all

I got my hair cut this weekend.  Even in normal times I tend to put off this chore, but my locks had extended to more than halfway down my back, the longest since I was 15.  As my current hair is fluffier than my teenage hair, whenever it hit my bare back it tickled like sixteen strolling spiders.  Time for Supercuts.  

I used to go to higher end salons, back when my efforts to pass for normal were at their height.     The kind of joints where customers used the same stylist every time, with appointments set weeks in advance.  Where they bring you a coffee or tea, sometimes even a little glass of wine.  Where there’s a pitcher of lemon-water and a tray of nibbles in the waiting area, with artisan jewelry, tiny jars of face cream, and fancy hair products for sale as well as stacks of fashion magazines to browse.  Where there are dedicated shampooers, and sometimes even a darkened shampoo room with stars in the ceiling and music-of-the-spheres tunes on the soundtrack.   

These salons do, generally, give somewhat superior haircuts to Supercuts.  I left with hair that was smooth and shiny, wafting the scent of an umbrella drink sipped on a Caribbean beach.  I wonder if the aesthetic experience at the expensive places is worse now that everybody has to wear masks and socially distance.  It wasn’t the pandemic (or finances) that sent me to Supercuts, though.  A couple of issues arising from my autism, specifically involving shampoos and conversation, had soured me on snooty beauty.    

For me, a salon shampoo became an ordeal, especially if it culminated in a “relaxing” scalp massage.  My entire body would cramp.  It’s been sad to realize that some of the autistic sensory issues that I’d thought I’d conquered over the years (e.g., tolerance for someone kneading my scalp) have resurrected.  I can pretend not to be bothered by stuff like this, which might build character but also wears me out for more important stuff, or I can avoid it.   Supercuts stylists don’t push you to get a shampoo.   They just wet the hair with a spray bottle and carry on.  

In the pricey parlors you see the same stylist every time.  Some of them keep notes and will ask how your kid or cat is doing.   Yikes!  I can handle small talk or casual conversations okay, I hope, sometimes.  Other times I perseverate about what I’m doing wrong.  I hate the idea of boring or annoying someone whose pay depends at least in part on my satisfaction.  Conversation is an area where I’m always learning and experimenting, but do I have the right takeaways from my experiments?  Am I a valued or dreaded customer (albeit one who tips at least 30%)?  Supercuts stylists can vary in chattiness, but since I never have the same one twice there’s less pressure to be perfect.  In cases where I feel that I really goofed…there Supercuts in other towns.  Sometimes the gods smile on me, and the stylists are so busy talking to each other that no one is talking much to me except to check whether the length is okay.  

My stylist made sure I knew how much hair four inches was, sprayed me down, and started pruning.  We talked for a bit about how today was sunny and warm and tomorrow would be rainy, and then we shut up and listened to the radio.  She started to even out my bangs, which between haircuts I solo-trim very badly.     The comb’s teeth dragged over my forehead again and again as she snipped.  I thought I would go mad.  Scrape.  Snip.  Scrape.  Snip snip.  Scrape.  I was glad to be wearing a mask so that I only had to manage the third of my face that was uncovered.   

Finally she was done.  My hair bounced around my shoulders.  The sun was shining, and it would be months before the spiders strolled again.   A fragile triumph, but a victory nonetheless.    

My creation…bwah hah hah

It was a dark and stormy night.  I was alone in my lab with the parts.  Joints that had lain untouched for years in a jumble around me.  Thunder rumbled.  Some would say the body on the bench was deformed.  Unnatural.  I admitted that there was an ungainliness to it.  Feverish, desperate, I fastened the pieces, unwilling to think past the moment when life might return.  Lightning speared the sky.  With trembling fingers I attached a reed to the mouthpiece, ready to breathe life into the Franken-clarinet. 

As in Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, I was alone with my creation.  The Frankenstein movies typically have the primary cast members in the lab at the creature’s awakening.  Dr. Frankenstein himself, his fiancée, his best friend, and an assistant or two.  The original Frankenstein, he’s alone, and he flees his creature the moment it draws breath.  Why?  Because he suddenly notices that it’s ugly.   

I’ll admit that my creature wasn’t the prettiest.  Nor are many of the other Franken-clarinets around.  It’s a common practice among clarinetists these days to change out one or more pieces of the soprano clarinet in order to improve the instrument’s sound or tuning.  Practically nobody sticks with the factory mouthpiece.  The upper and lower joints, where the key work and tone holes are located, are the most important and are usually kept together.  The barrel, which joins the mouthpiece to the upper joint, and the bell, which fits onto the lower joint, are often swapped out.  The substitute barrel or bell can be of a markedly different color and shape than the original version; these clarinets can sometimes look as though they are well advanced on the journey to lamphood that is the ultimate fate of many aged instruments.   

Victor Frankenstein just can’t see past his creature’s ugliness.  Some critics have noted that the crime in the relationship of Frankenstein to monster seems more a violation of motherhood (rather than fatherhood) in its abandonment of nourishment and guidance.  Shelley was just 18 when she started the book, the idea originating from a ghost story competition at a house party.  She was pregnant at the time and had already lost one baby.  She knew firsthand that a newborn thing may not be particularly beautiful and can inspire both love and fear.  A baby is sublime—a word that comes up a lot in the text.  The term is used in the Romantic poetic sense, to mean a human reaction to something overwhelming (a mountain, an electrical storm, a birth) that combines ecstasy and terror.  

It goes beyond standard Franken-clarinetting to mess around with the joints, but I was desperate.  I have loved playing clarinet more than most things.  My experiences with the sublime have chiefly come through music.  My Yamaha CSV Bb clarinet, now 14 years old, had a creamy sound and was once a joy.  Except that the upper joint had a habit of cracking.  Once in the first year, then about every two or three years after that.  Cracks make playing effortful and perilous, especially on the high notes.  They are expensive to repair.  I got the latest one fixed in November, but the instrument still felt like it was pushing back on every breath.  

My husband Dave, who stopped playing clarinet about five years ago, said I could have his Bb Buffet if I wanted.  Buffet makes great clarinets, too.  Dave’s horn had been in its case for so long that its keys were fuzzy.  Also a rubber thumb rest cushion had disintegrated also, melting and spreading into the tone holes of the lower joint.  It was unusable.  

I had two unusable Bb clarinets, two different brands, and hope and terror.  That dark and stormy night, I stuck Dave’s Buffet upper joint onto my Yamaha lower joint.  Unnatural!  The  Buffet joint, grayish black, the key plating worn off in patches where fingers had hit them.  The Yamaha joint ebony, with keys  still bright.  

Shelley’s creature, also a jumble of parts, starts out with plenty of potential.  Strong, tall, and (in the book) graceful, he learns to feed and shelter himself, teaches himself to talk and read, and spends many months doing humans hidden kindnesses.  All to no avail; the humans misunderstand and attack him.  “I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend,” he tells Frankenstein when they meet at last.  The movie creature achieves this psychological transition in a matter of days; the novel creature, years.  (The novel is of its time and moves slowly.)   

I apologized to the thing I had made and tried a few notes.  They felt easy and free.  It had been so long since playing felt that good.  

Frankenstein never apologizes to his creature.  He agrees reluctantly to help it, then breaks his promise, leading to more deaths and a final chase to the ends of the earth.   

Some of the Frankenstein movies have happy endings (at least for most of the principle characters, including Doctor Frankenstein and his bride).  The novel doesn’t.  Frankenstein, unsuccessful in his chase, dies.  The captain who has helped with the last leg of the journey turns away from his quest for the North Pole.  The creature proceeds Pole-ward.  The sublime remains unattained.  

The tuner reassured me that the notes were where they needed to be.  I set to work with a polishing cloth, tape, thread, and screwdriver.   Soon I had a working clarinet (though I’m still tinkering with barrels and bells).  The sublime remains unattained—but possible.    

Number 80 with a bullet

“This is stupid,” I thought, again, as I trudged to the Bally’s gym on Clark Street.  A fit of self-loathing after a birthday week surfeit of cake, stuffed pizza, and daiquiris had led to my spending my birthday check on a year’s membership.  I wasn’t enjoying my workouts much, but I was determined to get my money’s worth by going five days a week. 

Bally’s occupied the the seventh floor of a vertical mall.  Horizontal space in downtown Chicago being limited, a lot of shopping centers instead expand upwards.  A glass elevator dropped me off in front of the reception desk.        

For the first couple of months I mostly pedaled one of the LifeCycles that lived by the aerobics floor.  I watched Stacy C’s 5:30 high impact class as the members jumped, grape-vined and whooped.  By the time I lined up (all the way at the back) I’d already practiced the routines, slow-mo, in my apartment.  Soon, though, I was jumping and grape-vining along.  The whooping will always be beyond me.   

I don’t know when I stopped thinking “This is stupid,” but it happened.  One evening I found myself heading down in the glass elevator along with Stacy C and a few others from the class.  “Wow,” she said.  “I can’t wait to get home and eat a big salad!” 

Stacy C and I would never be soulmates, but I stayed hooked on fitness.         

It was with a familiar feeling of desperate determination that I started bullet journaling at the beginning of this year (see “The Bullet Ballet” (January 10, 2021).  I was fed up with my reaction to the pandemic and feeling behind and disorganized.  I liked looking at  artistic bullet journal (bujo) spreads on YouTube and Pinterest.  It was exciting to know that my bujo could be exactly what I wanted.  So many bullet journal proponents said the practice had changed their lives for the better.  I felt doubtful whether this could be the case for me, but hoped for a similar miracle.  Who doesn’t want to be a better person?   Or, if not better, at least more bearable to myself?  

Also for a while I’d wanted a single place to keep records of a year.  Not so much the daily thoughts and feelings and research, the kind of things that take up space in my notebooks, but business records and appointments and lists of things I’d read, heard, and made.  Because the bujo would incorporate my calendar and all of my business information, I would be committed to using it for a year.   

I acquired a dot grid notebook and various accoutrements (Fineliners, washi tape, gluesticks, etc.)  On January 1 I muttered a brief prayer to Ryder Carroll and made the first entry.  As of March 21, 80 days into the year, I’m 50 pages in.  Thoughts so far:    

Pluses:  2021 in one notebook! I’m using these standard bujo features a bunch: 

Future planning pages, to write upcoming dates before I set up a month.   

Monthly calendar spreads, with plenty of room for personal and professional notes.        

Weekly calendar spreads.  I do one week on a two-page spread (letter-sized pages).  To-dos, appointments, long aspirational lists of things morning me wants evening me to have accomplished, phone numbers and reminders: it all fits in here.       

Collections: Covid-19 stats, books read, words written, notes written, videos completed.  I’d hoped that setting up these collections would encourage me to spend more time reading, or writing, or composing, or filming.  That hasn’t happened.  However, as far as I can tell I’m not doing any of these activities less than I was in 2020.  

Minuses: be careful of what you track! I’ve abandoned or greatly changed these features.   

Collections: Fitness tracking.  This page was a disaster because my first set-up was based on time, 30-minute increments, which turned me into a clock watcher and made it hard to enjoy moving.  Now I just list the date along with letters representing what kind(s) of activity I did (S=strength, C=class, W=walk, B=bike, etc.).   

Habit trackers in general.  My tendency to scribble water, or practice time, etc., on Post-It notes resulted in misplacing the notes more often than recording them.  How the stickies kept making their way to my socks I’m not sure.       

Neutrals: Things I never wound up using much  

The Index (anything that’s top of mind or important has a flag or tab).   

Brainstorming/idea lists (I never remember that I’ve started them). 

Key/Symbols.  I’m not visually minded enough to process a Ryder-style list.   

Big projects pages. This was going to be a thing, but I substituted lists on the weekly spreads and sometimes Post-Its, even at the hazard of their migrating sock-ward.     

Art skills. As I have none, an aesthetic spread will always be a nonstarter.  

Overall, I feel the bujo’s a reasonable strategy.  At the very least, organizing my 2021 tax information next year will be a snap.  The fitness spread debacle has helped me figure out how to set up trackers with better metrics.  I’m still on the sidelines, pedaling the LifeCycle, but I’ve stopped thinking “this is stupid.”  

Bowled over

It’s all over the news:  a man spent $35 for a pretty blue-and-white porcelain bowl at a yard sale somewhere near New Haven, Connecticut.  It was a small thing, about six inches across, with a design of flowers and vines.  The buyer didn’t even haggle about the price.  had a feeling and didn’t haggle about the price (Maybe $35 is normal for New Haven, home of Yale University, but as one of the anchors on Channel 4 said, “It’s cute, but it looks like something you’d pay four bucks, maximum.” I agree.    

It turns out however that this lotus bowl (named for its lotus flower-like shape) is fabulously old and rare.  It’s a Ming Dynasty piece from the early 1400s, and there are only seven similar bowls surviving in the world today, most of them in museums, and it just sold at Sotheby’s for $721,800. !!

The other Channel 4 anchor said, “I love and hate this story.  I love it because it happens, and I hate it because it never happens to me.”  I agree. On consideration, though, how could I know it’s never happened to me?  When I go to a yard sale or flea market I’m not searching for treasure to resell; I’m looking for something to use or to enjoy looking at on the daily.  Never has calling Sotheby’s occurred to me.  Therefore:  there’s at least a tiny possibility that I have acquired a rare treasure.  Certainly I have a lot of stuff stamped “Made in China”…  

When we first set up house together, Dave and I got a lot of our furniture, crockery, and the occasional decorative tchotchke from a secondhand collective nearby.  This was a big indoor space, four floors, divided into lots of little booths.  I loved going there so much.  We paid 50 cents each to get in, and when we wanted a break from shopping we visited the canteen at the back that sold soda, donuts, popcorn, and coffee.   

I prefer the venues where there are a lot of vendors: flea markets, antiques collectives, and art fairs.  All that stuff makes it feel like a museum (I luurve museums) where you can take home a piece from your favorite exhibit.  So much eye candy.  My favorites, the pictures, glass art, ceramics, the old books, draw me like a magnet.  

I’m less likely to stop at a typical yard sale, where it’s just one family with their stuff laid out all over the front yard.  Partly that’s because the merchandise tends more towards clothes, toys, furniture, and small appliances.   Also, my autism makes it hard to navigate the social intricacies of a situation where it feels as if “just looking” is not okay, that good manners requires buying something, anything.   

At that New Haven yard sale, I believe I’d have noticed the Ming bowl, even if it had been stuck between a set of He-Man action figures and some hand-embroidered kitchen towels.  I’d have checked it out, then walked away, thinking $35 for that?  I understand that haggling is expected and not considered offensive, but I.just.can’t.  It feels like attempted robbery.  For $4 I’d have snapped it up.     

Or maybe not.  We already have a lotus bowl, found at a Saturday flea market one town over.  Our lotus bowl is about the same size as the Sotheby’s one.  A decent size for serving nuts or candy.  Like the Ming, its dominant colors are also blue and white.  The Sotheby’s design is a bit busier than our bowl’s, but ours has a grander (maybe gaudier) color scheme, with  details in orange, gold, crimson, and green.  There’s a lovely, somewhat perplexing scene on the outside of the bowl: houses along a river, mountains in the distance, maybe a skyscraper, too?, flowering tree branches stretched over the water, and a group of five things floating on or above or maybe in the river.  Dave and I can’t agree whether they’re lotus flowers, goldfish, or birds.  Also there are two guys fishing in a boat.   Inside the bowl, at the center, is a lotus flower plus leaves that looks more like a creepy monster hand with a big ring, reaching for that last cashew.  That you took, and now you are subject to its terrible revenge, bwah hah hah!    

Maybe every time I wash my lotus bowl I’m degrading its market value by another $1,000.  I daydream briefly of a serendipitous visitor, maybe someone who comes to check the electric meter because he hasn’t yet found a position that uses his PhD in Chinese art history, who tells me that our bowl is fabulously valuable.  As Dave noted this morning, “you can buy a lot of bowls with $721,000.”  Then I snap back to reality and the $7 that I found in my fall coat pocket.  When the flea markets and art fairs and yard sales start back up, I’ll go looking. There’s always room for one more beautiful thing.  

Spring in some direction or other

Last night I dreamt of music theory again.  There was a boy and a birthday party and a dominant seven chord gone wrong.  I tried to explain to the boy that he needed Bb, not B natural, while fumbling with the ribbon on the present I’d brought. The bow kept coming untied.  

My eyes jolted open in that definitive way that makes it clear there’s no settling back into a doze.  The clock read 5:40, in the general neighborhood of when I usually get up.   

Dave, who rises earlier than I do, pulled a pair of socks from the dresser.  I asked if there was any chance he could bring my coffee upstairs.  “Sure.  Oh, and I’ll remind you that it’s Spring Forward today,” said Dave.  “It’s almost seven.” 

Just like that, I was running an hour late.  

I hate the change to Daylight Saving Time (DST).  Even on this Sunday, when when my morning tasks are simply to make the bed, shower, write the blog, and grocery shop.  I understood why the anxiety dream.  

Every year around this time the weather people start wagging their fingers at those of us dolts who can’t remember that it’s Daylight Saving, not Savings, Time.  I change the channel before the diatribe works up steam and then forget to reset the clocks.  Grammar is one of my most shameful failings, along music theory.    

I love the results of DST.  The sun will set tonight at 6:49 p.m.!  That makes me almost happy enough to forgive New Zealand entomologist George Hudson, who proposed the idea of DST in 1895.   It proved a slow-moving notion, with the first governments to adopt DST nationwide being Germany and the Austrian empire in 1916.  Nowadays some form of DST is more common than not.   

Opponents of time changes, many of whom argue that we should be on DST permanently, say that the back and forth is hard on people, especially little kids.  (Truth!  And on pets, too!) Some studies show statistically significant side effects.  Traffic accidents and some health problems tend to increase, while electricity costs and prime time TV ratings tend to decrease.   

In England and parts of Europe DST is called “summer time.”  That feels a bit confusing, but I could get used to it.  It’s a lovely phrase, appropriate, and not nearly as complicated as the difference between Saving and Savings.  The image I’d associated with DST back when I thought it was savings was a jar filled with bits of sunshine.   Nonsensical, but pretty.  A foray into the internet grammarverse turns up site after site purporting to explain.  I squint at the computer screen.  Countable and uncountable nouns, verbs, adjectives, hyphenation, capitalization.  A tiny hammer in my head starts to pound.  Savings accounts, a saving grace, saving the whales.  I close the browser, giving my blood pressure a chance to come back down.  Perhaps someday I will understand.  

I taught myself to read words at age four and music notes at age five, fitting them into structures that made sense in my head.  When teachers tried to teach me the theory behind the words or notes, with new bits of information mixed in with old bits, the structures didn’t synch.  My autism undoubtedly played a role as well.  I would ask questions that seemed weird or premature (“We’ll be getting to that in Chapter 6”), not pertinent to the rest of the class.  Various humiliations ensued, so I stopped asking and listening.   

I scraped by with little grammar until grammar school.  We freshman comp teachers were given a quick-and-dirty grammar guide, which helped me become temporarily competent.  After I stopped teaching the knowledge flitted out of my brain.  

I avoided music theory for even longer.  A jazz piano teacher helped me feel comfortable with chord progressions, and then I started online courses. Sometimes theory was easier than I’d expected, but much of the time it was frickin’ hard.  Also: worth it.  Adding even the first few new concepts expanded my understanding and created idea after idea.  

There’ve been lots of ideas for dealing with waxing and waning daylight.  Some civilizations changed the shape of the hours, deciding that daylight would have twelve equal segments whose lengths would vary throughout the year.  A slender winter solstice hour lasted 44 minutes, while a summer solstice hour rounded out to 75.   I love that.

However…if I decide to spend an hour or two reviewing grammar, maybe I should wait until December.