Tickets

Elton John is Sonny’s favorite artist. About a year ago, on the first day tickets went on sale for John’s farewell tour dates at Gillette Stadium, Sonny ordered four. He spent months collecting the elements of his costume. Glitter platforms, heart-shaped, furry glasses, a rainbow vest, piano knee socks, gold lamé shorts and gloves. My husband Dave had volunteered to be the chauffeur for the evening as well as to book rooms for the night at a nearby hotel. It’s impossible to overstate how amped up Sonny was about this event.  

Now it was the day before the concert, and two of Sonny’s four tickets hadn’t been delivered. That is, their electronic versions with bar codes hadn’t found their way to his phone. He’d bought two from Ticketmaster (which had arrived) and two from another vendor. The second vendor had scheduled the tickets to show up by this day, but Sonny still couldn’t access them. I recommended to Sonny to call customer support, with Dave listening in on the call in case Sonny didn’t understand something. At about 1:00 Wednesday afternoon Dave and Sonny sat down with their phones and Sonny’s computer, expecting to straighten out the situation within a few minutes.

A lengthy and perplexing conversation ensued. In hindsight red flags abounded. The customer service rep informed Dave that a $200 Ticketmaster gift card was required to release Sonny’s tickets. He promised that as soon as the matter was resolved the card would be refunded and “helpfully” mentioned that our local CVS had these gift cards available for purchase. Dave, wanting to save time, rejected that idea. The rep then suggested a Zelle transfer of $500, which Sonny set up. Then Sonny’s bank put a hold on the transfer. I’d been checking in on their progress. Worried. Sonny was keeping it together—but just barely. He was breathing faster and heavier and shifting in his seat. I was nervous that he’d go into an outright meltdown and wind up hurting himself or breaking something. 

Therefore I felt relieved when, a bit over an hour into the ordeal, Dave and Sonny drove to CVS for what was supposed to be the final step. You may have guessed it already—they were going to buy the gift card. The rep was still on the phone with them. The CVS cashier told Dave: “Don’t do it, it’s a scam” and declined to make the sale. Dave and Sonny retreated to the parking lot. The rep then suggested that they go for a Target gift card instead. At that point, Dave disconnected the call. 

When Dave and Sonny got back from CVS and told me about the fiasco, I had to agree with the cashier. We’d been scammed.   

People on the autistic spectrum can be more vulnerable than average to some types of cyber fraud, especially those that involve friendships and romantic relationships. However, it turns out that generally, autistic people are as able as neurotypical people to recognize a spoofed website or email along with other kinds of phishing. The flip side of that is that autistic people are just as likely as neurotypical people to be bamboozled by a spoof. I found this a bit reassuring, because this is what had happened to Sonny. When searching for the customer service number, he’d had clicked onto a spoof site rather than the legitimate site.  

The root of the problem—besides the fact that it’s easy for criminals to make spoof sites—was that none of us had been thinking straight. The stakes felt too high for calm, measured judgment. Each of us knew that a gift card quest is not a standard response to “Here’s my order number and receipt: where are my tickets?” Dave should have hung up in the first five minutes. Yet all three of us just kept going along with each step into the ridiculous. 

We may never know what happened to the original tickets—or even if that sale was legitimate in the first place. 

The next step was to contact Sonny’s bank. Dave yelled “fraud” as a keyword into the automated phone system, and who’d’a thunk it? “Zelle transaction” was button number four! Eventually he got to a human being. With luck, after a review, Sonny will get his $500 back. 

While Dave was doing battle with the bank’s AI, we experienced a minor miracle. Sonny was able to buy two tickets, albeit in a different row. They transferred immediately, along with bar codes, etc. The $300 cost by that point felt like a bargain. Our afternoon was gone—it was almost 5:00—but nobody would miss the show. 

It’s amazing and strange how good we felt, despite all of the time, money, and stress. Sure, we’d been reminded that we’re mackerel to the sharks of the world, but our fridge had wine and  Dave’s favorite Pepperidge Farm cake, and Sir Elton John in person was just 24 hours away.  

How was the concert? I texted Sonny this morning. He was still at the hotel. 

MAGICAL, he replied. 

The meltdown

Since I can remember one of my favorite activities has been walking in circles, especially while reading a book. I do this nearly every day. It’s a form of stimming (self-soothing repetitive actions) that, depending on the circumstances, can entertain me, calm me down, or help me think. Do you stim? Most assuredly: everybody does. People on the autistic spectrum may stim in different or more noticeable ways than others; this sometimes gets us into trouble. That’s why I perform this particular stim in the privacy of my bedroom. I start at the headboard, pass the bookcase, dresser #1, the fireplace, the writing chair, and dresser #2, on the way to my closet door, then loop back. Doubtless I look ridiculous to other humans as I walk these laps (about 37 steps each).  

Capone the cat, however, loves to be in the room while I read-walk. He stretches himself out luxuriously somewhere along the track, seemingly indifferent to my travels. It’s amazing how much real estate an orange tabby can take up when he stretches his limbs and tail to their fullest. That he’s lying in a spot where Mom’s stockinged feet will be in claw’s reach about once every 30 seconds is, surely, coincidental. 

At some point—always once I’ve passed him, so that my back is to his paw—Capone will strike. He has a stuffed carrot toy that he loves beyond reason, but I’m his second favorite plaything. The claw will catch my sock, or my skirt or jeans, whatever clothing hangs a couple of inches over the floor. I know it’s coming, but Capone seems to sense when I’ve become absorbed in the story and time his attacks accordingly. Sometimes I’ll stumble. Sometimes I’ll stutter step and keep going. Sometimes I’ll play along. “You want a piece of me?” I’ll say, and wiggle my toes next to his paws. Capone will stare up at me with his golden eyes: ’Sup? 

The other day the game went astray. I’d gone deep into the selection for this month’s book club, We Keep the Dead Close, a true crime book about a murder of a Harvard University Ph.D. student in 1969 and was oblivious. Capone’s claw took both of us by surprise, as he managed to get it thoroughly stuck. He’d snagged both my pants leg and my sock.  I stood still while he worked at it, knowing that attempts to help would probably make it worse. The claw didn’t want to come free. By the time he’d freed himself Capone was so mad that he began biting at my ankle.  

I moved to the bedroom door, opening it wide and saying “Bye now,” hoping to walk in peace. Capone didn’t want to leave. It looked to me as if he was having the cat version of a meltdown. I’d seen and experienced plenty of the human kind.  Stimming and other calming mechanisms help, but sometimes the stressors overwhelm and the storm takes over. Responses to the storm vary. I curl into a ball, every limb tucked tight. Sonny flaps and stomps. Capone the cat pads along my walking track, his tail lashing, looking for a fight.

He stopped near where I was standing—the center of the room—and looked up at my hand. I wished for the billionth time that I’d invested in some of those buttons that Billi the cat uses so well (Billispeaks, YouTube), so Capone could express Mad or Hurt or Sorry or Cuddle. 

A couple of weeks ago I had a Very Bad Day. One during which I curled myself into a ball for a bit. Capone had hopped up on the bed, purred at me, and butted his head into my elbow, then settled by my left hip for the next twenty minutes. This had helped me immensely. 

I reminded myself that I had plenty of bandaids in the medicine cabinet and inched my hand towards my cat’s head. He didn’t snap or claw. I scratched between his ears, did the kind of pets that he likes, along his spine through the tail tip. I scratched behind his whiskers, and he leaned his head into my fingers. The storm passes through cats more quickly, it seems. 

He left the room, tail held high. I closed the door. Breathed in, breathed out. Walked, read. 

Spoons

It was my favorite kind of line. Outdoors in fine weather, no one crowding too close, and a mere 20 people between me and the entrance with just a couple of minutes to go until the museum opened. I was having my first Museum of Fine Arts day in three years. A couple of treads above me on the MFA’s front stairs was a man with a salt-and-pepper beard. He wore khakis and a button-down shirt and balanced a bulky leather satchel on his hip. The sight of him made me happy to be traveling light, with all of the day’s necessities stuffed in my pockets.   

The trolleys and cars passed on Huntington Avenue. Tour groups gathered in chattering bunches on the lawn. Everyone on the steps seemed happy and excited. A college kid, maybe about to graduate, chatted with some relatives in a language I couldn’t identify. The little old lady to my left could have stepped out of Degas painting, if Degas had painted Paris in the 2010s. She wore a black top over a skirt with layers of translucent gray netting and shiny silver sneakers with round toecaps that looked like spoons. 

I was hoping to pick up some spoons for myself, since my supply was running low. I’d just read “The Spoon Theory,” an essay by Christine Miserandino (the-spoon-theory), in which spoons stand for units for energy. The piece explains what it’s like to live with a chronic condition that is largely invisible to other people. Autoimmune diseases, mental issues such as depression, neurodiverse challenges, etc. 

Miserandino, who has lupus, describes breakfast in a diner with a friend. The friend asks what lupus is really like. She gathers up spoons from nearby tables and hands a dozen to the friend. To get out of bed in the morning: lay down one spoon. Get dressed: a second spoon. Take the morning meds: a third spoon. When all the spoons are one the table, nothing can be done until the spoons are replenished (generally by rest). People with chronic conditions have significantly fewer spoons than a healthy person, requiring them to “make choices or to consciously think about things when the rest of the world doesn’t have to.” This depiction resonated with me, as it has with many others. Today there are a number of colonies of “Spoonies” with various conditions, including chronic fatigue syndrome, depression, autism, supporting one another.  

My spoons start running out when I have to do a lot of self-policing to make sure my conversation etiquette and facial expressions are on point, suppress stimming impulses, deal with difficult news, etc. That’s been my life lately. A good museum visit, with the art and the interesting humans and the big, muffled spaces, gets the dropped spoons back into my brain’s silverware drawer, so to speak. 

Just before the line started to move an elegant woman behind me, dressed in creams and taupes, asked one of the attendants if there would be someplace to check her luggage, as she’d just come from the airport. There was someone with spoons to spare! 

I wandered the galleries for hours, starting with the antique instruments and the Egyptians. I kept coming across my line-mates. The man with the satchel in the hall of the Impressionists, transfixed by a Monet. The college kid and his family among the Greek and Roman sculptures.  I lingered for a while in the Netherlands collection—college kid again, also the little old lady–fascinated by the  sullen brides, boats, and cavorting peasants. In the hall with the cracked porcelain birds I passed the woman from the plane. She’d checked her bag. I found her again in Folk Art, contemplating the carousel animals. 

By the time I got to the John Singer Sargent gallery, near the end of the visit, my brain was feeling pleasantly sated. I almost walked past the painting of Mrs. Edward Darley Bolt (Mary Louisa Cushing, nickname Isa), which is the photo at the top of this essay, but stopped to enjoy it. The purple polka dotted dress, the ridiculous hat, the face full of confidence and mischief. I wanted to remember her forever.  

In the story, Miserandino’s friend runs out of spoons at around six in the evening. She has no way to get through the rest of her day—until Miserandino gives her the spoon she’s kept in her pocket. You never know when you’ll need a little boost.  

I’d found my pocket spoon. Thanks, Isa. 

Breathy blather

“Breathe in. breathe out.” I’d’ve done just that without being prompted, of course, but I followed the order on this morning’s guided meditation. Then the guru du jour spiced it up. “Breathe in positivity. Breathe out negativity.” Followed by other pairs: Love/hate, kindness/cruelty, courage/fear, etc. 

Over the next two minutes I bridled at the implication that within seconds my body had turned the very air inside it into something toxic and hateful. Who could feel good about expelling negativity, hate, and fear into the universe? 

In search of reassurance I looked up the science, where to the limits of my understanding I found the following: The air that we inhale is about 21% oxygen, and the air that we exhale is about 16% oxygen. Our cells use some of the oxygen for energy, which produces carbon dioxide as a byproduct. Carbon dioxide is about 0.4% of the inhaled gas and about 4.4% of the exhaled gas. The plants use the carbon dioxide for photosynthesis. Therefore: inhale and exhale are both—well, originally I wrote “good” here, but that’s exactly the value judgment I want to avoid. “Complementary” is more accurate. 

The word-pairs are simply meant to remind and reset, but they aren’t working for me. (Fortunately not all the gurus use this technique.) My artistic mind loves images and word play; it especially enjoys guessing what the second word of each pair will be before the guru intones it. My autistic mind, though, is bored and therefore making trouble, taking every phrase literally and then fussing about it. It would be amusing to watch the brain battle itself, if it weren’t so triggering some days.  One consequence of my brain’s growing up in a household that was simultaneously intensely religious and abusive was unquestioning acceptance of the message that I am a particularly vile excrescence on the face of creation. It’s infuriatingly easy to fall back into that mindset.  

It’s so much easier to orient outside of my head, staying absorbed in nature or a good book or a symphony. With no music or words or flowers to delight me, like Keats’s Endymion (yes, even though it’s May I’m still doing poetry),  I can feel upset at being lured “into the bosom of a hated thing.” Revising the relationship with that hated thing is one of the points of meditation. At least that’s what I’ve read. Progress is slow and I think it’ll take a while to find the right meditation mix and avoid  the breathe in X/breathe out Y people. Plenty of gurus who count instead or just tell one to breathe. We’ll see how it goes over the next month and a half or so. Stay tuned!  

There was a further, albeit shallow, reason that my hackles—which, truthfully, never hang very low—had risen. I play wind instruments and was getting fed up with all the exhale disses. 

This week I’m on a bit of a break between learning new scores. I’m indulging in a years-long project of reading through various orchestra pieces in my collection in a grand, roughly chronological, tour. I’m up to1816-1817, so today I played a couple of Rossini overtures along with Schubert’s fourth symphony. 

Schubert titled this symphony “Tragic.” Nobody knows why. He wrote it at age 19, which is a rather dramatic age, and it wasn’t performed in his short lifetime, but the work doesn’t feel particularly fraught or despairing. Fortunately one of my very favorite orchestras, the Frankfurt Radio Symphony, had made a fine performance available on YouTube. Beyond being a great ensemble, FRS has smart editing with plenty of closeups of conductor and soloists, plus a fabulous woodwind section.  I assembled my clarinet, put on headphones, and got ready to play along with for the opening C minor chord. Then: 35 minutes and 12 seconds of pure heaven. Inhale, fast or slow depending on how much time the score allows. Then the exhale…the exhale is where we make the music.  

The Ones who Look Away

Mission Hill sits on a quiet side street in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts. The school buses drop students off in front of a royal blue concrete ramp whose walls bear the school’s name and a slogan, Be Kind and Work Hard, painted in gold. Mission Hill was established in 1997 as a “pilot” public school for students ranging from preK to grade 8. Its educational philosophy, based on a “Habits of Mind Approach” and emphasizing the arts, projects, and democratic decision-making, made the school famous nationwide. Students are—or more properly as of this morning, were—chosen by lottery for the approximately 220 slots. Small wonder that there were plenty of parents praying that their child would be selected to attend. 

Speak, Memory…It began with a bump just behind my knees. A bunch of us were walking home from school. It was music day, so I had my clarinet case with me. Everybody was bunched up at a corner, waiting for the crossing guard to signal us to cross. I figured the nudge was accidental until it happened again. I glanced back, trying to be subtle. There were two of them, girls from the sixth grade, swinging their violin cases. They saw me looking—were waiting for me to look—and laughed. “Weirdo! Freak!” I pretended not to hear. They swung their cases a little harder. Bump. Bump. Bump. The guard (oblivious? maybe) finally stopped traffic so we could cross the intersection. I walked a little faster, but not fast enough.

The ramp commemorated Mission Hill’s 20th anniversary, even though by that time its reputation was a bit tarnished. The school had helped a number of people line their pockets. The filmmakers who’d produced the 10-part documentary A Year at Mission Hill, which “chronicl[ed] the rhythms and relationships of a year in the life of one of America’s most successful public schools.” Founder Deborah Meier, who published four books about how Mission Hill’s educational approach was the best thing since sliced bread. Neither documentary nor books mentioned that Mission Hill was a bully’s paradise.

Memory has more to say: I was at Shaw’s putting bananas in my basket when I ran into Mrs. G, Sonny’s aide in fifth and sixth grades. Those were tough years; lots of visits to the principal and the guidance counselor, but we got through them somehow. Sonny was in high school at that point, doing much better. Mrs. G looked around, lowered her voice, and talked to me for ten minutes. About Sonny and how sweet and smart he was, how she’d felt terrible about the group of kids who bullied him. Then she told me about Mrs. Y, Sonny’s teacher, being the head bully in charge. She let the kids get torment him until he responded, giving her an excuse to punish him. Various staffers had sighed about it, had quietly complained amongst themselves. Everybody knew about it, but no one had said a word to me. 

2013 was a fateful year for Mission Hill. The documentary debuted! Also came the first allegation of student sexual misconduct. It’s not clear (to me) from the news coverage whether this was the first time a parent had complained or whether this was simply the first allegation that went public. Whatever steps the school may have taken, according to news reports, the rampant bullying at Mission Hill continued. 

Like many humans, especially humans on the spectrum, I’ve had plenty of experience being bullied. Often I didn’t even realize that bullying was happening. You can feel a shove, someone beating your back with drumsticks (which also happened to me a few times). It’s harder to figure out when you’re being excluded being set up to fail for someone’s amusement. And when you get called names, a lot of time this simply reinforces your own self-assessments. Especially when a teacher’s setting the example. Why, yes, I’m dressed in kind of an ugly outfit—the kind of clothes people put in donation bags, which is where Mom gets most of our clothes—and I like to read too much,  that’s not normal, and I walk with my toes turned in sometimes. They’re right, I’m a freak.    

 In 2017, several families sued Mission Hill for failing to address the sexual abuse that their children had suffered. This suit resulted in a settlement and also in the commission of a law firm to investigate the school’s culture. That investigation produced a 192-page report finding that despite repeated complaints, the school took a “hands off” approach towards bullying. Unsurprisingly this led to an environment where students so inclined could sexually abuse and bully other children and even on occasion physically attack the teachers, while, according to School Committee member Brandon Cardet-Hernandez, “A lot of people looked away.” 

Grownups looking away seems to be common in bullying situations. The crossing guard, the cafeteria workers, the teachers on recess duty, the Sunday School teachers? They managed to overlook children being horrible to one another all the time, quite the skill I suppose. “Kids will be kids,” was that what they thought? Or were they worried for their jobs? 

Bullying doesn’t stop with childhood, it simply gets expressed differently. For an autism-friendly guide to understand being bullied, I found this WikiHow page,  Know-if-You’re-Being-Bullied, which has examples and recommendations. The recommendations mostly revolve around telling someone and enlisting their help. A trusted adult, a counselor, a relative. This may not stop the bullying. It obviously didn’t at Mission Hill, nor did it stop three years of workplace bullying for me in a recent experience. However, a listener who can reassure the bullied person that they didn’t deserve that treatment reduces the shame. Small comfort, perhaps, but we need to take our comforts where we can. 

Another small comfort: this morning’s news that the Mission Hill School in Jamaica Plain is going to be closed permanently as of June, 2022.   

Grumpy

“Get off my lawn!” 

What images come to mind? The grumpy old man, of course. Perhaps a walking stick to shake. Thoughtless youngsters, romping on a stretch of verdant grass, cut to a uniform height of 2.5 inches.  

In my case, there was definitely a grumpy old man. That was the only full match. Instead of a cane, there was a wheeled recycling bin. Instead of thoughtless youngsters, there was me, an over-thinker if anything and hardly a kid. Rather than a green lawn, the two of us stood on a paved road. 

There are so many rules. My ambition as a neurodivergent person is to understand and follow them all, explicit and implicit. Show up on time. Stop at the stop signs. When among humans respond to greetings with an echo: the nod, the wave, the good morning, the “fine, how are you?”  

Sometimes my rules collide, though. 

“Why are you walking on her property?” the man yelled from behind his bin (it was Trash Day). Several cognitive problems occurred simultaneously. I was on the street, at least two yards from the curb and front yard of the house in question; how could this be private property?  Second, there was no way to echo back this—greeting? Third, responding at all violated my rule not to engage with loud, angry people.

Still, this was a street in my immediate neighborhood. I’d walked on it hundreds of times. It’s just four houses long, split by a cross street in the middle. There’s a gorgeous willow in one yard, an unusual border with scalloped bricks and white gravel edging another, some cool lawn furniture in another. At the end is a path into a public park—my intended destination. At that spot the road widens out into a semicircle with a house on each side and the park entrance in the middle.  I walked in the right half of the circle, just a few steps away from the track to the boathouse and the pond. There’s a nice little swaying dock there where I can stand and watch the water, maybe catch sight of a swan or two. I stopped a cautious distance away from the grumpy old man, took off my headphones, and responded. “I don’t understand. I’m on the road.” 

This led to more yelling and statements about the Private Property sign which sat on a fence at the back of the circle. When I see a private property sign I assume that what’s private is behind the sign. That’s how those signs work, right? Not according to Grumpy. This sign worked forward and sideways, applying to the stretch of road on which I was standing, roughly the right quarter of the space. 

In order to get onto the public part of the road, I’d have to move to the center of the circle. This would bring me closer than comfortable to the Grumpy—more accurately, Mr. Furious—who evidently owned the house across the street and the left quarter of the circle.  I stayed where I was. He revved the recycling bin—getting ready to roll it in my direction?—and continued his monologue, which ended with “I could call the police and have you arrested.” 

“Feel free to do just that, Sir,” I said. Which is an extremely uncharacteristic response for me. I put my headphones back on, upped the volume, and turned down the cross street. I’d lost my appetite for swans, but there were plenty of sights to pull me into the world, at least temporarily. The cross street has a house at the end with an interesting zen garden and a little bridge. Front lawns without fences, a lot like the neighborhoods of my youth, where the local kids played all over the yards and the streets, except for the spots where there were fences or privacy hedges. No one had ever told me to get off of a lawn. 

 Unfortunately I also kept rerunning the confrontation in my head. Twenty-four years in this town and I had never crossed words with anyone on the street. I’d given directions to lost people, chatted about the weather, admired various dogs, said good morning. I thought up brave comebacks and examples and clever counterarguments. Not even a life-sized decapitated Santa Claus on a West Street fire escape was able to cheer me up. (Much.) 

I wondered if my understanding of Private Property signs was faulty. Considered whether I should stop outdoor walking altogether or stick to places where I was completely confident I understood the rules. I vented to Dave once I got home. His curiosity was piqued enough for a trip to Town Hall to study the property lines—and he got an earful from one of the staffers there. Grumpy was correct, although with an asterisk.  The public road is limited to the middle of the dead end, and the left and right quarters are private property. Because Grumpy complains and calls the cops so frequently, the town has offered, at its own expense, to mark the property lines with paint. Or, also at town expense, to break up the pavement and put down sod—giving each homeowner a free front yard extension. 

Both homeowners have rejected these ideas. The homeowner on the right never complains or reports people who walk on “her” part of the street. Grumpy seems not to want to lose an excuse to unload. 

Sheltering behind the recycling bin like a dog barking from a window. Well, plenty of pups have done that over the course of my walks and I lived through all of that noise. I lengthened Grumpy’s ears, gave him a snout, and shrunk him to the size of a chihuahua. Today I’ll visit the swans.    

Sonny shines

 At the folding tables in front of the auditorium entrance, Dave and I pay for our tickets ($20), grab programs, and look around. It’s a typical middle school theater with a couple of hundred seats, beige walls, and push-down chairs with thick but weirdly uncomfortable seat cushions. Where to settle is a puzzle. We’re half an hour before the downbeat, so there’s plenty of time to figure it out. Dave spots a landing with a rail that will help to steady his camera hand, so we park ourselves there. 

The Suzuki kids are still rehearsing on stage. A little girl floating a beautiful white dress has just finished. Now it’s the turn of a little boy—he can’t be more than three years old. White shirt, black pants, tiny cello. In the seats at the front is an amoeba wedge of parents and siblings, the test audience. The Suzuki lady balances a full-sized cello and encourages the toddler through his piece. She saws at the strings with her bow, making deep St. Bernard barks, and he plays along, putting his whole arm into it, making scratchy dachshund yips. 

I’m too restless for my seat, so I head for the ladies’ room. I remember the way. We’ve been here once or twice before, maybe four or five years ago? I have a poor memory for names and faces, but a better one for house lights (dimmer than most), tile patterns, and the routes to the band room, cafeteria, and conveniences. The older musicians, mostly high school and college age, are hanging out in said cafeteria. Sonny is near the door, his back to me and his headphones on. His bassoon case is on the lunch table, and he’s paging through a graphic novel. He looks as relaxed as he does on the couch at home, rather than being an hour away from performing a big solo piece. I could tap on the glass and say hello, but I don’t want to transmit my nervous vibes.  

Two years ago, in February of 2020, Sonny won a concerto competition with this orchestra. That performance was supposed to happen in May, 2020. Another Covid cancellation. A couple of months ago the conductor asked if he’d be interested in rescheduling, and here we are. I shouldn’t be so nervous. Sonny’s played solos before. He’s even done a concerto before, although it was a rinky-dink double concerto for clarinet and bassoon and I was on stage and there wasn’t so much need to freak out. But this is a real-deal concerto, the Mozart concerto for bassoon, with Sonny’s headshot and bio in the program. This is the first wind-instrument concerto by Mozart—then 18 years old. Mozart got it right on that first try. It’s beautiful, musically challenging, all the things, and my heart’s stuck in in my throat and I can’t swallow it back down. 

The journey here didn’t help. Yet another gusty ride on route 140, white knuckles. I hate driving on a windy highway. Another thing I hate: being such a nervous parent. I’ve held my breath through Sonny’s lines in school plays, through piano and bassoon recitals, through his very first orchestral solo (Russian Sailor’s Dance, eighth grade). Dave is sure things will go well. So is Sonny; he’s been working hard. So am I, but still: nerves. What’s wrong with me? 

The toddler with the cello is all done with rehearsal. He doesn’t understand when the teacher points the way off stage. She grabs his instrument and sets it gently on its side as he totters uncertainly towards the stairs at stage left. He misbalances and falls backwards onto his rump, as three-year-olds do, but he picks himself up cheerfully. No harm done. His mother smiles and applauds.   

  The concert starts with the Suzuki kids. The toddler with the cello goes first. The house lights are on; so are the lights of several phones, recording. He gets a little confused but gets through his number. The crowd gives him a big hand. This audience—people who put their kids in Suzuki strings and youth symphonies—know what it’s like to be on stage. The boy faces the audience and gives a slow, satisfied, deep bow. He keeps his balance and looks happy. It reminds me of Sonny at about that age. We were watching a videotape of a Winnie the Pooh movie, lots of Tigger, big song at the end. Sonny, who didn’t have much language at this point, stood up, threw his head back in joy and sang along, every word. I was filled with wonder and hope at the sight of it.  

The concert feels long. There are five ensembles, each with a piece or two. I’m trying to stay in the moment; it’s hard. Finally the senior orchestra comes out and finishes its first piece and the conductor turns around to introduce my son. 

Sonny takes his place at the front of the stage, near the toddler’s spot. His hair shines blonder than it is under the stage lights. He adjusts the reed on the bocal as the orchestra plays the introduction. I get the camera ready… 

He plays beautifully, crawling right into the music. I take shallow breaths and hope the camera isn’t shaking too much. He takes his bows. He doesn’t fall. I’m filled with wonder and hope.

Rant reversal

People don’t seem to be ranting about cellphones as much as they used to. A quick google shows a first page with cellphone videos of Karens ranting—though not about cellphones, usually about customer service—a Samsung phone called Rant, and some complaints about phone functionality, but only a couple of the etiquette-based rants I remembered. 

These latter were mostly complaints about the behavior of people to whom the ranter felt superior. The youths, the poors, the lower classes.  People who texted instead of phoned, who took calls in the middle of conversations, who owned a cellphone but needed help with the rent, who sometimes looked at their phones while dining at a restaurant, who were so absorbed by their phone screens that they walked into lampposts or fell off cliffs. 

I think these rants have become less frequent because we’re farther along the learning curve with this technology. Sure, I still get annoyed when I see some kid checking his socials while pedaling his bike down the sidewalk, but I much prefer a text to a phone call, and I’d bet that by now some of those ranters would agree. Maybe a few of the curmudgeons have even pulled out their phones during dinner to look up a conversation-enhancing fact. 

In my music work, phones can be a pain for the expected reasons. Shows often start by reminding audience members to turn off their ringers, but somebody always forgets. Bye-bye, dramatic pause. Or the oboist gets so involved playing Words with Friends that she misses the moment when the conductor transitions from admonishing the violas to starting at Letter B, causing confusion and yet another lecture from the podium. 

I love cellphones. They are wonderfully useful. One of my phone’s biggest benefits has been in solving a tough work problem: what to do during intermission. Fifteen or twenty minutes of scary, unstructured social time, unless it’s a group where I know lots of people. As a freelancer often that’s not the case. I’m socially anxious. I can stand on the fringes of a group, smile and nod, laugh in the right places. However, often I miss the moment where I can slip unobtrusively into position. In which case I bypass the group and look around for some action that hides the fact that I’m too chicken to talk to strangers.   

When the MD (music director) said “Be back in fifteen,” I used to panic. I’d often stay in my seat, pencil in hand, pretending I was checking a note. Or I’d stalk purposefully towards the ladies’ room or the water fountain. If there was a snacks table I would head there and take a long, long time choosing between Diet Coke and apple juice. 

Nowadays, thanks to the cellphone, this issue is nonexistent. People give you a kind of privacy bubble when you get your device out. What often happens is that there’s a sort of general conversation while people are checking their phones. Everyone drifts in and out quite easily and naturally without anyone thinking it’s weird. It’s semisocial and less fraught. You can take a break when you want. You might be arranging your next job or texting your partner about when you’ll get home. You might be playing solitaire or reading celebrity gossip or mining bitcoin; nobody really cares whether you talk a little, a lot, or not at all. Probably they never did; this is a good thing for the socially anxious to remember. 

Spacing in

“Picture your safe place,” says the voice, a woman’s, low and soothing. Someone who would never need to yell because her dulcet alto tones are so compelling. The voice works perfectly with the background sound of softly breaking waves and long low synth tones, with tinkly bells overlaid here and there. She continues: “A  place where you feel relaxed and at peace, where no one can come without being invited.” 

I’ve long misplaced this CD, acquired during one of those periods when I foolishly think this time, I’m going to enjoy meditation and do it every day. However, the space I imagined was vivid and comforting. The idea of a safe space is to develop a set of images and sensations that are calming and to learn what calm feels like in the first place.  The marvelous-voiced lady suggested mostly outdoor locations, such as a beach, a garden, or a mountain. I couldn’t envision a safe space without a door that could shut and a window that could open—make of that what you will—so I went in a different direction. I made a wonderful room in my mind that I still visit from time to time.  

It’s a big room, lined with built-in bookcases and furnished with a writing desk by a window and some comfortable chairs, including the kind of chair where you can take a little nap. Plus a grand piano and all my instruments. Beautiful pictures on the walls. Thick rugs on the floor. A couple of marble busts of my favorite writers and composers. A little Art Deco cart to hold refreshments. A mat for the cat. French doors leading out to a terrace with planters and a little fountain, with a view of gardens and a lake and wooded hills. A space I would never want to leave, given the view, the books, the music, the nibbles, the cushions. A place where my friends would come to play chamber music and hang out on the terrace sipping cool drinks. 

Imagine my joy when I toured the house I’d be taking care of for a week (watering the plants, walking the dogs) and found something reminiscent of my safe space. The front door opened onto a sizable room with a  Steinway grand piano and a big window overlooking a quaint New England street. An unstrung cello leaned against the wall. There were thick, richly colored rugs, original art pieces, lamps fashioned out of oboes and trombones, upholstered chairs. Just the place for an afternoon with a book or a musical soiree!  

I figured that whenever the dogs were sleeping I’d head for that room. I couldn’t wait to try the Steinway. My piano at home, a Schimmel with a nice sound and touch (for an upright), lives in a small, rather crowded room. On the top of the instrument there are a lamp, a pencil cup, some music books, erasers shaped like soccer balls, sticker sheets, a couple of little pictures, and an action figure of Beethoven.  I don’t play it as much as I might, outside of work. The Steinway room was full but not crowded, and the piano itself had a single book on the music rack (Brahms, hooray) and nothing else. No distractions!  

I brought a couple of volumes of Mozart and Schubert from home and played. The key action was heavier than typical for a grand. The rugs and cushions seemed to swallow the sound a bit. The upholstered chairs turned out to be attractive but uncomfortable places to settle and read or think—I suppose to keep the guests awake during the soiree. It being January, the big front window kept the room a little chillier than the rest of the house. The dogs weren’t allowed in the room because the rugs were expensive. I played about half an hour, a couple of sonatas’ worth, and went back to the TV room to hang with the snoozing pooches. The same thing happened every day. This safe space felt a little dull. 

Beyond the interior one, there are other definitions of safe space.  One is of a place where certain topics or confrontations are avoided, of conversations that include trigger warnings, etc. Is it ironic or just hypocritical that these days the very people who’ve been the most critical of safe spaces are now trying to construct their own versions using safe-spacey justifications? Ban the books, censor the teachers so that their children won’t encounter an uncomfortable fact…Then there’s the original meaning of the term, which arose in the gay community and referred to places where people could be themselves without censure. Where there was no need to hide or explain. 

Both of these meanings of safe space include people being sociable and comfortable with one another. In my wonderful room I’m often imagining the people who don’t mind me when I’m unapologetically and visibly myself: autistic, book-obsessed, musical, awkward, raised poor. The idea behind building the mental safe space is to improve comfort and calm. My safe space, I found, needs people and animals. With practice I should be able to stay serene even in perilous places. Maybe I’ll look around for that CD and give the meditation thing one more go. 

In the quiet

Morning journaling in the housesit. Six is still dark this time of year. The back yard with its fallow garden and the three evergreen trees in ascending order of height—Papa, Mama, and Baby Fir—is still dark. So is the little creek just beyond the fence. If the clouds cooperate, the window by my writing spot gives a fine view of the moon. Every twenty minutes or so a commuter train rumbles past. The rail tracks are just the other side of the creek, close enough that I can see the people inside. 

The morning quiet is different here than at my house. There’s the noise of occasional cars passing, the commuter rail, different refrigerator and heater hums, and the snuffles and muffled yips of the dreaming dogs. I’ve indulged in the quiet, spent a fair amount of time writing. I’ve felt tired and overwhelmed at times, especially when contemplating longer-than-normal to-do lists. Mystified at the workings of unfamiliar thermostats and kitchen faucets. Exasperated by traffic on my between-house commutes. But I haven’t been bored, though I expected to be. All this quiet, with the usual distractions of cat, family, books and music, email and socials, computer games, and ambient noises from various screens going in the house. 

Maybe I’ve been bored and don’t realize it? Twisting Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s take on categorizing a subjective a little bit: I know it when I feel it—but do I? Emotional states can take longer for me to process than they seem to for neurotypical people. Psychological studies have found some conditions that can trigger boredom. These include energy levels,  stress, control, and the need to deflect. That is, I need a certain level of energy to find something interesting and then concentrate on that thing. Even ennui, it turns out, requires some pep. Stress and/or lack of control (such as waiting for my number to be called at the DMV, or taking a required class in a subject I don’t like) make concentrating more difficult. Being a human, I’m going to notice that I’ve read the same paragraph six times and still don’t remember it, but I’m hardly going to blame myself for that problem. I’m going to blame the book, or the situation, or the subject. 

Theoretically I’d love never to be bored, but tolerating boredom is one of those fundamental skills.  According to my mother, and also Shahram Heshmat, Ph.D., writing in Psychology Today, learning to focus despite being bored is good for you, this trait being crucial to self regulation, and self regulation being important in life. Heshmat notes that there are other significant benefits of boredom, such as stress relief. Sometimes the brain just needs a break. Also, he says, once the brain starts hunting for something interesting or new, it will probably discover something. Maybe a new continent, or a fresh configuration for the living room furniture. Maybe a story idea or a new recipe. Maybe penicillin. 

The sun’s been up for a while. A flock of some brown birds lands in the back yard, pecks at the grass for a couple of minutes, and flaps off. Neighborhood dogs bark back and forth. More commuter trains head for Boston.  Heshmat’s boredom benefits list also includes motivation to pursue new goals, as people reflect about why they feel bored. I wasn’t bored, but I did discover that I don’t need as many distractions and stimuli as I’m using. What I’m going to make of this discovery I’m not yet sure. More window-time will probably be part of it.