Four strings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My ukulele waits on the piano bench.


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

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



White cake or golden?


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Dread List

Bed: who can get out of it? Not me this morning. Tasks stretch out before me. Trivial/ routine–take a shower, get dressed–daunting. Normal Sunday items: this blog, groceries, practice: overwhelming. One big one: clean the basement, where there be spiders: unthinkable.

Author M. Molly Backes calls it “the impossible task.” Something to be done that seems routine or inconsequential to others, often even to yourself. Something easily completed, at least in normal times. Opening the mail, making the bed, taking a shower. How many showers have I taken in my life? This morning it needs all my strength to throw off my bedsheet and get my feet on the floor. There’s guilt that comes along with the avoidance, throwing a long shadow that’s still not energizing enough. Backes notes that the impossible task often accompanies depression or anxiety. I reassure myself. Surely we’re all a bit depressed these days, given the pandemic and politics.

Today’s trigger is more likely to be anxiety. My birthday is six days away. In an attempt to face another year around the sun with a cleaner slate, I’ve filled up the final week of September with necessary and somewhat overdue appointments. Piano tuning, car inspection, chimney sweeping. One of our fireplaces is in the basement. It keeps the spiders and dust bunnies nice and toasty.

Internet tips for dealing with the impossible task abound. The recommendations are generally sensible and kind and include

  1. If you can’t do all of the task, do a little bit at a time and treat that as a victory. Don’t bundle up all of the work into one horrible block that takes up all the room in your head. Try making a list of steps (maybe something like my Dread List below) and setting a timer for a few minutes to see how much you get done.
  2. Ask for help from friends and family. Instead of any single one of us tackling the basement, the cleanup is today’s awful family project. While we may not be “happy” about it, we’re truly joyful that none of us bears responsibility for the entire chore.
  3. Give yourself rewards for making headway on the impossible task, even if it seems as though you’re treating yourself like a kindergartner winning a participation trophy. We’re going to have turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy and some refreshing beverages this evening as a reward for tackling the grime. If I get through each item on my Dread List, I’m going to add an extra treat and order some music I’ve wanted.
  4. If you can pay someone to do the task for you, or trade someone’s impossible task for your own, try that. I take Capone the cat to the vet; Dave puts air in my tires; Sonny tackles the first wave of dishes when they pile up to the sky.
  5. Forgive yourself if you can’t get the task done. Calling yourself lazy will pile on the guilt, which is documented to increase the weight of bedsheets to 250 pounds each. Try again another day.
  6. Consult a doctor or a therapist when the impossible tasks start to multiply like basement dust bunnies.

The White Queen boasts to Alice: “Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” Can I contemplate that many? In my journal, I write a title: “The Dread List.” The letters are big; I outline them in clashing shades of orange, purple, and green to make them look even more fearsome. I draw stick-figure illustrations and checkboxes. Six impossible tasks laid down onto the page, and then a couple more, because my competitive streak is strong. Eight items. I resolve to complete them before midnight…though maybe not this midnight.


Next week’s milestone: Sonny’s first birthday away from home.  Dave and I plan to visit him at the U for a little celebration.

I’d planned to get Sonny a birthday card today.  I wanted it to be something special, so I head for the Hallmark store for a good selection.  Sonny likes funny cards that we’ve annotated further, and I also needed to get a card for him from Capone.  It’s the end of a warm September, and today is one of the first days that feels like fall.  Crisp air, tinges of color on the leaves, a benevolent blue sky.  It’s almost exactly nineteen years ago today when Sonny was due.  We had everything ready at home.  I had my fancy cell phone (it weighed only a couple of pounds!) ready to call Dave’s office or, if necessary, Dave’s beeper.  Every morning I woke up trying to figure out if this twinge or that was labor.  The late-September due date passed.  We were venturing perilously close to my own early-October birthday.  My father and brother have the same birthday, in February, and I knew that could suck.  My brother, especially, objected to years of two-for-one cakes, parties, and presents.  Two days before my birthday, the twinges became the real thing.  After almost 24 hours of labor, I begged my obstetrician to get the baby out of me, already.  “Push!” she snapped.  After a bunch more pushing and an emergency C section, I had my bouncing baby boy with a birthday the day before mine and a glorious prospect of the Octobers to come, all with two cakes, two sets of presents, two parties!

Sonny usually picks his cake.  Nothing fancy, just something from the grocery store.   Usually a smallish gold cake; the important thing is the frosting, which Sonny likes to be plentiful and colorful, and the candles.  After age eight, we switched to the candles that are formed into numbers rather than the little thin ones that have to be counted out and stuck all over the cake.  (Candles for Sonny’s cakes only–Sonny and Dave know better than to put number candles on MY cake, which in any case is not birthday cake, but cheesecake.)  There’s a Shaw’s supermarket in the same strip mall as the Hallmark store, but I wouldn’t want to shop for a cake without Sonny.  Plus his dorm room doesn’t have a fridge.  Cake this year will be by the piece, no candles.

I haven’t figured out presents yet.  Sonny used to give us lists.  We didn’t necessarily get everything on the lists, but almost always a couple of the most important things.   The strip mall has a toy store right next to the Hallmark store.  It’s one of those hoity-toity ones with a train table, lots of wood and puppets and games and projects that are supposed to make kids smarter while they play (with not a Barbie to be found).   I pass it, a bit wistful for the days when we could buy another few feet of track and a couple of Thomas trains and know we’d gotten something he’d love.    There’s nothing in the strip mall that appeals to the Sonny of today.  No Newbury Comics or Barnes and Noble or even a Game Stop.

I get to the Hallmark store to find a padlock on the door and a sign about the store hiring now.   The lights are on.  There are two people in there.  They act as though I am invisible.   I remind myself that there’s no hurry.  I have a week.  Still, I’m fuming a bit as I drive home.  The fall wind blows a little colder.

For the past few years, Sonny’s birthday has coincided with football games and rehearsals and concerts.  Autumn’s a busy time for everybody.  Usually the birthday party has been the three of us having cake and opening presents, plus a special excursion for Sonny and a friend or two on the next convenient weekend.  I don’t mind these small-scale parties.  (Some of us are still recovering from Sonny’s biggest party ever, a 2005 event for 12 kids, most on the spectrum, plus their parents, plus their siblings, at Plaster Funtime.  That was in a different strip mall, and I sincerely hope they’ve managed to scrub down the walls in the Party Room by now).

This year will be low key to fit Sonny’s grown-up vibe.  We’ll give Sonny his presents and cards, Sonny will give me my present, and then we’ll all order cake.  Two-for-one, and I’m looking forward to it, so very much.