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.     

Nutty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Silver

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Small axe

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

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

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

“Do you do that?”  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part 3: holiday songs: revised

Lots of people going all out decorating and prepping for the holidays this year to compensate for all the canceled stuff. Prices have risen higher than a Douglas fir. A fresh-cut Douglas (or its slightly shorter cousins) will cost an average of 23% more than in 2018, says Fortune magazine. Assuming you can still find one, as many tree farms are sold out. As the song should go:

O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree, I looked all over for you!

O Christmas tree, rare Christmas tree, my mortgage payment’s soon due!

You look and smell so heavenly, but we’ll reuse our plastic tree.

O Christmas tree, dear Christmas tree, I really can’t afford you!

For those brave enough to spend extra time at the mall, Santas are still around. However, you have to make an appointment. No Santa lines in 2020–a small blessing.

My parents never encouraged us to believe in tooth fairies, Eastern bunnies, or Saint Nicholas. Nor did they pretend to us that our presents came from anyone but family. Maybe that’s because, as the children of two impatient people, too many of our presents didn’t make it to Christmas morning to support the fiction that Santa had delivered them on Christmas Eve. Once everyone’s shopping is completed and the gifts are wrapped, what’s the point of waiting?

I gave my wish list to my mom not Santa. But one time, when I was seven, I had an overwhelming craving for a particular present. The object of my desire was a mechanical dog that I’d seen in Toys R Us for the high price of $15.99 (batteries not included). I figured a visit to Santa could increase my chances of seeing FeeFee (as I had already named her) under the tree. FeeFee was so cute! She had soft pink fur and could bark, walk, sit, and even rise slowly on her haunches to perform a backflip.

My mother and I stood for almost an hour in the cold line that stretched from the front of JC Penney’s to Santa’s hut. Inside the hut it was stiflingly warm. Santa’s frizzy beard and bony knee and the existential question of whether I’d been a good little girl this year eliminated my ability to talk. Needing to move the line along, Santa said he was sure I had been good, asked what I wanted for Christmas, and leaned his hairy ear towards my face. I burst into tears. “She wants a toy dog,” my mother snapped. “Ho Ho,” sighed Santa, as the helper elf guided me off of the knee. And that was that.

I unwrapped FeeFee on December 23. Her batteries lasted almost 15 minutes.

Sonny, though never a Santa believer, loved to gaze at the mall Santas on their colorful thrones. However, he was always wary of “mascots” (his catchall word for people in costumes) and kept his distance. Smart kid. Sometimes in my caroling gig days (see the blog from 12/13) we singers would share back office space with the Santa of the day. When on break, all Santas strip down to their undershirts–that costume is hot–drink iced coffee and eat a sandwich. Often, for some reason, a tuna sandwich. Santas exhibit minimal jollity when backstage. The song should go

Jolly old Saint Nicholas, please stay far away.

You’ve been at the mall too much; I don’t want to play.

Christmas Eve I’ll be at home, eating cookie dough.

You can skip my house this year; no one has to know.

We’re not exactly canceling Christmas, but we’ll be glad when the holidays and this awful year have passed. On New Year’s Eve we’ll be in our bubble, waiting for the clock to tick from December 31 to January, and singing

Should 2020 be forgot and never brought to mind?

May 2020 be long gone and kicked in its behind!

For 2020’s been a time of strife, and fear, and plague.

I’ll take a stab of vaccine soon, and sing the year away.

I’m taking the next week off, but I plan to be typing again in this space on New Year’s Day. May your holidays be safe and sane.

We wish you a healthy Christmas,

We wish you a healthy Christmas,

We wish you a healthy Christmas,

and a plague-free New Year.

Good tidings we bring

of two new vaccines.

We wish you a healthy Christmas

and a plague-free New Year.

December crash

I love museums. First choice is art, but I enjoy just about any space devoted to collections: local history, natural history, science, whaling, robber barons, dollhouses… The museum environment hits the sweet spot for my autism, pleasing the senses without overwhelming them. Color and light. Amazing objects hung on walls, suspended from the ceiling, piled on shelves. Grand, sound-diffusing spaces. Stone, wood, feathers, water, velvet, chrome. Mazy corridors peppered with mysterious Staff-Only doors. Other people sharing the experience, without weird social obligations needing to be navigated. Cafeterias with grapes, cheese plates and little bottles of wine. A magic space I can step into where my mundane life recedes. And when I’m pleasantly fatigued, done, I take a little calm with me into the real world.

I’m sure that a lot of people feel about the winter holiday season the way I do about museums. Enjoying the exertion of putting up decorations, cooking, and wrapping gifts. Happy to hear their holiday playlist every day, eager for the office party, the neighborhood cookie swap. Loving the colors and lights and traditions. By year’s end, pleasantly fatigued, they are ready for the mundanities of January.

Certainly such people exist. Why I don’t know any of them? Besides children, who don’t have to pay the rent, cook the feast, or climb icy ladders to string lights, who truly enjoys the holidays? Even my husband Dave, chill about many things, considers December his least favorite month and filters out as much as he can after Thanksgiving weekend.

My friends, especially the online ones (because online is the only safe space to admit some of these emotions), feel actively stressed and overwhelmed every December. Some of my friends are depressed as well as stressed. 2020 has made everything worse, of course. I don’t remember asking Santa for a civil war for Christmas (it’s going to be a bitch to regift). Maybe it’s the fear that there’s something wrong with us if we don’t feel holiday cheer. (Dave: “I’m not nine anymore. Why should I feel guilty about that?” Me: envious sigh) The media and stores and culture perform comfort and joy 24/7 and pressure us all not to ruin the magic.

Hoping that the winter holiday season can be scaled back culturally is probably as counterproductive as storing black sweaters in a basketful of kittens. Holidays expand. Thousands of years ago, humans lit bonfires for a night or two around the winter solstice to remind the gods to bring back longer days. Bonfires turned into annual celebrations like the Greek Brumalia and the Roman Saturnalia: days upon days of banquets, drinking, dancing, and (in Saturnalia’s case) temporary reversals of the social order such as slaves dressing in their masters’ clothes and vice versa, bosses paying their servants’ rent for a month, etc. Saturnalia was turned into Christmas in the mid fourth century AD and slowly grew to encompass all of December and a bit of January, and now Christmas starts sometime in October.

Maybe the Roman patrons and matrons got stressed out about Saturnalia. There weren’t any museums, per se, in ancient Rome. Art and artifacts were on display in private homes, in public, and in temples. I picture a Roman matron, worried about her holiday outfit, having run out of olives, wondering what to get her maid for Saturnalia. She’s heading for the temple to walk among the statues, looking for a little peace on earth. I hope at least they gave her a nice cheese plate and some wine.

Holiday song checklist: one

In which I measure my life against one holiday classic at a time, starting with the Jules Styne/Sammy Cahn tune “Let It Snow!”

Oh, the weather outside is frightful…

July, 1945: Los Angelenos were sweltering in record heat. Styne wanted to go to the beach to cool off; his songwriting partner Cahn wanted to cool down by writing a tune about winter. The song doesn’t mention a holiday, but it was quickly looped into the December playlist in the Northern Hemisphere. (In the Southern Hemisphere, people sing “Let it Snow!” in July.) Styne and Cahn followed the song a year later with “The Things We Did Last Summer,” which was a hit, but small compared to the accidental winter classic.

A brief look outside: yesterday it was in the 50s; today it’s snowing sideways. Check!

But the fire is so delightful…

Our house has a big chimney with three fireplaces (one in the basement, one in the living room, and one in the master bedroom. When we toured the place 13 years ago, those fireplaces were a big selling point. Winter came and so did the fire fights–not fights handled by muscular humans hauling hoses, but relationship fights about how to get a fire started and keep it going.

Dave skipped a lot of the stereotypic manly man stuff in his formative years. His lack of interest in golf, for example, has saved us a lot of money, which we can then use to pay the odd jobs man for home repairs more complicated than picture hanging. However, he has a few regrets. Possibly due to his Boy Scout days, Dave views “fire-starting” as a core male competency. It turned out to be tricky to manage the fireplaces. I developed somewhat of a knack for starting fires that didn’t burn out 20 minutes later, and this led to the kind of little conflicts that afflict our marriage from time to time. Unlike Styne and Cahn, who wrote together for about eight years and then abandoned that partnership, Dave and I have stayed together (but we stopped making fires in our fireboxes).

The decision was made easier by the fact that every fire stunk up the house for days afterwards. Sometimes I wonder what the previous owners burned in there: angry ghosts of Christmas past? Definitely something with payback on its mind. We swept the chimneys annually without any improvement. Until 2020, our hearths remained purely decorative except in the case of winter power outages that require a substitute heat source. This summer we finally donated the cord of wood that had sat unused in the garage since 2011–it’s dried out for sure–to one of Dave’s buddies from high school.

Then I saw a picture in a magazine: a fireplace stuffed with candles and mirrors, et voila! I made my own version, so now we can have firelight without the mess. The candles, alit, do look quite pretty, but fall short of delightful. Maybe if we had some holiday lights up…

I’ll just take a couple of minutes and pop some Christmas lights on the mantle. Even though it meant a trip to the spider-ridden corners of the basement. Yay, me! They string a bit tangled–No, Capone, not a cat toy!–back to the basement to find the extension cord…

Cobwebs, cat scratches, and curses later: Delightful! Check!

Since we’ve no place to go…

Coronavirus wasn’t a thing in July of 1945. However, this banner year in world history also featured the first flu vaccine authorized for use on civilians in the US. We’re all hoping to get the COVID vaccine as soon as possible, so that we can enjoy the 2021 holiday season. Until we’re able to move about safely, though, most of the time we’ve no place to go. Check.

Let it snow!

No one will ever convince me that I have no influence over the weather. I can keep the rain away simply by carrying my umbrella. When I can find the darn thing. Did my wonder at Friday’s temperatures (in the 50s) and brief thankful thought that at least we hadn’t had any snow since the Halloween storm cause this Nor’easter? Probably. “Let it snow!” Check.

Let it snow!

Unfortunately I’ve never been able to work out a practice that stops a snowstorm. Cursing, putting the snow shovel on the steps, saying “tut tut, it looks like rain” regularly fail me. For now I’ll turn to a phrase I embroidered on a sampler, once upon a time: grant me the serenity to accept the things I can’t change. Check.

Let it snow!

The song keeps pushing this line. Maybe it’s asking something of me. Maybe an attitude adjustment? There is, I finally admit, something about being in a warm, sheltered place with people I love, watching Nature do its thing. Check!

Swans of winter

When we moved to this suburb, a few miles south of Boston, there were still a couple of working farms in town. It’s sad that the one nearest our house stopped operating about eight years ago–the horse farm’s still in operation–but the town made lemonade of the situation and turned the site into a park. Now there are turkeys and ducks and occasional deer, as well as other critters, wandering around there up close and personal, instead of cows seen at a distance. And there are swans (also best seen at a distance, for swan-temperament reasons). The leaves are down, and the reeds on the banks have thinned, so it was easy to see the swans on the pond. Hanging out, having breakfast, stirring the water with their beaks. A couple of ducks swam also, at a respectful distance.

Norroway Pond’s swan family has three members, just like my family: a cob (male), a pen (female) and a cygnet (kid). I think of them as the King, Queen, and Prince. They’ve been on the pond at least since spring of 2020. It’s possible that the King and Queen have been there for much longer, maybe from the farm days, since swans can live as long as 20 to 30 years, or even longer in some cases. In spring the Prince was a ball of gray fluff. Now he’s the same size as his parents–i.e, a bowling ball with a long neck and big wings attached–and almost as brilliant a white.

I haven’t yet tired of swans–or most of the other animals that wander here from the Blue Hills (excluding skunks: skunks can suck it). When we moved to this area, 22 years ago, swans in the reservoir were one of the first things I noticed. It felt quite exotic. For years I’d lived and worked mostly in cities, Chicago and Boston. In Boston you can see the swans Romeo and Juliet paddling in the Public Garden lagoon, but the pair winter at the Franklin Park Zoo and there’s something a little tame about them. Though beautiful.

Free-range swans don’t necessarily avoid cities. Dave and I visited Ireland a couple of years ago and were impressed to find nearly as many swans as street musicians in Galway. Like our swans in Norroway Pond, the Galway swans are commonly mute swans, although a Black swan recently made its way there from Australia.

I was glad to see the royal family was still in town, given that it’s December. The Canada Geese have already come and gone this fall. I thought swans migrated, but it turns out that mute swans, as opposed to some other swan species, such as the North American trumpeter swans, do not migrate regularly. Mute swans, especially mated pairs, stick around their nesting areas. They migrate when forced to by ice and food scarcity, but not great distances and not every year. So if we have a mild winter King, Queen, and Prince may stick around throughout.

I’d love that. The Prince’s parents will probably spend the winter teaching him to forage for food and giving him unsolicited relationship advice. Just like my family, although probably with fewer games of cribbage and episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000 thrown in. Next summer Prince will flap off to find down a mate and pond of his own–best of luck to him–and I’ll get to watch the new brood rising.

Clash! of! Traditions!

My turn to manage dinner tonight. Our Friday night restaurant habit, which had turned into Friday night takeout during the pandemic, has morphed again. Takeout on Friday nights turned out to be a poor substitute for what we like about restaurants, especially getting out of the house, being around people, and long, loose conversations. Now we’re taking turns to select and prepare recipes a little more complicated than our normal practice (i.e., following the directions on the Rice-a-Roni box). And the person who chooses the recipe gets to order around the others! Bonus! Last week I was sous chef for Sonny’s appetizers extravaganza. This week, I’m in charge of a casserole and a couple of sides, which looks like it will be straightforward. Given where we are in the year, it’s also a warmup for Thanksgiving. Beyond agreeing on no turkey this year, with six days to go we still haven’t decided on the specifics.

Normally when we decide to skip cooking turkey in favor of a different meal or someone else doing the roasting, I’m ecstatic. However, the dashed expectations this year have me missing things I didn’t even like in the first place. Nine-hour road trips, the New Jersey Turnpike, the aunt who insists on marking each cheek with her sloppy kisses, perilous conversations, green bean casserole.

Dave and I had vastly different holiday traditions, and we’ve spent the past 25 years experimenting with mixing them. His Thanksgivings as a kid involved traveling, several households gathering in one spot, and, often, both pumpkin pie and birthday cake, since he was born in late November. Most of his relatives lived within an hour or two’s drive, short enough to make gathering reasonable and long enough to ensure an all-day event. The TV would be tuned to parades and football. Dave and his cousins would play video games or run around the house, and the grownups would do whatever grownups did. As it turns out, once we started participating in these gatherings as grownups: stress about the food, snipe at the in-laws, compare one’s house and children to other people’s houses and children, and try to steer clear of talk about politics and religion. If we gather on Thanksgiving, it’s with friends, rather than relatives. Tradition abandoned.

On the other hand, my childhood was spent hundreds of miles from our relatives. Thanksgiving was usually just the five of us. Sometimes we were joined by a colleague of my father’s. If we had a visitor, there was no television; otherwise, it was parades and football. For anyone not cooking, Thanksgiving was simply an hour of a day off from school as well as one of the three days a year that we ate off of china instead of melamine plates and had lasagne, the true star of the day. This delectable concoction made its way from the china to my stomach much faster than the turkey, sweet potatoes, or quivering discs of cranberry gel. My mother’s lasagne was insanely good; I’ve eaten hundreds, probably thousands, of lasagnes since and never found its equal. It took ages to prep, though, so it only showed up on Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas.

I rhapsodized to Dave many times about mom’s lasagne. One year we decided on lasagne instead of turkey. I fought my way through the grocery lines on Wednesday for bay leaves and tomatoes and beef and the like, returning home triumphant. At 1 p.m. on Thanksgiving afternoon, I laid out the ingredients and realized that I had forgotten to buy the lasagne noodles. Dave headed for the grocery stores: all closed. Three 24-hour, 365-days-a-year drug stores later, he found a package of spaghetti, so that’s what we made instead. It was good, but it wasn’t lasagne. Tradition fail.

There are some years when I roast a whole turkey; some years it’s just a turkey breast. We’ve gone to relatives’ houses, had relatives come to us. With a small kitchen and my mediocre cooking skills, the holiday wasn’t all that fun. Tradition put on indefinite hold.

A couple of times we’ve gone to a restaurant, if we arrange reservations early enough. That might have been nice for this year, but…coronavirus. Tradition deferred.

This year, unless I succumb to guilt or mania at the last minute, will probably involve pizza. Maybe homemade, maybe delivery. This actually harkens back to our first Thanksgiving as a three-person family. It was the day after Sonny came home from almost a week in Boston Children’s Hospital. Emergency surgery had saved his life, but he was fragile and exhausted, and so were we. Dave and I had caught a nasty bug that was going around Boston Children’s Hospital. We got back to our apartment, canceled our visit to Dave’s sister, and asked no one to visit because we didn’t know whether we were contagious. Then we ordered in pizza.

Twenty-three years later, it’s probably time for a repeat. Tradition win.