The Kadigan Search

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Letters from Springfield?

More like a polar bear, IMO

It was the phrase on every weather guy’s lips this week:  “In like a lion, right?”  An arctic blast that was supposed to last a day had enjoyed its visit to Boston so much that stayed through the whole week, bringing with it the lowest temperatures of 2021.  The weather guys are promising a warmup on Tuesday.   We’ll see.  

At the moment, most of the warmth is radiating from my cabin fever.   “How is it out there?” I asked Sonny on sunshiney Thursday.  He’d been walking for an hour.    

He shrugged off his winter coat and hoodie.  “It’s not too bad,” he said.  

I grabbed my coat, headphones, and mask and headed to our back door.  The doorknob sent a chill through my fingers.  I opened the door halfway and stuck my head outside.  Nope.  Not too bad, indeed.  I should have considered the source.  Sonny had been wearing both his coats (he usually just walks around in his hoodie).  His cold tolerance is much better than his parents’.   Dave and I spend fall and winter bundled up in sweaters, thermal socks, and slippers.  Sonny lives in  short-sleeved T-shirts.  

Yesterday I felt restless, annoyed with myself for being such a weather weenie.  I added layers  and headed outside.  Four or five minutes of shivering and then I’d feel okay; that’s what usually happens.  The sidewalks were about 75% free of snow and ice,  the remaining bits melted into ridges that were relatively easy to dodge around.   I stomped on a few of the bigger snow piles, hoping they’d melt faster.  After twenty minutes my fingers, feet, and cheeks were still feeling frozen.   Back inside for me.   

Comes in like a lion, goes out like a lamb.  I thought the line might come from a poem—it had that feel.  Some poems have indeed been made from the idea, but the saying seems originally to be an old English weather-adage.   Something along the same lines as “Red sky at morning, sailors take warning” or “Ring around the moon, rain real soon.”   “March comes in like a lion, goes out like a lamb” is the way the proverb is phrased in Thomas Fuller’s 1732 classic Gnomologia: Adagies and Proverbs, Wise Sentences and Witty Sayings, Ancient and Modern, Foreign and British.  (Which you can buy in hardcover on Amazon, if you have a spare $30.95 handy).    What surprised me was that in some versions, the proverb is phrased conditionally:   “If March comes in like a lion it will go out like a lamb.”   

Well, well, well.  

Modern interpretations state that the saying aims to reinforce a sense of order and balance in the universe.  Rough weather will be followed by mild.  Spring will come.   We all know that the timing’s questionable, but I’m happy for some reassurance.  My tolerance for snowstorms and sub-freezing temperatures is at its nadir in March.    

The day I love most happens sometime in April, when suddenly I notice that the winter-bare branches are now covered with buds.    I’m not in synch with that T.S. Eliot quote, “April is the cruelest month.”  The little green buds, they are on their way.    

Every month has some aphorism or quote associated with it, so I assembled this commonplace calendar.*  

          *   *   *  *  *

“People don’t notice whether it’s winter or summer when they’re happy.”  —Anton Chekhov

“January, month of empty pockets!” —Colette

“February is a suitable month for dying.”   —Anna Quindlen  

“March is the month of expectation.”  —Emily Dickinson

“The first of April, some do say,/Is set aside for All Fools’ Day./Bt why the people call it so,/Nor I, nor they themselves do know.” —Poor Robin’s Almanac, 1790

“All things seem possible in May.”  —Edwin Way Teale 

“This is June, the month of grass and leaves.”  —Henry David Thoreau

“Never trust a July sky.”  —Folklore  

“August rushes by like desert rainfall.”  —Elizabeth Maua Taylor 

“By all these lovely tokens/September days are here,/With summer’s best of weather/And autumn’s best of cheer.”  —Helen Hunt Jackson

“I have been younger in October/than in all the months of spring.”  —W.S. Merwin 

“November comes/And November goes,/With the last red berries/And the first white snows.”  —Elizabeth Coatsworth. 

“I speak cold silent words a stone might speak/If it had words or consciousness,/Watching December moonlight on the mountain peak…” —Robert Pack

 At least in March the birds are back.  They start singing before sunup.   They peck at the the cherries in the tree next to the kitchen, flash between branches.  Yesterday Dave and I watched a flock of starlings, moving as if with one mind in a Nike swoosh from the garage roof, to the grass, to the oaks, to the sky.  

* Sources of these quotes:  Michael Garofalo “The Spirit of Gardening,” and The Old Farmer’s Almanac,  

Hackett on Henry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All roads

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Valupercalentines Day. 

Penciled in

My favorite pencil sits beside the keyboard as I type.  The design’s vaguely Art Deco: black paint with swirly gray squiggles that look vaguely like treble clefs dancing.  The eraser (a good one, not one of those that leaves smudges) is gray; the ferrule is silver.  Embossed in gold on the body, in sturdy capitals, is advice from the Muse:  “Write that shit down.”  I do like a salty muse.  The lead makes nice, dark letters and the point never breaks off.   I sharpen it in using old-fashioned blade sharpener with the same mechanism of the ones I lost annually on the second or third day of school.  This is a fancier one, shaped like an upright piano, surprisingly heavy, with the sharpener in its base.  There’s no reservoir for the wood shavings, which means they scatter like loose tea, but it’s an enjoyable mess.   It produces the kind of point I prefer: enough edge to glide along the page, enough dull so that I don’t  stab through the paper when I speed up or press harder.     

Mostly I use the pencil for marking up music scores (“Always bring a pencil to your lessons!” an echo from every music teacher ever).   My earliest stories were in pencil, but I switched to pen around fifth grade.   My son and husband are also pencil aficionadoes.  Sonny uses pencil for his stories; Dave for work notes and crossword puzzles.    Our house may have more pencil cups than average.   Fine by me: the sight of a mug packed with sharp-tipped pencils makes me want to write.       

 I’m grateful for the brilliant Nicolas-Jacques Conte.  In the age of Napoleon, when embargoes prevented the French from buying pencils from England and Germany, Conte was tasked with figuring out how to manufacture the implements locally.  People had been writing with graphite, the soft-solid that is used in pencil lead, for a few centuries at that point, but figuring out how to contain that material for this use had proved tricky.  

Conte—a dauntingly talented person who worked as an artist, a scientist, a teacher, and a French army officer—solved the pencil problem after experimenting for just a few days.  He developed a mix of graphite, clay, and water and figured out a way to press this mixture between two cylinders of wood.   He patented his invention in 1795.  You can still buy Conte brand pencils today.  

Another thing I like about pencils is that they can be erased.  I’ve tried erasable pens and correction fluid, but pencil erases the best and thereby lets you start again sooner.  Because it’s erase and start over, not erase and leave the page blank, amiright?  Brush off the pencil dust and lay down a new line, and eventually…  

   I bet Conte went through bunches of pencils in the process of developing his various inventions.  He was a practical and productive guy, the kind of person you go to when you need a quick, smart solution.  When he was posted with the French army in Egypt, he fixed lots of logistical problems— while also organizing hot air balloon expeditions in his spare time.   Some of the balloon trips went well, and others were near disaster.   That’s not how he lost his eye, though.  

He lost the eye in a lab explosion; that didn’t stop him.  Sadly, it was grief related to the death of his wife that blocked his desire to invent.  Conte followed her within a year, suffering a fatal aneurysm at the age of 50.   All those pencil cups.  Is it the cups or my family members who stock the cups (or leave the pencils all over the coffee table when the cup is right there, dammit) who spark the urge?   I don’t want to know.  For now, I’ll just write that shit down.      

The Elephant in the Rotunda

 I sometimes wonder why whenever it feels like I’m living in a movie, it’s always the kind of movie I hate.   Why don’t I ever get the romantic comedy starring Benedict Cumberbatch or Taron Egerton?  Nope: it’s always the disaster movies packed with explosions and mass casualties.   I don’t like the ones with “happy” endings because they remind me of the story of Job, where he gets a new wife and kids, but the first wife and kids, etc. are still dead of horrific and painful causes.   Ugh.       

With three events in the past 20 years I’ve had the “it’s a movie” feeling.  The first was 9/11.  The second was in 2013, the Boston Marathon bombing and its aftermath, when Watertown—a place where I went to rehearsals every Tuesday night—was locked down while law enforcement chased the terrorists  down.  And the third was on January 6, 2021, when Dave, Sonny and I watched a sore loser and his gang of enablers incite a bunch of MAGAts to commit domestic terrorism.   

 After the insurrectionists busted windows and battered doors, the Capitol looked like a pack of mad elephants had rampaged through it.   Thomas Nast, the cartoonist whose drawings in the 1870s led to the association of the elephant with the GOP and the donkey with the Democrats, was making a metaphorical reference to politics as a circus.   The donkey was already connected with a Democrat, but not with the party.  That Democrat was Andrew Jackson, who adopted the donkey in a mocking response to his opponents calling him a jackass (which is the term for a male donkey).  Given that Jackson was a slave owner who supported the treaty breaking that led to the Trail of Tears, the epithet is an insult to actual donkeys.       

Is the GOP as much of an insult to actual elephants?  I looked up some elephant facts at the World Wildlife Organization ( to decide.  [Of note, these comparisons concern the political class—politicians and the industry that supports them, not the voters generally.  As long as you’re not supporting domestic terrorism or lying for profit, we’re good.] 

There are two general types of elephant: the African and the Asian.  It’s claimed that there are two types of Republicans, the MAGAts and, a much smaller group, the old school types who have spent the last five years clutching their pearls at the lack of decorum.  MAGAts call the latter RINOs.  Just as the differences between elephants are relatively small, so are the differences between the Republican groups, as they vote in lockstep on most issues.          

Elephants live in a hot climate and have extremely thick skin, with lots of wrinkles that help keep them cool by retaining water.   Dust and mud baths provide a coating that protects elephant skin from sunburn.  Only some Republicans have wrinkles, and they are notoriously thin-skinned, so the comparisons fail there.   For example, just a few hours after their workplace was looted by their supporters, Republicans were shouting down a colleague who dared to call unevidenced election fraud claims “lies.”    Still, politicians in general, including GOPers, make protection from sunlight a priority.   This one’s a draw.  

Elephants, being the largest land mammals, need a lot of food, so they eat constantly.   So do both political parties.   However, GOP Senator/insurrectionist Josh Hawley may have taken this to a new height on Wednesday afternoon, when he sent out fundraising tweets to his supporters, some of whom were looting the Capitol at that very moment.   

Elephants have a large and dense temporal lobe, which is associated with memory; hence the idea that “elephants never forget.”   The GOP’s memories are highly selective.  Lincoln, check!  The Southern strategy, what’s that?  Iran Contra, so far in the past!  Children caged and abused at the southern border, fake news!   Obviously this comparison’s a fail.      

Other fascinating elephant traits: their trunks combine the functions of human hands, nose, and throat.  Their tusks can be used as weapons or tools.  They can communicate seismically.   These remarkable animals are far too noble to be associated with the shameful party of today.   The GOP needs a different symbol.  Maybe murder hornets?  

Resolutions and hopes

Babylon!  One of the first megacities and home to all kinds of wonders: the hanging gardens, Hammurabi and his code, epics, the 60-minute hour, ziggurats…and New Year’s regulations, a many-times-great granduncle to the resolutions of today.  Once a year, Babylonians tried to stay on their gods’ good side by making two promises.  First, to pay their (the Babylonians’, not the gods’) outstanding debts, and second, to return the things they’d borrowed.  

  Four thousand years later many of us are still making promises—or at least plans—at the turn of the year, though these resolutions are a bit different from the Babylonians’.  My theory is that the Babylonian thing arose because some priest with an overgrown hanging garden needed to get his sheers back from a forgetful neighbor. 

Roughly half of Americans commit to some resolutions at year’s beginning.  The success rate isn’t high: by the end of January about 75% of us will have given up. Only about 8% overall will ultimately reach the goals. 

Maybe we’re collectively insane at this time of year.  I’ve had as many as 23 resolutions, some years, while achieving at best a couple.  There’s value in figuring out what I’d like to improve, even if I can’t quite fix it yet.  And I quite enjoy the weird society-wide optimism and support for improvement during the first few weeks of January.  There’s a new school year hopefulness without the mean girls at the lunch table spoiling everything.  

I decided to follow a Babylonian-style plan this year and set just two resolutions for 2021:  1) organize some small part of my space daily, and 2) improve my (visible) patience.      

Also I decided I would write down some touchstones in the general direction of feeling better.  What would that mean?  

Back in elementary school I learned about the five senses: taste, touch, sound, sight, and scent.  During Sonny’s occupational therapy I learned about a sixth sense, proprioception, which is perception of the position and movement of the body.  It turns out, of course, that there are lots more, but six is already plenty, so I stopped there and made this arbitrary list.       

Six Sensory Hopes for 2021   

The taste of raspberries, tart and sweet and surprising.  Here’s hoping I have some ideas that are just as delightful.    

The feel of a river stone, solid, smooth, and ancient.  Hoping that this year’s big stuff flows over and around me.    

The sound of a chalumeau G on the clarinet, resonant with overtones, fading into the ghost of itself.  Hoping to be able to hear the nuances in the conversations around me.   

The sight of a sunset, purples, pinks, reds, and oranges dashed across the sky.  Hoping always to be delighted by something as simple as a cloud.   

The scent of a pine forest, sharp and cool.  Hoping to grow quietly throughout the year. 

To flow inside my body like water.    

Happy New Year! 

Holiday songs part 2: perils of caroling

You’ve probably seen them on a street corner, or at the mall, at a holiday party, or even strolling through your workplace or neighborhood. Carolers. People tend to love or despise them. I’ve felt both emotions on encountering these groups of smiling singers, especially if I have no warning ahead of time. However, I may as well confess: I spent a few years with a company that hired out a cappella caroling quartets.

We wore Dickensian (early Victorian) outfits. The men in high-waisted trousers, vests, and top hats. Women in long skirts puffed out with scratchy crinolines, bonnets decorated with bits of floral fluff and ribbons, and a wool wrap draped over the shoulders. These picturesque outfits were always wrong for the ambient temperature, leaving us sweating while singing indoors and shivering outdoors.

We worked from a book with around 120 tunes, most of them traditional carols photocopied from hymnals, plus a few Hanukkah songs and some mid-twentieth century hits like “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, “Let it Snow!” and “The Christmas Song.” We strolled or stood, whatever the venue decreed. When we’d sung for a bit, drawn a crowd, we would invite people to request songs. Always interesting to see the audience’s reaction to being put on the spot. Some people would have a brain freeze, while others eagerly shouted out “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” or “All I Want for Christmas is You” only to get a “Sorry, we don’t have that in the book, would you like to hear something else?” This is when, inevitably, one of the following three songs would be suggested: “Jingle Bells,” “Silent Night,” or “O Holy Night.”

Over the course of a one- or two-hour gig we would sing Jingle Bells one miiiillion times. Okay, 10 or 15 times. It’s a short song even if you do all the normal verses, which tell a tale about the joys of riding in a “one-horse open sleigh” (the original title), even when the occupants get “upsot” in verse two. This song has a Massachusetts connection. Its composer was sometime-organist James Lord Pierpont, who was born in the state. High Street in Medford, MA, features a plaque claiming (mistakenly) that Pierpont composed Jingle Bells in 1850 while pounding ales in the town’s Simpson Tavern. Pierpont did live in Medford for a while, but in 1850 he was in California. He copyrighted “One-Horse Open Sleigh” in 1857 while living in Savannah, Georgia, so the people of Savannah also lay claim to the birthplace of the song. Like “Let It Snow,” this is a song about the winter sport of sleigh-riding rather than Christmas, but it’s been associated with that holiday since at least 1900. Fun fact: Jingle Bells was the first song broadcast from space, on December 16, 1965! Not so fun facts: Jingle Bells was first publicly performed in 1857, at a blackface minstrel show in Boston by the singer Johnny Pell. Also, after his move to Georgia Pierpont fought in the Civil War on the side of the Confederates.

Despite its shady origins, Jingle Bells peps up a crowd. With a range of just a fifth, the chorus is eminently singable, and the audience often joins in. Silent Night, on the other hand…It’s a beautiful song, but with a big range for casual singers (an 11th) and a bunch of treacherous high notes in the second half. Maybe because of the high notes, the audience tends to listen to Silent Night instead of sing along. This was our most cried-to piece. It’s been stirring emotions since 1818. The lyrics were written by an Austrian priest, Joseph Mohr, while the music was set by organist Franz Xaver Gruber. The first version was for voice and guitar because the organ in Mohr’s church was broken. I’m glad Mohr specified guitar: in my opinion the emotional content of Silent Night is beautifully expressed with voice and guitar.

The truly scary high notes come in O Holy Night. Many arrangements give the melody to the tenor, but our book followed the original performance practice and gave the soprano the high Bbs. (Fortunately I sang alto and stayed below the Death Zone.) Whenever a listener would request this this piece, if we’d already done it once or twice, the soprano got the veto. O Holy Night was our most-denied tune. It’s another song from the 1800s, 1847, to be precise, with music by organist Adolphe Adam set to lyrics by one-handed poet/wine merchant Placide Cappeau.

The original title is “Cantique de Noel,” and its lyrics are quite progressive, opposing slavery and elite abuse of power. Here’s a sample from verse 2: “Puissants du jour, fiers de votre grandeur,/A votre orgueil, c’est de la que Dieu preche.” This basically translates as “Mighty ones of today, proud of your greatness, It is to your pride that god preaches.” Even though the song was a popular hit, the French church authorities banned it from religious services for a time because it turned out that Cappeau was an atheist. John Sullivan Dwight , a Unitarian minister, liberally translated the lyrics into English in 1855, giving the last verse an expicitly Abolitionist bent.

I enjoy singing the old songs. Just as with reading a novel from the 1800s or a poem written in 900, there’s a thrill in the connection with the past. However, by the end of a 20-Jingle-Bell gig my singing smile could stretch a little tight.

Back at the dressing room, the first off would be the bonnet. Once I had my sweater and jeans back on and had shoved the last prickly bit of crinoline into the depths of the garment bag, I donned my headphones. Something non-holiday to drive the carols to the back of the brain, until the next time I needed to sing them with a smile.

NaNoWriMo 4: an educational week

Moving into the final full week of November, and I have not abandoned NaNoWriMo. Today’s my Sunday review. Last week, after a frustrating week #2, I made these adjustments: write at the dining table. Write in the morning. Drink tea while writing. I achieved the time and location. But when Dave would ask “Do you want another cup of coffee?” I kept answering yes. I’m extra twitchy, but as of Saturday I had cut my word deficit from a bit more than 4K to 2,006 words behind target. So…yay?

7:30’s turned out to be a decent time for me to write. Not much going on in my life at that point in the day beyond the breakfast dishes and the news that makes me angry and sad. Coronavirus triumphant, the loser of the 2020 election occupying his time with golf, complaints, and treasonous plots. Even on the worst days, the days when every word turns out to be crap destined to be deleted from the second draft, writing is better than news-crying.

When I was stuck (after I stopped swearing at the computer screen) I did research. This week’s discoveries included new-to-me information about

  1. Cuckoos. Beethoven, Mahler, and Saint-Saens, and other composers have written music where the cry of the cuckoo is given to the clarinet, so I’ve been imitating these birds on stage for years. One of the rabbit holes I went down this week involved cuckoos that practice brood parasitism, or laying their eggs in the nests of other birds (hosts). Which led to the term coevolution, which happens when two (or more) species reciprocally affect each other’s evolution. Thus, cuckoos, as they evolve ways to get better at sneaking their eggs into the host nest, are matched in an evolutionary arms race by the hosts’ defense tactics. The cuckoos lay more quickly, produce eggs that hatch earlier than the host species eggs, or eggs that look like the host species eggs. In response, the host species evolves new defenses to the cuckoos, such as getting better at recognizing cuckoo eggs, proactively driving cuckoos out of their territory, etc.
  2. Pretzel rides. As opposed to the fast scares of a roller coaster, a pretzel ride gives a slow scare. Pretty much anyone who’s visited a carnival or amusement park has been on one of these. You get in a car that moves along a twisting track through a dark building filled with spooky sounds and glowing scary sights. The inventors of the ride, which debuted in a New Jersey amusement park in the 1920s Leon Cassidy and Marvin Rempfer, reportedly decided on the name after one early rider said he felt “twisted like a pretzel” during the experience. Voila! the Pretzel Amusement Ride Company was born. By the time it went out of business, in the late 1970s, these contraptions had become known more commonly as dark rides or ghost trains, and that’s how people refer to them today.
  3. Queen bees. In the nature shows and books that I read as a kid–pretty much the last time I learned anything about bees–I absorbed the idea that queen bees (who have mated) and virgin queen bees (who have not yet mated) were each others’ mortal enemies, and that a new queen and the old queen would fight each other to the death, winner take hive. If one of them survived, she would have to leave the hive. Now I learn that there are often several virgin queens, and their greatest enemy is one another. It’s the virgin queens who fight each other to the death. A new mated queen doesn’t drive the old queen out. She doesn’t have to, as the old queen tends to weaken and die shortly after a new queen comes along. Also, queen bees and virgin bees communicate by “piping” (vibrating) in their cells at the pitch of G#. Also, to keep track of the queen, beehive keepers often dab her abdomen with a dot of paint, and this paint is frequently color-coded to the year that she was born.
  4. The Berkshires. I first encountered this scenic part of Massachusetts when I drove from Chicago to Boston. (I wanted to shake up my life by moving to a coast; I flipped a coin and drove east. It turned out great.) The Berkshires in August, when I first saw it, is a place of rolling hills, hiking trails, and arts festivals. Even with all the tourists, it feels laid back. However, in the 1770s the Berkshires was the site of civil unrest. A citizen uprising prevented judges from meeting in 1774, just a few months after the Boston Tea Party. The Berkshires were also the forbidding terrain through with Continental Army Colonel Henry Knox moved 59 cannons from New York to Boston in the winter of 1775-76. The cannons had been captured from Forts Ticonderoga and Crown Point, and the journey entailed 300 miles in the miserable conditions familiar to anyone who has suffered through a New England winter. Facing frozen lakes, mountains, and swamps, Knox still managed to deliver the artillery to Boston by the end of January.
  5. My writing preferences. When it comes to pantser or planner, it’s been a scary time pantsing. I enjoy the moments when some interesting twist comes out of my back brain, something I’d never have included in an outline. When I blow yet another tire on a plot-hole, though, I regret that I haven’t planned things out more elaborately in October. Still, I like pantsing enough that I’m going to alternate writing and planning on my next project.

So that was my week, ghost trains, queen bees, and revolution, along with a moderate amount of catching up. On the bright side, if I can stick to 7:30 at the dining table it looks as though 50K might be possible I hope, dear readers, that things are going well with your NaNo projects/other creative work, and that you also learned some cool new stuff this week.

Stress test

NaNoWriMo report, a quarter of the way through. The good: I worked on the novel every day and am now more than 10,000 words in! A little behind a straight line to 50,000, but not so far behind that catching up will take a herculean effort. Every day I brewed tea, set up the laptop in the dining room, and put words onto the screen. (A lot the words are lousy, but that’s to be expected.) My story is moving forward. The bad news: spending time writing didn’t disconnect me from the world as I’d hoped. It didn’t sent politics and the pandemic and human rights scuttling to the edge of my awareness. Every day still felt like a year.

I managed to keep up with practicing my instruments as well as with writing. As part of my 2020 music practice I’ve been going through the orchestra parts I have in roughly chronological order. This week I was up to 1815-17, which included several Schubert symphonies. Talk about staying productive under stress…

By 1815-17, when Franz Schubert was writing his third through fifth symphonies, Vienna had suffered major losses in the Napoleonic wars. The government reacted to the loss by cracking down on all forms of dissent. The state’s secret police and censors prohibited and punished political speech and made restrictive new laws. For example, males had to make a certain income in order to get married (which kept Schubert single). There were spies everywhere. Citizens reacted by putting their heads down. Or by joining various underground revolutionary movements. The protective, inward-looking choice was to perform a cozy home life with “Hausmusik” around the piano, letter-writing, painting, crafting, and novel-reading, and never any talk of revolution or how societal problems could be managed differently. It reminds me of the apolitical domesticity on display in today’s lifestyle and family channels–and, yes, often on this blog. Artists in Vienna had to avoid any norm-questioning content or risk being forcibly silenced. This must have been incredibly stressful.

Schubert, living in these interesting times, doesn’t seem to have had his creativity much stifled. He wrote piano music and chamber works, much of it appropriate for the Hausmusik set, as well as symphonies and other big pieces. And he wrote songs, quite a few of which put dissenting lyrics to music, also performed as Hausmusik. (He seems to have gotten away with that, maybe because the songs themselves tended to be gorgeous.) By the time he died at age 31, he had composed around 1500 works.

I’m also living through “interesting times.” My anxiety level for the past four years has mostly been stuck at the three-days-before-finals level. For the past couple of months, as the election approached, it’s risen to nightmare-where-I’m-being-chased-through-the-house-by-a-knife-wielding-maniac. Watching my country inch, and sometimes sprint, away from democracy has been draining. Instead of creating things, I’m consuming things: cheese, chocolate, merlot, television.

Yesterday’s projection that Biden will be the winner of the presidency had people dancing in the streets. I danced in the grocery line and put the peanut butter cups back on the shelf instead of in my shopping basket. I wrote in the afternoon and woke up this morning feeling ready to write some more. I will never be a Schubert, but week two: here I come.