Number 80 with a bullet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Neutrals: Things I never wound up using much  

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bowled over

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Wall

First cold snap of the 2021, with a projected high of just 19 degrees Fahrenheit.  My mind remembers Chicago winters, how springlike a 19 degree day with no wind felt after weeks of windy days with where the thermometer didn’t crack 10 degrees, but my body doesn’t.   I’ve acclimated all too well to mild Massachusetts and can’t imagine going outside.   

Facing a cold, snowy February, I feel frustrated.  Walking’s one of my favorite ways to self-soothe and think.  I used to spend hours on the treadmill in our basement when the weather was bad, but its motor died last winter.   I paced around the house (barely satisfactory) until the weather improved, then went  outside.    As often happens (possibly it’s an autistic thing),  I soon became absorbed with the idea of systematizing the activity.  It was irresistible, the notion of strolling down every avenue, court, street, circle, road, place, and terrace in town.  This led by degrees from April, 2020’s “Hey, what’s down that side street?” to July, 2020’s daily sessions with Google maps to pick walking routes to January, 2021’s trip to Staples to turn a foldable street atlas made of slippery paper into a 25”x 20” map.   I decided to start from dot (“dot” being my home address, located in the upper left quadrant), this time tracing my progress in markers of many colors.       

January had been pretty mild, so I did a bunch of walking, but now there was black ice on the streets and a frigid wall between me and my project.   I drank hot coffee and cleared out my inbox.  Bulk mail from our town community center showcasing the February calendar, don’t know why I opened it.   Book clubs, craft clubs, activities for seniors and toddlers.  Some chocolate fondue drive through thing.  And then a pair of items that made my clicking finger twitch:  an Around the Town photo challenge and a 1000 Hours Outside 2021 challenge.      

The Around the Town photo challenge involves a weekly mystery photo.  The challenge is to identify the location of the picture, then take and post your own photo.   I won’t be posting snaps, but this contest seems made for me and my map.   It got my toes wiggling, warming up.     

“1000 Hours Outside”  (https://www.1000hoursoutside.com)  promotes the idea that people (especially children) should be spending at least 1000 hours outside per year.  This averages to around three hours a day.    The site feels a bit mompetition-y, as it seems to assume surroundings and resources that not everyone has.   I agree that being outdoors is a good thing.   I easily got more than 1000 outdoor hours as a kid most years.  So did my friends: this was how the moms on the block got some peace and quiet in their days.  While I went to parks with my parents fairly frequently, and brought home the ticks to prove it—ticks luuuurve me—I remember more fondly the interesting indoor spaces they took us.  Museums and concert halls, etc., which doesn’t seem to count for the 1000 Hours people; ah, well.   I think it was the idea of setting an annual time goal, always appealing (even though I know I’ll probably fail).  Plus the 1000 Hours Outside website had a page with dozens of printable trackers, featuring all kinds of designs, plain to fancy.  I found some very pretty ones, but ultimately I figured that my map of many colors would serve me best.    

I can’t wait to see the first Around the Town photograph (set to appear in just three days!).  Probably they’ll start out with something easy: the gazebo, the cannon across from Town Hall, the train station, swans on the reservoir, stuff like that.  I hope they’ll go farther afield, though: the candy company in the industrial park, that former nursing home out by the highway that is now…something mysterious.  The log cabins (I’ve found two—one in at the north end of town and the other in the south).  That house with sooo many garden gnomes.    

I doubled my socks, put on my puffy coat,  tugged a wool cap over my ears and stuck Blue Tooth headphones on top of it, and did a trial stroll.  It was reasonably, bearably toasty.  Thanks, Universe: the very day I hit this wall, you passed me a stepladder.  

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.

Exit from the Sore Losers’ Club

Tonight I’ll play cribbage with Dave. Over the 25 years that we’ve been together, he’s taught me the game at least eight times. I’ve never been able to remember the rules or figure out the strategy. We’ve been mired in a cycle of teach-play-complain-abandon.

Dave learned the game as a kid; it’s one of his favorites. He’s wicked good and wicked fast at it. Until lately he’d satisfied his cribbage yen at the office; there’s usually a coworker or two up for a game. Six months into working from home, we have been trying to turn to more board and card games and other off-screen activities. Cribbage was bound to come up sooner or later.

As a writer of sorts, it would seem that I’d be attuned to the rules of a game developed by a poet. Specifically, the Cavalier poet Sir John Suckling, who lived a short (1609-1641 or maybe 1642) but extremely colorful life. Suckling’s prowess at bowls and cards was more renowned than his verse-making (slightly unfair sample couplet: “Love is the fart/Of every heart”), but much of his work is still anthologized. His straightforward diction and man-about-town urbanity appeal to my inner city girl. Eventually falling into disfavor with King Charles I, Sir John fled London for Paris. Shortly afterward, somewhere on the Continent, he perished. When, where, and how are uncertain. Did he commit suicide? Was he poisoned by his valet? Executed by the Spanish Inquisition? (I…didn’t expect the Spanish Inquisition, but this is one of the theories about how Suckling’s life ended).

In earlier cycles, no matter how cheerfully I went into a game, my mood and energy would flag in direct proportion to how far behind my spilikens (pegs) lagged Dave’s on the streets (holes) around the paperclip-shaped track. At some point Dave would reference another random rule. My attention would drift. A to-do list would sneak into my thoughts.

I’ve never toppled a game board, stormed off mid game, or declared facts fake news, but passive-aggression still puts me in the sore loser club. My attitude is situation and game-dependent, and I can notice it happening and readjust, most of the time. Not when it comes to cribbage, for some reason.

Sore loserdom being ego-protective, I have plenty of company in the clubhouse, both from home and abroad. Dave can cheerfully lose an occasional Scrabble, Monopoly, hearts, or cribbage match. With candlepin bowling or chess, doing poorly can make him furious. Of the three of us, Sonny seems to spend the least amount of time in the clubhouse–maybe because we put him in youth soccer for a couple of years? He didn’t take to the sport, but he seems to have internalized the good game/high fives at the end of play. On the other hand, I spent my childhood with my nose in a book, and the closest I came to a team sport was high school marching band.

There are many games I enjoy because I know that I’ll never be good at them in a million years. There are many games I enjoy because I’m relatively decent at them–win or lose, it’ll be a game without bone-headed mistakes on my part. I can live with that. As Suckling notes, “A quiet mediocrity is still to be preferred before a troubled superfluity.”

Then there are games I feel I should be good at. If I fail at those games, it’s because I’m stupid (always one of the cardinal sins in my house, growing up). Cribbage had become one of those games. I was afraid that I wasn’t capable of understanding the rules.

In the latest attempt, I determined to shoot for a quiet mediocrity with maximal effort. I took notes during each game. Dave kindly reviewed all of my hands and talked through strategies; he slowed his game speed down while I laboriously counted my 15s. When random rules came up, I wrote them down rather than simply rolling my eyes. Things started to make sense. Getting out of the sore losers’ club took a bit effort and awareness (and will the next time I repeat this lesson), but it was worth it. I achieved quiet mediocrity and reassured myself that my brain still worked okay. Best of all, it turned out the cribbage was…pretty fun, actually.

Therefore I am thankful to Sir John Suckling and give him have the final word: “Joy never feasts so high as when the first course is of misery.”

East-west tangent

Four months into the project to explore my town on foot, I’ve been backtracking a bit, revisiting favorite neighborhoods and catching some side streets I missed.  Saturday I returned to a development curled between Main Street and the highway.   The first pass was back in May.  Rain and hill-strained calves had led to a shorter walk than usual, and I’d skipped Army Street.  On Google maps, Army Street ended in a curious loop, rather like a bubble wand.  Intriguing.    

I parked behind the northernmost strip mall in town, the last before the exit to the highway.   The morning was overcast, temperature in the high 60s, with a breeze–almost chilly, a delight after a string of  horrible hot days.     

The neighborhood is built into the Blue Hills, which get their name due to looking blue from a sailor’s distance.  (That’s because they contain a lot of riebeckite, says Wikipedia.)   Large portions of the Blue Hills–much of the area just across the highway, in fact–have been designated parkland/nature preserve, and people swim, hike, bike, and even ski in them.        

I followed the central road east, going up a (mostly) gentle rise.  The hills’ contours here  been smoothed and graded for streets and houses. The highway noise blurred to something like ocean waves.   At the end of the central road I found Army Street.      

At first it was quite ordinary-looking.  Split-levels and small ranches, mostly.  Through the tree belt came silver flashes as pods of cars swam toward the city.    At the end of the street, at the loop, I found five McMansions in a semicircle.   It’s typical around here to find a grander, newer house or two on streets that dead-end (rather than terminate at another street).  The McMansions, all built in the 2000s, are larger than the average 1900s houses.  They almost universally feature a central front door beneath a large cathedral-style window (and sometimes a purely ornamental balcony), symmetrical sets of neat square windows upstairs and downstairs, and an attached two-car garage…  Some developer had managed to take another bite out of the Blue Hills.

But the center of the cul-de-sac contained a wonder: an island of wilderness.  Not huge, maybe 25 feet in diameter, but with big, climbable rocks, bushes, and trees, rising rather defiantly into the air.    I wished I could clamber up the rocks into the center, shinny up a tree, and see all the way to Boston.    

Definitely worth the revisit.

I turned west, took in a couple of new-to-me side streets, then came on Christy Lane, which I remembered…I wasn’t sure for what, though.   It was close to my car, so I took the street.  Memories flooded back.  In May it had been decorated end-to-end with sidewalk chalk,  down the middle of the street and spilling onto sidewalks and driveways.  Bright stars and butterflies, hearts and vines, messages of hope and encouragement and solidarity.  Signs in windows and on doors that echoed the words chalked on the street.  I’d never seen anything quite like it, and it made me feel happy.  

Christy Lane encompasses a single curving block.  Houses are set into the hill on the east side, with driveway-to-door stair-cased walks.  Houses on the west side of the street are on leveled ground.   It’s a street too old and too short for McMansions.  

In May, I remember feeling united with my fellow New Englanders in the fight against Covid-19, convinced that with some shared sacrifices things would sort out in just a few months.  We’d already been through almost two months of shutdown, so an end was surely in sight.   In August, the pavement on Christy Lane was black and bare.  The signs were gone from doors and lawns.  I wondered if rain had washed away the drawings, or if it had been too hot to have children out drawing on the pavement.   The summer flowers bloomed vibrantly and the air was sweet with the promise of rain, but my mood flagged as I walked past the neat, still houses.      

Then I rounded the bend and saw letters at the mouth of the lane.  A reminder writ big, the first thing residents must see when coming home.   The last thing I would see before going home.   “Be the change you want to see in the world,” the words said, ringed by hearts, flowers, vines and stars.    I want to see change in the world, but the future is so blank and bleary I can’t seem to fix on a vision.   Christy Lane hasn’t given up; maybe that resolute optimism can sharpen my eyes.  

puzzled by joy

Nearly five months since I’ve worked a jigsaw puzzle.  For me, this is a long time.   I finished a thousand-piece Americana illustration packed with old-fashioned houses, people, and animals during a slow week between shows at the very beginning of March.

My parents liked puzzles of international sites: View-Master-style images of chateaus nestled in the Swiss Alps, the Eiffel Tower, the Parthenon, Capri…pictures with plenty of flora but no fauna or people.   After I became a parent I turned to jigsaw puzzles as a way to relieve stress after especially draining times.  Even though the meaning is different, the puzzle piece as a symbol of autism resonates with me because working jigsaws feels like a reset of my brain.   The sensory details stimulate and comfort:  unsealing the edges of the puzzle box,  combing through the bright jumbled colors of the puzzle pieces, snapping the pieces into their rows, even stirring the soft gray dust in the bottom of the box.   Even more satisfying is assembling a whole from fragments.

During March and April my Facebook feed was flooded with posts about jigsaw puzzles.  We had none in the house, and our finances were uncertain.  Also I was busy and had just discharged with a puzzle not long before, so puzzles weren’t a concern.  By May, though, things had stabilized a bit and I was starting to miss this comfort.   I kept on the lookout, but there weren’t puzzles in stores.  Online, Buffalo Games was closed.  Sellers of dubious provenance were offering some of my favorite lines at three to four times the standard retail price.  I was too cautious and cheap to buy.   

This week, the end of July—I happened upon a Charles Wysocki in a store.  Wysockies are my most guilty pleasure of all puzzle lines.  The puzzle was a thousand pieces, normal price, so I bought it.  At the end of the work week, after teaching my last lesson, I pried open the box and started fishing out edge pieces.  Then occurred pleasant surprise number one: my husband Dave brought me a glass of wine.  (It was a surprise because that morning there had been no wine in the house.)    Then surprise number two: I checked out Netflix for the first time in several weeks and found two new seasons of my favorite docu-series.

This tripling of treats produced pure joy that lasted for many minutes, dulling over an hour or so to a normal soothing feeling.  Joy is fleeting and can’t be scheduled.   It bursts from some activity that I already enjoy,  flushed by the unexpected:  rounding a corner on a morning walk to find a family of deer, being one voice in a rare, perfectly tuned, shimmering chord…    The hard part is enjoying the walk or rehearsal the next time when things go back to normal.

Joy’s opposite is also short, although despair rushes out of the undergrowth more readily.  The pandemic and the US president’s mishandling of it (and everything else that he’s touched) are constants, but every day brings fresh dread surprises.  In misery’s case I’m glad for the transience, but I try to remember the joys fondly.   I try to have confidence that over time, I can piece the puzzle together.

Deja vu to-dos

Last time they closed everything down, Dave and I figured we’d be home a couple of weeks.   Priorities were TP, PT (paper towels), and Clorox.   A couple of months in, we’d sourced the paper and cleaning supplies, but we found ourselves wanting other stuff.   Life in front of screens was exhausting and boring.

It looks like rolling shutdowns are coming soon.  I’m not happy about that or the feckless leadership that led to it (not so much in my state, but plenty at the tiptop of US government), but I’ll cry later.  Once I’m stuck back in the house.  

In the meantime, I’m making a list.  It’s a mix of some things I want to do while I temporarily can and things I want to get into the house for when we have to go back inside.  

  1. Get a haircut.  I’ll probably several inches shorter than I normally would, just in case it’s another six months before salons are open again.  (Research Flowbee?)
  2. Find good walking shoes by trying them on in a store.  Then buy multiple pairs.  During the shutdown I do four or five miles most days, so I walked the cushioning out of a couple of pairs of shoes.  The replacements I got online took forever to come and hurt my feet.
  3. Drive to the ocean, walk the shore, and eat at a clam shack/ice cream stand.   Repeat  weekly if possible.
  4. Stock up on jigsaw puzzles.  Also get some more playing cards and board games.  Even though we’ve never been much of a board game family, we did sometimes haul games out of the closet to play this spring.  We might have enjoyed it, except that every game in the house, despite mostly collecting dust over the past 15 years, had pieces missing.  Lord knows where all they got to.  Maybe underneath the floorboards the Scotty dog and checker King live in little green houses and roll craps with Yahtze dice while the Knaves and Jack of Hearts look on.
  5. Visit a bookstore.   Even if I don’t buy anything, just being in a space full of books fills me with joy.
  6. Get into crafting, a pastime that could produce useful, or at least interesting-looking, items and take a bunch of time.   Something old-fashioned.  Decoupage, knitting, rug-hooking, birdhouse kits, crochet?   I’m clumsy, but I’m sure there’s got to be a craft I can do.  It’s true that in my years as a Pioneer Girl, I’d never been able to earn a crafts badge.   Macaroni necklaces and potholders constructed using a  looping kit didn’t reach the badge threshold.  Other PGs made beautiful lacy creations.  My crochet hooks bloodied my finger while the yarn slipped and tangled.  Probably not crochet, then, but part of me wants to try again.  Even if I fail, I’ll have spent a bunch of time doing something other than staring at a screen.  Even if the  time was spent swearing and bleeding.    
  7. Protest.  Get to know other protestors a bit in person before we go back inside.
  8. Start a food-related hobby.  I could buy fun hot sauces and toppings from food stores, or maybe, just maybe…I could learn to churn butter?  Supposedly this can be done in a food processor, though I have never worked up the courage to operate ours.  However, the way that seems most popular among foodies is to do it by hand.  I pictured one of those big wooden tubs, but probably I’ll look for a hand-cranked butter churn.  Google says the churning takes about 25-30 minutes, so this would come in handy for news-watching time.  
  9. Have coffee outdoors with friends.
  10. Look into the kind of hobby you do in the basement, like setting up a miniature railway or making chainmail (crochet on steroids!).   Chainmail requires lots of metal rings, some hand tools–no crochet hooks, as far as I can see–and, best of all, acres of time.  With luck, I’ll have a shirt completed just in time for the zombie apocalypse.   Or the next shutdown.   

   

Out of Sugar, Again!

March 13: I made plans for my small space:

  – Reactivate the blog! 

– Take an online class!

– Practice piccolo every day!

– Reorganize all closets!!

– Finish some worthy books!

– Get in shape!

– Make all the lemons into lemonade!

But the lemons keep piling on.   How to keep the lemonade factory going when I’m running low on sugar, not to mention pitchers and ice, plus maybe I’ve lost my taste for lemonade?

The blog’s going, kind of, but my novel is neglected.  I’m slogging through my online class at half the planned speed.  Capone the cat is happy that the piccolo has been uncaged just twice.  My closets are looking pretty good, but my pants are way too tight and getting tighter.

Every morning I kick through lemons, ankle-deep, to reach the armchair where I write down the daily numbers, the horrible surprises and inevitabilities.   I brush lemons off the notebook, uncap my pen, and search for the wrong kinds of reasons: justifications to delay, to slow down, to conserve my energy–for what?   The day when this is over, and I will have nothing to show for these weeks (or–shudder–months)?

It’s a long pattern.  At age 14, I reacted to the undeniable tragedy and shock of my first piano teacher dying unexpectedly by taking a 22-year hiatus between my second piano lesson and the third.  When Sonny was born, another break, about 16 years, while we all adjusted to life on the autistic spectrum.  In 2018, I took another rest from writing after my husband Dave was in an accident that left him with a broken neck; the writing gap lasted three times as long as Dave’s rehab.

I’m not sure I can change the stress response, but I think I could shorten the intervals between these lemon-shaped cycles of dormancy, disgust, preparation, activity, and decline.   Every weekday can be New Year, week one, when I energetically write and check off plans and lists.   Knowing that I’ll I fade by Friday, on Saturday I’ll prep for New Year’s Eve, heaping lemons into decorative bowls, and on Sunday I’ll slice lemons and slip them into festive, deadly drinks (no sugar required).  At midnight, we’ll throw more lemons at the moon and howl late into the night.

 

Book ‘Em – A Rant

Currently high on my minor crimes against humanity list: anything that drives people out of brick-and-mortar bookstores.  I love bookstores.  Our family spends a lot of time in them.  Nowadays we do this less than previously, not because we have better things to do, but because bookstores are disappearing.   I miss Waterstone’s (long out of business in Boston) and Borders (about five years out of business here) and the many independent and secondhand booksellers who’ve gone out of business.

Sure, I can find just about anything online, but that kind of search takes away everything I love about books except for the reading of them.  Reading is paramount, but I adore walking into a bookstore.  Figuring out how things are organized, browsing.  The floors creaking under my feet as I wander into the cocoon of tall shelves filled with volumes, inviting me into thousands of worlds.  A cat sunning itself in the window.   Children’s books that spark memories of being six years old.  Comfy chairs.   The quiet sense of community that arises from knowing the other customers are my kind of people: book-lovers.

Last week I checked out the Amazon bookstore near me.  It’s organized kind of like the Amazon site, which comes across as charming rather than annoying.   Bare wood floors, which I liked, and a setup that encourages you to wind your way around the store.  Plenty of places to sit, but no comfy chairs.  An employee who greets you at the front of the store and then leaves you alone.

If only my local Barnes and Noble would follow that policy.  Over the past several months, every time I go to Barnes and Noble–which is what I do when I’m in the mood to procrastinate, rather than practice–at least one employee approaches me while I’m walking around the store, asking me if I want help.  No, I don’t want help.  There’s a clearly marked Customer Service desk in the middle of the store.  I’m wandering with my eyes wide because I that’s how I roll in a bookstore.  Plus now I have to wander because my B&N got rid of all of their comfy chairs.  The only seating is in the cafe.  Yesterday I visited B&N, and three–three!!–employees asked me if I needed help.  The third time, I had made brief and accidental eye contact with the employee.  I physically turned away, hunched my shoulders, and picked up a book–I was still asked if I needed help finding anything.  I put the books back and left the store without buying anything.  Now some of this might be spectrum-y of me; I find it stressful to have strangers come up and talk to me.  However, I’ve visited B&N literally hundreds of times in the past, and this level of enforced interaction is new.

I assume that the accost-the-customer strategy has been mandated by B&N management. It’s the kind of thing managers do.  Most bookstore employees are book people; they know that a lot of customers want to browse and commune, that the fun is in looking.   I’m not going to abandon B&N entirely, but it’s going to be a few months before I go back.  I’m hoping that by that time management will have gone back to nagging customers about loyalty cards at the cash register rather than chivvying them through the store.