Buzz

It was all over the TV on Tuesday: Breaking! News! The Johnson and Johnson vaccine is being paused due to a rare but dangerous side effect, a blood clotting disorder.     

A little bee started buzzing around my brain.  I’d received the J&J vaccine two days before.  I’d made it through the shot–just a little sting–and the fifteen-minute post-injection period without going into anaphylactic shock.  My only reactions so far had been  shoulder twinges and feeling tired more than normal.  I’d thought I was basically done with side effects.  The prospect of being on high alert for the next couple of weeks set a bee buzzing in my brain.  

The warning signs, said the doctor-commentators, included headache, stomachache, and leg pains.  But don’t worry, it’s a very rare complication.  One in a million—although concerning enough to close down clinics and stop giving the shots.  Rare complications are the ones that I tend to fixate on during bouts of hypochondria.  That passing pain at my right temple: surely an aneurysm fixing to blow.    A morning cough: my first Covid symptom.    

The bee was joined by a buddy.  I began to feel indignant.  I’d just started to relax!  I realize that I don’t have some kind of right to feel relaxed, so this wasn’t a good reason to pout.  Nevertheless I pouted and made a generic “Yikes!” post on Facebook.  Friends rallied around with supportive comments, most of them statistics-based.   One in a million means that the odds are on my side.   Then they gave me more statistics.  I had a much bigger chance of being struck by lightning, or drowning in the bathtub, or being in a car accident.        

The bees weren’t convinced.  Half the hive was in motion.  I started assembling my outfit for the day and took a tumble over an electrical cord, nearly face-planting onto the sharp corner of my dresser and scratching my arm (chances of dying in a fall: 1 in 106).    I swore for a while and then decided on an expedition: a trip to a favorite park where I could walk away the stress.   I grabbed the car keys.  About a mile from the house there’s one of those complicated intersections with a traffic light pattern that ensures left-turn bottlenecks.  I was on my way through in the right lane when the SUV directly ahead of me sideswiped a sedan in the left lane (chances of dying in a car accident: 1 in 107).  I was able to stop without adding a third car to the mess, but now the whole hive was buzzing.  

Someone had planted a row of daffodils at the park entrance.  While I walked I tried to drown out the bees by calculating whether avoiding disaster twice already in the day made it less or more likely that I would get a fatal blood clot.    Probability doesn’t work that way, I’m told, but I’m fuzzy about how probability works in general.  On the one hand, I don’t really subscribe to the idea that “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics,” though appreciate the nice setup and punchline.  It’s mistakenly attributed to Mark Twain and sounds like his style.  Twain himself wrongly attributed it to British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli.   Whoever came up with joke—maybe a different English politician, Sir Charles Wentworth Dilke, maybe the Duke of Wellington, or various others—it went the Gilded Age equivalent of viral in the mid 1890s.   On the other hand, probability and statistics class was the hill upon which my college math major died.  I don’t have a good grasp of the subject.    

   My friends explained that the stats just remind us that we all do way riskier stuff every day than get a vaccine.  Familiarity breeds complacency.  I drive frequently.  I bathe daily.  I trip over stuff every few days.   I go outdoors when it’s raining.  I get a shot once every few years.  

  Ultimately I’m glad I got the vaccine.  The benefits of the vaccine far outweigh the risks.   I’m lucky to have received a shot before the program was paused.  What odds there are of my life returning to normal increase with every vaccinated person.    

However, it took a while—some hours, in fact—to settle the bees.    

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.     

The kindest cut of all

I got my hair cut this weekend.  Even in normal times I tend to put off this chore, but my locks had extended to more than halfway down my back, the longest since I was 15.  As my current hair is fluffier than my teenage hair, whenever it hit my bare back it tickled like sixteen strolling spiders.  Time for Supercuts.  

I used to go to higher end salons, back when my efforts to pass for normal were at their height.     The kind of joints where customers used the same stylist every time, with appointments set weeks in advance.  Where they bring you a coffee or tea, sometimes even a little glass of wine.  Where there’s a pitcher of lemon-water and a tray of nibbles in the waiting area, with artisan jewelry, tiny jars of face cream, and fancy hair products for sale as well as stacks of fashion magazines to browse.  Where there are dedicated shampooers, and sometimes even a darkened shampoo room with stars in the ceiling and music-of-the-spheres tunes on the soundtrack.   

These salons do, generally, give somewhat superior haircuts to Supercuts.  I left with hair that was smooth and shiny, wafting the scent of an umbrella drink sipped on a Caribbean beach.  I wonder if the aesthetic experience at the expensive places is worse now that everybody has to wear masks and socially distance.  It wasn’t the pandemic (or finances) that sent me to Supercuts, though.  A couple of issues arising from my autism, specifically involving shampoos and conversation, had soured me on snooty beauty.    

For me, a salon shampoo became an ordeal, especially if it culminated in a “relaxing” scalp massage.  My entire body would cramp.  It’s been sad to realize that some of the autistic sensory issues that I’d thought I’d conquered over the years (e.g., tolerance for someone kneading my scalp) have resurrected.  I can pretend not to be bothered by stuff like this, which might build character but also wears me out for more important stuff, or I can avoid it.   Supercuts stylists don’t push you to get a shampoo.   They just wet the hair with a spray bottle and carry on.  

In the pricey parlors you see the same stylist every time.  Some of them keep notes and will ask how your kid or cat is doing.   Yikes!  I can handle small talk or casual conversations okay, I hope, sometimes.  Other times I perseverate about what I’m doing wrong.  I hate the idea of boring or annoying someone whose pay depends at least in part on my satisfaction.  Conversation is an area where I’m always learning and experimenting, but do I have the right takeaways from my experiments?  Am I a valued or dreaded customer (albeit one who tips at least 30%)?  Supercuts stylists can vary in chattiness, but since I never have the same one twice there’s less pressure to be perfect.  In cases where I feel that I really goofed…there Supercuts in other towns.  Sometimes the gods smile on me, and the stylists are so busy talking to each other that no one is talking much to me except to check whether the length is okay.  

My stylist made sure I knew how much hair four inches was, sprayed me down, and started pruning.  We talked for a bit about how today was sunny and warm and tomorrow would be rainy, and then we shut up and listened to the radio.  She started to even out my bangs, which between haircuts I solo-trim very badly.     The comb’s teeth dragged over my forehead again and again as she snipped.  I thought I would go mad.  Scrape.  Snip.  Scrape.  Snip snip.  Scrape.  I was glad to be wearing a mask so that I only had to manage the third of my face that was uncovered.   

Finally she was done.  My hair bounced around my shoulders.  The sun was shining, and it would be months before the spiders strolled again.   A fragile triumph, but a victory nonetheless.    

My creation…bwah hah hah

It was a dark and stormy night.  I was alone in my lab with the parts.  Joints that had lain untouched for years in a jumble around me.  Thunder rumbled.  Some would say the body on the bench was deformed.  Unnatural.  I admitted that there was an ungainliness to it.  Feverish, desperate, I fastened the pieces, unwilling to think past the moment when life might return.  Lightning speared the sky.  With trembling fingers I attached a reed to the mouthpiece, ready to breathe life into the Franken-clarinet. 

As in Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, I was alone with my creation.  The Frankenstein movies typically have the primary cast members in the lab at the creature’s awakening.  Dr. Frankenstein himself, his fiancée, his best friend, and an assistant or two.  The original Frankenstein, he’s alone, and he flees his creature the moment it draws breath.  Why?  Because he suddenly notices that it’s ugly.   

I’ll admit that my creature wasn’t the prettiest.  Nor are many of the other Franken-clarinets around.  It’s a common practice among clarinetists these days to change out one or more pieces of the soprano clarinet in order to improve the instrument’s sound or tuning.  Practically nobody sticks with the factory mouthpiece.  The upper and lower joints, where the key work and tone holes are located, are the most important and are usually kept together.  The barrel, which joins the mouthpiece to the upper joint, and the bell, which fits onto the lower joint, are often swapped out.  The substitute barrel or bell can be of a markedly different color and shape than the original version; these clarinets can sometimes look as though they are well advanced on the journey to lamphood that is the ultimate fate of many aged instruments.   

Victor Frankenstein just can’t see past his creature’s ugliness.  Some critics have noted that the crime in the relationship of Frankenstein to monster seems more a violation of motherhood (rather than fatherhood) in its abandonment of nourishment and guidance.  Shelley was just 18 when she started the book, the idea originating from a ghost story competition at a house party.  She was pregnant at the time and had already lost one baby.  She knew firsthand that a newborn thing may not be particularly beautiful and can inspire both love and fear.  A baby is sublime—a word that comes up a lot in the text.  The term is used in the Romantic poetic sense, to mean a human reaction to something overwhelming (a mountain, an electrical storm, a birth) that combines ecstasy and terror.  

It goes beyond standard Franken-clarinetting to mess around with the joints, but I was desperate.  I have loved playing clarinet more than most things.  My experiences with the sublime have chiefly come through music.  My Yamaha CSV Bb clarinet, now 14 years old, had a creamy sound and was once a joy.  Except that the upper joint had a habit of cracking.  Once in the first year, then about every two or three years after that.  Cracks make playing effortful and perilous, especially on the high notes.  They are expensive to repair.  I got the latest one fixed in November, but the instrument still felt like it was pushing back on every breath.  

My husband Dave, who stopped playing clarinet about five years ago, said I could have his Bb Buffet if I wanted.  Buffet makes great clarinets, too.  Dave’s horn had been in its case for so long that its keys were fuzzy.  Also a rubber thumb rest cushion had disintegrated also, melting and spreading into the tone holes of the lower joint.  It was unusable.  

I had two unusable Bb clarinets, two different brands, and hope and terror.  That dark and stormy night, I stuck Dave’s Buffet upper joint onto my Yamaha lower joint.  Unnatural!  The  Buffet joint, grayish black, the key plating worn off in patches where fingers had hit them.  The Yamaha joint ebony, with keys  still bright.  

Shelley’s creature, also a jumble of parts, starts out with plenty of potential.  Strong, tall, and (in the book) graceful, he learns to feed and shelter himself, teaches himself to talk and read, and spends many months doing humans hidden kindnesses.  All to no avail; the humans misunderstand and attack him.  “I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend,” he tells Frankenstein when they meet at last.  The movie creature achieves this psychological transition in a matter of days; the novel creature, years.  (The novel is of its time and moves slowly.)   

I apologized to the thing I had made and tried a few notes.  They felt easy and free.  It had been so long since playing felt that good.  

Frankenstein never apologizes to his creature.  He agrees reluctantly to help it, then breaks his promise, leading to more deaths and a final chase to the ends of the earth.   

Some of the Frankenstein movies have happy endings (at least for most of the principle characters, including Doctor Frankenstein and his bride).  The novel doesn’t.  Frankenstein, unsuccessful in his chase, dies.  The captain who has helped with the last leg of the journey turns away from his quest for the North Pole.  The creature proceeds Pole-ward.  The sublime remains unattained.  

The tuner reassured me that the notes were where they needed to be.  I set to work with a polishing cloth, tape, thread, and screwdriver.   Soon I had a working clarinet (though I’m still tinkering with barrels and bells).  The sublime remains unattained—but possible.    

Spring in some direction or other

Last night I dreamt of music theory again.  There was a boy and a birthday party and a dominant seven chord gone wrong.  I tried to explain to the boy that he needed Bb, not B natural, while fumbling with the ribbon on the present I’d brought. The bow kept coming untied.  

My eyes jolted open in that definitive way that makes it clear there’s no settling back into a doze.  The clock read 5:40, in the general neighborhood of when I usually get up.   

Dave, who rises earlier than I do, pulled a pair of socks from the dresser.  I asked if there was any chance he could bring my coffee upstairs.  “Sure.  Oh, and I’ll remind you that it’s Spring Forward today,” said Dave.  “It’s almost seven.” 

Just like that, I was running an hour late.  

I hate the change to Daylight Saving Time (DST).  Even on this Sunday, when when my morning tasks are simply to make the bed, shower, write the blog, and grocery shop.  I understood why the anxiety dream.  

Every year around this time the weather people start wagging their fingers at those of us dolts who can’t remember that it’s Daylight Saving, not Savings, Time.  I change the channel before the diatribe works up steam and then forget to reset the clocks.  Grammar is one of my most shameful failings, along music theory.    

I love the results of DST.  The sun will set tonight at 6:49 p.m.!  That makes me almost happy enough to forgive New Zealand entomologist George Hudson, who proposed the idea of DST in 1895.   It proved a slow-moving notion, with the first governments to adopt DST nationwide being Germany and the Austrian empire in 1916.  Nowadays some form of DST is more common than not.   

Opponents of time changes, many of whom argue that we should be on DST permanently, say that the back and forth is hard on people, especially little kids.  (Truth!  And on pets, too!) Some studies show statistically significant side effects.  Traffic accidents and some health problems tend to increase, while electricity costs and prime time TV ratings tend to decrease.   

In England and parts of Europe DST is called “summer time.”  That feels a bit confusing, but I could get used to it.  It’s a lovely phrase, appropriate, and not nearly as complicated as the difference between Saving and Savings.  The image I’d associated with DST back when I thought it was savings was a jar filled with bits of sunshine.   Nonsensical, but pretty.  A foray into the internet grammarverse turns up site after site purporting to explain.  I squint at the computer screen.  Countable and uncountable nouns, verbs, adjectives, hyphenation, capitalization.  A tiny hammer in my head starts to pound.  Savings accounts, a saving grace, saving the whales.  I close the browser, giving my blood pressure a chance to come back down.  Perhaps someday I will understand.  

I taught myself to read words at age four and music notes at age five, fitting them into structures that made sense in my head.  When teachers tried to teach me the theory behind the words or notes, with new bits of information mixed in with old bits, the structures didn’t synch.  My autism undoubtedly played a role as well.  I would ask questions that seemed weird or premature (“We’ll be getting to that in Chapter 6”), not pertinent to the rest of the class.  Various humiliations ensued, so I stopped asking and listening.   

I scraped by with little grammar until grammar school.  We freshman comp teachers were given a quick-and-dirty grammar guide, which helped me become temporarily competent.  After I stopped teaching the knowledge flitted out of my brain.  

I avoided music theory for even longer.  A jazz piano teacher helped me feel comfortable with chord progressions, and then I started online courses. Sometimes theory was easier than I’d expected, but much of the time it was frickin’ hard.  Also: worth it.  Adding even the first few new concepts expanded my understanding and created idea after idea.  

There’ve been lots of ideas for dealing with waxing and waning daylight.  Some civilizations changed the shape of the hours, deciding that daylight would have twelve equal segments whose lengths would vary throughout the year.  A slender winter solstice hour lasted 44 minutes, while a summer solstice hour rounded out to 75.   I love that.

However…if I decide to spend an hour or two reviewing grammar, maybe I should wait until December.    

Oh the pain, the pain…

One of my favorite TV shows as a kid was Lost in Space (LIS).  LIS features the Robinsons, a family of colonists headed for Alpha Centauri whose spaceship goes terribly off course, setting them adrift in the universe.  In episode one, the evil Dr. Smith (Jonathan Harris) programs a robot to damage the ship while the Robinsons are suspended in cryogenic chambers.  Unfortunately for Smith, he gets stuck on the ship after liftoff, and while he’s trying to abort the sabotage and save his own skin, the ship goes off course.  Harris (originally intended only for a short arc on the series) quickly moderated his Smith performance from straight villainy to comical pomposity and became the breakout star of the show.  Lazy and conniving, the doctor could wriggle out of any chore by blaming his aching back.  “Oh, the pain…the pain,” he would cry.    

I’m having a Dr. Smith week.  The last snowstorm had us all shoveling the driveway early in the morning so that Sonny could make it to Target on time.  Dave worked the end of the drive, the heavy stuff the plows throw up, while I handled the middle.  It was a dry, fairly fluffy snow, and I pushed it and tossed it for about a half an hour in time with the tune in my head.  

That tune wasn’t the theme from Lost in Space.  Neither LIS theme has the right energy or rhythm for snow shoveling, although both are appealing.  The first two LIS seasons feature a  twinkly, bouncing theme with lots of piccolo, while the final season’s, one of my all-time favorites, is soaring and energetic and filled with horns.  Both were written by film composer John Williams, back when he was calling himself Johnny and writing mostly for television.   

Sonny left for work; Dave and I went inside for coffee and CNN.  I felt dandy until the next morning.  The day shoveling, sometimes my biceps ache a little.  Not this time; biceps were not the problem.  Three minutes after I got up to write the dread morning pages, Bam! Every muscle in my left upper back spasmed into an agony-radiating knot right at that place I need a backscratcher to reach.  Dave came in to share some weird news story and found me whimpering.  A quick massage didn’t help, so we tried naproxen and a heating pad.  That worked…after a couple of hours.       

I went about my daily activities, just as the Robinsons did.  Once they’d crashed onto the mystery planet, the parents quickly settled into a homey routine (despite the constant interruptions from aliens).  Their three children, Judy, Penny, and Will, did various chores, just as the Swiss Family Robinsons had after being stranded on that Pacific island.  I hadn’t realized that LIS was a bastard grandchild of Swiss Family Robinson, a novel which I’d read as a kid during a Treasure Island phase filled with tales about pirates, shipwrecks, and mysterious isles.  The Swiss Robinsons had inspired a comic book series called Space Family Robinson, which led to Lost in Space.  

Too bad the Swiss Robinsons lived before robots.  The LIS robot was menacing at first, but after its reprogramming it became practically a member of the family and helped with the work of survival.  The robot had its own catchphrases, like “Warning! Warning!” and “This does not compute.”  Dr. Smith hurled alliterative abuse at it (“you bubble-headed booby”), but the robot didn’t mind.  When my back spasmed again that evening, I wished for a robot to knead at the tight spot.  I settled for the electric back massager stored in my closet.  This is a heavy, padded life-vest shaped thing, with a heating element and nodes inside that pound at you, providing a kind of shiatsu experience.  It’s similar, though vastly inferior, to the massagers in nail salons’ pedicure chairs.   It makes a tremendous, rather satisfying noise that annoys Capone the Cat.  

I figured my back would bother me for a day, but the universe had decided that the episode would turn into a series.  The next morning I got up, felt okay, then  Bam! And so it has continued for every day in the week.  I rise, take a painkiller, put the heating pad on the knot, pull my knees near my chin to get the journal to an altitude that lets me  write without bending forward, and do the dread morning pages.  I spend at least a paragraph channeling Dr. Smith, insulting various muscle groups.  Loosen up, you lolly-gagging levators!  Stop sniveling, you rudely ruinous rhomboids!  Tremble, you tiresome, traitorous teres!  

Dr. Smith was my second-favorite character from the series.  I wish I could channel my favorite, Penny.  Played by Angela Cartwright, she was the middle of the three Robinson children.  She didn’t get the most screen time or the best storylines, but she had a knack for figuring out the truth of a situation and taking action to make things better.  And she had a pet, Debbie.   Capone’s come for his morning greeting, and I stroke his orange fur, wondering if I could pick him up and walk around the place, call him Debbie.  The muscles in my back twitch a warning.  I leave him in peace.  Please, in the second season, let me be pain free.  

Capone the Communicator

My latest YouTube rabbit hole is talking cats.  I can’t get enough of Billispeaks, a channel featuring Billi the cat and her human.  Billi is an eleven-year-old cat who has learned to use a system of push buttons on a soundboard to communicate.   Each button plays a word or phrase.  “Billi.”  “Mom.” “Mad.”  “Pets.”  “Food.” “Love you.”  “Noise.”  “Play.”  “Outside.”    

The buttons and board currently used in Billispeaks are from FluentPet.  The board’s made of  interlocking, honeycomb-shaped HexTiles, each with room for up to six buttons.   The FluentPet system was originally designed with dogs in mind, but Billi has adapted to it beautifully.   (Probably it helps that, according to one source I found, “Mom” is a speech pathologist.)   Billie asks for food, pets, catnip, and play.  She complains about noisy neighbors.  Her favorite word is “mad.”    

I showed my husband Dave some of the videos.  “Maybe we should get this for Capone.”  

Capone flicked an ear in my direction.  He’d followed Dave into the bedroom a few minutes before and made himself quite comfortable on a black sweater that I’d left on the bedspread.   

“Are you sure?” said Dave.   “He’s already a bossy cat.”  He pitched his voice up into the range where we all address Capone—it warbles around from approximately the F to the A above middle C—and scratched Capone’s chin.  “Yes, you’re a bossy cat, aren’t you.”  Capone closed his golden eyes and purred.  

I thought about it.  Did I want to know what Capone was thinking as he shed on my sweater?  When he sat on the piano bench in my studio and stared at me?  I recognized that my speculations—maybe he thinks my hair looks pretty today?—were comforting fictions.  What if Capone was happily pondering whether to start gnawing at my flabby upper arms or meaty thighs in case of an unfortunate fall down the stairs? There had been no way to know for certain…until now.    While we wouldn’t be discussing Spinoza or tax reform with Capone, maybe the buttons could help with the mystery meows that he emits sometimes.   He sounds distressed, maybe “mad,”  but his food bowl is full, he doesn’t want to play, and all the humans are in the house.      

Billi starts many of her communications by pressing the “mom” button.   Mom comes over to the soundboard area, which seems to be set up in the middle of the apartment, and taps the Billi button.   In one of my favorites, Billi responds “Outside.”  Billi follows Mom to a door that open onto a deck or patio area, but it’s covered with snow.  Billi takes one look and walks away.   A few minutes later, she presses the “outside” button again.    

Capone would love that button.  He’s an indoor cat, but he seems to enjoy it when Dave or I carry him around the front yard or sit with him on the front stoop.    He’d also favor an “open” button—like many cats, he despises a closed door.    

Leaving the bedroom door open (Capone has us well-trained), Dave went downstairs.  I clicked onto another cat video.  Capone jumped off my sweater and nosed the lid of the ottoman where I store his mice, birds, feathers, balls, etc.     I opened it, and he started digging at the contents. 

“Billi can tell her mom what toy she wants,” I said.  “A mouse, or a bunny, or a worm.”  

Capone, now fully inside the ottoman, paid me no mind.  He clawed with abandon.   Bells jingled; paper crumpled; a felt mouse landed near my foot.  A ball with a jingle bell hit the floor and headed towards the space beneath the radiator.     

It would be hard to figure out where in our house to put a set of HexTiles.   Capone is king of all three levels and issues commands throughout his domain.   Over time, we’ve constructed a sort of language.  We humans pitch our voices up, and Capone uses various mrrrwls and mrwaaaps with us.  We take them to mean things like hello; time to get up, dammit; time to snuggle; or someone has left the house.  There are areas of uncertainty (mystery meows), and a fair amount of our interactions are  nonverbal.   He claws at sheets of paper when he wants to play catch, paws at the window shade when he wants to look outside.  When he wants his food bowl filled, he heads for the top of the basement stairs and gives a piteous.  This dates back to when Capone’s food bowl lived on a card table in the basement so that our golden retriever couldn’t get to it.  Long after the dog passed and we moved the food bowl to a spot on the sunroom floor, Capone uses the same sign.        

 I wonder whether the FluentPet system could constrict the range of human-feline communication in the house.  Because we have so many obstacles to clarity, maybe we pay closer attention to Capone.   If he could just press the “mad” and “food” buttons at 4:30 every morning, when he starts getting hungry for breakfast, that would be fairly straightforward.  Lacking buttons, he conveys this desire by pulling the sheet off of Dave’s head and licking Dave’s biceps.  Creative and effective!    

 I’m probably mistaken.  Billi talks to her mom with cat vocalizations as well as the buttons.  And the buttons do seem to allow for fascinating talks.  In one video Billi calls Mom over.  Mom gives Billi some pets, and then Billi presses the “love you” button.  I’m envious.  Maybe envious enough to order a set and learn what Capone really thinks.  

Compass

Lots of fresh snow over the past day and a half.  The driveway’s been plowed clear, so now I can   appreciate the aesthetics.  The snow is at its most mysterious an hour before sunrise, blurring the edges of everything.  The stars and streetlights cast bright circles and deepen the shadows.   In every direction I see the opening scene of a different movie.  

To the west:  Hallmark.  Neat houses with slanted white roofs, hedges cutting the landscape into rough squares, forming a giant quilt.   I’ve been awake most of the night, worried about my bookstore-coffeeshop on Main Street.   My bills are mounting, and after I rejected Claude d’Eville’s low-ball offer for the shop, he’s sued me.   I’m a simple, kindly widow trying to pass along my love of books and caffeine, helped only by my sassy barista Ginny, dreamy Thom the clerk, and my handsome nephew Ben, who sources the coffee during his off-time from his computer company and shows off his muscles by lifting heavy boxes of books.  Fortunately my young friend Amy’s back in town, taking a break after losing her job at a big-time law firm in the city.   She loves the bookstore and agrees to help with my defense, even though it means she’ll have to work with Ben, whom she finds equal parts annoying and attractive.  She may win the case, but lose her heart…  

South: Indie.  A road curves up a hill to the snow-capped water tower, edged by evergreens and granite outcroppings.  Most of the houses are dark, but one has two lights gleaming.    In the basement, Ben has started carving another block of wood, using his free time before work to keep his hands busy and his mind empty.  (Close-up on a row of carvings, goddesses without faces)   Thom has carelessly left his bedroom light on after sneaking out.  He sneaks for the hell of it, not because anyone cares—he’ll tell you defiantly—and he knows where the fence is loose by the water tower.  Up he climbs.   At the top of the tower is Ginny with her sketchbook, drawing the fading moon.   She says she’s surprised to see Thom; that may be the truth.   From my kitchen, I see Ben’s pickup edge onto the street, and I text Amy that the coast is clear.  She parks down the block and opens the front door with her old key (Ben will never change the locks).  She leaves casseroles in the refrigerator along with a carefully detached and factual note on heating times, props the SAT prep book left on the hall table where Thom will see it.  I’m not the only one watching Amy as she makes her morning delivery.  Claude puts down his binoculars in order to document her arrival and departure in his notebook.  Ben’s faceless goddesses will have their hands full working around this mess.     

North:  Costume.  A broad expanse of gray-white, forest beyond, a small building with a steep roof and side door, with one window throwing gold stripes onto the ground.  My skirts are soaked and heavy and my hands are freezing as I drag the buckets inside.   The room is smoky from the hearth and warm with bodies packed close.    Claude shouts “In the King’s name, close the door, wench!”  while the rest of the drinkers attend to their tankards.   Ben nods towards the fire, which needs to be stirred, and pours ale. I dodge grasping hands and weave among the tables, poke the logs, sweep and listen.  Young Thom is going to get himself in trouble if he keeps mentioning the Sons of Liberty so near to Claude.    Ginny crashes in, not closing the door. “Uncle Ben!  It’s the Mistress’s time…”  “Too early!”  Ben’s face turns as pale as the moonlit snow.  He runs for the house.   I mop and settle the fire, then take a candle for my room upstairs to write my report… 

East: Noir. Two bare trees and a stretch of scrub lining the road.  My heart’s still pounding from the nightmare: Amy crumpled like a doll at the bottom of the stairs.  The terrible angle of her neck.   I pull the curtain and stare at the street lamp; beneath it stands a young man in a black coat, lighting a cigarette, stepping away from the light.   He looks chilly, harmless.   I don’t remember him from Claude’s, and please god that Claude doesn’t know…The youth raises his head.   Can he see me?  All of the lights are off, but my nightgown is white.  I shrink back, wondering if I should call Ben, the detective with the flexible morals and low bank account.  He seemed…intrigued, and willing.  I peek outside, see no one.  I fumble for the phone.  No dial tone.   The old house shudders and creaks, and somewhere I think I hear the turn of a doorknob.          

Once the sun’s up, everything looks itself again.   I get busy with dishes and a grocery run, back to real life, but on the way home the snow flips me another Rorschach test:  a hammock in a backyard, stretched between trees, on it a blanket of white with a patch in the middle as though something has just finished a long, cold nap. 

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. 

Attack of the morning page!

YouTuber.  Beautiful morning-light shot after shot as she performed the routines that have made her so successful.  She drank water, took her vitamins, made tea, and set out a notebook and a gorgeous pen on a blond-wood table in preparation for her morning pages.   Watching from home, I gave her a 10 out of 10.   Journaling in the morning is promoted on lots of lifestyle channels, but this was the fourth video I’d seen in less than a week where morning pages were mentioned.  She was also the fourth out of four people who admitted that they hadn’t actually read the book that popularized morning pages, Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity (1992)…  Unlike the others, though, this YouTuber had acquired the book and said she intended to read it soon.  

This felt like a sign.  I, too, had an unread copy of The Artist’s Way, collecting dust on the bottom shelf of my bedroom bookcase!  On round one I’d evidently made it to the end of the introduction, where Cameron describes how she’d become blocked after she quit drinking.    Alcohol had been essential to starting and finishing her writing, though with increasingly destructive effects on her health, and she wasn’t sure how to proceed without it.  When she found coping mechanisms that worked for her, she started teaching them to other blocked creatives and eventually turned the program into the best-selling book.   

When I bought The Artist’s Way Sonny was in elementary school and I’d stopped all professional and most personal writing, although I still had music for a creative outlet.   I remembered trying morning pages, but not how long I’d done them or why I’d stopped.  

The Artist’s Way is a set of activities and prompts intended to be used over the course of 12 weeks.  The preamble before Chapter One discusses the elements of the program.  First, of course, the morning pages:  “three pages of longhand writing, strictly stream-of-consciousness.”  Second, the “artist date,” which involves going somewhere alone once a week for a treat (none of the Youtubers has mentioned this element, so I think I must be farther along in the book already).   The purpose of morning pages is to clear the mind in order to face the work of the day; the point of the artist date is to gather inspiration.   

I didn’t hear about Cameron until the 2000s, but I’ve been free writing since the mid 1980s, when I crept into a church basement for my first fiction workshop.  The instructor started most sessions with exercises based on Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones (1986).   Start writing and don’t lift your hand from the page for 10 minutes, 15 minutes, whatever.  No cross-outs, no revisions, just turn on the spigot and see what happens.    

Like The Artist’s Way, Writing Down the Bones doesn’t try to teach craft.  There are no sections on plot construction, setting, description, showing versus telling, or characterization.  No grammar hacks.  No sample query letters.   The intention is to provide habits of body and thought that get around one’s internal resistance to writing.        

Over the years I’ve done so much free writing that I can meander for as long as my hypothenar and adductor pollicis muscles hold out (along with those pesky palmar interossei).   But practically, it usually only takes a few minutes until I focus on an interesting idea or image, and then I start writing for real (aka the hard way).   

Cameron explicitly positions the morning pages as a meditation.   As I’ve hated meditation more every time I tried it, maybe this explains why I’ve been stuck for years on page 20 of the book, but who knows what might happen this time?  I double my page count with a trudge through “Week One: Recovering a Sense of Safety.”  It’s a struggle at points due in part to her dismissive language towards anyone who isn’t pursuing an artistic career full-time.   The chapter tasks run from the mundane—morning pages, the artist date, and affirmations (which I will skip, as I like affirmations even less than I do meditation)—to the rather thrilling: starting a war between “enemies” and “champions” of my creative self-worth.   There are a lot of rules.     I suppose if I see the morning pages as a substitute for the ritual of drink-writing, the rules are a bit more understandable, substituting for the rituals of bottle, pen, glass, words, sips, connections, words…  

If I’m going to give the method a try, I’ll have to bend a morning pages rule or two.  Handwritten: no problem.  Three pages, okay, that’s a reasonable goal and doesn’t take too long.  Stream of consciousness: nope.  Permission to abandon a line of thought without apology or transition?  Heck, yeah!   By the time I make it to my comfy chair by the journal most mornings I have some kind of question to pose, even if it’s just “How did I sleep last night? or “What fresh hell is this?”   My first morning pages question, three days ago, was why I had hated the Mannerist paintings (I’m taking one of those online art history things).  That led to an exploration of sarcasm and beauty and autism and embarrassment, and after I was done with my three pages, I felt calm and fairly focused.   Success?