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.  

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.  

All tricks this year

Halloween’s here and we are buried in snow! A predicted “dusting”/mostly rain event turned into about four inches. It’s weird, and also beautiful, seeing the autumn reds and oranges peeping through the white. It’s yet another sign, if such was needed, that Halloween is canceled this fall. The town’s holding a “spooky” car procession through one of the parks, concluding with gloved and masked citizens handing sanitized bags of candy, one per car. Not much, but it’s something.

It’s too bad. I always look forward to Halloween. All that candy! The yard displays of the people who really go for it! Squinting through my Cinderella mask, its elastic string pulling at my hair, a couple of inches of jeans and my sneakers visible below where the faux satin blue skirt (somehow both scratchy and smooth) ended. The pillow case as the trick-or-treat bag.

Waiting for nightfall, joining our friends–as did the Charlie Brown kids, we went trick-or-treating in packs, sometimes kids from the neighborhood, sometimes going to a different neighborhood to join kids from church. An adult chaperone swinging the flashlight in spooky arcs, stage-whispering to remind the little ones to say “thank you” no matter what kind of treat they were given (my baby brother tended to object to the houses that handed out Tootsie rolls). Normal houses looked so mysterious by flashlight.

Back in my youth, the contents of the treat bags could be perilous, and I’m not talking about lethal levels of sugar. Packs of candy cigarettes, throat-sized jawbreakers, tooth-busting rectangular slabs of bubblegum, and lots of homemade goodies like popcorn balls, cookies, brownies. And, of course, possibly-razor-laced apples and little cardboard boxes of raisins. It wasn’t unusual to come home with a few full-sized candy bars; those were the days. Then the kitchen table, where we’d warm up our frozen fingers and blow our runny noses while my mom dumped each sack out and edited the contents, throwing out the apples and reserving a few of the treats for her own consumption, then finally letting us each pick a couple of our favorites to eat that very night.

I took a break from Halloween, mostly, as a single adult, except for playing the occasional concert dressed as a cowgirl or ghost. At the grownup level Halloween turns into decorating and horror, with costume parties, haunted houses, and scary movies. I scare easily and don’t like costume parties. But as a parent, I was excited to go trick-or-treating with Sonny. By then the rules had changed. The town website set the hours (6 p.m. to 8 p.m.) and noted how to opt out of the holiday (turn off your porch/front door lights), sternly warning trick-or-treaters to play no tricks. Sonny’s plastic pumpkin bucket filled with fun-size packaged candy, not an apple or anything homemade in sight. At first there were masses of kids on our street, though over the past few years it’s slowed more of a trickle. Sonny aged out of trick-or-treating, but he’s always enjoyed handing out candy to the kids who knock or ring. School or community center parties have substituted increasingly for outdoor trick-or-treating, with every kid getting the same bag of candy, but there’ve still been at least a few kids out of the evening, bypassing more and more dark houses.

This year our porch light will be off. All of the fun stuff is damped down–no parties, few costumes, no handing out of candy at the door–and just the horror is left.

[trigger warning! political paragraph coming] Pandemic, climate change-fueled natural disasters, and, worst of all, bad people who know they’re bad (such as the current US president and his enablers) doing what they can to take away people’s health insurance, civil rights, houses and spoil the futures of all those little trick-or-treaters. Cheered on by bad people who think that they’re good, like the Texas yahoos who decided to try to run a bus off the highway yesterday and the cops who tear-gassed a peaceful march to the polls in North Carolina. The ghoulies and ghosties and things that go bump in the night: they’re walking among us. Put a mask on, vote.


The official start of fall is 11 days away. It can’t come soon enough for me, as it’s been unpleasantly steamy here the last several days. I’ve switched out sundresses for sweaters and bought my first pumpkin spice latte. I’ve even changed to a face mask with a falling leaf design, yet summer won’t take the hint.

Capone the cat, suffering like the rest of us, stretches out on the relatively cool wood floor of our bedroom. Some days this would mean that he’s planning to snag me with a claw as I move around the room. Today he’s conserving his attack energy. How much space he occupies, from whiskers to twitching tail tip! I sit down and scritch-scratch between his ears, enjoying the softness of his fur and his fabulous orange stripes. He leans his head into my hand and rumbles his quiet purr.

Fall is the best season, crammed with birthdays, holidays, school, concerts, and new beginnings. No school for my family this year, but the yellow school buses are out, reminding me of sending Sonny off with his notebooks and folders in his favorite colors, orange and yellow. All around us the trees exploding into reds and oranges, tabbies arching their leafy backs into the sky.

Capone, in repose, looks as if he could be the grandson of my parents’ tabby, Wimpy. Capone’s a large cat, friendly cat who likes people and even dogs. Wimpy was a giant who lived half indoors, half outdoors. He had a purr that could be heard several rooms away, and he was tolerant, but mostly indifferent, to the humans in the house. His sworn enemies were my mother’s poodle and the neighborhood cats. His ears were tattered from midnight battles.

Wimpy, battered ears notwithstanding, blended in beautifully with my mom’s decorating scheme, which (it being the 1970s) relied heavily on scratchy fabrics in harvest colors: browns, oranges, golds, and avacado greens. It was always fall in our house. Above the couch in our living room, we had a framed, life-sized tawny lion’s head that my mother had made from a kit by sewing yarn onto a burlap canvas. Wimpy spent a lot of time on this couch, napping regally beneath that family portrait.

My hand propels little puffs of fur off of Capone and into the air, where they float until they find the floor, the dresser, my chair, the bedspread. This pumpkin patch of cat hair does not coordinate with my color scheme, which is more ocean/summer than harvest. My reaction is the same as my mother’s: I get out the vacuum cleaner.

I don’t mind. I can’t count every cat hair in the patch, but the shedding has slowed some since August. Fall is nearly here.

Vacation: have to get away…

It’s August already. If I’m going to figure out some kind of summer break, I’d better get cracking. In March we were getting our hearts set on Nova Scotia by ferry, but that’s not going to happen. US residents aren’t even allowed in Canada at the moment. After all the time spent “resting”–not working much because all my shows and most of my students were canceled–I didn’t feel that I’d earned a vacation, but whether I’ve earned it or not, I need one. Just not quite certain of the form.

I’m not the biggest fan of beaches or hiking, at least not for more than a couple of hours at a time. Spa activities like massages and facials make me tense. Anything I do is going to have to be local: I lack the guts and budget to hop on a plane (or even a train).

I didn’t have a lot of formal vacations as a kid. Every couple of years my father would shoehorn the five of us and our books, toys, and suitcases into the car and drive from our home in Virginia to Texas, where my grandparents lived. Once we got to Dallas, it was too hot and bright for any activity but staying inside the house with the AC blasting, playing endless hands of canasta while my grandmother talked nonstop. At night, once the temperatures had declined to the low 90s, we went out for walks with my grandfather, but he had a heart condition, so we didn’t generally go far or fast.

The thing I enjoyed most about these vacations was the process of getting there. On the interstate, back when the posted speed limits could be as high as 85 MPH, our car rattled and shook like a roller coaster. It was fun to look up from my history book at the scenery, once we were off the interstate. Best of all, every night we would stay in a motel. Mostly these were the motels where you parked the car right outside your room, although every once in a while we had a room on an actual inside hallway. Motels full of the most wonderful things: coin-operated vibrating beds! ice machines! heavily chlorinated swimming pools!

My husband Dave grew up in Massachusetts. His family took vacations every year, mostly to the same campgrounds in New Hampshire or Cape Cod, sometimes to his grandparents’ place in Maine. There they would spend a couple of weeks doing vacation-land things: canoeing, hiking, mini golf, drive-in theaters, swimming. He remembers those days fondly, but we didn’t have much success in recreating them with Sonny. We did stay for a week in Cape Cod one year. It rained almost nonstop, although we did go to a drive-in movie one night and spent lots of time shopping in Wellfleet and Provincetown.

As a family traveling to new places and exploring them, especially cities, has been our favorite vacation strategy, and we’ve taken at least one or two trips most years. Plus all the weekends where we’ve gone on little road trips where the guiding principle is “what’s around that corner”?

My favorite is traveling to a new city, which feelsto me like opening a score. At first glance it’s a jumble of notes–streets, statues, houses, parks, docks, people, landscape, stores, buses, restaurants, museums. To make sense of them I set up base camp in the hotel, then get outside onto those strange streets, walking them, building structures in my head, adding detail and context and direction. Learning that music refreshes and organizes my brain.

I think, then, that a road trip may soothe the jumble in my head. This will probably be a small one, getting 50 miles away from home and hunting for intriguing corners. I’ll also take a small break from my weekend blogging–so, Dear Readers, I’ll see you in September. I hope you all have the chance for restful/restorative vacations before fall descends.

Old favorites, new eyes

“He looks just like you,” my mother-in-law Ann told me, not quite able to conceal her disappointment.  It was Sonny’s first Christmas and her first sight of him.  I don’t know why people do this so much with babies.  Sonny has turned out to look very much like Dave, with similar height, build, smile, and hair texture (he’s got my hair color, though).   Ann would approve.

I noted the disappointment but didn’t mind (much).  I wanted Sonny to be like me in more important ways than the physical.  I especially hoped he was going to love reading the way I do.

I have been a voracious reader and rereader from the age of four.    Lots of kinds of books:  nature guides about bugs and birds; historical fiction like Laura Ingalls Wilder’s tales of life on the prairie and Robert Lawson’s Ben and Me; science fiction by Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Andre Norton; classics from Stevenson, Poe, Conan Doyle; mysteries like Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys, Encyclopedia Brown; the Bobbsey Twins…  Most especially I loved fantasy books.  Some of my favorites included E. Nesbit, Jane Langton, Susan Cooper, C.S. Lewis, and Tolkien, who ruled them all.

My parents read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe aloud to my sister and me in the evenings in our house on Telegraph Road.   That house had unexpected doors—especially the second storey door that opened onto the hillside instead of thin air—and I found that fascinating.   It may have been a reason for my love of stories where people find doors that open from one world into another, as in the Narnia books.   Soon I was reading and rereading the Narnia books all by myself.

I was eager to share with Sonny the stories and characters I had loved and to encounter them again after decades away.   One fun thing about being a parent is introducing your kid to the wonderful stuff, music and books and holidays and ice cream and trees.  We started with board and cloth books and progressed to picture books: fairy tales in Golden Books, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Click, Clack, Moo, Counting Crocodiles, Cat in the Hat, Thomas the Tank Engine.  Sonny got to the point where he didn’t need as many pictures in his books, so I made lists of my old favorites and scoured the library.

Sonny liked fantasy and trains and funny books, so I read him the first Harry Potter—not a book from my childhood, but in the fantasy genre and featuring trains on occasion.  Then we went on to The Hobbit, which went well.  Next on the list was Narnia, so we began The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.        

This shattered my plan.  An impatient twinge turned into active dislike.  Maybe it was the proximity to Tolkien, whose writing style I prefer.  Lewis’s allegory was heavy handed, his tone condescending rather than simply old-fashioned.   I found myself arguing in my head as I read.  Sonny enjoyed the book, but he didn’t ask for more of the series.   I switched to different series, series that were new to me:  Bunnicula,  Percy Jackson, and more.     

Sonny learned to read and had become voracious in his own way.  Fantasy and manga and game guides, lots of graphic novels.  Always bringing a book along in the car or to a restaurant.  

At one point Dave, Sonny and I went down to the DC area and Virginia.  We visited several houses I’d lived in as a kid in that state, drove past my high school, even ate at a real Krispy Kreme.   Sonny had his head in a book for much of the travel time, but he looked up when we asked him to.  The house on Telegraph Road was smaller than I remembered.  Truly tiny, and still packed into the hillside.   Thirty years’ absence and my being a foot taller, time and fresh eyes.  It felt curious but not painful.

It was, though, painful to read about Narnia again with fresh eyes.  I worried that revisiting other beloved authors would be risky.   It’s hard to feel a happy nostalgia about a book when the gilding is faded and peeling.

Every once in a while Sonny YouTubes a bit of an old TV series from his childhood—Teletubbies, Thomas the Tank Engine—and finds it hilarious that he was once very into these.  A healthy attitude.  At some point I’ll work up the nerve to revisit other old favorites.  Maybe to love, and if not to love, at least without pain.

The Sears days

Amazingly, I’ve stuck to my morning drawing habit.  A few minutes absorbed in making something resembling stick figures calms and organizes me.  Beneficial, since I’m someone who just can’t get into meditatation.   Once in a while I get scribbler’s block; then I tend to just put color all over the page or to copy someone else’s sketch.  Today I copied a sticker of a pineapple.

“That guy looks like he’s about to toss his cookies,” said Dave.

I side-eyed my husband and front-eyed my sketch.  The sticker pineapple’s curve was elegantly convex, and its orangey-gold color practically radiated vitamin C.    My pineapple was lumpy and squat and jaundice yellow.    It did, perhaps, slightly resemble  a head, topped with  green hair that hadn’t been cut since well before the barber shops were closed.   To clarify a tropical intention, therefore, I added an umbrella drink and a swimming pool.    The pool needed a float, and as I was attempting to draw one in profile, Boom! I was slapped back into the 1970s and into a faraway land I once loved–the world that lived between the sturdy covers of the Sears catalog.

Oh, that wonderful day when catalog arrived in the mail!  A hefty block of more than 1,000 shiny pages.   We didn’t shop much at Sears.  Every once in a while my parents would buy something like socks, or a hammer there.  Nevertheless, we stayed on the store’s mailing list.  Sears bricks-and-mortar stores had clothes and shoes and tools and appliances, typical dull department store stuff.  But the catalogs were entirely different, crammed with interesting and delightful items.  Clothes, appliances, and tools, but also toys and furniture and decorations and games and camping stuff and instruments.  In my tween/early teen years,  I used the catalog to daydream about the life I wanted.

Some favorite sections:

  • Girls’ clothes, most notably mother-daughter matching outfits.   Sears was big into matching husband-wife, father-son, and mother-daughter ensembles, as well as pajamas for the whole family.   I wanted mom-and-me gingham pinafores or hostess dresses.  I never even hinted at this to my mother, who would have been horrified at the very idea.
  • Bedroom furniture.  Catalog me didn’t have to share a room decorated in muddy  earth tones of orange, brown, and green with her sister.  Catalog me had her own room and a white “French provincial” matching bedroom set: canopy bed, dresser, and dressing table with a fancy mirror in the middle of it.   All the curtains and the bedspread white with embroidered flowers.
  • Swimming pools and paraphernalia.    I skipped right past the playground equipment, treehouses, and croquet sets to the above-ground pools.  Not a dinky round one like the pool of the Abernathys, two doors down, barely big enough for two or three teenagers at a time.   Sears sold those dinky pools, but Sears also sold my dream pools, two or three times the size, some with an attached  deck with space for lounge chairs and side tables, where you had to climb a little staircase to enter.  Around this time I’d read a novel called The Social Swim, in which the parents of a shlubby, lonely girl put in a swimming pool and suddenly a bunch of kids starts coming over every day to hang out.  Over the course of a summer she makes a bunch of friends, becomes svelte from all the swimming, helps out in a hospital, conquers a mean girl, and gets a boyfriend; a typical and kind of shallow novel, but at around 12 it was catnip to me.  If only I had a pool…maybe my problems would be solved, too?   Along with the grand pool, there would be all kinds of floats–kids’ size with sea monsters and larger ones shaped like swans, and the fanciest of all, the floating chairs with cupholders built into the arms.

Sears’ catalog also provided me with replacement relatives.   Once the new one had arrived, I took scissors to the old catalog.  I snipped out pictures of clothes and bedroom furniture, etc., but also images of people people.  A kindly looking model in mother-daughter PJs with a girl of four or so became my new mother and little sister (Rebecca).   A new father had a big smile and a full head of hair and a football ready to throw.  I knew he’d be a great dad to the athletic, smiling high schooler whom I’d named Rusty, and to the rest of us.   Tim, smaller and bookish-looking, soon joined them.   Eventually there were six new siblings, plus me (in the middle age-wise), two cats, and a dog as well as my new mom and dad, pasted in a notebook with their names, ages, and hobbies printed alongside their pictures.   The fancy pool was big enough for all of us, if just barely.

In that notebook they sat and stayed, those characters I’d created and the suburban-opulent world I’d dreamed for us.     Fun hours putting the notebook together and figuring out the names and personalities, but once that was done there was nothing else to do but look at them.  I couldn’t bear to let the people in my curated family change or get out of balance.   They looked fashionable and happy, but whatever story I’d been trying to tell about them, and me, was too boring to matter.

I’d committed a cardinal sin, a beautiful stasis.  Change has to happen to characters and their world.  It’s never a wonderful world below the surface.    Scratch the French provincial dresser.  Have a screaming argument in matching dresses.  Discover a body on one of those fancy pool floats, barely cold; an umbrella drink, untouched, in the cupholder.

Stepping carefully

It’s Memorial Day weekend, the unofficial start of summer.  Beaches and barbecues, fireworks, road trips, gardening, outdoor concerts, strawberry fairs, and parades.    All the things.  I’ll especially miss parades.

As a kid I lived near Washington, DC.  I saw quite a few big, official parades from  crowded sidewalks, holding tight to my mom’s hand, and I liked them, but I prefer local parades.  My town holds one on Memorial Day (solemn and relatively short) and another on July 3 (joyful and longer).    Even the Memorial Day parade, though, has a joyful ending, after a morning of music and speeches at the cemeteries: ice cream at the VFW hall.

July 3’s an evening parade, with fireworks after.  Main Street is closed to traffic.   People settle into their lawn chairs, buying balloons and stuffed animals, hot dogs, popcorn, ice cream, and strawberry shortcake.   Volunteers hand out little flags to be waved to anyone who wants one.

The parade’s pretty big and includes fire engines, floats, marching bands, dance and martial arts studios, local politicians in flashy convertibles, bagpipers, clowns, patient horses drawing old-fashioned wagons, and history buffs in Revolutionary War garb with muskets, fifes and drums.

My favorites are the marching bands.  I marched parades in high school and college and remember well trying to stay in line with my fellow clarinet players, the itchy wool uniform and white cotton gloves with the fingers cut out, shako strapped on tight, snappy white spats strapped onto shiny black shoes.  Knees up, left-right, left-right.  Playing “Don’t Rain on My Parade” while parading in the rain, hating the rain.  Wishing for rain on a long route under a battering sun.   Checking the street ahead for road apples.    

My band always wound up close behind a mounted group, or horses pulling an old-fashioned wagon.  Well-nourished horses always.  How to avoid a steaming, fresh, enormous pile while remembering the music and not breaking the line too much?  Some people in my line stepped straight and steady no matter what lay under their feet.  Their spats gathered stains and splashes.  Not me.  I would stutter-step, hop, skitter just a bit to one side, keeping my spats clean without missing a beat.

Sonny experienced his first parade on July 3.  He was nine months old, and we’d just moved here.   None of us realized that the top of the parade featured the fire departments of seven surrounding towns, all blaring their sirens.  Sonny didn’t react well to the noise, but a little ice cream and a yellow balloon calmed him down fast.

For four years he marched the parade with the high school band, playing trombone, dodging road apples.  I helped hand out water to the thirsty marchers.  Last summer–Sonny home from college before his senior year–we were both back in the audience, eating strawberry shortcake, chatting with our friends and neighbors.  Wincing along with a toddler with her hands clamped over her ears when the fire engines roared slowly past.   Clapping hard for the high school band as they march by.

This year, we’ll be watching our steps, hopping and skipping.  But next year.  Next year we’ll be at the parade, celebrating our community.  Entertaining and appreciating one another.

Pandemic diaries: reopening, phase 1

Sunscreen, face mask, head phones, sunglasses, hat, windbreaker, phone, and waist-pack with ID, keys, and vinyl gloves.   Ready for a morning walk, one of my favorite activities since I was a kid.  When I was nine, though, the preparation was not so extensive.   All I needed was to check that my shoes were tied.

I hope the streets will still be quiet.  This week is my state’s phase one of reopening.  Some classes of businesses (not mine) may start operations, with enhanced safety precautions.  Most of us are still closed or working from home.

The weather couldn’t be more perfect: cool and sunny.   On the major streets, definitely more cars are on the road, including more heavy trucks and pickups pulling equipment trailers.  Construction is a phase one industry.   Once I get off the major street and enter the enclave of the Robber Barons, the traffic subsides to a hum, and the air’s sweeter.  The biggest sounds become birds chirping, the leaves rustling, and my footsteps.

My suburb, being a proper New England town, has the obligatory Main, Pleasant, High, North, South, and Washington streets.  Plus streets named after prominent locals, and condo development streets with focus group-tested names, Woodbridge and Skyview and Royal Crest, etc.   Also we have some areas with related street names, such as trees (Elm, Oak, Cherry), birds, and…Robber Barons.

The Robber Barons streets form a loose rectangle up and down a hill, about a half mile long and maybe a quarter-mile wide, like an enormous Jazz-age Monopoly board.  I start with Vanderbilt Street and take a left on Morse.  I’m hoping vaguely that something about these streets will reflect their swanky monikers.  Maybe a mansion or two, or perhaps a fancy ruin or park?

I find quiet, narrow streets from the 1920s and 30s, no sidewalks, barely wide enough for two cars to pass abreast.    Smallish houses, lots of trees.   I turn onto the first north-south street, the long edge of the rectangle, Fitzgerald.   Not a robber baron, but a reference to F. Scott, so of the appropriate time period.   The road angles uphill, and at the crest there’s a heap of stones and rubble, before Fitzgerald continues and dead-ends a bit farther down.  There’s a house–split-level with dark brown siding–at the edge of the break, and across from it a patch of trees.  A couple of wild turkeys breakfast near a set of wicker chairs in the garden.   The male’s tail feathers are fanned out.  His lady friend stares at me without fear or evident surprise.  The view across the road must have been grand in the 1920s, a wooded hillside dropping gently to the vista of the Great Pond.  In the 2020s, an office/industrial park  has sprung up between the road and the lake.  Still, over the cement blocks of the U-Store-It Building, I can see a tiny glitter of sun on water.   

I take Gould, a short street, to Rockefeller.   Several other early-morning exercisers are on the roads, more than I’ve seen other days.  We do that thing that everybody does now–check your mask to make sure everything’s covered, then a nod plus a friendly finger wiggle.   We’ve disturbed some of the Rockefeller street canines.  Tiny dogs bark energetically to protect their masters as we pass.

I wonder what the (19)20s kids on Rockefeller thought about robber barons.   Probably nothing.  Probably they were too busy riding their bikes full speed down the street, or rampaging across the neighborhood playing stickball and tag.   Parents would be the ones with opinions about Rockefeller, the ones stressed out about their jobs and the stock market, just like my parents were worried about Nixon resigning and skyrocketing gas prices.   Those grownups would wonder at my walking down a street named after millionaires trying to find traces of grandeur.  After all, I don’t expect kings in Royal Crescent.

Harriman, a twisty, short street, gets me to Morgan, working back towards my starting point.    More small, neat homes nestled under big trees.  I pass a house with a trio of kids’ bikes on the front porch, neon-colored with plastic streamers attached to the handles.   These are the first bicycles I’ve seen–most are behind privacy fences, I suppose, or inside sheds or garages.  Forty years from now, I wonder if these (20)20s kids will be exploring on a beautiful spring morning, reminiscing.  I hope that they will remember mostly the games they played,  think of this spring as a weird blip in their childhood.   I leave the enclave and turn onto Main Street, almost busy now, and hope against hope that reopening will work.

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.