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.    

Bird

I saw a bird this morning in the top branches of our cherry tree.  All black, songbird-sized, bright yellow beak.  It pecked at the fruit.  I moved closer to the window, and the bird glared briefly in my direction and flew away.    

The best match on an internet search was the common blackbird, aka Turdus merula, aka the Eurasian blackbird.  The trouble, as the last name suggests, is that those blackbirds don’t  seem to frequent the continental US.   They aren’t on The Official State List of the Massachusetts Avian Records Committee or other local bird-identification sites.   Types of blackbirds found in my  state include the red-winged blackbird, the common grackle, the brown-headed cowbird, and the European starling.  None of these looked very much like the bird I’d seen, and the starling was the only one with a yellow beak.      

I wondered what kind of symbolism might be associated with a blackbird.  I’m not particularly superstitious myself, but always curious.  I’m always looking for connections between things.  The connections are constructed, but soothing.   I entered the question “What does it mean when you see a blackbird?”   

Top answer:  death.      

Ruh-roh.  I didn’t need anything to make me more anxious about my coronavirus vaccine appointment, which was 28 hours away.   I’m scheduled to get the single-dose Johnson and Johnson vax.  It engenders a mixture of hope and terror (I’m a baby about needles), and it’s on my mind so everything I hear or see gets connected to it.  In response to news reports about extreme reactions to the shot, some CNN doctor said, “Well, it’s a powerful shot.”  I didn’t find that comforting.   Now I had to work bird lore into the mix.     

The blackbird has plenty of other symbolic associations, most of them vibing with black, bird, or night.  Blackbirds can signify change, mystery, magic, night, singing.  Also they can be the Devil in disguise, evidently.   I looked for something benign that would resonate.  Many of the gurus avoided the death aspect entirely and stressed the “change” meaning.   I looked up starling symbology as well, which like the blackbird stuff, was vague and contradictory.  Starling can stand for family relationships, illumination, luck, etiquette, acceptance of one’s lot in life.   

Is it significant that confusion reigns in the 1968 Beatles song “Blackbird”?   Paul McCartney is clear about where the opening guitar lick originated: it’s based on J.S. Bach’s Bourree in E minor for lute, a piece that he had practiced.  As to where and how the song took shape, accounts vary.  McCartney wrote it in India after hearing a blackbird sing one morning.  He wrote it in Scotland while meditating on the US civil rights movement.  He wrote it in his father’s house to comfort his ailing step-grandmother.  The lyrics are about nature, or love, or justice.   

I like the song, although as with a lot of Beatles tunes I mostly know little bits of it.  Mostly  snippets that play on ads.   The Beatles had been broken up for years by the time I started listening to Top 40 radio.   Early in the pandemic, back when we were still trying to do choir rehearsals on Zoom, the director had us sing along to a karaoke version of Blackbird.   “Everybody knows this, right?” she asked.   Sure, definitely, yup.   She muted our mics so we could sing along without the distraction of sound echoes and delays.   

The guitar lick started.  This will be fun! I thought.  This is a great song!  “Blackbird singing in the dead of night,” I warbled, enjoying the lovely leap of a fifth at the end.    

I got into trouble on the second line,  “Take these broken wings and learn to fly.”  Same number of syllables, but differing in rhythm and melody—I couldn’t quite remember how.   I got back on track with the last lines of the verse  “You were only waiting/for this moment to arrive” and breathed a sigh of relief.    Second verse, same problems.      

Then the background music changed.  More lyrics popped onscreen.  I couldn’t even guess at the tune or the rhythm.   Across the Zoom gallery some of my fellow choristers were smiling and singing, while others echoed my confused expression.  I kept my mouth moving, chanting the words.  “Blackbird fly, blackbird fly/into the light of a dark black night.”    

Time slowed, as it always does when I’m really screwing up.  The karaoke lasts for just over two minutes, but it felt like two months before I hit the safety of the final “You were only waiting for this moment to arise.”   

The director unmuted us.  “How did it go?”  Some of us had loved it.  Some of us had gotten confused.  One of us, a Millennial, had never heard the song before and had been lost the whole time.       

When it was my turn, I said, “I realized I don’t know this song as well as I thought.”   Which, come to think of it, could be my personal meaning for blackbird:   muddling through life’s dark spots.    

Abundance

I made it to the dress rehearsal an hour early.  In record time, in fact: the traffic gods had been kind.  

I killed some time at the Dunkin Donuts down the street from the playhouse.  (Just as you’re usually less than eight feet from a spider, in Massachusetts you’re usually less than a mile from a Dunkin.)  The counter ladies were talking about the virus, of course.  There were no cases in the area so far.  The whole United States had recorded just six official deaths.  I gathered my hot black, no sugar and blueberry muffin, nodding in full agreement that it was crazy that the town, out of an abundance of caution, was thinking about shutting down school for two weeks!    

I had the tables to myself for a few minutes.   Then class finished at the dance center next door, generating a line of moms, the daughters with their toes turned out ballerina style.  One of the girls coughed.  “Don’t worry: it’s allergies, not Covid,” said her mom, with a nervous laugh.  In an abundance of caution I headed back to the car.   

The playhouse had a brick facade and fancy columns.   It looked a lot like my local library.  Still too early for rehearsal, I took a quick walk.  There was a park across the street with playing fields and a pond, which I’d already explored, so I headed down a residential street with a little frisson of uneasiness.  This was for personal reasons, not Covid.  

Early in our relationship, my husband Dave had driven me around various North Shore neighborhoods, with commentary.  Beverly: his elementary school, his high school.  Gloucester: his family’s first house, the one with no heat upstairs.  Salem, Marblehead.  And this town, where his first wife Lily had grown up.  After their four-year marriage collapsed she’d moved back.  

Now was twenty-five years on from those tours.  Lily and Dave hadn’t stayed in touch, but according to the family grapevine and Facebook, she had found someone new, had a couple of kids. I didn’t know whether she still lived in this town.  There was a good chance that even if we met, we wouldn’t recognize one another.  I knew Lily solely through album photos 30 years old: blond like me, beaming on her wedding day, watching TV, relaxing at an Independence Day barbecue.  

I wondered if I’d passed her house, whether she’d be coming to the show.  Maybe we’d bond unawares in a Dunkin line, commiserating about abundances of caution and shutdowns.     

The only person I saw outside was a man with his dog.  Back at the playhouse, with about 15 minutes to spare, there was the usual chaos.  Hammers banging, people talking, a portable radio playing oldies, the smells of coffee, fresh paint, dust.  I  looked around for someone to tell me where to set up.  The director, Brian, an energetic man with a beard, rushed over.   “I’m so sorry, rehearsal’s cancelled for tonight.  There was a text…”  

I checked my phone and found a message about 25 minutes old.    

“Stick around if you want, there’s going to be a board meeting in a few minutes and we’ll have more information for you.” Traffic back home would be terrible; I stuck around.  The stage crew continued managing the million-and-one last-minute details, moving a Victorian-style sofa back a few inches.  The male lead  huffed in, asking if there was any way to reverse the board’s decision.      

The Keyboard 2 player had also missed the text.  He was unhappy to find that he would have to move all his gear, which we’d schlepped upstairs after the first rehearsal, back to his car.  We were a tiny pit, just three players.  Charlie, the music director and Keyboard 1, offered to help.  On the sidewalk outside, he pulled both of us aside.  “I’m sure we’re not going up next week,” he said.  “I’ll let you know about new dates.” 

“I hope I‘ll be able to play,” I said.  I already had the next couple of months’ worth of shows booked, plus Sonny’s senior recital and graduation, and Easter, bunches of stuff.   I left the book with Charlie just in case my schedule didn’t synch and then screwed my courage to the sticking point and asked about compensation for that afternoon’s drive.  Charlie conferred with Brian conferred and agreed to pay half a service.   

“Guess I’ll see you in a few weeks!  I hope you don’t have to cancel the show,” I said.  

“There is no way we’ll cancel,” Brian said.  “I have a budget to meet.” He shook my hand.  Out of an abundance of caution we were supposed to be bumping elbows, instead, but nobody in musicals land had adopted that precaution.      

“You’re home early,” said Dave. 

“Yeah, let me tell you about my evening…”      

Over the next week or two I practiced the parts for upcoming shows, sourced toilet paper, and fretted.  I started blogging pandemic diaries.   The then-president intimated that by Easter things would be opening up, but the emails warbled a contradictory counterpoint.  Sorry, they said, out of an abundance of caution the gig’s postponed!  Then: we’re rescheduling to June! Then: Sorry, we’ve canceled.   

Brian did manage to put on a skeleton production of the show.   Just before Labor Day the company performed the musical outside, in that pretty little park.  Charlie accompanied on keyboards in a one-man socially distanced pit.  No word on how the budget turned out, but no checks were ever mailed in my direction.  I never got another chance to run into Lily at Dunkin.  

Sometimes it feels like it was yesterday when I packed my instruments into the car and headed for that gig, but most of the time it feels like a decade’s passed.  A few venues are starting up shows again; out of an abundance of caution, the musical accompaniment involves backing tracks or musicians who can wear masks while playing.  Wind players are too risky for the close quarters of a pit.  In an abundance of caution, we remain on the sidelines, where we watch our embarrassment of riches dwindle ever further.  

Being off the road gives me an abundance of time to check social media, which is packed right now with anniversary tales about the week when our industry folded in on itself. This is mine.            

Snow Day or Sloth Day

Yesterday we got more than a foot of snow. Dave and I started shoveling the driveway at 5:15 a.m. so that Sonny could make it to his six o’clock shift at Target, and the day went on predictably from there. Inside for a while, then back outside for more shovelfuls of the heavy wet stuff, working from the premise that it’s less taxing to shovel four inches of snow three times than twelve inches of snow one time. Not surprisingly, when I lifted my coffee mug this morning my biceps yipped like outraged Pekinese.

The rest of me felt fantastic, though. Relaxed. My body seemed to be thanking me for the work.

To be sure, it was a bit of a change. As the weather’s got colder, and with no holiday or work gatherings to get me out of the house, my sloth-like tendencies have increased dramatically. I’ve taken afternoon naps, and second afternoon naps. Looked wistfully at the low-hanging branches of the oak tree in my front yard, wondering if I could climb up and sit for a spell.

Sloths have a terrible reputation, but they can do lots of cool stuff that I can’t. They can turn their heads 270 degrees! They can swim faster than they can walk! They can fall 100 feet without hurting themselves! They’re strong enough to keep their hold on a tree branch even when a jaguar twice their size and four times their weight is trying to pull them off! They are their own ecosystem, with algae, moths, and beetles living in their fur! They can sleep hanging upside down!

I’m similar to sloths in the less cool ways. We both have bad eyesight, especially in bright daylight. They have the slowest metabolic rate of all mammals and move slowly, especially at ground level, because of that. My metabolism’s slowing down, for the usual reasons, but not enough to justify my sloth-ish tendencies of late.

I’m all for rest days, especially after hard work. After I wrap my brain around a tricksy idea from an online course or tough book, I watch some fun TV or read something silly. Athletes take rest days; I take a day or two off from music practice most weeks so that I don’t get burned out. The problem is that I’ve been taking rest weeks, lately, from most things physical.

The Thursday storm was a useful reminder of the physical satisfaction of exertion. So…let it snow?

Clash! of! Traditions!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Thanksgiving Carol

Cain was dead, to begin with. It had been widely reported on Fox as well as by the mainstream media. Old Grump hadn’t gone to the funeral or witnessed the burial, but someone on his staff had sent condolences, or flowers, or something. Probably. Cain was most definitely deceased, for which Grump took no responsibility whatsoever. It was Cain’s own decision to come to Tulsa. He’d been enough of a rainmaker to qualify for a VIP seat and a photo op, packed in tight with the others while Grump kept his distance. Grump didn’t pause to mourn Cain’s passing. He spent that day as usual, tweeting complaints and conspiracy theories.

Grump proclaimed himself as strong and tough, a born winner. Inside him there was a fiery desire for all others to accept these claims. That internal fire had given his face a leathery, lurid orange cast, though his eyes were ringed with circles of dead white, and his lips were always ready to pout, snarl, or smirk.

Grump had put Cain out of his mind entirely, dropping the memories into a Dumpster already overflowing with inconvenient facts. November was almost done. It was Thanksgiving Eve already. Grump had less to be thankful for than he’d anticipated, but Fox and the MAGAts were still behind him, plus he would get to stuff himself and watch football without the mainstream media complaining about how he wasn’t visibly doing his job on that day. When Cain’s face loomed at him from Hannity’s set on the television in Grump’s private dining room, Grump nearly choked on his Diet Coke. His Quarter Pounder cooled as Cain’s face spoke with Hannity’s voice. The quart of ice cream reserved for his dessert began to melt. The creature on screen repeated the comforting talking points of rigged elections and pending lawsuits and a V-shaped recovery. Grump stumbled to the TV and looked behind it: nothing. He rubbed at his rheumy old eyes and saw that Hannity was himself again.

It was the end of a long day. Grump’s clerk Mike, back from his truncated vacation, had asked again this morning if Grump wanted him to handle the traditional pardoning of the turkey. Grump had declined. “In that case,” Mike had said, “I thought I might leave a little early so that I can help Mother get ready for tomorrow.”

“Woman’s work, Mike?” sneered Grump. “I need you working the phones until at least seven tonight.”

Mike nodded and headed for the door. Grump got out his phone to continue tweeting–he had a couple of hours until the turkey pardon. But Mike wasn’t done: “Do you think you’ll be stopping by the house tomorrow, Sir? We’ll have plenty of food and pie and make some plans for four more years.”

“Stay tuned, Mike. You’ll find out soon enough.” As if, thought Grump, and buzzed the secretary to make sure the White House press corps in its entirety would be covering the turkey thing.

Grump left the remnants of his dinner for the servants to clear and dismissed his security detail at his bedroom door. He began the complicated and private process of unwinding his hair from its pile atop his bald patch. With his long locks down around his shoulders, in his pajamas, he picked up the copy of Mein Kampf that was his usual bedtime entertainment. “They think I don’t read!” he said crossly, and settled into his sentence for the night. After four words his eyes drifted shut, but just as he was about to drift off, he heard a buzzing and beeping.

Grump opened his eyes with a start. Before him stood a figure in a hospital gown and paper slippers, dragging a medical cart. It wore a surgical mask and a red baseball cap pulled over its eyes. With a sudden, terrible lurch to less than six feet from Grump, the figure shouted “9-9-9! 9-9-9!”

“What do you want?” Grump quavered.

“Ask me who I was,” commanded the figure.

“Who were you?”

“In life I was Cain, your supporter. In death I bring a message, and a warning.”

“Fake news! Humbug!” Grump pushed the button to summon his security.

The figure wrenched off its cap to reveal empty eye sockets and a skull rising above the mask. “I came to tell you that you will be visited this night by three spirits.”

“They won’t get past the fence. It’s unclimbable.”

“I did,” said Cain, “even in these slippers. Heed their words…” He faded from sight.

It must have been the burger, thought Grump. He pulled the covers over his head. Maybe I can sue McDonalds….

Midnight. Bathed in the blue glow from Grump’s phone the First Spirit pulled the covers off of Grump’s rotund form. “Awake!”

“Security!” shouted Grump. But no one answered.

“I am the ghost of Covid past,” said the Spirit. It floated in the air, a cheap-looking sphere plastered with suction cups, about the size of a soccer ball. The kind of present that kids would rip open on Christmas morning and trash by Christmas afternoon. “Come.”

And suddenly Grump was in his office, at the Resolute Desk, putting Sharpie to paper and signing from the shoulder down, as was his way. Doctors and cabinet members, generals and other nobodies around him, all standing while he sat. He smiled for the cameras and announced the ban on travel from China. “We have the virus very much under control…We’ve taken the most aggressive actions to control it.” How strong and presidential he sounded. Happy and energetic as he always was once blame had been pinned on someone or something other than himself.

And then, with a start, he was back in his bed. He trembled back to sleep and was awoken immediately, it seemed, by the Second Spirit. “I am the ghost of Covid present.” The virus had become as tall and thick as Grump himself. It extended a tentacle and took Grump’s hand…

His daughter, having a glass of wine, her husband rubbing her feet, in her New York home, saying “We’ve got to talk some sense into Daddy.” A huge maskless gathering somewhere in rural America, people hugging and kissing each other.

Now he was at the vice presidential residence. Mike was looking pensive. Mother had her hands deep inside a turkey, doing something. “Maybe he’ll show,” she said, “and then you can talk about 2024.”

“I don’t know,” said Mike. “I think if the courts don’t help us out with four more years, he’ll be running in 2024, and where does that leave me–I mean, us?”

Grump pounded his fists on the door. “I knew it!” he shouted. Mike and Mother didn’t hear. “He wants to be president while it’s still my turn! The nerve.”

“At least tomorrow we’ll have a lot more pie and ice cream to spare,” said Mother. “Buck up, honey. You can always bring up the pardon thing at the office on Monday.”

“The pardon thing?” asked the Spirit.

“My exit strategy,” snapped Grump, but the Spirit had already gone, and he was back in bed. Mike would come through with the pardon, thought Grump, if it meant spending 24 hours as President of the United States. 2024…well, four years was a long time.

The Third Spirit whistled to him from the darkness. “Yeah, yeah,” said Grump, getting up. The suction cups had ballooned to sofa size, so he settled on one. “I am the Ghost of Covid Future,” the thing rumbled into his brain. “Can I request 2024?” asked Grump, but the thing made no reply.

They emerged into the blinding sunshine near the seventeenth hole. Himself, orange as ever, hair on point, selecting a club and getting ready for a swing. Looking good, thought Grump. His protection detail around him, an actual billionaire and two star athletes completing the foursome. He sighed in relief. This was a warning? Then another golf cart approached and men got out: men with badges and guns and…”I have a warrant for your arrest, Sir,” and the handcuffs, and his security detail not lifting a finger! Grump looked down…there he was, orange-jumpsuited, in a cell… “Take me back, Spirit!”

And there he was, back in his bed, the light just beginning to dawn. Grump sighed. He’d have to put in an appearance at the Pence thing. When he was through with them there wouldn’t be a bite left of ice cream. Or pie.

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.

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.

Typhoid Don

It’s finally happened: the US president’s recklessness has caught up to him, and he he’s come down with Covid-19. I have a tremendous amount of sympathy and sadness for the workers he’s exposed to the disease. His personal assistants, one of whom was just diagnosed. Other White House staff, the workers at the venues where he’s been traipsing around without a mask, the plane crews on the presidential aircraft, the White House reporters who have been bullied into taking their masks off (at least three diagnosed). I worry for all people who have to work in unsafe conditions, especially when their risks are raised by having to serve people who refuse to take the simple precaution of putting a piece of cloth on their face.

Most of the people I know personally who’ve been infected became ill under similar circumstances. For example my friend M, a nurse. M worked at a nursing home where there was almost no personal protective equipment (PPE) available. She had to ask her friends to help her find masks. Even now, months after she has cleared the virus, M still has fatigue, mental fogginess, and other long-hauler symptoms.

I have a degree of sympathy for the people who won’t wear masks because of the lies spread by some government leaders, pastors, and internet trolls. Lies that there’s no Covid, that wearing masks is harmful, or shows weakness, or violates some “right.” There’s a fair amount of stupidity involved, but also a lot of peer pressure and plenty of bad examples being set by people who do know better.

It’s hardest to summon sympathy for the liars, who are starting to test positive at the rate of flame spreading through a pair of polyester pants.

A while ago I was trying to figure out the rationale for so many people rejecting masks. There didn’t seem to be a rational explanation. I thought the case of Typhoid Mary might have some clues (see my blog “The Unbearable Thought”).

Typhoid Mary was Mary Mallon, an accomplished cook who was also an asymptomatic spreader of typhoid fever in the early 1900s. She got cooking positions at eight upper class households in New York, seven of which suffered typhoid outbreaks. Mary was eventually forcibly quarantined, tested, and ordered to stop working as a cook. When she was released, she went back to cooking (under a different name) and caused more outbreaks.

The lies and dismissive attitudes about masks in 2020 have come straight from the top, so let’s compare Mary’s situation with the US president’s. Factors that historians cite to explain Mary’s behavior include:

  1. She had little formal education, so maybe she didn’t have the training to understand what she was being told by the doctors. Her main schooling, such as it was, was to be a domestic servant. The president, as he is fond of reminding us, went to “the best schools” and is “a very stable genius.” In private conversations with Bob Woodward, the audio of which is widely available, he has indicated a clear understanding of the dangers of Covid, who it affects, and how it is spread.
  2. The doctors who dealt with Mary didn’t treat her with kindness or respect. Things got so out of hand with the first person who told her that she had been spreading disease that she attacked him with a carving fork. The president, conversely, has a preference for yes men that is so strong that no persons unwilling to grovel are left at the White House. It’s highly unlikely that any doctor has been unkind or disrespectful to him.
  3. Scientific understanding of disease mechanisms and how to prevent transmission was still nascent in the early 1900s. There was no consistent set of recommendations and understanding of typhoid for Mary to parse. In 2020, doctors can and have explained to the president about asymptomatic spread. His conversations with Woodward demonstrate that he got the concept. While recommendations particular to Covid-19 have evolved along with the pandemic’s progress, ways to reduce the spread of airborne infections have been understood and agreed upon for decades.
  4. The New York Health Department told Mary she would have to abandon her cooking career, but did not provide her with help to make the same amount of money elsewhere. The other positions open to her (such as laundress or maid) paid less than half of a cook’s salary. She tried to follow them. She worked as a laundress for a while, but got injured. Eventually she returned to cooking. The president, if he has to abandon his current job, is in a similar position. He’s probably broke, he’s surely in a bunch of debt. However, he is assured of a federal pension and free Secret Service coverage for the rest of his life. And if he eventually winds up in prison–he, too, may work in the laundry.
  5. Doctors weren’t able to convince Mary that she had the disease. Mary often stated her disbelief. After all, she had no symptoms. It seems at first glance to be just a convenient rationalization, but I think also that accepting that she was a carrier would mean that Mary would have had to acknowledge that she’d caused a lot of suffering and death. That was the unbearable thought. Given his demonstrated lack of empathy for others, it’s hard to know if the president would feel any remorse. Whatever drives him, though, has made him unable to acknowledge personal weakness or failure. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’d recited facts about the disease without ever really accepting them.

The stakes were too high to let Mary’s reckless behavior go unchecked. She was removed from her cooking job (this position was at a hospital!) and quarantined again. She died in 1938, still in quarantine. The stakes are too high here, also. Regardless of elections or prison or the economy, the president and all others in positions of authority and influence need to start telling the truth and showing consistent examples of healthful habits. And if they still refuse to give us good examples and truthfulness, we still need to do this, for each other.

Wash your hands. Wear a mask. Social distance. Be better than your president.

Toddler at the helm

In 2004, when Sonny was about six, several reality shows focused on families made their US TV debuts. Nanny 911, Wife Swap, and Trading Spouses became regular viewing in our house. Sonny loved them; so did I. Even my husband Dave, not much of a reality TV fan, would watch once in a while.

Wife Swap and Trading Spouses episodes involved swapping spouses (mothers, mostly) between families with opposing “extreme” parenting styles, such as athletic versus academic, controlling versus laissez faire, clean freak versus dust-abiding, etc. The ideal, as constructed by the story-line wizards behind the scenes, was to find some kind of happier medium for each family. The shows focused on child behavior, spousal relationships, household routines, and parenting philosophies. Nanny 911 dealt with parents overwhelmed by turbulent children, so rather than swapping out a parent, a nanny was sent in to save the day. The nannies wore uniforms and spoke in accents reminiscent of Mary Poppins. I loved Mary Poppins the movie from my childhood and also the shows that popped up in its wake, such as Nanny and the Professor. A mysterious, semi-magical outsider who could fix the family: how I wished one would descend, via umbrella or black taxicab, and help my own house.

Like a lot of the TV audience, these shows gave me some reassurance that my situation, challenging as it was, 1) wasn’t so bad, by comparison, and 2) could change, if I worked at it. Being a parent during the elementary school years was tough. Sonny had his own ideas of how to do things. He needed justifications and explanations for every rule, and it took some years to convince him that following rules was more rewarding than not. On the continuum of strict to loose, our family fell onto the stricter side of the middle. We limited screen time, scheduled homework time and bedtime, required piano practice, and had charts and checklists throughout the house.

I wondered if Sonny would gravitate towards the anything-goes onscreen families, the ones who let their kids watch as much TV as they wanted, never checked homework, never set a bedtime. Or if he’d get ideas from the hellraisers on Nanny 911 who screamed no, threw fits in stores to get a snack or a toy, and punched other kids. It turned out that he almost always preferred the structured, relatively uptight families (though he was critical of the crazier ones) to the unstructured, chaotic ones. That shouldn’t be a surprise: people on the autistic spectrum benefit even more than neurotypical people from clear communication of expectations, a predictable environment, and the reassurance of structure and steps for accomplishing things.

The shows got cancelled after about three years. That was okay with us; we’d stopped watching them, too. Sonny’s preteen years had arrived. He was far past the stage of throwing a fit in a store or refusing to do his homework.

I was still a little wistful that a problem-solving nanny had never invaded the house, even though I suspected that she would insist that the solution to problems with children’s misbehavior rested with Dave and me. Parents should present a united front, provide their children with consistent and clear expectations and limits, react to misbehavior in nonviolent ways that a child can understand, etc. We’d eventually figured out that stuff and put it into practice.

I did sometimes miss the shows’ opening montages of bad behavior. The thought of the monstrous adults generated by poor parenting, six-foot-plus toddlers without the ability or desire to self-regulate, was troubling, but mostly in the entertaining way of a scary movie. That was before one of those monsters was elected president, of course.

It’s cute when a toddler hands you a pan and thinks that means he has singlehandedly made dinner. When the chief executive of the US thinks that banning some travel from China and Europe means that he solved the pandemic: not cute. It’s a teaching opportunity and sometimes a cute conversation when a first-grader says math is hard and homework is unfair. When a 70-plus-year-old man looks to his many-times-bankrupt gut and information gleaned from hours a day of TV watching rather than the abundant resources available to him to fight big, tough problems like systemic racism and climate change: not cute.

As on Nanny 911, the “adults in the room” are mostly to blame. The ones who complained behind the scenes to each other and then left, staying silent in real time. And the ones who stayed and bought the toddler-in-chief the damn toy so they could have a little peace and quiet. It’s just too bad, I guess, that we can’t send in a nanny.