Nutty

Poor Marjorie Taylor Greene.  On February 4, the freshman Representative from Georgia was stripped of her committee assignments by a majority vote of the House.  According to Greene’s speech from that day, she’s in her current pickle because she was “allowed [she did not specify by what or whom] to believe things that weren’t true.”   These “things that weren’t true,” she admitted, include statements contending that 9/11, the Las Vegas shootings, and the slaughter of schoolchildren in the towns of Sandy Hook and Parkland were faked or false flag operations, that space lasers owned by the Rothschilds were used on purpose to start California wildfires, that many prominent Democrats have committed treason and deserve to be imprisoned or executed, and that Democrats generally spend a lot of time drinking baby blood.   Nutty!   

Everyone probably believes something nutty, maybe related to religion or superstition, or just one of those “commonsense” things that turn out not to hold, like my conviction that carrying my bumbershoot on a walk prevents rain.   Alternative facts let people rationalize behaviors that  otherwise are weird or mildly self-sabotaging.    For example, flat earthism as an excuse to boycott one’s physics homework would fall among the latter.   But if the flat earther wins a seat on the school board and starts messing around with the science curriculum…  

As Greene tells it, she couldn’t have known that the alternative facts she found on the internet were false, so her conduct after absorbing those facts into her belief system is blameless.   As a parent, I’ve encountered this chain of reasoning many times, and it always makes me think of thumbprints and the War of 2008.  

Thumbprints are peanut butter cookies with crunchy edges, soft in the center, topped with Hershey’s kisses that melted in your mouth the way room-temperature kisses fresh from their wrappers never do.    My stepmother would bake them for Christmas and would send us home with a few dozen “extras.”   Taken in twos or threes, they’re a good way to get through a gloomy January.  

       Our rule when Sonny was an elementary school student was a fun snack once we got back from school—a little sugar-rush before homework, and often in January this meant a couple of cookies.  If he was still hungry later in the afternoon, he was supposed to ask mom, with the usual responses being “dinner’s in 20 minutes” or “here’s a piece of fruit,” (or a yogurt cup, or a couple of crackers and cheese).    In January of 2008—Sonny was nine years old, in third grade—he started filching them.  Grabbing a second snack, another two or three or four thumbprints, without asking, when my attention was diverted.   When confronted, he approached near-Marjorie Taylor Greene measures to position his actions as nobody’s fault (“I didn’t remember to ask for more”) or somebody else’s (“You didn’t remind me that I had to ask”).    Greene—who, I should note, is 46 years old, not nine—seems to be trying for the somebody else’s fault, “somebody else” being both random lie-spewing posters on the Internet and media outlets that didn’t debunk them forcefully enough.  

It was always hard for Sonny to acknowledge that he’d broken a rule deliberately; maybe Greene also is trying to avoid feelings of shame.   When Sonny’s face-saving energy got too high it could spark a meltdown—neither of us wanted that.  I also didn’t want to lock the cookie jar or make him feel like a bad person for breaking a rule.  I just wanted him to learn that thumbprints were treats rather than meals.   I moved the conversation in a different direction, therefore, along the lines of hunger being a legitimate issue for a growing boy, that two cookies is okay but five cookies is too much, what a better choice looks like—and also, most importantly, what the consequences for the actions will be (he got his TV time reduced) and for the next time, if it happens again.    Consequences don’t need to be terrible, but in my experience they need to be lived.   

This strategy worked pretty well for us.  Marjorie Taylor Greene may never clarify why she was so drawn to those antisemitic, anti-science, pro-violence, anti-democratic ideas.   (Some people have divulged that in private, she didn’t seem to be so much of a true believer—that’s terrible if true.)      However, she needs to accept the consequences of the behavior that she rationalized with her nutty beliefs.  She used her social platforms and personal interactions to harass school shooting survivors.  She inflamed hatred against Jews.  She encouraged and supported people who wished violent death on politicians by liking their posts.   She reinforced Trump’s Big Lie about election fraud without questioning her own victory in that same election.  She flaunted Congress’s rules about carrying guns and wearing masks.   And rather than being expelled from the House or being thrown off of Facebook or Twitter, she’s been given a relatively mild consequence.    Consequences are important.  The probability of positive change is small, but a girl can dream.  Maybe, just maybe, Greene will become more thoughtful, discerning, and commit to advocating for her political positions in a way that doesn’t foment sedition, sow hatred, and glorify violence.   If by some miracle that happens, then all of us can enjoy our cookies.  In moderation.     

Small axe

Making dinner, talking about Republicans who refused to wear face masks while they were locked down during the Capitol riots.  (They’re probably responsible for this week’s outbreak of Covid-19 in the House of Representatives.)  Dave said, “It’s like when somebody flashes their headlights at you, so you don’t turn the lights on until you’ve passed out of their view.”    

I stared aghast at the man I’ve been married to for almost 25 years.  “What?” 

Dave: “You know, that “f*ck you, don’t tell me what to do!” reaction.”  

“Do you do that?”  

“I used to all the time.  Watch their taillights in the mirror and wait until they’d turned a corner, then put on the headlights.  I don’t do it anymore.”  

“Wow.”  I’ve never done that.  I flick the lights on immediately and breathe a sigh of relief.   I got pulled over for driving without headlights once, a long time ago.  My best friend Emma and I had celebrated our high school graduation with a weekend trip to Virginia Beach.   On our first evening away we we met a couple of cute college boys who invited us to their apartment and plied us with a can of beer each.  Over-handsiness on “my” guy’s part drove me out to the back garden, where I casually clambered up a rusty laundry pole and sat, making somewhat awkward conversation with him, until Emma emerged.   Fortunately the Pinto started on the first try (rather than erupting into flames, like many of its compadres, it tended to the sulky and often demanded a push start).  I pulled out of the brightly lit parking lot sans headlights, a little fast.   The cop gave us a break—white privilege, for sure, as we were two 17-year-olds a hundred miles from home.  We sat through a brief but stern lecture and were sent on our way.     It’s not an experience I care to repeat.   

I speculated that the eff-you response to the headlight reminder might have been a male thing.  Dave polled his Facebook friends and found no support for that theory.  Little rebellions take many forms.  Teenagers in my town amble across Main Street against the traffic lights, at a snail’s pace; Dave used to deny another driver the imagined satisfaction of being proved right.  We all feel the need sometimes.  

There are books and blogs about small acts of rebellion and how they can improve your life.  My brain turns the words small acts into small axe and wonders how such a little instrument can take on such a big feeling.  I love the lists because the items are so disparate: “Unbuckle your seatbelt while the plane is still taxiing.” “Take a bubble bath.”  “Boycott a company.”  “Eat a grape in the supermarket.”  “Read a book.”    “Wear white shoes after Labor Day.”  “Write on a bathroom stall.”   “Turn the speakers up to 11.”  I relate to the impulse if not the items.   

My own rebellions are small, too.   For example, when our local PBS station started showing Monty Python reruns, my stern Baptist parents, determined to shield us from any unsanctioned idea, forbade us to watch it.  They also prohibited shows like M*A*S*H and Three’s Company.   Well into my 20s, even though I had been living on my own for years, I could get a thrill from sitting in my living room, drinking a glass of wine while watching the Pythons on TV.  The memory’s just come to me that the day after our run-in with the police, Emma and I committed another transgression by cooling our sunburns in a blessedly air-conditioned movie theater while watching the Python film Jabberwocky.    

Most of us feel somewhat fettered sometimes, a consequence of being social animals.  It’s funny how long-lasting those chains are and how little actions can bring a feeling of relief.   For a while.  What happens when the small axes don’t cut it any more?   Can some people be set on the road to the murderous yahooliganism of January 6?  

Dave doesn’t keep his headlights off just for spite anymore, and it’s been awhile since I’ve felt the impulse to comfort myself by watching a TV program simply because it was once forbidden to me.  My casual research didn’t find a consensus on whether little acts of rebellion are a safety valve or an accelerant.   Some experts suggest that feeling rebellious signals that you need to figure out what’s bugging you and deal with it.   Yeah, that would be great, but it doesn’t feel doable.   I’ll probably stock up on some wine, find my Python tapes (those guys are freakin’ hilarious), and settle on the sofa, right next to my small axe.

The Elephant in the Rotunda

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Stress test

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tenterhooked

“On tenterhooks,” the expression, refers to a feeling of uneasiness or suspense. Anxiety being my default state, you’d think I’d be somewhat inured to the feelings generated by the 2020 election. I’m not. This morning my head’s throbbing as if a bunch of tenterhooks were loose inside it. Tenterhooks are devices that attach cloth to a frame (the tenter) that keeps the fabric stretched, so that can dry evenly rather than warp. They aren’t little hammers…Dammit, I know I’d be able to make a better metaphor if I’d gotten better sleep last night.

Exactly a week ago it was snowing and the sun was rising after seven. Now temperatures are in the 60s and 70s for a couple of days, and dawn’s a bit after six. It’s so warm that I opened the bedroom window for the night to keep the room cool. Naturally, within seconds Capone the cat jumped onto the sill. There’s a sad dearth of windowsills for him to perch in once the weather turns cold. The window has to be open so that he can fit, as he’s too, um, “big-boned” to fit on the sill with the window closed.

Capone started out the night with me for a while and then left for his grand wee hours tour, where typically he roams among his humans. He settles with one human for an hour or two, then moves to another. #

I usually enjoy waking up to find Capone’s taking up space near my toes, or curled in the armchair, or looking out the window at whatever cats see in the darkness. But Capone had something else in store for e last night.

The return to standard time last weekend continues to annoy him. Capone chooses not to accept the hour delay in his breakfast routine. He expects to be fed promptly at 5:03 a.m. So we’re getting yowls at around four, most mornings. Dave’s the one who usually feeds him, so Capone will paw the blanket away from Dave’s head, meow, lick his arm. With me, Capone uses meows only and usually gives up after a couple of attempts. I bury my head under the pillow or turn up the volume on CNN, flooding the room with noise. On nights when he won’t stop, I shoo him out the door and shut it; fortunately, Capone has not yet managed to evolve an opposable thumb. Then I try to get back to sleep.

The experts promise I’d get better sleep in a dark, cool, quiet room. I do like a cool room, but these days I seem to need words being spoken by people to drown out the sleep-sabotaging words in my head. As for darkness…I can’t quite stand it. Besides, screen-glow means I can keep an eye out for any spiders that might be spinning in my direction, as well as any cats who might be wandering around the room.

Last night, after a couple of hours sleeping, I woke up a little before three. Capone was in the window. Maybe mapping squirrel nests, maybe watching the leaves move, maybe getting messages from one of the horsemen of the apocalypse. It’s hard to tell. After a while he jumped from the windowsill to the floor with a bit of an oof, he is not a youngster anymore. He meowed peremptorily at me. “What’s up?” I asked, imagining that he wanted a cuddle. I patted the bed, the standard cat invitation. “Mrrwl,” he replied, twitching his tail and making no move in my direction. His eyes reflected the light from the TV. I patted the bed again. He moved slowly to the bedroom door, gave me a final stare, and left the room.

He repeated this behavior four more times over the course of the night: entering stealthily, jumping silently up onto the windowsill, and, when he was done with window time, jumping down and meowing loudly. He timed it so that every meow came at the very moment when I was just getting back to sleep.

Normally this would be cute, if frustrating. During election week, though, I’ve been sleep deprived for days. I’m more hopeful than I was on Tuesday night that the candidate with the majority of the popular vote will win, but ot confident that the current president will be thwarted in his frantic attempts to rig the results.

“Dammit, Cat!” I said, at the third oof-meow. Capone scratched his ear, meowed again, and sauntered out of the room. Those cat claws hooked me, nerves stretched tight, to wakefulness. I sighed and turned up the volume on CNN. Maybe something whispered to Capone in the darkness, keep her awake so she can see when the lead flips in Georgia. Probably not.

I did stay awake long enough for Pennsylvania to flip, also, and to finish this log. Sleep may be easier now.

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.

Lines

I grab the pint of Ben and Jerry’s and steer my grocery cart to the row of cashiers, studying carts and customers. Looking for clues: a cart piled with lots of produce, guaranteeing a price check on apples or kale. Multiples of soup, cereal boxes, etc., could mean coupons, some of them probably expired or for a different brand. Checkbooks peeking out of coat pockets. Enormous purses. Never line up behind a person with a humongous bag; it takes forever to find a wallet in one of them, especially if the search doesn’t commence until the cashier has finished ringing through every item on the belt.

Despite my efforts, I often find myself stuck, ice cream melting, behind a person who has never used a debit card at the supermarket, or who needs to explain at considerable length to the world’s chattiest cashier each and every reason for the purchase of a box of Double-Stuffed Oreos. Of course the odds don’t favor me picking the fastest line. In a situation where you have to choose among cash register lanes, the odds of any lane being the fastest are 1 in [number of staffed register lanes]. Therefore it’s more likely than not that your line will move more slowly than some; still, I try to even up the odds.

The healthiest strategy is to expect the time suck of a longish line, to keep blood pressure under control and to increase the delight when a wait turns out to be short. There are ways to make line-waiting time pass pleasantly. As an introvert on the autism spectrum, I find the commonly recommended “strike up a conversation with the person next to you” horrible to contemplate, but I have enjoyed browsing through the checkout magazines for cryptid sightings, interior design inspiration, and celebrity gossip. In these germ-conscious times, I’ve stopped that, but often I have a paperback on me somewhere. Snobby experts don’t recommend scrolling through your phone, but I routinely check at least my texts and email to multitask a bit. Sometimes I listen to music on my headphones; I’m thinking about downloading some podcasts or audiobooks, too.

Of course store lines usually involve waits of only minutes to quarter-or half-hours. You need a different set of strategies for lines at amusement parks, rock concerts, the Apple Store, or Black Friday. These lines can go on for hours or even days, so people bring sleeping bags, folding chairs, snacks, homework, chess boards, etc.

I avoid most extreme queueing situations, but this year I’m thinking in-person voting may need a strategy. Early in-person voting starts in my town on October 17. Next week! I’m hoping to vote on Tuesday, since I want to be sure that my vote’s counted, as well and free up a spot for the folks who will hit the polls on Election Day.

I anticipate the line time will be significant because of the pandemic and the current president. Ever since it became clear that the majority of Americans don’t approve of his job performance (at a minimum, since the 2018 elections), he’s been encouraging his supporters to hurdle the line between poll watching and voter intimidation. Rather than watching out for big purses and chatty clerks, I’ll have my ID, just in case, plus my face mask, snug-fitting and properly worn. I’ll have a coat, maybe an umbrella, and comfortable shoes. My phone, fully charged, programmed with the phone numbers of my local police department and the nonpartisan organization Election Protection at 866-687-8683, ready to document any yahoos brandishing firearms, blocking doors, questioning people in line about qualifications to vote, or threatening any kind of violence.

The sad fact is that attempts to keep “the wrong sort” of people from voting have plagued the US since its founding. Poll taxes and literacy tests have been replaced by voter roll purges, disinformation campaigns, dirty tech tricks, fewer polling stations in poor, minority, or opposing party neighborhoods, and more. In-person threats, both im- and explicit, continue to be a problem.

The status quo always tries to protect itself. The less equitable the status quo is, the less legal and principled are the means of protection. Encouraging voter suppression helps keep the status quo politicians in their perk-filled jobs. Tackling the issues that motivate those voters risks those cushy jobs–and requires the politicians to do actual work.

I’m hoping for a peaceful day with a short line, but just in case I’ll also have my headphones, a snack, and a book. In case the line is very long and slow, I’ll download audio book too, just in case. I’m thinking Moby Dick.

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.

Notorious

Friday was a day for ghosts and sad reflections. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the notorious RBG, died at the age of 87. One of my heroes, I’d hoped desperately that this champion of human rights, the first female tenured professor at Columbia Law School, the second female SCOTUS justice, the “great dissenter,” would outlive this terrible administration. Add her to the many fine things 2020 has taken away from us.

The ghost had arrived that afternoon, tucked inside a heavy cardboard box lugged by our mail carrier to a socially appropriate distance from the front door. There were three boxes altogether; my father had found them while clearing out his cavernous basement. His note said they contained “books, dolls, papers, and some of your high school things.”

It was no surprise that a few boxes had lain unnoticed for decades. My final year of high school I and the rest of my family had moved multiple times.

There were books, mostly mystery and science fiction paperbacks, some creepy dolls that opened their glass eyes as I lifted them from the packing paper, a purple ceramic donkey, band concert programs, high school year books, paper flowers, my graduation cap, a music box with a rotting velvet interior, and the ghost.

Too thin, 17 and ready to start her real life, she floats out of a slim leather-bound volume titled “Memories.” The book consists of blank pages with prompts at the top (classes, sports, hobbies, travel, commencement, etc.) along with some end-pages with slots for graduation cards (business cards with students’ names printed in fancy type). She’s filled out the Personal Data page with her address, phone, hair and eye colors, and hobbies (piano and clarinet).

She rates her classes and teachers: “Blake (physics) is a great teacher! Mr. Headley (government) is boring and talks down.” “Band has sadly deteriorated over four years.” She has little good to say about the graduating class as a whole: “My class was so mediocre that we excelled in one thing only: good behavior. In all other areas we came in last or near it.” She’s pleased that high school is done, “but I’m glad I went here.” She’s afraid she’s not completely prepared, but sure that the next thing will be better. She’s betting that she’s ready for whatever. (She’s not. I feel again the regret that I squandered her potential.)

So often in life, things that you regard as an impediment turn out to be great, good fortune. –RBG

My ghost’s friends agree that she has potential: “Good luck, although I know you won’t need it (Brain)” writes. Another: “I know you will be a big success.” Most optimistic of all: “I expect to see you playing first in the Chicago Symphony.” She writes the same kind of thing in their Memories books. Mediocre be damned: they are going to take over the world.

At university my ghost finds dorms full of smarties. Unlike RBG, who would graduate from Harvard Law School and go from strength to strength, my ghost takes a pinballish path from job to job, gig to gig. RBG said, “If you want to be a true professional, you will do something outside yourself…something that makes life a little better for people less fortunate than you.” But Ginsburg had the profession thing down.

First chair in the Chicago Symphony is out, but the ghost keeps making music, starts writing, becomes a parent, teaches. She grows into me. I bounce from bumper to bumper, eventually realizing that I can make a difference in my students’ lives, that people can enjoy my music and words even if they aren’t Chicago Symphony or Hemingway level. My ghost raises sadness partly because of the restrictions of this horrid year, where the activities I love most are largely closed to me. I reassure my ghost that she didn’t have to be great to be good enough.

A second pass at my high school friends’ notes hints that this path was already underway. Amid the “always remember third period and these crazy times” are also “thanks for all your help with physics” (also government, German, and clarinet), other thanks for support (“you know what I mean!” except I can’t remember what that’s about), plus my best friend ordering me to write, write, WRITE. And now I do.

The dissenter’s hope [is] that they are writing not for today, but for tomorrow. –RBG

The last prompt in “Memories” was “The Future.” My ghost left that page blank. Writing wasn’t really on her radar and the future was so far off. Past, future, and present have braided together and ask me to write just a bit more:

RBG has left the building. At a campaign rally yesterday, the current president praised the police for shooting a rubber bullet into the knee of a reporter who was covering a peaceful protest. The Attorney General is urging that protestors be arrested and charged with sedition; while he says the charges should apply only to “violent” protestors, he seems to define leaving the house while liberal as violent. Many of the rights that Ginsburg argued for and helped bring into being are in jeopardy.

RBG wanted to be remembered as “someone who used whatever talent she had to do her work to the very best of her ability…to make things a little better through the use of whatever ability she has.” I’m going to follow that principle. Dear readers: I hope we all do, and that we turn that little better into a giant good.