Oh the pain, the pain…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Resolutions and hopes

Babylon!  One of the first megacities and home to all kinds of wonders: the hanging gardens, Hammurabi and his code, epics, the 60-minute hour, ziggurats…and New Year’s regulations, a many-times-great granduncle to the resolutions of today.  Once a year, Babylonians tried to stay on their gods’ good side by making two promises.  First, to pay their (the Babylonians’, not the gods’) outstanding debts, and second, to return the things they’d borrowed.  

  Four thousand years later many of us are still making promises—or at least plans—at the turn of the year, though these resolutions are a bit different from the Babylonians’.  My theory is that the Babylonian thing arose because some priest with an overgrown hanging garden needed to get his sheers back from a forgetful neighbor. 

Roughly half of Americans commit to some resolutions at year’s beginning.  The success rate isn’t high: by the end of January about 75% of us will have given up. Only about 8% overall will ultimately reach the goals. 

Maybe we’re collectively insane at this time of year.  I’ve had as many as 23 resolutions, some years, while achieving at best a couple.  There’s value in figuring out what I’d like to improve, even if I can’t quite fix it yet.  And I quite enjoy the weird society-wide optimism and support for improvement during the first few weeks of January.  There’s a new school year hopefulness without the mean girls at the lunch table spoiling everything.  

I decided to follow a Babylonian-style plan this year and set just two resolutions for 2021:  1) organize some small part of my space daily, and 2) improve my (visible) patience.      

Also I decided I would write down some touchstones in the general direction of feeling better.  What would that mean?  

Back in elementary school I learned about the five senses: taste, touch, sound, sight, and scent.  During Sonny’s occupational therapy I learned about a sixth sense, proprioception, which is perception of the position and movement of the body.  It turns out, of course, that there are lots more, but six is already plenty, so I stopped there and made this arbitrary list.       

Six Sensory Hopes for 2021   

The taste of raspberries, tart and sweet and surprising.  Here’s hoping I have some ideas that are just as delightful.    

The feel of a river stone, solid, smooth, and ancient.  Hoping that this year’s big stuff flows over and around me.    

The sound of a chalumeau G on the clarinet, resonant with overtones, fading into the ghost of itself.  Hoping to be able to hear the nuances in the conversations around me.   

The sight of a sunset, purples, pinks, reds, and oranges dashed across the sky.  Hoping always to be delighted by something as simple as a cloud.   

The scent of a pine forest, sharp and cool.  Hoping to grow quietly throughout the year. 

To flow inside my body like water.    

Happy New Year! 

Part 3: holiday songs: revised

Lots of people going all out decorating and prepping for the holidays this year to compensate for all the canceled stuff. Prices have risen higher than a Douglas fir. A fresh-cut Douglas (or its slightly shorter cousins) will cost an average of 23% more than in 2018, says Fortune magazine. Assuming you can still find one, as many tree farms are sold out. As the song should go:

O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree, I looked all over for you!

O Christmas tree, rare Christmas tree, my mortgage payment’s soon due!

You look and smell so heavenly, but we’ll reuse our plastic tree.

O Christmas tree, dear Christmas tree, I really can’t afford you!

For those brave enough to spend extra time at the mall, Santas are still around. However, you have to make an appointment. No Santa lines in 2020–a small blessing.

My parents never encouraged us to believe in tooth fairies, Eastern bunnies, or Saint Nicholas. Nor did they pretend to us that our presents came from anyone but family. Maybe that’s because, as the children of two impatient people, too many of our presents didn’t make it to Christmas morning to support the fiction that Santa had delivered them on Christmas Eve. Once everyone’s shopping is completed and the gifts are wrapped, what’s the point of waiting?

I gave my wish list to my mom not Santa. But one time, when I was seven, I had an overwhelming craving for a particular present. The object of my desire was a mechanical dog that I’d seen in Toys R Us for the high price of $15.99 (batteries not included). I figured a visit to Santa could increase my chances of seeing FeeFee (as I had already named her) under the tree. FeeFee was so cute! She had soft pink fur and could bark, walk, sit, and even rise slowly on her haunches to perform a backflip.

My mother and I stood for almost an hour in the cold line that stretched from the front of JC Penney’s to Santa’s hut. Inside the hut it was stiflingly warm. Santa’s frizzy beard and bony knee and the existential question of whether I’d been a good little girl this year eliminated my ability to talk. Needing to move the line along, Santa said he was sure I had been good, asked what I wanted for Christmas, and leaned his hairy ear towards my face. I burst into tears. “She wants a toy dog,” my mother snapped. “Ho Ho,” sighed Santa, as the helper elf guided me off of the knee. And that was that.

I unwrapped FeeFee on December 23. Her batteries lasted almost 15 minutes.

Sonny, though never a Santa believer, loved to gaze at the mall Santas on their colorful thrones. However, he was always wary of “mascots” (his catchall word for people in costumes) and kept his distance. Smart kid. Sometimes in my caroling gig days (see the blog from 12/13) we singers would share back office space with the Santa of the day. When on break, all Santas strip down to their undershirts–that costume is hot–drink iced coffee and eat a sandwich. Often, for some reason, a tuna sandwich. Santas exhibit minimal jollity when backstage. The song should go

Jolly old Saint Nicholas, please stay far away.

You’ve been at the mall too much; I don’t want to play.

Christmas Eve I’ll be at home, eating cookie dough.

You can skip my house this year; no one has to know.

We’re not exactly canceling Christmas, but we’ll be glad when the holidays and this awful year have passed. On New Year’s Eve we’ll be in our bubble, waiting for the clock to tick from December 31 to January, and singing

Should 2020 be forgot and never brought to mind?

May 2020 be long gone and kicked in its behind!

For 2020’s been a time of strife, and fear, and plague.

I’ll take a stab of vaccine soon, and sing the year away.

I’m taking the next week off, but I plan to be typing again in this space on New Year’s Day. May your holidays be safe and sane.

We wish you a healthy Christmas,

We wish you a healthy Christmas,

We wish you a healthy Christmas,

and a plague-free New Year.

Good tidings we bring

of two new vaccines.

We wish you a healthy Christmas

and a plague-free New Year.

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?

Holiday songs part 2: perils of caroling

You’ve probably seen them on a street corner, or at the mall, at a holiday party, or even strolling through your workplace or neighborhood. Carolers. People tend to love or despise them. I’ve felt both emotions on encountering these groups of smiling singers, especially if I have no warning ahead of time. However, I may as well confess: I spent a few years with a company that hired out a cappella caroling quartets.

We wore Dickensian (early Victorian) outfits. The men in high-waisted trousers, vests, and top hats. Women in long skirts puffed out with scratchy crinolines, bonnets decorated with bits of floral fluff and ribbons, and a wool wrap draped over the shoulders. These picturesque outfits were always wrong for the ambient temperature, leaving us sweating while singing indoors and shivering outdoors.

We worked from a book with around 120 tunes, most of them traditional carols photocopied from hymnals, plus a few Hanukkah songs and some mid-twentieth century hits like “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, “Let it Snow!” and “The Christmas Song.” We strolled or stood, whatever the venue decreed. When we’d sung for a bit, drawn a crowd, we would invite people to request songs. Always interesting to see the audience’s reaction to being put on the spot. Some people would have a brain freeze, while others eagerly shouted out “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” or “All I Want for Christmas is You” only to get a “Sorry, we don’t have that in the book, would you like to hear something else?” This is when, inevitably, one of the following three songs would be suggested: “Jingle Bells,” “Silent Night,” or “O Holy Night.”

Over the course of a one- or two-hour gig we would sing Jingle Bells one miiiillion times. Okay, 10 or 15 times. It’s a short song even if you do all the normal verses, which tell a tale about the joys of riding in a “one-horse open sleigh” (the original title), even when the occupants get “upsot” in verse two. This song has a Massachusetts connection. Its composer was sometime-organist James Lord Pierpont, who was born in the state. High Street in Medford, MA, features a plaque claiming (mistakenly) that Pierpont composed Jingle Bells in 1850 while pounding ales in the town’s Simpson Tavern. Pierpont did live in Medford for a while, but in 1850 he was in California. He copyrighted “One-Horse Open Sleigh” in 1857 while living in Savannah, Georgia, so the people of Savannah also lay claim to the birthplace of the song. Like “Let It Snow,” this is a song about the winter sport of sleigh-riding rather than Christmas, but it’s been associated with that holiday since at least 1900. Fun fact: Jingle Bells was the first song broadcast from space, on December 16, 1965! Not so fun facts: Jingle Bells was first publicly performed in 1857, at a blackface minstrel show in Boston by the singer Johnny Pell. Also, after his move to Georgia Pierpont fought in the Civil War on the side of the Confederates.

Despite its shady origins, Jingle Bells peps up a crowd. With a range of just a fifth, the chorus is eminently singable, and the audience often joins in. Silent Night, on the other hand…It’s a beautiful song, but with a big range for casual singers (an 11th) and a bunch of treacherous high notes in the second half. Maybe because of the high notes, the audience tends to listen to Silent Night instead of sing along. This was our most cried-to piece. It’s been stirring emotions since 1818. The lyrics were written by an Austrian priest, Joseph Mohr, while the music was set by organist Franz Xaver Gruber. The first version was for voice and guitar because the organ in Mohr’s church was broken. I’m glad Mohr specified guitar: in my opinion the emotional content of Silent Night is beautifully expressed with voice and guitar.

The truly scary high notes come in O Holy Night. Many arrangements give the melody to the tenor, but our book followed the original performance practice and gave the soprano the high Bbs. (Fortunately I sang alto and stayed below the Death Zone.) Whenever a listener would request this this piece, if we’d already done it once or twice, the soprano got the veto. O Holy Night was our most-denied tune. It’s another song from the 1800s, 1847, to be precise, with music by organist Adolphe Adam set to lyrics by one-handed poet/wine merchant Placide Cappeau.

The original title is “Cantique de Noel,” and its lyrics are quite progressive, opposing slavery and elite abuse of power. Here’s a sample from verse 2: “Puissants du jour, fiers de votre grandeur,/A votre orgueil, c’est de la que Dieu preche.” This basically translates as “Mighty ones of today, proud of your greatness, It is to your pride that god preaches.” Even though the song was a popular hit, the French church authorities banned it from religious services for a time because it turned out that Cappeau was an atheist. John Sullivan Dwight , a Unitarian minister, liberally translated the lyrics into English in 1855, giving the last verse an expicitly Abolitionist bent.

I enjoy singing the old songs. Just as with reading a novel from the 1800s or a poem written in 900, there’s a thrill in the connection with the past. However, by the end of a 20-Jingle-Bell gig my singing smile could stretch a little tight.

Back at the dressing room, the first off would be the bonnet. Once I had my sweater and jeans back on and had shoved the last prickly bit of crinoline into the depths of the garment bag, I donned my headphones. Something non-holiday to drive the carols to the back of the brain, until the next time I needed to sing them with a smile.

Holiday song checklist: one

In which I measure my life against one holiday classic at a time, starting with the Jules Styne/Sammy Cahn tune “Let It Snow!”

Oh, the weather outside is frightful…

July, 1945: Los Angelenos were sweltering in record heat. Styne wanted to go to the beach to cool off; his songwriting partner Cahn wanted to cool down by writing a tune about winter. The song doesn’t mention a holiday, but it was quickly looped into the December playlist in the Northern Hemisphere. (In the Southern Hemisphere, people sing “Let it Snow!” in July.) Styne and Cahn followed the song a year later with “The Things We Did Last Summer,” which was a hit, but small compared to the accidental winter classic.

A brief look outside: yesterday it was in the 50s; today it’s snowing sideways. Check!

But the fire is so delightful…

Our house has a big chimney with three fireplaces (one in the basement, one in the living room, and one in the master bedroom. When we toured the place 13 years ago, those fireplaces were a big selling point. Winter came and so did the fire fights–not fights handled by muscular humans hauling hoses, but relationship fights about how to get a fire started and keep it going.

Dave skipped a lot of the stereotypic manly man stuff in his formative years. His lack of interest in golf, for example, has saved us a lot of money, which we can then use to pay the odd jobs man for home repairs more complicated than picture hanging. However, he has a few regrets. Possibly due to his Boy Scout days, Dave views “fire-starting” as a core male competency. It turned out to be tricky to manage the fireplaces. I developed somewhat of a knack for starting fires that didn’t burn out 20 minutes later, and this led to the kind of little conflicts that afflict our marriage from time to time. Unlike Styne and Cahn, who wrote together for about eight years and then abandoned that partnership, Dave and I have stayed together (but we stopped making fires in our fireboxes).

The decision was made easier by the fact that every fire stunk up the house for days afterwards. Sometimes I wonder what the previous owners burned in there: angry ghosts of Christmas past? Definitely something with payback on its mind. We swept the chimneys annually without any improvement. Until 2020, our hearths remained purely decorative except in the case of winter power outages that require a substitute heat source. This summer we finally donated the cord of wood that had sat unused in the garage since 2011–it’s dried out for sure–to one of Dave’s buddies from high school.

Then I saw a picture in a magazine: a fireplace stuffed with candles and mirrors, et voila! I made my own version, so now we can have firelight without the mess. The candles, alit, do look quite pretty, but fall short of delightful. Maybe if we had some holiday lights up…

I’ll just take a couple of minutes and pop some Christmas lights on the mantle. Even though it meant a trip to the spider-ridden corners of the basement. Yay, me! They string a bit tangled–No, Capone, not a cat toy!–back to the basement to find the extension cord…

Cobwebs, cat scratches, and curses later: Delightful! Check!

Since we’ve no place to go…

Coronavirus wasn’t a thing in July of 1945. However, this banner year in world history also featured the first flu vaccine authorized for use on civilians in the US. We’re all hoping to get the COVID vaccine as soon as possible, so that we can enjoy the 2021 holiday season. Until we’re able to move about safely, though, most of the time we’ve no place to go. Check.

Let it snow!

No one will ever convince me that I have no influence over the weather. I can keep the rain away simply by carrying my umbrella. When I can find the darn thing. Did my wonder at Friday’s temperatures (in the 50s) and brief thankful thought that at least we hadn’t had any snow since the Halloween storm cause this Nor’easter? Probably. “Let it snow!” Check.

Let it snow!

Unfortunately I’ve never been able to work out a practice that stops a snowstorm. Cursing, putting the snow shovel on the steps, saying “tut tut, it looks like rain” regularly fail me. For now I’ll turn to a phrase I embroidered on a sampler, once upon a time: grant me the serenity to accept the things I can’t change. Check.

Let it snow!

The song keeps pushing this line. Maybe it’s asking something of me. Maybe an attitude adjustment? There is, I finally admit, something about being in a warm, sheltered place with people I love, watching Nature do its thing. Check!

Swans of winter

When we moved to this suburb, a few miles south of Boston, there were still a couple of working farms in town. It’s sad that the one nearest our house stopped operating about eight years ago–the horse farm’s still in operation–but the town made lemonade of the situation and turned the site into a park. Now there are turkeys and ducks and occasional deer, as well as other critters, wandering around there up close and personal, instead of cows seen at a distance. And there are swans (also best seen at a distance, for swan-temperament reasons). The leaves are down, and the reeds on the banks have thinned, so it was easy to see the swans on the pond. Hanging out, having breakfast, stirring the water with their beaks. A couple of ducks swam also, at a respectful distance.

Norroway Pond’s swan family has three members, just like my family: a cob (male), a pen (female) and a cygnet (kid). I think of them as the King, Queen, and Prince. They’ve been on the pond at least since spring of 2020. It’s possible that the King and Queen have been there for much longer, maybe from the farm days, since swans can live as long as 20 to 30 years, or even longer in some cases. In spring the Prince was a ball of gray fluff. Now he’s the same size as his parents–i.e, a bowling ball with a long neck and big wings attached–and almost as brilliant a white.

I haven’t yet tired of swans–or most of the other animals that wander here from the Blue Hills (excluding skunks: skunks can suck it). When we moved to this area, 22 years ago, swans in the reservoir were one of the first things I noticed. It felt quite exotic. For years I’d lived and worked mostly in cities, Chicago and Boston. In Boston you can see the swans Romeo and Juliet paddling in the Public Garden lagoon, but the pair winter at the Franklin Park Zoo and there’s something a little tame about them. Though beautiful.

Free-range swans don’t necessarily avoid cities. Dave and I visited Ireland a couple of years ago and were impressed to find nearly as many swans as street musicians in Galway. Like our swans in Norroway Pond, the Galway swans are commonly mute swans, although a Black swan recently made its way there from Australia.

I was glad to see the royal family was still in town, given that it’s December. The Canada Geese have already come and gone this fall. I thought swans migrated, but it turns out that mute swans, as opposed to some other swan species, such as the North American trumpeter swans, do not migrate regularly. Mute swans, especially mated pairs, stick around their nesting areas. They migrate when forced to by ice and food scarcity, but not great distances and not every year. So if we have a mild winter King, Queen, and Prince may stick around throughout.

I’d love that. The Prince’s parents will probably spend the winter teaching him to forage for food and giving him unsolicited relationship advice. Just like my family, although probably with fewer games of cribbage and episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000 thrown in. Next summer Prince will flap off to find down a mate and pond of his own–best of luck to him–and I’ll get to watch the new brood rising.

NaNoWriMo: The final entry

It timed its entrance perfectly. A peaceful early morning, a little before six. My husband Dave was folding laundry, making piles of towels, jeans, t-shirts, etc., on the bed. Capone the cat had settled onto the socks pile to wait for the blessed moment where someone would try to move him off of it. Sonny was asleep down the hall, enjoying a lie in on his first day off after nearly a week of four a.m. shifts at Target. I sat in my comfy chair beside the window–still dark outside- the windowsill just wide enough for my coffee mug, journal open on my lap. I uncapped the pen, wrote “November 29” at the top of the page, and stared off into space to look for the first word of the day.

A couple of inches from my face, a spider was almost halfway through its commute from ceiling to floor. Large, a soft, translucent brown, the legs in constant motion. The first word of the day was “AAAAAAAAAARRRGH!”

I’d have written it in my journal, except that I’d just thrown it in the spider’s direction and leapt to the other side of the room.

The scream left a breathless uncanny silence in its wake. Capone stood atop the sock pile, back arched and tail bristling. A couple of seconds later I heard Sonny’s bedroom door open, then close.

“Jesus Christ!” said Dave. I begged him to make sure that the spider hadn’t been diverted into my coffee. It hadn’t, nor had it scampered between my journal page. As of this writing, the spider’s location is unknown. Probably off somewhere plotting its revenge.

I recognize that spiders are generally good for the environment. They eat pests, and their webs are wonders of nature and all that. Yet I keep writing about mean things about them in this blog. I blame the spider bite when I was pregnant with Sonny that required hospitalization and IV antibiotics. And I find spiders aiming themselves at my morning coffee (this is the second time!) to be beyond the pale. Clearly this violates the three-foot distance rule and must be some move in an interspecies campaign. I wonder if the situation will escalate…

The three-foot thing, by the way, turns out to be a myth. It probably arises from misinterpretations of a throw-away line from an article by spider expert Norman Platnick, in which he estimated the common human-spider distance to be within “several” yards. I’d made the idea work for me by turning it backwards and thinking that three feet was the distance that spiders want to maintain from people. This has been a helpful courage-booster when I have to venture into the dark corners of the basement. So disheartening when reality appears, waggling its egg-bloated abdomen and extruding sticky thread from its spinneret.

At least no spiders have descended onto my computer keyboard. This past week I might have welcomed some more time to jump and scream. My National Novel Writing Month project was up and down. I started the week a couple of thousand words down and have made up most of the deficit at a pace of around 2K words per day, with a current total as of Sunday morning of 47,236! I worked out a couple of twisty plot problems, and when I couldn’t move the book forward I moved it sideways. Even in the low days when I wanted to abandon every character and the stuttering plot, I typed in my stupid, stupid words in their thousands. Meanwhile I consoled myself with counting down the days to November 30 and mistruths that may be as mythical as the three-foot rule. Winners never quit. You can’t finish if you don’t start. Perfection is the enemy.

Two other things kept me at my writing desk every morning at 7:30. The first was a determination to keep a promise to myself to give this month a good effort. The second was knowing that I would write this blog on November 29. To anyone who’s reading along and trying to win NaNoWriMo thing: Thanks! There may be many spiders between us, but I feel that we’re sharing the struggle.

The uncomfortable questions are ever present: do I really want to tell this story? Yes. Do I have the skills to tell it? Not sure. But as I’m dangling by a thread, six feet from the ceiling, I may as well try to make it to the floor.

First stories

From my father’s capacious basement—possibly it occupied one of the shelves east of the entrance to Narnia–comes another musty box, marked “Jean: misc.” The downsizing process has uncovered boxes packed in the ’70s and not touched since. Not a surprise: stuff builds up over time. If I’d been given this box in the ’80s or ’90s, it would be long gone. I anticipate a weird jumble, as all of the boxes that my father’s efforts have uncovered were clearly packed in the late stages of a move, when people have run out of patience and time and things are thrown in any old way.

Now I think that it might be genetic, my tendency to unpack until I find the toaster oven, the pillowcases, and the clock radio and then leave off with the intent of getting to the rest tomorrow (“tomorrow” = sometime within the next year). Who knows what weird things from 2005 I’ll be mailing off to Sonny one day…

Today’s package goes way, way back. It includes my baby book, with a padded fabric cover and pages for cards and pictures and all kinds of notes, intended to stretch over the first five years. Similarly to my experience with Sonny’s baby book, my mother makes entries with enthusiasm and energy for the first few months. Then things get spottier. The entries thin around three years in. (By that that point she had a second baby) Year four is entirely blank, but there’s a short summary at the five-year mark noting my voracious reading habits and love of drawing and writing stories.

The things I don’t remember! Reading, yes, but that I wrote stories at this age is news to me. I suppose most kids are story-making at that age–Sonny was, for sure. However, I don’t remember writing much until around age nine or ten, when I produced mostly “reports” about animals and insects.

Also in the box was a construction paper drawing of my family, folded into sort of a dust cover for 10 stories that I wrote when I was five and six. Packed away from light for decades, most of the lettering pencil on filler paper, the lines haven’t faded much. A few pages have crumbled corners. Each story is folded or stapled into its own little book. My first grade printing is way neater than I’d have expected. Included is an alphabet sheet for reference. Like the banner that used to hang above the chalkboard in my classroom, the capital letters stretch between two lines, alternating with their lower case versions, AaBbCc, etc., followed by a parade of numerals, 0 to 9.

The stories are modeled on picture books. They have titles, dedications (“To My Family”), page numbers, and illustrations that reveal my art skills haven’t progressed much over time. I love the journey into this little head and her preoccupations: trips to the zoo, bedroom decorations, trouble-making cats and monkeys and sad dolls.

Here’s one of them. The spelling is mostly corrected, though my idiosyncratic punctuation and capitalization are preserved.

Page 1: The Story of Grandma, Jean and Joy

Page 2: Chapter One: By a pleasant Brook with some fresh nice soft grass on its bank. You will find a path that lead’s you through a forest. Once three girls found this Path. The girls’ name’s were, Jean Joy and Grandma and they decided they would. So they did. [illustration: the three girls by the brook]

Page 3: Jean said “This Path looks “strange.” It’s not like the “others.” “Yes,” said Grandma. It’s crooked and the other’s were “straight.” [illustration: the girls look at the path]

Page 4: They did not know that this was an enchanted Rd. It led to a witch’s house. A witch that ate children like them. And– [illustration: witch]

Page 5: She Saw them. [no illustration]

Page 6: [blank]

Page 7: Chapter two: But she did no harm. By that time it was dinner time. And the place that they were there were lots of fruit trees. The fruit was good. [illustration: trees, girls eating fruit]

Page 8: The Road led to a house. They went into the house. The sign said That nobody lived there, but the room was furnished. [illustration: table with candles and plates]

Page 9: The Bedroom was furnished too. This is how it looked. [illustration: a picture, a window, a cradle]

Page 12: They walked away from that, but their faces were different. [Illustration: one girl’s features have turned upside down; another’s have turned into sideways blobs, and the third girl has an X across her whole face].

Page 10: Chapter three: A cat was causing the trouble. [illustration: cat]

Page 11: They told him to stop it. He did.

You may notice that page 12 comes before Page 10 and 11. My theory is that my mother may have exercised some editorial discretion and reordered the pages. (I prefer my original ending.)

Introduce characters and setting, show the equilibrium, destabilize it, add obstacles and opponents, achieve a new equilibrium where the characters have changed.

Storytelling, such a natural thing, but so easily forgotten.

NaNoWriMo 4: an educational week

Moving into the final full week of November, and I have not abandoned NaNoWriMo. Today’s my Sunday review. Last week, after a frustrating week #2, I made these adjustments: write at the dining table. Write in the morning. Drink tea while writing. I achieved the time and location. But when Dave would ask “Do you want another cup of coffee?” I kept answering yes. I’m extra twitchy, but as of Saturday I had cut my word deficit from a bit more than 4K to 2,006 words behind target. So…yay?

7:30’s turned out to be a decent time for me to write. Not much going on in my life at that point in the day beyond the breakfast dishes and the news that makes me angry and sad. Coronavirus triumphant, the loser of the 2020 election occupying his time with golf, complaints, and treasonous plots. Even on the worst days, the days when every word turns out to be crap destined to be deleted from the second draft, writing is better than news-crying.

When I was stuck (after I stopped swearing at the computer screen) I did research. This week’s discoveries included new-to-me information about

  1. Cuckoos. Beethoven, Mahler, and Saint-Saens, and other composers have written music where the cry of the cuckoo is given to the clarinet, so I’ve been imitating these birds on stage for years. One of the rabbit holes I went down this week involved cuckoos that practice brood parasitism, or laying their eggs in the nests of other birds (hosts). Which led to the term coevolution, which happens when two (or more) species reciprocally affect each other’s evolution. Thus, cuckoos, as they evolve ways to get better at sneaking their eggs into the host nest, are matched in an evolutionary arms race by the hosts’ defense tactics. The cuckoos lay more quickly, produce eggs that hatch earlier than the host species eggs, or eggs that look like the host species eggs. In response, the host species evolves new defenses to the cuckoos, such as getting better at recognizing cuckoo eggs, proactively driving cuckoos out of their territory, etc.
  2. Pretzel rides. As opposed to the fast scares of a roller coaster, a pretzel ride gives a slow scare. Pretty much anyone who’s visited a carnival or amusement park has been on one of these. You get in a car that moves along a twisting track through a dark building filled with spooky sounds and glowing scary sights. The inventors of the ride, which debuted in a New Jersey amusement park in the 1920s Leon Cassidy and Marvin Rempfer, reportedly decided on the name after one early rider said he felt “twisted like a pretzel” during the experience. Voila! the Pretzel Amusement Ride Company was born. By the time it went out of business, in the late 1970s, these contraptions had become known more commonly as dark rides or ghost trains, and that’s how people refer to them today.
  3. Queen bees. In the nature shows and books that I read as a kid–pretty much the last time I learned anything about bees–I absorbed the idea that queen bees (who have mated) and virgin queen bees (who have not yet mated) were each others’ mortal enemies, and that a new queen and the old queen would fight each other to the death, winner take hive. If one of them survived, she would have to leave the hive. Now I learn that there are often several virgin queens, and their greatest enemy is one another. It’s the virgin queens who fight each other to the death. A new mated queen doesn’t drive the old queen out. She doesn’t have to, as the old queen tends to weaken and die shortly after a new queen comes along. Also, queen bees and virgin bees communicate by “piping” (vibrating) in their cells at the pitch of G#. Also, to keep track of the queen, beehive keepers often dab her abdomen with a dot of paint, and this paint is frequently color-coded to the year that she was born.
  4. The Berkshires. I first encountered this scenic part of Massachusetts when I drove from Chicago to Boston. (I wanted to shake up my life by moving to a coast; I flipped a coin and drove east. It turned out great.) The Berkshires in August, when I first saw it, is a place of rolling hills, hiking trails, and arts festivals. Even with all the tourists, it feels laid back. However, in the 1770s the Berkshires was the site of civil unrest. A citizen uprising prevented judges from meeting in 1774, just a few months after the Boston Tea Party. The Berkshires were also the forbidding terrain through with Continental Army Colonel Henry Knox moved 59 cannons from New York to Boston in the winter of 1775-76. The cannons had been captured from Forts Ticonderoga and Crown Point, and the journey entailed 300 miles in the miserable conditions familiar to anyone who has suffered through a New England winter. Facing frozen lakes, mountains, and swamps, Knox still managed to deliver the artillery to Boston by the end of January.
  5. My writing preferences. When it comes to pantser or planner, it’s been a scary time pantsing. I enjoy the moments when some interesting twist comes out of my back brain, something I’d never have included in an outline. When I blow yet another tire on a plot-hole, though, I regret that I haven’t planned things out more elaborately in October. Still, I like pantsing enough that I’m going to alternate writing and planning on my next project.

So that was my week, ghost trains, queen bees, and revolution, along with a moderate amount of catching up. On the bright side, if I can stick to 7:30 at the dining table it looks as though 50K might be possible I hope, dear readers, that things are going well with your NaNo projects/other creative work, and that you also learned some cool new stuff this week.