The Kadigan Search

So I was watching this program about Massachusetts that included a map that showed which Native American tribes were most prominent in various areas of the state.  Around where we live the dominant tribe was the Wessagusset. Cool!  Out towards western Mass, the name of a river tribe caught my eye: Podunk.  Time to fire up the search engines…  

I’ve been trying to educate myself about words or expressions that intentionally demean a race or ethnic group, like “thug” and “gyp.”  I would be sorry if Podunk was one of these words.  It’s so much fun to say.  Loaded with plosives!   P fires into the atmosphere, D drops the jaw, and K slams the word shut.  I think it sounds like someone getting out of town for good, which is what people from Podunk often do.   

To my relief, Podunk’s slang connotations don’t directly refer to the Podunk tribe.  The Podunks—the word can mean both the tribe and the swampy land of their territory—had succumbed to Old World diseases and broken treaties by the mid 1700s.  In the tribal sense they are extinct, but the Podunk name is preserved: on a river in Connecticut, on roads and various unincorporated areas, and on towns in several states, including Vermont, New York, and Connecticut.  

Podunk became popular as a placeholder name for a small, dull, backward town in the later 1800s.   (Another term for placeholder name is kadigan, which is my new-to-me word of the week.) In 1846 a Buffalo (NY) newspaper ran a series of Letters from Podunk that became wildly popular nationwide.  The letters satirized the small-town/small-world perspective.  Soon other writers, including Mark Twain, began making jokes about Podunk towns.    

I mentioned the Podunk research to my husband Dave, who grew up in Massachusetts but had never learned about the tribe.  “If it turns out to be problematic,” he said, “you could always use jerkwater instead.”  

I hoped it wouldn’t come to that.  Jerkwater (definition: “small/remote/insignificant”) is a less attractive word, even though it applies more broadly.  Jerkwater town, politician, athletic program, etc. Like Podunk, Jerkwater also became popular in the later 1800s.  Then it referred to towns where trains stopped solely because there was a handy stream to refill the boiler (requiring that workers “jerk” the water from the stream to the train).    

Podunk and jerkwater.  Places that people itch to leave.  I know the feeling.  When I was 11 my family moved from the bustling DC area to Richmond.   Richmond wasn’t small, but it was still Podunk: slow-moving, faded, gossipy, and focused on the past.  My friends who’d grown up in Richmond thought of it as a favorite blanket, cozy and comforting.   To me it was a straitjacket.  I wanted the excitement and possibilities of a real city.     

During the later 1800s America underwent the Second Industrial Revolution, which included a major migration of people from rural areas to cities.  From 1870 to 1920, an estimated 11 million people abandoned Podunks and jerkwater towns for city lights.  During those years the population grew from 38 million to 106 million people.  

My theory is that maybe these kadigans became popular because they were timely.  People wanted to reassure themselves that giving up on Podunk and Jerkwater was the right decision.  1920 was the first time in US history when more people lived in cities than in the country.  There were a lot of people looking for that validation.  

The urban trend’s continued and intensified since.   In 2021, about 83% of Americans live in urban areas (cities and suburbs), while about 21% live in rural (open country/small town) areas.  Yes, those numbers sum to more than 100%; some urban areas contain rural areas within them.  

There’s a growing longing these days for a return to a more community-connected, simpler, small-town life.  Even I, a city-lover, sometimes am overwhelmed with such feelings here in my suburb.  How a town with a horse farm and a number of residents who keep chickens or goats can feel too urban is hard to pinpoint, but it does.  Maybe because there are almost 35,000 of us in 10 square miles?  Besides, it’s easier to go rural now that we can bring along our electronics, sometimes our jobs, and get most anything delivered to our doorstep, even in the most jerkwater of Podunks.  

I wondered if there was some antonym to Podunk on the rise, but I haven’t found one.  We need a new kadigan.  A name for a stodgy city that drives people to rural life, whose location can’t quite be pinned down…

Letters from Springfield?

My creation…bwah hah hah

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Number 80 with a bullet

“This is stupid,” I thought, again, as I trudged to the Bally’s gym on Clark Street.  A fit of self-loathing after a birthday week surfeit of cake, stuffed pizza, and daiquiris had led to my spending my birthday check on a year’s membership.  I wasn’t enjoying my workouts much, but I was determined to get my money’s worth by going five days a week. 

Bally’s occupied the the seventh floor of a vertical mall.  Horizontal space in downtown Chicago being limited, a lot of shopping centers instead expand upwards.  A glass elevator dropped me off in front of the reception desk.        

For the first couple of months I mostly pedaled one of the LifeCycles that lived by the aerobics floor.  I watched Stacy C’s 5:30 high impact class as the members jumped, grape-vined and whooped.  By the time I lined up (all the way at the back) I’d already practiced the routines, slow-mo, in my apartment.  Soon, though, I was jumping and grape-vining along.  The whooping will always be beyond me.   

I don’t know when I stopped thinking “This is stupid,” but it happened.  One evening I found myself heading down in the glass elevator along with Stacy C and a few others from the class.  “Wow,” she said.  “I can’t wait to get home and eat a big salad!” 

Stacy C and I would never be soulmates, but I stayed hooked on fitness.         

It was with a familiar feeling of desperate determination that I started bullet journaling at the beginning of this year (see “The Bullet Ballet” (January 10, 2021).  I was fed up with my reaction to the pandemic and feeling behind and disorganized.  I liked looking at  artistic bullet journal (bujo) spreads on YouTube and Pinterest.  It was exciting to know that my bujo could be exactly what I wanted.  So many bullet journal proponents said the practice had changed their lives for the better.  I felt doubtful whether this could be the case for me, but hoped for a similar miracle.  Who doesn’t want to be a better person?   Or, if not better, at least more bearable to myself?  

Also for a while I’d wanted a single place to keep records of a year.  Not so much the daily thoughts and feelings and research, the kind of things that take up space in my notebooks, but business records and appointments and lists of things I’d read, heard, and made.  Because the bujo would incorporate my calendar and all of my business information, I would be committed to using it for a year.   

I acquired a dot grid notebook and various accoutrements (Fineliners, washi tape, gluesticks, etc.)  On January 1 I muttered a brief prayer to Ryder Carroll and made the first entry.  As of March 21, 80 days into the year, I’m 50 pages in.  Thoughts so far:    

Pluses:  2021 in one notebook! I’m using these standard bujo features a bunch: 

Future planning pages, to write upcoming dates before I set up a month.   

Monthly calendar spreads, with plenty of room for personal and professional notes.        

Weekly calendar spreads.  I do one week on a two-page spread (letter-sized pages).  To-dos, appointments, long aspirational lists of things morning me wants evening me to have accomplished, phone numbers and reminders: it all fits in here.       

Collections: Covid-19 stats, books read, words written, notes written, videos completed.  I’d hoped that setting up these collections would encourage me to spend more time reading, or writing, or composing, or filming.  That hasn’t happened.  However, as far as I can tell I’m not doing any of these activities less than I was in 2020.  

Minuses: be careful of what you track! I’ve abandoned or greatly changed these features.   

Collections: Fitness tracking.  This page was a disaster because my first set-up was based on time, 30-minute increments, which turned me into a clock watcher and made it hard to enjoy moving.  Now I just list the date along with letters representing what kind(s) of activity I did (S=strength, C=class, W=walk, B=bike, etc.).   

Habit trackers in general.  My tendency to scribble water, or practice time, etc., on Post-It notes resulted in misplacing the notes more often than recording them.  How the stickies kept making their way to my socks I’m not sure.       

Neutrals: Things I never wound up using much  

The Index (anything that’s top of mind or important has a flag or tab).   

Brainstorming/idea lists (I never remember that I’ve started them). 

Key/Symbols.  I’m not visually minded enough to process a Ryder-style list.   

Big projects pages. This was going to be a thing, but I substituted lists on the weekly spreads and sometimes Post-Its, even at the hazard of their migrating sock-ward.     

Art skills. As I have none, an aesthetic spread will always be a nonstarter.  

Overall, I feel the bujo’s a reasonable strategy.  At the very least, organizing my 2021 tax information next year will be a snap.  The fitness spread debacle has helped me figure out how to set up trackers with better metrics.  I’m still on the sidelines, pedaling the LifeCycle, but I’ve stopped thinking “this is stupid.”  

Spring in some direction or other

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

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

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

Just like that, I was running an hour late.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The dog-paddler

Around the time of Sonny’s autism spectrum diagnosis our family life was very busy.  He had homework, social skills groups, birthday parties, tae kwon do, art classes, etc.  I taught private music lessons and did medical transcription to have a schedule flexible enough to take Sonny to his appointments, help with the homework, all the parent things.  For a few years I was too busy to participate in music groups.  Gradually I realized this was making me miserable.  Even though the  schedule was still crazy, I began taking baby steps back into playing in a group.    It felt great: I was playing clarinet with other grownups!  It felt crappy: I hated my sound!  I had way less control of the instrument than I wanted.  I needed to find a teacher.     

I feel similarly at the moment about writing.   A bit stuck.  Maybe I need to rebuild my process?   It was in this spirit that I (re)started The Artist’s Way (by Julia Cameron) a few weeks ago.  I’m still trudging through the book, doing the morning pages and exercises.   No sense of magic or renewal, though.  That’s possibly because I find Cameron’s writing persona off-putting.  I’m thinking about looking for a writing coach, somebody who could help me the way that my music teachers have.  

I’ve taken private music lessons on several instruments—piano, flute, voice, clarinet—off and on for much of my life.   One of the things that I valued most was the personal interaction with the teacher.  I’m always fascinated by my teachers’ lives and their homes, which are usually on the maximalist side, a cheerful clutter of instruments, scores, books, and pets.  My own students seem to enjoy the pictures in my studio, the Beethoven action figure who guards the pencil cup, the mobile, Trapeze Quartet, that hangs from the ceiling.   They eye the bookcases.  “Wow, you have a lot of music!” they say, these kids whose sum total of music books consists of a couple of method books and a band folder.   Yes.  

My first clarinet teacher, Bob, first chair in the local symphony, lived with his wife in a house in the swanky end of town.    He had a little brown dog who skedaddled into the kitchen (where his wife would be fixing dinner) when we took out our instruments.  His music stand was stacked with orchestra parts and excerpt books.   A butcher block table with purple boxes of Vandoren 5s, screwdrivers, sandpaper,  pencils, an ashtray, and a coaster for his martini.  Our lessons were at five p.m., and Bob liked a smoke and a drink before dinner.   I’d play my Beethoven six assignment to an accompaniment of clinking ice and rattling pans, the air filled with the smells of tobacco and meat.         

Several of my clarinet teachers have been smokers.   It seems counterintuitive for wind players, but cigarettes have a calming effect and are notoriously hard to quit.  The teacher I found during my midlife clarinet crisis, Mark, was a smoker, also.  (Though he would never smoke during a lesson.) 

He lived in a first-floor apartment on a quiet street in Jamaica Plain.  Cigarette butts in the garden.  His studio had a workbench and built-in bookcases that stretched to the ceilings, loaded with books and music.  Instrument cases lined against one wall.  His two cats, unusually for the species, seemed indifferent to clarinet acoustics and would often hang out while we were playing.  Mark had contracts with a some big music companies, Selmer and Rico (now D’Addario), was a professor at a conservatory, and had performed as a soloist all over the world.  The day of our first lesson, it took me several minutes to work up the courage to ring his doorbell, but he was warm and welcoming.  

Mark was also uncompromising.  He had a ferocious musical mind and an incredible ear.  He was supportive while also being picky.  Really picky.  Earlier in my life, when I perceived any flaw as an indictment of my worth as a human being, I would have fled after a couple of lessons.  With my earlier teachers, I had cultivated a self-protective ambivalence, practicing some weeks and then other weeks rehearsing excuses instead of my pieces.  Deprivation had made me desperate enough at last to work hard and consistently, even with the possibility that I would fail.  This mindset kept me going with Mark as we changed everything:  my breathing, embouchure, hand position, articulation, finger action, pitch, phrasing, rhythm.   As is true of many big changes, things often sound worse while the new technique is forming.  Some days picky would turn waspish.  Those were hard days for me and my neuroses.  I suspect that both of us wished for a cocktail and cigarette.  However, by the time our lessons ended, Mark having moved to New York, I was a different, and much better, clarinet player.      

I’ve expressed my worries about writing a few times in this blog.   Fear that trying for real will just prove that I’ve been wasting time, that the disapproving voice in my head has been right all along.  I remind myself that things didn’t work that way with Mark, who was and always will be a much better clarinetist than I.    He helped me swim in the deep end, even if I’m dog-paddling while he’s  doing the backstroke.   

Off google writing coaches.  


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

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

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

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

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

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

Hackett on Henry

New word of the week, found in an old book: illuded.  I was tired of staring at screens, and I was looking for physical books, the paper and ink kind, to read.  The local library’s closed temporarily due to an outbreak of Covid, so I raided a to-be-read stash at the back of my closet: a box of books from my teen years, forwarded by my father a few months back.  

I chose Henry the Eighth by Francis Hackett.  Henry glared, beady-eyed, from the cover.  I immediately thought of  Krispy Kreme donuts.  Not because Henry’s face was fat, though it was, but because good behavior at church on Sunday morning and evening was rewarded by Krispy Kreme donuts and Masterpiece Theatre on Sunday night.   Masterpiece Theatre was where I got my first doses of British costume drama and Tudors, in series like Elizabeth R and The Six Wives of Henry XIII.   I remembered intrigue, wood paneling and long corridors, oddly shaped headgear, ladies poking needles into embroidery hoops, men with bobs.

Hackett’s book, organized by royal wife, had 448 pages of dense, small type.   As of this writing, I’ve made it a couple of subsections into Anne Boleyn (the first two wives take up nearly two-thirds of the book).   I believe I read this book at around age 15, but I have no memory of the contents.   Over the years I’ve read and watched lots of stuff on the Tudors, the Wolf Hall books and miniseries, various pop histories, Shakespeare of course.  The era still fascinates.  The Hackett, a Bantam paperback, was showing its years.  No matter how gently I handled it, the brown-edged pages keep detaching themselves from the binding.        

The style took some getting used to.  Hackett writes from a “psycho-historian” perspective, in which he freely inserts himself into the minds of the main characters.  Also he makes some rather breath-taking generalizations on the French, the Italians, the Spanish, various churches and churchmen…  I yipped out loud several times in the first few pages.  Obscure words abounded.  I found “illuded” in a paragraph about Cardinal Wolsey, one of Henry VII’s closest advisors.  Wolsey was a self-made, ambitious man who fatally overestimated his ability to manage his king.  Hackett assesses him as “completely illuded by the wealth of [the Tudors] and the grandeur of [the Medicean papacy].”    ???  Context was not helpful, so I went to the dictionary.  That’s a practice I recommend, but it almost feels like cheating.  I prefer to look up a word to prove I was right about my guess as to its meaning to looking it up without guessing.  “Illuded” turns out to mean fooled by, tricked, or deceived.    Related to illusion, which makes sense.       

 I wasn’t quite sure that I’d understood Hackett’s intent.  At times he writes like somebody two drinks into a three word-martini lunch.    In describing a revolt of London apprentices: 

Theirs was a London of a thousand trades, a London of goldsmiths, silversmiths, armorers, blacksmiths, pewterers; of girdlers, loriners, saddlers and cutlers; tylers and plumbers and masons and plasterers and glaziers and painters; of fell-mongers, curriers, leather sellers, skinners, salters; of pinners on London Bridge, of wire workers and spurriers; fletchers and bowyers and stringers for warfare; joiners, cordwainers, printers; of tapsters and brewers and ale tasters… 

That’s 67 words, and the sentence continues for another 42.    “Loriners” is unfamiliar, but from context I think it’s something horsey.   The dictionary confirms.  The sentence is exhausting and exhilarating, but also it’s as broad and bustling as sixteenth century London.  Hackett also makes some lovely short sentences.  Anne Bolyen’s section opens with “The executioner’s ax is an unsocial tool.”  !!!!  

 Henry the Eighth was published in 1929, and I imagine its vocabulary and style would have been considered a bit astounding even then.  Hackett, an Irish writer who had emigrated to the United States, was well into a long career as a novelist and critic.  He emigrated to America, starting out in New York but soon moving to Chicago.  In that city, he worked as the literary editor for the Chicago Evening Post.  He also lived for a while at Hull House, an institution founded by Jane Addams and designed to help immigrants adjust to the US.  Hackett taught English to Russian immigrants at Hull House, which was on South Halsted Street. (I yipped again, since I lived for four years in an apartment on North Halsted Street.  Same street!)     

 I still enjoy learning about the Tudors.  Despite their undeniable successes at the international level, their willingness to set heads a-rolling makes them monsters to me, Henry maybe the worst, and monsters make for interesting narratives.   Reading this biography in 2021, I’m struck by parallels with a current political figure: both insecure second sons who assume the family business and squander their father’s fortune, both becoming cruel, glittering gluttons, both risky to know.   I’m curious to see how the story ends. 

Attack of the morning page!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A train of one’s own

In 1885, Robert Louis Stevenson, the Scottish writer who’s probably best known for Treasure Island, published the poem “From a Railway Carriage.”  In addition to rhythms that mimic train motion—“Faster than fairies, faster than witches,/Bridges and houses, hedges and ditches”—Stevenson flings image after image at breakneck speed.  A child, a tramp, a runaway cart, a mill, a river, “Each a glimpse and gone forever!”  It’s quite possible that Stevenson, a frail man but one who loved travel, was on a train while he wrote it.   

It’s delightful to write on a train.  Amtrak or scenic railway or subway, the pluses are similar.  The sense of motion, the engine noise, the coffee-shop feel of being around people without the pressure to interact.  Because while a certain kind of person feels free to ask “What are you reading there?” nobody ever wants an answer to “What are you writing there?”  Sometimes on fancy commuter rail there are even little tables for your laptop, plus outlets for your power cords, and cup-holders.   

 I’ve gotten a lot of work done while riding on trains, although I pale in comparison to someone like Scott Turow, who wrote most of his best-selling debut novel, Presumed Innocent, on the commuter rail.  I started on the Chicago El, drafting my 50 to 200 word assignments for a banking association while I was traveling downtown.   The city was slowly upgrading its subway system, but there were still some cars from the 1940s, and these were absolutely the best for writing.   The seats were arranged in parallel rows.  They had vinyl cushions—some of them with so many rips that they were all fluff and duct tape.  The seats groaned when I shifted my weight.  The cars had windows that could actually be opened.   My stop in Rogers Park was near the terminus at the north end of the city, so I’d grab a window seat and settle in with my notepad.    It took the train about 40 minutes to get to the Loop downtown.   Forty minutes was long enough to get into a writing groove, but not long enough enough to feel oppressive.  Besides, the environment provided lots of opportunities to take a breather or spark a story idea.  We trundled past office windows, back porches with flowerpots and clotheslines, graffiti’d rooftops, elegant hotels, fleabag hotels, skyscrapers, and always in the distance the great lake.  When the train went underground there was a wonderful rushing feeling and a change in the sound, and a short moment when we plunged into black and then blinked as the interior lights activated.  The other riders kept me thinking and wondering as well.   The shell-gamers and Moonies trawling for suckers, the girls dressed as Madonna or Cyndi Lauper, sun-hardened street people, Bears fans, Cubs fans, frottagists pressing, sweat dripping down the backs of necks…  

When I moved to Boston I switched from the El to the T, but the train-writing worked the same.   I rarely ride the subway anymore, but sometimes when I’m feeling dull, I buy a Charlie ticket on the Red Line, made a desk of my knees and backpack, and write until I’m out of juice, then get out at whatever stop is closest and explore.      

The pandemic put a stop to train-writing for a while.   I feel that itch for a change, so bored with moving from my study to the dining room to the sun room.   I have two windows open on this computer.  One is Scrivener, where I’m writing the draft for this blog, and the other is a Youtube video:  Driver’s Eye View of the Royal Gorge Route Railroad, which follows the Arkansas River for an hour and a half.     I’ve maneuvered things so that it looks a bit as it would if I was sitting by a window.  There’s engine noise, and the images passing by create a tiny sense of motion.   I saw a flash of color a bit ago—some people were paddling bright-blue rafts—and then I wrote a bit, and now I see the river’s all frothy.  I remember a day I spent at age 16, white-water rafting on the Youghiogheny River in Pennsylvania with a church group with a couple of pro guides on each raft.   Knees clenched onto the seat, water spraying everywhere, and how loud the rapids were, six foot drops scarier than a 60-foot roller coaster.  Somebody on the boat behind us fell out and broke his leg.   I think there might be a story nugget there..

It’s nice to figure out that with a little help from the internet, I can make my own train.    

May need knife and fork

Write what you know. 

As a teenager, I discovered this maxim and realized also that I knew… not much.   I believed, though, that a) one could know everything, and b) a set of books fancy enough to use the “encyclopaedia” spelling must contain all the knowledge any writer could need.  Enter our set of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th edition, big, heavy books bound in brown and gold.  My parents had made a big investment in this set, financially and in shelf space.  The 28 volumes took up a couple of yards’ worth of the bricks and boards that lined my father’s study.  Alternating the short articles of the Micropaedia with the in-depth technical articles of the Macropaedia, I persisted through the letter A, but B proved beyond me.  I suspended the reading project and the idea of serious writing for years.   

Despite what should be a cautionary tale, I still seek out writing advice.  I can get derailed, though, by my tendency to mix up the literal and figurative…    

“Be voracious about collecting new words…”  — Jess Zafarris

I woke up empty-bellied, my word-hoard depleted.   I felt ravenous.   My toes recoiled from the chilly floorboards.  I squinted against the morning light and fumbled for my slippers.     

“Person, woman, man, camera, TV.”  —Voldemort

Window, chair, lamp, bedspread, cat.   Plain food couldn’t provide the sustenance I needed.   Wall, doorway, staircase, kitchen, carpet.   My heart pounded as I searched.  Then I saw it, slumped into the armchair.  Five faded syllables.  A trembling crossbar, collapsed counters and broken serifs, ascenders fallen.  The tittle was missing altogether.     

“It is in your hands.”  Toni Morrison

I touched the thing with my pointer finger, the barest tap.  It seemed as though it might crumble to dust at any moment.  I thought of Toni and dead words  “content to admire [their] own paralysis.”   A serif twitched.  I let the thing lie while I looked for the tittle, which had taken quite a bounce, rolling almost to the radiator.   I chirped to it in its whistling, hoppy tongue, and at last it rolled onto my palm.    

Its color had improved while I was away.  At last I got it spread out over the top of the chair.  I had to press just a bit to set the tittle atop its stem;  it gave a brief squawk as it settled in.      “You’re a fine, fine word,” I reassured the antimacassar.  “Protecting generations of upholstery from gentlemen’s locks lacquered with the “incomparable oil, Macassar,” as the poet Byron put it.    Representative of dusty Victorian propriety as well as the close-up messiness of beauty.”  

“Words, words, words!” — Eliza Doolittle

I stroked its capline gently, and the word plumped and purred.    I wasn’t as confident as my tone, still confused about whether it was antique or antiquated.   Eventually my efforts were rewarded with a susurrus of snores.    “Be right back,” I said, moving softly in the direction of the kitchen.