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America’s unofficial rest stops

It is a sunny, fall day and my neighbor, Lawrence, and I are on his front porch. He’s sitting in one of those outdoor chairs with plastic straps running across a metal frame to comprise the seat and back. I’m standing on the brown concrete floor, my hand on the bar of the stroller, pushing it rhythmically back and forth to lull the baby, M, dozing under his green and white blanket. This was in the days before we homeschooled and so the girls are off in their classrooms, the dog tucked in the house, across our abutting yards.

“I’m just grateful to be alive,”Lawrence says to me. Not long before this, he was in the ICU with pneumonia. His daughter had been over at our place playing with our girls right before he went in. When he’d walked over to our front door that night to pick her up, he’d hustled her along, saying he didn’t feel well and needed to get back home. It would be months before we would see Lawrence again after that evening on our front stoop. In the process of treating him for the pneumonia, they had to amputate both his legs below the knees. He’d lost fingers as well.

Really, this attitude of “I’m just grateful to be alive” is all you need to know about Lawrence.

He’s just gotten through telling me about the time, back when he was still in a wheelchair after his surgeries, when he’d had to go to the doctor. He points up towards a brown building within eyeshot but somewhat obscured by a few trees and other foliage. To get to the doctor that day, he was going to have to cross the 6 lane highway* next to our houses and he didn’t have time to call and wait for the public transportation service. So he’d called for a car and driver using a popular app/ driving service/ side-gig to drive him up the street.

“I don’t know what I was thinking or if they’d had me on some sort of drugs that day, but I decided to get myself back home.” Neither the curbs nor the pedestrians signals are amenable to wheelchairs or really, for anyone, who isn’t basically in above average physical condition and in a hurry. Fortunately, Lawrence explains to me, a kind soul had been there to help him across the highway and safely home.

The conversation turns towards various other issues in our neighborhood. The garbage and litter, empty beer and wine and liquor bottles that the neighborhood middle schoolers occasionally smash into the street or sidewalk walking home from school. The car accidents, particularly at the two closest intersections. Lawrence says he once watched someone, a young man, get mugged in his front yard. But, from his wheelchair, he’d been unable to do anything and had to watch as the two assailants made off with the young man’s back pack. I recalled the time someone threw a brick through a neighbor’s car window and stole $500 cash. He tells me about all the cars that pull over in front of his house. Sometimes, drivers get out to pee against a tree. “Hey, man!” he shouted once. “Well, I’ve already started! I can’t stop now,” the guy shouted back.

We both have time that day, chatting on his front porch, so Lawrence launches into another story. “I had taken the bus down to the gym.” While it wasn’t too long ago that he was in a wheelchair, he now works out regularly on two prosthetic legs. He describes how he’d decided to pick up a six pack of beer. And he spends some time on this detail of the story, as if somehow he feels like he has to explain it to me, as if picking up a six pack isn’t a completely ordinary or reasonable thing to do. On his way back to the bus stop, his legs started to hurt, so he grabbed a bench in a nearby park. He set his beer next to him. It was after dark and quiet, so he did what everyone would do and he checked his surroundings. That’s when he noticed a policeman in a marked car watching him. The policeman approached Lawrence, sitting on a bench in a public park and asked him what he was doing.

To be honest, I don’t remember all of the details of the conversation that Lawrence relayed to me. But I do remember that he kept saying the policeman “just kept trying to trip me up.” The officer wanted to know what was in his bag. And as Lawrence relays this to me, on the front porch of his home on a sunny fall afternoon, he says, “I just kept thinking about Freddy Grey.”

“Was I being racially profiled?” Lawrence asks. Later, in the comfort of his own home, he wrote letters about this experience. “The words just flowed,” he says, smiling slightly.

He goes on to tell me that, eventually, the police officer backed off. “He told me that the reason he noticed me was because I was looking over my shoulder.” Remember? When Lawrence started the story by explaining that he was in a park after dark and thus checked his surroundings? That was him “looking over his shoulder.”

************************************************

A year later, on another sunny fall morning, we wake up to the surprise of a construction crew at an intersection near our houses. It appears that they are setting forms and pouring concrete to change the shape of the curbs. I am hopeful that this might be an effort to slow down cars driving through our neighborhood. We have large, broad streets and few sidewalks, crosswalks, and four-way stops. Between these car-friendly conditions and the 8 lane highway which runs to both the beltway and into DC, our residential neighborhood is often used as a quick and easy “cut through” for drivers on their way someplace better.

Our foray into a traditional school was brief, and so on this day, the children are all at home. But it’s sunny out, so they opt to play in the front yard while I’m inside with the littlest one, no longer small enough to nap in his infant car seat like he was last year while we were on Lawrence’s front porch. I don’t know what makes me look out the front window at them, but when I do, the bushes right outside the fence are shaking strangely. It takes me a moment to realize that I can see the shape of a hat above the fence that runs between my property and Lawrence’s property, in the plants. I open our front door, shouting, “hey”. I think my voice can’t be heard over the sound of the cars and trucks on the highway. I start clapping. The girls look up, alarmed and then back behind them, where I am looking. The both scream and start running towards me. “Get inside and close the door,” I tell them. I see the hat begin to move back out of the bushes as I open the gate. There’s a man, obviously from the construction crew, walking away from the fence and back towards the intersection where the construction is going on.

At this point, I’m yelling as I follow the man. Everyone on the crew is looking at me. “Where’s the supervisor?” A man approaching me. He’s holding a cell phone, as if this indicates his status as the one in charge. He seems to be insisting that nothing happened. But I don’t speak Spanish and I’m having a hard time understanding his English.

There were three of these on this particular day that I was clearly garbage from in front of our house.

Lawrence comes up next to me. “What’s going on, Rhena?” I hear him say.

“One of these guys was in front of my house, in the bushes. Right next to where the kids were playing.”

Lawrence says, turning towards the man with the cell phone. “I saw someone else peeing on a tree over there.”

The man with the cell phone tries to explain that he has been calling the boss all morning. He keeps talking about a “seat” and it takes me a while to realize that he’s requested a portable toilet but in the meantime, he’s told his crew to go and pee somewhere far away.

“There are children here!”

“This is bullshit,” Lawrence says. He looks at me and then behind me. My 9 yo, A, has followed me out. “I’m sorry,” he says. “I shouldn’t have said that.” He nods towards A.

He turns back to the man. “If this happens again, I’m calling the police.”

But I know, and I’d wager a guess that everyone here knows: getting the police involved is the last thing anyone here wants to do.

***************************************

I’m perhaps even a little jumpier than usual that day and the following. I’m a little unsure what to do with myself. I have the post-adrenaline come down but no resolution. On regular Sundays, Eric and I meet with some other parents at our parish. One of my responsibilities is to send out an email ahead of time with the Sunday reading and gospel. I decide that maybe typing it up will give my hands, at least, something to do. It’s a little early, but at least it will be ready to go out. The reading is from the prophet Habbakuk, as follows.

How long, O Lord? I cry for help/ but you do not listen!/ I cry out to you, “Violence!”/ but you do not intervene./ Why do you let me see ruin;/ why must I look at misery?/ Destruction and violence are before me;/ there is strife, and clamorous discord./ Then the Lord answered me and said:/ Write down the vision clearly upon the tablets,/ so that one can read it readily./ For the vision still has its time,/ presses on to fulfillment, and will not disappoint;/ if it delays, wait for it,/ it will surely come, it will not be late./ The rash one has no integrity;/ but the just one, because of his faith, shall live.

******************************************

We used to live in Minneapolis, Minnesota, which is popularly referred to as “fly-over country”. The truth is actually that Minneapolis, as a hub for one major American airline, would be more aptly called “fly through” country. Over 18 million passengers pass through the airport there each year. Much like a sanctioned rest stop on the side of America’s highways, the airport is equipped to deal with the basic needs of those passing through. Needless to say, such a high volume of passengers and aircraft can have a profound impact on local residents. Perhaps most detrimental are noise disturbances. In order to distribute this impact so that no one community must bear the brunt of low-flying jets overhead, the flight paths are rotated around the airport. In addition, grants are available to upgrade HVAC and windows on homes to keep the noise out.

For those of us who live in residential neighborhoods next to highways and which are “drive through” country, none of these types of accommodations, even those around basic pedestrian safety are provided for us by the county or the state.

**********************************************

Later that fall, I am once again in our front yard. I notice a car pulled over in front of my house, next to the “no parking” sign. I watch the car, wondering if the occupants need help. A few times in the past weeks, I’ve seen someone get out of a car and then walk to the median of the state highway with a cardboard sign to ask drivers at the stoplight for money. I’m not entirely sure what to do when I see people right in our neighborhood, begging for money. So I pray.

Watching the car now parked on my street, I can see the outline of a driver and someone else, another adult, hunched sideways in the back seat. I watch for a few minutes, trying to figure out what is going on. Eventually, the person in the back seat moves to the front passenger seat. The car drives off. I see on the side of the road, a familiar neatly, folded white package left behind. A used diaper.

(*In an earlier version, I mistakenly described this as an 8 lane highway as I inadvertently included the turn lanes visible from my neighborhood. I apologize.)

Life Learning: Baking Edition

We have long considered Eric our family baker. He’s worked in a lab for most of his adult life, and I think there’s something about the precision of baking recipes that is similar to following experiments in a lab setting. Follow the steps laid out on the page. I lean more towards cooking which, ironically, leaves a bit more room for experimentation. A little of this. A little of that. Oy! Maybe not quite so much next time.

But this idea of pre-assigned roles is made for disruption. With all of us at home, Eric has taken over more of the meal cooking, I’ve picked up a bit more baking. And more often then not, Ms7yo has joined me. Two things she loves about baking: the feel of dough in her hands and any sort of decorating or icing. She’s happy to do the rest, measuring and stirring and whatnot, too but the dough and the decorating are her favorite.

It’s cookie baking season. Every year, I’ve thought to myself that during advent, I would really like to make baking a regular thing. Prior to 2020, those ambitions have always fallen apart. I don’t know whether it’s just more time at home this year or because Eric (the baker) is doing the grocery shopping so he’s always stocking our shelves with baking ingredients or if it’s because my sister gave us this book last year or what, but it’s actually kind of coming together this year.

We started off with these lovely (and surprisingly easy) Swedish shortbread cookies. We are technically a Norwegian family, but we don’t hold their Swedishness against these cookies. (See! Baking builds bridges across life-long rivalries even of the Scandinavian sort.)

As I’ve mentioned a few times, we homeschool, and baking is a great source of lessons — but academic and life lessons. Do not underestimate the power of a child experiencing ownership over a project from beginning to end, and particularly when the project has such tangible, innate, and sweet (!) rewards. This is aside from the obvious lessons that come with baking: fractions and measuring and all the math that goes with it. Ms7yo recently needed to reduce a recipe. At first, she only cut one of the ingredients in half, so I explained to her how each of the ingredients have to be cut in half. Later on, as she was working on balancing equations, she remarked, “You have to do the same thing on both sides, just like all the ingredients in a recipe!” If you had been looking, you too would have seen the lightbulb floating gently above her head actually turn on.

Later on, we shared the cookies with my parents and enjoyed some at home. And it’s with utter pride that Ms7yo could confidently say that she had made them with me and explained what tasks she had been responsible for.

“And what parts did you do?” my mom asked Ms10yo.

“Oh no!,” she exclaimed, shaking her head and hands as if to say that baking is something she would never do, “I didn’t help make the cookies. I was watching [Mr2yo] while they were making the cookies.”

She paused a moment. “Oh. So I guess I did help!”

And so the learning continues.

Life Learning

Learning does not have to be separate and apart from life. To wit.

I’ve been knitting a lot this year. Amongst other skills I’ve worked on (like making socks without a pattern), I’ve wanted to learn and work on doing colorwork or using multiple strands of yarn to create multi-colored patterns and images in the knitting. I was thinking about this, when I came across a pattern from Insayshable Knits (Saysha Green).

The double layer, reversible ear warmer had just a touch of colorwork and I had some beautiful Farmer’s Daughter Fibers yarn to which Ms7yo had already laid claim from the FDF Sock Squad monthly subscription service. The icing on the cake was that the pattern had a story behind it. Saysha Green used Bogolanfini or “mud cloth” from Mali as her inspiration for the colowork, to beautiful results.

As homeschoolers in the DC area and prior to the pandemic, we viewed the numerous (mostly free) museums in the area as a learning resource. We didn’t visit them that often, but one trip could inspire several weeks-worth of projects and areas of learning. Of course, with the pandemic, we’ve had to find ways to bring those topics into our home.

After I’d finished and blocked the earwarmer, Ms7yo and I sat down with an atlas in front of us. We talked about the different continents and oceans. She found Africa. I explained about the mud cloth and the meaning behind it as Saysha Green had included in her pattern directions. Ms7yo found Mali on the map.

This short lesson didn’t take long. And I’m hoping that whenever she pulls out her earwarmer, we might take a moment to remember where the inspiration and yarn came from and how we are all connected in these ways big and small. Even when the museums are closed. And even in a pandemic.

Queen of Nostalgia

In real life, my given name is Rhena. My dad was the one who chose it when he found it in a biography of Albert Schweitzer, who gave it to his daughter too.

I lived for a year in a dorm in London while I attended Goldsmith’s College and one of my dorm-mates was a woman from Germany who was majoring in Spanish. She’d read my name outside my room several times and one day, she finally said, “I’m saying your name wrong, aren’t I?” I started to explain that it’s the same as the Spanish word for queen but the look on her face as she looked at the letters comprising my name told me that this didn’t compute. “Just read it like you’re reading German.”

A lightbulb went off for her and she never mispronounced my name again. In Spanish, it’s spelled Reina although I’ve know people who spell it: Reyna, Rayna, Raina, and even Rehna.

I’ve never found a keychain or a beaded necklace or barrettes with my name on it on any souvenir store in America, or anywhere for that matter. It wasn’t for lack of trying. I don’t know how many wire racks I’ve slowly spun, by-passing Rachel and then Rebecca before giving up at Sarah.

And so it’s not without a little thrill that I’ve enjoyed the rise of women calling each other “Queen” to show support in public spaces.

And perhaps that’s part of why I signed up for a monthly “Queen of Yarn” enamel pin club. I’m not an impulse purchase person. And I don’t tend to buy things that feel frivolous. I don’t buy things that feel purely decorative to me. Turns out these pins didn’t. They felt affirming and charming and a little (maybe a lot) nostalgic.

I grew up in the era when groups of kids would gather on the school playground to swap and admire sticker collections. Back then, I never would have thought about the person or people behind designing and producing the stickers. It was purely aesthetic: the colors, the images, the textures, and sometimes even the smell of them. And it was, of course, the coming together with other kids in mutual appreciation.

The Queen of Yarn enamel pin club recalls all of that and then some, because now I get to know a little bit about the creator behind them. (Turns out that we both grew up in DC!) Her details — the colors, the inclusion of the phrase “Queen of Yarn” and, of course, the little skeins of yarn in unexpected places — in her designs recall that same sort of simple childhood feeling of delight and surprise that is, frankly, rather hard to summon up these days. And, of course, the little handwritten notes are a reminder that there’s a person behind these pins. It’s an equally imperative reminder.

This is one of my favorite things

We usually have the breaded chicken with a ketchup and Worcestershire sauce, sushi rice, a vegetable and/ or salad greens.

This breaded chicken (Japanese style) is one of my favorite meals to make. It’s simple and easy and doesn’t require much in the way of technique and expertise. Because each piece of chicken must be individually breaded, it requires focus, the same kind of focus that working on an assembly line might require and it takes a long time to make.

Every single member of our family loves this meal. In the evenings, before the pandemic, they used to all hang out with their dad (who they hadn’t seen all day) in the basement, and Eric later told me that when they heard the “bang! bang!” sound of me using the meat tenderizer to flatten out the chicken breasts, they knew that this meant of one of their favorite meals would be on the table. Knowing that my family will enjoy the meal means it is satisfying to make but there’s more to it than that.

The best part of preparing this meal is that I’ve done it enough times at this point that I feel competent. Competency feels good. I can slice chicken breasts super thin. I’ve figured out how best to control the salt distribution. I’ve figured out how to keep one hand the raw chicken contaminated one and one not so that I don’t have to wash my hands every other step. I know which tools in my kitchen work best for each step (I line my colander with paper towels so that the oil can drain off vertically placed pieces of chicken rather than flat on a plate where only one side drains). Once, I made the panko bread crumbs from scratch using a homemade loaf of bread. I probably won’t do that again. But I’ve done it and know that on the off chance I can’t get premade breadcrumbs, I can make them myself.

As much as I love trying and doing new things in the kitchen, I think I love more the feeling of: I’ve been doing some things for long enough that my fall-backs produce something consistently tasty and satisfying. And that feels good too.

… it pours.

(The first half of this post can be found here.)

I recall that as a child, electrical outages always felt a bit like an adventure or at least held the potential for adventures on par with snow days. At the very least, it held the possibility of finally answering the question: how *would* I have fared on the Oregon Trail with some, however small, degree of certitude. I try to hold on to the idea that my kids are somehow experiencing this beach vacation outage in the same way that I did as a child. But, somehow, adulthood and the still intact cellular service provides us with just enough information to suck away any potential mystery and magic and, yes, even adventure.

Eric does what he is good at: collecting information. He figures out who the utility company is that serves this area and begins to monitor their on-line updates. It turns out at least one tornado did touch down somewhere north of us. The projections for when service will be restored for this area vary from the following day to four days, which is the rest of our vacation. I swear I can hear the frozen baked goods I lovingly prepared at home and transported here on dry ice scream from inside the now-warming freezer.

Aside from the food we have in the refrigerators and freezers, the kitchen appliances all run on electricity. But there is a propane grill outside. There are no flashlights in the rental house other than those on our phones, from which the power is already draining. We can’t even find candles. We brought one camping lamp (for outdoor lighting) and, in a pinch, we can charge our phones and other devices in the cars but that’s not something we want to rely on. I reluctantly stop checking twitter and instagram. Ok. Full disclosure? I slow my roll, a bit, but don’t stop entirely. I share this with you so that my re-telling doesn’t become more dramatic than it really was.

My sister and her daughter load all the coolers we have into the back of their rental and venture out to track down ice. (The employees at the nearby liquor store laugh at idea of having any ice left but the further afield grocery store has plenty.) My brother is on dinner duty and decides that hot dogs (with a fixin’s bar) and summer veggies won’t be too hard on the propane grill and he grabs pillar candles safely ensconced in glass holders on his trip to grab ingredients.

We aim for an early dinner for the sake of having sunlight and because of Covid-19 we’ve already been eating all of our meals outside so that we can be together. After the meal, I hang the camping lamp from the ceiling light so my brother (who has requested be called “Sir Illin Pain” on this blog and henceforth it shall be so) can wash the dinner dishes. I dry. But really this is just an opportunity for me to tell him about how I think that the vision-impaired villain of the movie Get Out should not have been physically vision-impaired. It should have been metaphorical. Sir Illin Pain isn’t really buying what I’m trying to sell but I’m not too worried because I don’t think Jordan Peele is going to be calling for my help any time soon.

Outside on the front porch, my sister and her kids and husband and my sister-in-law (who has been asked to be called Ms32yo on the blog) and my mom and other younger brother have started an impromptu (is there any other kind?) sing-along/ performance (primarily by my nephew G who is the one who mostly puts in the time and effort into his voice and guitar). G sings one of my favorites by Bright Eyes.

This is the first day of my life. Swear I was born right in the doorway. I went out in the rain, suddenly everything changed. They’re spreading blankets on the beach.

Later, I am lying in one of two twin beds in the room I am sharing with Ms7yo. If I strain my ears, I can hear the ocean, which is, of course, the dream: to fall asleep to the real sound of the real ocean.

I can also hear voices. Is someone arguing or is that a chair being dragged across a floor somewhere? Laughter? Or crying? For a period of time, twenty years ago or so, I lived in a remote part of Thailand near the Burma border in a small house made of bamboo. Hearing our neighbors through our open windows reminds me of that and the quiet often made me feel like I was eavesdropping. I feel the familiar blush of shame at this thought. I’m not trying to hear, I think to myself. And I fall asleep thinking about privacy and auditory invasions.

“What should our plan be?” Eric asks me in the morning. He’s already been awake and checked in with some of the others. It was the heat and the neighbors’ noise, neither tempered by air conditioning units that most disrupted sleep. Much of the day is spent thinking about how to best to keep the houses cool and what to do about food. How much longer can we last without electricity? The kids drain the iPad battery. I don’t blame them.

I have the ingredients for key lime pie, including slowly warming whipping cream in the fridge. After a morning trip to the beach where, thankfully, a lack of electricity doesn’t effect us, I decide to attempt the pie on the propane grill, which has a thermometer on the lid. After pressing the graham cracker crust I pre-mixed at home into the pan, i place it into the preheated grill off of the direct heat. While I am moving fallen branches into piles in the backyard, I catch the unmistakeable smell of burning butter.

It’s not a total loss, I try to console myself. I’ll cut off the blackened edge and be more careful on the next one. Sir Illin Pain joins me out back.

“Are you baking a pie on the grill?” he asks me.

“Trying to,” I answer.

“When the shit goes down,” he says. “I’m taking you with me.”

“Wait. You mean like when it’s time to run into the woods?”

“Yes.”

“Because you want to be able to eat pie?”

“Yes.”

It’s one of the nicest things anyone has ever said to me.

Thunk. Whirrrrrrr.

“Is that the…?”

A cheer erupts from the other vacation houses and otherwise quiet streets in answer to my question. Yes. That is the sound of the air conditioner.

My sister walks into the backyard, “I was just walking back from the beach, thinking about how quiet it is without any electricity, when it all came back on,” she tells us in a tone equal parts relief and wonder.

I’ll finish the pies in the oven.

Later on, when Eric and I are reviewing the 30 hours without electricity in a pandemic in a vacation rental, we realize the degree to which SARS-Cov-2 had been occupying our every waking thought and moment for the past several months. And how, when issues of food and heat became more pressing, the pandemic fell to the periphery of our focus.

“You realize how people in other parts of the world have been experiencing the pandemic,” Eric notes. I agree.

When it rains…

The text reads, “D got a tornado warning on his phone, said to get to the lowest level. Can we come down there with masks?” My older sister is the sender and is staying with her husband and three kids on the upper half of the vacation duplex we’ve been renting as a family (of origin) for the last ten years or so. We’ve been coming to this beach-side town for the last 25 or so. But, a tornado warning at the Jersey Shore? This is a first for us.

My sister and her family have come from Minnesota where tornados are not entirely unheard of and where most buildings have basements or a designated tornado shelter. As kids on the east coast, we used to spend a week or two at a small beach in Virginia where many of the houses were raised up on stilts, in anticipation of floods and hurricanes. At night, lying in bed, when the wind kicked up a bit, I could sometimes feel a slight sway in those houses. It was a comforting, not threatening, sort of a rocking. Later, I would learn that this type of slight give or flexibility under the pressure from the wind made these houses more likely to survive through a storm. It’s the stubborn, immoveable ones that get knocked over.

In New Jersey, my sister and her kids don their masks and troop downstairs, which is on the first floor, which feels, at this time, neither high enough to be safe from flooding nor low enough to offer protection from tornados. Plus, there’s this virus going around. We’re in a weird place.

I am staying downstairs with Eric, the kids, and my parents. My brothers and sister in law are staying in another cottage a couple blocks away. Armed with information from Eric, the virologist, and my sister who is a health care provider, we have been meticulously planning this trip over zoom and email and regular phone for months now. Our primary concern has been keeping my elderly parents, the most vulnerable in the group, safe from COVID-19 while still being able to enjoy the mental health benefits of socializing with kids and grandkids. Meals and hugs and hand washing have all been considered and discussed. Many in the group have gotten tested in the week before or isolated themselves to a greater degree. We’ve brought extra hand sanitizer alongside regular load of sunscreen. Eric has set up porch-sized mesh tent to allow for more bug-free socializing outdoors. We’ve stocked the fridges and freezers (including a few different homemade freezable doughs for fresh baked goods) and planned out meals in the three kitchens to cut down on trips out and to limit time socializing indoors. Like every year, we anticipated that we might have a rainy afternoon or day or two. But, given that trips to the movie theater or local library would be out, we planned for this too: bringing video game consoles and tablets and plenty of chargers. And, well, the first few days have gone more or less according to plan and we are, generally, feeling pretty good: grateful to have this time together in a beautiful setting by the sea. Even the early-in-the-season hurricane to the south of us seems to have resulted in not much more than the anticipated rainy day.

And so it was that we were in the downstairs half of the duplex, wondering whether the tornado warning was a mistake, given that only one of our phones received it when the electricity went out.

(To be continued.)

Summer Sunday

It is hot and mid-day and Mr2yo and I are in the longest shady stretch we can find in our yard, turning, step by step it into a defacto toddler run.

“Mama,” he says, “way!” And points his little arm around the adult-chest-high plastic box that holds the bike trailer and a few tools.

“You want me to go this way?” I verify even though this is the third, maybe fourth time we’ve done this.

“Yeah,” he tells me as he turns back to the other side of the box.

I walk along the proscribed route. A few steps later, as I reach his side of the box, I intone in my sing-song voice, “Where’s M? Where did M go?” I can see him, tucked between the box and a large, evergreen bush out of the corner of my eye but this routine counts on him not yet understanding how to see the world from another’s perspective. That will come later.

Just as I pass by his secret spot, he runs out.

“Oh!” I yelp, “Boo!”

And he laughs his deep, throaty laugh that seems to belie his age and innocence. But just as quickly, he’s back to business. “Again!” he commands me over the rumble of cars along the highway near our house.

I follow him back along “my” way around the plastic box and down a slight, tree-root-covered slope. He makes little, nonsensical noises as he leads me, pausing after each to give me a chance to mimic him. I repeat his sounds as best I can. He moves faster than I do, seeming to leap with each step so that he appears to float over the ground. Like a butterfly.

He reaches the four foot fence that separates two parts of our yard, ostensibly so that we can contain our dog in one area or the other. (The reality, of course, is that not even her dog crate with locks on it has been able to contain her.) He pushes against the small gate, trying to remember how to open it. “Mama, help me,” he tells me.

“Please?” I ask him.

“Yeah,” he answers. Good enough. I reach over the gate, unlatch it and show him where to push to open the gate. He pushes it open and steps through.

“Ok,” he says. “Again.”

He’s seen his two older sisters (10 and 7) on the patio with their aunt. They are reading picture books to each other as a sort of informal picture book writing workshop. I don’t know if he would have gone up to the patio had they not been there or if he had it in his mind to turn around and repeat our steps, but either way, he walks back through the gate and up the slope to where we started. Again.

By mornings end, I’ve lost count of how many times we repeat this hiding and jumping out and gate opening routine. There is very little variation in the routine and dialogue. And I don’t know what is the impetuous to him deciding to move on to another task (perhaps once the script was memorized, it was time to leave it behind?), but eventually he does just this. I suspect that it had something to do with him testing some theory or idea. Perhaps he was learning that the gate, the plastic box, the tree roots, even his mother, would be largely unchanged on each trip back and forth. Object constancy, some call it. Or maybe it was more “behavioral consistency” that he was looking for from me or from himself. Would the word “way” and pointing result in the same behavior on his mother’s part? Would she really ask, “Where is M?” In the same sing-song voice each time? Will my sisters and aunt still be there?

I suspect, as I periodically do as a parent, that I had passed some sort of unspoken test on his part. And I was glad to move on to something else. And I can only assume that he was too.

Together, Together.

Five thousand years ago back in February of 2020, I ordered a Harriet Tubman themed yarn collaboration box curated by Lady Dye Yarns. It featured beautiful hand dyed yarn, a button with the Tubman quote “Every great dream begins with a dreamer,” a pocket constitution, a box of Girl Scout cookies (thin mints!), some green tea, digital pattern download for Harriet Tubman wrist cuffs from JimiKnits, and arrived in April.

Much changed between when I ordered the box and when I found it on my doorstep (a few days after the obligatory “sorry for the Covid delay” email from Lady Dye Yarns). To wit: when I first saw the box for sale, Eric and I had been thinking about a weekend or overnight trip along the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway here in Maryland. It had crossed my mind that the wrist cuffs could be my car trip knitting project. Needless to say, we tossed aside our mediocre-laid plans.

I just finished the wrist cuffs for Ms7yoZ (well, minus the blocking, because she’s been too excited to wear them. Yes, wool wrist cuffs in 90 plus degree weather. She’s mostly wearing them inside in the air conditioning, though, and I think it makes her feel like a superhero, especially when she’s typing away on the computer, as she usually is these days in either chat rooms or working on her book. Writers wearing wrist cuffs is a thing.)

The pattern for these wrist cuffs are a curving and complex (for such a small space as a 7yo’s slender wrist!) series of cables. I’m currently casting on the first of a pair for Ms10yoA. (The younger sister loved the purple-forward colorful skein that came in the box, but the older one requested a silver yarn.) This is a sure sign of a well-written, enjoyable, challenging yet satisfying pattern: the desire to do it all over again right away.

Tiny wrists meant I had to adapt the pattern very slightly but it was easy to do.

So what makes this, or any pattern worthy of repeat or what kind of pattern makes me search out the designer’s other patterns as I did with this one? In this case, the pattern was given twice in two different ways (a chart and then written out). I used the chart and didn’t even have to refer to the second way because it all flowed. And it worked. The pattern worked. I ended up producing the wrist cuffs shown in the picture (ok: honestly, I made two small mistakes in the cabling, but that was on me not being attentive and being too lazy to go back and fix it).

At the end of the day, a good pattern writer is also a good teacher. They don’t take for granted that the person reading their pattern knows everything that they know. In this case, the designer included small tips like where to use stitch markers and links to videos that show some of the more unusual techniques used.

I know that I’m in the middle of a really satisfying pattern and project when there are moments of intense, focused concentration on the pattern itself punctuated by moments of, “Oh! This is working! I really am getting this!” Afterwards, I’ll step back and look at the project and kind of marvel that someone else created this and then, even though I’ve never met this person in real life and with a minimal of words and tools, their design went from their mind onto paper, traveled to me, and then, looking at nothing but this piece of paper, my hands created what they had in their minds, exactly. Honestly: it can feel like a small miracle. Or, at the very least, it gives me a slight feeling of awe at human beings’ ability (and desire) to create and connect beyond the superficial.

The children have this board game called “Gnomes at Night” in which each of the two players see two different sides of a maze. They have to work together to collect different items in the mazes: basically describing what they see on their side of the board to direct their teammate to move through the maze that they can’t see. It’s super fun and cooperate and challenging. And it creates this similar feeling of the joy in the task is in successfully communicating what you have in your mind to another person.

It’s magical! And fun.

I’ve been making a few stop motion videos over the past months. In fact, one of the early ones that I made was a mini unpacking video of the Harriet Tubman box from Lady Dye Yarns.

My apologies for the quality, it was my first one, I think.

I posit that part of the appeal to stop motion video (to me at least) is the way in which they communicate the idea or story in such a way that there is clearly a human creator. We know that a human mind and hands had to be involved in conceiving and making it but we never see that human or those hands. (And I’ve heard more than once lately that human hands or non-physically distanced bodies, even on a video, are making viewers squeamish and uneasy these days.) If you’re like me, you’re drawn to and discovering all the myriad ways in which humans connect with each other in non-physical ways these days. And you’re finding a depth to these communications deeper than you previously thought possible. Cheers to that!

Reading Revolution

Consider Kindle Unlimited. For $10 a month, a reader in possession of an electronic reading device can access a library (Amazon advertises it contains over 1 million titles) of self, indie, and large house published stories and books. The sheer volume boggles the mind: all those stories, all those words, all those pages.

Over on Twitter, some published authors have recently broken taboo and shared their advances under the hashtag “publishing paid me”. Numbers range from the few thousands to, of course, the six figure and even millions (usually for a multiple book contract) of dollars. Many on twitter were astounded to find how small some authors advances were. An advance can be described as a publisher’s gamble on how well a book will sell. It’s not a gamble in the purist sense because publishers can control to some degree, through marketing, what sells. And clearly, sitting on a large advance and the freedom and time this gives a writer to create will impact the product. Some writers, most writers, have to keep their day jobs.

This commodification of books, or stories, has been a bit of a hang up of mine. I went to graduate school for creative writing. We spent hours in workshops sharing and discussing each other’s writing. We paid (a lot) for the privilege of doing so. To a lesser degree, we learned about and discussed how to make a living doing this, putting words on a page. And years on, some graduates are making a living writing or teaching writing or editing or other jobs that people who have studied words do.

I am not. Not that I wouldn’t love to get paid for writing or editing or teaching writing. But I don’t.

A classmate once compared the experience of being in a workshop with one specific professor to being tossed about in a rock tumbler and coming out of it as a shiny gem. I have to admit that, in those hallowed halls of higher learning, I applied that image to the whole experience of publishing. I really fell for the myth that the only good stories, the only ones worth reading are those that have been tossed around in the rock tumbler of workshops and editing and revisions and knocked into a smooth shine. I didn’t bother to examine that sometimes all that comes out of the rock tumbler is a pile of dust or that the dull, craggy rocks are usually a hell of a lot more fascinating than the sleek uniformity produced by the tumbler.

I still read words and consume and learn about the world in this way but lately, much of my reading and listening and general consumption of written ideas has been shadowed by a thought that seems to intervene between me and my enjoyment of the written word. Imagine, if you will, holding a smooth, thick piece of paper in a dark room. You’ve been told that this piece of paper contains another person’s story, their truth but you can’t see what it is. You move closer to a window in the room and the dim light reveals that the paper is glossy as well as thick and smooth. And then you look up a realize there’s a shade over the window and behind that a cloud has been intercepting the sun light all along.

The cloud and the shade are a bit like the publishing industry and workshops. And when those are removed and under the full light of the sun, you see that this is a photograph and you can make out all the finest details and little nuggets of truth and humanity. And this photograph is a story.

Sorry. I’m mixing metaphors now. What are stories? Are they rocks? Or are they photographs? They are both. And a lot more. Stories and poems and essays are even the shiny, tumbled stones. But in spite of what the NYT Bestseller list and publishers and even agents might try to tell us, that’s not the only thing they are. I’ve been staring at those shiny stones for so long, wanting to make my own just like them, that I haven’t been able to see all the rocks and photographs and birds and swords and trains and fountain pens and on and on and on that are also stories.

Not too long ago, I would have scoffed at an indie press book much less something self-published. If it hadn’t been through the tumbler, it would undoubtedly be riddled with typos and cliches and vague language and other crimes against language. This, of course, is a wrong-headed way of thinking. But, like I said above, I had sipped some of that kool-aid.

But not long ago, I read a few books that were NYT Bestsellers and I couldn’t shake the feeling that as much as I wanted to connect to the authors, their agents and editors and beta readers and conversations about “what would sell” seemed to keep stepping in between us like that cloud and that window shade as I tried to discern what was in the photograph in a dark room. So I pulled out my kindle and I started looking through Kindle Unlimited self published books.

I found one, Brotherhood of Secrets and Lies by Lashonda Beauregard. And I was captivated. It was a short, quick read in an efficient 80 pages not wasted on delving into character development or much exposition. It was a college campus murder mystery. It reminded me of an episode of Law and Order. I even thought, “This is like the old TV show 21 Jumpstreet,” and, lo, one of the characters was actually watching that show in an 80s flashback. And in that moment it felt like the author, Lashonda Beauregard, and I had some of the same cultural touchstones and that this is one of the things I had been looking for in a book, in a story. I wanted to be entertained, which I was, and I wanted to connect with the author even if it was something as seemingly superficial as a TV show, which I did. And I wanted to just read a story without feeling the presence of the agent and the editor and the beta readers, just me and the author. And I wanted to read something where there was no moral complexity or ambiguity in the characters. In other words, I wanted to escape the messiness of the real world for a place where the answers are all obvious and laid-bare. And that’s what happened. Thankfully, Beauregard has more books on Kindle Unlimited.

Kindle with pie and coffee go together like, well, kindle, pie, and coffee.

I’m willing (and thankfully able) to pay the $10 a month to pay for this access. And, in fact, I’m happy to pay for it to have access to self published authors. From my point of view, it’s a panacea to the monopoly that the big publishing houses (and even, although to a lesser degree, the indie houses) have had on story telling. And, trust me, I know that Amazon is the enemy. But I can’t help but think about how, in its original iteration, Amazon was a book distributor. And the other thing that I can’t help but think about is that this platform gives writers so much freedom and control over their own work. They can choose to spend money on editors and graphic artists and copy editors or they can choose not to. They can even hire marketers or do their own marketing or do nothing at all. Lastly, for those signed up with Kindle Unlimited, they are paid based on the number of standardized pages that are read. In other words, if people are really into what you are creating: YOU GET PAID. If not, then you don’t get paid. Now, of course, as someone who doesn’t have any work on Kindle Unlimited, I have no idea whether the amount writers end up getting paid is fair or not, but as a reader it makes me feel like by the very act of reading pages, I am supporting authors I like. If anyone knows of any platforms (electronic or otherwise) that allows writers as much independence and to have as much ownership while also connecting them to an audience AND paying them based on audience response and experience, please drop a link in the comments. Thanks.