A few days ago, the microwave beeped erratically for no known reason. A printer quit working. Plumbing fixtures began to malfunction. The button to enter a new blog post vanished temporarily from my website. A year since I wrote “Things keep breaking,” the gremlins are at it again.
Gremlins came to human attention shortly after World War I, when British pilots described their sabotage of aircraft engines and flight controls. The Spectator reported in the 1920s, "The old Royal Naval Air Service in 1917 and the newly constituted Royal Air Force in 1918 appear to have detected the existence of a horde of mysterious and malicious sprites whose whole purpose in life was…to bring about as many as possible of the inexplicable mishaps which, in those days as now, trouble an airman’s life."
Are the gremlins more active in this darkening season, or do they just throw me farther off balance? Soon tree lights and carols will revive my resilience. Days will start to lengthen. Perhaps the gremlins will tire of their antics, until this time next year.
War on crime. War on poverty. War on drugs. War on terror. To call a big initiative a “war” is almost irresistible. The word conjures up determination, mobilization of resources, unity of purpose, and personal sacrifice for a larger cause.
Less consciously perhaps, “war” also conjures up constraints on civil liberties and acceptance of collateral damage. The language of metaphorical war lulls the public to condone these measures, with no clear end point. From the naming of the drug war, all the rest follows: police militarized, no-knock warrants issued, police shot by occupants who mistake them for housebreakers, bystanders killed by police returning fire. Combat and collateral damage.
Words matter. It may be time to declare war on metaphors of war.
“Let’s get a hot dog, Grandma.” Joey’s bare toes dug into the sand. “Why is Pete’s Tasty Dogs so far away? I wish it was closer to home.”
“Me too, Joey, but that would make a long walk for people from the other end of the beach. They might decide not to bother. Pete sells more hot dogs by staying in the middle.”
“You said the city agreed to add sand at this end, to make the beach longer. Then will Pete move Tasty Dogs here?”
Grandma laughed. “No, Joey. Pete will still put his stand halfway down the beach.”
“Then you went to all those meetings for nothing. All your letters to the city went to waste.” Joey scowled.
“Not at all,” Grandma said. “Don’t you see? After this end of the beach is closer to our house, the middle will be closer, too. Pete will move Tasty Dogs to the new middle, and we won’t have as far to walk.”
“Goody! Come, Grandma. I want ketchup on mine!”
Last March when events were canceled right and left, I figured quiet weeks at home should be a great time to write. Instead, my fiction writing has ground to a halt. The hours disappear into reading and long forest walks. Oh, there’s time in abundance. I just don’t have the focus.
Some writers and artists tell me they find the opposite, a relatively empty calendar letting creativity flourish. Others face constant interruptions with their family always home. Still, I may not be the only one who peacefully stretches chores and puttering to fill the day.
Beyond the drabness of my inventions compared to this year’s real life, I suspect the cause is also neurological. Much of the world in 2020 is experiencing heightened levels of threat perception. The chronic fight-or-flight response redirects brain and body to survival, at the expense of calm, clear thought. The rate of mistakes is up. Part of my week goes into correcting errors and making amends.
How is your focus these days?
“I can’t wait!” we say as a vacation approaches, a beloved friend offers to visit, or the theater curtain begins to rise. With reasonable confidence in the joy ahead, the flutter of eager anticipation is part of the fun.
The excruciating waits are the ones fraught with uncertainty. Waiting to hear back from an editor, agent, or publisher. Waiting for results of a medical test or a job interview. Waiting to learn the outcome of an election.
Do you suppose our ancestors waited more serenely before we got spoiled with instant food mixes, satellite communications, and same-day delivery services? Maybe not. I picture supporters of Adams and Jefferson in 1796 biting their nails for weeks, awaiting results of that bitterly partisan contest for president. (Spoiler: Adams won by a hair.) What feels like a short or long time has surely changed, but I suspect human nature stays much the same.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.