Stuff that Occupies the Mind

by Willem Lange

EAST MONTPELIER – Have you ever timed the rotations of the turntable in your microwave oven? Or checked almost every day to see how far up the north wall of a room the sunlight, coming through a south window, has climbed as the solstice approaches? Or measured the difference in the temperature of, say, an interior hall and a twelve-foot-square office populated by a small terrier, a large human, an energy-saving lamp bulb, and a desktop computer?

It’s difficult to imagine matters less trivial than these; yet they’re the stuff that occupies the mind of an ancient widower with no one anymore in the next room to holler to, or tell news to, or to argue with – as, for example, in this case, ending infinitive phrases with prepositions.

The microwave turntable, I’ve found, rotates once every eleven seconds. (It also reverses direction, but I haven’t yet determined a regular sequence.) This bit of trivia becomes mildly important when reheating part of a cup of coffee. If, holding the cup by its handle, you set it down and punch “Minute Plus,” the end of the minute will leave the handle pointing away, which means grabbing a hot cup and perhaps spilling it. If instead you push “66 seconds,” or “77,” or any multiple of eleven, the handle is right where you left it. This works flawlessly for anti-clockwise; less so for clockwise, which lags by a fraction of a second. I’m still puzzling over that anomaly.

The coronavirus has us (or should have us) almost morbidly vigilant about unnecessary exposure; our governor has pleaded with us not to travel over the holidays; the colder weather has chased us indoors off our sunny porches; and we close our letters not with, “Love,” but with “Stay safe, dear friend.” We’re hiding like mice with a new cat in the house. So it’s no wonder that, like prisoners doing long stretches, we can be fascinated by minuscule features of our lives. Next, I suppose, will come cockroach races, which should interest my furry little companion tremendously.

Outside, the storm rages: a president filing scattershot lawsuits instead of conceding defeat; the virus breaking grim records daily; hundreds of thousands suffering food insecurity and the inability to pay rent to landlords now permitted to evict them; and nobody knows how many people praying not to need medical attention they can’t possibly pay for; a sudden laserlike focus on the two senate elections in January in Georgia. And all that is just the tip of the iceberg of concerns.

“In the room the women come and go, talking of Michelangelo,” wrote T.S. Eliot 105 years ago. It’s just like this place. That poem pursues me and Kiki almost daily during our walks through the park, while I try to get the verses back into the correct order in my head. And roaming the house or lying half-asleep a bit before dawn, I’m haunted by earworms, the result of a habit formed during my early twenties, of memorizing long chunks of songs or verse. At the moment I’m tortured by “Mrs. Fogarty’s Christmas Cake.” It’s a lyric as packed as any Gilbert and Sullivan patter song and describes the durability of the cake: “For we worked at it over an hour, but we couldn’t get none of it loose. Till Murphy came in with a hatchet, and Kelly came in with a saw…”

The internet, which I cruise daily, is salted with expressions of joy – the video of North Main Street in Barre, for example, just after the calling of the election for the challenger – and threats of violence, retribution, and civil war. The president is, incredibly, planning more rallies, this time to raise funds for his court challenges of the results. The news media trumpet that the worst of the viral infection is just beginning to bloom, while Pfizer announces the apparently successful testing of a vaccine to combat it, and the stock market shoots up. Armed, glowering goons in “battle gear” roam the streets of Austin, Texas, and passersby laugh in their faces. A Facebook friend makes frequent stabs at creating limericks, most of them execrable, but his spirit is infectious. I’m grateful daily for those contacts – and e-mail and Zoom, where I chat with kids, friends, or go to church.

A military drill has you crawl on your stomach while machine gun bullets whiz by overhead. That’s the way it feels here: How low can we keep our heads and still function? So, among the earworms following me around is one from the 91st Psalm: “A thousand shall fall by thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand; but it shall not come nigh thee.” Head down, fingers crossed!