Monday, January 13, 2020

What Happened on 12/21/19: Yelizaveta P. Renfro, Joi Massat, K. Chritton, Dorian Rolston, Liz Bedell

On 12/21/19, we invited writers and readers to write about "What Happened" that day, however they interpreted it, as an exercise in mass attention, and promised to publish as many of the resulting essays as possible. So here we go! For more details and a full list of the contributors, click the What Happened page.


I am calling out words into the predawn: “Music stand!” “Mouthpiece!” “Music!” “Ten dollars!” “Epi-pen!” My daughter K moves around the house collecting items. It’s dark every day when we get up, and today’s no different, but the words are. I normally call out other words: “Towel!” “Bathing suit!” “Chromebook!” “Goggles!” Most mornings, K and I head out before dawn to go to high school swim practice, but today we have a different destination. Elsewhere in the house, my husband and son are stirring, preparing for the two-hour drive to Chicago.

We have lived here, in northern Indiana, for not even six months; we are still on our first cycle through the seasons. The darkness of morning lasts for hours, an interminable gloom that stretches its fingers far into each day. This late sunrise is one of the first things I ever learned about this place, from Pete Buttigieg’s book Shortest Way Home, which was given to me as we prepared for our move. His book opens: “Dawn comes late here along the western limit of the Eastern Time Zone, so far from the coast that our first sunrise of the year arrives after eight in the morning.” Indeed, it still seems incredible to me that we are in the same time zone here as we were in our past life, in Connecticut, 800 miles due east. In Buttigieg territory we’re perched on the cusp of a time zone, on the edge of a state. From our front door we could walk to Michigan in fifteen minutes, drive into the Central Time Zone in twice that. For months we have been slanting into darkness, making this downward skid, until today: we have finally careened into the darkest day of the year, a morning to hit rock bottom, a morning that we carry with us like a shroud down I-90 until we drive into a time zone that makes sense, timestamping the dawn with a more appropriate hour.

We get to the Palmer House Hilton early—or so we think—but we aren’t really early. Already people are lugging tubas in cases or in gig bags or just brassy and naked through the streets. Already the floors of the hotel are swarming with disoriented tuba players and lost audience members. K goes in search of her fellow tuba players while the rest of us try to make sense of the audience line. It snakes all the way around the entire floor; in fact, the end of the line and the beginning of the line have merged into a confusing mass. We eventually find ourselves far back in the line, in a room that contains a bar where one may purchase mixed drinks, doughnuts, coffee, and tuba-shaped cookies. TubaChristmas is free, but a wristband is required for admission. A rumor spreads through the line that some people have been camped out here since 6 a.m., waiting for the wristbands that won’t be distributed until after 9 a.m. This is all new to us. Though this is our fourth TubaChristmas, the previous three times we attended a smaller event in Connecticut. The tuba devotees there did not have to spend close to six hours waiting for an hour-long concert. Only about 60 tubas converged on New Britain, Connecticut, while the Chicago event draws over 400.

As the three of us wait in line, my brother arrives. He flew into Midway this morning, then took an Uber from O’Hare. He’s been wandering around the hotel looking for us. At one point, he ended up on the tuba floor lost amidst the instruments. As we wait, he comments on how inefficient everything about TubaChristmas is: the line that still isn’t budging, the system for purchasing coffee and tuba cookies, which involves first exchanging money for raffle tickets and then the tickets for the food items, and even the TubaChristmas website, which appears to be a relic of the nineties. “There is nothing efficient about a tuba,” I point out to him. A tuba is all about excess. It is too large, too low, too loud. It has only three or four valves and does only one thing. And yet there is a cult following for this event, in its 46th year. The first TubaChristmas was in Rockefeller Center in 1974. There are now hundreds of these concerts all over the world. TubaChristmas is a garish, over-the-top display of ugly Christmas sweaters, TubaChristmas hats and scarves in red or green or blue festooned with the badges of past TubaChristmases like war medals. Some of the more seasoned musicians literally clank as they walk past; they have had to purchase additional scarves to display their pins. A few players wear dressy suits printed in festive Christmas lights or trees, as though a tailor had mixed up a roll of wrapping paper with his gabardine. The tubas are bedecked, too, with wreaths, flashing lights, reindeer antlers, tinsel, and all manner of holiday decoration. The tuba cousins are here, too: the sousaphones and euphoniums and odd double-belled horns and even one ophicleide. A select group of sousaphones wear bell covers that spell out MERRY CHRISTMAS.

We don’t manage to get green wristbands—which allow audience members to enter the grand ballroom as early as 11 a.m.—but we do score orange ones labeled 11:45 a.m. Soon thereafter, the orange wristbands run out and the color switches to red, which means the grand ballroom is at capacity. Audience members with red wristbands will be taken to an overflow ballroom where they will watch the televised concert live on a screen.

“Didn’t you get any merch?” my brother quips after we are finally seated—about three quarters of the way back. He points to audience members sporting TubaChristmas hats and scarves. I tell him that the merchandise website—where I originally ordered K’s hat and sheet music—is as quaint and antiquated as the rest of the site. “You have to print out an order form and mail it with a check or money order,” I tell him. “It isn’t easy getting TubaChristmas merch. You have to be dedicated.”
As we wait for the concert to begin, I think more about tubas. To play the tuba is to eschew the functionality and sleek design and multitasking abilities of our devices. I can make my computer make tuba sounds, but it is not the same as playing a tuba. I can make my computer do many things. I can carry around a phone and not need a notebook, a pen, a map, a compass, a guidebook, pocket change for nonexistent payphones, and dozens of other single-use items. A tuba does only one thing. We might think technology is taking over the world, but there is an enduring love for the single-purpose, beautiful, mechanical object. Playing the tuba is a physical act. There is the wrangling of the instrument, the embouchure, the force of pressing the valves. If you sit close enough to a tuba player, you can hear the muffled clattering of the valves. The instrument fills with spit that periodically needs to be splatted out of the spit valve. A tuba needs to be lubricated like the pistons of a car. K has oil and chapstick for her tuba. The mouthpiece is a lead weight in your hand. Everything about the instrument is weighty. Everything about it takes effort. Playing the tuba is an intensely physical act. This is no effortless touch on a screen with a single finger. The tuba is the opposite of all that. Of course, so are other musical instruments, but the tuba, in its sheer size and bulk and inconvenience, epitomizes this fact the way a flute or trumpet do not.

The ballroom keeps filling with audience members, but the tubas are not here yet. I get a text from K: Rehearsal has ended, so she’s sitting in a corner, reading about Mayor Pete on her phone. She sends me a picture of her warped face reflected in the bell of her tuba. “This is my status update,” she writes.

When the tubas finally start filing in, we crane our necks to see K, but she is impossible to spot among 400 other tubas. What normally makes her distinctive—her enormous instrument, her red TubaChristmas hat festooned with badges—means she looks just like everyone else here. The arrangement of the room is poor—the tubas are far from the audience, in another chamber, and they are not elevated, so it’s difficult to gauge their true magnitude. Will we even be able to hear them well? I wonder.

But when the first notes of “Adeste Fideles” erupt, the roar of the instruments fills all the space. The chairs, the floor, the chandeliers above vibrate with the sound. It fills my entire chest cavity, my head. It is overpowering—the instruments surging forth their sound, bellowing with all their might. They are not dampened, they are not backup, they are not the few low notes here and there. For once, they have the melody—they have everything. I imagine that in the front row, the intrepid tuba enthusiasts who got in line at 6 a.m. are being blasted by the instruments, scoured clean by sound; they are experiencing an exultant cleansing. The voices of the instruments are unified but unique. There is the more delicate blossoms of the euphoniums, the enormous sousaphones that are like magnolia flowers, their heady reverberations an overpowering perfume, the rare double-belled euphoniums, the nearly extinct, long-throated ophicleide. Each instrument is unique in its size, shape, the twisting of its pipe, its patina, its provenance. K’s tuba is named Gleb and hails from New Jersey. It previously belonged to a girl who at some point stopped playing the tuba, and it then sat in a musty garage in its case for a decade. Gleb’s brass finish is crazed over with miniature cracks; it has several dents, as do most tubas.

There is a lineage here. Today’s conductor worked with the legendary Harvey Phillips, who worked with the legendary William Bell. The son of Harvey Phillips, Tom Phillips, makes a guest appearance to sing “Santa Wants a Tuba for Christmas.” It’s like a game of Six Degree of Kevin Bacon—but the tuba version. When I mention this later to K, she will dismiss the significance of these connections. “I was already the great grand-student of William Bell,” she’ll tell me. Such relationships are not unusual, considering that TubaChristmas brings together players of all ages; the youngest today is six, the oldest eighty-three.

At the end of “Carol of the Bells,” the sousaphones go so low I am dumbstruck, left in disbelief. The biggest beasts have woken from their slumber, come out of hibernation on this darkest day, to herald the holiday season. Suddenly, I understand why people come out before dawn to experience 400 tubas in one place. In American fashion, we love excess: big stores, big skies, big landscapes, too much of everything. An unbelievable number of tubas in one place is just another manifestation of this love. Four hundred tubas is a parade of our riches. It is a celebration of the big and brassy and loud. It is a trumpeting (tuba-ing?), a crowing of our wondrous achievements, of the ostentatious and extravagant. Today, the tubas take precedence. They bellow and shout for this one day, and then the sun goes down, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, they become the subdued, slow-moving, lumbering, dinosaur-like creatures of the back row. They become the comic oom-pah-pah. They become the mostly unnoticed, slightly ridiculous bassline. They fade into the background. They become solitary creatures again, sometimes congregating in pairs or small groups, but nothing like the magnitude of today’s council. They go somnolent, dozy. They hibernate until their next spectacular winter blossoming.

But there is also this: to experience TubaChristmas, we must be present. We must all come together. This cannot be a digital experience. Yes, audience members will later post videos online, but these small windows into the totality of the event are pale approximations. Even a video shot from the front row is unremarkable. You must be there. You cannot attend TubaChristmas virtually. You must be inconvenienced: you must rise before dawn and drive and wait in line for hours. You must do all these things to be there. You must show up.

When it’s over, we tuck ourselves away into an alcove near the elevators as we wait for K to emerge from the tuba room, and we watch the musicians spill out with their instruments, running off to the next thing in their lives. The tubas overflow onto Wabash, they jaywalk to the parking garage, they go left and right in search of food. Many of the instruments are not in cases at all but are being carried lovingly in the arms of Christmas sweater-wearing tubists. Sousaphones are perched atop the shoulders of their owners who saunter down the street. Instruments are being wrangled all over downtown. A casual visitor who knows nothing of TubaChristmas might wonder why Chicagoans have such a love of tubas that they take them with them on downtown shopping expeditions and restaurant trips. A visitor might wonder what drew all the tubas out of hiding to congregate here, in this time and place, on the darkest day of the year. Who knew there were so many tubas in the world—let alone in the Chicago metro area? Who knew that tubas—those understated, lethargic beasts of the back row, so powerfully low that in normal situations, just a couple will suffice—could be so bold and garish and come out into the spotlight?

The tubas are loose in the streets of Chicago. And also in the streets of New York and Kalamazoo and New Britain. Not all of them on this day, of course—some TubaChristmases have already occurred, some are still to occur—but within a few weeks of today. While shoppers rush about, while people grow irate due to full parking lots and overcrowded stores, while people talk of the impeachment, of the most recent Democratic debate, while people crave the light that’s been steadily vanishing for months, the tubas come out. They make their appearance. They bloom on this shortest, darkest day of the year. Stop a moment to hear them. Stop to hear the voices of the tubas.

Back home, K shows her uncle videos of her idol Øystein Baadsvik playing the tuba. She demonstrates multiphonics on her tuba. The conversation shifts; something is said about Buttigieg and wine caves. I am too tired to pay attention. The tubas have bowled me over.

Later, when I am putting the kids to bed, I want to tell K about how the tuba seems antithetical to rest of our lives. I want to tell her something of what I’ve thought about today. I want to tell her about inefficiency and inconvenience. I say: tubas are big and cumbersome and inconvenient and they require effort to play and they only do one thing, and despite all of that, all of those people keep playing the tuba.

“Not despite,” she tells me. “Because.”

She already knows all of this. Of course she does. She is a tuba player.

As I am falling asleep, I think about something that K told me. During rehearsal, the conductor found the oldest player in the group by asking, “Is there anyone here who’s 93? 92? 91?” and so forth. When he got to 89 and then 88, and no one responded, he looked crestfallen. He then explained that last year, the oldest player had been 88, but apparently he hadn’t made it back. And it was him—the 88-year-old tuba player—I thought about, on the verge of sleep. I thought of that old man, playing with teenagers who carry smartphones in their hip pockets and tubas in their arms. I thought of how he sat with the youngsters, how he played with them last year. I thought of the reasons he didn’t make it back. I thought about him so much he nearly came to life in my mind. I imagined an entire life story for him. And then I went to sleep.

Yelizaveta P. Renfro is the author of a collection of essays, Xylotheque, and a collection of short stories, A Catalogue of Everything in the World. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Glimmer Train, North American Review, Creative Nonfiction, Orion, Colorado Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Witness, Reader’s Digest, and elsewhere.


The day started in the darkness of early morning and the white light of the New Orleans bus-and-train station, and I can't say precisely when it started because I started out thinking New Orleans was in Eastern Standard Time but was wrong.

I resigned myself to sitting in a plastic chair in front of silent CNN for seven hours, and this wouldn't have been so bad if I wasn't a) hungry b) tired fron fitful sleeps on the train and c) feeling the start of a migraine, the result of both. My first plan was to read philosophical e-books and maybe watch some stupid videos in between (to liven up the reading experience) until the train came and I could transfer — it just had to be stuff I wouldn't mind completely forgetting in this tired state. But not long after finishing Aristotle's Poetics (shorter than I expected), I got a blind spot in my left eye. Quickly I ate a few almonds from my backpack, just to get anything on my stomach that wasn't sugary, and then felt the slow decline of my brain into...milder pain than one expects from the word "migraine," but still quite something.

I couldn't enjoy the murals on the walls anymore, either. According to the Amtrak website, they were painted in the 1940's, and I think it shows: past-modern, jagged lines. As a condensed history of Louisiana, it's gorgeous and a little awesome. But I could almost feel the painter moralizing behind the thing, and it's 1940's morals that speak of each "race of man" having his own proper grandeur.
I tried meditating in and out of sleep, whatever thing means. I'm a complete novice; I just do the "close your eyes and try not to think for five minutes" whenever it occurs to me to do so. I sat in uncomfortable positions, all with my arms circling my bag, and I ended up in a position where my legs, too, circled my bag, and I was on the floor.

It was comfortable at first, until I woke up at 4 with my legs stiff and wrongly bent as anything. I got up, my legs felt like they were in a physical haze, but, phew, at least some time was lost. But I was hungrier than ever, so I hobbled to the impressively clean bathroom to hunch over the toilet and say "hurk" a couple of times. Nothing came up and I left. Vomiting or pseudo-vomiting meant the hard part of the migraine was over, but I was still too nauseous to eat.

I wandered around briefly, then went grimly back to "sleep," in the chair this time, with my bag between my lap and my head, feeling like a schoolkid hunched over the desk. When I awakened, I looked up at CNN and saw — 7 AM! Time for the train! Oh, we weren't in EST...oops.

I stayed up and the pains started to fade. A happy congregation started filling up the waiting area, and soon enough it was time to board. We lined up with tickets on phone screens and print-outs.
Outside, it was drizzling and not cold at all — after being in Arizona for a few months, I somehow expected the southeast to be cold in winter, like I forgot twenty years of life already. It was nippy at most. We were shepherded onto the train.

I got into a window seat, realized I hadn't seen any distinctive New Orleans sights whatsoever, and had a remarkably blissful four hours of sleep.


Some common threads with Amtrak passengers are current derision and disappointment, comparisons to European trains, yearning for the good ol' days when they served wine in actual Amtrak glasses (though, yes, they are still using real silverware), and discussion of political moves. Last summer, my train from Atlanta to New York City was delayed six hours not because it was far from the station, but because another train, a freight train on tracks that Amtrak had leased to another company (as I understand it), just refused to pull out and make way. I'm not saying it's sabotage, but it kinda did look like sabotage.

This is the reason I took Amtrak to come home for the holidays: Mom hemmed and hawed at Amtrak about it, and they eventually gave us both $300 vouchers. That didn't cover my whole round trip, but it was something.

All this just to say, the conductor bantered with the older woman next to me and the older woman across the aisle about all the inconveniences of this particular train, and told us, "Don't complain to Amtrak, complain to your congressman." And Sharon across the aisle said, "I do!" (— And in multiple states of residence!)

I ate some granola, then read some of Hobbes' Leviathan with the attitude of a marathon runner. I'd downloaded some Enlightenmenty philosophy hoping it would be good inspiration for a story I'm working on, and I think it is, but it's all slow going, and it's not very exciting.

Soon I realized that I'm still bad at feeding myself, so granola wasn't enough. There was no dining car; I went to the café car, where they only had snacks. I could have had ramen or a hot dog, but I live on the edge and, like I said, I'm bad at self-feeding, so I took some pretzels and tea.

When I got back, the older woman who'd been sitting next to me, and who'd chatted up Sharon Across The Aisle now and then, was absent. That meant Sharon could go in for the kill and chat with me. I'm shy, small, and not a great conversationalist (unless I'm leading it or talking about something stupid I like like the Butt-Ugly Martians), so it was an awkward start and Sharon did most of the talking. She talked about how there was a lizard on the train and the people threw it in the trash instead of off the train, which confused her, why didn't they throw it off the train unless they killed it, and I learned that both my mom and Sharon are afraid of rats. We also talked about mothers and daughters staying connected (I wonder if that's how she knew that I'm somebody's daughter — the way I talk about my mother), and right after that she said she loved my hair, and that when she first got her hair cut real short, she wanted it to look like Anita Baker's. I knew Anita Baker was a singer, and that was the extent of my knowledge there.

When I told her I was a Creative Writing student, she said that creative writers can write an ordinary "hello how are you" letter and it will still tell a story. I'm not adroit in the ways of conversation, so I nodded at this as if I was saying, "Yes, I do that, I'm great."

Soon the other woman came back and the two discussed Hurricane Katrina and a government that didn't know what it was doing, and the heroes in government just trying to be good people. I took the opportunity to drift off — not that I don't like conversation, but I did want an excuse to cram greater amounts of pretzels into my mouth at a time.

Day drifted to night. People around me started getting anxious about when the train would arrive, where it was, the fact that it was running a bit late with no announcements, trying to wring a precise location out of Google Maps. Mom started texting me to ask if I was close, so I started giving updates. I was alright with this up to a point, but I'm of a nature that will take my mind off of schedules by any means necessary. In times like this, I absolutely will not be hurried by a schedule. I don't care if I just missed the bus; I'll wait contentedly for forty-five minutes until the next one's here. (This works better in theory than in practice because I get irritated all the time.)

Worse, though, is someone else being worried on my behalf. This tends to translate into their worry becoming my worry, landing on my back. Mom, it's a train! I can't possibly hurry it on!

Mom did have better reason than usual to worry: she was was getting a friend to drive her over (she has no car, you see) and didn't want to keep him waiting or anything. I told her in a half-jocular voice, "Mom! Try to relax as best you can!" She said, "I can't relax!"

But this was all useless, in the end, because baggage claim took like thirty minutes — and that was when, mercifully, Mom totally put the time worries aside, and instead chatted with me about how life's been lately. (Though she also said, "Didn't I always tell you? Never Use Baggage Claim!" She never told me that, and I'm absolutely using baggage claim on my return trip! You think I wanna pull a backpack AND suitcase with me back to the station, during a seven-hour layover?)

When we met in the station, we hugged and Mom cried, "BABY!" I mean a cutesy cry like, "BAY-bee!" That was when I realized, wow, she really does baby me, my brother and I really are infantilized.

I told her about the rave reviews and great sorrow that the film version of Cats is bringing to/inflicting on so many. I was surprised to learn she's interested in seeing it, since it's a bit of a running gag that she really hates the musical. Well, she's a dance person, and dance is finally in film again.

Sharon told Mom that when "this young lady" becomes a bestseller, she'll say, "I'm the lady on the train that talked too much," with great pride. I winked.

The station dude who gave me my bag gave me a "have a good night, sir." I smiled and walked off, but then Mom came up to him, literally waving her hand like a director cutting the shot, and said, with the kind of intonation and bombast you might expect from a Peanuts kid, "Wait a minute! Why does everyone SAY that? She does NOT look like a lil' boy." He apologized. I said, "I don't mind, or care!" And we began to walk off, with Mom moping, "Why does everyone think you're a lil' boy?" I told her I didn't look like a boy to her just because she'd known me all my life.

What I'm about to say might date this essay a little too severely. (I don't even know what terminology is right today, in my own era, so please be lenient with me.) But a friend once told me that every AFAB gender-non-conforming person they knew had at least two physical traits in common with Pat from Saturday Night Live's awful, no-longer-culturally-relevant It's Pat sketches. For the few people in the audience who don't know, the joke of It's Pat is that nobody knows what gender Pat is and they're desperate to find out (the second joke is, Pat is an unloved nerd). Now, I've since disproven this theory (though not with many examples), but, sad to say, I am afflicted with It's Pat Disease.


The true difference between Atlanta and Tucson is not trees and lack thereof, but trees and big clumps of impressive trees. And not trees and shade trees, either. Hills and swoops are also important, especially in the cityscapes themselves; between the mountains, Tucson is a flat grid.

"Sorry it's so messy; I didn't have a chance to clean up," said Mom. But our apartment looked exactly the same as it was four months ago, maybe neater. The clutter was in all the same places, and it was artful clutter, so everything was on a table or, if it was music, on that particular part of the floor that was close to the record player. It was my brother and mothers' bedrooms that held the mess.

Mine was less messy, touched up a little by Mom. The chair in the corner Mom bought, the one I'd used five times in ten years, was gone. The artful pillows Mom bought, which I never liked but tolerated, were standing in an artful line on the floor, one in front of the other, next to the plastic crate holding assorted stuffed animals. On the white dresser, even more stuffed animals in their rows, from as many as twenty years ago. And a new addition: the farmer doll Mom got from the thrift store with the shifty glare, whose face looks like a bunch of melons. On a set of white plastic drawers was the same old photo of Dad, wearing those orangey glasses that remind me of Gendo Ikari, the classic anime father.

I decided to wash the dishes that, as Mom complains, my brother left in the sink to sit all night. (He was at work when I arrived, and wouldn't get back until nearly midnight.) It was nice to do some repetitive, easy labor after three days of little more than lounging around like a lump. Mom complained that I should be in the bed, as if that lounging around sure was exhausting.

When my brother came, I trailed him into his bedroom, where we'd routinely hang out in former years — and even before then, before this apartment, in his bunk bed. Now we're both in our twenties. I'm in grad school and he's applying. He's two years older, but has spent a lot more time in this apartment (and carless) than me. But as Mom put it, he'd recently gotten "a glimmer in his eye," which is good, and what he needed. We chatted, and he annoyed me quickly — which, when you know how friendly we've been for siblings and how rarely he used to annoy me, is sad, I think. But in the days to come, I'll get over it, get over myself, and watching stupid internet videos with him will get a lot simpler.

Soon I was in bed, and I slipped pretty easily into sleep. My bed was predictably more comfortable than the dorm's, but my typical sleeping position, with one arm under my pillow and head, continued to hurt wherever I slept, as if I really did lose the magic of how to hold my arm just so. And I guess that was the end of the day.

Joi Massat is an artist currently studying at the University of Arizona. You can track them down at


It is far too early to be awake. The sun agrees with me. I’m sure science, something about a circadian rhythm, does too, but it is the sun; the great, prehistoric, ball of fire that trumpets the new day to the world, and it is the sun who I wish to wait for. I want to sleep and sleep for hours, until the sun rises and announces that it is time. But I know that if I do, the day will seem too short, stripped of hours that might have been its. I will rush about, trying to do everything and more, trying to rescue the day that has already been condemned to failure in my mind. Then dark will descend and despondency will return, and I will wonder where the sun went.
     So I get out of bed in the dark. There are things happening today, things not in my normal routine. I will deviate today, and the thrill of that thought makes it a little easier to get out of bed. I do not have to put on a swim suit, do not have to jump in a frigid pool and swim. I imagine the rest of my team, some of whom are doubtless already in their bathing suits, preparing to undergo what has become a normal Saturday. I will not be with them. One part of me laughs at what joy a single day off from swimming can bring. Most people don’t even swim once a month, that part of me says, but I silence it. Today is my day not to be in that room, which pompously proclaims itself a natatorium, that room which I know better than my own bedroom.
     I can close my eyes and see exactly what my swimming lane looks like. I can see the yellow and black tiling on the wall. I can taste the chlorine. I can feel the chilling air from the fan, which the coaches insist increases ventilation. They too, I suddenly realize, spend most of their lives in this natatorium. I can almost read the names of the record-holding swimmers on the walls. I can see all of the people who dwell with me in lane eight, can imagine all of their expressions at the various sets they might be forced to swim. Disgust, fear, revulsion, occasionally joy or relief, but mostly resignation. We, who spend nearly twenty hours a week in the pool, know resignation well. It is the only way to survive. With every gasping breath, we remind ourselves that worse could be in store. And if worse is coming, there is nothing we can do about it. Inhalers and water bottles and foot cramps and trips to the bathroom do little to fight the all-consuming pool.
     But I will not be there today. Nor tomorrow. Sundays are the only days we get off. A day of prayer, I suppose, for some. For me, it is the day to willfully forget what comes and what has been. I choose a day of ignorance, knowing the price will be paid in full the following day.
     I can imagine a vacant pool almost as easily as one full of resignation. As we stretch before practice, the water is placid and calm. It holds none of the frantic noise of kicking and pulling and thinking. It looks as though you could step out onto the surface of the gray-green water, and it would hold you, delicately, and embrace you. I sometimes think an empty pool, devoid of ripples and waves, is the most beautiful thing in the world.
     I shove my tuba into his case and stuff my music into the pouch. He and I are going to play, something we do less and less often now a days. There just isn’t the time. The sun deigns to rise and fall every day, before I have finished all that I might have done. He and I still get along, though, despite the infrequent contact. The tuba and the player, as we always have been.
     Perhaps all we are as humans is a long list of ideas. Tuba player, swimmer, reader, student. Each of our lists is so long that it fades and blurs and becomes the same in its intricate individuality. How do we decide what goes first on this list? What goes second? How do others, who barely know us, decide what to write on our lists?
     The car ride to Chicago is long, as we flee the rising sun. The skin of my arm smells of chlorine, though this is no surprise. I have come to think that nothingness smells of chlorine. It is the kind of smell that climbs up inside you and makes you forget it is there, so that you startle when fresh air wafts by. We don’t talk of much on the car ride, my mother and father and brother and I. We are going to TubaChristmas, though the reality of that has not quite caught up to me. I know what it means, I suppose, having been to three of the concerts before, but I have never been to this one. I try to imagine it, to plan out in my head what interactions will happen and what I will have to say. My plans are based on a TubaChristmas nearly 800 miles away, one that has no bearings on this unknown fate I bear down upon.
     I hate not being able to know what will happen. I need to know who I must talk to, where I must stand, and for how long. That is one good thing about swimming. I have the routine down. Before every practice, I gather my things: my swim cap, my goggles, my water bottle, my inhaler. I collect the equipment we might be forced to use at any moment: the fins, the socks, the paddles, the kick board, the pull buoy, and the stick. I know how to swim, I know how I am expected to swim, and I know what will happen. I like that. What I like even more is that after we stretch and chat, after we are prescribed our torture and grumble halfheartedly about it, we stop talking. We start swimming. And as much as it hurts sometimes, there is so much more room in my head for thinking. My mind becomes a great cavern that I can fill with thoughts, because there is nothing else to do.
     I sometimes wonder what the other swimmers think about. They must think, because there is nothing else to do. Asking, though, would break the spell. We do talk, sometimes. At any moment, we can stop thinking, stop swimming, and start to talk. We begin speaking to each other, complaining to each other, so fluidly I marvel at it. There is no pause as we leave behind our caverns of thought, no momentary hesitation before conversing. We do it immediately, regularly, switching between solitary brooding and communal brooding without a thought.
     We get to the enormous hotel that houses the Chicago TubaChristmas. I stumble my way through the process of getting where I need to be. This process, no matter where I am, is almost always easier than I expect it to be. The dread I feel at the unknown, unplanned is some sort of powerful intoxicant, brewed to be more bitter than necessary.
     I stand in the line of tubas, waiting to register. There are sousaphones and euphoniums and baritone horns and things I can’t even name. Even among the tubas, though, even among tubas that are the same size and have the same number of valves and have the same patina as my instrument, there is such variance. There are like people, these tubas, and you could line all 400 of them up, and I could still find mine. And, I imagine, he could still find me.
     The people who accompany these tubas are as varied as their instruments. They come wearing outlandish Christmas sweaters, or fine concert clothes. They are barely old enough to lift their instruments, or nearly too old. Many come in jubilant packs, laughing and talking loudly as they wait. The rest of us come alone, tuba players who live in isolation from each other.
     The line is long, and moves at the speed of all things tuba. There is a lot of time to think. I study the hotel decorations, the carpeting, the ceiling’s molding. I wonder, again, about what these other people are thinking. I can see into no one’s mind. These tuba players, these strangers, are as mysterious and opaque as the people I spend twenty hours a week with.
     The line eventually snakes through. We practice, just for an hour, before the concert. It is a strange thing, to watch so many bells rise in unison, to hear so many gasps of breath. I know that around me there are tuba players tightening their embouchure just as I am.
     We play the first notes of Silent Night, and my lips tighten and loosen to make the right sounds. It is so automatic, easier to me than smiling. It would resemble smiling, though, if the tuba were not there.
     Later, in the grand ballroom the hotel gave TubaChristmas, as we play in the concert, I imagine all the tubas flying away through the air. The players would be left naked, exposed to the audience. We would be pseudo-smiling, our lips stretched almost comically, almost grotesquely, as we blew into our vanishing instruments.
     That tuba, for each of us, is a choice. I will never be inside their minds, never gain higher knowledge of the glorious entity that would be the combined consciousnesses of all these tubas, but I can speak for myself. I play the tuba because I love to sing, though I can’t do it well. Trust me on this, if you listen to the tuba often enough, you begin to hear more than low bumbling. You hear the soaring melodies, the deliberate rise and fall, and the lyrical voice of the tuba. It speaks a language as easy to understand as a smile.
     With our tubas gone, what would we be? 400 people sitting in a ballroom, staring out at an audience of equal size. We would be nothing, or rather, not one thing. Tuba, an item that is on each of our lists of personhood, would vanish, and then where would we be? We would lose our homogenous identity, our melding sound.
     But the tubas remain, and the sound prevails. It courses through my body. I vaguely remember that some creatures use vibrations in the ground to get their bearings. What creatures, I cannot say, except the tuba, that great monolithic beast, is one of them. The noise hums its way up through the soles of my shows and vibrates in my mouthpiece, fighting my lips to make noise.
     I am sitting next to two complete strangers, both of whom clutch instruments with the same uncomprehending adoration that I do. We love being in this sound. I know this. I do not know if they marvel at it the way that I do, do not know if they wonder at their luck in being here, but I know they love the sound.
     I have played the tuba for over five years now, and it feels easy. I put my mouthpiece to my face, and sound flows through me and my tuba. We are one thing, one thing that sings. It is unlike normal singing. The vibration moves from my vocal cords to the horn, but more than that is different. To me, the noise I make with my tuba is golden and glowing and full, all that my singing voice is not. Even more, the tuba and I can-and must-sing while smiling.
     The aftermath of the concert is a whirlwind of brass and sheet music. As soon as we stop playing, as soon as our instruments return to our their cases, we become individuals once again. We set out for wherever it is we are going. Alone, or in groups, before putting tubas away, or after. We are no longer all smiling together.
     Swimmers don’t smile. I think about this on the car ride home. Our faces are obscured and scrubbed clean of joy by chlorine. We must move our mouths only to thrust air down our throats. Other than that, our faces relax in the caustic embrace of the water. I am used to seeing my fellow swimmers staring off into the distance, not unhappily, but not happily either. We arrive at the pool before any of us are awake, and we leave long after everyone dreams of sleep. We think more than we talk, and jokes die quickly, drowned in chlorinated depths.
     According to Red Cross, 54% of Americans do not have ‘water competency skills’. They could not prevent themselves from drowning in a pool. This confuses me. I can remember, of course, a time before I knew how to swim, but I cannot truly imagine it. It is so hard to imagine being what you are not.
     I like the power I hold over the water. Though I swim in the slowest lane, and though I often stop to gasp into my inhaler, I know that I can swim. We are forced to put on socks, to increase our friction. We are made unable to kick, forced to pull through the water, sometimes only with one arm. Still, I make it across the pool. This knowledge feels like that golden note. Throw whatever flimsy obstacles you want in my way, and I will still struggle across the water. That makes me feel powerful.
     I fall asleep in the car. When I wake up, the sun has set. There were no windows in that grand tuba ballroom. There are no windows in the pool room, save for one that looks out into a lobby outside of the pool. From the water, all you can see through the window is the color of the sky. I should be used to the lack of sun in my life, but I am not.
     The great golden ball of fire evades me always. I dream of being Icarus, flying after the sun, and reaching it. I would rather swim to the sun, though, the water becoming warmer and warmer as I neared it. But the sun is down and my bed is the only thing I swim through, as I fall asleep on the shortest day of the year.


The question of what happened today is actually deadly serious. Even if all that happened is you went to the dog park, ate some breakfast, did some yoga, and took a nap (more or less my day on the day in question), that "all," that diminutive of the mundane, reducing ordinary things to their absolute ordinariness--that's a lot. And the reason that's a lot is that you get to make a choice. Of all the infinite happenings in a single twenty-four-hour span, you're tasked with plucking out a select few, curating them into the familiar arc of sunrise-to-set, and making meaning of them. As Frankl says of the true Holocaust survivors, the ones who somehow managed to persevere with their humanity intact, "The one thing nobody can take away from you is your ability to choose your attitude in a given situation." (Or some such, I'm paraphrasing.) If this choice can be made on the order of life and death, why are we so constantly at the mercy of grocery store lines and traffic jams? Why isn't every day--every day that isn't a threat to our very existence--absolutely fucking amazing?

That's the real question I want to answer here. Because the truth is, looking back on my December 21st, 2019, from this vantage of New Year's Eve (when the essay is due), the day is but a dim reminiscence, some scraps of notes jotted down mostly ad hoc (after seeing a Nicholson Baker tweet, the man who inspired the prompt), and thus proving the point about how little I find truly remarkable. If I'm being honest with myself, the very fact that I'm alive and free to go to a five-buck drop-in vinyasa flow in the middle of the day is cause for celebration, an utter miracle. To say nothing of the incomprehensible beauty of the frost on the ground at the dog park, folding the lawn like the stiff fur of a just-wet dog (and shimmering similarly). These are facts that pass by without mention, without notation, simply because they are expected. We come to expect to be able to find moments of beauty in our day (except when we don't, and pretend to be at the mercy of events); we come to expect to be able to savor, in recollection, those rare indulgences like a yoga class (except again, when we don't, and whine about not being able to find the time today, etc.). We forget that we have the choice. That when someone asks us, "What happened today?" they're not asking for a play-by-play, a mere retelling in chronological order--but for us to wake up and literally make meaning of our lives. To own our days! Seize them!

I have a really shitty "CARPE DIEM" tattoo on my right shoulder, where I suffered nerve damage after a fall on a bicycle. The whole story is rather pathetic actually (see: there I go making meaning, or meaningless), and doesn't bear going into now, but suffice it to say I was going through a difficult time and needed a reminder of something. Only now I realize what I was trying to remind myself of. This wasn't, as thought then, simply appropriating the old adage from Lance Armstrong's own appropriation in his book, which I was reading at the time; this isn't some hackneyed imperative to try your best, get over it, etc. This wasn't the usual sentiment on the Hallmark card that tells you to get well soon--starting this very day! No, this was rather the recognition that if you don't seize the day, in the sense of grabbing it by the lapels and telling it what's what, the day will seize you. Then what happened, as usually constructed, is what happened to you--not with you, for you, by you. There's missing from this whole discussion a sense of authorship.

For instance. When my partner calls to ask me how my day was, I tend to bristle. I've never really given this much thought, simply attributing it to my inherent caginess, reticent to divulge too many details of my life for no apparent reason other than, perhaps, some primal fear of vulnerability, as if knowing something about my day somehow exposed me. (Perhaps I should just live worthier days, rather than whiling them away in cafes on New Year's Eve writing about them, then I wouldn't feel so self-conscious.) In any case, now I know it's not just clamming up before the seeming act of self-disclosure, but rather the obligation I feel, from within, to take ownership of what I have lived. To spin it, in accordance with the particular aims of this publication, Myself: what matters to me. For when I tell you, or her, what happened, I not only give you a kind of Go-Pro footage of my day-in-the-life, but also of my editing thusly, the parts, and thereby the things broadly construed, that matter. What happened is really what matters.

Because it's actually hard to imagine a version of events, at least for my shortest day of the year but likely for most, if not all others, in which I'm not OK. Sure, there was the old man at the dog park who got a bit spooked by my puppy, perhaps a fall risk; and when we began playing a full-field soccer match, he promptly whistled his old Golden over and left in a huff. There might be something bad about that, some aspect of not-OKness, but then it's on me to chastise myself after the fact for having a little fun at someone else's expense (and my lack of fun now, in doing so, does little I imagine in retrospect). Sure, there was the fact of my clearing out my desk during my phone call with my mom, leaving me a little distracted; but that guilt, arguably, does little to ensure my undivided attention toward her in the future, and certainly does nothing to negate her comment, "What's all that noise--it's hard to hear," as I shuffled papers and moved boxes. There is no going back! There is only the present attitude on these preceding events, making the question of what happened all the more insidious: it's not really a past tense at all.

As I look forward (in the present) to this new year, I'm faced with a similar dilemma. I know I'll have to get my partner a new shoulder bag, since the one I got her on that fateful day, vegan leather in keeping with her code of ethics and aesthetics, was too big; had the clerk been able to procure the promised measuring tape at the point of sale, this might even have been avoided, but alas. I know that's the future I'm headed into, informed by the past, and yet I still get to choose the significance of this event, still unfolding: not only significant enough to mark here, but indeed absorb as part of my character, the kind of boyfriend who'd go to the trouble to get it right, even if he gets it wrong. The failure to obtain adequate shoulder-carrying accoutrements for the woman I love notwithstanding, I think I’m a pretty good guy. There, I seized it.

The last thing I remember of that day--or perhaps only memory-jogged by my noting it, which fulfills surely a similar function to telling our loved ones about our days at the end of them, the decision to include a value judgment and a vault of the most precious--was taking a nap. Now, I'm not one to normally take naps, and I dare say this undermines my whole argument, as the act of sleeping during the day, literally acting as if the sun had not risen, is an affront to the "carpe diem" motto if ever there was one. (Or perhaps, one could argue sleeping through sunlight is a show of ultimate dominance, as if the day so conquered you needn't even raise a finger.) But I think even here we have a choice. I was reading my partner's grandmother's memoirs, in which her late husband's maxim is oft-quoted: "If you have something important to say, put it in retrievable form." This I am doing now, even if I happened to fall asleep around the time the context for this was being given (she's an archivist by trade, so go figure). And I want to take that a step further in saying the very act of putting it down, of telling, is the importance: not what happened, but what we chose to say about it. When I awoke, as if to a new day, the sun was cresting over the mountains, though in reverse; the skies were going from peach to pink, rather than pink to peach.

Dorian Rolston lives in Tucson, Arizona.


December 21st 2019

When my eyes open, it’s to striated, pulsing color tones, not the calm yellows or pinks that normally great me, but lavender, scarlet, fuchsia. The sun is announcing its arrival in no uncertain terms on this shortest day. The colors radiate around the dark silhouette of my cat, doing her best Egyptian statue imitation on the window sill.  

This east-facing window is the saving grace of my small bedroom, not because of the tangle of ice-rimmed evergreens that it overlooks, but simply because it reliably reminds me of beauty at dawn. When I take a moment to gawk -- for so it is, even after eight years of waking here -- at the sky’s expanse, whether color-luminous or cascading greys, my days unfold more richly. When I fling off the quilt in the still darkness, hurtling into my work day, and turn away from the window to the mental catechism of the tasks that await me, I pay the price.  

But today I do gawk and linger. So much so that the cat-statue squawks her disapproval and gets me moving, down the stairs, into the chilly kitchen, towards the stack of cans that only my magical opposable thumb can open.  Duty done, I fill the kettle, flick the switch, measure out the beans. I pause before I press the grinder button, hesitant to loose its throaty dissonance into the quiet. But my need is too great; those first swirling breaths of the freshly-ground coffee do more to fortify me than the mugs that will follow, or so I fancy.  Until I have the real thing in my hand.

As I sip this first mug, I stand looking out at the snow drifts that hide my perennials, save for a few scraggly stalks. Unbidden, a line from the Susan Cooper poem “The Shortest Day” ran through my mind: “As promise wakens in the sleeping land …”   I began to recite it from the beginning, as I’d heard it declaimed countless times at Christmas Revels performances:  
And so the shortest day came, and the year died,
And everywhere down the centuries of the snow-white world
Came people singing, dancing,
To drive the dark away …
Yes. Surely. So many cultures celebrate the light’s return, slow seconds each day at first until that increment stretches to over two minutes near the vernal equinox. Whatever religious or symbolic meaning is attached, at bottom it’s surely this simple: the returning light kindles community, communion, communication.  

I ponder this as I sit alone, which is how I spend much of my time, sometimes gladly, sometimes with rue.  I am learning to make peace with solitude, to slow down enough to be alone (without the enticing distractions of Netflix, social media, a book), but if I’m honest, it’s détente at best.  Still, a quiet Saturday morning is a relief after a tumult-filled school week, the last before a break. Even my eleventh-graders, unexpectedly caught up in Hamlet, delighted by the ways his moodiness, inaction and flaring passions mirror theirs, have been restive, unless acting scenes out, discovering how well the iambic pentameter sits in their mouths. I make my living in and with words, as English teacher, writer and editor, and of late there have been a lot of them, loud, urgent, questing and questioning. I settle into the quiet, and wrap my hands around my cooling mug. 

The day unfolds from there, in errands and intentional conversations.  A stop at the winter farmer’s market yields sweet potatoes and a discussion of trigonometry with their grower; the bakery is out of the pie I was seeking, but I find a student’s parent and learn things I need to know; the line at the dry cleaners daunts me, and when I finally reach the front I learn that my blue sweater is the first colorful item that will leave the store. The man bemoans how much black people wear these days, unfolding the creased ten-dollar bill I give him. His button-down shirt is a bright, starched white, almost blinding in the sunlight.  An hour later, as I navigate through a sea of identical black down coats to put away my grocery cart, I think of his lament.  I am grateful for the green hats on the little kids who wave at me, the red scarf on the tottering elderly woman crossing the street in front of my car, and the flash of the car salesman’s silver watch as he points out the features of one particular car model. 

For yes, it is that time again, my 12 year old car finally needing repairs that tip past the point of financial wisdom.  I’m struck by the situational intimacy that emerges as I discuss financing and favorite car colors, the importance of a good radio, to hybrid or not to hybrid, with this salesman. We find commonalities swiftly -- a favorite hiking area, a band, what it means to be a child of an aging parent, relief that the solstice has arrived,  but I wonder --are they real? I suspect they are true -- that’s not what I mean. We’re drawn together in conversation for an explicit purpose, and a transactional one at that; why, then, do we raise the latticework of connection, of matters beyond Bluetooth capacity and all-wheel drive?  To ease the deal-making? To pass the time? Because we are human, and this, this simple act of give-and-take, of speak-and-listen, is how we affirm that humanity?

Late in the afternoon, as a friend and I stand in silence near a frozen lake, a short, too-slippery walk for my recovering sprained ankle, but important for all that. We’ve known each other for years, hiked together in all seasons, and we tend to chatter as we move, but hush when we pause. It’s an odd pattern, perhaps; today has been an exception though, as after the first flurry of “how are you?” and “damn, it’s cold!” we didn’t speak as we walked.  I wait, taking my cue from her tense jaw. When she’s ready, she will … and then the words come -- the biopsy, the phone call, the disbelief. The plans to go to Boston for a second opinion after the holidays, or should she go now, and why shouldn’t she have them both cut off anyhow, even if it’s OK, because who wants to live through days of fear like this again, and finally the tears. The tears that are as much about tension, anxiety and dread as they are about malignity. 

In their wake, she calms, turning her face into the wind. I watch the shadows lengthen as the minutes stretch out, one creeping closer and closer to our feet. Words return, too, easier words, stories of plumbers and faculty meetings, of exasperation and laughter. By unspoken agreement, we give politics a wide berth, not because we disagree (she it was, after all, who knit me a scarlet-pink hat) but because there’s not time for it today. The light is changing. As we head back along the trail,  she’s the one who starts the round, her husky alto beckoning my soprano, voices echoing as we entreat peace in the rose-colored light. Dona Nobis Pacem, indeed. 

Liz Bedell writes and teaches in Western Massachusetts.

Check back tomorrow to read more about What Happened on December 21, 2019. —Ander and Will

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