The Golden: Thoughts

Ruth Dildy and Russell Trimble married on Christmas Eve, 1919. He was newly back from the Great War, stateside assigned. She was not long out of college with a history degree. Perhaps she’d taught a year. Letters between the two were private but show his ardent affection, his hope of a return, a mournful declaration of eternal love if he were to die. Besides the battles, of course, the Spanish flu raged, killing many more–20 million from the war (military and civilian) and 50 million from the virus. Sobering, desperate times.

We have no pictures from the affair. Her wedding shoes survived for decades. Tiny, pointed, cream-colored leather, and laced, they were not for play, tucked into a trunk in a basement. Nothing else commemorated the occasion except a wedding dinner bell, with gilded edges and painted pink roses, handled gently for another hundred years.

In the 1920s, four children were born. A girl, then another. The second would die of typhus the day before her third birthday; it was the same illness which would kill Anne Frank in 1945. In those days, the dead of a family were laid out at home. This beloved toddler was buried in the new blue taffeta dress Ruth had just finished for her; a lock of her pale blond hair was secured in a diary. The young family, overwhelmed by grief, could no longer live in the house and built another where members remained for 70 years. Twin boys came along, mischievous and lively, at the new house.

Of the three children, two would marry, one of those having four children. In 1969, for their 50th anniversary, Ruth and Russell held a family dinner. The meal was roast beef and vegetables, with the pièce de résistance a white layer cake with frothy frosting, decorated with pink roses. The grandchildren, in Sunday best, still young, from 9 to 19, sat at the children’s table. Silver, crystal, linen tablecloths for all, of course.

Ruth would die before the next year was out, Russell surviving her almost three years more. One twin would pass, then a grandson. Then their daughter and the second twin would go. From 1919 until then, we had begun to fly in earnest (Ruth preferred trains when those were common) and been to the moon (though none of us, yet), extended the vote (to women, first) and then to all (in Texas, sometimes including the deceased), introduced antibiotics (late 1928 discovery) and seen them expand (but not widely until 1945 and after). Telephones were cranked, then dialed and attached to a wall, then mobilized and then celled. Television would come with a station, then two, then a dozen, then hundreds. People talked and shouted, cried and regretted, observed the sun and the weather, married and celebrated anniversaries.

Mary Ann Sprague and Jerry Taylor wed January 9, 1971. He was to be off to war, not Vietnam which raged but nearby Korea. She had finished the third semester of a music degree. Letters between them, now lost, were private and never read by others. We have many pictures of a young woman, a just older man. The shoes are gone, but the dress—lace, Victorian sleeves and high neck, sewn by an elderly seamstress—lies folded in a sturdy white box on top of a shelf. Never played with, not so fragile now but a bit yellowed. The pink rose bouquet is pressed, shower lists are recorded. Lists of guests and gift-givers bring memories of college friends, kindergarten friends. The music was not recorded, but the titles remain: Malotte’s “The Lord’s Prayer,” Jeremiah Clark’s “Trumpet Voluntary,” and Purcell’s “Trumpet Tune,” with the prelude and postlude the organist’s choice from Bach, only. A reception, a white cake with fluffy white icing, pictures of the parents, the grieving grandfather. A honeymoon to Santa Fe, with a stop in Lubbock for Chinese food, a magician to charm. Back to school, off to Korea, February for him, July for her. Back to school again. Jobs, houses, children (three boys). Cars, many cars.

A terrible fall for him in 2004, before Christmas, with the next anniversary at the hospital. Slow walks down long corridors as speech returns, most memory, some thought, filters lost. A different life for her, caregiving then coordinating caregiving then watching a long, long decline. And then he is gone, July before the January.

So, no party for all, no celebration for what would have been the golden. A visit to a cemetery to see a carved named, a date, Army, SP4. Barely tears. For there is separation, but not loss. A glimpse of eternity, parted by time but not undone, not unwed though not yet sealed—that comes next July. Sometimes the gentlest hint of a presence gone on, just there. Waiting, patiently, for another processional to a quieter tune.

Two weddings, a century and some apart. A family of lives, between. Profound sadness, but also hidden and unexpected joys. Light and love, where no one else can go.

Suiting Up: Special Vaccine Edition

The first sentence of my first article in The Dallas Morning News: “My brother and I disagree on lots of things: politics, religion, how to load spoons in the dishwasher.” So when he asked me to report on my feelings about getting the COVID-19 vaccine, I told him I didn’t expect to have any. None with the flu vaccine (at my husband’s doctor’s recommendation because I couldn’t risk it). None with the tetanus booster (except it hurts for a week). Not even any with the pneumonia vaccine (taken years after recommended because COVID doesn’t let you breathe).

I was wrong. At first, making the appointment and driving to UTSW were just part of the dutiful response to a virus. Then I saw that the gates into the facility were raised, meaning no charge for parking. I knew the vaccine is to be free for everyone in the country. I didn’t know this simple, gracious act would be so moving.

People inside the building are equally kind, helpful, organized. Someone takes my temperature, another directs me to the lobby, and another pushes the UP button my elevator ride. Access to the actual venue is clearly marked. At the desk, I receive my card for follow-up, entering my name and age, then putting the pen in the “dirty cup.” [An aside: New word for the day is “fomite.” It’s “any object that can be contaminated with infectious agents.” Possibly overstated as a danger, but we often need symbolic actions. And why were we going in AND out the same doors at the grocery store for months?]

Once in the socially distanced line, I do have a feeling. I’m weeping at the goodness of it all. Scientists developed a vaccine using 15-years-in-making research with the viral DNA sequencing completed in January 2020. Yes, the intensity of the current vaccine need spurred funding, but the research had been underway since SARS, another coronavirus in 2002. These people had spent all that time, for me, for the rest of us in the line. Nurses were willing to inoculate hundreds of us. Administrators arranged the payments. Janitors cleaned. Electricians maintained. It all worked.

The personnel continue to be professional, calm, and confident. Focused. I can imagine the meetings in preparation, having been in event-planning groups before. The synergy of the group: Where best to hold the activity? How to arrange the rooms? How would privacy be managed? Who should do what and when? And yes, should we charge for parking?

I’m called into a large room with blue cloth dividers. Because I’m myself, I say things to the nurse that make her laugh. She, too, displays competence and a sense of the importance of the moment. But I can’t resist telling her not to ask me if I’m ready because, after all, there is a needle involved. She tells me about the 4-day window to return for the second dose. She is cheerful, and truly, it didn’t hurt.

In a large, undivided room, we sit in socially distanced chairs, set in groups of one or two. We are to wait for 15 minutes under the watchful eye of a nurse. A large screen shares the message “CONGRATULATIONS! You have been vaccinated! Set your phones for 15 minutes.” And what to do if you have a reaction. Everyone is on their phones anyway; we are savvy folk, after all. The woman in front of me leaves, and as soon as she’s out the door, someone comes over and sprays her seat with disinfectant. A delicate and polite delay. A man says to someone, “Thank you for what you’re doing.” It seems heartfelt.

I don’t set my phone but do keep watch. As I go out, the positivity continues. It’s an ennobling thing, all the work of so many for so many others. Part of history. That’s how it feels now. A combination of can-do dedication and brilliance, money and organization, clarity of purpose and suppression of anger at the Chinese government.

And I drive away into beautiful sunshine, through a garage gate that is open.

A bit more: Is this really a pandemic? Yes, by definition. A single disease infecting people in 191 countries; there are 195 on earth. There have been over 88 million cases. Of those almost 22 million have been in the United States. India is next with 10.4 million. India has 1 billion more people than we do, by the way. That’s billion with a “b.” China reports 87,278 cases. Doubtful. They also have a billion more people. Really doubtful.

More of an issue is the fatality rate. The highest in the world by far is Mexico at 8.6%. Italy is next with 3.5%. The US is 22nd with a rate of 1.8%. However, the rate per 100,000 is more important. Italy is first with about 128. The US is fourth, an unenviable spot, with almost 112. For comparison, the 1918 pandemic (a flu, not a coronavirus) infected 500 million worldwide with 50-100 million dead. Worse, it was the young who were more affected. Under 5 years, 20-40, and over 65 were hardest hit. A perfectly well young adult could come down with it in the morning and be gone by sunset. Yes, people wore masks. Gatherings were smaller. Universities were closed; the (unverified) family story is that my grandmother and her father (she doing graduate work, he lecturing) were there when the University of Texas closed down. A terrible war had ended, and then a massive pandemic.

Final thoughts: I was proud today to be a participant in a process that will save lives. It’s not my place to recommend what others do, of course. I hope that reasons for not taking the vaccine—it’s too new, I’m too young, the side effects are worse than the disease, I’ve had the disease—can be put to rest.  I also hope it isn’t made mandatory, unnecessary considering other data regarding survival rates. Frankly, I hope the year gets better, quickly. I dare not say I don’t think it can’t get worse. (That’s a triple negative, by the way. I couldn’t see a different solution.) I don’t feel safe yet. Maybe after another dose. Thank you, Pfizer.

Today: Special Edition

This is a first, in two ways: A special edition and a departure from my usual light-hearted tone. Today’s events shocked me more than anything has since September 11, 2001. The motivations have uncanny resemblances. A leader with no regard for the Constitution or the Bill of Rights or the Declaration of Independence incited people loyal to him in ways not seen except in avowed terrorists. Until the election, I supported many of his policies. I argued that many so-called lies were misinterpreted or taken out of context or not willfully deceptive. I supported his Supreme Court nominations and his choice of people like Nikki Haley and William Barr in their positions. I acknowledged that media coverage of him was unfairly negative when compared to Democratic politicians. Today, he did the indefensible, whether out of ignorance or malice, ego or pride or demagoguery, I don’t know. But I know what he did: He sanctioned desecration.

We often hear the phrase “the hallowed halls” of this or that, used for everything from academia to churches and sometimes even government buildings. Today, Vice President Mike Pence said, “We grieve the loss of life in these hallowed halls.” The concept of sacredness is broad, but it means in its deepest roots to make something holy. Most of us, I believe, take the principles on which this country was founded to have that quality. The realities of politics aside, in spite of flaws (many corrected through the years), apart from all challenges to it, our system as based on the Constitution works. For 244 years, we have fought for its preservation, even to the loss of more blood than in any foreign war on our own soil to correct a century-old wrong.

It’s not simply the breaking of norms anymore than it is simply the breaking of glass. One former president did something unspeakable, despicable, in the Oval Office, and I took that personally, but he did not desecrate the very halls and grounds in which the work of the Union takes place. A fury was let loose based on conspiracies and unfounded allegations. Rumors spread within hours that these rioters were not Trump supporters at all but Antifa members bused in for the occasion. People repeated it and cited verification from so-called sources. If there is indeed an outside source for the turmoil since the election–and there may well be–the thousands vilifying the Capitol today were not the hired help but the useful pawns. Misinformation has greater consequences than elections, and if cooler heads do not prevail, something precious will be lost.

The passion after loss is nothing new. As I write this, I’m listening to the David Willcock’s arrangement of “O Come All Ye Faithful.” My late husband had met and worked with him at a choral workshop 20 years ago. Every Christmas, he played this everywhere. Even on my church’s electronic organ, it was moving and beautiful. One year, a man came up to me and said he was so overcome he couldn’t continue singing. When a friend died a few years ago, the organist, after a rather sedate service, gifted us with the Widor Organ Symphony #5: Toccata. It was stunning. She poured her heart and soul (and because an organ needs one’s entire body, that too) into what wasn’t a performance but a dedication of love. What happened today is the opposite of these emotions. Angry people, hateful, thoughtless people, without considering the effect their actions would have, surged ahead. Misguided, sad, appalling, illegal, every other negative adjective you can imagine—the faces they presented to the world need to be arrested, and the laws of the land enacted against them. Strong feeling doesn’t negate culpability. If you break something on purpose, you are responsible. Patriots don’t storm Congress; they die defending it.

Today, when Vice-President Mike Pence condemned the violence, he concluded with, “Let’s get back to work.” Today, when an emotional Sen. Mitch McConnell spoke about what the body needed to do, he spoke of duty, “not fear or force.” And there was agreement. There was applause. There is resolve. There is resilience. Perhaps my usual hope continues. At least for now. I don’t know about tomorrow.

 

On/Time/Flies Like an Arrow

“Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana.” Terrifically funny, especially on a gray and rainy day last week when I heard it for the first time. It’s a pun–which some people call the lowest kind of humor–or a paraprosdokian: the latter part of a sentence or phrase surprises in unexpected ways.  This article explains the decline of what Shakespeare considered good fun and an appeal to the intellect. “The young man the boat” is another example, though not funny.

The past year has been a monumental debacle with an odd relationship to time (When will this end? How long do we have to stay home? Is two weeks of quarantine too little? Too much? When can I get the vaccine? HOW LONG DO WE WEAR MASKS?), so it seemed appropriate to delve into time as a topic. Being on time, over the past several years, has been described as culturally insensitive at best or racist at worst. This brief opinion piece discusses what the author calls “Persian standard time.” But no one group can corner lateness. Even Urban Dictionary posts “Mormon Standard Time” as a thing. Although their reasoning involves lots of kids to get anywhere, that seems too easy. Meetings start on time, but people filter in at various intervals, with or without 3.4 children. Still, Louis XVIII said, “Punctuality is the politeness of kings.” We can also lose time, have time on our hands, get somewhere in time as well as on, lose time and lose track of time, and even get something done ahead of time.

Since it’s been a year largely devoid of movies, let’s divert to a list of top time travel movies. Tenet was, literally, the only movie I saw at a theater in 2020. The title is a palindrome, a shady organization, and the chief plot feature, all three of which are lightly covered here, with a nod to  Sator’s Square, a palindromic shape in Latin for which the movie’s villain, Andrei Sator (played by Kenneth Branagh) is named. (A long time to get there.) Time travel itself is a sub-genre within science fiction, beginning well before movies. Its origins are sketchy, but one of the first titles, (wait for it) Memoirs of the Twentieth Century, was written in 1733. A series of letters written from the future, this catchy-titled novel deals not with advances just extrapolations. Novels like 1984 and Brave New World use a similar “If it’s this bad now, what will it be like then?” concept on order to warn us.

Numerous explanations exist for methods of going to the past or the future. Sometimes sleeping for a long time explains the arrival in the future (“Rip van Winkle). H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine introduces a contrivance, as did the characters in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Portals are common; a personal favorite is the Spanish series The Ministry of Time (El ministerio del tiempo). I learned a lot about Spanish history. As with many others, this one sends people to the past to rectify a potential change. A particularly good one in this sub-sub-genre is Travelers on Netflix; far too complicated to explain but well done. Even Harry Potter has a time-altering novel, The Prisoner of Azkaban.

But back to movies. At the top of this list: Back to the Future. And number two is Primer (2004). Set in Austin, this short indie captures all the potential problems with time travel with a predictable but realistic twist. What about Groundhog Day, Somewhere in Time, Sleeper, Looper, Interstellar, Arrival, Edge of Tomorrow, 12 Monkeys, Idiocracy. Termintaor, Star Trek, and too many I can’t remember?  IMDB lists 229,309 titles. No wonder.

Now a bit about calendars. Our paternal grandfather had a beef with the Gregorian calendar, called it a “humbug.” How he managed, poor as he was, to print and distribute pamphlets to that effect puzzles me. As in the new Pixar movie Soul, it must have been his spark. The Gregorian is what we live with, these days, but the older one, the Julian, still runs and some groups still use it. The last European country didn’t adopt the Gregorian until 1923. Uneven months are one of its features: The poem that begins “30 days hath September…” is old, dating from 1425. There is a mnemonic with knuckles, and (new to me) one using piano keys beginning with an F and moving up in half steps. I like this parody: “30 days hath September/All the rest I can’t remember.” This is, of course, an entire study, but some people want another change.

Some years ago, I read a book about the need for a standardized calendar that did away with uneven months. The need for an extra day every four years was resolved with a “free day” that didn’t have a placeholder. People were to just ignore it or use it as a holiday. Imagine my surprise, then, when this article appeared this week: “As We Usher in 2021, It’s Time to Adopt a Permanent Calendar.” The writers advocate a calendar that doesn’t change year to year because a general rearrangement would let each date fall on the same day of the week, year to year. An entire week would be inserted every 5-6 years for seasonal/leap day offsets. The writers refer to the Gregorian calendar as “flawed,” milder than humbug. Their proposal is The Hanke-Henry Permanent Calendar, cleverly named after themselves. It’ll never happen, of course. Calendar manufacturers would rise up. Congress would debate it ad infinitum (inside joke). It has a sleek, modern appeal, however monotonous it might be.

All that said, today’s conclusion goes further afield. Time is not real, after all. This article confirmed my thinking when I read it two years ago. It’s a review of The Order of Time by Carlo Rovelli. No, I didn’t rush out and buy it. Yes, I admit it’s not in my range of brain. But I believe time is an illusion, that it’s a construct in which we operate in order to have beginnings and endings. In fact, the phrase “the arrow of time” was coined in 1927 to describe its forward motion. If there is a space-time continuum, if nothing can travel faster than light, and if light can be bound in a black hole, then I can almost imagine time standing still, too. Observing space from the comfort of not really being there, I can see time halted. With that said, time travel suddenly becomes not only possible but easy, in spite of the probably fact that time travels like an arrow. Now to get on to those 200K+ titles.

Don’t Let the Door Hit Ya, and Other Snark

Enough, and probably too much, has been said about 2020. Things started off well. References to eyesight were thought clever. January itself was quite the event-laden start-off:  A US drone kills Soleimani, with 35 Iranians killed in a stampede at the funeral. A travel warning is issued for China, following their December 31 announcement of a respiratory outbreak in Wuhan (hence COVID’s 2019 designation). Harry and Meghan announce a step-back. The Houston Astros are caught in a sign-stealing scandal. Impeachment articles are sent from the House to the Senate. The virus officially arrives in the US. Kobe Bryant and his daughter are killed in a helicopter crash. Travel from China is banned. Yes, that’s just a bit of January 2020. Maybe we should have known.

Even by early March we were calm. At my English teachers’ conference, we thought to set out hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes. Days later neither was readily available, and homemade recipe versions (often grossly inadequate) proliferated. Bread-making (especially sourdough) began. Masks were out, then they were in, and sewing projects began. Daily press conferences did little to help as the death watches began. FaceBook filled with memes as we tried to improve our panicked mood.

Now, and I think inexplicably, we are looking forward to 2021 with hope. A particularly contentious election will result in an unpopular/popular president leaving office. More will be written here on January 18 regarding that particular event. Half the country is thrilled; the other half, despondent or worse. All things considered, no one knows how different—if at all—life will be in 2021. If 2020 has taught us anything, we should expect the unexpected and the worst. (Apologizing for lack of sunniness here.)

So poor 2020 goes out with a whimper, not a bang. The snarkiness began weeks ago, as people tried to be sunny. The phrase that came to my mind: “Don’t let the door hit you on your way out.” A hateful thing to say, of course. “Good riddance” is common. I’m just going to withhold judgment until I see what 2021 brings.

There is a hymn sung only once a year called “Ring Out, Wild Bells.” Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote the words, but we use only three verses. Here is the second:

  1. Ring out the old; ring in the new.

Ring, happy bells, across the snow.

The year is going; let him go.

Ring out the false; ring in the true.

The year is going; let him go.

Ring out the false; ring in the true.

     Of particular interest is the 8th of 9:

Ring out old shapes of foul disease;
Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.

So, no disease, no greed, no war. The last line is apocalyptic in the Biblical sense, as is the last verse:

Ring in the valiant man and free,
The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.

Not that the word “apocalypse” occurs in the Bible, because it doesn’t. And not that most people know how bad things are supposed to get before that time. We use the term more often to discuss zombies upon us, which is not likely.

As for snark, I’m coming out against it. The year 2020 may be the worst in recent memory, but it seems to lack to horrors of 1942, for example, or 1918. Lewis Carroll wrote The Hunting of the Snark, described as a long novel/nonsense poem. I haven’t read it; perhaps you have. It may not have anything to do with the term “snark.” I’m watching a YouTube episode of “Stuff Made Here” on a self-correcting golf club. It’s one of those clever engineering things. The wife plays a role as a peanut gallery commentator. She says, “Your golf club stinks.” He replies, “Maybe you stink.” She gives the death stare. Now that’s some snark. We wonder aloud if he has a real job.

Problems exist. We work at solving them. Time, itself, isn’t the problem. Usually, people are responsible for whatever problems we have. Often people are the solution as well. That’s called resilience. We’re going to need more of that than any amount of snark. And we are going to need divine help, if not intervention, to avoid the worst of it.

“…if only in my dreams.”

Christmas is this Friday, and I am (almost) ready to give out gift cards. Some years ago, I lost the ability to plan for and purchase gifts. Earlier years of making lists and shopping seem so distant. Don’t pity me. If the gift of giving is gone, it’s gone. No need to apologize. Fewer gifts to receive, too, but that’s fine.

Blogging for several years now, I seem to have also used up my best stories, poems, and Christmas music. Here are links to three favorites: 2017 “Given”, “Christmas Favorites (While I Avoid Shopping)” 2018 “Luci’s Mary’s Song” Notice the shopping theme in the second.

This year has been hard, almost beginning to end and for the last nine months. Many have hopes it is ending with a good outlook for 2021. Still, so many restrictions rankle. Too many people catch and spread the virus, even with precautions. Maybe next year will be better. Maybe a meteor will strike. Away with such thoughts! Vaccine. Vaccine. Vaccine!

But needing something for today, I started thinking about a topic, the only necessity to begin. Which anagrams to “being,” of course. Another time maybe. At first I thought about a line from “O Little Town of Bethlehem”: “Above thy deep and dreamless sleep/The silent stars go by.” Evocative. Made into a movie based not on the carol but on Dante’s Inferno. A 1970s TV series. An album of some sort (looks grim). A puppy calming audio. Episodes of Dr. Who and The Last Post. I cannot get the connection. You can hear the traditional melody here, sung by Elvis Presley. The British version uses a different melody, here.

What about “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”? Here’s Judy Garland singing it in the movie Meet Me in St. Louis. She had asked for a change in the original lyrics, finding them too depressing. The story is interesting, and I can see her point. Yikes: “Have yourself a merry little Christmas/It may be your last” and “From now on, we’ll have to muddle through somehow.” No, she isn’t dreaming of 2020. She’s just bemoaning a move to New York City. Singing to her little sister, though, the words were probably too depressing.

Finally, I decided on “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” It’s also a decent reference to our current situation, with Dr. Fauci asking us to stay home. At a concert recently, the conductor said the words were written by someone in World War II longing for home. That’s not true, but perhaps I misheard. This is a story not the story in that it talks about an event that doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the real story, but this is the real one from the Library of Congress . Kim Gannon was the lyricist, with music by Walter Kent, copyrighted 1943. The recording earned Bing Crosby his 5th gold record.

The line “And presents on the tree” has always seemed odd to me, and sure enough, some artists sang it that way, but the closer to our day, the more I heard “by the tree” or “beneath the tree.” A few used “count of me” instead of “plan on me.” I can’t imagine anything more minor, but probably I listened to too many. Oddly, the song itself is really short—just 8 lines. You never know where fame and fortune will strike. Gannon and Walter Kent also wrote “The Lord Is Good to Me.” I grew up knowing it as the Johnny Appleseed song. Good grief. I should get on with my work, but the laundry is done, the floors mopped. Soup to make. All is well. The planets align tonight. Don’t miss it.

Merry Christmas!

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

I’ll be home for Christmas

You can plan on me

Please have snow and mistletoe

And presents on the tree

 

Christmas Eve’ll find me

Where the love light gleams

I’ll be home for Christmas

If only in my dreams.

Apparently out of control very early Saturday morning, I listened to 17 versions of this little song when I realized the Library of Congress was right that “countless” recordings were available. And actually there were 18 if you include the COVID parody I left out for you to find on your own (Sara Bareilles, language). Choose an era or an artist. Have fun. Remember those who are missing either getting home or missing those who are there only in their dreams…

People I know but who were not my generation of singers:

Bing Crosby

Perry Como

Frank Sinatra

Dean Martin

Mostly my generation but very early:

Elvis Presley

Johnny Mathis

Not my generation either, and I don’t really know anything about them:

Michael Bublé

Rascal Flatts

Blake Shelton

Josh Groban

Home Free

Brian McKnight

Amy Grant

The Petersens

Sarah Niemietz

I know who these are, and they are great:

Whitney Houston

Pentatonix

 

Let’s Play!

Today’s title comes from the new Netflix mini-series The Queen’s Gambit. When our hero Beth Harmon has completed her final victory (not a spoiler—how else could it end?), she sits down in a Moscow park with an older chess player we had seen earlier (of course, as foreshadowed) and says, “Let’s play.” Actually, she says, “Поиграем,” since she has learned Russian for this very moment (and a revealing moment on an elevator). Side note: the older man she plays in the park is almost surely the same actor who played her first teacher, Mr. Shaibel. It’s a good series, though to my taste too much about addiction. Beth is a prodigy, but this isn’t based on a true story like one of my favorite movies, Searching for Bobbie Fischer, a tale of two other prodigies, Bobbie Fischer and Joshua Waitzkin. Since apparently everything I look at must connect in some way, Josh’s teacher, Bruce Pandolfini, consulted on the Netflix series AND the original novel AND had a cameo in Episode 6.

And that’s just the title. Today’s topic is board games. Chess is considered, by some, the best board game, but since I’m easily conquered by the average 10-year-old, I’m happy to learn others. As a child, I played Scrabble and Anagrams with my grandmother. We also played Canasta, a card game invented in the 1940s. It was complicated, and I remember only that it would irritate my grandmother if I did something with a red three. Later, I played Monopoly and Clue with friends, and bridge with future former friends.

Not long ago, I heard someone say that he worked in the field of board game convention planning. It sounded intriguing, and Jeff Anderson graciously agreed to an interview, with my asides in brackets[]:

Tell me about your background with board games, growing up or in your own family.

When growing up, we played the typical games like Risk and Monopoly, though I didn’t so much as a teen. When I was an adult, perhaps 25-30, a coworker introduced me to Acquire [1963, mergers and acquisitions category]. It was a lot of fun, and then I tried Settlers of Catan [1995, now known simply as Catan, strategy] which is a gateway game that captured the attention of lots of Americans and, like many board games, came from Germany. It was a newfound hobby, and the tip of the iceberg. This kind of playing style was more fun for adults. Social and strategic thinking were the real goals.

How many games do you own?

My personal collection is 100-120, which is small to average for hobbyists. For a time, I was custodian and caretaker of the games library for BoardGameGeek (BGG), the company I work for. I lived near an airport, and there was an airplane hangar in my back yard that housed over 6000 games and convention equipment. The collection outgrew that hangar, and the library now occupies 14,000 square feet of warehouse storage.

What are your favorites? Why?

I like games that have a story as well as cooperative play. Currently, I’m enjoying GloomHaven, an adventuring/role playing game ranked #1 at boardgamegeek.com, our company’s website. Just One is another—a simple and fast word game.

What prepared you for your current position? Education? A mentor? Serendipity?

Mostly serendipity, and the willingness to volunteer. Normally, I’m a software developer with a BS in computer science, and with 2020, I’ve returned to that full time. But for the last 3-4 years, I’ve worked with BGG hosting conventions. At first, I volunteered with the company after being associated with it as a social site. In 2005, they decided to run a convention, and 200 people came together in downtown Dallas. In 2006, I volunteered to help set it up, and during 2007-2008, I worked my way up to helping run it for 500-600 people. In 2015, we added a second convention in the spring, plus a cruise that year. Now 4000 people attend the fall convention with 2000 in the spring, and 200 on the cruise. [A Channel 5 story and interview about the 2017 convention here.]

What is your favorite aspect of this field?

I enjoy bringing people together and making new friends. With games you are always learning a new system, so it’s a challenge each time. I like organizing events that make other people happy.

Your least favorite?

I need to negotiate contracts and wrangle exhibitors, but when information has all been already available in an email, I still get emails with questions that were already answered. [Nobody reads anymore.]

What in the history of board games interests you?

The rise of modern board games, including new books and new movies, has been exciting to see. These games are a lot more engaging than what I grew up with. Germany leads the world with new development. It’s common for adults to socialize by playing board games there, and many of the prominent board game designers who work full time are in Germany. Each year their Spiel des Jahres (Game of the Year) gets much attention, almost like the American Oscars. Once the game winner is announced, 400,000 copies of it will sell. It was a big deal when an American won Game of the Year [Ticket to Ride, Alan R. Moon, 2004, BGG #1 gateway game] [American Tabletop Awards began in 2019, but there are also many other award sites, including BGG’s.]

Do you usually work in an office?

Although I could do everything from home, BGG does have a building that includes an office. My wife Christine runs the store with help from some friends; she processes orders for the company as well.

How often do people confuse you with the Hasbro General Manager and Senior VP Jeffrey Anderson?

Actually, I didn’t know anything about him. I figured my name was so common that I’ve never Googled it. Hasbro [originally Hassenfeld Brothers] is the last of the mass market game producers in the world [Hungry Hippos, Candy Land, Battleship, Operation, Trivial Pursuit, Scrabble, Monopoly, and many more].  They do not sell designer games or Euro games, which are the more modern board games.

Why do people still love board games anyway?

Now more than ever, when there are so few alternatives, board games are a great socializing tool for families. There’s been a huge boom because of the pandemic. It’s a good way to spend time together.

Why are they better than electronic games?

I wouldn’t say board games are necessarily better, though maybe they are for some. Lots of people play both. We do that in our family. I prefer them because of the interaction, being face to face with people. Using my brain is part of it, but there is a physicality to it as well, and the tactile sensations of the pieces and the movement.

What is the future of board gaming?

I expect that we will be right back into conventions next year, hopefully. Playing board games is an important element of human nature, just as play is an important element of our development

Lots of my students used to say they want to be game designers, but they mean videogames. What is the world of board game designers like?

There is some crossover with designers, and there are different challenges. Computers can do things for you, while there is a simpler rule set for boards, and typically there are fewer designers. Perhaps 20-50 people in the world can do it as a full-time living, but many others do it with another day job.

And in conclusion…

There is so much variety these days, so it’s not just Monopoly. For example, Just One is a party game that came out last year, and it is a lot of fun [Spiel des Jahres winner 2019; “ingenious in its simplicity”].  There is a gift guide on BGG’s website, sorted by categories like card games, dexterity, family, Disney, Harry Potter, and many more. There is a game for everyone, though not every game is for everyone.

Thank you, Jeff Anderson!

Side Note/Side Interview

I work for a media bias/reliability company, reading articles and listening to podcasts. Yesterday the shift facilitator, Brandon, asked if anyone had done anything interesting lately. I piped up about the Jeff Anderson interview, learned Brandon has an identity with BGG, and heard that there are lots of conventions. As a naïve newbie to this world, I assumed there was just the Dallas one. But no: there are hundreds in this country and around the world. One in Germany hosts 175,000 attendees. This site gives the 2020 list and warns that many sell out ahead of time, confirmed in the TV interview linked above.

Brandon gave a list of favorites: Ticket to Ride with various versions [a video with no narrative just visuals, plus age range and time of play] and The Pillars of the World [BGG explanation that includes various details and data; this is a literature-based game from the Ken Follett novel which has an 8 episode mini-series now streaming]. His experience with adult games began when his family started playing Balderdash [a word game that I’ve also played in which players submit real or fictional definitions for obscure words, BGG here]. He used the phrase “and then the dam broke” when he discovered the other newer games. Jeff’s was “tip of the iceberg.” (No more Monopoly!]

Knowing I like music, Brandon included this video that sings. Odd, and a bit…well, odd, though with insights. It starts with Pandemic and Codenames, not yet mentioned, and more. The channel is Actualol with Jon Purkis. A 28-minute offering lists his 15 best 2018 games. [Caveat: While I like how Purkis says “Amazon” and “whilst” like other Brits, he has some videos with humor that is a bit off-color and might offend some.]

Brandon used the phrase “with/against others.” [Some of us are more competitive, so winning can be important, maybe even the point.] While the companionship is a component, planning, thinking, strategizing, and flat-out thinking are perhaps even more compelling. Sometimes, games are virtually silent, either by design or by choice. [One doesn’t chat over chess, for example, or lots of card games. Others can be intense and addictive. I’ve been waked up with a kid saying, “Wanna play Exploding Kittens?”]

Thanks, Brandon. Who knew?

A public service: Here are some links to lists: Wirecutter in New York Times includes prices, ideas, and a smaller set of choices. Games Radar includes many more in similar categories, prices, and the pros and cons of each. New York Magazine’s list of best family games includes lots of classics with many new ones as well such as Exploding Kittens and Suspend. This British version offers a quick guide then longer explanations and different games than on the other lists.

Finally, you can explore the history of games for the past 5000 years or the scholarly study of the role of games in the ecology of family experiences, but, all things considered, neither sounds like much fun. We have more time on our hands these days, and we are inside. Board games are, apparently, a richer option than I had any idea. And presumably, fun.

Full disclosures: I cheated at Chutes and Ladders when the kids were little, bought The Ungame for a non-competitive communication (read quiet) option, have three games from the lists in my Amazon cart, and love Trivial Pursuit best when I win. Game on!

 

How to Keep Christmas, How to Give It Away

My dear British friend asks me when I arrive, “And how are you keeping?” I reply that I am quite well before going on into a few details that might not support that conclusion. The phrase itself is indeed British, for which we have no equivalent. The only similar American idiom I know is “for keeps.”

When we talk about Christmas, we usually use the word “celebrate,” a great choice because of its meaning: “commemorate or honor with demonstrations of joy.” This year, the longest, most irritating in our experience, it seems that we do want to keep Christmas. Lights and decorations went up early, often before Thanksgiving. That happens in stores, of course, which I no longer begrudge, but 2020 was a time for normal people to seek the joy and the light a bit more fervently than usual.

So, keeping Christmas is something different than celebrating it. Peter Marshall was a Scottish preacher who came to America in 1927 and became Chaplain of the Senate two years before his death. His widow Catherine wrote a popular biography called A Man Called Peter that some of us remember. He also wrote an article called “Let’s Keep Christmas,” condensed here or read in its entirety by Dick van Dyke here. It will seem odd this year, decrying shopping crowds. But then I didn’t go out for Black Friday and won’t go to a mall even if paid this year. The sentiments are good in his piece, however strange they seem.

Henry van Dyke (a coincidence to the actor, by the way) was another American preacher, in the early 20th century. He wrote the words sung in hymnbooks for Beethoven’s setting on Schiller’s “An die Freude,” heard in the last movement of the 9th Symphony. (Here is a brief version in German with English translation. Here is Otto Klemperer in 1957, with the 4th movement beginning at 47:08, singing at 53:35. This version is from The Piano Guys. Titled “Ode to Joy to the World”; it uses both melodies but mostly Beethoven’s with Schiller’s poem. The singers and bell players are shockingly close together, and the pianist and cellist don’t use written music, also shocking.)

Back to van Dyke. His words have little to do with the original other than the theme of brotherly love. Here is the group formerly known as the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, lyrics included. The German includes sentiments like “Wir betreten feuertrunken” which means “We enter, drunk with fire.” Vivid, perhaps more than Sunday fare though. Here is a cool version from Sister Act 2, including a glimpse of Maggie Smith way before she was the Dowager Countess.

Back once more to Henry van Dyke, now that you know where you know him from. You may also know his short story “The Other Wise Man” (1895) made into a film The Fourth Wise Man (1985). The magi Artaban misses the caravan but spends the next 33 years looking for the King they were seeking. A short version here, and the real thing (worth it) here.

What am I am? The fourth return? This preacher-writer gives us also the poem (or short essay, depending on how it’s typeset) “Keeping Christmas.” I prefer the former because it is easy to see what he’s doing. The idea begins with “Are you willing…?” and proceeds to ask what we might think of if we are to “keep” Christmas: remembering others, doing service, understanding the power of love.

And finally, to van Dyke 5, for two thoughts on giving away Christmas. Here is a tiny set of snippets from talks given through the years, each referencing his short story “The Mansion,” which you can read here. As are all these works, it is predictable with an intent to spur us to better things. However, one line particularly caught my attention. A heavenly guide is taking a certain John Weightman to his mansion, having left others at great and beautiful ones. They arrive at a particularly wretched hut, much to the surprise of this prominent philanthropist. But this is how the guide explains the poor quality of the place: “That is all the material you sent us.” Ouch. As in Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” our hero awakens to a second chance to mend his ways.

The paradox, then, is keeping by giving. Not so much the gifts, which are a challenge on their own, but quietly lifting and helping. My uncle and my mother-in-law both did these kinds of things, and I didn’t even know for years. Children were involved for both. My uncle, who had none, volunteered both time and money to a non-profit daycare center in the projects. My mother-in-law spent years greeting children at the nearby elementary school, then making copies for a teacher.

When we think of self-esteem, sometimes we suppose it is given by others, in how they treat us and how they build us up. I think the opposite is true: it is the “self” that must give us a better view of who we are, as we earn our place in the world. Giving some of that self away  proves a good way to fortify it. “Self” can include substance. According to Charity Navigator, fully 31% of charitable giving comes in December each year, with 69% of it coming from individuals (then foundations, bequests, and corporations). It’s one of my least favorite parts of the season. Giving that’s good in December is also good in July. Tiny Tim says, “God bless Us, Every One!” But it’s Scrooge who “knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.”

Someone challenged a group of us last week to give double what we might. That hurts. It’s not for the reward. If anything, more challenges are likely. Recently, I gave a certain amount to sponsor parking passes for an event. The next day, a slab leak was diagnosed that cost way more than I had given. On one hand, you can’t give anything away, really. It all comes back, sometimes after a trial. What you always get, however, is peace. That’s the real keeper.

 

 

Serendipity

Sometimes I wonder how I keep writing, and then someone will use a new word or introduce a new movie or suggest that beans belong in chili, and clarity ensues. Off to the dictionary, Google, the opinion file/pile. This week, I’d planned one thing, found another opportunity, and will be doing something completely different. As flip as all that sounds, I’ve been awed, surprised, and brought to tears.

The word this week is actually a phrase: the sunk cost fallacy. If you don’t know the term, you’ll understand the concept. If you have already spent money on, say, a ticket to a baseball game, and after three innings dislike the entire experience and want to leave, this fallacy suggests that you are more likely to stay because you’ve spent the money and would “lose” it if you left. Similar themes of behavior can involve sticking with a plan even if it is no longer viable or making a decision based on past efforts. Besides learning a new concept, I was reminded that people know different things; no one knows everything. Age doesn’t seem to matter. A teenager visiting the household presented the concept, and an uncle confirmed it. It also links the book Thinking, Fast and Slow that a third person recommended years ago. We have two approaches to thought: fast, emotional, instinctual or slow, deliberate, logical. As you can imagine, we make more mistakes in that first. All that aside, I was in awe of the teen knowing the fallacy, even though I kept trying to call it the lost money fallacy. I kept getting corrected.

Next, a brief discussion of Bach’s Prelude in C Major from The Well-Tempered Clavier. This version is straightforward and has light effects. Here Lang Lang plays dreamily, with vignettes abounding. “Just short of ragtime” one commenter says about this snappy version. Sally Christian gives a lesson on it, the playing and the harmonics; early on she turns to us and stops to talk, so don’t be distressed. And while she says it can’t be played slow enough, this anonymous person does a reasonable performance in 1:36. Finally, we can have it for 10 hours here. I don’t know why that might be necessary. Only one comment there: “thanks.”

This piece is the only one we all play. It’s easy, for one thing. I used it for an object lesson once, the point being that the ease comes from the fact you only play one note at a time. The eldest of the personal children does an adequate job, (puzzling since he can snap through “Waterfall,” a piece his father came to hate. This kid plays it without as much drama, and I like that he has a Band-Aid on one finger.) The next child plays it well after working on it daily for months; his son can do it from memory. Recently, the youngest sat down to play and did so evenly and effortlessly. Then he took up Riemenschneider’s collection of Bach’s harmonization of chorale tunes, from our music school days. The first page has some harder ones, so I suggested “O Sacred Head Now Wounded” or “O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden.” Here is an Australian version from April, socially distanced of course. It is familiar in most hymnbooks, but the first one he tried was in a different key than he knew. The next page had the one he remembered, the one from a hymnbook I have. He played it well, and I was moved to tears. Feelings don’t always have names: proud, happy, sad, glad he was there, any and all such things.

That led to the song “Turn Around,” which I remembered incorrectly as being from The Fantasticks, a popular musical written in 1960 by Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones. The song from that work is “Try to Remember,” sung here by Jerry Orbach, the actor who played Lennie Briscoe in Law and Order and who also, which I didn’t know or had forgotten, starred in Broadway musicals. The song I was trying to remember was actually “Turn Around.” Not a musical at all, but a song by Harry Belafonte from a 1959 album, Love Is a Gentle Thing. My great-aunt gave me a musical figurine with this melody, but I can’t find a link to it. There is a mother holding a baby and at her back is a little girl holding a doll.

As it happens, Harry Belafonte is still alive at 93, “The King of Calypso.” He is a Jamaican-American with Scottish, Dutch, and Sephardic Jewish ancestry. You probably know “The Banana Boat Song” at least from Beetlejuice, or by it’s famous “Day-O” refrain. Here he leads an audience through the opening in a 1997 performance. The dinner party in the movie and the final scene with “Jump in Line” contrast Belafonte’s styles.

And if that wasn’t enough, I learned Belafonte was (and is) an important figure in the Civil Rights Movement. He was a confidante of Martin Luther King, Jr. More recently, he endorsed Bernie Sanders in 2016 and was an honorary co-chair of the Women’s March in 2017. But the most interesting little fact came as a surprise: In 1959, his support of an African student initiative gave a grant at the University of Hawaii to a Kenyan student named (of course) Barack Obama, the father of the future president.

This, gentle readers, explains why I continue to write. It’s not always intentional that I discover so many connections. That would take real effort and not serendipitous discovery. Final note: My grandmother never told me what a word meant when I asked. A trip to the dictionary was required. Hence, serendipity, perhaps her favorite word. In OneLook’s etymology dictionary, I learned it comes from a 1754 letter in which Horace Walpole coins the word using a Persian fairy tale about three princes from Serendip who make accidental but fortunate discoveries. Serendip is an old name for Ceylon (Sri Lanka now). Tears and surprises. It was a great week.

Thanks Giving

For the last several years, I’ve shared this post that ran originally as a column 5 years ago in The Dallas Morning News. Since mid-March 2020, we’ve been living in a plague world. There is no place to flee. I have nothing worse to say about that than has been said. And now, an election in which more people voted than in any other–contentious, dividing, unresolved in the minds of some–has heightened already fracturing emotions. The advice below, then, remains adequate, if nostalgic. Pandemic and politics aside, we’ve been getting on each other’s nerves for a long time.

And yet: The sun does come up. It goes down, and the stars and moon come out. We may be hurting more this year, a little or a lot, but it’s still one foot in front of the other. This 11-minute video is perfect, far better than anything I can write. Consider taking time to listen to a “prescription” for happiness and peace through thanksgiving

This week’s picture features stained glass called The Glory Window in the spiral tower of the Chapel of Thanksgiving at Thanks-Giving Square in Dallas. It’s been my privilege to work on the Interfaith Council that calls this beacon its home. I think it’s not only for religious people, however. You can find this meme everywhere: “It’s not happy people who are thankful; it’s thankful people who are happy.”

So this year, with drastically reduced opportunities for families and friends to gather (eating outside, distancing, masking, singing fewer of those Thanksgiving carols we’ve been asked to avoid), let’s do our best to be our best.

“It’s November: The pumpkins are out, along with their various spiced lattes, cream cheeses, and sausages. Christmas trees made a showing before September ended in some stores. Yes, it’s that time again. The holidays. After Halloween, it’s all over but the shouting.

Help is here! Four words to improve your season: Boundaries, expectations, change, and change.

We call boundaries many things. Manners and good sense make the list. Simply put, you don’t do or say things that you shouldn’t. If it were that easy, of course, Thanksgivings with family would go a lot easier. Children would spring forth fully operational, Minerva-like. Love really would mean never having to say you’re sorry. Oh, and no more wars. If the human race were good at boundaries, though, we wouldn’t need police, or parents. In a word, set some, for yourself anyway.

Now we get more personal.  Expectations have ruined many a holiday. Set too high, the right events, the perfect gift, the happiness, the thrills are not enough. Too low, and the time goes by with drudgery and boredom. Expectations are not reserved for parties and pleasantries. You wanted a pumpkin pie made from a real pumpkin with hand-grated nutmeg? Mom bought one at Costco this year. Expecting the reverse works as well. The holidays offer a swell opportunity to monitor your expectations. See the section on boundaries if you need help being quiet. The exception? Do more good than you expect to get.

Even closer to home. Change, twice, is not a mistake. First, you can’t change other people. Lots of clichés help with this—Horses to water comes to mind. “A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still” has more detailed instructions and could avert many a political rampage. Yet many of us would so like to improve our fellows that the idea blinds us to the impossibility. It’s a boundary issue, yes, but a field so rife with abuse that it needs its own category.

Second, you can change yourself. Hurray! Gyms memberships will explode in January. Self-help books do a booming business. AA works. Negative cycles are broken every day. But it’s not easy. Try this exercise: Clasp your hands so your thumbs cross. Then draw your fingers up and cross your thumbs the other way when you clasp. It feels most uncomfortable. Really, most of the time, we’d just rather not. Perhaps it’s no accident that the last gasp of the holidays is that wondrously impossible list, New Year’s resolutions, some of which actually get done.

If you’ve been paying attention here, you may have realized that this piece violates all its own precepts. It gives unsolicited advice and asks you to expect something positive for your trouble by changing. An intrusion, no? How, then, is it possible to instill some sense of “I-know-this-is-right-so-please-listen”?

I’ve struggled with boundaries. For years, I had an account with a florist for the times I made too big a misstep for a simple “I’m sorry” to make me feel better.  As for expectations, one more year is here when I’ve not planned and saved for cruises for all my kids. (Sorry, guys.) Change? I feel pretty good about this one. I’ve asked any random relative to remind me to stop if I begin a sentence with “What about…?” The world is tough. At home, let’s be safe, even if it’s from each other this year. I wish us all a happy and a merry.”