The Stories of Our Lives: Soap Operas, Addictions, and Truths

It takes a story to explain the story about stories. We are blessed in our day to have leisure time that ideally we’d use for recreation: “refreshment of strength and spirits after work” says Merriam-Webster. The root is PIE “to grow.” And yet, we (I) plop on the couch and scroll the channels on which there is really not much to see. A friend who works 12-14 hours a day has seen all of Law and Order’s 20 seasons at least twice. Another knows all the iterations of Star Trek (9 if you don’t want to look, including animation, plus two more in the works). But these days…

So this is the first story. After hard work one day, my daughter-in-law asked her 11-year-old if he wanted to watch an episode of The Mentalist. He couldn’t, so I volunteered. This was problematic because it’s a thing they do together, and he didn’t want to miss their time together. She volunteered to begin with Season 1 Episode 1 for my benefit. And that’s all it took. We watched a few more before I left. I was hooked, one of the terms associated with addiction.

There are other words: shame (verb or noun), junkie (also used with “news”), withdrawal, bargaining, cold turkey, craving (not just chocolate), habit, rehab. The Century Dictionary, an older source now out of print, describes addiction as “a yielding to impulse, and generally a bad one.” Weakness, in other words, and I agree. A feeling of guilt ensued. One of my mantras is that there is no guilt if I have done nothing wrong. My favorite dictionary doesn’t have a root for certain, but some suspect the Old English gieldan “to pay for, debt.” I think my behavior may reflect that sad choice.

Perhaps because of that, I could get a lot done in that stage of addition, rewarding myself with an episode or ten after sweeping, mopping, hanging clothes, freezing food, until I felt I’d earned some tv time. Paying the debt with labor. But it wasn’t enough. I liked being in the world of good versus evil, clearly defined.

Now for the end of The Mentalist: Its story arc is specific to a certain serial killer who has minions in unsuspected places. He and the lead, Patrick Jane, claim each other as nemeses. I skipped to the last season and a half after 1-3. Maybe that’s a good sign. And the series ends happily even though there is a lot of shooting along the way. That should be vague enough not to be a spoiler.

This is in contrast with The Guardian, an earlier series with the same actor (Simon Baker) playing a guardian ad litem for abused kids, a premise based on my child welfare background. In fact, one of my positions was as legal liaison, responsible for finding guardians ad litem. Lots of bad things happen, Nicholas Fallin makes avoidable mistakes, and apparently it doesn’t end happily. I watched just one season but read about the rest after a friend said she didn’t like the ending. No addicted, says I!

But when I realized I was talking to the screen, I realized I was watching soap operas. One likes to entertain feelings of moral superiority. My grandmother watched two of them, Edge of Night and As the World Turns. She was a college-educated, well-read woman. But she was addicted. If she had to be out for some really important reason during these daily showings (live at the time, no way to record if you didn’t know), she’d spend significant time on the phone talking to her friends about what had happened. Every Friday was a cliff-hanger. Smarty-pants teen that I was, I looked down on all this. A weekly Star Trek episode was beloved, but it was obviously not the same. Obviously.

The tropes in soap operas are rare in the general population: amnesia, switched babies, returns from the dead, love triangles (well, mostly), and leukemia when it meant sure death. I hear brain tumors are now in. This clip from SNL’s The Sands of Modesto is set in the time of COVID. This full episode of The Californians, stereotypical.  Here is one from 1990, All My Luggage, featuring Susan Lucci of All My Children fame (41 years there, mostly recently heard on Ralph Wrecks the Internet). Really, parody of a genre some would consider its own parody is almost too easy. A comprehensive article here includes history and listings of shows. Prime time parodies are not numerous but do have reputations, for example Desperate Housewives and Twin Peaks. Of particular interest is the global phenomenon. Turkish soaps are apparently widely popular, and Mexican telenovelas are the rage in Russia.

Personal side note full disclosure: Our friend Donny Boaz recently left The Young and the Restless after two years and 108 episodes. His name on the series, Phillip “Chance” Chancellor IV, is classic. When Donny had COVID, he couldn’t work, obviously, but his role was taken over for that time by another actor, a move that couldn’t happen in prime time. His character will just disappear without explanation: no plane crash, no car wreck, no brain tumor, and no one will replace him. Read all about it here in People!

Scholars also study the genre. This summary of some of the research is a light touch. On GoogleScholar, we see over 97,000 entries with articles through the last four decades and from around the world. One title, “The deconstruction of hermeneutic gender roles in South African soap operas,” you can read here and then tell me what it means. All this leads, however, to the importance of story, the narratives that both reveal and shape our lives.

This idea is explored briefly but significantly in this podcast by Fiona and Terryl Givens called “All Things New,” based on their new book by that name. That we are given stories externally doesn’t always resonate. We may not be at “Once upon a time, happily ever after,” but we would rather feel unique even as the patterns and rhythms suggest that human nature affects us all. Terryl Givens discusses the different narratives that provide meaning to us, that tell us the great How Things Are. For example, he says, Darwin tells us a story, Nietzsche another, and I’d add by extension that our politicians insist they have the right answers to how we should live and why. In fact, even if we don’t think we subscribe to any belief system, that is in itself a belief system.

Religions all offer stories as well. Christianity has actually presented different versions of itself since the apostles died. Augustine preferred the narrative of a fallen world with a “plan gone astray.” The Restoration rejects that model of salvaging and replaces it with one of exalting, as was intended from the beginning. The link to the podcast includes the text, which is quicker to get through. Consider that for a better understanding than I’ve given.

So how did we get from addiction to soaps to the gospel? Good question. The definition of literature is characters in conflict. Mysteries are popular because the conflicts are resolved when the murderer is found out. The opposite framework, then, would be soaps which build on conflict after conflict, week after week, year after year, with no resolution. The need for a constant flow of adrenaline becomes addictive, and as our lives ebb and flow, we add that adrenaline for excitement and a break from the dailiness of it all. When I found myself talking to the characters (“Just kiss her!”) or (“You shoulda seen that coming!), I knew that I was not in a good place. My only other addiction was to Tetris, many years ago. I looked forward to the children leaving for school and played off and on until it was time to get them. Had to go cold turkey.

There are, of course, real addictions to far more serious behaviors, but the scenarios and reactions are similar. The “Just Say No” campaign was not demonstrably effective. Aversion therapy (unpleasant association with the action) or exposure therapy (introducing the anxiety in a safe space). Detox. Still, loneliness and boredom lead to escapism. I know I should just read a good book. Probably should leave it at that, so wish me luck. But if you have something good to watch…

Mary Had a Little Lamb…

…is a real poem

Written by a woman (not a Mother Goose, who was imaginary)

Real: Sarah Josepha (Buell) Hale

Who made a real difference

(Besides her own writing):

Editing, hiring, encouraging

Women of her time (while married with children),

Including but not limited to helping found Vassar.

Then, petitioning presidents for 17 years

Finally—at the right time—

Convincing Abraham Lincoln

To declare a Thanksgiving.

He delivered a proclamation

Written by his Secretary of State

William Seward (who bought Alaska, known first as his folly,

And when it became a state in 1959, saddened Texans because it was

Twice as large),

Who (Seward still) opposed slavery and supported immigrants

And Catholics (a strong prejudice at the time), views which

Cost him the Republican nomination which in fact

Lincoln won. Still, he helped Lincoln win the presidency and the same

Plotters who worked to assassinate Lincoln sent someone to

Stab him the night before Lincoln died. That was Seward.

So, in 1863 Thanksgiving became official. Finally.

 

No, there’s more.

A blues guitarist, Billy Guy,

Born in Texas

Used the poem as lyrics for a hit song,

1968, adding only a “yeah,”

Later covered by a sweaty Stevie Ray Vaughan (both these guys can really play)

Or here by Shenandoah as a Christmas version—

Same tune and first words,

But the lamb is THE Lamb)

(and also your first piano solo by ear, because it’s just that easy,

And here is a tutorial meaning you can play it on

Your first attempt at the piano, if you never have before).

That tune by Lowell Mason

Who also wrote the melody for “Nearer, My God, to Thee”

Played by the string quartet as the Titanic sank in 1912,

Here from Titanic (1997), which will make you cry

Or here, in a straight version which won’t,

And here by the BYU Men’s Chorus, stunning.

 

Back to the 19th century we go.

Thomas Edison spoke a few words from that poem–

First American recording (1877) of the human voice; hear,

See here (just a re-enactment but real Edison).

And American because the actual first human voice

Recording was French, 1860, scratchy, “Au Claire de Lune.”

 

Thus, our Sarah is responsible for:

A song lyric everyone knows, a historical moment,

Thanksgiving somewhere other than the North

(Its own history, the spread to a reluctant South),

The Boston Seaman’s Aid Society, the preservation of Mount Vernon,

Much more, too (yes, married with children).

 

Now, that little poem, based on a True Story

(although Sarah said she didn’t know it)

Which, like dear Sarah’s,

I knew nothing about until today.

You?

In My Cups

The phrase “in your cups” means that you’re drunk. I don’t drink, ever at all, but it’s one of those phrases that I find interesting. It’s not new. One translation of 1 Esdras 3: 22 uses it: “And when they are in their cups, they forget their love both to friends and brethren, and a little after draw out swords.” That’s alcohol for you, sometimes. Esdras is the Greek for Ezra, who has a book in the Old Testament, so Esdras is used to differentiate those books from the canonical one. Confusing, I know, but it has some stories worth reading.

The word “intoxicating” has to do with toxicity, poison, which ought to say something for some. But we use it much more broadly to describe feelings and sensations: an intoxicating scent or color. That’s a long way to go to connect alcohol to teacups, but one does what one must. I have lots of unmatched cups and mugs, and some evoke memories.

Bobbie: It wasn’t cancer that took her but, while compromised, a stomach bug from her husband’s office. She was smarter. She taught me “L for left” holding up index finger and thumb, but she didn’t know mayonnaise didn’t have milk; I taught her that. Suddenly her lactose-intolerant daughter’s sandwiches were better. We liked cats, she and I. She gave me two mugs, muted creamy stoneware, with blue chats. I try to give one away to an admirer (of the cup) but find I cannot. Too precious to give, too precious to use.

Jerry: A favorite gift, his tall white-and-black mug reads: “DO NOT TRUST THE GOVERNMENT,” spoken by a scraggly angel, with others adding “UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES. FOR ANY REASON. EVER.” Meant to be funny then, probably illegal now. But he did work for the government and loved that work. He drank a quart of coffee of a morning, a Coke for lunch, and a quart of tea in the afternoon. I don’t know how the man slept. Oh, a fall took him—his head. I would feel odd using it.

From the Young Women: Getting a surprise gift is often wonderful. Sometimes not. I once regifted a fruitcake before I knew that was bad manners. A few years ago, the Young Women’s group from church brought over some mint herbal tea and a lovely, large celadon-colored cup. (Almost $500 for 24 plates from Home Depot seems both an odd source and steep, but it’s the color.) To be remembered is a feeling to be treasured. I use this cup all the time for this reason and also because it’s a good big size. Thank you, girls.

Dallas Morning News: One likes to be chosen. That team-making horror from grade school really happened to some of us, probably not anymore. I submitted an application (data), a resumé (time), and a writing sample (an old letter to the editor about a terrible review of a terrible production of King Lear; not printed). But there I was, chosen to write as a guest for a year, with twenty others. I basked in my editor’s appraisal of my first effort: “A noble column.” The logo has since faded, smudged off light blue and green. Yes, it can be used, if careful. If broken, the pieces might be saved.

From Personal Children: Quite an array, from yellow plastic ones with names written on, now decades-old and fragile, to an exquisite yunomi (the Japanese cup with no handle). This message from the Japanese company that charges only $3.40 for one: “We do not support urgent requests, so please refrain from using the service if you are in a hurry. We are very sorry for not being able to meet your wishes, but we would greatly appreciate your understanding. Thank you.” One must also spend $136.4 [sic] for free international shipping, currently unavailable to USA. Regardless, that’s a lot of cups. Deep brown, with black and ochre accents and gray crazing, this cup has never been used. I don’t know how.

Dorm: Most of us were on our own for the first time in a dorm. That sounds so 20th century. They fed us well; the freshman 20 is real. I’d never heard of lasagna, or pumpkin bread. We made cocoa and popcorn in our rooms, using electric teapots and poppers. My cup—and just because it’s an antique doesn’t mean it’s pretty—is that harvest gold with bas-relief apples and edelweiss. Actually, that sounds much fancier than it is. The inside isn’t smooth but has a bumped-out surface. We washed them in our rooms, probably with Ivory hand soap. I just checked. You’ll be horrified to know that a bit of cocoa mix lingered, stuck to the bottom crease. I’ve fixed it.

Korea: The only one that remains looks like bamboo but is dark brown. An attractive-enough blending of Eastern and Western sensibilities, perhaps. Those days were so long ago. Good memories I’ve written about before—Handel’s Messiah sung to a full house, needing a second performance. The Cold War was in full force, and the Viet Nam conflict raged. Although it was almost 2000 miles away, we knew keenly that if the forces weren’t in Korea, they would likely be there. And occasionally the North Koreans would hijack a bus and head our way. But we managed, learned how to play bridge and to cook without a stove, made friends, and traveled as much as poor people could. This cup feels like a relic of times past. Not museum-worthy other than in my mind.

Wedgewood: My grandmother’s pattern was St. Austell; my aunt’s, Florentine. Their colors are similar, vibrant reds, blues, and greens on the white bone china. Just as it sounds, the material is made of bones, ashes technically, with other materials. Two of its important characteristics are strength and translucency. You can hold it to the light and see the shape of your hand. I put it in the dishwasher, probably to the horror of some. My grandmother did, or at least I think so. Grandchildren prefer this for tea parties, probably for several reasons having to do with I don’t know what. A natural extrapolation, for vegans, would be an avoidance of this material, obviously. The vegetarian grandchild doesn’t participate in the tea parties, so I have not faced that moral dilemma yet. I have given a few of these cups to special friends on occasion. There are far too many for me to have, really.

You may roll your eyes and wonder at such sentimentality. Or you may identify and go look at your own pottery. No judgment. I have posted this essay before: “Neat People vs. Sloppy People.” I still love it even though I am 4% more able to throw things out now. Improvement. Hurray.

M Is for Messenger: A Visualization

Imagine that Virus wears a tiny blue overcoat with toggle buttons. Neither alive nor unliving, its being is simply codes, RNA or DNA; its only purpose, to replicate (not reproduce) the proteins needed to do that not-living. Sneezed into a body, it finds a cell’s nucleus. Looking innocent, it suddenly shucks the coat and screams, “BAM! This is a stick-up! Here’s my RNA! Make More!”

The nuclei of the cells say “Sure” because that’s what they’re trained for and so it begins, that “I don’t feel quite right” feeling. The replicants work fast and overwhelm the cell, killing it and millions of others. Alarms sound, and white-hat white cells show up and scream “WAR!” often with fever. One such sort of these white cells, NK cells (short for “natural killer,” no kidding), does particularly well. Usually, not always, we live. And if we do live, antigens that those good cells have produced “remember” what happened and can ward off another attack of V even if sneezed in again.

Imagine now that same blue overcoat. Scientists Oh-So-Smart have synthetically manufactured RNA from the genomic code of the virus. Rather than waiting for other viruses to grow and antibodies to form (think of the progression cowpox-milkmaid-smallpox-vaccine-eradicated now except in labs—the word “cow” in Latin, vacca QED), this little impostor shucks his coat after entering a cell and triggers the immune response. Since it’s not really a virus—just a clever copy—it doesn’t scream BAM! but war begins, nevertheless, voila.

So, this vaccine is just a big faker, this messenger, and half an hour after Scientists had that RNA code, they could insert it into that little blue coat, and there we had it. Months of testing, of course, but the Scientists knew it was fine because the manufacturing process was that—just a process—and not some mumbo jumbo weirdo chemical splish-splash. In short, nothing to fear, and nothing new at all. A miracle, nonetheless.

[The rest here is in brackets because links would detract from the visualization; you don’t have to imagine anything but a Trojan horse, which is how this source describes the adenovirus vaccine of the type Johnson&Johnson has produced. Rather than putting the instructions in a fake coat, this one uses a harmless virus as a Trojan horse with the fake instructions for the RNA of the targeted virus. The same but different. For the record, I don’t yet understand the one-versus-two shot protocol.

On another level, one of the important things to remember is that viruses aren’t alive and, therefore, can’t be killed. That’s why antibiotics don’t work, which we as laypersons sort of understand, but also why products like Clorox don’t say “kill” but “inactivate” to describe what’s happening on surfaces. Hence, (perhaps obviously?) the company comes in first with a disclaimer not to ingest their productS.

The genesis of this blog is an interview with Scientist Dr. Scott Gottlieb on a podcast during which he explains the messenger metaphor, talking fast and using big words. I can’t say I understood it all, but it did help and I recommend it. Today’s image of Paddington sending a letter is, therefore, perfect. Thank you, Flickr.

Finally, I can say that I had no hesitation about getting the vaccine because of the small glimmer I had of how it works. Two difficult things followed: When I shared with co-workers what I’d done, there was not much of a response other than a general “That’s nice.” Later in the conversation, one of them said his best friend had died of COVID that morning. Now, my reaction wasn’t exactly guilt because I’d done nothing wrong. However, I did have a sadness come because I’d been insensitive and thoughtless; my friend said it was fine after I sent a private chat to him in apology. But still.

Also, when I went to see my PCP for a minor condition that needed a bit of antibiotic, I shared again my news. The nurse duly noted it, but when the nurse practitioner came in, she was glad but said no one in her office had been able to get an appointment, even the supervising physician. Why? Apparently, the big hospitals are taking care of their staff and patients, with no slots for others. Again, I felt bad. I said I’d pray they could find a way and I’d write the governor. I’ve done both. It isn’t so much that the system is unfair. It’s just inefficient, badly so right now. That’s a judgment based on observation not research. I won’t launch off on the role of government. Maybe later.

I don’t have an expectation that all this will change your mind about the vaccine if you’re opposed or motivate you to seek it if you plan to get it at some point. In general, I think education is overrated. Understanding, on the other hand, can be key.]

I’ll See It When I Believe It

Recently, someone commented on some good news (It’s a girl!) in a traditional way: “I’ll believe it when I see it.” My initial response was “Why? It’s DNA.” More about all that another time. Someone else added, “I’ll see it when I believe it.” That sounded much better, but the topic is much more complicated than I first supposed, as always.

Although I can’t remember doing this before, I need to begin with an apology. Correcting others is terrible manners. I do it all the time, so just imagine if I did it all the times I would like to. This week, someone posted that Nancy Pelosi had introduced a bill to reduce voting age to 16 and to pay for postage for mail-in ballots. Some smart aleck impulse entered by brain, and my reply had to do with (1) the poster not checking the data and (2)  believing such a thing would ever be enacted. I linked an earlier bill without doing much research. I was quickly corrected with the 2021 bill (HR1). I stood by the second comment but was embarrassed with said impulse; I should know better.

In my defense, the bill introduced this year (not by Speaker Pelosi but by Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Maryland 3rd District) also appeared in 2019 and 2020. And it is massive, addressing many more areas of voting than age and accessibility: campaign finance, ethics, gerrymandering, corruption. Sen. McConnell didn’t even allow a vote for the first iteration, and while he can’t do that this year, the bill will not pass the Senate. The sponsor notes that the bill’s popularity (67% of likely voters like it). That’s a high percentage, but the information provided to those being surveyed is limited to the issues above and does not address the voting age or postage. Deceptive, in my view.

We all think we “see” things correctly, most of the time. Even when we’re wrong, we think we did the best we had with what we knew. But to say lots of decisions are “hare-brained” insults a lot of hares. (Fact of the day: They are not just large rabbits. I didn’t know.) The real fact, in fact, is that we don’t give much actual thought to our decisions.

An important book describes how this works. In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman (the first psychologist to win a Nobel Prize, in economics) describes the two ways in which we respond to the world. Fast thinking is intuitive and emotional. This mode handles most of our reactions. Slow thinking, on the other hand, is conscious and aware. A simple example: When asked the sum of 2+2, you don’t really think; you just answer. Asked the result of 17×24, the fast brain would scream WAIT! as slow brain goes to work making calculations. (Today’s picture references the Aesop fable “The Tortoise and the Hare.” Read versions here if you like. Spoiler: slow guy wins.)

Here’s a harder example: A ball and a bat cost $1.10 together, and the bat costs $1 more than the ball. How much does each cost? The fast brain will say $1.00 because that is a quick, easy response. But it’s wrong. Slow brain is, oddly, lazy and doesn’t want to work if it doesn’t have to. It knows the fast answer isn’t right because $1 is not $1 more than 10 cents but is loath to make the effort. The link has the answer if you want to look rather than solve, or if you don’t have a smart grandkid handy.

That brief introduction leads to other applications, many of which you already know. In business, as in gambling, the first rule is “Leave your emotions at home.” We may like to think of ourselves as following our gut, but that’s really just fast brain trying to intuit. Car buying is a great example of the times we buy with something other than pure analysis. The things we should rationally be considering (MPG, safety, reliability) rarely make it into commercials. These 10 are funny, clever, surprising, or amazing (looking at you, Jean-Claude Van Damme); excitement is a recurring element. Or perhaps just Matthew McConaughey and some pulsing music, low shots, and shiny sides. Here’s a list of worst cars to buy for reliability; a Jaguar and a Tesla are included, as well as lots of other cars I see all the time. All shiny, these are “style over substance.” Slow down, in more ways than one.

Next, looking at what passes for political thinking among most people, we should address confirmation bias. It’s a term we hear all the time, from both sides of the divide. We see what we want to. The problem arises when the concepts we treasure are deeply wrong or misguided. The FBI has been saying that white supremacist and right-wing extremists are the biggest internal security threat since February 2002. Senate Bill 894 (2019) proposed special attention be paid via law enforcement. It didn’t pass, and most on the right would rather not believe it’s needed.

Conspiracy theories present another example. The right has its QAnons; the left, Putin. Historically, there is the fascinating phenomenon known as The Seattle Windshield Pitting Epidemic of April 1954. People in the small town of Bellingham, Washington, began seeing a rash of damaged windshields. At first, vandals with BB guns were presumed responsible. Then the outbreak spread to Seattle and other areas. Wild theories developed, from sand fleas to nuclear testing. At one point, 3000 reports were filed, with citizens asking for help from the governor who took the matter to President Eisenhower. When the phenomenon faded, the most obvious answer—people were simply examining their windshields more carefully—explained an example of mass hysteria. This article from 1954 offers a good summary. Of course, we’re too smart these days to have such thinking. Or not.

The infamous clip of the vote counters in Georgia “finding” ballots under tables in suitcases in just another example. Even Fox News said it didn’t happen. We tend to believe what people tell us, whether they believe themselves or not. That’s fast thinking. Slower thinking might say, “So…those people had somewhere, somehow, been instructed to count hidden ballots knowing full well they were being filmed the entire time?” or perhaps “People don’t keep secrets very well, and none of the alleged malefactors has come forth to tattle?” There is a mnemonic for the “ie” problem in “believe”: Do not believe a lie.

Kahneman saw so much of this he used an acronym: WYSIATI, “What you see is all there is.” Since that is obviously not true, why do we believe it? He explains more here.  We do see what we want to, when it supports what we want it to. Google (in case you didn’t know) keeps your data and gives you information based on what you’ve researched. Someone on the right gets different responses than someone on the left. Hence the rise of VPNs (virtual private networks) that shield your history.

Is there a way to change, to get out of our echo chambers? The simple answer of finding out what the other side is thinking could help, but these days lots of people find that nearly impossible. “You couldn’t pay me to watch Fox” or “Why would I watch someone who so clearly holds me in contempt?” Eli Pariser studies what he calls filter bubbles and wrote about his theory of a personalized internet that over time learns our preferences. It’s an entirely different discussion but highlights the idea that Google gives us what we want because of its search algorithms. This sentence is particularly striking: “A world constructed from the familiar is a world in which there’s nothing to learn … (since there is) invisible autopropaganda, indoctrinating us with our own ideas.” Scary, and I’ll leave it there to be pondered.

So, to the question of how to change. Our lazy brains won’t like it because there’s effort. Read or watch what you like, and don’t watch other things if you would rather not. However, take the time to see what sources that are mostly neutral have to say. The Associated Press is a good place to start, online at apnews.com. It’s really old (1846), it’s a non-profit, it’s won dozens of Pulitzer Prizes, and it has an excellent reputation. Is it perfect? No. But it usually just reports straight news and doesn’t editorialize.  And Reuters is the other big company in the same league. Originating in Germany in 1851, it remains perhaps more international. You can check out selected stories from these and others that have been rated by analysts left, right, and center at Ad Fontes Media.

With my apologetic hat in hand, I will commit to thinking slower and not saying/posting the first thing I’ve googled. I urge others to consider broadening their reading and viewing and checking facts before they repost. I’ll see it when I believe it has its applications, I think perhaps in matters of faith. When I was teaching, I always had a set of lessons to introduce students to my method. One story concerned a wise person who sat at the top of a high mountain. telling the truth to any question. The line was long. One person thought of what the best possible question might be: “What is the most important thing you can tell me?” And the answer: “Pay attention.” This miffed the seeker, who decided to go back and try again with a revised question. Long line. “What are the three most important things you can tell me?” The answer had to be different, of course, and it was: “Pay attention. Pay attention. Pay attention.” It’s good advice.

A Separation: A Review

One never knows what will resonate, remain, decades later. In 1986, I watched the movie Short Circuit, the hero of which was a robot named Number 5. A lightning strike makes him sentient. Parallels to Michelangelo’s painting The Creation of Adam aside, the little guy needs data, and lots of it. “More input!” In the stereotypical robot voice. All the time. Maybe sometimes a bit irritatingly. I am that robot.

Which you know because I’ve probably asked you for movie recommendations. At the end of a brief conversation with online colleagues (subtitles ok and they tried, but I kept saying “Seen it.”), a new person suggested an Iranian film called A Separation. There wasn’t time to hear details, so I did a bit of investigation: Made in 2011 for $800,000, box office was $24 million. That got my attention. It won the Academy Award for Best International Feature in 2012, the first Iranian film to do so. Intriguing.

A Separation begins and ends in a courtroom. We hear only the voice of the judges, once while the parents argue with the unseen judge and at the end as their child answers a judge’s questions in a way that is no answer at all: “Have you made up your mind?” with the reply “Yes.” She does not elaborate even though the judge presses her for a response that will make sense to him, either mother or father to prevail. She never does, and the film ends with a shot of the parents outside, waiting, separated literally as they sit on different sides in a busy hallway, the judge having formalized their marital separation.

The first court scene surprises the traditional American divorce with a remote judge on an elevated bench. Rather, it’s obvious the parents are in the judge’s face, almost screaming at him, imploring him to agree with one side or the other. The mother, Simin, wants to leave the country but will only do so if she can take her daughter, Termeh. Visas are waiting, and the father has changed his mind about leaving. He must then be willing to give his permission for Termeh to go, but she wants to stay with him as he cares for his elderly father who has Alzheimer’s with the hope her mother will relent. The judge—who has challenged Simin on her daughter’s future in the country—denies her request. She returns to her parents’ home, and Nader must find a way to protect his father while he’s at work.

Simin tries to help by finding a sitter, a poor woman named Razieh, recommended by a friend and who must make a long commute with her young daughter, Somayeh. Nader and Razieh haggle over her payment, he leaves for work, and Termeh is off to school. Problems arise immediately: the grandfather wets himself and must be cleaned. What happens next is crucial: Razieh calls a spiritual leader to ask if her act of cleaning him—a naked man—is a sin. She learns that it’s not, but the task is difficult for her physically, and she realizes she may have taken on too much. Perhaps her husband can come instead, she suggests.

Immediately, the subterfuges begin. Razieh has not told her husband, Hodjat, she has taken a job. She has not told Nader that she is pregnant. He must conduct an interview with Hodjat without disclosing that Razieh has worked for him. The next day, she is back at work with a vague explanation about her husband’s absence. When Nader returns from work, his father is unconscious on the floor, his hands tied to the bed. He immediately works to revive him, with Termeh crying nearby. Razieh unlocks the door and re-enters to a furious son and accusing daughter. The situation deteriorates quickly. Razieh demands her pay, Nader discovers money is missing and accuses her of stealing. She doesn’t want to leave without it, but he forces her out the door, causing her to fall on the stairs. The family later learns she has miscarried the baby they didn’t know she was expecting and go to the hospital to offer comfort. Hodjat is now the furious father with an even hotter temper. The action takes its final turn when Nader is accused of murder. Other judges—now visible and irritated—add to the tension as Nader’s future is in question.

The most insightful and poignant observation comes from Nader a bit later in the action. It can be distilled as “reasons and excuses.” Although the facts can be reduced to who knew what and when, the heart of the conflict is the play between those two concepts. The centrality of integrity—its meanings and its applications—causes real pain to all the characters. At almost twelve, Tempeh is old enough to know her own mind, her mother explains, but is that a reason for her behavior or an excuse for her lack of decisiveness? Razieh is pregnant, desperate that her husband is out of work, but is that a reason for her to find a job without his permission or an excuse for lying to him and her employer? Simin wants to leave the country for her daughter’s sake, but is the reason safety and protection, or is it an excuse to seek an easier life for herself? Nader has an elderly father who no longer recognizes him and to whom he feels an obligation, but is that a reason to continue trying to maintain care at home, or an excuse not to stay with his wife?

These questions reflect universal concerns, and an American watching the film would understand the conflicts. Cultural components are not a barrier, although some things do seem ancient to our ears such as the payment of blood money for the loss of the child. All the women wear at least a hijab; Razieh wears a chador that reflects her higher level of religiosity (itself an underlying theme). The former is common in our country, and though the latter is rarer, its significance would be obvious. Women drive in Iran and hold professional jobs even though the structure seems patriarchal. Perhaps the need for permission to leave with a child would seem unusual until the viewer remembers the initial premise in Taken. The element of families in crisis, then, is familiar.

Technical aspects crown this work, aside from its humanity. There is not a musical score, for example. Music tells us how to feel; Darth Vader’s imposing leit-motif and the violins-only of Psycho support the action and ambience. Without it we are closer to the characters who become more and more real. The single camera does not manipulate us with clever angles or artsy lingering. There are cuts, essential ones that we don’t notice because they seem unremarkable. Inconsequential actions culminate in vitally important later actions, as when Simin pays movers from a cash reserve. (It does look like a tremendous amount physically. Nader doesn’t want to pay Razieh the 300,000 rials she asks for, agreeing reluctantly. In dollars, that’s about $7.15 for a day’s work.) The tight scenes that we don’t understand immediately are reminiscent of this scene from Roberto Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful (1997).

The directorial sensibility of Ashgar Farhadi has been compared to Hitchcock’s. It’s easy to forget that we, in fact, become part of the story, willingly or unwillingly, as we react with empathy and even dread to the plight of these people, none of them innocent except the very young and the very old. All in all, this jewel of a film deserved its Oscar, something I can’t always say. Even without a definitive ending, the piece offers a satisfaction that is both artistic and experiential, taking us close as we would dare to what seems uncannily like the real lives of real people set in a place we will never go. Yes, recommended.

#mypresident, #because

…because he won the election. As of today, Joseph R. Biden is the president-elect of these United States as certified by the Senate on January 7, 2021. He won more electoral votes (306) than did Donald J. Trump (232). That he won the popular vote by just over 7 million votes does not now—and hopefully never will—matter or affect the outcome. This article (from a reliable source) explains the complicated process which involves all 50 states. Read the Constitution Section II responsible for the process; here is the 12th Amendment which changed the process, with added explanations of the reasons why.

…because the election that he won was not “stolen.” This article from The Wall Street Journal provides a list of allegations and explanations. WSJ is a right-leaning publication with an extremely high reliability record. It’s not that election fraud does not happen nor that either party is innocent of having committed it. Perhaps the most famous case is from Texas, involving the 1948 run-off between Lyndon B. Johnson and then-governor Coke Stevenson when both vied to be the Democratic candidate for the US Senate; it was essentially the actual race because the Republican could not win. Known as the Box 13 Scandal, the details are complicated, but in Jim Wells County, enough votes were “found” that put Johnson over the top by 187 votes. The word “brazen” usually appears when that bit of corruption is described. On Wednesday, January 15, 2021, a woman in San Antonio was arrested for election fraud. It appears to have been a business for her, with clients from both parties. A man in Pennsylvania registered for two dead relatives and voted for Trump using their identities; he has been charged. This NPR story discusses vulnerabilities in voting machines; it was written in 2019. This article discusses basis for claims of voting machine errors. This (extremely long) article from the American Bar Association lists all cases before and after the election having to do with procedures and actual complaints. In spite of over 60 lawsuits brought on behalf of the president, not a single one established evidence of fraud or irregularities with anywhere near the consequences that would have affected the election.

…because I have nowhere else to go. Having written about that already (June 8, 2020), I haven’t seen any realistic alternatives creep up. Yes, people retire in San Miguel de Allende, where 5% of the residents are foreigners. Paris would be nice, too, but neither is going to happen. I am a citizen of these United States. I seem to write about it all the time. Consider these lines:

America! America!
God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law!

More apt than ever, even in 1911 the author knew we needed changes. And it’s not that it’s proprietary: the truth of our system has improved the world, though I won’t give examples here. Perhaps we can agree that, on the whole at least, there is no place I would rather live.

…because our system prevents the worst of abuses of power. Although the word “demagogue” was thrown around recently, and although the definition has its obvious applications (“An unprincipled popular orator or leader; one who seeks to obtain political power by pandering to the prejudices, wishes, ignorance, and passions of the people or a part of them”), the balances within the system mitigate that narrative. Either side throwing around the terms “fascist” or “socialist” or worse comes up against a wall that would prevent drastic action. When FDR wanted to pack the Supreme Court, albeit a complicated topic, he was prevented from doing so by his own party. So if the soon-to-be former president exhibited behaviors fitting the term “demagogue,” he didn’t achieve much with it, as he has few skills as an orator and no real desire for power, just popularity. The incoming president seeks only a title; he has no real agenda.

…because I’ve been wrong before, politically speaking. Rather than going into details, my response has usually been “Oh that won’t happen.” And sometimes I’m right, of course. Maybe the new president will do better than I expect. If not, the safeguards above will help. My faith, ultimately, is that things will work out.

…because I saw the harm in the #notmypresident response beginning in 2016. The obvious irony in that impulse and the mood of millions who do not accept results of the current election results seems obvious. Vast negative coverage by most media, a long investigation, an impeachment on shallow grounds–all relied on a desire to get rid of a duly elected president. The effect on the president’s reaction to the current election will be discussed for years.

…because there is still a line at Chick-Fil-A and trucks keep rolling. Knowing the news and its implications is important to me. I read dozens of articles a week from diverse sources. A meme lately says, “To be happy don’t turn on the news or get on the scale.” After 9/11, there was a pause for a few days in air traffic, and I could tell the difference. These days, no matter who wins the election or the Super Bowl, the trucks keep delivering. The efficient kids at the most efficient fast food restaurant ever keep delivering my food efficiently. Never a mistake yet, in contrast to my local, beloved What-a-Burger which has never not made a mistake (double fries last time.) I live a block off Interstate 20. If it ever gets quiet out there, maybe I’ll worry.

 

 

 

 

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.