Memorial Day 2018

Memorial Day is not the same as Veterans’ Day. The somber difference—remembering versus honoring—offers the opportunity to reflect on sacrifice. We take time to reflect on the lives lost in all our nation’s wars.

For my generation, the war that had just ended before we were born affected most lives in one way or another. Sixteen million people served in the armed forces of the United States in World War II; about half a million survive, with 362 on average dying daily.

The efforts of one young man to preserve the stories of those who remember, first hand, the battles of World War II inspire us to do more. A national museum in New Orleans does much, of course, and gets good press. But Andy Fancher has taken the project of preservation to heart. He has a YouTube channel, and he works passionately to record the stories of these survivors before they pass on. Interviewed for NBC Nightly News, he shared one of his videos and talked about the urgency of his mission. He also noted that five of his interviewees had died since he met them, one only 15 days after recording with Andy. Happily, Andy has agreed to two events in Duncanville, the first an evening meeting of the Friends of the Duncanville Library on July 10, at 7:00 p.m., the second a community event on September 15, 2:00-4:00 p.m. The second event, also at the library, will include displays, interactive attractions for children, a flag ceremony (we hope), and a presentation by Andy Fancher. Please come!

Connections are important on a day like today, and hopes. The oldest Civil War veteran did not die until 1956, at age 106. Albert Woolson fought for the Republic (a different way of saying the North). The oldest WWII veterans, worldwide, are older still. The oldest man in America, Richard Overton, served in the Army; he is 112 and lives in Austin. Digitized recordings of his interview with Katherine Cranford for the Veterans History Project of the Library of Congress are available here. Overton arrived at Pearl Harbor with his segregated unit just after the Japanese attacked.

So today, I’m supporting Richard Overton’s GoFundMe account. It wasn’t my intention when I started today’s piece, but it seems appropriate. He was born the same year as my father, you see, and today makes me cry a bit. I’ll help out Andy Fancher too, of course. Perhaps you can donate to one of these as well. I won’t close wishing this day happy, as this Navy SEAL admonishes me not to do. People said much the same a couple of years ago. So, remember. Act. Be quiet for a minute. And hope for peace.

Pruning

Several times a week, I drive by a real estate business that is set back from a main street. The parking lot, completely asphalted over, allows no room for beauty or style. The only decoration consists of four magnolia trees in front of the building. When the current owners took over, they had the trees pruned. Perhaps I should say hacked, butchered, disfigured. Once stately, the magnolias’ upper limbs were lopped off at the top of the roof. They look like awkward boxes on the heavy trunks. This year, valiantly, there are blooms, the beauty of survival.

My topic today is not what I started with on Friday. Sometimes I’m done writing days ahead. Other times, it comes together with some effort. This time, a complete change was necessary. The pruning image will serve in silence briefly.

When a friend wrote a long Facebook post talking about being hurt, the reason was missing, with a promise to add it later. When the truth was revealed, I was stunned. My friend, who is black, had read a fake post in which a church leader apologized for years of institutional racism. The mood of elation had changed from feelings of relief and joy to horror, sadness, embarrassment at believing—salt on the wound make sense her. Another friend made similar comments, as did others who posted about the events.

What happened was this: A former Mormon wrote the apology, accredited it to the head of the Church,  and then posted it on what looked identical to the Church website for news. The differences were subtle. I’m ashamed to report that he happens to live in Texas. A news article here gives the details, and the only point I’ll bring out is that he wanted to “spark debate.” Here’s where pruning comes in. It works if you know what you’re doing. If you don’t, disaster ensues. Perhaps he was trying to help black members, but the result was that he hurt them. Sometimes profoundly. That’s just bad business.

The timing of the piece is no accident. Last week Church leaders met with NAACP leaders and issued statements encouraging “greater civility and racial harmony.” The anniversary of a 1978 revelation in which the priesthood was extended to all adult males is approaching. An entire section of videos and essays has been added to the church website. The title is simple: Blacks in the Church. It is in that section that many of us need to spend some time.

This passage from Kirstie Ranger-Wayland, a young black woman who grew up in the church, served a mission, and married in the temple catches us: “Some believe that racism doesn’t exist anymore. While I feel the world has made progress, I’ve also felt the sting of stereotypes that some still hold. But I have hope we can continue to progress past racism by recognizing our assumptions and not stereotyping.” That seems so direct. For a number of years, Tamu Smith and Zandra Vranes wrote Sistas in Zion, originally a blog, now a Facebook presence, and worth reading. The trauma discussed after the fake news was revealed resulted in a long video posted on Facebook, but a common theme that several others expressed was a lack of desire to go to church yesterday.

Being oblivious may not be malicious, but it can seem thoughtless. I like to consider myself savvy. Years ago, speaking with a woman who grew up in Mexico, I, too, assumed she was a convert. She proudly said she had grown up in the church, her mother had served a mission and was a Relief Society president, as she herself had been. I would like to say I’d learned my lesson.

A friend told the story of young black girls being asked to go do baptisms at the temple early in the morning before school. White girls just blow dry their hair. (One of my black friends says I have wash-and-wear hair; she won’t travel without an umbrella.) Those girls couldn’t get their hair wet without—literally—either destroying work that had taken hours or spending hours getting it ready for school.

Maybe it is all about assumptions. Maybe if that man in Texas had simply written his letter under his own name, this never would’ve happened. They say people leave the church but can’t leave it alone. He hurt people. Yes, bad business. I hope we don’t, ourselves, by not thinking. I hope we correct others if they are thoughtless, or mean. It may take some courage. It’s the least we can do.

 

Goulash

Goulash is a savory mishmash of meats, vegetables, and spices. I like this definition from Wikipedia: “Its origin traces back to the 9th century to stews eaten by Hungarian shepherds. Back then, the cooked and flavored meat was dried with the help of the sun and packed into bags produced from sheep’s stomachs, needing only water to make it into a meal.” Yummy. Sort of a freeze-dried event apparently. This week, I present a mélange of suggestions from people who have said, “You ought to write about _____.” Resisting the urge to tell them to do it instead, and fearing that I couldn’t fulfill expectations or word count, I’ll try four.

  1. Acknowledging the highway maintenance workers we see and don’t think about. Those men (and yes, 96.8% are, not per Wp but here) keep us safe, build the roads, and risk their lives. While there are long periods of time during which no one seems to be doing anything on I-35 formerly or US 67 currently, the work gets done, and we are grateful. In general, none of us knows how it gets done. Another interesting question someone posed had to do with sewer systems. How do they work? Is it entirely by gravity? Of course, this can be easily answered: Mostly gravity, sometimes elaborate screw devices when there is not enough slope. Basically, it’s like water flowing to the sea, so water patterns via stream beds and such matter. Interesting stuff. We are oblivious until something happens.
  2. Another friend wondered why I didn’t look into the state of retirement these days. Asked if she is retired, she says, “I don’t know.” The question was intriguing. Back in the days when people worked for 40 years, went to their farewell, and died 3.5 years later, you knew you were employed until you weren’t. Now, I see older people working everywhere, not just as Wal-Mart greeters. The Bureau of Labor Statistics chart for ages of American workers in 2017 shows a median age of 42.2. That means half are younger, half older. For specific fields, it skews lower (restaurants, grocery stores) or higher (public administration, religious organizations). Regardless, every field has employees over 65. I know people who didn’t retire until in their 70s and others who have no plans to retire, ever. Since I have now taken on a paying job, I have to balance the rest of life around it. That may mean washing dishes instead of loading them into a shining new dishwasher when I want it delivered Thursday and can’t be here until the following Wednesday, but hey. I just don’t use the word “retired” at all and let it go at that.
  3. German words are easily mocked, in some circles. “Write about that,” someone said. This YouTube takes French, English, Italian, Spanish, and German pronunciations, and the German comes off as, well, harsh. Ambulance vs. Krankenwagen, for example. On the other hand, the German style of combining elements to make elegant and specific terms can’t be done in English. This list includes 20 excellent candidates. The first, Torschlusspanik, literally means “gate shutting panic” but translates as the noun “fear that time is running out to achieve life’s goals.” That’s poetic; others are beautiful or frightening, by turns. On this topic, I have a sweet anecdote. Almost 30 years ago, a friend came to town to see the Georgia O’Keefe exhibit at the Dallas Museum of Art, bringing along a German friend. After I nursed my baby, he sighed and fell asleep. She said there was a German word for that, but she couldn’t remember it. Weeks later, the word—and nothing else—arrived in the mail. I don’t remember the word, but somewhere, in some drawer perhaps, it lies waiting.
  4. Finally, the Boys Scouts are no more, or at least the name will change in February 2019. Lots of discussion, of course. My church is leaving, though not because of the influx of girls. As a world-wide church, it is no longer feasible to include scouting as the young men’s core program, per the official explanation. The New York Times wrote this: “The church had no scouting program for girls. Their church activities usually involved lessons in cooking, grooming, making handicrafts and learning the tenets of the faith, depending on the inclinations of the adults in charge.” Obviously, those people don’t know the girls of the church. I do, and I can promise that any one of them can do anything she puts her mind to, and cooking is not high on the list. Someone on Facebook noted that women rise to high ranks within scouting. Of course. A friend of mine was active on the national level and wrote the books. Troops and dens will be single gender, for those who have this concern. Another friend thought I should talk about the bravery of the church in being politically incorrect. All things considered, this is a sign of the times we are in. Nothing to be done. I wish them well.

So this is my goulash. I learned some things, had some fun. Hope you did too. You can write about that, later. Bon appetit!

f/8 and Being There

Every profession has its ordering principles: A physician must first do no more harm. A teacher believes that telling is not teaching. A writer learns to show, not tell. The phrase “f/8 and be there” comes from the world of photography.  The f/8 has to do with focus and speed. It could be described as the plainest of the choices of stops on an adjustable camera. The “being there” means great pictures often have a serendipitous “in the moment” quality, sometimes referred to as luck.

People have their own insider jokes as well. This one is a favorite as it involves programming logic, about which I know nothing except that “If…then” statements matter.

Recently, I wrote about every group having its snobs. More obviously, every group has its own vocabulary. Not long ago my brother was showing off his new collection of Beatles’ memorabilia which he’d bought thinking he was going to be leasing his house, which was built by Allen Livingston, the man who introduced them to the US with “I Want to Hold Your Hand” through Capitol Records. No, they were never in my brother’s backyard technically, but it is a good story.

His friend, a huge Beatles’ fan, enjoyed the conversation about the various items. Big Mouth Me offers this pearl, “I really don’t know anything about pop music since I stopped listening in about 1967. I’ve only listened to classical since then, really.” On one hand, that’s true. The depth of my ignorance is legendary, and continues to amaze. When Tom Petty died last October, I assumed it was that the NASCAR driver, who turns out to be alive and named Richard.

The friend, nonplused at my attempt at humor, said, “Well, you know, they included many classical elements in their music.” No, I didn’t know. In very fact, one scholar goes so far as to say they saved Western classical music. Howard Goodall, a classical composer in his own right, is not exaggerating when he says they revitalized, reinvigorated a genre that was dying. He explores the history of early 20th century music, explains how the Beatles looked for inspiration in elements people already loved intuitively, and changed pop music in the same process. My understanding of their contribution ended with “She Loves Me.” Sorry, don’t judge me. Watch this video for details; it is amazing. (He doesn’t include one of my favorite modern pieces, John Cage’s 4’32”, a period of silence performed here by the William Marx and here by NOLA the cat. If you must choose, go with the cat. I do understand the importance of silence in music, but…)

We agreed to take time to watch the documentary. What followed was my enthusiastic response, learning about a set of music I knew nothing about but using the vocabulary I had. The friend was perhaps a little astonished that I knew what the guy was talking about and could even anticipate some of the terms before he introduced them. For example, non-musicians know major and minor, but usually only trained musicians know about the term “modes.” The Beatles “Hey Jude” is in the mixolydian mode, for example. Here is a piece a friend had played the night before, Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in d minor BWV 538, sometimes called the Dorian.

The cool thing to me was that this is my vocabulary, and the friend wondered if I was remembering all this terms from school or what. In fact, these are terms I know and hear daily. The same night before, I’d played Alan Hovhaness’ “Sonata for Ryuteki and Sho,” full of Japanese traditional motifs.

Words. They’re what we have. If you are feeling like you don’t know anything, remember the words/language you know that someone who doesn’t know what you know doesn’t know. You’ll be surprised. My brother and his friend, both photographers, retain hope I will someday grasp that f/8 thing. We shall see.