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.