The Singing Voice (Part 2)

It took a minute for Violet to understand. Obviously, Joanna hadn’t lost her voice because they were having a conversation. Then, she realized she didn’t mean her speaking voice. It was her singing voice that was gone. Violet blinked a few times and said, rather quietly, “Oh no!”

The coincidental nature of the revelation needed to be addressed. However, Violet didn’t think she could say, “How odd! I woke up and could sing like Maria Callas!” She muttered, again, “Oh no! I’m sorry to hear that.” The “hear” was awkward, she realized, so she excused herself to the dessert table.

The meeting went well enough, with some charming pieces and attentive applause. Joanna had been last on the program, and when she stood and said she would not be able to perform because her voice was gone, shocked gasps preceded the questions: “What happened? Did you call your doctor? Have you tried gargling? Lemon honey tea?” Joanna kept her composure but said she could not really explain. It wasn’t a lost voice related to a medical condition. Her singing ability had disappeared, evaporated, gone, whatever verb might be strongest.

Now that Violet couldn’t make her own announcement, she struggled to decide what to do. Nothing was obvious. She would go home and sing to herself for a few days while she thought it through. When she looked at Joanna’s face, however, she knew she couldn’t. She’d offer to stay and clean up.

As they were rinsing the punch cups, Violet began timidly, “Joanna, I have something to tell you. It’ll sound crazy so just hear me out.”

“Okay.”

“This morning, when I woke up and went in to wash my hands, I could sing ‘Happy Birthday’.”

Joanna frowned. “You always sing that when you wash your hands.”

“No, I don’t really. I sort of sing at it. Not really sing it. This morning, I could SING! As in beautifully, professionally. It’s not my voice at all.”

The expression on Joanna’s face didn’t change. “Are you making fun of me? Because if…”

“Never! Look, if everyone’s gone, I’ll show you.”

They went into the music room and sat down on the matching stools. Joanna took charge of the moment. She played a middle C and asked, “Do you know solfège?”

“Yes.”

“Great. Let’s start here and find your range.” So for the next fifteen minutes Violet went up the scale with her do-re-mis and back down with her do-ti-las. Next were mi-may-ma-mo-moos and a host of other exercises Violet obediently repeated. Then, things got serious. Joanna opened up her book of arias and flipped through well-worn pages, whispering “no” at every one. “I know,” she said. “Just sing ‘Happy Birthday.’”

“Why not?” Violet began without hesitation, not looking at Joanna at first but just imagining that first, glorious realization from twelve hours before. Beauty, grace, and style—all still there.

Joanna was silent for a moment. She breathed deeply. “It’s mine. You have my voice. The range, the timbre, the inflections. My voice and my training. I don’t know what to say.”

“I’d say I’m lucky. That’s a compliment.”

“I’d agree. Now. What to do?”

“What do you mean? We didn’t do it so how can we undo anything?”

Joanna thought a minute. “You know all those movies? The ones where people accidentally traded bodies?”

“Fuzzy…Funky…”

“Freaky. Freaky Friday.”

“Oh yeah. I remember that one. There are others?

“Tons, actually. Stories, movies, novels, animé.”

“That’s random. How in the world do you know about them?”

“In grad school I did a thesis project on Gilbert and Sullivan. Gilbert’s first opera libretto was set by someone else, but the theme was body swapping. That’s sort of an odd term. The scientific one is metempsychosis, the fancy word for transmigration of souls. It struck my fancy, so I researched the literature.”

“Wow. So, how did things get resolved in these tons of things? Magic?”

“Sure. And alien technology or car accidents or AI transfers or lightning strikes. You name it.”

Violet was now the troubled one. “But we didn’t do any of that. We only see each other here. Is this…could we be in a dream?”

Joanna reached over to pinch her, but she stopped short. “Hey, I don’t know. It’s not a dream. My tears are real. Your…my…the…voice is real.”

“Think, then. I mean, magic is one thing. Lots of science looks like magic to me. Cell phones? The combustion engine? That green lipstick that turns pink?”

“Hey, I get it. But you’re the one who got the voice. I didn’t do anything but wake up. Done any wishing lately?”

Violet thought about the night before. Another beautiful night. “You know, when the evening star came up…”

“It’s Venus.”

“Yes, I know. ‘Evening star’ seemed more poetic. So remember when kids used to wish on the first star they saw? Then we had the Jiminy Cricket song? Maybe I did wish I could sing. It was silly. Not a real intent. It doesn’t work like that.”

“You never know. Stranger things have happened. Can’t argue with the outcome.”

“So what do we do now? You’re the expert.”

Joanna laughed, a little. “I don’t know about that. My thinking is just to do the reverse. Go home. Find Venus. Make a wish…upon a star.”

College requires certain challenges. Knowing she couldn’t sing, Violet dreaded the required two hours required for voice instruction. She went faithfully to the temporary building that had been up for thirty years, far back from the stately main building. Crunchy pathways, nicely tended, took Violet carefully along week after week until, finally, she had been scheduled. Her song? “People.” Because of its central place in the movie? No. Because Violet identified with its simple but stirring lyrics? No. Because she knew it was a favorite of the teacher’s? Oddly, also no. She had chosen “People” for the most obvious and best reason of all: She thought it was the easiest possible choice of any. While that may have not worked out exactly as she’d hoped, there she was on the morning of her performance, heart in her throat, pulse racing, accompanist ready. Truth be told, she did about as well as she could have. She’d listened to the teacher and even practiced a bit, but she couldn’t overcome her deeply held belief that nothing she could do would make any difference in the outcome. It was B- work all the way.

They were quiet a minute. Neither was a particularly enthusiastic hugger, so they finished the dishes, smiled at the door, and went their ways. Violet saw Venus…or maybe it was Mars. “Star light, star bright,/ First star I see tonight I wish I may, I wish I might, Have this wish I wish tonight.” She felt not at all silly. It was for a friend, a sister really. With a deep breath, she tried the do-re-mi again. No. Still beautiful.

The next morning, Violet did feel odd, but it had been a remarkable 24 hours. She was worried about starting to sing. What if it was really gone? Or still there? Was one wish enough? She washed her hands without singing, fixed some cereal, ate, dressed, and went to the piano. Tears came. Normally not a crying person, and even thought the events from the day before had a bizarre quality, Violet had loved the thrill of the beautiful notes. The songs she’d never sung. Deep breath. “Hap-py birth-day to you” was enough: It was gone. She called Joanna.

“Hello?”

“Hey, I was waiting for you to call when you found out. Are you…okay?”

“Sure. Just one of those things. I still have nothing that resembles a logical explanation. There’s no way wishing works any more than magic does.”

Joanna laughed, in earnest now. “I know, right? But fact is, it did happen. We weren’t dreaming. I couldn’t sing, you could, now it’s done—or undone.”

Violet tried a little laugh, but it wasn’t much. “Luck of the draw.”

Joanna added, “You can still play the flute though. That’s great. Still…I did think of something.”

“What’s that?”

“I know you’ve had some voice lessons in the past.”

“College and a neighbor afterward. She was convinced she could improve me.”

“Did she?”

“Ummm…maybe a little. A very little.”

“Let’s see if we can make the most of this little adventure. You’ve got some music obviously, and I’ve got some exercises. What about getting together for some coaching? No charge for first five lessons.”

Violet breathed again. “Wow. That’d be great. But I’m really no good. I don’t think it’ll work.”

“But this time there are differences. You have sung. You have sung beautifully. No, it wasn’t your voice, but you will always remember how it felt. ‘Attitude more than aptitude determines altitude.’”

This time it was Violet who laughed. “You’re right. If you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re right. Sure. I can try.”

Joanna immediately had the next quotation ready: “There is no try.”

Violet agreed, and they picked a time. Monday morning, ten. A beautiful morning it would be. “One more thing, Joanna.”

“What’s that?”

“Would you…if you don’t mind…will you sing ‘Happy Birthday’? Surely it’s someone’s today. Just once, the 10-second version?”

Joanna smiled and began: “Hap-py birth-day to you, hap-py birth-day to you, Hap-py birth-day dear…Maria. Hap-py birth-day to you!” Beauty, grace, style.

Silence for a few seconds. “Thank you, Joanna. Thank you very much.”

“You’re welcome. It’s going to be work. Go warm up. We’ll get this done. Go brighten an hour.”

 

©Mary Ann Taylor 2020

The Singing Voice (Part 1)

Good habits are like good tools: If you take care of them, they’ll take care of you. Violet had lots of them and recommended them freely to friends. The advice, not the tools. So it was no surprise to find her washing her hands that fateful Friday morning for twenty seconds, as recommended. The surprise—and it was a stunning one—came when she opened her mouth to sing “Happy Birthday,” as was her habit.

May 8, age 11, the audition: Violet wanted to sing in the 5th grade choir. She didn’t play the violin or the piano, as some of the other kids did. She could square dance about as well as any, with a new dress of navy blue, a full circle of it bound with red and yellow rickrack. She could twirl and twirl. But she could not sing very well. Courage up, she went to the music room that warm afternoon. The crossing guard let those trying out run, for once. He was smiling, for once too, at their eagerness. The room was actually its own building, built long before the school itself. The wood floors, brown and marred, had seen and heard decades of songs, sung with earnest endeavor. Mrs. Lawson welcomed the students at the door as she did for class. They were to sing in alphabetical order, either “America the Beautiful” or “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.” Violet chose “America” and went to her place. She trembled and wondered why she had thought to try. Perhaps because she wasn’t able to study violin—no money. Or the piano—no piano. But her courage was up, and she began. “Oh beautiful, for spacious skies…” and it was that soon that Violet saw in Mrs. Lawson’s eyes that the intervals were all just a bit off, and the timbre was just a bit hollow, and that she would not be chosen.

Time altered in that instant the first note came out of Violet’s mouth, the water running, the soap foaming. In her subconscious, there was the “Hap…” and when it formed in the air, it was a vibrant, rich, full-throated “Hap…” not unlike a trained operatic soprano would have vocalized. Violet almost choked.

December 17, age 12, the Christmas program: Although she wasn’t in the select choir, Violet did sing with the rest of the 6th graders in the songs for the audience. It was PTA, Monday evening, when she first heard Mrs. Lawson sing. The windows in the cafeteria were covered with dozens of snowflakes cut by the 3rd graders. The walls were bedecked with carefully glued garlands of red and green loops, courtesy of the 1st graders. It was 72 degrees outside that evening, but Christmas was still in the air. Violet had a particularly good view of the audience. Parents and siblings were to the back, with the toddler in tow. She watched carefully as Mrs. Lawson approached the podium just in front of her, thanking the choirs and the parents and the teachers. She said she’d conclude with a song she’d prepared and nodded toward the parent/accompanist at the small console piano. “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, Jack Frost nipping at your nose…” Violet’s eyes widened in amazement. Mrs. Lawson could really sing! Gone were the simple intervals she taught, or the long tones. The melody came out like honey—warm and golden and rich. Violet found herself wondering where this voice had been all these years. She exulted in its beauty. And then “Although it’s been said many times, many way, Merry Christmas to you” just like that it was over. Violet knew she’d never be the same.

She turned off the water and dried her hands, wrinkled her brow in worry, and opened her mouth to sing again. “Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you, happy birthday dear…Maria Callas, happy birthday to you!” It was still there, the voice that didn’t belong to her, clearly. What could have happened? A quick check of her throat didn’t show anything. She rustled up a flashlight and checked again. Everything looked about the same as usual. Feeling her neck, she found no lumps or bumps. Perhaps a slight thickening where she supposed her larynx might be. Suddenly she realized that she knew virtually nothing about how her voice worked and spent an hour on YouTube looking at a throat endoscopy while the patient was singing. Many drawings, representations, models, CGI optics galore. The vocabulary began to take on a hypnotic quality. Mucosa, thyroid, cricoid, arytenoid, hyoid bone. Cuneiform corniculate. It began to seem almost poetic. Wait, she wondered. Isn’t cuneiform a kind of writing? Middle Eastern? She had to look it up and then couldn’t remember if she had once known the Latin word meant “wedge.” On one video, certain promises were made about improvement when following certain protocols. Again, she didn’t know the words the instructor was using. For that matter, she wasn’t sure even how to pronounce “larynx.” That took another 15 minutes, with the usual UK-US differences, or leh- vs. la-. It was all so overwhelming that Violet realized she needed a breakfast and a nap.

Sleep wouldn’t come. Violet thought back to her earliest musical training, with her great-great aunt Maggie. By the time they met, she was already in her 70s and quite frail at that. She had been a piano teacher for decades and decades. Her blind husband was a piano tuner. Their modest home—quiet and mothballed—had never seen its own children. The furniture held all sorts of surprises, with hidden storage beneath horsehair straps and the old upright, imposing, heavy, dusted. At some point, the family had decided that Violet needed piano lessons from her Aunt Maggie. Not that she would have access to a piano, but that was secondary to getting a bit of needed income into the house, with dignity. First, the learning: Every Good Boy Does Fine and FACE. Simple enough. Then, the positioning of the hands, right and left alike. No fingernails allowed, obviously. That was an obstacle of some substance, for Violet’s grew fast and wild even at her tender seven years. Finally, her own piece: “Five Little Chickadees” challenged her ten little fingers. Even more, however, the experience challenged her voice, for there were words. “Five little chickadees, sitting by a door/One flew away and then there were four” did not come out of Violet easily or well. She strained for the pitches, grasped at the rhythms. Poor chickadees, poor Aunt Maggie. Violet was not a willful child, not really, but for decades and decades she regretted those tears she caused.

Violet decided it was not to question this odd, very odd, change but to get the work of singing. She didn’t have much in the way of sheet music, of course, just the book of pieces from her college class in voice and some vocal pieces she’d played on flute through the years. The two—a clear, light soprano and the mid- and upper-range of the flute—were not so different after all. Once, playing at a wedding reception, the father of the bride sought out Violet and asked if she was singing, the melody was so sweet. She laughed and assumed he was kidding, but how would he know she couldn’t have if she’d tried? So, lots to choose from. Violet had so many favorites to choose from. Puccini “Un bel di vedremo” and “O mio bambino caro” came before Mozart’s “Alleluia” because she wanted the tears first. Which lied would she choose? She thought only briefly and decided on “Gretchen am Spinnrade.” Yes, the A was there. Flute players don’t know its number, so she had to look it up, 5. The G just below on “sein Kuß”  was her favorite, though, as it reminded her of a dear one, gone long ago. But considering that she could only squeak out a D the night before, all was well. A rest, a drink of water before Rachmaninoff’s “Vocalise.” She knew how to conclude the morning’s program, of course. Tears first, a cleansed palate, a wordless ode must give way to the crown jewel, the piece de resistance, the true test, the Mount Everest: “Die Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen.” How Violet loved the Queen of the Night’s showiest, gutsiest, bad mommiest aria! Who would have thought? The raging cursing was not Violet’s way. Although she’d hated the idea of being a shrinking anything (a familiar taunt from her sister), decorum meant something to her. But that F6, unimaginable. Instrumental in its execution, brilliant in its glory, the metaphoric and magnificent knife at Pamina’s throat.

A year in the future, Violet imagined, her world would be different. A new wardrobe, of course, for dramatic recitals. Maybe a touch of …what? Eyelashes? Yes, it would take hard work. Determination and diligence. Coaching, lots of that. She’d make her debut onstage. All afternoon she’d sung the beloved songs, the ones that echoed from times past. She surprised herself for not being immediately thankful and turned to her hymnbook, a bit chastened after a fiery rendition. The family fortune still needed to be made, and with a voice like this, well, who knew? Actually, she might need some local auditions first. If her lofty dreams deflated, she’d open up again on “Happy Birthday” to feel encouraged. The science of the miracle, or the miracle of the science, eluded her. She contemplated a name change. Verdi’s Violetta was not her favorite and tried not to think of herself as “the woman who (would ever) stray.” Perhaps the narrowness of her choices would confine her—too early to tell, of course. In the high excitement of the day, she’d forgotten the night’s meeting of her dear music club. Exultant, she realized it could be a time to announce her change from average flute player to superior lyric soprano. She might even offer to sing for them.

A warm and charming May evening, Violet drove alone to the house of the month’s musical hostess. Joanna had two pianos and plenty of room for everyone. The acoustics were good, or as good as they could be in a home. The intimate setting, almost a salon, lent itself well to meetings. Everyone was there—Jackie and her twin Johnnie, fine pianists both; Angelica, the cellist; Naomi, the oboist who made her own reeds; Hermilio, the trumpeter and mariachi crossover; five or six new graduates who would be joining. Joanna, ever the gracious hostess, had made her signature cheesecake and also consented to sing a bit of Bach. Violet walked in, earlier than usual, and found her nametag on the entryway table. She couldn’t help but smile while thinking of her surprise. Eyebrows would go up, mouths would drop open, cheers might go up. Gone were all the years of apologizing for her poor singing voice. Gone the appraisals of “You can fit in well enough if you watch the upper range.” Waiting until the end of the meeting would be best and allow the performers their times. Of course, once she sang, Violet knew no one could continue, not only from the quality of the voice itself but also from the shock and newness.

It was something of a startle, then, to hear weeping in the kitchen. Joanna was clearly not herself—hair barely combed, lipstick askew, mascara down her cheeks. Her eyes were red and swollen, not the result of a brief outburst but more likely from hours of jagged crying.

“What ever is the matter?” blurted Violet.

Joanna sniffed and held her tissue to her nose. “It’s terrible. Awful. I can hardly talk about it. No way to explain it.”

“Kyle? Has something happened to Kyle?” Violet knew how much Joanna depended on her wonderful husband/accompanist.

“Kyle? No, heavens no. He’s fine. It’s me.”

“Has the cancer come back? Same place?”

“Violet, slow down. Don’t leap to things. It’s my voice. It’s gone. When I went in to vocalize this morning, I couldn’t even squeeze out a decent scale, mid-range, much less the ‘Jesus bleibet meine Freude.’ Not even Happy Birthday!”

 

 

“You Again” and “Within the Whirlwind”: Two Movie Reviews

Tears can’t always be explained. Perhaps you saw this video of a toddler crying as his sister plays Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 14 in C-sharp minor (“Moonlight”), first movement. She does a nice job, but he is feeling rather than talking, so there’s no telling. Speaking of inexplicable, this is the 3rd movement played beautifully in full as part of a motivating morning ritual that includes aromatherapy and oils; it’s an ad. Here is Glen Gould, who plays faster than most. Some say this version by Emil Gilels is the best. Perhaps. But it doesn’t make me cry. Whether it would the child we cannot know. Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, though, is the apotheosis of weeping. This short radio excerpt explains its history and impact as it was placed in the National Recording Registry. Here is the debut recording from 1938 with Arturo Toscanini.

There are bad ways to make people cry, of course. One sort uses the saccharin, the overly sentimental story. These have been passed around as long as there have been ways to share.  Someone invented the term “glurge” to separate them from real-life examples. Snopes, of course, is happy to sort the truth from the fiction, the legend from the unconfirmed. A few are even true and cryable as this one might: Jack Benny (a comedian in case you don’t remember) arranged for a rose to be delivered to his wife every day from his death to hers. I emphasize the “might.”

Sometimes, at the last moment, a directorial decision can go beyond sweetness and change tears to anger. In the movie The Notebook, we have Noah going to sleep with Allie. Spoiler: He doesn’t wake up. While we might have expected her passing, his was random and just a wee bit too much. Seriously, part of the pathos of the death of a spouse is that one has to go on without the other. It’s not easy, like this ending. And it doesn’t happen in the book. You can watch the scene here. But far worse was the ending of Downton Abbey Season 3. Spoiler: A baby is born, bliss expressed between doting parents, father killed on the way home. A clip here. I was so upset that I vowed not to watch another minute of the series and continued with that sentiment until the next season began. I figured they were as upset as I was, and I should support them. Knowing that the character left the series helps not a bit, but the actor was still apologizing as recently as 2019. Lady Sybil died earlier in the season, of course, but we were prepared via multiple foreshadowed, poorly decided medical decisions.

Another way to make people cry is meanness, except when it makes us laugh. This brings us to the first movie, You Again (2010). It didn’t get particularly good reviews on RottenTomatoes (19% critics, 43% audience). On Amazon Prime, however, it receives 4.5 stars from over 3200 viewers, with 88% giving it 4 or 5 stars. That’s quite a difference. The older Mean Girls (2004) has been wildly popular since its apparently quotable debut, but the premises are different. The latter is a teen movie, while the former film spans generations. In You Again, it’s not the audience crying; it’s the characters. We are laughing—not at their tears but at the pratfalls and complications. Not a spoiler: There is plenty of meanness to go around.

So what’s to like in You Again? The star power is remarkable, especially for a PG rom-com. The women—Kristen Bell, Jamie Lee Curtis, Betty White, Sigourney Weaver, Odette Annable (later Dr. Jessica Adams on House), Kristin Chenoweth—may be overdoing things a bit, but that’s part of Betty White’s schtick anyway. There are also cameos: Dwayne Johnson, Patrick Duffy, Hall and Oates, and another star not named in cast lists because any mention would give away a funny bit at the end.

The story is not entirely predictable, a good thing. We are prepared (manipulated?) to expect one outcome and get another, probably a better thing. More importantly, however, we learn something about redemption (the 4th  and highest “R” of literature) and even the 3rd one (revelation) as we understand our own misguided expectations. Well, as long as we’re on them—the 1st R is recreation, and the 2nd is recognition—and each has a role in this funny depiction of meanness for us and the characters.

Obviously, the term “meanness” doesn’t seem sufficient for the horrors of history. Because the Russians were allies in World War II, Stalin and the millions of deaths attributed to him are often secondary to their role in defeating the Nazis. It was the Russian Army that secured Berlin, leading to German surrender in 1945. Stalin had Hitler’s body returned to Moscow so that it couldn’t be used as a symbol for sympathizers. However, he failed to punish the soldiers who pillaged and raped afterward and broke promises regarding Sovietization of Eastern Europe. Purges of Communist Party members were common, the basis for Within the Whirlwind (2009).

Yes, this is the movie during which I cried. While there are some WWII movies and television that have humor— (JoJo Rabbit (2019), an amazing use of satire to portray bravery; Life Is Beautiful (1997), a true story; The Producers (1967, 2005), hard to explain; Hogan’s Heroes (1965-1971)—most are heart-wrenching. Within is also a true story, recommended by a friend because it’s about a literature teacher. Emily Watson (not Emma of Harry Potter) plays Yevgenia Ginzburg, a passionate professor and loyal Communist. In the beginning we see her with her classes. She is unrelentingly honest with students, offering pointed criticisms with kindness and honesty. An assassination of a Party official means someone must pay. Ginzburg is arrested and convicted of anti-Soviet agitation, protesting her loyalty all the while. Her husband will not help. She is sent to Siberia. Those of a certain age remember the place, the sentence that meant brutal cold, years of forced labor and deprivation, frequently death.

Without spoilers: The story is not always what you might expect. Fortunes rise and fall. We hear relevant literature (“What shall I do with this body they gave me,” Olip Mandelstam), and we see confused explanations of what Stalin is doing. The years go by, and Ginzburg hears news of her husband and children. Feeling the depths of her suffering and pain, we weep. Someone once told me that there is nothing one human being won’t do to another. I didn’t want to believe it, but I knew it was true. The 1981 review of the memoirs on which the movie is based adds details but, more importantly, explanations for survival (well, sort of a spoiler) and more.

You made me laugh. You made me cry. Both are gifts. Thank you.

 

 

Simply, Liv: A Queer LDS Woman Speaks

“What did she say?” was more like “Did she say what I think she said?” The theme of the day was “I Am a Child of God. His Promises Are Sure.” These are the words from the 4th verse of a children’s song, sung here inclusively but missing that verse. Here the Church website has all the words, in 25 languages. If all other hymns suddenly disappeared, this one would remain as the clearest statement of what we believe.

What follows are three reflections on what Liv said.

PART ONE

One sits listening, perhaps dozing comfortably here and there, to lovely speeches or talks of the day. Invited by a friend to watch the BYU Women’s Conference, I was happy to be enlightened and inspired and so on. I must have been happily such when I noticed a young woman standing beside Sharon Eubank, first counselor in the General Relief Society Presidency (the women’s group of the church) and director of the Church’s humanitarian work in the Middle East. Jessica Livier “Liv” Haynes was asked to introduce herself and said, “I’m a Young Women’s president. I’m a daughter, a sister, a returned missionary. I am queer. I am a person who loves going to the temple. And above all of those things, I am a daughter of Heavenly Parents who strives every day to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.”

Liv then goes on to discuss reasons why she stopped going to church for a time and adds how her bishop greets her: “Are you my sister in Christ?” (Watch here at 26:40 or 28:08.) It was short, sweet, and unforgettable. The message argued for inclusivity, though there was no discussion of what she meant by the word “queer” and, indeed, the definition may not be other than describing a person who is not heterosexual. There is a large section on the Church website that includes other member stories and videos. Non-church organizations also exist, such as North Star, a community of individual believers “exploring the complexities of sexual orientation and gender identity within the context of faith.” The website has member stories and videos. Liv is there, too.

Stunned and alert, I then realized that while the topic had been discussed in talks, I don’t think an individual member had ever addressed us. The picture today–a hen protecting her chicks–reflects the protective atmosphere in which we listened to Liv. It’s Biblical, of course: …”as a hen would gather her brood…” We just aren’t used to seeing it happen in real time.

PART TWO

What follows is part of a piece I wrote for the Dallas Morning News in March 2015. My editor had published everything I had submitted; this one he declined, twice. He said the second time that he would consider it if someone notable gave some sort of orientational statement. It was not convincing, and I wasn’t convinced. Still, I think of it from time to time.

For context, remember that Obergefell vs. Hodges was decided in June 2015, with the Supreme Court holding 5-4 that the Fourteenth Amendment rendered unconstitutional bans on same-sex marriages and compelled states to recognize marriages from all other states duly performed. Here I assume that a change was coming but argue a single, minor point.

“In a classic Sesame Street sketch, Carl brushes his teeth and washes his hands, water running the entire time. Frank the Fish has been humming along happily in his pond (connected directly to the faucet) as his life-sustainer drains away. He struggles. He calls Carl to ask him to turn off the tap and to remind him not to waste water. Carl agrees. It’s a 46-second lesson that’s lasted me decades, as I took away the idea that we need to think about the impact of our actions. But my topic is not water conservation but something startlingly different.

Regardless of the sense of joy or defeat for your particular opinion [on the pending court case], consider one word: Restraint. Some people will find this change difficult because of what it will make more open: same-gender displays of affection in public or in media. These individuals may not be members of the LGBTQ community because they’ve chosen not to be open about their orientation. Or perhaps they do acknowledge their orientation but choose not to act on it. They have chosen, instead, chastity.

As private as that decision seems, we need to think about Carl and Frank the Fish again. Our actions affect others, simply put. Why make life harder for someone else?  One person’s decision to announce his orientation is met with respect. Another person’s decision not to offer her inner thoughts and feelings should be as well. It’s an invisible choice, but that doesn’t mean it lacks validity.

Expressing affection in public has met with negative results for some same-sex couples. Strangers have come up and told them their actions are disgusting, for example. Perhaps that reaction will fade.  I expect it will.

What about those for whom those PDAs are not appalling—but appealing? I fear they will be forgotten or discounted as dishonest.  Restraint in the PDA area isn’t about judgment or morals or even good manners. It’s not even about Frank the Fish struggling for air. It’s about someone dear to me trying so, so hard not to look.”

PART THREE

So, several years ago, that was my message, largely unread. These days, and after seeing Liv, I think it wouldn’t be so different. Remember to be civil and loving. You literally don’t know who is dealing with what challenges. Stupid and/or thoughtless things get said all the time. If we didn’t need practice in and instruction on how to love, we would be angels already.

In May 1995, Russell M. Nelson, now the leader of the Church, spoke on tolerance. Here are three essential points: 1) “…there is a difference between tolerance and tolerate. Your gracious tolerance for an individual does not grant him or her license to do wrong, nor does your tolerance obligate you to tolerate his or her misdeed.” The old adage “Love the sinner, not the sin” misses the point; we are already all sinners who, on reflection, cannot cast stones. It is our actions that we can and should control. 2) “To Paul’s list I might add the regrettable attitudes of bigotry, hypocrisy, and prejudice.” The list he is referencing comes in Galatians 5. Beginning in verse 21, Paul lists things not to do; 23 has the “to do” list, by the way. Remember that this is 1995, not last week. 3) Finally, this statement: “Intolerance seeds contention; tolerance supersedes contention. Tolerance is the key that opens the door to mutual understanding and love.” I see a lot of intolerance these days on all sides. Rather than confronting it, too many are ignoring it. Again, again, again, let’s talk openly and not shut others out.

 

And the Oscar Goes/Went…

Rather than add little gifts at the end, I’ll put them here just in case. Although I worked hard on this blog, interest may be limited, and I think it’s important to give you something.

First, the website FilmSite is amazing. Tim Dirks, a critic and film historian, has compiled hundreds of reviews and organized thousands of films into an accessible, concise, searchable compendium. It’s much easier and more accurate than googling.

Second, there are apps for locating movies on streaming services. I didn’t know. The one that was recommended and that so far is awesome: Reelgood. It’s free.

Third, the clothes. The red carpet was truncated this year, but people still wore beautiful things. Here are a few and here are a lot. Oh, and the winners.

Statistically speaking, you probably didn’t watch the Academy Awards last night nor did you see the Best Picture awardee (Nomadland, no surprise). Even the Grammys were down over 60% from last year. According to Sunny Bunch, the Washington Post movie reviewer, even films on Netflix (now in 2 out of 3 homes) did not have name recognition. He assesses one reason: “And while it would be foolish to suggest that a movie’s artistic merit is intrinsically tied to its box-office take, this is somewhat beside the point. Increasing the number of best-picture nominees has only accelerated the trend of little-watched films becoming awards-season darlings, turning off mainstream audiences.”

Writing about things I haven’t read or seen is not new. I never read The Scarlet Letter, for example, and apparently it was read to high school students for years as a prime example of the literary essay. Perhaps you, too, used Cliff Notes for a test. No, I’m not going opine on the nominees this year. Instead, I’ll share what I do know about them from what I have read, put them in categories/genres, and talk about movies I have seen and recommend.

The Father (2020), directed by Florian Zeller and starring Anthony Hopkins, takes on the parent-child relationship when Alzheimer’s sets in. The review on RogerEbert.com offers insights into the techniques used—different actors in the same role, plot confusion, the shifts in reality—suggesting that the audience is experiencing what this parent does.

Aging as a topic wouldn’t seem particularly “fun,” but this site lists 20 that are, actually, entertaining and even endearing. Driving Miss Daisy (1989) doesn’t deal with dementia, but many issues both of the time setting and the natural effects of aging are explored. A Trip to Bountiful (1985) introduces another spirited older woman as she visits her home one last time. Both were originally plays, with the latter by the Texan Horton Foote. Then there’s The Notebook (2004), which the site calls “sappy” but if you didn’t cry, then we need to talk. One on the list that I haven’t seen, Marjorie Prime (2017) is a sci-fi treatment of a woman who can interact with a younger version of her deceased husband via AI. [Not about aging but using the technique of things-are-not-what/who-they seem are these two: A Beautiful Mind (2001) and The Midnight Sky (2020) with George Clooney.]

Judas and the Black Messiah (2021) and The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020) fall into the category of biopics, although they are also historical dramas. The first is the story of Fred Hampton, leader of the Black Panthers Party in Chicago, and the betrayal by William O’Neal. The first sounds more compelling than the second though both are set in the 1960s and Chicago. Mank (2020) is also in this category. The story of the screenplay and production of Citizen Kane (1941) doesn’t sound interesting, but if you haven’t seen what many call “the best movie ever made,” consider doing so. Opinions vary. Best or not, it is fascinatingly well done.

This site lists ten “must-see” biopics. Amadeus (1984) and The Elephant Man (1980) could not be more different stylistically but have interesting parallels. Mozart, the sparkling musical prodigy, toured Europe as a child; Salieri did not arrange his death. John Merrick, born with profound deformities, toured England with a freak show; his captor kidnapped him after he had been rescued. Although both have plays of the same name, the producers of the Broadway The Elephant Man sued for infringement on the name. Another oddity—Mel Brooks (Young Frankenstein etc.) was a producer of the film, but his name was left off to avoid confusion. Another famous one on the list is Schindler’s List (1993), based on a historical novel rather than a biography; the story is largely accurate though the portrayal of Schindler is not.

Nomadland (2020) is both a road movie and semi-documentary-ish production using non-actors who are really living the life of “workampers.” If you’ve never read a screenplay, consider the one for this movie. It’s only 87 pages long, written by the director Chloé Zhao.

This sub-genre has perhaps the greatest variety of offerings per this site—everything from the generation-defining Easy Rider (1969) to The Muppet Movie (1979) to National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983). (Personally, I’ll never forget my mother-in-law watching Dumb and Dumber without much comment, just because her darling boy wanted to take her.) Mixing actors and real people (sorry) also happens in Richard Linklater’s Bernie (2011), with Matthew McConaughey, Shirley MacLaine, and Jack Black. This clip includes one citizen describing the five states of Texas. The movie is a murder-comedy-justice movie with real-life oddities including the director getting custody of the convicted murderer so that he can live in his Austin garage apartment.

(To combine the biopic, historical, and semi-documentary, check out this list of “mostly-accurate” docudramas.)

Minari (2020), the second Korean movie in a row to be nominated for best picture, tells the story of an immigrant family moving from California to Arkansas to farm vegetables. The word minari means “water celery.” Needing help with the children, they bring over a grandmother from South Korea. The genre could be as broad as immigrant movies or as narrow as irritating grandmothers; either is viable, but we’ll go with the first.

This list of ten and this one with dozens has many that are unfamiliar; this one lists and summarizes more dozens. Gran Torino (2008) with Clint Eastwood as a crotchety older man, a beloved car, and a Hmong family. His line “Get off my lawn,” pithy as it is, reflects deeper intent than one would expect. In District 9 (2009), it is space aliens who are the immigrants, refugees really, and the segregation and prejudice are striking. A series based on the 1988 movie, Alien Nation, has the same premise but carries the integration of these smarter, stronger beings in a different direction. Interstellar (2014) includes lots of other themes, some scientific, some romantic, but basically those of us who haven’t died have got to go. It takes the same premise as the series Battlestar Gallactica (1978, 2004) but reverses the direction. Ancient history versus future history. The animated An American Tail (1986) uses mice/Russian-Jewish immigrants coming to this country while also searching for their lost son, Feivel (or Fievel). We had the stuffed animal version and probably watched the film a hundred times. Trivia: Steven Spielberg, a collaborator, had a grandfather with that name. Bend It Like Beckham (2002) is set in the UK and follows a Sikh family whose daughter wants to play soccer. Humans as interplanetary immigrants/refugees are usually dystopian. A new movie, An American Pickle (2020), features Seth Rogan as both an immigrant grandfather and his grandson in an odd combination of Rip Van Winkle, the American Dream, and a revenge them. Quirky but eventually almost worth it.

Oddly described as a “comedy thriller,” Promising Young Woman (2020) deals with trauma and revenge. It would be interesting to understand the comic amid rape and murder. All I’ve seen is her spitting in his coffee before he drinks it; she was sort of smiling.

The history of revenge entertainment (?), of course, is long and robust. According to this SparkNotes explanation (not a reliable source, often), Hamlet is a “revenge tragedy” with two tropes: figure out who’s gonna get it, then figure out how you’re gonna do it. Sometimes both are in play. The Princess Bride (1987), for example, has a subplot with the recurring line: “My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” All Montoya knows is that the villain has six fingers. And yes, there is a lot of actual killing here. We are currently in the middle (two more in the works) of watching John Wick dispatch lots of people. The dead puppy reminds us of the rabbit boil in Fatal Attraction (1987). All the assassinating suggests the Kill Bill (2003, 2004) movies. Perhaps one of the best movies ever made, The Searchers (1956), finds a niche in Alexandra Heller-Nicholas’s Rape-Revenge Movies: A Critical Study, reinforcing my theory that everything has a scholar. Revenge has a long history, but the iconic phrase “Revenge is a dish best served cold” is neither a Klingon proverb nor a line from Shakespeare. Perhaps it all started with Cain slaying Abel, but it didn’t stop there. Were that we could sublimate via movies and not try to get the guy that just cut us off in traffic or whatever else. This list of 25 movies was drawn from over 300; here are ten unfamiliar ones.

Finally, Sound of Metal (2019) offers insights into the deaf community. This long list is alphabetical and covers decades. Marlee Maitlin won a Best Actress award at 21 for Children of a Lesser God (1986), the youngest ever. Coming in November 2021, the first deaf superhero, Makkari, will appear in Marvel’s Eternals, directed by this year’s best director, Chloé Zhao. I’m there. Musicians are keenly aware of deafness because of its effect on Beethoven, who has his own set of movies—everything from A Clockwork Orange (1971) to Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989). Of particular interest is a documentary, Touch the Sound (2004), about a Scottish musician, Evelyn Glennie, who became profoundly deaf as a child. Here and here are some videos. I saw her in Dallas with the DSO some years ago. She plays barefoot. The documentary about her is not streaming but a DVD is available, per my new app Reelgood.

And there you have it. Thanks to those of you who recommend movies to me and will, I hope, continue. Sometimes I also read books, just not so much. It’s a failing. You may recommend them as well.

 

 

 

Retrospective

After my first blogging year, I summarized my favorites and provided links. Three years into what was planned as a one-year project, let me do it differently. Let me talk about what I was wrong about. Perhaps you’ve heard the saying “If you don’t have anything nice to say about anyone, come sit by me.” The link suggests it wasn’t Alice Roosevelt but her pillowcase. These days (which we say too often), saying bad things about people is the order of the day. And the news. And politics. And, sadly, comedy. It’s just not that fun anymore. Thank you, Facebook friends, who post the good and the sweet things, the inspiring quotations and stories. Lots of people are off FB because of the other sorts.

April 2020

When I read ”Sez who?” again, I thought it was not wrong exactly but not good either. For one thing, there’s a grammar error I didn’t catch in the last paragraph, now corrected. For another, I don’t have a thesis until that last paragraph. Having gotten there chronologically, it makes sense. I wouldn’t do the same again, though. For the third thing, it was a month into the pandemic. We were beginning to wear masks after being told we did need to wear masks. This article asks the oddest question: “Is it safe to send your mom flowers on Mother’s Day?” Short answer, yes, but have her wash her hands. But were florists even open? I don’t know. Lesson: Say what I’m going to say earlier. It’s called not burying the lede. Until this blog, I did not even know that word, thinking it was just “lead” because it goes first.

May 2020

Sometimes writing from feelings doesn’t work. It’s not that “the achieve of, the mastery of the thing” was bad; it just missed an important element of the experience. The Blue Angels flew over Dallas a few days before. Someone questioned the wisdom of that symbolic act. Why utilize those resources when the money could have spent on so many other things for the front-line workers? It’s a point, though the Savior responded to a similar question differently. And the question was from Judas Iscariot, so there’s that. Still, the question ought to have been addressed.

June 2020

The Candy Thermometer” also uses the phrase “these days” when describing a shortage of patience. What I’ve learned recently is that patience is a trait that can’t be modified. If I say I am “usually” patient, then I don’t understand what the word means at all: It’s an all or nothing. I’ve now decided I don’t know what most words mean anyway, so I look more of them up on my favorite dictionary site, onelook.com.

July 2020

Included in “Memories” is a poem I didn’t remember writing or to whom I dedicated it. Later in the year, there was a similar event with a short story. I don’t think my memory is much worse than any one else’s. People much younger stumble for names etc. What I am doing of concern is fervently believing I’ve done something I haven’t or haven’t said something that I did. Be kind, and patient. Eventually, I arrive at “Maybe I did…”

August 2020

Going to take a pass here because I’m still happy with all of them.

September 2020

Recently, I alluded to being called out for what I thought were clever comments. They weren’t received that way. In “What Am I Seeing?” I do briefly introduce the idea that if you post something I don’t understand, I may ask you what you mean. I’m trying not to do that in case it’s considered an intrusion.

October 2020

This one has nothing wrong with it: “Introducing Merrijane Rice.” I’m just wrong not to have done something I thought I would. She wrote a poem weekly about the New Testament—good, thought-provoking poems. Sounds doable, said I. But I haven’t

November 2020

Wow. I offered a lot of scenarios in “Overmorrow” but could not have anticipated the horrors of November 3-January 6. Then again, who could? I guess losing a few friends is a small price to pay for keeping one’s integrity.

December 2020

Hey, it was Christmas! Another pass.

January 2021

This is complicated. In #mypresident#because, I wanted to back off from screaming at the crazies who breached the Capitol and try to support the new president without the rancor that surrounded the old one. So far, I haven’t devolved into a derangement syndrome. Some despair, though, is offset by a talk given by President Dallin H. Oaks on Easter. The title is significant: “Defending the Divinely Inspired Constitution.” Part of my belief system involves being “subject to kings, rulers, presidents, and magistrates.” Pres. Oaks speaks to issues surrounding that belief. Frankly, however, I don’t think the current administration knows what it’s doing. No details forthcoming.

And, while this is not a year’s worth, I think it’s enough. If you’ve gotten this far, thank you. If not, I love you anyway. Oh, and the laptop reminded me to save 300 words ago. That’s a first. I’m thankful for that and many, many other things.

 

Edited for Clarity

From relay races we get the term “handing off the baton.” There are numerous rules, of course, as in any sport: size and shape of the baton, length of the hand-off zone, placement of the runners’ feet within that zone. This video gives a good little overview. Dropping the baton, with the obvious problem of loss of time, is not disqualifying. The distance must not be shortened when it’s picked up, but otherwise there is no penalty. Here are the rules for the Olympic events.

Three brief videos show different scenarios. First, here is a mixed-gendered relay with some explanations about strategy; it’s a new event as of 2017. Second, here is the men’s 4×100 featuring Usain Bolt, the Jamaican sprinter considered the best of all time, and this race at the 2012 Olympics is the fastest on record. Finally, here we have the American women’s team in the 2016 Olympics. The story includes a dropped baton, a protest because the drop was caused by another runner coming into the lane, a team qualifying by running alone for time, and a gold medal. Yes, it’s worth watching even knowing the outcome.

Now for a moment let’s have that baton be truth. How does one hand it off to another?

These days, we have a plethora of words that have to do with lies: false narratives, obfuscations, lived truth, my truth, possible deceptions; or liars: compulsive, habitual, pathological, sociopathic, narcissistic. This article discusses how to spot lies. This one describes the kinds of liars above, plus others that are merely lazy or careless. Poor Pinocchio, our cultural icon for lying. All he really wanted was to be real. The movie AI: Artificial Intelligence is a retelling, even with the inclusion of the Blue Fairy (in the original version she is the Fairy with Turquoise Hair, so 2021). These days, he is never redeemed but always counted. Four Pinocchio’s is the ultimate—though often ignored—disclaimer of falsehood.

And there is so much of it, lying, even when the true measure may be intent. When truth is the object, however, the passing from one person to another is fragile. The more ways we have to share information, the more insecure it comes. Things are repeated and altered, like in the game Telephone. (Interestingly, it began as Chinese Whispers in England, origins unknown.) Unintentionally, this is understandable. Regardless, there is no winner, just as in the children’s game. It is just observable.

Some recent examples of trampled truth: the Oprah interview with Meghan and Harry (no longer on CBS but discussed and excerpted here); the Ron DeSantis 1:02 on Sixty Minutes still available from CBS on YouTube; the President Biden assessment of the Georgia 2021 voting law.

If I were on an desert island and the only reading material were People magazine, I’d be thrilled to have such easy kindling. Celebrities bore me, but it’s hard to escape the gossip. Two elements of the recent kerfuffle were the statement Markle made about someone in the Palace asking her how dark her child’s skin would be and her belief that his mixed race heritage was the reason he was not designated a prince. Here, in the Hindustan Times of India (randomly), Piers Morgan asks that Meghan Markle disclose the identity of the person who asked Harry—not her—about skin color, ostensibly to cast the racist out. Nothing further has emerged. The truthfulness of her claim, then, remains unsubstantiated. The royal title is easier to understand. Markle implied that Archie as the “first person of color in the family” was not to have a title. As the BBC explains, the protocol was established over a century ago.

First: The truth can be verified from a reliable source.

Second: A misinterpretation of facts, intentional or not, is easily verified when there is an available source.

Those of us of a certain age always watched 60 Minutes perhaps because of Mike Wallace and his sub-genre of reporting called “gotcha journalism.” It wasn’t going to be a good day if he and his crew were in your waiting room when you arrived, the cliché went. The difficulty with the Ron DeSantis excerpt is what some call “deceptive editing.” Marc A. Thiessen, writing for The Washington Post, calls the CBS piece “a hit job.” His saying that obviously doesn’t make it true. His publishing it in WaPo doesn’t make it true. It remains, therefore, his opinion. What CBS did, however, is observable in that they left out a significant portion of the governor’s reply to the question surrounding the use of Publix to distribute vaccine. The reporter says that the company donated $100,000 to his campaign and that he then “rewarded” them with the contract. DeSantis, in their edit, responds angrily when the reporter asks, “How is this not pay-for-play?” The details do matter but don’t tell the entire story. Additional information came out after the piece aired because “even” Democrats said the story was inaccurate. The edited version and the entire segment as filmed are here. It is Tucker Carlson, so there is that layer of additional opinion, but the goal is to watch both versions. This article by Dan Kennedy articulates much the same information but in a less inflammatory manner. Still, he calls the episode “an unusually clear example of media bias.” CBS has of yet not apologized, amended, or explained the segment; CBS has boosted DeSantis’s standing by leaps and bounds, surely not intentionally.

Third: Be aware of your own biases because someone else will root them out if you don’t.

There was a time when states didn’t get into each other’s business. Those days are gone. This chart presents the top national House and Senate recipients of out-of-state contributions in 2020. Top recipients for out-of-state are Steve Scalise (R-LA) and Mitch McConnell (R-KY). This chart shows the 2018 cycle. Remarkable in both are the high proportions: All four parameters are over 90% out-of-state, with three of the four over 95%. That was not the case as recently as 2014. But it’s not just the money or the advocacy even. The newly-passed Georgia voting bill has taken this to the next level. It’s not that Georgia hasn’t attracted attention before (see 2020) or that similar interest was generated elsewhere. The 2016-17 boycotts in North Carolina centered on its HB2, commonly know as the bathroom bill. It was rescinded with the pressure. These days, individuals as well as corporations as well as actual states have and voice opinions based on their perceptions of truth.

[A side note: The word “boycott” has an interesting history. It is the last name of an Irish land agent for landlord who refused to lower rents for impoverished farmers who then refused to harvest the crops.]

Back to Biden and the law in Georgia. He earned the non-coveted Four Pinocchios from The Washington Post for saying the law reduced voting hours and ended them at 5 p.m. “when working people are just getting off work.” The paper is not even sure how that information could be assumed from a reading of the law other than a change from a vague “normal working hours” to a codified “9 am to 5 pm” as a minimum for early voting hours; election days hours did not change from the original 7 am to 7 pm. Further, the change reflected an expansion of early voting in rural counties. But Biden elaborated by calling the initiative “sick” and “un-American” and “outrageous.” Apparently, incorrectly.

The food-and-water provision is more complicated. This article from the BBC seems succinct and unbiased. Essentially, the law prohibits giving anything to people waiting in line within certain distances. Again, this is not a change but a clarification. This long article includes worries as well as explanations, although the former may not seem as important as the latter. The main concern, regardless, is that those harmed will be low-income or Black voters who tend to vote in person and on election day.

Another element of the law, voter ID, presents a topic that surprisingly remains conflicting. The history is long but is not just in the South. Several things in the article suggest that many things can be true at the same time: Voter fraud is not rampant, ineligible voters (as the dead and moved) do remain on the rolls, studies show that IDs do not suppress minority voting, and a majority of voters believe in IDs. Therefore, this isn’t up for discussion here. Possibly cowardly, possibly space considerations.

The Republican reply to the MLB boycott was to cite similar voting laws in Colorado, but, sadly, they hadn’t really compared the two very closely. Coloradoans vote mostly by mail, so few of the restrictions even apply. An easy but avoidable mistake. As with all, check the facts before repeating the message. Reading the entire bill, obviously, helps. It’s only 95 pages.

Fourth: Read original sources and reasons for changes, with care taken to compare, rather than taking someone’s word.

So, handing off that baton requires attention and practice, training and rules. Emotions and assumptions should not play a role. The parable that ends with a reflection on when to cast the first stone comes to mind. Personally, I’ve got a ways to go, otherwise known as leaping to conclusions or taking a bad handoff. The old saw “Consider the source” has become “Trust the source,” which is probably not the best idea. Look for yourself.

 

 

 

111Hz

“Begin with the end in mind” is one of Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Millions of copies sold! Best selling audio, the first to hit over a million copies! I actually met him once, told him how deeply he’d affected a friend at her request, asked him his favorite hymn, and led the singing of it is his honor: “Love at Home”, a song for which my dislike was strong. A friend in the audience was beaming during the song, but that’s what you get when you tell people your thoughts on any particular topic.

Back to the end. After taking a hearing test this week, I realized that we need to know that we don’t know what we don’t know. In the test, there were these odd periods of silence. Sometimes I could hear just the tiniest bit of sound at the end. Otherwise, nothing. Extrapolating that to life (sorry), I could suppose that I did well on the test, except for the fact my responses were on a chart and documented electronically. Clearly, I missed some sounds. While that doesn’t sound profound (sorry), it did clarify my point: We really don’t know what we’re missing.

Over the past weeks, I’ve been researching sound. My first discovery was 111 Hz. This brief video of a Himalayan singing bowl includes a discussion of that tone’s history. The mystic possibilities are associated with sacred sites such as burial grounds, ancient temples, and Stonehenge. Paul Devereaux, a British scientist, has written about the phenomenon he calls archaeoacoustics. His best book title—not associated with our topic—is Fairy Paths & Spirit Roads. The science of 111 may be in question.

Sound frequency is measured in hertz (plural and singular are the same); Heinrich Hertz proved the existence of electromagnetic waves. It’s actually much more complicated as a measurement because of the use of waves that explain sound but also other things as well, even photon energy and the clock rate of computer processing units. Obviously over my head.

Another word for Hz is pitch. Humans have a range of 20Hz to 20,000Hz. I can feel-more-than-hear the lowest but can’t hear anything over 9,000Hz. YouTube has everything, of course, and you can hear any tone for an hour or ten. This chart gives pitches and analogous frequencies, excluding the lowest two. I can’t hear the highest here at all.

Of relevance again is 111Hz, which is a low A, basically, although it should be noted that the letter names are assignments that obviously don’t exist in nature. Orchestras tune to an A that is (now at least) 440 Hz; that’s the A above middle C on a piano and on a musical staff. The controversy, if that’s what it should be called, is between A 432 and A 440. This guitar video explains the difference in tuning (that’s 8 cents) and demonstrates. I can tell the difference. Perhaps you can, too.

The other metric of sound is loudness, measured in decibels (dB). The origin of the word is—guess what!?—Alexander Graham Bell. The bel was considered too large, so the deci- was added. The human thresholds range from 0 (which means there is sound but we can’t hear it) to 140 dB (meaning that anything more can be heard but causes damage). Breathing is 10dB. This is a good description and chart.  Here the CDC warns us about danger. The real meaning has to do with logarithmic ratios between two signal powers, but, as with much in this post, that’s over my head. I’ll stick with loudness.

Whale vocalizations deserve a mention. This article includes a discussion of the different species within the baleens that sing. They don’t have teeth, you see, but plates for sifting the krill, which allows the whole phenomenon. Humpback males (and it’s only males–one scientist described a parallel to the peacock feather display) can sing at that 20Hz we just barely hear. Scientists now believe that there are patterns that transfer from one population to another, hence “cultural transmission,” according to this video snippet. (Whale hunting only ended in 1986, I also learned. Not in the 19th century as previously thought, a la Moby Dick.)

A lagniappe: In that February poem-a-day effort, I decided to use sound to create a work that might be called a poem. I love windchimes, and that was the inspiration. I gathered the pitches, found them on YouTube, added a windchime link (about 40 minutes so completely repetitive), and wrote a haiku. It’s a bit clunky to implement, but I never said it was a good poem. I have an idea my neighbors hate mine, especially on a blustery night, but they’ve never said. If you are one of those rare people with the talent/gift known as perfect pitch, you’ll notice that the pitches I found on my windchime are not the ones on the windchime video. It is an oversight, as I now observe. Most of us wouldn’t notice.

B♭CDFG

Needs wind, God’s or a child’s hand:

Windchimes, day and night

Hello

The tall, black gas lamps cast a certain slant of light as Jennifer started down the path. The primroses were in full bloom, a deep, rich fuchsia pink. At intervals were stands of blue delphinium, for height. The flowers and gaslight lamps were on her right. To her left was a stream in which the lamplight reflected and twinkled as she approached the footbridge which was verdigris wrought iron, impossibly pretty. She sighed. “Late nineteenth century excess interpreted by late twentieth century romanticism. Might as well do it up.” With her enhancer program, she added a cache of primroses near the base of the bridge and compared it with the original print inset on her screen. To her delight she had remembered correctly: Kinkade, the great painter of light, once consigned to calendars and ceramic plates, had indeed done the same.

Across the bridge, the path narrowed to a sea of flagstones that curved gently to the left and took Jennifer under the graceful arch of climbing yellow roses. The walled fence was covered with English ivy and stands of pink and white hollyhocks which obscured her view of the depths. It was a familiar sight: “Glory of Morning,” Thomas Kinkade, 1995. It was her favorite, so much better than the rea-but-boring entrance to the academic building at the small college where she taught.

The phone on her ear rang. “Hello?”

“Jennifer, this is Brandon. What was the Star Trek episode you analyzed last month at MLA?”

“The Trouble With Tribbles.” Where were you, anyway?”

“I don’t know.”

“Brandon, how can you not know where you were? It’s your favorite conference.”

“Don’t be so . . .whatever, Jennifer. I was stressed.  Okay? I sort of holographed that I was there and let it go.

I caught the other nets for the review but needed your subject.”

“Brandon, that is so lame. Are you really that lazy? You could have . . .”

“I know. Bye, Jennifer. Gotta another call coming.” Jennifer rolled her eyes. No manners.

As Jennifer passed through the arch, she saw the mansion, a two-story Southern antebellum with white columns and green shutters on the windows. Broad porches wrapped the structure and light streamed from both stories.

Jennifer decided to add music and chose some Yanni as she entered. The odd association was not her favorite, but the documentation from most literary societies supported her choice. She would have preferred something more stimulating, like Guns-N-Roses but didn’t feel she could go against conventional wisdom, poetry of motion, as it were.

Then she heard the laugh and saw the young woman, sitting in her white crinoline. A roguish young sailor reclined nearby and whispered in her ear. They were on a heavy wrought iron settee of the same pattern as the bridge. The laughter was high and surprised, full of the implications of what he was saying, an epiphany in progress. Jennifer knew immediately they were laughing at her. She blinked the enhancement off as she entered the building.

Her phone rang. “Hello?”

“Jennifer? This is Heather. Are you…”                                                          .”

“Not now, sorry. I’m going into class.” The line went dead.

Slowly, the Kinkade faded as she neared the lecture hall. It was almost time for her first class, Allusions 1301. Phoebe and Delbert, the couple from the settee, now just an old vinyl-covered couch, sat more quietly as Jennifer approached, but the girl’s eyes danced as the joke played itself out. She smiled at them, rather weakly, and walked up the steps. Had the program been on, she would have added falls of white wisteria down a wide marble staircase, but she now felt humiliation festering in her thoughts. These steps, copied from old limestone patterns, were badly worn. Because everyone used enhancement programs, building upkeep was at a minimum. Furniture was shabby and unmatched. Classrooms were even worse, and occasionally even students complained about weeks-old French fries or rotting hamburger leavings, munched on by little elves/mice. Administration responded by clearing trash, but otherwise things rarely changed anymore.

In her command voice, a sotto voce, Jennifer called up her daily planner. It hovered in the air as she scanned for details about her class. Phoebe and friend were there, of course. Today was an introduction to the Star Wars trilogy. Students usually didn’t like it and thought it was boring. Jennifer had netted several pieces on it her first year teaching and felt a particular fondness for it. She never understood why the students didn’t like it and insisted on making fun of Han and Leia’s first kiss. It was so, well, so perfect. And how could they understand the scene in Look Who’s Talking Now, with the John Travolta character frozen to death in the morgue, and Kirsti Alley crying, if they didn’t know the allusion to The Empire  Strikes Back? It was one of her very favorites.

“Call Heather,” Jennifer commanded

“Hello?”

“It’s me. What did you want?”

“Thanks. Well, not much. I was just wondering whether you put in that call to Lipton-Jones. You said you would after his last episode aired.”

Jennifer flushed. It was well known how she felt about Jason Lipton-Jones. And it was also well known that he felt obligated to return all the calls he received. He was old-fashioned and lived in a house that had been modeled on Kinkade’s “Beyond Autumn Gate.” It was said that he never used his enhancement program. He actually cultivated living flowers. He was hospitalized an entire day once after falling when trying to repair a trellis above the esplanade. But his writing was so wonderfully clever, so intellectually allusive, that Jennifer was smitten.

“Yes. I did it yesterday. So what?”

“So nothing. Can’t a friend just ask?”

“You’re not my friend. You’re my sister.”

The line was strangely silent. “Very funny. Well, if you’re going to be that way. . .” The line went dead again.

Heather was that way sometimes. She’d sulk a few hours then call back. Jennifer was busy thinking and didn’t worry about it. Was it worth the trouble to do a retrospective for the special effects? Should she have the class move to split screen for all the kisses? They should surely see the wonderful paired dialogue, characters switched, in the last two films: “I love you./ I know.” Jennifer sighed. Teaching was all such a chore, really. And for what? Students who read old things, odd things, like Walker Percy and Doris Lessing and Blake and Frost, for goodness sake. Where would that get them?

Phoebe and Delbert came in. They were still laughing. Gertrude was with them, and they were trying to explain the joke to her. Of course, she couldn’t get it. She never got anything. Gertrude would glance over at her with a worried nod and a smile. They were wasting their time. But Gertrude finally snickered and sat down, her eyes glued, for once, on Jennifer.

“Let me check your homework first,” Jennifer said with a certain malice aforethought. She could ask for it sweetly, as a teacher should, and still realize the sway she had over these students, at least for the month that the term lasted.

She decided to check Georgie’s first. He was her favorite. The first day of class he discussed with some fluency Gilligan’s Island and had won the respect of his classmates with his cool delivery, if not the subject matter. He sat quietly today. His program work was astonishing, Jennifer thought. He had set himself in the middle of Kinkade’s “The End of a Perfect Day,” appropriately outfitted in fishing gear and a can of Diet Coke. Jennifer felt that warm glow of success. Then she realized she had a class with nothing to do, so she added aloud: “Please download Program Two.jol.lucy.3#99.” Star Wars could wait. It was a particularly essential I Love Lucy episode, the candy factory.

As everyone began whispering the soft commands, the door swung open rather dramatically. Jennifer had forgotten to lock it. Joe Mack came in, winded, and walked toward his seat. Jennifer hoped he wouldn’t say anything. He seemed to have something against her and asked really hard questions in class.

“I’m sorry I’m late,” he said. “Family crisis. My uncle Gene, who was falsely imprisoned years ago for stealing, adopted a young girl when her mother died. Cosette was taken quite ill this morning, and Gene asked me to sit with her when he went out. He must’ve had trouble getting home.”

Immediately Jennifer was concerned. “As you know, the door was not locked. Perhaps that was just providential today, Joe Mack.” There were snickers. “I’m sure you must be quite upset.” Several students laughed aloud and looked around at the latecomer.

Phoebe said, “Yes, you must be quite miserable.” The entire class burst into loud cackles. Jennifer blushed. Joe Mack was making a joke, at her expense, based on some obscure book, she supposed.

Someone flashed an image on her viewer of a waif-like creature. She felt another hot flush of embarrassment. She should have known the reference, really. Late 20th century popular staged work, tiresome. Jennifer stared at Joe Mack, who was still standing, and told him to sit down, please. And she reminded the rest to get to work.

The remainder of the homework assignments were dull and repetitive. Students portrayed themselves in the expected settings. Sears Homelife stores were obviously the farthest things from their minds. She gave everyone a low A. They would be upset, of course, but she had her standards. Only Georgie had shown any originality and deserved the 100.

Then her phone rang. It was egregious behavior to answer in class, grounds for suspension for a student, poor form for a teacher. It was just not done. But Jennifer had that funny feeling.

“Hello?”

“Jennifer?”

“Yes?”

“Jason Lipton-Jones, returning your call. Do I know you?”

“No, not at all.” One knew and spoke to so many people, after all. “I’ve netted several pieces on your work. I just wanted to say hello and tell you how much I liked your last work. It was so wonderfully . . . allusive.”

“Why, thank you so much. Really thoughtful of you. May I ask the topic of your last article?”

“Of course. “Parallel Structure: Lipton-Jones and His Use of Similarities to Earlier Works.” The Jeannie episodes in Rolling Thunder, Heaven Waits. It was . . .they were, well, really neat. I noticed particularly the double allusion to the Brady Bunch pilot. Very clever, wonderful.”

“Thank you, so much, well…”

“I wonder—ummm, would you like to download my last paper?” Jennifer was breathless, but terribly bold, bordering on rude. One did not ask. One waited to be asked.

Lipton-Jones was so polite. “I would be most interested. Your address?”

Jennifer began to give her personal code, then remembered where she was. She looked out from her screen to see the entire class in complete silence, riveted, staring, for once, at her. She turned around, actually let them see her back (it was never done), and whispered: “JennyO@gmail.com.”

“Fine. I shall be most interested. Well, I’m quite busy. Calls, you know. Good-bye.”

Jennifer turned around slowly. Should she excuse herself to the class, knowing they wouldn’t care? Should she explain what this great artist had produced? Should she plead the significance of his acceptance of her net piece?

“If everyone has finished, let’s move on to your next assignment. Tomorrow we will look at the Dallas allusions, so scan the soap references in your programs. Set a piece in a mid-twentieth century bedroom and kitchen. We’ll add some dialogue in class. Questions?” Everyone stood up immediately and began leaving.

Georgie stood up and turned away slowly. Then he turned back to face Jennifer. His enhancer package was modern and expensive. Jennifer did not approve of such extravagance for the young. The design of these enhancers also frightened her although she could not explain why. They covered his eyes like the old contact lenses on which they were modeled, but his were totally, glinty black. The outer edge had the thinnest rim of gold. When she commented on how odd they were, he said something like, “Tiger, tiger, burning bright,” but she did not catch his meaning. He seemed disappointed.

“I enjoyed your work,” Jennifer offered. Slowly, he moved his hand across his forehead.

He looked at her for a long time.

“Why did you do that?”

“Do what?” Jennifer was puzzled.

“Why did you give him your personal address? Couldn’t you have used the professional?”

Jennifer realized that only Georgie had heard, had paid any attention to what she’d done. “It’s permissible. Rarely. He’s a famous, well-thought-of person. I can trust him.”

Georgie looked at her directly for several seconds, and she could see her reflection in his enhancers. He seemed very wise and old, but his eye shadow was shiny, youthful, a very pretty shade of blue. Like the sky, she had heard.

“Good-bye, Jennifer.” He turned and left.

She sighed. What a rotten day. And it had been so carefully planned, too.

“Check email.” Lipton-Jones had not, as yet, asked for her net. The delay was unusual, but perhaps there was an explanation.

“Call Heather.”

“Hello?”

“What are you doing?”

“Nothing. Class over?”

“Yes. Want some lunch?”

There was a pause. “Jennifer, you never ask me for lunch. Problems?”

“Oh, no. Just haven’t seen you in a long time.”

“At least a week. Okay. Why not?”

“We could go to a film later.”

“Depends. What do you want to see?”

“The Inwood has one of the last copies of Dumb and Dumber on this afternoon.”

“You’re kidding!” It was rare to see anything so delicious as the early Carrey works. Jennifer liked being the older sister and knowing the best things. And Carrey was Heather’s favorite.

“Great. Can we have pizza?”

“Sure. See you there.”

Jennifer sighed. She blinked the enhancer back on but did not feel like changing the Kinkade

program. As she strolled down “Lamplight Lane,” the glow seemed faded. Maybe she needed a new battery so she took off the earring-like generator. She made a note, “Remember: new battery.” She put back on the little ball that connected her to the entire world, to everyone in it who could speak, and made everything so nice.

Then her phone rang. “Hello?”

“Hello. Please don’t hang up. Your professional number has been chosen to receive…”

“No!” Jennifer said, emphatically. For once, she did not feel like listening to the entire message and hung up without listening. She lifted her hair, greying but long and highlighted a bright silver, and put it over to the other side. It had been a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. Or something like that. She smiled, surprised and delighted by the allusion to the familiar childhood book. She still felt very clever.

The Stendhal Syndrome; or, A Week in Paradise

They only want you to come if you’re well, putting obstacles in the way if you’re not. A COVID-19 test within 72 hours, for one thing, usually at your expense because why would you be taking one other than traveling to Hawaii unless you were sick. The paperwork verifying the test results takes time and effort as well, and you must report your itinerary (flight numbers and address of stay), your purpose for coming, your occupation, and more. Daunting and time consuming. The flights are long and not particularly comfortable. No one serves meals these days, concerned perhaps that you might get the virus having tested negative, thereby arriving and spreading. With no time between connections to purchase airport food, you will beg “Please, may I have more pretzels, more Biscoffs?” Landing, walking down stairs instead of through a corridor, still hungry, you wait in line with 1043 people (not accurate but not an exaggeration either) in order to provide verification that you are yourself and that the self is well. Emerge into a warm sunny day, rent a car, learn that everyone says mahalo for thank you, and drive away.

Another part of your country, yes, but within minutes of a beauty explosion, you wonder, “Why don’t I live here?” Flowers bloom everywhere—bougainvillea, plumeria, plumbago, hibiscus, impatiens—are the ones that grow in pots in your kitchen and whose names you know, waiting for spring, but in Hawaii some are 20 feet tall and a riot of colors. The non-flowering plants like pothos and elephant ears know no frost will get them, and the ivy clambers up the trees, the tubers bust out in happy groups where someone arranged them.

And that’s just the flora. The fauna also seem content. You see the sparrows and house finches, the doves and cattle egrets just like at home, but there are the protected nenes and the bright-red-headed crested cardinals. Snorkeling, you’re likely to see the reef triggerfish, with its elegant design that seems, well, designed. Its Hawaiian name is quite famous: humuhumunukunukuapuaa, which translates as “triggerfish with a snout like a pig.” Poetry all its own, for a state fish. A gray Manx cat lives among the flora at the condo, coming out to greet you, though he also hisses. His eyes are beautifully golden, and a woman bending down to talk to him drops her bottle of A-1 sauce, shattering it and smelling up the place. Clandestine food trays hide in the shadows.

The blues of the sea—so many shades from deep navy to lightest turquoise, depending on the light and the air. The greens of the plants stand heightened by the stark black of the volcanic rocks. The pale purple of the taro fried pie from McDonald’s.

The two best places take care in a car: the road to Hana (waterfalls, beaches, lava flows, mountains and valleys) and the climb to the dormant volcano Haleakalā—Hawaiian for “house of the sun (hairpin turns ascending to 10,023 feet, more valleys, the red terrain of Mars above the treeline, life above the clouds with lights so magnificent at sunset a child calls it Heaven).

And then you’ll have to come home. It’s too expensive to stay, not just the gas prices or the food prices or the rent prices but the lack of ways to earn the money for such things. Your chores will call you back. The elation continues.

The French writer Stendhal wrote of this ecstasy after in Florence, and as they often do, the psychologists call the effect the Stendhal syndrome. It’s not an official DSM-V condition, but apparently medical personnel routinely treat visitors to Michelangelo’s David for palpitations. Perhaps you’ve had a similar experience at the birth of beauty. You carry it with you, that beauty, and whether or not it’s real or mathematical or Keat’s truth, you know you’ve received a great gift. You’re thankful you were well enough to come.

 

The Stendhal Syndrome:

Real or not, not in any

DSM, so named after

The writer (pseudonymous)

Who described his arrival at the tombs

Of Machiavelli, Michelangelo, Galilei

(Firenze, Basilica di Santa Croce).

His response—staggering, palpitations—

“Celestial sensations”:

The ramp up to Thorvaldsen’s Christus,

Summer 1995, first viewing, I, too,

Staggered and felt to weep

For more reasons than one.

At da Vinci’s Amboise tomb,

Stendhal had no sway.

Yes, awe at the genius, but the body-now-bones

Lay feet away from my feet.

Above my shoulder as I sit here,

A copy recalls but does not replicate

Those summer feelings, first viewing,

With a translucence through human-God

Fingers, cuticles even,

The artist thought to etch.