On/Time/Flies Like an Arrow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ring, happy bells, across the snow.

The year is going; let him go.

Ring out the false; ring in the true.

The year is going; let him go.

Ring out the false; ring in the true.

     Of particular interest is the 8th of 9:

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

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

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

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

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

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

“…if only in my dreams.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Merry Christmas!

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

I’ll be home for Christmas

You can plan on me

Please have snow and mistletoe

And presents on the tree

 

Christmas Eve’ll find me

Where the love light gleams

I’ll be home for Christmas

If only in my dreams.

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

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

Bing Crosby

Perry Como

Frank Sinatra

Dean Martin

Mostly my generation but very early:

Elvis Presley

Johnny Mathis

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

Michael Bublé

Rascal Flatts

Blake Shelton

Josh Groban

Home Free

Brian McKnight

Amy Grant

The Petersens

Sarah Niemietz

I know who these are, and they are great:

Whitney Houston

Pentatonix

 

Let’s Play!

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

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

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

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

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

How many games do you own?

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

What are your favorites? Why?

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

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

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

What is your favorite aspect of this field?

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

Your least favorite?

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

What in the history of board games interests you?

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

Do you usually work in an office?

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

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

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

Why do people still love board games anyway?

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

Why are they better than electronic games?

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

What is the future of board gaming?

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

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

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

And in conclusion…

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

Thank you, Jeff Anderson!

Side Note/Side Interview

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

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

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

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

Thanks, Brandon. Who knew?

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

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

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

 

How to Keep Christmas, How to Give It Away

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Serendipity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks Giving

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dear Friend (D), Dear Friend (R)

This topic has been brewing for a long time: How to explain one political side to the other. The task has proved daunting: Some 77 million Americans do not understand why 72 million Americans voted the way they did, and vice versa. Usually one side rants against the other to call names, to sling accusations,  to foment conspiracy theories, (both sides), to claim mistreatment, and to worry about the loss of the country (both sides).

My goal, however difficult, is not intended to sway or convince, only to inform. I could say simply “Read the platforms.” The Republican one is 67 pages long, unchanged from 2016. The Democratic Platform is new, and, just as the Republican one did in 2016, rebukes the policies of the sitting president. At 92 pages long, it covers the same topics and adds others. The problem, of course, is that neither (D) nor (R) would get past the first sentences, much less the first paragraph, without collapsing. 1) “We believe in American exceptionalism.” 2) “We honor the communities native to this continent, and recognize that our country was built on Indigenous homelands.” If you don’t know which belongs to what party, well, you are not reading or listening to anyone’s news.

Having changed the letters below many times, having talked to multiple people on each side, I believe that capturing the essence of the parties’ cores can be accomplished by reflecting on one word each: liberty (R) and compassion (D). I’ll feel successful if you can say, “I didn’t know that. Wow.” We can be friends (a la Ginsberg and Scalia), but a cease from judgment and, more importantly, argument, are likely necessary.

Dear Friend (D),

Liberty. The ability to be free goes back to our nation’s beginnings. From thousands of miles away, an English monarch thought he could tell us what to do. When the Declaration of Independence was signed, “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” formed the basis of all the complaints Jefferson listed, and when the 56 signers pledged themselves to it, they became, officially, traitors. As Republicans, we believe that the gifts and blessings of liberty set our nation apart, that the founders’ sacrifices were not in vain. When that freedom is imperiled, even by its own government, we cannot abide the transgression. We are the party of Lincoln and believe that people do better when free, not fettered; when informed and educated, not manipulated by bias; when expression is open and robust, not threatened with cancellation.

The phenomenon of Donald Trump captures the essence of a continuing battle for liberty. For all his flaws, especially his communication style and language which proved a bridge too far for some Republicans, Trump delivered on promises of liberty from government intrusion through lower taxes, a stronger military (even a Space Force!), a return to strength on the world stage, a lessening of regulations on businesses. He weakened ISIS and brokered a Middle East peace many thought impossible. Immigration policy tightened loopholes better than any fence could have done. He signed the first federal bill implementing reform in the criminal justice system. Before the pandemic, unemplyment rates were the lowest in over 50 years. Despite his unpopularity, 56% of polled registered voters said they are better off now than they were four years ago.  And despite an impeachment and the negative media coverage—90% by some estimates—he received more votes than any other presidential candidate in history, except for Joe Biden.

We believe most people prefer to manage their lives, and if the government must do more than defend the borders and deliver the mail, it should have our consent. We believe in submitting to just laws. When we feel the disdain, the hate from the other side, we do not become “bitter clingers” who defend the indefensible.  But we do choose new leaders, those willing to make startling changes that are restorative.  We do not follow anyone blindly, a principle that would go against the grain of liberty.

To conclude, it is important to dig deeper into the meaning of the word “liberty.” Freedom “to do” is as important as “freedom from.” Trump was not re-elected, but the base of those pursuing liberty increased, as has its availability. Liberty has as its most ancient root pri, which means “love.” We do not believe in loving our country, right or wrong. We believe America is founded on inspired principles within the frame of a Constitution and its amendments, that will, if rightly honored, see her through the ages. We also believe the best way to love others is to respect their homes, their families, their beliefs, and their hopes; to give them a hand up, not a hand out. There will be–with effort, change, and, yes, love of freedom–liberty and justice for all.

Dear Friend (R),

Compassion. Democrats care. While that concept may not seem related to the wording of the Declaration or the Constitution, we believe that the most vulnerable among us must receive our attention. That vulnerability extends to the environment, to the refugees of unnecessary wars, and even to the foundations of a country we love and believe in but know must change. This cause cannot be left to individuals or charities or corporations; the scope is simply too wide. While the rule of law is essential, its applications and enforcement need deeper scrutiny and, in places, adjustments. Regulations go hand in hand with the law to extend additional protections. Education and opportunity must extend to all, not just a favored few.

The old and the young have suffered most obviously. We support programs that address their needs.  All Americans should have access to health care and food and housing. Other groups—long marginalized—have inspired us to extend a helping hand: People of color, immigrants, the LGBTQ community, Indigenous peoples, workers in low-paying jobs, the disenfranchised, the homeless, and the poor. We have the resources in this country, and we must use them wisely and well to reduce suffering. It is in this regard that we have taken issue with the president. From the beginning, his words denigrated women, ethnic minorities, Muslims, even our beloved veterans and their families. It has been intolerable, causing division and strife at a level not seen in our history.

During the past four years, we believe campaigns designed to frighten the American people have led to serious misunderstandings. Democrats do not believe in open borders, for example. Immigrants and their children must be treated humanely. Nor do we plan to abolish guns. Common sense protections from violence can be improved through universal background checks, a move supported by 90% of Americans. Taxation is nothing new. Democrats believe that those who can do more should pay more. Defunding the police became a catchphrase recently. Not only does president-elect Biden not support this effort, but he has also called for more police—better trained and better able to serve and protect their communities.

As we look at the word “compassion,” we learn just how specific it is. According to Merriam-Webster, compassion means “sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.” The Constitution is a wonderful document, but we do not believe we can enjoy its promises unless all of us, each of us, has access to them.

Contranyms

Observation 1: All about us, all the time, things are going on that we don’t notice; hidden bits of information are available for the taking. Examples abound. When I was a senior in high school, driving around a neighborhood with a friend, she pointed out all the wisterias growing up into the mesquite trees. Until that moment, I’d never seen the purple-flowered vine. Suddenly, they were everywhere. (I announced “hysteria for wisteria,” but no one thought it was terribly clever.) Just last week, I found the cabin filter in the glove box. Never knew such a thing existed, but it obviously needed replacing. I also learned the term “baking sheet dinners” and found dozens of recipes. My foray into newly-discovered ice cream bread was an abject failure, but maybe you’ll do better.

Observation 2: I’m not the only one. Scientists go about all the time discovering things they didn’t know about, but they seem to take such events in stride. For example, we’ve been living in these bodies for thousands of years. Only last week, in a PET scan, scientists found what they are calling “tubarial glands” in the area behind the nose and functioning as part of the salivary system. I love how the researchers worded the news: “To our knowledge, this structure did not fit prior anatomical description.” In private, they’re probably doing a “Oh my goodness, look what we found!!! dance. Sometimes, of course, such stories are hoaxes. The Memory Palace podcast recently featured the tall tale of traveling stones, a joke from 1867 in which journalist Dan De Quille reported finding metal spheres that, when separated, travelled back to each other. PT Barnum offered him $10,000 take them on tour. Scientists wrote to him from around the world. De Quille tried without success to get out of the loop by directing people to Mark Twain. It didn’t work.

Observation 3: It’s a big world, so such opportunities abound, no matter your expertise. If you’re feeling confident about your savviness, look over this list of hundreds of misconceptions. Usually, if my field is words—grammar or punctuation, usage or plurals, vocabulary or literary terms—I think I know a good bit though obviously not every. When the term “contranym” (one word that can mean two opposite things) swam into my ken, I saw that I should have noticed. When I asked a clever grandchild if he’d heard the term, he said he hadn’t but then rattled off several: “Oh, you mean like…” Yes, like that. I am not as bright as that.

Observation 4: The introduction of new material can be overwhelming or can inspire new thought. Often both, of course. I particularly liked the contranym “leave” and “left.” Kids and grandkids typically leave their things when they leave. When I started working on the poem below, I thought it would be a new and clever sort of thing but found that it led me places I didn’t know about. It wasn’t until I was discussing the problems I was having with it that I saw the solution. So, not simple work but a puzzle. As now-almost-forgotten novelist James Branch Cabell once said, “Cleverness is Not Enough.” Just that way.

Contranym

When you leave, you leave

Socks, toothbrushes, wolf ears.

We rush through the house

“It’s time to go! Everything loaded?”

But you always leave something

When you leave,

For me to find through the tears

To pile for next time.

 

The cobwebs remain,

Left only the fly’s dust

Which I dust and destroy

But no laughter stuck there

Caught in the spinning out of days.

I wish I could catch hollers, smiles

Screams of delight

Or horror or hurt knees.

 

Oh, just stop: Cleverness will not do.

I miss you, all of you, but perhaps especially

The four-year-old, whoever he is right now

On his way to five.

I need how he loves me.

It’s not a technique,

Some new figure of speech.

No. I just need to hear him

Call my name. A tear comes.

There. That’s better: Joy.

 

Overmorrow

Yes, it’s a real word. One of the grandkids had it as Word of the Day recently. We have “tomorrow,” of course, and “overmorrow” is the day after tomorrow. Archaic, but useful…today.

First, some disclosures. I am a Republican, technically a National Review Republican, not a Trump Republican. In January 2016, as Trump was heading to the party’s nomination, the editors at NR ran this scathing piece called “Against Trump.” They called him a menace, and the party retaliated. More recently, an issue ran three articles: yes, no, and maybe. Perhaps you’re not interested enough to read all three, but the point is that the magazine is no cheerleader for the president though in some quarters he has gained some respect. That’s sort of half of a half. And if this isn’t clear, you should know that I am a Republican after years of saying I was independent. You have no right or reason to know for whom I vote, however. In the past I have been wrong discussing my vote and those of others. Jay Nordlinger, a favorite at NR, left the party after Trump was nominated. He discusses both that decision and the vital importance of a secret ballot here.

Second, I was in an elevator with Joe Biden in August 1974. So was my husband. I think we said hello. Irrelevant, of course.

Today, November 2, may be remembered for many reasons, not the least of which as the day before a momentous, contentious election. It’s overmorrow we need we need to think about, maybe worry about. Various scenarios are offered below.

Biden wins decisively. Polls have him ahead by a little or a lot. On the 538 site, here, you can see a zillion polls. A landslide for Biden is unlikely, though not without its proponents.

Trump wins decisively. One pollster, Robert Cahaly, who was right in 2016 when no one else was, says this is a possibility for the Electoral College at least; here is his website at The Trafalgar Group. Cahaly is an outlier. A landslide for Trump is unlikely, though one hears that in certain quarters.

There is a literal tie. This happened only once, in 1837. This is probably more than you want to know, but to summarize, the Senate votes for a vice president, with each member getting one vote and a simple majority deciding the winner. It is the House of Representatives that elects the president, with each state getting one vote. If the House can’t come to a 26-24 win, they must work until they do, essentially. The vice-president-elect governs until a majority is reached, but if the Senate has not been able to reach a decision by January 20, the Speaker of the House takes the reins. This writer sees the situation as reason enough to abandon the Electoral College. This writer gives five reasons to keep it.

There is a delay, briefly. This is likely because of the length of time some states allow mail-in ballots to come in. Landslides aside, this would be my bet, but the wait should end by the end of the week. Vastly more are voting early this year than did in 2016; the New York Times says more than half of the number cast then have voted by now. (Update: In Texas, more than entirety of 2016.) Two reasons: the pandemic and concerns about the post office.

There is a long delay. Some of us remember the 2000 election between Al Gore and George Bush. Florida’s results were not in on election night because the margin was so narrow that a recount was mandated. The resulting discrepancies (see hanging chad) led to a 5-4 Supreme Court decision that favored Bush. Only 537 votes separated the two when the recount ended,but Bush won Florida and the Electoral College with 271 votes. Contentious, indeed. (My freshman comp students were asked to write an essay using process analysis to explain the winner for the day after the election. They couldn’t, obviously. I used eyeshadow to give myself a black eye, symbolic of having assigned an impossibility. The students understood, but it was interesting to watch my colleagues’ reaction. The ones I knew well asked, “What happened to you?!” My artwork was that good. The ones who didn’t know me well just ignored it. Lessons learned.)

Realistic fears: Already people hide their conservative views; only 22% of Trump voters were willing to share vs. 90% of Biden’s. I know that from the experiences of friends on mine who made it very clear that I was never to disclose their information to anyone. Sadly, that meant I couldn’t even tell them about the others. What used to be simply “political correctness” has evolved into “thought police” and “cancel culture.” Further friend and family schisms are likely. Don Lemons’ unfortunate wording for “getting rid” of “delusional friends” chills. Violence is assumed, regardless. Trump has engendered such hate that his win obviously will incite. A Biden win will not turn Republicans into maniacs but may embolden violence against them.

Unrealistic fears: Re-education camps (sensitivity training? see this article by John McWhorter at The Atlantic about Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility; McWhorter happens to be Black.) Targeted identification of conservatives (markers for the people that people like Keith Olbermann wants “expunged.”) Loss of free speech. Dissolution of the Union. Civil war. Financial collapse. Communism or socialism won through smiles and promises made by  power-hungry, vision-less millionaire politicians. Pooh-poohing my unrealistic fears (wait: that belongs in realistic fears.)

Conclusions: None. I don’t know what will happen tomorrow or overmorrow. No one else does either. A pandemic has only heightened already-existing tensions. Tribes and echo chambers, idle hands and fearful minds–many factors have culminated in out general malaise. The curse “May you live in interesting times” (probably not Chinese ) rings true anyway. Actions for today: Put in some food storage and water. We learned about toilet paper and Clorox wipes this year, too. I assume you voted. Pray 2024 will bring better options. Have a good breakfast. Call a friend. Finish that novel. Best plan: Enjoy today.