“We have met the enemy, and…”

This sentence has an original source in its full form “and they are ours,” but the more familiar iteration was parodic. In the War of 1812, an American naval officer, Oliver Hazard Perry, sent his superior, William Henry Harrison, later our 9th president, this message after defeating a British squadron on Lake Erie. Because I cannot seem to avoid rabbit holes, I will add that Oliver is my husband’s 5th cousin, 6 times removed. William is my 10th cousin, 3 times removed, and my husband’s 7th cousin. This will matter later.

Walt Kelly was a cartoonist and political satirist. His strip Pogo featured a possum by that name who had some sense. The strip ran from 1948-75. For Earth Day 1970, Kelly gave the world “We have met the enemy, and he is us” on a poster with a sad Pogo picking up trash. As sometimes happens, this version is the one familiar to us now rather than the source.

After Saturday’s assassination attempt, lots of people are saying lots of things. One theme is the miraculous escape or divine intervention, both possibilities in quotation marks. That seems reasonable. Millions have seen the video; no one can declare the reason the shot wasn’t fatal.

Another theme is the former president’s response. What does that raised fist mean? Defiance? Determination? Bravery? Fool-hearted recklessness? (No links—too many to count.)

The former first lady’s response on X contains several phrases that bear exploration. When she writes “The monster who recognized my husband as an inhuman political machine attempted to ring out Donald’s passion,” I don’t think she means what this seems to say. The word “recognized” doesn’t fit the rest of the description. The definition we use has to do with acknowledging or perceiving clearly.  The And the “ring” should be “wring.” That’s just an incorrect use. Unless, of course, this is a coded message and her relative absence from the campaign is no accident.

As for cousins, yes, that’s what we all are whether you believe in Adam and Eve or Darwin and Dawkins. And for all the pleading to “return” to decency and avoid violence, well, good luck with that. See Cain and Abel, whether you believe in them or not. Currently in the world, there are 4.3 billion people who belong to the three Abrahamic faiths that purport to believe that murder is wrong, that life is sacred.

So what is new? Nothing. Or everything. Idiom # 247 (not a real list): Only time will tell. Dating from possibly the 15th century…

The La Dee Da Theory: Politics Explained

After attending a July 4th extravaganza by the Dallas Winds at the Meyerson, I went with three others to a restaurant named Toulouse on Knox just north of uptown. (Seven prepositions! Too many?) It offers “French-inspired Belgian cuisine” at upscale prices. For example, their salmon or saumon with two sides is $36, but $16.99 at La Madeleine. Obviously, the upscale sorts don’t use that .99 thing. The croques madame are closer–$21 vs $13.58; that fried egg on a croque monsieur doesn’t seem appetizing to me so the $11.59 means $1.99 for that egg.

The conversation turned to the fact that Toulouse is not a “la-dee-da” restaurant. Pricey but not pretentious, friendly and not pompous. The best French restaurant in Dallas may be The French Room at The Adolphus Hotel. I’ve never been. The question of what the phrase meant was answered first with descriptions—white tablecloths, china, impeccable service. Here is a virtual tour of The French Room. No menus posted on their site that I can find. Perhaps an example of “If you have to ask the price…” but here is one from Foursquare. Salmon with one side is $46. A filet is $65 with two sides, one of which is pomme purée. Technically, that’s a puzzle. A pomme is an apple; potatoes are pommes de terre. I’m taking the dish to be mashed potatoes (a la pomme frites) rather applesauce. Toulouse misspelled haricots verts as hericot vert, but I digress.

The bottom line is that the surroundings don’t make the la-dee-dah-ness. It’s how you’re treated. Once we were invited to an exclusive dining club in Las Colinas. There was a menu without prices because our hosts had to pay. Our friend said, “Of course, order what you want, but the shrimp cocktail is $100.” Which meant I couldn’t order that, but each of us had her or his own waiter. The food arrived on platters with domes. The correct term is cloche, which is French for “bell.” (If you must know, I didn’t know that word until just now.) So the four waiters arrive at our left sides, place the platters, and at the same instant, remove the cloches. It was stunning, and while the food was indeed delicious, I don’t remember what anyone had. That’s what drama will do. And no, the service was not pretentious. Because I’m firmly in the camp of small-r republicans (“of the people, by the people, for the people”), I think not of any of us of higher rank than another. The waiters went home, and so did we. Children of God, which sometimes I do have to repeat when dealing with some of those people.

Now to politics. All this “how they make you feel” made me think of politics. Could the same dynamics be in play? A quotation attributed to Maya Angelou on this topic is much older. Richard Evans included it in his 1971 Quote Book with the originator as Carl W. Buehner, originally from Stuttgart who moved to America and became a leader in my church. His version is easy: “They may forget what you say—they will never forget how you made them feel.” (Do you know about the Internet Archive and the Wayback Machine? These incredible resources let you find materials that have been digitized and uploaded—44 million for the former, 835 billion for the latter. You sign up and then “borrow” the book or whatever it is you need. I was able to read and search Evans’ book. Try it!)

It seems that people are more often than not followers, with this theory. They follow people with whom they agree, true, but more essentially with whom they feel understand them. Or at least appear to. In Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, a list of moral foundations forms the basis of his theory of human responses and interactions: care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, sanctity/degradation, and liberty/oppression.

The implications are his but see what you think. Liberals focus on care/harm and fairness/cheating almost exclusively. Conservatives don’t have a single focus but tend to address the first five equally. (Both share liberty/oppression.) The example given in the linked article involves kneeling for the national anthem. Liberals support the act as an expression recognizing the unfairness of prior treatment. Conservatives understand the reason but would be more concerned about both the missing loyalty and the lack of respect for the sanctity of the anthem.

Leaders, then, are preferred for how they reflect these concepts. If one believes that caring for others is central, that may make you feel you can support them if that is important to you. Haidt notes that it’s no accident that we have the Affordable Care Act. This term, four Republics cosponsored the COVID-19 Origin Act. Four Republicans, one Independent, and one Democrat  supported the Fiscal Accountability Through Transparency Act. Two Democrats sponsored the Wounded Warrior Access Act.

As the rhetoric continues to roil, pay attention to what trigger words candidates use that their adherents cheer. Test your reaction. The La Dee Dah Theory took some unnecessary diversions, as usual. One member of our party reminded us of the scene in Annie Hall (1977) when Diane Keaton uses the phrase. Here it’s 30 seconds in. Stay for the crazy drive uptown, squealing brakes and all. If you can’t bear to watch because of Woody Allen, then I’d suggest you are strongly invested in the Care/Harm foundation. If you don’t wince when President Thomas J. Whitmore uses the word “mankind” in Independence Day (1996) with its soaring instrumental background and the ideas of loyalty, liberty, and even sanctity come to mind, you are likely to respond to the allusions if his name.

Blessings and Prayers for America

The last episode of Sweet Tooth (2021-2024) includes openly the message that humankind is worthless, that Nature will prevail and replace people with hybrid human/animal children, and that the resulting transformation is an Edenic return to innocence, goodness, and rightness. That didn’t need a spoiler alert; the message is obvious from the first season, first episode. Although the series is rated for children, it is often dark and frightening—no gore but lots of death from many causes including suicide.

Suggesting humans aren’t worth saving is nothing new. A novel that I found unforgettable is The Bridge (1973) in which a date has been set for any remaining humans to kill themselves. The world has gone “back to nature,” so flora and fauna run rampant. Our hero (well, protagonist anyway) sees the light, seizes the reins, and restores us to our natural place in the pecking order. Forgive the string of cliches; the conclusion is rather too brutal to recount. D. Keith Mano had a twisted sense of humor.

Why these works? The tenor of the times, generally, is that humankind is a waste of time and effort, so why bother. Our country in particular is taken to be egregious in its warped response to almost everything. Our politics  reflect how low our standards have sunk. “Truth, justice, and the American way” was Superman’s original motto, but these days all the elements deserve exploration. In 2021, in fact, the mythical hero received a new motto: “Truth, justice and a better tomorrow.”

Not that I agree with any of this. Rather the opposite. My belief system places particular importance on the American Constitution as divinely inspired, its creation essential to the restoration of principles of the gospel.

Now to a prayer and a blessing. They are alike yet different. A prayer is an ask; a blessing is an answer. We could use both today.

If you haven’t heard of the late Irish poet John O’Donohue, you’re not alone. He died in his sleep a few days after turning 52 in 2008. He served as a Catholic priest from 1979-2000, published three books of poetry before leaving the priesthood, and then became a writer and popular speaker. His last book, To Bless the Space Between Us (2008), doesn’t contain a poem by that name, oddly.

Here is a paragraph perhaps from an interview that resonates with our nation’s high ideals:

“Part of understanding the notion of Justice is to recognize the disproportions among which we live…it takes an awful lot of living with the powerless to really understand what it is like to be powerless, to have your voice, thoughts, ideas and concerns count for very little. We, who have been given much, whose voices can be heard, have a great duty and responsibility to make our voices heard with absolute integrity for those who are powerless.”

This is the conclusion of the introduction in To Bless:

“We enter the world as strangers who all at once become heirs to a harvest of memory, spirit, and dream that has long preceded us and will now enfold, nourish, and sustain us. The gift of the world is our first blessing.”

He can be much more pointed. Here are the opening stanzas of “On Citizenship.”

In these times when anger
Is turned into anxiety
And someone has stolen
The horizons and the mountains,

Our small emperors on parade
Never expect our indifference
To disturb their nakedness…

The blessing this poem ends with suggests that anxiety should be turned back into anger and that anger should prompt us to do better.

Unexpectedly, his blessing “For the One Who Holds Power” ends without that sharpness:

“May integrity of soul be your first ideal, /The source that will guide and bless your work.”

My favorite, easily, is “For a Leader.” The blessings here are really advice all the way down. While “integrity of soul” is lofty, this list seems grounded in practicality. I work on each one. (Yes, I first wrote “try” but dare not because I say there isn’t such a thing so often.)

May you have the grace and wisdom
To act kindly, learning
To distinguish between what is
Personal and what is not.

May you be hospitable to criticism.
May you never put yourself at the center of things.

May you act not from arrogance but out of service.

May you work on yourself
Building up and refining the ways of your mind.

May you learn to cultivate the art of presence
In order to engage with those who meet you.

When someone fails or disappoints you
May the graciousness with which you engage
Be their stairway to renewal and refinement.

May you treasure the gifts of the mind
Through reading and creative thinking
So that you continue to be a servant of the frontier
Where the new will draw its enrichment from the old,
And you never become a functionary.

May you know the wisdom of deep listening,
The healing of wholesome words,
The encouragement of the appreciative gaze,
The decorum of held dignity,
The springtime of the bleak question.

May you have a mind that loves frontiers
So that you can evoke the bright fields
That lie beyond the view of the regular eye.

May you have good friends
To mirror your blind spots.

May leadership be for you
A true adventure of growth.

So, yes, how great it would be to expect these attributes of our leaders. If they choose not to incorporate them—and it is their choice to be whatever they are—at least we can know what they should be doing.

If blessings often begin with “May,” then prayers begin with a multitude of verbs. In “America the Beautiful,” some of those are grant, mend, confirm. This is the story of the poem, with some commentary. It was written in Colorado Springs in 1893 at Colorado College, where I have just been. Here is a relevant prayer from the second stanza: “God mend thine every flaw, /Confirm thy soul in self-control, /Thy liberty in law!”

If you want to set aside “thoughts and prayers,” fine. That’s not the point. Rather, these sources say that action can be taken, not just empty platitudes. Read O’Donohue. See what some of those tasks might be. Better yet, read the Declaration of Independence so you’ll know for yourself what is there.

Jump to Recipe↓

Spending 8 hours organizing a 4×5 pantry seems excessive. But I did, and more really nice plastic containers and dark wicker baskets came out than you’d imagine. Also out were dozens of small cookbooks, some never used. Most never used, really. At the time of acquisition, there were high hopes if not solid plans.

I did keep three. First, Joy of Cooking. My first copy came from my former band leader, Homer Anderson. He was a larger-than-life figure well known throughout Texas. For context, he was directing at the high school when my mother was there. As time went by, the cookbook became, well, what’s the best word? Oily? I finally bought the 1997 version. There were a couple dozen earlier ones. The history includes contentious episodes between the writer(s) and the publisher(s). The original version was chatty in that process was necessary for product. Irma Bombauer began the book to cope with her husband’s death; her daughter and then son continued the legacy. Occasionally, a favorite recipe will have the designation “Cockaigne.” It’s an odd word, the name of her country home (ah, to have that) that means a mythical land of luxury and laziness. (The German word is even better—Schlarafferland: Land of Lazy Monkeys.) Joy is officially America’s most popular cookbook. And Julia Child’s.

The next was a favorite of my husband’s family. Helen Corbitt moved to Texas from New York. She ran tea rooms at the University of Texas and then various clubs before arriving at Neiman-Marcus in Dallas. Her food was quite the rage, excellent food made from fresh ingredients, but luscious. Her universally famous poppy seed dressing can’t be matched; the recipe makes a lot. My husband made her Lemon Velvet Ice Cream for many years, at great expense, to take to work. It has no parallel. After he died, one of his work mates sent condolences then asked if by any chance I would share the recipe. Of course.

Lemon Velvet Ice Cream

1 qt. plus 1 1/3 c. whipping cream

1 qt. plus 1 1/3 c. milk

Juice of 8 lemons

4 c. sugar

2 t. lemon extract

1 T. grated lemon rind

Mix thoroughly and freeze according to directions for ice cream maker. Makes 1 gallon.

Her cornbread recipe is the only one I make. No sugar, which is the correct way. But mostly used for dressing/stuffing a turkey.

Finally, an obscure selection now out of print is The Flavor-Principle Cookbook. Its premise is simple: each cuisine has its own set of spices and cooking techniques (principles) which make it identifiable. So, it’s not that Mexican food is tacos and enchiladas. Instead, the principle of tomato-cumin-chili is the basis for flavoring them. There are only 12 given that can yield dozens of recipes. The first they discuss is Soy+. If to soy sauce you add garlic, brown sugar, and sesame seed, the result is the basis for much Korean food. With 7 +s, you would have the principles for most of Asia. It’s fascinating the diversity that results. I once made a delicious curried turkey. Not with the aforementioned dressing, but a tender and delicious result all the same.

How often do I use these 3 beloved cookbooks? Pretty much never. The cornbread recipe is on a particularly oily page and opens right to it. That happens once a year. The others? Nope.

What is everyone doing? Googling the top recipe for…anything. After comparing several, I’m ready to go. Sometimes a recipe catches my eye like the infamous self-rising flour and ice cream bread. Inedible. Disappointing loss of ice cream

Most sites have long, uninteresting commentary but allow readers to “Jump to Recipe.” There’s even a discontinued podcast with that title.

“Jump” is a word that we use. We’re always jumping into something—the shower, a project, conclusions. The middle of something we shouldn’t be in at all. A tutorial here. A memory from childhood here (Teddy bear, Teddy bear..)

Mostly I have no jumping other than to the recipe. That’s okay, I guess. If we have lots of time during the post-apocalypse evenings, cooking with words will probably come back into fashion. That would involve learning how to cook with an actual fire. I predict lots of salads.

Teacakes

Juneteenth is next week, and I’ve written about it several times, usually mentioning Opal Lee. Her traditional walk is in Dallas this year, and if you want to participate, I can get you a sponsorship. The church partnership continues Saturday, and since every time is different, what happens this year will be interesting, too. Here is an article about last year. As I say regularly, I’m very proud of the Dallas Morning News article from 2021. You have to be a subscriber to open it, but if you’d like a PDF, I can supply one.

Saturday, five of us met to do half the baking—another group will bake on Friday. Here is an article about our time. What struck me this time was how much information can be shared in a few hours. Stories ranged from the births of two babies the day before (a niece and nephew) to a courtship, the plight of Ukrainians to a delicious zucchini relish.

There was a lot of science first, though. If you notice, the recipe doesn’t have instructions except for baking temperature and time. The other variables were many. The theory of creaming the sugar into the butter as it emulsifies, yielding a deeper flavor, seemed right. There was beauty too—a particularly beautiful teacake enticed one baker to eat it right away rather than risk losing that beauty to another next week.

So, yes, it’s not stepping in the same river twice. It’s a new day every day. (“Tomorrow” is an iconic song from the musical Annie. Love it or hate the original, this version is remarkable. Her name is Sydnie Christmas on Britain’s Got Talent; her “My Way” is spectacular, and that’s a song I don’t love. As long as we’re at it—her winning “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”) You’re welcome.

Hymn Search

On April 9, the day after the eclipse, the family gathered to play Eye Know, the trivia game with the cool box. The resulting blogpost was “Everyone (Doesn’t) Know.” The scenario I now approach is one that I didn’t attend. On May 2, the National Day of Prayer, I attended the one hosted by Thanks-Giving Square with David Brooks. Other friends chose the local one in Duncanville instead, with a different format. Downtown we did open with three long prayers by leaders from Jewish, Muslim, and Christian leaders. The closing, less than a minute, was by Rev. Peter Johnson, an important figure in the civil rights movement. (He is quite impressive; here is a brief interview in which he discusses forgiveness.) In the middle we had David Brooks, the Dallas poet laureate Mag Gabbert, and President Biden’s Proclamation.

The Duncanville event did not have the presidential proclamation, but they did have Governor Abbott’s proclamation read. No luncheon or speaker, but multiple prayers on topics important to the citizens. And singing, which Dallas did not have. A friend in attendance knew only one of the hymns, hence my project to enlighten him. I thought it would be easy. It’s not. Here’s why.

There are indeed a few songs that everyone knows. That list is very short: “Amazing Grace”  by Andrea Bocelli at the national event this year or Pentatonix or Judy Collins; “How Great Thou Art” by Elvis in 1977 (not sure what adjective—dramatic seems too mild) or George Beverly Shea, in 1957, all different interpretations; and “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” by the Tabernacle Choir or a music video that will make you weep.

The 10 hymns in most Protestant hymn books reduces to 8 with the first two above left out.

Are there only 10 we all need to know? No. Take a breath and consider these.

  • “Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty” here at an Anglo-Catholic church in Philadelphia.
  • “The Old Rugged Cross” by the Redeemed Quartet in a country arrangement (/steel).
  • “Blessed Assurance” by CeCe Winans.
  • “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” by Mahalia Jackson, whom you need to know.
  • “Crown Him with Many Crowns” with a congregation at Grace Community Church, Sun Valley, California.
  • “Hymn of Promise” is a modern hymn by Natalie Sleeth, a prolific hymn composer of our day who was a member of Highland Park United Methodist Church in Dallas. Here is a solo version with Debra Nesgoda. It was the final hymn sung at the recent funeral, so pay close attention to the lyrics based on Ecclesiastes 3:3—To everything there is a season.
  • “In the Garden” with Anne Murray and yes, more steel guitar.
  • “This Little Light of Mine” by a gospel choir auditioning for America’s Got Talent.
  • “Jesus Loves Me” with a little boy and others signing in ASL. Perhaps you can after watching.
  • “Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow” or the Doxology, the shortest of the short.

Only 20? Again, no. I’ve even left out some of my favorites in the interest of bedtime. (Slipping in one, “Standing on the Promises” which I’d never heard and was told that, yes, everyone knows it.” This site has 100!

Technically, this is just a list. Checking out the links will take a while if you do that. What I’m most interested is your reply. What isn’t here that absolutely should be? Simple enough. A favor for my friend…!

 

Transfixed

“Transfix” is not a word one gets to use often. Last Thursday, three times, I found myself in a place and a condition that matches the definition: “make motionless or helpless, as with amazement.”  The word origins are more graphic. Think of the unfortunate butterfly or beetle mounted with a pin through its thorax. Here is an Etsy page with dozens of specimens. Instructions abound for doing this yourself, and unlike those 50 insects we were to capture, kill, and mount for 9th grade biology, the killing is now discouraged.

The occasion was the Arts Commission mixer, this iteration dedicated to poetry. The key to its success: A spoken word performer called Black Ceasar. Here’s a magazine article about him. This is his Instagram post about our event. Here he performs “Champagne Poetry” on YouTube. He does commercials for the Texas Rangers, available here from March 2023 in the Dallas Observer. An important sentence: “They’re also a leap in the right direction toward making fans of all cultural backgrounds feel welcomed and connected to an organization that has endured its share of diversity missteps.” In a similar but more pointed example, here he performs “For Change” sponsored by the Dallas Cowboys. For these he has been nominated for two Emmys.

His name is Kristoddie K. Woods. Originally from Mississippi, he performs and mentors, teaches and coordinates. Publishes. All those things are great, but on some level the most important are that he answers emails, makes it on time to Zooms, both with beauty and grace. Not everyone does that. “Nice” is not a very strong word, but having worked with him for a month on the mixer, I can assure you I am his fan first because he is legitimately, actively nice.

From an established, well-known figure, let’s move to a high school student, “a real find,” her “finder” Anne Perry said. Aryianah is a high school student who has won awards for her spoken word poetry. She’s in the National Honor Society and serves on her city’s Youth Action Council. She also teaches and mentors others in her craft. Her transfixing performance involved the story of a girl who doesn’t feel loved until she does. As with Black Ceasar, she takes you places. You have to be there.

In her own words, Empress Axa “wants to impress on the hearts and minds the good news of empowering encouragement”…and “is a poet of passion who delivers strong punchlines about loss, love, and life.” Empress has been named top 25 WOWPS Slam Champion (2021); ExtraOrdinary Women in the Arts (2022); and Denton Black Film Festival Slam Champion (2023). Here is her feature: Shoutout DFW in January 2024. A Duncanville native, she has a day job that requires clarity and strength, to which she brings charity and kindness. I met her the night of the event after exchanges of information in preparation (or, texts and calls. Why be wordy?) Somehow, I was elsewhere when she performed. We were outside when I was apologizing, and she said, “You didn’t miss anything.” She took a breath and gave me her performance. In its entirety. Just for me. Her eyes on mine for minute after minute of transfixed journe-making. Her work was about her mother, given with such depth and detail that I can only repeat—you had to be there.

A brief distinction between reading poetry and performing poetry: I can do the former. I cannot do the latter. As I have said before on these pages, I sometimes come across a poem I don’t’ remember writing. And I could no more quote you a single poem of mine than the man in the moon. No, I don’t perform, although I believe I can read my work better than anyone else. Not necessarily a good sign. I want to commend to you a poet who is better than I, Chris Mikesell. He read one of my favorites on Thursday, “Baptism by Night.” His work is not just clever; it can be funny, allusive, insightful. He takes us to places of the heart and of the mind. His presentation was not less than the others. It was different.

To conclude on being transfixed: Most people have heard the phrase “Water water everywhere and not a drop to drink.” It’s a slight misquote from “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” whose poet uses “Nor any drop to drink.” You can hear it here read by Ian McKellan. Long, but well done. A much shorter interpretation by Iron Maiden is here. AI images, too. I’ve heard of them, believe it or not. That’s about it. Genre-making apparently. The music for the Mariner is compelling. A galloping rhythm, guitarist/composer grandson explains. (“You’re not going to go to the drive-up window with that playing are you?”)

The phrase from the poem that our mixer’s performance poets made me think of is “He holds him with his glittering eye—” because now I know what that feels like, literarily speaking. Coming away from an event richer than you went in makes all the difference. Support the arts. Experience can’t be shared. Kim Campbell, co-founder and Executive Director of the Dallas Winds, ends his introduction of the group with “Be amazed!” It’s true. You’ll be glad you did. And transfixed, at least occasionally.

Netsuke

In February 2020, I wrote about kintsugi, the Japanese art of repairing damaged pottery with gold. The month before the nightmare. But I recently learned about another art form called netsuke, tiny carvings originally made as button closures. Before ivory from living animals was banned, it was the usual material. I am thrilled to report that there are, in fact, huge quantities of mammoth ivory available these days. I didn’t know.

Last week, I toured a wonderful art collection with a few pieces of pottery that were used to hold these miniature works of art. And, of course, there was a story. During World War II, a Jewish family in Vienna lost their home to Nazis who also plundered their art collection. The father had amassed a large set of netsuke which were lined up on narrow shelves. Although they were in plain sight, the looters didn’t recognize their value and ignored them. The family’s housekeeper had been commandeered as well, and she took one or two out in her pockets.

The story is similar to Woman in Gold (2015) but on a smaller less gilded or personal scale. The film is well done, with Helen Mirren starring as Maria Altman. The woman in the Klimt painting is her aunt, the painting stolen from the family in the same way. The plot uses flashbacks to show the validity of her claim on the Austrian government to restore the masterpiece to its rightful owner. Ryan Reynolds plays the young attorney who helps her. There is more depth to the resolution so watch it if you can.

My parallel for today is size. Netsuke can be valuable. On eBay, the most expensive one today is $107,000. The record at a Bonham’s auction is $441,300. It’s not that element–-worth or value—for now, however. Nor is it ignorance. The family housekeeper knew what they had. The Nazis didn’t. Rather, I’d like to think about small gestures for a moment.

Recently, someone was asking if I had a conducting class in college. Yes. Her assumption was mistaken, though. She thought a conductor’s job is to give musicians cues when to come in. That may be what it looks like. But musicians know where they are and when to play. (Although once I was playing second flute in the San Angelo Symphony when the first flute learned over and asked where we were. I knew but was so startled that I didn’t know what to say and just pointed. Apparently, everyone was lost because soon the conductor bellowed out “KEY CHANGE” and we were back on track. Important fact: The SAS was actually the Dallas Symphony second stand players with some local talent thrown in. It was memorable, and a piano concerto to boot. This short video explains using examples of some “historically important” conductors. The small gestures often offer interpretation. The purpose can also be to “exalt” the orchestra. It’s not always pretty. Here are five conductors and the same piece of music (just 10+minutes).

It’s odd how a single second or two of time will hold a memory. Decades ago, the kids and I were at the mall in San Angelo. There was a large fountain in the center. The boys were bored and started putting their hands in the water and splashing it out. A security guard walked by, didn’t say anything, just moved his hand with a flick of his wrist that meant “get your hands out.” It was subtle and relevant. Graceful, even. The style was, also, memorable.

Tonight, at my music fraternity, one member noticed the sun was in someone’s eyes. She held a book up to block it. A small act, perhaps, but one that lasted until the shade was lowered. Most thoughtful gesture today.

David Brooks

It is 7:54 on Monday. Evening. Oh, wait. A friend called and needed help getting a message to someone because her internet isn’t working. We discussed a pending trip. Nothing else, I promise. It is now 8:17. Oh—a pleasant call back, 8:52. I really wanted to do this well. It’s an essence only.

My topic for the week is David Brooks’ new book, How to Know People. Last week, I attended a luncheon where he spoke and an evening conversation with him. Before the latter, he was signing books at the Interabang table (small independent bookstore). No one else was there. I’d brought my Amazon-purchased one, and with no shame said, “Will you sell my book?” Yep. There it is. The three people looked at me oddly, and I had to ask why. So, there was that.

The book is worth reading. Beyond that, I found it transformational in some ways. There are a zillion anecdotes and quotations, glimpses into his heart and mind, jokes and quips and allusions. While it could be summarized as “Be a good person, thoughtful and attentive, he offers two paradigms for How to Be and How Not to Be.

One is called Diminisher. This is one explanation: “Diminishers are so into themselves, they make others feel insignificant… If they learn one thing about you, they proceed to make a series of assumptions about who you must be.” Friends once took us to The Mansion, a legendary Dallas restaurant. It has its own Wikipedia page, for goodness’ sake. These people recounted hearing the story of two other couples arriving, looking at the crowd, and remarking, “Oh, nobody’s here.” Using people, not caring about their needs, and not seeing them as anything other than other—these are the marks of a Diminisher.

An Illuminator, on the other hand, has light within and can shine that light on another. That seems like a metaphor within itself, so think of it as having curiosity about people not just for what they’ve done or what they have but for who they are. Brooks has found two words to elucidate: nunchi, a Korean term for the ability to be sensitive to other people’s thoughts and moods. The Germans have herzensbildung, training one’s heart to see the full humanity in another.

There is a bit of a sting to realize sometimes I’ve been the former, not the latter. Listening—really hearing and not waiting to say something myself—needs attention. So does being what he calls a topper, someone who takes the speaker’s story but rather than acknowledge it and learn more adds her own story that is just above it in scope or seriousness or drama. That’s not hearing or seeing at all.

This is an important book, too. I wish there were a workbook. The concepts are important, but perhaps not completely original. If any of us truly lived The Golden Rule, the world would be different. I am humbled enough that you’d think I would catch on better. (At The Mansion, an entire, juicy, purple blackberry rolled down the front of my dress, mocking me all the way.) Brooks includes this which will serve as my conclusion as well: “If our country is going to come back from the inhumanity, and if our families are going to come back from the breakdown, and if our workplaces are going to thrive, we just have to be really good at this skill of seeing others, making them feel valid, respected, heard and understood.” Easier said than done, so let’s do it anyway.

(A link to a lecture from his book on character here.)

On Value£

A Mexican man was scrolling through the Cartier online catalog on Instagram, as one does. He came across earrings priced at MX237. This happened in England, so they show it as £11, which is USD13.81. Being no fool, he purchased two pairs. Cartier immediately corrected the price, but in England they are apparently strict about selling for the advertised price (with a “z” pronounced “zed” in British English). He won his claim and Rogelio Villareal has two pairs of earrings described as “encrusted” valued at (or worth) £11,046 each or USD27,742. Perhaps he’ll share, but the photo shows him sporting two on one ear. The follow-up may be interesting. I don’t care for them personally, so not a gift idea.

Value is one of those words with many and varied meanings—from what something is worth to a moral (usually plural) to the length of a musical note or the intensity of light or dark in a painting. The one referred to here, of course, has to do with what the dictionary calls “intrinsic” worth. It is a concept I don’t believe in, financially. If you remember, I do have that bag of diamonds and emeralds still missing. Strictly speaking, they have no value to me because I have nothing invested in them. Hurray if they turn up, no loss if they don’t. (Yes, I look for them now and again.)

In Stephenie Meyer’s sci-fi, post-apocalyptic romance novel The Host (2008), the aliens take over human bodies to learn what it’s like to live on Earth. Reviewers dub them “parasitic,” which is accurate if harsh, but their actual name, Souls, is much more relevant to the storyline. They don’t think much of the human race, however, and most humans have been taken over by a Soul. The culture changes dramatically. They do not understand the concept of worth, for example, and everything immediately becomes free. It’s a stretch, but memorable. How different life would be if we had neither capitalism nor socialism, neither fascism nor communism. Here’s a handy chart from the Navy that puts it all in a short PDF. Accuracy not guaranteed.

In our family, among my many mottoes is this: If money will fix it, it’s not a problem. And there are many things money won’t. I’ll let you make a tailored list of those things. Conversely, there are many things we value that have nothing to do with money. You know those, too. Having come to this point, I can end by speculating most of us value values. As for the money, I have been known to take a photo of a receipt on which I saved $57.06 at Kroger’s and sent it to kids.