On Moonflowers, Mint, and John McCain: A Tribute

On more than one occasion, people have said to me, “Oh, anyone can grow ___!” It always rather makes my heart sink. Moonflowers, for example, are easy. Dramatic night-bloomers with pure white flowers and deep green leaves, Better Homes and Gardens calls them the “most romantic flower in the garden.” I don’t even know what that means. What I do know is that mine may bloom for a year or so and then disappear. All you have to do is stick the seed pod in any soil and, voila! Moonflowers. Or not.

Mint is popular in my part of the country and grows under many a water faucet. When I was very young, I would be sent out to pick the mint for the iced tea. It took me many years and children of my own to realize that my task was more than it seemed: the adults needed a few minutes to discuss something I didn’t need to hear. (Larger blocks of time involved a salt shaker and a trip to a protected part of the driveway to put the salt on a bird’s tail so it couldn’t fly, but that’s not true; here is another story.) The ease of mint culture and its nature mean it can be invasive, taking over flower beds if allowed to do so. Yet I have never been able to get it to grow for more than a few weeks. Why? I have no idea.

So, the topic today is “easy.” In general, it’s probably best not to tell someone something is easy to do just because you found it easy. This leads me to John McCain’s story.

He described himself as a discipline problem at the Academy. His father and grandfather both attained the rank of admiral in the US Navy. Although he didn’t feel entitled, he was rather full of himself. And then he crashed a plane in North Vietnam and was held prisoner for five years. His parentage didn’t help. In fact, once his captors found out who he was, things became worse. Later, he was offered an early release. This is how he described his decision in his 2008 acceptance speech: “I was in solitary confinement when my captors offered to release me. I knew why. If I went home, they would use it as propaganda to demoralize my fellow prisoners. Our code said we could only go home in the order of our capture, and there were men who had been shot down long before me. I thought about it, though. I wasn’t in great shape, and I missed everything about America, but I turned it down.”

This pivotal moment suggests he came to understand the word “easy.” Both arms and a leg had been broken and not reset properly. He couldn’t feed himself at first, so others saved his life and fed him. It would have been easy to accept the release, return to a life of comfort, and work toward the release of the others. But that’s not how heroes come to be. He refused. The maltreatment he received increased in intensity. He said that his captors broke him, and he was ashamed. His fellow prisoners understood that. He had done his best. The words of his friend saved him this time. Through taps on the wall, Bob Craner told him to get up and fight again.

McCain urged his listeners to work as well: “My friends, if you find faults with our country, make it a better one. If you’re disappointed with the mistakes of government, join its ranks and work to correct them. Enlist in our Armed Forces. Become a teacher. Enter the ministry. Run for public office. Feed a hungry child. Teach an illiterate adult to read. Comfort the afflicted. Defend the rights of the oppressed. Our country will be the better, and you will be the happier, because nothing brings greater happiness in life than to serve a cause greater than yourself.”

A young friend of mine just joined the Army. Getting there wasn’t at all easy. She failed the entrance process twice. She reported today. We can all be proud of her, and wish her well, because it will never be easy.

A brief complaint: The flag at the White House was at half-mast for only the minimal time. That’s wrong, and petty. An easy way to show control perhaps? Veterans complained, and now it’s back down. Good. Recently  the governor of New York said we can’t make America great, because it was never that great. That’s worse than just wrong or petty. It suggests a willingness to use words to manipulate, an easy way to rile. Oh, for a higher road.

John McCain was not my senator, so I probably don’t know as much about him as I should. I was proud of him for choosing a woman to run as his vice-presidential candidate in 2008. It didn’t help him and might have hurt. I do know he was a hero of my generation, a man who hadn’t planned on being one, a man who learned about suffering, and a man who learned to love his country in ways few of us will.

Doing the right thing isn’t always—or even usually—the easy thing. It doesn’t matter that I can’t grow mint or moonflowers or many other plants, really. Some things matter much more. It seems a path to happiness as well.



Worry, with Bridge Game and Sound Effects

Worry. Lots of us do it. My history with other worriers goes back decades. It can paralyze, psychically, if allowed. The sketch below takes a typical card came, with light if confused banter, and reveals a woman who is a worrier and a fact-checker. She knows what to worry about. I try to keep as my mantra, “Don’t tell me worry doesn’t work. Nothing I worry about ever happens.” If only. Most likely, life goes on with its ups and downs. Things do happen. I tell my children, “Have fun. Be careful.” Then I tell them it means, “I love you.”

The snare drum adds to this a bit of rhythm and interest. During the rant, a drum roll would be appropriate. Have fun. Be careful.

(Four players, most likely older couples. SOUTH a woman who seems daft through most of the bidding. A snare drum for effect would be good, not essential.)

WEST: One heart. Did I tell you the kids are driving cross country?

NORTH:  Yes, twice. Pass.

EAST: Is your son a good driver? One spade.

SOUTH: Whose son is a good driver? Pass

WEST: Neither of mine is, honey. Two diamonds.

NORTH: Should have had daughters. Pass.

EAST: I don’t think we had the tech back then even to know what we were having until they popped out. Three clubs.

SOUTH: Tex? I thought his name was Richard? Pass.

WEST:    TechNOLOGY, not Tex. And they’re Kenneth and Rayburn, dear.  Three diamonds.

NORTH: Regardless, I’m sure there’s nothing to worry about. Pass.

(WEST, out of turn, snorts.)

EAST:   Hush, you’re out of turn. I mean, yes, sure, probably, most likely. Three spades.

SOUTH: Pass. So it’s Kevin who’s driving to Maine?

WEST: Kenneth is driving to California. From Austin. Four hearts.

NORTH: There is probably some Kenneth driving to Maine. It’s a rather common name. Pass.

EAST: Four spades. Very funny.

SOUTH: (In a fevered departure, she rants.) But just think of all that could happen: They could run out of gas before El Paso. There’s plague near Albuquerque, if they decide to camp. THE PLAGUE, for heaven’s sake. And then they might run out of gas in the desert. The Grand Canyon! Can you imagine the horror? A dozen people die there, yearly, mostly accidents. Tell him to hold on to his hat. He wouldn’t commit suicide there, would he? Surely not. Then they’ll probably want to go to Zion. Falls there, too. Angel’s Landing? Ha. People falling. Next is Death Valley. A woman named it, did you know? People forget to take water. Highest temperature recorded there? 134. Can’t live through that. And that’s the AIR. Ground can get to 201. Hottest place on earth. Tell them…And then they get to Los Angeles! 230 people killed in car accidents last year. A 43 percent increase. In the papers! I think they should’ve stayed home. Pass.

WEST: (Stunned) Pass.

NORTH: Pass. Was all that really…?

EAST: Pass. Wait. Necessary? No. It’s not my bid. Right? I won the…?

SOUTH: Yes. My lead. Tell ‘em to stay home.


Who Goes There?

Imagine standing guard on a dark and stormy night. How will you know if the person approaching is friend or foe? You can call out “Who goes there?” But why would an enemy announce himself? Who can you trust?

In days gone by, the problem was sometimes solved with words. Passwords, more specifically, before they became our bane. One is a Biblical: In Judges 12:6, the Gileadites required a captured combatant first to answer if he were an Ephraimite. If he said he wasn’t, he then had to say “shibboleth.” The Ephraimites couldn’t make the sh sound, so they died if captured. A brutal end to a linguistic failure. Similar practices continue. For a non-official guide to modern military procedures, read here. I have a poem on the topic of Texas towns (not much of a transition, that), and it reports an experience in which I was left in a store, alone, because I knew how to pronounce “Corsicana.” So it seemed to me at the time. The poem’s title is “Shibboleth.” Signs and countersigns, also common, use words to confirm rightness and identity. In the new Mission Impossible: Fallout, Ethan Hunt receives the assignment packet in just such a way.

Not in counterintelligence myself, it was with some surprise that a friend, after an unusual lunch last week, wondered if we were being “asked” whether we were alt-right leaning. It went something like this: At an upscale lunch location—which shall remain anonymous to protect them since they ran out of the special in 10 minutes—the waitress said she was in a state because of what had happened the night before on The Bachelorette. This explanation from Daily Beast, well, I can’t understand, but I’m almost glad. It seems to be saying that the winner Garrett Yrigoyen is an alt-right troll. I got that from the title of the piece, and talk about hard to pronounce words! My friend told the waitress she doesn’t see much television, and I was perhaps a little more pointed—not “I wouldn’t watch that if I were on a desert island!”—but almost. She came back once and then ignored us. We had to ask a waiter to take our order finally. On the way out, she said, “I look forward to seeing you again.” It didn’t ring true. (The waiter also gave me a steak knife for my salad and then asked me later what I was doing with a knife, but I’m not sure that was part of this semi-surreal deal.) Was the waitress alt-right? Would she not have served us if we were? Did she not serve us because we weren’t? I have no idea.

These days, it’s not usually hard to tell who is an enemy and who isn’t. Wearing a MAGA hat, for example, says something very specific and, in many places, can be very provocative. In other spheres, calling yourself a Democratic Socialist will not win you any friends. More pointedly, Antifa members often cover their entire faces and wear hoodies before they attack, not unlike Klansmen perhaps.

On the other hand, danger isn’t new. Early Christians reportedly drew an arc in the dirt, and if the other person was also Christian, she drew a completing arc, making an ichthus, the fish which as an acronym in Greek (ἰχθύς) stands for Jesus Christ, Son of God, our Savior. Personally, I am not a fan of that symbol used by businesses to signal affiliation. A reputation is more than that. Do the right thing, and I don’t care whether you’re a Christian or not.

What we may be seeing is a slipping away of words and a shifting toward silent alliances. In tribes, rituals and code words, signs and salutes, tests of loyalty and trials of faith strengthen bonds. Mobs rule, now with words. Trolling is an issue too large for most to deal with. Trolls used to control bridges, but the famous one got eaten by certain billy goats. Now they hurl verbal excrement. I wonder—and fear—what will happen when it all goes underground.

Uncanny Valleys

Last week (it seems a month by now) I saw a play in which a wooden doll stood in for a dying baby. A speaker let it cry a bit. When we were discussing it afterward, the term “uncanny valley” came up. Our 14-year-old drama student, unaccountably, knew what it meant: “a hypothesized relationship between the degree of an object’s resemblance to a human being and the emotional response to such an object. The concept of the uncanny valley suggests humanoid objects which appear almost, but not exactly, like real human beings elicit uncanny, or strangely familiar, feelings of eeriness and revulsion in observers.” Or so says Wikipedia. Briefly put, android-ish beings that creep people out at some level. The doll baby didn’t seem particularly human, but its mother—a gifted actress—mourned and keened over it as if it were. We wept at its loss.

Several television shows lately have played on this theme. Westworld just finished a second season on HBO; I didn’t watch much so can’t explain what happens, but every so often an android gets opened up or a human is revealed as an android. Here the New York Times sees the Biblical parallels in the last episode. Kate Halliwell faults the series’ excessive violence and sex. Because it’s not always possible to tell the living from the uncannies, the uncanniness I found was the intensity with which the latter were reliving the same days over and over. The 1973 Michael Crichton movie of the same name starred Yul Brenner as The Gunslinger in a futuristic (1983!) theme park run amok. The picture you’ll see come from the acid-in-the-face, flamed out android. “Boy, have we got a vacation for you!” read the ads.

Cop shows have also featured android partners. A personal favorite was Almost Human (2013-14), with Karl Urban as Det. Kennex and Michael Ealy as Dorian. My liking it, of course, was not a good sign: loyal following, good reviews, but expensive. Off it went. Apparently, a 1976-77 series had the same premise but landed in the 50 Worst Shows of All TimeHolmes and Yo-Yo. It’s not available anywhere that I can find except a lone VHS in Spanish of Amazon. Somehow I missed it and Future Cop, the same season. (Jerry Springer is first on the list, so it must be valid.)

Literarily, from Frankenstein to “The Picture of Dorian Gray” to the Twilight series, we are fascinated and/or repulsed by the near-humans among us. In my own meager effort, these lines from a prose poem called “My Job” will be published in the fall: “Being a poet’s a great job. Let me tell you about it. We’re in charge of people now. Used to, poets had the trees and flowers and stuff, love, death, but not now. We look in eyes and crowds to make sure the people are still human, with no other guys slipping in.” (That’s confusing. The entire poem will be published, not just these lines.)

About this spot in writing, I begin to wonder where it’s all going. This week is no exception, and in spite of the fact that it’s been particularly fun to meander around that valley, my conclusion is solid. See what you think—

Many of us think we never do enough, never do what we do well enough, often fake what we’re doing, and sometimes fear being exposed as inadequate. I personally have always felt that someone else could do my job (regardless of what I’m doing) better than I can. Wearing a mask all the time. Accepting praise is hard. Someone said, “Praise is like poison; it can’t hurt you if you don’t swallow it.” Joe Paterno used the word “publicity” instead, but my version has given me real comfort.

Turns out (thank you, again, Google), there is a psychological condition called Impostor Syndrome which fits this definition exactly. People from Tom Hanks to Maya Angelou to Sonia Sotomayor suffer from it. Read the Wikipedia info here and the scientific stuff here. Unlike Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation, we look completely normal and can use contractions. Gene Roddenberry, the series creator, said Data would get closer to being human but “never quite there.” Aches and pains, struggles and delights aside, I sometimes feel like that too. This is a topic that could be explored further, but for now, this seem plenty: A new word, a new syndrome, and life as we know it. “Thanks for noticing me,” says Eeyore