Language is full of instructive sayings. This is a pretty list on Pinterest. One such is “If you take care of your tools, they’ll take care of you.” Putting things up and out of the weather is the first thing to think about, but there are many others: sharpening, oiling, sorting, replacing, cleaning. It’s always a victory for some not to have cut the extension cord when trimming the bushes, so proper use also belongs on the list.

Just as each profession or activity has its vocabulary as discussed in the post “f/8 and Being There,” each has its tools. They require a learning curve, as usual. And sometimes one stumbles there. Once I used a pair of fabric shears to cut paper in view of the owner of said fabric shears. I didn’t know! This little explanation isn’t as strong as it might be.  Apparently everyone else knows you don’t use fabric scissors except on fabric.

An important note: Having the tools doesn’t increase the skill. All of these sewing favorites wouldn’t help me. I need patience and practice. My grandmother taught me to sew. Her mother had been a fine seamstress, and although she herself didn’t do much sewing, she had the skill. Once my uncle’s wife asked her for a potato sack dress. Fad! And she complied with some quiet mumbling. It was her hope I would have some talent as well as patience, but I lacked both. She also hoped I wouldn’t fall in with her friend’s corner-cutting ways. Wrong again. I learned how to shorten a hem by simply turning it up rather than cutting it open and resewing. Eventually with iron-on tape, I didn’t even have to thread a needle. One sweet memory, however, involves her doing my hem the right way, with a seamstress marker that used a tiny puff of chalk to mark the length evenly. Now going for $185 on eBay.

Traditional tools can be simple or complex, as basic as a hammer or as full of pieces as a ratchet set. Popular Mechanics gives us 50 that we should all have. With links to purchase sites, of course. Just as with a grandmother’s marker, my grandfather’s planer is featured on eBay but for $9.99 plus $20.60 shipping. He was a carpenter, and his tools are not unlike those today, in principle at least.

This list of kitchen tools seems reasonable. My garlic, however, comes out of jar or squeeze tube. Seems fine to me. That cook is obviously more serious. My personal kitchen favorites are a good knife and an electric juicer. This one from Proctor Silex looks great. It’s only $20, gets super reviews, and I’d buy it if my 40-year-old one didn’t still work just fine.

Some tools are quite specialized. Piano tuning and surgery come to mind. I’ve needed both through the years. My great-great-aunt had a degree in piano performance from Baylor University, earned in 1898. Yes, she was my piano teacher, and I frustrated her more than I did my grandmother. She was, in fact, married to a piano tuner. My success was doomed because we did not have a piano for me to practice on. I do remember one song— “Five Little Chickadees.” This version may be it. Not the counting song.

No one tried to teach me surgery, though. A fascinating array of cutters and pullers await us here, as well as lots of other things. This bit of advertising takes the cake: “Don’t you hate pesky abdominals getting in the way? Now, they don’t have to. The Balfour retractor holds open abdominal incisions in place, allowing the surgeon to work on the area freely.” The only thing that separates this from the worst copywriting  ever is that at least it doesn’t say “Don’t you just hate…”

One grandchild, interviewed for this post, suggested that a sword would be a favorite tool. Disallowed. Doesn’t own one. Next choice was nutcrackers—not the decorative kind but the ones that actually help you eat pecans and walnuts and such. Here is a brief overview. One loves a creative mind and a willingness to respond to random questions.

Obviously, this could go on forever. From mechanics to astronauts, farmers to artists, hikers, photographers—the list has its overlaps. Today’s picture of ballet toe shoes seemed different and interesting. This site follows the pattern of Tools You Must Own. So, shoes are tools. Tutus are not. And those foot stretcher tools look painful. Oh, and yes—they tried to teach me ballet. Never advanced technique; the teacher broke her collar bone and I was done. I do remember the positions, well, four of the five anyway.

A favorite poem by Seamus Heaney, the Irish Nobel winner, is called simply “Digging.” He tells of his father and grandfather in the bogs, cutting and removing peat. The entire poem is here, but they seem serious about the copyright. These last images are perfectly descriptive:

“The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap

Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge

Through living roots awaken in my head.

But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb

The squat pen rests.

I’ll dig with it.”

We’ll conclude with a few more relevant aphorisms, new to me. “Buy nice or buy twice.” This is a companion to “You get what you pay for” and “Penny wise, pound foolish.” I try. Another new one is “Cry now or cry later.” Perhaps a match with “Pay me now or pay me later.” “Horse to water” could also be applied. I now see that I need to change my ways, having lost the opportunity to sew or play piano. I can at least buy good tools.

Notes on Wheat and Murder

In the spring of 1993, Tim Slover from BYU called to say I’d won a prize. A few months earlier, I’d submitted a play in manuscript called If Mama Ain’t Happy for a competition with rather narrow guidelines: A female LDS writer teaching in a college. First place came with $500 and a performance. I was thrilled. We had mounted a production for about 400 people not long before—with the music. I used the money award for my first trip to Utah.

News from Afghanistan came quickly. We are long used to seeing photos of men in tribal garb with modern rifles riding on open trucks. We have heard every possible combination of horrors: rapes, beheadings, shootings, beatings. Few of us, I imagine, understand the difficulties that brought us to the current situation. This timeline suggests that there is indeed blame to spread but also indicates mistakes that clearly apply to the methods employed for withdrawal. In other words, a bad decision initially became a worse decision implemented horribly.

At BYU, I immediately felt “othered,” however. Somehow my clothes seemed to stand out, for example. They tend to be bright. Lunching at the faculty lounge I chose a pink dress and my favorite jacket—robin’s egg blue with pink and pale yellow roses. Perception is everything, and I felt stares and slight disapproval in a sea of grays. I attended an upper-level English class on historical sources. The class had been reading journals of pioneer women. One young woman, newly married, announced with deep conviction, “Polygamy is a principle I could never abide.” It was all different than expected. But when real actors say your words, well, it’s a wonder.

Escape from terror takes many forms. Cars sitting on freeways as a hurricane turns inland. Evacuation orders amid fast-moving forest fires. The situation at the Kabul airport highlights the essence of ingress and egress. The abilities to access the point of departure and to leave from it are a matter of right, the control of which becomes life and death at its most literal. Panic for survival of one’s child (even if not oneself) becomes visceral. This scene of an American Marine pulling an infant over a wall and this of desperate mothers throwing babies over accordion wire to British soldiers rend hearts. We know each of us could somehow, somewhere, be in the same situation screaming, “Save my child.”

Dr. Eugene England was a renowned LDS scholar and intellectual. He co-founded journals of academic and cultural thought. A prolific writer, he was outspoken and not without controversy but remained active as a teacher and thinker until his premature death from brain cancer in 2001. He, too, knew about othering because he was forced to leave a teaching position at St. Olaf’s College in Minnesota when students became interested in his religion and parents complained. I knew who he was before I went and spent an hour in conversation with him in his office. As a former bishop and stake president, he had certain listening skills. What I remember most was his delight in an upcoming publication of his work in the prestigious Sewanee Review. His focus was Mormon culture, and acceptance in the mainstream was a breakthrough.

Commandment 6: Thou shalt not murder. The English translation (usually “kill”) from the Hebrew does not catch the meaning adequately. Rather than elaborate or cite sources, I will note that it is the first of the “nots” we hear of the 10. Why? We are a murderous species, my guess. My heritage is British. Visiting the Tower of London, I saw the green lawn where beheadings took place. Lady Jane Grey lost her life at the age of 16; she was not one of Henry’s wives but a queen in her own right, for just 9 days. Other examples? The Spanish Inquisition. The French Reign of Terror. The Dutch, Italians, and Belgians were brutal in Africa. Stories of goodness abound, of course. Few of us do not know of someone whose relative did not meet a violent, horrific end.

Eugene England work in Sewanee Review begins on a wheat farm in Idaho before dawn on July 22, 1942. It was his 9th birthday. The writing is luminescent. Decriptions of the food, the harvest, the boy’s driving accident—each takes us to a world not like our own. On the same day, a director of Polish orphanages, Janusz Korczak, began his journey from Warsaw to his death. With him were the children under his care. All 6000 people in his train to Treblinka were murdered within a few days. Every single one. But it’s not the entirety that appalls us. We cannot endure so much. It’s Korczak’s comforting of one little boy, Julek, as they both approach death, that compels us to pity. The man understands but still calms the frightened child. “Summer Solstice” uses complete mastery in comparing one life that is not ours to another that is not ours. (The link is to JSTOR, usually a paid site for college libraries. If you sign up, you receive 100 articles free. They don’t sell your information, so far as I know. Please read.) Reading it will let us weep—not make us weep like the glurges we too often see. Our natures are what they are. One person can make a difference (this mother of 11 in Oklahoma helping an Afghan girls’ robotics team) or, remembering our own fallen state, we can commit to do no harm. Anywhere. We’ll fail, but hopefully not horribly. Volumes have been written, and will yet, on the human condition. We know enough to succeed. Metaphors usually fail eventually. Are we being tested?Jumping hurdles? Blind and deaf to suffering?

Andy Weir, author of The Martian and most recently Project Hail Mary, has a very short story called “The Egg.” It takes about two minutes to read and is unforgettable. Without giving away the premise or conclusion, I’ll include this passage: “’Every time you victimized someone,” I said, “you were victimizing yourself. Every act of kindness you’ve done, you’ve done to yourself. Every happy and sad moment ever experienced by any human was, or will be, experienced by you.’” Weir is agnostic, so he isn’t speaking doctrine. Yes, reincarnation is a religious term, and you will recognize the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” the latter a concept found in most world religions. In 1993, leaders from 143 of the world’s faiths issued a short declaration called “Towards a Global Ethic.” The first sentence is simple, pointed, painful: “The world is in agony.”

In case it hasn’t been clear, I am angry and upset about the events unfolding in Afghanistan. A call to action is difficult because so few can help; the Red Cross and Red Crescent are doing what they can. Sometimes all we can do is help the helpers. The drought in Afghanistan is severe. Oddly, I had forgotten the pandemic is there as well. Donate here. Pray anywhere.


Crossing the Tally

Until recently, I didn’t know this function had a name. I don’t remember when or where I learned the action. Who knows how many cartoons or other representations of it there are. This one from a deadly beach in Hawaii is chilling, but it’s not accurate, just scary. And I just learned that the pattern isn’t universal. In France, Spain, and Brazil, a totally different set of lines is used; a box is drawn with a cross for 5.

A favorite insight: Tally marks were needed as “counting aids other than body parts.” Hence our system of tens. How many times have you said or heard, “I could count on the fingers of one hand…”?

Crossing the tally yields a certain sense of satisfaction. 1..2..3..4..then slash! 5. Something finished, something accomplished. Counting them as groups of five to see who won often comes down to the spares: 5…10…15…20… and, 1, 2, 3. How many did you get? 24? Rats.

The action is repetitive, whether or not we’re counting down a prison sentence or up a game score. A friend once used the phrase “Life sometimes gets so daily.” The context is lost; perhaps I was complaining. But it stuck. I don’t know that I ever heard it from anyone else, so in researching it, I learned that only a poem by a Texas poet named Albert Huffstickler has that as a name. His papers which include thousands of his poems are in the library at Texas State University, his alma mater. A researcher can go there and, well, research his work. (I’ve done that with Ernest Hemingway’s work, believe or not, at the University of Texas. Long story. But it was something to sit with only a few millimeters of plastic separating me from his pencil marks.) Huffstickler and I probably crossed paths when he lived in Austin, too. His poem “The Cure” ends like this:

“Wisdom is seeing the shape of your life
without obliterating (getting over) a single
instant of it.”

More poems are available here. This is a brief (<6 minute documentary) about him. It’s like getting to know him, just a bit. Sometimes life enriches us, meeting someone new, even if he’s been gone almost 20 years.

The opposite of things getting repetitive is things getting remarkable. A website called Atlas Obscura offers newsletters to your email. It’s a quirky travel company, technically, but the “obscura” part has to do with the unusual places they explore all around the world. And even in this country. I prefer their podcast, though. This week “The White Squirrel of Prospect Park” was particularly charming. In a Brooklyn park lives a white squirrel, not an albino, but an animal with a recessive gene that renders his/her coat white. Says one of the crew looking for this special creature’s den: “It’s not on any map. True places never are.” In our old neighborhood, there were two such squirrels, but they were albinos. And then they were gone. I don’t know what happened to them, but we grieved their loss. Perhaps you’ll be interested in the episode about the donkey on whom the donkey in Shrek is based, whose name is Donkey, voiced by Eddie Murphy. At about 15 minutes, these podcasts do take one to other places to learn the little wonders of the world.

Strictly speaking, this week was supposed to be about last straws, as in the one that broke the camel’s back. I’m hearing that phrase a lot lately, often associated with the return of masks, at least potentially. But where or what is our last one? How far do we go until we can’t?

The Latin phrase non plus ultra can mean two things: “the best, nothing better” or “no further, nothing beyond this.” It was inscribed (mythologically speaking) on the Pillars of Hercules at the Strait of Gibraltar, considered the edge of the world: “(Let there) not (be) more (sailing) beyond.”

Here’s the thing, though. Spain, on which half of the Straits sits, used to have the whole phrase as its motto. However, having sailed beyond theirs to our continent, they thought to change it to Plus ultra, here on their coat of arms. It means “further beyond,” a place that may be better for us to contemplate that the burden on that poor camel’s back. My own outer limit hasn’t been reached, but sometimes I’m close, if not rude, then challenging: “But we’re outside!” Maybe I should be exploring control and manners instead of what will finally break me.

Lt. Gray Comes Home

Some years ago, I worked on a television script project. It never came to fruition, or I would be sitting somewhere more interesting, with a nice tan. I did sign a non-disclosure about the project itself but not my actual treatment for a first season. I thought it was pretty good. What we have below is that very treatment, having lain fallow all this time. Use your imagination to fill in details only if you like. Color coding would be nice to add distinction for thematic elements, but that isn’t something I know how to do in this app; it’s probably not possible at the free price. Let me know if you know how. The numbers suggest sequences. And of course, I will be happy to pitch this to anyone, anywhere, and anyhow, it is copyrighted.

Lt. Gray Comes Home

[1] Lt. Gray is getting off a plane, busy airport. He looks like everyone else—the cell phone, the briefcase, the carryon. He seems as removed emotionally as everyone else too: Where’s the exit? What was the baggage claim area? Excuse me, yes, thank you, and so on.

[2]Young Seminole boy running through the swamps of Florida. He doesn’t look behind him. Traditional dress and props suggest the time period of the 1880’s.

[1] In the crowd we begin to see an elderly Seminole man in traditional dress. He is sitting random places; Lt. Gray sees him, pauses, nods. The man nods back.

[3] New York City side street. Lt. Gray is pursuing a felon, gun drawn. Shots are fired. Chaos ensues. We can’t tell if Lt. Gray has been hit, but that’s our impression.

[1] Out of the terminal, Lt. Gray hails a taxi and asks for the Hard Rock Hotel. We see the older Seminole man across the street. Lt. Gray looks up but does not acknowledge him.

[4] Lt. Gray has left the NYPD and is returning home to his native Florida. The tribal leaders are concerned that NYC muscle is moving in. A few workers have been roughed up or threatened, nothing serious, but the leaders want to prevent any further trouble.

[3] Lt. Gray is used to the urbane troubles of a very different place. He thinks he may be overqualified. On the other hand, he has experienced a traumatic event of which we get flashbacks, and he needs to be in this quieter place.

[4] The murder occurs when a guest falls off the top floor of the hotel. At first, it looks like a suicide—the man is elderly, and he’s left a note about a terminal illness. Lt. Gray doesn’t really want to see it as anything else, but his training doesn’t let him skip steps. The victim was an operative for a NYC crime family.

[4] Clues point at first to a disgruntled employee who was threatened. Unfortunately, he also ends up dead in what at first looks like a freak accident.

[5] We meet Lt. Gray’s love interest, who was actually a former girlfriend he left when he moved away 20 years ago. She now runs human resources at the hotel/casino. She never found anyone else. He tried many times but is now unattached. He explains to her only that his grandfather has visited him and urged him to return even though he doesn’t really want to be there.

[4] The murders are resolved when we learn more history of an injustice to Lt. Gray’s grandfather. The operative was part of a family that defrauded the Seminole tribe decades before and murdered the love of the grandfather’s life. The disgruntled employee learned of his identity but didn’t kill him. Both were killed by a rival family. Justice is served when that person is found on the verge of defrauding the casino through a series of money laundering devices.

[2,1] Lt. Gray sees the old man one last time. We see the man nod in approval, walk away, and disappear. The little boy from the beginning runs into his mother’s arms at the end.

Before, After, and the Olympics

Consider the pervasive idea of before-and-after. DIY and HGTV thrive on our interest in things not so good becoming things better. Here are dozens from the former. Here are hundreds from the latter. Years ago, our plan for a makeover was a fresh coat of paint. These days, knocking down a wall or two, moving or closing up a window, even adding a second story are par for the course. A new show called No Demo Reno is not set in Nevada but in our own north Dallas. Here is the call for applicants; you will need a budget of $45-60,000 and live within 30 miles of Allen. Sort of a gimmick but fun to have a local.

Some shows involve buying a new house, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t in the model. There is the element of choice—the assumption of going up the achievement ladder and getting to pick a better house. The popular series Love It or List It combines the two. To support the argument, the “love it” redo has won 90 times versus the “list it” 64.

Lara Spencer, the co-anchor of Good Morning America, hosts a self-explanatory program named Flea Market Flip. Contestants in two teams receive $500 to run through a downscale flea to find projects to fit a minimal category like “eyesore to chic” or “fabric project” or “form and function.” Here are 45 examples, most of which I think I actually watched. The title calls them “unbelievable” but that’s maybe a bit too far. If you need more help, here are 25 similar projects that don’t need help from a pro. Just time and elbow grease, plus more links at the end. Mention should be made of the country’s largest and oldest flea market: Canton’s First Monday Trade Days. Canton, Texas, of course. But with 100,000 shoppers on 100 acres, the thought overwhelms me. I did go once for 3-4 hours, over 20 years ago. My husband had a friend who came up to visit there, but being literal, they went on Monday. Obviously before Google since this flea runs Thursday-Sunday.

For something completely different—check out this YouTube channel: Primitive Survival Tools. It is perhaps the ultimate before and after. We watch as two men in the jungles of Cambodia take a bit of space and a lot of clay to go from nothing to something. In all those American shows, I’m watching the first few minutes and pausing or recording to watch the reveal. I can just barely bear the continuous “Amazing!” or “Oh my gosh!” ecstasies from the beneficiaries of the designer’s art. But I can’t take my eyes off the shirtless men (no, not that part) using the simplest of tools to scrape and dig, clay pots to bring up or carry water, and their hands to smooth or paint adobe-like walls and floors. With no apparent plans, they construct elaborate houses with pools and other structures that defy description. Technically, we see the end product first, luring us in with colorful photos. It’s the work itself that fascinates.

Other examples cover everything from makeup to surgeries, dermatological extractions to wardrobe overhauls. In this space there might be links to graphic examples, but having watched all but the wardrobe examples myself, I think it’s best to spare you, aware that you can go looking if you like. Carpet cleaning (shorter and just two colors) with a power washer and scrubbers has its own satisfaction and is not particularly scary. (For some reason, children like to watch this process as well as the Cambodian builders. Both have millions of viewers. Who knew?)

In summary, this site has 50 different kinds of transformations, with interesting uses of photography in many. Included are topics as varied as before and after an atomic explosion and a trip to the hair salon, a space module before and after its trip into space and a building being power washed. One that has particular relevance to a recent project shows a painting before and after restoration.

All that positivity has a sadder side, of course. Glaciers are melting all over the world. These pictures and these are side by sides, usually called repeat photos, of glaciers including those in Alaska. And it’s not just the face of the earth that can suffer. If the fear factor doesn’t solve all addiction, it’s not for lack of trying. The practice of showing before and after meth pictures began as just such a tactic.

Not all transitions to conclusions go smoothly. This is one such. We watched Olympic swimming heats, semi-finals, and finals for some hours last week. We watched women’s rugby. We watched gymnastics. Here are the medals as of Monday, August 2, 2021, at 7:05 am, a link that probably won’t persevere.

Now consider the implications of befores and afters for these Olympians. At some point, none of these people knew anything about the sports that would take up such enormous amounts of time. This list of the youngest competitors includes the 12-year-old table tennis player Hend Zaza from Syria. She lost, but she has only been playing for 9 years. The youngest US team member is Katie Grimes who, at 15, is the same age as her hero Katie Ledecky, now with 7 Olympic golds. Both swimmers begin/began their Olympic swims at 15.

It’s easy to separate ourselves from these exceptional people, but one thought keeps me watching. At some point, they were like us, the uninitiated. But they went from knowing nothing to accomplishing everything. From a spark to an inspiration to the learning curve to the practice, they changed—the essence of before and after. It’s a wondrous thing. We regret the scandals and tragedies, but for all of that, the spirit of the games perseveres.

Even “afters” are amazing to watch. These people know each, we assume, and the best part other than the joy of winning is the jubilation they show each other in what looks like sincere appreciation, even affection. Yes, sometimes there is individual disappointment: we saw divers flub and essentially not dive at all, runners stumble, and pole vaulters not clear their goals. Those can be heartbreaking. (If you need some humor, watch Paul Hunt, a gymnast and coach who developed comedy routines for balance beam, uneven parallels, and floor exercise. As a girl, so … charming and it won’t detract from the real things.) The athletes are competing against themselves, essentially, their best times before, hoping to reach a new high, a new after that is often, literally, tenths or even hundredths of a second faster or higher to the next better.

Most of us, of course, are able to enjoy the simple pleasures of dishes going from dirty to clean, a shirt from wrinkled to ironed, a child from hungry to fed. Viewership is indeed down for these odd 2020 Olympics, but as much as commentators would like to blame the pandemic or the politics, no one is sure why or we could read that link “here.” Amazement at the human condition, the “1% inspiration but 99% perspiration” trading the inspiration for raw talent, makes it still worthwhile.