Notes on Ukraine

How trite could “When it rains, it pours” possibly seem today? We watched a situation thousands of miles away develop slowly—troops and tanks amassing, denials of concern, threats of sanctions. Then the lies came, as they do. Most of us don’t even know why the “the” left Ukraine, must less the history of two nations worlds away not just in space and time but in culture and expectations. But you can Google as well as I, so today I won’t give any links other than to this one. In summary, it’s a poor country, it’s known for corruption in its politics, and its history millennia long and complex. It is not part of Russia.

My take today will be visceral, the feeling of what we call “the pit of the stomach”: that place of stress, fear, dread, your favorite word. Viscera are, literally, your insides.

On Sunday, the woman giving the opening prayer gave thanks for the day then immediately asked for peace in Ukraine, protection for the Ukrainians. It was a somber petition. The hymn before the blessing of the Sacrament was “Reverently and Meekly Now,” which includes the line “With thy brethren be at peace.” A universal desire. But this was the viscera-impacting part: The HVAC system, every time the fan mechanism turned off and on, sent out a small but recognizable BOOM. It made the next two hours a bit uncomfortable, emotionally. (The closing song was “Be Still, My Soul,” a personal favorite which nevertheless brings tears for that phrase “Sorrow forgot,” since they aren’t yet.

My theory is that we think of people as being like us. Yes, there are criminals and malefactors about, but except for typically we are around good people about whom we can say the worst as being lazy, rude, incompetent, sloppy, and so on. Some are deceitful jerks, but they are the exception.

This expectation can be deadly, leaving us vulnerable to the actions of others who prey on our willingness to accept people thinking they are “normal.” This is a kind of mirroring, the mimicking of the actions of others but turned on its head in a manipulative way. This explains the many discussions from political figures assuming that all those massed troops and tanks were just for show and not for action.

The second part of these feelings is the fact that an evil person can convince others to follow them. Most of us have to expend energy getting children to empty the dishwasher. Obviously, this loyalty cannot be explained in a few words. While stories are emerging of thousands of Russian soldiers refusing to fight, many thousands more have decided that such a decision would be more dangerous than any enemy.

The resistance the Ukrainian people have mounted, the heroic speeches of President Zelenskyy (the two “y”s are correct), the countries throughout the world standing up for peace—there are other topics that merit further work. Today, think of your own reactions but consider some preparation. Some extra food and water.

The government has a good website. An emergency plan can’t be done when an emergency arrives. Before it rains…

Madame Butterfly and the National Anthem: Ironies

Friday’s night’s performance of Madame Butterfly was opening night. Lots of shiny dresses, only one at all flattering. A young woman was heard to say, “We thought we’d try opera.” Three acts but just one intermission—almost 30 minutes with a long long line for drinks. But not the usual sea of white-haired attendees. That’s good, probably. It’s a famous opera after all, and maybe the youngers have heard of it.

The ad uses quite the prose style: “Passion flares—and the beautiful and trusting Cio-Cio San gives up everything to marry American naval officer B.F. Pinkerton. But he’s a heartless cad who abandons her and their little son with devastating results. Hear some of the most gorgeous operatic music of all time in this fabled romantic tragedy….And oh, what a cast!” But why not “Passions flare”? Why any italics (the last defense of the weak) at all? Accuracy? Pinkerton doesn’t abandon his son because he doesn’t know he has one.

Now for the details in which irony and plot intertwine: Full house, excellent orchestra—a chandelier of cylindrical crystals ascends so that those of us in the distant seats can see the stage. The music (in Texas we sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” not just at all ball games but also at many concerts—symphonies and operas, for example) begins, we stand, we sing. Hands over hearts, hats off men’s heads. (Why, you might ask, does anyone have on a hat at the opera? Texas. I thought that was clear.)

Two observations: the man one row down removes his black felt Cody James (informed guess) and places it over his heart. Then back it goes on his head. My friend notes, “I thought you don’t wear hats inside. I guess it’s his good hat.” Maybe. I’ve seen four cattlemen eating in a steakhouse with their Stetsons (assuredly) sitting beside them rather than wearing them inside, a show of good breeding and what their mamas taught them.

Five seats down right, a young couple—his hair dark and moody, her lovely bare shoulders tattooed and thereby part of her garment–sit and do not sing and do not cover hearts with their hands. Arms folded, a defensive posture? In solidarity with? Then we all sit and await the overture. (And “Un bel di” the only real reason to come. Personal opinion. The man could write a melody.)

And nothing else happens. No one says anything to anyone. No one is anyone’s mama tonight. My heart swells with pride—not at the anthem—but for the couple. Here the ironies pile on.

I know I should cover my heart (US Code 36 Ch 10 § 171) where the key word is should. Not must.

And these youngers are free to sit, unlike in China. A law there, the rule compels standing. The government wants loyalty or patriotism, the government gets obedience, if nothing else. You go to jail, or some undefined punishment else.

But in these United States at the opera, the young ones can sit, unaware their act is not rebellion at all but a sign of solidarity with the Constitution.

Throughout Madame Butterfly, snippets of “The Star-Spangled Banner” are heard as thematic elements. We see American flags—Madame Pinkerton, as she prefers to be called, gives a tiny one to her son as he is about to be taken away by his father (a stranger to him) and Kate (his step-mother). Pinkerton is worse than a cad, and we wonder if he can be faithful to his new wife after the stereotypical girl-in-every-port lifestyle. (A few members of the audience gasp when Kate appears, since apparently the foreshadowing/program notes had not clued them.) In other words, the American is the bad guy who recognizes his own cowardice but is not redeemed.

I will continue to stand for the anthem, therefore, not because Americans are always the good guys or because there is a “should” but because there is no “must.” A freedom not to is as important as the freedom to.

Dearest Children: The Christine Blubaugh Act

“Heaven Sent” by Steve Altman

Today’s post is not the real thing. I have hundreds of words written about the Christine Blubaugh Act. They aren’t ready to share. The story is just too big not to do a better job of it. In summary, the law requires middle and high school students to receive instruction on teen dating violence, domestic violence, and trafficking beginning in school year 2022. A former boyfriend murdered Christine and then killed himself.

I’m just back from a celebration of Christine’s life and the implementation of this law (Texas SB 9, signed December 21 by Governor Abbott). Held at South Grand Prairie High School, the event featured speakers from the school district and school board, the mayor reading a proclamation, remarks from the assistant police chief and the state senator who shepherded the bill through the legislature (“shepherd” may be the right word but pales beside the tenacity required). Beautiful posters, a copy of the signed bill, the pens used (just Sharpies but with the governor’s name on them), cameras and reporters Check news at 5 and 10 Univision 23, too). Lots of women wearing red not just for the holiday but also for the high school’s identifier. But we were encouraged to choose something orange to commemorate the bill, like the yellow ribbons or the pink ones.

There was music. Christine was a violinist, and a quartet from the school played “Greensleeves,” with students not so much different from these. Something about that plaintive melody… Steve Altman composed “Heaven Sent” after his mother died in 2004, but it could not have been more perfect.

There was food. The food services chef had prepared a lovely light lunch with salad, chicken nuggets, fruit, and small desserts. I met him and thanked him. It could have been a professional caterer, by the look and feel of it.

There were friends from near and far. It’s hard to underestimate the joy of those reunions when it’s been years since people were together. News shared, dinners planned, emails promised.

All in all, a beautiful, heart-felt day. But to do this justice, I need to spend more time. Listen to the song, read the law, hug your children. In the meantime, I’ll remain in awe of Debby Blubaugh, a mother who has made a difference for the mothers of other children.

Lessons from Wordle

  1. The first one, not obviously, is that people start looking for lessons from Wordle. Here are several: This woman gives us a personal narrative with several links as she describes an experience different with her routine which she says became a life lesson. This one is a cheery little list of encouraging words and positive advice. Here are some Wordle-inspired investment strategies, which I’m not sure what mean but seem sincere. For Jewish For teachers. Encanto connections. This is perhaps the best one, the most insightful because it addresses a variety of topics: history, popularity, success.
  2. The study of fads (1957) is a real pursuit with popular explanations (2021). To say there are many since the internet descended would be understatement. One warning though: FAD when all caps can mean other things. Fish Aggregating Device is one, obviously scholarly, and Fine Arts Department (congratulations! to these McKinney ISD FAD teachers!) On one hand, fads highlight the creativity of the human mind. The floss dance (so 2019, I know) was amazing to watch as grandkids did it; this tutorial is charming but not my talent. A Rubik’s cube works with an algorithm and here is an “easy way.” The upshot of all this, however, is that while it’s human, it’s odd. Perhaps coincidentally, of course, is the fact that the designer’s name is Wardle; perhaps it was all meant to be.
  3. Memory is another lesson that may have been learned before but forgotten. I know I didn’t collect Beanie Babies. I’ve never taken challenges, at least I’m pretty sure. But in a drawer clean-out I will occasionally come across something that was what we had to do that year: Lace collars, macrame plant hangars, crocheted bun warmers. (If you think the last one has to do with bread, well, you missed that boat long ago.) And those are just a few involving twisted cotton. Lesson: We forget lots of unimportant things that seemed important at the time.
  4. Variations arise almost immediately. Wordle is unique because there isn’t an app. It’s a website-only game. If you download an app with the same name, you won’t get anything near what the real thing is. (That was only true for five minutes. Try PuzzWord, identical as near as I can tell.) There are niche versions that I won’t go into. Google if you’re interested. And, finally, there is a numbers one called Nerdle. Same 6 guesses, 8 slots to put numbers that make a coherent formula. That is the extent of my understanding. It is admittedly difficult. (This site is British and says “maths” instead of the American “math.” Charming. The Wordle website has a UK domain because the designer is Welsh although he lives in New York. It uses American English instead of British so, apparently, they are mad because of words such as “favor” instead of “favour,” which has little red wavy lines under it because my Grammarly doesn’t like it either, but for that matter, it also tags “American English” as “geopolitically sensitive.” What does that even mean?!)
  5. Yes, I’m playing Wordle. One friend complained that she wouldn’t if it is only available at the New York Times. That’s a point of view, of course, and not dissimilar to people boycotting the Olympics because they’re in China. But I’ve written about boycotts before, at least in passing. It is a bit of a sifter. Some people post results daily. Others (me) never do but share privately. Some get the answer regularly in 4 tries. Others (me) have a higher percentage of 5s. It isn’t for everyone, of course. It’s fine if you love crosswords but not jigsaws, Scrabble but not Monopoly. Some people (me and at least one grandkid) should never play the card game Mao, for example. It has no rules!
  6. This number is just a placeholder. Humans like to list things (me), but some lists just don’t end. (Insert profound concluding statement here ______.)