The Big Slap

The Oscars were not my first choice of topic. After all, I wrote about them last year. People write about them every year. I know people who watch ALL the candidates for Best Picture as a matter of course. I’ve seen the one (Dune) which uses half a good novel and had these wins (cinematography, editing, score, visual effects, production design and sound). No way it was going to win the big one. I saw bits of West Side Story (great music that makes for the worst earworms) and Don’t Look Up (probably the silliest ending ever). Otherwise, nothing.

But then—the Big Slap. In case you didn’t see it, here is one clip. To summarize if you oppose such things: Chris Rock made a joke about Jada Pinkett Smith’s shaved head. “Jada, I love you. G.I. Jane 2, can’t wait to see it.” After a little back and forth her name in Rock’s mouth, Will Smith walks (not “storms” as was sometimes reported) and slaps him. My opinion is that it could have been staged. Ratings are low, so maybe that originator of bad ideas for the Academy said something like “what if somebody slaps somebody…?” Oscar Wilde said, “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.” See Oscar ratings since 1994–a deep dive.

This piece from The New York Times takes it all seriously. It notes that Jimmy Kimmel was among those (like me) who first thought it was staged. Mark Hamill tweeted #UgliestOscarMoment_Ever. In contrast, Tiffany Haddish (technically I don’t know who she is, but she starred in Girls Trip with Jada) said it was “the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.”

Questions remain. Will Will lose his Oscar as Best Actor in King Richard? Will he be charged with assault? Does the Academy still have standards? If it wasn’t scripted, why didn’t Will use the real slug from Independence Day? Are there really just two sides—Team Will and Team Chris? The American version edited out the objectionable language that followed; the Australians didn’t (viewer discretion advised) but that’s who we are. Right? Are these people really friends after other jokes in 2016? Is there really no such thing as bad publicity?

Of course, it’s not that I really care. These people are actors. Every single one of them. And we are all spectators. Every single one of us. I don’t care about them as personas. I want to see their work. Their opinions don’t matter to me any more than mine matter to them. If I had to be on an island with just People magazine, it would be the first bit of kindling. Yes, the pandemic has been particularly hard on the arts, and I appreciate the comeback efforts. But the Critics’ Choice Awards and the People’s Choice Awards have no overlap. None. And I’ve actually seen 5 of the 8 favorite movie nominees (not the winner, Black Widow). I don’t think I’m low-brow or dim. I’ve just seen the latest Asghar Farhadi film A Hero and while I don’t think it’s as good as A Separation, it is definitely not American and, therefore, maybe a bit more interesting.

A Tale of Two Little Cities

It’s Old Testament year at church. With new study tools (great podcasts making me realize I should have studied Hebrew with rabbinic scholars), I am enjoying the challenge.

Although we haven’t gotten to the scriptural selections below, I wrote this poem for another challenge—a poem a day for the month of February. The genesis of this one (note the clever reference) comes from long ago when I read the phrase “There was a little city…” It’s part of something of greater scope discussing the importance of wisdom.

The second section is a new story, to me at least. Having read the Old Testament several times before, I surely scanned the verses. But nothing stuck even though the images are much more startling than just that little city.

For what it’s worth—and with apologies to Dickens—I didn’t read A Tale of Two Cities in high school, when assigned. Or The Scarlet Letter, for that matter. There. Confession is good for something, if not the soul.


A Tale of Two Little Cities

Two little cities

Saved by two wise ones:


The unnamed wise-but-poor man delivered

His unnamed city from an unnamed

Assailant of king-rank.

The wise-but-poor man,

Forgotten but for these verses,

His wisdom despised, his words forgotten.


The wise woman—possibly named Serah—

Lived in a town—Abel-beth-maachah—

Talked with Joab and made this arrangement:

To save her city she would lead the folk

To toss over the wall the severed head

Removed from one Sheba the son of Bichri.

(He was a traitor, per the besieging Joab.)

They did it, too.

Lauded, Serah-maybe’s wisdom is remembered.

Not something you’d forget—

A bloody this for that.


Ecclseiastes 9:13-15

14 There was a little city, and few men within it; and there came a great king against it, and besieged it, and built great bulwarks against it:

15 Now there was found in it a poor wise man, and he by his wisdom delivered the city; yet no man remembered that same poor man.


2 Samuel 20:21

21 The matter is not so: but a man of mount Ephraim, Sheba the son of Bichri by name, hath lifted up his hand against the king, even against David: deliver him only, and I will depart from the city. And the woman said unto Joab, Behold, his head shall be thrown to thee over the wall.


The Debacle Debacle

The original conversation? Missing. Context? Forgotten. The error? Obvious.

I don’t know what we were talking about, but I said the word “debacle.” Until that day in my life, I’d pronounced it “DEB-a-cul.” Or in the formal schema: “ˈde-bə-kəl.”

“What? What’s that you say?”

I repeated whatever was the disaster of the day.

“I got that,” was the reply. “But what was the word you used?”

“DEB-a-cul? That’s how you say it, isn’t it? Or a second pronunciation? Maybe?”

The answer was no, that’s not how you say it. I checked. He was right. My way was the dread “nonstandard,” itself defined as “not conforming in pronunciation, grammar, vocabulary, etc., to the usage characteristic of and considered (therefore not) acceptable by most educated native speakers.” Emphasis added. Yikes and ouch. A most humbling experience if you (I mean me, of course) suffer from the vanity of thinking you can pronounce words.

Two brief examples: I do say “preparatory” in the second pronunciation, which is with the accent on the first syllable. With work, I could do it differently. In the past few years, I’ve taken to pronouncing “maraschino” with the “sch” as “ske” instead of “she.” That is the correct, first pronunciation, in fact, though sometimes people look at me oddly. Maybe no one else knows the correct pronunciation? Maybe I’m just being affected/snobby/weird? Or both. Probably both.

Here is a list of 100 mispronounced words, arranged alphabetically for your reading pleasure. I pronounce “mauve” correctly already (au=oh here) but not “diphtheria” (not dip but dif); good for “often” (the t is silent) but not for “parliament” (the i is actually pronounced); yes for “pronunciation” (which loses the o) but not—nor is anyone else—for “pernickety” (there isn’t an s).

Introducing the topic to others, I learned other examples, mostly from personal irritations. More than one person used “chester drawers” for years until someone explained it is “chest of drawers.” Someone else recently heard “iteration” as “eye-teration.” A musician once had a student, a good one at that, who asked to play “Ratch-maninoff” instead of “Rock-maninoff” for the beloved Rachmaninoff. Everyone gasped, of course. Perhaps you have your favorites.

None of this matters in the great scheme of things, except for one very peculiar associated phenomenon: In the weeks since I was corrected, I have heard the word “debacle” on television, radio, or a podcast every day. Every. Single. Day. That seems incredibly odd. I’m not exaggerating, as I’m wont to do. So I noticed on Tuesday, by 6 pm, I hadn’t heard it. And that wouldn’t have mattered except I was scheduled to play for our dear Mu Phi Epsilon group. What if I was to be the debacle that night? In a fit of superstitionist thinking (not a word so pronounce it as you like), I told my story to several people and got them to say “debacle” if it wasn’t going to be broadcast.

These are my pieces: Debussy’s “Syrinx” and three of Hindemith’s “Eight Pieces for Solo Flute.” (Only 1, 2, and 6) This flutist plays well and has 1M views but moves a lot. Unseen flutist with the score, maybe a little too opinionated. The iconic Jean-Pierre Rampal in a 1957 videorecording, but a bit too fast. Emily Beynon giving a tutorial, with a good performance beginning at 18:45—everything you need to know about the piece which is a little over 2 minutes itself. The Hindemith is much more angular or modern in its variety, but it’s a good companion to the French piece. Here is a student at Peabody Conservatory, Eunsin Kang. Another unseen flutist, with the score.

I did ok when I played. People said it was good. I sighed with relief. Not perfect, but not the debacle it would have been if I hadn’t practiced heavily. I am thankful.

Beauty for (Pot)Ashes

The world continues to watch war in a way that hasn’t happened before. In real time, everyone with any access can see a nuclear facility under attack. “Live coverage” is as much the headline as the need. Yes, we also watched Operation Desert Storm on television,  and reporters were embedded, but it lacked the immediacy and rawness of unfiltered, unedited personal videos. It is possible, of course, to turn off the news, avoid social media of all kinds, not answer your phone, but if you’re an adult in America, the price of gas and groceries is not possible to ignore. Politically aligned or not, people feel global consequences.

The more personal consequences are harder to avoid. One person this week reported feelings of guilt, helplessness, and cognitive dissonance. The last term is new—1957—and involves coping with opposing feelings. Rather than define it further, I have permission to share this new poem by Mark Penny:

What have I done while Kyiv burns?

Eaten full meals,

Slept till I woke,

Ridden my bike on busy roads,

Worked on my lessons,

Held my wife,

Talked with my children before bed,

Hung out the laundry,

Bought two cushions,


The guilt reported is not for having done anything wrong but for having survived while others perished. Survivor’s guilt is also newly defined and more complicated than it seems. My saying “Don’t feel that way” is inappropriate and wrong. I’ve almost pretty much sort of learned not to say it.

Helplessness is not a new term but an ancient feeling, in fact. This week I was listening to a podcast that brings Old Testament scholars into a discussion of a selected lesson. We won’t even finish Genesis until March 20, so it’s been a detailed review of familiar stories. I see now that I had a laughably superficial understanding and should have been studying Hebrew all along. Anyway, last week, Dr. Lili De Hoyos Anderson discussed the stories of Joseph. Here is the second part on Follow Him. She tells the story of a friend whose husband deserted her with lots of children and never provided any support. Ever. Blessedly, she had skills to earn a living, but nothing came easily. She felt bitter and, when she learned he had returned to the temple (meaning he had said he had met his family obligations), it was too much. Asking Lili for advice, she learned how Lili graded her seminary students. They essentially had to give her a report of whether or not they had done their reading, a concept that made them gasp. She said they could lie to her, but they couldn’t lie to God. So, bad people can do bad things and not be punished. Good people can do good things and not be rewarded. Joseph languished in an Egyptian prison for years, innocent of any crime. And the person who ultimately held the key to his release forgot him. Joseph used his gift of interpreting dreams, saved Egypt and his own family, got “the second chariot,” but was again forgotten (we get to Moses later.)

The Old Testament is full of promises in spite of all the difficulties. Dr. Anderson referred to one from Isaiah 61:3 and contains the phrase “beauty for ashes” for those who mourn. She once bought a paperweight made with ashes from Mt. Saint Helens to remind her of this idea.

When I decided to use “Beauty for Ashes” a title, I didn’t know where to go with it. Then last night, a friend was wearing blue and yellow, noting it was to show her support of Ukraine. But her association was much, much deeper. Her father’s family had come to America from there, the ones who were not killed in the pogroms. Her maiden name? Potash. “Like the chemical,” she said. Other parts of the family had their name changed to Pottish. Both come from the Russian Поташ.

Suddenly, the war was not remote. It was sitting beside me. It was someone’s family.

What to do? We really have only two things we can give—money and time. The first is easy. Here are two sources of possibilities: NPR, Washington Post. You can find more. You can take a can (or 12) of soup to the nearest food pantry. You can be kind when someone cuts you off in traffic (actually, that is probably time, not money.) You can join a protest. You can pray. As one friend tagged me today, sometimes it is the only thing you can do for those you love.

As we seem to be coming out of the pandemic (last night’s event did not require masks, but I don’t want to jinx it), there is the realization that we will never return to normal because there is not and never was such a thing. The real war, as always, is always with us. It’s between good and evil. I remember being horrified when an announcement after one of the (bad) Star Wars sequels invited the audience to choose between being a Jedi or joining the Dark Side. In jest, maybe? I didn’t laugh. There is just one struggle. There is just one choice. And take the soup.