Lew Sayers: A Tribute in Five Paragraphs

As I write, today is September 11, twenty years after a terrible day. An assault on the homeland had not happened since 1812. My college freshmen and I were in class that day. With nothing else possible, the students wrote about their fears, the things most tender to them. We watched the towers collapse a few hours later. One of our sons was on a mission in Oregon; another, traveling for work. The youngest and I went to hear Brahms’ Requiem a few days later. Much has been written about how that event changed us forever. I cried for months after when hearing of a loss, a hero, a new commitment.

Ten years ago, a friend died suddenly on our campus. I wrote the tribute that follows, but I don’t know who read it or even who saw it. But on a day of remembrance, it seems fitting to reflect on his passing as well. Because of people who spend hours taking pictures for just that reason, we can see his gravestone and its inscription: A WONDERFUL TEACHER

It was a privilege to know Lew Sayers. He was one of those people about whom it can be said, “This one was beloved.”

Lew Sayers: A Tribute in Five Paragraphs

The scene is a familiar one: we wait outside his door while he continues with a student. His voice is quiet, direct; the advice, specific. He bends near the page, pointing out what needs to be done.  When he is finished—and not before—the student leaves; Lew smiles up at us and asks, “What can I do for you?” It was a time to be treasured both then in its grace and now in its memory. Although he would have never dreamed of calling himself a hero, that’s what Lew Sayers was. Becoming a hero does not require planning or thought or even greatness; a hero lives within each of us, waiting for the call. Lew never waited.

The word “hero” finds its way into broadcasts, its definition one we believe we know even without the dictionary. A hero does brave things as “a man of superhuman strength or physical courage.” Originally, a hero was part man and part god, according to its Greek root heros meaning “demi-god.” An even older variant adds more relevant information: the PIE base ser- means “to watch over, protect” (“hero”). So, a firefighter can be a hero, rushing into a burning apartment and carrying out a woman in a wheelchair, but so can a mother or a father forbidding a child to play a violent video game. A teacher—a fine teacher—is also a protector. Lew understood that students need to be encouraged or pushed, directed and guided, protected from their own worst instincts and watched over as they struggle.

As is often the case, Shakespeare has something to enrich our thinking. in the opening of Henry VI Part One, Act I, scene i, the Duke of Bedford speaks:

Hung be the heavens with black, yield day to night!
Comets, importing change of times and states,
Brandish your crystal tresses in the sky,
And with them scourge the bad revolting stars
That have consented unto Henry’s death!
King Henry the Fifth, too famous to live long!
England ne’er lost a king of so much worth.

This description of grief encompasses the heavens, if not our hearts. Students and colleagues alike have felt the heaviness of Lew’s passing. His fame—a word used in its sense of being well-known for Shakespeare as well—applies to Lew in ways we might not expect. Campus-wide sadness reigns as it might not for most of us. To continue with the theme of the hero, however, we must hear from the Duke of Gloucester:

England ne’er had a king until his time.
Virtue he had, deserving to command:
His brandish’d sword did blind men with his beams:
His arms spread wider than a dragon’s wings;
His sparking eyes, replete with wrathful fire,
More dazzled and drove back his enemies
Than mid-day sun fierce bent against their faces.
What should I say? his deeds exceed all speech:
He ne’er lift up his hand but conquered.

Hyperbole indeed. What teacher has ever thought of conquest when lifting a hand to the dry erase board? Eyes may flash and spark but drive back few enemies-as-comma-splices. Our picture of Lew, then, might be in the writing lab two weeks ago. He sits reading, at the end of a bank of computers. Students are around, but he is not in class. Lew brandishes no sword; his eyes are not sparking, any more than usual anyway. No, Lew is wearing a gimme fishing cap with a life-sized trout on the bill, a plastic fish, with assorted hooks and sinkers and line as if further decoration might be needed. More importantly, Lew sits as if nothing is at all unusual. Asked what the occasion might be, he says he heard it was crazy hat day. He is smiling. Lew’s words could make the whole day smile. Shakespeare couldn’t have done any better.

Few of us will find a place in history as Henry did. Few of us will have the opportunity to run into a burning building or to jump in front of a train to rescue someone. Most of us have students who don’t remember our names even before the semester ends. Neither fame nor danger makes a hero. Another definition comes to mind, a simple sentence from Romain Rolland: “A hero is a man who does what he can” (in a short documentary about 9/11 narrated by Tom Hanks, Boatlift). Men, women, the young, the old, the strong, the infirm, the educated, the not—we can all meet this definition.

A smile may be a heroic act, if the time is right. Refraining from an unkind word could be heroic. Lew did these things better than most. How he understood that, how he came to be a hero, how he was such a gentle wonder we may never know. The opportunities are with us everywhere, every day, to be a bit more like Lew Sayers.  We need only be ready, although the call may not come. More likely, we make the choice to be a hero. It is the right thing to do, love in the active voice. It is the tribute Lew might most appreciate.

Let it be…

Today’s title is not about the Beatles’ song “Let It Be.” According to Paul McCartney, he had a dream in which his mother—whose name was Mary—came to him in a dream and comforted him with those words. He was troubled perhaps by too many “substances,” which were in wide use at the time. And so it may sound like he is referring to the Virgin Mary, he’s not. Here is a 1999 version with many other iconic musicians.

At least that’s the official version. Another story has a different slant altogether. Malcolm Evans, a manager/mate of sorts, came to McCartney in a vision and also gave him those words of wisdom. Yes, the original words were “Brother Malcolm comes to me…” Regardless, Peter Jackson’s documentary called The Beatles: Get Back releases November 25-27, 2021, on Disney+. Here is a 5-minute montage. He’s a genius, they are all geniuses, and apparently “Get Back” is also a song title.

No, it’s not about that. Instead, today is about the phrase in Luke 1:38. The angel Gabriel has told Mary that she will give birth to the Savior of the world. She doesn’t ask why, just how. That explained, she agrees by saying, “Let be unto me according to your word.” With that, the angel leaves.

From time to time, a profound awareness of a potential future comes in a flash of recognition. It’s not as simple as “This is what will happen” but an understanding of “This could be you and this is why it will be all right.”

Leaving a nursing home after visiting a friend in the rehab unit, I looked up at the skybridge between the buildings of the large, well-run facility. Along the windows were three or four of the elderly sitting in wheelchairs, very still, blankets on their laps, hands folded. Perhaps their eyes were closed. Perhaps they watched the gentle wind on a spring day as it rustled leaves around the parking lot they faced.

I could then imagine myself in one of those chairs, waiting. In Dylan Thomas’ famous poem “Do not go gentle into that good night,” he urges his father to “rage against the dying of the light.” Truth is, that is rarely what happens. Even in the poem, at the end, his father can neither bless nor curse him from his bed.

The lack of rage, however, shouldn’t be considered a lack of use. Too often we hear of people not wanting to be a burden. If all our lives we have been tools, or instruments, at some point we may become the opposite. We may become a being who is acted upon rather than acting. Almost an object that needs tender care. A service that must be rendered, a care provided. Those of us who dash in and out of those quiet rooms to visit often leave before we weep, fearing the same end. Now, I think I can face it more bravely, accepting what may be.

Today’s picture is a friend’s child, swinging. The contrasts between ages seem stark, her youth, my age. It is all the same arc, hers and mine. Different needs, different times. Hand in the Hand.

 

 

Tools

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.

“Just touch the cable.”

I collect angels, and believe in them. Not the winged ones with blond curly locks—the wings are  symbolic, as is blonde hair, one assumes. The word “angel” means “messenger” or one sent from the throne of God. I’ve never seen one or felt one near. But I believe in them because sometimes when I need a reminder that I’m remembered, one will speak to me or leave a gift at my door.

On a day last week when the only cheerful option was a quick trip to the local thrift store, I found a bit of odd art. There is a head with a jester’s cap, wings made of flags or ties, disconnected torso and legs, and a hand holding a string with things attached. Hard to describe. This is very similar at Story People (available for $25 and $35); mine is weirder and not so clearly an angel. But for $2.00, it’s thrilling.

The text beside my new angel says this: “In my dream, the angel shrugged and said, ‘If we fail this time it will be a failure of imagination.’ And then she placed the world gently in the palm of my hand.” My artist (MW ’05) has added a line not in Story People’s version: “We must decorate our own souls.” It didn’t make much sense. Another surprise when I looked on the back—an entire poem in which that line appears and does make sense.

Here’s the problem, though. The poem is interesting and uplifting, but when googled, it yields a mystery. The one pasted on my little particle board backing is called “After A While” by Veronica Shoffstal. You can read it here. There are other similar poems with the same name, but I lost count when four different poets were named, plus Anonymous. The most compelling argument, however, was that the real poet was the famous Argentinian writer, Jorge Luis Borges. This site contains Shoffstal’s claim, the Borges in English, an explanation of the Spanish version, and the second half which elaborates the theme of the first half. The “celebrity life coach” whose site it is reads the poem, but I don’t recommend that experience. Overall, this research became a bit overwhelming.

But on I went. A beautiful photo of Half Dome with a buck in the foreground appeared on Facebook. Asking for permission to use it led to two outcomes. First, the picture makes Half Dome glow, as if at dawn which would have nicely fit the “Comes the Dawn” title of the poem. But no: The phenomenon can only occur at sunset, I was told. I countered with what I believed to be true—in a photograph it’s not possible to tell dawn from sunset, unless you do know the location specifically. Of course, I was wrong. It’s a myth that you can’t tell because you can with training. This site gives a brief exploration; this one, a much longer, in-depth explanation with stunning photos.

Second, I learned that there is a set of cables to help you climb Half Dome. (I say “you” because it won’t ever be “me.”) I was reminded that my two younger sons had some years ago had made the ascent and that these days you can only make the climb with an almost-impossible-to-get permit. (These days we also hear of people dying when taking selfies in such places, so don’t do that and frighten your mothers, please.) The point of the cables is assistance. In today’s photo, you can barely see them going up the middle of the mountain, but they are there. I then learned the story of a father who gave us today’s title. He wanted to take his 12-year-old daughter on the Half Dome hike. She was afraid. He didn’t go into long explanations of why it was doable or safe or easy or important to conquer fear. He simply said, “Just touch the cable.”

So on one hand we have the poem below that has all sorts of things to remember. It’s written as if these are the things we also already know. I am glad to know the poem, even with its mysteries. But what is particularly interesting is the title “Comes the Dawn.” It reminds me of a verse from Psalm 30: “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.” David struggled a good bit, and this psalm reminds us of the struggle and his thanks-giving.

On the other hand, we have a simple admonition that the only action we need is to try, that the action of touching becomes trusting.

Back to the angels. Last week had its struggles for me. Without saying why, I can share that the picture and the poem were great reminders that I was remembered. That angel was unseen, unknown. I just happened to be at the right place at the right time. The other angel was a woman in the outside fabric section of JoAnn’s. I was struggling (literally) with a bolt of fabric–60 inches wide and heavy canvas– when she asked me if I needed help. Of course, I said, “Oh no, thank you, I’ve got it.” She was a wise angel, came over anyway, and said, “Sometimes we all need another pair of hands.” I did thank her, but didn’t think to tell her she was an angel. Maybe she already knew.

 

Comes the Dawn

After a while
you learn the subtle difference
between holding a hand
and chaining a soul.

And you learn
that love doesn’t mean leaning,
and company doesn’t mean security.

And you begin to learn that
kisses aren’t contracts
and presents aren’t promises.

And you begin to accept defeats
with your head up and your eyes open
with the grace of a woman, not the grief of a child.

And you learn to build all your roads on today
because tomorrow’s ground is too uncertain for plans
and futures have a way of falling down in mid-flight.

After a while you learn
that even sunshine burns if you get too much.

So you plant your own garden and decorate your own soul,
instead of waiting for someone to bring you flowers.

And you learn that you really can endure…
that you really are strong,
and you really do have worth.

And you learn and learn…
with every goodbye you learn.

 

 

 

Dear Jeff

An Open Letter to Jeff Bezos (retired)

At 11 a.m. on Monday, April 12, 2004, I was in a taxi in New York City. Riding by one of those exclusive high-rise residences, I saw a middle-aged woman standing over to my right. She was well dressed and meticulously groomed. What I’ll never forget was her face: smooth, polished, burnished, perfect. I thought, “Wow. That’s what real money can do.” But she looked sad. That’s why I’ll never forget that moment (time of day approximate), and that’s when I stopped envying the rich.

Jeffrey Preston Jørgensen had much in common with the rest of us. His mother had him when she was 17, divorced after a year with his father, married a Cuban immigrant when Jeff was 4; the step-father soon adopted the child and changed his last name to Bezos. The family moved around a bit: Albuquerque, Houston, Miami. Jeff worked at a McDonald’s. He was the high school valedictorian (no, I wasn’t either, but I’ve known some). When he got to Princeton, he decided his choice of major (physics) was too hard and changed to something else (electrical engineering and computer science). Even if he is a genius, he has limitations. He is a long-time fan of Star Trek. He married, had children, divorced. He named his new company Cadabra at first (as in abracadabra), but it sounded like “cadaver” on the phone. He chose Amazon because it started with an A, because of the river, and because it sounded exciting and exotic. Just as any of us would have done.

On the other hand, there are many things about Bezos that are remarkable. When he was a toddler in his crib, he used a screwdriver to modify it and designed an alarm system to know what his siblings were doing. He was so focused in kindergarten that his teachers would have to pick up his chair with him in it to move him to the next activity. He memorized all the defensive football plays and was put in charge of that side of the team. (An interesting article here.) His maternal grandfather was a regional director for the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission; his stepfather, an engineer for Exxon. Yes, he and his wife of 25 years divorced, but the Saudis outed his affair and National Enquirer did an exposé. There may be a link between that incident and the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a Bezos-owned Washington Post journalist. He just donated $200 million to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, the largest gift since James Smithson’s founding donation in 1846. If my math is correct, that is about .001% of his fortune, which is like someone with $50,000 giving $50.

While building a business from scratch in your garage sounds average, no retail enterprise on earth comes close to Amazon. Yes, he likes Star Trek. Who doesn’t? But he got to play an alien in Star Trek Beyond, thereby checking that off his bucket list. Chris Pine said this: “I was there for the bit with his, like, nine bodyguards and three limos. It was really intense. … I had no idea who he was. Not a clue. But he was obviously very important.” Important? Incredibly wealthy at least. Finally, he gets to go into space briefly on July 20. On the rocket his money built. Which may change space travel as we know it. Other than that, he’s just a regular guy that Chris Pine didn’t recognize.

At 4 a.m. one day (time of day accurate), I ordered three cable management kits from Amazon. They were on my porch by 7 a.m. How is that even possible? Amazon makes shopping—and shipping— a totally different experience than only a few years ago. I even remember when only books were sold, a boon to my college freshmen. Now, I rarely buy anything without checking Amazon first. I know only one person who doesn’t shop there purposefully; this site and this give valid reasons. Wikipedia has an entire entry (with 237 reference links) titled “Criticism of Amazon.” A few days ago, President Biden signed an executive order regarding mergers and monopolies which will ultimately affect Amazon. And 159,598 people (when last checked) have signed a petition asking that Bezos not be allowed to come back from space. Apparently, lots of people still envy and/or hate the rich.

The upshot of all this is the feeling that I am probably not the one to write Jeff Bezos. I have because I said I would. I hope he and the others make it home safely. Maybe one of you has something more to say to him than I could manage. If you don’t know who Wally Funk is, you need to. She’s our neighbor over in Roanoke. After tomorrow, everyone will know her. The last words below, by the way, are Bezos’s mottoes, the second in Latin—Gradatim ferociter. Maybe instead of all those billions we’re not going to get, we just need to get ourselves a Latin motto. Maybe Excelsior! New York has it, Stan Lee used it, but ever upward is the place to be.

 

Dear Mr. Bezos,

Congratulations on so many things: retirement of a sort, a realized dream of a trip into space, and the service your company gave during the pandemic. Best wishes to you going forward.

Thank you for inviting Mary Wallace “Wally” Funk along on your flight. No one would have said anything if you hadn’t, but so many of us are thrilled that you did.

Recently at a party, someone stretched our perception skills to visualize a trillion dollars. It’s staggering. The prediction, predictably, was that you would be the world’s first trillionaire. What came next, predictably, was the suggestion that no one should have that much money. I defended you, suggesting that it is none of our business how much your business is worth. Some see the economy as a pie, with a limited amount of wealth that must be divided. Mark Hennessey used a different metaphor. He described the economy as a garden that must be tended in order to prosper. The result is not a piece of something limited but a stake in something that can provide for all.

That said, it is also important to share what other people are saying. Some who are bothered by the money (you really did work hard for it) suggest that the money does not give you the authority to set priorities for the rest of us. At times, offering an opinion on the lives of others offends. The phrase “Keep on your side of the street” applies. What you’ve done, you’ve done extremely well. We see; we admire. Anything else is not needed.

Amazon offers excellent pay and benefits. With 1.3 million (and counting) employees, this will always be important. No one can plan for the bad optics of an occasional anecdote. However, when too many people say “I heard Amazon doesn’t give bathroom breaks,” that’s what people remember. Encourage a business culture that reflects caring for the individual beyond pay and benefits.

It is incredibly presumptuous to offer you advice—so many sentences with an unspoken “do it this way.” You’ve changed the world. When you see the Earth this week—the world you’ve changed—you will see in those few minutes a beauty the most of us cannot imagine. By report, those who have find the experience humbling. It’s more than an item off a bucket list. It’s a real accomplishment. As you minimize regrets and tread step by step, ferociously, I and millions of others will be thinking of you.

 

Best regards,

Mary Ann Taylor

The Shirt

The Shirt: n. 1. a person who represents authority and/or special knowledge and/or training/employment and by putting on the signifier of that authority etc. becomes, symbolically, the source of that authority. The actual “shirt” can also be a nametag, hat, uniform, grooming (haircut/facial hair/tattoos, etc.) or any other recognizable identifier. Usually capitalized. Often derogatory. Compare “The Suit.” Origin: Combined form, first attested mid-21st century, southern California. “The Shirt said it couldn’t be repaired and would have to be replaced.”

Not to single out women as victims, of course, but most of us don’t know anything about our cars. Yes, I do know one woman who can change her oil AND install brake pads. I myself have been trained in changing a tire (1990, Relief Society Homemaking Meeting, church parking lot). Still, women are more likely not to know anything about mechanical problems, for example, making us perhaps more vulnerable to whatever The Shirt may tell us.

The Shirt, therefore, implies authority, whether deserved or not. In season 2, episode 13 of Roseanne (“Chicken Hearts,” 1990), we see her working at one of her serial, menial jobs. The boss, Brian (Peter Smith) is a kid, really, just finishing high school. Roseanne has reminded him that she can’t work weekends because she has a family.  As “The Shirt,” he can say the following: “You are paid to follow my orders!” She can put him in his place (her shirt is a yellow and red affair with a stuck-on chicken logo) not just because of their history but because of her one-liner, “You got a big booger hanging outta your nose.” (This clip is bad and ends with Brian’s comment.) He runs off to strong laughter, and Roseanne earns the respect of her workmates. Of course, he gets the last word when he fires her later, citing her bad attitude. He is an example of a bad shirt.

Few of us, however, can think that quickly. Most, when confronted by authority, acquiesce. Last year was different. During the pandemic, stories arose of what might be mandatory-mask attacks on employees. This article from last year includes a Texas story. A customer in our nearby Cedar Hill angrily pushed a young woman employee down when she pointed him to the door when he refused to put on a mask. Sadly, incredibly, people have been killed in arguments about masking.

More common, I expect, were the newly-empowered employees “reminding” customers to mask up. Irritating, but endurable. At the end, I was only pretending to put on hand sanitizer at entrances when “invited” to do so. Power corrupts, etc.

Usually, the guy/gal in the shirt (or with the nametag or in a company lab coat) commands our respect. We assume a certain level of training and expertise. For plumbers and electricians, we know of state-mandated licensing. But we are surrounded by much more daily opportunities. These days, our cars are smarter than we are, our phones have access to the entire world, and articles have to explain why our appliances aren’t designed to spy on us, but hackers can hack them to listen to us. My car had to have a software upgrade for its transmission, my phone knows where I’ve taken it for years (though it sometimes goes missing), and there is such a thing as a smart toaster (on sale at Williams-Sonoma for $299!) Obviously, we don’t know how to rewire or replumb a house or fix most things. Of course, we need The Shirts!

What about the people without the shirt? Lawyers dress appropriately for court, but even in the office, they wear suits and ties or pantsuits and dresses. The series Suits (2011-2019) works from the premise of a man without a law degree posing as a lawyer for years; all he had to do was put on The Suit. Doctors often wear white lab coats. Their stated reasons are to be recognizable to colleagues and to have pockets. Reason 4 is telling: “emphasizing doctor status.” Other winners are “symbol of cleanliness” and “psychological separation.” Some people suffer from “white coat anxiety,” a syndrome in which blood pressure elevates when “the coat” enters the room.

An important side note: Psychiatrists typically don’t wear white coats in order to “maximize rapport” with patients. Pediatricians too. Those of a certain age and sinister memory will recognize another reason. “White coats” were the orderlies in psychiatric facilities, getting an important line in “They’re Coming to Take Me Away” (Napoleon XIV, 1966). This version is just lyrics and music (if that’s what you’d call it). Others, more troubling visually, are available.

How to avoid confusion and and over-dependence? Know some of the jargon. You can learn the basics of fuel injection without knowing how to repair the system.  If you can’t be savvy, at least be leary. Don’t be intimidated. Don’t defer blindly. Be ready to question. And finally, if you’re The Shirt, stay sharp; stay humble; stay honest. In the long run, we want you to be right. We respect your expertise and thank you for it. We can probably go too far the other way with self-diagnosis (new term: cyberchondria), but we’re usually wrong. The Shirt shouldn’t mask; let it inspire.