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 ______.)

The Handwriting (Behind) the Wall

  1. Weekly I read that someone “sees the handwriting on the wall” and quits her job or leaves a bad situation of innumerable sorts. A small sampling reveals that people know what it means, as in something bad is about to happen, but not its source.

Strictly written, the phrase began as “a hand writing on the wall.” That’s literally what happens in Daniel 5; a hand appears at Belshazzar’s feast and writes four words: MENE MENE TEKEL UPHARSHIN (These Aramaic words mean “numbered weighted divided.”). As usual, the usual suspects –magicians, sorcerers, astrologists—can’t interpret. Daniel comes and explains the meaning of each. By extrapolation, he can see that the kingdom is finished and will be conquered. Sure enough, Darius invades that night, Belshazzar is killed, and a kingdom comes into being. Daniel is made chief among the 120 princes and a friend to the king. His time in the lions’ den doesn’t come until Chapter 6. And then we’ll have another phrase people use when something bad is happening. (In Darius’ defense, he didn’t want to throw Daniel in but had to etc…)

[Two earlier stories also lend idioms to our language. In Daniel 2, we learn about the dream Nebuchadnezzar forgot but wanted interpreted. Only Daniel could see the figure with a head of gold and “feet of clay” and explain the future of the world that it revealed. In Daniel 3, we have his friends endure the fiery furnace when they won’t bow down to a 98-foot tall statue when certain music plays. They come out unsinged and unsmoked. [Random—hiking the Arches National Park’s Fiery Furnace in July must be daunting.]

Since no one is likely to say “hand writing,” the use of “writing” is fine, but “handwriting” isn’t, not quite. You’ll see one in the next week, I’d expect.

That is all well and good, but it’s not the title, BEHIND the wall. Or under would work, too.

There is a new tradition—probably hundreds of years old but not to me—of writing on the wall beams of new construction. A friend in Utah showed me how her new friends took Sharpies and wrote sweet notes on the beams in her basement. Another just did it on her brand-new build—the “love words” she and her late husband shared. Someone else talked about a preacher’s beams covered with scriptures his congregation had added. And—how cool is this?—a photographer I know wrote his name within the walls of the Walt Disney Concert Hall AND The Getty Center. (I haven’t been to the Disney but have seen The Simpsons episode where Marge writes Frank Gehry to ask him to design Springfield’s hall. That counts, right? I have been to The Getty a number of times; it could be me in the picture above except I prefer more color.)

The picture for today was from Pompeii, one of the Italian cities buried by Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD. It’s a fascinating story. People had time to flee but not all did (Lesson #17 for the Ages: Flee!) and thousands died. People like Pliny watched it happen and wrote about the horror. So, when the city was covered for hundreds of years, the “writing on the wall” was also covered. The word “graffiti” is, after all, an Italian word for “scribbling” first used in 1851 to describe the writing uncovered in Pompei. This article proclaims it as art, and its prime artist about whom I know nothing is Banksy. Well, that’s not true because I did read the article.

To conclude: The idea of words hidden behind our walls is talismanic, which has to do not only with the magic that wards off evil but also with its roots in consecration. It seems a comforting thing regardless, words of beauty or grace or blessing holding, supporting us silently and secretly. No way to do that on a house built in the 1970s? Why not imagine words? Close your eyes and wish them there. It’s a planned, retro-consecration…

Two New Tools

It’s not that I haven’t written about questions before. Here is a short one discussing questions in general, named after Ben Stein’s famous “Anyone?” line in Ferris Bueller. In this memorial to a friend, I include the opposite of questioning—gullibility, mostly mine. And finally, I wrote about the antidotes for finding the truth, which includes questions.

Last night (January 21, 2022, lest I forget), a group of people gathered to read papers on a variety of topics. My thesis was that reading literature prepares us to be media literate. I outlined the process we use to assess articles and such at Ad Fontes Media. My poor old brain struggled to write the thing, honestly, but it was well-received by the people who presented more excellent work.

The most interesting paper I heard was about a novel (post-apocalyptic, of course!) in which language has been degraded with the resulting loss of culture. Here is an example of how Riddley Walker looks: “On my naming day when I come 12 I gone front spear and kilt a wyld boar he parbly ben the las wyld pig on the Bundel Downs any how there hadnt ben none for a long time befor him nor I aint looking to see none agen.” More accurately, this language is a dialect based on real ones, but it feels more like the examples on Facebook that say something like “If you can read this, you’re a genius!” Which should make us all feel good for three seconds. The entire book—now 256 pages down from 600—should be on Audible for clarity, but I couldn’t persuade the young man who read last night to record it for me—beautiful voice! Now the most interesting part: The author is Russell Hoban, someone most parents know because of all his Frances books. Bedtime for Frances, A Birthday for Frances, A Baby Sister for Frances, and many more. His wife Lillian illustrated them. Frances wasn’t his only character. My favorite was made into a film by Jim Henson and the Muppets, Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas (1977). The music is by Paul Williams; here is “Ain’t No Hole in the Washtub.” Catchy, not post-apocalyptic.

My paper took months to write because it kept changing. The title alludes to Macbeth. His wife has died, and he is far and away bad off: “It is a tale/Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury/Signifying nothing.” “It” is, of course, life. Although I do quote a passage from Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, I don’t use the initial opening which refers to an episode from a podcast called (SUB)text) called “Yielding to Suggestion in Shakespeare’s Macbeth.  Wes and Erin discuss a particular word in the speech (actually, the word is “word”), and Erin realizes she has misread the meaning because of her text’s notes. That’s not as important as her further realization that she had then mistaught her students. They then laugh about Wes’s use of “the marshmallow test” that neither passes, which makes no sense unless you know about this experiment. Young children (age 4) are left in a room with a single large marshmallow. They’re told they will receive a second one if they choose not to eat it for 10 minutes. The obvious lesson is to do with instant gratification. The second is that you shouldn’t eat the marshmallow some kid leaves because he/she has touched it 14 times, licked it, or smelled it WITHIN their nose. Maybe all of the above.

And that’s just one example. I asked colleagues at Ad Fontes Media for literature examples and used all their suggestions. I thought of others. Two bits of supporting thought came from non-fiction sources.

First, I read Malcom Gladwell’s Talking to Strangers, not because Oprah recommended it but because a son had finished it, handed it to me, and said, “Read this.” It, in turn, is based on Timothy R. Levine’s Truth-Default Theory. Simply put, we believe what people tell us, and we don’t even think about the possibility they aren’t telling us the truth. How many of us—in the early days of Internet use—forwarded emails detailing all the uses of Coca-Cola (dissolves nails in four days!) or posted the horrors caused by Head and Shoulders shampoo (it’s a lotus pod) without consulting Snopes? I did. And then I snopesed people all the time…

Second, (this came to light listening to a nutrition book called Eat Smarter: Use the Power of Food to Reboot Your Metabolism, Upgrade Your Brain, and Transform Your Life), our brains get hijacked when they hear a question. This source describes “the instinctive elaboration reflex.” Once we hear a question, we can’t think of anything else. Multitasking is a myth, apparently, but for my purposes, the point is that accepting and questioning cannot exist in the same space.

The word “cynic” has a long history. Most people are not cynical, but I’m advocating for its occasional use in a new way. “Question everything” can be a mantra without the negativity of disbelief. This excellent article discusses positive ways to be cynical, which sounds odd. Even if you don’t read it, look at the graphic for a particularly nice glass-half-full/empty visual. Even for matters of religion, we aren’t to take everything we’re told as true. We are supposed to test and prove the principles we’re taught. If something is true, there is no reason to be ashamed of it. In my faith tradition, we are admonished to pray for confirmation, always. In other words, thinking is to be encouraged. I find that I have two new tools here. We shall see if I remain gullible…

 

MLK Day and Our Beloved Community

When I wrote about Martin Luther King, Jr. two years ago, I didn’t know that it’s the only federal holiday designated as a Day of Service. Last year I was on a national call with AmeriCorps, the government entity responsible for volunteer efforts throughout the year. This short article gives a summary of the holiday’s history. Perhaps you’ll hear the phrase “A Day ON, not a Day Off.”

This is another sentiment that Dr. King used, here in 1960 in Raleigh, North Carolina: “There is another element that must be present in our struggle that then makes our resistance and nonviolence truly meaningful. That element is reconciliation. Our ultimate end must be the creation of the beloved community.”

That is poetic and beautiful to imagine. If more of us would hush and do some good, the world would be a better place. We’d be better for doing whatever we do, too, even to the point of the relief of physical and psychic pain. I’ve seen it happen.

Below is the list of projects assembled for my church (and my community, as it happens). A few are local only but could be adapted anywhere. FreeRice is an app with multiple choice questions is a variety of calm but not easy topics. I’ve tried out the FindAGrave and found it easy and satisfying. I’ve done transcription for the Smithsonian. Let me know what you pick…

                                              Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service

                                                              January 17, 2022

For 2022, we have a service opportunity that can be done outside and that can involve families. Many people use cemetery information in their family history research and are already familiar with FindAGrave.com. Volunteers take pictures of gravestones or memorials requested by individuals and upload them. Cemeteries all over the stake include requests. Register at https://findagrave.com. Go to the bottom of the page and hit “Contribute” or use the link here and choose “Photo Requests.” Place the pin over the area where you live and choose a radius. A list of names, cemetery locations, and requesters appears. Names can then be “claimed” meaning that they are now off the list and waiting for the photo to be uploaded. Requests at the DFW National Cemetery include specific location of the grave. At-home options are also available in the Contribute section: transcribing headstones and verifying transcriptions.

BillionGraves.com differs in that it offers specific GPS locations for every grave and every headstone listed has already been photographed. Adding photographs and transcribing are also available.

The weather and other conditions can affect plans for January 17. Below are service ideas that can be done either completely at home or mostly at home.

  • Additional information is available at the website for AmeriCorps, the government agency that oversees the national effort and collects responses. 
  • FreeRice.com donates 10 grains of rice for every correct answer from many categories of general knowledge. Age 7 and up. Available online at https://freerice.com/ or as a device app.
  • Create birthday cards and holiday cards for local nursing home residents. Make a video for them: https://www.seniorswithskills.org/online-buddy-program
  • Donate pet food and unneeded pet supplies an animal shelter. Navarro and Ellis Counties have shelters but no direct links for donations. Tri-City, the animal shelter in the northern sector of the stake has this website: https://www.cedarhilltx.com/2408/Donate.
  • Donate food to a local food bank and include a “birthday box” with cake mix and a tub of frosting. 
  • Support a local “little library” by stocking it with children’s books. 
  • Charlton Methodist Hospital can use these items: recent magazines (within 6 months), easy crossword or word search puzzles; adult coloring books with crayons; new playing cards. Call Dana Alexander, volunteer coordinator at 214-947-7676, for sewing or crocheting patterns or to make an appointment to deliver items. 
  • Transcribe documents from multiple sources at the Smithsonian so they can be searched digitally; the link below directs to the Freedmen’s Bureau opportunities, but there are many more possibilities:

https://transcription.si.edu/browse?filter=owner%3A16

 

 

 

LifeSavers

Working title for this post was “Notes on Abandoning Genuineness.” That didn’t have much of a ring to it and was abandoned. I had listened to a podcast interview of Dr. Samuel Brown. He is not one of those Famous People but one of the Really Smart; he graduated from Harvard summa cum laude in linguistics with a minor in Russian and then went to medical school. He works as a trauma intensive care doctor, medical researcher, and a professor of pulmonary medicine. The interview opened with his report of the intensity from the last months of COVID treatment.

The purpose of the interview, however, was not medicine but his journey from atheism to belief which he chronicles in his latest book, Where the Soul Hungers. What caught my attention was not that story but his remarks about Harvard. It is, in fact, where lots of the Really Smart attend and teach, regardless of what some detractors may say. When our mother was diagnosed with lung cancer, we met with the surgeon, whom she began to interview. Her basic line of questioning was “Are you any good?” He said he was and pointed to his Harvard medical diploma. Satisfactory, though he later disappointed her when explaining she had a primitive tumor. Apparently, she had hoped for a sophisticated one.

In one exchange, Dr. Brown candidly admits that he expected himself to be “the smartest person in the room” when he moved to Utah and describes himself as detached and arrogant. Here came my revelatory moment: If he were to be “genuine,” those characteristics would define him. He would prefer, then, not to remain genuine but to be better.

Among my numerous soapboxes is one called “my truth.” This blog writer tells of a friend who confronted a woman who was “cruelly yelling” at her children in a grocery store. “Confronted” is probably not the right word because he asked her to treat her children with “kindness and love.” I guess he didn’t have his three toddlers in his own cart, but I digress. His approach was rejected. The writer has this section heading: Truth Is About How We Feel. To which I say, “No. It’s not.” If I am arrogant, I can choose to stay that way or work to be less so. Putting off the genuine, authentic me is not a bad thing.

Yesterday, someone told me she’d liked a talk I’d given on the topic “Why I Believe.” As far as I can remember, no one else has had that challenge, but I did and decided to describe my journey to belief as candidly as possible, “warts and all,” as they say. She offered that phrase that is always an unexpected delight: “I needed that.” Later in the day, another friend described herself as “disorganized”, “incomplete”, “unprepared”, “chaotic”, “inefficient”, “undisciplined.” And she assured us we all probably were too, at some point. Again, I could add lots of other negatives. She rather brilliantly added that with divine help, we can change all those “dis-, in-, and un-s” and move on. I don’t know how to punctuate that, but you get the point.

The image that all this gave me was “lifesaver.” I needed to hear Dr. Brown say he was arrogant. I also needed to say I had been a force for good in someone else’s life, if only for a second. I commended my disorganized friend for her remarks (even though she does seem any of that list to me.)

One sees actual life-saving lifesavers at pools, of course, typically hanging on the wall. That shape informs the iconic candy of our youth. Life Savers are an old brand, 1912. Those of a certain age will remember the “books” of candies exchanged at Christmas. The word for what happens when you crush the Wint-O-Green flavor in the dark is triboluminescence, which I didn’t know when I went into a closet some decades ago with some friend or young relative to try it out. No one knows how it works, but it does, and I’ll probably get some Wint-O-Greens later to try with other, younger relatives. A phenomenon I’d forgotten.

Actual lifesavers can be anything that floats. I once gave an inflatable raft to a scuba diver who emerged a few feet from me in Lake Travis, far from shore. His nose was bleeding, and he said he needed it. I was young, so only moderately startled. I doubt I saved his life, just probably made it a little bit easier.

This video lasts only 18 seconds, and a life is so literally saved that I watched it twice. Yes, there is blood. No, the quality isn’t great (police bodycam.) Yes, the Tweet warns you. But don’t watch if you’re squeamish. Even if we can’t do something dramatic, we can smile at someone. Maybe it will improve their day. If we see a woman screaming at her kids, maybe we can offer to help (offer a Life Saver, cherry flavor?) instead of giving “helpful” advice. Here’s an example with a mother not picking up her screaming child. Yes, a bit of candy is involved.

Working Title(s)

Year of the Tiger. As my friend from Taiwan reminded me, 2022 is a Tiger year, beginning in February. At last. Here are some of the attributes of someone born a Tiger: quick-witted, resourceful, versatile, kind. This site adds information like this: “The Tiger is known as the king of all beasts in China. The zodiac sign Tiger is a symbol of strengthexorcising evils, and braveness. Many Chinese kids wear hats or shoes with a tiger image of for good luck.” Sounds about right, but wouldn’t it be nice not to need courage, just once? For better or worse, that’s not how life on earth goes. Welcome, Tiger!

On to Genesis. For Sunday School in my church, we study the scriptures in cycles: Old Testament, New Testament, Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants (including church history). When I was first a member, I read D&C because it is shorter and more modern-sounding. As my English students would have chosen a story for the same reasons.

Podcasts now guide my learning. One doesn’t want to admit shallowness, but sometimes it’s just true. As I once taught in a class, I read scriptures every day; that’s not a good thing. Better words abound—study, search, ponder, memorize (!), highlight, apply. Yes, much better words. I envied people who either taught SS or Seminary, the early morning class for teens. I can’t remember how or why these podcasts came to my listen. Probably one was suggested by a person, but I didn’t much like it, and the Internet saw fit to show me 18 others. Only a slight exaggeration.

Three favorites: Teaching with Power is designed for those Seminary teachers because it includes classroom techniques, but the insights shared aren’t limited by age. It’s one teacher talking to other teachers, minimum personality with occasional personal history. Ponderfun is actually a YouTube channel but also available as a podcast. It uses whiteboard illustrations. One selling point is its length—very short, 10-15 minutes max—making for a perfect introduction. Current top of the three is Follow Him, hosted by Hank Smith and John Bytheway. Each week they invite scholars, most with PhDs, to discuss their areas of expertise. These women and men are enthusiastic and incredibly knowledgeable. All my decades of “reading” seem like a placeholder now. An advanced degree in Hebrew really can matter.

Don’t Start. Finish. As children we sat down New Year’s Eve and wrote out our resolutions. I wasn’t then and am not now much of a goal setter. Throwing resolutions over isn’t a personal failure, though. Recently I heard someone say she set herself a goal before the New Year instead of waiting (commendable), added a time limit (workable), and reported good results already (remarkable). But rather than start anything new, I hope to finish all the…ok, some…of the things I began in past years. I’ve noticed an inverse return on things I tell people I’m working on, so I won’t say what until the deed(s) are done.

Saying goodbyes. It was an obviously difficult year for many. More died of COVID in 2021 than in 2020. Here is as good a list as any, with pictures. On December 31, it was Betty White. She was 17 days shy of turning 100, but at church a young man said yesterday he had always wanted a date with her. Someone else said she was holding the world together. Most of us had been watching her for most of our lives. She was the queen of the one-liners which made her a natural for game shows, too. She was quite the scene stealer in The Proposal (2009) and remained friends with Ryan Reynolds. A new documentary will come out on January 17, as planned for her birthday. It was good to laugh with her.

So, the takeaway? Be brave. Learn some stuff. Finish some stuff. Laugh. As good a list as any…

The Multiverse and Baby Aspirin: A Review

First, the baby aspirin. I take one every day for prevention of heart attack and stroke. Should I? It’s complicated. So, no one recommended that I take those 81 mg of acetylsalicylic acid, but, frankly, it’s a habit I like because the orange babies are delicious.

Well, usually. Baby/low-dose brands vary in price—from $0.01 each to $0.77 each (“New! First and Only Liquid Filled Capsules! Vazalore). Regardless of price, I can’t taste any difference except one: HEB’s store brand tastes yucky. That’s an onomatopoeia, by the way, or so I just learned and will let you think about it.

I mix together the new set with the last. The problem arises when I forget that the HEB brand tastes terrible and when, each evening, I shake one out, I never know if I’m going to get yummy or yucky.

All of which brings me to Schrödinger’s cat and oversimplification of anything that begins “In quantum physics…” This thought experiment has nothing to do with opening a box with a cat dead-or-alive but everything to do with quantum superpositioning. The scientist in question wanted to show the absurdity of the theory, not confirm it. So, of course, scientists now believe© that the theory is correct. If we think we understood any of the possibilities either way, we were probably wrong. Radioactive material (a tiny amount and therefore unpredictable), a rigged hammer that the radiation will (or will not) trigger, and a flask of poison (he was specific—hydrocyanic acid). Complicated for a thought problem.

Another theory no one agrees might be possible? The multiverse. It’s not a new concept. The ancient Greeks 5th century BC thought all matter was made up of—guess what?—atoms which created parallel universes when they collided. Scientists are still divided about this, of course. Marvel and Sony don’t seem to be, however. They are on it. An excellent example is Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018) which, though animated, was thoughtful and interesting. But this list has many, many more. Narnia, but also Space Jam and Monsters, Inc.; The Golden Compass and Pacific Rim. By now, it’s a trope and we know the rules (or do we? Spock meets Spock and neither universe ends).

In Spider Man: No Way Home (2021), we learn quickly that Peter Parker’s wish to be forgotten by all except a few chosen ones results in chaos and mayhem. Granting wishes is another trope; think of “The Monkey’s Paw” AKA Pet Sematary. Yes, another trope—wishes. This is an official trailer, so no spoilers. Reviews are positive, an understatement. These from CNET contain MANY spoilers. Here’s an interview with the producers. It’s also making tons of money.

All well and good. But why does the audience applaud at the end? I have several theories.

We’ve wept. We’ve laughed. We’ve sighed. Not really a spoiler—the sighing is for a real kiss shared at the end; that superheroes never can be happy is a personal concern. The powers that be have finally agreed with me and changed storylines for Captain America, for example. Hawkeye endured pain but is fine now, mostly. Long story. So the emotions are real for an audience hungry for entertainment that is genuine, not derivative; intelligent, not condescending.

Themes are not my favorite approach to art. But one set of principles I do like and used in teaching were Boulton’s 4 Rs: recreation, recognition, revelation, and redemption. (Here is a short passage on the topic from my friend Joyce’s book, Constancy and the Ethics of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park.) No Way Home hits all the marks: 1) It’s fun to watch. Not too much fighting (looking at you, new Matrix). 2) We will recognize lots of things I can’t talk about here. 3) We will see in Peter Parker traits we didn’t know he had. 4) The redeeming power of love is common, but here that doesn’t happen. The kiss has another meaning. Here there is much redemption, all around, even to the point of incredible bravery that has nothing to do with leaping and slugging against impossible odds etc.

When they started remaking another saga with Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015), there was also applause. This Spider Man feels different, however. It’s much more personal and not as world changing. We don’t understand the physics or whatever science is used. It doesn’t seem to matter. Yes, tears. There is also a special kind of hope for the future. And, obviously, the joy of expectation for a sequel. Though like baby aspirin, you never know…

Have Yourself a Merry Little…

The Smile

It was that feeling of being late when you want to get somewhere. Really want to—not like work where they’ll sigh and lower their eyes to their keyboards. “Late again?” someone would ask. “Traffic,” Hank would lie.

No, this was the Event. Hank’s sister’s friend’s cousin’s ex worked security for the Texas Theater. He’d scored tickets for the premiere of year. More accurately, the first premiere of 2022. Hank couldn’t believe it. The star, Olivia Sloan, was coming, in person, to the red carpet. Punctuality mattered

Hank was ready. Cool shirt, nice jacket, pressed pants, cool shoes. And sitting in traffic in the canyon when his mother called.

“Henry?”
“Yes, Mom.”

“You need to come get your brother.”

“What?! I’m on my way to the premiere. Olivia will be there.”

“You need to come get your brother. He can go too.”

You didn’t say no to Henry—to Hank’s mother. You didn’t ask why. You just said fine.

“Fine. But we can’t be late. Have him ready.”

“Thank you, Henry. The app says you’re two miles away but 20 minutes out. He’s waiting for you.”

Hank’s little brother Jeremy, twenty years younger, was Hank’s cousin, adopted when his mother lost her battle with cancer not long after his father had been killed in a car accident. Henry—Hank—had been the youngest until he became an older brother.

The traffic cleared quickly—onlooker slowdown for an upside-down semi that had spilled its milk load—and Hank made it to his mother’s house in 10 minutes. Jeremy was ready all right, but ready for what? He wore a bright orange Christmas sweater, the kind usually reserved for ugly day. It had flashing lights, not a few, on a just-cut fir tree hauled in a red pickup. Hank’s heart sank. It was too late to wrangle a change.

“Y’all pick up Whataburger for supper.”

“Sure, Mom.” Hank knew there was no point in telling her that’s what he’d had for lunch. Jeremy beamed and slid into the front seat, peppering Hank with questions. “What’s the movie about? When is it over? Can we get popcorn? How close can we sit? Wanna share a drink?”

Hank drove with determination but replied: “Zombies. 8:30. Yes if Mom sent money. Not very. No.”

Jeremy didn’t care what the answers were, particularly, just smiled, and started singing “Feliz Navidad.” Hank couldn’t help himself and hummed along. In another 10 minutes they were at the Texas. Parking karma is a real thing and Hank didn’t have it. But somehow, there it was—a spot just around the corner.

“Come on, Jer. It’s a miracle. We’re going to be on time.”
Sure enough, the crowd had formed around the red carpet, lots of photogs with their big lenses and black bags over their shoulders. This wasn’t Hollywood, so there weren’t but four, but the crowd was young and enthusiastic. “Here they come!” someone shouted.

Sure enough, three limos were turning on to Jefferson. Not limos, really. SUVs. This was Dallas, after all. They pulled up to the curb. Olivia was the first one out. She was in a sky-blue sequined gown. Stunningly beautiful. Even for Hollywood. The crowd went wild. “Liv-vy, Liv-vy, Liv-vy!”

A boy’s voice rang out: “Olivia, Hank and I are over here!”

She turned toward the sound and saw a frantically waving boy, lighted shirt flashing. “Hey, you! Hi, Hank! Merry Christmas!”

And she smiled. Beauty. Smiling at Hank and Jeremy. “Merry Christmas!” Hank shouted. Olivia smiled ever more brightly and waved back.

 

How It Happened

A beach for Christmas had sounded lovely—warm not snowy, bright not dull. Jilly had lived in Bethel, Alaska for 30 years, teaching grade school math. She hadn’t expected Paris on the Kuskokwim; the recruiting brochures cleared that romanticism. Coming from deep East Texas with its piney woods, she knew the winters would be long and dark, but she hadn’t realized what it would be like to go for months without the sun. an exaggeration, of course, but the idea of heat on her face in December felt ecstatic.

Luckily, Jilly brought her own husband. Jake was a writer and made a good living in the greeting card and paint naming worlds, when he wasn’t working on the Great American novel. One Christmas, though, he went on a trip to research glaciers since obviously the GAN needed an Alaskan perspective by a Texas. He never came back. Park rangers found his gear close to a moulin, the opening to an underground ice river. You fall in, you’re gone. They said it would’ve been quick.

Jilly sighed and cried. Nothing to do otherwise, but she imagined his horror not so much at his impending death as at the realization she’d never know. She’d have no goodbyes, nothing to bury. Jilly imagined him slipping, falling, hollering “Jillian, I love you…sorry!”

Five years later, she was a young 65, independent and capable and suddenly retired. Going back to Texas was an option but just seemed like too much trouble. “Let me get through one more winter,” she thought. “Maybe then.”

Among the comforts in the years past had been regular calls from Jake’s friend Liam. Every few months, he’d called and asked after her health, the weather, her plans for Christmas. So when he told her he was going to a friend’s condo in Cabo San Lucas and wondered if she’d like to meet him there, she wasn’t really too surprised. They’d laughed and joked during those five years, after all. The friend had plenty of room, the price was right, and the thought of 85 degree days and a 75 degree ocean appealed. Getting there, well, not so easy, but doable.

The two weeks flew by. Conversation at dinners, snorkeling lessons, new friends and friends of friends. A tan, of sorts. Jilly thought she could bear the months until summer and floated a realistic plan for moving back to Texas. Liam was silent, oddly for him, and looked out into the gulf.

For the last party of the trip, Jilly chose her favorite blue dress. She knew Liam liked it—it matched her eyes, he’d said. It wasn’t flirty, exactly, she reasoned. They walked along a rocky path near the water. Suddenly a gull flew over and behind her head, startling her. Jilly turned quickly, lost her balance, and fell into the ditch, just a foot deep but enough to startle them both. Embarrassed but determined not to complain, Jilly apologized. She was going to need help getting up and out.

Liam took Jilly by the hand and pulled her up. One sandal had slipped off, so she kept his hand while she bent over to slip it back on.

“There,” she said.

“Are you ready?” he asked.

Off they went to the inn. Liam did not let go of Jilly’s hand, and that is how it happened.

White Elephant

Lovely dinner, she thought, but how had she missed the white elephant part of the invitation? the most fun and laugh-y time each year, after memories shared of other parties with sometimes-scandalous and therefore memorable gifts and she only had two grapefruit in a Christmas bag for the hostess so slipped them under the tree—thank goodness the bag was cute even if recycled and she was way down on the numbers so might not get to pick herself and didn’t have to tell she brought it anyway, right? and when someone opened a candle, jam selection, and bodywash package—she thought she might like to steal it and people would get suspicious if she actually took the grapefruit although she felt bad about them, who wouldn’t? and someone remembered to bring the Real White Elephant, a little ceramic number trimmed in gold when someone else opened another, even nicer one so there had to be discussion about whether to have a double-elephant tradition or what since finding a place for it was always a hassle since you had to remember where it was since no one would steal it, but was that an actual rule? no one knew and other gifts were stolen if they were pretty good like the Texas Roadhouse gift, as if who wouldn’t but the nice smelling stuff still seemed fine and getting the gift certificate wasn’t likely anyway and even if it was would make her feel really guilty but luckily someone had brought a bug zapper which, in spite of all odds, got stolen too but after she did score the candle etc. people, well, the women, felt sorry for her and no one stole it which made her feel only medium guilty and, when it was all over, someone proclaimed, “Only two people understood the white elephant concept—the ones who brought the zapper and the grapefruit,” so she was vindicated if a little bit guilty