5 Books That MUST Be Banned!

Today’s title is actually clickbait, designed to draw you in—but not for bad purposes or money (“Only $19.99. There’s MORE! Order now and get a SECOND one FREE! Pay shipping only!) There are not 5 books that MUST be banned. Rather, there are five points to make on the subject of banning books.

  1. There is no such thing as banning books. (That’s what we call a switcheroo.) Recently at a local lumber store, I said that I needed new wood for a bench but was aware that it couldn’t be treated wood because of the arsenic—“Don’t want to be sitting on that…” The clerk rolled his eyes and said, “I hate that misnomer. They don’t use arsenic anymore. Treated wood is safe to sit on.” Since 2004. He used “misnomer” incorrectly, but the phrase “book ban” is just as inaccurate.

Although there is a Banned Book Week (September 18-24, 2022-you haven’t missed it!), the correct term is “challenged.” To be banned, a book must be prohibited, per Merriam-Webster. Removing a book from a library shelf has to do with access; sometimes that means putting it behind the counter, as used to happen with Alice Walker’s The Color Purple.

The key here may have more to do with determining appropriateness. A set of predictors includes one called Interest Level, organized by grade. This book is given UG (9-12), or, in other words, high school readers. When the novel has been restricted, as Carnegie Mellon University site explains: “There have been different reasons for the book being banned, including religious objections, homosexuality, violence, African history, rape, incest, drug abuse, explicit language, and sexual scenes. These challenges were all eventually overruled. In 2017, “The Color Purple” was successfully banned from all Texas State Prisons for explicit language and graphic depictions of violence.” No comment.

  1. “But what about…?” is not a good place to begin an argument. I will, however, draw your attention to Amazon’s criteria for not selling certain books:

“We don’t sell certain content including content that we determine is hate speech, promotes the abuse or sexual exploitation of children, contains pornography, glorifies rape or pedophilia, advocates terrorism, or other material we deem inappropriate or offensive.”

So a search on Amazon for “Bomb making” reveals only “bath bombs.” But you can buy Mein Kampf,” Hitler’s autobiography. You can buy Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, the classic case of a pedophiliac. The Amazon blurb: “But Vladimir Nabokov’s wise, ironic, elegant masterpiece owes its stature as one of the 20th century’s novels of record not to the controversy its material aroused but to its author’s use of that material to tell a love story that is shocking in its beauty and tenderness.” The “material” is the sexual exploitation of a girl beginning when she is 12. He does write well though. You can buy The God Makers: A Shocking Expose of What the Mormon Church Really Believes, a blatantly anti-Mormon book also available as a film. (Not to be confused with The Godmakers by Frank Herbert of Dune fame.) Catholic? No problem. For you Amazon has Hitler’s Pope, American Freedom and Catholic Power (not to be confused with Catholic Power vs. American Democracy), and, of course, Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. The list actually begins in 1581 with William of Orange and his Apologie.

Amazon does not sell The Poisonous Mushroom, an anti-Semitic children’s book from 1938, but Books-a-Million does. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, easily the most famous, they also don’t sell, but Thrift Books does. Muslim? There is always Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, if you want to be inclusive of anti-Semitic texts.

Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses is on Amazon though this site from India acknowledges it as a source of blasphemy for some in the Islamic world. If you’re a witch, not to worry unless your PTA wants to pull all the Harry Potter books. The series has been banned since the beginning for portraying magic at all. I’ve known parents who won’t allow their children to read these books.

  1. Which brings me to the idea of “sanitizing” libraries at all. Obviously, Amazon does it. The controversy over removing Ryan T. Anderson’s When Harry Became Sally after selling it for three years is summarized here. You can buy a summary of it by Fireside Reads now if you don’t want to buy the actual book at other retailers. This article contains a link to another article about books you also “shouldn’t” read because of a variety of reasons from sexism to boring-ism. Both are actually amusing, one rebutting the other, both sounding a bit self-satisfied. This brief pro-con article does what seems to be a theme among those who favor removing some books but not others but don’t see the irony. For example, the first Con quotes Justice William Brennan: “Local school boards may not remove books from school libraries simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books.” Unless it is ideas that are “dangerous.” So the series 13 Reasons Why received critical success though professionals from mental health groups saw it as romanticizing suicide. The conclusion of this thought is that the “sanitizing” of anything is impossible. The works are available, and the inclusion or removal remains completely subjective.
  1. A personal anecdote to support my next point: When one child was in the 3rd grade, I noticed some religious materials coming home. I asked his teacher about them. She was new and perhaps not versed in the ways of the PTA mom. Her response was that she asked kids if they’d like to do coloring about the Bible. Many did. I told her that this is illegal (Engel v. Vitale 1962) and used Justice Black’s reasoning, writing for the majority (6-1, by the way) ”Since Americans adhere to a wide variety of beliefs, it is not appropriate for the government to endorse any particular belief system. Student-led prayer at football games became another issue which the Court ruled on in 2000 when it was challenged by two students (one Catholic, one a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and—of course—their mothers) who noted that the prayers were sectarian but not their sects. In the little Texas town of Santa Fe, there may not have been representatives of religions other than Christian, but that is also part of the issue. If there is to be respect for all religions, then the use of a single source for prayer becomes a problem. And avoiding it is difficult, as the State of California learned when parents objected to the inclusion of Aztec and Yoruba chants or prayers or affirmations in the multicultural studies curriculum. The two sides agreed on a settlement in January 2022: no more chanting per the First Amendment.
  1. What not to read? I wasn’t serious about that. I’ve read most books on the “banned” lists from years past, the classic ones anyway. I acknowledge that the Bible has startling passages. I see both sides getting in a “moral panic” about censorship, for wildly differing reasons. But I’m not going to hand your child a Book of Mormon. I’d rather you didn’t hand mine The God Makers. Some argue that schools need to stick to reading, writing, and arithmetic. I don’t disagree with that. American scores are “middling” at best, per this Pew Research study for math and science proficiencies. I don’t know anything about Slovenia, but since I don’t, I assume we ought to be ahead of them. We’re not. But rankings are an oversimplification.

It’s a complicated topic. It shouldn’t be a political one. If both sides would read books, I think that would be great. If one side wants to reject the others’ choices, fine. There is a difference between access and promotion, which I think is the final question. If your choices are “correct” and mine are not? An impossible impasse.

TILT!! Pinball Festival 2022

Whatever your hobby/collection/gaming world/theory, others in the same sphere of interest meet for a convention. A runner? Your industry leaders met in Orlando last February. Barbie Dolls? This year in Chicago, as is Star Trek.  Board games? Here’s a site for the entire year, including the famous one in Essen, Germany, that I wrote about, and here for our local BGG group with a convention in May. Flat Earth theorist? No problem. This conference was in Frisco, and Jimmy Kimmel introduces the video.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the latest Pinball Festival happened March, also in Frisco. And while it’s easy to mock the Flat Earthers, it seems a shame that the typical response to hearing you’re attending a pinball convention is, in fact, laughter. Same venue, saner folks. The art of arcade is not gone, though. Cidercade in Dallas offers unlimited free play for $10. Talk about a cheap date.

I’m assuming everyone has played pinball. This is a good summary if not. I was surprised to learn that pinball was banned in New York City and Los Angeles for decades beginning in 1939. Flashback!

The thing about conferences, conventions, or festivals is that, regardless of what they’re called, they have much in common: a community, presenters, merch or vendors or both, keynotes, and drama. Pinball Festival 2022 was no different but if rankings are to be given, it would get Exceeds Expectations.

COVID seems like a bad memory. It still finds victims, and there is no saying “It’s Over,” but life seems to be getting back to normal. That’s another big topic, of course, but airline masking ends April 18, supposedly, so far, maybe, according to the “latest science.” The Pinball Festival was canceled in 2020 and 2021, so getting a few thousand people together in one large space for the first time include a hint of anxiety on some level, for some people. Still, the community was there, and it was joyous.

The importance of community applies to PB as well. This newsletter has great summaries and pictures of the event. You will get to know the personalities and the winners of competitions, the vendors, and the displays. You can also tell there is a community because the passing of members is news, found at the bottom of the newsletter. Demographically speaking, it is a heavily male community. One observer said 90%, with 8% being women tagging along, and 2% playing. That’s a sociological discussion for other places.

Communities have their celebs, of course. Two here were Steven Ritchie, a premier pinball designer, and Sylvester McCoy, an actor (Doctor Who 1987-1989 and the wizard Radagast in The Hobbit movies 2012-2014). Ritchie was approachable and privately answered questions about the possibility of a Harry Potter-themed game. No, Rowling hasn’t forbidden it but images are an issue. Yes, one might be possible in the future. McCoy signed merch.

The drama involved Mirco, a German vendor of playfields. This site warns potential buyers about poor quality, shoddy or non-existent refunds, and customer service. The Mirco website itself doesn’t offer much information about the company For example, the Mission statement is a single sentence (“We love great design”) and then that placeholder language that begins with Lorem ipsum. Technically, it isn’t real Latin just words that look Latinesque although dolorem ipsum does mean “pain itself.” Poor reputation aside, a representative was present, but attendees aired their significant and specific grievances, with no apologies forthcoming. In fact, the company rep denied the problems. He was summarily called a liar, to his face.

Pinball machines can be purchased at widely different prices, in good shape or for rebuilding. The good ones sell for thousands of dollars, sometimes tens of thousands. A recreation, a hobby, an investment, a community—what more could anyone ask for? Maybe talent and patience. Oh, and there might be some good ones at the bottom of the Hudson River. Probably rusty and might need work…

The Big Slap

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

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

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

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

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

A Tale of Two Little Cities

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

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

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

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

 

A Tale of Two Little Cities

Two little cities

Saved by two wise ones:

 

The unnamed wise-but-poor man delivered

His unnamed city from an unnamed

Assailant of king-rank.

The wise-but-poor man,

Forgotten but for these verses,

His wisdom despised, his words forgotten.

 

The wise woman—possibly named Serah—

Lived in a town—Abel-beth-maachah—

Talked with Joab and made this arrangement:

To save her city she would lead the folk

To toss over the wall the severed head

Removed from one Sheba the son of Bichri.

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

They did it, too.

Lauded, Serah-maybe’s wisdom is remembered.

Not something you’d forget—

A bloody this for that.

 

Ecclseiastes 9:13-15

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

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

 

2 Samuel 20:21

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

 

The Debacle Debacle

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

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

“What? What’s that you say?”

I repeated whatever was the disaster of the day.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beauty for (Pot)Ashes

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

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

What have I done while Kyiv burns?

Eaten full meals,

Slept till I woke,

Ridden my bike on busy roads,

Worked on my lessons,

Held my wife,

Talked with my children before bed,

Hung out the laundry,

Bought two cushions,

Grieved.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Notes on Ukraine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Madame Butterfly and the National Anthem: Ironies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dearest Children: The Christine Blubaugh Act

“Heaven Sent” by Steve Altman

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lessons from Wordle

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