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ArchiveDECEMBER 2020

 

DEC. 31, 2020    A FEW MORE YEARS

In our first childhoods, we weren't allowed to cross the street.  We couldn't drive a car or drink or get married or buy our own house.  We looked forward to becoming grownups, when we would be permitted to experience those things.  Our parents told us, “Be patient.  It'll be just a few more years, and they'll go by before you know it.”

 
Now the coronavirus has forced us into a second childhood!  This time there's a different set of restrictions:  We're warned not to go to restaurants or bars or movies or church services or basketball games or any other place where lots of people gather.  We're not allowed to cross certain borders without quarantining for weeks.  We're supposed to wear masks.

However, Dr. Anthony Fauci doesn't think Americans as a whole are going to change their behavior.  Blogger Robert Elisberg, noting that many on the right refuse “simply to even wear a mask for a few months,” writes, “If the low level of self-sacrifice for the greater good during a national crisis was how they'd acted during WW II, I sense today we'd be speaking German.”

And a vaccine isn't likely to be available to the general public until spring.  A couple of months ago, Dr. Fauci predicted that “it will be easily by the end of 2021, and perhaps even into the next year [2022], before we start having some semblances of normality.  If 50% of the people say ‘I don't want to get vaccinated,’ then it's going to take considerably longer than that.”

• Futurist Bryan Alexander writes, “It seems plausible that 2023 will be the third year of an overall slowdown in global economic production and growth.  Many people will have long-term psychological stress or trauma.  The details of this recession could drive political desperation.”

• Recently-leaked Internal World Health Organization documents warn that vaccines might not reach some countries until 2024.  And, on a conference call, United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby said he expects business demand to return to “normal” around then.

• New York's tourism promotion agency says the number of foreign tourists in the city will not likely return to its pre-pandemic level before 2025.

We're currently looking forward to a second adulthood, when we'll once again be permitted to experience the fullness of life.  Just a few more years.

 

DEC. 29, 2020    WITNESSING AN ACCIDENT

As I continue to dredge up old memories, I've photoshopped one of them.  It dates back to a weekend in the late 1970s when my parents came to visit me in Washington, PA.  We had driven north towards Pittsburgh on US 19, maybe to visit South Hills Village.  Now we were returning.  I was driving, with my father beside me and my mother in the back seat.

On a lightly-traveled section of road like this, still a mile north of the Washington County line, I was maybe a hundred yards behind a Volkswagen Beetle.  Suddenly the other car swerved left, then sharp right.  Out of control, it left the highway, flipped over, and tumbled down the embankment!

Oh! Stop!” my mother urged; I was already beginning to do so.  I pulled to the shoulder and switched on my flashers.  My sixty-something father jumped out, ran forward, and scrambled down into the ditch to see if he could help.  Other vehicles pulled up behind ours.  In those days nobody had cell phones to call 911, but just then a patrol car fortunately came along on the opposite side of the road.  We all waved frantically, and the officers stopped to check out the situation.

 

My father came back to report that although the other driver couldn't open his car door, he was awake and coherent.  He was a soldier returning home; he had been traveling all night and had fallen asleep at the wheel.  Now he must have been marveling that it took less than a minute for the cops to arrive.

The police told our small group of civilians that they would take care of everything, so we could leave.  Wait a minute, I thought, don't you need statements from witnesses?  I saw the whole thing!  It happened right in front of me!  But I guessed the driver's statement would suffice.  We onlookers all returned to our vehicles and left the scene.

 
What prompted this memory?  I happened to be watching an old episode of CHiPs, which dated from the same time period.  The end of a chase scene included the elements I've colored blue above, and they seemed familiar.

Of course, on television the car tumbled down a much larger embankment and exploded into flames.  My real-life experience was less dramatic.

 

DEC. 27, 2020    TOO BAD ABOUT THAT THING THAT HAPPENED

How do I stay up on current events?  Somewhat haphazardly, it appears.  The people I follow on Twitter often comment on things I know nothing about, at least not yet.  For example, if everyone suddenly starts reminiscing about a celebrity, I deduce that the celebrity must have passed away.

At 2:42 on December 26, I read a joke that Ken Jennings had tweeted 17 minutes earlier:  “It should only make headlines now when a monolith DOESN'T appear someplace.”  Huh?  Has there been yet another monolith sighting, I wondered?  It didn't make headlines in Pittsburgh.

So I Googled, and it turns out that early on Christmas morning a tall triangular prism did appear in San Francisco's Corona Heights Park.  It was made to look like gingerbread, with icing and gumdrops and all.  But by the time I read Ken's tweet, the structure had collapsed.

Why was I not kept informed of this?

 

DEC. 25, 2010 flashback   CHRISTMAS 1955

I’ve colorized a 55-year-old snapshot to relive the holiday scene when I was eight years old.

For our second Christmas since moving to the house on Hoskins Pike, the tree had been set up in front of the east-facing bay window in what was nominally the dining room.  On the old upright piano was a piece of sheet music, something about a snowflake.

By Christmas night, the presents had all been opened and arranged around the tree, where I posed with my new saxophone.  This toy instrument had a harmonica reed for each of the nine notes that sounded when their keys were depressed.  The performer's repertoire was limited to melodies that spanned no more than one octave, such as "The First Noel" and "Joy to the World" and "Row, Row, Row Your Boat."

Under the tree on the right we can see a microscope set, which came in a large green box with samples of things to look at under magnification.  On the left is a canister of American Logs; they’re similar to Lincoln Logs, and I mentioned them in this article.  Next to it is a leather briefcase monogrammed “T.B.T.” with which I could carry my music to my weekly piano lessons.  I used it for that purpose for nearly ten years, and even today it’s on standby in my closet.

The only gift I can identify that wasn’t for me is the rectangular brass-and-pink-ceramic planter, which my mother would use for African violets.

I hope Santa was good to you and your family this year!

 

DEC. 23, 2020    MURRAY'S 23 TINY REINDEER

I would like to suggest that the author of a famous Christmas poem owned a pair of spirited horses, Vixen and Prancer.  However, to describe an eight-reindeer team for Saint Nicholas woule require a half-dozen additional names.

He went to his library and consulted a book of suggestions.  It wasn't a baby-names book; it must have been something like Favorite Appellations for Fleet Steeds.

He turned to the two-syllable section.  “Aha,” thought he, “on the top of the second page I find Blitzen.  That almost rhymes with my mare Vixen.

And here's Dancer, which rhymes with my Prancer.

What else might I use?”  From the alphabetical aggregation he chose four additional appellations, and the rest is history.

More than a century later, Johnny Marks wrote a popular song that begins:

You know Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen,
Comet and Cupid and Donner and Blitzen.
But do you recall the most famous reindeer of all?

Unfortunately, Murray didn't recall.  In fact, as a mere stand-in for Santa, he was unacquainted with any of the reindeer, red-nosed or otherwise.  I would explain his predicament like this:

He exclaimed and he shouted, to his team gave a whistle,
But to call them by name would have been beneficial.
“To the top of the store!  To the roof of the mall.!
Now dash away!  Dash away!  Dash away ... y'all.!”

In “How Murray Saved Christmas” by Mike Reiss, the substitute sleigh-driver has to improvise:  

On, Dumbo and Jumbo!  On, Mason and Dixon!
On, Cosmo and Kramer and Richard M. Nixon!

There's Bambi and Rambo and Dopey and Doc,
Scotty and Sulu, Uhura and Spock.

On, Lipstick and Dipstick!  On, Pixie and Dixie!
On, Kramden and Norton and Alice and Trixie!

Merry Christmas to all!  And to all — whatever you're called — a good night.

 

DEC. 22, 2010 flashback   WAR?  ON CHRISTMAS?

Athletes complain their team never gets the respect it deserves.  When they feel they’re the underdog, it motivates them to “shock the world” and prove the doubters wrong.

Most Americans are Christians, yet many claim that they too are being disrespected.  Suppose one of them wishes you a merry Christmas and you don’t answer in kind; instead, you reply “And a happy Hanukkah to you” or “Season’s greetings.”  Many Christians will take offense at that.  They don’t like to be reminded there are people who don’t share their beliefs.  They prefer everyone to agree with them.

Conversely, some retailers assume non-Christians are equally defensive.  They think if a clerk says “Merry Christmas” to a customer who doesn’t happen to be a Christian, that person will be offended.  But actress/comedian Sarah Silverman, whose sister is a rabbi, tweeted in December 2015:  “I've never met a Jew that minds one bit if you say Merry Christmas to them.”

Is it wise for a non-Christian to refuse, on principle, to say “Merry Christmas”?  Well, let’s consider.

Saturn was an ancient Roman god of the harvest for whom Saturday was named.

The residents of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, claim prophetic powers for a local marmot and demonstrate his forecasting skills on February 2.

After Julius Caesar’s assassination, the Senate proclaimed him a god and a month was renamed July.

Followers of Jesus of Nazareth decided that he too was a god, or at least the son of one, and the day of his miraculous birth was observed with a Christ Mass — originally a solemn, not “merry,” event.

Now consider these facts.

We have no qualms about mentioning Saturday, since no veneration of Saturn is implied.

We can enjoy Groundhog Day festivities without worshiping an animal.

Americans celebrate the Fourth of July, even though none of us belong to the cult of the emperor.

So if a non-Christian says “have a merry Christmas,” he’s not necessarily endorsing Christ-worship.  He’s just accepting the fact that the late-December holiday of merriment and giving gifts, formerly “Saturnalia” and later “Yule,” is currently called “Christmas” in our culture.

The nonbeliever would be wise to go along with this accepted common terminology, rather than pointedly avoiding it and handing the Christians another excuse to feel persecuted and hate their neighbors.

 

DEC. 21, 2020    QUADRICENTENNIAL

England's Captain John Smith, late of Jamestown in Virginia, explored the coast of Massachusetts Bay in 1614.  There he encountered the Patuxet band of the Wampanoag tribal confederation, who were living in a village called Accomack.

Smith published a map two years later.  A river was named after Prince Charles, the teenager who would later become King Charles I.  The prince had suggested that the towns in “New England” ought to have English names like London or Oxford.  Therefore Accomack was labeled New Plimouth.  Cape Cod and its bay were named for King James and the royal family, the Stuarts.

After another four years, a group of Pilgrims left England's old Plymouth on a ship called Mayflower.  They arrived at New Plimouth on this date in 1620 — 400 years ago today!

The first landing party found that the people of Accomack had been wiped out by disease, probably contracted from European visitors.  Therefore, the Pilgrims could claim their abandoned fields. 

Another 121 years would pass before Plymouth Rock was identified as the spot where they first set foot.  Despite the doubtfulness of the claim, the famous boulder has been enshrined.

I photographed it during a family vacation in the summer of 1958.  On the upper right of my snapshot, you can see the feet of other tourists staring down at the rock from the far side of its protective cage.

 

Only the year before, the replica ship Mayflower II had sailed across the Atlantic.  We tourists went on board.  Recently, after undergoing eight years of repair work, the replica has returned permanently to its dock in Massachusetts.

In 1958 I also photographed the 11-year-old replica of Plimoth Plantation (below), a living history museum.  This year it began changing its name to Plimoth Patuxet to recognize the Native American original inhabitants.

Checking the weather on this winter solstice, I'm reassured to find that from here on, the days are going to start getting longer again.  Spring will be here before we know it!  Tomorrow we'll have one second of additional daylight!

 

DEC. 18, 2020    WHAT'S ON THE OTHER SIDE?

Will you be celebrating the holidays in a group of 11 or more folks?  Two-thirds of the nation thinks you shouldn't.

An AP-NORC poll asks Americans whether gatherings ought to be limited to 10 people because of COVID-19.  This month, the proportion of all adults who favor such a restriction, somewhat or strongly, has grown to 66%.

An order to that effect has become acceptable to 90% of Democrats but only 38% of Republicans, and the gap is widening even as the virus spreads.  This is likely due to political polarization between science-affirmers and pandemic-deniers.

For most of us, it's a year of loneliness.  I sit in my apartment using my DVR to watch TV.  Usually, I fast-forward through the commercials with their annoyingly quick video cutting.  But one ad began with Willie Nelson singing a gentle 30-second version of “Rainbow Connection,” so I listened.  Then I rewound to see what the commercial was selling.

It was selling connection.  Connection between people, even though they're isolated in their individual homes.  I was amazed to see a heartwarming little story unfold in 23 shots averaging only 1.3 seconds apiece.

Here is the full version.  According to the sponsor, it “hints at current events without making them the focus of the spot.”

Director Rodrigo García Saiz says, “I think we can all relate to the little girl longing for a friend.”  That's all she wants for Christmas.

 

DEC. 15, 2020    MOST STATES CAN BE IGNORED

Remember the big buildup to the Presidential election?  Everyone was talking about it, and two-thirds of us who were eligible actually did cast ballots.  However, we already knew how most of the Electoral College would vote!  Of the 538 electoral votes that were cast yesterday, 315 had been predicted in October by the pollsters.

How is this possible?  America has split into two partisan camps, and in most states the outcome can easily be predicted.  In 2020, more than three-fifths of the states were decided by landside margins, as shown in this chart from the New York Times.

Polls “have threatened the very idea of voting in a democracy,” writes Dave Anderson in The Fulcrum.  “We are handing our freedom to the pollsters, since we vote feeling that the outcome has already been determined.”

But are the polls always to be blamed?  You don't have to be an expert conducting interviews to know that most Wyoming votes will go to the Republican candidate (70% this year) and most Massachusetts votes to the Democrat (66%).

Polling organizations correctly predicted that Donald Trump would win 18 red states (including two Nebraska congressional districts), comprising 16% of the nation's population and 103 electoral votes.

They also knew that Joe Biden would win 19 blue states (including D.C. and a Maine district) with 40% of the nation's population and a whopping 212 electoral votes.  Biden's electoral number was more than twice as large because five of the blue states are each more populous than any one of the reds.

The only voters who actually mattered this year were those in the remaining 19 undecided states and districts, comprising 44% of the population and 223 electoral votes.  They were subjected to most of the political advertising.

Trump won ten of these “battleground” areas (in pink), including four big states.  That added 129 electoral votes to his total.

However, Biden won the other nine areas (in light blue), even though Trump claimed fraud in most of them.  Biden thereby gained 94 electoral votes.  Because he was already well ahead nationally, that was enough to put him over the top.

If you're among the 56% of Americans living in a predictably red or blue state, you had no voice because your state's result was a foregone conclusion.  On average, your winner defeated the loser 68 percent to 30 percent.  You might as well not have bothered to vote for President!  Thanks, Electoral College.

 

DEC. 13, 2020    SUPERDICE

Do you need a random number between 1 and 120?  The easiest way to obtain one nowadays is to ask your computer.  In Excel, the function =RANDBETWEEN(1,120) does the trick, giving you results like 22, 12, 90, and so on.  However, the numbers aren't truly random because they're based on an algorithm which will eventually repeat itself.

Therefore, it's better to roll a 120-sided die.  When it stops, you read the number that's uppermost.  If it's a fair die, that result should be truly random.

But if one half of the die happens to be “shaved,” a little below average in weight or surface area, the numbers on that half will be slightly more likely to come out on top.

So how should the numbers be distributed?  The fairest arrangement was determined by Dr. Robert A. Bosch, who like me is an alumnus of Oberlin College.  Having graduated in 1985, Bob is now a professor in Oberlin's mathematics department.  He used trial-and-error computer programs to come up with an optimal solution. 

 

DEC. 10, 2020    MINDLESS MEANDERING

When I was a graduate student at Syracuse University, I spent a lot of time walking.  There were various possible routes from the campus (in the foreground below) to my rented room in a house on Miles Avenue.  Sometimes I'd take a scenic detour through Thornden Park.  But more often I'd choose the direct way, the major portion of which was a boring trek straight east for almost three-quarters of a mile on Euclid Avenue before turning right.

More than once, lost in my thoughts, I suddenly realized I didn't know where I was.  I could tell I was still on Euclid, but how far had I come?  Had I missed my turn?  It was necessary to continue walking for another couple of blocks before the landmarks seemed familiar again.

Even today I take contemplative strolls — inside my apartment.  When I get up in the morning, it's dark outside and chilly.  I feel like going right back to bed, but instead I pace the floor to get my pulse and respiration up to speed.  I walk back and forth, pondering the great and small issues of the day.  I soon feel much more energetic.  Apparently the blood shifts from my torso to my legs and brain, because after 10 minutes my arms begin to feel chilly and I break out a sweater.  I climb steps, for two minutes at a time.  But I never break out in a sweat.  This activity is never strenuous enough to cause perspiration.

We all prefer not to suffer the vicissitudes of daily life.  For example, I don't like to become
          hungry, thirsty, sleepy,
                    dizzy, confused, cold,
                              hot, sweaty, or tired.

To prevent the first three conditions, I eat, drink, and sleep.  To prevent the last three, I stop pacing after 30 to 60 minutes and sit down at my desk.

 

DEC. 7, 2020    NORM!

Interior sets for classic TV shows and movies are not totally realistic.  In particular, just like a stage set, they lack a fourth wall.  That's where the cameras are, and behind them the live audience if any.  I can accept that.

However, another departure from reality actually bothers me.  In many cases, the entrance door is a couple of steps higher than the rest of the interior.

This improves the staging, I guess.  An actor at the door is not blocked from our view by actors and furniture in the foreground.  But does your house have a sunken living-room floor and sunken kitchen and sunken everything else?

Here are just a few examples.

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein
~

Dick Van Dyke Show

Mary Tyler Moore Show
~

Laverne & Shirley

Cheers
~

Married with Children

Two and a Half Men

Last Man Standing

 

DEC. 4, 2010 flashback   EARLY TO BED, VERY EARLY TO RISE

Have you ever received an e-mail from me and wondered why I sent it in the predawn hours?  Here’s the reason.

I usually work on sports telecasts in “prime time,” but I work only a few evenings a week.  I do get nights off, often several in a row.

After a night when I haven't had to work, I go to bed as usual.  However, I’m well rested by 5:00 A.M., so I get out of bed and begin my daily activities.  That afternoon, I ought to take a nap, but often I don't get around to it.  That evening, I settle in to watch my familiar TV shows from my comfortable couch.  Within half an hour I’m so relaxed that I fall asleep.  Then I awaken at 3:00 A.M., eager to check my e-mail and start another day.

With an unpredictable schedule like that, it’s fortunate that I live alone.

“I don't want to have to constantly tell somebody where I'm going.  I don't want to have to be quiet when I get up in the middle of the night; I want to turn everything on.  So I'm selfish.  And it's better if selfish people live alone.”   —Grace Slick, on the Biography Channel

For 17 years after my mother died, my father lived alone.  He confessed to me that sometimes he lost track of time.  In the winter he’d awaken when it was dark outside.  He’d check his watch and see that it was around 6:00, so he’d get dressed and drive downtown for breakfast.  At the restaurant someone would tip him off that it was actually 6:00 P.M.

I have similar experiences, although I soon realize my mistake.  To eliminate the ambiguity, I've taken to setting my watch to 24-hour “military” time.  Eating breakfast at 06:00 is permitted; eating breakfast at 18:00 is silly.

 


C.M. Cooper

DEC. 1, 2020    BLANK VERSE

The house was warm, secure, and beautiful,
and fair and pleasing both to sense and sight.

Small marvel, then, the cat that there did dwell
dwelt as in heaven, where all is happiness
and everything is good and leads to joy.

And so it might have long continued thus,
with cat and lady both quite reasonably
content, their lives quite reasonably happy ...

 

The rest of the story, a poem I wrote 54 years ago with my sophomore crush in mind, is this month's 100 Moons article.

 

 

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