The National Anthem

1. Who’s on First?

Last week it was fractions, and I spent some time trying to explain how “equivalent” differs in meaning from “equal.”

We used currencies and first names as examples. Then we got into national anthems.

I’ll spare you the transcript, but there were several iterations of:

Mr. Sipe: Yes, but what’s the title?
Brazilian students: [with increasing impatience] Hino Nacional Brasileiro!

Finally I understood the Brazilian national anthem was actually called “Brazilian National Anthem.”

I’d hitherto assumed all national anthems had their own titles. God Save the Queen. La Marseillaise. O Canada. But the kids from Colombia and El Salvador and Guatemala affirmed that their anthems were titled like Brazil’s.

If you look at this list, you’ll see it’s a common phenomenon, sometimes to a fairly specific degree, e.g. The State Anthem of the Independent and Neutral Turkmenistan.

 

2. Of Thee I Sing

Now, if I’m going to make fun of other countries’ anthems, I must acknowledge that ours, about a war in which we botched the invasion of Canada and the British captured our capital, is set to the tune of a drinking song.

Still, though:

  • Yumi, Yumi, Yumi (Vanuatu’s got love in its tummy)
  • One Single Night (Disco Stu’s anthem? Nope, Burkina Faso’s)
  • There Is a Lovely Country (and Denmark wants you to guess)
  • The Thunder Dragon Kingdom (don’t mess with Bhutan)
  • William (Het Was Echt Niets)

 

3. Love and Crockets
  • It was honestly very cool when I said, semi-jokingly, “OK, who wants to sing theirs?” and bang, all of a sudden half my first period class were on their feet, belting out Hino Nacional Brasileiro. We were treated to La Dessalinienne, too. (That was it, though. My theory is there had to be a critical mass of at least four students from a country to agree to sing. I mean, if I was the only American and some fool math teacher invited me to sing The Star-Spangled Banner, I would not proudly so hail.)
  • Do check out the lyrics to Brazil’s: “Brazil, an intense dream, a vivid ray… Thou flarest, O Brazil, crocket of America…”
  • I think “valence” is a lovely word, and I think English would be beautified if we all said “equivalence” stressing the third syllable. (Also, I wish everyone would emphasize both the prefix and root in “extraordinary” like Paul Holdengraber does.)

 

T Time

With the opening of Africa’s first fully electrified cross-border railway, getting from Ethiopia’s capital to the Gulf of Aden just got a lot easier.

It also means Djibouti now has a more modern rail system than Boston.

Those Red Line cars you saw in The Friends of Eddie Coyle? They’re still running, sometimes. Check out the Orange Line if you think rust ever sleeps. The 326 bus I rode Friday morning seemed destined for a NHTSA report.

In Boston, you hear the term “world-class city” thrown around a lot. Our public transportation infrastructure is already world-class, just not first world.

And yet.

I’ve been spending a lot of time with Twins 1 & 2 on the MBTA, and they find it genuinely delightful. It’s a refreshing counterpoint to my T disposition, fossilized over decades into sullen resignation.

And I must give a shout-out to T employees, who’ve been extra helpful – and kind – as I wrangle my monkeys aboard buses, subways, and trains. Thanks for keeping us going.

 

PS speaking of thank you, do say it (as per general manners and this excellent AMA with an T bus driver).

 

 

Triumphal Return

With the Patriots back in the Super Bowl, my thoughts naturally turn to Gnassingbé Eyadéma, who ruled Togo for thirty-eight years.*

On the very day of Super Bowl XLII, you see, when the Patriots played some other team, I purchased this book.**

It’s a heck of a tale.

A young farm boy impresses all, not least his teachers…

Learns how to win hearts and minds in Vietnam…

Takes power reluctantly…

Dodges death repeatedly…

Gets reelected bigly…

And the rest is history.

My favorite part? When he pities the fool who tried to assassinate him. And invites him back every year for a drink.

Cheers!

 

 

    * I wish I were making some clever Tom Brady allusion, but all I know about football is you don’t wear skates.

** I’d located it online, and took the subway over to get it. As the bookseller rang up the sale, he said: “Well, every book has its buyer.” He may have intended this in a genial “I’ll be darned!” sense, but I suspect he employed it instead as terse valediction to hasten the obvious lunatic from the premises.

 

Pop Quiz

 

1) What is the all-time bestselling Irish novel?

“In 1955, a Soviet delegation of writers learned that the author, long presumed dead, was alive in New York… living in obscurity, and due to Soviet copyright laws, she was unaware of her legendary status in Russia. The following year, Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson visited Moscow to arrange for payment of her long-overdue royalties.”

 

 

2) What is the second-oldest commissioned ship in the US Navy?

I knew the oldest, having toured it. Tours are available of this one, too, if you’re in the neighborhood…

 

 

 

3) What song charted each decade from the nineteen-twenties to the nineteen-seventies?

A local station plays old American Top 40 shows in their entirety on Sunday mornings. It’s easily my favorite thing on the radio. Last week’s was from 1975, and old Casey dropped the above knowledge before playing the disco version by the (excellently named) Wing and a Prayer Fife and Drum Corps.

Keep your feet on the ground, Gentle Reader, and keep reaching for the stars.

 

Answers:

  1. The Gadfly
  2. USS Pueblo
  3. Baby Face

Reasons To Be Fearful

1. Ooh, My Head

“This is my nuclear nightmare.”

One day a couple of decades ago the science teacher told our class that if a hydrogen bomb were dropped on Boston, it would melt the school. I found this disturbing.

At night I’d lie awake and listen to planes on the flight path into Logan and wonder if they were Soviet missiles. Evidently none was.

As with so much in life, turns out I was worrying about the wrong thing. And if you have five minutes to spare, you’ll hope this former defense secretary is too:

 

2. Damascene Moment

“The problem with luck is that it eventually runs out.”

If you believe wrenches can be dropped without consequence on Titan II missiles, the PBS documentary Command and Control will convert you. It certainly rapped my head in with a ratchet.

 

3. Cold Brew

“I think we can anticipate we’re going to have some very complicated and very difficult problems.”

Fret not, Gentle Reader, it’s not all Boom! Shake the Room.

Errol Morris’ short documentary – not, alas, about Rocky Road – reminds us we should be frightened of quiet stuff too.

I discussed the film with my mother, a biochemistry professor who retired from the National Institutes of Health. She had not seen it.

Now, granted, me explaining the film was probably like an ape dancing to describe city hall. But it’s worth recording that when I asked if the US should destroy its remaining smallpox virus, she said yes.

And it was the way she said it: her objection didn’t seem to be based so much on morality – though I wish to state for the record that my mother dislikes smallpox – but rather on technical obviousness. Her response had a hesitant, perplexed assurance, like she’d been asked if shouting could make rain stop.

On a happier note, Demon in the Freezer added to my vocabulary “synamologous” and to my list of band names The Fully Informed Persons.

 


PS a few months back the post was Reasons To Be Cheerful. Yin and yang, baby.

Oh Quelle Sensation

One of the problems with my French is that I cannot for the life of me keep straight plafond and plancher. Since one means floor and the other ceiling, this can introduce startled disbelief to otherwise mundane exchanges.

Le Lionel Richie de la conversation, c’est moi!

 

Speaking of which – and no disrespect to Lionel – it was only recently I learned his is not the best “Dancing on the Ceiling.”

C’est celui-ci, say me:

 

The Bricklayer

So you think you’re bad at math?

It’s not you, it’s…

Uh, anyway. “In the Light of What We Know” is one of the better novels I’ve read in the past few years, all the more so because it’s a first novel.

I was so taken with this one passage that I copied it and promptly forgot about it until last week:

One bad maths teacher, he explained, can wreak havoc. A bad history teacher, when you’re twelve years old, say, might mean you don’t acquire a very good grasp of the First World War or the Potsdam Conference. It leaves a hole in your education. The next year, you manage. The early deficiency doesn’t hinder you very much when you later study the Russian Revolution, not in those years when you’re not studying any of these things in great depth anyway. But mathematics is different. If you fail to digest the material prescribed for that year, then everything that follows, in every subsequent year, is next to impossible to take in. Right from the beginning, mathematics education is accretive, a pyramid, each layer of brickwork building up carefully on the last. You can’t understand trigonometry if you haven’t grasped the idea of similar triangles. You can’t grasp calculus if you haven’t understood areas and velocities. And you can’t understand anything at all if your basic algebra is poor. It’s why mathematics professors have such a hard time explaining their work to the public. The great majority of students are vulnerable to one bad teacher. It isn’t enough for a child’s mathematics teachers as a whole to be generally just as bad and just as good as his history teachers. In fact, even if mathematics teachers were generally, which is to say as a group, better than history teachers, the presence of one bad maths teacher early on hampers him mathematically if it doesn’t doom the child to mathematical ignorance.

When I first read the above, I taught English; now I mostly teach math.

Rereading it offers what David St. Hubbins calls “too much… perspective.”

#ObitEd

Your forbearance please, Gentle Reader: you come here for irreverent irrelevance, but this week it’s hard astern.

My students and I read several worthy obituaries in 2016, including those of:

  • “A swinging cat” (per James Brown)
  • Arnold Schwarzenegger’s inspiration
  • A young photographer who went down fighting

Meet them all at Passed Made Present.

More to come this year, both there and here (which will return to normal programming, promise).

 

 

Hat Trick

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I have of late, but wherefore I know not, been blessed with three very interesting books after a stretch of ones worth finishing if life were a thousand years long.

Wings Level

chuck_yeager

I was up at the high school for a meeting and, walking through the library, spied Yeager, which enchanted me as a high schooler.

Funny what stands out rereading it a quarter century later. The book now seems wrongly balanced. E.g. the chapter on his childhood in West Virginia – only eight, often startling, pages – I’d now wish to be an entire memoir. His experience in WWII merits its own, lengthy volume. The test flight stuff doesn’t grab me so much.

Anyway, here’s what General Yeager was up to a quarter century after he was feeling supersonic:

I didn’t get involved in the actual combat because that would’ve been too touchy, but I did fly around and pick up shot-down Indian pilots and take them back to prisoner-of-war camps for questioning. I interviewed them about the equipment they had been flying and the tactics their Soviet advisors taught them to use. I wore a uniform and a flying suit all the time, and it was amusing when those Indians saw my name tag and asked, “Are you the Yeager who broke the sound barrier?”

Ashes to Ashes

maugham_caric

John le Carré’s The Pigeon Tunnel is another book filled with tales worth telling. I didn’t know this unhappy one:

With the war of 1914-18 came the novelist Somerset Maugham, British secret agent, and by most accounts not a very good one. When Winston Churchill complained that his Ashenden broke the Official Secrets Act, Maugham, with the threat of a homosexual scandal hanging over him, burned fourteen unpublished stories and held off publication of the rest till 1928.

Fourteen?! Sheesh. That’s a whole Ashenden 2: Electric Boogaloo.

Anyway, OSA be d–ned: I happily admit to thieving that ‘thousand years long’ line.

There and Back Again

elias_martin_-_mountain_landscape_with_banditti_-_google_art_project

It was Twyla Tharp, or was it Vic Tayback, who said that there are only two stories: a man goes on a journey, or a stranger comes to town.

Thursday I found in the mailbox a splendid booklet. My friend Will took a trip to the mountains and wrote about his month there. It’s a heck of a tale. Per the OSA I am not at liberty to disclose details, but verily, I say unto thee, on a scale of Quiet Desperation to #YOLO, Will hews to the latter.