So long, 2020!

A cold December night

Someday, 2020 will make sense. As the year draws to a close, there are a few pre-pandemic “lasts” to remember.

  • Last movie at a movie theater: “1917” on Feb. 2 — Glad I saw it in a theater on a big screen. At the theater I often go to, there is rarely a big crowd for the movies I want to see (and by then “1917” had been out for a while).
  • Last meal in a restaurant: Le Colonne Restaurant at the Hilton Hotel at Leonardo da Vinci International Airport on March 11 — The food was fine — I can’t remember what we had, but tables had been spread apart for social distancing, and there were diners at only about four other tables. We were only there to be sure to get our morning flight out of Rome, leaving the country early as more and more flights were being canceled, including our flights out of Genoa.
  • Last workout at the gym: Feb. 29 — I did some warmups and cooldowns, with a 5K run on the indoor track in between at a time of 33 minutes and 22 seconds
  • Last day working in person at the office: Tuesday, March 3.
  • Last time I had a cold: Maybe sometime in 2019
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‘The War Prayer’ by Mark Twain

It seemed like a good idea to bring your attention to this piece of writing that Mark Twain wrote in response to the U.S. military intervention against the freedom fighters of the Philippines. It wasn’t published until long after he died. Now in the public domain, “The War Prayer” continues to resonate more than a hundred years after it was written. Also included below is a 2007 dramatization.  

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‘Some General Ideas About Filipino Communities’

I recently came across the following passage and though it was published in 1909, I suddenly had a feeling it was being written about America in 2019:

The ordinary people of the villages think of the town government, not as something that belongs to them and in which they may share and by which they should benefit, but as something that has to be maintained and to which taxes must be paid and they probably feel that the least of it there is, the better for them. Their ignorance and timidity are such also that it is still very easy for them to be abused by a powerful and unscrupulous man or official, defrauded, and deprived of many of the rights which the laws of the Philippines say that the people shall have.

It was in an essay called “Village and Rural Improvement Societies: A Series of Articles for Fourth Grade” by David P. Barrows, Director of Education, in Philippine Magazine, Vol. 6, No. 2, 1909, under a subsection titled “Some General Ideas About Filipino Communities.”

Barrows was in charge of reforming a national public educational system in the Philippines when it was a colony of the United States. In speaking about the “ordinary peoples” of the Philippines — the poorly educated working class that included my ancestors (and thus why I was reading this to begin with, wondering about what the education system was like for my ancestors, what those first years of America’s colonial system was like in the day-to-day implementation of a policy called “benevolent assimilation”) — he could’ve been talking about my fellow Americans who decry “big government” and taxes and think the system is rigged to only benefit the “elites.”

Are my fellow Americans who think like that suffering from some kind of colonized mind-set? Are the American nativists who support the current administration displaying a pattern of thinking in line with Filipinos who had been living for generations in distrust of the Spanish colonial rulers? Is this just one part of the great irony of the racial resentments being given space and time to flourish by certain white people in these United States: that they don’t rise out of the Western tradition of the Enlightenment; rather, they come out of the destructive system of colonization in which the victimized have historically had darker skin.

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Now listening: ‘Becoming’ by Michelle Obama

Michelle Obama describes a scene from her first day of school in which the teacher asks each students to try to read flashcards that have color words on them, such as blue, green, orange, and white. Competitive and proud, the young Michelle reads one after another until she gets stumped on white, even though she knew she knew it. Back at home, she studies up on the color words. The next day, she asks the teacher to test her again. This time, she doesn’t stumble but gets all the words just right.

This story is extraordinary. I don’t think most students would be capable of demanding to be re-tested like that. (At least, I don’t think I would have the wherewithal to speak up like that.) In effect, her act was an assertion of self against the power dynamics of the classroom in order to bolster her own position within those very power dynamics. How was she able to do that? That question hovered over her memoir. Is this an intrinsic part of her character? Or was she taught this? I’m not sure the book answers this questions directly, though Obama also tells the story of how she jumped ahead of her piano lessons to tackle more difficult works, much to the chagrin of her teacher. She also says numerous times about how she is a list-maker and box-checker. That is she believes in herself, is smart, and likes order, and has been that way pretty much all her life. So was asking for the retest an attempt to reclaim that sense of order, by reasserting before others that how she thinks about herself is truly how she is.

A clue to that girl’s tenacity can be found in an episode much later in the memoir, which she describes as having “to use what power I could find inside a situation I never would’ve chosen for myself.” That situation was the media and public’s fixation on her looks when she was First Lady; however, that sentiment could also be seen as the kind of thought process that powered the young Michelle to ask for a new test — her power was to ask the teacher, the situation she never would have chosen was to be seen as less than capable at spelling and color words than she knew she was.

Have you read or listened to “Becoming?” Let me know what you think.

Now reading: Life on Mars

Best lines so far, from “My God, It’s Full of Stars”:

We saw to the edge of all there is—

So brutal and alive it seemed to comprehend us back.

A perfect blend of form and content

A screengrab of an email invitation for an art exhibition called "Adaptations to Extremes" in which the opening reception and panel talk have been rescheduled because of a winter storm.
An emailed invitation, adapted to fit the extreme weather coming out way. January 17, 2019.


Over the holidays, toasts are usually a thing. Often in a lot of languages: Cheers, some say, or L’Chaim, Prost, Sláinte, Salute, Kampai, Salud … and I didn’t know what was said in the Philippines.

Here’s the thing: there isn’t a direct translation, because the tradition is different.

On Gideon Lasco’s website, he explains how there’s no word for cheers in Tagalog because of the tradition of people drinking from the same glass to mark celebrations and special occasions. That is, unlike having everyone raise their own glass to toast or clink them together, in the Philippines one person becomes the pourer (the tanggero) and fills a glass that gets passed around for everyone to share in a communal way.  The custom is called tagay.

Laso even finds a definition of tagay in a 1630 dictionary, and writes:

Then, as now, tagay is defined as the rationing of the liquor around the group using just one cup. Strikingly, this cup is also given a name in the same vocabulario passage, one that is familiar in street corners on Friday nights: tagayan.

You can also read this account on Medium, in which Rina Diane Caballar writes:

The tanggero makes sure that all the drinkers have their fill, that everyone gets their fair share. The drinkers return the favor by drinking bottoms up from the glass, in the custom known as tagayTagay means that you trust each other enough to drink from that single glass. Tagay means everyone is united. Tagay is synonymous with goodwill and camaraderie.


Review: ‘The Last Black Unicorn’ by Tiffany Haddish

Tiffany Haddish has just been nominated for an Emmy for her “Saturday Night Live” hosting duties.

She is very funny, and this book and its multiple, episodic stories adds to the story of her success.

the-last-black-unicorn-9781501181825_lgSome of the stories are already familiar from her appearances on late-night comedy shows, such as the Groupon swamp tour in New Orleans she took Will and Jada Pinkett Smith during the filming of “Girls Trip.” That story touched upon a few points that made Haddish’s story so effective: it marked a moment of her place within the world of entertainment as a relatable up-and-comer suddenly finding herself not only working with Hollywood superstars, but also socializing with them.

The distance between them, with Haddish and most of her audience on one side, and the Smiths on the other, only deepens (and the comedy, too) when it becomes clear that the Smiths didn’t know that a Groupon is just kind of a coupon and that they swamp tour isn’t private but open to the public. (Another nice touch of separation in the story is when Will Smith gets in Haddish’s car and says, “I can’t remember the last time I was in a real car.”) It’s a winning story, and the book has lots of them that make Haddish relatable. Continue reading →

Review: ‘The Secret History of Wonder Woman’ by Jill Lepore

91xyaczlfwlWonder Woman came into my life in the form of Lynda Carter in the TV series of the mid-1970s. Not being that into comic books, I didn’t pay her much attention until the Patty Jenkin’s directed film came out last year. The 2017 movie reminded me that Wonder Woman has been a firm part of my consciousness throughout my life, often with the theme song playing in my head (Wonder Woman, the world is waiting for you…).

I never thought much about the people behind her creation, and so The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore, published in 2014, was a fascinating read, especially Wonder Woman’s ties to such important figures in the history of the American feminist movement like Margaret Sanger, who opened the first birth control clinic in 1916 (and was arrested for it, along with her sister, who went on a hunger strike during her incarceration).

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