birds in a barrel's mission is to release creative nonfiction into the wild.

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The War of Prisms

I was so excited to show him the Music Center.

I had been invited to become a docent, and had had my own first tour the week before.

We left his apartment on Saturday morning so that we would be there for the first tour.

We were recently engaged, and used the drive from the beach to town to talk wedding plans.

About half way there, I was overcome by my excitement and awe of the theaters we were about to see. So, I changed the subject.

Then I said, “And the prisms. There are so many prisms in the chandeliers all through the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion! They’re just gorgeous!”

“What are you calling prisms?” my physicist fiancé asked.

“Well, you know, the crystals of the chandeliers. They’re gorgeous. And they sparkle so for all the light!” I gushed again. I felt a tad confused. Isn’t a prism just a prism? Were there kinds?

He began a lecture on optics that he thought I would understand, but I was getting lost. I didn’t really know much about physics; I was a mere microbiologist. And, I thought I was talking about art in architecture. Or, was I was just confused.

After he talked a while, he paused and asked me something about details of the “prisms” based on what he was telling me. But since I didn’t understand I couldn’t reply.

After a minute or so of dumb silence I said, “I dunno. They're just SO pretty.”

He rolled his eyes, and began again to educate me on the physics, the optics I guess, of prisms.

Now I was feeling stupid, and also annoyed. Why wasn’t he just listening about the prettiness instead of turning it into Physics 101?

Well, before we knew it we were arguing—about prisms. He kept talking physics and optical measurement; I kept raving about prettiness.

Soon, the fight was just a fight for its own sake. It was a fight for all the tension of the wedding plans, and the unknown future, and the fears around being misunderstood. And, it went on and on.

We got to the music center and went on the tour, with a frostiness that I hope my docent peer didn’t notice too much. There were a few others on the tour, to keep the attention on all the prettiness.

And, the chandeliers were GORGEOUS! It was a perfect day with clear, deep blue skies shining in through the wall of windows that formed the backdrop for all those glistening prisms. Hundreds of prisms—the general term, I learned later, is “pendant”—on scores of fixtures throughout the lobby of the pavilion. And, the paintings and other objets d’art throughout seemed to capture my beau’s attention sufficiently that the frost began to thaw.

By the time we left the Ahmanson, after the Mark Taper, and headed to Olvera Street for a taco lunch, we were settling into our pre-war attitude. We hadn’t forgotten the battle between art and science, but we had gotten a bit of distance and perspective. We didn’t re-engage that day, or even that week.

But over the years (nearly 38 now), as we have had many other opportunities to argue—how could it be otherwise for two over-educated, opinionated quasi-intellectuals—we developed a code. We shared the story and code with a few of our closest (and, also geeky) friends. And, we shared it again and again with our daughters.

When things get hot and start to melt down, when words begin to not work, and glaring and spluttering are the only communication going on—

Someone, often one of our girls, shouts, “PRISMS!” (almost like “UNO”), and—laughter replaces glares, anger dissolves, pomposity deflates. Monsters become human again.

We may not understand what was trying to be said, and we do understand.

Prisms started a war once, and “prisms!” now ends the war every time.

Crazy Is as Crazy Itches