Thursday, December 29, 2011

Bellicose Equine

I ran into the wise old man at the Sushi place in Texarkana yesterday. We had both just seen the movie “War Horse” and were soothing our disgruntled critical spirits by spicy red tail and sesame salmon rolls. He didn’t like the movie and was reluctant to talk about it when I first joined him at the Japanese feast, but he mellowed as he munched on the artistically arranged fare.

“What was it about the film you didn’t like?”

He readjusted his chopsticks and replied, “Well, Dan, I think when a modern movie becomes more dependent on technology than on the skill, I mean the ART of storytelling, things go awry. That’s apparently what happened in “War Horse.”

“You mean the explosions and the realism of the way World War I was depicted?”

“Yes, I mean that, and I also disliked the slickness of it. You know that absolutely perfect period costumes, military uniforms, weaponry. It was as if the filmmakers wanted you to say, ‘My, what an artful job of depicting,’ rather than the more desirable, ‘What a wonderful job of storytelling.”

“I felt that the movie tried to tell too many stories.”

“Yes, Dan, I felt that, too, and I also think the actors worked too hard on their accents, so much so that I missed half of what they said.”

“I thought I was the only one. I blamed it on my hearing aids.”

“No, ask anyone who saw the film without captioning what the dialogue was in certain vital scenes, and I’d wager they couldn’t tell you. The farmers, for example, concentrated so hard on the glottal stop ‘t’ that they sounded like they were gargling.”

“Well, sir, I thought the episode in which the little French girl and her grandpa tended the horses was touching, I mean, in a fairy tale sort of way.”

“Touching, but contrived, Dan. No French farmer ever looked and acted so downright, well, French. Also, the girl was just too contemporary.”

“Was there anything about the movie you liked?”

“Emily Watson who played the farmer’s wife is a brilliant actor. Her only problem was the contrived accent. She emphasized the wrong sounds in an effort to be authentic. But her facial expressions told a story all its own—a mother’s empathy and longsuffering.”

“I agree. I believed the mother more than any of the others. I didn’t like the anthropomorphism. I know a little about equine training, and the way the movie showed that is way off. I never knew a horse that would learn by watching a task done. They have to do it."

The wise old man dipped his last roll into the sauce and said, "Steven Spielberg used to know how to tell a story. "Close Encounters," "Catch me if You Can," and movies like that, ones that know the story and tell it, will last. This Bellicose Equine foolishness won't."

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Happy New Year

Happy New Year.

Happy—when I see that word I think of a fluffy puppy wagging its stub of a tail or a radiant child in receipt of exactly the hoped-for bicycle or a joyous senior citizen, holding a new grandchild or great-grandchild or a fulfilled though exhausted pastor with an altar full of responders to the Word or a determined teacher who sees light bulbs going off above the heads of once recalcitrant pupils in spite of the many unteacherly, administrative duties required of her or a committed young scholar unwrapping the offprint of that first publication or a haggard doctor witnessing the recovery of an iffy patient or a rekindled middle-aged couple reconciled after a moral failure or of a homeless family still together when Dad comes to the shelter with the good news of a permanent job or of an unappreciated city official, loving his community anyway. Happy means tail-wagging, wrinkled grins, warm hearts, the good kind of pride, satisfaction after it has been long-denied, unselfish labor on behalf of others, a heart full of forgiveness and hope after despair.

New—when I see that word I think of how nature itself perpetually renews and modifies positively, of how even in old age people can be refreshed by launching out on ventures never dreamed of in youth, of how old passages of Scripture one has known since Vacation Bible School can take on new meaning and speak directly to us from the heart of God, of the creative spirit of gifted teachers, who spontaneously and often subversively try new ways of teaching, respecting the individuality of their students more than the “how-tos” of education courses or guidelines, of new ways of fragmenting reality that result in contributions to knowledge by tenacious scholars, of medical advances that save lives and give hope, of new starts for troubled families who learn to let bygones be bygones. The word new means obeying nature, being bold, seeking Truth, being creative, contributing through unique giftings, healing hurts and restoring families.

Year—when I see the word year, I think of the worn path the earth takes around the sun, the long space journey, that ancient trip that has so many consequences seasonal and otherwise on our space vehicle, the earth. When I see the word “year” I think of happy birthdays for children and the elderly, of anniversaries, marked by recommitment, of medical check-ups that give correction and encouragement, of celebrations in the church year that remind us systematically of spiritually significant events in history that come true for us in the present, of time as a measurement not only of universal motion, but as a reminder of our own mortality. Our time in this dusty space suit is in decrescendo mode, heading toward arrest and epitaph, which will leave empty words like “Rest in Peace,” awaiting that great day when the miracle of the ages will help us finally obey the Biblical admonition, “Put on Christ.”

So, as your fellow passenger on our journey together, let me say, wholeheartedly, Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Hidden Technique

Although O. Henry is known as a popular writer rather than a literary artist, we do find examples of unequalled storytelling in his voluminous work. He wrote mainly for newspapers and his constant modus operadi in his syndicated pieces was surprise endings. Many of us remember the shock of the ending in his “Gift of the Magi,” that frequently anthologized story about the man who sold his precious heirloom watch to buy his wife a comb for her lavishly beautiful hair and his wife who sold her treasured hair to buy him a chain for his watch. I have read that O. Henry searched everywhere for true stories he could embellish for his column and he even asked friends to be on the lookout for material he could use. Of course, many of his tales came directly from his rich imagination.

One of his imaginative stories, “The Furnished Room,” is my favorite in that it contains not only an elaborate surprise ending, but artful characterizations, riveting descriptions and a very keen vocabulary. I mean, he uses words such as “fugacious,” meaning passing quickly, “viscid,” meaning sticky and other words that would send most of his readers to the dictionary. But, as to the surprise ending, it is unsurpassed by any work of American literature to date.

The story goes this way: a young man searches the low-rent district of New York for someone with whom he was in love. O. Henry only gives hints of what went wrong in their relationship, but the young man wants to find her in view of reconciliation.
One furnished room is available in an area the thinks she may living. He rents it from the lady manager, who is a bit evasive, but is also a good salesperson. In the room, the young man begins to feel the mysterious presence of his beloved and smells the unique odor of her favorite perfume. He becomes so despondent that he closes all the windows and turns on the gas.

Then the story turns to a conversation between the lady manager of the rooming house and her friend over drinks in the evening. The friend asks if she has rented the room in which a young lady had recently taken her life. She says yes, just today I rented it to a young fellow who was very eager to find a young woman he described as similar to the one who died there.

It is a morbid story, but one in which the surprise ending works beautifully. There are very few hints leading up to the ironic conclusion that both the estranged lovers found their way to the same location to end their lives. An early literature teacher of mine used to say, “The finest art covers up art,” meaning that an artist’s technique should be subtle and hidden. If what that teacher taught is true, then “The Furnished Room” is as artistic as a story can be. It goes to show you that even prolific newspaper writers can hit just the right note at times.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Christmas Away

My first Christmas away from home was in Germany. The military made efforts to make Christmas special for the troops; instead the meager decorations and the trumped up Christmas dinner in the mess hall, made most of us miss Mamma’s cooking and the comforts of home even more. I’ll have to give it to the mess sergeant, though: he roasted a bunch of turkeys and the drumstick I got was very delicious. He didn’t seem to sacrifice quality with the large quantity he was obliged to prepare.

The airman’s club had a special program that first Christmas and the main attraction was a group called “Bill Haley and the Comets.” That’s the group that made “Rock Around the Clock” famous. They were already old hat, a group from yesteryear, as the DJ might express it. But the rhythms and the loud electric guitars brought a warm nostalgic feeling to those assembled, especially the older guys, who had been teenagers in the early 50’s when Bill Haley was at his peak. Just after Christmas, the club brought in the venerable comedian Morey Amsterdam. His responses to hecklers were the most memorable part of his performance. I remember one of those responses as if it were yesterday. One newly arrived recruit up front close to the stage was giving Morey a hard time. When the comedian had enough, he simply said, “Son, go rub ointment on your pimples.” That shut him up.

Another good thing the military did to make Christmas special for the troops was to give us some time off. We had leisure to play some pool, to watch the dilapidated old television downstairs in the barracks, to catch up on letter writing and to listen to Armed Forces Network on the radio. My favorite radio program was called “Stick Buddy,” and it was country music, you know, your buddy from the sticks. One of my friends insisted that it was called “Stick Buddy” because, in the Air Force, pilots called their co-pilots stick buddies, because the operating apparatus of the early airplanes was a stick. I could never get a pilot to affirm that intelligence, though. The “Stick Buddy” radio program had a theme song that went, “I don’t want to be lying in bed when they pronounce me dead…I don’t want my hat to be hung when my last song is sung…I won’t be planting potato slips when I cash in my chips, etc.”

We also got a daily paper over there, “The Stars and Stripes,” which was, of course, modeled on the kinds of newspapers we were used to back in the states. I particularly enjoyed the comic section, especially the Beetle Bailey strip. So many things in those clever drawings and dialogue were very much like what actually happened in my unit. We had a sergeant that looked for all the world like Beetle’s Sarge and he didn’t like it at all if we posted a clipping from Beetle Baily on the bulletin board. He never said anything, but the cartoon never remained posted from one evening to the next morning.

Sometimes even now, when I read the funnies or hear a clever country song or bite into a succulent turkey drumstick, I have an involuntary bittersweet memory of my first Christmas away from home.