Thursday, August 25, 2011

Wheels

In 1964, I met a fellow called Wheels from Ouachita Baptist College. He came to our apartment right after my wife and I got married while we were undergraduates at Southern State College. Wheels had been my wife’s friend when she was enrolled at Ouachita and he became my friend immediately. He was a thin, slow-moving guy with a deep, meditative diction pattern and he was extremely talkative. Not in a bothersome way, but his rambling was shot through with thoughtfulness and truth.

I will never forget two pearls of wisdom Wheels uttered that autumn day almost a half-century ago: first, he said there are success stories walking around all over the globe, and, second, he said you don’t hear of too many married couples starving to death these days. The first of these two platitudes came in response to our discussion of our life goals. I wanted to become a college professor and we wanted to raise a family in a small college town where I would work. Wheels’ statement was encouraging because he exuded confidence in me, a guy he had known only a few hours.

The second observation about not many people starving around our area came as a confidence builder as well. I think his message came as a result of his discerning a considerable amount of self-doubt as to my ability to make ends meet while we were in college. So Wheels’ words were a salve to our future anxiety and they built my faith that we could work our way through school.

Shortly after Wheels left to go back to Ouachita, the dean of men at Southern State flagged me down as I hurried across campus. “Dan,” he said, “You are an older student, a military veteran—you and your wife are just the kind of people I’d like to have hosting McCrary Hall (a men’s residence hall on campus).”

He went on to explain that the job included a rent-free apartment in the back of the dorm, utilities paid, tuition and fees paid for my wife and me, one meal a day in the cafeteria for both of us and $50 a month. When I mentioned the offer to my wife, she agreed with me that we should jump at the offer and jump we did. Wheels was right, we didn’t starve.

Wheels was also right about success stories walking around the globe. We both finished our bachelor’s degrees there and went on to Auburn University on a substantial fellowship that kept us from starving during the whole M. A. and Ph. D. programs.

Wheels was my friend for about four hours and the encouragement and truth that he spoke so long ago during that brief time have been mainstays for me throughout life. It is fair to say that we never know how much a little conversation can mean to people. It is also fair to say that when someone pops in to visit out of the blue and begins saying things that resonate inside your heart, you should honor that visitor and listen carefully.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Popcorn

When I was very young my family enjoyed the simple things: cool breezes on the porch in the evening, feeling the mud ooze up between our toes down at the creek, that first watermelon cooled way down inside the curbing of the well, those rare instances when we turned the magical crank and feasted till our heads hurt on fresh peach ice cream, fried fish freshly caught in the pond, the first tomatoes almost always by July 4, bedtime stories from the Bible or some other fascinating source and many other simple things.

I think often about the simplicity of our lives before we had television, shopping malls, interstate highways and jet airliners. The first building I ever entered with air conditioning was the First National Bank of El Dorado, Arkansas. I couldn’t believe the polar blast that hit me in the face when I walked in. It felt good for a brief moment and then it seemed uncomfortably cold. I noticed that all the employees in the bank were dressed as if it were winter.

We moved from the country to El Dorado when I was a kid. There were three movie theaters in that town: The Ritz, the Majestic and the Rialto. The Ritz was not air conditioned, but it had the best popcorn in town at a nickel a bag. The aroma of Ritz popcorn permeated the downtown area, luring passersby into the stuffy, hot and rundown establishment. For some time one could not go in and purchase popcorn without a ticket to the show, but that changed when I was about 12 and anyone could go into the lobby to buy the aromatic treat. I think the owner, made more money from popcorn than he made from Roy Rogers, Rex Allen, Gene Autry and Lash LaRue combined.

The Majestic was a cut above the Ritz in that they had air conditioning plus there were no rats. I think there were no rats. People used to say you got a free shoe shine at the Ritz from the rats whizzing by. The Majestic showed “B” pictures with actors like Rory Calhoun and Johnny Saxon produced by companies such as RKO studios and Columbia and they had serials like “Flash Gordon” and “Superman.”

The Rialto was the mecca of movies in that town, and that theater was plush, carpeted, well-decorated and as cold as the bank. I saw “Gone with the Wind” there and such wonderful stars as Jimmy Stewart, Dorothy Malone, Bogart, Hepburn, Tracy and, as I grew older, Elvis. The same person owned the Ritz and the Rialto and he made kids behave themselves at the Rialto. I mean, you could hoot and holler at the Ritz but you better shut up at the Rialto, or you’d be back out in the hot sun.

Now, life is much more complex. Store-bought ice cream and microwave popcorn just don’t measure up. I’m thankful for DVDs, but I miss the Ritz, the Majestic and the Rialto.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Teaching Restraint

Having published quite a bit of my own writing, including poetry, I am sometimes called upon to teach college courses in creative writing. It is not my favorite course to teach because there is no commonality of skills the various students bring to the course. Teaching such a class requires a lot of individual attention to get the best out of students.

Because of the need for one-on-one instruction, a creative writing teacher has to motivate, guide, suggest, encourage and edit. Many writing students think that anything they write is good because, well, because they wrote it. The teacher has to change students’ conviction about that while avoiding hurt feelings that would stifle the creative urge. It is a tall order for teachers who would venture into a creative writing classroom, knowing that creativity can’t really be taught and that, as a rule, students are not as good as they think they are. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule. Some students come to the enterprise with splendid humility and an eager willingness to be corrected.

That’s why I try to start creative writing classes teaching the discipline of literary forms. In a way, I’m like a harness racing driver. That kind of racing is beautiful in its rhythm, flow and discipline. The trotting horse is not allowed to gallop or to shift into any gait but the fast trot. The beast’s instinct tells it to stretch out and gallop for speed, but training and specialized harness constantly inhibit this urge. “Do your best at limited capacity” is what the driver requires and the true champions do just that.

Thus, harness racing drivers must be much more skilled than their riding jockey counterparts. These latter hang on and urge their mount to maximum speed, unconcerned about form. They just want to cross the finish line ahead no matter how the horse runs. The harness driver, on the other hand, must exercise restraint and discipline to get the maximum speed out of the horse in a fast trot.

Like the harness driver, formalist poets confine themselves to certain traditional rules. The sonneteer, for example, must pour his soul into a meager 14 lines of iambic pentameter. Wordsworth compared the sonnet writer to a nun in her narrow room. And, like the harness driver, the sonnet writer wrings the best out of the constricted rules of tradition.

The reason I avoid free verse in creative writing classes is that in that kind of formlessness, the writer has a double responsibility: to create form as well as content. Most students in creative writing classes prefer to write in free verse, which most often fails to satisfy. Too much freedom leads to aesthetic collapse. If would-be poets could bring themselves to write in the established forms, half the battle would be won.

My advice to aspiring poets is to emulate the harness driver: get the best out of yourself by sticking to rules. If you imitate the race horse jockey, you may write with less restraint, but you will seldom cross the finish line first.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Whole Lot of Shaking

Barnabas and Paul had a hearty disagreement concerning Peter’s helper Mark. Paul thought Mark was unreliable because he took off for home during an earlier mission. Their argument became so intense that Paul cut off his relationship with Barnabas and continued his ministry with the reliable Silas and a half-Greek youngster named Timothy. Paul had a vision of a man in Macedonia beckoning for them to come help.

So, they went to a major city there, Philippi, and began spreading the gospel. Their first stop was at a gathering of women, at least one of whom, Lydia, was a believer in God and was seeking a deeper understanding. Paul was good at giving deeper understandings, having received his own in one fell swoop when the blinding light of Jesus knocked him to the ground and turned him 180 degrees from killing Christians to becoming one. Lydia, a businesswoman who dealt in purple cloth, was converted to the faith and baptized there in Philippi and a church was established in her home when she invited the team to lodge there.

When Paul and Silas left Lydia’s abode and entered the city preaching the Gospel, a fortune-teller followed them around day after day, inappropriately shouting that Paul and Silas were men of God, proclaiming the truth, trying thereby to garner favor for herself, posing as a member of their entourage. Paul put up with her officious fawning for awhile, but finally turned and rebuked the motivating spirit in Jesus’ name and she instantly lost all her demonic power. This event cost her handlers a lot of money as they were making a pretty penny through her dark abilities. So, in retribution, they turned Paul and Silas over to the authorities, accusing them of stirring up trouble in the streets. The magistrates had them beaten and imprisoned in the darkest, dankest, most secure section of the jail.

Undaunted, the pair prayed and sang praises all evening and at about midnight an earthquake shook the facility, causing chains to fall away and prison doors to spring open. Paul saw the terrified jailer about to fall on his sword and said, “Hey, we are all here, don’t harm yourself.” At that, the jailer cried out, “What do I have to do to be saved?” (Aside from the great miracle he had witnessed, why would he ask such a question unless he had been listening to their prayers and praises?) Paul, always ready to account for his joy, explained the Gospel in a nutshell on the spot: “Believe in Jesus and you and your household will be saved.” The jailer took the men of God to his home, washed their wounds, got baptized (probably in the very water they were being washed in), received a fuller understanding of the Lord and fed them as much of a feast as his astonished family could muster at that hour.

When the authorities found out about the jail miracle and that Paul and Silas were Roman citizens, they were understandably nervous and urged them to leave Philippi right away. Did they leave immediately? Nope, they went nonchalantly to encourage the Christians at Lydia’s house for awhile.

By the way, it may have been that jailer beckoning for help in Paul’s vision that took them to Philippi. If you want a fuller account of these events, Chapter 16 of Acts recounts them a lot better than I ever could.