Thursday, December 27, 2012

Be it Therefore Resolved...


To the many introverts and shy people out there, including me, I propose the following resolution: take the risk of conversation or at least a smile. To the extraverts and bold people out there, you know who you are, I propose the following resolution: learn to listen and be responsive to those who feel awkward in conversation.

I had a very good friend from Upstate New York who was cut in the latter mold. It is very unlikely that two people so opposite could be such good friends, but we were and are. He was a Harvard Ph.D. atheist. I was and remain an Auburn Ph.D. Christian. Needless to say, our worldviews are disparate. He was brash and often loud. And I was and am reserved, most of the time.

The glue that held these polar opposites together was the bicycle. When I quit smoking, I bought a quality, lightweight, multispeed bicycle. My New York acquaintance became my abiding friend as we rode 10 or 12 miles on the back roads of Columbia County most every morning for 15 years. I picked up some of his ways on the rides but, as far as I could tell, he never picked up any of mine. My wife noticed that I talked more and louder in the mornings after our ride. Although, his wife apparently did not notice any softening of his abrasive conversational habits.

The one topic we learned to steer clear of was religion. He could not see why any otherwise sane and intelligent man would believe an ancient myth. I could not understand why he couldn’t see that it was a True myth—the True myth of the ages. Once I said, “Jesus was either who he said he was or a complete madman.” He agreed with that one, but not in the way I intended, so, as I said, we avoided the subject. The only encouragement I got was his positive response to the testimonies in a Christian magazine I often shared with him. I soon learned that he subscribed to the publication.

            After I moved several towns away, he asked me to do a three-day bicycle tour to Mississippi— 300 miles roundtrip. Even though I was not conditioning as regularly as I did before I moved, I agreed.

            Well, it was a miserable trip. He was taking high doses of medication that gave him much too much energy. He rode much faster than I wanted. We didn’t stop to enjoy the countryside as I anticipated and he was insulting to every waiter in every restaurant where we ate.

When we returned home from that trip, I told my wife that, if I ever said I was going on another three-day bicycle tour with him, to kick the spokes out of my bicycle. Our friendship fizzled from there, but all-in-all I still like the guy and would go for a ride with him at the drop of a helmet.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Birthday


I am pondering growing older. Enjoying life. Having been born shortly before Christmas, my birthday has always sort of merged with the greater celebration. But I learned not to look at it as a diminishment but an enhancement of the holidays. This year was no exception. In fact, my wife and I started the fun on birthday eve by driving to the lake to watch the sunset. Incidentally, we ate catfish at one of our favorite places.

Birthday morning, when I got up I smelled sausage frying, a rare olfactory sensation at our house. We try to eat more or less healthily most days, but on special occasions, out comes the high fat stuff. We had scrambled eggs, hot sausage and the kind of biscuits only my wife of many years can create. They defy description—I wouldn’t call them light and fluffy, nor are they heavy and thick. But they are just right: firm enough to sustain a separation but soft enough to turn butter liquidy. Those biscuits receive preserves with a kind of ineffable gaping grin of joy.

After a great breakfast and our customary moment of prayerfully pondering the scriptures, we discussed all kinds of possibilities for the day. One part of me wanted to do a sentimental journey from Choudrant to Ruston to El Dorado to Magnolia. You know the drill: going to some of the old places that have been meaningful in our lives. But that seemed like too much trouble, so I put the mountain bike in my roof rack and we drove to Texarkana, looking for the much touted bicycle path down there. We found it, but it is paltry. Apparently the bike path authorities have just started on the project and it just runs a half mile or so from the St. Michael’s fitness center to Cow Horn Creek. The end of the trail is the Cow Horn Creek Retirement Center. Was that symbolic? Was than an omen? I choose to think not.

After a repetitive and not very satisfactory bicycle ride, my wife bought my lunch at a nearby deli. There was a big crowd of people there and my comment was, “Hey, this is just like being in a big city.” I said that because the eating establishment reminded me of those busy places in West Palm Beach, Berkeley, Chapel Hill, Columbus (Ohio) and other large cities we have called home. (I have noticed, though, that northern repasts are generally louder in such places, while the talk in Southern eateries is somewhat plaintive.)

Of course we did the obligatory shopping that outlying people do when in a larger town and then came home and sat down to my favorite, pecan pie with whipped cream on top. Then I employed the aid of my hearing enhancement Bluetooth device and listened to the holiday album of The Duttons, a luxury I enjoy at least once during the holidays. I’m glad to be getting older.

Today we have lunch at church. It is an event called Prime Timers. I will get a cupcake because I have a December birthday!

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Merry


The word “merry” as in Merry Christmas developed from an Old English form “myrge” which denoted pleasing or melodious. “Myrge” is related to an older Germanic form that meant “short-lasting.” That interests me because the only time I ever hear the word “merry” used is during the relatively “short-lasting” Christmas season. No one says “Merry Easter” or “Merry Fourth of July” do they? The “melodious” connection is also fascinating, since we do so much singing around Christmas time. So, when we say “Merry Christmas” we are, linguistically at least, wishing people a pleasing, melodious Holy Communion (Lord’s Supper) celebrating the birth of Christ (Christ Mass). But that’s not what I mean when I say it. The phrase brings back to me remembrances of giving and receiving, fellowship and family, and, mostly, Jesus’ traditional birthday.

Before I learned that it was more blessed to give than to receive, I remember the joy of finding my first bicycle under the tree on Christmas morning. I got it before I knew how to ride it and it was a 26 inch one. I was seven, large for my age, so my mother found one that would last me as I grew. Learning to ride it was tricky because my arms would barely span the width of the handlebars. But with the “help” or better stated, torment, of my two older brothers, I got the hang of it. I also remember learning the joy of giving one Christmas later when I was eight. I had earned some money washing cars and mowing grass and wanted to buy Mother something nice. I went to Woolworth and bought her a black ceramic panther that I though was so cool. When she un-wrapped that gift, you would have thought it was made of gold. She kept that paltry piece of décor on her coffee table the rest of her life.

“Merry Christmas” also brings to mind celebrations with friends and family. I’m reading a book of journal entries, “I Acted From Principle,” by a Civil War surgeon. In Dr. McPheeter’s account of Christmas, even though it is war time and his work as surgeon required amputation after amputation, he relished the holiday for camaraderie, singing, drinking eggnog and seasonal games. My early memories of Christmas are set in dark international warfare at the tail end of the Great Depression, and yet they were happy times. My widowed mother found the wherewithal to provide a wonderful meal and we had cousins, aunts and uncles and friends at our humble abode throughout the season.

But, of course, the real reason for being merry during this season is the fact that Jesus was born in just the right time and place to satisfy prophesy and to establish the most astonishing and unexpected kingship ever. His story is eternal. As C. S. Lewis puts it, Christianity is the “true myth.” It is an event significant for all ages and beyond.

So, Merry Christmas means giving and receiving, friends and family, and robust celebration of the greatest mystery of the ages. Joy to the world!

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Slough Story


Many legends circulated by and about Tom Crider, the recluse who lived in a house on stilts way out on the back side of Wildcat Slough. One was that when he worked in the oil fields as a youth, a pipe went down his mouth and the side of his throat, and he wouldn’t go to the doctor. To make it heal, he filled it with Sweet Garret Snuff, and constantly kept it filled. This story gained credibility every time Tom opened his mouth, a brown cavern emitting a gurgling raspy voice. Another legend was that he ate turtles raw, the snuff supposedly overpowering any salmonella germs that may have been present. I never saw him do it, though. My favorite legend was the one he told my cousin and me himself when I was seven and my cousin was eight while we were fishing the slough. He gurgled it out this way, if memory serves:

“Way back yonder in 1937 I seen a human-like footprint in the mud where the Saline branches off south of the slough. That thing was as long as the bottom part of my leg and then some and nearly as wide as your daddy’s hiney [He said that to my cousin, whose daddy, Uncle Herbert, was very well-nourished]. I seen part of another of the same kind of footprint, lapping off at the edge of the water. Well sir, I built me a blind up in a gum down in there to see if I could find out what laid that foot, taken me a quart of shine up there into my blind, my snuff and a couple of perch sandwiches. I bone them big red-ears and roast them over a fire and put them in cornbread, don’t you know. [He didn’t mention eating turtles].

“Long about daylight, a thrashing around down there by some willows woke me up, and there it was. A great old big thing, all hairy and muddied up, a-wallowing on the edge of the Saline like a over-heated hog. I watched him as he backed up to one of them stout willows and commenced to itching his back on it, making a real contented grunt when he done it. Then he stopped real sudden like and sniffed the air, looking all around. I stayed quiet and watched it a long time, the thing putting off a smell like rotten eggs, wet dog and skunk. Before long, it kind of looked up in my direction and taken off out into the river and swam on its back down it till it was way down yonder on the other side and then he crawled up into a pine thicket.

“I went to my blind several nights after that, but the thing never showed up again. I only saw it one other time, in broad daylight, when I was squirrel hunting up where them May haws is on the Strong side of the Grand Mere Lake. I was in the shade down by a stump, kind of camouflaged, you know, and I seen that thing stripping May haws off one of the larger trees and smacking loud as it ate them. It never saw me but went on pretty soon and I could hear it a long time after I lost sight of it going up in them hardwoods.”

My cousin and I remembered that story after Tom Crider’s grave-side service in 1958. We both agreed that he made a believer out of us. Tom’s was the only burial I’ve ever heard of where a Justice of the Peace presided.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Wise Old Manor


I have a cousin who keeps up with the whole distaff side of my family. Mother had 11 very procreative siblings, so Glenver has her work cut out for her. When the rare calls come from Cousin Glenver, I always assume it will be bad news: someone in the sprawling family was in a wreck, has a bad disease, got a divorce, got arrested or died. So when the call came week-before-last, I felt nervous because my closest cousin, the one I grew up with as a brother, has been quite ill and I assumed and feared the worst. But here is what Glenver said, “Danny Boy, that wise old man y’all think so much of is in Hillsboro Manor.” He is the one I often write about in this column. He is not a relative, but, somehow, Glenver knows how close he is to my family. She gave me directions to that nursing home in rural Southwest Arkansas and Jacque and I packed some goodies and went over there for Thanksgiving.

When we walked into the cluttered lobby of Hillsboro Manor, we were greeted warmly by a green-clad barrel of a woman with a nametag reading “Juanita, Head.” I didn’t know whether her name was Head Juanita or whether she was the Head of the Manor. I softly mentioned that ambiguity to my wife but she didn’t smile.

“Who are y’all here to see, Sugar?” she said to my wife, giving me a very substantial cold shoulder, perhaps having heard my witticism. My wife mentioned our friend’s name and she said, “Because of the nice weather—ain’t it been nice, though, Lordy I don’t remember such a warm Thanksgiving, do y’all—he’s out yonder on the back gazebo reading and scribbling.” She directed us past a card table with fall decorations, crepe paper turkeys and half-a-dozen wrinkled donuts, through a hallway lined with both ambling and rolling elderly whose remarks covered a great range and mixture of emotions. One lady thought I was her preacher. You’ve seen one bald head you’ve seen them all.

When Juanita unlocked the secure side door, we walked out onto a nice paved path and wound around until we found our friend reading a book entitled “I Acted From Principle,” and taking notes in a Big Chief tablet. He rose immediately when he saw Mrs. Ford and bowed in a courtly fashion. He shook my hand and said, “Dan, how good of y’all to come. Please be seated.”

“What are you reading?” I asked. “It’s a book of journal entries by a surgeon with the Trans-Mississippi Department of the CSA, published by University of Arkansas Press. He was a successful doctor in St. Louis but when the Federals took all his possessions, stripped his home of everything and exiled his family, he joined the Rebels down in Arkansas. Dr. William McPheeters acted on principle and that is a message for you, Dr. and Mrs. Ford. You must maintain the courage to act on principle, no matter what. This place is not too bad. They bring me milk shakes every afternoon!”

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Movies, Good and Bad


One of the toxic tendencies of contemporary American culture is towards stereotyping: you’ve seen them, the goofy professor, the sanctimonious minister, the donut-addicted cop, the bumbling senior citizen, the gum-chewing waitress, the brushy redneck—I won’t go on. It is a province of the entertainment industry to suppress creative and original ideas, so many “artists” resort to trite characters and clichéd dialogue. The rare instances when we actually see originality and uniqueness in television or movie productions are short lived.

I’m thinking of “Picket Fences,” a wonderful quirky television series that introduced Jack Black to the public as a kid who followed stage productions of “Cats” and, in costume, subtly crept into the performance until he was noticed and ejected by the director. Another example of quirky excellence is the movie, “No Country for Old Men,” an artistic flash in the pan. Similarly, one of the most magnificent films of the last couple of decades was Kenneth Branagh’s monumental rendition of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” That project avoided triteness and stereotypes like the devil avoids holy water.

While there was a bit of toxicity such as nudity and drugs in the recent movie “Flight,” the characterization and direction were flawless. Denzel Washington proved once again that he is a master actor, a chameleon who becomes the personality he portrays. And the character of “Whip” could not have been an easy one for him: a coke snorting alcoholic pilot who works a miracle in landing a mechanically flawed passenger jet. Whip exhibits no integrity at all until the final scene of the movie and yet he is believable throughout.

This complex character is anything but a stereotype, thank goodness, and Director Robert Zemeckis exploits the ironic nature of the plot, narrative and action, often to the level of Alfred Hitchcock.  And, he exploits his digital know-how brilliantly. A cigarette smoking cancer patient, a little girl in the elevator, a little boy at a funeral tell a deep story of their own. Zemeckis attends to detail in directing or in “touching up” digitally.

Compare this excellent cinematic accomplishment to the almost completely clichéd “Lincoln” and you will see what I mean. Even though Zemeckis went to school to “Lincoln” director Spielberg, he has most assuredly surpassed his mentor. He knows that the finest art covers up art and such knowledge, as practiced in “Flight,” makes it a tour de force of great magnitude, while “Lincoln” strikes me as little more than a documentary with feigned sincerity.

Film makers should not forget that they are supposed to tell a story. Technological gimmickry is a good thing as long as it contributes to the narrative and does not distract from it by becoming an end in itself. “Inception” is an example of great effects but little story. “Matrix” is a little better but not much.

Then there is the example of films that try to tell too many stories. “Lincoln” did that, as did the latest “Batman” movie. Even thrillers like “Skyfall” and “The Expendables” pull themselves apart by losing the focus of one central narrative. I enjoy movies that tell manageable stories and that avoid triteness.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Stomach Shots


I understand that rabies preventative shots, those given after one is bitten by a rabid animal, are no longer administered in the stomach as they used to be, but in the arm muscle. That would be a relief, because I can’t think of many things more disturbing than having to get a shot in the stomach. I tried to stay as far away from mad dogs as I could, not so much because I was scared of them but I didn’t like the idea of the inevitable shots.

An older female student in one of my classes showed me her finger today. It isn’t what one might think. She showed me the index finger of her right hand. It was crooked and short to the point of being a bit grotesque. She worked at a pet grooming shop and last year a pit bull got ahold of her hand.

“I was walking a lab back to his enclosure after a bath,” she said, “and a freshly groomed pit bull, which was ordinarily gentle, jumped on the lab I held by the collar. The pit bull chomped down on my finger and I pulled back instinctively almost losing my finger and spouting blood all over the place.”

The ambulance took her to the local hospital where the doctor sewed her up and told her to consult a hand surgeon. That night, the wound became discolored and sent red streaks up her arm. She had a bad infection and drove to Little Rock for treatment and surgery. She had a terrible time fighting off the infection and half her finger is now a metal screw.

My students will write a persuasive paper in that class and I told the wounded lady she could write about that experience as long as she could make some sort of advocacy. It was then that she started talking about her exorbitant medical bills and her employer’s insurance problems and an attorney she had retained to deal with the financial difficulties. I asked her if she had to get shots in her stomach, but she said no. I think hers will make a super paper as long as she writes it non-digressively.

Speaking of digression, I remember one time when a neighbor boy and I were walking home from junior high and we cut through the lot where a circus was making preparations for their shows. Beside one of the trailers was a spider monkey chained to a stake. Even though the creature fussed as we approached, my neighbor went up to it and reached down to pet its head. He drew back a bloody hand and we rushed home. He had to get several shots in his stomach because of his overfamiliarity with a primate.

Digressing further, I remember when my bicycle riding companion got bit by a dog we had nicknamed Gummy Griffin. Gummy was an old dog that lived at a house whose mailbox said “Griffin.” We named him Gummy because of his old age and floppy-lipped bark. But he was not gummy. He had teeth as my companion found out the hard way. After Gummy had done the deed, my friend walked up to the door of the house. Gummy didn’t bother him but sat wondering what was going on. My friend said to Mr. Griffin, “Your dog bit me.” Mr. Griffin replied, “I ought to kill him.” My friend said forcefully, “No, don’t do that. Keep him up for a while. I don’t want to get shots in my stomach.”

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Which Tree?


Nebuchadnezzar of old liked to reach across the aisle. He sent alien young folks to his Chaldean graduate schools, I mean aliens like Daniel, Shadrach, and Abednego. He also allowed kingdoms he had captured and brought to Babylon, to set up little satrapies within the larger province and rule in collaboration with his regal representatives and regulations. From what I can learn about it, a satrap was like an almost sovereign county. Nebuchadnezzar was a famous warrior but also a very bright administrator and he knew a thing or two about diversity, having conquered a great range and mixture of peoples. You might say he provided a measure of freedom in there in the midst of captivity.

One of these satraps, these smaller units in Babylon, was ruled by the assimilated Jews from Jerusalem. An exceptionally beautiful married woman named Suzanna enjoyed what we might call the good life with her husband and children in that designated Hebrew satrapy. Suzanna’s home must have been very nice in that it had a lush garden attached to it with spring-fed pools where she took her afternoon baths in the privacy of lush vegetation. Unfortunately, some lustful old senior citizens from the same satrapy violated her privacy there and plotted against her.

They seized her one afternoon and told her they would testify that they discovered her with a man in the garden if she did not submit to them. She did not consider falling into their hands for a moment, but screamed, knowing all the while that all of Babylon would believe the old fellows and she would be hanged for the heinous crime of adultery.

She was, indeed put on trial and convicted. While she was awaiting the gallows, young Daniel, perhaps a teenager at the time, came upon the scene, crying out, “I am free of the blood of this woman.” When questioned by the court, Daniel stated his belief that Suzanna was innocent of the charge and that the two old men were themselves the culprits.

The officials wanted to know how Daniel intended to test his very bold theory. He said they should separate to two elders and let him question each outside the other’s hearing. They did so. To the first he asked, “Which tree were they together under?” The old man answered, “The elm.” Then they sent the other out, confining the one who had just answered. “Which tree were they together under?” and the second old scoundrel replied, “It was the oak.”

So, in front of the whole court, Daniel proved the plot against Suzanna and the two old guys were hung on the very gallows intended for her.

This is the apocryphal story of Suzanna and the Elders. An apocryphal story is of doubtful authenticity. This one does not have the ring of reality, but at least it makes a very bright hero out of young Daniel, who certainly becomes an important figure in Babylon when he grows older. As you recall, Nebuchadnezzar promoted him to very high position.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Pelvic Bones


A trim athletic male student in one of my early morning classes said, “I saw my front pelvic bones for the first time last month!” I was intrigued by his offhand, casual comment. There had to be a story behind that observation. So I asked him about it.

“Where were those bones hiding?”

“Behind fat. I have lost over 100 pounds during the past year.”

Since I, like many, struggle with weight issues, I asked him how he did it and he told me his story:

His father owned a small, old-timey convenience store in a rural area, the kind of establishment that had living quarters in back. When my student was a little boy, his father stayed busy in the store for 16 to 18 hours a day and he stayed in back watching television, eating candy bars and chips and drinking soft drinks all day. He got fat and felt bad about himself, which made him crave the comfort of junk food even more.

When he became an adolescent, he was very much overweight, socially ill at ease, especially around girls, and depressed. That is when he realized that he needed a radical lifestyle change. So he quit sugar cold turkey, tried to eat a balanced diet with plenty of fruits, nuts and vegetables and bought a membership at the gym.

He said the weight dropped off rapidly at first, then more slowly. He explained that he was building muscle and that muscle weighs more than fat.

So, my student’s comment about seeing his pelvic bones for the first time last month told me that it took him a full year to get trim. He had become a normal looking fellow and he now had a steady girlfriend, a real looker.

“What did you have for breakfast this morning,” I asked, having just gorged myself on waffles and sausage.

“I had a bagel with strawberry cream cheese and a tall cup of unsweetened coffee.”

“What will you have for lunch?”

“I plan to have a cheeseburger minus half the bun, no fries, an apple and some skim milk.”

“Dinner?”

“Sour kraut and wieners and lots of it.”

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Learning to Teach--Teaching to Learn


I received the Bachelor of Arts degree in English at Southern State College, now Southern Arkansas University, in June of 1967 and immediately moved to Alabama to do graduate work at Auburn, where I eventually earned the Doctor of Philosophy. My wife, also a recent college graduate, got a job in the Textile Engineering department there and my teaching assistantship started in the fall semester. I will never forget first walking into my assigned Freshman English class. I had no teaching experience at all and I am introverted and shy. But I knew I wanted a career as a college English professor, so I studied the Freshman English books with vigor, backed my ears, opened my mouth and taught.

By the second week I had learned that my talent for drawing came in very handy to gain and retain attention. I could illustrate poems such as “Ode on a Grecian Urn” on the old chalk board while explaining the poet’s intentions. Drawing a sprawling cartoon of the dramatic situation behind Browning’s “My Last Duchess” was a real crowd-pleaser, bringing robust laughter even from the thick-necked Southeastern Conference football champs. So, I got the hang of entertaining as I sought to impart insights into the material at hand.

Entertainment and enlightenment go hand in hand in all teaching, speaking and writing. Professors who are as dry as dust never learn this. It is as if they are so eager to get the subject matter across that they bore their audiences to tears. But there is another side to the issue as well. During the years when I was an academic dean, I had to bring subtle correction to several faculty members whose desire to entertain classes resulted in loss of credibility often culminating in loss of control. As the wise Roman Horace admonished, we must keep entertainment and enlightenment in balance with each other. Otherwise, we run the risk of being obtuse on the one hand or frivolous on the other.

During that first semester of teaching at Auburn, I learned some other things that have helped me through almost a half a century in the profession. As a general rule, college students lose more points from failure to follow instructions than from anything else. If the instructions say, “Discuss two of the following topics in a brief essay,” it is wrong to discuss one in great detail or three scantily. If the instructions say, “Answer the following questions in complete sentences,” responding in phrases will be incorrect. If the professor marks the phrase wrong, the student may counter, “But I obviously understood the material.” Unfortunately, however, the student didn’t understand the question. Another thing I have learned is that students who come to a professor’s office frustrated are seldom looking for a solution. Instead, they are looking for a listener. Very often, when students know you are listening intently, they verbalize a solution to their own problem.

The most important thing I learned in my first college class was that if I treated students with respect, I received respect in return. Even when recording an “F” on an essay, one should give written encouragement as to how to improve. People whose English is non-standard are not thereby bad people. Our linguistic skills have nothing to do with character.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Old Nancy


Probably because of all the Roy Rogers and Gene Autry movies I saw as a kid, I wanted a horse so earnestly it hurt. I let that desire be known on a regular basis to my not-so-longsuffering parents. Their answer was always the same: “We don’t have a place to keep a horse, son.” My consistent response was, “We could keep him down at the farm.” That suggested solution always ended the argument in their favor. They ignored me.

You see, we owned an old farm place in Louisiana, some 50 miles from our urban dwelling. My parents had rented their remote 40-acres and ramshackled house to an old couple named Eb and Flo for next to nothing. They kept the place up, sort of, grew an unkempt and often unwatered vegetable garden and maintained a motley flock of mismatched chickens, some of which regularly wandered up the rickety back steps and into the fetid kitchen. Eb and Flo ate at a table upon which undisciplined hens had waddled, pecking at food particles and leaving behind foul fowl designs.

Eb always had a huge chew of Red Man leaking down his stubble and he maintained several stashes of bargain-priced Red Dagger half-pints around the place. The hearth was decorated with splashes of tobacco juice and the place smelled like Red Dagger, Red Man, Watkins liniment, rotten sticks, mud and the dank and darkened pool hall in my town.

Anyway, when I could write my age in two ciphers, Mother and Pop relented and decided I could have a horse. They acted like it was their idea to keep the critter down on the farm. They purchased an old plow horse named Nancy for $20 and turned her over to Eb to use in whatever fashion pleased him, so long as Danny could ride the broad-backed behemoth on weekends. Of course, this arrangement was satisfactory to Eb, who worked the poor old equine to blisters during the week. When I rode her, I found her heavy-footed, recalcitrant, barn-prone and about as gaited as a slow loris. Old Nancy’s trot was cow-like but her walk made a delightful cradle for observing the country roads in that part of Louisiana. I was leaving the age of playing cowboys, but I learned to appreciate the way a horse ride can put you in touch with smells, sounds and sights no car ride can. And you don’t have to peddle a horse.

So, I wanted a pony, but in the fullness of time I got an old plow horse that had seen it all. She was not kid-friendly, though, so I had to learn to force my mount to do things my way instead of hers, which was good horsemanship training. The only time old Nancy galloped, if that’s what you want to call it, was when her nose was pointed toward home. Then she thought she was a quarter horse. It was a joy to feel her stretch out and even smooth out somewhat as she split the wind barnward.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Verbal Battery


Since my college is a little shorthanded in the speech department, the administration has resorted to using some English teachers like me to take up the slack. Of course I was excited about the political debates this year, since skills of argumentation are a large part of our program. We want to teach our students how to have civil arguments while putting their best foot forward.  So, I had my students watch and write a report on the first presidential debate, paying attention to such fundamental necessities as dress, grooming, eye-contact, voice control, articulation and gestures. When they came in, I judged all the essays to be successful in that they covered the subject, carefully pointing out that both candidates were professionally dressed and groomed. They gave the Governor the edge in eye-contact and gestures, but on voice control and articulation, the two were generally thought to be equal.

However, even though I didn’t ask for the students to declare a winner, most did and most agreed with the apparent consensus in the media that the Governor “won” the contest. Only four out of the twenty students enrolled wrote that the President had been victorious in the debate, though subdued. These four opined that the Governor did not resemble their previous impressions of him and concluded that the image he portrayed must therefore have been false. Other students who mentioned the ostensible change in the Governor argued that the debate was his first opportunity to appear unfiltered alongside his opponent. The language most of my students used in describing the event included words like “clobbered,” “beat,” “overpowered,” “dominated” and other bellicose descriptors.

Those word choices of my students interested me because of the etymology of the word “debate” itself. It is from an Old French word of the 1300s “debatre,” which meant “to fight.” The “batre” part of the word is related to “battery,” which means “beat,” in the sense of “assault and battery.” So, I concluded that the ancient sense of the word “debate” as a fight is still very much alive and well in the minds of contemporary students. For them, it is as if the candidates are saying at the beginning of the debate, “Them’s fightin’ words.”

I’m writing this before the vice-presidential debate takes place, but I’d wager that the attitude of the event as a fight will be very much in evidence in Danville. No matter how much the candidates smile, shake hands and even embrace before and after the debate, it is a war of words they wage.

In Oxford, Mississippi one time, I attended a panel of the top Faulkner scholars in America, two of whom had some well-known disagreements. When question time came at the end of the presentation, an audience member persistently tried to get the two of them to argue with each other. One of the scholars replied, “So, what you are saying is, ‘let’s you and him fight’.” I loved the line and so did the audience. And that’s why we love debates—watching word fights, linguistic assault and battery, you know.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Balance of Power


Violence to end violence has been a part of the human story from very early in our history. The so-called nuclear “balance of power” has that very concept at its root: the threat of violence neutralizes the act of violence on both sides. However, when terrorists who do not value human life, including their own, get ahold of atomic weapons, the concept falls apart rapidly. There is nothing to restrain such people from blowing us all away.

Along those lines of the human tendency to use violence supposedly end violence, I have been thinking about that idea in my own Anglo-Saxon roots. In the heroic poem “Beowulf,” for example, the title character comes to the aid of Denmark’s King Hrothgar to kill Grendel, a homeless demon who has been terrorizing Hrothgar’s celebration hall. Beowulf’s reputation as a strong man who uses his strength to destroy evil for the benefit of good proves true in Denmark. He rips off Grendel’s arm and hangs it in the hall as a trophy as the monster slinks back to his hideous hag of a mother.

Interestingly, the story was extant before the missionaries came from Rome. When scribes helped write it down in Anglo-Saxon, a language we call Old English, they added Christian elements. Grendel and his mother are described as descendants of Cain, doomed to wander. It just may be Grendel’s homelessness that makes him murderously jealous of the Danes.

At any rate, Beowulf uses what some may term excessive force in killing the demon, thus employing violence to end the violence against Hrothgar’s kingdom. But that episode does not end the strife. Grendel’s mother takes up the terroristic plot against the Danes and Beowulf doubles down on his violent response until the old hag is dead as well. Thus Beowulf’s reputation grows as a problem solver, one who does not turn the other cheek, but who returns blow for blow until he prevails against those who would harm his friends.

But neither does that episode end the violence. His reputation catapults Beowulf into a kingship of his own in his native land where he rules well for 50 years. Toward the end of his long tenure as a respected and feared leader, a foul old fire-breathing dragon on the outskirts of his kingdom has been offended and wreaks havoc on Beowulf’s subjects. With the help of his longtime right-hand man Wiglaf, Beowulf very violently kills the beast, but not before he himself is mortally wounded.

So, it would seem that very early in Anglo-Saxon myth, the balance of power, that is, using violence to end violence, is temporary and intermittent. As I read the old poem, I can’t help but think of the Book of Revelation in scripture. I ponder the demons, the whore of Babylon and the old dragon himself. While I don’t think Beowulf was intended as a Christ figure by the Christian redactors of the old story, they do show him victorious in the end, though mortally wounded. By contrast, the ultimate balancer of power in Revelation is victorious, alive, and armed.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Reward


I recently studied a book with a men’s group, “Soul Detox” by Craig Groeschel, that made me want to leave off movie-going for a season. The point of the book was that we often participate in activities that are toxic and some movies are part of the poison. So, even though my profession is all bound up with drama and other forms of storytelling, I decided to fast the cinema and participate in some other kinds of activities that are not as toxic.

Bicycle riding is anything but toxic, even though it may be a dangerous activity for the elderly. But I have a good bicycle, a Mongoose Deception mountain bike, and truly enjoy riding it. So, I have been using it for transportation to the gym some in the mornings, out to the college occasionally on the weekends and around my neighborhood in the afternoons.

Last Friday afternoon, I decided to use the mountain bike as the off-road machine it was designed to be. Millwood State Park has a well-planned and fairly well-maintained mountain bike path that stretches four-and-a-half miles through hardwoods and pines on the northwest side of the lake. It is a well-marked path with mile-markers and labeled stopping places with benches for nature observation. There is a beaver dam stop, an alligator overlook and other interesting nooks along the path.

Before leaving on the ride, I put on my bicycle helmet and bike gloves, checking everything about the Mongoose and looking at the map posted at the entry point of the path. I made sure my water bottle was full and checked to make sure I had my cell phone.

The first interesting feature of the ride was the many roots protruding from the ground. I learned very quickly why my mountain bike has major shock absorbers in the front fork—on that path I needed something to smooth out the very rough terrain. I had to dismount a couple of times and lift the bike across fallen branches. The only wild animal I saw aside from what I took to be mosquitos was a beautiful, well-nourished white-tail, sailing through the hardwoods. I was an unexpected intruder into her isolated domain.

Because of the twists, turns, rapidly-rising hills and gnarled roots, the ride was a slow one that required considerable concentration for safety’s sake. It took me the better part of an hour to weave through that patch of wilderness. I tried to keep both hands on the handlebars, but West Nile fears kept me swatting periodically when there was a rare patch of rootless forest floor. Interestingly, I didn’t get a single mosquito bite. I think those little boogers that were calling me cousin were gnats and not their more sinister sound-alikes at all.

Anyway, the catfish down at the Fishbowl a half-mile from the Park were magnificent. Because of the exertion I had just expended, I went ahead and ordered French fries instead of my standard senior citizen baked potato. It was quite a satisfactory reward for a bumpy ride. Next time I do that trail, it will be in insect-free winter, though.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Ending Well


I have read a lot of short stories in my life and have learned to appreciate the artistry they demonstrate. In one sense or another, all great stories have a surprise ending. Isn’t “The Prodigal Son” ending an unexpected twist? I mean, who would have thought that the father would be so extravagant in his forgiveness of his son who had gone against everything the family stood for? And who would have thought the older son would have been so obstinate about it. Also, what about “The Good Samaritan”? Even that title is a shocker because the people in Jesus’ audience would have thought of that as an oxymoron; could there be any such thing as a GOOD Samaritan?

Most of the ancient beast fables gain their interest from endings that bring us up short. I’m thinking of “The Dog and the Wolf” in which the Wolf behaves unexpectedly at the end of the story. Even though he is famished and there is a bowl of food in front of him, he had rather go away hungry than risk captivity. That same old quality is demonstrated in more modern stories.

Of course, O. Henry is famous for surprise endings as in “The Furnished Room,” a tale about a man seeking his lover in an old dilapidated rooming house in New York. Even though the reader is not in on it until the end, he finds the room in which his beloved took her own life and coincidentally takes his own life in the same location. Such surprise endings are common in the writings of O. Henry who, at times, seems little more than a literary trickster.

But, we don’t expect manipulation to achieve a surprise ending in the writings of Nobel Prize winner William Faulkner. We don’t expect surprise endings, but we often get them. In “A Rose for Emily,” for example, we don’t learn the awful truth about Emily Grierson until the very last sentence when the doctor holds up something he finds on the pillow beside a skeleton: a long strand of iron gray hair. At that moment, the sheer Gothicism of the entire story is borne in upon the reader and we realize this surprise ending is deeply organic and not manipulative at all.

Further, in my own writing, I find an often irresistible urge to give the reader something unexpected, droll or even quirky at the end of a story. In analyzing that urge, I see that many writers have it. Maybe it is a desire to imagine the reader saying, “Wow, that was interesting. I had no idea how the writer was going to spring the trap he had set. I didn’t even know it was a trap.”

I believe most writers may not be aware that they are setting a surprise up but they do so unconsciously. So, the bottom line is this: if you are not surprised at the end of a piece of writing, a movie, a play, a song or a dance, you are probably not artistically satisfied. Consider that well-known story about a Jewish carpenter-preacher who couldn’t stay dead.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Who Cares?


I guess I assume my students know more than they do when I use words or allusions that don’t register with them. Recently I used the word “decorum” to help students understand that their language usage as well as their behavior should change in some circumstances. After the blank looks I started explaining the word “venue,” but they were equally lost on “decorum.” So, very decorously, I chose another venue to explain my statement. By the time I got through with the word-study, my point had been lost, so I started over by saying, “You don’t act and talk in church the way you do at a ball game.” Even then, some of my more charismatic students lifted a skeptical eyebrow.

As to allusions, I have to be careful in assuming that everyone knows certain stories, such as the Joseph saga or the Cyclops story. It feels odd to recount Biblical and classical narratives I have known all my life to a group of adults who listen raptly with a sense of first-time discovery. And I certainly can’t refer to current events and expect everyone in my classes to follow me. I hope that is because they are so busy studying that they don’t have time to read the paper, magazines or watch television news. I hope that’s the case, but I doubt it. I suspect the problem for many is apathy.

A high school teacher was not getting much scholarly activity from her students. In frustration, she wrote in big letters across the board, “A-P-A-T-H-Y,” and then left the room. One young man tried to pronounce the unfamiliar word, calling it ay-path-ee. “I wonder what that means,” he queried and another student replied, “Who cares?”

In my opinion, apathy comes either from self-centeredness or boredom or both. Most self-centered people I have known are bored because of their inability to expand their horizons by becoming interested in other human beings. If you don’t care about anyone but yourself, before long you don’t even care about yourself; thus, apathy sets in. The best remedy for any sense of alienation is becoming interested in someone other than yourself.

But, back to my original point: good teaching requires the teacher to carefully analyze classes and define terms and allusions that may be unfamiliar to the group. Otherwise, those we seek to teach have little or no comprehension of the lesson presented. English can be like a foreign language these days and our deeply valued Western literary tradition may seem to some as cryptic as it is alien to their sensibilities.

Students can build their vocabularies systematically by looking up all unusual words whenever and wherever they occur. That is easy these days with dictionary look-up as an editing feature on the computer. But how can we get rid of apathy when it comes to reading the great masterpieces? Some of us truly care.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Chase


“Why are you lying so close to the road?” the country mutt named Rosco asked of the rotund Hound Fred reclining nearby. Rosco’s master was a row farmer a couple of miles down the road from Fred’s master’s cattle and swine operation. Rosco’s master was an elderly man who was given to new hobbies, even in old age.

Hound Fred was brief, cogent and succinct by nature, a hound of few words. So he replied merely, “Bicycle.”

“Those rolling humans again?” I have not seen rolling humans out in these parts for months,” Rosco said.

“Before daylight,” Fred explained, knowing Rosco slept late while he himself visited pre-dawn attractions such as nearby Farmer Claude’s garbage bin or the pig sty, hoping for fragments. Also, occasionally Farmer Claude’s daughter would let Beatrice the cocker out for her morning constitutional and Fred never missed an opportunity to visit with her. Beatrice was the joy of his life, though she most often treated Fred with benign aloofness.

“How many riders came by?” Rosco queried.

“Just one old dude on a mountain bike.”

“Did you give chase?”

“Does a pig grunt?”

“Could the old man ride?”

“When that sucker heard me baying he spun those pedals like a kid. He was over the hill before I got my second wind.”

This uncharacteristic loquacity and downright garrulousness emanating from Hound Fred must have been brought on by the excitement of the rare morning chase. Bicycle chasing was a pleasure second only to courting Beatrice the cocker.

Rosco asked, “Do you think he will be a regular on our road? I’d like to wait with you tomorrow and help you chase, if you don’t mind.”

“Be here early,” Fred advised.

Rosco did get there early. Very early. But Fred was nowhere to be found. He was a mile and a half away, following behind the ostentatiously prissy Beatrice, who had an air about her of love-loathing as she led Fred on into the pine thicket. She could have led Fred anywhere.

Just before daybreak, the old dude came whistling by on the bicycle and Rosco gave chase. You can imagine how shocked Rosco was to hear the old dude call his name. He stopped his barking and got a whiff of the bicycle rider—unmistakably his own master. “What’s he doing on a bicycle?! Surely he’s not drunk this time of day.”

About mid-morning Fred nonchalanted by Rosco’s and Rosco told him the whole ironic story. Strangely preoccupied, Fred grinned smugly and said nothing.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Joker


When William Sydney Porter, pseudonym O. Henry, was a teenager in Greenville, N.C., he tended to be a somewhat cruel practical joker. How he developed this inclination is a mystery, though we do know that his aunt home-schooled him and encouraged his satirical cartoons and caricatures as well as his sometimes quite poignant writings. Further, he had little patience with people’s vices and foibles.

Some of the practical jokes got out of hand as reported in Gerald Langford’s biography of the writer. Apparently Porter’s father was an alcoholic physician who, because of his drinking, had to quit his practice. Since he was not doctoring, he took up a project in the shed behind the house, intending to create perpetual motion with a water-driven apparatus. The ruined doctor apparently thought he could actually create a self-powering “machine.” Knowing otherwise, young Porter would regularly sneak into the shed and subtly skew the project, secretly laughing with glee when his frustrated father discovered the flaw. Thus he contributed to keeping the old man busy.

Another of his jokes had a remedial intention. One of the employees at the pharmacy where he worked had created a long tube or “straw” that he secretly sank into the whisky cask in the cellar of the drug store. (I think that store used to prescribe whisky for toddies). Porter hid in the basement and observed the employee sampling the whisky through the tube repeatedly and with gusto. So, when that employee was out delivering some meds, Porter got some very hot pepper flakes and laced the interior of the straw with them. The next time the employee went to the basement, he came bursting back up through the store and ran out front to the watering trough, into which he plunged mouth open. Langford reports that Porter joined him at the trough and got a confession out of him while he and the other pharmacy personnel howled with laughter.

So, I suppose it shouldn’t be a surprise that O. Henry’s first published story, “Whistling Dick’s Christmas Stocking,” contains a turn of events that could be classified as a joke played on some criminals. Dick, the hobo who was a great whistler, picks up a new stocking that has fallen off a high class buggy. He follows the buggy full of rich people and goes behind the great plantation where it stops. There he encounters a group of crooks who let him in on their plans to start a fire in the field and when all the menfolk are dealing with the fire, steal all the valuables from the house. Dick wants no part of it so he writes a warning note revealing the plot, inserts it into the stocking with a big rock. He throws the missile through a window, thereby thwarting the sinister plot and saving the plantation.

Now that I think about it, all his stories are, in a sense, practical jokes on the reader. Isn’t that what a surprise ending is—an unexpected twist that tricks you away from your expectations?

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Alive and Mobile


I’m so glad the bicycle was invented. It was truly a civilizing contribution to society. I got my first one for Christmas when I was seven. My two older brothers “taught” me to ride it by getting on each side of me at the top of a hill and pushing me down it fast, saying as they let go, “Ride, Danny, ride!” I got the hang of it quickly because I hated ridicule and skinned knees. I grew to love riding that bicycle because it gave me a new freedom to roam from home. I explored the highways and byways of my town and the surrounding country with great interest.

My cousin’s house about three miles from mine was a favored destination—or resting place on my way to other locations. Even if he was not around, I would pause there to interact with Leroy, the pet raccoon, eat a pear from the tree if there were any, check on the deeply stupid chickens, watch the development of tadpoles into frogs in the ditch out back or just sit under the Chinaberry tree and stroke French Harp, the big tabby. If my cousin was there, he would often join me on the remainder of my itinerary.

His house was on North Madison, an avenue that continued to be extended throughout my youth and young adulthood. We named our bicycle rides according to the expansion. At first it was, “Let’s ride to the end of North Madison.” Then it became, “Let’s go to the end of the end of North Madison,” then, “Why don’t we ride all the way to the end of the end of the end of North Madison?” and so forth incrementally. There was never anything to see there except road construction equipment, but in was a good tradition.

Another ride took us six or seven miles out a county to a very cold spring-fed pond, hidden away back in a thicket. It was a much better swimming place than the city pool and there were seldom more than five kids swimming there. I learned to appreciate the city pool, though, after discovering that we were swimming with snakes, some of them aggressive. You pay a price for being uncivilized, I guess.

On that topic of being uncivilized, several of us went on a few bicycle camping trips. We had trail bikes that were never intended to be trail bikes. We were always breaking spokes, chains and occasionally parts of the frame. Luckily, we knew an old man who had bunches of bicycle parts cheap and he could fix our bikes for a dollar or two. He even repaired flats. But, as I was saying, we used to go camping on our bikes way out in the bottoms where there was no evidence of human habitation. We came back full of ticks, mosquito bites, chiggers (we called them red bugs) and sometimes poison ivy, but happy and fulfilled.

A bicycle is a civilized invention, but it took me to the very edge civilization, where I felt truly blessed to be alive on the planet. Alive and mobile.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Religion of the Heart


Human beings have a tendency towards being religious. I don’t mean just in our various worshipful expressions but also in other activities such as ball games, medical appointments, registering for classes, student-teacher nights and arrest procedures. You name it. Any process that gets repeated on a regular basis gets religious and often impersonal.

One intimidating thing for me in visiting the doctor is the fact that the receptionist, the nurse and the doctor are religious about the process: They know the drill, go through the routine, take the visit more or less lightly while I am nervous, uncertain and hard of hearing. I don’t mean deaf, though I am. I mean I can’t make out what people are talking about in a doctor’s office. Are people talking faster these days or am I just hearing more slowly?

(Midwestern accents are moving south, friends. How many people have you known from up north that change their accents when they move down here? Nada. What about people from down here who move north and come home six months later talking differently? What does that say about our feelings towards the way we talk?)

I know that previous paragraph was a bad digression, but I had to get it off my chest, y’all. My subject is our tendency to be religious, that is, rigidly routine in so many of our activities. Some colleges are similar to doctor’s offices in that the academic personnel assume too much knowledge about how to register on the part of new students. Administrators and faculty at these institutions don’t seem to understand how confusing the process can be to students fresh out of high school or the work force. Instead of putting themselves in the students’ shoes, they get religious and are comfortable there while the students are very uncomfortable.

We are often even religious about ball games. The PA announcer always says “first down (name of team)” in such a way as to elicit cheers from the crowd. And the word “Touchdown (name of home team)” is articulated with considerable coercive excitement. In the stands some kid is always eating a pickle and another is burning his esophagus with jalapeno nachos. Good old boys who see each other every day and talk with their pickups door to door visit at ball games as if they have not caught up in years, while cheerleaders go through their repertoire that has not varied except in energy (and lumbar leanings) in my lifetime.

What about church meetings? I know people who go to church every Sunday and go through the motions but have no relationship whatsoever with the God they claim to worship. It is as if they think that if there is a God they will fool him into believing they are on his side by attending church. It doesn’t work that way. The religious activities that take place in a church can be absolutely meaningless if hearts are not involved. These activities can also be the most wonderful experiences of this corporeal realm if hearts are involved. Wanted: a religion of the heart.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Swallowing a Pencil

We were surrounded by family and friends at a restaurant Sunday. Convivially, my wife brought up the fact that I used to have very vivid dreams that I believed to be true until I was convinced otherwise after slow awakening. We laughed particularly hard at the one I had about swallowing a pencil. I had that dream early in our marriage when we were spending the night at my parents’ house.

At about 2 a.m. I was on my hands and knees in the bed coughing and spitting. Groggily, my wife said, “What are you doing?” Between coughs and gagging I muttered from my sleep-sodden subconscious that I had swallowed the pencil that was on the night stand. “Why did you have it in your mouth,” she asked, as if I were rational and awake. “I don’t know, but I swallowed it and I can’t get it to come up.”

At that point, she apparently perceived that I was asleep. She had always heard that it was dangerous to touch a person having a nightmare for fear of the reaction, so she got out of bed and began to call my name loudly. Her alarmed utterances brought Mother and Pop from a snoring sleep to an adrenaline-pumping awareness. They came wide-eyed into the room.

“What the Dickens is wrong with you, boy,” Pop wanted to know. My wife, beginning to see the humor in the situation, said, “He thinks he swallowed a pencil.” Mother, also amused, asked, “Where did he get it?” My wife explained that I told her it had been on the night stand. “There was no pencil on the night stand,” Mother laughed, “He’s dreaming.”

I was beginning to come to a little bit by then, and remember that Pop started laughing and had to sit down on the bed he was so tickled. For the rest of his life he would ask me often if I had swallowed any pencils lately.

Well, when my wife told that story at the restaurant last Sunday, one of our friends there was not listening to the whole narrative, having been preoccupied with the menu, the children and other matters. So, when the explosive laughter subsided at the table, he asked, “How long was the pencil you swallowed, Dan?” Then the laughter started again and I had a difficult time through the mirth recounting to him that it had been a dream.

I’m very thankful that I sleep more peacefully in my old age and have not had such a vivid and disturbing dream experience in many years. In fact, I often don’t remember my dreams. The ones I do recall, I try to record, because I read a book by J. B. Priestly called “Man and Time” which contends that we can have precognitive dreams, that is, dreams that predict the future. Be that as it may, I’m sure glad the pencil dream did not come true. I try not even to chew the end of a pencil.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Blessings and Cursings

About 3,000 years ago, seems like yesterday, when King David was running from his ambitious and bloodthirsty son, he ran into a blessing and a curse in one day. Perhaps observing how he reacted to both can help us understand the way we should respond to the good and the bad we receive from others. After all, David was a man after God’s own heart, wasn’t he?

The blessing came this way as recorded in 2 Sam. 16. Ziba, the servant of David’s best friend’s son, came out of nowhere with a string of donkeys saddled and loaded with 200 loaves of bread, a hundred hunks of dried raisins, a hundred clusters of dried figs and a lot of wine. David wanted to know why Ziba had brought all the donkeys and groceries and he replied, “The donkeys are for your household to ride on (David had a sizeable household, as you know) and the bread and fruit are for your men to eat, and the wine is for refreshment in the desert.”

David accepts the gifts and gives Ziba blessings in return. How many donkeys do you suppose were in that string? I’m guessing at least 20. And they were trained enough to be competent pack animals and apparently they were broke to ride. This was the ancient equivalent of giving someone a fleet of Cadillacs--well, maybe a fleet of Chevys--with a bunch of gift certificates. But on the tail end of all this good fortune, a curse comes:

Old loudmouthed Shimei from Saul’s clan comes out badmouthing David and pelting him and his officials with rocks. Instead of offering gifts as Ziba did, Shimei says to David repeatedly, “Get out, get out, you man of blood, you scoundrel! The Lord has repaid you for all the blood you shed in the household of Saul, in whose place you have reigned. The Lord has handed the kingdom over to your son. You have come to ruin because you are a man of blood!”

David’s men want to cut Shimei’s head off for the affront, but David says, “Leave him alone and let him curse. The Lord may pay me back good for the cursing I am receiving.” Instead of reciprocating evil for evil, David takes comfort in the fact that the Lord judges justly and may well repay the evil David is receiving with good. That should be our attitude when cursings come our way.

Similarly, when someone blesses us as Ziba did David, we should respond with generosity. Even in the Old Testament the attitude is not always an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, but mercy and forgiveness are often demonstrated. David himself received God’s forgiveness for major sins when he finally realized what he had done. It took Nathan the prophet to make him stop judging others and look at himself: Thou art the man! As we examine ourselves as David did in Psalm 51, repentance, mercy and forgiveness will motivate us, not revenge.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Dream Team

Knowing that I am a bicycling enthusiast, my son-in-law, Tommy, asked me to participate in a triathlon family relay, with him doing the swim, me doing the bicycle portion and our daughter, Ann, doing the run. Well, I had mainly been doing stationary bicycle workouts rather than regular road bicycle workouts, but, since he asked me early in the summer, I said yes.

The gym I go to has very fancy stationary bicycles with screens that make the various selectable rides very realistic. They give you the mileage, terrain, your heart rate and other data. I love the six-mile tour on those machines in the mountains called the Alpine Tour. The bicycles have 21 gears and on the terrain of that program, I used every one of them. I also enjoyed the Campus Loop, the Redwood Ramble and the Lost Trail, among others. The only problem with that way of conditioning is that you have no wind in your face and a gym can get quite warm.

My son-in-law borrowed a real road bike for me a couple of weeks before the event. It was a Giant brand cruiser and I took it out on my favorite bicycle trail and did the distance of the upcoming triathlon relay in satisfactory time. Even though the bicycle had straight rather than racing handlebars and even though it was a bit heavier than those I used to ride, I enjoyed conditioning on it and was satisfied with the way it adjusted to my, well, my rotundity.

When the day of the event came, hundreds of athletes (dare I count myself as one?) gathered at Alum Creek Reservoir and received instructions for the event. They gave me a number and wrote coded things with markers on my arm and leg, giving me a belt number and issuing our team a Velcro electronic ankle bracelet that we were to pass on to the member of our team next to perform. That’s how they tracked our time.

The swim was first and when Tommy hit the water, I went to stand by at the designated bicycle station, helmet on my head, water bottle full, and adrenaline pumping a bit. About 15 minutes later, Tommy came running up out of the water and we strapped the number around my waist and the Velcro thingy around my ankle and off I went. The tour was well marked and deputies were at every intersection stopping traffic for the racers. The temperature was in the 70’s, the sky was overcast and the ride was fairly flat except for the six-to-eight degree incline on the last mile. My only enemy (besides the excessive calories I carried around my middle) was the wind, the opposite of gym conditions.

People were very friendly as they passed me on the ride, saying things like, “Nice job, sir,” or “Just a few miles left.” Did they pity me? I don’t know, but I wasn’t last. In fact, our team did admirably, probably thanks to the exemplary athleticism of my younger counterparts. The endorphins made me say, at the end of the ride, “That was great family fun. Thanks for including me.” Would I do it again? Can I lose 20 pounds?

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Hot One

All three of the sons in my family were in the Air Force when the middle brother fatally crashed in a B-47. The year was 1961. I was overseas when I was notified and when I got to the states on emergency leave, my surviving brother had arranged for me to drive my late brother’s car home to Arkansas. Though I was weary from my transatlantic flight, I knew I couldn’t sleep and was grateful for the task of a long distance drive. I did a lot of reminiscing and praying on that lonely trip. I learned by experience along that highway, though, that thinking of others in their grief helps allay our own.

My sister was Army and all four siblings were in uniform at the funeral. You see, those who shipped the casket asked for a uniform for the deceased. When the bugle played “Taps” and the 21-gun salute resounded and the missing plane formation out of my brother’s squadron flew over, I felt alternating grief and pride. When my siblings and I went into the military, we pledged that we would make the ultimate sacrifice if called upon to do so. Death with honor is much to be venerated and those of us who have lost service men or women in our families know that keenly.

The trip back to my base in Germany was tough. I thought the pain and lack of appetite I was experiencing was grief, but soon learned it was acute appendicitis. One evening not long after I had returned to my barracks from emergency leave, I felt desperately ill. I hadn’t eaten much for the past week and my complexion was greenish. When I reported for duty after a sleepless night, Sergeant McDonald said, “Ford, you better go to the hospital. You look terrible.” I’m sure I looked like the Hulk with a tapeworm.

I obeyed my sergeant’s order and a couple of hours later, I was scheduled for surgery. My father had died of a ruptured appendix and when I told the orderlies that in response to their initial questioning, they got busy and prepped me for the event. As I was reviving afterwards, the officer who had operated on me came to my bedside and said, “Ford, you had a hot one. Got it out just in time.” I think he meant I was at death‘s door.

The recovery from surgery was also a time of recovery from grief. I remember thinking, hey, I feel better now. I have always known that we are all mortal. My faith teaches that we will live forever in Heaven. My brother is there. I will be there one day.

Of course, I didn’t keep that mindset on a constant basis, but it gave wonderful intermittent comfort. I wrote a comical illustrated letter home about my surgery and Mother kept that letter and chuckled over it for the rest of her life. She said she was alarmed to hear of the appendicitis knowing what she knew of the dangerous disorder, but when she got the funny epistle, she said, “Danny is fine.”

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Wise Old Man Fourth of July


The letter from the Wise Old Man came the last day of June. It was an old envelope, coffee-stained and bug-streaked and the paper was from a Big Chief pad. The epistle was written in pencil in careful, painstakingly stately penmanship. The paper looked as if it had been around for decades and it had coffee cup stains in three places. It said:

“Dear Dan and Mrs. Ford, please come to my home in Union Parish north of Choudrant in the New Hope Community for the Fourth of July. I’ll be serving dinner at 5:30 and I sure hope y’all can come. If you are standing in front of the Baptist Church across from New Hope Cemetery, go left for a half mile and when the paved road goes off right, you go straight on the dirt one. My place is on the creek beyond the mounds. With every good wish, ________. P. S. no need to repondez vous.”

Even though we had other plans, it didn’t take much of a conversation between us admiring spouses (or is that spice) to decide to go, which we did and we both were entertained and edified. Even though his directions seemed vague, all the geography fell into place from the time we reached New Hope Baptist to rounding the mounds to discover an antebellum plantation home, all white and shiny in the late Louisiana sunshine. The Wise Old Man was sitting in a cane-bottom chair smoking a cob pipe and waving. There were two well-maintained horses under saddle tied to the porch railing along with a skinny old white mule under pack. Twin middle-aged men, whose faces and hands were Vermeer brown, were sitting on the steps smoking big cigars that gave the atmosphere a very homey smell.

When we got out of the Toyota, the Wise Old Man said, “Hey, y’all, you’ve gone international. Last time we visited you were driving a Chevy.” I replied that it was a bargain lease car and we liked it. “Way to go, son,” he said in an encouraging tone.

“I’d like to introduce Keats and Shelley, my co-owners of this place. We call it Americus Farm and we raise cane. No, really, you know, sugar cane.” The twins grinned and blew big clouds of smoke in reply. Keats and Shelley are going down to D’Arbonne to camp tonight after we eat. They should come riding back up here tomorrow with 40 or 50 channel cat.”

As the five of us were sitting at table after eating some of the most wonderful barbecue pork, beans, slaw, corn and biscuits imaginable, the Wise Old Man said this:

“Our country is 236 years old. We have had trouble as a people, deep trouble. We are diverse, eccentric, independent, free and stubborn. But I have learned that love is the cork on the line and when it jumps you pull. What comes out will always satisfy. The cork is jumping, y’all!”

Keats and Shelley grinned broadly, both sporting identical gold teeth. Then they said in unison, “Any friend of__________is a friend of the twins.” We watched them ride away leading the old mule laden with camping gear and fishing equipment until they disappeared around the mounds. I said, “I miss the simple life.” My wife replied, “Just watch the cork, Danny.”