Friday, September 28, 2012


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.