Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Curse of Cursing

Another third-grader and I got into trouble for using colorful language on the playground at Hugh Goodwin Elementary School in El Dorado, Arkansas in 1948. A bossy girl told the teacher on us and she promptly alerted the principal who called us into the office and read us that scripture about letting your communication be only yea yea or nay nay. When she finished, she said now what do you boys have to say for yourselves? The other kid said in a questioning tone, “Yea yea or nay nay?” That’s when the ping pong paddle came out and not for the game but for a much more serious purpose.

I tried to give up swearing after that deeply felt admonition, but with only moderate success. You see, I had a big brother role model who prided himself on being a good cusser, so it seemed impossible for me to maintain my cleaned up vocabulary for very long. I picked up a bunch of substitute swear words like dang, heck, darn and shoot until my Sunday school teacher told me those were just as bad as saying the words they represented. So, dang it, I tried to give up even those, especially in Sunday school.

In high school, one of the English teachers I admired most proclaimed that people who swear show that their vocabularies are limited, explaining further that cursing is a form of ignorance. Well, I had a strong aversion to being thought ignorant, so I redoubled my efforts at innocuous speech, this time with some success.

I learned that there were acceptable substitutes for swearing when one wanted to emphasize concepts or ideas or just to vent, words like unfortunate, infernal, execrable and regrettable. The only downside of using these words was that I began to seem nerdy to my friends. They mistook my recalcitrance to curse for weakness and thought my use of unusual words was an ill-conceived pretense. In other words, it’s hard to quit swearing once you start.

Mark Twain commented that swearing has the benefit of release of inner turmoil superior even to prayer. I think he was just being funny. He didn’t really believe that and I certainly don’t. I did know a professor in my graduate program, though, who seemed to feel a lot better after he let loose with a string of expletives. This therapeutic form of swearing, though, made him look bad in my eyes, having been indoctrinated by the high school teacher who thought of swearing as a form of ignorance. That prof never measured up to the high intellectual calling he claimed, in my view at least.

It just looks bad when people try to express their anger or frustration by swearing, doesn’t it? Thus, I am making a new resolve to avoid all forms of cursing as a matter of self-control. Call it a Lenten discipline if you want to, but would you care to join me in the resolution. That is, if you still resort to that weak form of communication.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Functional Art

I had the pleasure of meeting the great African American author, Alice Walker, back in the 70’s in Atlanta. She was just getting started back then, so it was good to see her success with “The Color Purple” and other endeavors.

She wrote a short story, “Everyday Use,” that is very special to those of us who think a lot about the differences between the North and the South, urban life and city life, life in the fast lane and the slow laid back lifestyle. The story is set in rural Georgia at a little shack way back off the main roads. A mother and a daughter (who has grotesque scars from a house fire) live together there and as the story opens, we learn that they are expecting a visit from the other daughter, who has moved to the city for education and changed her ways, her name and her identity.

She has changed her name to an Arabic name and, when she arrives, she is accompanied by a boyfriend, who also has assumed another name. The condescension begins immediately. The city sister looks down on those she left behind as ignorant, uncouth, uncultured and unaware of the ways of the world. She admonishes both mother and sister that they should be less provincial. The mother comes back with the fact that they are content in the country life and would not fit in anywhere else.

The sister explains that she has changed her name because she did not want to be identified with the family that “owned” their ancestors. She wanted a new name and a new life as a free person, not burdened by a terribly unjust past. The mother points out that she was named for her mother, who was named for her mother, who was named for her mother before her.

At this point, the city sister takes an interest in the quilts in the house and wants to take them to the city to display them as art. But the mother is firm in pointing out that, even though granny was an artist in quilt-making, she intended the quilts for everyday use. The city sister couldn’t understand why her backwater family denied the importance of those quilts as art. But the mother is firm in honoring granny’s desire to provide beautiful things that also had a purpose. Thus, Alice Walker makes a wonderful point about art’s functionality. She also draws a beautiful contrast between the kind of city people who reject history and country people who live it every day.

I do believe that quilting is a unique art form today that is both delightful to look at and completely functional to keep people warm in bed. I remember awakening from naps as a child, tracing the beautiful patterns on my own grandmother’s quilts with my finger, enjoying the art that had kept me warm. At one time, I thought automobiles were functional art. Now I don’t think we value vehicles for very long. If we know we are going to trade them in for a newer model, the whole idea of streamlined beauty goes out the window.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Fine Arts Night at UACCH

I am directing a one-act play at the University of Arkansas Community College at Hope to be performed at a larger show opening at 7 p.m. the evenings of March 9 and 10, 2012 in Rapert Auditorium. We are calling the event “Fine Arts Night” or “FAN” at UACCH since we will begin with a silent auction art show, followed by a brief musical program and a poetry reading. The evenings will culminate with our play, “The Apple,” by Jimmy Brunelle. We are currently rehearsing and planning for the evenings. Tickets are $4 for students and $5 for others and may be purchased at the college or at the door.

The one-act is a zany satire set in an art museum. When the curtain opens, a custodian is speaking to an imaginary audience about her prowess as an artist. “Someday,” she says, “the art I produce will exceed these paintings and sculptures you see displayed here. I just have not found my medium yet.” Her monologue is interrupted by a nervous young man who breezes through the museum saying, “Hey, gotta pen? Need a pen. Gimme a pen.” There is an exchange between those two that ends when an announcement comes on the speaker calling for a clean-up in another part of the museum. This comes just as the custodian is about to take a bite from a large red apple. But she does not have time to continue, so she puts the fruit down on a sculpture display pedestal to save it for later.

When she exits, the art critics enter and begin to evaluate the apple as if it were a piece of art and the satire is underway. During the half-hour or so it takes for the drama to unfold, there is truly funny dialogue and action that leave the audience considering the true nature of art. Is anyone’s interpretation of art valid? Is beauty in the eye of the beholder? Does art cause action or mere aesthetic contemplation? These profound questions are treated with downright quirkiness in the play, so that the audience is not only entertained but somewhat enlightened by the questions about art that are answered only in the minds of the spectators.

There are some truly talented actors involved with the play. We have one faculty member playing the role of Elvis and he will be the delight of the evenings with his spontaneous song to the apple and his inane rap song he creates to remain relevant in popular culture. Further, we plan to have some cameo appearances by well-known people from the college and from the community.

I have been involved in college and community dramatic productions for close to half a century and I have never had any more fun than I am having with this one-act. At first blush, the play seems silly and even juvenile. But we soon realize that those features are part of the satire, part of the transparent silliness of much art criticism. The ancient rhetorician Horace proclaimed that truly good drama must be both entertaining and enlightening. By his standard, “The Apple” is truly good drama.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Conscience Saves the Day

Despite all the dietary restrictions of the Jewish people, they consumed some terrible things during the famine in Samaria, reported in II Kings. Their city was surrounded by the Syrians and they were essentially being starved out.

Apparently, even the meat of a donkey’s head brought a great price. I can’t imagine eating any part of a donkey’s head. I guess they were so hungry that any kind of protein got consumed with gusto. Although, I was a little bit puzzled to read that even dove dung brought a good price.

It made me think way back to my middle school years when a Chinese student reported on bird nest soup. Jimmy Wong went into detail in home room about how a certain type of bird in Asia regurgitated to form the lining for its nest and that the lining was sought after as a delicacy, the main ingredient in soup. One kid in the class said loudly, “Ewwww, bird vomit soup?!” Jimmy Wong had a quick reply: “Do you like honey?” The offended kid said, “Sure, everyone likes honey.” Jimmy Wong replied, “Honey is the barf of bees.” Thus, he made his point cogently.

But the story of the famine in II Kings gets beyond gross to darkly sinister, even to the point of infanticide and cannibalism. There is a chilling story of an unsolvable situation involving both of these horrors brought before the king in II Kings 6: 28-29. Instead of solving the problem, the king blames Elisha (prophets get a lot of blame) and seeks to remove his head from his shoulders. However, Elisha prophesies that the famine will be over the next day.

This prophecy is fulfilled through two fatalistic lepers, one of whom had a guilty conscience. These two were sitting at the gate of the city reasoning with each other. The upshot of their argument was that if they sat there they would die; if they went into the devastated city, they would die… “Now, therefore, come, let us fall into the host of the Syrians and if they save us alive, we shall live and if they kill us, we shall but die.”

So, they went out into the camp of the Syrians and the Lord created a noise of chariots and horses. The Syrians thought the king of Israel had hired mercenaries to attack them and they ran, leaving all their treasures, food, clothing, horses and donkeys behind. The lepers had a party at the camp, eating and gathering treasures until one of them had an attack of conscience. “We do not well: this day is a day of good tidings, and we hold our peace: if we tarry till the morning light, some mischief will come upon us: now therefore come, that we may go and tell the king’s household.”

When those in the besieged city heard of it, they went out and feasted as well. Thus, Elisha’s prophesy that the fast would be over the next day was fulfilled. I’m sure the people were glad that leper had a conscience!