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.”