Sunday, March 30, 2014

Sticks and Stones

It is so important to speak and write our native language well and to learn as much vocabulary as possible because by doing so we can deal more effectively with issues. I have witnessed people who can only communicate their anger, frustration or bitterness by striking out physically, haven’t you? Let me tell you about some seminars I attended that led me to understand more deeply the importance of language proficiency.

When I was teaching full time, the National Endowment for the Humanities had a summer studies program for professors at small colleges with limited library holdings. I applied and received one of these on Southern Studies in 1980 to the University of North Carolina. They were very nice to us there. The graduate assistant in charge of making arrangements for the 12 participants found my family and me a nice apartment near the campus with a pool for the kids and the library provided a convenient study area where I could keep the books and articles I needed in research. At the end of the summer, College Literature journal published a long study I wrote there on Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses. We returned to our home institution in the fall tired but refreshed.

About a decade later, an ad for another opportunity came across my desk for a grant to study ethnographic documentaries in the anthropology department at the University of California. Berkeley is a huge campus with multiple libraries, one of which houses the world’s best collection of film and video on primitive peoples of the world. I applied and received the grant. The graduate assistant found us a small apartment a couple of blocks from campus near People’s Park. Our adult daughter held down the home front in Arkansas and our nine-year-old went along with us. I had proposed writing a paper on The Sound and the Fury, but ended up writing a paper by invitation on recent criticism for Southern Literary Journal. I also wrote a personal essay entitled “An Arkansan in Berkeley” which the director had me read to my colleagues on the last day. The incongruity between my accustomed lifestyle in Arkansas and that around me in Berkeley drew considerable laughter from the group.

But as I said at the outset, the reason I mention the seminar in Berkeley is what I observed in some of those films about ritualized violence among the Yanomama of South America. Of course, I was familiar with American ritualized or stylized violence—boxing, wrestling, football, hockey, etc. But the Yanomama practiced a progressive series of violent acts to assuage anger that was interesting: it started with side-slapping, elevated to chest-pounding, then went to head-clubbing and finally to machetes or axes. Often, the problem was solved along the way, seldom requiring the final stage. I only saw film of one that had progressed to machetes.

One reason for becoming proficient in our native tongue is to talk through disagreements instead of resorting to physicality. Build your vocabulary, not your arsenal!

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Morey's Act

While I was stationed in Germany in the early sixties, the great comedian Morey Amsterdam came to our Airman’s Club to entertain the troops. I did not know who he was at the time, never having heard of the Dick Van Dyke Show, where he played regular supporting funnyman Buddy Sorrell. I loved his act at the club, though, especially his spontaneous insults to hazers. He told one disruptive young drunk in the audience to go rub ointment on his pimples. I thought that was a very satisfactory comeback. Morey Amsterdam died in 1996 at the age of 88.

The most memorable part of his performance there in Germany was his depiction of a lost airplane. He spread out his arms like wings, started humming the sound an airplane makes while looking around down below. The expression on his face changed from confusion to despair and then he burst into fake crying. The act made such an impression on me that I played “lost airplane” with my children and they loved it even before they understood it. They could both perform very credible lost airplane crying.

My older daughter played the game with her two and my youngest daughter now has three daughters of her own now and she reported recently that she was playing the game with her very creative and intelligent three-year-old. (I am a grandparent so I have bragging rights). Mommy said, “Can you do the lost airplane?” She put her arms out like wings and replied, “I’m sorry, I have short term memory loss, can you help me?” My daughter later found out that what she said is a line in Nemo. Even so, it is quite brilliant to make that kind of connection, right?

Thinking about a lost airplane, of course, we sympathize with those who have waited so long to find out the fate of the Malaysian one that disappeared. We think this is a small world, but when something like losing an airplane happens, we realize just how vast our planet is. That “needle in a haystack” metaphor comes far short of describing the scope of the search. And we cannot imagine the agony experienced by loved ones who have no closure. That kind of limbo must be absolute torture.

Human nature wants to ascribe blame in some fashion when a tragedy of this magnitude happens in much the same way angry despots want to blame the messenger. I am thinking of how Creon in Antigone blamed the messenger for bad news. Indeed, it is similar to ascribing blame to media organizations for public opinion. I know that if I had a loved one on that flight, I would have doubts about those responsible for the search. Are they working hard enough? Did they give up too easily? Do they know something they are not telling me? Even so, the blame for the loss is not lodged in government, nor in the search, but in the tragic event itself. It is the loss we must mourn for.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

New Novel

Danny and the Captain

One of my best friends runs a hardware store and knows most everyone in our county, living and dead. He is not the cold, detached kind of historian many academics become. Rather, he lives the history of our region on a daily basis. He is so keen that he can look at a 19th Century portrait and identify the probable connection to modern area families. And he is very often spot on. So, it is not a surprise that he is involved in reenactments at Historic Washington State Park. One of the joys of living in this town is the opportunity to participate in historical dramas.

The hardware store historian and I became friends a decade ago through performing together in an outdoor drama called “Woods Walk.” Sponsored by the state park, this event takes place on the outskirts of Pioneer Cemetery and features an ill-fated tobacco-coffee exchange between Federal troops and Confederates. The audience is most often made up of school children who are bussed in to enjoy historic activities and stay at the bunks set up in the 1914 Schoolhouse.

My friend’s role in the play is that of Captain in the Confederacy. I portray a garrulous former Rebel sergeant, Danny Smith, now busted to private. In the drama, the captain is furious with me because I rode his mule over to Choctaw territory and they confiscated the animal. He threatens to dock my pay and I have all kinds of arguments as to why I am innocent of all wrongdoing. In other words, my friend plays straight man to my ridiculousness.

The captain does, however, have a chance to speak to the gathering about some authentic historical events and concerns centered at Washington. I always come away from the event thinking that the kids learn much more history that way than they would in a classroom. Perhaps actually being there in the midst of the action as it may have been 150 years ago nails down the reality and horror of war.

When the Yankees call out from the woods that they have tobacco and wish to exchange some for coffee, the captain orders me to take two or three of the students as bona fide so the Feds will not think we are trying to deceive them. The students are eager to be selected, but they, of course, become alarmed when shooting starts. Since dopey Danny Smith has endeared himself to the group, they are disappointed when he gets shot “in the kidney.” His last words are, “Tell Mamma I got the baccy.”

The battle continues as the group leader takes the students back towards the 1914 Schoolhouse, with the admonition, “Be careful and hold your lanterns up; there are open graves out here.” (Of course, there are not). Other events are on the schedule for the group, such as the 1844 murder trial in the 1836 courthouse on the Southwest Trail. The children seem to love their time in Washington, but no one has more fun than the captain and Danny Smith.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Local Habitation

As I have matured somewhat in recent years, I find that I like to stay at home much more than I used to. Oh, it is still good to have a change of scenery from time to time, but even short trips sometimes make me long for home where I know where stuff is. (Even though I do find myself saying, “Where did I put my…..” quite often these days.) Maybe I have a little “hereafter” problem. You know, I go into a room and say, “What am I here after?” At any rate, I think my nomadic days are over.

Some people retire and buy a motor home to travel. That’s fine. But what do they do for a sense of place? Maybe camp sites start looking like home no matter where these motor home nomads stay. Or, perhaps it does not matter what is outside the door or window as long as the interior looks the same. However, for me, I like to see familiar trees, flowers, shrubs and so forth outside in the morning. It is obnoxiously comforting to hear the same repetitive dove calling for a mate, unable to shut up. (If he wanted company that badly, he should have stayed with the covey.)

I was wondering about the lifestyle of those traveling Shakespeare actors that performed at Historic Washington State Park last weekend. This roving pod of talent occupies motels and they work out of a van and two passenger cars. The best actor in the group, Rick Blunt, said he was taking a nine-month sabbatical after this season to regain a sense of normalcy after many years on the road. I don’t blame him.

That kind of lifestyle, living to perform for audiences, sounds pretty good on the surface: a fresh audience every night, new cultural customs to observe, delicious local foods, being appreciated out in the provinces, you know. But it has to wear on them, and, according to Rick Blunt, the wear and tear of travel can be depleting.

Even though Shakespeare himself probably geared his writing for one place, The Globe Theater, that old troupe did take it on the road from time to time, to the palace or another nearby venue. I have read that a version of Hamlet even played on a boat out in the Thames River. But when the great playwright envisioned his acts and scenes, I feel certain that in his mind’s eye he saw it being performed at The Globe. That kind of familiarity with your artistic venue has to bolster your craft. Paul Green, the late great modern playwright, told me he went to empty theaters in New York and sat in the back row as he created plays. (Green and Richard Wright sat in such a place as they wrote the stage version of Native Son).

Shakespeare also had the advantage of familiar actors for whom to write. He knew the people he had in mind to play certain roles: whether a particularly talented African actor, a gifted set of twins, a morbidly introspective lad or a pompous fool. For the great bard, familiarity did not breed contempt, but just the opposite. Familiarity, not absence, made his heart grow fonder. Mine too.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Hanging Out

My childhood friends and I had a lot of freedom, especially in the summertime. The primary way we expressed our independence and liberty was to head out on a camping trip. We always let our parents know, in a general sense, where we would be camping and we never had to search too long for some good old boy in a pickup truck to haul us and our gear to a location in hiking distance of our destination.

The Ouachita River bottom was our most common site in those days. On the plus side of that location: we could fish, swim, climb trees, dig for treasure and tell stories around the campfire. On the negative side: the mosquitos seemed as big as humming birds and they were attracted to boy flesh. We also came home laden with red bugs and ticks. Wild hogs were another problem, the bold kind that did not mind rooting around the campsite after we finally hit the hay. We eventually learned to acquire hammocks with mosquito netting from the Army Surplus store after the oldest of our group showed up with one. Hanging between two trees, a hammock was a hog-free resting place for the woods-weary kid.

The campfire stories often became quite scary, depending upon the skill of the yarn-spinner. Some could make you see, hear, taste, feel and smell all the elements of the tale. And, somehow the good storytellers always tended towards the horror genre late at night. I do not remember a single story about the Bigfoot, though. That mythical dude did not emerge in the Southern imagination until I was grown. But we did hear stories about panthers, crazy medical doctors who had gone wild and lived in the swamps, huge hogs that had an extra growth deformity (these big guys walked on their hind legs), and, my favorite, little monkey-like creatures, escapees from an exotic circus, that liked blood.

Interestingly, I never had nightmares after these stories. I guess I knew it was a story that could not impinge upon my sense of reality. In those days, I was skeptical enough not to suspend my disbelief. But some of the other kids, especially the younger ones, did have hollering fits during the night. Some of these were genuine nightmares. Others were calculated to further enhance the spooky ambience of the night.

The high point of our outings, to me at least, was breakfast. Mother packed me some eggs wrapped in newspaper stuffed down in a jar to keep them from breaking. She also packed an iron skillet, some wrapped-up bacon, and a half-loaf of light bread. I could not wait to hear the sizzle, smell the fat, and sink my teeth into the grease-sodden “toast.” I felt sorry for the kids that brought only donuts, or, ugh, peanut butter sandwiches for breakfast. I fared sumptuously and, to this day, I like a good breakfast. I do not care for horror stories, however. Even the great Poe does not ring my chimes. The only horror story I like is Gone With the Wind.