Monday, September 29, 2014

Keep Moving

Sedentary lifestyles account for a lot of health problems, especially in urban areas where people make their living in buildings. Our bodies are made for motion. One reason our leg muscles are large is that self locomotion has been a requirement since the beginning of time. Even after equines were domesticated, we continued to hone our lower extremities in catching, taming and riding the animals. Yes, it takes leg power to ride a horse, donkey, camel, elephant or mule. When the internal combustion engine came along, many of our lifestyles changed from active to sedentary almost overnight. But savvy people still understood that we must use our muscle power or lose it, so healthful activities such as walking, cycling, running and climbing became lifesavers. No, we don’t have to be devoted to exercise regimens to get the healthful benefits of leg motion. We can take the stairs, park further away from our workplace and participate in recreational activities that require movement.
The elevator and escalator have their place in very tall buildings and airports, but it does not take much more time to take the stairs. And the time lost is balanced by the benefit of climbing to our hearts and respiratory systems. If you are not accustomed to taking the stairs, you should start slow, maybe just one flight the first week, adding additional flights as time goes by. Gradually increasing the number of flights of stairs you take will result in more stamina and more endorphins, those little chemicals that make for a happier work day. Have you noticed that people who are more physically active seem happier and better adjusted?
Parking further away from work or getting off the bus or subway at a distance and walking will result in similar benefits. This adjustment in lifestyle will result in the need for walking shoes and raingear that you can stow at the workplace, keeping a good pair of work-appropriate shoes on hand there. Often, when city people walk further to work, they discover neat little shops or cafes that they did not know existed. Some even make new friends and look forward to morning and evening conversations along the way. There is something about the rhythm of walking that enhances conversation and makes us more voluble.
Finally, there are many recreational activities that require leg use. My personal favorite is bicycling, though I do not enjoy that activity in traffic. Thus, I look for peaceful bike routes. Most cities have well lighted trails with scenic stops that are seldom congested. If you look for them, you will find them. Otherwise, investing in a mountain bike and riding off-road where there is no motorized traffic can be a relaxing and muscle-building hobby.

So, since modern American urban society is skewed against use of our leg muscles, we have to find ways to keep them active and operating the way they were designed. Finding venues such as climbing stairs, walking further and having fun outside, will have positive benefits upon our physical health as well as our mental well-being.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Bad Deal

I paid the exact same amount for a bass fiddle and a 1946 Dodge when I was in high school: $96. The bass fiddle was in good shape, but I painted it black and white and put sparklers on it so it would look cool in the Hi Fis, our dance band. The Dodge, however, was in bad shape. I should have known that the clanking and slow acceleration were signs something was not right when I test drove it. But I liked the looks of it—like a giant dung beetle. It was maroon and it looked as if someone had painted it that color with a brush.
The guys in the Hi Fis loved that car. It was a four-door and we could all fit into it, five of us, even with the bass fiddle looming in the middle, with the neck almost hitting the front windshield and the pike against the back one. We could get the drum set in what we used to call the turtle-hull and the other instruments graced the floorboard. My musician friends looked like sardines in a tin as we took off to our gigs around Union County and Lincoln Parish.
One of my favorite events we entertained for was a big birthday bash for some executives of an oil company in my town. The daddy of our trumpet player was the big honcho, so we got the gig. There was a huge buffet involved, so we growing boys got plenty of caloric in-take that evening as we took musical requests. The trumpeter could play anything by ear and he would call out the key to the others in the band. We would find it, sort of, and join in. One good thing about the bass fiddle was that I could fake it if I got lost. I would just deaden the vibrations with my left hand instead of actually playing notes. Thus, I became part of the percussion section at those moments and no one seemed to notice, even my Hi Fi colleagues.

But, as to that Dodge, it threw a rod on one of our outings and we towed it to a vacant lot near my house. My admired adult mentors thought it would be good for me to fix the car, so I set to work. When I dropped the oil pan, lo, pieces of the cam shaft and cylinder wall floated in a shallow pool of black. I told my big brother, an adult I assumed had good sense, and he advised me to save up some money and order a rebuilt engine from a catalog he loaned me. I did so, paying considerably more for the motor than I had paid for the car itself. A taciturn friend named Lamar, who was a natural mechanic, helped me drop the engine in there. I drove it two weeks before the rear-end fell out and then all my mentors, including my big brother, said, “You ought to sell that hunk of junk.” That advice would have been more apropos before I bought the dumb engine. Anyway, I was able to recoup some money, but overall, it was a bad deal.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Here is an article I wrote for a magazine on Creative Teaching

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Nuns Fret Not

Young children love structure in their games. Don’t you think that structure is the main reason games such as “Mother May I” and “Hide and Seek” have been so popular with young people for so long? Kids in my family want rules and they want them enforced. My children were that way and so are my grandchildren. Games reinforce their sense of justice and fair play. Later in life, when it is time for baseball, sportsmanship is in place and they insist on abiding by the rules. Playing by the rules enhances self-esteem, in that, even in defeat, a player can take pride in an honest loss.
As a child, I played baseball with insufficient equipment in vacant lots, with bases made of rags or ply-board or even rocks. The younger or less athletic kids would volunteer to be umpires and what they said went, not without some controversy. But we loved the structure and abided by the way the game was supposed to be played. We might throw a fit, but the rules ruled!
Free-form games like “Sling-the-Statue” were not nearly as popular because of the infinite variations possible. Win or lose, we wanted anticipated outcomes. Our sense of security and community demanded it.
Likewise, more sedentary adults like games with a similar form of structure with well-defined rules. Consider the crossword puzzle page, Sudoku or Cryptoquotes. These mental games require considerable conformity so that honest completion brings a kind of catharsis.
In literature, game rules such as formulae and forms have been ever popular, all the way from the limerick to the sonnet. Even Shakespeare had a formula for all his great tragedies: there was always a war in the background; there were always conflicted lovers; there was always great disorder culminating in a terrific sword-fight in the last act; and some important official always restored order at the end.
The famous romantic poet, William Wordsworth, even wrote a sonnet about writing sonnets in which he observed that “Nuns fret not in their convent’s narrow room.” The analogy was to the “narrow room” of the sonnet form, 14 lines of iambic pentameter with a set rhyme scheme, not an easy form to manage.
The villanelle is perhaps the most intricate poetic form and the most difficult to write with its restrictive rhyme scheme and strategically placed repetitions. Two of my favorite villanelles are Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” and Roethke’s “The Waking.” The form of these poems plays a huge role in the overall effect.

Even this column has a kind of form and formula. I try to keep it to 500 words more or less and I strive to give it a little twist at the end. So, all the way from “Mother May I” to newspaper columns, there is a form upon which thought rides. The writer hopes that his art will hide the formula and that the thought will shine. After all, there is something satisfying about baseball well played.