Monday, November 30, 2015

Balance of Power

The wise old man came to my house Thanksgiving eve and asked if “the little building” was available for him to crash in for a while. “Of course, sir, any time,” I told him. I fetched him the key to our converted garage and he unloaded his pack in there and came on back into our house for some strong coffee.
“What are y’all doing for Thanksgiving, Dan?”
“Sir, we are going up to my daughter’s in De Queen. I am sure she would welcome you, too. Our granddaughter is just back from a semester in Zambia, so there will be interesting conversation.”
“No, Dan, I will just stay here. The Tavern Restaurant will be open tomorrow, right?”
“Yes, but let me call her on my cell and let you talk with her.” I called my daughter and made a brief explanation. She had met the wise old man once before when she was just a little girl and she had spoken of him often. His face brightened up when I put him on the line. I don’t know what our daughter said to him, but he was glowing when the call was over and he said, “Looks like I’m going with y’all, Dan. She remembers me!”
It was a great day there in De Queen. We had a veritable feast and great fellowship. The  wise old man was fascinated with the talk of Africa. He had traveled extensively in the countries of South America, but had never been to Africa. When everyone was talked out and drowsy, the old fellow told this story:
“I lived among the Yanomamo in the Oronoco jungle for three years. Missionaries had told me how to approach the people, mainly with non-threatening poise. I found my way into Mishi Mishi Mabouiteri and stood dead still in a benign pose and eight fierce warriors surrounded me, feeling of my arms, hair and beard. They pushed me a little bit, but I kept my balance and my poise. At length, the head man, Daddy Haywire (an approximation of what they called him) urged me to recline in a crocheted hammock. I pretended to go to sleep and I could tell that pleased the warriors. After about an hour, Daddy Haywire invited me to squat and enjoy some squashed up plantains with the men, which I did. They offered me a couple of worms to eat and I did so for fear of offending. They tasted like a Studebaker floor mat smells.
“Anyway,” he went on, “that night there was a planned visitation from another village and they came in chanting and dotted with charcoal with feathers stuck all over them. Daddy Haywire enjoyed the show and they all sat down to a trough of plantain soup. A warrior from the visitors was offended at something and one of Daddy Haywire’s chief men faced off with him. They slapped each other’s sides with resounding blows that left red blotches on the skin. But they were still mad, so they started taking turns hitting each other in the chest. Luckily, that episode ended the conflict, for, I learned that the next steps in this ritualized fighting could be fatal.

“I remember thinking, this is designed to preserve life by restraint. It is sort of like a balance of power. Thank y’all for treating me like royalty. May I have that turkey wing?”

Monday, November 23, 2015

Zane Grey Formula

We should not have anything against “formula” writing, the kind in which the writer follows a plan or outline that has been successful in the past. Even the great Shakespeare was a formula writer in a sense. All his tragedies contain a war in the background, highly placed people in deep guacamole, conflicted lovers, a sword fight in the last act and the arrival of a noble person to restore order. He hung muscular stories on those organized bones.
Because of a friend, I have run into another formula writer in recent days. I was out on my daily constitutional walk in Washington, Ark. when I heard a voice above me. It was my friend working on the roof of the historic Presbyterian Church. He yelled, “Hey Danny, do you want some books?” I asked him what kind of books and he said look in my pickup truck there. I found in his front seat a whole box full of hard-bound Zane Grey novels. “Yes, thank you, I’d love to have them,” I yelled back. He told me he would bring them by my house, which he did.
The collection, maybe the complete works, is in very good shape. I made room for the volumes in a bookcase and pulled one out, “The 30,000 Head,” about a pioneer who wrests a big ranch from the wilderness out west. The formula had to do with overcoming hardships—wolves, cougars, rustlers, bad weather and discouragement—adjusting to married life (the original title was to be “The Pioneer Wife) and losing and regaining material possessions. Though Zane Grey was a commercial rather than a literary writer, I found he could string his episodes expertly and offer intermittent effusions of great description. Even though the dialogue seemed stilted in places, one could attribute that to the period, you know, Victorian sensibilities trying to hang on out West.
I saw that formula at work in the second novel I selected as well, “The Thundering Herd.” There were hardships to overcome on many levels in that book and a love relationship that culminated in marriage on the last few pages. The theme of overcoming loss was evident in the novel and descriptions were abundant, even with onomatopoetic utterances like “raaaa” for the buffalo cries, “haw haw” for laughter and “boom boom boom” for the guns of buffalo hunters.
The next novel I grabbed arbitrarily from the shelf was “Robbers Roost” and I find the same formula at work amongst a bevy of bad men. Their hardships on the lam, their female relationships and their blasé attitude towards ill-gotten gain are presented in splendidly colorful language and description. Zane Grey obviously had a good thing going.

I conclude that whether you are Shakespeare, John Grisham or Zane Grey, there is a tendency to form a system, perhaps based upon your personality and interests, that becomes a vehicle for developing your plot. “Hunger Games” is an example of this phenomenon. Charles Shultz mastered that art, as did Norman Rockwell. Can you name an artist in any genre that did not develop a formula for his or her work?

Monday, November 16, 2015

"Old School" Conversion--Roll On

Natural, intuitive teachers are the easiest ones to learn from. They seem to watch for feedback from their students and clarify topics as they go, based upon facial expressions. In other words, they want their students to learn. They do not say, “How am I going to fill up this hour with talk?” Rather, they say, “What do I want my students to learn this hour?”
I came through the “old school” ranks as I prepared for my career as college English professor. What I mean by that is not hard to explain. The scholars I admired both as an undergraduate and in graduate school opined that the best preparation was immersion into the subject matter with no thought for how to teach it. My undergraduate advisors explained it further: “If you love your subject and truly care for students, you will do well in college teaching.” As one who deeply admired and wanted to emulate my mentors, I bought that ostensible truism hook, line and sinker, readily adopting the English professors’ disdain for the practices over in the School of Education.
So, I had to figure out the teaching gig for myself, usually modeling my presentations on what I had experienced in the classroom—often unorganized banter about the reading for the day. (That banter is not always bad, of course). I had never heard of student evaluations of teaching until around my 10th year in the profession. May I humbly and modestly report that I did quite well on the forms the students turned in, often all fives with five being the highest, but there was one persistent four, sometimes even as low as three. That was in the area of “makes assignments clear.” So, with stung and bruised ego, I started reading books on teaching: God on the Quad and The Courage to Teach were two of the best. As a result, I started writing out assignments on the board in great detail, burning up about 15 minutes of class time in the process. If the project was complex, I would provide and go over a handout with detailed steps in completing it, with due dates, research guidelines and so on.
Later, when I was teaching History of English Language and Grammar at Texas A&M in Texarkana, I added another step to the practice of clearly stating the assignment: the enumeration of topics for the current class session on the board. I checked off each topic as we covered it. The education department there at A&M required that course I was teaching of their students preparing to teach and I had a passel of those in there.

One such student stayed behind after class one day and asked me how long I had been “utilizing” the goals and outcome based method of teaching. I confessed I was not familiar with the term, but that student evaluations had led me to modifying my “old school” style of English teaching to one more systematic in nature. To my surprise, the education student told me mine was a textbook example of current education practices. My conclusion is that I could have saved myself a lot of trial and error by having an education course or two back in my undergraduate years. Listen…I think I hear some “old school” English professors rolling in their graves.

Monday, November 9, 2015


As I pumped $1.88 a gallon gas on State Line in Texarkana recently, pleased that I was getting a bargain, I had an involuntary remembrance that flooded in from many years ago. I was a kid just beginning to drive a car, pausing at the Spur station on North West Avenue in El Dorado, Ark. I asked the uniformed, bow-tied attendant for a dollar’s worth of gas. It was 12 cents a gallon. The man pumped the gas, washed my windshield, front and back, evaluated things under the hood and checked all the tires, asking if he should check the spare. Then, in my recollection, he gave me a handful of little coupons to save up for a table service for Mother. They were giving away really pretty cups, saucers and plates for a collection of the coupons. So I could come close to filling the old Chevy up for that dollar while making substantial progress towards a nice gift for Mother.
Because of that memory, I started thinking about the word “service” as in “service station” and “table service.” That word goes way back, with versions in Old English, Old French and Latin. In some cases, it had the connotation of “slave” and in some, “ceremony,” as in serving some entity through ritual. I remember signing up for my tour of duty in the service, not thinking much about whom or what I would serve. I had no high, altruistic ideas about what I was doing; I just did not know at that point what else to do. When I was sworn in down in Shreveport, however, I suddenly understood what it meant: I was agreeing to serve with all that is within me, even my life itself.
As to serving with one’s whole being, the New International Version of the Bible uses the word “service” in Romans 12, where Paul explains that giving our bodies as a living sacrifice to God is our spiritual service. The King James Version calls it our reasonable service. It amounts to the same thing, though, doesn’t it? Giving all that is within us (our spirits as well as our reason) is the Christian’s true service.
We call what happens in a church building a service because it is there we make such a commitment: a promise to be doers and not hearers only. Plus the word “service” has to do with ceremony, as I observed above—serving through ritual or liturgy. In what way is singing hymns or praise songs in a church building an act of service? Scripture teaches that the Lord inhabits the praises of his people. The word “praise” is related to the word “prize.” Thus, we show how much we prize our God by singing about and to Him—that is one aspect of service. I cannot imagine why God likes to hear me sing. Neither can I understand why he likes the music of many Christian meetings I have attended. Nevertheless, scripture teaches that He does like it enough to be in attendance. So we should try to sing as beautifully as possible with the equipment we have been given.
True service, though, happens outside the four walls of the church building, doesn’t it? We could ask Mother Teresa, the Good Samaritan or Jesus Himself about that.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Gratitude Trumps Disappointment

Back in the 1950s when Hollywood still made westerns with good fistfights, one movie outshines them all: The Big Country. In it, Gregory Peck plays a ship’s captain who has won the heart of a prosperous Texas rancher’s daughter. The ranch foreman, played by Charlton Heston, is in love with the girl, too, and always thought he would be the heir apparent and get her hand in marriage. He was led to believe such would be the case. The conflict between these two men over the rancher’s daughter culminates in the longest fistfight in the history of western movies. They slug it out in cinemascope with the big austere country of Texas spread out all around them. And the fight goes on and on, with neither man prevailing. It is excruciating to watch the action go on for so long. When they are too exhausted to continue, Gregory Peck asks the salient question, “Now, what did we prove?”
The answer is obvious—nothing. But I think there is a deeper point to the story: how should we deal with disappointment? The energies of the script lead us to understand that Heston’s character deals with his disappointment in all the wrong ways. In short, he needed a plan B if his plan to win the heart and hand of the fair maiden failed. He had no plan B and there was the rub.
An earlier American story is also about dealing with disappointment, this one with a better, though somewhat odd, outcome. Hawthorne’s story, The Minister’s Black Veil, is set in Puritan New England. A young pastor named Hooper has just taken over the community church and everyone loves him. He starts dating a sweet and beautiful parishioner named Elizabeth and they soon become engaged. However, one Sunday he comes to preach with a black veil draped about his face, obscuring all but his sardonic smile. Everyone tries to get him to shed the veil, but he is persistent. Of course, Elizabeth is disappointed with his eccentricity and breaks the engagement. Unlike Heston’s character, though, she has a plan B, in that she becomes a celibate nurse who spends her life in such service and ends up nursing old Hooper himself, still wearing the tattered veil on his deathbed.
On a somewhat similar note, one would think David of old would have been disappointed when he learned from God that his long term dream of building a temple would not come to pass after all—his son would get that job. Instead of being disappointed, though, David had a plan B. He expressed great gratitude to God for his faithfulness in the past, his nurture in the present and his promise to bless his descendants. Gratitude trumps disappointment every time.

So, if this were an advice column, I would say punching someone, as in The Big Country, to soothe disappointment solves nothing—what’s the point? One effective plan B, as in The Minister’s Black Veil, would be to find an area of service to give significance to your life. Finally, a perpetual attitude of gratitude won’t even allow disappointment’s ugly foot in the door.