Sunday, March 29, 2015

New Beginnings

Abundant rains have certainly drawn beauty from the earth this spring. We worried about the jonquils around here during the ice and snow when they were first coming into flower, but these hardy plants seemed to flourish in the bad weather. So did the japonica and now the forsythia is showing off. Soon the dogwoods will join the parade and we will be in a wonderland sure enough.
Springtime represents a new beginning, just as Easter has always done in our culture. Mother tried annually, no matter how tight the budget, to get something new for us to wear on Easter Sunday. I have a photograph of my brother and me in our Easter garb, standing beside our family car, a two-tone 1952 Chevy. Curtis has on a pair of slacks and a new white sport coat with a neat little clip-on bow tie. I have on white bucks, blue jeans and a white shirt with extravagant red designs all over it. We both had fresh flattop haircuts and looked as well-groomed as we were likely to be all year.
New beginnings happened in the spring, so by the time fall semester at school rolled around, I was in no mood to begin again. I hated the start of the school year worse that a boil on the buttocks. Even though I worked as a messenger boy and carpenter’s helper during the summer, I found time for play and relaxation without any concern for bookish pursuits. But when school started, I always felt I was missing something, and usually what I was missing was fun and relaxation.
Oh, there was some fun associated with school, but not much. Let’s see, I liked band trips and trips with the band and, let me think, bus trips to ballgames with the band, and, well, that’s about it. You might ask why I thought fun was so important and academic pursuits were so irritating and unimportant. I would answer, I do not know. I suppose it took the great awakening of basic military training to convince me that fun was overrated. I learned there in the heat, with people yelling at me and, in some cases, shooting just above me, that life was serious business.
Even so, I find that a relaxed and playful attitude is a good one when it comes to learning. As a teacher, I used every technique known to the mind of man to get my students to learn and appreciate our rich literary heritage. Sometimes I was heavy-handed, hearkening to the voice of Hamlet, who said, “I am cruel only to be kind.” At other times I became an entertainer, thinking that by my theatrics I would transfer enthusiasm for the subject at hand. But when I finally relaxed and enjoyed the process of sharing what I knew of aesthetic pursuits, I found that many of my students got it.

I started out to say that spring was a season of new beginnings, so I will conclude by recommending relaxed and playful attitudes as we make new commitments to enrich the lives of others.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Vocal Visitor

Baboons yell “Hey” when danger approaches, sounding exactly the same as humans would under similar circumstances. And, I am told dogs learned to bark after they were domesticated as hunting animals as they tried to imitate the sound humans made on hunting expeditions. (I have my doubts about that one, because coyotes will “bark” at your approach if they are caught in your trap). But dogs WILL bark and that is sometimes a good thing and sometimes bad.
I suppose a bark is a good thing for a squirrel dog, since that is the way he or she says, “Hey, guys, I got one up in the top of this hickory.” Further, I feel certain a ferocious bark is a good skill for police dogs to possess, since their job is to intimidate criminals into submission. (Sometimes those dogs give teeth to their argument). But, for the most part, a barking dog is a bad thing.
Mark Twain wrote about an obnoxious barking dog in Pudd’nhead Wilson. He has Wilson say, “I wish I owned half that dog.” His companion asks, “What would you do with half a dog?” The guy replies, “I’d kill my half.” That’s how Wilson got his nickname of Pudd’nhead.
Last night we were visited by a dog who kept up a regular regimen of the most irritating sounds known to mankind. Beating on the window did not discourage him. Yelling out the door did not interrupt his avocation. When I went out there and walked directly towards him, he turned coward and retreated, but he stopped down the road a piece and continued his infuriating aria, entertaining distant neighbors. I wish I owned half that dog. (I would find who owned the other half and donate mine on certain conditions.)
My first dog, Fuzzy, came into my life when I was three. He was a great companion, often called “Danny’s Shadow.” He was a very polite puppy, but when he reached adulthood, he enjoyed conversing with the moon. Pop did not like that and tried to train him out of it by way of a razor strap, but Fuzzy was a recalcitrant student. One night he even turned on his teacher and Pop came in cussing with a bloody knuckle. I hate to admit it, but I was a little proud of Fuzzy that night. Even then I understood that you cannot train nature out of a natural being. It is sort of like the sin nature, isn’t it? As Hamlet said, “The cat will meow and the dog will have his day.” Or night.

I am on the city council here in my town and we do have a contract with Animal Control. I shall do my best today to get word to those folks that we have an unwanted conversant on a regular basis. As much as I hate dog jail, that is the place for our vocal visitor until the owner finds a way to keep his animal otherwise occupied. If that dog thinks he is imitating a human out there behind my house, I’d like to know how he got that idea. If a person sat on a stump near my house and said the same thing over and over in a loud voice, I would humbly ask him to say it somewhere far far away or or to shut up.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

For Real?

When Claudius poured literal poison into the ear of King Hamlet, figurative poison trickled down throughout the entirety of Denmark until there was a stage full of poisoned corpses and a new king who arrived in the mangled kingdom at just the right moment. Thus, Shakespeare demonstrated how corruption in high places has a way of infecting the whole state. Something was indeed rotten in the state of Denmark and that bad apple spoiled the bushel. The newly arrived king was going to have to be very careful with his words and actions to maintain credibility.
Most of us have observed the phenomenon of bad leadership infecting politics, business, education and even families. A bad apple at the top can and often does ruin a bunch of produce. We think of that fruit from the tree that our old progenitors were forbidden to eat. They ate and the poison of disobedience has flowed down the DNA ladder to every creature born.
As a longtime teacher, I used to think leadership by example was the ticket. I surmised that if a teacher set the tone of disciplined scholarship, students would catch it and become their own teachers. It worked for about 20 percent of the students, not a very good ratio. Then, I thought I would be a little heavy handed. That worked on about half of the students—some like to be prodded and cajoled into doing their best. Thus, for the last part of my career, let’s say my “mature” years, I quit thinking about leadership altogether and relaxed, enjoying the subject matter at hand and watching lightbulbs go off above my students’ heads. That relaxed and even playful attitude produced more fruit than the other methods and I liked teaching much better.
But I have come to believe that honesty and integrity are the hallmarks of truly good leadership. Acknowledging that we all have the dregs of forbidden fruit flowing in our veins, we should look for those who have settled upon lofty principles and responded to a high calling. In a democracy, a true leader should be a representative of the best deeds and words of the constituency and their agreed-upon creed, namely the Constitution.
For example, if that document is based on a worldview that acknowledges Providence, and if the folks who elected the leader largely subscribe to a Judeo-Christian credo, then the representative should exhibit a friendly attitude towards holy writ and principles set forth there, including the Ten Commandments. They should pay particular attention to the one forbidding bearing false witness. Nothing damages credibility more than being caught in a lie.

I damaged my credibility in my own household one time by trying to make a joke. I told our children a “polar bear mass” was coming, punning on “polar air mass.” When the ferocious white creatures did not materialize, the kids were disappointed, not just that the bears did not show up, but that Daddy had encouraged false expectations. From then on, when I said anything that sounded a little off, they would ask, “for real?”

Monday, March 9, 2015

Cowboy Fancy

Cowboy movies nurtured my love for horses and fancy tack all through my childhood. Roy Rogers had his big stallion Trigger decked out with every pretty accouterment known to the mind of man. And Roy himself dressed fancy to match, from big white hat to jangling silver spurs. Even then, I could discern the Spanish influence in Roy’s taste for fanciness. The ranch hands that rode with him were not nearly so splendid in dress or tack. Trigger was the only beautiful palomino stallion in the crowd and one could tell he knew how special he was. Clothes make the man and tack makes the horse.
Rex Allen was billed as the new king of the cowboys, a slogan designed to supplant the thoroughly decorated Roy Rogers, you know, kick him off the throne. But Rex was not nearly as splendid. His horse Cocoa was a pretty buckskin, but his saddle and other equipment were, well, just plain. Plus, Rex had only one gun on his brown leather belt, whereas Roy had a pair of well-appointed six-shooters on a bejeweled belt of white leather.
Perhaps Gene Autry outdid Roy somewhat, sporting a bridle with fake pistols at the bit on his stallion, Champ, along with little diamond-shaped chips in all the tack. But Gene himself did not get too fancy in his duds. Roy’s shirts would have looked right on Porter Waggoner much later on, but Gene’s were more of a ranch-hand-at-the-square-dance type shirt.
A local clothing store in my town advertised that Champ would be there on a Saturday for kids to come pet and, of course, buy the new Gene Autry blue jeans that had just come out. I went and got my turn to pet the horse a few strokes, a big gelding with a huge white spot on his belly. That afternoon, at the movie, wearing my new Gene Autry blue jeans, I saw that I had been had. The Champ on the screen did not have a white spot on his belly and he was most assuredly not a gelding.
Anyway, sales scams notwithstanding, I enjoyed the beautiful dress and tack of the cowboys immensely. It was odd that so many of us kids loved the new kind of cowboy that came along just as we were “aging out” of our cowboy years: Lash LaRue. He wore all black and was very handy with a long black bullwhip. His horse, Black Diamond, was black, as were his saddle, bridle and other tack. The only thing colorful about him was his sidekick, Fuzzy St. John, who wore plaid shirts and rode a paint horse. Bland as Lash was, all of my friends and I started wanting black shirts and bull whips. And I, for one, much preferred Black Diamond to the ostentatious Trigger.

Later in life when I had property and could afford a good horse, I bought a sorrel quarter horse gelding and a plain brown saddle. I suppose the fanciness of childhood had worn away. I still enjoy looking at horses and riders all liveried up, though.