I was lucky enough to work on the stage version of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD for about eight weeks one summer. There were so many moments of inspiration in the text it would have been easy to slip into the creative trap Peter Brook refers to as “holy theatre”. Fortunately, we had a fiercely intelligent director that kept us out of danger.
Of all those inspirational moments, I think my favorite was Atticus’ explanation of courage;
“I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.”
Sometimes you do…
That phrase has gotten me through a few difficult decisions.
Well before there was Opus and Bloom County, Michael Doonesbury and Walden Puddle, Calvin and Hobbes in their spaceship box, and Alice on her manhole cover in Cul-de-Sac, there was a swamp in Georgia inhabited by Pogo Possum and his friends. The swamp was furnished with tree-stump homes with never-locked doors, flat-bottom boats with ever-changing names, fallen log pillows always near to hand, and endless time for big dreams, small-minded schemes, and more than occasional, if accidental, wisdom.
Walt Kelly was the creator of this world. He is a hero to me.
When I feel caught in a maelstrom of conflicting, negative news (all too often in these days of the 24/7/365 news cycle) I find it useful to dig out my old Pogo collections, drift into the lagoons of Okefenokee Swamp and jettison my final consonants. I drop in on Pogo’s home to see what he might have in the larder for lunch; whether he’s home or not – don’ matter – door don’ have a lock an’ he don’ mind.
With any kind of luck at all I’ll avoid crossin’ paths with Wiley Catt, or Mole, Deacon Rat, or Sarcophagus MacAbre the funereal buzzard; who needs that negativity? I’ll delight if I happen to run across Freemount Bug and receive his universal assurance that everything is “Jes fine.”
And then there’s that giddily chirping turtle in his pirate hat; Churchy LaFemme. Churchy’s lament from the 1950’s resonates with my own reactions to the news reports from the last few weeks.
“…I is doin’ my duty as a citizen…night an’ day! Lyin’ awake worryin’ at night – afeared to sleep in case I gits blowed up in my bed an’ never knows! An’ all day – scannin’ the sky – not knowin’ when…wonderin’ whether to wear pajamas that night so’s to be found decent – wonderin’ whether to take a bath…whether to pack a light lunch.”
I know the feelin’.
It’s reassuring to me to know we fretted about the viability of our world 60 years ago – that we didn’t invent the urgency we currently feel – that it all might be solvable and survivable.
I’ve just learned tonight of the death of a high school friend, Thomas Hale.
Tommy was bright. Tommy was verbal and cheerful.
He knew more than I did about music in general and jazz in particular. By that, I mean he didn’t just love the music, but he knew why he loved it and he could share that knowledge.
Tommy DJ’d a Sunday afternoon jazz program on WLAP-FM.
This was in the late 60’s. At that time, FM radio was an afterthought. Most of the radios in the market didn’t even have FM reception and the owners of those that did were mostly uninterested. FM was where I went to hear Ben Story’s late Saturday night folk music broadcast (where I discovered Judy Henske, Phil Ochs, Patrick Sky, and the Limeliters – look ‘em up, — you can thank me later), or classical music and opera, or rhythm and blues (Gladys Knight, Ike Turner, Hank Ballard, and Carmen McRae – look ‘em up), and jazz…yes, indeed…jazz.
WLAP-FM’s format (this was before we knew what “format” was) was targeted to the African-American population of Lexington…enthusiastically so. I believe, at one time, it was rated #1 by Ebony Magazine.
It was trés cool.
<< “Well hello to you and salutation from the West Georgetown Street Blooooooz Association. Sink or swim, you’re in with them; WLAP…FM” >>
All the DJ’s had on-air nom-de-plumes. “Little Bee” assured that he was about to “put a little hep in your step, glide in your stride, and gut in your strut.” I was in my teens and needed every bit of that I could garner.
Tommy was “The Hawk”.
His Sunday program didn’t feature too many vocalists and it wasn’t “easy to dance to”. He tried to keep it lively but he was passionate about the music and he could tell you why.
A couple of Sundays he invited me to join him at the station for his show. I sat in the back, a goodly distance from the live mikes, and watched and listened. Tommy had to be his own engineer. He juggled tapes and lp’s and a myriad of dials and switches to deliver a seamless (to my worldly 16 year old ears) program of Brubeck, Tommy Hale, Miles, Tommy Hale, Prez, Tommy Hale, and Coltrane…and the Hawk.
Some of it all…
To this day, I hear this music and recognize it and thrill to it instantly. But I can’t always tell you why.
Tommy and I graduated from Bryan Station and went our separate ways. I have not seen him since.
And now he’s gone.
He gave me a treasure, a soundtrack for most of my life.
I collected baseball cards when I was a kid. They’re gone now. They’ve suffered various fatal fates over the years. Some of them were sacrificed early (Don Clendenon, Marv Throneberry…) and attached to the spokes of my bike to change my whirring wheels to WHIR-R-R-R-RING wheels. But others were precious; Pete Rose’s rookie card, Roberto Clemente, Mickey Mantle, Warren Spahn, Fritz Brickell…treasures all.
Which curling cards would be the gems?
Well…this tyro would be seeking the cards of Nina Roth (US Ladies’ icy assassin), Italy’s Stafania Constantini, John Schuster and Tyler George (the passion and the skill of the US Men), and the sultry Swede, Almida De Val (because…well…damn).
AND the entire South Korean Ladies squad. They gave themselves English marketing names based on what they had for breakfast. Ya gotta root for a team with players named; Pancake, Sunny, Steak, and Annie (a brand of yogurt).
I was the whitest and worst soul singer in the world with the best band in Lexington; the Mercymen. My muddled feelings of embarrassment and pride over that fact muddle me to this day.
It was the late 60’s and Lexington had a bunch of bands. They were all young and they all worked with regularity and enthusiasm…and occasionally, well. There was the Love Machine, the Torqués, the Mag 7, Harold Sherman’s group whose name evades me (they did great covers of The Kinks), the Exiles (they were plural then), and the Mercymen.
I claim at least temporary preeminence for the Mercymen because we won a summer-long, city-wide “Battle of the Bands”.
In the late 60’s several city parks had weekly outdoor dances during the summer. In the winter, every high school, and some junior high schools had sock hops on Friday nights after the football games. There were also gigs at private parties at horse farms and country clubs, and night clubs willing to forget to check the ages of the members of the band.
For a couple of years the gigs were copious, the money was great (especially considering we all lived at home, attended high school during the day, and had no expenses). Since I was also driving my dad’s refurbished 1959 sky-blue Cadillac to many of the jobs in those days, life was pretty damn good.
Yes, life was good, the band was good, the money was good…
…I was not.
Oh, if you needed someone to intone the Mag 7’s opening to “Stubborn Kind of Fellow”; “Here’s the one you’ve been waiting for all-l-l-l-l night long…”
Or, if you needed someone to mush-mouth the non-existent lyrics to “Louie, Louie” and leer…
Or, if you needed someone to string out “Hey Jude” for 20 minutes so the band could catch a break…
Or, if you needed someone to plumb the psycho-sociological depths of Otis Redding’s “Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa” (I think I got the right number of Fa’s in there)…
I was your guy.
Well…after the first half of the first song, I was shrieking and growling in a vocal range of about three notes.
We all started out young. The band got older and better. I got older.
The Mercymen were a group of young fellows that were as close to gentlemen as teen-aged rock band members could be. They endured my tenure as vocalist with glazed eyes and slumped shoulders, but encouraging words. The protests when I had to leave the band were unanimous, polite, and heavily laced with palpable relief.
About three months later, I saw the group at a big multi-band back-to-school outdoor dance at Lexington Mall. They had a new singer. They had gotten a whole lot better.
How dare they!
I see the Mercymen have reassembled all these years later. Some of the original members are still in the band. I see them playing with glee and as I watch, I see their young selves on drums and guitars.
I know little of Lindsey Vonn’s late grandpa, only the few minutes NBC featured before tonight’s event.
Maybe he was a member of the NRA. Maybe he taught Sunday school. Maybe he voted for Trump. Maybe he liked anchovies. I just don’t know.
I know he served our country in Korea building roads and lived in Wisconsin cornfields building ski trails for his kids and grand-kids. And I know he compiled reams of scrapbooks about his granddaughter. And I know that he could barely speak of the immense pride he felt watching his granddaughter ski.
Last night, I spent a few minutes with a friend and new grandmother. I saw for myself the beginnings of that same grand-parental pride.
Grandpa Vonn’s pride contributed to giving us a planet-enhancing young lady and I fully expect my friend’s pride will give us a planet-enhancing young man.
I know little of Grandpa Vonn, but I think I know enough to add another hero to my world.
We are different.
All of us are different.
There are those (people and parties and clubs and networks……and now it seems…countries) among us that profit by shining a harsh light on those differences – pitting us against each other.
We might be closer to our best self if we take their harsh light and turn it back upon them, exposing and blinding them…yes…blinding them while we focus a different, more useful light on those same differences; a celebratory light that entertains and inspires.
So…this gray-haired geezer guy who detests cold and snow will thrill tonight watching the blond and impossibly young Ms. Vonn slide down a snowy hill, and I will hold my breath as Nathan Chen does quad after quad on ice (quel horreur!) and Yuzuru Hanyu demonstrates precisely what a wonderful world it can be.
Well…the pitchers and catchers are scheduled to report tomorrow.
Normally, today would be a day of hopeful anticipation. Spring will come and the voice of the turtle will be heard over the land. The boys of summer will go back to work…playing a game…THE game. The geography of grass and chalk lines – the textures of leather, and horsehide, and stitches – the susurrus of a shirt-sleeved assemblage, the crack of a bat, and the primal scream of a winter-rested umpire – will all hint that some un-urgent sense and poetry might still redeem us.
It’s gray and rainy almost every day.
Mr. Trump inhabits the one house he can never own but only continue to degrade.
We still allow 19-year-olds to slaughter our children with AK-whatevers.
And many Kentuckians fear the end of the world.
The Kentucky basketball team is threatened with losing a number four seed in the NCAA tournament if they fail to demolish their opponent today. If that’s not the end of the world, I don’t know what is.
My advice to the pitchers and catchers? Delay packing for tomorrow until the UK game is decided. Tomorrow’s reporting may be cancelled due to the end of the world.
But on the other hand…
It’s not snowin’, the house is snug and dry and warm, and inhabited by Janie on this Valentine’s Day.
I’m gonna vote every time I’m allowed and vote loud and the results of my winning vote will not be able to spell “NRA”.
And we might win today. Frankly, I like our chances.
Maybe that’s all just me lookin’ at the world through blue-tinted glasses. Ma vie en bleu, n’est-ce pas?
In Kentucky, we have artists as well, and they have things to say.
We have Jean Ritchie…and Mitch Barrett…and Dwight Yoakum…and Everett McCorvey.
We have Michael Shannon…and Ashley Judd…and Joe Montgomery…and Jennifer Lawrence.
We have Frank X. Walker… Robert Penn Warren …Charles Edward Pogue…and George Ella Lyon.
We have storytellers…and stories…and dreams…and hopes……and more than a few suggestions.
Throw them away, ignore them if you will. Discard them, and discard a path to success – a path to wonder.
Yes, it’s useful and good to pursue and master the employable skills of today.
But to what end?
In the theatre, we consider the whence, the whither, and the why; whence have we come, whither are we going, and why are we making the journey. These questions match up remarkably with Kentucky’s historic place in the life-arc of our nation. Great questions and great possibilities have flowed through Kentucky, why should today be different?
…only if we continue to choose to be small…
The arts can provide the “why”.
There is a saying;
“If you have two pennies, spend one for bread and one for wine; the bread so you can live, and the wine so you will want to.”
Then I smacked myself and came back to my senses (which, of course, a crash-test dummy, lacking senses, can’t do).
I flipped on CNN that afternoon expecting another episode in the 24/7/365 Trump Reality Show. I was curious to see if Turtleman and Honey-Boo-Boo might be opening for Stormy Daniels at Mar-a-Lago that weekend. Instead, a giant rocket loomed on the screen and an amplified voice droned; “ten…nine…eight……”
My happy assumption was that I had stumbled onto Turner Classic Movies during a surprise screening of Destination Moon (1950, with John Archer and Warren Anderson). But no-o-o-o. This was another kind of reality show…real reality (imagine that)…heroic reality…not the fake kind.
I instantly became a fourth-grader again, on a morning in May of 1961, listening to the PA speaker in my classroom broadcast Alan Shepard’s 15 minute flight in his Mercury Freedom 7. Our school lunch that day featured Shepherd’s Pie in honor of the feat. It was an impressionable time.
And this day, Elon Musk, an immigrant from South Africa was about to put the US back in first place in the space race.
This day there was no Alan Shepard or any other astronaut on board. Instead, Mr. Musk had loaded his cherry-red Tesla with a crash-test dummy in the front seat. I suspect if you Google “panache” you will find Mr. Musk’s bio there.
Like a spear hurled into the sky, that rocket ripped into space, and that dummy began his billion-year cruise around the sun and Mars. I hope they included a big playlist on the music player.
To be that dummy…
I’m OK now…well, maybe the concussion protocol might in order.
I had forgotten the thrill and inspiration of a US rocket launch and US space exploration. I don’t want to ever forget it again. And I still wanna be an astronaut when I grow up.
I’ve been pondering mobility, or rather the lack of it, as an important element in some horror films.
Normally, we’re a lot more a’feared of a terror whose current location is uncertain and moves mysteriously and quickly (ala the alien in Alien or corona viruses) than we are of a known and fixed enemy like…say…a patch of poison ivy. I don’t fear poison ivy, I avoid it like the scourge that it is. I can’t outrun much on this planet, but I can outrun poison ivy. It can’t “cut me off at the pass”. Viruses however…those little suckers are everywhere! This is the stuff of most horror flicks.
But there are a number of horror films that feature stationary menaces, or menaces that move at glacier-like rapidity. I have viewed a couple of these recently; The Living Head (Mexican), and The Head (German). Two other previously viewed films; They Saved Hitler’s Brain and Donovan’s Brain (both USA), would also fall into this sedentary and thus far inadequately studied category; films about living heads with no bodies (no legs, arms, wings, or driver’s licenses). The writers of these films are required to strive mightily to make these threats plausible since anyone could escape by simply falling down and crawling.
So, how do they do it?
Well, in The Living Head and They Saved Hitler’s Brain, we are shown mesmerized worshipers of the head toting it about from place to place. No one seems to notice or care or check the luggage until it’s too late.
In Donovan’s Brain the titular brain (aka the leading lobe) enforces its desires through emanations (wouldn’t that be a great name for a baseball team or a doo-wop group?)
In The Head it’s as if the writers don’t even try. The threat simply exists as a sideshow to be gasped at. Meh.
Until Brendan Fraser, mummy films had much the same problem. Bandage-bound Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee were not precipitous critters. Writers on these films worked hard to either trip or trap. They would trap their victims in a corner, or just trip them repeatedly, or paralyze them with fear. Fainting was a popular and useful (to the script writer) response. Plausibility fled as the mummy shuffled.
Two films come to mind that actually turned this lack of mobility into a positive. In The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, those malevolent pods can’t move, but are placed where they are most effective by previous victims of the pods. This is effective because of the mathematics of the situation. One victim begets two. Two beget four. Four beget eight. Eight beget… You see the problem. The rapid and devastating multiplication of zombified neighbors and public officials is completely plausible and scary, especially in today’s world of pyramid schemes. Of course one is left speculating whence cometh the terminus ad quo pod.
Personal note; I hate pods to this day. I look at sugar snap peas and shiver.
In the beginning of the film The Day of the Triffids, the starring plants apparently cannot move. But after the Earth’s population is blinded by a handy meteor shower, the plants pull up their roots and reveal their slow, but inexorable mobility. The fright factor soars. Kudos for the writer! BUT, look how hard it was to make effective – handy meteor shower? Please.
And that’s my point. Writing is hard work. Why make it harder? Writers should unleash their terrors, not nail their feet (or whatever might pass for feet) to the floor.
Indulge me one more example.
The Monolith Monsters featured mountains that grew quickly (stay with me, now) and fell on you if you were foolish enough to stick around and watch.
Let that sink in…but don’t let it fall on you.
This film reminded me of my one and only visit to Phoenix, Arizona. I looked out the window of my hotel room and saw, not too far away, a butte. Is that the correct term? There were two impressive houses built snugly into the base of the butte. I remarked to the bellman that I would be fearful of living in those houses because of the possibility of gigantic rocks falling on me. He replied that the rocks never fell.
Let that sink in.
I gazed again at the butte surrounded by the Greyhound-Bus-sized boulders that formed the 60-70 foot high slopes of the butte. It reminded me of my California-living friends who blithely dismiss earthquakes as a factor in their lives with; “But the weather’s so nice all the time.”
Blissful denial…perhaps that’s the key to the monolith monsters’ path to success.
Well, it might work for malevolent mountains but it’ll never get you elected president…or…