Sunday, November 30, 2014

Free At Last! (essay)



A recent radio broadcast of American folk music was organized around the sentimental theme of "Take a Train." Songs like The Wabash Cannonball, Davy JonesGotta Travel On, From a Boxcar Door, The Hobo's Last Ride, and Waitin' for a Train were featured, by The Weavers, Jimmie Rogers, Boxcar Willie, Roy Acuff, and others.  Those are great songs, and the mythology of trains in America - probably in most developed parts of the world, in fact - is an irresistible self-indulgence for many of us from time to time.

On this program there were quite a few songs from or about the Thirties, songs about hobos riding the empty cattle cars and even flat cars looking for work, songs by men looking back over those hard times, not with horror or fear, but with nostalgia.  The theme was often how free a guy felt, riding the rails.


It seems politics have never been more all-encompassing than they are these days, and the attractiveness of freedom is a standard rhetorical tool for many politicians and commentators. 

     "My party is based on freedom."
     "I'm going to protect your freedom; vote for me."
     "The other party wants to take away your religious freedom."
     "America is the land of the free."
     "Corporations need to be free to compete globally
             and keep America the greatest nation in the world."
     "All peoples of the world want to be free."

These are typical political lines we hear these days that are sure to arouse cheers.

Some of us find it loathsome that someone who claims to support freedom backs laws that would in fact deny the level or kind of freedom that others - like women, or gays - already have.  That has happened often enough that the question has been discussed just how large (and loud) groups could seriously think such legislation could strike a blow for freedom.  I have asked myself if it could be that these people in fact want only themselves and other like-minded people to have the "freedom" they want in order to take away the freedom of those who think differently.

"Whose freedom does that party or that individual really support?" I feel forced to ask myself, since they so clearly don't support "freedom for all."


How many different meanings does the word freedom have in common usage today?

     "Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation to free the slaves."

     "Send us your name and address, and we'll send you - 
       absolutely free of charge -  this marvelous product!"

      "When can we meet?  I'm free all day tomorrow."

     "You gave how much as a tip? Mighty free with your money, 
        aren't you?"

     "That soda is sugar-free."

     "Sky-diving makes me feel free."

     "What's the difference between blank verse and free verse?"

     "The United States is a free country."

     "The opponents of Assad want the Syrian people to be free."

      "In the privacy of your own home, you are free to do as you like."

     "I'm a free man [woman], responsible only to myself."

Besides, if we go beyond explicit words, we have to recognize that one can feel free or not-free in many other ways too.  For instance, if your family is depending on you to do well in school, you might feel you are not free to just be yourself.

Or if you have little or no money, you might feel trapped in poverty.

When you're sick, you're not free to have fun or eat or drink your usual favorite stuff, or go out.

If your boss doesn't just tell you what to do, but also tells you exactly how do it, you might prefer to be free to do your work your way.


Our sense of feeling free or not-free depends on what we sense others expect of us.  Sometimes we expect the same of ourselves and may even appreciate the support of someone else.  But we also might resent others presuming they can impose their wishes on us, and we might resent that even when we share the same hopes and dreams.

We may go so far as to imagine that certain other people - parents, spouses, bosses, friends... - that certain others have expectations of us that they don't have, in fact.  We may not be the protagonist in their own life-drama as we imagine, but we feel their expectations anyway and do not want to disappoint them.  We resent that extra burden they seem to us to have placed on our conscience.

Who has (or may have) expectations of us?

      Parents, family, friends



     Bosses, authorities of all kinds including coaches, police, ministers ...

     The waiter who serves you, the supermarket checker, the bartender...

Most of us can find ourselves from time to time trying to "live up to" the expectations of us that we can only imagine others actually have.  Think of buying a subway ticket in New York City... or Paris, or London.

But we'd rather feel free.

          When I hop aboard a Boxcar
          And hear that mighty engine start to roar
          I miss the freedom that was mine.
                                                       ("Old Train")

One has the impression that a significant number of Americans today feel that their freedom is shrinking from what it once was.  What is creating this feeling?

Perhaps -

More and more of us are growing older, and we just can not do anymore what we used to be able to do easily ...or at least to imagine ourselves doing it someday if we just felt like it.  We are thus not free to do all we might like to do.

More of us these days live in metropolitan areas with large populations, busy highways and streets, lines at the supermarket or the huge Walmart or the Macdonalds or the beer store or the gas station...  or the public library.  We seem surrounded by people, even crowds, every minute of every day.  The houses are closer together than where we lived as children, and the apartment houses are bigger, with more people living in them.  So strangers seem to be looking at us, all the time.  We can't get free of these observers.

Besides, whether on the streets or in the media or even dealing with voices on the telephone menus, those we are dealing with are not like us - as much as they used to be.  They haven't lived in my neighborhood for generations.  They have darker skin and accents, talk faster or slower, louder or softer, and even speak different languages...  How can we feel at home anymore?  You know, at home where you feel free to just be yourself?


To whom, then, would political claims of supporting freedom most passionately appeal?  Middle-aged individuals, or older?  Folks who have to be painfully careful with their money? White racists?  People who are just not ready to take on social responsibilities?  All those, and others too?

If we are deeply and persistently emotional about something, we are unusually vulnerable to manipulation by a clever and perhaps cynical person who wants to use our emotions to make us think or act in a particular way.  If we are deeply and consistently angry about something, or fearful of something, we can more easily be misled than we might be normally.

So, those of us who resent our apparent loss of privacy, who are uncomfortable at the strangers around us, who are afraid we are losing the strength that in our youth made us feel invulnerable, and who are angry at how everybody seems to want to dictate how we should think or talk or behave - we are susceptible to the manipulation of people or groups whose success depends on our believing that they are like us and understand us and will help us fight back!

If politicians can make us feel they are on our side just by saying how highly they value freedom, then - guess what? - they will tell us that.  And we may not be as likely as we would normally be to check to see if a politician's past actions and her or his other professed values indicate that the claims to value freedom are truthful or that these claims are, instead, only dishonest attempts to use our deep-seated passions to lead us by the nose.


When I was growing up, whenever anyone mentioned freedom, a little admonition about responsibility always, always followed:  "You know, with freedom comes responsibility."  The politicians these days who talk about freedom the most often don't ever seem to mention responsibility at all.  Have you noticed that?

...And what does that tell us?


Monday, November 17, 2014

It Wouldn't Break a Snake's Back (Reminiscience)



The thoughts of youth, we are told, are "long, long thoughts."  So the thoughts of the old, like me, must be short-shorts, right?

Well, not really.  For us oldsters, we may actually be expected to ask ourselves the big (BIG) questions, like --

  • If I had it do over again, what would I do differently?

  • From my current perspective, what aspects of my life seem regrettable, and what are the achievements I'm the proudest of?
  • How do I want to be remembered?
  • What were the key turning points in my life and career?

 And so on, and so forth...  Answers to such questions are not short-shorts, and are also not based on the hopes and fantasies of a callow youth but on the real-life events or at least the memories of a reasonably sentient creature with clear recollections and mature reflections.

Such thoughts may or may not be worthwhile, even so.


Turning points?

The fact is - fortunately - there are more notable developments in the story of my career than points at which the course of things took an unexpected direction.  In other words, there were more events pretty closely in line with what was planned than significant changes of course.

Going off to college certainly started a new part of my life, living 1,100 miles from any of my family and making just about all decisions about how to spend my time all on my own. ...But that wasn't really a "turning point," since it was always assumed I'd grow up and that I'd go away to college somewhere.

Was it a turning point (that is, is it worth discussing) that I chose to go to a big state university in the Midwest rather than to stay closer to home in Texas or move to the East or the West?  The experience would have been different, to be sure, but I don't see any interesting way to think about how my whole life would have been different if I had.  It seems likely I would have done pretty well in the West or the East (based on later experience) and that my major interests would have developed along similar lines...

Now, as I finished my (midwestern) B. A., that was a turning point.

My father was a well-known college professor; also, the Director of a School at the university.  I knew from close observation what his life was like.  If anyone happened to ask me during high school or college what I planned to be "when I grew up," I always said the same thing:  "I don't know what I'll be.  But I know one thing: I'll never be a teacher, or even more surely, I'll never be a college administrator."

Yes, okay.  So looking back from this perspective, it is impossible to miss the fact that I spent over 20 years as a teacher and more than 20 years after that being a college administrator.  We could emphasize the irony of all that, but then again, that's not really the story of my life: "He did do what he said he would never do."  True enough, but frankly, it doesn't seem from this perspective to have really been a big deal.


What I would have said after about age 14 in those largely imagined interviews where somebody asked what I'd like to do with my life... is that I wanted to write.  My going to graduate school and then pursuing a teaching career did not seem contrary to that more significant motivator.  I had this, as-it-turned-out looney notion that an academic career would make it possible for me to write as my principal vocation.

As I approached college graduation, I was kind of expecting I would get on a Greyhound to New York City, where I would take whatever job fell into my hands - I thought maybe dishwashing might be a possibility - so that I could write in my free time, soaking up the energy and excitement of the big city.  After having spent a year in France as a college student, I even thought maybe there would be some way I could do the "day-job/free time writing" thing in Paris.

I did know, by the way, that some day-jobs did nothing to facilitate the off-hour writing I had in mind.  In the summer after senior year in high school, I had worked in a big local printing factory.  It was such heavy work, and the work environment in the factory was so dirty, smelly, and loud that even though my 8-hour work day was over by 3:30 p.m. I was too used-up to get anything else done before falling into bed at night.

But my career game plan - ill-defined as it was - still was "any-ol' job, so that I could write, write, write."


That has not happened. 

At first it seemed to be working out fine.  In my two years earning enough to live on as a college teaching assistant part-time and a master's candidate part-time, I wrote one novel and eight or ten short stories.  That production was pretty much according to plan.  But there did already seem to be a possible problem on the horizon: no one seemed to be interested in publishing what I wrote.  Hmmm.

But it still seemed a boost to my long-range career plans when I was able to snag a three-year graduate fellowship to support my doctoral work.  The stipend was equal to what I'd been earning teaching part-time, so I could have just spent that extra time on my writing... I did teach a little, though, and put in ten hours a week or so in summers, assisting professors with their publishing work.

But I also wrote more stories, and discovered that most of those I had written could be put together to make up a second novel, with a few holes that I set to work filling in.  Publishers continued to be uninterested.

In fact, it turned out to be a lot easier to get published some of the stuff I was writing for my graduate work ("the day-job") than any of my real writing.  A piece on Joyce, one on Proust, a couple on Lawrence...  And then, by the third year of my fellowship, my day-job itself consisted entirely of writing: writing my dissertation, that is.   


So, more or less, I was proceeding according to plan: my "day-job" was grad work, and I wrote stories and novels in my "real work" hours.  And it looked like that would continue even after I had completed my doctorate... since I was awarded a Fulbright Teaching Fellowship to France for the first post-doctorate year.  That would be a fine day-job.

While conceiving my grand plan, I had never considered the possibility that I wouldn't succeed as a writer.  Well, yes.  Call it Dumb if you must; I'll call it Naive.  Anyway, now after five years, without abandoning the grand plan, I did make a mid-course correction.  If writing great fiction was not going to work... or not work yet... then I'd write popular fiction instead.  Maybe in fact that could eventually become my day-job.

So, as I taught American Civilization to French college students in Lyon (my day-job), the rest of my time I spent writing a murder detective novel.  I sent a draft of the first couple of chapters to a well-known literary agent in New York, who said it looked good and I should send the whole thing asap.

I redoubled my efforts to finish before Christmas, did that, and sent off the manuscript in mid-December.  By what seemed like return mail, the guy said I had great talent but he advised just junking that ms. and going to work on something new.  I figured he was just screwing me around.


There I was, in France, in January by then, with no prospects for gainful employment after June... and it had just so happened that it looked like - if I was lucky - I might have met the woman who would one day be my wife!

Now, you say, that must have been a real turning-point.  But not so fast.  No, the grand plan didn't exclude the possibility that I'd marry and have a family.  I hadn't exactly planned that, because... well, getting my fiction published seemed by then only slightly more far-fetched than marrying.  The day-job plan could include a wife and family just fine, thank you.  But this at-the-time remote possibility of marrying certainly wasn't out of the question.  It just made the day-job a little more prominent in short-term planning.

It happened that a man who'd played a role in my one-year Fulbright post in Lyon, who had been teaching at the University of North Carolina that fall, returned to his regular teaching position in Lyon in January.  Learning that I was about to go on the job market ("day-job" market, right?), Professeur LeGrand mentioned that the English Department in Grenoble just up the road was in crisis because one of their two professors with doctorates had been killed in a car accident.  It usually took, he said, at least a full year to find a replacement at that level.  Dr. LeGrand could recommend me as a one-year fill-in if I was interested...?

That was good enough on the day-job side of the equation.  I had also found a one-month post in Nice for June.  I kept shopping my novels and stories here and there, or hither and yon, and went on with Plan A.


We did get married and spent a year together in Grenoble.  The department chair whose college teaching job offer I had turned down to accept the Fulbright post in Lyon hired me for the next year, so by then my day-job had become what I would once have said is the job I would never take, being a college professor like my dad.  But it wasn't really a turning point...

I still thought I could write in the "off hours," and everything would go along as planned.

After three or four more years, I'd had three or four stories published (and six or eight poems), so my writing career was still going nowhere.  But I'd been tenured and hired at a small college as a department chair.  We built a house and started family...

And after I eventually retired, my daughter convinced me I should write a blog.  OK so it's neither a day job nor the "real work" I'd first started aiming for.  But it keeps me out of more serious kinds of mischief...

Was starting a blog a turning point in something?  No.  Just another development taking advantage of the situation in hand, and moving on.

Oh, and nine months ago, a grandson was added to our family, a more significant development.

When I was a child, if the family on a drive in the country got stuck following a winding road, my mother would say the road was so twisty it would have broken a snake's back to travel it.  There don't seem to have been twists and turns like that in my life or career.  Or maybe I just didn't notice.


Thursday, November 13, 2014

What You Don't Know Can Hurt... Somebody Else! (Reminiscence)



When I was starting as a college English teacher, I taught a section of "Introduction to Literature" in a dismal basement classroom with no windows or pictures on the walls.  Among my 20 or so students, there was especially one - Paul was his name, I think - who was really engaged.  I was glad to have him in the class listening intently, taking notes, asking an occasional question.  To most of the other students, I think he didn't stand out particularly, but as the guy in front looking out at all of them, I could see that intent expression on his face.

In this course, one section of a couple of dozens, the reading list was the same as in all other sections.  But instructors could arrange the readings and set up the schedule as they pleased.  I was real proud of myself for setting aside two whole weeks - six 50-minute classes - to spend on King Lear.  There had to be a Shakespeare piece in such a course, I guess, and probably a tragedy at that.  But Lear was a real challenge for these freshman students, few or none of whom would probably take another literature course in their very lives.

But we were going to do it up right.


And it went very well, I have to say.  Just about everyone brought their text to class every day, and seemed to have read the act or scenes I had assigned for discussion that day.  Looking back, I'm embarrassed to realize that I myself talked for at least half our time each class, and not only asking leading questions and commenting on the students' responses.  But I gave myself the impression, at least, that we were doing a good job of observing the structure of the presentation, sensing the human drama of its story and characters, engaging ourselves in questions of meaning... all the right things.


The second Friday would be our last day on King Lear.  The key matter to grapple with was the death of Lear's youngest daughter, Cordelia.

Of the old king's three daughters, only Cordelia seemed to care about him - and the wrong he was doing by setting aside his crown, his power, and his duty - than about her own interest.  The other daughters had actually banded together against him - and their country - and had at last been defeated on the battlefield.  Cordelia had remained loyal to him and had suffered at the hands of her evil sisters, but now at last her father seemed ready to make things right for her and to re-establish warm filial relations between them.

But alas we learn that she has been hanged by the defeated enemy after the battle.


As I recall this last class that day, I felt good about what we had accomplished so far.  But there was just a chance that some students would end up, not attending to the tragic human suffering so convincingly portrayed in the play, but to a simple kind of "moral tale": King acts irresponsibly, world goes to hell, King is punished, THE END.  So I wanted the students to grapple with the question, "What does Cordelia's death mean?"  And I was going to enjoy showing them, "It doesn't mean anything, being like events in real life sometimes that just happen and don't make sense to us."

I was a little disappointed to note that Paul was not present when the hour came to begin class.  We got started.

After we had rocked along for a good while, 10 or 15 minutes I suppose, Paul showed up.  He silently slouched to his usual seat.  He looked terrible, unshaven, thick black hair unbrushed, dark bags under his eyes, rumply clothes he might have slept in - if he had slept at all.

Naturally, I assumed that he had just had the archetypal freshman experience of spending the night drinking and now being terribly hung-over.  It happens!

But we motored on, through the meaningless suffering and the grief and struggle.  After another 15 minutes or so, Paul - who had not spoken, no questions, no eye contact - abruptly stood and lurched out.  I assumed he'd had the urge to throw up and had gone down the hall to the Mens Room.

We finished class.  Paul's notebook and books were still on his desk, but there was no sign of Paul.


I busied myself by gathering up my own things, wondering if I should go down the hall - or ask one of the other guys to do so - to check on Paul.  But then he reappeared, after everyone else had left, looking much the same as he had before.

He apologized for having interrupted the class discussion, but his father had called in the night and was now on the way to our college town to pick Paul up to go home for a few days.  The news was bad.  His sister had died that night.


I remember that scene quite well today, from about 50 years ago.  I didn't feel guilty then and don't now.  But I do feel awful about having added to that poor young man's suffering that day.


Friday, November 7, 2014

St. Paul and the Boy Scouts (essay)


Raised in central Texas in the 1940s and '50s, among the formal influences on my developing moral values were the New Testament and the Boy Scout Manual.   I thought it might be interesting to reflect back on these important, seminal resources from the perspective of these 70 years or so.


Paul wrote to the Corinthian Christians that the most abiding values are Faith, Hope, and what was called "Charity" by the King James committee of scholars.  What do I have to say now about these concepts?

a.  Faith

Well, to be frank, before I'd graduated from high school I'd already outgrown what Paul apparently expected here of the Corinthians et al.:  i.e. belief in Jesus, God the Father, and all that.  I'm glad to have learned early on what all this was about, because of its long historical influence on the community into which I had been fortunate enough to be born.  But "having faith" in this basic sense has never been of much value to me personally, since high school days.

Still, I can't help thinking that Paul was pointing to something genuinely significant when he said "faith":  especially including it as one-third of the most enduring three fundamental values for us to carry with us if we were lucky.

When he listed faith, hope, and charity, Paul was not telling the chosen ones how to behave or what mission to pursue, not telling them what to do or not do.  He was telling them that living as Christians was better than living as anything else, by listing the blessings that he thought "only" Christians could count on.  He was saying, If you stick with me you can expect to have in your heart (soul, mind...) these three wonderful qualities.  I would say there is in fact a blessing, which is like "faith" in Paul's sense, that I think we can all wish to have.

I'd call it Trust or Confidence, the opposite of Anxiety or Anguish.  I agree with the saint that it is of inestimable value to live with such a more or less solid base, rather than to approach every day, everyone, and every project with a quiet dread that everything you depend on as part of your life or even yourself is liable to fall away or fade out or be taken from you.  That would be awful, in fact.  He was onto something, I might say.

b.  Hope

These three qualities are intimately intertwined.  If the opposite of "Faith" is Anxiety or in the extreme Despair, then the opposite of "Hope" is Fear.  Being able to live without enduring fear - of loneliness or melancholia, of poverty or illness or infirmity, of failure, or whatever - is indeed a profound blessing.

Living in hope, by the way, need not mean ignoring the real risks one naturally faces; it just means characteristically looking on challenges allowing for the possibility they may be overcome, if not overcome easily or quickly at least overcome eventually with enough effort.  So, yes: Faith and Hope and...

c.   "Charity"

This quality is not rich people giving to the poor or to art museums, symphony orchestras, public radio or tv stations, or historical societies.  Paul's "Charity" is not exactly translated "Love" either, since love is so easily infused with passion.  The quality referred to here, both by Paul himself and by the old guy I have become looking back on what Paul wrote, is a generalized benevolent feeling toward each and all human beings.  It's the basic Love-your-neighbor-as-yourself and Love-your-enemies and so on.

To instinctively feel compassion, or empathy or at least sympathy, or to look kindly upon others - in general - is said to be the "greatest" of the three basic blessings that Paul's Christians should count on.  In other words, the benefit to the individual who has this quality of the three mentioned is the most profound.

Love in this sense may be necessary in order for one to feel grounded or secure ("faith"), as well as for one to look ahead optimistically ("hope"); and at the same time this characteristic Benevolence ("charity") toward others might not be possible without confidence in oneself and hope for the future.  The three blessings recreate and reinforce each other.

The opposite of "Charity," I would say incidentally, is contempt.

But those who move through life with trust and confidence in their hearts, a positive attitude in their minds, and fellow-feeling in their nature are lucky and good and happy.  They are not "better" (not better morally, for example), but are better off.  These three characteristics may indeed be the most important blessings one could have.


The basic official values of the Boy Scouts - that other important moral force - are articulated in the Oath and Laws.  The Oath ("or Promise," they say now) is this -

On my honor, I promise to do my best to do my duty to God and my country, and to obey the Scout Laws.  To  help other people at all times.  To keep myself physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight.

That was from memory all these years later.  I checked it, and it's correct.

The Oath is recited orally, in small phrases:

a.  On my honor

Especially when you think of an eleven-year-old boy saying this phrase, it doesn't mean more than -"really and truly" or "cross my heart and hope to die" or "honestly."

b. I promise to do my best to do my duty

Doing one's duty means doing what is owed to others, so this phrase acknowledges that a person has social responsibilities and is not free to just do whatever she or he wants at any time.  That sense of responsibility is indeed a characteristic of a mature, civilized person.  Good.

c. to God and my country

Sounds impressive.  I guess I would preferably say just "duty to others."  Actually, I guess I feel a duty to myself too, a responsibility to respect my relation with others, my sense of who I am, what I have done and what I could do in the future... So I would think of saying "duty to my self and others."  Cross my heart.

d.  and to obey the Scout Laws

[This is discussed below in Section 3.] 

e. To help other people at all times
What could be bad about making this commitment?

f. To keep myself physically strong [and] mentally awake

Yes [and] yes.  It is important to keep oneself healthy and vigorous, as well as alert and engaged.

g. [to keep myself] morally straight

   1. Doing one's duty is a basic moral imperative.  Trying to help others is too.  So listing this commitment to "keep oneself" morally upright, coming later in the oath along with keeping healthy and alert, seems to mean something else.  Is it simply "In addition to doing my duty and helping others, I will do some other good things"?  Or is it instead a general promise not to do "naughty" things?  It seems this promise is to "keep to the straight and narrow," i.e. maintaining proper conduct: telling the truth, respecting others' rights and property, keeping your word, not assaulting others, not driving drunk, and so on. 

  2.  Considering the word "straight" in the context of discussing the Boy Scouts today makes us think this promise may be to remain heterosexual.  Even as late as the 1980s, however, long after the boy I was in the '50s going through Scouting, "straight" did not have the homophobic connotations it has now.  "Morally straight" meant very broadly morally upright, including honesty, integrity, and all that.  In the 1970s, "straight" in everyday speech started to contrast with more specific behaviors such as being high on drugs, and only eventually came to contrast particularly with homosexuality.  So in the Scout Oath, this phrase is no more than the young scouts' promise to be good little boys.

And indeed we should commit ourselves to being aware of the moral dimensions of what we and others do and don't do, shouldn't we?


The Scout Laws are phrased in terms of characteristics that a good Scout - or we might say, a good person - will maintain:

A Scout is --

     Features of responsible citizens    

     Features of people who care about others and their feelings

     Uninterpreted, this quality may justifiably give us pause: but I would
      go so far as to say it is true that showing respect for women and
       men in leadership positions is a good thing

     Each an excellent character trait, valuable for anyone

     Combined with "reverent" below, this may seem like another promise
      to be a good little boy; but I think it also means simply the healthy
       habit of keeping one's body clean... And it's worth saying.

     I would not allow my ideal old Scoutmaster to tell me (and
       others) to believe in the supernatural, but I agree with him
        (if you will permit me to speak that way) that it is proper
         for a person to exhibit reverence for especially significant
          things (like the Grand Canyon, the Jupiter Symphony,
           or the Queen of England).


So sure enough, surprising as it may be, one can find some wisdom in these two incongruously paired sources.

All of us may hope to have hearts and minds free of permanent anguish, fear, and instinctive contempt of others and to feel instead a sense of security, a positive attitude, and an instinctive empathy for other folks.  And we would do well to honestly strive to do our duty to ourselves and others, to help others, to do what we can to stay healthy physically and to be engaged mentally, to pay attention to the moral dimensions of all we do and to pursue moral integrity. 

We can promise ourselves to manage our lives prudently, to conduct ourselves cheerfully and bravely, and to maintain the qualities of good citizens of society.

And even just saying so is worth doing, isn't it?


Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Freedom and Fairness


I saw a bumpersticker the other day: FREEDOM ISN'T FAIR.  

Where do you think I saw this bumper sticker?

A.     In a MacDonald’s parking lot

B.    At an intersection in an upper income neighborhood

C.     At an intersection in a lower-income neighborhood

D.    On “Morning With Joe”

What kind of a vehicle do you think this bumper sticker was on?

A.    A Smart Car

B.    An apparently new pick-up truck

C.     A shiny black Lexus SUV

D.    A 2003 navy blue Buick

How many other stickers would you guess were on the back of this vehicle?

A.    None

B.    One

C.     Two

D.    Three, or more

What would you imagine the owner of this vehicle was thinking?

A.    Fairness is just about the most important thing

B.    We should be fair, and acknowledge that not all of us are equally free

C.     We should sacrifice some of our own freedom in order to be sure others are not unfairly deprived of their freedom

D.    Isn’t it great to be free, free even of the need to be fair

[Correct answers: B, C, A, D]

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Manifesto for Our Time


A spectre is haunting America, the spectre of Liberalism. 

From the Declaration of Independence, Tom Paines' The Crisis, the U. S. Constitution with its Preamble and Amendments, Lincoln's Address at Gettysburg, and the 1942 Pledge of Allegiance - to the spirit of the unincorporated young America of today:  liberal principles, policies, and practices inspire and ennoble us, and impel us forward to protect and preserve all that has been accomplished in our country in the past and to enrich and to strengthen our liberal nation further as time rolls on.

We shall not be distracted from our mission.

We will not allow distractions by provocateurs of anti-liberal (that is, anti-American) prejudice, self-interest, and materialism to divert our attention away from the real threats to our fundamental values in the world today, such as widespread unemployment, declining public education, rising racism, deteriorating health care, and growing holes in the American social safety net.

We will not be distracted by false claims that the great and urgent need in the American economy is for federal austerity and reduction in national deficits.  The greater and more urgent need is for direct government spending to revitalize our economy and put Americans back to work.

We will not be distracted by the bogus pretension that the worst and most urgent problem dogging our electoral system is voter fraud.  Our worst problems are the unmitigated political influence of big money and the small percentage of lower-income earners who participate in elections.

We will not be distracted by the lame assertion that the most serious problem involving immigrants is border security.  The more obvious and deeper issue is how dependent American citizens and our economy have become on the current number of undocumented, well-behaved immigrants whose situation must be normalised.

We will defend ourselves but not be distracted by the mounting attacks on women, including the attempts to roll us backward on women's rights to decide the destiny of their own bodies, as in family planning, contraception, and abortion.

We will not be distracted by unfounded claims that human beings cannot and should not act to protect our planet from devastating climate change.

Liberals, look around you.  The big money interests - financiers, global corporations, political power mongers, greedy materialists in general - they know you threaten them and throw their aims into jeopardy.  They have entered into an unholy alliance to exorcise the spectre of liberalism you embody.  Do not be distracted from liberal designs and values.

Liberals of America, unite!


Friday, October 10, 2014

The Power of... the Right Surgery (reminiscence)



My wife and I were attending a meeting of the area's Association of "Ostomates,"  local women, men, and children who have had surgery to remove one of the bodily organs included in the elimination of bodily wastes.  Ostomates include those without bladders, or "urostomates"; those without a portion of the colon, or "colostomates"; or those without the whole colon, or "ileostomates".  The meetings take place monthly in a variety of hospitals around the metropolitan area.  Some who are considering whether or not to have the surgery can come to these meetings too.

Usually, 35 or 40 attend.  Programs vary but usually consist of a presentation by a Ostomy-Care nurse practitioner or other medical professional, or by an ostomate with a special message to convey.


Once a year, instead of the usual type of program, we divide ourselves up and meet in smaller groups to share personal experiences, ask questions of each other or of the nurse practitioners who run each "break-out group," and discuss whatever comes up.  These are always the best-attended and most useful and engaging sessions, although all programs are really informative and pleasant.

One reason this kind of free-discussion meeting is found by all to be so valuable and so interesting is the fact that there is so much variety among the membership.  Everyone has some kind of external device (a pouch or "bag") replacing what is usually an internal organ, but the reasons for such surgery are many and varied.  It could be cancer, or a severe colon or bladder disease.  It could be an injury (such as in a car accident), or even a criminal attack. 

[Note: My wife and I learned from an emergency nurse recently that some dreadful gangs sometimes go out to "bag" somebody... that is, shoot them in the gut so that they become ostomates.  We have never seen any indication of such a deliberate cause for this kind of surgery, but it is blood-curdling to contemplate.]

Members of the group can be young or old, white-collar or blue-collar (as we used to say), rural or urban or suburban, retired (like us) or working or still in school.  They may have had their surgery a month ago or 40 years ago.  And almost everyone has a slightly different method of handling the various products and devices they have found to deal with their particular circumstances.


The four small discussion groups are the urostomates, the colostomates, the ileostomates, and the rest of us - spouses, parents, siblings, or close friends.

At this year's break-out meeting, I of course joined the spouses and other companions.   During the first part of the meeting when we were still all together, I had noticed a new couple who had not attended before; or, at least, I had not noticed them before.

The husband came to the others' breakout group and ended up sitting about a third of the way around the table on my right.  The nurse practitioner was third or so on my left.  There were eight or ten of us.  She had us introduce ourselves one by one around the table, identifying our relationship with our ostomate.  Everyone also mentioned which bodily organ had been removed and how long ago the surgery had been.

"Joe" said this was his wife's and his first meeting, since she had undergone the bladder surgery only 10 days before.  My own wife's surgery had been almost exactly one year before that night.

"Now," the nurse asked, "does anyone have anything you wanted to bring up?"

One of the older men, who had been at every meeting and seemed to know everybody, said: "Yes, our medical supplier has stopped carrying one of the supplies - our brand - that we have been using for twenty years.  Has anybody else had this problem?"

Various individuals told about occasions when such a thing had happened to them.  After finding out where this coupled lived, several suggestions were made about other suppliers not too far away who were still carrying the product, and the exchange of experiences and tips continued for a while.

When there was a little pause, "Joe" - a tall, white-haired man with a lot of dignity in his bearing and a strong voice - started to speak.  His tone was flat, and he didn't make eye contact as he went on.


"My wife was diagnosed with bladder cancer six months ago," he said.  "She's a very religious woman, and she set about praying about her situation.  A group formed itself at the Church to pray together for her several times a week.

"She had the chemo and then the radiation, but the doctor said the bladder had to go.  So we set the date and got ourselves prepared.  Her son has spent more time with us than usual, leaving his own family across town more often than before.

"One week before the surgery was scheduled to happen, we went in for some final tests.  When the doctor came in a while later, he had a funny look on his face.  He said he'd never seen anything like it: the cancer seemed to be gone!

"He said it would undoubtedly return, and the surgery was the only way to prevent its spreading.  So we ought to go ahead with the schedule.

"My wife told the prayer group they had saved her.  It proved the power of prayer and the goodness of God.  She wanted to cancel the surgery.  But her son and I kept talking with her, and gradually she calmed down.  We went ahead with the surgery after all.  Just 10 days ago."


But all that was not what "Joe" had wanted to share with us.

"Just tonight, on our way here, my wife said she hadn't needed the surgery.  God had saved her from the cancer, but we had made her have the surgery."

He didn't say anything else, didn't ask us for anything.  It seemed that maybe just sharing this experience was what he had needed. 

I felt sure that the rapt attention we had all given him, and the feeling of sympathy and support he must have perceived - it was palpable - would have reached him.

"You did the right thing!" one of us said loudly in a raspy, emotionally tight voice.  It seemed palpable again that all of us, all, agreed.


I wondered if "Joe" and his wife would return to future meetings.  It's been a good sign to see that they have.


Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Old Guy Meets His Maker



Oops!  No, sorry now.  Fell asleep, you know?  Just a minute.  Eyes down, brain closed for the day, checked out.  But just for a minute, see?


But who's that big guy, with the shoulders?  All the hair, see?  If he had a rifle, he'd look like Charlton Heston, see what I mean?  Who is that?


No, wait a minute, please!  Keep your shirt on, or put your shirt on, rather.  No, there's no reason you should know anymore than I do; I just thought you did, that's all.  We're just standing here in this little line.  Do you know what for?

Ok, Okay.  Relax.  I was just hoping you'd know; I don't.


Did you get that?  The old woman behind us said we're going to meet "him." 

Any idea who "him" is?  Not a clue myself.  Takin' a power nap and then waitin' here in this little line, that's all.  We should get an autograph, eh lady?  Well...  Maybe she's a little hard of hearing, I don't know.


He's on the move, heads up!


Oh my gosh, I'm going to say: Hey there yourself, mister.  I know you're a big cheese and all - maybe I should say THE big cheese, right? Haw, haw.  But excuse me, sir.  I don't know who you are or why we are here...  You know?  Could you fill me in?

That's too long, isn't it?

Or I could go on: If you can help me... I'm feelin' stupid here, and you could set me straight?  Get it?


Ok, Ok.  I'm stupid.  Sorry.  Who are you?


Ahh...  You're kidding, right? Haw haw.  Oops!


Monday, August 4, 2014

A Small Compendium of a 7th Grader's Humor, ca. 1956


1.  Q: Why do you sing in the bathtub?

     A: The door won't lock.

2.   (add your own music)

     "... And you'll never walk... (pause, deep breath)
                                                                                   ... AGAIN..."

3.   A doctor was examining a teenage girl.

      "Big breaths, Louise," he said.

     "Yeth," she replied: "and I'm only thixth-teen!"

4.  (from Summer Sunday School.  Organ accompanies...)

     "Lift up your heads, O ye gates!

     And be ye lift up, ye ever-lasting doors!  (pause)


     Only we said, "ye ever-lasting DRAWERS!"

    " ...AND THE KING OF GLORY ..." (etc.)

5.  (Pop orchestra accompanies)

     "WHEN the moon hits your eye like a BIG PIZZZA PIE,

     "That's a...


Saturday, July 12, 2014

His Final Words


It was not unexpected, but it still seemed sudden and too soon.

He'd been known to have a degenerative nerve disease for 26 years, which was certain to be fatal eventually - if something else fatal didn't happen first - so his wife and children could not have been surprised, exactly. 

But it sort of felt that way, sitting with him now, back in his own bed after five nights in the hospital as tests confirmed the initial diagnoses and as hospice care was arranged.  He wasn't uncomfortable, and every so often he had a few minutes when he was entirely himself.  Quirky and crotchety, cracking wise: all his usual features.

Then he would nod off or lose track of the conversation, even if he was the one talking.  It wasn't painful for his sitters, except for its reminding them of what was near, but it wasn't during these periods unlike really being with the old guy they had come to know.


Late one Saturday afternoon, his wife was the only one in the house.  He was dozing most of the time, and she went about the condo tidying up, cleaning the bathroom or sweeping the back porch, little normal jobs she'd done for years and years when she could.  But she looked in on him often, every ten or fifteen or maybe twenty minutes or so.  He was peaceful, just sleeping.


Except one time.  His eyes were open when she looked in from the doorway.  He was looking at her.  His mouth was not smiling, but it wasn't slack as it was as he slept.  He wasn't smiling, but he seemed interested in her and his surroundings.

She walked over to him and took his hand, sitting in the chair she kept handy for this purpose whenever he was awake.

"Barb," she said (referring to their daughter), "Barb said she might drop by later this evening.  Young Leonard has a soccer game today, and then she might come by."

It was her job, she thought, to talk with him cheerily about the daily goings-on, keeping him engaged in their little world, enjoying sharing with her husband of forty-plus years some of the little things happening in the family and in the house.  She was about to tell him how she had mopped up a little mildew in the guest bathroom about a half-hour ago, when a slight hitch in his breathing caught her attention.

She looked him over carefully.  He was pulling on her hand just a bit and seeming to want to lean forward, perhaps to speak. 

He paused and, standing, she plumped his pillows up behind him so they could have a chat.  He pulled on her arm again and seemed to take in a breath.  What would he say, she wondered.  Did he want to say simply "Thanks" for... well, for straightening the pillows?  Or was he going to say he had to go to the bathroom?

She pulled the chair under her and sat, giving him all her attention.  Would he say he loved her, or recall a time they had shared together years ago when they were young?

"Can I get you something?" she asked with a little smile.


He took another little breath and pushed his jaw out, as though it was a little hard to speak.

"Yes," he said in just above a whisper.  "Tell me.  How are the Cardinals doing?"


Friday, June 20, 2014

Don't Make Me Choose (story)


The old guy saw the story in a vintage magazine in a used book store.  It had been published when he had been about 50.  He said he'd never read it, but he bought it, for a dollar, because it was so obviously about him.

The next morning, though, he had decided he was going to read it after all, aloud.  So he got his little music stand all set up in front of the full-length mirror.  He laid out the old magazine and began...

"It says the setting is a small music conservatory in the lower midwest, and
the objective is to build a good theater program to strengthen the music programs there.

And the people, now.  The people it says are:  Byron Derrick, Executive Director of the Conservatory; Neil Graham, Director of Theater, hired one year ago; And Jim Greenwood, Resident in Theater, hired one month ago.

"Jim Greenwood, they called me," he said to his mirror.


"Listening sympathetically to others' complaints about your colleague may seem generous and kind," as I said (the old guy read).  "But at some point, Jim, your just listening may encourage still more complaints.  Whether you say you agree, or not."

He nodded, as though 'everybody knows that, Byron.'

"So just tolerating the gripes might promote more gripes.  Do you see?"

"Oh, I don't criticize him myself. Oh my goodness no! I'd never be unprofessional like that."  (No, I'd never, ever be unprofessional!)

"I know, Jim.  I know you wouldn't," I kept after it.  "But there's a fine line between letting someone bad-mouth him - you know, without setting them straight - and bad-mouthing him yourself.  You gotta be careful about that."

"I can't just tell them them to shut up!"  (Shut up! What?)

"No, of course you can't.  But you can say, 'Look, he's an experienced director.  He knows what he's doing, probably.  You can say: Go with the flow, you might learn something."

"I couldn't just stifle their opinions.  Geez!"

"You can say you sympathize with their hurt feelings - or whatever it is - but it happens to everybody, that's what it's like in the arts world.  Sometimes we just have to suck it up...'  That kind of thing, you see?" 

"He's just terrible to work with, Byron!  Not only the volunteers but even the real cast and crew sometimes: they say it too.  I'm just saying it's not easy being the other guy, you know?"

"Let me just say this, Jim.  You need to distance yourself from this kind of gritching and bitching.  Otherwise, it'll begin to seem you're 'with them' (holding up his hands and making quote marks) and 'against him.'  You don't want that."

He nodded and smiled.  "I'm just telling you what I'm hearing, Byron.  Just sayin'..."

(Just sayin'...)


Byron's perspective:

Jim is so smooth and self-confident, it was surprising to me to see how naive he is.  He's trying to be sensitive to the emotional needs of our people and doesn't recognize the big picture, which is that to serve all our needs he has to pooh-pooh complaints and accentuate the positive.  Glad we had this talk.  He can charm a bird out of a tree, as they say...  He'll turn it around.

Jim's perspective:

Well, I guess I told him!  Byron has been naive about Neil's failings.  I've got a good start now on getting that Wanna-Be put in his place... Maybe even getting him out of here.  Glad we had this talk.


"So Neil," I said: "how's Jim settling in?  Finding his place, is he?"

"Oh, I guess so.  Actually, we don't see all that much of each other.  He's working mostly in the daytime now, and all my rehearsals - acourse - are at night..."

"And for the first month, it was the other way around?"

"I guess.  Although, with him being brand new and all, I tried to find reasons to be hanging around during their rehearsals.   In case he needed anything."

"It was a clever show, didn't you think?"

"Oh yeah.  Too bad we don't have an audience built up yet.  We'll get there.  We'll keep plugging away."

"How's your show progressing?"

"Pretty well, I guess.  A couple of the younger folks were a little cranky at first.  But we've gotten beyond that.  The results should be good.  Do you think we can get more people to come see us?"


Neil's perspective:

I don't know anywhere where the head guy takes such an interest.  We'll have this place up and humming soon with that kind of support.  I oughtta just poke my head in once a week or so, to keep him feeling a part of things.  Glad he called me in this time. 

Byron's perspective:

Neil must know Jim resents his leadership, but you'd never know it.  I'll have to keep in touch, if I can find the time...


Midway through Jim's second year, Byron's notes to the file:

We started our meeting five or ten minutes late, when Jim arrived.  I began by explaining that the new theatre program we three were trying to get started in the Music Conservatory now required us to spend some serious time together, on a regular basis.  I wanted them to mark their calendars on every Wednesday for the next couple of months from 10:30 to noon, when we would meet there in the conference room off the dining hall.  We should all plan on being there the whole time, since this work required all three of us together.

They didn't respond.  I didn't invite them to.

I said that for our hopes and dreams to work out, we had to function like a team.  We all had to share the same goals, and each of us had to support the others individually, if we were to have any chance to succeed.

The fact is, I said, you two aren't working well together.  In fact, you may knowingly or unconsciously be undermining the efforts of the other.  Our work during these weekly sessions will be to reduce and subdue the forces driving us apart, so we can get back to heading in the same direction again.

Both of you must resist any pressures you sense of volunteers, students, actors and tech people "choosing up sides."  Those for Greenwood and those for Graham.  That won't do.  Let's do whatever it takes to have one solid, unified team, okay?

They didn't challenge my claim that they were not working well together.  Neil said theatre is by nature a team effort, but paradoxically every performance is very personal.  Jim said he'd never had any trouble getting along with others before.

An hour passed quickly. The conversation could not be very well summarized, but it was not particularly emotional.  I concluded by telling them that next Wednesday, we'd begin by each of them sharing what positive features the other one brings to our program.  At least three things each, I said.


Byron's perspective:

That wasn't too bad.  I don't think they could have been expecting what I said.  For two strong-willed, arty guys they were quite subdued.  (I wish it were all over and done with already, though.)

Neil's perspective:

Byron doesn't avoid the oogy jobs, does he?  I hope he's not being naive to think we can work it out between us.  I don't know what's going on with Jim.  But he's a good director, creative, different.  I had high hopes when we brought him in...  Maybe each of us could just do our own thing.

Jim's perspective:

Well, I can waste an hour a week, I guess.

(I can waste an hour a week! the old man repeated, with apparent delight.  "Creative?" "Diffferent"?)


To Neil and Jim:

After three substantive conversations, I'm writing to summarize what we've learned is needed to improve working relations between the two of you, without which the program will not be able to move forward.

Whether justifiably or not, Jim feels Neil does not keep him informed about developments affecting the Theatre Department.  Actors, students, and crew members - and possibly members of the general public - sometimes ask him about this or that activity they've heard about but that Neil has not mentioned or explained to Jim.  This makes him feel like a chump, whose ideas and plans don't matter. 

(I am not a chump!)

Whether justifiably or not, Neil on the other hand is concerned that Jim may care more about his own success and reputation than about the Conservatory's or the Theatre program's.  It's a little as though he wouldn't care if the program failed as long as people thought he himself had done a good job.

Keeping in mind each man's worst suspicions about the other, Neil will consciously look for items of information about the program he can share with Jim.  He will communicate two or even three times a week, every week, about such news.

Jim, on the other hand, will make a conscious effort to think of ways he can contribute to the success of the Conservatory's theatre program above and beyond his own activities.  For instance, he can propose to Neil initiatives Jim himself will undertake to better publicize the shows Neil has in rehearsal.  He will do at least one thing a week along that line which he has brought up first with Neil.

Next Wednesday, at our joint meeting, each of you will report to me what you have done along these lines, giving the other an opportunity to comment.


Jim's perspective:

So now I'm his PR guy!  If no one come to see Endgame, it'll be my fault. ...But I'll play along.  I can handle it; I'm an actor, aren't I?

Neil's perspective:

Byron's plan follows logically from what what we've been saying.  But I can't help thinking we're only wandering around on the surface, leaving root causes untouched.  Some days I feel like I've already got too much to do, but it'll be pretty simple to pass along to Jim whatever chit-chat I might hear. 

Byron's perspective:

Put up or shut up.  Let's get going.

(I am an actor, aren't I)


"Hey, MariLou.  My secretary has gone to make some copies for me.  Can I help you?"

"Well, I came to make an appointment to see you, as a matter of fact. Just ten minutes or so, I would say."

"How 'bout now?  I could give you a few minutes now...?"

We went into the inner office and sat down, facing each other across a little table.

"I just wanted to say that... We like Mr. Greenwood a lot," MariLou said.  "He's about the best anybody's ever seen."

(The best!)

"Well, that's good to hear.  You and the others sure did a good job on the Shakespeare last month."

MariLou nodded.

"Mr. Greenwood's concept, setting the action in a toy box, was a novel idea.  And appropriate too!"

"Yeah," she said laughing.  "It was a lot of fun."

"Most of the Shakespeare plays I've seen which are that innovative, well you know; it just distracts from the original, but..."

"It was a good show.  My parents came all the way from Springfield."

"So, MariLou.  Did you discuss coming over to talk with me today - I'm glad you did, you know - did you and Mr. Greenwood talk about it?"

"He said it would be okay.  Did you two know each other before he started working here?"

"He directed my wife and daughter in some community theatre shows...  I was pleased we could make a place for him at the Conservatory."

"Well, he is the best to work with.  Better than some others, I mean."

"What does he do that Mr. Graham doesn't do, for example?  You're working crew on Endgame, aren't you?"

"Mr. Greenwood kids around a lot with us.  He hangs around just to chat, you know.  That Mr. Graham - I mean he is a very good director.  Last year, Cabaret? you know?  But he's, well, he's 'the Boss.'  You know what I mean?"

"MariLou, I'm glad you came over to say Hello.  We can both be glad, and proud I'd say, that in our little program we can have both Mr. Graham and Mr. Greenwood."

Jim wasn't picking up his phone, so I left a breezy little message telling him not to send any more actor testimonials my way.  It's how well he and Neil work together that matters, not how much the cast and crew love him.  "See you Wednesday, Jim."


Byron's perspective:

What have I done wrong?  When we interviewed for the Theatre Program Director, Neil Graham was clearly the right guy - right degree, right experience, good record - so I hired him.  But Jim Greenwood looked like such a good match for what we need to get this thing off the ground, building a theatre reputation to balance our long-established prominence in Music.  So I made a place for him and told Neil he was going to have a colleague after all.  Was it favoritism?  Did Jim sense it?  Does he think our friendship will give him immunity or something?

Jim's perspective:

If the dweeblings wanna go tell the Exec. how much they like me, what can I do?  Betcha no one's saying that about that other guy....


"Anton, you told me you came here to sing tenor and not to monkey around on the stage, but you were great in Endgame."  I had struck up a friendly relation with one of our proteges who worked part time in the cafeteria.

"Thanks," Anton replied.  "Thanks a lot.  It was hard work."

"Yeah.  How was it anyway?  The whole thing, audition right through strike.  A good experience for you?  Not so good...?"

"No.  It was hard work, like I said.  Exhausting, every night.  Emotional sometimes.  But the thing is, we had to do it.  We had to do it like that.  We had to work it out.  So it was not good.  But really good.  I learned a lot, I can tell you."

"Do you think the others thought the effort was worth it?"

"Two or three dropped out after the first week or so.  The rest of us right now are a team, or a family.  It's like that when it works.  Mr. Graham did that.  Gotta give him credit."

"Did some music and theatre folks you know from other shows come to see you?"

"Not as many as I'd hoped, but yes. ...And lemme tell you, they were impressed.  We might get some more auditions next month."

I'd sent Neil an email: "The Beckett was very good.  Don't let up...."


I asked:  "Do we have any progress to report?  50 at Friday's performance, 63 at Saturday's - That's pretty good for us, isn't it?  But can we be sure it's because of anything Jim did?"

"I did get that newspaper photographer and reporter out here," Jim said.

Neil chimed in:  "Yes, Jim did that.  And I just know that made a difference."

"Go on, Neil.  What other efforts did Jim make?"

"Well, he ..." as Neil looked over at Jim, "he talked it up with people he knows.  He told me he called that community theatre director down the road where he appeared last summer..."

Jim nodded.  "I know quite a lot of performing people in the surrounding towns."  Didn't seem like he had done much on his assigned task, though, I was thinking.

"Jim, what information has Neil shared with you about what's going on?  You know, his side of the bargain..."

"Well, he came by the office a couple of times," Jim didn't seem to have thought about this part.  "There were two different families this week looking at the conservatory for their musical children, whom he met with to talk about theatre. ...And he and I are going to get together next week to draft our season for next year."

"Do you feel you're a part of things? as far as you know?"

"As far as I know, well, I would say so, probably."

"So, are we making progress?"

Neil was nodding Yes.  Jim said, "Well, it's early, too early to tell, isn't it?"


Jim's perspective:

No one would be able to get them to come see a Graham show, why would they?  They can do better things with their time.  But they will come to my shows, and good things will happen, eventually.  No rush, no hurry.

Neil's perspective:

We're having a pretty good season.  A couple more, and a couple of breaks with publicity... and we'll be on our way.

Byron's perspective:

Neil's instincts are to dictate, not manage; that method can work on a show, but with his colleagues?  Can Neil work against his instincts?  Share decision-making with Jim, for instance?  But then, I don't know what's going on behind Jim's pearly whites...  Could be anything, from loyal cooperation to full-throat revolution.  He is an actor, isn't he?

(He is an actor, isn't he?)


To: Neil and to Jim

Thank you both for sending me your notes, Jim listing Neil's strongest qualities as he sees them and Neil listing Jim's.  I said you could write them confidentially to me, and I would make a summary.

Jim said Neil is very organized; he plans the work and works the plan.

Neil said Jim "inspires" his cast and crew, and "They give him more than they know they have to give."


Byron's perspective:

But can they work together?  That's the key question, isn't it?  Or rather, do they want to work together: is that it?


"Jim, you seem upset."  We were just beginning our regular Wednesday a.m. session.

"I am upset.  You would be too."  

It turned out Jim was lodging a complaint that Neil was making plans without keeping his junior colleague in the loop, certainly without engaging Jim in making the plans.  Some actors had told Jim Neil had already sent inquiries to publishers about production rights for next season.  Jim was indignant.

Neil was surprised at Jim's reaction, explaining that preparing for his meeting with Jim to plan the season, he was finding out if some of the shows he was thinking about were within usual budget limits.  I said: "You mean you were just trying to avoid working with Jim on a plan that wouldn't work?"

But Neil's saying Yes didn't seem to calm Jim down.  He didn't seem concerned either that he hadn't made contact with the high school drama teachers in the region, as he had told Neil he would do last week.  Neil thinks we could do some Saturday morning workshops or a summer drama camp...

Next year Jim will direct the musical.  Neil was hoping it would be an audience favorite like "Oklahoma," although they couldn't get the rights to that particular one.  Jim had been looking for a real popular choice too, and suggested "Annie." 

As the conversation wound down, I said next week instead of our usual joint format, I would meet with each of these guys one-on-one beginning with Neil at 10.


Byron's perspective

I can't tell if Jim was really angry or if just acting upset made his point that Neil was impossible to work with.   Neil seems to be trying, working against his impulsive, go-it-alone instincts.  Is Jim working against his instinct to trash Neil so that he looks better himself?


Byron's notes to the file:

Right out of the shoot, I told Neil to relax.  I said I was pleased at his efforts to work with me on this project of trying to improve working relations in Theatre.  What did he think about things in general?

Neil addressed this question globally, repeating things he had said from the Get-Go:  a full time tech person, a better cyclorama, several new spotlights, stuff like that.  I listened and then asked, What about how it's working out with you and Jim?

"You know," he said, looking into my face: "We're getting the job done.  When you asked me if two actor-directors were hired instead of me plus a tech director, could between us we cover the tech stuff...?  Remember?"

"Yes.  You said you could, if you could work as collaborators, number 2 doing some tech for you on your shows and you yourself doing some tech for number 2 on his or her shows.  Right?"

"I guess so, yes."  He smiled: "Is that why we've been having these meetings?  ...Because there's never been any problem with that.  Ten minutes before Endgame curtain, Jim was sweeping the floor on stage - on his own initiative - because he didn't want anyone's footing to be unsure.  No problem.  We're professionals."

I laughed.  "No, that's not why we've been meeting.  But do you think, all things included, that everything's hunky-dory?  Really?"

"I think we're getting the job done," he said.  "But you're the boss."


"So, Jim.  I have to say I'm disappointed in your lack of effort to improve working relations with Neil.  Your heart just isn't in it."

"I've been doing what you told me to...  I mean, Haven't I?"  (Haven't I?)

"The point is, you don't seem committed to improving the situation."  I added: "Neil at least seems to be trying."

We talked for ten or fifteen minutes more.  Jim was his usual cordial, well-mannered self.  But he didn't add much.  I concluded as I had with Neil.  I would give it two or three more months before deciding what our goals should be.


"Now Neil, I told you, both... I told you together.  I didn't want to have to choose between you but if the two of couldn't work together, I would choose.  Didn't I say that?"

"Yes, sure you said exactly that."  He paused for a minute: "So, don't you see?  To me, that meant if Jim didn't want to work with me - and wouldn't bother trying to convince you we could do just fine working independently of each other...  Well, then you were going to choose him.  Not me.  Him."

(Not him.  Me!  See?  That - the old guy said out loud - That's what everybody thought.)

"I told him, Neil, you were trying to make it work between the two of you, and Jim wasn't even trying... And that meant he had to be the one to go."

"I get it now.  I won't let you down."

"But I still think the two of you would have made a great team."


Jim's perspective:

That dinky little place wasn't right for me.  I'm better than that.  Who's next?"


The old guy leaned forward.  "Maybe I haven't set the world on fire," he said.  "But...  Was I lucky to escape that madhouse, or what?"


Friday, June 13, 2014

Reaping the Old Guy



Hello? What you want out there? Who are you? In costume, are you?

That - is - a - grim - mask. But -like I said - THERE'S NO PARTY HERE! Get it?

Oh, all right. See? I opened the door so you can look inside. No party, right?


You need to use the bathroom or something? You'll have to leave that... that Thing you got over your shoulder. You need to leave it outside.

Now, look here. Outside! Well, you gotta put it down right there by the door, anyway.

What are you supposed to be, eh? An old-timey farmer? Is that the thing, the tool you use to harvest the grain with? "Shine on, shine on, harvest moon..." That kind of thing? Ha!


No, I'm not going anywhere with you. Are you kidding?

I don't know you, see? And I don't have a costume to wear either. Like your harvester outfit, you understand?  I don't have anything to wear!


Just stop it, stop shoving! You want me to yell for help?

Oh yes, someone will hear me, what do you mean I can't be heard anymore?  What do you mean "anymore"?


That's the boniest hand I've ever had squeezing my arm, you nutsoid.

Cold too...