The Dark Side of Inspector Clouseau

If you are squinting at this split-screen, poster image of a man with a weapon bearing expressions from quizzical to surprise to menacing and wondering “could that be?” then let me confirm either your weak eyesight or questioning mind or both. It is I, a gun in my black-gloved hand. And so let the Jimi Hendrix tune “Hey Joe” play in your mind, “Hey Joe, where you goin’ with that gun in your hand?”

Quizzical Hit Man

Now I do not find myself wielding a weapon very often. We live on the property that has been in Kay’s family for over one hundred years. After living in a condominium in Los Angeles for several years with a postage stamp for a back yard, it was great to have acres and acres of farm land out our back door. And part of the fun of having access to such open territory is the opportunity to have target practice with a variety of weaponry. When the mood strikes, we will gather up a collection of empty cans of Kay’s Big Sexy Hair or TRESemme spray or my Barbasol shaving cream or a box of clay pigeons and the skeet launcher, go back on the farm, and commence to shooting.

When our daughters went off to college in Philadelphia they would bring their northern friends home and expose them to the pleasures of country life. It did not take long for word to spread on campus before caravans of cars packed with the girl’s friends would arrive for a Thanksgiving holiday or a spring break. The Florida beaches had fewer revelers during those years; hard to compete with bonfires and cookouts, four-wheel drive trucks and dirt bikes, a well-stocked pond with a dock, our makeshift firing range for target shooting, two racks from which to choose a pipe for smoking a variety of tobaccos (all participates of age and all substances legal), and lots of love.

Clumsy Hit Man

I am a fair shot although not as good as Kay, who even as a young girl, upstaged an older neighbor and his friend who kept firing and missing a rascally rabbit romping through our back field. She requested to take a shot, which was met with disdain by the males until she fired the .22 rifle. Her status as a one-shot wonder became legend, and she replaced Mr. McGregor as Peter Rabbit’s worst nightmare.

Last summer we were hosting a large, all-day gathering at the house. We even splurged and rented an inflatable water-slide. We set up the fifteen-foot beast next to our garden house so we could power the electric generator which ran nonstop keeping the air pumping into the slippery monster so our guests, ranging in age from 3 to 70, could wear themselves out climbing and sliding…repeat ad infinitum.

For weeks leading up to this day I had noticed a groundhog coming from beneath the garden house. He would raid my garden or forage the pears that had fallen to the ground from a nearby tree. I crawled around the garden house and saw mounds of dirt where he had burrowed numerous holes beneath the structure. He was not just paying us a visit. He had taken residence. This would not stand, and I told Kay that the groundhog’s days were numbered. She was fine with me putting out a “hit” on the groundhog, but as the time drew nearer to our event, she repeatedly said, “Don’t shoot that thing this close to the party.” You can see where this is going.

Patient Hit Man

Just days before the party Kay was at work and I was home writing. I would take periodic breaks and pass by the picture window in the living room, not to enjoy the view, but in hopes of catching a glimpse of the varmint. I would see him dash across the yard or stand on his hind legs looking in my direction, snout in the air, chattering away, which sounded to me like groundhog for “I have diplomatic immunity, sucker” before he gleefully dove under the garden house. I shook my fist and cursed him…aloud, but kept our .22 bolt-action in the case until the taunting and the temptation became too much.

At first, I thought I had missed him because after firing the single round he dashed under the garden house, and since he did not show his head again, I thought I had at least put the fear of God in him…until the day before the party when I was straightening up the garden house in preparation for the festivities. I caught a whiff of something foul, and my first thought was not that I had achieved the “great white hunter” status, but that I was in deep trouble. How was I going to spin this? If only I were a politician and could blame someone else. Talk about your “smoking gun.” I did choose to let Kay discover the olfactory truth as opposed to me just announcing it, and because it was the middle of August, I did not have to wait long to be found out.

“What did you do?” “You didn’t did you?” “Didn’t I tell you not to?” came the flurry of stern questions that required no answer. But I ask you, how many hit men do you know who give their wives the details of their workday? However, I made the effort, taking full responsibility with the “I cannot tell a lie” approach.  The entrance of the garden house extends out onto a large patio with a pergola overhead and beyond that is the garden with a fountain in the center, so the majority of our eating and drinking, visiting, and playing on the water-slide would be confined to this area…the area where the invisible fog of decomposition would settle and remain not for hours, but days, with the aromatic peak hitting, you guessed it, on the day of the event. Our daughters, their husbands, and the grand kids had come for an extended weekend, and after the hugs and welcomes, their faces soon grimaced and the question arose, “What’s that awful smell?”

Culinary Hit Man

“I told your father. I told him,” were the first words from Kay’s mouth, and she regaled the children with the story of multiple warnings and of the smelly result of warnings unheeded. When our girls were the ages of our grand kids, they would often ask me to tell them stories. “Daddy, tell us a story about when you were bad.” I never disappointed them, and with one fateful round from my .22 bolt-action, I added to my literary opus of tales when I was bad. What with three grand children, I figured new narratives were needed for the next generation.

Surprised Hit Man

Over the course of the arrival of our family and friends, Kay had numerous opportunities retelling the source and cause for the unpleasant odor. She soon grew weary of the frequency of her story, and having reached the point of exhaustion with the last few arrivals, she just pointed to me when the face of a guest began to contort as they made their inquiry regarding the befouled atmosphere. I now had the freedom to tell my perspective as long as I was faithful to include Kay’s stern warning not to do what I eventually did. It was too good an opportunity for me to pass up, was my best argument, and in spite of the odor, I remember us having a grand time with no one turning on their heels and heading home after catching a whiff or the loss of their appetite when the meal was served.

If you happen to believe in reincarnation and find yourself coming back as groundhog, unless you come back as the pampered Punxsutawney Phil, you will engage in destructive groundhog behaviors – you can’t help it, the groundhog DNA demands it. And if you find that you have taken residence beneath our garden house, building a tunnel system through the soil and feasting on the bounty of my garden and fruit trees, then prepare for your present re-embodiment to be short-lived. You will be dispatched back to Buddha Central to embrace yet another life in the cyclical search for Nirvana.

Successful Hit Man

If you have read this far and a few more minutes to “kill” (5:40 to be exact), then bounce back to the Home Page of my website and click the “Killing Time” poster on the “Featured Projects” slider. The film will pop up, and you can watch this delightful short of a bumbling hit man not quite ready for prime time written and directed by Adam Rosenbaum.

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Know Your Limitations

In the days of my youth I had numerous unpleasant experiences of being part of a large group only to have it split like an amoeba in order to engage in a competitive activity. I so desperately wanted to fit in; and please dear God, don’t let me be picked last as the teams are chosen because it would only confirm that my talent (usually an athletic competition), is considered well below average by my peers. Consumed by anxiety in those days, I dreaded the athletic events where high achievers in the sport—dodge ball, basketball, flag football, etc.—were designated leaders of a team, and the Darwinian process of selection was used to determine the competitive sides. As names were called out, the chosen would stand behind their leader and whisper advice in his ear as to who might be his next best choice. I was never the last man standing.

Whose gonna pick this kid?

I usually ranked between mid-to-penultimate choice, and I don’t ever remember hearing groans from my fellow teammates when my name was called. Still the whole process was an exercise in humiliation. One year in high school I did make the basketball team but kept the bench well heated with three other boys. The four of us were allowed to play only if the score favored or disfavored us by twenty points and with less than two minutes on the game clock. With so little time left to play, what harm could we do?

Once I became an actor I found myself, on occasion, with other professional artists engaged in art-related workshops and seminars. We would often be asked by the seminar leaders to form a small group to do an exercise. While the expectation to perform or compete was nil, I still felt the anxiety of being chosen. I sought out those folks of similar disposition and felt the gravitational pull of like-kind. The profession I chose is competitive and the selection process to find the right person for the job is daunting. As Martin Scorsese says “more than 90% of directing a good picture is the right casting.” Early in my career, I got an object lesson in knowing my limitations and the objectivity of being chosen to fit a role. What I experienced cannot be taught in any scholastic environment or workshop or professional seminar or program.

Now when it comes to creative talent my father and sister had/have it in multiples: Dad could act, sing, teach, direct, play an instrument…a quintic threat; then my sister, Nan Gurley, is a quadruple threat: act, sing, dance, and play an instrument (now she is an established painter, so after this I’m going to crawl into a hole and die). By the harmonic confluence of genetic design, I consider myself fortunate to have one of those talents.

David Alford as John Adams and Chip Arnold as John Dickinson

In 1973, I was home from Pepperdine University for Christmas break. Nan was also home from Abilene University, and we learned of auditions for singers, dancers, and actors for the Opryland theme park that would open in late spring the next year for its second season. Nan and Dad helped me prepare my sixteen bars of “I Got Plenty of Nothin’” (a number I have used for many an audition but it has only landed me one role…the character of John Dickinson in Nashville Repertory Theatre’s production of “1776,” my first and last musical with that company). The Opryland audition committee had not requested a three-minute classical/contemporary monologue, something I could have pulled out of my back pocket. No, they wanted song and dance. So I warbled my sixteen bars followed by the dreaded dancing audition. My religious upbringing had no tolerance for dancing in its list of “absolutely not,” so I was at a distinct disadvantage. The choreographer called a group of auditionees to the stage and demonstrated a series of combinations we were to perform. After a hasty review of the dance moves, the piano player started playing and we were off to the races. I positioned myself in the back of the pack and tried not to fall on my face and bloody my nose. A half-dozen or more of the artistic staff, including Paul Crabtree, the artistic director for Opryland, sat behind long tables watching our moves, nodding their heads, whispering to each other, and in my case, trying not to laugh. Once we were dismissed, I knew theme parks were not in my professional future.

After Christmas I returned to Pepperdine for my next semester. I thought I might stay in L.A. over the summer and pursue the beginnings of a film career. Then late one afternoon I got a phone call. It was one of the casting people from Opryland asking if I could come for a callback. Trying to conceal my surprise that I was being considered, I politely said “no” for two reasons: 1) I’m in school in L.A. and have no money to fly home to humiliate myself a second time; and 2) there has been no improvement in my song and dance skills since Christmas. I thanked him for the call and we parted as friends.

To my greater surprise a few weeks later, I got a second call from the Opryland casting person saying I had been cast in a show called “The Showboat Show” written and directed by Paul Crabtree. They had either reached the bottom of the barrel or my playing hard to get had worked in my favor. When Nan called and said that she had also been cast in the show, I thought, the film career could wait. I would work at Opryland for the summer, make enough money to pay the balance of tuition after scholarships, and go back to Pepperdine in the fall for my last semester.

Showboat Show

Leap ahead to the beginning of rehearsals for “Showboat.” If my memory is correct, there were seventeen cast members. The show Paul Crabtree wrote incorporated a mixture of old standards like “Old Man River,” with contemporary numbers like “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” and an instrumental version of “Shaft” for a big dance number. The set was the façade of the bow of a steamboat and the outdoor setting overlooked the Cumberland River. Crabtree had also written narration tying the songs and story together.

During rehearsals all the cast members auditioned for musical solos and featured dance numbers. I croaked through “Old Man River” and “Leroy Brown,” before being put through our dancing paces. The choreographer gave the cast a more complicated routine than what we were given at the first audition. I was that guy in the opening credits of the Bob Fosse film, “All That Jazz,” where the stage is packed with dancers doing a routine and that one guy who is a beat behind and bumping into other dancers. My ultimate mortification came when the Opryland choreographer had each cast member dance across the rehearsal hall in a diagonal line like the floor routine of a gymnast while dancing a combination she had designed. Since I could not hide behind anyone, I tried to make it across as fast as possible without twisting an ankle or breaking a bone.

Elephant Man

The cast gathered in the middle of the rehearsal hall while Crabtree, the choreographer, and the music director confabbed and decided which of us would dance or sing what numbers. The triumvirate began to point to specific cast members informing them that they had been chosen for this song or would be featured in that dance number and then instructed them to go to their respective corner of the room.  In a matter of a few minutes, singers and dancers were peeling away and standing to the right or left of the triumvirate leaving me in the middle of the rehearsal hall by myself feeling like the Elephant Man.

The choreographer huddled with to her dancers and the musical director did the same with his singers all of whom were giggly with excitement at being chosen for their featured moment in the show, which left Paul Crabtree to ponder what to do with the odd-man-out. All the youthful memories came flooding back with accompanying anxieties, and I now knew what it felt like to be the last one standing. I had been found out. There was no hiding in the background during the dance routines or just mouthing the lyrics in the choral numbers. It was a miracle I had gotten this far. I reviewed my options in my mind: wait tables, every actor’s default career, work construction, or Opryland might hire me as a character to walk around the park in an over-sized costume of a guitar or banjo or upright bass…not that there is anything wrong with that.

Crabtree approached. I’m not sure the squint in his eyes was one of pity or perturbation, but he stopped before me and said, “And you, my son, shall talk.” And thus the role of “Captain Jerry” was born. I would speak all the narration he had written. Crabtree had handed me the gift of knowledge. He recognized my one talent and gave me the opportunity to exploit it. I will always be grateful, and I’ve been doing my best to exploit it ever since. So far no one seems to have found me out.

Chip Arnold as Captain Jerry

 

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Posterity

Many years ago I had to suffer through a procedure with a doctor. No, it was not an operation I had to endure, but an exposure to insufferable ignorance. The doctor had been asked if he would consider becoming a board member for a non-profit theatre of which I was associated. He said, “Actors are such phony people; they just turn their emotions on and off at will.” Following that logic, I almost turned on my “fury” emotion and cold-cocked him, but then after he had come to, the good doctor would have likely said I had just proven his point. I did not give him that satisfaction, but the incident has obviously remained in my memory. People who turn on an emotion at will are usually trying to manipulate you. They are the phony ones. The invitation for the doctor to become a board member was withdrawn.

Patrick Waller as Vigeland and Chip Arnold as Ibsen; photo by Michael Scott Evans

More recently I was asked by a good friend how I was able to channel emotions into a character. Emotions are a tricky thing and often produced honestly when real life circumstances dictate. What actors do, whatever their methodology or technique, is to create a character whose emotions are genuine when they react to the circumstances of the story. The initial impulses we have as humans to any situation are usually the most genuine. They may not be the best reactions to have but still the most honest. Actors are in touch with their emotions and know how to imaginatively apply them in the artistically controlled and safe haven of the theatre or film. They incorporate their own emotional life into the character they create, which brings truth to that character and makes him or her believable. No audience wants to spend time or treasure watching anyone “pretend” to do anything. You don’t expect a doctor to pretend to operate on you, or a sports team to pretend to compete.

Chip Arnold as Ibsen

I have been the recipient of another great gift in the role of Henrik Ibsen in the play “Posterity” by Doug Wright. It is a privilege when an actor is given a character that experiences multi-layers of emotion. The opportunity for a role such as this is the reason I became an actor, that and the fact I was just not suited for any other profession.

Here is a quick blurb about the play and the particulars:

Nashville Repertory Theatre’s production of Posterity, by Doug Wright. Live onstage at Tennessee Performing Arts Center’s (TPAC) Johnson Theater, February 11th through 25th, 2017 with previews February 9th and 10th.

Take a world renowned Norwegian playwright, Henrik Ibsen, near the end of his career, and force him into a room with Norway’s favorite sculptor, Gustav Vigeland at the peak of his, whose ambitions require him to persuade a reluctant Ibsen to sit for him. Their battle begins. Debating what a person’s true legacy is – the work achieved during our life or how our loved ones remember us – unexpectedly teaches them something fundamental.

A startlingly beautiful play, these two explore a complex yet basic human question: who will I be to posterity? Initially developed with the support of Nashville Rep’s Ingram New Works Fellowship, this is the regional premiere of the play by Pulitzer and Tony winner Doug Wright. (This production contains brief nudity.)

 Let me say two things about the “brief nudity” clause: 1) models pose for the sculptor and in this production all the naughty parts are covered, and 2) I’m not the one doing the modeling much to everyone’s relief especially Kay’s.

Henrik Ibsen

Henrik Ibsen is the father of modern theatre. In the late 19th century, Ibsen’s plays brought a realism and truth to theatrical storytelling that had not been so forthright since Shakespeare’s time. His characters were multifaceted and complicated, and he was the first great playwright of the modern theatre to portray the complexities of female characters and fearlessly put them on stage to the outrage and consternation of society.

Gustav Vigeland

For his part, Gustav Vigeland did the same with his sculptures. He is Norway’s most famous sculptor with an 80 acre park in Oslo aptly named “Vigeland Park” that is filled with 194 of his sculptures with more than 600 figures. When asked why all these figures were sculpted in their “natural” state, he said that clothing locks the image in a specific time. I would add that it also conceals the depth of emotion. There is a fierceness and sometimes overwhelming power to his statues. To paraphrase a line in “Posterity” the sculptor has “…built a full and bracing drama in his own imagination and peopled it with an appropriate hero.”

Old Woman and Young Man by Vigeland

How might you be remembered? It is a big question. In the past when I have taught writing classes, I have asked the students to write their obituary. This play examines a person’s “posterity” in ways that are unexpected and illuminating. Doug Wright has done his job by writing a brilliant play. The director and actors are tasked to breathe life into the characters of the story that is truthful not feigned, the designers are tasked to create a realistic environment that transports the viewer into another world and heightens the live-body action on the stage. The quality of those jobs will be done and done well. And as for the audience…you are a vital part of the creation. Art demands that it be experienced by an audience. Art cannot happen otherwise. Sitting in a darkened theatre, watching and listening to great storytelling sans mobile device, sans social media, sans all things electronic and entering into a shared experience with hundreds of other people might just expand your soul in ways you never imagined.

Playwright: Doug Wright
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A Transformed Life

When Kay and I traveled to Italy a few years ago one of our favorite experiences was in Assisi. We had come from a couple of days in Sienna and had booked a hotel online the day before we arrived only to find out when we got to the location that the hotel was closed for renovation. In profuse, broken English the manager apologized for the website’s misinformation, and helped book another hotel. Assisi is a walled city built on a hill overlooking the valley. The city center is restricted to only pedestrians. We could drive to our hotel about halfway up the steep incline but could venture no farther by car. We checked in, threw our luggage in the room, and headed out.

Just across the narrow street stood a man in front of his shop which specialized in olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and wines from local presses and vineyards. He waved us over, and for the next twenty minutes in manageable English, gave us the history of olive oil in the region and why the brands he carried were the best. He insisted we taste some of the finer selections of olive oil and balsamic vinegar. This was not like the wine tasting experiences we have had in other parts of the world. After only a few “tastes” we excused ourselves and hurried away. Before we could enjoy the sights of Assisi we had to stop at a pharmacy for some antacids to quiet our grumbling stomachs. A more refined palate might have enjoyed the subtle differences in the selections of olive oil and balsamic vinegar, but for my taste buds, only vintage wines were in order for the rest of our travels.

Eight hundred years before, St. Francis lived in this city. As a young man he had a privileged life. His father, Pietro, was a wealthy merchant providing expensive material and fabrics to the medieval equivalents of Dior, Klein, and Cardin. And his mother, Pica, belonged to a noble family from Provence, France. This prosperity allowed his parents to indulge the whims of their son. One biographer referred to Francis as the “king of frolic” who surrounded himself with other young nobles indulging in every kind of debauchery. He was a quintessential party animal, not yet the hallowed saint of paintings, literature, and films preaching to animals, kissing lepers, and taking “Lady Poverty” as a wife. His early lifestyle did not foreshadow an inclination to follow in his father’s career let alone a holy calling. The world of the youthful Francis was in turmoil; conflicts between church and state, battles between Assisi and the surrounding towns, and hostile political and economic spats between the local classes. For us human beings there is nothing new under the sun.

Francis’ carousing did not leave much time for academics, nor was he particularly interested in education. He aspired to be a knight of Assisi. He could afford the clothes and armor. In one of the many skirmishes between rival city-states, Francis was captured and held for ransom after a battle with citizens from Perugia. When it came to war, being of noble birth gave one an advantage. If captured, one might be chained in a dank dungeon, but one stayed alive and eventually released when ransom was paid. While the common citizen-soldier either died in battle or had their head lopped off by the victor. While in captivity Francis became ill and in that period began to contemplate a different life. Once liberated he returned home and rejoined his friends, but their partying had lost its appeal. His heart was gradually changing. He found he was drawn to a more spiritual life. His focus shifted from revels with friends to those less fortunate. Biographers have recorded several experiences that are attributed to Francis’ change of heart, some factual, some expanding into legend, but one experience seems to be authentic: a confrontation with his father in the city square in front of the basilica before a crowd of people.

As I stood in the area where the confrontation took place, I could not help but imagine the scene. Francis was becoming more disinterested in money much to the consternation of his father. He stood to inherit a large sum from his mother’s side of the family, funds his father could use to expand the business, but if his son was not going to follow in the family trade, instead, spend his time in benevolent work and prayer and giving away his wealth, then drastic measures were needed. After learning that Francis had taken fabric from his shop, sold it, and given it to the church, a furious Pietro dragged Francis before the bishop and demanded he return the money and renounce his rights as heir to the family fortune.

Imagine standing in the midst of a crowd of curious onlookers watching a father berate and denounce his son, threatening him with an ultimatum that both father and son might regret for the rest of their lives. No one could have anticipated what happened next. Francis began to remove his clothes and lay them at his father’s feet. “Moreover he did not even keep his drawers but stripped himself stark naked before all the bystanders,” as recorded by Thomas of Celano, Francis’ first biographer, in Vita Beati Francisci.

What does a father say to his adult naked son? What does a naked son say to his father? Who could write the perfect dialogue for the characters in that scene? Neither father nor son could have predicted a more startling set of circumstances that had brought them to that moment, and if each had paused to think about what was happening, they might have chosen another way of solving their differences; less public at least. Both men were impulsive: Pietro driven to exasperation in hopes of bringing a son to his senses, and Francis in his spontaneous and sometimes rash behavior in the desire to live for God. The bishop opened his robes and wrapped a naked Francis inside, a gesture that signaled the ending of one life and the beginning of another; an exchange of worldly attire for sacred garments. And in case there was any confusion as to the point of this dramatic dumb-show, Francis confirmed his action with these words, “Pietro Bernardone is no longer my father. From now on I can say with complete freedom, ‘Our Father who art in heaven.’”

What seared memories were created that day by such a raw performance on such a stage before a hometown crowd? As parents we want the best for our children, but sometimes our best intentions get in the way of a child’s natural interests and maturity. Certainly there are times when a parent must intervene, but it is an act of wisdom to know when to impose and when to restrain our will. If Pietro had not indulged and even encouraged Francis’ youthful follies or insisted Francis conform to his demand to follow in the family business, instead paid closer attention to his son’s growing spiritual inclinations, then such a public shaming might have been avoided.

For Francis, disrobing in the city center was his moment of transformation. How we come by our transformation is never really the point. Few of us will take the drastic measure of disrobing in public as a physical metaphor of transformation. The point is to be transformed regardless of time, place, or circumstance and it could be costly. Francis abandoned every worldly security and entered into a new life as a follower of Christ, incorporating into his soul the heart and mind of Christ, and allowing the love of Christ to flow through him onto others. When we embark on a spiritual odyssey that path will have its unique set of circumstances, encounters with others, and be shaped by our personality. But if the journey does not include a transformation of the soul that concentrates it on the needs of others by showing love and compassion to a culture obsessed with greed and power and self-absorption, then perhaps it is not transformation you seek. All we have left to us are our self-focused diversions, distractions, and entertainment. These things will soon bore the soul until it becomes numb to all human-made stimuli. That is a hollow life. Abundant life comes when our life is transformed by God’s love and then turns around and communicates that love to the world.

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A Day in the Life of a Caregiver

Anyone of who knows me will find the title of this essay amusing. I am not a caregiver, professional or otherwise. I’m more of the day-tripper variety of care-giving. Kay has more the heart of a caregiver. Aside from her thriving practice as a mental health counselor, she also keeps our Nashville granddaughter on Fridays, which includes taking our uncle out for lunch and running errands for him. Yes, I live with a queen and a saint. And if you think this is going to be a story that will bring a tear to your eye, or that you might take offense at my annoyance with my adorable, nearly four-year-old, granddaughter and an uncle with Parkinson’s, then read no further.

On several occasions I will join Kay on a Friday and spend time with my granddaughter and Uncle Tad, known affectionately in the family as U.T. On a rare occasion I will pinch-hit for Kay, giving her a respite, and do all things a good grandfather and nephew would do; not always with the best of attitudes, but the job gets done. On a recent Friday I left Kay sleeping soundly after a long night of counseling and braved the rush hour traffic into the city. Kay has a set routine that she follows, and the day before, she briefed me on my duties hoping I would not be tempted to stray. For the most part, I walked the “straight and narrow.”

The granddaughter and I went for a hike (my routine), and afterward we picked up U.T. at his assisted living facility. So far, so good, but the moment U.T. got in the car and said he wanted to get a special battery at Walgreen’s that makes his baseball cap light up so he can see to put his medicine in his dispenser, I got this foreboding feeling that we might be in trouble. I’m all for individual liberty that under-gird the rights of humans to be eccentric, but a baseball cap that lights up so you can see where to put your pills? Does China even make such an item?

batteriesU.T. could not remember the brand name of the battery, just a number: 20-32, and that it was shaped like a flat, metal slug. It was in the battery section of the store, he said, and I thanked him for keeping me from wasting time wandering the candy and greeting card aisles as I got out and left him and my granddaughter in the car. Once in the store I faced a wall of batteries, enough selections to power half of the populace’s mechanical needs, and after a thorough scan, could not find a slug-like, 20-32 battery. I went back outside to confirm the particulars and returned for a second sortie. No luck. Why not ask for assistance, one might say, and normally I would, but given the particulars of the item and the purpose it served, I just couldn’t get the words to roll out of my mouth. I did not want to see a you-got-to-be-kidding-me expression on the face of a Walgreen’s representative that matched my own.

cartoon-feetA return to the car after a second failure meant that U.T. and the granddaughter would have to get out of the car and come inside. U.T. has Parkinson’s and requires a walker to assist with mobility. At times he has difficulty getting his feet moving. The medication he takes helps with this, but often as we wait for the central nervous system to transfer the brain’s command to move down through his legs to his feet, U.T. will jokingly say, “Feet, don’t fail me now,” a catch-phrase spoken by vaudeville tap dancers. This time all the cylinders were firing and we were able to scoot into the store with the aide of his walker. U.T. went straight to where the batteries were hanging. Yes, they had been right in front of my face both times, and yes, there is a baseball cap that lights up, and yes, a slug-like battery is designed just for this very purpose, and yes, the cap was made in China. I live my life in a cocoon.

lighted-ballcap

 

 

lithium-battery

 

Back in the car we headed to Cracker Barrel for lunch. One of the perks that comes with having an uncle who uses a walker is the little blue handicapped tag you can attach to your inside rear-view mirror. And yes, I despise those people who park in handicapped spots without the blue hanger or the wheelchair insignia on the license plate and hop out like the whole world revolves around them. I have muttered under my breath on occasion, “You must be mentally handicapped because you seem to be walking just fine.”

Lunch was ordered and the granddaughter was amusing herself with the wooden triangle peg game that sits at every table, the one where you test your brain power by playing leap frog with the pegs in the holes. I hate all games where inanimate objects have the power to determine one’s genius level or the lack thereof. Instead, my granddaughter and I decided a better use of our time was to test our eye-hand coordination by flipping the triangle upside down and setting it on the table top without allowing a peg to fall out. She spent most of the time on the floor collecting the fallen pegs, but at least my Energizer Bunny granddaughter was happily preoccupied while we waited for our food. I call that genius level thinking on my part.

Before the food arrived a grumpy old man sat down at the table to my left. He had yet to speak a word, but his dour expression, the way he pondered the chair he would take—he had four to choose from since he was dining alone—like a cranky Goldilocks expecting not to like any of his choices, and the disgruntled flourish of removing his cap and plopping it down along with his cane in the seat next to him, signaled to me that his waitress was in for a challenge.

Cowboy Copas and the Ear Trumpet
Cowboy Copas and the Ear Trumpet

Our food arrived via the same waitress as our crabby neighbor, and after setting our plates before us, she stepped over to take his order. Oh yes, I eavesdropped while buttering and splashing syrup over my granddaughter’s pancake. The room was full of patrons and the clack and clatter of dozens of people eating and conversing prevented me from clearly hearing everything the grumpy man was saying, but I could see that with each question he posed regarding how something was cooked or could he make a special order or was an item currently not on the menu now available was slowly eroding the smile on the waitress’ face.

It was time to concentrate on my meal and make sure U.T. and the granddaughter were happy…part of the caregiver’s job. But when the waitress brought the grumpy man his meal that included a slice of ham that he rejected within seconds, I almost laughed at the if-looks-could-kill expression on her face. It wasn’t long before the manager arrived with a new plate of ham hoping to appease the piqued patron. I wanted to tap the old coot on his shoulder and say, “You’re not at Fleming’s Steakhouse, alright? You have a steak at Fleming’s you don’t like, you send it back. This is Cracker Barrel for crying out loud.”

The real fun began when we had finished our meal and was ready to leave. U.T. can use his walker as a seat, which he had done in this case. He uses the handlebars to lift himself off the seat. The first problem was that by using the walker as a seat he must turn it in the opposite direction, which means he would now have to turn 180 degrees to be headed in the right direction. He rose upon his numb feet and could go no farther and was now bent forward facing the table with his hands behind him holding onto the handlebars. Between us we mumbled a mixture of sacred and profane utterances all in hopes of encouraging the “feet, don’t fail me now” saying.

brain-synapsis-2A sensitive person would look at this picture and subtly nod to their lunch companions and whisper “look at that poor man” (U.T.), while ill-thoughts about the other guy (me), just standing next to him like a doofus doing nothing bounced around in their heads. The truth was we were doing something…waiting for U.T.’s synapses to fire. I suggested he sit back down and try again in a minute, but he didn’t want to do that. “Too hard to get back up,” he grumbled. When U.T.’s arms began to tremble from sustaining his weight, I grabbed the waist of his blue jeans in the back to help hold him up. There we were with dozens of strangers in a room eating lunch and trying not to stare at a still-life of an old guy holding up an even older guy by the seat of his pants whose hands were frozen on the handlebars of his walker; all the while the granddaughter was wandering around the tables. What none of these people would know is that this is a scene our family is very familiar with: U.T. rises from his seat and we wait for his feet to receive the go-ahead from the brain.

U.T. and I started chuckling which was enough of a distraction to sneak a signal passed the roadblock of his faulty brain circuitry and he was able to move his hands, one at a time, from the handlebars to the table so I could spin the walker around and point it in the right direction toward the exit. I called my wandering granddaughter and encouraged her to return, which she did without making a scene. She would have to swing from the rafters to upstage the slow dance U.T. and I was doing. There were two men seated on our other side who initially looked at us with concern, but it quickly turned to humor when U.T. made the successful 180 degree spin at his stop-motion animation speed, gripped the handlebars and said, “And now for my next trick.”

But we all had to wait for his next trick. There was no forward motion to be had, and so we were forced into a second holding pattern. We conversed with the two men, again to give time for brain and feet to work out their coordinates. In this hiatus, U.T. had a sudden realization and exclaimed, “Well shoot, I forgot to take my 11:00 o’clock Parkinson’s meds.” And then I knew all things: no take Parkinson’s meds, no make feet work. I saw the straight line connection of the need for the 20-32 slug battery, to light the baseball cap, to see to fill the dispenser with the proper meds, and hopefully to remember to take the proper meds so we might avoid our current gridlock at the Cracker Barrel.

Life in the dining room continued as normal: patrons eating, waitresses scurrying, and bus boys busing. I suggested that I ask the manager if they had a house wheelchair, but U.T. said that he was beginning to feel that tingling sensation signaling imminent leg and foot activity. Then came a mysterious sequence of events that can only be described as something out of a movie: I ordered the granddaughter to stick close to me, a bus boy drops a porcelain plate that shatters into pieces, dozens of heads turn in the direction of the chagrined bus boy, U.T.’s legs spring into action and he announces, “We have lift off,” and fireworks-5 my hand shifts from the back of his pants to the back of his neck intent on maintaining our forward momentum. I notice a large fragment of porcelain plate lying in our path and try to steer U.T. away from the piece by twisting his neck (no cognitive thought for my choice, just reptilian reflex), and, of course, U.T. hits the piece of plate and it lodges in the right wheel of the walker. But did we stop? No. We didn’t even slow down. I might not have been able to steer U.T. away from the plate fragment, but I wasn’t about to stop for it. And so we rat-ta-tat-tated our way across the faux brick flooring that is in every Crack Barrel dining room until we hit the faux hardwood flooring of the merchandise area where the plate piece was knocked loose from the wheel. As every actor knows, a great exit is most important. If we had been in front of a theatre crowd, our exit would have garnered an eruption of applause.

In the midst of our hasty charge for the front door, I lost my granddaughter. She was in the building, so I did not panic and we pressed on down the constricted main aisle. There was so much merchandise in the store two normal size people could not walk side-by-side to marvel at the abundance of swag. I paused for a split second to inform a passing Cracker Barrel employee that I was going to put my uncle and granddaughter in the car, and then would come back and pay the bill. I don’t know what she said because I hardly slowed down. About that time the granddaughter flew out of a side aisle happily clutching the soft, fluffy neck of a pink figure of a cat sewn into the side of an oval pet bed. I understood her reasoning. She has a real cat at home, but her timing was off.

“Clara-Larie Pearson, put that thing back right now and follow me,” I barked, and I got the surprised look from a child who could not understand why her grandfather had suddenly turned into Mr. Hyde. But she complied and we rattled and stumbled our way out the door. After getting everyone buckled into their seats I went back inside to pay the bill and was asked by the cashier, “Was everything all right?” Here was a moral dilemma: tell the truth or lie? I dodged the question with, “May I add the gratuity to the credit card receipt?” Given an affirmative nod, I signed my name, dashed out the door and hopped into the car.

Just when I thought we had gotten out alive, we heard the long, sharp blast of a car horn. I could not discern the cause for such insistent honking and chose to ignore it until I heard the crunch of metal on metal. I slammed on the brakes just as I saw a man leap from his parked car and rush toward us. I jumped out and went around behind the car to see U.T.’s walker wedged between the car and the raised concrete curb between the pavement and the grass. I thanked the gentleman for his warning blast, worked the walker away from the car, collapsed it, and slung it in the backseat.

“I always love coming to Cracker Barrel,” U.T. said with a straight face as we pulled out of the lot.

I could have hung him by his red, white, and blue suspenders, but then I would have had to hold him up by his pants to do it and by now I hadn’t the strength to commit murder except in my heart. So I give an enthusiastic cheer to all the caregivers around the world. With the rising number of aging Baby Boomers your employment is secure. I expect soon I will be in need of your services. Kay is a saint, but even saints have their limits.

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Watch Me

Living with royalty can be a difficult challenge. When I was wooing Kay I did not realize how close to the sun I was flying. It was not until we were at the point of no return in our courtship that I discovered I was marrying a double-crowned queen. Apparently back in the day when the world did not spin quite so chaotically, there are no rules governing the number of times one could be nominated to the “royal” court of school athletics or win the honor of being crowned Queen in multiple sports. Her first entrance into such noble and rarefied air was in junior high when she was nominated to be on the court for the football team. She later went on to become the Homecoming Queen for the baseball team. Then in her senior year of high school she was also crowned Homecoming Queen for the football team. And yes, we have the tiaras and yearbook pictures to prove it.

Kay Patton as football Homecoming Queen, 1970
Kay Patton as football Homecoming Queen, 1970

A little known story regarding her status in the Homecoming Court for football during her middle school year involved her escort. Tradition was that a co-captain of the football team would accompany the female members of the court onto the field, present her with a bouquet of roses, and grace her with a peck on the cheek. All a part of the ritual except that year Kay served on the court one of the captains was an African-American. This was the first year of integrated schools in her small town, and until then, the football team had never had a black player. The football coach approached Kay and her mother privately and asked if the African-American captain could be Kay’s attendant. The coach explained that he expected some resistance from other parents if their daughter was put in this position, and he felt Kay and her mother would be more open to this integrated homecoming court. He was correct. This example of courage by Kay and her mother did not make the headlines or change the world, but such action goes a long way in the generational bloodstream that flows in a family as positive DNA revealing how one human being ought to respect and treat another.

Over the years of being married to a queen, I have witnessed queenly behavior both high and low, mostly for the greater good, but on rare occasion, for the not-so-good. My chief concern was for any adverse effects this behavior might have on our two daughters. Both our girls attended the same university in Philadelphia, so for a number of years Kay and I were burning up the highway between here and there. One year during the fall season, like all universities, there was a campus-wide event where the students and families, faculty and alumni, gathered for the crowning of the queen for that year. The university was more progressive than most and the nomination process included the crowning of a king as well. Our youngest daughter, Lauren, was nominated one year, and of course, my queen and I drove up for the ceremony. Not to keep up the suspense, but that weekend we had the pleasure of watching a second generation queen inducted into our family.

Sign speaks for itself
Sign speaks for itself

We went to dinner that night to celebrate. Afterwards as we were pulling out of the parking lot and came to a stop at the entrance/exit of the restaurant, Kay began swiveling her head from left to right looking for openings onto the main, heavily trafficked, four-lane highway. We needed to turn left to head back to the campus, and the queen was at the wheel totally ignoring not one, but five clearly visible signs across the highway informing all drivers, great and small, royal and common, of the illegality of a left turn. Drivers were expected to turn right into the flow of traffic and not cross three lanes (one a turning lane) of oncoming traffic, but my queen was having none of it. As she waited for the oncoming traffic to clear so she could gun her way across the three lanes, both our newest crowned queen, her older sister, and I, all loyal subjects, pointed out the five signs informing her not to do what she was about to do. She just huffed, and with queenly scorn said, “Watch me!” just before zipping our car across the three lanes and heading in the desired direction.

I suggested her decision was a poor example of driving etiquette, not to mention the threat to life and limb, for the queen mother to display for the queen daughter and her sister, but my admonition fell on deaf ears. We weren’t on the road thirty seconds before the blue and red lights began to flash behind us, and I thought to myself, now a higher power would provide the object lesson my queen deserved and one from which the queen daughter and her sister could benefit. I could not contain my amusement as the officer walked up to the driver’s side of police-giving-a-ticketthe car. The queen rolled down her window, and before she could even say “hello,” the officer began reciting a litany of her infractions: clearly marked signs impossible to miss, blatant violations of state laws, and that he was required to see her license, registration, and proof of insurance. The officer’s monologue took upwards of two minutes and was spoken with a rapid, clipped, authoritarian, northern accent that, I hate to admit, was difficult to follow. Once he had finished, he paused as much for dramatic effect as to catch his breath, and Kay seized the moment with disarming aplomb.

“Officer, I’m from the south,” the queen began, her own accent loosened up by southern charm and elongated syllables. “And I didn’t understand a single word you just said. Do you mind repeating the information…slowly?”

Sir Alec Guinness as Obi-wan Kenobi
Sir Alec Guinness as Obi-wan Kenobi

Between the police vehicle’s bright headlights and flashing blues and reds, the officer’s stunned expression was lit with cinematic skill. Here was a moment of reckoning. Here was an on-the-spot “truth to power” instance for the universe to observe. Of course, this “truth to power” moment depended on one’s perspective. Kay knew she was speaking to someone that could throw the book at her, but the officer had no idea he was addressing the queen. In that freeze-frame second, the queen’s immediate family witnessed a “may the Force be with you” moment as though Obi-wan Kenobi had waved his hand in front of the officer’s eyes evaporating all cognitive skills. The officer’s entire demeanor changed. He dropped his head and sighed—the metaphoric wind knocked out of his sails—and a smile appeared on his brightly illuminated face. The queen had prevailed, and she drove away with only a warning…spoken slowly for comprehension.

I bowed before my queen in complete awe of her power as we sailed down the highway humming the Sonny Curtis song, “I Fought the Law;” a tune, I thought, was  unfamiliar to the queen’s daughters. But then was shocked to learn that the newest queen in the family had herself used similar charms in her criminal past to talk her way out of traffic violations proving once again that the apple does not fall far from the tree. Where had I failed?

Marilyn Monroe, a true Hollywood queen
Marilyn Monroe, a true Hollywood queen

I have gladly accepted Kay’s call to “Watch Me” for a host of reasons. She is worthy of viewing by those throughout the land for all manner of estimable qualities, except perhaps, and only on occasion as the dark side of her queenly nature rears its ugly head, when it comes to getting behind the wheel of a car. We have been married for many decades, and I can say with each passing year her wisdom, grace, humility, and beauty confirms what a fortunate man I am. And while she does not adjust her crown before the start of each day (it remains stored in the attic), royalty suits her. She wears it well, and without hesitation, I can point with pride and say, “I’m with her.”

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Baseball, Bible, and Betting

I have no fondness for alliteration. If I use the literary device it is either because I have no other words at my command to make the point, or my editorial skills were distracted at the moment I came up with the offending passage. It is not that I am anti-alliteration. Authors I admire have used the stylistic device to great effect: Poe, Coleridge, Frost, and Whitman, to name a few. It can be very effective in speeches. But on the whole, I try to stay away from its use. However, in the case of the title of this post, the alliterate use of these three B’s represent a seminal moment in my life many years ago; and it is this time of year when our attention becomes focused on the baseball playoffs and which two teams will make it to the World Series, that I’m reminded how our National Pastime, laying a wager, and Holy Writ converged in the blink of an eye to bring my world crashing down upon me.

David Lipscomb
David Lipscomb

It was October, 1967. I was a senior at David Lipscomb High School. Minister and educator, David Lipscomb, founded Nashville Bible School in 1891. Years later the institution was renamed after its founder, and over the decades, it has expanded its educational web to encompass (yes, I just used an alliterative triple E) curriculum for grades kindergarten through high school, a four-year college, and multiple post-graduate programs. While much has changed, one foundational principal that has remained a “was, is, and always shall be” constant, are the required Bible classes for the students.

Beatitudes; painting by James Tissot
Beatitudes; painting by James Tissot

It was in one of those Bible classes on that inauspicious day in October we high school seniors found ourselves pouring over the famous “Sermon on the Mount.” The passage from the Gospel of Matthew was our focus of study, and for our mid-semester final we were to memorize and write the three-chapter sermon—King James Version, of course, the “If it’s good enough for the apostle Paul…,” translation. The teacher was called away from class, but before his departure, he admonished us to use this time to memorize and meditate on the words of our Lord. Many remained in pious reflection during the teacher’s long absence, but some of us yielded to the temptation of worldly interests. The whispered conversation originated from a cluster of desks in a corner, and like a slow moving current, flowed out into the room. The topic was the World Series between the Boston Red Sox and the St. Louis Cardinals, not the Beatitudes.

1967 World Series Program
1967 World Series Program

The debaters were evenly divided about which team would win the seventh and final game rating their chances on the strengths and weaknesses of each team’s roster. Finally, one ardent defender of his team challenged a counterpart for the other team to “put his money where his mouth was,” and as fast as old west gunslingers, out came their wallets. A chain reaction ensued and cash began appearing on the desk centrally located to the heated debate…mine. The fact that I had had a paper route and knew how to keep payment records for hundreds of customers, got me the job as the accountant for all placed bets with corresponding names. Another boy kept the money, one from a wealthy family who would not be tempted to skim off the top.

Casting Lots; painting by William Blake
Casting Lots; painting by William Blake

I was the victim of the capriciousness of Fate, and while not being a Bible scholar, I reasoned there was biblical precedent: did not Jesus’ disciples cast lots to replace Judas? Word spread like the proverbial wildfire, and between class periods, transactions were conducted in the bathrooms, around the lockers, at the lunch tables; all team preferences whispered and meticulously recorded in my notebook and all money surreptitiously slipped into the “banker’s” hands. By fifth period study hall I had accrued an impressive list of names: upper and lower classmates, athletes and scholars, teacher’s pets and those consigned to the back rows, paragons of virtue and the socially dysfunctional, we were all of one mind and accord. This sudden gambling fever had infected our collective moral character and unified us in this spiritual deprivation.

A self-appointed, “Professor” Harold Hill type, concerned, no doubt, about this en masse spiritual malady, blew the whistle, and I was busted while updating the accounts with all the bettors names. Lulled by the thrill of gambling, I had dismissed the prospect of the powers-that-be discovering our syndicate, forgetting about their effective omniscience and omnipresence followed naturally by omnipotence (There I go again with a triple “omni” O). Like an F.B.I. raid rounding up unsuspecting Mafia felons, students were gathered from the classrooms and herded to the principal’s office. The expulsion of all the bettors made the front pages of both daily papers and the television evening news. The sound of “weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth,” could be heard throughout the land from the households of those whose darling had been consigned a place with the damned, mine included. But in the course of time cooler heads prevailed and someone actually read the Student Handbook which stated that gambling was an offense worthy only of suspension not expulsion. After a marathon of parent/teacher conferences and student repentance’s, all pupils were restored to their place among the righteous, myself included.

The Cardsharps; painting by Caravaggio
The Cardsharps; painting by Caravaggio

To say our contemporary culture (religious and secular) has changed its views on gambling since that day would be an understatement. While I have not succumbed to the myriad gaming options available to drain my bank account, I do meet regularly with some of my buddies in the film business for a night of Texas Hold’em (sans the Renaissance costumes and obvious cheating as pictured in the painting). I have yet to prevail in the winner-take-all pot; perhaps my just desserts for contributing to the downfall of so many young men long ago.

Some forty-eight years after the gambling fiasco, I was given a special bit of grace when I was contacted by the chairman of the performing arts department of Lipscomb University at the behest of its president, Dr. Randy Lowry. Full disclosure: Randy and his wife, Rhonda, have been long-time friends. We attended Pepperdine University together in the early 1970’s. The request was for me to play the role of the founding father himself, David Lipscomb, for some on-camera vignettes and then to do a live presentation with Randy on stage in front of thousands of people for their big Founder’s Day celebration. And they were paying me too, an offer I couldn’t refuse. We shot the segments the day before the live event so the producers could edit the footage for a montage that would be shown during my time on stage with Randy. Through the miracle of science and technology, David Lipscomb was brought back to the future. The crew filmed David Lipscomb wandering the campus marveling at all the changes that had taken place since his day.

L. Randolph Lowry III, current president of DLU & Henry O. Arnold III as David Lipscomb
L. Randolph Lowry III, current president of DLU & Henry O. Arnold III as David Lipscomb

A few moments before the live event, I was backstage studying the script. Randy and I had already done a quick run-through that morning. Before the show, Randy came around behind the curtain to check on me. It was just the two of us, and in a quiet but jovial moment, he threw his arm around me, and asked if the rumors he had heard about my brief dalliance with gambling in high school and its severe consequences was true. When I confirmed the veracity of the story, he burst out laughing and said, “Well, you know, today we would call that having an entrepreneurial spirit.”

Yes, the times they are a-changin’. Absolution from the president of the University and a pay check. And as icing on the cake, I was invited by the chairman of the performing arts department at Lipscomb University to play the role of Atticus Finch in a production of “To Kill a Mockingbird” for the 2016 Christian Scholar’s Conference. What an honor to be able to do that role on that stage for that university where my father directed, performed, and taught laying the foundation for the tremendous theatre department that exists there today. That is a full-circle story epitomizing God’s grace and good humor. (Triple G. Oh thou hypocrite)

Set design, Andy Bleiler; Arnold as Atticus; Hannah Trauscht as Scout; & Charlie Webb as Dill
Set design, Andy Bleiler; Arnold as Atticus; Hannah Trauscht as Scout; & Charlie Webb as Dill

My grandfather used to say that if each of us knew our personal future none of us would choose to walk its path. It is a good thing we don’t know what lies ahead, but if you live long enough and spend time reflecting, you begin to see the mysterious ways of providence and how fortunate it is not to be judged by one particular choice or decision, but more for the summation of choices and decisions, which one hopes, on the whole, lean toward the admirable and the improvement of the world.

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What’s In a Name

Our trip to France this year was momentous on so many levels. I’ve written about episodes of the trip in earlier posts, but recently I was going through some of the brochures and literature I had kept from our trip this spring and felt inspired to share a few more thoughts and memories.

Louvre
Louvre

Kay and I spent a day in Paris in 2012 on a twelve-hour layover between flights. As we walked along the Seine River past the Louvre (a building that is so long it has the illusion of a vanishing point when viewed from end-to-end), I regretted our time constraint. Notre Dame, the Eiffel Tower, and a French café made the cut in our dawn-to-dusk excursion that day.

For the trip this year, I bought our tickets to the Louvre in advance because I did not want to waste a single minute standing in line to purchase the tickets and then stand in another line to get into the museum. I hate standing in lines, especially in the rain, and on the day we were scheduled to visit the Louvre, sure enough, the line to purchase tickets was the length of the museum itself, and sure enough, it was raining. I laughed snootily as I breezed by the wet and sour-faced people. Lauren, our youngest, was with us on this day, and she admitted how impressed she was with her old man for getting the tickets in advance, getting us to the glass pyramid entrance, and getting us inside out of the rain with such ease and speed. I got a, “Way to go, Dad” as we rode the escalator down into the hub of the Louvre. I like it when I can still impress my daughters. It takes a little more to impress Kay. After thirty-eight years, she has seen most of my tricks, but despite the diminishing number of ruses inside the magic bag, I still keep trying.

Descending into the Louvre
Descending into the Louvre

The multi-paged download on the museum’s website included an assortment of pertinent information to review ahead of time from detailed museum schematics to the gallery locations of the most famous art pieces. By following the map layout of the galleries, I could easily travel from floor to floor and find the Vermeer’s, the da Vinci’s, the Michelangelo’s, the Napoleon apartments, the Impressionists, the African and Far Eastern collections, and the Egyptian, Babylonian, Mesopotamian, Greek, and Roman antiquities. I love exploring all these cultures. It’s as if the museum (any museum for that matter) was one big time machine; just step inside the capsule, set the dial for the desired historical location, and push the “go” button. But the experience on the ground was overwhelming. The size of the museum is grand in scale, something a map from the website cannot capture, and we stopped frequently to ask directions when the maze confounded the mice.

Fagan and Company from "Oliver Twist"
Fagan and Company from “Oliver Twist”

One page of this website publication that especially caught my eye was the “Safety Advice.” One would expect such a page pointing out exits in case of emergencies of any kind, but it was nothing like that. This page was a list of how-tos in the prevention of being the victim of pickpockets. “SAFETY ADVICE. Pickpockets may be present in the museum,” it began. “They operate in crowds while you are photographing or looking at the artwork.” Indeed, the Louvre closed its doors for a day in 2013 when pick-pocketing reached epidemic proportions. The guards were so fed up with the problem that they went on strike. Most of the blame was placed on gangs of well-organized children and arrests were difficult because of their age. “You kick them out, they come back the next day,” said the spokesman for the union representing the Louvre security personal. Poor Fagan and his crew of “Artful Dodgers” were taking the rap for this closure.

I continued to read. “Please follow these rules:

Keep your bags closed and hold them in front of you. Imagine walking through the masses with your bag extended in front of you like the reinforced hull of an icebreaker cutting through the thick crowd. Effective, but certainly an impolite way to bump into people.

Do not flash your cash. Let it be known across the land and from sea to shining sea, I flash nothing of my person or property. Well, there was that time in college after a University of Tennessee/Alabama football game when a group of us mooned the departing Alabama fans…but I digress.

Divide up your cash and keep it in several different inside pockets or in different compartments of your bag. Dividing up your assets is what financial planners recommend, advice worthy of heeding, but for me, “inside pockets” become forgotten pockets and to stash credit cards/cash/passport, etc., is courting disaster. I would totally forget where I put most of these assets, and they would end up being tossed into the laundry inside the garments where said assets are therein contained and would perish in the wash or melt in the dryer.

Do not put your wallet in your back pocket. I took this bit of advice. I’m a minimalist when I travel and pack a few nylon, wrinkle-free cargo pants and shirts with multiple pockets. I could secure my forms of currency in any number of pockets, front, side, and back. Any pickpocket would have to be a multi-armed Shiva to search through all the potential hiding places to find any assets on my person.

Do not follow the advice of strangers at ticket machines. What is the first commandment of parents to children: Thou shalt not talk to strangers…and that includes your whacky uncle who lives in a two-room cabin in the woods accessed only by an off-road vehicle.

Pay attention to your bags and pockets while taking photos. So the would-be pickpocket preys upon the unsuspecting tourist who wants to snap a selfie in the presence of great art. Guilty as charged. We posed before the “Mona Lisa,” impressed by our own vanity in front the most famous painting in the world and not the least bit concerned of a pickpocket searching for our assets. To be honest, I wasn’t that impressed with Mona. My inner-philistine had reared its ugly head.

In the event of a problem, contact a security officer for assistance. Really. I mean, really. I ask you: what organization in the art world, yea verily, in the entire world of commerce, has ever closed down because of child pickpockets? When the museum gets overrun by pickpockets, who you gonna call? I mean, really.

Thank you for taking the time to read this prevention message. Enjoy your visit.

Chip, Lauren, Kay, and Mona
Chip, Lauren, Kay, and Mona

So now we were prepared. Like Benjamin Franklin said, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” We could defend ourselves against all threats of pick-pocketing. But to my surprise after our “Mona Lisa” pose, the ladies were ready to split up. “We want you to take your time,” they said. “Enjoy your visit; there are other things we’d like to see” (which was code for “we can’t get out of here fast enough and go shopping”). And in a whoosh they were gone. “Meet you back at the apartment,” was the last thing I heard before they were swallowed up by the large crowd…FULL OF PICKPOCKETS.

Yikes, Pickpockets Galore
Yikes, Pickpockets Galore

I could only pray they would heed the “Safety Advice” I had read to them. I secured the zippers on all my pockets and spent the rest of the day in the Louvre’s wonderful time machine with one eye on the art and the other one cocked for would-be pickpockets. Eventually the art lulled me into its spell, and both eyes became focused on the beautiful exhibitions.

The art of pick-pocketing must be the world’s third oldest profession, and while this form of larceny should not be tolerated, there is something profound in these lines from Shakespeare’s “Othello” where the character of Iago compares the loss of the contents of his purse to the diminished value of his good name. Iago twists this line of reasoning to poison Othello’s mind, but the inherent truth is there all the same.

Laurence Fishburne as Othello and Kenneth Branagh as Iago
Laurence Fishburne as Othello and Kenneth Branagh as Iago

“Good name in man and woman, dear my lord,
Is the immediate jewel of their souls.
Who steals my purse steals trash; ‘tis something, nothing;
‘Twas mine, ‘tis his, and has been slave to thousands;
But he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him,
And makes me poor indeed.”

One might say it took you long enough to get to the point of this essay, but indulge one more nod to Shakespeare. When Juliet struggled to justify falling for Romeo, she questioned the value of a person’s name; the two lovers represented two different families engaged in a perpetual, deadly feud. “What’s in a name?” she asked, arguing the point that their names were artificial and meaningless. Remember, they were just teenage kids blinded by the heat of love and the light was off in the rational portion of their brains.

Anyone who has lived on the planet long enough has done damage to their reputation. We are flawed humans being, after all, in need of rescue and forgiveness. There are times in my life where I have wished for the proverbial “do-over” and the chance to polish away the self-inflicted tarnish upon my name. I could wander the Louvre distracted by the beauty, my economic wealth vulnerable to thieves, but in truth, the total value of the contents of my pockets added to the museum’s great wealth of art, is no comparison to the value of the name I inherited. I’m so grateful for that good name, for the good name Kay was given by her parents, and my hope is that we will pass the heritage of those good names down to our girls, their husbands, and their progeny. That “jewel of the soul” is a precious gift.

Good name

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Mister Darwin’s Waiting Room

When I first began my career as an actor back in the 1970’s, there were not many professional opportunities in Nashville. The few theatre gigs I landed were not what could be called career-launching. So I headed west to advance my education. When I came home from Pepperdine University for Christmas break, Opryland, a theme park that produced variety shows with specific musical genres, was holding auditions for the upcoming season.

Map of Opryland
Map of Opryland

This was a great opportunity for singer/dancer/musician types, artistic forms that went beyond my limited abilities, but I thought I would audition, sing a couple of bars of something that would not humiliate me, and see what might happen. Wonder of wonders, I got a job in the “Showboat” show; a minstrel song and dance review that mixed turn-of-the-20th century tunes and dance styles with hit music of the 1970’s. There was one named role written into the show, Captain Jerry, who would narrate the story. The creative production team held internal auditions among the cast to see who of the singer/dancers would get what featured solos and dance numbers. After stumbling through my audition, Paul Crabtree, the writer/director of the show, looked at me with a droll expression and said, “And you shall talk.” Thus Captain Jerry was thrust upon me.

Chip Arnold as Captain Jerry
Chip Arnold as Captain Jerry; photo by Walter Wyckoff II

The park was open seven days a week, and two full casts were needed. Each cast worked six days a week and did 3-5 shows a day depending on the performance rotation. I did the role of Captain Jerry for two full seasons, and while I now pride myself in my professionalism, back then I was prone to mischief-making. Sometimes between shows I would dress up in a bright yellow, full-length slicker raincoat, sport a sombrero the size of an outer ring of Saturn, mount up on a thirty-six inch push-broom, and ride onto the stage of another show in progress, kiss a female cast member, and shout “El-Toro Pooh-Pooh strikes again,” then dash away. Another time I did an entire Captain Jerry speech in a German accent. It just so happened, one of the big-wigs from the Entertainment Department was in the audience and heard my sprechen deutsch monologue. A man born without a funny bone, he marched backstage and summarily suspended me for the next day, without pay. However, I was to come to the park and sit out my shift in the Entertainment office. I arrived the next day with a backpack full of plays to read.

Showboat Set
Showboat Set

The stage manager for our “Showboat” cast was from Brooklyn, and he had coveted the role of Captain Jerry from the first rehearsal. My infraction gave him his big break. That morning the big-wig who had suspended me sauntered through the reception area where I sat reading a play. He wore a patronizing grin on his face enjoying his little power trip of showing me who’s the boss. He was on his way to see the stage manager’s first show as Captain Jerry. An hour later he burst into the reception area. The big-wig opened his mouth to speak, but hesitated as if what he was about to say would cause him great physical pain. Finally he spoke. “Suit up,” he said, and stormed back to his office. Apparently, a thick Brooklynese brogue tripping off the tongue of Captain Jerry sounded worse than my bad German accent.

For this and many other sins, I was recast that following season as the Ring Master in a new “Circus Show.” It had no music theme, no singer/dancers, and no musicians; just me, a couple of clowns, the animal trainer, and her stable of performing animals featuring Mickey the Monkey. There was the obligatory dog and pony act, a couple of goats that did something forgettable, and a talking parrot whose clipped wings would barely get him from one side of the stage to the other for the reward of a cracker. In between the animal tricks, the clowns did their clown high jinks. In my Ring Master role, I would wax poetic about the circus and introduce each animal with its appropriate cute name. Mickey the Monkey is the only name I can remember. There was a stage manager who doubled as the sound engineer. The music was prerecorded calliope; the sort of music that will be played in hell on a continual loop.

The animal trainer was very protective of the creatures she had devoted her life training to be show animals. On the first day, she gave us a stern warning not to do anything she considered harmful to her precious ones. Truth was neither the clowns nor I wanted anything to do with them, cute and talented as they might be. It was the precious ones who fouled the backstage area filling our dressing room with a potent odor of livestock, and in the summer heat, made all the more pungent.

To say that Mickey was a chimp with an attitude was an understatement. I took lessons from him. In fact, I think we had a special bond. At that time in my life I was an off-again/on-again smoker. When the trainer wasn’t around, I would stand near Mickey’s cage and have an occasional cigarette. I would get this vibe from Mickey that he would love nothing more than to share a smoke with me. But of course, the female trainer would come down on me with the wrath of Greek Furies were she to catch me handing Mickey a lit cigarette.

What a Chimp
Like to see you try this trick

Mickey was talented. His bag of tricks included playing catch, doing flips, jumping through hoops from perch to perch, and walking a tightrope suspended from a pole anchored at the lip of the stage strung over a pit and attached to a pole on the railing in the front row of the audience. Once he crossed the great divide, Mickey would shimmy up the pole, retrieve a preset treat on top of the pole, and then return back across the tightrope to the stage, turn to the audience and receive the expected enthusiastic applause. While he could do his job, he did so with all the energy of a washed-up alcoholic who was unemployable in any other capacity. Mickey was moody and all the trainer’s coaxing with treats and cajoling with kindness, was no guarantee that Mickey would do the trick when asked the first time. It was usually the third or fourth request before he would jump through that hoop or throw that beach ball. From time-to-time during a show Mickey would give me what I interpreted as an “I’m-so-over-this” look, but then fulfill his obligation to do his trick. Often he would get a post-show, “Bad Chimp” scolding from the trainer and a withholding of his favorite treats. On those occasions Mickey would sulk in his cage like the kid sent to bed without his supper. That’s when I really wanted to share a smoke with him.

Monkey Hamlet
“Alas, poor Cheeta, I knew him well…”

As Ring Master, I never needed to worry about irritating management. I was told by the big-wig at the beginning of rehearsals, “This ain’t Shakespeare,” (an understatement), and the “Circus Show” was a place he and the other big-wigs did not go. I could have done my monologues in any accent I wanted, rewritten the script into a lecture on the ascent of man, or switched roles with a clown. But my mischief-making-motivator was turned off for lack of inspiration. The reality felt more like a purgatorial punishment I must go through before emerging back into the light. But at least I had Mickey as my commiserating partner.

I don’t know how it happened; if Mickey woke up on the wrong side of his cage, or he and his trainer had an argument, or he ate something that didn’t settle, but on this certain morning for the first performance of the day, Mickey was just phoning in all his tricks. I knew he would be read the riot act at the end of this show. But his sour attitude changed when he got to his final act as if struck by sudden inspiration. He became more animated as he hopped onto his perch and started his monkey-walk across the tightrope, pretending to lose his balance halfway across to the delight of the crowd. When he got to the other side, he climbed up to his perch to get his treat and sat down to eat it.

Gloating with pride, he began a self-congratulatory applause, which induced the audience to respond in kind. Then the trainer commanded Mickey to return to the stage. Instead, he sat with his arms folded and a “you can’t make me,” expression. The trainer’s tone became more insistent and her repetitive command became a run-on sentence. What was fascinating was the reaction of the audience. They assumed this was all a part of the act. Only the clowns, the stage manager, and I knew that our trainer was staring into the face of monkey mutiny. She started yelling when Mickey climbed down the pole and began to lope along the railing of the front row of the audience. This was an outdoor theatre with tall trees all around. Mickey scampered up a tree on the audience-right seating bank with branches that hung out over the heads of the spectators. By now even the audience realized that this was not a part of the act and the monkey was now in charge. When Mickey reached the top branches, I half expected him to beat his chest and cry “FREEDOM!” but he did something better.

The trainer was apoplectic and the audience was beside themselves with joy at Mickey’s escape and the self-admiration of his antics. Then Mickey climbed onto a more limber branch and began to swing himself like the pendulum in an old clock, back and forth, first over the audience and then back the other direction. Each time he swung over the seating bank the audience would cheer. A few began to chant “Mickey. Mickey.” Not to be outdone, Mickey began to echo the chanting of his name with a staccato chortle of his own. In the middle of his final swing over the audience, he re-positioned his body, took dead aim with his rear end pointing it at the audience, and released a spray of excrement that looked like a plague of the apocalypse. The reaction by the audience was exactly like that in a war zone where the sound of the in-coming missile gives you a three-second warning to take cover.

London Sketchbook, 1874
London Sketchbook, 1874

I had enough presence of mind to take the microphone and try to reassure the horrified audience. “If anyone has ever doubted the credibility of the theory of evolution, Mickey’s grand finale should lay that doubt to rest. That’s our show for today. Thank you, Mickey. Thank you, Mr. Darwin. And thank you, ladies and gentlemen.”

The next morning when the clowns and I arrived for work, the cages were empty, the backstage was cleaned out, and the trainer and her precious ones were nowhere to be found. Our stage manager greeted us like a town crier with the “Cancellation Notice.”

I never worked at Opryland again, but I went back a few times to see friends and my sister perform, and I always went by the theatre (transformed into a stage for rock n’ roll bands), and looked up into the trees and re-imagined Mickey’s moment of freedom when he swung from the branches, let out his ear-piercing screeches, and released…his inner King Kong. My only regret of the whole surreal experience of doing the “Circus Show” is that I never shared a cigarette with Mickey the Monkey.

Bad example to all the little Chimps out there
Bad Chimp! Bad Chimp!
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It Begins With Humility

In February of 1983 I went on a road trip with six other men to attend a spiritual renewal conference in North Carolina. I was the only actor in the group. Five were musicians and the sixth a pastor. A thousand or so people would attend this three-day event. The musicians would give concerts and lead corporate worship, the pastor would be one of many speakers and seminar leaders, and then there was me, the actor. I don’t remember how I got this gig or how I landed on the Saturday night docket. That specific night was not slated as a Christian vaudeville show where a number of acts would have five minutes of stage time. I was the only act. I had no name recognition or a long list of artistic achievements that qualified me for this prime-time opportunity. But I was in the van with these six men headed to the conference and was charged with the task of performing my one-man show “The Voice of the Lion” on that Saturday evening.

Walt Whitman washing the feet of former slave; illustration by Lewis C. Daniel
Walt Whitman washing the feet of former slave; illustration by Lewis C. Daniel

Four years prior to that February weekend, shortly after Kay and I were married and soon after discovering “we” were pregnant with our first daughter, Kristin, instead of doing something responsible, i.e., find stable employment, I decided to write “The Voice of the Lion,” a play about the apostle Paul. Then, after Kristin was born, I made the decision to throw what possessions we could cram into our Volvo, including our four-month-old daughter and her baby bed, and move us to Spokane, Washington to finish writing the play with a dear friend who had been the artistic director of two national theatre companies and had moved to the state the year before. He had connections with theatre and film companies on the west coast, and we had high aspirations of raising large amounts of capital to launch a big production of the play that would incorporate multiple stages, lazer lighting, and holograms. Yes, holograms; good enough for George Lucas, we argued, so why not for the leading apostle of the first century church? And how else were we going to pull off the Damascus road experience on cue night-after-night without a hologram?

Kay was a reluctant, yet devoted partner in this scheme. It was not an adventure she would have envisioned or embraced, but she was then and ever has been, supportive in my artistic leaps of faith or foolishness even when they would cause her internal turmoil.

After a year out west hard-charging to get a production funded and mounted, to no avail, Kay informed me that “we” were pregnant again with our second daughter, Lauren, so with my tail between my legs, we threw our stuff back into the Volvo and headed home to Nashville. I had a second opportunity to do the responsible thing: get that “real” job, but chose instead to transform the “Lion” dream from a quarter-million dollar spectacle into a one-man show with a set that consisted of two benches. The Saturday night of that spiritual renewal conference of 1983 in a mountain retreat center in North Carolina would be the world premiere of that modest, one-man/two-bench show, a far cry from the original price tag and no hologram in sight. The Damascus road experience would have to play out in the audience’s imagination. The whole prospect frightened and humbled me.

Bronze sculpture by Max Greiner Jr.
Bronze sculpture by Max Greiner Jr.

But it was an experience the night before that brought me to a deeper place of humility. The seven of us gathered in one of our rooms after the scheduled events that Friday for some late night conversations. We sat in a ragged circle around the room. I have the general remembrances recorded in my journal, but I did not note how it began. I just know who began it…the pastor in our group. He rose unobtrusively from where he sat, found a container in the room, and filled it with water. He took a used towel off the rack and slung it over his shoulder. No conversations were interrupted or halted by this action. Few of us were really paying much attention.

I’m not sure when I became conscious of what he was doing; probably not until he began to unlace my shoes. The talk continued but was more subdued. The pastor did not ask for silence or indeed for anything to stop on his account. In fact, he continued to engage in general conversation—laughing at how someone had forgotten the lyric in the middle of a song or the beauty of our hike in the snow that day—while going around the room, one-by-one removing six pairs of footwear, and washing our feet. This was attention-getting not for the unusual nature of the act, but for the fact that he diverted our attention away from it by talking about anything other than what he was engaged in doing. He did not pray or offer a homily; just treated the act almost as if it were any mundane activity, and with this approach, he deflected any awkwardness we might have felt in the moment.

The Second Chance
The Second Chance

What was a common practice in ancient times, done more out necessity than for religious ritual, and performed by the servant/slave class on their superiors, Jesus Christ transformed into a holy act that equalized all human beings: no one was to be considered greater than another, and when you serve others in any capacity, that humble act has the transcendent power to make you happy, joyful, blessed.

After four years of collected failures and disappointments for the efforts made in behalf of the “Lion” dream, this foot washing moment freed me to be joyful in the act of my performance, yet at the same time, it brought me low. Twenty-four hours later I slipped onto the stage in the black and hit my mark spiked between two benches my father loaned me from his theatre department. And ninety minutes later following a standing ovation, curtains closed and house lights up, I took a few faltering steps upstage out of view behind some sound equipment and fell prostrate on the floor and began to sob. After a few moments, I felt a someone fall upon my back and begin to weep with me, and then a second body fell on top of the first, he too joining the sobbing chorus. It was a dear musician friend and the pastor. The weight of these two men (we remain life-long friends), all three of us weeping, was a burden I gladly bore.

Whatever humility I may have at any given moment in my life is usually forced upon me. It is not a virtue that resides naturally in my soul. That foot washing moment in February of 1983 was profound; so much so that twenty-five years later when writing the screenplay “The Second Chance” with Steve Taylor and Ben Pearson, a foot washing scene was written into the story. It is a seminal moment in the movie that alters the lives of the two main characters who are experiencing racial conflict. The first major religious conflict within the early Christian church was based on racism. Sad to say little has changed in the last 2,000 years.

Washing Feet by Leszek Forczek
Washing Feet by Leszek Forczek

In these recent days our country (and the world) has been devastated by violent events that have left us all confused, sorrowful, angry, and vulnerable. There has been a great deal of discussion concerning the causes for this racial and religious violence. Much of the discourse is thoughtful, reflective, and sound with numerous solutions offered for fundamental changes. In spite of the tragedies and traumas that devastate and divide us, there is much in our human fabric that unites us: we all struggle in life; we all have grievances; we all feel threatened from time to time; we all oppose injustice; we all want true equality.

If there is a truth reflected in the phrase, “Made in the image of God,” it must be that there is a core goodness within us because everything he created he said was “Good.” And for this goodness to thrive, we must live in community seeking the good in and for others. This goodness is not unique to a specific race or culture, nor is it relegated to an idyllic historical past. Goodness arises from an individual’s soul that gets reflected in our common humanity. We do not need to succumb to fatalism. We can actively shape our future. We are a people who give of ourselves. We are a nation of healers and comforters. We are a country that transforms optimism into service for others. It is hard work maintaining a core, God-given goodness, but the task is made easier when the effort begins with humility. If we have to begin somewhere why not with a container of water, a towel, and a bent knee? From that posture perhaps we can better examine the condition of our heart before we judge the heart of another.

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