The Shoulders of a Father

There are moments in our lives where we need to be touched or held; to feel an embrace of warmth and comfort; to experience the invisible yet powerful force of strength transfer from one human being to another. Of our five senses, touch might be the one most overlooked, that is until someone touches us, whether for good or ill, and something is awakened. A father’s touch to their child can transfer an energy that has no parallel in the other four senses.

My Father as Billy Bigelow; photo by Pete Prince
My Father as Billy Bigelow; photo by Pete Prince

Then there are times when a touch or an embrace is not enough; when the moment demands a lifting off the ground and being carried on the strength of others. My first memory of being carried by my father was at the age of four. Dad was starring as Billy Bigelow in the musical production of “Carousel.” When Billy discovers that he is going to be a father he sings the “Soliloquy,” a song that expresses his pride at this news, describes his own strengths and weakness as a father, and offers his dreams and aspirations for his son. When Billy comes to the point in the song where he would offer pointers on courtship, he suddenly realizes that this child just might turn out to be a girl. His whole perspective changes in an instant. At that point Billy realizes that whether a boy or a girl, he is now a father and this child is a new and important responsibility that will alter his life forever and he resolves to carry this new weight.

My Father as Billy Bigelow; photo by Pete Prince
My Father as Billy Bigelow; photo by Pete Prince

Billy never gets to meet his daughter. He dies of a self-inflicted knife wound after a foiled robbery. I was in the audience for one of the performances and became hysterical when my father plunged the knife into his heart and collapsed onto the stage floor. My mother’s insistence that, “This is just make-believe,” did not quiet me. I had to be taken out of the theatre. My four-year-old understanding of death was limited, but seeing my daddy in such of state was traumatic in the extreme. It was not until I was taken backstage and saw my father greeting an adoring public that I began to feel relief, but my soul was not fully restored until he hoisted me upon his shoulders and I felt his live-body heat and strength flow into me. He carried me the rest of the night aloft on his powerful shoulders.

Carrying the friend
Carrying the friend
Carrying the foe
Carrying the foe


In Tim O’Brien’s brilliant book, “The Things They Carried,” the author chronicles the items carried by the regular soldier during the Vietnam War. O’Brien writes that what was carried by these men was determined by necessity, a soldier’s rank, and the specifics of the mission from weaponry to medical supplies; any additional objects an individual carried was personal and subjective. O’Brien describes that those more personal items (letters and photos, good-luck charms, religious objects, etc.), revealed each man’s character and beliefs. But the most important entity any one soldier was ever asked to bear was a fellow human being who was no longer able to carry their own weight. It has always been an important part of the philosophy in the military to ingrain within the psyche of the warrior a conscious concern for the well-being of others, of lending their strength to others, friend or foe, in their moment of weakness and carrying them to safety.

There is a powerful and mysterious result that happens when a blessing is pronounced and passed from one to another. Just before the nation of Israel was to enter the Promised Land, Moses pronounced a blessing on each individual tribe. For the tribe of Benjamin the blessing Moses proclaimed for them was that as “the beloved of Yahweh,” they “shall live in safety and dwell between His shoulders.” What a beautiful image, that of a beloved child riding high on the strong shoulders of God. From such a lofty perch one is safe and protected; one is lifted above the rough landscape; one is able to see the far horizons; one is given time to heal from the wounds suffered. This is a blessing available to all. In such times of being carried, our weakness is made perfect in the strength of God.

Erik & John-Erik
Erik & John Erik
Dachi & Patton
Dachi & Patton









Derek & Clara
Derek & Clara

My daughters married well. They chose companions who understand the importance of being a father and joyfully and humbly embrace the role. They are quick to respond to the cries of their children, lift them off the ground, and bear them up upon their shoulders transforming a sorrowful child into a joyful one. My sons by marriage had the benefit of being fathered well, as did I. While I cannot distill a full definition of what it means to be a father into a quotable tweet or copy on a greeting card for Father’s Day, the qualities of fatherhood expands its truest meaning when I am fully present in the lives of those who daily cross my path and especially to those closest to me. And when called upon, carry the extra weight of a wounded and needy soul “between my shoulders.”

Erik & John-Erik
John Erik riding upon unidentified shoulders
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David Compton: The Actor Who Could Play Anything

When you look someone in the eye, just look, holding the gaze or the glare, allowing the seconds to tick by, not speaking but studying in silence the shape of the face, the lines, the contours, yet always returning to the eyes, and being vulnerable enough to allow the observer of you to do likewise, can be as truthful and revelatory a moment as any person can have in their life. An actor is a truth-seeker. When an actor goes on stage, it is with the intention to look into the eyes of their opposite and not just speak the truth, but see it and draw it out in the other. When done well it is thrilling for the actors involved and riveting for an audience to watch.

David as Emcee; photo by Phillip Franck
David as Emcee; photo by Brit Knapp

Whoopi Goldberg said, “An actress can only play a woman. I’m an actor; I can play anything.” My dear friend, David Compton could play anything. I envied him. He made me jealous. I stole from him. I tried to detect falsehood when I watched him and always gave up after a few seconds. There were two roles for which I entertained the notion of auditioning when Nashville Repertory Theatre announced the auditions: The Old Man in “The Christmas Story” and the Emcee in “Cabaret.” What was I thinking? Who was I kidding? What reality was I trying to bend? David embodied those two roles, as in all roles he accepted, with a force that made each character he portrayed reach transcendence.

David as Sherlock and Matt Carlton as Holmes; photo by Dan Brewer
David as Sherlock and Matt Carlton as Holmes; photo by Dan Brewer

When he played Sherlock Holmes in Nashville Children’s Theatre’s production of “Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure,” my jaw dropped to the floor in those opening scenes and remained there for the entire performance. After multiple doses of Advil, I finally got the feeling back in my face.

I only saw him break character once, and it was my fault entirely. In “The Christmas Story,” David also was part of the Ensemble, and he played the old Schoolmarm. At the same time, I was in a production of “A Christmas Carol” playing Scrooge, a production that included Amanda Compton, David’s gifted and lovely wife. On a night off, I went to see “A Christmas Story,” and when David came out in his Schoolmarm dress and red wig and began to address the class, which included members of the

David as Schoolmarm; photo by Phillip Franck
David as Schoolmarm; photo by Brit Knapp

audience, he looked at me and began to berate me for misbehaving…a totally bogus charge. However, David was enjoying himself at my expense. He finished by asking me if I had anything to say for myself. I thought for a second and responded with, “Bah Humbug?” It took several beats for him to get control. It was pure joy for both of us.

David as Bob Ewell; photo by Phillip Franck
David as Bob Ewell; photo by Phillip Franck

In two rare acting combinations, David and I played bitterest enemies in one production and best friends in another. We were cast in Nashville Rep’s production of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” David as Bob Ewell and I as Atticus Finch. (It was also the first time I had the privilege to work with Amanda. She had stepped in to play Mayella Ewell in that last week of the run.) In the rehearsal process, we avoided the “spitting” moment in the play for as long as we could; that moment where Ewell spits in Atticus’ face after he humiliates Ewell on the stand during the trial. It was like rehearsing those kissing scenes that can make actors feel awkward at first. I needed to encourage David to let loose. Neither of us should fear the spray, I told him. It is a very intimate action for one human to spit on the other, and complete trust was required from both of us. David’s Bob Ewell was an astonishing and frightening specimen of a human being. At the time, he confessed that it took more of an emotional toll on him than any other character he had created to that point. Each Ewell/Atticus encounter throughout the play and throughout the run, made the hair on the back of neck crackle. He was electric.

David as Charlie and Chip as Willy; photo by Phillip Franck
David as Charlie and Chip as Willy; photo by Phillip Franck

In “Death of a Salesman” we played best of friends. In that first week of rehearsal my mother had died, so I was raw and unsure of myself. Rene Copeland and the cast and crew helped me carry my burden in a holy and unfathomable way that I still don’t have words to properly describe. There was one scene I dreaded above all, and that was the card scene between Willy and Charlie with Willy’s brother, Ben, joining in toward the end. That scene is like a trio in a Mozart opera where characters sing at cross-purposes with multiple stage actions taking place simultaneously. Charlie and Willy discuss troubles with work and children; Ben enters as imagined by Willy reminiscing about the past, all the while Charlie and Willy play cards. It is a brilliant mixture of psychological and emotional dimensions.

David as Charlie and Chip as Willy; photo by Phillip Franck
David as Charlie and Chip as Willy; photo by Phillip Franck

The mantra for the two of us in that scene was simple, “Keep it real.” The game Arthur Miller called for in the script was Casino. We researched the game, but found it so complicated that David and I just played a game of our own making, winning hands when specified in the script and when not. It became a beautiful, fluid moment ending in a shouting match, but setting up the two men’s final moment in the play when Willy comes to Charlie’s office to ask for money. They shout at each other once more, but Willy finally takes the money Charlie offers, and in a rare lucid moment before he exits, Willy says,” Charlie, you’re the only friend I’ve got. Isn’t that a remarkable thing?” The truth and honesty in that instant was achieved by two actors looking deeply into each other’s eyes all along the way.

Between those two plays, David was the director for a play entitled “Stand” written by Jim Reyland. It is a powerful, two-character play about a man who befriends a homeless man and their journey of friendship. Barry Scott and I were cast in the roles. It was during that time David said something to me that I hold dearer than any other moment in our friendship and yet it haunts me. We were talking about age, he had turned fifty during this time, and after confessing my own age, I just laughed and told him he was just a “punk kid.” And with that big grin of his that always brightened up his face and illuminated any room, he said, “You know, I’ve always looked at you like a big brother.” In reality, I am a big brother to three younger siblings, but unbeknown to me till that moment, I had reached that symbolic status in David’s mind. And here is what haunts me: a big brother is supposed to take care of his younger siblings, try to keep them from harm. But my grip was not tight enough. He slipped through my fingers.

David directing "Stand"; photo by Thomas Staples; cover photo by Thomas Staples
David directing “Stand”; photo by Thomas Staples; cover photo by Thomas Staples

David was a master of capturing those ephemeral moments of honesty on and off the stage. He turned his eyes from nothing and fearlessly exposed the humanity in himself and everyone with whom he engaged. He never settled for second best, and he forced all of us who shared the stage with him to demand the best of ourselves. His body and soul had the ability to articulate the ineffable. He was a human bridge between truth and beauty. The last time I physically saw him at Skyline during his rehab, we made grand plans of getting back on stage together this next season, but he took an exit that was not written in the script we had imagined. My big-brother heart breaks because I was not watching close enough to warn him away from that exit. And now, like our good friend Scot Copeland who also left our Nashville theatre family way too soon, we must keep the light on for you, we shall always hold you in the center of our hearts, and we will forever be better artists and human beings because of your brief time among us upon this earth.

ghost light

“Now cracks a noble heart. Goodnight, sweet prince; and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”

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Life Skills vs. Google G.P.S. Part Deux

With our daughter safely on the train to Avignon, Kay and I found ourselves arriving in Annecy shortly before nightfall. Our modus operandi when we travel abroad is to book a few nights in B&B’s or hotels in certain locales beforehand, and then once we are on the ground, have the flexibility to deviate from the path. We arrive in a city or village and book something that suits our fancy in the moment, stay longer in one location, or bounce to another.

Chip and Kay
Chip and Kay

Risky behavior, I know, but that is the fun of unexpected circumstances and special encounters while traveling. We had booked the apartment in Paris at the top of trip, a B&B in Mont St. Michel, a one-night stay in St. Jean in the Pyrenees (ended up being three nights because we loved the place and the location), and a two-night stay in Annecy. We were going to explore the French Alps, and Annecy was the perfect jumping-off location. Other locations we chose on the fly.

I must admit that as night fell on Annecy and we were unable to find the location of our B&B, I reluctantly thought a pre-programmed G.P.S. would have been helpful, but would I confess that to my daughter? Never. We knew we were close, but could not zero in on the exact location. It had been a long day of driving and we were fading, so I had Kay pull over at a random location, I hopped out and went inside a hotel and booked a room. As good fortune would have it, our third floor, balcony window looked out onto the cobblestone street where only pedestrian traffic was allowed. It was the Old City section filled with quaint craft and gift shops and restaurants.

Old City of Annecy
Old City of Annecy

Annecy is sometimes called the Venice of the Alps because of its two canals and the river Thiou running through the Old City. At dinner the following evening we were placed in open-air seating of a nice restaurant cheek-by-jowl with three other couples: German, Swiss, and French. Between the four couples, there were enough universal gestures and elementary language skills for us to communicate although most of the time we just laughed and shrugged our shoulders at our lack of fully understanding one another. At least we were not negotiating international treaties, just enjoying a meal in close proximity.

Kay's G.P.S. with the Little Blue Bastard
Kay’s G.P.S. with the Little Blue Bastard

We planned a day trip up to Chamonix, and again “Wrong-Way” Arnold, got us off the path requiring a ten kilometer backtrack. I gave myself a consolation prize for continuing to reduce the backtracking distance, and by happy coincidence, the wrong direction for Chamonix just happened to be the correct direction for our continuing journey toward the Pyrenees the following day. Unbeknown to me, Kay had programmed her phone with G.P.S. tracking the direct route from Annecy to Chamonix, and she kindly offered it as an addition to the map. I took it, but did so without gratitude. The last thing I wanted was to be indebted to a little blue dot.

We drove along the perimeter of Lake Annecy toward the French Alps, and after several kilometers of silently studying the map with an occasional cursory glance at the G.P.S. on her phone, Kay asked, “How’s the little blue guy doing? Is it working?”

I compared my dead-reckoning with the current location of the roving “little blue guy.” Map, road signs, and G.P.S. were in sync, and I gave my wife a hard look.

“The little blue bastard’s got it right,” I snapped. “You happy now?”

She smiled and nodded. I would not say she looked smug, but it was close.

On we traveled through small villages leaving Lake Annecy behind and began ascending into the mountains. When the French highway department shuts down a road, the word on the signage used to redirect traffic is deviation. Halfway up the mountain on the main road we hit a deviation sign, and suddenly, I was back in business.

“Go left,” I cried tossing the phone into the cup holder, and Kay geared down the transmission and took the alternate route. Two things happened: First, the little blue bastard went into a navigational freak-out. He spun in place, its little blue pointer whirling in circles, stuck at the point of our “deviation,” and I imagined hearing his tiny, frantic, algorithmic voice squealing, “What the what? What the what?” The little blue bastard was lost in a void of trilateration. Second: my wife found her inner “Mario.” She took the mountain-pass curves like the latent Indy driver she was, is, and evermore shall be. She never got out of third gear, straightening out the switchbacks and hairpins like an expert. Mind you, this was a secondary road with few guard rails, so one faulty move and we could unintentionally end up like Thelma and Louise. I was just thankful Kay wasn’t touching up her lip-gloss at the same time she was downshifting and accelerating.

In forty kilometers we had crested the mountain peak, driven through some beautiful landscape which included high-altitude ski lodges, and descended the other side into a small village. By then we segued off the secondary road and back onto the main road to Chamonix. I confirmed this with my map, and Kay said to check the G.P.S. as well. I scoffed at this suggestion, but to humor her, I retrieved the phone from the cup holder. To my surprise, the little blue bastard had miraculously caught up with us.

“Oh no you don’t,” I said. “You don’t get to crow-fly over the Alps to make up forty kilometers that easy.” And for the rest of our trip, the little blue bastard was employed…like most professional actors.

From Annecy we met up with Lauren in Avignon. The City Center was a medieval walled city that

St. Jean
St. Jean

encompassed shops, restaurants, museums, theatres, churches, and the Palace of the Popes. I lost the ladies halfway through our self-guided tour of the Palace of the Popes. The shops were beckoning. A couple days later, Lauren took the train back to Paris and flew home, and Kay and I went on to the Pyrenees, spent three days traveling through the mountains back and forth from France into Spain. I did a lot of mountain hiking in the Pyrenees.

Then onto Bordeaux, and we ended our trip in Giverny; the small village an hour west of Paris where Claude Monet lived and painted. From the time we left Avignon, I threw all caution to the wind and found secondary routes through picturesque villages, mountain ranges, farmland, forests, and off-the-beaten path vineyards and avoided all toll roads for the rest of the trip. That included the morning of our departure from Paris. Once again in the pouring rain, I navigated us to Charles De Gaulle airport without donating any more funds to the French highway system. Yes, I was gloating when we turned in the key of our rental car.

Monet's Garden
Monet’s Garden

In two and a half weeks of travel throughout France we put 2,800 miles on the car. That last half of the trip spent driving the countryside on those secondary roads were especially satisfying although Kay found the electronic, post-mounted speed indicators stationed at the entrance of many village annoying. It was the French-friendly way to monitor speed. An added feature to these roadside radar machines was either an emoticon of a smiling (color green) or frowning (color red) face depending on the vehicle’s rate of speed upon entering the village. My dear wife rarely saw the green smiling face. She might argue differently, but I only remember seeing one green smiling face. Nobody is perfect. After driving together in multiple countries in our years of travels (countries where roundabouts abound), my wife has developed strong opinions regarding traffic lights. She opposes them. It slows her down. Since returning to the U.S. from this recent trip, she has often ignored a traffic light transitioning from yellow to red and accelerates through intersections justifying her choice with an empathic, “This should be a roundabout.” Again, nobody is perfect, and who of us can live a day without practicing the art of rationalization?

So who won this Life Skills vs. Google G.P.S. contest? I would have to say we all won because we had a wonderful trip and returned home in one piece with a collection of great stories. If one is counting the number of times I got us off course, you have to say my skills as a map reader were lacking. But all those misdirections produced some memorable encounters with a variety of French people all across the country that we will remember the rest of our lives. And when Kay was not driving, she was snapping these photos.


The moral of these stories is simple…travel, often, anytime, anywhere, and anyway you are able. Take a map. Juice up your Google G.P.S. Pull out your compass. Your choice, but allow the luxury of wrong turns. The surprises are always worth the risk and adventure.

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Rowan Atkinson as Mr. Bean

Life Skills vs. Google G.P.S.

I love maps especially the old medieval kind where the mapmakers used their powerful imaginations depicting fantastical images of monsters in an attempt to explain the dark and dangerous mysteries of med. maplands and vast oceans yet discovered. The visionaries looked beyond their immediate horizons and envisioned the wonders of the unexplored. No such monsters to be found on the Michelin highway map of France, but my heart still palpitated at the thought of navigating this wonderful country, and after three days of tromping around Paris with miles logged and Fitbit merit badges for Kay, it was time venture out.

By my clockwise count on the Michelin map there are seventeen main entrées (not the main course, but the right of entry) and/or sorties (not the military attack, but the brief trip away from) leading into and out of Paris. The nice lady at the rental car place gave us a city map; however, the reality on the ground was a bit different than simply following her green highlighted route out of Charles De Gaulle airport into the countryside. The highway arteries from the center of Paris have a spider web effect that created a feeling of consternation similar to Rowan Atkinson’s expression in the cover photo of this essay after looking at his map. Add to our departure: a pouring rain, rush hour traffic, and the unfamiliar French road signage. All this proved a formidable challenge, but one I embraced with an explorer’s zest. Bring on the monsters.

Rowan Atkinson as Mr. Bean
Rowan Atkinson as Mr. Bean

Once we were zipping along in the car, I gave up trying to follow the city map given me by the rental car lady, and by my best calculation in the moment, chose the sixteenth highway of the seventeen available choices out of Paris. I overshot it by one. Kay was doing an excellent job driving: changing lanes, weaving through traffic, and making quick highway transitions on my short-notice commands like a calm professional. I call her “Mario” for the racing legend not the video game character. We stopped once to get verbal directions, and after a couple of wonderful, albeit humorous encounters with congenial Parisians (language barriers make for elaborate gesticulations and elevated voices), we were on the road with only about thirty kilometers of backtracking to do.

Lauren Blair Zilen
Lauren Blair Zilen

We also had our youngest daughter, Lauren Blair Zilen, in the backseat. She was traveling with us for a few days before striking out on her own. L.B. is a savvy traveler, but her choice for directional guidance is to use the high-tech G.P.S. navigation provided by Google Maps. She remained patient and even helpful to her snobbish father pointing out road signage. Her extra pair of eyes was beneficial. And I need to add here that she bought the Michelin map presenting it to me with a mixture of good humor and admiration when we met in Paris at the beginning of our trip.

The Abbey of Mont St. Michele at night
The Abbey of Mont St. Michel at night

Out of Paris with clearing skies ahead, we made our way through the beautiful landscape heading west toward Mont St. Michel, a huge Abby and village built on a rock outcropping off the western coastline surrounded by waters of the English Channel. About halfway on our journey we went through the city of Ville d’Alençon, and since I was still adjusting to matching the directions on the map with visual sightings of road signs, we got turned around inside the city. We ended up in the square, which became a partial cul-de-sac with only one way out. Kay stopped beside an elderly couple halting their slow progress out of the square, and I hopped out, map in hand, to ask directions. The wife wore thick glasses, her wrinkled face outlined in a floral headscarf with tufts of gray hair sticking out. The husband had a potbelly with a clichéd blue French beret atop his gray head, his arms locked behind his back with clasped hands. The ancient couple wore bemused expressions at the approaching man with his unfolded, accordion-like map in hand.

Parlez-vous, English?” I asked, and they both quickly responded “No.” Undeterred, I pointed to our current location on the map, and using the inquisitive gesture of “We’re here and want to go there,” looked at them in hopes of their understanding our plight. The husband continued to smile and bob his head, but the wife launched into quick, bantam hen-like gestures, in turns pecking at the map and pointing out the route I should take with wild hand and arm movements. Then she abruptly stopped and looked at me with probing eyes and said, “No G.P.S.?” When I shook my head, her expression of curiosity turned into one of scorn at my foolishness. I thanked her, in French mind you, and walked away. Here was a couple so old they could have been around to greet the Allies at D-Day scolding me for not having the latest mapping technology. I expected a little more sympathy. I shook it off and did a 360 inside the square, spotted the Office of Tourism, made a mad dash for it, received perfect instructions from the English-speaking employee, and after a quick backtrack, we were out of the city and on our way.

Kay indulges my navigational challenges, and Lauren enjoyed the old woman’s snide remark without rubbing it in.

We spent the night in Mont St. Michel and rose early the next day to make a cross-country drive to Lyon for Lauren to catch her 5:30 p.m. train to Avignon while we intended to drive on to Annecy. Once again, I miscalculated the directions to the main toll road to Lyon by about fifteen kilometers (notice the improvement from Paris), and we had to backtrack. This was the third backtrack in twenty-four hours, and I was not taking my mistake with humor. I made a profane comment, and Lauren seized the opportunity to whip out her trusty Apple Phone with its up-to-date G.P.S. guidance technology and begin telling her mother the fastest, most direct way to get to the toll road. She did so with no move-over-old man attitude. She is far too kind-hearted for that. On her IPhone, Lauren had written instructions as well as that little blue dot that smugly floats along the correct route. Should we make a misguided directional veer, the little blue dot would indicate it on the Google Map, and like a trusty sheepdog, guide us back onto the path.

The route was direct, but not fast. For over forty kilometers we drove on twisting back roads through France roadfarm country and small villages sometimes in thick fog and from time-to-time our progress slowed to a crawl because of some unhurried farmer, his tractor taking up most of the two-lane road. I don’t blame the little blue dot for the fog or the tractors. Every few minutes Lauren would instruct her mother: “At the next roundabout, take this road. At the next village take that road. At the next crossroad take a left.” I said nothing. Lauren had not gloated at my failures, and I could not argue with success when we reached the toll road, but I remained glum for the next half-hour.

Lauren showed Kay how she too could use the Google mapping system on her IPhone…just in case we might need it once we split up. Ouch! Kay was all excited. She loves any and all technology. I maintained my surly composure. Lyon was a big city, and because of our detours that morning, we were facing a time crunch getting Lauren to the train station. I let the two women figure out how to get to the train station when we entered the city, while I kept my eyes peeled for signs leading out of Lyon that would get us on the toll road to Annecy. In the course of two weeks we spent enough money on tolls to finance a month’s worth of roadwork on the national highways.


Once I spotted the signage to Annecy I began to concentrate my attention on helping the ladies find the train station. We were in the heart of Lyon, and to my surprise, they were no longer using the G.P.S. We were in a labyrinth of one-way streets that took us in ever-widening concentric circles. I felt like we were getting farther away from the station, so we pulled over a couple of times to ask directions from passing French citizens. Lauren handled the encounters well as she held out her printout map of Lyon to inquire the direction for the train station. Because of the linguistically challenging nature of each convene and the proliferation of one-way streets, none of us were really sure if we heard the instructions correctly. We soon realized that while we were “getting warmer” like in the child’s game of finding the hidden object, our route to the train station was taking us down the wrong way of those one-way streets. After one impulsive right turn, we were in the direct path of an oncoming streetcar. Now Kay does not normally panic and never raises her voice, but this time there was a noticeable vocal elevation as she exclaimed, “I’m heading right into a street car.” Her obvious point made, she followed it with an adroit, Jason Bourne type-move steering the right front and rear wheels of the vehicle onto the sidewalk and avoiding the inevitable collision. I could not have been prouder in spite of the fact that all three of us were watching our lives flash before our eyes.

Her deft move not only spared us, but by the next turn, had French Police us on the same street as the train station only two blocks away. We all cheered as we waited for the light to turn green. Kay was going to get a little closer, but Lauren was insistent as she grabbed the door handle: “Just let me out. Just let me out. I’ll walk the rest of the way.”

However, before she could make her escape, a police car stopped beside us with three officers inside. The driver was on my side of the vehicle, and his berating started before I could even get the window rolled down. In the few seconds it took for me to interject my standard “Parlez-vous, English?” I considered I might just shrug my shoulders and point to the driver with an “I told her she was going the wrong way” expression, but I knew it was best to accept a collective guilt and throw ourselves on the officer’s mercy. As soon as I opened my mouth, the “un policier”  frowned and shook his head, his demeanor revealing the fact that he had had too many encounters with inane tourists for the day or for a lifetime. In broken English I conveyed our attempt at finding the train depot and he understood enough to signal with a wave of frustration for us to follow him. As we passed in front of the station, he pointed to it and then drove away in the opposite direction. I could imagine his grumpy retelling of the tale back at the precinct of the encounter with some crazy American tourists.

We did not take the time to hug and kiss our daughter, but deposited her at the station. We would meet up again in a few days. And with that experience behind us, it was time to get out of Dodge once again in rush hour traffic but mercifully not in the pouring rain. With all the twisting and turning we did on the streets of Lyon, I had to wrack my brain searching for those road signs to Annecy. I used the Saone River flowing through the city as my landmark because signage was not forthcoming and the G.P.S. was “dead to me.” Go downstream, I thought. When we stopped for a bathroom break and to gas up the car, the woman who ran the station spoke enough English to confirm my instincts. We were just ten kilometers from merging onto the highway we wanted. With great relief we were soon rewarded with the signs to Annecy.

So what was the score at this point in the Life Skills vs. Google Map contest? Well, there is much more to this story. Stay tuned for the next instalment.



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Fear Factor

For the last few years Kay and I have had the opportunities to travel to places we’ve dreamed about for years but been unable to afford. A relative on Kay’s side of the family has been generous with monetary Christmas gifts, and we have chosen to use that gift to fund travel. We booked two weeks for a France excursion with daytrips into Switzerland and Spain as we moved around the country. When we started booking our B&B’s, we discussed driving north to Brussels from Paris for a couple of days, but opted to go south instead. Then the terrorists struck in Brussels. It never occurred to us that we should cancel our trip. I recently heard a statistic that stated you are seven times more likely to die from being hit by a falling object than by a terrorist.

Dalton Trumbo
Dalton Trumbo

Mark Twain said, “It’s easier to fool people than to convince them that they have been fooled.” With that in mind, I watched the film “Trumbo” about screenwriter, Dalton Trumbo, who was caught up in the exposing of members of the Communist Party during a period in American history known as “the red scare.” This registered party was as legitimate and legal a political entity as the Republican and Democratic parties. About the same time the Dixiecrats (a splinter from the Democratic Party which gave us the likes of Senator Strom Thurmond) was also formed on the sole platform of segregation and state’s rights; these folks still seemed eager to fight the Civil War that was settled over a hundred years before and had claimed the lives of over 600,000 American citizens before the powers that be stopped the madness. But in 1948, nobody in Congress seemed to think that the members of the Dixiecrats were worthy of Senate Committee hearings.

Richard Nixon
Richard Nixon
Joseph McCarthy
Joseph McCarthy

The Communist infiltrators that were secretly taking over our government in the late 1940’s into the 1950’s were hauled before Congressional tribunals for the main purpose of allowing the likes of Senators Joseph McCarthy and Richard Nixon to show the country they were earning their paychecks by protecting our vulnerable nation from the communist infestation. The only people during that time who actually went to jail were primarily Hollywood screenwriters who had chosen to exercise their right to free speech and assembly by joining the Communist Party. These people never broke any laws. Then in 1954, the Senate voted 67 to 22 to censure McCarthy for his over-reaching “red scare” tactics, one of the few Senators ever to be disciplined in such a fashion. Three years later he died in disgrace from the effects of alcoholism. And twenty years after these Senate hearings, Nixon gave us Watergate.

Jenny Littleton as Elizabeth Proctor and Chip Arnold as Governor Danforth
Jenny Littleton as Elizabeth Proctor and Chip Arnold as Governor Danforth

A few years ago, I had the privilege of doing a production of Arthur Miller’s play, “The Crucible” for Nashville Repertory Theatre. Miller wrote the play during the time of the “red-scare” Senate hearings and set the story during the Salem witch trials in Massachusetts from 1692 to 1693. Some of the religious leaders of the time were attempting to weed out those people who did not hold to their strict understanding and interpretation of Scripture or the general religious teachings and doctrines of current scholarship at the time. I played Governor Danforth, one of those ordained ministers appointed to purify the flock from the dreaded witches. Danforth and the other judicial powers did more than just hold a few hearings. They executed those people who failed the bona fide tests of being religiously devout. Fear was then and is now a terrible tool to wield in determining an acceptable level of one’s piety.

fear 6In an article in Scientific American entitled “Factoring Fear: What Scares Us and Why,” Joseph LeDoux, professor of neuroscience and psychology at New York University states, “Since our brains are programmed to be similar in structure, we can assume that what I experience when I’m threatened is something similar to what you experience.” Fear even affects different species in similar ways. LeDoux continues with “We come into the world knowing how to be afraid…noting that the brains of rats and humans respond in similar ways to threats, even though the threat itself might be completely different.”

What I assume from this statement is that when faced with an external life-threatening danger the rat and I will mostly likely scurry away to the nearest hiding place. But the difference comes when exposed to hate-speech and fear-mongering. A rat will continue to blithely eat his cheese while listening to the dire and spurious warnings of Joseph McCarthy while some humans will believe that America is being taken over by Communists. I recommend watching Norman Jewison’s film, “The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming” for a humorous look at our easy-to-fool human nature.

Fear 3What else we have in common with our furry friend is the mob-mentality. In the same article, Michael Lewis, director of the Institute for the Study of Child Development at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Brunswick, N.J. states, “The behavior of people around us may influence our responses to threatening situations. We learn to become fearful through experience with the fear event, or learning from those people around us like our parents, our siblings, our colleagues.” Lewis goes on to say, “Fear has a certain contagious feature to it, so the fear in others can elicit fear in ourselves. It’s conditioning, like Pavlov and the salivating dog.”

Since I have broken the socially unacceptable rule of allowing the subjects of politics and religion to creep into this commentary, let me state that I am both political (I vote) and religious (I embrace the Christian faith). Granted that although there are a plethora of knuckleheads in both arenas who love to frighten us, they do not keep me from voting and praying.

In “Henry VI, Part 1,” Joan of Arc says in Act 5, “Of all base passions, fear is the most accursed.” I’m not sure exactly what Shakespeare meant with that line, but one possible meaning might be that fear when not elicited by a life-threatening danger invariably leads to dysfunctional choices and destructive consequences. Once Ms. Arc finished leading her own crusade, she ended up burned at the stake after falling out of favor with the political and religious leaders. Poor girl just could not get a break.

Angel comfort

The most often spoken admonition in Scripture, or any of its close derivatives, is the phrase, “Do not be afraid.” The words are used hundreds of times. It was obvious then as now that we humans are naturally prone to fear, and it was God’s desire for us not to be afraid. So as songwriter Pete Townshend of The Who suggests in the song, “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” do not be afraid of politicians, religious fanatics, terrorists, (and even the random object falling from the sky), who would use verbal or violent fear stratagems to scare us into hiding places, or worse, force us to live under their power. As for Kay and I, it was full speed ahead to France.


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Scot Copeland: Man with the Dragon Tattoo

In honor of my friend, Scot Copeland, who shuffled off his mortal coil on this day a year ago, I am re-posting this remembrance. He has left a hole in the hearts of many across this land, and while his work will be celebrated on into the future, it is the heart of the man that we cherish and hold dear. God bless you, B.A. 3, and Rene, and Josh and Ben.


Back in 1951 some friends of Groucho Marx pressured him to join the Friar’s Club of Beverly Hills. He never participated in any of the club’s activities, and after his short-lived membership, he wrote a letter of resignation to the president of the club. The president responded immediately with his own letter asking for an explanation for his abrupt and unexpected departure, and Groucho promptly wrote back: “Because I don’t want to belong to any club that would accept me as a member.”

In his lifetime, Scot Copeland was given awards and memberships to many organizations, but there was a little known club to which he belonged that was so exclusive it had only three members: the Bad Ass Club. Its origins began years ago through an unusual set of events.

In the summer of 1999 after her first year of college, my oldest daughter, Kristin, had a suitor she had dated at college pay a visit to the farm. He had expressed his affections, and Kristin entertained the notion that this relationship had potential. But after a couple of days of close quarters, Kristin knew this was a dead end street and put the poor boy on the plane in tears at the end of his stay. She was a bit melancholy after returning from the airport, and so Kay and I decided we would take her out to dinner and cheer her up. Kristin and I got into the car, I in the driver’s seat and Kristin scooting into the back seat, and we waited in the driveway for Kay to join us. I looked in the rearview mirror and saw my daughter’s downcast eyes.

“Honey, I know it’s tough but you did the right thing. I’m proud of you,” I said, but my vote of confidence in her judgment on ending this romance received a tepid, “Yeah. Thanks, Dad.” So I tried the big-picture approach.

“So Kid, when you are imagining the guy you would fall in love with and see as a lifetime partner, what kind of guy would he be?”

She was quiet for a moment, the sound of the idling car engine filling the silence, and then she responded.

“I want a Bad Ass like you, Daddy.” And she paused briefly before adding. “…and Robert Kiefer.”

My heart swelled with pride. Even if it wasn’t true, the fact that she believed it and stated it was enough. I wanted to be sure of the veracity of what she said and looked into the rearview mirror once again. She bore a solemn countenance; this was no joke; this was no flattery; this was her thoughtful response to an honest question.

B.A. 2
B.A. 2

Of course I called Kiefer with the good news, and like me, his heart did back flips when he heard he had been one of the chosen few. For a while we went around with puffed chests and a “Sons of Anarchy” swagger, proud of our exclusive membership in the Bad Ass Club until time and gravity began to ding and dent our façades. It wasn’t long before we extended membership privileges to Mr. Copeland who did not hesitate accepting the invitation.

The three of us mistakenly thought that the quality of membership was to spend time in secret locations sipping expensive whiskey, swearing, eating red meat, swearing, smoking cigars, swearing, and reshaping the world to our specifications and with much better lighting. And did I mention swearing, blue language spoken with our “outside” voices (thus the reason for secret meetings), mainly because all three of us were going deaf with age. We simply referred to one another as Bad Ass One, Two, and Three, Scot being B.A. 3 only because he was the club’s youngest member.

There will be dragons
There will be dragons

It came as a shock to Kristin that Kiefer and I had, on our own, inducted Scot into the club without her knowledge or permission. We had done this after one of the shows we worked on together as the three of us stood in a circle, arm-in-arm just laughing and enjoying one another for no other reason than that we were all past sixty years of age, had been artists all our lives, and just By-God, loved each other. Sometime after this ménage a trois (French for “household of three”) of Bad Ass manliness backstage at NCT, Kristin informed me that Scot was not an “official” member until she said so. Duly noted, thus Scot was put on temporary probation until the Queen extended him her scepter. Scot’s dragon tattoo gave him a leg-up—Kristin herself the canvass of such colorful artwork—but still he had to be interviewed.



Fast forward to the end of February, 2015, at the funeral of my dear mother, Bernie Arnold. Scot came to the church straight from rehearsal. I pulled him out of the receiving line for a little one-on-one. Bad Ass 2 (Kiefer) had yet to arrive. When Kristin saw us standing off to the side, she came straight over and began the interview process. For her, a Bad Ass had very specific qualities. In her words, a Bad Ass is “someone who is a defender of the people he loves, loyal to the end, doesn’t mince words, doesn’t play it safe, loves and fights with equal passion, knows himself and doesn’t compromise to fit any mold. When a Bad Ass loves you, nothing else compares.” For Kristin, a Bad Ass was someone who was not just a character or could play a character, but someone with character. It did not take Kristin long to size up the man. After a few minutes with Scot, she turned to me and said, “He’s in.”

On the morning after Scot shuffled off his mortal coil, I called B.A. 2 and said, “We’re down one member.” We both sighed and wept.

Scot and Rene
Scot and Rene

In the coming days, stories and remembrances of Scot Copeland will flood in from far and wide. He is worthy of all the praise he has and shall receive. He was a man who displaced air, who defied the ephemeral nature of theatre to create stunning works of beauty, a pirate in good standing, a seer of dragons, a man who improved all the lives he touched, a Bad Ass to his core and worthy of my daughter’s definition, and an irreplaceable husband to Rene and father to Josh and Ben. His sudden exit has made a hole in all our hearts, and what gets me is that he offered no explanation for his departure and asked no one’s permission.

Why could this not be just another tech rehearsal where we would hear Scot say, “Hold please,” and we all go back to our first positions for another chance to get it right? Unfortunately, life is not a rehearsal. So love well as did my Bad Ass friend, Scot Copeland.

B.A. 3, the light is always on. Drop by anytime.

ghost light

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Read more about the article Strange Bedfellows – Part Deux

Strange Bedfellows – Part Deux

So how did this courtship begin? There were a few chance and premeditated encounters, memorable and brief, but nothing of consequence until that fateful day on a frozen pond in January of 1978.

Advent Church becomes Advent Theatre
Advent Church becomes Advent Theatre

Prior to graduating from UNC in Chapel Hill, N.C., with my Master of Fine Arts degree in acting in December, 1977, I got a call from the artistic director of the Advent Theatre in Nashville, Tennessee informing me that I had been hired for the upcoming season. I had auditioned earlier that fall, and I was excited by the prospect of becoming a founding member of this new professional theatre company. For an actor to have work before graduating was a happy rarity and to be back in the city where I grew up and begin a career among family and friends was sweet indeed.

Once back in town, I started attending a non-denominational church on Music Row.  There was a large singles’ contingent in the church, some of whom I knew well.  Many of us were coming out of the sixties & seventies, hippy experience looking for a deeper and continuous relationship with a personal God that went far beyond the traditions and rituals offered by most institutional churches.frozen pond

It was the dead of winter with a sustained, sub-freezing cold spell long enough to ice over small ponds to a thickness that could support multitudes.  One Sunday afternoon a dear friend whom I had known since high school invited me to a church singles’ gathering at a farm to play broom hockey, a rare winter sport for the southland.  I was not all that interested until my friend informed me that Kay Patton would be there.  This friend, her inner matchmaker well tuned, was persuasive.  I had observed Kay at church once I returned from North Carolina and had commented earlier to my friend how attractive I found her. Her current romantic status was “Officially unattached,” but she had at least three other aspiring suitors.  That day, two of those three would be counted among the singles’ group at this winter happening.  If I was to have any shot at getting her attention, I needed to move fast and make her aware of me, i.e., move to the head of the line by any means necessary removing the competition.

broom hockey 2It was BYOB for this event, “Bring Your Own Broom,” so I rushed to the store and bought my first straw broom, not to clean house but to sweep the opposition out of the way and maybe, in the process, sweep Kay off her feet.  The teams were chosen, a fairly even male-to-female ratio on each team, with the object being to sweep a soccer ball up and down the pond and past your opponent’s goalie for a score. Our form of this hockey game used a soccer ball for a puck, a broom for a hockey stick, and your standard Timberland hiking boots for skates.  In the course of the game, I was not above inflicting bruises or shedding blood…even my own.  There were no referees, which I used to my advantage; no time spent in a penalty box for a well-aimed elbow or for cutting off a competitor and causing a spill on the ice.  Everyone assumed they should act like good Christians holding their aggressive impulses in check, but that was irrelevant to me, no turning the other cheek.  I wanted to “get the girl,” and I had not taken my daily pious pill.

bird - 2Kay and I were on opposing teams. Her teammates included the other two guys who had made known among the singles’ community their amorous feelings toward Kay. It was tricky how I handled such a scenario. I wanted to show myself superior and do it with style, like some exotic bird that ruffles its colorful plumage while performing an impressive ritual dance in order to attract the potential Mrs. But an exotic bird, I wasn’t. More like bulldozer. In one intense moment in the game, the ball was loose with several people rushing for it, including Kay and my two competitors, all from different angles.  My Cro-Magnon brain kicked in and I went full force for the ball.  After a great clash of humanity and the ensuing yelps and grunts of fallen players, I found myself sweeping the ball down the ice toward the goalie.  I took my eyes off the ball to glance back and saw my two competitors face down on the ice. But my future wife was also sprawled on the ice, her face a grimace of pain, her eyes flashing with desire…the desire to break her broom handle over my thick head.

I had sense enough to know that trying any smooth moves after knocking her flat on the ice would probably be met with chilly silence.  After the game the group was invited for hot chocolate to the cabin of a couple who lived on the property up the hill from the frozen pond.  This couple had recently graduated from the singles’ group into holy matrimony, and now rented this cabin that I would soon move into and live for a year before Kay and I got married.  (We would spend the first night of our honeymoon in that cabin.  Who knew?)  But here is what I did learn not long after our broom hockey encounter.  Kay was certainly impressed by my hard-hitting actions on the frozen pond, but it was not favorable.  My friend reported to me that Kay did not appreciate my competitive performance. In reality my aggressive behavior was not so much for her but for my competition in keeping with Don Quixote’s maxim: “Love and war are all one.  It is lawful to use sleights and stratagems to attain the wished end.”  I would not tread lightly or accept defeat easily.  If they wished to compete for Kay’s affections, then may the best man win.


I had created a dilemma: my early impression on Kay was not good, the competitors were galvanized for battle, and given the clannish nature of a church singles’ group, the majority favored the competitors. I am in a profession where at moments you must act quickly and decisively, then make necessary adjustments and come at it again. I realized I had potentially blown it with Kay given her reaction to the broom hockey event.  I thought if I could separate her from the herd and have a little one-on-one time with her, I might improve my standing.  The fact that she agreed to our first date was a hopeful sign.

This subsequent wooing opportunity put me on the road to recovery after the broom hockey fiasco.  I soon realized there was something within Kay’s heart and soul that had a depth that, I would say, I lacked.  The thought of dating someone my polar opposite, a complete foreigner to the world I knew, as if from another planet, was an attraction I never anticipated.  I was not looking for love, but what was seeping into my heart was a sweet elixir I had never tasted before, a taste I could not get enough of, a taste that remains to this day.

The terms introvert (Kay) and extrovert (Me) became familiar through the work of psychologist Carl Jung in the early 1900’s. However, Kay is not an introvert because she won’t ever go on stage, and I’m not an extrovert because I never want to be alone. While I might want to dance on tables and Kay would prefer to sit quietly at one, there are many more intricacies to the definitions. Our temperaments and personalities are in-your-face, irreconcilably different, from our earliest experiences and to this very day. But that is what makes us individuals. It is our belief that if either partner would attempt to erase the individuality of the other, even well-intentioned and a hallmark of a traditional marriage, there would be problems, not to mention a controlled and possibly boring creation.

Frank Zappa
Frank Zappa

In this Valentine season it is easy to do the expected and the perfunctory: buy the flowers, the candy, play the songs, and write the cards for your mate. It reminds me of the Frank Zappa quote I found: “I detest ‘love lyrics.’ I think one of the causes of bad mental health in the United States is that people have been raised on ‘love lyrics.’”

It is not an easy task to create a healthy relationship.  It is the result of trial and error followed by times of serious confusion and disillusionment.  Those who would consider their relationship healthy and immensely satisfying are fortunate.  But whatever course a couple charted to achieve the flow of a healthy marriage, they experienced moments of despair and dismay along the way.

Vincent van Gogh
Vincent van Gogh

It is my opinion that unless each person within the relationship breathes freely from the other, yet leans elegantly toward each other, there will be limited health.  It is only in the safety of freedom to leave and commitment to stay that marriage thrives.  Then we truly become witnesses of each other. And, of course, if all else fails, buy a couple of brooms, a ball, and find a frozen pond. Sparks may fly, but that could be a good thing. It was for us.

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Strange Bedfellows

In the spirit of the Valentine season when warm and amorous feelings are expressed to our significant others, I thought I would write about the one who caught my eye several decades ago. So with Shakespeare’s admonition, Shake - 1“Never durst poet touch a pen to write / Until his ink were temper’d with Love’s sighs,” in mind, I will venture a few thoughts on being a victim of Cupid’s arrow.

Kay and I could not be more opposite: farm girl vs. city boy; introvert vs. extrovert; psychology counselor vs. actor & writer; serene and contemplative vs. sarcastic and cranky; Jedi Master Yoda vs. know-it-all Han Solo.  Early in our courtship, Kay was warned more than once not to get involved with me. A well-meaning church-lady even said of our courtship and prospective marriage that, “it would never work out.” It is certainly within the realm of possibility that such extreme personalities could be attracted to each other.  There was and is and always will be our physical attraction to one another—we still like to flirt and tease—but along the journey of almost thirty-seven years of marriage to date (May 12, 1979 to be exact), we have taken the risks and opportunities to go beyond the physical and expand the depths of our human connection with one another, a special challenge when the two personalities involved in this quest are polar opposites with “irreconcilable differences.”

Han with SaberA few years ago in Philadelphia while having breakfast around a large table in a house shared by seven, twenty-something, single women, one of whom was our youngest daughter, Lauren, one of the young ladies asked, “How did you two get together and how have you stayed together?”  The Questioner had appraised Kay and me after only a brief time of observation and so posed the question in amazement that we should have first, been attracted to each other, and second, that the marriage had lasted so long. We began the conversation by referencing the “Star Wars” analogy to illustrate our opposite personalities: Kay, the supremely composed Yoda calmly appraising situations and dispensing wise solutions, and I, Han Solo, who happens upon a discarded lightsaber, picks up the curious object and bangs it on a rock shouting, “How does this thing work?” to which Kay Yodaresponds with, “Just push the ‘on’ button,” then rolls her eyes in dismay.  From that jumping off point the collected memories of our courtship and life together began to flow uninterrupted throughout the morning, soaked with laughter and tears, and ended well into the afternoon.

Strange Bedfellows is certainly a catchy phrase. Like politics, for which the phrase was originally coined, marriage can make strange bedfellows.  It was Charles Dudley Warner, the 19th century American writer and contemporary of Samuel Clemens (they co-authored The Gilded Age, a novel that satirizes greed and political corruption in post-Civil War America), who created the original phrase: “Politics makes strange bedfellows.”  The truism “strange bedfellows” has a universal meaning that can apply to any human institution or situation.  Whenever two or three are gathered together, somebody will be strange.

Homo sapiens are strange. We have this propensity to blunder and ruin our own interests, yet in spite of the folly we inflict on ourselves and on each other in our weaker moments, most of us have this deep desire to be in a rewarding relationship, awkward and hurtful as it may be at times.  This is more than just the biological human instinct for self-preservation and propagation of the species.  In the creation stories found in Genesis, we read that the gainful employment of naming exotic animals in an idyllic, unspoiled environment evidently did not provide enough personal fulfillment for a single human.

Adam/Eve in Garden by Wenzel Peter
Adam/Eve in Garden by Wenzel Peter

Creative Artist that God is, there was an evolving process in the acts of creation, and after a bit of minor surgery, viola, a second human was formed.  Those two humans fashioned as a complete reflection of the imagination of God’s personality “became one flesh…naked and unashamed.”  That astounding concept of human union goes much deeper than a need for the genus to survive.  Personal relationships offer potential for great joy deepening the mystery of our individual connections with meaning and pleasure, but too often we clothe ourselves in protective layers to avoid vulnerability and shame.

When “iron sharpens iron” in the dynamics between two people, there are the inevitable sparks, sometimes sparks of romantic passion, sometimes sparks that can leave a painful mark.  The potential for carnage and/or exquisite joy is always there.  Lest you be deceived, Kay and I have experienced both extremes and everything in between in the iron-sharpening business.  As Sir Alan Patrick Herbert, a 20th century English writer commenting on his own marriage at the time, said, “The conception of two people living together for twenty-five years without having a cross word suggests a lack of spirit only to be admired in sheep.” The reality of our living together for so long dredges up some unpleasant aspects of our opposite personalities, things we choose to overlook in each other after decades of marriage.  That is a sobering and disturbing reality, but like a good play, love and marriage is a mixture of comedy and drama, of passion and pain. As Romeo opines on love, it is, “…a madness most discreet / A choking gall and a preserving sweet.”

The truth is Kay and I were and are two lost souls who found redemption in our faith and lives shared.  There are no perfect or clean solutions to our two lives intersecting only an honest stab at survival…and survive we did…and do.  Like a Timex watch, our marriage happily keeps on ticking; a miracle, Kay is quick to point out. We are opposites in so many ways.  Those ways will probably never change; they certainly have not to date.  We are almost predictable in our responses, reactions, and behaviors.

Some relationships may be analogous to young children…it is very hard for them to share.  In healthy relationships, one hopes to learn to share, to tag-team in a natural and complimentary partnership. Statistics show that “Sixty percent of arguments are irresolvable.  It is the way couples handle the disagreement that makes the difference in a healthy and an unhealthy relationship.”

Raphael, Italian Renaissance painter
Raphael, Italian Renaissance painter

We described Kay as Yoda and me as Han Solo to those around the table that day as a modern cultural reference for shedding light on our differences. Truth be told, Kay has wondered, at times, if she might have married Darth Vader. But she admits to falling in love with Han, and obviously, I fell in love with Yoda. There is steadfastness in both characters: Solo never gave up on the mission no matter how many times his decisions and actions got him into trouble. Likewise, Yoda was a calm, stabilizing force in the midst of turmoil. Both showed up to lend their particular skills to fight for the cause; the cause of honoring a committed relationship, and protecting each other at all costs against the forces of darkness.

Since I like stories, later this month I’ll write the story of how our courtship began (with Kay’s input, of course), that epitomizes our oppositeness. Here is a teaser: A single’s group playing broom hockey on a frozen pond.  Stay tuned.



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Black Fabric

Caravaggio's Calling of St. Matthew
Caravaggio’s Calling of St. Matthew

Black has to be the most ancient of colors. The book of Genesis states that it is the black darkness that shrouds the Spirit of God while contemplating the formless void before speaking the light into existence. There is no reflection in the color black. Black swallows all color concealing deeper mysteries. One of my favorite artists is Caravaggio, the Baroque painter whose bold, rich colors were more vibrant and profound because of his lavish use of the color black and its shadowy shades in each canvas. Most often when Caravaggio used light it was to illuminate the human actions of his subjects frozen in dramatic performance and often with postures and expressions of anguish or wonder or radiance.

In the opening scene of the film “The Fabric of Space,” a father and son lie on the ground contemplating the wonder of the black sky above them pierced with tiny pinpricks of starlight and what it might be like were they to be flung into all that space. I’ve been asked by several people who have watched this film as to its possible meaning. I feel honored by those inquisitive enough to ask about our process in creating such a story. It seems their imaginations had been “flung into space” by the film. One person even said, “I don’t fully follow the tale, but I am scared every time I watch it.” Life can be unpredictable, I reminded them, and sometimes dangerously so. Events and people can change suddenly and drastically. There is only so much we can do in our efforts to safeguard against unpredictable and unwanted disruption in our lives.

Director Derek Pearson with Jake Speck in the role of the Father
Director Derek Pearson with Jake Speck in the role of the Father


When Derek Pearson and I were discussing this abstract notion of the coexistence of spirit and body and what might happen when they separate, we went further with the storyline and began giving it muscle and bone: how the father would witness the unexpected departure of his son’s spirit from his body; how the father would chase after his son’s spirit into a dark forest where he comes upon an extraordinary character weaving a giant fabric; and how the father would desperately bargain for his son’s life in exchange for his own. When Derek said he planned to shoot his film in black and white, I thought of Rod Serling and “The Twilight Zone.” This concept was in homage to the genre created by that great television show.

Meaning, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder, and assigning specific meaning to works of art risks impertinence. I see something different each time I watch the film. There is a poetic phrase we use when we are certain of something: “Without a shadow of a doubt.” I have learned to be comfortable with my doubts, which may mean I am comfortable remaining in the shadows when offering any definitive meaning to this film. Remember, in this dreamlike world Derek has created, anything can happen that would offer multiple meanings, and he uses the palette of black and white and its accompanying shadows to weave this mysterious tale with great effect.

Director, Derek Pearson and Henry O. Arnold as The Weaver
Director, Derek Pearson and Henry O. Arnold as The Weaver

There is mythology to the story with its illusion to Helios and the presence of the mysterious Weaver who wields some degree of power over the fate of a human being, and yet the tale has a baseline of reality. We can all understand the father’s devotion to his child, his willingness to go on a rescue mission and confront a more powerful being pleading for the life of his child. The Weaver offers a form of hope that might save the son, but it requires that both father and son must experience mutual pain. That is where the story is grounded, and the light that shines on the father’s face at the end when he knows how he can save his child, begins to dispel the darkness. A father’s love for his child is what most resonates.

So if you have 7 minutes and 51 seconds to kill and are curious enough to spend that time watching this film, then switch over to the Home Page on this website and click “The Fabric of Space” poster on the “Recent Projects” slider. The film will pop up, and you can decide what the physics of this story does to your heart and mind…and my thanks for taking the time to watch.

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Not a Team Player

Life will often surprise us with a dose of reality that rearranges our private universe in unexpected ways. The incident can be the equivalent of tasting the forbidden fruit. While the experience might expand the knowledge of ourselves and the place we inhabit in the world, it can also reveal something about our character we may have never known before leaving us feeling naked and in need of covering in a garment of fig leaves.

To belong and be accepted is a vital part of being human and central to our survival. I do not believe anyone who says they don’t care what others think of them. We are, in part, exactly what people think of us for better or worse. In this second chapter of “My Better Angel,” I write of the young protagonist’s hope to make the final cut of a Little League team. He arrives at the baseball field right after landing a job as a paperboy to hear the final verdict announced by the coach. The outcome makes an indelible mark on his soul. Though last month’s first chapter, “Staying Power,” and now this second one are told in first person, I again admonish the reader to remember it is only fiction.

Not a Team Player

In the heat of my first employment, I saw the world as fruitful.  To have a job at my age with such freedom and responsibility would make my friends envious at my graduation from parental allowance to self-regulating earned income.  I never could tell my friends I didn’t receive an allowance because my father’s income was unable to compete with the lawyers, doctors, stock brokers, and bank vice presidents who never blinked at the size of the checks they wrote to the private religious school we all attended.  Allowance for my friends inspired more one-upmanship than any thought of gratitude, but I saw allowance as familial welfare, a way to manipulate and enforce authority.  And I could imagine the girls at school awed in the presence of a boy who has severed the parental purse strings.  I was stepping outside the safe confines of what I had known, and a flicker of potential new worlds stirred the juice in my system.

LL - 4I coasted onto the Little League field where other boys, their parents and the coaches gathered at the stands.  I parked my bike behind the bleachers and swaggered to the front trying to squelch the unchristian pride I felt at just having stepped into a wider world.  In restrained tones I spoke to my schoolmates as I took a seat among the group.  Every summer the school we attended sponsored a Little League team.  Baseball was a rite of passage for the chosen few and we all wanted to be chosen.  I thought being a future Wildcat would be an added breadth to my destiny.

For days leading up to tryouts, baseball dominated the minds of my contemporaries. During the two-day tryout period where the coaching staff tested our skills of batting, running, fielding, and team compatibility, groups of boys would cluster to evaluate and discuss the athletic skills of potential teammates and predict who would be on the list.  I tried hard to prove I could be a competent addition to the team, but I was not eaten-up with the game like my friends, most of whom seemed more concerned with becoming a Wildcat just to please their parents than for the joy of playing the game.  Still I got swept into their enthusiasm, and thought it would do me good to be a member of a competitive team.  I had played well during tryouts, catching a high percentage of all that was hit to me and batting above average, so I felt positive about my chances.  My parents might have joined me for the big revelation had I asked, but I decided to face the outcome alone.

The rising sun began to warm the morning as I took a seat in the bleachers.  I watched the parents huddled close and silent around their sons and imagined their confidential prayers nurtured the hopes that their pride and joy would be among the favored when the head coach announced the roister.  I didn’t bother to waste a prayer for God to grant me a competitive edge.

The head coach, a failure in the world of sports beyond junior college, Little League being the highest altitude his star would rise, sauntered out of the dugout, clipboard in hand, ready to issue the invitations into the Wildcat kingdom.

“Thanks for coming out,” the coach said, his larynx strained to project beyond the first rows of the bleachers.  He removed his Wildcat cap and wiped his damp forehead, an effective pause to hush the crowd and bolster the nerves.  “I wish all you boys could be a Wildcat, but the League limits us to fifteen players, and it’s my job to decide who makes the team based on a combination of skill and team spirit.  When I read the names of those who made the team, come stand behind me.  Brewer.  Fintress.  Smith.  Hartley.  Patton.”

He was not reading in alphabetical order.  Ambrose could be anywhere on the list.

“Wright.  Hester.  Brown.  Turner.  Shelton.”

I pictured Jesus calling the twelve disciples from a group of prospects and imagined Jesus reading the chosen’s names off a papyrus tablet: “Peter, Andrew, James, and John,” etcetera, etcetera.  When the coach called a boy’s name, mothers squealed followed by an embarrassing bodily squeeze and fathers shook the boy’s hand or roughed up his hair before their offspring took his place behind the master.  I wondered if the families of the twelve disciples reacted in similar fashion when their son’s name was called.  The Bible might have been more interesting had the writers included those tidbits of human drama.

“Collins.  McIntyre.  Am . . . I . . . I mean, Armstrong.  Corley.  Shoemaker,” he said, and finished with a wave of the clipboard above his head.

The last five descended from the stands, and the coach raised his arms in welcome like Jesus welcoming the saints: “Well done, good and faithful servants; enter thou into the joy of thy master.”

All five fingers of my left hand were spread.  Before that, ten fingers had matched each name.  Maybe I had miss counted, my name was almost called.  I watched the other rejects and their parents amble out of the stands listening to the parents offer comfort by promising exciting summer alternatives to their dejected sons, but I knew something was wrong.  I approached the elect buzzing around the feet of their chief, the only one willing to question the authority of the list, and waited for the coach to send his team to the field.

“All right, boys.  Free milk shakes at Compton’s Drugstore after practice.  Now five laps around the bases and put some hustle in to it,” the coach said.

This year’s Wildcats tossed their gloves into the air and broke ranks with a shout.  The coach basked in the wholehearted response to his first order until I diverted his doting.

“Coach, I’m Michael Ambrose.”LL - 7


“You almost called my name.”


“I thought I tried real hard.”

“Really,” he said, his face a reaction of surprise and disdain.

I took his one-word replies and his adoring gaze at the howling Wildcats running the bases, to mean an indifference to the castoff beside him.

“I thought . . .”

“Ambrose, you’re not a team player.”

“What does that mean?” I asked, stung and confused by the phrase.

“You don’t know, I can’t explain it to you,” he said tearing his eyes from his precious Wildcats and directing his frown at me.

I thought something must be wrong with me.  Not being a team player must be a communicable disease and, were I to be in regular contact with the Wildcats, the infection could spread.  I began to shrivel inside, the disease diagnosed and sentence pronounced: “Cast ye the unprofitable servant into outer darkness: where there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

“Got to get to practice, Ambrose,” he said before strutting toward the field.  “All right you Wildcats, let’s hear a Wildcat scream.”

LL - 3Fifteen Venetian voices strained hard enough to rupture a yet-to-drop testicle honored the command with a sound of fierceness.  I stood there until my shock flushed into humiliation, then got my bike and pushed onto the road.  I heard the coach call the Wildcats into home plate for prayer.  With heads bowed, eyes closed and arms draped over panting shoulders forming a Wildcat community, they appeared to be worshipping their leader as he held his cap over his heart and rushed though this religious obligation.  I couldn’t imagine what he might be praying.  What I could imagine was how the rejects felt when informed that their names had not made it onto the Lamb’s clipboard of life.  Had Jesus given the rejects the same line as the coach had given me but some sensitive monk had edited it out of the Bible?  Perhaps the monk suffered from the same malady.

JESUS:  Daniel, Ezra, Jehoshaphat, Caleb, Michael, you can’t go and save the lost.  You’re not team players.  (The Castoffs retreat down the Mount of Olives.)

My body trembled from the mortification, and I struggled to mount my bike.  Once on the seat, I rode too far into the road forcing a car I did not see coming up behind me to slam on its breaks, then added to the insult by blowing the horn causing everyone on the field to look at me riding like a circus clown over eager for laughs.  I sped away trying to get out from under the idea of a heaven that could enforce outcomes on people’s lives like an amusing game played by the inhabitants of heaven hard‑up for entertainment.

INHABITANTS OF HEAVEN:  Let Us cut Michael from Little League and watch his course of action.  Oh look, he was almost struck by a car. (Heavens rumble from Inhabitants’ laughter.)

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