You Gotta Love This Woman

We received a call recently from concerned parents worried about my wife’s influence on their children. The concerned parents were our daughter Lauren and son-in-law, Erik, and the children in question were our grand children. This was not an easy thing to accept. The complaint had to do with Kay’s lullaby catalog sung to the grand kids when she puts them to bed at night. I had long since been banned from lullaby duty. When I would pinch-hit for Kay in her absence all I came up with was “Purple Haze,” “Stairway to Heaven,” “Whipping Post,” and “Born to be Wild;” lullabies that were good enough to sing to my own girls when they were growing up, but now were somehow deemed questionable. I blame the “parenting” craze for that. “The times they are a changin’.”

Beer Wall; photo by Christin Hume

What precipitated the call was when Lauren and Erik were in the car with the kids a few weeks ago and began to hear their children singing in the backseat, “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall.” The lyric the grand kids were singing began with the number ten and not the compulsory number in the title (I hope there will be no copyright infringement suits after this story goes public). Just to confirm what they heard, the parents listened for a few more musical rounds until the number dropped to seven. Husband and wife first inquired of each other if one of them had taught that song to the kids, but both denied it with an emphatic “no.” Then they turned around and asked the cherubs in the backseat.

“Guys, where did you learn that song?” asked both parents in unison.

The singing stopped and there was a brief pause from the backseat. By the tone of the inquisition, the cherubs suspected they might be in trouble.

“Kayme!” came the unison reply.

The horror. The horror. And straight to the speed dial number for Kayme did the parents go.

Girl on a Bird; artwork by Lucy Campbell

The third degree started as soon as Kay answered. The interrogation did not last long. Kay laughingly confessed. When we are with the grand kids, bedtime unfolds in two acts: they all pile in our bed and I read them a couple of books. Afterwards, I will carry them to their beds (this practice of “carry me, carry me” will either end by middle school or when my back gives out). Once tucked between the sheets, I exit, Kay enters, and the lullabies begin. She sings the standards, but on this particular night while the parents were out on a date, the kids were more amped up than usual. I get blamed often for being the catalyst for this rowdy behavior and must plead guilty. Kay had come to the end of her play list, but those crazy kids wanted more. So Kay reached back into her long ago, and “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall” started spilling out of her mouth; this from the grandmother who has never consumed a bottle of beer in her life. Now the song has a fixed place in Kay’s lullaby repertoire. Of late, it is usually the first request.

Father’s Day, 2019; photo by Lauren Zilen

On this last Father’s Day we met Lauren, Erik, and the kids at the Fiery Gizzard trail-head for a day of hiking and swimming in Sycamore Falls. When we returned to the parking lot that afternoon, Kay collapsed her retractable walking sticks and took one in her right hand and began to twirl it. The grand kids were in awe by the level of expertise flaunted by their grandmother and shouted, “Look, Kayme’s a twirler.”

Betty Boop

“I’m not a twirler,” she replied, stone-faced and with a stone-edged vocal tone. She continued to twirl that stick right down her fingers and back again. It was a nimble display of manus digitus. She finished with a flourish and then stated, “But I have friends who are twirlers.”

Yeah. I know. It makes no sense, and her grandchildren stood dumbfounded at hearing their Kayme deny she was a twirler and yet showing off the very talent she disclaimed. Their confusion was heartbreaking. It is a good thing Kay is a mental health professional. She will be able to provide our grand kids the proper therapies to recover from such emotional traumas.

Using the rule of the comic triple, I offer my final complicated reason why I gotta love this woman.

On a recent drive into Nashville we had come to the point along the Interstate where it goes from two lanes to four. A gray pickup truck was two lanes over and slightly ahead of us. Kay was about to overtake him when suddenly the driver floored the accelerator, and with an explosive gust of power, he left us in a black plume of ozone-killing diesel fumes as he zoom-zoomed down the highway.

Ozone Killer

“That guy has to be going over 100 mph,” Kay said.

“And how would we (royal “we”) know this?” I asked.

“Well, if I was going 90, it might feel something like this. And he is going much faster than us.”

I just hung my head knowing that “if” our guardian angels were paying attention, they had long since abandoned us back where the speed limit sign had said 70 mph. My wife needs Wyoming highways, not these restrictive citified roadways.

When I told her that I was going to include this moment in my next blog installment she asked with only a hint of remorse, “Why don’t you say 80 mph instead of 90?”

“Sorry, Babes,” I told her. “I don’t report fake news.”

So you see what I have to live with, but I admit, you gotta love this woman. And I do. I want to grow old with her, and if she doesn’t kill us on some highway, I just might get to do that.

Kay and Chip hiking the Virgin River that runs through the slot canyon in Zion National Park

Cover Photograph: Kay on top of “Angel’s Landing” in Zion National Park. One of our two daughters took this shot because I was too chicken to make the summit with them.

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The Glory of Sons
Man of La Mancha: Henry II is sword-wielding Don Quixote and Henry III is behind him whispering, "That's my old man."

The Glory of Sons

One can find countless quotes on what it means to become a man from the humorous and profane to the solemn and profound. In my opinion, becoming a man is a process of making fewer and fewer stupid choices and putting more and more distance between each stupid choice. St. Paul said it best, “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me.” Transitioning from “childish” mode to “manhood” mode is not the simple flip of a switch. There is no magic age to mark manhood that come with frameable “Manhood Achievement” certificates. We get to drive a car at sixteen. We can vote and join the military at eighteen; smoke and drink at twenty-one; get an education and secure employment shortly after; eventually find a mate. None of those chronological milestones assure manhood, and the mix-messages we boys and men get from the DNA of our genealogy, culture, media, social milieu, and bad theology can end up piecing us together like an abstract painting: visually beautiful on the outside, bewildered and lost on the inside.

Illustration by William Blake

My long slog resembles Pilgrim in “Pilgrim’s Progress”; many foolish choices and wrong turns landing me in dark places with no sense of direction and no sightings of even a flicker of light. I needed rescue, and as I look back on that phase in my life, I didn’t even recognize my need for rescue. My father did. I believe rescuing came so natural to him that he was not even aware when he activated the impulse. He probably could not articulate how he came by such an ingrained virtue of his soul, and then would deny it if you attributed that positive feature to him.

We were estranged at the time my rescue began. In my underdeveloped, idiot brain, Dad’s coolness factor was low, which shows how little I was paying attention to him and to my own foundering in the “slough of despond.” As clueless as I was about my plight, I was equally clueless as to what was happening to me when the lifeline was cast.

Dad as Don Quixote and Rubin Ruskin as Sancho

Dad was offered the role of Don Quixote in the musical “Man of La Mancha.” I was not aware of it, but my father had asked the director to give me a chance at a role, which the director agreed to as long as I went through the audition process. If I weren’t embarrassingly awful, then I would be given a shot. The bar they set was very low, but I did land the role of a muleteer, one that was a named character with a handful of lines, and not just a part of the mob. My character’s name was Paco, and I latched onto Paco as if my life depended upon it. It probably did. I showed up for every rehearsal. I was even an understudy for the role of the Barber. After my one and only understudy rehearsal, the actor originally cast in the role informed me not to get my hopes up. He had no intention of getting sick or dying in an accident during the run of the show. I took this as a compliment.

Man of La Mancha program

In the program section of “Who’s Who” in the cast, after my name and the name of my role, my bio read: “…making his Theatre Nashville as well as his acting debut…Hillsboro High School graduate…life guard this summer at Cascade Plunge.” My father’s bio was a little more fleshed out. I will only give you the first line of his paragraph. After his name and the name of his role, his bio read: “…where do we start?” I had a long way to go to catch up. When it came to the theatre, the “like father/like son” comparison would not become a reality for a long time.

Cast of Man of La Mancha

In rehearsals I watched how my father took direction, how he paid attention to what was going on around him, how he reacted to what other actors gave him, how he made manifest his physical, vocal, and interpretive choices for his character. He was gradually transforming, and though I did not understand what was going on, I remember that I was fascinated by this process. In a minor way, I was experiencing my own transformation with Paco, the Muleteer. I was becoming someone else, and I was with a company of other actors who were also experiencing a similar alteration. My father was spinning a magic, leading others into a dream, into an “impossible” dream of the possible.

Dad as Don Quixote and Rubin Ruskin as Sancho

It was not until we moved from rehearsal hall into the theatre where all the elements of production came into place for final dress that my eyes were opened to the possibility of transformation. There is nothing like the lights and sets and music and costumes and finally, the audience, that make an actor come to life and for art to happen right before your eyes. It was in this brief and mysterious set of circumstances I began to realize the power and importance of observation, of just paying attention. Night-after-night I saw my father transform from Henry Arnold to Miguel de Cervantes, and then into Don Quixote as he followed his beautiful quest jousting against evil, seeing the beauty in all things and in all people, even his enemies, until his eventual death.

When I was a child of four, I was traumatized when I saw my father plunge a knife into his chest as Billy Bigelow in the musical “Carousel” and die. This time I was not traumatized by my father’s death. I was in awe, in awe of my father’s skill as an artist, one who used his imagination to create a moment of transcendence. That was almost fifty years ago now, and that may have been my first experience of the power of art to transcend space and time and flesh and blood. It was my father who had led all of us, cast, crew, and audience, into that sublime moment of truth and beauty. If you are inclined, you may listen to Dad sing “The Impossible Dream” from that production back in 1970 by clicking the play button below. The dialogue exchange leading up to the solo is between Dad as Don Quixote and Pam Martin in the role of Aldonza. Special thanks to long-time friend, Alan Nelson, for providing this excerpt from the musical:

Illustration by William Blake

Dad’s subconscious “impossible dream” for this father/son/“Man of La Mancha” experience might have been that his son reestablish the filial bond, and if I wanted to give this story a happy ending, that is what I would write. It did not happen that way. Estrangement continued and any semblance of my manhood eluded me for years to come. Some of us are not easily rescued. For some, the lifeline for rescue must be a long rope; miles and years of coiled threads stretched to the limit. But whether I knew it or not, it was in that brief time with my father when I took hold of that lifeline cast to me, and it began the slow molting of my “childish ways.”

Dad as Don Quixote and Rubin Ruskin as Sancho

Up until his death, Dad and I did so many creative things together. I could begin that list with the same phrase as his bio for “Man of La Mancha,” “…where do we start…” One thing I do know, I will never grow tired of hearing people say to me after seeing me perform in a show, “You are so much like your Dad,” or “I saw Buddy up there tonight.” I hope I am like my dad in all respects. I hope they see “Buddy” in all my performances. I hope that transformation of father and son can be complete not just in the magic of theatre, but in life as well. I do know that in the case of my father, I agree with Solomon who wrote in Proverbs 17:6 that “…the glory of sons is their fathers.”

Father and Son

Cover Art: Dad as Don Quixote threatening a villain with me as Paco in the background.

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The Marriage of True Minds
Renoir

The Marriage of True Minds

Around the time I turned twelve, I had an early and shocking coming-of-age moment of discovery. The whole family was at the drive-in to see “Geronimo” starring Chuck Connors, and no, the shock was not that white men, albeit, well-tanned ones, could play Indians in Hollywood movies. The recognition of that incongruity of casting would come later. The disturbance in the force was to learn that my father had drawn a line of distinction between his kids and his wife. “I love your mother more than I love you kids.” Imagine in my little mind the sound effect of screeching tires and the smell of burning rubber. The horror. The horror. The movie must not have been very good if Dad and I were having such a discussion.

Chuck Connors as Geronimo in “Geronimo”

I may have set myself up for this distress by foolishly and perhaps smugly asking Dad to merit his love between wife and children. I was shattered, my footing lost, my foundation crumbling. Dad tried to explain that it was a “different kind of love.” How could love be different? Love is love; one size fits all, no dissimilarities or categories to my twelve-year-old mind. I was distraught, but if Dad’s analogy was true, I could only take comfort in the fact that I was the first-born. Perhaps he loved me more than my siblings or at least he had loved me longer. I could not grasp how this “different kind of love” would be applied to any perspective wife I might meet in the future. “When you fall in love, son, then you will understand,” Dad explained.

In George Axelrod’s play “Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?” (1955), a character explains, “Dear boy, the beginning of a movie is childishly simple. The boy and girl meet. The only important thing to remember is that—in a movie—the boy and the girl must meet in some cute way. They cannot…meet like normal people at, perhaps, a cocktail party or some other social function. No. It is terribly important that they meet cute.” A pretty stupid formula, however, romantic comedies have held to that standard for decades. The way Kay and I met was anything but cute. It was on a frozen pond playing broom hockey with a bunch of singles from church, and I knocked her on her butt going for the ball. Prior to that fortuitous moment, we had spied each other a few times “across a crowded room” (thank you Richard Rodgers), on different social occasions, but the broom hockey encounter stands out as “meet-uncouth” or “meet-boorish” or “meet-insufferable.” It was anything but Hollywood genteel.

I know it is hard to image me as insufferably boorish. Years later, Kay would write of that moment, “For heaven’s sake, it was an ice hockey game on a cold Sunday afternoon among friends on a Tennessee pond; it was not the playoffs for the National Hockey League. All participants were only mildly competitive, and not to win but to have fun. Chip came to win. I was not impressed with his intensity or lack of awareness of the socially obvious friendly rules of the game: polite competition, laughter, no injuries. From the moment Chip arrived on the scene, I certainly noticed him as he plowed through almost everyone on the ice including me. This was a perfect example of our different approaches to the world…bulldozer meets bashful babe.”

Don Quixote by Salvador Dali

I, the bulldozer, accomplished two things that afternoon on the frozen pond: 1) her attention was captured, and 2) the current competition for her affection was put on notice. I quote one of my favorite characters in all fiction, “Love and war are all one. It is lawful to use sleights and stratagems to attain the wished end.” Don Quixote had it right. Kay was my “wished end,” and I would use any means necessary to win her over. When she accepted an offer for a first date, and then a second, and kept on accepting my requests for her company, I was smitten. I admit, I was the first to fall. From that early stage of love, I made the connection from Dad’s drive-in confession to loving Mom more than us kids, to my own falling in love with Kay. So this was what Dad was talking about…and unto me the light began to dawn and illumination filled my Cro-Magnon brain.

I know the experts can pooh pooh this idea of falling in love. I’ve heard sermons, listened to marriage specialists, read articles and books, seen the movies, etc., etc., pointing out the warning signs of the irrational attributes of falling in love and how it never lasts. I give these professionals their props, and would never contradict their warnings of the unrealistic expectations of the act of falling in love. When the bliss of the “fall” begins to melt away, without a principled and ethical foundation most of us panic and take flight leaving behind a bewildering morass of painful emotions. But in observing my parent’s forty-eight years of marriage, I saw up-close-and-personal their continual falling in love with each other. It was a perpetual courtship, a perpetual love affair, a perpetual choice where both insisted that romance was a vital component to daily life. That took work and commitment. That took overlooking each other’s human flaws and seeing each personality as a representation of God.

Kay and I could not be more different. The whole “opposites attract” dynamic was and is in full force with our marriage. I dance on tables and Kay sits at the table resetting the flower arrangement that I have knocked over. We realized long ago that forcing the other to conform into the other’s image of what a partner ought to be was doomed to fail. From bar stools to church pews, any place “two or three are gathered together,” Homo sapiens are in search of true love. The Culture has perpetuated the idea that one’s soul mate is just waiting to be discovered. However, a soul mate does not appear by conjuration or a “meet-cute.” A soul mate is made. As J.J.R. Tolkien said, “Nearly all marriages, even happy ones, are mistakes: in the sense that almost certainly (in a more perfect world, or even with a little more care in this very imperfect one) both partners might have found more suitable mates. But the real soul-mate is the one you are actually married to.”

Dana Carvey as the Church Lady

There were a few who were skeptical about our pairing. One vocal Church Lady confronted Kay at church—thus the moniker—telling her she did not approve (I don’t recall us ever seeking her approval); that I was a big mistake (“He’s an actor,” stated to mean that my chosen profession and therefore my character were unreliable), that Kay would regret her decision, and the marriage was doomed to fail; false prophesies all around. The right people did approve: Kay’s family and mine, and, in the end, even the Church Lady received a wedding invitation, if only for her to witness our defiance.

The term used most often to describe the dissolution of a marriage is “irreconcilable differences.” When a couple reaches that point, the marriage is treated like a cadaver spread out on a cold, metal slab with mediators, judges, and lawyers carving up the remains. Kay and I have certainly faced our own troubles, decade’s worth, and our opposite personalities that were the source of the initial attraction have given cause for much grief. But those irreconcilable traits that have driven us crazy over the years have also proven to be keys to a more fulfilling marriage. Dad was right in word and deed when it came to falling in love with Mom, and I followed their example. I fell in love with Kay, I keep falling in love with her, and I’m committed to falling in love with her to infinity and beyond.

Kay’s fierce independence kept her skittish of my overt adoration for a little longer than I had hoped, but finally, my “wished end” walked down the aisle escorted by her two brothers, and we exchanged our vows on May 12th, Anno Domini, 1979. You do the math.

William Shakespeare

And so “to the edge of doom,” my love, I bear with you. William Shakespeare could not have versed it better:

“Let me not to the marriage of true minds

Admit impediments. Love is not love

Which alters when it alteration finds,

Or bends with the remover to remove.

O no! it is an ever-fixed mark

That looks on tempests and is never shaken;

It is the star to every wand’ring bark,

Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.

Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks

Within his bending sickle’s compass come;

Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,

But bears it out even to the edge of doom.

If this be error and upon me prov’d

I never writ, nor no man ever lov’d.

Sonnet 116

…Chip and Kay now
Chip and Kay then…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cover Art: Dance at Bougival by Auguste Renoir; 1883

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Unexpected Pockets of Beauty
Pen and Ink drawing by Paul Geissler; 1951

Unexpected Pockets of Beauty

The early years of the six-member Arnold household were lean. Mom was a genius at devising recipes with hamburger. There was no disposable income. There were no luxuries. The bank account was like the proverbial turnip from which no monetary blood could be squeezed. Vacations were never to the beach or mountains or theme parks. Our vacation was a trip to my paternal grandparents’ home in Richmond, Virginia.

A picture is worth a thousand words

The journey from Nashville to Richmond began in the predawn hours and ended well after dark. This was before the Interstate system, and two-lane highways on the map led through cities and towns and twisting through the Blue Ridge Mountains. If we got stuck behind an eighteen-wheeler, we would almost be asphyxiated by the diesel fumes before being able to pass. The fast-food industry had not yet popped up like gastronomic weeds, so Mom would prepare snacks and full meals for the drive. Our favorite was her roast beef and vegetables wrapped in heavy-duty aluminum foil. Dad would secure it on top of the manifold of the engine where it would slow cook until we got to Bristol, and we would stop at a roadside picnic area and feast.

Arnold Grand parent’s house in Richmond, VA

My parent’s oft repeated mantra uttered in weary sighs was, “It’s hard to get to Richmond.” But once we pulled into the driveway, our exhaustion soon dissipated. The Arnold grandparent’s home was a place of magic and mystery. A two-story house built in the 1830’s, on a couple of acres, with an expansive backyard devoted to a beautiful flower and lush vegetable garden. There was a huge oak tree in the front yard, so tall that its thick leafy crown was visible for several miles in every direction. Even holding hands and stretching our arms, the Arnold kids could not gird the circumference of the tree. At the base of the tree were several Civil War era cannonballs; the house served as a field post for a brief stint during that time. We played with the unexploded ordinance without ever worrying about its potential lethality.

In the reverie of youth, I had no appreciation for the beauty of the garden or that my grandmother was a master gardener, a gift she handed down to her only child, my father. The “green fingers” or “green thumb” expression came into existence in the 1930’s and would apply to both mother and son. Their ability to grow varieties of flora or foodstuffs wherever they dug their trowel into the earth was uncanny. But planting and growing was more than a utilitarian exercise. Just as an architect would dream of spaces of beauty, so the creative natures of my father and grandmother would design unexpected pockets of beauty spaced throughout their miniature landscapes. I say “unexpected” because both mother and son enjoyed the element of surprise when they rounded a corner and came upon a beautiful cluster of blooms they had planted earlier now exuberant with color and shape.

Garden Gate from Richmond

The Richmond garden had a main path running down the middle from one end of the backyard to the other. On either side of the main path were floral neighborhoods each with its extravagant variety of specie. At the south end was the garden house and beside it, a mound of compost. A kid could almost scale it were it not for the slippery substance of decay. I made my share of trips to the compost pile carrying an overflowing colander of kitchen biodegrades. My paternal kin were survivors of the Great Depression in rural Virginia and nothing was wasted. They took from the earth and gave back to it in vegetable scraps and wilted flowers.

The north end opened onto a grassy square with a bordered edge of berry and butterfly shrubs; a haven for birds, squirrels, rabbits, and a kaleidoscope of butterflies. I became a collector of butterflies and moths over a summer we spent in Richmond while Dad worked on a construction crew to bring in the extra money needed for the family. His teaching job did not offer employment from June through August, so a summer was spent in Richmond. The varieties of butterflies and moths I did not find expired on the ground or in the bushes, I captured with a homemade butterfly net crafted by my grandmother with a broken broom handle, a coat hanger redesigned and attached to one end, its circular shape covered in old, cut-to-fit stockings, and then gently “put to sleep.” I bagged enough species to fill several shadowbox glass frames that the grandparents displayed on the wall. Their oohs and aahs of admiration made me feel like an artist, yet one with a mild guilty conscience for how a few captives had sacrificed their lives for my exhibit.

In one corner of this grassy square was a large stone fireplace. It had a tall chimney framed by giant boxwood on either side. When we entered the north end of this space it was as if coming upon the altar of some extinct tribe. This wonderland fevered my imagination. In the reverie of creative adventures with my siblings, I did not know or care about unaffordable vacations to beaches, mountains, or theme parks.

In the case of my grandmother, the romantic mythology of one having “green fingers” did not apply. The fingers of my grandmother were rough and dirty from digging in the earth, planting, pruning, and harvesting her produce. She washed her hands before meal preparation, but hers’ were not green by any stretch of the imagination. Even when scrubbed, her hands bore the dark stains of soil and plant.

Dad’s water pond; angel cherub sits in Kay’s herb garden.

It was the same for Dad. Once my parents got their children educated, employed, and married off, there was money to invest in the yard. I did not appreciate Dad’s gift until much later in my life. I would drop by and find him in the backyard, on his hands and knees digging, planting, or harvesting, his body wet with sweat, his hands and fingers dirt caked, always eager to give me a tour and pick a bouquet for me to take home to Kay. Years ago, I cast Dad as the Gardner in a production of “The Secret Garden” for Nightingale Theatre. The show ran for two weeks at Cheekwood Botanical Gardens. Perfect casting. Perfect location.

In early June of 2002, Dad’s garden was in peak bloom, a result of weeks of labor. He wanted to put the eagle weather vane from Richmond on top of his garden house. He was not feeling well at the time, and he had our daughter, Lauren, climb up the ladder to the roof. It was a tricky job, so Dad followed after her, and together they mounted the weather vane on top of the faux chimney. A few days later, Dad shuffled off his mortal coil. I hope when I go to meet my Creator I am in the middle of some creative project like my father.

Dad’s Loch Ness driftwood captured from the banks of the Harpeth River with St. Francis; the statue now relocated in our garden.

This spring as Kay and I work up our garden—she is head gardener, and I her head weed-puller—and I bump into the artifacts inherited from my Richmond grandmother and my father, and as I hear the squeals of pleasure from my grandchildren running along the garden paths or playing in the fountain or chasing after the butterflies (we employ a capture and release program now), I watch with joy as they marvel in wonder at the magic spin-wheel cups on the weather vane catching the wind and twirling through the sculpted holes of eternity or as they jump from rock to rock with an occasional misstep that draws blood and tears and requires band aides and comforting words in the embrace of a parent or grandparent, or listen to them conversing with the statue of St. Francis, or traversing the stone border wall as if it were a balance beam, or racing their bicycles like daredevils down the ramp they have constructed from the large stone steps, I ponder what rich and fertile memories they are storing up, and I remember my own childhood adventures in the gardens of my grandmother. I am confident that the memories of our two daughters are chockfull of wonderful moments of time spent in their grandfather’s garden. And now our grandchildren are creating their memories in our garden of delights. This is a blessing handed down to the third and fourth generation.

The Master Gardener Himself

Cover Art: Pen and Ink Drawing by Paul Geissler; 1951

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Broke in Malibu or How I Met Angelina Jolie

In the early 1970’s both my sister and I heeded the call to “head west.” I was fleeing multiple failures in my attempts at higher education; a hippie lifestyle did not make for academic discipline or offer much professional opportunity unless you were a rock star or a cannabis farmer. I was neither. Most of my peers were closing in on a college degree by the time I was just getting started. My sister’s reason for fleeing was less complicated…a bad boyfriend. Pepperdine University had recently opened its Malibu campus, and through family connections, Nan and I had received music scholarships. My scholarship was based solely on the connections. Nan’s was that, but also merit-based. In that coming year, she sang in operas, musicals, choirs, an ensemble group, and for private fund-raising events. I schlepped choral risers, moved pianos, and drove the truck.

Pepperdine’s spanking new Malibu campus in 1972

We boarded the plane to L.A., wiser for our failures, and with the immigrant’s heart for a new start in a new land. Once we reached cruising altitude, I ordered bourbon on the rocks. At some point while sipping my drink, Nan asked me for the time. I turned my wrist, the one wrapped with the watch, and yes, the same one connected to the hand holding the bourbon, and spilled the drink into my lap. I was not then nor am now a sophisticate. But from that moment on we began to laugh, and we did not stop laughing the entire academic year.

Nan and I had some money saved from different acting and performing gigs that we were able to take with us for “extras.” Our parents had little money to send, so pennies were counted and purchases were scrutinized. On Sunday nights the school cafeteria was closed and we had to adjust. At home, the Arnold’s followed specific traditions after returning from church on Sunday nights: sandwiches made of the leftover roast beef from lunch, a tray of raw veggies, tea punch, pickles, and chips…Charles Chips, of course; we ate the cheaper brands during the week and saved the Charles Chips for Sunday night. And for entertainment it was Ed Sullivan, Bonanza, and Mission Impossible. There was no way to carry on that tradition at Pepperdine, so Nan and I improvised. We would borrow a vehicle from a fellow student (they were never invited to join us), and we would head into Malibu to a burger joint for takeout sandwiches and chips, poor substitutes indeed from the culinary bounty of our Sunday night leftovers, and then go to the drugstore to buy a couple of cheap cigars. We would drive Pacific Coast Highway to a spot on the beach, eat, smoke our stogies, and laugh, always laugh.

The boys were falling over themselves for Nan’s attention. One guy gave her an opal necklace in hopes of turning her head. However, Nan saw the gift as an economic opportunity. We went to a pawnshop in Santa Monica, and Nan asked the owner how much it was worth, but he only told her how much he would give for it. Our collective experience in the art of negotiation at pawnshops was limited, and after a few rounds of “How much is this necklace worth/I’ll give you twenty dollars for it,” the pawnshop owner threw us out for being idiots.

“Deliverance” poster; Movie Poster Image Art/Getty Images

Most of the time our desire for cultural experience exceeded our economic grasp, and so, we learned to wing it. One day Jon Voight came to the campus to talk to the students. His film “Deliverance” had just come out, and as our family was “of the theatre” as well as being white-water enthusiasts at the time, Nan and I had to meet him. We waited for the right moment after his presentation before we approached, and the timing could not have been better. We were able to walk him to his car sharing our theatrical background and canoeing stories along the way. He then told us that he was soon going into production for “A Street Car Named Desire,” at the Ahmanson Theatre with Faye Dunaway, and we should come and see the show. Here was a dilemma: we were now BFF’s with Jon Voight, with a personal invitation to see his show, however, we were economically unable to commit to such an expensive event. So the hustle and flow of creative alternatives to find a way around the quandary began stirring in our imaginations.

Cover Art by Thomas Hart Benton

Borrow a car…check. Park for free a long distance from the theatre and walk…check. Squirrel away extra food for dinner from lunch at the school cafeteria…check. But purchasing two tickets to the show…not so fast. Even by pooling our money we could only afford one ticket, and even that was a student ticket. If only our pawnshop negotiation skills had been fine-tuned we might have afforded a second ticket from the sale of the opal necklace.

And here was where our criminal minds kicked into gear. There were multiple entrances into the theatre, and the night we attended, we scoped out which entrance was most clogged with patrons. We spied a bottleneck at one entrance, and Nan squeezed herself into the middle of it, and the next thing I knew, she was waving at me through the glass window from inside the lobby. I used the one ticket to get inside, and then gave Nan the stub for the legit seat while I waited for the houselights to go to half before I slipped into the theatre. Of course, I was stopped by an usher, but I explained that my sister had the ticket, and I would sit on the empty back row and join her later never specifying how much later. That was sufficient, and I took my seat in the back as the houselights went dark and the stage lights came up.

After the show we went outside to the stage door entrance and slipped in when no one was looking. We explained to the one guard at the security desk that we were here to see Mr. Voight, and Nan flashed the ticket stub for good measure. He pointed down the hall to the dressing rooms and said that “Mr. Voight’s name is on the door.”

Oh yeah, “Mr. Voight” on the door, and we knocked, a polite knock, and, oh yeah, Mr. Voight opened the door. And while he was a bit surprised to see the brother/sister duo, his new best friends and fellow thespians from Pepperdine University, he “acted” like he remembered us, invited us into the room, and introduced us to Mrs. Voight sitting in a corner, feet propped on a chair, her hands perched atop her rounded tummy. She was with child. She indulged us with a smile and patted her belly that housed the future Ms. Angelina Jolie.

The Man

Since our scheme worked so well, we repeated the exact same one-ticket artifice for “The Crucible” starring Mr. Charlton Heston. The only difference was that when he answered our polite knock on the door of his dressing room after the show, he appeared in a blue bathrobe with a shade of irritable impatience on his lips that might have passed for a smile if we had been the people he must have expected and not total strangers. We apologized for the intrusion on his privacy and complimented his performance, and then slowly backed away hoping not to be struck down by the one who had parted the Red Sea. If Mr. Heston had just invited us into his dressing room, I’m sure we would have hit it off. I mean, we could have introduced him to Mr. Voight, and then we all could have been BFF’s.

Nan and I thought it wise not to continue our one-ticket connivance for fear that wanted posters with the brother/sister mug shots would soon appear alongside the production posters that hung in the lobby of the Ahmanson. Do not judge us for our unlawful past. Brother and sister turned out fine…well, at least one of us did. But lawbreaking was in our DNA. When our mother was a college student, she secretly rode the trolley to the old Maxwell House Hotel in downtown Nashville and smoked cigarettes behind the potted palms near the women’s bathroom. During that same time period, as a student at the same college, our father would go swimming after dark in the privately owned Radnor Lake; a strictly prohibited activity then as now. Though short-lived, skirting the edges of the criminal underworld was inevitable for the offspring of Bud and Bernie Arnold.

Bernie as Katharine and Bud as Petruchio in “Kiss Me, Kate”

At the end of that year in Malibu, Nan tripped off to Abilene University where she met the good boyfriend who became the good husband. I went from the sun and surf of the Malibu campus to Pepperdine’s L.A. campus located just a few blocks from the remains of many charred buildings set ablaze during the Watts riots of 1965. The University was in transition from downtown to Malibu, but the theatre department at the L.A. campus had some excellent acting coaches. When the head of the theatre bumped up my scholarship money, it was an offer I couldn’t refuse.

Backstage sibling shenanigans
Now that’s more like it

Before that year in Malibu, my sister (Ms. Nan Gurley), and I had yet to work together on stage. Forty-five plus years later, we have been in so many shows that it would be impossible for me to count them. Our fleeing to the west coast resulted in creating lifelong memories that never cease to bring a smile. And even today when we are together and happen to remember a “Malibu” experience, you guessed it, we burst out laughing.

Cover Art: Photo by Bud Arnold taken with his Kodak Brownie

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Often Wrong; Never in Doubt
French political cartoon; Henri Meyer, Illustrator; 1898

Often Wrong; Never in Doubt

A few Thanksgivings ago the Arnold clan made up of the four families, plus guests (no we’re not a part of the southern mafia), gathered under one roof to celebrate the day. The weather was mild enough to enjoy being outside, so when not feasting around the tables, many folks chose to move outdoors. The patio fire pit was blazing and many of us clustered around it. I was standing in close proximity to the fire when someone in the crowd asked the question, “What is Boxing Day?” A smug look of “I got this” came over my face, and I proceeded to offer an explanation. I did sprinkle my history lesson with a little humility by interjecting that I was not sure of all the facts, but I believed Boxing Day to be a celebration of an uprising of Chinese nationalists against colonialism at the turn of the 20th century. That was about as far as I got before my youngest brother began to laugh and said, “You are such an idiot.”

Major powers plan to cut up China for themselves; cartoon in “Punch” magazine; Aug 22, 1899 by J.S. Pughe
The Boxer rebels

Right uprising/wrong holiday. Many Western countries including America and Japan wanted to reconfigure China, slicing up pieces of the country for themselves. These greedy nations referred to the Chinese militants as Boxers since many of the rebels practiced Chinese martial arts.

I should know never to argue with or pontificate before my Mensa Society, big-brained, youngest brother whose encyclopedic knowledge of history, both foreign and domestic, is worthy of a professorship in the Ivy-Leagues. It was the perfect setup. I lobbed him an easy softball pitch and he knocked it out of the park. Now mind you up to that point, I had the crowd in the palm of my hand with my assured answer to the Boxing Day question. My confidence was worthy of a contestant on the game show, “What’s My Line”, where celebrity panelists question three contestants to determine which one was the true professional, thus the title, “What’s my line…of work?” That Thanksgiving Day for a fleeting moment, I proved my acting ability was superior to my historical knowledge.

What’s My Line panelists in 1952

I embraced the family motto, “Often wrong, but never in doubt,” years ago. Facts? Truth? Who needs facts and truth? Facts and truth, as Twain said, should never get in the way of a good story. And while I attribute Mark Twain with that proverb, if truth is what you want, then there are no reliable sources that solidifies the maxim to him. However, if Twain didn’t say it, he should have said it.

I guess the Downton Abbeyers are checking the boxes before giving them to the servants

I ought to have known the Boxing Day origins and purpose. I had to sit through enough episodes of “Downton Abbey” with Kay. While some of the storylines held my attention, after the car wreck that killed off the character of Matthew Crawly so the actor could pursue fatter paychecks from Hollywood, my interest waned. I don’t blame Mr. Dan Stevens who played Crawly for seeking greener pastures; an actor’s gotta do what he’s gotta do.

Boxing Day. What a terrible name for a holiday. It is so pedestrian, so anticlimactic, so void of any Incarnate significance. And something only the aristocrats (1%’ers) would come up with to appease a limited conscience: make the servants wait on you Christmas Day and then give them the following day off with a “box” of treats, a little cash, and my favorite, leftover food. What the servants served their masters the day before, hot off the grille; they got the privilege of eating cold the next day. I hope the cooks were smart enough not to spit in the gravy before they served it to the lords and ladies.

But I don’t just prove the family motto with my slippery command of history. I can be “often wrong, but never in doubt,” in a present day setting. This last Christmas at my middle brother’s house I was so confident in my accusation that he had misplaced the gifts I had brought in from the car, I made a public declaration to that effect before the entire family as we searched the house. When the hunt proved futile, Kay suggested I go back to our car for a second look. You guessed it. I should have snuck back into the house and slipped them under the tree and then acted surprised to have found them in so obvious a place. “Oh, there they are.” Now I could have acted that one brilliantly, but no, the truth was brought to light, and the middle brother got his last laugh.

I have been the self-imposed victim of such public ignominy, before audiences large and small, for years. I’ve become so accustomed to those moments that I am no longer embarrassed by them. I just quote the family motto and take a bow. I know how to take a bow. I get paid to take bows, but only after a job well done, and I can do mortification well. It just goes to prove that we all need fact checkers. My siblings, my wife, my daughters and sons-in-law, my fellow actors, yea verily, the majority of my entire community have done the honors of busting my “never in doubt” bloviations with the facts. It always brings laughter and pleasure.

Oliver Sacks; photo by Luigi Novi; Brooklyn Book Festival; 2009

Dr. Oliver Sacks once wrote of a panel he was on where the topic of discussion was information and communication in the twenty-first century. An internet pioneer was proud of the fact that people, including his daughter, had access to information no one could have imagined a few decades before. Sacks said that while one might be “…stocked with wide-ranging information, that was different from knowledge.” And I would add that such knowledge and information does not guarantee a gaining of wisdom.

We humans are easily bewitched. We prefer perceptions over facts and truth. St. Paul wrote how we will gather around us a great number of teachers to say what our “itching ears want to hear.” And how we humans “will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.”

The Apostle Paul; Rembrandt; 1635

I know took a somber turn there, but I am reminded by my numerous “often wrong, but never in doubt” blunders epitomized in this family motto that I want people around me to tell me the truth, speak truth into my heart and mind, even when it is painful to hear and perhaps more painful to correct. An ancient Hebrew proverb says it best, “Better an open rebuke than hidden love. Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses.” The impermanence of life is all around us, and at the end of the day what we are left with are memories. May our memories be full of truth, truth that corresponds with reality and honest relationships, truth that provides a balm to our soul and gladness to our heart.

Cover Art: French political cartoon; Henri Meyer, Illustrator; 1898

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My Best Self

Oh how we love to look at ourselves. We keep returning to any available mirror to be sure that what we judged acceptable at the start of the day remains in place until we collapse into bed at night exhausted from self-criticisms or fears of judgment and scorn of others. Most of us don’t have a magic mirror that will speak to us the disingenuous words we want to hear: “Magic mirror on the wall, who is the fairest one of all?” A dangerous and invariably damning question. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but there will always be one fairer than you. It must be disappointing not to find your name and image on the celebrity list of most handsome/beautiful people year after year. The magic in the mirror must be running on empty.

Mirror Mirror illustration by Joseph Jacobs; 1916

But we keep going back to the mirror, and whether or not we verbalize the famous question, our actions betray us. Each new day the process begins in our pursuit to be “the fairest.” And now that modern technology has given us so many social outlets, we can post our fair likeness as often as we please. We can compare our images to those male and female models on the covers of magazines; bodies free of wrinkles, liver spots, or errant facial hair. The message is not so subtle; never go out in public without your silicone airbrush to remove the imperfections and enhance the attributes. Lest we forget, the wicked Queen in Snow White considered her mirror her slave and expected her mirror to always flatter.

Stalin and Commissioner Molotov

Such technology is also handy in removing the obnoxious person who insists on ruining any photo by making a stupid face or a person unacceptable to the elitist. Back in the day of the Stalin purges the process of eliminating the unwanted person was called “object removal.” Today it is referred to as “Photo shopped.” With our personalized magic mirror we can remove whatever or whomever we choose.

Oops!

The fixation with oneself and our public facade is nothing new. Narcissus had a similar infatuation with his “Selfie”, only this Greek demigod took it one step further. Narcissus never took his eyes off himself once he caught sight of his beauty. Unable to embrace his watery reflection, he lost his will to live. It was not a happy ending.

We humans expend a great deal of time and treasure devoted to our self-obsession to transform ourselves into superior beings, though a little lower than the Marvel Comic gods. We read volumes of self-help literature, we join Wellness Centers, we drink all sorts of concoctions, we apply all sorts of goop, we Cross Fit and cleanse, we spend hours in the confession booth or a therapist’s office, and we emulate the habits of the titans of achievement. Because we believe our bodies and personalities are upgradeable like our iPhones, we doggedly pursue the quest of perfection, and if we can’t make the cover of a magazine, by gum, we’ll post our Best-Self on our social media accounts.

This whole chasing after our Best-Self is not original to our generation or past generations. The sonnets of Shakespeare or English Romantic poets or the Greek mythologies did not come up with the idea. One of the oldest texts on human beauty and perfection was written by King Solomon of ancient Israel. The descriptions of the bride and bridegroom in chapters 4:1-7 and 5:10-16 of the “Song of Songs” are poetic gems. These verses celebrate the beauty of the lovers without objectifying them. Kay and I used portions of the poem in our wedding vows and ceremony, and her march down the aisle toward me escorted by her two brothers is as vivid in my memory today as when it happened nearly forty years ago. It is a good thing I am sitting down to write this piece because I can feel the weakness in my knees as I type. Yeah, she can still cause that same effect in me today. I am a lucky man.

Marc Chagall

I read an article that used the term “aspirational narcissism” describing our culture’s obsession with ourselves. We aspire to be perfect in body, soul, and spirit, and believe we can achieve it under our own steam. We believe that science supports this through evolutionary, brain circuitry. We abdicate our real image to the advertisers’ whims of what our Best-Self should be. We believe religion supports this desire by turning a legitimate prayer into a literal, self-serving demand, “Whatever you ask in prayer, you shall receive”. We believe our economy supports our convictions in how we prioritize where to spend our hard-earned cash. A cursory look at a monthly bank statement will revel how often a card is swiped just to obtain the Best-Self figure.

Then there are the perpetual lies we convert into mantras: “winners and losers”, “this is my moment”, “only the strong survive”, “I am self-made”, “God helps those who help themselves”, “pull yourself up by your bootstraps”, and my favorite, “Yes (parents, grandparents, teachers, and au pairs, insert child’s name here), you can grow up to be anything you want to be, even president”. For good measure, lump in all the catchphrases from celebrities, motivational speakers, and political candidates. I have a two-word retort to “aspirational narcissism”. STOP IT! (For reference, please watch Bob Newhart’s “Stop It” comedy sketch on your social media outlet of choice. And then just imagine my therapist wife rolling her eyes at Newhart’s cure for what ails us.)

What am I advocating? Confession is good for the soul. See what I did there? I just copped a catchphrase after deriding the practice. But I start with my own confession. I am guilty of all that I excoriate in this piece. I am my own idol of aspiration, and I have spent time and treasure fashioning this idol to the general public. It is a false idol. Only God and Kay know the real me. I spend too much time in conversations discussing me and my accomplishments and not listening or encouraging others to speak of themselves or any other subject of interest to them. I post my achievements. I look at others looking at me hoping they like what they see. I want all eyes to behold my Best-Self persona.

Einstein said, “Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.” Now when you are the Father of Relativity, you can use any slogan you like, but the misperceptions of the reality around us does shape our hearts and minds. To revisit poor Narcissus, once he caught sight of himself, he spurned all human connection embracing the illusion that he was the most beautiful object he had ever seen or imagined. The allure was so strong and so deceptive that when he finally realized this love could not be reciprocated, he died. Are we killing ourselves for a mere reflection of what we perceive is our Best-Self?

Whether we are victim of the playground bully or the brutality of the marketplace or feel left in the dust by our fast paced society because we can’t keep up, who do we look to for comfort: the magic mirror with its deceptive lexis of slogans? Or who do we blame: a politician; a parent; an employer; a spouse; God?

Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin; 1870’s

I suggest an alternative to the slave in the mirror and the chasing of the Best-Self lifestyle. I suggest love. Love means giving up, sacrificing, setting aside our self-centeredness. Such a choice requires transformation of the heart, and I am under no illusion, the practice of such selfless love is much harder than pursuing “aspirational narcissism”, but, I suggest, more rewarding. I refer you to a different mirror, the mirror St. Paul mentions in his letter to the church in Corinth. Portions of the thirteenth chapter are often quoted for both secular and religious wedding ceremonies because of the truth of its source and the power of its effect. Without love, we see a poor portrait of ourselves in any mirror we hold up. The magic mirror is unreliable and leaves us in a constant state of fear. Narcissus’ pool reflects back only a single likeness blinding us to all others. Love invites us to human connection. Love restores our joy. Love is capable of turning the world upside down. Love is the only hope that can save us from the chaos of our present world. Put the mirror down. Our Best-Self will appear when we lose ourselves in loving service to others.

Cover: Narcissus by Caravaggio

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Saving The World
French Vintage advertising poster

Saving The World

The world needs saving, and not by a conglomerate of handsome and beautiful super heroes as appealing as they are to behold. Have you ever noticed how much destruction goes into saving the planet whenever the super heroes marshal their powers to vanquish evil? Could this be the meaning of the phrase, “Omelets are not made without breaking eggs?” This quote is not original to your grandmother or some celebrity chef touting the casualties of broken eggs in the making of an omelet supreme, but to a French general, Francois de Charette, when put on trial for his war crimes during the French Revolution. Draw your own conclusion.

Painting of Francois de Charette by Jean-Baptiste Paulin Guerin

Photo by Nashville Banner staff Photographer

I prefer my heroes, or in this case, heroine, to come in smaller more petite packages like my mother, Bernie Wyckoff Arnold. Armed with only a mixing bowl, a whisk, some wooden spoons, and a curious mind, she saved the world one recipe at a time. This did not come easy. She confessed that her biggest fear in getting married was not what one might naturally believe, but her incompetency in the kitchen. “I couldn’t make a glass of tea,” she often said. The pressure was on to develop her culinary skills, and fast, for a new husband who had been raised by a mother and grandmother with mythic talents to turn a peasant meal into a kingly feast that brought all five senses into a sharp focus of delight.

Now that’s a head-shot!

Mom’s first job out of college and in her first year of marriage was with The Frank School of Music who published a special announcement of her employment: “We are proud to announce the engagement of Bernie Arnold as head of our Speech and Drama Department.” She had completed a B.A. in Theatre Arts from Lipscomb University and was working on an M.A. at Peabody at the time. She had judged many city and statewide speech and drama contests and performed numerous roles in her early career as an actor, but then I came along and spoiled everything. My three siblings followed in little over a decade, so Mom put aside her theatrical aspirations (she would from time-to-time co-star with my father in several productions when scheduling permitted), to become a full-time wrangler of four kids and a husband. In the early 1960’s she entered a Mrs. Nashville contest and won. She had barely caught her breath from her victory lap when the Nashville Tennessean offered her a job as the Food Editor in 1965. She served in that position for eight years and then jumped over to the Nashville Banner, and remained at that newspaper until she retired in 1992. For someone who could not make a glass of tea in 1948, she faked it until she made it, conducting hundreds of interviews, publishing thousands of articles and recipes, and winning awards along the way.

Bud and Bernie, co-stars in the kitchen

Our family had the benefit of Mom and Dad’s ability and curiosity to try many of the recipes she wrote about in her articles. We kids were the first to taste-test these experiments, and if we didn’t scrunch our faces in disgust or worse, these courses would be offered to the wider world. Rarely was a recipe served in its original state. There was always the Bud-and-Bernie spin added to every dish, and their meals became legendary. Their gift to the world at large was the inclusive and multiple invitations to enjoy food and fellowship at their table. What began with their childhood experiences of parents who were master chefs was perfected in Mom’s role as Food Editor for two daily newspapers and as a contributor to several magazines.

Search and Destroy – American Magazine Illustration; Paul Malon, 1955

When it came to desserts, a jewel in Mom’s cookery crown was her chocolate sauce. If there was ever a squirt bottle of Hershey’s chocolate in the house, her kids would stampede the refrigerator. She grew tired of shouting, “Stop drinking from the bottle.” The entire household was chocoholics. Admit it. We all did it; at least the Arnold kids did it. We would stand in the open refrigerator door, upend the squirt bottle, and squeeze a shot of chocolate directly into our mouths. Oh, the joyful riot on our taste buds as the chocolate coated our tongues and throats. The retractable cap was always in the “up” position and bore a semi-hardened coating of chocolate around the rim mixed with Arnold lip DNA. Mom decided she could save her vocal cords with this useless reprimand if she only created her own chocolate sauce that could not be so easily accessed by her marauding children. So the experimenting began, and we were the willing guinea pigs. After only a few attempts in creating her own chocolate sauce the Hershey’s squirt bottle was “dead to us.”

The recipe was often requested by guests and always denied. One could taste but not touch. Some secrets must be kept. But Kay was “precious unto Mom’s sight,” and invited to observe the chocolate sauce-making process. The happy result was that the pupil began to put her own spin on the recipe; a lesson to us all for being curious and paying attention to the master. A little more of this; a little less of that, and she came up with a sauce that is, was, and evermore shall be, “too die for,” or at the very least, cause sighs and groans after each helping, or fights over a last bite, or turmoil among guests as to who might get to take home a jar. Ever the peacemaker, Kay never let a guest go home empty handed, and there was great rejoicing throughout the land.

Three Generations dedicated to Chocolate Sauce perfection

Mom eventually admitted, with some minor bruising to her pride, that Kay’s concoction was an improvement to her own. And now the third generation has taken the chocolate sauce mantle and added her spin to this smooth and sweet delight. Our daughter, Lauren Zilen, has not only come up with her version, but has taken the extra step of setting up a Mother/Daughter business to bottle and sell the deliciousness. Southern Spooning Chocolate Sauce is the official name of the company they formed, and at this point in time, is sold exclusively through Niedlov’s Breadworks in Chattanooga, Tennessee, a premiere bakery own and operated by Lauren and her husband, Erik.

Nine ounces of Chocolate Sublimity

The argument can be made for the convenience of a squirt bottle to dispense chocolate into your mouth, but it is a mixture of multiple ingredients required for a long shelf-life. The Southern Spooning Chocolate Sauce does not have a long shelf-life; not because of any degradation of the simple ingredients, but because of the unnaturally quick consumption once a jar is opened. Of those who have taken jars home after a meal at our house or recently been offered a jar for “testing” purposes, we have often been told by those who could not wait to use it as a topping on any imaginable treat, that they would stand in the open refrigerator door armed with a utensil or a couple of fingers and scoop large quantities of the chocolate goodness directly into their mouths. The human desire to taste something sublime never changes.

The world needs saving. Southern Spooning Chocolate Sauce might be the secret. One bite and eyes light up, countenances brighten, smiles return to faces, and temperaments transform from disagreeable to pleasing. That’s a lot of pressure to put on a chocolate sauce, but just try it. I dare you, yea verily, I double-dog dare you. If you take that dare you can purchase this chocolate elixir exclusively at Niedlov’s Breadworks located at 215 E. Main St. in Chattanooga, TN. You may also place a special order at their email: southernspooning@gmail.com, and follow Southern Spooning Chocolate Sauce on Facebook and Instagram. Plans are in the making to expand the availability in other stores as well as online.

Go ahead, change your life, become a Spooner. And then share it with your family and friends and neighbors and co-workers, or someone who voted the other way. Enter ye into Spoonerland. All are welcome and the gates never close.

Southern Spooning Mother/Daughter hard at work…or not

Cover Art: Le Cacao Poulain – The Chocolate Flood; 19th century French advertising poster by Leonetto Cappiello

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Sticks and Stones

One day when I was in high school I saw a truck pull into our driveway. The body of the truck was well used: coating of dirt, rust spots, some dings and dents. A guy got out and started ambling up the brick walkway to the front door. I recognized him as a fellow student though we did not run in the same circles at school. He was quiet, did not attract attention, and thus, kept a low profile. When the doorbell rang, I opened it and stepped out.

“You and the others at school have been calling me ‘farmer,’” he said, his voice clear and steady, his eyes a pinpoint focus on me.

Early John Deere; photo by David Haggard

It was true. I had been calling him “farmer,” and not out of respect or kindness or even interest in what he and his family did for a living. I said it like the others said it, in a cruel, derogatory way. I wanted to be a part of the “in” crowd, and to be a part of the “in” crowd, I had to go along with a teenage boy’s fondness to encourage and use disparaging terms to demean another human being. To be cool in this “in” crowd one had to look down on others and coin insulting names to describe them, and then use those insults in such a fashion that would amuse the other members of this “in” crowd. For the truly sinister mind, one would craft scenarios for how the victim might live under a cloud of deprecating monikers, so in this case a lot of agricultural jokes were created. We never thought ourselves cruel. Those who indulge in such behavior never do.

“If I hear you call me ‘farmer’ again, I will beat the hell out of you.”

He did not wait for a reply. After making his proclamation, he returned to his truck and drove away.

He had come alone. What courage it took for him to come to my house and face me. He had also been wise to separate me from the pack. What a coward I was for being a part of this pack that had driven him to take such a bold step.

I went back inside and shut the door, and then heard Mom’s voice coming from the kitchen.

“Honey, was that one of your friend’s from school?”

Image from the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo

I don’t remember my response to her question. I’m sure it was cagey if I answered at all. I was naked and ashamed and needed covering. I don’t know if the young man made the rounds to the homes of the rest of the “in” crowd facing each one mano a mano and shutting down their cowardly natures with a single threat. If he did, I don’t remember any of us talking about it. We would never admit our spinelessness to one another, a pack of cowards would never do such a thing. That’s why they run in packs. What I do know is that I stopped using the term.

But this did not stop the pack from finding new prey, and it wasn’t long before I fell out of favor with this group and became one of those victims.

I am missing half of my ring finger on my right hand, which was a source of embarrassment for me during my high school years. I also had warts on both my hands, and until a doctor finally removed them surgically, I kept my hands in my pockets most of the time, and would never dare to hold a girl’s hand on a date. Though I did try to play different sports in high school including basketball, I was a mediocre athlete. Dribbling is a key component to the game of basketball, and since I was right handed, it was not only a challenge to dribble a ball but also shoot it. Minimal skill and nine-and-one-half fingers equals minimal playing time and maximum bench warming.

One of the leaders of the “in” crowd who played the sport began calling me “Four-Finger” and “Nubby” for the clumsy way I handled the ball. One day after practice I caught him in the corner of the gym where no one could see us. I had learned the value of pack-separation. I pressed my left hand into his chest and held up my right hand before his startled face with all four and a half fingers spread out.

“You call me those names again, and I’ll show you what four fingers and a nub tastes like,” I said, curling my spread-out fingers into a fist.

And that was the end of that.

How many movies have we seen, how many young adult novels have we read about the perils and horrors of navigating through the tumultuous teenage years? These two seminal moments are brief and shameful scenes in my coming-of-age story: inflicting verbal abuse on one undeserving and experiencing the sting myself of similar verbal mistreatment. I wish I could say that the episode at my front door and the one in the gym were “Come to Jesus” opportunities and that I never said an unkind word again about anyone. But alas, that would not be the truth.

The nursery rhyme, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never harm me,” appeared in a children’s book in 1872 entitled, Tappy’s Chicks: and Other Links Between Nature and Human Nature, by Anne Jane Cupples. Cupples was a 19th century author of children’s books, a naturalist, and a pen pal with Charles Darwin no less, who encouraged her to record her observations of the emotions of dogs. Before Cupples used the rhyme, it appeared in The Christian Recorder in 1862, a publication of the African Methodist Episcopal Church that read, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never break me.” One has a children’s proverb feeling to it, a sentimental shrugging off of a schoolhouse insult. The other is more poignant for its African-American audience the majority of whom were suffering under slavery. Sticks and stones and numerous other instruments of brutality were used to physically break the enslaved, but this iteration was written to encourage them not to allow the hateful language used against them and detestable names used to describe them to “break” their spirit.

Wood Art by Giovanni Bellini

Growing up in the Arnold household, when two or more of the Arnold kids were caught in the act of name calling or worse, our common response was to point the finger of blame and say, “He or she started it.” Fortunately we had good parents who said, “Well, I’m stopping it.”

A bone can be broken and repaired. An abrasion to the skin can be patched. A wound can be inflicted and the blood flow stopped and the flesh stitched. We all like to hear our name called: the name given to us at birth; the name we build our reputation on; the name we use to sign any form; the name the check is made out to; the name we swear an oath upon. A name is to be hallowed. A name is to be cherished. A name, when spoken well of, should bring joy to the speaker and the bearer. When that name is damaged by a descriptive belittling term it offends and hurts. It brings pain not joy. None of us welcome such pain. Taming the tongue is a great challenge. The tongue can corrupt the whole person when not held in check or it can be an instrument of praise; it can inflict pain or be a healing balm for a damaged heart.

Euriamis Losada as the Monster in “Frankenstein;” photo by MA2LA

I recently performed in the play “Frankenstein,” by A.S. Peterson. At the end of the play when the Monster is about to die, the character I played asked the Monster to “…give us at least your name, that we may remember.” The Monster replied that he had only dreamed of a name, “…written upon a whitened stone.” The only names this Creature ever heard were opprobrious, and instead of receiving kind words and blessings spoken by others, he was showered with curses and physical blows. Such scorn contributed to him becoming a monster. But I wonder if those who behaved so cruelly toward the Creature were not the true monsters. It is folly to believe that we can continue to speak ill of others and not be poisoned by our own verbal bile. A small spark can set a forest ablaze, and so the tongue that utters praise instead of mocking could bring healing to a nation.

Cover Art: The Torment of Saint Anthony, by Michelangelo

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The Great Bicycle Crash of 2001
Cover Art - The rarely used Velocipede

The Great Bicycle Crash of 2001

I love it when I make Kay laugh. When she laughs, all’s right with the world. Kay has what I call the pratfall sense of humor. She can watch a collection of videos on AFV where people are engaged in all sorts of shenanigans and end up falling on their bums, and her amusement will ascend with each humorous consequence. The sound of her laughter is much like that of the old cartoon character Muttley the Dog with her face turning red, the tears rolling down her cheeks, building and building until at any second one expects a lung to be expelled. And who among us does not secretly enjoy the humiliation of others? Which brings me to a story of my humiliation; one that has brought her much enjoyment in the countless retelling.

Muttley created by Iwao Takamoto

I love riding a bicycle. By age twelve, when I got my first official job as a paperboy, and for the next four years, I perfected my bicycle skills by riding my seven-mile route twice daily slinging newspapers, dodging traffic, and outrunning dogs intent on taking a bite out of my leg. That is why when we moved to Kay’s family farm, one of the first things I did was purchase a mountain bike. I could ride a ten-mile loop from my driveway and back through the countryside. I stayed on the surface streets, no off-road riding, with a nice mixture of steep hills and straight stretches. It was not an Ironman training route, but for thirty-five minutes, it doubled my heart rate.

Crazy Frog

On the back half of the loop there was a long stretch of road where I could really get up some speed, and I would try to go as long as I could without touching the handlebars; either leaning forward to reduce the wind resistance, or leaning back, arms outstretched, creating the sensation of flying. I rode this route nearly every day, rain or shine, the exception being in conditions of ice and snow, and in Tennessee, that was a rare exception.

The Fourth of July, 2001 was a day filled with heat and sunshine. We spent that 4th as we had done for years: attending the Whitland Avenue block-party celebration with thousands of other people singing patriotic music, hearing speeches, and listening to my father dramatically recite a portion of the Declaration of Independence while members of the Nashville Symphony played Aaron Copeland’s “Fanfare For The Common Man.” But before that event, as always, I rode my ten-mile route.

Travel prepared

When I hit the long, flat stretch of road and had built up sufficient speed, I released my hands from the handlebars. About halfway along that straight section, I heard a snap of metal. I could not immediately identify the source. I thought it might be a break in the link of the chain or a rock slung against the metal frame. Then suddenly my whole world shifted into slow motion while my whole life passed before my eyes. The seat dropped as if the clamp that held it in place had come loose, but then it tilted up before going airborne, and I began to slide backwards. I could not figure out what was going on or why, but my survival instincts were in overdrive as I desperately reached for the handlebars so I could put on the brakes. This was not like my old bike where the brakes were applied with the peddles.

My mountain bike had those stubby tires with no metal coverings over them to keep rocks and rain from flying up into my face or spraying my back. It was raw, exposed tire, akin to the high-powered saw blade that cuts through the log. There was no slowing down the speed. There was no altering the direction of my bum. There was no hero to come to my rescue.

Dudley Do-Right, where are you?

The trajectory of my bottom was headed straight for the rear tire…yes, pun intended. It was a perfect landing with my cheeks folding over the tire like a set of brake pads. Indeed, said cheeks had the effect of brake pads probably because my reflexive buttock reaction as the spinning tire made its way into my posterior was to clamp down. This caused the bike to stop abruptly hurling me forward into the metal rod that once held the seat resulting in anterior damage. Insult to injury. Then I was dumped off onto the road, landing, yes, on my bottom and bouncing on top of the pavement for several feet.

I sat in the middle of the road, feet pointed forward, my hands and arms holding me upright as I blinked away the shock and confusion and attempted to assess the situation. It was not long before I heard a vehicle approaching from behind. I thought, “Great. I have survived a bike crash only to be run over by a car.” The vehicle turned out to be a tractor, and the farmer pulled beside me and stopped. He did not bother to dismount or turn off the engine. He leaned over and spat a shot of tobacco chew onto the road in order to make room in his mouth to ask his one-word question…“Problems?” I only shook my head (the breath knocked out of me muted all speech), and so he put the tractor in gear and eased on down the road. No inquiry of possible injury. No offer to help. No offer to call anyone. I imagine he was thinking that the damn-fool bicyclist should have known better.

Old School Road Warrior

By then, I was thrilled to be able to feel my toes wiggling inside my shoes and to watch my ankles rotate my feet. When I gingerly bounced my thighs and calves on the pavement, hope sprung into my heart that I might be able to get back home on my two wobbly legs. But I did not move until the farmer turned into a field. I did not want him to witness any more of my humiliation if I was unable to get up and walk. I took a deep breath and rolled over onto my knees, then slowly worked my way to a standing position. Being vertical was a success but taking those first few steps was victory. I gathered up the seat and the bike. It was the bolt that ran through the seat attaching to the metal rod that had broken. This catastrophe would have been averted had I had my hands on the handlebars. But no, I had to be the hot-dog.

“Where have you been?” Kay asked when I walked into the house. We needed to leave for the Whitland Avenue event, and she knew I should not have taken so long to ride my route. When I explained what happened, she gave me the quizzical look of a skeptic, so I turned around, dropped my pants, and bent over, and low, a great moon rose before her, and what to her wondering eyes should appear but the marks of tire tracks running through the center of my buttocks and the bright red abrasions on each cheek from bouncing along on the road like a skipping stone. Her reaction was a stuck record of “Oh my. Oh my. Oh my.” It was then that I noticed that my underwear looked as if it had been put through a shredder, but the material of my spandex bike pants was completely unscathed. Oh, the miracle of synthetic fibers. My one hundred percent cotton underwear never had a chance. I should do a commercial for spandex.

I continued to ride for several more years. You fall off a two-wheeled, mechanical horse, you get back on. But for many-a-day afterwards, when riding by the location of my ill-fated accident, the sphincter muscles would tighten, my legs would flinch, and my hands remained firmly on the handlebars. Yes, he can be taught. And, of course, this incident has provided my dear wife the opportunity for me tell the tale over and over at family functions, at parties, and to dinner guests around our table. I would get the playful elbow into my ribs, and the “Tell the story of when your seat broke on your bicycle.” Before I could even finish the prologue setting up the story she was laughing, unable to conceal the fact that she knew what was about to be told and viewed the story as a comedy…low comedy.

And even in bed last night while I silently read my book and Kay proofed this story, time and again, the bed would vibrate from her wheezing laughter and she dropped the pages to wipe the tears from her eyes. No matter how many times she hears this story it never fails to bring about spasms of laughter. Sign of a good story, I guess, and a good marriage. Yes, it does bring me pleasure to make Kay laugh even at my own painful expense.

Old School Tandem

Cover Art: Vintage picture of the rarely used Velocipede

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