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

Comments Off on Often Wrong; Never in Doubt

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

Comments Off on My Best Self
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

Comments Off on Saving The World

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

Comments Off on Sticks and Stones
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

Comments Off on The Great Bicycle Crash of 2001

Mob Rule

The piñata and the unicorn have something in common for our family. It is an unusual union. Back in the day, I took a swing or two at a piñata, most likely after a couple of beers and the encouragement of the crowd; certainly with no malice to destroy a papier-mâché object or with a craving to have the candied guts shower over my head. It has been a long time since that incident. But this year, I did attend a birthday where a mob was gathered around a piñata and each participant got to take their club-wielding turn at the creature with its belly full of treats.

In June, Kay and I went to Scotland for a couple of weeks. Before our departure, a grand daughter requested we bring her back a unicorn, her current stuffed-animal obsession. I was not aware that Scotland’s national animal was the unicorn. Images of it abound in the country. The unicorn is to Scotland what the bald eagle is to America. And while both creatures have achieved notable status in each nation, we know which one is real. That does not however, take away from the power each one represents.

Capturing the illusive unicorn

Killing the illusive unicorn

When Kay and I toured Stirling Castle, tapestries of “The Hunt of the Unicorn” were on prominent display. These works of art portray an odd co-mingling of pagan and Christian mythologies. The unicorn has a long history in Scotland dating as far back as William I in the 12th century who used the image in his coat of arms, and King James III who stamped a depiction onto gold coins. While representations fashioned in stain glass, on banners and flags, painted onto coffee mugs and sewn into bath towels were available at every gift shop and street vendor, we purchased a stuffed version of the horned animal in a thrift store of all places, complete with a rainbow-colored mane and tail. It had been “gently” loved. The grand daughter was thrilled, and it has taken its place in the menagerie of creatures, foreign and domestic, wild and fabled, that fill her crowded bed. How that kid sleeps with all those animals is a mystery. Perhaps it is the nesting effect.

Batter Up

Huitzilopochtli as depicted in the Codex Borbonicus, i.e., the god with the unpronounceable name

Like the unicorn, the piñata also has a multi-cultural history. The Chinese lay claim to the origin to a centuries-old whacking of the image of a cow filled with different types of seeds at the beginning of every New Year hoping for a favorable climate for their agriculture. Then the Aztecs say they invented the practice to honor the birthday of a god with a multi-syllabic name who needed appeasement—perhaps for every battered piñata there was one less human sacrifice. Once the Spanish monks moved into the Mesoamerica neighborhood, they immediately saw the opportunity to co-opt the ritual and created their own version of the tradition in the 14th century calling it “The Dance of the Piñata.” A seven-point piñata represented the seven deadly sins. The piñata itself represented evil, and the treats inside, the temptations of evil. The individual armed with a club was blindfolded to represent “blind faith,” then spun around before striking to represent the disorientation of temptation. When the participant struck at the piñata, it was the struggle against evil, and when a blow landed and the piñata broke open, the treats inside showered down upon the victor as a reward for keeping the faith. So these treats somehow magically turned from nuggets of temptation to a shower of blessing. Those tricky monks with their fluid theology. The things we humans do to placate the gods and ward off evil and entertain ourselves at the same time. Go figure.

But the one thing a piñata and a unicorn can do regardless of cultural claims to its origins is produce and give focus to a mob. As portrayed in the series of tapestries in Stirling Castle, the Scots were obsessed with the unicorn. According to the Scottish legend, the only reaction to “the other” was to kill or capture it. And as for the piñata, in our age of skepticism and technological high-mindedness, the only thing it inspires is the violent swings of a lethal cudgel at an inanimate object hung above the celebrants hankering after a treat. Both activities create what Eugene Peterson (author of “The Message” and other books), refers to as “the ecstasy of the crowd.” His reference is to something more primal and dangerous in our human psyche than any inspired emotion or worshipful experience shared communally.

The unicorn and piñata are historically connected to our family in a mystifying way. In celebration of the grand daughter’s birthday this year, the one who loves all-things unicorn, we gathered at her house for the party. Towering above the pile of gifts on the dining table was an appropriately birthday-themed unicorn piñata. After gorging on cake and ice cream, we moved outside where a passel of neighborhood kids, the median age being five years old, circled beneath the unicorn piñata suspended by the neck with a strong cord tied to a tree limb just out of reach of the kids but well within striking range. For the honor of the first swing, the birthday girl was handed a mini-Louisville Slugger. The cheering and whoo-hooing began, but alas, it was a swing-and-a-miss, so the bat was passed on to the next guest, and then on down the line. A blindfold would have made the game tortuously long given the participants’ level of skill, and had there been a traditional spinning of each child before they took their swing, it would have surely produced projectile vomiting in half the contestants given the amount of cake and ice cream consumed just moments earlier.

The cheering continued throughout the game as some swipes landed, but never a deathblow. Finally the birthday girl came to bat again (I lost count at how many times), and was given permission to swing until the unicorn piñata gave up the ghost and yielded its candied entrails. The oral clamor ramped up to the decibel level of a European soccer match—child, parent, and grand parent all contributing their vocal encouragement—bolstering the birthday girl into victory, and with one great and glorious swing, the belly of the unicorn burst open and the treats exploded into the air. And yes, the crowd went wild. It was a bacchanal for infants with sugary treats substituting for wine.

The kids scrambled for the sweet morsels: the older ones harvesting fistfuls and a few of the younger ones reduced to tears for their meager gathering of one or two treats. It was a kid-friendly yet extreme level of survival of the fittest. When it was over, the crowd moved back inside so the birthday girl could open her presents. The broken body of the unicorn was carried into the house, but its severed head remained attached to the cord and swung gently in the breeze. I wanted to remember this moment, and I was not sure why. It was such an odd feeling to witness, and yes, participate with a group of adults and kids in this human activity of destroying something in hopes of gaining something for ourselves or appeasing something outside of ourselves.

Photo by Kay Arnold

A mob of people can share a single-mindedness leading them to behave in certain ways that more often than not become destructive. I’m not a killjoy, I know how to have a good time, and I admit to the anthropomorphization of attacking the icon of a fairy-tale, but our actions of young and old alike did something to my soul. Peterson’s caution of the “ecstasy of the crowd” may go to the core of how we adults model our railings and actions toward things we do not understand or people we do not like or fear or disagree with to our offspring. We should not be surprised that our children are confused by such behaviors, and once their innocence is lost, can easily be led astray. The law of sowing and reaping is played out from generation to generation. We must be careful we do not sow the wind so as not to reap the whirlwind.

Cover Art: The Conquerors of the Bastille by Hippolyte Delaroche; 1789

Comments Off on Mob Rule

Making a Monster

Find some discarded body parts; grab a tool box: hack-hack, saw-saw, cut-cut, stitch-stitch, read up on your ancient alchemy (copies at every local library, I’m sure), add a jolt of electrical energy, a splash of elixir, and voila, you have a creature. The creator might call it his “baby.” Some might call it an oddity. Others might call it an aberration. And still others (the less imaginative among us), a monster. Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley called it “Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus.” We all know what happened to poor Prometheus who thought he could steal fire from the gods and get away with it. Ah, the unintended consequences of hubris.

Mary Shelley by Samuel John Stump; 1831

One evening in 1816, a group of romantic bohemians were living in Geneva, and in an attempt to ward off boredom, Lord Byron blurted out “We will each write a ghost story.” Everyone thought it a grand idea, but none of these romantics could focus their creative and poetic natures into writing a good yarn; except for Ms. Shelley. Bryon lay down the gauntlet, and Mary Shelley picked it up. Eighteen months after Bryon’s challenge, Mary Shelley published “Frankenstein.” She was pregnant when she started writing “Frankenstein,” and pregnant again when she finished. Here was a beautiful confluence of “pregnant” creativity.

After two centuries of this story existing in the public consciousness, we often confuse the moniker Frankenstein. It has become the interchangeable designation between that of the creator and that of the creature. It is a frequent misconception when a story has morphed into a mythology, and the two main characters have merged into a duality of a common title and identity. But there are stark differences between the Doctor and the Creature…I hesitate to refer to Dr. Frankenstein’s creation as a monster. The literary critic, Harold Bloom, has pointed out a significant difference in an essay he wrote on Shelley’s story, “Frankenstein’s tragedy stems not from his Promethean excess but from his own moral error, his failure to love; he abhorred his creature, became terrified, and fled his responsibilities.” It is a tragedy when we fail to love, and perhaps the “failure to love” is what creates monsters of us all. We are all “fearfully and wonderfully made,” as the psalmist wrote, but it is the responsible and volitional acts of genuine love that makes us human and not just stitched together parts of anatomy.

Actor Nat McIntyre models as  the Creature; photo by MA2LA

In celebration of the 200th anniversary of Shelley’s novel, Studio Tenn has commissioned a new stage adaptation of “Frankenstein” by A.S. Peterson for its first play of the 2018/2019 season. The playwright has done a brilliant job of presenting Ms. Shelley’s multiple conflicts and tensions between the human desire to create and the results of one’s creation. What an individual might create with the noblest of intentions, and perhaps for the good of all mankind, may in the end, turn out to have monstrous qualities or actually become a monster. Just think of Einstein and Oppenheimer contemplating the incomprehensible power of atomic energy that became the bomb. Or think of Steve Jobs and the proliferation of his IPhone. Have we not witnessed some of the darker aspects of being attached to our hand-held devices?

Then there is Mark Zuckerberg. Maybe he and his buddies should have slept-in more in their Harvard dorm rooms instead of being the genesis’ they were/are by creating Facebook. Who knew the urge to create a social media platform to connect billions of people around the world who just wanted to share pictures of their children and grandchildren, their pets, their graduations, their vacations, their birthdays, weddings, and anniversaries, their personal viewpoints on any and every subject (guilty as charged), their humorous/heart-warming/inspiring/silly/inane/ridiculous videos, and, my personal favorite, their doctor visits and hospital stays…really? Do we really need to see bandages and IV’s and bruises and/or stitches and open sores (Yeah, I do occasionally show my inner curmudgeon exposing my pet-peeves, but then again, maybe these medical posts are revealing the Poster’s inner Frankenstein)? And that all these wonderful and not so wonderful ways to use social media would someday be commandeered by the Russians? Zuckerberg’s creation has become the monster, and like Dr. Frankenstein, he has had to face the consequences.

Victor Frankenstein was also a university student when he watched his creation come to life: “I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.” After all the destruction that follows once the creature is fully animate, the good doctor probably wished he had slept-in more and skipped a few classes like most normal college students. But then we wouldn’t have the great “Frankenstein” movies with actors from Boris Karloff to Peter Boyle playing the creature.

Boris Karloff as a “man-about-town” Creature; photo by John Kobal

Peter Boyle as the Creature in “Young Frankenstein”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe said, “Beware of what you wish for in youth, because you will get it in middle life.” He should know; Goethe wrote “Dr. Faustus” the quintessential tale of “getting what you wish for.” Maybe we all should just consider sleeping-in more often.

We all seek to validate our existence, and make efforts….sometimes heroic, other times pitiful…to give meaning and justification for taking up space on this planet. Mary Shelley’s story as adapted by Peterson and produced by the creative team of Studio Tenn (myself included), has the artistic fiber of re-imagining this great tale that transcends its age. The company will present their version to the public in September. If you think you know this story, think again. It is a beautifully crafted cautionary tale that is as powerful and poignant today as it was when originally written, and I venture to say, as good as any Sunday homily and more entertaining. Visit the Studio Tenn website for all the details.

 

Cover and Poster Art: MA2LA

Comments Off on Making a Monster

Highways of Death

My lovely wife Kay has never met a stretch of highway that intimidated her. Regardless of which side of the public thoroughfare a country has chosen to dictate its traffic flow, she has never been concerned with the directional markings painted on the road. Staying inside designated lanes is not a priority: “Too confining,” she argues. This must be her creative nature and outside-of-the-box thinking. Yes, there is a beautiful little rebel inside the heart of my bride.

Almafi coast road with horses

Past Highways of Death include, but are not limited to, the length and breadth of the Amalfi coast. To clarify, the measurement of breadth in the case of this twenty-five mile stretch of coastline in southern Italy barely accommodates two vehicles as the scrapes and dents and broken side-mirrors attested on many of the cars we passed during our excursion in 2012. With the mountains on one side and a three-hundred foot drop into the Mediterranean on the other, the highway is unforgiving, and better to have a dent or two in the side of your vehicle than the alternative. The way many of the drivers use this stretch of highway, the guard railings to prevent a vehicle from plunging into the sea is more for show than for safety. Oh yeah, and then there are the horses; dodging pack horses is an added test to a driver’s skill set.

Then there was the time two years ago in Lyon, France when Kay went the wrong direction on a one-way city street and we faced an approaching street car. She took the only move she had, pulling onto the sidewalk. After the street car passed, she got back on the road and immediately turned our car in the right direction. One must look at the positive, Kay would say: there were no parked cars along the street preventing her from using the sidewalk at that strategic point when she needed to avoid the head-to-head, and “no pedestrians were injured in the making of this move.” She ignored the shocked and terrified faces of said pedestrians or their curses as she righted the car and drove away. It is a wondrous thing to be cursed in a foreign language.

Or the time we were driving through the French Alps to Chamonix when construction work on the main road forced us to take a deviation (French for detour). She was a reckoning force cruising the mountain-pass roads like the latent Indy driver she was, is, and evermore shall be; straightening out the switchbacks and hairpins like an expert, braking into and accelerating out of the curves like a pro. Mind you, this was a secondary road with few guard rails, so one faulty move and we would have sailed into the wild blue yonder.

Photo by Kay P. Arnold

When we travel internationally our roles are well-defined: I the pathfinder and Kay the pilot. This recent trip to Scotland, I grudgingly agreed to a Global Positioning System in our rental car. The GPS is an affront to my keen sense of direction, and I’m Orwellian enough to consider the GPS nothing more than Big Brother; always watching, always knowing my location, and, I’m sure, the inevitable next step for such future technology, will be the knowing of my thoughts. At present, only God knows my thoughts and that is embarrassing enough. However, for this trip I conceded for the sake of marital harmony, and I am humble enough to admit that the GPS proved useful in most cases, which gladdened my wife’s heart. But when we took some off-grid side trips or went to destination points that were not pre-programmed into the system, the GPS went into a state of confusion and became completely unreliable. Who you gonna call? In such moments, I proved my worth as map reader and visual spotter of landscapes, road signs, and all-points compass to get us back on the right path. And yes, I gloated in my few victories.

Photo by Kay P. Arnold

Kay and I traveled alone on the first eight days of this trip before we met up with family members and friends for the second week. We landed in Glasgow, got our rental car-I sulked while Kay programmed the GPS-and off we went toward Ft. William through the mountains of Loch Lomond. The Highlands of Scotland are stunningly beautiful. The country has a five hundred-mile, coastal and mountain route that is referred to by the Tourist Board as “the Route 66 of Scotland.” Kay and I traveled four hundred of those five hundred miles. At least a third of those four hundred miles were one-lane roads with only a “Passing Place” for vehicles to slip into to avoid smash-ups. Let me explain a “Passing Place.” In America, when not driving the Interstate/Freeway systems, we drive two-lane roads wide enough for large vehicles traveling in either direction, and with expanded lanes for those times when we find ourselves behind a slower moving vehicle and need to pass, i.e., going up a long incline. That reality does not exist on Scotland’s Route 66.

A “Passing Place” is no more than what I describe as a “blip” on the pavement for one and a half vehicles to glide into when a car approaches in the opposite direction. I say “half” because whenever two cars traveling in the same direction might need to duck into a random blip, the back end of the second vehicle invariably sticks out into the one-lane road, which makes for a tight squeeze for the other vehicle to pass. The natural features of the Highlands did not consider accommodating man-made pavement when muscling its way into existence eons ago. So the Scottish Highway Department selected these “Passing Places,” solely on the lay of the land. There appeared to be no other logical explanation. And if the timing of two or more on-coming vehicles met with no immediate “Passing Place” to swerve into, then it was the discretion of the drivers to decide who backed up to the first available “blip.” Kay did her fair share of backing up.

The view out our hotel window in Lochcarron; photo by Kay P. Arnold

When we travel we rarely book a room in advance, preferring instead the freedom to find a quaint village along our way and then seek shelter. We’ve never spent a night in the car. When we came to Lochcarron, I found us the last room in The Lochcarron Inn. That night we dined in the hotel restaurant and the locals told us we must see Applecross, but warned of the dangers traveling the road beyond Ardarroch over the mountains to Applecross. That night, if it was to be our last, I kissed Kay and told her our life together had been a wonderful “ride.”

Road to Applecross; Photo by Kay P. Arnold

The road out of Lochcarron was a wide one-lane, but once we started up the mountains, it became a wide bicycle lane. There are over sixty types of sphincter muscles in the human body. I interject this tidbit of information so one may understand that on this highway (the most recent in the long list of H.O.D.), while traversing over the mountains to Applecross, my brain was in constant communication with all of the muscle groupings controlling internal flow preparing them for probable impact. There were the hair-pin curves, the near drop-offs into the void, and the invariable on-coming traffic between “Passing Place” signs that forced the slamming of brakes, the backing up, and the near-misses. At one moment when we approached a “Blind Summit” and were about to crash head-on into a truck, I thought the end had come. By some miracle Kay turned the potential final curtain into a very close call. Once the danger had passed, she asked sweetly, “What did your brain say to your sphincter this time?”

“Honey,” I gasped. “This happened so fast my brain did not have time to tell my sphincter to kiss my butt goodbye.”

“So your brain is no longer talking to your sphincter,” she quipped. “I know some good P.T.S.D. therapy for that.”

Spoken like a true mental health expert.

You might think I exaggerate, but during the second week of our trip when Kay drove her two older brothers (neither of whom is prone to hyperbole), around Loch Lomond, after returning to our castle, the first older brother got out of the car and raised his hands to me. “Look what your wife did to me,” he said, eyes wide in mock fear, his hands trembling as if suffering from the palsy. The second older brother said, “There was one point on this drive when I thought it was all over, and I said to myself, ‘I’ve had a good life, I’m content, and I’m ready to go.’”

It is a sad thing to see three grown men reduced to commiserating on their near-death-experiences at the hands of their sister and wife.

Chip ‘n Kay at the Queen’s Scotland Castle; she wasn’t receiving, so…

…We found our on castle, thank you very much. The Family

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our rental vehicle recorded 1,669 miles in just over two weeks of travel, and with the exception of a coating of dirt on the outside and food crumbs and trash on the inside, we returned our vehicle with nary a scratch. My bride still has the magic when it comes to driving though I’m positive her guardian angel gets paid overtime every time she gets behind the wheel. And if she ever did have a miscalculation and we had an unintentional “Thelma and Louise,” there is no one I’d rather go out with than the lovely Kay P. Arnold. In the past, international traffic tickets have followed my bride home after we have returned from our travels. We will see if any traffic violations will find their way to our address from “across the pond.”

Atop Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in Great Britain with my son-in-law, Erik. Hiking is my preferred M.O.

Cover Art: Road to Applecross; photo by Kay P. Arnold…taken when not driving, thank God.

Comments Off on Highways of Death

Proof of Belonging

The first time I questioned my sense of belonging came a few seconds before a near-death experience; nothing like your own personal NDE to make you sit up and take stock of your life, the world, and the universe at large.

Herodotus

At the age of twelve I got my first job as a paperboy. For the next four years, morning and afternoon, I peddled just over seven miles through the neighborhoods near where I lived slinging The Tennessean and The Banner into the driveways of my subscribers. The tubular newspapers secured with a thick rubber band were stuffed into a large metal basket mounted on the front of my bicycle and two saddlebag-type baskets attached over the rear wheel. The paperboy motto was similar to the unofficial creed the U.S. Postal Service adopted from Herodotus’ description of the faithful couriers in ancient Persia of the 6th century: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” A subscriber expected to receive his daily paper as much as he expected his daily mail. I was depended upon, and the responsibility made me feel like a man of the world.

Ambitious Paperboy in Life Magazine

Six days a week I could handle the deliveries on my bicycle, but the size of the Sunday paper was monstrous—half news, half advertisements—and the subscribers for the Sunday paper nearly doubled as well. This required parental assistance. So I struck a bargain with my dad: he would drive me on my Sunday morning route, and then we would head to church and I would help him fold and distribute the “Order of Worship” programs in the hymnal racks on the backs of the pews. It was a mutual benefit, but with one glaring difference. I would often complain about having to keep my end, while Dad never complained. It was one of many disparities in our personalities.

Sacred space; cover art for Order of Worship

Dad was given a paltry budget from the church to pay for the hundreds of programs used each Sunday, enough to purchase the paper to make the copies. He was meticulous in choosing the front cover: scenes of nature, paintings of Old Masters, sculpture, stained glass, of sacred spaces and illustrated scriptures; all images designed to frame the hearts and minds of the congregant for worship. The measly amount devoted to such innovative extravagance did not pay for the actual printing costs. After typing the original mock-up of the program, Dad would head down to the basement, pour in the chemicals for printing, and then hand-crank each copy on the mimeograph machine. I can still hear the rhythmic ka-chunk, ka-chunk, sound rising beneath the floorboards from the circular motion of the handle. One revolution spat out one program. Sometimes Mom would work the machine while Dad folded the programs, and on occasion, I was commandeered to do the cranking. The printing chemicals caused my eyes to water and gave me headaches. The fumes probably killed a few million brain cells each time I worked the machine. (I know. That it explains everything.)

The ancient machine comes with pre-mixed chemicals.

 

Dad plays piano while rehearsing with Army buddies for church service

Dad was devoted to elevating the worship experience above the dry formulas of the day. Probably an influence of the Episcopal chaplain he assisted while serving in the Army. Dad told me often he considered himself a “closet Episcopalian.” His effort to bring a high-church aesthetic to the act of worship began with a thoughtful preparation of the best hymn and scripture selections for each service, and he carried it through to mixing the fume-inhaling and the eye-burning chemical concoction, to the ka-chunking, to the folding and the placement of each program in the hymnal racks in an empty sanctuary early on a Sunday morning, and finally to his exquisite leadership in guiding the individual into a corporate involvement of worship. Dad was so ahead of his time.

My internal sense of displacement, which had been building in my young heart for some time, came to a head on one particular Sunday morning. I considered my parents “a little lower than the angels.” I had yet to discover their feet of clay; that discovery was a later revelation, and then in future years, came with more distressing implications once I became a parent. But in my early teens, after observing their collective goodness, I began to doubt that I was their child. They were high-quality human beings, and as a teenager, I was becoming undone by “the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.” Based on their model of behavior, I sensed the miss-match in the gene pool.

“Was I left on your doorstep when I was a baby?” I blurted, and Dad almost choked on his coffee before turning onto the first road at the beginning of my route.

I rolled down the back windows, and Dad slowed the car so I could sling the papers in the driveways on each side of the street. He was amazed that I would think such a thing until I pointed out that I felt so different from him and Mom, so different that I could not possibly be their progeny. “Different how,” he asked, and I took the activity of slinging the papers out the back windows as we crept down the road to ponder his question. How could I point out the disconcerting truth that the souls of my parents bordered on the saintly, while mine was developing into more shaded, carnal areas? Why didn’t I share their world view? Why did I not have their immutable faith, their ease with a well-regulated life, their free submission to our religious persuasion? In my mind, all these factors pointed to a suspicious origin.

I was not forthcoming with an answer, so after he made a ninety-degree turn onto another road, he eased the car to a stop beside the driveway of a southern-colonial mansion, complete with Greek columns, set off the road. A thick fog had settled on this cold Sunday morning, and I could not see the two-story mansion for the fog. I felt vulnerable, my soul in need of a concealing fog, as I tossed the paper onto the driveway. Dad put the transmission in park and turned back to look at me buried up to my waist in wrapped Sunday newspapers.

“Son, you are blood of my blood and flesh of my flesh; every inch an Arnold. Any differences we might have are your own uniqueness, what makes you you, the way God made you.”

That was reassuring and frightening at the same time. He was claiming me, but I did not want to confess that I felt as though I was drifting from the shoreline of the goodness of my parents’ beliefs into an uncharted sea that could swallow me whole. I was not sure God was happy with my implanted “uniqueness.”

“How can that be?” was all I could squeak out.

“It’s a mystery, but I have foolproof evidence at home.”

Dad thought I was asking for physical proof of belonging. My quandary was of the soul, not wholly a distrust of my genesis, that I did not know how to articulate. The earnestness and ambiguity of his answer brought me no peace of mind, and Dad put the car in drive and we moved on.

We approached an intersection where there was a stop sign for traffic coming from our left, but it was not an all-way stop. We had the right away. Just before reaching the intersection, a black Sedan, which should have come to a stop from that direction, instead, streaked out of the fog like some dark missile fired across our bow, never slowing down until it bounced over the ditch, and into the yard on the opposite side of the road, where it crashed into a concrete front porch of the small house on the edge of the mansion property inhabited by the caretaker and his wife of the landlord who lived in the mansion concealed by the dense fog.

“Would you look at that?” Dad said in amazement. He pulled off the road and we scrambled out of our car. The driver was unharmed due more to his state of inebriation than a lack of modern safety devices we have in our vehicles today. The caretaker and his wife burst out of the house and began to laugh. They cited inclement weather and alcohol as the main culprits for the additional function of their front porch to act as a barrier against runaway vehicles. They don’t build front porches like they used to.

The couple called a wrecker and the police, and we got back into our car. We sat for a minute observing the scene.

“Son, had we not pulled over, he might have hit us broadside. Thank God.”

He thanked God, but I was the one who asked the question that got him to stop. I was trying to keep my balance on the slippery moral and ethical ground I walked upon, and now this NDE had brought turmoil to my soul. But at that moment I was just grateful to be alive. I didn’t care who got the credit. It was a mystery. By belonging to my father, I had survived my first near-death experience.

We finished delivering the newspapers, but the accident and my existential crisis put us behind schedule. We raced to church and inserted the “Orders of Worship” into the hymnal racks, then raced home. To get the Arnold clan dressed, fed, and out the door for church was always a challenge. But on this Sunday morning my parents paused in their hurried preparations to get the flock out the door. Mom retrieved an old metal box from the top shelf of their closet, opened the rusty lid, and pulled out my birth certificate. I held proof of belonging in my hands with the embossed seal of the State of Tennessee stamped on the document. I ran my fingers over the raised lettering of the seal for the tactile assurance of what my eyes beheld. Easing the distressed soul of their first-born was more important than getting to the church on time.

Proof Positive

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has said, “Belonging redeems us from our solitude.” Certificates are what the state requires as proof of belonging, but what gives the individual a true sense of belonging is when you hear stories shared among family and friends that feature you and reveal the shades of your personality that uniquely demonstrate a universal belonging to our common humanity.

I am grateful to have belonged to Bud and Bernie. I am grateful to belong to my lovely wife, Kay, and our daughters and their husbands, and our grandchildren. Kay and I are grateful to belong to our siblings and their families, and to the extended families that share our bloodlines. We are grateful to belong to the myriad of dear friends, from the long-ago to the present-moment, from the professional to the everyday, with whom Kay and I share joint-custody. And, above all, by the grace and mercy of the good Lord, I am grateful to belong to the kingdom of heaven…such a big tent…such a rich life of belonging…no certificate required.

Cover Art: Bud and Bernie Arnold

Comments Off on Proof of Belonging

Music Made in Hell

It is a wondrous thing what self-discoveries are made within the human heart when a layer of innocence is lost. A dramatic experience may destroy a belief system but make way for new wisdom. From 1959-1961 we lived in Bloomington, Indiana while Dad was completing his doctoral course work in choral music at Indiana University. Until that year, I had been in a private school environment (K-third grade), and was suddenly thrust into the culturally broader world of public education and living in diverse, multi-dwelling housing complexes instead of a single family home. In an earlier post, I have written a different story of that time entitled “Blood Brothers.” It chronicles my friendship with Raymond, one of three best friends I had during that two-year period, and a lesson in courage my blood brother taught me.

The other two boys were Eran from Israel and George from Sweden. We were a crew. Our fathers were all doctoral candidates at Indiana University in various fields of study. We lived in University housing, though Eran and George lived in the newer, more spacious family apartments while we lived in the cramped, renovated army barracks. We attended Fairview Elementary public school together.

George in center, Eran at right, Yours Truly upper left, and Unnamed Young Lady in the middle

 

What I may have lacked in residential amenities enjoyed by my friends, I made up for by having easy access to a recreational area like no other. Less than one hundred yards from our barrack apartment building was a railroad track that cut through a hill leaving jagged, thirty-foot cliffs on either side then went under a bridge at the highest point of the terrain. Eran and George happily abandoned the man-made, state-of-the-art play sets built for their apartment complexes for the more life and limb threats of cliffs and woods and trains.

There was nothing cooler in the world than to be playing on the tracks, hear the whistle of a train, and see the Cyclops-beam of the headlight making its circular pattern in the snout of the engine as it headed toward us. The yards were not far away, so a train was either slowing down coming into the yard or building speed as it departed. Either way, you had a minute or two to get off the track and scale the jagged cliff sides to a safe perch. We three would scream at the top of our lungs as the trains rumbled by and would toss Osage oranges at the cars, pumping our arms in the air with delight as the pulpy, inedible fruit exploded against the steel walls and rooftops. What a playground. And yes, this was back-in-the-day before the trend of “parenting” had taken over our modern culture.

Outsiders that we were, it did not take long for the three of us to make enemies with some of our older schoolmates at Fairview Elementary. One Saturday, a gang of four or five boys from a neighborhood near our school rode their bikes into the section of University housing where I lived. My mother was hanging laundry onto the clothesline next to our building when I saw them coasting down the road like mini-Hell’s Angels heading in my direction. They had not ridden over to see if I could come out to play. They began to taunt me hurling profane insults at my manhood, no doubt inspired by my hiding behind my mother’s skirts. Hell hath no fury like a mother protecting her child, and Mom verbally ran roughshod over those boys and sent them into retreat. But I knew that Mom’s threats had not brought true repentance in the hearts of the gang members. Their departing laughter at my obvious spinelessness meant a future day of reckoning when a mother’s protection was not available. Their superior numbers could only bolster enough courage that an individual could never summon.

Not long after this incident, late one afternoon, Eran, George, and I were walking the tracks engaged in our latest adventure. The three of us saw nothing unusual about the international nature of our friendship. It had no significance to us. We enjoyed each other’s company. We went to the same school, rode the same bus, lived in University campus housing, and all spoke with funny accents. The main aspect of our commonality was a shared, near-mystical imagination. With cliffs and woods and railroad tracks and massive columns supporting the bridge with open areas underneath as our expansive playground, we could conjure any scenario that required three heroes to right all wrongs.

As we moved along the tracks, we had no idea we were being watched from the cliffs and woods above us. It was not until Eran yelled in surprise and raised his hand to his forehead that we realized we were under attack. Blood began to flow through Eran’s fingers and down his face. The three of us threw ourselves against the cliff wall, providing us protection and allowing a moment to plot a strategy.

We could have raced down the tracks to try and outrun the rocky missiles. We could just wait it out and let the coming darkness cover our escape. We could hope for a parental search party to come rescue us. Or we could “take the hill.” In this momentary lull, the gang began to hurl racist insults directed mostly at Eran for having escaped the Nazis, and at George and me for being friends with a Jew. We were only ten years old and it had been fifteen years since the end of World War II. Through this profane and shaky grasp of history, I was getting a one-sided view of the recent past that I did not know how to process. At that moment, I cared nothing about history. We had been ambushed, and my best friend was bleeding from his forehead as a result.

I ignored my “turn the other cheek and pray for your enemies” doctrine encouraged by my religious persuasion for the more visceral “vengeance is mine” response. The gang may have had the higher ground, but they were in our territory, and we knew all the paths and crevices that cut through the cliffs to the woods on top. I jumped onto the tracks waving my arms and instantly put to good use all my experience gained from playing dodge ball as the rocks hailed down upon me.

Eran and George used this distraction to grab fists full of rocks before they charged up a steep path concealed inside the cliff wall. I followed right behind, my own expanded fingers dripping with an excess of rocks. The gang had not expected this counter attack and was surprised by our sudden appearance at the top of the cliff. George unleashed a mad scream and both handfuls of rocks, one volley after another, sending the gang scrambling through the woods. Eran hit one of the fleeing ambushers in his side, and I succeeded in hitting another in his leg. Once we had unloaded our ordinance, we stood still, our lungs panting for air, and watched as the gang made it to the clearing, hopped onto their bikes, and raced away.

There were no triumphant war hoops or victory dances, not even self-satisfied slaps on the back, which we often performed after one of our fantasized adventures. This was no fantasy. This was real, and there was blood to prove it. We decided to make our explanation of Eran’s gash on his forehead simple: he slipped while scaling the cliff and hit his head. We could stick with that story even under intense, parental interrogation. In the short time the three of us were friends, I don’t remember ever discussing the horrors of the Holocaust and how it might have affected Eran and his extended family, but I know that afternoon on the railroad tracks was my personal introduction to racial bigotry and how it can violently manifest itself in human action.

“The Violins of Hope,” is a traveling exhibit of several violins used by Jewish musicians who survived the Concentration Camps by playing in small orchestras. “We played music for sheer survival,” explained Heinz Schumann, one of the orchestra members at Auschwitz. “We made music in hell.” These instruments have survived concentration camps, pogroms and many long journeys to tell remarkable stories of injustice, suffering, resilience and survival and are currently on display at the Downtown Public Library in Nashville through May 27, 2018.

Elie Wiesel wrote in his autobiography “Night” of an experience he had listening to a musician he knew only as Juliek play a Beethoven concerto on his violin in a packed barrack in Auschwitz. “Never before had I heard such a beautiful sound. In such silence,” Wiesel wrote. “All I could hear was the violin, and it was as if Juliek’s soul had become his bow. He was playing his life. His whole being was gliding over the strings. His unfulfilled hopes. His charred past, his extinguished future. He played that which he would never play again.” The next day Wiesel found Juliek’s lifeless body next to his crushed violin.

Sunday Concert for SS; Auschwitz; Courtesy of Instytut Pamieci Narodowej

On May 26, 2018 at 3:00 p.m., at the Nashville Downtown Public Library,  I, along with other actors from Nashville Repertory Theatre, will perform selected dramatic readings of the stories collected from the book of the same title of how these instruments were rescued, repaired, and eventually given a second chance to make the beautiful music they were created to play. Two musicians from the Nashville Symphony Orchestra will also play these instruments. The event is free and open to the public.

While my brief coming-of-age experience cannot compare with Wiesel’s, I will always remember Eran and George and our defiant moment on the railroad tracks. But more importantly, I have learned over the years that during a malevolent time, it is always best to create something beautiful. Beauty is the best defiance.

German Violin played by Shlomo Mintz

Cover Art: Violin by Yaakov Zimmerman

Comments Off on Music Made in Hell