Strange Bedfellows

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Raphael, Italian Renaissance painter
Raphael, Italian Renaissance painter

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

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



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Black Fabric

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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Not a Team Player

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

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

Not a Team Player

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Coach, I’m Michael Ambrose.”LL - 7


“You almost called my name.”


“I thought I tried real hard.”

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

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

“I thought . . .”

“Ambrose, you’re not a team player.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Staying Power

paperboy 3“The world never comes at you all at once,” John O’Donohue states in his book “Beauty, The Invisible Embrace.” If it did we would combust. Most moments in life barely register; others leave an impression that remains for a lifetime. I had two seminal experiences that helped me shed the skin of childhood. One evolved over a period of time bringing with it a gradual awareness of a wider world beyond the borders of my rather sheltered existence. The other was a revelation into my character that came like a lightning bolt. I became a paperboy at a young age, and around the same time, I tried out for a Little League baseball team. A few years ago I decided to write a coming-of-age novel based on some of my early experiences growing up in the 1960s. The novel is entitled “My Better Angel.” It has yet to be published due, in part, to my own inertia. So just for the fun of it, I’ve decided to post the first two chapters of the novel on my website. The first chapter is entitled “Staying Power.” I will post the second chapter in December. This is fiction. I was a paperboy, and I did tryout for Little League. Those are facts beyond repute. The rest I will leave for the reader’s imagination. It is simply written to delight.

Chapter 1

Staying Power

“So you threw the papers for one of the boys while he was on vacation,” Aaron Rubenstein said.  He snorted a staccato sniff of early morning air up his bulbous nose sounding like baseball cards’ flapping against bicycle spokes.  I detected a hint of condescension.

“Threw for a whole week,” I said, unable to hold back a little crow.

“Threw for a whole week,” Aaron said glancing heavenward as though the statement was worthy of contemplation.

paperboy 5Aaron was a paperboy for our two daily newspapers in Davis City, Tennessee: the morning Sentinel and evening Monitor.  I had had a whole week of experience, enough, I thought, to qualify me for a route of my own, but as Aaron stared into the pre-dawn sky, his silence allowed for doubts to creep into my mind.  Aaron had impressed the newspaper’s delivery managers and they promoted him to a larger route after a year of delivering the papers for the route I hoped, with his blessing, would assume.  I had passed the interview with the managers.  The last hurdle was the approval of Aaron Rubenstein.  We had met before dawn at the drop-off site where the route manager left designated bundles of papers for the paperboys to pick up before heading out on their neighborhood routes.  Even though Aaron and I would have two different routes, we would gather our paper bundles at the same drop-off site beneath a giant hickory tree.

“Throwing for a week of four‑thirty mornings and three‑thirty afternoons is like slipping off a wet rock, nothing to it,” he said redirecting his eyes on me.

Condescension confirmed.  Shamed, I focused on wrapping a newspaper into the shape of a tube, securing it with a double twist of a red rubber band, and tossing it into his oversized, wire basket.

“It’s the long haul that counts. You got staying power?”

“I think so,” I said.  A friend had asked me to deliver his route during his spring break vacation, and within that week, I grew to love the process of supplying the neighborhoods with its craving for the printed word.  In seven days my imagination had been cracked open by headlines, pictures, and stories exposing me to human cruelties and ecstasies of everyday life drawing me into their plots.  Sometimes headlines created more compelling images than the article: ENDING ONE NIGHTMARE STARTS NEXT; WOMAN BLAZES OWN TRAIL INTO CELL AT CITY JAIL; SCHOOL SLASHES PERSONNEL; GUNSHOTS AND SUICIDE POSTPONES WEDDING.  The experience built a near heroic sense of achievement.  I was thirteen and had touched the hem of the world, but what was this staying power?

“Staying power is when it’s fifteen degrees and there’s a foot of snow, or a thunderstorm breaks out and you’ve got to face the elements and give the world its news.  That’s staying power.”

He paused to rub his hand across the flat newspaper on the top of the stack as though stroking a favorite pet, his fingertips glistening from the inky, newsprint sheen.

“And what about after school when it’s time to make the afternoon run and some cute young thing flashes a smile and begs you to go with her to the soda shop.  Do you have the staying power to walk away from that?”

Aaron folded the paper and waved it under my nose.

“What would happen to society if this wasn’t delivered to its doorstep?  Chaos.  Subversion.  Anarchy.”

His wide face pinched into a glare shifting its focus from me to the world at large, and I saw his vision of destruction played out across his aggie eyes.  After a few seconds of Aaron imagining the apocalypse, he folded the paper into his chest as though protecting an icon from mob rule.  Was this clairvoyance the result of delivering the news?  I had seen the transformative powers within me, in a week’s time, the experience of delivering newspapers had moved my horizons, and drove me to pursue employment as a paperboy with my own route.  Is this what I would become after employment for one year…a prophet with similar visions?

In silence, we finished folding the papers securing each one with a rubber band, dropping the paper cylinders into our baskets, and rode our bicycles to the start of the route. The moment took on the feeling of an induction into a new religion.

“The route is a mile from the drop‑off point,” he said.  “Easy ride even with a full load of papers.”

“I can do it,” I said, my first attempt to dispel any doubts as to my staying power.

“Your first street is Oriole.”

The houses were undersized and plain with manicured, square yards.  Oriole took a ninety-degree turn onto Hardwick Road.  There were only two houses on this straight shot of blacktop ending at a fire station built to service a new shopping center.  The road’s namesake owned acres of fields between the second house and the fire station.  Written in calligraphy on the jumbo-size mailbox was the words “Glimpse of Glory,” but a forest of trees prevented a glimpse.  Aaron led me through the large ironed entrance, and we stopped halfway up the quarter mile driveway and gawked at three stories of white mansion with four monstrous columns, an architectural tableau concealing ancient secrets with no invitation to search them out.

“Never seen anyone in that house,” Aaron said.

“You don’t collect from them?” I asked.

“Just throw the papers and forget about them.  You’ll get credit,” he said, his voice petering to a whisper in the presence of this mystic real estate imposing in its solitude.

“You believe in the afterlife?” he asked, and I nodded.  “Live right and maybe you’ll get a key to one of these.”

From the size and scope of the Hardwick mansion and surrounding property, I determined it would require several lifetimes of right living were I to take possession of such a prize.

“You don’t have to be a part of this world when you’re this rich,” he said.  “This rich gets a street named after you, and this rich ain’t got by slinging papers.”

I was relieved when we rode out of the open gate.  Extended viewing of this housing prototype of the New Jerusalem was discouraging.

Less than a hundred yards from the entrance to the mansion Lone Oak Pike intersected with Hardwick.  If Lone Oak had crossed Hardwick, the road would have run right up to the front door of a hovel propped up on stacks of flat stone pilings.  The discolored paint on the asbestos tiled walls was streaked with mildew, broken windows were taped over with plastic, and a set of tire tracks cut through the yard that led from where Lone Oak ended—a phenomenon made more uncanny by the driveway a good ten feet to the right of the house—and stopped in front of a crumbling front porch.

“How come this shack is so close to the Hardwick mansion?” I asked.

“Hardwick’s hired help lives there,” he said.

This shanty was the model for all bankrupt souls expelled from the Heavenly City.

“A half mile down Hardwick there’s a fire station,” Aaron continued while guiding us onto Lone Oak.  “Long ride for one delivery, but it pays off.  You smile, they tip.”

Lone Oak was a long stretch of road with three streets, Shackleford, Battlefield, and Cathedral Court, connecting to it.  Crest Point was the last street on the route, a long steep grade ending back onto Shackleford.  After the Hardwick mansion, all the other houses did not cause my head to turn or inspire fantasies of untouchable residents, given to rare sightings.  From the exteriors, the homes were inviting shelters; the neighborhood itself seemed poised to welcome me.

I watched Aaron toss the papers into the customer’s driveways as we rode and the peculiar names of the streets created whimsical images: Oriole, a red‑winged blackbird singing its claim on the long block; Hardwick Road, reclusive millionaires floating in clouds of glory; Lone Oak, a single oak tree in a huge field; Shackleford, miles of linked chains; Battlefield, land concealing a sea of blood just below the surface; Cathedral Court, one of God’s earthly abodes should he get caught after dark; Crest Point, a long paved descent into an immense dream, a dream inviting me to enter.

“Customer pays fifty‑five cents a week for either paper by itself,” Aaron said.  We parked our bikes back under the large hickory tree where we had met.  “If a customer takes morning and evening, it’s a dollar ten.  They take one and a Sunday, it’s seventy‑five cents. All three, it is a dollar twenty‑five.  You collect from the customers each week.  Every Saturday between ten and twelve you meet the route manager in front of Polk Elementary and pay for your papers. I averaged twenty‑five dollars a week above the cost of the papers. Expand your customer base, you can do better.”

His eyes began a critical examination of my Schwinn bike leaning against the hickory tree with the biggest wire basket I could find attached to the front handlebars.paperboy bike

“Looks like you got a good bike,” he said, and I took his comment as a positive appraisal of my staying power.  He crossed his arms and put a hand over the bottom half of his face locking his head in place, then cut his eyes at me for a final sizing up.

“Man shall not live on bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the newspaper,” he said through spread fingers.  Religion and journalism had been joined.  A new faith brewed.  He released his chin and his head jerked from side to side.

“You’ll throw papers with me all week, then I’ll take you collecting and you’ll meet the customers,” he said.  “I think they’ll like you.”

I swung my bike around in the direction of home pleased that bike and boy received such encouraging words from a professional.  The master had accepted the disciple.  He pulled the last newspaper out of his basket and offered it to me like it was a sacred gift.

“Take the Sentinel.  A lot’s happened today anno domini, nineteen sixty-three.”

I threw the paper into my basket and rode away believing there was nothing I couldn’t do and nothing would be denied me.

paperboy 2

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James Bond Wannabe

BondIt came as a terrible disappointment the day I realized I would never become James Bond. Like most boys growing up, I went through a long list of potential careers. In the early days of my childhood I was influenced by the characters I saw on television; the standard cowboy, soldier, and adventurer types. None of these stayed with me for long. I was attached to one superhero for awhile. I believed then and do now that Superman was the best of a whole slew of superheroes. Too many superheroes had specialized powers that required a team of “experts” to take down the bad guys, or someone like Batman who was dependant on technology. With my limited techno skills, I would never make it out of the bat cave. Superman was an all-inclusive power machine. He required no technology and did not have to summon a gang of one-trick wonders to help him vanquish the bad guys. As long as he avoided the kryptonite and did not get entangled with Lois Lane, he could save the world whenever duty called.

My parents did not have disposable income to purchase my own Superman costume sold in the five-and-dime stores. So before my resourceful mother sent me outside to rid the world of crime, she pulled an old blue shirt of my father’s and a worn towel out of the rag-bag under the kitchen sink, painted a red “S” on the front of the shirt, and attached the towel-cape to my shoulders with duck-head diaper pins borrowed from the stash stored on the shelf next to the crib of my much younger sibling. One must dress for the role, and my mother’s creative inspiration helped me convert discarded materials used to mop floors and wash cars into an outfit worthy of a superhero.

superman    I completely believed my mother’s magic to transform me. I could leap tall buildings, outrun speeding bullets, and display impressive feats of strength. And I tested this theory against the laws of nature. I would leap from the roof of our garage or the ledge of our tree house or fling myself from the tire-swing once it reached the apex of its back-and-forth. I loved hearing my cape flapping in the wind.

Everything was going great and I was keeping the neighborhood crime-free until one day when I almost hung myself by my cape. I was in pursuit of two scoundrels (neighborhood friends who drew the lot of “bad guy” in our after-school, make-believe play time), who dashed into a hedge separating one backyard from another. I chose to leap the hedge assuming their intention was to come out on the other side. If my timing was right, I would fly over the hedge and crash land on top of them just as they emerged. In mid-flight I realized I had miscalculated the cunning of my foes. They had chosen to remain inside the thick hedge and escape by retracing their steps once I plopped down on the other side. I had been outsmarted. I had also not considered the possibility that my cape might get caught in the hedge, which it was, and the mid-flight yank of my snagged cape halted my forward momentum and thrust me back into the prickly branches.

My shirt and cape were shredded, my flesh was cut and scraped, and my Adam’s apple was knocked to the back of my throat. Worst of all was the damage done to my pride. The criminals had gotten away, and the world was still a dangerous place. I slogged home, a grounded mortal, threw my costume back into the rag-bag, and went into a disgraced exile as a superhero.

At the ripe old age of thirteen my heart was quickened when I saw the first James Bond film, “Dr. No.” Here was a hero who did not need superpowers to save the world. James Bond was mortal and still could rid the world of evil doers. He was everything I could aspire to. There were some moral issues in the James Bond character that could not be overlooked. My religious affiliation at that time would not allow for drinking, smoking, gambling, or womanizing. But when the world was in peril, allowances would have to be made for such character flaws. Mr. Bond was probably a good church-going lad when not called upon to bring civilization back from the brink. Once the world was safe again, I could always walk the aisle at church, make a public confession, and be restored to my faith community. Easy.

Joseph Wiseman as Dr. No
Joseph Wiseman as Dr. No

(Early in my acting career, I had a cameo role in a Movie-of-the-Week for Universal entitled “If I had a Million,” opposite Joseph Wiseman who play Dr. No in that first Bond film. I got to shake his hand, sans black metal gloves, and tell him that I thought he was a brilliant villain.)

J. Bond   After I saw “From Russia with Love” and “Goldfinger,” I knew I had found my calling. It would just be a matter of getting into the James Bond Academy and I would be on my way. Not particularly a good student, I was unsure how to go about applying to become a “double-O.” One day Mom and I happened to be watching television and a trailer came on for “Goldfinger.” In all sincerity, I asked Mom what I needed to do to become James Bond, and without hesitation she said, “You gotta start by making better grades in school.”

What had happened to the mother who had indulged my superhero fantasies? She had seen too many of my mediocre report cards and had scolded me too often for not doing my homework. Plus the thought of spinning an Armani suit from material found in the rag-bag was too daunting even for her magical powers. I needed a dose of reality and she served it up.

High achievement in school remained elusive for my entire academic career, but I made up for it by giving free rein to my imagination. In my case, imagination has covered a multitude of intellectual deficiencies. It is why I became an actor and a writer. With either skill set, I can tell stories and become any character I desire…and be paid for it.

Daniel Craig as 007
Daniel Craig as 007

So when I take my seat in the theatre for this latest Bond film nestled between my two daughters who are diehard Bond fans, I will imagine myself saving the world one more time. It’s the least I can do.

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Beware of First-Hand Ideas

“People never touched one another. The custom had become obsolete, owing to the Machine.”

E. M. Forster

In my eclectic reading habits I frequently stumble upon subjects and stories that surprise me. I love to be surprised. I was reading an essay in The New Yorker that referenced a short story by E. M. Forster entitled “The Machine Stops.” Yes, that Forster of “A Room with a View” and “A Passage to India” fame. My initial surprise came when I read that Forster’s short story was first published in the Oxford and Cambridge Review in November of 1909.

machine monster“The Machine Stops” is a futuristic tale. It might fall into the science-fiction or fantasy genre in today’s publishing pigeon-hole mentality. There are only two characters: a mother, Vashti, and her son, Kuno. By decree of the invisible Central Committee who had designed and set in motion this omnipotent and omnipresent Machine, all babies were put into public nurseries. “Parent’s duties,” said the Book of the Machine, “cease at the moment of birth.” Vashti could visit Kuno in the nursery until the Machine assigned him a room on the other side of the earth. After that the only means of communication was through electronic telephones with plate screens.

The populations of the earth lived underground in elaborate honeycomb system with individuals housed in small, hexagonal rooms. Every need was met inside the room. Few ventured to the “surface of the earth” except for a rare flight on an airship with the sky windows concealed by blinds of pliable metal. “When the airships had been built, the desire to look direct at things still lingered in the world,” writes Forster. But over time the “civilized and refined” found it discomforting to view natural sights such mountains, oceans, woodlands, night and day, stars and planets.

At the beginning of the story Kuno has called his mother from the southern hemisphere and asked her to take a flight to the northern hemisphere so he could tell her something important. The idea of flying in an airship was frightening enough to Vashti, but it was even more terrifying to speak to someone in person, even her son. The advance technology of this brave new world had made face-to-face contact obsolete.

“It is contrary to the spirit of the age,” Vashti asserted, and Kuno countered that human contact was “contrary to the Machine.” Public gatherings were abandoned for the insular convenience of multi-technical connections with audiences through screens. Knowledge was passed through lectures on screens from lectors who gathered their information from other lectors who had sourced their learning from the Machine’s book of knowledge. No personal experience was required in the gaining of knowledge. “Vashti was seized with the terrors of direct experience,” Forster writes.

monster machine 4The communication systems, the illumination, the food and drink, the temperature of the filtered air, all requirements to sustain human life in one’s personally-designed abode was provided by the Machine and its Central Committee. And whenever Vashti was compelled to worship something, she would clasp the Book of the Machine in her hands (a copy was in every room), reverently whisper, “O Machine! O Machine!” and raise it to her lips, kiss it three times, and three times incline it to her head to ignite the delirium only true worship can bring. In my mind, I saw the opening scene of “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” with the strolling monks chanting in Latin, and on cue, slashing their prayer books against the forehead.

Kuno will not tell his mother his story through the Machine and he will not come to her. She must come to him. In her flight from one hemisphere to the other, Vashti spends a few uneasy hours of slumber only to be awakened by an unfamiliar glow through a defect in the blind over the window. The beams of the rising sun so unnerve her that Vashti recoils, and when she puts out her hand to steady herself, she touches a fellow passenger who exclaims in horror at this affront, “How dare you! Your forget yourself!”

When Vashti is reunited with her son she complains about her “terrible journey that greatly retarded the development of my soul. The sunlight almost touched me.”

monster machine 3Kuno horrifies his mother by telling her that the Central Committee threatened him with “Homelessness,” and he could not tell her such a thing through the Machine. Homelessness meant expulsion through an underground vomitory and deposited upon the surface of the earth where Kuno would be exposed to the natural elements. It meant death.

When the visibly shaken Vashti asks why he would take such a risk, Kuno explains, “We have lost a part of ourselves. I determined to recover it.” And the first thing he had to do was “recapture the meaning of ‘Near’ and ‘Far.’”

When your whole view of the world is what you see on your screen a concept of Near and Far is the first thing to go.

Kuno had dared to venture to the surface of the earth on his own. He had not asked permission from the Central Committee and found his own way out. “All the things I had cared about and all the people I had spoken to through the tubes (screens) appeared infinitely little,” Kuno explains. So he exits his room, makes his way to the surface of the earth, experiences the natural world and encounters others “hiding in the mists.” The fact that he was only threatened for his foolishness was a sign of the Machine’s mercy, Vashti tells her son.

“I prefer the mercy of God,” Kuno replies.

So “How ya gonna keep ‘em down of the farm after they’ve seen Paree’”? Vashti knows that such “direct observation” will not end well for her son. “Beware of first-hand ideas,” comes the warning. Such ideas are “physical impressions produced by love and fear.” In other words, when the Machine offers you the cool aid and you drink it, one is numbed to such pesky human emotions and individual ambition. All creativity and human emotion must be derived from and devoted to the Machine and its Book.

kid and lightbulbThe story does not end well for those who have attached themselves to the Machine, and if one is motivated to read the story, the language can be a bit ponderous. However, the prescient qualities of the science-“fiction” cannot be denied. As time progressed in the story and the efficiency of the Machine increased the curiosity and intelligence of man decreased. “Humanity, in its desire for comfort, had over-reached itself,” and had become absorbed into the progress of the Machine.

The ultimate goal of the Machine was to free the individual “from the taint of personality,” limiting all human-to-human contact and channeling the need to touch and be touched through its system of screens, tubes, and wires. Forster’s cautionary tale challenges us not to assign demigod status to those who seek to electronically unify the planet and to look warily at the future of our technology. What may seem like personal empowerment at our fingertips may become our undoing. Call me a curmudgeon, but I’m happy to keep company with old E. M.

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A Bear-Time Story

Kay and I homeschooled our daughters. I should qualify that statement by saying I was more the sub. Kay had the lion share of the responsibility for the girl’s education. My contributions were more in line with artistic field trips: museums, galleries, dance recitals, concerts, theatre (a lot of theatre). I usually was the one who took them to these performances and got them prepped to have a deeper experience with the art form. Kristin went all the way through her senior year as a homeschool student. Lauren decided she wanted more athletic activities and social interaction, and at the beginning of her freshman year we enrolled her in the local high school.

homeless womanNot all of the homeschool field trips were of an artistic nature. Some were inspired by life experience. I think the girls started the conversation about potential causes for homelessness as we would drive through Nashville and see homeless people wandering the streets. The curious and impressionable natures of our then ten and eight-year-old daughters could not fathom why people would choose to live in such a fashion. I know whatever feeble explanation for the plight of homelessness I tried to articulate did not satisfy them, so I suggested that we just try and get to know some of those folks. We chose a soft approach in our initial attempt to connect with this unique population, which was to make sack lunches, drive through downtown and find random individuals, then stop to offer them a pbj and then hope to engage them in conversation.

Over time these field trips led us to a man nicknamed “Bear” who lived in a two-room shack under the bridge over the Cumberland River and within a few feet of the busy railroad tracks. This was a time when there were make-shift tent-villages set up by the homeless population in that part of town. These encampments would eventually be cleared out to make way for the construction of a football stadium.

homeless feetBear got his nickname for obvious reasons; he was hairy in the extreme. Face, arms, chest, head were a thick covering of dark hair with streaks of gray and grime. He was the unofficial mayor of this homeless enclave, and we soon realized that if we brought supplies to him, he would equitably distribute the items among the people. By association with Bear, we were more acceptable to the homeless citizens that would drop by Bear’s home.

Bear’s small domicile was made of plywood and palates, tar paper, shingles, and tin, all scrapes he had gathered on his scavenger hunts. He had grown up in a satellite city not far from Nashville and had chosen a homeless lifestyle over the traditional familial one. We did not pry for more specific reasons for his current living situation. What we appreciated was his expansive personality that was warm and inclusive, and how he approached his responsibility as “mayor” like that of a mother hen extending her protective wing to gather the needy beneath it.

One Christmas when we arrived at his front door with supplies, Bear invited us into his home. Before I could politely decline, the girls bounced up the milk crate front steps and into the hut. The shack vibrated from their unbridled energy, and I half expected it to collapse in on them before Kay and I could drag them out. The first room was a multipurpose space with a camping cook stove on a small table, a ratty love-seat, and piles of clothes and books filling in empty spaces. Christmas lights hung from the ceiling. The other room was the bedroom with a mattress on the floor and a dresser. The two rooms were separated by a bead curtain.

The girls went into the bedroom while Kay and I visited with Bear in the cramped living/dining/kitchen/den area. The call came from the bedroom to come see the Christmas tree. I stepped through the bead curtain and on the dresser was a two-foot high, plastic Christmas tree that had been decorated with some of the traditional Christmas ornaments but peeking through the silver icicles that hung from the branches were different colored condoms.

“Look Daddy,” the girls exclaimed with excitement pointing to the pink, yellow, green, and orange condoms. “Balloons!”

Bear had removed the condoms from their wrappers and draped them over his Christmas tree, which admittedly, added to the festive nature of the tree. We obviously had not gotten to the homeschool sex education curriculum just yet. I embraced the girl’s enthusiasm for Bear’s colorful, holiday decorative choice while cagily deflecting their suggestions to spice up our tree with the same ornaments.

In preparation for our upcoming “Stand” tour, I did an interview on national radio with Father Charles Strobel, Barry Scott, and Jim Reyland. Charlie started the Room in the Inn ministry back in December of 1986 when he offered sandwiches and shelter to twelve homeless men camped outside his parish church. After the interview, I told Charlie my “Bear” story and he said that Bear was one of the original twelve homeless men Charlie welcomed inside his church during that Christmas season, though sadly Charlie said Bear was now deceased. I thought, what a beautiful weaving of interconnected stories of a person who had enriched our lives.

To look into the face of another human is to see God’s reflection no matter how distorted the fleshly features, how matted the hair, how grimy the skin, how foul the odor, or how tattered the clothing. The story of “Stand” has forced me out of my comfort zone of avoiding eye-contact with those I pass by every day. It doesn’t take much to look the other person in the eye, speak, or even touch them. Recognition of the brokenness of our own soul is the great empathetic equalizer.

homless man

man asleepThere is a line in “Stand” uttered by the character of Mark who says, “Every second of your life has value, from the first to the last and everyone in between.” The response from Johnny, the homeless character, is, “So if I sleep in a bed instead of outside on a metal grate does that make the world a better place?”

How would you answer that question?

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Read more about the article Don’t Touch Me
Barry as J.J. and Chip as Mark outside the Cathedral.

Don’t Touch Me

STAND posterA little game my three siblings and I played as kids was poking one another with a finger and then running away as fast as possible. We hated it when one of us got poked by the other…a fear of the transference of cooties perhaps. The victim would complain to the parent within earshot that so-in-so “touched me.” If a threat was even perceived by an approaching sibling the immediate response was DON’T TOUCH ME! And back in the day when there were no seatbelts, when we got into the car to go anywhere, we would draw invisible lines across the backseat and threaten the offender with mayhem should they cross said line and touch the other. Today we can’t hug each other enough.

A few years ago I was asked to perform a one-man show I had developed from the Gospel of St. John, similar to what British actor Alec McCowen had done with the Gospel of St. Mark, for a chapel service at the Nashville Rescue Mission, an organization devoted to serve Nashville’s homeless population. I had agreed to do the performance months in advance, but when it came time, I regretted having said yes, and found myself struggling to summon any enthusiasm. I was tired. I was unmotivated. On the drive to the Mission, I toyed with a number of creative excuses I could use to get out of it at the last minute without just pulling a no-show. I even grumbled to God, ending the conversation with, “I’ll go through with it, but I don’t have to like it.” If I was hoping my little complaint might invoke a divine change of heart, it was not in evidence when I got out of the car and entered the building, or went through the sound and light check, or faked half-hearted interest in the chaplain’s sincere attempt at conversation, or watched as the six-hundred seat auditorium filled to capacity.

Barry Scott as J.J. and Chip Arnold as Mark
Barry Scott as J.J. and Chip Arnold as Mark

Some level of joy began to seep in as I performed the play, but it was hampered by the constant wheezing and coughing and sneezing and yes, snoring, that echoed in the room during the presentation. It was like audible sounds of diseases cavorting and cultivating in a giant Petri dish. I appreciated the occasional interjection of laughter at a humorous moment and the enthusiastic applause at the end, but it was not enough to help me overcome my initial resistance.

This was not the traditional theatrical venue to which I was accustomed, and after the performance the chaplain asked if anyone wanted prayer. So many men came forward that he asked for more staff to help with the penitents. The brokenness displayed by those who came forward began to dissolve the crust around my heart…a little. Then came a surprise. The chaplain announced that if any of the men would like to greet me that I was happy to meet them. Whoa there, partner, I thought. I’m an actor not a minister. I like that aesthetic distance between audience and performer. This meet and greet was breaking the “fourth wall” convention of separation between audience and performer. When the service was dismissed all I saw were swarms of infections converging upon me. There was no escaping. “Iacta alea est” (The die has been cast).  I would make a doctor’s appointment first thing in the morning.

I shook hand after hand with a frequent chest-bump for extra emphasis. The joy of these homeless men at meeting me was undeniable if not reciprocated. But the sucker-punch came when the last man in line stepped forward: scraggly beard, wooly red knit hat unraveling around his moist face, a big smile revealing the evidence of a lengthy hiatus in the dentist chair.  I extended my hand, but he swung his arms behind his back like he wanted to play a kid’s game where I had to guess which hand held the candy. “You don’t want to touch me, man,” he said.  “My hands are dirty. I’m dirty.” Then he gently laid his chin on my shoulder, apparently the one area of his body he decided was clean enough for human contact, held it there for a second, and then quickly disappeared into the crowd.

I was brought low. I had not wanted to be here. I had not wanted to be touched. Do the gig and go home, was my only thought. Now I was immobilized by such humility and awkward kindness; a nameless man respectful enough to be conscious of his “uncleanness” so as not to touch me any more than was necessary to express his love to me. I was in a room full of homeless men and I was the one who felt unclean, abandoned, all safety nets removed from beneath me, unworthy to be in their presence.


Cover of SCENE magazine: Barry Scott, Jim Reyland, and Chip Arnold
Cover of SCENE magazine: Barry Scott, Jim Reyland, and Chip Arnold

I have not been back to perform since, my cowardice the likely cause. But now I am returning to the scene of my own crime, so to speak. I am privileged to be in a two-man play with Barry Scott entitled “Stand,” written by Jim Reyland. It is the story of the friendship of two men, one homeless, one a Good Samaritan type, both broken in their own right, and their personal struggle to find healing and redemption in the warp and woof of their dynamic, sometimes contentious relationship. There is a preview performance at the Rescue Mission September 19, 2015, followed by daytime performances for local high schools that next week, and ending with three public performances September 25 & 26 at Tennessee Performing Arts Center. After that, we will be doing a multicity tour through the month of October. I encourage everyone reading this post to come and be “touched” by the power of the bond between one unclean man who challenged the confidence of another who came to feel unclean.

For more information on the Tennessee Performing Arts Center’s September 25 & 26 performances, click this link and watch the trailer for “Stand.”

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Our Friend Sue

Growing up in the Bud and Bernie Arnold household we practiced certain rules that helped stem the tide of chaos and kept certain rituals that over time grounded and centered us giving us a sense of our place in this world. One such regulation/ritual was the dinner hour. Regardless how the day went for the individuals in the family, sitting down to break bread together at six p.m. was a precedent we maintained at all cost, and within that auspicious span of time, our raw humanity was illuminated.

dinner with QueenIt would be safe to say that over the years, thousands of people have sat at the Arnold table and each guest was honored by my parents if not always by their children. Missionaries, actors, teachers, journalists, writers, preachers, freeloaders, boarders, artists, strangers, students, politicians, all racial stripes, all gender stripes, rich, poor, ex-cons, addicts, alcoholics, the terminally ill, the greatest of these and the least of these (a guest list that would rival the Queen); if you were at the house at the dinner hour, invited or uninvited, a plate was set for you at the table and a bed was made if you needed a place to sleep.

There were guests who stayed for a few nights or a few weeks and sometimes to infinity and beyond. The weirdest guests I remember was a marginal friend of mine from my college days who brought his new bride to Nashville for their honeymoon and was too broke to afford a hotel so they stayed in my sister’s room upstairs. She was still away at school so no one had to be displaced from their rooms. The newlyweds were very quiet. My brothers and I could only imagine what was going on. The couple was invited to our evening meals, and my friend accepted a few times, but the bride never made an appearance. He took her meals up to their room. How romantic we thought, but no; the romance seemed to be missing like the bride herself for we never laid eyes on her after their initial arrival. They never went anywhere during their stay. On occasion, my friend would apologetically walk through the house offering as an explanation the need to fetch something for the bride. After several days of this absurdist drama, the couple slipped away while we all were conveniently absent, and within a few weeks, we got word that their marriage had been annulled. That explained the silence in the next room. As it has been said, you will never realize how peculiar your friends are until you start to describe them to someone else.

family dinnerTo gather around the Arnold dinner table was always a mixture of the sacred and the profane. It was rarely a Rockwell painting. However, my parents, Dad in particular, did their best to elevate conversation and not stoop to the discourse and behavior of their offspring, especially in the presence of company. But sometimes they could not avoid being dragged down into the mire.

On one such occasion my sister had invited a girlfriend from middle school over to spend the night. Her name was Sue, and Dad, in his southern-gentleman-from-Virginia, fashion (he was “to the manor born” if only in his mind), formally welcomed “Our friend Sue,” to our home and table before we all bowed in prayer to bless the meal. Sue was a first-timer and unaccustomed to the potential for boisterousness at an Arnold dinner table, so at the start we were on our best behavior. Guests were given the first choice of each dish, and Dad would insure that his children did not disrupt the protocol (like reaching across the table and spearing the choice baked potato off the dish with lightning speed), by saying things like, “Our friend Sue needs a baked potato,” or “Our friend Sue needs a refill of her tea,” or “Pass the salt and pepper to our friend Sue.”

Such decorum did not last long. There was no accounting for what might have prompted the rapid deterioration of our manners and conduct, but whatever it was, Bud and Bernie took swift action to stop the descent into madness. One of my brothers cupped his hand under his armpit, pumped his arm several times making crude sounds, and then wiped his hand on top of the other brother’s head. A juvenile riot ensued with groans and jabs until Dad interjected, “Boys, I am shocked at such behavior at the dinner table, and in front of our friend Sue. Both of you go to your rooms.”

There was no reconciliatory love expressed between my brothers as they left the table and stomped up the stairs to their room.

I was wearing a sleeveless undershirt, “dripping with attitude,” as my sister loves to remind me, and had inappropriately propped my elbows on the table. Some manners my parents chose to ignore in spite of their best efforts to impose Emily Post’s rules of etiquette. But that breach of table manners had a worse consequence than a parental reprimand for it exposed the vulnerability of my armpit. I made some derogatory comment to my sister, and as quick as the strike of a snake, she yanked the exposed underarm hair. I howled, and responded by giving her forearm a good Indian burn. When she yanked her arm away a glass of tea was knocked over.

“Both of you to your rooms now,” Mom exclaimed, and brother and sister stormed away smarting from inflicted wounds.

Not being present for what happened next, I had to depend, years later, on the second-hand account of our friend Sue. According to her, Bud and Bernie were so disgusted with their children’s behavior that they got into a minor skirmish about which one was to blame for the terrible behavior of their progeny and both got up and left the dining room. Our friend Sue had the table to herself, which had to be a relief. Sue was undeterred by that first experience at the Arnold home, readily accepted other invitations, and has remained a dear family friend all these years.

eating aloneThe Hartman Group, a leading market researcher on consumer culture in a recent survey revealed that “…close to half — 46 percent — of all adult eating occasions are now solitary eating occasions and 40 percent of all adult meals are eaten alone…One of the most interesting aspects of the trend toward eating alone is the notion that it represents the dismantling of the communal meal and the way we ‘used to eat’,” affirms Laurie Demeritt, the Hartman Group’s president and COO.

Mom and Dad were not movers and shakers in the world, but they never closed their door to the world. The world flowed in and out of our house. I see that now as a rich and incomparable blessing. Regularly scheduled family meals with or without guests were, at times, a disaster, but the routine of sitting across the table from one another meant we and our guests could not escape one another. The reality of life had to be faced.

My parents commissioned our oldest daughter, Kristin, to paint the beam overlooking the dining room with this Proverb, “Better a dinner of herbs where love is.” The number of courses did not matter. Each meal was prepared with love and shared with love. So whether it is in one’s home or at a restaurant, fine dining or fast-food, eat a communal meal with friends and family, share the love, turn off all electronic devices, talk to each other with one’s mouth full if necessary and elbows on the table, and risk making a memory, either tragic or comic, that could be savored for a lifetime.

dinner party

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The Trouble With Icons

Let me start with a disclaimer: I have not read Harper Lee’s, “Go Set a Watchman.” I have every intention of reading it but will probably let the brouhaha die down before I crack the spine of my copy. I did not read “To Kill a Mockingbird” until I was an adult. I did not read much of anything until I was an adult. I was and am a very slow reader; my dyslexic nemesis sits atop my head and loves to trip my brain with linguistic landmines.

Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch
Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch

I do not remember when I read “To Kill a Mockingbird” for the first time, but I do know when I read it the second time. In the spring of 2010, I had gone through a rigorous audition process for the role of Atticus in a play adaptation of the novel that Nashville Repertory Theatre would produce in the Fall. Rene Copeland, the artistic director of Nashville Repertory Theatre had pared the “Atticuses” down to nine, or so, for the final callback. It was an embarrassment of riches for Rene, and she could have cast any of the actors for the role.

Several weeks later I happened to be at a theatre event that Rene was also attending. She asked if I had read the novel before the audition. I confessed I had not, and she said something to the effect of, “Well, you’d better get on it, because I want you to play Atticus.”

Margaux Granath as Scout and Chip Arnold as Atticus
Margaux Granath as Scout and Chip Arnold as Atticus

I excused myself to go outside the theatre and call Kay, followed by calls to our daughters to share this exciting news. I was able to reach Kristin and tell her, but Lauren was unavailable, and I did not want to leave a voicemail. I was to see her in a day or two and would tell her at that time. We had scheduled a little Daddy/Daughter time, and I remember we were driving in the car when I dropped the “I got the role of Atticus Finch” bomb. Her reaction was immediate, no hesitation, no thought taken to formulate a response, just pure impulse: “Oh Daddy, I’m so excited. Atticus Finch is the father I always wanted.”

The second after the words sprang from her mouth was a moment of profound realization for both of us. Lauren knew she had said either the most insulting thing a child could say to their father, or it was the funniest thing that could be said regarding any paternal comparison. And for me, I knew I was about to square off with a quintessential American icon seared into the consciousness of our society. Five years later Lauren and I still laugh at her faux pas. But it is not easy for any actor who has played the role of Atticus for the stage to go up against the iconic Atticus portrayed in the film adaptation of the novel.

For a nation that suffers from amnesia on most subjects, the lawyer from Monroeville, Alabama, was an icon not easily forgotten or replaced. I remember one patron’s comment as he stopped me outside the stage door after a performance, “You out Gregory Pecked, Gregory Peck.” What in the world did that mean? It’s a mystery. The patron could have meant it as a compliment, but the truth cannot be denied: the image of Atticus Finch will forever be associated with a specific actor. He, the iconic Atticus, has his own stamp for heaven’s sake.

Atticus makes a stamp collection
Atticus makes a stamp collection

The trouble with icons is that they are first and last human beings prone to all things human, and whether these icons are fictional or real, they never set out, be they born of literary imagination or born of woman, to be icons. When a kid gets asked what they want to be when they grow up, the answer is never, “I want to be an icon.”

In the mind of the public, such recognition for being an icon carries with it the implicit expectation of a virtuous character. Family members and friends of the icon know all too well the fallacy of such a notion. When the spotlight is not on the icon, he/she must continue their daily, mundane routine of just being human, like the rest of us, and susceptible to those “thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.”

In reading the early press on “Go Set a Watchman,” Jean Louise returns home as an adult and is shocked to find that her hero of a father is a member of a local citizen’s group that could be characterized as little more than a benign brand of the KKK. How could this be? How could the man who stood against the entrenched racism of the times now, decades later, be possibly considered a bigot? Oh, the humanity.

Stain Glass images of Sophocles and Shakespeare
Stain Glass images of Sophocles and Shakespeare

Without having read the novel, I cannot comment further, but suffice it to say, we now have an icon with actual biases. I must reserve judgment as to whether or not that puts Atticus in the category of a bigot. It does make him, however, a genuine human being, and is that not much more desirable an aspiration than to be an icon? We mortals put our icons on pedestals and in stain glass and create mythologies around them. In each of her two novels, Harper Lee created a character that was and is authentic. My attempt in playing the role was a quest for authenticity, to be human, down to the last wart and shiny attribute. Being authentic, sans bigotry, of course, and sundry other character shortcomings, should be enough of an achievement for all us humans.

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