Saturday, January 28, 2012

My Best Shot

I do a fairly good job taking pictures of things that don't move—buildings, flowers, cats, etc. However, I will be the first to tell you that I am not a good wildlife photographer. For example, here's a picture I took of a bird in our back yard last summer:

See what I mean? It looks like a fuzzy pear with a face.

In July of 2006, Loretta and I took the Prairie Home Companion cruise to Alaska. It was the vacation of a lifetime. When we weren't admiring the spectacular Alaska scenery, we were enjoying the shipboard entertainment provided by Garrison Keillor and the many talented actors, singers, and musicians from our favorite radio program. As usual, Loretta, took most of the pictures. However, at a salmon bake near Juneau, I grabbed the camera from her to take this photo of a conspicuous pile of bear scat that we nearly stepped in:

Last November, I received the following e-mail from Kristy Sholly, Chief of Interpretation at Kenai Fjords National Park:
Kenai Fjords National Park, located in Seward, Alaska, is in the process of developing exhibits for the Exit Glacier Nature Center. We are interested in using your bear scat photo for use in an exhibit about "Life In, On, and Around Exit Glacier".

Please let me know if it would be possible to have permission to use your photo.
My photo on display at a national park! How cool is that? I mean, sure, it's crap—but it's good crap! And in case, like me, you were wondering just how many pictures of bear scat could be on the Internet, Kristy added:
FYI - I chose your image out of the 1,157 images labeled as "bear scat" on Flickr!
By the way, here's a picture of the bear that produced the scat. Loretta got this shot of him cleaning out the barbecue pit after our salmon bake:

If you want to see more pictures from our trip, here's a link to the album on Flickr:

And if you're interested in reading more about the cruise, here's a link to The Ballast, the cruise newsletter written by APHC staff members, with contributions from some of the passengers (including yours truly):

Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Writer Must Write

On my last birthday, Loretta gave me a beautiful bronze pen and pencil box. The lid is covered with molded pens and pencils, and the front bears the following inscription:
The writer must write what he has to say, not speak it.
- Ernest Hemingway
It isn't a particularly useful gift—after all, who uses pens or pencils these days?—but it is a gift that I will always treasure, because it reminds me of two things: why I write, and that my wife believes in me.

When I was a third-grader at Lincoln Elementary School in Warsaw, Indiana, our class took a field trip to Fort Wayne to see the Shrine Circus. The next day we were required to write an essay about the experience. The Shriners gave cash prizes for the three best essays in a state-wide contest. My essay won third prize. Somewhere, I think I have an old, yellowed, newspaper photo from the Warsaw Times Union of me wearing a fez and receiving a check from a couple of large men, also wearing fezzes. (Unfortunately, I don't have the essay. The Shriners must have kept it.)

Years later, I wrote about this experience in another essay, this time for a college English class. The topic of the essay was, "Why I Want to Be a Writer," and the point I made was that writing could be profitable. (Ha!) My final sentence was something like, "When I received that check, I knew there was something in writing." My professor wrote in the margin, "There certainly is, and I hope you find it." I did find it, largely thanks to him.

I was a biology major at Wake Forest University when I met Bynum Shaw. I knew he was not a typical college professor when, on the first day of his English 101 class, he announced that we would not be required to write a term paper. He sat behind his desk—a small, white-haired, soft-spoken man with a beguiling smile, twinkling eyes, and the stub of a cigarette held between nicotine-stained fingers—and told us that term papers were boring—boring for us to write and boring for him to read. Their only purpose was to teach us how to use the library for research. (This was long before the Internet, Kiddies.) Instead, he gave us a long list of questions that could only be answered by using every resource in the school library, from the card catalog to periodicals to the rare book room. It was fun—like a scavenger hunt—and I'm certain we learned more than we would have learned writing a term paper. One of the things we learned was that our professor was a renowned journalist and published novelist. (The answer to two of the questions was "Bynum Shaw.")

I enjoyed Shaw's introductory English class so much that, when a friend suggested we both take his short story writing class, I jumped at the opportunity. Each student in the class was required to write two short stories and read them aloud to Shaw and the class, who would critique them. My first story was based on an incident that had recently been in the news: a young woman had been brutally stabbed to death in front of several witnesses who had done nothing to help her. I told the story using a point of view that jumped from one witness to another. I thought it was gritty, visceral, and brilliant. The audience hated it.

My second story was comic in tone—a mystery parody about a "murderer" of plants. It earned me an 'A', but, more importantly, it earned laughs from Shaw and my fellow students. It also taught me two things: 1) I wanted to be a writer, and 2) if I was going to be a successful writer, I should stick to comedy. I changed my major to English and never looked back.

I am not a successful writer. I have been fortunate enough to have had my mystery scripts performed by several acting troupes across the country,  but I have stacks of rejection slips, and I have never had anything published. (About twenty years ago, a small-press magazine was going to publish one of my stories. Unfortunately, the magazine went out of business immediately after I signed the contract.) Sometimes, I find it difficult to continue to believe in myself. But Loretta continues to believe in me. And so I continue to write—for Loretta, for Bynum Shaw (bless him!), but especially for myself. Because the writer must write what he has to say, not speak it.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Fone Follies

This past week, an attendee at a New York Philharmonic concert made headlines when his iPhone began ringing—and continued to ring for several minutes—during the "most intense, most sublime, most emotional" section of Mahler's Ninth Symphony. Conductor Alan Gilbert calmly stopped the orchestra and asked the offender—who was sitting in the front row—to turn off his phone. Several times. While the phone continued to ring. When the man finally complied, Maestro Gilbert re-started the orchestra and finished the concert. All-in-all, a very civilized way of handling the situation—although I'm sure the orchestra and the rest of the audience would have preferred to see the maestro descend from the stage, grab the phone, throw it to the floor, grind it under his heel, and beat the offender savagely with his baton.

Apparently, the man's excuse was that he thought he had turned it off, but it was a new phone, and he wasn't familiar with all of its features. Well, I suppose I can understand that—especially if he is of a certain age. Most of us who were not born with a cellphone in our hand have known the embarrassment of having our phone go off in a meeting. How many of you have "butt-dialed" someone with a new phone? When Loretta got her first cellphone, I began getting strange calls, with mysterious muffled voices. Her phone would dial the house every time it bumped against something in her purse.

My father and I were still getting used to using our cellphones a couple of years ago, when Loretta and I were visiting my parents in Virginia. I was driving him to the nursing home where my mother was undergoing rehab. We had left a message with my parents' doctor, and I told my father to bring his phone along in case the doctor tried to reach him. Sure enough, about halfway to the nursing home, the phone began ringing.

"Whose phone is ringing?" my father asked.

"Yours, Dad. Answer it. It's your doctor."

"Why did I bring my phone?"

"In case your doctor called. It's him calling. Answer it."

He tried to answer it, but by then it was too late. He tried to call back, called the wrong number, realized his error, and disconnected before the call went through. At that same moment, my phone rang. When we were at a stoplight and it was safe to check my phone, I saw that I had missed a call from "Mom and Dad." Assuming it was Loretta back at the house, I called back. My father's phone began to ring.

At this point, it should have been obvious what had happened. My father had called my phone by mistake, and I was now calling his phone, thinking I was calling the house. However, at the time, I still hadn't caught on...

"It must be the doctor calling back," I said.

Dad answered it. This time he was ready.

"Hi, Babe," I said, thinking I had reached Loretta.

"It's not Babe. It's me," said Dad.

My father and I both do fairly well with our phones now, but I don't think my mother will ever get used to using a cellphone. Recently, my parents moved into a new apartment. It was several days before their phone could be hooked up, and the only way to reach them was by calling their cellphone. A conversation with my mother went something like this:

"Can you hear me, Mom?"

"Fine, dear. How are you?"

"Hold the phone up to your ear, Mom."

"Yes, we had a very nice dinner."

Cellphones. What would we do without them?

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Double Dog Dare

One of my favorite holiday movies is Jean Shepherd's A Christmas Story. Although it's set in the 1940's, people of all ages find something in that movie they can relate to—a character or scene that reminds them of a person or incident from their own childhood. Unfortunately, for me it's the "double-dog dare" scene. You know which one I mean—the one where Ralphie's friend Flick gets his tongue stuck to the flagpole.

For me, that scene is almost too painful to watch. Like Shep and his alter-ego Ralph, I grew up in northern Indiana. I had friends like Flick and Schwartz. For the most part, they were good friends. However, they did not always have my best interests at heart. I was about Ralphie's age when, one cold winter day, a couple of those friends persuaded me to touch my tongue to a metal post during recess at Lincoln Elementary School.

Remember how Flick reacted when he discovered his tongue was stuck to the pole? How he became a pitiful, sniveling, whiny wimp? Well, that was me. At least my friends didn't abandon me, like Flick's did. They told the teacher, and she got the principal and the school nurse. (Cooler heads prevailed at Lincoln Elementary. It was not considered necessary to call the fire department.) Together, the three of them managed to pry me loose, although a small piece of my tongue remained stuck to the post. Like Flick, I spent the remainder of the day with a piece of gauze tied around the end of my tongue.

I bet half the boys in Indiana have gotten their tongues stuck to a cold piece of metal, and the other half put them up to it. (Girls seldom do anything so stupid.) I could end this story by cautioning all of you boys who might be reading this to never do anything on a dare. I'm sure your parents have told you this, just as my parents told me. However, as your parents, and my parents, and just about everyone else's parents have also said, "Boys will be boys." Besides, sometimes, the best way to learn is from your mistakes.

So whatever stupid thing you're thinking about doing, boys, go ahead and do it. I double-dog dare you.