Gothic Greatness

A gift from my grandmother introduced me to one of my all-time favorite writers.

When I was 12 or 13, my grandmother on my mom’s side, with whom I share a great love of reading and words, gave me a curious little paperback. I can’t remember if it was a birthday or Christmas gift, or perhaps one for Halloween. I had never heard of the author, but I was taken by the full-cover front and back illustrations with these strangely simple but simultaneously wonderful drawings of a pale, lanky boy in a red-hooded sweatshirt encountering a statue of a crusader (on the front) and a wispy apparition floating out a window (on the back).

My interest was also piqued by the title – “The Mummy, The Will, & The Crypt” – which was just perfectly provocative for me at that age. It didn’t take long for me to dive into the adventure of a lonely teenager named Johnny Dixon, and his closest friend, a cantankerous elderly old professor named Roderick Childermass. The story weaved the challenges that come with being awkward, shy and young with mysterious riddles, ghosts, and a gothic castle protected by an undead guardian.

I couldn’t put it down. And when I was finally finished, I had to find more. I went to the library and hit the mother lode. Though some of the plots get confused after a while, the incredible titles still stick in my head: “The House With A Clock In Its Walls,” “The Curse of the Blue Figurine,” “The Eyes of the Killer Robot,” “The Dark Secret of Weatherend,” “The Spell of the Sorcerer’s Tomb.” And almost all of them with those wonderfully weird illustrations.

Today is the anniversary of the death of the man who wrote those stories that fueled my teenage imagination. John Bellairs (1938-1991) wrote a number of gothic mystery novels for young adults featuring characters like Anthony Munday, Lewis Barnavelt, and my favorite, Johnny Dixon. He created numerous adventures filled with mystery and history and the struggles of growing up, fitting in and dealing with loneliness.

Edward Gorey is so wonderfully weird and one of my favorite illustrators.

The wonderfully strange Edward Gorey did the illustrations for 12 of Bellairs original work, as well as several incomplete manuscripts finished by writer Brad Strickland after Bellairs’ death, and several of Strickland’s original works using Bellairs’ characters until Gorey’s death in 2000. Gorey also created his own Edwardian-styled hand-lettered illustrations in works like “The Gashlycrumb Tinies, “The Doubtful Guest,” and the introduction to “Mystery!” on PBS. He even won a Tony Award in 1977 for costume design for a Broadway production of “Dracula.”

Last night, I was talking with my Dad on the phone and the topic turned to books. He said I should write one some day. He’s not the first one to say it.

I’d like to write a book. I’ve thought about writing a book. I’ve started writing several books. But I’ve never finished a book. I’ve just got so many interests and enjoy so many types of writing that it’s difficult to commit to one idea.

But by chance, I noticed it was the anniversary of John Bellairs’ death. And I remembered reading his books and what they meant to me, and I can’t help but feel a bit inspired. And I do have spring break coming up next week. So maybe I’ll set aside some time to write and see if anything gothic adventures come out.

Thanks John and Edward, for the wonderful adventures my imagination got to experience with both of you. R.I.P.

12 for 12: January’s theme – Renewal

Image: arkorn / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

I spent some of my first lucid hours of 2012 at Fellowship Church in Jacksonville, Texas, listening to my brother preach on “Putting First Things First.”

He laid out the text, Matthew 6:33 – “a Biblical resolution for the new year,” and then identified three obstacles that keep us from the goal.

  1. Earthly interests are here and now.
  2. Sin has skewed our view of the world.
  3. It’s easy to be mastered by stuff.

It was a well-chosen message for the new year, but the second point really caught my attention and got my imagination working.

“Our minds have been seriously damaged by sin,” he said. “That’s why they need to be renewed. Believers need to be renewed on a daily basis.”

I’ve always liked the idea of a new year. A fresh start. A chance to reset and begin again. To remember and reaffirm promises and plans of the past. To empty out a vessel and prepare to refill it. I think it’s an ideal time to think about the topic of renewal.

In an attempt to be more intentional about this new year than I have in years past, I’ve decided I’m going to try to approach each month with a theme in mind. Twelve themes for twelve months for Two Thousand and Twelve. I want to take each month’s theme and focus on it – in what I read, the songs I listen to, the conversations I have, the movies I watch, the photos I take, the words I write, the prayers I pray.

And so, in January, I begin with the theme of RENEWAL. I’ve got some potential themes for the coming months as well, including love, friendship, identity, acceptance, perseverance, hope, joy and thankfulness. But I’m always open to suggestions. And I definitely would appreciate suggestions for movies, songs, books, activities that will help me focus on renewal.

That’s the way it works in my happy little fresh new year’s brain of course. You know, the one that hasn’t yet been ground up by a million and one deadlines, projects, time-wastes, sick days, setbacks and the general craziness of life.

So here’s what you can do in all this… pray for me, encourage me, advise me, engage me, even join me. And let’s see what kind of year this can be.

For Honey Boy…

I first saw David “Honey Boy” Edwards more than 10 years ago on John Hammond‘s documentary, “The Search for Robert Johnson.” As I watched Honey Boy and Johnny Shines, I couldn’t believe that guys who had played and traveled with Robert Johnson were still alive.

Johnson still seems like more of a vapor from the past – no video exists, perhaps only three photos and less than 30 recordings from a person who is a Titanic musical figure in my mind. To say that you actually knew and played with the man seemed more akin to saying you had once ridden a unicorn.

Shines passed in 1992 at the age of 76. Honey Boy, the more raw-sounding and acting of the two, and the one who had actually been with Robert on the night he was poisoned, died yesterday morning, a month and a day after turning 96. Though reports had him announcing his retirement on July 17, he actually had been scheduled to play yesterday at noon in Chicago.

I got the news this morning while checking the Associated Press on my iPhone, something that Honey Boy couldn’t have fathomed when he played his first show in 1928 at the age of 13. I shot a text to a friend and fellow blues enthusiast, who simply pointed out a fitting change in our Texas weather.

A bluesman had died. And we had rain for the first time in weeks.

He had played with everybody – and I mean, everybody. Charlie Patton, Tommy Johnson, Robert Lockwood, Muddy, the Wolf, Hubert Sumlin, Eric Clapton, everybody. He was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1996 and won his first Grammy in 2008, followed by a lifetime Grammy in 2010. With the death of fellow bluesman, Pinetop Perkins back in March, Honey Boy’s death really does represent the end of an era for the earliest recorded Delta Blues singers.

The man was a walking history book of the blues. He was always fond of saying “The world don’t owe me nothin,'” and that may be true. But I am glad that in the past 20 years or so, he got at least some of the recognition he was due.

Rest in the blues, Honey Boy. Your ramblin’ days are done.

Honey Boy as I first saw him, playing with John Hammond.

Honey Boy playing a little “Catfish Blues” for his 95th birthday at the Crossroads Guitar Festival.

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Walking in Memphis…

Listening to this tune as I pack for a trip to Missouri is reminding me of my trip to Memphis last week. I’m going to try to use some of my free time from this fellowship to edit a few of the photos I took on the trip. When they’re ready, I’ll put them up on the photo blog.

This is an old tune by W.C. Handy that put Beale Street (or Beale Ave. as it was known then, they changed the name after this song came out) on the map.

Beale Street was okay, but it’s a pretty touristy today. It was cool to walk the same streets as some of the blues, jazz and early rock legends, but there’s not a ton of the old scene left.

But Memphis is a city that does a good job of putting its history on display. Sun Studio, Stax Museum, the Civil Rights Museum are all fantastic.

But this was the gem of the trip.

More photos and stories to come.

Lessons from ‘Papa’

It seems I’m bumping into Ernest Hemingway everywhere I turn.

Last week I went to the movies and saw Woody Allen‘s delightful “Midnight in Paris” where a Francophile screenwriter and would-be novelist played by Owen Wilson finds a way to travel back to the 1920s and encounter all the artistic and literary personalities of the “lost generation,” including Fitzgerald, Porter, Stein, Picasso, Dali, Man Ray, and of course, “Papa” Hemingway.

Then this weekend, I read the account of a Facebook friend who ran with the bulls in Pamplona this year (and survived to tell the tale).  This set me on a Wikipedia binge to read about the bull runs, bullfighting and Hemingway’s connection to it. I’ve never read “The Sun Also Rises” but it will be on my list next after I’m done with “A Farewell to Arms.”

Finally today, I noticed this article on the Art of Manliness site. “The Old Man And The Sea” is the only one of Hemingway’s works that I’ve ever finished, I’m sorry to say. It was one of 10 books I managed to finish last summer (my count for this summer is currently zero). I greatly enjoyed it and was amazed at the economical style Hemingway displayed in packing such a rich story in just 127 pages and in such a bare bones style.

In Bryan Schatz’s fine article, he outlines some lessons for men to live by in the story of Santiago, his battle with the marlin, and the contrast between success and victory, luck and discipline.

Some of the lessons include:

  • A man is not made for defeat.
  • A man does not depend on luck.
  • A man goes down swinging—no matter his age.
  • A man’s legacy comes from maintaining his integrity.

An inspiring read. Check it out.

Walking the line between faith and fear

I had a talk with a close confidant yesterday, and we spent most of the discussion about the contrast of faith and fear. We talked about how those two concepts are opposites of each other and how deep self-deception can run when fueled by fear. I don’t have time to go into more detail now, and I’m still fleshing out all my thoughts on the subject, but it was a very enlightening conversation.

And it reminded me of the song below by the Old Crow Medicine Show. Not sure if I know the exact sentiment behind this song, but I love to play it on repeat when I’m driving or just working around the house. It’s a slow tune with a weary end-of-the-trail quality to the lyrics, but there’s hope beneath it all. I think that’s my favorite sort of song.

Yes, this is my first post of 2011. It’s not that I haven’t had anything to say. I just haven’t been exactly sure about how to say it. More to come…

We’re all in this together – Old Crow Medicine Show

Well my friends, I see your face so clearly
Little bit tired, little worn through the years
You sound nervous, you seem alone
I hardly recognize your voice on the telephone

In between I remember
Just before bound-up, broken-down
We drive out to the edge of the highway
Follow that lonesome dead-end roadside south

(Chorus:)
We’re all in this thing together
Walkin’ the line between faith and fear
This life don’t last forever
When you cry I taste the salt in your tears

Well my friend, let’s put this thing together
And walk the path with worn-out feet of trial
‘Cause if you wanted we can go home forever
Give up your jaded ways, spell your name to God

(Chorus)
We’re all in this thing together
Walkin’ the line between faith and fear
This life don’t last forever
When you cry I taste the salt in your tears

All the hour there’s a picture in a mirror
Fancy shoes to grace our feet
All there is is a slow road to freedom
Heaven above and the devil beneath

(Chorus)

We’re all in this thing together
Walkin’ the line between faith and fear
This life don’t last forever
When you cry I taste the salt in your tears

Luna-see

Yes, I did stay up past 2 a.m. to witness my first lunar eclipse. No, I did not take this photo. This image, courtesy of nasaimages.org, was taken on Nov. 8, 2003, from Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

But add a little haze and this rusty-red orb is very similar to what my roommate and I watched for more than 90 minutes tonight from the parking lot of my apartment complex.

We also saw two shooting stars and hung out and talked while Ray LaMontagne‘s “All The Wild Horses” played in a loop on my iPhone. A guy named Jason from a nearby building ambled over to watch with us and chat for a while. It was his first eclipse as well.

According to NASA’s head moon nerds, the Moon takes on this dark-reddish color due to it being slightly lit by sunlight passing through the Earth’s atmosphere. The blue component of the light is scattered, leaving the faint reddish light to illuminate the Moon. I’ll take their word for it.

The eclipse is even more notable for occurring on the day of the winter solstice, the shortest day and longest night of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. These two events haven’t coincided since  the year 1638.

Just to add a bit of context, here are some other things that were happening in 1638:

  • Europe was 20 years into the 30 Years War, one of the most destructive conflicts in the continent’s history.
  • Swedish ships arrived in America to establish the first settlement in Delaware.
  • Portuguese explorer Pedro Teixeira made the first ascent of the Amazon River.
  • The first planned city in America, New Haven, Conn., was founded.
  • King Louis XIV, the longest reigning European monarch ever documented, was born on Sept. 5.
  • John Harvard, colonial pastor who left half his estate to endow the college that would become Harvard University, died on Sept. 14.

As soon as I post this I’ll be heading out for one last look before bed, with a couple of good Moon songs in my head.

A little of the Louisiana folksy whimsy of Victoria Williams’ “Why Look At The Moon.”

Willows were swaying, the water was rippling
The froggies were singing along with the lapping at the bank
We have the moon to thank for this lovely scene
We might never have seen, if it hadn’t have been for the moon

Or the more sophisticated tones of Dar Williams’ “Calling the Moon.”

The moon wanted more of my night
I turned off the engine and the headlights
The trees appeared as they’d never been gone
I promised the fields I’d return from now on

And the moon kept on rising
I had no more to say
I put my roadmaps away
And surrendered the day

And I know you’ll be calling me soon
And if I don’t answer, I’m calling the moon
Calling the moon, I was calling her then
I’m wondering, will she take me again
Oh, I’m calling the moon

But mainly it’s just a simple line from an all-time great tune off an all-time great album by the all-time great singer, Van Morrison.

Well, it’s a marvelous night for a moondance…

And it most certainly has been.

Postscript: When I went back outside for a final look, the clouds had moved in and the moon was totally obscured, save for a faint glow. I can’t complain, though. I know many people around the country were unable to see anything, and I’m thankful for my experience.

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When the idea of authority is shattered…

I enjoy reading, though I don’t read novels nearly as often as I should. I really enjoy a well-turned word and phrase, but even more, I love the authors who can take a really difficult, abstract subject and make it easy to understand. I’m much better with the short and simple. It’s the same for photography. I love complex compositions, but I don’t seem to have an eye for them myself.

A few nights ago, I started the first chapter of All Quiet On The Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque. I’d never read this World War I novel written from the perspective of a group of German soldiers. Other people I’ve spoken to have vague recollections of this book being assigned in the 9th or 10th grade. It would have been completely wasted on me at that age.

I chose to start it a little late in the evening… and fell asleep. I picked it up again the other day and was really impacted by the following passage.

I think Remarque is doing what Roy Peter Clark calls “climbing the ladder of abstraction,” but I could be wrong. The context: the soldiers have just mentioned that someone in their group received mail from their old schoolmaster, Kantorek. He was the one who really pushed them to “do their duty” and enlist to serve in the war. Even Behm, the one student to resist, eventually conceded to Kantorek’s appeal to his masculinity and bravery.

Strange to say, Behm was one of the first to fall. He got hit in the eye during an attack, and we left him lying for dead. We couldn’t bring him with us, because we had to come back helter-skelter. In the afternoon suddenly we heard him call, and saw him crawling about in No Man’s Land. He had only been knocked unconscious. Because he could not see, and was mad with pain, he failed to keep under cover, and so was shot down before anyone could go and fetch him.

Naturally we couldn’t blame Kantorek for this. Where would the world be if one brought every man to book? There were thousands of Kantoreks, all of whom were convinced that they were acting for the best– in a way that cost them nothing.

And that is why they let us down so badly.

For us lads of eighteen they ought to have been mediators and guides to the world of maturity, the world of work, of duty, of culture, of progress– to the future. We often made fun of them and played jokes on them, but in our hearts we trusted them. The idea of authority, which they represented, was associated in our minds with a greater insight and a more humane wisdom. But the first death we saw shattered this belief. We had to recognize that our generation was more to be trusted than theirs. They surpassed us only in phrases and in cleverness. The first bombardment showed us our mistake, and under it the world as they had taught it to us broke in pieces.

While they continued to write and talk, we saw the wounded and dying. While they taught that duty to one’s country is the greatest thing, we already knew that death-throes are stronger. But for all that we were no mutineers, no deserters, no cowards– they were very free with all these expressions. We loved our country as much as they; we went courageously into every action; but also we distinguished the false from true, we had suddenly learned to see. And we saw that there was nothing of their world left. We were all at once terribly alone; and alone we must see it through.

On one hand, this makes me think of my role as a teacher. It makes me give more consideration to the words I say to my students, the charges I give them. They are listening even when I think they aren’t. I’m always surprised at the things I’ve said that resonate with them years later.

On the other hand, it makes me think of the nature of authority. We all reach that point where we realize that all of our teachers and mentors and guides are just men and women like us, subject to all the natural forces of this world and all the chaos and hurt and pain that a life here can hold. And when we see them as they are, fallible and feeble and flawed – just like us, our hope can be shattered. And that’s where I believe we reach a fork in the road, a point of decision.

One choice is to abandon hope in any kind of authority and fall into a life of self-reliance with trust placed in what you can reason from your own experiences.

The other is to acknowledge that the problem is not with hope itself, but where it’s been placed. To realize that there is “a greater insight and a more humane wisdom” though it’s not found in any human authority. That the only thing worthy of full trust, faith and hope in this world is the being who created it. To realize that even the people who believed and spread the message of the Creator were themselves not to be respected as the authority, but only as rough, imperfect signs to point to Him. Incidentally, it’s also when we do this, that we are able to see other people in a different light, without all the expectations that we had previously shackled them with… we see them as we should see ourselves, as creatures bearing our Creator’s resemblance. At this point, I think we become truly free to love them.

Faith and trust and hope in Christ is the other path, and it’s not an easy one to follow. It’s not even difficult. It’s impossible without divine assistance. But if we trust the words of Jesus in the Bible, then we can find that divine assistance there for the asking.

And I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.       – Luke 11:9-10

You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart.     – Jeremiah 29:13

For, “everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.”     – Romans 10:13

That’s the way I see it. Two paths you can take when the idea of authority is shattered. Trust in yourself. Or trust in Christ. I’ve tried to choose the latter. Partly because I’ve come to know Him, and partly because I know myself all too well.

I don’t do it perfectly, but that’s not the point. His perfection is demonstrated in my weakness and it’s taken me 33 years to realize what a beautiful thing that is.

All of this is a departure from the plot and theme of the novel, sure, but it’s where my mind was led.

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Gimme a T for Texas…

I don’t claim to be the biggest baseball fan in the world. I’m a bigger fan of the history of the game, more so than the playing of it today.

But I’ve been to more Ranger games in my life than any other team, and other than my teenage devotion to Don Mattingly (and the then-perennial playoff missing Yankees of the 80s and early 90s), Texas is the closest thing for me to having “a team.”

 

"Booooooooooo"

 

Prior to the past few weeks, my Rangers memories have been highlighted by seeing Nolan Ryan pitch a near no-hitter vs. the Tigers, and the roughly 25 Steve Buechele autographs my brother and I collected over the years.

But I bought myself a new Ranger ballcap. And I ordered Ken Burns‘ “Baseball” on Amazon. And I’m planning to pick up some hot dogs and beverages today after school, then settle in to watch every pitch of Game 1 tonight in San Francisco.

Call me a poser, a bandwagon jumper, a frontrunner… I’ll accept that. (Although I think my past 15 years of unwavering support for Arkansas State University sports teams should give me lifetime immunity from those types of comments)

But this is too much fun to care about what other people think. Go Rangers! Beat the Giants! Claws and antlers! Just don’t bring up the Cowboys…

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Rangers fans are passionate, but…

they suck at Photoshop. Yes, there’s an entire gallery of equally fine graphic design available for viewing at the Dallas Morning News website. And yes, I realize most of these probably weren’t done on “Photoshop” per se, but these Ranger fans are still terrible on MS Paint or whatever they can get their hands on.

But at least this awful piece of sports fandom reinforces the idea that money can’t buy “everthing.” Yes. “EVERTHING.” Rangers fans apparently suck at spell check too.

And I’m saying this as a Ranger fan who watched every pitch of a masterful performance by Cliff Lee – perhaps one of the greatest post-season pitching efforts ever.

I can understand being inspired by this team, antlers, claws and all. I can’t understand why the Dallas Morning News chose to publish this big batch of terrible to begin with. Do you think they actually rejected some submissions? Those are the ones I really want to see. What would a fan poster that didn’t meet the high quality standards of Big Red (above) look like?

I used to work for the sports department of a small daily newspaper in Arkansas. When Dale Earnhardt died in 2001, we received several letters and e-mails featuring poetic tributes to the Intimidator from members of the community, who expected us to publish their verse in our newspaper pages. I’m not even sure the poetry devoted to #3 was all that bad, but still, we declined to publish it. Because we were the sports section of a daily newspaper, not a literary magazine.

Just saying.

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