Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The Universe Said, "Don't Blog"

October 31

I woke up recently -- yesterday, to be exact -- not wanting to blog any more. I decided not to post about it. That always seems a bit like pandering to me, to post that you are abandoning your blog-calling in favor of life itself. A ploy to get readers to beg and tell you how much your daily mind trips mean to them. In other words, a cheap trick to squeeze a commitment out of those who frequent the blog. A threat.

But I emailed a few key players and told them of my decision. The consensus was, "Good for you. You don't wanna blog, then don't."

So after this I'm not going to offer new posts. (Hedging: At least not very often. You might check every week or so.) But if you're new, or if you'd like to take some time pondering some of the great themes we have discussed here, there are ways you can do it. The blog will stay up, and it will still have all the old information it once had. All you have to do to browse is type a keyword into the little blank rectangular box in the upper left hand corner of the blog where it says "Search This Blog" and then click SEARCH.

You may find profound posts on such topics as the Marietta Johnson School, Henry George, Bobby Darin, Anderson Cooper, Campbell Scott, Garcia Lorca, Gone With the Wind, Robert E. Bell, duende, aesthetic weight, Tennessee Williams, the new library in Fairhope, and lots of other stuff.

I'll keep my Site Meter running to see if there is any attendance on the blog for a little while. I'll post, maybe, when inspired. But for now I'm officially retired.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Hallowe'en in Old Fairhope

October 29

From When We Had the Sky (later retitled The Fair Hope of Heaven):

"Halloween used to be a major holiday in Fairhope. Costumes filled the streets in the days when youngsters were allowed to roam freely without adult companions. Behind a mask you could find a world of free expression, as the Greeks learned in ancient rituals that became the origin of theatre – as I learned in Fairhope at Halloween. The shy, repressed child that I once was was allowed for a night to be anybody she wanted, and she wanted to be the scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz.

"The big party at the Organic School was held of the Friday night before Halloween. The school students produced it, lock, stock, and broomstick; It always featured a costume parade for adults and children, a cakewalk or two or three, a Wheel of Fortune rigged up with a bicycle wheel, a Fun House organized by the Junior High. Sometimes an adult took as visible role, as when Virginia Austin appeared as a gypsy fortuneteller; the high school kids screened off a portion of the building (Comings Hall, long since demolished) with sheets, so that they might produce a silly rhyming playlet, “Little Nell” bobbing up and down to emphasize the iambic pentameter, while on the other side of the hall apples similarly bobbed up and down in washtubs of water for the little ones to retrieve.

"Before the Halloween party could be held, the students spent several days decorating the barny old building, partitioning the outer rim with sheets and setting up a big central area to mill around in.

"People took their costumes seriously in those days. One year Helene Hunter, mother of my classmate Suzie and her two younger siblings, came as a floor lamp complete with cord and shade. My little brother at the age of eight or nine rigged up an upside-down costume to come as a man walking on his hands. Prizes were awarded, and the costumes were a part of the scene.

"In the early 1950’s a group of mischievous boys from (all but one from Fairhope High) plotted to steal the bell from the tower of the Bell Building on the Organic Campus on Halloween night. Billy Scott, one of the infamous Fairhope Five, tells the story with great gusto today. He says they didn’t anticipate the great weight of the big cast-iron bell, but by the time they discovereed that they were well into their cupidity, having managed to get the bell out of its tower, down a ladder, and halfway to the getaway car, Tubby Dunn’s 1941 Buick convertible.

"With their victory of getting the bell to the car came apprehension that they might get caught – and that they didn’t have a plan. They didn’t know where to hide the bell!

"Driving around Fairhope and trying to keep quiet so as to go undetected, they decided to take the bell down to the beach. They would hide it in the bushes between the Beach Theater and the bluff."

There's a lot more to the way Halloween was celebrated in those days, in Fairhope and elsewhere, and there's more to the saga of the purloined school bell and its ultimate return to the Bell Building, but for today, since we manage to stretch this particular holiday out for weeks before its actual day, I'll just say that Halloweens past were for older kids and adolescents, and today the event has been co-opted by the parents of toddlers who produce Martha Stewart-like parties, costumes, decorations and activities. I'll tell a few more ghost stories here since we've got a few more days before Halloween comes.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

What Is It All About?

October 28

When my grandson Andy was just a toddler, one of his neighborhood friends was from a Fundamentalist Christian family and constantly passed along to him Bible stories and their interpretations from his Sunday School. When I was visiting at Christmas when Andy was about four or five, I heard Andy chanting to himself. He was, like a nervous regurgitation, speaking of God.

"God is everywhere...God is everything...God is everyone...Grandmama, did you know that you are God and God is you?"

I was transfixed. I was grappling with such notions myself.

"Yes," I said. "I do know that. How did you know it?"

He looked as if he'd been caught jumping in the pool at the deep end. He shrugged almost guiltily.

"I guessed," he said.

I stared at him and he widened his eyes, shrugging more broadly.

"I just guessed."

Friday, October 27, 2006

War, God, and Fair Hope

October 27

The topic of war in a recent post here ignited all kinds of sparks, spewing over into at least one other blog (Mendacious Mouse) and creating lots of comments on both sides. It led to nine comments on a blog labeled "Mouse World One" and then a follow-up "Mouse World Two" post. The posts both dealt with the question of why God allows bad things to happen, which is to say, if wars are bad, why does God let us fight wars?

This is, like all "Why?" questions to me, acceptable coming from a three-year-old, but puzzling when grappled with by grown men. Yes, we must be patient with the three-year-old and give him a reasonable answer, perhaps so that he will not still be asking "Why?" about everything when he is in his 60s and 70s.

The reader who characterizes himself as "Officious Oaf" has, in spite of his vow to go on the wagon from an incipient blog addiction, weighed in on the subject. Therefore I'll fold one from his list of questions to me from a few months ago as he sought to help me build readership by being more hard-nosed.

Why is killing justified and murder isn’t?

This is one of those “When-did-you-stop-beating-your-wife” questions. In answering it I am forced to defend killing. But I can’t, so I’ll try to answer the question in the spirit in which it was intended, which I hope was sincere. The questioner must believe that killing is justified, but seems not to know what he means by that. I will take the position that "killing" means "as in war" and "murder" means "premeditated with malice aforethought."

Killing in war is good because it is deemed necessary by society. If our soldiers went into battle with instructions not to kill, we wouldn't have much of an army. What's more, we wouldn't have much of a battle. Therefore, we wouldn't have much of a war at all. And since war is good and necessary, killing is good too.

You may gather from my tone that I am not of this conviction. But I said that at the outset. I cannot seriously defend killing under any circumstances -- here it comes -- not even capital punishment. Now I've moved into tricky territory for myself because I do not oppose capital punishment, as long as it is the right people who are getting it. Pacifist that I am, I would still like to see certain people dead. This does not make me warlike, or a murderer. I am not seeking a hit man. Actually I'd like to see hit men and their ilk eliminated, which means capital punishment to them. This is getting so convoluted even I'm not sure where I stand.

I have malice toward those to whom putting a bullet in a human being's brain is a good gig. For whatever reason -- a lousy childhood, a stray gene, something -- professional (and amateur) killers are not needed in society. Why did God make them? Not for any reason I can understand. But I suspect that it is the machinery of man that created evil, and not God.

The topic is interesting. It is not my area of expertise, yet I keep coming back to it. You should read some of the comments that came out of me on the Mendacious Mouse blog. I have attracted a coterie which is enamored of the subject, and I am compelled to respond. I think open discussions, which may not reach any conclusion, but by virtue of the possibility that a mind might actually change, are our only hope of getting out of the quagmire of stagnant positions.

I said "only hope," but even that is barely a fair hope. Let's just be even-handed here.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Maybe It Isn't Just About Fairhope

October 26

When I first sat at the table signing copies of the original edition of Meet Me at the Butterfly Tree, I was under the impression that I had written a book about Fairhope, sure, but one with broader appeal than that. There were tourist books about Fairhope already in 2001; books on where to eat and why to move to the toney bayside village. I thought I had written kind of a shorter Lake Wobegone Days with a Single Tax slant, a picture of a unique place with a personality that would appeal to people who really had no sense of different ways of looking at things.

In Fairhope, by far the most compelling chapters seemed to be those written by Bob Bell, my collaborator who had enjoyed a lifelong love affair with his own memories of the town in the 1940's and 50's. When people urged me to write a second book, I felt it should be gutsier, grittier; in short, it should tell of some of the iconoclasts who had changed their lives by moving to early Fairhope or changed early Fairhope by moving to it with their maverick ways intact.

Publishers, when I worked to get a reprint done after the initial 1,000 copies of Meet Me at the Butterfly Tree sold out, told me they felt it was a book that would have only local appeal, and they said the same thing about When We Had the Sky, the second book. It has a certain amount of charm, they said, but the world really doesn't need to know about Fairhope.

Recently I sold a copy to Dan Spiro, author of an excellent new novel called The Creed Room, and writer of a blog called The Empathic Rationalist, which is linked to this one. He has never laid eyes on Fairhope, and I'll venture to say had never heard of it before I wrote him about my book. He liked MMATBT and offered to write a review of it for Amazon.com, as two of my friends, including one who identifies himself as John Sweden when he comments on this blog, had done before him.

Imagine the little thrill I felt when greeted with a copy of his review this morning in the email box:

Butterfly trees, the authors tell us, refer to a species of plant that "attract butterflies, which alight upon them, sometimes all at once, creating a visual spectacle that is very pleasing to the human spirit." Notice the word choice: not that these trees are pleasing to the eyes, but that they are pleasing to the spirit. That is precisely how I would describe this book. For those, like me, who share its authors' values, we can't help but find this book and the town that it describes to be spiritually uplifting.

Meet Me at the Butterfly Tree is a beautiful portrait of a place. In this portrait we find a group of people, all of whom beat to their own eccentric drummers, who somehow come together like butterflies on a tree and light up their environment with love, encouragement, and mutual respect. I was particularly taken by the description of the School of Organic Education, which is the antithesis of the modern status-conscious, teach-to-the-test, mind-numbing school that has come to dominate our society in the era of No Child Left Behind. It is clear that the Organic school depicted in this book didn't need slogans to demonstrate its commitment to universal education. But nor did it need to stress test scores. Its faculty were the types who care about creativity, and who value learning for its own sake and wish to inspire students to do the same. The result, no doubt, is a community of lifelong learners -- not mere grade-grubbing pre-professionals.

I could criticize this book by saying that its initial chapters didn't fully grab my interest. But I've never been to Fairhope, nor any town remotely like it, and hail from one of the most self-obsessed, workaholic cultures in the world (the legal world of Washington, D.C.). So perhaps it simply took my mind's eye a bit of time to adjust to the portrait of a utopian town. Once the story turned to the Organic school and some of the more colorful characters who populated the town, I was entranced for the remainder of the book. At that point, you see, I realized what the authors were trying to communicate: if we want our lives to be clothed in beauty -- both as individuals and as a community -- we can find incredible guidance from the people of Fairhope and the philosophy embraced through its institutions.

Non-conformity, collegiality, creativity, playfulness, intellectuality, spirituality -- these are the values of Fairhope. Can they become the values of a community, not of hundreds or thousands, but of millions? Of billions? These are the questions I found myself asking. That's what a true utopian asks.

Take that, you provincial citizens of the rest of Alabama, you who think Fairhope is just a little upscale shopping center with pretentions to Art. Fairhope as it once was was a lesson for you all.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Walking Through This War

October 24

Since every blog on the Internet has a position on the current war and the possibility of that next one out there (North Korea), you may wonder where I stand. In a nutshell, I hate this war. I can't think of a war I have ever not hated, and that goes back to the Punic Wars between ancient Greece and Rome.

I am opposed to war. If I had lived in prehistoric times I would have been one of those cave babes who said, "Put down that stupid club, you might hurt somebody!" I just never got it, the need to protect or expand our borders, to quell or vanquish the invaders, to make the world safe for our way of life. Just let's mind our own business and keep life serene. Maybe that other guy is thinking of ways to maraud, rape and pillage. Then again, maybe he's not. Let's not send our boy over there to lose his life or his innocence in such a cause. Look out the window: that's the kingdom of God. It looks pretty good to me.

When I thought about posting on my feelings about war, I realized it's too big for one post. My whole life has been involved in one war or another, and just that is a lot of ground to cover. My earliest memories are of blackouts and all the daddies being gone; rationing of food and creative meals; men in uniform; war games, and grim black and white newsreels called The March of Time before the picture show started.

Tom Brokaw called those boys who fought that war "The Greatest Generation" because, being the same vintage as me -- 1940 was a very good year -- he and his friends had never been put to such a test, and he could only observe and write about it. I feel great sorrow rather than pure admiration for that "greatest" generation, having been married to one of them who eventually died of alcoholism and never spoke of the war. There were many such, and they did not get the glory of being interviewed, nor did they want to be. Booze was an easy refuge from all that life had dealt them, and I think having been taught and required to kill at a tender age had something to do with their great need for a hiding place the rest of their lives.

Now we have a war that has been going on for four years with no end in sight. It's easy to get mad at the "liars" who got us there, but look at the events as they developed. After a vulnerability shown when attacked on our own ground on September 11, 2001, we went after the guy who did it. When finding him proved impossible, we decided to demonize a guy we were pretty sure we could find. Our leader went from "I hear you!" to "weapons of mass destruction" and "slam-dunk." Fighting words. "Smart bombs." "Surgical attacks." I bought into it, only marginally, but I remember saying, "I hope this doesn't turn out to be another Vietnam."

It turned out to be much worse. And now I'm old enough to realize I may not see the end of this fighting in my lifetime. After all, there has been fighting in that region for at least as long as I remember, and our invasion has done nothing to lessen it. My daughter, who is neither stupid nor a child, asked me, "Why are we going to war there? What reason are they giving, other than that we can?" and I had no answers. She has two sons, ages 9 and 11 1/2, and she is thinking of moving to Canada. The little boys are the most militant anti-war activists of their age I have ever met. They are getting a very one-sided view of American politics.

Now the guys in charge are saying they are not willing to "cut and run" like the Democrats. They say it's somehow better to "stay the course." Then they decided that it would be smarter not to stay the course after all, so they are trying to come up with a phrase that didn't sound so bull-headed and, let's face it, stupid. They have tried out "anticipating victory," and by the end of the day today you'll here an arsenal of new phrases, all of which were designed with more thought that the necessity for going to war in the first place was. They must be getting tired of being called liars all the time, every day. They must, somewhere in their hearts, yearn for a way to cut and run without calling it that.

I want them to find a way out. I want it over as soon as it can be. Actually I want it never to have happened. I'm not interested in whether the Democrats would have done a better job -- they couldn't have done a worse one -- but I want somebody to appear with a positive message, a modicum of awareness and taste, and the ability to get this killing stopped.

So there you have my war blog. I don't claim to know anything about why wars get started or why we need them so desperately every few years. It baffles me. I guess I'm a pacifist, which is to say naive, uninformed and ostrich-like, who just will never learn the reality of life in this world. I don't even have a fair hope of success in learning, either.

Monday, October 23, 2006

The "Wow!" Factor

October 23

I have for years watched the Home and Garden cable TV channel and shows like Flip That House and Sell This House and Restaurant Makeover. I have built a house to sell and sold it, and am in the process of updating and restoring a 1916 house, which in Fairhope is a real oldie.

I was on the Historic Preservation Committee when its mission was to stop the destruction of the quaint bungalows and genuine architectural treasures of Fairhope’s history. The committee lost its case in the public eye about six years ago, and almost all of the older homes and cottages have been replaced by really big generic houses, some of which affect a “cottage” appearance but none of which would look out of place in any location in the United States or Canada.

A huge new library is about to be occupied. A huge new Baptist Church has been built to replace the old one (which was very very large, but not what I would call huge). The old high school building in the center of town, now housing kindergarten and the first grade, will soon be torn down and sold to commercial interests, under great protest by picketing moms who think (as I once did) that they can stop the trend – and that Fairhope respects its heritage and admires the appearance or at least the presence of its older buildings.

Those television shows and all the shelter magazines celebrate what they call “the WOW factor.” Homeowners – and particularly those planning to sell a home or building – buy into this idea, that a buyer must say “Wow!” when walking into the house. He also must say “Wow!” when viewing the kitchen for the first time. He also must say “Wow!” when viewing the outsized master bedroom with its obligatory luxurious adjoining bath.

Everywhere we look we must say “Wow!” There is no room in today’s world for a quiet street peppered with charming cottages with rabbit-warren rooms. Every house must astound from the curb, and in it, every bedroom must have walk-in closets an adjoining bath. And every room must be big enough to elicit at least one “Wow!”

I think that’s why our public buildings in Fairhope got so big. Committees were formed, committees headed by people from Mobile who wanted to be sure their friends would be impressed with the state-of-the-art, “Wow!” buildings in Fairhope.

The Performing Arts Center, originally planned to be built adjacent to the new high school and to have a 2,000 seat main theatre and several smaller houses along with classrooms, had to be downsized to one 1,000-seat mainstage – but, probably to increase its “Wow!” factor the committee decided to plunk it right in the center of Fairhope. (The school board refused to ante up sufficient funding, and I suppose it was assumed that a central location might help the fund-raisers to save face.) The building is now slated to be on the Faulkner campus so as to be near the envisioned hub of activity in the downtown area. Never mind that the space they selected was set aside in perpetuity as a memorial to Charles Rabold, a beloved citizen of Fairhope of the 1920’s, and the man who brought folk dancing to the Marietta Johnson School. Mr. Rabold is all but forgotten except for a few of us old diehards, and what would be the “Wow!” factor in keeping a greenspace as a silent memorial?

Fairhope is full of structures with the wow factor now. The Wow! does not connote admiration, however, so much as astonishment that such a building or house stands where it does.

As in, “Wow! What happened to this town?”

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Artists and Fair Hope

October 22

Yesterday's post re-ignited a discussion of the meaning of art, and the information coming from a reader in Sweden should at least inform the discussion.

To broaden the discussion to an art I have a little more knowledge about, I am reprinting the following. It is a reprint of a post I wrote in the height of our discussion of the theatre, when a certain commenter had said that all the women in Tennessee Williams' plays were psychopaths, pure and simple. I tried to weave this into a definition of this blog, of Fairhope and fair hope, and the application of an education in Fairhope on an appreciation of all the arts.

Paul Gaston wrote a book years ago, which I'm sure is still available, called Women of Fair Hope. Its title gave me the idea for the name for this blog. In the book he dealt with the lives of a few women from Fairhope's early days who would be standouts in any locale, in any generation: Nancy Lewis, the former slave from whom the land for the Single Tax Colony was purchased, Marie Howland, the unconventional intellectual who became the town's first librarian, and Marietta Johnson, who was to found an extraordinary Progressive school. His book does much to define the women of Fairhope by these role models. Howland in particular had such a colorful story that readers of today have trouble believing it is not fiction -- and that she actually lived in Fairhope.

In The Butterfly Tree, Bob Bell describes a character that always struck me as generic-Southern rather than "Fairhope." There was a remotely tragic look about Miss Billy, as though she had lost something and wouldn't know when she found it, if she found it. Her eyes were that pale lavender color that made you think of crushed sweet peas. Ladies like this abound in Southern literature. We can read about them in early Truman Capote, in Carson McCullers, in Tennessee Williams. But in reality they were a rarity in Fairhope. To give him credit, Bob Bell's portrait of Winifred Duncan as Miss Claverly does deal with another type of woman altogether. My argument with Bob was that he saw Claverly as an aberration and I knew Winifred Duncan (the very real woman upon whom the character Miss Claverly was based) as a force to be reckoned with among the women of Fairhope of the 'fifties.

I am grateful that, although in the South, Fairhope is not really of the South. Because it was founded by those people from Des Moines, and because it was the kind of little intellectual enclave that attracted nonconformists, to live in Fairhope is not like living in any other place on earth. Those dewy, sweetpea-eyed ladies who exist in other southern U.S. locales are not at home in Fairhope. In Meet Me at the Butterfly Tree I add to Bob's portrait of Miss Duncan the likes of Gretchen Riggs, Verda Horne, Anna Braune and Emma Schramm, who built a house supported by tall pine trees in the woods just off the main street. None of these women was a delicate fading flower or what you would think of as a Southern lady. They were women of Fairhope.

Are Tennessee Williams' women Southern ladies or not? His writing covered such an astonishing range of experiences that the question hardly seems pertinent to anything. I once heard Williams, late in life, railing at some critic who said his women were all "drag queens." "I never wrote a play about drag queens in my life," he said, "and if I wrote about drag queens, they would be drag queens. The women I write about are real women."

A comment here said all the women in his plays are psychopaths. This is an unfathomable interpretation to me. Amanda in The Glass Menagerie, whom the commenter particularly hated, is a well-written, full human being, with goals, humor, personality, and a certain tragic outlook. She is not a victim, except of her own mistakes. She works for a living. The audience is meant to see her as a whole, sympathetic figure doing exactly the wrong thing all the time. She wants the best for her children although she has no idea what it is. She has a son who is a poet and a daughter who is an emotional cripple. Williams wrote, "Her life is a paranoia, but she is not paranoid." Williams' mother said, "I can't see anything about me in that character." My own mother said she disliked the play because she couldn't help but identify with the mother.

In Cat on a Hot Tin Roof Maggie is a Southern belle who happens to be in love with the wrong guy. There are themes in that play that fold back on themselves in unexpected ways. The homosexual conflicts of Brick and the clever manipulation of the frustrated Maggie against the backdrop of the towering character of Big Daddy make a riveting play -- about real people who might be seen as exotic if one were not raised in the American South.

Anyone who thinks Blanche DuBois is a psychopath hasn't seen or studied the play. She is deluded, yes, afraid of losing her youth and beauty, the only currency she has ever had. Raised to be a classic lady, she is in conflict about her sexual nature, and the only way she sees to resolve that conflict is to split herself in two -- the virgin and the whore -- and to live in the state of denial that is very often a Southern way of life. The inevitable confrontation with reality in the guise of Stanley Kowalski is too much for her fragile hold on sanity, which brings the audience to its own realization of the duality of the nature of man. Excuse me, maybe that should be the nature of Woman. Southern woman, at that.

In Fairhope I saw little of this. My parents, however, were more Southern than Fairhope, and the family I was exposed to had traces of the kind of offbeat reality that pervades the region. My first husband was from a very repressed Alabama town and family; he felt much more kin to the characters of Tennessee Williams than I did.

But what a gold mine those plays were for a young actress. And how lucky I was to have had enough Southern orientation, overlaid with the realistic intellectualism of Fairhope, to "get" the meaning, and to have the opportunity to play some of those roles.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Friday Night Movie

October 21

There is a weekly film series in Fairhope, over at the building that used to be the Episcopal Church, just two or three blocks from my house. They show movies that anyone could rent, just not necessarily ones that we do, so some of us are willing to shell out $4 for the priviledge of going out to the movies in our own neighborhood. The nearest bona fide cinemaplex is up at the mall, at least 30 minutes away through bothersome traffic.

Last night’s show was one I had been planning to see: The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. A thoughtful parable set in the contemporary West, it involves a sad story of a cruel border guard, his hapless victim, and a good-hearted Texan who wants to see wrongs avenged.

Not my usual chick-flick fare (I had been thinking of renting The Break Up, and would have had the video store not been out of copies), but I absolutely loved the film. It was full of odd stories, lonely and empty characters, and situations I would never have been able to anticipate. Directed by and starring Tommy Lee Jones, it had the kind of integrity you expect from him – solemn, wise, and somewhat inscrutable. Beautiful, desolate, dusty West Texas settings helped with the evocative and gut-wrenching saga. A pretty actress (who happens to be January Jones, Tommy Lee's daughter) played a vapid young woman, bringing a sincerity and appeal to an extremely thankless role. Dwight Yoakum, with the awkwardness of an amateur who is perfectly cast, was convincing as the lawman who wanted out of the whole thing.

Somehow I loved Julio Cézar Cedillo, the actor playing the title role, from his first entrance and the line, “Vaqueiro. No Mas,” when he was asked his line of work. With flashbacks and forward cuts we are taken through his story and he is like a shining light throughout the film, even as a corpse. Just as Barry Pepper personifies a man beyond rememption, his presence makes life worth living and doing everything possible to redeem the most despicable. Melissa Leo was spot-on as the waitress with a sideline of entertaining all the available men in town.

I could find nothing to fault in the film. I left it with a few questions and would like to find someone else who saw it to discuss it with, so I recommend it to you. Maybe when we get together we'll remember to solve some of the riddles of The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Unconscious Yesses and Complex Nuances

October 20

The hardest part of that title was figuring out how to spell the plural of "yes." The phrase was used in a recent comment, and the spelling looked wrong to me. I had to reach a decision before I could post about it. There it is, right or wrong.

It referred to my story about the man who couldn't bring himself to read religious opinions that conflicted with those he had been brought up to accept. He was, the commenter suggested, unconsciously saying yes to his own indoctrination. Probably he would have come to the same conclusion if he had done some study, but his mind had been made up for him, probably in childhood, and to become a questioner of the faith accepted by all the people he respected and who had raised him was not an option. I've seen film clips from a new documentary called Jesus Camp which depicts the life of children being so indoctrinated. It is chilling to see the fervor with which they embrace the most troubling aspect of their brand of Christianity -- the mindless, emotional, judgmental passion that has nothing to do with Christ or living a better life. It is a "yes," all right, but an entirely conscious one. To some degree I am afraid this was the religious training my good friend had been exposed to, had said "yes" to. He became a Bible scholar, read the book constantly and studied it hard. He read other books too -- but not those that offered new insights to the basic text.

There are many things we unconsciously say yes to as we grow up. We accept them by default, by not saying no. Doing this unconsciously is what makes life easy at first, and it is what makes life difficult later. Over and over, obstacles are thrown in the path of that unconscious decision we made without making it. We are required to defend something we absorbed without thinking, and finding defenses for such is all but impossible. If it's actually impossible, we may switch to the opposite choice and surprise ourselves and everybody else. But it's so much easier to remain unconscious.

Art, another commenter states, is a set of complex nuances that has nothing to do with a child, even an "inner" one. It is the purvue of adults only. This does not discount the art of children (I hope), but to call art itself the work of children is to diminish it in the minds of conscious adults. As in the early days of Impressionism, Cubism, and Abstract Expressionism, people look at the work and say, "A kindergartener could do that!" People are quick to say that Andy Warhol was a charlatan and Salvador Dali a Public Relations expert. Jackson Pollack and Ad Reinhardt were, in this assessment, pulling the wool over the art consumer's eyes.

Such an attitude is the opposite of an unconscious yes. It is an unconscious no. In both cases it produces a closed mind and deprives the owner of this mind of a whole lifetime of experiences based on joy and learning about the other occupants of the world. It's a shame that so many of us live there, verbalizing, pontificating, pronouncing, yet not capable of saying an unconscious yes to the next great thing that may come along.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Your Inner Artist-Child

October 19

I have mentioned in several posts the book The Artists' Way by Julia Cameron. The book is helpful in a specific way to a general audience, and perhaps more to the readers who yearn to produce art but are blocked and unable to function.

The premise of The Artists' Way is that there is in every soul an artist which needs to be set free. Why the need, we would wonder. Perhaps it is, as John Vedilago, now of Sweden maintains, that we have set up an unnatural separation between a few practicing their art; a group in the audience, and a vast number totally indifferent if not hostile to the enterprise. The artist as oddball, and then there's everybody else.

This notion of the artist as special has been universally accepted by artists of every discipline. While I maintain that there really is a difference between artists and other people, this difference is celebrated by a few (think Salvador Dali, who parlayed the perception of himself into a multi-million dollar business by playing the role of "artist" so that everybody could see him as one). In a way, the artists of the world have been doing a version of this charade probably since the dawn of time -- in order to set themselves apart and establish a glorious, unattainable persona for the masses to observe -- and pay money for the privilege of doing so.

This separation makes it difficult to enter the realm of the artist. It puts most people in a position of thinking, "Well, I like to draw pictures, but I'm not like -- that." The pictures we draw and the essays we write get shoved in a drawer to be discovered after our death. But doesn't the mere fact that much is found in this way testify to the validity -- or necessity -- of art being the province of everyone?

"John Sweden", the artist and teacher I mention by his real name above, writes: "The professionalizing of our arts and culture with the attending attitude of artists it produces, 'don’t try this at home,' has rendered artistic expression and its potential benefit to our societies meaningless entertainment for the masses and overly expensive, wasted entertainment venues for the rich. The ultimate debasement of the arts is the belief that a few artists can provide a culture for all. It robs us all of our true voice and its potential in the chorus of human development."

Marietta Johnson, in her extraordinary school in Fairhope, saw this as early as the turn of the last century. Her school required all children to participate in arts and music, which she saw to be as elemental to their lives as any other aspect of their education. She saw adults who had not been allowed artistic freedom in childhood as deprived of an obvious basic need, and living lives of "arrested development." Poor creatures! And what has become of them? A more stratified, compartmentalized, frustrated world, with adults having never been children, and children being accellerated and pressured to forego their very love of life so that they can be part of "the real world."

There is something to be said for art as a means to enjoying life. More has to be said about the value of enjoying life, period. One way to do that will always be to be reached by art -- or better yet, let's take that from passive voice to active: One way to find the meaning of life, which is to say to enjoy it, is to reach to art, and produce it ourselves. It's not a parlor trick for the talented; it is, on some level, the birthright of us all. Yet we fear exposing it as inferior or unworthy, and we venerate those who are willing to show us their art.

There's something wrong here. But is it not the timorous individuals who are wrong. All they have to do is explore and trust their own instincts to creativity. It's a step on the road to self-discovery.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

In Memory Mode

October 17

I just read a new blog that got me thinking about living in memory as opposed to living in the moment. I even posted a comment on that blog, basically saying that it's important to live in the moment, yes, but it doesn't hurt a bit to be informed by a vivid past so you are somehow channeling your best self at the same time. I didn't say that, and I'm not even sure it's what I mean, but let's explore the idea and see where it goes.

The writer, Dan Spiro, was talking about the joy he experienced attending his college reunion. We in Fairhope are planning a huge reunion of every class that ever graduated from the Marietta Johnson School, to be held at about this time next year, so there will be lots of nostalgia floating around for the next 11 months as we prepare for that. We'll explore the 100-year history of the school, the ever-fresh message of Mrs. Johnson, and we'll do our best to contact everybody who ever was affected by Organic Education, however briefly, however we can.

Some, no doubt, will have little interest in touching the past. Others will yearn to relate their experiences and let us know how their lives have been transformed by the ability to self-define and self-actualize. I hope we actually find a number of people who have been unknown to us at the school for years. I hope it will be a stimulating year for the school and for those connected with it.

I was thinking in my pre-awake state this morning about how as a young person I never thought about living in the moment, I just did it. Then I realized that that was really all I had, since there was so little past in my young life, and I had no tools to anticipate what the future might hold. It seems better, with all the baggage that has accumulated over the years, to live in the present; however, it really is valuable to experience life whole at any one time, that is, to enjoy the present fully while comparing it to a treasured past and knowing it will all soon be replaced. Somebody, maybe everybody reading this is going to say I'm describing an impossible life situation. But to me that is every day of life at my age; it is informed by a past rich in experiences and it anticipates a certain amount of change in the future.

Living in Fairhope, the town I grew up in, makes me confront the duality of past and future at all times; my book Meet Me at the Butterfly Tree may be said to be wallowing in the past. This blog straddles past, present and future every day. I often cannot accept what is happening in Fairhope today because of what I know of its past; yet I accept it because I'm here and it is happening, but I'm damn sure going to write to someone about it. And there is always that note of what-if about the future in these blogposts, the suggestion of fair hope that the town may come out of all this somehow, if not as good as it once was, at least better than it appears at the moment.

Living on all these planes at once is not easy, yet it is simple. And I suspect it's as good as it gets.

Monday, October 16, 2006

A Day Unlike Others

October 16

Yesterday was indeed an extraordinary one. It started with an extremely successful talk to a receptive audience about a person some of them had known and the others were genuinely interested in. Verda Horne was central to my talk to the Unitarian, and they were able, in the answer section, to enlighten me with information I hadn't included, such as her work in establishing fellowships along the Gulf Coast, including the now Katrina-torn towns of Gulfport and Biloxi. They told me of her extensive work with environmentalists in the state and across the South. They even mentioned the work of her gentle, retiring husband Rix, who was well-known among landscape architects. Some, my sister told me, were moved to tears by my talk about how much Verda had meant to me, and how very much she had done to change lives in her brief time on earth.

A comment to my post yesterday asked what could possibly have motivated her, having been raised by strict Mormons, to become a proselytizing Unitarian? I immediately thought of M. Scott Peck's book The Road Less Traveled, and looked up this passage in the chapter called "The Religion of Science" "...the learning of something new requires a giving up of the old self and a death of outworn knowledge. To develop a broader vision we must be able to forsake, to kill, our narrower vision. In the short run it is more comfortable not to do this -- to stay where we are, to keep using the microcosmic map, to avoid suffering the death of cherished notions. The road of spiritual growth, however, lies in the opposite direction. We begin by distrusting what we already believe, by actively seeking the threatening and unfamiliar, by deliberately challenging the validity of what we have previously been taught and hold dear. The path to holiness lies through questioning everything.

"In a very real sense, we begin with science. We begin by replacing the religion of our parents with the religion of science. We must rebel against and reject the religion of our parents, for inevitably their world view will be narrower than that of which we are capable if we take full advantage of our personal experience, including our adult experience and the experience of an additional generations of human history. There is no such thing as a good hand-me-down religion. To be vital, to be the best of which we are capable, our religion must be a wholly personal one, forged entirely through the fire of our own questioning and doubting in the crucible of our own experience of reality."

I once gave a copy of that book to a dear man, and very devout and spiritual practicing Baptist, who came from a long line of practicing Baptists. He was quite interested in the book until it came to that point, but when he read that he could go no further. However, there is little doubt in my mind that Verda Horne would have approved of Scott Peck's words about religion and science. I think it gives a fair assessment of what probably took place in her spiritual development.

Yesterday held more than the morning talk. Early in the evening a new project was launched at my house, a very exciting presentation that involves the work of Gertrude Stein, whom I mentioned in a previous post. You'll hear details of the project as the time grows nearer.

Just think for now about the questioning, doubting and tempering of self and how that figures into our own personal development. Would such wipe out all religions from the face of the earth? I don't think so. Maybe we'd just all become Unitarians.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Me, the U-U's, and Fair Hope

October 15

I'm gathering my wits to make a little talk to the Unitarian Fellowship. I want to tell them about the history of the U-U's (Unitarians) in town, and especially about Verda Horne, their leader. As I wrote in Meet Me at the Butterfly Tree, she was "a scientist, a writer, a leader and a teacher. In addition to her specialties in botany, zoology, physics, anthropology, history and literature, she had an interest in philosophy, poetry, the arts, gardening, and being a mother."

She was mother to three: Linda, in my class and still a treasured friend; Karen, in my brother's class, and his first date; and Richard, just a year or two younger and now a blazing Liberal lawyer in Mobile.

I used to attend her talks at the early Unitarian fellowship in the old wooden building on the bluff that is long gone. The fellowship probably numbered about 15 people, and on any given Sunday there would be some eight or ten who would come to hear Verda speak. She was able to give scientific findings a spiritual slant, and we always started the program with a recitation of the Organic School prayer:

Give us thy harmony, oh Lord,
That we may understand,
The beauty of the sky
The rhythm of the soft wind's lullaby.
The sun, the shadows, the woods in the spring,
And thy great love,
That dwells in everything.

She said that she chose that because, in Fairhope, it was one thing you could be sure a majority of people would know by heart.

One of her favorite talks was about Anne Morrow Lindbergh's book Gift from the Sea. Not only was the book new at that time, but it had much power for women and for scientists, and probably especially for women scientists and writers. The book meant a lot to Verda, and later in life came to mean a great deal to me as well. I never forgot her talks about it.

She gathered a following of poets, young people, and visitors from everywhere. Her house, piled high with books and magazines, was a haven for intellectuals and students.

Raised by a pious Mormon family in Utah, she had come to Alabama with a degree from the University of Minnesota. She arrived on a reseach project to study blue crabs. She met Rix Horne there, married him and stayed. How she came to be a Unitarian, I don't know exactly, but she was very good friends with Robert Weston, the Unitarian minister from Louisville, who helped her in the early days of the Fairhope fellowship, while also working to start a similar one in Mobile. With Verda in charge, the Mobile U-U's usually came to Fairhope to hear her.

Dr. Weston had a son named Dick, who is now a minister, too. He was just a bit older than I and a good friend of my sister's and Frank Laraway's, now a pillar at the local U-U's, who will introduce me this morning.

Which means it's time for me to get ready and go. I hope I keep my head on straight and have only good things to say about Fairhope, then and now. I know there'll be good things if I concentrate on Verda. Wish I could channel her.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Who's Finding What?

October 14

Tomorrow I address the Unitarian Fellowship. The title of my talk is "Finding Fair Hope." You might be able to guess where I got the idea.

Yesterday the Fairhope Courier reported that I was going to talk about things that give me hope. That wasn't what I had in mind, but I can work a few of those into the talk -- things, at least that give me a fair hope for Fairhope. The kind of scintillating wordplay readers of this blog have come to expect.

More likely I will deal with contemporary, schizophrenic Fairhope, a town with a doppelganger of its own past, a town struggling against the wrong things (Wal-Mart) while embracing the even wronger ones of ugly buildings and lost cottages. Maybe I'll say it's all a weird joke, and suggest we Fairho's embrace the newcomers who have something to offer. Certainly I'll acknowledge that people who move here are looking for a new life when they happen to find Fairhope.

Everybody in the world seems to be looking for something. Most of us are just looking for home, some shred of a distant past when ideals --and ideas -- meant something, people were kind, and choices were simple. We think we can find a town where that still exists. We seek. We find Fairhope.

Is it a mirage? Well, there's this book, Meet Me at the Butterfly Tree, and there's this office that says on the door Single Tax Corporation, and there's this statue of a woman with an open book, "Marietta Johnson" it says on the plaque, who exemplified the spirit of Fairhope (Never mind that the author of the book was the author of the words on the plaque, and that it was I, but the book and probably the statue will be mentioned in my talk).

All these things at least speak to the reality of a genuine Fairhope. My hairdresser says that most people moving into a town couldn't care less about its history, and that she is one of them. So we don't talk about it. And I am undaunted in my mission to tell the history of Fairhope to anybody who happens by and shows a modicum of interest.

So the Unitarians, who asked for a talk called "Imagine Fairhope," -- which was the title of one of my blogposts -- may be getting more than they thought. They are an interesting group, and I'll tell them something about the days when the Fellowship was the new kid on the block and Verda Horne was its fearless, tireless and extraordinary leader. They're always interested in hearing about her. I'll tell her some of the stories from Meet Me at the Butterfly Tree, and others from When We Had the Sky, and some about the blog. If you're in the area, you might drop in to hear the talk. It should be fun. I promise not to tell them what I think about the new library.

Friday, October 13, 2006

TV: The New Season

October 13

Lots of good new stuff on the tube this season, and guess what, lots of mediocre stuff too. Some are too new to be sure about, having only aired pilots which are always a little embryonic and difficult to fall in love with.

My favorite so far is Six Degrees, which ran its third episode last night. I've mentioned it before here as a vehicle for Campbell Scott (changed my mind last night, however, about casting him as Ashley Wilkes. Maybe ten or 15 years ago, but not any more.) The title of the series refers to the 1967 study by Stanley Milgram that proposed there are only "six degrees of separation" between human beings, in other words, we are all linked by knowledge of someone who knew someone else, after six links, to everybody who ever lived. This led to the title of a play and movie, and has been boiled down, not unlike Andy Warhol's phrase "15 Minutes" and now supposedly the shorthand is immediately understood.

I'm not sure if you got that or not. But this is a tv review so I'm moving to the next point and will let you ponder it -- I'm sure you'll let me know if there are any questions. The point is that the tv series is elegant, well written, well acted and always intriguing, with beautiful NYC locales and an ensemble feel. Catch it if it stays on til next Thursday.

Problem may be that it's up against another newie, which I haven't seen since it's opposite Six Degrees, called Shark, which stars James Woods as an obnoxious jerk, a role he plays so well. It's a courtroom show, and maybe I'll watch it if it moves to another time slot.

Speaking of odd time slots, Friday Night Lights runs on Tuesday nights. I'm not likely to watch it just because the subject matter doesn't interest me -- high school football. It came from a movie that was well received by the critics (but I also didn't see because it also was about high school football), so if high school football interests you, I'm sure it's good.

My second favorite this year is Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, one of those behind-the-scenes drama-comedies about the making of a weekly show which might be likened to Saturday Night Live. Very good acting, and clever scripts.

I am slightly interested in Men in Trees, which I've also mentioned here before. A rather wan romantic comedy with a sexy leading man, but I've got my doubts about Anne Heche here. A good actress -- I'm just not convinced she's right in this role of conflicted (although she's good at conflicted) "relationship consultant" off to find herself in Alaska. To me, it's a near miss, with its bucolic box-supper auctions and local radio-show yahoo straight out of Northern Exposure. But I haven't given up on it; maybe Anne Heche will become a star after all.

You may have gathered that I'm a bit of a television addict. I think that's probably true, although I can quit whenever I want to. I just have to check out every new season and decide if I want to.

Wednesday night two new situation comedies ran back to back on NBC. I doubt if either of them will make it, but I found them fairly good for pilot episodes. The first, 30 Rock, is a little too close to comfort to Studio 60, but it is snappy, comic, and doesn't always hit the mark, even though it stars Tina Fey and is written by her, and Alec Baldwin. Baldwin is a fine actor, and did a nice turn in Will & Grace last season, but he is a bit mean in this one -- and my friend Edith, who knows more than a bit about the theatre, says, "He acts like he can't act." I could do a whole blogpost on that remark, but not today.

30 Rock was followed by 20 Good Years, starring John Lithgow and Jeffrey Tambour. Anything with Lithgow is gonna get me to watch it at least twice, but in this one he's playing a asshole type -- sorry, that's about the only word for it -- who decides to rope his wimpy but lovable lifelong friend into a retirement project to live life to the fullest (jumping out of planes, swimming with the Polar Bear Club, that sort of thing). It's like an update of The Odd Couple combined with Grumpy Old Men, and may not have very broad appeal. In fact, John Lithgow may be the only reason to watch it. And Tambour is an excellent Felix to his Oscar.

Which of the new series will make it? I couldn't say. After all, for about ten minutes in the 1960's I was television critic for Women's Wear Daily. I was one of about three such in the country who panned All in the Family. And I'd stick by that critique today.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Even-Handed Hope

October 12

I like to browse my own blog. I can't help myself some days...just want to see what I've written in the past. I go to the Archive and scroll around, or take the mouse up to the blank box in the upper left corner and type in something interesting like Spinoza or Anderson Cooper or a title I remember like Edifice Complexes and Complex Edifices or My Favorite Father, and I read what I wrote.

Sometimes I've all but forgotten that I wrote a particular piece. Then I can cast a critical eye. Usually I come out on the positive side, and find what a reader who seems to think he's bananas calls me, "even-handed" writing. Fair, but not in the sense of being albino or like the Fox News Network isn't, but even-handed even in the comments section, stepping in to balance contentious situations, or to back-pedal on my own occasionally rash statements.

I come by this even-handed state honestly. My older sister was the driven genius, my younger brother was the cute and cuddly baby, and I was the middle child. I was always, it seems to me, the go-between in imaginary or real conflicts, seeing both sides, waffling back and forth, and carrying messages. We are trapped in our birth order. My sister is still somewhat tense and driven, my brother is still relying on personality and charm, and I am still in the middle, hoping, if I get it right often enough, to emerge from the middle and be seen as the one who was right all along.

I like the addition of "hope" to my self-definition. This came from the blog title, but I think the quality of hope glows through most of my posts -- hope that Fairhope will get back to its original mission or at least not lose all awareness of it, hope that the Marietta Johnson School will receive its proper recognition, hope that somebody will notice Campbell Scott and award him an Oscar or Sexiest Man Alive award or something. I hope that somebody will buy a book. I hope that my next project works out. I hope that somebody reads this post and comments. I hope it's a nice day. I hope the Universe will listen when I ask it for something. I hope we all prosper and my country will get out of this war.

This is only a partial list. I shall be even-handed in my hopes, but the list goes one. Add to it if you like, and be fair and even-handed when you do.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

What Is This Thing Called, Love?

October 11

A friend of this blog, who characterizes himself as Officious Oaf, recently presented me with a list of questions he thought appropriate for me to deal with here. I answered one or two of them about the nature of God and the soul, but when the question about homosexuality came up, my mind boggled and I found myself unable to deal with it.

Weeks have gone by,and now I'm ready. The mind isn't boggled any more.

Oaf: Is homosexuality a mental illness, a learned behavior or something normal within a broader scheme of things?

None of the above.

Not to cop out, but same-sex love is not defined as mental illness even by the mental health professionals any more. It has been a fact of life throughout recorded time and was accepted in all cultures, including Christian ones, at certain periods in history. The homophobes of today are being manipulated by an overbearing, hypocritical church and heterosexual indoctrination that may come, according to psychologists, from a certain amount of self-loathing.

Dr. Alfred Kinsey said that there is a sliding scale of sexual orientation, from the 100 per cent hetero, who just can’t imagine a physical attraction to his/her own sex and may actually find the thought repugnant, to 100 per cent non-hetero, who would feel the same revulsion about physical love with anyone of the opposite sex. How to explain these polar ends of the scale to each other is a problem -- especially since neither side really wants to know.

However, among the flexible majority, it would seem that more and more heterosexuals are asking the question, What is this thing called homosexuality? To me, it is simply a form of love between human beings. Am I saying, asks the oaf, that it is “normal”? I said “no” earlier, but I’d have to backtrack now. Love itself is hardly usual, but it is normal. Normal madness, perhaps, that eventually evolves into comfort, support and well-being in the presence of a particular other person. I wouldn’t agree with Spinoza here, that it could be defined as “joy attached to an object,” since there is so much conflict within love that “joy” is only one facet of it. How about “madness attached to an object”? Clever, but hardly sufficient. Such a definition would have to incorporate the reality that, with time, the madness of true love abates to a dull roar and then spirals into acceptance.

Homosexual love, then, is normal, as normal as heterosexual love is. There are statistics and there is a history that bears this out. It is not a love between adults in order to procreate, and this concept disturbs the fundamentalists, but it cannot be denied that it is a love which can lead to a lifelong commitment that often resembles marriage.

The ability to discuss homosexuality openly has led people to believe that, in not being discouraged or penalized, it is actually being encouraged, which means it is on the rise and soon will replace heterosexual alliances and thereby eliminate the human race altogether. The likelihood of this is so remote as to be humorous. Same-sex love is not so much on the rise as it is out of the closet. The pressure is off to pretend, which led to much of the anguish of the homosexual life of the past.

There are many rabbit trails I can take in this discussion. Why do heterosexual men find the visualization of same-sex love between women erotically stimulating? I don't know. Why do so many homosexual men talk funny? I can't imagine. Why has the word "gay" become the only word to use for homosexual, and it no longer means "happily excited"? And the big one, "Are people born homosexual, or is it 'learned'?" There seems to be a great deal of evidence that it is usually the former, and as a closeted homosexual friend of mine once said to me, "Do you think I or anyone else would choose to be this way, to get this treatment from society?"

It is a mystery, which is, I suppose, why the oaf asked the question in the first place. But it is an earthly mystery, and to me the biggest mystery is why anyone really needs the answer to any of these questions. And it's a mystery whether I have answered them.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Forward to Yesterday

October 10

The controversy over the principle of education, as noted in the comments to yesterday's posts, surprised me. I expected an abashed silence from readers, who have grown accustomed to reading on this blog occasional statements of the philosophy of Marietta Johnson. Mrs. Johnson consistently came down on the side of children. Instead the commenter who usually comes up with amusing quips and offbeat wisecracks let us know that he is firmly in the camp of the old school -- "Reading and writing and 'rithmetic/Taught to the tune of a hick'ry stick." Something I haven't heard defended in years.

Needless to say, I am more in accord with the response that came from John, who has raised two beautiful sons and any number of animals, and now lives in Sweden. His grasp of the simple educational approach is clear, and his defense of it as good as I could make. Check out what I wrote yesterday and the responses. There is more to be said about this, and I'll let you say it.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Children Left Behind

October 9

Several years ago there was a letter to the editor of the Mobile Press Register from a youngster defending a teacher's right to corporal punishment of misbehaving children. I was so appalled that I wrote an article that ran as a column in the paper under the banner "Your Word," which was a free local opinion space at that time.

The premise of my article was that a better educational system has been here, literally, in this place, all the time, if only people would give it a chance. The last sentence, referring to the unfortunate boy who felt students at school deserved all the spankings they could get was, "Every child is worth the effort, even those who have already been damaged by a system that celebrates authority."

This was written before the catastrophe of the Bush administration's educational policy called "No Child Left Behind." This policy focuses on the children who are bringing down the curve of those test scores and clearly ignores the middle- and upper-range intelligences who could benefit by teacher attention and special projects. The latter students are simply given more books and expected to educate themselves by reading more.

In the "Your Word" piece in 1999 I wrote, "Today we all but worship test scores. We reward children for memorizing the answers that will assure passing grades." Today I would have said, "the answers that raise the grades of the class as a whole and the teacher's reputation."

Some people's brains are wired for test-taking. They can scan a chapter in a textbook and spot the points that will be on a test, memorize the list, and score high. They have always been the teachers' darlings, and of course they usually are very intelligent people, but the test itself only says so much about them: they were able to memorize and retain and regurgitate a great deal on a certain subject on a certain day. They were the "A" students, and they grew up loving the system.

Others may have had many talents, and even greater reasoning ability. None of these things can be measured by any test. This is the reason that Marietta Johnson suggested that the system do away with tests and concentrate instead on teaching the children. "But how will we know if they've learned anything?" people cried. "How will we measure?"

There is no doubt that even if she came on the scene tomorrow, Mrs. Johnson would be ahead of her time. Her answer to that was simple. "All grading, marking, and promotion tend to develop double motives...The whole question becomes what are are needs of the body, the mind and the spirit? The new education is committed to answer these questions. In the measure that the institution provides activities and exercises which tend to bring about a sound, accomplished, beautiful body, an intelligent, sympathetic mind, and a sweet, sincere spirit, it is educational. In the measure that it does not, it is not educational -- no matter how informational it may be."

The "No Child Left Behind" program clearly leaves all children behind. The idea that more testing, more "benchmarking," more stress on children and teachers alike is not working. What is needed most of all is common sense about the nature of children.

Children are born learning, and their learning should not be equated with their answers on test devised by adults in a research facility somewhere. Their learning should be a natural part of their life, without measure, without fear of failure, without competition, learning for its own sake and with its own reward.

When you see children happy at school, it is because they are safe, they are respected, and they are really learning. It will take an organic approach to education to provide this to all. As we have learned in Fairhope, it works.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

The Great Lady's Day

October 8

Today is Marietta Johnson's birthday, a holiday of sorts in Fairhope, with a little celebration on the campus where she started her demonstration school 99 years ago. I'll go this afternoon, watch Joe Johnston cut the cake, listen to the music, and pledge silently to keep helping Mrs. Johnson's school to realize its potential in the 21st Century, particularly next year for the Centennial celebrations.

Joe Johnston himself is an interesting testament to Organic education. In the 1930's he was a multi-talented teenager with a checkered history -- a high school underachiever and dropout with no plans for the future and a misguided idea that he wouldn't amount to much in life. Persuaded by his parents to return to school and get at least a high school degree, he enrolled at what was then known as the Organic School in the town of Fairhope, where he lived. Over there, they were willing to bend rules -- in fact, rules per se meant very little to them. Mrs. Johnson's two rules for all her students were that they attend all the classes punctually and do the very best they could in all of them. Excellence meant simply one's own best, and there were no external measurements or competitions for the students at her school. This allowed the students to be as excellent as they possibly could -- and for Joe and almost all her students this meant a great deal.

He went on to graduate, and then to graduate from college with a degree in technical theatre. After serving in the Army, marrying a beautiful wife and returning from the war to live in California, Joe got a job as a set designer for CBS. His son, Joseph Johnston Jr., is a film director, responsible for such hits as October Sky and Jurassic Park III. When Joe and his wife Maurice moved back to Fairhope in the 1980's, their daughter Jill moved here too, and now she teaches art at the Marietta Johnson School.

Next year will be a big year. Joe will be named "Graduate of the Month" for January, and there will be others honored every month of 2007, and maybe from now on, the list is so long.

We're still recovering from the low enrollment syndrome we suffered a few years ago, but numbers are climbing and the re-emphasis on our arts program is a big help. Our new director, Leslie Mulcahy, is optimistic and we are confident that we will soon be out of survival mode and back into the heart of Fairhope where we belong.

This is a good day to celebrate that.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Growth of Fair Hope

October 7

Somewhere along the line the little town of Fairhope began a slide down the slippery slope of growth. In 1928, Fairhope librarian Mary Heath Lee wrote, "All too soon the village becomes a town, and our cherished local color, individuality and quaintnesses blend and tone down until little remains to distinguish us from our neighbors."

A joke circulated in Fairhope in the 1960's, "How many Fairhopians does it take to change a light bulb?" Answer, "Three. One to change the bulb and two to watch and say how nice the old bulb used to be."

Well, those comments were made in the distant past. There is little memory of what we are growing out of, even though a few like me seem to be compelled to inform the newcomers, who wait for us to finish without really listening. I was able to sell 1,000 copies of Meet Me at the Butterfly Tree between 2001 and 2003, but the new edition is getting dusty on the shelves of the two bookstores in town, and few if any of the newcomers are awed by the heritage of Fairhope. All they want to do is plan, manage and control its growth.

I wonder if it is possible to plan, manage or control growth of a community. There is a committee of beautiful young mothers who are waging a campaign to retain the K-1 Center, an elementary school complex that sits right in the heart of the city, using some of the buildings that used to be Fairhope High School. Their hearts are in the right place, surely, as they print out their placards and posters and petition for money to improve the inadequate facilities of the little school. Many of them say having that school in that place is what makes Fairhope special to them; the city will not be the same if the school is moved. They liken their movement to the one to stop Wal-Mart, and I'm sorry to tell them that I see it the same way myself. Well-intentioned, but wrong-headed and doomed.

The block on which the K-1 Center stands is prime real estate. The nursing home on the south end is to be razed, and the school building, which went up in the 1920's, is worn out. It's a pleasant place, nostalgic even, but, like so much in Fairhope, its time is past and there is money to be made by destroying it. If parents are truly seeking a link to the past at a school which is part of Fairhope's reformist heritage, why are they not investing some energy in the preservation of the Marietta Johnson School, one of the most valuable and unique institutions Fairhope has ever been a part of -- and one which would benefit their children and all of mankind? The public schools of Alabama are part of a corrupt system, and no matter how dedicated and talented any particular teacher is, there is nothing to be gained by supporting that system.

The 15 million dollar performing arts center that was to be placed out on the highway next to the new high school has changed its mind, since funding was not forthcoming from the school board. The project has been scaled back and the new theater will now be built on the campus of Faulkner State Community College, according to local newspaper reports. This will put it closer to the center of the activity of the new Fairhope, with the new 39,000-square-foot library just across the street, a new Hampton Inn just a few blocks away, and a parking deck that will house some 200 vehicles."The synergy with all of that going on has the potential to be extraordinary," said Rebecca Byrne, chairwoman of the Fairhope Center for the Arts, a group behind the fund-raising for the performance center.

Extraordinary indeed. Yesterday's Baldwin County edition of the Mobile Press-Register states that this will create a downtown hub for tourists. Proclaiming that all the projects fall in line with Fairhope's "comprehensive plan," proponents of the plan to have the theater on the campus of Faulkner will strengthen downtown. Faulkner, a two-year college that specializes in technical and vocational training, has no theater or arts programs in its Fairhope curriculum, yet its President, based in Bay Minette, is quoted as saying the new facility will be used for community concerts and programs as well as college drama productions and convocations, and will be available for the high school to use.

We're talking about a 1,000-seat house. Fairhope is full of musicians -- little trios, quartets, and community bands -- and they play mostly for free, at seemingly spontaneous events that spring up all during the year. Fairhope High School has a band and a jazz band, and there is a Baldwin Pops orchestra. Of them all, the only one I can imagine using the space would be an occasional turn by the Pops. As for theater, Fairhope High School has never had a drama department, but there is a drama club there which might grow if it had a 250-seat theater on or near its campus.

What a 1,000-seat-auditorium would get used for would be bus-and-truck companies of Broadway shows like Rent or Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk, or Jeff Foxworthy and the Blue Collar Comedy Tour. We might be able to prevail on the Alabama Shakespeare Festival to bring in a show when they're touring, and there might indeed be a concert series. But this size auditorium will be difficult to finance -- think of the utility and maintenance bills -- and almost impossible for local groups ever to use.

I am not capable of thinking long-term here. I'm too old, I guess. It seems more logical to me to build a facility based on the community's needs and wishes, rather than something that the planners saw somewhere else and decided to replicate in Fairhope. The boondoggle of the oversized library is a good example. It might have started when a few earnest people decided it would be better to have a bigger library -- but now it is so big that the City had to bale out the project by planning to move city offices to the upper floor "for a few years" in order to use some of the excess space and help underwrite the costs.

Everyone says you can't stop growth, but you can manage it. I'd just love to see an example of that happening. And I'd like to see it here.

Friday, October 06, 2006

The Sensitive Man of '06

October 6

A week ago a reader named Robin and I got into a discussion of the macho actors today; not Clark Gable, John Wayne, Steve MacQueen, or Marlon Brando. We talked about their replacements. The list was not all that long, as that style is not so much in vogue as it was before the sensitive man emerged. We've got a lot of candidates for the role of Ashley Wilkes if they ever do a remake of Gone With the Wind -- but not all that many Rhett Butlers.

You guessed it. This post is going to be the blog equivalent of a chick flick, not that there are no men allowed (and I know my loyal readers, male and female, are already getting involved), but the kind of thing that women love to drag their men into.

Last night I watched Six Degrees, a new series that features one of my all-time favorite of the younger actors, Campbell Scott. His part of the show ended in one of those unforgettable kisses between people neither of whom is me. At last a chance for this guy (who may be the next Anderson Cooper in my fantasy life) to show his talent as a romantic lead. He is the son of Colleen Dewhurst and George C. Scott, and, unlike either of them, has a gentle, sensitive magnetism that has gotten him through scores of good little Indie films, even a really excellent one called Off the Map, which he directed rather than acted in. I seek out Campbell Scott movies; now I'll be able to catch him every week, newly grey and somewhat jaded, but looking very well turned out. Every week that is, if the series, which is highbrow and sometimes a little tricky to follow, lasts.

When we were listing our not macho candidates for movie stardom, Robin came up with Tobey MacGuire, Elijah Wood, Leonardo Dicaprio, and Ashton Kutcher. She said Ben Affleck, but I don't know where to put Ben Affleck. I wouldn't put him anywhere, which is about where Hollywood has put him. I said Johnny Depp. Of course. Okay, Matt Damon. Jim Caviezel.

So let's cast a remake of GWTW, as we like to call it in the South. Scarlett O'Hara has to be sexy and tempestuous. How about Scarlett Johannsen? Same name anyway, but no Vivian Leigh. For the ultimate codependent, Melanie, let's give it to Reese Witherspoon or Gwyneth Paltrow. Rhett Butler would be Matthew McConaghey. Now, of the list above, who gets the role of Ashley Wilkes, the man Scarlett spends her life yearning for?

My vote goes to Campbell Scott.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

A Culture of Corruption

October 5

Last night I had comfortable old friend Bill Moyers on the teevee, the man who years ago introduced me and about 50 million other people to Joseph Campbell. Moyers, a sincere, smart and spiritual man, was taking on Tom Delay and other players in the Jack Abramoff scandal that shook Washington a few years back.

In a PBS series that will ultimately explore such topics as evangelical Christians in the "green" movement back to the land and the future of the Internet, Moyers will take us to that shining land of his own heart, mind and soul -- the true relationship of government, the corporations, and church in American life.

The Abramoff segment exposed a long-term corrupt plan facilitated by the cynicism of the electorate. In fact, it stated that the cynicism itself was orchestrated by, or at least incorporated into the plan. At the conclusion of the broadcast, Moyers sat down with Thomas Frank, author of What's the Matter With Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America and Norman Ornstein, who wrote a book called The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track. Both men are disillusioned and brave, and both do their best to help us navigate through the labyrinth of complex and converging paths that have gotten our nation's leaders to the place where they now are. They show us how an Abramoff and a Tom Delay could happen when we are only trying to be like Bill Moyers, trusting, faithful, and doing the right thing as best we can.

Click on the link above to read more about the special, including a transcript. Living in fair hope, I wonder if there is anyway the citizens can ever get the country back, if it will ever be responsive to our needs, if there is any way when honesty and plain talk will ever trump money and hidden motives again.

In our short-sighted, self-centered way, we have always thought it smart not to trust politicians, a quality which Ornstein says has played into the hands of the amateurs with their own self-interests at heart. The candidate has only to say, "I'm not a politician," and we elect him. But politics at best is the art of compromise, even of "politeness," or at least that is the root of the word. Ornstein says a politician should not always be synonymous with "crook."

It has been a long time since Americans could grasp that. I wonder what it will take to make that happen.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Writing About Fairhope or Fair Hope

October 4

With all the mess in the world, all the excitement on the political scene, with all the other blogs leaping to express opinions about relevant topics, why would there be one like this that varies from writing about fair hope to writing about Fairhope?

I'm glad you asked. To answer, I have updated, edited, and excerpted a section from the introduction to my second "Fairhope" book When We Had the Sky:

"A few years ago I published a little book called Meet Me at the Butterfly Tree. It was a memoir of a town called Fairhope on the Eastern Shore of Mobile Bay in Alabama. That book began as a collection of letters between me and Robert E. Bell, author of a novel called The Butterfly Tree which was set in Fairhope in the 1950's. Bob and I had struck up a correspondence based on our memories of the town, and his letters were so vibrant, so evocative, that I felt our back-and-forth would make good reading for both the Fairhope ciizens who remembered some of the same events and people we did and the many who did not.

"Although Bob died before the book was published, he had encouraged me to finish it with what I knew of Fairhope. I added chapters of character sketches and research on people I remembered who to me exemplified the spirit that once was Fairhope. When published, Meet Me at the Butterfly Tree was a success on its own terms; it informed as well as stirred up memories...

"...As for me, I felt there was something missing in its portrayal of Fairhope. I had never been entirely comfortablee with Bob's characterization of the magical aspects of Fairhope, not even when the original The Butterfly Tree was published in 1959. The butterfly image was born in his imagination, the imagination of a visitor from the Birmingham area who grafted his own fantasiies onto the Fairhope he found. The town was magic for him, certainly, a young man with an intellectual and artistic bent, and a need to express himself. The Butterfly Tree was a coming of age novel a la young Truman Capote, the boy with the bangs whose picture graced the cover of Other Voices, Other Rooms and enchanted the young Andy Warhol and others. Bob's picture on the back of The Butterfly Tree was quite handsome too.

"Although we knew some of the same people and lived through some of the same times, Bob's Fairhope wasn't really the Fairhope I knew. To me, Fairhope was unconventional, surely, and a place to grow up among the unconventional, from the ardent proponents of the theory of Single Tax to the intellectual keepers of the Unitarian flame and the families who supported the progressive education approach of the Marietta Johnson School of Organic Education.

"As such, it was not a place that celebrated the ordinary or rewarded the dull. Its legacy of Progressivism and rebellion made it a place to grow up without the requirement of conformity. It did not so much encourage eccentricity as accept it as a natural if somewhat amusing choice. And, as far as I knew, Fairhope had been founded on principles that assured a certain off-centeredness in personality for generations to come."

Now that I read that, I realize it's pretty good stuff. I'm still waiting to hear from Randall Williams at New South Press in Montgomery as to whether the book will ever be published, but I can use some of it for the blog. I added that about Andy Warhol because of my recent posts about him, and I learned from the PBS Special about his fixation on the Truman Capote picture.

As for the purpose of this blog, it was always indirectly defined as a way to sell copies of Meet Me at the Butterfly Tree, so it's time for me to pitch the book one more time. It's for sale on amazon.com or from the publisher at iUniverse.com, or from the author directly. If you are a regular reader of Finding Fair Hope and haven't read it, act now. Order your copy today. If just happening on this blog and you hate blatant plugs, I'm sorry about that. A sample of the writing can be found above and throughout this blog, and I would love to think the book has appeal beyond the few fortunate citizens who happen to have a Fairhope connection.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Why We Blog

October 3

It's one of those existential questions, to blog or not to blog...and with a day promising nothing in particular, the time seemed right to examine the very reason anybody blogs, much less me.

Popular blogs can have hundreds of readers a day -- the really big ones have millions -- and yet I only draw about 20 hits that aren't repeats from the same people, or myself checking my Site Meter.

Yet every morning I consider it a job to sit down and write something to put out into cyberspace. In pre-Internet years I often wrote little journal essays, considerably longer than a blogpost, but I kept them in a carton somewhere, not for publication, not for anything, I suppose, except an exercise in writing. I know lots of people in Fairhope who want to "be writers;" whether or not they actually are compelled to write, I have no idea. To "be a writer" in Fairhope is to have a certain amount of local celebrity -- to have a short story in one of the Blue Moon Café anthologies, or to have a research project in the works, or to be "writing a novel." Dreams of those book signings at Page and Palette fairly dance in the heads of the wannabes as well as the real writers.

But a blog is something different. It is tangible. Like a column in the newspaper, it goes out there with your picture and name on it. It doesn't -- as we used to say in the advertising business -- have much reach or penetration, but you wrote it, and somebody somewhere just might read it.

Blogs can be forums for opinion. The most popular ones are political, or at least news-oriented. I have a friend who used to read mine daily, but now has backed off, saying that all I'm doing is psychologically skinny dipping for my own good. There is another word for that which starts with something that sounds like "master" and is not so pretty, but he didn't say that, and neither did I. Let's face it, I write a blog because I like to write, and sometimes it helps me clear up how I feel.

Most people run out of things to blog after a few weeks. Many do not write every day. Even I usually skip a day a week, to let the day's blog get more exposure.

There is no telling who will read a blog post on any given day. Some find it through the search engines -- someone came in yesterday because of my mention of Ashton Kutcher, but looking for a remark that Kutcher had made regarding Bill Clinton having made a pass a Demi Moore (wife of Kutcher). I never heard the quote and certainly never posted about it; now I may get dozens of hits from people looking for more information about it. On the other hand, if readers are seeking information about Henry George, Marietta Johnson, or Upton Sinclair, they may well find something somewhere in this blog. Occasionally there are visitors who came in looking for such. I expect some interest in yesterday's post on Gertrude Stein, but there has not been any. Not yet.

The blog format is natural to me. I can say what I like and even leave the typos in. I never know if I'll post something literary, something about the theatre, something about Fairhope or something suggesting there is fair hope for the world. I might choose to write about something rather emotional that I want to flush out of my system. The audience, or lack of it, is interesting but not the crucial point.

Blogging can be an end in itself, rather than a means to an end. In my case, that's probably it. I think, therefore I blog.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Paris in My Mind

October 2

The books I'm reading and the pictures in them take me on a daily mind trip to Paris in the early part of the 20th Century. I am in the company of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, looking at the two of them through the eyes of others and looking at the world through their eyes. It's an enchantment. I recommend the trip to you.

Gertrude Stein had spent much of her early childhood in Paris. No one ever thinks of Gertrude Stein as a child, but she was once a little girl, hard as that might be to picture. There are photographs of her in childhood, the youngest in the family, gussied up as children were in those days, even with the long hair, skirts, and ribbons. Smarter than most other children, and surely less girly than most other little girls, she observed the Paris of the 1870's and wanted to stay there. Born in Pennsylvania and living much of her childhood in Oakland, California ("There is no there there"), when Gertrude Stein lived in Paris she made it her own. ("America is my country and Paris is my home town.")

It was no doubt a beautiful place to be. She had spent her youth in the shadow of her older brother Leo, but when she met the odd-looking Miss Toklas it was love at first sight for both of them. Her brother left them to live in the apartment at 27 rue de Fleurus which he had shared with Gertrude, the apartment in which artists and writers came and went. The Steins had collected artists as well as art; Miss Toklas became the silent, solicitious if always-in-the-background hostess to throngs of young people who came to appreciate and be appreciated by Gertrude Stein in her emergence as an artist in her own medium of the English (or maybe I should say American) language.

The two women shared a bond and a mutual cause, both convinced that Gertrude Stein was a genius. Pablo Picasso apparently agreed, as did Matisse, as did Ernest Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, Sherwood Anderson, André Gide, Clive Bell, and ever so many others. The high ceilings in the old building gave them huge walls to hang their extraordinary collection of paintings they liked; they like the new things, which looked oddly right in the antique surroundings. Picasso was a young friend to both women. His portrait of Gertrude Stein is one of the most important of the pictures she ever was to possess. He worked and worked at it, wasn't happy with the face and made many attempts to get it right. When he declared it finished, someone said, "But it doesn't look like her," and he replied, "It will."

Gertrude Stein's writing was revolutionary. She and Miss Toklas assumed it would be easy to see that, easy to understand and easy to read. She repeated phrases, repeated sentences, made a statement clearly and then made it again, sometimes repeating it within itself and of itself. Like Fred Astaire's dancing, it looked easy, but wasn't. Miss Toklas contributed food to the party, and supported Miss Stein by screening and editing her visitors subtly, accepting most as friends but quietly caustic about others. The two enjoyed the art of fashion, that is, in creating personal style. They dressed oddly and their appearance caused quite a stir.

Life in Paris in those days is something to be nostalgic about, even if you weren't there. I've been to Paris many times, and know its magic to be real; and know that the Paris of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas is my Paris too, far more than the brash young Pompidou Museum -- although they ladies would have surely loved it -- or the I.M. Pei glass pyramid that blights the entrance of the Louvre with its inappropriateness. I wish I could have taken tea with the Misses Stein and Toklas, or been a fly on the wall when Miss Stein coached Hemingway with his prose style, or just passed them on the street in the traffic of the 1920's.

I am thinking about Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas because they are coming to Fairhope. They would have been quite interested in the Fairhope of their own day, in fact, I might say I would not have been surprised to heard that they had actually visited. But that will happen in a few months, and I shall inform you as the time approaches. In the meantime, find what you can to read about them and the locales they did visit and the people who visited them. It's a wonderful trip.

And do not be surprised, for there is no surprise in surprise, if the future holds surprises, and those surprises include a visit from Gertrude Stein, even in the writing you read here. There is a here here.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Abundance of Fair Hope

October 1

I haven’t written much about the concept of abundance lately. In fact, the last time I posted about abundance may well have been in that chunk of posts that I deleted by mistake in July. However it may have been, it seems the time to review the abundance in life and the fair hope for its continuation.

I think of abundance just as I wake up – in that dreamy state before real consciousness sets in. Thoughts are intruding into the dreams of sleep, thoughts about writing a blog, planning a meeting, shopping for groceries, feeding the cat – any one of a number of everyday things that make up an abundance of life itself. I thank whatever gods may be for the gifts that have brought me to this particular spot, in this body, in this bed, in this house, in this town, and on up. I wallow in what I call “doing” abundance, cherishing the moment of the autumn morning,, equipping myself with an overlay of joy with which to address the day.

Some of us are cut off from the emotions of our life, deliberately at that. We edit the hard stuff, delete the painful or even the potentially painful, in favor of a less uncomfortable yet less balanced middle ground. When doing abundance, we can get in touch with the whole of life’s experience, and evaluate the lessons learned by conflict – at the same appreciating that this particular challenge is unique to us and enhances our opportunities for abundance.

Certainly such an attitude is a luxury, provided by time and space, and to embrace the pain at the moment of joy is not an automatic lesson. But doing abundance is not natural either; it is an effort of will at any time, even when abundance is clear. The desired result, daily progress and forward motion, is worth this effort made in its behalf – and the result is achievable for all of us.