Thursday, October 31, 2013

River Phoenix, Twenty Years On

by Pa Rock
Film Fan

River Phoenix was just barely twenty-three-years-old and had been acting a brief decade when he died twenty years ago tonight.  The young man was partying at a club owned by fellow actor Johnny Depp when he told a friend that he felt like he was overdosing.    As Phoenix and his entourage left the club, he collapsed on the Los Angeles sidewalk and died. 

The first time I saw young Mr. Phoenix on the big screen was while watching The Mosquito Coast, a 1986 film based on a novel by Paul Theroux  -  a book that I had read a few years before and that had ginned up my interest in seeing the movie.  Phoenix, who would have been fifteen or sixteen during the filming, played the son of Harrison Ford and Helen Mirren, a couple who had packed up the kids and fled to Central America where they planned to manufacture ice in the jungle and thrive in an survivalist lifestyle.

Over the next couple of years River Phoenix received critical acclaim for his performances in Stand by Me(1986) and Running on Empty (1988), but his most brilliant on-screen performance was as a young, narcoleptic street hustler in Gus Van Sant’s 1991 masterpiece, My Own Private Idaho.   In that film Phoenix (Mike) and Keanu Reeves (Scott) were young male prostitutes working the streets of Portland, Oregon.    Mike had been abandoned (or taken from) his family at a very young age.  He was gay, usually dealt with male clients, and was in love with Scott.    Scott, on the other hand, was straight, but living an outlandish lifestyle primarily to embarrass his rich and politically powerful father.   Together the two young men teamed up on a road trip to Idaho and ultimately Italy in search of the Mike’s mother.

My Own Private Idaho is an exceptional movie, one that showcases the acting range and abilities of both River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves.  I saw it as a new release, and again recently on a movie channel.  It has held up very well.

River Phoenix was ultimately destroyed by his own private demons, but in his short life he did some wonderful work.  It would have been great if he could have hung around for a few more decades and left an even bigger imprint on the American cultural landscape, but what he did accomplish in just a few brief years was significant.  He made his mark and is still remembered as an accomplished actor – but sadly, one who exited the stage too soon.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Another Expert Heard From

by Pa Rock
Citizen Journalist
       (And not an expert!)

In its never-ending quest to sculpt public opinion, Rupert’s Rag, aka The Wall Street Journal, has concocted a panel of “experts” to pen editorials on various subjects.   Earlier this week one of those experts – Thighmaster queen Suzanne Somers – used the editorial page of the once venerable Journal to have her say on the subject of Obamacare.    Her piece was based largely on personal anecdotes dealing with her in-law's interactions with the Canadian health care system, and a couple of false quotes.

Ms. Somers called the Affordable Care Act “socialized medicine” and “a greater Ponzi scheme than anything pulled off by Bernie Madoff.”    She credited V.I. Lenin as saying “Socialized medicine is the keystone to the arch of the socialist state,” and said that Winston Churchill had proclaimed “Control your citizens’ health care and you control your citizens.”  Neither gentleman had uttered the words that Ms. Somers tried to shove into their mouths.

Fortunately for her, the 67-year-old fitness expert and promoter of dubious medical therapies doesn’t have to trust her own health to the vagaries and unknowns of Obamacare.  She is eligible for Medicare.

Enjoy your socialized medicine, Chrissy – and rage on!

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Eating the Sheep

by Pa Rock
Citizen Journalist

"Elevator - elevator
We got the shaft!"
       Old Sports Cheer

 My grandparents, Dan and Sis (Nancy Jane Roark) Sreaves spent the better part of their lives farming and raising seven children in an area of rural Newton County, Missouri, called Swars Prairie.   The Sreaves family and their neighbors were so poor, and self-reliant by nature, that the Great Depression did not impact them nearly as much as it did their city cousins.  One old family story relates that Granddad became so angry at one of his brothers when he learned his errant sibling accepted some government “relief,” that the two quit speaking to one another.

The old farm couple attended a small community church – one of those where the minister followed someone home every Sunday after morning services for a noon meal, undoubtedly as a way to supplement his meager income.  The preacher’s salary was paid in full by the congregants, and he was always dependent upon their faithfulness and generosity.    I heard that once when circumstances were unusually dire, my grandfather took over paying the preacher’s entire salary out of his own pocket.

In those days the minister was seen as the shepherd, and those attending his church constituted the flock.  It was the preacher’s job to guide the flock in religious matters, and in return for his guidance, the flock gave him the protection of an insignificant wage with which to maintain his family.  It was an arrangement that would hopefully lead to a moral life and salvation, but nobody expected to get rich from the process.

That was all back in the days when preachers still warned about the rich having less chance of entering the Kingdom of Heaven than a camel did of passing through the eye of a needle.   Those who became burdened with money were expected to rid themselves of it by helping the less fortunate.  Seriously.

Sis Sreaves has been gone now over sixty years (I barely remember her), and Dan departed this life a little over forty years ago.  If there is a Heaven, Dan and Sis are surely there.  They spent their lives working hard, being good parents and grandparents, and caring for others.

That’s what Christianity used to be all about – helping others – doing unto others as you would have them do unto you.  Now, of course, Christianity has, in many places, morphed into a greedy monster that would be unrecognizable and appalling to good people from years ago, people like my grandparents.

There’s a story out of Charlotte, North Carolina, that has been getting quite a bit of play in the news this week.   It regards a “mega-church” minister who has been trying to explain to the press why he and his family need a 16,000 square foot (more or less) new home safely hidden in 19 acres of dense forest – a project with a price tag estimated somewhere north of a million dollars.  The minister, thirty-three-year-old Stephen Furtick, of the Elevation Church told his congregation that the lavish, new, seven-and-a-half- bathroom home is a “gift from God,” and that he was sorry if the new mega-home had forced them to have “uncomfortable conversations” in recent days.

Congregants of the Elevation Church are called "Elevators."

Pastor Furtick contends that his mansion in the woods is being paid for from money he earned on books he has written and his worldwide speaking engagements.  He also notes that some of his book money is given back to the church.  Skeptics note that he should be returning money to the church since his books are written on church time and advertised in his sermons.  The rub is that the church finances are controlled in such a way that it is hard to follow the money.

The pastor’s salary is a secret, and it is not controlled by the church.  Even the most faithful "Elevators" are left in the dark when it comes to salaries paid out by their church.

Salaries are set by an appointed group of five other mega-church pastors.  These pastors also appear and speak at each other’s churches for a fee.  It appears to be a tight little circle that circumvents the members of the church who generate much of the income.  The church recently posted its 2012 annual report on its website, a report that did not include any information on salaries.

Ole Anthony is president of the Trinity Foundation – a group that examines religious fraud.   He feels some ethical issues exist, particularly in regard to the book business and the pastor’s obvious personal wealth.  In speaking of mega-church pastors, Anthony laments, “The idea of being a servant is lost.  It’s just a job and they try to make more and more money, and the congregations are losing out.  It just infuriates me.   It’s the opposite of the pastor being the servant and feeding the sheep, the pastor’s eating the sheep.”

Somewhere Jesus weeps.

"I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians.
Your Christians are so unlike your Christ."
       Mahatma Gandhi

Monday, October 28, 2013

Monday's Poetry: "Nothing But Death"

by Pa Rock
Poetry Appreciator

Realizing that this is "spirit week" (Devil's Night, Angel's Night, Halloween, Day of the Dead, and All Souls Day), I thought that something a bit macabre - or at least minimally morbid - was in order.  The following, "Nothing But Death," was penned by the late Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda, for the Latin American celebration of deceased relatives through the Day of the Dead.

The Day of the Dead, a heady mixture of Memorial Day and Halloween, begins on November 1st and ends November 2nd.    It is celebrated throughout Latin America and in many Latino communities and households in the United States.

Nothing But Death
by Pablo Neruda
     (translated by Robert Bly)

There are cemeteries that are lonely,
graves full of bones that do not make a sound,
the heart moving through a tunnel,
in it darkness, darkness, darkness,
like a shipwreck we die going into ourselves,
as though we were drowning inside our hearts,
as though we lived falling out of the skin into the soul.

And there are corpses,
feet made of cold and sticky clay,
death is inside the bones,
like a barking where there are no dogs,
coming out from bells somewhere, from graves somewhere,
growing in the damp air like tears of rain.

Sometimes I see alone
coffins under sail,
embarking with the pale dead, with women that have dead hair,
with bakers who are as white as angels,
and pensive young girls married to notary publics,
caskets sailing up the vertical river of the dead,
the river of dark purple,
moving upstream with sails filled out by the sound of death,
filled by the sound of death which is silence.

Death arrives among all that sound
like a shoe with no foot in it, like a suit with no man in it,
comes and knocks, using a ring with no stone in it, with no finger in it,
comes and shouts with no mouth, with no tongue, with no throat.
Nevertheless its steps can be heard
and its clothing makes a hushed sound, like a tree.

I'm not sure, I understand only a little, I can hardly see,
but it seems to me that its singing has the color of damp violets,
of violets that are at home in the earth,
because the face of death is green,
and the look death gives is green,
with the penetrating dampness of a violet leaf
and the somber color of embittered winter.

But death also goes through the world dressed as a broom,
lapping the floor, looking for dead bodies,
death is inside the broom,
the broom is the tongue of death looking for corpses,
it is the needle of death looking for thread.

Death is inside the folding cots:
it spends its life sleeping on the slow mattresses,
in the black blankets, and suddenly breathes out:
it blows out a mournful sound that swells the sheets,
and the beds go sailing toward a port
where death is waiting, dressed like an admiral.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Preparing to Farm

by Pa Rock
Digger of Dirt

October will end later this week, leaving me just four more months of living in the desert.  Sometime during the first week in March of next year I will be pulling up to my little farm in the Ozarks and unpacking into retirement life.  It has been a long time coming, but now that retirement is in sight, I am finding the anticipation to be almost unbearable.

So I sit in the desert trying to prepare myself to hit the ground running when I am finally home in the peaceful green world of southern Missouri.  My new business cards reflecting my retirement address have arrived, and I catch myself staring wistfully at them trying to make the time go faster.  I also have one room filled with empty packing boxes - got to get started on that chore.  It's never too early to begin packing!

The Burpee Seed Catalogue has been ordered and when it arrives I will dedicate a few hours to researching and making some preliminary decisions about what will go into my little garden.  The Murray McMurray Hatchery Catalogue is already here.  I know that I want about twenty laying hens (probably Rhode Island Reds), a couple of roosters (for noise and antics), and three or four bronze-breasted turkeys.  I will also invest in some guineas to keep the bugs down and to send up an alarm in the event of late-night intruders, and probably a couple of geese - depending on the state of the pond.

Murray McMurray and the local feed store will be big fans of mine!

I have also purchased a book on composting with worms, an interesting concept that has multiple environmental positives.

Retirement should reflect life at a calmer pace, but learning to slow down may take awhile!

Saturday, October 26, 2013

The Maid's Version

by Pa Rock

Daniel Woodrell returns to his fictional community of West Table in Howl County, Missouri, for his latest novel, The Maid's Version - a tale of an explosion at a packed, small town dance hall in the late 1920's that reverberates through the rural setting for generations.

The story explores several possibilities for the cause of the explosion, but quietly coalesces into the version of events that is put forth by an area domestic, a maid by the name of Alma DeGeer Dunahew who has worked in some of the more prominent homes of the community.  Alma's younger sister, Ruby, a woman with a reputation, was killed in the massive and unexplained explosion which claimed the lives of dozens of local residents.  Ruby's death haunts and possesses Alma.

The dance hall and the explosion, like West Table and Howl County, are barely fictional.  Mr. Woodrell lives and writes in the town of West Plains in beautiful Howell County, Missouri, a place which he has repeatedly featured in his fiction.  On Friday, the 13th day of April in 1928, the Bond Dance Hall in West Plains was destroyed by a huge explosion that broke most of the town's windows, warped cars on the street, and was felt ten miles away.  Sixty people were at the dance that night, many of whom were prominent members of local society.  Thirty-seven were killed in the explosion and subsequent fire, and of those twenty were so burned and mangled that they could not be identified.  They were buried in a mass grave at the local cemetery.

The Bond Dance Hall, like the dance hall in Woodrell's novel, was located above a garage, and one of the theories bandied about through the intervening years was that a car in the garage might have been leaking gasoline.  Others speculated that the fire was intentional, and one version suggested that one truck in the garage was loaded with dynamite which was somehow ignited.

Years ago as a young high school history teacher in Mountain View, Missouri, in northern "Howl" County, some of my students were doing independent research into the history of the area.  One young man made a presentation to the class regarding information he had garnered from interviewing a relative.  His talk was on the dance hall explosion in West Plains.  He was excited about the story and had made a trip to the local library for more information on the event.  His excitement, of course, was infectious.

The legend was growing.

Daniel Woodrell is an exceptional writer.  (The Los Angeles Times Book Review compares him to Faulkner.)   His books, particularly Tomato Red and Winter's Bone, show the Ozarks in a stark reality and more detail than film could ever capture.  The Maid's Version, like his previous works, is fiction that rings very, very true -  particularly to someone who has wandered through many of those same locales that Woodrell describes with such fierce honesty.

The novels of Daniel Woodrell are always unsettling treats.  The Maid's Version is no exception.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Boone in Zizzer Land

by Pa Rock
Citizen Journalist

There were times when I knew and understood the unique cultures of high schools.   My own high school was housed in the same building as our elementary and junior high schools, and movement from grade to grade was hardly noticeable.   We had around one hundred students who were classified as being in high school – grades nine through twelve.  

My graduating class consisted of twenty-two tight friends, several of whom are no longer with us.   Courses were prescribed by the state and the local school board, and, with few exceptions, everyone studied the same subjects.  School days were long.  We had seven classes a day, including a study hall, and an hour-long lunch in which students were free to walk several blocks to town or to roam the countryside adjacent to the school.    Students who wanted to smoke during lunch could do so in a designated location on the school’s campus.

A few years later I was a teacher and then principal of a large rural high school with several hundred students and a young, progressive, and under-paid staff of teachers.  By then the curriculum had expanded to the point where students had some significant choices to make as they pursued a degree.  They could head toward college, or a career in agriculture, auto mechanics, or nursing and a few other vocational fields.  By then smoking had moved indoors to the restrooms, and tobacco wasn’t the only smoke being inhaled.  High schools of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s had more choices, more rules and restrictions, more noise, more discontent, and more opportunities.

My time with high schools ended in 1983.  That was followed by a few years of administering junior highs and elementary schools, and then two decades of wandering down other rabbit holes.  During the years since I left secondary school administration, my contact with high schools has been limited to brief, job-related visits as a social worker.  My once-formidable understanding of what made secondary schools work has grown out-of-date and exceedingly dusty.

Last night I was re-connected to high school culture when my 14-year-old grandson called and talked for nearly an hour.  Boone started high school this August after completing all of his previous schooling in a fairly small country school.  Now he is a West Plains “Zizzer” attending a variety of classes with hundreds and hundreds of other young people.  

And Boone is excited about school!  His teachers are young, bright, clever, and know how to motivate students.  My grandson told me about his science teacher who took the class outside to launch rockets, and his drama teacher and the unusual things she does in order to help students learn.  He discussed his government class and all that they are learning there – and the research paper that he is writing about Joe Petrosino (look him up).  He mentioned school motivators, such as the Gold Card he received for his grades – a card that allows him to go outside during lunch – and other benefits that he receives from the school for being such a good student.  Old Pa Rock understands the strength of positive reinforcements, and appreciates the fact that Boone’s high school understands them as well.

Most of our long conversation focused on the adventure of high school, but we also talked about the weather and the climate differences between Arizona and Missouri – and we inevitably discussed some of the things we would do when I get moved back there in the spring.

My grandson is turning into such a fine young man, and I certainly credit his teachers, past and present, for helping to guide him along in such a positive manner. 

Go Zizzers!