Audience Participation Friday: Mammal Encounters

A friend of a friend left the house while an electrician was doing some work in the kitchen. When she got back a couple of hours later, the electrician said, “How did you get your cat and your raccoon to get along so well?”
“Pardon?” the woman said.

“The cat and the raccoon,” the electrician said. “Right after you left, the raccoon came through the cat door and waddled across the kitchen and started eating out of the cat food bowl. The cat just watched him do it. It was the dernedest thing. I wouldn’t have thought you could keep a pet cat and a pet raccoon together.”

“But I don’t have a pet raccoon,” the woman said.

Apparently a wild raccoon had been coming through the cat door and into the house, and on a regular enough basis that the cat was used to it. I guess the raccoon knew to wait until the homeowner’s car left the driveway, though it didn’t seem to understand the significance of the electrician’s truck out front.

Today’s Audience Participation Friday topic is mammal encounters. Tell us your anecdotes about wild mammals you have known, from field mice to possums to bears. Armadillos, by the way, are mammals. A surprising number of people think armadillos are a kind of reptile, but they are as mammalian as you are and are therefore eligible for this APF. Dolphins and whales, I don’t have to remind you, are also mammals.

Advice for the Lovelorn, Feechie Style

A Chicago man recently found himself in hot water for keeping a four-foot alligator in his apartment. When asked what he wanted with an alligator, Dewayne Yarbrough gave the obvious answer: he kept it in order to impress women.

What kind of women would be impressed by an alligator? She-feechies, of course. I don’t know how many single she-feechies live in Chicago. On a per-capita basis, I’m guessing not many. They can be elusive in any case. Nor do they often resort to online dating services. No wonder Mr. Yarbrough felt the need to live with an alligator; the city dweller seeking a feechie girlfriend has to be creative.

When he went before the judge later, Mr. Yarbrough took back the claim that he was trying to woo women. He was playing it cool–also a good idea any time you’re trying to impress she-feechies. He said he got the alligator because he was allergic to cats. Hmm…I’m not sure that’s going to advance his cause with the ladies.

The judge pointed out that it would have only been a matter of time before the alligator bit someone. What did Mr. Yarbrough plan to do then? “Throw it near a swamp,” he answered. He never gave the alligator a name, for the obvious reason that it wouldn’t come when he called anyway. “You can’t tame an alligator,” Mr. Yarbrough said.

You can read the story–and see a video–here.

I’m sure Dewayne Yarbrough isn’t the only lovelorn person out there looking for that special feechie someone. I’d be interested in hearing any other feechie dating tips you might have.

Bonus Feechie-Related Arrest Report: Three Michigan men are in trouble for stealing a fourteen-foot taxidermied alligator (pictured at the right), strapping it to a pickup truck, and going mudbogging. You can read the story here. My favorite detail: these men were 53, 55, and 60.

Wisdom and Imagination

I’ve been pondering the truth that wisdom requires a certain amount of imagination. Consider that experiment that you probably heard about if you took Psychology 101. The lady with the clipboard sits a kindergartener down in front of a little candy bar–the kind people put in trick-or-treat bags–and says “I’m going to leave now; I’ll come back in half an hour. You’re welcome to eat this candy bar. But if you can resist eating it until I get back, I’ll give you a big candy bar in half an hour.” Then she leaves the poor kid to his ruminations. About 70-75% of the time, the little candy bar was gone by the time the lady with the clipboard got back.
The five-year-old’s inability to wait for the big candy bar was really a failure of the imagination. The thing he could see seemed so much realer than the thing he could not see.He understood that a big candy bar would be better than a little candy bar. But still, that big candy bar was a theoretical candy bar. The little one was right there in front of him. He could hold it in his hand, rattle the wrapper.

The candy bar experiment is really a reworking of the story of Jacob and Esau. Esau came home ravenous from the hunt. When he saw the stew his brother had made, he wanted it more than anything in the world. So when Jacob offered to trade a bowl of stew for his birthright, he jumped at the offer. The birthright, after all was theoretical–the right be the father of a great nation. When Esau looked around him he saw a remote outpost–a few sheep and goats, three or four tents, a couple of parents who didn’t always get along, and a brother with whom he had very little in common. Some great nation. But a bowl of stew–that was something he could sink his teeth into.

There are many reasons to read stories and tell stories, both fiction and non-fiction. One of the most important is this: Foolishness turns out most times to be a failure of the imagination. The things that are right before our eyes blind us to larger truths that require some imagination to see.

The Evolution of an Illustration

Digging through some old papers recently I found my original sketch for the illustration that became–in more capable hands than mine–the frontispiece for The Charlatan’s Boy. I thought you might find it interesting. Here’s a scan of my drawing (you can click on any of the images below for a more detailed look, by the way):

Not bad for an amateur, I don’t think, but not good enough for our purposes. Though I have harbored hopes of illustrating my own books, the picture you see above is really as good as I can do. So I sent this drawing to Abe Goolsby (who also illustrated The Bark of the Bog Owl, though not the other Wilderking books), and within a few days, Abe had sent me this:

I told Abe it looked great, but could he make the boy uglier–maybe with longer hair in the back, in the hairstyle the young people call a “mullet”–and change the cat from a bobcat to a panther? He came back with this:

I told Abe, “Yow! That’s too ugly.” So he went back to the original ugly boy, put the whole thing on scratchboard, and gave us this frontispiece, which I am very, very proud of:

The moral of the story: leave the illustration to illustrators.

Bonus Illustration Tutorial: If any of you are aspiring children’s book illustrators, you absolutely have to know how to draw a penguin. Here’s a link to illustrator Oliver Jeffers’ tutorial, “How to draw…penguins.” The first step is “Borrow a penguin.” The advice gets more practical, but still funny.

Audience Participation Friday: Summer Movies

My wife and I are going to be sans children next week, and we aim to go to the movies. We’re definitely going to see Tree of Life, which has finally come to Nashville. But we’re thinking about going to the movies more than once. What are your recommendations? I want to hear about what movies you’ve enjoyed lately and why. Besides those movies that are currently in cinemas, we’re also accepting recommendations for movies that are on Netflix Watch Instantly.
It’s been a long time since I’ve been to the movie theater, so my recommendations are going to have to be all Netflix selections. The selection on Watch Instantly is hit-and-miss, except for documentaries, which are surprisingly comprehensive. Two of my favorite documentaries are Vernon, Florida and The King of Kong.

Vernon, Florida is a very slow-paced documentary about a very slow-paced town full of some of the most eccentric people ever captured on film. I take that back; for the most part, they’re not flamboyantly eccentric–just an exaggeration of the eccentricity you’re liable to encounter in any Southern small town. There’s the obsessive turkey hunter, the worm farmer, the preacher who devotes more time than you would think possible to the word “therefore.”

The filmmaker Errol Morris originally went to Vernon, Florida to tell a different story. Vernon was the world capital for accidental dismemberment. The locals used to take out accidental dismemberment insurance policies on themselves. Then, lo and behold, an astonishing percentage of them got accidentally dismembered–hands got stuck in farm machinery, people accidentally shot their own feet off. When the filmmakers showed up in Vernon with their cameras to talk to these people, they were not well received. But they noticed a lot of other interesting people in town, and they became the basis of the documentary. The movie actually makes no mention of either amputation or insurance policies.

The King of Kong is about a guy named Steve Wiebe who decides to be the world champion of the Donkey Kong arcade game. It is much more fascinating than it sounds; it has one of the greatest villains you’ll ever see in a documentary. I heartily commend this movie to you. [I just saw that it’s no longer on Watch Instantly. That’s too bad. This is a very fun movie.]

How about you? What are you watching these days?

Little Flannery O’Connor on Film

Flannery O’Connor’s first brush with fame came when she was five years old. She had a chicken that could walk backwards, and somehow the people at Pathé News—makers of newsreels for movie theaters—found out about it. They sent a cameraman from New York to the O’Connor home in Savannah, Georgia to get footage of the unusual chicken and its owner, who was known as “Mary Flannery” at the time (she only dropped the “Mary” after she went off to graduate school).
O’Connor spoke of this experience as the beginning of her obsession with barnyard fowl, which culminated in the peacocks for which she was famous. She wrote,

From that day with the Pathé man I began to collect chickens. What had been only a mild interest became a passion, a quest. I had to have more and more chickens. I favored those with one green eye and one orange or with overlong necks and crooked combs. I wanted one with three legs or three wings, but nothing in that line turned up…I could sew in a fashion and I began to make clothes for chickens. A gray bantam named Colonoel Eggbert wore a quite pique coat with a lace collar and two buttons in the back.

Her taste for the ridiculous—and her interest in the grotesque—started early, it seems. I recently ran across the newsreel of little “Mary O’Connor” on the British Pathe website and thought you might find it interesting. She only appears in the first few seconds; after that, it gets silly, with film of barnyard animals run backwards so they appear to walk in reverse–which, I suppose, was an interesting novelty in 1930.

RedeemedReader.com: An Interview

Redeemed Reader is a great resource for parents looking for excellent books for their children to read. Its proprietors are Janie Cheaney, whom you may know from World magazine, and Emily Whitten who has been a children’s book editor. Janie reviewed The Charlatan’s Boy last week, and today she’s published an interview we recently did, in which we discussed fatherhood, orphanhood, and writing good. You might want to check it out, and bookmark www.RedeemedReader.com.

 

Audience Participation Friday: Stories About Grace

I was at a women’s book group earlier this week and the the conversation turned to stories about grace. (Did you know The Charlatan’s Boy is appropriate for women’s book groups? It is.) I tried to draw a distinction between good, moral stories that are compatible with Christianity, and stories that actually hinge on the action of grace that is at the heart of the gospel. There aren’t all that many immoral or amoral children’s books and movies out there. Where stories depict the struggle between good and evil, good almost always wins. Characters’ actions have consequences; people get what they deserve.

“The Little Red Hen” is perhaps the purest form of the morality story. Since only the hen worked, she had the privilege and joy of plopping right down in front of everybody and eating her bread while their stomachs rumbled. Perfectly moral. Everybody got what they deserved. And I have to say, the story had an impact on me as a boy. It surely gave me something to think about while I sat and watched my mother bustle about. I even started lifting my feet so she could vacuum near the spot where I was sitting, without having to be asked.

I’m not opposed to moral stories. But I get more excited when I find stories about grace–stories in which people are transformed because they receive better than they deserve. Previously on this blog I have mentioned the picture book Sidney and Norman: A Tale of Two Pigs. A totally put-together pig and a pig whose life is a mess each encounter God. The one pig learns that God loves him in spite of his mess, and the other learns that God loves him not because of his goodness but in spite of his self-righteousness. And in the end, the two pigs find common ground and are both better than they were. I’m always on the lookout for stories like that–stories that prepare the reader’s heart for the truth that we become good and moral not by tapping our inner reserves of goodness and morality, but by opening ourselves up to the work of a God who loves us in spite of ourselves.

For Audience Participation Friday, I want to hear about your favorite stories about grace–stories about people who are transformed because they receive better than they deserve; a variation is the story in which a person comes to terms with his or her own shortcomings and is thereby opened up to the possibility of receiving grace (DiCamillo’s Edward Tulane comes to mind). When I use the word “grace,” I am not limiting the conversation to grace that is explicitly extended by God. People extend grace to one another, and that grace prepares our heart to receive the greater grace.

So…what are your favorite grace-centered books and movies? Grown-up stories are as welcome as children’s stories.

Wee Feechie on Film

Becca, a regular here at Jonathan-Rogers.com, is not just a poet and haikuist. She is also a filmmaker. Here’s how she and her kids spent a perfectly good summer day.
 

Director’s Commentary:

When our family first started talking about the making of a Feechie Film, there was some heated discussion about which of us would have the privilege of running around in the yard in a loin cloth and attacking the 6-foot alligator. We’re not sure what this says about the job we’ve done as parents.

In the end, preference was given to the littlest. Why? Because even though he’s the cutest, he was going to attack the alligator no matter what. So, we caved.

That’s good cinema right there. Thanks, Becca and family.

The End of the Story


Readers at The Rabbit Room have been discussing the movie Super 8 the last few days, and the subject of botched third acts came up. In the comments, Russ Ramsey observed,

Many, MANY potentially great films fail by misfiring in the last act. It’s like there’s loads of great build-up, making space for a good storyteller to take us to some profound places. But then they just end up blowing things to smithereens instead. (I’m looking at you, Matrix 2 and 3.)

I’m interested in why that is so. It really is amazing how often a movie (or, to a lesser extent, a book) fizzles after a very promising start–or, as Russ said, resorts to explosions instead of an ending. (Russ again: “Incidentally, only very rarely does a story require catastrophic explosions to resolve the end. At least, this is what my life and the lives of most of my friends would suggest.”) I won’t be able to spin a whole theory of failed endings here–pressing matters prevent me–but I do have a couple of thoughts that might stir up some conversation amongst and between you.

My friend Pete Peterson once said something about writing that I have thought a lot about. When he wrote his fantastic Fin Button books (The Fiddler’s Gun and Fiddler’s Green), he said he imagined a brilliant ending, then set about the work of earning that ending. That’s a hard thing to do. Thinking up a great ending is relatively easy compared to earning a great ending. And an ending can only be great if it has an organic connection to the beginning and middle.

It is possible that we’re not even talking about bad endings here so much as endings that don’t really connect to what went before. I used to have a teacher who would never say that a student’s answer was wrong in a class discussion. She would say, “That’s that right answer…to a different question.” Some of these “failed endings,” I suspect, are the right ending…to a different story.

This is an era of focus groups and script-doctoring. Culture makers know what their audiences want, but in their zeal to give it to them, they miss the point. I like crab bisque, but I don’t want it in an IV, even if that would be a more efficient means of getting it into my system. Imagine what would happen if somebody tried to put together a joke book based on focus groups: The guy with the clipboard asks, “What do you like best about a joke?” Everybody says, “The punch line, of course.” Next thing you know, bookstore shelves are sagging with joke books with only punchlines, no setups. “All the boring parts cut out!” the back cover copy reads.

Bonus digression:

I suspect something similar to the joke book focus group happened to country music. Somebody with a clipboard started asking people, “What do you love about Hank Williams and George Jones and Loretta Lynn?” And the people said, “They’re just so–I don’t know–countrified. We like the way their rural sensibilities shine through in their music.” And so, for the last twenty years or more, half the songs you hear on country radio fall into what I call the “I’m so country I can’t stand myself” category. “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy.” “That’s Country.” “Country Boy Can Survive.” No longer does a countrified sensibility shine through: it is the very subject of the song. Think about how often the word “country” appears in country song titles and in the lyrics.

Want to guess how many Hank Williams Sr. songs have the word “Country” in the title? He had one called “The Old Country Church,” but that was it.

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