Playing in the weedsBy Bobby Neal Winters
I began kindergarten in 1967 and graduated from high school in 1980. All of these years, nearly half my life, were spent at the same school, McLish. It was named after the layer of sand they found oil in.
I recall very few of the hours I spent in the classroom before the seventh grade, because kindergarten through the 6th grade was all housed in one building that was surrounded by a magnificent playground. We had a swing set, teeter totters, a slide, and monkey bars. There was also a genuine dirt basketball court. During the summer, grass would grow back in and try to take it over, but as soon as school started back, the grass would start looking ground again.
However, these amenities were just the beginning. There were other things to play with that required a bit more from us but paid back so richly.
There was a huge storm cellar with a flat roof that was an ideal location to play king of the mountain. The doors—one on the north and one on the south—were made of iron that had been painted silver, and on cool days they had soaked up enough heat from the sun that you could lay on the south door in the lee provided by the cellar and stay reasonably warm.
There was also the building itself. We would break into groups and play cowboys and Indians. As there were quite a few Chickasaws at the school, there were a lot of Indian cowboys and cowboy Indians. We didn't know who was what most of the time, but there was a lot of running and screaming, shooting and dying.
Then there were the weeds behind the school. After frost had killed the grass, the tall weeds dried up into what we considered good building material. We took them and made them into forts that we then destroyed. The Indian boys were particularly good at this sort of construction.
We weren't always allowed to do this, and it seem to me now whether we were depended upon who had playground duty. You see the reason there were weeds there was because it wasn't mowed that often. The reason it wasn't mowed that often was because it was frequently wet, and I suspect the reason it was frequently wet was that was where the sewer drained. I don't know whether some of our teachers weren't aware that we were playing in the sewer and had to be told, or whether they all knew and just gradually gave into the inevitability of it.
I left that part of the world behind me physically over twenty years ago, but the spirit of it lives on within me. As more of the outside world, by which I mean "outside of there," has been forced upon me, the more I have come to know what a rare place it is in this country. Think about it. How many people can say they had a graduating class of eighteen? Not very many, only 18 per year times the number of schools that small not to put too fine a point on it. We who have come from such a place are a rare breed and look at the world as if we are just playing cowboys and Indians. You might get shot, but you get right on back up.
They can never take that away.
The rains come in the spring and seeds shoot up from the ground. They grow into plants, they bloom, have seeds, the seeds fall into the ground, and the plant dies. This is the way of the world, it is the way God made it, and it is good, but it's not always easy.
Late this may, the doors of McLish School will swing shut, and they won't reopen as McLish School any more. Even things like schools can grow old and die, but like the flowers of spring, McLish has planted seeds in the ground. They are all around you, but you can't see them. The winter will come, but it will be followed by the spring, and it will rain, and those seeds will grow. And little cowboys and little Indians will play among them.
Friday, June 19, 2015
Saturday, August 23, 2014
Lynyrd Skynyrd: Telling the story
By Bobby Winters
Back in the middle of the 1980s, I used to regularly go between Stillwater and Harden City, Oklahoma. I was in my 1980 Ford F100 pickup. It has a stick shift on the floor--three gears and overdrive. I had no air-conditioning and frequently the air temperature was in the 90s, often over 100. No problem, you just make sure both windows are rolled down, both air-scoops are open, and drive a little faster.
It those days I was not yet married. I didn’t even have a girlfriend.
But I did have a boon companion in my stereo. In such listening conditions as those, the music you listen too has to have a certain robust quality. A good tune is essential of course but with wind rushing past you at 75 miles per hour your pleasure can’t be contingent on hearing the triangle be struck at just the right time.
It was in such setting that my fondness for Lynyrd Skynyrd grew.
I must confess that I had never heard of them before the plane crash that took the life of Ronnie Van Zant on October 20, 1977, the day before I turned 15. I’ve never know the band while RVZ was alive, and, quite frankly, until a concert by some of the surviving members of the band last night, I’d never thought of them artists.
There will be those who disagree with me and I claim no special expertise, but it seems to me that if you want to call something art you’ve got to have a couple of things in place. You’ve got to have something to say and you ought to have a way of saying it. I was going to put a subordinate between the it and the period in that last sentence but anything I thought was just too restrictive.
And, though there will be those who disagree with me most vociferously, I have to say there were points when RVZ came dangerously close to creating art.
Much of the problem of recognizing this is that the points where the art was committed are places where it was most deeply Southern and earthy. The song “I ain’t the one” describes a problem alien to standard American middle-class morality. There is a southern subculture in which when a sexually promiscuous young woman becomes pregnant she chooses not the most likely candidate for paternity among her paramours, but the one who is most attractive in some other particular way.
In “I ain’t the one” the singer protests, in very earthy terms once it’s de-coded, that he isn’t even a theoretical candidate for paternity. It reeks of a very blue-collar way of looking at the world.
It’s not just blue-collar. It’s rednecked blue-collar.
In “The Mississippi Kid” there is the line “because she was raised up on the cornbread / I know that woman will give me some.” It is a line which is opaque to the innocent and absolutely transparent to those in the know. It echos with the best lines of the tradition. There are things we want to talk to other adults about but don’t want the children to understand.
The lasting popularity among those of us who grew up within that rednecked blue-collar culture is a testimony to how effective Lynyrd Skynyrd was to communicating that culture to its members.
Much of the group’s most popular work has been heavily informed by the band’s life on the road. While this is very heavily colored by their southern culture, I find myself wishing that there had been aspirations beyond that. Though this may be simply the reality of the artist on the road. One can hold “What’s your name?” up against Bob Seger’s “Turn the page” and see similar slices of this world from two different perspectives.
I would like to have had his perspectives on other things, but he was taken. We are left to tell the story ourselves.
Friday, August 15, 2014
The Giver: Imagine
By Bobby Neal Winters
Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace...
You may say I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will be as one
Imagine a world with no war, with no hunger, with no disharmony. Imagine a world in which every person had the perfect family selected for them, the perfect job selected for them. All the decisions for you are made by a wise council of elders.
Wouldn’t that be nice?
Those of you who are fans of The Giver, a book by Lois Lowry, will know that the answer is not necessarily yes.
The book has now been made into a movie. If you’ve been about it the world, the moment you discover that one of your favorite books has been made into a movie is not one of unalloyed joy. One does recognize that the movie is a work of art in its own right, but there have been occasions when the movie has missed the point of the book or has subverted it entirely.
Neither of these has happened in the current case.
Indeed, the movie maker has managed to preserve the point of the book without trying to slavishly replicate it in its entirety as Peter Jackson has done to in with The Hobbit parts I, II, and, may the good lord help us when it comes, III.
Preserving the point of the book while only taking a select portion of it, means the movie maker, regardless of his skill, has to rely on the viewer. It is a two way process. The movie maker has to allow the possibility that he might be misunderstood in order to allow the viewer the possibility of understanding.
All of this to say that there is enough on the screen to allow the viewer to walk away with a lot to think about.
In reviewing this movie, I would like to pay my readers the same respect the maker of this movie did his viewers and allow you to interpret it for yourself. However, I would be remiss if I didn’t point towards some details the reader might want to examine.
The movie is shot in black and white with the protagonist, Jonas, gradually seeing more things in color. While this sort of thing can be done incredibly heavy-handedly (and I classify the Girl in the Red Coat from Shindler’s List in this category, though I still love that bit), here is comes as an absolute necessity of following the book. It is done in an artful way that shows the power of cinema. I was moved to tears more than once.
Jonas is a variant of the name Jonah, the Biblical prophet. Everyone gets distracted by Jonah’s getting eaten by the big fish, but ignores his role as a reluctant prophet. One might contemplate a connection here.
One might also want to pay attention to Jonas’ (and Fiona’s) use of apples and the apple’s traditional connection with that ancient story about expulsion from paradise. It’s kept the Rabbi’s busy for a few thousand years. You might want to think about it for a minute or two.
It’s a good movie from a good book and well worth your time.
Tuesday, July 22, 2014
Fire on the Mountain
By Bobby Neal Winters
Now my widow she weeps by my grave
Tears flow free for her man she couldn't save
Shot down in cold blood by a gun that carried fame
All for a useless and no good worthless claim
--Marshall Tucker Band
The desire to be great ruins lives.
I’m not the best speller and that last sentences was anti-intuitive, so let me repeat it: The desire to be great ruins lives.
We are taught from the time we can understand that we are to aim for the stars, “You might not get there but you will go farther than if you aimed on a level with yourself.” I don’t want to argue against that as a means of building your self-confidence to try difficult things.
But we have to work on our sense of reality.
You are never going to be president of the United States. Seriously and especially if you are reading this you aren’t. Let’s do the math. You have to be 35 to be president. Say you are one of those rare folks who is vigorously healthy until you are 80. That gives you 45 years. There will be at most 12 presidents in that time interval. We could say there are 300 million others, but according to Lawrence Lessig, author of Lester Land, there are only about 144 thousand who, because of financial considerations, can even think of running. So you have 12 chances out of 144 thousand. That is a 0.00008 probability of being elected.
That works out to 1 chance in 12 thousand. The odds of dying by firearms is about 1 in 6000. So the average person is twice as likely to die from a bullet than even a rich person is of being elected president.
And if you aren’t rich, your probability is zero.
What is driving me to write this?
It is about a type of personality that I’ve seen on campus. It’s among the students; it’s among the faculty.
Those of you who remember the television program Cheer might remember Diane Chambers. She was a professional student. She had majored in everything. She was going to be a great actress, a great poet, etc. Being good at anything--and certainly being a good waitress--wasn’t enough.
As a result, she’s never stuck with anything; she never became anything.
I think that we should stop saying to aim for the stars. I think there is a better way to phrase what is really the same sentiment: If you have the faith of a mustard seed, you can move a mountain. Or, as Confucius said, “The man who moves a mountain begins by carrying away small stones.” (Okay, I’ve never read Confucius, but I’ve played a lot of Civilization.) It’s not we who are great, it is the task isn’t as great as we think if done in small pieces, often by many hands over time.
This shields us from the poisonous idea that we are great or can be great or should be great. It removes that distracting sugar bait of greatness and allows us to pursue a better goal: To be good.
There are two kinds of truth. There are the truths that are true whether we believe them or not: If a closed population does not maintain a 2.1 average birthrate, it will disappear in time. Then there are things that if you believe and act on, will become true: Moving a mountain or building a cathedral would be examples of this.
If you do something over and over, you will get better at it. If you walk 40 minutes a day, you will be healthier than if you didn’t. If you practice a language 45 minutes a day, you will learn some of it. You won’t be a great athlete or a world renown linguist.
But you will better yourself and, perhaps, be a benefit to others. That’s not to be sneezed at.
Wednesday, July 16, 2014
By Bobby Neal winters
I am constantly perplexing my daughters with expressions that come out of my mouth. A frequent one is “I will have to lick my calf over.” This is because I frequently don’t get things right the first time and have to do them over.
Many people, maybe most people, will look at the phrase and be perplexed as well, but those who grew up in an agrarian society, at least one centered around cattle, are not confused at all. When a calf is born, it is covered with afterbirth--amniotic fluid to those who learned about birth by reading about it rather than seeing it--and the calf’s mother licks this afterbirth from the calf. If she doesn’t get it all, she will continue until she has, i.e. she licks her calf over.
It is a linguistic fossil. It is embedded in my speech because I heard my mother use it all the time. It is likely to disappear from use quite quickly as generations move farther and farther from that agrarian existence to find more and more of the natural world to be disgusting.
That is a shame because linguistic relics such as this are a part of our collective memory. They are around everywhere. There is, for example, Wednesday, Woden’s Day, reminding us of a time when our linguistic forebears worshipped the god Woden.
Place names also serve as cultural fossils. Fort Smith, Arkansas; Fort Worth, Texas; Fort Scott, Kansas remind us of days--not that long ago--when this part of the country was very thinly settled and those few citizens out here needed soldiers for protection from the indigenous population of the region.
Speaking of the indigenous population, we are reminded of them in other ways. The Washita River and the Ouachita Mountains are in central and eastern Oklahoma, respectively. For those who don’t know, Washita and Ouachita are pronounced exactly the same. It’s the English and the French taking the same Indian word which Wikipedia tells me means anything from “sparkling water” to “good hunting grounds” to “big buffalo.” Regardless, you put these two words together and figure out that a lot of people have been across this patch of ground and none of them could agree on much.
Then there is the tree called bois d’arc in Oklahoma and Texas and hedge in Kansas. Those of you who read French--and I only know enough of it for this example--might pronounce that bwah dark. And recognize it as meaning wood of the arc or wood of the bow. It was a tree that the indigenous peoples used in making bows. Folks in Oklahoma and Texas pronounce it bow dark, because they know this, but they don’t know French. This linguistic fossil reminds us through it’s meaning in French and it’s mispronunciation of the history of this region.
My visits to Paraguay have been a reminder of the religious spirit among those who built cities: Asuncion, Encarnación, and Concepción. These are named after feasts of the Catholic Church. Then there are the small towns of Trinidad, and Jesus which are in Misionés. This is a region of South America called Misionés that crosses the national borders of Paraguay, Argentina, and Brazil. It was established by Jesuit missionaries. I have to believe they had something to do with the naming.
On another continent, in another language, there is King’s Cross Station. If you’ve read Harry Potter or have seen any of the movies, then you’ve heard of King’s Cross Station. It is a railway station named after an area of London that was named after a monument to King George IV that isn’t there anymore. So the physical monument is gone, but it was preserved in the place name and that has been further preserved in a work of literature.
This happens quite a bit I suspect. There was a truck stop called The Dog House in Ada, Oklahoma. It used to be by itself, but the area where it was is built up now. It was on the highway, but the cross street became known locally as Dog House Road. The Dog House is now gone; the official name of the street is Country Club Road; to old nesters such as myself it is still Dog House Road. It is a fossil.
My family and I went to visit the travelling King Tut exhibit that is now in Kansas City at Union Station. We discovered that after his death, his name had been removed from a statue. They know this, because while it had been removed from the front, it had been left on the back which was against the wall. This is reminiscent of the scene from the old Cecil B. DeMille movie the Ten Commandments wherein Pharaoh has Moses’ name removed from all the monuments, an attempt to make history forget him. I don’t know whether this was done to King Tut, but he did disappear from history until his tomb was rediscovered.
Let me now bring up the example of the Washington Redskins. Redskins is an offensive word and quite frankly I don’t know if it was ever not offensive, but I don’t think they applied the name to a football team in order to offend anybody. The fact is that the indigenous people of this land scared the European settlers at various times. The Europeans considered the indigenous peoples to be fierce warriors, and being a warrior people themselves (learn more of the history of England!) they considered this to be a compliment. This offensive name is a linguistic fossil of the fear the European settlers felt. If you want the proper context, remember one ancient European king used the silver-lined skull of a Byzantine Emperor as a drinking cup.
It was an honor, but sometimes folks would rather forego the honor.
What does one do with linguistic fossils? I suppose we should with them what we do with the more usual sort of fossil. Preserve them in some way, be mindful of them, study them and try to understand them, as we try to understand ourselves.
Friday, June 27, 2014
Books, Scholars, Debate, and Academic Freedom
By Bobby Neal Winters
First people learned to write. They wrote on clay. They wrote on animal skin. They wrote on the leaves of plants sewn together. They wrote on paper when it came along. These writings were gathered into scrolls and codices. Some gathered these writings together in one place. And scholars were drawn to these places.
Scholars like to learn things. You can learn things by looking at the world around you and figuring it out, but that takes a long time. If you can have a conversation with someone who knows about it so they can teach you about it, the process goes faster. But those who know are sometimes far away, sometimes they are busy, and sometimes they die. That is why you need a book.
Anyone who has ever written knows that people don’t always understand what you write. What we say the first time even in speech can be ambiguous, and can only be clarified in a dynamic give and take process.
So when scholars were drawn to the places where the books were gathered to read the books of those long dead, they clarified the interpretation of the books by open discourse. Two honest individuals can read the same book and come to different ideas of what that book means. They can attempt to come to a mutual understanding by stating their reasons for interpreting a passage one way or the other, and then the other side is free to examine the reasoning.
There has been a long history of this sort of debate. Back in the twelfth century, I believe, Peter Abelard had some interpretations that impinged upon the church doctrine, running him afoul of Bernard of Clairvaux (later know as Saint Bernard). Abelard challenge Bernard to a debate, but upon arriving there discovered it was a trial for heresy. After hearing all the charges, Abelard sat in silence for half an hour (a record for professors that still stands) and then said that he appealed to the Pope. Today Abelard is remembered for bedding a student and being castrated by her brothers; and every time Bernard’s name is mentioned people think of a large, friendly dog with a barrel of booze around it’s neck.
That paragraph got out of hand. My point is that scholarly debate has a long, checkered history.
Mathematicians have it easy. When other scholars say things,people sometimes want to shoot them. When mathematicians speak, more often we hear people say, “Please shoot me.” It’s one of the blessings of being in a technical field. Many other disciplines don’t have this luxury. Their study leads scholars into areas that people understand, care about, and have strong opinions on.
There is a long history of scholarly debate, as I pointed out before. The argument/ counter-argument means of proceeding is one way. There have always been some who, instead of going after your argument, go after you. There have been duels; there have been fisticuffs; and sometimes people who disagree with you go after your livelihood.
This last is a common technique in and out of academia. There are a number of outspoken entertainers who will testify to this. At the university, we have the tradition of tenure and academic freedom to protect open debate. It is somewhat ironic that often scholars have to keep their mouths shut to get tenure. I rather suspect that tenure was developed to protect academics from each other as much as to protect us from political forces from the outside. I am sure someone will tell me if I am wrong.
And I hope they do tell me if I am wrong. This is how we learn.
There is also something to be said for structuring academic debate, about keeping things in technical language so as not to draw laypersons into the debate, but whatever rules are set up there will still be ugly incidents.
But we have to keep talking.
(Bobby Winters, a native of Harden City, Oklahoma, blogs at redneckmath.blogspot.com and okieinexile.blogspot.com. He invites you to “like” the National Association of Lawn Mowers on Facebook. )