Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Washington Revisited

One of my all time favorite authors is David McCullough. I’ve recently read his Brave Companions. Mostly a collection of biographical essays on a remarkable variety of people, it also contains an article on Washington, D.C., the city where McCullough lives, a city he clearly loves.

Washington is, he reminds us, a city known for politics and government, but deserving of being known for its many other features. Among these are its architectural and historical buildings. McCullough cites Blair House, built in 1824, where President Truman rushed to an upstairs window in his underwear to find that a would-be assassin and a private in the White House police had been shot as he napped.

He describes Octagon House, where President James and Dolly Madison lived for six months after the British burned the White House in 1814 and where the Treaty of Ghent was signed in the circular parlor over the main entrance.

He names the palatial red-brick house in Georgetown, once a summer residence for Ulysses S. Grant and, many years later, the bachelor quarters of the young New Dealers who made up Franklin Roosevelt’s “Brain Trust.”

He describes the eloquent headquarters of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, once a prestigious apartment house in which Andrew Mellon occupied the top floor. He names the house near Dupont Circle where Alice Roosevelt Longworth presided over the top level of Washington society; and more.

My wife, Betty, who also read McCullough’s book, agrees with me that it makes us want to return to Washington, where we spent so many days off some years ago when I was the interim pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in nearby Annapolis. “How did we miss all that?” she asks.

We missed it because we were so engaged in seeing another non-political side of Washington: the diverse attractions of its many museums.

McCullough knows you have to live in Washington to take it all in. I agree with his thought that the politicians who can’t wait to get out of town when the House or Senate shuts down might learn something useful if they became better acquainted with the city they seem just to camp out in.

~Bert Johnston
Visit me at www.bertjohnston.com

Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Staycation

This week my son Mike and his wife Mary have been enjoying what Mike is calling a “staycation”—a stay-where-you-are vacation without any travel. Mike has been telling about it in almost daily posts to his blog, The View from the Roof. (Yes, I borrowed from him in naming my own blog.)

Mike and Mary and Beans, their miniature Boston terrier, live in a condo in downtown Indianapolis. I had supposed that they were already well-acquainted with the city, for they have lived there for several years and they are great weekend walkers. Their staycation blog, however, reveals that Indianapolis, a city I know hardly at all, has a wealth of cultural, recreational and culinary treasures, many of which Mike and Mary are discovering and enjoying for the first time during this week.

On just one day (Wednesday), The View from the Roof tells of a mouth-watering lunch at The Creation Café, located in a century-old church overlooking the Indianapolis Canal Walk, part of an ambitious public works project that bankrupted the state of Indiana in 1841. (Take heart, California.)

At the Creation Café Mike and Mary discovered Horse Piss beer, brewed in Louisville, “we hope not too close to Churchill Downs,” and Stone Ruination IPA beer. Not being a beer aficionado, I never realized how creative small breweries can be in naming their products.

On this same staycation day, M & M went on to the Indianapolis Central Library, where they saw two newly-installed (April) sculptures, also creatively named--thinmanlittlebird.” One was the thin man, abstract but recognizable in the picture Mike posted, and the other was the little bird, hardly discernible as he perches on a humongous bronze donut.

Then, on to the American Legion Mall, down which the Central Library faces, to see the memorials to servicemen in American wars. And that’s just one day--a long day and an interesting blog.

Their experience gives me a new appreciation for Indianapolis. It also prompts me to wonder, what does Mobile have to show me that I haven’t seen in the six years I’ve lived just across the bay?

I can hardly take a “staycation,” since I’m retired and am supposedly at leisure every day of every week. But I could get up off my duff, find a good city guidebook, and take an occasional day to mine the unsuspected riches that undoubtedly lie beneath the surface of the city I see so superficially in occasional visits to the library, the mall or the eye and ear clinic.

Now ask yourself: what is waiting just to be discovered and enjoyed where you live?

~ Bert Johnston
Visit my web site: www.bertjohnston.com

Saturday, May 16, 2009

My Theme Is . . .

David McCullough, in his introduction to Brave Companions: Portraits in History, remarks that he is often asked about his current writing, “What is your theme?” He confesses that, in the early stages of a project, he rarely can say. “To find the answer is one of the chief reasons for undertaking the story,” he writes.

What a relief to hear a veteran writer make such a confession! I am learning that
stories tend to write themselves as their characters take on a life of their own, so as I plow through the fourth draft of the novel I am now writing, I am still asking that question about its theme.

At one moment I think
The Tattoo is about ambition and the things to which it drives us. That’s the story of Gus, my antagonist. But then I wonder if it isn’t about trust, and what happens when it fails? That’s the story of Georgia, who has lost her trust in Matt.

Or maybe it’s about persistence, which is the story of Lettie, the private investigator who is trying to clear Matt’s name. Then there's Lettie's husband, Barry, the associate pastor who wouldn’t think of trying to unseat the senior minister. Loyalty is a worthy theme.

But in the end it comes around to the beleaguered Dr. Matt. He’s just flawed enough that I can’t say his overarching theme is the triumph of virtue, though that comes close. Where his marriage to Georgia is concerned, in the subplot, it’s the triumph of love.

Well, when the story has been fully told, I trust I’ll know. And that’s what motivates me to persist in my writing of The Tattoo.

Post script: I could also blog about titles.
This book started out with the working title, Megachurch, but I am now calling it The Tattoo. In the end I may add an adjective: The Preacher’s Tattoo, or The Hidden Tattoo or That Damn Tattoo. Do any of these grab you?

~ Bert Johnston
Visit me at www.bertjohnston.com

Monday, May 11, 2009

The Line Dancers.

Last week Kay Korb threw a party. Kay, who is the marketing director for Westminster Village where Betty and I are living in comfortable retirement, entertains the residents periodically as a way of generating names for her prospect list. Last week the Village line dancers topped the entertainment.

Ruth Eddins, a resident along with her retired Methodist preacher husband, recruited the first line dancers about six years ago. Practicing twice a week, she soon had a group of about fifteen, almost none of whom had ever line danced before. She continues to recruit and train new line dancers as members “retire” and newcomers take their places. The group now numbers over twenty.

Kay likes to send this group out to perform in other venues as a way of demonstrating that life at Westminster Village keeps us young. She always advertises the fact that the average age of the line dancers is well over 80. If they have any of the aches and pains that go with being that old, they leave them at the edge of the dance floor and step out as lively and well coordinated as if their average age was 40-something.

I know one gentleman who, in his late 70’s, found the line dancers having so much fun that he parked his cane in the corner and joined them in their practice. He danced with them for four years and his cane still stands neglected in the corner.

Admittedly, these aren’t the Rockets, but they come close enough to merit the admiration of their fellow residents at Westminster Village as well as the prospects that Kay sends them out to impress. Well done, Ruth. Keep ‘em stepping.

~ Bert Johnston.
Visit me at www.bertjohnston.com.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

If the Present Seems Unstable.

Some of us still linger on with first-hand memories of the Great Depression, when unemployment rose as high as thirty percent and dispossessed or desperate people migrated west across the plains, the mountains and the deserts in rusty old cars and trucks, carrying as much as they could of their household necessities and treasures. They sought a new and more promising life in Oklahoma or California or someplace else far removed from what had once been home.

These were the years of my childhood. They were Spartan years, for the most part, but I remember our mother’s worry more than any real privation. Our father half-soled our Thom McAn shoes with kits from McCrary’s five-and-dime store, and a ten-cent ice cream cone was a treat for a special occasion. There was too much corn meal mush and not enough beef steak, but we never supposed that meat should be an everyday necessity.

Most of the people we knew were living on the same narrow track. In retrospect, I realize we were poor by today’s standards, but we didn’t know it. What I remember most is that we were happy. I recall long family walks on Sunday afternoons in the years when we had no car, and picnics in the park in later years when Dad’s used Oldsmobile opened up a wider world to us. The car was a symbol of better times and less for Mother to worry about.

Now some of that worry is back. As savings shrink and investments go sour, I take heart in the words of another of Kenneth Phifer’s poetic prayers: “If the present seems too unstable to trust / and the future impossible to discern, / Uphold me on my memories. Amen.”* Yes, Amen to that. Memories need not be just wistful. They can be reassuring.

~ Bert Johnston.
Visit me at www.bertjohnston.com.

* From Kenneth G. Phifer, A Book of Uncommon Prayer. Used with permission.