Monday, January 10, 2011

I Have Words!

James A. H. Murray, long-time editor of the OED, working in his Scriptorium.

Two of my favorite books are The Professor and the Madman and The Meaning of Everything, both by Simon Winchester, and both related to the creation of the largest and most comprehensive dictionary in the English language, the Oxford English Dictionary, or the OED, for short. I’m not going to review the books here, other than to say I was fascinated with the decades-long work of collecting words for that magisterial dictionary.

When I was in high school, I started collecting word lists. Whenever I read, I would write down unfamiliar words, words that I simply wanted to be more familiar with, or common words I wanted to appreciate more. I’ve continued this practice to this very day and have no intention of ceasing the practice. Words are beautiful, they have power, they amaze me. The other morning, shortly after I woke up, I reached for the notebook I keep by the bed and with my favorite mechanical pencil began free-writing…about words. And this is how it came out:

I have words! Oh yes, I have words. Folders stuffed with sheets of loose-leaf filled with words collected from books and magazines and anywhere I found them. There are strange and exotic words. There are ordinary, commonplace words that would scarcely make a jaded reader bat an eyelid, but still they are good words, honest words – and without them, the more sparkling, dazzling, exorbitant words would not find a context within which to sit. One thing is for sure – they are all beautiful words, glorious and necessary…as necessary as air or water; I can’t do without them.

I have notebooks full of words, and lists of “vocabulary” words on my computer. And I keep adding more words all the time. Some of the words I add, I don’t know, or I want to know better. Others I know quite well. They are simple, common, everyday words – but I don’t want to fall into the trap of taking them for granted. I used to lie on the ground for an hour or more at a time studying the shapes and structures of blades of grass, watching the ants stroll by, or imagining what a microscopic view of the physical structure of a grain of red clay might look like. I am just as fascinated with words.

Words give me joy. They fill me and fulfill me – they nourish me. Sometimes they hurt me, scold me, or embarrass me (I even have vulgar words in my list… “those” words, the ones we used to look up with relish in the dictionary in junior high). They have all earned the right to be on my lists, even archaic words that long ago fell from common use, because someone at some time has used them. They have expressed, admonished, encouraged, enlightened, frightened, challenged, disgusted, chastened, delighted – in all cases they have elevated the blandness of mere survival to the heights of meaning. I have words. And before the day is over, I will have a few more.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Resolution 1 - Write and Get Published

When I was a boy, and people asked me that standard question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”, I cycled through some of the typical answers…fireman, cowboy, and for some reason, I seem to remember I told people for a while I wanted to be a motorcycle when I grew up (yes, it's bizarre, but I have no recollection of what my little-boy brain was going through at the time). I don’t recall, however, telling anybody I wanted to be a writer.

By the time I was in high school, though, it was clear to me – I wanted to be a writer. Whatever chain of events led me to such a desire are lost to history. I’ve found stories that I wrote when I was still a young boy, maybe 9 or 10 years old, that are respectable, even though the topics are pretty common. There was an adventure with Lassie (the collie) and a trip with some green aliens on a flying saucer. By the time I was settled into my miserable high-school career, I was writing poetry (don’t all teenagers?), starting mystery and suspense stories, and constructing essays that explored my views on everything from feelings about girls to religious convictions to the problem of excessive violence in the world.

In 11th grade, I believe it was, I signed up for a typing class. Those were the days before word processors or computers, so all the paperwork in an office had to be spaced and centered and lined up on manual or – if you were fortunate – electric typewriters. I had no interest in being a secretary; I just wanted to learn the keyboard well enough to type my poems and stories.  The school year, in those days, was divided into six-weeks for the purpose of reporting a student's progress (or lack thereof).  By the end of the third six-weeks, my grade was down to a not-so-respectable…zero. That’s right. I was typing away every day, but I didn't complete a single class assignment – for the entire six weeks! Finally, my teacher told me if I wasn’t going to do the assigned work, I might as well just go to the library. Fine, I thought. So, for the next two weeks, I sat in the library reading. Then one afternoon, Ms. Smith showed up at the library. Framed in the doorway, arms akimbo (she didn’t come in – I was sitting near the door…in case friends walked by), she said, “I’ll tell you what. You come back to class, and do half the class assignments. The rest of the time you can write whatever you want, and I’ll count that.” I walked back to class with her, and by the end of the term, I actually passed with a 76, and had lots of story starts, poems, and essays.

After high school, I went into the Marine Corps. I spent the next 3 months at Parris Island, South Carolina, undergoing the grueling program of training to become a United States Marine. Most of the writing I did for those months was in the form of letters home. During the few minutes of free time we’d have in the evenings, I still wrote a little bit. After boot camp, I had electronics and avionics training. Along the way, my interest shifted to comic art. I still wanted to be a writer, but more than that, I wanted to be a comic book artist, or maybe even an animator.  I still wrote, occasionally, but most of my creative energy was spent practicing drawing superheroes, silly animals, or Disney characters.

Through the years, writing has always been a very pleasant obsession. I don’t want to mislead anybody – I don’t write enough. Never have. During college and seminary, I wrote a lot of academic papers, and along the way received frequent compliments on my writing, and a few suggestions that I should be a writer.  If I had been more focused and disciplined, I might have had several best-sellers by now. Actually, my writing (much like my music…more on that another time) has mostly been a very private thing. With fits and starts, I have begun projects, filled notebooks and folders, written and re-written, and had things published in school papers, church and denominational newsletters, and local newspapers, but I haven’t been the successful writer I dreamed of becoming all those years ago.

It’s time. I have been actively working on a novel, and I have several other projects in the works. “What’s your book about?” people ask. “Uh, I guess you could say it’s a contemporary fantasy.” I don’t like to talk about my work. It has been encouraging to find out I’m not alone among writers. Most, if not all, writers of any merit don’t talk about their work in progress very much, unless it’s something under contract to a publisher and they want some advance publicity. I found an imperative in a book I recently bought, another inspirational book for writers, Page after Page, by Heather Sellers, but I will have to paraphrase, because I can’t find the exact sentence again, after looking though the book for 10 minutes – don’t tell people what you’re writing. Yes! I had to show this to several people, I was so excited.

Writing is hard work! There is no way around this. I confess, I avoid it more than I do it, but I am going to change that nasty habit this year…this month…this day! I am a writer. Even though I have no books on the best-seller lists, or essays in prestigious journals, or a short story published in the New Yorker, I am still a writer. Just like I am a musician. I don’t have any albums out. I don’t play with a band or perform in concert. But I play instruments, and I sing, and quite frankly, I’m not half bad at it. Same with writing. I’m not half bad at it. But this year – I will write. I will publish!

Sunday, January 2, 2011

New Year's Resolutions for 2011

Wow!!! My last entry was in November of 2008, I am ashamed to say. I never intended to leave my blog unattended for so long. But...I am back!

I usually avoid making New Year’s resolutions, but this year I decided to change that. This year I have made resolutions. There is a chance I may add more, but these are the basics. For the year 2011, I hereby resolve:

1) To write and get published.

2) To blog regularly.

3) To sculpt and get my work into a variety of markets.

4) To read more intently.

5) To learn prolifically.

6) To increase my mastery of Spanish.

7) To brush up on my French.

8) To learn how to read Sanskrit and Arabic.

9) To become more skilled in ancient Hebrew, Greek, and Latin.

10) To start drawing cartoons again.

11) To meditate.

12) To believe again, and ever more wisely.

13) To return to an intensive exercise program.

14) To try to figure out the meaning of life...again.

15) To enjoy being human, and to embrace all that entails, both good and bad, pleasant and painful.

16) To be more loving, and hopefully more lovable.

17) To continue sharing my warped sense of humor by unleashing the corniest off-the-cuff jokes and puns. (This is a given, every year!)

18) To rekindle my love of growing plants.

19) To consider attending church again, albeit sporadically and with great apprehension.

20) To watch more movies.

21) To look for stories everywhere.

22) To nurture my passion for and fascination with...everything!

23) And last (and possibly most important) to be happy!

I was going to elaborate on each of these a little bit, but it was turning into a pretty lengthy piece of work. So…I will leave it at this for now, and I will explain more about these in subsequent blog entries.

HAPPY NEW YEAR! I wish each of you the happiest and most prosperous year ever.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Way-Back Machine -- "A Shrine for Things Taken for Granted"

In case you don't remember the Way-Back (WABAC) Machine, you can take a look at my blog entry for Friday, February 23, 2007.

From my Journal entry of July 30, 2000:

A book listed in "A Common Reader," August 2000 catalog, is They Have a Word for It by Howard Rheingold. It is a gathering of foreign words that have no equivalent in our tongue. One mentioned is the Japanese hari kuyo which is "a shrine where broken sewing needles are put to rest after a life of service." That's incredible! We just toss things. What if we had shrines composed of faithful objects that had served us well? What if we just developed a profound sense of appreciation for things we take for granted? Say ink pens -- old shoes -- car keys -- etc. We need a shrine dedicated to "all things taken for granted!"

Monday, November 24, 2008

The Hand

This morning in church, my grandson, David, was playing with crayons, and he dropped several on the floor. He bent down to pick up the crayons, and I saw my daughter put her hand under the hymnal rack anticipating David would lift his head oblivious to the danger. Sure enough, David lifted his head, but instead of hitting it on the sharp corner of the hymnal rack, his head met the soft, loving hand of his mother.

This was a simple scene, but to me it was so tender and touching, and it seemed to be a moment where something remarkable had been shown to me. Perhaps, I thought, this is how God’s hand works. He anticipates a danger and puts his hand there to protect us. There are two moments which came to mind, one recent and the other which happened a couple of summers ago.

It was opening night of Baldwin High School’s production of The Wiz, and my son Patrick had several roles in the play. After the play was over, a couple of judges from state who were in the audience to evaluate the play’s potential at state competition, went back with the cast to talk about the performance. It took a while, and afterwards we were hungry, and since it was so late, we decided to go eat somewhere. Trying to decide where was not easy, since choices at this hour were limited to a few fast food places. I reluctantly agreed on Kentucky Fried Chicken.

When we pulled up in the parking lot of KFC, we weren’t sure if the place was still open. There were no customers in the store, but when we walked in, a girl welcomed us and asked for our order. No sooner had we begun placing our orders than there was a loud pop from the back, and a girl began screaming, “Fire!” She added some other colorful language I’ll omit, since I try to keep the blog at least GP rated. Another young lady, apparently the manager, came into view from the back and shouted to us there was an emergency and we’d have to leave, that they were now closed. In all the frantic commotion we decided to stay to make sure everyone was all right. The staff consisted of three girls, a couple of them probably high school age. They couldn’t get the fire extinguisher off the wall and were all panicking. The girl who was waiting on us began filling a large pitcher with water. As she headed in the direction of the fire, I screamed, “No! Don’t throw water on a grease fire!” She turned around and questioned, “No?” I explained quickly what throwing cold water on a vat of flaming grease would do. It would most likely have exploded and thrown hot grease over everyone nearby, and the fire would spread as the flaming grease floated on the water.

They were eventually able to get the fire extinguisher off the wall and got the fire put out, but that was a close call. As we left, I was suddenly aware that we had come to KFC for one reason – I had to be there to keep that young girl from throwing water on that fire. She probably would have been severely burned. As I slipped into the car, the realization of this made me weak for a few seconds. There was “The Hand”.

Two summers ago, we took a group of high school and middle school kids from our church to Brunswick, Georgia. The mother of one of our college students had opened her home to us so we could go to the beach. We left in the afternoon to get there in time to have supper at a popular sea food restaurant on St. Simons Island, then returned to the house where we spread blankets and sleeping bags on the floor in several rooms. The trip over the causeway to St. Simons had whetted our appetite for the beach the next day.

The next day, we loaded up and headed back to St. Simons. After a bit of shopping in some of the interesting stores on the island, we headed to the beach. It was a sunny day and very hot. It was a pleasure to get into the water. Being one of the adults in charge, I kept my eyes open, constantly scanning the water to keep up with our kids. I noticed my youngest son Patrick floating on a football had gotten a good distance from the shore, so I waded out as far as I could stand up and yelled for him to come back closer to the shore. He yelled back that he couldn’t – he was caught on a current. I can’t tell you the shock of watching my child in the ocean well out of reach and heading for deeper water. Immediately I started swimming out till I reached him, but when I I turned around and tried taking us back to shore, I realized two things: 1) we were further out than I thought, and 2) we were both caught in a current taking us even further out. I tried swimming with all my might, but I wasn’t making any progress. The beach and all the people looked so far away, but I started screaming. No one heard. I can’t remember being as scared. I noticed a man with a boogey board and a couple of girls that were a little closer in playing with a Frisbee. I screamed as loudly as I could, and the man finally heard me. As soon as he realized we were in trouble, he headed out to us. He was able to pull us back in, and finally I was able to stand on the bottom. Fortunately, not only was he equipped with a plastic flotation device, but he was also a trained lifeguard who just happened to be within hearing range of my screams. There it was – “The Hand”. I still shudder when I remember that afternoon.

Of course, some will be quick to point out that there are many times when “The Hand” doesn’t seem to be there. I constantly question why bad things have to happen – earthquakes, floods, the terrible tsunami of December, 2004. Why do children get sick and die? My first son never came home from the hospital, but died in my arms at 9 days old. Why? I just don’t understand. However, this doesn’t keep me from seeing “The Hand” so many times, just like my daughter’s loving hand stretched out to protect her son from harm. And for that, I am thankful.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Mâché Creations

There is something beautiful about discarded paper -- newspapers, old memos and reports, magazines, doesn't really matter. I see things there that most people probably don't see -- dragons, turtles, giraffes, fish, castles, and characters of all sorts. It is my job to bring them to life so others can see them. I have named my studio (a loose term given to describe any place where I happen to be creating) Mâché Creations.

Here is a sampling of what's going on in the studio these days: from the magic of chips of paper, to the creatures arising out of them.

It all begins here...with paper. Big sheets torn repeatedly, or cut into tiny pieces with scissors, until I have the raw material to begin shaping into what my head visualizes (but not entirely...the paper has a will of its own and comprimises must continually be made).

This is tedious work, but the results are even beautiful before the process of gluing pieces of paper together begins. Shapes and sizes and colors yield an appealing texture that never ceases to thrill and fascinate me.
I need a variety of sizes. The smallest pieces -- about 1/8 of an inch -- are for forming more precise shapes. I have returned to a process of gluing pieces of paper together, one by one, and working the shape as I go. Everything I do is freehand. I go from the paper chips you see to the eventual shapes using only the air for an armature. The only exceptions are the occasional rolled tube that establishes the form of a leg or arm on a creature. Dragons are my favorite subjects, and I have a variety of characters in the works.

In the rising menagerie are fish and turtles, giraffes (not pictured), and a variety of dragons. There are many other creatures abiding in my mind waiting to get out and express themselves into form.
I love the graceful curves of dragons' necks. Just wait until you see them with wings and ears. After I have them basically formed in this manner, I will take paper pulp made in the blender and kneaded together with glue, and with it cover the figures and sculpt the fine detail work. Previous work can be seen in an earlier blog post.
Stay tuned! I will be sharing more as the work on these projects progresses.
[Photos by Cris Bohannon]

Monday, September 22, 2008

September 22nd...the day I became a Marine.

Today is September 22, a very special date. Yes...the first day of fall, but something much more important to me. It is a birthday for me. Not the day I was first born, but a birthday no less. On September 22, 1976, I graduated from Marine Corps boot camp at Parris Island, South Carolina. It was the day when I became a Marine and was first called by that title. It still brings a thrill to think about it.

On June 28, 1976, six nervous recruits left from the AFEES building in Atlanta for the airport where we were flown, courtesy of our dear Uncle Sam, to Charleston, South Carolina. There we were met by a Marine Corps liaison and began meeting other young men from around the country who would share one of the most frightening experiences of our lives -- our arrival via bus. Our "incarceration" had begun. We were limited to a small area of the airport where we were able to have supper, but those who wanted alcohol to settle their nerves found out everyone there was in on the plot. Just like the flight attendants on the flight to Charleston, the airport staff would not serve any recruits alcohol. It was all for the best, because it would be three days before we would be allowed to sleep again.

The ride from Charleston to Parris Island was made in the dark of night. We weren't to be allowed the pleasure of scenery, or to comprehend the route to the island that would be home for many of us for the next three months. As we rode past the sentries, we all realized it was about to happen. We were about to meet the people we'd had nightmares about for months. The Marine who came onto the bus to deliver our "welcome" didn't disappoint. We all flew off the bus and headed for the yellow footprints which would give us our first lesson on how to stand with our heels together at a 45 degree angle. Throughout the night, we were shuffled from place to place, filling out paperwork and having instructions barked at us...more instructions than we could possibly remember. Around 4:00 a.m. we were marched into the barbershop for a "trim". Stout South Carolina barbers were waiting to begin the first step of making us all look alike -- our first step of becoming a uniform outfit. The haircuts were brutal -- shears were pressed onto our scalps, and with long sweeps off came hair, warts, moles or any other obstacles that might reside on our heads. I saw several recruits come from the barber chair with lines of blood streaming down their heads.

Over the next several days we went through medical tests and inoculations; had every possession we arrived with bagged , marked, and taken to a warehouse; were issued our clothing and 782 gear (basic field equipment); and spent hours marching clumsily from place to place and standing in lines for hours. About the third day we were loaded into a trailer and taken to our permanent barracks where we met our platoon's senior drill instructor and drill instructors. While this was another nerve-wracking experience, it was also a relief from the stressful days of formation. We ran into our barracks -- my platoon was on the second deck (floor) -- and found the rack that corresponded to our laundry numbers. Since I was Bohannon, my laundry number was 4, which put me only one set of racks away from the DI hut. We spent 30 minutes standing at attention on our knees on the concrete floor. The senior drill instructor explained a few days before graduation why they do this -- they have to weed out quickly anybody whose knees won't take the strain of prolonged pressure.

Marine Corps basic training takes place in three phases. Phase 1 is a period of complete breaking down of the individual. The stress, physical and emotional, is intense and never lets up. We have our initial PFT (physical fitness test) and begin PT (physical training) and lots of drill. We learned how to do a school circle -- which is usually four even columns. Our classroom instruction did not take place in chairs or desks, but sitting at attention on hard floors.
Second phase consists of the rifle range, water qualification, and various other training. The breakdown period of first phase transitions into a phase of grooming Marines, but the pressure still never lets up. Third phase we finally get to get high and tight haircuts instead of the shaved heads that we've worn through the first two phases. We are becoming Marines. We've qualified with the rifle and passe other important tests; we are feeling more like fighting men.
Third phase consists of intense combat training. We get to participate in military maneuvers and learn important combat skills, like how to throw a hand grenade, how to use the bayonette to look for landmines, how to detect booby traps, etc. The training culminates in several intense days which are now called "The Crucible", but when I was in boot camp it was called Individual Combat Training (ICT). There was also the Essential Military Subjects Test (EMST), where we were examined in 12 areas, including NBC (Nuclear Biological Chemical warfare -- which includes a visit to the gas chamber), UCMJ (the Uniform Code of Military Justice), Close Order Drill, Marine Corps History, Military Customs, field stripping the M-16 and putting it back together, identifying various grenades by touch, and first aid.

One of my favorite parts of boot camp was the Confidence Course. There are various structures designed to intimidate and test courage and strength. Probably the most well-know obstacle is the Slide for Life. The recruit slides across a rope stretched over a pool of water. There are three positions: the recruit begins with his stomach on the rope, one foot over and one leg hanging down; at the changeover point, the recruit hangs by hands and legs with head facing the destination; finally, the recruit changes to the same position but with the feet heading toward the destination. Anyone falling has to snap to attention and yell "Marine Corps!" till he hits the water. Fortunately, I didn't fall -- even though two mischievous DIs began shaking my rope for their amusement.

There is no way to put into words adequately the stress, the uncertainty, the homesickness, and all the other emotions and sensations of the training that leads to becoming a Marine. All I know is on the final day it was all worth it as I marched across the parade field and heard that depot band playing the marching songs, then standing at attention as we were first called Marines, then hearing the "Marine Corps Hymn" for the first time as a Marine. Fortunately, one of the benefits of becoming a Marine is -- Once a Marine...Always a Marine. Don't call me an ex-Marine. I am a Marine. And today is my birthday. And I'm still proud, and the "Marine Corps Hymn" still gives me goosebumps and leaves tears of pride in my eyes. SEMPER FI!!! and OOH RAH!!!
  • James O. Bohannon, 1st Recruit Training Battalion, Alpha Company, Parris Islcand, South Carolina, graduated 22 September 1976.
  • The yellow footprints that greet every new recruit to Parris Island.
  • The Slide for Life (I notice now there is a "net" -- we were over water the entire time).