Thursday, May 27, 2010

Everything I Know I Learned from Jim Thorpe

This week ((May 18) marks the 122nd birthday of Olympic athlete Jim Thorpe.

The title "World's Greatest" something or other is heard pretty regularly these days and its meaning has cheapened with its overuse. But Jim Thorpe was the real deal. He was one of the most versatile athletes ever seen, having played professional football, baseball, and basketball, and competed in track and field at the Olympic level. In 1950 he was named the greatest athlete of the first half of the 20th century, and came close to being named top athlete of the entire century.

He first won international attention in 1912 when he competed in the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden, where he won gold medals in the pentathlon and decathlon. In the fifteen combined events in which he competed, he placed first in eight of them. His point total in the decathlon set an Olympic record which stood for two decades.

His outstanding accomplishment impressed no less than King Gustav of Sweden who, as he presented the medals to Thorpe, told the athlete, "You, sir, are the greatest athlete in the world." Thorpe's answer has become part of his legend: "Thanks, King."

But really, what more was there to say? Ah, to have the courage to be so succinct in my own writing!

Friday, May 21, 2010

Everything I Know I Learned from Dolley Madison

This week (May 20) is the 242nd birthday of First Lady Dolley Madison.

If it weren't for the War of 1812, I wouldn't give Dolley another thought. Sure she was a highly popular first lady in her time. But, at least to my mind, for all the wrong reasons. She was pretty, she was lively, and she gave great parties. Ugh! I'm used to writing about strong women, women of wit and intellect. Give me an Abigail Adams or a Hillary Clinton any day. Those are the women I want to write about. Not someone who comes across as the Paris Hilton of her day.

And then...she went and proved me wrong. Dolley was the first lady during the War of 1812. In August of that year, British soldiers invaded Washington DC and laid siege to the city. President Madison left to join his generals, leaving Dolley behind. Through a "spyglass" she watched the activities of the soldiers. She listened to the booming of the cannons as they got closer. At last she was forced to abandon the White House--but not before she had made sure that important Cabinet papers were safely secured in her carriage. Then, she famously made a pest of herself. She insisted on saving--not her own precious possessions--but the Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington. With others urging her to hurry and getting "in a very bad humor with me" at her stubbornness, she had the portrait's frame broken and the canvas removed. Only when it was safe would she agree to leave. When she was a safe distance away, British soldiers arrived and burned the White House.

Dolley's story is well-known and in fact has come to define her. Her actions ensured that history remembers her for her bravery and patriotism, not just her stylish parties. Attagirl, Dolley, you showed me!

Some people's lives have only one story worth telling. But what a story!

Friday, May 14, 2010

Everything I Know I Learned from Sacagawea

Sacagawea joined the Lewis and Clark expedition in the winter of 1804-1805. She was hired as a translator. Although she was living among the Hidatsa, she was a Shoshone, and was therefore fluent in the Shoshone language. The captains knew they would have to trade with the Shoshone for horses to cross the mountains on their way to the Pacific, and they were most relieved to have her along to aid in the negotiations.

They would have been excused, though, if they were also a little apprehensive about adding her to the team. She was, after all, the only woman, the only teenager, and a mother with her newborn son on her back. Since they did not speak either Shoshone or Hidatsa, and she spoke no English, they could not communicate with her directly.

But on this date, May 14, 1805, Sacagawea proved herself a valuable member of the expedition. While Lewis and Clark walked on shore, she was traveling in one of the pirogues. The captains' important papers, tools, and medicines, were packed in the same boat. Sacagawea's husband, Toussaint Charbonneau, was at the tiller. Charbonneau was described by Clark as a "timid waterman," and actually comes across in the captains' journals as a bit of a buffoon. A sudden wind struck the boat, tipping it nearly over. Water began to pour in. Charbonneau panicked and could only wail in fear. Sacagawea, with her baby on her back, simply reached out and began scooping up all the expedition's precious cargo which was in danger of sinking to the botton of the Missouri River. The boat was eventually righted, but the captains were much impressed with Sacagawea's calm presence of mind. They made a point of describing the rescue in their journals, and a week later named a river in her honor. For two hundred years, readers of the journals have been impressed in the same way. Sacagawea's place in history was secured.

So many times, in our lives as writers, we encounter difficult times. We weather the storms of rejection and uncertainty. We feel pulled in opposite directions by the demands of family, and of day jobs, and our love of writing. When hard times rock our little boats, remember that wailing does no good. Instead, we must simply keep our eyes on what is important and hold on tight to it. We must rescue whatever it is that will keep us going on our journey.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Everything I Know I Learned from THE SCREAM

This week (May 7) marks the 16th anniversary of the day THE SCREAM was recovered, three months after it was stolen. The painting, by Edvard Munch, is actually one of several versions of the same screaming figure on a bridge. Another version was stolen in 2004.

It's probably safe to say that THE SCREAM is one of the most recognized paintings in the world. It's even been mocked in pop cluture, by such figures as Homer Simpson, no less. Why? It's a rather odd painting, with its blood red sky and two distant figures on the bridge. It's hard to know just what the artist intended when he painted it.

Maybe none of that matters. Maybe it's not important to understand anything other than the anguish of the figure in the forefront. Maybe it's the depiction of that raw emotion, front and center, that strikes a chord. We connect with that figure on the bridge at a primitive level. As artists, that connection is what we all pray for.