Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Half Century Mark

It's a Saturday morning, I was having a relaxing idyll while surfing various sites I visit when I have the time, when I stumbled upon this nugget:

Yep, it has been 50 years since the premiere of the film version of To Kill A Mockingbird. The White House hosted an event to commemorate the occasion, which included the attendance of the woman who played Scout in the film. Though a half-century older, those eyes gave her identity away.

This may be the book I read as a child that had the greatest influence over me. I don't recall if I read it as part some summer reading program or if it was passed along to me by my parents or older sister. Consider the time I read it: it was after Rosa Parks and the Freedom Riders, before Birmingham, Selma, or the tragedies that surrounded the push to register voters in Mississippi. It was also before the Kennedy assassination. Even in Tulsa, while there were rumblings that change was afoot, it was a time of innocence, when people did not lock their doors, children would walk to school (and even go home for lunch). There were no pictures on milk cartons; color televisions were rare and there were only 4 TV stations.

Introduce to my simple world the characters of Atticus Finch, Boo Radley, Jem, Scout and Dill Harris. Add to this mix Aunt Maud, the sinister Mr. Ewell, his hapless daughter and Tom Robinson. I could hear the nighttime sounds in their neighborhood, I could feel the oppressive heat of a summer afternoon steaming from the pages. I, too, had secret hiding places inside tree trunks for the treasures one discovers in childhood. Although I did not know a Boo Radley, I felt certain I knew exactly which house in Tulsa was his (it was in the 1700 block of South Detroit).

I don't think I had ever read a book that later became a film until this one came out. When I saw it, every image I had in my mind was visible on the screen. It was perfectly cast, seemingly filmed through some gauze filter. No character has moved me before or since more than Atticus. Mr. Peck played the role with such understatement, allowing the force of his character to dominate the scene instead of his acting. Oddly enough, the scene that had the most profound impact (and still brings a constriction of my throat) is when he is leaving the courtroom after everyone else but those in the gallery, where Scout is watching through the railing. "Stand up, Miss Jean Louise, your father's passin", said the minister. Such a simple scene, the respect for this character so eloquently illustrated. I know I have not seen a film treatment of a book since that captured the essence of its story so perfectly.

I have read disparaging comments about Harper Lee, that she only wrote this one great book. Perhaps, but it is one book more than nearly all the rest of us have written. I would be fine if Orson Welles had made no other film but his first one or Renoir had stopped painting after that boating party; genius need not be repeated, so long as it happens but once. I know my life is infinitely richer as a result of reading this book and seeing this film. I think I'll celebrate by buying a copy for each of my children. Perhaps it will inspire each of them to create an Atticus moment for someone else.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

A Few Of My Favorite Things

The richness of our language has long held a fascination for me. Partly, I'm attracted to voices that have a certain tone or timbre. Shelby Foote, the late author of the 3-volume compendium of the Civil War, had such a voice. I was exposed to him, like so many others, by his frequent appearance as a story-teller in Ken Burns' documentary of that conflict. I said at the time that I could listen to Mr. Foote read a grocery list and find it engrossing. Another such talent belongs to Carl Kassel, the host of several news programs on NPR over the years. He currently appears on a weekend quiz show, called Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me. Winners have the honor of having Mr. Kassel record their personal voice mail message, a prize worth pursuing.

At an early age, my father would frequently correct my grammar, syntax and pronunciation. Even though he may have been fascinated by the Okie Twang spoken in the city where I was raised, he was determined that his own children never utter the word "ain't" and that we place emphasis on the appropriate syllable for words such as "insurance" and "cement". When it came time for me to acquaint myself with the rules of grammar, it was a foregone conclusion that I would be hooked.

True, I was that precocious brat who used words that brought head-scratching to the adults around me. As I stumbled into the age of majority, that charming child became an annoying pedant, frequently using words that I felt would either illuminate my own candle power or the relative dimness of those around me. Antipathy is a word that comes to mind. While I do try to be less obnoxious about such things now, I do relish the joys of our language. Some words raise the hair on the back of my neck; others possess a charm all their own. A few of my favorites:

Gerund - I had the good fortune to work with a colleague from Boston whose passions were theater and language. He often recounted his early days as a substitute teacher, whose first assignment was to instruct his students in the proper use of gerunds. Yes, I immediately referred to the gigantic Random House Dictionary to learn the meaning of the term. In case you have forgotten,a gerund is an active noun.

Kerfuffle - I think I heard Senator Franken use this in some hearing a few years ago. It is certainly a better term than dust-up or dispute, although brouhaha has obvious qualities to recommend it.

Infelicitous - Some words hang in the recesses of our brains for decades, only to be dusted off at appropriate occasions. I used this one a few weeks ago in a text message, of all things, to my older daughter, Dr. Princess. Yes, it was felicitously applied.

Conundrum - Why use enigma, problem or poser (a word that has issues of its own) when this one rings so true? It's mere pronunciation brings to mind a corkscrew of thoughts.

Solipsistic - Ah, my favorite! I encountered this nugget in a book I was reading 5 years ago. I immediately looked it up in an online dictionary (that Random House tome long since donated) and stored it away. A short time ago, it was a perfect fit in a note I was writing to my younger daughter, Concrete Jane. Her immediate response: great GRE word! Why, thank you.

Enough for now. Are there any treasured words that you trot out on occasion?