Thursday, February 28, 2013


Took the boys tonight to see 12 Angry Jurors, a laboratory play presented by the University of South Carolina Theater Department. Based upon the Reginald Rose teleplay, the performers did a very good job and the crowd seemd pleased with the effort. Both boys were well entertained and enjoyed it; they said they would be interested in seeing more plays. Presented in the cozy Benson Theater (in a former public school purchased by the university) that I never knew existed---with perhaps seventy-five seats, the showing was sold out. Glad someone at work suggested that I show up right at 730 to get tickets. We were lucky and had seats in the front row; I could easily have touched the actors. Overall they performed well, with the expected small gaffes and less-than-smooth pacing of amateurs, but the missteps were tiny and easily overlooked when considering the entire production. The set was simple, but perfect. The only thing rang wrong to me was their calling a swithblade a "switch knife," though that may have been more common during the 40's or 50s. I was told that the department puts on a lot of plays, many of them for free. I will be checking out their website more often. Bravo!

Wednesday, February 27, 2013


From 1971 to 1976 or so, I was relatively heavily involved in Scouting. Perhaps not with the devotion of some family or friends, but it was an activity that was both pleasurable and expected of me, and I met many people who helped create the person I became. And three young men I got to know during these years were all named Bill. . . and now all of them are dead.

Billy Barfield was my neighbor, friend, and first senior patrol leader. He was three or four years older than me. I went on many camping trips and even to Boy Scout camp with him (where he later served as a counselor for several years). He was anything but boring: a flamboyant extrovert who loved telling funny jokes and stories, who you knew was coming down the street by his loud voice. But he also had a dark underside. My mother loved him, father tolerated him, siblings (for the most part) liked him, and he was well known for unusual, crazy stunts in the neighborhood. He was also gay. I never cared. He later became close friends and lived in the same community with my sister Beth (who care for his aged mother). He was a trained chef, once served as Barbara Bush's personal chef (according to him) when he was in the Air Force, popular with the A-list, but he lead a destructive personal life. A couple of years when I was in graduate school, he hired me to serve as doorman at the annual New Year's party, for which he prepared the food (and wonderful food it was). He later had a restaurant and bar, although drugs and profligate spending cost him those endeavors, or so I am told. He squandered a fortune. My sons got to meet him five years ago and found him funny and friendly, and they remember him fondly. Three years or so ago, he took his life. I still have a couple unusual garden marbles I picked up from his yard afterwards, that I keep in my curio cabinet.

The second was fellow Eagle Scout Bill Athey, who I wrote about on this blog. An exemplary man, he devoted much of his free time to Scouting, even serving as the scoutmaster for our old troop (68) for many years. He was a fine person and father, beloved by his scouts, and although we were never that close, we were friendly rivals during those years. I would be lucky to live up to the example he set. Last year he was felled in a crash of his light aircraft.

This month's Atlantic Magazine brought another Bill back to my attention, albeit several years after his demise. William Sparkman Jr., apparently in a bid to make sure his adopted son and a family friend would be able to receive death insurance benefits, allegedly faked his suicide in 2009 attempting to make it look as if anti-government elements in backwoods Kentucky killed him. In a good article by Richard Schapiro the details of the investigation were revealed. It was a sad thing to read. I met William (I never called him Bill, though later he answered to that name) when we were both in a provisional summer camp at Flaming Arrow (where he would later serve as director in the late 1980s). I think my little brother served as a counselor under him for a year or two as well. The summer we met, 1973, was one of fun and freedom at camp. I don't recall the exact moment we first met, but I remember a quiet gawky guy sitting off by himself with a chess set who challenged me to a game. He was quite good, and he whipped me every time until about the fifteenth game, whereupon he never beat me again, but we both failed to achieve many scouting advancements that week (severely angering Dad). Not sure why, but I figured him out on the chess board and he wasn't able to defeat me again. Nonetheless, we got along really well. We hung out, went swimming as partners, and even chased down a coachwhip (though did not capture it). He was intelligent and amusing, we had similar interests, laughed at each other, and got along very well. He was from Mulberry, and although my memory is somewhat hazy, I think his father had been a reporter or newspaperman. William in fact is the only scout (outside of my own troop) that I can even recall today. Although we didn't keep up for the most part, we wrote a couple of letters back and forth in junior high, and I heard of him over the years through the grapevine. One of the darker rumors was about his sexuality, but again, by the time I heard this (when I was in my early twenties), I really didn't care. It is mentioned in the article, though there is no hint of bad behavior. Turns out he loved kids and education, and it is sad to find out he never really got to be a teacher in his own right (although he did work as an assistant instructor for many years and he earned a teaching degree shortly before his death). It was also sad to hear that he battled lymphoma and financial difficulties, and struggled with raising and helping a troubled adopted son. It is hurtful, though not entirely surprising, that he concocted an elaborate scheme to end his life in such a way that provided for his son (although as a Scout he belied some of the merits he no doubt believed in).

So now, all my scouting Bills are gone. It makes me melancholy. All were unique and valued in their own ways, each played a role in my development as a person, and I will always remember them fondly.

Monday, February 25, 2013


Criminality in modern Iran is something one doesn't normally think of (except perhaps smuggling and trade in illegal merchandise), but of course it exists. Perhaps for Iranians it is a more pressing concern. Director Jafar Panahi takes viewers into this subculture in Crimson Gold (2003), focusing on events that lead Hussein (played by Hossain Emadeddin) into a life of petty crime, then on to a more-daring act, partly as a result of emotional distress and an assault to his ego by the actions of upper-class Iranians. Hussein is an unkempt, overweight, laconic, slothful droopy-eyed man who may have served as a soldier on the Iran-Iraq front (although it may also have been a con to get more money). He appears to be somewhat "slow," or perhaps not well schooled, though he seems to get along. Hussein and his pal Ali (played by Kamyar Sheisi) are moped pizza-delivery guys who do petty crimes (such as purse snatching) on the side. Engaged to be married to Ali's sister, he realizes that he cannot afford expensive baubles for his future wife and he then feels put down by a rich jeweler because of his social status. He is also cavalierly mistreated by members of the basij (who do not care about is loss of revenue) during an operation to arrest people attending a party. He gets a glimpse of the extravagant, hidden world of the very wealthy while delivering pizza to a posh, upscale apartment where the man of the house also uses wines and has women visit him there. One wonders if Panahi's critique is against continued class division or the folly of policing illicit activities. I was familiar with Panahi's work from Offside (2006), his tale of women being excluded from attending male soccer games and the determination of one girl to break that stricture; he has a reputation for criticizing post-revolutionary life in Iran, and his films are often banned. I look forward to seeing his This Is Not a Film (2011). I was interested in the background shots, and frightened by the traffic scenes. How anyone would dare ride a moped in that traffic craziness is beyond me. Intentionally or not, some of the traffic shots showed cars going just about anywhere the drivers chose to, including directly into oncoming traffic or against the flow, and lane didn't seem to matter much. How cars were not bouncing off each other is unclear, although one moped driver is run over in the movie.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013


War is Hell. That is even more true when the combatants are engaged in a civil war, such as fought on the Korean peninsula following WWII as proxies for the communists and western democracies slugged it out on a frozen, often desolate landscape while negotiators of a truce spent years haggling over the diplomatic table. I was hesitant to try South Korean director Hun Jang's movie Go-ji-jeon: The Front Line (2011), but I am happy I watched it nonetheless. Some of the scenes were as good as in Saving Private Ryan and other superior American efforts. Counter intelligence officer Kang Eun-Pyo (played ably by Ha-kyun Shin) arrives in the Aerok Hills of eastern Korea to ferret out a suspected spy where he finds his old friend Kim Soo-Hyeok (Soo Go) who he thought had been killed in an earlier engagement. Kim soon reveals to Kang the tragic existence his battalion has endured, repeatedly taking and losing the same bloody hill, so often in fact that the sides leave hidden presents for each other every time they retreat, and the mounting toll of death, disability, and despair. Junior officers do what they can to protect their men, all the way to mutiny, as they face an equally determined foe on the field (and a particularly accurate sniper as well), but as the truce nears both sides calls upon these much-abused troops to plunge into a final all-out engagement. The viewer gets an often overlooked view at what life may have been like for Korean troops in a largely forgotten war, reminding us that American soldiers were not the only ones to die, and that there was a multiplicity of actions and reactions experienced by our allies. Overall the acting is very good, the story is interesting and well told, the photography wonderful. I am sure that the actors are familiar to their home audience. Definitely not a feel-good film, but I enthusiastically recommend it to anyone who enjoys war movies and enjoys action that also condemns the brutality and senselessness (and stupidity) often accompanying bravery, sacrifice, and patriotic soldiering. Several scenes will stay with me for a long time: a young injured war orphan reacts to the taunt of an angry soldier, and a poignant moment played out between the warring sides as they prepare to engage.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013


[An opening chapter idea, thinking about writing more, glad to have any feedback, especially if one thinks it might be worth pursuing.---JT]

                I cannot move. My body (or whatever I am) is frozen stiff. I’m not cold, nor hot; I simply feel nothing. My vision is obscured by a pale purplish haze. Silence/stillness like I have never experienced cloaks my senses. Am I floating? My heart should be jumping out of my chest, but I don’t feel anything, just anxiety, fear.  What is going on?  Why do I feel this way?
“Because you are dead,” a disembodied voice says. Well, not a voice really---a message, a feeling, a wave. It is soft, almost feminine, calming.
“How can that be?” I think.
“You do not remember? The bus. The children.”
I do. Kind of.  A small school bus laying on its side, some sort of tanker truck afire. Running toward the wreck, opening the back door, hearing screams and moans.  Kids bloody and scraped, but all seemingly mobile. Helping them up and out, pointing a path away from the carnage and danger.  Little feet scurrying into the distance. Relief. The driver pinned. Crawling inside.  She is hurt, her eyes reflecting fear and flickering flames. Desperation. Then a flashing light, searing pain, followed by darkness.
“You were brave,” the voice whispers, soothingly.
“What else could I have done?” I feel as if a smile washes over me. Is that even possible?
Then a feeling of sadness. My boys, though children no more. My grand kids. My wife.
“They are gone to you now. I am sorry.”
My eyes feel like they are filled with water, but no tear emerges. I am John Alexander Chmilewski. My wife is Renee, my boys Thomas and Terrance. They are both married and have little kids. I am fifty-eight, an overweight ex-high-school jock, relatively successful lawyer. Nice house, beach vacations, a cruise or two. I love my boys. What will I do without my family?
“Do not be sad. This is the way. “
How quickly everything you know can be gone. “Am I in heaven?”
The voice pauses. “Not really. But a somewhat apt description, for the moment, as it is understood by your primitive human mind. But the concept suffices, for now.”
“Are you my guardian angel?”
If laughter could purr, that is what I hear. Another lengthy pause follows.  “Again, a simplistic understanding. But yes, in a way, I have been watching you for a long time. Still, this is not common. A mistake was made and you paid the price. Normally a human would have moved on to the Other already. “
“The bus driver?”
“She has moved on.” 
“The children?”
I doubt I am smiling, but it feels as if I am. “Why me and not her?”
And then the voice is quiet for a long time. Just before new panic sets in, it sweeps over me again. “You are different. You were like me once. But you failed. You were punished.”
“Me?. . .I did something bad?”
“Something wrong.  Stupid. You were punished, made human though not human. We monitor such situations. Had you died as you should have, when you should have, you too would already have moved on. But that is not how it works with one of us.”
“But. . .?”
“Another, like us, made a mistake. We are not perfect. As one of us you would have survived the explosion, walked out of the flame to the astonishment and wonder of all, and that would have been unacceptable. The One Who Cares could have ended you right there to protect the larger myth, but you redeemed yourself.”
“So, I am not human?”
“No, you are, were, fully human, but with an inner core that is not. What is left . . .memory, spirit, soul . . . that is human too.  You will always have that, it is you, but what now exists is more like what you were before. Your actions, and life, earned a . . . reprieve, of sorts. You will still move on, eventually, but you are being offered a Choice.”
“Does this happen often?”
“No. Not never, but normally not. Maybe once in several hundred million years. But it is  not unprecedented.”
“Did I know what I was doing when I ran to the children? Did I have some special sense of myself?”
“No. You were human in almost every way. You did what you did, I guess, because of who you are.”
“And it earned me a choice?”
“What is the choice?  What is behind door number one.”
If one could feel a smirk, I felt it. “You can move on.”
“Go where souls go?”
“Is it nice?”
“I cannot say.”
“Can’t, or won’t?”
“I cannot say. I have not gone there. It is not for me.”
“Are there many like you?”
“More than you can imagine.”
“And the other option?”
“You will be sent.”
“Oh, I know what is going on. You are going to wipe my mind like in that movie, Heaven Can Wait, or something like that, and I will become a new person and live another life on Earth.”
“No. We cannot do that. We never do that. We cannot wipe who you are, who you have become, who you might become.  And as you now have reverted more to what you were before your Fall, a new option must be offered. But we can send.”
That sounded somewhat ominous. “Why send?”
Another long pause. I was getting sick of those. “So one like you can earn more experience and possibly serve a greater purpose. For instance, memories that you should have had that would have helped in the future existence but for the mistake did not may be now attained.  For your Other.”
“I do not send. I just offer the Choice.”
“There is another world in the Universe?”
A chuckle tickles me, somehow. “Humans! You are advancing as a species, but still have so much to learn. So much beyond what you can imagine, yet it is. Many existences, dimensions, realities. It is not your fault, but you do not understand ‘limitless. ‘ Maybe one day, but you have so far to go. I hope to be there when awareness comes to humanity. But for now, you will be sent, if you so choose. But you will be different.”
“So, the stories we hear, in religion and such. They are real?”
“Embellished kernels.”
“If you are my guardian angel, sort of, why did you not step in to protect me, to save me? Why did you allow so much pain?”
“It is. . . how would you say? In your world, it is sometimes referred to in popular television and stories as a “prime directive.”  You know this term? We do not interfere, we are expressly forbidden to interfere. Unless directly instructed to do so in special cases, by One Who Cares. Only then. And if one does so on their own, they pay a high price. You did.”
That slight revelation made me wonder if I had angered the One by overstepping my bounds. “What did I do? I cannot remember.”
“That is nonhuman memory. It is gone. You cannot have it back. Part of your punishment.”
“Will I lose my human memories?”
“No, either way, no matter what you become you are who you are, and always will be, although you can add, expand, improve. But some experiences hurt and can do damage. Mistakes can be made.”
“Can you tell me which will be the better choice?”
“I think you already know that I cannot.”
“Do I have to choose now?”
There I was, floating. With a choice to be made.  So many unknowns. 

Friday, February 15, 2013


This morning was a challenge, starting with trying to get Joey out the door, and it continued from there. Every red light, school bus, bad driver,. . .you name it. Even accidentally turned off computer right after I turned it on. Just as I was was parking the car at work (late), this haiku popped in my head. Well, I guess anything can be inspiration.


Isn't it sad to think
that everyone on earth
ends on a bad day.

Thursday, February 14, 2013


Coping with grief is one of life's toughest challenges, and even more so when children (and those who work with them) are faced with traumatic death. In the Oscar-nominated French-Canadian movie Monsieur Lazhar (2011), written and directed by Philippe Falardeau and based upon a play by Evelyne de la Cheneliere, an Algerian refugee seeking asylum status in Montreal and dealing with family tragedy himself wrangles an appointment to take over the fifth-grade (I think) class whose beloved teacher committed suicide in their classroom, the aftermath which was witnessed by two of her students. Mohamed Fellag is wonderful as Bachir Lazhar, struggling to cope with exile and loss while reaching out to and providing structure for a classroom of adolescents reacting in various ways to the loss of their teacher, as well as trying to make his way in a foreign land (as far different in culture as can almost be imagined). Amazingly, the kids are made to continue their studies in the same classroom. Sophie Nelisse does an exceptional job as the young Alice (one of the students who saw the body), who basically has to deal with her emotions by herself but who feels a connection to her new teacher and manages to confront directly what has happened. All of the cast, even the children, did a wonderful job. I loved when one of the children points out that they are handling the situation better than the teachers. The film also critiques the overreaction of adminstrators (and parents) against all forms of touching students (such as giving hugs of support). I was a bit surprised that there disn't seem to be enough helath care and counseling provided to the one child who needed it most. The movie could easily have been made into a sentimental tear-jerker, but it does not choose that path. This is a delightful movie and I heartily recommend it.

Saturday, February 9, 2013


I seldom stray too far from the Columbia Classical Ballet fold when attending local dance (maybe an occasional City Ballet), but tonight I took the boys to see the Carolina Ballet's This Is Ballet , a 25th-anniversary celebration of civic dance in Columbia. Founded by the late Ann Brodie (and other dance professionals) the company provides training and opportunity to young, pre-professional level dancers and amateurs seeking a venue to continue expanding their skills for the love of dance. The Carolina Ballet has started many dancers onto professional careers, as well as spawned two professional companies in the area. Although there were many levels of experience and talent on display tonight, the overall performance was very solid and entertaining. Probably the most fun dance was "A Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra" which featured many younger girls and boys in the company, giving them a chance to really shine and get experience on the stage in front of a large and appreciative audience. I wish my son had been able to dance in something similar when he was involved in ballet, a reward for hours of hard work. Too often outside of "The Nutcracker" he had the slimmest parts (not unexpected in a professional company), but I think it would have helped keep him on stage. Who really cares if their steps were at times out of line or a pose faltered? They were out there enjoying dance, and that is what really mattered. And they really did a good job. I loved the tiniest dancer. . .so adorable. Younger members also shone in "Jewels" and "Le Carnival." I liked Yhosvany Rodriguez in "Le Spectre de la Rose," despite one mislanding, performed alongside artistic director Mimi Worrell. A crowd favorite was "Spring Waters" danced by Cooper Rust and Caleb Roberts. Also well received was Act I of "Giselle," by Mallory Jones and Patrick Van Buren. The final effort was "Hosanna," a very nice, flowing piece choreographed by alum Jeff Lander in honor of Brodie. The first dance, "The Kingdom of the Shades" from LaBayadere, was probably my least favorite, partly because it was hard not to judge it against the performance given by the CCB earlier this season, but because I think it is one of the more boring (albeit pretty) pieces. We really could do without the march on (especially when so many of the dancers are not as strong or sure as the professionals). The rest of the dance after the first section is very nice. I applaud all that the Carolina Ballet does to inspire young dancer and for its outreach to the community. We need, and benefit, from every opportunity to have any of the arts practiced and presented to the public. It is the first time I have ever been in the Township Theater, newly refurbished and spacious. It was fun to listen to Joey critique some of the dancers, and I know in my heart he would have sparkled alongside them. I wish the Carolina Ballet another successful twenty-five and more.