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Michiana Chronicles writers bring portraits of our life and times to the 88.1 WVPE airwaves every Friday at 7:45 am during Morning Edition and over the noon hour at 12:30 pm during Here and Now. Michiana Chronicles was first broadcast in October 2001. Contact the writers through their individual e-mails and thanks for listening!

Michiana Chronicles: Excited, Instructed, and Intensified

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Ken Smith

No matter what your hobby or craft might be, I’m guessing you’re like me. If someone you respect says, “You should check out the excellent work of So-And-So,” well, you eagerly comply. Someone said to me, “Hey, check out the film reviews written by James Agee.” In a Google minute I had one of them on the screen before me. In 1944, Agee wrote about “National Velvet,” a popular film that helped make young Elizabeth Taylor a great star. You’ve probably seen this movie. In it, a young girl loves and protects a certain horse, and a youthful Mickey Rooney spots the horse’s power and speed and sees that it could become a national-caliber racing champion. Together Taylor and Rooney conspire to get that beautiful creature into the big race.

As a reviewer, James Agee celebrated much of what he saw in the film, but he says that the filmmakers missed an opportunity to deepen it. For if a young person like the one Taylor played is to have any chance in a high stakes national horse race, both she and the horse would have to undergo substantial training. And if that’s done right, a transformation can take place. The movie leaves out that part of the story.

Next, Agee says something that would have been good to know when I was a young parent, or during my career as a teacher. Agee says, when a young person develops a deep interest in something, there are three elements or steps. Someone like Elizabeth Taylor’s character finds something to be curious and excited about. A great horse has that power, for sure. As she receives instruction in higher levels of riding, her skills improve, and in this process her own knowledge and passion intensifies. Through the right kind of training, both the rider and the horse become more intense, more dynamic than they were before. The movie didn’t really show how that beautiful growth takes place, Agee said, but it could have, and the audience would have been astounded by it all. Actually, Agee said the audience would have been annihilated.

Those three words are on target, aren’t they? A person can be excited, instructed, and intensified. Those three words are a little theory of growing up and becoming a person of substance. Now that I’ve encountered Agee’s theory, I notice how true it is.

This year I’ve been trying to learn how to take good black and white photographs. On the surface, that seems like a crazy pastime. Take our big, colorful, three-dimensional world and trim most of it away on four edges, flatten what’s left into two dimensions, and drain off all the color. Surely, what remains inside the little rectangle of the photo will be less interesting, less moving, than the world itself? Why bother?

And yet black and white photography has caught my attention. I’m excited by what I see in the best books of photographs, and by what happens when light after sunrise catches and glows on the interior girders of our nearest river bridge. I’m instructed by great photographers who find beautiful textures, bold lines, and social meanings in very ordinary objects. Now, because I have taken a few hundred photographs this year, I find myself seeing physical things differently, maybe more precisely or intensely. Agee was right, it starts to change a person. Practicing every day, we allow ourselves to be excited, instructed, and intensified.

Music: "Wrong Foot Forward" by Flook

Ken Smith writes about algebra, bikes, con artists, donuts, exercise, failure to exercise, grandparents, harmonica, introverts, jury duty, kings of long ago, Lipitor, meteors, night fishing, Olympic athletes, peace and quiet, rattlesnakes, silly sex education, Twitter, unpaid debts to our fellow human beings, the velocity of an unladen swallow, World War II, extroverts, Young People of Today, and the South Bend Zoo.