Sunday, July 17, 2011

Awesome Archibald Jones

I am currently reading a book by animator Don Hahn. He’s best known for his work with the Disney Studios. Most recently he produced and directed the documentary “Waking Sleeping Beauty”. It’s a film that uses home movies filmed by the actual animators to tell the story of the Disney animation studio in the 10 years spanning 1985-1995.

The book is called “Brain Storm”. It’s about tapping into and cultivating creativity. I haven’t finished ¼ of it yet but I’ve already learned some things that will change the way I approach being creative from now on.

A couple of the things that Hahn writes about are: 1) A creative effort is like a piece of modeling clay that is molded and shaped in many different ways as well as added to and carved before it reaches its completion. 2) A creative person should be open to discovering ideas and inspiration for developing a creative project from any and all sources.

A recent object lesson I used for the Children’s Sermon at my church is an illustration of both of these principals.

The puppet you see above is the latest character to make his debut in my "act". His name is Awesome Archibald Jones. 
It's taken almost 3 years for me to come up with a personality for Archie. But his story and the lesson he helped teach the kids at Oakland Baptist came as a result of combining several ideas and influences.
Since he's a small puppet I chose to make his first name "Archibald" after Nate "Tiny" Archibald the 6ft 1 inch tall basketball player who played in the NBA from 1970 to 1984. 
His last name "Jones" is a tribute to the song "Basketball Jones" a 1974 novelty song by the comedy duo, Cheech & Chong.
His personality, attitude and message have yet another set of influences.  
The "Awesome" part comes from the little inside joke that goes on between my son and daughter in law. It revolves around the hyperbolas claims by Michael that he is "Awesome" and Heather's continuous denial of said claim. I won't go into it much here but you can read my January 6, 2011 post (Christmas Memories Pt. 4) for more details.
Archie is an awesome basketball player. Don't believe it? Just ask him. He's always ready to bombastically give you his "point of view" play by play from his latest heroic game performance. All of it punctuated with his trademark head throwback proclaiming that it's all because he's "Awesome".
His voice and enunciation is inspired by a character I used to hear on the Soupy Sales midday radio show on station WNBC out of New York during the mid 90's.
The spiritual object lesson I present , which I won't give away completely in case you get to meet Archie in person some day, teaches the Biblical truth that God is responsible for all that happens in our lives. I got the idea for it based on a similar message used by ventriloquist David Pendelton when I saw him in Beaver Dam, Kentucky a couple of years ago. The actions that help illustrate this lesson are a "break the illusion" approach to puppetry I have learned from ventriloquist Taylor Mason.
I've now presented "Awesome Archibald Jones" twice, once in my home church and again during VBS at the Community Church at Cedar Springs. Both performances were met with very positive responses. .
Now that he has a name, personality, and a voice Awesome Archibald Jones has room to grow and develop as a character. It took some time but the recipe of ingredients that make Archie who he is has finally come together. He is now a permanent part of my ministry. He's a great example of how God uses the creative process to give us what we need to connect with and teach people. And that's "Awesome."

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Surprise! It's A Birthday Party Part 2

With the invitations given out, the decorations and food waiting at the church and a playlist of beach songs ready to be used as back ground music, most of the tangible things for Paula's surprise birthday party were ready.

What still had to be done was mostly in the area of misdirecting Paula's attention so she wouldn't even think about the possibility of big party and to get her to the church that day.  First thing was to set up a fake family birthday dinner.

It is our tradition to celebrate a family member's birthday by going out to dinner at the restaurant of their choice. So far this year Michael made the Cheesecake Factory in Nashville his choice and Cheddar's in Bowling Green was the location for my daughter in law, Brandi's celebration.

It was only fitting that Paula would have her birthday dinner the weekend of her birthday. The most likely day for that to happen would have been Saturday the 2nd. But I knew if we did go out for dinner on Saturday the boys would have to give Paula her birthday gifts from them at that time. This would mean that they wouldn't have anything to give her at her surprise party.

So I had to coordinate a fabricated story to tell her. I came up with the story that neither of the boys could make it to dinner before Sunday afternoon at 5PM. This would solve one problem.

The next issue would be how to getting her to the church. I could only think of one way that wouldn't arouse her suspicions. I recruited our church treasurer and Paula's friend, Gail as an accomplice in this conspiracy. Because Paula works as an account, from time to time, she helps Gail with the church financial records.

Under the guise of helping her update records for the upcoming monthly church business meeting, Gail would ask Paula to go to the church with her that Sunday afternoon.

The two issues (the birthday dinner and Paula going to the church to help Gail) caused a bit of a conflict. Paula was a bit reluctant to go with her until she found out that her "birthday dinner" with the family was at 5PM. It took several phone calls, several covert conversations with Gail to help her convince Paula to go with her. Finally my wife reluctantly agreed.  

The day of the party I was very anxious. The church service that morning was not any longer than usual but to me it seemed to take forever. I felt like a kid the day before Christmas.

Once we got home from church I ate lunch. Under the guise of arriving early at an afternoon Hot Rods baseball game I left the house about 12:20. There was no game of course. I had convinced Paula that there was a game and that it was a make up game for which I already had a ticket. I wanted to go because they were giving away free t-shirts.

In reality I went to the church to prepare for the party. The kids and my sister-in-law were there to help. We set up and decorated the tables. Here is a picture of what they looked like:

After the tables were ready we set out the food. Of course the one thing that served as the connection between the decorations and the food was the cake. I had picked it up after I got off of work on Saturday and dropped it off at Michael & Heather's house. They brought it to the church. The Walmart decorator did a very nice job. It fit right in with the rest of the decor. 

With everything ready the guests started arriving. They were dressed in their "going to the beach" attire.

Soon it was time for Paula to arrive. I went into the stairwell and sat where I could here when they came in the front door. There were a couple of "false alarms" as a few guests arrived just a minute or two before the guest of honor.

Finally I heard Gail and Paula come in. They were talking as they walked through the foyer of the church. I rushed down the stairs and alerted the guests, who were hidden so that Paula wouldn't see them until she had a full view of the room.

It seemed to take forever for them to come through the basement door. But finally I heard my wife telling Gail a story about something that happened to her during the week.

When she got came into view everyone yelled "Surprise!" She was so taken that she forgot herself and let out a PG-13 rated interjection. I won't tell you exactly what was but let me just say "it happens". The fact that she came out with that word in the middle of the church fellowship hall was proof enough that she was totally surprised.

With the help of family and friends I had done it. I had surprised my wife with a birthday party.

After a few minutes of walking around greeting all the guests I introduced her to the "Paula's spot". I told her it was her little piece of the beach especially for her to sit and enjoy. She was a little reluctant to put her feet in the sand because she didn't want to track it through the church. She attempted to put her feet in the water but I had made it way too cold. Nevertheless she did sit down in her new beach chair long enough to get her picture taken.

I lit the 50 candles on the cake and everyone sang "Happy Birthday". Once again friends and family chipped in and helped serve ice cream, cakes and beverages. I got to play host a bit by mingling with our guests.

After everyone finished eating cake and ice cream Paula opened her gifts. She got a certificate for a free massage, gift cards for several area restaurants and movie theaters, a nice tote bag, and some cash. That's not all she got but those are the things I remember.

About an hour later guests gave their final wishes and began leaving. When it came time to clean up everyone still there helped. The guests were invited to take home any of the table decorations (the beach balls, water guns, and Frisbees) they wished to take.  The sand and other components of the center pieces were thrown away. I kept some things to take to the Goodwill store.  The leftover food and snacks was left in the kitchen for a church social later that night.

It was about 4 o'clock when we were finally finished. We loaded everything I needed to take home into the back of my Vue. I thanked all my family members for their help once more. We even talked about going out to dinner for real. Only Paula and I would do that though.

My wife questioned how I had done all of the stuff for the party. I told her that all the decorations and things were at one time stored in the house out of sight. I explained that I had used the previous Monday to prepare. She told me I was too good at keeping secrets. I promised her that I would only ever keep good secrets.

We finished out the evening with a trip into town to have dinner at Longhorn restaurant. As part of the conversation intended to keep off the trail of her surprise I had promised to buy Paula one of her favorite steaks for dinner. After we were finished we put a ribbon on a very memorable day by going to see Cars 2 in 3D.

So there you have the story of the day I threw a surprise party for my wife. I know she was surprised and I hope it made this milestone birthday one she'll remember for a long time. All the preparation and planning, while a bit stressful at times, was all worth it. She is the Love Of My Life. and nothing I could do or say could ever show her how much she means to me.

Happy Birthday Paula

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Surprise! It's A Birthday Party Part 1

Well, I can cross another accomplishment off my personal "bucket list." I have now planned, organized, and hosted a surprise birthday party.

This past Friday I wrote about my wife and her reaching a "milestone" birthday. Two days later, Sunday July 3, a gathering of friends and family helped her celebrate at Oakland Baptist Church. As I mentioned it was a surprise party.

Ever since last September, when Paula was gracious enough to allow me to spend my 50th birthday in Walt Disney World,  I've been determined to give her a memorable birthday this year.

Just a little over 2 weeks ago I came up with the idea of giving Paula a surprise birthday celebration. The only day I could do it was the Sunday after her birthday, July 3rd. I decided that the fellowship hall of our church would be the place.
Planning a party, much less a surprise party, was something I'd never done before. I reserved the fellowship hall, told my kids and my sister-in-law, then made out a list of those I wanted to invite.

Next was buying the decorations and the invitations. I got off of work early one afternoon and went shopping. I had decided on the theme the day before.

All during our Chattanooga vacation Paula mentioned that she'd like to take a vacation to the beach sometime. After we got home she got more specific. She said that next year when her brother and his family go on vacation to the beach in the Florida panhandle she wants to go. She then said she wished we'd gone this year instead of Chattanooga because she wants a vacation where all she has to do is relax.

So I decided that I would try and give her some resemblance of a that type of vacation. The theme of her party would be a beach party.

The tables would be covered with bright tablecloths with tropical colors including: green, orange, blue, yellow and red. There would be centerpieces made to look like little beaches set on the tables along with flip flops, Frisbees, and water pistols. Instead of confetti, small seashells would be spread all over the tables as well. There would be beach balls to toss around too.

For Paula I would make up a small "spot" that resembled a little beach. A special place for her to relax during her party. I would get a small blow up kiddie pool and fill it with sand also inside the pool would be a basin filled with water to serve as the "ocean". I would put seashells and a starfish on the sand. A plastic webbed beach chair covered with a beach towel would be her spot to relax.

I would get the decorations and all the things I needed at a local dollar store, Hobby Lobby and Walmart. Walmart is where I ordered the cake. Their cake  decorator said she could make it look like a beach and an ocean.

I found the invitations and filled them out. They had to be distributed in 3 phases to: Friends and family, church family (including the church staff and her fellow praise team members) and co-workers. I wouldn't have been able to get the invites to that last group without Paula's long time co-worker and friend, Jenny. Thanks for your help.

It wasn't until a week before the party that I got the opportunity to hand out the invitations to the church family. I did it the hard way with Paula running around the church as I was doing it. I did my best to do it on the sly. Overall I had invited close to 50 people. Many said they would come. But because of getting such short notice or plans for the holiday weekend some would not be able to be there.

Monday, June 27, was the last day off I had from work before the party. I took the day to get all the decorations and supplies (hidden in various places around our home out of Paula's sight) to the church.

I had to create the centerpieces. It involved putting a green Mylar palm tree in the center of a small bowl and surrounded it with sand; play sand I bought from Walmart. A small proportionately sized beach towel and a paper umbrella were placed next to the tree. Small shells covered the beach.

After the centerpieces were complete it was time to go shopping for the food. With the cake ordered and the plates, cups and napkins already at the church there my shopping list was relatively short. I needed to get: soda, chips, pretzels, ice cream and soda.

I took all of that to the church as well. I stashed it safely away with a general note on each item that it was for a private party.

Now there were only things a few things left to do. The most important one was come up with a way to get Paula to the church and to the party that afternoon. I could only think of one way to do it. It would require the help of one of Paula's best friends from church.

Details on that and other diversionary tactics that had to be implements as well as what happened at the party will be in "part 2" of the story in the next post.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Meet The Lion

Say "hello" to my newest ventriloquist partner. I have named him "Roaring Rayford". He's has been given a voice but we're still learning his back story and discovering his uproarious personality. But just the fact that he's now part of my troupe of puppets is a dream come true.

Back in 2006  I became interested in ventriloquism more than 30 years after my first attempt to "master" the art at age 15.  I decided that, if I was going to perform in public someday, I wanted to have professional quality puppets.

But I didn't want the traditional ventriloquist "dummy". You know the human like figure with a moving head, hinged mouth, and moving eyes, who usually sat on the ventriloquists knee. 

That style of vent puppets, have a tendency to be intimidating and or scary to kids. Children would be my primary focus with my new ministry.

Because of my life long love for the Muppets, I wanted to use vent figures that were more like hand puppets.

I had seen the exact kind of puppets that summer when Frank and Carol Jarboe brought their "Down Home Friends" to Oakland Baptist church for a Sunday night performance. Their animal puppets were made from fur like fabric with latex heads and hands. I found out they were made by a California company called "Axtel Expressions."

I found their website and browsed through their online catalog of animated creatures. In addition to those I had seen courtesy of the "Down Home Friends" there were many more including a turkey, an elephant, and more. I was drawn to the lion puppet.

These were quality made puppets and they were priced at a premium. We're talking an average of $250 to $300 or more. In spite of that when I looked at the lion puppet I felt like a kid looking at the Sears Christmas catalog and getting that  longing for the one thing he wished Santa would bring him.

At the time I wasn't totally sure that returning to ventriloquism was the new "calling" on my life or just an effort to redeem myself from the failures of my youth. So a major investment in an Axtel puppet was a bit much for my level of commitment. that would change later on but not initially.  

In July '06 I went to the ventriloquism convention in Fort Mitchell, Kentucky. The event is held there because it's where the Vent Haven ventriloquism museum is located. There I actually met Steve Axtel, owner of Axtel Expressions. In the vendor area he was selling his creations. At his invitation I actually tried out a lion puppet. I held it in my hands working its head and mouth. That was when owning an Axtel lion puppet went from a wish to being a dream. I didn't know when it would be, but I was determined to have one of mine own.

My first few vent partners were a couple of inexpensive puppets that I found at the local Parent/Teacher store and, of all places, a Pilot truck stop in Lebanon Junction, Kentucky.

Now let's fast forward a couple of years to 2008. In April, I was blessed with a unique opportunity courtesy of Frank and Carol Jarboe. They were giving up the Down Home Friends ministry and selling their puppets. I was thrilled to be able to buy a "two for the price of one" deal on a pair of like new Axtel puppets. One of them, (the one of the two that I wanted the most)Cecil the Turtle would quickly become my most popular puppet.

Later that summer I attended the International Puppet Festival in a town about an hour outside Chicago. I got to see an Axtel lion puppet being used as part of an on stage performance. Seeing it up close and in action reignited my dreams of ownership.

But by that time I had decided that my next puppet purchase would be a traditional vent figure made by Clinton Detweiler. He is a very famous figure maker who lives in Chicago. I was saving up for it but wouldn't get it until a year just before my weight loss surgery. That figure is Ruben Nathaniel Young. I consider him a symbolic reminder of my successful journey to get healthier. 

This brings me to the story of how Roarying Rayford came to live at my house. At the end of April this year, James and I finished our 36 week Monday night bowling league. We received a pretty good chunk of change as "prize money" for finishing in 4th place. This "windfall" along with the few dollars I had from saving loose change allowed me to finally order the lion puppet I've wanted for 5 years. 

Because I requested a special black "fur" for his mane it took about 6 weeks for him to be delivered to my door. I was so excited when he came I video taped when I opened the box. 

Now that Roaring Rayford is here, he and I are going to take some time to "get to know" each other. In a month or two he will probably make his public debut telling everyone why the "king of the jungle" is now in south central Kentucky. Hopefully he's making people laugh. 

Friday, July 1, 2011

The Wind Beneath My Wings

For many the title of this post brings to mind the Bette Midler song from the sentimental movie, "Beaches".  For my purposes I would like it to serve as a metaphor referring to someone who makes your life better.

Today is a milestone birthday for, my wife, Paula. Now out of respect I won't mention which birthday it is. But I will tell you it's the same one I celebrated last September.

I got her some gifts and gave her some flowers this evening. But anything I can do for her on this special day pales in comparison to the gift she gave me on my last birthday: A trip to Disney World.

But specific gifts for specific birthdays is not what this post is about. It's about the intangable gifts Paula has given me since I moved to Kentucky 12 years ago.

As I was preparing to write this post I started thnking about all the things I've done and places I've been in our 9 years of marriage. Places and things  I would never have ever had the means, courage, or support to do without Paula as "the wind beneath the wings".

I could write a book about all the things I've acomplished since 2002 (some would say that I already have) that are directly the result of God working in my life and Paula's support and belief in me. There are just too many to write about in this single post.

Of course the life changing experience of having weight loss surgery and subsequent improvement in the quality of my life rests directly on her shoulders. Again, it was God changing my heart that led me to the place that I was able to follow Paula's lead and make the decison to committ to improving my life.

I never would have done it if she hadn't agreed to "jump" with me. She actually went first. Her determination and pursuit of the ways to make our surgeries the starting point for transforming our bodies, our lives and our marriage is the greatest gift anyone has ever or could ever give me. As of today together we have lost over 190 pounds and our lives are so much better for it.

While it's #1 on the list Paula's gift of helping me succeed after weight loss surgey is just one of hundreds of things I could mention. There's not one thing I've done in my life over the past 12 years that is not directly or indirectly the result of the support of the Love of My Life.

I guess in addtion to saying she's the "wind beneath my wings" Paula has "raised me up" to a level of life that I would have never ever risen to on my own. She is truly the great woman behind this man.

Perhaps this may seem a bit selfish to write a post about the effect my wife has had on my life on her birthday. But I love her for much more than that. She is a loving, giving, woman who has remained strong inspite of all the things life has brought her way. She has raised two adult sons who are married and gainfully employed, and own their own homes. She did this for the most part as a single parent. By today's standards that amazing.

She managed to provide a place to live and cared for her grandmother and her father in the last years of their lives. She's the better half of, what I consider to be, a successful 9 year marriage. She's managed to do all of this while succeeding in very demanding  job for more than 24 years. She's a passoinate, creative, spiritual woman who loves to cook and is very good at it.

Those are just a few of the countless reasons I passionately love my wife. I would like to tell her through this post that I don't see this birthday as a anything  but a "mile marker" on her way, our way, down the road to the best that God has planned for her life and our future.

Since I've mentioned a couple of song titles in this post perhaps it's only fitting that I conclude this "love letter" to the birthday girl with a couple more."What a difference you've made in my life", Paula. "You Are the Love Of My Life". "You're Still the One"  and I love you Paula Kaye Havens, "Always & Forever".