Understanding ‘Big Fish’ and Other Stories

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The Big Picture
by Glynn Wilson

When I first opened my eyes and looked at the LaCross clock and temperature gauge Tuesday morning, it was 24-degrees outside in the Pinson Valley campsite. The local weather guys and gals on TeeVee say it was the coldest night of the winter so far.

Outside, the water in the bird bath is frozen, but the cardinals, finches and chickadees keep warm by flying back and forth between limbs in the dogwood tree, taking turns at the feeder.

The cold doesn’t bother me so much anymore, as long as there is a warm sleeping bag by a heater or a fire. The heat of summer is more annoying these days, perhaps because I have spent most of my life in the Sun Belt.

What annoys me more than heat or cold is ignorance.

I spent much of the holidaze of 2011 in a warm, comfortable recliner watching movies on television. The big party of 2012 will come later for me.

When I watch movies, however, it is not just for entertainment purposes or simply to coax my mind off to sleep at night. Sure, it does both of those things. But like great poetry or literature, films often have a point.

I know I’m not the only person on the planet who gets the point. In fact, if you are reading this at all, you probably get it too.

But I think there are a lot of people who just coast through life thinking these stories we are exposed to in the mass media are nothing more than infotainment to get us through the day. True, in the U.S. it is most often about the money. But do you ever stop and take the time to think about the stories abstractly, to ponder how you might improve your own plight in life by listening to the stories and learning the lessons well?

Do you ever wonder about this? Do ever wonder what John meant when he wrote in Revelation, “For those who have an ear let them hear?”

Big Fish

One of the movies I finally had the chance to catch over the holidays was a film called Big Fish based on the book by Daniel Wallace, another writer from Alabama and native of Birmingham.

While it is a well-told story and is certainly entertaining, a discerning viewer might come away with more than a smile and a laugh. Many a southern author has told fantastic tales to try educating an audience. Think of Flannery O’Connor or even Winston Groom.

At a glance, it is obvious the author was toying with a theme students the world over have had to deal with in their own lives: Whether to strive to become a big fish in a small pond, or take a chance at becoming a success in the larger world?

The cliche certainly came up early in my life about the time I decided to leave my home town to attend the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. For Willie Morris of Yazoo, Mississippi, it was off to Oxford, England. For Daniel Wallace, it was off to Chapel Hill, North Carolina to teach English and write stories.

For the main character in Big Fish, he became a big fish by telling tall tales about his life and travels. But what his son the journalist-narrator found out in the end was that there was a nugget of truth to the stories. His father might not have really been a fish, but he was a big deal who was loved by a lot of people. That in itself is a life worth living, for sure. But for many, it is not enough.

I remember when I was an undergraduate student in the first couple of years of college when I could not wait to have an English professor explain to the class what the poem or the short story meant. As a society, we have official interpreters of stories, from preachers to teachers to journalists. Some people even rely on politicians, although I would not recommend that. Mostly they use stories to fool people into voting for them, not to improve people’s lives.

Unfortunately, rare is the journalist these days who would ask the right question to help people understand.

If I were in Iowa today, for example, the question I would ask Mitt Romney and the other Republicans would be: “Why is it that you want to be president, really?”

In other words, tell us a real, honest story from the heart about why you want to be president.

Is it because you have dreamed your whole life about being president of the United States? Is it because you think you are the most qualified person in the country to solve our very real problems? Or is it because you crave the attention? The money? Or the power?

This is not a crazy question, people. It is the root question that should be at the heart of every campaign. Even political marketers know you have to establish a narrative of your life to sell yourself to voters. That’s how political campaigns work.

When I asked Artur Davis why he wanted to be governor of Alabama in 2008, he refused to answer it. He dismissed it as a crazy question from a blogger, not an honest question from a real journalist. He didn’t have the character to know the difference.

What he didn’t seem to grasp was that if he could not answer such a simple question with a convincing narrative, he had no chance of being the first African-American governor of Alabama. I was just giving him a chance to think about that question and to tell me the story, so I could quote him in a news story.

It is pretty obvious now that Mr. Davis did not get the point of all those stories he read in college, all those movies he watched over the years. He just thought you could wear a suit and show up in public and pretend to care and you could get elected and gain a lot of power and money by fooling people.

George W. Bush may have been elected governor of Texas and president twice, but what did he actually accomplish? Is getting elected to public office in and of itself an indication of success in life? Perhaps by some measures. But let me humbly suggest that there is more to it than that.

There is an AP story on the wires today indicating that Bush’s name is rarely being mentioned in the Republican campaigns for president in Iowa. There is no need here to re-list all of Bush’s failures. They are well known and documented elsewhere.

The lesson is that to be a success in life, you have to be able to communicate effectively to make a difference. But more than that, you have to care enough about people for them to care about you. You have to at least want to make a difference in this crazy world and go down trying, even if you fail from time to time. That, in my view, is what life is all about.

Like Humphrey Bogart said as Rick in Casablanca, “I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”

What ended up mattering to Rick was the fight for freedom against the Nazis. In the end he risked his life, his fortune and gave up love to help save the world from Fascism.

What if enough of us understood that — and had the same courage to act on our convictions?

© 2012, Glynn Wilson. All rights reserved.

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