Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Friday, May 09, 2008

Random Acts of Kindness -- Guest Blog

by John Governale

The film, Pursuit of Happyness, starring Will Smith and his real-life son, Jaden, has one of my favorite mini-characters. I use the term mini-character to describe a part that is so small it doesn't rate as a minor character--someone who is in only one scene, or at most a couple of scenes, yet is memorable. When I say memorable, I don't mean because of the quality of the actor's performance necessarily, but memorable because of the quality of the character's character.

Perhaps you'll understand what I mean if you've seen Pursuit of Happyness. There is a secretary who escorts Will Smith into an important interview. Though Smith's personal appearance is way below what is expected for such a formal occasion, not once, before, during, or after does the secretary show, even in her eyes, that there is anything amiss. She announces him as cheerfully and professionally as any other interviewee. Her total screen time is less than a minute, but she won my heart.

Two more mini-characters I admire are in Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio, starring Julianne Moore. If you've not seen this film, I highly recommend that you do. At one point in the story, the main character, Evelyn Ryan, who is the mother of ten, wins a shopping spree at a small, local supermarket. The time-frame is the 1950s.

Because the shopping carts at this store are small, Evelyn goes to the butcher ahead of time, and he agrees to wrap some long, tall packages of ribs that, during the spree, she can stand on end, lining the sides of the cart to make it taller. We never see this butcher, we only hear Evelyn talk about what he agreed to do, so I guess this makes him a mini-mini-character. Anyway, I like this guy. The two characters I want to point out in Prize Winner, however, are Marge and Pauline, who work at the store. The official in charge of the ten-minute spree and who is timing the events says to them, "Any help you happen to give Mrs. Ryan in filling her cart won't be seen by me."

The two women accept this license to help with enthusiasm, and when the time starts, they split up, each collecting arm-loads of food to throw into the basket. Most mothers of ten in such a situation would want to fill the cart with staples that would feed her family as long as possible, but Evelyn is not most mothers. She uses this opportunity to collect a great assortment of exotic foods, things she and her kids and her husband could not afford and have never tasted. She grabs caviar and heart of palm and fresh pineapple and capers and cocktail pickles and fillet minion.

In the frantic bustle of food-gathering, one of the store ladies, Marge, has a great line, which she delivers as she dumps an armful of cans into the shopping cart. "I got you some goose pate -- ever had that? Let me know what it's like."

She says this, not snidely or bitterly or even longingly, but with a matter-of-fact, simple delivery that charmed me as she rushed off to collect more items.

I could spend the rest of this post talking about the young actors who play the children in Prize Winner. Though they certainly are more minor (pardon the pun) than mini-characters, they delight, from oldest to youngest. But let me move on.

My number one favorite mini-character is that of Lamarr in the Tom Hanks movie, That Thing You Do. Lamarr, played by Obba Babatundé, has less than five minutes of screen time, but he captures the audience's interest, admiration, and heart. Lamarr is a bell captain (or concierge?) at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. He says to one of the main characters, "My name is Lamarr, and this is my hotel. And we take care of people here."

By his helpful actions, we see that Lamarr believes those words. Today, businesses make a big deal about their employees taking "ownership" of problems, of situations, of opportunities. A better example of this business philosophy could hardly be found than the mini-character, Lamarr. He doesn't just work for the hotel, he feels like it's his, and "we take care of people here."

The mini-characters I admire occur, not just in movies, but in songs, in poems, in stories, and in novels. Even in the Scriptures. The book of Nehemiah, chapter three, for example, mentions some women, not by name and only in passing, but they inspire me. Around 445 BC, Nehemiah gets permission from Artaxerxes, king of Persia, to travel to Jerusalem and make the city defensible. Once there, Nehemiah, all alone, takes a midnight tour of the place and finds that the walls have been broken down and the gates burned with fire, so enemies can show up any time they want and sack the place. He is determined to rebuild the wall and gates -- a huge undertaking -- and soon has enlisted the help of many men in Jerusalem, each being assigned a section of the wall or a gate to rebuild.

Chapter three is a long list of the people involved. It starts at the sheep gate and works its way around the wall, one section after the other, telling who rebuilt what. There are 32 verses, and typical of how the chapter reads would be verse four, which says, "And next unto them repaired Meremoth the son of Urijah, the son of Koz. And next unto them repaired Meshullam the son of Berechiah, the son of Meshezabeel. And next unto them repaired Zadok the son of Baana."

In this long list of men, we find in verse 12, "And next unto him repaired Shallum the son of Halohesh, the ruler of the half part of Jerusalem, he and his daughters."

The first time I read that, the image I got in my mind was of Shallum, who perhaps had no sons, getting up the first day to go work on the wall, and there, dressed in work clothes and armed with buckets and hammers, were his daughters, ready to go, too. Unnamed and mentioned in only one verse, these real-life girls are but mini-characters, but to me they rank up there with Marge and Pauline and Lamarr and the Pursuit of Happyness secretary.

Are there not in each of our lives, mini-characters -- people who show up only once in passing, but do us some kindness or inspire us in some way? Perhaps they hold a door for us, allowing us to get in a post office line before them. Or maybe they offer a smile that brightens a dim day. Or maybe they are someone who, burdened by a great infirmity, shoulder it with courage and thus give us a renewed will to carry on.

I once saw a feeble, elderly man stop, slowly bend down, pick up a piece of litter, then hobble out of his way to a garbage can to deposit it. I've picked up hundreds of bits of litter since then. The man never realized I saw him or that I've been led by his quiet example.

I'm grateful for all the mini-characters, fictional and real, who in good ways have crossed my path. And for the chance I have each day to play such a part in the lives of others.

Kerry is grateful for John and all the others who guest blog while she lazes away Fridays, puking and watching old movies.

John Governale is the creative genius behind Exceedingly Curious, and a heck of a nice guy besides.


At 5/09/2008 12:33 PM, Blogger Jennie said...

John what a great column. I'm afraid I'm one of those who often fails to consciously see the minor characters, yet I'm so aware of how they enrich literature and life. I especially like your reference to Shallum and his daughters in Nehemiah.

At 5/09/2008 2:46 PM, Blogger Julie Coulter Bellon said...

I absolutely love this blog post. I think it's one of the best I've ever seen. Thank you so much for sharing such a profound insight.

Julie Bellon

At 5/09/2008 7:10 PM, Blogger Karlene said...

Wonderful post.

A mini-character in my life was a philosophy professor at BYU. I was headed to class, late, walking. Suddenly I hear running footsteps--the elderly professor of my class is also late, but here he is in his suit and tie, dress shoes, carrying his briefcase and dress hat, and RUNNING across campus as fast as he can.

I can't remember his name, but his attitude toward the teaching and respect for his class has stayed with me for nearly 30 years now.

At 5/10/2008 12:51 AM, Blogger Governale said...

It's midnight thirty Eastern Time and I just got home from work. Thought I'd take a peak and see if my post generated any comments. Glad I checked.

Thanks, Jennie, Julie, and Karlene.

Wow, Julie. All I can say is, ya make me blush.

Karlene, I hoped people would share mini-characters from their lives. Your running professor is a great example.

Kerry, thanks for inviting me to guest post. Actually, I kind of invited myself. Sorry. But thanks for saying yes.


At 5/12/2008 11:53 AM, Blogger Kerry Blair said...

John, you are ALWAYS invited to post. I think you're amazing!

Thanks so much for volunteering during a very difficult time in my life. Your offer -- and especially your blog -- are such a blessing!

(You are one of those wondrous supporting characters in my life, BTW.)


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