Tuesday, July 27, 2010


The tendency to get entangled marked the donkey Lucky’s entire life. He never even considered that disentanglement was possible. He never learned to avoid his problems. On the contrary, when he was in the vines, he seemed to figure out ways to make the tangles worse as he moved around in mindless, purposeless ways, with a benign acceptance of his fate. I regularly found him and cut him loose, but he was only mildly grateful, and forgot my act of kindness within seconds, treating me like the untrustworthy omnivore he was convinced I was. There was no way to make him understand that I would never eat a donkey.

We named him Lucky because he was born on Friday the 13th. My big brother flew his 50th mission over enemy territory in a B-17 on Friday the 13th and came back from his long entanglement in World War II unscathed, so, in my family at least, Friday the 13th is known as a good luck day. But Lucky the donkey seemed marked out for trouble from his early days. He was the unluckiest donkey I have ever known.

Lucky recently got shot in the back leg. I gave him antibiotic crumbles in his feed and started him on a regimen of penicillin. But early last week, when I went to give him some feed and a shot, he was down, once again the victim of entanglement. He had his good back foot in some vines and he couldn’t get up. His wounded leg, I discerned, was definitely broken. The bullet had made its irremediable mess of cartilage and bone. I had to do what cowboys do when equines have broken legs. It was the hardest trigger I ever pulled.

I have pulled the trigger on my own entanglements more than once in my career as a college administrator. Several times the trigger I pulled was that of taking a new job, getting a fresh start. The changes were not without risk, but the grass was indeed greener on the other side of the brambles, for awhile anyway.

But in higher education administration, it was my experience that people invariably got hung up in process and began to serve the structure instead of the student. These treacherous vines of process grew strong and held tight. And annual evaluations did little good. I used to advocate an evaluation system for college administrators based on outcome rather than process. I recommended that we hand out a form to evaluate administrators to students and faculty that asked two questions: Does the administrator do a good job? Why do you say so? You know, keep it simple. How could you get entangled in process with that streamlined approach? No one paid much attention to the recommendation. It was more fun to darken bubbles and run Scan-tron machines.

Of course, my old recommendation would require some thoughtful writing and no one wants to get entangled in that kind of thing.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Explaining the Unexplainable

There are many things in the universe we cannot explain. Fully half of our experiences on this planet cannot be described without acknowledging the spiritual dimension. All over the world, people are increasingly interested in the spirit realm, even though faith in both science and religion is apparently diminishing.

Famous people like Tom Cruise and Shirley McLain fan the flames of spiritism and everywhere we see a rejection of the scientific method for testing truth. On top of that, some traditional churches, once bastions of belief in the spirit realm, are softening their teachings about many things, including the hereafter. And who has not heard about non-traditional Christian movements beleaguered by scandal and suspected of charlatanism?

I wish more people would stand up for rational discourse in seeking truth. Faculties at the vital seminaries encourage responsible inquiry and the tried and true research and analytical methods of the scholar. But we must not neglect other ways of gaining wisdom. Scripture speaks to us in ways that are deeply relevant to contemporary experience.

It is strange that such an ancient document as the Bible can speak so directly to our current circumstances, often in the least expected places. It comments upon the importance of unity for those who would follow the Lord, of the unique requirements for holy leadership, of the mysterious relationship between love and knowledge and of the eternal significance of every moment of our lives.

Even though Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were in the finest Babylonian school, Daniel had a skill that could not be taught in the academic disciplines—dream interpretation. This God-given skill led him to outshine all the pagan wizards, magicians, fortunetellers and astrologers of the day. He became famous as an outstanding scholar who was blessed with Heaven-sent insights and powers. King Nebuchadnezzar and others in authority often referred to him as a man who had the Spirit of God in him.

But Daniel tells the king that he should not think him wiser than anyone, but that his job is to help others learn. All of us are called to learn and to help others learn about things we cannot explain.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Pop and Pop's Pop

Loy Swilley showed up at 408 East Fifth Street in El Dorado courting Mother when I was about six. My father had died a few months before I was born. Loy heard on the ship on the way back to the States from what he called “them islands” (off New Zealand) where he had been a Seabee in World War II that Mother had become widowed.

Loy and Mother knew each other before she married my father, so Mother recognized this energetic little guy when he knocked on the door, and invited him in, thinking he was selling something. There were lots of door-to-door salesmen just after the war. Loy stayed a long time, never coming to his sales pitch. Finally, Mother, who was ready for the visit to be over, said, “Well, Loy, what are you doing for a living?” Loy replied, “I drive nails.” That’s when it dawned on Mother that this master carpenter had come courting.

I thought his name was “Boy Swilley” for a long time. I would ask, “Mother, is Boy Swilley coming tonight?” The answer was increasingly yes. He brought ice cream, candy, boxing gloves, a football, bats and balls, all my brother Curtis and I could hope for. He would also, from time to time, hold me awkwardly—I was as big as he was—on his knee. He didn’t really want to, but he was trying to impress Mother by appearing to be good with children. He always had a fresh pack of Dentyne gum and he smelled of whiskey and Camel cigarettes.

Mother suspected he was a drinker, so when he proposed sometime later, Mother said, “I will marry you if you will quit drinking and build me a house.” Pop said OK so they got married. He didn’t quit drinking, but he built her two houses.
Pop didn’t like our dog Fuzzy very much. Curtis and I got him when we first moved to El Dorado. He was a Spitz mix, a black and white ball of fur when he was a puppy. I wanted to name him Teddy Bear because he had the markings of one, but Curtis wanted to name him Fuzzy, so we named him Fuzzy Teddy Bear Ford.

Once Fuzzy followed me to school. I had run him back home two or three times, but after I got out of sight and into the school, he came and plopped down right outside the door. The principal called the dogcatcher and he came to pick him up. My teacher let me go out and talk to the dogcatcher, but he said he couldn’t let him go because the principal had called them.

I went to the principal’s office to borrow the telephone and called Mother at work. She said for me to go back to class and that we would go get Fuzzy that evening. I hurried home after school and when Loy came home, we drove to the pound and there was Fuzzy in a cage. If he could have turned red, he would have. Loy got mad at Fuzzy for that and for barking at night. One night he got up and whipped Fuzzy for barking. I saw his hand bleeding when he came back inside and said, “Did he bite you?” Loy replied with just a touch of uncharacteristic sarcasm, “No, you know Fuzzy wouldn’t do that.”

My stepfather’s father lost his lucrative grocery store business during the depression and started peddling groceries all over town from a homemade pushcart. He had eight nondescript dogs that accompanied him every day. They made a formation around him similar to a military guard unit. If neighborhood dogs came out barking, these soldiers would turn them back.

Mr. Swilley rang a dinner bell as he traveled to alert housewives to his presence. He did a brisk business in every neighborhood on his route during the 1950s when I was a kid. As the women came out of their front doors, he called out a list of the fresh vegetables he had that day. By the time he got to our house three miles from town, he was generally out of turnip greens or collards or tomatoes. Many of these were fresh from his own garden.

Mother, who worked in town, told her father-in-law he was welcome to go into our house to get a drink of cool water, which he did on a daily basis. She always left several pones of hot water cornbread, his favorite, out for him. (He called them dodger biscuits). Mother also had a standing order with him for a small package of cinnamon rolls and a bunch of bananas.

In the summertime when I was out of school, I would hear his bell from wherever I was playing—at the park, in a tree, at the creek, behind the church, in the ditch—and go home to eat a cinnamon roll and a banana and visit with him.
He did and said the same things every day. When I came in, he always said, “Danny, you old booger, where have you been?” I always told him specifically and in some detail. He listened attentively, with no comment. Then he would say, “I brought you some nanners and rolls.”

Mr. Swilley then ate a dodger biscuit and drank a glass of ice water while I devoured a cinnamon roll or two and a banana. Then he took out his pocketknife and cut a tiny plug of tobacco and pushed it way back into his jaw. Then he always said, “Tell Miss Pearl I enjoyed it.” Then he went on down the road, ringing his bell, with his little canine army regrouped around him.

When he was dying, he knew it. He went to bed in his little house on Jefferson Street and relatives went into the bedroom one by one to say goodbye. When it was my turn, I went into the room that smelled like tobacco and Watkins liniment. Mr. Swilley said weakly, “Danny, you old booger, where have you been?”
Hiding my sudden emotion, I replied dryly, “In yonder in the living room.”

Mr. Swilley laughed. It may have been his last laugh. He died the following week. He was in his nineties.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Homeward Bound

My father was already the late Gordon Smith Ford when I drew my first breath on a crisp December morning in north Louisiana. His ruptured appendix left my mother a very pregnant widow who had a son 19, a daughter 15 and a son five. The older son soon went into the service and flew B-17s in World War II. The older daughter experienced a failed marriage and then served in the Women’s Army Corps. Mother was left with a 40-acre farm with mortgaged crops, my brother Curtis and me.

Mother loved the country very much, but, even with the help of elderly neighbors and distant kin, she couldn’t make a go of it, and eventually got a job in El Dorado, Arkansas, some 50 miles north of the farm. She rented the Louisiana shanty out for almost nothing and rented us a similar dwelling place in El Dorado. Every chance she got, she would take us back down to the farm to visit, to reminisce, to stop by the cemetery, to spend time with Gordon Smith Ford’s sister, Sister. Sister had a little store and gas station in nearby Cooktown. She was married to Clarence Cook.

She was always so glad to see Curtis and me. When we drove up in the old Chevrolet sedan, she would cry out, for all in Cooktown to hear, “Oh, there are my chillun!” Far from the accent most people associate with the South, her talk was rapid-fire and crisp. She sounded almost Scottish. (Sister lived to be almost 100 and had the fortunate genes that would not allow her hair, which she never cut but kept balled up, to turn gray). She didn’t marry Clarence until after child-bearing age, so she had to heap her maternal affection on other people’s children—and she did that wholeheartedly. Curtis and I always left Sister’s with a bag of candy from her store and a deep conviction that we were loved.

Because of Mother’s love for the old farm place, I venerated it as well—Curtis somehow didn’t. When I got to be old enough to stay away from home for awhile, I would go visit Donny at the farm neighboring ours. Donny neither had the loquacity nor the imagination of El Dorado boys. He confined his remarks to “sure is” or “yep.” When he did volunteer an utterance, it would be something like “I like sugarcane, myself.” Or, “I know where we can get us a melon.” On one of my solitary summer visits, I got very homesick, longing for Mother, movies, my bicycle, my dog Fuzzy and the familiarity of urban life. I was supposed to be down there for a week. Three days after my arrival, conversations with my laconic companion grew intolerable, so I told Aunt Sarah (the “aunt” was a designation of affection rather than kinship) with whom I was staying, that I wanted to go home. They didn’t have a telephone. She simply had Uncle Curt (some kin, but not an uncle; Curtis was named for him) drive me to the bus station in Ruston, Louisiana.

As Mother drove back to work from lunch that day, she was astonished to discover me lugging my suitcase towards home from the El Dorado bus station. She never did understand why I cut my vacation in paradise short to return to city life.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Dangerous Dave's Brave Dad

I team-taught a Sunday school class in West Palm Beach with the father of Dangerous Dave, world kickboxing champion. Dangerous Dave’s daddy and I became friends right after he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer. He invited me to go to the fights with his family to watch their highly accomplished son live up to his moniker. The only way Dave disappointed the crowd was by knocking his opponent out very early in the fight, usually in the second round. It appeared that he could not restrain himself from landing the ultimate punch early. Part of his strategy was to discover the other fighter’s weakness in round one and then exploit it in round two.

The father’s strategy in his bout with cancer was similar to his famous son’s. Immediately after the grim diagnosis, the father, who is a psychologist with a couple of doctorates, learned all he could about the disease. As a strong Christian, he entered into a time of prayer and fasting.

Instead of following his doctor’s orders and submit to surgery immediately, he took a non-traditional route, visiting an out-of-the-mainstream clinic in Boca Raton, just south of West Palm. Under their tutelage, he ate nothing but raw veggies for a time, used his blender to combine all kinds of fruits, only ate seeds and nuts as they were sprouting and took a lot of herbs and vitamins.

That was round one, the diagnosis and non-traditional treatment, beginning about 15 years ago when my friend was in his late 50s. Now, in round two, he has discovered the weakness in his opponent. From what he tells me, the cancer cells in his prostate live on testosterone, so he started taking a Chinese herb that kills that substance. The PSA has gone down, but there is some concern that the bad cells have escaped the gland. I’m hoping and praying that the man, like his ferocious son, will knock out his opponent in round two.

A few years ago, my own PSA was slightly above average on one of my visits to the VA in Mena, Ark. My doctor there sent me to the big VA hospital in Little Rock for a needle biopsy. I am glad to report that no cancer cells were discovered there. I do everything I can to get that PSA number down, because I certainly don’t want another needle biopsy. Even though the procedure lasted only about seven minutes, it seemed like several hours. It wasn’t exactly torture. I mean, I would not have revealed any government secrets had the doctor been the enemy, but I was certainly glad when it was over.

Fortunately, I didn’t even have to enter the ring in the cancer fight. If I ever have to, I shall follow the traditional route. I admire Dangerous Dave’s fighting skill. I deeply admire his father’s courage in following such a dangerous strategy. However, if need be, I’ll do what the doctor says and knock the culprit out in round one.

There was a man who grew roses in our Sunday school class. He said the best way to produce prize-winning roses was to make it impossible for disease to get a foothold.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Guardian of the Loaf

Language is alive. Words simplify themselves over time and meanings change. Four centuries ago, for example, the word let meant to forbid. Today, it means just the opposite. Not many years ago, when a young person said someone looked bad, the individual meant someone looked good. The word tough used to mean hardened and mean and I think it means that again today. But, when I was a teenager, there was a period of time in which tough was used to describe a beautiful girl, as in, “You’re going out with her? Man oh man, she’s tough!” That didn’t mean she was hardened and mean, but that she was a knockout.

The word “lord” comes from the Anglo-Saxon compound word hlafweard, which means guardian of the loaf. Hlaf became loaf and weard became warden or guardian. Warden and guardian are variations of weard. So a lord is a loaf guardian. The Oxford English Dictionary traces the changes in spelling of hlafweard, thereby showing the gradual changes in pronunciation: from hlafweard to lafweard to laward to lord. We still hear people in our part of the country pronouncing it laward. I say it that way myself when I am relaxed and talking to people I don’t need to impress by measuring up.

Back in pre-Roman Anglo-Saxon culture, the hlafweard was the man who owned and distributed the bread at meals or banquets. Interestingly, the word lady comes from an Anglo-Saxon form that means loaf dough—she was the one who made the bread for the hlafweard to distribute at meals. It is possible that these Germanic people had no plates until the French victory in 1066 introduced them. Before that, Anglo-Saxons probably ate off of bread. The lady would slop a dipper full of stew on the hunks of bread the lord had distributed around the board (as in room and board) and they had at it.

Maybe in 1611 when the King James or “Authorized” version of the Bible was printed, the word “lord” still had a little of this bread distribution meaning left in it. Whether it did or not, it was the perfect choice for a title for Jesus. The word itself contains a picture of the Lord distributing bread at that venerable supper, where the whole meaning of Passover changed forever for so many. The Lord himself was designated as the bread that came down from heaven, thus associating himself with the manna that fed the wandering Hebrews so many years before. The institution of the Holy Communion or Lord’s Supper is the central sacrament in Christianity, because the gospels report that Christ admonished his followers to eat the bread and take the cup in remembrance of him. And the fact that some faiths call Jesus’mother Our Lady is linguistically interesting considering the fact that the word lady designates the one who makes the bread, as I reported earlier.

So, as Christians remember the Lord at his table some 2,000 years after the initial event, many understand on a deep level that he remains the guardian of the loaf. And, miraculously, he is not only the one who distributes it, he is it—the bread that came down from heaven. He is simultaneously the guardian and the guarded.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Donkeys Teach

Just watching a group of benign donkeys teaches us some deep things about patience, endurance, serenity and flexibility. In fact, when a human works with these noble equines, he or she is in for an educational experience—often when we think we are teaching them, they are in reality teaching us even more. I learn a lot about human relationships as I spend time in the round pen with my long-eared pupils. Gaining trust, communicating accurately and rewarding right responses are essential elements in training donkeys as well as in developing good human relationships.

Gaining a donkey’s trust takes time and patience. Because these sturdy equines have such a strong sense of self-preservation, they are more cautious than most animals—they don’t want to get hurt. They know instinctively that humans are omnivorous, capable of having them for dinner. And, as dedicated herbivores, they have to figure out whether or not we can be trusted not to eat them. Once they are convinced we mean them no harm, they become docile and more or less cooperative. It goes without saying that in human relationships, trust is the essential ingredient. We can’t have any kind of long term compatibility with another person without it.

We have to keep in mind that donkeys can’t read our minds. We have to communicate very clearly, in “language” they can understand, what it is we are trying to get them to do. How stupid it would be to punish an animal for not doing what we want it to when the animal does not have a clue what that is. Usually, a donkey balks when it does not understand the trainer’s wishes or when it thinks some harm will come. Clarity of communication is essential. That is certainly true in human relationships as well. I have even known cases in which men and women deliberately misinterpret the words of the other—yes it often comes to that. The remedy is to back off, pause a moment, reconnoiter all the verbal skills you have ever learned and say, “Now, let me try to restate that. What I really meant was…”

Donkeys respond better to rewards than to punishment. If we carry a pocketful of treats and give the animal one when it responds to our requests appropriately, we get that behavior nailed down quickly. However, if we hit the donkey or even yell at it for inappropriate behavior, the equine interprets that as, “Hey, maybe he’s going to eat me—maybe I can’t trust this human after all.” So a reward system works wonders and punishment does not work at all. The analogy to human relationships is obvious. We love it when someone we care about brags on us and we hate it when we get fussed at.

So training donkeys has taught me a lot about human relationships. Without trust, we can’t have a lasting relationship. Thus, we should figure out ways of gaining and retaining the trust we so desperately need. Next, we must keep those lines of communication open. If those begin to shut down, we just need to be aware of the need to talk—about anything: just keep jabbering. Also, we should try to reinforce the positive aspects of others and not be so hard on the negative ones. The old proverb, “You gather more bees with honey than with vinegar” comes to mind. May I put forth a new proverb? What things so ever ye teach a donkey, that shall ye also learn.

Monday, July 5, 2010

What Time is it?

Most of us older people reminisce a lot. We like to tell ourselves good versions of the stories of our lives. But do we get the stories right or do we tend to fictionalize the past in a kind of benign self-deception? That is a deep question, but I want to tackle it here.

St. Augustine characterized time this way: the past is just a present memory and the future is merely a present expectation. If we accept that view of time, all we have is the now. But as soon as the word “now” is out of our mouths, it is already in the past. So time must be a durational, fluid entity that our finite minds simply cannot comprehend. For example, if we try to think of the beginning of all things, or the end of time, our minds go numb. Even the holy men of old resorted to elaborate metaphorical expressions to cope with the complexity of time.

But time does not always seem so complicated to us. I know what it is until someone asks me. When someone does ask me, though, I don’t know how to answer. Oh, I can quote Aristotle: “time is the measurement of motion,” and explain that clocks and calendars measure the motions taking place in our solar system. But I know that my state of consciousness at, say, 4 p.m. has nothing to do with clocks and calendars. My sense of time is not related to universal motion and, furthermore, it is immeasurable.

Sometimes entire segments of our seemingly forgotten past are recalled to our consciousness in an instant, even though the recollection does not seem momentary. For example, when I was a pre-schooler, my aunt used to keep me while Mother worked. At my nap time, Aunt Sarah always turned on the radio to listen to her soap opera. So daily, I went to sleep hearing organ music with a very wide vibrato, the theme song of the program. Now, whenever I hear such music—which thankfully is rare—I feel very drowsy and catch glimpses of the old day bed and the green wallpaper of my childhood. This phenomenon often happens not only when we hear familiar sounds, but also when we smell certain memorable odors or when we experience other sensations similar to those we have had in the past. Thus, our inner sense of time is compacted and recorded to be released involuntarily when we least expect it—nothing we ever experience is lost.

The famous essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that everything takes on pleasing form in the eyes of memory. Maybe there is within us some healing agent that preserves the good and banishes the bad—or at least modifies it so we can continue to live with ourselves. Time will tell. Our minds are good managers. Whatever time is, we accept it along with the consequences of being alive on the planet, allowing some benign subliminal agent to monitor a myriad of sensations. As Emily Dickinson said, “Tell all the truth, but tell it slant.”

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Talking Southern

Southerners have a strong aversion to being thought stupid or naïve. Nothing burns our bacon more than people assuming we are slow because of our accent. My wife and I were singled out because of our southern drawls several times while we were living in northern California,West Palm Beach and Columbus, Ohio.
West Palm is really a northern metropolis, even though geographically it is way down south. We used to joke that south Florida is the only place in the world from which one must travel north to get to the south. There are so many people inhabiting the area from the northeast that a truly southern accent stands out like grits at a clam bake.
My wife has a beautiful south Arkansas accent, having been raised in the oil country around Smackover. She is one of those rare southerners whose accent does not change no matter where she lives. Many southerners who move up north are verbal chameleons; they come back down here speaking with a strange accent after a few years—but not my wife.
She served as a receptionist in a West Palm Beach private school for a period of time. Once she answered the telephone and a man asked to speak with the principal. She told him he was out, but left word that if this particular individual called to give him a rather detailed message, which she began to deliver. The man interrupted and said, “Isn’t there anyone else there I can talk with?” My wife replied, “Sir, I know I have a southern accent, but I’m not stupid. This is the message you are to receive. . .” He let her finish and hung up.
In Berkeley one time I got a free hamburger for talking the way I do. The lady behind the counter in the burger place listened to my order and said, “Are you from Kentucky?” I said, “No, Arkansas.” She said, “That’s good enough for me—the burger is on the house.” She indicated she missed the way the old folks at home talked.
On another occasion in California, my wife discovered that the restaurants didn’t put much ice in their iced tea, so she learned to order an extra glass of ice to add to it. Once when she did that, the waitress said, “Are you from Texas?” My wife said, “No, why, is that the way Texans order their tea?” She replied, “No, that’s the way they say ‘ice’.”
Later, we were taking a little vacation, driving up to Port Angeles to ride the ferry across to British Columbia. We were having lobster in a nice restaurant in Oregon on the way. My lobster was gone before my baked potato was, so I started dipping hunks of potato into the melted butter provided. I said to my wife in my joking hillbilly voice, “Sugar, you better dip your ‘tater in that butter.” I guess I said it a little louder than I thought, because everyone around us stopped eating and looked our way, as if I were E. F. Hutton. We laughed about that one all the way to Victoria.
Overall, Ohio people are more tolerant of our kind of talk, maybe because the state abuts Kentucky and West Virginia. I got looked at funny two times up there, once when I ordered unsweet without saying tea, the way we do down here and another time when I put salt on my watermelon. Apparently that is not done in Yankeeland.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

In the Beginning

Chimps, gorillas, orangutans and a few other critters can learn sign language, but, even with the device they are quite limited in their ability to communicate. Maybe they can tell you what they want or what an object is. In terms of having a meaningful conversation about what it feels like to be a chimp, gorilla or orangutan, though, we can forget it. They don’t have the right brain structure for using language with any degree of sophistication.
More than anything else, our human capacity for speaking, because of the structure of our brains, sets us apart from all the other creatures on the planet. The more people talk to each other, striving to understand and to be understood, the more “human” they become. Our humanity improves as relationships grow more harmonious. In Genesis, Adam is the only creature given the capacity to name the animals and thereby have dominion over them. In the beginning was, well, the word.
Other life forms can and do communicate, some with considerable sophistication. Bees, dolphins and even the great apes do creditable jobs of sharing information. But humans are the only beings on earth that can communicate symbolically. That is, we can picture things that are not right before us and discuss them.
For example, I can say or write “Red bicycle leaning against a Christmas tree” and other English speakers and readers get the picture clearly. It is a symbolic utterance and it transfers a clear picture of something that is not really there.
Some may see a Schwinn and others a Huffy. Perhaps one sees a cedar and another an artificial Christmas tree. But, in general, my verbal statement causes others to vicariously experience my mental picture in their minds’ eye. It is the miracle of symbolic image transfer.
Language requires us to create in our minds eye what is spoken or read. One reason movies made from novels are seldom as enjoyable as the original book is that we like participating in the author’s creativity. We half perceive, half create as we read. By their nature, movies have to nail scenes down to a single interpretation, limiting possibilities and stifling imagination. There have been attempts to give multiple views in movies, such as in suspenseful courtroom sagas, but, overall, movies do not require much participation in the creation of imagery.
Further, our desirable participation in the creative process makes for interesting and lively conversation. As two people talk, each systematically reduces uncertainty in the other’s mind, until they see eye to eye. Thus, conversation becomes the basis of real community. Even when we don’t agree, with good language skills, we can at least make the other see our point of view.
What would happen to community if all humans spoke the same tongue? Would one world language help form a more homogeneous global community?
We may know the answer to that question in a few decades. Even today, English is considered to be the worldwide language of business and transportation. Though there are more people speaking Mandarin Chinese on the planet than any other language, I understand that English teachers are very much in demand in China. English has over 600,000 words, thanks to the entire French vocabulary being dumped into our original Germanic tongue after the Norman Conquest of 1066. No other language on the planet comes close to that number of words.

To Tell the Truth

The word “ethics” derives from the Greek “ethos” which means moral custom. Most of us understand ethics to mean simply doing what is right. But defining what is right is not always so simple in the new international culture in which we live. The world is shrinking. Moral customs are manifold and in various forms across the globe. What’s right for you may not be right for me. That dilemma is called, of course, moral relativism, where there are no absolutes. How can we have a universally agreed upon sense of ethics without moral absolutes?
I’m afraid the concept of situational ethics has come more and more into play. That is the philosophy contending that the end justifies the means. The situational ethics advocate, for example, would say, “It was fine for me to lie in that situation, because the lie brought forth ultimate good.” The political situational ethicist might say to himself or herself, “The important thing is for me to get into office so that good will result, even though my means of getting elected may be questionable.” When people abandon a universal code of right or wrong, a moral custom, they come up with their own definition of good and create their own means of achieving it, however shady.
In this kind of environment, some feel threatened by any hint of absolute truth. Some want to take “under God” out of the Pledge of Allegiance. Some want “In God We Trust” off of our currency. Some want to tear down the wall of Ten Commandments from court houses. Some get nervous when people pray in public. It is as if some Americans want to turn their backs on our very heritage, which includes highly motivated intellectuals bent on achieving and maintaining the freedom and independence by-productive of a Christian or at least a Deistic world view. In short, it seems as if America is becoming Europeanized.
I presented a scholarly paper at the University of Bonn a few years ago. The title of my contribution was “He Was Talking About Truth: Faulkner in Pursuit of the Old Verities.” In it, I contended that William Faulkner believed that the writer’s goal was to present the old truths of the human heart. The organization wanted to publish some of the essays in a collection called “Rewriting the South.” My work was accepted for publication. But, the editors softened my assertions about absolute truth and when the book was published, the paper read as if an atheist had written it. When I wrote the word Truth the editors wrote, “Faulkner’s sense of truth.” Essentially, the paper was about Truth; unfortunately, the editors made it about a mere literary concept.
If Truth is merely a concept, then, by all means, tear down the Commandment walls, take out any reference to a creator in our national language and, you will most certainly want to hide when you pray. This latter may not be a bad idea, considering that Jesus said our prayers were more effective when done in the closet.
I’ll reveal my closet prayer here today: “Lord, show us the Truth that sets us free.”

The Potter Fund Son's Pun

See my ring on my finger? Let this Louisiana boy tell you how I got it.
One day when Daddy thought I was out of earshot, I heard him tell my big brother, “Your little brother wants me to cash in the John Potter fund now, while the market is warm; what do you think?”
“What’s his hurry, Dad?”
“Told me he wants to go to Europe to learn about various cultures. Learn some languages. Sample the cuisine. He has become an excellent cook since your mother passed away, you know.”
“He’s up to something,” my brother said. “He knows it’s about time to cut the cane and he doesn’t relish working in the fields.”
“Don’t you ever get stir crazy here on the place and want to roam, son?”
“No, I enjoy making ribbon cane. Besides, I hate Italy. Tell you what, Dad. Oddly enough, there may be some inadvertent wisdom in cashing the fund now, though. I feel uneasy about some of the foreign markets, especially the doubtful investments Potter makes in Middle East concerns and Third World infrastructures. Go ahead and cash it in. I can get a good return on my share at the bank and in some bonds.”
“My personal belief is that one reason you go fairly safe mutual fund is to have padding if things go south. But, suit yourself.”
Later in the day on the patio: “Boys, I have called you here today to distribute the Potter fund money. Here it is.”
I said, “Thanks, Daddy. Wow! We picked a great time to close it out. And goodbye for awhile.”
My brother said, “I have a place for this.”
I flew to Europe, but I didn’t learn any foreign languages. Instead, I cultivated a three-year hangover and spent all the money, more or less foolishly, hanging around top notch restaurants. Then, out of necessity, I went to work sweeping up and doing general custodial work at a mediocre hotel in Nancy, France.
I came to myself one evening while picking pink toenail clippings out of the lounge carpet.
“I’d rather be supervising migrant labor on Daddy’s sugarcane farm than gathering these little rosebuds. I’m headed home.”
I caught a tramp steamer and worked my way across. I caught a ride from New Jersey to Memphis with a guy on a rice-burner who looked exactly like Elvis. I called Daddy collect then and he sent me bus fare through Western Union. When I got home, I said, “Daddy, just give me a supervisory job on the place; I know and you know I blew it big time in Europe, but I promise I’ll reform and do better.”
My brother said, “No, Dad, he should start at the bottom. If you hire him, put him on as one of my fire-stokers at the syrup mill.”
“That’s the dirtiest and hottest job on the place, son. It’s nice that you want to work with your brother, but I have other plans for him. I haven’t heard from him in three years and we all thought he was dead till he called from Graceland. After we have a party, inviting all the neighbors and all the hands, I’m giving him a job in the kitchen as a pastry chef. I’ve been so hungry for his lemon meringue pie.
I immediately made several and that’s how I got meringue on my finger.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Otis Shaw Passed

Otis Shaw died last week at 112 years old. I went to the funeral at the old Methodist church in Washington, Arkansas. His brother Truman played Mozart’s “Rondo alla Turca” by ear at the funeral. He learned a lot of music by listening to albums. When I got home, I looked up this interview I did with Otis a decade or so ago.
I found Otis Shaw on the steps of the Pioneer Grocery in Washington, Arkansas one recent Saturday. He cut a modestly measured chew from the corner of a Brown’s Mule plug and poked it back into his jaw. His blue eyes contrasted strikingly with his weathered face, which was surprisingly free of wrinkles for a centenarian. I asked for an interview about Washington’s past and he agreed to talk.

DF: When and where were you born, Mr. Shaw?
OS: Oh, call me Otis. I was born here in the country west of Washington, down yonder off 195 just a little ways from the Bois D’Arc Creek. December 19, 1898.
DF: You seem to be in remarkably good health for a person over a hundred years old.
OS: Yes, the Gazette has done already sent a lady up here to talk to me about that. Did you read what she wrote?
DF: No, I missed that.
OS: Well, it was a while back about my hundredth birthday. Get you a copy. What I told her was that I didn’t eat much meat; maybe that’s why I have not died yet. Sometimes in the fall, I’ll eat sausage with my eggs if someone kills a hog and wants to give me some, or a little bacon, but most of the time it’s vegetables. I imagine sausages are so good, they will make you die if you keep on eating them. You got to be careful of things that taste too good. Collards all winter. Sweet potatoes when I can get them. I love pinto beans and cornbread. Plenty of onions and peppers and tomatoes. Sometimes in the fall, crackling bread. People will bring me fish, sometimes. I don’t pay no attention to exercise, but I walk four or five miles a day just doing what I do around the place. I walk up here and sit on the steps a time or two a week. I just got eight acres, but it keeps me plenty busy. I plow a mule. I’ve got a big black mare mule out of a Percheron from a mammoth jack. I still milk, too. I got several guineas and some banties.
DF: What about your family, Mr. Shaw—wife, children?
OS: No, sir. I told you to call me Otis.
DF: No family living?
OS: You need to get you a copy of that Gazette article that was done on my 100th birthday. I didn’t ever marry.
DF: Tell me about your family.
OS: My Papaw, Otis, didn’t talk much. He was real old when I was a boy. I think he was about 50 when my Pappy was born, and my Pappy was nearly 40 when I came along. But Papaw loved to take me and my brother Truman in the wagon way off down on the Bois D’Arc Creek to a place he called the Cat Hole. You know, I can’t find that swell in the creek now to save my life. There was a hermit that lived down beyond the Cat Hole, and he kept it cleaned out. His name was Eddie Rice and he had him a pet rooster that could do tricks. I don’t know what become of him. Some said he died in Bossier City in a rest home. I mean, it was a good-sized pool down in there, north of 195, sand as white as them clouds. And there was some big old mud cat in there. We’d come home with a stringer every time and Mamaw would have the grease hot when we got there. She’d hear the wagon coming and put the lard on the fire. She didn’t have to holler, “Did y’all catch any?” She knew that if we was going to the Cat Hole, we’d be home with something to eat. That woman could cook, now! She’d cook them catfish and bream and sometimes grindle just right and have hush puppies, sliced onions, radishes, big old fried potatoes and some kind of vegetable, greens or beans.
DF: But did he ever tell you anything about his past?
OS: Oh, yes. You’d kind of have to piece things together. He would just kind of hint at things, you know. Like he took care of Jim Bowie’s two pack mules for him. He said they were great big old white mules with blue muzzles. He said they’d be 17 or 18 hands high. Big old mules. Papaw said them mules had heads the size of pickle barrels. Every time he come through here, Jim Bowie would have them mules packed out with deer and bear and sometimes small game. And from the looks of him, he ate plenty well, too. Papaw said he was a big bald-faced man. They got pictures of him over yonder at the gift shop. And he talked about how good Jim Bowie could throw a knife. He said he could strike a match throwing one of them swords James Black made for him at 25 yards. He said one day while he was grooming one of them mules, Jim Bowie hollered at him from down yonder at the edge of the Royston property and said, “Otis, come here, I want to show you something.” When Papaw got there, Jim Bowie was sitting on a stump with a little bitty pin knife open. A salamander was kicking up dirt about as far as from here to that catalpa over there and he threw that knife before that thing’s head came out and the knife got there at the very same moment the salamander’s head did and Papaw said he never saw a man laugh as hard as Jim Bowie laughed as that thing flopped around with a pin knife through its head. Papaw didn’t have much of a sense of humor, but he said that day he laughed to hear Jim Bowie laugh.
DF: Did your grandfather ever say anything about the knife-maker James Black.
OS: Some. He knew him and felt sorry for him. He was blind toward the end, you know, and lived with Dr. Jones and them. Kind of pitiful. Papaw played with his children and said he pumped the bellows for him sometimes. He said James Black could tell Bible stories better than anyone he ever heard. He said he learned more Bible at James Black’s feet than he did at the church.
DF: Do you know the story of how James Black was blinded?
OS: Several versions. My Papaw said Mr. Shaw, the man Black worked for, might have been somehow mixed up with our folks, I don’t know. Anyway, he was a strange man. Papaw said he was a brooder and that he thought himself better than anyone in Washington. He wouldn’t want no one fooling around with his stuff. He sure would not have approved of anyone as a fit mate for his daughter, Miss Ann. He whupped James Black when he was bad sick with high fever. But Papaw said his eyes was already bothering him before that. Maybe being close to the hot fire all the time and so forth kindly cooked his eyes. He went all over creation trying to doctor his eyes, but he got to where he couldn’t see nothing. Couldn’t remember nothing either
DF: Did your grandfather ever say anything about the Civil War?
OS: Yes, he did. He was right proud of raising money to help our wounded troops at the end of the war. He said they had a big old shindig and raised mighty near $50,000 to help those boys. The war hero I admired most was a colonel in the Hempstead Rifles, Dan Jones. I used to work for him on his place up where the Golsten’s live now—right behind the May place where that park superintendent lives now. He was real old and I plowed for him when I was young and did livery work a right smart. He had the best walking horses in this part of the country. He had him a great sorrel horse that he would ride around the place with a cup of coffee in his hand and he would never spill a drop, that’s the truth. That’s how smooth that horse walked. He had a dozen gaited mules, too, little bitty things, out of standard jacks and pony mares. His wife was an artist named Birdie Warder Jones. She was a pale gray-headed woman from way down below the Red. Her people had money. I got a little painting of willows she gave me hanging over my settee. She was mighty good to us. We didn’t have to worry about nothing.
DF: By “us” who do you mean?
OS: Me and Truman. Dan Jones said the Hempstead Rifles used to have to kill their own meat during the war. Once in awhile they would get jerky from Camden or maybe sometimes smoked ham. But most often, they had to kill their supper—possums and what not. One night Dan Jones was out stalking a little yearling sow when a great big painter cat knocked him down—that’s right, jumped down on him out of a sapling, sure did. Knocked his gun slap out of his hand and was fixing to chomp down on his neck. Dan Jones had a piece of raw hide hanging out of his powder pouch and he snatched it out and, with one hand on one end and the other on the other end, he pushed it into that painter’s mouth like sticking a bit into a horses mouth. Then he come a-straddle that thing, and commenced to hollering and scooting around through the saplings. When his fellow soldiers come up, there he was. They thought he was riding that thing like in a rodeo. He got quite a reputation. He wore a tooth of that painter in his hatband till the day he died.
DF: Excuse me, but what is a “painter”? Is that a panther?
OS: You heard me right. P-a-i-n-t-e-r. You don’t see them around here no more. I seen two in the Florida swamps. You know, I was mighty-near forty before I ever rode in an automobile. It was a ‘39 Nash, a pretty light green one that a man from Dallas come driving through here in. He said he’d give me and Truman a ride if we’d wash his car for him. Of course, we was all for that deal. I thought me and Truman was going to jump out of that thing when he got it up to about 35.
DF: What has kept you in Washington all these years. Have you ever wanted to live anywhere else?
OS: I hate traveling worse than the devil hates conversion. I got my dog, the mule, the animals. I got stuff to do. I like to sit by the fire in the winter. I read a lot, till my eyes play out. I like my church. I go up here to the oldest Methodist church on this side of the Mississippi. We got a good preacher. That man can preach, now. Knows hardware, too. We have a good time. Singing is good. You know, unity in the church is illustrated by the sound of singing. If it sounds unified, like one great voice, or two in cooperation, you know the people is in unity. Romans 15:5 says we ought to have a spirit of unity among ourselves. Naw, I don’t want to go nowhere.
(Otis got up and walked to the edge of the porch and got rid of a little tobacco juice. When he looked back at me, his eyes said, please let me enjoy my Saturday, now, so I did. I later found out from other Washington residents that his just younger brother Truman lived with him. He had taken care of Truman all those years. Truman is a savant who can wonderfully play any musical instrument given him. His instrument of choice now is the harmonica, which most people in Washington call a French harp. He can also recite long passages of scripture, some say the entire New Testament).