Monday, January 30, 2017


I feel frustrated when I try to text people, especially those I love. There is so much nuance, so much extra, so much digression that I want to do. But my thumbs are awkward instruments of communication. There is not room to tell all the stories inside the story I want to communicate. And no one writes friendly letters any more. I do send and receive some digressive e-mails from time to time, so all is not lost.

Most of my favorite writers occasionally use a literary technique known as framework—telling an anecdote or series of stories inside a larger tale. Boccaccio perfected the method in The Decameron and Chaucer used it to good effect in Canterbury Tales. In the former, plague exiles spend their days telling stories. The larger idea is the plight of the displaced folks but the stories they tell are the focus. Of course, Chaucer’s storytellers are on a pilgrimage, telling their unique stories within the journey framework.

African-American writer Charles Waddel Chesnutt explored racial and class identity in several framework stories. My favorite is Mars Jeem’s Nightmare. That work starts out as an episode concerning a white man and his wife who have just bought an old plantation in North Carolina. A former slave called Uncle Julius who lives there soon takes over the interest and the narration, relating to the white folks a powerful tale about a conjure that turns a plantation owner into a slave and then back again. Uncle Julius explains at the end of the framework that when the shoe is on the other foot, minds and dispositions change.

Earlier in American literature, Nathaniel Hawthorne employed framework to good effect. His famous novel, The Scarlet Letter, starts out with the narrator in a customs office examining old documents. He comes across a beautifully embroidered scarlet letter “A” and it seems to burn his fingers. This sensation leads him to research and relate the story of the adulteress turned angel, Hester Prynne. Of course, even the framework is fictitious, but it gives an initial sense of reality, almost as a documentary would.

Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find is one the shortest framework stories I know. The larger story is about a Southern family taking a vacation to Florida. The smaller stories reveal a miscreant called the Misfit on the loose. The framework comes to a screeching halt with a car wreck caused by the family cat, Pity Sing (Pretty Thing). The Misfit comes on the scene and his dialogue with Grandma nails down the most chilling framework imaginable.

I write all this simply to give my view that we should not find digressiveness too terribly blameworthy. One must start somewhere and if another story kicks in, it may be more important and entertaining that the initial narrative. Such phrases as, “oh, by the way” and “I’ll tell you this so you will understand what I will tell you later,” should be welcome in conversation. I like actual conversations, don’t you? You can’t digress much while texting.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Know Way

Aunt Lucille (we called her Ceecee) did not love her flock of chickens but she hated possums, coons and chicken hawks. She lived to get a bead on one of these predators with her old 22 and send them to possum purgatory, coon crematory or chicken hawk hell. She was proud of her hate and bragged about it, but she never expressed any affection for the chickens. Isn’t that just like some people: hating the opposition more than loving their own ideas?

I read an ancient oriental parable about two young monks who had vowed poverty as well as celibacy—in fact, they promised never to touch a woman. On their first day outside the monastery, they were met with monsoon rains. As they sloshed through a nearby village, they saw a beautifully dressed young damsel distressed because the road she had to cross was so muddy. Without a word, one of the brothers picked her up and carried her across, putting her down on the other side.

They walked on in silence for about a mile. Finally, the other brother said, “Hey, you violated your vow. We promised never to touch a woman and you picked that girl up and held her close all the way across the road.” The brother replied, “Yes, that is true. But I put her down on the other side of the road about a mile back. You, however, still carry her.” Isn’t that just like some people: making judgments about others based on appearances while their own hearts are impure?

Aesop told a story about a sleek and well-fed mastiff dog, living as a pet behind his master’s house. An old patchy and skinny wolf approached his yard and said, “How do you remain so fat and healthy? I have had to work very hard this year for just the minimum of food. Where do you get your meals?” The dog said, “Oh, those humans in that house yonder feed me regularly, really good food. In fact, I have a few ribs left from my dinner that I would be willing to share if you care to indulge.” Creeping into the lighted yard, the wolf said, “Absolutely, but what is that shiny thing about your neck that trails off to that peg in the ground?” The dog said, “Oh, that is a chain. The humans keep me chained up back here. See I am a watchdog and…” The wolf replied over his shoulder as he crept back into the woods, “Goodbye.” Isn’t that dog just like some people: those attached to their own comfortable place so much that they are captives of it or, isn’t that wolf just like those who risk all for personal freedom?

William Hazlitt said we cannot hate anyone that we truly know. And, in Bible language anyway, “know” is related to “love” as in “Adam knew his wife and they brought forth young.” We cannot really know people through social media alone. Real knowledge of others requires relationships—the kind that lead to love. To know, know, know you is to love, love, love you and…….”

Monday, January 16, 2017

He Knows Me

The Mississippi writer William Faulkner was a symbolist of the first order. What he was writing about was not always what he was writing about. For example, in the famous story, “The Bear,” he winks magically about things both being and not being what they seem. The old grizzly himself, Ben, is more than just a bear. Most commentators think of him as an embodiment of the wilderness itself, representing all that is wild and free. I suspect Old Ben was intended to embody more than that, though.

One scene in the story has 10-year old Ike, who wants more than anything to lay eyes on the old denizen of the woods, has been place on a stand by Sam Fathers where he may possibly get a glimpse of the bear. Sam is half Chickasaw and half African, a master woodsman who has become a mentor for the kid. Sam leaves Ike alone on the stand for a long time. While there, the boy suddenly feels that he is being watched. It is a hair-raising experience. He knows deeply within himself that the old bear is observing him.

When Sam arrives late in the day he says, “You didn’t see him, did you?” Ike replies that he did not but that he was aware of his presence. To this, Sam simply says, “He done the looking.” Astonished, Ike asks, “You mean he knows me?”

That is a poignant moment on both the literal and symbolic level. Literally, many of us have had the eerie experience of feeling watched when there was no one around. But on the symbolic level, it may depict Ike’s discovery that God (some would call it the spirit of the wilderness) is aware of him. That is a profound, life-changing discovery for all of us, that we are known by deity, and it certainly matures the kid. I would call it a salvation experience, for shortly after that moment, Ike, with gun in hand, does see Old Ben up close and personal. Yet he cannot shoot.

Sam Fathers has no words to explain to the boy why he could not pull the trigger, but Ike’s older relative tries to by reading him Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” explaining that he could not bring himself to destroy the thing that had put him in touch with himself so earnestly and intensely. When the older relative asks him if he understands that the bear represented love and honor and compassion and sacrifice, as well as the will and hardihood to survive, Ike says yes. He understands.

I think Faulkner wanted his reader to understand that, too. Although I do not think a Christian worldview informed the story in any specific way, I do believe that the compounding history of Christian thought in Western literature led the word-drunk Mississippian to symbolize God by way of an old three-toed bear. Thus, I see “The Bear” not just as an initiation story, but truly a story of conversion.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Fun at the Park

Historic Washington State Park offers two trial reenactments at various times throughout the year. One concerns the 1844 trial of Henry Skaggs for the murder of William Oaks and the other depicts the 1880 trial of Sidney McFadden for poisoning his wife. On the dates of the events, registrants start their evening at Williams Tavern Restaurant at the park for a historic “country cooking” dinner, after which they go to the courthouse for the show. In the case of the 1844 trial, they go to the 1836 courthouse and for the 1880 trial they walk over to the 1874 courthouse. Both buildings have been authentically restored. A calendar of events is posted on the park’s web site, along with instructions for getting registered.

The Skaggs trial reveals that Henry, apparently in his cups, showed up uninvited to a dinner at his “friend” William Oaks’ house. He, a married man himself, apparently had a crush on Oaks’ wife Elizabeth and Oaks knew it and yelled for Skaggs to go away as he neared the house. He did not go away and William Oaks ended up with a bullet through his chest. Skaggs claimed Oaks drew on him but credible testimony at the trial asserted that Oaks never carried a gun on his person. The historic verdict was guilty but many modern juries find him innocent.

The McFadden trial is a bit more complex with a larger bevy of witnesses. The historic truth was that Sidney wanted to get rid of his wife, Easter, so he could take up with one Martha Smith, known as a strumpet. But, during the trial, doubt is cast upon that motivation. Even the owner of the plantation where he worked testified that Sidney’s greatest fault was going on to new tasks too quickly. He thought he was hardly capable of murder—unless drunk.

Members of the audience are selected for jury duty in both reenactments and the actors who play the prosecutors find it difficult to get a verdict of guilty. So, after thanking the participants for their service as jurors, the judge has the historical verdict read and sentences the guilty man to death by hanging. The last words from the judge in both reenactments are, “May God have mercy on your soul.”

 I have been type-cast as the judge in both trials and have a lot of fun pontificating. The park’s chief interpreter plays the defense attorney in both trials and one of his staff members plays the prosecutor in both. We have better court records for the McFadden trial. We know, for example, that Col. Dan Jones was the defense attorney and our interpreter goes to the trouble of arranging his hair and whiskers to resemble the Col. (Dan Jones was a very influential citizen during his time and was also a strong benefactor for James Black, inventor of the Bowie knife.)

The best parts in both dramas are those of the accused. The park employee who plays Henry Skaggs is my favorite, the way he becomes almost simultaneously belligerent and deeply afraid. The sheriff in the Skaggs trial is an audience favorite as the judge browbeats him and keeps him moving to multiple tasks.

As a local citizen, it is a joy for me to volunteer at such events and to see the audience enjoy a slice of history.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017


Because I was needed to drive Mother to work, I got a license early—at age 12. My just-older brother “taught” me to drive on the back roads of Union County. His predominant teaching method can be captured in his oft-repeated phrase, “Faster, Danny, faster!” So, I learned to navigate two-plank bridges, sandy beds, mud holes and oil field twists and turns very early.

You might say I was a seasoned driver by age 15 when Mother bought a new Buick and wanted to try it out on a trip to visit my other brother in Dayton, Ohio. My driving mentor brother was away at college and could not make the trip with us, so I did all the driving. Like my mentor brother, Mother often felt the need for speed and urged me on beyond the speed limit. Such traveling behavior was beyond my comfort zone, but one wants to please his mother.

On the journey, I noted that the brakes felt mushy and made a noise that was pitched above Mother’s capacity to hear. I mentioned the malfunction sailing through Kentucky and Mother said, well, maybe your brother knows a place in Dayton where we can have the car looked at. And, of course, he did. But not before he diagnostically drove it and had me join him up under the car looking for who knows what and after taking off a wheel for some obscure reason.

Anyway, my brother had to work the next day, but he called his mechanic about 15 or 20 blocks from his home and told the man there that his little brother would be bringing a new Buick by to have the brakes checked out. I found the place, left the car and walked the mile or two back to his cookie-cutter split-level home. It took me awhile to recognize the house because they all looked alike, but luckily, I saw Mother through the picture window looking for me. The walk had made me thirsty, so I drank a lot of root beer with which my brother had stocked his refrigerator, knowing my love for the beverage.

The mechanic told me he would call my brother’s number when they were finished with the work. Well, about the middle of the afternoon, as I was enjoying yet another root beer, he called and said the repair—new brake linings—was done. I lit out, neglecting my need to relieve my bladder. The further I walked, the greater the need, if you know what I mean. When I finally arrived in desperation, I walked into the shop and almost shouted, “Where’s the restroom!” They pointed it out and I wasted no time. My personal brakes worked that day, but they were on the verge of failure.

The mechanic charged $35 for the brake job—Mother had sent $50. The brakes worked fine on the way back to the cookie-cutter, which I recognized just fine this time, because I had memorized some landmarks. When he got home from work, my brother was outraged with the news that it cost $35 for brake linings. He said I should have talked him down. “That’s what we do up here in the north.” Well, I didn’t say this, but I was a 15-year-old southern boy that paid the bill in great relief.