Tempest in a Teapot

One of the most amusing pastimes I’ve come across in social media is to drop in, unobserved, like the proverbial fly-on-the-wall, on an ongoing argument.  On Facebook, everyone is a pundit.  Some choose to pundit-ize by reposting the punditizings  of others.  Some make up their own.  In either case, from time to time, we come across “the “hijacker!”  The highjacker is easily offended.  The highjacker sees the teapot, and thinks it’s an ocean.  One of my favorite quotes on blogging (and social media is blogging-lite), comes from a demotivational poster, and reads, “Blogging: Never before have so many people, with so little to say, said so much, to so few.”  The hijacker, of course, does not understand this.  Hijackers feel it is their right and duty to correct you.  They feel they must proselytize their point of view.  Everywhere.  All the time.  

Hijackers can be liberals, conservatives, patriots, communists, new-agers, atheists, christians, muslims, hedonists, bigots, conspirators, hempers, truthers, or Barney-bashers,  I’ve noticed they tend to get “unfriended” a lot.

I usually find it quite entertaining.  Almost as amusing as the point/counterpoint name calling that escalates into long diatribes meant to convert the legions(?) of grateful(?) readers, is the cacaphony of specious logic people use to prove their superior positions.  Nothing could better explain what I love about non-viral social media than the following list of Proofs, taken from the SpecGram newsletter (http://specgram.com/CXLVII.3/09.seely.rhetoric.html).

Enjoy.

  1. Proof by Intimidation 
    A: What do you think about objection X?
    B: That’s silly!
  2. Proof by Loudness 
    A: What do you think about objection X?
    B: That’s VERY SILLY!!!
  3. Proof by Impressiveness 
    A: What do you think about objection X?
    B: Well, I’m very smart, very well known, and respected, and I know much more than you, and I think you are silly.
  4. Proof by Obfuscation 
    A: What do you think about objection X?
    B: Well, X is related to Y, Y is related to Z, and Z is often confused with W, which is considered to be very similar to Q, which is silly.
  5. Proof by Over-Running 
    A: What do you think –
    B: About X? Well –
    A: No, Y. What about –
    B: You mean X. Well –
    A: No, Y and Z!
    B: But X is silly. Did you have another question?
  6. Proof by Ignoring 
    A: What do you think about objection X?
    B: Don’t be silly. That’s not really related to my topic. Next question.
  7. Proof by ‘Obvious’ Generalization 
    A: What do you think about objection X?
    B: Point Y, though very small and seemingly trivial, counters X. Obviously there are many others, thus you are silly.
  8. Proof by Bifurcation 
    A: What do you think about objection X?
    B: There are two interpretations: one that says X is the ideal counterexample; another is that X, if we close one eye, stand on our heads and squint, looks fine. The first option is silly.
  9. Proof by Name Dropping 
    A: What do you think about objection X?
    B: Well, BigNamei, BigNamej, and BigNamek agree with me. LittleNamei might agree with you, if only they were that silly.
  10. Proof by Absentee Belittlement 
    A: What do you think about objection X?
    B: Person C, who is not here to defend themselves, thinks that. They are silly. You are silly.
  11. Proof by Humility 
    A: What do you think about objection X?
    B: You state that so forcefully. I could be wrong. You seem so sure of yourself. That is silly.
  12. Proof by Humiliation 
    A: What do you think about objection X?
    B: Have you read Book Z, or Book Y, even Book W?
    A: Well, no.
    B: That explains why you asked such a question. Sit down silly person.
  13. Proof by Extremeification 
    A: What do you think about objection X?
    B: That is an extreme case. Extreme cases are silly.
  14. Proof by Hypocritical Intuition 
    A: What do you think about objection X?
    B: My position is intuitively obvious.
    A: But what about X?
    B: Can you explain X better?
    A: X is intuitively obvious.
    B: Intuitive obviousness is silly.
  15. Proof by Ignorance 
    A: What do you think about objection X?
    B: I don’t understand X.
    A: Let me try to explain X…
    B: That doesn’t make sense to me. Please explain. What is X?
    A: X! X! It’s very simple! X!
    B: I don’t understand. You must be silly. Next question.
  16. Proof by Nit Picking 
    A: What do you think about objection X?
    B: Could you expand on X1 and X2.
    A: Okay, X1 and X2 are like this…
    B: Could you expand on X1a, X1b, X1c, X2a, and X2b.
    A: Okay, I’ll explain…
    B: Could you expand on X1ai, X1aii, X1bi, X1bii, X1biii, X1ci, X1cii, X2ai, X2aii, X2aiii, X2bi, X2bii, X2biii, X2biv, and X2bv.
    A: Never mind.
    B: Silly, silly.
  17. Proof by Notation of Death 
    A: What do you think about objection X?
    B: Well, we must first introduce seventeen special symbols and make recourse to the Cyrillic and Greek alphabets. Are you silly enough to make me do all that? I will, you know.
    A: Okay, okay, I give.
  18. Proof by Untranslatability 
    A: What do you think about objection X?
    B: Do you know Spanish?
    A: Más o menos.
    B: Do you know German?
    A: Jawohl.
    B: Do you know French?
    A: Un peu.
    B: Do you know Guaraní?
    A: He’ē.
    B: Do you know Hawaiian?
    A: ‘Ae.
    B: Do you know Polish?
    A: Tak.
    B: Do you know Chinese?
    A: 是
    B: Do you know Italian?
    A: Sì.
    B:Do you know Esperanto?
    A: Jes.
    B: Do you know Portuguese?
    A: Sim.
    B: Do you know Arabic?
    A: مؤكد
    B: Do you know Cherokee?
    A: .
    B: Do you know Old English?
    A: Sōðlīce.
    B: Do you know Gaelic?
    A: Which kind?
    B: Irish?
    A: Tá beagán Gealige agam.
    B: Scottish?
    A: Tha beagan Gàidhlig agam.
    B: Manx?
    A: Ta beggan Gaelg aym.
    B: Do you know Hopi?
    A: Well, no, I don’t.
    B: Well, the Hopi Language has a great word for my answer, but it doesn’t translate well. Silly of you not to know Hopi, you know.
  19. Proof by Very Big Words 
    A: What do you think about objection X?
    B: If we take the quasi-isomorphic tangential nucleotide sequence correlating asymptotically to the inverse pulmonic schizo-phrenicality index of that question, the answer is obvious.
    A: Huh?
    B: Silly person.
  20. Proof by Coma 
    A: What do you think about objection X?
    B: Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Oh, you’re unconscious. Silly you. I win.

http://specgram.com/CXLVII.3/09.seely.rhetoric.html

 

Life Without Warning

 

Lk_Hospital_Waiting_Room_First_Floor

So, after eleven days of persistent flu symptoms, I finally surrendered, and went in to see the doctor.  I had figured I could finally shake this bug on my own, now that I had seven days off until my next work shift.  With a little more over the counter stuff, and plenty of rest, I’d be good as new.  But, to satisfy a worried wife (or a fed up wife; I’m not exactly the world’s greatest patient), I agreed to go to the clinic.  After checking in with the receptionist, I took my seat in the waiting area.  In a few more minutes, they would be taking no more patients for the day.

I hadn’t been there long, when a young couple entered the office, with their two small girls.  He was an Hispanic man, perhaps all of twenty, and he carried a very sick looking two-year old.  The mother, Caucasian, who looked even younger than he, was holding the hand of their other daughter.  If the girls weren’t twins, they were less than a year apart.  Both had raw red noses, and watery tired eyes.  They looked exhausted.  The couple stood for a moment, and then the man sat down next to me, and the woman made her way towards the desk.

But, there was no one there.  And no one came.  After awhile, the woman looked back at the man, and mouthed the words, “I don’t know what to do.”  Still, no one came.  The woman looked to the man again, and he motioned for her to bring the girl back, and they all huddled together, and I heard them talking.  The mother looked worried.  Sometimes, they spoke in Spanish, and sometimes in English, but I heard “dinero,” and “doctor,” and “medicamento.”  The father seemed to have a plan, though, and was trying to soothe the mother.  They would go to the drug store, and buy something there, and they would save the cost of the doctor.  They stood up, and rocked their girls for a few moments longer.  I looked up at the counter.  I wanted to shout, “Take these people first!” but there was no one there.  And then they left.

Water filled my eyes, and I swallowed hard.  I wanted to go after them and say, “Please.  I’ll pay for this.”  But, I dared not.  It may have drained all the pride they had to walk into the clinic, and when no one greeted them, their courage faltered.  Nevertheless, it all seemed so very, very wrong.  This isn’t how things should be.  And so I sat, in the comfort of my full and complete insurance coverage, and wept silently over the inequity of what I had just witnessed.

I would have thought that our nation’s new health care act would take care of families like this one.  Perhaps they didn’t know that.  In fact, this state, without the federal government, has covered all children for years.  Perhaps they didn’t know that either.  Perhaps, he was an illegal who feared being caught.  Perhaps they were just parents too soon.  Whatever the reason, they left, and two girls suffered.

The moment was gone.

“Even if I had wanted to pay it forward,” I reasoned to myself, “he might have rejected anything  he perceived as charity.”

But, I won’t know now, will I?  I didn’t offer.  There is, of course, a great deal of difference between foolish pride that sacrifices family, and honest integrity that says, “We’ll make it.” I pray that the young man was of the second sort, assuring his wife, “I am a father, and we will get through this together, my love.  I promise you that.”

But, I find myself left doubly saddened.  One, that there is suffering, and two, that there is hesitation.

 

So, then, how should we live, all of us?  Recalling a Life Without Warning moment of your own, how did you respond?  How did it turn out?  Did you miss the moment, as I did, and say, “I should have…..”?  Or, were you ready?  Which is worse, suffering, or hesitation? Why?

Of Saucers and Corpuscles

 

          Twenty-two students at Sydney University yesterday morning saw “flying saucers,” similar to those which have been reported in the United State and Canada, where army planes are standing by to pursue them.

            One summer, when I was thirteen or fourteen, I found myself lying back on the concrete steps in our backyard, just enjoying the shade and gazing at the sky.  I’m not sure why I thought this was comfortable.  Nevertheless, the sky was a clear, dark shade of blue, easy to look at, not at all like the bright white-blue skies that make one squint.  There, as I gazed at nothing in particular, and meditated on the great philosophical questions of the day (yeah, right), I became aware of a peculiar phenomenon playing out right before my eyes.  I began to see spots moving across the sky.

Addressing a class of 450 students, Professor Cotton drew attention to cable messages reporting that hundreds of persons in many parts of the United States had reported having seen “flying saucers.”

These were not the spots of dizziness (I was lying down, after all), nor the “floaters” that tend to drift and then return with each new blink.  When you are young,  floaters are not permanent.  They usually mean that there really is something stuck in the mucous of the eye—something you can wipe away, if you try.  They can look like a wad of string, or a misshapen speck, but if you tear up and cry, or else rinse and wipe your eyes, they will usually go away.  Then, again, sometimes they just move about from side to side, and change orientation, depending on how well you can manipulate them with eye muscles, and head turns, while lying on concrete steps, and watching a clear blue sky.

He suggested that the students co-operate with him in experiments.  At his suggestion they left the lecture room, and before returning to the main building, carried out observations of the sky.  Professor Cotton suggested that they look at the sky about a mile away, and concentrate their gaze on a fixed point while standing perfectly still.  He asked them that if they saw any objects corresponding to those set out in the cable reports they should see him in the main medical school.  Within 10 minutes 22 students reported that they had seen the objects described. …

Perhaps not the most riveting of pastimes, but I was enjoying the show, nonetheless, magnified and sharply defined, as if under a well-focused microscope.  But then, I began to see something completely different, and quite unexpected.  Little white dots began to cross before me in random, meandering routes.  I tried to focus in on them, and I lost them.  They only appeared when I focused on nothing.  The more I focused on nothing, the clearer they stood out.  I could see then, that they were not dots, at all, but little ovals.  They crossed in many directions.  If I unfocused long enough, and didn’t blink, I could watch a single oval travel a long, twisted, narrow trail.  It would zig and zag along the way, but never linger, like a floater.  Always they passed in one side, and out the other. I noticed, soon after, that one oval would be followed by another oval following the exact same path.  Then another.  And another.  Like a string of pearls.  This was happening all over—my field of vision was crisscrossed with trails.

Professor Cotton said…that the students had seen what he expected them to see…

            I had always paid attention in Science class, and it dawned on me that I was witnessing blood cells coursing through the capillaries of my eyes.  I was fascinated.  I watched for a long time, mesmerized by the moment, and wondering whether this was a fluke of nature.  Would I ever be able to repeat this extraordinary phenomenon of seeing into my own eyes? 

(He) declared later that the “objects” seen by the students were caused by the movement of red corpuscles of the blood passing in front of the retina of the eye.             —The Sydney Morning Herald (Tuesday, July 8, 1947)

As it turns out, it is repeatable, and just as enthralling.  All it takes is just the right shade of easy blue, a little bit of patience, and the magic of convergence—the art of slow and deliberate observation that enables us to see what was there all along.

 —memories of an Iowa summer’s eve, 1967

Grandpa Never Did Like Priests

(September 3, 2012, marks the 100th anniversary of my grandfather’s arrival in America, from Poland.  Though he seldom talked about the old country (he was sixteen when he emigrated), he would often tell tales about his life in Chicago, and in Michigan (or Mi-shi′-gan, as he called it). Sometimes, he would tell the same stories, but I guess that’s what helps us remember.  Some of what follows is from a tape recording I uncovered recently.  I seldom changed his mind about anything (particularly about religion), but I learned a great deal about seeing the world through a different set of eyes.)

When I was in the hospital, some priest come up.  First, he send somebody else, kinda feel me out.  Then he come down, second time already.  Well, I think of him what he thinks of me.  I thought (well, he kind of, uh, put a finger in here), I thought to myself, I would like to tell him exactly what I think of him.  What do you think I am?  I would like to tell him that.  What do you think I am?  So he tried telling me different, uh, different, uh, some highlights.

Fact, he says, uh, “Keep up the good work.”  Yeah, and he tried to coax me in so I should, uh, taking communion.

I said, “What do you think this is here—a trick?”  They think that you’re taking communion, ah, you already, you, you their sheep.  See?  I said, “I know the communion is.”  I say, “I used to make a communion myself!”  Ha, ha.

I was living onBlackhawk Street,Chicago, with the nuns, and the Sister Superior, with the six nuns in there, and uh, they had a divided basement.  I seen they, she, was doing something by their gassstove.  She make up what you call angel food-cake flour.  It was just warmed up, you know, and she put it on a pan, like a tart, hot little bit, but it’s white, not just burnt, see?  It’s just stiff, you know?  And they have it, uh, put your, uh, round, and she made it like a pancake, and she’s punching out there the communion.  Yeah.  I looked at first.  No, it’s the communion for sometimes they have at mass, and the, from altar there too, you know.  Priest come down, some habit, you know, when he’s learning how to be priest.  Though some people bring it to a house, here and there, and they have a mass.  And they have a communion.

          You know, I talk to her, Sister Superior, and she know that I’m not that stupid, either, see?  She understood.  She said, “Mr. Kabala, I don’t think the way they say.  Different.  I know you right.  It’s different than Jesus,” she told me, “and that ever-body is a human.”  I know what she meant by that.

          I had a coal shaft underneath the sidewalk (the streets were higher), and they have like a cover and you drop the coal in there for the winter for storage.  Sometimes I had to go get some coal for my stove.  They had a oil heater, in the first place, throughout the building.  I had a stove.  Hard coal and soft coal.  There was, sometimes they had some young ones, you know, they just joined in, and this and that, you know.  Young girls, you know.  And what they do, they join the convent.  And they not allowed to go by themselves.  They always had to go in pairs.  And so that didn’t bother me.

Florencewas only maybe little girl, maybe three or four years old at that time.  Chuck  was maybe year or year and a half.  And, uh, I, we lived there.  We had three rooms and a bathroom.  And I didn’t have to pay.  I done some work for them.  They want to, some painting, some this, and that, all around they house, you know.  Some construction work sometimes.  And for that I got rent, you know?  I didn’t have to pay rent.  I stayed there for ten years, I think.  Course, those days the rent was maybe fifteen, twelve dollars.  That’s all it was.  Yeah. 

And I had all kinds of experience with those nuns, you know.  The young girls that go for coal, before long they’re running after me.  But, the others, they’re running too.  It was, oh, she was so eager for the man, you know, she grab and shakes.  Oh, I had my ideas.  I didn’t touch them or anything like that, but so…

          There was a couple of them that was, they got married even, you know.  They, the men, they brought their kids to the, what you call, the  żłobka, the day nurse, and, uh, their wives passed away or something.  They got acquainted ,and they got married.  They went.  Su-ure.  I know all about.

The nuns, the priests, they take care of you, this, that, to see if you want to keep you barred to them, alright.  They, they know you, you their sheep.  ‘Cause heaven is not enough.  You can, ten towers upside down, and it don’t mean nothing.  I know.  I read a lot of books about those, you know, about the Popes, and this, and how they used to, what you call a Inquisition, thirteenth, fourteenth century.  If you said something against the Church, somebody heard you said something, you’d tell priest.  You know, they come pick you up, and throw you on a goddamn stack of fire!  That’s what they used to do.  I read how they poisoned each other Popes even.  You know, they get Pope, and then they poison each other.

Oh, I figure if there would have been such a thing as one religion all over the world, then you would be, well it would be something to start.  But, you go through the world, and you see so many different religions, so many different people twisting their Bibles and all this.  Well who the heck…it doesn’t match up at all!  You look on the educational viewpoint, and you have a, well, I pick up a rock, any kind of piece of rock.  And you see what they preach you, that the earth was created and all that.

So, I take a piece of rock, and I say, “Well, you so smart, tell me when that rock was created.  How old is it?  How old is it?  How?”  Tell me about it.  You say you preach to me.  I say I’ll give you a piece of rock.  Now, tell me.  When?  When was it created?  Thousand years?  Two thousand years?  Grow up, or what?  Doesn’t match up at all.

You know what they say, one part of the world has the black, coal kind of colors, people.  They don’t know even, if I say to stop, to, why, some people they want you Catholic, you this, you that. Some other people never heard of us even.  See?  And you tell them already, or you tell some Catholic, like you take your friends, and like they have an island, you know.  See?  They don’t care.  Kill the childrens, womans anyway.  Why?  What reason?  Where reason?  What kind of reason is that?  Why?  They teach them that way.  It’s the poison in their mind.  Some people say, well, there’s only this kind or that kind of way, you’re Buddhist, and all this, and they never heard of anything like that which we got.  They won’t do that, but some other people say, “Oh yeah, sure, if you’re Catholic,” and they some other one.  They used to kill each other.  Why?  ‘Cause that religion!

They say they use the psychology to confuse the people.  Say you outsmart somebody.  By what?  By psychology.  You use psychology to tell, oh, somebody’s looking at you, but you don’t know it, see?  But, you only trickster.  Sure.  You know, I told the priest, I said, I, uh, he said I should go to confession.

I said, “What for?  I ain’t got nothing to confess.”  Say, “If I had something, I go to police station to confess.”  If I commit some kind of sin.  What I want to confess?  They only testing you, how stupid you are!






Short Accounts

She was just a cat.  Eleven years old.  Not as fast as she used to be, perhaps.

When the kids were young, they had visited Aunt Angie’s farm for a week, and had played in the barn daily with frisky, scampering, cuddly, six-week old kittens from Oreo’s latest litter. When they returned home, they marched through the door with a shoebox, and an announcement.

“Guess what, Daddy?”

Two kittens, named Zoe and Chloe, and as different as night and day.  Zoe, the black kitten, with puffs of white, was a meanderer—slow and aimless, a lap sitter, affectionate, quite content with domestic life, and the security of the food dish.

Chloe, in tiger-striped gray, retained the free spirit of her barnyard heritage.  She could cuddle for thirty seconds, maybe.  She was a darter— under the dresser, under the bed, out from the dresser, out from the bed, behind the sofa, out the door.

“Clever, clever, kitty, kitty, kitty,” someone would coo.  “Danger, danger, no, no, no.”

“Gonna be a miracle she don’t get run over,” I’d say.  “Stupid cat.”

“Dad!”

“Okay, okay, she’s not a stupid cat,” I’d retract. “My mistake.”  Then, I’d mutter, “She’s a kitten.”

“Dad!”

Over the years, from time to time, one or both cats would go through those special times of heat (the serenade of the tortured meow), but while Zoe would remain a life-long spinster, Chloe would have three litters of her own before we had her spayed. Not all of the kittens survived.  But one that did, Poof, became a great favorite of the two youngest boys, and was allowed to join the family.  The boys were ten and twelve when we bought a little acreage, forty miles away, near Lost Nation.

Poof’s dappled, marble-cake, polka dot-esque markings gave him a clownish appearance. He became their best friend, and constant companion, acting more like a dog than a cat.  I had given strict instructions that no cats were allowed upstairs in the bedroom areas.  It was to be a Dander-Free Zone.  But I knew Poof was being allowed into the boys’ room.  The move had been hard on them.  They missed their old neighborhood friends, and Poof filled a void.  They told me later that Poof would sit for hours on their beds, just “keeping company” while they did their schoolwork.  All the while, he would purr.  Poof had a motor.

Poof used to irritate me a lot.  If he were left alone for any length of time, we would come home and discover entire rolls of paper towels, or toilet paper shredded and scattered across the floor.  In my mind, I used to call him a “son of a Chloe”, but I wisely kept these words to myself.  Instead, I came to accept his antics because the boys loved him so.  It even got to where Poof would (occasionally) venture to sit on my lap.  Not too often, but enough that it mattered.

One day Poof died.  It was a strangulation-type accident, when his collar caught in some bushes near the house.  I had worked a long night shift, and was sleeping.  It was mid-morning.  I was awakened to the sound of anguished sobbing.  I was needed downstairs quickly!

Both boys were crying, and looking lost, and bewildered.  One shook his head, and slammed a hand on the kitchen counter.  The other held Poof’s lifeless body.  They looked to me, with hope in their eyes, that their father, who could fix anything, would somehow be able to adjust this too.

But they knew.  His body was warm from the sun.  But, he was stiff.

We comforted them in their grief, and they spent the afternoon saying goodbye, with dignity.  They picked a place under the apple tree Poof loved to climb.  They wrote notes of farewell, and placed them alongside their friend, in a shoebox, along with a few cat toys, and kitty treats, and a small roll of toilet paper.

I was never more thankful that I had already made peace with Poof, than I was that day.  It would have done no good for the boys to suspect me of harboring secret glee over the death of their beloved.  It was a good reminder to keep short accounts.

Never go to bed angry.

Don’t fight over money.

Always say, “I love you,” when leaving home.

Communicate.

Respect.

Trust.

Laugh.

In the country, there are two kinds of barn cats.  Some roam from farm to farm, looking for handouts.  They are friendly, and would love to come inside and be adopted.  Many have been fed from our back porch, but we did not bring them inside, not even in winter.

But, there are also feral cats.  Feral cats are seldom seen.  They chase, fight for territory, and do not come near humans. One of these feral cats was known to us simply as “the yellow cat”.  Poof, had he lived, would have been an alpha-male competitor of the yellow cat.  Chloe was aware of the yellow cat, but relied on her own stealth and quickness.  She never came home bloodied.

At first, when we moved to Lost Nation, we no longer worried about her being outside.  Then, her last litter arrived.  It would fall to Zoe, once again, to care for the kittens, and cuddle them as if they were her own.  Chloe was not a good mother.  Aunt Zoe never minded.

Then, one late fall day, I went to bed angry.

I was stone-walling—not ready to apologize, not ready to listen.  I had been wronged, and it didn’t matter what wrongs I had also committed.  I was not ready to talk.  I was going to make my wife endure my silence for an entire night and day, while I went to bed, then went to work, and “processed” things.  In my cave.  Alone.

As usual, I figured out that I was the most guilty, and would need to do some serious apologizing for judgement errors and hurtful words.  I would need (again) to do a better job of seeing and sensing her needs.  It would not be easy.  Pride is a bitter pill.  It can seem easier to throw in the towel, and shout, “Me! Me! Me!” “I was wronged, too!”  “I will if you will.”  And on and on.   I certainly did not relish going home that night.  Mending can be wearying.  But, I knew it was best to move beyond the hurts, and remember the vows.  Remember the vows.

It had been nearly twenty-four hours since voicing any terms of endearment.  I drove mechanically home, down the same familiar highway.  Rounding a curve, I watched a car approaching an intersection up ahead.  It slowed, but then did not stop.  The driver pulled directly in front of my car, leaving no room for braking.  I swerved violently, left heavy skid marks on the road, fishtailed through the shoulder gravel, and spun out in the median grass.  My heart was racing, and I sat stunned.  But, I had avoided a very high speed collision, and I was still alive.

I started to get angry.  Very angry.

“Fatal!” I thought, “That could have been fatal!”

Spinning wheels, I had every intention of chasing down the idiot in the other car.  It had just kept going down the road.  But then I remembered that I had already been angry.

I yielded.

“Short accounts,” I said out loud.

I let the other car go.  I turned off the radio.  For the remainder of the journey, I didn’t think about justice, or rights.  I considered consequences.  Would my death in a fiery crash have “served her right” or would it have left, instead, an ocean of regret for the survivor?  Or, what if I got home to find a suicide note?  It had been known to happen.

Let not the sun go down upon your wrath.

“Okay, Lord, I get it.  I get it.”

I did not know what I would say when I got home.  I did not know if she would want to talk.  Sometimes talking wasn’t enough.

I turned the last gravel corner before the house, and approached the drive.

Things changed.

There in the road, illuminated into long shadows by the headlights, was a very flat, very still Chloe.  I closed my eyes.  I sighed.  I turned into the drive.

Inside the house, my wife sat in semi-darkness in the living room.  She had had a hard day of thinking as well.  I could sense deep depression in her demeanor (funny how I couldn’t sense what she needed the day before).  Neither of the boys was home from athletic practice.

I sat down on the coffee table.  She looked away.  Wonder what he’ll say this time?  Words.  More words.

“I’m sorry,” I began softly, “but I have some bad news to share.”

Chloe had been a good mouser.  She had loved to hunt.  She would catch-and-release, catch again, eventually kill, but never eat.  We had had her de-clawed, but she was not deterred.  She had eventually moved on to birds.  That had been a problem because we wanted to attract birds to a porch feeder.  Chloe would stalk, hide, and wait…and wait.  Claws, or no claws, she got her bird.  We moved the feeder.

She had always been quick.  She had learned how to time her movements, like a base runner timing a pitcher before stealing second base.  The housecat moniker suited Sister Zoe fine, but Chloe’s passion had always been escape.  We had all learned to master (what surely looked like a strange dance to our neighbors) the fine art of entering the house by first swift-kicking through  a narrow door opening, before opening a portal wide enough for human entrance.

I remember opening a window in the bedroom, once, when the screen fell out.  Having seen Chloe escape through that route before, and sensing that she was in the room at that moment, I instinctively reached my hand towards the opening and closed my grasp just as a furry blur brushed past, and I caught her by the tail, while the rest of her body was already tasting freedom.  It was a magically unrepeatable moment.  I’ve since wondered how it felt from her end.

At first, when she escaped, it would cause a family crisis.  With six children under ten, a “Chloe Alert!”  was the family way of signaling “All hands on deck!” and “Man your battle stations!”  Everyone had to fan out across the yard, or the neighborhood, until she was cornered and secured.  I never captured her.  She would not come my way.  Cats just kind of know, I guess.  We started using that to our advantage.  I would stand in whatever gap was the biggest escape route, ensuring that she would not sprint in that direction.  After each episode, there would be a lot of cooing, and loving, and cuddling of the Great Houdini by the rest of the family, while I just rolled my eyes.  Eventually, she became more daring, and went further from the yard.  She would stay out all night.  Litters happened.

Whenever she was out, there was anguish in the home.  In pursuing her own indomitable way, Chloe taught me a lot about how words can come back to haunt.  The lesson was never easy.  I would often find myself in the strange position of having to say nice things about a cat I didn’t even like, because everyone knew I didn’t like her, and it was now my duty to convince everyone that I hadn’t plotted to run her off, and I did not hope that she would be run over by a car.

She always came back.  Always.  But, it was on her terms.  A soft meow at the door, and joyous hearts, no longer despairing, would fling open the door, and Queen Chloe would strut on in—a hero’s welcome every time.  Of course, coming home on her terms meant she was not coming home on my terms, and I always found that rather annoying.  From the security of someone’s welcome home embrace, she would glance my way, with a look that seemed to be saying, “Take that, evil cat-hater man!”

On the night Chloe died, it was dark, and cold.  It was beginning to drizzle.  The forecast was for heavy rain overnight.  So, with flashlights in hand, we went together down the long drive to retrieve our pet one final time.  It was apparent that she had been run over by a large tractor, as the tire marks continued down the gravel.  From the shoulder grass, about twenty yards down the road, we could see the reflection of two eyes.  The yellow cat.  Had Chloe been fleeing?  Did she not see the tractor?  Was she simply not as nimble as she once was?  The yellow cat would know.  It sat there silently.  Watching.  Like it was sorry.

We picked up Chloe, the hunter, and laid her to rest.

The wounds of our contentions were still fresh.

We didn’t speak.

We buried.

We stood.

We pondered.

We held hands.

Neon Shades of Gray

The                                                                         Word

Back when I was writing a lot of songs.  I put together a few basement demos on an 8-track recorder.  They were mostly homey folk songs, and southern gospel tunes, but I churned out a few country-twangy pieces like  Always Doesn’t Mean Forever, Men Ain’t Ever Gonna Understand Women, The Teaser, and Crazy By Heart.  Some of them were semi-autobiographical. Some were not.  You can get a lot of mileage out of your imagination when you write songs.

In one, called If You’d Died, or Moved to Texas, I wrote:

I never meant to be enchanted

By your smile, or that sparkle in your eyes,

But, just to hear your stories, woke desires

   for a long lost Paradise,

Until I found that I was drifting,

Like a castaway on a sea of compromise,

Where right and wrong both look the same,

Like nothing more than trading truth for lies.

Not long ago, an old high-school friend (I’ll call him, Jim), posted an online picture of a platter of date bars, with the following caption:

Fresh hot date bars….yummy

Thinking I would be cute, I responded with a double endendre comment:

Hot date?  Where?  Hmm, for a minute I thought you were reliving your youth, my friend. 8-{D

There’s a story behind that, he wrote back.

For the next several days, he tried to arrange a chat time when he could tell me the rest of this great story.  My curiosity was definitely piqued.  By the time we were finally able to start a conversation, however, things had changed.

Hi, Charley

Hey, Jim.

Wow, good to see you.

So, what’s up?

Oh…first, wanted to thank you for the encouragement you’ve been giving me to get writing again.

You tell good stories.

Oh, I’ve got a great one, if I survive the next week.

The date bars…were waiting for me when I went back home for a visit…compliments of an old friend of ours.

(I knew who he meant)

(He went on.)

My wife of nearly 30 years and I have discovered…we have drifted apart since the kids have all vacated..  I ran into our mutual friend on FB last year.  Notes led to chat…to phone calls…to visits…to 2 kids from 40 years ago falling crazy in love for each other…my divorce will be very soon….She has been divorced for over 20 years…Neither of us were looking…but found we shared tons of life experiences…date bars being one…so when I came up for a visit this past week…she had a warm batch waiting…………last night she informed me she is frightened of commitment, and pulled the plug…so my writing inspiration…has left me a bit shell shocked….I’m still moving back, but it’s gonna be very lonesome…right now is more of a “making it thru tomorrow” thing…she had become my world…………

I didn’t know what to say.  I said very little.  I said I was sorry.  That sort of stuff.  I knew he wanted to talk, but I had little experience with being a comforter.   I felt badly about my earlier “prophetic” comment about the hot date.

We chatted awhile longer, but I think he sensed my discomfort, and we said goodnight.

But, I didn’t turn out the light.  I couldn’t sleep.  I knew I had let my fried down.  I hadn’t known what to say.  So, I stayed up, and wrote down what I should have said.  I reinvented the story as it should have played out.  I told my story.

Dear Jim,

I haven’t got a clue as to how to comfort, counsel, or help you through this journey you are traveling in your life right now.  I am a writer.

If I were a counselor, I would try to counsel you.  If I were a theologian, I would try to persuade you.  If I were your best friend, instead of just a friend, I would either say, “there, there,” or I would try to rescue you, and turn you around.  I would know which one to do, too, because I would be your best friend.

But, I am none of these, Jim.  I am a writer.  All I do is observe.  I take notes.  I listen.  I ponder.  I wonder.  I turn things over in my mind, and analyze them.  Sometimes, they make sense.  Sometimes, they don’t.  I write them down, anyway.

I feel sadness, happiness, gloominess, elation, sober somberness, heart swelling pride, drunken stupor, pain, sorrow, hope, relief, angst, ennui, conviction, doubt.

Sometimes people share too much with me, in social media, and I tell them so, in case they want to stop.  I am just being courteous. I don’t want them to stop.  More grist for the writing mill (names changed, of course).

Sometimes, I wish I were a counselor, a theologian, a best friend.  Sometimes, I wish I could put Humpty together again.

But, in the end, each person must discover who they are and where they are going on their own, and the best we can do is learn to listen, and only share when we are asked to share.  For heaven’s sake, we listen.  When we say we are “speaking the truth in love,” we are usually not.  If we pray for someone to have a “renewing of the mind, it’s because we think that we have the answer.  It’s one of those holier-than-thou things.  Even if it turns out we are right, it’s best not to appear holier-than-thou.  That just stratifies things.  We lose credibility when we act that way.

I once entertained the notion of divorce.  I was feeling anchored in sameness and insignificance.  Significance is a big deal to men. The elixir of a greener pasture let me color my world in neon shades of gray.

“They’ll get over it,” I reasoned.

“Don’t I have a right to be happy?”

“This is MY life!”

“What if God is wrong?”

What if there is no God?!”

Well, for me, that created a visceral dilemma.  If there were no God, then there would be no purpose, and if there were no purpose, then anything could be justified, including murder, mayhem, debauchery, and sin, because the definition of “sin” would be relative, instead of fixed.  I was tangled in an intellectual wrestling match between passion and truth.

Pascal’s dilemma.  It’s not a bet.  It’s an unsolvable paradox to finite minds.  That’s why they call the solution faith.  Faith is the calm acceptance that there is no truth that can be absolutely known unless it is revealed by one who absolutely knows.  Well, that counts out you and me, does it not?

The object of my affections, who knew where I was headed before I did, one day turned to me and said, “You are obsessed with me.  Just remember one thing: I am not a side dish!”

When she could see I was formulating a response, she added as icily as she could, “I have never been attracted to you,” and walked away.

Thus ended an affair that never began.

Later, when I was finally able to remove those rosy glasses, and see how embarrassingly I had been acting, I wrote a song called, She Knew.

 I dug around in some old boxes, last week, and found some of those old cassettes.  Next, I had to find a cassette player.  Remember those?  Long story, short, I made a digital copy.

She Knew

[soundcloud url=”http://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/47265603″ iframe=”true” /]

She knew before I knew,

And it was over before it began.

I burned, and then I learned

What a woman can do to a man.

 She said, “It’s in your head.”

And I felt the pain of “goodbye.”

She turned and walked away,

And I thought I would die.

I didn’t know what I would do.

She knew.

Women can read the warning signs

When a man begins to stray.

Flashing from integrity,

Little neon shades of gray.

Long before I faced myself,

And discovered the fool I am,

She knew.

One cup.  “Hey, what’s up?”

“Nothing.  How are things with you?”

“Oh, so, so…you know.”

“Yeah, I think I do… m-me too.”

One look, all it took,

And I was falling in love with my friend.

Thought we were headed for a “new beginning.”

She called it “the end.”

I didn’t know what I would do.

She knew.    

Women can read the warning signs

When a man begins to stray.

Flashing from integrity,

Little neon shades of gray.

 Long before I faced myself,

And discovered the fool I am,

She knew.

I said, “No, no, no, I’m not looking for an affair.”

She looked at me, and said, “You’re already there.”

Long before I faced myself,

And discovered the fool I am,

She knew.     

She knew.

 

So, then, nothing really happened, did it?

There is a scripture verse that says, “if you lust after a woman, you have already committed adultery with her in your heart.”

I have to ask you, Jim, who showed more depth of character, the compromising, rationalizing church-goer, or the party girl who said, “I am not a sidedish”?   When I stepped back from Fantasy Island (actually, I was kicked off), I saw things more clearly.  I received counseling.  I appreciated prayers.  I was supported by best friends.  I remembered my vows.  They were covenant words.

I had hurt my wife emotionally during those days, and had a lot of rebuilding to do.  Forgiveness does not automatically mean restoration.

There is a phrase, from a book called, Sacred Marriage, that says, “What if God intended marriage more to make me holy than to make me happy?”

What if it’s not all about me?  Does that mean an unhappy marriage is eternally doomed?  I don’t know.  That hasn’t been my experience.  The road my wife and I have traveled has had it’s missteps, but the journey has been worth it. I am satisfied with my own significance, or should we say, content with it.  It is the road we’ve taken.  My experience is that when you focus on the vow, instead of the feelings, the heart will follow.

  It’s All About Your Heart

 

 

                        Deep inside of everyone,

                        Where the beat goes on, the intent is done.

                        Pure, or deceitful, who can know?

                        You know, the mind don’t dwell where the heart don’t go.

 

                        From the Word of Truth, let the truth be known:

                        Feet don’t wander on their own.

                        Hands don’t play where the heart doesn’t stray,

                        And eyes don’t turn where the heart don’t burn.

 

                        You see, it’s all about your heart.

                        It’s all about your heart.

                        Not what you do, not what you say,

                        But, that’s a good place to start.

 

                        People’ll come, and people’ll go,

                        Some’ll be true, but some are just “show”.

                        Choose this day, to match His Way,

                        It’s all about your heart.


House Racing

I’ve been trying to remember what sorts of activities we used to participate in before video games. I remember racing around the outside of the house. Our house was set into a hill, and sometimes, when the cousins were over, we would time ourselves running around it. It was dusk, on one particular evening, and I had forgotten something very important. A few weeks earlier, my dad had bought a regulation horseshoe pitching set, and charged me with the task of laying out the court between our house and our neighbor’s. It was a massive set: 2 ½ pound cast iron horseshoes, and 1-inch steel bars to be driven deep into the ground so that only 15 inches remained above ground, leaning slightly forward, and 40 feet apart. The “clink-clink” of a ringer is a satisfying sound.
But, on that weekend, the cousins were over, and someone wanted to race. We always used a crude timing device: a Timex watch with a sweep second hand. The only persons with stop watches, back then were horse trainers, and track coaches. The first LED digital watch, the Pulsar, had not yet been marketed, and when it was, it would cost over $2000 for a device that only told the time when you used your free hand to press the display button. No, we used the Timex sweep second hand, which invariably caused observational difficulties. It wasn’t hard to differentiate between the thirty-second runs of the younger kids, and the ten second runs of the older teens, but there were no tenths, or hundredths of a second, either. It took some rather subjective interpretation, and charges of “Cheater!” sometimes, to determine the winner. It was best, therefore, to leave the timing up to a single individual, which was usually Michael, because he didn’t like to run, and he had a watch.

It was always best to start at twelve, three, six, or nine on the dial, so I’m sure I heard something that night like, “Aach! Just missed it. I’ll get the next one. Okay, here we go…ten seconds…five…three, two, one, Go!”

And, I was off! Under the first tree, down the hill, across the driveway to the corner of the garage. There, you made a decision: slow down enough to make a sharp right to reduce the overall distance, or blast around the corner at full speed, in an arc that would carry you all the way around to the backyard hill. I “blasted” that night. Big mistake.

Midway into the arc, with my dusk-challenged eyes blurrily focused on rounding the back corner, my right foot landed adjacent to the forgotten horseshoe stake. As my left foot came flying by to meet its destiny, the force of the impact ripped my favorite blue Ked’s sneaker completely off my foot, and sent me into an immediate faceplant with the grass.
I think I said, “Ow.”

Well, okay, I probably said more than that, but I did not say, “Owie, owie, owie,” or scream like a girl. I do, however, remember thinking, “OH……….. Yeah…….. Stupid…….. Idiot!” —all before my face even hit the ground.

I did writhe in pain, grab my foot, and moan and roll a lot. When I did not complete the course in my allotted ten seconds, I had cousins to the rescue, and soon a whole assortment of adult assistance as well. However, once it was determined that my foot was not actually broken, only strained and badly bruised, I’m pretty sure I heard worse than stupid and idiot from that same adult assistance crowd.

Then, “Okay, all you kids get in the house now! It’s dark out here.”

“And no more racing around the house!”

“These things are dangerous! You could get hurt!”

Sheesh! Talk about overkill. And like any of the rest of us would need to be reminded. Now, I had adults mad at me, kids mad at me, my foot throbbing (it would be tender for a couple of weeks), and to top it all off, I had just ruined my favorite pair of worn-in-with-holes-here-and-there, comfortable, never-take-em-off, stink-like-a-locker-room, teenage-wardrobe-necessity sneakers. What a crappy night. Stupid stake.

We actually used that horseshoe set a lot over the years, after that, and nobody else ever got hurt. We didn’t use sand around the pit, though, so there were plenty of times when people had to jump out of the way of a rolling 2 ½ pound horseshoe. I even won a third place ribbon at the Mississippi Valley Fair one year for a picture I snapped (with a Kodak Instamatic, no less) of that same stake poking out of a big mud puddle after a rain. Okay, there weren’t very many entries in that category that year (three, I think), but it was still a ribbon.

Note: The title picture is not my long lost, ribbon winning picture of forty years ago, but is instead, from a wonderful blog piece I came across, about spending time with your dad. Visit it at http://goo.gl/k2074

Harold and Rose

So, I’ve started work on Harold and Rose, an historical novel about the adventures and struggles of a young newlywed couple who, in 1930 Great Depression America, move thirty times in the first year of marriage, following roadbuilding, sawmill, and grainmill work throughout the idosyncratic German and Swedish-American towns of northeast Iowa.

I won’t be posting every in-process draft, but today, I thought I would, to see if this works as a Chapter One.  I want to lay some background down for Rose’s family, and another for Harold’s, before bringing the two together for the rest of the novel.  I suspect that some of the characters from these backgrounds will lift themselves off the pages later in the novel to influence the direction of the main characters’ thoughts and actions.  We shall see.  I’m going to have to keep notes on things raised in earlier chapters that need to be resolved in later ones.  Should be fun.

But, for today, here’s Chapter One:

            One of the worst accidents in this part of the country took the life of Frank Gerlach, one of the best men in the country last Wednesday afternoon.  They were threshing at E. W. Priem’s place, and about four o’clock Mr. Gerlach went to climb up on the load of grain with fork in hand.  No one saw just what happened but they saw him start to get on the load and just afterwards they found him lying by the side of the load on the ground with the end of the fork handle thru his left eye into his brain.  Drs. Westenberger and Culbertson were called and arrived at the Priem farm as soon as possible.  It was decided to take the injured man to the Mercy Hospital at Mason City and, tho everything possible was done, he passed away at 12:30 o’clock in the night. 

            Just how the accident occurred no one knows, as no one happened to be looking in that direction, but it is supposed that a tine of the fork was caught in the big drive belt and thrown in such a way that the end of the fork handle struck Mr. Gerlach in the left eye.  The eye ball was crushed and from all evidence the fork handle entered his head to the depth of five or six inches.

            Frank was one of the best known and best liked men in this section of the country, one of the men we can not afford to lose.  —St. Ansgar Enterprise, Aug. 9, 1927

 _____________________________________________________________

After the funeral, Earl Gerlach drove his mother and two of his sisters to Carpenter, and parked his father’s old Maxwell 25 at the corner by Sefert’s store.  Frank Gerlach had bought it in 1919, for $655, when the enterprising salesman inMason Citypersuaded him with the company’s new slogan, “Once a Luxury–Now a Utility and Economy.”  Inside Sefert’s, an electric fan whirred.  Frank Gerlach had been persuasive in arguing that Carpenter should “be progressive and bring the future to the town, for us and for our children’s children.”  Gilbert Severson had been the quick to see the potential for his store, and convinced the board to sign on with the St. Ansgar Power Company, if they would bring electricity to the schoolhouse without a construction charge.  He also recognized its potential in another enterprise.

_____________________________________________________________

In  March of 1908, with Emma’s due date still about a month away,  Frank Gerlach, had a bit of an itch.  His good friend, Herman Canada, had bought his own family a shiny new Victor, two Christmases ago, at Severt’s store in Carpenter, and it had been attracting nothing but compliments ever since.

Though they had been best friends, and friendly rivals back in high school, the frequent refrain of “Why don’t we meet out at theCanadaplace?” had been burning just about long enough for Frank’s ears.  So, when George Severt motioned Frank over in the store, to show him an advertisement in Harper’s magazine for a floor model Victrola, with internal horn and space for 130 records, all in one elegant mahoghany cabinet, Frank was of a mind to do something to even the score.

“Whoa, that’s something,” said Frank.

“’Refined entertainment in an elegant setting’”, George read out loud.

“Yeah, two hundred dollars elegant,”said Frank, daintily fluttering his fingers in a high society salute.  He figured he could buy a quarter of an automobile, or a good wagon for two hundred dollars, and have change left over for a box of Hershey bars.

“I could get you one for one-seventy-five,” offered George, “but keep it quiet.”

Frank was squirming.  Herman’s Victor was a table top model, with an external horn, which had fallen off a couple of times, judging from the dings Frank had noticed last time.  This model was called a Victrola.

George slowly brushed imaginary crumbs from his apron, and leaned in on the counter.  “Canadawas in here, yesterday,” he mentioned, resting on his elbows.  “Ordered some more records for his machine.”

Frank looked around the room.

“One-seventy,” he countered.

“Said something about bringing it out to your place to help celebrate your new arrival,” George added.

Frank said nothing.  George stroked the stubble on his cheek, turned his gaze down toward the magazine page, and waited.  But, Frank didn’t budge.

“One seventy-three,” said George.

“One-seventy,” said Frank, again, firmly.

Their sideward glances met, and lingered while the two men assessed.

“One-seventy-two, and I throw in a full box of Hershey bars.”

Laughing, Frank slammed a hand on the counter, and said, “Ah, sold, you fox.”

“Be about three weeks,” said George.

“Just about right,” said Frank, calculating. “Baby’s not due ‘til the middle of the month.  Be just about right.  Don’t you say nothing, now.  This’ll be quite the surprise, I expect.”

“Yes, I expect it will,” nodded George, with the practiced calm of a successful merchant.  “Anything else for you today, Frank?”

“Yeah, I’ll need a couple of Hershey bars this afternoon.”

“That’ll be four cents.”

________________________________________________________

Across the street, in front of the Andersonbuilding, stood the lone remaining gas light in the town, where a small crowd of mourners gathered beneath the lamp that lit the curfew bell that Frank Gerlach had mounted for the town when the council deemed it necessary to provide juvenile order to a sleepy town of 200 souls.  Tonight, it would be rung by Emma, in one final tribute to her husband.

________________________________________________________

Frank Gerlach was greatly respected about Carpenter.  He had a playfulness about him that made people smile .  It was well know that he worked his farm hard and kept it in well groomed order, but if it was raining, he would sometimes instruct the older children to finish the chores, while he himself went fishing at Deer Creek.  There, he would catch a pail of soft shell crabs from his secret bank.  Back home, he would stuff several of them into his hat, and then put the hat back on his head.  Walking into the kitchen, he would proudly doff his hat, revealing a Medusa head of crabs nestled into his thick dark hair.

“Hey, Emma, look what I brought home for dinner tonight!”

Around the county, his good humor, bright smile and thick hair were what people would remember.

“Frank, your beard feels like velvet., but still cuts like wire,” the barber often remarked,

“There you go, boys,” was his winking response, “chug a few raw eggs for breakfast, and you too can impress the ladies.”

For Newburg township, Frank Gerlach had become the one they trusted as their voice, if they had any business with the county.  He was useful for other business, as well.

“I ain’t no politician,” he had told them, “but I guess I can be a pretty gabby messenger.”

Affable enough to earn the trust of most of his neighbors, the sight of him smoking his pipe and driving up for a visit was call for a break.

“Thirsty, Frank?”

“Parched.”

“Offer the man a drink,” the husband would say.  It was a watch phrase, and for the men of Newburg township, it signaled there would be a private drink, and a transaction, usually inside the barn.  When wives returned, they would say, “Now, you tell them trustees my road is washing away down that hill to where I can’t keep a wagon on it.”

“Oh, yes, I understand.”

Now, the lane belongs to me, I know that.  But the road is county.  You tell ‘em I need it fixed, and to stop trying to bring in electricity everywhere.”

“Oh, yes, sir, I will do that.  I certainly will, and thank you, ma’am for the lemonade.”

________________________________________________________-

The paper had said he would be “greatly missed from all good enterprises of the community”

Rose knew about the distribution of Templeton Rye.  Iowahad been dry since 1916, and the corn whiskey traffic fromTempleton,Iowa, had a well-established underground by the time national prohibition began four years later.  Dry was not popular with German American men.  Frank and Emma would battle over his involvement with Templeton.  Frank loved his liquor, and Emma found the WCTU’s arguments about saving husbands from themselves very persuasive.

Rose cried deeply and sobbingly at her father’s funeral.  His death had been a double tragedy, an unfortunate accident with a preventable beginning.  Though the paper would not mention it, she knew the rumors were true.  Someone had iced a barrel of beer at her uncle’s farm the day of the accident, and had gotten it out early because of the heat.  She knew her father.  She had been with him the day he first encountered the Templeton traders.  She had been six years old,Iowawas still wet, and her father didn’t think she understood what was going on.  She did, but what could she do?  Always, what could she do?  Now, she was filled with regret.  It really would be children running the farm.

Roy and Earl had farms of their own by now, just across theMinnesotaborder.  Irma had married and moved toSt. Louisin March. Art, twenty-six, and Bill, fifteen, would stay on for a lifetime, never marry, and raise championshipHolsteins, and Yorkshires.  Gene, the youngest, would become a writer for the Des Moines Register.

It fell to Rose and Lucille to help their mother.  Lucille was not as much help.  She was to be a senior at Carpenter High in the fall.  Everyone insisted those plans not change.  Rose, class of ’27, was ready for the world.  Her world was getting smaller.

Their mother, Emma, retreated into depression as the harvest season moved on into full swing. Art was working non-stop.  Bill stayed home to work in the fields with Art that fall.  Lucille, and Gene went off to school.  There was no time for fishing.

It was left to Rose to nurse Emma through the dark days.  Confining herself to her bed for days on end, she found no comfort in the well wishes of friends and neighbors.  Lucille was trying to bravely move on, but seeing her mother’s defeat weakened her own resolve.

“Mama, you’ve got to get out of bed,” she would plead before school.  “If you don’t get out of bed, I…I just don’t know what I’ll do.”

The conflict between living a “normal” life, and the nausea of broken-heartedness began taking its toll on Lucille.

Rose could not live that way.  She had seen her father’s darker side, but she had also inherited his zest for seeing things brightly.  She went about opening curtains, singing little songs, making quips throughout the day, and chuckling at her own comments, trying to cheer her mother.  But Emma found no comfort in such cheeriness.

“Such a sunny day today.”

“Mmm, clothes smell so fresh from the line.”

“Papa would have loved this sunset, hmm, hmm.”

Winding up the Victrola, on a particularly bright morning, she selected a recent Jolson recording, put the needle down, and began to sing along.

When the red, red robin comes bob, bob bobbin’ along, along,

There’ll be no more sobbing when he starts throbbing

His own sweet song.

Wake up, wake up, you sleepy head,

Get up, get up, get out of bed,

Cheer up, cheer up the sun is red,

Live, love, laugh and be happy.

When the red, red robin comes bob, bob bobbin’ along.

“That’s enough, Ruth,” came a voice barely loud enough to be heard over the music.

“Mama?” said Rose.  She quickly lifted the needle from the Victrola, and came over to her mother’s bedside.  She said again, “Mama?”

“That’s enough, Ruth.  I don’t like that song,” Emma softly sighed.

Frank and Emma’s firstborn had been a baby girl that lived only eighteen months.  Her name had been Ruth Rose.  Emma had reversed the order to Rose Ruth, in naming Rose, so she would never forget her littlest angel.

“I’m Rose, Mama.  Rose.  Not Ruth.  Ruth is dead.  Ruth is gone, and…and Papa would have loved this song.”

Silence followed.

“Papa,” whispered Emma.

Rose sat down by the bed.

“Mama, look at me.  Look at me.  This is not Papa’s world anymore. Ruth is gone.  Papa is gone.  That’s the way it is.  Now, we have to go on, Mama.  We have to go on.”  When Emma still said nothing, she added, “Lucille is hurting, don’t you know?”

Emma looked up.

Rose continued. “She’s thinking about quitting school.  She is so torn up, because you’re torn up, that she can’t concentrate.  She’s not doing well in school, I’m afraid.  She misses her mama.”  She let this sink in.

“Papa was a drinker, yes.  We all know that.  Everybody knows that.  And we also know things might have been different if…  But they’re not.  Still, Papa was a great man.  In my eyes, he was a great man.   I will always think so.  Please come back, Mama.  As hard as it is to believe, this was no surprise to God.  Please believe that.”

Emma turned to the wall.  Rose hung her head and sighed.

“Temperance,” said Emma, softly.  Rose raised her head.  The word hung in the air.  She turned and looked Rose in the eye, and said more firmly, “Temperance.”

Changes

Changes

Morph Images             @ FreeCodeSource.com

Morph Images

Ever wonder what goes on inside the mind of a writer?

I’m going to allow my blog to morph this year. Up to this point,  http://cakabala.wordpress.com , has merely been a convenient repository for things I’ve written—songs, personal essays, experimental memoir-esque storytelling from social media sources, and such.  Not much readership, although I certainly appreciate those who have stopped by.

But, now I think I’ll archive most of that in favor of developing a theme and a purpose. I will be focusing (I think) on memoir-based historical fiction striving to become literary fiction.  I’ll be learning the ropes as I go, so to speak, so bear with me.

“Spicing things up a little bit” has always been tempting.

In a scene from the early 60’s sitcom, Leave It To Beaver, young Theodore (the “Beaver”) Cleaver decided his mother’s story of having been fired from a book store, because she messed up the receipts, wasn’t exciting enough for his assigned composition, so he described her instead as a chorus line dancer who performed in beer joints for a notorious gangster until she married Ward Cleaver, the tap dancer.  The trouble wasn’t his imagination.  It was his trying to pass it off as history.

In A Million Little Pieces, the writer, James Frey, marketed his tale as a memoir. It resulted in a sort of media scandal when it was discovered that he had greatly exaggerated significant sections of the book.  Again, the trouble wasn’t his imagination, or intent (to help other addicts), but that he told lies, and called them facts.

Mark Twain once used the term, “lies, damned lies, and statistics”, in referring to the persuasiveness of exaggeration.  What may start off as a boring memoir, that even family members avoid reading, somehow morphs inside the writer’s mind to become the American tough guy story.  Americans love their tall tales.  They just don’t like being suckered.

In Beaver’s case, the kids all knew he was making it up, but they didn’t care, because it was more creative than their own stories.  In James Frey’s case, the public was incensed because they were told to be incensed.  All of his humiliation could have been avoided if he had just turned his work into a novel instead.

I do find it ironic, however, that journalists get so carried away with the vetting process, and the relentless finger-pointing persecution that follows.  Who among us believes everything they read in a memoir?  Look deeply enough at the motive behind the expose, and I suspect that it usually comes down to money, more than morality; first for the author who initially stretches the truth, then for the journalist who uncovers the lies, and then for the talk show hosts who air the egregious scandal.

Really now, doesn’t there come a time for caveat emptor? Aren’t we, the readers, at least partly culpable when we allow mob consciousness to determine our outrage?  Literary novelists often write with visions of creating masterpieces that impact in profound ways, and change lives forever.  It is their intent.  In their effort to do so, they fabricate.

A recent American Masters episode, on PBS, examined the life of Harper Lee, author of To Kill A Mockingbird.  One of the commentators spoke of the transition from an author’s real world to the fictional worlds they create.

I first came, over the years, to a realization, that I bet is true of Harper Lee as well, …you know, you start with who and what you know.  It’s sort of like, take a survey of the lay of the land that formed you, shaped you, and then you begin to lie about it.  You, you tell one lie that turns into a different lie, and after awhile those models sort of lift off, become their own people, rather than people you originally thought of…and when you weave an entire network of lies, what you’re really doing, if you’re aiming to write literary fiction, I think what you’re, what you’re really doing is, by telling lies, you’re trying to arrive at…a deeper truth.

Wally Lamb, novelist, I Know This Much Is True

Novelists have been granted a freedom that their journalistic counterparts have not.  Label something “fiction”, and you are allowed to “create”.  Label it “fact”, and you may be vilified.  So, as this blog progresses, this year, I shall be examining the process of morphing family histories into novels.  That means changing names, inventing characters, and rounding out the details (putting flesh on the bones).  The “deeper truth” toward which historical fiction sometimes strives, is a destination that will not be often reached, but the end result of a tale well told is better than being called a liar.

Ancestry.com teams up with Midwest Writing Center for family history seminar May 5

Trevor Joins the Choir

This year my son decided to do something different at school. He joined the choir. For years, we’ve been following him to baseball games, cross country meets, and track meets. From the hottest games of summer, through the blustery rains and bitter cold of late fall or early spring, there we were. You can count on two hands the number of parents who regularly attend their son’s baseball games, and it only takes one hand to count the regulars at a cross country meet. You usually run against the same teams week after week, in cross country, so it’s pretty easy to pick out the regular parents on the other teams, as well. You also tend to notice which athletes never have anyone there to watch them… as in ever. It makes you feel sad, wondering about their home lives, and why nobody cares.

A choir concert is decidedly different. First off, they are indoors! Yea! Secondly, they ask you for $5.00 apiece at the door. Okay, I guess every extracurricular activity has its price, and there aren’t any concessions at a choir concert. I still contend, by the way, that athletic departments could make more money by including a burger and coke with the purchase of every admissions ticket to a track meet, or baseball game—sort of like a “loss leader” that gets people to belly on up to the concessions counter, where the real profits are made. After all, who wants to pay to sit in the stands to watch their child run in only one race, or sit on the bench during a ball game? As economic times get tougher, you see more and more parents camping out around the perimeter fences, rather than part with money for nothing.

At a choir concert, however, there is no bench. Everybody performs, and nobody loses. It feels less bandit-like to part with couple of fives when you know you are actually going to see little Johnny or Nancy perform. They may not have a featured role, but, at least they are out there, and you have a right to smile and be proud of them. Granted, the music may be in Latin, Italian, or German, but there is usually enough American English in the mix to satisfy the less cultured among us.

The third difference between a choir concert and a minor athletic contest is relative attendance. We got to our son’s first choir concert over an hour early. It was being held at a local church. We were the first ones there. There was a ticket taker already ready. I paid for two, and we waited in the foyer for the doors to be opened. By the time we went in to the auditorium, there were perhaps thirty people who had paid. I was impressed. Still I wondered how the kids would feel if there weren’t very many people to watch them after all their hard work. I expected the same kid-abandonment phenomenon I was so used to at cross country meets.

People spread out wherever they wanted, a couple in this pew, four or five in the next one over, all near the front. I read some materials I had brought along during the forty minute interim remaining before the concert. About ten minutes before the concert, I decided to visit the restroom and get a drink of water. When I got up from my seat, and turned toward the exit, I was stunned. The auditorium was nearly full. I counted the pews on my walk to the back, and estimated there were over 200 people in attendance, with more still coming in the door. By the time I returned to my seat, people had begun seating themselves in the church choir loft just to have a seat.

Most pews could comfortably accommodate five good sized adults, or six people counting children. Our row already had five people in it. I noticed a man and his wife near the choir loft, looking for seats. He was wearing a crisp yellow shirt, yellow pants, and a black leather vest. I commented to Sandy that he looked like Andy Williams in a rodeo vest. But then, the man and his wife started heading our way.

“Is that seat taken?” he asked, pointing to the middle of our row.

“What seat?” I said.

“That one there,” he said, as his wife began wriggling past me to claim the area. Then, with her firmly settled in, he asked the obvious, “Is there room for one more?”

With that, Unrude Sandy, the darling I married, placed her coat in her lap, scrunched me over, and made room for Rodeo Andy, as ours became the first pew with seven people wedged in it that evening. When the concert began, over 300 people were there to listen to 84 young people sing in Latin, Italian, and German. I was thoroughly impressed.

Not long into the concert, I became aware that there were a few “culturally-challenged” individuals among us. One row back, and to the right of Rodeo Andy, was a boisterous couple and child. They were happy…obliviously happy… with no regard for the decorum of silence or the thought that most people had paid to hear the performance, not the chatter in row two. I suspect I might have liked them and their liveliness outside of the concert, but no amount of shushing from those around seemed to register with them that night.

Perhaps they had come from a home where three tvs and a radio are always blaring, and everyone talks all the time. I don’t know. Perhaps, they are only used to rock concerts where you can shout into your neighbor’s ear from three inches away, and not bother anyone else. Again, I don’t know. At any rate, I found the annoyance of their rumbling, running commentary to be actually quite amusing, as they began to punctuate the applause at the end of each number with shouts of “WooHoo!” and “You rock, Justin!”

The choir compensated by singing loudly. Still, I can imagine the choir director, sometime in the near future, saying, “Justin, the next time we have a concert on, say a Tuesday, I want you to tell your parents it’s on a Wednesday.”