Treasure From the Five and Dime

The first time I was proactive in getting a gift for my mother without the aid and support of my father was the purchase of the necklace pictured here. With my pockets stuffed with coins, I peddled my bicycle over the railroad tracks behind our apartment building to a little shopping area where the store was located (a five-and-dime, not a Jared), and returned a successful hunter/gatherer with my prize in a paper sack.

Mom wore it proudly to church that Mother’s Day Sunday, and countless other times. I was told often that this necklace was the favorite piece of jewelry in her collection, and for a time I believed that my offering eclipsed her wedding rings, pearl ensembles, and jewel-encrusted broaches. When Mom died in 2015, my sister, Nan, was in charge of dispersing Mom’s jewelry collection, and the first thing she located was the blue necklace and returned it to me.

Presenting Mom with the necklace that Mother’s Day brought tears to her eyes, a reaction I continued to induce for years to come though rarely for such sentimental reasons. Isn’t that what sons are supposed to do, make their mothers cry? If so, I most likely exceeded the allotment of times a son is given to bring his mother to tears.

Those weepy occasions began to taper off when I married Kay. I think Mom’s quote to my bride on our wedding day was something to the effect of, “I’m handing him off to you. I did the best I could.”

In the long march to my wedding day, before the “handing off,” Mom said that she had long ago given up praying that I would have good friends or get through high school and then college or just go to church once in a while. She finally resorted to begging God to just keep me alive, at least until she could find someone else to take over. I know, poor Kay.

Comments Off on Treasure From the Five and Dime

Death is Near/Don’t be Stupid

Last fall we rented a place in Monteagle, Tennessee to celebrate my bride’s birthday. I’m not divulging her chronology. That could prove my death sentence. But I will say she does not look her age. Must be those daily sips from the fountain of youth.

For several days there was a steady flow of family and friends all there for the single purpose of celebrating Kay. As it should be. Some stayed for a long time. Some dropped by for an hour or two. When I reached the saturation point of the constant flow of humanity, I threw the three grandkids in the back of my car and we took off to the Fiery Gizzard trail.

As my three grandkids are prone to do, they can build up a head of stream of excitement when released into the great outdoors and become, well how can I say this politely…stupid. I guess there are no polite words. It’s the same principal of the mentality of the unruly mob.

I always carry my walking sticks with me when I go on a trek because I’m old and wobbly. As we approached the trailhead I raised my sticks in front of the kids like a gate to stop them from running ahead of me. The north entrance has some steep inclines and drop-offs that can cause serious bodily harm. If one is not paying attention you can take a tumble.

“All right, Kids,” I said. “I give you today’s motto, ‘Death is near/don’t be stupid.’ Now go have fun.” What’s great about my grandkids is that they did not require any interpretation. Our family teams have been on enough trails together in various places on the planet that they get it when the adults offer clear directives. A trio of park rangers was nearby who overheard my instruction and asked if they might use that for future signage. I told them they could have it for free.

Did my admonition spoil the fun? I don’t think so. We tramped for miles, built dams, climbed trees, scaled boulders, and had the contest of who could make the biggest splash in a large pool of water. I won. No way I’m letting my grandkids outdo me.

Now we have a new addition to our slew of family mottos. This one might not rank up there with Solomon’s book of “Proverbs,” but they are words to live by.

Comments Off on Death is Near/Don’t be Stupid

Fires and Floods and A.I., Oh My

I came across a quote by Seneca the Younger, the Stoic philosopher who lived in first century Rome. He wrote, “Floods will rob us of one thing, fire another. These are conditions of our existence which we cannot change. What we can do is adopt a noble spirit.” Natural disasters are one thing, but we are rapidly approaching the time when A.I. technology can do all our thinking for us. This is a disaster of our own making.

I see you rolling your eyes and thinking me a Luddite. The Luddites were skilled textile workers in nineteenth century England. Ned Ludd, their fearless leader, directed the revolt against manufacturers who began using machines to get around standard labor practices. Luddites feared that the machines would replace their role in the industry.

It was a difficult transition for me to go from pen and pad to typewriter to computer. But I made each leap embolden by Seneca’s words to “adopt a noble spirit.” I love and appreciate that technological advances appear on the scene almost daily, but when is enough, enough?

There is currently a dustup about A.I.’s ability to not only write decent poetry (though not a good limerick), but term papers as well on subjects far and wide. Is the short story and novel in danger? You know what’s said, “If it were easy, then everyone could do it.” With the right A.I. then maybe everyone could write that “great” novel. How can anyone distinguish oneself if you don’t have to struggle and suffer as you go about making your art? The capacity to imagine is lost when we allow our technology to remove all unwanted struggles and suffering.

Now I hear a team scientists are working on what is called a “thinking hat.” After the proper programing, it is said the wearer need only think of a question and the computer will answer it. So imagine if one thinking hat wearer goes on a dinner date with another thinking hat wearer they can just skip the pleasant conversation all together and go about eating their meal without any verbalis interruptus. It is the equivalent of talking with your mouthful. So what do they do when it comes to the goodnight kiss? Think it?

Technology can do so much for us. It can solve so many of life’s challenges, but it cannot give us meaning or tell us why we exist and for what purpose. For that we must face our affiliations, reclaim our personal tragedies and comedies, and from them, create our stories. I call that living with a noble spirit.

Comments Off on Fires and Floods and A.I., Oh My

Never Lost the Boy

I love this kid in the picture. It happens to be me. While the moves might not be those of a future dancing prodigy, the swinging arms, the knee lift and the happy face reveal an exuberant joy that cannot be denied.

My dad is standing right behind me. The other men were members of dad’s Lipscomb University Men’s Glee Club. And you thought “Glee” was just a TV show. Dad could bring the glee, and apparently it was infectious because here is his son cutting the rug or pavement in this case.

During the spring break at the University Dad would load up his merry band of young men and they would tour the regional south singing for the church crowd. I got to go along as the Glee Club mascot. And as you can tell, we all wore the suit and tie even on the bus. Probably a requirement imposed by my dapper dad.

What strikes me in this picture is the expression of youthful pleasure in the form of a spontaneous roadside dance. The “get down” just could not be contained. Later in my youth, I remember finding a religious tract inside a rack in the vestibule of a church with the title “A Dancing Foot and a Praying Knee Are Not on the Same Leg.” It had never crossed my young mind that one could not dance and pray at the same time.

The history of religious tracts can be traced back to the seventh century, way before the printing press. While religious apologetics was and is a viable literary form of persuasion, I put the “Dancing Foot/Praying Knee” in the category of religious folks with power who tie up heavy loads of rules and regulations, dump them on a person’s shoulders like a pack mule, offer no help to bear the load, and walk away saying “good luck with that.” It’s the equivalent of throwing a kid in the pool and saying, “Hope you can swim.”

As I look at this picture and think over my life, I realize that I never lost the boy in me. A little-boy exuberance has stuck with me. It certainly got me in trouble at times, but I believe people who maintain a childlike curiosity and “joie de vivre” will not only take more pleasure in life and their relationships but are better prepared to tackle opportunities that come their way.

If you have lost or misplaced your youthful joy and exuberance for life, then come back into the light, joy is waiting to greet you with an excited, “You’ve been missed. Now let’s dance.”

Comments Off on Never Lost the Boy

The Potemkin Effect

We humans are adept at creating and concocting lies, and then once the lies have been spoken into existence, deeply believing them. Such concoctions, if not explicitly designed to sow the seeds of chaos, are intended to produce a preferred narrative for the liar(s). Such a stratagem can be used to advance an individual or propel a nation to act outside acceptable norms. When nothing is true, when we cannot distinguish between good and evil, then what moral compass do we have to provide us guidance?

This makes me think of a story I recently read known as the “Potemkin village.” Grigory Aleksandrovich Potemkin was an eighteenth-century Russian minister. Over his lifetime, Potemkin served in many capacities for Catherine the Great: builder, diplomat, officer, and lover.

In 1789 Catherine decided to tour her empire down the Dneiper River through the Ukraine and Crimea. To impress Catherine with his administration of the region, Potemkin is alleged to have ordered that everything be hurriedly spruced up along the way using painted facades to fool Catherine into thinking that the area was far richer than it was. This ruse involved the construction of painted façades to mimic real villages, full of happy, well-fed people, for Catherine and her officials to see.

In a fit of zeal to make a favorable impression on Catherine and her entourage during her inspection tour down the river, the countryside was whitewashed. New villages sprang up that consisted only of fake pasteboard facades. This extravagant staging might be exaggerated by some critics, but you know we can’t let pesky facts get in the way of a good story.

Whatever the level of truth, the whole effort was a sham and a fraud. Potemkin concocted and created the lies, believed by the highest levels of government because they wanted to believe. Is our morality nothing more than a “Potemkin village”?

Our best attempts at goodness and morality are no better if our hearts and minds are not regenerated by truth. We long to be of good character. We long for those around us to also be of good character, those we associate with, those with whom we choose to invest our time and treasure, those we choose to elect. Don’t we want those around us to have the substance of real character or be feeble imitators? Sound character can only come when a heart has been touched by something greater than itself…something profound, transcendent, and holy, not whitewashed.

Comments Off on The Potemkin Effect

The Dance of the Pinata

The Chinese lay claim to the origin of a centuries-old whacking of the image of a cow filled with different types of seeds at the beginning of every New Year hoping for a favorable climate for their agriculture. The Aztecs say they invented the practice to honor the birthday of a god with a multi-syllabic name who needed appeasement—perhaps for every battered piñata there was one less human sacrifice.

Once the Spanish monks moved into the Mesoamerica neighborhood, they immediately saw the opportunity to co-opt the ritual and created their own 14th century version called “The Dance of the Piñata.” A seven-point piñata represented the seven deadly sins. The piñata itself represented evil, and the treats inside, the temptations of evil. The individual armed with a club was blindfolded to represent “blind faith.”

When the participant struck at the piñata, it was the struggle against evil, and when a blow landed and the piñata broke open, the treats inside showered down upon the victor as a reward for keeping the faith. So these treats somehow magically turned from nuggets of temptation to a shower of blessing. Those tricky monks. The things we do to placate the gods and ward off evil and be entertained at the same time.

In celebration of a grand child’s birthday, we gathered for the party. There were a passel of neighborhood kids, the median age hovering in the single digits, and we all circled beneath the unicorn piñata suspended from a tree limb. The honor of the first swing went to the birthday child, but alas, it was a swing-and-a-miss, so the bat was passed on to the next guest, and then on down the line.

The cheering continued throughout the game as some swipes landed, but never a deathblow. Finally the birthday child came to bat again and beat the piñata until it gave up the ghost and yielded its candied entrails. The belly of the unicorn burst open and the treats exploded into the air. It became a bacchanal for juveniles.

It was such an odd feeling to witness and yes, participate in this human activity of destroying something in hopes of gaining something. I’m not a killjoy, I know how to have a good time, but such wild and frenzied actions of the young brought with it a loss of innocence. I may be thinking too deeply. Maybe I’m just getting old. Whatever this feeling was/is, I found it unsettling…and still do.

Comments Off on The Dance of the Pinata

The Shortcomings of History

I wonder if there is such a thing as “total accurate history.” History is the compilation of facts that help explain events we want to remember. But is it possible to have all the facts, even in today’s world with our advanced technologies? I read a quote recently by a German poet from the Romantic period who went by the pen name Novalis. “Novels arise out of the shortcomings of history.” However, too often the novel rushes in and makes a mess of things giving migraines to the angels of history.

Works of fiction are created and designed to fill us with all sorts of human emotions: awe, shock, tears, sorrow, etc. These very real emotions help to secure the characters of a story firmly into our memory. A fine-drawn fictional character may live much longer in the memory than an historical one. Unless, of course, the historical character is given enough human dimension based on historical events that draw the reader into the heart and soul of that character.

This is where one historical character may become a legend. A legend is presumed to have some basis in historical fact with real people or events. But historical fact can easily morph into a legend when the truth has been exaggerated to the point that real people or events have taken on a romanticized, larger than life quality.

In my recent novel The Singer of Israel the historical character of King David becomes an over-night legend the moment he slays a giant. His exploits are even turned into peans of praise. You know you’ve achieved legend status when an entire nation sings songs about you.

Regardless of my shortcomings as an artist, I have diligently attempted to capture the truth of the emotional lives of my characters and give them depth and meaning. History is tumultuous and fraught with misperception and misunderstanding. Even with time and distance the historical events and facts can remain distorted and difficult to understand. But when human emotions are expressed, even those emotions-by-design applied by an author to their characters, then historical characters really may live forever providing generation after generation of readers pleasure and understanding of who they are and who they might become.

Comments Off on The Shortcomings of History

My Day in Prison

Way back in the day I did a film entitled Framed staring Joe Don Baker and John Marley. Joe Don made the Louisville Slugger famous in Walking Tall and John Marley made famous the consequence of refusing an offer from a Mafia Don in The Godfather and ending up with the head of his prize horse in his bed.

Before the old Nashville prison was closed for good it was used for film sets. It still housed legit prisoners, but what Hollywood wanted, Hollywood got, and Hollywood wanted this prison, with its real prisoners, supplemented with actors.

I was cast as a prisoner. My character was lucky enough to have a credited name, “Lenny,” and not a descriptor, “Prisoner #3 lifting weights.” My sole job was to grab John Marley from behind and hold him while another prisoner smacked Marley around. Then Joe Don was to step up, give us his best menacing face and scare us off. Easy right?

The director staged the scene and we rehearsed with the stunt coordinator. Just in case there was a mishap mattresses were placed around us on the ground. To say I was nervous would be an understatement. On the first rehearsal my nerves got the best of me. I grabbed Marley from behind and fell backwards onto the mattress with Marley landing on top of me. Not a part of the scene. The first words out of Marley’s mouth were, “This s.o.b. is trying to kill me.”

Though humiliated, I managed to get through the scene without killing the Academy Award nominee. The real prisoners standing around in the yard found all this amusing. Between shots I was able to strike up some friendly conversations with some of the guys. I’m sure they were more interested in the cigarettes they could bum from me, but still it was fun hanging out with them.

That is until it was time for the next shot and I was called back to the set. Because of my authentic prison costume the authentic guards thought I was trying to pull a fast one when I began to walk past them. The director had to vouch for me. It’s all in who you know. Apparently, he didn’t hold it against me that I almost “killed” one of his stars.

Every so often I get some mailbox money from Framed. The last check came in at $0.03. The gross was $0.05, but the IRS took two cents to cover the cost of…what exactly, I don’t know. It is a mystery, but who says crime doesn’t pay?

Comments Off on My Day in Prison

Building a Chicken Coop

William Faulkner once said that “writing a novel is like building a chicken coop in a high wind—you grab any board you find and nail it down fast.” The writing of a novel can be a long-term battle in a headwind. And when you are writing an historical novel, you have a lot of facts flying that you might use to build that literary coop. But alas, the sustained headwinds are so brutal that many of those facts just sail right past you. Even if the coop is missing a few factual “boards,” you hope the story is still complete.

I love writing novels, the ones in progress, and the ones I still hope to write. I love taking the stories from biblical history and using my imagination to bring characters and events to life that have existed in mystery. I am bringing a vanished world to life on a page, inviting a reader into a world rich with human dimensions and dynamics.

I am not an historian. The skill of the historian is to take the verifiable facts as they happened, and while they attempt to tell those facts in such a way that are interesting and give a reader a solid sense of place and time, they can’t make stuff up. That is the rule of the game for the historian.

The novelist need not adhere to such a rule…completely. Certainly, they must assembly the pieces (historical facts) that fly in the headwind so that the chicken coop at least resembles a chicken coop. The reader wants to be secure in the knowledge that the novelist has done the research and has created an accurate and believable setting in which the characters may exist.

But the novelist is free to get inside the character’s heads and hearts and describe what is going on. I allow myself the freedom to invent, and thus, allow myself and the potential to feel a human connection to the characters. Hilary Mantel of Wolf Hall fame says, “If we want added value—to imagine not just how the past was, but what it felt like, from the inside—we pick up a novel.”

This is what I attempt to do each time when I set my fingers on the keyboard and watch the words appear on the screen. I want to know “what it felt like from the inside” in the biblical fiction I have written. I invite all readers to take that journey with me in my series The Song of Prophets and Kings.

Comments Off on Building a Chicken Coop

They Gave Their Eyes to God

In my new novel The Singer of Israel, I devote some time to the process of writing the stories of Israel onto the scrolls. There were many stipulations for the scribes to follow as they wrote these sacred texts, but no document containing the words of Yahweh could be destroyed. They were stored, or buried, in a genizah—a Hebrew term meaning “hiding place.” These were usually kept in a synagogue or sometimes in a Jewish cemetery. You will have to read the novel to find where Samuel stored the scrolls that he reveals to David, the future king of Israel.

There are no original manuscripts of the Old Testament today. After Jerusalem was sacked by Rome in the First Century, the process of copying the Old Testament was lost. While a Hebrew version of the Old Testament did exist, the language wasn’t spoken by many, and the Greek and eventually Latin versions dominated.

Beginning in the Sixth Century and into the Tenth Century A.D., some European Jewish scribes continued a similar method for copying manuscripts of the Old Testament in the original Hebrew language as originated by the scribes before Christ.

Until 1948, the oldest manuscripts of the Old Testament dated back to 895 A.D. In 1947, a shepherd boy discovered some scrolls inside a cave West of the Dead Sea. These manuscripts dated between 100 B.C. and 100 A.D. Over the next decade, more scrolls were found in caves and the discovery became known as the Dead Sea Scrolls. Every book in the Old Testament was represented in this discovery except Esther. Numerous copies of each book was discovered (For example, 25 copies of Deuteronomy).

While there are other items found among the Dead Sea Scrolls not currently in the Old Testament, the OT items that were found have few discrepancies to the versions from the Tenth Century. While not perfect, this is our best measuring stick to how accurate the Jewish scribes were throughout the centuries. A shout-out to historian, Scott Manning, for these concise facts.

The ancient Hebrews were people of the Word. Since we know some of the ways the scribes worked in preserving these texts, I have taken the liberty to construct scenes within The Singer of Israel describing the labors of many who preserved the stories of ancient Israel. One can imagine the damage done to the sight of a scribe after years of such labor. It was a sacrifice to give their eyes to preserve the sacred word.

Comments Off on They Gave Their Eyes to God