WHERE THE HOMELESS SHOULD GO: Tiny Houses, Church Sites, and Civil Obligation Reply

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For the last three days I have been in Seattle Washington exploring with a group of scholars, civil leaders, and non-profit agency workers and volunteers ways to solve homelessness.  I thought I would take a few minutes to write about homelessness where I live in Savannah.

Savannah Georgia has a dramatically large homeless population compared to its population.   According to annual counts by the homeless authority, the number of homeless in Savannah has risen every year for the last three years, most recently up to more than 4600 homeless residents.  There are a number of factors that lead to the rise of homelessness — many of which are systematic and reflect our preferences for single family housing options, tourist occupants, and our disdain for public programs that seek to mitigate the underlying issues leading to homelessness.

One of the more visible projects that has emerged in recent years is the Tiny Homes Project for Veterans.   These homes cost $10,000 to construct, and provide a place for autonomy and privacy for residents.  Early plans for the Tiny Homes Project vacillated between excitement to do something concrete about the homelessness problem in our community and fears about where these houses would be located.  Indeed, several sites that seemed promising and had political support from City Counsel Members suddenly evaporated under a cloud of NIMBYISM (Not in My Back Yard) and questions about the desirability of small housing in communities.

Challenges of Places for Homeless Homes

Some of the many challenges for finding places for non traditional homes for the homeless is how do these places interact with housing codes and ordinary enforcement.  The practical quagmire of local regulations that were built to exclude homes for those other than single families makes building tiny homes in communities a challenge. But communities are exactly what homelessness needs.   In fact, the proliferation of large homeless camps throughout the city is specifically in response to the lack of community these people experience elsewhere.  Community is a survival skill and is necessary for human resilience.

What the homeless camps provide in the form of community and survival, they sacrifice in the realm of healthy living conditions, privacy, and autonomy.   The lack of shelter multiplies the hurdles that the homeless have.  If your perspective is that the homeless should have jobs, then what address do they put on job applications when they apply?  Tent three under the Truman Bridge?  And would you hire that person?

Sleeping rough (the phrase used to refer to homeless camp living) presents challenges for people who have healthcare needs that end up costing the system more dollars.  When the temperature goes over 98 degrees or under 30 degrees, many medications lose effectiveness or simply go bad.  Wet conditions are dire for both medicines, wounds, and general wellness.  And life in a tent is simply no substitute for structures and stability.

Churches can be the Change for our Community.

Now imagine if we could make a significant impact on the way homeless people live and survive (and give them tools to move into more traditional stable housing) by using space we already have available.  I am talking about church lands.

Our churches have thousands of acres of land across our city that is unused during most of the week.  Now imagine that churches sponsored tiny home villages of six to twelve tiny houses on their land.   Instead of living in large homeless camps as refugees, homeless persons are immediately brought into a community.  This is not such a radical idea and would solve many issues that the Tiny Homes Project faced early on in its launch.

First, Churches have a Right to provide sanctuary as an exercise of its religious beliefs.  Federal legislation called RLUIPA (the Religious Land Use and Incarcerated Persons Act) allows faith based groups to exercise their religious beliefs unabated by local land use restraints unless there is a compelling state interest that is necessary to prevent their doing so. (Its highly likely that human sacrifice stations would not be lawful under RLUIPA, but its very tolerating of religious land use).  Some of the benefits of doing so:

  • Creating lower density occupations for individuals
  • Infusing supportive communities into homeless communities
  • Access to already built facilities that enable dignity and autonomy

Churches it seems to me have an opportunity to express their faith in meaningful ways.  They may even have an obligation to do so, depending on their theology.  Just imagine the community we can build if we open the doors to our spaces and allow the alien, the widow, and the orphan to come inside.

In an era where housing is the greatest humanity crisis our country faces, the inevitable fact is that great societies learn how to share or they cease to be great societies.  I hope the churches in our community will lead the charge in teaching our society how to share again.

Myth Busters – Islands Incorporation Edition Reply

The Islands, where I live, are a-flux with incorporation fever.

Merchants offer to round-up sales purchases to help marshal the resources to pay for the state-required study. Residents on social media and in meetings actively promote the process as a step to avoid being [consolidated with] the City of Savannah, an outcome that is represented as on par with Voldemort becoming the ruling authority over the island communities.

Indeed, it seems a moment of reckoning is coming where the islands will remain an island or become a parcel of the growing city of Savannah. In all of this, there have been several myths about incorporation, either with Savannah or as an individual entity that seem to be gaining traction in the community.

In that vein, this is an Islands edition of “Myth-busters.” Side note of disclosure — I see merits to both [consolidating] with Savannah and I see merits to Self-incorporation. This editorial is primarily designed to shed-light on some the ways this issue is being discussed so that you can better decide on incorporation’s merits.

Myth Number 1 — Your Taxes will Go Down if the Islands Self-Incorporate

It would be virtually impossible for your taxes to either remain the same or go down under either scenario. Local governments are responsible for a large range of unnoticed resources — roads, storm-water runoff, police and fire services, and maintaining public infrastructure. In Georgia, Cities and Counties sometimes split these costs through intergovernmental agreements. But typically, that is due to costs being primarily associated with one body or another. On the islands, the roads themselves would require significant public resources, which have been provided by the county up to this point. In other words, the costs for island road upkeep is currently spread across 284,000 people through property assessments, SPLOST Funding, and other revenue generating devises. If the Islands incorporate, those same costs will now be spread primarily across 22,000 people.

Myth Number 2 — We are Like Sandy Springs, and they did ok

This is a simple, “no we’re not.”  There is a reason why Sandy Springs has been able to privatize most of its functions and lower taxes — they’ve externalized their revenue. The downside to privatization of government services is the unseen costs that are externalized to the public.  These costs don’t catch up all at once, but when they do, they can be a back breaker for communities. Sandy Springs has avoided this problem because they have an external source of revenue capable of offsetting the costs externalized to the public by private businesses.  The number of businesses in Sandy Springs literally dwarfs the number of businesses on Wilmington Island and Whitemarsh Island. Located in the heart of Atlanta, Sandy Springs attracts residents from the greater metro area of Atlanta meaning that the sales tax revenue doesn’t come from their residents — but rather others that live around Sandy Springs. Its a win-fall and boondoggle all at the same time. They can completely fund their government without hitting their own residents up for revenue every time there is a shortfall. The Islands simply do not have that same built in revenue generator. So when roads need repaving because we have 10 trash trucks riding through the neighborhoods each week ( I counted) — your taxes will go up and not incrementally, but with a large jump. At the same time, the cost of other things like milk and bread, lawn bags at Ace, and detergent at Walmart will also rise because of the need to supplement the property tax revenue with sales tax revenue.  What incorporation without proper creation of revenue generating mechanism (like taxes means) is that it would become more expensive to live on the island.

Myth Number 3 — Privatizing Public Services is Always Better

When I was growing up, the U.S. postal service was the whipping boy of government largess. Services like Fed Ex and UPS did things faster for those that could pay for it. Meanwhile, the U.S. Postal Service seemed to lag behind in both technology and competence. But you know what we did — we invested in it and made it better.

Privatizing government services creates a number of problems. First private enterprises do not have the same incentives as public service agencies. Their incentive is to create more revenue. Thus Southside supplements its fire force with volunteer fireman, not professional fireman. (For the record, I don’t have a generic problem against volunteer fireman, but if MY house catches fire, I’d prefer the professionals). Speaking to fire department members who left Southside for Savannah Fire Department, the difference in equipment and training is substantial. Lastly, looking at the numbers for Fire Service in Savannah compared to Fire Service provided by Southside, the costs per property are comparable. This doesn’t make Southside a bad actor, it just points to the difference in motivations between public services and privatized public services.  You pay for what you get.

Myth Number 4 — Joining with Savannah is all Bad

Savannah’s government is deemed to be the big bad wolf in all of this. The reality is that [consolidating] the islands with Savannah has benefits. Savannah is the largest economic community in the metro area. Consolidation gives island residents a seat at the political table that their county representatives don’t have. Mayoral elections would have to account for the island (I suspect that Mayor Eddie Deloach covets the island votes in this process). The islands would get representatives on the city counsel. Despite the fact that there is a draw bridge on President’s street, the islands are not a place where we can simply pull up the works and be completely separate from the challenges that Savannah faces. A seat at the table is a valuable asset.

Myth Number 5 — Self-Incorporating is all Bad

Likewise, you may read this and assume that I am anti-incorporation. I am not. An incorporation strategy that is built on reality and designed to harness the resources of the islands could be a winning strategy for everyone. For example, a municipal arm with the power to remake Johnny Mercer into a true Town Square could create a sustainable economic engine for the community and increase property values across the islands. (Imagine a true town square, with traffic circles connecting Johnny Mercer to Waltour, Penn Waller, and Cromwell, with walkable access, bike paths that run along the marshes and connect the Library to the sports fields, schools, and beyond; and buildings that do not look like a mixture of 1960’s neo-soviet architecture with bad 1990’s stucco (and a lawnmower repair shop serving as a sports bar to boot). But these are things that require sophisticated governments. And more than that, they require a tax base.

The One Reality

Whether the islands incorporate or are consolidated, your taxes will go up. If the islands incorporate and they don’t go up immediately, then brace up — there will be much higher taxes down the line. Taxes are not a bad thing. An incorporated islands community with a higher tax rate will increase value to individual property owners if the land use decisions that incorporation enables follows. But an incorporated island with no real municipal government that is incapable of undertaking realistic land use reform (see the current Chatham County Board of Supervisors) will only result in property values not increasing to their potential and property taxes rising to boot.

[Edited: In an earlier version of this piece I used the term annexation.  I have made clear that the process is consolidation.]

In the Shadow of the House of Saul Reply


I grew up in the evangelical tradition.  My experience with the Bible was not as a piece of literature but as an authoritative flawless text that was inspired by God and delivered to man.  My academic career and time as a writer have chipped away at that view, sometimes in significant pieces, and sometimes in subtle ways.  Yet, for those that still hold to that view of the Biblical text — my next statement is unfathomable –I remain a devoted follower whose principle identity remains as christian. Questioning the authority, authenticity, or the validity of the biblical text has been an authentic and natural progression in my faith — what I would term in Paul’s language moving from the infants milk to the substantive harder food.   What I found instead was that my academic-based tendency to question not only texts, but the believability of their authors offered a bit more than just surface level clarity.   Its in the backgrounds, the pretexts and the politics of the biblical record that the nuance of faith is best exemplified. There is value in hearing from flawed men, attempting to shape a narrative of God in explaining their everyday world.

Today we often look beyond these texts when they are not convenient.  The political and legal background of the Biblical text is often omitted in modern churches when it serves to question narratives that we prefer not to face.   Today, the text’s ability to “speak” to modern ears has a stubborn capacity to accept textual accuracy over questioning the authenticity of the sacred word.

One of the most compelling set of texts that the biblical record offers is the psalms. I prefer to refer to them as the subversive Psalms.   To be clear, all of the Psalms are subversive of some ordered pattern of life.  They each represent challenges to authority, whether they are psalms of the exile questioning God’s faithfulness, psalms expressing fear of the unknown (Psalms 23), Psalms expressing repentance for some act of betrayal (Psalms 51) or other.  And then there are the Psalms that passionately suggest that God’s abandoned his people, even to the depths of sheol.  We sanitize their subversiveness by focusing on our need to understand their voice in our own experience rather than understanding the author’s own subversive purposes in writing them in the first place.

The Psalms themselves as poetry are part of a literary tradition that in the ancient world was thought to be subversive.  In Plato’s Republic, he writes that “there is an old quarrel between philosophy and poetry.” (Rep. 607b5–6)  A bit later, he tells us that poets “corrupt the youth and incite the passions” which means they should be banned from the city.  For Plato, the poets were the illogical rabble-rousers that caused havoc and disruption while the philosophers offered order, thoughtfulness, and peace the social unit of the city.   At the center of the biblical record then sits by ancient terms a collection of writings that at best should be distrusted, and at worst lack order, logic, and confidence.”

One need not look much farther than the Psalms of David to get a glimpse at the subversion that the Psalms reflect.  Notably, the writing of the book of II Samuel carefully interweaves into David’s narratives reminders that the Shadow of the House of Saul remains overhead.  It is notably in times of disruption when David’s authority is questioned, when his own unlawfulness is exposed, and his throne threatened that the shadow of Saul is most apparent.  Even as David is being chased out of Jerusalem and he is  seeking shelter while on the run from Absolom, an older man reminds the reader that David’s claim to the throne is illegitimate and that Saul was the rightful King.  But a careful reading of II Samuel reveals that the Kingdom of David never truly experienced a lasting peace that later king’s enjoyed.  His wars with the Philistines continued to wage on through a good portion of the book; and when those wars are over, he faces more strife from internal factions, including his own household.  David may be thought of as Israel’s greatest king, but its not because of the peace in the realm.

The Davidic Psalms as literature show a king on the verge of losing a kingdom; facing death from rebellion and inciting “god’s staff” as the valley grows darker; and claiming the yoke of forgiveness from God in the face of lawlessness that would warrant death.  They are often in contrast to the unruly state of the kingdom during David’s reign. Here the true nature of the subversive psalms is to cover over the imperfections of the kingdom by sanctifying them with God’s mantel.  If in fact David “walks through the valley of the shadow of death” and survives, then the presence of God’s rod says something about his validity and claims to the throne; if God declares forgiveness of David’s sin, who’s place is it for the legal system to punish; and if the King can claim God as his “Rock and Fortress” then David’s claim to the throne is valid and acceptable.  If on the other hand David loses to Saul in his claim for the throne, his acts have been heresy, treason, and criminal.  Its only because David prevails in each of these places his Psalms are thought of as tales from the heart, rather than the subversive literature that they were intended to be.


The Agent Reply

Melting Clocks

Fiction Friday is here.   Enjoy this original short story.  I will send this out for publication soon.

The Agent

“Good Morning Gladys,” said the sixty year old Dentist, wearing light blue dental scrubs and looking more like 45, except for the awful quaff of obviously fake red-blonde hair that flapped in a perfect wave as he walked, in part thanks to nature, but in part thanks to the gluttonous amount of aqua net hairspray he applied as part of his daily regiment.

“Good morning Hank.  You had three calls since yesterday.  Mr. Finwick would like to know if he can finally get in for a cleaning. Mrs. Waltz says she chipped her filling.  And a Mr. Davenport said he met you a few weeks ago and would like to schedule an initial consultation.”

“What did you tell them?”

“Same thing I’ve said for the last two years.  No available appointments for six months and Dr. Sparks isn’t taking new patients,” she said, a bit bored.

“Good. I’ll be in my office.”

Hank walked down the wood paneled hallway, adorned with pictures of various famous cemeteries and grave sites – Arlington National, Gettysburg, Vicksburg, JFK’s eternal flame, The Hapsburg Crypt in the Capuchin Church of Austria, the Church of the Sepulcre —  to his office as the two dental assistants murmured about Hank’s decision to retire, but not tell anyone.    He opened the door to a chorus of chimes, whistles and bells, and thirty-three clocks that filled every empty space in the Dentist’s office.  Listening for a moment, Hank peered suspiciously at one oak brown mantle clock with a glass front and miniature brass pendulum, and whispered along its back, “you seem to be out of sorts.  Let’s get you straightened out.”

Hank, retired three years ago from the tedium of dental practice.  Now his time was spent with three occupations – clocks, graves and his wife Larissa.   Larissa every morning would walk through the smallish but ample courtyard of their home and dream of life in other places, like in the gardens of Louis XIV’s Versailles, Author’s Camelot, The Hapsburgs’ summer Palace Schönbrunn, or any other place that began with “old” or sounded royal.  Her house was full of antiques, some that were real and others that were just made to feel antiquarian. Larissa herself couldn’t tell the difference, but bought the antiques because the salesman selling the pieces offered up a steady supply of “yes Ma’ams” and “good gracious,” and “lawd almighties,” which were enough to tell Larissa this man’s trustworthiness was impenetrable. “He’s clearly from the old ways,” she would think.  She was particularly fond of old wives’  tales and would pass them on as conventional wisdom.  “A dream told before breakfast will come true,” she’d say when a child started telling the fantastic dreams from the night before.

Between Larissa’s obsession for old things and Hank’s obsession for clocks, nearly no space was left uncovered with some tchotchke, replica or time piece — cuckoo clocks, grandfather clocks, mantel clocks, atomic clocks, tidal clocks, water clocks, hairspring clocks, clocks that look like cats with big bulging eyes and tails for pendulums, and more.  Every room of their home was filled with several clocks, all inevitably set to different times, creating a chorus of chimes, whistles, cuckoos and tick tocks for at least five minutes on every quarter hour and sometimes longer depending on the hour being struck.  Precision of time never struck Hank as being important.  Most dentists carefully monitored their amalgam settings to ensure they dried properly.  But Hank, knowing their nature, prided himself on never having had a patient sit too long or leave too soon before a filling was done.  Things, particularly clocks and people, responded to their own rhythm and time.

Larissa and Hank’s uneventful lives never called attention to themselves in a bad way. But never one to lose the opportunity to point out a virtue, Larissa kept tedious track of their good deeds so as to instantly repel any rumor or insinuation that anything negative might be said of them. An awkward art, she managed to shame others into keeping conversation shallow just to save themselves from hearing Larissa say anything at all.

A few months back, Larissa showed her power of redeeming an awkward conversation by reminding those listening of her virtues.  While having tea at a local café with Hank, Larissa began commenting on her love of Gone with the Wind.   “Oh, how I would love to live in Scarlett OHara’s Old South.  Life must have been so grand for her and her Rhett Butler.  To sit on those porches and have servants bring you tea in the afternoon.  It would have been delightful.”  Hank looked slightly sheepish, not sure how to respond to such a strange sentiment. He finally said quietly, “Larissa, keep your voice down. There are other people here,” wincing towards the black couple a table over.  Larissa feeling the need to redeem herself said loudly, “Oh, I’m not racist. How dare you insinuate such a thing.  Just last year I bought winter coats for the little colored children of that lady who came by asking me for a job.” This statement reverberated through the café, making everyone in the café cringe, except for Larissa, who at that moment felt a lump in her throat thinking of the ways she helped that poor family.  It was that moment when Larissa noticed the African-American couple sitting in a both nearby. Hank noticed them too, and studied them from toe to top, noticing that both were missing their third finger from one hand.   Hank tended to notice such details, though he rarely assigned them meaning.

“Pardon me,” Larissa said to them, “do I know you?”

“No, I do not believe you do,” said the African-American lady politely.  But before she could say her name.

“Well, you just look so familiar.”

“My name is Alice and this is my husband Randall. We have tea here every week.  Maybe you have seen us here? We see you all the time…”

Larissa interrupted without hearing.  “Surely not!  Why I know everybody that has tea in this café at this time, and I have surely not seen you here.”

“Perhaps we just miss each other by a few minutes.”

“I would say not!  No, I know you from some place else.” And then Larissa said as if coming to it, “I know it.  You are the nice couple I showed a house to in the colored section of town a few weeks ago. Such an odd couple.  Both were doctors and wanted to purchase over in Station’s Landing.  But you know, they just wouldn’t have fit there…”

“No ma’am.  That was not us,” said Alice ignoring Larissa’s condescension.  “We have lived in our home for a long time now,” said Randall with a mournful look.

“Well, it’s my pleasure to meet you.  If you need anything, my name is Larissa Sparks and I am happy to help you find a house or coats or jobs or whatever I may be of assistance for you.”  Later that day, Larissa would congratulate herself to several different people for trying to help “those two unfortunates” she and Hank met earlier.

Hank himself tried to remain underwhelming in both thought and deed.  When the time came for Hank to retire from his dental practice, it just seemed unbecoming to let others know that he was getting older or had made enough money to allow him this ordinary stage of life.  So, instead, he just simply stopped taking patients at his practice or scheduling appointments for his current patients. He continued to employ dental assistants who would tell patients when they called “we just won’t be able to schedule you for six months,” or “I’m sorry Dr. Sparks is no longer accepting new patients.”  If the patient insisted on seeing Dr. Sparks even with such a long wait, he would wait until that day and then abruptly cancel the appointment due to a necessary funeral, business appointment or illness that made Dr. Spark’s unavailable. When they asked if he could see them soon after, the standard response, “Oh, I’m sorry.  Doctor Sparks is completely booked for the next six months.”  And for three years, Hank Sparks woke up every morning, put on his dental scrubs, prepared his hair to be precisely in place, and drove to his dental office where he sat in his office calibrating clocks to be exactly the right time for each clock, which was never the same and never in harmony with any other clock. “Time was just not something that one should pinpoint,” he thought, “but rather was personal to every being and object.”

While Hank attended to his clocks during the day, Larissa sold real estate to prospective buyers.  She would meet a client and instantly know what house or neighborhood she would show them.  She sold houses like a minister sang salvation songs.  She believed that the environs where one lived and the neighbors one kept indicated not only the kind of social person you were but reached down to the quality of your soul.  “Bad neighbors reflect the kind of person you are yourself,” she would say to clients as she urged them to purchase in one area or another.  “Oh, would you look at that.  I just can’t believe they would ruin a perfectly wonderful home by leaving their children’s bicycles laying about in the front yard,” she might be heard saying to clients as she showed a home.  She was also known to lecture clients on not only the tidiness of their home, but also their neighbors’ tidiness.  It was also rumored that Larissa, uninvited, was once run off from a former client’s home for trimming their row-hedges in a perfectly rectangular shape.

In his spare time, Hank had recently decided that he and Larissa needed to get serious about cemetery plots.  For Larissa, this became a moment of utmost importance.  “You don’t want to be buried next to a néer-do-well.  After all, it’s your neighborhood for eternity.”  So Larissa inspected the cemeteries and burial plots with the utmost care. She would bring lawn scissors and gardening gloves to manicure the gravesites around the potential last-home, just so she could see all the potential for where they might decide to buy. She interrogated and antagonized one poor cemetery groundskeeper on a particular weekend visit asking: “why haven’t you planted new flowers by the entrance of the Stonewall section?” And, “Dear sir, why do you insist on allowing weeds to grow up over those grave stones? Those people surely expect you to keep up their grave-homes don’t they?” And finally, “You know more living people would probably visit these poor souls if their neighborhood didn’t look so shabby.”  The poor groundskeeper finally, laid his shovel down and walked towards the historic Jewish mausoleum, causing Larissa to audibly sigh and then comment to Hank about the inability to find good help.

Sunday afternoons were consumed with inspecting potential burial spots for the two of them.  After a while, Hank and Larissa had exhausted the supply of local plots and began looking at nearby towns.  “There are burial plots in Osawatomie’s Memorial Grove,” suggested Hank, but on visiting, Larissa would find the perpetual care promised to be not so perpetual.  “Look at these weeds growing in the grass,” she would say.  “Look at these dead flowers no one has taken the time to freshen up on these grave sites.”  And, “Can you believe the tree roots that are dislodging those grave stones.  You would think they would care enough about the dead to cut down that silly thing!” she said in an exhausted voice, putting her gardening sheers away.

One weekend, Hank and Larissa drove nearly a hundred miles to see a  promising plot in the Oakhewn Cemetary in the town of Chambersbourg.  Guarded by two lovely oaks at the entrance, the cemetery’s white limestone grave markers glistened like whitecaps in the open water as the sun assaulted the green and white landscape. “Well it certainly does make an impression coming in,” said Larissa as if commenting on a grand stairway in a house.  As they walked around the cemetery and looked at various graves, they finally came to the plot that Hank was told was available.  Larissa seemed to be less impressed than Hank after a while. “Yes, Hank,” Larissa agreed, “Oakhewn cemetery is nicely maintained.  But you know the plots that we saw were near the Jewish section of the cemetery.”

Hank, sighed.  “Larissa, those plots were several hundred feet away from the Jewish section and besides, they were in the old historic section of the cemetery. We would be buried near a colonel that served with Teddy Roosevelt from the Spanish American War. These plots are golden, just golden, my dear.”

“No, no, no! These will just never do.  Yes, I like the historic section and yes, it would be nice to be buried near a colonel with presidential ties,” as if she had given this extensive thought in the past.  “But really, I just don’t like the idea of being buried so near those people. Sure I do business with them.  But I don’t live near them nor do I want to rest for eternity in such close proximity.  Your gravesite is like your neighborhood.  It should be filled with people you like.  No, I want to be with my own people.”

“You did invite the Goldbergs to your Christmas Party last year, dear,” Hank said triumphantly.

“First Hank, I invited them because Moises Goldberg works at the bank where I closed three deals last year.  Second of all they didn’t even come,” said Larissa. Then she said more quietly, “so inconsiderate.”

Hank sighed and began his usual whistle in the sound of the three quarter hour Westminster chime while walking back to the car. “Hank. What did I tell you!  If you whistle in the cemetery you’ll summon the devil.”  Hank shrugged his shoulders and walked on.

Hank continued to look for cemetery plots and for nearly a year. Hank and Larissa travelled out of town nearly every Sunday to cemeteries.  Country cemeteries, urban cemeteries, public cemeteries, family cemeteries, veterans cemeteries, municipal cemeteries, religious cemeteries (except for Jewish cemeteries of course). They even switched denominations, all within the Christian faith of course, just to see whether they would enjoy being buried next to their religious decedents to broaden their options.  But alas, nothing seemed to fit.

It so happened that Hank came across an ad in the paper one week that warranted a call.  “Marital Plot with Perpetual Care in Reading’s Olde Towne Historic Cemetery.  Call for appointment.”  Hank Called.

“Hello, Thomas Percy Walker, eternal care realtor at your service.”

“Hello.  We are looking for a plot for two people. I saw your Olde Towne listing.  It’s just that my wife is particularly…let’s just say, particular.”

“Oh yes sir, I understand.  I’ll tell you what.  I have several different options that I could show you.  If you can meet for brunch on Sunday, I can find out what you are looking for and see if I can help you.”

So Sunday came and Hank and Larissa woke up at 5:30 AM to drive two hours and meet Thomas Percy Walker at one of the finest brunch restaurants in the town of Reading.  Wearing a brown seer-sucker suit and bow-tie, Thomas walked in, carrying a brown portfolio under one arm, and a bouquet of daisy’s in the other.  “Why, here you are madam.”

“For me?” Larissa said, surprised by the kind gesture.  What she noticed more was that after his hands were free, he tipped his hat, and bowed his head.  “Well now that’s a gentleman a lady can trust.”

“Well now, you don’t even know me yet,” said Thomas. “I could be the most untrustworthy person here.”

“A lady knows good people.”

“Well, shall we sit?”

They sat at the square private booth and Thomas placed his leather bound portfolio on the table.  “Now I’m not sure what I’m going to show you will be exactly what you are looking for, but I can get an idea of what types of amenities you have in mind.”

“As someone in a similar line of work,” commented Larissa looking skeptically, “I always found it was important to understand your client before trying to show them properties.”

“I couldn’t agree with you more,” said Thomas.  “Now this one is a fine set of plots near an older church property.  The building is a historic one, but the gravesites are not all that old – early part of the last century, though a few date to the previous century.  Millhaven Lawn has become one of the more popular places to be buried in the county.”  He passed the portfolio to Larissa and Hank who flipped studiously through the pictures of the cemetery.

“The Nuevo dead,” Larissa smirked.  “It looks nice but they are all so uniform.   Are the cemetery plots all arranged so similarly?”

“Yes ma’am. That is one of the features of Millhaven Lawn. Everyone is the same in the after-life they say.”

“Well that’s just not true!  I believe in heaven and hell for a reason and I can tell you where I belong,” said Larissa with conviction.

“I can’t agree with you more,” said Thomas.  “I don’t judge what others believe, I just show the properties.  But I can certainly tell you are a lady of impeccable taste.”

“Well you shouldn’t judge what someone else may be or want, especially when they know for themselves who they are.  But I wouldn’t expect you to.  You are a professional and a gentleman at that.  Impeccably trustworthy!” Larissa said.

“Now this one is a bit different.  It’s more of an older traditional family burial plot, but you’ll have to be buried along side another family,” Thomas said cautiously. “This cemetery is the most exclusive and would be an excellent place to spend eternity.”

“Now that’s intriguing.  Who is this family we would be buried next to?” Larissa asked.

“That’s the thing that may make this plot unattractive.  The reason the plot is available is that the family remaining behind has hit hard times and found themselves unable to keep up the perpetual care agreement with the cemetery.  The cemetery has foreclosed on the plots to make up for the maintenance costs necessary to keep the Historic Chamber-Felt Grove Cemetery beautiful.”

“Absolutely not!” Larissa said.  “I refuse to be buried in a foreclosed plot next to the family of scoff-laws who do not pay their bills. I mean Hank, those people could be visiting us!” she said, sounding repulsed.

“I completely agree with you madam.  It’s the worst kind of human being, the one who doesn’t plan appropriately.  After all, one never knows if your kin will care for you in the same way that you deserve.  That’s why I guarantee to see to every grave I sell myself.  Perpetual care is a part of my service.”

“Oh my.   That is very comforting.  And I couldn’t agree with you more,” said Larissa.  “Our children, bless their souls are too burdened being successful to worry with taking care of us, isn’t that right Hank.”

Hank pulled his attention away from the midcentury Sears and Roebuck Wall Clock with its deep teak wood brown starburst pattern and elongated numerals that marked the hours, and gave a slight nod as if he agreed.

“OK!  We are agreed that there should be no nouveau-riche and no deadbeats buried near your plot.”

“I would think that would be obvious just looking at me,” said Larissa “but as a professional I know you can’t make assumptions.”

“Entirely right my fine lady.  Now, I have one more to show you and I think this one will be exactly what you’re looking for.  It’s a historic cemetery here in Reading.  Its on the national registry of historic places and has several plots that date back to before the Revolution.”

“Before the Revolution,” Larissa exclaimed, catching Hank’s attention from the Sears and Roebuck clock ticking against time on the wall.  “I must see this plot,” Larissa exclaimed.

“Well, as luck would have it, I can show you the plot today!”

The three paid the check and decided to ride together to the Reading Historic Cemetery, nearly two hours away.  Larissa fidgeted with excitement, and told Hank to be sure to bring some paper to write down the names of the persons surrounding the plot.  Hank fiddled with the car clock, trying to get the time precisely to the minute that it should be.

They arrived at the Cemetery and it was as majestic as Thomas’s photos portrayed.  Positioned just off of the historic down town district, the cemetery overlooked Reading Bend, with oak and sycamore trees shading the eternal resting spots of those surrounding them.  The family plots were decorated with a variety of tombstones – obelisks, mausoleums, statuary, and tombstones littered the landscape in a tapestry of gray and limestone that gave brilliant life to the tediously cared for grass and shrubbery surrounding the graves.  They pulled the car through to a plot just at the back of the cemetery near the old river bend where benches provided ample seating for mourners and visitors alike.

“This is just beautiful,” cried Larissa.  “I think this is it.”

“Well now, let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” said Thomas.  “You must see the plot itself.  The best is yet to come.”

“Truly a professional of the highest order,” Larissa said, admiring Thomas’s reserve.

“Here we are,” said Thomas, pulling up to an empty plot, marked by the freshly piled dirt on the ground before a rectangle outline.  “As you can see, your neighbors would be several persons from Long-River’s past, three of which are identified on the Long-River National Historic Grave Registry.”

“That means they get visitors often,” said Larissa to Hank, who’s attention was turned to the tall brick and stucco façade clock tower downtown, with its four cream and rust dripped faces that pointed east, west, north and south. “Oh I love these plots,” said Larissa.  “They are even near one of the oldest plots in the entire cemetery.  How much for these?”

“Well, you haven’t even tried it out.  Don’t you want to lay down in it to see if you’d be comfortable for all eternity?”

“You know you’re right.  I do plan to make this my final resting spot.  It sure better be comfortable,” Larissa said.  She kneeled down carefully, so to avoid her dress lifting inappropriately, and gently grabbed the side of the grave and lowered her legs down gently until she was hanging on the side.  Then with one umpf, she dropped the remaining foot and a half down to the bottom of the grave.  “Hmmm, this is roomier than I thought it would be, she said out loud.”

“You do have to remember its large enough for two of the finer, more elegant coffins,” said Thomas.

Larissa laid down folding her arms over her chest.  “Why this certainly feels right.  Hank.  Hank.  Come lay down next to me.  Come join me in our forever home.”

Hank was nowhere to be found.  He had wandered off, allured by the sounds and sights of the town square clock ringing in the distance.   “Thomas, Thomas, help me out Thomas!  I would like to talk to you and Hank about buying these plots.”

Thomas, looked down, his eyes unclear creating a look that masked the color and the comfort from a gentleman’s eyes.   “Don’t worry about coming out of there now, my dear.  Just stay comfortable for a while, we can talk from here.”

“Well, ok,” said Larissa, not seeing any other choice.  She thought as she moved from sitting, to laying down, to standing and looking up, “I can’t believe I didn’t see this coming.  I mean this is the oldest trick in real estate.  You take the person to the home, you get them comfortable and then convince them there is no way other than for them to have this particular place to live.”  But then as she lay there, she thought, “Thomas wouldn’t do that though.  He is a gentleman and a professional!”  Thoughts continued to roll through Larissa’s head: “I cant believe I may have fallen prey to a realtor’s emotional ploylook at the beautiful sunset over the riverwhere is Hank for gracious-sake; I bet people will think we are related to that Colonel Brisby that we saw two graves over; it sure is getting dark now, and a bit cool, I should probably remember to be buried in something warm; where did Thomas go and where is Hank!” 

After a few hours of fluctuating about how grand her after-life would be in this three-by-six foot plot and vexing about how Hank could just wander off and leave her stuck in a grave, Larissa cried out: “Thomas, I think I am ready to sign off on this one.”  Thomas appeared again, as if from nowhere above her, wearing denim overalls and pulling a bottle from his hip pocket, and holding a shovel in his left hand.   “Wonderful news Larissa. This grave is yours now.  I just need a single payment of one digit.”

“Wonderful,” said Larissa. “If you help me out, I will certainly get Hank and we can pay you.”

“Oh, there is no need for that my dear.  We can take care of this transaction right now.  I just need you to cut off your ring finger.  I keep them as the promises I’ve made to my clients to tend their graves. And their promises to be good neighbors to each other.”

“My ring finger?” said Larissa. “With what am I supposed to do that with?  Not to mention, what am I supposed to do without a ring finger?”

“Oh, you don’t need a ring finger my dear.  That’s the most useless of all the fingers.  It’s only good for promises.  And what better promise is there than the one I am making now – that I will take care of you for all eternity.  Besides, all your neighbors have given up their ring fingers to me.  It’s our pledge to one another to take care of each other. Now my dear, if you would be so kind as to snip off that finger, we can finish this deal.”

“Well, this is absurd.  I’ve never heard of such a thing.  Who are you?”

“I’m just a simple agent.  A proprietor of good will for the after-life.  Some say an attender of death. And here at Reading’s Historic Cemetery, I am the keeper of promises – but I assure you, I have many promises.  In fact I have over thirty promises I keep, measured long and stubby by the fingers I hold.”

Larissa saw Thomas’s eyes clearly for the first time and realized that the plot was becoming more and more hers as every minute went by.  She dipped her head and asked up to Thomas “Can’t we bargain about this?”  But her voice, betraying her, anticipated Thomas’ reply: “What’s left to bargain for my dear.  Why, I think we have taken all of the normal preliminaries.  Did I miss something?”  Larissa, having never sold a cemetery plot couldn’t think of anything.  “No, I suppose that we did cover everything.”  What was more, Thomas’ sincerity of tone suggested that the transaction concluded exactly the way he intended. And while she wondered about his choice of payments, a feeling of admiration came over her.  “He is the utmost professional in his dealings,” she thought.  “No emotion, fear!”  

Taking the knife Thomas tossed to her deep in the grave, she began to saw off her finger, crossing between the agony of losing something she always had, the pain of the metal crossing flesh and bone, and thinking this surely was the most bizarre transaction she’d ever done.  But then she also remembered that several times she would tell her clients that good blood sometimes cost a few digits.  Of course, she was talking about houses, neighbors and dollars.  She never imagined she might be paying her own digit to reside near good blood.

Finished with her finger cutting, Larissa tossed the finger and the knife up to Thomas who said, after taking another drink, “it sure was a pleasure doing business with you.”  Then he said to her, “if you will most kindly lay down and hold these daisies,” and Thomas tossed her the daisy bouquet he had handed her hours before.

“Well that’s absurd.  Of course when I go, I won’t be holding daisies in the after-life, such a common flower its practically a weed.  I’ll be holding lilies like the Lillie of the valley. Besides” Larissa said, “we just finished the deal. Help me out of here!”

“Not just yet,” said Thomas.  “We need a final measurement to ensure the coverage is adequate. Now if you please just remain very still.” Larissa laid back down holding the daisies over her chest, thinking to herself: this is just so distasteful — pretending to be buried with a flower so unrepresentative of who I am.  Really!” And Thomas began burying Larissa. As the dirt thumpf’d upon Larissa’s chest and covered her light blue dress, Larissa caught a few glimpses of the shiny shovel spade against the white moon, until her body, stained with blood from her hand and holding the daisies over her chest was completely covered with six feet of dirt.  As she laid there, she thought about “how unprofessional to mock a burial with flowers that were so unbecoming.”

As Hank wondered back to the cemetery, having lost all track of time, he looked in vain for where he thought he left Larissa and Thomas. Instead, all he found were an elderly African-American couple, who looked familiar, as if they’d had tea with him sometime before. The couple stood a few gravesites over laying flowers on a grave of two people long passed. Grasping eight fingers interlocked together, the couple silently wept. Hank walked behind them in the distance and looked down at the gravestone marking the final resting place of Alice and Randall Stowe. In the distance, Hank saw a man in coveralls toting a silver shovel and tending the various gravesites around. As Hank wondered away, calling for Larissa and wondering why she would leave him here, he ignored a greyish head stone underfoot that read “Here lies Larissa Sparks, She Promised to be a good Neighbor.”












Top Ten Books as of 2016 and Ten Books to Read this year Reply

Top Ten plus some hangers on

Top Ten plus some hangers on

Everyone is doing top ten lists.  This the season, I suppose.   But reading over Neil Patrick Harris’s list in the New York times made me think what are my favorites. And how often does that list change.  For me, there was no change from 2015.  That’s not to say I didn’t read some very good books.  Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises came close as did the Flannery O’Connor collection of short stories (while many of her stories would make my all time favorite short stories list, the collection falls just short). Robert Penn Warren’s Democracy and Poetry (which I reread this year) also ranks in the upper echelons but its more a collection of essays than book per se.  Perhaps I need time to marinate on them and my affinity to categories.  But so far, as of this post, nothing I read in 2015 cracked my all time list.  So that said, I am going to list my top ten books of all time here and then list ten books I plan to read for this coming year, some for the second time.

Top ten favorite books:

Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men

Barbara Kingsolver The Poisenwood Bible

Margaret Atwood The Handmaid’s Tale

Fydor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

Fydor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment

Louis Menard, The Metaphysical Club

Kazoo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day

Saint Augustine, The Confessions

Jean Paul Sartre, The Words

Yann Martel, Life of Pi

Ten Books to Read

Homer’s, The Odyssey*

James Joyce, Ulysses

Ernest Hemmingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls

Margaret Atwood, The Heart Goes Last

Richard Ellman, Yeats: The Man and the Masks

Upton Sinclair, The Jungle*

John Kennedy Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces*

Tom Wolfe, Bonfire of the Vanities*

Theresa of Avilla, The Interior Castle

Flannery O’Connor, Prayer Journal

* indicates that I have read these before (perhaps they will make the all-time cut in 2016). 

What books make your top ten list and what are you planning to read in 2016?

Telling Stories of being human Reply


Nathaniel Philbrick’s history of the whaling ship the Essex is complex. Its complex in the sense that modern historical narrative is complex — filled-in with more details about the details than the narrative itself.  Maybe that in itself should tell us something.  Perhaps there is substance beyond the surface of the story that calls us to the whale ship’s story some 190 years later. The whale ship essex is about far more than survival.  Its the story about being human in an age where humanness was defined by sharp boundaries. Those boundaries included the color of one’s skin, the identity of one’s religion, and the status one held in community.  All of these and much more emerge in Philbrick’s telling of the Essex.

The overall narrative is fairly straight forward.  The whaling ship Essex set out from Nantucket Massachusetts with a cast of characters fit for a shakespearean play.  There was the youngish 28 year old Captain at his first command who isn’t as sure of himself as his position might demand. At his side was his ambitious first mate who comes off more nautical book-smart than sea-smart; he also seems more fortuitous whether by destiny or sheer force of will, thus making his name — Owen Chase — a name that seems right at home.  Also on board was the young cabin boy Nickerson who’s memory plays a vital role in Philbrick’s retelling of the Essex, but who otherwise is rather inconsequential to the ship’s fate.  There are the dumbshows that emerge from time to time, whether they are the Captain’s cousin or the three shipwrecked sailors that remain on a deserted island.  And there is of course, the whale that delivers fatal blows to the whale ship, setting her crew loose on the high seas in three small whale boats and few supplies.  If you watched the trailer to the movie based on Philbrick’s book, one might come away with the impression that the whale is the main character of the story.  While the whale is certainly the antagonist that sets the Essex’s crew adrift in smaller whale boats to peril the open waters, Philbrick’s story is at core a human story.  Its the story of a crew that suffers being separated, finding land that lacked significant water and food, and cannibalism — an eventuality of survival  where so many shipwrecked persons tend to turn.

Much has been made of the connections between the Whaleship Essex and  Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.  Indeed, much has been written of late by numerous writers, including the Smithsonian Magazine, this review in the Telegraph, and the National Oceanic Atmospheric Association’s discussion of whether Moby Dick was a real whale.  To this end, Philbrick’s history is like all the others — connecting a writing that is so American to its context and creating a greater appreciation of Melville’s layers of complexity in Ahab’s pursuit.  As Philbrick suggests, perhaps the Ambitious Owen Chase’s single-minded pursuit was to bring the whale that did in the essex to justice after obtaining his own command.

But as I said before — Philbrick’s work is not about a whale, but rather about the Humans after the Whale.   What may be more interesting is the way men live after coming to the brink of living as non-men.  The tale is certainly not unique.  Edgar Allan Poe placed this question at core of his only novel The Narrative of Authur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, describing the anguish which four shipwrecked sailors consider the possibility of cannibalism.  Yann Martel described the story telling capacity of humans to explain cannibalism. And court cases that have dealt with the legalities of the act have considered how legal structures deal with those accused.  It is in this tradition, more than any other, that Philbrick’s work should be considered.  Indeed, there are other books and works on whaling in the nineteenth century.   But to explain how humans return from being non-human, Philbrick endeavors to live where very few have endeavored to exist.

In Poe’s The Narrative of Author Gordon Pym of Nantucket, Poe’s cannibalism story is quite small.  After the crew of his unlucky vessel are shipwrecked and survivors are cast in boats, the Pym and his ship mates running low on food and water begin to wonder whether they should look to each other.  The narrator’s initial instinct is to reject the possibility.

“I had for some time past, dwelt upon the prospect of our being reduced to this last horrible extremity, and had secretly made up my mind to suffer death in any shape, or under any circumstances rather than resort to such a course.  Nor was this resolution weakened by the present intensity of hunger under which I belabored.”

The narrator makes plain that his plan was to avoid resorting to this type level of survival no matter the pain.  Yet, its the urging of his comrades that brings him into the fold of those that would cast lots for who survived and eat the unlucky sailor.  The sailor wants to make plain — its the act of the community that causes this action, not the act of the individual.  Thus, at first forced to participate, and then convinced to acquiesce to this type of plan.  Yet, when time comes to satisfy the hunger and thirst through the fallen man, our narrator says little.

He made no resistance whatever, and was stabbed in the back by Peters, when he fell instantly dead.  I must not dwell upon the fearful repast which immediately ensued. Such things may be imagined, but words have no power to impress the mind with the exquisite horror of their reality.  Let it suffice to say that, having in some measure appeased the raging thirst which consumed us by the blood of the victim, and having by common consent taken off the hands, feet and head, throwing them together with the entrails, into the sea, we devoured the rest of the body piecemeal, during the four ever memorable days of the seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth,and twentieth of the month.

Perhaps this is not so unusual.   I have said in other places that the most human thing we do is tell stories to one another.  Our stories and culture elevate humans above other creatures of the earth because through hem we create a collective memory — a memory that is moral, moving and rational.  Its not surprising that Poe’s narrative would spend more time discussing the decision of whether and how to go about this act, where rationality and morals remain in one’s grasp.  But after the decision is made, there is little to say, save the few strands of redemption that one might cling to, such as removing the markers of humanness from the victim’s body. The sailors of the Essex when they engaged in cannibalistic acts also detached the heads, hands and feet of their comrades so as to separate the humanness that once was, from the sustenance that remains.  But to talk about it  — to tell stories about what happened — that most human of activities — perhaps reveals the inhuman act that took place.  Perhaps some things can’t be retold.

Captain Pollard of the Essex seems to have the opposite approach.  According to Philbrick, Pollard tells what happened in detail, as if reaching beyond the grave to recapture some aspect of humanness — from either himself or his fallen sailors.  These questions are not unique.  Poe wrestled with these questions in the context of a shipping culture and suggests like in his other works that morals and choices do not require delving into a moral oblivion — they are far more simple. You are human or you are not, and when you’re not, then why should we expect you to act like a human — like telling stories.

The Narrative of Author Gordon Pym of Nantucket like the Essex conjures other real life events.  In a manner that only Poe is able to achieve, there is mysticism, mystery and a strange convolution of time, since the events that are most related to Poe’s narrative take place nearly 60 years after the novel was published.  (I’m not joking).  Its not just the tale of cannibalism (apparently a not so uncommon occurrence for shipwrecked persons on the high seas) or the means in which it occurs (casting lots was also not so uncommon) but rather the name Richard Parker who in both Poe’s novel and in the case R. v. Dudley and Stephens, is the loser of the lots and confined to death and a cannibalistic faith.

Many rationales are given in the Dudley and Stephens case, including that the act was inconsequential (the boy would have died soon anyway); necessity (that not doing so would have doomed the others); futility (that there was no prospect of hope or survival anyway, so, in other words, why not). But non of these questions answer the question that Poe and Martel are seemingly trying to understand — if so, then what can we say about ourselves.  For Poe, the answer seems to be nothing.  For the courts, the answer is in its utility or lack there of.

There is another voice.  Yann Martel asks the question in the context of a more complicated culture, where humanness can be described through different stories with different strands.  Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, another story about a shipwreck where the main protagonist is confined to a cannibalistic route for survival, forces us to consider the role of humanness and story telling in a far more straight forward manner. But unlike the Essex, or Poe’s Narrative of Author Gordon Pym, Martel talks at length about being eaten — the fear, the observation, and the ultimate act.  Except that in Martel’s novel, the cannibalism is disguised in allegory and allusion, where those that cannibalize and those that are cannibalized are reimagined as animals.  When pressed to explain how the narrative with the animals may be true, the protagonist tells a different story with his family and some crew in boats and one by one being subjected to cannibalism. Then the boy asks his interrogators:

“Which is the better story, the story with the animals or the story without?”

Like Captain Pollard of the Essex, Martel’s protagonist recognizes that to be human is to explain.   But even in explanation, unlike Pollard, Martel’s protagonist struggles to bring the narrative actually alive.   But perhaps what Martel’s protagonist suggests is that there is more than one way to tell the story of being human.   Certainly the protagonist’s background as someone that had dabbled in the religious beliefs of Christianity, Hindu, and Islam, affirming his belief in all three suggests his willingness to find humanness is multiple stories.

Humans ability or inability to tell tales of inhuman things reaffirms the ways in which we do continue to reflect a moral understanding of humanness in our culture.  Perhaps its not the stories we tell that shape the parameters of human culture, but rather the stories we don’t tell.

My Christmas Story Reply

I decided to write a Christmas Story for my daughter this Christmas.   I hope you enjoy it as well. Merry Christmas to all.

The Christmas Tree

We lived in a brown tudor house at the end of Northwood drive.  We celebrated Christmas there every year generally the same way.  On December 15th, the family would pile into the Army-Green Pontiac Sedan — three boys in the back, aged evenly apart between 13 and 17, and me aged 4, to buy the family christmas tree.   My father only bought from the local Lions club — specifically from the Lions club across from the Piccadilly on Forsythe Avenue, not the Lions Club that set up in the local baptist church parking lot, even though it was probably about ten miles closer and 45 minutes with less hollering, crying, and other mischief that happened when three boys aged thirteen to seventeen and a four year old piled in the back of a Pontiac.  But December 15 was the crucial day — if you bought the tree before the fifteenth then the tree would inevitably die (probably because no one could be trusted to keep it watered) and after the fifteenth then there wouldn’t be any good ones left.

We rode to the Lion’s club tree lot on Forsythe, and passed plastic lighted manger scenes, houses with large tear-shaped lights that were colored and magical, and one house that had a raised balcony where the owners had positioned a lighted sleigh and nine reindeer, the first with a bright red nose shining in the dark.   “I see him,”  I remember saying as we turned the corner and the lighted sleigh could be seen.  Every year the Santa sleigh house announced the time to buy our tree like a prophet proclaiming that this year everything would remain the same.  “He’s not real you know,” the thirteen year old said caustically from the middle seat, earning a quick as lighting flash-slap across the cheek bones from my mother followed immediately by a finger held firm in posit1ion exactly two inches from his nose and a look that said in so many words, “Don’t you dare!” and causing a quick retort  in fearful quivering “I meant the plastic one — that’s not the real Santa Claus.”

I didn’t care.   As the youngest bother by nine years, it was rare that I got a window seat in car rides.   I was lucky to get a seat at all frankly, sometimes being consigned to the arm rest between my parents or the bottom floor board at my brother’s feet.  Christmas was a time to soak in the sights and sounds that the rest of the year were deprived of.

We arrived at the Piccadilly and went through the cafeteria line — getting jello and fried chicken and macaroni and a coke at the end of the rail.   My mom would implore me to get some green beans but my father would remind her that it was Christmas and Macaroni was fine. We ate quickly bypassing desert — jello is a salad at the Piccadilly — and crashed out of the door towards the tree lot.  Clinging to my mothers faux-fox jacket and following my father’s march while the other three boys picked up fallen branches from the pathway swatting each other between momentary glances by my mother to make sure all order was right.   Branches would be swished behind their backs or along their sides as my mother would say optimistically “do not swing those branches – you’re going to hurt someone.”  I, looking around from the faux-fox coat, between sequined stockinged legs, watched as branches flew in a chorus across the three bother’s faces and then moved into a resting position as we turned corners bringing mom and dad’s peripheral vision into view.

Father negotiated with the tree seller for about five minutes, looking at a few different trees.   The seller was a slightly over-weight man, wearing overalls and a flannel shirt with the legs tucked into a pair of work boots.   They settled on a tree at the back of the lot paying $32.50 for a 10 foot spruce with flocking, stand, loading and ropes.   The tree seller grabbed the tree like he was a Paul Bunyan and this tree was his last cut of the season.   He threw the tree on a work table made of plywood and saw horses grabbed a chain saw lying nearby.  After two pulls to prime the saw, he fired it up, and held it to the side walking to the tree.   The chain saw was the first instance that the three older brothers attention was peeked.  The second bother moved close at hand and asked the seller if he could give it a try.   My mother jerked him by the shirt collar back and said “not if you want to see Christmas this year you won’t.”   The seller laughed, letting a bit of chewing tobacco escape from his yellow mouthed teeth and turned back to the tree and made a “fresh cut.”  Then he nailed on a wooden “T” with a eight inch spike coming from the top.  Three whacks with a  hammer and a jerk from the middle and the tree was then standing upright on its own.  The sales man then grabbed the tree and drug it over to a tented area.

“What kind of flocking you want on this tree — we got baby blue, white, and pink.”  Mom’s eyes lit up when he said pink, looking at my father hopefully.

“White will be fine,” my father said and my mother was fine with that.  After all who has ever heard of pink snow, or baby-blue snow for that matter.   Christmas was a time for truth and pink snow on a tree was certainly not true.   After-all, it never snowed in the part of Louisiana we lived in so the white-flocked snow christmas tree was as close as we would see a white Christmas.  When he finished, he dropped a larger clear plastic wrap over the tree and drug it to the Pontiac.  With a big hurl he threw the tree on the roof, giving the pontiac a distinct army tank appearance carrying a white Pershing missile on top.  He opened all four doors to tie down the tree to the roof.  We piled in and rode home with the tree, along the way the thirteen year old popping the ropes on the ceiling of the car like a rubber band, and my father in his terse voice saying don’t pop the ropes that hold the tree.  I sat in my window seat watching the lights as we crossed over the river reflecting from the other side — trees, houses, Santa Clauses, manger scenes danced along the river like an orchestrated ballet moving us closer and closer to the time when the Pershing missile on the roof would be be our Christmas tree.

The tree unloaded and the three older boys along with my father began to carry the tree into the house.    The ten foot spruce had the girth of what you imagined a large opera singer to look like.  My father measured and gesticulated at the door for several minutes thinking of the best way to bring the tree into the house.   My mother from the house hollered out “let’s put it in the formal living and dining room — the white tree and my white carpet will be beautiful.”  After studying the problem, my father called out to his helpers — “ok boys, let’s lift it up….  wait, wait, don’t walk in yet… ok bring your end around so… ok hold… you two — walk about three feet towards me…. ok thats good….

“Come on Dad, let’s go already.   This thing is heavy.”

“Hush.  Ok carry your end into the house and walk straight towards the hall way…. hold! hold! stop!  that’s far enough…. ok Y’all turn the stand end around towards me … good good… now all together Innnnnn.

“You boys take off your shoes before you walk that into the formal living area,” mom pleaded as they walked in the door.

“We are holding a ten foot Christmas tree mom!”

“I don’t care what your holding, you take your shoes off before you walk into the formal living area.  That’s white carpet!”

“Mom!  I can’t take off my shoes”  I’m going to drop this tree!”

“Don’t you drop that tree,” my father said from the foyer.

“Here… I’ll untie your shoes for you….”  And mom crawled under the ten-foot tree to each of the boys legs and untied their shoes and grabbed them off their feet moving them out of the way.  The boys then lunged the tree into the formal living area and set it up in the window.

Dad, then went up into the attic and grabbed six brown and bruised boxes, with metal strips where the boxes closed and green twine that held the lids together.  Inside were ornaments that were collected through the years wrapped in paper towels and newspapers.   There was the Mr. and Mrs. Claus ornament lying asleep in bed and Mrs. Claus skiing, and a wooden white frosty the snowman in a sleigh, and a little toy soldier with paint that wore off.  And of course there was the nativity ornaments with three wise men in purple, blue and pink dress, an angel, and the baby Jesus in a manger.   The lights were big tear drop shaped and colorful and wrapped around the tree carefully through wires that were stretched from years of use.  After all the ornaments were placed on the tree and the lights were strung, we threw silver tinsel, that my mom called icicles and strewn in a way that looked natural and organic — at least as organic as a tree with colored lights, white flocking, plastic trinkets and silver strands of shiny paper can look.  But underneath, the real live christmas tree was there, even if covered up.

Over the next few weeks, presents would grow under the tree as Christmas day approached.  Christmas morning we all slept restlessly as we waited for the signal from mom and dad telling us that we could come in the room.  They liked to get up before everyone to take pictures of what Santa had left us all but the truth is that we were always awake long before they started taking pictures.  That morning, the second and third bother would find dueling Dallas Cowboy and Pittsburg Steeler bathrobes, which would begin one of many fights from across the room.  One brother gave the other a baby doll, which sent the second youngest into tears. One of the brothers got a bright red punching bag. I found an electric racetrack and a castle Greyskull set that only Santa knew I wanted.   After the turmoil of opening the presents, we would all get dressed and pile into the Pontiac for Christmas at my grandmothers house, which included a piñata of candy — which was really a pillow case full of candy that one of my Uncles held on a ladder and dropped ceremoniously for all the cousins to scavenge.

That night we would return to the house and sit in the formal living room for only the third time that year looking at the tree that was now bare underneath.   In a few days, the white flocking would begin to fall to the white carpet with brown needles sprinkled around the tree’s perimeter and we would drag the tree to the curb, less careful for how it went out than how it went in.  A few weeks after that we would have a massive snow fall — the only snowfall I remember from my Childhood and a rare one for North Louisiana— and a few months after that we would move from the brown tudor home at the end of Northwood drive to a new town where I spent the rest of my childhood.   That was the last year we bought a live tree.



What Robert Penn Warren Might Say about Go Set a Watchman Reply


Earlier this month, I joined several other posters at the Faculty Lounge providing thoughts on Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman.  I commend the whole series to you but in case you are interested in what RPW might have said, I have reposted that entry here.  Enjoy!

I’ve always thought Harper Lee’s themes and styles in To Kill a Mockingbirdclosely resembled some of Robert Penn Warren’s themes relating to the South. Namely, as I have written in other places, in early to mid-20th century Southern Literature, black people are often passive persons where things happen to them (notably horribly bad things), and that the response to those things is what makes us believe the characters to be either progressive or non-progressive.   Likewise, in both Warren and Lee’s narratives, the place becomes a character itself.  Both the South and the specific places in the South are alive in both writers’ prose.

That place-centric identity can be characterized as what I have called in other places a form of Southern Exceptionalism. If the American experience is explained by exceptional qualities, then the Southern Experience may be described by a different reference to the past: “defeat, humiliation, and impotence in the face of intractable social problems.”  The south eagerly adopted the idea of American exceptionalism for itself, believing the society to be set apart, unique, and validated by moral superiority.  But as eminent southern historian C. Vann  Woodward’s The Search for Southern Identity argues, time proved that the real southern experience was characterized by “grinding poverty, political impotency, military defeat, racial conflict, and social guilt.”  Sheldon Hackney has argued that Southerners have had to define themselves in opposition to a presumed American norm.  Similarly, Orville Burton contends that the Southerner remains an “other” or “stranger” in the American narrative. For our purposes, Robert Penn Warren embraced the idea that Southerners found themselves looking backward more than forward so to speak – consistently defining themselves, their environment, and their identity against the backdrop of how the exceptional failed in its promise, and the fact that the war was not won.  This is revealed in Warren’s life experience and works. We see similar themes in Lee’s Mockingbird and now Watchman.  

In To Kill a Mockingbird, we tend to resonate towards Atticus because he appears progressive against the backdrop of a non-progressive place and non-progressive people.   The questioning of Bob and Mayella Ewell along with the epic scene where Atticus stands guard over Tom Robinson as a gang of citizens seek to take justice out of the hands of the law gives Atticus the distinctive impression as one of the forward thinking citizens of Maycomb. The reality is that Atticus only appears heroic because the setting and people in it seem to be the opposite. Like Atticus in Mockingbird, Robert Penn Warren’s views of Southern racial politics might appear progressive when compared to other Southern writers at the time.

Warren’s earliest work on the race problem in the South was an essay titled the Briar Patch, which appeared in a collection of essays by 12 Southern Writers titled I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition.  Amongst the essays, Warren appears to be more progressive along side his contemporaries because he can envision a world where segregation does not exist, but rather where Black and White persons might exist in a mutually beneficial society.  He describes the race problem as one stemming from unnatural animosity between black persons and poor whites and engages various thoughts whether the problem was one of market access or political equivalency.   Notably, many of the other writers specifically chided Warren’s views in their essays, believing Warren’s approach to be contrary to the aim of the book’s overall purpose.

Still early Warren may have only appeared progressive.  His views in Briar Patch may be quaintly described as hopefully dismissive – suggesting that the race problem in the South was primarily one of common respect, which would not be resolved by a plan of forced desegregation.   This view seems very similar to Atticus’s views in To Set a Watchman where the natural course of events will take care of themselves.  Like Warren, it seems easy to call Atticus comparatively progressive, especially when set against the backdrop of Maycomb.   And yet, To Set a Watchman leaves us unsatisfied because the former hero of Mockingbirdturns out to be not nearly as progressive as we previously thought him to be.


I think that Warren would greatly relate to both Atticus Finches — the one that appears heroic in Mockingbird and the one that appears less-than-heroic in Watchman.  Warren observed that his view of race was primarily informed by his image of south.  He said “The image of the south I carried in my head was one of massive immobility in all ways, in both its virtues and vices – it was an image of the unchangeable human condition, beautiful, sad, tragic.” Despite changing his views on segregation, one aspect of Warren’s perception of the race problem did not change – its source.  Warren still believed that much of the angst against African Americans stemmed from poor whites that were afraid that Black Mobility meant diminished economic opportunity for white folks.  Warren saw this challenge as one that led to increased violence by poorer white persons who felt isolated by their wealthy white counterparts and black workers looking to obtain a foothold.  Thus Warren wrote in the Briar Patch, “What the white workman must learn… is that he may respect himself as a white man, but if he fails to concede the negro equal protection, he does not properly respect himself as a man.” 

     These views of respect as a foundation for the race problem in the South did not change.   In his book titled Segregation: The Inner Conflict in the South, Warren interviews black and white people around the South in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education, Warren describes this mutual respect not as a market problem (as he did in Briar Patch), but as a moral problem. In a other work titled Who Speaks for the Negro, Warren most directly states his regret for his earlier work Briar Patch, stating he did not realize its racist and seperationist overtones.

If we are comparing the nature of Watchman, we have to point out that Warren’s hypothesis seems a bit myopic.  One of the most interesting tensions in the book is Calpurnia’s supposed transition from loyal worker to disaffiliated and individualized person.  If the Finch’s were the non-white trash as Hank explains to Jean Louise, then labor and race relations were equally at their doorstep even though they may have been caught unawares.  Still, the narrative told through the eyes of Southern Whiteness tells of Calpurnia’s leaving as response rather than individual choice.

 In Warren’s South – there is always a conflict that is prevalent in how choices are made.  This conflict is prevalent in a number of similarities that unfold in the writing of both Lee and Warren.  In both writers’ works, the South and specific places in the South are characters with views that influence how individuals respond.  What Warren might say about Watchman is that Watchman’s Atticus represents one whose views were shaped only by that unique place Maycomb.  I believe Warren would accept the Atticus of Watchman as most believable while wondering how the Atticus of Mockingbird comes about


When King’s Die Reply

Legal fictions abound with contradictions that we all too often overlook.  As law is engaged in a project of narrative-making. Fictions fill gaps between otherwise irreconcilable doctrine and reality.  The best of those fictions will operate subconsciously, as if the law gives effect to the falsehood and animates its life.  But when the fiction is vulnerable to reality — when the law fails to prop up the fictional undertone — then the law becomes vulnerable to attack.  Justice Stevens wrote in a 2014 Law Review that historical myths play a greater role in Supreme Court adjudication than we sometimes recognize, and that sometimes, the court itself is responsible for those myths. (See his excellent essay Glittering Generalities and Historical Myths in the Louisville Law Review).

In Retelling English Sovereignty, I venture to consider how the fiction of Sovereign Immunity  came to the United States — its underlying narratives that animate its life.  From bad kings to incompetent kings, Retelling English Soveregnty traces the doctrine through the concept of the KIng’s two bodies, a mystical understanding of the monarchy’s dualism.  This legal fiction was propped up by other fictions, such as the Corporation Sole, where a collective enterprise was represented by one person as representative of other persons across ages.  See e.g., The Monarchy, Parsons, and the Chamberlain of London.  The article traces legal, political and theological thought across early british writers, including Lord Coke, William Shakespeare, F.W. Maitland, John Locke, Blackstone, Sir Robert Filmer, Thomas Hobbes, Adrian Fortescue, and many more.  It also contextualizes the theology of kingship and the political harmony of revolt, particularly in the narratives of the seventeenth century that gave rise to the regicide of Charles I and the Glorious Revolution.

In this space, I would point to some of the literary moments of the article.  Two I think are of relevance — the contrast of how Shakespeare sees the myth of king-making in good kings, such as Henry V and the irony of the double king, with that of bad kinds, such as Richard II.  Shakespeare’s work on Henry the V provides not only the prose recognition of the duality of the kingship, but the literal physical duality as the king walks about his men in disguise.  During dialogue with his men about whether the king will ransom himself or not, while in disguise, the king suggests that he would challenge the men to a duel to show that the king will be faithful to his word to not be ransomed should he be captured.   In this scene, we see that the king has the luxury of living outside of time that his men don’t have.   While his men may certainly die, and never know the outcome of whether the king indeed ransomed himself, the king himself has the luxury of being twin burned to greatness — subject to the vulnerabilities of an imbecile, while subject to it across time.

Likewise, Shakespeares discussion of Richard II poses a monarch that is not only subject to the imbecility, but who finds himself at odds with the character of a king.   Yet, as Shakespeare’s prose suggests, the blemish’d crown may be redeemed from pawn.  Its time that serves the redemption for the monarchy.   And time that distinguishes the monarchy from other men — its ability to live on without consequence of the actions of one man who holds the crown, while preserving the dignity of the ages.