The lop-tailed white-and-yellow cat prowling the savannas of Sterling College had found prey. A rodenty creature — chipmunk or ground squirrel or whatever the Vermont equivalent of a boomer is — had made the mistake of crossing the lawn behind Madison Dorm while the cat was on guard. Several of us, fresh from environmental writing workshops, paused to watch the interplay.

Across the lush grass, the chipmunk skittered toward an island of ferns and wild plants near the dorm. The cat looked on with whetted attention, eyes focused, ears erect, ready instantly to mount an interception. But it didn’t. The chipmunk reached the sanctuary of the knee-high growth without mishap.

Then the cat began its stalking. It patrolled the edges of the wild bed, peeking over and around the fern stalks, poking its nose under the broad burdock leaves. Occasionally it jumped into the patch, sometimes emerging with the wiggling ‘munk in its mouth. But it always managed to drop the squirrel, which would immediately disappear back into the wild patch. Then the cat would go back to its stalking, delighted — if feline delight can be inferred from alertness and vitality — to be in the hunt again.

Finally the boomer made a break for the dorm. It ran along the foundation, trying to find a chink in the stone, but there was none. Nor would the basement windows open no matter how hard it chunked its small body desperately against the glass. The cat caught up with it and caught it — again and again and again. Occasionally it would issue a peep of pain or protest; sometimes it would stand up defiantly to combat the cat.

Some of the onlookers considered an intervention. For me there were issues with acting: After the rescue, what would we do with the ‘munk, which was already showing signs of injury? Take it to a wildlife ER? What if it escaped only to set up residence in the dorm. Infestations of chipmunks can do major damage to structures. The informal consensus of the crowd was that a cat’s gotta do what a cat’s gotta do.

For all its skill in the hunt, the cat seemed unsure about administering the coup de grace. Catlike it continued to toy with the squirrel, which by this point had taken refuge under its persecutor. Finally, bowed up either from injury or anger, the chipmunk rounded the front corner of the dorm with the cat in close pursuit. The show over, the spectators began to scatter.

***

On more than one occasion, I have made a different choice in these life-and-death dramas.

My father was a beekeeper and honey producer. Our garden was forever full of bee stands , and summers the white clover in the yard was always awash in bees. By the time I was a sixth-grader, I was expected to help move hives and carry supers of honey as needed. Though I hated being stung and was never to be an apiarist, I took pride in Dad’s accomplishments among the bees and felt a marginal level of ownership in the enterprise.

It was in that spirit that I reacted one day when I found a worker bee caught in a strand of spider web in our garage. The strand was old and ragged, not obviously a part of any intricate web, so after checking for any menacing spiders, I decided to free the insect. It was, after all, one of our bees.

First I tried breaking lose some of the surrounding strands, but that didn’t help. Then I decided to put my finger up to the bee to give it a place to stand while I broke the final silk loose. A moment later,the bee was writhing on the floor and its stinger, complete with venom sack, was pulsing in the flesh of my forefinger.

I was stung by the ingratitude. Not only was my finger throbbing, but the dumb bee was going to die anyway — because, unlike wasps and hornets, a bee guts itself when it uses its barbed stinger. My altruistic impulse had accomplished nothing — except maybe to deny an industrious spider its supper. At that tender age, nursing my finger,  I resolved not  to interfere again in the natural order, even on behalf of a family-owned insect.

***

That was a promise I didn’t keep.

Two dozen years later, I found a dirt dauber in the same circumstances as those of the long-dead bee — hung up in an abandoned strand of silk on my parents’ back porch. I thought back to the philosophical pledge of my childhood, but this time I realized there was an important difference: Dirt daubers don’t sting people. They sting spiders, which they load, alive but paralyzed, into the long mud tubes where they lay their eggs. When spring comes, the wasp larvae feed on a meal of living spiders, still fresh thanks to the miracle of suspended animation.

So I looked around for a spider and, seeing none, freed the wasp, as a benevolence from one of God’s well-intending creatures to another. No sooner did the last of the cord fall away than the dauber flew in a beeline to another web further along the porch. There it landed on a fresh web and, as I watched, gave the web a firm shake. When it shook the web a second time, a small spider, hairy like a little terrier, stepped from hiding and advanced boldly to claim its prey.

What happened next had all the choreographed formality of a balletic pas-de-deux. The spider reared back on its hind sets of legs and lifted its front legs to grasp the wasp. In a move that was almost sexual, the dauber squatted over the spider and hunched down on it. The spider wilted visibly, its eight legs drawing up under its body in an arachnine fetal position as the venom took effect. Then, like a mother cat picks up its kitten, the wasp flew off toward its nest with the spider hanging from its mouth.

***

Human beings are “the ethical animal,” in C.H. Waddington’s phrase. Unlike other species, we can act out of altruism, a sense of fairness, a notion of justice, a belief that there are necessary actions that must be taken, even when those actions appear not to be in the best interest of the individual. Among most of us, there is some assumption that this is the way the world itself is structured, that our best wishes are somehow woven into the DNA of all creation, patterned in the structure of atoms, mirrored in the cosmos.

We’re wrong about that.

The cat’s tendency to play with its food, the bee’s impulse to sting when it perceives danger, the intricate dance staged by the wasp and the spider — these have been bred into behavior by the confluence of evolution and circumstance. Free choice does not exist there; nor does gratitude. There are no neutral actions — just neural actions. Each bee that is freed leaves a hungry spider. Each wasp turned loose is a dead spider. Each escaped chipmunk leaves a cat with an unfilled destiny — and belly.

But our impulse to interfere, our tendency to read human values and motives into natural events and circumstances — these are part of our makeup as human beings. As much as the cat is instinctively a stalker and a toyer, we are evolutionarily determined to make self-conscious, anthropomorphic value judgments. We, too, have no freedom. We see through human eyes and add a patina of human values to the situations that present themselves to our awareness. That is the state of our being. We can do no other.

***

A few moments after the cat disappeared in pursuit of the chipmunk, one of my fellow workshoppers came around the corner of the dorm and spooked both cat and ‘munk into the open lawn again. A cat lover herself, she addressed the feline: “We can’t have that.” It looked up at her, and the chipmunk used that instant of inattention to scamper up a nearby maple, leaving the cat on the ground looking up the tree.

Wildbranch Writing Conference

Sterling College

Craftsbury Common, Vermont

07 June 2007

I’m linking to a couple of my pieces that have drawn interest from my friends in the past.

My First Ax Murder is memoir that draws on my earliest days as a reporter in the Sevier County of the 1970s. It is as true as I can remember it and shows the impact covering this crime had on my perceptions of the world. It also points up just how much both journalism and policing have changed in the last 40 years.

By contrast, In Case of Rapture is pure fiction. Set in the Holston River country that I rambled during college, it explores what people might feel if the Rapture actually occurred and they were not taken. Personally, I’m not especially worried about the End Times (other than my own), but the notion let me explore competing feelings about faith. Southern Protestant Christianity has been the background noise of my life and is for most of the stories I write.

Both pieces were first published in The Southern Reader an ezine published by my journalist friend and former competitor David Skinner, now of Greater Atlanta.

Bravo!

Posted: September 23, 2015 in Disability
Tags: , ,

Being useful was not on my mind when I pulled up in front of the Norwood Public Library one Saturday afternoon early in November. My plan was to go inside to write for a couple of hours while I waited for Tiffany to foof my daughter’s do at a nearby beauty shop. But with a hot cup of coffee in hand and a sign on the door that wouldn’t let me take it inside, I decided to hunker down in the van and sip away till I got my money’s worth.

Soon I noticed I had company. Across Merchant Drive a man was waiting for the KAT bus. Good luck with that on a IMG_0137_2Saturday, I thought, and focused on staying awake long enough to down my coffee. Then something I heard made me look at the guy again.

“I need a ride.” He seemed to be entreating the passing cars.

I looked at him a little more closely. Young. A big man, cream-colored sweatshirt and pants, the kind of outfit that obese people often wear when they can’t afford the big & tall stores.

“I need a ride!” He had begun to move into traffic, trying to flag down the passing cars. That’s never a smart move on Merchant Drive, and it was my first clue. I thought for a moment about calling the police, but I stood up out of the car and yelled to him, “Where are you going?”

“Home.” His voice was almost lost in the traffic. That was the second clue, and all I needed.

“I’ll take you,” I yelled. He started toward me. “Stay over there.”

I fired up the minivan, crossed the street, and pulled into the parking lot beside him.

“Where are you going?”

“Home. I’m going to be late for work.”

“Where’s home?”

He pointed down Clinton Highway toward downtown Knoxville and climbed in. I helped him buckle up, and in a remarkably small voice for such a big guy, he gave me minimal directions, pointing the way through the I-275 gap in Sharp’s Ridge and off at the first exit.

I learned that he worked in the back kitchen of Bravo!, a swanky Italian restaurant on Bearden Hill; that he had been working there three weeks; that he had gone to Central High School; that he had to be at work in two hours.

“How will you get to work tonight?”

“Bus. They run every hour.”

He guided me to a modest house on a modest side street in North Lonsdale. I let him out in the driveway.

“Thanks.”

“Sure.”

I watched him in the door, then drove back to the library.

When I posted this story to Facebook a few minutes later, it provoked considerable comment. Many of my FB friends and acquaintances praised me for being a good guy. Several thanked me for a compassionate response they would not have made to a stranger. Several women said they just could not do that.

The praise was a little overblown — all of us can surprise ourselves with the unpremeditated compassion that seizes us sometimes. And there were calculations of risk that had to be made. The women who wouldn’t do it made the right calculations for them. If the young man had been a young woman, I might have looked for another way to help, but I would not have offered her a ride. And the young man should not have accepted a ride from a stranger. But at one point or another we all must risk depending on the kindness of strangers.

The clue that triggered my own risk-taking was his simple answer — “Home.” Not “over in Lonsdale” or “a couple of miles from here” but the bare word, as if everyone knew where his home was and it needed no further elaboration. His unsophisticated answer marked him as someone with an intellectual innocence that permeated everything he was. It put me on notice that, just for those few minutes, he needed my help, my care.

I thought that was all the story, but I was wrong.

IMG_0136_3Weeks later, in December, Emalie and I were caught out in Bearden doing late Christmas shopping, so we stopped in at Bravo! It’s a bustling, immaculate place with excellent pastas and an eager staff.

After our plates were delivered, when the server checked on us, I decided to ask. Given the uncertainties of disability and employment, I thought it unlikely that my rider was actually still working at the restaurant.

“Do you have a big guy who does something back in the kitchen? I met a guy who said he works here.”

She paused. “Is he ‘special’?”

Normally I bristle at that word, but I knew she was trying to be tactful about something she wasn’t sure how to say. I nodded.

“Oh, yeah! Tony!” She brightened when she called his name. “He rolls the silverware for us.” She gestured at a tray of napkin rolls nearby. “All the servers give him two dollars a shift for helping out. He’s great. Why?”

Briefly I told her about giving him a ride and being curious about whether he was holding down the job.

We were getting ready to go when Kate, the manager, came to the table.

“So you gave our guy a ride?”

“Yes.”

“We really appreciate it.”

“I was glad to. I just wanted to know how it was going with him.”

Kate told us that he had come looking for the job without any placement help, though a job coach now looks in on him from time to time. When he can’t get to work by bus, he gets a ride from family. Kate was impressed with him from the start.

“I knew when I talked to him that there were things in the restaurant he couldn’t do, but I had this feeling about him. There was just something . . . so I asked our other managers to take a chance.”

Since Kate hired him, the restaurant has found him invaluable.

“He works hard. He is always eager to learn new ways to help out. Thanks again.”

She laid the bill on the table and left. When we went to pay it, we discovered it was comped.

Bravo! 1DA02A7B-0D87-43F0-ADDB-0D82EEB829CC

“Practice random acts of kindness.” That bumper sticker wisdom has been popular for a couple of decades. Do some unexpected good for a passerby. Surprise the person with a little unmerited good fortune — a modicum of grace, a crumb of compassion. The recipient will appreciate it and feel better about the world, and you’ll feel better about yourself. It’s a comforting philosophy.

You might think of my deed that way — impulsive, probably not wise, but sweet in a gentle way. And without premeditation, Emalie and I received a payback — an excellent meal, on the house.

Random acts of kindness are good as far as they go, but they don’t go far. Meeting the basic needs of a broken world requires organization, a system, and — most importantly — the courage to take a risk.

The real good here is that a man of limited abilities wanted to work, wanted it so badly that he summoned up the courage to seek the job. In a society that largely ignores the economic and human potential of people with disability, that was a heroic act. Then he committed himself to endure all the complicating logistics of getting there — even to the point of hitching a ride with a stranger.

He was fortunate to meet a restaurant manager who had hired people with disabilities in the past and who had the courage of her instincts, to risk hiring a worker who might not fit the mold of all the bright young kids she usually hires but who showed his own kind of promise. Her reward was a valuable employee, a reliable worker who could provide needed services.

And my rider got what he wanted, what we all want — a place to fit in, a way to be of use, a means of providing for oneself.

Bravo!

UPDATE: In May 2015, both Tony and Bravo! won Spirit of the ADA awards from Knoxville’s Disability Resource Center and were honored at a 25th anniversary celebration of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act on Market Square in Knoxville. Since then Tony has trained another worker with a disability to work with him, and Kate is exploring how Bravo! might hire workers who are on the autism spectrum.

From my column in the Hard Knox Independent . . .

Wednesday morning’s media brought the horrific news that terrorists had invaded the headquarters of a French satirical newspaper and systematically gunned down 12 people. Ten members of Charlie Hebdo’s creative staff were killed, as were two police officers on duty to protect the staff from just such threats.

Later news dispatches reported that three men shouting Islamist religious slogans were being sought for the shootings, which were seen as revenge for insulting cartoon portrayals of Muhammed published in Charlie Hebdo.

The people of France responded with anguish and outrage. They gathered by the thousands, and very quickly buttons were produced that proclaim “Je suis Charlie” — “I am Charlie” — in solidarity with the slain journalists and the ideals of respect for creativity and freedom of expression. It’s not clear what effect this backlash will have on the complex religious and geopolitical forces at play in France and the world, but that expression of identity with the victims has a power and focus that will ensure the martyred journalists become models for writers and cartoonists everywhere.

The slaughter brought some of us up short — especially those in Knoxville who are launching alternative papers in the wake of the demise of Metro Pulse. As we at the Hard Knox Independent sweat publishing strategies and work up stories that will give you new knowledge and insights about our town, it’s astonishing to think that what we do might prompt someone to take violent action against us for what we think and write and say. We will be using some of the same tools — reportage, humor, illustration, satire, courage, irreverence — that put the staff of Charlie in the crosshairs of terrorists who would kill to silence free expression. Our fellow journalists/friends who are working up a competing weekly must be feeling the same disconnect.

Of course, as citizens and as journalists, we can take comfort in the fact that our freedoms of press, expression, assembly and religion are enshrined in the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution. We’re free to collect and publish information, to speculate, to ridicule, (even to make up stuff) without fear of violence against ourselves.

Or are we?

It’s been less than seven years since a man armed with a sawed-off shotgun and driven by a terrorist ideology invaded a children’s Sunday service at Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church, shot dead two churchgoers and wounded half a dozen more. His stated purpose was to kill anyone with a liberal ideology, and his gospel was a collection of books by conservative talk-show hosts whose words egged him on to violence and murder. The courage of unarmed church members stopped him before he could fire more than two of the 70-odd shotgun shells he had brought to use on the congregation. He is spending the rest of his life in a Tennessee state prison.

So we may not be safe after all. And that’s an important lesson.

We are all martyrs in the making. Daily, in little bits and pieces, we sacrifice our lives for the things we believe in. Our newspaper. Our government. Our kids or our career. The Big Orange or some other religious organization. Only we as individuals can decide the value of our sacrifice, whether what we will inevitably die for is worth the cost. As the staff of Charlie Hebdo tragically reminds us — we are all Charlie.

“I’m glad I can eat that,” the man said, looking down at the half-eaten chili dog on the counter in front of him. “I think I’ll have two more—go easy on the chili.”

“Two more?” Paul asked. Paul is the proprietor of Riverside Market and Deli.

“Yeah, and I think I’ll try a little slaw on them, if you have any,” he said. “I’m glad I can eat.”

“Why?” Paul asked.

“I finished my chemo two weeks ago, and I’m beginning to eat again.”

I was sitting beside him waiting for my burgers to go. I looked him over—40-ish plus or minus, trim, healthy-looking, dressed nicely, a warm attitude. What kind of cancer did you have?

He pointed to the side of his throat. “Skin cancer—on my tonsil.”

Oh, I told him, one of my best friends had a tonsil that was cancerous.

“If he had it on his tonsil, it was skin cancer,” he said. “I noticed a little lump in my neck one day”—he gestures again to his neck—“and decided that wasn’t right.”

In the four months since the diagnosis, he’s had surgery and chemo (and maybe radiation). The treatments suppressed his sense of taste but magnified his sense of smell and left him with raw, extremely sensitive tissues in his throat. Getting back to eating has been tricky, and he still can’t eat foods that irritate his throat.

“The only thing I could taste was banana Popsicles, which is good—that’s all I could eat after the surgery.”

My friend had his surgery eight or ten years ago. The treatments put him through hell.

“If it’s been that long, then he’s over it. There’s a 77-percent cure rate.” He smiled. Paul laid his chili dogs on the counter. I stood up.

Well, in 10 years we’ll be congratulating you on being over it.

“I hope so.” He smiled again. “Happy New Year.”

Happy New Year.

There was one thing missing in the news about random shootings in Seattle and Las Vegas this weekend.

The settings were run-of-the-mill: In Seattle, the killing field was a small Christian college. In Las Vegas, the action moved from a restaurant to a Wal-mart.

The numbers were pretty ordinary: One dead and three injured at the college and five fatalities (including the shooters) in Nevada.

The way the incidents ended fit traditional patterns: At the college, a student monitor armed only with a can of mace and boundless courage stopped the shooter when he tried to reload, giving others a chance to pin him to the ground. In the Wal-mart, the couple killed themselves after gunning down two police officers eating lunch and one bystander in the retail store.

The reasons were the usual: The Seattle gunman had psychiatric problems, and the couple thought they were starting a “revolution.”

The ONLY missing element: Where were the concealed-carry advocates?

You know, the ones who rabidly insist that their sidearms can put a stop to such carnage before it begins? Maybe they all slept in. Or maybe they lack the courage of one lone, unarmed student. Or maybe — just maybe — their premise is wrong.

Maybe — when our consumer society is flooding our nation with unprecedented fire power for anyone who has the money to buy it — one or two random deaths are the price we pay for our misinterpretation of the Second Amendment. After all, in a public setting, at least one innocent citizen has to die before we can tell whether this is just a bunch of upstanding Texans treating their assault rifles to lunch or a “crazy” aiming to go into the history books as a mass murderer. We can’t know until the trigger is pulled and the first victim falls.

Americans love to gamble. They have turned funding education into a lottery. A handful of folks get tremendous payouts. A bunch of middle-class kids get help with college. And the masses of poor people get juked out of their money.

Now we are transforming the Second Amendment into a lottery — with a difference. Most of us will WIN this game of chance — we won’t be shot in a college classroom building or a Cici’s Pizza or (in my case) a church sanctuary. But the cost of misunderstanding the Second Amendment is death for some of our citizens — random, gruesome death for the victims, unimaginable sorrow for friends and relatives, and an anxiety that eats at the rest of us when we go into public spaces.

Carry permits won’t cure the problem. Increased funding for mental health evaluations and treatment won’t fix it, though God knows it is needed. The only fix is controlling the availability of assault weapons. Even then, there are ways to wreck mayhem on innocent people. But limiting firearm availability is the only way to curtail this gun/power equation that is killing so many people.

UPDATE (10 June 2014) — An Associated Press timeline now indicates that the third victim in Las Vegas was, in fact, a citizen carrying a weapon. He was killed when he attempted to intervene with one of the shooters. His death and the death of the two armed police officers support the main thesis of this post: Our lackadaisical  attitude toward allowing unrestricted access to assault-capable weapons is allowing people intent on violence to get their hands on weapons. Even armed officers are not match for the surprise attack of shooters intent on killing innocent people. As long as the guns are available, the killings will continue.

What I’m about here

Posted: August 26, 2012 in Why this
Tags:

Like a store that sells railroad salvage, this is home to whatever piles up on the loading dock — busted crates of perceptions, unsorted experiences, impressions with missing “to” labels.

Poke amongst the untidy stacks of notions or plow through bins of mental bric-a-brac, and maybe something useful will turn up.