Infinite ~ WindPoem V ~ Native American Flute Meditations, the latest album from C.S. Fuqua in his WindPoem Native American Flute Meditations series, features 68 minutes of meditative and relaxing music, celebrating the Native American flute as a solo and World Fusion music instrument. Nine Native American flute instrumentals and four multi-instrument cuts highlight the versatility of the Native American flute. Please visit https://youtu.be/o7fpRIRIKkg for a five-minute preview of the album.
In keeping with tradition, Infinite‘s instrumentals incorporate nature and other ambient background sounds to complement the Native American flute. In addition, Infiniterepresents an expansion of WindPoemsound with the addition of multiple instruments, including guitar, koto, bass, and more on four of the instrumentals. The remaining nine cuts feature solo and multiple native flutes. A haunting instrumental arrangement of the traditional song “Amazing Grace” closes the album. Infinite features wooden and bamboo Native American flutes custom-crafted by Fuqua.
Fuqua has researched and published extensively on the history, mythology, and crafting of the Native American flute, and has authored The Native American Flute: Myth, History, Craftand the illustrated manual Native American Flute Craft. With a background as newspaper reporter, magazine editor, and author, Fuqua has published widely in nonfiction, fiction, and poetry, with fourteen books currently in print. The first WindPoemalbum was released in 2014. For more information, please visit http://csfuqua.com.
Fuqua is available for presentations the history, mythology, and music of the Native American flute. Presentations are offered free to Las Cruces area public schools and youth organizations. For more more information, please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Native American flutes have always been known primarily as “love flutes” or “courting flutes” and were generally played for no other reason than courting rituals by a young man serenading his intended bride, although some men played them for their wives as a sign of love.
The above statement—paraphrased from an “authentic” Native American flute history and instrument website—is baloney, indicative of the uninformed, misogynistic belief of many, if not a majority, of modern Native American flute fans, crafters, and musicians. Rather than research and discover the flute’s rich background, they’ve adapted the love flute myth as history—that the flute was developed as a courting tool for men only—while ignoring the instrument’s true background and multitude of uses by native people. When confronted with reality, they respond with claptrap like the following halfwitted comment in an online native flute forum: “Granted, everyone had their own traditions and norms about flutes, and I’m sure someone will jump in here and say ‘oh sure, women have always played flute in my tribe.’ But as a generality women were kind of kept off the business end of a flute.”
Sadly, most Americans of both native and immigrant heritage have been brainwashed to believe certain stereotypes and false “history” of early native life, especially that of native women, stereotypes created by early European invaders and perpetuated in magazines, books, and, later, movies. When the native flute’s popularity surged in the mid-twentieth century, accepted stereotypes did what they do best—smothered the instrument’s true history with nonsense.
Before Europeans landed in the New World, native cultures were matriarchal and celebrated men and women as equals. The mother’s ancestral line, not the father’s, determined a child’s lineage. In community affairs, women became shamans, had the right to vote, could impeach a chief if a majority became dissatisfied with leadership, served in advisory positions, assisted in managing village affairs, spoke in council meetings, had the power to veto war, and even fought in battles themselves. And the flute? Yes, it was as much a woman’s instrument as a man’s.
So why are we saddled with this love flute myth malarkey as history? Gullibility and laziness. While failing to explore fact-based sources, we’ve accepted and internalized the erroneous accounts of American Indian life by European invaders. To undermine native culture, Europeans deftly exaggerated accounts of Native American life and lied about women and their status. They portrayed native women as obedient, subservient to “red devils” who attacked and scalped good Christian explorers whose only goal was to bring patriarchal European civility, social harmony, and redemption to an evil and barbaric world. In reality, Europeans could not cope with the independence, power, and equality of native women compared to the role of European women. So they set about transforming native culture into a crude version of European culture.
Pre-invasion cultures developed a deep connection to their past through stories and music, but that ended in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as Europeans forcibly took native children from their families and sent them to “Indian schools” where teachers required native children to speak only English, wear western-style clothing, and study western-based history rather than preserving native history and heritage through traditional sources and methods. As Europeans forced Native Americans to assimilate into the European, Judeo-Christian lifestyle, the cultural status and equality native women had once enjoyed vanished, and their share in power and authority disintegrated.
Erosion of women’s status extended even to the native flute. The flute had traditionally been a social instrument, used for the sheer joy of making music. Songs and music were like breath itself, an integral part of existence. Native people embraced music to honor the Creator. Shamans utilized music in medical cures. They integrated music into ceremonies to call rain and locate hunting game. Children incorporated music in their games, while adult tribal members included music in vision quests, harvest rituals, war, and death rituals. Although customs and practices differed between cultures, the flute was common to most. Plains Indian tribes could be identified from a distance by the songs they played as they traveled. Members of some tribes played flutes to announce their peaceful approach to a new village. In what’s now the southwestern U.S., the Hopi people not only valued flautists of both genders, they nurtured a flute clan responsible for developing the talents of flautists. Each autumn, a girl and boy, side-by-side, both playing flutes, would lead a procession and ceremony to honor the gods to ensure good rains and crops. Even today, despite dominance of the love flute myth, Native American flutes are used in ceremonies other than courting rituals, including weddings, worship ceremonies, and political ceremonies.
Many early Europeans noted in their writings that native people used the flute as a social instrument to make a joyful noise. In June, 1528, while exploring the west coast of Florida, Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca wrote that “a chief approached, borne on the back of another Indian, and covered with a painted deerskin. A great many people attended him, some walking in advance, playing on flutes of reed.” Had only men been playing, it’s likely the writer would have said so. In 1539, a member of the Hernando de Soto Spanish expedition to Florida wrote that “some Indians arrived to visit their lord, and every day they came out to the road, playing upon flutes, a token among them that they come in peace.” In yet another account, the same writer, describing events in what is now Alabama, wrote “the Cacique came out to receive (de Soto) … and he was surrounded by many attendants playing upon flutes and singing.” Note the writer chose the word “attendants,” not “men.”
In Pueblo country around 1540, Pedro de Castaneda wrote about his travels that “the people came out of the village with signs of joy to welcome Hernando de Alvardo and their captain, and brought with them into the town with drums and pipes something like flutes, of which they have a great many.”Around the same period, Antonio de Mendoza wrote, “The Indians have their dances and songs, with some flutes which have holes on which to put the fingers. They make much noise. They sing in unison with those who play, and those who sing clap their hands in our fashion … five or six play together, and some of the flutes are better than others.” Pedro Fages, writing about an encounter in California in 1769, described a dance for which “only two pairs from each sex are chosen to perform the dance, and two musicians,” presumably of each gender, “who play their flutes.”
Then came the turning point in flute accounts when artist George Catlin in 1832, capturing the European desire to romanticize and diminish native life, described the flute as strictly a courting instrument. Writing about the Plains flute while in Upper Missouri, Catlin said, “In the vicinity of the Upper Mississippi, I often and familiarly heard this instrument, called the Winnebago courting flute, and was credibly informed by traders and others in those regions that the young men of that tribe meet with signal success, oftentimes, in wooing their sweethearts with its simple notes, which they blow for hours together, and from day to day, from the bank of some stream—some favorite rock or log on which they are seated, near to the wigwam which contains the object of their tender passion until her soul is touched, and she responds by some welcome signal, that she is ready to repay the young Orpheus for his pains with the gift of her hand and her heart.”
Europeans latched onto the courting aspect while ignoring that marriage and courtship rites varied from culture to culture, that the courtship period itself could last more than six years, that the girl had the power of choice, that the genealogical line was through the mother’s family, that women were held as equal individuals within the culture, unlike women of Western society, that the flute certainly was not a courting requirement. The flute became an effective tool in the Europeans’ determination to assimilate native peoples and erase native women’s status. The first Europeans to migrate to North America, especially those steeped in Puritan, Catholic, and Quaker Christian traditions, did not tolerate women in prominent positions of government or societal decision-making. Portraying indigenous society as barbaric and the people as savages, Europeans systematically eliminated indigenous women’s power within tribes and clans. Portraying the flute as a man’s-only instrument helped achieve that goal.
In last few decades, native women have begun to regain their rightful places in tribal life. Even female deities and original matriarchal native mythologies have enjoyed a resurgence among many native peoples. A quarter of federally recognized tribes are now chaired by women. In 2014, 147 native women were elected to serve as tribal leaders—26 percent of 566 federally recognized tribes. Female tribal leadership in 2015 decreased slightly to 24.5 percent.
Nevertheless, the resurgence of power doesn’t thrill everyone in the Native American community. Since Wilma Mankiller became the first female chief of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma in 1985, some male candidates in various tribal races have continued to ridicule female opponents as inept, unable, and too female to make the important decisions required of a chief—as if men have proved themselves more qualified than women in anything. Women are changing the face of tribal governments as they become administrators, teachers, and community organizers, regaining positions of authority like those held by their ancestors. And they’re playing the flute, demonstrating once again that it is not a man’s instrument, that it’s an instrument of the people—all people.
The Native American flute has grown so popular today that it has taken on mystical qualities with some claiming it will help lead the world into salvation. For those who prefer to leave mysticism to the mystics and simply enjoy an instrument solely for its music, the native flute is a welcomed addition, finding itself in the capable hands of both male and female artists. Rather than wrongly claim the flute has served only a courting function for native men, we should accept the fact the instrument is no more masculine or feminine than life or death. It is now, as it always has been, an instrument that adds beauty and dimension to music without regard to the musician’s gender.
For a comprehensive list of references from which the above information was taken, please refer to the bibliographies of The Native American Flute: Myth, History, Craft and Native American Flute Craft, both available from Amazon.com, iTunes, Books-A-Million, Barnes & Noble, and other online and local bookstores.
Ancestors ~ WindPoem IV ~ Native American Flute Meditations is now available through Bandcampand coming to other CD and digital music stores, including Amazon, iTunes, Google Play, and others. It will soon be streamable through internet music services, including Pandora, Deezer, and more. The album features nine Native American flute instrumentals—53 minutes of music—perfect for meditation and relaxation. View the trailer below. Preview the entire album at Bandcamp.
Ancestors instrumentals feature Tegan Fuqua on percussion and C.S. Fuqua on wooden and bamboo Native American flutes, both single-barrel and double-barrel (drone) flutes custom-crafted by C.S. Fuqua. In keeping with tradition, some tunes incorporate nature and other ambient background sounds. “Grandfather” also features a Hang tank drum. Several cuts include contrabass flute that may not be rendered adequately through laptop speakers and some earbuds due to speaker low frequency limitations.
Ancestors is available today from Createspace in CD format for $10.95 plus shipping and Kunaki for $5 plus shipping. Available soon at Amazon. If you want the best CD price, Kunaki is the place to go—the total less than the Amazon and Createspace base price before shipping!
The digital album is available for immediate download from Bandcamp and Kunaki for $8 and will soon be available from iTunes, Amazon, Soundcloud, and many others.
Ancestors will soon be streamable at Pandora, Deezer, Spotify, and a host of other streaming services.
Please spread the word!
Popular mythology portrays the primary historical use of the Native American flute as a courting instrument used by men, but the courting aspect was only one of the flute’s functions, much like a guitar or any other instrument, and it certainly was not an instrument limited to use strictly by men. Men and women played the native flute for entertainment, in fertility rites, during celebrations and mourning rituals, and simply as a distraction. WindPoem albums celebrate the flute’s rich and inclusive heritage.
For more information on the history, mythology, and crafting of the instrument, check out Chris’s books, The Native American Flute: Myth, History, Craft and Native American Flute Craft, available through most local and online bookstores.
WindPoem III was slated to be final album in the WindPoem series to feature strictly native flute meditations. Plans obviously changed. I hope you enjoy the results.
Chris is available for musical and historical presentations regarding the Native American flute. For more more information, please contact him by clicking the email icon.
I’ve heard it all my life—relatives claiming Native American ancestry. Officially, we’re white, “but we got Indian blood in us from way back,” so they say. In 2015, a Pew Research Center study revealed that at least half of all U.S. adults who identify as multiracial are whites claiming Native American ancestry—that’s 8.5 million people! In a 2016 Fusion.net article, Native Peoples magazine editor Taté Walker pointed out the obvious. For that many whites to have Native American ancestry, American Indians would have to be “getting it on with everybody.”
Some claims of native ancestry are legitimate. Most others, not so much—and there’s a name for the people making them: Pretendians.
Claiming native ancestry isn’t new, but white claims of being a quarter or less Native American have skyrocketed in recent years. Asked for proof, those claiming ancestry resort to family lore and physical attributes like high cheekbones. Moreover, these wannabe Indians readily feign extensive knowledge of whatever tribe they claim. They buy, display, and wear stereotypical garb and trinkets as though every Indian in America purchased their clothes and jewelry at interstate tourist traps, but these Pretendians don’t engage in the native culture. Instead, they profess their nativeness, especially onsocial media, by coining outlandish “Indian” names like Howling Wolf Tree, Badger Womyn, and Eagle Feather Heart. (Get your own ridiculous “Indian” handle with the online name generator at http://www.lingerandlook.com/Names/FictionNames2.htm.) If their claims are questioned, Pretendians shore up their authenticity with inaccurate knowledge of Indian culture and history based on popular myth and stereotypes, demonstrating little or no fact-based understanding of past or present native issues. They will even attack true native descendants as imposters to make themselves appear genuine.
A few years ago, a distant relative who’s researched our mutual genealogy put authority to our family’s claims to native heritage, discovering two Muscogee women in my paternal grandfather’s ancestry. “I’m still working on documenting it, but, after all,” he told me, “we have a great-great-great grandfather who traded with Indians up and down the river.” How trading anything other than a certain bodily fluid gets native genetics into a person’s DNA is beyond my understanding, but the claim, he insisted, had been validated. We could check with clear conscience those white and Native American ethnicity boxes on job and other applications.
White folks claim native ancestry for a variety of reasons, including a romanticized view of native culture and people. Take the Native American flute as an example. It’s mystical, haunting, spiritual! It touches our ancient soul. According to one of several creation myths, it was given to native men for use in courting women, a fairytale now accepted by most as fact. Besides misogynistic, the myth-as-history is preposterous. In reality, the flute’s place in native culture was and remains broad, from entertainment to courting to fertility rites to greeting visitors—like any other instrument ever made. The story, however, fits well into the Pretendian narrative that embraces myths promoted by European invaders, myths designed to undermine native women’s cultural status. Europeans ensured general acceptance of chosen myths-as-history through systematic destruction and replacement of native culture and values with European nonsense now accepted by many Pretendians as fact.
Based on assumed nativeness, Pretendians have even developed a sense of political correctness regarding aspects of their claimed heritage. When I began crafting Native American flutes twenty-five years ago, the instrument was known simply as a Native American flute. In recent years, a movement among mostly Pretendians contends that Native American flutes can be crafted only by Native Americans. If you’re non-native and claim no native ancestry, the flute you make must be termed a Native American style flute. If we accept such skewed logic, then non-Europeans can craft only a recorder or transverse style flute, and non-Spaniards can make only Spanish style guitars.
By far, Cherokee is the most claimed of all Native American ancestry. The 2000 U.S. federal census reported that 729,522 Americans claimed Cherokee heritage. By 2010, the number had increased to 819,105, some 70 percent of them—white folks—declaring mixed race. I grew up in southern Alabama and northwest Florida, so this statistic is no surprise. Bring up native culture in conversation, and someone will claim native heritage. Nine out of ten times, that heritage will be Cherokee, usually “traced” to an Indian princess—never mind that no such status ever existed.
Throughout the country’s history since the European invasion, Americans have used mixed-race status for personal advantage. For example, a person with African American and white heritage who looked white would usually pass as white to avoid discrimination to rise in society as only whites could do. Even today, most people who have less than twenty-eight percent African-American ancestry, according to a 2014 23andMe genetics study, claim white-only heritage. Conversely, whites are increasingly quick to claim native ancestry in an effort to gain perceived minority advantages in employment or scholarships. Making the claim is easy. Since 2000, the Census Bureau has allowed people to check multiple boxes for race and ethnicity without proof or validation.
This kind of ethnic multi-checking has created an alternate reality for native heritage. Until recently, tribes determined membership on whether a person spoke the language and followed cultural practices which defined cultural affinity with the tribe. As white claims rose, blood quantum became the standard determinant. If one grandparent, for example, belonged to a tribe but the other three grandparents did not, a person was considered to have one-quarter blood quantum. Before 1963, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians allowed anyone with at least one-thirty-second blood quantum (one great-great-great native grandparent) to join the tribe, but the claim had to be documented. You couldn’t just check a box. After 1963, the standard increased to one-sixteenth.
Before the mid-1800s, the Cherokee were the south’s most populace tribe, numbering around 16,000. But they had something whites wanted—land for farming and gold mining. And let’s not forget racial prejudice. These were local Indians after all, substandard humans in the European mindset. To appease white desire, the U.S. government in 1838 and 1839 forcibly removed the southern Cherokee to the Indian Territory in what later became Oklahoma. After removal and as tensions rose between north and south in the run-up to the Civil War, whites realized an advantage in claiming Cherokee ancestry, insisting these claimed ancestors had escaped forced removal to hide, remain, and marry in the south. Official records, however, indicate that few, if any, Cherokee escaped removal, although 4,000 died on the Trail of Tears en route to the Indian Territory. Claiming Cherokee ancestry enabled southerners to step out of their role as oppressor by legitimizing themselves as native born rather than of European origin. The claim thereby relieved them of guilt for what they’d done to the actual Cherokee and established a delusional native right to defend their despotic system of slavery from an “aggressive” federal government.
This delusional mindset has had a long shelf life. It’s evident today in southern Pretendians’ defense of the rebel battle flag as heritage not hate and their unyielding support of political candidates who promote xenophobic and racist ideology. Claiming ownership of an imagined native past allows these whites to forgive themselves for their European ancestors’ aggression against native peoples and their own present-day assaults against different cultures, races, and ethnicities.
Claimed ancestry became a political issue in 1924 when Virginia politicians were forced to address matters of mixed-race rights. The state’s Racial Integrity Act at the time banned marriage between whites and members of any other race, defining people as white only if their “blood is entirely white, having no known, demonstrable, or ascertainable admixture of blood of another race.” That put a kink into claims of ancestral links to Pocahontas by prominent white Virginia families. Generationally, if the claims were true, it meant family members were at most one-sixteenth native. The Virginia legislature therefore amended the Racial Integrity Act with the “Pocahontas Exception,” allowing white families to claim native ancestry to Pocahontas but still be classified as white. Conversely, those with one-sixteenth African American ancestry could not claim white status and remained designated as black.
According to Native American journalist Mary Annette Pember, claims to Cherokee ancestry went nationwide during the twentieth century, thanks to Tinsel Town. Hollywood movies made the Cherokee acceptable to people outside the south by civilizing the tribe. In 1971, a popular Keep America Beautiful ad campaign established Iron Eyes Cody, The Crying Indian, as the quintessential image of Native America, a tear rolling down his cheek as he mourned environmental destruction. Cody famously traced his heritage to the Trail of Tears and a Cherokee grandfather who purportedly worked with the Confederate outlaw band, Quantrill’s Raiders. Cody made no personal claim to glory, however, calling himself just another Injun who left the reservation to find success in Hollywood.After he’d portrayed Indians in more than 200 films, the public discovered that Iron Eyes Cody’s heritage did not trace to the Trail of Tears after all, that he’d never lived on a reservation, that he was actually Espera Oscar de Corti, a Louisiana-born actor with 100 percent Sicilian ancestry—not a drop of Indian blood.
The three federally recognized Cherokee tribes—Untied Keetoowa Band, Cherokee Nation, and the Eastern Band of Cherokees—have a combined population of 344,700 members, most living in close-knit communities in eastern Oklahoma and North Carolina’s Great Smoky Mountains. Although becoming a Pretendian may seem harmless, it has consequences beyond a wink and snicker. In the workplace, whites can be hired based in part on claimed heritage, taking a position that should be filled by someone of true native heritage. Iron Eyes Cody is a good example. His success at playing an Indian prevented true Native Americans from landing roles that should’ve been theirs.
To address increasing claims of ancestry, the Cherokee Nation has created a task force to deal with false assertions by individuals seeking official recognition, leading one investigator to theorize that many Pretendians are simply seeking a sense of place and connection. The problem is, the only way some know how to achieve such connection is to buy it and own it. Heritage is not such a commodity.
Pretendians may be fully sincere in their romanticized nativeview of nature and spirituality. Their appeal vanishes, however, when they use their nativeness to justify or forgive disturbing personal traits. Sociologist Herbert Gans in 1979 coined the phrase symbolic ethnicity to describe the act of white Americans claiming native identity without changing behavior or suffering social consequences. The practice is pervasive, exemplified by Native American heritage clubs that have no members of documented ancestry and by Pretendians claiming heritage for reasons of employment or scholarship benefits. For them, ethnicity is voluntary, a piece of clothing that can be put on or taken off at will, unlike skin.
As America becomes more racially and ethnically diverse, whites unwilling to accept their changing status search for a collective identity of ancestral place and culture to link to the world they live in and to justify personal racism toward other groups. The recent presidential election provided a national stage upon which many whites who claim Native American ancestry could express racism and xenophobia without regard to decency, empathy, or societal restriction. Many Pretendians on social media professed steadfast support for Native Americans protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) while vehemently condemning similar groups such as Black Lives Matter and opposing anti-discrimination legislation designed to protect women, people of color, and LGBTQ individuals. They adorned their social media pages with rebel flags and politically hateful slogans, many supporting Donald Trump despite his business investment in DAPL and his pledge to proceed with the original DAPL route, ignoring Native American rights by reversing President Obama’s order to determine an alternate route .
For all the claims of indigenous blood, ancestry no longer needs to be a mystery. We can easily determine by DNA analysis whether we have native ancestry—which is exactly what I did last year. Forget those two native women in my paternal grandfather’s ancestry, and don’t give the Indian trader a second thought. Thanks to DNA testing, I know the truth. I’m as white as a person gets.
When I informed the relative who’d “discovered” the perceived native ancestry, he replied, “Another genealogist in the family feels strongly there’s Indian blood. So we just have to continue to wonder.”
No, we don’t.
Pay no mind to high cheekbones.
Ignore hair color or texture.
And Granddaddy? He looks like Granddaddy.
Science is a marvelous thing. It doesn’t depend on faith, myth, or family lore. Science relies solely on fact—like climate change or gravity. Sure, you can board the bus of denial, but every time it’s driven off the cliff of reality, it will crash to the ground below.
Bryc, Katarzyna et al. “The Genetic Ancestry of African Americans, Latinos, and European Americans across the United States.” The American Journal of Human Genetics , Volume 96 , Issue 1 , 37 – 53.
Literary Themes Subconsciously Rooted in Childhood
Insecurity and salvation.
These two themes recur often, yet unplanned, in the fiction and poetry I write. They usually emerge from a character’s self-doubt, countered by an unrealistic belief that situations, no matter how awful or threatening, will eventually turn out okay, that adversity will ultimately surrender to peace. But why do these particular themes keep showing up?
A few years ago, a political disagreement with my father ignited in him a firestorm of condemnation of other cultures and races—never mind the mixed racial heritage of my spouse and our daughter. Communication ended abruptly in mutual expletives. After more than five decades, he and I were finally done. I figured I’d never hear from him again, that the next time I visited him would be at his graveside.
The relationship with my father has always been tenuous at best. I felt safe with him only once—in 1958 as he carried me through the hospital parking lot on my way to a tonsillectomy. I was two. Fear soon obliterated that initial sense of safety, thanks to repeated episodes of rage, from verbal abuse and an eagerness to fight, to animal cruelty and domestic violence, a few incidents recounted in my published fiction.
My parents separated when I was twelve. I’d spent that summer of 1968 working in my father’s Phillips 66 service station in Crestview, Florida—sometimes alone and always under order to wear a “Wallace for President” Dixieland hat and campaign necktie. Dad’s small, two-pump station had three restrooms in back, designated as “Men,” “Women,” and “Restroom,” the third to which he directed people of color.
In the station’s front window, he’d hung a hand-drawn recreation of an auto tag that read “Put your (heart symbol) in Dixie, or get your (donkey symbol) out.” One hot day, a traveller from a northern state noticed the sign after I’d gassed his car. “If I’d seen that damn thing,” he snarled, “I wouldn’t have stopped.” I was glad my father was away at the time. Otherwise, a fight would have certainly ensued.
Bizarrely hot-tempered, my father was quick to violence. I witnessed such fury that crippled and killed animals and bruised and broke people both emotionally and physically. I felt a flood of relief and freedom when my parents split and I ended up in Pensacola, Florida, fifty miles from Crestview and my father. Marrying his second wife shortly after the divorce finalized the following year, he moved some forty-five miles north to his hometown, Andalusia, Alabama. With his wife’s deft support, he established a used car dealership that provided a good income, even though he faced legal problems at one point for buying and selling stolen cars. Due more to his wife’s business savvy than his public charm or honesty, he skirted prosecution and became wealthier than he’d ever imagined he would, though it had no effect on his refusal to pay child support, doling out only small portions when I visited him.
During my visits that never exceeded two days, he appeared to have mellowed since the divorce—specifically, his propensity to violence had apparently evaporated. I became jealous of his wife’s two sons whom he’d adopted. They, I believed, enjoyed the father I craved, a reasonable man who respected them enough to do what a parent should do. The emotional distance between us increased while the frequency of my visits decreased. Only after his death did I become aware of the psychological and physical violence he waged against his new family.
Fast forward four-and-a-half decades.
My father’s wife died in April 2015, succumbing to cancer. During her decline, her children visited her at home, but not without consequence. When his wife’s daughter said she would not move into my father’s home to take care of him after her mother’s death, he became so livid he threatened to kill her if she ever returned for any reason. She didn’t. When his oldest adopted son visited his mother a few days before she died, my father accused the son of plotting to steal his money and slugged him. The son responded instinctively, knocking my father to the floor.
“Get out!” my father raged. “Get out before I kill you! I’ll put you in the ground you ever come here again!”
Increased paranoia followed his wife’s death and led to rabid accusations that relatives were constantly plotting to steal his land and money. He threatened to kill many and alienated all but one, a cousin whose tolerance ensured the care he needed.
Already receiving thrice-weekly dialysis treatment before his wife’s death, my father had developed a notorious reputation among Andalusia’s medical workers for verbally abusing doctors and dialysis personnel. In early August 2016, he suffered a mild heart attack that placed him in a hospital where doctors determined he’d require rehabilitation center placement upon release. Facilities in his hometown, thanks to his reputation, refused to take him, necessitating placement in a Crestview facility where he required sedation most of the time. Shortly after placement, my cousin informed me that his condition had begun to deteriorate rapidly, that he suffered from advanced diabetes, kidney disease, and increasing dementia.
Living in New Mexico, I decided not to visit him. Any possibility of reconciliation, no matter how remote, had surely vanished within sedation and the distortions of dementia. Then my wife’s brother in Pensacola died unexpectedly, and we made the 1,350-mile drive to attend his memorial, placing us within forty minutes of the Crestview rehab facility.
On a rainy Wednesday morning in a town that’s grown unrecognizably large since my childhood, the nurse in the rehab facility’s locked wing pointed out my father at the end of a line of wheelchair-bound patients parked along one wall. The greasy pompadour he’d worn most of his adult life had been replaced by shorter hair, brushed into a faux mohawk, the result of a nurse’s playfulness. He stared blankly toward the opposite wall, murmuring. I knelt before his chair and took his hand.
He slowly turned his gaze.
“You know me?”
After a moment, he nodded almost imperceptibly.
“Who am I?”
He smiled slightly. “Ray,” he whispered.
“No, not Ray.” I have no idea who Ray is. “Try again.”
Something clicked. His face tightened, his lips parted slightly, and he began to cry. “Chris…”
Just as quickly, his expression muddled, and the stare returned. He nodded. And nodded.
I engaged him in talk as best as possible and took a few photographs.
He held my hand off and on, muttering things like, “I used to have lots of money. No more. It’s okay, it’s okay. Madelyn [his deceased wife] is coming soon.”
Aides began wheeling patients to the dining room for lunch.
“You seen Mama?” he asked. His mother had died some forty years earlier. “She ain’t been by.”
“No, but you’ll see her soon,” I said. “She’s waiting.”
A shadow of a smile played on his lips. He nodded once. “I love everybody.” He nodded again. “Everybody loves me.”
“I’m sure they do.”
He leaned slightly forward. “I’m proud…”
My breath caught with hope that, at last, he’d express something he’d never before expressed.
“I’m proud,” he whispered again, “real proud of my life.”
I let the breath go. “Yes, you should be.”
He sat back.
An African-American nurse arrived to take him to the dining room. My father, whose racist rants were legendary, reached for her hand and grinned.
“She’s nice,” he said. “People…people’s the same everywhere.”
The nurse positioned herself behind the chair.
“We need to go,” I said. “Time for you to get some lunch.”
He raised a hand toward my wife—that unsuitable, racially-diverse person who married me thirty-eight years ago.
“I love you,” he whispered.
She hugged him.
He then held his hand out to me. His face twisted momentarily as though he might cry again.
“I love you,” he said. And he nodded.
“Yeah, I love you, too, Dad.”
His eyes glazed.
I lowered his hand to his lap and let go.
The nurse said, “Y’all can wait or come back after lunch if you’d like.”
We thanked her and stepped aside, and she wheeled him away.
Six days later, the day after our return to New Mexico, he died. My cousin said that he had been en route from dialysis to the rehabilitation center when he went to sleep for the last time.
I didn’t travel to Andalusia for the funeral, but my cousin filled me in. The preacher of the church my father attended—designated as a primary recipient of Dad’s estate after he disinherited his wife’s children and me—delivered a glowing tribute that had some attendees wondering who the hell the preacher was talking about.
Southern preachers consider eulogies sacred opportunities to exploit insecurity and harvest souls by lobbing sizable chunks of fire and brimstone while praising the exceptional life of the dearly departed, now cozied up in heaven with Jesus.
What does it hurt?
Most of us—kind or cruel—reach for higher standards at some point. And we all fail in different degrees. It’s okay to remember people as better than they were. It’s okay to grant a little salvation.
At some point, I’ll stand at my father’s graveside, keenly aware of how he influenced me to strive to be his opposite, of how he will always affect the characters and themes in my fiction and poetry.
On rare occasion, we realize upfront a person is special. Peggie Ann Kilpatrick was such a person.
When our daughter Tegan turned three, Bonnie and I decided to place her in a preschool for socialization and early education. Our acquaintances’ children were older, and Tegan had no one her age for company. Finding a good school, however, wouldn’t be easy. State regulations governing preschool operation were loose, to say the least. Employment required little or no professional training or educational background. Many facilities were (and probably remain) so poorly regulated, they were at best safety hazards. Beyond regulations, many, if not most, promoted the teachers’ and owners’ political and religious agendas. Such schools were not for us. We required a secular school that served children without regard to racial, social, cultural, religious, or ethnic group, that reflected community diversity and respected the child and child’s family without promoting ideological agendas.
We began our search with traditional schools, but none lived up to their promotional material, operating more like babysitting services than preschools or kindergartens. So we turned to schools based on alternative teaching methods. Among the few in our area, only one discipline intrigued us—Montessori. Montessori educational method dates to 1907 when Maria Montessori, realizing a desperate need in Italy for a more effective educational system to serve lower income families, opened Casa dei Bambini—the Children’s House—in one of Rome’s low-income districts. Although few U.S.-based Montessori schools today serve specifically low-income families, most encompass Maria Montessori’s methods by centering on whole child development, including the physical, emotional, social, and cognitive aspects, with younger children learning from older children who reinforce what they’ve learned by teaching the younger, a system that mirrors how most people socialize and learn in the world at large. Further, Montessori method incorporates special tools and aids for students to learn and experience through sensory-motor activities to develop cognitive powers such as sound, sight, smell, taste, movement, and touch.
We visited the first Montessori school on a chilly midweek morning. Children ranged from three to five years in age but reflected no cultural or racial diversity. They sat at small tables, engaged in solitary activities, from puzzles to coloring, in a large room that exhibited obsessive attention to order. As the owner spoke with us, a “teacher” drifted around the room, hands behind back, monitoring and instructing kids to do tasks in a certain way rather than encouraging them to explore. What struck us most was the room’s extreme quiet. It was mid-morning with lunch soon approaching, and not one child was talking. It felt uncomfortable. Our daughter expressed no interest when the owner offered to show her some of the activities. We left, disheartened. If this school was representative, how could anyone praise Montessori method as better than Snaggletooth Dorothy’s Backyard Babysitting Service?
The second school renewed our hope somewhat. Kids were more engaged and social, better reflecting Montessori basics, but tuition proved prohibitive for our budget. That’s when we visited Peggie’s school, a converted house that had once served as a restaurant, the main room large, but not cavernous, to accommodate the complete student body when the kids weren’t in smaller, open rooms involved in group and individual learning activities. About twenty-five children—Japanese, East Indian, black, white—engaged in a variety of tasks, assisting and interacting constructively with each other. Without invitation, our daughter squirmed out of my arms, walked over to a table, sat down next to a girl about her age, and began to work on a puzzle.
Peggie—Ms. Peggie—grinned. “Looks like she’s found a home.”
Tuition, though lower than that of the other schools, threatened to exceed our budget, but Peggie was completely open about operation costs, with every penny justified as she ran the school on a shoestring, serving as owner, CEO, lead teacher, curriculum developer, chef, chauffeur, handyman—you name it, Peggie filled the bill. When we did the math, we concluded Peggie had to be a magician. So we found a way to fit tuition into our budget.
Peggie and the two teachers she employed—in particular, Beth Allison Young—engaged every student with respect and positive guidance, loosely termed Montessori Rules, to create a dynamic, cooperative, fun community of little people developing their educational and social skills. Peggie’s Montessori Rules became the foundation for personal responsibility and action that still guides our daughter today, some twenty years later.
Peggie’s grace extended beyond the children to their families. When conservative politicians forced a federal government shutdown in the mid-1990s, they created budgetary havoc in households of federal employees, including ours. Peggie offered to delay tuition payment during that time, something we could not accept. She was overextended already, but her gesture was an example of how she cared for others, how every family whose child attended her school became a part of her own extended family.
As Tegan progressed from preschool into kindergarten, Peggie underwent medical tests that revealed smoking-related lung scarring. By then, she’d lost twenty percent of her breathing capacity due to early-stage emphysema. A week after the medical news, someone sideswiped her on her way to work, putting her car upside down in a ditch. She crawled out through a broken window with minor injuries, lucky to be alive. If parents brought up either the accident or the medical results, Peggie deftly shifted to another subject. She steadfastly refused to burden the school’s parents with her problems.
Shortly before the end of Tegan’s last year with Peggie, a friend and I performed a program of folk songs for the school. The kids enjoyed the show, and Peggie asked us to perform a couple of songs at the upcoming graduation ceremony, the school’s biggest annual event. My friend couldn’t make it, but two other Montessori fathers—Jamie Gauthier and Joe Schartung—joined in to play a song we designed specifically for the event, a blues-rock version of “Old MacDonald Had a Farm.”
Flustered and flushed when speaking to a roomful of adults, Peggie persevered until she could redirect the spotlight to Beth, a child, or a parent, deflecting praise for herself to others, no matter how much she deserved honor. During this graduation, however, she couldn’t dodge the compliment we fathers built into the song. As Peggie and the kids danced together, we belted out the last verse:
“Young Ms. Peggie has a school, E-I-E-I-O
“And in that school are wonderful kids, E-I-E-I-O
“Well the kids learn here, the kids play there,
“Learn here, play there, grow in Montessori care.
“Oh, young Ms. Peggie has an excellent school, E-I-E-I-O.”
Tegan remained in touch with Peggie after kindergarten, visiting during elementary, middle, and high school, once to conduct a hands-on juggling presentation for Peggie’s Montessori kids as part of a high school class assignment. Even Peggie tried to juggle. The kids loved it just as they enjoyed most events and activities Peggie arranged, activities that included rudimentary lessons in Spanish and Japanese, a professional clown’s performance, and child-and-parent cultural demonstrations on food and clothing.
Not long after the juggling presentation, Peggie retired, and our contact with her became more sporadic. Shortly before moving to another state a couple of years ago, I bumped into her at a department store. Her emphysema had worsened, and she now required supplemental oxygen, a topic from which she quickly moved with “Let’s talk about that girl of yours.”
Each of us encounters so many people along life’s path, but few have profound and permanent effect on us. Peggie’s influence was broad and substantial as she equipped young children with the tools to build a solid, respectful, moral, productive foundation for success in all areas of their lives. Whether by negligence or design, the Peggies of the world traverse their journeys mostly unrecognized and unthanked. Luckily, we were able to express several times to Peggie our appreciation for all she had done for Tegan. In typical Peggie style, she’d say, “The credit lies with that girl.”
Each day the world loses special people. Everyone is transitory, a brief flicker in the firestorm of time, but some survive death through the reputations they craft in life. Peggie is one of those people. The influence she’s had on hundreds of children and their families will extend for generations to come. The children she taught—and their children and their children—will continue to employ, benefit from, and pass on the values Peggie instilled, the values of Montessori Rules.
From the initial elevator lift to the novice attorney’s office floor, the reader realizes Stacee Pocket will provide one heck of a funny ride, erotic or otherwise. In Molly Haven’s TheSignatures, Stacee bubbles with an innate naiveté and friendliness—not to mention a heck of a body—that can either endear her to others or drive them nuts.
In an early scene with her more worldly friend Evie, Stacee reveals herself as a young woman with little carnal experience outside “true love.” But Stacee’s got plenty of licentious episodes coming her way when her boss sends her on a mission to obtain eight signatures on documents connected to THE big case—signatures needed “to plug up some dangerous holes.” What could be easier than plugging holes? She has an entire day to do it—never mind the offhand remark that “quite a few associates” before her have tried and failed.
Stacee sets out, confident she’s equipped with whatever it takes to get those signatures. In ways she hadn’t before considered, Stacee exploits her assets fully to get ahead by satisfactorily completing the assignment. From a retired, hustling magician to a movie star, a fashion designer, a nerd in a Jetsons T-shirt, and several other colorful characters, Stacee encounters a number of challenges that lead to extraordinary sexual romps as titillating as they are time-warping and hilarious.
An occasional suspension of disbelief is required, primarily to cram so many sexual shenanigans into a single day, but time is not the story. Discount the time element and simply accept that, yes, encounters as weirdly sensual and funny as these can happen, and try not to wonder, “Why don’t they happen to me?” The Signatures is Molly Haven’s debut novel. The author has handily achieved a high standard of explicitly sexual humor, delivering a salaciously delightful read.
This essay was written originally for PoetryRepairs.com and entitled “The Moral of It All.”
In a review of my short story collection Rise Up, a critic wrote that “…many of these tales [are] meant to leave the writer with a moral lesson, or at least comment on morality in the modern age.” Although it was expressed as criticism, I took the comment as compliment because I believe a piece should imply more than the description on the page and impart some kind of moral or position. When my work achieves that, I feel lucky.
I’ve published short and book-length material, nonfiction and fiction, poetry and prose. By far, my short work, especially poetry, is the most satisfying to produce. Everything is story, and the most challenging form of story is the poem—the shorter, the better. What’s more, if the narrative on the page implies an extensive story beyond the words, then, in my opinion, it has succeeded on a greater level. And if it imparts a moral? Pure gravy.
The poet whose work I admire most was a master at achieving story and moral beyond the printed page. Raymond Carver is celebrated most for his short stories, but he was a master poet as well. Take “The Net” as example. The narrator describes passing a one-armed fisherman who’s wrestling with a fishing net. The narrator assumes the fisherman is simply doing his job. But when the narrator looks back from a greater distance, he sees the fisherman is caught in the net, struggling to free himself. In its simplest interpretation, the poem’s net is a metaphor for life or circumstances. The distancing of the narrator from the fisherman is a metaphor for achieving objectivity by seeing the “big picture.” Of course, much more is going on in this poem, but even its most simplistic story and moral demonstrate the power and depth of short, concise, precise writing, of creating an expansive story within the confines of a poem.
There, next to the polished Mercedes,
the yellow Studebaker,
rust holes in the fender walls,
worn seats—nothing like
the old man’s.
He kept his sparkling, let me tell you,
just like the Model T before,
and the Thunderbird, the ’56 Chevy,
and the entire freeway of cars
that sped through my youth,
but none was so striking
as that hand-buffed Studebaker
with its whitewalls,
its custom steering wheel,
its immaculate seats,and that night,
coming back from Andalusia
when they thought I was asleep
in the back,
and he reached over,
grabbed her hair,
jerked her hard enough
to spin her head to the side.
I found two spots of dried blood
the following day,
and I remembered how the moon
had hung in the rear window
just below a cluster of stars
as he muttered, Christ,
why’d you make me do that?
And she had rested her head
back against that perfect seat
as the hum of new tires on asphalt
rose through the floorboard.
The story beyond the words involves a family plagued by domestic violence—a father/husband who prizes flashy cars over his relationship with his wife, who rules with anger and violence, whose behavior taints the very things that should be cause for celebration and enjoyment, a man who blames others for his own failures as a human being. Further, the poem’s second half implies that life itself is a cynical journey because everything that’s perfect in the poem—immaculate seats, custom steering wheel, whitewalls, new tires, moon, stars—is corrupted by the dark side of reality. As for lessons, draw your own conclusion, but, if I had to define a moral, it would be that people should value one another at least as much as they value their toys. Does the fact the poem communicates a moral make it less important, less enjoyable, less relevant?
As “Studebaker” suggests, I’m not a fan of poetry that relies on abstract, philosophical musing. I don’t condemn such writing. Certainly not. It’s just a matter of preference. I prefer to write and read poetry derived from and descriptive of everyday struggle, failure, success, and celebration, poetry that relates life through specific events and situations that may or may not be similar to the reader’s experiences. Through such work, we can relate to circumstances that might otherwise be foreign to us. We can sympathize and empathize closely with characters. And we can learn something new or validate something old, even if it’s the simple fact that not every reader enjoys work with a moral.
No matter the effort to avoid it, personal experience—from the drama of relatives to political shenanigans—creeps into every writer’s work, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction. The Confederate flag hoopla and the fight for and against the rights of people of color, women, and homosexuals are examples of issues that have proved provocative, disruptive, even destructive in interpersonal relationships and a godsend for the political powers who use division as a control device. Buying into the propaganda of political and media organizations, we make extreme decisions that affect our interpersonal relationships for the rest of our lives. When those decisions involve a writer, you can bet the effects will be reflected in the writer’s work.
Politics is naturally contentious, each generation viewing its own political tomfoolery as more contentious than what came before. Since the advent of 24/7 “news” channels, whose primary purpose is not to report news, but to stoke fear, frustration, hatred, and anger, politics has been exploited fully as a tool to divide and punish rather than to find compromise and serve the common good. I’m not so naïve to believe this use of politics is something new, but its in-your-face nature has strengthened exponentially in recent decades, thanks to technology. We’re assaulted relentlessly through our televisions and radios, computers, smartphones, tablets—umbilically connected to designer “news” sites that feed our prejudice and fear to the point we lose grip on reality and rationality and strike out at all who differ in opinion, worldview, gender, sexuality, religion, lifestyle, or race.
I grew up in South Alabama and Northwest Florida during the late 1950s through the early 1970s. The region wasn’t then nor has it become one of the most tolerant of diversity. Flaming midnight crosses lit up country pastures. Robed, hooded figures gathered like kids at a mega weenie roast, singing angry, hateful campfire songs about folks born of different race or religion, preaching the end of the world was nigh if lesser races acquired the same rights whites already enjoyed. Oh, save us, Jesus! It’s Armageddon! Color me silly, but I don’t think Jesus the Jew would be welcomed at such an event.
A close relative was then and remains a man of the white robe, flames flickering in his eyes, despite his interaction over the decades with a variety of people of color and cultures, thanks to his public sales business. He has never felt a need or desire to question the region’s prevalent stereotypes and fears of people who’re different, to overcome the hatred, to grow. Why, I don’t know. To my knowledge, he’s never suffered physically, financially, or mentally due to malicious acts by any person of color. And he certainly hasn’t lost his rights to groups or individuals gaining their own. He has, however, been a willing, unquestioning consumer of the Wallace/Thurmond/Trump/Helms/Cruz/Santorum/Fox/et.al. stream of fear and hate mongering, never once seeking objective verification to even the most extraordinary claim, never once attempting to understand any issue through a viewpoint other than his own bigotry.
During a phone conversation four years ago, I voiced support for the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare. “Don’t you tell me,” he growled, “you like what that communist nigger’s done.” I wasn’t shocked by his response. We’d debated his use of such small-minded epithets on numerous occasions, especially this particular word which he uses not only in reference to anyone black, but also to persons of Middle Eastern, Mexican, and other cultural and racial backgrounds. I suspect he used the word this time simply to anger me as he began a litany of irrational charges against President Obama, that the President had “ruined” the economy, that he’s Muslim, that he’s waging war against Christians, that he’s not even American—all the batty, right-wing talking points and conspiracy theories that even reality can’t counter in the true believer’s mind. Then he asserted that the U.S. should have never pulled out of Iraq, that Obama had secured the destruction of America by doing so.
“We never should have invaded Iraq in the first place,” I said.
He took a breath. “That’s something we agree on,” he said. “We should’ve nuked the hell out of them because them A-rabs ain’t even human.”
That was it.
We were done.
After a lifetime of shared, reluctant tolerance, our relationship had abruptly come to an end.
Earlier this week, my spouse received an email from one of her relatives, an email purporting that the factual histories of the Civil War and Rebel battle flag are instead myth, that the war had little to do with slavery, that the flag is a symbol of only southern heritage, not racism. The sender did not copy me on the mail, perhaps because she understands my view of such bigotry and did not want to risk rebuttal. When my spouse replied to the mail, she copied all to whom the original had been sent, and she copied me as well, addressing the original mail as though her relative had offered it as an example of how gullible people are when something supports their bigoted worldview:
“People will believe anything rather than admitting that it’s been 150 years since the end of the Civil War and we still have racism. How sad and disappointing. As a nation we have made progress, but we still have far to go.”
A day later, the following landed in my mailbox, thanks to my spouse’s relative who hit “reply to all.” It’s presented unaltered:
“No one living today is a slave or has owned a slave, am I wrong in not liking group of people who have different views of life than I do? I have always been told ‘your rights end when they intruded on mine’ how much longer do we as Americans need to bend over and take it up the as…before these people realize they need to start to take care of themselves? This crap has been going on for years. The American public has, in my opinion done way too much to make amends for what has happened in the past and they still want more, work for it like the rest of us have done and quit asking for a hand out.”
It would have been wise not to reply to the rant, but I’m not a wise man. I thought that, by engaging the writer in a rational, fact-based discussion, he might look beyond the hyperbole of pundits, might change his mind. So I responded, copying all on the list:
“Thanks for your entertaining mail. If you would like to engage in a rational debate on specific issues, backing your points with objective, valid sources (not political organizations such as Fox News or DailyKos), I’d be happy to debate you. However, specifics are required. For example, instead of generalizations such as ‘these people,’ define whether they are black, of Mexican descent like yourself, Jewish, Middle Eastern, East Indian, Asian, etc., since the average southern white lumps all races of color into the same lesser-than category. Another example would be ‘handouts’ and the group to which the so-called handout is provided–social security, Medicare, food stamps, housing assistance, etc.–and how it affects you and how or why it is right or wrong. Back your argument with objective sources. Another example is ‘your rights end when they intrude on mine.’ Be specific. For example, do you mean you have the right to fly a Nazi flag on your property, but you don’t have the right to demand government or public entities to fly the flag on their buildings or property since that property represents all people? Or I have the right to worship the Flying Spaghetti Monster but not to force you to say my prayers in school?
“You get the idea.
“If you and the others in this mail exchange do not desire a rational debate but would prefer to vent anger and frustration over issues based on the ‘factual’ nonsense regarding the Confederate flag that began this exchange, I prefer to be left out of the loop.\
A few moments later: “Fuck you.”
My response: “Okay.”
Then: “Just forget my email address and I don’t ever want to see you or any of your family again. Chris you are a looser.”
“For future reference,” I replied, “it’s ‘loser,’ not ‘looser.’”
When we refuse to engage in rational discussion, when we set our minds so rigidly based on irrational hatred and fear, when we refuse to consider another point of view unless it agrees with our own, when we refuse to grow, all of us are losers.
From fiction to poetry, creative nonfiction to straight reporting, personal experience colors my work in some way. One example of experience influencing my nonfiction work began with intervention in three on-the-street domestic violence incidents in Hawaii in the early1980s, which led to an article for Honolulu Magazine on the state’s problem of domestic violence, what police termed “local love.” The article helped in a small way to push a mandatory arrest bill through the state legislature to become law, requiring police to arrest aggressors when responding to domestic violence calls. In fiction and poetry, the above relatives, as well as others, have provided models for characters in stories such as “Side-Road Shack” and “Luau,” the novel Big Daddy’s Fast-Past Gadget, and in many of the poems in White Trash & Southern ~ Collected Poems, Volume I.
We writers are grateful to the relatives who manufacture drama, the politicians who stir the pot of fear and hatred, the citizens in our communities who fuel suspicion and discontent. By simply being who they are, these people prove an ironic benefit to writers. We thank them for helping us to explore the irrational, the hateful, the destructive through the characters they inspire. If, by chance, our work benefits the reader or society at large in any measure, we owe them that much more gratitude.
As a writer of fiction and creator of characters, I’ve advocated for the use of common sense as saving grace, the obvious right way to function in the world, to react to situations, to make things better, to succeed. Boy, was I wrong.
Common sense, as defined by Dictionary.com, is “sound practical judgment that is independent of specialized knowledge, training, or the like; normal native intelligence.”
How can any judgment, if independent of knowledge and training, be sound or practical? How can it be called intelligence?
I’ve reexamined stories I’ve written, and it’s obvious that successful characters employ something more than what I once considered to be common sense, their actions, instead, based on knowledge, training, and a cultivation of ability and understanding. Those characters who employ actual common sense end up filling the bellies of zombies.
Let’s stroll down Common Sense Lane to one of its most popular houses, Science Denial. Global warming, despite what you’ve heard in media laughingly calling themselves news services, is not scientific fantasy, and it’s not a hoax. Scientists leave fantasy to science fiction writers and hoaxes to pundits. Politicians and corporate persons, however, have cynically refined misinformation to convince many purveyors of common sense that global warming does not exist. Even if it does exist, members of the U.S. Senate majority sneer, humans are completely guilt free and in no way cause changes in climate. These senators quickly point out that they’re not scientists. But why let that get in the way? What do scientists really know when it comes to science?
North Alabama’s congressional rep, Mo Brooks, a proud and vocal resident at Science Denial, posed this question in 2011: “[W]ould it be fair to say then that there has been a cooling of global temperatures at least over the last 13 years compared to 1998?” The answer is, of course, no, it would not be fair, nor would it be accurate or anywhere near factual. The last decade was the hottest on record since record keeping began, with 2014 the hottest year on record. But Mo’s sisters and brothers in denial in theSenate didn’t let such indisputable data get in the way of being independent of specialized knowledge. Instead, the majority tapped Ted Cruz, a vocal science and climate change denier, to head the Senate’s Subcommittee on Science and Space and James Inhofe, one of the most notorious climate change deniers in government, to chair the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee.
Leadership! But nothing more than a reflection of the electorate.
We Americans pride ourselves in our smarts, and we elect politicians who reflect our astounding acumen. Want more examples of our prodigious common sense? According to a 2006 McCormick Tribune Freedom Museum survey, more than half of us can name two or more Simpson cartoon family members, but only one in four can name more than one of the freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment. Our constitutional prowess gets even better. According to a 2007 survey by The First Amendment Center, 55 percent of us (75 percent of Republicans and evangelicals, 50 percent of Democrats) believe the Founding Fathers wrote Christianity into the Constitution, establishing the U.S. as a Christian nation (pssst…they did not). Despite specific constitutional language ensuring freedom of worship to citizens of any religion—Christian, Muslim, Spaghetti Flying Monster, none at all—people are far less willing to extend to religious groups they consider extreme the freedom they enjoy in exercising their own beliefs.
In that same survey, nearly half of the respondents said teachers in private and public schools should be allowed to use the Christian bible as a factual text in history class. Further, some 60 percent of us Americans believe the biblical story of Noah’s Ark to be literal. Fifty percent believe a biblical rapture is in the near offing, with Jesus himself leading the faithful into heaven from an Earth that 50 percent of us claim to be only 6,000 to 10,000 years old, despite fossils, carbon dating—well, despite scientific fact. A good 10 percent believe that Barack Obama is Muslim, except during those moments when they’re condemning him for his membership in Trinity United Church of Christ of Chicago. Then they say he’s a radical.
More than a decade after we destroyed Iraq and ensured generations of hatred toward the U.S., 30 percent of Americans still believe that Saddam Hussein was directly responsible for the September 11, 2001, attacks (he had nothing to do with the attacks). In a 2003 National Geographic survey, only one in seven respondents between ages 18 and 24 could identify Iraq on a map even though we invaded it because Saddam Hussein purportedly possessed weapons of mass destruction (he did not). Only 29 percent could identify the Pacific Ocean, that big ol’ blue pond off the California coast (Cali-what?). And up from 20 percent in a 1999 survey, a full 26 percent of Americans in a 2014 National Science Foundation survey said that the Sun revolves around the Earth. Yes, they truly did.
That’s our common sense in a nutshell. When it comes to the politicians we elect, we have nothing but “sound practical judgment that is independent of specialized knowledge, training, or the like” to blame. Politicians understand we Americans aren’t adept in government operation any more than we are in science, history, or geography. Take our inability to interpret the annual budget. A 2010 World Pacific Opinion survey found that most American voters want to cut foreign aid because they believe such aid comprises at least 27 percent of the budget. It’s less than one percent. Seventy-one percent of us, according to a 2010 CNN poll, also want to cut the size of government, and we want to do it by at least 50 percent, according to a 2009 Gallup poll—never mind that such drastic reductions would slash Medicare, Social Security, and Medicaid, cuts that 70 percent of us oppose. Politicians thus pander to our fears, stoke our prejudices, and keep us ignorant, in line, and reliant upon common sense.
I once believed common sense to be a higher level of logic and reason common to all but accessed by few. But I’ve learned that common sense is nothing more than the collective stupidity of a culture or people, utilized as standard operating procedure and erroneously promoted as extraordinary and desirable. Denying responsibility, rejecting fact, perpetuating ignorance, operating out of hate and fear—that’s common sense and the foundation for stagnation, regression, and deterioration. It’s uncommon sense that takes a society forward. We advance only when we disengage “judgment that is independent of specialized knowledge, training, or the like,” and embrace a higher level of reasoning reliant upon fact and truth to benefit the common good.