Writing is a lot like constipation: always an ordeal, but the results are gratifying.

From letters:
Dear Ann,
    While this has been a good summer for hay and cattle, it's been particularly demanding of my time. So I value all the more the rare Sunday afternoon (like this) when I can sit in my office, mind uncluttered, and study.
    Reading a passage by Machiavelli in exile on his farm, I feel in good company--if not presumptuously so:

    While I refuse to succumb to regret, that most evil of heresies, sometimes in the mind-numbing hours of baling hay and such (in exile on the farm), I wonder if I might have done better with myself, earlier in life. Such thoughts are not worth dwelling on.
    Today, I stepped out of the car with an armload of groceries, whistling some nameless tune that had been playing on the radio. I wasn't aware of the song until Leah said, "Don't you just hate it when the last song you hear gets stuck in your head?"
    "Yes, I do."
    So this evening I'm reading with my earplugs in (foam-rubber, industrial noise-killers, they shield me from distractions of TV, conversation, etc. when I read). When I got up momentarily to get an apple from the refrigerator, I made the mistake of removing the earplugs. The kids had left the TV on to "America's Stupidest Home Videos," and there was a guy with his parrot, both of them whistling the theme from the Andy Griffeth show.
    So how do you concentrate on Machiavelli's "The Prince," with the whistling soundtrack of Andy Griffeth (not to mention the images associated with it) running inexorably in the background? Try it sometime, just try it.

January 21, '95
Dear Ann,
    We were talking the other day about rituals. . . . This morning (Saturday) as I passed by Sidney's station just before seven and saw the lights on and Caroline and the boys inside, I thought, YES.
    Sidney Smith was a Verden man, a good mechanic and local character who operated a filling station for years. His greatest joy sometimes seemed to be nothing more than bad jokes. I even laughed at one of his Rastus and Liza jokes, which offend me. Seriously irreverent, he also had a fully developed sense of community. I stopped by to talk business one time, and we had to hide in the back of the station so he wouldn't be seen doing business during the funeral of some local personage directly across the highway at the Baptist church. Sidney could be counted on to overhaul a motor, run gas out to a stranded car, or get a combine running during wheat harvest.
    And Sidney's station was an integral part of the Verden social order. In the office or parlor (what do you call that little front room in a service station?) at any time of day you might find several country boys visiting, reading the paper, drinking coffee. This scene was especially tuned to the morning. Between 6:30 am (when Sidney and his wife Caroline opened) and 7:30 or 8:00, you could find the regular crew parked there. Local rancher Steve Winn, called it his office--one morning when I phoned him, his wife said, "Steve's not here, he's gone to the office." Buddy Winn, the school bus mechanic, was a morning fixture at Sidney's, as were Rick Willis and Eddie Flood. (Eddie would breakfast at Vivian's Café, then drive to Sidney's.)
    When Sidney died of lung cancer last January, the community genuinely and collectively grieved. It was one of the biggest funerals I've been to in Verden. He died with his sense of humor intact. On the subject of pallbearers he said, "Preacher, I don't b'lieve there's six guys in Verden that don't have bad backs."
    Caroline, Sidney's widow--who's only about your age, too young for widowhood--has been unable to sell the station. Dalton Abbott runs another station a block down the highway. Sidney's station is economic deadwood in a declining community like Verden. The wrenches still hang on the wall; the soda machine is still stocked and lighted; the place is exactly as it was a year ago, the day Sidney last closed up.
    But something of an electrical charge ran through me one Saturday morning about ten months ago when I drove past the station about seven and saw the parlor lit up and Caroline and the boys drinking coffee. And when I drove by this morning and saw it again, I thought YES.
    These are the rhythms that thrill me. I want to write as priest and prophet of the everyday. I see no less power in that lighted Saturday morning station than in, "Take, eat, this is My body which was given . . ."

    One time I'd been baling alfalfa hay all night on a place just a 1/4 mile from the Washita River.  I finished about 4 a.m.  It was always a relief to shut down the roaring tractor and its exhaust fumes, to kill the garish offense of its headlights on the dark landscape, and to lose the baler's cloud of dust and its soul-numbing, rhythmic pounding din.
     This particular night as I restored darkness and quiet to the world, I heard something unusual.  From the direction of the river, down the dirt track through the trees, came the sound of a drumbeat and a chanting chorus.  Indians.  I couldn't see the fire or distinguish words.  But there was a marked contrast between the two rhythms, the mechanical and the tribal.  Although I couldn't participate in the river gathering, I took something from it nonetheless.

    A symptom of modernism, said Virginia Woolf, has been storytelling's atrophy or irrelevance.  Our century's experimentation with narrative has ranged from Joyce and Woolf through Oates and Barth, often seeming to produce haughty disdain toward the simple story.  Ironically, at century's end, story is  making a comeback.  "A crucial assumption of modernism--that because narrative distorts reality it should be abandoned--has itself been abandoned" (Buford, 12).  Narrative has emerged from its forty days in the wilderness and stands poised to take over the world--the world of literature anyway, the worlds of history, law, and medicine, and a small continent in science.  We may not know why, but we crave stories.

1998  (from an unfinished profile)
     "We don't have much here in Mangum, but we don't lack much either.  About the only TV I watch is PBS--and the Discovery channel, which I can't get out here, but I used to get it at Marge's house in town."  Marge was a widow and didn't drive.  For years Joe drove her to church Sunday nights.  But if the Discovery channel were playing something interesting, they'd watch that instead.  Marge would say, "I can wait to go to church."
     Joe's church-going was strictly on Marge's behalf.  "She knew I couldn't stand it unless I was intoxicated, so she kept a bottle of Wild Turkey on hand.  She'd pour me a bit, oh, near half full in a water glass, and then off we'd go to church.
    "They used to sing two or three hymns to begin the service.  And me and Marge--we'd sing like birds.  I remember one night I looked around, and we was the only ones singing.  We had a good time going to church.  Marge was careful to keep that whiskey on hand for me--she'd say, 'Joe, you're nearly out of Turkey.'
     "But Marge passed away, so I don't see the Discovery channel anymore."

 All Right, Who's Responsible Here?
 by CB Bassity 1996

     I came to Stephen Hawking's 1988 book, A Brief History of Time, with mixed intentions. Not only did I want to learn what is science's best understanding of the world (albeit eight years dated), but I figured such knowledge might also add weight to one or the other side of my private debate concerning the Great Clockmaker.
     It's maddening, in a way, this book.  It leads to circular logic.  By pointing to the clockwork precision of the universe, we may conclude that there's no role, no need, no place for a god.  However, that very precision leads right back to the question: who or what, in Hawking's terms, "breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe?"
     Hawking does simplify, to the extent that's possible, the concepts of physics—quantum theory and the theory of relativity, the search for a grand unifying theory and the universe's seeming reluctance to yield one.  He explains quantum theory, which deals with the very small and seems to stand up to experimental evidence.  From particles, antiparticles, and quarks—and their observed and suspected behaviors—to probabilities and wave/particle duality we "see" into the tiniest and mightiest workings of the universe.  And he illustrates science's best understanding of the immense doings of the universe through gravity, doppler shifts, and the like.  From the very near—93 million miles to our sun—to the very far—the edge of the universe where we could theoretically see the beginning of time, if we could see it at all—the starry beyond is filled with such wonders as black holes, white dwarf stars, and supernovas.  But although we seem to understand the universe at levels of scale with umpteen zeroes—near infinities of giant and minuscule—the two ends of our science refuse to reconcile with one another just yet.
     Carl Sagan, in his 1988 introduction to A Brief History of Time, says we are "equidistant from the atoms and the stars."  We are able, it seems, to see way off in either direction, but somewhere at each end of the scale we're done in by zeroes.
     It's maddening that for all we've learned we still know so little really.  If we come to this book with questions, we come away with answers—a better understanding of what's out there— but the big questions remain.  Assuming the Big Bang—as we must until other evidence dissuades us—all our understanding, all the laws of science, break down at the Bang itself.  We can't know what was before, or even if there was a before.  Time and all of existence may well have exploded into being at once.
     As a child I remember being troubled by the notion that the universe is constantly expanding.  Into what?  What's beyond?  What could all that expansion be displacing?  And what was there before the big bang?  One can easily leap from these unknowns to a God, but from what did God emerge?  Hawking and other mathematicians (wouldn't Pythagoras be pleased!) have posited that, just as one can travel the surface of the earth without finding an edge, space-time (a shorthand term for the four dimensions we inhabit) may have no beyond, that it's curved in on itself.  And, too, other dimensions than our four may account for much.
     If the universe is constantly expanding, which implies an infinity we are quite glib about, might not the converse also occur simultaneously?  Is it possible that for every measure of increase in the universe there is a corresponding division of matter or energy into ever smaller units, and perhaps the processes meet somewhere.  Perhaps the entire universe is contained in every minuscule part therein.  Maybe that dimension where the immense and the minuscule join, like some M. C. Escher etching, is the mind of God.  The Rabbi said, Keep two truths in your pocket at all times. Let one be: For my sake was the world created, and the other: I am but dust and ashes.

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