August 30, 2016: The “A” Word

Word day for the second week in a row in the Tater Patch, folks, and although the term under consideration today isn’t particularly eastern Kentuckian, it goes back to the dawn of human culture itself: ANTHROPOMORPHISM. Call it the “A” word for short if you like, but thankfully, it’s a lot more easily defined than spelled: basically, when you think or speak of a thing or an animal as if it were human, you’ve anthropomorphized it. The Book of Job says that “the morning stars sang together” at the Creation (38:7), and even before Aesop wrote his fables, talking and human-reasoning animals were already the stock of children’s stories. If the “A” word isn’t an inborn psychological tendency in humans it’s certainly a time-honored practice in child-rearing: parents and educators try to teach kids basic life lessons from stories such as the Little Red Hen, the Ant and the Grasshopper, and the Three Little Pigs, and as the kids mature, hopefully they accept the fact that although the animal fables are just that, fables, the principles behind the tales are still sound and worth keeping.

I suspect, though, that the “A” word has finally reached its low point. At least I hope so. Over the centuries we’ve gone from oral tales to storybooks, books to animated cartoons, cartoons to computer-generated films, and just recently a brand-new creation of this type, “Sausage Party,” has been released to movie theaters. It’s a story about living, thinking groceries who conceive of humans as gods that buy them to care for them in the Great Beyond, but who find out the hard way that their real fate is to be cooked and eaten. Its violence and gore make the shootings and explosions of yesteryear’s cartoons appear tame by comparison, not even to mention its graphic sex and language, and although it’s billed as strictly R-rated adult fare, the kids of parents either too lazy or preoccupied to care for them properly will still watch it—if not in movie houses with these same lazy or preoccupied parents, then either on pay-per-view, cable, or DVD while the aforemention-ed lazy, preoccupied parents amuse themselves otherwise. At least my own Tater Tots are grown, so in any case I won’t have to do any explaining that, our status as Taters notwith-standing, peeling a potato is not the equivalent of flaying a human being alive, noodles aren’t really a soup can’s entrails, and baby carrots don’t actually shriek in terrified little-girl voices for their mommies when you pop them into your mouth. How long do you actually think it’ll be until we see “Sausage Party” collectible figurines and stuffed toys on the market, R-rating notwithstanding? I’m betting Christmas.

But “Sausage Party” isn’t the only way we’ve misused the “A” word—and strange as it may sound, its script writers aren’t even entirely wrong. In the story, the groceries think of humans as gods, and in reality, what do humans do? Mostly, we keep an A-word concept of our Maker that’s very little clearer or better than the childhood view from which we congratulate ourselves that we’ve matured. Not only is this the real reason terrorists crash airplanes into buildings in the name of God, but also why there are so many fights and so much gossip and bad blood in individual churches while everyone still claims to “love one another.” As humans, we imagine God as some super-HUMAN endowed with both our best and worst qualities, and then both preach His love and proclaim intolerance in His name because we’re too terrified of our own concept of Him to dare omit the practice of either. Could this split personality to which we’ve A-worded the Creator actually be the worst kind of blasphemy? In the words of Asaph in Psalm 50:21, quoted here from the Revised Standard Version for clarity rather than the King James, God accuses the wicked that “you thought that I was one like yourself.” So maybe it’s time that we actually took this to heart along with I Corinthians 13:11, that “when I was a child I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” Asaph the Psalmist and Paul the Apostle were more correct in these passages than even they knew—or than we do. We all need to grow up, accept that it’s better to have questions we can never answer than answers we can never question—and start acting like the adults we claim we are. The “A” word, like cartoons, is for kids.


August 23, 2016: Blackguardin’

The final portion of last week’s column prompted me to reflect some more about my use of a truly characteristic eastern Kentucky verb: that being, to blackguard. Any good dictionary will tell you that a blackguard (the noun, in most areas of the English-speaking world pronounced “blaggard,” with a silent “ck”) is “a person, particularly a man, who behaves in a dishonorable or contemptible way” or, quite simply, a time-honored synonym for a scoundrel. But you can only find the verb form of the term, that is, to blackguard (in this usage pronounced just like it’s spelled), in lexicons of archaic English, and it means “to abuse someone in a coarse, insulting manner, often humorously.” In short, in the eastern Kentucky of only a few years ago, the old Anglo-Saxon terms for the derriere as noted in my last week’s musings, the acts of defecation, flatulence, urination, and procreation, and the two short synonyms for female dogs that come to mind, for example, weren’t cuss words, exactly: rather they were blackguardin’, though they were certainly looked upon by most folks with little if any more favor than the strictly cussin’ words one might utter in violation of the Third Commandment or the Sermon on the Mount’s injunction to “swear not at all.” 

Even the Kentucky judicial system once made a distinction between cussin’ and blackguardin’. At one time uttering a profane oath in court guaranteed, and perhaps still guarantees, a bench-imposed fine; though not entirely accurately, this misdemeanor was once referred to legally as blasphemy, and there’s an old story still floating around local courthouses about some poor guy who was fined a dollar for blaspheming, had only a five-dollar bill in his pocket for which the bailiff couldn’t make change, and so therefore decided to cuss out the judge for four more dollars’ worth of profanity. But in one of the last documented proceedings involving “bad” language ever to be tried in a Kentucky court, featuring an outspoken Knox County female moonshiner who’d openly identified the County Attorney prosecuting her case as the offspring of a female dog, the Kentucky Court of Appeals found in the woman’s favor in this particular because her choice epithet didn’t strictly involve blasphemy as such: in the exact (but slightly censored) words of the March 7, 1952 ruling, “When a gentleman speaks to a lady possessing Mattie’s rugged personality he should not be abashed if she calls him a son of a (expletive deleted). He should merely consider it one of the vicissitudes of life and go on his way rejoicing, comforted by the thought that women are often mistaken.” Chauvinistic, I know, but it’s probably the very thing that County Attorney needed to hear, especially if he was throwing the book at poor Mattie for engaging in one of the few ways she could eke out a livelihood on a thin-soiled hillside farm. At one time even in this county, not to mention Kentucky’s other hundred and nineteen, one could do more jail time for chicken stealing than homicide, depending on one’s family’s political connections. Reckon that’s still the case? 

Anyway: language inevitably evolves over time. When the King James Version of the Bible was translated, the most commonly-known current blackguardin’ word for urination was still considered acceptable for polite conversation and even public reading matter (for example, see I Samuel 25:22 and Isaiah 36:12). The King James remained the most widely-accepted English translation until the mid-twentieth century, and yet the repressive Comstock Anti-Pornography Postal Laws of the late 1800s and early 1900s made it technically illegal to send a Bible through the mail because it had that word in it—though, as we can easily imagine, the puritanical Postmaster General Anthony Comstock’s censors ignored that one little indelicacy because it was the Bible, after all. But it’s hard to say what the future holds. Television networks have openly broadcast common cuss words for years now, and every day the majority of them are “bleeping out” fewer and fewer terms that we usually define as blackguardin’. Might the polite speech of our descendants one day sound as foreign, and as coarse, to us as that of our ancestors who spoke the English of the King James Bible? Will the so-called F-bomb and S-word finally come full circle from ancient Anglo-Saxon and be termed as “good English” once more? And by that time, and with those terms added back in, will the language even be worth speaking and writing, that is, if anybody’s still even being taught to write on paper rather than using a keyboard

(Expletive deleted) if I know. I’m just a Common Tater. 

August 16, 2016: Quotation Remarks

My biggest regret as a Common Tater is that, no matter how hard I try to persuade Sweet Tater, she won’t let me quote her in my column. She feels that our conversations are confidential and should remain that way. Although I’ve even offered to attribute all her sayings to “my first wife,” for some reason she doesn’t like that idea either. But I guess I really can’t blame her. She’s right; I do need to keep our private communications private. But then technically, I guess I’ve actually just now quoted her. You can’t win sometimes.

Even so, and though she be unquoted, Sweet Tater remains my constant inspiration. I don’t mean to say that like some sanctimonious blow george in the pulpit on Sunday morning, either. Every time I hear a preacher start showering his wife with sugary, lovey-dovey compliments during a sermon I want to ask him—and her, too—if her familiarity with his private conduct ever prompted her to shout and rejoice and shake hands with the sisters while he was up sermonizing. In twenty-odd years of churchgoing and pastoring I never saw such a phenomenon from Sweet Tater, nor did I expect to. She knew, and knows, me too well for such as that. But I guess the main reason she’s inspirational to me is the fact that, though we lock horns and butt heads from time to time like people with strong opinions must, more often than not she and I find ourselves in a conspiracy against the rest of the world—and once in a while, that very conspiracy itself takes a wry, humorous turn on its own. She’s a wonderful co-conspirator, whether we’re conspiring or being conspired against, or both.

To illustrate, I’ll tell the story of a sermon that she and I once heard together. For the record, it wasn’t from either Brother Drye or Brother Beare, but rather an out-of-state guest one Palm Sunday years ago at a church I pastored. He began his discourse by telling the Palm Sunday story from the twenty-first chapter of Matthew in the King James Version of the Bible, a portion of which reads (verse 5): “Behold, thy King cometh unto thee meek, and sitting upon… a colt the foal of an ass.” Meaning, of course, in the Shakespearean English of the good old King James, that Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a young donkey, but that morning my visitor tried to quote that particular verse from memory—and he got the words “foal” and “ass” exactly backwards. I was sitting behind him in the pulpit and so he couldn’t see my facial expression when I heard that Our Lord had entered Jerusalem perched on the southern end of a northbound foal, but I looked over to the sisters’ section of the congregation at Sweet Tater, she looked back at me, and both of us lifted songbooks almost simultaneously to hide our faces. We couldn’t hold our hymnals there forever, though, and so I think we passed the rest of the service wearing broad grins which I suppose we both hoped appeared indicative to everybody else of how happy we were in our salvation that blessed morning. After the service was over I couldn’t even bear to point out Brother Foale’s misquote to him in private; he was always very serious and earnest in his conduct and thus it would have been too embarrassing for both him and me, and in any case I couldn’t have repeated what he said with a straight face if my life had depended on it. Even now I can’t. I still laugh out loud almost every time I think about the incident, this many years later. But that evening Sweet Tater and I became reflective, and sad as well, when we realized that of all the people in attendance at church that morning, we were the only adults even to notice that we’d been “blackguarded,” as the old folks’ saying went, by an ordained minister. Nobody else was paying close enough attention to the preacher’s words to pick up on the gaffe. So maybe the biggest, dirtiest joke was on the pastor and his wife, after all.

Oh, well. At least Brother Foale didn’t infuriate my flock by mentioning any Bible verses about makeup or divorce. That’s something, anyway. I won’t quote any of mine and Sweet Tater’s discussions on those two subjects, but one day I may tell you how another minister burbled verbally over Ephesians 6:16’s “fiery darts of the wicked”—if I can just figure out how to word it in a family newspaper.

August 9, 2016: Grandma and the Second Amendment

My three previous gun-control columns have been more or less solemn and earnest, but I find that I simply can’t leave the issue until I add something a little more lighthearted—although down deep, this story is as serious as the others. It involves the first time I ever personally witnessed a Second Amendment violation, but it also has the bonus of allowing me to recount a memory of one of the few times I ever had a laugh on my father rather than the other way around. Even so, I was a bit too intimidated at the time to laugh myself. You’ll see why.

Dad’s mother was, well, memorable—perhaps not so much so as her first cousin Lucinda about whom I’ve already written, but unforgettable nonetheless. I don’t remember a time growing up when Grandma wasn’t dying of some horrible disease or other, and sadly, one of her ailments finally caught up with her two months before her ninety-fifth birthday. Smile if you will at that. I was twenty then, and in spite of all the times she’d threatened to die, I still mourned when she actually went ahead and did it. I wonder how long she’d have lived if she hadn’t smoked like a freight train all those years.

After my grandfather Sparks passed away, Grandma moved from Offutt to another community nearer Paintsville. Her new home was bordered closely by a church and three other houses, one of these belonging to the congregation’s minister (a cousin) and another to one of her nieces. In spite of this snug, comforting presence of God and kin, though, she still slept with Grandpa’s old Smith & Wesson 32-caliber “yaller jacket” under her pillow, and it was unwise to step onto her porch after dark without calling first. One night she thought she heard a prowler, got up, drew the revolver, and emptied it into her front door. Trouble was, she’d tried to sight down the barrel of the .32 as if it were a rifle—at least that’s how Dad figured it afterward—and consequently temporarily lost the hearing in her right ear. I learned how to shoot using that old gun myself, and a small cannon couldn’t have had much more of either volume or recoil.

After a relative telephoned us Dad rushed to the scene, worried about bullet holes not only in cousins’ houses but in cousins too. He had me come with him; if it wasn’t for moral support I’m not sure why. Thankfully, we found no casualties except the door and Grandma’s ear, and nobody’d even called the law—gotta love family—but Dad was mightily irked about Grandma’s carelessness with the gun and he began to try to lecture her on firearm safety. That’s when the real trouble started. Grandma was hardly ever at a loss for a reply to anything or anyone, but she absolutely could not hear out of her right ear for days afterward and about every ten words out of Dad’s mouth she’d interrupt him with a loud “HUH?” He’d increase his volume for another sentence or so, then get another “HUH?” in reply, and so after the sixth or seventh “HUH?” he was speaking as loudly as I ever heard him talk in my life, his jawline was an alarming shade of dark crimson, and his blue eyes were flashing fire. I just tried to listen and not say a word—for the most part, Dad was one of the most even-tempered men I ever knew, but when his patience was tried too far you wanted to climb a tree before asking what was wrong—and stifle my laughter at the situation he and poor old Grandma were caught in. I think some of the cousins got tickled too, and like me, were trying their best not to show it. Nobody dared look at each other. The whole thing really wasn’t funny, yet it was hilarious. I think the Germans call this kind of thing “schadenfreude,” but Teutonic title or no, it was pure eastern Kentucky.

At the end of Dad’s rebuke Grandma said “HUH?” again. At that point Dad just gave up and confiscated the pistol, I helped Grandma pack her things together, and we locked her well-ventilated door and brought her home with us. Technically, Dad thus violated Grandma’s Second Amendment rights, but looking back, I don’t think the strongest gun enthusiast in the world would have dared say a word about it to his face at the time. Like the proverbial skeleton afraid to cross the road, nobody in their right mind would’ve had the guts.

August 2, 2016: Apocalypse Now!

WE INTERRUPT THIS COLUMN FOR AN IMPORTANT ANNOUNCEMENT: THE APOCALYPSE IS COMING, and none of the Presidential candidates—not even THAT one—is the Antichrist. Nonetheless, it’s on its way, and this man, the Common Tater, knoweth both the day and the hour: Saturday, August 6, from 10am to 6pm in Cynthiana, Kentucky, 22 miles northeast of Lexington on KY 353. HEARKEN UNTO THE SOUND OF MY VOICE, YE READERS. 

I had wanted to wind up my gun control essays with the story of my old grandma and the time she lost a fight with her front door and a .32 Smith & Wesson double-action revolver, but I guess that’ll keep till next week. After all, it’s kept for forty-odd years already. For the present I have a story to tell about my work abode of nearly every weekend, Cynthiana, home of 3M’s Post-It Plant; the Kentucky’s Best Cigarette Factory; the E. D. Bullard company that makes industrial strength hard hats; a great many tobacco and horse farms; Harrison Memorial Hospital (finest rural healthcare gig I ever worked, too: quality patient care, a Board of Directors and Management attuned to the needs of working professionals, and best of all, no blatant eastern Kentucky-style nepotism); and, as I found out only recently, the genuine birthplace of the pop cultural phenomenon known as The Walking Dead. 

That’s right. The Walking Dead. And the whole thing got its start in, of all places, the Bluegrass State. Tony Moore, the original artist of The Walking Dead in its pre-American Movie Classics Network days as a comic book series, happens to be a native of Cynthiana, and he set the beginning of the great and notable Day of the Zombie Apocalypse in Room 251 of the very hospital that graces his dear old home town—and where I work. Even Moore’s sketches of the outside of the hospital building and the grounds in the comic’s first issue are true to real life. And so this coming Saturday the city of Cynthiana, in conjunction with Harrison Memorial, will host its very own Walking Dead Festival with the theme of “Where It All Began.” I’ve already heard that every hotel and motel in Lexington, Georgetown, Paris, and Cynthiana itself is booked solid by eager fans of both the comic and the television series. It’s possible that we could see a crowd of as high as ten thousand this weekend, though it’s a daunting prospect to think of the majority of them dolled up like rotting corpses for their tour of the fateful Room 251 at the hospital and through the rest of the city. I have to admit to my own particular dread at the possibility of hundreds of cases of heat exhaustion, along with the aftereffects of however many impromptu fights between avid fans, flooding our Emergency Room, and the idea of seeing teeth marks on scalps is—well, let’s just say if that occurs it’ll really put us hospital workers in the genuine spirit of the thing. Especially if some joker gets too far into his roleplaying and decides he wants to try out the flavors of OUR brains. But I’ve already told you in a previous column: the essence of life in any hospital is its unceasing and consistent absurdity, so I’m ready to ride along with a big smile. For one Saturday, at least. 

Should the city of Cynthiana be this eagerly supportive of an artist who has so deftly exploited his own hometown to begin the tale of a science fictional world disaster? Well, why not? After all, no publicity is bad publicity and if Samuel Johnson was correct, anyone who writes for any other reason than money is a fool. I myself cherish my tiny royalty payments and even the little dab that the good folk of Around Town pay me for Commontatering. By Johnson’s definition, Tony Moore and his original partner in the Walking Dead venture, Madison County native Robert Kirkman, are thus as eligible for a place in Kentucky’s literary pantheon as Jesse Stuart and Robert Penn Warren. Besides that, I prefer out-and-out over-the-top sci-fi to a great deal of the fiction-posing-as-fact scribblings I’ve seen lately from from so many Appalachian, including Kentucky, authors. A. J. Offutt always could write better than that son of his anyway. I think Moore and Kirkman have done great by themselves. So if you’re into the story line of The Walking Dead, this weekend hit the Parkway, set the GPS, and enjoy. Fresh apples in Paintsville the first weekend of October, fresh brains in Cynthiana the first weekend of August. What could be better? Come on down!