Neither a Rationalist Nor an Empiricist Be: The Primacy of Interpretation Over Theory or Data

There is a dramatic diversity in the methodologies employed by social scientists, even within a single field. These range from in person ethnographies and interviews (which may be relatively structured or not) to structured surveys, and all the way up to statistical analysis of aggregate, socioeconomic or demographic data. When controversies flare up over the validity of particular approaches, a predictable pattern plays out.

The modern empiricist makes the seemingly obvious point that theory doesn’t mean much if it doesn’t line up with reality. Data is about collecting information about reality, therefore one should begin with the data.

The modern rationalist replies that you need theory to tell you what data would be salient in the first place, and to understand the meaning of the data you do collect.

The empiricist replies that it doesn’t take much theory to get off the ground, as long as you focus on making your theory testable (or more popularly, falsifiable). But a strong emphasis on theory tends to insulate ideas against the real world, rendering them worse than useless; perhaps actively harmful.

The rationalist replies that these are all theoretical considerations, checkmate empiricist!

The empiricist rolls his eyes at this example of the kind of unhelpful tautological thinking rationalists engage in.

And so on.

Neither theory nor data reign supreme; interpretation does. Data is not self-interpreting, and theory can guide interpretation but is never the whole story. The scope of possible interpretations we can make is constrained by what Gadamer called our horizons. We speak of people having broader or narrower horizons, and that’s more or less what Gadamer had in mind.

The Zebra Storyteller” is a silly, simplistic version of how this works. It’s not so much that broader horizons increases the scope of what you believe, but of what you are capable of believing, or even of imagining. Having more and varying life experience, but also fiction, art, poetry, and conversation, can all broaden your horizons, expanding the different ways in which you are capable of understanding something. This is the heart of the human capabilities required to make theory or data actually useful; indeed, usable.

Horizons can be broad or narrow as a general matter but they can also be relatively broad or narrow in a specific domain. In science and in scholarship, reading about the different theories, approaches, and analyses available in one’s field (or outside of it!) are key ways to expand one’s disciplinary horizons. But that does not mean the resources from the rest of your life cannot be brought to bear; a novel interpretation of the data may occur to you due to experiences quite apart from those in your discipline or even in any discipline. A theorist may devise a new model based on a favorite story from childhood. And so forth.

And then, once you’ve written your paper, your interpretation is submitted to the larger disciplinary conversation. Other people whose horizons have been formed by different experiences, studies, stories, art, and conversations, can criticize your interpretations, perhaps even see things about why you would leap to that interpretation you yourself did not realize.

A healthy discipline absolutely needs practitioners that submit themselves to the rigors of formal theory in order to promote clear thinking. It also absolutely has to orient its practitioners towards making observations of the actual world, rather than remaining confined to models built up axiomatically. But unless those practitioners also have broad horizons, enriched through intra- and inter-disciplinary reading and discussion, general life experience, and even (especially) any and all forms of art—they are unlikely to produce much of merit.

This is the good version of what is meant when people say “we need the humanities.” It’s quite possible that the actual humanities as currently taught don’t promote this well enough. I couldn’t say; I was a history undergraduate, and while that certainly expanded my horizons, that was one field of the humanities at one college 13 years ago now. I can’t vouch for the state of the humanities and feel no need to; we live in an era absolutely saturated with storytelling. The classics—nonfiction and fiction—are largely available for free or cheap online. Streaming services offer vast libraries of films. Moreover, top scholars are usually accessible via email or sometimes even venues like Twitter. I have never sent an email to a scholar with a question and failed to receive a generous, helpful reply.

The theory vs data debate is useless and ought to be scrapped. The conversation instead needs to focus on making sure practitioners are exposed to a wide range of theories and observation methods, are engaged in fruitful conversation with their peers, and in general are doing what they can to continue to grow, as scholars but also as human beings.

Hermeneutics and Constitutionalism

Heidegger, Gadamer, Taylor, and Rorty all saw poetry, literature, art, and even sports as powerful lenses for understanding the world and explaining their philosophies. Ever since Gadamer bent my framework to the breaking point, I have found that stand-up comedy is the best lens for my own edification.

I have employed this lens in numerous venues before, so I hope you’ll forgive me quoting myself:

There’s something mysterious about a truly successful set. The comic spends no small amount of time laying groundwork, and then lands a punchline that lights up the room. There’s a palpable effect; people loosen up, they’re more likely to laugh at things they might have only chuckled at mere moments earlier. In a sense, the comedian seeks to master the room rather than any specific people in it. But he never knows ahead of time, or even most of the time he’s up, whether he’s going to pull it off or not. Comedians, especially unknowns and especially unknowns performing at open mics, step into a situation of great uncertainty and emotional vulnerability.

Even seasoned comics with well-tested material can blow it and face the agony of an uncomfortably or tensely silent room. There’s never a guarantee, no matter how good they are, that this day won’t be a bad one, this performance won’t win the audience over. And that is after years of almost entirely bad days. In short, it takes not only practice, but considerable commitment in the face of discomfort and humiliation in order to become skilled at comedy.

There are a few key pieces here. First and foremost, the circumstances; jokes do not stand on their own, but are funny in specific contexts. Then there is delivery, of course; the performance. To paraphrase Aristotle, a joke is funny when told the right way to the right audience under the right circumstances. Then there’s a relationship between the two: a successfully delivered joke actively influences the circumstances, improving conditions for the next joke and the one after that. Finally, there is an irreducible, even oppressive, uncertainty; no matter how experienced and skilled the comedian, no matter how reliably their set has worked for however long a time, it is impossible to know that here, tonight, at this performance, they will succeed.

This array of contingencies makes scientific humor impossible:

Now imagine cognitive scientists attempting to study humor. They have a set of pre-written jokes and have people read them in a controlled environment. Or use your imagination—try to think of any controlled environment in which they could systematically study humor. I can’t. Professional comedians brave pitiless audiences for years in order to master the art of formulating and delivering jokes. If they can’t be guaranteed to make you laugh, do you really think cognitive scientists could, much less reliably and in a way that replicates?

In Gadamer’s formulation, understanding is an event, it is something that happens to someone, not something they choose to have. In comedy, a polite laugh is not the same as a deep belly laugh, the kind that leaves you laughing so hard you are crying. The latter is not something you can choose, it is something that happens to you, perhaps in spite of yourself.

For Gadamer, hermeneutics is what we reach for when something has gone wrong, when understanding has not happened. Much as we can choose to try and understand why other people find a joke funny when it failed to make us laugh. Perhaps the end result will be understanding, and as a result when we read new texts employing related ideas, we will understand them from the outset. And perhaps in attempting to understand what people find funny about a joke we did not laugh at, we’ll grasp something intellectually for now that will make us more likely to laugh at similar humor in the future (even if, as anyone can tell you, the very act of understanding a joke in this way kills the particular joke).

Now imagine a judge ordering his bailiff to take away a defendant the jury has just pronounced guilty. Imagine this bailiff does not immediately act; perhaps they are simply spacing out, perhaps they are actively hesitating for some reason. The judge, annoyed, barks his order again, startling the bailiff, who at last complies. Yet into this situation entered the possibility that the bailiff would not act, something that seems more strange, more alien, than the notion that a human being would almost mechanically comply with what another one told them to do simply because the words had been spoken. The judge’s annoyance conveys a frustrated expectation, but only frustrated, not impeded—he still expects to ultimately get his way, and has not even conceived of a scenario in which the bailiff ignores him entirely.

The judge’s order is a speech act, something more specific and institutionalized than the well delivered punchline or the interpretation of a text. Yet the three can usefully be put in parallel for my purposes. Speech act, punchline, and interpretation are all performed actions that achieve an effect on other human beings in specific circumstances. When all goes well, it is almost like an incantation; the bailiff’s body moves on command, the audience roars with laughter with a timing that couldn’t be more precise if it were rehearsed, and a “lightbulb goes off” in one’s head—the reader suddenly finds it impossible to understand something in any other way than the one that has just occurred to them.

I am currently working on a project, a crash course in the political science of the American system. When people have asked me why this project has consumed me the way it has, I have had trouble answering. One answer which is not exactly wrong is that it is relevant. Hermeneutics and pragmatism are fascinating to me, but at the end of the day the payoff of each is that you ought to attend more to the details of life than to the heady abstractions of (even pragmatist and hermeneutic) philosophy. Understanding how the American legal and political system works in practice has much more concrete and useful applications.

But this answer is incomplete. I’ve had trouble articulating the other part but think I have it at last. To me, constitutionalism—which is what this project of mine truly is, constitutionalism in the British sense, the sense not tainted by contractarianism—is simply institutional exegesis.

The constitutional whole

Wood has all the scholarly credentials needed to aid us in the reading of Hegel, but his purpose is to open up the richness of Hegel’s thought, and to answer in his own way Hegel’s claim that “the true is the whole.” This claim too is a source of difficulty, since it seems one must know everything to know anything. And yet this view can also be a source of enabling rather than hindering. If the true is the whole, in a sense one can start anywhere, one can start wherever one happens to be, and traverse the pathways of connection revealed by attentive thinking.

William Desmond’s foreward to Hegel’s Introduction to the System, by Robert E. Wood

To understand the court system you must understand parts like the role of judges, bailiffs, juries, prosecutors, and so forth. These parts add up to the institution of American judiciary as a whole. Only this picture is still partial; the judiciary operates in relation to other institutions; congress, the presidency, the administrative state, the many components of state and local governments, but also the law school system and the pillars of the American legal community. All these and more add up to the American constitution, small-c, which amounts to the whole social system of the nation.

Now, to return to the notion of “performed actions that achieve an effect on other human beings in specific circumstances.” Part of what drew me to constitutionalism in particular of all the possible fields of interpretation was reading more about the details of performed actions in our institutional setting that didn’t have the effect they are formally supposed to have. So The Color of Law contains numerous examples of Supreme Court decisions which simply did not change the reality on the ground at the municipal level, even though the Supreme Court is formally at the top of the system and the rulings were explicitly about municipal laws (rather than being federal cases). Here were judicial punchlines intended to light up the room that were instead met with utter silence.

I began to think of things in terms of:

  • What actors
  • under what circumstances
  • performing what actions
  • achieve what effects

The massive amount of possible combinations means that one cannot ever hope to achieve a comprehensive catalog, even if you lived for a thousand years (the circumstances component alone would be impossible to be comprehensive about). So what can you do?

You can draw an incomplete, imperfect outline of the whole—the constitution. Each part of the constitution is a subject of study with specialists (and practitioners!) who make whole careers out of just that part, or some part of that part. As a constitutionalist, you draw on these specialists from across each institution and corner of society and attempt to flesh out the relations as best you can, to see the big picture that creates the context that each component operates within.

No social action occurs in a void. Audiences are not passive receptacles of comedians’ jokes. Some may not even be there to enjoy the routine; they may be there begrudgingly, and seek to ruin it for everyone or to draw positive attention to themselves by upstaging the comedian. When a comedian sets up a joke, these hecklers can take specific action to torpedo the conditions the comedian is seeking to create. Skilled comedians know not only how to tell a joke to receptive audiences, but how to parry hecklers and use their barbs to the comedians’ own advantage.

Similarly, a ruling issued by the Supreme Court is not met by a passively accepting institutional structure; actors seated at different perches of power throughout the system can take action to nullify any possible effect the ruling might have. In as much as the jurisprudence known as legal realism has a useful practical message for judges on the bench, it is that these factors—how institutional actors will actually respond to rulings—need to be considered when deciding the rulings in the first place.

A good constitutionalist will be able to see a particular action by a particular actor under a particular set of circumstances, and, without being able to scientifically predict anything, have useful thoughts about:

  • What the likely effect would be if no other actor made an attempt at nullification
  • What actions from what actors could potentially nullify the effect of the action
  • What actions from what actors would strengthen or complement the effect of the action

At this time, to speak of constitutionalism in America is rather presumptuous. We have political science and sociology. We have a legal community with a great deal of knowledge of case law. We have capital-C Constitutionalism, which, when it takes the form of philosophy rather than knowledge of relevant case law, is little more than a species of rationalism. But few really attempt the exegesis of American society, to read our institutional character, the constitution that matters more than any other could.

And it just seems to me to be very hard to get a sense of how a particular institution truly functions in the American setting if you don’t have at least a sketch of the overall constitution to provide context.

That, then, is part of my current interest—OK, obsession—with constitutionalism. Gadamer’s hermeneutics truly turned my world upside down and made me reconsider a great deal from scratch. Hermeneutics is the theory of interpretation, exegesis its practice. The more comfortable I became with the former, the more I hungered for a topic in which to practice the latter. Constitutionalism, for a number of reasons I hope I made clear above, has a great deal about it that excites me intellectually.

The Queen is Dead

When I shot her, she cried out, perhaps to her friends, but presumably to her maker, and I felt bad. I knew I had hit her a bit high because I had determined to shoot her as soon as she saw me, so I was aiming center mass, toward the front of her body. A mere augenblick later and I would have managed a better-placed shot. She kicked at the ground for a bit, and I agonized, deciding to reload my gun in order to deliver the coup de grace. By the time I had the expended primer out of the breech, she ceased moving and expired. I was grateful to my maker.

Once I had torn her guts out of the carcass, I examined the heart and lungs. I had missed the heart entirely, but the fifty-caliber bullet had sliced through the top of both lungs. I puzzled, and still puzzle, how she managed to cry out for a few seconds. Nevertheless, beforehand, a few minutes after she grew still I approached her and spoke to her. “Did I do you a wrong? I hope not.” And she ceased from being a doe and became venison.

A wise man asked me recently what I find most joyous; what makes me happy. I answered almost without hesitating: “I find precious joy in being in the woods, armed, ready to kill. Nothing makes me happier than having a coyote come to me, with nothing between me and him but my .44 magnum. I love to touch the primal. I love to kill.” It was, in fact, a primal moment to even say such a thing. I waited for him to respond, and he did.

“We all have a need to kill,” he said. He then related experiences he has with murderers in prison, of a particular sort (I won’t bother to pretend I know the taxonomy of murderers as a group and over against other criminals). The gist of his comments was that we are all killers; we carry a desire to kill within our bosom, but civilized people manage to channel their killing so that it does no bodily harm. When bodily harm occurs, we must incarcerate, or we as a society descend into barbarism. To go hunting, for example, under the restrictions of the state which serve to manage wildlife populations for their own good, is a civilized channel for my desire to kill. As for me, I literally kill a large game animal.

Killing a large game animal participates in profound questions, the morass of living and eating. On the day I killed my doe, I tracked several coyotes, at least two of which hid under a spruce tree only early that morning, after the dawn broke open the day. They had rushed out upon two turkeys and tore them to bits while they were still alive. One of the coyotes then left a large deposit of his own scat, in a post-breakfast relief, I suppose, and then they were off to the further reaches of the woods which lay across two plowed fields.

When they approached the edge of the woods, they spotted a small herd of deer and intercepted them, and the deer leapt across a ditch full of ice, one of them breaking through the surface of the ice and stumbling onto the farm access road, where the two coyotes thoroughly harassed the deer, leaving torn up snow and mud where their tracks created a chaotic map. Eventually the deer overcame the coyotes, and they sped away into a western woods.

Perhaps the deer were circling back to the eastern woods when I caught them unaware. There were three of them. Two ran away while their friend cried out in realization of death. Perhaps my shot was unfair; after all, they had just given those coyotes the slip, and they were mere yards from safe haven in a bed-down area, a thicket of security.

One of my closest relations suffers from a mental illness. The illness itself remains a puzzle to those who are charged with diagnosis: she does not respond well to medication, yet the illness is so debilitating that the government was easily convinced to deem her a disabled person. The illness manifests itself in times when you and I would experience joy: she experiences misery.

What is it? What about joy causes her such pain? A wise person mentioned to her that perhaps it is ice: before she was conscious of feelings, she was taught to not feel anger. Anger is bad. Anger is wrong. Anger is not to be experienced. Anger, then, is put on ice. Of course, when you put ordinary anger on ice, you put all ordinary emotions on ice with it; anger and happiness are not somehow stored in separate buckets in the emotional realm. They all dwell together in one messy human being. If you ice one, you don’t ice them all, you ice it altogether, the emotional realm, that is.

A joyous occasion: birthday? Christmas? a musical recital? Joy is evoked, but compressed rage is waiting to boil over the ice boundaries like so much lava; though it remain beneath the surface, the water boils, and the pressure of the unleashing causes fissures and upheavals, and whatever it is that lurks beneath cannot be contained, not by any strength, not even medical strength.

So she wants to kill.

As a civilized person, she will stay in the channels, but the urge to kill is heavy in her bosom, heavier than it is as it lies under some sort of control within most of us.


Lady Macbeth by George Cattermole (1850)

In the Christian realm there is a lordly indictment. Jesus says (paraphrased), “If you say to your brother, ‘you fool!’ you have committed murder, and you are liable to the hell of fire.” All the saints themselves stand under condemnation by this epithet, guilty as hell and going to Hell for murder, murder, murder; murder many times over. And so it is, the saints repent, and they go about the business of expunging murder from their hearts and lips. But then Job’s wife founded Twitter.

I called a friend of mine a tool on that website, back in 2016, the petulant ass. He deserved it; oh, he deserved it so richly, the arrogant, idiotic, mindless, smug, pretentious, ignorant fool, and I was only too glad to bury the knife in his chest. It was a sin; I was ashamed; I removed myself from Twitter; nevertheless, I had murdered him. Just like that, in a slight fit of my own petulance, and in the heat of the moment, with the number of keystrokes not amounting to enough to measure the time it took, I murdered him. A handful of people chuckled, but I assure you, the angels were horrified at my deed.

What, exactly, are we to do with all this unexpunged sin? Even if there is no such thing as sin (surely the wise are correct to note that murder lurks in at least my heart, and I cannot believe I am extraordinary in that way), do we merely toss the carcass aside and go on guard for vengeance? The return shot may come soon; it may come later. Who prevails in this free-for-all neverending murder spree? We walk around scarred for life, gnashing our teeth, in Hell, thinking–nay, imagining–that we will find the way out of Hell if we could only just kill enough of our enemies.

And what do those do, those who know not to kill–what do they do to alleviate the innate desire and the attendant power to kill?

There are some choices over misery. If you cannot bring yourself to kill and be killed, you can turn the gun on yourself. Many people nowadays have ice so thick upon their hearts they find this the only escape from Hell.

There is another figure to kill, however; where all the killing comes to an end, and the outcry goes up into the dark nether.

That Feeling When You Take Memes Seriously

Memes are destroying America. Haven’t you heard? Whether produced by enemy nations as psy-ops or simply by the evil among and within ourselves, they are definitely bad. And they are definitely serious.

As someone who takes rhetoric pretty seriously, I requested a review copy of a certain book by what I had been assured were two of the top scholars studying rhetoric today on the topic of memes, and specifically alt-right memes in 2015/16. I assumed the narrow focus would allow for a deep dive; I was incorrect. The book was 75% comparative communications theory, 20% summaries of news and articles about memes, and 5% engagement with source material.

The rule of serious attempts to analyze memes as rhetoric is that such attempts are impossible to take seriously. They mutter ominously about dark motives and dire consequences (or scream about this “VIRTUALLY UNREGULATED” genre), all sound and fury, without insight whatsoever.


The combination of their newness, their frivolity, and the audience for which serious works are written, seems guaranteed to produce the most empty, pointless analysis imaginable.

What’s special about memes? Well, it’s like a third of the population became political cartoonists overnight, only the result is even less subtle than that. And of course, politics is but one area that’s been memed; everything from video games and sports to philosophy and theology have subreddits and Facebook pages aplenty dedicated to creating and sharing memes.

But that’s it, really. It’s a more participatory political cartoon. In day to day interactions online, it is less propaganda (which is what the serious analysts want it to be) than a visual stand-in for a one-liner. It’s a means for shit-talking as well as just dicking around for laughs and attention.

Other than that, its significance is no different from any other form of rhetoric. It seems significant now because it’s everywhere. But like all rhetoric, its very pervasiveness militates against a general significance. To put it differently; the literary theorist might think Coca-Cola can brainwash you with advertising, but Pepsi, and for that matter health drinks, can advertise too. A lot of rhetorical effects cancel one another out, just like my vote for a Democrat cancels out your vote for a Republican.

An Actual Serious Analysis™ would focus on specific source material from a specific period and analyze specific effects. This is what the aforementioned book should have done; just gone through hundreds and hundreds of memes and traced their proliferation and evolution, and attempt to suss out their specific impact from how they are received in particular communities. THAT would be interesting. I would find it interesting, at any rate.

Rhetoric does matter. Business-as-usual rhetorical effects occur within the comfortable confines of institutions; you following the voting procedure. The officiant declares a couple married. In as much as the typical meme or the typical political ad has an effect, it is to change people’s within-institutional choices, in this case who they vote for. But the institutions themselves only exist because, much like money, the community “understands” them to. Some rhetorical effects can thus weaken institutions, as when confidence in a currency plummets and people stop accepting it as tender altogether. Part of the buzz around memes is that people really think we’re memeing our way to institutional death. I am skeptical that the memes are the problem. But if you think, as I do, that rhetoric matters, and also that memes are a form of it, then consider bypassing the unified-theory-of-memes approach in favor of an approach that sticks close to specific examples and pays attention to the communities that make use of them.

My Dad and Me, Part 10


The gravity of the sun is exactly the thing needed to cause hydrogen atoms to fuse with helium atoms, creating a fusion reactor at the center of our solar system. The gravity of the sun is also exactly the thing needed to capture other bodies, which, in various ways, orbit it. Some bodies orbit regularly, a safe distance away; others are too far away for any benefit. Some are definitely too close (e.g., my Uncle Forehead), while yet others orbit irregularly.

Thus my grandfather, who died in 1967 at the age of 76, six years before I was born. My dad was 26, living at home four years after a tour in the Navy. My dad talked frequently and endlessly about his dad, telling story after story, trying to “regularize,” I think, a terrible upbringing. One criticism I had of my dad, when I was younger, and foolish, was that he made a virtue out of poverty, which really hurt us. Later, another criticism I had of my dad, when I was a little older and a little wiser, was that he would not take care of his wife, which really hurt us, even when we four children were all adults.

Yes, my dad spoke of his dad often, I think trying to understand the effect such a figure—this giant radiating source of emotional fusion—what effect this man had on his own person, the ninth of twelve children brought forth by this towering, physical hulk of a figure who was supposed to never father a child, but who, wounded, brought many forth and wounded them by his wounds, a terrible perversion of the great type of father.


My dad pristinated, that is, he tried to convince us that life in rural Alabama on a farm in 1950 governed by a man driven mad by physical and psychological pain was the best life imaginable. In many ways, considering the geographical setting and the freedom thereof, he is absolutely right. When he brought me to the Mulberry Fork of the Warrior River to relive his childhood and also teach me basic outdoorsmanship, he fostered in me a love for hills, the forest, and running water.

We were swimming in the river, naked, of course, whooping and hollering. He showed me how to cross my arms over my chest and lie on my back, letting the current pick me up and shoot me feet-first through two big rocks into a deep pool. I must have been seven years old. When I came up for air, in absolute exhilaration, I saw him looking up at the sky. A muscle in his jaw went taut.


“Run with me,” he said. The tone in his voice needed no increased volume, nor did he need to repeat: he was afraid. We scrambled for shore and heard the first crack of thunder, none of that low, rolling, boom which warns those who live in the flat lands so that they may make preparation: a true crack and smash, a million tin-roofed houses being thrown against the bluffs all at once, announcing the arrival of God Almighty.

We were in a chasm, lined by tall granite bluffs, and they were funneling the energy of this squall upstream from around a bend, right toward us, these stately gray bluffs, mute faces judging us in our nakedness, challenging us to make it home alive. Here it came, and there we went, running upstream, running, tripping, falling, for every tree root reached up, allies of the granite faces, grasping for our ankles. Dad knew the way; I did not. He reached back for me and threw me over every obstruction. It did no good for him to carry me; he would only be tripped all the more easily, top-heavy with his only son.

Sheets of rain pelted us from behind while my dad searched with his eyes up the bluffs, looking for the demi-cave, and, finding it, he switched us back up the bank into the granite bluff. He grasped my arm and threw me into the darkest reach of that overhang, roof black with the fires of Indians from long ago. I buried my face in the sand while my dad pressed himself against me. I heard something like a train pass by, the wail of judgment passing over us, and then I heard my dad sigh. He released me, and we sat on the edge of the cave, sheltered by the overhang. One more blast of wind caused the forest to shudder, shaking loose all the rainwater all at once, much of it around us landing in the river to add percussive rejoicing to the congratulatory shout of the rapids. We had proven ourselves. My dad had proven himself a father.

Love includes proper fear, especially when you love a force much greater than yourself.


The Old Man is dead since 2005, and still I tell these stories, as they percolate while I interact with my own four sons, little mirrors, growing, so that I see my dad increasingly clearly in them, which must mean I see my grandfather in me.

vacation 003ed

The John Duke family, in large part. Sister in black gave birth in November. I’m in the middle, back row. I look almost exactly like my dad did when he was 45.

I meant to start Part 10 here with the word “Anxiety,” but I thought, “No, a metaphor first,” and then it got away from me. The gravity of the sun, you see, is the metaphor for our anxiety, that great big force within us which cannot be defined, not any more than the fusion caused by the sun can be defined. I mean, sure, the science textbooks can show us the movement of the subatomic particles from one atom to another, and they can declare, “And a great deal of energy is released,” just so, but who can imagine such a release of energy? Who can understand the pressing forth of tears? Who can understand the declaration to a veteran of a horrible battle, “You shall not father children”? It is not scientific, not any more than trying to describe to people, “Yes, she suffers from Generalized Anxiety Disorder,” without punching the next guy in the face who says, “Well, why can’t she just think happier?”

Unleashing. We have a proper word for this, see? It is an unleashing of energy. And it, like life, goes on.

Note: I’m going to pause here for a while. 1) I got really sick between Part 9 and Part 10, hence the month-long delay, and, I think, the shift in theme and emphasis. So it goes. 2) There are other things I’d like to write about, and I don’t have all the time in the world, as some people who work in tall buildings in the Greatest City in the World do. 3) I want to return to these topics and write serials about them each on their own. 4) Naturally I will tell more stories about my father and my grandfather because they percolate endlessly. 5) I don’t tell too many stories about my mother and siblings because I’m more sensitive to their feelings, being objects, as it were, of the energy unleashed upon them. Also, they have not been dead for 14 years.

Ta-ta for now.

Truth Imperiled

We join our hero as he seeks aid in his quest to save truth, science, and western civilization itself.

OUR HERO: Sir! Sir! Am I to understand you are a philosopher?

ANALYTIC PHILOSOPHER: Why, yes, that is my trade.

OUR HERO: And are you one of those—one of those villainous characters who believes that truth is relative, or there is no such thing as reality, or what have you?

ANALYTIC PHILOSOPHER (offended): I should say not. Truth and reality are the whole point of our enterprise!

OUR HERO: Forgive me. I have just finished watching several videos on YouTube which have disclosed some rather alarming revelations about the state of our culture. Were you aware, sir, of the pervasiveness of postmodernism?

ANALYTIC PHILOSOPHER: Don’t even get me started. All these “critical this” and “critical that” fields, the impenetrable prose…believe me, my colleagues and I are well aware of the problem.

OUR HERO: It is a great relief to hear you say that. Did you know, for instance, that they do not think one can merely observe reality? As if I couldn’t just reach out and touch this table right here, right now!

ANALYTIC PHILOSOPHER (smirking a little): Well, what you’re saying is naive empiricism. Everyone knows that doesn’t work. But the postmodernists certainly go too far.

OUR HERO (uncertain, but pressing on): Yes…for example, they think that knowledge is merely a product of social relations! As if science itself just rested on the flimsy basis of trusting one another and behaving in a trustworthy manner! But any schoolchild knows that with the scientific method you can directly test hypotheses!

ANALYTIC PHILOSOPHER (growing smug): Well…that’s just naive realism. Knowledge is a product of social relations, though I wouldn’t say “merely”.

OUR HERO (baffled): What are you saying?? Are you one of them?

ANALYTIC PHILOSOPHER: Come now, read a book once in a while. Philosophers like Sir Karl Popper, for instance, are very popular with scientists themselves, and he agreed with every word of what I have just said to you. That’s not the problem at all.

OUR HERO: Then…then what is the problem?

ANALYTIC PHILOSOPHER: Well those damned continental postmodernists just don’t see that [long angry rant fleshing out a set of highly technical distinctions]. I mean, whatever happened to basic academic standards?

NEXT TIME: Having discovered how deeply the cancer of postmodernism has spread even among its critics, our hero must venture into the Intellectual Dark Web to find his true allies in this glorious struggle.

My Dad and Me, Part 9


By now you might be wiping your brow in relief, saying to yourself, “Wow, these alcoholic family systems—I’m glad that’s not my lot!” Ah! But Triangles!

An alcoholic family system ought to be considered a basic system of relationship triangles that’s gone radioactive. The intensity is scaled up to unbearable degrees. It is normal stress, normal anxiety without its protective measures in place, proper boundaries. The core of the family has gone critical.

A relationship is simply something between one person and another. A third person adds stress to that relationship; it is tested: perhaps the relationship is strong enough to endure the third person. Most relationships are not. Consider now the sheer number of friends you’ve had who are no longer your friends. Is it fair to say a third party dissolved that relationship? Perhaps. Perhaps not. It depends, right?

Moreover, most relationships are tested by more than one triangle. We are, in fact, in a moving network of triangles, all our relationships being tested by multiple third persons, triangles which entangle, creating anxiety, heightening anxiety.

Blood relationships we are born into. Mother and son. Father and son. Either relationship is automatically in a triangle. Add a sister. Add a brother. Add more siblings. See? It’s a family!

Mother has a mother. So does father. Mother and father have a relationship, a relationship which is not blood, but a relationship which is a union of sex built upon mutual promise, a promise of sexual faithfulness. Mother’s mother pulls against that relationship, testing it. Father’s mother does the same. Perhaps the mother’s father also pulls. And so forth…


Here would go at least one great story as an example, but this is a series about my dad and me. My dad is long dead, and many of those who are part of this relationship are also long dead. When it comes to relationship triangles, however, far too many members of those triangles are alive, and no good example exists without including them, and I simply won’t do that out of respect for their reputations. In other words: it’s not fair to tell any stories. Well, any of the good ones. Here are lesser examples, and these examples signify triangulation from those outside the family, which are milder in effect, but still having had an effect:


When I was in grade school, there were a series of teachers who happened to be pastors’ wives, both in public school and in private school. My dad, of course, was very ostentatious about his membership in the clergy, so everyone in the region knew who he was and what he was about. In addition, he took on that noble task of being an outspoken advocate for the pro-life position, which was politically unpopular at the time, even among the clergy (sometimes especially among the clergy). An ecclesial supervisor of his had taken an advocacy position for the abortion movement, which set my dad and him at odds.

“David,” my dad told me later, “You have no idea what it’s like to speak clearly and forcefully for the policy and position which our church body has adopted, in an effort to pointedly shame the ecclesial leaders, after repeated failed private meetings finally forced a call for an accounting in a public meeting, only to have the ecclesial supervisor begin to cry. He put his head down, David, and he wept openly, feigning with his hands as if to pick nails out of his hands, saying in front of everyone, ‘John, John, why do you persecute me?'”

He told me this story ten, maybe fifteen years after it happened. We were driving somewhere together, and I saw him grip the steering wheel with both hands, and it seemed he was about to tear the wheel off its mount. When he told me the story, an incident from one particular year in grade school flashed into my mind.


The teacher, who was this ecclesial supervisor’s wife, had enjoined the class to draw pictures of home life. The boys conspired together to make a big joke of this, and we decided to subvert the assignment for laughs. While the girls drew pictures of petting their doggies or eating supper or swimming in their pools, we boys drew pictures of abject violence. What a lark! I used black and red, drawing a towering father and mother, somehow without any artistic talent depicting him with an upraised hand holding his belt.

To be fair, my father did on occasion use a belt as a disciplinary device, but only rarely, and I beg the reader to understand that an occasional belting was a perfectly ordinary and acceptable form of corporal discipline in 1980 Appalachia—along with a hickory switch. In context, my dad was sparing in his application of corporal discipline, but a rare occasion or two (as I noted in an earlier account) made a memorable application of it.

However, for the laughs I drew with black and red crayons, understanding perfectly what I was doing, labeling the picture: “Every day when I get home my parents yell at me and beat me.” I submitted my magnum opus, returning to my desk winking at my mates, who all chuckled at the joke. Once I stationed myself at my desk, I forgot about the assignment entirely.

Some time later—I have no idea how much time elapsed. I remember drawing the thing and I remember the incident later on, but an enormous gulf stands between the two moments—some time later, I was confronted with the picture. My dad was hysterical for some reason. Someone was asking me if it was true. As for me, I was confounded. Of course this was a joke. Didn’t everyone understand this was a joke? We all drew the same thing. Why didn’t everyone understand this was a joke?

Ah, but ten years later I understood: my drawing hadn’t been submitted to the principal and then upward to the appropriate family agency for investigation; it had been handed to the ecclesial supervisor, who used it as leverage against my dad, to make him a liar, to out him as a child abuser who used his pro-life advocacy as a cover for his own anti-child treachery.


After some years we moved from Appalachia to the Gulf Coast, to a region where there are more black Lutherans than white. My dad became a low-level ecclesial supervisor, so we were often in the midst of black neighborhoods and townships, and very conspicuous. On one occasion my Dad dropped me off at a church building just before noon, when the service was scheduled to begin. He wanted me to be there in his behalf (I still don’t quite understand this kind of plenipotentiary representation) and he drove off to another church service in another part of town. So there I stood, all by my conspicuous lonesome, waiting by the propane tank at the side of the building, watching people walk by, who stared at me, watching people drive by, who slowed to stare at me, and I tried to act naturally, a teenager, new to the Gulf Coast, a foreigner from Appalachia, already struggling with self-confidence.

Finally, at about 12:15, someone came by the church. I sighed in relief. The man got out of the car and recognized me, calling to me by name, smiling and waving. He unlocked the door, then drove away. I gaped in disbelief. After a while, a few people began to arrive, making preparations for church. All of them took individual notice of me, and, eventually, began to talk to me. When the word was established that I was Pastor Duke’s son, a handful of ladies presented me to the elders, who set about making me comfortable. Their own children were introduced to me, and that day I made friends.

On many occasions I accompanied them on their mission trips through the region, even staying with them in Selma, Alabama during a week-long youth retreat. The young men of that culture took me in (see Judith Rich Harris, RIP), and even though they never treated me as their own (how could they?), they honored me with a measure of acceptance I treasure to this day. They explained to me R&B music, taught me how to dance, showed me how to woo women, and so forth, all the things important to a young man.

Naturally, then, when I had a little money in my pocket to buy some clothes, I modeled myself after them, buying clothes which I imagined I looked good in, according to their friendship.

Back at my dad’s church on the first day I wore my new clothes, the son of the chairman of the congregation took me aside with a concerned look on his face, saying in a low tone, “Don’t you know that only n—–s wear clothes like that?”


Some time later, the chairman of the congregation developed some health issues, finding himself in the hospital for the first time in his life. He said to my Dad—who is a Christian pastor, mind you—he said, “Fate has been good to me until now.”


Do you see the relationship triangle? Do you see why his son came to me with that absolutely audacious judgment against me?

So then, add the radioactivity present in blood relationships…

My Dad and Me, Part 8

Judith Rich Harris, R.I.P.

The vast experience of human existence teaches us that the environment of a child doesn’t really matter very much when it comes to healthy outcomes. Genetics, in fact, do. This indisputable fact overturned the world of developmental psychology (both the Freud and B.F. Skinner schools), the problem becoming especially acute when Judith Rich Harris published her challenge to the college textbook industry with “Where Is the Child’s Environment? A Group Socialization Theory of Development” (Psychological Review 102, 1995).

The kerfuffle which followed has produced a healthy body of literature, in which the facts bore out the challenge: parents aren’t that important when it comes to healthy outcomes of their children. Genetics, in fact, are. Behavioral genetics grew as a discipline and now holds the field in developmental psychology. It seems rather apparent, then, that genetics determines the relationship my dad had with me. Genetics was the determining factor in my grandfather’s response to his experiences in Cullman, in World War I, at SMU, in Memphis, in Tupelo, back in Cullman, and down on the farm above the bluffs, where he clutched a jug of Wildcat Whiskey and fathered as many children as he could, seeding the world with himself.

Except that’s not quite how Judith Rich Harris argues.

(It’s true: I’ve set up a bit of a straw man. Let’s knock it down together.)

Genetics is important in the development of a child, very important. Parents are important, though less so than genetics. But what Harris discovered, or uncovered, is that same-sex peer groups are the most important factor in the health of the development of the child. Hence “Group Socialization.” Healthy peer groups (defined) during childhood produce healthy adults (defined). Qualifiers, caveats, and cautions abound in the vast body of literature (not that I claim any expertise in it), but that’s about it.


In this part (Part 8) of the exploration of Family Systems Theory through the relationship my dad had with me, my remarks will be wandering around the concept of determination.

My dad was perpetually trying to escape, but he found himself within the same kind of emotional network throughout his life. Indeed, it seemed whenever he might actually escape into a realm of contentment, he moved back into a predicament not unlike the old homeplace in Alabama. Was he genetically determined to do so? More to the point: am I?

For a thought exercise, I try to take the morphine addiction away from my grandfather, leaving in place all his experiences leading up to that trauma, which includes the actual physical wound, an emotional trauma itself, as well as the morbid nightmare of having been ambushed and being buried under a pile of his comrades’ bodies. Wouldn’t his life essentially play out the same? Same loss of faith (which itself questions Harris and Behavioral Genetics), same divorce, same post-traumatic stress, same accident in Memphis, same accident in Tupelo, same self-medication, the old brown jug.

I’ve had occasion to review certain traumatic events in my life, both from my childhood and from more recently, and I come to a conclusion, that, even if I knew then what I know now, I would respond and react similarly. I notice, however, that I keep mentioning circumstances. Genetics have nothing to do with circumstances, so I wonder (by leap of logic) what the limits of Behavioral Genetics are.


Bowdlerized, for example, Behavioral Genetics says, “Shucks, about 60% of personality is bound to genetics. Ten percent is bound to parental guidance in the home environment, which leaves about 30% for same-sex peer groups.” Now, the bogeyman of Behavioral Genetics is Freud the Fraud, and then again, by extension, the pseudo-discipline which creates helicopter parents and destroys fun playgrounds, so all the energy of the literature is dissipated in that direction. Read another way, however, genetics shapes only 60% of behavior and personality. The idea that parents can influence behavior and personality as much as 10% is astounding, considering the nature of the rest of the world, whose numbers must be nearly 100% genetics. Further, that nature left 30% up to peer groups: thirty percent! Well, enough said, don’t you think?

The apple does not fall far from the tree until it is picked up and thrown.

It is interesting, is it not, that my grandfather came back home, after it all, and my dad never did.


It is true: in many ways my dad was determined to bring the old homeplace wherever he was. On one rainy day we were driving along through Appalachia, looking for graveyards, and my dad, wistful, pointed to a pasture. “See all those weeds? My father would have had a fit, a fit, son, if any neighbor of his had let his pasture come to that.” I looked to where he was pointing. I saw a perfectly ordinary pasture, resting under a rocky mountain, where cattle were grazing in a light rain, a perfectly idyllic scene. Dad continued, “When we were kids, on rainy days like this Daddy would make us go out into the pasture to pull up all the thistles and milkweed, so that the pasture would be nothing but grass.”

Imagine his obsession with weeds in the garden or in the lawn. My, the anxiety!

My mom, who was raised in post-war Germany, was nothing short of a domestic perfectionist herself. Early in their marriage (and also my childhood), she used to harangue my dad about hanging his pants over various pieces of furniture throughout the house. Finally, he looked up at her from where he was sitting, put the newspaper down, and said, “How about I just put a nail in the wall and hang my pants there?”

Yes, a strange bundle of perfectionistic contradictions, my dad. The same was true, however, of Christmas (described in Part 6, “Eruptions of Joy“), so one must work to sift determination to discern what might be good from what might be bad, and also what might just be so.


When I’d get mad at Deb about something or other, I had a habit of saying, to get my way, “It’s the principle of the thing. The principle is bound to the universal.” Complete poppycock, and I knew it, but I was trying to win, and it was a pretty good move for a while, until Deb said, after the thing argued about crumbled into utter ruin after I’d gotten my way, “Well, it was the principle of the thing, after all…”

The principle of the thing was in no way bound to the universal (it might have been, but that wasn’t the point); it was bound to my father’s loins, carried from his father’s, and probably from his father’s, until the point immemorial when the behavior first expressed itself genetically, perhaps when my ancestor Charles fought against the British in the American War for Independence, not for the ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence, but because George III was not his king; he was a usurper to the throne, a Protestant (spits), so Charles Duke fought under the French flag, winning property for his ancestors which stretches all down the eastern slopes of southern Appalachia.

It was the principle of the thing, along with the circumstances of the American War for Independence.

My ancestors pressed on southward and westward, using the mountains as a shield, until the American Civil War ended their hegemony, my immediate ancestors being forced out of Georgia and into Alabama and points west by Sherman’s conflagrations. Yet it was in their genetics to move, adopting the pioneer spirit to found something commercial or academic, and so they did keep moving and founding. My grandfather, under possession of the demon drink, returned home, against his nature. My dad, under possession of the nightmares of my grandfather, left home, but never really left. And here I am, in Tonawanda, raising four boys, saying to them, out of envy, “Stay here. Stay in Buffalo. Let’s take care of each other, shall we? Let’s put down roots.”


My wife once encouraged me to put my office in the main part of the house so that I could study and correspond in the midst of the family, being a fatherly presence throughout the day. There was a moment of crisis. “Your filing system is just stacks on your desk,” she said.

“Yes,” I said. “If it’s not out, I forget about it. So I stack things in separate piles, working through each pile.”

About three weeks later, she moved me back into my hovel downstairs in the basement.

Did I mention in Part 7? Our 23rd Anniversary is in May 2019.

My Dad and Me, Part 7


Just about any endeavor to define clinically something which exists solely in the emotional world results in not-a-definition, jargon from nether regions of psychology and sociology creating a thin, unsatisfying soup. It’s an irony, to me, since anxiety is the most common thing in the world, akin to the elixir of the gods, the most common element of the heart in the same sense water is the most common element in the natural world, and just as versatile, whose function covers every range of good and evil, both in motivation and in outcome. Anxiety is what makes the world go ’round.

Defining By Narrative

1. My best friend, Chris Thoma, when he was a senior in college, and I was a junior, said, “If you don’t ask her out, I will.” The lady in question was a freshman named Deb. A pretty, late-blooming, innocent-eyed dove from from the Upper Midwest, she had just broken up with her first boyfriend. The mass of campus males stirred at the news. I thought I had been the only one stalking her. We all shared the same problem: timing. How long should we wait before the rebound period would be over? Is the rebound boyfriend in a position of advantage or disadvantage? Does one risk the prejudicial rejection because of premature…discourse? Or does one risk the prejudicial rejection because the early bird was in advance and got the worm?

“If you don’t ask her out, then I will.” I hastily left his dorm room, where we were playing guitar and watching Beavis and Butthead together, went to the bathroom, threw up, went to my dorm room, panicked, picked up the phone, dialed the number, and asked for Barb.

“There’s no Barb here,” Deb said.

“Barb Jee-oh?” I asked, dying inside, a flop sweat making the phone slippery.

“G-I-O-E is pronounced ‘Joy,'” she said. “And my name is Deb.”

Over the summer she sent me chocolate chip cookies. In November I asked her to marry me. We have four boys and a house in Tonawanda, almost twenty-three years blissfully married.


May 2017

2. A fictionalized true story:

Blake, a middle-aged veteran of the first war in Iraq, found himself limping twenty years later from a wound he received in the war. Veterans Affairs took their time assigning him proper care, during which time his wound grew worse, which triggered a little bit of that ubiquitous post-traumatic stress, which, in turn, triggered some bad habits with alcohol and marijuana.

Marie, his middle-aged wife of many long-suffering years, was watching herself grow old in the mirror he held up to her in his eyes day-by-day, as he sat in front of the television, disabled and on disability. When he spoke, he spoke only of the pain or of those associated with the pain. In other words, he whined. The pilot light, all that was left of their passion for each other, went out.

Her maidenhood was distant in the past, but she was not willing to let it expire completely in Blake’s lap as he was unable to stand erect out of his rickety reclining easy chair. Therefore, she got herself a job in a stockroom, where she got herself a boyfriend, with whom she enjoyed life in the backseat of a car, in clandestine meetings at his apartment while his old lady was out, and at perfectly awful motels. After a time of it, she told Blake.

Blake rose from his rickety reclining easy chair, picked up a hammer, and drove to the other man’s house.


3. When I was four years old, my dad had squeezed blood from rocks and founded a Lutheran congregation in southwestern Louisiana. It was a true miracle, and (if I remember correctly) when the brick building was dedicated, there was much rejoicing. The first Christmas there would prove to be an event of which the angels themselves would sing as though Christ himself had found this place worthy instead of the stable in Bethlehem. The thing was going off with resplendent beauty which was increasing throughout every practice, in which I dutifully practiced singing “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” over the manger for weeks on end. Christmas Eve was at hand.

While still at home on that fateful Eve, I felt the anxiety rise—these forty-one years later I recall the feeling perfectly—and I expressed quite plainly that I did not desire to attend that evening’s festivities. I was convinced by the responses to my pleas that I was unheard. The pastor, you see, was preoccupied with the Big Event. And who can blame him?

In the car I began to cry, mostly to myself, being reassured by my mother that my favorite Sunday School teacher would be sure to bring me through whatever troubles may come. It was kind of my dear mother, but she had not addressed the actual problem, that is, I would be singing in front of multitudes of hordes, and with a spotlight on me!

At the door (it was dark out), I fell to the ground, whereupon my dad yanked me up by the wrist with one hand, and in a single motion with the other hand, unbuckled and slid off his belt, proceeding to belt me with it in front of the church door, God, and all the parishioners who were arriving. Thus I was cured of my anxiety.

When the time came, I stood silently with my two coeval angels and beloved Sunday School teacher, and I did not sing. My mother was delighted and told me the story for years.

This one is tricky, with anxiety all over the place. One quickly forgives my dad, a thirtysomething leader of a brand-new community born of his own sweat, especially when one remembers a) this is 1977 and b) this is the deepest Deep South there is.

He still shouldn’t have done it, but he was impelled.


Now, I use the word “impel” an awful lot to describe anxiety, the causation aspect of anxiety, and I think I’ve created an idiosyncratic use of the word. It’s a choice out of negation, to be sure: I want to avoid the idea of compulsion, which is associated with anxiety, and is also a causing-force from within, but I think compulsion brings to mind lack of control, lack of insight, lack of thought or forethought; I also mean to avoid the idea of complete externality, in which the experience of anxiety is entirely reactive to outside forces. Impel, on the other hand, with impulsion and impulsive capture the whole experience. Impulses are forces from within, yet certainly concerned with externalities, both in the reactionary sense and also proactivity.


4. My oldest son shot out of the womb with an aggressive interest in electrical engineering. By the time he was four, he knew the function of every switch, knob, lever, pull-chain, rheostat, outlet, socket, and receptacle in the house. He had a habit of waking up at odd hours to delight himself unplugging all our appliances and lamps. He continually reset the water filter timer in our refrigerator. He was a menace to everything which gave light or motion. The point finally arrived where we stopped hovering over him, resigning ourselves to his inevitable electrocution, watching him with one eye while we went about something resembling a normal daily life. He did not cease plugging, unplugging, and flipping switches.

Our neighbor invited us over for a little Christmas cheer, and within minutes, the boy had grown comfortable with the new environment, and while Deb and I continued chatting amicably, keeping one eye on our li’l engineer, he unplugged a minor appliance. Our neighbor leaped from his seat. “Whoa! Whoa! Whoa!” he cried out. With a gallant effort he plucked the boy from his place near the outlet and delivered him over to Deb’s lap. “I’m not one to handle someone’s child,” he said apologetically, “but I really didn’t want him to get himself hurt.”

Deb and I smiled and explained. We all had a good laugh, but our neighbor kept a wary eye on our son.

With this irrepressible curiosity about things electrical came also some behavioral…concerns (shall we say), and we thought it would be a good idea to see a family counselor and therapist. I must admit I found the tall, heavy, darkly bearded, Jewish figure of a man rather imposing, so I blurted out, “Our son is possessed by anxiety.” I told him the story of our neighbor’s house.

“Sounds like he doesn’t have enough anxiety,” he responded. Thus began a wonderful decade with a wonderful counselor.

dukefamily2007december 005

That kid, circa 2007, aged 4 years, will rewire your house, whether you want it or not.

5. I saw this one just today: I assumed my place in line at JoAnn Fabrics (I needed a length of tan muslin) behind a tall man of African descent in his late 20s. In front of him was an equally tall, pleasantly pretty Caucasian woman in her late 30s. In his hand was what I would describe as fabric for traditional sub-Saharan African clothing or decoration. In her basket was a wide variety of fabric. I sensed the tall man looking at my muslin. I was looking at my phone, pretending not to be observing anything, just checking my fantasy lineup for the evening.

He looked at her basket. A minute passed. Another minute passed. The line was not moving and I had to use the bathroom. The tall man cleared his throat quite gently, saying to the tall woman in a very low voice, “Excuse me, but what caused you to start sewing?” His accent was foreign, perhaps African, perhaps Caribbean. His voice drew my attention, and I looked up just in time to see her face change from morbid boredom to a broad, beautiful smile which lifted her entire countenance. That entire corner of the store suddenly brightened a bit, as if a little sunshine has escaped from his evening cradle and was lost in our midst.

“I made a New Year Resolution—I am a runner, you see, and I hurt myself, so I took up sewing my own clothes to keep myself occupied—I made a New Year Resolution to sew all my clothes this year.”

The tall man was entranced, and he asked many questions which revealed that he was about to make his first attempt at sewing his own clothing.

“Ball,” she said, at the last. “The author’s name is Ball. I checked out her sewing book from the library so many times I finally bought it.”


That should do it for a definition of anxiety.

My Dad and Me, Part 6

A Christmas Special

Eruptions of Joy

The same uncle who offered free education to all my dad’s siblings (whose name was also Joseph, which really confuses things, so I’ll call him Uncle Doctor, because he was a practicing physician in Nashville) visited my grandfather and family every Christmas (you know, the more I write about him, the more curious I am about his character). The late 1940s in Cullman County, Alabama, on an ersatz farm set high up on a 10-acre hill sloping down into some pretty steep bluffs dividing Cullman County from Blount County at the Mulberry Fork of the Warrior River, was an unkind era. It was archetypal Appalachian poverty.

Snow, on the other hand, brings life to this place, an otherwise dead deciduous area, the hills singing those light, joyous songs which come with a surprise of heavy frozen moisture, high enough altitude to get bursts of snow, far enough south that the sun springs to his work first thing in the morning to melt it all away so that a million wooden xylophones play in rhythm as water drops from branch to branch, gaining speed for percussion, landing with prattling rills in puddles, creeks, gullies, and the Mulberry Fork of the Warrior River, first causing a babbling of the woodland orchestra, building finally into the deafening symphony of nature, waters rushing. It really is glorious to walk in the woods the morning after a December snow.

Thus arrived Uncle Doctor, with great aplomb and to outbursts of glee, for he brought glad tidings of great joy in his own person, bearing gifts of nuts, apples, candy canes, and the delight of delights: oranges. He was like another sun breaking through the gray of winter, melting away the fear and un-joy of existence in orbit of the alcoholic’s sun, which lit everyone in its hideous perversion of not-light. Music played in the old homeplace, whose advantage was indeed size, a much bigger house than the little house in Cullman, so that several families could lodge with some comfort for a few days over the great Christmas holiday. Stories were told. Children, fueled by fruit and sugar, ran. Even the hounds panted with excitement.


My dad went to great pains to recreate this spirit for us every Christmas.

I remember, with considerable fondness, driving a half hour from our house in the foothills of North Carolina (the far western and northern foothills between Hickory and Wilkesboro) into the mountains, the Blue Ridge Mountains, in the late 1970s and early 80s, the tail end of that wonderful and violent culture. We were going to get a Christmas tree. There was, perched atop a mountain, a house, an old farmhouse with several gables looking out over the valley.

In that house was a large family, a multi-generational family, with grandma shuffling through the house, trying to help with Christmas preparations, but having to sit for periods of time at several waypoints because her legs were so swollen with some ailment. Children my age swarmed about, greeting my dad, the great Lutheran pastor who condescended up the mountain to be seen with them, who brought them greetings from the Lord himself, with his greater-than-God chesty baritone, “Merry Christmas!” Everyone shouted back, the older ones through tears, “Merry Christmas!” and we were off.

One of the men brought around the truck (memory says it was a 1932 Ford, the venerable), and he and I and one other man and my Dad piled into it somehow. Where the controls came up through the floorboard I could see light framed by ancient rust, and we bumped along a bright red dirt road which became a bumpier dirt path which became stones and grass. The truck would go no further. We piled out. It was much colder than at home.

Here grew a cedar forest, of sorts, ditch trees, that is, skunky cedar pustules dotting the mountainside, yet a tree of this genus and species was precisely my dad’s object. Guided by laughter and happiness of the poor, he made his way until he found the perfect round ball of cedar-y goodness. I helped haul it back to the truck, my sturdy 8-year-old legs guiding the way for the men who were bearing its weight (it was a monster tree) while I held its top with mittened hand.

One of the grandmas, a large scary woman whose smile radiated happiness and warmth into the cold, upon our return shuffled in her pain to grant me the gift of two cookies.

Once home, Dad immediately cut out the top and installed it in the living room, where it took up almost every cubic foot available. The first time he did this, my mom says, she nearly went into conniptions, having been raised in Germany, where a Christmas tree is most certainly a sharply-peaked cone, and not this hideous, burgeoning ball of cedar. But then dad put white lights in its center, whereupon the tree took on a mysterious glow, and then he loaded it with colored lights throughout, making it shine, finally adding the novelty lights on its very outside: bubble lights; flame lights; dancing figurines; frosted snow globe lights; you name it, he threw it on until the tree could bear no more, blazing away in glory. After all the decorations were hung, he then covered it in tinsel.

The beauty of the ditch tree was overwhelming. We four children went berserk.


Without money he somehow acquired the most interesting gifts, the master of finding misfit toys a home. Among the junk and clothing was always one, something so perfect, so fun, and usually unheard of: one year it was a game named Bop-Bop-n-Rebop, a battery powered competitive game with a spinning disk. We crept forward to it, afraid of it, in the dark, hearing Santa Claus depart from our roof with a gust of wind and a play of sleigh bells, until finally one of us was brave enough to turn it on. It buzzed loudly with a motor within, causing us to start back in thrilling fear. What was it? We played that game for years.

Another year my dad found a plastic spaceship-shaped—how to describe it? Within it were thousands and thousands of army men colored alternately red, white, and blue, armed and equipped for deep space exploration, whose container unsnapped and laid out to become a map of the moon or some distant planet. It became my favorite toy through the rest of my childhood.

Singing dominated our celebration, with dad ensconced high on his throne, breaking open walnuts or peeling oranges, popping the flesh into his mouth, which was wide open with laughter and song and smiles. At that moment his sole purpose in life was to give us joy.

During the week he presented my mom with a jar of pickled herring. She pried it open and likewise popped the flesh into her mouth, washing it down with a glass of peppermint schnapps or vodka, causing her cheeks to flush rose and lips to burn bright red. Her eyes shone, and he and she disappeared for a while, leaving us children to frolic noisily, under the power of those lights, the sugar of very many cookies and chocolate candy, and so many wonderful toys, indeed, under the power of the song of the very rushing waters of the joy filling all the earth with gladness.

Merry Christmas, everyone!

DukeFamilyDec2006 035