Monday, December 31, 2012

The Words Right

by CWK

Write! Throw your laptop into lake Hartwell,
take a pen and legal pad, and sell
your savings and buy 3 quiet hours alone.
Go to the Amphitheater and scribble full
notebooks till they burst 
with little phrases of promise.
Love not the great book; to the miniscule
bestow devotion. Love every single sentence,
and every single word that's in it.

Write! And think, and speak, and proclaim
your own secret stone with your secret name.
Write not for fortune frail, or passing fame:
be content to be nothing more
than banging drum on distant shore.
Be content to be nothing, nothing more.
Do not stand in swung open door,
and shout like a fool to the corners
of a universe which eternally extends
in a billion directions wide and far.
Be content to sit at a small desk end,
here on earth, your own little star,
and write a few lines to a friend.

Write! After writing, write more.
Retreat from idle conversation, close your door,
and vomit every syllable out onto the floor.
Gather the syllables, and organize them around one,
only one, infinitesimal idea:
One succinct phrase
can change the course of your days --
but to say two things is much too much,
and will never be enough.

Then, say what one thing you have to say
with the best words, in the the best way.
Keep the words that tend to matter;
discard those words that tend to scatter.
Let words live who stay,
but let words go who stray.
You must take lordship of a land
where words mean exact, upon demand.
Within your kingdom, words pay rent.
Free loading words, if freedom lent,
will wonder here and there without consent.
With such words you must dispense,
or they will tear your kingdom to the ground.
This is not a matter of amount;
don't count words, just make sure 
every word counts.

After all this -- at last! --
after you have painted on a paper canvas
with colors pure and lines fetted:
with the very blood sweated 
from your own cerebral angst --
After all this -- at last --
then, and then alone, you have your first draft.

And finally, remember your end when you write:
your conclusion -- first of your words, then your life.
Make sure, above all, to conclude all, all right.
When your words are covered in night,
and your grave covered in grass,
to your conclusion you have come, at last.
And you will sleep in peaceful frame --
not for fortune frail gained, or passing fame --
but if this is your acclaim,
"I shed a little light,"
and, "I got the words right."

Such would be a conclusion fitting --
but just now, you are just now beginning.
So -- wake up! Strike the candle bright,
and set yourself to write, 
with this question in your sights,
"Did I get the right words? Did I get the words right?"

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Meaning in My Madness

by CWK

Before you read this, you should know

the words and thoughts that follow

may make very little sense.

I reply: there is, I promise

meaning in my madness.

You will find it if you read, and read again.

My meaning is no secret, but it is surely hidden.

I can give you my heart, but my meaning

belongs to my pen.

I could not give it, even should I dare.

It is a gift you find by receiving

loving words with loving care.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Storied Teller

by CWK

I. This Is A Story

            This is a story. This is a story about a story teller. This is a story about stories. This is a story about the greatest story teller 
 and the greatest story  I have ever known.

            His name was Tate Capshaw, but we called him, "The Tater," or sometimes just, “Tater,” with the 'the' being always understood. This was no term of disrespect, but a term of endearment and deference: more title than name. It was the title which belonged to the undisputed champion of our youth. He was The Tater: the one and only, after which, the mold was broken; he was the sword of Goliath, 'none like him;' he was the source of wisdom; the source of countless hilarious anecdotes; the person we always posed our questions to  even when he wasn't in the room. 

            It’s been 10 years since we spoke with Tater in person. Still, to this day, when baffled by a moral, philosophical, political, or personal issue, we simply ask, "What would The Tater say?" Whatever the question, once that question is answered, we have our answer. He was The Tater. The final word. The one man who deserved the article "the." The Tater.
            I took three classes with The Tater while I was in grad school in South Carolina. Picture the cliché of the dry, arrogantly aloof, un-fun academic whose lectures are so boring even he seems asleep. Next, picture the exact opposite of that. Picture an individual carefully fashioned by The Creator as the anti-cliché professor. Picture the one person who, above all others, would not fit in the halls of academia. Picture the man most likely to get tossed out of those hallowed halls. That’s The Tater.
            Rumor on campus was, alternately, that he'd dropped out of High School at 15 to join the circus, and that he’d been a Rhodes Scholar. It would not surprise me if one of those rumors is true; or, if both are true.
            I’m not sure how he became a professor. Probably, like everything in his life, it just happenedI don’t think he had a PhD because his office door read simply, “Tate Capshaw: Assistant Professor of English.” Then again, Tater hated fancy, "ribbons of human acclaim." He felt they instilled self-importance to the bearer, and unwarranted devotion by the masses; on this point,  he liked to quote Spurgeon, "The best of men, are men, at best." Maybe he had a PhD and just refused the recognition? Hard to say. 
          The Tater did little to clarify our confusion; he avoided all questions regarding his formal education. How did he come to be a professor? My theory is that Tater got lost on an errand one day, wondered into Spillman Hall, began talking to a stranger, found himself surrounded by students, felt at home, and decided to keep coming back. I wouldn't be surprised if some version of that is partly true. 


Tater was a Roman a clef in reverse: the fiction that overlaid his life always turned out to be less fantastic than the true story. With him, the fiction was not the distortion, but the  kernel, of the truth. With him, you soon learned to never use the phrase, "too good to be true." He'd correct you, "So good  certainly, true." That was Tater's philosophy of life  "So good  certainly true"  over time, Tater's philosophy of life became, for me, a pretty good philosophy of Tater.

II. Still Ending, and Beginning Still

            The Tater was the best teacher I’ve ever had. So much so, I can't even honestly assign 'second best' status to anyone else without a sense of injustice. Before Tater, I'm not sure I had a real teacher. After Tater? There really is no such thing as after Tater. Some acts just can't be followed. I'd go as far as to say, he's not the just best  he's the only  teacher I've ever had. In a profound sense, he's the only teacher I'll ever need. If, and I believe this is true, "one father is worth a thousand teachers," then Tater is worth, at least, 500 teachers.
             His classes were always full, with a waiting list of as much as a year. I was only able to get into his classes because, as a grad student, I had early sign-up. His office hours (when he remembered them; he stood me up twice) also had a waiting list of as much as 6 months. 
             His words were like little wars; they stirred and galvanized; they fomented; they sliced; they healed; they wreaked violent havoc, followed by an awful peace. His words were like the B.O. of your old apartment after an extended absence: slightly offensive, but comforting. 
            The Tater could remember everything he ever read down to exact page numbers. He could lecture, in French, on the French Revolution and, in Italian, on the poetry of Dante. Yet, he couldn’t remember his own phone number. He could name every general in World War II, and all the Roman Emperors, in order  yet, he couldn't remember the names of his students. He met me, for the first time, many times. After two years of knowing me, he still didn't know my name (he sidestepped this by calling me, "sir"). Nor could he remember how to get home, or where his cell phone was (he lost 4 in the time I knew him). He sometimes forgot where and when his classes were.

            Tater once turned up in the wrong building (though, in his defense, the right class number) and spent 45 minutes lecturing on the poet and depressive William Cowper to a group of bewildered engineering students.  
           Dr. Beeke, the engineering professor whose class had been hijacked, arrived (fortuitously?) 1 minute late for class that day because Tater had (accidentally?) taken his parking spot. When he rushed in the room, Tater commanded him to take his seat, and proceeded to scribble on the chalk board and mumble to himself in Latin. Thinking him deranged, the professor shuffled to the back of the class, and took his cell phone out to call campus police. 
            Then, Tater's eyes turned glassy, like a calm ocean; he looked heavenward, and said, quoting Cowper, "Their tameness shocks me!" Dr. Beeke immediately fell under the power of Tater's words, and took his seat. 
            For the next 45 minutes, with his eyes heavenward, never even looking at the students, Tater related the life of William Cowper. He told of Cowper's one-hand-tied-behind-his-back battle with melancholy, his social awkwardness, his cruel father, and his life-saving friendship with John Newton. He quoted, straight from memory, without the use of notes, from Cowper's letters, poems, and hymns. 
           He finished his lecture with another quote of Cowper's, "Still ending, and beginning still!"
           With these words, Tater dropped his gaze back to earth, and sat quietly down. Dr. Beeke immediately leaped to his feet and led his class in a standing ovation. To which, Tater jumped to his feet, and responded, "Where am I? Who are you people? This isn't my class."
           The class stood in stunned silence. Tater gathered his belongings quickly, and ducked out of the room, mumbling as he went, "This kind of thing always happens to me when Edith goes to visit her mother in Madrid."
           I've heard several accounts of that day, most of them accompanied with a tear or two. I've met over 25 engineering students who claimed to have been present for what became affectionately known as "The Cowper Canonball." That day is shrouded in myth, but some facts are indisputable. Three of the engineering students who attended Tater's infamous lecture ended up changing their majors to English. One student was so moved by the lecture that, immediately upon its conclusion, he skipped his final classes, and drove all night to get back to his hometown in Arkansas (a journey of 600 miles). Why the urgency? When he left for fall break, he'd forgotten to tell his parents he loved them. 
          Another student (Sven Salander) arrived to class that day with a suicide note in his pocket detailing his misery, "his heart-ache," and, "his thousand natural shocks." After class, he'd planned to mail the letter to his mother, and take arms against himself, and, "his sea of troubles." As Tater spoke about Cowper, Sven's sense of isolation fell off like an old coat, and with it, his despair; there was, at least, in Cowper, one other man who felt like him. He took this as an omen, and decided he'd take a shot at being someone else's Cowper. So, instead of mailing the letter to his mom, he mailed it to our campus newspaper, The Spectator. He asked them to publish it under the heading, "Any One Else Feel Like Me?" The Spectator published the letter in full, and it created an outpouring of sympathy. It turned out a lot of students felt like Sven, and were relieved to know that Sven felt like them. The following week, Sven wrote a follow-up in The Spectator about his desire to start a support group for other students battling despair. At the first meeting, 50 students showed up. At the second meeting, 75 students showed up. I should know. I was, because of my English background, volunteered to be the group's secretary. At the third meeting, we decided on a name, "Cowper's Communion." A decade after "The Cowper Crash," "Cowper's Communion" is still going strong at my alma mater. Who knows how many lives it's saved, or how many lives it's healed. 
          The professor whose class was hijacked that day? He'd come to class bitter and disaffected. He was in the final stages of a divorce when Tater began speaking. When Tater stopped speaking, he rushed out of the room in tears to call his wife. Three days later, they were reconciled. 
          Did Tater somehow know that this particular group of people on this particular day needed to hear what he had to say. That he would change the course of lives? That he would bring a family closer? That he would save a man from suicide? That he would save a marriage? That he would start a tidal wave of healing on our campus that rolls over year after year? Did Tater plan it like that? You tell me.
         Tater seemed to be wondering around the world, a simpleton, almost helplessly, with no plan and no sense of direction. Yet, wherever he went, he provided direction. Wherever he went, wondrous things just happened.

III. The Miracles At McDonald’s

            Bry Denson, a former housemate, and my closest friend, once spotted Tater sitting in Waylon (his nickname for his rusted out 82 Chevy S-10), at 2 am, in a McDonald's parking lot. Tater was just sitting there, happily reading The City of God under the neon light of the double arches. When Bry said hello, Tater answered, “How far am I from my farm? What city am I in?" 
            He was only a mile from his farm.
            Tater reported that he'd left his office at 9 p.m., got lost in thought on the way home, and missed a turn. When he tried to backtrack, he found himself going in circles for an hour. He broke out of his directional cul-de-sac by, "Driving straight on the same road as far as (he) could." Finally, in resignation that he was utterly lost in a strange city, he pulled into a McDonald's where he proceeded to get even more utterly lost in The City.
            Tater further explained, "This kind of thing always happens to me when Edith goes to visit her mother in Madrid. When she's gone, I'm thread without a needle."
            Bry noticed a CD, Country Was, sitting on Tater's dash. This was, coincidentally, Bry’s favorite album in the world. So, he ended up having a great conversation (“revelatory,” "earth-shaking," and, "life changing," as Bry put it) with The Tater about the music of The (at that time little known) Avett Brothers.
            After the conversation, Bry tried to give Tater directions home, “Just leave the parking lot, and go north for half a mile. Then, go east on Warsaw for a quarter mile. Your farm is at the corner of Vine and Bowery.”
            Tater wondered, “How do I know which way is north?"
            “That way is north,” Bry said, pointing north.
            “So I take a right turn out of the parking lot?” Tater asked.
            “Yes,” Bry answered.
            “Ok,” Tater said, “but how will I know which way is east?”
            Bry decided to draw Tater a detailed map on the back of a napkin.
            Feeling Tater safe on his way, he turned to leave as Tater tried to start Waylon. Waylon sputtered in a series of weak revs, then fell into feeble clicking, followed by mournful silence. The battery was dead. Tater, not grasping that leaving his interior light on for 3 hours "so he could see to read" had drained the battery, hung his head in mourning and lamented, "Waylon has departed to that undiscovered country from whose bourne no pick-up truck returns. He was a good truck."
            Bry assured Tater there was hope for Waylon. He grabbed some jumper cables from his trunk and, in the twinkle of an eye, Waylon roared back to life. Bry's wondrous work of automotive resuscitation bemused and confused Tater. U
nconvinced such devices could revive dead automobiles, he examined Bry's jumper cables suspiciously.
            "When were these invented?" Tater demanded. 
            Bry, trying desperately to impress a legendary historian, confidently replied, "During the Middle Ages," under the impression that the Middle Ages were academic speak for the 1950's. 
            At last, while revving Waylon like he was a muscle car, Tater shook his head and concluded, "It's a miracle." 
            Forever after, he commemorated Bry's deed as, "The Miracle at Mcdonald's."
            Bry finally said goodbye to Tater at 2:30 a.m., and proceeded into McDonald's to meet his Calculus I classmates for a round of all night cramming. They had an exam that Monday, and Bry was hanging perilously between a D and an F.
            Four hours later, after accomplishing no studying, but a monumental victory in Risk, Bry reemerged from McDonald's to find Tater, still there in the parking lot, still in the same spot, with his interior still light on, and his eyes fixed steadfastly on The City. He never made it out of his parking space. 
            Tater happily explained that he’d decided to read a couple of more pages of The City before leaving, reached a riveting section, and become so enthralled, he couldn't pull himself away. Then, "after what seemed like a few minutes," but was in reality 4 hours, Tater had tried to drive away. He found Waylon uncooperative due to an empty gas tank. Waylon ran out of gas as he idled.
            Tater added, "This kind of thing always happens to me when Edith goes to visit her mother in Madrid. Without her, I'm like bread without butter."
            Bry volunteered to give Tater a ride home to fetch some gas. On the way, they had another "life changing" conversation about the movie Waking Ned Devine.
            Gas in hand, they returned for Waylon with Winston Churchill IV in the back seat. On the way, Winston Churchill IV stuck his head out the window, and barked at passing cars. Bry found this amusing. Then, he did something which Bry did not find so amusing. After curling up in a ball, he began relieving himself all over the backseat of Bry’s pre-graduation gift for the graduation he could never quite accomplish: a brand new, "had it a week," Acura TL.
            “I think Winston Churchill IV is um…,” Bry whispered to Tater.
            Tater spun round toward Winston Churchill IV, then nodded at Bry.
            “He sure is,” Tater said, then continued, “he does that all the time.”
            By the time they arrived at Mcdonald’s, Winston Churchill IV was asleep, drooling on Bry’s Calculus book. Tater jumped out of the car without even noticing. Bry, hoping to put a stop to the degradation of his leather seats, said, “Should we leave him in the car?”
            Tater nodded, and said, “Might as well.”
IV. Work To Do

            Bry was desperate to get rid of Tater and Winston Churchill IV by this point, but he wasn’t quite ready for his adventure with Tater to end. At least, with Tater, there was action. So, fearing the boredom of a blank day filled with hours of video games and failed resolutions to study, surfing the internet, and more hours of video games, Bry asked if Tater could use some help around the farm. 
            Tater readily agreed, "Sure. I promised Edith I'd finish up several projects while she was gone."
            Bry followed Tater back to the farm with Winston Churchill IV still asleep in his back seat. When they arrived, he wondered aloud, “Shouldn't we wake him up?”
            Tater shook his head, “Better not. Poor fella looks exhausted.”
            Bry assumed he'd spend the day languidly riding on a tractor and throwing seeds at the ground. Wrong. He later moaned (with a hint of manly pride), while treating the massive blisters on his hands and feet, "We worked like dogs for 12 straight hours. We didn't even stop for lunch." 
            He added, "That was the first day of real work I've done my whole life. It was glorious."
            Before the lunch break they didn't observe, they fed and brushed the horses, shoveled manure out of stalls, cut hay, built a dam, and planted a row of green beans. After the non lunch, they painted the barn, and felled a massive oak which had been struck in half by lightning. From the oak, they chopped up 4 piles of firewood, and constructed a bookshelf which was to be, Tater proclaimed solemnly, "A very, very important gift for a friend." 
            Tater and Bry took painstaking detail on every inch of the book shelf. They sanded it 4 times, hand carved the trimming, put 3 coats of stain on it, then 2 coats of paint, and waterproofed it.
            Bry pronounced, as they stood it upright, and admired their work, “This bookshelf will last through Armageddon!”
            Tater answered, gravely, "It better. We made it. After Armageddon, I wouldn’t want someone to come across a broken down book shelf and ask, ‘Who made this piece of junk? Would you?’ "
            “Would you?” Tater repeated the question, with the same soul searing intensity as when he once asked me, “Are you a poet?”
            Bry hadn’t thought about it like that. He wanted to say, “It’s just a bookshelf. Who cares?” – but he didn’t.
            Instead, he said, “It looks good to me. All finished?”
            "Almost," Tater answered.
            Bry inwardly sighed.
            Tater continued, "I'll put the finishing touches on it tomorrow."
            Bry inwardly exhaled.
            Bry looked over toward the horizon at the setting sun, reasoned that the end of daylight meant the end of the work day, and saw an opening for his escape. With affected sorrow, he moaned, “The sun’s setting? Already? Feels like we just got started.”
             Finally, the long sleepless night which led to the long exhausting day was about to end. Wrong. Tater answered, "We've still got a little daylight. Let’s hurry and see if we can clear the back pasture."
            Tater set off in a jog while Bry limped behind him.
            Bry gingerly took a chainsaw (which he had no idea how to use) to a mass of dead wood and overgrowth while Tater attacked a mountain of weeds with a scythe. Tater made fair progress until, while lost for a moment in thought, he managed to nearly cut off his left index finger. Tater looked absently at his hand for a brief second, and concluded, "Just a flesh wound. 'Tis not so deep as a well; nor so wide as a Church door.' " Then, he continued serenely swinging his scythe. 
            Bry proclaimed his credentials as “pre-med for a year,” and objected to Tater's disregard of what looked to him like a traumatic wound. He walked over to Tater, and closely examined the mangled hand.
            The wound was not so wide a church door, but it was an inch across; it was not deep as a well, but it was deep enough for Bry to see bone. 
            “We need to go to the E.R. right now!” Bry exclaimed, and offered his credentials, "Trust me. I was pre-med for a year."
            As Bry finished this sentence, blood exploded, like a gushing fountain, out of Tater's hand, and all over Bry's "brand new, had it a week" Hilfiger polo that had cost his mom 85.00. Bry took a look at the blood, screamed like a little girl on her first roller coaster, saw stars, stumbled backward, and passed out in a wheelbarrow filled with mulch.
            When he came to, he saw Tater, his hand bandaged with duct tape, swinging serenely at a new mountain of weeds. The old mountain had been made low.
            As that day progressed, amid all the chopping and sawing and painting and shoveling, Bry began to open up to Tater about his meandering life (he was a 6 year undergrad who’d changed majors 5 times), his sloppy relationship with his girlfriend (a 3 year cliched example of the on again/off again college romance), and his unhealthy relationship with his parents (recently divorced, with Bry being leveraged as revenge pawn in a credit card war). According to Bry, Tater gave him zero advice. He just listened and, occasionally, took giant bites out of whole onions like they were  apples. 
            That evening, Tater and Bry ate like kings on provisions Edith had left behind: Cherry Tree Ham, Hush Puppy Souffle, Paris Au Broccolli, and Peach Schnapps Cobbler. Then, they sat in the light of a massive brush fire, smoked Macunado cigars, and sipped Single Barrel Tennessee Whiskey. They talked about nothing and everything while Winston Churchill IV ran laps around the fire, and howled at the moon.

V. Traveling Money

            Bry left Tater's farm at 10 pm that night. As he staggered to his car, hunched over from back pain, his hands and feet swelling with blisters, Tater tried to pay him. Bry refused. 
            The Tater refused the refusal, "The worker is worthy of his hire."
            Then, he stuffed two hundred dollar bills in Bry's shirt pocket.
            "What do I need this for?" Bry objected.
            "Traveling money," Tater answered – and, to this day, Bry and I debate what he meant by that phrase. The best we can tell, it was a cryptic challenge to get started in earnest on life. Or, maybe he was under the impression that Bry was going out of town. Hard to say.
            After a night of no sleep, and a day of back breaking work, Bry left the farm, barely able to walk, "crippled by pain from head to toe," and "covered in mud and blood and paint and manure," but "wired like a circuit box, with my mind full of electricity." 
            Bry made a bee line to The Stack Shack, a 24 hour mega book store and coffee shop, and spent the night limping among racks of books, and wondering what to do with his life. After collecting every book he'd seen on Tater's mantle, along with any others that looked interesting, he plopped his small library down in front of a sleep deprived cashier, and tossed two crinkled $100's toward her. 
            Until 8 hours before, Bry had not earned a single dollar by the work of his own hands. He used his mom's and dad's credit cards as a sort of competition all through college: whoever gave him the higher spending limit was "winning." He later told me, "It felt good to buy something with my own money. Real good."
            As the cashier unfolded the bills, she reeled from Bry's general appearance and specific stench. She looked down at the $100's, then back up at Bry.
            "Traveling money," he offered, like it was a secret password.
            "Where did you... get... these?" she asked, timidly.
            "I earned them. The worker is wordy for desire," he said, jumbling Tater's admonition with his lips, but understanding it in his heart.
            She looked at the books, then back at Bry.
            "Is that enough money?" Bry asked. 
            He'd never dealt with cash before, and credit cards appeared to him a bottomless well of supply, provided on demand. The fact that he might not have enough money to buy something secretly delighted him.
            "We'll see," the cashier answered, no doubt concluding that Bry was some sort of rugged criminal, fresh from a horrid robbery, when he was, in fact, a young man fresh from his first act of hard work. Unaccustomed to receiving $100's from a dirty disheveled man smelling of refuse, with a blood stained shirt, she scanned his books quickly, nervously threw them in cardboard boxes, and returned his change, a single penny.
            Bry arrived home at 6 am. He framed his penny, with the quote beneath, "The worker is wordy for desire." Then, he sat down in the middle of our living room, and neatly stacked his books all around him until he had walled himself in.
            Then, he began what he called his, "life research project."
            The next day (a Saturday), after a late night of cramming in the library, I woke up around 1 pm, rustled from sleep by a foul odor. Our little apartment smelled like horse manure mixed with turpentine.
            I followed the odor to the living room. There, I found Bry passed out on the floor. He was buried under a pile of books (first time I'd ever seen him near a book). He had giant swaths of duct tape wrapped around his hands and feet, and blood all over his shirt. He smelled like a double shovel of horse manure mixed with a double shot of turpentine. I feared – I didn't know what I feared.
            "Wake up, Bry," I shouted as I shook him.
            He sat up sleepily.
            "Are you ok?" I said, my finger hitting a 9 on the phone.
            "Never been better," he said, dreamily, "I'm super. I've really really really really never been better."
            My finger hit the 1, but I paused before hitting the last 1. His appearance bespoke disaster, but something in his voice bespoke contentment.
            "What happened to you?" I asked.
            "The Tater," he groaned, before dozing off again.
            He need say no more.
            I laughed, and put the phone down. Then, I sprayed Lysol around the greenhouse of funk which was now our living room, and opened the front door to try and clear the air. I noticed, just outside our door, on the patio, a magnificent bookshelf. I wondered out and examined it. It was engraved, across the top, in exquisite Algerian font. The engraving read, "To The Miracle Worker."
            A note was attached, "As promised, here's a very important gift for a friend. I know you'll do great things. Be not afraid of greatness - Tate Capshaw." 
            A few hours later, after ingesting massive amounts of coffee and Ibuprofen, Bry was able to relate his experience with The Tater to me. The first thing I noticed, beside his increasingly sickening stench, was Bry's voice. It was different. The Bry I knew spoke softly, in insecure rapid fire slang, like he didn't want anyone to hear him. This man belted sentences in confident measured tones like he wanted the world to hear him. I next noticed his posture. The Bry I knew sat forward, in a continual slouch, like a discouraged slug about to be stepped on. This man sat upright, like a military officer about to go into combat. 
            The college kid who walked out the door at 2 am to attend a study group which didn't plan on studying had vanished. The frantic slacker I'd come to know over two years had been replaced by a man with laser focus, vision, and calm. The change in him was so stark, his calm so placid, that I seriously wondered if he'd finally capitulated to his mom, and gone back on meds. 
            That night, for the first time in my 2 years of living with him, Bry cleaned his room (it had, until then, been a sordid array of dank clothes, dirty dishes, miscellaneous trash, movie posters, piles of video games, and pizza boxes), and proudly mounted his hard earned new books on his new bookshelf. The next day, a Sunday, he got a job doing grunt work in a local lumber yard.
            That Sunday night, after I begged him to, he finally took a shower. That Monday, even though his father begged him not to, he dropped out of school. That Tuesday, even though I begged him not to, he cut up his parent's credit cards. That Wednesday, even though his mother begged him not to, he got engaged. 
            Within a year, Bry had married, finished an apprenticeship, and started his own carpentry shop dedicated to the lost art of personalized hand-crafted wood creations. He named it, "Miracle Worker Wood Works."


That's Tater for ya. He was lost in this world geographically, but possessed of an uncommon sense of place and time; absent-mindedly thoughtful; lost in thought whilst helping other think clearly; a directionless source of direction; unable to find his way home, but utterly at home in some other world; at the wrong place at the right time; bringing order to chaos, but rather chaotically; changing lives while sitting still; helping others while they were under the impression that they were helping him; simple, even backward (especially mechanically), but wise beyond words; at heart, a simple farmer, with his hands on hard, small labors; also, at heart, a man of grand ideas, with his mind on vast complexities; blind to basic features of every day life, but clairvoyant on matters of the soul; good, but mischievously so.
            Bry, to this day, sometimes jokingly wonders if Tater had noticed his wayfaring life on campus, taken pity on him, and planned the whole thing, "Maybe Tater had been sitting there in the parking lot waiting for me? Maybe he purposefully let his battery die? May be purposefully let Waylon run out of gas?" Becky (Bry's wife), to this day, recalls with fondness a passing conversation she'd had with Tater after class on the Tuesday before The Miracle at McDonald's in which she vented her frustrations over Bry. She likes to say, especially when their first son Tate is in the room, "If not for Tate Capshaw, there would be no Tate Denson." Of course, neither Bry nor Becky really believe that The Tater formulated an ultra complex soviet era spy mission in response to a passing conversation with what was probably the 20th girl of the week to complain to him about her boyfriend. 
            Still, they like to joke that Tater planned it. I, for one, think Tater planned the whole thing. He planned it in the sense that he planned everything in his life as a forgetful mission of wisdom. He planned it in the sense that he planned to wander the earth with wide eyed wonder and do good, to whomever he bumped into, at the exact moment of time when the opportunity presented itself. Yeah, he planned it.

VI. Contradictory, Seemingly

            The Tater occasionally (by occasionally, I mean every day) delivered, in a gentle voice, with lots of mumbling, cutting denouncements against the state of American education. Or, ‘institutional-ized erudition’ as he called it, with sarcastic rise of voice on the “-ized.” 
            He also spent a good bit of class time lamenting his life as an "unwilling propagandist" in "institutional-ized erudition." This led to general terror among his students that he’d just disappear one day, or be fired. Actually, if anything, he seemed to want to get fired. He often spoke of his dream of moving to Montana, building a ranch, and becoming a barber. Yep, a barber. Why a barber? Hard to say. The best I can tell: he liked the idea of sitting around and talking about ideas all day in a cozy no pressure environment. 
             In the classes I took with him, The Tater levied his sharpest critiques against what he termed, "the dead death philosophers." This included most of the philosophers our admired institution admired: all dead, and many— according to Tater — deadly. In these moments, he was The Tatenator. He railed, for example, against the philosophies of materialism, skepticism, intellectualism, romanticism, and rationalism, even as he assured us that materiality, clear thinking, romance, and reason were, in themselves, very good things. He said these philosophies tended to make, “One thing everything.” He railed against their dehumanizing influence, "Every ism is a prison." 
            By the way, these critiques occurred, not in philosophy classes, but in English 309: American Literature, English 404: Creative Writing, and English 410: The Great Books. What did any of Tater's diatribes have to do with American Lit? Creative Writing? The Great Books? Nothing. Everything. For Tater, one thing was never everything, but everything was connected to everything.
            Then, after a year of hearing Tater lambast Marx and materialism, we spotted him awkwardly cruising around campus in a brand new white BMW M3 convertible. This was hard to understand. We asked him how his stance against materialism could be defended now that he was driving the symbol of automotive materialism. He resisted giving a straight up defense of his purchase, and said, "Sometimes, two seemingly contradictory things are both true." Then, he told us to go and watch the film White from The Three Colors trilogy if we wanted further explanation. We did, and it influenced — not just the movies I watch – but the way I watch movies. 
            Before that, my movie catalog consisted of 90 percent buddy comedies. I’ve since seen every film by Kieslowski, and a host of other excellent films by directors whose names I can't pronounce. I’m a sharper observer of art as a consequence. I’ve thought about it a lot, but I haven’t even come close to grasping the connection (beyond the color white) between White and Tater’s white BMW. Maybe, one day, in a moment of revelation, I will. Or, maybe  I know this sounds ridiculous  The Tater went to the trouble to buy a white BMW so that we would ask him about it, so that he could direct us to great film making, so that our view of art would be enriched. Or, maybe, I’m making something out of nothing. But, that’s what Tater was always doing: making something good out of nothing.
VII. The Angry Bird

            I was amazed at Tater's ability to spin wildly captivating narratives. His stories were mostly taken from the realm of great historical events. When Tater told it, men and deeds would appear before your eyes in fantastic clarity: you could hear the cricket's lonesome chirp; you could smell blood on blade. He had the power  it was truly a power  of turning what I thought was dry history into HD, with Surround Sound. He retold The Battle of Gettysburg in such a way that I can, no longer, watch the movie Gettysburg (formerly a favorite) without feeling cheated. Tater told it different, better, than the movie.
            Tater told it different than I'd learned in 8th grade U.S. history. When Mr. Lemming told it, I concluded that Gettysburg was faded ink on stale paper: distant, disconnected from me, without contemporary relevance  the men who died there were dead as could be. When Tater told it, Gettysburg loomed close and pertinent. To hear him tell it, you'd think it happened last week. When Tater told it, the men who died there came alive and, "from these honored dead, we took increased devotion." When Tater told it, I felt like a man standing on a privileged hill, surveying his own recent past, so as to consider his own present, and change his own future. I was a better man after hearing Tater tell it.
            Tater told it different than Brushy Bill. Before Tater, my main experience with academic level history was Brushy Bill. Brushy Bill made history a sleepy affair. Brushy Bill almost single-handedly destroyed Western Civilization.
            In undergrad, I took two grueling semesters of Western Civilization from a professor that we liked to call Brushy Bill because he had a bushy mustache. He lectured in low slow monotonous dronings that were, on warm August days, barely indistinguishable from the hum of the air conditioning unit above the lecture hall. He sounded like a boring low Q recording of another, more boring, recording.
            As Brushy Bill mono-toned, I would sit in the back of class and watch students fall asleep one by one in front of me – but students in Brushy Bill's classes didn't just fall asleep. They fell violently and suddenly forward, or sideways, with death like exhaustion, as if struck by a sniper with a tranquilizer gun.
            My pal Martin sat next to me in class, and he and I both looked around in amazement as, day after day, scores of students fell asleep, and day after day, Brushy Bill mono-toned on unoffended that his class was the college equivalent of preschool nap time. "They are dropping like flies," Martin would say around the 15 minute mark of every class. By the end of class, a sea of sleeping students were bowed in front of me, dozing peacefully.
            I always wondered, "Does Brushy Bill even care that no one cares – or is even able to care – what he is saying? Can't he see everyone falling asleep? Does this not concern him, or agitate him?" Apparently not. We students paid 3,000 to take two classes from dear Bill; we could have saved a lot of money by investing in some NyQuil. All we got for our 3 grand was a human tranquilizer.
            Though, I never could sleep in Brushy Bill's classes. For two straight semesters, I sat right behind a girl with a sprawling back tattoo, stretching from her lower back to her shoulder blades, of what looked to me like a turkey vulture. This bird was fascinating; this girl, even more so. Her hair was stringy, dirty blond, and dirty (more a fashion choice than hygiene issue). She looked dangerously skinny, and – even minus the tattoo – a tad dangerous. She was grunge when grunge was fringe. And, she wasn't ashamed of the turkey vulture; she wore wildly revealing tops cut low down the back, and riding up her midriff. Though, like a true southern lady, she always left something to the imagination: on any given day, a crucial part of the bird's profile would he hidden. He was like a puzzle that always had a missing piece. On the first day of class, when everyone else was going to sleep, I saw this bird of anti-paradise, and he woke me up. And once awake, I can never go back to sleep. 
            I spent my 2 semesters in Western Civ – not contemplating the grand ebbs of Civilization – but contemplating what this bird was, and what relation he had to this girl. All I knew was the turkey vulture (or whatever he was) was angry. His beak was open in a scream, and his wings rose menacingly. He was the original Angry Bird. I was fascinated to no end by this young lady's life journey, and the bird who sat perched on her back. Keep in mind, this was in the days when tattoos were still taboo. This was the only girl I knew who had a real tattoo, and it covered her whole back.
             I had so many questions. What had inspired the flight of fancy which launched this bird in flight? What kind of bird was he? Where had he flown from? Where was he flying to? Why was he so upset? Had someone, perhaps an inconsiderate hunter, clipped his wing? Did he have any friends? Did he want to talk about it? Did he have a family? Were his parents worried about him? But I never approached her. She seemed disconsolate and moody, and that – plus the angry turkey – was enough to discourage me from social interaction. All the same, I owe her thanks. She, with the help of one angry turkey, kept history interesting. On the first day of class, against all odds, she made me wake up, and for 2 semesters, she kept me awake.
            Tater was like that angry turkey vulture. He was the anti-Brushy Bill: an IV of Red Bull to counteract, and overcome, the effect of a human tranquilizer. He made things interesting. He broke into the sleepy realm of history, and shouted, "Nap time is over!" He made me wake up. Once awake, I could never go back to sleep.

VIII. The Tinker and The Faker

            The most compelling feature of Tater's stories was the characterization. He painted characters realer than your best friend. His characters would introduce themselves, then rudely self invite over to your apartment for a night, use your tooth brush in the morning, and end up staying a week. Before you knew it, you couldn't get rid of them — and you didn't want to. 
            I fancied a career as a writer. So, one day after class, I asked him what his secret was. He seemed confused, and admitted he had no secret. Then, he said he was, regrettably, in a hurry. I followed him out of class, and pressed him further, "I just want to know where to start." 
            “Read the tinker, Bunyan – if you can,” he answered, and vanished down a flight of stairs, leaving a trail of papers in his wake. Those words, "if you can," bothered me. He hadn't said them in a demeaning tone. He just said them. Still, the more I thought about it, the more angry I became. If I can? I'd finished undergrad Magna Cum LaudeI was a grad student in English. If I can?!
            So, I went and read Bunyan. Yeah, The Tater was right. Bunyan's antique English is no walk in literary the park. So, I got myself a good dictionary, and several companion works to Bunyan's canon. For a month, I lived with Bunyan. Still, I didn't feel that I'd grasped the art of storytelling. So, I read Bunyan again. Then, I read some other books. Then, I read a bunch of other books after that. When I say a bunch, I mean about 200. Or, maybe 300. Then, I read Bunyan again and — while I'm still at a loss for what makes him so great — I got it, or part of it; I understood something
            Tater had this way of messing with my mind by asking me these innocent, but slightly insulting, questions. I sometimes felt he just didn't like me. I'd stew for days over a little aside he'd made to me in passing after class, or on a paper. He never, as far as I know, ever took the same snarky tack with other students. Classmates did not believe me when I told them, "Tater hates me. No matter what I say, or how hard I work, he's always got some smart aleck reply." He seemed to understand that this was the way to get to me. As much as I resented it, after every one of these altercations, I'd set off with new devotion on some important work. Strange to ponder: though he didn't know my name, Tater knew me better than I knew myself. He seemed to understand that this was the way to get to me. 
            I could list a half dozen other examples of Tater changing my life by totally ticking me off -- but there's one that always sticks with me because it happened in our last class together, on the last assignment I ever turned in to him
            I wrote a proposal for English 404 outlining an idea for an assignment: I planned a satirical piece along the lines of Swift's Modest Proposal. Tater wrote on my proposal, "Sure this is a good idea? This would take a high level of literary skill." So, was he saying I didn't have the literary chops to pull this off? That I was a literary illiterate? I was on the verge of finishing my masters in English, with yet another Magna Cum Laude awaiting me! I walked around for months mad about that comment (I'm still kind mad about it, actually), and I purposed myself to prove him wrong and write a shining piece of satire to shock the world -- one day. I ended up writing a straight up essay for that assignment. I did a little research on satire. Yeah, Tater was right. Satire takes a high level of literary skill.

            About two weeks into my Bunyan odyssey, I realized – to my shame – that though I'd graduated college, and was on track to finish grad school, with a stellar GPA, I had never, until then, really read a single book. I barely even looked at my course assignments; my 'reading' consisted of cramming notes the night before an exam so as to make sure to get a good grade. I'd certainly never, as James Sire put it, "read slowly," or as Bacon put it, read, "to weigh and consider." I realized I had been faking it in the classroom my whole academic career; my GPA was garnish on a tasteless dish. 
            At some point in my Bunyan odyssey, around book 150, I also asked myself, "Did Tater plan all this? Did he just get me to read all these books and learn and grow as a person with a seemingly unintentional insult?" See what I mean? Good, but mischievously so. 

IX. What I Learned

            This is what I learned about being a story teller from Tater, Bunyan, and about a hundred other writers – wait. Hold that thought. What is a story teller, anyway? I'm not talking about being a liar. 'Telling a story' is often a euphemism for lying. I’m talking about narrative excellence: weaving words together in an interesting and evocative way so as to do a little good. So, without further ado: this is what I learned about being a story teller – wait. One more thing. The Tater once told me he was going to write a satirical novel called The Writer Factory about the production line approach that ‘institutionalized erudition’ takes to nurturing young writers. If you ever see that on a shelf, buy it, even if it is ridiculously overpriced. Seriously. Buy it. I'll trade you my car for it. That brings me, finally, to what I have learned about being a story teller. I’ve learned two things.

1. Use Common Sense(s).

By senses, I mean the 5 senses: touch, taste, vision, sound, and smell. Think of the great lines that essentially come down to sense exposition: a description of the impact of something upon the senses. Like, "I love the smell of napalm in the morning." When I am bogged down in a narrative, I often come back to this. What did the perfume smell like? What color were her eyes? Was the taste bitter? Or, sweet? Or, sour? By the way, there are officially 5 taste categories now. There were only 4 until 2002. That means a whole new category of sensory exposition is open to you. Do you know what Jane Austen could have done if she had 5 taste categories? 

2. Detail.

This relates to # 1. You add detail by using the 5 senses. 

Adding detail is the equivalent of upgrading your story from tube TV to flat screen, HDTV. It is giving your reader a more vivid, more colorful, more layered reading experience. Think about why you prefer HDTV. Or, why you prefer surround sound. Or, why you like to eat at 5 star restaurants. You enjoy these things because you enjoy these things more. They give more to enjoy. They give more, not just in quantity, but in quality. And, that is what detail does for your reader. It enables them to enjoy more: to see more; taste more; hear more; smell more; touch more. 

Want to know more? Read the tinker, Bunyan – if you can.

 X. Taternanza

            I had a class with a great story teller once. He smelled like a farm – earthy and real; slightly offensive, but comforting – because he woke most days at 5 am to tend to his horses, and he ate onions whole like normal men eat apples. 
            He and his wife Edith hosted a BBQ for students every Fall and Spring on their farm. Students called it The Taternanza. It included feasting, singing, a bonfire, hay rides, Sam Adam's cream stout, and dancing to the tunes of Tater's band, The Rusty Nails, with Tater on banjo, Edith on cello, Maybeline Racine on vocals, and Winston Churchill IV on guitar. 
            I'll never forget the sound of Maybeline Racine's slightly off rhythm -- but sublime, bright, and sweetly girlish voice -- crooning cheerfully through even the saddest lyrics, "... About how to be scrounging for your next meal. How does it feel? How does it feel? To be without a home. Just like a rolling stone" -- as Winston Churchill IV tried to keep her on time, while wailing mournfully -- but sublimely, with lightning quick fingers, and virtuoso skill -- through even the happiest songs.
            In case you're wondering, Winston Churchill IV is not related to Winston Churchill I. He was a famous local mentally ill drifter who hung out on campus and worked around Tater's farm. Occasionally, he strummed his guitar in front of the campus dining hall for loose change. He was, perhaps, best known for sleeping on the lawn of Spillman Hall – wearing only his guitar. He also had a habit of showing up at graduation, and interrupting the commencement speech while claiming to be a guest of honor. You guessed it, the Prime Minister of England. Winston Churchill IV had trouble navigating reality, but he could navigate a Fender like Magellan. 
            At The Taternanza, Edith always made BBQ beef brisket. It was better, not just than all the beef brisket I've had, but than all other beef brisket I've had, combined. It melted the moment it hit your tongue. And, the sauce -- the sauce! The sauce tasted like someone had, somehow, mixed pure sunshine with honey and mustard seed and love. Her BBQ was so good you could taste it for days. I can still taste it now over the forgetful mass of years. I can still taste it through the lens of all the bad BBQ I have had since. Actually, after Edith's brisket, all BBQ has tasted bad. She ruined BBQ just like Tater ruined Gettysburg. Her brisket was so good I sometimes still think of it longingly. I'd drive cross country for one more plate of her brisket. 
            It was so good — not just the BBQ, but the convivial life of The Tater and Edith — that, after every Taternanza, several students would mysteriously get married. At least 4 of my married friends met their wives at The Taternanza. Did The Tater plan it like that? You tell me.

XI. The Good Life

            At the end of each Taternanza, came the highlight, The Tater Toast, wherein The Tater would give a rambling toast to the good life. Basically, he mumbled a lot and jumped aimlessly from subject to subject: The Texture of His Mother's Banana Pudding, The Difference of Coca Cola In A Glass Bottle, The Newness of Old Friends, The Smell of a Pine Tree, The Vision of Abraham Kuyper, The Boldness of Italian Roast, The Aroma of a Saddle, The Enthusiasm of Fresh Horses, The Dense Clarity of Dostoevsky, The Richness of Gooey Butter Cake From The Mud House, The Sound of Her Voice, The Pleasure of Cheese Fries From Mac's Drive In, The Satisfying Perplexities of Hamlet, The Satisfying Perplexities of Mustard Based BBQ – these are the kinds of topics he touched on, and that's just from one 5 minute toast. 
            Tater's toasts were rollicking rides in a rickety buggy down apparently disconnected by-ways. They left me dizzy, with a shy and thankful mirth, in the presence of Goodness. I heard 4 of these toasts, and I can remember them almost word for word. I've never spoken with anyone who heard a Tater toast who forgot a Tater toast. They were perfect. You couldn't have added, or taken away, one syllable. 
            Some day, I'll transcribe one of those toasts. Just now, I can't. Tater's toasts on the good life were too good. All these years later, my heart is still too full to attempt a rendition. All these years later, I tear up thinking about them. 

XII. The Reigning Miss Louisiana

            The Tater's wife, Edith, was a short, feisty, wicked smart woman. The Tater remembered nothing outside history and books; she remembered everything. She remembered my last name, my home town, and the names of all 7 of my siblings after meeting me only once. The Tater got lost -- like a misplaced penny -- in the details of every day life; Edith made a cozy home, full of warm welcome, in those very same details. Where Tater was weak, she was strong. Where Tater was strong, she made him stronger. Tater was always homeless; Edith was a homemaker. 
            Tater once offhandedly remarked, like it was the most boring fact imaginable, that he'd won Edith's hand by rescuing her from a band of vigilantes in Mexico City. At the time, I assumed he was kidding. The more I've thought about, the more I'm convinced that the whole story is  more -- not less -- fantastic than he let on. I now realize, The Tater didn't kid about such things.
            Edith had an eagle-like nose, and giant eyelashes that fluttered with friendliness. Her face was formed by sharp lines, and framed by long curly red -- fierce red, like a radish -- hair. In her youth, she was Miss Louisiana, and Tater liked to say -- especially when she was in earshot -- that she was still the reigning Miss Louisiana as, "to this day, no one's pretty enough to unseat her."
            Tater walked the earth, prophesying truth, with heavy steps, like the judgment of God. Edith walked the earth softly, her feet barely touching the ground, like the mercy of God. With his scraggly silver hair, rising like blades, Tater marched boldly where ever he went, leaving truth in his wake. With her long curls gathered in bunches, like a bouquet of wine red roses, Edith bounced cheerfully where ever she went, leaving love in her wake.
            She and Tater were the oddest couple I’ve ever met. On every surface characteristic, they were opposites. Yeah, they argued like crazy. I've heard several comical accounts of them dueling in the most public of places. Once, in the produce aisle of Hendricks, Edith threw, one by one, a basket of apples at Tater as he dove behind watermelons, and shouted, "Truce! Truce!" I've also heard comical accounts of them caught in romantic embrace in the most public of places. God only knows how much they loved each other. They were a perfect mismatch: perfect for each other. No marriage counselor in his right mind would advise two voices with such different pitch to enter the duet of marriage. Nevertheless, they started a band, and rocked the world with harmony. 
            I took classes from professors who scoffed at the very concept of monogamy as "imprisonment of the human spirit," and mocked marriage as, "dated," "illiberal," "irrational," and, "constrictive." (Translation: I want to sleep with my students, and I don't want my wife to nag me about it.) I heard such men employ every weapon possible, down to the last round of ammo, in a holy war against holy matrimony. I grew up in a time when divorce rates were sky rocketing, and saw my own parent's marriage fall dead on the battlefield, a magnificent disaster riddled with bullets, casualties all around. 
            On such a field of carnage, under fire from some of the smartest men in the world – I never doubted holy matrimony. When the bullets were flying hot and fast, and I saw the world torn in pieces – I'd  think of Tater and Edith, a thread and a needle, sewing up the world. They had a bond so wonderful and sweet that the weapons – not just of the men I lived history with – the weapons of all the men in all of history, all arrayed, all at once, couldn't scratch it, much less mar it.
             Once I knew Tater and Edith, I knew what marriage really was, and I nevermore feared its decline. I knew then that the men who thought themselves and their weapons mighty to oppose such a colossus of beauty were only children tossing toy swords against a stone mountain. They might break their toys – even themselves  on the mountain – but they could not break the mountain.

He was bread, and she was butter; together, they multiplied, and fed the multitudes BBQ, wisdom, and goodness.

XIII. The Kite and The Giddy Girl

            It was at a Fall Taternanza that Edith learned, for the first time, of Tater's dream to move to Montana and start his career as a barber rancher, and I'm the one who accidentally revealed it to her. That conversation haunted me: for the first week,  because of it's context: I felt I'd committed a terrible social blunder. Then, every week after, because of it's content.

"So," I said to Edith, "How do you feel about the possibility of moving to Montana?" 
            I said this with a note of humor. None of us believed  though all of us feared   that Tater would actually trot off to Montana. 
            As soon as I said the word, "Montana," Edith's face betrayed ignorance, and her hair turned a shade redder. Dark clouds formed in her grey eyes, and her face lit up with the frightening rage of a war queen. I felt sick, and a little scared that Tater and me both were in for it. Then, in an instant, the anger faded into a 'That's Tater for ya' smile. The clouds turned to sunshine, and the sunshine beamed over a long grin of giddy youthful delight as if, suddenly, the idea of shipping off to somewhere Montana sounded like a merry romp she couldn't wait to join. I've never before, and never since, seen someone go, in a split second, from being so angry to so happy. 
            "Montana? What exactly did he say?" she asked, curious for details.
            I managed to string together a stuttering reply about how Tater had maybe sort of mentioned Montana in class, and this might or might not involve opening a barber shop, and possibly building a ranch, and that he was probably kidding anyway, but all the students hated the idea of them leaving, and I felt stupid for bringing it up.
            In response, Edith laughed out loud and broke into suppressed giggles.
            Between giggles, she mused, "A barber shop, huh? He doesn't know the first thing about cutting hair. A ranch? In Montana? We've never even been to Montana. That's Tater for ya."
            "So," I said, "He was kidding around?"
            "Nah," Edith answered, "He doesn't kid about such things."
            "Oh," I stammered, "then, I'm sorry. I didn't mean... I thought... "
            Edith saved me, "Don't worry about it, darling. It's not your fault."
            "Why do you think he didn't tell you?" I asked.
            "He probably forgot," Edith replied, suppressing more giggles.
            "I hope your not upset about this," I answered, trying to make sure everything was smoothed over. 
            "I was," Edith answered, "but I'm not anymore."
            I was relieved, but still asked, "Are going to tell him I told you?"
            "Nah," she said, “it’ll come up at the right time.”
            "But what will you do if Tater -- I'm sorry, Mr. Capshaw -- says, hey, I'm thinking about moving to Montana to open up a barber shop?"
            "I'll say," she said, "tell me when to pack."

            Tell me when to pack. 

            Like I said, they were perfect for each other. I doubt any other woman could have rode side saddle on Tater's adventures. I know, without a doubt, that with any other woman, The Tater would have gotten into far fewer adventures. Sure, he would have done good 
 but a much narrower good  and I'm convinced  much less good. He would have still carried out his absent minded mission of wisdom  but in a much smaller circle. With Edith, his circle was the world. He was like a kite floating into thin blue air; she was the little girl holding the kite strings, letting it fly high, giddily loosening the line with jolly expectation. Everywhere he went, he was homeless; everywhere he went, Edith made a home.

XIV. Winston Churchill IV Rides Again

            I had a class with a great story teller once. His name was Tate Capshaw, but we called him The Tater. He had a Wyatt Earp style mustache. His hair was thinning in front, scraggly in back. He wore glasses, and Croakies (those things that keep glasses suspended around your neck), but he managed to lose at least one pair of glasses a month. He wore Hispar boots, usually caked in red mud, and a leather belt with engravings of Palmetto trees, with a giant silver buckle. He liked to ask questions, and not answer them.
            The best I can tell, before becoming a professor, he worked as a traveling musician, some kind of crime fighter in Latin America, and an organic farmer. He taught on the University level for 4 years. Though, I ‘officially’ only took three classes with him, I was his pupil for two of those years. He's not just the greatest teacher I've ever had; he's the only teacher I've ever had. Yet, the best I could tell, he spent his whole time at the University trying to get fired, while plotting to move to Montana, build a ranch, and open a barber shop.
            Toward the end of my final year in grad school, 'something' happened with one of 'the administrators,' and The Tater was either dismissed or pressured to resign. Legend is that Tater got in a fist fight with the Academic Dean over 'a matter of honor' right in the middle of a fundraising banquet. Legend is, there is a Zapruder like film of the melee taken on a cell phone camera. One of my classmates, Levy Nicholas, often boasted that he'd seen the film with his own eyes. His Father was a trustee, and had access to the film. According to Levy, "Dr. Mocker's smart mouth started it, but Tater's right hand finished it. He whooped old Mocker like a readheaded step child."
            Tater would neither confirm nor deny any account, and he wasn't that concerned about losing his teaching job. In fact, The Tater welcomed these developments with joyous aplomb. He was free, finally, to follow his dream of a life of cutting hair and chasing broncos in the wilds of Montana. 
            Upon hearing the news that Tater was leaving, the whole campus turned pale. Then, angry. Petitions were circulated to keep him. Articles and letters of adoration and praise were published in The Spectator. When 'the administration' objected to this, and shut down student dissent, a rival newspaper, “The Observant,” was started. I was a staff writer. We met, in what used to be a student movie theater, in Koenig Hall. Koenig was a dilapidated building (circa 1935) falling apart at the seams. We sat on the ground, indian style, and grappled with ideas too old for our young minds. Then, we published mostly bad opinion pieces on the danger of “institutional-ized” press. 
            My first column, on the decline of virtue in the American mind, was especially awful, and probably the low light of our whole venture. To this day, I'm proud of the main idea, but the column was poorly researched, and incomprehensible. It was a story, in the form of allegory, about the tragedy of Tater's departure, all wrapped around a satire of intellectual arrogance. Good idea. Bad writing. All passion. No reasons. All rhythm. No rhyme. Yeah, Tater was right. Satire takes a high level of literary skill. Anyway, all our little paper really wanted to accomplish was to somehow get Tater to stay.
            To no avail. Tater made it clear it was the right time for him to leave. He spent a whole class explaining his reasons for leaving without ever giving, to my satisfaction, one single good reason. To my reeling mind, the whole thing made no sense. But it made perfect sense. Tater's time with us had come to an end. It didn't end the way I wanted it to, but it ended the way it needed to.
            We spent Tater's final weeks alternately mourning his departure and stalking his wisdom. Several of us cornered him on his final day, while he was packing up his office, and asked him about the conundrums of the universe he had yet to explain. But, in reply, he hardly spoke. He just listened, and occasionally chomped on a moldy onion he found while cleaning out the bottom drawer of his desk. And then, as mysteriously as he had appeared, he was gone. Off somewhere in Montana, riding horses, cutting hair, and enjoying the good life with Edith. I was left desolate. The campus seemed greyer by the day. All the gears of the social and intellectual good life which Tater and Edith had set in motion began grinding to a halt. Winston Churchill IV even disappeared from campus. I seriously considered moving to Montana.
            I finished my masters thesis, "The Genius of John Bunyan," that summer. I hoped to see Tater at graduation, but his ranch was under heavy construction by that point, and he was working over time at the barber shop, and he had to stay – by court order, at all times – 300 yards away from the Academic Dean. Winston Churchill IV did, however, make it. He drove up in a white M3, with the top down, wearing only his guitar.
            “How do you like my car?” he asked.
            “Very elegant. It suits you perfectly,” I answered. 
            Winston Churchill IV grinned, and remarked, "A prominent dignitary, and may I say close friend, bequeathed it to me upon his ascendancy to royal majesty."
            “Yeah,” I said, “I know just who you are talking about.”
            Winston Churchill IV answered, in a whisper, "You know the honorable king of Montana?”
            "I'm happy to say I do," I answered.
            “Am I late for graduation? I’m the guest of honor,” he said, with grave concern.
            “Nope,” I replied, “you’re right on time.”
            "You know who I am?" he asked, a plea as much as a question.
            "Do I know who you are?" I said, truly offended that he might not know that I knew exactly who he was.
            I continued, with a bow, "Of course I know who you are. I've been hoping you'd make your way back to our little university. I was worried you wouldn't come. I can't tell you how glad I am to see you."
            I shook Winston Churchill IV's hand as he beamed up at me, recognizing my recognition.

XV. Sometimes Two Things

            After graduation, my classmates and I struggled hard to stick our landing in 'the real world.' And Tater wasn't there to do badly needed air traffic control. Instead, he was probably sitting in a McDonald's parking lot in Helena, totally lost, engrossed in some obscure Latin tome. The thought sometimes crossed our minds, and escaped our lips, "If Tater really cared about us students, would he have been able to so cavalierly vanish to Montana?" 
            Then, occasionally, in town and around campus, I'd see Winston Churchill IV cruising happily in an M3, and I'd recall, "Sometimes two seemingly contradictory things are both true." And, I’d smile, and wonder if Tater had planned it just like that. Seriously, had be gone to the trouble to buy an M3 so that he could leave behind a sparkling reminder that -- even though he'd left -- he still cared about us? 
            One day, about 6 months after graduation, when I was missing Tater most, and lamenting the end of my glory days as a University student, I suddenly remembered something – maybe the only thing – Tater said the day we gathered while he was packing up his office. He quoted Faulkner, "The past is not dead. It is not even past." 
            Those words -- just another offhanded Tater remark, spoken to no one in particular, while he was tripping over a box of books -- hadn't meant much, or helped me much, before. They had been lying like damp kindling in the bottom of my heart for months. But, in a moment, they caught fire and lit up my world. In a moment of burning revelation, those words broke forth upon my shaded thoughts like buckets of white hot light. I understood, then, that The Tater, as well as all the other good things in my life, would always be with me. The good life would follow behind me, only a step, for the rest of my days.

XVI. The Further Adventures of Tater

            After 2 years in Montana, I got word that Tater took off to Virginia to found a private school dedicated to reclaiming, "The Lost Tools of Learning."  That's Tater for ya.
            3 years later, I heard he ran for congress in Wyoming as a write-in candidate, and lost. In 2006, I heard he and Edith had set off to climb Everest. I had visions of poor Tater, lost and wondering aimlessly, freezing to death, but happily reading some masterpiece, on a dark corner of Everest. To my relief, in 2008, I heard he'd arrived back from Everest safe and sound and started a law practice in Manhattan. I lost touch with him sometime in the Fall of 2010.
            That December, Martin forwarded me an article about a group of Americans arrested for distributing banned books in China with the tagline, "Tater???" Along with the article, there was a picture of the group. For the sake of anonymity, the faces were blurred. One of the men had a silver belt buckle. One of the women had radish red hair.
            Then, last year, after two years of silence on Tater’s whereabouts, just as we were fearing that Tater had become confused over which was was north, and wondered over the edge of the world, Bry got a letter from him out of the blue. Tater wanted Bry to make a grandfather clock for Edith for their 30th wedding anniversary. The letter was postmarked from Norway, but Tater gave a forwarding address to England. A month later, Tater wrote and said he and Edith had been deported from England, and they planned to do some traveling around Europe.        
            Two weeks later, another letter arrived. Tater gave an address in Spain, and asked if the clock was finished. He also asked that an inscription be included on the inside of the door, "The Past Is Not Dead." 

XVII.  To The Margins, With Love

            A week after Bry sent Tater the clock, he got warm letter of thanks. Bry had refused payment, but Tater once again refused his refusal, and included a check for $ 5000.00. Bry and Becky had just had their fourth child, and Miracle Worker Wood Works had been hit hard by the economic downturn. This check kept Bry afloat long enough to make a comeback.
            I saw Bry that afternoon.
            He asked, “Do you think he knew my shop was in trouble? Do you think he planned the whole thing?”
            “Yes,” I said, “and no.”
            He showed me Tater’s letter. I laughed out loud when I came to a section which read, “I appreciate your generosity, but must refuse. You, of all people, should know the worker is worthy of his hire.”
            Bry asked, “Do you think he remembers our conversation that day? A week after that conversation, he’d forgotten my name, and only vaguely remembered the day we spent working on his farm. Do you think he remembers everything, and only acts like he remembers nothing?”
            I answered, “Maybe he remembers everything, but forgets he remembers.”
            Before leaving, Bry placed an envelope in my hand. It contained nine pages, filled to the margins, of small neat handwriting.
            As I opened the envelope, Bry offered, “Tater asked me to give you this."
            I was incredulous, “He wrote me a letter?”
            Bry replied, "Though the grape vine, he heard you were going through a rough spell."
            Somehow, through a grape vine named Bry Denson, Tater got word that I had just gone through a broken engagement -- and, he decided to write me a letter? I could hardly fathom this. I thought Tater had completely forgotten me, or else never remembered me in the first place.
            In the letter, which I read while standing outside a Quiktrip, with mouth open,  heart burning, and eyes misty, Tater said a lot of things. He said Edith was working on a quilt commemorating their 30 years together. He said he'd dragged Edith all over Europe. He said her beauty out shined every woman on three continents. He said they'd visited the coliseum in Rome, Dracula's Castle in Romania, the Eiffel Tower in Paris, and Westminster Abbey in London but, he said, his favorite thing in all his travels was eating Belgian Waffles with Edith in a small cafe in Switzerland while watching the Sun bow beneath the Alps. He said that irony was indeed the shackles of youth. He said that the men who cursed oxygen, their lungs full of it, needed to take a deep breath. He said he missed me.
            He said he was working on a biography of Cicero. He said he was almost finished with a handful of other books (The Writer Factory???!!!). He called these works his, "fragments shored against the ruins," and "faint scribblings of a man who has only dipped his little toe in the ocean of knowledge." 
            He said he didn’t know how to work the silver suitcase where Edith reads articles and looks at pictures – her laptop? – but, she had printed one of my "blogle" posts from "the inner wide web world" for him to read. He said he was learning Russian. He said something about my writing which caused me to break into uncontrollable joyful sobs. And, he said a lot of other things.
            And, this was only on the first two pages of the letter. I haven't even begun to tell you what he really said, or been true to the way he really said it. 
            The letter was flush, to the margins, down to the commas, with overwhelming kindness and regard. Tater believed in me when I didn't believe in myself. The man who couldn’t remember his way home found me, even when I felt I'd lost myself. Strange to ponder: the man with who met me for the first time many times knew exactly what to say to me almost 10 years after our last conversation. 
            True to form, there was was even one offhand remark in the letter that, in a certain light, sounded almost like an insult. I turned that remark over in my mind like a bitter pill for a week. I was mad about it for a month. I’m still kinda mad about it – but, Tater was right. 
            Someday, I'll pass along some more of the grace and wisdom of that letter to the world at large. Just now, I can't. My heart is still too full. I tear up thinking about it.

            Tater reported that due to, "an international incident involving a corrupt ruffian who happened to be a member of the House of Lords," and for, "reasons of diplomatic sensitivity between the United States and her ally England," he wouldn't be able to make it back to the USA in the near future. He asked me to check in on Winston Churchill IV. He reported that he'd decided to stay in Spain and teach at a school for refugees. My guess is he got lost in Europe, ended up in Spain, wondered into a classroom, began talking to a stranger, found himself surrounded by students, felt at home, and decided to stay for awhile. I wouldn't be surprised if some version of that is partly true.

            That’s Tater for ya.