I’ve been listening to the debate about Juan Williams’ firing from National Public Radio with – well, frankly, there are bigger things in the world. But one element of the discussion hooked me. It’s not the part about what he said. For those of you who’ve stopped watching news of any form, Juan is a former NPR news analyst who freelances on Fox News. NPR fired him because of what he said on Fox News last week.
He said something about fearing the sight of Muslims in Muslim-wear on planes. I immediately cancelled our flight to Orlando. Kidding. Muslims expressing their Muslim-ness doesn’t fill me with dread. It’s the women in silk jogging togs (matching top and bottom) with earpieces and a laser stare. The women getting eight things done to my one. The women who are just older versions of the Pom Pons in high school who couldn’t be convinced I existed even if I tackled them in the hallway.
I realize that if I were a well-known news personality making those statements, I‘d be responsible for you developing an irrational fear of the produce aisle at Safeway, or the sidelines at the Saturday soccer game. That’s where they propel their Escalades, to menace guys like me.
But I digress. Sometimes the answer to a present-day problem lies in combining something tried and true with something new. Cool how that works. Take Groupon. The first recorded use of the coupon was when Joseph (of the Technicolor Dreamcoat) needed to quickly unload extra grain after a bumper crop in Egypt. This led to the reunion of the 12 sons of Jacob, and later to the invention of the internet. You get the idea. So Groupon joins the old idea with new technology and voila! Another billionaire too young to remember when you had to shake a thermometer.
Anyway, this leads to the larger question in the whole Williams-NPR affair. Or, as I’ve coined it, NPR Shoots-Self-in-Foot-With-Gradeschool-Firing-Gate (Look for this term to go viral. You heard it here first.)
The larger question, of course, is that of journalistic integrity – the notion that journalists occupy a special place in the panoply of all professions by reporting the newsobjectively. As opposed to news analysts, who say how they feel about the news, and its impact on larger social issues. The question is, “Does journalistic integrity matter anymore, or as an enlightened society can we just admit that it never existed in the first place, and is not a realistic goal to strive for?”
One way to view the question is through the prism of the age-old admonition to students of English Composition – Show, Don’t Tell. (This is not the same as the other topical debate commanding headlines this week – Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell. More on that later.)
The caution to show, rather than tell, the reader in your narrative suggests that readers are bright and capable folks – similar in intelligence to the writer, if you think about it. So the job of the writer is not to tell a story. The writer’s job is to construct visions in the reader’s head, and to bundle those images to show the scene. To do otherwise (we counsel the fledgling scribe), is to demonstrate laziness toward the craft, and to be condescending toward the reader – both mortal sins in the moral code of writing.
It may sound somewhere between silly and impossible to imagine that a journalist can report facts without inflection – to let the images of the story speak for themselves, without letting the journalist’s personal views distort the written images. Maybe that’s why they call it a craft.
When a writer attributes intent to the actor in a written piece, that’s a clue that observation is giving way to editorializing. When terms like pernicious, conspiracy, plead, rant, afraid, and covert appear – well, your Honor, they all call for speculation on the part of the witness – in this case the journalist. You get the idea. In Juan’s case – can I call you Juan? – worried and nervous were the offending terms.
Juan, show me Muslims at the airport in Muslim garb. Don’t tell me how to feel about them. In fact, if you show me the visions in your head, I may feel something completely different. Your job is not to tell me how to feel. Your job is to show me the world you see. That is, of course, when you’re a journalist. Which arguably is a full-time, not a part-time, job.
Show, Don’t Tell, Mr. Bottorf at Parkdale High School would say, in another world, in another life. Sometimes the world that was still has something to offer the world that is.
Good luck at Fox, Juan.
(This is a dusted-off story for the spooky season. The idea came to me walking through a pumpkin patch on a farm surrounded by McMansions in the new suburbs. Ever wonder what secrets reside in those ancient homesteads tucked among the tract homes?)
The old woman leaned on the post at the edge of the wood porch, straining to see through the mist. Before her, the vast pumpkin field laced its greenish-yellow tentacles in every direction. The land lay exhausted, bound tight in a web of the soft, pliant vines. The cloying odor of decay clung all around her meager homestead.
She squinted at a dark hillock in the middle distance, an unwelcoming island in the eye of the moon’s cold beam. Bursting from the center of the mound was a tree of indistinct genus. No leaves adorned its arthritic branches, but it was thick with thorns. The skin of gnarled wood repelled the sickly yellowish luminosity misting the field. No milky light reflected off the main trunk or crippled branches from any angle. The ancient growth could have been a darker slash in the horizon, where no light escaped, but was rather ingested.
As the countryside receded in the pre-dawn fog to a line of dark trees, the rolling field could have been a swelling ocean, the dead tree a scuttled sailing craft. Twinkling lights dotted the top layer of trees on every side, completing the unsettling illusion of a black sea heaving silently in the faint breeze, land beckoning in the distance. She glanced down and grimaced at her foolishness, noting how tightly she gripped the rail of the porch.
The sound from the pumpkin field’s furthest edge came to her well before she could see anything. She held her breath, listening with eyes pinched shut. Her head swiveled slowly to one side and another, like a rusted radar dish, tuning to the shuffling noise of something treading the landscape.
The creature hove into view, slogging over the viscous vines, smashing rotting pumpkin meat under its clawed paws. It took no notice of the pale moon glow, or the cutting, cold wind. She could see it more clearly now, passing close to the gnarled tree. Its snout lifted to sniff at the stench, and it squelched a sound that might have been satisfaction.
The small figure draped over its scaled back moaned as the creature stepped hard in some small rodent hole and lurched on the pumpkin field’s rutted surface. The thing lumbered across the molding field, pausing to scratch its hide against the rough bark of the dead tree. It then continued its journey home. When it reached the porch and the old woman, the beast bent and lowered its burden off its back, with a gentle and graceful economy that no longer surprised her.
The previous evening, the creature had risen from its place by the hearth when the old woman’s husband had worried the door open, struggling with a load of wood. It had bounded outside the instant the door swung wide. His arms filled with kindling, the old man cursed and kicked at the thing as it skittered across the rough-hewn porch. He’d stomped in and slammed the thick wood door in the beast’s wake. She never heard what it heard, what call beyond her range summoned it from its place by the fire out into the darkness.
The woman bent, and lifted her shawl to swaddle the girl, remembering another visit long ago.
The rain spit down from a roiling sky, clouds tossing like foam on an enraged sea. Lightning flared the landscape into garish daylight for instants. In the same beat, the thunder slammed down to thrum the land. Ernst, her mate, huddled at the rough-stone opening of the fireplace, shivering in his soggy garments.
The storm had descended like a specter, sudden and malevolent. The old dray horse had panicked, shuddering, mist flaring from its nostrils just outside the meager barn. The farmer had beaten the roan nag nearly senseless, but it had just stood rooted, eyes huge and moist, petrified. Ernst had finally given up and stamped into the cottage through the gray slanted rain.
He growled when his wife offered the steaming tea, then took the mug and sipped at it, calming. The fury of the summer storm was as she imagined Judgment Day, the final act in a nerve-scraping play. The sky hunched down, breathing needles of lashing rain and lightning to spear anything so hapless as to be out exposed on the land.
She sat a little back from the fire, at the window, watching the dray horse vibrate in terror, steaming in the cloudy spray. The horse would likely perish in the storm, from fear or a lightning blast. She was a farmer’s wife, and death was always a companion. Life was trouble upon trouble, a path of missteps and heartaches, with a flat granite stone at the end.
She swiveled at a flash of light. From the brooding gray hull of a cloud, a half mile beyond her garden, a cone of light shot down to the ground. She tensed, expecting the crack of thunder. Instead, a silent ball of red flame, veiled in dense black smolder, billowed up from the wounded field.
The next morning, she rose early in the eerie quiet. She washed, dressed, and slipped out through the front door. The land oozed wet and steaming under a pellet-gray, close sky. Earthy rich and loamy smells assaulted her nostrils, a blend like sour urine and rotting wood. She stepped around twisted branches and pieces of fencing, past her flattened square of sweet corn.
She approached the spot where the light had fingered down from the sky. The ground for several yards was charred, wisps of noxious smoke curling in the morning air.
At the center of the scarred patch gleamed a strange cylinder, resembling a thin, shiny ashcan, jutting from the earth. The section she could see was perhaps as long as her leg. It leaned angled, as if it had been heaved spear-like from beyond the horizon.
If it had fallen from the sky, it seemed remarkably intact, excepting where a thin portion of its outer skin had peeled back, offering her a glimpse inside the canister. She moved closer to the odd assemblage, staring in confusion.
Just inside the opening lay an empty cavity. She saw that one side of the peeled section was hinged to the main tube. A smear of something thick and dark from the opening dripped down the side of the device, and a puddle of the same ooze clumped on the earth below. Then she saw it.
Her first instinct made no sense. Flounder. Not that the thing resembled a fish – it was about the volume of a soldier’s helmet. But one half of the animal was not symmetrical with the other. It was as if two species were fused. This gray living thing possessed lidless eyes, scaled skin, and three appendages. Its eyes gazed wetly, perhaps studying her, neither desperate nor fearful.
Having lived always on a farm, she was versed in the cruel tricks a capricious God will play on His birthed creatures: calves with two heads. Piglets with no eye sockets. This malformed beast-babe would not have struggled to survive, she thought, if it could glimpse the bleak future awaiting it in a world terrified of the strange.
Wherever it had come from, it was now part of the farm, until some other whim of the gods snatched it away. She bent, clucking, and undraped her shawl from her shoulders.
“Woman, I toldja saving the abomination’s life was a scheme hatched in hell.” The old man loomed over his grey-haired, wrinkled mate, as she stroked the golden hair of the disheveled child in her lap. A dark, stained cattle blanket draped the sleeping girl’s legs, and soiled socks covered her feet. “That beast dragging the outside world to our door!”
“Look at her, Ernst. Where do you think she comes from?”
“For sure we’ll never learn from the monst-”
“Shhhh!” She hissed up at her husband, gazing into the corner by the fireplace.
“Ach, now!” He flung his hands up. “It’s taken to understanding our words, has it?” “Gawd.”
“And mind your language in front of the child!”
“What that – child – will hear from my lips is nothing compared to the sights she has already beheld this night, unless God was merciful and she was already out cold.”
He was rubbing the back of his hand across his mouth, considering. The woman rocked the child slowly, looking up at him. She had seen the look, when Ernst was worrying out a problem. She’d seen it many times as their hardscrabble farm, once buffered by vast holdings of more affluent farmers, slowly squeezed itself in the midst of huge luxury homes. Only a thin belt of woodland shielded them from these strange city people, young and cheerful voices raised on warm summer days, cooking and mowing and splashing within easy hearing.
“You are right about one thing,” Ernst sneered. “The name of God has no place here.” He stepped toward the black shadow in the corner, and raised a hand as if to strike it. A quick snuffle emanated from the dark shape, neither fearful nor threatening.
“It’s not like when the- thing first arrived. Then we had no neighbors. No one asking questions. Now, we are fenced on all sides by houses full of people who look down on us. They don’t know us or care to. They won’t even buy our pumpkins anymore. They need hayrides and marchin’ through the corn and big bouncy rides for their spoiled brats. They just want us gone!”
The man spat, rubbed his stubbled chin, and turned on his heel, pulling the rough door shut behind him as he stomped out into the day.
The old woman rocked, humming an unhurried tune. She had seen much trouble in her day, and Lord knows many more days lay behind than before her. She held the child, and gazed into the dark corner where the creature lay. The beast was a misery to be sure, and drew misery to itself like wool draws cat fur, and never intending any mischief, she was just sure of it.
She had raised it up, in the way of those who devoted their meager life to the land. Its living or dying was not subject to her concern.
In the afternoon, the woman stirred the steaming apple mixture, sniffed, and added several shakes from her cinnamon can. The beast had lived, somehow. No matter what she’d tried to feed it, the thing showed no interest. It grew only slowly, but grow it did. It did not drink anything, as far as she could tell, but she always left a bowl of water near the stove. It would hunch unmoving over the bowl, staring into the still water for hours. She would look over its snout into the dark depth of the bowl. But all she saw was the creature’s reflection.
Six years ago, the beast had tumbled from the sky. Ernst was never kind to it, but it would not be alive if Ernst had made her turn it out. Life was full of twists. One wouldn’t expect so much rareness, living on a stingy spit of land. Yet here had come another creature, decidedly more human, laid out in the corncrib, hidden from the searchers Ernst was sure would come.
At his roadside stand, he heard about the accident, over off the new road last night. He’d raced up to the house to tell the woman, and to pace. At first, it had seemed clear: call the police, and tell them the little girl was alive and safe. But then his eyes had gone red and his voice spluttered – how had the girl come to be on their farm? How could he explain her presence here? She could not have wandered, in her state, all the way from the scene to their door.
“I need time to think, woman!” he had said, his eyes full of anger, and, she saw, fear.
She knew better than to try to talk to him. Ernst needed to work it out in his way. She hoped he would choose the right thing, though God alone knew what that was, and God did not often visit here.
She turned at the sound of the latch lifting. Her husband had been gone all day. Ernst stepped inside, stole a look at her, then glanced down again, and closed the door softly. The creature shifted in its corner and settled. For once, Ernst didn’t take notice.
He shrugged out of his ancient oilskin, and hung it on its peg by the door. Moving to the sink, he shoved the sleeves of his long johns to his elbows, and jabbed his gnarled hands under the running water.
“How is the girl?” She wiped her own hands on the starched apron, and eased a stray lock of gray hair from her forehead with the back of one hand. She lowered the flame below the simmering pot a notch. Then she noticed the red clay on the knees of his overalls.
Her heart lurched. “Should I try feeding her again? Does she show any sign of stirring?”
He rinsed the soil from his forearms, and lathered his hands with soap from the dish.
“It wasn’t going to work trying to explain what she was doing under our roof, now was it? Give me no choice but to make sure she’s not discovered. Such foolishness and danger. But she’s well hidden now.”
“What did you do, Ernst?” She felt something inside her fall and settle to the bottom, like a penny coming to rest in a wishing pond.
The next day police did come, asking questions. The beast was hidden safe in the vegetable cellar, the trap door concealed under scattered hay. The two officers were polite, but their eyes wandered constantly, peering into the corners and shadows of the small cabin and outbuildings.
“Yeah, one passenger ejected. Female. But her daughter’s gone missing. One shoe found, not the adult female’s. And some unidentified prints in the mud. You haven’t seen anything…unusual? ”
Ernst stood on the porch, his gnarled hands resting on the rail. “Prints? What kind of prints?”
“In the last few years, Department of Natural Resources says we’ve had some anomalies here in the county. The’re’s a word. Deer carcasses mostly. Hunters would find animal cadavers, back in the woods. Eaten by – well, we don’t know exactly. We thought maybe bear-”
“I never heard of bear attacking deer.”
“The deer probably weren’t killed by – whatever it was ate them. More likely wounded by hunters, and died in the open. But their bodies – we could never be sure, and no one was pressing charges-”
“Here in Harford County? I think the last bear must be gone from here a long time ago,” Ernst responded thoughtfully.
“So did we.” The patrolman stared out over the field, his nose wrinkling. “But this isn’t any bear.”
“Where’s your dog?”
Ernst turned to look empty-eyed at the officer, as they passed out of the cabin into the dooryard.
“I noticed the water bowl,” the officer said.
“We get cats sometimes.” Ernst shrugged, as if to say who knows? “From the neighbors.” The old woman noticed the two officers exchange a smirking glance. “The water we can afford,” Ernst continued. “So we leave it out for strays.”
The woman gave her husband Ernst a hard look, but he avoided his wife’s gaze. If the officer had glanced at the old woman in that moment, she was sure the he would have seen the lie. But he was peering across the yard, out at the landscape of decaying vegetation.
The police eased into the patrol car, pointed it back down the grooved lane, and drove slowly away.
No one else came asking questions after that. Ernst never told his wife where he buried the girl, and she didn’t ask. Somewhere in the acres of pumpkins, he had sewn the child. Next year she would rise in the field. Nothing is ever wasted on the farm, just as there is never any gain.
She felt bad about the girl, alone and cold somewhere out there. But on a farm, death and life shared the same gambler’s coin. Ernst was no more unpredictable than God, she thought, and that was the end of what she thought about it.
The old woman stood on the porch, listening to the soft snuffling from inside the cabin, and gazed out over the withering pumpkin field.