Joseph E Bird

Let's talk about reading, writing and the arts.


July 2017

And then there was Bach.

I heard a piano playing.

I recognized the hymn, despite the missed note here and there. Probably coming from the gathering place where the residents sit in wheelchairs on Sunday afternoon and listen to the local Church of Christ preacher.

Except I had already passed the gathering place. The piano sounds were coming from down the hall.

She sat in her doorway in her wheelchair, the keyboard resting on the armrests. She kept playing as I approached.

That’s really very good, I said.

She laughed but she didn’t look up. She was unable to raise her head. She looked at the floor as she spoke.

I play by ear, she said. I can’t read music.

Then I noticed the plastic rat sitting on the keyboard. It was so out of place that I couldn’t bring myself to ask about it. I should have. There’s probably a good story to go with it.

This hand doesn’t work very well, she said as she held up her twisted right hand.

Well, you sound great.

And she did. Not that she was going on tour anytime soon, but I’d love to be able to play at her level.

I went on.

While I was visiting, I heard her playing. One hymn after another.

And then there was Bach. Unmistakable.

The rhythms and the patterns of the master composer. And a familiar tune. Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring. Another hymn, of sorts.

As I was leaving, she had quit playing but was still sitting in her doorway.

I heard you playing Bach, I said.

Bach? As if she didn’t know who I was talking about.

Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring, I said

She laughed. That’s Bach?


She laughed again. Good old Bach, she said. Good old Bach.


He’s pretty much lying on his back on this unique contraption, part wheelchair, part gurney. He’s in the sun, because when it’s not too hot, it’s good to get out of the building, out of the darkness, out of the smells. A lot of people are out. Some are by themselves, smoking, some are just sitting. They all acknowledge visitors, maybe with a smile or a sideways glance, but they all notice. Even the guy on his back, strapped in so he won’t fall off, follows me with his eyes.

He’s wearing a Cowboys jersey. I offer a quick hello as I walk by. He returns the greeting.

Are you a Cowboys fan? I ask.

Yes, sir.

I can’t tell if he can move his head or his arms, but he pushes the joystick with his fingers and his chair moves to face me.

They looked pretty good at the end of the season, I say. They have a good quarterback.

I want to talk specifics, but I can’t remember the quarterback’s name.

Yeah, he says. Dak Prescott. He’s going to be good.

And the running back? What’s his name?

Elliott, he says.

Then he says the defense has to get better.

I say something about how the Cowboys are fun to watch, but my knowledge of the team is limited. Like all conversations with strangers, this one has run its course.

I’d better get inside, I say, not really wanting to. I turn to go and remember to ask.

What’s your name?


Hey, Del. I’m Joe. I’ll see you around.

After my visit inside, I leave, but Del’s no longer outside.

I see him again a few weeks later, in the same chair, the nurses taking him in for rehab. I wanted to say hello but before I reached him, they had pushed him on down the hall.

I go on and make my visit. The usual ten minutes.

Then I leave this world of offensive odors, vacant looks, cries of loneliness, incoherent conversations, and people who depend on others to help them eat pureed food or drink juice through a straw, and guys like Del who have no other options.

I walk to my car and drive away. A few minutes later, I stop for coffee, maybe drive around a bit because it’s such a nice day. It’s Sunday, and I have no other obligations. For me, it’s a day of rest.

I think about privilege, and how that term is used today. It’s become a pejorative. I have able-body privilege. I have sound mind privilege. I have the privilege of good health and mobility and the privilege of being able to make my own decisions and act on those decisions.

I have all of that. Del doesn’t. And there’s nothing I can do about it.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter

“In the town there were two mutes, and they were always together. Every morning they would come out from the house where they lived and walk arm in arm down the street to work. The two friends were very different. The one who always steered the way was an obese and dreamy Greek. In the summer he would come out wearing a yellow or green polo shirt stuffed sloppily in his trousers and hanging loose behind. When it was colder he wore over this a shapeless gray sweater. His face was round and oily, with half-closed eyelids and lips that curved into a gentle, stupid smile. The other mute was tall. His eyes had a quick, intelligent expression. He was always immaculate and very soberly dressed.”

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, by Carson McCullers

Two mutes?  You mean two people who can’t talk? Mute sounds old-fashioned and maybe even offensive. McCullers published her novel in 1940 when there was less awareness of such sensibilities. In modern medicine the inability to speak or use verbal language skills is called aphasia. Nonetheless, the town had two aphasics. In my entire life, I have never met an aphasic. And for a small town to have two aphasics would be very unusual.

McCullers continues in a Joe Friday kind of way. Just the facts, ma’am. No purple prose here. It’s so straightforward it almost seems like the start of a middle-schooler’s short story.

The two friends were very different.

First, we learn about the obese and dreamy Greek.  He’s kind of a pitiful character. A little slovenly. Half-closed eyelids. Lips the curved into a gentle, stupid smile.

Wait a minute. Gentle, I can accept. A gentle giant with a kind smile. But no, McCullers throws one high and tight when we were expecting an off-speed breaking pitch. His smile was stupid.  No way around this one. Stupid is offensive. I suspect that McCullers didn’t go around calling people stupid just because of how they looked. But she’s very much aware of human nature. She knows that her readers – meaning all of us – can’t help but to make these kinds of judgments, even if we are polite enough to keep it to ourselves. So when she says his smile was stupid, she knows we’ll get it. She doesn’t want us to like this guy.

The other guy is tall. Ok. He seems intelligent, just by the way he looks. Another unfair generalization that we make all the time.

He’s immaculate and soberly dressed. This tells us a lot. He may not have any control of his height or the way his face is structured, but he can sure control how he dresses. And he cares about his appearance. He’s not flashy or fashionable, just immaculate.

He’s friends with his opposite. Sure, the fact that they’re both mutes has something to do with their friendship, but you get the feeling that the tall guy has befriended the dreamy Greek because the dreamy Greek needs a friend. So we like this guy. All of this in the first paragraph.

Two mutes. Two friends. Always together. But very, very different.

Where is this going?

Very simple language. Very simple descriptions. And with that, an undercurrent of tension that compels the reader to turn the page.

Another strong beginning.


“Although I have no way to tell what time it is, I know that my torment will start soon.

I face east. And the long shadow projecting before me and down the length of this ragged basketball court tells me that the sun behind me is at its lowest ebb. The shadow itself, although exaggerated by the distance and the long-angled sunlight, is, like always, definite and unmistakable; it is of the concrete bench where I am seated, beneath the western goal. The shadow is all of straight lines and square corners. There is no human shape; no profile of me. Though I have experienced the same thing a hundred times or more and by now I should know that the laws of physics no longer apply to me, the old neural pathways are too well established. I cannot escape the register of shock. I still cannot avoid the unconscious and automatic processing of all my sensory data the feel of the hard concrete bench beneath me, my view of this familiar court, my certainty of the identity of the shadow, and my absence from it – against that certain knowledge of light and shade, cause and effect that my 52 years on the earth burned into me.

I am not there. How can that be? And then, of course, the deeper question, the one that still frightens me and the one that I am no nearer to answering even after these long months of invisibility and immobility, why am I here?”

Overtime: A Basketball Parable, by Larry Ellis

How can you not be intrigued by that first sentence? His torment is about to begin, though he has no way of knowing time.

He must be a prisoner.

But no. He’s outside, sitting on a bench. As the sun sets, he sees the shadow of the bench, but not his own shadow.

Oh, yeah?

And it happens to him all the time.

Hmmm.  What’s going on here?

He says he’s not there. After clearly stating that he’s sitting on the bench, yet he’s not there?

He says he’s immobile. He says he’s invisible.

He doesn’t know how. He doesn’t know why.

The why is the deeper question he needs to have answered.

That’s enough for me to keep reading. A great beginning that promises a different kind of mystery and a different kind of story.

If you want to know more about this prisoner of time, you can find Ellis’s book here.



Breakfast of Champions

“This is a tale of a meeting of two lonesome, skinny, fairly old white men on a planet which was dying fast.

One of them was Kilgore Trout. He was a nobody at the time, and he supposed his life was over. He was mistaken. As a consequence of the meeting, he became one of the most beloved and respected human beings in history.

The man he met was an automobile dealer, a Pontiac dealer named Dwayne Hoover. Dwayne Hoover was on the brink of going insane.”

Breakfast of Champions, by Kurt Vonnegut

Ayn Rand: serious and intense.
Kurt Vonnegut: irreverent, off the wall, fun, and yes, serious.

Ayn Rand’s approach was more intellectual and might leave the reader emotionally drained.
Kurt Vonnegut aimed for the gut, but the ride was so much fun, you didn’t mind the punch to the stomach.

“This is the tale of…”

A tale, not a story. Relax, dear reader, I’m just telling you a tale. No need to get uptight. Just two skinny, lonesome, old white men. They’re everywhere, these old white men. Yes, the planet is dying, but this is just a tale, remember?

And Kilgore Trout. How can you be a serious person if your name is Kilgore Trout? Such an unassuming nobody. Ok, so maybe he became one of the most beloved and respected persons — no, not just a person, a representative of the entire species we call human — in history. Not a mere fifteen minutes of fame, mind you. All of history.

The other character in this little tale is Dwayne Hoover, a car dealer. A wheeler dealer. But lest you think that this tale is going to get serious, one other little fact: Poor Dwayne is about to go bonkers.

Of course none of this really happened. It’s just an interesting little tale I made up, Vonnegut seems to be saying. Nothing to fear. Leave your intellect at the door. It’s just a silly little tale.

See? You didn’t even notice the sock to the gut.




The Fountainhead

“Howard Roark laughed.

He stood naked at the edge of a cliff. The lake lay far below him. A frozen explosion of granite burst in flight to the sky over motionless water. The water seemed immovable, the stone — flowing. The stone had a stillness of one brief moment in battle when thrust meets thrust and the currents are held in a pause more dynamic than motion. The stone glowed, wet with sunrays.”

— The Fountainhead, by Ayn Rand.

One of the first serious novels I read. The first sentence leaves absolutely no doubt about who the book was about, even though these opening paragraphs are identified in Part One – Peter Keating. This is Howard Roark’s story.

And so many questions raised by this beginning.

Who the heck is this crazy guy standing naked at the edge of a cliff?  Why did he laugh?  Will he jump?  Is he suicidal?

And Rand’s choice of words. Yes, maybe a little melodramatic, but they weigh heavily with importance. As it turns out, this Roark fellow was indeed very serious.

The book is not without controversy and many think the it’s over-rated.  When I first read the book in my twenties, the background philosophy espoused by Rand flew right over my head, as did the possibility that the story puts women in a subservient role to men. For me, it was about Roark’s belief in his work – architecture – and his unwillingness to compromise his principles for either money or fame.  But because his talent was so deep, and because the power of his personality was so great, Roark survived.  And in the end, he was the only one with his integrity in tact.

And it ends like this:

“She saw him standing above her, on the top platform of the Wynand Building. He waved to her.

The line of the ocean cut the sky. The ocean mounted as the city descended. She passed the pinnacles of bank buildings. She passed the crowns of the courthouses.  She rose above the spires of churches.

Then there was only the ocean and the sky and the figure of Howard Roark.”



In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.
And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.

–Genesis, Chapter 1

What evocative language. What a way to start a story.  What a choice of words.  The prose is so strong, it’s poetic.

Of course the original writing was Hebrew.  Does the Hebrew translation have the same effect on the reader?  I don’t know.  The translation above is the King James Version.  Here’s the New International Version.

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.”

Basically the same meaning, and probably more grammatically correct.  No sentences begin with “And”, which I know drives some people nuts.  And the last two sentences have been combined into one, which modern grammar-check software would undoubtedly suggest. It may be more correct, but as literature, it loses a little of its punch, a little of its rhythm, a little of its beauty.

The choice of words matter.  Subtle changes can make powerful differences.

Let’s look at another beginning.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
The same was in the beginning with God.
All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.
In him was life; and the life was the light of men.
And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.”

–The Gospel of John, Chapter 1

I find this language intriguing. If one were to pick up this story without knowing anything about it, the first two sentences would produce a shaking of the head. What??? A mystery right off the bat. Then the third sentence introduces the main character. Quite a powerful guy, it would seem. Then the talk of light and darkness. A sense of foreboding.  Yeah, this would be my kind of story.

Many of my favorite books begin this way. A sense of mystery. The introduction of an intriguing figure. And you know something is going to happen.

This week we’ll take a look at beginnings, and we’ll see that words matter.





coming home

washington avenue sunset

She turned right onto Virginia Street. As a child, in the back seat with Wayne, coming back from the family vacation or a visit to Grandma’s or a Friday night out to eat, turning onto Virginia Street had meant they were home. The street, where they rode their bikes and played kickball and walked to their friends without worry or fear of anything other than staying too late, was as much their home as the big brick house, where on cold winter nights they sat on the worn out couch in the living room and watched television on the boxy console, where they did homework on the dining room table next to the folded dish towels and rolled up socks, and where she had dreamed of places faraway in a bedroom covered with posters of rock bands and pop stars. And though it had only been two weeks since she had left for Texas, she felt her body relax, and the tension that she didn’t know she had been carrying, slipped away.

copyright 2017, joseph e bird

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