What You Are Prepared to SeeBy Bobby Neal Winters
When I first started writing about ten years back, I had a exercise I did. I found stories in the Bible and wrote them up in modern style. The one rule I had was that I would be absolutely faithful to what was written in that I would not subtract anything. I kept the plot-line; I kept the dialog; I would add flesh to the bone that was there, but I wouldn’t change the bones.
It was a remarkable educational experience.
The first thing I learned was that there is a lot that is open to interpretation. An example of this would be in the story of Deborah and Barack. We know simply that Deborah was married, she was a prophetess, and she was a judge of Israel. She lived under a tree known as the Palm of Deborah.
I chose to make her an old woman. This, I thought, who work better with her character. As she was living in a male dominated environment, I thought that making her a wise elder would work better. As this was an age without modern dentistry, I chose to make her toothless. As a part of this, I gave her the habit of sucking the pulp from pomegranate pieces and spitting out the seeds in a rather disgusting manner.
Because of this, I learned something else: when you mess with other people’s mental images, you get push-back. I showed this to some of my friends who’d imagined Deborah as a princess between the ages of 30 and 40, with a mouth full of teach and a diadem on her head. Apparently there is an old painting that depicts Deborah as such.
The artist had been doing his own interpretation. There is nothing wrong with that. He had his own reasons just like I had mine. My point is that my reader had seen that interpretation first and had taken it up as her own and had imposed it over the story.
I eventually carried this exercise out with several Bible stories. At the end, I decided I would try to put them together as a collection, but they were just shy of what I considered to be book-length, so I decided to fatten them up a little bit. What I did was to write a short story about a preacher who had been transferred to a church that had once had beautiful stain glass windows. The windows had been painted over by individuals--members of the church, pastors, etc--who found particular stories to be objectionable for one reason or the other.
In the story, the preacher cleaned the paint from the various windows, revealing the story beneath. Each one of these cleanings served as an occasion to insert a story. ( I admit the conceit of thinking of myself as someone who was similarly revealing a previously concealed story to the reader.)
This not only served as a framework for placing these stories together and working in a bit of didactic explanation as well, but it serves as a metaphor for how controlling information controls understanding.
There is the old story about the three blind men who feel different parts of an elephant and come to different conclusions as to what sort of an animal it is according to whether they feel its leg, ear, or trunk.
One might assume for the sake of the story that these men had been blind from birth and had never seen and elephant and that they had never fully experienced an elephant before even in a tactile way. If they had, then they might have been able to have an insight from even a partial input.
I gained a greater insight into this during my trip to South America. Those of you who grew up during the same era as I will, perhaps, remember Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. Wild Kingdom was hosted by a fellow named Marlin Perkins. It featured trips to the African Savanna and the jungles of South America. I also received a steady diet of other nature programs featuring floats down the Amazon. Then, of course, there is the by now classic movie Romancing the Stone with the drug dealers and treasure hunters.
Given this sort of input, it’s a wonder I had the courage to go. My courage was bolstered by those who had been there before me and told me that I could do it. Indeed, I not only did it, but I took my family with me, and we wouldn’t trade for it.
The thing is that South America is not a fishing village on the Amazon or an alligator farm owned by a crazy drug-lord. We are prepared to see it that way by what gets through on our TV and movies. The truth is rather more complex. In Asuncion, Paraguay you can stand in a neighborhood and see a horse-drawn cart collecting trash and a pickup truck with boys in the back texting on cell phones. There are three centuries going on at once.
Quite frankly, there were times when I thought that, if I knew more Spanish, I could easily go native because I had more in common with the folks there than I did with the folks either in the Northeastern US or on the West Coast.
When only minor excursions out, I’ve lived my life in Kansas and Oklahoma. This is still the frontier. We have a strong, agrarian strain. On one strip out of Asuncion while I was there, I saw a huge billboard with a couple of cattle on it. It read “Mas Pasto, Mas Carne.” This translates as “More Grass, More Meat.” Having grown up on the farm report, I knew I was among my own kind.
It would be easy for me to go all paranoid here and say there is a conspiracy to make us think of South America and the rest of the world as being backward. This conclusion awaits a more careful argument. It is much easier to believe that most Americans live in cities and have a certain filter they put on the rest of the world. They view South America as backward and so concentrate on what fits that image, filtering out evidence to the contrary.
The hard truth is that these same people view most of the United States outside of the city limits of certain selected cities as being backward too.
When we go to the movies and watch television, we know that we are viewing fiction, but even fiction is set within a certain realistic context, so it is easy to be led astray. I have two examples where my personal experience has been illuminating.
In the movie Fletch, starring Chevy Chase, the main character takes a trip to Provo, Utah. Provo, in that movie, is portrayed as a very small town. Indeed, it is purported little more than a pig farm. I took sabbatical there in the academic year 1995-96 and one of the reasons I chose it was my impression that it was a small town. While I knew it was more than a pig farm, the expectation I had for it was quasi-rural. Imagine my surprise when I arrived and discovered that Provo, a town of 90 thousand, is located in the Utah County metro area with a population of a quarter million people. In fact, as most of the population in Utah is concentrated in a corridor around Interstate 15 that is about ten miles wide and a hundred miles long, you could say that it is part of a city of a million.
An error in the other direction comes from one of my favorite episodes of the X-Files. It was set in Connerville, Oklahoma and featured Lightening Boy. This was very interesting to me because I grew up twelve miles north of Connerville. I’ve friends buried in Connerville. Connerville consists of a couple of churches, a few houses, a cemetery, and the Blue River Bar. That’s it.
In the X-Files, it had a hospital with rather impressive scientific resources. There were things pictured as being in Connerville that are not available for a hundred miles in any direction.
And, of course, in each case the picture painted was done that way because of the needs of the story. There is no harm intended.
But unless you’ve been to Provo or unless you’ve been to Connerville, you don’t know.