Best Huck Sentence 2

It’s that time of week again.  It’s time for me to add to the best sentences.  I have so many this week, it’s hard to choose just five.  I chose fifteen for my lecture on this set of chapters, that is ten through twenty.  I have whittled those fifteen down to five for this blog post.  Part of what determines my choices this week has to do with the effect each sentence had on me.

Twain, Mark.  The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  Penguin Classics, 1985.

The first sentence I chose is from chapter ten.  “Never you mind, honey, never you mind” (62).  Here Jim is speaking to Huck, and I believe it is the first time Jim calls Huck “honey.”  I just love that.  That little endearment seems so sincere coming from Jim.  Some people, when they call someone else “honey” or “sweetie” or “darling,” it seems utterly fake, but not Jim.  He’s the genuine article.

My choice from chapter fourteen is also from Jim.  “En mine you, de real pint is down furder—it’s down deeper. It lays in de way Sollermun was raised”(90).  This is from the debate between Huck and Jim as to whether King Solomon is wise.  Huck comes across as too ready to accept the common line about Solomon’s wisdom.  Jim makes a solid argument against cutting babies in half.

This third best sentence if from chapter fifteen.  “No, you feel like you are laying dead still on the water; and if a little glimpse of a snag slips by, you don’t think to yourself how fast you’re going, but you catch your breath and think, my! How that snag’s tearing along”(95).  Here we see Twain giving shape to Huck’s observation of perception of speed as a relative thing.  It will take some years for physicists to make something of this truth, that speed is a relative thing.   This observation gives you sense of both Twain’s and Huck’s native intelligence.

From chapter fifteen we also have Jim teaching Huck how perfectly awful being a prankster can be.  “Dat truck dah is trash; en trash is what people is dat puts dirt on de head er dey fren’s en makes ‘em ashamed”(98).  Those who read this book will see this truth worked out in torturous detail in the final chapters.  Jim treads a line calling Huck trash, but his hate is aimed at the behavior, not at poor little Huck who could easily be seen as trash.

From chapter eighteen comes a wonderful description.  “Sometimes he smiled, and it was good to see; but when he straightened himself up like a liberty-pole, and the lightning begun to flicker out from under his eyebrows you wanted to climb a tree first, and find out what the matter was afterwards”(117).  This description reminds me of my father.  Enough said.

This last of this set comes from chapter twenty.  “‘Looky here, Bilgewater,’ he says, ‘I’m nation sorry for you, but you ain’t the only person that’s had troubles like that'”(135).  The “late dauphin” calls the “duke” Bilgewater.   It takes one…

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Years ago I attended a lecture in which the professor’s thesis was that Yeats in his “Wild Swans at Coole” consciously chose to use almost all Anglo Saxon words until he could drop Latinate words and cause little bombs to go off in the reader, little excitement bombs.  Ever since then, I have been fascinated by how languages have come together to make the great language that is ENGLISH.  In my case it is Standard Edited American English, but English nonetheless.

With this enthusiasm in mind, I created an assignment for my Juniors.  I asked them to look up and define their favorite twelve English words of Latinate origin.  This is my own over-the-top response to the assignment.

<<Advocate>> from the Latin vocare, meaning “to call.”  I like this one because it can be used as both a noun and a verb.  I also like it because I consider my profession a calling.  I am an advocate for my students because I hope to arm them against the terrors of adulthood.

<<Avuncular>> from the Latin avunculus, meaning “uncle.”  This is one that I always recall because a student “used” it in a poem, and I knew the poem was plagiarized, but just in case, I asked her, “Define avuncular.”  She said, “Oh, I just replaced another word with that one as the synonym.”  “What did it replace?”  That’s when she admitted she had cheated.  I like it when my boss uses an avuncular tone.

<<Bear>> from the Anglo Saxon bera, meaning “the brown one.”  Here I depart from my assignment, which I suspected would be a bear, but it turns out I like it.

<<Beautiful>> from the Latin bellus, meaning “pretty.”  It’s obviously French as well with that “eau” at the beginning.  What a beautiful day this turned out to be, after the sun set.

<<Delicious>> from the Latin delicere, meaning “to allure.”  I suppose the whole point of being a good cook is to allure a suitor.  It’s a delicious ploy, no?

<<Density>> from the Latin densus, meaning “thick.”  I have liked this one since seeing Back to the Future, when the boy says to the girl, “I’m your density.”  He meant to say destiny.  I just laughed and laughed.

<<Egg>> from the old Danish or Viking tongue, meaning “egg.”  That’s wonderful.  What? Was no one in England eating eggs until a bunch of Vikings took the beach?

<<Heart>> from Anglo Saxon heort, meaning “heart.”  I love how silly a heart can be.  You gotta have heort.

<<Heaven>> from the Anglo Saxon hefon, meaning “heaven.”  The Latin for the same place is paradise, but the Anglo Saxon word suggests it was lifted up, heaved (as it were).

<<Homage>> from the Latin hominaticum, meaning “a vassal’s service.” I like this word because it has a silent “h.”  Films are often in homage, especially those of the Coen Brothers.  I love all their movies.  I think they’re offering service to the stories they have always loved.

<<Human>> from the Latin humus, meaning “soil.”  Well, if that’s not Biblical, all of us humans made of soil, nothing is.

<<Jocular>> from the Latin jocus, meaning “joke.”  Jocular may sound like it has something to do with athletes, but it has more to do with nerds.  Ha!

<<Knife>> from the Anglo Saxon cnif, meaning knife.  The old folks of England would have pronounced the “k.”  That I like.  It sounds funny rather than threatening.  “I’ll k-nife you!” “Oh, k-nut it out.”

<<Mankind>> from the Anglo Saxon man, meaning “to think” and cynde, meaning “native.”  It’s great to think the old folks believed people had to think to be defined as mankind.

<<Mysterious>>from the Latin myien, meaning “to shut the eyes.”  That’s why faith is all tied up with the mysterious.  It’s seeing with your eyes shut.  It’s knowing with your heort.

<<Pine>> from the Latin pinus, meaning “Pine tree.”  Just because it sounds like a man’s body part in the Latin doesn’t mean anything.  Pine means pine.

<<Pistol>> from the French, Greek, and somehow Czech pisk, meaning “a whistling sound.”  The name of the pistol must be from the sound of the bullet whizzing past your ear in a wild west gun fight.

<<Pneumonia>> from the Greek puien, meaning “to breathe.”  It’s strange that the disease pneumonia (don’t pronounce the “p”) springs from the opposite meaning.

<<Sheep>> from the Anglo Saxon sceap, meaning “sheep.”  If we talked livestock, like sheep and cows, with the old folks, we might be able to communicate.

<<Sky>> from Old Norse, another Viking tongue, sky, meaning cloud.  It’s funny to think when sky came into English it shows the English positive thinking.  They were seeing the blue, and Vikings were seeing the storm.

<<Sultry>> from the Middle English sueltrie, meaning “oppressed with heat.”  Consider that the English had no use for such a word as sultry until the French took the crown.  What could that possibly mean?  The English went to the Riviera for the first time?

<<Sure>> from the Latin securus, meaning “secure.”   The English use of “sure” in answer to questions sounds an awful lot like “yes” in Mandarin.

<<Voodoo>> from West African, and meaning “sorcery.”  I just wanted to have one of those beautiful other worldly words in my list, and there’s nothing like that voodoo that you do.

<<Wish>>from the Anglo Saxon wisc, meaning “wish.”  This wish of a word shows how the Anglo Saxon words tend to differ from the Latinate.  They are short little words with great big powers, when you wish upon a word.  “A dream is a wish your heart makes.”

<<Woods>> from the Anglo Saxon widu, meaning “wood.”  “From this wood do not desire to go. ”

<<Yes>> from the Anglo Saxon gese, meaning “yes.”  This might be the most favorite word of all, this one and a name.  My favorite sentiment about “yes” comes from Kevin McIlvoy.  “The language of miracles is yes.”

On that note, I finish.  I am pretty sure I hit twelve Latinates, and I loved this, far more than I thought I would.  Yes.  Yes.  Yes…

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Freedom without “Freedom”

So…I’m a little behind on my posting, so I’m going to find a way to double post.  We’ll see how it goes.

Anyway, my Juniors were given the assignment to write a poem using a metaphor to represent freedom.  That is, they were to write a poem about freedom but not use the actual word freedom.  This was intended to make them try and picture freedom in a more concrete way.  Here’s my attempt.


A Fragment of Liberty


I woke up in a wilderness of stone,

And around me were crooked and narrow paths

Where flint tore the heels of uncounted souls.

The people did not see me.  They toiled in small caves;

Their forge fires glowed in the twilight.

Long chains manacled them to stakes,

And they were making more links.


I then came to

The great gate at the edge of a golden prairie.

The grasses waved and shimmered in the wind.

Sails of white clouds hung in the impossibly blue

Dome of the sky.  Far off, too far to clearly see,

A great lighthouse stood on the shore

Of a mighty sea.

White caps glittered there, and closer still

A herd of buffalo, their shaggy humps moving

From the round horizon and over the rolling hills

Made distant thunder.


The gate was only a gap with a grid of

Iron rails over a trench

Above me hung seven wrought letters.

A sign in red gave CAUTION.

Avoid traps, sinks, and floods.

The management is not responsible for lost items.

There are no guarantees.


The fence that started there stretched

Left and right

Straight as a string and long as forever.


Along the fence-line travelers has beaten down

The verge into a hard, gray path.

Along this wide road someone had built

Small shelters, shacks of sod and planks.

They had a certain symmetry, a charm,


But not for me.


Out there, where the great distance made vision indistinct,

I saw what could have been giants.

They were people.


They moved as if they were sliding on ice.

They were quick, and they twinkled,

And though the path to shelter was easy

I could not resist the people.

I struck out, and the path I took

Was no path at all,

And no path was left behind me.

No path was left behind.

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What are You?

I have asked my students to define their own culture.  It’s tricky, isn’t it?  Culture and race are different, at least to my mind.  Your race you inherit.  You have nothing to say about it.  Your culture you can bend.  You can embrace parts and leave others behind.  Your grandpa was a racist?  You don’t have to be.  Your grandma had eleven children?  You are not required to have any.

Here are the things I embrace about my culture.  I am a third generation New Mexican.  That means I like green chile on everything except the stuff I prefer with red chile.  I do NOT believe in rain (it’s just a myth) unless I am drenched by it.  I think Texas has an overblown sense of importance, but I like Texans, sweet and simple as they are.  I do not believe in following people closely on the highway.  Give all the other drivers room.  I think of the speed limit as a suggestion.  When the weather is nice, I like to drive slowly and enjoy the ride.  When the weather is nasty, I’m tempted to drive like hell in order to get home quickly.  I don’t think most of the people on the coasts even know my state is a state, and I think I like it that way.  The less other people know about me and mine the better (blog entries aside).

I am a McCollaum.  I don’t like to be interrupted, and I don’t like to interrupt others.  I will wait my turn.  I am not in a good mood.  I don’t know why this is, but McCollaums are rarely in a truly good mood.  We’re putting up with things.  I have a darkness always simmering in me.  I am a bad sport.  It is for this reason I do not mind being alone.  I’m less likely to do something that I regret if I am left to my own devices.  I value toughness over beauty, but I admire beauty in the same way that I always admire starlight.   I like to read and think, and I will go out of my way to hear something funny.  I am very thankful for what I have.

I am a Jones.  I like music and talk and sweets.  I can bake, and have since I was about three years old.  I want people to feel comfortable when they come to my house.  I like hosting parties.  The Jones clan are volatile, but their anger fades quickly.  They do NOT hold a grudge.  I think each year I become more Jones and less McCollaum because I forget a little bit more of what I once resented.

I am a citizen of the United States of America.  My father was a Marine as was my oldest brother.  My Grandpa Jones was in the Army.  My cousins have served.  My cousins still serve.  My brother teaches history, and he’s really good at it, and he understands more than most people about how this country was formed and the ideas that make it still worth defending.  I will defend my rights and the rights of others even when I do not agree with them.  I like this country.  That’s what makes me nervous about our current climate.

I am a Christian.  This is the most important part of me, the part I will not discuss too much because it is sacred, and because I am a McCollaum I will not handle it too roughly.    I want to be kind to others, to express love to them, to reflect the LOVE that has saved me from the worst of fates and from hate.

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Best of Huck (I)

This year I am teaching Juniors.  As part of their first assignments, I am writing parallel work.  This will only serve them in the slenderest of ways.  I hope it serves me a great deal.  I also hope it serves a reader or two.

We begin with a loosely organized journal in which I must pick five sentences from the first nine chapters of Huck Finn that I admire.  For each of the sentences I choose I must provide a rationale for why I admire it.  I will begin with the bibliography of my copy of the book.

Twain, Mark.  The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  Penguin, 1985.

The first sentence I chose from Huck Finn is in chapter one.  “Then she told me about the bad place and I said I wished I was there”(10).  I find this sentence amusing, and that I always admire.  Since I have already read the book (several times), I also appreciate how it comes back much later and in a much more serious way.

My second choice appears early in the pages of chapter two.  “If you are with the quality, or at a funeral, or trying to go to sleep when you ain’t [sic] sleepy—if you are anywhere where it won’t [sic] do for you to scratch, why you will itch all over in upwards of a thousand places” (13).  Once again, I appreciate the humor of this statement.  Further, I appreciate Huck’s insight about how we respond to restriction.  If we are supposed to (or must) stay still, we are bound to want to itch or sneeze or yawn or laugh or something else that is forbidden.

The next sentence comes from chapter two as well.  “I was most ready to cry; but all at once I thought of a way, and so I offered them Miss Watson—they could kill her”(16). Humor carries the day.  This sentence is funny, but it also shows that Huck has come to care for Miss Watson as if she were family.  He only has Pap, and so the gang is thinking of not including him because they will not have anyone to kill if he turns on the gang, but then he realizes that Miss Watson is someone he would be willing to protect, and she is steady and trustworthy and easy to find if the gang needs to kill her.

Another great sentence comes at the end of chapter five.  “He said he reckoned a body could reform the ole man with a shot-gun, maybe, but he didn’t know either way”(32).  This shows that the well-meaning new judge finally gives up on reforming Pap.  That does not surprise the reader after getting a chance to see how Pap treats Huck.

The last for this week has to be from chapter six.  “(Pap) said they was crawling up his legs; and then he would give a jump and scream, and say one had bit him on the cheek—but I couldn’t see no [sic] snakes”(38).  In this scene Twain creates a recognizable attack of the delirium tremens, the most severe symptom of alcoholism, the type of attack that can eventually lead to the death of the addict.  I chose this sentence because I do NOT like snakes.  They frighten me terribly, so being bitten on the cheek would be torture.  On the other hand, many of the sentences in the scene are as effective as this one, and some inspire even more terror.  It is remarkable writing, and a testimony about how dangerous it is for a child to be in the care of an irretrievable alcoholic.

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For the Reader

This month the JOY Writers are having one of their two yearly public readings at the Roswell Museum and Art Center.  It will be held in the Bassett Auditorium on January 21 at 2:00 pm.  The reading is free and refreshments will be served.  As part of this yearly tradition, we are bring out The JOY Reader, a collection of work from the group that will be available at the reading in January and at a reading in February (the 18th).  The collection will also be available online at  I’ll include a link in this blog post.

Anyway, I have a contribution to the reader that I am including here.  The group read it, gave me some feedback, I’ve revised it, and I offer it here.  It was fun to write.  It’s titled “Numinous.”

Some years ago, I’m not sure how many, but over thirty, my oldest cousin Sammy went to the family ranch with his 35mm camera and took pictures of the place. He also took a rather becoming portrait of my paternal grandmother. Later he found them, rich images in that unmistakable palate of Kodachrome, a subtle and poetic light washed over all old places and faces of childhood. He had the images made into large format prints and arranged in an oversized album. The first time I saw his picture of the ranch house I felt a shutter of love and recognition. There stood the old place in sharp bright lines.

A well-made photograph stops time, a moment is turned to stone or is trapped in amber, a moment that might otherwise be lost. There is something (other than historic data) powerful about an artistically delivered photograph. It allows me to study what I did not understand at the first or even the hundredth glance. It allows me to look at an expression of eyes, an expanse of sky and land, a home that can never be again. Oh, it is a dark mirror, a dark window, and I see through it but dimly, but I do see through it, and I remember.

It was in the Guadalupe Mountains, a place called Dark Canyon. When the family would go there, we would turn off the main highway right after Seven Rivers and head up to Klondike Gap, where the road evolved from blacktop to macadam, to sparse gravel, to a dirt and rock cow path that wandered into the wilderness.

The wilderness would rise up around us in scrub Juniper, Afgan Pine, and the smooth pink trunks of Medrone trees. The canyon would drop stepwise into a cool grotto of gray and white rock with an eternal pool of green water under a cliff overhang, and then there were a set of little rises in the bottom of the draw which eventually opened into a meadow where the cattle guard stood as a gate to the ranch.

The McCollaum Ranch was the well-head of my father’s family. The cabin looked as if it grew out of the mountain as naturally as the Live Oak that stood in front of it. The wire fence around the cabin stood tall, it seemed nine feet to me, but I was young in those days. Everything was tall. The fence was decorated with the antlers of deer and elk bleached white and spongy in the high mountain sun and thin air. The place had a growth of ranching structures that sprung out of the mountainside in the practical and random style of mushrooms at the foot of a great tree. The cabin itself grew along the flat of a narrow saddle in the topography, the oldest room being built of cut pine logs and caulked with a peculiarly formulated plaster, short on pretty but long on stout. It had two windows, one facing west and one facing south to catch the winter sun and provide a bit of warmth to a room I remember as cold even in summer, and downright brutal when the desert snows blew. From it grew another bedroom, a store room, a living room, a kids’ room, a root cellar, a kitchen, a wash room and finally what my family called an “indoor privy.” In its time the privy was state of the art, a room with a toilet and a shower stall and a drain in the center of the floor. By the time I visited, it was a child’s terror, a room with a dank cement floor and a colony of Daddy Long-legs of astonishing complexity and vast numbers.

The sink stood outside the privy door in the wash room, and it had two separate faucets, one for hot water and one for cold. Though the privy had a shower, when we visited we were discouraged from using it. As “town kids” we had no sense of water economy, and the family would fret and stew every minute that the water ran. Going to the ranch was a study in rural frugality and toughness, not things typically valued by little pink girls.

I never saw my Grandma McCollaum do laundry. I later learned that she only did laundry about once a month, waiting for the opportune day when the water tank was full, the breeze was light and the sun was shining to wash all the linens and clothes the family owned and hang them on the clothesline, the tall fence, and even on some shrubs and short trees so that between washes all the family had clean clothes to wear.

Grandma McCollaum was a study in all the grand proportions the ranch required. The largest and most hospitable rooms in the cabin were the kitchen and the living room, her special provinces. The kitchen had walls of storage cabinets and two stoves, one wood and one gas. She had cast iron pots and pans and Fiesta Ware dishes, and the table from which she served meals was long, wide, and sturdy. The family sat packed together on three benches, two long and one short because the fourth side of the table sat against the window sill of the big south facing window that had no curtain. The light dappled and glittered through the leaves of the Live Oak, and the steam rose from platters of fried chicken, bowls of mashed potatoes and gravy, sheet pans of scratch biscuits and hot water chocolate cake.

There was a severe English purity to the way things worked at the ranch. The men went out to the shop or the barn and tinkered with equipment or fed and doctored animals, and the women stayed in the house cooking. They cooked and cooked and the food smelled like heaven, and we were NOT allowed to snack, not one nibble, until mealtime. We kids were often sent out to play because after a couple of hours of smelling the feast in process, we were fully gaga with hunger and ready to engage in tragic theater or theft if we had to.

My Uncle Ben’s kids went to the ranch every weekend, and they evinced a superior attitude it would be impossible to describe. It had both obvious and subtle elements, a knowledge of the secret and special ways of the place along with responsibilities which set them apart from the rest of us. We were the pretenders. They were the genuine. However, if we were wise enough to swallow our own pride, a genetic trait handed down with two fists by the angels, we could follow our cousins’ leads in play that was often fun and occasionally thrilling with danger. Cousin Mary Ola was particularly gifted in fantasy, and she showed us ways to picture a mountain meadow as a village green with little houses mapped out in our minds by logs pulled into floor plans, flat stones as tables and chairs, pebbles from the creek bed shaped like lipstick tubes and round like compacts.

Eventually we would tire of even this delight and sometimes play on a rusted out roadster stranded along the path to the shop, pretending to drive and slamming the doors. We would finally give up and wander to the swing made of an old ox harness that depended from the limb of the Live Oak and listen at the window to hear if the women were ready to serve. When they called us, they did not have to wait on us.

The great manner of service at the ranch gave children a break, for anyone under twelve was served first. The men were then seated with their wives. Cousin Susy (Uncle Ben’s oldest) would return grace. She always said a very formal prayer with the same words. I was a teenager when I learned it was a Catholic prayer. Until that revelation I had no idea I had Catholic cousins. At the ranch the land was the religion, Grandma McCollaum was the high priestess, and even the dogs were members of the congregation.


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Big Fat Lies

Lately our landline is being inundated by a particularly loathsome scamming group.  It turns out there are these terrible companies that try to steal information from people through the computer, and they can also get one’s phone number and try to con a person into buying “security” for her computer.  The people will try and breach the firewall on the computer and then use all sorts of trickery and big fat lies to rob others.

I’ve always been fascinated with lies.  I don’t remember the first lie I ever told.  I’m sure it was one of self-preservation, the kind of lie a kid can be half-way into before realizing it is a lie.  Picture it.  A parent hears a crash in the other room, jumps up and runs in and finds a kid standing over some broken bit of kitch.

“Did you break that?” the parent asks.

Quicker than lightening the kid says, “NO!”

We all know why the kid denies responsibility.  The negative response is not even the answer to the question.  It is a yelp of misery.  “NO!”  I don’t want to be punished.  “NO!” I did not mean to do that.  “NO!” This is not happening.  Let’s go back in time and try again.

That’s bad.  That kind of lie opens the can of parenting worms no one likes to confront.  Still, that lie is easy to forgive.

Another lie that can be easy to forgive is the one that wants to come from kindness.  “Do you like this outfit?”

“Sure.  It looks great.”  Meaning, it doesn’t really look great, but I can tell you like the outfit so I’m going to spare your feelings and tell what we in this cliched world call “a little white one.”

Lies of that order are ill informed and guaranteed to backfire.  So be it.  They are also fully forgivable.  They mean well, and intention matters.  In all things intention matters, whether we admit that or not.

Some people will even argue there is a caliber of lie that is good.  If you are protecting the life of someone that is in jeopardy, you might feel justified in misleading someone.  After all, Moses had a sister who told a lie that made it possible for his own mother to be with him and protect him and love him.  I see the argument, but I’m not sure the truth wouldn’t have done just as much good.

Aside from the philosophical arguments about justifiable falsehood, there are some lies that stink like cat feces.  They are the lies that are intended to hurt others, dupe others, rob others.  These are the lies that erode the world and the soul.  These are the lies that lead to fraud.  These are the lies that blunt the conscience and yield some of the worst evils perpetrated on this earth.  These are the lies that people tell on the phone who say they got a “red flag” on their end, whatever that means, about my computer, or my mother’s computer.  These are the lies that say one person is more valuable than another person because one person is more educated or wealthy than another, or because of the color of her skin, or the location of his birth, or the day or year that life began.  These are the lies we need to resist forgiving and attempt to suffocate.  These are the lies we should fight.

(I’m ranting.  I really hate those pestering calls…and big fat lies.)

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