15 Minutes to Live: The Necessary Story

#Trust30 Prompt: You just discovered you have fifteen minutes to live.

1. Set a timer for fifteen minutes.

2. Write the story that has to be written.


The wind blew cold on this dark December day. A golden-red streak in the west betrayed the setting sun in an otherwise granite sky. Heaven was a scrim that set the leafless elms afire with a burning-bush glow. Beneath the trees strode Professor Nicholas Arkoudas with a determination that rendered him oblivious to the atmospheric pyrotechnics. His icy hands were pressed deeply into the pockets of his black felt trench coat with its collar up, his head hunkered down so that his nose snapped over the top button. Though his steady gait made him appear to be more machine than flesh and blood, his wispy hair deserted the blue baseball cap, pulled tightly over his skull, to hover in such a way that he appeared to be some kind of walking plant life, like an ent in one of Professor Tolkien’s stories. On this afternoon his appearance mattered little as there were neither dogs nor children to frighten while he puffed his way along the sidewalk. All sane people were staying warm inside and preparing for the coming holidays. Arkoudas’s mind was firing rapidly as his body went through the motions. His was a beneficent insanity.

Dr. S. Lewis O’Brien sat at a drop-leaf table beneath a wagon-wheel chandelier in a darkly paneled kitchen with contrasting white cabinets. The white Formica counters were clear of everything except a sadly dented aluminum toaster. In fact, the kitchen was spotlessly clean except for the table, which groaned under what looked like mountains of undergraduate papers. O’Brien cradled his forehead in his smooth hands. In the heady idealism of August he had decided to take on grade inflation single-handedly by requiring more papers, less tests. In reality, he had only created more work for himself in December. In the end he would have to set a minute timer to limit the amount of attention he gave each essay. But the deforestation represented by these piles of shoddy student expositions was the least of O’Brien’s worries. At this moment his kitchen was less a retreat for marking, and more the room where he awaited his colleague Arkoudas. What was keeping him? “I suppose he had to walk,” said O’Brien aloud.

It had been about six hours since O’Brien called Arkoudas about finding the body of the department head in the senior seminar room. In the meantime, he had answered redundant questions from the police, cancelled class, and remained available for most of the afternoon. The police gave him permission to return home and he agreed to meet Arkoudas around 4 p.m. Now it was nearly five, and the waiting was increasing O’Brien’s anxiety. He featured himself progressively as the chief suspect. After all, he was the main antagonist in opposing the head’s plans to reduce the budget and eliminate two history chairs and all adjunct appointments. Publicly O’Brien had called Dr. Barnabas Thisleton a lackey of the administration, which, in O’Brien’s words, wanted to turn academics out into the cold for the sake of having a football program that never had a losing record. Actually, it was worse than that. He had also said that Thisleton was a murderer of the humanities, and that instruction and research were in peril unless such martinets were banished from academe.

It was overkill. The image that boiled in O’Brien’s brain was of a smacking a puppy with a brickbat. He shuddered at the words that had come from his mouth in the last faculty meeting. He regretted it all only moments after the meeting, but now he rued the day he was born after seeing Thisleton slumped over the conference table in a pool of blood. Arkoudas, who sat mute through the meeting as he had all the previous ones, was somehow his only hope, but he didn’t exactly know why.

Read to Lead: “We Must Hope for Everything”

When I read to at-risk children they rewarded my availability with a priceless gift.

In the early nineteenth century, Margaret Fuller (1810-1850) was considered to be the most well-read person in New England, and she was the first woman allowed to use the library at Harvard. As a pioneer in the women’s movement she certainly deserves our attention, but just as fascinating to me are all those books. She read them in an era when codices were expensive, hard to obtain, and from an entertainment and educational perspective were the ‘only game in town,’ if you will. Despite her larger-than-life reputation regarding the reading of books, Fuller never lost sight of the importance of reading for the greater community. It was she who said with simple eloquence, “Today a reader; tomorrow a leader.”

I am not sure if Fuller was the first to observe the association between reading and leading, but I am sure that this connection is almost universally accepted today. That’s the idea that is the engine that moves Read to Lead (or is it Lead to Read? I get confused…), a program of adult volunteers helping at-risk elementary school children in Kansas City. This enlightened program was started by Lynn and Jean Rundle, friends of mine who brainstormed and prayed about how to make a difference in their community by helping kids develop valuable tools that might serve them well in the frequent chaos of their social milieu. That sounded good to me, so I volunteered and was assigned to two fourth graders, Erin and Miguel,* in a school with a predominately Hispanic student enrollment.

We began by reading Madeleine L’Engle’s  A Wrinkle in Time. I was surprised immediately by their evident passion for reading, a fervor I pray neither they nor I will ever lose. Erin was adept at understanding the author’s thesis and the connection of parts of the story to the larger plot. Miguel distinguished himself as a rapid reader, swiftly moving through the text while correctly pronouncing even the words he had never before encountered. He did this despite the fact that English is but the second language in his home. My job was to listen to their reading and offer whatever I could to help their comprehension and expand their vocabulary without snuffing out their passion, let alone stoke its fire.

Each day I came I found that they had read ahead at home, and actually helped me understand what was going on in the lives of the characters–and in his and her own world. We sailed through L’Engle and on to Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Once in a while they asked me to read. Erin told me she liked to hear the sound of my voice. I was never sure if she asked me to read because she was comforted by a man’s voice, but at least the act of being read to brought comfort. I noticed that she asked me this whenever she wasn’t feeling well, like the two times she was nauseated from the virus that was being passed around in her house or the time she was on the verge of tears because the landlord had discovered they were keeping a puppy and threatened eviction if they did not get rid of the dog. When she asked me to read the week after the dog had gone to the pound, she laid her head on the desk and seemed to be fighting tears, though she was so brave and strong I was sure she would never admit to the internal struggle. Before our time was up she asked to read again (“We read to know we’re not alone,” wrote C. S. Lewis.).

During these times Miguel was uniformly steady and prepared to read. Like a person who prefers the rye chips in the party mix, he relished selecting his favorite parts of the story and laughed a little as he related his reason for liking these bits. He also opened his door a small crack, allowing me to glimpse his perspective on his parents’ struggle to survive in a new country. I treasured these vivid pictures, painted with Miguel’s guileless brush. I envied the closeness and joy he felt in being an important part of his large extended family, who worked together, cried together, and showed singular genius in their ability to celebrate in one another’s company.

I enjoyed the books as well, and I found myself captured by the music of their carefully measured cadences and incipient efforts at mature expression. They absorbed the story so well I often felt I was the one being entertained. My self-consciousness was effaced and I was wrapped in the joy of a well-spun tale. As one who is startled awake when he realizes he is falling asleep, I sometimes shivered when I found myself so caught up in the story as they read that I forgot I was supposed to be providing analysis. On balance I felt I was getting more out of this “volunteering” than they were.

The last Spring day I read to Erin and Miguel we joined their teacher, classmates, and other volunteers in a celebration of the semester complete with exchanged gifts (Books! What else?) and sugary snacks. I was able to utter a few public words of encouragement to Erin and Miguel that were barely heard above the din of a classroom full of children relishing frosted cupcakes. Each of my young readers expressed appreciation after their teacher reminded them of its importance, and they sweetly shook my hand as they thanked me and wished me a good summer. I congratulated them on their excellent reading but uppermost in my mind was the thought that I would miss them next week.

It seems naive folly to imagine that education can cure the ills of our pluralistic societal experiment. History affords too many examples of well-educated wretches and evildoers. I lack the buoyancy of a giant like Margaret Fuller. Thus I am unable to predict whether the self-confidence gained through reading will help Erin and Miguel make better decisions when they are faced with the choice between right and wrong that will define their life’s course, let alone lead. But I do know–and hope they are aware of this–that they have a new friend in their corner who believes something better for them and is cheering for them. When they lose their source of comfort or when the passion wanes, I hope that they will remember me as a small but functioning part of their cloud of witnesses. I pray that they will make a connection from our briefly shared time of this likely faded realization: when someone glimpsed something of promise in them, it is because the promise is there indeed. Who knows? That might just prove to be enough.

Reading exposed me to more erudite voices than my own. I can still recall Erin’s voice as she read a relevant passage from Madeline L’Engle’s book: “Nothing is hopeless; we must hope for everything.”

I will keep reading.


(*Not their real names)

On Schwarzenegger and Tire Planters

I love adages. My ideal non-sacred book would be a travel book of aphorisms.

Pablo Picasso said, “The artist must know the manner whereby to convince others of the truthfulness of his lies.” Are not politicians the more adept at this?  In today’s world we demand that our politicians be above scandal, whilst we expect our artists to be disreputable bohemians. Perhaps we should rise up and insist on the opposite. What if we expected our politicians to be consistently licentious–more in keeping with their craft–but required our artists to be chaste? Let the artist raise our eyes to beauty as well as open our eyes to the dissonance that surrounds us. And what of politicians? Meh.

Love your wife; Spoil your children. And then, if you’re lucky enough to have them, as I have been, spoil your grandchildren after that. And all the while make your art in a place that you love. — Merigold, Mississippi potter Lee McCarty

As we describe our environments, we begin to savor them. –Julia Cameron

I’d much rather see a pristine swept yard with a humble tire planter than a big swanky house festooned with a fake wreath. —Julia Reed, author of Queen of the Turtle Derby