All posts by Lars Walker

Once Upon a Time at the movies

Today has been gorgeous in the City of Lakes and its environs. The weekend’s blessed rains washed the humidity out, and the temperature stayed south of 80. This is what outsiders imagine a Minnesota summer day to be like, but it happens all too rarely in real life.

By way of Gene Edward Veith’s Cranach blog, I have discovered one of the funniest blogs I’ve ever read. Luther at the Movies purports to be film criticism as practiced by Dr. Luther, whose natural exuberance cannot be stifled by the mere accident of death. If this doesn’t win all you thin-blooded Calvinists over, I don’t know what will.

I bought the DVD of Once Upon a Time in the West a while back, and I watched it yesterday. What an incredible piece of work that film is.

If I were to read the things I’m about to write about a movie I hadn’t yet seen, I’d probably boycott it for life. Fortunately for me, I first saw the movie without knowing anything about it (I’d never even seen an Italian Western before), so I was caught in the majesty and sweep of the thing, and nothing I’ve learned since can cut that visceral connection.

It was 1969, my second year of college. I had an evening at loose ends, and decided I wanted to see a movie. This western was playing at the theater in Forest City, Iowa, so I walked downtown to see it.

It was the strangest western I’d ever seen. Parts of it troubled me a great deal.

But it stuck in my head as few movies ever have.

Westerns are generally “about” scenery, when it comes down to it, and OUATITW certainly lays the scenery on heavy. It was filmed both in Spain and in the United States, and director Sergio Leone used John Ford’s iconic Monument Valley to particular effect. On a big screen, the spectacle is breathtaking.

But even more than scenery, this movie is about music. One of the commentators on the DVD notes that the film was shot like a music video. Before there was a script, the genius Ennio Morricone, who’d already done the classic scores for the “Dollars” movies, wrote the music. The script was built on that. I’d nominate it as the greatest film score ever written, and there are those who agree with me (actually I agree with them, but I’m on an ego trip here).

They don’t make movies like this nowadays. Today’s action movies are all about speed. Forget plot consistency. Forget character development. Just put bodies in motion and crash them into each other a lot. Blow things up. Set things on fire.

Once Upon a Time in the West is purposely slow, like Henry Fonda’s walk. It’s about tension that builds and builds, from Charles Bronson’s shoot-out with three familiar gunmen at the beginning, to his and Henry Fonda’s climactic showdown, in a corral around which the whole world revolves.

Slowly.

Mysteries abound. What was Brett McBain’s secret? Why is Charles Bronson pursuing Henry Fonda, and what is the meaning of Bronson’s recurring flashback of a man walking toward him? How can any heterosexual male manage to spend time around Claudia Cardinale without spontaneously combusting?

There’s a political subtext, I’m afraid. At the time some people congratulated the Italian Westerns for bringing to us a newer, grittier, more realistic picture of the American West than the old Westerns had.

This is balderdash. Even granting that the old movies were bowdlerized (of course they were), that doesn’t mean that the kind of cynical violence and cruelty we see in spaghetti westerns is closer to reality. Cowboys were Victorians. Yes, there was a lot of prostitution in the West, but men still took their hats off to ladies, regardless of their reputations. Even cold-blooded killers like Kid Curry, or genuine psychopaths like John Wesley Hardin never killed innocent people for sport (not white people, anyway). They believed in virtue and considered themselves respectable men. Jesse James taught Sunday School off and on.

When Sergio Leone shows us Henry Fonda murdering a little boy, he has a purpose in mind. He wants Americans to think differently about themselves and their history. He wants the viewer never to be able to watch My Darling Clementine or Young Mr. Lincoln the same way again.

And he succeeded. More’s the pity, in my opinion.

But the spectacle. The music. I can’t get free of Once Upon a Time in the West.

Fuzzy-minded Friday

What will I do? I have nowhere to go this weekend. No Viking events. No battles. No family reunions. Just me and the house maintenance I’ve been putting off. It’s a pathetic man who has to make out his own Honey-do list.

I’m at loose ends. Here are a couple random links for you to study while I mutter and paw through my junk drawer in search of… I forget what.

Aitchmark, apparently having forgiven me for my anti-feline hate speech yesterday, sent me this amusing page from Merriam-Webster, with a list of favorite unofficial words.

Gene Edward Veith posted a link to this article about three new movies and an opera, all about Beowulf. No doubt they’ll all bomb, convincing publishers that no one’s interested in matters Norse, and assuring that I’ll never find another publisher.

Am I just sensitive, or isn’t it a form of racism to be unable to do a movie about an ancient Scandinavian without making the hero half black?

But I like Angelina Jolie for Grendel’s mother. I’ve always seen her as a kind of a monster. This is a woman whose appeal escapes me entirely.

To quote Oscar Levant, speaking of Madame Nu (at the time First Lady of South Vietnam): “She has all the wistfulness of an iron foundry.”

The other shoe drops

Or “another shoe.” There’ll doubtless be more.

While we were putting up my rain gutters, my brother Baal noticed that my shingles didn’t look good.

I consulted the documentation on the last roofing job. It was done in 1996. Twenty-five year warranty.

But that’s only on materials.

I called my real estate agent. He recommended a roofer who attends our church to come out and look at the situation. The guy came out today.

All bad news.

The problem is not the material. The shingles were improperly installed. By a company that’s out of business, so I can’t pursue them with fire and sword.

I’m smack out of luck. I’ll have to spring for new shingles.

I really need to find a publisher again.

By way of Mirabilis (again), I offer this story purely for the purpose of aggravating Aitchmark.

Could it be that the escalating wussification of our culture doesn’t come from bad education and effete entertainment, but from a cat parasite we’ve picked up?

Read and decide for yourselves.

Then go down to the river and drown your cat.

(I’m a Roofing Victim. You were expecting sweetness and light?)

My inner demons remain repressed

Two young women came to my door and rang the bell a few minutes ago. One’s left arm had been amputated at the elbow, and she wore a nose ring. The other didn’t make much of an impression on me, other than that she wore her hair cut short.

“Hi! I’m So-and-so, and this is my bodyguard Such-and-such,” the memorable one said. “We’re organizing the neighborhood for NARAL.” She tried to hand me a packet of literature.

“I’m pro-life,” I said.

“OK,” she said with a smile. They walked away and I closed the door.

Doubtless they heaved a sigh of relief that they’d once again escaped the inherent violence of all Christianist oppressors.

Of course, it’s true that I do have a sword in my house. More than one, in fact.

Today was Conspiracy Day on Michael Medved’s show. Always the best entertainment of the month.

I’d like to make it perfectly clear that there is no truth at all to the rumor that the world is secretly run, not by the Masonic Lodge, but by the Sons of Norway. There is even less truth to the rumor that the Viking Age Club and Society of the SON is the super-secret Inner Council of that world-wide conspiracy.

Just so you know.

I mentioned the Blue Crab Boulevard blog the other day. I only discovered it recently, but it’s rapidly becoming one of my favorites. It’s almost perfect. Some serious information. Some whimsy. Some screamingly funny satire. And he updates several times a day.

Does his boss know what he’s doing on company time? Is he independently wealthy?

Well, he should be. He does a great blog.

The black man’s burden

There was a Polynesian dance class going on in the park by Lake Crystal today as I took my constitutional. Sorry. Erase the picture that sentence generated in your mind. It wasn’t like my (and probably your) stereotyped fantasy of Polynesian dance. In fact, I’m not entirely sure it was Polynesian dance. I drew that conclusion because the teachers looked Polynesian to me, and the motions the students made looked more like something from the South Seas than anything else I could think of.

No, there were no nubile girls in grass skirts there, wiggling their firm, fetching brown hips. This was two lines of mostly middle-aged white people, doing a step-step-while-making-a-sort-of-rowing-motion-with-the-hands. I immediately judged them all former hippies, striving for some kind of multicultural salvation.

I felt particularly bad for the guys in the group, who were no doubt married to (or living with) women in the group who’d dragged them along. I’d be willing to wager that, if you got enough beers in them to get them to tell the truth (like Mel Gibson), they’d admit that if they had to make fools of themselves in public, they’d rather do live steel with the Vikings and me. Only their Significant Others wouldn’t let them, and the folks down at the Whole Foods store would never understand.

There. You know what one of my prejudices is.

Which brings me to this article, by way of Mirabilis:

With church-going on the wane in Europe, Africa’s vibrant Protestant churches are sending scores of men like Mukholi to the West to win souls and revitalize shrinking congregations — an ironic twist on the 19th century drive by Western missionaries to convert Africans.

I’ve been waiting for this for years. I have doubts whether Europe is salvageable anymore at this point, but it seems to me that if it is to be saved, this will be an important element.

It all depends on racism. Racism isn’t dead. Not here in America, and not in Europe. It’s just turned itself inside out. Instead of the nasty white people of the last century, who thought themselves Nature’s Pinnacle, looking down on the vile dark races, today’s white racist despises his own race and idealizes those blessed richly with melatonin. It’s been noted by other writers before me that whenever an author or scriptwriter wants a character to deliver a Message from God nowadays, he generally puts that message in the mouth of someone black. Preferably someone old and black.

This makes a lot of sense. It’s a rare old black person who hasn’t seen a lot of hate and injustice, and just surviving a long time under those conditions implies that they must have learned something.

But our respect for black people in the West goes far beyond this. It amounts to pure veneration. Idealization. That’s why the U.N. will never do anything about genocide in Africa, as long as it’s blacks killing blacks. To take action would be to admit that black people aren’t morally superior, and that would be a death-blow to their faith.

It is a little cynical, I suppose, to exploit this white racism for evangelistic purposes, but I’m basically a pragmatist. Whatever works, I’ll pretty much support.

The second reason I like this strategy is for its genuine educational value. African Christians know a whole lot about Islam and paganism, and they know it first-hand, not from New Age books and television documentaries.

I met an African man who went to our seminary a while back. I didn’t know him well, but he had an interesting story. He’d been an Olympic athlete for his country of origin. After converting to Christianity, he’d attended a mainline Lutheran seminary in the U.S. He left it angrily when a Comparative Religions professor assigned his class to attend a mosque.

“I do not need to attend a mosque to learn about Islam,” the man said. “I know about Islam.” He finished his seminary training with us.

The same sort of thing goes for paganism. People who’ve actually been pagans know it’s not about pretty naked women dancing under the stars. It’s about superstition and the constant fear of breaking taboos. It’s about sticky blood and sacrifice and ugliness.

So God bless the African missionaries. May He speed their feet and open the listener’s ears to their message.

Of battles and bittersweet discoveries

From the rear-view mirror, the weekend feels like it must have been one of those three-day operations, enhanced either by a holiday or a vacation day. But it was only Regular Size. Two different and dissimilar events in two different places conspire to leave the impression. Not to mention all the driving. But it was great driving—high quality, expensive driving on gas worth more than three bucks a gallon. How’s that for luxurious living?

I’d packed my Viking apparatus into Mrs. Hermanson the night before, and so was able to start south immediately after work. The road was Highway 169, a Minnesota favorite once you get past the congestion around Shakopee. 169 winds through a beautiful wooded valley in the St. Peter and Mankato areas It’s one of my favorite drives in the state. With Sissel on the stereo it doesn’t get much better (at least in my emotionally impoverished life). I was saddened, however, to see that one of my favorite Dairy Queens in the world, the one out in the country north of Mankato, has closed down after all these years. The last time I stopped they’d expanded their facility. Perhaps they overreached. A lesson to us all.

The road got narrower and less picturesque as Iowa approached, but I carried on. The people of the Bode (pronounced “Boad”), Iowa “Uff Da Days” festival put the cowardly Vikings (those who, like me, did not care to camp in tents) up in a motel in Humboldt, about twenty minutes away. I went there and slept well.

The day dawned gray, wet and stormy, but the forecast on the Weather Channel said it should clear, and it did that. The day went well, a welcome contrast to the heat and poor attendance in Decorah a week before. Bode is a very small town (about 350 residents), but we actually had more visitors to our encampment in one day there than we had in two days in Decorah.

We did four Live Steel Combat performances. I link to this page from a Viking discussion board where Eric posted some photos. I make the link, not because it’s terribly illuminating, but because I think I look fairly studly in the pictures, for an aging fat guy. I came home with a bruise on my left shoulder, and another on my ribcage. Also abrasions on both shins and the underside of my right forearm. I bear them proudly. They are wounds of honor. Eric is catching up to me, beating me more often than I beat him. He’s learning my tricks. However, I did fight Ragnar to a draw (we “killed” each other) once, so maybe I’m learning too.

It’s tough in small towns these days. They seem to be on the wrong side of history, and they know it. Economics and government subsidies favor big farms, so that instead of a hundred small farms, each feeding a family, you’ve got one big farm with a single family and a few employees, often transients. The towns have lost their economic base. Jonah Goldberg wrote about farm subsidies recently in National Review, and what he said was all true. But it doesn’t change the fact that a small, rural American town may have been the best environment for raising kids in the history of the world. And we’re losing it as we watch.

We tore down the camp Saturday evening, and after another pleasant motel night I set out for Belmond, Iowa and the Severson Family Reunion. I remembered that my church body has a congregation in Goldfield, Iowa, through which I passed, so I hunted it down and attended there. It’s a very small church at the best of times, and this was summer, so there were only about ten of us. The pastor is a Licensed Lay Pastor who drives up from Des Moines. Without the expense of a full-time minister, they manage to get by.

I enjoyed the service. It was neither emotional nor elegant, but it was familiar to me—more like the services I grew up with than what we have at the church I attend today. I don’t know how long it’s been since I heard a pastor give thanks for the crops. I felt I was among my own people (I know it’s wrong and evil for anyone with white skin to say that, but that was how I felt). And the sermon spoke to me.

Then on to Belmond. The reunion met in a nursing home’s dining room. Attendance was poor this year. People blamed gas prices. But the potluck was sumptuous. I met a distant relative (a lady of course) who was 91 years old. We can do better than that at the Walker reunions, but then we have higher attendance and a larger pool. I told them the story of my search for Cousin Trygve’s ancestor. I won a door prize (nearly everyone did). Everyone seemed pleased to meet me. They don’t get many people from my branch of the family at these do’s.

Then Bob, the organizer I met in Decorah, offered to take me to Kanawha, Iowa (the epicenter of Severson history in this country) to look for Trygve’s ancestor’s grave. I followed him the ten miles there, and out to the tree-bordered cemetery. It’s not a large cemetery, but I despaired of finding a single grave, without a map.

But Bob knew the place well. We started going around to places (mostly at the west end) where family was buried, on the theory that relatives tend to group together. He showed me various graves—one the son of the man I was looking for. I looked over and said, “There’s a stone that says Swelland.” (Swelland was my dad’s maternal grandmother’s married name, and she was a Severson). I went and looked at it and found a large family stone in a plot that otherwise contained only a single grave—that of Dad’s uncle Theodore, who died in a threshing engine explosion in 1918. The Swellands had a penchant for leaving underpopulated grave plots behind. They left one in my home town, Kenyon, Minnesota, too, with only my great-grandmother in it. My family took it over, and my grandparents and two aunts and an uncle are buried there. It belongs to me now, and I hope to lie there in time (but not too soon). Martha Severson Swelland’s been alone on her side of the stone a long time.

As I was photographing Theodore’s grave, Bob said, “Here’s the one you’re looking for.” I walked a few feet over to where he stood, and there was the gravestone Cousin Trygve wanted. I took several pictures for him.

I drove away triumphant.

Only afterward did I think that it might be sad for Trygve, in a way. He’d wanted to learn his ancestor’s story, but it may be he’d hoped to learn some good reason why the old man had cut off all communication with his unacknowledged offspring in Norway. If he’d died young and poor, for instance, that would be an excuse.

But he lived to be 90 and did all right for himself. One understands that after years of marriage it would be awkward to say to one’s wife, “Uh, there’s some unfinished business in Norway I need to take care of.” But for all that, the abandonment was a wrong act. This man was remembered as a Christian, a church sacristan, a man so kindly that his wife had to discipline the children. Yet at the back of his mind the old sin must have remained. Did he plan to “do something about it someday,” and did the right time just never come? Or did he try to bury the past? We can’t know, and mustn’t judge.

But it’s too bad.

15 minutes of fame for the wrong thing

I had an intriguing e-mail yesterday–the kind that appeals strongly to my essential exhibitionism.

It came from a well-known female reporter from a major newspaper (both of whose names are safe with me). She was responding to a comment I left on a Christian website, concerning my experience with a well-known online matchmaking service (whose identity I shall also clutch protectively to my chest). The matchmaker had declined to allow me to sign up. The reporter is doing a story on people whose experiences with online dating services have been less than optimal, and she thought my story might be helpful.

I think I disappointed her. I was willing (no, let’s be honest–eager) to be interviewed, but I had to admit that the service hadn’t done anything out of line in my case. They advertise proudly that they reject people who are bad marriage prospects, and it’s not hard to see that, by most objective standards, I’m one of that select group. She hasn’t responded to my response.

So there it is. I finally get an interview offer from a major newspaper, and it’s not about my books. It’s about my remarkable inadequacy as a potential date.

Fame is where you get it.

Or where you don’t.

(I’ll be gone till Monday. Playing Viking and going to a family reunion in Iowa. I’ll see you if I survive the rigors thereof.)

The poetry of Utsira

Because I’m short on ideas tonight, I’ll share a nice passage from the book I’m reading now, In Forkbeard’s Wake by Ben Nimmo. It’s the sort of book I like to discover, a sailing memoir involving the seas I describe (as a rank landlubber) in my Viking novels. Here Nimmo writes about the Norwegian island of Utsira, where (as it happens) one of my great-great-grandmothers was born:

It’s one of the peculiar facts of history that many of the world’s most moving poems aren’t actually poems at all. The King James version of I Corinthians 13 (faith, hope and charity) and the Third Collect in the Anglican Evensong are hymns without tunes; the closing paragraphs of The Lord of the Rings are the final chords of a symphony…. As far as I’m concerned, though, the most bewitching use of words ever penned comes in the Radio 4 shipping forecast.

It reads like an incantation. No matter that it’s a simple and practical way of identifying sea areas by their outstanding geological feature. No matter that every word of the forecast has a precise and numerically defined meaning: the mysterious rune ‘Dogger, Fisher, German Bight: southwest four, a thousand and two, rising more slowly, fair, moderate to poor,’ simply means that the wind over the central North Sea and the Danish and German North Sea coasts is blowing from the southwest at between eleven and sixteen knots, atmospheric pressure stands at 1002 millibars and has risen by between 0.1 and 1.5 millibars in the preceding three hours, and that it’s not raining but that surface visibility is fluctuating between five nautical miles and a thousand metres. The shipping forecast is music in words.

Viking. The Viking banks, northeast of Shetland. Dogger. The Dogger bank, so overfished that it’s the only British bank worth less than Barings. German Bight, the German bay. Rockall and Malin, Trafalgar (early mornings only) and Finisterre, Portland and Dover, the cliffs and capes. Humber, Thames, Forth, Tyne, the rivers. Biscay and Irish Sea, the bays. Faeroes and Southeast Iceland, Fastnet and Scillies, the islands.

North Utsire and South Utsire.

Norwegians call it Utsira, with the stress on the first syllable: Ut-sira. It’s an island. Just one island, a lumpy rock a mile and a half long and two miles wide, nine miles off the Rogaland coast, surrounded by long chains of spray-washed skerries. In, as it were, skerried ranks. Its eastern and western flanks build up into brooding granite howes like the Lakeland peaks, frowning across the water. Between them a broad green valley runs north to south, plunging at each extremity into a rock-edged channel where the breakers burst in foam. The prevailing winds here are northwest and southwest. To the southwest, the next land is Shetland, over two hundred miles away. To the northwest, it’s the Arctic. When the northwesterly gales drive the waves onto the rocks, the whole island seems to shudder.

I’ve got a photo of waves breaking at a harbor entrance on Utsira as the desktop on my computer at work. It’s just the kind of grim, sea-lashed beauty that speaks to my blood.

I’ve got to visit there someday.

Mel low

Everybody’s talking about Mel Gibson, so I’ll say something too.

I think there’s much to agree with in this post on the Libertas site. Gibson’s credentials as a conservative are actually kind of mushy. We’ve loved him, first of all because of Braveheart, one of the few recent movies that men who aspire to heroism can really embrace. Then came The Passion of the Christ, which we almost had to defend just because of the nature of the attacks on it (a not-very-defensible tactic).

I liked, but didn’t love, The Passion. It was a far more Catholic movie than most Protestants realized, which doesn’t necessarily make it bad. I don’t object to Catholics making Catholic movies. In the realm of literature, I’ve learned to enjoy several Catholic novelists very much—far more than a lot of Protestant authors, many of whom are too liberal or insufficiently skilled to please me.

In contrast to many of Gibson’s defenders, even Jewish ones, I thought I saw a hint of anti-Semitism in The Passion. I thought the priests in the movie were portrayed as Jewish caricatures. I never mentioned it at the time, because the whole subject is so thorny (which makes me a coward). I don’t agree with the current orthodoxy that says that the Jewish leaders had nothing at all to do with the crucifixion. The gospels clearly state that they did. The priests wanted to be rid of Jesus, and they manipulated Pontius Pilate, through threats of unrest, to have Him put to death.

But they did it for a reason, as the Gospel of John (11:48) makes clear. They considered Jesus a political threat, not just to themselves but to the commonwealth. They feared an uprising and Roman reprisals. Gibson could have emphasized this aspect and made his priests more sympathetic, without selling out to the “blame the Romans” revisionists.

If Gibson’s career is over, it frankly serves him right. But if Braveheart and (even) The Passion get tarnished because of him, our loss will be great.

Sweet 56

It is my birthday today. I am 56 years old.

The temperature got up to 100° today.

These two facts are not unrelated. I’m a hot day’s child, born under the Dog Star. Like most summer babies (in my unscientific experience), I handle heat a lot better than cold. Weather like today’s is an irritant, but it doesn’t prostrate me. I put on a light-colored hat and go about my business.

They had a goodbye party for someone at work today, and in the course of it somebody said, “It’s your birthday, too, isn’t it?” I conceded the fact and they sang The Song for me.

My brother Moloch called me at work, because I’d been out of town over the weekend, when he usually calls. As the conversation wound down and he was jockeying to hang up, I asked, “Is this my birthday call?”

“Oh yeah. It’s your birthday, isn’t it?” he asked. So he wished me a happy one.

Moloch doesn’t believe in cards, so he usually calls for my birthday. Brother Baal sends a card, and generally calls too. My friend Chip, who was born about a week after me, usually sends a card, but he forgot last year and I haven’t seen anything this year. My hero this time around is my uncle Orv, who not only sent a card, but included a nice “housewarming gift” inside it. Public thanks to him (he reads this blog).

When I was a kid, contemplating the likelihood I recognized even then, that I’d never find a wife, one thing I didn’t anticipate about single life was that a day would come when my birthday would not show up very large on any living person’s radar screen.

Fortunately, when you get into your fifties you don’t care much about it anymore, yourself.

It was hot in Decorah, Iowa, too, over the weekend. It was the hottest, stickiest Nordic Fest anyone remembered, and the crowds were widely dispersed—most of them miles away in their own homes. Even a lot of the vendors didn’t show up. We Vikings sat panting in the shade. The first day we couldn’t even work up the energy to do any live steel combat.

We did do some (wisely without armor) on the second day, and felt much the better for it. If my subjective scorekeeping is accurate, I seem to be the Number Two swordsman in our group, which I still find bizarre beyond words.

When it was all over, I felt like I’d spent the weekend baling hay, rather than sitting around in the shade of my awning, laboring greatly only over setting up tents, tearing them down again, and engaging in a spot of healthy recreational mayhem.

I’ll be doing it again on Saturday (hopefully without the extreme heat). We’re doing a town anniversary celebration in Bode, Iowa, and the guy heading up the celebration was in Decorah to visit us. He made a point of coming to me three separate times to tell me that he’d shown an internet photo of me and my equipment to the town fathers, and they’d all said “We want that guy here.”

It’s nice to be wanted. One would prefer, for preference, to be wanted by the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, but it’s nice to be wanted by anyone.

On top of that, I talked to the distant relative I’d contacted last week, and he gave me the genealogical information I needed for Cousin Trygve in Norway. He also extended an invitation to the family reunion, which is in Belmond, Iowa, just down the road from Bode, on Sunday. That seemed like a sign from God that He wanted me to attend both, and I’m not so sanctified in my personal walk that I can afford to refuse a divine clue-bat.

Especially when I’m this old.

News flash: Solomon was smarter than me

Today I started thinking about a certain practical concern, and I decided to pray about it.

I prayed something like this: “Lord, I’d appreciate it if you’d provide _______ for me. However, there’s lots of people in greater need, so if the answer is no, I’ll understand.”

I thought this a very mature kind of prayer. I’ve always had Solomon’s prayer in 2 Chronicles 1 in mind when I pray: “Give me wisdom and knowledge, that I may lead this people, for who is able to govern this great people of yours?” (NIV). God responds, “Since this is your heart’s desire and you have not asked for wealth, riches or honor…, therefore wisdom and knowledge will be given you. And I will also give you wealth, riches and honor….” (v.11-12).

The lesson I drew from this as a child was, “Don’t ask for much. God will be pleased with your humility, and maybe He’ll throw in some goodies as a reward.”

But it occurred to me today (and you adults probably knew this already) that that’s not the point at all.

Solomon doesn’t ask for small things. Wisdom and knowledge aren’t small. What he’s asking for is precisely the tools he needs in order to do the work God has set before him. He’s asking God to equip him for his vocation.

Passive-aggressiveness is a sickness of the soul. Also I’m pretty sure God can’t be manipulated into rewarding me for fake humility.

I wonder if I’ll ever live long enough to grow up.

I’ll be taking another blog-break until Monday evening. I’ll be in Decorah, Iowa for the Nordic Fest, playing Viking, live-steel fighting, and selling a few books (I hope). If you’re in the area, stop by. The Viking encampment is next to the Vesterheim museum.

Success, plus inventory meditations

I heard from the man with the genealogy information last night, and he seems to know pretty much everything Cousin Trygve wants to find out. I got the highlights to pass on to him, and I’ll get documents with details when I go down to Decorah this weekend.

Another crisis met and mastered, less than the dust beneath my chariot wheels.

I was back at work today, inventorying books. I found a commentary on Revelation called something like The Letters of Jesus Christ to the Churches. The title hit me funny, and I realized I’d always had a misconception about the New Testament. I’d thought that Jesus left no personal writings behind, but for those of us who believe in the full inspiration of Scripture, the first three chapters of Revelation clearly constitute seven epistles to churches, dictated by the Lord Himself.

Then a second thing occurred to me. If 20th Century American Christians were to imagine an epistle from Jesus, it wouldn’t be like the real ones at all.

Here’s the sort of thing we’d write:

My dear children,

How are you? I just wanted to write and tell you how much I love you. I derive such pleasure from watching you living and growing, enjoying your lives and your families.

I’m not happy about some of the things you do, but I want you to know that no matter how often you fall, I’ll always be right there to lift you onto your feet again. I have such wonderful plans for you—if you could just see what they are, you’d be amazed…

You get the idea.

Now look at what He actually writes. He compliments the churches a little (if He can), and tells them very clearly what they’re doing wrong. He warns them in no uncertain terms that if they don’t straighten up and fly right there will be serious, eternal consequences. The only warm fuzzies he has to offer are to churches under severe persecution, and the best He can promise them is a reward if they hold out to the end (that is, until their enemies kill them).

Compare and contrast.

Later, I picked up a book called The Conservative Reformation and Its Theology, by Charles P. Krauth, D.D., published in 1871 by the United Lutheran Church Publishing House in Philadelphia. The first line of the Preface caught my eye:

That some form of Christianity is to be the religion of the world, is not only an assured fact to the believer in Revelation, but must be regarded as probable, even in the judgment which is formed on purely natural evidence.

That was how it looked in 1871, folks. Everybody, even skeptics, were pretty sure that Christianity was so obviously superior to all other religions that it must inevitably be universally adopted in time. This idea went hand in hand with the certainty that Western Culture, in its obvious superiority, was destined to be taken up by every nation and tribe, as each was educated and gained enlightenment.

It’s a depressing thought, considered in light of how the world has changed since then.

But I prefer to think of it in a more positive way. It’s a reminder that things that look inevitable in one age often turn out to be very evitable indeed. Global warming, Islamicization, ever-increasing government power, homosexual marriage… any and all of them may fizzle and end up as a bad joke.

We’re not as wise as we think, and that’s often a good thing.

Lars Walker, down the mean streets

I picked Cousin Trygve up at the airport on Friday afternoon. I took him home to Blithering Heights (“Is this Mrs. Hermanson?” he asked when he saw my car. Probably the only time that’ll ever happen). He gave me Sissel Kyrkjebø’s latest CD as a gift, and I played it while we got acquainted. We settled into a language system—he spoke English to me, and I spoke Norwegian to him. It seemed to work out best for both of us that way.

On Saturday morning, not too early, I drove him down to Kenyon, to show him the grave of Martha Swelland, my great-grandmother and the half-sister of his great-grandfather (I think I’ve got that right. I lose track). I also showed him the farm where the Swellands had lived, along with the farm where I grew up, which is just next door. I took him through Monkey Valley, the inspiration for Troll Valley in my novel Wolf Time, and the original, long-abandoned town site of Epsom (also prominent in Wolf Time).

Here’s the mystery he’s hunting: My great-great-grandmother, Mari Olsdatter, the mother of Martha Swelland, had a child out of wedlock before marrying Haldor Syverson, my g-g-grandfather. When they and their children emigrated to America in 1881, they brought that child along. He was a young man by then, and his name was Ole Nielsen.

This Ole Nielsen had fathered an out-of-wedlock child himself before emigrating. This child grew up and lived his life in Norway, and he was the ancestor of Cousin Trygve. Cousin Trygve made contact with me on the basis of the story of Lars Swelland, which I told on this blog a while back. I was the first relative on that side he’d ever been able to find in America.

His quest is to find out what happened to Ole Nielsen over here. Nobody in Norway ever heard what became of him. Nobody in my family seems to know either. So I wanted to do what I could to try to help him in that. But I wasn’t very hopeful. Asking questions, as I’ve said more than once, is not my strong suit.

On Sunday I took him down to Zumbrota, Minnesota to meet Cousin Dorothy. Cousin Dorothy is my dad’s first cousin, a Swelland by birth. She’d told me over the phone that she didn’t know much, but was happy to have us come down for lunch.

Dorothy and her husband gave us a lovely lunch in their pleasant house. In the manner of all Great Detectives, I did my best to draw her out, priming the pump with my own memories of my grandmother (her aunt) and others in the family.

Finally she said, “You know, you ought to go to the Severson Reunion. They hold a reunion down in Iowa every year! I think I’ve got the invitation around here somewhere.”

Bingo. The Seversons were precisely the family we were trying to make contact with. Dorothy couldn’t find the invitation, but she gave me the name and address of the man who sent it. Turns out he’s actively involved with the Vesterheim Norwegian Immigration Museum in Decorah, Iowa (where I’ll be traveling for the Nordic Fest this coming weekend).

A relative who organizes family reunions and is involved in the immigration museum. I think it’s just possible he may be able to help us.

Who says Avoidants can’t be great sleuths?

Unfortunately, our resource guy doesn’t seem to be at home right now. I’m awaiting his call-back. I drove Trygve up to Fergus Falls today and passed him off to some relatives on the other side of his family.

But I’m feeling pretty Sherlockian today. I’m debating whether to start smoking a pipe, or to adopt the more socially acceptable habit of mainlining cocaine.

Nihilist kitsch and villages

I came up with something in the comments on my Wednesday post, and I liked it so well I’ll repeat it here, for the sake of those of you who don’t read comments.

It occurs to me that much of what passes for art today is a kind of “nihilist kitsch.” You know what kitsch is. It’s sentimental or cutesy art produced on the cheap for people without much taste. Black velvet paintings are kitsch. Pictures of Jesus with moving eyes that seem to follow you around the room are kitsch. Garden ornaments that depict a fat guy leaning over so that all you can see is his legs, his butt and his butt crack above his jeans, are kitsch.

When a little old lady, not very bright but devout, looks at her 3-D Jesus portrait, she sees it as very beautiful. This is not because it’s really beautiful (it’s actually pretty disturbing), but it’s lovely to her because she associates it with her sincere love for Jesus.

I think the pleasure an art connoisseur feels when he/she looks at a piece of art consisting of blood or urine or dung or garbage is a reverse form of kitsch. The viewer knows that what he or she is looking at is in no sense beautiful. But he/she enjoys it and praises it because it represents an assault on things that he/she hates.

So we’ve got the kitsch of love and the kitsch of hate. Both of them are kitsch.

But I know which one I prefer.

A little more about Jonathan Kellerman’s nonfiction book, Savage Spawn.

It’s a frightening book about children who seem to be born bad, and who can’t seem to be stopped except by death or lifelong incarceration.

Kellerman’s opinion (and he admits he can’t prove it) is that the cause is a combination of genetics and nurture. Some kids may be genetically designed for psychopathy, but a good upbringing might prevent it.

So how do we as a society intervene to rescue these marginal kids before bad environments send them on the road to something like Columbine?

Kellerman has a number of suggestions, which he admits are generally utopian. I don’t agree with all of them (especially the one that would make it a crime to teach a child to use firearms). Many of them make sense. None of them seem likely.

The problem, it seems to me, is that we’ve reached a cultural impasse. If we could give the government new powers to intervene radically in families, it might be worth it (if the power could be limited), if we had confidence that the government would use that power wisely. Unfortunately, “government” and “wisdom” are for the most part mutually exclusive terms.

My opinion is that the kind of radical evil in children that we see today is mostly a new thing, and it comes from the way society has changed. In the past most people lived in small, homogeneous communities—villages or tribes where everybody believed the same things, valued the same things, and were intimately involved in each other’s lives. The kids were monitored all the time, by the whole community.

When Hillary Clinton said “It takes a village to raise a child,” she was being disingenuous. She was right about the village, but the new-style village she wants is not a village but a bureaucracy (I’ve blogged about this before).

I think people need close-knit networks of likeminded relatives and neighbors, all gathered in the same place, to raise children in the most healthy way. But today we value diversity and individuality, which means a terrible, dangerous environment for children.

Will we figure out a new way to build villages? I hope so. But I don’t know how we’ll do it.

I’ll be off the blog for a couple days now. My relative Trygve from Norway will be in town, and I’ll be giving him the grand tour. I’ll tell you about it when it’s over.

Prometheus, bounder

Today it rained. This is a good thing, just here and just now. We’ve had it mighty dry for a spell in these here parts. I think a lot of farmers got a drink too, which is, needless to say, a lot more important than the state of my lawn.

I picked up a book called Savage Spawn, by Jonathan Kellerman, the mystery writer. I’ve already told you how much I enjoy his novels, so I was interested to check out this book, which is not fiction but a book of popular psychology about children who become cold-blooded criminals.

I’ll probably say more about his conclusions tomorrow, but today I want to quote a passage that impressed me:

Psychiatrist Thomas Millar, in an eloquent essay titled “The Age of Passion Man,” written nearly two decades ago, decried the tendency of contemporary Western society to glamorize hedonism and antisocial behavior, and to confuse psychopathy, which he regards as a form of malignant childishness, with heroism….

Confusing creativity with morality and psychopathic rebelliousness with social liberation led Norman Mailer to predict that psychopaths would turn out to be the saviors of society. Mailer was as terribly wrong about that as he was when he worked hard to spring career criminal Jack Henry Abbott from prison. Shortly after his release, Abbott murdered an innocent man. Oops. What impressed Mailer were Abbott’s writings, summarized in a thin book titled In the Belly of the Beast. A coolheaded review of this volume nearly two decades later reveals it to be a crude, nasty, sophomoric collection of self-justifying diatribes—prototypical psychopathy.

Muddled thinking about evil is by no means limited to the political left. Sex murderer Herbert Smith, sentenced to execution for raping and bludgeoning a fifteen-year-old girl to death with a baseball bat, was able to turn a phrase with some skill, and he conned William Buckley into thinking he was innocent. Buckley campaigned to get Smith out of prison, finally succeeding in 1971, whereupon Smith promptly and viciously attacked another woman. Smith then admitted that he’d been guilty of the first murder. Oops again.

Kellerman identifies here what I consider a major problem in our culture today. Beginning in the days of the Romantic Movement, we began to see the titanic, rebellious, Promethean social rebel (like Shelley or Byron) as the hero, the one who would free us all from Rousseau’s chains, who would liberate us all to become the gods and goddesses we were born to be. The parallel Romantic current, the more Christian and conventionally moral Romanticism of Wordsworth and Coleridge, found few followers. That strain was less sexy. It lacked the sweetness of forbidden fruit, and was much harder work.

Thus we came to believe, first of all, that great, creative souls must always reject conventional morality. Further down the slope we came to believe that whatever was socially transgressive must by definition be a work of genius.

This has given people with artistic pretensions a wonderful excuse to live lives of selfishness and self-destruction.

It has also been responsible for a whole lot of lousy art.