All posts by Lars Walker

The Ritual Bath, by Faye Kellerman

Will this work? I have my doubts. I’ve had the kind of afternoon where every time I reach for something I knock something over, and every time I pick something up I drop it (I’m exaggerating, but it feels like that). So I figure either my computer will crash or Bloo will go down just about the time I’m ready to post. But I shall make the effort.

I bought Faye Kellerman’s The Ritual Bath (first in a series of mysteries involving Det. Peter Decker and widow Rina Lazarus) on the strength of my fondness for her husband Jonathan’s Alex Delaware novels. I had misgivings. Generally I don’t care for mysteries written by women (I’m not weighing in on our discussion, some time back, of whether men write the best mysteries or not. I find men usually write the best mysteries for me, which is a very different matter).

I was very pleasantly surprised. The Ritual Bath is both a satisfying crime story and a sensitive examination of the conflicts and stresses involved in being seriously religious in a secular society.

Rina Lazarus lives at an orthodox yeshiva (Torah school) in a run-down section of Los Angeles. Ordinarily an unmarried woman wouldn’t live at an all-male yeshiva, but her late husband was a student, and the school gave her a job and a home so that she could take care of her two young sons. Her job involves cleaning and caring for the mikvah (ritual bath), used monthly by students’ wives.

The night the novel begins, a young woman is attacked and raped outside the mikvah. Detective Peter Decker and his partner arrive to investigate.

There is immediate chemistry between the tall, red-haired detective and the tiny Jewish widow. But though Decker pursues her singlemindedly throughout the book, Rina has to explain, again and again, that there is no way she could possibly date a goy. As the likelihood grows that the rapist (who keeps coming back) may be someone inside the yeshiva, there are numerous opportunities for personal and professional missteps and misunderstandings.

The picture of life in an Orthodox community appears (so far as I can tell) to be pretty accurate. At least it’s credible. The constant nuisance of concern for ritual cleanliness is not glossed over, but neither are the joys of deep belief and genuine community life. (As a sideline, it made me more aware than ever of Paul’s statement that “the letter of the law kills,” and reminded me how grateful I ought to be that Christians are free of such.)

Another pleasure was Kellerman’s portrayal of Detective Decker. I suspect that one reason so many female writers have a hard time with male characters is that they find it both difficult and repellant to try to get into our heads. I found no false notes in Peter Decker. He struck me as a very believable decent guy, at once strongly aroused by Rina and making an honest effort to keep his hormones suppressed.

Another thing that made the book interesting (and problematic) from a Christian point of view was the fact that Det. Decker is increasingly attracted to the Jewish religion itself, as well as to a particular Jew, as the story goes on. We are told that he was raised a Baptist but is nothing in particular now. Question: If a secular person is drawn to Judaism, does that bring him closer to, or farther away from, Jesus Christ?

Another thing that struck me was how similar the book was to a lot of Christian Booksellers Association fiction. The tall, strong, unbeliever is drawn to the beautiful believer, and as love grows he is attracted to her faith as well.

Only Kellerman does it better. Her writing is on a higher level (not perfect, but far superior to most CBA, so far as I’ve read any), her characters more rounded and believable. Also the book is earthier. There are intense situations. There is bad language. Those things might disqualify a book from CBA, but they also increase realism, giving the story greater credibility.

I’ll read more of these.

Saex talk

We got a little rain today (and that’s a good thing), but it was just a little. When I got home, the evidence suggested that we’d gotten a little more right here. Even better. And the skies were full of dark clouds. I took my afternoon walk on the theory that my vulnerability would prove an irresistible temptation to the heavens, but it didn’t work (could it be that the universe isn’t specifically engineered to frustrate me? This could crush my entire paradigm!).

But when I sat down to start this post it was raining again. A tentative, Avoidant rain, unsure of its welcome. I didn’t have much hope of it, but lo, it continues, even unto this minute.

The weekend went OK. I didn’t have anyplace to go, so I washed and waxed Mrs. Hermanson and did some repair and staining on the latticework underneath my screen porch.

My treat was the arrival of this object:


This is a Viking saex, hand-made for me by author and knifemaker Michael Z. Williamson. If you’re wondering why a guy who’s been hinting at financial constraints throws away money on things like this, the answer is that I ordered and paid for it a couple years ago, when I was flush, and it’s been delayed for various reasons. So this was a long-awaited pleasure.

I posted about saexes (or seaxes, or saxes, or saekses, ad infinitum) a while back, when I made a sheath for the back-up saex I’d bought for live steel. This knife is not for live steel. This one is fully sharp. Even Crocodile Dundee, I believe, would concede that this is a knife. It’s 16 ½” long.

If you look closely you can see Viking runes inlaid in the side of the blade. These spell out (in Old Norse) a line from the poem, Bjarkamál: “Breast to breast the eagles shall claw each other.” The Bjarkamál was a very popular war poem in the Viking Age. One of King (St.) Olaf’s poets sang it before the Battle of Stiklestad, and this particular line was nearly the last words of Erling Skjalgsson, hero of The Year of the Warrior.

The saex was one of the most common, and prized, weapons in the Dark Ages, and continued to be so long after the Viking Age had passed. It has been suggested that possession of this weapon was restricted to free men, and was a mark of freedom—the Saxons took their name from the weapon. Most men couldn’t afford to invest valuable steel in swords which had no practical use outside of warfare. But every free man had one of these, useable as a machete, a butcher knife and an offensive weapon.

It’s still raining, very lightly. This would be perfect if it just lingered and lingered. I don’t think that’s in the forecast, though. But we’ll take what we can get.

A day too good to criticize

Just about a perfect day today. The temperature was precisely right for my personal comfort—which means it would probably be a little warm for most people. I’m a cold-blooded beast. The thermometer usually reads about 98.2 when the nurse pulls it from my mouth and reads it. I blame this condition for my inability to endure cold. When my brothers are thumping their chests and saying, “Isn’t this great? It’s so bracing!” I’m cupping my hands over my ears to keep them warm (cupping them very carefully, though. Touching them too forcefully might shatter them like cheap plastic cups from a convenience store pop machine).

We could use some rain, but if it were raining it wouldn’t be a perfect day, would it? “Seek not contrary pleasures,” said Dr. Johnson.

One disappointment I’ve suffered during my afternoon walks down to Crystal Lake and back has been the lack of girls in bikinis sunning themselves along the shore. Crystal Lake has been sorely deficient in the sunbathing girls department. More often the shore has been encircled by an unbroken ring of Hmong people, all of them with fishing poles, pulling sunfish 2 centimeters long out of the water for supper.

But today that was remedied. I didn’t get an ideal look at the girl (no doubt that was her intention) as she was lying on a fairly steep slope that runs down from the street to the water’s edge, but she seemed to be not ugly, and she was in a bikini.

Maybe it’ll be a good weekend.

There was another form of beauty too—butterflies. I suppose it’s unmanly of me, but I love butterflies. They seem to me an entirely useless addition to the environment. I’m sure their ecological niche could have been filled by something brown that looked like one of the more undistinguished moths. But God gave us flowers that flew, just as a treat.

That’s how I think of butterflies. They’re a gift. A grace note. A cherry on top of the sundae of summer.

Have a good weekend.

It’s called Dispatches from Outland

Roy Jacobsen, over at Dispatches from Outland, Dispatches from Outland, Dispatches from Outland (I repeat it three times in penance for getting it wrong last night) succumbed to my passive-aggressive hint and posted the pictures of me this morning, here.

He mentioned it in the comments on my last post, but I’m saying it out here in the sunlight to make sure YOU NOTICE IT.

Man, I love attention. That might surprise some people, because I make a fetish of not calling attention to myself or promoting myself, but all the time I’m trying to find oblique ways to get that notice, either by some achievement or other, or by passive aggression.

So thanks, Roy, for being my enabler.

(The blog is called Dispatches from Outland.)

So, the immigration bill went down in flames.

I never knew what to think about that issue. Most of the talk shows are against it, but when Michael Medved came on to defend it, I thought he made a lot of sense too. So I was utterly at sea, and not sure enough of any position to badger my senator.

But here’s what I do think.

I think there’s a movement (not a conspiracy. No council of plutocrats is strategizing in a secret room. It’s more of a state of mind abroad in the land) that wants America to be anything but what it has been in the past.

The people who hold this view love America, but they love it in their own way. They love America the way parents love a drug-addicted teenager—“You’ll always be our son and we’ll always love you, but you have to clean up your act.”

These people don’t love America’s origins. They don’t love its history. They don’t love its traditions (especially its religion).

What they love about America is what they see as its potential to become something they could be proud of.

Because they hate America’s history and traditions, they see no reason why anyone should be expected to go through a regularized naturalization process, to learn about America. Why learn about something we’re going to erase anyway?

Because they hate America’s culture, they don’t want immigrants to assimilate. They want to see Balcanization—a country built up of thousands of ethnic enclaves, peopled by folks who can’t communicate with one another, because there’s no common language.

Because they’re ashamed of America’s history, they want to enable (not cause, but open the door to) the partition of America, so that the Old Southwest either goes back to Mexico or becomes an independent Hispanic nation.

I think they lost a fight today, but they win a little by carrying on the status quo too. So I’m not celebrating.

You know what I see for the future (putting on my prophet’s hat here)? I see—certainly in Europe and very possibly in America—ethnic conflict on a scale never before seen in history. Bloodbaths, deportations, genocide and terrorism.

Until somebody charismatic and ruthless rides in on a white horse to impose order.

And I don’t like the thought of him either.

Still a little peanut butter in the jar

I’m really milking this weekend for material. It wasn’t spectacularly eventful, but it was more memorable than my mental activity has been in the days since. So I’ll squeeze out a few more notes, because I know how you all live vicariously through me.

I made a marvelous discovery during my (roughly) eight hours of driving. Or I think I did. It appears (I haven’t proved it to the level of scientific demonstration, but it looks promising) that my vehicle is one of those that actually get better mileage with the windows shut and the air conditioning on, than with the A/C off and the windows open. This is wonderful. Not only is it more comfortable to drive that way, but I can actually hear my Sissel CDs.

I had a visit in the Viking encampment from Roy Jacobsen of Writing, Clear and Simple and Dispatches from Outland. He took a picture, but so far it hasn’t appeared on either of his blogs.

On the other hand, when I see it I may be sorry I brought it up. I keep forgetting I’m old and fat now.

A woman who’d bought a couple of my books the last time I was at the Hjemkomst Festival came by to tell me she’d enjoyed them very much, and she wants me to speak at a Scandinavian cultural conference in Wisconsin next winter. She said they’d pay me and everything.

Almost the most beautiful words in the English language.

Here’s an interesting article. It appears they’ve found an Incan skeleton in a Norwegian grave dated to 1,000 AD (that’s Erling Skjalgsson’s period). (Hat tip: Mirabilis)

If that’s not a mistake, it’s earthshaking. The Incans lived in Peru, which is on the whole other side of South America. Man, there’s a novel in that. I wrote an (unpublished) book about Erling in which he went to Vinland, but I didn’t have the nerve to send him further south than somewhere around Connecticut.

Update: I have corrected the name of Roy Jacobsen’s 2nd blog, “Dispatches From Outland.” The error was due to a brain charleyhorse, an increasingly common problem for me. ljw

Eielsen and Hanson

Here’s the text of my talk, given at the Old Stone Church (Hauge Lutheran Church), Kenyon, Minnesota, on Sunday, June 24, 2007

The year was 1846. A boat docked in Muskegon, Michigan, and one of my distant relations—actually the half-brother of my great-great-grandfather—disembarked along with his family and a group of other Norwegians. They looked around them, blinked in the sunlight—and hadn’t the faintest idea what to do next. They wanted to see a man in Lisbon, Illinois, but they’d never imagined that America was so big—or so wild. So they hunkered down in Muskegon for a while, to try to figure out their next step.

One day a wagon rolled up, and a man jumped off and greeted them in Norwegian. He was a preacher, and he said he knew Lisbon, Illinois very well. He invited my relation to get on his wagon, and he’d take him there.

They traveled over open prairie, sleeping under the wagon at night. When they reached Lisbon, they found the man they were looking for, and then the preacher took my relation back to Muskegon to arrange for the whole group to relocate.

The preacher’s name was Elling Eielsen, and what he did for that group was all in a couple weeks’ work for him. Wherever there were Norwegians in America in the mid-nineteenth century, Eielsen would be there sooner or later, to preach the gospel and to help them adjust to the new country.

Elling Eielsen was born in Voss, in Norway, in 1804. He was converted in the Haugean revivals, and soon began to follow in Hauge’s steps, preaching all over Norway, as well as Sweden and Denmark, as a layman. And, like Hauge, he spent time in prison for his preaching activities.

In 1839 he came to America. He came because there was a need. More and more Norwegians were immigrating to this country, and there was not a single Norwegian Lutheran pastor here to minister to them. Many newcomers were converting to the Mormon church.

Eielsen settled first in Fox River, Illinois, where he began a small congregation in his home, a congregation which still exists and is part of our AFLC today. This may have been the first Norwegian Lutheran church in America—though that claim is disputed.

At the request of his congregation, Eielsen went to Chicago and found a German Lutheran pastor there who was willing to ordain him. Thus he may have become the first Norwegian Lutheran pastor ordained in America—though that claim is also disputed.

What is not disputed is that he was the first Norwegian Lutheran publisher in America. Needing teaching material for his confirmation classes, he traveled to New York to get an English translation of Luther’s Small Catechism printed. Later he went back to get a Norwegian book printed—Pontoppidan’s Explanation of the Catechism, the first Norwegian language book ever published in this country. That job involved a side trip to Philadelphia to get the typeface he wanted, and when the books were finished he carried them on his back, back to Illinois, on foot, in the dead of winter.

Elling Eielsen was not afraid of hard work.

He served many congregations over the years, but his chief work was traveling as an evangelist. He preached to Norwegian settlers in Texas. He preached in Kansas. He preached in the Dakotas. And, of course, he preached right here. The origins of Hauge and Immanuel Congregations are obscure, but it seems certain that they began with meetings led by Eielsen in this area.

As Eielsen’s ministry bore fruit, congregations were established, and they looked to him as their leader. So in 1846 a new church body came to be. Its name was—and I’m not joking here—the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. But it was better known as the Eielsen Synod.

Eielsen was probably not the best choice for a leader. His gifts were for evangelism. He was not a good organizer. He did not work well with people. He had a fiery temper, and he tended to see disagreement as heresy.

There was conflict in the Eielsen Synod. It had already split twice when, in 1876, a majority of the congregations decided they could no longer accept a paragraph in the constitution concerning church membership. Eielsen would not hear of a change. And so the majority of the congregations went on to become the Hauge Synod. A small group continued under the old constitution and Eielsen’s leadership.

The Hauge Synod chose as its first president a man whose name ought to be familiar around here. His name was Arne Boyum. But the second president should be a familiar name too. He was Østen Hanson, and he was pastor of Immanuel and Hauge churches, Kenyon, Minnesota. He served this parish for 37 years, and never took another call. Unlike Eielsen, Hanson knew how to stay put.

Østen Hanson was born in Telemark, Norway. Although his faith was every bit as solid and biblical as Eielsen’s, he had the ability to disagree with people without being disagreeable. He had a gift for organization, and he knew how to choose his battles.

He was not an educated man by the standards of this world. None of the early Haugeans were. But N. N. Rønning, in his book Fifty Years in America, says of him:

Hanson was a brainy man…. He was a converted man…. He had an insatiable hunger for knowledge and was an assiduous and discerning reader. He sought every occasion to talk with learned men. He had a passion for thinking things through.

The Bible was the book for Hanson. Everything he preached was riveted in the Bible. He wrestled with the Word. He found no peace of mind before he had mastered it, only to find, of course, that it was not fully mastered. He must have known the Letter to the Romans by heart; at least he had the more significant passages at the tip of his tongue.

I’m happy to be able to report that the synodical split did not make Eielsen and Hanson lifelong enemies. Later in his life Eielsen visited Pastor Hanson in the parsonage over in Aspelund, and he held meetings in this parish.

Ole Rølvaag tells us, quoting the Bible, that there were giants in the earth in those days. These stone walls have echoed to the voices of prophets. Hauge and Immanuel congregations have a powerful—even a heroic—spiritual heritage.

It’s not a heritage just for looking back on. I think it’s a heritage that has something to teach us today. Just as our ancestors had to find ways to practice the old, true faith in a strange new environment, so we face a strange new environment today. America was less different from Norway in the 19th Century than it is today from the country many of us grew up in. Once again our task as Christians is to work in new circumstances, speaking the timeless gospel in a new language.

May the same Spirit who worked in Eielsen and Hanson work in all of us here today, pastors and laity alike, as we carry on the ministry of repentance and faith.

I fight (sort of) and I preach (sort of)

A strenuous weekend (by my effete standards), but a pretty good one, all in all.

In Moorhead, Minnesota there is a museum dedicated to the Hjemkomst (Homecoming), a replica Viking ship that sailed to Norway in 1984. Each year they hold a Scandinavian festival there, and sometimes they invite the Viking Age Club & Society. This was one of our years.

We were blessed with pretty good weather in our encampment. It got warm, but we had a breeze most of the time, and that makes all the difference if you’ve got some shade. I sold a few books. We did two combat shows on Friday and three on Saturday (Roy Jacobsen of Writing, Clear and Simple posted this link to a Fargo Forum newspaper photo in the comments below, but I give you the link again, so you can be suitably impressed. Much as it may surprise you, that’s not a screen capture from ‘300.’ It’s yours truly, terrible in his wrath, defending himself heroically against a base attack by those scoundrels, the Andersons.

The photographer must have had a camera with a fast shutter, because this battle lasted about 3/8 of a second.

You’ll note, if you look closely, that there are holes in my shield. Here’s a picture of the shield today:


It’s on its way out, but I think I’ll use it a while longer. Those holes can actually be an advantage, if you’re fast (which, unfortunately, I’m not). You can catch your enemy’s weapon in them, give the shield a twist, and disarm him.

I packed up Saturday afternoon and drove home. Sunday morning I drove down to Kenyon, my home town, for the annual historical service at my home congregation’s Old Stone Church, pictured here:

Old Stone Church

I wasn’t aware (or hadn’t paid attention) but this was a special service of dedication at the end of a major refurbishing project. They had tuck-pointed the stonework and completely re-done the interior, replacing the crumbling plaster walls with concrete colored to look like the originals. Some private grant money and a lot of volunteer work went into the job.

Old Stone Interior

Here’s a close-up of the old altar.

Old Stone altar

It’s a very Haugean altar (the Haugeans are the pietistic Lutheran group which formed my religious outlook). On either side are the tables of the Law. Haugeans are always aware of the Law. We’re not the kind of people who think the Law is of no further interest to those who are in Christ.

But the Cross is in the center, lifted high above the Law. The Cross puts the Law in perspective. The Cross rules over the Law.

And under the Cross is a painting of the Lord’s Supper, a central means by which the grace of the Cross is mediated to the worshipers kneeling at the altar.

The verse on the plaque is John 3:16.

I came in costume (not Viking but 19th Century), since it’s my belief that anything worth doing is worth overdoing. I’d been asked to give a historical talk. I suppose they had in mind a synopsis of the story of the congregation and the building. Being me, I did it my own way.

I didn’t want to do just names and dates. I wanted to tell a story, to convey the romance (and it was a romance) of Norwegian immigration and evangelism in the new world. I figured there’d be children there (there were) and I wanted to tell them things they might remember.

So I told the stories of two men—Elling Eielsen, the Norwegian evangelist who planted Haugeanism in America, and Østen Hanson, Eielsen’s disciple who broke with him and became the president of the Hauge Synod, pastor of our church (and its sister congregation) for 37 years.

I’ll post the text of my talk tomorrow, because I promised some people I would. The rest of you might find it interesting too, as a case study if nothing else.

Counterplay, by Robert K. Tanenbaum

I’ll be taking a blog break till Monday, probably, unless I get a wireless connection in Moorhead and find the time. I’m going up with the Vikings for the Hjemkomst festival. Drop by if you’re in the area, but I won’t be there Sunday.

On Sunday I shoot back south, overshoot my home, and come to rest in Kenyon, Minnesota, my original home town. I’ve been asked to give a short historical talk for a special service. My home church (Hauge Lutheran) has an old stone church, the congregation’s original building (it was built in 1875 and is on the National Register of Historic Places). A service is held there once a year (it used to be in Norwegian, but that’s kind of pointless nowadays). Anyway, I’ll be helping out with that Sunday morning.

I always look forward to Robert K. Tanenbaum’s Karp/Ciampi books, and I can’t say I didn’t enjoy Counterplay. But I see problems in this old, dependable franchise.

Our friend Aitchmark reviewed it here. He thinks Tanenbaum has succumbed to the temptation to try to make every book “bigger” than the last. I see that, and I agree to an extent. But I think I discern a deeper problem.

First, a synopsis: The last couple books have featured Butch Karp’s great nemesis—former New York City District Attorney Andrew Kane, a rich and corrupt man who nearly became mayor of New York. We thought Kane was beaten at the end of the previous book, when his plot to destroy the Catholic Church was unmasked and foiled.

But Kane has escaped from the police, and has made it clear that he is going to a) kill everyone Karp (now District Attorney himself) cares about, and b) perform a major act of terrorism. Security people believe he’s planning to target Russian president Yeltsin on an upcoming visit to the U.S.

You get your money’s worth in entertainment with any Tanenbaum book. He rolls out the beloved stock company of funny, eccentric, well-developed regulars we’ve come to love. The most interesting part of the story for me, actually, was a sub-plot—the cold-case against a millionaire for the murder of his wife, prosecuted by good ol’ Ray Guma, on the basis of a memory recovered by the couple’s son under hypnosis.

But there really is a problem, and I think Tanenbaum needs to do something about it. I think he’s fallen into the Superman Dilemma.

The Superman Dilemma is simple. Once you’ve created a hero who is faster than a speeding bullet, bulletproof himself, inhumanly strong and incredibly smart, what do you do to give him a challenge? Yeah, you’ve got kryptonite, but you can only use that stuff so often before people get bored.

The answer is the Super-Villain. You’ve got to come up with an adversary worthy of his steel skin. Someone who matches him in at least one category, and who is as bad as he is good.

Tanenbaum, over the course of this long series, has gradually loaded the Karp family with a pantheon of super friends. Tran, the former Viet Cong, was the first, I think. He’s a leader of the Asian mob, and will do anything to protect Butch’s wife Marlene, on whom he’s been nursing a crush for years. Then there’s John Jojola, the Taos Indian/Special Forces veteran, who walks unseen and has strange mystical powers. And there’s David Grale, the psychotic who leads and army of the homeless, fighting evil in the city sewers. And there’s daughter Lucy’s new boyfriend, the cowboy Ned, who is (of course) a crack shot and a quick-draw artist. Lucy herself is a language prodigy, which helps in a lot of situations. And Marlene is the Top Gun in Manhattan. She also trains huge attack dogs.

Which means that in real life, a family like the Karps would be safer than the president in the presidential bunker, just giving folks a tour. Thus, for a challenge, we need a super-villain capable of working past all these layers of security.

Andrew Kane has been the super-villain in the last few books, and is again here. And frankly it’s getting to the point where he’s straining credibility. The man is so insane—so filled with hate and yet so omnicompetent, that it’s hard to take him seriously.

Tanenbaum has produced a comic book. A superior comic book, one well worth reading, but a comic book nevertheless.

He needs to drop the end-of-the-world scenarios, kill off some of the family’s protectors, and get back to writing stories about people we recognize. There’s plenty of ordinary evil in the world for a big-city D.A. to fight.

Even Superman shouldn’t fly out of sight.

And now for something completely less awful

Well, that was self-indulgent, wasn’t it?

I figure I owe you about a year of cheerful posts after that last one (not that you’ll get anything of the sort). I find myself getting all mooky pretty much every June, on the anniversary of… well, I’ve said enough about that.

Events have overtaken me again, it seems. Last week The American Spectator Online published a column by me in which I imagined a female mainline bishop rationalizing her attraction to Islam. Now comes this story, about a female Episcopal priest who has openly converted to Islam, without leaving her present job, and nobody seems to be interested in disciplining her.

Which goes to show that you have to run as fast as you can to keep up with the future nowadays. I’m working on another Pastoral Letter, and hope to turn it into a series. I think I’ve got a few surprises up my sleeve, but this priest has stolen some of my wind, no question.

OK—something happy. Here’s a photo I got yesterday, from my distant cousin Trygve in Norway:

Norway Wedding

He was married on June 2 at historic Ullensvang church in Hardanger (unfortunately he went into the hospital right afterwards, which is why I didn’t hear about it till now. He’s feeling some better, he says). His bride is Denae, an American of Norwegian descent. I had the pleasure of meeting her last summer, when Trygve was over here visiting.

The striking gray-bearded gentleman in back is wearing a bunad, a Norwegian national costume. The lady on the far right is also wearing one, as is the woman in back, between them, though you can’t see much of hers. Every region in Norway has its own characteristic bunads, male and female.

The reception was held at the Hotel Ullensvang, a historic institution in the area, founded originally by one of Trygve’s ancestors (not my side of the family). The composer Edvard Grieg was a friend of that founder, and the little cabin they built on the grounds, for Grieg to compose in, is still standing.

Best wishes to the couple.

Long, long post

I’m pretty sure I figured out the proximate cause of my depression attack.

It was this.

A YouTube video of Linda Ronstadt singing “Long, Long Time.” (This is a truncated version, by the way, omitting the plaintive third verse so the producers could fit 20 seconds more of valuable commercial time into the slot.)

One of my favorite songs of all time. It’s so beautiful. So poignant. So evocative.

And it makes me feel so very, very sorry for myself.



Takes me back, that does, to my year-and-a-half of servitude at a country radio station. It was a country station in two senses. Not only did it follow a Nashville format, but it was actually located in the country, out among the cornfields in rural Wisconsin.

The managers did at least one thing for the announcers that was kind of nice. They’d approved a work schedule that allowed each of us to enjoy a full, two-day weekend—once every three weeks. If you’ve ever worked radio, you’ll know that’s pretty rare. Radio announcers are assumed to be doing “fun” work—“Heck, I’d pay them to let me do this!” says the company man—so a ten hour day and a six day week is pretty standard. (I used to say that if I’d known about this before I got in, I’d have just become a migrant worker and saved the expense of broadcast school).

But this schedule required one weekend guy, on rotation, to work a pretty brutal weekend schedule. Part of that schedule involved doing the sign-off on Saturday night (at midnight) and then being back in to sign on again Sunday morning (6:00 a.m.).

When I had one of those weekends, I’d sweeten the ordeal by signing off with “Long, Long Time” the last thing Saturday night. This would put me in the mood to drive home alone in the darkness to the trailer I rented (and couldn’t afford to heat properly), and lie in the embrace of insomnia, running those lyrics through my head and thinking back six years to The One That Got Away, The Bus I Missed, After Which There Were No More Buses


I don’t think I’ve ever been so frightened in my life as the day I called her to ask her out. I first met her when she was next-door neighbor to a friend and his wife, living in residential houses converted to apartments on a college campus. She was studying drama, and she asked my friend to take a part in a one-act play she had to direct for a class. “And do you think Lars would be willing to take a small part?” she asked him.

“No, I don’t think so,” my friend said. “But if you’ve got a large part you haven’t cast, he’d probably do that.”

And so I worked with her on the play (a cut of Anouilh’s Antigone, if you’re curious), and the more time I spent with her, the more I realized that, although I’d originally thought her skinny and kind of horse-faced, she was in fact slender and graceful, and she had the kind of grave beauty I associate with Pre-Raphaelite paintings. She was funny and smart and spontaneous, and one day I realized I was falling in love with her, and I did not fight it one little bit.

And so I said to myself, “You’ve got to ask her out. There’s no chance that a woman this wonderful is ever going to just drop into your life this way again.”

I was 23 years old. I’d never asked a girl out before.



A spring afternoon in 1974 (the following year). It must have been late May or early June, because she went away that June. I called her (I could have just walked over and asked [I’d shrewdly taken over my friend’s apartment]. But somehow it was easier to call first) and asked if she wanted to walk down to the Dairy Queen.

“Well, I guess I could,” she said. “Just a minute.”

A few moments later she said, “OK, I just subtracted the money from my trip budget.” (She was a missionary kid, and she was going back to see her parents.)

“I’m paying,” I said.

“No, no,” she replied. “I’ve written it down now. I’m not going to go to the trouble of adding it back in.”

So we took our walk. I tried to memorize every moment; every word. Soon she’d be gone, and she wouldn’t be back for eight weeks. Eight weeks seemed like forever.



When we got back we sat on her front step and talked. Somehow the conversation turned to the old bromide that goes, “If you love something, let it go. If it does not come back to you, it was never yours in the first place.” I said I agreed with that.

“I talked to my mother about that once,” she said. “I told her, ‘If you really love someone, you have to give them their freedom.’

“And she said, ‘No. If you love someone you want them with you forever.’”




After she flew away, I got letters from her. She wanted to be pen pals. Needless to say, I jumped at the opportunity.

In one letter she said she’d like to stay in that country, if people weren’t waiting for her back here.

I told her she should do what she felt was best for herself. I hoped she didn’t think anyone was trying to force her to do anything she didn’t want to.

So she didn’t come back.

And then she got engaged to a guy over there.

And I’ve always wondered—had she told me what she really wanted, that evening 33 years ago this month? Had she been telling me she wanted a man who had the strength to say, “Come back to me. I need you in my life”?

I’ve wondered for a long, long time. But I’ll never know.

Guidebook to Purgatory

It was a nice two days, anyway.

But I couldn’t expect my depression to stay away for much more than that.

What I’m experiencing now isn’t a bottomless, cosmic cold sore, like last week’s depression. But it’s a definite downturn. And that (plus the fact that I’m stuck for other material) gives me an excuse to post a little essay about depression I’ve been thinking out. I justify this in two ways. One, I’m going to make a literary comparison. Two, some of you may be writers who don’t know much about deep depression (or is that an oxymoron?) and I hope to clarify exactly what the experience feels like. For the record.

One of the most notable (and surprising) characteristics of a truly ripe depression is the sense of clarity it seems to give.

Deep depression is like Occam’s Razor, a simple, elegant answer to the whole messy problem.

It’s like the “payoff” in a classic mystery. You know the scene where the detective gathers all the suspects and explains everything, extending an accusing finger at the true culprit (who generally pulls out a hidden gun and forces the detective to dispense quick justice)?

When you’re deeply depressed, you look over your whole life—everything you’ve done and experienced, and you say, “Oh, that explains it. It’s all so simple.” It’s like that moment of clarity one imagines one has just before one dies. Which, the depressee feels, is likely to happen any minute.

So it resembles the payoff in a mystery, as stated above, but the mystery isn’t an English Cozy, or even a Thirties Hard-boiled. It’s a Noir, directed by a Frenchman

I suppose it’s a little like the experience of LSD users. I don’t know about this from experience, but I’m told that musicians (for instance) who performed under the influence of the drug thought they were producing brilliant stuff. And were appalled when they heard recordings once they’d “come down.”

When you’re deeply depressed, all your questions are answered—unpleasantly. “Why am I having trouble at work? Why are my relationships going badly? Why is my health failing?” The answer is simple. “It’s all my own fault. I am a miserable, stupid person whom nobody loves. Not only is my life lousy, but it’s going to get worse and worse until I die. Which will be soon.”

I believe in reason. I’m a strong defender of reason (all praise to Francis Schaeffer). But human beings don’t always recognize reason (or unreason) in their own heads.

That, I think, is one of the things we need other people in our lives to help with.

I’ll go out and find some. Just as soon as I’m a little less depressed.

(Please note that the above, written under the influence of a certain level of depression, may all be complete hogwash.)

In which I flatter myself by comparison to a much better writer

C. S. Lewis, in the introduction to the 1961 edition of The Screwtape Letters, tells of one subscriber to the Manchester Guardian, which originally published the series, who canceled his subscription because “much of the advice given in these letters seemed to him not only erroneous but positively diabolical.”

Today I got an e-mail from someone who read my latest American Spectator Online article. In the interest of objectivity, I shall quote a portion of his opening paragraph unedited:

You are the most out-of-touch, backwards-thinking, and plain ignorant author I have read on the subject of Islam. Your blatant, and apparently deliberate, disregard for the abhorrent inequalities and lack of human rights inherent to Islam is despicable.

He goes on to castigate me for my defense of Islamic culture.

Now this certainly doesn’t prove…

a) that I’m as good an author as Lewis, or

b) that my correspondent is as dense as the Guardian subscriber.

It’s possible, for instance, that I’m just a bad parodist, and that thousands of readers came away with the very same impression, but weren’t exercised enough to write to me.

And there’s always the possibility that my reader’s letter was itself parody, and that I didn’t get it.

Of death and life

Via James Lileks’ new Minneapolis blog, Don Herbert, better known to my generation as “Mr. Wizard,” has passed away. I hadn’t realized he was a Minnesota native.

I don’t recall that I watched his show a lot. I have an idea I was never sure when it was on, or the station moved it around, or something. But I remember really liking the show when I did see it.

And that wasn’t because of my deep love for science (I possess no such alien commodity). As I remember it, I mostly liked the idea of a smart grownup with a lot of neat toys who never had anything more important to do than explain stuff to kids. There were precious few adults anything like that in my own world.

So now you’re asking, “Well, now that you’re a grownup yourself, are you like that?”

My answer would be to scream and run away at my personal best speed.

Middle-aged, single men are not advised to have anything to do with children if they can help it, in today’s world. This is no great sacrifice in my case, as I really don’t like children much, and can never think of anything to say to them anyway.

Come to think of it, I don’t think we ever saw Mrs. Wizard.

But I’m confident there was one.

Well, I didn’t see today coming.

And I mean that in a good way.

Last night I had one of my insomnia attacks. I lay awake, obsessing between dozes. That’s usually the prelude to a really Huxleyan, semi-comatose work day.

But somehow, when I got up, I felt that today would be different. Taking silent inventory of my thews, sinews and reflexes, I realized I felt pretty good. Somehow I knew that when I got to work I’d catch up on several projects I’d been dogging, and I wouldn’t slip on my diet, and I’d have a good evening walk.

And behold, it came to pass even as I foresaw. All day I felt as if I was looking at things from above, like a grownup, rather than from below, like a helpless kid.

I can think of two explanations.

One is that I’ve been sleeping too much. Maybe God designed me for five hours a night.

The other is that somebody’s been praying for me.

If it’s the second, and you’re the one, thanks.