All posts by Lars Walker

I got mittens for Christmas!

I finished my combat mitten project on Sunday. This is what they look like.

Viking mittens

Actually, I thought they were done when I took the picture, but then I decided to tighten up the stitching. All the stitching that looks like dotted lines in the picture is now solid lines. Tight seams! Redundancy! Those are my watchwords. I may end up a quivering, broken casualty, but I want the paramedics to say as they wheel me away, “Hey, this guy’s mittens are really put together!”

A lot of live steel guys use gloves instead of mittens, and I think gloves do actually look better. But mittens allow you to have your fingers unseparated as you grasp your weapon grip, and that’s not a trivial advantage. This past year I used welder’s gloves, which looked great with their gauntlet cuffs, but separated my fingers. So my new mittens are equipped with gauntlet cuffs (added by me), which also help to protect my wrists (wrist injuries are one of the most common in our sport).

The original moose hide mittens were a Christmas gift from my brother Baal.

Some guys use mittens covered with mail for live steel, but I’ve heard that that’s actually not the best system. The little rings sometimes drive themselves into the glove and break your fingers. I prefer heavy leather myself, and it’s lighter.

We have no record, literary or archaeological, of the Vikings using combat gloves of any kind, although we know the Normans were using mailed mittens not too long after. It’s hard to imagine doing this kind of fighting with no hand protection, though. Judging from the experience of live steel fighters today, you’d have to expect all the experienced Vikings to be missing a finger or two, if they fought without protection. And you can only sacrifice so many of those suckers before you’ve (literally) lost your grip.

Damnation Street by Andrew Klavan

Had the opportunity to meet faithful commenter “Michael” today. He’s a pastor in my church body, and was here for a missions conference. He probably won’t see this for a few days, but nice to meet you, Michael.

One-line review of Andrew Klavan’s Damnation Street: “Woo-hoo!”

I got a Barnes & Noble gift certificate for Christmas, and Damnation Street was one of the books I chose to get with it. I don’t generally buy hardbacks, but I felt this was a special case.

It was, in fact, a more special case than I knew. Because it appears that Klavan’s Weiss and Bishop books (the previous ones are Dynamite Road and Shotgun Alley) are not going to be an ongoing series, but a trilogy (unless I read the ending wrong).

I’ve told you about these books before. Klavan, author of such blockbusters as True Crime and Don’t Say a Word, made an abrupt shift from big thrillers to smaller mysteries, and the Weiss and Bishop series is the result.

The main characters are Scott Weiss, private detective, and Jim Bishop, his operative. Weiss is a large, sad-faced, fat man, an ex-cop who longs for goodness and justice and true love. Bishop is a wild man with sociopathic tendencies. He’s a special forces veteran who rides motorcycles and flies planes, parties hard, uses women and throws them away. But Weiss saw some decency in him long ago, and gave him a second chance.

Now he seems to have thrown that chance away. In Shotgun Alley he came close to selling Weiss out for the sake of a seductive girl who was using him just as he’d used so many other women. He’s left the firm, and is seriously considering a career in organized crime.

Which is why, as the story begins, Weiss is searching for Julie Wyant alone. We know Julie from Shotgun Alley. She’s a prostitute and one-time porn actress of rare beauty, and Weiss fell hopelessly in love with her without ever meeting her. But Weiss isn’t her only admirer. She is also the obsession of the Shadow Man, a mysterious contract killer. He’s a sadist and a natural chameleon. Five minutes after talking to him, people can’t remember what he looked like. He used Julie once in the past, and he decided she was the woman he intended to love—to death. She managed to escape him, and fled in terror at the things he’d done to her.

Shotgun Alley ended in a sort of stand-off between Weiss and the Shadowman. Weiss knew that if he found her (and finding people is what he does best) the Shadowman would be close behind. So he made the decision to leave her alone. (Sorry for the spoiler. I can’t see how to avoid it.)

Now Weiss has changed his mind. He’s decided that if he leaves Julie alone, the Shadowman will find her eventually anyway. The only way he can ensure her safety is to find her, use her to flush the Shadowman out, and eliminate him (by whatever means necessary).

Weiss is an old cop. A smart old cop; an intuitive old cop. But he’s not a killing machine like the Shadowman. He could use a back-up man, someone like Bishop. But Bishop’s not around anymore.

So Weiss goes on his own, tracing Julie Wyant’s path across the American southwest, learning her story, bit by bit. Watching his back, knowing the Shadowman is there somewhere, watching. Waiting.

The tension of the story is relieved by a seriocomic subplot involving the unnamed narrator, a young man working as a sort of intern in the agency. This plot thread is a romance, and—wonder of wonders—it has a Christian element. Hopeful Christian authors should read this book just to see how a real storyteller handles spiritual matters.

I loved this book. I can’t praise it highly enough. As I read it I couldn’t avoid the feeling that I was reading a novel that could be a turning point in the history of the detective story, just as the works of Conan Doyle, Dorothy Sayers and Raymond Chandler were. (That’s not saying it will have such an effect. That will only happen if the book gets the readership it deserves.) In my view, Klavan has taken the detective story to a whole new level of character depiction and spiritual exploration. This is more than a story about crime. It’s about love and hate and loneliness and longing. It’s about the deepest needs of the human soul—good and bad.

Not for children. Cautions are in order for language, violence and disturbing subject matter.

Just like real life.

Hans Christian Andersen: Unsuitable for children?

I was chatting with a friend online last night, and the subject of favorite fairy tales came up. For some reason I forgot to mention “The Ugly Duckling” by Hans Christian Andersen. Somebody (I forget who) wrote a book a long time ago, saying that our favorite fairy tales reveal a lot about our basic desires and strategies for life. Girls who like “Little Red Riding Hood,” for instance, seem to always own a red coat, and have a tendency to get into relationships with big bad wolves.

“The Ugly Duckling” is actually a pretty uncharacteristic story for Andersen. It has a happy ending, and he didn’t write those often. Sorry to drop a spoiler on you here, but if you only know “The Little Mermaid” from the Disney movie, the original version doesn’t end the same way at all. Not at all

An excerpt (not the conclusion of the story):

The little mermaid could not help thinking of her first rising out of the sea… and she joined in the dance, poised herself in the air as a swallow when he pursues his prey, and all present cheered her with wonder. She had never danced so elegantly before. Her tender feet felt as if cut with sharp knives, but she cared not for it; a sharper pang had pierced through her heart. She knew this was the last evening she should ever see the prince, for whom she had forsaken her kindred and her home; she had given up her beautiful voice, and suffered unheard-of pain daily for him, while he knew nothing of it. This was the last evening that she would breathe the same air with him, or gaze on the starry sky and the deep sea; an eternal night, without a thought or dream, awaited her; she had no soul and now she could never win one….

Andersen was a writer of tragedy. He wrote tragedies for children, which seems perverse to us. But Andersen was a lonely, shy man who had little experience of happy endings. He’d grown up in poverty and been rejected by every woman he ever fell in love with (he was not, despite what the activists will try to tell you, a homosexual). He was only comfortable with children; remained a child himself in many ways. But the message he had for children was not the one we like to give them—“Hold on, keep hopeful, and everything will turn out all right.” His message, forged out of his own experience in a world where lots and lots of children never grew up, was, “You may fail. You may die. But death doesn’t have to be the end, and the way you die can make your life beautiful.”

I wrote about something like this the other day, in regard to the story about the widow in the smoky house. Our ancestors lived in a harder world than ours, and they had wisdom we can’t begin to comprehend, wisdom that allowed them to endure suffering we can’t imagine and retain their sanity. Afraid to look closely at such holy things, we, the descendents, malign them and label them “morbid.”

Three unconnected items

Just now, on his radio show, Hugh Hewitt made the following spit-take inducing statement: “That’s why I’m repeating the first hour of this program, though I don’t often do that.”

Hugh, you know what happens to little boys who tell fibs, don’t you?

By way of Paul McCain’s Cyberbrethren blog, this incredible Bible map site. Extremely cool.

Our IT guy came to my office to replace my two side-by-side computer monitors (I use two computers at work. One’s dedicated to cataloging) with a wonderful new big-screen monitor today, plus adding a nifty switch that toggles back and forth between the two, clearing one monitor’s footprint from my desk. More room for clutter!

He told me about a woman he’d talked to recently. She’d grown disillusioned with the Very Large Lutheran Church Body That Shall Remain Nameless. She’d been involved in some sort of planned giving commitment, and she’d finally come to the end of that. She sent them a final check, in the amount of $10.00.

Someone from HQ called her and asked her what the ten buck check was for.

“I’d like you to take that ten dollars and buy a Bible with it,” she told them. “I don’t think you have one up there.”

A Feast For Crows, by George R. R. Martin

One line review of A Feast For Crows by George R.R. Martin: “I give up.”

I say that with great regret. In my view there’s only one contemporary fantasy author who bears comparison with J.R.R. Tolkien in any meaningful way, and that’s Martin. No other author in the field today comes close to him in combining fully realized worldbuilding with skillful prose and insightful character development. There’s no other contender in that weight category.

Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series is loosely based on (or perhaps “suggested by” would be a better combination) the English Wars of the Roses. But Martin’s wars are bigger affairs. Britain has become Westeros, a full-fledged continent, home to a dozen kingdoms, as culturally diverse as the European Scandinavia-to-the-Mediterranean range. All are under the overlordship of the Iron Throne, but the death of the king in the first volume set off a rash of dynastic wars. The wars are big. The passions are big. The treachery would put the Borgias to shame. The crimes are appalling, the heroism…

Well, no. There isn’t any real heroism in these books, which is a major part of my problem with them. People who aspire to chivalry in these books generally get cut off pretty promptly, and those who survive mostly do so by lies, murder and betrayal. The only fighters Martin seems to admire much are the female ones, of which I counted about four (it’s hard to remember) in this book.

“It’s hard to remember” is something you’ll hear a lot from Martin’s readers. His method is not to put a few sympathetic characters on stage and follow them over time and geography, in Tolkien’s manner. Martin sets out dozens of characters (all of them admirably fleshed out) in hundreds of locations, and leaves it to the reader to keep them straight (with the help of character indexes in back, without which reading these books would be impossible for anyone not blessed with a photographic memory).

And that’s only the half of it. Martin explains in a note at the end of this volume that he’s left out half the characters and action in this section of the plot, and that he’ll provide those in the next volume. Just be patient. And keep your notes at hand.

And that’s the other part of my problem with Martin. He seems to have allowed his grand scheme to run away with him. His desire to populate his books with a cast of thousands is admirable in its way, but it’s taxing for the reader. I could probably hang on to the end (whenever that comes—Martin is coy on the projected length of the series) if I thought the payoff would be one I’d appreciate.

But Martin doesn’t appear to be preparing us for any Tolkienesque “eucatastrophe.” His message, judging from what we’ve seen so far, would seem to be the old, tired (and false) one that goes, “War never solves anything.” To drive that message home, he employs the device of regularly killing off characters we’ve started to root for, and in the most unpleasant ways he can think of.

So sorry, George. I’m not going to invest the effort you demand of me just so I can watch you kill off the rest of your viewpoint characters and hear you sing, “Give peace a chance.”

It’s been a good effort. But I have other things to do with my life.

The old widow in the smoky house

A relative recently sent me a copy of some pages from an old “kalender,” (actually more like what we’d call an annual) published in 1932 by Augsburg Publishing House in Minneapolis. These pages contained an essay by a pastor (identified only by the initials “Th. F.”), concerning his memories of a particular aged widow he’d known when he was a young schoolteacher in Norway. The article was of interest to me because this widow was one of my ancestors. Her name was Sophie, which was also the name of my grandmother, a descendent of hers—also in her own turn a godly widow.

The essay is called “Den gamle enke i røkstuen,” which means, “The old widow in the smoky house.” A røkstue was a kind of cottage once very common among the poorer classes in Norway. It was a single-roomed house with a plastered fireplace in one corner for heating and cooking. Such fireplaces had no chimneys. The smoke filled the room, then escaped through a hole in the roof. They were sooty and unpleasant places, and Sophie’s living in one was evidence of her poverty.

The author remembered Sophie as a simple, quiet, loving soul who devoted her life to prayer. One time she went down to the river to wash some clothes, and felt compelled to spend some time with God. Because she didn’t like to “pray to be seen of men,” she went further along the river to a quiet spot where she wouldn’t be seen. But just as she knelt down, a stone rolled over on her foot and crushed it, pinning her. She had to call for help to get free, and she was crippled for the rest of her life. She often wondered, the pastor recalled, why God would allow such a thing to happen while she was “approaching the throne of grace,” but she finally decided it was for God to understand and for her to accept.

The pastor felt he knew why. He believed that if the accident hadn’t happened, no one would have known about her secret prayers. He felt the sight of her limping (like Jacob’s limp in Genesis) was a constant testimony to God’s presence in her life.

Such thinking seems insane (not to mention heartless) to us today. But I wonder if it’s possible that we, with our love of ease and comfort, have simply grown unable to understand things that were clear to earlier, tougher generations who took daily suffering for granted.

Or maybe not. I’m not drawing conclusions here. I’m just wondering.

I’ll translate a little from a passage near the end:

And she was not one of those who, while listening to God’s Word, sit and (in their thoughts) share the message generously with others; she applied it to herself, and so brought rich blessings home with her. One time, when the pastor at the altar said, “Let us all pray,” she began to think that obviously not everyone there in church was praying along. How could so-and-so pray, being such-and-such, etc.? And just as she sat and thought that way about others, she realized that she, precisely because of such thoughts about others, was herself neglecting to follow along with the prayer. “I was both grieved and ashamed that the devil should deceive me so,” she said. But after that she was always vigilant in guarding against that temptation….”

We think of our forebears as unenlightened compared with our educated selves. I suspect God doesn’t see it that way.

Achievable New Year’s resolutions

As is my custom, once again I fearlessly publish my annual list of achievable New Year’s resolutions. I resolve…

…to keep my weight, whatever the cost to me, above 100 lbs.

…to refuse all offers to appear on “The View.”

…not to vacation in Burundi.

…to purchase no car that costs more than $200,000.

…not to take up Tai Chi, Feng Shui, or Kung Fu.

…not to shave my head.

…not to eat sushi.

…not to run for elective office.

…not to summon the Powers of Darkness to rain down death upon my foes.

…not to have any body part pierced.

…not to try designer drugs (only off-the-rack drugs for me).

…not to buy an iguana.

…not to paint my house purple.

…not to carve a monumental sculpture of Oscar Homolka out of Colby Jack Cheese.

…when drawn, never to look haggard. (One or the other. Not both.)

…not to bear, ‘mid snow and ice, a banner with the strange device, “Excelsior.”

…to go easy on beating the servants.

Thoughts, or a reasonable equivalent

Wouldn’t it have been great if the international attention now focused on Saddam Hussein’s fate had been directed to his victims in time to save some of them?

I like

In which I insult my second-favorite country

Today I went to work, and I worked. Not a single interesting thought sullied the virgin veneer of my mind.

So I’ll pass on this link, (hat tip to Archaeology in Europe) which won’t interest most of you. It’s about a plan to move the famous Viking ships in Oslo, Norway from their present home to a new one, closer to the center of Oslo.

The present location is a little out of the way. It’s on a peninsula called Bygdøy, across the harbor from the downtown. For generations, tourists have been taking ferryboats to Bygdøy to see the Ships Museum, along with its neighbor, the Folk Museum, where you can see buildings (including one of the country’s most impressive stave churches) which have been relocated from the various districts, reconstructed and preserved.

At first I was surprised to read about it. The current building is probably a little small for the size of modern crowds, but it enjoys an almost religious reverence among Norwegians. It even looks a little like a cathedral (the modern kind).

And frankly, I was surprised the Norwegians would want to spend money to bring their nationalistic heritage to the forefront in the current cultural climate. Aren’t all good Europeans supposed to believe that their heritage is evil, after all? Aren’t they taught that Asia and Africa are superior in every way?

Then I figured it out. The Viking ships are heathen artifacts. No taint of Christianity adheres to them. To affirm pre-Christian culture is almost as noble in European eyes as to affirm non-Christian culture.

Uff-da. I was worried there for a while.

The Curious Incident of the Dog In the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

How was Christmas weekend in Iowa? No snow, but otherwise great. A special plus was the presence of the Oldest Niece’s boyfriend’s little daughter. I haven’t had small kids around for very many Christmases in my life, partly because of not having any of my own, and partly because I was living in the wrong part of the country when my nieces and nephews were growing up.

Anyone who was around during the Watergate era has feelings about the late President Gerald Ford. Even though I was a Democrat in those days, I always felt Pres. Ford got a raw deal. Particularly galling was the running joke, fueled by Chevy Chase and Saturday Night Live, labeling him as a stumblebum. The man was in fact one of the best natural athletes ever to occupy the Oval Office. I think some of my disdain for the mainstream media (both the entertainment and the journalism flavors) rises from that old injustice.

This was the Weekend of Autism for me. The Youngest Niece had rented the movie “Mozart and the Whale,” which is a straight-to-DVD film that deserved a better fate. It’s a comedy (really!) about a couple, played by Josh Hartnett and Radha Mitchell, who meet in a support group for sufferers from Asperger’s Syndrome (a form of autism). I found the movie pretty uncomfortable, because a lot of the behaviors I observed were ones I can see in myself (I’m not autistic or Asperger’s, but I test pretty high for autistic traits within the normal scale). Good movie, by the way (for grownups).

Then brother Moloch mentioned that he had a book called The Curious Incident of the Dog In the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon. So I read that too (Despite the discomfort I was fascinated).

The Curious Incident is an unusual and rewarding novel. The title (as most of our highly intelligent readers, I’m sure, already knew) comes from a bit of dialogue from the Sherlock Holmes story, “Silver Blaze” (“The dog did nothing in the night-time.” “That was the curious incident,” remarked Sherlock Holmes).

The narrator of the novel is Christopher John Francis Boone, a fifteen-year-old autistic boy (and mathematical genius) who lives in a small town in England. One morning he finds a neighbor’s dog killed, stabbed with a large grilling fork. Like most autistic people, Christopher likes animals better than people, and he cradles the dog in his arms. The neighbor woman finds him like that and accuses him of killing the animal. When the police come they try to calm Christopher by touching him, which he cannot tolerate. He hits one of them and is arrested.

His father finally gets him released, but Christopher (in spite of his father’s forbidding it) decides to play detective (he loves mysteries) and solve the killing.

As he tries to emulate the heroes in books, Christopher gives us a vivid tour through the world of the autistic. Talking to people is very difficult, because he doesn’t understand facial expressions or speech inflections. Strange situations panic him—he needs to be able to draw a map of a house before he can be comfortable in it. Loud noises terrify him so that he has to curl up on the ground and groan loudly to try to drown them out.

Yet he manages to travel all the way to London on his own, and solve the mystery.

That his activities cause tremendous pain to the people who love him is something that doesn’t register with him at all. Because feelings and empathy are not part of Christopher’s world.

And that was one of the things I found most interesting in the book. The narrative includes numerous asides in which Christopher explains complicated mathematical problems or meditates on how “stupid” it is to believe in God or the afterlife. Christopher’s mathematical expertise almost gives his atheist arguments credence, but then the reader (or at least this reader) remembers that Christopher has no conception whatever of love. Numbers and animals are more real to him than people are. And when, at the end of the book, Christopher is able to report total success in his investigation, he is completely unaware of the devastation he has wrought in his father’s and mother’s lives.

I could have read something more cheerful over Christmas, but this book was certainly educational and fascinating. Even if (in autistic fashion) I’m not entirely sure I got from it the meaning the author intended.

A Child of the Snows

I stopped at the grocery store on my way home tonight. The girl at the cash register asked me how I was, and I said fine, how are you?

“I’m great,” she said with a smile. “Santa’s coming in about three days!”

Then she went on to tell me how she’d watched “Miracle on 34th Street” (the classic version) with a friend last night. The friend had never seen it before. Imagine that, she said.

That was enough to bring a smile even to my face.

On consideration, I suspect she told me all this because of my resemblance to Edmund Gwenn.

This will probably be my last post for a few days. I generally can’t be troubled to post on weekends, and I’ll be spending Monday (and maybe Tuesday too) down in Iowa with Moloch and his family.

So I wish you all a merry, blessed Christmas.

Special thanks to everyone who’s sent me fan mail (I’ve gotten a couple particularly nice e-mails recently). As long as someone, somewhere, is still reading my novels and enjoying them, it’s almost as if I were still alive.

My Christmas card to you is this poem from G. K. Chesterton:

A Child of the Snows

There is heard a hymn when the panes are dim,

And never before or again,

When the nights are strong with a darkness long,

And the dark is alive with rain.

Never we know but in sleet and in snow,

The place where the great fires are,

That the midst of the earth is a raging mirth

And the heart of the earth a star.

And at night we win to the ancient inn

Where the child in the frost is furled,

We follow the feet where all souls meet

At the inn at the end of the world.

The gods lie dead where the leaves lie red,

For the flame of the sun is flown,

The gods lie cold where the leaves lie gold,

And a Child comes forth alone.

Lutefisk Lament

It all changed today.

Yesterday it was just cold. Today it’s Father Christmas Land. We have a nice carpet of snow on the ground, and we’ve also got that photogenic ice-coating over all the tree branches, making everything look like crystal. Wonderful to look at, as long as the powerlines don’t get overloaded, plunging you into a blackout.

First it rained. It rained pretty hard, which isn’t a bad thing after our dry fall (except for what it does to the street surfaces).

Then it turned to snow. Big, clotted flakes, like crumbled Styrofoam dropped out of a sack. That went on for a while, then diminished and stopped. We’re supposed to get a few more inches in the next few days.

Almost like the movie “White Christmas,” except that it didn’t happen on Christmas Eve. Pretty close though. I haven’t polled any children, but I suspect they’re pleased.

I’m going to talk to you about lutefisk.

The legend of lutefisk is that it’s an inedible Scandinavian delicacy, deadly to smell and disgusting to eat. Sort of comparable to 100 Year Old Eggs and live monkey brains.

This is an example of Scandinavian overcompensation. Lutefisk really isn’t that bad. It’s a product made of dried codfish, rendered in lye and washed in water, then boiled for eating. It has a strong, fishy smell when you cook it, and tastes extremely bland when you eat it. Its consistency, if cooked right, is closer to jello than anything else I can think of. It’s an odd food, and most people who didn’t grow up with it don’t care for it much. It helps to eat it with plenty of melted butter (for Norwegians) or cream sauce (for Swedes). But all the moaning is highly exaggerated.

I don’t care much for it myself, but my dad loved it, as did his parents and grandparents. Sometimes we make it for Christmas just for the sake of tradition. I doubt if the next generation will eat it at all, after we’re gone.

My favorite lutefisk tribute is the following poem. It can be found in a number of places on the internet, and most of the sites attribute it to either Boone & Erickson (a team of Twin Cities radio announcers who recorded it years back) or “Anonymous.” The actual author is a man named Dan Freeburg, who copyrighted it in 1978 but seems to have given up on enforcing it. Well, he’ll get credit here, by golly.

LUTEFISK LAMENT

‘Twas the day before Christmas, with things all a bustle.

As Mama got set for the Christmas Eve tussle.

Aunts, uncles, and Cousins would soon be arriving,

With stomachs all ready for Christmas Eve dining.

While I sat alone with a feeling of dread,

As visions of lutefisk danced in my head.

The thought of the smell made my eyeballs start burning.

The thought of the taste set my stomach to churning.

For I’m one of those who good Swedes rebuff,

A Scandahoovian boy who can’t stand the stuff.

Each year, however, I played at the game,

To spare Mama and Papa the undying shame.

I must bear up bravely. I can’t take the risk,

Of relatives knowing I hate lutefisk.

Then out in the yard I heard such a clatter.

I jumped up to see what was the matter.

There in the snow, all in a jumble,

Three of my uncles had taken a tumble.

From out in the kitchen an odor came stealing,

That fairly set all of my senses to reeling.

The smell of the lutefisk crept down the hall,

And wilted a plant in a pot on the wall.

Uncles Oscar and Lars said “Oh, that smells yummy,”

And Kermit’s eyes glittered while he patted his tummy.

Mama announced dinner by ringing a bell.

They rushed to the table with a whoop and a yell.

I lifted my eyes to heaven and sighed,

And a rose on the wallpaper withered and died.

Then Mama came proudly with a bowl on a trivet.

You would have thought the crown jewels were in it.

She set it down gently and then took her seat.

And Papa said grace before we could eat.

It seemed to me, in my whirling head,

The shortest of prayers he ever had said.

Then Mama raised the cover on that steaming dish,

And I had to face the quivering fish.

The plates were passed for Papa to fill,

While I waited in agony, twixt fever and chill.

He dipped in the spoon and held it up high,

As it oozed to plates, I thought I would die.

Then it came to my plate, and to my fevered brain.

There seemed enough lutefisk to derail a train.

It looked like a mountain of congealing glue,

Yet oddly transparent and discolored in hue.

With butter and cream sauce I tried to conceal it,

I salted and peppered, but the smell would reveal it.

I drummed up my courage, tried to be bold,

Mama reminds me, “Eat before it gets cold.”

Deciding to face it, “Uffda,” I sighed.

“Uffda, indeed,” my stomach replied.

Then summoning the courage for which we are known,

My hand took the fork as with a mind of its own.

And with reckless abandon the lutefisk I ate,

Within 20 seconds, I’d cleaned up my plate.

Uncle Kermit flashed me an ear-to-ear grin,

As butter and cream sauce dripped from his chin.

Then to my great shock, he spoke in my ear,

“I’m sure glad that’s over for another year.”

It was then that I learned a great wonderful truth,

That Swedes and Norwegians from old men to youth,

Must each pay their dues to have the great joy,

Of being known as a good Scandahoovian boy,

And so to tell you all, as you face the great test,

“Happy Christmas to you, and to you all my best.”

Light in darkness

This time of year, I’m leaving work just about the same time the last light is failing. This is the pattern we live with in Minnesota, the pattern I grew up with. It’s woven in my DNA. This isn’t usually the coldest time of year (certainly not this year—the temperature is peaking around freezing, and we’re still snowless, though there are rumors of maybe a few flakes by Christmas). But it’s the time when the nights are longest. The time when the sun rations out tiny bowls of thin light-gruel to the orphans, and there’s little point in asking for more.

And that’s one reason I love Christmas. Because Christmas is the time when we defy that darkness. We burn up fuel that could be hoarded, feast on food that could be cached, and sing loudly that we believe in Light, and Light is coming back.

Sure, most of our customs have heathen origins. So what? I don’t care about the religion of the first man to trim a Yule tree any more than I care about the religion of the guy who built my house. If it’s a good house that keeps me warm in the winter and provides a place for me to gather with my family, that’s plenty for me.

I figure I know Odin and Thor as well as anybody, and they don’t scare me. Their bad elements don’t hurt me, and their good elements enrich my life. C. S. Lewis thought the old myths contained “good dreams” sent by God, stories that prepared heathens to recognize the gospel when it arrived.

I believe it.

I remember going out to do chores on the farm during Christmas season, when I was a boy. Was it cold? It was biting cold. It was burning cold. I pulled a ski mask over my face, and soon had a beard of ice forming around the mouth hole. It was dark out there—not city dark, where there are lights from house windows and street lamps to give relief, but country dark. Dark you could fall into and never hit bottom. Up above, the stars burned like an ammonia fire behind a moth-eaten blanket.

And as I trudged along, the snow squealing under my feet with a sound of tortured iron, I sang Christmas carols.

And that made the whole thing magic. That put me into a story, a pageant. It didn’t make the killer night warmer, but it made it beautiful. Deadly and beautiful, like a fine weapon.

A sword for the Lord.

Thank God for Christmas, I say.

“What is the greatest commandment?”

I’m eating up leftover pumpkin pie from our Christmas feast, one slice a day (one more slice after tonight).

It amuses me to think back when I was a kid, when my parents sternly commanded me to finish my pie crust, including the fluted strip that sticks up and doesn’t touch the filling. I grumbled and ate it, but it seemed to spoil the pleasure of the thing.

Today I don’t mind pie crust, and would be perfectly happy to eat it. But health experts inform me it’s better to leave it behind.

So the question for me is, is there greater pleasure to be had from defying my parents posthumously, or from defying the experts?

A story my dad told me came to mind last night.

It was about one of his cousins. This cousin was the son of an uncle Dad was fond of, a fellow who owned a small earth-moving business. The uncle’s wife was a harder person to work up warm feelings for. She was a stern woman who believed The Rules Are There For a Reason. All their children rebelled—and rebelled hard—in their teenage years.

This cousin (I’ll call him Cliff) had gone to California and become a musician in a dance band.

You know about that Fundamentalist “No Dancing” rule? It was big in our church. Equal in every way to “Thou shalt not kill,” and “Thou shalt not commit adultery.”

Dad was closing up our house for the last time the last time he saw Cousin Cliff. It was 1979. Dad had sold the farm, and most of his possessions had been auctioned off, including the house furnishings. Mom and Dad had decided to save just a few things, and Dad was packing some of them into a pickup truck he’d just bought (a moving van had already collected the rest). The next day they would drive south to Florida for good.

As Dad was finishing the job a car pulled into the yard. The man who got out was Cousin Cliff from California. Pretty much by accident, he’d chosen just that day to come and visit.

Dad didn’t have any furniture to invite him to sit on, so they sat on the cement front step, looked out over the flat landscape, and talked a while.

Cliff told him a story about his father, who had died a few years before.

His father had taken a trip to California to visit him. Cliff had done all he could to make his father comfortable and to give him a good time.

He’d even bought him a gift—an expensive wristwatch.

His father had seemed to enjoy himself, and they had parted on good terms.

But when his dad had gone home and Cliff had gone to the guest room to clean it up, he’d found the wristwatch lying in an empty dresser drawer.

For all his good will, his dad just wasn’t able to accept an expensive gift purchased with money earned playing dance music.

It still bothered Cliff. And Dad spoke of it to me more than once, so I guess it bothered him too.

Draw what conclusions you will.