All posts by Lars Walker

Thoughts from a mule-headed protagonist

How am I today? Better, I think. A little better.

For one thing, the long-awaited third volume of The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis finally arrived. Each volume has been longer than one before, and this one tallies in at 1,810 pages, including the index. It’s going on the shelf for now, but the next time I’m laid up with a multiple fracture of the leg, I’ll have my reading material ready.

I know it’s silly to look for divine signs in the day’s events, but on the way to work this morning I tried to fill up with gas at The Station That Usually Has the Lowest Price. I noted that the toll seemed to have gone up from yesterday, but I was there, and they’re usually the cheapest, so I assumed everybody else had jumped too, and I tried a fill-up. But the lock on my locking gas cap was frozen, and I didn’t have any spray to loosen it, so I drove off in a huff (actually I drove off in my Tracker, but you know what I mean).

This afternoon I stopped at Another Station That Sometimes Has the Lowest Price. Not only did my gas cap open (it was a little warmer today, so it probably melted in the sun), but the price was a full dime a gallon lower than my previous stop.

This undeserved bounty pleased me inordinately. I took it (for no rational or biblical reason) as a sign that God isn’t against me. Not completely, anyway.

Perspective is important, but it’s not my strong suit. There are probably people reading this entry who face the loss of loved ones, to disease or war. What are my problems compared to theirs? I’m sure they’d gladly have a mortgage foreclosed on them if it meant the restoration of their friend or family member.

And when I think it out, my situation isn’t so awful. I got notice in time so that I can still place an ad in the February issue of the Minnesota Christian Chronicle. That means it’s possible I could have a replacement sometime next month.

In storytelling, the dynamics of plot are always the same, whether it’s a literary story about an intellectual with writer’s block (unless it’s something experimental and self-indulgent), or a thriller about international counterterrorists and nuclear devices. The point of the story is always to change somebody. And the change always comes through pain and struggle.

You never read a story where somebody gets good advice, from a friend or from a book, and decides, “Hey, that’s right! I’m going to change the way I handle my life!” and everything is resolved right there.

The change always comes through conflict and hard times. I don’t think that’s only because it makes for a more interesting story.

I think it’s because it’s the way life is for real people.

God is trying to teach me something. So He’s doing what I’d do if I were writing my life—He’s making things hard for me.

Hope it works.

Aspirations and expirations

Blast.

My nice quiet renter is moving out, due to a personal crisis. There goes my economic security, until I can find another one.

Another opportunity to put my faith in God. He’s always taken care of me before. Why should I worry?

I hate living by faith, by the way.

Phil asked if I’d care to do the following meme. I’ll try it, but he’ll probably be sorry he asked.

0) What’s your name and website URL? (optional, of course)

My name is Lars, and… you’re here.

1) What’s the most fun work you’ve ever done, and why? (two sentences max)

The job I have now. Working with books, pottering about with old Norwegian volumes, what could be better?

2) A. Name one thing you did in the past that you no longer do but wish you did? (one sentence max)

Amateur theater, which I wish I had time for nowadays.



B. Name one thing you’ve always wanted to do but keep putting it off? (one sentence max)


Getting married.

3) A. What two things would you most like to learn or be better at, and why? (two sentences max)

I’d love to play the guitar. Unfortunately, I know from experience that I have no (zero) talent for it.

B. If you could take a class/workshop/apprentice from anyone in the world living or dead, who would it be and what would you hope to learn? (two more sentences, max)

I’d like to have taken one of C. S. Lewis’ literature classes. He’d probably have chewed me up and spit me out, though.

4) A. What three words might your best friends or family use to describe you?

Lazy, depressed, self-absorbed.

B. Now list two more words you wish described you.

Happy and thoughtful.

5) What are your top three passions? (can be current or past, work, hobbies, or causes– three sentences max)

I used to be passionate about the Body of Christ, spiritual adventuring and Norway/Vikings. Now I’m too bludgeoned to get excited about much of anything, except maybe live steel, and it’s the wrong season for that.

6) Write and answer one more question that YOU would ask someone (with answer in three sentences max)

Me ask a question? No, I don’t think so.

Who’s got the Remote?

The snow started last night and left about three inches behind. Nothing to compare to the kind of weather they’ve been getting further south and west, of course, but enough to turn the landscape into the sort of scene Walt Kelly said cartoonists loved—all that snow makes it very easy to draw. And, in classic fashion, the clouds rolled out to make way for clear skies and rapidly dropping temperatures. The high today was about 10 above, and tomorrow should be cut from the same climate.

I drove to work cautiously, tense with the secret fear that haunts my winter commute—that I’ll stop at a red light on an uphill grade and not be able to get traction to move again, listening to the horns of equally frustrated drivers behind me. All of them would be saying to themselves, “That idiot’s in an SUV! Why doesn’t he switch it into four wheel drive?” And I’d have no way of explaining that my 4WD doesn’t work, and it’s too expensive to fix.

But I made it in OK. I even got up the driveway at work, a stretch that’s stymied me more than once in the past. Fortunately our crack maintenance team had risen with the roosters and plowed it out.

It wouldn’t have been so bad if I’d gotten stuck there, though. The head maintenance guy is the one who discovered my drive deficiency in the first place. It’s nice to work somewhere where they know your failings and accept you anyway.

By way of Mirabilis, here’s a story on how scientists have reconstructed the poet Dante’s face. He turns out to have been a little less formidable looking than we’d all thought.

I finished Stephen White’s mystery Remote Control last night. This isn’t a review, though I might mention that I found it kind of hard to follow, and thought the ending seemed a little contrived. I have a question about White’s books.

I’m quite sure (though I’m beginning to doubt myself) that I first heard of White in a column at National Review Online. Somebody wrote about mystery writers conservatives could enjoy, and I’m sure I wrote down the names of Jonathan Kellerman and Stephen White.

Kellerman didn’t disappoint. In spite of having a continuing homosexual character, the Alex Delaware mysteries have become steadily more anti-PC as time has gone by.

But I’ve read three White books so far, and I fail to discern any evidence of conservative views, either political or social.

Remote Control begins with the murder of a saintly abortionist by a fanatical pro-lifer. In the course of the book, association with Operation Rescue is just assumed to be a sign of utter moral turpitude.

Did I write down the wrong author name? Do the books get better later on?

Give me the benefit of your experience.

Personally, I’m against winter

Winter again.

I know. It’s been winter for months. But our snow cover is spotty, and temperatures have been teasing the freezing point for weeks—sometimes above, sometimes below. Weather as cold as that would have seemed awful back in October, but in January it’s not so bad.

Today the bottom dropped out. And by “the bottom dropped out,” I don’t actually mean record-breaking low temperatures. I just mean the playing field has moved south to zero-to-fifteen Farenheit territory, wind chills down below zero.

And it feels miserable.

Later, sometime in February, it won’t seem so bad either.

I don’t handle the cold well. I’m fairly sure I’ve told you that. When hardier souls are clapping their unmittened hands and saying, “Ah, this is good! This is bracing!” I’m trying to find another sweater, and calculating whether I can conserve more body heat by jamming my hands in my pockets or using them to cover my ears.

Cold induces physical pain in me, quickly following exposure. My ears hurt. My fingers hurt. My brother Moloch informs me (relentlessly) that it’s all psychological. It’s a failure of my character. If I had a better attitude, he says, I’d enjoy the cold as much as he does.

I’m not convinced. I think I know as much about bad attitudes as anyone, and although I spend enough time in Depressionville to qualify for resident status there, I’ve never been able to make a bad mood deliver actual, physical pain.

And where does Moloch get off talking about character, anyway? He lives in Iowa. It’s practically tropical down there.

Notes of a single-celled organism

Paul McCain at Cyberbrethren has asked his readers to link to his post on the release of Concordia Publishing’s new edition of Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions. There’s a special discount offer and everything.

I don’t ordinarily pass on commercial offers, but McCain is a fan of my books and a publisher too, and hard experience has taught me to ingratiate myself with publishers at every opportunity, even if they’re not my publishers.

Which, when you think about it, most of them aren’t.

Item: I got a cell phone, finally. I had one once before, a pay-as-you-go thing that cost me far more than the value I got out of it, except for the putting at ease of my mind. This one ought to be more economical. I got it through a special program with AAA, one designed for people who mainly want a phone for emergencies. I pay just ten bucks a month, but I get no free minutes. Perfect for urban hermits. The slogan could be, “This phone could save your life, even though you obviously don’t have one!”

It’s a Nokia, a bare-bones model with a black-and-white display. Probably because of its lack of frills, it’s amazingly small (or seems so to me). It’s about the size of one of those old Zippo lighters from WWII, except a little taller. Clearly the near-disappearance of cigarettes from American life has created a spiritual vacuum, a need for a Zippo-sized object to carry around in our clothes. And behold, the moment has produced the object.

And no, you can’t have the number.

Unless you’re Sissel.

Or a publisher.

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.