Book on Troubled Dog Unwelcome

[first posted on January 30, 2004] A book published in November 2001 has sold close to 400,000 copies. It’s made a few bestseller lists. One copy was placed in a West Salem, Wisconsin elementary school library and checked out by the grandson of a former school board member, according to the Coulee News. Now, the book may make the ALA’s misguided banned books list, because Walter the Farting Dog didn’t go over well with grandpa.

The story is as common as dirt. It’s about a dog who—well—needs digestive therapy. He’s adopted at the pound by two kids who discover the problem too late to save their family from air pollution. Enter family strife until burglars are warded off by Walter’s “condition,” and Dad decides to keep the dog after all. Sickeningly heart-warming, isn’t it?

“[The publisher] said the book’s depiction in words and colorful drawings of a dog farting didn’t strike him as being a problem. ‘I don’t think it’s obscene in any sense, not in today’s world.” In fact, it’s vulgar enough to generate interest. Walter is the second best seller this publisher has ever had.

Perhaps the worst part of this article is the publisher’s statement, “It’s a work of art. And many works of art are of questionable social value.” I’ll grant that the illustrator has skill and that her work on this book has merit; but the book as a whole is ‘art’? Sit down, Mr. Publisher. Let’s not abuse our terms. You’ve got a vulgar novelty book which you’re marketing as a children’s book. Let’s leave it there. In my opinion, vulgarity counteracts art; the more of the one, the less of the other. The more vulgar, the more likely you will drag the artistic merit into the gutter, making it worthless. The more artistic, the more you must focus on praiseworthy things, leaving vulgarity beneath you.

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

Weary of Wandering from My God

Weary of wandering from my God,

And now made willing to return

I hear and bow me to the rod

For thee, not without hope, I mourn:

I have an Advocate above

A Friend before the throne of love.

O Jesus, full of truth and grace

More full of grace than I of sin

Yet once again I seek Thy face:

Open Thine arms and take me in

And freely my backslidings heal

And love the faithless sinner still.

Thou know’st the way to bring me back

My fallen spirit to restore

O for Thy truth and mercy’s sake,

Forgive, and bid me sin no more:

The ruins of my soul repair

And make my heart a house of prayer.

Give to mine eyes refreshing tears,

And kindle my relentings now;

Fill my whole soul with filial fears,

To Thy sweet yoke my spirit bow;

Bend by Thy grace, O bend or break,

The iron sinew in my neck!

a hymn by Charles Wesley

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.

Field Mice A-Caroling

At last the Rat succeeded in decoying [the Mole] to the table, and had just got seriously to work with the sardine-opener when sounds were heard from the fore-court without – sounds like the scuffling of small feet in the gravel and a confused murmur of tiny voices, while broken sentences reached them – “Now, all in a line – hold the lantern up a bit, Tommy – clear your throats first – no coughing after I say one, two, three. – Where”s young Bill? – Here, come on, do, we”re all a-waiting – – ”

“What”s up?” inquired the Rat, pausing in his labours.

“I think it must be the field-mice,” replied the Mole, with a touch of pride in his manner. “They go round carol-singing regularly at this time of the year. They”re quite an institution in these parts. And they never pass me over – they come to Mole End last of all; and I used to give them hot drinks, and supper too sometimes, when I could afford it. It will be like old times to hear them again.”

“Let”s have a look at them!” cried the Rat, jumping up and running to the door.

It was a pretty sight, and a seasonable one, that met their eyes when they flung the door open. In the fore-court, lit by the dim rays of a horn lantern, some eight or ten little field-mice stood in a semicircle, red worsted comforters round their throats, their fore-paws thrust deep into their pockets, their feet jigging for warmth. With bright beady eyes they glanced shyly at each other, sniggering a little, sniffing and applying oat-sleeves a good deal. As the door opened, one of the elder ones that carried the lantern was just saying, “Now then, one, two, three!” and forthwith their shrill little voices uprose on the air, singing one of the old-time carols that their forefathers composed in fields that were fallow and held by frost, or when snow-bound in chimney corners, and handed down to be sung in the miry street to lamp-lit windows at Yule-time.

Villagers all, this frosty tide,

Let your doors swing open wide,

Though wind may follow, and snow beside,

Yet draw us in by your fire to bide;

Joy shall be yours in the morning!

Here we stand in the cold and the sleet,

Blowing fingers and stamping feet,

Come from far away you to greet –

You by the fire and we in the street –

Bidding you joy in the morning!

For ere one half of the night was gone,

Sudden a star has led us on,

Raining bliss and benison –

Bliss to-morrow and more anon,

Joy for every morning!

Goodman Joseph toiled through the snow –

Saw the star o”er a stable low;

Mary she might not further go –

Welcome thatch, and litter below!

Joy was hers in the morning!

And then they heard the angels tell

“Who were the first to cry Nowell?

Animals all, as it befell,

In the stable where they did dwell!

Joy shall be theirs in the morning!”

The voices ceased, the singers, bashful but smiling, exchanged sidelong glances, and silence succeeded – but for a moment only. Then, from up above and far away, down the tunnel they had so lately travelled was borne to their ears in a faint musical hum the sound of distant bells ringing a joyful and clangorous peal.

“Very well sung, boys!” cried the Rat heartily. “And now come along in, all of you, and warm yourselves by the fire, and have something hot!”

from The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame.

Charlie Brown Rebuffs the Naturalists

My soul is being tried by reading Thomas Paine. A couple of his points are good, but most of his argument against Christianity shows his ignorance of the Bible. He may not have read it through and is relying on his exposure to preaching and Christian associates. I don’t know that, but to follow Paine’s reasoning I could easily believe he has never read through the Bible even once (“for I keep no Bible,” he admits) because he appears to ascribe to the idea that possibility is evidence for reality. If it’s possible none of the Biblical books were written by their authors, then they probably weren’t because doubt is evidence enough.

Doubt coupled with ignorance makes a winning argument.

But that’s just what’s been on my mind lately. This post, for your blog-reading amusement, is about Charlie Brown’s mockery of naturalism. My children are slowly destroying a 1959 paperback called We’re On Your Side, Charlie Brown, comics taken from But We Love You, Charlie Brown Vol 1. It wasn’t in great condition before it began circulating among their books, but I doubt it’s in used-bookstore-acceptable condition now.

I came across this strip last night. Lucy and Linus are staring at the sky. Lucy tells him, “Clouds are very peculiar, Linus . . . Sometimes they seem to form actual words. . .” (ellipses in the original). Charlie Brown hears this while passing by and states, “Those aren’t clouds. That’s sky-writing!”

Lucy faces him in silence for a few moments. Then watching the sky again, she says, “Clouds are very peculiar, Linus . . . Sometimes they seem to form actual words. . .”

Master Brown confronts Lucy’s assumption that the “actual words” were formed through natural, unthinking processes and to no avail. Lucy will not be persuaded, out of pride no doubt. But for Brown, the common man, persuasion is not the goal. Declaring the truth is enough.

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.”

Merry Christmas

“He was on the point of retreating when his eye fell upon the fireplace–one of those vast tavern chimneys where there is always so little fire when there is any fire at all, and which are so cold to look at. There was no fire in this one, there was not even ashes; but there was something which attracted the stranger’s gaze, nevertheless. It was two tiny children’s shoes, coquettish in shape and unequal in size. The traveller recalled the graceful and immemorial custom in accordance with which children place their shoes in the chimney on Christmas eve, there to await in the darkness some sparkling gift from their good fairy. Eponine and Azelma had taken care not to omit this, and each of them had set one of her shoes on the hearth.

“The traveller bent over them. . . .” Read the rest at Semicolon, “Christmas 1823.”

Sacrifice Is Such a Complex Question

A political diversion–Best of the Web highlights a segment of Hardball with Chris Matthews (scroll down to “Matt Damon Wants You“) in which a caller named Meghan asks actors Robert DeNiro and Matt Damon, “Would you go to war if you were asked?”

“Well that’s such a complex question,” Mr. DeNiro replies, and the two actors hem-haw a bit. Mr. Damon, who was talking about the need for “a shared sense of sacrifice” just before Meghan’s call, gets around to suggesting the president’s daughters should go if they are of age.

The transcript notes applause to this non-answer.

New Media Examples Would Help Rago Essay

I don’t want to assume Joseph Rago, an assistant editorial features editor at the Wall Street Journal, is cut from the same cloth as previous newspaper critics of bloggers, because he writes a good essay despite it being free of examples. He writes:

The bloggers . . . produce minimal reportage. Instead, they ride along with the MSM like remora fish on the bellies of sharks, picking at the scraps. . . . If the blogs have enthusiastically endorsed Joseph Conrad’s judgment of newspapering–“written by fools to be read by imbeciles”–they have also demonstrated a remarkable ecumenicalism in filling out that same role themselves.

Though he seems focused on political blogs, these statements are broadly true of all blogs. We bloggers don’t do first-hand reporting much–though as I say that I think of Mark Sarvas, Terry Teachout, Sarah Weinman, the people at Nextbook, Tim Challies, Sherry Early, and other bloggers who do report first-hand and write thoughtful reviews. They are neither remora fish nor fools.

But I doubt Mr. Rago is addressing them in his essay. He is focusing on political blogs, which seem to make up 60% of the blogosphere. He writes:

More success is met in purveying opinion and comment [instead of reporting, interviewing, or even digesting the news after careful thought – pw]. Some critics reproach the blogs for the coarsening and increasing volatility of political life. Blogs, they say, tend to disinhibit. Maybe so. But politics weren’t much rarefied when Andrew Jackson was president, either. The larger problem with blogs, it seems to me, is quality. Most of them are pretty awful. Many, even some with large followings, are downright appalling.

Every conceivable belief is on the scene, but the collective prose, by and large, is homogeneous: A tone of careless informality prevails; posts oscillate between the uselessly brief and the uselessly logorrheic; complexity and complication are eschewed; the humor is cringe-making, with irony present only in its conspicuous absence; arguments are solipsistic; writers traffic more in pronouncement than persuasion . . .

Perhaps it would only start fights, but I would like to know which big blogs he thinks are “downright appalling.” That’s the meat of his criticism, is it not? Who cares that thousands of blogs are filled with short posts that amount to no more than “Check out this link”? I’d like to know which of the well-known blogs Mr. Rago is criticizing.

To answer his broad assertion directly, I don’t believe most blogs should be considered news sources in the sense newspapers are. Obviously, bloggers are hobbists, enthusiasts, opinion swappers, reviewers, critics and would-be critics. We don’t have newsrooms or staff reporters. Some of us are professional reporters, but most of us aren’t. We’re just talking–typing on our screens. Before the Internet, we would be chatting over the fence, in the barbershop, in the church lobby, or on the phone with a few people. Now it’s a million.

Sure we want to be taking seriously–doesn’t everyone? Sure it’s a charge that one or a few of us could expose a lie broadcast by CBS. That’s one of the strengths of the new media, providing a check to the old media. Another strength is the ability to focus attention on reports the newsmakers don’t believe will sell their papers. Mix the strengths with a lot of common talk about the news–I can’t see the harm in it.

Holiday Songs Unwanted, Disliked, Hated

I love Christmas carols–perhaps you’ve noticed. But some holiday songs I can’t stand. Like the Beatles singing “Simply having a wonderful Christmastime.” What a lame song! And don’t the Beach Boys sing a song just like “The Little St. Nick.” There’s no Christmas-ness about that song at all.

I don’t want to hear “I saw Momma kissing Santa” again, and some versions of “Santa Baby” will induce me to leave a store. But those are the holiday songs I can name; more repulsive to me are songs about the Lord. I hate “I believe in Bethlehem.” It would be better named “I believe in Christmas Kitsch.” And “Jesus, What a wonderful child” is dreadfully repetitive, though I guess I should spare that one for sake of differing tastes. Southern Gospel isn’t my style.

As for the songs I love:

  • “The Christmas Waltz”
  • “The Carol of the Bells”
  • “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire”
  • “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen”
  • “Gloria” – Vivaldi’s, Handel’s, and Charlie Peacock’s
  • “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing”
  • “O Holy Night”

I don’t need to go on. What about you? Favored songs? Disfavored songs? Songs that inspire you to throw something at a department store speaker?

Book Reviews, Creative Culture