In which the blogger whimpers like a little girl

The subject of National Review’s Corner came up today in an e-mail exchange. I mentioned that I’ve stopped reading it pretty generally.

This was a sad departure for me. Ever since 9/11, the Corner was my favorite online hangout. Intelligent conversation from smart, well-informed people who knew a lot of stuff. What could be better? I even e-mailed the columnists and got replies once or twice. And one time Jonah Goldberg posted a Norwegian translation I did for him.

But the grape has raisined. Nowadays, you go to the Corner to get a good depression on, as an excuse for binge drinking. First I started being irritated with John Derbyshire’s knee-jerk pessimism and Anglican-tinged lukewarm religion, blended with fervent scientism.

Then Heather MacDonald started coming in to attack theism.

And Jonah Goldberg doesn’t seem to show up much anymore. And when he does he’s not as funny.

And they’ve all decided the war is lost.

Spare me.

If I want dysphoria I have a large stock of my own, thank you very much.

Also a little depressing: an interview Dennis Prager did today. It was with Marianne Legato, professor of clinical medicine at Columbia University and author of Why Men Never Remember and Women Never Forget. Her theory is that men and women’s brains (in general) work very differently, and that in order to get along they need to take those differences into account.

Overall, I like this thesis very much. Any defense of innate sexual differences is Gershwin to my ears. No problem there.

The problem was in something she said about how men and women argue differently. Women, she said, play arguments over and over in their heads after it’s done, and tend to get angrier. Men, once they’ve blown off their steam, walk away and forget about it. They actually feel better, having enjoyed a nice spritz of adrenalin.

Here’s my problem: I’m just like a woman in this. I don’t feel better after arguments. I obsess over what the other person said, and what I’m sure they meant, and what I should have said.

Guys, help me out here! Is she right? Do you forget arguments as soon as they’re done? Do you in fact feel better afterwards?

Tell me I’m not an utter wuss.

Blast. Still a couple weeks until my next chance for live steel combat. And that’ll probably be the last one of the year.

I do feel better after that kind of fight.

Hit me with an axe, somebody.

Many are called, but summer chosen

Maximum comfort weather in Minnesota today. Warm but not tropical—a little above eighty, low humidity. Summer has mellowed, like a drunk at a party who’s passed through the stage where he’s telling everybody what he really thinks of them, looking for a fight, and is now sitting quietly in a flower bed, saying, “Man, I love you guys. You guys are so great.”

Summer has lost its edge. The days are kind.

But I’m not taken in. I’m not fooled. I hear, in the background, the voice of Mother Nature (who, as far as I can tell, has much the same character as my own mother) saying, “You like it cooler? I’ll give you cooler. Just wait a couple months.”

Strawberries taste like summer to me. I know a lot of people reserve that distinction for watermelon, but I never liked watermelon.

I never liked raspberries either. One of the chief distinctions between my brother Moloch and me has always been that he likes raspberries while I like strawberries. Recent research indicates that people are born with different numbers of sweet or sour receptors on their tongues. If you have a lot of sweet receptors you’re sensitive to sweet, and will prefer sour. You’ll be a veggie eater. If you have a lot of sour receptors, on the other hand, you’ll prefer sweet. You’ll truly appreciate the wonders of the strawberry, and be forever barred from appreciating the virtues of its raspy cousin.

I buy Driscoll’s, of course. Until they showed up, you had to grow your own to get anything in this country that could come close to the wonders of Norwegian strawberries.

From Front Page Magazine, this review by David Forsmark of the new book Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community and War.

Here is one of Philbrick’s most valuable points: Despite the priggish image perpetrated by the scoffers — including the first revisionist, novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne — the Pilgrims were adaptable people willing to compromise in order to live in peace despite their strict code and religious outlook.

Now that looks like a worthwhile read.

Hail and farewell to Steve the Viking

I only watched Steve Irwin’s program once, and that was because I was visiting my dad and stepmother in Florida, watching what they watched. Their television consumption was limited, since she was uncomfortable with the immoral fare on television nowadays. But she didn’t object, apparently, to watching predators tear their prey limb from limb, and so they watched a lot of animal shows.

Even when I had cable I never watched animal shows. Animals, to be blunt, bore me. I don’t hate them, and the idea of owning a dog has its charms, but animal programs just make me uncomfortable. When the lion hunts down the zebra, I identify with the zebra. When only one male seal out of a hundred gets to have a harem and reproduce himself, I identify with the ninety-nine. When the wolves turn on a wounded pack member, guess which wolf gets my sympathy?

In other words, animals in general aren’t very nice. I prefer people. And I don’t even like people much.

The main thing I remember about Irwin was that stunt a few years back when he held his baby son in one hand while feeding a croc with the other. That just gave me the heeby-jeebies.

Still, I just read this report that says that his last action in life was to pull the stingray barb that killed him out of his heart.

That’s style. That puts him in the Viking league.

I quote from St. Olaf’s Saga in Heimskringla, the sagas of the kings of Norway (Samuel Laing’s translation). This excerpt concerns Thormod Kolbrunnarskald, an Icelandic poet who was fatally wounded by an arrow in the chest at the battle of Stiklestad, where St. Olaf died:

Then [the nurse-woman] took a large pair of tongs, and tried to pull out the iron; but it sat too fast, and would in no way come out, and as the wound was swelled, little of it stood out to lay hold of it. Now said Thormod, “Cut so deep in that thou canst get at the iron with the tongs, and give me the tongs and let me pull.” She did as he said…. Then Thormod took the tongs, and pulled the iron out; but on the iron there was a hook, at which there hung some morsels of flesh from the heart,—some white, some red. When he saw that, he said, “The king has fed us well. I am fat even at the heart-roots:” and so saying he leant back, and was dead.

One could die worse.

What gain has the laborer from his toil?

And how did I spend Labor Day? I spent it laboring.

Someone among the Powers That Be at the Bible School decided that today would be a good day for Student Orientation this year, thus dragging the young people from the bosoms of their family barbecues, causing mothers to weep and fathers to mutter darkly.

I was summoned to give my Oscar-nominated Library Orientation PowerPoint (you didn’t know the Academy Awards had a PowerPoint category, did you? Of course an Antiwar PowerPoint beat me out this year: “Sixteen Reasons Why Democracy Is Tyranny, Plus Eight Reasons Why Honor Killing Is the Culmination of Feminism.” Personally I thought it derivative).

Afterwards I went to the library and did my usual stuff. I suppose I could have closed the place up, since technically I work for the seminary, and the seminary was closed. But I’d been told my new student assistants might want to talk to me, so I hung around.

Give me a medal, somebody. I’ll put it where the Oscar should have gone.

Last night I dropped into the AvPD Chat Room for the first time. I joined a web group for people with Avoidant Personality Disorder recently, and they’ve been talking about this chat room. I haven’t had a regular chat room to participate in since I became a non-person at Baen Books, so I thought I’d try it.

I shouldn’t have been surprised that there were only three people there, counting me. What do you expect, trying to start a Loners’ Club? One was a guy from Singapore (where it was about 9:00 a.m.) and the other was a teenage girl whom I assume was somewhere in the U.S (as a prudential matter, I never ask teenage girls their locations online).

It’s very weird to communicate with other Avoidants. Trains of thought that seem perfectly reasonable when they run in my own mind sound utterly insane when other people express them. Now I know how normal people feel when they talk to me.

Maybe it’ll help me get some objectivity.

If it does, I’ll turn it into a PowerPoint.

Legal, moral and low-fat

It’s got to indicate a pretty disgusting level of self-complacency to go to one’s own writings for inspiration.

So naturally that’s what I’ll be doing tonight.

I wrote something here yesterday, and having writ, moved on. But as I thought about it, it seemed to me it was worth examining in its own right.

What I wrote was: Joylessness is an easy sin to ignore. It isn’t any fun, so how can it be bad?

Have you noticed how we (and I think I speak for most of us here) tend to equate pleasure with sin? And virtue with suffering and deprivation?

In a way I can understand how secular people would think this way. The concept is deep in our culture, probably a leftover from Victorianism (I could say Puritanism, but the Puritans really had a lot more fun than modern people give them credit for. So did the Victorians, for that matter).

But our culture is full of jokes about sin and virtue. “Everything fun is either illegal, immoral or fattening.” “Good Americans, when they die, go to Paris” (Oscar Wilde). Alfred Doolittle’s fulminations against “middle class morality” in Shaw’s “Pygmalion” (that’s “My Fair Lady” for you musical comedy fans).

But Christians often think this way too, and we ought to know better. “The joy of the Lord is your strength” (Nehemiah 8:10, NIV). “You will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand” (Psalm 16:11). “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10).

In theory the Bible ought to count for more with Christians than quips from Wilde or Shaw.

But I know how it is. I suspect I know better than most, being famous for my depression and general sourness of disposition. Doing right seems to be so much work, and sin offers such welcome, immediate satisfaction.

(At this point in the essay I originally wrote a long disquisition on short-term vs. long-term gratification. I now realize that that wasn’t really what I wanted to write about. So I’ll try it over.)

Our cultural Puritanism (not to be confused with real Puritanism, for reasons explained above) tends to take it for granted that all pleasure is sin.

This is a snare of Satan.

One of the book passages that changed my life was the following from C. S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters. Screwtape (who, in case you don’t know, is a devil advising another devil in methods of temptation) writes in Chapter XXII:

[God is] a hedonist at heart. All those fasts and vigils and stakes and crosses are only a façade. Or only like foam on the sea shore. Out at sea, out in His sea, there is pleasure, and more pleasure. He makes no secret of it: at His right hand are “pleasures for evermore”. Ugh! …He’s vulgar, Wormwood. He has a bourgeois mind. He has filled His world full of pleasures. There are things for humans to do all day long without His minding in the least—sleeping, washing, eating, drinking, making love, playing, praying, working. Everything has to be twisted before it’s any use to use. We fight under cruel disadvantages. Nothing is naturally on our side.

Pleasures are very often sinful. But they’re not always sinful. It seems to me one bad effect of Christian revivals is that as the original fervor fades, people try to keep it going artificially through the imposition of more and more rules. “If we just get people to stop doing this or that, their hearts will turn again to the Lord.” So certain people are forever looking for new things to declare sinful and forbid to others. There’s one Christian leader in particular (and no, I won’t tell you who he is. Some of you will guess) who (it seems to me) has built his entire career on searching the Scriptures for new things he can declare sinful, new laws he can lay on the backs of his fellow believers.

I say it’s wrong. I say we need more innocent pleasure, and if Pharisees insist on condemning people who do things not forbidden by the Word, then somebody ought to punch them in the nose.

Try it yourself.

You might find it pleasurable.

Yeah, well, I worry about fear itself, too

I substantially finished getting the textbooks ready for the students today. I came back from my vacation week and was appalled to see the mountain of cartons from publishers awaiting me in the bookstore. I immediately took it as probable that I wouldn’t get them all priced and shelved in time for the first day of class on Tuesday. Or that if I did, it would only be through coming in on the weekend to work on my own time. But it went fine. There are a couple loose ends–books ordered too late (mostly because the instructors dawdled), one set that came in today that I haven’t got a price statement on yet, but essentially the job’s cleaned up.

Why do I torture myself this way? Why do I always expect the worst?

That’s a rhetorical question. I know why I do it. I prefer constant depression to occasional disappointment. If I expected the best, I wouldn’t get what I hoped for a fair proportion of the time, and that would hurt. But if I expect the worst I can never be disappointed, and sometimes I’m wonderfully surprised. It means I walk around with a low-grade depression 99% of the time, but I’ve gotten used to that.

There’s the small business of joylessness being essentially the Sin of Sloth, but that’s something I try not to think about. Joylessness is an easy sin to ignore. It isn’t any fun, so how can it be bad?

Speaking of fear (I was sort of speaking about fear. Worry’s a form of fear), Andrew Klavan has posted on the Horror genre over at Libertas. Klavan doesn’t blog enough, but it’s a big day for me when he does.

One of the things I worry about is disappearing from view altogether as a novelist. If that happens, it will be some comfort if I can know that Andrew Klavan was a big success.

A fictional lie

Hunter Baker has written a very generous review of The Year Of the Warrior, which he has double-posted at his Southern Appeal blog and at the American Spectator blog.

Woo hoo!

(That, for the uninitiated, was a Moment of Optimism. I have them once or twice a year. I’ll keep you posted if it happens again.)

I forget how old I was, or what grade I was in, in elementary school. I forget who the teacher was (though I could make a guess).

She assigned our class to write a short story about Conservation. (Conservation, children, is what we used to have before we had Environmentalism. It was abolished because of its association with Theodore Roosevelt, a Republican.)

I sat down and wrote an easy, boiler-plate, Department of Agriculture Information Office-style tale about a farm family that teaches its old-fashioned neighbor a lesson in Crop Rotation.

I opened it with a line something like this:

“Neighbor’s complaining about his fields eroding again,” said Dad as he came in for supper.

When I’d finished, the teacher looked it over.

“You have to change this dialogue,” she said. “It’s not proper English. You have to say ‘The neighbor’ or ‘Our neighbor.’”

“But this is how people talk!” I protested.

“This is an English class,” she replied. “We write properly in this class.”

I knew it was wrong. I knew that no farmer in this hemisphere ever walks into the kitchen and says, ‘The neighbor…’ or “Our neighbor…” He drops the article. That’s how farmers talk. I lived on a farm. I knew these things.

But I changed the dialogue, because I was a child under authority.

There are people who claim that fiction is a lie, and therefore Christians must not write it.

They are wrong. Fiction is not a lie. Fiction is a shared creative enterprise, in which a storyteller and a reader collaborate to build an imaginary world on terms mutually understood. There is no deception involved, and therefore no lie.

But what that teacher made me do that day was a lie.

A long way to go for Chinese takeout

The books are in the mail. Congratulations to the Children of Fortune.

(You did all read the small print, didn’t you? The part where you are now enrolled in the Lars Walker Perpetual Book Club, and obligated to buy a copy of one of my books every month for the rest of your natural lives? And since there are only three published, you’ll have to purchase the same three over and over? You understood that? Good.)

By way of Mirabilis, this fascinating story about a 3,000-year-old Celtic mummy found in a remote area of China.

Can you imagine what this man’s story was like? What his world was like?

There would be a great novel in that story. Hope someone writes it.

But it won’t be me. I’d have to give myself a whole new education in ancient Celtic and Chinese cultures. I’ve been studying the Vikings my whole life, and I still often wonder whether I’m qualified to write Viking novels.

Francis Collins Reviewed: Faith Under the Microscope

Writer Phillip Manning reviews Scientist Francis Collins’ book, The Language of God, in which he describes his journey from atheism to Christianity. Manning sums up Collins’ arguments with this:

The most [Collins] can offer is “that a belief in God is intensely plausible.” But plausible ideas are only starting points in science. Their validity must be established by rigorous testing. Collins may be as sure of his faith as he is of the map of the human genome, but the evidence he provides to support his beliefs do not meet scientific standards. He may have leapt across the chasm between science and religion, but his book does not show the rest of us the way.

I wonder if Manning accepts the premise that faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen. He doesn’t appear to accept it, because he wants the ideas of god and salvation proven by scientific methods. Perhaps that’s what Collins purports to do in his book. But it can’t be done. God is not made from the stuff in a petri dish.

God’s defense of himself does not appeal to science. In Romans, he says he is angry with men “who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.” They may claim to have no evidence of God, and he replies by saying they are willfully ignorant. Doesn’t follow Dale Carnegie’s advice, does it.

[by way of Critical Mass]

We dare to name names!

This is off the record, right? You’re not going to share this with anyone? I’ve got deniability here?

Because if this gets back to me, I’m toast.

But look at the slate of drawing winners. Examine it for a moment:

Roy Jacobsen. Blogger. The only other blogger I’ve ever met, as a matter of fact.

Michael Peterson. Blogger. (Not very prolific, I’ll grant you, but a blogger.) And a pastor of my own church body.

Omie. A Chattanooga resident. Who else lives in Chattanooga?

Coincidences? You make the call.

I insinuate, you decide.

Speaking of the drawing, I’d hoped to get the books in the mail today. I was going to take them to the post office near my workplace, after work.

Unfortunately I left them at home. Then I thought, “No prob. I’ll walk them over to the Robbinsdale post office, five minutes from my house, when I get home.”

I got there at 5:01. The place closes, I then learned, at 5:00.

I’ll try again tomorrow.

They’re going Media Mail, so it’ll take a few days.

The fact that I’m corrupt doesn’t mean I’m rich.

Memory Survey Says Turn Off TV, Pick Up Fiction

The Australian National Memory Test has taken in surveys from almost 30,000 Australians and concluded that watching too much TV and drinking too much drags down your mind, making it difficult to remember whatever it was you were trying to remember when you started, say, writing a sentence. On the other hand, people who read fiction, ate fish regularly, and worked crossword puzzles tended to have better memory.

Neuro-psychologist Nancy Pachana said, “TV can be a really passive activity, while reading is active, and any active activity is better.” So a little TV as part of an active day won’t harm your memory, and active TV viewing can be good for you.

Drawing Winners

The winners have been emailed and confirmed. Congratulations to Roy Jacobsen, Michael and Omie for being randomly selected in the drawing.

Remember this is the first of two contests for Lars Walker novels. The next one will be open to bloggers and require a certain kind of post. I’ll let you know soon.

Drawing Ends Today

I’ve almost fallen under the wagon this week with multiple stress sources, but as always the Lord is my shepherd. Some people talk about feeling the Lord is distant, that he’s left them at the train station and they don’t know when he will return. I think I understand the feeling, but I’ve never felt that way. When I feel distant from the Lord, I blame myself for leaving him. I am prone to wander; I am prone to leave the God I love.

If he ever left me, I would die.

But you and I don’t know one another well, if at all, so I’ll stop. The drawing for Lars’ books will close today at 11:00 a.m. That’s before noon, if you aren’t reading the time correctly. I will announce winners after they respond to their emails, so we may not know who wins today.

You young folks today don’t know what work is

If you were listening to Hugh Hewitt last night, you heard him and James Lileks broadcasting from the Minnesota State Fair in full Johnstown, Pennsylvania-telegraph-operator mode, sounding like the last survivors clicking away at their post as the mighty waters swept all away.

I was not there. I was at home in my basement office, working on my novel. But I can verify that it did indeed rain and storm quite hard. It got pretty dark and my electricity flickered once.

Not good baling weather.

I was thinking about baling on Monday, during my walk. Monday was a good baling day. I looked at the bright sun. I felt the heat. I thought, “This is baling weather.”

Let me explain to you about hay and straw.

Hay is what you bale at this time of the year. Or rather, what you used to bale. I don’t think farmers bale much anymore. They have new, arcane methods of putting forage up. I think they do it digitally now, since Dell Computer acquired International Harvester or something.

I still remember an old commercial for the Yellow Pages from back in the Sixties. It drove me nuts. It featured a stereotypical movie cowboy in a Roy Rogers costume singing to his horse. The final lines went, “…and the pages are yellow, like hay.”

No. No, they’re not.

Hay is not yellow. Hay is green. Hay is any grass (we used alfalfa) that you allow to grow tall, then cut and dry for storage over the winter, so you can feed it to the livestock. The bales are heavy, and they smell musty and organic, a little like scum on a pond.

Straw is yellow. There are various kinds of straw too, but we used oat straw. After the oats have been harvested, you cut down the stalks and bale them. They’re light to handle. You use straw for animal bedding. It is not eaten, unless the animals are really, really hungry.

Part of the confusion comes from “Away In a Manger,” I think. There’s that line that goes, “The little Lord Jesus, asleep on the hay.” People sing that and think that sleeping on hay is normal. It’s not. Jesus was sleeping in a manger, a feed trough. Hay belongs there. Babies (usually) don’t.

Once hay has been cut, it’s raked into windrows in the field. If God wills, the hay will lie there and dry, giving you time to turn it over once with pitchforks, to expose both sides. If it rains at any point in this process, you can still use the hay but it won’t be as good, and it’s likely to rot or get moldy.

Then you take the baler out and bale it. Your baling equipment (ours anyway) begins (began) with a tractor pulling a baler, a long, low box on wheels with a conveyor thing on the front to scoop up the hay. The hay passed through the guts and got compressed and tied with twine. The bales were then extruded from the machine’s anus to one or two guys waiting on the wagon that followed. This job was generally mine and my brother Moloch’s, though our grandfather often came out to help.

The bales had to be stacked on the wagon. It was a flat wagon with no sides or front, but a tall back. The first level of bales would be laid down perpendicular to the length of the wagon. The next layer would go parallel (or vice versa. I forget). This was supposed to lock the bales, like staggering bricks in a wall. In fact, the bales always swayed, and the kid on top of the pile was never sure when the whole thing would tumble, sending him to the ground with a lot of heavy hay bales falling on top of him. But the stacker below had his own risks. When the hay was all stacked he would generally be left with about six inches of free space to stand on, as the whole assembly bumped back over farm lanes to the farmyard. It was an operation that would give an O.S.H.A. inspector nightmares, but we never complained. It was good enough for our parents and grandparents; who were we to be sissies?

People with big barns could generally just run their bales up a conveyor into the loft and dump them. Our barn was small. We didn’t use a conveyor but a contraption on a pulley called a “hay fork” (if I remember correctly, which I probably don’t). Eight bales at a time were clamped into the grip of the hay fork, then when the hay had been hoisted up into the barn, a trip rope would be pulled, releasing them. In theory. In fact, the fork either dropped the bales too soon or wouldn’t let them go at all a fair amount of the time.

At the end of the day’s baling, when all the hay was up in the loft, Moloch and I would climb up there and start stacking. Because of our lack of space, we had to organize all our hay in the loft, to get as much in as possible (what didn’t fit would get stacked in the farmyard under tarps, a less than ideal environment). It would be hot as a potter’s kiln up under that roof on a summer afternoon, hot not only from the air temperature but from the chemical action of the drying hay. It was the hardest, sweatiest work I’ve ever done in my life.

And that’s what I think of every year at this time.

Book Reviews, Creative Culture