Spider Slayer, Bee Friend

[first posted September 24, 2003] I found a fat, orange spider on my car this afternoon. He was as big as my thumb, and though he showed sufficient fear when I poked at his legs, I dispatched him to the underworld. He was scary. I thought his bite would hurt should he decide to stake a claim on the car’s interior and run out trespassers, but I’m not heartless. I took artistic photos of him so he could live in immortality, which is more than any spider could hope for.

Driving home this evening, I had my window down. The Autumn Equinox has encouraged me somehow. My evening commutes are more heartening than they have been lately. While stopped at a light, a honey bee landed on my arm. I turned to look, and he was inches from my nose; but I blew him off and continued waiting without even a rise in blood pressure. He wasn’t scary.

Why am I afraid of the fly-catcher and not the honey-maker? Maybe since I haven’t stroked the back a fat spider while he was gathering pollen from a dusty lawn weed, I haven’t bonded with one like I have with a bee. Touching the back of honey bee like you would a baby’s nose has magic in it [In fact, I touched one again yesterday, July 15, 2006]. I am a friend to them now. Perhaps, they let me walk in peace. Whatever it is, I don’t fear them like I do some other bugs.

Insomniac thought of a mystery fan

Has anyone ever been smothered with a pillow in real life?

It happens all the time in fiction, but I’ve tried holding a pillow tight over my own face (as an experiment, not as a suicide attempt), and I’ve always been able to get sufficient air in.

But maybe that’s because I have a larger than average nose.

Graminivorous

Your word for today is graminivorous, which is an adjective meaning feeding on grass. For an example of its use, take this definition of abdomen from Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary:

ABDOMEN, n. — The temple of the god Stomach, in whose worship, with sacrificial rights, all true men engage. From women this ancient faith commands but a stammering assent. They sometimes minister at the altar in a half-hearted and ineffective way, but true reverence for the one deity that men really adore they know not. If woman had a free hand in the world’s marketing the race would become graminivorous.

The Lincoln Lawyer, by Michael Connelly

I gave blood again this afternoon. It was well worth it, not only because somebody with A+ blood won’t have to keep using a pint of his old hemoglobin past its expiration date, but because of the appreciation I got. Apparently after work on a summer Friday afternoon isn’t premium time for blood drives. Normal people have plans on such evenings. So it’s up to Avoidants, paranoids and old ladies who keep three dozen cats in their houses to keep those plasma levels up.

The girl who drained my vital fluids was bored enough to want to make conversation.

“What are you doing this evening?” she asked.

“Washing clothes.”

I am the master of the conversational thud.

She told me about the movie she’d rented on VHS, “Waterloo Bridge.” She’d broken the tape, she said, and had to buy it, and she hadn’t even watched it yet. She was planning to repair it.

“I walked across Waterloo Bridge a couple years ago,” I told her.

“Really? Where is it?”

Turned out she’d had the idea it had something to do with Waterloo, Iowa.

This was the most substantive conversation I’ve had with another human being in weeks, by the way.

The Lincoln Lawyer is a departure for Michael Connelly. Most of his novels to date (maybe all of them; I forget) have involved, at least tangentially, his continuing characters Terry McCaleb and/or Harry Bosch. But he killed off McCaleb a couple books ago, so perhaps this marks the beginning of a new series character. Or not.

In any case he’s a character who could carry a series. Mickey Haller is a hustling, high-priced defense attorney. This doesn’t mean he’s rich. He has two ex-wives, a daughter and a mortgage to support, and his overhead is high (although he uses one of his four Lincoln Continentals as an office).

When we first meet him he doesn’t appear admirable. He defends some extremely unsavory people, and cops and (most) prosecutors despise him. But as we spend time with him, we discover agreeable traits. Both his ex-wives (one of whom is a prosecutor) still like him. He’s making a serious effort to be a better father to his little girl. He spends time he can’t afford representing down-and-out clients who’ll never be able to pay him.

His attitude to the legal system appears be that he treats it as a game. He’ll trick his opponents, but he won’t break the rules. If he gets a case thrown out on a technicality, he feels righteous indignation against the police – they broke the rules. They betrayed the system.

The issues of genuine guilt or innocence are not on his radar screen. He doesn’t even care to hear his clients’ protestations of innocence.

The only exception is his single professional nightmare – he’s afraid he’ll someday have an innocent client, and not realize it. That he won’t go to the wall for a genuine innocent.

And one day he discovers that this has already happened. He learns that a man he pleaded down to a lesser charge years ago actually did not commit the murder he’s doing hard time for.

And he learns something more – he’s been afraid of the wrong thing. He was afraid of not recognizing innocence, when in fact he should have been worried about not recognizing evil. He encounters a genuinely evil man, one who gains control over him, murders one of his friends, and threatens him and his family. Haller must engage in a battle of wits with a man who may very well be smarter than he is, and the price of losing is unthinkable.

Connelly’s work is always solid and satisfying. It carries a flavor of authenticity, along with the complexity and sadness of real life. The Lincoln Lawyer is no different. I was a little surprised by the ending, because Connelly had dropped hints that something else would happen, but it leaves the door open for more Haller For the Defense books.

I’ll read them.

Christian Book Awards Winners

The Evangelical Christian Publishers Association (ECPA) announced the winners of the Christian Book Awards (formerly the Gold Medallion Awards). Mark Kuyper, head of the ECPA, said, “From contemporary page-turner fiction to significant theological works, the Christian Book Awards recognize the best within our industry.” The categories are Bibles, Bible Reference & Study, Christian Life, Fiction, Children & Youth, and Inspiration & Gift.

I have confidence in the quality of two of the winners: A Sacred Sorrow by Michael Card (Navpress – Christian Life) and The Ezekiel Option by Joel Rosenberg (Tyndale House – Fiction). I don’t know about the rest.

What do you think about these categories? The whole industry summed up in six little boxes. Last year, there were 20 categories, including Biography/Autobiography, Devotional, Christianity and Society, and Elementary Children. You can see all of the them on faithfulreader.com.

I wonder what the criteria is for judging the Bibles. This year’s winner is The Message: Numbered Edition. The original unnumbered edition won in 2003.

Barry McGuire and a Lott more

Kevin at Collected Miscellany recently posted this interview with author Jeremy Lott on his new book In Defense of Hypocrisy. I hate to dispel the common misconception that I have everything figured out, but this interview cleared up an important logical point for me. I’ve realized for a long time that there’s a fallacy in the modern insistence that hypocrisy is the worst sin, and that everyone who fails to live up to his own moral code at every single point is a hypocrite (“therefore,” the argument goes, “there’s no point even trying. Enjoy yourself and forget ethics!” The new moral prophet is John Belushi in Animal House).

What Lott explains here is that there’s a difference between hypocrisy and moral weakness. A guy who tries to live up to his principles and fails is not a hypocrite. He’s morally weak (as we all are to some extent). But he’s not a hypocrite. He’s not worthy of contempt.

This helps me. “There’s a difference between hypocrisy and moral weakness” is an axiom, and I personally need axioms in order to think. Maybe some of you can think clearly without them, but I can’t do it.

Alan at the Thinklings writes about Barry McGuire today.

You youngsters won’t remember McGuire, but I remember him well. He first swam into my ken as a member of the New Christy Minstrels folk group (and yes, I liked them. So indict me). He was everybody’s favorite Minstrel. He had a gravelly voice that added a microgram of spice to that highly processed musical mix. After he left the group, he had one big single hit, “The Eve of Destruction.” All about how the world couldn’t possibly survive past 1970 or so.

Then he became a Christian. There was much rejoicing. This was part of a phenomenon, related to the Jesus Movement, which will seem as strange as the New Christy Minstrels to younger readers. Lots of famous people (B List at least) were professing Christ back around then. McGuire, Paul Stookey of Peter, Paul and Mary (whatever happened to him, anyway?), even Wonder Woman. Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash (who brought in Kris Kristofferson for about a week). Jimmy Carter, a professing born-again Christian, was elected president.

We were on a roll, we thought. Bill Bright had a plan for evangelizing the whole world by the year 2000. I had my doubts, but anything seemed possible at the time.

Today, a little more than a quarter century later, we’re wondering how long the government will allow us to keep our churches open.

Things change.

Let’s hope that remains true.

Does the Space Shuttle Excite You?

This just in–Astronauts take day off as space mission winds down. And yesterday what was it, a space walk to replace some foam somewhere? Sounds like the equivalent to getting a flat tire on a camping trip. “And in news from the family camping trip, Dad is checking the car to see if any damage occurred when they hit that big whatever-it-was in the road.”

Because this is the stuff of science-fiction and national imagination, I want to ask, does the Space Shuttle excite you? Do you think NASA is pursuing the right goals, or do you wish they would get the funding or inspiration to do something better?

Cliches and Lowing the Boom

I learned through Rebecca of Rebecca Writes about ClicheSite.com and the handy Cliche of the Day. At first, I thought this a cool little resource. Now, I think I’ll avoid it. If I fill my head with cliches, I’ll become a twisted and disturbed old man. Maybe I just need the cup of tea I just steeped for a better mood. Maybe I should go out for some live steel combat.

You know, that reminds me of the warning the thespians gave before the start of Julius Caesar at Atlanta’s Shakespeare Tavern. They told us to go the bathroom before or during the intermission, because afterward angry men with real swords could be running through the hallway at any time–which they did. It was great.

Inherit the movement

Phil brought up William Jennings Bryan and Populism a little way down the page, and I thought I’d meditate on the subject today.

All most people remember about Bryan nowadays is that he was the guy they based the Brady character in “Inherit the Wind” on (here’s an interesting web page that’ll explain a lot of things you don’t know about the Scopes Trial, if all you know of it is what you saw in the movie or the play). Bryan ran for president three times, and he was a serious candidate. He was the standard-bearer for Populism (today we’d say liberalism) around the turn of the Twentieth Century.

“How can this be?” we wonder today. “How can an evangelical, Bible-believing Christian be a liberal?”

That question brings us to an aspect of American history that’s mostly forgotten today. Throughout the 19th Century, evangelicalism and liberalism in America were (by and large) the same movement.

Whence comes today’s liberal’s certainty that the changes he wants to implement cannot help but make the country a far better place, a veritable Heaven on earth? It comes, in part, because he has inherited the vision of the Abolitionists (most of them Christians, like Charles G. Finney and Henry Ward Beecher), who saw, with considerable justification, their crusade against slavery as a Biblical drama, the Exodus and the Apocalypse rolled into one. The antislavery movement, I believe, marked the birth of a brand new form of pleasure—the pleasure of being a moral crusader. The moral crusader (be his crusade wise or foolish, good or bad) enjoys the delights of living on the moral high ground. If the struggle brings success and fame, the crusader is smugly aware that he deserves it. If it brings suffering and martyrdom, he dies with the pleasure of knowing he’s the pioneer, “truth forever on the scaffold,” as the poet Lowell wrote.

After the slavery fight had been won, the evangelical community looked around for a new crusade, a new way to improve society and usher in the Kingdom. By consensus, the next great goal became Prohibition.

Prohibition involved a subtle change of focus. It wasn’t hard to believe that slavery should be ended, and that slaveholders should be forced to give up their slaves, whatever the cost to them. Prohibition moved on to target a voluntary commercial activity, in which nobody was forced to participate (the Prohibitionist argued that drunkards were, for all intents and purposes, slaves to Demon Rum, and so the case was the same). The moral crusaders had moved from rescuing people held against their will, to prohibiting free transactions based on a conviction that they knew better than other people what was good for them.

It was a long struggle, but they won at last. Booze got banned (a by-product, by the way, was Women’s Suffrage. Prohibitionists pushed Women’s Rights hard, because women were overwhelmingly anti-saloon).

But it was sometime around there that a schism occurred. The liberals of the East looked out at the great, unwashed mass of Progressive evangelicals and said, “These really aren’t our kind of people.”

The Scopes Trial is said to have been the rupture point. Intellectuals like H. L. Mencken were offended by Bryan’s opposition to Darwin. They washed their hands of him and his followers. The intellectuals moved toward Socialism, the evangelicals, gradually, toward conservatism.

It took a while. I’ve heard a story of one of the founding fathers of my church body. Back in the 1940’s he’d been elected to the Minnesota State Legislator as an independent. Being an independent, he had to decide for himself which party he would caucus with.

“I looked across the chamber,” he said, “and I asked myself, ‘Which party best represents the principles of my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ?’

“I did not hesitate. I went immediately and caucused with the Democrats.”

Fury, by Robert K. Tanenbaum

I’m beginning to wonder if Robert K. Tanenbaum isn’t pulling my leg.

It’s always a treat to find a new Tanenbaum in paperback. Tanenbaum is grand opera. Tanenbaum is a three-ring circus. Everything is big and broad and beautiful and terrifying, not to mention totally riveting. You want thrill-value for your money, with a plot driven by characters (and what characters!) rather than the assembly-line robotic action of, say, Clive Cussler, Tanenbaum is the author for you. To add to the appeal, Tanenbaum grapples fearlessly with serious contemporary issues (this book addresses racial hucksterism, for instance, a subject I wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot keyboard).

And yet… when Fury was done I couldn’t help looking back over it all and realizing that the story as a whole was completely, outrageously over the top.

The triumph of the book is that, even as I understood this, I didn’t care. It may be a magic show, but it’s a spectacular magic show.

If you want bigger-than-life action in a story, you’ve got to start with bigger-than-life characters. Tanenbaum has them ready to hand, with his well-established stable of regular grotesques, plus a few new ones. Theoretically, most of the characters are maturing and slowing down. Marlene Ciampi seems to have quelled some of her personal demons through art therapy. Dirty old goat Ray Guma is a gray-haired cancer survivor now, missing a few feet of gut. Even the sexually predatory reporter Ariadne Stupenagle (honest, that’s her name!) appears to have settled down (after a fashion) through falling in love with Gilbert Murrow, Butch Karp’s diminutive, buttoned-down assistant (plenty of laughs there).

And yet, when it comes down to it, Marlene is still a dangerous woman to cross, Guma still tells dirty jokes and dates strippers, and Stupenagle is even more irritating than before, cooing and calling Murrow nauseating pet names in public.

And that summary leaves out such regulars as “Dirty Warren,” the Tourette’s Syndrome newpaper seller, and The Walking Booger (don’t ask).

(By the way, if you can’t handle rough language, better avoid Tanenbaum. Dirty Warren is only chief among the many foul-mouthed characters.)

As always, the quiet center of this hurricane is New York District Attorney Butch Karp, stolid, ethical and smart. Without his character, the rest of the farce wouldn’t work. Without the others, though, Butch might be a bore.

One or two mysteries would be enough for the average novel. Not for Tanenbaum. He offers us 1) a twelve-year old rape case that’s been overturned on DNA evidence. A race-baiting lawyer is suing the city on behalf of the convicted rapists, and Butch agrees to fight the suit, smelling a rat; 2) a plot by Muslim extremists to blow up Rockefeller Center on New Year’s Eve; 3) the mysterious beheadings of several Muslim terrorists by unknown attackers; 4) a false rape charge leveled against a college professor by a female student; and 5) the advancing Alzheimer’s of Marlene’s mother.

I’m probably forgetting some.

Also on hand are two new characters from the previous book, John Jojola, the Navajo policeman from New Mexico, and the cowboy, Ned Blanchet, daughter Lucy Karp’s new boyfriend. And we are introduced to some fairly unsavory family connections of Butch’s.

Like one of those juggling acts where the entertainer keeps twenty plates spinning on poles all at once, Tanenbaum makes all this work. Also like the juggling act, we know it wouldn’t go like that in real life. But in Tanenbaum’s Rabelaisian world, it doesn’t matter as long as you believe.

Speaking of belief, one thing that bothered me in Fury was a new development in Lucy Karp’s life. Up till now she’s been presented as a faithful, devout Roman Catholic. And she still is, judging by everything she says. But Tanenbaum has chosen to put her into bed with Ned, and she makes no apologies for it. Apparently Tanenbaum is operating on the principle that True Love always justifies sex, regardless of marital condition. I can understand Tanenbaum thinking like that, but Lucy should know better.

On the other hand… there’s a splendid scene early in the book that pleased me no end. Butch (who is Jewish) has agreed to teach a Bar Mitzvah class at the synagogue. He tells the class one evening that he’s going to tell them about a Jew who changed the world. The Jew he lectures on is Jesus of Nazareth.

What delighted me was that, in speaking of Jesus’ crucifixion, Karp/Tanenbaum completely rejected the standard contemporary line (which has risen to the level of orthodoxy in most mainline churches) that neither the Jews nor their leaders had anything at all to do with Jesus’ death (it was all the Romans’ fault, dirty imperialists that they were). As Karp tells it, Jesus died because His integrity was a threat to the power structure (Jewish and Roman), as integrity always is to any power structure (and as Butch would know better than most).

That was worth the price of the book in itself, as far as I was concerned.

Keep ‘em coming, Tanenbaum. You keep hiding the pea, I’ll keep laying my money down.

Subjects Worth Writing About

Mark Bertrand quotes Melville’s Moby Dick on what great book should tackle: ” . . . Such, and so magnifying, is the virtue of a large and liberal theme! We expand to its bulk. To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be who have tried it.” Read the rest of this short post and tell him what you think.

Book Reviews, Creative Culture