Crash course in English

I love this story to death.

See, there’s this Czech speedway racer who got knocked unconscious in an accident. And when he regained consciousness, he was speaking perfect English, a language he was only beginning to learn at the time. (It faded, unfortunately.)

Does this bring the promise of a new (though painful) means of enhancing international communication?

Or does it just mean that all we English speakers are brain damaged?

A little less shade in my life

Last night, as I was sitting in this very chair, composing my blog post, a fierce, short, little storm blew through. I had to get up and close the windows. I worried that the power might go off, but it didn’t, so all seemed well.

Just after I’d posted, I noticed a city vehicle with flashing lights going slowly up the street outside my house. I went out on the porch for a closer look, and saw that it was a front end loader.

And it was clearing tree branches out of the street in front of my neighbors’ house.

But it wasn’t their branches. It was the branches of my front-yard tree, which had split like an infinitive and dropped most of its greenery on their side of the driveway.

I knocked on my neighbors’ door. He was gone, but she was there, with a woman friend. I told them what had happened. Said I didn’t think anybody could get out of our shared driveway until the split section of trunk got cleared away.

The neighbor’s wife asked, “Did it hit T_____’s car?”

I asked, “You mean there’s a car under there?”

Sure enough, if you looked closely, you could see a newish Ford SUV, almost completely covered in foliage.

Then followed a stimulating evening of walking around in the yard, waiting for the car owner’s husband (who brought a friend with a chainsaw), and talking to my insurance company on their emergency line. We did get the driveway cleared at last.

I’ve spent much of today making calls, and waiting for calls.

I don’t know whether my carrier or the driver’s carrier will pay for the car damage (no glass broken, but substantial body injury. It drives, though). That decision depends on whether they conclude I was negligent in not cutting the miserable old tree down a year ago.

My carrier will do nothing to reimburse me for tree removal. If it had hit my house, it would have, but there was no actual damage to my property, so no check for me.

I’ve called a couple tree removal services. One got back to me and took a look at the tree. He wants $800 to take it down. I’m hoping I can find somebody cheaper (half the branchwork is already on the ground, for pete’s sake).

Maybe this is God’s way of telling me He doesn’t want me to own a house. I don’t see any alternative to sinking into credit card debt on this, hoping my mortgage interest tax credit in the spring will help me scramble out again.

If not, I guess I can always sell.

Still, as I drove home tonight, the sky was full of slate gray clouds, while the sun was shining brightly. That’s my favorite kind of sky. And a spectacular double rainbow had been drafted across it with a compass.

So I guess God doesn’t hate me.

T.S. Eliot

Here’s to T.S. Eliot, born on this date in 1888.

Eliot is said to have said, “Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality.” I suspect most of us don’t really know what poetry is. The right words in the right order sound like poetry to us to the extend we can hear them.

“I have a piece of brain lodged in my head!” (Monty Python)

I had a great idea for today’s post. I remember thinking about it as I heated the water for my tea at lunchtime. I think it had something to do with some correlation between storytelling and Christian theology. It would have been great.

But it flew out of my head, leaving no trace behind.

So instead of that, let’s meditate upon the aforementioned figure of speech, “It flew out of my head.”

I’ve read that in some cultures, people don’t think of themselves as using their heads for thinking. They believe that they think in their chests or their stomachs or something.

I don’t get that at all. As long as I can remember, I’ve “lived in my head,” and have been quite sure where the Brain-work Department is located. Top floor, the one with the view.

Does everyone feel the same way, though? Sometimes I wonder if those guys I’ve envied all my life—the big, athletic ones with the lightning reflexes and fast-twitch muscles—feel differently about their thinking. Maybe they rub their stomachs when they’re working out a problem.

A noted literary example of uncertainty concerning the seat of reason is a passage from Heimskringla, the Sagas of the Kings of Norway, by Snorri Sturlusson. I’ve mentioned this book often before. This particular story is found in other sources, but I have a copy of Heimskringla in the room here, so I’ll use it.

The story is the aftermath of the Battle of Hjorungavaag. This battle was the climax of an attempt to invade Norway by a group of free-lance Vikings called the Jomsvikings. Historians are uncertain whether the Jomsvikings ever actually existed, and if they did, how important they were. But they loom large in the sagas. They were an international brotherhood of warriors who operated out of a fortress of their own, probably someplace in northern Poland (yes, there were some Polish Vikings. “Viking” was a job description, not an ethnic designation, in those days).

The Jomsvikings had attended a feast given by King Svein of Denmark, in which they made a classic mistake—they allowed themselves to get in a bragging contest leading to competitive oaths after drinking too much. When they woke up (hung over) the next morning, they discovered that their leader had made a vow to conquer Norway. Their honor code left them no choice but to try to fulfill it.

After some initial success, they were met by a formidable Norwegian fleet at Hjorungavaag. The Norwegians, needless to say, cleaned their hourglasses. (Chances are Erling Skjalgsson was in that fleet, though he’s not mentioned in the text.)

It’s at this point that the famous scene occurs. The Jomsvikings are made to sit on some logs, with their legs tied to keep them from escaping. Then a man comes with an axe and begins to behead them, one at a time.

At this point, we join the text in progress:

Then one of them said, “Here I have a dagger in my hand, and I shall stick it in the ground if I am conscious when my head is chopped off.” He was beheaded, and the dagger dropped from his hand.

I suppose it helps, at moments like that, to have a scientific goal to distract you.

All right, all right. I’ll tell you how it ends.

One of the men, who has long, beautiful hair, expresses his concern that his ’do will get all bloody. So one of the Norwegians wraps his hands in the hair and holds it away from his head. When the axe comes down, the Jomsviking pulls himself back sharply, so that the Norwegian’s hands are severed.

Jarl Erik Haakonsson, the leader of the Norwegian army, is so delighted with this trick that he spares the Jomsviking’s life (you’ve got to admit he was a man who could take a joke. We aren’t told how the guy who lost his hands felt about it. I have to figure he was one of my ancestors).

Seeing this, the headsman, who has a personal grudge against a Jomsviking further down the line, runs toward that man, in order to kill him before any more pardons slip through. But another Jomsviking trips him, and his intended victim grabs the axe and kills him with it. This bit of performance art pleases Jarl Erik so much that he lets all the rest of them live.

And they dined out on the story, no doubt, for the rest of their lives.

Except for the guy with no hands. I suppose he just thought about it a lot.

And he couldn’t even rub his stomach to help him think.

Hunting Down Amanda, by Andrew Klavan

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking Walker’s going to roll on his back and wriggle like a happy dachshund in delight over another Andrew Klavan masterpiece.

Well, you’re right.

Hunting Down Amanda is a masterful book. It’s fascinating in its own right, as a brilliantly crafted, smart, moving thriller.

It’s also fascinating to the Christian reader as an artifact of the conversion process. Because Klavan, who was not a Christian when he wrote it, was clearly on the way, and his growing interest in matters eternal informs the whole product.

The Amanda of the title is Amanda Dodson, a five-year-old girl who, when the story begins, witnesses a terrible air crash. She wanders to the crash site, and is carried out by a man. Her mother, who has been searching for her, sees this and says, “Oh God. Oh God. Now they’ll come after her.”

Because Amanda carries a secret, a secret that a powerful corporation will do anything to possess. And Amanda’s mother, Carol, has committed her life to one simple goal—protecting her from the men who are hunting her. To accomplish that, Carol will do anything, pay any price.

Her life gets entangled with that of Lonnie Blake, a jazz musician. Blake is a major talent who has gone downhill ever since the murder of his beloved wife. He becomes fixated on Carol, and through her gets involved in something more dangerous than he ever dreamed. But it’s also his chance for a kind of salvation.

And there’s Howard Roth, an old college professor who has terminal lung cancer. He’s more concerned about changes in the western civilization curriculum than in his own demise. But when he meets a little girl who wants to hear his stories of ancient myths, he finds a new reason for living.

But the hunters are closing in. And they are absolutely ruthless. For the little girl, they plan a short life of suffering. For her protectors, they plan no life at all.

The good guys aren’t helpless, though.

In fact, they have resources the hunters can’t imagine.

I loved this book. It wasn’t only that it was smartly plotted and fast-paced, and that the characters were textured and sympathetic. There were also biblical and theological allusions everywhere, and layers of mythological symbolism like deep soil in which a fruitful story can flourish.

I should warn you about strong language, and sexual references and violence. There are no Christian characters in this book, and none of them act like Christians.

But there is Christianity here, and it’s everywhere.

Hunting Down Amanda gets my highest recommendation.

Is Wodehouse Like the Energizer Bunny?

The Scott Stein, who teaches a course on humorous writing at University of Pennsylvania, said that he read P.G. Wodehouse’s The Code of the Woosters before any other Bertie and Jeeves novel. “It was one of the funniest, most entertaining novels I’d ever read,” he said. He read three more and “each has been less entertaining than the previous one. The last one I read, just recently (Jeeves and the Tie that Binds), was even a bit tedious.”

Frank Wilson pointed out Scott’s post and has yet to say whether he agrees with Scott. Not that it really matters, but hey, it’s a detail to point out, and Scott–that is, The Scott Stein–discussed his thoughts further on Frank’s blog.

I haven’t read the books Scott read. Of the Bertie and Jeeves stories, I’ve read Carry On, Jeeves, Very Good, Jeeves, Right-Ho, Jeeves, and The Inimitable Jeeves (I think). Each were hilarious. The story of Aunt Agatha and the Pearls was ripping funny, in part, because we knew about Bertie’s relationship with his aunt, “the one who chews broken bottles and kills rats with her teeth.” I haven’t gotten to The Code yet, but what do you think of Scott’s premise? Do these stories get old after a while?

Failure to Understand What Protects Them

Gaius on Blue Crab Blvd. discusses an literary essay on the Iranian Madman’s appearance yesterday by Bret Stephens in Opinion Journal. Does it matter if anyone believes his arguments? Arguments lose their significance when they are backed with guns and bombs. When guns are drawn, the point of discussion drops entirely, and the only question remaining is who will control whom. We can tell the Iranian we respect his freedom, but he will reply that we can go to hell.

Which is just one reason we can’t elect Democrats to protect our country. Go with Thompson or Huckabee (or maybe both in a type of reverse 1992 ticket).

Why I hate the Renaissance

Saturday was interesting. My assignment was to drive down to the Mankato area (about two hours southwest of here). That didn’t seem like a major challenge. The road is Highway 169, which is easy to get to from here, and (as a bonus) provides one of my favorite drives in Minnesota. Much of it passes through a pretty valley. And the leaves were beginning (just beginning) to turn.

I gave a ride to a young fellow who’s just joined the Viking Age Club & Society. He showed up at the time appointed, and off we went.

What I didn’t anticipate was that the Renaissance would bar the way to the Viking Age.

The annual Minnesota Renaissance Festival is in Chanhassen, and Highway 169 is the major access route for most of those who attend. I hadn’t thought of that. But, frankly, even if I had I wouldn’t have expected it to be a problem. The festival opens in the morning, and we were going past in the early afternoon.

But it was nearly the last weekend for the event, and it was a beautiful day, and (apparently) everybody in Hennepin and Ramsey counties decided that this was the day to go. Traffic had backed up for miles and miles. We crawled for nearly two hours. When we finally passed the festival site, it appeared that every spot in the parking area was already filled. I don’t know what the people who suffered that sclerotic drive along with us did when they finally reached their destination.

So we arrived at the farm we were headed for a full hour late. Once we got going it went fine, and a guy who’d never used a sword before “killed” me repeatedly.

Sometimes even Harald Hardrada must have had days like that.

Then we all went out for burgers, and eventually we headed home.

Traffic near the festival was now clotted with people leaving, though it wasn’t nearly as bad as coming in.

On the other hand, nobody rear-ended me coming in.

The traffic had slowed to a stop, and suddenly we felt that familiar kick from behind. I got out and found a lady checking the front of her minivan. There was a parking ticket from an area theme park on her dash (Chanhassen is the entertainment nexus of our state, I guess), and I surmised that she’d taken her daughter (who was sitting in the passenger seat) out for a fun day, until the unthinkable had happened.

Actually the right word wasn’t “unthinkable” but “negligible.” Neither of us detected any noticeable damage, so we exchanged information and continued on our ways.

I rather like being the injured party. I do gracious pretty well. I’m not so good at “apologetic without actually saying you’re sorry, because the insurance people don’t like that.”

It was nearly 9:00 before we got home.

I think even Harald Hardrada would have told me it was a full day.

Though I think Harald would have taken a harder line with the other drivers.

Shameless Viking appeal

This link takes you to a site where you can vote on a number of historical preservation projects up for grants in the Chicago area. Among them is “The Viking.”

“The Viking” was (I’m pretty sure) the first Viking ship replica ever sailed. It went from Norway to America in 1893 for the World’s Columbian Exhibition. Since that time it has languished in less-than-ideal storage conditions in various places, and it won’t be around much longer if a restoration isn’t done and suitable shelter found.

The deal here is that you can vote on which of several projects will get preservation grants. You don’t have to be a Chicagoan (I’m registered) and you can vote once a day until the deadline. As I understand it, it’s not winner-take-all, and the voting won’t be the only determining factor in the final decisions. But it can’t hurt.

The ship is doing pretty well in the race so far. It’s Number 3 in votes. If you’re at all interested (or if you’re interested in another of the projects), I encourage you to register and vote. “Early and often,” as they say.

Voted Most Influential Fictitious Character

Who are the top three most influential fictitious characters in your life? They are probably listed in a new book, The 101 Most Influential People Who Never Lived: How Characters of Fiction, Myth, Legends, Television, and Movies Have Shaped Our Society, Changed Our Behavior, and Set the Course of History. Three scientific authors wrote up their subjective list, including Frankenstein, Mr. Hyde, Prometheus, Jim Crow, Siegfried, and J.R. Ewing. Their top three are The Marlboro Man, Big Brother, and King Arthur. (No, no, the legend of Arthur which transcends whatever the reality was. No, I’m not going to argue over it, because you’re probably right.)

I think my personal list would be:

  1. Bilbo Baggins, who left his comfortable home to apply his skills in ways he could never have foreseen
  2. Winnie the Pooh, who is fun and compassionate if nothing else (I should learn more from him)
  3. Wolverine, an angry man who has been a bad influence on me. I should work to replace him with The Man who was Thursday, who strove after God.

Who are the characters on your list?

Book Reviews, Creative Culture