from Phillis Wheatley’s “Imagination”

Imagination! who can sing thy force?

Or who describe the swiftness of thy course?

Soaring through air to find the bright abode,

Th’ empyreal palace of the thund’ring God,

We on thy pinions can surpass the wind,

And leave the rolling universe behind:

From star to star the mental optics rove,

Measure the skies, and range the realms above.

There in one view we grasp the mighty whole,

Or with new worlds amaze th’ unbounded soul.

Phillis Wheatley (~1753–1784) was an American poet. She is considered the first important black writer in the United States.

Johnson & Johnson & Johnson & Johnson…

I’m [irony alert] hung over from my excessive Valentine’s celebrations yesterday [end irony alert], so I thought I’d upload another interesting old picture from my scans. Unfortunately I found that the picture I meant to use is in .tif format, which Photobucket is too good to associate with. So I’ll have to make a note to myself to convert that picture, and instead I’ll share this one:

Johnson family

This is one of my favorite family historical pictures. It comes from Mom’s side, the “disreputable” side. It was taken on the family farm, and I believe they were living in Hurley, Wisconsin then. That’s not something most people brag about (Back when I worked at the denominational headquarters, I once told one of my bosses that my grandmother had been born in Hurley. He looked at me and said, “You didn’t tell us that when you interviewed for this job”). I don’t know what year it was taken, but it had to be 1914 or earlier.

Reading from left to right, the fat lady we come to first is Elvira, (we pronounce it “El-VEE-rah” in my family) my great-grandmother. She was born in Trondheim, Norway in 1862. She may be part Sami (that’s Lapplander, but they don’t like to be called that anymore. Never did like it, actually), but I don’t know much about her background (nor her husband’s). She came to America in 1890. She is a devout and faithful Christian, and sometimes organizes Sunday Schools for immigrant children . She will die in 1914, aged 52.

Next to her is my grandmother, Hilda Johnson. She may not be as young as she looks in this picture. She was a very small person. On the other hand, that’s a little girl’s dress, so she’s probably not confirmed yet. She will die in 1959, at the age of 59. I remember her as an old woman with no teeth, but usually kind, and a faithful Christian. She and my Walker grandmother used to bring competing cakes for my and Moloch’s birthdays, which was great as far as we were concerned.

Next is the legendary John B. Johnson, scourge of the seven seas and northern Wisconsin. He was born in 1860. I’ve done some research based on hints my mother remembered, and I believe I’ve identified his birthplace as Grov on Hinnøy, which is almost, but not quite, in the Lofoten Islands. If this is true, he may be the Sami in the family (Grandpa said he thought there was some), since they were more common there than around Trondheim. But Elvira looks more Sami to me.

John B. has lived a colorful life. He worked on the restoration of Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim in the 1880’s. He was a cook on a whaling ship, and is said to have once escaped a sinking ship, towing two drowning men behind him on a long swim. Blood was gushing from his nose when he made shore. He’s said to have sometimes taken bites out of porcelain plates when he was drunk (which was often). And a woman once appeared at the door of their house, asked for him, then handed him a baby. “This is yours,” she said, and walked away. He didn’t dispute it, and they raised the child as part of the family.

I don’t know when he died, but it was in Saxon, Wisconsin.

Just behind John B. is John A.—John A., my grandfather. He doesn’t even belong in this picture, properly. He isn’t part of the family—yet. Not many years later he will marry the little girl Hilda, who will be only 18 even then. What he was doing at the Johnson place that day, I have no idea. I’ve told you about him before. He will live a life of struggle and poverty until he lands a job with the Milwaukee Road. When he retires on his railroad pension he’ll find himself suddenly making more money than he ever did before in his life. He’ll die in 1976, at 79.

The other two young men are Hilda’s brothers, Jacob and Alfred, about whom I know little.

About the horse I know nothing.

Pictures like this—roomy images that show whole houses rather than just little clumps of people—please me very much. They give me the feeling that I’ve gotten a peek into the people’s lives. I’ve magnified this picture and studied it in detail without discovering any hidden secrets, but I still like to look at it.

Man, Teach Not The Lord’s People

“10 reasons why men shouldn’t be pastors”

6. Men are too emotional to be priests or pastors. This is easily demonstrated by their conduct at football games and watching basketball tournaments.

5. Some men are handsome; they will distract women worshipers.

Here’s a bit o’ humor passed from blog to blog which could be a conversation igniter. I’ve gotten my chuckles out of it, and I link to it here despite my fear that it could be fodder for a feminist diatribe on women in church leadership. I don’t want to support that. I’m one of those failed intellectuals who believes the Bible grants church and family authority to men, not to men and women equally. Both genders are equally valuable in all roles of life, but men have the responsibility to lead their families and churches after the example of Christ.

Speaking of Quotations

The New Yorker asks what phrase, thought, or bit of instruction isn’t quotable. “Whenever I take a plane, I am struck by ‘Secure your own mask before assisting others’ as advice with wide application.”

That’s sage advice, don’t you think? How about these potential quotations?

  • “Walk. Don’t run.”
  • “Do not microwave.”
  • “Toughest on grease.”
  • “No part of this publication may be reproduced in whole or in part, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without written permission of the publisher.”

Bitter, but not stupid

In case you’re reading this on Thursday or later, the quotation Phil chose for our header on Valentine’s Day was this one:

“That man that hath a tongue, I say, is no man, if with his tongue he cannot win a woman.”

– William Shakespeare, The Two Gentlemen of Verona

Thanks for your support, Phil.

I spent last evening on the phone with Earthlink technical support, always an exercise in character building and cross-cultural enlightenment. I’d used their online chat service the night before to complain that the laptop card they’d sent me for my wireless network had stopped working. I finally convinced them that it wasn’t me, that the card actually had stopped working. The technician told me to call their Sales Support number so I could arrange to have the thing replaced at no cost.

I decided not to call right away, because it was getting late. I’d do it the next day.

Wise choice.

First I talked to Sales (after a long wait on hold, of course). Sales said no, we can’t do that for you. You’ve got to talk to Technical Support. We’ll transfer you.

Hold Music again for about 45 minutes. Finally I reached Tech. Sup.

“We can’t help you with that,” they said. “You’ve got to talk to Sales.”

More Hold Time.

Got to Sales. “You have to arrange this with Technical Support,” they told me. They put me on hold again.

Another wait.

“I don’t understand,” the Tech guy said. “We don’t have a way to do this.”

I explained that I’d been running back and forth between the two departments all night.

“I’ll find out,” he said. “I’m afraid I’ll have to put you on hold again for a while.”

I waited, but while I waited he actually walked over to Sales and asked them about it. He finally talked to a supervisor and found a way to get my card replaced without a charge.

If I had a daughter, I’d want her to marry this guy.

But I’m not so happy with Earthlink.

I’ve read that there’s an anti-Valentine’s Day movement going on in this country.

“Walker’ll get behind that,” you probably think. “He loves cynical stuff like that.”

Wrong. In fact think it’s disgusting.

It’s part of the whole Me First attitude that’s hardening the arteries of the republic. “I don’t believe in God, so everybody else should hide their religion. I’m allergic to dogs, so dogs should be outlawed. I don’t have a Significant Other, so you better shut up about yours.”

Here’s what I say. If you’ve got somebody you love, hold ‘em tight. Treat ‘em like royalty. Let ‘em know how much you need ‘em and appreciate ‘em.

Give ‘em chocolate.

It doesn’t make me feel any warmer, out here in the cold, to be told it’s just as cold inside.

Happy Valentine’s Day.

P.J. O’Rourke Doesn’t Make the Cut

Mr. Holtsberry reviews P. J. O’Rourke’s On The Wealth of Nations, which is O’Rourke’s take on Adam Smith’s classic (Does anyone read The Wealth of Nations anymore? Does anyone read any of the classics?). In short, he doesn’t think much of it. “I am not sure O’Rourke really captures anything quintessential or insightful about Adam Smith’s famous work or helps the reader understand it better. It is an interesting journey but you end up with little to hold onto in the end.”

Want some mustard on that Hero?

You know what an “earworm” is, don’t you? One of those tunes that get stuck in your head, and you can’t seem to not hear it.

On the Northern Alliance Radio Network show on Saturday (the second act, featuring Mitch Berg from Shot In the Dark and Captain Ed from Captain’s Quarters), they used up valuable radio time playing Frankie Valli’s cover of Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice,” in its entirety. I’m still not sure why. I think it might have been an oblique comment on something Nancy Pelosi said.

In any case, it’s been my off-and-on earworm all week, and it’s a weird one. Strangely fascinating, though repellant, like seeing Mickey Mouse in a Tennessee Williams play, or watching a man dancing the tango in clown shoes.

I wrote the other day about the problem of villains in books (or any storytelling medium). Villains, being villainous, generally wish to dominate the world, and they definitely want to dominate your story.

The thing about villains is that they do stuff. They get out there and mix it up. Unencumbered by concern for the comfort and convenience of others, they disrupt lives and systems and whole nations in order to get the bright shiny things they covet.

Your hero, on the other hand, is probably heavily encumbered. He’s nice. He’s not going to break down anybody’s door to find out what nameless evil is looming in the shadows. He’s got a job (probably). He’s got responsibilities.

To put it bluntly, he’s kind of dull. He might be nice to have as a husband or a friend, but he’s not very interesting to watch.

This, I suspect, is why many popular heroes are a little nuts. Sherlock Holmes, besides his drug problem, is bipolar, antisocial and narcissistic. Hercule Poirot is narcissistic and obsessive-compulsive. James Bond is a charming, psychopathic satyr.

But you can only take that so far. Make your hero too proactive and he becomes a busybody or a bully.

So the usual solution is to get him into trouble. Bring the villain to him, let the villain do something he can’t overlook, then let them mix it up. Make the villain formidable, give the hero lots of failures and set-backs and close misses to overcome, and you’ve got a story.

But the whole thing’s unsatisfactory to me, as a Christian writer. I believe that good is not essentially quiescent (I’m not a Buddhist). My Lord was contemplative when it was appropriate, but could be extremely proactive when faced with evil. He even picked fights (rhetorically), and once used a whip on some guys (or at least their livestock).

When I created my favorite character of my own, Father Ailill, I had the idea of a mad Irishman coming to live among a lot of dull Norwegians. It might have been good if I’d done it that way, but I came to feel that I’d be able to write him better if he were more like me. So I made him an essentially brash and aggressive guy who’s been broken (I know all about being broken). This added a Flashmanesque element of cowardice (although Ailill is less cowardly than he thinks). I believe it worked all right (I’m not fishing for compliments, I’m just telling you how I dealt with the problem).

But I’d like to figure out a way to build more proactive heroes.

Shoot, I’d like to figure out a way to be a little proactive myself.

Let’s Talk About the Worst

Valentine’s Day is tomorrow, and no doubt you have worked up warm and squishy feelings over the people or food products you most love. I think you need some balance. Talk to me about those books you wish you hadn’t read or those that were so bad you couldn’t finish them.

The discussion has already started. Sherry doesn’t give us the name of the “bodice-ripper” she couldn’t get through, though she may not remember it. Mark points out several titles which despite the strong writing may be difficult for many readers to finish. One book I reviewed favorably last year drew harsh criticism from my sister and a few others for stilted dialogue and otherwise boring writing.

I still don’t think I read many books for good reasons. I slog through many books in order to review them later. I also read slowly, so when I say “many books” it’s probably just a few compared to you. I probably should read careless for a year, giving a book 50 pages to interest me and feeling no guilt for dropping it.

But what about you? Can you name any books you disliked?

Site Maintenance

When I bought the name and space for the BrandywineBooks.net, I thought the host’s behind the scenes traffic monitor would be enough for me to keep up with who is reading and browsing the site, but it hasn’t been. It’s hard to get to and difficult to understand. So I added the site meter we used on the blogspot blog. You can see it at the foot of the sidebar. The number, presently 64,188, reflects all the visitors from the old site, but none from the new site until today.

I should probably take that number for what it is and avoid reading encouragement or discouragement into it. No reason to wonder why more people don’t drop by. I’ve given them reasons to look elsewhere with my inconsistent, uninspiring blogging. But is blogging really about readership? If someone posts on a blog no one reads, isn’t it still blogging?

I’m not serious. Don’t worry about me, but feel free to send your cards and gifts all the same.

Brandywine Books has been online since May 2003. We are an Adorable Little Rodent in the blogospheric ecosystem. We rank 28,111 at Technorati. And better than any of that, you are here now. Thank you for stopping by. Now, go read a good book.

Lincoln in context

Finally got my first call for my Room To Rent today. Unfortunately, the guy who left the message on my machine spoke low and was kind of mush-mouthed. The call-back number he left (as far as I can figure it out) isn’t in service.

Probably just as well. Don’t want no inarticulate folks in this house.

(You’ll note that my stress level in regard to renting the room has diminished. I got a check back from my insurance company the other day, with a note telling me I’d double-paid. Haven’t worked out how that happened, but it’s a relief).

Today is Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. I should post things like this the day before, I know, since a lot of you don’t read my posts till the following day, but I’ll be boiled if I’ll post on a Sunday. So, O Reader of the Future, I apologize if this is the first you heard about it. Write it down in your calendar, and you’ll know next year.

I believe I’ve written about this before, but I don’t think Americans today appreciate what a significant figure Lincoln used to be, not only in America but in the world. We’re so used to his story—the birth in a dirt-floored cabin, the sums written in charcoal on the wooden shovel, the miles he walked in winter to return a couple cents overcharged in his store—that they’ve become rote pieces to us. We lose the impact of the story in its time and place.

(By the way, do kids today learn about these things? Or do the teachers just throw in a couple of lines about Lincoln being a racist white, male president and a closeted homosexual, before moving on to cover Notable Crossdressers of the Civil War?)

But the Old Order was very much in the saddle in Europe in Lincoln’s time. Kings and Emperors still ruled, some of them by Divine Right. The idea that royalty and nobility enjoyed their power and privilege because of an inborn, natural superiority was still in play.

And here was this tall, ugly American, born in poverty, who became leader of one of the world’s emerging powers, who wrote brilliant oratory and who managed to keep a fractious country together through the greatest crisis in its history without the brutality one expected in young republics. His very existence was a rebuke to Old Europe.

And Americans didn’t let them forget it. The hagiographical books and pictures, the pious eulogies and songs about Lincoln, they were partly an expression of real respect, but they were also the cock-a-doodle-doo of a brash young country that had found a better way and wasn’t afraid to say so.

Lincoln was not pretty. He was not elegant. He did not sound like Gregory Peck when he gave a speech—he sounded more like Festus Hagin. But he was successful and progressive and smarter than the whole House of Lords put together.

We valued that in America. Once upon a time.

Book Reviews, Creative Culture