What I meant to say

I missed a step yesterday. As I re-read my post, I thought, the transitions here, from Elvis to Rock ‘n Roll to my personal navel-gazing to fear, aren’t flowing properly. But I had other things I wanted to do, so I let it stand.

But now I remember I’d wanted to say something about fear. Something positive, difficult as that may be to believe.

First of all, I was going to say that, in case you were wondering about my problems with book orders in the bookstore due to the internet being down, that it all got worked out. The IT guy came up and burrowed under my desk a while, and then went down to the server and discovered that the problem was there all the time. So I got my service, and all the orders were placed on Thursday (except for the orders of that one instructor who never gets his orders in until just before classes start. I figure if he can live with it, I can live with it).

I employ a mixed media approach in ordering books from publishers. I use the internet to research the books, learn the publishers and ISBN numbers, and after I’ve transcribed all that information on a spread sheet, I call the publishers’ 800 numbers to actually make the orders. It seems to work best for me that way.

And that’s remarkable, under the circumstances. Because I hate calling people on the phone. When I first took this job, the phone calling was one of the duties I dreaded most. It’s related to my Avoidant problem, as you’ve probably guessed.

But I got past it. After I’d done it a couple times, I learned that if I was prepared, making the calls with my orders wasn’t all that difficult.

I need to highlight this in my mind, which is why I highlighted it above. Within my personal scenario, the warped lens through which I look at my life, there is no place for improvement. I see my life as a place where everything is going downhill. Nothing ever gets better. Instead, the inevitable slide takes me, eventually, to the place where I lose my job, my home, all my friends and family, and end up wandering the streets yelling at imaginary enemies.

But this got better. I actually improved at something. I overcame a fear.

I’d better stop now. If I write any more, I’ll find a way to sabotage it.

Have a good weekend.

Elvis, Hauge and fear

Everyone’s talking about Elvis today, the 30th anniversary of his death.

I have nothing particular against Elvis, except that his stuff never did much for me.

I never got Rock ‘n Roll. Rock ‘n Roll is for adolescents, and I never really was one. I was a kid forced to act like a grownup before he was ready. I didn’t actually become a grownup, I just got stuck at the “kid playing adult” stage for the rest of my life, which is how it works when you do that. So I think I lacked some emotional components necessary to appreciate the genre.

Also, of course, R&R is about sex. Teenagers are excited about maturing, and their music expresses that. Me, I was terrified of what was going on in my body. I was pretty certain that I’d never get a lawful outlet for it (I was right), and I tried to deny the whole thing as long as I could.

I liked soaring, symphonic music that raised my spirit to eternal things, and causes worth dying for. “The Theme from Exodus” was my favorite song.

I think Mel Brooks is overrated, but I appreciated one running gag in his “2,000 Year Old Man” act. Carl Reiner would ask him where something—pretty much anything—got started, and Brooks would say, “Fear!”

Fear controls us more than we like to admit (even I, who admit it all the time). Writing a story? Want to know how to motivate your characters?

Ask two questions—“What does he want?” and “What is he afraid of?”

The answer to the first question will tell you what the character will do. The answer to the second question will tell you how he will do it.

Another thing that impressed me in my reading of Hans Nielsen Hauge’s autobiography (see yesterday’s post) was the fearless way he went about his ministry, doing stuff that nobody in his country had ever dared to do before.

It’s a measure of the depth of his Christian conversion that he became a man almost without fear—or at least a man whose faith conquered his fear.

Hauge was the first man in Norwegian history—one of the first in Europe—to decide that he wasn’t obligated to obey his rulers all the time. The principle that “we must obey God rather than men” is a biblical one, but it was taken for granted in those days that the king ruled by God’s authority, and so there could be no conflict. The law (a very sensible one in many ways) said that all religious preaching and instruction had to come from an authorized representative of the state church. Otherwise, you’ll get nuts running around preaching heresy and nature worship and reincarnation and witchcraft and a lot of other nonsense. Which did, in fact, happen in the end, so you can’t say their concern was unreasonable.

Hauge harkened back to a principle of Luther’s—that a plowboy with his Bible had more authority than all the popes and councils that ever met. Convinced of this authority, Hauge went out to do whatever good he could—spiritual or material—for his neighbors.

He was warned. He was arrested. He was beaten. He was thrown out of towns. But the conviction of his heart and his study of the Bible weighed more in his eyes than any intimidation or violence.

There was a Danish/Norwegian author named Axel Sandemo who invented what he called “janteloven,” the Law of Jante (which is a fictional city, based on his Danish birthplace, in his stories). It’s a series of rules that would be familiar to many people, Scandinavian or not. It’s sort of a Lake Woebegone thing. Some of the janteloven rules are:

You shall not think you are anybody.

You shall not think you are as good as we.

You shall not do anything to give the impression that you are better than we.

You shall not think you are worth anything.

You shall not think you can teach us anything.

Hauge fell to the janteloven in the end. They put him in a cell, where it was dark and cold, and they gave him nothing to do, and nothing to read (except the works of Voltaire), and they kept him from his friends. Year after year. Finally they let him go, sick and old before his time, but not before they’d gotten him to confess that he’d gone too far. He’d taken things to extremes. He’d been a bad Lutheran and a bad citizen.

He never recanted his faith (they didn’t want him to), but he recanted a part of his vocation. He wanted to walk under the sun again, to see things growing in the soil, to talk with fellow believers.

But the thing that really broke his heart, according to what I’ve read, was that they convinced him (it was hard, but they did it at last) that the king was against him.

It’s hard for us to understand today what the king meant to the peasants through most of European history. The king was not an oppressor. The king was their friend. The common people loved the king. Every man who suffered injustice knew in his heart, “If I could just get to the king’s ear, I’d get justice.”

“If the king thinks I was wrong, then I must be wrong,” Hauge thought.

And yet he won in the end. That bent, white-haired, toothless old man of fifty was nevertheless the future of the country.

Kind of like Elvis, I guess.

A Christ-like man

A lot of people think we’re behind the times at the seminary/Bible school where I work, and right now they’re right, at least technologically. Our computer network has been down since Monday. The timing couldn’t have been much worse for me. This is the week I’d planned to order textbooks for the fall, and I use the net extensively for that job. I can do most of it the old-fashioned way, I guess, with catalogs and phone calls, but I expect the network will be back up before I get far into that process, so I’m… delaying.

I’ve been looking at a book in the archive, a selection from the writings of the Norwegian lay evangelist Hans Nielsen Hauge. I’ve written about him before, and will probably write about him again. He was an important historical figure in a fairly unimportant country, so he’s not very famous except among Norwegian Lutherans. But he was a remarkable man, a true original and a Christian to his toes, and reading his story in his own words only reinforces that opinion in my mind.

[Short overview, for those of you who don’t want to read the Wikipedia entry: Hauge was a farmer’s son with a minimal education. In the 1790s he began traveling as a lay evangelist, urging people to repent, be converted, and live lives worthy of Christ. He also wrote books of edification, which he got printed and mostly gave away. His activities were illegal, and Hauge was arrested repeatedly, finally being sent to prison from 1804 to 1811. This broke his health and shortened his life. His movement, however, proved to be revolutionary. Under his teaching, the common people began to improve their education and to get involved in business, industry and politics.]

The first thing that impressed me was that he was an essentially cheerful man (remarkable in a Norwegian, but there it is). The stereotype of the Haugeans, built up over generations (and generally true), is of extremely dour people who frown on all pleasure and love to find opportunities for dressing their neighbors down. Hauge was definitely a Type A, obsessive about using every moment profitably (he even learned to knit so he could make stockings as he traveled on foot from place to place. I’ve seen a pair of his stockings in the Folk Museum in Oslo), but he was an optimistic Type A. When faced with a challenge, he assumed things would go well. When he met people, he assumed they would treat him well. He never feared the law, because he was convinced his good king would never oppose God’s work. He was a genuinely charming personality.

In a famous incident, during one of his early, temporary arrests, he was confined in a bailiff’s house. A girl was sent in. Hauge says she was sent to “mock him.” I have to assume the idea was seduction, to get evidence of hypocrisy against him. Most of the Haugeans I grew up with would have had a fit at that point. But Hauge didn’t lecture the girl. He spoke to her quietly, and in a few minutes she was weeping.

Then they sent in a crowd of people, led by the bailiff’s wife and a fiddler. The fiddler struck up a dance tune, and the rest of the people started dancing. The bailiff’s wife took Hauge’s hand and invited him to dance.

Hauge said, “I’ll join you if you’ll have the fiddler play this song—” and he began to sing an old hymn (he’s said to have had a beautiful voice). The dancing stopped immediately, and Hauge began to talk to the people. He doesn’t say that he converted any of them, but he says they began to take pity on him, and some said they wished they were like him.

I have found no incident in the story, so far, where Hauge “dresses anybody down.” He had a spirit of gentleness, always seeing Christ in people, even the crudest and most depraved. And it was that vision of Christ in others that made him bold to speak the gospel to them.

Freddy and Fredericka by Mark Helprin

Mark Helprin is one of those slow novelists who brings out a moving, life-altering book every decade or so, like a geological fault spawning earthquakes.

This is probably good, for two reasons. First of all, it’s really depressing for an ordinary author like me to read something as perfect as a Helprin book. It makes me feel like a junior higher who’s just discovered The Lord of the Rings and sets out to pen his own epic on his laptop, in a really neat font he downloaded off the web.

Also, it’s a fact, too often overlooked in the publishing industry, that you can’t produce a superior book like one of Helprin’s in a year. Or two. Even three.

It’s worth the wait.

My favorite Helprin novel (the same as pretty much everybody else’s) has got to be Winter’s Tale. My second favorite is probably Memoir From Antproof Case. A Soldier of the Great War is tremendous, but the tragic elements were too much for me. I haven’t read Refiner’s Fire (got to look for that).

But I think Freddy and Fredericka has supplanted MFAC as my second favorite. Briefly put, it was a delight from beginning to end.

Think of an Evelyn Waugh novel, written by P. G. Wodehouse. That’s the British part.

Think of a Tom Wolf or Mark Twain novel, also written by Wodehouse. That’s the American part.

The final segment, back in England, is merely sublime and moving.

It’s been a long time since I’ve laughed out loud, again and again, over a novel. But Freddy and Fredericka did that for me.

Here’s the (ridiculous) premise: Freddy and Fredericka are a fictionalized version of Prince Charles and Princess Diana. Names have been changed to protect the innocent, but it’s impossible not to recognize the royal family here as the one we know in our own, slightly inferior world.

Freddy seems, perhaps, a bit more solid than Prince Charles. He is strongly traditional and conservative in his opinions. Sound fellow. However, he has a problem. He is prone, sometimes because of irresistible impulses, and sometimes because of what Jeeves used to call “a concatenation of circumstances” to do ridiculous things in public that get him onto the front pages of the tabloids, such as (for instance,) trying to get back in through the gate of Buckingham Palace, stark naked, tarred and feathered, with a takeout chicken box on his head.

Fredericka, on the other hand, seems even more vapid and photogenic than her real world prototype. (At one point she asks Freddy, seriously, “What is a raw egg?”) On the other hand, she seems to be something of an airhead savant. She has bizarre flashes of brilliance, doing complex algebra problems in her head, for example.

My favorite line of her dialogue: “Lord Louey sent me a book on compassion that I have to read because he wants me to be the author.”

Because of the bad press, and because he has failed an occult family test to determine his worthiness to rule, Freddy and Fredericka are sent on a quest.

They are to parachute into New Jersey, incognito, clad only in rabbit skin bikinis, to win the United States back for the Commonwealth.

Piece of cake.

What follows is a satiric and affectionate odyssey through America, in which F & F (totally unrecognized by people who’ve been looking at their pictures all their lives) take odd jobs, ride the rails, serve as forest rangers, impersonate dentists, and Freddy becomes a speech writer for a presidential candidate (who bears no discernible resemblance to Bob Dole, despite the fact that Helprin himself was chief writer for his campaign, something I suspect even he would admit is not the highlight of his résumé). Like all good travelers, they learn not only to love the new country, but to love their own country better through it.

And the final chapters, when they go home, are deeply moving, filled with hope for the world.

One only wishes Prince Charles really were Freddy. And that Di had been Fredericka, of course.

I don’t award stars to books, but if I did I’d add a star for this one. Get it. Read it. Laugh. Be touched. Thank me later.

You’ll probably just want to skip this post

The family reunion went great. Fine weather, good turnout. Everyone was genial, and nobody said anything to offend me.

And yet I went home miserable.

Well, what do you expect? I’m me.

It started out fine. I drove down early to catch the 9:00 a.m. service at my old home church. Even when I got corralled into joining an impromptu quartet of relatives to sing “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” for the special music, I figured the experience couldn’t have been much worse for us who had to sing than for those who had to listen to us. Attendance was summer light, but the church was comfortable and I enjoyed the sermon. (The theme was “Be ye faithful unto death, and I will give thee the crown of life,” in case you’re checking up on me.)

Then I drove out to the farm where the reunion is held nowadays. We had a couple hours yet before lunch, but I helped set up chairs and chatted with a few cousins.

Then people started arriving, and it got more difficult. Not bad. I was doing OK, though there are only three questions anyone asks me:

1. “Making any more trips to Norway?” (Answer: “No. I’m house-poor now. I may never get back to Norway again.”)

2. “Writing any more books?” (Answer: “Yes, but my publisher dumped me and my agent went belly up, so I’m back at square one.”)

3. (This one was only asked once, but was unquestionably posed silently by many:) “Now that Cousin X has surprised us all by getting married after all these years, are you gonna surprise us too?” (Answer: “Probably not, because I’m crazy in a way that women find particularly off-putting.”)

But I was holding up OK, until my brother Moloch casually mentioned something he said I’d said a long time ago, that I didn’t remember saying, and of which I’m ashamed now that I know about it.

That was when the trapdoor opened, and I plunged down—not into emptiness but into sewage, a noxious mixture of fear of other people and loathing of myself. I pretty much shut down for the rest of the afternoon, mostly just speaking when spoken to (which means, in all probability, nobody noticed any difference).

I drove home as soon as I could get away, and went to bed early.

I can’t even handle a pleasant afternoon with family. I wonder if I’m sliding toward complete agoraphobia. Which would be a bad thing for someone who doesn’t have anyone to sponge off for his upkeep.

I’m somewhat better today. It was a low fall and a quick bounce-back. But of course the bounce-back always ends up a little lower than the place where you started.

Beyond dispute

Tonight Hugh Hewitt (who obviously hates me) messed up my evening walk by broadcasting a debate between David Allen White and Christopher Hitchens over the existence of God.

This isn’t what I want in an exercise partly designed to lower my blood pressure. So I had to switch to the cassette function of my Walkman. I climbed down in the basement to find a cassette that hadn’t flaked off all its oxidation. I found an acceptable Sissel tape, and so saved the walk.

I hate arguments. If the Calvinists are right, and I’m not among the elect, I expect Hell to be a room full of people arguing at the tops of their voices forever. I shrink inside when people argue. I don’t have to be one of them. My fetal-position instinct kicks in.

I admire logic and disputation. I have immense respect for men like C. S. Lewis, who could go at an argument with a colleague for hours, then laugh and share a beer with him. That’s the way it ought to be. Questions should be talked out to the bitter end, all permutations nailed down, and there should be either consensus or an agreement to disagree. And no one should bear hard feelings.

Wish I could do it.

In harmony with this theme, my doorbell rang tonight, and there was a young woman “organizing the neighborhood for NARAL.” Last year they sent a tattooed, one-armed lesbian with her female “bodyguard.” This year’s representative was more presentable, though she avoided avoiding a cliché by having a stud in her nose. No visible bodyguard.

How does she dare go out alone like that, in a country steeped in rape and violence against women?

Anyway, I told her I wasn’t interested and backed away. She asked me why not, and I told her, “I’m pro-life.”

“I’m a sexist pig,” I added, as I closed the door.

That’s my zinger. I pull out the insult I expect from my opponent, and I use it on myself, to disarm them. “Your feeble bullets have no power over me, because I just shot myself!”

It doesn’t even make sense to me.

But let’s not argue about it.

Have a good weekend. I’m down to Kenyon for the biennial (semiannual?) every two year Walker Family Reunion on Sunday.

I thought of saying I’d share pictures, and then I thought, “Why?”

“Absurd, Ridiculous and Mind-bogglingly Insensitive”

But that’s the New York Times for you. Opinion Journal points out an article on the NYT website by Freakonomics author Steven D. Levitt, who asks, “If you were a terrorist, how would you attack?”

Now, that question alone is a little shocking, but more importantly, it’s the same type of question the Pentagon asked in 2003 to the Times’ harsh criticism. “The insensitivity of the idea boggles the mind. . . . The project’s theoretical underpinnings are equally absurd,” they said back then. Now they must think it’s an acceptable query.

James Taranto concludes, “Has the Times become more sensible since 2003? The question answers itself. Thus it must be that the Times has become more absurd, ridiculous and mind-bogglingly insensitive.”

Emergency Reading in the Trunk

This is hilarious. Brian Doyle asked several people what books they keep in the trunks of their cars, just in case they find themselves unprepared for a reading opportunity. He reports, “A woman in Alaska had every single book she owned because she was moving from one apartment to another. . . . A friend in California had books on alcoholism and Lutheranism.”

Amy points this out, saying it may be a good way to her to read James Joyce. I don’t live by my car enough to make this work for me. The only times I’ve had a strong need for reading material is while stuck at a car shop waiting for my car to be returned. (via Books, Inq.)

Editor Trumpets New Literary Voice

Random House states that their man David Fickling, whom they praise for discovering and editing Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, has found a new literary talent–Jenny Downham. Fickling will be releasing her first young adult novel, Before I Die, next month.

How does that strike you? Does the news that the first editor of popular books encourage you to believe a new book passed through his hands with his blessing will be just as good as the others?

Book Reviews, Creative Culture