If you’re already depressed, don’t read this post

The sky was dimming as I left work today. It wasn’t evening yet, but the afternoon was effectively shot. That’s how it is in Minnesota, the first Monday after the time change. It’s always a shock, like somebody dropping something on your roof with a thump.

One of these years the first big blizzard will occur on the first Monday after Fall Back. And when that happens, half the population of the Great Plains will commit seppuku in concert.

The guy who runs the used book shop I patronize recommended the author Phillip Margolin to me, noticing that I’d pretty much run through all the Jonathan Kellerman. So I picked up Wild Justice.

Short review, after 45 pages: Hackwork. Uninspired writing and flat characters. I’m not going to finish it. Since I’ve decided to stop buying books for a while, to save money, I’m going to finish Volume Two of C. S. Lewis’ Letters now, and then I plan to re-read The Lord of the Rings.

On Saturday I drove down to Faribault to join Aunt Ada and Uncle Ralph, along with several of their children and grandchildren, for a committal service for an uncle and aunt I’ll call… oh, George and Martha. George passed away recently and was cremated, and while cleaning out his apartment Cousin Brian found Martha’s ashes in a cupboard. So they arranged to inter them together in my maternal grandparents’ plot.

My brother Moloch, who as you may recall is a pastor in The Very Large Lutheran Church Body Which Shall Remain Nameless, led a short service. We sang “Abide With Me” and “Amazing Grace” in a chilly breeze.

Moloch is sanguine about George and Martha’s final destinations. He’s a sacramentalist, believing that once you’re baptized you’re pretty much guaranteed salvation unless you perform a black mass and storm the heavens or something. I found the occasion rather more melancholy than he did.

Not that George and Martha were awful people. Martha, my mother’s sister, was an extremely amiable person—desperately amiable. She was as insecure as I am, but she handled it in an equal and opposite manner. She was an incessant talker, saying anything that came into her mind anytime the conversation threatened to slacken. She believed (I always suspected) that silence would give people an opportunity to think bad things about her.

I remember her saying, one day at Grandpa’s house, “The point of any religion is to do the best you can, after all, isn’t it?”

I didn’t correct her. Kids didn’t correct adults’ theology in our family. Perhaps her blood is on my hands because of that.

George probably led a pretty good life, according to his lights. He didn’t like to work and he did like to drink. He worked some years for an agricultural implement company. When they closed down and laid him off, he gave up working, living off Martha’s small income. He had enough money to pay the rent on their shabby apartment, play some golf and drink pretty steadily. He seemed content with that.

I’d like to say something more profound about him, but I really didn’t know him. He wasn’t the kind of man you had conversations with, not sober anyway.

I’m going to stop this post here, because there’s nowhere to go that isn’t depressing.

Happy Autumn.

We Love the Lord. You Don’t.

I’ve been wanting to write one or two posts on political language or some of the talk I’ve read about current issues, but I’m a slow blogger as you can tell. This one will be quick, and then I’ll take my wife back to the midwife. (She feels good, btw, and her body is healing.)

On political talk in Tennessee, Harold Ford, Jr. (D) is campaigning against Bob Corker (R) for the U.S. Senate. Apparently, the Corker people were at a rally for Ford in Paris, Tennessee, where Congressman Ford said:

“My friend Lincoln Davis who chairs our campaign says there are, there’s one big difference between us and misfortunate Republicans when it comes to our faith: he said that Republicans fear the Lord; he said Democrats fear AND love the Lord (applause)…”

I suppose that’s public knowledge which could go without comment, but I want to note that I often pray for our leaders and candidates to fear the Lord no matter which party they are in.

Book Coverage in Newspapers

I just learned of this new ArtsJournal blog on books: BookDaddy. Jerome Weeks has been book columnist for The Dallas Morning News before starting this blog, and here he describes the state of book coverage at that paper, if not in newspapers generally. On increasing revenue for book coverage, he suggests:

If the [American Association of Publishers] wanted to do anything, it could try to convince advertisers that the readers of books pages may not be the young illiterates with poor impulse control that marketers currently want but neither are they the old and the dying, as conventional ad wisdom has it. They’re a well-off, often media-savvy and intellectually- and socially-involved audience. This is not some wildly unconventional, radical re-think: TV networks have come to respond to an older audience (the kids are all off in the clubs or on the computer) and has long positioned “geezer” ads for its news programming. Why not the arts pages?

Sounds good to me. I want to be concerned about newspaper coverage, but I don’t subscribe to any of them. I have picked up a few Friday Wall Street Journals because of Terry Teachout, and I look at the local Sunday paper at my parents house, but I don’t care to spend the money on a subscription I wouldn’t read. I do that with other things already. (Thanks to Books, Inc. for pointing out Mr. Weeks’ blog.)

Publishers Turn to Fan Fiction

From our Shameless Profit Desk comes this report that some publishers are looking into fan fiction. “A librarian in Idaho recently received a $150,000 advance from Simon & Schuster to publish a three-novel trilogy about a character from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. In Brooklyn, a fan fiction writer known for turning out Lord of the Rings imitations landed the same fee for a similarly inclined fantasy series.”

Can’t see it happening. Fan blogging on the otherhand . . .

Daylight Saving Time: A Change Is Coming

This post is offered as a service to our readers (If I had an Amazon Tip Jar, I’d direct you to it).

Daylight Saving Time ends tonight. Set your clocks back one hour before you go to day or you may be late for church tomorrow.

Next time we do this, we will do it sooner. “Beginning in 2007, Daylight Saving Time is extended one month and begins for most of the United States at 2:00 a.m. on the Second Sunday in March to 2:00 a.m. on the First Sunday of November.”

I don’t expect this to affect the Christmas shopping season.

Update: These cuckoo clock museum owners in London will take all weekend to turn back their 500+ clocks.

Update: Dave Lull directed my attention to this humorous article on the origins of Standard Time and Daylight Saving Time. When Standard Time was proposed to meet the desires of the railroad industry, some said it was “puzzling, saddening, or infuriating [to assume] that time was arbitrary, changeable, susceptible to the whims of the railroads or defined by mere commercial expediency. Surely the world ran by higher priorities than railroad scheduling.”

I would television scheduling to that.

Confederacy of cats

I was intrigued by Florence King’s review of Dixie Betrayed by David J. Eicher over at the American Spectator blog today.

My attitudinal history as regards the Confederacy has traced a sine wave profile over the years. As a child I was a Lincoln buff (still am), and a rabid partisan of the Union (I was born just in time to have the Civil War Centennial pretty generally in my face during my early teen years, and I loved it).

Later, as I found myself drawn to federalist politics, I started thinking more highly of the South. I find the argument pretty compelling that the Constitution would never have been ratified if anybody’d been told that secession would be forbidden. Lincoln’s constitutional argument, so far as I could tell (in spite of my reverence for the man himself) seemed to be basically, “We have to preserve the Union because I think it’s a good idea.”

Which is nice, but one might argue whether it was worth 600,000 lives.

But I had no idea what an organizational mess the Confederacy was, if Eicher is correct in his analysis.

Maybe the best thing Lincoln could have done would have been to have told them, “Bye-bye, have a good life,” and then waited for them to go to pieces, then crawl back and ask to be readmitted.

I have a sad feeling that somewhere on one of those battlefields a man died who would have written or preached or sung something that would have made America a better, happier place today.

Then again, maybe Lincoln was right when he said in his second inaugural address.

“Yet, if God wills that [the war] continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’”

Sometimes stories lie

I sit in a house that’s both quiet and not quiet. It’s quiet in the sense that I don’t have Hugh Hewitt on, as is my custom this time of day (he’s interviewing Andrew Sullivan, and who needs that at suppertime? Or is it Andrew McCarthy?).

But the house is noisy because I’ve got a half-dozen guys crawling around my roof replacing the shingles, hammering away and occasionally dropping what sounds like sleeper sofas. The Day has come at last. In theory they’ll get the job done tonight, though it looks to me like a lot of work remains.

The previous owner was in love with green. The walls of Blithering Heights are a mottled green stucco, and the shingles were bright green. Up till now I’ve been able to end my directions, when telling people how to get here, with, “And my house is the green one, third from the corner.”

I am not in love with green. It’s my least favorite color, in fact. I chose a solid, conventional brown for my new shingles. I have no objection to standing out from other houses, but I don’t want to stand out in terms of greenness.

My impulse was to shingle the place in red, but I figured it would end up looking like a Christmas decoration.

Restraint is my watchword.

Restraint and “chocolate.”

Hence the brown shingles.

I think I’ve got one more post on subjectivity and stories in me. I’ll just open up the old brain-box and see if anything’s in there…

Nope.

Ready as I ever am, in other words.

I was saying that stories are a powerful means of teaching, because they engage both reason and emotion, thus bringing the whole person into the project.

But this is a sword that cuts both ways (“The Amazing Crossover Cutlass! Only $49.95 in three easy payments, from K-Tel!”). You can use a story to nail truth down in a person’s heart. But you can nail a lie down just as easily.

I read some time back about a phenomenon in cinema called “Movie Logic.” The wonderful thing about movies is that people believe what they see. If you show a car leaping over a twenty-six foot gap in a bridge, you believe it because you just saw it happen, right before your eyes. You don’t think about the fact that one end of a car contains the engine and is therefore much heavier than the other end. For that reason, when a car goes over a gap like that in real life, it tends to nose down (if the engine’s in front) pretty quick. Stunt arrangers load the rears of stunt cars with counterweights to permit them to make such jumps.

How many times in recent years have you seen somebody in a movie run out of an exploding building, ahead of a blast that just barely manages not to catch them?

Care to try that in real life?

It’s similar in stories, though not as vivid. But most of us trust writing more than movies, so I suspect literature may have more staying power in the long run.

How many kids have learned one of their first profound life lessons from Dr. Seuss’s The Butter Battle Book? Dr. Seuss explains it all. The Yooks eat their bread butter-side-up, and the Zooks eat it butter-side-down. And that’s all the difference between them. All this war stuff, it’s based on a misunderstanding. All our differences are trivial. If we’d just sit down and talk it over reasonably, why, we’d discover we all want precisely the same things.

Remember M*A*S*H*? The TV show especially. The North Koreans, when we were allowed to see one, were always scared, confused young men who only really wanted to go home. They weren’t interested in killing anybody. The only people who wanted to kill anybody were stupid Americans like Frank Burns and Col. Flag (apparently the rule that we all want the same things doesn’t apply to Americans).

It’s all a misunderstanding! We just haven’t talked enough! Can’t we understand that the North Koreans were always our friends? Even today, Kim Jong Il is just posturing with those nukes. What he really wants is for George Bush to put his arm around his shoulders and tell him how proud he is of him.

We all want the same things. We Americans want our children to grow up happy and healthy. So the Islamic jihadists have to want that too. If they instead strap bombs to their kids and send them out to blow themselves up in crowded markets, well… well, we must have driven them to it by not understanding them enough. And anyway, George Bush signed death warrants in Texas, so it’s all the same.

It must be, because Dr. Seuss told us so.

We need stories that touch our hearts, but we need stories that exercise our brains too. Stories informed with knowledge of the real world.

Remember the movie “Being There” with Peter Sellers? At the beginning Sellers, playing a retarded man who has spent his entire life watching TV in a rich man’s house, is turned out on the street, with nothing but a nice suit and his remote control.

When some young muggers confront him, he tries to use the remote to change the channel.

There’s a story we can learn from.

Living in the purple zone

Let’s see. We were talking about fiction and the problem of subjectivity. It’s a problem for me anyway. The moment I hear somebody saying, “It’s all subjective,” I can feel the cholesterol clumping up in my arteries. I hate subjectivity with Schaefferian zeal. I remember an argument I had with my college roommate for hours one Sunday at lunch (we were eating with girls and could have spent the time more profitably). After going around and around forever, I finally figured out that my roommate had his own private definition of “subjective,” one which bore no resemblance to any recognized definition anybody else used.

He’d defined “subjective” subjectively.

So I’m reflexively resistant to all talk of the “S” word.

But that’s a wrong response. (Blame my subjective reaction.)

Look at it this way:

Imagine two colored vertical bars, like the design on the French flag. On one side you’ve got a red bar—all passionate and fiery and subjective. Emotional. Think of Barbra Streisand’s political philosophy.

On the other side you’ve got cool blue. Clinical. Reasoned and proportional. “Just the facts, ma’am.” Systematic.

Personally I’m a lot more comfortable with the blue side. What good did emotions ever do for me?

But like I said, that’s wrong. (My reason tells me so.)

What do you suppose you find in the middle, between the two bars? A wide white no-man’s-land (again like on the French flag)? An impassible barrier, where never the twain shall meet?

No, it’s not like that at all. What you have is a very wide band of purple, graduating from red to blue.

And that purple area is where you and I live. We live in reason and emotion, spirit and body.

Some days we’re closer to the red side. Other days we’re closer to the blue. Some people try to live all the way over on one side or the other (think Sherlock Holmes contrasted with Rosie O’Donnell).

But we all have to live in the purple area. So our communication—our really effective communication—has to be a blend of red and blue, passion and reason.

That’s why stories communicate so well. When God wanted to tell us about Himself, He didn’t dictate a book of Systematic Theology (as I would have advised Him if He’d asked me). He gave us a book full of stories, stories about people’s real lives and how He’s dealt with them.

That’s why a human being in a photograph provides the best overall kind of scale. A concrete post with words “SIX FEET” painted on it might work, but it wouldn’t work as well. Because the story of the waterfall is not just a story of measurements. It’s a story of experience too. The feeling of the spray on your face, the roaring of the water in your ears.

That’s why fiction speaks to people as science and philosophy (essential though they are) never can.

Man is not the measure of all things.

But man is the best measure of some things.

Imprints Are Old School

Faith*in*fiction notes that Westbow will be history in its parent company’s reorganization. Thomas Nelson has 18 imprints and plans to consolidate all of them under one name over several months. President and CEO of Thomas Nelson, Michael Hyatt, said imprints are “an inside-out way of looking at the market, self-focused rather than customer-focused. The only ones who care about imprints are publishers, and they are expensive to maintain.” No jobs will be cut and some added, according to the report.

Boring post on interesting writing

In my last post I included a photograph, and noted the fact that adding a staged, theatrical element to the scene actually resulted in a more realistic (and impressive) picture, one that gave a truer impression.

I burbled something fuzzy about the paradox of a fiction increasing realism. I wasn’t up to thinking about it much more at the time.

I’m not actually up to thinking much tonight either, but I’ve been pondering the matter off and on over the weekend and have come up with the following hypothesis.

What the tourist people did, when they added the fictional elf-girl to the scene, was a sort of visual counterpart to what I do when writing novels (especially since I write fantasy).

You had a prospect, a “view” which was most impressive in real life, but didn’t translate well to the photographic record. The problem with the photograph was that scale was lacking. You saw a picture of rocks and moving water, and you couldn’t tell if you were looking at a small mountain stream or a mighty waterfall.

So the tourist people added a human being. She gave it scale. Suddenly you take a picture and you can see how large the waterfall is in comparison to her. The falls comes alive (not to mention that the girl is nice to look at in her own right). You can almost hear the roar of the water now.

Fiction is like that. History (contemporary or older) provides data, data that can overwhelm and bore the consumer. There are a few talented historians who can bring the stories alive, but even their work doesn’t ring bells for many people. Because the historian (generally) follows strict rules. He can only use the documented evidence. He may not invent things. And there’s a lot he can’t know.

His narrative, therefore, often lacks human scale on the emotional level. We miss the drama of the story because the historian can’t tell us how it felt to the people involved—the things they feared, their hates and loves.

The novelist adds the personal element. He tries (with more or less success) to transport us into the skin of a historical character (real or imagined or composite). He tells us how things looked and sounded and smelled. He shows us (doesn’t just tell us) how the issues being contested affected the people involved. The flat photograph acquires proportion.

The subjective human element provides scale.

The irony of this is that subjective things generally make poor yardsticks.

I shall consider that problem tomorrow.

Unless I find I’ve thought myself into a corner and turn to drink instead.

Hymn Sung to “Kingsfold”

I love this hymn, written by a Quaker teacher in 1906, sung to a traditional English tune called “Kingsfold.”

I feel the winds of God today; today my sail I lift,

Though heavy, oft with drenching spray, and torn with many a rift;

If hope but light the water’s crest, and Christ my bark will use,

I’ll seek the seas at His behest, and brave another cruise.

It is the wind of God that dries my vain regretful tears,

Until with braver thoughts shall rise the purer, brighter years;

If cast on shores of selfish ease or pleasure I should be;

Lord, let me feel Thy freshening breeze, and I’ll put back to sea.

If ever I forget Thy love and how that love was shown,

Lift high the blood red flag above; it bears Thy Name alone.

Great Pilot of my onward way, Thou wilt not let me drift;

I feel the winds of God today, today my sail I lift.

The choir in my church was to sing an arrangement of this song today, and I could have joined them if I wasn’t with my sweet wife having another little girl. We had prayed for an easy delivery of our fourth daughter, and we received it. Thank the Lord. The next day after we returned home, my wife felt a hardening in her leg with some pain when she drew back her toes–a potential blood clot in the leg most afflicted with varicose veins during pregnancy. We called her midwife and obeyed the summons to the emergency room downtown. A five-hour wait to be admitted to a labor room upstairs for another uncomfortable night on a hospital bed for my good, good wife who only wanted to recoup her strength from carrying and delivering the baby.

But I am able to write you tonight because we have returned home. Thank the Lord. The symptoms in her leg were not a serious blood clot, though maybe asuperficial one treatable with heat and aspirin. We can rest at home without blood thinners and monitoring. The Lord saw us through the drenching spray of a rough sea, and will continue his faithfulness as we raise our daughters I have no doubt. Now, to bed.

A City By Any Other Name Would Still Smell

Seattle, Washington, hopes to draw tourists and new residents by calling itself “metronatural.” For those of you in the back row, that’s like metropolitan with a part of that word replaced by another word so that the final word is–I don’t know–kewl.

What does “metronatural” say to you? If it doesn’t say, “Visit Seattle for your kind of vacation,” then you can add it to your list of ways to spell “failure.”

This reminds me of a breifly lived slogan my city did while I was away in college. In print with designed letters, it’s attractive enough that you may miss the words: “Live it, love it, it’s Chattanooga.” That’s close to “like it or lump it.” Perhaps others agreed with me, which is why the city’s current tagline is “The attraction’s only natural.” Similar to Seattle’s, when you think of it, but less hokey.

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