Romper Room wonks

Tonight I cooked one of my brother Baal’s purple potatoes for supper. Did you know there are such things as purple potatoes?

It tasted like a potato. No surprises there, thank goodness. But a purple potato is deeply disturbing on a fundamental level. It’s purple inside and out, with thin of sheath of white between the “meat” and the skin. It looks like some kind of unnatural hybrid of potato and beet, and you can’t help thinking that it’s going to taste like something approved by the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Visual cues mean a lot to most of us, and by that standard, I just don’t… (ready for this?) dig purple potatoes.

But it was interesting. Definitely interesting. Maybe three-year-olds will like them, if you tell them they’re dinosaur livers.

Rodham Devon, it was cold today. Cold out of a clear cerulean sky, so that if you kept your window shades open you got a nice solar rebate on your fuel oil bill. But the ambient temperatures more than adjusted for that. On a day like today, there’s nothing between us and the interstellar wastes except a little rind of planetary atmosphere. The sunlight drops in and bounces right back where it came from. Minnesota. A nice place to visit, but even sunlight doesn’t want to spend time here in the winter.

Lots of talk about the Iran Study Group report today. From what I hear and read on the web, it seems pretty much like what everybody expected.

I keep flashing back to my childhood. Elementary school. Green chalkboards and linoleum. A “cool” teacher telling the class, “Today we’re going to have a discussion on current events.”

And he would ask our opinions on how we thought various issues in the news ought to be handled.

The answers were always the same.

In domestic affairs, the answer always was, “The government should make a law…”

In international affairs, the answer always was, “We should sit down with other countries and talk about it.”

“That’s very good. Very thoughtful,” the teacher would say.

(Thomas the weird kid, of course, would say something like, “I think we ought to drop an atom bomb on ‘em.” But the teacher would tell him sternly that if he had nothing appropriate to offer, he should just be quiet.)

Fifty years later, it seems like most of us are still trying to impress that teacher.

Maybe it’s because our culture has bought into the myth of the Wisdom of Children (an opinion that seems to gain adherents as the birth rate decreases).

Or maybe it’s because we’re just culturally stuck in an infantile mode, dressing even in middle age like kids in an Our Gang feature, and bragging loudly about the toys we’ve accumulated (like Viking live steel gear, I know).

But I think a lot of us—even the old codgers of the Iraq Study Group—stopped refining our thinking about public affairs back in elementary school, and we haven’t noticed that the world is a little more complex than we knew in fifth grade.

What was your suggestion again, Thomas?

Tomorrow shall be my dancing day

We are singing this traditional carol in our Christmas concert this month:

Tomorrow shall be my dancing day;

I would my true love did so chance

To see the legend of my play,

To call my true love to my dance;

Chorus

Sing, oh! my love, oh! my love, my love, my love,

This have I done for my true love

Then was I born of a virgin pure,

Of her I took fleshly substance

Thus was I knit to man’s nature

To call my true love to my dance. Chorus

In a manger laid, and wrapped I was

So very poor, this was my chance

Betwixt an ox and a silly poor ass

To call my true love to my dance. Chorus

Should I Use the N-word in a Title?

Mr. H.S. Key has kicked up a conversation on the word “nigger.” Regarding Michael Richards’ outburst:

Most offended Americans said it wasn’t necessarily the word that bothered them – since the word is used by rappers and even some crazy white people in somewhat less unacceptable ways (nigga and so forth). Rather, it was the manner, context and intent behind Richards’s usage that made the situation so bad. Or was it the word itself?

He describes another comedian who used the word clearly without malice and has apologized.

The word “nigger” is not one I plan to use when I’m not talking about the word itself, but I must say it doesn’t have the negative connotations for me that some people seem to give it, probably because it and other words like it carry more meaning in their usage than they do in the definition. For more on this, see Randall Kennedy’s 2003 book, Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word.

The Last Survivors of Pearl Harbor

From AP reporter Jaymes Song: “With their number quickly dwindling, survivors of Pearl Harbor will gather Thursday one last time to honor those killed by the Japanese 65 years ago, and to mark a day that lives in infamy. This will be their last visit to this watery grave to share stories, exchange smiles, find peace and salute their fallen friends. This, they say, will be their final farewell. . . .

Nearly 500 survivors from across the nation were expected to make the trip to Hawaii, bringing with them 1,300 family members, numerous wheelchairs and too many haunting memories.”

Thank you, gentlemen, for giving your lives to protect our country and thank you to your families for supporting you. May we never forget, and may the Lord of all creation bless you and your families richly.

Grave meditations

It’s cold in the Twin Cities now, but we’ve only had light flurries of snow, flurries that left small trace behind. It’s kind of academic anyway, because it’s supposed to get up to about forty on Saturday, and anything we’d gotten, short of a major blizzard, would melt then anyway.

It felt even colder yesterday, out in the cemetery at the committal service. Especially bareheaded as I was. I wore my full winter Sunday regalia to the funeral, including my black homburg hat. I wore the hat in particular so I could take it off at the cemetery. And that’s why I’m taking zinc to fight a head cold today.

I feel that every person has a right to have some man in a black homburg hat at their funeral, to take it off at the appropriate time. In the past such uncoverings were taken for granted, but nowadays you’ve got to find an eccentric like me to give the proceedings that particular classy note.

Perhaps its part of the ancient tradition of human sacrifice at funerals. The Romans, as you may know, held gladiatorial combats to say goodbye to the dead. The Vikings liked to strangle a slave or two to keep King Gunnar company in his funeral mound.

And up until recently, we had men taking off their black homburgs at our funerals in the dead of winter, so that there was a good chance one of the older ones would contract pneumonia and follow after shortly, along that long, lonesome road.

This by way of Archaeology in Europe: Vatican Archaeologists Unearth St. Paul’s Tomb.

Vatican archaeologists have unearthed a sarcophagus believed to contain the remains of the Apostle Paul that had been buried beneath Rome’s second largest basilica.

I wonder if they’ll find the skull with the body (Paul is said to have been beheaded, so that part could be missing). I’d like to see a forensic recreation, to learn how close to the traditional description he really was. I have to think the traditional picture is right, because I can’t imagine any reason why anyone would make up such an unattractive image. Paul is said to have been short and bowlegged, with a large, domed head and a prominent nose. He is also supposed to have been bald and to have had thick lips, which would probably be harder to determine working from the bones.

I love skull reconstructions. Somebody find me St. Olaf’s skull, or Chaucer’s. Give me a face to look at. If I can’t have a time machine, I’ll take whatever I can get.

Give Books to the Poor and Needy

And may God bless us everyone.

Lynne Scanlon suggests we put a book in the pocket of pants we give to a poor family this Christmas.

This week as she stood in line at the local general store to buy her daily fix of Pepperidge Farm cookies, the Wicked Witch waited behind an older gentleman buying five Nascar toy cars. He told the cashier that he was buying them to contribute to a local organization donating holiday gifts to needy children. Why not a book with each car? Doesn’t this idea make good sense? As a young girl I used to love getting books for Christmas—especially if they were about horses. I’ve since graduated from horse crazy to just plain book crazy.

In memoriam: Cousin Amos

I took off work today and drove down to my home town for a funeral.

My dad’s cousin Amos had died, old and full of years. He was probably Dad’s best friend among his cousins. His farm was only about two and a half miles from ours. We went to the same church, and he was one of the small group of farmers, dad among them, who helped one another fill their silos every year (an activity that nearly killed several members one year, when a steel silo collapsed. I wrote about a silo like that in Wolf Time).

Amos was almost an archetypal Norwegian farmer. He didn’t say much, although he liked to joke when he was with family and friends. In the community he was wholly overshadowed by his wife, a formidable woman who ran our church Sunday School like a general and was not afraid to step on toes as a crusading member of the local school board.

But he was loved. Our old church was filled to the rafters today, by people saying goodbye. Amos’ only granddaughter stood up to give a tearful and moving eulogy. She told how, in her last phone call to him, she had thanked him for the wonderful heritage he had left them, and then had felt ridiculous because nobody in her generation ever talks about “heritage.”

The pastor gave a simple, solid gospel sermon, saying that Amos had made his work easy, because he had been sure where he was going. Even my brother Moloch, who drove up from Iowa, was impressed with the sermon.

I was more deeply moved than I expected to be. I think I was mourning more than Cousin Amos. I was mourning my own parents, and a part of my life, and a way of living that is passing forever. The town isn’t the same, and farming isn’t the same. Even Norwegian Lutherans aren’t the same. And we are the poorer for it in many ways.

But I’m grateful for my heritage too. And, if nothing else, I also know where I’m going.

Appalachian Town Takes Up Christmas Magic

Inspired in part by the 1988 children’s book, The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree, by Gloria Houston, and in part by the author herself, the folks of Spruce Pine, North Carolina, are remaking themselves after a few years of job loss. They hope to become “the home of the perfect Christmas tree.”

Gloria Houston donated the rights to her book to the city of Spruce Pine and suggested they take up the new holiday theme. In response, the town’s people are making holiday decorations.

Reporter Kathy Kiely of USA TODAY states: “These aren’t amateur holiday fair items: The curvilinear red, green and walnut Carolina ‘snowflakes’ hanging at the White House are the creations of Billie Ruth Sudduth, a basket weaver whose work is displayed at the juried Smithsonian craft show. The White House trees also feature handblown glass ornaments by Virgil Jones, whose work is on display in galleries in Asheville, N.C.”

The town has the attention of the first lady as well. “This is a very wonderful American story,” Laura Bush said. “They all worked together, the people in the town, to figure out a new industry for themselves, and they came up with making these wonderful ornaments.”

Hood, by Stephen R. Lawhead

I spent the bulk of my weekend in Wireless Router Purgatory. I got a little shopping in and went to church and all that, but Saturday and Sunday evenings were pretty much spent on the phone with a series of East Indians, most of whom seemed to be consulting the manual between instructions.

I’d tried wireless networking before, but gave it up after three set-ups because I always had to call Earthlink for a “bridge,” and Earthlink always made it fairly clear that I was cheating by not using equipment rented from them, but they’d stretch a point just this once.

So when I needed high-speed access for my tenant, I figured I’d just bite the projectile and order the fixin’s from Earthlink. All the difficulties I’d had setting up wireless in the past, I was sure, must have been due to the basic incompatibility of open-market equipment with Earthlink’s Own. This time it should be easy.

Ah, to be young again, guileless and starry-eyed.

After several hours with tech support I had everything working Saturday night. It worked right up to the time I signed off the internet on both computers. After that, neither computer had access anymore.

Finally yesterday I got to talk to a supervisor who knew what he was doing. It took 2 ½ hours, but we got it up and running in the end. Except that the laptop still doesn’t have access. He’s sending a new adaptor. For now I’m back to the same access I had before, except that I’m running it through more complicated connections.

Oh yes, I was going to review a book, wasn’t I?

Stephen Lawhead’s Hood is the beginning of a new trilogy. Lawhead has taken on the legend of Robin Hood this time, but of course, being Lawhead, he’s doing it his own way. I was a little wary of his approach, but all in all it worked for me.

Lawhead’s Robin Hood is not the Robin of the movies and television shows, nor even the Robin of the old English ballads. It’s Lawhead’s belief that such a legend could never have risen in the England where it finally established itself, but must in fact have older roots in a different place—Wales in the time of King William Rufus, successor to William the Conqueror.

I don’t generally care for literary relocations. I like my heroes in their proper places. I don’t like stories where Sherlock Holmes goes to New York (or Minnesota), or Philip Marlowe is transplanted to London. I don’t like stories about cowboys in Africa. Nevertheless, Lawhead got over my reservations and won my close attention.

This Robin Hood is Bran ap Brychan, the willful and immature son of a minor Welsh king. When his father is treacherously killed by invading Normans, Bryn first travels to London to appeal to the king’s justice. What he gets is a demand for payment for the restoration of his kingdom. When he returns to Wales he falls afoul of the Normans in possession and becomes a wounded fugitive. Wandering in the forest, he is rescued by someone who heals his body and helps him to discover his destiny.

I found Hood compelling reading. I don’t think Lawhead has ever managed to become the author his early career arc promised, but the story kept me turning the pages, and the characters were sharply drawn and appealing. Bran himself is fascinating—a spoiled, rebellious boy whose instinct is to flee his responsibilities, but who is led by grace to take up his destiny.

One element that worked well for me was an addition to the Robin Hood mythos—Lawhead puts Robin in a disguise. He wears a hooded feathered cloak and mask to resemble a large, supernatural raven (hence the title of the series, The Raven King Trilogy). This might possibly rise from the influence of Russell Thorndike’s Scarecrow of Romney Marsh stories. It worked marvelously well here, I thought.

Lawhead didn’t talk me over, personally, with his historical reasons for moving Robin to Wales. One fact he never mentions seems a weighty one to me—that Hood (or Hode) is a very common family name in Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire, the area where most of the ballads place the outlaw.

But that said, the book was a great ride and I look forward to the next one. I was also relieved that the reflexive anti-Catholicism of Lawhead’s recent work is nowhere to be seen here. There are good priests and bad priests, but no broad-brushed denunciations of the Roman church. So Catholic readers can relax. I discerned no major moral or theological lessons in the book (except for the importance of maturity and unselfishness), but Lawhead likes to leave that sort of thing for the very end.

Hood is suitable for teens and above. The morality is OK, considering the time and place. Robin Hood is a thief after all (I think we all knew that), but you can justify that on the basis of his being a king carrying on a war.

Pretty good book.

Relief Is a Great New Lit Journal

Must say I’ve enjoyed what I’ve read of Relief: a Quarterly Christian Expression. The first issue came to me several days ago. The editors chose to mix fiction, non-fiction, and poetry together so that if you read from front to back you would splash through a variety of word imagery. They also chose to put their choice selections, the best of the approved submissions for the issue, in the front for special recognition. Let me echo their kudos here; writers Michael Snyder, Nancy J Nordenson, and Jill Bergkamp have submitted excellent work.

I should blog on some of the stories in Relief later. I wish I could reproduce some of the poetry, but no, you’ll have to pick up a printed issue to read these bits of elegance. If you don’t care for elegance, keep read this blog.

Living in an MLK Neighborhood

From an article in my hometown internet news site by Michael Locke:

In WE CALL IT HOME: LIVING THE DREAM IN THE M.L. KING NEIGHBORHOOD, Greenfield recounts taking Sunday morning drives through these M.L. King neighborhoods and being fascinated by the desolation that had once been respectable:

“I wanted to photograph the old buildings where once a thriving black middle-class had lived, worked, prayed and been educated. The wrecking ball of time was nearby and I did not think even the powerful hand of God could forestall the inevitable collapse. I was wrong.”

We Call It Home by Stephen Greenfield, photographer, and Barry Parker, author, is a coffee table book for sale in downtown Chattanooga.

“You’ll have to sleep somewhere else”

Important News Update: I have now finished off my Thanksgiving leftovers.

Further developments will be reported as they occur.

Today was road trip day. Marty, a guy from the maintenance crew at work, and I drove a couple hours to a town in western Minnesota, to pick up thirty cartons of books donated to our archive.

The donor is the same guy I wrote about a while back, the one who perpetrated the classic “shrinking turkey in the microwave” Thanksgiving prank.

His name is Marvin, and he is the son of a pastor of the old Lutheran Free Church, predecessor to my own church body.

He showed me a story he’d written, called “My Father’s Best Sermon.”

I think it’s one of the finest stories I’ve ever read.

I’m going to pass it on to our denominational magazine, but I’ll give you a condensed version.

When Marvin was a young teenager (around the 1930s or early ‘40s, I imagine), he asked his father if he could go with the other kids to some entertainment event (he didn’t say what kind). His father said it wouldn’t be appropriate and told him no. Marvin said he was going anyway, and headed out.

“If you go out without my approval,” his father told him as he reached the door, “this house will be locked when you get home, and you’ll have to sleep somewhere else.”

Marvin refused to back down. He left. He enjoyed the event.

That, he said, was the short part of the night.

When he got home he found the house dark, the doors locked. Even that window in the basement that the kids could sometimes work loose was locked tight.

Marvin stood in the dark, thinking about his options. It wasn’t winter, but it was fall and the night was getting cold.

He remembered a sort of loft in the chicken coop which his brother and he had appropriated as a “secret place.” It had a sort of a mattress and a ratty quilt.

He went into the chicken coop and climbed up. The “mattress” was there, but the quilt was gone.

Lacking other options, he lay down on the mattress and curled up in a fetal position. The cold wind blew in through the cracks. The coop stank of chicken droppings. There was no way to sleep. He lay there in the darkness hugging himself, shivering. The hours passed slowly. He wondered if he could make it through the night.

Then, at last, he heard a door open. He heard a creaking sound as someone climbed the board ladder to the loft. Someone put a pillow under his head, lay down and held him close, and pulled a quilt over both of them.

In the darkness, he heard his father say, “Marvin, when I said that if you disobeyed me you’d have to find another place to sleep tonight, I didn’t say that I would sleep inside.”

And so that pastor taught his son the true meaning of the Incarnation.

Wish I’d had a dad like that.

Wait. I do.

Losing face

I don’t know whether to take pride in this or feel like the kid not invited to the party.

Oh heck, I guess I’ll go with Number Two. It’s what I know best.

I saw a display from Myheritage.com on somebody’s blog the other day (if it was yours, I apologize. I just can’t remember which blog it was). They’re a genealogy site, but they have a sideline that uses face recognition software to tell people (on the basis of an uploaded picture) what famous people they resemble. They encourage you to post the result on your blog.

I thought, “That’s cool. I’ll probably be matched with somebody really embarrassing and be able to bounce a couple jokes off it.”

So I tried it today.

Nothing.

No matches. Not a single famous person looks at all like me.

This leaves me just where I was before with the eternal question, “Who would I choose to play me in a movie based on my life?”

I’ve agonized over this decision for years. Especially since Michael J. Pollard stopped working.

I’ll have to play me myself.

But who will play The Young Walker?

Maybe Michael J. Pollard has a kid.

Walker has good day. In other news, pigs take up barnstorming

Today is a good day. A day that will live in my yellowed book of memories, for reasons I’ll explain below.

Dave Lull sent me this link, about how it looks like some Norwegians served in the Roman legions.

Archaeological findings have strengthened notions amongst scholars that quite a few Norwegians, from the farthermost north of Europe, in all likelihood served as soldiers in the Roman legions.

You may or may not know that it was the practice of the Romans to station “auxiliaries” (that is, legions made up of “barbarians” from the provinces) in corners of the empire farthest from their original homes, so as to prevent them growing sympathetic to local insurgents. A large number of the soldiers who served in Palestine came from Germany. Assuming that the Norwegians would have been lumped together with the Germans, some of my ancestors (my great-grandfather was born at Avaldsnes) might have been witnesses to the life, death and even resurrection of Christ.

Might have scourged Christ personally, as a matter of fact. Though I prefer to imagine virtuous centurions.

Anyway, the good thing that happened today was that I came home to a package from Norway in the mail (you thought I was writing about your package, weren’t you, Phil? Well, your package was great too. Thanks again). This was from Cousin Trygve in Hardanger, and it was the CD De Beste, by Sissel Kyrkjebø (sorry, no picture there).

As is to be expected in a “Best of” album, a lot of it is stuff I already have (as if I can ever have enough copies of Sissel’s songs). But it includes some cuts from the very beginning of her career, when she was a girl soloist on a Norwegian TV show called “Syng Med Oss” (“Sing With Us”). One of them is a song that was on an album the show’s cast did for the Norwegian National Cancer Foundation, which I once borrowed from a friend and of which I made an illegal copy, one of my treasured possessions to this day. (No, I don’t condone illegal copying, but this was an album absolutely impossible to acquire by legal means. That’s not an excuse, just an explanation.)

The song was Sissel doing the Japanese international hit “Sukiyaki.” I know it sounds ridiculous—a Japanese song sung in Norwegian by a Norwegian. But it’s heartbreakingly beautiful. Sissel was born to sing that song. According to the liner notes, I’m not the only person who’s been dreaming of a re-release of that cut. They’ve been getting requests from all over the world (Sissel is actually very big in Japan). And now it’s here. And I have it.

If I never post again, it’ll because I’ve died of joy. Life can only go downhill from here.

Update: In case anyone should be thinking of ordering the De Beste album (and I do recommend it), I should give one warning. What I’ve heard so far has been almost uniformly great, with some wonderful surprises, but one big disappointment. One of the cuts on the second disk is Sissel’s “duet” with the rapper Warren G, over the music to Borodin’s “Prince Igor.” It’s a very odd mix, with Borodin’s lovely music and Sissel’s transcendent voice backing up Warren G’s hostile and frankly dirty rap lyrics. There’s a lot of profanity in it, and it sits like a cowpie in the middle of a cathedral. I understand the song did well commercially, but I wish Sissel had turned it down. So be warned.

Book Reviews, Creative Culture