"we were framed to fail and die—/ One spell and well that one. There, ah thereby/ Is comfort’s carol of all or woe’s worst smart."

- Gerard Manley Hopkins, "To His Watch"
Achievable New Year's resolutions

As is my custom, once again I fearlessly publish my annual list of achievable New Year's resolutions. I resolve...

…to keep my weight, whatever the cost to me, above 100 lbs.

…to refuse all offers to appear on “The View.”

…not to vacation in Burundi.

…to purchase no car that costs more than $200,000.

…not to take up Tai Chi, Feng Shui, or Kung Fu.

…not to shave my head.

…not to eat sushi.

…not to run for elective office.

…not to summon the Powers of Darkness to rain down death upon my foes.

…not to have any body part pierced.

…not to try designer drugs (only off-the-rack drugs for me).

…not to buy an iguana.

…not to paint my house purple.

…not to carve a monumental sculpture of Oscar Homolka out of Colby Jack Cheese.

…when drawn, never to look haggard. (One or the other. Not both.)

…not to bear, ‘mid snow and ice, a banner with the strange device, “Excelsior.”

…to go easy on beating the servants.

Thoughts, or a reasonable equivalent

Wouldn’t it have been great if the international attention now focused on Saddam Hussein’s fate had been directed to his victims in time to save some of them?

I like this post from Blue Crab Boulevard, with a link to an article on the largest Lego project ever completed.

Gotta help set up church tonight. I may be back to write something pretentious in a New Year’s vein, either tonight or tomorrow.

Weary of Wandering from My God

Weary of wandering from my God,
And now made willing to return
I hear and bow me to the rod
For thee, not without hope, I mourn:
I have an Advocate above
A Friend before the throne of love.

O Jesus, full of truth and grace
More full of grace than I of sin
Yet once again I seek Thy face:
Open Thine arms and take me in
And freely my backslidings heal
And love the faithless sinner still.

Thou know’st the way to bring me back
My fallen spirit to restore
O for Thy truth and mercy’s sake,
Forgive, and bid me sin no more:
The ruins of my soul repair
And make my heart a house of prayer.

...

Give to mine eyes refreshing tears,
And kindle my relentings now;
Fill my whole soul with filial fears,
To Thy sweet yoke my spirit bow;
Bend by Thy grace, O bend or break,
The iron sinew in my neck!

a hymn by Charles Wesley

In which I insult my second-favorite country

Today I went to work, and I worked. Not a single interesting thought sullied the virgin veneer of my mind.

So I’ll pass on this link, (hat tip to Archaeology in Europe) which won’t interest most of you. It’s about a plan to move the famous Viking ships in Oslo, Norway from their present home to a new one, closer to the center of Oslo.

The present location is a little out of the way. It’s on a peninsula called Bygdøy, across the harbor from the downtown. For generations, tourists have been taking ferryboats to Bygdøy to see the Ships Museum, along with its neighbor, the Folk Museum, where you can see buildings (including one of the country’s most impressive stave churches) which have been relocated from the various districts, reconstructed and preserved.

At first I was surprised to read about it. The current building is probably a little small for the size of modern crowds, but it enjoys an almost religious reverence among Norwegians. It even looks a little like a cathedral (the modern kind).

And frankly, I was surprised the Norwegians would want to spend money to bring their nationalistic heritage to the forefront in the current cultural climate. Aren’t all good Europeans supposed to believe that their heritage is evil, after all? Aren’t they taught that Asia and Africa are superior in every way?

Then I figured it out. The Viking ships are heathen artifacts. No taint of Christianity adheres to them. To affirm pre-Christian culture is almost as noble in European eyes as to affirm non-Christian culture.

Uff-da. I was worried there for a while.

The Curious Incident of the Dog In the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

How was Christmas weekend in Iowa? No snow, but otherwise great. A special plus was the presence of the Oldest Niece’s boyfriend’s little daughter. I haven’t had small kids around for very many Christmases in my life, partly because of not having any of my own, and partly because I was living in the wrong part of the country when my nieces and nephews were growing up.

Anyone who was around during the Watergate era has feelings about the late President Gerald Ford. Even though I was a Democrat in those days, I always felt Pres. Ford got a raw deal. Particularly galling was the running joke, fueled by Chevy Chase and Saturday Night Live, labeling him as a stumblebum. The man was in fact one of the best natural athletes ever to occupy the Oval Office. I think some of my disdain for the mainstream media (both the entertainment and the journalism flavors) rises from that old injustice.

This was the Weekend of Autism for me. The Youngest Niece had rented the movie “Mozart and the Whale,” which is a straight-to-DVD film that deserved a better fate. It’s a comedy (really!) about a couple, played by Josh Hartnett and Radha Mitchell, who meet in a support group for sufferers from Asperger’s Syndrome (a form of autism). I found the movie pretty uncomfortable, because a lot of the behaviors I observed were ones I can see in myself (I’m not autistic or Asperger’s, but I test pretty high for autistic traits within the normal scale). Good movie, by the way (for grownups).

Then brother Moloch mentioned that he had a book called The Curious Incident of the Dog In the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon. So I read that too (Despite the discomfort I was fascinated).

The Curious Incident is an unusual and rewarding novel. The title (as most of our highly intelligent readers, I’m sure, already knew) comes from a bit of dialogue from the Sherlock Holmes story, “Silver Blaze” (“The dog did nothing in the night-time.” “That was the curious incident,” remarked Sherlock Holmes).

The narrator of the novel is Christopher John Francis Boone, a fifteen-year-old autistic boy (and mathematical genius) who lives in a small town in England. One morning he finds a neighbor’s dog killed, stabbed with a large grilling fork. Like most autistic people, Christopher likes animals better than people, and he cradles the dog in his arms. The neighbor woman finds him like that and accuses him of killing the animal. When the police come they try to calm Christopher by touching him, which he cannot tolerate. He hits one of them and is arrested.

His father finally gets him released, but Christopher (in spite of his father’s forbidding it) decides to play detective (he loves mysteries) and solve the killing.

As he tries to emulate the heroes in books, Christopher gives us a vivid tour through the world of the autistic. Talking to people is very difficult, because he doesn’t understand facial expressions or speech inflections. Strange situations panic him—he needs to be able to draw a map of a house before he can be comfortable in it. Loud noises terrify him so that he has to curl up on the ground and groan loudly to try to drown them out.

Yet he manages to travel all the way to London on his own, and solve the mystery.

That his activities cause tremendous pain to the people who love him is something that doesn’t register with him at all. Because feelings and empathy are not part of Christopher’s world.

And that was one of the things I found most interesting in the book. The narrative includes numerous asides in which Christopher explains complicated mathematical problems or meditates on how “stupid” it is to believe in God or the afterlife. Christopher’s mathematical expertise almost gives his atheist arguments credence, but then the reader (or at least this reader) remembers that Christopher has no conception whatever of love. Numbers and animals are more real to him than people are. And when, at the end of the book, Christopher is able to report total success in his investigation, he is completely unaware of the devastation he has wrought in his father’s and mother’s lives.

I could have read something more cheerful over Christmas, but this book was certainly educational and fascinating. Even if (in autistic fashion) I’m not entirely sure I got from it the meaning the author intended.

Field Mice A-Caroling

At last the Rat succeeded in decoying [the Mole] to the table, and had just got seriously to work with the sardine-opener when sounds were heard from the fore-court without - sounds like the scuffling of small feet in the gravel and a confused murmur of tiny voices, while broken sentences reached them - "Now, all in a line - hold the lantern up a bit, Tommy - clear your throats first - no coughing after I say one, two, three. - Where"s young Bill? - Here, come on, do, we"re all a-waiting - - "

"What"s up?" inquired the Rat, pausing in his labours.

"I think it must be the field-mice," replied the Mole, with a touch of pride in his manner. "They go round carol-singing regularly at this time of the year. They"re quite an institution in these parts. And they never pass me over - they come to Mole End last of all; and I used to give them hot drinks, and supper too sometimes, when I could afford it. It will be like old times to hear them again."

"Let"s have a look at them!" cried the Rat, jumping up and running to the door.

It was a pretty sight, and a seasonable one, that met their eyes when they flung the door open. In the fore-court, lit by the dim rays of a horn lantern, some eight or ten little field-mice stood in a semicircle, red worsted comforters round their throats, their fore-paws thrust deep into their pockets, their feet jigging for warmth. With bright beady eyes they glanced shyly at each other, sniggering a little, sniffing and applying oat-sleeves a good deal. As the door opened, one of the elder ones that carried the lantern was just saying, "Now then, one, two, three!" and forthwith their shrill little voices uprose on the air, singing one of the old-time carols that their forefathers composed in fields that were fallow and held by frost, or when snow-bound in chimney corners, and handed down to be sung in the miry street to lamp-lit windows at Yule-time.

Villagers all, this frosty tide,
Let your doors swing open wide,
Though wind may follow, and snow beside,
Yet draw us in by your fire to bide;
Joy shall be yours in the morning!
Here we stand in the cold and the sleet,
Blowing fingers and stamping feet,
Come from far away you to greet -
You by the fire and we in the street -
Bidding you joy in the morning!
For ere one half of the night was gone,
Sudden a star has led us on,
Raining bliss and benison -
Bliss to-morrow and more anon,
Joy for every morning!

Goodman Joseph toiled through the snow -
Saw the star o"er a stable low;
Mary she might not further go -
Welcome thatch, and litter below!
Joy was hers in the morning!
And then they heard the angels tell
"Who were the first to cry Nowell?
Animals all, as it befell,
In the stable where they did dwell!
Joy shall be theirs in the morning!"
The voices ceased, the singers, bashful but smiling, exchanged sidelong glances, and silence succeeded - but for a moment only. Then, from up above and far away, down the tunnel they had so lately travelled was borne to their ears in a faint musical hum the sound of distant bells ringing a joyful and clangorous peal.

"Very well sung, boys!" cried the Rat heartily. "And now come along in, all of you, and warm yourselves by the fire, and have something hot!"

from The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame.

Charlie Brown Rebuffs the Naturalists

My soul is being tried by reading Thomas Paine. A couple of his points are good, but most of his argument against Christianity shows his ignorance of the Bible. He may not have read it through and is relying on his exposure to preaching and Christian associates. I don't know that, but to follow Paine's reasoning I could easily believe he has never read through the Bible even once ("for I keep no Bible," he admits) because he appears to ascribe to the idea that possibility is evidence for reality. If it’s possible none of the Biblical books were written by their authors, then they probably weren’t because doubt is evidence enough.

Doubt coupled with ignorance makes a winning argument.

But that’s just what’s been on my mind lately. This post, for your blog-reading amusement, is about Charlie Brown’s mockery of naturalism. My children are slowly destroying a 1959 paperback called We’re On Your Side, Charlie Brown, comics taken from But We Love You, Charlie Brown Vol 1. It wasn’t in great condition before it began circulating among their books, but I doubt it’s in used-bookstore-acceptable condition now.

I came across this strip last night. Lucy and Linus are staring at the sky. Lucy tells him, “Clouds are very peculiar, Linus . . . Sometimes they seem to form actual words. . .” (ellipses in the original). Charlie Brown hears this while passing by and states, “Those aren’t clouds. That’s sky-writing!”

Lucy faces him in silence for a few moments. Then watching the sky again, she says, “Clouds are very peculiar, Linus . . . Sometimes they seem to form actual words. . .”

Master Brown confronts Lucy’s assumption that the “actual words” were formed through natural, unthinking processes and to no avail. Lucy will not be persuaded, out of pride no doubt. But for Brown, the common man, persuasion is not the goal. Declaring the truth is enough.

A Child of the Snows

I stopped at the grocery store on my way home tonight. The girl at the cash register asked me how I was, and I said fine, how are you?

“I’m great,” she said with a smile. “Santa’s coming in about three days!”

Then she went on to tell me how she’d watched “Miracle on 34th Street” (the classic version) with a friend last night. The friend had never seen it before. Imagine that, she said.

That was enough to bring a smile even to my face.

On consideration, I suspect she told me all this because of my resemblance to Edmund Gwenn.

This will probably be my last post for a few days. I generally can’t be troubled to post on weekends, and I’ll be spending Monday (and maybe Tuesday too) down in Iowa with Moloch and his family.

So I wish you all a merry, blessed Christmas.

Special thanks to everyone who’s sent me fan mail (I’ve gotten a couple particularly nice e-mails recently). As long as someone, somewhere, is still reading my novels and enjoying them, it’s almost as if I were still alive.

My Christmas card to you is this poem from G. K. Chesterton:

A Child of the Snows

There is heard a hymn when the panes are dim,
And never before or again,
When the nights are strong with a darkness long,
And the dark is alive with rain.

Never we know but in sleet and in snow,
The place where the great fires are,
That the midst of the earth is a raging mirth
And the heart of the earth a star.

And at night we win to the ancient inn
Where the child in the frost is furled,
We follow the feet where all souls meet
At the inn at the end of the world.

The gods lie dead where the leaves lie red,
For the flame of the sun is flown,
The gods lie cold where the leaves lie gold,
And a Child comes forth alone.

Merry Christmas

From Jared: "Life is Not Long, But It's Hard: A Christmas Reflection"

"When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious . . ."

Lutefisk Lament

It all changed today.

Yesterday it was just cold. Today it’s Father Christmas Land. We have a nice carpet of snow on the ground, and we’ve also got that photogenic ice-coating over all the tree branches, making everything look like crystal. Wonderful to look at, as long as the powerlines don't get overloaded, plunging you into a blackout.

First it rained. It rained pretty hard, which isn’t a bad thing after our dry fall (except for what it does to the street surfaces).

Then it turned to snow. Big, clotted flakes, like crumbled Styrofoam dropped out of a sack. That went on for a while, then diminished and stopped. We’re supposed to get a few more inches in the next few days.

Almost like the movie “White Christmas,” except that it didn’t happen on Christmas Eve. Pretty close though. I haven't polled any children, but I suspect they're pleased.

I’m going to talk to you about lutefisk.

The legend of lutefisk is that it’s an inedible Scandinavian delicacy, deadly to smell and disgusting to eat. Sort of comparable to 100 Year Old Eggs and live monkey brains.

This is an example of Scandinavian overcompensation. Lutefisk really isn’t that bad. It’s a product made of dried codfish, rendered in lye and washed in water, then boiled for eating. It has a strong, fishy smell when you cook it, and tastes extremely bland when you eat it. Its consistency, if cooked right, is closer to jello than anything else I can think of. It’s an odd food, and most people who didn’t grow up with it don’t care for it much. It helps to eat it with plenty of melted butter (for Norwegians) or cream sauce (for Swedes). But all the moaning is highly exaggerated.

I don’t care much for it myself, but my dad loved it, as did his parents and grandparents. Sometimes we make it for Christmas just for the sake of tradition. I doubt if the next generation will eat it at all, after we’re gone.

My favorite lutefisk tribute is the following poem. It can be found in a number of places on the internet, and most of the sites attribute it to either Boone & Erickson (a team of Twin Cities radio announcers who recorded it years back) or “Anonymous.” The actual author is a man named Dan Freeburg, who copyrighted it in 1978 but seems to have given up on enforcing it. Well, he’ll get credit here, by golly.

LUTEFISK LAMENT

'Twas the day before Christmas, with things all a bustle.
As Mama got set for the Christmas Eve tussle.
Aunts, uncles, and Cousins would soon be arriving,
With stomachs all ready for Christmas Eve dining.
While I sat alone with a feeling of dread,
As visions of lutefisk danced in my head.
The thought of the smell made my eyeballs start burning.
The thought of the taste set my stomach to churning.
For I'm one of those who good Swedes rebuff,
A Scandahoovian boy who can't stand the stuff.
Each year, however, I played at the game,
To spare Mama and Papa the undying shame.
I must bear up bravely. I can't take the risk,
Of relatives knowing I hate lutefisk.

Then out in the yard I heard such a clatter.
I jumped up to see what was the matter.
There in the snow, all in a jumble,
Three of my uncles had taken a tumble.

From out in the kitchen an odor came stealing,
That fairly set all of my senses to reeling.
The smell of the lutefisk crept down the hall,
And wilted a plant in a pot on the wall.
Uncles Oscar and Lars said "Oh, that smells yummy,"
And Kermit's eyes glittered while he patted his tummy.

Mama announced dinner by ringing a bell.
They rushed to the table with a whoop and a yell.
I lifted my eyes to heaven and sighed,
And a rose on the wallpaper withered and died.
Then Mama came proudly with a bowl on a trivet.
You would have thought the crown jewels were in it.
She set it down gently and then took her seat.
And Papa said grace before we could eat.
It seemed to me, in my whirling head,
The shortest of prayers he ever had said.

Then Mama raised the cover on that steaming dish,
And I had to face the quivering fish.
The plates were passed for Papa to fill,
While I waited in agony, twixt fever and chill.
He dipped in the spoon and held it up high,
As it oozed to plates, I thought I would die.

Then it came to my plate, and to my fevered brain.
There seemed enough lutefisk to derail a train.
It looked like a mountain of congealing glue,
Yet oddly transparent and discolored in hue.
With butter and cream sauce I tried to conceal it,
I salted and peppered, but the smell would reveal it.

I drummed up my courage, tried to be bold,
Mama reminds me, "Eat before it gets cold."
Deciding to face it, "Uffda," I sighed.
"Uffda, indeed," my stomach replied.

Then summoning the courage for which we are known,
My hand took the fork as with a mind of its own.
And with reckless abandon the lutefisk I ate,
Within 20 seconds, I'd cleaned up my plate.
Uncle Kermit flashed me an ear-to-ear grin,
As butter and cream sauce dripped from his chin.
Then to my great shock, he spoke in my ear,
"I'm sure glad that's over for another year."

It was then that I learned a great wonderful truth,
That Swedes and Norwegians from old men to youth,
Must each pay their dues to have the great joy,
Of being known as a good Scandahoovian boy,
And so to tell you all, as you face the great test,
"Happy Christmas to you, and to you all my best."

Merry Christmas

"He was on the point of retreating when his eye fell upon the fireplace–one of those vast tavern chimneys where there is always so little fire when there is any fire at all, and which are so cold to look at. There was no fire in this one, there was not even ashes; but there was something which attracted the stranger’s gaze, nevertheless. It was two tiny children’s shoes, coquettish in shape and unequal in size. The traveller recalled the graceful and immemorial custom in accordance with which children place their shoes in the chimney on Christmas eve, there to await in the darkness some sparkling gift from their good fairy. Eponine and Azelma had taken care not to omit this, and each of them had set one of her shoes on the hearth.

"The traveller bent over them. . . ." Read the rest at Semicolon, "Christmas 1823."

Sacrifice Is Such a Complex Question

A political diversion--Best of the Web highlights a segment of Hardball with Chris Matthews (scroll down to "Matt Damon Wants You") in which a caller named Meghan asks actors Robert DeNiro and Matt Damon, "Would you go to war if you were asked?"

"Well that's such a complex question," Mr. DeNiro replies, and the two actors hem-haw a bit. Mr. Damon, who was talking about the need for "a shared sense of sacrifice" just before Meghan's call, gets around to suggesting the president's daughters should go if they are of age.

The transcript notes applause to this non-answer.

New Media Examples Would Help Rago Essay

I don't want to assume Joseph Rago, an assistant editorial features editor at the Wall Street Journal, is cut from the same cloth as previous newspaper critics of bloggers, because he writes a good essay despite it being free of examples. He writes:

The bloggers . . . produce minimal reportage. Instead, they ride along with the MSM like remora fish on the bellies of sharks, picking at the scraps. . . . If the blogs have enthusiastically endorsed Joseph Conrad's judgment of newspapering--"written by fools to be read by imbeciles"--they have also demonstrated a remarkable ecumenicalism in filling out that same role themselves.
Though he seems focused on political blogs, these statements are broadly true of all blogs. We bloggers don't do first-hand reporting much--though as I say that I think of Mark Sarvas, Terry Teachout, Sarah Weinman, the people at Nextbook, Tim Challies, Sherry Early, and other bloggers who do report first-hand and write thoughtful reviews. They are neither remora fish nor fools.

But I doubt Mr. Rago is addressing them in his essay. He is focusing on political blogs, which seem to make up 60% of the blogosphere. He writes:
More success is met in purveying opinion and comment [instead of reporting, interviewing, or even digesting the news after careful thought - pw]. Some critics reproach the blogs for the coarsening and increasing volatility of political life. Blogs, they say, tend to disinhibit. Maybe so. But politics weren't much rarefied when Andrew Jackson was president, either. The larger problem with blogs, it seems to me, is quality. Most of them are pretty awful. Many, even some with large followings, are downright appalling.

Every conceivable belief is on the scene, but the collective prose, by and large, is homogeneous: A tone of careless informality prevails; posts oscillate between the uselessly brief and the uselessly logorrheic; complexity and complication are eschewed; the humor is cringe-making, with irony present only in its conspicuous absence; arguments are solipsistic; writers traffic more in pronouncement than persuasion . . .
Perhaps it would only start fights, but I would like to know which big blogs he thinks are "downright appalling." That's the meat of his criticism, is it not? Who cares that thousands of blogs are filled with short posts that amount to no more than "Check out this link"? I'd like to know which of the well-known blogs Mr. Rago is criticizing.

To answer his broad assertion directly, I don't believe most blogs should be considered news sources in the sense newspapers are. Obviously, bloggers are hobbists, enthusiasts, opinion swappers, reviewers, critics and would-be critics. We don't have newsrooms or staff reporters. Some of us are professional reporters, but most of us aren't. We're just talking--typing on our screens. Before the Internet, we would be chatting over the fence, in the barbershop, in the church lobby, or on the phone with a few people. Now it's a million.

Sure we want to be taking seriously--doesn't everyone? Sure it's a charge that one or a few of us could expose a lie broadcast by CBS. That's one of the strengths of the new media, providing a check to the old media. Another strength is the ability to focus attention on reports the newsmakers don't believe will sell their papers. Mix the strengths with a lot of common talk about the news--I can't see the harm in it.

Holiday Songs Unwanted, Disliked, Hated

I love Christmas carols--perhaps you've noticed. But some holiday songs I can't stand. Like the Beatles singing "Simply having a wonderful Christmastime." What a lame song! And don't the Beach Boys sing a song just like "The Little St. Nick." There's no Christmas-ness about that song at all.

I don't want to hear "I saw Momma kissing Santa" again, and some versions of "Santa Baby" will induce me to leave a store. But those are the holiday songs I can name; more repulsive to me are songs about the Lord. I hate "I believe in Bethlehem." It would be better named "I believe in Christmas Kitsch." And "Jesus, What a wonderful child" is dreadfully repetitive, though I guess I should spare that one for sake of differing tastes. Southern Gospel isn't my style.

As for the songs I love:

  • "The Christmas Waltz"
  • "The Carol of the Bells"
  • "Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire"
  • "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen"
  • "Gloria" - Vivaldi's, Handel's, and Charlie Peacock's
  • "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing"
  • "O Holy Night"
I don't need to go on. What about you? Favored songs? Disfavored songs? Songs that inspire you to throw something at a department store speaker?

Light in darkness

This time of year, I’m leaving work just about the same time the last light is failing. This is the pattern we live with in Minnesota, the pattern I grew up with. It’s woven in my DNA. This isn’t usually the coldest time of year (certainly not this year—the temperature is peaking around freezing, and we’re still snowless, though there are rumors of maybe a few flakes by Christmas). But it’s the time when the nights are longest. The time when the sun rations out tiny bowls of thin light-gruel to the orphans, and there’s little point in asking for more.

And that’s one reason I love Christmas. Because Christmas is the time when we defy that darkness. We burn up fuel that could be hoarded, feast on food that could be cached, and sing loudly that we believe in Light, and Light is coming back.

Sure, most of our customs have heathen origins. So what? I don’t care about the religion of the first man to trim a Yule tree any more than I care about the religion of the guy who built my house. If it’s a good house that keeps me warm in the winter and provides a place for me to gather with my family, that’s plenty for me.

I figure I know Odin and Thor as well as anybody, and they don’t scare me. Their bad elements don’t hurt me, and their good elements enrich my life. C. S. Lewis thought the old myths contained “good dreams” sent by God, stories that prepared heathens to recognize the gospel when it arrived.

I believe it.

I remember going out to do chores on the farm during Christmas season, when I was a boy. Was it cold? It was biting cold. It was burning cold. I pulled a ski mask over my face, and soon had a beard of ice forming around the mouth hole. It was dark out there—not city dark, where there are lights from house windows and street lamps to give relief, but country dark. Dark you could fall into and never hit bottom. Up above, the stars burned like an ammonia fire behind a moth-eaten blanket.

And as I trudged along, the snow squealing under my feet with a sound of tortured iron, I sang Christmas carols.

And that made the whole thing magic. That put me into a story, a pageant. It didn’t make the killer night warmer, but it made it beautiful. Deadly and beautiful, like a fine weapon.

A sword for the Lord.

Thank God for Christmas, I say.

Merry Christmas

They went, the Ghost and Scrooge, across the hall, to a door at the back of the house. It opened before them, and disclosed a long, bare, melancholy room, made barer still by lines of plain deal forms and desks. At one of these a lonely boy was reading near a feeble fire; and Scrooge sat down upon a form, and wept to see his poor forgotten self as he used to be.

Not a latent echo in the house, not a squeak and scuffle from the mice behind the panneling, not a drip from the half-thawed water-spout in the dull yard behind, not a sigh among the leafless boughs of one despondent poplar, not the idle swinging of an empty store-house door, no, not a clicking in the fire, but fell upon the heart of Scrooge with a softening influence, and gave a freer passage to his tears.

The Spirit touched him on the arm, and pointed to his younger self, intent upon his reading. Suddenly a man, in foreign garments: wonderfully real and distinct to look at: stood outside the window, with an axe stuck in his belt, and leading an ass laden with wood by the bridle.

``Why, it's Ali Baba! '' Scrooge exclaimed in ecstasy. ``It's dear old honest Ali Baba! Yes, yes, I know! One Christmas time, when yonder solitary child was left here all alone, he did come, for the first time, just like that. Poor boy! And Valentine,'' said Scrooge, ``and his wild brother, Orson; there they go! And what's his name, who was put down in his drawers, asleep, at the Gate of Damascus; don't you see him! And the Sultan's Groom turned upside-down by the Genii; there he is upon his head! Serve him right. I'm glad of it. What business had he to be married to the Princess!''

To hear Scrooge expending all the earnestness of his nature on such subjects, in a most extraordinary voice between laughing and crying; and to see his heightened and excited face; would have been a surprise to his business friends in the city, indeed.

``There's the Parrot!'' cried Scrooge. ``Green body and yellow tail, with a thing like a lettuce growing out of the top of his head; there he is! Poor Robin Crusoe, he called him, when he came home again after sailing round the island. ``Poor Robin Crusoe, where have you been, Robin Crusoe?'' The man thought he was dreaming, but he wasn't. It was the Parrot, you know. There goes Friday, running for his life to the little creek! Halloa! Hoop! Halloo!''

Then, with a rapidity of transition very foreign to his usual character, he said, in pity for his former self, ``Poor boy!'' and cried again.

``I wish,'' Scrooge muttered, putting his hand in his pocket, and looking about him, after drying his eyes with his cuff: ``but it's too late now.''

``What is the matter?'' asked the Spirit.

``Nothing,'' said Scrooge. ``Nothing. There was a boy singing a Christmas Carol at my door last night. I should like to have given him something: that's all.''

(from A Christmas Carol, chapter 2 - "The First of the Three Spirits")

An Ear for Editing

Speaking of Metaxucafe.com, author Joe Clifford Faust writes about criticism of his current playwright project. IN short, hard criticism is good.

I have even been asked to speak in classes specifically about the need to edit one’s own writing simply because the participants thought that one draft was all that was needed and that their work was perfect, say Amen and close the door.

But it’s not. It’s the very nature of our closeness to a work that we sometimes get blinded to its faults. . . . Besides, if you’re serious about writing, you understand that your work is going to come under scrutiny at some time or another. Better that you give it your own beforehand. There’s no guarantee you won’t get an unflattering review, but how much worse will it be if you realize that it addresses dumb, stupid things you did in your draft that you would have fixed had you only known about them? Besides, if the mistakes are that dumb and stupid, they will likely prevent your work from getting into print in the first place. . . .

Author David Brin has an approach to using outside readers that I think should be a model for how we all approach criticism. He recruits readers to look at his work - and if they don’t have any criticism of the manuscript at all, he does not use them again.

Nancy Pearl's Book Community Site

Nancy Pearl, author of Book Lust and More Book Lust, has a community site (if that's the right term) for readers and book lovers. Her book recommendations are given throughout the site, including a page for what she's reading now, and there are several pages of lit blog links. Could be an interesting site. I don't know that it will have influence in the world at large than the literary blog network Metaxucafe.com, but how can we compare blogs objectively? Site traffic? Pshah!

"What is the greatest commandment?"

I’m eating up leftover pumpkin pie from our Christmas feast, one slice a day (one more slice after tonight).

It amuses me to think back when I was a kid, when my parents sternly commanded me to finish my pie crust, including the fluted strip that sticks up and doesn’t touch the filling. I grumbled and ate it, but it seemed to spoil the pleasure of the thing.

Today I don’t mind pie crust, and would be perfectly happy to eat it. But health experts inform me it’s better to leave it behind.

So the question for me is, is there greater pleasure to be had from defying my parents posthumously, or from defying the experts?

A story my dad told me came to mind last night.

It was about one of his cousins. This cousin was the son of an uncle Dad was fond of, a fellow who owned a small earth-moving business. The uncle’s wife was a harder person to work up warm feelings for. She was a stern woman who believed The Rules Are There For a Reason. All their children rebelled—and rebelled hard—in their teenage years.

This cousin (I'll call him Cliff) had gone to California and become a musician in a dance band.

You know about that Fundamentalist “No Dancing” rule? It was big in our church. Equal in every way to “Thou shalt not kill,” and “Thou shalt not commit adultery.”

Dad was closing up our house for the last time the last time he saw Cousin Cliff. It was 1979. Dad had sold the farm, and most of his possessions had been auctioned off, including the house furnishings. Mom and Dad had decided to save just a few things, and Dad was packing some of them into a pickup truck he’d just bought (a moving van had already collected the rest). The next day they would drive south to Florida for good.

As Dad was finishing the job a car pulled into the yard. The man who got out was Cousin Cliff from California. Pretty much by accident, he’d chosen just that day to come and visit.

Dad didn’t have any furniture to invite him to sit on, so they sat on the cement front step, looked out over the flat landscape, and talked a while.

Cliff told him a story about his father, who had died a few years before.

His father had taken a trip to California to visit him. Cliff had done all he could to make his father comfortable and to give him a good time.

He’d even bought him a gift—an expensive wristwatch.

His father had seemed to enjoy himself, and they had parted on good terms.

But when his dad had gone home and Cliff had gone to the guest room to clean it up, he’d found the wristwatch lying in an empty dresser drawer.

For all his good will, his dad just wasn’t able to accept an expensive gift purchased with money earned playing dance music.

It still bothered Cliff. And Dad spoke of it to me more than once, so I guess it bothered him too.

Draw what conclusions you will.

Interview with Andrée Seu

In case you didn't see the comment left on an earlier thread, Mindy Withrow has posted an interview with essayist Andrée Seu.

Have you always wanted to write, or was it an unexpected development in your life?

It was never my goal to be a writer. My debut in the writing world was a providential fluke (to coin a phrase God may only be half pleased with): One day I wrote a little essay for my own amusement and sent it to my brother. He sent it to WORLD and the Lord had mercy on this soon-to-be widow and gave me favor in the eyes of the editor. Easiest job I ever got.
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Orson Scott Card

Orson Scott Card talks about the current political climate and his latest novel, Empire, with Glenn and Helen.

A day at the races

I know you’ve been losing sleep, waiting to learn how my Christmas bash went. It went just fine.

We were ten in all at the table, three more than Thanksgiving, which seemed pretty crowded at the time. But ten didn’t seem to crowd the place any more. The youngest niece, who was in Tanzania at Thanksgiving, was with us now, and the oldest niece brought her boyfriend (who passed inspection with flying colors) and his adorable little daughter. Large quantities of food were consumed, and many presents were opened.

Deprived of any disaster to agonize over, I am agonizing over the mistakes I must have made which, I’m confident, people must have kept quiet about, to spare my feelings.

I was going to say something more about the flap raised by talk show host Dennis Prager. Prager has stated that he thinks Congressman Keith Ellison (a Muslim and my soon-to-be congressman, as it happens) ought to have a Bible present at his swearing-in, in recognition of the basic values that have shaped our republic. I’ve already said I disagree with him on this. As far as I understand his argument, it seems he considers the Bible (in that context) a symbolic object, like a flag. I find it hard to take that view.

But former New York mayor Ed Koch has publicly labeled Prager a bigot. This is, frankly, infamous. If there’s a public figure in this country who deserves the label of “bigot” less than Dennis Prager, I can’t think of one offhand.

Prager is my favorite talk show host. And that’s odd in a way, because of all the talk shows I listen to, I probably disagree with his most (except for Michael Savage, but I only listen to Savage while getting ready for bed, as an alternative to lonely silence). I disagree with him on theology (he seems to me a Pharisee in the best sense of the word, understood in its historical context). I disagree with him on “gay” civil unions. And I disagree with him on the issue of heredity.

He was onto heredity today. His view seems to be that, aside from genetic diseases, biological heritage means nothing whatever. Perhaps he’s one of those Jewish people who don’t believe they’re actually descended from Abraham. Or maybe he believes he is and just doesn’t care.

It might be a reaction against the racialism that brought about the Holocaust. It’s easy to understand how a Jew might prefer to hear nothing more about race forever.

But, although it’s a fashionable idea in our time, I do wonder in my secret heart whether race is actually nothing.

Classic racism, it need hardly be said (but I guess I'd better), is complete hogwash. To think that one racial group is “better” or “higher” than another is nonsensical as far as I can see. If experience teaches us anything, it’s that nobody is unqualified for anything in the world on the basis of their race.

But is it purely and solely cultural that Asians, given broad opportunities, still tend (generally) to excel at mathematics and music? That black people run marathons faster than anybody else in the world? That Scandinavians are the world’s chief purveyors of suicide-inducing books and movies?

I have an idea that our current ideas on race stem from a belief, held as a dogma by many, that racism is the root cause of all the evil in the world (just as the Communists used to believe—some still do—that greed is the real source of the poison). I think that’s inadequate. Throughout human history, large portions of the world’s population never saw anyone of a different race in their lives. That didn’t stop the Irish from hating the English, or the Bosnians from hating the Serbs.

And I still don’t understand how the brave new world everyone seems to want—the one where all the colors are mixed and everybody looks Brazilian—will be more beautiful and diverse than the one we’ve got, where you can actually fly to a different country and see people who look different from the folks at home.

Of course, I probably only think these things because I’m a racist.

I'll go and do my penance now.

Merry Christmas

Now, something completely different from Theodore Watts-Dunton.

CHRISTMAS knows a merry, merry place,
Where he goes with fondest face,
Brightest eye, brightest hair:
Tell the Mermaid where is that one place,
Where?

Raleigh. 'Tis by Devon's glorious halls,
Whence, dear Ben, I come again:
Bright of golden roofs and walls—
El Dorado's rare domain—

Seem those halls when sunlight launches
Shafts of gold thro' leafless branches,
Where the winter's feathery mantle blanches
Field and farm and lane.

This is the first of the "Wassail Chorus at the Mermaid Tavern," by Theodore Watts-Dunton. Read on to see how Michael Drayton, Thomas Heywood, Ben Johnson, and a friend of Shakespeare's answer the tavern crowd's call to tell of a merry, merry place.

Merry Christmas

"Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
And with fear and trembling stand . . ."

"Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father." (Philippians 2: 3-11 ESV)

"King of kings, yet born of Mary,
As of old on earth He stood,
Lord of lords, in human vesture,
In the body and the blood;
He will give to all the faithful
His own self for heavenly food."

from "Let all mortal flesh keep silence," a carol adapted from the li­tur­gy of St. James.

Christmas in New York

Joseph Bottum writes about The Big Apple's transformation under a Christmas snowfall.

But New York cannot play for long at being the New Jerusalem. The ultimate time-bound place, it cannot step outside the rush and rattle of commerce. The supreme City of Man, it cannot pose as the City of God. With their town bright and almost pretty, New Yorkers act for a few moments as though things have changed—or rather, as though these few moments don’t count, as though the apocalypse of falling snow has lifted them out of time and the storm had left them for an instant clean and unhurried. Last winter, I saw an old-fashioned toboggan—ten or twelve feet long, the wooden slats curling to a two-foot swoosh in front—being drawn along 14th Street, filled with laughing children. Who has room to store a toboggan in Manhattan on the off-chance of snow? Someone, clearly. Someone who has been waiting years for the white apocalypse.
But the city cannot hide its own in the snow, especially when they herald themselves with their cell phones. He says, "I saw the screaming woman for a moment framed by the giant candy canes and white Christmas garlands soaped on the window of the storefront behind her. It’s . . . not . . . my . . . fault."

(via World Mag Blog)

Books as Decor for Strong Impressions

Here's an article on buying intellectual books for home decorating, giving visitors the impression that the buyer has a formidible mind or at least keeps very good literary company. This reminds me of a story, which I believe Ravi Zacharias tells, of browsing a used bookstore and overhearing a man in overalls ask for a certain length of books, say 35 feet. He didn't know what books to order. He just wanted to fill a 35' long shelf so that his union boss would appear to have the intellect to negotiate with management.

Merry Christmas

Now to the Lord sing praises,
All you within this place,
And with true love and brotherhood,
Each other now embrace;
This holy tide of Christmas,
Doth bring redeeming grace.

O tidings of comfort and joy,
For Jesus Christ our Savior
Was born on Christmas day.

God bless the ruler of this house,
And send him long to reign,
And many a merry Christmas
May live to see again;
Among your friends and kindred
That live both far and near.

from "God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen," a traditional carol

Top Selling Bibles

The English Bibles blog lists the top selling Bibles sold by Christian retailers. Here's part of that list.
1. New International Version
2. New King James Version
3. King James Version
4. New Living Translation
5. English Standard Version
6. Reina Valera 1960 (Spanish)

Random salad

Brother Baal and one of his sons will come in tonight and sleep here. The rest of the kith will gather here tomorrow. I have every confidence that this will be a Christmas that will be remembered long after I’m dead as one of the most disastrous my nieces and nephews ever experienced.

As you’ve probably noticed, it’s my policy to always expect the worst. I figure it’s a way of cheating the malevolent forces of the universe. I like to think there’s a good chance they’ll choose to get their kicks out of disproving my prophecy, and so let the events turn out OK.

This policy hasn’t worked with the predictions in my novels, so I don’t know why I cling to it.

Yes I do. I cling to it because I’m neurotic.

I listened to Michael Medved driving home from work tonight, and heard part of his interview with Chris Gardner, the guy Will Smith plays in the new movie, “Pursuit of Happyness.” I don’t know how the movie will be, but I’ve rarely heard a guy on the radio I just liked so much, so quickly.

Good news via Libertas: Ennio Morricone is finally getting his Academy Award. There’s a vestigial remnant of justice somewhere under heaven after all.

Also, I’ve been informed by way of the Science Fiction/Fantasy Writers of America that my old publisher, Baen Books, is making books available to the disabled:

"Baen Books (www.baen.com), a publisher of science fiction, will provide its
books to fans who are blind, paralysed, or dyslexic, or are amputees, in
electronic form free of charge, effective immediately."

My novel Wolf Time is one of those books in electronic form, unless they’ve dumped it (always a possibility).

The Ghost of Orson Wells Strikes Belgium

On Wednesday night the Dutch-speakers of Belgium, which amount to 60% of the country, broke with their German-speaking countrymen and declared independence! The monarchy is on the run! Will there be blood? Will there be famine? And have we told you that we made this all up?

State-owned television ran a bit of make-believe as a special news report, saying, "'Flemish parliament has unilaterally declared the independence of Flanders' and that King Albert and Queen Paola had left on the first air force plane available." After 30 minutes, they let their audience in on the fantasy.

"It's very bad Orson Welles, in very poor taste," Didier Seeuws, a spokesman for Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, told the national news agency Belga, recalling the 1938 radio adaptation by Welles of H.G. Wells's "War of the Worlds," which caused widespread chaos when thousands of Americans believed that Martians had invaded the United States.
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