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Thursday, June 21, 2007

Thursday's Child

Thursday's child has far to go. Eleven hours, in the case of Isaiah John Woodlief, before he emerged mewling and wiggling, a "stunned peck of flesh," as Galway Kinnell wrote, into the world. He weighs eight pounds and one ounce, and is 19 inches long. His mother was courageous throughout, though his father whimpered like a baby and almost threw up at a critical point. All the Woodlief boys are happy to have a new little one in the house.

Welcome to this broken earth, Isaiah John. May it be better for your breathing its air and trodding its soil.

posted by Woodlief | link | (17) comments | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

A Son's Tale

My writer friend Darren Defrain recently turned me on to Andre Dubus, and so I've been working through his stories and essays. He has, as another writer friend describes it, a lyrical voice. You can see faith in his stories, along with doubt, and the grit and ugliness in life that makes faith the anchor or buoy or life preserver that it is, but which for some reason too many of us are ashamed to admit about ourselves. Dubus also evokes the question I read once somewhere I can't remember, about why nearly all serious literary figures of Christian faith have been Catholics. Think about it; you're hard pressed to name a significant Protestant writer of prose. I'm not sure why that is, and the question fascinates me.

Last night I read Dubus's essay titled "Digging," from his collection, Meditations from a Movable Chair, which he wrote after being crippled by a reckless driver while helping two disabled motorists. In the essay he describes the hot Louisiana summer of his seventeenth year, when his father got a job for him on a construction site:

I had never done physical work except caddying, pushing a lawn mower, and raking leaves, and I was walking from the car with my father toward workingmen.

Halfway through his first day of helping dig out the foundation, Dubus vomited and nearly passed out. I did not have the strength for this, he wrote, not in my back, my legs, my arms, my shoulders. Certainly not in my soul. Soon his father appeared over the hole where he was digging.

In the car, in a voice softened with pride, he said: 'The foreman called me. He said the Nigras told him you threw up, and didn't eat, and you didn't tell him.'

'That's right,' I said, and shamefully watched the road, and cars with people who seemed free of torment, and let my father believe I was brave, because I was afraid to tell him that I was afraid to tell the foreman.

But his father didn't take him home. Instead he took him to a diner in town, and ordered him a 7-Up for his stomach, and a sandwich. Then they bought a work hat to keep his head cool. And then his father deposited him back at the work site. Despite the arduous work and the dangerous heat, Dubus finished out his summer there. He writes:

It is time to thank my father for wanting me to work and telling me I had to work and getting the job for me and buying me lunch and a pith helmet instead of taking me home to my mother and sister. He may have wanted to take me home. But he knew he must not, and he came tenderly to me. My mother would have been at home that afternoon; if he had taken me to her, she would have given me iced tea and, after my shower, a hot dinner. When my sister came home from work, she would have understood, and told me not to despise myself because I could not work with a pickax and a shovel. And I would have spent the summer at home, nestled in the love of the two women, peering at my father's face, and yearning to be someone I respected...

You should check him out, if you've not already read his work.

posted by Woodlief | link | (1) comments | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

A Face Made for Radio, II

Those of you who listen to Hugh Hewitt on the radio can catch me this evening at 6:40 p.m. EST.

Update: They're pushing my segment to 7:40 p.m. EST. You can also catch me with John Steigerwald on Pittsburgh's 93.7 FM tomorrow at 9:20 a.m. EST. I believe you can listen live on the Internet. If you're interested in how I might humiliate myself on a station that calls itself "The Man Station," that is.

posted by Woodlief | link | (3) comments | TrackBack (0)

Snips and Snails and Puppy-Dog Tails

Cathy Young, whose writing I sometimes enjoy, suggests in her Reason Magazine essay that the wildly popular Dangerous Book for Boys is dangerous indeed, because it reinforces traditional sex roles. Why couldn't it have been titled "The Dangerous Book for Kids"? In service to this question, Young quotes a female friend to great effect: "'Where is the book for girls who did stuff like make their own chain mail as kids, or cracked rocks with sledgehammers in the driveway both to see what was inside them and to see if you could get sparks?'"

I thought I would ask some chain mail-knitting, sledgehammer-wielding little girls how they feel about the exclusionary effect of the book's title, but then I realized I don't know any little girls like that. I've also never seen girls drooling over cowboy guns at the hobby shop, or sticking butter knives in their belts and pretending to be pirates. But, as Jeffrey Chamberlain wrote, "In a country as big as the United States, you can find fifty examples of anything."

So it's a legitimate question: what to do about the tender feelings of girls who want to make chain mail and use sledgehammers? It's really a question about curves, isn't it, and not the kind that some females have been socially constructed to sometimes get, and which in sexist literature some males sometimes pay attention to, though of course we know in the real world we shouldn't make generalizations like: boys and girls are different. No, I mean curves of the Bell variety, which often capture human realities quite nicely, and which — were we benighted enough to pay attention to data rather than self-serving anecdotes — might disrupt the argument that goes: girls would like wrestling more and boys would like tea parties more, if not for the dominant social paradigm.

And the answer, in light of these curves, is delightfully conservative (in the old-fashioned sense, not the newfangled Republican sense) namely: nothing. If you have a little girl who would rather learn how to make paper airplanes and read about the battle of Thermopylae than do cartwheels and play with dolls, then by all means, buy her the book, and tell her — with conviction, not the self-doubt that seems to plague so many essays like Young's — Honey, just because the book says it's for boys, doesn't mean you can't do it too. Now let's read "A Brief History of Artillery" (one of the book's chapters).

The solution, in other words, is not to reorient nature to suit the self-esteem needs of the minority of girls who want to make chain mail. It's far better to embrace their difference and impart to them the strength to go against the tide, if that's how they're made, to become, as Shaw wrote, "a force of nature, instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy." To complain about titles of books, it seems, is to give far too little credit to these brave little girls, wherever they are hiding, who want to blow things up and learn how to spit.

Part of the problem here is the mistaken notion, perhaps due to an overactive sense of grievance, that the title of the book means that the knowledge therein is exclusively for boys. A more generous reading reveals that the authors, Conn and Hal Iggulden, simply wanted to include the stories, games, and skills that a great many boys (and men) want to know. Does that mean no girls should want to know these things? Of course not. But could you sell millions of copies of exactly the same book, had it been titled The Dangerous Book for Girls? Here comes that pesky Bell curve, accompanied by his pernicious friend, Common Sense, to spoil a good feminist lather.

As for the boys Young worries about, the ones "who may be more interested in reading than in catching snails and may prefer art to stories of battles," I think the answer is simply to get them out of the house. This comes from someone who would far rather curl up with a book than go fishing, mind you (a challenge I describe, often to humiliating effect, in my pamphlet on raising boys). That's because boys are physical as well as mental creatures, and to let the former atrophy is to do your son a disservice. Yes, of course this goes for girls as well, but as anyone who has had to supervise great numbers of boys and girls will tell you, sometimes the physical activities that girls seek out are distinctly different from those preferred by boys. Yes, they all like to play tag. But no, you don't often see girls randomly tackle one another. And that's okay.

posted by Woodlief | link | (4) comments | TrackBack (0)

Monday, June 18, 2007

No, Still No Baby

Several people have asked, and the news is still that there's no news. At this point we're thinking of womb-schooling.

posted by Woodlief | link | (3) comments | TrackBack (0)

A Father's Day

Father's Day morning, the Wife brought me homemade blueberry muffins in bed. I sat reading short stories and eating blueberry muffins, and it was blissful. Soon I heard them conspiring outside my bedroom door, the little ones and their mother the ringleader. In marched a little troupe of celebrants, each bearing a gift. They perched themselves around me on the bed, each clamoring for me to open his gift first. They gave me a big bucket of bubble gum, some metal collar stays, a Hemingway-style pocket journal, and a cheerful little book published in 1902, titled The REAL Diary of a REAL Boy, by Henry Shute. It's written in the language of a schoolboy, and has entries like this:

December 15. Micky Gould said he cood lick me and i said he want man enuf and he said if i wood come out behind the school house after school he wood show me and i said i wood and all the fellers hollered and said they wood be there. But after school i thaught i aught to go home and split my kindlings and so i went home. a feller aught to do something for his family ennyway. i cood have licked him if i had wanted to.

I love old books, the feel and weight and texture of them, and the knowledge that they were born when people read, and when they read something more intelligent and edifying than Danielle Steele or Robert Ludlum.

We went to church and happily it wasn't a sermon about how none of us men are good enough as fathers. After that we went to our favorite Wichita restaurant, and I had a Dr. Pepper and didn't feel the least bit guilty about it. Later that day there was more short-story reading and then a run with the boys, Caleb and Eli on bicycles and Isaac in the running stroller and me doing the hard work in between wheezing at them to look both ways before turning onto a street, and to be extra careful because that SUV coming at us is being driven by a teenager, and for God's sake to look up at the road and not down at how fast their feet are pedaling.

Later that evening we had my favorite meal: hotdogs and the Wife's extra-special macaroni and cheese. As an added bonus her grandmother, who is visiting, made me creamed corn. Still later, I attempted to make The Perfect Tom Collins, according to a recipe I found in The Wall Street Journal, but I put in too much gin and then tried to compensate with more soda and sugar, but then that threw the squeezed lemon into too small a proportion and so by the time I was done it was something more like a soggy sugared pine tree than the perfect anything, but liquor is liquor and it tasted especially good because I bought the gin the next county over, because Wichita forbids alcohol sales on Sundays, unless one happens to own a restaurant or bar, which likely inclines one to contribute generously to city council members, who in turn are more likely to stick by their moral position that alcohol should not be sold on Sundays.

One day, in heaven, I'm going to sip a Tom Collins with Jesus on a Sunday, and we're going to have a good laugh about blue laws.

Still later, some friends and I watched a man movie, although it wasn't really because there was far too much kissing and love lost for my taste, but the moral of the story was good, plus more than one bad guy got skewered, so it was certainly a good use of two hours.

Around midnight I realized that while I may be an okay father, I am a very bad son, because I didn't call my father or stepfather. I'll try to remember how easy it is to be swept up in the chaos and bliss of being a father to all these young ones, so that my feelings aren't wounded when they are too busy being fathers to be sons.

I lay awake for a time after the house was completely dark and silent, thinking thank you over and over in my mind, whispering it to God. And he must say I know when we thank him for our children, because he is a father too. It is good to be a father. More fathers should try it. If I can get this right, I keep telling myself, the rest of it doesn't matter. Be a good husband. Be a good father. The rest of it fades away almost as soon as we are cold in the ground. Help me get this right. That's what I whisper to God in between the thank yous.

posted by Woodlief | link | (5) comments | TrackBack (1)

Friday, June 15, 2007

Me on Wall Street

Check out my Father's Day essay in the Wall Street Journal. It involves, among other things: snakes, homemade cannons, and deadly spiders.

posted by Woodlief | link | (21) comments | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, June 14, 2007

A Face Made for Radio

Those of you brave enough to bear my decidedly unsexy voice can tune in to this program on Blog Talk Radio, Friday at noon EST, where I'll be mercilessly grilled by the lovely Fausta. Actually, I hear she's quite nice, but there is a call-in number, which means that one of you louts could give me a hard time if you're so inclined.

posted by Woodlief | link | (1) comments | TrackBack (0)

Every Boy Needs a Joe

My friend and publisher Adam Bellow has this lovely essay at Canada's National Post. Go read it, and then you'll understand what I mean when I say that every boy needs a Joe, and that it's the Joes who are the real fathers of the world.

Addendum: Not long after posting, I came across this hilarious essay by a law professor and father about the inherent legal-mindedness of children. So here you go, no extra charge.

posted by Woodlief | link | (3) comments | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Growing Pains

Eli woke up crying last night, growing pains in his legs. I remember those pains, and my mother giving me two chalky St. Joseph's aspirin, the ones with orange flavoring. There's something about being cared for by your parent in the middle of the night that almost makes the hurt worth it. So I gave him medicine, and rubbed his legs, and told him a story that my grandmother used to tell me at bedtime, about a little mountain boy who liked to chop wood, but who got careless (this being a grandmother's story, and perhaps more to the point, one of my grandmother's stories) and chopped into his own foot, nearly taking off a toe. But, through hard work and determination, he not only recovered from his injury, he entered the wood-chopping contest in the state fair and won first place, despite being the smallest competitor.

"Does he have muscles like me?" Eli asked, yawning, the pain disappearing in a cherry Tylenol haze.

"Yes. Big muscles for a little fellow."

"Did you ever chop wood?"

"Yes." I showed him a scar from cutting wood. He showed me a recent ouch. I curled up next to him on his bed, and we whispered to each other about little boy things, until his eyelids began to flutter. I put my face down on his pillow, and breathed in his smells of soap and toothpaste and the slobber dried into his beloved blankey. I thought about how one day too soon for me, and not soon enough for him, this will be over. He will lie on a bed with his own child and tell him about the little woodcutting boy, and I will be Grandpa, who visits sometimes and barks at the television news and always has chewing gum or candy to share.

I remember holding Eli once, or perhaps it was Caleb, or Isaac, or maybe this realization has happened with each of them, and the Wife coming up and helping me hold and hug him. I remember the smile on his face, eyes closed, a look of bliss. "I have no knowledge of what this must be like," I told my wife. Neither does she. We have never been held by a mother and father at the same time, both loving us and loving each other. It is an alien gift that we give our children, yet we sense its power in the peacefulness that comes over them.

The only thing better than feeling that embrace, I imagine, is giving it to my children, and knowing that they will never hold their own children and marvel, without experience, at what that feeling must be like.

This is part of the discovery, as I've written about our family, here and in the pamphlet (and have you ordered your copy yet?) and in pages that perhaps one day someone will read — that it is possible to build a foundation on razed ground. Perhaps it even makes us more careful, knowing how easily a home can crumble. Each brick matters very much to us. We have a generational vision, not only of how far we can get our children along a path free of neuroses and fear and insecurity, but how far they in turn will take their children. I think you have to have that vision as a parent — am I laying the foundation for my children and their children to live full, meaningful lives, or am I just feeding them the seed corn, set as I am on my own comfort and temporary success?

These are the things I thought about as Eli drifted off to sleep. They wonder sometimes, I think, why I watch them, why I search their faces. That's one thing I'll be happy for them never to know, that endless question: Am I getting it right?

posted by Woodlief | link | (3) comments | TrackBack (1)

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

A Different Kind of Father's Day Gift

Rick Hilton needs a swift kick in the ass. That's my opinion on the never-ending Paris Hilton spectacle. And while we're at the butt-kicking, we can line up any number of successful businessmen, movie stars, and sports heroes who have neglected the fundamental duty of fathers, which is to train up our children in the way they should go. We could turn it into an annual Father's Day weekend tradition: the 24-hour Tail Stomp, open season on every bad father. I think it would be cathartic. And before someone else claims him, I've got dibs on Alec Baldwin.

It's interesting that we celebrate the success of men at business, sports, entertainment, war, and politics, but rarely at the thing which matters more than those often-ephemeral feats, the raising up of confident, competent, moral, courageous children to carry on a free and prosperous civilization. Not to wrestle with this great calling every day of our lives, fathers, is to fail at manhood itself.

I'm not saying that we are failures if our children don't end up perfect. But we are failures if they emerge without a moral compass, and genuine self-confidence (which should not be confused with arrogance, which is often a sign of insecurity), and some fundamental ability to earn a living. Hence Rick Hilton's need for a kick in the rear-end, at least from my very limited vantage-point, because his daughter seems to lack all three. Insofar as she earns a living, it's Donald Trump-style, off the outrageousness of her own conduct. That's not value-creation, it's a freak show.

In the last days of his life, as Teddy Roosevelt collaborated with editor Joseph Bishop on a bound volume of his letters to his children, he said, "I would rather have this book published than anything that has ever been written about me." These letters don't contain much in the way of TR's exploits on the battlefield, or his political victories. Instead they tell his children about a curious lizard he caught in Cuba, or explain how proud he is that they have learned to ride their horses better, or admonish them not to let sports get in the way of what's important. They are letters that reflect his love of and hopes for his children. Being a good father, he recognized that this was his most important legacy, his family.

I've met a great many men over the years who have been so seduced by the lure of business success that they neglect their children. I can't describe for you the remorse that I've heard in some of their voices, as they sit in their beautiful, empty homes, and say that they wish they could do it over, and be fathers to their children. But there is no doing it over; there is only right now, the choices you make today — and each choice constrains what choices will be available to us tomorrow. Can Rick Hilton spend time with his daughter now, and convince her that she is truly lovely, that she needn't whore herself out to the men and the lights and the cameras? That work should have been done years ago. But, he does have that thriving real estate business, and several palatial homes. He's what we call successful.

Perhaps we need to redefine that word. The worst part is that Hilton probably told himself, as do so many of us, that he was doing it for his family, the twelve-hour days and endless travel and weekend work. Beyond some basic necessities, however, what our children need most is us, the very thing we so often deny them.

I find that more and more, when I hear or read about a successful man, I say to myself: Yes, but what kind of father is he? It's worth asking, don't you think? Don't be surprised if you end up unable to find someone to vote for next fall, however, or if your favorite actors and sports stars lose some of their luster. But that's how it should be, I think. Maybe men will stop sacrificing our children on the altar of success when we reintroduce shame as a public concept.

Goodness knows, I don't get it right. I've lost count of the number of evenings I've put my head on my pillow in shame, wishing I could rewind the day, and take back a moment when I barked at one of my boys, or ignored them when I should have been listening. But I wonder if it even crosses the minds of many successful men that they are failing as fathers, and therefore, as men. I want to believe that this in itself makes a difference, the conscious striving. Weak and foolish as we are, maybe we can still succeed as fathers if we will just put forth the effort. Maybe that's all our sons and daughters really need from us, the unspoken love that comes with that striving.

So, fathers, are you striving?

posted by Woodlief | link | (9) comments | TrackBack (1)

Monday, June 11, 2007

My Words in Print

The current issue of WORLD magazine carries my latest essay, "What They Teach Us." If you aren't a subscriber, a) why aren't you?; and b) you can pick it up wherever thoughtful news magazines are sold. Or you can get an online subscription.

My first short story, "The Grace I Know," meanwhile, is available in the summer issue (Issue 4) of Ruminate, a literary journal rooted in the Christian faith. If you'd like to support good writing, you should subscribe. If, on the other hand, you simply want a souvenir of this landmark event (my first fiction in print), you can order Issue 4. But the subscription is, if you're thinking pennies per quality word, a far better deal. Here's the first paragraph from the story:

Grace comes for me in the loneliest part of the night, the way she used to do. Her steady tap on the door pulls me from sleep, and there she stands in the dim light of the hallway, wearing her cotton nightgown embroidered with purple flowers. Her stare is fixed on the place where my head emerges from the darkness of our bedroom, as if her eyes can divine the black. I know what she wants before she raises her arms. She was always my little spool of thread, spilling out of her bed and down the hall to bump against my door, to wait until I cradled her and rewound the invisible string between her door and mine, returning her to rest.

Aren't you intrigued? So go subscribe already.

And in case you've forgotten, there's also this. So stop complaining about having nothing good to read at the beach this summer.

posted by Woodlief | link | (1) comments | TrackBack (0)

Shoot-Out at the Cap Gun Corral

This weekend I introduced my sons to the wonderful magic of the cap gun. I carefully threaded the pink rolls into two of their silver cowboy guns while they stood watching in awe, and then did my best impression of Clint Eastwood in "The Outlaw Josey Wales." POP. POP. POP.

I looked over at the boys, expecting to see admiration on their faces. Caleb was frowning, and as the reverberation of the cap guns waned I could hear him yelling that the guns were too loud. Eli had managed to fold his arms over his head in some sort of standing fetal position. Isaac was red-faced and crying. It's the special moments like these that you treasure.

As if my Worst Father of the Year award wasn't already secure, I argued with them that the caps weren't all that loud. Every time I waved one of the cowboy guns to help make my point, Isaac wailed, thinking I was going to shoot it again. I finally set the guns on the ground, carefully, feeling very much like a criminal, and Caleb the police negotiator. "Dad, they're too loud. Put them down Dad. Don't shoot them again." These are the moments, as well, that our children recall to their therapists years later. He devalued our feelings, Doc. Let me tell you about the time he made us all wet ourselves while he played with our cowboy guns...

I picked up Isaac, who alternated between crying and fussing at me. They were all fussing at me. I am a bad, bad father.

But, being boys, they held a meeting the next day, and came to me as a delegation to explain that they wanted to shoot the "dynamites." The older two volunteered to leave Isaac in the house, an idea he didn't like at all. Then it occurred to me to put my heavy-duty ear muffs on him, the ones that I wear when I'm shooting the big guns, or when their mother is in her last weeks of pregnancy and snoring like an asthmatic freight train.

So outside we went with our cap guns, Isaac wearing massive head gear that left him completely unable to hear us, so that his brothers had to make hand motions to communicate. We had an old-fashioned gun battle in the front yard, the boys holding the guns far away from themselves and wincing as they fired, and me rattling off rounds like Doc Holliday, none of which ever seemed to hit, although the boys insisted that every shot they fired got me. I can only imagine what our snooty neighbors thought of this spectacle. Have I mentioned that we are our neighborhood's rednecks?

Not all the caps fired, and so I separated them from their spent rolls and placed them on the strike points of Eli's little double-barrel cowboy shotgun. Then it was me on the street-sweeper, ducking behind trees, trying to get little scraps of paper to stay in place so I could defend myself against those silver-gun wielding sheriffs, neither of whom have any qualms about sneaking up behind a man and shooting him in the back. It was a regular slaughter, which made for a good Sunday afternoon.

The nice thing about being a father of boys is that I can relive the best parts of boyhood, or maybe enjoy them for the first time. My sons give me new eyes with which to see things. This is what the man who was healed said, isn't it — I was blind, but now I see. Our children can heal us, I think, if we will but see the world as they see it. We can only afford to do so for a few moments at a time, or perhaps that is simply what we tell ourselves, but those moments are like salve on a wounded soul, at least for me.

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Friday, June 8, 2007

Boys, Girls, and Basketballs

Yesterday was the last day of a four-day basketball camp for Caleb and Eli. On the whole I think the major American sports (football, baseball, basketball) are a source of more harm than good when it comes to character-building (see this interesting study about cheating by student athletes, for example). But I believe this has more to do with the low moral qualities of the adults involved, and besides, I want my sons to have the rudimentary skills even if I'll hesitate to let them get very involved in these sports as they get older. And while they think I'm an awesome basketball player because I routinely dunk over them on our seven-foot rim, I can barely dribble. So, basketball camp.

I noticed something interesting as I watched them go through various competitions. There were nine groups of children, segregated by sex and age, gathered around hoops, competing to see who could do the most lay-ups in two minutes, dribble around obstacles the fastest, etc. In all of the boy groups, I saw intense competitive concentration. Through the din of a hundred basketballs slapping the floor, however, I heard a melodic sound that was out of place. In the youngest girl group, you see, they were cheering for each other.

It was endearing, and for a moment I wished the boys could support each other like that, instead of being so intently focused on winning. But then my internal man slapped my internal chick and told her to get hold of herself, that civilization is not built solely on nurturing and acceptance.

This is a challenge in raising boys, to love and nurture them, but also to prepare them for a world where they must struggle, where triumph is not guaranteed, and where a great many wicked people will be set against them. We have to raise them to face challenge and danger without shrinking, to continue striving in the face of defeat, and to crave victory. I want my sons to be gracious gentlemen, to be sure, but the difference between a gentleman and a coward or weakling is that a gentleman can pound a lout into submission, though often he may choose not to.

I'm tempted to write more here about some of the things I've realized about finding the balance between toughness and nurturing with my boys, but instead I'll direct you to (and have I mentioned this already?) my pamphlet on the subject, available from the New Pamphleteer.

C'mon, you had to know that was where I was headed.

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Thursday, June 7, 2007

Buy Me

If you're wondering what to get that special someone for Father's Day, it's hard to top my new pamphlet, Raising Wild Boys into Men: A Modern Dad's Survival Guide, which is newly available from the New Pamphleteer. At a low price of $4 plus shipping, why not buy several and hand them out to your friends, enemies, and acquaintances? Order now, while supplies last!

(Actually, if they sell out they'll probably just print more.)

And just to tease you a bit, an excerpt:

I've noticed that I walk slowly to my front door when I get home. I'm not a poetic guy, but I linger over the sound of the birds, the whisper of a breeze, the gentle sunlight on the grass. Then I open the door and cover my crotch, because each boy will come barreling at me, head lowered, preparing both to hug and tackle me at the same time. It's how they show love, through fierce hugs and low-level violence...

And that's all you're getting. So buy the pamphlet. Actually, buy ten.

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Booby Prize

The makers of Xbox are holding a Dad of the Year essay contest:

"Do you know a terrific gaming Dad? Here's your chance to show him some Father's Day love and take a shot at winning an awesome prize for yourself. Here's how it works.

Write an original essay about a father (or male legal guardian) and gaming. Do you know a Dad who does a great job balancing gaming and fatherhood? Is he known for his patience with n00bs or his mad fragging skills? Does he play games with his kids? Is he raising his gamer offspring to play fair and follow the rules?

Your essay should be at least 250 words, but no more than 500 words, and must be received by 11:59 P.M. Pacific Time, June 9, 2007..."

This got me thinking about what some of their entries might look like:


To: Xbox Dudes
From: RadGamr4Life

Dear Xbox,

I totally want to nominate my pops for this kickin prize, b-cause he rawks! Check it - just last night, I was trying to get some boring homework done for my stupid Shakespeare class, and pops was in total azz-kicking mode on some Alien vs Predator, and I was like, Dad, hook me up on my homework - who was that chick Romeo was gettin it with, and Pops was like, don't bother me, cuz I'm all up in some level ten, and then I was like, c'mon Dad, I'm dyin on this homework, and Pops was all, c'mon over and get in on this action, and I was all, are you sure? And Pops was like, dude, nobody needs Shakespeare to get a job - I've had dozens and I never read no Shakespeare. So tell your teacher to bite it. I was all, no way! And Pops was all, Yes way! It was totally awesome. So then we busted out some double-hammer action on the Aliens and Predators and stuff, and it was you know, a total bonding time. No joke Xbox, my pops rulz!


To: Xbox
From: 6thGradeVidBlaster

Dear Xbox,

My dad is so great. He plays Xbox every night, and he lets me sit and watch as long as I'm quiet. He lets me play too, when I get home from school and before he gets home from work. Then I sit on the couch and do my homework and watch him play. Once, I was going to get online and learn some cheats for Halo 2, but dad said I shouldn't cheat, that the only right way to get good at Xbox is to play it lots and lots. I'm glad I have my dad to teach me right from wrong. He should really win this prize, because he loves Xbox more than any other dads I know. Nobody works as hard at getting good at gaming as my dad. He is the best dad in the world, and one day I will be just like him.


Not to belittle every father who plays with an Xbox from time to time.

Actually, yeah, to do that.

Update: Alert reader Lori MacKean sent me this pertinent video clip.

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Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Airlines: Bad; Kipp Sailors: Good

No, the blessed event has not yet occurred. I had some traveling to do, which became much more time-consuming and onerous than it should have been. It gave me a chance to do a detailed analysis of U.S. airline companies, however, and I am happy to report my findings, which are that U.S. airlines are big fat stupid liars. You heard it here first.

In other, happier news, I recently came home to find a big Amazon package waiting for me. I love it when that happens. I tried to recall what I might have ordered, as I opened the box, only to find that it was filled with gift books taken from my Amazon wish list, courtesy of one Kipp Sailors, who is my new Favorite Reader of the Month. Not only did Kipp's generosity extend to four (!) Everyman's editions (Hardy's The Return of the Native; Blake's Poems and Prophecies; Paine's Rights of Man and Common Sense; and Chekhov's complete short novels), he also sent a delightful book called Loving Every Child.

In doing so Kipp revealed his deeply generous nature, as well as his outstanding taste in literature and philosophy. Those of you who know him should count yourselves lucky. I've already enjoyed, in the slender moments of free waking time my youngsters afford me, a sampling from these books. Maybe it's just me, but something about the Everyman volume just makes it read better, almost as if the words are lighter and more exquisite. I'm afraid I'm getting spoiled and will soon have no use for used paperbacks whatsoever.

So, to sum up, Kipp Sailors is a very good man for supporting my reading habit, and a very bad man for supporting my reading habit. You could all learn a thing or two from him. Thank you Kipp!

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Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Little Negotiations

Overheard while driving:

Isaac: "Twust me, Eli. Tomowow is my birfday."

Wife: "Isaac, your birthday isn't until September."

Isaac: "Is that tomowow?"

Wife: "No, sweetie. It's a lot of days away."

Isaac: "Oh."

And then later, while Eli and Isaac flop around like otters in the bathtub, periodically splashing either me or my newspaper, or splashing each other:

(splash, splash, splash)

"Stop, Isaac."

(splash, splash, splash)

"Stop. Stop. STOP."

(splash, splash, SPLASH)

"Stop doesn't mean do it!"

"Oh. Sowwy."

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Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The Least of These

We've been adopted by a kitten. She's a scrawny black creature who darted out of the bushes a few days ago, mewling and shivering, afraid of all of us but desperately hungry. Now we have a dish for food and water which the boys keep full. The kitten stays mostly in the thick bushes beneath the pine trees beside our house. I suspect she believes that she's actually a house cat now, given that the boys seem to spend a good portion of their time in those bushes as well, building forts and getting covered in sap that makes their hair stick up at odd angles and leaves them smudged like they've been working in the coal mines. The kitten is still skittish, though last night she crawled into my lap as I sat outside. Not that I like her, mind you. She's a cat, after all, and I don't like cats.

This kitten has me thinking that maybe "the least of these" is different creatures for different people. For those of us who prefer the poor and wretched to stay on their own side of the tracks, the least of these fits the traditional profile. For those who bathe themselves in the misery of others, laboring in soup kitchens and shelters, perhaps the least of these comes disguised as the repugnant hypocritical religious type who wants nothing to do with the poor. Maybe the least of these, if you are a dedicated liberal, is Jerry Falwell. Perhaps, if you are a hard-core conservative, the least of these is Hillary Clinton. Maybe for some of us the least of these is a scraggly cat who promises only to scratch our children and tear up our running shoes before getting hit by a car and introducing the littlest ones in the family too soon to death.

There's no telling, is there, who or what will cross your path once you start opening your door to strays, be they cats or people. I know a few people — a precious few — who seem to have spotlights over their homes, calling every broken-down drunk and homeless single mother and three-legged dog in the county to their doorsteps. I used to think it was their circumstances that were peculiar, that they just seemed to be always happening upon those in need. Now I see it's more the case that we all cross the paths of those in need, but we've trained ourselves to ignore them. We wall them out, whether they are the hurting, socially awkward people in our own churches, or the desperately poor people south of our national border.

I'm the best wall-builder I know. I don't know why a wisp of a kitten makes me think about that, any more than I know why sometimes I start humming "Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing," or why I sleep with the blankets drawn over my head, even when it's hot. Maybe I think, as I watch her lap up the dish of cool water, of all the people whom I've denied water. Maybe I wish people were easy as kittens. Maybe I see myself in the shivery black thing that hides in the bushes and shrinks from touch.

I like to think that in letting the kitten adopt us, I'm teaching the boys to care for those in need. I want to believe they will never deny water to the thirsty. These are the things you ponder as you guide their little souls to the author and perfecter of faith, praying you don't cause them to stumble before you've handed them over.

The kitten, meanwhile, is slowly taking to them. When they are sitting on the ground she prances up to them in that sideways manner of skittish creatures and pounces on their hands or shoes. For their part, the boys are learning not to practice their manly animal-trapping skills on her. Instead they make kitty noises and stroke her sap-covered fur. I think they'll make good protectors one day. Good givers of water.

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Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Working Out

Though I used to be unable to understand him, I find more and more that Oswald Chambers's My Utmost for His Highest has a forcefulness and acuity that renders the Biblical scriptures fresh, essential, and pressing. He wrote his meditations in relative obscurity, and perhaps because his text has not been run through a thousand times by the silver tongue of a preacher, or dissected by bloodless theologians, it still holds magic.

This is merely the reflected magic of the Bible, but it seems at times that preachers and teachers have sucked the life right out of the latter, made it a dry text to which we already know the ending:

God was really mad for several hundred years; Jesus died for your sins (but you really don't deserve it); everything that happens is God's will and perfect; yada yada yada, don't forget to put your ten percent in the collection plate and volunteer for Sunday School duty.

Maybe because they haven't gotten to Chambers, it feels like a refuge from both the world and the neutered God-talk, or maybe it's just what I need right now — because the Lord is like a good parent in that he finds a way to keep you nourished even when you don't want your vegetables. Either way, I'm really digging Chambers, and I urge you to get a copy as well. You might even be able to find it in the modern-day Christian tchotchke store, right there between the "God's Love is Purrr-fect" cat-lover bookmarks and Bruce Wilkinson's latest book, The Hidden Secret: How God Put the Formula for Health and Wealth Right under Your Nose in the Last Verse of an Obscure Proverb.

Here's a snippet from today's meditation in Chambers:

"You cannot do anything for your salvation, but you must do something to manifest it, you must work out what God has worked in."

Poking a stick in the eyes of seven-eighths of the Christian industry probably isn't what he had in mind, but at least I'm trying.

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Monday, May 14, 2007

A Father's Day

I have a two-foot shadow, and his name is Isaac. When I mowed on Saturday, he insisted on sitting in my lap the entire time. When it was time for the push mower, he followed behind with his little plastic mower, the one that clicks as its wheels roll. He even had on his goggles (he calls them "gobbles") and a mask. (For the record, I know that I look like a dork mowing the grass with a mask, but the alternative is misery, and I have now reached the age where comfort trumps cool. Not completely, as it turns out, because at the same time I am moving away from wearing shorts in public, having decided that one simply cannot look like a real man in a pair of shorts.)

When I got out the trimmer, Isaac fetched a plastic hockey stick and followed behind me, pretending to trim. In the back, where a slope leads me to keep him from riding on the mower, he follows behind on his tricycle, gobbles and mask on, pretending to mow. It's the seriousness that's most impressive, how the boy pretend-mows row after row. He's no gentleman farmer, this one.

Then it was on to some pipes around the pool filter that were leaking. I got my tools together, and he ran to get his little plastic tools, along with his yellow construction hat. I sawed and cursed under my breath, and he chirped at me while whacking away. No matter where I went, he was right there with me, all day.

All. Day. (I love my son I love my son I love my son)

It can be a little unnerving, like having one's own leprechaun, except that instead of dispensing wisdom and hints about a pot of gold, this one asks roughly one billion questions per minute and likes to drop his trousers and pee whenever the mood strikes him. If they had any doubts before, our snooty neighbors now have confirmation that we are in fact a family of rednecks. The practice mortifies my wife, but I admire the boy's frontier spirit. The problem is that he doesn't hide behind anything. Wherever he happens to be when the need arises, that's the place that's getting watered.

By Sunday, I was a little spent. But Sunday was Mother's Day, so my job was to give the Wife a break for a day. It's interesting, isn't it, how we celebrate a day by not doing the thing it was named after? Mother's Day. Labor Day. Thanksgiving. You get the idea.

But I figure the poor woman has earned it, if only for putting up with me.So I needed to give her a break. Caleb's been pestering me to build something, and so I figured that might be a good thing to occupy everyone's time. What, I asked him, did he want to build today?

A cannon. The boy has instructions on how to build a cannon. So off we went to Lowe's, where we bought approximately 10,000 PVC parts, some of which are actually the right shape and size. Isaac insisted on carrying a big length of pipe. As we made our way down the aisle, him staggering under the weight, me trying to keep him from whacking anyone in the crotch, he declared, "I strong. I two. I Isaac Woodlief."

I am man; hear me roar. Or in my case: I am father; let me sleep. But the mission was accomplished — at least insofar as Mom got her rest. The cannon still needs work. I'm trying to help Caleb understand that no project is worth anything unless you have to make at least five trips to Lowe's to get it finished. He's not convinced.

That night, before bed, each boy gently hugged his mother, careful of her swollen tummy and the wiggly creature inside. They're all very sweet to her. I'm trying to help them grapple their way to manhood, and to being good husbands themselves one day. This will be nothing short of a miracle, because I've not been much of either, a man or a husband. This is the miracle, that they are changing me as I try to raise them. This is why the sleeplessness and the fatigue and the lack of privacy are all worth it, because without them I am something far less. Yesterday was Mother's Day, but it was also Father's day, and it was good.

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Friday, May 11, 2007


Caleb wants to build things: robots and rockets and bug traps. I can barely build a sandwich. Thankfully our friend Lyndal will be able to teach him how to weld when the time comes. For now he's content to make things out of construction paper and tape, or use whatever else he can find in creative ways. A few weeks ago he buried his plastic bucket in our front yard, up to its lip, and then positioned three rocks over it like a little carport. His theory was that an unsuspecting bug would toddle under the rocks for shade and fall into the bucket.

That didn't work out, but something nice about Caleb is that he is not easily daunted. His latest quest is to catch a cricket. He hears them through his open window at night, and he's decided he should have one as a pet. Around nine o'clock last night, as the last sunlight was fading, he put on his froggy boots and went outside with his little plastic terrarium. He was going cricket hunting, he said.

There are precious few times in a parent's life when even the dullest of us understands that we should grab this experience or that moment with our child. This was one of those moments, and so I put on my shoes and followed him out. He had intended to go it alone, but I could tell he was glad for the company. We held hands and traipsed through the dark, and I whispered to him that the crickets always seem far away because they're hiding from us. Caleb was certain that somewhere there must be a guidebook on how to catch a cricket. "Maybe you could look it up on How to Catch A Bug dot com," he offered. "Or maybe Bug Trapping dot com." We don't let the boy surf the Internet, but somehow he's gathered that it has everything you want to know, so long as you remember to put a "dot com" on the end of your question.

(I wish this were so. I'd start with www.HowDoIKeepFromScrewingThisFatherhoodThingUp.com and work my way over to www.SurvivingWhenYourPregnantWifeCan'tHaveChocolate.com.)

We couldn't find any crickets, but as we returned to the front porch, we spied two Junebugs (I think) clasping the stone wall beside our door. "Do you want a Junebug?" I asked him.

"Sure," Caleb said. He shivered as he looked closer. "It might get you."

"I don't think it can," I said. I steered him over to the bug, until his terrarium was positioned just beneath it. Then I lightly flicked at the bug. It wouldn't let go of the wall. Then I noticed it had little pincers, and was trying to bite me with them. "Whoa," I said, "it's trying to get me."

"Be careful Dad!"

I flicked it again, and it bounced off the top of the terrarium and onto the ground. Caleb and I jumped back. We carefully approached it again and tried to coax it into the terrarium. "Pick it up," the Wife goaded me, having ventured out onto the front step to observe her two brave men.

"I'm trying," I groused. I attempted to nab it by a back leg, and then by the rear of its shell, to no avail.

"Ooo! Dad, be careful." I tried again. I hate bugs. They're so . . . crawly and creepy.

Finally the Wife stepped in, scooped it up, and dropped it in the terrarium. That's probably just as well; I might have hurt it with my kung-fu grip.

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Thursday, May 10, 2007

And now for something completely different...

A poem, because I'm in that kind of mood, and because if you've not read Louise Glück, you ought to:

The Gift

Lord, You may not recognize me
speaking for someone else.
I have a son. He is
so little, so ignorant.
He likes to stand
at the screen door, calling
oggie, oggie, entering
language, and sometimes
a dog will stop and come up
the walk, perhaps
accidentally. May he believe
this is not an accident?
At the screen
welcoming each beast
in love's name, Your emissary.

* From Louise Glück, Descending Figure

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Wednesday, May 9, 2007

The Animal Side

There's a widespread discussion in my city about what to do with the sixth-grade boy who murdered a mother duck and two ducklings with a pencil. Some observe that this is what serial killers do when they are young. Others question what his home life must be like. There are calls for counseling and mental-health evaluations. The animal rights nuts want him prosecuted. The teachers want him watched. His parents probably want all this to go away.

I don't know how to respond to this except with sadness. I remember something David Gelernter wrote: "A society too squeamish to call evil by its right name has destroyed its first best defense against cutthroats." We recoil, of course, at calling a sixth-grade child evil, but that's what this boy is. That doesn't mean counseling and therapy and the host of interventions modern society would unleash on him might not do some good. It doesn't mean we shouldn't show him mercy and forgiveness. But I wonder how we can ever really heal the sickness in such a child if we can't allow ourselves to talk about it in its fullness. This is more than a chemical imbalance, or a lack of training. It is moral vacancy, which is the animal in us unchecked, which is evil.

I wonder if he can sense, somewhere deep down, that something in him is broken, or perhaps dead. I wonder if all this clinical attention will help, or if it will marginalize him further. I wonder if he will respond with more twisted acts, or if he will learn to suppress the animal. And if the latter, will it remain in check, or will it surface five or ten or twenty years from now?

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Shocking news from The New York Times: it turns out that high-school students were using their school-provided laptops to play games, download porn, hack into computer systems, and cheat on tests. This suggests an inversion of the old programming rule: what goes into garbage becomes garbage. I'm sure the parents of the guilty students will redouble their efforts to produce moral human beings.

So, now that we've begun to show that computers won't fix what ails schools, what will be the next panacea?

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Friday, May 4, 2007

Losing Boys

I came across an editorial in The Detroit News, addressing the appalling fact that city schools graduate less than 22 percent of Detroit's boys. This is why, the authors conclude, there has been an epidemic of crime by young males in Detroit, because the schools are failing them.

My wife taught for several years in Detroit's public schools, and it's hard to imagine a more corrupt, jaded, morally and intellectually bankrupt system. At the same time, it's shortsighted to blame the implosion of inner-city civil society on schools. A better place to start would be with the reality that a vast majority of children born in our largest cities have no father in the home.

Boys need fathers, or men who can serve as role-models. Detroit has very few of either. Go to Detroit, stand up in a school board meeting, and state those two facts, and see what it gets you. It's much easier to blame a faceless government entity. There isn't enough money. Classrooms are too big. [Insert your favorite argument for ignoring common sense in favor of government growth here]. We've heard it all before.

When will public officials and opinion leaders have the courage to address a fundamental root cause of this crisis in inner cities, which is the abject failure of most males to behave like real men? When will we turn a harsh eye on the pathetic performance of so many urban churches in this regard, many of which favor preaching a Health and Wealth fantasy, rather than the plain truth that men who do not support their children are less than men, and accursed, and in dire need of a beating? There was a time when The Detroit News editors would have had such courage, but perhaps no more.

Meanwhile, each year sees a new cohort of young thugs hit the streets, to destroy what remains of the local legal economy, and to inseminate the next generation of single mothers. But by all means, let's keep telling ourselves that computers and after-school programs will end this shameful cycle. At least then we won't hurt anyone's feelings.

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Monday, April 30, 2007


You can often discern what Isaac is thinking, even if he doesn't tell you. When he wants to make trouble, his lips are pulled thin and the tip of his tongue shows through his teeth. When he is irritated, his eyebrows push together and he squints like a little cross-eyed thug. Plus there's usually some hitting involved. When he's happy, he grabs hold of the closest person and squeezes tight, making an MMM MMM MMMNNHH sound.

Sometimes what's on his mind seeps out in subtler ways. Saturday he asked me if I like vegetables. "Yes," I said, with more exuberance than is perhaps warranted. "Me too," he said. "What's a vegetable?"

"Well," I said, "there's green beans, and peas, and carrots, and . . ."

"And hot dogs," he chimed in. "Mmmmm, I like hot dogs. They are yummy for me."

Later we were all in the minivan, on our way to do an errand. Caleb sat in the back, working a crossword puzzle. "Mom," he asked, "what was Abraham's wife's name?" Notice how he asked his mother. If you think you're smart, or that you're in charge, just observe to whom your children direct their questions. It might be illuminating. And humbling.

"Sarah," the Wife said, after a series of clues proved fruitless.

"Mmmm," Isaac said, "I like cereal." Sarah. Cereal. I suppose they have a similar sound.

The conversation turned to Eli's violin practice. One of his exercises is something his teacher calls a "tucka tucka stop stop," which is four half notes followed by two quarter notes. "Do da taco taco stop stop Eli," Isaac directed him.

That evening we had hot dogs and French fries and baked beans for dinner. When he saw the spread, Isaac's face took on the same look he wore on Christmas Day. Wouldn't it be nice if all of us were so easily satisfied?

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Saturday, April 28, 2007


Those of you who have an online subscription to WORLD Magazine can check out my essay, here. Those of you with print subscriptions will just have to wait. Those of you with neither will have to rush to your local newstands for the May 5 edition.

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On commentary

I had to travel, one of those city-here, city-there trips that leaves one waking at 3 a.m. and wondering what city this is. A friend recommends keeping a copy of the hotel's phonebook on the nightstand, binder facing the bed, as a means of short-circuiting the befuddlement. As a result, and because I still haven't quite sorted out the newfangled comments feature, several of you attempted to post comments that were held up, awaiting my approval. They should be up now, most of them.

A couple are not, and I'll explain why. I believe in a free-ranging debate, and if you're going to show me the courtesy of reading and thinking about what I have to say, then it seems only fair that I repay the courtesy by letting you have your say in the comments. Occasionally, however, someone leaves a comment consisting entirely of ad hominem attacks, non sequiturs, and other offenses to logic and civility so grave that only Latin phrases can describe them. One person, for example attempted to leave a comment on the abortion discussion below, denouncing all of us men, in unkind words, because men can't have anything worthwhile to say on the topic. This is, of course, nonsense, akin to saying that one who has never been or owned a slave should not engage in a debate about slavery, or that only those who have been to war can understand the current conflict's prosecution.

I thought about posting that comment, but decided against, because I've found that people who can't muster a rational argument on which to embark are very unlikely to discover one along the way, wasting precious time afforded to the rest of us. So in addition to screening out porn and advertisements, I'll also be screening out illogical rants. Yes, I suppose that's a subjective judgment, in the same sense that one must subjectively judge whether the light in one's room is on or off, or whether A is A. But there you go.

Soon we'll have things set up so that you'll have the option of getting a free Typepad registration, in order to allow authenticated commenters to comment without going through my screen first. Then we'll really be high-tech. And thanks, by the way, to those of you who've taken the time to compose an argument here, even when you disagree with me. You're wrong, of course, but I appreciate you nonetheless.

ps: for the humor-impaired, that last was something called a j-o-k-e.

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Tuesday, April 24, 2007

As the Good Lord Said (and I Think He Was Right)...

Perhaps I'm old-fashioned, but I believe a preacher ought to think long and hard, and then think again, before he quotes a Psalm and then begins his next sentence with: But, as if to say, yeah, the Bible's probably worth reading, but let me hit you with some real knowledge.

It's even worse when, in his rush to augment the wisdom of the psalmist with that of Zig Ziglar (no, I'm not making that up; click the link above and see for yourself), he gets the verse's location wrong. That's Psalm 37:23 that you meant to improve, doc, not Psalm 37:25.

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Monday, April 23, 2007

On Wisdom

Caleb is learning to play chess. I realized this weekend that he often thinks three moves ahead. I will not lose to a seven-year-old. I played in a tournament once, and lost to a fourteen-year-old. That was humiliating enough. The first time I realized there are people smarter than me — people who simply have more horsepower in their brains — was in graduate school. My roommate, Jay, was a Harvard math major, and had perfect GRE scores. We would play chess, and he would ponder every possible permutation, and make no mistakes. I couldn't beat him. His brain worked that way with everything. I've met students and professors from numerous universities since my graduate school days, but I've never met anyone smarter than Jay.

Some people seem smart, because they've read and retained a great deal. That speaks more to an encyclopedic function in their brains, I think; they are like human filing cabinets. They can tell you in what book Herodotus describes the cold-hearted Xerxes as he surveys his men sailing to their destruction, they can even tell you what Xerxes is reported to have said, and how he wept at the grandeur of that sight. But they can't tell you what it means, the pathos and sentimentality and repugnance of it. They can only tell you when and where Xerxes met his defeat, and what scholars have written about what the Hellespont meant for Greek civilization and military power. They are parrots less than thinkers.

Jay was one of those people, however, who could not only retain information, but process it. He was an original thinker, armed with a sheer computing power that I realized I could never match. It is a humbling thing, to have pleasant illusions about oneself so decisively dispelled. I'm reminded of that humiliation as I play chess with Caleb, and see how quickly he absorbs the concepts, how in a short time he has already learned that he must control the center, and use his pieces in combinations. Toward the end of a game yesterday, as we sat head-to-head on lawn chairs in the late afternoon sun, after he had lost so many pieces that the end was beyond question, he made a sudden bold attack on my king with his bishop, supported by his knight.

This is how he will be, I think, smart and dangerous and surprising. It gives rise to a new fear, not that I will be shown less intelligent than I thought, but that I will fail to help him temper his intelligence with wisdom. Jay had wisdom about the ideas and concepts floating about the intellectual world in which we dwelled for a time, but he lacked wisdom about the deeper things, as I did, as did everyone I knew in graduate school, as do most of the people I know today whom the world considers intelligent and wise.

It turns out that horsepower alone isn't enough, that wisdom, and the discipline that flows in part from wisdom, are required. These are learned things, and my job is to help my sons learn them. That realization in itself is more humbling than living with a genius, or three little boys who show every sign of emerging smarter than me. It's humbling because I realize I'm simply not up to the task, if imparting wisdom means giving them what I possess.

What is the extent of my wisdom, thirty-nine years into a life in this world? That the heart of man is dark, that I know nearly nothing, and that I can't trust my instincts to do anything but betray me. My wisdom is in knowing how little wisdom I possess, and sadly, that in itself is more wisdom than what is held by most men I know, at least those outside my church.

But where can wisdom be found?
And where is the place of understanding?
Man does not know its value,
Nor is it found in the land of the living.

But that is where we look, isn't it, in the land of the living, meaning within ourselves and our lives, in the little things that we think we learn by accumulated experience, which likely as not serve instead only to confirm the delusions we have cherished from the beginning. If it's left to me to dredge up the wisdom my sons will need in order to be something more than intellectual processors, then I will fail.

Then He saw wisdom and declared it;
He prepared it, indeed, He searched it out.
And to man He said,
'Behold, the fear of the Lord, that
is wisdom,
and to depart from evil
is understanding.'

This is why we pray for our children, those of us with enough wisdom to realize how little wisdom we possess. This is why we read the second chapter of the book of Proverbs and speak it to our sons and daughters, pray it into their skins if we have to, because we know that what they need is beyond our power to give them. This is why parents, if they are more than simply humans who have procreated, are humbled creatures, because only in humbly seeking wisdom at its source can we help our children obtain it.

This is a portion of the art and labor of helping our children become something better than us, part of the generational effort that those in the covenant understand, while those outside it have trouble even making sense of these words. It is why we say that when we are fools we are wise, and where we are weak He is strong, and why all of it seems like nonsense to those who are lost but think they are secure, while we who are secure work out our salvation with fear and trembling.

So are you working it out today? Your children are watching, and they will do as you do. What do they see? I hope in me my sons see the unwisest of men seeking after wisdom that will never come from within. I hope they learn humility more easily than I have had to learn it, am learning it still.

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Thursday, April 19, 2007

Plain Talk

It took the slimmest of Supreme Court margins to afford states the right to stop the practice of seizing the skull of a partially-born infant and either crushing or puncturing it. I used to think that people just didn't know, but when even The New York Times accurately describes the procedure, it's safe to say that people who don't know about this practice are willfully ignorant, and they probably prefer to keep it that way.

It's not clear that the latest ruling will reduce the rate of infanticide, despite the gnashing of teeth among pro-abortion spokesmen and corresponding celebration by anti-abortion spokesmen. Deprived of the relative convenience of murdering the infant outside the womb, abortionists will return to severing its limbs and head inside the womb.

Does the language offend? Shall I refer to that creature with eyelashes and grasping fingers and the capacity to feel the sun on his face, were he wanted, as a fetus? Shall I call the act of hacking him apart late-term intact dilation and extraction? I'm not one of those who indulges in the fantasy that every abortion-rights advocate is profoundly evil, but there is something distinctly wicked about this mangling of language, all in an effort to disguise precisely what goes on when a woman who believes she has no more options puts her feet in the stirrups.

I remember in The Silence of the Lambs, how the author has one of his characters inform us that the psychopathic killer needs to refer to his victim as it rather than you. Even the cold-blooded often need to dehumanize their victims before they can take to slaughtering them. Haven't we done the same, every one of us who indulges in the fiction that calling a baby by the Latin word for "young one" somehow makes it a bundle of tissue rather than a human being?

I believe there are noble and well-intentioned people on both sides of this war over abortion rights. Regardless of one's position, the very least we can do is be honest about what is taking place, not just on that bloody table, but in the lives of these women who have been driven to end a life. Pro-abortion advocates too often clinicalize and dehumanize the child to be murdered, and anti-abortion protestors too often dehumanize the woman who consents to the killing. Perhaps a little plainer talk, a little more honest talk, might do us all some good.

In that regard, I'm afraid, the Supreme Court decision may ultimately prove counter-productive. At least when blood was spilling directly from tiny skulls to linoleum floors, the crime was in plain sight. Now we have forced it back into the darkness of the womb, where the millions of us who are uncomfortable with abortion, but who also haven't the stomach for doing much about it, can rest easier at night. There will be no fewer killings, but at least we'll no longer have to hear the splatter.

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Teenage Stupidity

Guess what's at the top of the list when you Google teenage stupidity? That's right, Sand in the Gears is your number-one source for information on the dumbification of American teens. And if I may say so (and I may, this being my website and all), I am an expert on this phenomenon, having been a stupid teenager myself.

In keeping with my self-appointed and self-righteous mission, I bring you the latest Kaiser Family Foundation report on media consumption by children, wherein you will see, among other things, that more than half of American children ages 8-18 have televisions in their bedrooms. More alarming, while the average child watches four hours and fifteen minutes worth of television and movies per day, he reads books 23 minutes a day. In other words, the average American child spends 1200 percent more time on the idiot box than on books.

Does anyone think this story will end well?

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Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Amazing Grace

The wife and I had a date last night, and took the opportunity to see "Amazing Grace." It is a lovely movie, and in the spirit of supporting good work about things that matter, I urge you to see it, if you haven't already, assuming it's still playing somewhere in your city. The bad news is that it was soundly thumped at the box office by the likes of "Norbit," with predictable reviews from the usual chorus whose objections can be summed up in the sentence: It doesn't have enough self-actualizing blacks/skepticism of religion/moral ambiguity. The good news is that it was made at all. Albert Finney's performance alone, as an aging and repentant John Newton, is worth multiples of the price of admission.

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Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Snow in Blacksburg

It was a scene we've witnessed before, from the safety of our living rooms and offices: a school building that has become a slaughterhouse, and scores of police officers arrayed outside, waiting for . . . something, for orders perhaps, or for the specially trained tactical units, or perhaps just for the shooting to stop, because while they wear badges they also have wives and mortgages and children of their own. Whatever their reasons, they hesitated, even the cluster of officers captured on a student's videocamera, the ones who made a half-hearted attempt to enter the building, waited while one shot, then another, then a string of shots rang out, and between them the screaming from inside the classrooms.

I've never been shot at, and so I don't know the fear. But I've never put on a badge and sworn an oath to protect the defenseless, either. I only know that had my children been inside, I would want the men and women with guns and badges to come through the doors, or windows if they have to, and cut down the man with the gun.

I remember a murder in my hometown, a man who walked out onto his front lawn with a rifle, and started shooting his neighbors and passersby. A girl from my school was hit, and she lay in a ditch in front of her house, bleeding and crying. The man went back into his house when the police arrived, and so they encamped behind their cruisers for hours. That girl lay there, bleeding and crying out, and eventually she died.

The men with badges that day were rightly denounced as cowards. Only the people who were in Blacksburg yesterday, or at Columbine nearly eight years ago to the day, can accurately judge the actions and inactions of the men and women wearing badges. The rest of us can only know that sometimes men and boys pick up guns, and they start butchering people, and there is no one on this earth who can protect us once the killing starts. This is why each of us who is a parent hugged his children more fiercely yesterday, after we heard. You either have hope in the world to come, or you have no hope at all, but either way you hold your children close and pray that the wolves attack somewhere else.

Now the counselors and journalists and talk show hosts will descend on Blacksburg, bringing with them a secondary wave of psychological damage disguised as "healing" and "talking things out," but which will really be about serving our need to see it, to witness it in safety, perhaps because we are thankful, in an ugly, selfish way most of us have, that it happened to them and not to us, or to our children.

Today there are parents waking up and remembering that their child is dead. There are children waking up and remembering that their parent is dead. Sleep always offers some hope that the world will be different when we awake, but it isn't, is it? I wonder if this is the hopelessness that drove that boy to become a monster. I wonder if his parents will ever smile again.

Judy Miller, a reporter who covered the Columbine killings, had a graceful essay on NPR this morning. In it she mentioned the strangeness of seeing snowflakes swirl about the campus as the killing took place, and how it was similarly snowing in Columbine the day two other boys became monsters. It made me wonder if God was crying, and if the coldness of the world we have made has frozen even his tears.

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Sunday, April 15, 2007

Christian Fiction IV: The Weaning

Well, I let a week of things that pay the bills get in the way of writing my fourth and final installment on this topic, and I think I've lost my steam. Or maybe there's just nothing left to say, other than that good writing flows from good reading, both at the level of the individual, and at the level of society. We are inundated with unimaginative books because too many of us have become unimaginative readers. I came across this from Ortega y Gasett, which captures the notion:

"So many things fail to interest us, simply because they don't find in us enough surfaces on which to live, and what we have to do then is to increase the number of planes in our mind, so that a much larger number of themes can find a place in it at the same time."

I wish I could tell you where the Gasett quote comes from — it's quoted without source by Robert Bly in his Leaping Poetry. I searched for it on the Internet, and found the quote several other places, but nobody else bothered to source it either. For all I know, it might actually be something profound from Beyonce's autobiography, which has been wrongly attributed to Gasett. On the other hand, had it come from Beyonce, I'm sure it would have been referenced in more places on the Internet. That's precisely the point, of course; we have habituated our palates to bubblegum.

Rather than bad writing producing bad reading, then, one might be justified in arguing that bad reading yields bad writing, both by creating a market for shlock and by stultifying the minds of successive generations of writers. Horace Gregory, in his introduction to William Carlos Williams's In the American Grain put it this way:

"It is sometimes futile to reply that the unintelligent, the insensible, the undiscerning, the unimaginative (if they are writers) are incapable of sincerity in what they write; their relationship to what they say is already compromised before they start; at best they are merely writing with half a voice and half an ear and their beliefs rest upon such shallow ground that they are meaningless almost before we discover what they are."

But perhaps all this handwringing over the quality of Christian bookstore offerings is misguided. Perhaps good writers who happen to be Christians simply don't need a CBA to sell their work. Leif Enger's book, for example, was a New York Times bestseller. Maybe this debate is completely backwards; instead of asking why Christian publishers don't produce more high-quality work, we ought to ask why Christians choose to buy their fiction from such limited venues.

And the very fact that one can ask that question, that one can walk into a Borders and find Peace Like a River, may well be the CBA's biggest accomplishment. Perhaps we can credit the CBA, and the dreadful Left Behind series, for making it okay to talk about Jesus in a book. It would be ironic and somehow delightful, I think, if the CBA's greatest contribution to Christian fiction proves to be that it opened the door for self-consciously secular publishing houses to realize that there's gold in them thar hillbillies.

At the same time, someone like W. Dale Cramer — not high literature, by any means, but a thoughtful, entertaining writer — probably wouldn't be published by a mainstream press. His fine books exist because of the CBA. No matter that you have to wade through shelf after shelf of bodice stretcher and thin literary recreations of Christy to find Cramer, the fact is that you can find him, if you're willing to look, and this is thanks to a Christian publishing house, Bethany (not coincidentally, one of Bethany's publishers has a blog, Faith in Fiction that focuses on the theme I've tried to tackle in these essays). A defense of all these poor CBA offerings, as a publisher from another Christian publishing house noted in his comment on one of my previous essays, is that it subsidizes the good writing. With that in mind, it's probably fair to say that Christian publishing houses on balance do more good than harm, in the world of fiction. And they would do far more good if we readers could wean ourselves from the bubblegum.

And with that in mind, I promised in an earlier post to give you some ideas on good reading. Fortunately (or providentially, for my Presbyterian and Lutheran friends), the very fine faith-oriented literary journal, Image, has assembled both a study guide and an editor's list of the top 100 books from the past century. If you care at all about the intersection of good writing and faith, you should subscribe to Image, and I'm not just saying that because they're publishing one of my short stories later this year.

Remember, by reading better, we all encourage better writing. So consider your sampling from these lists a small but important part of the effort to change the world, and not just a high-brow attempt to avoid housework.

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Sunday, April 8, 2007

Easter Day

We stood in church and sang the hymns, the boys with their shirts tucked in for once, me in a tie for once. Caleb had written on his notepad: "He is risen. He is risen indeed. Eastre Day. Amen."

We sang the hymns and the sound of it would make even the heaviest heart lighter, the kind of lightness that makes you want to sing at the top of your lungs, even if all the hymns were written by people with high voices, the kinds of voices that seem to reach heaven so easily. So I sang that way, loud and not always in tune, and tried to push my words up past the clouds, so that God might hear a whisper, or the echo of a whisper. I sang that way, and I wondered, "Is there grace in your cup for me?"

And the answer came back in the voices of my brothers and sisters, for when we sing to God we are also singing to one another, and to ourselves. The stone has been rolled away, the cup that held bitterness has been refilled with life, and the world has been forever changed. He is risen, indeed.

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Saturday, April 7, 2007

Correspondence with the Easter Bunny

Caleb's note to the Easter Bunny:

"Dear Ester Bunea,
This is all I want
A bascket for my bike and a little wite rabbit.

The Easter Bunny's reply (as channeled by the Wife):

Dear Caleb,
Thank you for the note. I don't carry the bunnies with me because they eat all the candy. I will put in a good word for you with your parents.
He is risen!

I'm not sure which of my sweethearts is cuter.

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Friday, April 6, 2007

Good Friday

And so they led him up the hill, and they nailed him to a cross, and they watched him bleed and die.

From Frederick Buechner's Beyond Words: Daily Readings in the ABC's of Faith:

"What was brought to completion by such a life and such a death only he can know now, wherever he is, if he is anywhere. The Christ of it is beyond our imagining. All we can know is the flesh and blood of it, the Jesus of it. In that sense, what was completed was at the very least a hope to live by, a mystery to hide our faces before, a shame to haunt us, a dream of holiness to help make bearable our night.

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Christian Fiction, Part III: Bad Writing Is Evil

After I discovered Leif Enger's Peace Like a River, I breathlessly recommended it to my friends. I could barely disguise my disappointment when some said it was "too slow," or "hard to get into." I love them all the same, but I couldn't help but view them as slightly handicapped, like someone who is colorblind, or can't taste anything sweet. That doesn't state it strongly enough; imagine someone who can't see sunsets, or hear music. You'd love this friend nonetheless, but between the two of you there would forever be a gulf, an inability to share something lovely. This is what comes to mind when I learn that a Christian friend's literary tastes run to the spiritual equivalent of Who Moved My Cheese?.

There is a sweet side to this reality; when I discover that someone I know was also moved by James Agee's A Death in the Family, or thinks Frederick Buechner is a modern-day prophet, I can't help but feel a closer bond with him. There's an almost subversive quality to it, though we aren't subverting anyone, except perhaps by slipping a lovely book to a promising recruit and whispering "Here, read this." And when the recruit shyly returns it a month later, and confesses that it was a little slow, we love him nonetheless; we just stop pointing out the sunsets to him.

I think there's something running deeper here, however, than individual tastes, or communities of shared affinity. Cliché-ridden, unimaginative prose is not only less lovely than good writing, it is less true. Consider the cliché, which Dictionary.com defines as:

"a trite, stereotyped expression; a sentence or phrase, usually expressing a popular or common thought or idea, that has lost originality, ingenuity, and impact by long overuse."

Now, we all use clichés in everyday speech, because they save time. Those common phrases are right there in the front of our brains (and see how the cliché, and the practice of reading poorly, can perpetuate itself?). In a conversation, especially where there's work to be done, one doesn't have time to compose melodic prose. So one resorts to ready-made phrases. Clichés are very helpful in that regard. But keep in mind what we sacrifice by using the cliché. In effect, we trust the listener to substitute his own experience in order to understand ours. If you tell me:

I'm feeling under the weather today.

I don't really know how you feel; instead I think back on my own experiences of feeling bad, and transfer them to you. To be sure, the cliché is based on a commonality of human experience, but it is by necessity a common denominator. That's fine for conversation where approximation of truth is sufficient to the work at hand, but when it dominates conversations that are supposed to be about connection, and discernment of truth (and if writing is not supposed to be about these things, then we may as well burn all our books straightaway) then it destroys the very purpose of those conversations.

The cliché moves us away from the truth, the precise truth of an individual human being in a particular moment in history, and instead substitutes the thin gruel of simple words uttered so many times before that neither the speaker nor the listener has to think much about them at all. The cliché is not only less than truth, its very blandness and unoriginality paints the colorful world a uniform gray.

The spectacle, then, of Christian writers layering cliché after cliché into their prose is especially disheartening, because they claim to espouse a worldview founded on truth and miracles. Neither are gray, are they? Wander over to the fiction section the next time you're in a "Christian Lifestyle" store (and don't even get me started on all the ways that conceptualization is an absolute abomination), or to the "faith" section the next time you're in an actual bookstore, and randomly select a book. Open it to a random page, and count the number of clichés, the sheer weight of "trite, stereotyped expression." And let's be clear, the cliché is not the extent of the problem, the root cause of bad writing; it is a symptom of the lazy, unoriginal, irreverent treatment of creation that underlies such writing.

And if this rote treatment is the extent of our storytelling, why not do the reader a favor, and just summarize?

Beth was heartbroken and questioning her walk with Jesus, but then brooding Glenn came along, and together they rediscovered their faith, all while fighting off the godless land developers who wanted to ruin their bucolic town.

What's that, dear reader? You want more to the story? Just fill in the blanks. You've heard all the phrases I was going to use anyway, and you know exactly how the story is going to end — which is probably half the reason you picked up the book in the first place. So just stare at the wall, and tell yourself the story.

Think of the paper we'd save.

To relate stories in drab, unoriginal language, then, is to deny truth. The world is filled with exquisite joy and pain, and if a writer (or reader) can't lift himself out of commonplace phrasings to tell the stories of this joy and pain, then he ought to busy himself with some other endeavor, because the alternative is to lie (or to entertain the lie) about creation, and about the author of that creation. This is what we are engaged in, those of us who make a steady diet of sugarless gum — a perpetual lie, because bad writing is always lying. This is why I say that a steady practice of bad writing (and bad reading) is a sin. It's not going to the movies for a couple of hours of release, it is a continual dwelling in a fantasy space. I don't think that comports with the calling of a thinking Christian, do you?

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Thursday, April 5, 2007

Christian Fiction, Part II: The Bubblegum Diet

What is Christian fiction? Does Doris Betts's story, "Serpents and Doves" count? In it a dying, guilt-ridden man has a feverish conversation with the Devil that brings him to realize the salvation that has eluded him. Then there's Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory, wherein a priest is executed for refusing to renounce his faith. Leif Enger's Peace Like a River is infused with grace, and its noblest character is a through-and-through Christian. Do any of these count as Christian fiction?

I suspect not. There's cursing in them, for one thing. Greene's book depicts sex in a prison cell. Plus his priest fathered a child. Each book has an edge to it, and perhaps that's the best demarcation. Christian fiction seems to be a safe harbor for people who want no cursing, or sex, or difficult theological quandaries. It's a place where the bad people are clearly bad, where the troubled find Jesus, the wicked get their comeuppance, and children have the wisdom of angels. It's escapist literature, and as such it's part of a long tradition. It's the literary equivalent of bubble gum, only it's sugarless, for those who care about the state of their spiritual teeth.

There's nothing wrong with sugarless gum; the difficulty arises when one makes a steady diet of it. If one believes that reading is an important part of the thinking life, then what one reads is no trivial matter. I know some people — intelligent, well-meaning people — who believe that the end is reading itself. They're happy that their adult children read, but when you delve into what their children are reading, it's a bubble-gum banquet. The purpose of a literate life is not the steady gazing at lines of words all strung together in tight rows and bundles, but the engagement of the mind with ideas and events and struggles greater than oneself. It's the interaction with ideas such that one's life is richer, and more meaningful, so that one is better equipped to be a force in the world.

One gets none of that from bubble gum. And how sad is it, really, to elect for a bubble gum diet, and then to make it sugarless? If we are to let our minds stagnate, then at the very least, mightn't we have a little fun doing so? Think about it: to be given these great gifts of prosperity, peace, and literacy, such that we have at our fingertips the brilliant thinking and composition of noble and ignoble souls alike, and then to read none of it. Doesn't that seem awfully close to sin? And if it is, why not sin boldly? Read some Stephen King, for crying out loud. At least you can tell his characters apart.

That's right, I'm suggesting that bad reading — and bad writing — is a sin. I'll even go so far as to posit that there is a special library in hell, lined with Danielle Steele and Robert Ludlum books, where the damned are consigned to copy the books' wretched dialogue over and over on endless spools of dry scratchy paper, with demons waiting nearby to lop off fingers whenever someone puts his punctuation on the outside of the quotation mark.

Keep in mind that I'm not speaking to people who's intellectual capacity limits their ability to comprehend a Wendell Berry or Dorothy Sayers, a Chaim Potok or Flannery O'Connor. Those blessed souls stopped reading after I used the phrase "theological quandaries," in the second paragraph. No, I'm talking to you, and to me, and most importantly, to each of us who is a parent (but more on that later). We have the capacity to read wonderful books, but we've trained our palate to crave bubble gum. Then we lie to ourselves, and say that because it's sugarless, we are being good stewards of our minds. But sugarless gum produces a rot of a different sort, in the form of an absence of nourishment.

But enough for now. Next post I'll dig a little deeper into why I think bad writing (and therefore bad reading) is a sin. And as your payoff for enduring my insufferable snootiness on this topic, I'll direct you to some lists of wonderful books that wrestle with things that ought to matter to the thinking Christian.

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Wednesday, April 4, 2007

On Christian Fiction, Part I: Bad Readers Make Bad Writers

There's a debate in Christian writing circles arising out of the perceived difficulty of getting publishers under the Christian Booksellers Association (CBA) umbrella to carry more "literary" work. The underlying conflict between literary and mass-market fiction has existed in one form or another long before the CBA took root, of course. The first time a caveman etched a picture of his battle with the woolly mammoth, there was probably a scratcher of intricate berry-gathering vignettes waiting to denounce his work as sentimental and derivative.

The CBA question is especially interesting (to me, at least), because it incorporates not only questions of good art, but of purposeful art, which is itself a separate and tangled thicket. Does art with a high-minded purpose run the risk of being contrived and insincere? Should the purpose of the Christian artist be anything other than to tell the truth, i.e., to be a good artist — and if not, what's the purpose of an association dedicated to the selling of "Christian" books?

Whenever the debate is joined, it threatens to surface a more delicate matter, regarding what Christians choose to consume with their minds. Since free markets consist of sellers in service to willing buyers, our concern about what publishers print is really, in one dimension at least, a concern with what our friends choose to read. Tastes are cultivated, of course, and so we can quibble over what parents and schools teach (or more likely, fail to teach), but those dissatisfied (disheartened? disgusted?) by current CBA offerings are really dissatisfied with readers. As long as scores of readers get pleasure out of a book that can be written in a month, there will be authors turning out a book a month.

One runs the risk, in making this observation, of appearing to be one of those pedantic, precious little creative types who is convinced that the world has rejected his art because the masses have neither sense nor discernment. But some things are true even if Allan Bloom said so.

There's much more to be said here (and I promise not to afflict you with all of it), but I'll take it up in the next post.

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Monday, April 2, 2007

Renaissance Radical

Something that has always bothered me about the theological enterprise is an undercurrent of arrogance, the notion that we possess so clear a discernment that we can build mental boxes to contain the wild God of the ages. I once heard a sermon where the pastor quoted a brilliant theologian, who was commending Jesus for drawing the right conclusion in a particular lesson. It put me in mind of the politician who declared in the midst of a speech, "As the good Lord said, and I think he was right . . ."

Recalling that the first theologian was the Devil himself, it seems a slippery enterprise at best. It isn't surprising that the great reformations — Josiah having the Torah read to the people, Christ slapping down the Pharisees, Martin Luther suggesting the Pope get re-acquainted with the Bible — center on returning to what God has said, not what man has to say about what God said. (The aggrieved pedant often interposes a secondary discussion here, regarding the extent to which the Scriptures themselves are simply man's interpretations of what God has said, and the best reply is that he educate himself through more than the books that speak to his preconceived bias on the topic.)

All the foregoing came to mind yesterday as I read this from Sir Walter Raleigh's History of the World:

"Man, to cover his ignorance in the least things, who cannot give a true reason for the grass under his feet . . . that hath so short a time in the world as he no sooner begins to learn than to die; that hath in his memory but borrowed knowledge, in his understanding nothing truly; that is ignorant of the essence of his own soul, and which the wisest of the naturalists (if Aristotle be he) could never so much as define but by the action and effect, telling us what it works (which all men know as well as he) but not what it is, which neither he nor any else doth know, save God that created it . . . Man, I say, that is but an idiot in the next cause of his own life and in the cause of all actions of his life, will notwithstanding examine the art of God in creating the world . . ."

Or, as the good Lord said to Job (and I think he was right), "Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?"

As might be expected, they lopped off Raleigh's head, their anger no doubt heightened by verses like this:

"Tell faith, it's fled the city;
Tell how the country erreth;
Tell, manhood shakes off pity;
Tell, virtue least preferreth;
And if they do reply,
Spare not to give the lie.

I don't know about you, but I always delight in discovering a critic from ages past. It makes one feel as if one is part of a sacred tradition, or has perhaps been admitted to a secret society because someone forgot to check one's references. And it shouldn't worry us, that so many meet gruesome ends, because mostly that doesn't happen any more, unless one lives in the Middle East. Or Africa. Or Pakistan. I guess there's also China, Cuba, Venezuela (soon), Russia, and Europe, if the Muslim demographic invasion continues . . .

Ah, well. Perhaps we misanthropes can simply hope for Raleigh's pluck on the executioner's block. He thumbed the blade and declared, "This is that that will cure all sorrows." And then, when the executioner dallied too long before the blow, Raleigh chided him: "Strike, man!" We'll know we've turned the corner in our universities, when this Renaissance radical replaces the thuggish Che Guevara on chic t-shirts. But to judge from Raleigh's poetry, academia was little better in his day, it seems:

"Tell arts, they have no soundness,
But vary by esteeming;
Tell schools, they want profoundness,
And stand too much on seeming
If arts and schools reply
Give arts and schools the lie."


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Saturday, March 31, 2007

"When Two People Always Agree..."

The international Internet authority ICANN voted recently, for the third time, against creating a ".XXX" web domain for pornography. Those in favor of the change argued that it would be easier to identify and avoid porn sites. Not surprisingly, a host of Internet porn distributors lobbied against the measure for precisely that reason, in addition to their fear that it would be the first step toward requiring them to put their sites in the ".XXX" domain.

Perhaps surprisingly, however, at least for those unfamiliar with Bruce Yandle's Bootleggers and Baptists theory of strange bedfellows, several large Christian organizations also opposed the measure. An attorney with the Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian legal organization that has been outspoken in opposition, claimed that the ".XXX" designation would increase the number of porn sites on the web. He also suggested that porn sellers actually favor creating the domain, though clearly they do not. Strange, yes?

A search for "Christian Internet filter," meanwhile, turns up several software packages available for purchase. And interestingly, several of the larger providers are owned by the very same organizations that oppose designating a separate ".XXX" domain for porn. A cynical person might conclude that the organizations most in danger of the obvious end game to a ".XXX" domain (the legal requirement that porn sites always be designated by that suffix) are the companies that now do a brisk business selling Internet filters to families concerned about their children happening across porn. If we one day corralled the smut to a clearly demarcated corner of the Web, these filters would lose their retail value.

I'm sure the overwhelming majority of notable Christians opposing the ".XXX" designation honestly believe its prevention is a strike against Internet pornography, even though the strategic opportunity it would present to confine Internet porn to a ghetto has got to be apparent to people who concern themselves with these matters. Still, I'm sure the impetus, for most, is genuine. But isn't it interesting how the strategic position, in this case, just happens to line itself up with the financial interests of some of the most outspoken opponents to the designation?

Even more troubling is the seeming monolithic stance by Christian organizations on this issue. One could make a strong argument that, if the goal is to limit Internet porn, the ".XXX" domain is a positive step. It's not clear-cut, in other words. In such an instance, one might expect thinking people to disagree.

That's the most disappointing aspect of this kerfuffle. It puts me in mind of Mark Twain's admonition: "Whenever you find that you are on the side of the majority, it is time to reform."

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Thursday, March 29, 2007

The Storm

The two younger boys crept into our bed in the black morning, driven by a snarling storm. They curled into me, shivering, as if I am a safe harbor. There is no keeping out the storm; this is what I thought. The cool peaceful evenings line themselves up between the vibrant days, and we forget the storm until it is upon us, and then we remember that there is no hiding from it, because it knows where every living one of us dwells. These little ones have not been so long removed from the raw stuff of nature to forget the primeval violence of the world. We chuckle at how they cower, but they are right to fear the storm. We are the foolish ones, to think our roofs and walls protect us.

They shivered into sleep beside me, thinking I have some magic, and me full of wakeful fear, knowing too, before a shave and a newspaper help me forget, that only magic will keep the storm at bay once it comes in all its fury. And we have no more magic, none of us, so we chuckle when these children cringe at the thunder, and tell ourselves that we have conquered the storm.

We lay in that bed, and I listened to their breathing, their peaceful breathing, and counted the seconds between the flashes and booms, as if math will make the storm disappear. The storm drifted away, but it is always just on the horizon, perhaps doing its own counting. Maybe it has some final number in mind, and we, meanwhile, think that this number is infinity, when it surely is something much smaller, much closer, with only our children sensing how close it really is.

No man can hold back the storm, little ones, not even your father, shivering as he is beside you. You'll read this before you truly know, because you can only know it when your own children lay shivering beside you, thinking you possess magic that has left the world. Then you will know it, deep in the bones that forgot, until that moment, the primordial fear, and you find yourself whispering a prayer only half-believed. You whisper that prayer, and in whispering it you know that you have no magic in you to protect them. This is why we pray so seldom, and often weep when we pray, because we've lost hope before we've begun.

So you whisper that prayer, little-ones-now-fathers, and the growling storm thunders louder, and your soul cringes, attuned as it is to the destruction of the flesh, forgetting its own eternal nature. The heart and the flesh cry out because their days are ending, but this soul, this cringing, faithless soul, is made of some resilient matter that even the hungry storm cannot devour.

There is no stopping the storm when it is finally unleashed; this is the reply to the prayer you will find yourself whispering one black morning, as your trusting children sleep beside you, believing there is magic beneath your skin. But there are only the strange equations — loss equals gain, death equals life — and they are founded in a math deeper than that with which you counted back the flashes and booms.

This is the conversation you will have with God, as your own children curl into you, not knowing that once you curled into me, and that in all the years between, you have not found the magic to hold back the storm when it comes. This is what comes to you for your whispered prayer, this quiet promise that the storm cannot destroy all. It is not the answer you will hope for when you whisper your prayer, but it is more than enough.

So sleep beside me now, little boys, and I will fight back the storm until my flesh fails me, as all flesh does. It is a blessing that all flesh fails, because otherwise our souls might never struggle free. Knowing this I protect you nonetheless, because that is how fathers are made. That is why we die one day, so the world can go to work on you in its turn, that you might learn the painful lesson, which is simply that all flesh fails, and that this is good, because there is something underneath the Lord has made. You cannot see it, but I think I catch a glimpse as I watch you sleep, and I think it must be inside me too.

One dark morning, when you hold your own children, and are filled with fierce love for them, know that I have loved you the same way, and that this is why God calls us his children, that no matter how many heresies spill forth from preachers and priests, we might remember he loves us with more ferocity than any storm, even the storm that bides its time.

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Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Word of Mouth

"I cute," Isaac walks into my bedroom and declares. "Eli handsome."

"Who told you that?" I ask him.


Apparently my five-year-old son has discovered word-of-mouth marketing.

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