Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Eight years to go, and counting

At work, and at other places as well, I often give people the number of years, months, and days left until my retirement. People probably think I have a countdown meter somewhere, I do it so quickly. But in reality I can do that because I will retire on my 65th birthday, which happens to coincide withe the last day of the year. So the countdown is easy. I know the year, and I can quickly figure how many months and days left in the year.

Today the countdown reached exactly eight years. That is, unless if economic conditions are such that I have to extend my working days, a distinct possibility the way things are looking right now. Having to work until I'm 67 or even longer is a real scenario.

Of course, I hold a slim hope to the possibility of my writing career taking off, and of supplemental income from that resulting in early retirement from engineering. Yes, I'm not quite free of my pipe dream.

My computer clock now shows it is 8:03 AM, and I must be about my employer's business.

Monday, December 29, 2008

What to write?

This question is not about this blog, but about writing in general. At present, I have only two writing projects in progress:

1. Type the harmony of the gospels I did off and on over a three year period ending in 2005, then go through it to look for gaps, redundancies, potential changes in order, etc. After the typing and editing is done, type explanatory notes for the harmony, only some of which are written in manuscript form. This is likely to take all year.

2. Work on my "Life On A Yo Yo" Bible study, of the life of Peter the apostle. This is planned, and I begin teaching it on Sunday Jan 4, 2009. This is more of a teaching project than a writing project, but I figure that every such project might become a writing project given the right amount of time and energy.

But what to do about a writing career? As I've reported before, it seems that life will never give me, short of my retirement planned for 8 years and 2 days from now, enough time to do all that writing demands: write, edit, improve my craft, research the market, research agents, pour time into submittals/proposals/query letters/etc., follow-up on those, and prepare for the marketing work I would have to do should I become published. All this makes a writing career a pipe dream for now.

So I have an unfinished second novel, In Front Of Fifty Thousand Screaming People, that must remain unfinished. I have a completed first novel, Doctor Luke's Assistant, which, having earned about ten rejections, must remain in the reject pile for the moment. I have my completed poetry book, Father Daughter Day, which, defying all rules of genre and degree of religiosity, sits in exile upon a closet shelf. My non-fiction book Screwtape's Good Advice, has only one rejection, but finding time to tailor the proposal to new editors or agents seems, in light of the current state of publishing, an effort in futility. My newspaper column, Documenting America, being a good but unique work The long list of other novels, other non-fiction books, magazine articles, etc. will just have to remain in the ideas notebook for now.

What will the next twelve months hold as far as writing goes? Stay tuned.

Friday, December 26, 2008

The Christmas Season

I wish somehow we could make Christmas less stressful. Fewer parties, no shopping (which of course means no gifts), normal dinners. Cards are okay, because that gives us a once a year reason to contact people and write a letter.

Our cards will go out today or tomorrow. The problem, well, just the busyness of the season and unfortunate circumstances and disagreement on what should be in the letter, which is still not finished. Maybe this will be the last year for cards and letters, or maybe next year will be cards only, since they are the easy part.

Of course, that would run counter to what I said above. Oh, well, life is full of contradictions. We just learn to live with them, and pretend they only come from outside sources.

Merry Christmas, all. Our main gathering starts today, with our main meal tomorrow. The kids were all here for Thanksgiving, so they are off on other pursuits now. Other relatives are traveling toward our house right now.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Corporate Foraging

This time of year is when I forage, in the office. Beginning about Dec 15th, the ladies begin bringing in little treats. Or various vendors begin dropping off gifts such as tins of popcorn or meat trays or boxes of peanut brittle, not for me but for the company as a whole. Or we give out meat and cheese trays to our clients, and one department head always mysteriously orders one too many, which of course we then have to consume. If I wanted to, I wouldn't have to take a lunch. Although, since I can't have the sweet treats, I do have to limit my foraging to what I'm supposed to eat.

Of course, foraging in the office has a different effect than it had in the days of hunter-gatherers. Back then, foraging took considerable energy and effort. One stayed slim and trim and built muscle while foraging. Today, it merely means taking about six steps from the corridor to the conference table in Dept 1, or ten steps in Dept 2, get the picture. Foraging has a negative impact on the body, an impact which I am indeed feeling.

This is not a political blog, and I have made very few political posts. Normally, when I want to make political comments I head over to The Senescent Man blog and post there. But today I will comment on the "corporate foraging" going on in America. First the big lending companies, then the banks, and now the big three automakers all want someone to bail them out, to infuse money in them to allow them to keep operating without declaring bankruptcy. We have a presidential candidate from the party of "fiscal responsibility" who proposed spending 300 Billion dollars to buy "worthless paper" to artificially prop up house prices. Talk about an ultimate oxymoron. We have a president from the same company who defies the will of congress and of his own party and loans money to those automakers, saying it necessary to discard free-market principles to save the free market.

What will the outcome be of this? The US government becomes an owner in these companies, or in some cases becomes their creditor. The taxpayer pays for this, either with more taxation today or more taxation in the future. None of these is a good outcome.

What was the cause of this crisis? Greed, pure and simple, it seems to me. People were greedy, wanting to own houses they couldn't afford, and wanting those houses to always go up in value. Workers were greedy (through their unions), wanting to have the highest pay and benefits package they could squeeze out of the company. Corporate officers were greedy, wanting the highest possible salary and bonus with the best golden parachute waiting should they fail. And stockholders were greedy, wanting the best possible profit this quarter with rising stock price, with no thoughts to long-term viability of the company. Our members of congress were greedy, wanting to be seen as the promoters and sustainers of prosperity. Rather than all the sorry characters in this sorry story fessing up to their greed and seeking to make amends, they go to the taxpayers with their hands out and say, "Please fund our greed!"

Greed is what causes my foraging in the office, with the result that my body is in worse shape, and post-foraging depression when I realize just how many pounds I have to lose, pounds I've lost a few times already. And greed was the cause of the bubble that had to burst, resulting in Panic of 2008 and the corporate foraging taking place before our eyes. The depression that will follow will be the result of simple demographics, as the baby-boomers age and spend less; but it will come.

This has truly been a sad year in America.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Life Imitates Reality TV

I believe I am part of a subculture--a very small subculture, it seems. It is the subculture of those who have never watched a reality TV show. Maybe there's something weird about me, but I don't watch 'em and have no desire to do so.

I sat down to watch the first show of the second season of Survivor. The first season had great reviews, and was a success despite my lack of watching. So I decided to see what it was all about. 30 minutes was all I could take. It was obviously not reality at all; it seemed stupid; and was for certain a waste of my time. Another time I was surfing channels, and came upon a reality show where some fat slob was engaged to a hot babe, and the purpose of the show was for him to make her break up with him. Stupid, stupid, stupid. I think 15 minutes was all I could take of that one.

The Amazing Race, Big Brother, Ozzie Osborne (or, yes, I also watched 10 minutes of one of those once), Keeping Up with the Kardashians, etc. None of them appeal to me. The Biggest Loser, however, looks like it might have some promise, and I may someday dedicate an entire hour to this one. At least it seems to have a practical goal in the midst of the entertainment.

At work, some youngin's have decided to start a Biggest Loser program. Losing weight for us fatties, adding weight/muscle for the skinnies, workout goals for the obsessed but weak-willed, etc. For 13 weeks beginning in January we will do the program: accountability, support groups, and I don't know what-all. I may be the only one over 50 in the program--heck, I may be the only one over 40!

We'll see how this works. I need all the help I can get. After a great summer and fall, I'm fattening up for the winter, and need some motivation to do better. I hope this does it.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Growth and Success

My thoughts may be somewhat random today, written over a period of time between other duties at work. Last night I worked until 10:30 PM, breaking from 6 to 7 PM for supper with my mother-in-law. The urgent need was the utility drawings and specifications for a road widening project in Bentonville that our transportation group is designing. Another department had designed the utility improvements and prepared the drawings and specs, and our Transportation Dept manager took me up on my offer to check them. I began that late Monday afternoon, but decided to hit it hard yesterday and not leave until I finished checking the drawings, leaving the spec for today.

I did this because our TransDept manager, Greg, seemed particularly stressed out over this. He was handling the stress well, but I could see that he needed some support to get his project out. Greg is one of the good ones, wanting always to do things the right way. He and I have had many conversations in the two to three years he's been here, always centering on doing engineering the right way. So I offered to check this part of his construction documents. I enjoy doing quality control checks, so the work was enjoyable, if somewhat intense.

Why did I offer to do this? Part of our CEI vision statement says, "...we are committed to the growth and success of each other." Last week we had some special leadership training concerning "corporate culture", and the vision statement was the star of the show. So it was fresh on my mind. What exactly does that mean, "we are committed to the growth and success of each other", or, personalizing it: "I am committed to the growth and success of others [in the office, in the family, in the community, at church, etc.]?

Why trying to fully grasp this statement, I figured it at least mean, "I will assist a colleague who is under the gun and who is having to use staff not under his direct supervision and who may or may not know what they are doing." That's an easy application of the principle to actual practice.

I notice that no one ever seems to do that to me, to put themselves out for my "growth and success". In fact, it usually seems to be the opposite. When I need a CADD tech (since I am not CADD literate), department heads seem to disappear into the cubicles. When I need help modeling a creek, people make commitments then say they never so committed. When I ask for reviewers of a new guide specification, or for someone more knowledgeable than myself to actually write the document, people forget how to read e-mail, though they sure recognize the function of the delete button.

Alas, this is the way of the world. I'm not sure why I'm surprised at that. I guess I'm not surprised at all, just saddened by people's lack of vision--our specific vision statement.

As I said, today's entry is somewhat unfocused and rambling.

Monday, December 15, 2008

R.I.P. Howard Cheney, age 97

Last Wednesday one of Lynda's elderly cousins, Howard Cheney, died at age 97 in El Dorado Kansas. Before 2006, Howard was a name on my many genealogy pages. An older cousin of Lynda's dad, I assumed he was dead (being age 85 when I began genealogy pursuits), and didn't make any attempt to learn more about him.

In May 2006 he celebrated his 95th birthday, his granddaughter, Ronda, sat with him over old family photos and asked him to identify them. One he said was "Grandma Cheney", but he couldn't give any more info than that. Ronda's interest was piqued; she began doing some genealogy research; found my posts on-line about the family; and contacted me in August 2006.

Events happened quickly. We were going to New Mexico in October for a writing conference. Another elderly cousin, Cecil Cheney, 91, lived outside Albuquerque. When Howard learned Cecil was alive, he wanted to go see him, and a mini-reunion was planned and happened. Howard and Cecil had last seen each other in 1918, when Howard was 8 and Cecil 4. Cecil's dad Will Cheney had been murdered in 1916, and his widow and their three children moved in with Howard's family, the Clarence Cheney family. The widow re-married in 1917 or 1918, they moved to Colorado, and lost track of the Cheney family.

That was quite a moment, when Howard and Cecil saw each other for the first time in 88 years. Howard remembered some of those times, but Cecil not at all. Still, it was a good day, and I was glad for the part I had in making it happen. Genealogy does have some positives.

We drove to El Dorado on Sunday, after Life Group, for the afternoon visitation hours. The weather deteriorated during the four hour drive, the temp. dropping from 69 to 21. We saw Ronda and her brother and sister, their mom and uncle, Howard's widow (a late in life remarriage for him), some spouses, and other relatives. Most of these we had not met before. It was a great time, including looking at some photos we hadn't seen before. The trip back was through some sleet (not too bad and not enough to slow down a whole lot) and temps. around 17. We were back about 9 PM, glad we made the effort, happy to have met relatives, sorry at Howard's passing, and worn out.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Little Osage Creek Revisited

On November 12, 2008, I blogged about Little Osage Creek and the flood study I'm working on for that. After having the successful computer model of the stream geometry, and a first calculation of the height and spread of the flood waters, I have been working on 1) improving the model, and figuring out how to 2) properly map the spread of the flood and 3) reduce the height and spread of the flood waters by doing minor improvements to the stream channel.

This has taken considerable time, much more than I anticipated. Even though the model I ran a month ago ran successfully, the more I looked at it, the more I realized I had small errors in it: a culvert partially blocked by the ground data in the model that was clear in real life; a road over the culvert improperly entered; a missing cross-section; a feature of the program called ineffective flow areas not entered for some sections where it was needed, or entered at the wrong place or wrong elevation. All of these took some time to sort through and correct.

The mapping turned out to be a bigger problem, however. Just last Thursday, a CADD tech was finally assigned to me for this. I would have preferred a junior engineer, but this tech is a good man, intelligent and eager to learn, a hard worker. But, as I explained to him how to take the flood elevation and the topography and pinpoint the horizontal extents of the flood zone, I had a lot of explaining to do. He had lots of problems with it. Monday afternoon we spent over an hour trying to work on it, and had a lot of trouble with one particular area. We broke off our discussion just after 5:00 PM. It seemed that the report I had to give to the Centerton City Council the next evening was in jeopardy.

Right after that, in the quiet at my desk, I realized exactly what I had to do to correctly do the mapping. Our problems came from the West Branch running at right angles to the Main Branch. I had accounted for this by the ineffective flow areas feature. However, all the cross-sections therefore could not be extended far enough to where the flood waters hit the ground. In the ten quiet minutes at my desk, I realized I had to bend the cross-sections at the inside corner of where those two branches met at right angles. Yesterday morning I showed him my mark-up with the bent cross-sections, and showed him how to map the extent of the flood. By afternoon he had it done; we put 25 packets together, and I went off to the 7:00 PM meeting to make my report.

The mapping was temporary, however, completed only for this oral report. I now have to modify the model with these bent cross-sections. This means new geometry for part of fourteen cross-sections. This means having the tech cut those sections from the CADD program and labeling the key points. This means back to data entry on the computer model, probably two to three days of work, then re-running the model, then seeing if the temporary mapping we completed yesterday is still valid.

I should have recognized right at the start that these cross-sections should be bent. That's what happens when you lay your tools down for a few years, and try to pick them up again. At CEI I am the senior engineer who is not in upper management. My job is to train all the youngin's, and to help them solve their more difficult problems. But instructing someone in how to do something is much different than actually doing it.

This has been a good exercise for me. My tools are sharper; I'm better at using them than I ever was before; and I've enjoyed it (sort of).

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Book Review: Moses: A Man of Selfless Dedication

Our Life Group at church recently completed, as a Bible study, Moses: A Man of Selfless Dedication by Charles R Swindoll, 1998, Insight For Living, ISBN 1-57972-097-8. This is a Bible study guide, prepared from Swindoll's outlines and sermon transcripts by Jason Shepherd. The book is a companion to a larger book of the same name. For our study, we had only the Bible study guide and the Bible itself.

The guide is organized into twenty-two chapters covering the full range of Moses' life and activities. All but two chapters focus on Moses; those two are on the Israelites and the law given through Moses. Each chapter includes a section of Living Insights--exercises to challenge the adult student to apply the scripture to life. Some of the chapters include a section Digging Deeper, written to propel the student to really analyze the scriptures. The book includes a map and a handful of tables/charts to clarify sequential or parallel events. An appendix lists books for further study.

Moses' life should be familiar to most who have walked with Christ for more than a few years. This puts a burden on the writer of the study: how to take the familiar material and cast it in a way to keep the student's interest? You need more than clever phrasing. Deep doctrinal discussion won't go very far either. To hold the student, you need to do a number of things that Swindoll has done.

- Excellent writing. This should go without saying for any published book, but I have read a number of published books which are not well written; or which have the seed of a good idea but have not had the right editorial attention. Good writing will be marked by: brevity that gets the points across without wordiness; avoiding excess moderators; ample vocabulary that is not loaded with obscure words that show off the writer's intelligence without elucidating the reader any more than common words would; organization of sentences and paragraphs into an easy to read format, yet not sacrificing meaning for ease of reading. Swindoll and Shepherd have done this. I cannot point to a single place in the study guide where the writing was anything but excellent.

- Point out something different. Different, that is, from what every other Bible teacher points out. I won't list them here, but a number of times Swindoll pointed out matters of significance that I never thought of before. That's good teaching.

- Pull out the key passages; supplement with lesser known passages. We have all read the story of the burning bush, the ten plagues, the crossing of the Red Sea, and the giving of the law at Mount Sinai. But much more happened in those forty eventful years. Swindoll gives us the well-known, as well as some of the lesser-known, and builds lessons around them.

- Place in context of the times. I always try to think of how the original readers of the Bible would have understood these words. Or, how those who participated in the events interpreted those events. When the Israelites watched Moses strike the rock at Rephidim, what did they actually see, and what did they think? When Moses stood face to face with God atop Mount Sinai and plead for God not to destroy the Israelites, what did the scene actually look like? Swindoll helps us with the context, through a series of dramatic narratives (slightly fictionalized descriptions of what might have been going on), as well as through description of the times and places involved in the biblical account.

- Stimulate he student to additional study. This worked for me. As I read Swindoll's book, and read the applicable Bible passages, I found myself drawn to other places in the Bible to check on things. How much of this was Swindoll's organization of the material and the writing, and how much was my own recent interest I'm not sure. Before our Life Group picked this for study, I was working on an outline of this material for my own series--though focusing more in Israel than on Moses. For whatever reason, it worked for me. I'm still studying in Numbers.

If your small group (Sunday school class, life group, spiritual formation group, etc.) is looking for a study, consider this one. I do not believe you will be disappointed.

Friday, December 5, 2008

The Skinny on Weight

As part of my training responsibilities, I coordinate a weekly brown bag presentation to our offices. This is broadcast to any of our nine offices where people want to attend. We use a mixture of in-house and outside presenters as I can schedule them; and I teach a few each year. To promote them, I usually try to come up with a clever title. I used to say a "sexy title", but our HR head voiced a mild objection to that, so now I call it a clever, attention-grabbing, got-to-attend-just-cuz-of-the-title title. For example, the one this week was titled "Staying Out of Jail". The one we had back on October 29th was about how vehicle weight affects pavement design. The man who presented it came up with the sexy--I mean attention-grabbing--title: The Skinny On Weight.

That has almost nothing to do with what I'm going to write next. My weight is down, currently at a 4-year low. I'm down a total of 43 pounds from my peak weight. Well, after Thanksgiving I'm not, but I'll be back there next week. Weight that goes on fast also comes off fast.

You ask how I've lost this weight, and what I did to do so? It's come off over almost three years. I peaked in February 2006, the same peak I had hit in February 2004. After that second peak, I knew I needed to get serious about losing weight, but I wanted to lose it in a way that it stayed off, unlike past times of bouncing up and down. So I made a conscious effort to eat a little less. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, and without pain, the weight did start coming off beginning in March 2006. A little bit each month, not steady, and not without an occasional set back, but I'm losing.

I try to walk in the parking lot on the noon hour. The pressures of work and responsibilities don't allow me to do so as often as I'd like, but I get at least one day a week in, many times more. Weather interrupts from time to time. We also try to walk on the weekends when time allows. Walking is really my only exercise, except for occasional rebounding with a low-energy bounce. Beginning in May this year, I made a stronger commitment to noon hour walking, and kept it up through the summer. As long as the ambient temperature was not over 95 deg. F, I walked at least a mile, sometimes closer to 1.4 miles. As a result, I showed a weight loss between my May and August doctor appointments of 13 pounds, and I kept it off and lost a couple more for my November appointment.

Now comes the push to lose these few Thanksgiving pounds, not put on any over Christmas and New Years, then keep going. The loss of 43 pounds is the good news; the bad news is I still have about 60 to go to reach the top end of my ideal weight range. I plan to keep on doing what I've been doing. Eat slightly smaller portions than I would like. Always bring some of my restaurant meals home. Limit snacks. Eat less fruit (a blood sugar thing). Up-tick my exercise slightly. I'd like to develop the habit of regular rebounding, and maybe use another apparatus regularly. I'm not worried about taking it off quickly. Just as weight that goes on fast comes off fast, so does weight that comes off fast go back on fast. Loosing at a rate something less than 1/2 pound per week is fine with me.

Some people in the company are putting together an in-house program for weight loss, maybe similar to the show The Biggest Loser. I'll participate, but really won't be trying to win whatever prize they offer. It will be just for the motivation to add those one of two more good habits to the couple I've developed over the last three years.

Skinny? No, and never. But hopefully healthier.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Book Signing

No, it's not mine. One would have to have a book published to have a book signing, and I haven't.

I went to Wal-Mart on Monday, after work, to pick up some file folders for my writing filing. The parking lot was more full than I would have expected at a little after 6 PM. Actually, traffic was awful, in every direction. All the roads I either drove on or crossed to get from the office to Wal-Mart were jammed in each direction. And the gas pumps at Murphy Oil outside the Supercenter were jammed as well, despite the fact that gas had gone up from $1.419 to $1.559. Perhaps many feared additional increases. But I prate.

Inside Wal-Mart, I encountered a good sized crowd. I saw a line of people in the main aisle between clothing and office supplies, kitchen stuff, etc. The line looked like one of those special lines they have the day after Christmas, for everyone to return the things they received but didn't want. But then I remembered this wasn't after Christmas but after Thanksgiving. And then I noticed everyone had one or two books in their hands. When I walked by the line I could see the books were all Growing Up Country. I diverted to the head of the line and saw this was written by Charlie Daniels, of the country singing group Alabama, and that Mr. Daniels was to sign books from 6 PM to 8 PM. I checked the time: 6:15 PM, and the signer's chair was empty. Mr. Daniels was obviously running late. How long before the hundred or so people in line became irate?

Book signings are something I have not daydreamed, or even dreamed, about. If I am ever published, book signings will obvious come into my life. Most authors describe them as boring times, more waiting for people to come by the table than actual signing. Two hours for a handful of books. Mr. Daniels' celebrity status made things different for him. And this explains why publishers will publish books by celebrities. I guess Daniels is actually more of an editor of this book than a writer, for he has gathered together "a slight collection of essays from 59 self-described 'country folk'". Probably he has writing of his own sprinkled through the book.

More power to Charlie Daniels, I say. People want to hear from celebrities; they buy their books; publishers oblige. It's the system.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

December Goals

Given that December is full of holiday activities, I'm going to pare down my writing goals even more this month.

1. Blog 10 to 12 times.

2. Finish some more filing/organization of writing material. I thought I had finished this, except for buying file folders and filling them. Last night I bought those and filled them. However, I remembered I had a stack of writing stuff at work that I need to bring home and file. So I guess I'm not done yet. Writing seems to be a kind of paper chase.

3. More work on Life on a Yo Yo Life Group lesson series, which I begin teaching January 4.

4. See if I can flesh out the brainstorming work on the short Life Group lesson series from the Apocrypha. I looked at it a little last night, and unless I get something down on paper, I'm not sure I'll have a legitimate series.

5. Buy one writing magazine, as a Christmas present to myself, and read it.

6. Continue to work down my reading list. Since the book I'm currently reading is 736 pages, and I'm only on page 165, this may take all month.

Edited to add:
7. Complete the review I've started of Macaulay's essay on Ranke's History of the Popes.

Monday, December 1, 2008

November Report

Time to report on how I did in November relative to the modest goals I set.

1. Blog 10 to 12 times. I managed 13 posts; so met and slightly exceeded goals.

2. Finish planning "Life On A Yo Yo", and begin writing as needed, with a target to present to our life group beginning in January 2009. Completed as planned. For this lesson series, I'm not going to have weekly handouts as I did with the Elijah and Elisha study; at least not fancy ones.

3. Begin planning two other life group series. One will be "From Slavery To Nationhood", which looks at the Israelites during the Exodus and the years of wandering. The other is the one I thought of last week, which needs some more work before I make it public. Completed this. Both of these two studies are planned. By this I mean: I know how long they will be (how many weeks); I have the full list of lessons identified; I have a short description of the goals for each lesson; I have the scripture identified for each lesson.

4. Evaluate the life group lesson series I thought of based on a story in the Apocrypha. I sort-of did this. I have thought through the short lesson series, decided it is viable, and have brainstormed how I would teach it. I have not yet put much down on paper.

5. Since I found more writing things that need to be filed, and since I ran out of file folders and couldn't file all of those I found, finish filing writing stuff. I have not yet purchased the file folders I need, but I think I have gathered everything into one place (my filing pile), put them in order, and discarded duplicates. I should be able to finish this in December. Didn't I say that in November?

6. Work some on one other writing project. Alas, I cannot think of anything I did this month that would qualify as meeting this goal.

7. Continue typing the harmony of the gospels that I wrote some years ago. I made excellent progress on this goal, typing for 30 to 45 minutes almost every evening. I began with the part I worked on last, and progressed backwards. The reason I did this was that I found some of my early work did not have enough explanatory notes, and sometimes it was a little difficult to be sure of what the actual harmony was. I'm not back to some of my earliest work on this.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Days of Thankfulness

I have barely visited the blog since last Tuesday. On that day our daughter, son-in-law, and grand baby arrived from Oklahoma City for a several days visit. I left work early to come home and help with final clean-up and prep. Then on Wednesday morning, about 7:30 AM, our son and his roommate arrived, having driven all night from Chicago. With my mother-in-law still with us, recovering from our shoulder injury, we had a full house and a great time. The blog didn't seem so important; neither did writing.

We had a good Thanksgiving day, and the days on either side of it were great as well. The kids went off to visit friends during the day on Friday; otherwise they were at home. Good meals on all days. We cut back a little on how much we prepared for Thanksgiving dinner, yet there seemed to be plenty. We still have turkey, mashed potatoes, and some other things left, even with putting up four lunches for me. We put puzzles together and watched videos and just talked.

And of course played with Ephraim. This was grandson's first time to be at our house. He and his mother are still here. We talked her into staying through today so that some of the people at church could see him (and Sara too). Everything was a delight this long weekend.

Yet, we were saddened by the tragedy in Mumbai, where terrorists decided to try to wreak havoc in that city; and by the Wal-Mart employee who was trampled to death in a mad rush at the beginning of Black Friday. I do not understand the mentality that has given rise to this most base of all Thanksgiving traditions. People have told me of the adrenalin rush they receive when they rush into the store to find the bargains they want, but I just can't see it, and will have no part of it.

Today I try to get back to the routine of writing. I'm still not ready to re-enter the world of publishing, so still won't seek that; but writing I will continue. I should be back before the end of the day with the results of meeting my November goals.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Troubles in ministry

Sunday mornings, as we are getting ready for church, Lynda and I usually have the television tuned to the Hour Of Power broadcast. This is the ministry begun by Robert H. Schuller, an outgrowth of his church in Garden Grove, California. It has been on the air continuously for 38 years. We have watched it sporadically through the years, and somewhat regularly since 2002.

I am no fan of Schuller. Back in the 1970s our pastor gave each church board member a copy of Schuller's Your Church Has Real Possibilities. I found this to have much good in it, but I was uncomfortable with the overall message, which was a watered-down gospel. Still, for a few minutes on a busy Sunday morning, the program gives good music and interesting interviews. Usually I am ready by the time the sermon comes on and am in another part of the house reviewing Life Group class materials.

In January 2006, the elder Schuller semi-retired, and his son, Robert A. Schuller, was installed as senior pastor of the church and thus speaker for the television ministry. Lynda and I liked his sermons and overall demeanor considerably better than the old man--at least I know I did. He seemed more a pastor, less a showman. Overall, though, it seemed little had changed under the son. Possibility thinking was still the order of the day, with a little gospel sprinkled here and there.

Recently we have noticed the son was not on the program. We thought little of it, figuring he was off on a Sabbatical or a mission trip. This last Sunday, however, when we heard they were going to have a series of guest speakers from now on (didn't hear if this was to be permanent or for a set duration), we wondered what was going on. Easy research revealed that on October 25th Robert A. was removed from the television ministry by the ministry board. Of course, that means he can't speak in church, since the TV feed comes from the church services. How can a man be senior pastor of a church if the board keeps him out of the pulpit? Press releases indicate the board did this because Robert H and Robert A don't have the same vision for the church--or mission as Robert H calls it--and that this lack of shared vision would be bad for the ministry. Additional research reveals that the elder Schuller did not like the son using scripture in his sermons. Too much scripture, not enough psychology, I guess.

Various message boards are abuzz about this, though it seems to have garnered little attention from the nation at large. Few people seem to be supporting the removal of the younger man, as they thought the relatively minor changes he was making were the right way to go. Some on the message boards have been particularly critical of Robert H for not seeing the need to fully retire, not seeing the need to change with the times, not realizing that the vision he had for the ministry when it began may not be the correct vision for it now. They are castigating him for his lukewarm preaching (I won't even call it 'gospel').

This makes me think about trouble in ministry. While I prefer a robust sermon that gives the gospel to a sinful, hurting world, I also realize that the Sunday morning sermon is not synonymous with the church. Much more goes on, or should be going on, apart from the sermon to reach the lost with the gospel and disciple converts. Should the message be a little bit "feel-good", and should this cause a few more people to attend services and put themselves in the place where other ministries of the church can reach and feed their souls, is that the worst thing in the world? I think not. Don't get me wrong. I'm not supporting either Schuller's type of preaching. I'm just saying that from the preaching alone we don't receive a full picture of the ministry of the church.

Why does this sort of problem develop? Why are there problems among God's servants? We should expect this type of individual to be able to work together easier than people in the secular world. However, it seems no better nor worse in than in secular employment. Strong-willed individuals grate on each other; weak-willed persons fail to take the lead. Ministries suffer, and the gospel is not advanced.

I'm not quite sure why I'm posting this, except to express sadness, for the specific problem, and for how it is symptomatic of a much wider problem.

Monday, November 24, 2008

A Broken Society

Several things have hit me lately that demonstrate just how broken our society is. I’m not thinking about politics, and whether or not it’s better that a Democrat or Republican won the presidency earlier this month. I’m not thinking about the economy and the Panic of 2008, although clearly if a depression hits us we will potentially see much more brokenness than we do now.

No, I’m thinking of the brokenness of individual lives.

Two events are giving rise to this. On November 7, in Oklahoma City, Jeremy Moore was murdered by gunshot. I can’t remember if I met Jeremy or not. He was our son-in-law’s roommate for some of his college time, and was in his and our daughter’s wedding party. So I know I saw Jeremy, but may never have met him. Why was he murdered? The circumstances were he was delivering pizza as a second job, trying to support his girlfriend and their nine-day old child, having just bought a house and about to make their first payment. He took a delivery to a certain apartment complex. The apartment turned out to be empty, and someone(s) was waiting in the shadows and gunned him down. Police don’t know the reason; possibly robbery, though everyone knows (or should know) delivery men carry almost no money; possibly gang related—not that Jeremy was in a gang, but that he was the random target of someone who had to kill someone as a gang initiation; possibly simple depravity, someone out for kicks. My son-in-law blogged about it a couple of times here.

The other event was learning yesterday that a young couple in our church in Bentonville are getting a divorce. This couple was one that got the “cart before the horse” in terms of intimacy, but yet had married, had two children, and had become fairly regular attenders at church, even linking in with a life group, and having loving, supportive parents from at least one side. I know the pressure on young couples is great these days, and the chances of failure of any marriage is around 50 percent, but this was one couple which, despite a start with questionable circumstances, I really thought was going to make it.

One young widow and fatherless child due to a tragedy; two children in a broken home due to whatever the circumstances were, but also a tragedy. This is emblematic of the brokenness of our American society. I have heard, but have not verified, that statistics show children are least at risk when they grow up with a mother and a father in a loving home, not even necessarily a Christian home. This gives me pause to wonder: what is the church doing, and what am I doing, to interrupt this brokenness? Maybe my concern about politics—who gets elected, what policies they represent, how they will protect American sovereignty—is misplaced. As would be the church’s. Maybe I should just be thinking about what I and my church can do to help prevent tragedies such as these two.

Something to think about.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Forty-Five years ago yesterday: Kennedy Assassination

I meant to write this yesterday, but a day full of activity in advance of Thanksgiving, and all the company we will have, gave me no time at the computer.

John F Kennedy was assassinated 45 years ago yesterday, November 22, 1963. I was in 6th grade at the time, in Mrs. Fisk's class in dear old Dutemple Elementary School. The first word that we heard was that the president had been shot. This came from a snotty girl in the class, and how she heard it I don't know--obviously from some adults, probably the teacher. A few minutes later she came over to say the governor of Texas had shot the president. Before school was out at 3 PM Eastern Time, we had the correct news. I don't remember a whole lot about my reaction. I was not very politically aware as a 6th grader, as neither of my parents were all that politically active or interested.

Put me in the camp of skeptics as far as the official version of the events goes: the Warren Commission conclusion that the president was killed by Lee Harvey Oswald acting alone. Sorry, but I don't buy it. I have read way too much about the evidence and actions of the various players, and believe that Kennedy was killed by some sort of conspiracy. The police work was so shoddy, and the forensics so botched--from the autopsy to the ballistics to the interrogations--that there is no way Oswald ever would have been convicted had he lived to face a trial. The doubt of his guilt is way beyond reasonable.

I don't know that I want to get into my theory today. I may never post or publish it, save in papers in my file folders. I do want to mention one interesting family anecdote related to this. My late father-in-law, Wayne B. Cheney, was a paper gatherer, and an amateur photographer of some ability. He took many photos of local sports events in Fowler, Kansas before he moved to Amarillo in his latter days. In 1963 he was living in Longview, Texas (he was divorced from my mother-in-law), and had a lot of interests, had lots of contacts with people. He lived a quiet life, but not an isolated life.

I mentioned he was a paper-gatherer. It fell to Lynda and me to go through those papers after he died, along with all the photographs. One 8x10 glossy photo was among the many in the boxes. It was of JFK and various people. I don't have it in front of me, so I will summarize what Wayne wrote on it: In November 1968 [sic], when I lived in Longview, a friend asked me to take her to Houston for [I can't remember the reason]. While there, president Kennedy was there, and I was able to get close enough to snap this picture. Obviously he got the year wrong, for Kennedy died in November 1963. But could this be true? It would have been like Wayne to have given someone a ride from Longview to Houston; he would have had his camera with him; raised in a Kansas Democrat farm family he would have wanted to see Kennedy. I don't know any other time during his presidency that Kennedy was in Houston. So, assuming Wayne was writing the truth, that he actually took that photo (I still have to look for a negative among his papers/photos), this picture would have been shot Nov 21, 1963 during that fateful trip. What is amazing is how close he was able to get to the president.

I may hunt that photo up and enter the exact caption he wrote on it, but I don't think I'll post it, just in case Wayne really didn't take it. He never mentioned it to me before he died.

Just an interesting anecdote. Then again, maybe I've got a semi-valuable gem in that box.

Thursday, November 20, 2008


Monday night, after a second evening of stimulating reading and thinking, I fell asleep easily, but awoke about 03:15 and could not fall asleep again. I rose and read a number of chapters in Exodus, prayed, and journalled. I returned to bed about 5:15, but did not fall asleep and got up before the appointed time. I had no particular thoughts my mind was fixed on, just the jumble of the previous few days.

Last night was not quite a carbon copy, but was close. I had the same sort of evening after returning home late from church and eating a quick supper. This time I had stimulating writing to do (well, after unstimulatingly going through some accumulated junk mail), and this took me till 23:30. Went to bed and fell asleep easily, but was up about 04:15, and slept little after that: dozing, turning, throwing covers off, pulling them up. A colleague called at 05:33, saying he would not need that ride to work after all. That sealed the deal on sleep. I stayed in bed until the appointed time, then was up and at 'em and on the way to work. Again, no particular thoughts dominated in prohibiting sleep.

What was this stimulating reading and writing I did, you ask, that may have caused this? Well, over the weekend I completed my review of my son-in-law's old term paper, "Athanasius' Relational Epistemology: a search for adequate language to express the mysteries of incarnation and atonement". I'd been working on this for over three years--not something I had to do, but something I wanted to do--but always had trouble understanding the paper. I finally found a method of writing the review, and finished it Sunday evening, subject to minor editing over the next two days.

You would think my mind would then have been tired simply from reading the title over and over. But no, at 22:00 on Sunday evening, I wanted something to stimulate my mind. The current book on my reading list would not do the trick, I didn't think, so I went to the section of the living room bookshelf which contains the ancients, and pulled out my 1914 printing of Critical and Historical Essays by T.B. Macaulay. I don't know if I've blogged on Macaulay before, but he is one of my favorite authors. I find his Victorian style difficult, and like others I question his scholarship, but, darn it, I just like him. His essays always get me to thinking.

This night I chose a 34 page essay titled "Ranke's History of the Popes." An odd thing for a Protestant reader to choose, perhaps, but choose it I did. I read about twenty pages Sunday evening, finishing it Monday evening. In it I found all the usual techniques Macaulay uses to tease his readers without significantly informing them; giving them evidence of his knowledge without analysis. This is probably excessive criticism, but hey, if Macaulay is going to take my sleep away, he deserves it!

Actually, I don't know that it was Macaulay by himself. Sunday we had a great church service and sermon and Life Group class, and I left both with things to think about. In Life Group we continue to go through the life of Moses, using one of Chuck Swindoll's books. Reading in Exodus and Numbers provided new insights, and I wanted to reread a group of chapters in each of them. Monday over-night was the Exodus group. I should have gotten up last night and done the Numbers group. So possibly is was the combo of church and Macaulay that kept me awake.

Having finished reading the Ranke essay Monday night, it was much on my mind Tuesday and Wednesday. I knew I wanted to write a review of it, mainly for my own amusement, and Tuesday night wrote some thoughts in my journal that could form the basis of a review. Last night after supper I began that process. Finding the couch and re-use paper, with the 1914 volume in hand, I wrote out four pages of analysis of Macaulay's Ranke essay. The writing flowed easily as I re-read the beginning six or so pages of the essay. By 23:30 I had slightly more than four pages of manuscript, words I felt did justice to the material, though of course requiring editing and perhaps fleshing out. I suspect my entire review will be seven or eight manuscript pages, so I definitely left the work undone. Perhaps this undone-ness was what kept me awake in the wee hours, though you would think that more likely to have prevented me from falling asleep in the first place.

Or maybe it's just a side effect of the steroids the doc has me on for my elbow injury, which occurred when I stepped in a muskrat hole back in late September. Either way, I'm now working on 15 hours sleep in the last 72, on a day when I must keep my mind sharp for the work I have to do in the office. I don't think I will be working on my Macaulay review tonight.

Monday, November 17, 2008

A Bit of College Foolishness Continued

November 17th marks three special days for me, which few people remember.

First (actually last in chronological order of occurrence), CEI Engineering Associates, Inc. moved into our new building on Nov 17, 2000. I remember the circumstances. It was a Friday. The recount battle was raging in Florida. The movers came in the morning to load up our already packed boxes. My stuff was loaded first in our department, and I think our department was the first loaded on that truck. While loading continued for the 5 mile trip across town, the department went to lunch, then to the new building to wait. I spent much time in the car, listening to radio reports of what was going on in Florida, coming into the building every hour or so to see if my stuff had arrived. It didn't arrive until Saturday morning; yet I was all set up and ready to go by Monday morning. No one at CEI marked the day but me, I reckon. I mentioned it to the Chairman and co-founder, and he didn't remember that was the date we moved in.

Second (actually first in chronological order of occurrence), it's Sadie Hawkins Day! That magical day created by Li'l Abner comic strip writer Al Capp, where the girls ask the boys out. Now that Al Capp is dead and Li'l Abner forgotten, no one probably ever celebrates it anymore, save for the odd school that has a Sadie Hawkins Day dance where the girls ask the boys out, with no one knowing where the tradition came from. This actually was of no consequence in my life, for the schools I went to never had Sadie Hawkins Day dances, and even if they had no girl would have asked me out. I was a considerably late bloomer with the ladies.

Third (actually second in chronological order of, not occurrence necessarily, but personal recognition), it is National Boise Idaho Potato Day! I have no idea of the origin of this 'holiday', or if it ever really existed at one time, or if it did exist if it was celebrated on November 17th. But a friend of mine from college and I celebrated it, somewhat as a gag I suppose. I remember a day close to November 17, 1973, when Gary and I went for a ramshackle* in the recently harvested potato fields west of the University of Rhode Island campus in Kingston. We gleaned a few small potatoes from the field, then continued west into the country before turning north. We passed and inspected a small, ancient cemetery, overgrown with weeds and brush, the graves dating from the 1700s. We continued north and hiked up a hill that was visible from campus and which we always wanted to climb; part of the 'coal seams' oriented generally north to south (and slightly to the west) across that part of the state, Gary said, though you couldn't prove it by me. The hill was completely wooded, and we had no vantage point to see anything. I think Gary climbed one of the trees to try to see better. We worked our way back to campus, I don't remember by what route, or what time we got there, or if I had to work at the Burger Chef that night or not.

Just a bunch of college silliness, continued into our 50s. Gary and I exchanged e-mail felicitations this morning, remembering not really the day but the era, college days in the early 70s, for me on a planet long ago in a galaxy far, far away, though remembered as if it were yesterday. I post this mainly so that should anyone type "National Boise Idaho Potato Day" in a search engine, at least this post will pop up.

*Author's note: The dictionaries available to me don't show the definition, but I'm pretty sure we used the word "ramshackle" to refer to a long, country walk with a loose aim as to destination and route. Perhaps my ramshackle mind is mis-remembering.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Book Review: "The Day Christ Died"

Yesterday I completed the next book on my reading list, The Day Christ Died by Jim Bishop, 1977, Harper & Row (ISBN 0-06-060786-6). This is a paperback version of the original 1957 book by Bishop, with some updates to reflect archaeological finds and changes in scholarship in the twenty years after the original publication. Includes a new Introduction by Dr. Paul L. Maier, about whom I've blogged recently.

This is a good book. Anyone who hasn't read it and has the chance to will benefit from it. Bishop did several of these type books (e.g. The Day Lincoln Died, The Day Christ Was Born). His style was to take the twenty-four hour day on which the event happened and cover it hour by hour. In the case of Christ's death, he begins at sundown on Thursday, since the Jewish day ran from sundown to sundown. We first see Peter and John making preparations for the Passover meal, and Jesus and the rest of the Twelve en route to Jerusalem from Bethany.

Bishop then takes us hour by hour. His research fills in many details, such as the probable menu of the Passover meal, the sequence of events within the meal--not just those in the Biblical records, but other things that must have been going on based on the typical Passover meal. He then takes us meticulously though the Biblical account: going to Gethsemane, the arrest, the interview before Annas, the trial before Caiaphas, the trial before the full Sanhedrin, the trial before Pilate, the pre-crucifixion torture, the time on the cross, and the burial.

Bishop fills out the account in many ways. He includes description of Jerusalem, describing the routes taken by various people. He tells us what the Passover celebration was like. He describes something of the background of the high priests. Three overviews from outside the day itself take up a good portion of the book: background of the Jewish world, background of Jesus (from the Bible), and background of the Roman world. These help us to think about why certain things happened as they did that day.

Some of the good points:
- We learn what some people were doing that is not described in the Bible. For example, exactly what did Judas Iscariot do after Jesus said to him, "What you do, do quickly"? Bishop surmises that it was John son of Zebedee who left in the night hours after watching the Jewish rulers convict Jesus, and went to Bethany to bring Mary to her son's side in time for his death. ["John remained to find out what the supreme council would do. When the word came that Jesus was guilty of blasphemy, and that the judgment had been that he should die, John waited long enough to look once more upon the face of the man who loved him. The young apostle was close to tears as Jesus was led down into the courtyard, because the bound man was bruised and dirty, with spit running down his face, and his legs quivered with weakness and fatigue. Then John left. He needed wings on his young feet because there was much to do. He had to spread the tragic news among those who believed in Jesus and, sadly, he had also to run to Bethany to tell the news to the Mother of Jesus."]
- Caiaphas' activities are well described. We see him in all of his evil machinations, and get a sense of some of his motivation.
- We see many Passover pilgrims. Not individuals, but masses of people, and learn what they were doing, how they thronged to Jerusalem and to the temple with sacrifices.
- The rivalry between Pontius Pilate and the high priests is spelled out. Some of the statements that Pilate and the high priests made make a lot more sense with Bishop's annotations.

A couple of things were not to my liking:
- The book takes a Roman Catholic view of the events. For instance, Bishop insists that when the Bible talks about the "brothers of Jesus", this word means relative--cousin--and that Jesus was an only child and that Mary was "ever-virgin". In fact, the copyright page indicates the book received a nihil obstat and a Imrimatur by a cardinal, indicating the book is free of doctrinal error.
- I'm not sure that Bishop fully represents all that Pilate did to try to free Jesus. When I put my harmony of the gospels together, I was surprised at how the different statements about Pilate's actions in the four gospels seemed to be different actions on Pilate's part. Possibly some day I'll blog about that. Of course, perhaps no one else in the world would agree with me on that.

All in all, it is a good book. Well worth the read. I may hang on to this one rather than sell it in a garage sale.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Little Osage Creek

My main work for over a month has been the flood study for the headwaters of Little Osage Creek in Centerton, Arkansas. I'm way behind on the project, and am soon to be over budget (in part because the project included a flood study of the headwaters of McKisic Creek as well; yet the budget is 80 percent consumed). I let this project sit almost a year, then got a promise from another department in the company to piggy-back it on one of their projects along the West Branch of Little Osage Creek. Somehow they didn't do it, saying they never claimed they were intending to. So I had to take it back into my work load, dust off my "tools", and get the job done.

As of today, I am really, really close. I have completed a complicated computer model for calculating the flood flows. This model includes 18 detention ponds, some 21 subbasins, and a number of stream runs (called "reaches" in the vernacular). I have run this model for the 100-year storm, and had believable and predicted results. Next, in a separate program, I merged the existing FEMA stream geometry model with the CEI stream geometry model (the one my project was supposed to piggy-back on), filled in the 600 foot gap between them, corrected a considerable number of errors in both, added missing culverts, added needed cross-sections that were left out of the FEMA model and due to which the model never should have been approved, and finally, today, ran a successful stream geometry model together with the flood flows from the other model. I have an answer!

I still have some tweaking to do. The results (i.e. the flood elevation, which drives the spread of the flood waters) are not as favorable as I would like, so I have to look some more at it and see if anything in the merged geometry is too conservative. If so, I might be able to reduce both. If not, the City will just have to live with the calculated flood elevation and spread.

When I started the study I had some goals in mind as to how to improve the situation on the existing flood maps, which contained obvious errors along with some things that drastically changed from the previous flood map, but which may or may not have been errors. One of the obvious errors will be gone on the new map; the other looks like it will remain. That's not a final answer, but it's most likely.

Why am I writing this? Today there has been an emotional release with the success of these models. I still have much to do on the project, including model tweaks, calculating flows for other storms, writing a technical report, making a presentation before an unhappy city council, putting an electronic and print submittal together for FEMA, and then working through the (probable) six month FEMA approval process. But with the successful model having all missing links plugged, no obvious errors, and believable results, the release is at hand.

Monday, November 10, 2008

A New Equilibrium

This weekend was filled with chores and rest. Saturday morning I raked leaves, used the leaf blower on the rock yard and got all them out of there, on to a tarp and hauled off to the woods on adjacent, vacant lots (in hopes some of them won't blow back when the wind is right). This somewhat wiped me out, but I went to the eye doctor in the nearest Supercenter to have my right eye looked at. It became bloodshot earlier in the week, not hurting a bit, but giving everyone who had to look at it fits. Since this is the third time this year I had such an occurrence, Lynda thought I should go, and so went.

The doc said there was no injury and no apparent reason for the eye to go bloodshot, except possibly a blood disease. He said to bring it up with my primary care physician, then come back and see him for my regular eye exam, which is over-due. I'm scheduled to see my regular doctor next week.

While I was at Wal-Mart, I took a lawn mower tire in for repair. Sitting in the auto area waiting room, I had an allergic reaction to something: right eye watering; sneezing; right nostril draining freely. This really wiped me out. The rest of the day about all I could do was accompany my wife to town and shop and do a chore or two.

Sunday was a true day of rest. After church and life groups, I had a leisurely afternoon. I typed quite a few pages of my harmony of the gospels, napped, caught up on writing blogs, read in The Day Christ Died, planned four life group lessons in the Life On A Yo Yo series, and worked on my written review of my son-in-law's paper on Athanasius. All of this with minimal movement, and little exertion. The allergy reaction was pretty much gone by Monday morning.

Not one minute worrying about being published. Not one minute working on a query letter, proposal, poem, text for a book or article or newspaper column--none of these. And I didn't feel bad about it. In fact I felt good about what I managed to get done. I suppose the Yo Yo series could eventually become a small group study guide, so there's some writing work there, but very little.

Why don't I feel badly about this, about a whole weekend gone by with nothing done about my writing "career"? I'll have to wait and see what another week or two brings before I can answer that.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

The People Have Spoken

The election on November 4 was a clear signal, I believe, from the American people. They don't like the job the Bush administration has done, and John McCain was not seen as a better alternative. Hence Barak H. Obama is our president-elect. I hope he has a successful presidency, and that my fears of an 8-year economic slowdown/recession/depression about to take place as a follow-up to the Panic of 2008 (which I believe will happen regardless of who had been elected president) will not happen.

I notice the Democratic gains in the Senate were about in line with expectation, while the gains in the house were a bit below expectation. Still, the gains were clear. That is surprising given Congress' low approval rating as determined by pollsters, but is further evidence of backlash against Bush.

While some non-professional pundits are saying this is the end of the Republican party, I think that death certificate is pre-mature.

The main negative I have heard in the last two days is that potential Republican hopefuls for 2012 are already making plans to head to Iowa. How sad we must be in a perpetual election cycle.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Meeting Dr. Paul Maier

This last Saturday the Lutheran church closest to us hosted a seminar featuring Professor Dr. Paul L. Maier. Dr. Maier is professor of ancient history at Western Michigan University. He is the author of a number of books, both fiction and non-fiction. The one of his I read was Flames Of Rome, a documentary historical fiction about the early church era following events in the book of Acts. Well, I think it covered more than just that time, but Maier's purpose was to give some perspective to the years following Acts.

That was an excellent book, and I've always wanted to read more of his. Another of his that we had was A Skeleton In God's Closet, a novel. Our son has it, and I don't know if we'll ever get it back. Maier has written some academic books as well, such as an abridgement/translation of the works of Josephus, and a modern translation of the church history written by Eusebius. We bought that one on Saturday, as well as Maier's sequel novel More Than A Skeleton. These are pretty far down the reading pile right now, but I'll eventually get to them.

Maier's seminar topic was Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation. Working only from an outline that he gave to the class, Maier gave us 4 1/2 hours of informed, animated, interesting lecture. My is he a good speaker! I realize he has probably given this lecture before, and knows it quite well, but still the presentation was just incredible.

Most of us have studied some of the Reformation in school, and our Protestant churches may say a little bit each year on Reformation Sunday. But detailed information is generally lacking in most of our education and experience. I read a biography about Luther, from our public library, about ten years ago, but it didn't stick with me very well. Consequently, some of what Maier said was familiar, but most of it was like new material. I think I understand what Luther went through, just how much danger he was in, and how much he truly accomplished.

As a side note, the lecture included some thoughts of how the printing press helped to fuel the rapid dispersal of information. This kind of confirms thoughts behind a book I've been planning to write. Unfortunately, it's way, way down the writing list, which is tossed aside right now while life gives no time for writing. Oh, well, retirement is now only 8 years, 1 month, and 26 days away, assuming our elected officials don't screw it all up in the meantime.

If you have a chance to hear Dr. Maier lecture, don't pass it up. Consider reading his books. I don't think you will be disappointed.

Monday, November 3, 2008

November Goals

This being Thanksgiving month, beginning with my busiest week at work for several months, my goals will be modest.

1. Blog 10 to 12 times.

2. Finish planning "Life On A Yo Yo", and begin writing as needed, with a target to present to our life group beginning in January 2009.

3. Beginning planning two other life group series. One will be "From Slavery To Nationhood", which looks at the Israelites during the exodous and the years of wandering. The other is the one I thought of last week, which needs some more work before I make it public.

4. Evaluate the life group lesson series I thought of based on a story in the Apocrypha.

5. Since I found more writing things that need to be filed, and since I ran out of file folders and couldn't file all of those I found, finish filing writing stuff.

6. Work some on one other writing project.

7. Continue typing the harmony of the gospels that I wrote some years ago.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

October Report

Time to see how I did against my goals.

1. Attend 1 meeting of my critique group. It will meet three times this month, but I'm not sure I want to devote six hours (or ten hours including driving) to this activity this month. Did this; attended the first meeting of the month.

2. Complete my submission log. I came close a couple of months ago. An hour should suffice for this. Did this, including for the rejection I received mid-month, 14 months after I submitted the poem.

3. Contact the editor who has had The Screwtape Letters study guide, mailed three months ago today. Did this; the editor came back with a rejection (duly recorded), and we had a nice, brief e-mail exchange.

4. Continue to cull through the many writing-help items I have printed from Internet sites. Read or scan as appropriate, and discard anything not absolutely essential. I actually finished this, I think. I have freed up five notebooks at home and three at work, which formerly held printed material I felt would be helpful in a writing career. Some of these I had never read, and I read them all as I discarded them. Okay, a few of them, which I'd read before, I only skimmed. I am now down to one notebook at home that contains the essential advice for submittals. That's all I'm keeping.

5. Add a few (say three or four) posts to the poetry workshop I started at the Absolute Write poetry discussion forum. I added some to this; not sure if as many as three or four; probably only one or two.

6. Gather all my writing, all the scraps and sheets that contain things as small as haiku or as long as chapters, into one place and file them as appropriate. I'm not really too far from having this done. I think three hours might be enough. This is somewhat far along, but not quite done. I think I have everything together that was at the house. Some of that is not quite properly filed, but is AT the place where it needs to be for filing. I ran out of file folders, and haven't bought more yet.

7. Plod along, as time, energy, and motivation allow, on three writing projects: the Elijah and Elisha Bible study; In Front Of Fifty Thousand Screaming People (maybe write one more chapter); and the Documenting America column. Although I'm not planning to market it at this time, I don't want to abandon it totally. I didn't do much on these; in fact, I might not have done anything on these three writing projects, except maybe write a page or two on the E&E study. I worked on other projects (only a little), and captured some thoughts for potential future projects.

8. Post 10 to 12 times to this blog. Thirteen posts, so this was a success.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Thought--and Captured

I've only time and energy for a few words tonight. How nice it is, however, to have that energy at 9:17 PM in the evening.

Yesterday two thoughts crossed through my mind for Life Group studies, two lesson series I could develop and teach, maybe even write for publication. I won't say what they are, since much thinking and development are necessary before I can do anything with them. They may not even turn out to be anything good (although I think they are).

But I captured them. One was actually a day old when last night arrived. I wrote this on to a simple concept sheet. It would only be a three or four week series, quite fitting for what many life groups want to do. The other one came to me yesterday evening. I'm not quite sure what it was I was thinking of that spurred the idea, but it seemed a good one, and so I captured it; wrote a concept sheet on it, although I couldn't remember two things I needed to remember. Some research today and tonight in Wikipedia gave me the two missing links, plus a little more, and I have nine lessons in this series. This one would take some work, but if I can pull it together it may be one of the best things I could do.

Tonight also I worked some on lesson 3 in "Life on a Yo Yo: Peter's Development as an Apostle". This will probably be a fifteen lesson series, which I will likely teach after the first of the year. I don't know how much I will write in the way of student handouts of other materials, but I will pull some together.

Meanwhile, I've got to substitute for our main teacher this coming Sunday, so I'm off to study.

Saturday, October 25, 2008


This has been a very busy Saturday, raking leaves, cutting deadfall, trying to get a riding mower started, buying groceries. I'm much too tired to do much right now.

Last night I spent a lot of time on the Thomas Carlyle letters to Leigh Hunt, specifically one where Carlyle discussed poetry. Ideas for an essay came to me, and I began some notes and even some writing of the essay. Tonight I'm just going to read in the next book on my list.

A high note for the day was buying gasoline for $2.109 per gallon, the lowest it's been here in over 3 years, if I remember correctly. Then, when we were at another part of town, I saw a gas station manager change their price to $2.099 per gallon. They are not the lowest station in town, so I suspect at the Murphy Oil on the Wal-Mart outlot it was probably about $2.069. Way to go, Congress, for ending the prohibition on offshore drilling, which is depressing the futures market, which is coming back to the current price.

Thursday, October 23, 2008


You hear of stars aligning, and astrologers will say that means something. Or you will hear someone say, "The stars must have been aligned for me!" Well, tonight events align for me. Significant events; events that demand my immediate attention, that will consume the evening.

Yes, today is payday, and in today's mail will be my monthly bank statement. So tonight I get to balance the checkbook, see what bills have to be paid (or automatic payments recorded), and plan out my budget for the month ahead. Rarely do these two events come on the same day of the month. I will also use this occasion to enter several months' worth of expenses into my budget tracking spreadsheet. So the evening will be consumed with the mundane.

Oh, you were expecting these events to be something momentous? Expecting me to announce a book deal, or some other publication acceptance? Sorry to disappoint. The mundane, common-place events of life govern, I'm afraid. In this regard I think of Charles Lamb, on of my favorite authors, a Romantic-era essayist and man of belles lettres. He worked at the East India House as a clerk, and did his writing on the side. His job was not strenuous, nor his hours long by today's standards. Yet he always claimed his real work were not his essays, poems, and letters, but rather the endless ledgers in which he recorded endless sums for endless ships with endless imports.

So, perhaps, may it be with me. The works I shall be known for will not be the poems, essays, or novels I hack out in 30 minutes stretches on work day evenings or two hour blocks on weekends. No, it will be volumes of construction specifications, engineering reports, training class notes, internal e-mails and thousands of business letters. These are my works, world. Look upon them and despair.

Don't mind me. Received a rejection last night, for a poem I submitted eleven months ago, and had long written off. I'm surprised it came, because it had the old postage on it.

And my key board here at work is acting up. Many letters I have to pound twice to get the pixels to behave, and the space bar is spaced out.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Book Review: "The Ode Less Travelled"

The next book on my reading list was The Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking The Poet Within, by Stephen Fry, 2005, Gotham Books, ISBN 1-592-40248-8. I won this book, the second place prise for the February 2008 sonnet contest at Absolute Write. I began reading it less than a month ago, and finished just this afternoon.

This is a teaching book, a primer on writing poetry. No, that's not exactly right: it's a primer on writing formal poetry--that is, metrical poems in rhyme, typically to some specific form. Here are a couple of excerpts from the author's Forward.

"I believe poetry is a primal impulse within us all. I believe we are all capable of it and furthermore that a small, often ignored corner of us positively yearns to try it. I believe our poetic impulse is blocked by the false belief that poetry might on the one hand be academic and technical and on the other formless and random."

"I have written this book because over the past thirty-five years I have derived enormous private pleasure from writing poetry and like anyone with a passion I am keen to share it."

Fry does this by focusing totally on formal poetry. Free verse is not mentioned, not even as something he plans not to cover. He begins with a 121 page discussion of meter, describing all the metrical feet, how they are put together in lines, and how lines can be grouped for metrical effect. He next covers rhyme, 66 pages worth: the basics of end rhyme and internal; full rhymes, partial rhymes, and identical rhymes; couplets, triplets, envelope rhymes, interlocking rhymes, cross rhymes. Next is a long section, 136 pages, on various forms. He begins with defining stanzas, and then defines a bunch of forms and discusses them: terza rima, quatrains, rubai, rhyme royal, ottava rima, Spenserian stanza, ballad, heroic verse, odes, villanelles, sestinas, pantoums, ballades, rondeau and its many cousins, etc. Last is a short chapter on poetic diction and poetics today.

I find much to commend in this book, and much to fault. In an era dominated by free verse and the "poetry as emotional release crowd", I find the emphasis on formal poetry refreshing, especially the section on meter. Fry also emphasises that modern poetry should have modern diction. He speaks against what he calls "wrenched syntax" just for the sake of meter and rhyme--I like that, as I believe poetry should be written in the language of the era in which it is written.

I found some things I disagree with, that were treated either shallowly or were, IMHO, inappropriate for a primer on poetry.

- The section on forms contained too many forms, and hence they were not treated either sufficiently or well. What makes for writing a good poem in that form was never discussed, only the specifications for the form.
- There was no discussion of free verse. I understand, by its content, that the book was about formal poetry. But not having stated that, the impression is given that only formal poetry is poetry and free verse is not. I'm a formalist, but I found this handling of free verse somewhat baffling.
- The order of the book seemed backwards to me. The discussion of poetic diction and the condition of poetry today should have been first, since poetic diction is common to all poems, formal and free, metrical and non, etc.
- The book had no discussion of the line as the fundamental element of poetry, nor of metaphor, simile, figures of speech, imagery, personification, and many other poetic devices. Some of these should certainly be in a primer on writing poetry.
- As I mentioned, there was little discussion on poetic quality, or regardless of formal verse or free; what makes for a good poem? You won't learn that by reading this book.
- Fry uses his own, "made-up" poems to demonstrate most forms. Sometimes he uses the poems of others, but not often. This was somewhat annoying, though I think part of Fry's argument: See how easy it is, with just a little knowledge.
- The book has some cursing. This is almost all towards the end, with increasing frequency the closer you got to the end. It's as if Fry knew cursing would turn some people off, and held off with using it till the readers was well into the book and hooked. The book could have easily been written without it, and this fact alone will limit the number of people to whom I can recommend the book.

And I can recommend the book, though with cautions. It does not give a beginner's treatment to the broad spectrum of the poetry world, but rather to a small part of it. And, it is unlikely to be much help by itself. The one who desires to learn how to write poetry will need to find other books to supplement this one.

Book Review: "Moses: A Model Of Pioneer Spirit"

Our Life Group (a.k.a. adult Sunday School class) is studying the biography of Moses written by Chuck Swindoll. I'm not teaching this series, but as co-teacher I have to be ready each Sunday. The other teacher ordered the books, and included an extra book for me. Moses: A Model of Pioneer Vision, was also written by Chuck Swindoll. It appears to be self-published by his ministry, for it has no ISBN and the publisher is listed as simply "Insight for Living".

Although this is not on my official reading list, I read it as preparation for class. It is a small book, 64 numbered pages, with lots of white space. To be honest, I'm not sure of the purpose of the book. It is not a biography, nor a Bible study. The cover and title page also have the words "Recovering A Pioneer Spirit". This does not seem to be part of the title; maybe is a series title. The Introduction, by Swindoll, says, "My hope is that this brief but penetrating study will explode within you a burst of new hope and fresh energy. When it does, you will discover how much easier it is to face the dawn of each new day. Furthermore, it is remarkable how contagious vision spreads!"

Unfortunately, this book did not do that for me. Perhaps it was too short, and the white space too much, to allow me to take the book seriously. Perhaps I read it when too distracted by my "troubles" to give it the brain power needed to fully appreciate it. Whatever the reason, I was disappointed with the book.

Swindoll focuses on Moses' time of preparation for his leadership of Israel, including the forty years of immersion in Egyptian culture and forty years of being a shepherd in Midian. It covers the burning bush event (what book on Moses doesn't?), and the crossing of the read sea. It is too short to cover much more. In it all, Swindoll tries to show us how Moses was a pioneer, and how we should somehow have the same spirit he did. Possibly I'll re-read it somewhere down the line, but right now I don't see where Swindoll achieved his aim with this reader.

I did find his four recommendations at the end on how to gain some of that pioneering spirit to be insightful.

1. It takes tight places to break lifetime habits.
2. When hemmed in on all sides, the only place to look is up.
3. If the Lord is to get the glory, the Lord must do the fighting.
4. Our "Red Sea deliverances" open and close at the Lord's timing.

Don't take my review here as a recommendation not to acquire and read this book. I really think my current experiences of life prevented me from a full appreciation.

Friday, October 17, 2008

A New "Research" Project

This morning I meant to post a report of a short book I finished, something not on my official reading list. I wrote some notes for the review last night, then laid them and the book next to the portfolio I carry to work each day. Alas, this morning, when I finished devotions at my desk, poured and doctored coffee, and opened my portfolio, the notes and book were not there. I suppose in my normal, strict routine way of getting out of the house in the morning, looking on the kitchen table for something out of the ordinary I was supposed to pick up was too much. That will teach me to go one tiny step further in the evening and put the non-standard item in the portfolio rather than next to it.

So what to do in my personal time, after devotions, at my desk? I have finished culling printed writing materials from notebooks, so nothing to do there. I was not ready to again pick up John Wesley's letters and take up where I left off somewhat more than a month ago (expect a future post on that). Reviewing Absolute Write for a poem to critique or a political discussion to burst in on revealed nothing I had to do. But there, in my favorites in Internet Explorer, was the folder titled "Carlyle" and in it the link to The Carlyle Letters Online, hosted by Duke University. A few clicks, making decisions on what to read, found me at a letter from Carlyle to Leigh Hunt in June 1833. I decided on a letter to Hunt because I recently posted for critique my parody of Hunt's famous poem "Jenny Kissed Me". If my readers can stand this affectation, here's my parody.

Hunter Licked Me

Hunter licked me on the nose,
showing me his deep affection.
Whimpering, this dachshund knows
who provided food and protection.
Tell me that my poems won't sell,
that no muse has ever picked me.
Call me crazy, but then yell
Hunter licked me.

I read the letter from Carlyle to Hunt, and decided, "Wouldn't it be nice to have a collection of letters between Hunt and Carlyle much as I have between Emerson and Carlyle?" So I decided to start one. I copied that letter--including footnotes and source citations, and dumped it into a MS Word document. Some formatting was needed, to put it in my typical compressed yet readable layout (trying to save a tree or two, you know), and making the footnotes real footnotes rather than embedded things at the end of the letter.

All of that took little time, so I decided to do some more. I went to the Index By Recipient, and found one more to Hunt in the 1832-34 time frame. This puzzled me, because I expected more than this. So I went to the chronological list and found a number of letters in this time frame, including the first, a brief Carlyle note to Hunt about receiving a book of his from Hunt's publisher. By the time my work day officially started (okay, I may have done my personal stuff 15 minutes too long, but I'll make it up this evening), I had fourteen pages of Carlyle to Hunt.

So what am I going to do with this? Don't know yet. And I have to see if I can find Leigh Hunt's letters on line. I know they've been published, but haven't yet looked for them. I suppose you could call this a "reading and research" project. But it's more than that. It is entertainment for me. And it should also, should I really read these letters, help with the brain atrophy I'm trying to overcome.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Mainly Reading

This past weekend I went to Oklahoma City to visit with daughter, son-in-law, and grandbaby Ephraim. I went with my mother-in-law, my wife being already there. We had a good time, a combination of baby-sitting and visiting. An excellent church service on Sunday, where son-in-law Richard preached on Philippians 4:4-9. First he read a story for the children before they were dismissed for children's church, about a boy named Alexander (I think) who was having a no good, horrible, terrible bad day--with a couple of other adjectives thrown in. His adult sermon was on the same theme. Since I have had a lot of them lately (bad days, not sermons), his sermon spoke to me.

I need to get out of the doldrums; and I shall. It will just take time. I've mainly been reading as a means of pulling myself up. I finished a small book (not on the official reading list) for Life Group, Moses: A Model of Pioneer Vision by Chuck Swindoll, which I shall soon review in a post to this blog. I'm also working through The Ode Less Travelled by Stephen Fry. This is a book on how to write formal poetry, which I won in a sonnet writing contest. I'm about three or four days from finishing it, and will review it on this blog when finished.

As I read this last night, in the chapters dealing with various forms of poetry, I found myself suddenly beset with a mild case of Sidelines Syndrome. This hasn't hit me for a while, so maybe this is a good sign of coming out of my funk. I put the book aside--since I could no more concentrate on it--and began writing two poems. I know, poetry would be the worst possible thing to turn to if I have any hopes of being published, but at least it was something for my writing.

We'll see what happens tonight. We are supposed to have rain, so I'll be stuck in the house, nothing important will be on television, I don't really have to play mindless computer games, and maybe, just maybe, my brain muscles are starting to strengthen. Can a new chapter be far away?

Thursday, October 9, 2008


It happened again. I went downstairs to the Dungeon last night, after church then a late supper, to do my various writing activities. And on my wife's computer (she's away baby sitting our grandchild) was a blue screen error. Two flat-screen monitors showed the same thing:

then a bunch of words, then
Stop: 0X00000077 with some similar comma-delimited letters and numbers

After the last time, I learned that all this stuff means something, and that the type of error and all these letter-number combos can help diagnose the problem. So I wrote them down, went to my computer and did a Google search for "Kernal Stack Inpage Error". The first hit was a Microsoft support page, which talked about this and about parameters. It says "To determine the possible cause, you must interpret the error message. If both the first and the third parameters are zero, the four parameters are defined as follows....If either the first or the third parameter is not a zero, the following definitions apply...."

What the heck is a parameter? I assume it's those four letter-number combos in parentheses, but what does "if the parameter is zero" mean? The letter-number combos are all in the form of 0x000073B4, that is, a single digit followed by an x followed by eight digits or letters. But is the parameter the entire thing? Or is it the digit before the x? Since they all have an x in them, are they all non-zero? or is the x meaningless? The third letter-number combo was 0x00000000; is this a zero since all the digits are zero? I assume it is, and thus, per the instructions, the second parameter is the key one; except what shows in my parameter doesn't appear in the Microsoft help screen. Some help.

I don't absorb writing well from the screen, and since the failed computer is my server, I couldn't print the instructions. So I left the computer as it was and spent my much-reduced time on other stuff. Today at work I did the same search and came up with other pages, not all Microsoft, that purport to help solve the problem, but none of which seem to be speaking English. One tech support forum says:

"If you can restart your computer after the error message, Autochk runs automatically and tries to map out the bad sector. If for some reason Autochk
does not scan the hard disk for errors, manually start the disk scanner. If your
computer is formatted with the NTFS file system, run Chkdsk /f /r on the system
partition. You must restart your computer before the disk scan begins. If you
cannot start your computer due to this issue, use the Command Console and run
Chkdsk /r."

So now I have to learn what an NTFS file system is, I guess, and figure out (somehow) if my computer has that or whatever the alternative is. Back to Google, I guess. After that it will be something else.

I can't keep unplugging this machine and running down to a computer fix-it store, where they tell me it's a motherboard problem when it isn't. So I guess I'll have to bite the bullet and 1) spend beaucoups hours learning how to do it myself, 2) have in-house service for big bucks, or 3) buy a new computer.

And the dream keeps fading away, as time to pursue the dream goes from an oasis to a mirage. Don't mind me; received another rejection yesterday.

ETA on 10/10/08: The problem is not resolved, because the on-off switch, tempermental almost since we got the machine, has quit working entirely. The Dell tech support people were most unhelpful, though they didn't mean to be. The backdoor channel I have available through corporate buying power has resulted in e-mails and calls. Seems like for a $500 bill and a week I can have this resolved like new. And the dream....

ETA on 10/20/08: The problem still is not resolved. I learned I can't buy an on-off switch by itself. I have to buy the whole front of the computer box. But this only costs about $21 with shipping, and supposedly I can do the switcheroo myself. However, I have decided to bite the bullet and just order a new computer. Because of the many problems I have had with this--most of them Dell's doings--Dell is being really nice and giving me a good discount. I assume our corporate buying power has something to do with that. I don't need monitors or software, so that helps. I may get it this week sometime, which will allow me to take the weekend to install. Later, I may buy that front piece for the other computer and see what I can do with it. And the dream....

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Trying to get engaged

For some time now I have not been applying myself wholeheartedly to anything. At work, I have been in a position that doesn't require significant application of brain power. As senior engineer in the company, I'm assisting people on their more difficult problems. I'm coordinating training courses, and on occasion teach one. That has taken up a lot more time than I expected it to do. But it's easy. Make calls, send e-mails, repeat. I spend a lot of time on what I call research and development, studying new trends in our business, taking notes, plan some training, write some simple design guides or specifications--most enjoyable, but not brain taxing.

For the last several weeks I have disengaged from writing. All I'm doing is organizing, filing, and typing a few things I wrote some time ago. I'm also back-checking the latest round of edits on Doctor Luke's Assistant before discarding the mark-ups. I was working on some new Bible studies to write, but I've set those aside as well. Oh, yes, I also wrote a couple of haiku over the last weeks. These were not simple 5-7-5 ones, but rather well-thought out for the fundamental haiku elements.

Work around the house doesn't take much effort, nor does the reading list I'm going through. So I have felt my brain slowly disengaging. Certainly at work it is somewhat, and now off work it is as well. This is a terrible feeling in a way, for I have always had my brain engaged in many things; scattering concentrated thought around many projects. Now it seems the toughest thing I have to decide is whether to keep a certain piece of paper or not, and if kept where to file it. I wrote a triolet about this sort of thing last November:


I long to live that day when I will rest,
and cease to tax my brain. Then I will die
and stand before my Maker. Yet, I'm blessed;
I long to live! The day that I will rest
is somewhere out there, far beyond the quest
that now demands I try, and fail, and try.
I long to live that day when I will rest
and cease to tax my brain, then I will die.

But beginning last week, really Friday of the week before that, I began working on a project at work I had put off for a long time. It required learning a new computer program, and what I feared would be tedious work depicting a large drainage basin for calculating flood flows. Only one person in the office knew the program, and I didn't think he knew it much. While waiting on him to answer an e-mail of a request for help, I worked on learning the program myself through reading the manual and just trying stuff. I got pretty far along, far enough to enter a dummy project and get it to run. I finally had this training session and it turned out the guy didn't know any more than I did at that stage.

As I feared, the work is extremely tedious. It requires me to really think about what I am doing. My brain as a consequence has rebelled. By the time I finish a full day of working on that, I have nothing left to think at home. Hence I have been reading, doing a few of these simple writing things, and playing mindless computer games. For an hour or more.

My hope is that this difficult project at work will be like exercise for my brain. Can the brain atrophy, like one of the voluntary muscles? When I cease to tax my brain, will I then die--intellectually if not physically? Hmmm, enquiring minds want to know. Hopefully this will turn out to be good for me. Maybe a few more days of having to use my brain the full eight hours at work will strengthen it, and I will find myself with something left in the skull come evening. Hey, this evening I had enough left to write this post.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

More thoughts on "The Totem"

I knew as I was typing yesterday that other things had come to mind that I wanted to include in my review of The Totem, but which escaped me at that moment. They've since come back.

Morrell begins almost every chapter with a style I like, call it a "B-A-C" style. If you take the normal order of three events, some past event that lead to what is happening right now and one that happens next, and represent it by letters, it would be A-B-C. That is, A happened, now B is happening, and C happens next. In the B-A-C style, you say B is happening, a follow-up to A which just happened, and C happens next. Morrell does this constantly throughout the book.

I hesitate to say every chapter, but for sure in many chapters. I also used this method when I wrote Doctor Luke's Assistant. I had never seen this described in any book on writing techniques. In fact, DLA was complete before I began reading those books. I just liked that style: begin the chapter with immediate action; then say what happened between chapters; then return to the action moving forward. As I began to pay more attention to the writing style in other novel, and to read those books on writing, I never saw this technique used or even discussed. So I edited some of those out of DLA, and haven't been using that style in In Front Of Fifty Thousand Screaming People. After reading Morrell, I'm reconsidering.

Another thing Morrell did exceedingly well was the working in of back story. All the major characters had a past that impacted something on the event in the book. Slaughter had killed someone while on duty as a cop in Detroit, and was himself another shot with a shot gun and almost killed. The reporter was an alcoholic, fallen to a low position on the newspaper staff. The medical examiner had been in a fast-paced similar position in Philadelphia and ruined his career by becoming obsessed with his work. The younger veterinarian, Owens, had a past. Morrell is in no hurry to tell us all this. For the first third of the book he concentrates on developing the horror that is to come, letting the reader know enough to conclude the truth without giving it fully away. The last third of the book is devoted to the fast-paced actions that lead to the penultimate battle. The middle third of the book consists of long-ish chapters that give the back story of the major characters. It is done well. Even when telling us the back story, Morrell tells just enough to help us understand the characters, not so much as to overwhelm us.

A few more observations.

  • I mentioned that the denouement left me unsatisfied. One of the reasons is we don't find out what happened to several characters who contracted the virus. We see them in their fully affected states, or even in their developing states, but with a couple of exceptions we don't find out about them. We don't see any consequences for the mayor, who botched things so badly.
  • The hippy colony was established in 1970; the book takes place around 1993. Yet during all this time, the town of Potters Field apparently had no contact with them, didn't know they had changed locations, didn't know how many were there or if they even existed. While the town "decided" in 1970 they wouldn't have anything to do with the hipppies, it seems unlikely that for 23 years the two existed so close together (at most 60 miles apart), and no one from the colony came to the town to buy or sell, seek medical treatment, whatever. That is somewhat improbable, it seems to me. If they couldn't come to town because of the virus, why did it take 23 years for this outbreak to occur? While this is a weakness in the plot (in my opinion, of course), it doesn't really detract from the enjoyment of the tale.
  • The reappearance of Lucas Wheeler, the boy from the town who joined the colony, at the very time when he was needed to identify the one person from the colony who made his way into town during the crisis, was a coincidence too much.
  • Editing: I remembered another thing I wanted to say. The tie of the title to the story was not as strong as I would like. Morrell defines totem on the front end pages: "1. among primitive peoples, an animal or natural object considered as being related by blood to a given family or can and taken as its symbol. 2. an image of this." I suppose the tie-in is based on what Dunlap, the reporter, found in the throne room. However, I would have liked the tie to be stronger.

That's all I can think of for now. Plus I feel like I have written too much negative. Each of these seems to be magnified in my words, whereas they were really a series of minor problems, none of which individually, nor all together, made the book any less enjoyable.