Beyond The Pale

Review: Cibola Burn

Last year I started reading a series of books by the composite author James S. A. Corey, who is an amalgam of Daniel Abraham and Ty Frank. The first book, Leviathan Awakes, is the story of a washed up private security guy named Miller and ice miner named Jim Holden having adventures in a universe that’s falling apart as a result of some corporate sociopaths trying to weaponize an alien molecule that they found on a moon of some planet. If that all sounds sketchy, it’s because it’s been a half year since I read the book, and I don’t necessarily retain a ton of the details about the light fiction that I read (using audiobooks) at the gym and doing the dishes.

Regardless of retention, however, I really enjoyed the book, and I immediately purchased and read the two sequels that had already been published at that point, Caliban’s War and Abbadon’s Gate. The series as a whole follows the adventures of the crew of the ship Rosinante, captained by Jim Holden, who got control of the ship late in the first book and quickly made it his own. The way the ship and its crew are characterized vaguely remind me of the Millennium Falcon from the Star Wars series, but that might just be because I know that the Corey duo have also written a Star Wars novel together, so all that baggage is loaded into my RAM when I read Corey’s books. The ship’s adventures parallel the attempts on the part of the alien molecule from the first book to find the civilization that created it, which has been destroyed by an unknown alien entity. This parallelism results from Holden not being able to keep himself out of any trouble in the solar system. He’s drawn to it by some magnetism, but even if he wasn’t, Miller is always there to push him into trouble, even though he dies in the first book.

Last week, while I was browsing, Audible, I found out that the fourth book in the series, Cibola Burn, had been released, and I immediately purchased it. The book had a new reader, and the reviews on Audible weren’t positive, but when I compared the voices, I didn’t think the new reader was bad. He wasn’t nearly as nuanced as the previous reader, but he’s fine, and the book doesn’t lose much by the change. If you need the reader to be Morgan Freeman, then there’s either something wrong with the book, or your imagination is lacking. This book isn’t the best in the series, but the reviewers who didn’t like it because of the reader were just being cranks.

Cibola Burn takes place after the proto-molecule has created a worm-hole into a routing station built by its creators, only to find that the creators have been wiped out, leaving a thousand earth-like planets abandoned and ready for the taking. When a group of squatters run the blockade set up outside the wormhole gate and take up residence on one of the planets a year before a UN Science expedition arrives, hostilities ensue, and representatives of both governments call on Jim Holden to act as an impartial mediator, supposedly because they know that he will be completely transparent about what’s going on there, but in reality because they know that Holden is a pro at starting wars (by this point he’s started two or three of them), and they don’t really want the colony to succeed right away. They are afraid that if humans break out of the solar system as quickly as the gates look like they are going to allow, humanity will break under the weight of its overexpansion.

When the Rosinante arrives, hostilities have escalated, and Holden does the best that he can to alleviate the situation, but he ends up in a catch twenty-two, and butts up against my biggest complaint about the series, yet another sociopath. I was really annoyed about the prevalence of sociopaths in this series until I started thinking about Al Qaeda and ISIS, and I realized that maybe they have a better grasp on the sheer number of rank assholes running around in the human gene-pool than I do.  Things get worse when the proto-molecule communications system that was planted in Holden’s ship in one of the previous novels boots up the planetary defense system, which have been dormant for a billion or so years. Parts of the system work; parts don’t. Both situations cause problems. Negotiations fall apart, people start dying, half of the planet explodes, insta-death slugs start crawling out of the ground; same ole’ same ole’. This is one of the things that I really like about this series. In every one of the books so far, Corey has taken some major horror trope (zombies, flesh-eating bacteria, the unkillable monster, death-slugs) and made it science-fictioney in a not scarey but still awesome way.

Holden saves the day with the help of Detective Miller’s proto-molecule emulation, who’s been hitching a ride on Holden’s brain ever since book two.

Thinking back on everything I’ve written here, I realize that I don’t think this is a very important book in the series. It’s more of a place-setter for whatever is coming next. The primary importance here is that it gives us a chance learn just a little bit more about the proto-molecule and to get a first glimpse of whatever killed it. It also gave us the chance to (supposedly) see Miller die for real. Either this is a red herring for future books and we’ll see him again when we don’t expect him, or the authors realized that Miller had the potential to become a deus ex machina and make Holden seem invincible, and they didn’t want him around to get Holden out of any and every problem that he bumped into (much as Amos gets almost-killed way too often). Either way, we’re supposed to walk away thinking that he’s gone.

Regardless of the books importance to the series, it was a good read, and I enjoyed it enough that I listened to the whole thing as quickly as I could and was angry at myself when it ended. Corey has me on a tether about the alien civilization and whatever destroyed it, and he is (They are? What are you really supposed to do with a pseudonym to two authors that make no effort to hide their duality?) doing a great job of doling out just a little bit more information with every book instead of giving a huge data dump to take away all of the mystique early on. The focus of each book is personality driven, with that hard-science fiction taking place just a bit at a time over the course of thousands of pages. This will not only make Corey a lot more money (good on them), but it leaves me with the feeling that I’ve earned whatever I learn about this imaginary world when the reading is done. Whatever its problems, if you are looking for an ENJOYABLE read more than an IMPORTANT read, The Expanse is the place to go.

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June 28, 2014 Posted by | Book Review | , , , | Leave a comment

Pat Robertson’s, Rhetoric, Social Justice

Several days ago—my first draft read “yesterday afternoon,” but life sometimes gets busy—while reading the New York Times online, I stumbled upon an article about Pat Robertson’s claim that he believed that the use of Marijuana should be legalized. His point, as an Evangelical, was not that the use of Marijuana was good, that it should be endorsed, or that he had any desire to use it, only that he thought it should be legalized. After reading the article, with which I wholly agreed, I posted a link to it on Facebook and promptly forgot about it.

As I’m currently deployed to Afghanistan, I live on an almost inverted time scale to most of the people who read my feed and make comments, so when I went to bed that night, there were no responses to the post, not that I expected any. As I mentioned, the link didn’t bear enough weight in my mind to keep me thinking about it, as the claims it made seemed fairly obvious. When I woke up the following morning and went to check my email before calling my wife, I was surprised to see that I had received twenty new emails in the intervening eight or ten hours. Several years ago, this would have been common, but of late I’ve been much less active on the internet, and I’ve received very few emails from people other than my wife. I couldn’t help but wonder what had brought in all the traffic. As soon as I opened up the first email, I realized that, without really intending to, I’d done what I have such a habit of doing and started a fight about whether Pot use should or should not be legal.

Most discussions of decriminalization for Marijuana tend to go in one of two directions, which are really the same direction. Either people want it to be legalized because its use isn’t damaging and alcohol, which causes much worse behavior than Marijuana ever could, is legal, or they want it to be illegal because it’s destructive, wrecks homes and lives, makes you lazy, and contributes to other kinds of criminality. Both of these pictures are clearly oversimplifications of what their backers really believe, and I’m not trying to build up a couple of straw man arguments to knock down, but keeping these rough sketches in mind is useful.

The argument that happened on my Facebook page while I was sleeping had basically taken the same course that most arguments about Pot tend to take, and while I wasn’t surprised, I was disappointed because the reason that I so heartily agree with what Pat Robertson was saying is that he didn’t make the arguments that we usually hear. Instead, Robertson approached the issue from the perspective of social justice.

Robertson basically argued that we incarcerate people for a crime with only one real victim, themselves. Sure, because of the current state of affairs, there is a whole black market on the product, and any black market produces crime, but that black market is not a natural outgrowth of the availability of the product, but of it’s prohibition. Just as a huge black market grew out of the prohibition of alcohol in the United States and was wiped out by it’s later re-legalization, so the crime producing prohibition of Pot produces much crime that would be wiped out were the product legalized, regulated, and taxed.

That’s not to say that the use of Pot should be condoned, any more than the use of alcohol should be condoned. There is plenty of room for disagreement on this. My denomination states in it’s position papers that it considers alcohol to be a tool of Satan, used for destroying lives and causing addiction. My parents completely agree with this statement, and I can’t fault them for the position. I believe that high fructose corn syrup is a tool of Satan, used for destroying lives and causing addiction. My parents drink a lot of Dr. Pepper and use fake Syrup on their pancakes. I try not to judge them for this. I drink a fair amount of Guinness and the occasional tumbler of Ol’ Number 7. I hope that they do me the same courtesy. I don’t argue that high fructose corn syrup should be illegal. I’m never heard my parents argue that alcohol should be.

Just as I don’t advocate the consumption of fake sugar, and my parents don’t condone the consumption of alcohol, Pat Robertson doesn’t condone the consumption of THC. His argument, and it’s a good one, is that it is unjust to throw someone in prison, damage their families, reduce their lifetime earning potential, and force them into association with real criminals for doing something unhealthy.

Our prisons are over crowded, and they are crowded with people who have no business being there in the first place. If we believe that Pot use is wrong and dangerous, destructive and addictive, then we need to do something about it, but incarcerating them isn’t the thing that needs done. There are other ways to go about this. When a person gets addicted to alcohol, we try to enroll them in AA. When they eat too much Mc. Donald’s, we send them to Jenny Craig.

Christians are mandated to care for the poor, not to oppress them. To deprive a community of it’s young men, by far the largest portion of drug related incarcerations, fits that bill. Utilitarians want to reduce human suffering. Prohibition and the resulting crime and imprisonment increase the quotient of human suffering beyond the gains of reduced consumption. Liberals want the oppressed to be humanized, removed from the margins, empowered. Conservatives claim to want to preserve liberty and reduce government spending. Libertarians want the government to have less power. And so on. There are incentives for every party to advocate this change, and yet very few voices do—not as a result of the real situation, but as a result of the blinding rhetoric we have chosen to use to talk about it.

March 23, 2012 Posted by | Censorship, Christianity, Church | 8 Comments

OEF XVIII Begin

One of my great goals during this deployment was to get back into the blogosphere. Nearly two months into the deployment, and not having yet written an entry, it’s time to get started if I want to make anything happen along those lines. For once, I have a couple of good reasons for not having started back up writing, such as lack of internet access and new emphasis on OPSEC along with some violations within the unit’s wife community that has caused enough backlash to make me want to steer clear of anything that could cause hiccups, at least until my promotion goes through two months ago. Yes, apparently we can time travel in the military, but I’ll discuss that in a later post once everything has been resolved.
Part of the issue is that I have been legitimately busy. Last year, anything that I didn’t do was the result of being lazy. This year, at least so far, because of where I’m currently located, I’m able to spend a lot of time setting up training and making contacts that will help me as the deployment continues, and I’ve been taking advantage of those opportunities because I don’t know when I’ll find myself sitting in a mud hut somewhere in the middle of a minefield with no hope of leaving there until October. Maurice Lednicky used to say, “The opportunity of a lifetime must be seized during the lifetime of the opportunity,” and while I didn’t agree with much that he said, it’s certainly true that the work that I can do now, if I don’t get it done within the next several weeks, will never happen at all.
So yeah, I’m busy. But everyone I know besides Aria is always busy. That’s part of the modern condition. Primitives had all the free time they wanted and no food; we have all the food we want and no time to enjoy it. But we always make time for the things that we find important. People who don’t have time for their family, but have time for a fantasy football league are probably saying more about their priorities than they are about their schedule. And I’m sure that Poor Scribbler, Linden Mueller, and All the Blessed Things all have just as hectic of lives as I do.
But what have I been prioritizing? Well, even though it hasn’t been making it into the ever so important blogosphere, I’ve been writing pretty much constantly. I’m on volume four of those big black journals that my meatspace friends see me carrying around all the time, and I’ve noticed a significant increase of production since about a month before Aria showed up, though that’s been tapering back just a little bit lately because I don’t like to write in that journal in the rain. I’m also learning to play the guitar. I didn’t think that would have much bearing on the amount of free time in my day because back when I used to play the piano as a kid, practicing for so much as thirty minutes was literally the LONGEST time in history. Agonizing pain in the brain resulted from a single scale. I figured that if I forced myself into fifteen minutes per day of guitar practice, I’d be doing better than I had any real reason to expect, and I’d still progress, however slowly. Instead it turns out that unless I have something going on that forces me to quit, if I pick up my guitar, I’m probably not going to put it down for forty-five minutes to an hour. Who’d have thought it?
Finally, I’ve been putting in a fair amount of time into two kinds of reading. First, I’ve been catching up on the novel reading that a year long attack of “need to game” caused me to miss. I’ve cut video games almost completely out of my life, but that space filled up immediately with everything from The Forever War, to Anne of Green Gables, to A Hero of our Time, all excellent books, by the way. The second kind of reading is Spanish. I’ve been working as hard as I can to get my Spanish back up to where it should be because I know that this Seventh Group, you-live-in-Afghanistan, thing is going to end eventually, and then I’ll still be expected to hold proficiency in my language. It turns out it’s a good thing I’ve been doing this, but I’ll have to explain why in my next post.
So this post isn’t really for readers. It’s for me. It’s my way of telling myself to get to work on the things that are being forgotten, and to keep at it on the things that I’ve been doing well on.

February 28, 2012 Posted by | Army, Censorship, Uncategorized | | 4 Comments

I don’t know why I remember.

I don’t know why I remember my parents arguing over Mark Hamill’s role in Star Wars. We were sitting in the living room at the Crottinger house, and it must have been just after we moved there because I remember this as the first time I was allowed to watch Episode IV: A New Hope. Colors brighten in my memory, and in this, the tan carpet is closer to radioactive than to the muted, unstainable brown that it actually was. It was probably that first winter we lived there. I remember the fire going in the Buck Stove. This wasn’t a fireplace. It was a freestanding stove, and where fireplaces dump a lot of the heat of the fire out this chimney, this stove, even with a moderate fire in it, would force us to dump most of its heat out of the windows to the living room. We were the only house on the block with the windows open and a foot of snow on the ground. I would run over and stand as close as I could, feeling the heat seep into my clothes and muscle until I’d be dancing around like a toddler doing the pee pee dance. Eventually, Dad would tell me to knock it off and go sit back down. Then I would run over to the blue-gray, corduroy couch and flop down on it superman style, yelling in pain and writhing from side to side as the super-heated fabric of my jeans pressed against the backs of my thighs. I still have this image of me flopping around like a fish, but I remember it from the outside, so maybe my brother was there beside me, flopping right along.

“I think they got a new actor to play in the later movies,” my dad said as Luke’s X-wing flew out of the base on Yavin IV to attack the Death Star.

“Who, Luke?” My mom asked.

“Yeah, doesn’t he look different in this movie from the others?”

They paused and watched the fight, as one after another of the X-Wing fighters either got blown up or peeled off of the approach to the exhaust vent cum self destruct bulls-eye. After a few minutes, just after the fat guy decided that he’d rather crash into the death star than eject, even though his guns were already not working, mom said, “He looks different, but I don’t think that it’s a different actor.”

Dad grunted, and that was the end of it.

I had no opinion on the matter, as I was busy at that moment trying to rap myself with an afghan so that I could sit on top of the stove without getting burned. It didn’t work.

September 2, 2011 Posted by | Childhood, Science Fiction, The Making of a Story -- Exercises, Writing | Leave a comment

From Wyandotte, Writer’s Block

John has perpetual writer’s block.

Or at least that is what he calls it. It isn’t that he can’t write; he writes fine. In fact, he writes for a living. John is a journalist for one of the biggest papers in The City, he has his own column, and he writes guest editorials for The Wyandotte Ledger six or seven times a year, but if you were to ask him, he would tell you that all of those things aren’t writing at all. He would say “That’s just my job,” or “I get paid to tell people’s opinions back to them,” or something along those lines. John would never call himself a writer because he’s never successfully written the one thing that he believes makes a writer, fiction.

So John recently joined a science fiction and fantasy writer’s group that meets at The Book and the Bean every other Thursday evening around 7:30 to read and criticize each others’ work. John was invited by The Bean‘s owner, Jim Whitney, who was familiar with his peculiar writer’s block and thought that getting John as far away from the mundane as possible might help him write fiction. Science Fiction isn’t really John’s thing. His favorite writer, in fact, is Charles Frazier, of Cold Mountain, and its structural similarity to The Odyssey, is about as close as he’s gotten to reading any Sci-Fi or Fantasy since he read Tolkien in 9th grade.

John visited the group, just to observe, and he liked what he saw. The group spent about an hour and a half going over three pieces, and everyone—about a dozen people—pitched in with at least one feedback statement. Suggestions ranged from ideas for how the story might flow better to questions of perspective to discussions of what the deeper meaning of a character’s action might be to what kinds of change would make publishers more likely to at least read through the story before sending it back to physics issues within the universe of the story. Of the three stories that the group talked about, one of them was a buggy android named Jim who fell in love with a bee hive that he thought was buzzing love songs at him, one was a chapter from a Tolkien clone that had apparently been in development for quite some time because all the readers talked about the characters as if they knew them well, and one was about an entrepreneur who prevented intergalactic war by getting the alien aggressors stoned on coffee, and became extremely rich in the process. One of the stories was meant as high literature, one as comedy, and one as a kid’s story. One was well written, one was garbage, and one was just weird. They all showed signs of having been worked on extensively.

After the discussion period, Jim introduced John to the group’s leader, Dan Green, who happened to have been the writer for one of the night’s pieces, the one about the fruity robot. Dan said that John was more than welcome to join the group, seeing as they had just lost a member and wanted to keep the number at an even twelve. John could join immediately as long he was willing to commit to reading each completed piece before the biweekly sessions, contributing to the discussions constructively (“We have a zero tolerance policy for trolling,” he said several times, much to John’s bewilderment), and have something ready for the group to read when his turn came up, which would be every two months, give or take. John said that he’d like to try it.

Oh, there’s one more thing,” Dan said. “I hate to drop this on you, but the person who recently decided to step away from the group for a while, well, she did that, among other things because her next presentation is the upcoming meeting. Now, I can revamp the schedule, but that puts several of our veteran writers in a bind because they all tend to have fairly regular writing schedules, which will have to be changed. Or, if you think you could manage it, you could jump right in at the deep end and let us read something of yours at the next meeting.”

John didn’t like that idea at all. But then it occurred to him that he’s always been about to write fiction, but never actually written it.

I think I can put something together for you.” He said.

Dan slapped him on the back and laughed. “Excellent,” he said. “I was hoping you’d say that. Just imagine me as Brad Pitt.” He took a bite of the panini he was eating, licked his lips and, while chewing said, “If this is your first time at Write Club, you have to write.”

* * * * *

That night John went home and started his story, one that he had been thinking about writing for quite some time but never gotten around to, and by the following Tuesday he had a completed draft, but rather than sit it aside and wait the week and a half for the next meeting of the group, he worked on editing and developing, tightening and compressing so that by second Tuesday when he finally emailed the story to Dan for distribution to the group, he had taken what started out as a forty page rough draft and trimmed it down to a tightly constructed twenty pages of razor sharp prose—or so he hoped. He sent the email and waited.

* * * * *

It isn’t that when he starts to write a piece of fiction, he clams up or anything. John has all sorts of ideas, and whenever he sits at his desk to write them, it seems like the stories just flow right off of his finger tips and onto the page or computer screen. And the stories feel so real. Oh no, he can tell stories just as well as any of the other writing that he does every day, but he still can’t write fiction because he can’t seem to deviate from the facts by so much as a middle initial for a tertiary character.

It’s the facts that get him. He’s amazing at facts, and that’s part of why he’s such a good journalist. He’s been writing for The Ledger for ten years now, ever since he graduated from Huntington, and in that time, he’s never, not once, seen a retraction or correction in the paper for one of the articles that he’s written. Sometimes he gets things wrong in a first draft, but by the time he’s cleaned things up, the facts will have adjusted themselves as well, even if he thought he had them all right in the first place, and was only line editing. He’ll catch the mistakes every time.

* * * * *

Because he was the first timer, John got to go first. The first ten minutes were dedicated to allowing the readers to look back over Johns story and remind themselves what they wanted to say, find the parts they wanted to point out, etc. While they did this, John sat nervously and looked back over the story himself, trying not to glare at the readers as they looked through their notes. When ten minutes had passed, John looked over at Dan to see if he would call them to start the discussion, but he was absorbed in his copy of the story, and it didn’t look as if he was thumbing back through for reference. It looked as if he was reading the story straight through. John looked around the room, and it looked as if others were doing the same thing.

Another five minutes passed, and John started to wonder if he should say something. Weren’t they supposed to have read this before they came to the meeting? He coughed. No response, so not knowing what exactly to say, he just sat there. Twenty minutes after they had started reading, the faster readers finished and looked up or closed their eyes, leaned back in their chairs, or stood up for coffee refills. Finally, twenty-eight minutes after they started reading, the final reader looked up from the page and stared at John.

John curled his lips away from his teeth in what he hoped would look more like a smile than the rigor mortis he was feeling. Dan Green started off the discussion the same way that he had started off the discussion of each piece at the previous meeting. “Before we start talking about your piece, why don’t you tell us a little bit about what you were hoping to accomplish with it John?”

Well,” John said, “I had some friends in college who were really into video games, and I had some other friends who spent most of their free time taking any drugs that they could get their hands on. The friends who were always stoned were always suggesting music to me, and I noticed that a lot of the music that they suggested was very similar to the music that was in the soundtracks to a lot of the games that my gamer friends liked to play. The friends who were into drugs told me about the stuff that they had seen in their various hallucinations, and I couldn’t help but notice that some of the visions they had were either very similar to those from some of the darker games that my friends played, or would have done well as parts of such games. That just got me thinking, I guess, and I started to wonder what it would be like if we were to develop the ability to digitally record dreams or hallucinations and convert them into digital realities that others who were not drug users would then be able to interact with in games or online. I hope that using illegal drugs as a plot device in my first story wasn’t offensive or anything. I used real products for the most part to add to the realism.”

Green shook his head. “I didn’t find that offensive at all.” He said. “Did anyone have any trouble with the drug references?”

People started shaking their heads, and one middle aged, conservative looking lady said, “I don’t know why we would be offended by drug references in a piece like this.” Still, John thought, people looked awkward, as if there was something they wanted to say but didn’t know how to start.

Who wants to start with some of the strengths of this piece?” Green asked the room.

A middle aged man with salt and pepper hair and a completely gray beard started off. “I thought the prose was compelling.” He said. “It is obvious that you put a lot of work into making sure that there wasn’t a lot of extraneous verbiage, and the descriptions are beautiful. I especially liked your description of The Citadel of Mercury Rain. It was exquisite. I know.” He paused uncomfortably. “I know I couldn’t have described it nearly so well myself.”

John didn’t have time to wonder what the man meant buy “I couldn’t have described it nearly so well myself” because now that people had started talking, the comments came pretty quickly. Overall, people seemed to have liked the story pretty well. One woman said that she especially liked the descriptions of what Carlyle was thinking when he took the overdose that produced the Forest on a Cloud at Night, which she said was her favorite of Carlyle’s dreamscapes.

I did have one question about that,” she said. “I know you’re a journalist. Is this based on an interview you did with him at some point, or is this what you imagine he must have been thinking at the time? My understanding was that before he became a complete recluse, he wasn’t well known enough that he would have been interviewed” She paused awkwardly, as John was staring at her with his mouth opened. “But I don’t really keep up with celebrity journalism,” she finished lamely.

I’m not sure I know what you mean when you say—” was all John could come up with before the only teenager in the group, an intense looking fifteen or sixteen year old who John thought he might have heard called Jessie at some point interrupted to say that her boyfriend was a huge fan of the whole Dreamscape Scene, and he had gotten her Carlyle’s biography1 for her birthday. She was sure sure that his mother hadn’t been the jerk that John’s story presented her as. In fact, she was positive that it was only because of Nancy Carlyle’s support and encouragement that Dominick Carlyle had ever had the nerve to take the overdose that both sealed his career as the greatest of the first generation dreamscape artists and destroyed his sanity.

John’s mouth snapped shut with an audible click.

Finally, Green spoke up. “There’s no denying it John. This is a great piece of narrative history. It’s strongly written, captivating, intense. If I read this kind of stuff, I’m sure I’d have loved it. Even so, I have to admit I love it, but here’s the deal. This writing group is a fiction group. What’s more, it’s a fantastic fiction writing group. There are other groups for practicing writing literary non-fiction or whatever they’re calling it these days, though I’m not sure why you would want to practice, seeing as you get paid to do it all the time. The Bean has different groups meeting here all the time, but if you are going to have us read your stuff, you need to write fiction.

* * * * *

This is why John has fiction writer’s block. It isn’t that he is obsessive compulsive about his facts. He never ever does research for writing a fiction piece, but it doesn’t matter. No matter how weird the story is, no matter how sure he is that nothing like what he is writing about has ever happened, when John sends his story out into the world, the people who read it are going to recognize what he is writing about and tell him that they thought he was writing fiction and were very surprised to find themselves reading narrative fact. The one exception that John has found to this is when he does exceptionally bad writing, which is the only way that he was able to pass his creative writing class in college. At fall break he was failing the course because the teacher refused to give him credit for true stories, no matter how well written they were. Finally, he got frustrated and just wrote a flat story with clichés and boring characters who did things that went against their character. He wrote the story in a burst and never went back to check continuity, spelling, or even formatting. He turned the story in and got a C+. After much begging, John convinced his professor to let him write new stories to replace the true ones he had turned in previously, and the partial scores he got with those, and a lot of extra credit, let him pass with the absolute minimum possible percentage to get a C- for the course.

* * * * *

After The Bean was closed and everyone else had gone home for the night, John and Whitney sat in the café and John drank a cup of coffee with a double of espresso in it (Priest: “You won’t sleep tonight.” John: “I try to miss a night every couple of weeks anyway.”), and Jim smoked. Jim tried to distract John from the fiasco with the story by telling him about some research that he had been doing, something about a project that a PhD student at Huntington did ten years ago or so, but John, normally an attentive listener, couldn’t take his mind off of the fiasco with the story.

I swear, I’d never heard anything about ‘dreamscapes’ or ‘Dominick Carlyle’ or ‘The Citadel of Mercury Rain’ before I wrote that story. In fact, I’m pretty sure I’d have laughed at someone if they told me anything even remotely associated with using illegal drugs to make art. I still can’t believe that they are saying that this has been going on for years.”

I don’t know what to tell you. Seven Suns at Midnight is a pretty popular book for new media art aficionados, and it has been for quite a while. You must have heard someone talking about it at some point and thought you made it up.” He puffed on his pipe sagely, or at least that is what John supposed it was supposed to look like. The pipe had gone out though, and Jim sneezed down the stem, blowing a cloud of ash out of the pipe.

When he finished laughing, John scratched his jaw, wiped the tears from his eyes, and ran his hands through his hair. “This type of thing has been happening for years. I almost failed creative writing in college because of the same thing.”

Jim packed a new bowl of tobacco, relit his pipe, and puffed on it some more, finally almost managing the sage look he had been going for earlier, football player soot lines below his eyes. After a moment his face lit up. “I know what you need to do. You need to write something completely impossible, something that you know can’t be bleeding over into your imagination from the real world.”

That’s what I did.” John almost yelled. “Am I the only person who thinks that letting people fry their brains just to make interesting computer landscapes is reckless and stupid?”

No, you’re right. We do stupid things all the time.” More puffing. “I know. You should make your premise something that you couldn’t have found out even if it were true, something that mainly takes place in a person’s mind or something like that. Then you’d be safe. You have any ideas like that?”

John pulled on his chin. “Yeah, I think I have an idea,” he said.

* * * * *

That night, John stayed up most of the night letting the caffeine burn out of his brain and writing a first draft of a story about a man who lived life after life after life, always dying and immediately finding himself back in his mother’s womb, preparing to live again. The man always tried to change things, to make the world a better place, but he always failed. Sometimes the changes he made were huge, like finding a way to prevent the terrorist attack on 9/11. Other times, the changes were much more modest, like being in the right place at the right time and saving a single life. Sometimes he used what he knew about the eighty years that he had lived over and over again to become the head of a great business empire, or president. Sometimes he was poor. Sometimes he couldn’t take it anymore and killed himself as a child. Sometimes he was a criminal. Sometimes he was a prophet. The man’s greatest pain was that no matter what he did, he couldn’t seem to change to the actual amount of human suffering in the world. Crimes happened, atrocities. Once, when he prevented 9/11, Osama Bin Laden used a nuclear device that killed thirty times as many. Another time, a child he saved grew up to be a rapist. Wherever he went, whatever he did, he could see the shadows of his other lives, walking along beside him, haunting him until he felt his sanity must break, for he lived in a world of ghosts more frightening than any imaginable, his own ghosts.

Finally, after hundreds of lives, he met someone like himself, and he found out how to die, but he also came to believe that every time he lived, he did not change the universe, that time was not stuck with him, but that he created a completely new universe based on his actions, that he was a hub from which time itself shot spoke after spoke after spoke into the eternal void, and he came to see himself as a small part of a greater plan that would preserve humankind despite all its mistakes, because there would always be another version, a different path. In that realization, he found peace.

John didn’t stop by writing the story though. He had two months before his next time to present, and he wanted to do all that he could to make sure that the idea was his and no one else’s, so he revised and cut, tightened and clarified, and he studied theories about religion and physics, the universe and the multiverse, and even though there were many theories suggesting that the universe split constantly, no theories suggested that only specific people made the choices that caused the mitosis of universes. His story was his own.

When the two months were up, and John had read stories by all of the other writers in the group2, some of which were great, probably held back from publication only by their author’s perfectionism, and others which were, well, not, John’s story finally came before the reading group for discussion.

This time the discussion went much better. People still got sucked into the story and read the whole thing instead of just reviewing their notes from pre-reading it, but John knew from experience with his essays for The Ledger that people genuinely liked reading his work, and he felt confident that the longer review time happened simply because they were enjoying reading back over the work. One person, however, didn’t read back over the story. The salt-and-pepper haired, grey-bearded man who had liked John’s description of The Citadel of Mercury Rain, Steve Collins, just sat across from him in the circle of chairs and glowered. John found it more than slightly uncomfortable and was getting ready to go ask Collins if everything was alright when people started to look up from reading the story. Before long, the conversation became lively. The general consensus was that the impossibility of the story made up for the historicity of his last one, though Dan Green, whose last story had been about a sentient lampshade that had fallen in love with a throw rug and eloped to Dubai, thought it was a bit too farfetched.

Afterward, when Jim Whitney was congratulating John on having written some actual fiction, Steve Collins walked up and gruffly said, “We need to talk.”

Ok,” John said, and gave Jim what he hoped was a “be ready to rescue me” look.

You never put it in the story.” He said. “You say he learned how to end the cycle, but you never say how it was done.”

John had no idea what he was talking about, but he thought Collins must be referring to the man being able to end his lives. “How should I know?” He said. “It’s just a story.”

Right,” Collins said, and winked sourly, with no mirth. “What I want to know is how you found out. I’ve never told anyone this time because of what they always do when I tell. I don’t know if it is worse when they believe or don’t. How did you find out? How do you know what I am?”

What you are?”

The hub, John. How did you know that I’m the hub?

John felt his mouth fall open again.

* * * * *

John didn’t know whether or not to believe Steve, and the next he heard, Steve had been transferred suddenly to Austin.

“Next time it is my turn to present,” he told Green one day as they were having lunch together (they had become good friends), “I’m going to go for something in the classic mold, something like what Heinlein, Van Vogt, Hubbard, and Dick were doing during the Golden Age, something that would never be publishable today because the genre has moved on, but something that might be good practice, an exercise in restraint. I think I’ll write about a moon colony that has a tragedy.”

“I thought you didn’t know anything about Science Fiction.” Green said. “Where’s all this ‘golden age, Van Vogt, Hubbard, and Dick’ coming from?”

“I’ve been doing some research.”

“Well,” Green said. “Even if the technology involved didn’t make the story science fiction, the price of such an undertaking certainly would in today’s economic climate. I’m thinking of writing a story about a Dachshund who finds the tree of life hidden at the bottom of a groundhog hole, guarded by fiery little sprites riding about on blind moles.”

John said that sounded right up Dan’s alley.

* * * * *

By sheer luck of the draw, John didn’t have two months to get his next story together. He was at the end of the cycle, and each cycle the whole group drew names from a hat to determine the date of their next reading. John fell at the beginning of the next cycle, so he ended up presenting with only one meeting between presentations, which meant he could theoretically not present again for another four months. Inefficient at best. He still had plenty of time to put his story together and do some research, and he intended to allow himself only a couple of technologies that didn’t already exist, finally deciding on the use of nano technology as both the anachronistic element and the problem in the story.

The night that the group read his story, John felt confident that they would enjoy it, even if they would know that the style was a little outdated. As usual, they took more time on his story than they normally would have on other people’s work, and John felt good that they were lingering over it even if the prose was more stylized than they were used to, but when people finished reading and looked up, they didn’t look like they enjoyed reading the story. In fact, most of them looked angry. Jenny (the real name of the girl whose boyfriend was a big fan of Dominick Carlyle’s dreamscapes) had tears running down her face, and one of the older ladies put her arm around her.

“Well,” said Green, “That was about as tasteful as writing stories about the sinking of the USS Arizona while the seamen inside are still pounding on its hull.”

John was about to ask what exactly Dan was referring to when Whitney walked over from the register, where he’d been watching the news, and said that they were finally pulling out the last of the survivors. People silently got up and walked out of the room. John went into the café last. Survivors of what? He wondered. He had read the news very thoroughly that morning, and no great tragedies had happened, no storms or earthquakes, no bombings or eruptions, nothing. John stopped and stared at the plasma screen.

“Impossible.” He shouted.

There, on the screen in bold CNN letters was written “5000 dead, tens of thousands more missing.” And below that, “Tragedy on Lunar Colony Alpha.”

* * * * *

They wanted to throw him out of the writing group for that, but Jim stood up for him. He said that John was writing out his pain, trying to understand for himself, in his own way, what was going on. Never mind that John hadn’t known anything about the accident. Never mind that he had told Dan three weeks ago what he was going to write about Green didn’t remember the conversation. Never mind that John protested strongly that his social skills might be a little rough around the edges, but they weren’t as horrible as all that. Never mind. Never mind. Never mind.

In the end they only let him stay because they had become his friends, and Jim provided their venue. John said that he wanted to provide a new story at the next meeting, even though it wasn’t his turn. He said that he wanted to use it as a way of explaining himself. They let him because Steve was in the lineup for the following meeting, but he was a trained counselor and he had volunteered his services for the bereaved of the Lunar Meltdown. John took his place.

John wrote about never being able to write fiction, about everything he ever wrote either already being true or coming true. He wrote about the frustration of trying again and again and never being able to write a good story, of wondering why he missed things that everyone else knew were going on, of writing down exactly what was happening while thinking that he was making it up himself. He changed the name, of course, and he changed all the circumstances, but the body of the story was the hard truth, all except for the ending. At the end of the story, John’s character stole another writer’s idea book, and he joined a writing group and wrote stories based on that writer’s ideas. And because it wasn’t his creation, because he had stolen the kernel of the story, it wasn’t infused with truth. It became fiction, nothing more, and they said it was his best work, better than any of his essays or reporting. The group loved his fiction and wanted him to try to get his stories published, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. He couldn’t steal that other writer’s work. So he wrote one last story, confessing what he had done.

John didn’t email this story early. He brought a dozen copies with him, and the whole group read it for the first time sitting there in one of the group meeting rooms at The Bean. John watched them read, as intent on their faces as they were on his story. It was long, much longer than the stories that he usually turned in, but no one quit reading. No one fidgeted or looked bored. No one got up to use the bathroom or get coffee. They just read, and when they were all finished reading, Steve Collins, who hadn’t written for tonight because he’d been recovering from a root canal all week said, “So you mean to say that your story from last week, the one about the moon colony that we all liked so much was at least partially plagiarized?”

John smiled sadly, nodded, said “I’m sorry,” and never tried to write fiction again.

1 Seven Suns at Midnight: The Life and Vision of Dominick Carlyle, by Theresa King, 2011, Harper and Row, NY.

2 He had also read the first 27 chapters of the Tolkien clone, not because it was good; it wasn’t, but because he figured he should know what was going on in order to talk intelligently about it.

May 15, 2011 Posted by | Fiction, From Wyandotte, Science Fiction, Writing | Leave a comment

Terp Tales, Shit Happens Boss

I’m enjoying one of the great pleasures of deployment: eating filthy. I’m soaking wet with sweat, my face is smeared with grime, and my shirt looks like I got skidded over by a semi. The only clean part of my body is the palms of my hands, which I scrubbed down perfunctorily on the five foot trip from the gym to the chow hall. You can’t get away with this crap in garrison. Actually, you can’t get away with it at the larger bases here in country. But when you are one of twenty-some Americans within shooting distance, well, people make allowances.

Sometimes you just make allowances.

I’m watching the news, or trying to watch the news. But the satellite is confused, so I’m thinking about my record player, the one Andrea got me for my birthday, the one that I’ve never seen because it didn’t arrive at the house until I’d already left the country. I’m pretty sure if I took that horrible Green Day record, the one that sounded like it was probably just the rejected tracks from American Idiot, and drew zig zags all over it with my knife, smeared some peanut butter on it, and shot it a couple times, it would probably sound like the news does right not. I love military technology.

Hamza walks in.

–Hey Boss! Bundle drop today. You hear?

–Hey Hamza. No I didn’t hear about any bundle drop. You know when it’s supposed to happen?

Hamza walks over to the chow line and grabs tray, forks two big porc chops onto it, and comes over to sit across from me.

–About an hour. Maybe they will miss this time. Did you hear about the time they missed?

The Air Force must use us for training new pilots. They miss all the time. Last week they dropped a whole pallet of Dr. Pepper over the side of the ridge so that we couldn’t get any vehicles up to take it back to the base. I had a lot of fun throwing cans of pop down into the valley and watching them explode. They’ve also dropped pallets right on top of us while we wait to go gather them up. The first time that I was involved in a bundle drop here at Cobra, it ended up looking like some kind of rodeo. The bird started to fly over, we released a smoke grenade to let the pilot know where to drop the bundles, and as soon as he saw the smoke, instead of waiting until he was in position, he just dropped everything right on our heads. A few of the parachutes didn’t open, and the bundles commenced what we call “burning in.” Men scattered in all directions, hopping on four wheelers and GMVs, or just flat out sprinting for their lives. One guy didn’t get out of the impact area in time and almost got hit by one of the pallets. Parachute or not, if one of those things hits you, you splash.

Imagine this coming down on your head

–I guess I haven’t heard about them missing a drop, Hamza. What happened?

–Boss, one time, they drop the pallets right on the base.

–What do you mean by “on” Hamza.

–Look up.

I look up. The ceiling joist, a 4 inch I beam directly above my head, looks like it’s been bent into a pretzel shape and inexpertly straightened back out. I’ve seen it before but never really remarked on it. After all, this is Afghanistan, and poor workmanship is the modus operandi for this whole country, SOP for us military types. Now I really notice it for the first time, and it’s not just the beam that’s busted, the tiles that it supports are all cracked and shattered, some of them even missing. Obviously, the damage happened in place, not before installation.

–A bundle hit there. Hamza says. They were coming down all over the base. Boom, boom, boom. We were lucky no one got killed. I think they might have gotten one of the dogs!

Right then, the Omega Male walks in.

–Hey Jeremy, I say. What’s up?

–Hey David. He waves at me. He pauses and glares at Hamza. Kuni, I hear him mumble under his breath. Fag. Hamza doesn’t hear him. I know this because Jeremy keeps right on living. He walks to the line and grabs some food for himself, sits it on the table at the back of the chow hall and goes to the cooler to get two cokes and a Gatorade shake.

–What’s his problem? I ask Hamza.

–He is the pussy. Hamza says. You are not believing what we did to him last night. Jonny and I run screaming into his room and beat the fuck out of him in the dark. He cried.

Hamza starts laughing viciously and picks up one of his pork chops to eat with his hands, like a hot pocket. Deployed Army food is generally, um, bad, so if an item is supposed to be tough, it’ll be really tender (think soggy bread), and if it’s supposed to be tender, it’ll either be tough, or so tender that you wonder how many days it’s had to decay before making it to the line. I firmly believe that the lobster they insist on serving us from time to time was actually caught before I stopped eating through my navel. In this case, the pork has roughly the texture of twelve year old beef jerky, so Hamza holds it two handed, bites into it to get a grip, and then jerks his head off to the right as hard as he can, while pulling left with his hands. A bit of the meat tears off, and he commences the lengthy process of chewing.

–And then, he says around the food in his mouth, we wait until he went to the shitter this morning. He chose the stinkiest one, with the most shit in the bucket, and we lock him in. He is locked in the shitter from eight until eleven! Hamza swallows. I would kill someone who did that to me, but he doesn’t even have balls to ask who did it to him. But he knows it’s me.

Hamza smiles in what is, I think, supposed to be a mischievous way. He tears at another bite of the pork chop.

This is Hamza.

Suddenly it dawns on me what he’s eating.

–Hamza, I ask, you are a Muslim aren’t you?

–Of course. All Afghanis are Muslim.

That’s not completely true, but I’m not going to disabuse him of the notion.

–You know what you are eating, right?

–Yes, meat.

–Yeah, Hamza, but that meat is a pork chop.

–So?

–Pork is pig.

He swallows and looks at me calmly, stares at the pork chop in his hand, looks back at me, and takes another, larger bite of the pork.

–Shit happens boss.

May 12, 2011 Posted by | Army, NOT SAFE FOR RLC/NWAG CROWD, Terp Tales, Travel | 3 Comments

The Horse and the Rider

I don’t normally copy and paste into my blog, seeing as it’s MY blog. But I think that today, some simple passages from scripture might give some perspective to those of you who think that it’s somehow ungodly for Christians to be excited about USSF having finally taken out Osama Bin Laden, who we’ve been trying to get our hands on for last ten years.

Exodus 15: 1-10 – Then sang Moses and the children of Israel this song unto the LORD, and spake, saying, I will sing unto the LORD, for he hath triumphed gloriously: the horse and his rider hath he thrown into the sea. The LORD is my strength and song, and he is become my salvation: he is my God, and I will prepare him an habitation; my father’s God, and I will exalt him. The LORD is a man of war: the LORD is his name. Pharaoh’s chariots and his host hath he cast into the sea: his chosen captains also are drowned in the Red sea. The depths have covered them: they sank into the bottom as a stone. Thy right hand, O LORD, is become glorious in power: thy right hand, O LORD, hath dashed in pieces the enemy. And in the greatness of thine excellency thou hast overthrown them that rose up against thee: thou sentest forth thy wrath, which consumed them as stubble. And with the blast of thy nostrils the waters were gathered together, the floods stood upright as an heap, and the depths were congealed in the heart of the sea. The enemy said, I will pursue, I will overtake, I will divide the spoil; my lust shall be satisfied upon them; I will draw my sword, my hand shall destroy them. Thou didst blow with thy wind, the sea covered them: they sank as lead in the mighty waters.

The Lord is a man of War? Huh?

Psalm 68: 1-3 Let God arise, let his enemies be scattered: let them also that hate him flee before him. As smoke is driven away, so drive them away: as wax melteth before the fire, so let the wicked perish at the presence of God. But let the righteous be glad; let them rejoice before God: yea, let them exceedingly rejoice.

Let them exceedingly rejoice? What?

But then again, there are also these passages:

Proverbs 24:17-20

Do not rejoice when your enemies fall,
and do not let your heart be glad when they stumble,
or else the LORD will see it and be displeased,
and turn away his anger from them.

Do not fret because of evildoers.
Do not envy the wicked;
for the evil have no future;
the lamp of the wicked will go out.

So we shouldn’t rejoice because we want to make sure that we don’t do anything to cause God to change his mind and refrain from judgment. But wait, if the point is that any death is worth mourning, then don’t we want to rejoice so that God won’t let as many bad guys die?

Ok, what would Jesus say?

Matthew 5:43-48 You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

So love your enemy.

Don’t forget that turn the other cheek thing. But it looks to me like both towers came down. We don’t really have another cheek to turn there do we?

How about this one?

Matthew 18:6 But if you cause one of these little ones who trusts in me to fall into sin, it would be better for you to have a large millstone tied around your neck and be drowned in the depths of the sea.

I guess Osama was ok to teach his radical form of militant Islam that preached violence and subjugation because the people he was teaching it to didn’t already believe in Christ so he couldn’t make them stumble?

Obviously, I’m all over the place here. And that’s on purpose. I’m not one of those people claiming that we need to go dance in the street and burn OBL in effigy. I think that’s stupid. But those of you who claim that people are sinful or in someway shaming Christ to celebrate the death of one of the most notorious terrorist leaders in the world, a man who has been followed and respected by the same men who have killed my friends and put my family in danger, and your family too, well, you should be ashamed of yourselves for judging them because they might be wrong about what God thinks on this, but you might be too, and sometimes it’s better to just shut up and watch what happens.

And maybe I should too.

May 3, 2011 Posted by | Army, Christianity, Church | 9 Comments

Terp Tales, Meet Hamza

Operation Enduring Freedom XVI. A different year, a different place. The enemy, he never changes though. Neither do the interpreters. They are still about as quirky as Windows Vista and as arrogant as America herself. Kings, fighting amongst themselves for supremacy in their microcosmic hierarchy of who gets to fleece the Americans more.

There’s an obese mouth breather sitting by the fire in my compound, drinking tea he made from water I boiled for my coffee.

–Who are you?

–I’m sorry sah?

He’s clearly a terp. That sense of entitlement. That almost but not quite English.

–You’re the new terp?

–Yes sah.

–What’s your name?

–I’m sorry sah?

–What. Is. Your. Name? I squat down by the fire and dump two half liter bottles of water into the cast iron kettle and sit it back over the coals.

–Ah. I am Jeremy sah.

–Stop calling me that.

–I’m sorry sah?

–Stop calling me sir. My name is David.

–Ah. Ok.

–Ok. Don’t drink my water. He looks abashed. He knows he should have refilled the kettle when he dried it.

–Ok sah. Sorry sah.

–David.

–Sorry sah. It’s like a scene from a low budget film.

I need a terp who speaks English. Jeremy clearly isn’t going to do the trick. Sherrif, AKA. Steve-Dave, and Jonny Amir Karit were cuddling in the terp hut last night, but at this time of morning, who know’s what you’re going to walk in on. I check my watch. Thursday. Don’t knock. Don’t open the door. Stand outside and yell, just in case.

–TAJI MAN! I yell with my head against the door.

The door cracks opened and a sphere of hair, broken by a slit of crusty, swolen black eyes pokes through the crack. Last night’s hash hasn’t worn off yet. It’s like someone painted Keith Green brown and sent him forward in time to write bing bong songs in Afghanland.

–What’s up David?

–I need a terp to listen to something for me. You free Jonny?

–Sure, why not?

He closes the door, and sounds abstracted directly from a Laurel and Hardy skit begin to pipe through the chimney, the mouth of which pukes smoke beside the door, right into my face. From the swearing, I think that Jonny must be walking on everyone in the room, looking for his boots. “Sure, why not?” is Jonny’s catch expression, which he thinks means “of course” or “right away,” and we put up with it for the most part, those of us who know him, but it’s always funny when a new guy to the team asks him to do something and he says “sure, why not?” Just as my mom never really asked me to take out the garbage when I was a kid. We never really ask Jonny to interpret for us. We tell him politely, but when he drops that line on new guys, they tend to stop being polite.

I walk back into the courtyard and direct my attention toward the fire. There’s steam pouring from the mouth of the kettle, so I unhook the metal cup I attached to my belt when I woke up and pour in two packets of powdered “Via Starbucks” instant espresso, top them with the almost boiling water, and set about stirring with my pocket knife. Jonny is taking forever, and I’m starting to think about having Jeremy help me—or maybe going over and stopping up that chimney—when I hear a motorcycle roll up next to the side door of the compound and die. Machine gun fire doesn’t ensue, so I can guess that the partner forces have decided that whoever was driving it wasn’t a threat, which at this time of day, in this location, means it’s got to be the one and only…

–Hamza! I yell.

–Hey Boss, what the fuck is going on up in this place? He responds amiably with his bizarre accent that I’m not even going to try to spell.

–Where you been dude? I haven’t seen you in weeks. I open the compound gate, and he thrusts his wiry body through the gap to give me a hug and offer me a cigarette, which I take with relish and only realize is a Pine when I cough my lungs into a bloody heap on the ground a moment later.

–I went to work for the other team in Sarab. But I’m quitting because there’s no action there at all. I am not a terp for talking. I am a terp for killing Taliban.

–No action at all? I ask him. I’ve heard that the Sons of Uruzgan, as they call themselves have been doing fairly good work.

–I fucked all the elders’ daughters. And now I’m bored. I want to work for you guys and fight again. Check out my new boots boss.

I see that he’s wearing Jonny’s boots, and he’s written his name on the heel with sharpie marker.

I shake my head and chuckle, pour him a cup of coffee, and we set to work.

April 17, 2011 Posted by | Army, NOT SAFE FOR RLC/NWAG CROWD, Terp Tales, Travel | 2 Comments

Blood Pools In My Ear

Blood pools in my ear from a cut I

made shaving this afternoon.

Not that it matters much, as

I’ve sweat trilling down the cleft of

my freshly showered spine still cooling

from my afternoon run.

 

April 14, 2011 Posted by | Poems | Leave a comment

Mean It ‘Till You Feel It

This morning in Church, I wasn’t feeling it. The music was “on” as they say, and people were all worked up. But I wasn’t. I wasn’t one little bit. I was distracted by how much the worship leader looked like one of my college professors, by how many women were wearing high heals with jeans, by the sheer number of mohawks (have the styles changed that much this year?), by wondering if the violinist would have that long of a neck if she hadn’t spent so many years playing the violin, by, well, everything.

Everything besides the songs we were singing.

And why shouldn’t I be? The music was thumping, everyone was emotionally charged, but I wasn’t feeling it. I don’t choose to feel it without a reason, and I wasn’t given a reason. Here’s what we sang:

You are good. You are good.
When there’s nothing good in me.
You are love. You are love.
On display for all to see.
You are light. You are light.
When the darkness closes in.
You are hope. You are hope.
You have covered all my sin.

Not bad right? Put some snappy music to it, and that’s something you can really get into. It’s got everything you need for an ecstasy. It’s repetitive, for nothing produces euphoria like a good chant. It’s simple. And it’s falsely humble, for no one who would sing that song can do so honestly. Any person who would want to sing it would also claim some influence of a perfect God in their life.

And so I sound like the bitter student who came out of CBC in 2002 with a chip on his shoulder. But I’m not. I don’t actually have anything against that song—for those who are in a state of worship already. Who have found that emotional stance that we pretend worship isn’t about. And it might work for those who aren’t ready as well, but the way that it works for them is a poor substitute for leading them into a real attitude of worship because it’s the music that’s going to take them there, regardless of whether their minds come along or not.

So I stood and thought about the song, and I worshiped in my own way, tried to find that mental worshipful stance without the help of a key change or the fog machine on stage.

Then a different song came on:

Come thou fount of every blessing,
Tune my heart to sing thy grace;
Streams of mercy, never ceasing,
Call for songs of loudest praise.
Teach me some melodious sonnet,
Sung by flaming tongues above.
Praise the Mount! I’m fixed upon it,
Mount of thy redeeming love.

Oh to grace how great a debtor
Daily I’m constrained to be!
Let thy goodness, like a fetter,
Bind my wandering heart to thee.
Prone to wander, Lord I feel it,
Prone to leave the God I love;
Here’s my heart, oh take and seal it,
Seal it for thy courts above.

What a different position I suddenly found myself in. The emotion washed over me like a flood, of minor keys and dry ice, and I was able to worship with abandon!

Not true.

My emotional state changed exactly zero.

What did change was the nature of the song and the way in which it was able to help me into a worshipful state. The difference between the first song that I quoted and this one is where they fall on the slide rule between what I call “Chase the Ecstasy” type worship and “Mean it ’till you feel it” type worship. These songs don’t represent the extremes by any means. If I was going to extremes, I’m sure I would have chosen that stupid Darrell Evans song from around 2000 “Trading My Sorrows” as my first song, and I might have chosen the Newsboys’ “Strong Tower” as the second one so that I couldn’t be accused of just liking old songs better than new ones (“Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” was written by Robert Robinson in 1757, when he was 22). But this song helped me worship in a way that the other one could not have because it’s theologically relevant, a prayerful statement of devotion and a request for protection and assistance from the creator of the universe. The other song is exciting, and it’s not devoid of theological content, but it certainly is low calorie at best.

My point here isn’t to draw attention to extremes, nor is it to disparage either type of song. There’s a place for both of them—well, maybe not for “Trading My Sorrows;” that song is really horrible—at least to an extent. But I’ve been to churches where there was nothing to think about during worship, so if you don’t show up ready to get pumped up, then you aren’t going to get anything out of the service. I’m sure I always misunderstood, but I always got the impression from my parents when I was a kid that if a person couldn’t “get into worship” there was something wrong with their walk with Christ. My parents probably didn’t mean it that way. They aren’t that nutty. Regardless, I repudiate that thought. People are in different states when they come in. They have had different experiences this morning, this week—this ten months. And some people might need that ecstasy, but others might need a song that they can chew on and sing, meaning what they sing until they feel it, as I did. Or maybe even singing it until they mean it, one step further removed. I applaud Manna Church’s worship staff for taking the time recognize that both kinds of song are necessary.

April 3, 2011 Posted by | Christianity, Church, Worship | Leave a comment