Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Cats 1 - Dog 0

I've been staying with my parents since earlier this month. They have a dog, a frisky but sweet-tempered miniature schnauzer named Rudy. I, as you know very well, have two cats. So far, we haven't let them mix very much.

Rudy is inquisitive and susceptible to boredom. He tends to get into places, and then into things, where his moist nose doesn't belong. One has to be careful to keep the bathroom doors firmly shut against him, or else he will shred the toilet paper.

My cats, it turns out, do not. As surprising to me as to anyone else, they can be trusted with a full roll of TP on the roller, right in paw's reach. I learned this by accident when we decided to keep the cats closed up in the downstairs guest bedroom, which has its own bathroom. Their litter box, food and water dishes are in the bathroom. And I only realized after several days of kitteh access to the TP that all my years of keeping the rolled paper closed up in a cupboard, or on top of a lighting fixture, were wasted. Maybe the culprit I was protecting it from was the late Lionel, who hasn't been with us these past seven years. Oh, how well my cats have trained me!

Rudy also menaces other innocent pieces of paper that he may find within reach when no one is minding him. Because he tends to act out when bored, it never pays not to be minding him. My parents keep a childproof gate across the entrance to the "nice" living room, which they keep set up as a chapel in case church services fall through at their regular location. When allowed in there unsupervised, Rudy has been known to tear up pages of Dad's sermon and even (gasp! horror!) chew on the Altar Book.

So, we try not to let Rudy out of our sight for long. The saying applies equally well to Rudy the schnauzer as to many toddlers: When everything goes quiet, be very afraid.

The dog and the cats had barely seen each other until yesterday. Once or twice Rudy had darted into their bedroom when he happened to be by when the door was opened. All that had happened then was a bit of hissing and some tense and tentative sniffing, mostly between Rudy and my junior cat Sinead. I didn't think it was unpromising. My cats Sinead and Tyrone had started out that way, and look what a lovely friendship they have now. (Discounting the hissing, spitting, boxing, and chasing all over the room that sometimes breaks out.) So yesterday, when I got home from work, I decided to give Rudy and the cats a chance to get to know each other better.

I was the first one to get home after work. My Dad had something to keep him from home for another hour or two. My stepmom was out of town for the week. I needed to change out of my work clothes. And I needed to watch the dog. So I did the sensible thing: I combined the two tasks into one. Rudy came with me into my bedroom.

And there was hissing. And there was tense and tentative sniffing between Rudy and Sinead. All as expected, up to the point where previous visits had been terminated.

And then Sinead puffed herself up like a blowfish—an effect of which a longhair calico may become the world's premiere master. And then she backed Rudy into the bathroom, spitting and growling as only a cat on the edge of dogicide can. And then I heard the sound that made me drop the clothing I was trying to put on and run to the rescue.

Rudy, backed against the hallway door, had begun to cry.

I guess I had underestimated how scared of cats the poor pup is. Dad tells me he has been tormented by the neighbor's cats.

Now I know Sinead is a bully. I know Rudy is a coward. And I also know that Tyrone enjoyed the whole show, watching from curled-up on top of the bed with a look on his face that said, "Well, this might be interesting."

Sunday, August 24, 2014

A Dirty Job

A Dirty Job
by Christopher Moore
Recommended Ages: 15+

In the weird version of San Francisco featured in the same author's "Love Story" trilogy of vampire novels—Bloodsucking Fiends, You Suck, and Bite Me—lives a textbook specimen of the creature known as the Beta Male. His name is Charlie Asher. He runs a second-hand shop (inherited from his father), shares a four-story apartment building (ditto) with his lesbian sister, and can't believe his luck when a beautiful Jewish girl marries him and has his daughter. But then death swoops down in the form of a seven-foot-tall record-store owner whose name, like his wardrobe, is Minty Green. Suddenly Charlie is a widower, a single father, and because he could see Death coming for his wife, he's Death as well. A Death, not the Death. Minty calls them Death Merchants. They collect the objects containing the souls of the dead and dying and re-sell them to someone who is ready to carry a soul through the next leg of its karmic journey. It's sort of like reincarnation, only with a middleman. It's a dirty job, but because being invisible is one of the required skills, it's perfectly suited to a Beta Male.

Charlie may be more than just one of many death merchants operating in the bay area. As time goes by, he realizes that something even more spooky is going on. He might actually be the Death after all, the big D, the Luminatus. That could explain why a cackling trio of sewer harpies is after him—actually a sort of triune Celtic goddess of war known as the Morrigan. That could explain why everything is starting to go wrong, and why a prophecy in The Great Big Book of Death hints at a decisive battle between light and darkness taking place in San Francisco. Or it could have something to do with a tribe of reanimated, squirrel-sized Frankenstein monsters, a pair of bubble-belching hell-hounds, and a little girl who can kill at fifty paces by pointing her finger and saying, "Kitty!"

As book-pusher to the Harry Potter fandom, I cannot emphasize strongly enough that this book flies under an Adult Content Advisory. Be prepared for vulgar language, unrestrained sexuality, and ishy-gooey gore and violence. There is also some cause for an Occult Content Advisory, at least to the extent that some families may appreciate being forewarned of the book's quirky take on Buddhism, especially as it relates to the afterlife. Buddhists might be as uncomfortable with it as anybody, for that matter. But even as I say this, I put full value on the power of comedy to make you squirm and laugh at the same time. There's a branch of comedy that specializes in making you do both, intensely. Christopher Moore specializes in it. And this book does it, whether it provokes deep thoughts about delicate subjects or not.

In fact, there were passages in this book that moved me emotionally, and I'm not just talking about making me laugh until I wanted to pee. It does, at times, treat death and grief in a thoughtful, sympathetic way, like something the author has gone through and come away with insights he wants us all to share. But he doesn't let the tone stay serious for long. Soon enough the zany antics are back up to full speed for a thrill ride of black comedy, jazzed up with audaciously inappropriate sexual humor, and topped with a scoop of sweet romance. It's a weird recipe. Only a few authors I have read could make it work. And though he isn't always one of them, Christopher Moore pulls it off in this book.

I enjoyed the audiobook edition of this novel, read by film actor Fisher Stevens. I borrowed it from the county library at the same time as another Christopher Moore title, Fool, which unfortunately I did not enjoy. In fact, I didn't even finish listening to the first disk. Most authors have their good days and their bad days. I can only guess that Moore saved up a lot of his bad days for his unfortunate attempt to turn the tragedy of King Lear into a raunchy comedy. I suspect some of Moore's other titles of being things I wouldn't enjoy, such as Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal, whose synopsis suggests a level of irreverent humor way outside the bounds of good taste. You can't hit a home run every time you go to bat. Still, I expect to be entertained by the remaining "Love Story" titles that I haven't read yet, and many of Moore's other novels, from Practical Demonkeeping to The Serpent of Venice.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Baseball Dream

Last night I dreamed that I was playing right field in a baseball game. The fact that I was terrible at it made the dream realistic. The bizarre part was that nobody else seemed to mind. Everybody on the other side seemed to be hitting into right field, though. I guess they knew a good thing when they saw it.

At one point in the game, I must have floated closer to the surface because it suddenly seemed that I was playing right field from a pile of pillows, identical to the pillows I was actually sleeping on, and not even attempting to go after the balls that rained down around me.

Then the dream changed into one where I was a father attempting to potty-train a toddler. The poor mite seemed to be suffering from an intestinal bug, to judge by the sounds, smells, and mess. When the kid rose from the seat, I noticed that he also had a great big hairless tail attached to his rear end. Unsurprisingly, I awoke with a cat nestled against my chest, and the smell from the next room suggested that his litter box needed to be scooped.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

DOs and DON'Ts of Prayer

Many people say they don't pray because they don't know how. They're happy to step aside and let other people do it for them. But judging by some tortured efforts at prayer I have heard, out loud, in public, and from the heart, many of these folks find themselves in situations where they have to do it anyway. You never know when it might happen to you—when you might find a microphone thrust into your hands and be asked to open a meeting, or a ball game, or a locker room pep talk, or a family reunion, with a word of prayer. Here are some tips that I hope will help.

DO bear in mind that you are talking to God. This is not the time to be scoring verbal hits on other people, present or absent. Nor is it appropriate to sneak news bulletins or editorial remarks, directed at your audience, into the prayer. Ask God nicely for things, and thank Him for what He has given. Express remorse for misconduct, always including yourself among the wrongdoers. Ask for forgiveness, not only for those who have wronged you but for yourself as well. If you must ask God to chastise the wicked, remember that judgment is His, and as you measure out, so it will be measured back to you.

DO set your thoughts in order before you open your mouth. You can even jot down some notes, even a word-for-word manuscript if you wish, and if time permits. Regardless of some people's prejudices against premeditated prayer (as opposed to praying "from the heart"), there is no law against praying even a prayer written by someone else, or one that you rehearsed ahead of time, or one learned by heart and used again and again. After all, the Lord's Prayer is precisely how Jesus instructed his disciples to pray. Provided that you read, recite, or extemporize your prayer with attention to its meaning, it is probably an improvement on the long-winded, rambling, repetitive, and sometimes painfully awkward prayers that often result when a speaker goes into prayer mode unprepared.

DO be clear about what God you are praying to. Don't let the presence of people of other denominations or religions scare you into being vague and wishy-washy about the recipient of your prayer, any more than you would soft-pedal the fact that God exists out of consideration for agnostics and atheists in the house. Stand up for what you stand for. Direct your spiritual letter in such a way that it will arrive at the correct address, and let no one hearing it be confused about whom you are addressing. It is better to take the heat for sounding a clear signal that upsets some armchair general, than to make an indefinite sound that no one can follow. Just because the Spirit "helps in our weakness" and whatnot (Romans 8) does not mean we should let our theology slip when we pray.

DO show respect and humility when you speak to God, especially in front of other people. Affecting a buddy-buddy relationship with Jesus, or worse, a type of romantic involvement with him, isn't in good taste. You wouldn't use a pet name to address a judge in the open court, or a professor in the packed lecture hall, or a general in front of his troops, even if you were on intimate terms with him. Remember who you are, and how unequal you are with God, and how much you depend on His undeserved favor, and the fact that you're no better than any of your listeners; then, if you're still not sure where you stand, imagine that someone else in the room was leading the prayer and show God at least as much respect you would demand of them.

DO mention your rationale for asking God to hear your specific request. This is a good place to stick Bible verses into your prayer (another way that it helps to be prepared). It isn't so much that God needs to be convinced, as that sometimes you and other people listening in need help believing that such a prayer will be accepted by God. Remind yourself, and them, that it is in God's character, expressed by the salvation history recorded in Scripture, to do the very thing we now ask of him. This is how, without having an axe to grind, you can use the time of prayer to instruct the people and strengthen their faith. Prayer is, after all, an exercise of faith.

DO end your prayer with some sort of doxology. It has to end somehow. It might as well be to the glory of God. A well turned doxology is an excellent way to cue the crowd to say Amen. In a certain sense, it's another way of saying Amen. Which is to say, "This is true," or "So we believe," or simply, "We trust You."

DO let the people say Amen. It's not as if they have too much to do. If they don't come right in on cue, give them a gentle prompt, such as: "Let the people say..."

DO listen to yourself—if possible, by playing back a recording of the event where you prayed. Notice your awkward and tedious mannerisms and make a conscious effort to correct them the next time. Listen for sentence fragments, thoughts that went astray, repetitions, cliches, meaningless platitudes, embarrassing gaffes (even ones you're sure no one else noticed), inordinate amounts of throat-clearing, hemming and hawing, fancy rhetoric and complex grammar that most likely went over the people's heads. Then reconsider how much time you could and should spend preparing when you are next called on to pray.

DON'T be a pompous bore. While it's OK to pray in King James Bible language, don't lay it on any thicker than you need to. Having a stained glass voice isn't as important as directing the people's faith toward God's blessings, like a beggar's hand opening to receive alms.

DON'T make yourself conspicuous by your wit, eloquence, or charisma. Use it to the glory of God, for the building-up of the brethren. You aren't supposed to be on display. You're supposed to be a spiritual telephone for God's people to talk to Him. Try not to stand in the way.

DON'T assert anything that you can't defend based on God's Word, and don't demand anything of Him that He has not promised. Remember that "Thy will be done" comes before "Give us our daily bread" in the prayer Jesus taught us to pray. Remember that the church has always been, and still is, a refuge for the poor, sick, troubled, grieving, aged, and dying. If you pray in a way that suggests that health, wealth, youth, a happy family, and other gifts are unfailing signs of being right with God, you bear false witness against Him and the suffering faithful. Also remember that these outward signs of God's blessing have often concealed hypocrites who brought shame and scandal to the church.

DON'T string together too many clauses before coming to a full stop. Try using shorter sentences, and make one point at a time. A rule of thumb: If you can't remember which Person of the Trinity you were addressing at the start of the petition, you're probably doing it wrong.

DON'T fall back on trendy catch-phrases to fill moments when your mouth has run ahead of your brain. If you feel a litany of Lord, we just want to thank yous, Father Gods, sweet Jesuses, and what-not, bite your tongue. Saying nothing for a few seconds wouldn't be any worse than chucking in a piece of thoughtless blab. Listen to someone who often falls into these traps when praying, and you'll be amazed that they can be so ritualistic in their "from the heart" prayer while condemning you for preparing ahead. Bottom line, think before you speak—even to God. He deserves that much, at least.

DO name names. Don't just pray for people in general, or for so-and-so's relative or acquaintance. If someone among us, or close to us, or even a public figure has an illness, or an operation, or some other problem, we should certainly intercede for him or her by name. Even a list of names—"Christian" names are enough—added to a general petition for the hungry, sick, recuperating, etc., can make a general case so concrete and specific that the people will feel the difference prayer makes. We're not just entrusting all needs to God; we're putting our needs in His hands.

DO read written prayers, such as collects, litanies, and general prayers, at least from time to time. You can learn a lot from them about what to pray for and how to structure your thoughts.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

The Ocean at the End of the Lane
by Neil Gaiman
Recommended Ages: 13+

Neil Gaiman is not only one of my favorite living authors, but of all authors I know of he is the best audiobook reader of his own work. Upon moving to a new town and getting a card at the local library, I chose his reading of this book as my first borrowing. It lent a spine-tingling chill to my daily driving, and towards the end it made me have to wipe my cheeks and blow my nose before getting out of the car.

The narrator never tells us his name. He never says exactly whose funeral brings him back to the town where he grew up. Until he arrives at the shore of the pond beyond the farmhouse at the end of the lane he used to live on, he doesn't even know what has brought him back here. And then he remembers it all. He remembers the opal miner who stole his father's car and committed suicide in it. He remembers the eleven-year-old girl named Lettie Hemptstock who saved his life when he was seven. And he remembers the terrible, dangerous magic that almost tore the world apart before his boyish eyes. And then he forgets again.

Certain books defy synopsis. Were I to say enough about this story to give you an idea what to expect, I could easily spoil too much of it. I dare hint only at generalities. The boy in the story experiences suffocating, pants-wetting fear. He grows enough to show death-defying courage. He places his life in the hands of a maiden, a mother, and a crone who somehow seem older than the world. And he faces beings from another world whose presence in our world would doom either it or them. Because of one tiny, childish mistake, he brings one of them home with him, and the results are disastrous. It takes a magic beyond magic to set things right again.

It's a story about the vast gulf between childhood and maturity. It's about the magic of remembering and the mercy of forgetting. It's about the bittersweetness of being a brainy, bookish kid with no close friends, a well furnished imagination, and an imperfectly happy home life. How many of us can relate to that?

This partly biographical novel was the British National Book Awards' Book of the Year for 2013. By now I should hardly need to add that its author is the Hugo, Nebula, Mythopoeic Fantasy, Bram Stoker, Carnegie, and Newbery award-winning creator of Coraline, Neverwhere, The Graveyard Book, Anansi Boys, Stardust, American Gods, and The Sandman graphic novels. All that and he's got a great voice!

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

My First Issue

Here is the lead photo on the front page of the Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2014, Morgan County Press of Stover, Mo. I took it. And I wrote or at least edited almost everything else on page one, and most non-advertising and non-sports-related items in the rest of the issue. Is that cool, or what?

So I became the editor of a weekly newspaper last Monday. That only gave me about half a news cycle to contribute to the next (Aug. 6) issue of the paper. A few photos I took got into the Versailles (Mo.) Leader-Statesman, which my father Robin Fish edits, and which is published by the same Vernon Publishing, Inc., that owns the Morgan County Press. A few more of my photos and a story or two got into the M. C. P., which I am learning to edit. Yes, kiddies! I work a few yards away from dear old Dad! I've even had to change my name to R.D. to cut confusion.

Today the first issue that I worked on from beginning to end went to press. I actually got to see it being printed and stuffed with advertising material. I helped put mailing labels on copies and prepare bundles for mailing. I rode along with a co-worker and learned all about delivering my paper to the stores and vending machines that carry it. And I got started on my second issue.

I was a little slow this first week. I trust that as I gain experience I will learn to work faster and get my stuff in before the deadline. As it worked out this week, the Monday noon bedtime for the Press was stretched to almost 5 p.m., and some of my co-workers in the layout and pre-press department had to stay a bit late. Oops.

But I'm feeling good. I managed to squeeze a feature article into this issue, as well as the first installment of my weekly editorial. And that's all besides news and photos. And I've got my next feature written. I have a lot to learn, but I think I might be able to do this. It's scary in fun way.

Monday, August 4, 2014

The Maze Runner

The Maze Runner
by James Dashner
Recommended Ages: 13+

When Thomas wakes up inside a metal box, he remembers nothing about his former life except his first name. Then the box opens, and he becomes the latest in a series of monthly arrivals in a boys' camp from hell. The teens live in a Glade at the center of a huge maze. Some of them have been there up to two years. No one has ever found a way out. The walls move during the night, when venomous monsters called Grievers prowl the maze. Kids who have survived being stung (or worse) remember just enough about life outside the maze to fear getting out more than staying stuck inside. Though Thomas has just arrived, he has a strange feeling that he is meant to be here.

The next day, a month ahead of schedule, the Box arrives again, carrying another newbie. For the first time ever, this one is a girl. She arrives comatose, nearly dead, clutching a disturbing message in her hand. After she wakes up, Teresa proves to be able to talk directly to Thomas's mind. She tells him that everything is going to change. Somehow she has triggered the end of whatever fiendish experiment these children have been forced into. The maze, she reveals, does not have an exit. Yet the teens must escape, and soon. Otherwise they will all die.

Thomas and Teresa together are the Gladers' only hope to survive. But even though they're in as much danger as anyone else, they must risk a lot to lead their friends to safety. They will face the suspicion of kids who have good reason to distrust the maze's Creators and anyone who deals with them. They will be targeted by the mentally unbalanced victims of the Grievers, who remember something awful about the two newbies. Their lifesaving heroics and death-defying tactics will make them the center of a swirl of conflict and debate. And when they finally crack the code and form a plan of escape, they will risk many innocent lives to get back to a world that may, after all, prove worse than what they are escaping from.

My younger friend Ike told me this was a great series. But even though I had already enjoyed a book by the same author, I didn't seek this book out until one day when I was an hour early for an out-of-town appointment. I didn't know what else to do with my time, and for once I hadn't brought anything to read. So I popped into Walmart and popped back out with this book in my hands. I found it reasonably engaging, for a dystopian-future, blood-sport-for-teens type of book; though, mind you, I didn't miss The Hunger Games by accident. World-building fans will appreciate the effort author Dashner has taken to create an original texture for his tale, with the kids speaking their own distinctive slang, and their world decked in ominously run-down-looking, machine-like trimmings. The more they learn about what happened to their planet, and what the suggestively named organization WICKED has in mind for them, the darker the outlook for the series becomes.

The Maze Runner is the first book in a four-book series, which goes on with The Scorch Trials, The Death Cure, and The Kill Order. It is also coming out as a movie in September 2014, starring Teen Wolf star Dylan O'Brien. James Dashner's titles also include the Jimmy Fincher quartet (starting with A Door in the Woods), The 13th Reality quartet (starting with The Journal of Curious Letters), and the ongoing Mortality Doctrine series (starting with The Eye of Minds).