Monday, December 29, 2008

Christmas in New Mexico, Day 3 and Day 4

Day 3

Christmas Day dawned overcast. I looked up at the mountains and predicted snow. We drove up the scenic Rio Grande Canyon to Taos. The backseat fell asleep. As usual.

Before heading to the Pueblo for the dance, we took a detour to a bridge over the Rio Grande. The rest of the party walked across it and took photos of the 400 hundred foot gorge.

The Pueblo was performing the Deer Dance. They do not allow photographs of it. The walks around the Pueblo had been shoveled. Some people used the mounds of snow to gain a better vantage point for the dance. Many of the residents stood on the roofs of the lower units and on porches of the second story to watch.

The Deer Dance is performed by many tribes throughout North America. Each group has its own variation, but generally, the dance is meant to honor the deer and to bring good luck in the hunt for the coming year.

At Taos Pueblo, the “Clowns” built a very smoky fire. I saw them throwing branches of evergreens on it. Smoke in many cultures is purifying.

The Clowns have several roles in the dance. I heard a parent warning a child that if she didn’t behave, the Clowns would take her away. A woman refused to come out of the restroom because she was afraid of the Clowns. I know that they have some function in “policing” the behavior of the tribe, but it is more one of upholding social mores than in punishing miscreants. Unless you count being ridiculed as punishment.

Two lines of women, dressed in their traditional off-one shoulder costume danced into the plaza following a drummer. Did I mention that it was snowing? They looked cold. The costumes were of many different solid colors with bands of embroidery at the hem and top. They were carrying a sprig of evergreens, a rattle, and over one arm, a colorful blanket. They danced in an oval and then the two halves danced up the center, following two women dressed in white. The women formed a circle around the dance floor. They wrapped up in their blankets, but kept their rhythm.

The Clowns escorted the deer dancers into the circle. The clown’s faces were painted white with black patterns around their eyes. They wore little on their torsos, but a cloth wrapped partially around them. Their hair was tied back with corn husks, and they had what looked like hawk wings on each side of their head and down their arms.

All the dancers wore warm-looking leggings and thick boots.

The Deer Dancers wore the heads of deer or buffalo on their heads with the rest of the skin over their shoulders and down the back. Their torsos were awrapped over the shoulder and around the waist. They carried two sticks that they used to walk like an animal. The deer were lead by two older men wearing white antlers whose torsos were painted white. They looked cold.

Men of the tribe formed a line across the entrance to the dance floor. Tribal policemen were there to keep the crowd of visitors away from this walk way. My impression was that they were there to keep the visitors under control; the residents, under the sway of the Clowns, knew how to behave. The Deer Dancers moved in a group around the dance floor. The Clowns would capture one of them and try to force their way through the men at the entrance. The men at the entrance tried to keep them in. If the Clowns succeeded in breaking through, they would carry their prey away, presumably to a warm place to wait for the next dance. If they couldn’t break through, the dancer returned to the dance.

One of the Clowns was a very witty fellow, judging from the laughter that greeted his comments. I don’t speak the language, so I don’t know what was said. There was a lot of foolery between the Clowns and the spectators closest to the dance floor.

I was told that the different dance beats were meant to imitate the gaits of various prey animals.
As we started down the canyon, the backseat passengers began to bicker. I suggested that they go to sleep. “Please.”

Here and there, the canyon floor widened. Small towns and farms filled these flats. In the cold, winter dusk, they looked cold. I thought how much warmer the occasional apartment house looked. The Pueblos were built to conserve heat. They were a much more communal society than the Europeans who invaded them.

We had dinner at Denney’s. :-(

This has been the most difficult blog to write of the whole trip. The one describing the day following this one was much easier, and indeed, done sooner. Standing in the snow, watching a very old dance that has the force of a religious observance was an awesome experience. I have tried to get in as much detail as I can, but the words are inadequate.

Day 4.

My daughter and grandson decided to try snowboarding at Ski Santa Fe. We drove them up to the ski lift, stopping to rent equipment. A 19 mile drive sounds like nothing, but over icy roads, it was a trial. It snowed all the way. For the first time, the backseat didn’t fall asleep in the car. I guess I should have been more apprehensive, but I have complete faith in my son’s driving.

He and I adjourned to a couple of nice, warm museums. After a good lunch in the Museum Hill Café, we visited the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture and the Museum of International Folk Art. Both had fantastic exhibits. The Folk Art Museum had a display of doll houses arranged as though it was a block in a town, complete with painted yards, streets, walkways, people, (dolls) and toys -- horses, wagons, etc. An imaginative exhibit. The houses were all different and all lovingly crafted. It looked like a turn of the 20th century scene.

I could have spent the entire time we had in that museum, but the Indian Arts Museum had an equally enthralling exhibit, Here, Now & Always about the cultures of the Native Americans of the Southwest. As a native Oklahoman, I’ve always been more interested in the Southeastern tribes, but on this trip, I’ve become interested in the Pueblo Culture. When I was a child, the story told when I visited Mesa Verde was that no one knew where the residents went and why they left. It is now pretty sure that they merely migrated to the various Pueblos and Pueblo ruins in the southwest. We still don’t know why.

It snowed the entire time we were at the museums. All too soon we had to leave to pick up the rest of our party. It was a long, cold, snowy drive up the mountain. We were fortunate to follow a snowplow. The road up the mountain was icy. There were quite a few cars coming down. One car had driven into the snow at the verge of the road. We didn’t quite make it up to the pick up point. My son decided that it would be better to walk the rest of the way than to take a chance on getting stuck.

I could tell that they had fun, but we still had a cold snowy drive down the mountain. We were fortunate enough to get behind another snow plow. Or maybe it was the same one. No tracks could be seen on the other side of the road, the one we had just driven up. The snow had covered them.

By the time we got down we were ready to call it a night. We ate an interesting dinner at the Flying Tortilla adjacent to our motel and turned in.

Tomorrow: Roswell

Following a snow plow down from Ski Santa Fe

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christmas in New Mexico, Day 1 and Day 2

Wishing one and all a Happy Hanukkah, a Joyous Yule and/or a Merry Christmas; and a Prosperous New Year.

Current Mood: happy

This didn't get posted everyday as I had intended.

Day 1

After some hemming and hawing, we left Arlington in the morning and drove straight through to Santa Fe, arriving in the dark to a snowy landscape. My grandson leaped out of the car, threw a snowball at my window, fell down and made a snow angel. This is his first white Christmas. He thinks he likes New Mexico.

It took about 11 hours over mostly four-lane highways with not many towns to slow us down. We drove from the Metroplex through the wide open space of Texas which looks pretty much the same where ever you go to Ammarillo. The backseat passengers slept for most of the way. My son drove.

Someone commented on my blog about a perceived insensitivity to urban poverty. I saw plenty of rural poverty and some rural prosperity. There were abandoned houses and even more ugly abandoned mobile homes all along our route. Some of this has always been a feature of the Texas landscape, but I saw some falling down houses on the main streets of the little towns we passed through. The front of one house has fallen in and part of the roof had caved, leaving exposed pink insulation blowing in the Texas wind. Seems like someone would have removed these eyesores from the towns at least.

Incidentally, my reply to the insensitivity comment was that poverty is not an urban or rural issue.

Some houses were neatly kept, prosperous looking,surrounded by windbreaks. There would be clusters of such houses, not close, but within sight of each other.

We saw an obviously ripe field of cotton. We wasted some time in idle chitchat about why that field was still unharvested while others near by were. Later we saw some harvesting equipment sitting beside a field. It was noon, and the sky was still overcast; we didn’t know why no one was working. Later still we passed the cotton picking machines working a field. Who knew that cotton was harvested in December?

We didn’t need to speculate at all. In time, all questions are answered.

I also observed fields of winter wheat, barely up, like a green fuzz on the ground. Some of the green wheat fields had cattle grazing on them. I had heard of this practice. As a recent home owner, lately responsible for the cutting the grass, I realize that this winter grazing will have no effect on the eventual crop which is a seed heads of the grass. No matter how many times I cut it, if I let it go at seeding time, there will be lots of seed heads.

In one town, I saw pumping oil wells closer together than I have ever seen them. So close that unless they were at different levels, it almost seemed that they would be working against each other.

At times there were tumbleweeds blowing across the road. They don't really damage a car, unless they hit just right, and then they might scratch the paint.

Tumble weeds, in some people’s estimation a symbol of the American west, are not even native to America. They are called Russian Thistles, and probably arrived as seeds contaminating a shipment of grain. When the seeds are ripe, the stem becomes brittle and breaks off. The ubiquitous western winds of the prairies and deserts sends the whole plant blowing across the landscape scattering the seeds far and wide. The sight of the rootless weeds blowing across the wide open spaces came to symbolize the life of the cowboy, not tied to any place, but roaming free across the west. In reality the plant puts down a deep taproot and comes back every year to produce more tops which break off and scatter more seeds. As survival-of-the-species mechanism go, it is very effective. How can you eradicate a plant like that? Western farmers have tried without success.

As I said, the backseat slept all the way to Amarillo. The scenery got more interesting after that. As we neared the New Mexico border, one of them who was old enough to know better started asking, “Are we still in Texas?” After a while we started reading the mile markers to her.

We crossed the border into New Mexico. Yes, there really is a turquoise sky. This time it was only a little fringe on the north above the mountains, but it was there. I knew I wasn’t in Texas any more.

Tomorrow, we are going to Bandelier.

Day 2.
Current Location: Santa Fe, New Mexico

Christmas Eve arrived bright and clear. The skies were a deep uncharacteristic blue, the snowfields were white, except where snow plows had cleared the roads. With four highly individualistic persons on this trip, we started out with the usual hemming and hawing.

We drove through scenic snow covered mountains to Bandelier National Monument. Around every bend was a photographic vista.

Looking down into Frijoles Canyon.

When we got there-- a setback.

The park was closed. We found a phone number and called to learn that it would open at noon. We drove back to White Rock, NM and ate lunch in the Bandelier Grill. My burger was well-cooked. The men of the party opted for chicken-fried chicken and steak, respectively, which arrived on huge platters. When it comes to eating, my teenaged grandson is classified as a man – or a plague of locusts, whichever way you want to look at it.

Next time we'll call in advance.

Getting to Bandelier is to drive through deep canyons and up hairpin turns across the ridges to the next deep canyon. The ruins are in Frijoles Canyon.

Alfred Bandelier was an amateur anthropologist who toured the ruins and wrote extensively, including a novel, about them. There are ruins in other parts of the park, but it is a two-day hike to get to them. These are the most accessible. There is the ruin of an adobe pueblo on the canyon floor which was occupied from 1200 to about 1500 A.D. It was not one of the pueblos ruined by the Spanish Invasion. I had an interesting discussion with the Ranger about why it was abandoned. We don't know. Her theory had to do with very slow growth of timber in the area. She speculated that they may have moved because they ran out of lumber to heat the Pueblo. The temperature outside was almost 32 degrees Fahrenheit which send our thoughts in the direction of heating problems.

I hiked to the Pueblo Ruins, but didn't climb into the ruins of the cave dwellings. People lived both on the canyon floor and in the caves on the canyon walls, although I have the impression that the caves were used more for storage and as places to retreat to when some of the nomadic bands in the area were raiding. My grandson and daughter climbed into the ruins on the cave walls. I went back to the Visitor's Center where there was a nice, toasty fire, and I could converse with the Rangers and listen in on Tourist questions.

The one ruin inaccessible in winter in the area of the Visitor's Center requires a climb up 140 feet of ladder. Not a good idea just after a snow storm.

Almost all the canyons feeding into the Rio Grande Basin were occupied by Indians of the Pueblo culture at one time or another.

San Idlefonzo and the associated Santa Clara Pueblos claim to have migrated from Bandelier, but I think the Ranger was saying not from the Frijoles Canyon ruins themselves. The Cochiti Pueblo and the associated Pueblos of Santo Domingo and San Felipe also claim to have descended from the Indians of the Bandelier area. The last group to claim descent is the far-off Zuni Nation. I keep trying to get all the Pueblos straight without much success. Who knows which of the Pueblos destroyed by the Spanish after 1680 also descended from Bandelier?

Looking down on the ruins from the rooms in the cliff.

I think most of the Pueblo ruins were probably not abandoned at one time. (Except of course the ones we know historically.) Most likely as the population grew, groups moved off to found new Pueblos where there was room to farm. Why any one place was abandoned is still unknown, but the story of the Pecos Pueblo which was documented in historic times is instructive. The Pueblo got down to 17 people. Too small a base to support life in the desert. The last survivors migrated to Jemez Pueblo which still honors some of the Pecos Pueblo traditions. Pecos Pueblo is a little unique. Because of their position, they traded extensively with and were raided extensively by the nomadic Comanche Indians. See for a fuller account of this Pueblo.

My son spied some deer and photographed them. My daughter photographed a Rufus-sided Towhee, AKA a Canyon Towhee. None of us saw the rabbit-eared Abert's Squirrels for which the area is famous.

We headed back to Santa Fe and another trip to Target for things not packed.

We had a great dinner at Tortillas Flats. My diet is not going well.

Afterwards we drove through the main square and to the Canyon Drive area to look at the Christmas lights. Quite a few other people had the same idea. It was lovely.

The Novel above is The Delight Makers by Adolph Bandelier.

Notice the netting on the cliff in this photo. It is there to protect the road from falling rocks.

Tomorrow: Taos Pueblo

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Spin This Joke

As soon as I write something, I find that someone has said it better. For instance, after writing "Steal This Joke," I found this gem from Arthur Godfrey's Stories I Like to Tell. (Simon and Schuster, New York, 1952, p.79) I'm not going to steal it or "spin" it as one compiler of jokes calls what we do; I'm going to borrow it, that is, quote it -- at least until I figure out a way to make it mine.

A 13-year-old high school boy originates a joke and puts it in his school paper. A press agent, home from New York for a vacation, sees his old school paper and clips out the joke. He sends it to a Broadway columnist who prints it. Someone else puts it in a book as something that happened to Alexander Woollcott or John Barrymore. A man acting as a toastmaster at a big dinner picks it out of the book and uses it. A radio writer at the dinner steals it and uses it on the show the next day. A night club comic hears it on the air and tells it at the club. A high school teacher, in New York for a fling, hears the joke at the night club and tells it to his principal when he gets back. The principal remembers seeing it printed in the school paper so he calls the boy in who wrote it and gives him a severe talking to for printing old jokes.

Poor kid.

Godfrey doesn't know who thought this up either, but he uses it as an example of the life cycle of a joke. All humorists, including those who merely aspire to the name, recognize the phenomena. We laugh while going, "Now how can I steal, pardon, spin, this?"

As always, feel free to appropriate.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Steal This Joke

About the most originality that any writer can hope to achieve honestly is to steal with good judgment. -- Josh Billings

In a class in Stand-up Comedy, the instructor advised us to steal jokes to make up our routine. Fortunately for us, among the things that can’t be copyrighted are jokes and titles. Comics do create original material, but it takes both practice and experience to write good, funny jokes. I did make up a couple of the jokes I used, but for the most part, I stole the material.

One joke in particular I lifted from the Reader’s Digest -- an excellent source, by the way.

Hi! My name is Letricia Ferguson, and I am very glad to be here tonight!

Do you like the name “Letricia”? I picked it out myself. When I was born, my mother didn’t give me a name, only the initials, L.B. When I went to work at my most recent job, the Human Resources Department demanded that I give them my full name not just initials. We argued about it for some time. They finally agreed to accept L. (only) B. (only) Ferguson. Sure enough when I got my first check, it was made out to Lonly Bonly Ferguson.

There are people on the West Coast who think my name really is “Letricia.”

Of course, I changed the set up, the location where the situation occurred, the organization, and the name to a variation of my own which in turn modified the punch line. In short, little remained of the joke but the idea -- which is, of course, what I stole.

That is what writers do, we steal an idea or situation and then we modify it. T.S. Eliot is reputed to have said, “Mediocre writers borrow, great writers steal.” I don’t think that is actually what he said, but at least when modifying it, we give him credit.

There are only 1 to 36 standard plots, depending on who is counting and the criteria being used.* We take these basic situations and we change the names, the genders, the characteristics, the locations, the technology, the threat, the means to overcome it, the climax, and the denouncement. We add and subtract sidekicks, love interests, villains, and obstacles. But the basic plot, yeah, we steal that.

So if you are ever privileged to hear my stand-up routine, feel free to steal from it.

* Here is a link to a list of these plots: Google has an interesting answer to the 7 basic plots here: Scroll down to the last comment to find a summary of Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories. Here is a link to a very funny discussion of RPG plots: Finally, here is a link to a Scientific American article about story telling:

BTW My mother gave me a perfectly good name, not initials. It is a joke.

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Sunday, September 21, 2008

Predators "R" Us

Writing Prompt: Why are you loyal to certain brands/stores? What keeps you coming back?

I read somewhere that if a bird of prey finds a mouse under a certain bush, it will revisit that bush regularly for a while to see if it can find more mice there. We as predators are hard wired to return to the scene of success. (Oh, yes, we are, too, predators.) So if we have made successful "kills" at a certain store, we are more likely, statistically, to return to it. But if our success is not repeated, then the behavior will taper off.

If on the other hand, we are not successful, then we will seek other places for our hunt. We may pass the unsuccessful site and give it a try, but we won't go out of our way to revisit it.

Think now, if the hawk or owl has an unpleasant experience at a certain bush-- say a fight with another predator or a narrow escape from a trap or even just a loud noise, the predator is most likely to avoid the site. I doubt if any one has studied this idea in terms of birds of prey, but entire theories of psychology are built on this proposition.

So for all you marketing execs out there, it is better not to lose the customer in the first place than to overcome a bad experience.

I know you can't have merchandize that appeals to everyone, but you can carry a good selection in your niche and keep in mind what your niche market really wants.

You can also give good customer service so the predator, I mean, shopper won't avoid you.

Is it really that simple?

Yes, it really is.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Note on an Experiment

My daughter tells me that my blogs are too long. Cutting them into separate posts has problems too. The blog on Rogers Heights seems out of order. Either you read the second part first or you have to scroll down to the first part and then scroll up to the second part.

I discovered something about the way blogs are posted at Blogspot that I think will allow me to post one a day, but also allow a future reader to read the posts in order.

This is an experiment.

If it works.

If not, I’ll have to start over.

Wish me luck.

My Favorite Hymns: Foreword

I wanted to write a blog about my favorite hymns, but choosing my favorites among all the hymns I love proved difficult. Who could not like "In the Garden" or "Sweet Hour of Prayer"? Who would not be stirred by "God of Our Fathers, Whose All Mighty Hand,"? (#14) Who could not feel the joy when we exalt "Christ the Lord Is Risen Today"? (#13) Or the sorrow in "Were You There?"(#17) Who does not feel the acceptance in "Jesus Loves Me"? (#15)

I can’t forget “God of Grace and God of Glory,” (#18) “Faith of Our Fathers,” “Come, Thou Almighty King,” “All Creatures of Our God and King,” “I Know My Redeemer Lives,” (#19) “Have Thine Own Way, Lord,” “Nearer My God to Thee,” “Rise up, O Men of God,” “Bread of the World in Mercy Broken,” “Break Thou the Bread of Life,” (#20) or “Rock of Ages.”

At Sunday School and Vacation Bible School, we sang “Fairest Lord Jesus,” “Jesus Loves the Little Children,” “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” “Lord, I Want to Be a Christian,” and “This Is My Father’s World and felt the love. Even so, much as I love them, these don’t quite make it to the top of my list of favorites

I have a large number of CDs of The Cedarmont Kids© singing all the hymns and Sunday School songs that I loved as a child. I look over the indexes and think, “Oh, yes, I remember this. I loved it.” If I tried to list them all, this would be merely a roll call of great hymns.

Then there are some new hymns that I have come to appreciate. Notably, “Shout to the Lord,”(#16) “Awesome God,” and “Lord, I Lift Your Name on High” fill me with delight.
I especially like “They Will Know We Are Christians by Our Love.” (#12) The sentiment so exactly captures one of my beliefs – that it isn’t so much what the different denominations believe as how well we exemplify Christianity in our lives. How well we walk the walk, not how well we talk the talk.

Looking back on my teaching career, I am proudest that my students told me they knew I was a Christian by how I treated them. I never preached. Readers of my blogs know more about what I believe than they did, but the students told me that I was fair, that I looked for and saw the good in them, that I believed in them, that I was Christian. We lead best by example, not by force, not by words, by our love.

Still even though there are many hymns I love, I do have some favorites.

11. His Eye Is on the Sparrow:
Okay, I never said I’d narrow it down to 10. Given what I’ve said, how could a hymn that reads: “I sing because I’m happy; I sing because I’m free...” not be one of my all time favorites. There is great comfort in “His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.” Some might feel spied on, but I feel protected. I love this hymn; I can’t omit it.
Words: Civillia D. Martin
Music: Charles H. Gabriel

Tomorrow I’ll list number 10 through 7.

My Favorite Hymns: Beginning in the Middle of the List

This part covers the tenth to the seventh on the list of my favorite hymns.

Some may wonder why I am writing this. I've wondered that myself. The hymns are a large part of the spiritual journey of my life. I want to document this part and move on. The order may change. I may learn a new hymn and have it move upward on my list. Ten years ago, "Give Thanks" or "They Will Know We Are Christians By Our Love" wouldn't have been on the list because I hadn't heard or noticed them. Things change. Life changes. Overall, though, this list hasn't changed a lot --new additions, maybe-- old favorites stay.

10. Blest Be the Tie That Binds:
I wrote about what this hymn means to me and to the life of the church in the blog on Rogers Heights, so I won’t repeat what I said.
Words: John Fawcett
Music: Arr. from Hans G. Naegeli by Lowell Mason

9. Morning Has Broken:
Cat Stevens first introduced me to the lovely hymn, “Morning Has Broken.” Every day is “... like the first morning.... God’s re-creation of the new day.” There is perhaps in me a remnant of the American Indian custom of greeting the dawn with prayer. This song – and to a lesser extent, “When Morning Gilds the Skies,” -- are prayers of praise and thanksgiving for each new day. It is good to remember Who gives them to us.
Words: Eleanor Farjeon
Music: Gaelic Melody: Bunessan, arr. by David Evans

8. Give Thanks; We Gather Together; Let All Things Now Living; Come, Ye Thankful People, Come; O, Be Joyful in the Lord:
This is more of a category than a single selection. I never said I was limited to individual songs either. This group of hymns is about thankfulness. I’ve preferred Thanksgiving to Christmas for a long time. There are no great expectations for Thanksgiving to live up to, just a peaceful time to count our blessings.

“Give Thanks” is my favorite among the new music. It is a simple song, but so moving.
Words and music: Harry Smith

“We Gather Together” is not strictly a song of thanksgiving, but I have always grouped it with the hymns of thankfulness. The last line of the first verse “He forgets not his own” is the promise that we will never be lost to God. The last line of the third verse, “Oh, Lord, make us free.” Our freedom comes from the Lord, let us never forget.
Words: Anonymous, Tr. by Theodore Banker
Music: Netherlands folk song, Arr. by Edward Kremser

“Let All Things Now Living” is also based on a traditional folk melody, Welsh, this time. “His banner is o'er us, his light goes before us,.... As forward we travel from light into light.” We have much to be thankful for.
Words: Katherine K. Davis
Music: The Ash Grove, a traditional Welsh melody.

“Come, Ye Thankful People, Come” exudes the joy of the harvest safely gathered. Those of us raised in cities can feel only a pale echo of the relief when the crop is stored and the coming winter provided for, but in my own life, I can remember a few times of feeling -- for a short while -- that everything was well. That condition never lasted for long, but then, it didn’t for the farmers either. Meanwhile, it is a wonderful feeling.
Words: Henry Alford
Music: Charles J. Elvey

Finally, “Oh Be Joyful in the Lord” from Psalm 100. I haven’t been able to find a source for this. Apparently Psalm 100 has been set to music several times. I learned it from sheet music; I think it is not a hymn, per se, but an anthem. I’ve searched my sheet music and can’t find it, so it may have been lost with so much else along the way. The words are an adaptation of the psalm. The version I like may be by Handel.

It is a song of praise and thanksgiving, of taking joy in the Lord.

7. Joy to the World:
This is a traditional Christmas song, but I remember once at summer camp, the leader suggested that we sing it. I realized then that “Joy to the World” is a universal hymn not just a Christmas one. On the other hand, in two Christmas plays I’ve directed, “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” by Barbara Robinson and a “Wondrous Event” by yours truly, we ended by singing “Joy to the World.” I told the children that I didn’t care if they sang the right pitch, I didn’t care if they were together, I wanted to hear a shout of “Joy.” And I did.
Words: Isaac Watts
Music: George R. Handel

On that note, I’ll leave you for today. To be continued tomorrow:

My Favorite Hymns: Second Part of the List

6. Amazing Grace:

I don’t remember singing this hymn in my childhood, but I was introduced to it later. It is one of America’s greatest and most beloved hymns. Our own unaided efforts are not enough to save us. We cannot work enough, or even believe enough, but God can always find us. We triumph by his Grace. “Through many dangers, toils and snares, I have already come. ‘Tis grace has brought me safe this far, And grace will lead me home.” Yes.
Words: John Newton
Music: Early American Melody, Arr. Edwin O. Excell

5. Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee:

This hymn from the “Hymn to Joy” by Beethoven is probably the best piece of music in the list – and the only one that justifies being played on an organ. It is here by virtue of its shear beauty.
Words: Henry Van Dyer
Music: Ludwig Van Beethoven

4. The Doxology and Gloria Patri: Every Sunday, we sang these two hymns as responses.

Gloria Patri:
This is again a beloved promise: “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy ghost. As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be. World without end, Amen, Amen.”
Words: from the Latin
Music: Traditional

The Doxology:

When my father was stricken with Parkinson’s disease and unable to communicate or control much, to the very end, he could still join in when the congregation recited the Lord’s Prayer. I believe that the last song I will ever be able to sing is the Doxology:
Praise God, from Whom all blessings flow;
Praise Him, all creatures here below;
Praise Him above, ye Heavenly Host;
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen
Words: Thomas Ken
Music: Attributed to Loys Bourgeois

3. O, God, Our Help in Ages Past:

I really can’t give a reason for this choice. I just like it, okay? There is truly no accounting for taste.

The third verse starts, “Before the hills in order stood, Or earth received her frame....” Every time I see tiers of hills or mountains stretching to the horizon, I am reminded of this line.

The fourth verse is “A thousand ages in thy sight, Are like an evening gone; Swift as the watch that ends the night, Before the rising sun.” I remember how shocked, SHOCKED, I was the first time I learned that some people still took seriously the man who counted up the ages of everyone in the Bible and arrived at a date of creation. (Some year in the 4000’s B.C. In October, I believe.) At a very young age, I understood the meaning of allegory. “A thousand years is but a day unto the Lord.” (2nd Peter 3:8) How can we presume to understand time the way God does?
Words: Isaac Watts
Music: William Croft

2. The Lord’s My Shepherd:

This version of Psalm 23 has everything, a lovely melody and probably the world’s favorite psalm. I don’t know why it isn’t sung more often than it is, but the way the words are arranged to fit the melody may put people off. Personally, I have no preference for “to lie down” over “down to lie.” But possibly it reminds some of the convolutions their English teaches put them through in order to not end with a preposition. (A rule that doesn’t work in English like it does in Latin.) The odd thing is that a later line ends with the preposition “by” in order to rhyme with “lie.” Go figure. I love the music and the psalm, enough reason for its placement second to the top of this list.
Words: Psalm 23
Music: Jesse Seymour Irving

Tomorrow: My Favorite Hymn

My Favorite Hymn

1. Once to Every Man and Nation:
“Once to Every Man and Nation” is my favorite hymn. I remember the first time I heard it in church. I was about 10. Every Sunday for weeks, I would look it up and devour the words and the music. Even today, my hymnal falls open automatically to this hymn.

The words came from a longer poem by James Russell Lowell pruned and set to a Welsh hymn melody. James Russell Lowell was a descendent of one of the most influential New England families. Later off-shoots of the family include poets, Amy Lowell and Robert Lowell and astronomer Percival Lowell.

This is the most difficult of all of the discussions to write. This hymn means so much to me.
Words: James Russell Lowell
Music: Welsh Hymn Melody

I’ll go back to the first verse later.

Second verse:
Then to side with truth is noble,
When we share her wretched crust.
Ere her cause bring fame and profit
And ‘tis prosperous to be just.
Then it is the brave man chooses
While the coward stands aside.
Till the multitude make virtue
Of the faith they had denied.

This history of the world is replete with examples of people standing for truth. Galileo was believed to have whispered “Earth still revolves around the sun,” even as he was forced to recant. Luther was tried by the church for his attempts to reform it. In our own time, we have the example of the resistance in Europe during WWII who risked everything, including their lives and families to stand against the Nazis, for the truth.

Third verse beginning at line 5:
New occasions teach new duties,
Time makes ancient good uncouth;
They must upward still and onward,
Who would keep abreast of truth.

A number of customs that were observed in Biblical times are no longer. As situations changed, God’s law changed. The principles never do, just the law. Paul spends some parts of his letters explaining how to be a slave and still be a Christian. We came to feel that slavery itself was wrong. Jacob had 2 wives and 2 concubines. We no longer allow plural marriage. His two wives were sisters, a situation that was later outlawed. Our understanding of God and what He wants from us has grown even from the time of Christ. Christ taught what He could in His time on earth and left us with principles to guide us in the future, but to keep abreast of truth we must labor on.

Fourth verse:
Though the cause of evil prosper,
Yet ‘tis truth alone is strong:
Though her portion be the scaffold,
And upon the throne be wrong;
Yet that scaffold sways the future
And, behind the dim unknown
Standeth God within the shadow
Keeping watch above His own.

The first part of this verse expresses our hope that truth will triumph. Looking back, after long battles, truth has won, not easily, but it has won. The rest of the verse sums up the sentiments expounded in “We Gather Together.” I like both this verse and the hymn for the same reason; I believe God will support us, keep watch over us, forget not His own.

The first verse:
Once to every man and nation
Comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth with falsehood,
For the good or evil side:
Some great cause, God’s new Messiah,
Offering each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by forever
‘Twixt that darkness and that light.

This was the verse that caught my attention. Most of us who have been baptized (or confirmed) believe that we have made this choice. And for the most part, we have. That is what it means to be a believer, to affirm our belief.

But from the far side of my life, I wish it were that simple.

I think that we have to keep on choosing, day by day. There are many challenges in our lives, and sometimes we don’t make quite the right choice, but we have to pick ourselves up and try the next day to do better, to make the right choice. It never gets any easier either. I wish it did.

I think now that the choice I made when I was baptized was to keep choosing as best I could the side of truth.

Tomorrow, some final thoughts.

My Favorite Hymns: Final Assessment

With great difficulty, I pruned my list to 25.

What have I gained out of all these hymns?

In my young and middle adulthood, I could learn any hymn in three verses. The first verse, I followed along. The second verse, I sang. The third verse, I sang out, I had it.

Now I can’t sing the even ones I love.

Do hymns influence what we believe? The elders chose hymns each Sunday to support their message. I don’t think that the hymns led me so much as reinforced my beliefs, but to have connected so quickly to “Once to Every man and Nation” I must have already believed a lot of the words. That’s pretty advanced thinking for a ten-year-old, but it is the thinking my church elders led me to. These are the hymns that still speak to me, the ones that I still hear.

The Final List:
20. “Break Thou the Bread of Life
19. “I Know My Redeemer Lives
18. “God of Grace and God of Glory
17. “Were You There?
16. “Shout to the Lord
15. “Jesus Loves Me
14. “God of Our Fathers, Whose All Mighty Hand
13. “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today
12. “They Will Know We Are Christians by Our Love
11. “His Eye Is on the Sparrow
10. “Blest Be the Tie That Binds
9. “Morning Has Broken
8. “Give Thanks; We Gather Together; Let All Things Now Living; Come, Ye Thankful People, Come; O, Be Joyful in the Lord
7. “Joy to the World
6. “Amazing Grace
5. “Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee
4. “The Doxology and Gloria Patri
3. “O, God, Our Help in Ages Past
2. “The Lord’s My Shepherd
1. “Once to Every Man and Nation

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

How to lose a customer gave a demonstration this week of how to lose a customer.

I have done business with them for 10 years. One of the customer service representatives noted that there were 36 previous orders. This does not make me their best customer; it does make me a steady customer. Looking back, in 1998 I placed one order, the next year none, the next year three, but the year after that only one again. I believe that I placed other orders, but due to variations in the spelling of my name, they aren’t on here. However, to arrive at a total of 36 toward the end I was ordering steadily.

Essentially, Amazon built up a customer relationship, and then in one four day period, destroyed it.

To go back a little ways, the school my grandson attended had a magazine drive. Like any good grandmother, I bought magazines. Some I dropped after a year, some, I continued the next year. Last year, he no longer attended that school, so I renewed some of the subscriptions at Still no problem.

This year, I attempted to renew some of those, a couple of others that I subscribed to because they had special low introductory rates, and a couple of others that would expire later in the year. At Thirteen in all.

The problem: Amazon charged my credit card THIRTEEN times. After the first four, the credit card clearing house refused any additional charges. I am not faulting the credit card company. They acted to protect me. They had no idea what had happened: was my credit card stolen and being used fraudulently, was Amazon sending a whole series of orders under the same number when they should have been sent under different numbers. The clearing house had no way of knowing.

The worst was yet come. The clearing house blocked all transactions on my credit card.

I sent an email to Amazon. The response I got was to contact the magazines after I had “...successfully paid for your magazine subscription order....” (sic) Needless to say, this was no help. Parenthetically, I have almost never gotten any assistance from emailing a company. They seem to have a lot of stock email responses equivalent to “the cockroach letter” triggered by key phrases. I can’t ever remember actually getting any assistance from an email, but there is the possibility that once upon a time, I did. So I won’t say never.

Then I called Amazon.

And was forced to listen to them explain that I would get faster service if I sent them an email and that most questions could be answered by their help section. My feeling is that most people give up after getting one of those non-response emails or trying to find an answer on their help section. This way the company can go on its merry way and maybe lose some business, but hoping that people will forget that they had a problem and continue to do business with them. No pain for them. But no gain either.

The first so-called “customer service” representative did nothing but bleat “I’m sorry” and “I apologize.” She also claimed to have fixed the problem, but I knew all she had done was resubmit the order; I asked to speak to her supervisor. The only thing she did made things worse.

Note to companies: If a customer asked to speak to a supervisor, put one on the line. Do not put customers on hold until the system times out. Do not tell customers that there are no supervisors. Do not hang up. These strategies only make a dissatisfied customer more dissatisfied. The first representative did the first of these strategies. Later, several other representatives used others.

Some representatives said that if we got disconnected they would call back. They didn’t.

Note to companies: If you say you’ll call, call back.

Meanwhile I am getting emails from Amazon telling me that my credit card had been rejected and to please give them a different credit card number. I suppose that they wanted to mess up two accounts rather than just one.

I finally took the step of canceling the remaining parts of the order that had not processed. I did this because Amazon was making no effort to resolve the situation. The only possibility I could see was that if they tried to bill my credit card again it would be an endless round of the same problem.

Some of the representatives tried to tell me that I should have known that they would charge my credit card THIRTEEN times because in some obscure part of their directions it says that they won’t charge the credit card until delivery. I replied that I had in the past ordered an item that was temporarily out-of-stock and my credit card had not been charged until they were able to ship it. I had no way of knowing that this meant they would charge my credit card THIRTEEN times for this order.

Ironically, two of the magazines that did go through were the only two I could find the subscription renewal cards for.

As of Sunday, every time I didn’t get any assistance from calling them, I cancelled one of the magazines that had gone through. As of now, I am only keeping one of the subscriptions. Before anyone did anything to actually clear up the problem, i.e., faxing an explanation to the credit card company, I had to threaten to cancel the last remaining subscription and a previous unfilled order.

Sending an explanation to the credit card company was the first and most important thing I asked Amazon to do.

What did I expect? Well, first I expected them to send an explanation to the credit card company. Second, I expected them to repackage the order over several days so that it would go through. Had they done these two steps immediately, instead of bleating that they were sorry and stonewalling and hanging up, they would still have a steady customer.

Note to businesses: First, fix the problem; then say you’re sorry.

The latest is that on the fourth day of this ordeal, I received an email that I was getting a refund of $2.83 on an order that was almost a year old. I called to find out what was going on. I had not ordered anything that was $2.83. I was told that the price of something on the old order had dropped and they were adjusting it. The order was so old, I was pretty sure this wasn’t true. Then I was told that I had missed an issue and the magazine was refunding the price of that issue. I know what magazines do when an issue is returned. The magazine puts a hold on the subscription and waits for the subscriber to contact them. They do not issue a refund.

Amazon had the unmitigated gall to lie, rather than admit the truth – that they had messed up again. I called the magazine and found that their claims were not true.

Note to businesses: If you are going to lie, don’t lie about something that can be checked.

The final blow was an email follow-up to the original non-responsive email that was –non-responsive. Darn those customers, always getting in the way, expecting customers service.

I am not saying that I won’t order from Amazon again. If I exhaust all other possibilities, I may. BUT I’ll look everywhere else first, instead of going to them first.

My guess is that businesses think that if they lose a dissatisfied customer that will pick up other business’s dissatisfied customers. That dog will only hunt for a short while. Then it gives up and lies panting in the grass looking like it is saying “what?”

Take Sprint, for example. Their customer service was awful. I know because I’ve been a customer of theirs for eight years. That is also about to change. They have been losing ground in sales and also have been rank very low in customer service. Finally one of the highly paid executives noticed this and thought “well, gee, maybe we should improve customer service.”

The last time I had to call them and mentioned in passing that as soon as my current contract expires I am going to change providers, they informed me that they are trying to improve customer service. Too late. At this point, they would have to provide extraordinarily outstanding customer service for me to even consider staying with them. Which, I may add, they didn’t during that last call.

Businesses sometimes have the attitude that customers leave the first time something goes wrong. Most people will give a business another chance but will leave if the problem isn’t fixed.

Here is how to lose a customer:

First, make a mistake. If you never do that, you’ll never have a problem.

But since that is unlikely, the second thing to do is to claim you can’t do anything about it, refuse to try, and bleat that you’re sorry.

Next, refuse to put the customer through to a supervisor. Supervisors have more experience and often know ways to solve problems that the representatives do not. That is why they are supervisors. Correctly handled, everyone gains, the representative gains from learning, the customer gains from having the problem solved and the company still has a customer.

Finally, hang up on the customer.

Repeat endlessly.

Soon, you too will be losing business.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Rogers Heights Christian Church 1946-2007, Part 2

One of the reasons I remember the controversy about building a new sanctuary as opposed to enlarging the old one is that I was actually eligible to vote. I was baptized on Easter Sunday, April 10, 1955, by Lloyd Lambert.* I was 11 years, 8 months and 17 days old. This made me a member in good standing of the congregation; I could vote on the issue.

My parents wanted me to wait until I was 12, but in most of our churches there is a class in late winter for children wishing to be baptized at Easter. The tradition is that we make our “Confession of Faith” on Palm Sunday and are baptized on Easter. Not everyone does it this way, I had been lobbying to be baptized for two years prior. My parents gave in rather than make me wait another year until I was past my 12th birthday. I’m glad that I did though. Judi writes in her blog ( that she was baptized at Eastside Christian the following year because the sanctuary was torn up. It is the baptism itself that is important, of course, but still... I’m glad I talked them into it.

Five things I remember best from Rogers Heights:

1. Food
We had Fellowship dinners regularly. Probably once a month. The food was wonderful. Of course, it was plain, simple, midwestern fare, lovingly prepared. Nothing exotic. I think they call it comfort food now, and it is a heart-surgeon’s nightmare, but oh, my, it was good.

In the summers, we had ice cream socials. Home made ice cream, often hand cranked, accompanied by light fluffy cakes and pies with crusts to die for. We ate dinners in the fellowship hall, but the socials were held outside. I remember at least once, but probably more often, table set up on the side of the church where the parking lot is in Judi’s pictures before the three buildings were joined. The rich, cold ice cream melted in the summer heat. My mother’s ice cream recipe called for real cream and I think some of others used eggs. Plural. I’ve lived through a lot of hot summers since; nothing eases the heat like those summer evenings at church eating homemade ice cream.

I have a cookbook from those days written by the Christian Women’s Fellowship of the church. It is a treasure.

But also, I always looked forward to Vacation Bible School every summer partly because we got Koolaid. At my house we drank milk, water, fruit juice, (only for breakfast) unsweetened tea, and on rare occasions, lemonade. We didn’t get Koolaid even as a special treat.

2. Vacation Bible School
Another reason I liked Vacation Bible School was the craft projects. We did things like braiding lanyards and the like. One in particular has stuck with me as a kind of a question that I have never been able to answer. We took a piece of copper foil and embossed a design on it. I remember particularly a cowboy riding a bucking horse. I thought it looked great, but then, we wiped on some kind of coating that darkened the crevices making the design stand out more. Then, even though I thought it looked great at that stage, we did something else to it. And it looked great.

The question I have never answered is how does the artist know when something is finished? I know now the good ladies running the craft projects had some kind of kit that gave them explicit directions, but I didn’t know that then. I remember watching William Alexander’s Art classes on PBS and having the same question. At every stage it looked fine to me, so how did he know where to continue and when to stop. I’m always as afraid of going on and on until the project is ruined as I am of stopping before it has reached it maximum beauty. I still don’t know, but I think a lot of artistic a
bility is in knowing where to stop.

At Vacation Bible School, we sang “Jesus Loves Me” and “This Is My Father’s World.” We heard stories about children in the Bible and stories about our foreign missions. We had extended contact with the women of the church. Now we call them “mentor" and say they were mentoring us.

In the area at left, before we built the part that joined the three buildings,
(the higher roof line) we held Vacation Bible School.

3. Music
Sunday church services for me have always been about the music. I loved the singing. I sang in the choir as a teenager. I am working on a blog about my favorite hymns which I will post later. When I went to the Phillips University Centennial, I noted the beauty in the voices of people who just grew up singing in church.

I don’t think we had an organ in the early years. That suited me; I’ve never liked draggy old organs any way. My father grew up in the Church of Christ, our sister denomination. One of the causes of the schism between us -- we came form the same roots, the Campbell-Stone movement -- was the use of instrumental music. Some have down-played that division saying that the Churches of Christ in the beginning were making a virtue of necessity, but my grandfather truly believed that it was wrong to have instrumental music in the church. I will say this, Church of Christ services were beautiful, a capella voices rising straight to heaven.

Every year at Easter, we sang “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today,” and our voices carried such joy, such unforgettable joy.

We always sang “Blest Be the Tie That Binds” at the end of the service. I think that it helped to bind us together as a fellowship, as a congregation. Even those of us who were on the fringe of the circle were still tied to it. Ties? No, ropes, ropes as thick and strong as steel cable.

I still love hymns.

4. Bible
At Rogers Heights I got a thorough grounding in the Bible. We believe that the Bible was written at different times by different people. I noticed that Judi referred to it as a “library.” That is the way I have also always understood it. The Old Testament includes some history, some law, some myth, (yes, some myth) some sermons, some hymns, a collection of sayings, some poetry, even a couple of novels, and some writings that were found to be generally inspiring. It is a collection of books that the people found useful in their spiritual journey through life.

I believe that starting with Abraham it is basically true. There is some mythesizing, some “George Washington chopping down the cherry tree,” but it includes stories that aren’t particularly flattering to the leaders. I admire that kind of warts-and-all recording of history. That is part of why I believe it is true. Another thing I’ve noticed about the Old Testament is that it is the version of the rabbis who wrote it. Other people who were around at the time may well have had other versions of what occurred. That doesn’t mean I don’t think it happened, I just think the story might have been slanted a little different.

Thomas Campbell, one of the founders of our movement, said, "Where the Bible speaks, we speak; where the Bible is silent, we are silent." That pretty much sums it up. But of course, you have to know a lot about Bible to know where it speaks.

Most of all, I remember the people

Sometime after my aunt left us to continue her education at the University of Arkansas, my parents hired a couple of the teen age girls from the church to babysit. I wonder if the woman besides Judi who wrote a comment to the Tulsa World article was one of those teenage-girls. ( If so, she may the one I owe an apology. My sister and I were little angels for one of the sitters, but for some reason, we were as bad as we knew how to be for the other. I’m not sure why. I think we had heard stories from other children about defying the sitter and had to try them out. It was a valuable lesson to me as a teacher, sometimes kids just decide to act up. Don’t take it personally. I still wish I could apologize.

I wish I could thank all of the adults who guided us and taught us.

Of course, I remember the other children best.

To Patty and Priscilla who were two years older; to Jane’s brother whose name I can’t remember; to Barbara, Susan and Vickie who were a year older; to Judi, Janie, Jenny, Irene, Russell and Bobby who were in my class; to the Ryans; to Jane’s sister whose name may have been Karen; to Karen who was Priscilla’s sister; to Barry, Debbie, Mike, Susan; (and Timothy, may you rest in peace.) to others that I can recall, but not put a name to; God be with you.

The congregation has disbanded, but in a real sense, it is not dead. It lives on in the lives that were touched, in the contacts that we made, in the examples of the lives of the people who passed through the church.

Blest be the tie that binds.

*Judi’s memories and mine conflict a little about this. The short history in the cookbook gives July 1955 as the beginning g of Lloyd Lambert’s ministry. I can’t explain the discrepancy. All I can do is relate my memories.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Rogers Heights Christian Church 1946-2007

On a recent trip to my hometown, Tulsa, Oklahoma, I discovered a “For Sale” sign in front of the church that I grew up in.

When I returned to my hotel room, I learned from the internet that the church had disbanded the previous year. I also discovered a blog written by a woman who had been my classmate in Sunday School all those many years ago when we were children. In it, she describes her childhood memories of the church and the last service there on August 2007. (

Rogers Heights Christian Church
(Disciples of Christ)
409 S Pittsburg Ave
Tulsa, OK 74112

This is a referral to the newspaper account of the closing of the church.

I think we must have started attending Rogers Heights about the time that we moved back to Tulsa in1948. The Pastor, O. Edgar Wright, had baptized my mother when she was a student at Oklahoma A & M. (Now Oklahoma State University.)

Our denomination believes in adult baptism, or more correctly believer’s baptism. We believe it is a choice for the individual to make, not the right of his or her parents to make for him or her. In practice, people decide for themselves when they are ready to be baptized. Some feel that they are ready at a younger age than others. In our church some were baptized as young as 9 years old. My parents believed that one should not be baptized before the age of 12. I wanted to be baptized for at least two years before my parents would allow me to be. My mother waited until she was in college. She never discussed it with me, so when I found the certificate I was surprised.

I do, however, remember that we went there because of Ed Wright. My aunt who lived with us until the spring of 1949 has commented that Rogers Heights was probably the closest Christian Church to our home. That is true, but it would have been easier to go to First Christian downtown.

We must have started going there almost immediately after we moved into the house. What I can’t figure out is how we got to church. My aunt can’t remember either. I believe that we didn’t get a car until the fall of 1949. In the meanwhile, we walked or rode the bus or got rides. My father must have planned to ride the bus to work. I remember him sometimes waiting for the bus at the corner of 3rd and Columbia, but there was a man who lived on the street behind us who worked at the same place and did have a car, so my dad rode to work with him most of that year.

Yes, Virginia, people bought houses before they bought cars in those days.

My aunt was a student at Tulsa University. She walked me to and from school adjacent to the campus -- or later on meet me part of the way home – when they were sure I knew the way. I was in afternoon kindergarten.

Occasionally, and this part blows my mind, my mother would take me and my younger sister downtown, (It was less than 5 miles.) and when it was time for me to go to school, she would put me on a bus and tell the bus driver where to let me off. I don’t remember being lost or scared, what blows my mind is that the bus driver agreed to it and actually did see that I got off at the right place. I think that I did know where to get off and didn’t need much prompting, but of course, he didn’t know that.

My aunt remembers going to church at Rogers Heights, too, so we must have found a way. One possibility is that there was a bus on Sundays. I’ve lived in places where this would be unlikely, but it is possible. Another possibility is that we got a ride from someone in the church. The third possibility is that my grandfather came over and drove us to church. (Or even my uncle.) My grandparents attended First Christian in Tulsa for many years; my mother grew up in that church; my aunt and uncle met there. (Maybe both pairs of aunt and uncles did. I think that’s right.) I can’t imagine Grandfather driving us to church and then going on himself.

I don’t think we started going to Sunday School until after we got a car in the fall of 1949. I know that we held church services in what became the Fellowship Hall before the sanctuary was completed in 1949. Judi’s blog gives a better account of those days. I really don’t remember anytime before the sanctuary was build, but I “know” we met in the other building. Everything Judi says about that time rings true, but I have no identifiable memories of that time.

I turned 5 the summer after we moved to Tulsa. I believe that I always went to the church service. Now we have a children’s sermon and send the grade school children out of the sanctuary. At age 5 or 6, I was considered old enough to sit through the whole service. My sister may have gone to some kind or nursery during the service. She was 2 years younger.

I clearly remember three girls in my Sunday School class, Judi, Janie and Jenny. All three of these girls surnames began with the letter B. No wonder I never really felt like I fit in. My initials weren’t J.B.

The cornerstone on the sanctuary gives us the year 1949. Ed Wright left in the fall of that year. I do remember some discussion of leaving when he did, but maybe my parents had made friends. In any event, we stayed.

The education building below was built in the early fifties when J.R. Johnson was the minister. I remember playing in the foundations -- which we weren’t supposed to do.

In this picture, see where the brick stops and the yellow begins. That is painted-over cement block. The original plan was to build a second phase joining the first here. I remember those drawings. It would have been beautiful, but at the time the congregation couldn’t raise the money to build it. The compromise was to join the three buildings, education building, sanctuary, and fellowship hall, with the addition you see on the right probably around 1956. Judi explains some of this better than I do.

The architects drawing was for a sanctuary that matched the front of building photographed above, but with a projecting narthex topped by a steeple. The entry would have looked much like this entry. I don’t remember windows on the upper and lower floor. There would have probably tall gothic windows matching the one at the front of this building.

This is the front of the sanctuary. I remember the front walk as being longer than this. The world seems to have shrunk from the way I remember it.

My mother never liked to be early for anything. I can remember standing outside on this walk until the opening hymn began. Years later, I kidded her that I didn’t know what they did in church before the opening hymn because we never were there earlier. I went on that I had figured out that she liked to make an entrance, so every one knew she was there. That wasn’t very kind of me, I know, but I noticed she started to get to church on time.

Another aunt who had known my family from her childhood tells a story about my grandfather. My aunt’s father took up the offering in the Sunday School Class he and my grandfather attended. One day he found a twenty dollar bill in the collection. Understandably, he was concerned that someone had made a mistake. Twenty dollars was a lot of money in the twenties or thirties when this must have occurred. “No,” my grandfather said, “he had missed several Sundays and was just making up for it.” My aunt didn’t say this, but I thought how typical of him to make a show of his giving. The Bible quotes Jesus as saying that such have their reward.

The writer of the newspaper story about the closing of the church remarks that the demographics of the neighborhood were against us. I think the demographics were always against us. Even though I think that building would have been too large for the site, when the congregation was unable to complete the beautiful church the architect envisioned, the demographics were against us.
We persevered

Friday, July 11, 2008

Stand Up Comedy and the Art of Fine Writing

I took a class in Stand-Up Comedy because I thought my writing needed more humor. I was right about that, but I am not sure that the class itself helped with the humor.

On the other hand, I learned a lot.

One of the things that struck me as interesting was that I followed the instructor’s instructions to the letter. He commented about that -- because no one else did. (This was an adult education class, no grades.) I told him simply, "I am paying you to teach me something, I would be very stupid not to follow your instructions."

In my not-so-humble opinion, I had the best routine in the class. Every time I have done it, the audience has laughed. I couldn't get a better grade than that.

Why didn’t the others follow the instructions? Once again, I don’t know. My best guess is that they were there to validate their experiences, not to learn stand-up. Or they thought they knew more than the instructor did. Or they hadn’t listened to enough stand-up routines to understand the instructions. Or any combination of the above.

The parallel with the writers critique groups is that even if someone who knows what they are talking about tells them what to do, the members don’t listen. For pretty much the same reasons that the stand-up comedy students didn’t. I know that it is difficult to sort out the people who do know what needs to be done from those who don’t. But still --

I keep telling myself to shut up; I am wasting my time because even if I do know what I am talking about, the people in the groups have no way of knowing. I am only slightly published, nothing really worth mentioning -- outside of college periodicals. But I am not telling them anything that they can’t read for themselves in books that go beyond "don’t use helping verbs." Whether or not they use helping verbs, they won’t ever be good writers if they don’t learn a few facts about stories and storytelling.

There are plenty of books on story telling. See my list for a few to start with.

So why do I keep on going to critique groups? Well, they are nice people to hang out with, interested in some things that I am. So I keep going.

But if I like them -- and I do—I really want to help them succeed.

Frustration strikes again.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Helping verbs

Somewhere along the line, some members of writing groups have gotten the idea that it is wrong to use the progressive and perfect tenses. The ones with “helping verbs.” I have been reading all kinds of “how to” books on writing with style. So far I have been unable to track down this piece of misinformation, but I’m not giving up. I am going to find the charlatan who started this nonsense and expose him or her.

I can tell, though, which writers have bought this crazy idea.

You have seen the kind of amateur stage production where the actors stand around on stage with their hands metaphorically in their pockets waiting to deliver lines. When they get a cue they spring into action and deliver their lines with great feeling. Then they stick their hands back in their pockets and freeze -- waiting for their next line.

The characters in the prose of writers who have bought into the no-helping-verbs propaganda are like these amateur stage actors standing around waiting for their lines. They are never doing anything; they are never interrupted; they are just there – waiting for their cue.

One of my favorite nursery rhymes reads:

When I was going to St Ives
I met a man with seven wives
Each wife had seven sacks
In each sack were seven cats
Each cat had seven kits
Kits, cats, bags and wives,
How many were going to St. Ives?

This riddle was supposedly found scratched into a wall in the pyramids. That‘s how old it is.

Of course, you know the answer, one.

Now let us removing those all important “helping verbs” and make the verbs “stronger.” (You have also heard that removing them makes the verbs more active, less passive. I am not going there.)

When I went to St. Ives
I met a man with seven wives
Each wife had seven sacks
In each sack were seven cats
Each cat had seven kits
Kits, cats, bags and wives,
How many went to St.Ives?

The answer: I have no idea.

You see, I went to St. Ives.

There I was standing in the middle of the town square, perhaps looking over the gimcracks in the market, when this man grabs my sleeve and whispers, “Want a cat? I’ve got plenty of them.”

I turn around intrigued or dismayed or whatever, and he points, “See my seven wives over there, each one has seven sacks full of cats, just full of seven cats, every one of them has kittens, seven each. Please take some of these cats. I’ll give them to you.”

By now tears are running down his cheeks.

And my eyes are getting a little watery, too. “My wives, they can’t turn away a cat…”

You get the picture. How many of them went to St. Ives? Maybe all of them -- all 2,744 cats, plus the 49 sacks, plus the man and his seven wives, for a grand total of 2,801. Oh, I forgot, plus me, of course, 2,802. Or maybe the man and his wives were born in St.Ives. But in that case, I am quite sure that not all the cats were born in St. Ives.

I envision cats from all over the surrounding territory saying to one another, “You know if you are kicked out, there is a place over in St. Ives…”

I don’t know the answer to the riddle, how many went to St.Ives, if I don’t tell the story using helping verbs.

In poetry and, as I am beginning to discover, in fiction every word needs to count. Look how much bang for your buck you get using helping verbs. You get action; you get the cook interrupted in the middle of frying bacon by the stampede; you get that beloved of writers -- backstory; you get character development; you get so much packed into that little tiny word, that helping verb; you are shooting yourself in the foot if you don’t use it. Make it count for you.

Plus, when I am reading and find that the writer has used a simple verb when a progressive or perfect is correct, I notice. Don’t think those first readers at the publishers who graduated from some Ivy League college with a major in English Lit. don’t notice when you use the wrong verb. They do. They don’t think, “Wow! This writer knows how to write action.” They are much more likely to think, “This guy doesn’t know how to write proper English.” They know grammar. They expect the writer to be able to write a grammatical English sentence.

Besides most of the writers I knew have bigger problems, problems that won’t be solved by whether or not they use helping verbs.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Drunkards Walk

There is an interesting problem in statistics called the “Drunkards Walk.” In this problem, we mentally lean a drunk up against a lamp pole in the middle of an intersection in the middle of the night. How he got there, we don’t know. Nor do we care. He staggers away from the pole. After each step, the drunk can move another step in any direction, including backwards. After a given number of paces, he falls. He lies there, face down on the pavement. We stand him up again, mark the place where he fell and lean him up against the light pole. We repeat this procedure over and over. It turns out that his multiple resting places form a normal curve with its peak in a circle around the lamp pole. The plotting of the “Drunkards Walk” has implications for the scattering of particles from the break up of nuclei, among other things.

The point of this story for writers is that we don’t care how the drunk got to the lamp post; all we care about is where he ended up – fell down as it were. In a story, we don’t usually care what led the main character to the place where our story starts. We care about how the drunk(i.e. main character) staggers around and where he falls down. And possibly what he does when he gets up. And how many times he goes back to leaning on the lamp post. Not how he got there.

The best writers limit the backstory to what we absolutely have to know – and then they cut out 50% of that. They feed it to us in little bits, when the question arises, when our curiosity is aroused, and not before we care enough to want to know. This is part of what makes them the best writers.

It turns out that we don’t really want or need to know very much.

Amateur writers are too often in love with backstory. They assert that the reader can’t understand the story without knowing the character’s life up until the interesting events occur. Baloney. The writer needs to know all this; the readers don’t.

So my best advice to amateur writers is remember our drunk leaning up against the lamp post -- and don’t tell us how he got there.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Where to start a story

On one of the group websites I belong to, there is a current discussion about where to start a story. I spent some time trying to analyze my intuitive answer by looking at the solutions of the writers of the books I am currently reading, and the answer seems to be start at the place where the character makes the move that puts his/her feet on the path that leads to the action in the plot. As close to the action as possible.

This answer is both very simple and very complex. The simple answer is to start a story when the situation is such that the character or characters have to act. They must. Or else dire things will happen.

For example, I am rereading To Ride Hell’s Chasm by Janny Wursts. The opening sentence tells the reader that the Princess has disappeared on the day of her betrothal to a Prince of a neighboring company. Our entire cultural history plus every trope we know about fantasy tells us, the reader, that somebody better do something – quick!

The characters are compelled to act to save the honor of the kingdom, the girl’s life and their own skins. Now!

In the opening sentence of another book I just finished, The Outback Stars, by Sandra MacDonald, the main character says something like if she has to spend another day “flying a desk” rather than serving on a starship she will attempt suicide. Maybe that is rhetoric and maybe not, but it impels her to finagle her way on to an “unhappy” starship. She feels that she has to do something. Maybe she felt that way yesterday or last week or whenever, we don’t know and we don’t care. Now, today is the day she takes the action that puts her on the spaceship and everything else follows (quickly) from the situation on the ship and her character.

In both of the above books, there is a lot of backstory. One of the hallmarks of the amateur is feeling the need to tell it all. One amateur I know insists that the reader has to know all the backstory to understand her tale. Six people sat there and told her we didn’t need all that, but did she listen? No. As the above two books went along, the writers of the above did feed us that backstory – to satisfy our curiosity about how these people got into this mess, but by the time our curiosity was satisfied, we were pretty wrapped up in the characters and how they were going to make it all come out right. The backstory can wait until then.

That is the simple answer. The complex answer for a writer is much more difficult. Where exactly does the story start? What is the point at which the characters have to act? I recently mentioned The Outstretched Shadow by Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory. In this opening, the main character doesn’t know that he has to save the world (before his eighteenth birthday, no less) or even that the world has to be saved. He only knows that he is unhappy.

That unhappiness propels him to a place he shouldn’t be to find the books of magic that will save him --and the world. The writers could have started the story much earlier, when his sister was banished or his mother deserted him, for instance. The argument can be made that at the point of his sister’s taking up the magic, she was compelled to act. But then we would have had to wait through a lot of down time for Kellen to grow up. The story would have had a slower start. Even though Kellen’s unhappiness with his situation is not a result of the impending doom of the people he has to save, it does provide him a motive to act. And get the story moving. And the causes of his unhappiness provide additional complications to the plot – in book three. Which wraps everything up nicely.

In To Ride Hell’s Chasm there may have been a number of places where the main character had to act before the Princess disappeared. For instance, he had to enter a tournament to become Captain of the Guard because he hadn’t saved up enough as a mercenary to support himself before he was injured too badly to get more mercenary jobs. Some writers would have started there and showed us how he developed the relationships that are crucial to the story. They wouldn’t have been wrong, and if they were skillful enough they wouldn’t have lost us along the way. Wursts throws us right into the maelstrom and never lets up. We are swept along into the story. We learn about his background as we go. She chooses to start her story there; other writers choose to start just before the situation gets interesting. That is an equally valid choice. That is why it is difficult to say exactly where to start a story.

Too many amateurs start too far before the interesting events. They don’t give the readers enough credit. Wursts assumes her readers will catch up and keep up. Her readers appreciate it.

So where should a writer start a story? The best way to learn is to read lots and lots of fiction. Particularly fiction that the writer likes in the genre he/she wants to write in. Then think: where did the writer start the story and why? Why there? Then make an informed choice.

That’s the complex answer – and the simple one.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008


Saturday night, I had an epiphany. Last February, I attended ConDFW. During one of the panels, some remarks were made about Romeo and Juliet. The comment was that it wouldn't have worked if Romeo and Juliet hadn't died at the end. I said: "Once the story was written, it may have seemed to the reader that there was only one way to conclude, but that "inevitability" is a function of the writer's premise."


Saturday night, I attended a writer's group. Most of the writers in this group are talented. They write lovely descriptions, create interesting characters, and devise workable plots. Mostly they don't get published. Why? They ain't got that zing.

Saturday night, I got a glimmer of "that zing." By Sunday Morning, I was pretty sure I had the whole thing, but my roommate wanted to finish mowing the backyard in the morning, and I had a meeting to go to in the afternoon. Writing got tabled. Again. Sigh.

That Zing

What I realized was a common flaw in all, or most anyway, of the amateur writing in this group is the lack of inevitability. There is simply no compelling reason for the character to act. This was very noticeable to me because I just reread The Obsidian Trilogy by Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory. The first book, The Outstretched Shadow, starts immediately with conflict. We meet Kellan, an adolescent who is escaping his sterile home and boring schoolwork by running the streets. He finds and buys a set of books on magic. Of course, this magic is forbidden. Of course, he can't resist trying a spell when he misplaces his key. Of course, since it works, he experiments further. Of course, he gets caught with the forbidden books. Here is the catch: his city is run by magic, but the magic in the books is anathema to the magic that runs the city. So of course, in spite of the fact his father is the highest mage of the city, he is convicted of treason. Of course, he is banished.

Three books later the conflict between Kellan and the city is resolved.

When he is banished, his father storms at him, "You are just like your sister." Kellan doesn't remember a sister. Where does he end up? With his sister. Of course.

All of this is highly predictable. The reader can guess as soon as the sister is mentioned that he will find her and that she will be important to the plot.

Everything that happens is inevitable.

But in reality, the writer makes everything seem inevitable. The writer chooses to make the plot, the choices, everything the character does inevitable. Or else the story is not compelling. The reader is not caught up in events. And if the reader is not caught up, he gets bored.
Have you ever been reading a book and said to the hero/ine, "Don't do that!"? Have you ever known that the heroine was going to investigate the noises in the basement of the creepy house and that nothing good was going to come of it, but the heroine was going to do it anyway? I have just wanted to take the hero/ine and shake him/her. "Don't do that, you idiot!" But of course, the character does it anyway. And I know, as sure as I am sitting here, that the character, given his/her personality and the circumstances, is not going to do anything different. It's inevitable.

Shakespeare's version of Romeo and Juliet was written to make the ending inevitable. Other versions of Romeo and Juliet are written to make a different ending inevitable. Same plot, same events, different ending. Entirely possible. But the Romeo and Juliet of that version would be entirely different people, making different choices based on their different characters from the ones that Shakespeare created. And if the writer is skillful enough, his ending would seem just as inevitable as Shakespeare's.

Come to think of it, there is a Romeo-and-Juliet subplot in The Obsidian Trilogy. But of course, it ends happily. It's inevitable.

There are many other characteristics that distinguish great writing. Inevitability is only one. A very important one, but only one. A writer needs to be able to write in the basics of acceptable grammar, create interesting characters, describe action, setting, and characters vividly, and keep the plot on course without wandering off into side issues. Unfortunately, I see a lot of writers who can do all these things, but their stories are not compelling. They don't hold my interest. They don't have that zing.

Monday, April 14, 2008


At a writer's group Saturday night, a nameless member said that the model paragraph structure works for non-fiction, but not for fiction. This discussion of a quote from Hemingway refutes that contention in the strongest possible terms. This is a fragment from a longer essay, but I hope you will be entertained and enlightened by it.

The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.
Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms, 1929

In this example, Hemingway uses a compound sentence, followed by a complex sentence, a simple sentence with a compound object, ending with a compound – complex sentence. Hemingway is supposedly famous for the simplicity of his prose, but as this example demonstrates, he actually used complex paragraph structure to make his writing interesting for the reader.

Hemingway does not use commas in places that modern usage would place them, i.e. after "everyone," "not break," "these," "you," and "too." This may be troubling to some people. Newspapers tried to eliminate as much punctuation as possible to save type, and Hemingway took much of his style from newspapers.

Notice that the shortest sentence is the complex sentence. The simple sentence is longer. It is tempting to consider short sentences simple. They aren't always the shortest, nor should they be.

Notice, too, the strong sentence: "But those that will not break it kills." The natural order of this sentence is "It kills those that will not break." Hemingway's sentence is much stronger than the natural one. By inverting the order of the sentence, Hemingway makes it strong. Usually when we talk about weak sentences we are referring to those that trail off into a mass of subordinate clauses. This one has only one subordinate clause. The brevity of the main clause placed at the end rather than the beginning brings the reader up short and forces him or her to pay attention.

Finally notice that the paragraph, short as it is, includes a topic sentence, "The world breaks everyone..." and a concluding sentence, "... you can be sure it will kill you too...." This is the model paragraph structure that generations of English teachers have tried to pound into the heads of adolescents. Or tell the reader what the writer is going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what they were told.