Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Star Wars Awakens!

Seriously. I'm not kidding.

After snoring loudly through three insipid prequels, Star Wars is awake!

In varying degrees, in The Force Awakens we have been reunited with the original trio of Han, Luke, and Leia. And we have met the next generation of bad guys (Kylo Ren and Supreme Leader Snoke) and good guys--Finn, Rey, and Poe. 

A defector from the Storm Troopers? How cool is that! And a young Jedi who doesn't even know what she's doing yet? And Andy Serkis as Snoke? Wow. A new droid and a new puppet with attitude--Maz. Yup. Star Wars is back in town. 

This movie has everything that made us fall in love with Star Wars the first time. Interstellar swashbuckling, romance, reluctant heroes, beeping droids, light sabers, cool space ships, the ultimate battle between good and evil--all that sort of thing.

But this movie is a little darker than Episode IV, A New Hope. In Episode VII, Not Much Hope, you don't leave the theater with that same sense of "Wow, that was fun." More like, "Wow, I sure hope that somehow, against all odds, this mess comes out all right. . . ." Maybe that's because with the first movie, Lucas wasn't sure it would be a series.

The overwhelming box office success of Star Wars VII shows how deeply the original movies impacted the culture. The number of Star Wars parodies is staggering. Not to mention Star Wars books and comics and games and toys and merchandising. When you consider all the hours families have spent gathered around the tv, watching Star Wars marathons--well, geek families anyway--that alone tells us that Star Wars is part of the American experience.

It's hard to imagine now that this iconic series didn't spring full-grown from the head of George Lucas, like Minerva from Jupiter. Hard to believe Star Wars was rejected in its early concept stages. Or that the original story was called The Journal of the Whills. Or that a lead character was originally called Luke Skykiller. Anakin was a hero, not a villain, and he wasn't Luke's Daddy. ("Luke, I am your third cousin, twice removed"?)

Ohmygosh--Skykiller? Really? Never underestimate the power of perseverance. Or of editing. Or of collaboration with other people of vision and imagination.

Star Wars is back just in time to save us once again from the humdrum and earth-bound, whisking us away to a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. May all my story-writing friends take heart and inspiration from the evolution of Star Wars through past decades and into the future. 

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Come to Bethlehem and See

Okay, so I know that Jesus was born in a house, not a stable. 

And the wise men (of indeterminate number) arrived quite some time later. 

And, oh yeah, Jesus probably wasn't born in December.

I know that Christmas cards and Christmas pageants get a lot of stuff wrong. 

But here's the thing. I don't actually care. 

For me, all the historical minutiae pale to insignificance compared to the awesomeness of the one thing we mostly do get right:

God came down to earth in the form of a baby. 

God came down.

For God so loved the world, He gave His only begotten Son. . . .
But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman . . . .
. . . that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.

This is the way I imagine the creche scene:

Mary is sitting on the floor, holding the baby. Joseph is looking on in amazement. Shepherds have gathered around. Angels hover overhead.

There are wise men there too--kneeling, offering gifts.

Anna and Simeon have also come to gaze in wonder.

The walls melt away. And then, row upon row, stretching out in endless circles through the centuries, they come--everyone who has received the message this Child came to bring. 

We all come.

Kings come and lay their jeweled crowns before Him. Peasants come with nothing to offer but their gratitude. 

The crowd spills in from everywhere and everywhen, wearing togas, grass skirts, academic robes, prison garb. They come from tropical islands and frozen wastelands. They come--slaves and freemen, generals and foot soldiers, rich landowners and their servants. Princes, paupers. Scribes, illiterate. Victors, victims. Great saints, lowly sinners. 

They come from every kingdom and every tribe. 

They come from ages past, when they could only long for His appearing--Moses, Elijah, Ruth, King David, prophets who foretold His coming--and all the "begats" in the bloodline of Messiah. 

They come from years yet to be, in strange clothing and appearance, when the world is darker still. And yet this Child is still the Light shining in the darkness.

They come joyfully. They come in reverent awe. They come--we all come--as many but as one, to "see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us."

We come to look, awash in wonder. We come to listen, to a baby's gurgle, to the whir of wings. We come to worship, to join our weak voices with the mighty angel choir, singing "Glory to God in the highest."
O ye heights of heaven adore Him;
angel hosts, His praises sing;
Powers, dominions, bow before Him,
and extol our God and King!
Let no tongue on earth be silent,
Every voice in concert sing,
evermore and evermore!
-- "Of the Father's Love Begotten," words by Au­rel­i­us Pru­den­ti­us

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Wanted: Writers to Save Christmas!

Why are Christmas movies so jingle-jangle, holly-jolly gosh-awful anymore?

Photo by Kris de Curtis
Seems they're all about "Christmas magic," which leads to
  • the Christmas pageant is saved, OR
  • two or more bickering family members declare a cease fire for the holidays, OR 
  • a string of improbable events brings Daddy home from the war, the far country, or former planet Pluto just in time to hang the star on the tree, OR
  • young Jimmy-Bob learns to "believe" in Santa or magic marshmallows or the Puritan work ethic, OR
  • the greatest "Christmas miracle" of all, a young couple finds "true love," kissing under the mistletoe.
And then it snows.

I mean, all that is okay, but other than some twinkle lights and elevator-music carols, how does any of this sappy stuff relate in any way to Christmas?

I realize that not every Christmas movie can tell the story of a baby born in Bethlehem, but shouldn't they at least be about real love (as opposed to "true love" or warm fuzzies)--with themes like giving and self-sacrifice and a deeper reflection about the meaning of life? 

Charles Dickens hit the bullseye with his story A Christmas Carol. This is a tale that makes people ponder how transitory this life is and about how we can live so as to make a difference in this world. 
by Robert Doucette

There have been a few good movie versions of A Christmas Carol--and several awful ones. I'll go out on a limb and say that my favorite is the one starring George C. Scott as Scrooge. You probably have a different favorite, but I'll forgive you 'cause it's Christmas!

There are good reasons why this story has achieved classic status:

  • Charles Dickens was a good writer.
  • And he was obviously inspired to write this story.
  • This story shows the supernatural side of life.
  • The main character undergoes a big change--for the better.
  • It makes readers/viewers stop and think about their own lives
  • It brings hope to everyone who is willing to turn away from their selfishness and to think about other people.
And most of the above would also apply to It's a Wonderful Life. (Just substitute Philip Van Doren Stern, who wrote the original story, for Charles Dickens.) There's a reason that movie is played around the world every Christmas.

White Christmas is about a couple of ex-soldiers who sacrifice their own plans to help their former commanding officer --  Major General Thomas F. Waverly -- make a success of his business -- not to mention all that great singing and dancing!

In How the Grinch Stole Christmas (I like the 1966 cartoon version), the Grinch steals all the presents and decorations from Whoville and thinks that's the end of Christmas. But when the Whos down in Whoville break into a Christmas song, he has an epiphany: "What if Christmas, he thought, doesn't come from a store. What if Christmas ... perhaps ... means a little bit more!"

And I don't think that all Christmas movies have to be serious and philosophical. Fun and entertaining is okay if it's done well, like Home Alone or The Santa Claus. (Feel free to substitute names of other Christmas movies that you like better.)

But in general, we need less sugarplum fluff and more Christmas substance. Less cheesy, more quality. Less cookie cutter, more artistry. I wish Hallmark would quit cranking out Christmas movies on  an assembly line and concentrate on a few good ones.

By Matanya

But let's face it. Hallmark doesn't give a ho-ho-ho. It's up to us. To me and all my wonderful writer friends -- and you are all so talented! Isn't it about time for us to save Christmas from the Grinches, hacks, and money-grubbers? Let's put truth and beauty and meaning back in Christmas stories!

Dr. Seuss, making sketches
 of the Grinch--by Al Ravenna
The Stark Raving Mythopath is curious. What is YOUR favorite Christmas movie? Please let me know in the comments. . . .

Sunday, December 6, 2015

The Calendar: Living the Story

I was raised Baptist.

Walking to Church, by Randolph Caldecott
So when I was a child, this was the church calendar:
  • Christmas
  • New Year's 
  • Palm Sunday
  • Easter
  • Vacation Bible School
  • Church Picnic
  • Repeat

Then in my early twenties, I started going to an Episcopal church. Major culture shock! Suddenly, the Church Calendar got a lot bigger and more complex. It seemed like every day of the week was the Feast of Saint So-and-so, and there were whole special seasons with their own colors and traditions and rituals. This was mind-boggling to a young Baptist, but I grew to love the Calendar and the story it tells.

Advent Wreath,
Photo by Micah L. Rieser
The Church Year, recognized by liturgical churches around the world, starts with the First Sunday of Advent, which usually falls at the end of November. Advent anticipates the coming of the Christ-child at Christmas and the visit of the Wise Men at Epiphany

Lent anticipates the Passion of the Christ during Holy Week--the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem (Palm Sunday), Jesus washing the disciples' feet and serving the first Communion (Maundy Thursday), the Crucifixion (Good Friday), and the Resurrection (Easter). The Easter season leads up to Ascension and the Sending of the Holy Spirit (Pentecost). 

Photo by GFreihalter

Pentecost, in Episcopal churches, is a long season that stretches all the way up to Advent, but I guess that works. I like to think that we are living in a perpetual season of Pentecost, extending the book of Acts as we await the return of the King.
The Second Coming of Christ window
at St. Matthew's Lutheran Church
in Charleston, SC. 
And here's the funny thing about the Church Calendar. The first Sunday of Advent celebrates Second Advent, the Second Coming of Christ. The story of the Calendar actually begins at the end and then flashes back to the period of waiting for the birth of Jesus.

Photo by Lienhard Schultz
Throughout the seasons, year after year, the Calendar keeps telling this same story of the life and triumph of Jesus--His birth, His earthly ministry, His Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Ascension, and the work of His disciples as they await His return in glory! 

Advent, the current season of the Calendar, is about waiting. Waiting for the birth of a Baby. Waiting for a new revelation of the Savior in my own life. Waiting to see what God will do next. 

If you live in the Calendar, you are always celebrating the Now, while waiting for something even better to come. You experience the "old, old story," which is always new, always surprising.You aren't just reading or listening to a story. 

You are living the greatest story ever told.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Happy Birthday, C. S. Lewis and Madeleine L'Engle!

Sometimes, in a smaller library, I find these two "L" authors next to each other on the shelf: C. S. Lewis and Madeleine L'Engle. That tickles me because they are two of my favorite writers of all time.

  • But these two share more than shelf space. A birthday, for one. Both were born on November 29th -- Lewis in 1898 and L'Engle in 1918. And they share other similarities as well.
  • Both developed a love of books and reading early in life.
  • Neither one did very well in the early years of school. Madeleine's teachers often thought her dull-witted. She sometimes had trouble fitting in at the boarding schools where her parents sent her. Lewis was sometimes bullied in grade school, scarring him with terrible memories.
  • They shared a common faith. Both were Christians--and Anglican (Lewis) /  Episcopalian (L'Engle).

Madeleine as librarian at the library of St. John's Cathedral,
now known as the Madeleine L'Engle Library

  • They share celebrity and popularity. Madeleine's A Wrinkle in Time has sold more than 14,000,000 copies and counting. Jack's The Chronicles of Narnia (seven books), more than 100 million copies in 47 languages. And these titles represent only a fraction of their prolific output. Both were popular speakers as well as authors.

  • They also share some genres. Both wrote fantasy about space travel and both wrote poetry and nonfiction reflections on life and faith. Both wrote about pain and grief. Both were heavily influenced by the writings of George McDonald.

George MacDonald and his fantasy work, Phantastes

  • Both Lewis and L'Engle had keen and penetrating minds. I would dearly love to hear the two of them in a debate. Wits would clash like swords and words would fly like sparks! 
Magnum Photos
C. S. Lewis was a British academic, a novelist, and a lay theologian. Starting in his teen years, he was entranced by "Northerness" and the Icelandic sagas. He also grew to love nature and taking long walks through the English countryside. Although a confirmed atheist in his youth, his later discussions with Hugo Dyson and J. R. R. Tolkien helped to persuade him to become a Christian and started him down the road to becoming the foremost Christian apologist of the twentieth century.

Publicity photo
for Square Fish Books
Madeleine L'Engle was an American writer, best known for her young adult works -- the Chronos books (the fantasy A Wrinkle in Time and other books in the Time Quintet) and the Kairos Books (the more realistic O'Keefe and Austin family stories). Ironically, some readers found her books "too religious," while some Christian bookstores refused to carry her books because of her controversial views. I had the privilege of hearing Madeleine L'Engle speak many times, and I always noticed that during question and answer sessions, people seemed to look to her to answer the hard questions, to explain the meaning of pain and suffering.

What a joy that today we celebrate two amazing writers who left a great body of meaningful work. One blog post is far too short a space to tell of their accomplishments and of the impact they have made on my life and on so many others.

Photo by Joey Gannon
Thank you, Jack and Madeleine, for being true to your callings, for telling your stories, for wrestling with hard questions. Happy, happy birthday to you both!

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Old Photographs

Today I am thankful for the gift of life. Pronounced dead by the doctor before birth, I nonetheless made an appearance on one November 22nd during the Jurasic Era, very much alive. 

I suppose things were different then. Not everybody had a camera, and I don't think baby books were a big thing yet.

One night after Mom had died, I was sitting on the couch at Daddy's house, looking though tins of old photos. 

My great-grandfather, Tom Howard
with his wife (seated) and daughter

People in old photographs always look profound. They seem to have stories to tell and secrets to keep. If only we could talk to those people, if we could reach right through the photograph and ask them questions. What was your life like? What did you learn here on Earth? I saw pictures of aunts and cousins and nieces and nephews and total strangers who were probably dead relatives.

I found a sepia-tone picture of a baby and wondered who it might be. Daddy? Mama? One of my brothers? Given the disarray of these pictures, it could be anybody. (Apparently I inherited my photo management ability from my mom.)

Then I saw the baby's hands.

Piano hands with long thin fingers. I looked first at the picture and then at my hands. Then back to the picture again. It was a shock to realize that I was looking at a picture of myself as a baby. I'm not sure I had ever seen one.

My start in life was a bit shaky, and my parents probably didn't have a camera until later. But there I was, a baby girl looking up at my grown up self.

We regarded each other, the baby and I, and then each returned to her own part in the story of my life.

Me at about two years old

Three years old?
Me in kindergarten
Me, playing the piano at church.
putting those piano hands to work

Sunday, November 15, 2015

No Shoes

I thought the navy blue dress would look nice.

No dice. My two sisters-in-law didn't like that idea. Even though I was grown and living on my own, they were older and still thought of me as a child. Apparently that meant they were in charge.

But I wanted to participate. "What about shoes?" 

Photo by Josh Bluntschli

An awful, awkward pause.

"I don't think she'll need shoes," one of them said.

No shoes.

My mother had been dead for only twelve hours, and I was still adjusting to the idea.

But no shoes?  It had never occurred to me that dead people don't wear shoes inside their metal boxes. Not only was my mother dead, but she was barefoot. My mom loved shoes and purses and now she had neither. Not now. Not ever. 

Photo by THOR

I knew it was silly. I knew this whole line of thought was ridiculous, but somehow it made her seem a little more dead. 

A person you love, I was learning, doesn't die all at once--but day by day, piece by piece.

The night after the burial it rained. I imagined the raindrops falling on her casket there in the cemetery. Raindrops pounding and pounding with cruel force. Of course, that was also absurd because she was already underground. The rain was only falling on a mound of dirt and the many containers of flowers.

Photo by Juni

I couldn't cry that week. I don't know why, except I guess I'm more of a let's-get-through-this-and-cry-later kind of person. My relatives kept saying, "You need to cry." But even though they were in charge, I couldn't oblige. Maybe that night the clouds were shedding tears I couldn't seem to conjure.

In grief, I think it's really the little details that stab you in the heart. The milk jug in the frig. My mother bought that milk this week, I thought. Now it's still here, but she's gone. My father's mournful voice as he paced in the yard praying aloud. The new hairstyle the morticians gave my mom. It was nice, but it wasn't the way she wore it. It wasn't the way I wanted to remember her.

And no shoes. 

Just little things. Little things that keep pounding, pounding -- killing and rekilling the one you love.

Thinking back to that morning when they told me my mother didn't need shoes, I remember a spiritual we used to sing in grade school music class.

I got shoes. You got shoes.
All God's children got shoes.
When I get to heaven, gonna put on my shoes,
Gonna walk all over God's Heaven, Heaven--
Gonna walk all over God's Heaven.

Photo by Thomas Steiner

No shoes? 

I read an article in the Poughkeepsie Journal that said shoes tell the story of your life. Every stain or scuff mark tells about where you walked and what you were doing.  Shoes are a diary we keep unconsciously.

Photo by SoHome Jacaranda Lilau

My mom had only two kinds of shoes--house shoes and church shoes. The black leather moccasins were for cooking, cleaning, and chasing after children and grandchildren. The church shoes were for services at the Baptist church--at least three a week--and for weddings, parties, and funerals. My mom wore out her shoes taking care of her family, visiting friends, walking to the store to get groceries or down to the school for a PTA meeting. Since she didn't drive, she did more walking than most.

I guess my mother really had no more use for the shoes in her closet. They were worn out anyway. They told the story of her life on earth, but that story was over. It was time for a new life, new shoes. And someday I too will put on sparkly celestial shoes, and hand in hand, my mom and I will walk all over God's Heaven.

Heaven, Heaven. Gonna walk all over God's Heaven.

My mom, about the time I was born

Monday, November 9, 2015

Beauty and Brains: Hedy Lamarr

Who says a girl can't have beauty and brains? Just look at yours truly. Well, actually--don't look too hard!

But an actress from the Golden Years of Hollywood really did pull it off. Her husband--Louis B. Mayer--called her "the most beautiful woman in the world." The U. S. military discovered she was also one of the most brilliant.

Hedy Lamarr (borm Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler--yes, Hedwig!) was an Austrian and American film actress. She played opposite a stellar array of leading men: Charles Boyer, Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, Robert Young, John Garfield, Victor Mature, and even Bob Hope. 

But Lamarr had other interests as well. At the onset of World War II, she was told that she could help the war effort by selling war bonds--and she did. But Hedy wanted to help in other ways. With her Hollywood neighbor, composer George Antheil, Hedy devised a plan to help the Navy.

Inside a player piano, showing the rolls
Author: Tim Walker, UK
One of the problems with radio-controlled torpedoes was that the frequency could be easily jammed. Drawing inspiration from a player piano, they created a system where the controlling frequency would hop around among 88 different frequencies, like the 88 keys on a piano. This frequency-hopping was impossible for the enemy to jam, since it would take too much power to jam all 88 frequencies.

USS Arizona, torpedoed at Pearl Harbor

Sadly, the Navy did not adopt the Lamarr-Antheil plan during WWII. However, their plan was reviewed and implemented by the Navy in the Bay of Pigs blockade of 1962--after their patent had expired.

Fidel Castro
photo produced by AgĂȘncia Brasil

This frequency-hopping concept became the basis for spread-spectrum communication technology, used in GPS and Blue Tooth and Wi-Fi connections. 

Free WiFi Hub in Minneapolis
Author: Ed Kohler

Today, November 9th, is Hedy's birthday, and we can celebrate her epic contributions--not only in the entertainment industry but also in technology. 

Sometimes real life stories are stranger--and even more fascinating--than fiction.