Saturday, April 8, 2017

A Rooster Is My Hero

One summer, I got a letter from the Writing Academy. The Academy was an international writer's group that began in 1978. So in August of 1980, we were going to come together for our third annual meeting. That's when the letter came.

It was an announcement that the featured speaker for the conference was a young pastor from some place in Indiana. Some guy named Walter Wangerin, Jr.  

Or whatever.

Oh great, I thought. They couldn't get a REAL writer for a speaker, so they got some pastor from Podunkville to fill the time. Isn't that just peachy? 

But I did note that his book was a fantasy novel, and I was, after all, a rabid fantasy fan. And incidentally, it had won a little something called the National Book Award. My curiosity was piqued.

Something else interesting happened to me that same summer. I became a mom for the first time.

So I rocked and fed my baby boy while I read Wangerin's novel, The Book of the Dun Cow--loosely based on the beast fable of Chanticleer and the Fox, adapted from a story in The Canterbury Tales

The characters in Dun Cow are all animals--barnyard and woodland creatures. They live in a pre-human world, and they have a solemn task assigned to them by the Almighty. They are the keepers of Wyrm, an evil basilisk locked in the earth's core.

The leader of the barnyard is Chauntecleer, the proud rooster, supported by his wife, the beautiful Pertelote, and many friends--including the impetuous John Wesley Weasel, the mystical Dun Cow, and the mournful mutt, Mundo Cani. For all his bluster and bravado, Chauntecleer has a huge heart, and he takes his leadership role very seriously. It falls to him to protect his many "children" from the terror of Cockatrice, an evil half-rooster/half-serpent creature spawned by Wyrm. There is an epic war between the army of Cockatrice and the army of the valiant Chauntecleer.

Cockatrice. Say it out loud and you are hissing.

Walter Wangerin, Jr.
I found the characters to be well-rounded and true-to-life and the story engaging and gripping. There were so many nuances and layers of meaning. When I finished, my preconceptions had been shattered and my heart deeply touched.  I still have that paperback edition of Dun Cow, with its beautiful cover art and well-worn pages.

Not bad for a pastor from Podunkville. I knew I had to go and meet this guy.

And meet him I did. Not only was Rev. Wangerin an excellent writer--he was a dynamic and inspiring speaker, one of the most memorable I have ever heard.

A few years later, Wangerin released a second book about the brave rooster and his companions. Alas, I found The Book of Sorrows to be rather depressing, as Chauntecleer dealt with guilt about  the death of some of his dearest friends. (I believe this book has now been renamed The Second Book of the Dun Cow: Lamentations.)

Book Two begins after the great war. Chauntecleer is leading the animals on a journey to find a new home, since the barnyard has been despoiled by their enemies. Throughout this story, Chauntecleer's sorrow is deepening, as he mourns the loss of his friends. This story ends in  a tragedy.

Last year, I decided to look Wangerin up online and see what he has been doing lately. To my delight, I discovered that he has written a conclusion to the Dun Cow trilogy: Peace at the Last. And I am happy to say that Book Three gives a triumphant and satisfying ending to the story of Chauntecleer, Pertelote, and their brave comrades-in-arms. But I won't say more, lest the Spoiler Police hunt me down through my IP address.
The spoiler police--nah, just kidding--
it's a basilisk.
So much for my pre-conceived notions. A pastor from Podunkville turned out to be one of the best writers I have ever read and one of the best speakers I have ever heard. My bookshelves house many titles by this writer--in the section where I keep the really good books, the ones worth reading again and again. The Dun Cow books are keepers.

Photo credits:
     barnyard -- public domain; rooster and chicken -- photo by Stijn Ghesquiere 2004;       
     Book of the Dun Cow -- cover art; Walter Wangerin, Jr. -- photo by Liddlelf;      
     Aubrac cow -- author: Jean-Luc Bailleul;
     rooster head -- photo by Roman K√∂hler, public domain; 
     basilisk -- painted by Friedrich Johann Justin Bertuch (1747-1822) -- public domain; 
     rooster -- a pastel by Friedrich Johann Justin Bertuch (1747-1822), photo by Sara Atkins

Saturday, April 1, 2017

April Fool's

April first—a day for jokes and high jinks, pranks and put-ons.

So how did April Fool’s Day begin? Funny you should ask. It’s a little known fact that during the Roman Empire, a court jester boasted to Emperor Constantine that fools could do a better job of ruling the kingdom. Constantine, accepting the challenge, set aside one day a year for fools  to rule. 

The first fool appointed to the task was named Kugel. He decreed that only foolishness would be allowed on that day. And so began April Fool’s Day—as reported by Professor Joseph Boskin, of Boston University, in 1983.

Just one eensy little problem. Barely worth mentioning. Boskin was himself playing an April Fool’s Day joke when he told this story, but several newspapers ran it as news. Boston University later apologized for the ruse. The truth is that nobody really knows how April Fool’s Day began. 

Following are some more of the most epic April Fool’s jokes ever played. 

Spaghetti Trees

In 1957, a British news show, Panorama, played fake footage of farmers in southern Switzerland harvesting spaghetti from trees. Hundreds of  people contacted the BBC, wanting to know how to grow their own spaghetti trees. The BBC politely told them, “Place a sprig of spaghetti in a tin of tomato sauce and hope for the best."

Bogus Burgers 

In 1998, Burger King ran an ad in USA Today, for “left-handed Whoppers.” These southpaw patties had all the regular ingredients, rotated 180 degrees. Many customers started ordering their burgers left- or right-handed--because yes, people really are that dumb.

TV stinks! 

In 1965,  British TV claimed to be testing a new technology that would transmit odors to the viewing audience. Some people actually called to say that smell-o-vision was working!

Shock and Ahhhh... 

One April 1st during World War I, a French pilot flew over a German camp and dropped a big bomb. The Germans ran for cover, but the bomb failed to explode. The reason? When the soldiers inspected the “bomb” at close range, it turned out to be a football with a note that read, “April Fool!” 

Are You at Risk? 

A respected British journal, The Veterinary Record, ran an article in 1972 about the dreadful diseases of Brunus edwardii, a species "commonly kept in homes in the United Kingdom and other countries in Europe and North America." Serious discussion about the article continued for months—even though Brunus edwardii, it turns out, is a fancy-pants name for a teddy bear.

Hats off to all these inspired pranksters and jokers who save us momentarily from our hair-shirt seriousness and prune-faced self-importance. 

But these days, adrift in a sea of fake news and outright deception, we may have lost our ability to be amused by April Fool's jokes. It figures that the enemy of our souls would target God's gift of humor--for laughter is a great and powerful weapon in the battle of good vs. evil. 

But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.  -- I Cor. 1:27

April Fool's Day reminds me that God chooses the foolish things of the world to surprise and confound the so-called wise. And that gives me hope that He can use me, along with all the other weak and stammering and foolish things.

     Photo credits:
          jester -- "The Laughing Jester," an anonymous painting in the Art Museum of Sweden -- public domain
          spaghetti -- public domain
          Burger King -- a Burger King in Norway, photo by Nicky Pallas
          WWI Bomber -- public domain
         Teddy bear -- photo by Jonik