Can you judge a book without a cover?

My writing has reached an impasse—a block I cannot surmount—and I hold amazon’s CreateSpace largely to blame for the problem.

Since I was a boy I wanted to write. I loved to read, but some of the books I wanted to read did not exist. My goal was to write them. Over the years I have had various pieces published in a variety of places (receiving little to no payment for them, but at least I am published). Much of what I wrote met other people’s guidelines; what I wanted most to share with the world remained unpublished.

My counselor urged me to believe in my abilities as a writer. She urged me to try self-publishing, telling me about another writer she knows who used CreateSpace to publish a book. For months I smiled and nodded and left the office without any real plan to self-publish. Eventually I decided there was no harm in trying. I found my way to CreateSpace, created an account, and began producing books, just as I had dreamed for so many years.

This summer I returned to CreateSpace with the next book I wanted to publish. All was going well at first; the text was submitted and approved, and the next step was to create a cover. For all my previous books, I was able to create covers through the CreateSpace programming. This time, all the software told me to do was to submit my cover. It offered no help in creating a cover for my book.

A bit of online research revealed that this problem is not a temporary glitch. Amazon is saving money by reducing its services to authors. One of those missing services is the creation of a book cover. They simply don’t do that anymore.

I looked for a template in Word to create a book cover, but the closest I could find is a cover page for a student report. Then I sought online help to make a cover. Adobe Spark looked as if it would be helpful, but once I signed in, I was lost in their programming. The actual creation of a cover with front, back, and spine, does not appear to be one of their services. I tried another service, but when I downloaded their template I received only a template for a front cover, not the entire template for a book cover.

Now I am stymied. My frustration with the current book—so close to being published, and yet so far—has bled over to other writing. It just is not happening this summer. I have two book ideas ready to flow: one on the book of Revelation, and the other about traditional Christian worship. I also have plans to pull together my commentary on Martin Luther’s Small Catechism to publish in the fall. Even shorter works for other projects have been a struggle. I was asked to write short pieces on historic members of a congregation which celebrates its 150th anniversary this year. August’s assignment was barely completed on schedule. I have also been assigned a task to write encyclopedia entries on major highways in the state. I finally managed to churn one of those out yesterday, but only with great effort.

I am also studying the theology of chastisement as presented in Hebrews 12. That writing has also proved to be more complicated than expected. It requires careful hermeneutic work, including a study of the key word in question, a sense of the context of the verses in Hebrews that speak of chastisement, and links to other Bible passages that discuss punishment, forgiveness, suffering, and related ideas. Hermeneutics is no stranger to me—I wrote and published a textbook on the subject. But for some reason this particular subject is proving difficult to research and discuss.

If anyone can recommend a way to create a book cover using Word, I will be very grateful. Has anyone out there done this kind of work before? J.

 

Advertisements

First Friday Fiction on a Second Saturday

Stanley Harris was born during that brief period when American folk music was hitting the top of the popular music charts. After a year or so, the rest of the country moved on to Motown and the Beatles, but Stan’s parents stayed loyal to folk music. Consequently, Stan grew up hearing the music of Harry Belafonte, the Weavers, Woody Guthrie, and other folk singers. Stan knew all the words to “On Top of Old Smoky,” “Goodnight, Irene,” and “When the Saints Go Marching In.” Stan’s parents also kept alive their love for the Big Band hits of the 1940s; Stan can still hear his mother chirping, “A tisket, a tasket, a green and yellow basket.” Broadway musicals were also favored in the family. Every year Stan and his parents sat down and watched the classics on network television: The Wizard of Oz, The Sound of Music, West Side Story. Next to the folk records and the Big Band records in the family collection were cast recordings from Music Man, My Fair Lady¸ and other Broadway shows.

On the weekends the family radio was tuned to the classical music station. Stan took piano lessons as a boy, and in the fifth grade he joined the school band. From Bach and Beethoven to Strauss and Sousa, Stan had a wide musical education. Then, when he entered high school, Stan found his classmates evenly and fiercely divided between fans of disco music and fans of heavy metal. Stan joined the minority of high school students who considered the Beatles vastly superior than anything newer, and finally, a decade late, the Harris house was filled with the sounds of “Hey, Jude,” and Abbey Road.

Jump ahead forty years, and Stan’s music tastes remain eclectic. His children, now grown, are also Beatle fans, with fond memories of sitting on their father’s lap as little children while he sang “Hey, Jude” to them, or, “The Long and Winding Road.” When a professional production of My Fair Lady came to town, Stan bought two tickets and took his youngest daughter to the show. This was the night that changed Stan’s summer.

The actor who portrayed Alfred Doolittle was very strong, dominating the stage and capturing the audience’s attention, as the role requires. The actors playing Henry Higgins and Colonel Pickering were also quite adept and talented. At first Stan feared that he was going to be disappointed by the actress playing Eliza Doolittle. She did not show the same strength in the early scenes. Only as the show progressed did Stan realize that she was deliberately taking a subtle and nuanced approach to the part. Her Cockney accent was not exaggerated in the way most actresses portray Eliza. Her character was vulnerable in the first act, contrasting effectively with the inner strength Eliza acquires in the second act. The actress beautifully performed Eliza’s first public appearance, at the horse race, showing Eliza tottering on her high heels and overdoing the cultured manners that Higgins has taught her. For the ball at the end of act one, Eliza emerged truly elegant, even regal.

One brief instant lingered in Stan’s mind after the show. Midway through the second act, the actress allowed herself one brief facial expression and wave of the hand that belonged to the twenty-first century and not to the Victorian era. That brief grimace that young ladies use today to express, “What are you thinking? Are you even thinking?” fit the occasion in the script, if not the setting, and it ingrained the actress in Stan’s mind. It may have been a mistake on the part of the actress, but Stan took it as a sign that the actress was not merely playing a part: she had become Eliza Doolittle, and Eliza had become her. For the three hours of the show, they were one and the same person.

At his age, Stan did not need to be enraptured with a starlet no older than his oldest children. But the Internet was not his friend. Though he left his program behind at the theater, he was easily able to retrieve the name that he had forgotten and to find the starlet’s web site. There he could learn more about her professional career, watch video clips of her acting and singing and dancing, and download photographs of her onto his computer. Had he wanted, Stan could even have written a fan letter to her. He stopped short of that extreme, but when driving in the car he found himself studying the letters in the license plates of other cars, seeing if he could spell her entire first and last name from them before he reached his destination.

All this would have passed in three or four weeks if not for Irene. Irene was a newly hired member of Stan’s department, transferred from another department in the company. At first their paths rarely crossed, while she was being oriented to her new position. But one evening Stan stayed late at the public service desk, filling in for an employee on vacation, and Stan and Irene had their first conversation.

Irene, Stan noticed, strongly resembled the starlet who had played Eliza in My Fair Lady. Irene was a few years older and wore glasses, but she had a similar face, similar hair, and was of a similar build. Both Irene and the starlet brought to Stan’s mind a song he had heard many times in his childhood: “She had a dark and a roving eye, and her hair hung down in ringlets. She was a nice girl, a proper girl….” Irene was friendly, and she was interesting as well. Already obsessing himself over the actress, Stan began to mingle the two women in his mind.

The next time Stan was at the public service desk on his regular schedule, Irene came downstairs to use the copier by that desk. Stan didn’t know if someone else was using the copier upstairs, and he didn’t ask. They struck up a conversation, and Stan allowed himself to believe what he knew was probably untrue—he allowed himself to believe that Irene had chosen to use that copier at that time only because she wanted to talk again with him.

It was a standard Monday conversation—how was your weekend, what weather we are having, and the like. Stan commented that he had met his daughter’s kitten for the first time, and Irene said that she liked cats but her husband didn’t. The moment was soon over; she was done with the copier and returned upstairs. Stan’s time at the public service desk ended, and he returned to his regular desk. But all day long the song continued to echo in his head: “She had a dark and a roving eye, and her hair hung down in ringlets.”

That ringlets song, by the way, does not have a happy ending. It is sung as a warning to avoid that kind of girl. But Stan has not been particularly good about heeding warnings, not even when they have been part of his life for fifty years. Stan was smart enough to know that he should say goodnight to any thought of Irene, but he also knew what followed: “I’ll see you in my dreams.”

Car trouble–chastening, or a thorn?

When I am driving down the street and I smell gasoline, I immediately assume that something is wrong with my car. So long as no warning lights are shining on the dashboard and nothing else seems abnormal about the car’s handling, I try to assure myself that someone else’s car is to blame, or perhaps I am smelling a gas station nearby.

Yesterday as I drove to work, I noticed a strong odor of gasoline. Nothing lit on the dashboard, and the car handled normally, so I worked to assure myself that someone else’s car was to blame. My first candidate was the car in front of me, the one with the “WHF” license plate—certainly that car was to blame for the whiff of gasoline in the air. But when that car went through a yellow light and I stopped at the red light, the odor did not dissipate.

I got downtown, turned a corner, and stalled on the tracks. That was a frightening moment. I turned on the hazard flashers, waited a moment, and turned the key. The car started again. Then I noticed that the fuel gage needle was visibly dropping. I had left home with about five-eights of a tank of gas; a dozen miles later, I was approaching a quarter tank. With the car running, I circled around and headed back the other direction, to the mechanic’s shop where I usually take my car.

Ten to fifteen minutes of solid prayer later, I arrived at the shop, about two minutes before they were due to open. When they opened I was first in line—actually, I was the entire line—and so my car was examined right away. The mechanic found that a bolt had broken, allowing the gasoline to leak. An hour later the car was fixed (although the odor remained, filling the garage after I went home yesterday evening and seeping into the house during the night). All I had lost was an hour at work, fifty dollars for the repair, and about ten dollars of gasoline.

My counselor says that I have an over-developed sense of guilt. When things go wrong, I ask what I have done to deserve it. Somehow this sense is particularly strong when it comes to motor vehicles. Some people would say, “Well, it could have been much worse,” which is of course true. But why does trouble have to happen at all?

Some Christians might call my attention to Hebrews 12, the verses about chastening coming from the Lord because he loves us. That approach reinforces my over-developed sense of guilt. I can easily locate things I am doing that are wrong, and I can persuade myself that God is chastening me for my sins. But that approach does not match what I write and teach about the problems we all face. We live in a world polluted by sin. Sin is unfair. We do not suffer for our own sins: the wicked prosper, while the righteous suffer. If such injustice were not allowed, then Jesus could never have borne the burden for our sins, and we could not be forgiven.

Last Sunday I was teaching about Paul’s thorn in the flesh. Three times Paul prayed to God, asking God to remove the thorn, but God responded, “My grace is sufficient for you.” Paul concluded that when he was weak, then he was strong, because his strength came from the Lord and not from himself. I added that our spiritual enemies want to use our problems to make us doubt God—his love for us, or his ability to protect us, or his willingness to take care of us even though we are sinners. When our problems remind us of the suffering of Christ, the price he paid to redeem us, then our enemies lose and we share in Christ’s victory.

My problem was relatively small and relatively easy to fix. All the same, it served to reinforce my anxiety and stir up again the impression that I deserve to suffer for my sins. I had to remind myself to practice what I preach—to permit the small inconvenience and expense of a car repair to remind me of the cross of Christ and his victory over the greatest of evil, as well as the smallest expressions of evil. J.

Addiction and the Internet

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) sometimes posts information in bars, knowing that the people who need their help are likely to be found there. But would you send a possible alcoholic into a bar to pick up information on AA?

Monday I came to work and opened my email. Being the first workday of the month, there was an email from Human Resources about health and wellness. The topic of the month is Internet addiction. The email included a link to read more information about Internet addiction, and that link led, of course, to the Internet.

So what about it, my WordPress friends? How many of us could be described as Internet addicts? Do we think about the Internet all the time, even when we are not using it? Do we resent things like work and meals and sleep because they require time away from the Internet? Has our use of the Internet caused damage to our relationships, our careers, or other important aspects of our personal lives?

I generally frame WordPress posts or responses to posts while I am off the Internet, whether driving or showering or mowing. That is less an indication of Internet addiction than it is a writer’s standard procedure for creating effective writing.

If I am addicted to any sites on the Internet, I am addicted to Sudoku and Nonograms. But that is more an addiction to games than to the Internet per se. If I had a hand-held version of either game, or a paper version, I would play just as intensely as I do on the Internet.

I cannot think of any way that the Internet has damaged my personal relationships. I might check WordPress or Facebook while at work, or sneak in a quick game. But when one logs onto Facebook and sees that one’s supervisor is posting while at work, it hardly seems worth worrying about getting caught.

If anything, I have gained important relationships through the Internet. Not through Facebook—I got a Facebook account mostly to spy on my children, and I have never approved a friend on Facebook whom I do not already know. My WordPress community, on the other hand, has become very important to me. I value my online friends and their ideas and interests as much as I value those of people I know in person. Moreover, I take attacks upon my WordPress friends as personally as I take attacks on people I know in person.

Gains and losses both come from making friends over the Internet. Some people pretend online to be someone they are not. At the same time, communities form sheltered existences where people can reinforce one another’s opinions and viewpoints, no matter how peculiar and uninformed those opinions and viewpoints might be. Trolls roam the Internet, looking for victims to verbally abuse. Internet addiction is real, and it can damage lives and relationships. This Wednesday I walked into a room and saw five members of my family sitting, each using a device, not interacting with one another at all—and this included family members who had traveled from other states to spend special holiday time with their family.

This summer, for several reasons, I have had less time to spend on WordPress and other social media. I am copy-editing a book for a publishing company and putting together another book of my own writing for publication through CreateSpace. At work I am filling in for other people who have taken vacations. I am also playing nonograms a lot more than I should. As a result, I missed some of the news that some of you have shared in the past couple weeks, catching up days later. I sincerely hope I have offended no one by my lack of response to their posts.

But what of it, my Internet friends? Are you concerned about Internet addiction and its effects on your life? Or do you feel safe and secure in your use of the Internet? J.

Five movies for Independence Day

On this fourth day of July, citizens of the United States of America celebrate the independence of our country and remember the freedoms we have as citizens of this country. Americans celebrate with parades, picnics, fireworks, and other traditional activities. Here is a list of five movies that I like to see around Independence Day. Not that I claim they are the best possible movies or that every American should see them. I don’t even watch all five every year, but it’s a safe bet I’ll be watching one of these five movies while others are out watching the firework show.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939): Actor James Stewart and director Frank Capra combine to bring viewers this movie about America’s government. Jeff Smith, played by Stewart, is a simple honest patriot. Named by the governor of his state to fill a vacancy in the United States Senate, Smith finds himself confronted with cynicism and corruption in the nation’s capital. Some elements of the movie fall short—for example, it’s hard to believe that a patriot like Jeff Smith would need a lecture from his office secretary about how a bill becomes a law. Still, the unabashed patriotism of Smith and his supporters—along with the tour of Washington DC’s landmarks—makes this movie a refreshing holiday treat. Some American politicians objected to portions of the movie that depict corrupt politicians (although no states or political parties are named), but the movie was banned in the totalitarian countries of Europe for its celebration of democracy and the power of the common man.

Music Man (1962): Made from a successful Broadway musical, this movie is not about patriotism or the Fourth of July so much as a celebration of the heartland of the United States and the people who live there. Harold Hill is a traveling salesman who markets musical instruments, lesson books, and uniforms, promising to form a boy’s band, even though Hill cannot read a note of music. Marian Paroo is the town’s librarian and must choose whether or not to reveal his scam. With songs including “Seventy-Six Trombones” and “Til There Was You,” Music Man joyfully depicts the state of Iowa in the summer of 1912. The dance scene in the library is particularly not to be missed.

1776 (1972): Also made from a Broadway musical, this movie uses song, dance, and acting to depict the writing and acceptance of the Declaration of Independence in the Second Continental Congress of the North American colonies of Great Britain. No movie is a purely accurate source for history lessons, but this movie comes close. The actors truly live the parts of John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and the other founding fathers of the United States. At times humorous and at times gloomy, 1776 does not back away from the harsh realities of war and of American slavery. In the end, though, it is a glowing endorsement of that document created back in 1776 which gave the founding principles of a new nation.

Moscow on the Hudson (1984): Robin Williams plays a Russian musician who defects to the United States while his employer, a Russian circus, is performing in New York City. A landmark movie that can help younger people understand the issues of the Cold War, the movie shows the differences between the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, but it does not retreat into jingoistic propaganda. Life in Russia has joy as well as gloom, and life in America has sorrow and fear as well as freedom and opportunity. Several other powerful actors depict the population of New York City, a group of people who have traveled from all over the world to take part in the American way of life. Though the film is not entirely family-friendly, it remains one of the clearest proclamations of America’s values during the Reagan administration.

Independence Day (1996): An obvious choice for the Fourth of July, Independence Day tells the story of Earth being invaded by hostile aliens from outer space. Jeff Goldblum, Will Smith, and Bill Pullman all shine in their roles of survivors who must confront and defeat this unexpected threat. Goldblum is especially effective as the environmentally-conscious computer expert who perceives the threat earlier than most people and eventually helps to create a solution. Doses of humor spice the action of this movie, including some lines so subtle that they might not be noticed until a second or third viewing. The President’s speech to his troops before the final battle is particularly uplifting and memorable.

Happy viewing, and happy Independence Day!  J.

(originally published July 3, 2015)