The mockingbird

The mockingbird is the state bird of five states—Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Texas—and is the former state bird of South Carolina. When I lived in Florida, I heard a story about how the mockingbird was chosen as state bird. They said that a collection of birds native to the state was gathered so citizens could judge which bird had the most beautiful song. Proponents of the nightingale were convinced at first that their bird would win, but after a week the mockingbird had become so adept at imitating the nightingale, adding its tune to its own song, that the mockingbird was declared winner of the contest.

I remember one mockingbird that lived in the same neighborhood where I lived that year. It had somehow acquired a knowledge of the (human) classics, as it included famous (human) music in its song. I remember that it sang the ten-note motif of Mozart’s Fortieth Symphony. I cannot remember the other tune it sang, but it was very familiar—perhaps the first seven notes of Beethoven’s Fur Elise.

But for all its talent, the mockingbird is still a bird-brained creature. It has no real judgment, in spite of appearances. Late last night or early this morning (I didn’t check the clock.), I heard a mockingbird going through its routine. Suddenly, in the middle of its string of beautiful calls, it included three squawks of the blue jay. Blue jays do not shout in the dark of night, nor would a blue jay fit its rancid call into a space of the mockingbird song. No, this local mockingbird had chosen to include the blue jay among its imitations, which shows how little appreciation of beauty the bird has.

I once read the following anecdote in Readers’ Digest: a state highway worker drove to a rest stop along the highway to perform needed maintenance. He parked his truck, turned off the engine, put the keys in his pocket, and left the vehicle. Suddenly he heard the sound of the truck’s back-up warning. Panicked, he turned to stop the truck; then he saw the mockingbird, perched on a tree branch above the truck, imitating the back-up alarm.

Maybe birds are not as stupid as we think they are. J.

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With apologies to Lerner & Loewe…

If ever I would leave you
It wouldn’t be in Walmart.
Seeing you in Walmart
I never would go.
Your cart filled with clothing,
Groceries, hardware, and shoes,
They all cost more money
Than I care to lose!

 

But if I’d ever leave you,
It couldn’t be in Target.
How I’d leave in Target
I never will know.
I’ve seen how you sparkle
When sales nip the air.
I know you in Target
And it’s quite a scare.

 

And could I leave you
Spending merrily while at Sears?
With a credit bill
That will not be paid for years?

 

If ever I would leave you,
How could it be in Penney’s?
Knowing how the pennies add up to a lot?
Oh, no! not in Penney’s
Target, Walmart, or Sears!
No, never could I leave you, my dear!

Must be March Madness

Most Sunday mornings find me in a small congregation south of town. When I say “small,” I mean that a good Sunday has an attendance in the low double digits. But the congregation survives for two reasons: their preacher is a part-time pastor who has a full-time job downtown (benefits such as health insurance included); and the congregation rents out the building when they aren’t using it. On Friday nights Alcoholics Anonymous meets there, and on Wednesday nights and Sunday afternoons a Spanish-speaking congregation of a different denomination has services and classes there.

When I arrived this morning, I saw that the power company was doing repairs down the road, and they had parked their trailer with equipment and parts on the church parking lot, taking up about four spaces. That seemed rather thoughtless, what with it being Sunday and all, but we worked around it.

Then, when we got inside, we saw that the other congregation’s praise band had forgotten to put away their equipment after practicing on Saturday. They’ve left a few things out from time to time, but never the entire set-up. So three of us got busy and packed away all their instruments and equipment in the side room where they belong, and our service still started on time.

We decided that the cause of all this equipment in our way must be March Madness.

This afternoon a U-Haul van stopped in front of the house. Soon an Amazon deliveryman was carrying three boxes to the door—a small one, a medium one, and a large one. When I met him at the door, he warned me they were heavy; and they were heavy. Together they contained twenty copies of my novel, I Remember Amy, which has just been published.

They are huge, about 450 pages, and when I opened one I saw why. When I submitted the text, I inadvertently had left it double-spaced. Remember, I wrote the first draft seven years ago. I had double-spaced it then to print a copy and edit it by hand. So now I have a simple novel that, from the outside, looks like it ought to rival War and Peace. I was able, this afternoon, to correct the spacing and resubmit the text, cutting the size of the book in half. I also dropped the price to twelve dollars. (The Kindle version is still four dollars.) But the first people to receive free copies of the book will no doubt be daunted by its size. Honestly, I’ve seen phone books smaller than this edition of the novel.

So, that’s my March Madness story for this morning. I hope each of you is doing well and that all your teams are winning. J.

The celebrity roast of Nelson Mandela

My memory is not what it used to be.

Then again, it never was.

I wanted to write a post about something I saw on TV a long time ago and how it affected me. But when I started factchecking what I saw, it turns out that what I remember didn’t actually happen. Some people would blame this on the Mandela Effect, saying it really did happen, but the lines of history have changed. Others would simply acknowledge that memory is not as reliable as we generally want it to be.

Here’s what I remember: in the 1970s there were frequent television specials called celebrity roasts. These were staged like tributes to performers such as Bob Hope or Lucille Ball, but instead of honoring their careers and achievements, these shows made the honorees the brunt of jokes and humorous insults. The roasts were, of course, heavily scripted. The episode I remember honored Orson Welles. The reason I remember that episode is that, at the end, when the honoree got to stand and respond to all the evening’s speeches, Welles deliberately jettisoned the script that had been prepared for him and gave sincere, spontaneous, and glowing tributes to all the entertainers who had just spent the hour insulting him. I would like to think that Welles’ graceful and kind example helped me to mature at least a little bit, realizing that it is classier to be kind to others than to return insults with insults.

The Internet confirms that dozens of such specials were filmed and broadcast in the 1970s. Dean Martin was the host for all these roasts except the one in which he was honored, when Don Rickles hosted. Rich Little and Nipsey Russell were frequent speakers at these roasts. I thought I remembered Paul Lynde being on them often, but he only spoke at two roasts. In addition to the many comedians that were involved, occasionally athletes were honored. Two politicians—Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan—also received the gauntlet of the roast.

But although Orson Welles was a speaker at several of these roasts, he was never honored with a roast. My memory of his gracious kindness is a false memory.

Well, not entirely false.

A little further digging has shown that, on October 5, 1978, James Stewart was honored with a roast. Orson Welles was one of the speakers. When Welles rose to speak, he discarded his script and gave Stewart a heart-felt tribute based on memories of experiences they had shared. When Stewart had his opportunity to speak at the end of the event, he responded to Welles in the same spirit. It is possible that he also spoke kindly of the other speakers.

It is natural that, because of Welles’ classy behavior at this roast, I would think of him as the featured star rather than merely one of the speakers at the event. This is why factchecking is important: human memory is quite fallible.

Here’s another example: I remember hearing an exciting baseball game on the radio in 1984. The Cubs and the Cardinals were playing in Wrigley Field, and my parents and I were weeding the garden behind our house as we listened on a small transistor radio. The game was tied in the eighth inning, and the Cubs had put in their star reliever, Lee Smith, to preserve the tie. The pitcher was due to bat sixth in the bottom of the inning, so it seemed like a safe move to bring in Smith. (Baseball fans will understand the strategy.) But the plan backfired. In the bottom of the eighth inning, the Cubs found themselves still in a scoreless tie, with the bases loaded, two outs, and their best relief pitcher coming to the plate. Relief pitchers rarely are called to hit. They are almost a certain out. And, indeed, Smith did strike out in that at bat. But not before Leon Durham stole home. Smith returned in the ninth to finish the game and earn the victory in a 1-0 game.

Last year I went through microfilmed records of old newspapers to find the description and account of that game. Most of it happened just the way I remember it. But Lee Smith was not the pitcher who came to bat with the bases loaded and two outs in the bottom of the eighth inning. The pitcher’s name was Warren Brusstar. And while Brusstar was a decent pitcher who won eight games and saved eight games in his three seasons with the Cubs, he was no Lee Smith.

Why would I remember Lee Smith coming to bat instead of Warren Brusstar? Because Smith was the star reliever for the Cubs that year; he was the kind of pitcher you would want to leave in the game to pitch the ninth inning. In fact, I have no idea why Smith did not pitch in that game. Maybe he was injured, or maybe he had pitched a lot the day before. But for many years, whenever I remembered that game, I had the wrong pitcher in mind.

My memory is not what it used to be.

Then again, it never was. J.

A novel

Seven years ago, I wrote a novel. It sounds so easy said that way. In fact, the plot and characters had been growing in my head for several years when I finally started writing. And it took a few returns over the past seven years to tweak the words and sentences so they seemed right to me.

This is the description on the back of the book:

“On Christmas Eve, Mark Pendleton’s wife and daughters were killed in a traffic accident. Now he was left with only his job, his house, and his books.

On Easter, Amy O’Reilly’s boyfriend emptied his apartment of her possessions and locked her out. Now she was left with only her fast food job, her clothes, and her dance classes.

Soon they would each have more. They would have each other.

Their story is told in their own words. But it is more than a he said-she said confrontation. For he was born at the beginning of the Baby Boom, and she was born at the end of the Baby Boom. Now, in the mid-1980s, they are a generation apart from one another. Living and working in Little Rock, Arkansas, they have far less in common than anyone might have guessed. They must learn to share their lives in the face of their many differences.

More than a love story, I Remember Amy is an account of two individuals, both growing, both learning, and both coming to terms with relationships, with forgiveness, and with acceptance.”

Four dollars for the electronic version on Kindle, or thirteen dollars for a traditional book from amazon.com

When I first imagined the story, Mark was to have been injured in the wreck that killed the rest of his family, unable to stand or walk for the rest of his life. Amy was a gymnast before she became a dancer. She would have been on the brink of greatness, expecting Olympic medals and fame and fortune, but untimely injuries kept her from competing at key events. So she returned to her small town, unsung and uncelebrated, with no future ahead of her. Her only employment was cleaning houses. She would have ended up being a caretaker for Mark, and the story would have developed from there.

By the time I was writing, Mark was no longer confined to a wheelchair, and Amy was a college student, fast food worker, and dancer. One key plot twist—which I am not revealing on WordPress—gave me the incentive finally to create the entire story.

It’s set in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1985. Mark has a job in the state government. While I was writing, I did a lot of factchecking to be authentic about the weather, about events happening in town, and even about which restaurants and motels existed then.

For the last two or three weeks, I have been carefully reading through the work one final time. Last night I finished the reading and sent the work to Kindle for publication. It’s already available; I’m excited to see how it will do. J.iremember

So a string walks into a bar…

So a string walks into a bar. He hops up on a barstool and says, “Gimme a beer.”

The bartender looks at him, frowns, and says, “You’re gonna have to leave. We don’t serve strings here.”

The string says, “OK,” and hops off the barstool. He goes out the door and around the corner, ties himself a couple of times, frazzles himself at both ends, and goes back into the bar. He hops up on a barstool and says, “Gimme a beer.”

The bartender says, “Aren’t you the same string that I just sent out the door a minute ago?”

The string smiles and says, “No, I’m a frayed knot.” J.

So a doctor walks into a bar…

Doctor Edgar Fuller MD limited himself to one alcoholic beverage a week. Every Friday afternoon, he would stop at a neighborhood bar on his way home and order one drink—generally a rum-and-cola or gin-and-tonic, but sometimes he tried other drinks. The bartender expected Doctor Fuller every Friday, greeting him invariably with, “Howdy, Doc: what’re you having today?”

One Friday the good doctor felt like trying something different. When the bartender asked the usual question, he answered, “What do you recommend today?”

The bartender smiled. “I’m just branching out into something new,” he boasted. “We’ve always served fruit-flavored daiquiris: lime, or strawberry, even apple. But now I’ve got some new and interesting flavors: almond, pine, hickory…”

“That sounds interesting,” the doctor said. “I’ll try the hickory flavor.”

The bartender poured some rum into a shaker, added a little syrup, and shook the drink vigorously. He dropped some ice into a glass and poured the drink onto the ice. Then he slid the drink across the counter to his customer. “Here you go,” the bartender announced. “It’s a hickory daiquiri, Doc.” J.

Conspiracy theories about Christianity: #5: did the Church hide other Gospels to bury the truth about Jesus?

 

In Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code, a character named Sir Leigh Teabing makes a number of assertions about the history of Christianity, nearly all of which are completely wrong. At one point he says that “More than eighty gospels were considered for the New Testament, and yet only a relative few were chosen for inclusion.” A bit later he adds, “any gospels that described earthly aspects of Jesus’ life had to be omitted from the Bible.”

A large number of Gospels from the early centuries of Christianity have been found, in whole or in part. Only four Gospels are in the New Testament: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. When and how were these four selected, and why were the other ones omitted?

Conspiracy theories aside, the Church in those centuries had a simple process of selecting the books of the New Testament. It was not done quickly, nor was it done by a small secret group. The criteria for books of the New Testament were threefold. Each had to come from an apostle. Each had to agree with the doctrines that were being taught in the churches. And each had to be known in most of the churches, rather than just a few of them, or only one.

Matthew and John were apostles of Jesus. Mark was not, but he wrote what Peter taught, and so his Gospel was accepted. Luke also was not an apostle, but his badge of authority came through the apostle Paul, along with the likelihood that—as he researched for his writing—Luke spoke with other apostles.

Doubts were not expressed in the early Church about these four Gospels. Around the year 185, a Christian named Ireneaeus wrote, “It is not possible that the Gospels can be either more or fewer in number than they are. For, since there are four zones of the world in which we live, and four principle winds, while the Church is scattered throughout all the world, and the ‘pillar and ground’ of the Church is the Gospel and the spirit of life; it is fitting that she should have four pillars….” We can question his reasoning, but historically we see that the Church had settled upon Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John as the four authentic Gospels long before Constantine and the Council of Nicea.

Other books in the New Testament required greater discussion. Christians had doubts about the unsigned Letter to the Hebrews. II Peter and Revelation were also questioned. Additional books were considered: a letter from Clement, one of the first pastors in Rome was highly regarded, as were the Shepherd of Hermas and the Didache. In the end, the twenty-seven books of the New Testament were selected because they passed the tests of apostolic authority, agreement with the proper doctrine, and familiarity to all Christians.

The apostles received their authority directly from Jesus. They were messengers, not like mail carriers, but like corporate vice presidents authorized to negotiate and sign documents for the company. They recognized the authority of each other, as Peter wrote, “And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures” (II Peter 3:15-16). So, when they were first received, the four Gospels and the other books of the New Testament were already regarded as the Word of God.

The many other Gospels failed the Church’s test. They did not agree with the teachings accepted throughout the Christian congregations of that time. But Teabing was wrong when he said that the rejected Gospels described a more earthly Jesus. Quite the opposite: they described a more spiritual Jesus, a Jesus who was not at all human but who took on the appearance of humanity to bring a spiritual message to spiritual people.

The people who wrote those other Gospels and the people who read and believed them are now collectively called Gnostics. Only a few of them used that label in their own time, but it implies possession of a secret knowledge. Modern discoveries have uncovered various versions of the secret knowledge that was hidden in their extra Gospels. For the most part, they were trying to change the Christian message into something that matches Greek philosophy. That change requires rejecting the physical world, including the human body, and preferring the world of mind and spirit.

Douglas Adams wrote, “In the beginning the Universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.” The Gnostics would have agreed. They taught that the physical world was made by an inferior god. They further taught that specks of divinity, pure spirit, had fallen into the world and had become trapped as human beings. They said that Jesus was a messenger from the higher gods to rescue those specks of divinity and to tell them how to return to pure spirit. For the Gnostics, Jesus never became flesh and dwelt among us. He could not be killed; and if he did die, he certainly would not choose to raise his body back to life again.

One Gnostic Gospel depicts the body of Jesus hanging on the cross, and his disciples stand at the cross, mourning at his suffering. But then they look above the cross and see the true Christ, unharmed, laughing at his enemies for the thought that they could harm him.

Missing from the Gnostics is the goodness of creation, the Incarnation of the Word, forgiveness through his sacrifice, and a resurrection to life in a new and perfect creation. Instead of those key teachings, Gnostics were to deny the body—most by living ascetic lives, although a few said you could do anything you want in the body, since it doesn’t matter. They were spiritual without being religious. They looked forward to leaving the body, not to be in Paradise with Jesus awaiting the resurrection, but to be free from contamination from the physical world.

No conspiracy led to the selection of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John for the New Testament. Those books are the clear Gospel which conforms to Moses and the prophets and to the other apostolic writings. The Church did not hide the other Gospels; it merely set them aside as valueless. Now that they have been rediscovered, they are easily available to researchers. And anyone who troubles to read the Gospel of Thomas, or any of the other Gnostic writings, will see clear difference between their sayings and Christian truth. J.

Why I write

If I wrote to make money, I would be badly disappointed. The tax documents that I am preparing to file remind me that what I earned through writing last year was a tiny sum, nowhere near enough to support the year’s mortgage or groceries.

If I wrote to become famous, I would be badly disappointed. Some of my writing has been read by others and even quoted by others, but I have probably been noticed more for my public speaking than for anything I have written.

If I wrote to change the world, I would be badly disappointed. A few people have told me that they were helped by something I have written, but for the most part the world has gone its own way without paying any attention to the things I have written.

Why, then, do I write? Largely I write because I must write. I have thoughts that must be expressed. People sometimes ask authors, “Where do you get your ideas?” Ideas swirl around in my mind like flies in a stable. When I am showering, or when I am mowing, or when I am driving, my mind is composing sentences and paragraphs on various topics. For me, writer’s block is not a question of nothing to say; writer’s block for me is too many things to say, crowded together like too many people trying to get through a doorway at the same time.

I earned good grades in school. I scored highly on standardized tests. I could easily have been a scientist, a mathematician, a businessman, or an engineer. I would probably have earned far more money in any of those careers. But my primary fascination has always been language. I read about science, and I understand what I read and find it interesting, but I do not regret refusing to pursue a career in that field. I read about economics, and I understand what I read and find it interesting, but I do not regret failing to work in the world of business.

A few years ago, I was invited into a classroom to talk to seventh- and eighth-graders about writing. I encouraged the students to do three things. Read a lot: being exposed every day to samples of good writing will always improve one’s writing. Write a lot: even when one writes something that goes unread, the exercise sharpens skills. Rewrite a lot: no one but God gets it right the first time. Good writing can always be improved. At the end of the session, one of the students heading out the door asked, “Are you famous?” I smiled and said, “Not yet.”

I wouldn’t mind earning more money for my writing. I wouldn’t mind becoming famous for my writing. I wouldn’t mind making the world a better place by my writing. If none of those things happen, I still must write. It’s who I am; it’s what I do. If I did not write, I would not be who I am. J.