More history

As people long ago settled into patterns of raising their own food—tending herds and flocks, and planting and harvesting crops—they looked for places with fertile soil, reliable sources of water, and safety from dangerous animals, including other people. Many of these ideal settlements were in the river valleys of Asia and north Africa. In China, India, Mesopotamia, and Egypt, settlements grew until they had become small kingdoms, societies knit together by their common needs and desires.

Plentiful food made specialization possible. Some people focused on the crops and others on the flocks and herds. Still others helped to build houses and enclosures for the animals. Some made tools. Others made clothing from plant fibers and animal skins or fur. Some specialized in the arts, including story-telling; they maintained the histories of their people and also their religious beliefs. Some specialized in leadership; beginning as heads of families and of clans, they became the ruling class of their small nations. Some specialized in hunting and in military protection of their settlements. Some became priests and spiritual leaders, keeping the people in tune with God as they understood God.

Eventually, all these river valley settlements developed written language. Sumer, in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) appears to be the earliest place where humans wrote, although the Harappan civilization in India may have begin writing around the same time. Although the earliest records were probably inventories of food and other items being preserved, soon the same symbols were adapted to record other information that people were determined to preserve. One of the oldest documents found in Sumer is a recipe for brewing beer.

Literacy did not remain an ability of the privileged elite. Egyptian Pharaohs erected public monuments in their cities and at the borders of their land, telling people what they had accomplished. Hammurabi, king of a Sumerian city called Babylon, had the laws of his government carved in stone and placed prominently in his city. These practices indicate that many people living in those places were able to read. Some ancient writings have been preserved, not because of planning, but by fortunate happenstance. Temporary records scratched into clay tablets in western Asia were cooked when the cities caught fire, being hardened for long-term preservation. During the Shang Dynasty in China, people with questions about the future wrote those questions on animal bones. Religious specialists then heated the bones in fire until they cracked; the cracks running through the questions provided answers by means of the specialists. Although we do not know how they determined their answers, we know what questions people were asking in ancient China, which is splendid information for historians.

Many records have been lost over time, because they were written on materials that disintegrated. Others cannot be read because no one today knows those ancient languages. Ancient Egyptian can be read only because of a stone found in Egypt that contains the same message in three languages, including Greek. The Harappan language of ancient India and some of the written languages of the western hemisphere remain mysteries because no similar key has been found to interpret them.

Other civilizations did not bother trying to preserve the written word. In many places, unfavorable climate guaranteed that no written materials would last for generations. Africa, the South Pacific, and parts of the western hemisphere relied largely on oral tradition rather than a written record. For a long time, historians were suspicious of oral tradition. They figured it changed from generation to generation, much as spoken messages are changed from person to person in contemporary cultures. People who never relied on writing improved their memory skills; story-tellers in those cultures were able to maintain reliable versions of ancient narratives because their communities expected that skill from them. Today, historians place far more trust on the oral traditions of such societies; they combine that information with archaeological discoveries and accounts written by visitors to those societies to develop a comprehensive historical record of those nations.

Record-keeping practices constantly change. Electronic storage of information is still new, but the switch from scrolls to codices (the modern form of the book, with a spine and a cover) happened roughly two thousand years ago without bringing history to an end. Record management specialists and archivists continue to refine their skills at preserving digital information. Much will still be lost, as many books and papers are lost, and many ancient documents have disappeared. What is most valuable, though, will be saved. Future generations will study us to learn about our successes, our failures, our hopes and dreams, our fears, and our perceptions of ourselves. We may seem as strange to them as the ancient Egyptians, Sumerians, Harappans, and Chinese seem to us today. In the most important ways, though, we will all be the same, because we all are human. J.

History and sources

As a history instructor, naturally I explained to my students the meaning and significance of primary, secondary, and tertiary sources.

Primary sources come from people who were there, those who took part in the event or who were witnesses of the event. Memoirs and autobiographies are, of course, primary sources. So are diaries, letters, oral histories, photographs, recordings, and receipts. Primary sources do not have to contain words: artwork and architecture can be primary sources, as well as tools, weapons, clothing, and other artifacts. Garbage is a great source of primary sources. (Imagine how much an investigator could learn about your family by examining your garbage from the last month!) Dead bodies and the artifacts buried with them are also great primary sources, although contemporary historians and archaeologists are showing greater respect for burials than was the case in previous centuries.

Secondary sources collect data from the primary sources, examine them, and draw conclusions from them. A soldier writes about sights and sounds on the battlefield, while a politician writes about decisions made in the halls of government; the author of a secondary source combines those perceptions to produce a fuller account of the war than either primary source could create. Secondary sources should contain notes and bibliographies listing those primary sources they used to form their interpretations, as well as which secondary sources were consulted to help the writers interpret those primary sources.

Newspapers, magazines, and web sites can be a mixture of primary and secondary source material. When a reporter quotes a participant or witness, that quote is a primary source; the rest of the article which describes and explains the event is a secondary source. Even those secondary sources become primary sources for the historian who wants to know how events were understood at the time, before historians began writing about an event and trying to understand and explain what happened, why it happened, and what it means for people today.

Tertiary sources summarize what the secondary sources say. Encyclopedia articles (whether in print or online) are tertiary sources; so are textbooks. Student papers are tertiary sources. If a student only looked at the textbook and an encyclopedia or two and then wrote a paper, that paper would be a quaternary source, which is effectively useless. Junior high and early high school students might get away with that approach, but by college a writer should know how to read, evaluate, and summarize information from primary and secondary sources. The best uses of a tertiary source at that level of education are to get a general idea of what people are saying about the event and to consult the bibliography to find good secondary sources for research.

At this point, I ask the students if they agree with the statement that, “the more sources you have, the more likely you are to reach a firm conclusion about the event.” At first that proposition sounds reasonable, but too much information can be worse than not enough. Think of the assassination of President Kennedy. We have many primary sources—hundreds of witnesses who saw and heard the shooting, the doctors in Dallas who treated the President and declared him dead, the doctors in Washington who performed the autopsy, photographs, moving pictures, a bullet, bullet fragments, the President’s clothing, the car, and much much more. So many secondary sources have assembled interpretations of the event that probably no person can read and watch them all. Yet massive disagreement persists about what happened in Dallas that day. With so much information, researchers can choose those items and reports that match their theories while disregarding or dismissing contrary items and reports.

(Actually, good research affirms that the President was shot from behind. Analysis of the shirt and tie he was wearing confirm that the neck wound was an exit wound, not an entrance wound—as the Dallas doctors first thought and said. Still pictures taken from the Zapruder film clearly show the aftermath of the fatal head would exiting toward the front, indicating that the bullet struck him from the rear. Researchers who insist that other evidence indicates that shots were fired at the President from in front of the car must then explain how it was that those shooters missed their target—something I have not seen addressed in secondary sources.)

I have seen many sloppy works written by authors who deliberately skipped sources that did not agree with their preestablished conclusions, authors who misquoted and distorted their sources, and authors who relied on emotional persuasion rather than solid academic research to state their cases. These sloppy works are not limited to college students; they include professional historians, even some respected academic writers, who were more interested in publishing the conclusions they wanted to share than in being persuaded by the evidence of the sources that they were wrong. As I said before, historians have an obligation to be honest and fair with their information. The reputations of people from the past and the effective thinking of people in the future is in the hands of today’s historians. For this reason, I am very concerned about the way history is being taught in many classrooms today, and I am sorry that my voice is no longer among those being heard in those classrooms. J.

Grammar dalek and the pair tree

One of my elementary school teachers used a bulletin board for a class project which she called “The Pair Tree.” She used construction paper to create a tree trunk and branches and a few green leaves; then she cut out a number of yellow pear-shaped fruits to hand on the tree. Each fruit was to have two words which sound the same (homophones) such as—of course—pair and pear. She challenged the class to see how many pairs of homophones we could remember. With this creative exercise, she taught us to pay attention to words and to be aware of some of the tricky situations that arise in the English language.

In my work, in my private correspondence, and in my social media presence (including WordPress), I often notice writers who are confused by homophones or even by near-homophones. My eyes catch the mistakes. Usually I can ignore them and read the sentences for their intended meaning; sometimes misuse of words can grate upon my inner ear. Here, in alphabetical order, are seven pairs of homophones that often come to my attention:

Altar: a table-like structure upon which a sacrifice is offered; also used to describe the structure in a church building from which Holy Communion (the Lord’s Supper) is served to the congregation. Always used as a noun, except when someone is making a deliberate or accidental pun about changing a life by offering it to the Lord.

Alter: to change. Many things, from clothing to news reports, are altered, but rarely does such a change have anything to do with sacrifices.

Anecdote: a brief story, sometimes told for amusement or entertainment, but often used to illustrate a point in a conversation or a writing.

Antidote: a remedy or cure, frequently a medication given to counteract a poison. Rarely can an amusing story cure a problem, although a few such anecdotes might be the antidote to a boring speech.

Calvary: The hill outside Jerusalem where Jesus was crucified. From the Latin, translating the Aramaic “Golgotha,” which means “the place of the skull.” This hill, an outcropping of Mount Moriah (on which the Temple stood) evidently reminded people of a skull.

Cavalry: A military unit traveling and fighting on horseback. In the last hundred years or so, the term can be applied to fighters traveling in motorized vehicles. Family researchers and historians often say “Calvary” when they mean to say “cavalry.”

Counsel: Advice given to another; also, a team of lawyers involved in advising the prosecution or the defense in a trial. Some organizations maintain a salaried team of lawyers which they call their counsel.

Council: A group of people meeting to direct an organization. Churches, schools, businesses, and other entities, including government agencies, frequently are run by councils.

Lightening: making lighter—often used to describe a change in weight, whether literal or metaphorical (“The encouragement of his friends was lightening his burden.”) Can also be used of colors or colored objects (including the sky) becoming less dark.

Lightning: An enormous spark of electricity, jumping from cloud to cloud or from cloud to ground. Generally occurring in storms and often accompanied by thunder. Sadly, not effective in weight reduction.

Ordinance: A rule, often made by a council. For some reason, this word seems to apply more to city regulations than to state or national regulations.

Ordnance: Artillery, or guns, generally mounted. Also a short-hand label for the military unit in charge of such equipment.

Personal: Applying to a person, frequently used to describe matters that should not be shared with the general public or with a larger group of people. Confidential records might be labeled “personal.”

Personnel: The list of people working for an organization or agency. Such a list would generally be available to anyone interested, although some personnel details (including salaries and work evaluations) might be considered personal.

Please note that spell-check programs will not ask you which of these meanings you intend when you are typing. If you want to say that an idea “struck like lightning” but you type “lightening,” the mistake will be published unless you catch it yourself. J.

No need to jump

This morning I awoke from a dream in which I overheard the following conversation:

“Time to get up, get moving! Time to strap on a parachute and jump into an adventure.”

“No, thanks, I’m not planning on taking any adventure.”

“But you’re a writer! You’re supposed to be all about adventure.”

“No—I let my characters have the adventure. A writer—if that writer takes a flight in an airplane at all—is going to stay inside the airplane until it’s safely on the ground again.”

I’m not sure about all the words from that dream, but the final line is pretty much the way I dreamed it. And what I heard in my dream, I also endorse in my waking life. A writer’s job is not to have adventures: a writer’s job is to send out characters on adventures and then describe those adventures for the rest of us.

In the last twelve months, I’ve had enough personal adventures to keep me satisfied for a very long time. Over the weekend, I found myself on the Internet researching various poisons. What did the Russian government use against Alexai Navaly, and how did they acquire it? What common household items are toxic? What about plants in the house or garden? What combinations of various available chemicals are highly dangerous? Along the way, I read about the deaths of Marilyn Monroe, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Amy Winehouse, Tom Petty, Prince, and a few others, even following the absurd rabbit hole of the “27 Club.” Then, to justify this research, I invented the plot of a murder mystery. A man receives a box of candy at work. After eating two pieces of the candy, he keels over, dead. His ex-wife is the primary suspect. The package had no return address, but the postmark indicates it was mailed from the post office nearest her home. From the time on the postmark, police investigators are able to view security footage of the package being mailed. The person mailing the package appears to be a woman of about the ex-wife’s build, but the mailer is unrecognizable, wearing a face mask, sunglasses, and a scarf over her head. Police chemists test the remaining candy and identify the poison—it can be made from ingredients available at the local Walmart. Obtaining a search warrant for the ex-wife’s home, investigators find wrappings from such ingredients lying behind her outdoor trash can, against the side of the house. A Walmart receipt is with those wrappings. From the date and time on the receipt, the investigators can view the shopper who bought and paid for those items—paid in cash, by the way, as that person also paid at the post office. The Walmart shopper wore the same mask, the same sunglasses, and the same scarf—which is interesting, since the purchase of those ingredients and of the box of candy happened two days before they were mailed. Is the ex-wife guilty of murder, or has someone gone out of their way to frame her for the crime? If she was framed, by whom? The only person with a motive to harm her in that way, is her dead ex-husband. Did he kill himself to get revenge on her? If so, who was his confederate, the person seen at Walmart and at the post office. That person was too small to be that man, but would any person have knowingly helped him in this crime? Or could he have tricked someone into the visits to Walmart and the post office, not telling them the reason he asked them to make those trips?

It’s an OK basis for a story, although it needs to be fleshed out with the personalities of the victim and his ex-wife, his reasons for possibly wanting to kill himself while framing his ex-wife for murder, and perhaps an additional red herring or two. I also had a subplot about the same man recently preventing a violent crime in a heroic manner, only to mutter afterward that he had hoped to be killed while performing that heroic deed. Maybe somehow the intended perpetrator of that violent crime had a way of getting even through the poisoned candy and framed the ex-wife only to draw attention away from himself or herself. The story could build from there, with perhaps an entire gang of terrorists plotting to frighten a city but thrown off balance by the random action of an average man.

I have several other writing projects stacked, ready to be written when I find the time to write. I doubt this murder mystery/adventure will be added to the queue. I might change my mind. It doesn’t have to be my adventure: I can sit home and write and send these characters out on their adventure. J.

Unfinished business

My writing has stalled over the last few weeks, both because of the Christmas holidays and because of the political and social turmoil from our recent election and its aftermath.

In the next few days, I hope to continue my posts on socialism. I have at least five more to write: “education: privilege or right?” “the Cold War and socialism,” “socialism and totalitarianism,” “socialism, capitalism and race,” and, “the freedom of free markets.” I also need to compose a concluding, draw-it-together post. Then I can start editing what I have written, including helpful comments from several of you readers, with the intention of eventually publishing it as a book.

Meanwhile, I have several other books in the pipeline. In 2017-2018, I had twelve posts about the twelve days of Christmas; then, in December 2018, I had a series of Advent posts. I had hoped to combine these into a book last fall, but things slowed down with the other book I was writing. So I edited and printed those posts and used them as family devotions over Advent and Christmas. Now I’ve set that work aside for a few months, but next summer or early fall I’ll pull it out again, edit one more time, and send it to the publisher.

During the quarantine last spring I typed up some presentations I had made in previous years called “Witnesses to the Passion.” Each told the account of our Lord’s suffering and crucifixion from a different point of view: Simon Peter, Judas Iscariot, Pontius Pilate, Caiaphas, the soldier at the cross, the young man who ran away, and so on. I plan to compose two more presentations—a Temple guard who witnessed the arrest and trials of Jesus and was also posted to guard his tomb, and Thomas the apostle. Then I need a good introduction, and I can send this work to the publisher.

I also have two projects to begin writing. The first will be a series of devotions parallel to the witnesses of the Passion but looking more at items involved in the Passion: the thirty pieces of silver, the crown of thorns, and so on. I have not yet made my list of details to cover, but I hope to have at least forty, to make a Lenten devotional book. No doubt I will share some of those chapters as posts. The second was suggested by a woman in my Bible class. She says I ought to write a book about love: what the Bible means by love, how love is understood (and misunderstood) in our culture, and how to respond to our culture’s distorted versions of love. I’m a bit nervous about that book—it would possibly strike some people as intolerant, which certain people will not tolerate, as we all know. Perhaps that is all the more reason for me to write it.

Meanwhile, we still wrestle with issues related to the election and to the really stupid and futile response last week. Efforts by Democrats and the mainstream media to link every Trump supporter and every conservative to violence in the Capitol could, in a worst-case scenario, lead to repression of the conservative viewpoint—arrests, loss of jobs, being denied access to social media, and the like. With that in mind, I still want to risk two additional posts beyond the socialism posts I have mentioned. One would explore the possibility of the United States turning to a five-party system; the other would analyze voting fraud in the last election and would ask if it was illegal but not immoral.

There’s no telling what the future will bring. But these are my writing plans for the immediate future. J.

Thanksgiving patrol

Sometimes my imagination runs away with me. Since I’m a writer, that can be a good thing. Stories come from the question, “What if?” and some of those stories are worth sharing. Others belong in the trash bin. This is one of those stories.

I imagine the local police patrolling the neighborhood this Thursday, Thanksgiving Day. When they spot a house with several cars parked outside, they look more closely. Especially if they see out-of-state plates, they call for back up… and then they invade. For the good of the people, they arrest those violators of quarantine and put them in a special holding cell for the next fourteen days. Those who remain healthy are released, free to go about their business. Those who fall ill remain in quarantine until they are cured.

Can’t happen, you say? Impossible in this country? Do you remember Elian Gonzalez?

Twenty years ago, Elian, with his mother and some other relatives, escaped from Communist Cuba and fled by boat to the United States. Elain’s mother drowned during the attempt, but Elian, with other members of the family survived, and they found homes with family already living in Florida. The United States government decided that it was in the best interest of Elian to be taken away from his relatives in the United States and returned to his father in Cuba. On Easter morning they entered the house where he was staying, seized him, removed him, and started him back toward Cuba.

No, I don’t see the police and the National Guard patrolling our neighborhoods this Thanksgiving, breaking into houses and seizing families gathered to celebrate the holiday. It won’t happen—not in the land of the free and the home of the brave. But, considering all that has happened this year and all that could happen, I can imagine. I can imagine Americans calling the police to report Thanksgiving gatherings next door, then watching from behind the curtains as the house across the street is entered and the scofflaws gathered and taken away. I can imagine church services raided and ministers and congregants rounded off to prison for breaking quarantine regulations. I can imagine all this justified by the need to overcome the virus crisis and return the country to normal… whatever normal will be like after such things have happened.

It will not happen. This is just my imagination running wild. But American citizens have a responsibility to continue to treasure and protect freedom so that stories like mine remain unthinkable in our land. J.

Insert clever title here

Father knows about laptop computers, cell phones, Ipads, and the like, but he sees no use for any of them. “They bring many problems and sorrows, and very little joy,” he says. He grumbles about the cost of the Internet service and about anti-virus protection. “Your computer is a tool, my boy,” he often says. “I would never keep a shovel or a hoe that costs me money to keep up-to-date, or that sometimes fails to dig when I want to dig because of some virus or some program being updated.”

That comes from “An Incomplete Stranger,” a short story I wrote and published a few years ago. It reflects my long-standing opinion about computers—when they work, they are useful tools, but much of the time they are inconvenient, annoying, and exasperating.

When I arrive at work and log into my computer, it takes ten to fifteen minutes before I can check my email, log into my timesheet, and get started at my job. Several other programs have to “do their thing” before my computer is usable or useful. Java must tell me that an update is available, and the anti-virus software has to report, and Microsoft Teams has to log in, and several other programs have their tasks or reports to accomplish. I’ve taken to leaving tasks that don’t require the computer in place at the end of the day so I can start my computer and then be productive while it tries to wake up and get ready for the day.

Meanwhile, my home computer is logging off the Internet connection at random times, requiring me to restart the computer to reestablish the connection. I have no idea why it logs off when it does; I just have to adjust my behavior accordingly.

Microsoft Word is trying to make me a better writer. It consistently suggests “must” in the place of “have to,” “can” in the place of “is able to,” and “whether” instead of “whether or not.” Sometimes I agree with the suggestions; sometimes I like the rhythm of my longer phrases better than Word’s terse Heminwayesque style. The other day it helped me to spell “dysfunctional” correctly; it seemed to me that the word ought to begin with “dis-,“ and the correct spelling seems… well, it just does not seem to work.

Science fiction has for years conveyed warnings about allowing the machines to take over the world. Captain Kirk and Doctor Who regularly encountered societies where humans had become the slaves and computers were doing all the thinking. Kirk had a particular knack for talking a computer to death. Artificial intelligence may compete successfully with human intelligence in some areas—chess, for example—but it remains far less creative and flexible than the human mind.

People and their machines will always have a partnership in the world. In theory, machines could replace and exterminate humanity. In reality, it will never happen. They continue to be our tools, and we continue to have the last word. J.

That’s what he thinks. J’s computer

Maybe now I can cheer up…

“So, J., what did you do this weekend?”

Well, aside from church and sleeping and eating, I also moved some chairs around the house. You see, I’ve got this comfortable chair that we bought when we moved into the house some years ago. It was my main chair for watching television. I’ve seen many movies from that chair. I watched the Chicago Cubs win the World Series while sitting in that chair. When this year’s virus crisis kept us from gathering in family groups, I watched my daughter get married while sitting in that chair. When the sirens were blowing, I generally sat in that chair and watched the television coverage of where the storms were hitting and who needed to take cover. (One tornado came within a mile of our house while I was sitting in that chair.)

This spring we replaced the carpeting in that room and ended up redesigning the room. We got rid of our old AV storage and replaced it with new shelving, and at the same time we mounted the television on the wall. Now the family sofa is centered in front of the TV, and my old comfortable chair had retreated into a corner. I rarely sat in it any more. I decided this weekend to move that favorite chair into the library/reading room and put the chair I had been using there into the corner of the den/television room.

I am not as possessive of that chair as Archie Bunker was of his favorite chair. Other members of the household—including cats—have used that chair without any objection from me. Even when it was a new show, I recognized All in the Family as political propaganda, an attempt to persuade Americans that conservative politics are inevitably linked to racism and intolerance. Fifty years later, many Americans still believe that message. So please do not mistake me for Archie Bunker, even if I do have a favorite chair.

Also, I helped my daughter with some body work on her car. Four years ago, she was legally stopped at a stop sign shortly before midnight, and a white pickup truck took the corner too wide and struck her fender. The driver was, of course, uninsured. All these years she has been driving a car with a dented fender, and the rust was increasing on the fender. So, she did some research about the cost of replacement. All along she and I assumed that the work would need to be done at a body shop and would cost several hundred dollars. Last week, though, my daughter found the part for her car available online for sixty dollars, and she found a YouTube video showing how to replace a fender. So, I helped—but she did most of the work. It took a long time to get the old fender off—it would have been far easier if the car was put on a rack and the wheel was removed, because many of those bolts are hard to reach with the wheel in place. We finally got it off, though, and got the new piece in place. She is very happy to be driving a car that is less damaged than it was. She has requested new seat covers as a Christmas gift.

Oh, and this weekend I also published my latest book on Kindle and Amazon. My writing project for 2020 was The Child of Light and the Black Dog: Depression and Christian Faith. The publishing effort was a struggle that took part of Saturday and part of Sunday, because the publishing software didn’t like my files. (Also, the car repair took some time away from wrestling with the publisher.) The book is finally available, though—three dollars for the Kindle version and six for the print version.

With the book finally out of the way, I hope I can escape the cloud of darkness that hovered over its writing. Of course the election is looming on the horizon; but once that is decided and out of the way, perhaps a cheerful holiday season is on its way. J.

Update

If one watches the Star Wars movies in the order in which they were made, one sees the ‘droid R2-D2 gain additional abilities and features in each movie, as scriptwriters thought of more ways to use him in their stories. But if one watches the same movies in the order they are numbered, one sees that R2-D2 loses many abilities from his arsenal between episodes three and four. Many of the things he could do in the prequels were missing from his capabilities when we meet him again in Star Wars: A New Hope. The usual explanation for this change is, of course, a Microsoft update.

My desktop computer had a Microsoft update this week. I was editing my book when a pop-up informed me that an update needed to be installed, asking if I wanted to do the update now or schedule it for later. I scheduled it for 12:15 the next morning, and when I finished my editing for the day I made sure to save the file and close it, hoping that the update would not interfere with the book.

The only obvious change to the desktop computer since the update is that the ribbon across the bottom of the screen is pale blue, whereas before it was a darker color. But, as is always the case with Microsoft updates, I have faced other glitches along the way. Thursday, after the update, I composed nearly half of a three-page paper I would need this weekend. When I returned to the computer on Friday, that composition was missing; the computer had no recollection of any unsaved work. This morning, I had to recreate and then finish Thursday’s work. Fortunately, my outline and research were vivid enough that I was able to create the entire paper on deadline and suffer no consequences. But I then had to restart the computer to help it find the printer; before the restart, the computer sent the file somewhere, but the printer sat idle. During the restart, the printer found and printed the file.

My experiences bring to mind, not only R2-D2 of Star Wars, but also a story told by Hemingway. Ernest Hemingway had several unfinished works in his possession when he died in 1961. One of them, the novel Garden of Eden, was edited and published roughly 25 years later. It was then made into a movie. While looking at other things on the computer this month, I came across a description of the movie and decided to buy it. While I waited for it to arrive, I reread the novel. (Spoiler alert) The main character in the novel is recently married, and his bride is eccentric to the point of mental illness. She delights in the knowledge that he is writing memoirs about their honeymoon, but she resents any other writing on his part that does not include her. During that honeymoon, the character also writes a short story based on a hunting expedition he and his father shared years earlier in Africa. The key event of the novel is that the author’s wife burns the story he has written. At first he despairs, saying that once he writes a story, it has left his mind and cannot be recreated. (And he knows that this story was one of his better works.) But, at the end of the novel, he finds that he can write the story a second time, and the new writing is as good as the original, if not better.

This morning was not the first time I have needed to recreate something I had written. Years ago, when I was working with a much older computer (one of the two computers Noah had with him on the ark), I finished a three-page paper, reached out my hand to turn on the printer, and instead flipped off the power switch for the entire computer set-up. I switched it back on immediately, but the paper was gone, erased, completely forgotten by the computer because of that brief loss of power. I had to type it again from the beginning. Again, I was able to write essentially the same paper in less time; where it was different from the original, it was probably better.

Now it is time for me to return to my current book and see what, if anything, the Microsoft update has done to that file. J.

World Mental Health Day, the Mayan Apocalypse, friendship, and other things

When the calendar turns to October, I remember the Mayan apocalypse of 2012. For me, that apocalypse was centered in the month of October, focused most distinctly on the tenth day of October. The Mayans maintained a complicated calendar which reset after many years, and the end of our year 2012 coincided with one of their reset times. For most people, the Mayan apocalypse was nothing, just as the switch to 2000 had been nothing. But my life was hit by apocalypse in October 2012.

Much of the apocalypse was mechanical and financial. Every vehicle in the household seemed to break down that month, requiring towing and expensive repairs. (Since the household included young adults, you can imagine some of those cars were old, used models, prone to breakdowns.) As we were dealing with that jolt, the family desktop computer stopped working, requiring replacement and including the loss of some documents and programs. As soon as we replaced the computer, we also had to replace the printer. Some other appliance also required repair at that time—the oven, I think, or maybe the refrigerator. It seemed as though everything was falling apart.

My feelings regarding that turmoil became focused on the announcement that a prized and precious coworker was leaving to take a new position at another job; her last day was the tenth of October. We had worked together for the past five years. Her presence had made work more enjoyable, and her assistance improved the quality of my work. We had no romantic attachment, but—given the chaos of the apocalypse—I came to regard her departure as the worst crisis of the month. Every October reminds me of that month. Songs on the radio bring back memories. Songs and stories I have written keep those memories alive. I received with a sense of irony the news that October 10 is World Mental Health Day, given that I entered a breakdown of sorts on that day eight years ago, one which led to counseling, medication, and a new perception of anxiety and depression.

The day the calendar changed this month is the day that history repeated itself, as another coworker announced that she was leaving for another job, choosing October 10 as her last day. We have worked together only two years, and never as closely as in the previous case. Yet she is a coworker I have liked, respected, and admired—a person who probably would be a friend if we had met at church or in some community activity. Common sense and CBT are keeping this change from becoming a crisis, but the coincidence of dates is disconcerting and ironic.

Woody Allen’s movie Annie Hall is, primarily, the story of a failed romance. One of its subplots is a portrayal of friendship. Alvy and Rob are so close that they have a nickname for each other—the same nickname; they each call the other “Max.” I have had some Max-like friendships in the past: people whose thoughts and feelings and lives seemed to mesh with mine. A children’s rhyme teaches us to “make new friends, but keep the old: one is silver, and the other gold.” Aside from family, I have not been successful at holding on to the gold, nor have I acquired much silver in recent years. The truth is that I find it easier to confide my Mayan apocalypse experiences to my virtual friends on the Internet than to share them with anyone I see face-to-face on a regular basis.

When the virus crisis began to change our lives this spring, I thought I would achieve much productive writing. Instead, my writing has been mired in other issues. I have finally, this month, completed a first draft of my book about Christian faith and depression; but I know that this book will require more than the usual editing and polishing before I can send it to Kindle to be published. I have other book ideas, largely supported by writing I already have done. The energy to bring those projects to completion is also lacking. Since school days, I have prided myself on completing projects before they were due. Now, some of my most important writing is being done on the last day, with very little progress taking place before it is almost too late.

I knew for a while that I would write a post about John Lennon on his eightieth birthday, October 9. The night before, as I lay in bed, I composed what I wanted to say about the Walrus. In the morning, I got to a computer and typed my tribute. When I posted it, WordPress linked the post to related posts I had written and published before. I clicked on the first linked post, which I wrote two years ago. I was stunned to see that the previous post was all but identical to the newly-crafted post. Not that I would expect myself to have new insights into John Lennon that came to me in the past two years; but it seems like one more symptom of stagnation that a new production would so closely ape the work I did two years ago.

Mental health has many facets: sudden appearances of illness and long declines into illness, exercise of self-control and loss of control to situations or bad choices, being conquerors or being victims, seizing control of life or surrendering control of life. These issues are complex; they raise questions not easily answered. Generally, the one-day-at-a-time approach is best, with confidence that “the sun’ll come out tomorrow.” And the Lord who is control provides help and blessings along the way, when we have eyes to see his grace. We all struggle; we all help each other to get through these times. J.