Thursday, March 31, 2011

I Hate PowerPoint

I hate PowerPoint presentations.

Part of the reason why, I suppose, is that when it comes to speeches and presentations, I’m a traditionalist. I prefer words, written and spoken. It’s today’s popular culture of visual communication, I’m something of a Neanderthal.

My lack of hipness notwithstanding, I also understand PowerPoint enough to know that very, very few people actually know how to use it effectively.

They don’t know, for example, that it was designed for charts and graphs. Not words.

They also don’t know that every study done on the subject demonstrates that the maximum number of words for an effective PowerPoint slide is – believe it or not – six. And that’s the maximum.

When was the last time you saw only six words on a PowerPoint slide?

We see a blank slide on our computer screen, and we immediately set ourselves to doing what we have the technical capabilities to do – we fill up that blank slide with words, charts, graphs, colors, photos, embedded videos, visual jokes and anything else we can cram on it. We make the slides so complicated that no one – including ourselves – can understand them.

But they look impressive.

If you’re in the audience listening to a speech or presentation, and the speaker is using PowerPoint slides, what do you look at – the speaker or the slides? (Answer: the slides – they’re usually better looking.) And if the speaker reads the slides, do you follow his or her voice, or do you let your eye race ahead to finish reading the words on the slide? (Answer: The eye is faster than the speaker’s voice.)

In fact, everyone might be a lot better off to forgo the speaker altogether and just slow the slides, perhaps with some appropriate Muzak playing as background.

Unfortunately for all concerned, the person of the speaker – body language, voice, personality, physcial appearance, clothes – is a major portion of any speech – some say well over half of the actual communication that happens. And in a PowerPoint presentation, all of that gets lost.

The slides overpower the speaker, and they overpower the message. Everyone forgets that often the most important thing you can do is leave a lot of whitespace on a slide. It provides emphasis and focus, not to mention needed rest from the presenters who never met a whitespace they didn’t immediately try to fill up.

The whitespace in our lives is like that. We have it, but we usually try to fill it up with activities and stuff. Yet that whitespace is the rest time, the thinking time, the quiet time that we need to let be quiet. It’s the time when God speaks most clearly, or when we’ve pushed away all the distractions we allow to invade our lives or we embrace in our lives so that we can hear God speaking clearly.

Whitespace can be simply sitting and reading from a familiar Bible passage, and discovering something you’ve never seen before. Or it can be just sitting. Or lying down. Or walking. Or riding a bike (I had to throw that in there). Taking a hike. Or even, as my wife will tell you, turning off the stupid BlackBerry.

We need whitespace. We crave it. And we can reclaim it.

We can also wage guerilla warfare against PowerPoint presentations. But that’s another post for another time.

To see more posts on whitespace and spiritual rest, please visit Bonnie Gray at Faith Barista, who’s been hosting a blog carnival on rest during the month of March.

Photograph: Blank Monitor by Petr Kratochvil via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

"It's for the Good of the Children"

From 2003 to 2004, I worked as director of Communications for St. Louis Public Schools. It was a tumultuous time; an outside management firm had been hired to “shrink the physical footprint” of a school district that had served 100,000 students in its heyday but had an enrollment of something less than 40,000. And shrink it did – schools were closed, employees laid off, budgets slashed, services outsourced, and the first attempts at overhauling the curriculum.

There were protests, all the time. My first day on the job, the teachers had a sick-out, protesting changes that would stop the “banking” of sick leave. Protests and wildcat strikes were common. A day without protests was like a day without, well, there never was a day with some protest going on. And board members fought each other. Former board members fought with the current board and themselves. The teachers’ union fought with everyone. The Mayor’s office was involved, so everything became political. It was the quintessential urban school district – in crisis.

And everyone used the same language. In fact, everyone used the same phrase: “It’s for the children.” Or a slight variation: “It’s for the good of the children.” It took me about two weeks to learn that whoever said that really meant something like this: “Who gives a flip for the kids? This is about jobs! (Or power, or control, or a cancelled consultant contract, or getting even. It was never, never about the kids. Never.)

I was reminded of this while reading chapter two of Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis, as part of the discussion being hosted by Sarah Salter and Jason Stasyszen. Lewis, continuing to answer objections about his “Law of Human Nature,” that all of us, the world over, know how to behave. He differentiates between the law and an instinct – that this idea of how we are to behave is not herd instinct we’ve learned or incorporated into our DNA over millennia.

“If the Moral Law,” he writes, “was one of our instincts, we ought to be able to point to some one impulse inside us which was always what we call ‘good,’ always in agreement with the rule of right behaviour. But you cannot…Strictly speaking, there are no such things as good and bad impulses.”

He goes on to make a rather profound yet simple statement: “The most dangerous thing you can do is to take any one impulse of your own nature and set it up as the thing you ought to follow at all costs. There is not one of them which will not make us into devils if we set it up as an absolute guide.” Consider what the Soviet Union did with the phrase “the good of the people” – tens of millions died and/or were sent to labor camps for “the good of the people.”

Just like all manner of things were justified in the school district “for the good of the children,” most if not all of which ended up hurting the very children they were supposed to help. And the surprising thing was that people who said it actually believed, or at least most of them did.

Too easily do we mask our motives. Too easily do we convince ourselves of our own idealism and the venality of those who disagree with us. And we can subsequently justify all kinds of very bad, very wrong things.

To read more posts on chapter 2 of Mere Christianity, please visit Jason Stasyszen at Connecting to Impact.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

All the News That...

Linotype: each letter
a metallic piece
of context,
of understanding,
or metal on wood,
selected by hand,
inserted by hand
into large frames
of what will be
consumed with
the morning coffee
and toast.

Fast forward.

Offset: typed and cut,
waxed and pasted up
and placed on a page
to be handed
to the printer;
the news goes faster
if not the context,
if not the understanding,
but faster is better,
especially during
the morning commute.

Fast forward.

if not the context…

Fast forward.

all the bytes
that fit,
all the time.


This poem is submitted for One Shot Wednesday, hosted by One Stop Poetry. To see more poems, please visit the site. The links will be live at 4 p.m. today.

Photograph: Newspaper on Beach by Petr Kratochvil via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Interview with Ian Thomas Curtis: Dragonsong (Part 2) – and a Giveaway

We’re continuing with our interview of Ian Thomas Curtis, author of The Canticles of Andurun: Dragonsong. Today he talks about the characters, the role of faith in the story, his favorite authors and his own faith.

The story of Dragonsong is an epic-like story. But it is also the personal story of Justias, who's not only called to be a dragon slayer but has very familiar conflicts with his father, William. Their relationship is marked by both tension and love. These "stories within the story" are found throughout the book, and seem designed to knit the main story together.

I love side plots. That is the simplest explanation. I feel that writing a good novel (especially a novel of this type) should be like making a rug: you use many different strands to weave it into one coherent whole. The challenge and the joy is to bring many seemingly unrelated plot points into a position where they begin to fall together and reveal a larger whole. The over-arching story is Justias’ great quest to slay the Dragons and liberate his people; but I hope the reader pauses to enjoy the many rabbit trails I’ve left along the way. Sometimes being diverted is fun, and it gives the story room to grow, in my opinion.

The novel is strongly undergirded by faith, and yet it's not overwhelmed by it. And elements of the Bible and religion have a definite influence -- the required branding by the dragons, the clerics and zealots who serve the dragons, and the faithful like Reverend Cerson who believe in "the One." Speak a bit about how your own faith influenced the story.

Justias in many ways reflects my own faith, or lack of it, for most of my life. The Dragons and their Clerics represent, to some extent, the organized religious institution. Reverend Cerson represents the believer’s simple and faith-based relationship with God. Yet I must add that I wasn’t intending Dragonsong to be an allegory in any strict sense. I did use biblical references, quotes, morals, etc. because I wanted to teach God’s sovereignty and man’s accountability toward Him. In Justias’ case he wanted vengeance no matter what; it would be a hard lesson for him to see that his own way is not the best way because we can’t see further than the moment we’re in. The dragons could be likened to Satan and his demons who crave the worship that only belongs to God, and direct man’s attention away from knowing and building a relationship with Him, to building religious systems that replace Him. When I realized the vital nature of what Christianity meant, that it was nothing short of approaching God through Jesus Christ and coming to know Him and be known by Him, it was an epiphany. I wanted to show a character going through something of the same ordeal as I did and being conformed from doing my own thing to thinking God’s thoughts after Him. Dragonsong is my attempt.

What authors do you like to read?

After the Bible I enjoy a lot of non-fiction authors. I like Dave Hunt, A.W. Tozer, Roger Oakland, Charles Spurgeon, Erwin Lutzer, and many more. I love expositional material, commentaries, or devotional work. As for fiction? I don’t read a lot of fiction, actually. I just read Paradise Lost by John Milton, a trio of plays by Shakespeare, the Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo, and I’ll be turning to Poe soon. I enjoy the Lord of the Rings, the Chronicles of Narnia, the Sword of Shannara (Terry Brooks), the Screwtape Letters (Lewis, of course), and Lloyd Alexander’s series of fantasy. I love a good fantasy story where the heroes and villains are sharply defined; good is good and evil is evil. I don’t mean boring cliché and lack of creativity, but I have no interest in reading when the hero is as vile or duplicitous as the villain.

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Random or particular? Randomly, I like watching Scooby Doo cartoons and have a mild fascination with monkeys. In particular, I have been writing in one form or another since I was eight (give or take). I liked writing horror stories at first, and then turned to writing fantasy, but had the most awful problem—even into my twenties—of finishing a novel-sized fantasy story. No; I have never suffered writer’s block. I just had other ideas for other stories that would intrude, and I would set down what I was writing, begin something else, and never go back. I lacked self-control and temperance: something God has given me to complete The Canticles of Andurun.

I began dating Gillian (my wife) in my late twenties, and finished writing Dragonsong not long afterward. We married after about 21 months, and had our twin girls, Mabel and Lorna, almost two years after. Our third (Gabriel Benjamin if a boy and Kendra Elizabeth if a girl) will arrive early July, 2011.

I haven’t always been a very good Christian. I was very self-centered for most of my teens and twenties, which led to numerous poor choices on my part: A carnal relationship with my first girlfriend that lost me my best friend, followed by a marriage to an unbeliever that nearly cost me my entire family. The marriage ended after less than three years and I came to the realization that all of my choices in life had one ultimate end: gratification of self. I was so in love with myself that God was nowhere on the horizon.

Jesus finally managed to get my attention after my divorce and I began a slow and uncertain walk that was strengthened through new Christian friends and a new fellowship with my parents that I did not possess earlier. I still stumble often, but I know now that when I fall I can be cleansed and restored to fellowship with my Lord; I know that my spirit is willing, even if the flesh is weak. I know Jesus Christ is my Savior, and therefore I have a foundation on which to build my marriage, fatherhood and writing. I love being a father and a husband, and I am inclined to believe that God gifted me with creative ability to glorify Him through fictional stories.

I am a fundamental Christian: I believe the Bible is the inerrant, infallible word of God for faith and practice, and that justification is by faith alone in Christ alone, totally divorced of works or merit. I believe that the Bible teaches only one way to salvation and God: faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. I like to teach through my blog, and I’m glad to God how much I learn as I do so! No, I have never been to college and I do not have any credentials after my name; I am a doctor of nothing. Yet Christ was pleased to call the common men to Him. Had He wanted the men with the credentials, He could certainly have had them. And I am certainly common in this regard.

I have a deep love for fantasy writing, and without doubt the Bible was my primary source of inspiration for crafting my tale; though I confess that elements of other novels and such have colored some of Andurun. Solomon said there was nothing new under the sun, so I just want to take an old idea and give it a unique spin. I hope I have achieved that. It is my hope and desire to sow a little biblical truth and wisdom throughout The Canticles of Andurun for the believer, and to provide something to think on for the unbeliever; I also just wanted to give the reader a good story to plunge into!

Related: Ian talks about the book on YouTube.


It won’t be a surprise that I like this book – and I like it a lot. So much, in fact, that I’m giving away a copy, shipped directly from Amazon. Just leave a comment in the comment box, and your name will be entered in a random drawing. The giveaway will close on Sunday, April 3 at midnight, and I’ll announce the winning name on Monday, April 4.

Monday, March 28, 2011

An Interview with Ian Thomas Curtis: Dragonsong (Part 1) – and a Giveaway

I’ve mentioned several times that one genre of fiction that I’ve really read is fantasy, Sure, I’ve read J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and C.S. Lewis and his Chronicles of Narnia. And years ago, I read the Dune novels by Frank Herbert, and science fiction works by Robert Heinlein, Arthur Clarke, Robert Silverberg and many others. But fantasy didn’t hold much appeal, that is, until I read C.S. Lakin’s The Wolf of Tebron and The Map Across Time, and then The Canticles of Andurun: Dragonsong by Ian Thomas Curtis.

And I was blown away. You can read my reviews of the two Lakin novels here and here, and my review of Dragonsong here. And I ask myself, where does such imagination and creativity come from, to create such complex worlds and stories?

I caught up with Ian Thomas Curtis, and posed a few questions about that.

When did you become interested in fantasy - reading and writing?

I was a little boy when I became interested in fantasy. I was a child when "Star Wars" and similar movies were popular, and my older brothers enjoyed movies and books of that sort. I began writing fantasy by the time I was 10 years old and reading it even earlier. It’s in the blood, I guess.

How did the idea of Dragonsong originate? You write in the introduction that there was some influence from you playing Dungeons and Dragons years ago.

I began playing Dungeons and Dragons when I was about eight. My older brothers were involved and they brought me in, and then when I was older I brought my friends into it, and I played until I was about twenty seven or so. First I was a player, and later a Dungeon Master, which meant I was the one who told the stories and created worlds for people to explore on the fly, so to speak. Dragonsong began in a very primeval form way back then. I would invent something (a character, monster, locale, and so forth) that I liked, and I retained it through future games or stories. Bit by bit, portions of Andurun began to take shape. I was still involved with Dungeons and Dragons when I began writing Dragonsong, but I set the story down about two chapters in for quite some while, and didn’t return to it until I had ceased playing and was writing from an altogether different motivation.

The world of Kallendaros is incredibly detailed, full of specific geographies, different kinds of beings, and then the personalities of the dragons themselves. The variety and richness of the detail is amazing. Can you talk a bit about how you constructed all of this?

I love creating things. I immensely enjoy bringing the reader “into” the story so that they can easily get a grasp of the setting. I like nature, and have a great time stopping to smell the roses when characters in the story are traveling, or whatever they happen to be doing. Creating personalities for the characters is every bit as rewarding, and some of the characters in Dragonsong, which were meant to be minor characters, took on a life of their own after a time. I really wanted to give the reader a sense of reality in the story; landscapes that felt organic and people that could be genuine, no matter how fanciful their appearance or race. Some of the characters you meet in Dragonsong I created while playing Dungeons and Dragons, and I enjoyed their personality so much that I imported it.

The names of the characters speak to much about who they are: Justias Eventine, Julias Darkmane, Gildaryss the Tyrant Wyrm. How did you name them?

Justias came about after a little brainstorming about what sort of name embodied a boy who would grow into his namesake. Justias is similar to “justice” and Eventine has a regal bearing; I felt it fit the role the main character was going to be growing into. When I created the villains for Dragonsong I wanted to actually grant them more spotlight than I had given to the “bad guys” in previous stories. I needed names that really embodied something of their character. Julias needed a daunting enough name to invoke dread, but a dignified enough name to portray his civilized façade. Gildaryss—and all the Dragons—were given alien names that didn’t necessarily sound right. I wanted something that rolled on the tongue; it was coincidental that her name sounds sort of serpentine when you pronounce it. Her title I gave her because she is the leader of the Dragons; she is the mastermind behind everything. I wanted the reader to understand that Gildaryss was worse than even the other Dragons. In essence she lords over both races.

Dragonsong is full of non-human characters -- the shapeshifters, the ogres, the goblins and a lot more. You use these characters to both depict them in their own right but also to advance the story. Where, for example, does a character like a zul (sea monster) come from? I had to ask about the zul, because it plays a critical role in Justias' development as a dragon slayer, and it's a rather terrifying scene in the story.

The Zul, along with his encounter with the Racksha, both serve to teach Justias lessons about Dragon slaying. They are indeed also present to flesh out aspects of the characters involved in the struggle, and the Zul especially gave Justias the opportunity to prove he was capable of doing what he longed to do. The Zul, and the rest of the monsters in Dragonsong, are also there to remind the reader that Andurun is very much entrenched in the realm of fantasy. I rather like a world where the water’s depths or a forest’s shadows harbor hidden threats of an utterly inhuman type. Mind you, I don’t like it so much I would want to live in such a place, but it’s just this element of the fantastic that made me want to write to begin with.

One of the many interesting things about Dragonsong is how it has both a sense of past and future. There seems to be a sense of what we would know as the Middle Ages, and yet there is also a sense of something we might think of as a post-apocalyptic time, when a world that was known has been almost destroyed. Do I have that right?

Actually, yes. I really wanted to enter Andurun with a deep sense of the history it possessed; I wanted an organic world that felt as if it had existed for a long time before the characters (and the reader) joined in the story line. The former kingdom of Kallendaros was the height of Human power and prestige, so when it collapsed there was a lot of regression as the race was scattered across the land. The people are fractured and demoralized, waiting for some reason to hope but not genuinely believing hope is ever going to manifest. I wanted to make the history of the land a part of the story so you would subtly know at every turn that people had been there before the characters embarked on their quest.

Tomorrow: Part 2 of the interview


It won’t be a surprise that I like this book – and I like it a lot. So much, in fact, that I’m giving away a copy, shipped directly from Amazon. Just leave a comment in the comment box, and your name will be entered in a random drawing. The giveaway will close on Sunday, April 3 at midnight, and I’ll announce the winning name on Monday, April 4.

Sunday, March 27, 2011


Chaucer hears it emerging
from the French or Germanic or both,
recognizing a common root,
the Latin perhaps, it has
a Roman flavor to it.

Shakespeare writes it
into the literary canon
as the committee of King James
codifies it into the Biblical canon,
at least for a few hundred years.

Milton lives it, intimately:
civil war, triumph,
imprisonment, blindness,
a kind of Paradise Agonistes,
literature and life.

It’s disappearing with our bare notice,
a rather quant word, an oddity really,
losing its being in the diversity,
the diffusion of contemporary
meaning and definition.

The most important thing,
the critical and vital thing,
about the verb is not the verb
but the adverb attached by Paul:

This poem is submitted for the Warrior Poet circle, hosted by Jason Stasyszen at Connecting to Impact. This week’s prompt is “striving.”

The word “strive” emerged in its recognizable form (“striven”) in the Middle English period, between 1175 and 1225, related to similar words in French (“estrivber”) and Germanic (“streben”).

I became rather fascinated with this when I looked in Young’s Concordance and found 42 references to strive and striving (in the King James version of the Bible) but only eight when I checked the concordance to the New International Version of the Bible. The NIV replaces “strive” with words like struggle, compete and contend.

Around such musings a poem happens.

Photograph: Strive Tirana.

The Trail of Crystallized Tears

We wash across the land,
driven by a wind of greed
and fear, herded
from the land to a land,
learning how many ways,
how many times,
a man, a woman, a child
can die: murder
can be accomplished
by more than gun and knife.

We stream in suffering,
torn from the lands
of our ancestors,
a journey begun within
a shame sufficient
in its own death, flowing
a thousand crystallized miles,
the trail of crystallized tears,
to be cast upon, gasping,
a beach of crystallized sands.

This poem is submitted for One Shoot Sunday sponsored by One Stop Poetry. To see other poems based on the photo prompt, please visit the site.

This photo took me in a direction I did not expect to go, a direction not suggested by the photograph or the photographer. I started with a meditation, and ended with the Trail of Tears. You can learn more about the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail at Wikipedia.

Photograph by Roger Allen Baut for One Stop Poetry. Used with permission.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Saturday Good Reads

Another round of great reading and viewing on the web. I don’t normally say “this was my favorite thing to read this week” and I won’t start now. But I will say I was moved to tears by Jeanne Damoff’s “In the Presence of Greatness” (link below in Prose).


Washington’s Crossing as DocuDrama: The Passage of the Delaware by Thomas Sully” by Patrick Walsh for The Wall Street Journal.

Go Down, Twitter” by Perry Block at Nouveau Old, Formerly Cute.

Lenten Journal: Coming Clean” by Milton Brasher-Cunningham at Don’t Eat Alone.

All the Leadership Advice You Will Ever Need” by Bradley Moore at Shrinking the Camel.

Permission to laugh” by Kathy Richards at Katdish.

The Presence of Greatness” and “Letting Go” by Jeanne Damoff at The View From Here.

Singing Him Home” by Jennifer Dukes-Lee at Getting Down with Jesus.

Why Writers Need Thin Skin” by Mike Duran at deCompose.

One Name for God” by L.L. Barkat at Seedlings in Stone.

Nuclear Media Storm? How Should We React?” by Robin M. Arnold.

A Lenten Parable” by Justinian at Codex Justinianus.

How to Ruin Anything” by Douglas R. Young.

William J. Stuntz 1958-2011” by Justin Taylor at The Gospel Coalition.

I Am Here” by Louise Gallagher at Recover Your Joy.

Window on Writing: Looking into the Light” by Sandra Heska King.


Inseparable” by Rob Kistner at Image & Verse.

Mystical Union” and "Can I Write You a Love Letter?" by B.K. McKenzie at Signed…BKM.

Legend” by Pete Marshall.

Is at Hand” by K. Duane Carter at Songs from the River.

Outbound,” “Church” and “Puggy’s House” by Jim Schmotzer at Faith Skeptic.

Lent II” by Chaplain Mike at Internet Monk.

Shh” by Melissa at All the Words.

Lenten Time” by Louise Gallagher at Recover Your Joy.

The Stories We Tell” by Brian Miller at Way Station One.

The roster” by Maureen Doallas at Writing Without Paper.

We Do Not Feed We Feast” by Marcus Goodyear at Good Word Editing.

Umbrella Days” by Marsha Berry at Marousia.

Stuff” by Nancy Rosback at A little somethin’.

Paintings and Photographs

Preparing for a Feast: Sacred” by J of India at Neither Use Nor Ornament.

It’s a comfort” by ELK at Red or Gray.

Winter Marsh,” oil on canvas by Randall David Tipton.

Cheesy Squirrels” and “ Do It with Flare” by Susan Etole at Just…A Moment.

Staring into the Sun” and “Me in front of the lens” by Kelly Sauer at A Restless Heart.

Sydney Rainbow Clouds” by Gary P. Hayes.

A flash mob rocks to Abba at an Israeli beach.

Photograph: Basement Window by Nancy Rosback. used with permission.

Friday, March 25, 2011

It's a New York Day

We try to visit MOMA
but it’s closed on Mondays,
bummer, so we walk
down Fifth Avenue
in the light rain to the Plaza,
we want high tea but
we’re politely shown
to the Grill (improper attire).
We find a rare book shop,
barely noticeable from the street,
and walk up the stairs when
we’re buzzed through the door
to see and smell rows and shelves
of leather-bound words.
I go solo to see this revival
of Moon for the Misbegotten
at the Cort and have a drink
at intermission on the warm,
wet, June sidewalk.
I still smell the rain, different
here than anywhere else.

This poem is submitted to Poetically Friday at One Stop Poetry, hosted by Brian Miller. To see other poems about New York, please visit the site.

Painting: At the Sherry-Netherland, oil on board by Amy Stewart. Via Lost Coast Daily Painters.

Things I See on My Bike Rides

I have a couple of regular biking routes from my house in suburban St. Louis. One is Grant’s Trail, about a 20-mile round trip that takes me alongside Grant’s Farm (the Clydesdales!) and the Ulysses Grant home White Haven. The second is a longer ride – about 24 miles roundtrip – that goes almost due east and cuts across the suburbs of Glendale, Webster Groves and Shrewsbury until it reaches the city of St. Louis. I follow the River Des Peres Trail, connecting to the Christy Greenway, and then a bike lane that takes me almost to Broadway, paralleling the Mississippi River.

As I cross Interstate 55, I enter a section of the city known as Carondelet, one of the oldest parts of St. Louis. More than 150 years ago, German immigrants started settling in this area, which was already populated by small farms from French and early American settlers. The architecture in this area is generally red brick, Victorian, and middle and working class.

Every time I bike down Michigan Street in Carondelet, I pass this where Michigan intersects with Iron Street:

This is the old Des Peres School, built in 1873. It’s now the home of the Carondelet Historic Association, but it’s famous for something else. It was the site where a woman named Susan Blow went to work as a teacher, and opened the first successful kindergarten in the United States, also in 1873 when the school opened.

She was born in Carondelet in 1842 was sent to New Orleans for her education, and apparently fell in love with a man her family deemed unsuitable. She wasn’t allowed to marry him, and they found a replacement, which she turned down. President Grant appointed her father minister to Brazil in 1869, and she went with his as his secretary. She never married. She died in New York City in 1916.

You can read more about her at Wikipedia.

The top photograph was taken with my trusty smart phone; the bottom photograph is of Blow's actual kindergarten classroom at Des Peres School, courtesy University of Missouri-St. Louis.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Giving the Emotions a Rest

Times of raw emotion:

A relative’s death and funeral.

An concentrated, extended period at work.

A family upset.

A church upset.

Illness, whether yours, a family member’s or a friend’s.

Achievement of a long-sought goal.

For me, an intense period of writing. There have been speeches I’ve written that have left me emotionally wiped out.

One of the most intensely emotional weeks of my life was the six days following Hurricane Katrina in 2005: ensuring my mother and aunt were okay; trying to contact my brother and sister-in-law; trying to locate family members scattered from Texas to Florida and as far north as Ohio; trying to get my mother and aunt out of the city; watching on television as the city appeared to descend into chaos.

Four days after the storm, a neighbor sneaking back into the neighborhood agreed to take my mother and aunt to my nephew’s house in Lafayette, La. When my wife called me at work to say they had arrived and were safe, I broke down. Right in the office. I’d been living for days on the very edge of emotion, and I simply lost it. I discovered what the term “sobbing” means.

Most events and situations evoking strong emotion aren’t like that. They’re shorter or longer, and not usually played out against a background of saturating media coverage. The emotional trauma accompanying the Japanese earthquake and tsunami has likely exceeded that for Katrina.

After the raw emotion, what do you do to rest and recover?

Here are some things I have done:

Read. I read a lot. And preferably a book. A real book, something I can hold in my hand and make notes in if I want to.

Bike. It’s been a long winter, not particularly conducive to bike riding. I’m not a fanatic (my wife might beg to differ) but I bike about 2,000 miles a year. It can be physically exhausting but emotionally renewing.

Work in the yard. Especially in the garden.

Do something repetitive and mindless. Like putting in a brick cobblestone border. Or digging. Or trimming back the fountain grass.

Do something cultural or botanical. The St. Louis Art Museum. The Missouri Botanical Garden. The Missouri History Museum. Hiking Shaw’s Nature Reserve 40 miles west of where I live. Attending concerts at the St. Louis Symphony and Sheldon Theatre.

Sit in the basement and look through art books. Sometimes I’ll combine reading and art and sit where we keep at exhibit catalogs I’ve bought or art-related books. It’s calming.

Read the Psalms. Few knew emotion like David knew emotion.

The key seems to be doing something different, something out of the ordinary rut I usually get myself into. It doesn’t have to be big or expensive; small and quiet works best, in fact.

Emotional rest is a necessary thing, and an important thing, every bit as important as physical rest.

This post is submitted as part of Bonnie Gray’s blog jam on emotional rest at Faith Barista. To see more posts, please visit the site.

Photograph: Clouds Are Coming by Vera Kratochvil via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Lewis and Language

It’s been years since I read Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis. Well, try decades. I read it in the 1970s, not long after I became a Christian, and it was one of a whole spate of works by Lewis that I devoured. In 1980, I read They Stand Together, the letters of Lewis and his friend Arthur Greeves, a correspondence that started when they were young teenagers and lasted until Lewis died in 1963. It is one of my favorite books about and by Lewis.

Lewis provided the foundation for much of my understanding of faith and belief and indeed Christianity in general, particularly Christianity as it is practiced in contemporary society (G.K. Chesterton played a role here, too, but that’s another story). What I’m finding as a I read Mere Christianity is that the writing has aged well; it is just as applicable today as it was when Lewis gave his wartime lectures on BBC radio in the 1940s, and then used his lectures to create this book.

So it was with a great deal of pleasure that I saw that Sarah Salter and Jason Stasyszen would be leading an online discussion of Mere Christianity. I had followed their discussion of Rick Stearns’ The Hole in Our Gospel, and decided to join in with the Lewis book, taking a chapter a week and beginning today.

In this first chapter, “The Law of Human Nature,” Lewis makes two points: “First, that human beings, all over the earth, have this curious idea that they ought to behave in a certain way, and cannot really get rid of it. Secondly, that they do not behave in that way. They know the Law of Nature; they break it.”

He is setting the stage here. These two points take us back to first principles, as described in chapters 2 and 3 of Genesis. People (Adam and Eve) knew how they were to behave, because it was in a sense imprinted upon them (that business about being made in the image of God), but they chose to violate that standard.

This puts me in mind of something that’s been weighing heavily on my heart for quite some time, and that’s the decline of civility – the deliberate decline of civility – in public discourse in the United States. Our language and our communication seem increasingly polarized at the extremes. We know better; we know how we should behave and speak with each other. But we scream and rave and rant anyway. Our leading pundits, our “thought leaders,” our politicians, our news media, our social media all encourage it and participate in it.

It’s rather interesting that our increasingly secular society freely and deliberately tosses out words like “evil” and “the devil” with both abandon and premeditation. We demonize the opposition, and in the process help make civil discourse increasingly difficult if not impossible. This seems less about understanding and consensus and more about power and control.

I worry about language because language offers clues about the health of our culture and society. This polarization we’re currently experiencing has historical precedent; it has happened before in America. Read our American history of the two decades or so running up to the Civil War. Even allowing for changes in words and usage, the language of polarization seems eerily familiar.

We know how we should speak with each other, and we break that “law” every day. C.S. Lewis would understand it.

To read more posts on Mere Christianity, please visit the links at Sarah Salter's site, Living Between the Lines.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

My Moment of Sports Glory

I have never been athletically inclined. I don’t mind watching some sports: football, for example. But not golf. I’m one of three people in my company who don’t play golf. The other 21,000+ are golf fanatics.

Growing up, and playing sandlot baseball or street football, I was usually one of the kids picked last. I expected to be picked last; all the other kids were better than I was. I was grateful to be picked at all. Even last.

In high school, when sports really matters, I discovered I loved volleyball. I played volleyball virtually every day during physical education class during my junior year in high school. The school didn’t have a volleyball team, but if it had had one, I would have been on it. And we would have been good.

It was my senior year in high school when I achieved my moment (note I said moment, not moments) of sports glory. Volleyball was no longer allowed, for some reason I don’t recall. But we were all herded onto a large football field to play touch football. More than 100 boys (it was an all-boys high school) faced off to play touch football – 50 on a team. The coaches thought it would be funny.

So we lined up; the other team kicked off. And the ball went sailing high in the air and landed right in my arms. As it did, I heard laughter from the other team. Even worse, I heard laughter from my own team. Everybody knew what to expect – I would be caught and my flag pulled within seconds.

Laughter – and ridicule – can have one of two effects. You cave in, or you get mad.

I got mad.

And I took off running.

What no one expected – possibly including me – was that I was fast.

I raced for the goal line.

No one expected me to run as fast as I did. Including me. But I kept focused on the goal line. And ran like the wind.

The laughter from the other team turned to shouting, and then screaming (yes, it was just a P.E. class, but you know boys and competitive stuff – every game is played like the Super Bowl).

“Get him! Get him!”

I ignored the screams and kept running. I dodged opposing players. I bobbed and weaved. I sidestepped. And kept running. My own team had been left far behind. My guess is they stopped and simply watched. They sure didn’t help.

I scored.

The roar went up from my team. Who cares if it was the sports nerd who scored? We scored! We scored!

On our next possession, the kickoff once again landed in my arms. And I took off for the goal line.

This time, both teams were better prepared. My own team protected me, and the opposing team swarmed around me. I didn’t make it all the way to the goal line. My flag was pulled.

Ten feet from the goal line. We scored on the next play.

What I learned that day, what 100 boys learned that day, was that a focus on the goal, an element of surprise and speed could turn things upside down.

We won, by the way, 14 to 7.

This post is submitted to the One Word Blog Carnival hosted by Peter Pollock. To see more posts on the word “goals,” please visit the site.

Photograph: No, that's not me and my touchdown. But it felt like that. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Navy.

Major Motion Picture

I fell into a movie
the other day,
a major motion picture
(is there any other kind?)
coming soon
to a multi-plex near you.
I descended the stairs
at sunset; Mr. DeMille
was waiting, cameras
rolling: my closeup
whether I was ready
or not (I wasn’t; I hadn’t
learned my lines).
The director’s staff
was held up so
the camera crew
divided and parted,
I became a spectacle,
Cleo and Marc combined
to reign over
the greatest show
on earth.

This poem is submitted for One Shot Wednesday hosted by One Stop Poetry. To see other submitted poems, please visit the site. The links will be live at 4 p.m. Central time today.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Jason Clark's "Surrendered and Untamed"

Faith has been described as a journey, a challenge, a life, a lifetime, a pilgrimage, a battle, and a lot more things as well, but I’ve never heard it described quite like Jason Clark describes it in Surrendered and Untamed: A Field Guide for the Vagabond Believer.

Jumping off a cliff.


Death. “Only dead men can experience the resurrection, baby!”

Financial death. You and your family are down to your last $200 – and you give it to someone you don’t know who has an emergency room bill.

Skiing down a suicide slope with the wrong ski on.

Talking to God, and God talking to you. Audibly. And a lot.

What is this?

It’s faith like I’ve rarely seen it, experienced it, lived it. It is what Clark, a speaker, writer, musician and a lot of other things, too, says we are called to do and to be – that we fully experience God’s character and love and joy.

Surrendered and untamed.

And Clark is a Canadian. Aren’t Canadians supposed to be calm?

Using a combination of Biblical and personal stories, Clark embarks upon a wild ride, a wild ride called faith. This isn’t John Eldredge and Wild at Heart; far from it. This is a call to be whom we are designed to be, to live our faith as God wants us to live it.

You want to say whoa! Slow down! Get real for a minute. And Clark replies:

“I can’t explain all of this from a realist perspective; it’s just not there. I’m afraid realism is living in the kingdom of man. While realism can often appear to be to be practical, respectable, and wise, it’s simply unbelief…Believing is living in the kingdom of God…The thinking mind is never to replace the believing heart.”

Clark proceeds to walk the reader through a process of understanding, and the more you read, the more you understand what he’s saying and doing. He’s telling us that God wants us and desires us to live a good story, the point of which is the end: “The end of the story is the joy of greater intimacy with God. It’s the surrendered and untamed existence that God has called all of us to live.”

This is exhilarating and terrifying stuff.

Exactly! Clark would say, it’s terrifying and exhilarating because that’s what God is, and that’s the life he wants us to live.

Surrendered and Untamed is a crazy book. Crazy good.

To learn more about the book and Jason Clark's ministry, please visit his web site.

Surrendered and Untamed: A Field Guide for the Vagabond Believer, by Jason Clark; foreword by Mark Batterson. Baker Books. $13.99.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Light Beneath the Wings

It was never my intention
to have so powerful an effect
upon the church as I did, but that’s
how it turned out, I suppose.
I spoke and wrote and argued
reason and tolerance and tradition;
I thought that Catholics
could be saved, oh, the outrage
that created but why not?
Some would call it humanism;
I considered it theology.
My Puritan in-laws used
a voice of disdain later turned
my Anglican colleagues used
a voice of disdain later turned
I walked with my Queen
in the Temple garden
as she fretted the Armada;
not a good time
to be nice to Catholics
so I remained diplomatically
silent and kept my head.

It gives me more
than a little pleasure to know
that my small scribblings
would help light the wings
beneath the church;
even the birds think so.

This poem is submitted for One Shot Sunday, hosted by One Stop Poetry. To read other poems based on the photo prompt and an interview with the photographer, James Rainford, please visit One Stop Poetry. To see more photos by Rainford, please visit his site at Fluidr.

Photograph of the statue of Anglican theologian Richard Hooker at Exeter Cathedral by James Rainford for One Stop Poetry. Used with permission.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Saturday Good Reads

A theme emerged in a number of online posts this week – the situation in Japan. It showed up in both prose and poetry,as people grappled with trying to understand the enormity of what happened and how to respond.


For a Nation, For A Single Life” by L.L. Barkat at Seedlings in Stone.

For Everything a Time” by Susan Etole at Just…A Moment.

What a Good Coach Does” by David Duchovny for the Wall Street Journal.

And” by Doug Spurling at Spurling Silver.

The See-Saw” by Sarah Salter at Living Between the Lines.

You’re Not Doing Enough” by Scott Couchenour at Serving Strong.

Honk if You Hate Social Justice” and "An Abusive Heavenly Father” by Matt Appling at the Church of No People.

They Came Back, But Different” by Peggy Rosenthal for The Image Journal.

Training Wheels” by Michael Perkins at Untitled.

When You can’t See What’s Coming” by Jennifer Dukes-Lee at Getting Down with Jesus.

What Fills Us” and “The Story of My Decision” by Ann Kroeker at Ann Kroeker, Writer.

Blips” and “Spinning Toward” by Michelle DeRusha at Graceful.

When Tears Reach Heaven” by Karen Eck at Karenee Art.

The Changing Tides” by Billy Coffey at What I Learned Today.

A Community Garden” by Seth Haines.

Taking Back the Night Alone” by Charity Singleton at Wide Open Spaces.

In the Flesh” by Tony Woodlief for The Image Journal.

Born to Beauty” by Athol Dickson for The Novel Journey.

Almost Like Being There” by Martha of Ireland for Internet Monk.

Ostrich Defense” by Seiji Yamashita at The Ignition Point.

Groaning for Japan” by Sandra Heska King.

Find the Truth Filters” by Robin M. Arnold.

"Because I Want To" by Marty Duane Scott.

"All the Lonely Playgrounds" by David Rupert at Red-Letter Believers.


Twigs” by Matt Cannon at Seeking Pastor.

Thirty Years” by Herb Alyette at Pixels and Dust.

Orphan Tsunami” by Matt Quinn at Poemblaze.

Lent I – a sonnet” by Chaplain Mike at Internet Monk.

Some People” by Lorenzo at Crowned with Laurels.

The Mourning” by Rob Kistner at Image & Verse.

The News -2011” by L.L. Barkat for The High Calling.

A lament for Japan” by Claire Burge at Claire b.

Inside Serra” by Maureen Doallas at Writing Without Paper.

Lenten Journal: Photographer’s Light” by Milton Brasher-Cunningham at Don’t Eat Alone.

"Why Did I Do You Like That?" by Jerry Barrett at Under the Door Frame.

Paintings and Photographs

Saturday Rain,” oil on canvas by Randall David Tipton.

Comprehension” by Susan Etole at Just…A Moment.

Japanese Ship Resting on House,” via Taylor Marshall at Canterbury Tales.

On coming out of her shell” by Claire Burge at High Calling Focus.

My Irish Eyes Are Smiling” by Michelle DeRusha at Graceful.


“7 Promises Podcast – Promise 1” by Jay Cookingham at Soulfari.

Photograph: Sunflower Arena by Nancy Rosback. Used with permission.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Jonathan Weyer's "The Faithful"

The Rev. Aidan Schaeffer is a young assistant pastor who has lost his parents in a fire, lost his fiancée to another guy, and is now losing his faith. It doesn’t seem things can get any worse, particularly since his knows his crisis in faith is going to lead him to unemployment.

But things do get worse. Much worse. His former fiancée is murdered in what looks like some kind of cult sacrifice. He becomes a suspect. And then footprints begin appearing in the snow, seemingly all by themselves. And Aidan hears voices. Soon he will have to deal with ghosts, demons and "bone conjurors."

Aidan Schaeffer’s crisis in faith is being introduced to a supernatural horror, and without faith, he doesn’t stand a chance.

The Faithful is Jonathan Weyer’s first novel, a solid entry in the category of Christian supernatural horror, and it’s a fast-paced, captivating and ultimately satisfying work.

The story functions on several levels. There is the murder investigation. There is the crisis of faith and what it means for Aidan’s work, combined with church politics. And then there is a romantic story, as Aidan finds himself attracted to one of the investigating detectives. The novel works well on all three levels.

Weyer, himself a Presbyterian minister (in my own small, conservative Presbyterian denomination, in fact, but there's no personal connection), knows his way around church staffs and elders boards, and the details ring true. He also is well versed in all of the “new atheist” claims as well as the philosophical and even theological territory staked out by science. His main character has to confront his own inconsistencies and faulty reasoning just when his faith needs to be its strongest – and there’s a lesson here, too, about dependence upon God.

“The Faithful” is scary and riveting. Weyer tells a good story, one that may be more familiar and more real than we realize.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

In Praise of Naps

Depending upon how you consider it, I have either a blessing or a curse.

Low blood pressure.

It’s something that I think I’ve always had.

The first time I became aware of it, I was having a company physical at Shell Oil in Houston. I was all of 22. The doctor pumped up the pressure gauge, and then a look of surprise appeared on his face. He looked at the reading, looked at me, then looked at the reading again. He shook his head.

“Is something wrong?” I asked.

He shook his head. “According to your blood pressure reading, you should be asleep.”

It explains a lot of things.

For example, my uncanny ability to nod off during church sermons, as long as my wife is with me. By myself, I stay awake (so it’s obviously her fault). So, I take notes during sermons. Lots of notes.

Then there’s the serious medical condition I call post-lunch slump. After lunch, it is very difficult for me to stay awake, usually for about 45 minutes after eating. Unless I can move about. Meetings after lunch are the worst, and my company likes having lots of meetings, and lots of them after lunch.

I should live in a Spanish-speaking country; they understand post-lunch slump, and the cure for it has a very pretty name.


Or, as we say in English, the nap. The glorious nap.

I love taking naps. Light naps. Deep naps. Short naps and long naps. Naps of all kinds.

When our Cavalier King Charles Spaniel was still alive, he was my nap partner. In the wintertime, he was the ideal nap partner – a kind of hot-water bottle somewhere in the vicinity of my legs. He had an internal clock that went off at after almost exactly an hour. He’d awaken and then start bugging me to put him on the floor. Sometimes he’d settle down and take another nap. Sometimes he’d start to bark.

As it is, I can usually only manage a good nap (or two) on weekends. If I do a bike ride, I have to kiss the nap goodbye. And while I could probably figure out a way to manage both a nap and a bike ride, there’s this other person living in my house that often has other ideas on how to spend a weekend afternoon. The one who makes me fall asleep in church.

She tells me I should get more sleep at night. She’s right, of course. I should. But it’s become increasingly difficult to sleep past 5 a.m. After that, I’m wide awake.

I have a solution to the problem.

Naps should be required by law.

To see more posts on rest, please visit Bonnie Gray at Faith Barista, who has a “Restoring Soul Rest" carnival going on during March.

Photograph: Afternoon Siesta by Peter Griffin via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Pixels and Electrons

Yesterday, my article "Pixels and Electrons? When Your Work Seems Like Nonsense" was posted at The High Calling. It starts as a snapshot of one day -- a busy day -- at work, and then asks what is this work really about. Take a look, and let me know what you think.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Cherry Blossoms

The air smelled
of cherry blossoms
but it was too soon,
too early for the soft
pink and white
to decorate the trees,
to wash petals on the street,
too soon.

Our pace was fast;
we did not run but
made quick steps,
quick steps, laughing
like the teacher’s song,
but we hurried,
you small hand
enfolded in mine.

The roar behind us
too sudden, too fast,
the noise a train
screaming in darkness,
darkness consuming
demanding crushing
suffocating burying

I sit in the small chair
on the small porch,
waiting as always
for you to walk home
from school, remembering
your small hand
torn from mine
too fast, too soon.

This poem is taken from the story of one Japanese mother, who was running with her daughter to escape the tsunami when the force of the water tore her child from her grasp. The mother survived; her hope is that her child did as well and is being sheltered.

If you would like to help relief efforts in Japan, the Woodinville Patch (hat tip to Belief Net) has a list of several organizations working to help the Japanese people.

This poem is submitted for One Shot Wednesday hosted by One Stop Poetry. To see more poems, please visit the site. The links will be live at 4 p.n. Central time.

Photograph: Japanese Flowering Cherry by Petr Kratochvil via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Ian Thomas Curtis’ “The Canticles of Andurun: Dragonsong”

I’m too old for this. My reading habits have generally been set for a long time, a nice comfortable rut, and along come an author or two to upset my carefully tended reading cart.

First it was C.S. Lakin, with her The Wolf of Tebron and The Map Across Time, the first two books in her "Gates of Heaven" series. Then along comes Ian Thomas Curtis, with The Canticles of Andurun: Dragonsong.

I keep telling myself I don’t read fantasy.

Except now I do.

Dragonsong, the first in a planned series, tells the story of a teenager, Justias Eventine, who lives in a world controlled by dragons and administered through “clerics,” zealots and magistrates. Clerics and zealots are more like soldiers than religious authorities. One of their jobs is the tithe and branding – collecting the 10 percent annual payment from all people living within the areas controlled by the dragons and applying the dragon “branding” to the young when they come of age.

Justias is determined not to be branded. And then a simple thing – helping an injured man found in the forest – becomes the catalyst that will take a young man, more a boy, and gradually transform him into not only a dragon slayer, but the dragon slayer, the one foretold who would come. For the injured man is a cleric who has rebelled against the order, and the order knows he must be destroyed – along with anyone standing in the way. All of Justias’ fellow villagers are killed; his father taken prisoner; and Justias deemed an outlaw. Pursued, Justias flees to his uncle, and then travels to the south, to the relative safety of the last remnants of the noble houses still not dominated by the dragons. On that journey, Justias comes to understand that he is – and must become – a dragon slayer.

This is the world called Kallanedaros, and what a world it is, full of humans living in thralldom and populated with dragons, shapeshifters, ogres, sea monsters called zuls, goblins, elves, dwarves and any manner of wild creatures (and the spiders; I can’t forget the spiders). The story Curtis tells is a large story, an ambitious story, and he keeps it perfectly under control, leading the reader through a journey and ultimately a quest that are simultaneously magical and real. And it’s so real that the reader joins Justias and his friends as they make their way through intrigue, betrayal, danger and horror, to accomplish the task that’s been set out before them.

The imagination that created this story and this world is amazing, matched only by the detail that’s used to make this world so real. I repeatedly forgot that I was reading a fantasy novel, coming to understand and enjoying this book for the epic story it is. Curtis is one fine storyteller.

It would be easy to say this is “like” other works of fantasy. It is – there are certainly influences from Tolkien, Lewis and Robert Silverberg (and I caught the fleeting reference to Frank Herbert’s Dune) – but it is also a wonderful work in its own right, standing by itself, a remarkable story of a young man who will change his world.

There are other stories to come in this series. The tyrant dragon, Gildaryss, is still waiting and conniving in her mountain lair. And I can’t wait to read what comes next.


Ian Thomas Curtis’ blog, What’s in a Name?

The web page for The Canticles of Andurun: Dragonsong (along with some cool artwork)

Monday, March 14, 2011

In a Land of Stones

He lived in a land of stones,
monoliths and totems
of silence, standing still,
marking time, space,
settled in their eruptions
like old trees.

He spent his days in work,
using his hands, his heart
to saw, sand, plane and fit,
much like an artist
uses colors, in silence,
to speak.

If he lived near the sea
he could listen to the waves.

To see other poems prompted by “lonely,” please visit the Warrior Poets Circle hosted by Jason Stayszen at Connecting to Impact.

Photograph: Monument on Three Peaks by Petr Kratochvil via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Food and Memory

We’ve come to the end of The High Calling discussion of The Spirit of Food: 34 Writers on Feasting and Fasting Toward God. The two final essays are “Banqueting Table” by Laura Bramon Good and “Making the Perfect Loaf of Bread” by Leslie Leyland Fields (who served as editor of the volume). Both essays intertwine food and memories, and go a bit beyond the usual “holiday feast” type of remembrances.

Oddly enough, the essays took me down a path of short, once-forgotten-but-suddenly-remembered times associated with food, that is, if sweets count as food.

The first home I can remember living in, a duplex in a subdivision of duplexes called Azalea Gardens, off the Jefferson Highway in suburban New Orleans. Our duplex disappeared years ago to make way for a drugstore parking lot. We lived there from the time I was 2 to when I was 4 going on 5. Next door was a retired couple, Mr. and Mrs. Milner. My older brother and I were their surrogate grandchildren. I don’t know how my brother fared, but Mr. Milner would slip me a Kraft vanilla fudge candy square almost every day. I loved Mr. Milner.

A few years later, daily recess at John Clancy Elementary School meant lining up ion the cafeteria to get my ice cream for three cents. The ice cream varied, but it was usually one of three things: a fudgcicle, a polar bar (chocolate covered vanilla ice cream on a stick) or a dreamcicle, which tasted organgey and peachy and sherbety.

One winter’s day in second grade (if New Orleans really had winters), it snowed about half an inch. The next morning, my father took me outside and made snow ice cream. I was amazed.

A few years after that, I’d be walking with my grandmother to Kelley Memorial Baptist Church in Shreveport for the Sunday afternoon ice cream social. Everyone brought homemade ice cream. The adults would talk and fan themselves in the summer heat while the children ran and played in the big open field behind the church.

Every Christmas, my grandmother would mail a sizeable sample of her divinity fudge to us in New Orleans. My parents loved it. I didn’t. It was probably the only thing I didn’t like that was associated with my grandmother.

The pre- and early teen years – 12, 13 and 14 – were the King Cake party years. Today you can find King Cakes just about everywhere during the Mardi Gras season, but then it was all New Orleans. It was an official “boys and girls” party, heavily supervised by mothers, with the boys generally lined up on one side of someone’s living room and the girls on the other, with lots of eyes darting and averting, glances being stolen, and feet shuffling (the boys did the feet shuffling). Soon out would come the King Cake, more like a coffee cake or bread, and pieces served. Whoever’s piece contained the plastic baby became the king or queen to host the next party.

My own children grew up feasting on King Cakes at Mardi Gras time, courtesy of my mother mailing them from New Orleans. This year, my grandson officially demolished his first piece.

In high school, if you went to a formal dance or a prom, you had to finish the evening at Café du Monde or Morning Call in the French Quarter for café au lait and beignets, or French doughnuts. I think it was a law. High school kids in tuxedos and formal dresses would throng the two places.

One non-sweet memory: In college, certain Saturday nights were designated “Hymel’s Nights” (pronounced E-mel’s). It was particularly for those of us who would find ourselves dateless. We’d pile into cars, and drive south from Baton Rouge down to Hymel’s Restaurant on the River Road near Gonzales. The place was rather cavernous and of plain décor – picnic tables strung together and covered in newspaper. The waitresses would dump mounds of boiled shrimp and crawfish on the tables, and stop by every so often to wad up the newspapers filled with empty shells. The accompaniment for the seafood was beer. Hymel’s specialized in a 32-ounce glass of beer. Fraternity boys specialized in chug-a-lug contests. A jukebox played country western and Cajun music.

It’s odd, but these little stories are, to me, what the spirit of food can often be about – not the formal traditions and special occasions, but rather the normal times of living and growing up.

To follow the discussion and see more posts on The Spirit of Food, please visit The High Calling.

Photograph: Cameron Young eating his first piece of King Cake, by Stephanie Young. Note the Mardi Gras beads around his neck.

Performance Art

I know what you think it is
but it’s not so take
your patronizing condescension
masking disapproving condescension
elsewhere, if you please and
even if you don’t please for
I don’t work the streets
I live the streets and
the streets live me
they are my canvas and
I am the paint or sometimes
the watercolors to wash
away the rain
so if I stick three cigarettes
in my mouth it’s art;
I’m dying.

This poem is submitted for One Shot Sunday hosted by One Stop Poetry. To see other poems prompted by the photo, please visit the site.

Photograph by Fee Easton. Used with permission for One Stop Poetry.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

A Critique for One Stop Poetry

Pete Marshall, one of the editors at One Stop Poetry, asked me and several others to participate in a poetry critique exercise today, to help people get used to the idea of criticism as a part of what poetry is all about. Criticism is a sensitive subject. Done well, it can help a poet grow and improve; done poorly, it can be ugly and destructive. I’ve seen it done both ways (and recently). But a poet has to be prepared for both, for both kinds can be ways to learn and grow.

Pete bravely offered up one of his own poems, one he wrote as a teenager. Here’s his original poem and what I posted in the comments, followed by how I would rewrite the poem.

Thoughts From A Decaying Age
by Pete Marshall

Let life live on a desolate shore
untouched by man and free of law
where all who live are but creature & flower
on a paradise island these dreams are our
fantasies that wont come true
for Man destroys anything who
stands in his way to accomplish a dream
with Science, War, Religion & we
who all just sit back and watch
do not try to stop as the world destructs.

Let their blood flow on through the valley
covering the land raped by the tyranny
scorching the Earth so dry & disfigured
where once stood trees & flowers & people.
hard to believe there once was life here
this barren land savaged by the years
but no river runs cold when you fight for existence
to live & breathe & laugh is resistance.


In my own work, I tend to the spare and sparse; not quite minimalist, but with an enthusiastic leaning in that direction. I’m also not overly fond of rhyming. I start with here to set my own biases up first – it’s all too easy for a critic to view everything through that overly personal lens. And that lens can’t be entirely escaped, for criticism is ultimately as personal as the poem itself.

I have at least three positive reactions.

I like how it sounds when it’s read aloud. It has a rhythm and flow that’s easy to miss if you only read it silently.

It has a defined point-of-view; it takes a stand.

It has a rather dark theme, but it offers hope. It takes a dim view of the destructive tendencies within humanity, tendencies that the poet suggests are inherent.

I have four concerns.

First, a grammar issue: “…for Man destroys anything who…” “Who” is the wrong word (so, too, in the first stanza). I see it and immediately ask, is this deliberate or simply unknowing? But it stops me for a moment from reading the poem, to ask the question. It seems small thing but small things can be telling things. And some periods seem to be missing, or something to indicate the end of one thought and the beginning of another (see the third and fourth lines of the first stanza).

Second, there’s an overreliance on the ampersand. It’s as if the poet were in a hurry and didn’t take the time to write out “and.” Again, a small thing. But it stops me to ask that “deliberate or unknowing” question.

Third, the rhyming is not consistent, or rather, it’s slightly disorderly, almost as if it can’t make up its mind whether it wants a rhyme or not. This is true in both stanzas.

Fourth, there seems to be break between the two stanzas, a break not quite bridged. Whose blood, exactly, should be allowed to flow?

A suggested rewrite (and if more time were available, I would work this over several times; the theme is worthy of a series of rewrites):

Thoughts from a Decaying Age
By Pete Marshall (edited)

I want life to live on a desolate shore,
untouched by man and free of law,
where all who live are but creature and flower.
Yet even on a paradise island this desire
is fantasy, a mirage that only shimmers,
for Man destroys what stands
in his way, to realize a dream
of Science, War, Religion while we stand aside
to observe, and to watch, and do nothing,
nothing to stop as the world destructs.

Let blood flow through the valley;
let blood cover the land raped by the tyranny
scorching the Earth so dry and disfigured,
Earth now scarred of trees and flowers and life.
There once was life here, they say,
this barren land savaged by the years.
Yet no river runs cold when you fight for existence;
to live and breathe and laugh is resistance.

To see what others offered as acriticism and various suggested rewrites of the poem, please visit One Stop Poetry.

Photograph: Dramatic Landscape by Petr Kratochvil via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.