Thursday, March 27, 2008

Reading Travel Brochures

This Sunday, I leave with the family for a few days of R & R in San Francisco. Look for my blog to be out of commission for a few days, as this is my last entry for a week. But rest assured, God willing, I'll be back with new demented observations very soon.

I've been reading a lot of travel brochures recently, and I feel that I've become familiar with a city I've never visited. We'll have to see if my imagination is as vivid as the reality.

Oh, and I pass the time on flights, particularly long ones, by reading the instructions on the barf bag over and over. You'd think by now I would know how it all works. But one can never be too careful. In case of emergency . . . do you know how to open the bag?

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

My Fatbrain Experience

People have all sorts of ideas about writers. Some see writers as extravagant personalities (witness Truman Capote or Tom Wolfe), others see them as reclusive (witness J.D. Salinger). But most think of writers as wealthy.

Many times people want to know--how much do you make from writing a book? Short answer: If I worked the same number of hours flipping burgers at McDonalds as I have put into my writing, I would have a lot more money. Not even close. Moonlighting at a fast food restaurant would be much more lucrative. But then, I'd smell like meat all the time.

I do have one lucrative writing story, however. Some years back I had an agent who managed to land a nice contract for me during the era (when web sites and online businesses were springing up like grass). The job? I wrote two traditional Passover stories for a web site that no longer exists:

Passover, you ask? Yes, Passover. Me, a Christian, writing two Passover stories. The pay? I got a whopping $2000 for the gig--and I think I wrote the tales in an afternoon. All in all, not a bad "per word" rate. That's my one writing experience where I outpaced burger flipping.

The web site was bought out and went under a few weeks after they purchased my tales. To my knowledge, they've never been in print. Cha-Ching! Bat-a-bing!

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Pigs, Spiders & Crickets

Monday evening I happened to pick up one of my favorite books: The Essays of E.B. White. In that book is an essay entitled, "Death of a Pig", which I have probably read a dozen times. It's the story of farm life, the raising of a pig, and the loss of losing one that would, otherwise, have been dinner.

We don't raise our own meals today. We just get them out of the package and the can. Our animals are for petting only.

A few weeks ago my son came to me begging for a tarantula. "Why do you want a tarantula?" I asked.

"I've always wanted a tarantula," he told me.

"There's no way I allowing a big hairy spider in the house," I said. "No way."
Of course, we have a spider now, a big hairy spider. It eats live crickets. Cockroaches. Anything that moves. It crawls in its cage in the middle of the night and hisses.

I still have a fear of getting up in the middle of the night, walking across the tile floor of the bathroom and feeling something big and hairy squish between my toes as a bring my weight down and . . . .

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Reading the Fine Print

Lately I have been reading a lot of fine print: financial aid forms for my daughter's college application; housing applications; print that is so small, I can't read it without a magnifying lens. Fine print, I suppose, is placed strategically in certain locations so that someone, somewhere, can be exonerated in case someone wants to sue.

But just to be fair, I think it's only right that parents be allowed to add some fine print of their own.

For example, on all of the large checks I'm going to be writing soon, I think I'll inscribe at the bottom in miniscule print: This check was written by a deranged father who wants to know how a week's worth of dormatory food costs $200. My teenage son doesn't even eat that much food in a week, and he's on a solid diet of caviar and veal.

Or another: This check will self-destruct in one semester!

Oh, and by the way, when I went to college, I was able to work part time and pay my way at the same time. Now I'm working full time, and I still can't pay the way for my daughter. Is it just me, or does somebody need to explain this--in the fine print, of course.

Thursday, March 20, 2008


I've noted that, in the past decade, business correspondence has taken on a decidedly cordial tone. Most of the business letters and emails I receive usually end with the now familiar "Best" or "All Best". The first time I noted this, I was left wondering:

Is the writer sending me his or her best wishes?
Is the writer wishing me good luck?
Is this the "best" he or she can write?

I'm not sure of the history and intent, so I never use this when I write business letters. But in case people are looking to get creative in how they close a letter, or truly want to express how they feel, why not try out a few of these alternative endings?

Hang in there,
Same old stuff,
Yours in boredom,
Yada, Yada, Yada,
I'm just kidding,
On behalf of my lawyer,
In Buddhist Suffering,
With a Chuckle,
Nobody here cares,
The last straw,

Wednesday, March 19, 2008


I've got several reference books at home that contain thousands of proverbial sayings. Some are from the Bible, some from Shakespeare, others from Oscar Wilde or unknown sources. I grew up in a family where proverbs were used to communicate (usually ineffectively).

"If you make the bed, you'll have to sleep in it," was one of dad's. Of course, he was always trying to get me to change the sheets, so I don't think he understood the metaphorical implications. (For the record, I don't make the bed, which is why I often don't sleep in it.)

I use Biblical quotes on Becky all the time. "It is better to dwell on a rooftop than in a house with an angry and contentious woman," is one I quote frequently. She never laughs, and believe me, the shingles are really chaffing my behind.

And just today I read one from Emerson (he was the custodian at our high school who kept a bottle of gin in the closet): "A person who knows how do something will always have a job. The person who knows why the job is done will always be the boss." But then, Emerson thought he ran the high school, so what does he know? He was drunk half the time.

Heaven help me before the early bird catches the worm, after all, Rome wasn't built in a day, and this blog is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you're gonna get.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Something Wicked

One of my favorite writers is Ray Bradbury--a writer who defies categorization. Last week I read one of his novels (one of four that has been selected as a National Book Award Classic). It's entitled, Something Wicked This Way Comes. It's about two boys who find themselves confronting radical evil when a strange carnival comes to town.

The story evokes memories that most boys have of childhood, the companionship, the adventure. I've probably read more than two hundred Bradbury stories over the last five years, and many of them visit these themes of childhood. Bradbury was one of those writers who accompanied me from the town library--a twice-a-week ritual for me during the summer months when I was in grade school. At the time, I think I read everything that Bradbury wrote, along with lots of Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke.

Now that I have no friends, reading Bradbury is like discovering that an old friend has returned to town.

But, Lord, I still get scared when I drive by the Saint Malachy carnival every year. It's not the Catholics that scare me, but the corndogs. I always wonder: How long have those puppies been sitting under the warming lamp?

Monday, March 17, 2008

The Boxer and Me

About ten years ago I received a phone call from a literary agent in New York who wanted to know if I would consider ghost writing a children's book for a famous boxer. Since I'd never ghost written anything before (and most celebrity books, by the way, are ghostwritten) I was hesitant, but nevertheless, intrigued.

"What's the book about?" I asked.
"Whoever is selected for the book will have to meet with this boxer and create an idea."
"Boxers have ideas?" I asked.
"This guy has a lot of ideas," she said.

Long story, short version--I didn't put my name in the hat, but I could have been fun. Who knows, I could have had my brains beaten in by George Foreman. And if I would have written a kid's book for him, I would have said, "Yes, George, whatever you say, George."

Incidently, I'm firing up his grill tonight. Anyone want burgers?

Friday, March 14, 2008

Old Man White Lick

A few years ago I read a book by Jonathan Rabin, a British writer, about his one man adventure down the mighty Mississippi in a fifteen foot johnboat. It was a great read and made me pine for such an adventure myself.

Fortunately, I have white lick creek. I've been down the creek twice in a kayak now and its a blast. Yesterday, Aaron Helman and I ventured a little further south and even started naming some of the rapids.

How does "Hell's Bridge" sound? Or "Helman's rapids"? They are there.
I think I'll keep kayaking as long as the water stays high. Might even preach a sermon out of the boat, like Jesus did. But I wonder, if I did it, would other pastors post blogs about it? Might be a bad thing to preach from a boat, or from moving water, or to attract attention in a craft purchased from Dick's Sporting goods.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

The 12 Hour Sermon

Three years ago I preached a twelve hour sermon. Yesterday, Aaron Helman discovered several blogs that were less than complementary of the sermon (all written, I think, before I actually spoke). In a nutshell, here were the top three reasons the other pastors felt I should not have preached for twelve hours.

1. It was just a publicity stunt that makes a mockery of "good preaching."
2. I spoke for a long time but said nothing.
3. Preaching shouldn't be used to raise money for the church (and you shouldn't attempt to sell sermons on CD).

Now, here are my top three reasons why a person shouldn't preach a twelve hour sermon:

1. Afterwards, the throat is very sore.
2. You don't get to eat fish from the fish fry.
3. It takes a week to write a 12 hour sermon and mamma still ain't happy!

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Chess & Life

Last week I completed reading Garry Kasparov's book, How Chess Imitates Life. If you don't know the name, Kasparov was the reigning world champ in chess for nearly two decades and retired a few years ago. He recently tried to run against Putin in Russia, but was defeated soundly.

Reading Kasparov's book, I was struck by two things: Mr. Kasparov's incredible memory (he could recall chess moves, games, entire sequences that had transpired decades ago) and his belief that he is the second coming of Jesus. Somehow, he does believe he is going to be Russia's salvation for democracy.

Kasparov has bested me on both fronts.

I can't remember anything, including my wife's birthday or our anniversary date, and I know I'm not going to be anyone's salvation. If I were writing a book, I guess the title would have to be:
How Mediocrity Imitates Life or How Drinking Milk Out of the Jug Imitates Life or How Putting the Dog Out Imitates Life.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008


I can usually think of decent book titles, but chapters are a little trickier. What do you want your chapters to communicate? How do they help move the reader along?

I've been pondering this question for my latest book and here's what I've got so far.

Chapter One
Chapter Two
Chapter Three: How Am I Doing So Far?
Chapter Four: Please Read On
Chapter Five
Chapter Six
Chapter Seven: Thanks for Hanging in There
Chapter Eight
Chapter Nine
Chapter Ten: I Love You
Chapter Eleven
Chapter Twelve: No, Really . . . I Do Love You
Chapter Thirteen
Chapter Fourteen: I'm Only Writing Two More of These
Chapter Fifteen: Nearly Out of Ideas
Chapter Sixteen: My Wife Is Yelling At Me to Hurry Up!

Monday, March 10, 2008

10,000 Words

I completed an incredible display of writing this past week. On Friday (my usual day off) I wrote for nearly eight hours (stopping only for two pots of coffee, several pit stops, and a brief respite from a massive headache that I cured with three Tylenol and a fifteen minutes nap). Saturday and Sunday nights completed my run, and all told I put more than 10,000 words on paper--about 40 pages of material, including two articles that an editor asked me to write for a ministry journal.

My fingers ache today, but otherwise I've come down off the caffeine buzz and I've got a great start on a 250 page book I'm writing.

Still, I have a long way to go to break my own record. I once wrote a book over a weekend (all of it!) and it was published eight months later. That was about 30,000 words in two and a half days, no sleep, and lots of expresso.

But I'm not going there again.

Friday, March 7, 2008

More Quotes

A Spaniard named Sabino Fernandez Campo once wrote: "What I can tell you is not interesting, and what is interesting, I cannot tell you." And Aldous Huxley once observed: "Experience is not what happens to a person; it is what a person does with what happens to him."

Reminds me of my blog.

Or, to put it in my own words: "Anyone who thinks this blog is interesting doesn't have much of a life."

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Sunny Day

One of the happiest days of my life was a sunny, May day in 1985 after I'd taken my last final exam at Duke University. I can still remember the freedom I felt as I walked off the campus for the last time, knowing I'd never return to those halls as a student, but also experiencing the delight of, at long last, being able to write again (no more of those dry, boring thirty page theological papers).

I rode my bicycle back to the apartment, grabbed a handful of yellow, second-sheet paper, a few ink pens, a blanket, some water, and spent the next six hours sitting outside beneath a blazing sun writing a novel that I never finished.

I'd been married ten months.
I was writing what I wanted to write.
No kids.
No money.
No job.

Who could ask for anything more?

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Strange Books

Yesterday I was talking about the book, Charlatan, with some in the church office. They seemed confused by my reading selection about medical quacks, goat testicles, and mass media frenzy. "Why do you read strange books?" was the question.

Here's my answer.

I love to read works that are "out there" and tell stories of the oddities among us. We live in a big land, and Americans have always been known as a big people. It only stands to reason that our country would also produce some of the biggest nut cases in history, and the book on J.R. Brinkley is no exception.

I also believe there are some big religious nuts on the loose in America right now, and the book on J.R. Brinkley is a testament to the American penchant for buying into people who speak over the airwaves, who seem to live large, who seem to have some religious insight (or medical insight, etc.) that others don't possess. Americans (despite the fact that most don't "practice" their faith in a traditional sense) are still insanely religious, and many are willing to follow the first nut case who comes along and says what they want to hear.

I see this reality every day. It's why I read strange books. It's why I watch religious programming on television (where many nuts broadcast their views) and why I continue to write for The Wittenburg Door. As long as the nuts are out there, there's plenty of fodder for my pen.

Monday, March 3, 2008


I finished a fascinating book on Sunday afternoon: Charlatan, by Pope Brock. It's the story of Dr. J.R. Brinkley, who, throughout the decades of the 20's, 30's, and 40's, was America's most dangerous quack. He killed dozens of people--mostly men--through the implantation of goat testicles. Yes, that's right...hundreds, nay thousands of men offered themselves on the altar of his vile ministrations and had goat testicles implanted (actually dumped) in their scrotums or rib cages in order to restore their virility and vigor.

Brinkley was also a pioneer in the use of mass media to run for political office (he would have been elected governor of Kanses in a landslide if the write-in votes had counted--and many think he could have been elected President based on his popularity) and he knew how to use urban legend, marketing, and mass appeal to the base religious desires of Americans to earn more than a million dollars a year selling colored water as prescription drugs.

What's equally amazing is that we still live in a culture where men, especially, pursue the fountain of youth through the use of steroids, HGH, and other so-called sexual enhancers. Women don't fare much better.

As a teen, I had goats, and I still wonder what might have been had Brinkley been around in my day. Think of it, with Brinkley's help, I could either be dead today, or enjoying life as one of the most virile men in America!