Thursday, May 29, 2008

Yellow Outcault

This week I read a fascinating little pamphlet taken from the Buster Brown Museum in New York. I've known for a long time that one of my ancestors was none other than R.F. (Richard Felton) Outcault--the father of the American Comic strip.

Outcault was the first to create a serial comic called "The Yellow Kid" that was first published in a paper owned by Pulitzer in 1901. But Randolph Hearst managed to lure Outcault to his newspaper along with many others on the Pulitzer staff. What followed was "yellow journalism", as Pulitzer hired somone else to continue creating The Yellow Kid strip, and it ran concurrently in two papers (but by different creators). Lawsuits followed. Outcault won the rights to his creation.

Later, he created his most famous comic strip: Buster Brown. The comic with the sappy little kid and the black pug (our pug is named "Buster" by the way). The shoe company came later and bought the rights to the characters.

About four months back I also talked to a gentleman in Louisiana via telephone who has one of the largest personal collections of Yellow Kid memorabilia in the world. He said no one has written a biography of Outcault. (A rather important figure in American letters/journalism, don't you think?)

Should I try writing it? I guess I do have a rather personal connection.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Big Book

A few weeks ago I happened to open a cardboard box in the hallway closet and discovered a very thick manuscript. I recognized it immediately and I broke out in a cold sweat. Why?

Because the manuscript has occupied an ongoing chunk of my life for nearly twenty-five years. And I thought I had buried the sucker deep enough this time that I would never resurrect it. But there it was again, staring back at me, beckoning me to work on it once again.

The history?

I was a twenty-four year old grad student who had just been released from the prison of seminary, a kid who now had an open slate of possibilities before him, no longer having to work on the required thirty page theological papers and those dry Biblical exegesis theses. I wanted to write a novel. So I set down and began writing, and some five hundred pages and ten months later I had a massive novel on my hands--a kind of "religious thriller" if you will--about a Notre Dame Biblical scholar who is hounded by a mystical figure who claims to have discovered an artifact that will shatter the historical and theological foundations of the church. (Sounds so familiar now, doesn't it?)

I very quickly managed to find a literary agent in NY who was gaga for the book, and who proceded to instruct me through a series of "re-writes" and revisions. A year later, I'd put another 100,000 to 200,000 additional words into the book, and when I printed the manuscript, it was more than ream of paper and had to be shipped in a wooden crate. The agent shopped the book around NY for a year or so, had me rewrite the thing again (another 100,000 words, maybe?) and then told me he was tired of it and "could I write anything else, or was this all I had inside of me?"

Later, in my thirties (as in, I was thirty years old!) I rewrote the book yet again, giving it an entirely different plot, more twists, a full slate of mayhem and romance, and found enough willing editors to look at the book, but alas, no takers. In my early forties I rewrote the book yet again, changing some of the characters and the plot (improvements I hoped) and changed the title for a third time. Lots of interest in NY, but no takers.

At any rate, I'm sure I have something approaching a million words wrapped up in this single manuscript and it's been the one huge and brilliant disappointment among all of the books I have written or attempted to write. It's still there, and every now and again I find myself thinking: Could I rewrite it yet again and give it another try?

God help me! Why won't this book leave me alone?

Dog Meat

It seems that everyone has a dog story these days. A few days back I noted an entire table in the bookstore devoted to dog stories. I even have a few of these on my shelves, including one of the best: My Dog Skip.

I've been considering writing about my childhood dog, Tippy.

Here's a summary of his brief little Rat Terrier life:

Tippy was my first birthday present (when I turned one). The dog was three at the time (so he was always two years older than I. The dog ran away many times when I was a child and my dad had to pay to get him out of the pound (remember the dog catcher?).

After we moved to Indiana when I was five, Tippy became increasingly mischevious, getting into scraps with larger dogs. Over the years, he had his side ripped apart by a German Shepherd, got caught in a rabbit trap and showed up three days later with one leg gnawed down to the bone, and had his left ear cut off when one of my friends accidently caught him with the pruning shears.

I found Tippy in the barn when I returned home from school one fall afternoon. I was fourteen, the dog was sixteen. I buried him myself in a hole I dug near the garden.

He's stayed there. Good dog.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Editorial Hot Potato

Last week I received a most interesting series of emails.

The first email came from an editor who has been looking at one of my book proposals. I had sent him the proposal about three months ago and the proposal had, as usual, disappeared into the black sinkhole of silence. Then, suddenly, I discovered his email one morning that went something like this:

I lost your proposal, but I do want to look at it. Could you send it to me again? Oh, and by the way, I'm going to pass it along to another editor. I'm not the editor you want, anyway.

No problem.
A few days later I get a second email that read something like this:

Editor #1 passed your proposal along to me, but I'm going to send it to editor #3, since he is clearly more passionate about these kinds of projects than I am and wouldn't mind working with a loser like you. Editor #3 will likely be in touch soon, unless, of course, I (editor #2) have second thoughts or pass it back to editor #1 (where it might get lost in the slush pile again). But please check back with me (editor #2) if you want to make sure that editor #3 did receive your proposal, in which case you can rest assured that editor #1 did receive the updated version of your proposal and considered it good enough to pass along to me. Our best wishes for your continued success. (Oh, and in case you are wondering, there is no editor #4.)

Friday, May 23, 2008

Reading Prescriptions

As I write this, I can barely swallow. My throat feels like someone has rubbed sandpaper over it. And as the old song says, I didn't sleep at all last night.

The culprit? Who knows. But Becky and I are both walking sickos.

Now that I'm popping pills legally, I couldn't help but read the prescription labels. It's funny how some medications are suppossed to be taken on an empty stomach, and others can be taken with anything except alcohol or grapefruit juice; and still others don't mention combinations at all. The only thing I care about are results. Then again, this is a good way to lose that ten pounds I've set as a goal this summer. I'm not eating, so maybe the pills will help.

I also started reading another of Mary Roach's quirky books: Spook, How Science Searches for the Afterlife.

If these pills don't help, I may be joining the ranks of the glorified very soon. But I'm ready, Jesus . . . Glory Hallellujiah!

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Writing Graduation

This past week Becky and I have both become miserably ill. She has been to the doctor twice to procur medications strong enough to stun a cow, and this morning I woke up to a throat so sore that I can scarcely talk. Our daughter graduates from high school this Friday.

Is there a connection? Probably.

A few days ago, at the greeting card aisle, I realized that Hallmark needed a section for sick parents (old folks whose bodies fall apart when they have to plan enormous parties for graduating seniors). So, I thought I'd give Hallmark a leg up and offer this option for consideration a new "Heartsick" line of greeting cards.

Me, all dried up like a popped cork . . .
You, lying in bed with your mouth propped open,
wheezing like a broken ceiling fan . . .
A couple of parents waiting for their little girl
to graduate.

Since no one else will send their love . . .
I'm sending you mine, dear,
Along with this generous sampling of antiobiotics.
Here, take the water of my broken heart.
Take two and call me in the morning.
We've got to get dressed and fix a pot of meatballs.
Is that the doorbell I hear . . .
Or just you, groaning?

(c) Heartsick is a Trademark of Todd Outcalt enterprises and may not be used in conjunction with any other illnesses, spouses, or graduates. For a full transcript of his other Heartsick line of greeting cards, drop him a blog or two ibuprophen.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Church Popping

Last week I read a book written by Tim Stevens (the Exective Pastor at Granger Church in South Bend, Indiana). Tim's book is Pop Goes the Church. Essentially, it's a guide that can help congregations use popular culture, trends, images, movies, books, and catch phrases as a way of reaching people with the gospel. It is obvious that this method has worked well at Granger, as they are one of the most high-tech, pop culture-savvy congregations I've seen anywhere, with over 10,000 people worshipping with them on weekends.

When I got to the back of the book, though, I was astounded to read about some of the churches that have used pop culture images and trends to produce spectacular growth, including one congregation that went from 0 to 2,900 people in worship in less than two years.

These congregations make our 10% growth here at Calvary look rather insignificant, but we do what we can. But hey, I don't look like Tim Stevens, either. He's hip, has a shaved head, and a little VanDyke-style beard. Me--I'm a guy rapidly approaching fifty with a double chin and a growing paunch of a belly. About the only thing "hip" or "pop" about me is that I still have 25,000 baseball cards stashed away in the closet and I drink Starbucks coffee about three times a week.

I have a feeling that my best attempt to capture "pop" culture in worship is when I show a video clip from a movie that has was formerly in Video format and was recently converted to DVD. (I still can't get the "12:00" to stop flashing on my VCR.)

I ain't gettin' any younger. Anybody wanna buy some baseball cards?

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The Seven Thousand

Last Friday I spent the late afternoon and evening writing furiously to beat a deadline. I'd been putting this assignment off for some time but couldn't wait any longer. When the smoke had cleared from the keyboard, I discovered that I'd written seven thousand words in six hours (about five pages an hour).

Later, I did end up with a tremendous headache, but, hey, somebody had to do it. Of course, since it was a Friday night and I was home alone with Becky (a great opportunity), she had her questions.
"When are you going to be done writing?" she asked at one point.
"Bring me another pot of coffee," I said. "Strong! Black!"
"When are you going to send that to the editor all ready?"
"Soon, darling. Very soon!"
"Does that mean you are about finished?"
"You can't rush perfection," I said. "Take this sentence here . . .it's got to be completely rewritten. And this comma . . . Lord, what was I thinking? And then there's the little matter of this split infinitive that keeps showing up . . ."

More coffee! Please!

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Going to Heaven

A few days ago I finished reading a book written by Don Piper entitled, 90 Minutes in Heaven. It is Don's story about being pronounced dead after a car accident and his hour and a half trip upstairs. It's been a best-selling book, but I was a bit disappointed.

Don's near death experience landed him at the pearly gates (his description) and he heard angelic voices praising God, was reunited with loved ones, and was on his way toward the golden streets of paradise, when he was sent back to earth.

I'm not going to make light of what Don experienced . . . he got closer than I've ever been, but it left me wondering about some of my hopes for eternity. Actually, since Don is a better man than I am, I'll just settle for any of the following in my heavenly experience. I'd be satisfied to hear any of the following:

Didn't expect to see you up here . . . but come on in!

Well I'll be . . . I ain't seen you in a coon's age. What'cha been up to?

I'm sorry Mr. Outcalt, but you can't tip the gate keeper to get in. Just go around back to the service door and ask for Pete.

Friday, May 16, 2008


Over the past two years I've tried valiantly to shed some of the magazines from my life. For a time I thought that the mail delivery was the post office's way of dumping tonage at my door. But I've reformed. I'm getting leaner and meaner with my magazine subscriptions.

I'm not sure what my wife subscribes to, but I do note a few magazines like Better Homes and Gardens gracing our coffee table, and as far as I know, neither of our kids have been bitten by the magazine bug. They seem to get a lot of their reading material and news online.

But as for me . . .
I'm down now to The Christian Century (which I justify as a staple for pastoral prep and news), Money (which I read in order to stay up to date on how little money I have), and The Wittenburg Door (the world's pretty much only religious satire magazine . . . which I've written for for over twenty years now).

I also get National Geographic for the occassional nude photo.

All other magazines have gone the way of the DoDo bird. Free at last.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Letter to Mom

Last Sunday I sat on the couch through most of the afternoon and evening trying to get my mother on the phone. I dialed, only to get the voice mail. So, since it looked like I was going to strike out on the phone, I thought I'd just write Mom a heartfelt letter.

Dear Mom,
I'm sorry I wasn't able to reach you on Mother's Day. I guess you and Dad went out to the Dog'n Suds, or maybe Dad fell and broke a hip, so I'm writing. Hope you get this before Father's Day.

Anyway, I wanted to thank you for being my guiding light, for making so many sacrifices. Yes, I remember you telling me about having to use Dad's old bandana for my diaper, you were so poor. But hey, it was the sixties, man, and civilization was falling apart. I was born into the JFK assassination, Vietnam, everybody free-basing on nudity and spray painting psychadelic tulips on their Volkswagen vans. But you and Dad stayed together, and even made love that one other time nine months before brother was born. Though why you felt you had to bring him into the mix I'll never know.

But look, it all worked out. Here I am today, married to a beautiful woman who reminds me so much of you. She even cooks sometimes, ma . . . and hey, she's a teacher like you were (for forty-two years). Like you always told me, I could have done worse. And you've seen my kids, too. Aren't they spectacular? The oldest (a girl, I think) leaves this fall for college and I can't wait to convert her bedroom into a billiard parlor. Tell Dad we'll shoot some eight ball next time you get over this way.

I'm so glad you also guided me away from the clarinet when I was in fourth grade. "Men don't play clarinet," you told me. And hey, after a decade of listening to Kenny G, I see what you mean. You are right, the trombone has a more masculine movement for an instrument. Sometimes I'm sorry I gave it up.

Finally, I wanted you to know that I still keep your 8 X 10 photo next to my bed. You're the first woman I see every morning. Often the last I see at night. Help Dad with his dentures and tell him I love him, too. After all, you could have done worse.

I love you, Mom.

Finding Mom's Card

Last week, when I made my way to Hallmark to find a card for Mom, I was astounded at the choices. But I did manage to find a card that perfectly expressed what I wanted to say to my mother. It was great. But I did pass up a few other cards such as these:

I'd like to say that you are a rare flower,
A sweet rose, a delicate petunia,
But we both know there is nothing delicate about a mother's love.
Like that time you took me out behind the woodshed,
Made me lower my pants, and beat my legs with a hickory switch.
Mom, I was twenty-seven and you proved you could still whup me.
I loved you for that, and always will.

You've always been like an old pirate to me:
Giving me just enough rope to hang myself,
Your bad eye rolling around in its socket beneath the patch,
Your good eye keeping constant vigil over my life,
Making me walk the gangplank of your love.
I love you always . . . Aaarrrrrgggghhhh.

I'm the man I am today
(Successful, loaded, a builder of dreams and so good-looking
I make all other women swoon)
Because of your love . . .
Keep up the good work, Ma!
I'll never give you a pink slip, you know that.
Let's get together some time for lunch.
Call me!

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Be it Resolved

There are some events in life that are far more humorous when you can look back on them, though they are not humorous at the time. Take, for example, a friend's divorce.

Some years back a friend of mine brought his divorce papers to a lunch so that I could "look them over" and make sure he wasn't missing anything. Believe me, I don't know how to read legelese (that strange language that lawyers still write in, though trying to decipher it is anyone's guess). Anway, the lunch meeting sort of dissolved (great word for a divorce, by the way) into a laugh fest as we began sorting out the peculiarities of his agreement.

Here were some of the better additions we came up with (to the best of my recollection).

Be it resolved that Dear John will spend at least a year mourning the loss of Dear Jane and that he will be racked with guilt and pain of the variety that will satisfy Dear Jane and cause her to smile every night at his misfortune.

Be it resolved that Dear John can't cook a lick and he will thereby be condemned to the purgatory of eating from the value menu at Wendy's every night.

Be it resolved that Dear John will sleep in a cardboard box outside his parents' garage until such a time as he can save a thousand dollars for a deposit on a squalid apartment infested with cockroaches and fleas causing him to itch and otherwise suffer the misfortunes of Job until such a time as he can find a nice dung heap to sit on.

Sort of makes you laugh and cry at the same time, doesn't it? The one positive . . . I think I actually helped the guy with my suggestions and pastoral counsel.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Like Dr. Seuss

Over the weekend I happened to read a funny tidbit about Ted Geisel (otherwise known as Dr. Seuss). It seems Mr. Geisel was dining in a restaurant one evening when a woman realized that she was sitting next to a famous children's author. She told him that she had raised her children on many of his books like Green Eggs and Ham and The Cat in the Hat. Then she said something that Mr. Geisel found very amusing.

"I've always wanted to write a children's book," she said. "And I have a great idea for one. The next time I get a free weekend without distractions, I'm going to sit down and write the book and send it to your publisher."

Wow, Geisel thought. If only I'd known it was that easy to write and publish a book! He'd been slaving over each of his books for months, sometimes years at a time, perfecting the drawings, rewriting the structure of the book, making sure that every word and sentence was pristine.

And to think . . . all he needed for success was one weekend free of distractions.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

If Mom Said It

There's a beautiful little book of quotations I finished reading today entitled: [Everything I've Learned]: 100 Great Principles to Live By, edited by Leslie Pockell. A few of my favorite quotes from this book are:

Never squat with your spurs on--Anonymous

Never test the depth of water with both feet--Anonymous

Just living is not enough. One must have sunshine, freedom, and a little flower--Hans Christian Andersen

I also recall the following from my mother:

Why can't you remember to toss your underwear down the chute? (Mom, to me, age sixteen)

Why don't you give that Becky girl a call some time? (Mom, to me, age twenty-one)

Why didn't you cut your hair? (Mom, to me, age twenty-two)

Happy Mother's Day!

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

The Big 30

No, this is not my age. I'm nearing the big 5-0. But "3-0" is now the number of books I've read in 2008. With the addition of completing The End of Words, by Richard Lischer, my old homiletics professor, I realize I've moved past a landmark, I've slipped past another bouy in the sea of pages I'm trying to navigate.

I have to thank Dr. Dick for another fascinating and provocative book. I say "provocative" because it did elicite a number of thoughts, questions, and concerns about preaching, the role of the preacher, and the place of words in a world where one voice just doesn't have much clout anymore.

I know where my old prof is coming from. Sermons are a dime a dozen, and often the preacher is left asking: "Who cares?"

I did sit down to tally my own contribution to the ocean of sermonic discourse, however. By my calculations, I've preached over 1000 sermons in my lifetime. But I only recall the one I preached last week (and that one, barely). But who's counting? One of these Sundays I might just show up and do a witness sermon, like the prophets running naked through the streets of Jerusalem, or Hosea declaring that his wife is a whore, or . . . hey, would anyone like to hear a sermon like this?

Monday, May 5, 2008

Fearless Fosdick

A couple of weeks ago I wrote of counting books in my library, somewhat incredulous that I'd amassed so many books that I need to shed. A portion of this mess of paper, however, can be attributed to the generosity of a handful of pastors who offered me portions of their libraries when they retired.

Paul Stevenson was one of these wise sages who called me into his home one afternoon (Noblesville circa. 1990) and said: "Please deliver me . . . take these boxes of books!" He was an especially avid reader of Harry Emerson Fosdick--otherwise known as "Fearless Fosdick"--then pastor of the famed Riverside church in New York, for his willingness to take on the Christian fundamentalists in the 1940s and 1950s.

I think all of my "Fearless" books came via Paul Stevenson, and some of these books are still insightful for our time. Still, I wonder . . . how would people characterize my preaching?

Perhaps I'm known as "Inside-Out & Roundabout" Outcalt, or "Terrible" Toddy, or just known as "That Guy Up the Street . . . What's His Name . . . ?" Or maybe I'm just "Tome-dead" Todd. I've never heard anyone characterize my messages as "Fearless", so I'm just going to accept the reality for what it is. Just six days away from another boring message.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Fred's Stories

I picked up a book two weeks ago that I completed on Friday: Craddock Stories. It is a collection of homiletical (fancy work for "preaching") stories told by preaching professor Fred Craddock. Craddock became well known for his "inductive" preaching method. I've had the pleasure of hearing Fred preach a few times, but I have no idea if I was hearing "inductive" vs. "deductive" or just "uctive".

Anyway, these are great stories, and I'm sure I'll use them in my own sermons some time in the future. I'll be saying: "Now, according to uncle Fred . . ." or "As Fred Craddock tells it . . ."

My own preaching, however, has been influenced by my homiletics professor at Duke, Dr. Richard Lischer. Only one thing I remember him saying, but it stuck:

"Most of you are going to want twenty hours to research, meditate upon, pray over, and write your sermons every week. But in actuality, between the phone calls, the interuptions, the marriage counseling, the crisis intervention, the poor, the weak, the needy, the worship prep, the staff crises, the hospital visits, the emergencies, the invitations, the weddings, the funerals, and all of the needs of your family and home . . . you're going to be damn lucky to get twenty minutes in the parish. Just make sure your sermons are inspiring, elucidating, entertaining, fulfilling, insightful, challenging, and homiletically consistent with the Biblical text, and you'll do fine!"

Thanks, Dr. Dick. I would write you a letter of thanks, but, hey, the phone just rang again while I was working on my sermon . . . .

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Good to the Last Dropping

I finished a reading/skimming of the book, The Gospel According to Starbucks, by Leonard Sweet. Given the fact that I like Starbucks coffee, I was intrigued, but this book just didn't have enough caffeine to keep me awake and engaged. Better to get the real thing.

Sweet really stretched to make some connections between Starbucks and the gospel. About the only fascinating story was the history behind Kopi Luwak coffee (made from the world's most expensive bean). It seems these coffee beans are gathered up in rain forests in Indonesia after they have been eaten and defecated by the luwak--a foxlike creature that feasts on the choisest coffee cherries, but can't digest the beans.

Anyway, you get the picture.

Too bad we don't have any luwaks around here. I could be getting my coffee for free for the price of a "pooper scooper".