Monday, February 28, 2011

And the Oscar Goes To . . .

I watch little TV, but did catch a few minutes of the Academy Awards on Sunday night. My favorite Oscar was the one given to the old man who wrote the original screenplay for The King's Speech. He began his acceptance speech by saying, "My father told me I was a late bloomer." My wife turned to me and said, "See, there's hope for you yet."

A great line, but one reminding me that the clock is ticking . . . even for writers. Life doesn't afford us unlimited opportunities in which to produce. So . . . I'll keep writing.

To date, my awards have centered more on handpainted cards from my children (when they still cared about their dad) and love notes from my wife (when she felt compelled, twenty years ago, to write them). I have these awards stashed in my writing closet underneath tear sheets from magazines, manuscripts and parts from old computer printers.

I don't display my awards, and I don't tout them. I don't want others to think that I have a big head. Besides, I have no place to display an award anyway, and the only thing I've ever experienced from thinking about an award is a headache. Still, I have my speech ready:

On behalf of all of the losers out there, I am not accepting this award. I'm satisfied with the lack of notoriety, the lousy sales, and the minuscule royalty checks I rarely receive. I'd like to thank the Academy for leaving me in obscurity, which is where I belong. I'm in great company and some of my best friends are perpetual losers, too. So, thank you for ignoring me. (Cue cheesy orchestra music.)

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Out of This World

I was elated to read another of Mary Roach's warped science books. This time the treat was her latest: Packing For Mars. In a nutshell, this book details all of the various pitfalls and problems of space exploration, particularly as these challenges involve the human body and NASA's unrelenting pursuit of studying the effects of Zero-Gravity on bodily functions (#1, #2, and also the question: is sex possible in outer space?).

Ah . . . but anyone familiar with Roach's quirky backlist such as Boink (the inner-workings of sex), Stiff (what happens to the human body after death), and Spook (exploring the questions of life after death) know what a treat her books are. However, if you are put-off by frank scientific and humorous explorations about bodily excretions and human sexuality . . . for the love of Mike, don't read Packing for Mars.

This is the kind of book that will offend millions, that will make many people blush or hide the title under their mattress so their kids won't find it. Others will be calling their Senators and librarians requesting that this book be banned. Naturally, I loved it. In fact, I wish I had written Packing for Mars. It's just my type of weird, esoteric, warped brand of science written by a woman who knows her secretions.

It also makes me realize that we are spending millions of our tax dollars on NASA scientific studies that involve human excrements. Every astronaut has been a guinea pig, and no diaper, catheter or condom has gone unturned. (Literally!)

I enjoyed Packing For Mars. I learned a lot from it--scientifically and otherwise. But it's not for the faint of heart or the easily-offended.

I, however, cannot wait for Roach's next book. And I'll likely read it in the bathroom.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Grant Writing

Over the past decade I've written many successful grants for the congregation . . . more than $125,000 all told. It's not a "huge" number, but as far as church goes, a respectable total, as grants associated with religious work are tough to come by.

Evidently, my prowess with the pen has also elicited an interest from others, as I've had three requests in the past month alone to write various grant proposals for other non-profit or religious-based organizations. I'm taking up the pen for one of these, but have respectfully declined the others . . . and I've yet to write a new grant for Calvary this year, but certainly plan to. I'm also anticipating a successful grant-writing expedition on both counts.

I do wish, however, that grant writing could me more straightforward. I'm eager for the day when I can write to a foundation and tell the story simply:

Dear Friends,
We are low on funds. In fact, we are living on peanut butter and stale bread. We'd really like to have a big sweaty pile of your available cash . . . as we understand you are in the business of giving money away to weak-kneed organizations such as our own. Our vision: to spend your money. God knows we need it. I mean, what are you gonna do with it? Invest it in tax free municipal bonds? Purchase pork bellies? Let me tell you, we've got plans over here. (See enclosed crayola drawings which our children created featuring our proposed solar panels and geo-thermal heating units, a project we are calling: Hot for Jesus.)

Wouldn't you like to fund this? God knows we can't. Please, for the love of God and all that is decent, send us some cash.

The Lord bless you today.

Anyone else want to hire me to write their grants?

Thursday, February 24, 2011


A few weeks ago I was having coffee with a friend who was lamenting the copious number of business presentations he was forced to attend. "The trouble is," he told me, "most of these people are horrible speakers and communicators. I've even seen some speakers who turn their back to the audience and talk to a screen. And many of these speeches are incomprehensible."

I considered this conversation recently when I happened upon an article about a writer who had served as a speech writer for both George W. Bush and, now, President Obama. It was an interesting parallel, given that many public speakers can't speak, and those who do often turn to writers to fill the void. Writers, of course, should be adept at crafting sentences.

Most people, when they consider the work that pastors do, week in and week out, are not easily impressed until they realize that pastors must craft a keynote speech every week. Regardless of the circumstances or the disasters that have been dropped into the pastor's lap, the sermon must happen. People expect it. And it had better be good!

No doubt, some of the best public speakers, bar none, can be found in pulpits every Sunday morning. In fact, I'd stack up the top pastors against the top Fortune 500 speakers any day of the week and twice on Tuesday, and the pastors, I'm sure, would slaughter these high-paid duds on a 1-10 scale for effectiveness and inspiration. In fact, it's easy to motive a captive audience who have paid $300 to attend a seminar. But try motivating a volunteer organization week in and week out and, over the long haul of a ministry, and still have something to say. Most of these gurus move from place to place, from city to city, and only have one speech which they recycle endlessly while they collect their fat-cat checks. (This applies to politicians, former-politicians, wanna-be politicians, celebrities, movie-stars, and countless media moguls . . . few of whom can string together fifty words that would be comprehensible to the average Joe--and nearly all of the above use writers to write their words. They couldn't do it themselves to save their own skins.)

Well . . . but then I'm a writer and no one has called me to write a speech of late. But when they do, I'll be ready. I've got some great speeches already on hand. My rate is $10,000 per hour. A bargain at any price . . . considering.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011


Book marks are an enigma. I have collected hundreds of them over the years, but I never have one when I need it. Even though I have book marks of every style and persuasion I usually end up using a piece of scrap paper or a rubber band to mark my page. It's frustrating. My book marks are usually stashed behind shelves or inside shelved books and I am almost always forced to create my own mark with whatever I can find at hand.

Some of my most cherished book marks include: a mark my grandmother crocheted for me before her death; a sterling silver mark with my inscribed initials in gold overlay; a few book marks that editors have sent to me in appreciation of my writing; a book mark from Guatemala that Tom Heaton gave me last year. I possess all of these book marks, but I have no idea where any of them are as I write this. Lost? Hardly. They are nearby. I just can't find them.

Some of my more ingenious book marks include: placing a thinner book inside a thicker book; a DVD or CD; dental floss; toenail clippings. The toenail clippings are classic (I'm not sure they were even mine . . . I found the pile on the top of the bathtub). I was getting ready to take a shower and didn't have a book mark on hand. The clippings marked my place nicely and I later told my wife I cleaned the bathroom. I wasn't lying.

I hear some people actually read a book without a book mark. They "dog ear" their page. Not in my house . . . . This is one of my pet peeves. If I see my daughter or son dog-earing a page, I send them to bed without supper and I withhold parental love for months. They are not allowed to visit my library until they write a five page apology and sign a contract that they will not dog-ear another page in a book under penalty of death.

And I don't want to tell you what I would do to my wife if she dog-eared one of my books. But that's another page.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Thank God for Literary Journals

Thank God for literary journals. These quarterly and semi-annual publications, many of which are published by universities and edited by professors and students, have been a mainstay for writers for decades. I submit to these journals weekly, and a quick glance back through my records show that I've made more than a hundred literary journal submissions in the past year. Without them, even the best and most well-known writers would have diminished venues in which to find readers.

Currently, there are some thirty literary journals that are considering my work: essays, short stories, poems, even memoirs. Most of these submissions will result in rejections, but now and again I get a nod and a publication date is set. I expand my resume of work and a literary journal gets a piece of my mind. It's a fantastic relationship.

I've also developed some nice friendships with certain editors. When I find someone who likes me, I latch on like a leech and don't let go. I look for this affirmation outside of my marriage and some editors of literary journals seem eager to shack up with a guy like me. Rarely does money change hands. We just like each other as friends.

I'd like to thank those editors who appreciate me for who I am. They don't judge me or read my work with preconceived ideas or stereotypes. They've seen me with my pants down. They don't ask me to turn my head and cough. Some of these editors send back nice notes telling me they laughed or cried or they invite me to send more of my work. I do.

Thank you, editors. I appreciate you, too!

Monday, February 21, 2011

Rainy Days and Mondays

Today echoed the old Carpenter's lyrics: "Rainy Days and Mondays always get me down." And I would have been in a funk all day if I hadn't received some good news at the top of the morning.

Fortunately, I received word this morning that my essay, "The Pileated Woodpecker", had been accepted for publication (thanks, Christopher) and later a second e-mail confirmation that a batch of my poems (all about dead authors) would be seeing publication in a spring 2012 journal.

Okay, not a bad way to start the day. "The Pileated Woodpecker" was an essay I wrote some eighteen months ago. It's gone through a lengthy cycle of rejections, probably over a dozen "get losts!" or "drop deads!" before finally landing in print. But I knew when I wrote the essay that it was too good to end up in my closet stashed in a box. It was one of those pieces that spoke to me and the words found their way onto the page quite easily. It's one of those essays that I hope I can use in a book some day . . . part memoir, part ornithological, part poem . . . one of my most creative pieces of writing ever and I'm proud of it.

So . . . Monday. Bring on the rain. I have phone calls to make at home tonight (planning a Good Friday worship service) and then afterwards I'll be hammering away at the keys. I've got more essays inside of me that need a little TLC and I've got a full pot of coffee heating up right now. Let it rain. Tomorrow is Tuesday.

Reading in Bed With My Wife

When you've been married as long as my wife and I, reading in bed can be a problem.

Take, for example, the invitation. Let's say I suggest to my wife at midnight that we go to bed and read. She will likely tell me she has a headache. This is typical of our reading life, but we frequently fall into bed together anyway and share the Q volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica or perhaps we read the "Y" section of the Webster's Collegiate Dictionary. Naturally we wear each other out and fall to sleep immediately.

There are times, however, when my wife thinks that reading in bed is a great option for us. Sometimes she brings along a highlighter and an instructional manual. She underlines pertinent passages and shows them to me, often making suggestive comments that she hopes will provoke me to wash the various beakers and test tubes soaking downstairs in the kitchen sink. I point out that I am not a science teacher . . . just a lover of books . . . and that if we're going to read in bed together, we should be quiet and not make commentary or express desires.

There are also times when my wife and I wait for the other to make the first move. Sometimes she wants to read in bed, sometimes I do. But I like it when she asks. That's why I always keep a stack of books in the nightstand next to the bed. I want to be ready when she is. But then, I'm a man and I like aggressive novels like War and Peace.

Naturally, there are also times when our reading cycles don't sink up. My wife wants to study textbooks while I prefer light verse or something playful like Where the Sidewalk Ends. Here we have to compromise, or we agree to disagree, and we usually end up just going through the motions of reading, with neither of us absorbing very much. It's frustrating. Reading should be exciting and adventuresome, we agree on this, but there are times when we have to talk about our patterns. We need to trade books sometimes, and both of us agree we need read a lot more history and sociology. Sometimes we will even buy a book together and share it. We take turns flipping the pages. It's remarkable when this happens and we recommend it to any couple who has grown stale in their reading habits.

Finally, we agree that we can never read in bed too often. There is so much to learn. We each have our interests and our favorite genres. I like to read sitting up, and I prefer fiction, where anything goes. My wife, on the other hand, craves manuals and workbooks. She likes to underline and make notations in the margins. Sometimes, when she's not looking, I read her thoughts.

I'm not sure what tonight will bring, but I've got three new books ready on the nightstand. My wife tells me she is bringing something new home herself and that we will meet in the middle. She wants my advice on a paper she is writing.

I can't wait.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Private Thoughts

At various junctures of my life, I've kept a personal journal detailing experiences and thoughts. It's been years, now, since I've made any new entries, as I finally came to the realization that I was working out my stresses and frustrations in sit-ups and bench presses and writing my thoughts in stories, poems and novels--even sermons--among others.

Still, I do have private ponderings that go unrecorded, and I thought I'd work out a few of these on this blog. This will also give readers a sneak peak into my mind and may help a few decide if, indeed, I have one.

Thought # 1
Why can't I bring myself to paint the canvases stashed in my home office?
I've had these canvases and paints for years now and have been telling myself that I'll take up the brush on some sunny afternoon and create. I've done it in the past. But I'm stymied. Too many ideas, too little time? And besides, my wife insists she won't pose nude for me.

Thought # 2
Why has God called me to be a United Methodist pastor?
This is still a great mystery to me . . . and for years I've been asking God to get someone else. But the finger keeps pointing in my direction (usually index finger) and every few years I receive an indication that God has a sense of humor. I'm the biggest butt in God's joke book, but that's okay as long as I don't covet my neighbor's ass.

Thought # 3
Why do 10% of the readers of this blog live in the Netherlands?
I'm not certain, but I like the Dutch. My wife, for example, usually pays for her own meals (I insist on it) and last summer I started carving some shoes out of an old piece of walnut I found in the backyard. I'm also carving some dentures, for later. I think the Dutch like me because I'm not a threat to visit their fair country.

Thought # 4
Isn't there more to life?

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Book Signings

Photo: a portion of my John Updike collection, shelved.

In his lifetime, John Updike wrote more than sixty titles. I have, now, forty-two of his works, including some that are difficult to find, and many in first edition. These titles occupy a couple of lengthy shelves at home.

I have enjoyed my pursuit of Updike's work and have as a goal to possess all of his titles eventually, especially in used book form. I enjoy trying to find these gems in the rough, in part, because of the handwritten notes I discover inside their pages. I like a used book because it has a history, and has been handled and read by others. I get to resurrect the book and make it part of my own library.

Among my favorite book inscriptions in my Updike collection are these:

To Mason, I thought this book would remind of your trip to NYC. Enjoy. Love, Cheryl. (Inscribed on the flyleaf of Just Looking, Random House, 1989 . . . one of the few Updike books published outside of the Knopf imprint.)

Mary Rose Peterson with love from Grandma and Grandpa Nibby, August 5, 1992
(Inscribed on the flyleaf of A Child's Calendar, Knopf, 1965 text by Updike and children's illustrations by Nancy Burkert.)

Poems by a Literary Mr. Sunshine
(Newspaper clipping/article from the Sunday, June 17, 2001 edition of The Philadelphia Inquirer, yellowed, found inside first edition of this, Updike's final poetry collection, Knopf, 2001.)

For you to read to Thoreau, Merry Christmas, Bill from Ralph & Corinne
(Inscription on wooden Chinese book mark discovered inside The Twelve Terrors of Christmas, Pomegranate Communications, 1999, with drawings by Edward Gorey.)

I enjoy finding these gifts and inscriptions to others; it's like opening up a stranger's underwear drawer and finding a love letter. (At least, that's where I hide mine.) Eventually, I'll own Updike in full, and I'll also own a small portion of other lives that have cast off these titles. Until then, I'll keep looking and collecting.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

A Reading Life

Last night I finished digesting Pay Conroy's collection of memoirs: My Reading Life. Actually, this collection of Conroy's writings is not about his reading life primarily, but contains personal reflections on influential teachers, friends, and agents who impacted his life.

I must confess I am unfamiliar with Conroy's work, although I have certainly heard of his novels, The Great Santini and The Prince of Tides (seen the movie). I was impressed with Conroy's command of language and his self-deprecating humor . . . self-deprecation being a hallmark I can identify with.

I did ask my wife to read one of these essays that Conroy had entitled, "The Teacher", as it was a compelling narrative about a high school teacher and friend who impacted not only his writing life, but his life on the whole. I wish I had met this man, but then realized I had some great teachers of my own, and not a few who were characters in their own right.

I was glad to read My Reading Life. It was a wonderful peek into the world of a writer's influences and reading habits.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Love Poetry and the Middle-Aged Woman

For years I've written romantic "love" poetry to my wife. Oh, sure, I publish the cheesy stuff on this warped blog, but I also write poems that my wife weeps over and then hides in her sock and bra drawer. But the problem with poetry is that, as a woman ages, she becomes immune to the effects of romantic poetry.

Take this recent Valentine's Day as an example. I handed my wife a thick, greasy sheaf of poems on Monday night, poems that I had worked on for months, poems comparing her to a summer evening or praising certain bodily charms that, if not for the poetry itself, would have warranted my arrest and conviction on obscenity charges in many states. Still, for all of this, the middle-aged woman merely yawns in the face of such poetic mastery and utters, "That's nice, dear."

Nice?! I was hoping she would call her mother and say, "Mom, you were wrong about him. Thirty years ago you told me he would never amount to a pile of soap suds and now look at him . . . wildly successful, a great husband, and I don't have the words to describe his technical prowess in the sack. That, and you should read his poems. My knees buckled while I was running the vacuum cleaner. What words!"

No, but my poems have become nice. That's the middle-aged woman way. It's all she can muster. Giving my wife poetry at this juncture of our lives is similar to handing her a bottle of cleaning solvent or a scrub brush. She'll thank me for the gesture, but inside she's just numb because she's seen it all before and she regards my romantic expressions in much the same way as she would when reading the tiny instructions on a jug of Clorox. She doesn't need to read the instructions any longer, and she knows I have nothing new to offer. She's seen all my moves, and I lost my pivot and my jump shot years ago.

I'm not giving in, however. The way I figure it, I'm bound to write a love poem to my wife that will jostle her someday. Which is why I'm working on a poem about my untimely death and the loneliness she will feel when she buries my corpse with my computer and my manuscripts. She will mourn me for three days before she remarries and spends the entirety of my pension on motorcycle accessories and a Sleep Number mattress.

It's going to be my best love poem ever. But it ain't gonna be nice!

Monday, February 14, 2011

My Funny Valentine

Here's one of the many poems I'll be giving to my wife tonight, and one of the few I can share on this blog. I just thought some of you might like to know how I feel about my wife since she will be working late and we won't be going out to dinner or exchanging gifts or doing anything kinky or remotely romantic. Hope the rest of you have a great Valentine's day and really enjoy yourselves.

Lost & Found

There are so many things I've lost
Since you have been with me:
My time, my freedom, and my cash,
And my virginity.

I've lost my mind a hundred times
And many days ill spent
Going places that you loved
Where I wasn't glad we went.

I've lost great sums of cash, for sure,
And inclined the bulk to you
For this and that, and some of those,
So you could purchase new.

Still, all in all, I've found much more
Than I have likely given
Since you are valued, and you've made
My life almost worth livin'.

You've get the checkbook and the cash
And I, a better life.
And honey, you can have it all
As long as you're my wife.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Poems to My Wife

I could go out and purchase a Valentine's day card for my wife, but why start now? Instead of purchasing a poem for $5.95 that some high-paid Hallmark employee wrote in a laboratory, I've been writing my wife original poetry for decades. It's these original poems, in fact, that form the basis of our relationship and have vaulted me into her heart and made me a legend in my own household. This Valentine's day, I've produced a sheaf of these babies and plan to lay 'em on her tomorrow when she comes home, late, from work. I doubt we'll end up in bed together, but I could see us watching a rerun of American Pickers and splitting a caffeine free diet Pepsi. We might even go crazy and work on removing the wallpaper in the downstairs hallway. Her choice. I cater to the whims of my wife.

Still, this is a poem that I hope will really speak to her and nudge her gizzard. This is the first of many and should produce some positive result on this love-fest weekend.


Regarding those singers who brag of
"Doing it all night long."
You have a headache,
I have five minutes.
Honey, they're playing our song.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Hello, England ! Hello, Korea !

Every now and again I check to see who is reading this blog. Amazingly, I've noted that in this past week, nearly 10% of my readers live in England, with another 3% tuning in from South Korea.

Why England? Well, first, I love England. Although I've yet to visit, it's high on my list of travel priorities and my daughter spent the entirety of her summer last year teaching in Liverpool, travelling to Ireland and Whales, and talking up her dad's blog. So maybe that explains some of the "hits" from across the pond. Hang with me, England . . . I'll get to your shores very soon!

As for South Korea, I do have one book, Candles in the Dark, that was translated into Korean some years ago, so perhaps I've picked up a few groupies from that title. I'd love to visit South Korea, too. I like sushi and all things Asian.

Or, perhaps these various hits from around the world could simply be attributed to mistakes. I know that, with all the gizmos and gadgets we now live with, it would be easy to press a wrong button or skim a backspace key and suddenly discover this blog. If this is the case, I apologize to the ten percent who can't use a cell phone properly. I certainly don't want my English or Korean friends to get their first impressions of America from my blog. God forbid. If this is the case, I'm sure there are many hanging out in Liverpool pubs right now saying, "I say, old chap, have you visited the Yankee's blog lately? Sorry display of American sensibilities if I do say so . . . and a sad commentary on the intellectual climate of their English majors."

Again, I apologize. I'm just trying to write good humor borne of my reading/writing habits . . . and if you don't understand me, it's not your fault. There's a cultural gap.

And speaking of gap . . . perhaps we could agree that we all like green vegetables. Don't we have that in common? All I am saying is, give peas a chance!

Friday, February 11, 2011


It is Friday. The day probably has varied significance, depending on circumstance, but Fridays have traditionally been my day off. And for me, it has always been a day of writing. Over the years, I've spent the bulk of this day writing my guts out. I hope to do so again today.

Some years, when I've had a book contract to fulfill and a deadline to meet, I've used Fridays to write whole chapters, or even entire sections. But now, with nothing looming on the horizon, I have free reign to write what I want. I can also pull out phone numbers and call editors, or write inquiry emails, or stuff envelopes with manuscripts and take them to the post office.

It's Friday. And I plan to work on the following today:

A story entitled "The Draft Dodger" that I began nearly ten years ago. I've rewritten it many times, recently tossed out all but the first four pages, and now will begin again until I get it right (tone, voice, pace, etc.).

I'm writing an editor at Brazos Press, following up with a magazine editor, working on a new book proposal.

I'll probably write a couple of poems to my wife (for Valentine's Day?). I seem to be able to create really weird and wacky love poems around mock holidays and VD is one of my favorites.

TGIF . . .

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Booked Solid

During my long wait to have a new windshield installed in my son's pickup truck, I read the entirety of The Book That Changed My Life, edited by Diane Osen. This book is a collection of interviews conducted with National Book Award winning authors and poets, asking them to describe the books, and the circumstances surrounding, that changed their lives.

Among the honorees included in this collection are: Don DeLillo, E.L. Doctorow, Philip Levine, Cynthia Ozick, Grace Paley, and Linda Pastan.

Reading about their life-changing books stirred my interest in the same question: What books have changed my life?

Like a number included here, outside of the Bible, I'm not sure I could name a title that has impacted my daily life, or somehow changed my thought or outlook. But I do have a number of titles that have given me enormous pleasure, or were read at critical junctures of my life, or offered me a surprising stir of emotion. Amazingly, I can't think of any "religious" titles (other than the Bible) that have impacted me deeply. But here are a few others, along with commentary, that surprise me even yet.

A Shropshire Lad, by A.E. Houseman, was a high school assignment that moved me through the world of poetry into asking deeper questions about life and love. I still know many of Houseman's poems by heart.

Moby Dick, Herman Melville, is probably the quintessential American novel, but one of my first reads after leaving behind the boredom of seminary books/theological works I was forced to consume. I've never forgotten reading this novel post-seminary and feeling utterly free of the constraints of a formal education completed. I was now free to learn each day on my own and the search for the whale helped. The symbolism was not lost on me at this juncture of my life.

The Collected Stories of Bernard Malamud. When this book was published, I rejoiced, and was one of the first in line to snag a copy hot off the press. I visit its pages often. This book makes me exceedingly happy.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, by John Berendt. Read it once, and started it again. Incredible writing and unfolding drama in Savanna, GA. Cast of characters (real people) is amazing.

Mr. Ives' Christmas, by Oscar Hijealos. One of the first novels that, in the closing pages, moved me to tears and rejoicing in the final vision offered up by Mr. Ives over the triumph and final victory of Christ. I try to read this one every 2-3 years. Astounding vision. If you want a novel that will stir you, this is it.

The Collected Stories of Ray Bradbury. I read this one over and over. Only one of three volumes of his stories, but one has to wonder: where does the creativity of this one man come from? and Why did God give him all the talent?

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Reading Between the Lines

Tomorrow I'll be spending, perhaps, a couple of hours waiting in a line. Toward that end, I'm bringing plenty of reading material with me for the duration.

I've given this plenty of thought. I'll bring the latest issue of The New Yorker along. And I'm also bringing a copy of The Book That Changed My Life, which is a collection of essays/interviews with authors about the books that impacted them.

Reading while I wait isn't my favorite pastime, but it beats getting a colonoscopy or a root canal. I'd rather be at home, feet propped up on the sofa, eating grapes, while my wife fans me with a flamingo feather . . . but this will have to do. I also plan to complete my sermon outline for Sunday while I'm in the line, and I'm sure I'll get looks. But perhaps I can be a witness, too.

"Hey, mister, what are you working on?"
"Sermon outline."
"A what-a-line??"
"A message for the church. I invite you to attend Calvary this weekend. Join me."
"I'm not a joiner."
"You don't have to join."
"I don't like organized religion."
"That's okay, we're very disorganized."
"You just want my money."
"I don't, but God does. And your money will go toward ice and snow removal."
"Is that one of your mission projects?"
"Now it is."
"I don't think I could join any organization that would have you as a pastor."
"That's okay, half the congregation doesn't want me either. You can join that half of the outfit."
"Is that why you're weeping?"
"No, it's because I'm standing in this line next to you."

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

An Outcalt By Any Other Name

Photo: Some guy named John Outcalt and his band, GOD FORBID

Two weeks ago I received a phone call from a gentleman who identified himself as "Norman Outcalt". He told me he was calling from Ohio, and had seen my name attached to an Upper Room devotion, done a search, and discovered that I had written many books. He wondered how we might be related.

We talked for awhile and I learned that he is a retired United Methodist pastor now living in Tennessee, and that most of his relatives had been pastors or missionaries also. I told him that there are some twenty to thirty pastors in my family, too. When we have our family reunions, we draw straws to determine who will say the blessing before the meal.

Following the phone conversation, I did a Google image search and found more Outcalts than I thought existed. This guy (see photo above) is John Outcalt, and he obviously has a heavy metal band called GOD FORBID. I also found several images of Outcalt tombstones and learned that Indianapolis has an Outcalt Road. A few of my photos popped up, too, and I had to wonder: doesn't the little man at Google have anything better to do?

Norman Outcalt asked me a lot of questions like: "What is your wife's name?", "How would you describe her?", "Does she freckle easily?", "Do you hope to have more children?" I answered all of these, and more, like a true Outcalt, describing my life in tedious detail so he would have a clear picture of just how boring my existence is. I did not sugar-coat my life (like the Joneses or the Smiths or the Browns might). No, I made it clear that we Outcalts don't go for caviar. We are a meat and potatoes and black licorice people. We don't go to movies; we rent five year old DVDs. We don't drink to excess or smoke pipes or attempt to look suave or debonair; we walk around the house in our underwear and make snide remarks to each other about cleaning the kitchen. We don't drive BMWs or Lexuses; we drive crap that could (and frequently does) fall apart on the highway. No, Outcalts don't put on airs. The name "Outcalt" (German) means, literally, "I have no Gold". We are a hard working people, an honest troupe, a weird gala of ugly men and even uglier women who, when asked to describe out lives, respond, "Great!"

Norman Outcalt is kin. He knows all about me. That's why I don't have to meet him to know him. God Forbid!

Monday, February 7, 2011

Memories of Jack

Last week fitness guru Jack Lalanne died at the age of 96. He was fit to the end. (Well . . . not the very end . . . eventually he croaked.) Still, I must say, ol' Jack was one of my idols.

As a very young boy (yes, I remember watching Jack on morning TV when I was 4 yrs. old!) I waited in the living room while my mother exercised to Jack's routine. This was LONG before fitness videos, gymnasiums, and the various and latest crazes and wacky abdominal devices came onto the scene. I'm talking 1964/1965. Lalanne was an advocate of weight training, among other things, and his methods were controversial at the time. Some pundits even predicted mothers dropping dead in their living rooms from following Lalanne's TV workout routines.

Weight training still wasn't accepted into the mainstream (not even in professional sports!) until the movie Pumping Iron (with Arnold Schwarzenneger and Lou Ferrigno) brought weight training out of the underground dungeons and off the back pages of comic books. This was 1974.

But Jack Lalanne was the first. He was in the gym long before Arnold had ever dreamed of picking up a barbell and he was trying to set a standard for health and fitness that few, even to this day, have ever achieved. Even in his early 90's, Lalanne was in better physical condition than 90% of Americans. He had the Lalanne juicer to prove it!

Well . . . I'll miss Jack. I just wanted to write this farewell obit as a tribute and thank him for inspiring me when I was four years old. I'm not kidding! Watching Jack do chin ups and crunches every morning at 8 a.m. was part of pre-school routine. I've been doing them ever since.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

LOL :)

For months I had been seeing LOL :) at the end of facebook entries and emails. I had no idea what this abbreviation was supposed to mean . . . and now there are so many other abbreviations that have become part of our "language" and "texting" (which contain no "text" or "context" at all) it is difficult to keep up. An editor recently told me that he has even started seeing these abbreviations in formal letters, book proposals, and "professional" correspondence. These abbreviations can't be a good sign for the English language.

What is LOL supposed to mean?

To me, it could mean a great many things.

For example, the state of Illinois ought to adopt LOL :) as their official abbreviation. After all, that state's official claim is LOL (Land of Lincoln).

I could start singing all of my letters LOL (Likes Old Licorice).

Or, I could send me wife a letter signed LOL (Lots Of Love). But then, she might not known what LOL means and think I'm telling her to LOL (Leave Out Lightbulbs), in which case, the house would get rather dark. She might also misunderstand and think that I'm saying LOL (Looking for Love), in which case she might say, "Don't be ridiculous" or "You can look all you want, fella, but you'll never find anyone else who will was your gym shorts."

No, LOL :) leaves a lot to be desired. It doesn't say anything and, since everyone is using it, it's much like saying "How are you?" or "Whazup?" Eventually someone has to coin a new abbreviation that can catch one. I've been trying out a few at home . . . but see what you think of these:

WTR (Where's the Remote?)
UTC (Under the Couch)
WIT (Why's It There?)
DAM (Don't Ask Me)
DIA (Did I Ask?)
YYD (Yes You Did!)
SAT (Sorry About That)
YAI (You're An Idiot)
YIK (Yes I Know)
SAM (Stop Asking Me)
LMU (Let's Make Up)
NWB (No Way Buster!)
ACO (Awww, Come On!)
WOK (Well, OK)
TMG (That's My Girl!)
DPM (Don't Press, Mister!)
LML (Let's Make Love)
GMD (Go Make Dinner)

Please let me know if any of these catch on at your house!

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Fertility Clinic

For the past eight weeks I feel like I've been putting on a writing clinic. For a writer, fertility runs in cycles. As I look back on the past two months (December/January) I see that these eight weeks have been an incredibly fertile period for me. Snow bound, I've now taken stock of my blessings--and the early mornings and late nights I've dedicated to this craft--and have here assembled a short list of writing completed over the past eight weeks. Here are the children I've birthed.

Eight sermons
50+ blog entries
Seven devotions for The Upper Room (two accepted for publication)
20+ poems (two accepted for publication)
2 Columns (published)
Five humor pieces
Three new book proposals
Eight stories including literary, science fiction, mystery/suspense and other

I seem to write better in the winter, I'm more fertile in snow. No distractions (like lawn mowing, gardening, chopping wood). In the winter, I can just turn on a forty-watt bulb in the dark and write.
The only problem is, I seem to produce a lot of depressing stories in winter . . . stories about middle-aged men married to middle-aged women who, in the throes of ice, seem to nag their middle-aged husbands about a trip to Hawaii, say, or middle-aged women who utter remarks that are as cutting as a dull-edged Exacto-knife to the nougat center of the heart, women who, though well-meaning, have difficulty seeing the dedicated servant and hot lover who sleeps next to them every night but, due to circumstances beyond their control, fall into Hamburger Helper patterns of cuisine and, while searching for the meaning of life, discover that they have been married to perfection all along and don't need to search any further by thumbing through Crate and Barrel catalogues or reading Better Homes and Gardens, as they have, right before their very eyes, a rich and exciting man who, from time to time, moves into fits of Don Juan romanticism and saves enough money to rent DVDs and, although he drives a junk car, dreams of a Mercedes and speaks of it often, though, she knows in her heart that he will always drive crap just for her, which is his faint attempt at love and, some evenings, these two look into each other's eyes and say, "Yes! Yes!" to life and to Wheel of Fortune and occasionally fall into each other's arms after taking three shots of NyQuil. These are my winter stories.

Of course, in the Spring I will write uplifting stories about Daffodils and two old farts who, sitting by the fire and drinking Cabernet, whispering their boring dreams to each other before realizing that it is late and they must change the cat litter or anything else I can imagine.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Snowed Into the Poorhouse

On Wednesday I read John Updike's first novel, The Poorhouse Fair, a work he wrote back in 1958 to some critical acclaim and a burgeoning literary career. Poorhouse is something of a futuristic work, though tame by today's standards, and the work is indicative of the times, with it's various abbreviations for "curse" words and entendres.

Reading The Poorhouse Fair now, after reading so much of Updike's mature work, served to witness his enormous talent at an early age. The author photo on the back cover reveals a studious man, dark-haired and fresh from Oxford, reclining on a bench, possessing an air of self-assurance coupled with friendliness. One gets the impression Updike posed for the photo and then went out for beers afterwards.

I'm glad to have read Poorhouse on a snow day. It's a terse book, a mere 180 pages or so in length, though heavy reading. It's a great book to make a writer like me feel the weight of depression and winter's heavy hand, having given up long ago at being able to write, myself, such magnificent and austere prose.

Ah, but such is life. Some, like Updike, were meant to scale the literary heights and others, like me, to feed on the bottom scraps of the hack.

How poor I am!

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

My Full Monty

A few days ago I was reading another author's bio online where, in a fit of braggadocio, the author noted all of the books he had "contributed" to as well as written whole.

Now that I'm snowed in and have time on my hands (and a wife who is still writing and grading papers), I thought it might be fun to take a trip down memory lane and see how many books I have contributed to. I had to do some digging in the closets and some scrounging among the dusty bookshelves, but I did manage to create this comprehensive list of those books that contain at least one of my essays or stories. Nineteen total . . . although the Bridges volumes (3) are indeed mine entirely--and I recall writing all three volumes over a three month period in a frenzied pace to meet a deadline that another writer could not meet. (I got the job after a late-night phone call from a distraught editor who begged me to write the books--and it's where I first learned how to write F-A-S-T and L-O-O-S-E. A book-a-month . . . that was my beginning and I've never stopped!) The Bridges volumes are mine free-and-clear, they just don't have my name on the cover, and so I have never counted them among my book totals. Still, here's my full monty:

Profiles in Teaching (UI Press, forthcoming)
The Ultimate Mom (HCI, 2009)
The Ultimate Teacher (HCI, 2009)
The Ultimate Christmas (HCI, 2008)
Chicken Soup for the Recovering Soul, Daily Inspirations (HCI, 2005)
Chicken Soup for the Recovering Soul (HCI, 2004)
Games for All Ages (Group, 2002)
Jumpstarters (Group, 2001)
Alpha Centauri Science Fiction Anthology for Children (2001)
Pointmaker Object Lessons (Group, 2000)
Sunday School Attendance Boosters (Group, 2000)
Gigantic Book of Games (Group, 1999)
Gigantic Book of Games Vol. 2 (Group, 1999)
Training Youth For Leadership (Group, 1999)
Leaning Toward Christmas (Abingdon, 1998)
Worship Ideas for Youth Ministry (Group, 1997)
Bridges for Persons With Mental Retardation, Vol.3 (Abingdon, 1997)
Bridges for Persons With Mental Retardation, Vol.2 (Abingdon, 1997)
Bridges for Persons With Mental Retardation, Vol. 1 (Abingdon, 1997)

Snow Daze

You're probably reading this indoors. Like me, you're likely at home, snowed in. But I'm not complaining. I've already fought the good fight yesterday at Wal-Mart and wrestled a loaf of marble rye bread away from an old lady. I purchased the last gallon of milk. I have 150 pounds of potatoes. And I'm ready to write all day . . . even if the power goes down.

A snow day is a great day to write, my friends. Although I'll be at home all day with my wife, she'll be writing, too. We might even have conversation. My son might awaken around 3 p.m. for breakfast. He will grunt, I will nod, and we will acknowledge each other's existence with a wave of the hand and a "How ya' doin'?" Later in the day, I will ask him if he would like to shoot a game of billiards (he will not); I will ask him if he would like to watch a movie (he will laugh at me). Perhaps, I might make overtures to my wife. Her responses will be much the same, only her laughter will be more protracted and evil. She will request that I shovel our 120 yard-long driveway. I will pass this request to my son. He will grunt and take a nap.

No . . . a snow day is a great day to write. And I have plenty to write about. I've got novels in progress, several stories in various stages, book proposals I'm still developing, a fair amount of poems that need revision, and any number of essays I could begin, revise, or complete. Today might be the day.

I'm also expecting phone calls or email responses from a former New York agent and I'll likely hear from at least one editor online today regarding some other submissions.

A snow day is a treat. Normally I'd be up early, writing before sunrise, and then hitting the keys again before I go to bed late at night. But today is a snow day . . . and I have miles to go before I sleep (Robert Frost).

Stay warm!