Thursday, March 29, 2007

humpty dumpty

It had been a grueling day for Humpty Dumpty. One of the younger eggs in the carton had been in hysterics most of the day, calling for the hen that had laid it; another of the eggs had been in a difficult mood and unwilling to do anything without a great deal of prodding. And of course, the refrigerator was a mess, someone still needed to change the light bulb, and there were disturbing reports about tensions on the eastern borders of the kingdom. Let things go the way they were right now, and the kingdom could end up involved in a third war by the end of the year, which of course meant that more eggs than ever would be needed to feed the troops.

He sighed, and wiped the moisture that was beading around the top of his shell. He thought back to the time when he had been a new egg, fresh from the henhouse. It couldn't have been that long ago, but it seemed impossibly remote. He hadn't known enough to be worried about what the farmer was putting into the chicken feed, nor had he ever thought to worry about whether the hens were getting enough exercise. And of course it had never even occurred to him that there might be mercury in his own yolk

The world was spinning out of control. Maybe it always had been, and he had been too young an egg to appreciate it before, but he certainly noticed it now. His carton, which originally had been nothing but a comfort a joy to him, now felt confining and he found himself growing resentful toward it instead of drawing strength and purpose from it.

At times like this, Humpty Dumpty needed a moment's respite to clear his head and let everything go. Perched here atop the kitchen counter, he could feel at ease again. He sat, like a bird on a wall, and tried to relax.

For a moment, he did feel at peace, but that moment of serenity evaporated into fear as he felt more than just his troubles slipping away. Terror swelled in him as he slipped from the counter and the hard tiles of the kitchen floor raced up at him. There was a sickening crack, and a fleeting sensation of ooze, and then the world went dark.

When the king's cook entered the kitchen the next morning, Humpty Dumpty was still lying there, a mouse burying its face in his splattered yolk. There was nothing to be done — no one could put a shattered egg back together — so with a weary sigh, the cook scraped the mess up and threw it into the slop bucket.

And no one ever noticed that the unfortunate egg was gone.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

words of hope and joy

God is as close as the person shivering next to us.
So why does he seem so distant?

Under the cold and distant stars we tell ourselves the lie that we are not alone, that there is someone with whom we can share this sad and lonely misery that we call life. We comfort ourselves with the delusion that there is a God who is watching, that he cares, that he knows our pain, bears our sorrows, and hears the cries we make in the dark when no one is around to listen. We feed ourselves and our children this Cinderella bullshit that a fairy godmother will lead us to true love, but we know better when we allow ourselves to. We tell ourselves these lies, and they give us the pretense of comfort, of meaning, and of hope, but deep in our hearts we know the truth that weighs heavily on us from the cradle to the grave.

And that truth is this: We are alone. Alone we suffer the cruel attentions of our peers in childhood, enduring their barbed taunts with each day as their words exact their bloody pound of flesh from our self-worth, our self-respect, and our sense of identity. Alone we suffer the ignominy of adolescence and adulthood as we are thrust, ill-prepared and unsuspecting into a pool of sharks that will tear us in a frenzy once they first scent blood.

And alone we suffer the bitter fruits of maturity, as those we discover the lies that our leaders and our parents have fed us over the years, as we learn the deceitfulness of heroism and honor, as we see the might of law corrupted by small men and women with dreams no bigger than their own conceit and interests that extend no further than their own hands, and as we find that there is no love in marriage, no hope in friendship, and nothing to look forward to each day except another day of going through the motions, being crushed by disappointment and disillusion, and watching the steel bars of our cages slowly descend and take shape around us.

We are alone, and all we have to look forward to is that one day, the misery we have seen under the sun will end for us in the kind and final mercy of death.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

little miss muffet

The Shoe had just come into sight when the cramp hit Miss Muffet. The calf on her right leg clenched itself rock hard and nearly dropped her to the ground. Biting hard on her lip, she ignored the pain and tried to force her leg to obey. Once she had made it inside with the little old lady and all her children, there would be time to soothe the aching muscle. Only then could she afford the luxury of stopping. Only then could she allow herself to rest, to catch her breath, to stop. Until then, all she had room for was terror.

Crazy with fear, she pounded her unbending right leg into the ground and hobbled forward as fast as she could. She could hear the rustle of the tall grass behind her as her pursuer followed. It could have overtaken her at any point, she realized, but it was enjoying the thrill of the hunt.

Even as she staggered forward another step, despair threatened to overwhelm her. There was no way she could make it. She bit down harder, blood as red as her hair coming from her lip, as she determined to give the old monster a run for it.

She knew she shouldn’t have gone into the woods, but it had been a hard winter for everyone, and with spring here at last, and the day so pleasant, it had seemed a harmless enough thing to gather a small meal and eat it outside. And when she had seen the woodland flowers in bloom, and thought how lovely they would be in the drab interior of her family’s kitchen, she had to pick some. Soon one thing and led into another, and she fell into the folly of Red Riding Hood. She left the safety of the path, enticed by the beauty of the flowers that grew in the forbidden parts of the forest.

Before she knew it, most of the afternoon had passed, and she had collected her flowers in abundance but had not eaten. So she sat on her tuffet, pulled out the meager curds and whey she had brought with her, and began to eat.

Trouble was, if it had been a hard winter for everyone in the village, it had been just as hard for the creatures that lived in the forest. And when fresh meat came walking straight to their lairs, it was only to be expected that they would do what came naturally and try to eat.

She saw the great spider sit down beside her just in the nick of time. Without wasting breath on a scream, she sprang to her feet and ran away as fast as her feet could carry her, back through the woods, as branches slapped her skin and tore her dress. She didn’t slow down when her breath began to come in sharp, painful gasps that tore her throat. She didn’t slow down when her side began to ache with every footfall that jostled her tiny frame. And all the while, too frightened to look back, she could hear the spider scuttling through brush and fern, and over creek and log as it followed her, letting her work her blood into a heat.

The Shoe was in sight now, but as her leg collapsed underneath her and she fell to the ground, Miss Muffet knew she would never make it. She closed her eyes in unexpected serenity, and waited for the end.

Copyright © 2007 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Monday, March 26, 2007

five favorite quotes

It has come to my attention, almost by accident, that I have been tagged and given the task of providing five of my favorite quotes on any subject I desire, by the JJ herself. So, out of a desire to be sporting, here they are:

1. "I would like to know what Jesus meant when He said, 'Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.' I would like to know poverty of Spirit, for poverty is all I am left with. I would like the courage to be made poor before the shattering depth of the Creator and alongside the unthinkable breadth of humanity. Spiritual poverty is all I ask for now, and it is more than I can handle."
-- Gordon Atkinson, in the Wittenburg Door

2. "You are so full of what is right that you have lost sight of what is good. I do not believe you have taken a Christian stand, but a legalistic one -- one from which even the Apostle Paul would recoil."
-- Del Terry, religion professor, on an ethics paper I wrote in college
(In a lecture two years later, he said I had the role of Satan in his class)

3. "The boy is Ignorance. The girl is Want. Beware of them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see written that which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it! Slander those who tell it to you! Admit it but do nothing about it, and make it worse! And bide the end!"
-- Charles Dickens, "A Christmas Carol"

4. "You're so nice. You're not good, you're not bad, you're just ... nice."
-- Stephen Sondheim, "Into the Woods"

5. "It is not the slander of our enemies that we will remember, but the silence of our friends."
-- Mahatma Gandhi

And as a bonus:

"It's K-K-K-Ken, coming to k-k-k-kill me!" -- Otto (Kevin Kline), "A Fish Called Wanda"

Since it now falls to me to tag three other people, and the JJ already tagged Liadan, I suppose I shall have to pick three other people. So, I choose MJ, Brucker, and Greg Hartman, especially as Sir Ian McKellan never responded to the last time I tagged him.

Monday, March 19, 2007

d&d field report

From Parker Gaiman, a loyal servant of King Jacobus, whose good pleasure has seen fit to send him far from Wendyg to learn the ways of the land and to discover the nature of recent changes in the city of Nuyork, to Sir Alain Moor, chief intelligencer of Wendyg and adviser to the king, greetings!
It has now been two weeks, by my reckoning, since my last report. Events that beggar description have transpired since last I wrote to you, and indeed I fear that should I describe them to you in full detail that you would think me mad.

When I last wrote, Sir Alain, I told you of the comrades I had taken up with here in Nuyork, and how we had attempted to enter the castle which seems to be at the heart of the cancer that afflicts the city and is working its way toward Wendyg, Drusillus, and the other kingdoms, counties and lesser baronies of the plains. In the chambers beneath the castle we met such creatures as it seems are of the stuff nightmares are made from; yet still we managed to escape with our lives (though not all of us, as I shall relate shortly).

Upon our escape from the castle, we took the remains of one of our companions -- one Rowena of name, who, being mortal as all flesh, was slain by a creature of truly gigantic stature -- to see a supposed wonder-worker called Noisivel Buod. I have writ in the past of his name, but until this occasion had never met him or learned more of him than rumor. In truth, he is a fellow with a nervous constitution, and given over to conjecture about events yet to come as though they were as certain as events past. During the time I was with him, he did not proclaim himself an acolyte of any god, yet he does seem to regard himself as a prophet of sorts; an easy enough thing to do these days, as many a charlatan has demonstrated, and as doubtless he himself shall prove, once his prophecies fail.

In fact, I must confess myself at a loss to explain how exactly it was that this same Noisivel perpetrated the fraud that was to follow. Through some effort of pyrotechnics or mesmerism, Noisivel was able to transport myself, Galin and Inquill -- of them I have written in the past -- either to an unfamiliar section of Nuyork or to a location beyond the borders of the city entirely. It may be in fact an elaborate hoax -- though on this scale how such a hoax could be managed is beyond my ability to imagine, as I have by my best reckoning been in this place for several days, though I have yet to see the sun rise or set.

Inquill is gone. "Back to Nuyork," the others say, though they conspire to keep me from following him and I have no memory of leaving Nuyork myself, whether by train, boat, horse or other conveyance. I suspect that whatever perfidy is presently at work, Inquill is involved with, given the abrupt manner with which he sundered our fellowship. (He is a most unnatural fellow -- though, I must note, with a definite moral compass of his own.)

Newly of my companionship are three fellows: one by name of S'Blackstunn, another by name of Lorinarth, and a third by name of Tovar. Lorinarth and Tovar are at opposite poles, while S'Blackstunn seems to prefer the middle road between them. Lorinarth is by far the most incendiary fellow I have seen in all my days. Though when I first met him, he was unaccountably morose and kept his own counsel, that soon changed and by means I have been unable to discover, he has taken to committing arson with regular abandon. Tovar, by contrast, is unnaturally calm and meditative and has a tranquilizing effect on all he speaks with. To be honest, I am not sure which of the two is more dangerous.

More puzzling is Rowena. Noisivel claimed to be a resurrectionist, and at first it seemed that his claims were true, as when we found ourselves in this strange place -- the locals call it Sigil, though I am unable to recall any dealings by the crown with any such city in the Eastern provinces -- we found Rowena herself, alive and apparently no worse the wear for her rather painful and recent death. Yet if this is Rowena, I fear she is most certainly insane. She claims to have no memory of myself or Galin despite many evidences to the contrary, and appears to be as absolutely xenophobic about creatures she calls "aberrations" as she previously had been about other creatures she claimed were undead. The other possibility I must consider is that this is not Rowena but something impersonating her for some fell purpose, something that is unaware of my recent dealings with Rowena -- or, conversely, that this is the true Rowena, and the one I fought alongside before was an impostor. Either way, I judge it unwise to trust her.

Trust, in fact, seems to be unwise with virtually any of my new companions. In the time that I have been here in "Sigil," they have made such ludicrous claims as the world hangs from a giant ash tree, that the city we are now in is shaped like a doughnut and is encircles the top of the tree, that "Sigil" is separate and unrelated from the world, and that travel from one world (they call them "planes") to another is made possible by something as pedestrian as scratching a wall with a piece of glass. We tried this and, of course, nothing happened, which to a man they effected to be surprised by and alarmed at.

What can I say? I fear I have fallen in with such a crew of cutthroats and madmen that I may not find my way out of whatever trap I am in. Worse still, I wonder if their madness is beginning to infect ... but perhaps I go too far. At the moment we are encamped at an inn owned by a man named Allerazzom, and I am passing the hours of the night by writing this report to you in my own hand, as I wait for a plot of burglars to arrive, as there is some reason to believe the inn has been targeted by whatever agents are "closing" the portals that supposedly provide transit from one world to the next. If my current companions are to be believed, these same principals are connected to the menace in Nuyork, which is why I mention it to you.

See what large letters I write with my own hand. Tomorrow I shall seek out a temple of the Weaver, if any are to be found in this place, find the answers that I seek to the many mysteries that trouble me, and I shall arrange for this letter to be sent to you. When next you see the king, remind him of the loyal service I have rendered the crown in this far-off land, and see if he will consent to be moved on my behalf. It has been nigh unto three years since I looked upon the green hills of Wendyg, and I anxiously await the king's leave to return once more.
Long live King Jacobus.
In service to the crown,
Parker Gaiman
P.S. I hope that the altercation with the thieves at the inn may be resolved, if not March 30, then one of the Saturdays in April. March 31 is not possible, as I will be in Philadelphia at the funeral of my aunt. All Friday evenings in April remain available, with the exception of Good Friday.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

how's that?

I'm confused. When did trading integrity for sales start counting for respectable behavior?

If you follow Christian music, you've probably heard of the band Jays of Clay. I don't follow it myself, so I don't know how to describe their music except that it's popular with the church kid crowd. Apparently the band's lead vocalist, Dan Haseltine, is disgusted with the shallowness of the Christian subculture. Good for him. I'm disgusted too.

In a column on Argus Leader Media, writer Robert Morast discusses Haseltine's frustration with the failings of contemporary Christianity. That includes the self-delusional lie that Christians are more moral and better off than non-Christians, the too-earnest desire to turn everything into a scree on why people should be Christians, and so on. He quotes Haseltine:
There's such a facade that we have all our crap together, that we don't wrestle with what other people have to wrestle with. And that's just not true.
That's honest -- refreshingly honest for a Christian musician, who's usually expected to talk about how great God is, how following him has ended all the struggles we used to have -- and I'm with him a hundred percent on that.

But where Haseltine loses me completely is in this: The band won't perform or release some of its deeper or more controversial songs -- the column specifically notes unnamed "war protest songs" -- because it could hurt record sales.

There are many in the evangelical church to equate godliness with Republicanism and middle class values. Too many Christians are willing to break fellowship over issues like abortion, creationism (or Intelligent Design, as the new label has it) and gay marriage. And there are many who see George Bush as God's president, and therefore equate any disagreement with him or criticism of his presidency as an attack on God.

Here's what Morast has to say:
And in today's America, being "Christian" seems to be tied to being a "patriot." Basically, if you're an outspoken Christian, you're assumed to be a conservative Republican who backs President Bush without question, supports the war and believes abortion is wrong.

No question that breaking from the party line on an album is a risky thing. A lot of people, not just evangelicals, consider Christian to be inextricably linked with conservative, and have a hard time accepting the reality that there is a Religious Left out here, and that we're growing louder. Criticizing Bush or claiming that war -- any war, not just the Iraq war -- is contrary to the teachings of Christ is sure to cost a band sales and fans.

Even breaking from the tepid formula of "Gosh, how I love Jesus" can make a big mess. Amy Grant did that back in 1990 with "Lead Me On," and got angry reactions from all across the church because the album wasn't stuff like "El Shaddai" or "Thy Word." It was, in fact, a deeply personal, deeply moving and deeply spiritual without being superficially churchy album, but all that was lost amid the huggermugger over her failure to drop Christ's name into every second line of each song.

So I can see what Haseltine is saying that the band could take some hits for really speaking honestly about social issues. But Truth, not popularity, is supposed to guide believers. If the band has something more meaningful and original to say than the stuff that the Christian labels spew out with nauseating regularity, then it should come out and say it.

If Haseltine believes that the war in Iraq is wrongheaded, stupid, ill-conceived and not something Christians should be supporting -- and he'll get no argument from me on that score -- and he wants to say so, then he has an obligation to his listeners to go ahead and do it. Sometimes there's a price to be paid for revealing how ridiculous ridiculous things really are, but it's always worth it.

On the other hand, if Haseltine doesn't want to voice his views on the war because he considers them irrelevant to what Jars of Clay does, that's fine too, but then he has no business complaining the Christian recording industry is too shallow, because he and his band are just as much a part of the problem as their listeners.

Haseltine may have won new respect from Morast, but he's lost any I had for him.

Copyright © 2007 by David Learn. Used with permission.