Work in Progress

My dear, lovely friend and sometime editor Lyz Schulte just tagged me on Facebook and challenged me to post the first seven lines of my current Work In Progress (WIP, for us author types). She posted the first seven lines of hers, which are solid.

I am posting this to tell her that I cannot acquiesce to her request (although I am inclined to, thank you very much). This is not because the first seven lines of my WIP are embarrassing–although they are–or that I do not do posting chains on Facebook–although I don’t–but because I have absolutely no idea which of my current projects qualifies as my “current” WIP.

Last month I attempted something insane for NaNoWriMo. I’m a six-time winner–have never failed an attempt, actually–so I know I can write 50,000 words in a month. I did it every month for a year, even, a couple years back. But–possibly not coincidentally–I have paying book contracts now, and that means writing a lot. In fact, it means that writing a lot just won’t cut it. I have to write more than a lot. I have to write pulp speed. Mamma’s children are hongry. I gotta get paid.

So I set a goal to write 80,000 words for NaNo, just shy of Pulp Speed One. And then I wrote in my journal (no, those five thousand words a month do not count) that I was going to actually hit Pulp Speed One, a million words in a year. Ten novels.

At that speed, you better have many more than one WIP. You actually have to, if you count any work that isn’t published as a WIP, which I think I do. Any work that has not been delivered to a customer or received payment, is the usual definition. Oathbringer is no longer a WIP, though there had better be several other books that are, Mr. Sanderson. But none of my books has seen print in that way (I’ve never actually published a novel). Therefore, technically, all of my books are WsIP.

But if you leave aside the finished books, the ones I consider finished, anyway, which means lightly-edited first draft stage, and yes I know that is not FINISHED in bold type, I have, right now, ten WsIP. There are, written in the dim past of four or five years ago, two novels I will not be doing anything with, because they’re too bad to be edited into pub shape, and will only be published after I die by my children trying to wring a miserable buck from my corpus. [That’s a pun, Dad. I know the difference between a corpse and a corpus.]

If I leave aside the books I’m not editing because I just don’t have time, and only count those that are in the active, ongoing, writing and editing process, there are eight: Trinity Flynn and the Five Points Gang; The Repairers; Cheating Death; Lies that Bind; Their Poop Don’t Stink; Army of Outcasts; a book I can’t tell you about; and another book I can’t tell you about. The books I can’t tell you about I’m ghostwriting, so I can’t tell you about them. But I wrote one of them in 51 days, the most complex and impossible project I ever undertook, and I’ll finish the second one by New Years, 36 days start to finish.

All of those, surely, count. Do I also count the books I’m writing, but not actually writing, orphan books crying out periodically for completion, that I just abandoned for one reason or another? (yes, I hear you Building Eighteen and Don’t Call Me Josephine) I think not. After all, P is for progress, which is not being made on those.

Which is “my WIP”? If you only count those that I am actively writing, on which I’ve put word count this week, there are still three. I can’t pick. There’s no rationale. And I’m busy, Lyz, writing more words. I don’t have time for your little Facebook games.

What’s that? I had time for this, so I have time for that? Well that’s just…I mean…you have to consider…

Fine.

Tell you what. I’ll give you the first few lines of each of the eight, how about? Then I don’t have to pick based on some arbitrary criterion.

Trinity Flynn:

Trinity Flynn rapped on the door marked “Service”. One smart knock, and a fervent prayer that no one would come around the corner to see what the noise was about.

A fumbling, and the door cracked open. A bloodshot eye peeked out. It widened in shock when it saw her.

“Trinity! What are you doing?”

“Let me in, you fool. I’m as good as dead standing out here.”

The Repairers: 

Alvaro Hernandes dragged his injured leg up the hill, chasing his herd. Dull ache had long since given way to stabbing, wince-inducing pain. Mother will say it is God’s punishment of me. If there were a God, she’d probably be right.

Cheating Death:

Happiness has a half-life. The first time I died, I didn’t get that. But I learn fast.

Tuesday I did not have any happiness, not before the stupid argument in the diner, and not afterward, after the warning shot went right across the top of my skull and should have killed me. Did kill me, somewhere, somewhen. Couple magic words, though, and I walked out of the hospital on . . . well, I was gonna say “on my own power”, but that’s nothing like what it was.

Lies that Bind:

Akoto sat, brooding, staring down onto the Lower Market from a perch on some hydraulic piping fifty or so feet above the steel decking. From below, the steaming odors of hundreds of sweat-soaked people, of thawing fish and roasting vegetables, succulent meats and overripe cheeses floated up and mixed with the scents of the station: machine oil, brimstone, off-gassing plastics, making a pungent stew that Akoto would have recognized as the smell of home, had he given any such thing a thought. But he didn’t, because he was watching someone and had no attention left for anything else.

Their Poop Don’t Stink:

Provo, UT, May 2016—The Harmon Brothers asked me to write a book about how they’re not the kinds of people that have books written about them.  

Let’s start with my meeting with Neal Harmon, the first meeting after I agreed to take the assignment. By this point I have already tried to talk the Harmon Brothers out of having me do it, but they have insisted. All I can do is my best, so here we are, in my first—my first ever—interview with an eye toward writing a nonfiction book. Fortunately, Neal Harmon is charming, easy to talk to, and paying for breakfast. 

Army of Outcasts:

Sarge put his slippered feet on the antique Chinese coffee table. Probably, such a thing would have had him executed in the Ming Dynasty. But his feet needed propping. The table sat there in front of him on the rough wooden veranda. And the gleaming table was low enough that his feet didn’t block his view of the Mediterranean. Unfortunately, summer haze made the crystal blue difficult to see even with his size eleven loafers out of the way. He reached over to the table next to him, picked up his saucer and cup–18th-century French, not Chinese–and began to noisily sip his tea.

An object hurtled past, plucking the cup from his fingers as neatly as an English butler.

One Book I Can’t Talk About:

“You made sure to pack a jacket, right?” Mom said. “You can’t be too careful. You’re going to be in strange situations and you never know.”
“Yes, Mom,” [redacted] said. “Two jackets. One light and one heavy. We have sixteen different changes of clothes and extra underwear, too. You checked all that. More than once.”

Another Book I Can’t Talk About:

[redacted] lifted a spoonful of sludgy goodness to his mouth. He savored the slightly crunchy, just-starting-to-get-soggy deliciousness of the Captain Crunch, and pretended that if he didn’t open his eyes, he could stay in a world where his mother had not spoken.

“Did you hear what I said?” Mom asked. “We’re going to drop you two off at grandmas for a couple weeks around the Fourth of July.”

Nope. Didn’t work.

There, Lyz. Happy?

I’m not tagging anyone else, tho.

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All The Things Wrong With Wonder Woman:

Spoilers are everywhere in this post. Do not read it if you have not seen the film.

None of these things matter, as I’ve written elsewhere. But here they are, because I have to put them somewhere, or go mad.

The simple things:
London cannot be reached from the Greek islands by sailboat in one night. It can’t be reached by tramp steamer in one night, either. A month, more like.
Belgium is right next to the North Sea. There’s no need for Steve Trevor to blow himself up. He can just fly over the ocean and dump the gas.
In fact, the plane is supposed to go to London, which is across the English Channel. Turn twenty degrees to starboard instead, and pull the bombay hatch.
If it’s against the rules for you to be trained, a warrior-general that can be sneaked up on and caught red-handed by a troop of horses is not someone you want to train with, ordinarily.
The training of all these warriors is awesome. If you’re never leaving the island, what’s it for?
Women are capable of interesting conversation. It wouldn’t be a bad thing to write some, in the first thirty minutes of your movie.
English is funny in a lot of ways. For instance, when someone says “you may not return”, it can mean “you might not return” OR “you cannot return”. Confusion on the part of your audience is never a good thing, so explaining that, or choosing different language, is a good idea.
If someone’s wearing a mask–very good, she does need to take it off–but some sort of explanation as to why it was there in the first place is a good idea.
The medium-important things:
If you make a point of showing someone setting up chairs outside a castle, best do something with those chairs. And no, that did not tell Steve Trevor that a big show was about to go down. He already knew it, which is why he was sneaking in.
And the “show” was taking place a long way away, hidden by woods. Not visible from those chairs. So what was the point?
If you’re going to have a five-minute conversation about sex and pleasure and whether men are necessary for same, when you have sex later on, you have to reference that conversation.
If you have a sniper that can’t snipe, and you take time to show us the likely reason why, you have to take a moment and deal with that before he just starts banging away at the end of the film.
If you have an Amerind that doesn’t take sides, because to him both sides are pretty crappy (and who can blame him), you need to deal with that before he chooses up.
If you have a heroine that doesn’t like killing, she needs to show some remorse for doing a whole freaking mess of it.
If you have a heroine make a moral choice not to kill someone, make sure it isn’t the one person we’ve met that seriously, completely, and totally NEEDS killing.
What all these things have in common is caring. When you throw away such great character possibilities, it makes it really hard for the audience to care about your characters being in peril, because obviously you don’t.
The fundamental things:
Why are you making a gas that can defeat gas masks if you then use it only and solely on those people that don’t have any?
Why, if you have this other gas that turns sixty-year-olds into superheroes, don’t you use that gas on your troops? Isn’t that a far simpler solution to winning the war?
Withholding information from people does not help them. It’s a trick writers use to amp up suspense. Used well, it can work. This was not used well. At all. My editor would have slashed the farewell beach scene to ribbons and threatened to quit. I can’t believe your editor did not do that, unless you were using a volunteer that didn’t get paid.
From a story standpoint, if you do decide to withhold said information, and you tell us why, please make sure that your reason for doing so isn’t completely obliviated five minutes after your heroine walks into London.
Why have you made a society of super-warriors whose stated purpose is to stop Ares (and thus, war among men) and then hidden them on an island which they are forbidden to leave? Is that not what Ares would do?
Why is the queen NOT Ares? She’s by far the most evil person in the movie. She has the weapon to stop millions of people from being killed, and she knows it, and she will neither develop the weapon, nor use it, nor allow the weapon to do it herself. And when the weapon finally defeats her and goes off to do it anyway, she withholds a critical piece of information that makes it less likely her weapon will be successful. That’s too many things for it to be incompetence. It must be malice.
If you birth a super-warrior to end all super-warriors, and she can only be killed by another god, you really should tell her before people start shooting at her.
If you’re going to make your protagonist immortal, you risk cheapening all the heroic self-sacrificing things that she does in the film, since she is, in fact, unable to sacrifice herself. I realize this is why you withheld this information, because for us as viewers it would really ruin the entire movie. But then you told us anyway.
And now Wonder Woman is Superman, only she’s eliminated all the kryptonite by killing the only remaining being that could kill her. Good luck making us care about her in the next film.
There are probably more, but I can’t find the energy to remember them all.

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Closing the Last Day of My 49th Year

Today I’ve completed 49 trips around the sun. When I was born, phones came attached to the wall, there were three channels and TV was mostly black-and-white (50% color TV penetration in the US didn’t happen until the middle 1970s). Isaac Asimov’s novels didn’t have computers in them, because what the bleep was a computer?

Man hadn’t landed on the moon, or even the Houston soundstage.

Seatbelts did not come standard on most automobiles.

Facebook was a paper printout at Harvard.

And so on. I tell my junior high students that we’re going to watch all the cell-cam footage of 9/11 every year, then just pull a “psych!” on them, because there isn’t any. Cell phones didn’t come with cameras until three years later.

No one had ever heard of Michael Jackson, Michael Phelps, or Michael Jordan. Bill Gates was broke. Steve Jobs was just an annoying teenager. And everyone was excited about the new retail sensation–K Mart.

I think it’s safe to say that nearly everything we knew about how the world worked, what was going to last forever and what wasn’t, and which things were worth paying attention to–was wrong. Hugely, incredibly, hilariously wrong.

But there are some things that were true then that are still true now:

* Every human being deserves to be respected.
* The color of one’s skin does not tell you a damn thing about the content of one’s character.
* Commitment is just another word for love.
* Music expresses more than words alone.
* Hard work and persistence will crush genius every day of the week, and twice on Sunday.
* No matter what your personal tragedy, no matter how awful it is, no matter how dark your personal night, the sun will rise. The sun always rises.
* My mother is a saint. My father is the smartest man I know.

I’m happy with where the last 49 years have gotten me. I’ve had it very good, in every way, from the day I was (prematurely) born. Few people in all the world, in any time, have ever had half the good fortune I have, starting where and to whom I was born, and running through the wonderful woman I’ve married and the children we’ve born together. It could, in all sincerity, hardly have gone better.

And here’s to another 50 more.

~Cristof

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Listen.

Captain Davenport: They’re pinging away with their active sonar like they’re looking for something, but nobody’s listening.
Jack Ryan: What do you mean?
Captain Davenport: Well, they’re moving at almost forty knots. At that speed, they could run right over my daughter’s stereo and not hear it.

That’s one of my favorite quotes from one of my favorite Cold War movies, The Hunt for Red October. And I think it perfectly encapsulates one of my least favorite things about the 21st century.

You can see what I mean if you spend a couple minutes on Facebook, Twitter, what have you. Look at what is there–endless exhortations to speak up, to be heard, to get your “message” “out”. Make sure you get into the public eye, and make your voice stand out. By all means, ping. Blog. Vlog. Meme-ify everything. Emoji! Gif! Make your own noise in the world.

The increasingly noisy, cluttered, cacophonous world.

When a submarine shoots out a sonar pulse, it takes time for that pulse to go out and come back. If, in the meantime, the sub moves fast enough, the pulse will not return anything useful, no matter how loud or how big that thing is. What Captain Davenport is talking about is the nature of sonar–but it’s the nature of human beings, too. You cannot listen if you are talking. But you also cannot talk effectively if you are not listening.

All you can do is make noise. That can have its uses, as in the film. If all you want to do is scare the people you’re yelling at, listening is non-critical. But that kind of noise is useless for anything else. It will not persuade, uplift, correct, instruct, edify, teach, encourage. Are those things not absolutely critical in the modern age? Don’t we have enough fear?

I think we do. I’ll get off that hobby horse the first time I see a clinic open up to treat teen gratitude, instead of anxiety.

Look, I’m as guilty as anyone. I’m a talker. I love the sound of my own voice above all things. I write, and I write a LOT, fiction, nonfiction, poetry, you name it. Everything I can or even momentarily want to. I write lesson plans, blog posts, Facebook arguments. I’m contributing to the noise, absolutely, so this is not a see-how-much-better-I-am post. I need this advice as much as any person I know.

If we’re going to get anywhere, we have to work together. For every leader there has to be a follower. Performance needs audience. For everyone talking, someone has to listen. In all our wanting people to look at us, are we seeing anyone else?

Don’t we have to?

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Some Days, It’s All You Can Do.

Today is one of those days.

It should be glorious. Today is a day I look forward to for months, the first day of my favorite writing conference, and this year I’m faculty. I get to present. One more item off the bucket list. I should be ecstatic.

Instead, I find myself overwhelmed and sad, fighting off fifty things and deciding what I’m going to do next based on how many people I’m going to disappoint. Because I’m going to disappoint people. I’ve made commitments I can’t keep. Maybe someone better could keep them, but I’m just me, and I’m not going to be able to.

So I hate myself, because I told people I would do things I won’t now do. I’m a juggler, and I know, right now before the objects crash to earth, that there are too many things in the air for me to catch them all. It’s a matter now of choosing which ones I will drop. I’m trying to choose the ones that will bounce when they hit, rather than shatter. But I will fail. I don’t know which are which. Inevitably, I will choose wrong.

Sometimes I think I’d like to live a life where this doesn’t happen. Wouldn’t it be great to be supremely capable, where I can always finish the projects I’m involved in to everyone’s satisfaction? But I’m not that guy. I don’t know it at the time, but when I reach for some projects, I often seem to be committing to things I can’t…quite…do.

A few years back (more than a few, now) I was really into weightlifting. I had a training regimen, thirty or so exercises I was doing on a rotational schedule, pushing myself to get bigger and stronger. I was pretty religious about it, too, working myself very hard for quite a while. But I wasn’t seeing results, not in the mirror, not on the scale, not in the weight room.

Friend of mine was a strength coach at a local school, so I talked to him about it. I showed him my regimen, the exercises I was doing, and asked what I was doing wrong. “Do you finish all these?” he said. “Yeah,” I said, “Of course I do. I’m not a quitter.”

“It’s not about that,” he said. “If you’re working out to your maximum, you’ll get to a point where you simply can’t do the set. You’ll put a weight on the bar you just can’t lift. That’s not quitting; that’s maxing out. That’s showing you where you really are. And that’s the point where you make gains. No offense, but you’re playing this way too safe. It might feel good to get all your sets done, but sometimes you have to try to lift beyond what you can do, or you’re never going to find out how strong you can be.”

I’ve thought about that a lot over the years. There’s a quote on the wall of my writing space that says, “You should be trying to do the impossible at least once every day.” It is not in the harbor, but out on the seas where we find out what our ship is made of. That means that we are going to fail. The weather will beat us up, and waves will swamp us. But who wants to build a ship that never leaves the harbor? Is it not worth the risk of disaster to sail out into the wild spray and flying gale?

Today is sinking day. My boat is going down. I’m not going to be able to lift this weight. I’m going to have to ask the spotter to put it back on the bar for me. The balls and pins and bottles will come crashing down. Today all I can do is just keep repeating “I will not quit. I will not give up. I will never stop trying.”

But tomorrow, I’ll dust myself off and try it again. A little stronger. A little wiser. A little bit more. We can’t become all we could be unless we sometimes crash and burn because we attempted a bit too much. This is the pain day. But there will be a day of exhilarating joy, down the road, that couldn’t have been reached without this day.

I’ll see you on the other side.

Posted in encouragement, inspiration, Sheer Cussedness | 2 Comments

I did not write this.

But the guys that did, the exceptionally skilled wonderwomen and -men at The Oatmeal (consume at your own risk) deserve promotion for it. Here’s the article. (some swearing) It’s about this thing:


Photo Credit

I’m currently out of a car, myself, and doing some low-level shopping. I wasn’t shopping in the $70,000 range, but perhaps I should be. I don’t do car loans, and I’m not much for leases. And I’d prefer a convertible. But one of these babies would look really good in my driveway, I think.

Started me thinking about settling, and where in my life I’ve just gone for what would get me by instead of…

Read the rest.

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Education: Signal vs Noise

The 21st century has a whale of a lot of noise in it. The kids have coined a phrase to help us sift through all of it: signal vs. noise. Signal matters. Noise doesn’t. But a lot of what we do in education masquerades as signal, when all it is is noise.

First, we use “seat time” to signal to kids that education is important. That’s why the 180-day school year requirement, among other things. There is no strong correlation between seat time and test scores, but that doesn’t matter. It’s a signal that we care about education. Kids, however, pick that up as a signal that ADULTS care about education, but since adults (kids believe) are mostly morons, and often punitive and dangerously unstable morons, that’s not a positive message. In other words, this one is noise.

Second, we use pieces of paper to signal competence. Starting with the high school diploma, and moving onward from there, we signal to each other that graduating students are worthy of employment (and that they are valuable in other ways, as human beings). The high school diploma does not correlate with success at university. University education does not correlate with job security, and its correlation with income is tautological (employers believe a degree means something, so by definition a degree DOES mean something, so this reinforces the idea that a degree means something). The signal is being sent, and received, yet the results do not support the contention of the signal. Again, mostly noise.

Third, we use per-pupil expenditures to signal caring about kids. There is no rational human being that will contend that Utah parents care 55% as much about their kids as Virginia parents do (having lived for over 20 years in each state, I’d argue the reverse quite vociferously), but the Virginia per-pupil is $11,700, and the Utah per-pupil is $6500. It’s a signal. The signal is entirely white noise–again, there is no correlation between money spent per pupil and test scores, let alone long-term success.

But as a teacher myself, I think it’s exceptionally difficult to measure success in education. I’m not at all sure what the term even means. Test scores? Okay, but do test scores correlate to “life success”? No. They do not. Top SAT scorers are every bit as likely to be unemployed, bankrupt, divorced, and jailed, as other people. So I can teach to the test–indeed, I am all but threatened into doing so–but does that do my students a disservice? I believe it does.

I don’t signal to my students that I care about them, I actually care about them. As a result, many of them do very well on the traditional measures of academic success. But because my school is a magnet for refugees from mainline public schools, I also have a huge number of kids that will never perform well on such measures. Still, I believe they are learning and I believe they’re learning because of what and how we teach them.

I see no good way to measure that. I see even less how I could prove it to an administrator. And I suppose it is therefore possible that I am completely bamboozled, and that none of this learning is, in fact, happening. But if it isn’t, I guarantee you it wouldn’t happen anywhere else any better. In fact, I think that may be true anyway–kids learn what they learn.

Finding the appropriate fit for a kid, where he will learn the most, is not going to reduce down to 50 pages of core standards, or some kind of bar graph. It’s as individual as the kid is. But we signal, because 1) that lets people keep their jobs and 2) because we genuinely don’t know what else to do. We’re spending–literally–nearly a trillion dollars on education annually in the US, the vast majority of it public money. We have to have SOME way of being accountable for all that.

Which is why, in my opinion, government as an education monopoly is a bad idea. Government is a chainsaw, a huge, powerful tool that can take out a tree–or your leg–in a minute or less. But you don’t want to use it to remove a blood clot. Most education is logging, pure and simple. Carpet-bomb the basics. A good number of kids, though, aren’t going to do well with that, on both sides of the spectrum.

Exceptional kids can and should have access to exceptional opportunity (NOTE: this does not mean “rich kids”), and kids that won’t do well in the assembly-line education system need a way to get out and get what they need elsewhere. We currently make that quite hard, in most places, and I think our education system would benefit from making it easier. I also think we could get the same or very similar results with half the expenditures we now have, as they do in many charter schools and virtually all parochial schools (Utah private schools are, for many reasons, bad examples).

Technology won’t fix it, or even make a significant dent in the problem. A computer in every class is no solution (again, no correlation between technology and learning, at least not in schools). The problems are systemic. The system was designed to provide workers for defined problem sets–things you can learn to do from a checklist–and we still need a fair number of those workers, though fewer and fewer of them.

The 21st century, by contrast, will need ill-defined-problem solvers, people who can recognize problems that do not yet exist, or that exist but are intractable, i.e. eliminating malaria. Our education system does not provide much hope that those thinkers will come about. I think they will, but mostly from the segment of the population that has opted out of school.

And you know, maybe it wouldn’t matter, or matter very much. Maybe kids are going to learn what they’re going to learn, and it’s irrelevant what we teach them. I think that’s possible, and exceptionally hard to prove. Our society is, at any rate, built on the idea that we’re going to pen kids up for hours a day so their parents don’t have to worry about them, so this isn’t changing.

Still. I was in a meeting this weekend, and the facilitator asked how often we were holding meetings in our local units. The acceptable answers were anywhere from “once a month” to “once a week”. We all fell into the acceptable bracket. “But,” the leader said, “the key here is not frequency, but effectiveness. If your meetings are ineffective, and you’re meeting once a week, you should probably drop to once a month.” Until we have some solid evidence that spending $700 billion on education every year produces results we couldn’t get by spending half that, I wonder if we shouldn’t spend half of it.

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Endings and Beginnings

Yesterday while channel-surfing during halftime of a particularly boring bowl game (I watch a lot of college football, and no, I’m not sorry), I happened on Noah, a movie I haven’t seen and will likely never see, because I’m not into giant rock monsters in Genesis. However, the part I watched was good enough, especially a particular exchange between Noah and Hermione Granger (actually Ila). She is a barren woman trying to justify her place on the Ark, the only safe spot in the world, and he’s promising her she has one if she wants it. But she asks about everyone else. He says it’s too late for them. Everything must go.

“This is the end of everything,” Ila says.

“The beginning,” he replies. “The beginning of everything.”

And they’re both right.

All endings are also beginnings. The end of pregnancy is the beginning of a new life. The end of nursing is the beginning of real food. The end of crawling is the beginning of walking. The end of high school is the beginning of something like a normal life. And so on.

2016 is nearly spent, and not a moment too soon, for the year that brought us the miracle of Leicester City also brought us Donald Trump, the glory of Rogue One temporarily eclipsed–and forever associated with–the death of Princess Leia (and a day later, her mother, the incandescent Debbie Reynolds, last survivor of Singing in the Rain).

For me, it was the end of the fiction that I could be happy as a loan officer and the beginning of the fact that I could only be really happy with fiction. In a year, in less than a year, I went from being penniless and grasping for something to do that would pay me, to having so many job opportunities I could not say yes to them all. It felt…it felt like Harry Potter grasping his true wand in Ollivander’s. It felt like Luke, under the blast helmet with a lightsaber, seeing the outline of the remote training bot. Like Neo. Like Peter Parker.

Like me.

I find endings difficult. I dislike them. The concept of time is alien to me, as if I were born for a different system, been crammed into this one, and have never quite fit. So I still do mortgage work, though now it’s a side dish that I eat for pleasure, instead of a main course I’m choking down. What concentrates most of my time is teaching, 40-45 hours a week, junior high and high school kids. It is a thing I love almost–almost–as much as writing.

But not quite.

I could, if conditions were right, go without having a class to teach. I could not, under any conditions, go without a story to create. I realize that now, and that’s an end, and a beginning.

It is the end of everything that was, and I fear that ending, the death of that life. But this year taught me that the beginning swallows the ending as a river swallows the trickle of a creek, not to erase it, but to show it what it was meant to be all along. I have lost nothing but my grasping at the pale shadow of life, when a truer life beckoned just over the rise of the nearby hill. Still not the true life, the True Life, but nearer to it. This life, too, is mortal, and thus will die, as all mortal things do. But there will be beyond it a new life that will burst forth from the ending of the old. Higher up and further in, as the Unicorn says.

In your life, doubtless you’ll see similar ends and similar beginnings. Maybe you haven’t left one job and acquired three this year–or, if you’re sane, at any point in your life–but you’ve surely stopped doing one thing and started doing another. Perhaps your ending didn’t come in a deluge, unstoppable and irresistible as death itself, but as a gentle change, as the rising of the sun. Most likely, some of each. That makes a life.

Dylan Thomas would have us not go gentle, but to rage, and sometimes that is right, but sometimes surely it is not. Steve Jobs went not with rage, but with wonder, I am told. Often, it is the struggle itself that hurts me, as the ending comes, not the ending itself, for the ending is just a beginning, as the last light of the sun shines upon the keyhole. On Durin’s Day, or on any day. On, perhaps, every day.

I’ve no big message here, no epiphany, it just felt like something I should write. This day is the end of something for me as well, and therefore, always, a beginning of something new. May all your endings lead to the beginnings you have dreamed of but never truly hoped would come. And may you have peace and joy and happiness right through the new year.

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Once More, With Feeling

This year’s writing time has to be confined to editing a novel that some people are threatening to publish. So by request, here’s one of my favorite Christmas posts. HT: Elise Bogle. I miss your lovely face.

This post talks about religion in a serious and believing way, and about Santa Claus in a similar way. If that bugs you, stop now, and read something else.

My dear friend and fellow Magyar Audrey Rindlisbacher wrote a blog post about Santa Claus. Do not read it with young children. But read it, because she’s a delightful person, even though on this issue she’s so wrong I’m speechless.

No, not really. I’m not speechless very often.

In fact, here is my response to it:

Audrey-

I read your blog. I didn’t like it (you should not be dismayed in the slightest by this), but one of the reasons is that I think you’re lying to your children in a different way. I shall offer an example dear to my heart and see if I can illustrate what I mean.
Is there a Jesus Christ? Yes, assuredly. How do you know? Well, because there are writings about him of an historical nature, there are millions of people that believe in Him, and we can see His handiwork all around us (and the Holy Spirit has so testified, but leave that aside for the moment). But none of this is proof, in the commonly accepted sense of the term. And, as you probably already deduced, all of it also applies to Santa Claus.
In fact, there is a Santa Claus, although it might be slightly less inaccurate to talk about Father Christmas, or even better, Saint Nicholas, who was almost certainly a real person. Since the three names (and hundreds of others, like another person above) all mean the same dude, let’s just pick St. Nick as the name we’ll discuss.
He was probably real. He was possibly also magic, in the sense that he performed deeds that defy easy explanation and could be called supernatural. If we were Catholics, we could dispense with the formalities and just say that he did miracles. Again, there’s a close analogue in Jesus Christ.
But, you will say, Christ is alive, right now, and active. I won’t dispute that for one second (I’m not at all sure that St. Nick isn’t, too). In spite of His activity and reality, most of the discernible work being done here on earth is being done not by Him directly, but by people like you and me, acting in His place.
And that sounds a lot like St. Nicholas, too, doesn’t it?
There are a lot of people that believe in some cartoon version of Christ, where He is alleged to have done things He almost certainly didn’t do, and even where He has behaved (or asked them to behave) in ways that are completely unlike Him. That doesn’t change His reality. It doesn’t change His importance, or His power, or diminish my obligation to behave in a way that testifies of the truth about Him. So St. Nick is cartoony and weird in claymation videos. So what? They’re fairy tales, which are dead useful and fun to boot. Lots of people think the Bible is fairy tales, you may be aware. Some Biblical stories may even be legends, not precisely accurate in the modern CSI sense. Does that mean there is no Bible? Of course not. The “legend of Job” (not saying there’s no truth in it) has no bearing on the historical Christ. Rudolph has no bearing on St. Nick, either.
Lest I be accused of equating Christ and St. Nicholas, I should say that analogies always break down at some point, and this one breaks down here, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have uses. In my house, St. Nicholas is alive and well, and Christmas wouldn’t be the same without him. He isn’t Christ, but he isn’t a fake, either. He has true power, and his example moves millions of people to behave in better ways than they otherwise would. That isn’t real? What’s your definition of real, then? Is Nephi real? Paul? Caesar? None of them have anything like the impact on the modern world, either for good or ill, that St. Nick does. Each of them has problems of historicity (yes, even Caesar, whose image is funhouse-mirrored by Shakespeare) analogous to those that St. Nicholas faces.
You can say there’s no Santa Claus, in the magical fairy sense, but there’s also no St. Paul in that sense, either. So what? Both of them are real, just as real as you and I are. Every day I’m going about doing things in the name of a long-dead (and now living nonetheless) being that wants me to be a better person, kinder and more generous to everyone around me, who has asked me to give gifts at particular times and places to people near and far. If I can do that as a disciple of Jesus Christ, who can tell me I’m not also Santa Claus?

Our family’s approach also isn’t for everyone, but I think it has an imaginative and magical element that defies the simple “I told them there wasn’t a Santa Claus” bailout mode that seems to be the default for so many people, almost all of whom mean well, but seem to me to be missing some of the point. I’ve written about that here, among other places. And to me, it has the virtue of being as close to the reality of the situation as it’s possible for a bear of Very Little Brain to come.

Thanks for a stimulating blog post, Audrey. No matter what this serious treatise may sound like, I’m a fan. You do good work, and I’m proud to know you.

Cj

P.S. The magic of Santa is an interesting (but to me tangential) point. In our family, we read a lot of fantasy, and one of the things that Dad has been heard to loudly complain about is magic that has 1) no rules and 2) no cost. Magic always has rules, and always has costs. Always. Santa doesn’t magic up toys without limit – no one can do that. To return to the analogy, Christ’s gift is infinite, but that’s only because the COST was infinite. You can’t pay it, not even the smallest part of it, nor can I. But it was because of the rules that it was necessary in the first place, and it has a tremendous cost. At our house, the mechanics of this haven’t been discussed, but the letters St. Nick leaves (on December 6th – St. Nicholas’ Day – not Christmas Day) always reference not only his need to make sure there’s enough for everyone, but also that he expects us to be giving much more than we’re receiving at this time of year. Yeah, I suppose I have to admit that the Jones version of how all this works is complicated and possibly not all that coherent, if you press it, but my very inquisitive children have come to terms with it, each in their own way. Nevertheless, they all know, in no uncertain terms, that Dad and Mom believe in St. Nicholas, whatever his trappings and location and size of helper. He is real to me.
BTW, I’ve never seen a Christmas list in my house. Not one. Ever. The kids would be offended at the suggestion they should have one. Once one of my kids did get a blank “Christmas list” from a department store Santa, and all he used it for was to write a lengthy list of what his brothers and sisters wanted for Christmas. What WE want for Christmas couldn’t be less relevant; the only thing we ever talk about is what we’re GIVING.
Call it luck. Could be – there’s surely an element of luck to it. No dispute. But a lot of it is planning and discussing and hard work. It’s made Christmas as greed-free as it can be, I think, without in any way diminishing the magical unpredictability of it.

I love Christmas, and I hope yours is very merry indeed.

P.S. My favorite, and probably best, post on Christmas is here.

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I Spend a Lot of Time Doing This. I Need to Stop.

It’s exhausting to live your life in such a way that you are constantly signaling to other people that they should value you. It’s much harder to do everything with one eye on everyone else, to see what they think of you, whether they approve of you, whether they are impressed.

And regardless of what it may look like, my life has been spent pretty much constantly signaling to other people, instead of–as my father would say–tending my own onions. It makes me twitchy, sad, and irritable. It’s stupid. It’s also a habit.

Like a lot of people, I have a chronic case of Impostor Syndrome. I constantly feel that my clients, my bosses, my students, will wake up one day and say, “Holy cats, this guy really isn’t very good at (insert task here). We gotta get someone else.” In order to prevent this dire happening from…happening, I pose. I signal. “Look, I’m doing good work! See how I’m at my desk? See the books I bring to class? See my bright smiling face? You like me, don’t you?” I stay late. I send email at 1am. Much of what I do is designed to make sure people see the performance I think I’m supposed to be giving.

There’s nothing particularly wrong with that. Except, it keeps me from doing two things that would have a hugely positive impact on my personal effectiveness: one, it keeps me from enjoying myself, and that’s a tragedy, because most of my work is quite enjoyable; and two, it keeps me from working.

Right. I spend time trying to appear to be working, when I could be doing the actual work. Then I’m annoyed if people don’t notice, and I compose elaborate defenses in my head in case anyone accuses me of not performing. Instead of simply doing the work and getting the actual results.

Look, it’s not an all-the-time thing. I do real work sometimes. One reason I can send email at 1am is that I am not infrequently awake at 1am grading papers or writing or running mortgage numbers. So I’m not hopeless. But oh, how I wish I would just stop watching everyone else to see if they’re watching me.

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