All that Should Be Remembered

They stepped outside, back into the churchyard. Salomon Lachaise said, “When I was a boy, my mother used to say that hell was the painless place where everything has been forgotten.”

“That doesn’t sound so bad.”

“It couldn’t be worse.”

“Why?”

“Because there’s no love. That’s why there is no pain.”

They walked beneath a milky sky shot with patches of insistent blue. Anselm looked up and asked, “Then what’s heaven?”

“An inferno where you burn, remembering all that should be remembered.”

The 6th Lamentation, by William Brodrick, page 182

Anointing

Then Mary took a pint of nard

in an Egyptian alabaster jar;

she snapped its slender neck, and poured

its oily sweetness on Thy head

and on Thy feet, and wiped them with her hair;

the scent o’erpowered all the feasters there.

Mary was rich; a rich gift she could bring

as if Thou wert a dead man or a king.

And rich, too, was Thy friendship to her kin:

the hours she spent drinking Thy kind voice in,

Thy visits to their house in Bethany,

sweetness of knowing Thee.

Most recently, Thou raised her brother too –

and so she searched for something she could do.

She smears Thy head with pure and fragrant nard;

it is no purer than Thy head.

She hears, not heeding, tongues wag in the gloom;

Thou’st told her priests are plotting for Thy doom,

and she believes.

But at this feast

the oil of gladness she’s released

caring only to see Thou smilest at it

and hearing Thy pronouncement that ‘tis fit

for this dark week, when off to death Thou ride …

And when they pierce Thy hands, and feet, and side,

to high priest, Herod, Pilate, Calvary

her fragrant gratitude shall go with Thee

and powerful though silent witness bring

that Thou art a dead man and a king.

Spear vs. Grindstone

The grindstone: approved usage

Another post in the series on The Lost Civilizations of the Stone Age by Richard Rudgley. (You don’t really need to see another image of the book cover, do you?)

A great deal of emphasis has been placed on the role of hunting in the Old Stone Age … Hunting has been given an inordinate status both by archaeologists and by hunting peoples themselves. In the latter case this is largely due to the fact that it is the men who do most of the hunting and they therefore pride themselves on their own achievements and tend to play down the considerable contribution of women. Prehistorians are presented with an archaeological record that contains far more information on hunting than on gathering activities … owing to the poor survival of botanical specimens.

Rudgley, p. 158

Of course, hunting is also more glamorous, riskier, and it generates better stories than “that time we found all those berries.”

According to Rudgley, in the case of modern hunter-gatherers, up to 80% of a community’s diet can consist of “gathered foods,” which includes edible plants but also such things as eggs and shellfish. We can’t assume that ancient people’s diets were exactly the same. The world has changed quite a bit (there is less big game, for example). Still, this is suggestive that people were processing and eating plants long before the supposed advent of agriculture.

The Noble Savage Myth and the Wild Yam Question

Speaking of modern hunter-gatherers, there is actually some question as to whether it is possible for people to survive on pure hunting and gathering. It is extremely difficult to find a modern hunter-gatherer group that does not get some of their calories from trade with nearby agricultural peoples, and/or “paracultivation.” Paracultivation is practiced by the Central African Pygmies, who re-plant the tops of rain forest yams (a main source of starch for them) after they harvest them, and by people in Central Borneo who depend on the sago palm for starch, who will cultivate patches of palms that they can return to and “gather” later. The so-called Wild Yam Question, first raised by Thomas Headland, postulates that in tropical rain forests there is not enough naturally occurring food for people ever to have survived there without at least paracultivation. This has been hotly debated among anthropologists. You can read an overview of the debate here: “Could ‘Pure’ Hunter-Gatherers Live in a Rainforest? : A 1999 review of the current status of The Wild Yam Question”

Was Agriculture Really a Revolution?

Implements normally associated with agriculture – mortar and pestles, sickles, grain storage – are found in the Natufian culture of the Levant (c. 10,500 to 8000 BC). I can’t resist pointing out that this is the exact time period which, in my books, comes right after the Tower of Babel and only a few hundred years after the Flood. In that, possibly true, alternate universe, these “first farmers” could have been people to whom the knowledge of agriculture was not new, but who were having to resettle the earth after a series of society-shattering disasters.

Could there have been farming before the Flood and before the Neolithic “agricultural revolution”? Mortars and pestles have been found that are at least (with the usual caveats about dates) 80,000 years old (California); 43,000 to 49,000 years old (South Africa); 30,000 years old (Australia); 44,000 years old (Ukraine); and 40,000 years old (Spain). Various stone artifacts from even farther back (Lower Palaeolithic sites, including Olduvai Gorge) have been speculated to be pounding stones, also used to process seeds or grains. (Rudgley p. 159 – 160)

The Oft-Under-Appreciated Grindstone

The grindstone may not be as glamorous as the spear and spear-thrower, but it can be used as a weapon in a pinch:

Abimelech son of Jerub-Baal went to his mother’s brothers in Shechem and said to mother’s clan, “Ask all the citizens of Shechem, ‘Which is better for you: to have all seventy of Jerub-Baal’s sons rule over you, or just one man?'”

The citizens of Shechem were inclined to follow Abimelech. They gave him seventy shekels of silver, and Abimelech used it to hire reckless adventurers, who became his followers. He went to his father’s home in Ophrah and on one stone murdered his seventy brothers. Then all the citizens of Shechem and Beth Millo gathered beside the great tree at the pillar in Shechem to crown Abimelech king.

[Things go bad between Abimelech and the people of Shechem, and he ends up razing their city.]

Next Abimelelch went to Thebez and besieged it and captured it. Inside the city, however, was a strong tower, to which all the men and women – all the people of the city – fled. They locked themselves in and climbed up on the tower roof. Abimelech went to the tower and stormed it. But as he approached the entrance to the tower to set it on fire, a woman dropped an upper millstone on his head and cracked his skull.

Hurriedly he called to his armor bearer, “Draw your sword and kill me, so that they can’t say, ‘A woman killed him.'” So his servant ran him through, and he died.

Judges 9:1 – 6 and 50 – 55

But we all know she did.

The grindstone: alternate usage.

Still-Not-Dated Quote of Week

[Some textbook writers] see the world around them swayed by emotional propaganda — they have learned from tradition that youth is sentimental — and they conclude that the best thing they can do is to fortify the minds of young people against emotion. My own experience as a teacher tells an opposite tale. For every one pupil who needs to be guarded from a weak excess of sensibility there are three who need to be awakened from the slumber of cold vulgarity. The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts. The right defence against false sentiments is to inculcate just sentiments. By starving the sensibility of our pupils we only make them easier prey to the propagandist when he comes. For famished nature will be avenged and a hard heart is no infallible protection against a soft head.

C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, p. 24, pub. 1947 (!)

I Like Painting Pines

You all remember this pastel sketch of Sasquatch, which was inspired by Starry Night …

Note the evergreens, because Sasquatch lives in the Northwest. (And yes, I know that not every evergreen is a pine! There are spruces, hemlocks, etc.)

I just like adding conifers (maybe we should call them that) when it seems called for. They are easier to paint than deciduous trees, though harder and less advisable to hug.

When I did this quick sketch of a certain little boy, he posed for me indoors. But I decided to add some conifers and some golden light to make it look as if he was standing in a Northern paradise.

Come to Idaho! We have trees. Happy little trees.

Just call me Bob Ross.

Addendum:

What can I say? Curly hair and artistic talent just go together …

Can We Continue to Make Art in the Midst of a Pandemic? C.S. Lewis has the answer.

[We] must ask [ourselves] how it is right, or even psychologically possible, for creatures who are every moment advancing either to heaven or to hell, to spend any fraction of the little time allowed them in this world on such comparative trivialities as literature or art, mathematics or biology. If human culture can stand up to that, it can stand up to anything. To admit that we can retain our interest in learning under the shadow of these eternal issues, but not under the shadow of a European war, would be to admit that our ears are closed to the voice of reason and very wide open to the voice of our nerves and our mass emotions.

I think it important to try to see the present calamity in a true perspective. The war creates no absolutely new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. Human culture has always had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself. If men had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure, the search would never have begun. We are mistaken when we compare war with “normal life.” Life has never been normal.

The insects have chosen a different line: they have sought first the material welfare and security of the hive, and presumably they have their reward. Men are different. They propound mathematical theorems in beleaguered cities, conduct metaphysical arguments in condemned cells, make jokes on the scaffold, discuss the last new poem while advancing to the walls of Quebec, and comb their hair at Thermopylae. This is not panache; it is our nature.

C.S. Lewis, “Learning in War-time,” a speech given in Oxford in autumn of 1939

Read the whole thing here.

The Big Five and the Odd Couple

A month ago, I wrote a post about the Big Five personality traits (Extraversion, Neuroticism, Conscientiousness, Agreeableness, Openness). In the comments, Katie Jane Gallagher suggested that an author could use the Big Five to plan out their characters’ personalities. I replied that this might work for some people, but I was doubtful my characters would co-operate with being assigned a personality beforehand.

I still think it would be difficult to assign, in a fixed way, all five of your character’s traits before you begin writing. But I have thought of a trope that relies heavily on the use of character traits: the odd couple.

The Source of the phrase “The Odd Couple”

The Odd Couple was a 1968 movie starring Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau.

Then there was a 1970 – 1975 TV series starring Tony Randall and Jack Klugman.

Also, Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick played the same odd couple in a Broadway revival of Neil Simon’s original play.

In all of the versions, the premise is that two men are living together because each has been kicked out by their wives: one for being such a perfectionist, the other for being such a slob. High jinks follow.

How odd couple stories use Big Five traits

As you can immediately see, the odd couple trope relies on selecting one Big Five personality trait (in this case, Conscientiousness) and throwing together two people who are on opposite ends of the spectrum with regard to that trait.

This is much more manageable than trying to run down all five traits for each of your characters before beginning to plot.

Of course, when you start to develop the story, other traits will come along too. In this story, the conscientious character (Lemmon/Randall/Broderick) is also high on Neuroticism. Interestingly, it is he, with his extreme conscientiousness, who is portrayed as being the harder person to live with. The slobby person is portrayed as more normal. That is not what I expected when I set out to research the show, because in real life, slobby people can be just as hard to live with, especially if they are low in Agreeableness, for example.

In fact, some shows will dispense with the “couple” part of the odd couple and just have the gimmick revolve around one person’s extreme traits. Monk springs to mind, in which the detective’s OCD about cleanliness is so incapacitating that he must have a handler with him at all times … but his attention to detail also makes him an excellent detective.

Odd Couples Everywhere!

Once you start looking for odd couples in film and literature, it seems to be a trope that is used to enrich all kinds of stories. You find odd couple cop partners, odd couple road trips, and (ubiquitously) odd couples in rom-coms. Often odd-couple stories are funny, but they can appear in dramas as well, such as Thelma and Louise, or Charlie and Raymond in Rain Man. Whether comedy or drama (but especially in drama), one or both characters are supposed to be transformed in some way by their forced relationship with their polar opposite.

In my own first book, The Long Guest, there is a bit of an odd couple dynamic going on between Enmer and Nimri. Enmer reacts to the demise of civilization by becoming hyper-responsible as he tries to care for his extended family. Nimri, who at the beginning of the book is selfish and has no one to care for, honestly doesn’t care if he himself lives or dies. The two are forced into proximity by the dynamics of the survival situation (and by Enmer’s mother, Zillah), and while they never resolve their differences, the inherent conflict between them drives much of the action in the book.

So … what do you think? Do you like odd couple stories?
Are you a member of an odd couple? Perhaps more intensely, now during quarantine? Have odd couple stories lost their appeal? What are some of your favorite odd couples from film or literature?

The Best Commentary on James 2:14 – 26 that You Will Ever Hear

My boys and I have been memorizing the book of James. The whole second half of chapter 2 is taken up with a blistering discussion about how “faith” means nothing if it doesn’t express itself in actions.

Here is the beginning of it:

What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and in need of daily food. If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if not accompanied by action, is dead.

But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.”

Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do.

James 2:14 -18

Now, here it is translated into modern parlance by the musical genius Rich Mullins: