And I’ll Have Fun For Just One Lifetime

Early in their first set of songs at the 50th anniversary performance of the Oregon Trail Pitchpipers, the gentleman sang a number which I found to be deeply moving. The song, which I was not familiar with, although it is very likely to be an old song, as many barbershop numbers are, talks about the loyalty of friends and the love of a wife and family, with the idea that this will provide fun for just one lifetime. Being a person for whom fun is often elusive, given the fact that it is extremely difficult for me to find unmixed pleasure, given that most of what I find pleasant has melancholy or bittersweet undertones or manages to increase my anxiety or concern in some fashion, I found the song to be a deeply moving one, but a melancholy one as well. Barbershop groups often sing love songs [1], and tend to be the sort of music that one passes along from father to son, and in that context almost all of the people I have seen or known in barbershop are married with a strong focus on family. Enjoying the company of other men (since barbershop groups tend to be gender segregated) while singing old-fashioned songs about love and family and God is something that tends to be most enjoyable when one already has a wife and family and one can sing out of one’s personal satisfaction, rather than sing out of melancholy longing.

Earlier today, of course, I sang in Salem with our coed a capella choir made up mostly of teens and young adults. Due to various factors, we had a shortage of altos, and so a couple of the ladies whose voices are low enough to sing tenors sang alto, and I happened to stand beside them and loan them my music, which they did return. Our practice went well, and the performance went well from everything I heard, at least. It is probably not a coincidence, or all that surprising, that even though the Salem congregation is just over half an hour from where I live, about equal distance as Portland to the north, this happens to be the first Sabbath I have ever attended down there, simply because I seldom travel to a congregation unless I have some sort of business there, and I did not have any sort of business in Salem until a group I sang in was scheduled there. The congregation is friendly and full of adorable small children whose parents are around my age. If you want a scene full of melancholy longing, today was certainly one of those.

Today, even though I visited a congregation where I do not usually attend, I sat in my usual spot, and being that close allowed me to heckle the songleader, even if he wasn’t paying attention to it, because he drew attention to the fact that we were singing his favorite hymns, which makes sense since he chose them. Why would anyone ever choose a song to sing that they hated, after all? The young man giving the sermonette spoke about the need to admit ignorance in order to seek wisdom. He brought out something that it is easy to understand theoretically, and that is the fact that wisdom comes through admitting ignorance and seeking understanding, and is incompatible with pretending as if one already knows everything and does not need to learn or grow any longer. The sermon, given by the pastor of the congregation, spoke about fellowship, and gave some sound and straightforward principles for fellowship, including showing concern for others and being inclusive and not ostracizing people [2].

In listening to the sermon, though, I wondered about myself, as I often do. Although I tend to be a person who lives a fairly isolated life, isolated enough that I have averaged reading about two books a day this year so far, which is only something one can do if one spends a lot of time alone, since socializing and reading do not tend to go together well, I also socialize pretty often as well. I could likely spend more time with others, if it was convenient to do so without ruining my sleep, for example, or travel all over creation to visit friends (and family). It is one thing to talk about fellowship, and another to enjoy it on a practical basis [3], but listening to a message like that, my native instinct is to ask myself questions, such as: Do I make it easy for others to enjoy fellowship with me? Am I the sort of person who is fun to be around? Are others built up and encouraged in spending time with me, or do I drain them of life? Am I good company? Do I place barriers that keep others of different ages or personalities from fellowshipping successfully with me? Not all of those answers are easy to know, nor do I pretend to know them all, but still I feel compelled to ask.

[1] See, for example:

Historians Who Sing

A Lesson In Harmony

There Is Love Wherever There Is Song

[2] See, for example:

Life Among The Lepers

What To Do When You’re A Stranger In Town

[3] See, for example:

If We Loved One Another

A Tour Of The Logistics

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Book Review: Hope And Help From A Cancer Survivor

Hope And Help From A Cancer Survivor, by Dale Morrison with Jacob West

[Note: This book was provided free of charge by Dale Morrison in exchange for an honest book review. A copy of the book may be obtained here: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1622452941?keywords=hope%20and%20help%20from%20a%20cancer%20survivor&qid=1448424373&ref_=sr_1_1&s=books&sr=1-1%5D

In this short (about 180 page) memoir, Dale Morrison manages to make quite a few points in a very matter-of-fact way. This memoir is ostensibly about the author’s struggle with cancer and related health problems, including a frequently fatal virus in the brain and the rigors of a bone marrow transplant, and much of the book discusses the author’s own health, but there is a lot more to this book than that. One can tell a great deal about a book from its opening words, and the author’s opening words in the introduction set the tone for the book in many ways: “Imagine the darkest night. How long would it last? How void would the sky seem of stars and the moon? How long would the sun delay its rising (xv).” Like many people, the author’s health woes filled him with a great deal of anguish, but at the same time he was able to focus a lot of that energy and concern on helping and encouraging others, something that shines through in this book.

In terms of its contents, this book is mostly chronological, but begins with a great deal of context, dealing with the stubbornness common in his family, the sudden marriage of his parents when his father was a 17-year old expelled from school and his mother was fourteen. The author discusses spiritual mentors, trips to Haiti and India, and the development of Hope & Help, an organization he established with the support of his family and local congregation that provides music, stories, and healthy food to those dealing with cancer in replacement of the sugar that the author mentions several times only feeds the cancer. Clearly that was a lesson the author learned well. The author also talks about the experiences of his mother with the same type of cancer he had, and the rare cancer an adorable granddaughter of his has, who continued the family tradition of having their own not-for-profit, in her case a lemonade stand. The author spends a fair amount of time talking about the love of his family as well as the generosity of the man who donated bone marrow to save his life, while also speaking a bit about angelic intervention.

There is a lot to appreciate about this book. Throughout the book, the co-writer does a good job helping Dale’s story sing with elegant and clearly heart-felt prose. The author is clearly a patriotic Texan and views life in a way that only a Texan can. The author also comments somewhat poignantly on the difficulties he had relating to his father. Hopefully, the pictures towards the end of the book do not deceive the reader into recognizing that the author appears to have a better relationship with his kids than he had most of his life with his father. Reading about the author’s faith, and his consistent desire to answer needs with practical aid is admirable, even if some of the adventures he recounts are at least a little bit dangerous, including his experience with ambushes in Haiti. Overall, the author’s faith as well as his life, including a love of sports, shine through, and his ability to turn disease into outgoing concern for others is an example of hope for others, and should help those readers who are struggling with analogous difficulties.

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Experience Hasn’t Set You Free

Earlier today I was doing some research for a future post on my series on acts that are worthy of induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame that have hitherto been ignored or neglected by either the nominating committee or the voters themselves [1], and I was looking up one of my favorite 80’s synth pop musicians, Howard Jones. Although he had several successful albums and around a dozen hit singles in the United States and Great Britain, he commented that he never got good reviews, was proud of the fact that he wasn’t liked by the media, and that pop music is reactionary and bigoted and that what is thought to be cool is shallow and transient [2]. In looking up his albums and how they were viewed, I came across one particularly fierce review that said that his debut album was marred by a profound sense of ressentiment [3]. Of course, no one should care what the Village Voice says about culture anyway, although people who are artists really do care about the way their art is viewed, and are often rather dissatisfied with their own art, and deeply driven by their own profound sense of divine discontent.

It so happens, though, that ressentiment is a frequent aspect of Howard Jone’s work, over the entire course of his career, and it is quite possible that this sort of feeling, which is nearly universally panned by philosophical types who glory in the man of action who has no time for reflection and brooding upon the wrongs committed by others, hindered his enjoyment of music. Certainly, ressentiment has no place for a Buddhist who is supposed to be at peace with the world, or for that matter for a Christian who is supposed to uproot any root of bitterness within us. Yet such gloomy and continual reflection on the wrongs that have been done is a major aspect of life both within the United States and around the world. Indeed, whether one is looking at the whining the self-professed victim groups of ethnic, gender, class, and sexual subaltern minorities within our culture, or examine the populism of anti-immigrant right-wing groups in the United States and abroad, the hunt for scapegoats to flagellate in expiation for our problems is alive and well, no matter how distinct the identity of those scapegoats may be depending on where one stands and what identity we claim.

Yet it is not my purpose today to rant about the decrepit state of our political scene or about self-absorbed artists who brood on the wrongs committed to them and turn it into transcendent and enduring, if often awkward and uncomfortable, art, as interesting as those subjects are and as near and dear to my own heart and my own experience. Instead, I am most interested in understanding how we can avoid such an approach in our own lives, and how we can move beyond it if we find ourselves seeking to blame others for our own suffering. After all, none of us can do anything about the past, and even if we can blame others for the wrongs that they have done against us, that does not make our lives any better. What we are responsible is for making the best of what we have been given, whether it has been a lot or a little, or whether it has been good or bad, or more usually some mixture of the two.

It is not the change in external conditions, after all, that changes our internal emotional state. Howard Jones, after all, is a well-beloved musician who made some of the best music of the decade, certainly within synth pop, and he still feels that he is uncool and disregarded by critics. More tragically, the ressentiment of Richard Nixon against the cultural elites that he felt looked down on him led him to sabotage his own presidency through dirty tricks, forcing a humiliating resignation in the face of the threat of certain impeachment and conviction. We may be hated, disregarded, unfairly neglected or insulted or mocked or abused, but acting out of resentment and bitterness over such things only hurts ourselves, no matter how true our suspicion and paranoia may be. If we are to live a worthwhile life, one that does not poison us from the inside out or harm those around us who must bear the brunt of our bitterness and sour attitudes, we must find a way to rise above the bitterness, to be people who are great of mind, capable of overlooking and forgiving slights and abuses, long before we are viewed as great and noble from the outside.

It is, after all, our greatness of heart and mind and spirit, not the greatness of the titles that we possess, that mark us as great people. If we do not rule over our own emotions, we have no place ruling over other people, who we will only harm out of our own insecurity and immaturity if we are given power over them. If we are the sort of people who live life well, who are dedicated to open honesty, to kindness and concern for the well-being of others, for continual improvement and ongoing growth and development, and service to others, then regardless of whether or not we have any titles at all we will be people of influence wherever we happen to be, simply because our example will be transparent and obvious, and appreciated by those whose opinions and judgments matter, ultimately by God above. There is no place for a small mind or for viewing our lives and example as unimportant, for we are all part of a vastly larger drama than any of us can conceive, before an audience that is staggering to the imagination. We must prepare ourselves internally for the greatness we were born for long before anyone else, or even we ourselves, have any realization of that greatness, or we are likely to be so poisoned by the evil around us and within us that we cannot rise above the mire at all.

Far from being a slave morality, Christianity calls all of believers to act as rulers. It is rulers, after all, who engage in pageants of pardon and reconciliation [4] because it is a demonstration that one is not ultimately harmed by the words or deeds of others, so that one is strong enough to let a wound go, rich enough to forgive a debt and not brood over it, and possessed of enough confidence that one can avoid plotting revenge even in fantasy against those who oppose us. Yet unlike the rulers of this world, our confidence is not in ourselves or in our blood lines or in our titles and offices, but it is rather in the fact that we are children of the Most High God. And, as Paul said so well, if God is for us, who can be against us. If we truly are walking according to God’s ways, and are truly accepted as His children, then the elites and haters and critics of this world are of no account, are of dust on the scales, and are not worthy of even being considered.

If we walk with God, those who are also of God will appreciate it, eventually. It is the wise that recognize the wisdom in others and do not see it as a threat to their own honor for wisdom, for wisdom rejoices in good company and in the sharing of wisdom so that all may be made wiser, in the recognition that understanding and wisdom are not merely for acquisition, but in their sharing and spread they become all the more precious because the sharing and growth of wisdom raises the level by which we all live our lives and in how we behave with each other. In the end, life is too short to waste it nursing grudges, and our hearts only large enough to be filled either with bitterness or with love and outgoing concern for others. May we choose wisely how to fill our hearts.

[1] See, for example:

Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame Snubs

[2] Lee, Marc (9 August 2006). “How Howard changed his tune”. The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 5 February 2016.

[3] Christgau, Robert (12 June 1984). “Christgau’s Consumer Guide: Turkey Shoot”. The Village Voice (New York City, USA). Retrieved 5 February 2016.

[4] See, for example:

Pardon Me

What Does It Mean To Be A King And A Priest In The Kingdom Of God?

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Book Review: Ibsen: A Collection Of Critical Essays

Ibsen: A Collection Of Critical Essays, edited by Rolf Fjelde

I first became familiar with the noted Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen when I was in high school and our IB class was assigned to read his domestic tragedy A Doll’s House, about a woman who feels herself treated like a doll, deprived of the knowledge of how to raise her kids correctly, and filled with a curse coming from the sins of her father, along with her own sins, committed to help preserve the health of her husband. Although I found the play a bit contrived, I saw enough value in his work to make myself familiar with other works of Ibsen that I have found in translation, since lamentably I do not know enough Norwegian to appreciate Ibsen’s subtle and poetic writing in its original language, plays like The Master Builder, Enemy Of The People, Ghosts, and Hetta Gabbler, to name a few. All of them are spoken of in this book, and given thoughtful and critical treatment by the authors of the constituent essays of this book, which demonstrate Ibsen’s continuing importance as a dramatist who attempted to find tragic heroism in the unpromising material of modern society.

This particular volume is made up of sixteen essays that take up about 180 pages of serious material that presuppose a high degree of familiarity with late 19th and early 20th century drama, as well as the entire repertoire of Ibsen’s plays. Among the varied essayists in this volume, I was only familiar with the author of the last essay, the English novelist E.M. Forster, but as a whole the essays are substantial and persuasive in demonstrating Ibsen’s debt to Shakespeare, along with certain symbolic and thematic concerns in his various plays and dramatic poems. The essays take a chronological and thematic approach, beginning with an introductory essay by the editor, then looking at Ibsen as a person, as a seeker of truth, as a stage craftsman, and look at his debt to Shakespeare. Later essays explore Ibsen’s search for the tragic hero as well as Ibsen as a romantic intellectual, or the sort of romanticist that Goethe and C.S. Lewis, among others, happen to be [1]. Most of the essays, though, quite sensibly focus on Ibsen’s plays, like Brand, Peer Gynt, Emperor and Galilean, Ghosts, The Wild Duck, Rosmersholm, The Lady From The Sea, Hedda Gabbler, and many others [2].

The essays, although written by different people, largely revolve around the same concerns. Ibsen was viewed in his own times as a liberal social critic, but his plays are often unsparing and grim when it came to the liberal and bourgeois culture of his time. Nor was he a communist or a socialist, but rather a somewhat radical individualist whose fierce internal passions were kept beneath his stiff and prim and reserved exterior through the fact that he wrote, often acerbically and bitingly, as a vent to those passions that he felt constrained from expressing openly. Ibsen’s last four plays, in particular, put the artist on trial and find that the passionate pursuit of artistic truth and self-expression end up doing great harm to others and fail to serve the practical aims of living well in our contemporary world. Over and over again, from different angles and perspectives, the essayists look at Ibsen’s writing through his frustrations and torments, his anxieties, his anger at the hypocrisy around him, at the inability of those around him to recognize and appreciate truth, and at his own weaknesses and failures, his lack of physical courage, and his own experience of forlorn wandering in exile, his own absence of a homeland despite his deep loyalty to his native Norway. Many of the essayists comment that art springs from torment and suffering, and that since the late 1800’s, at least, artists have felt themselves caught between their desire to be true to themselves, to be relevant to the world around them, to be committed to beauty and truth, and to be kind and loving to family, friends, and spouses. Since that terrible tension still exists for contemporary artists, it is still worthwhile to read Ibsen, at the very least to commiserate vicariously through a fellow tormented artist whose struggle with communication, intimacy, and authenticity led him to write plays and essays and give talks, in the hope of leaving the world better for his having lived.

[1] https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2015/11/15/leave-a-tender-moment-alone/

[2] See, for example:

When We Dead Awaken

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Book Review: The New Art Of Writing Plays

The New Art Of Writing Plays, by Lope de Vega, translated by William T. Brewster, with an Introduction by Brander Matthews

In all fairness, this new art of writing plays is not very new, but that hardly matters, given that Lope de Vega is one of my favorite Spanish playwrights [1], and a talented contemporary of Shakespeare whose prolific and excellent writing deserves to be better known. Although this is marketed as a book, the core of the material is not even a very long essay that is only about twenty pages long, with an introduction that roughly doubles its length and notes that are almost as large as the essay themselves. Despite its small size, the work is a worthwhile one because although the art of English drama during the Elizabethan and Jacobean and the slightly later French drama of the Bourbon eras is well-known to drama-loving audiences in the Anglophone world, the drama of Spanish playwrights is much less well-known. This essay, coming as it does from one of the most notable Spanish playwrights, is therefore of particular worth.

The core material of this book is divided into two parts. The first part, nearly twenty pages in length, is an introductory essay by Brander Matthews that discusses the intellectual heritage of Lope de Vega’s poetic essay on the new art of making plays, with its attitude of uncritical acceptance of the standards of drama laid down in Greek and Roman times by thinkers such as Horace and its advice to playwrights to act in ways that appeal to the desires of the audience, even if one admits the superiority of the ways of the ancients when it comes to art and literature to our own vulgar times. One can picture similar advice being written today by someone like Michael Bay, for example. The second part of this book is the essay by Lope de Vega, which has all the appearance of someone who is well-read, very busy with his own work, and far more interested in popularity than in critical appeal, but who is plainly a prolific writer who had at the time of writing this essay written 483 plays by his count, most of which violated the restrictive rules of thematic unity, which were supposed to make comedy and tragedy entirely separate and to lay down certain requirements for unity of action. Almost all of my own plays, it should be noted, violate these standards as well, even without a deliberate attempt to thumb my nose at such traditions. The essay comes off as something that was written in haste by someone who needed material for a seminar on drama in which he was invited to come as a talented and successful practitioner of the dramatic arts, not as someone who was self-consciously writing in order to make his name and reputation as a dramatic critic. After the prose rendering by the translator, excerpts of a somewhat stilted poetic translation follows within the comparatively lengthy endnotes, which point out as well de Vega’s many learned but often subtle references to previous authors, which pointed out to his scholarly audience his own extensive knowledge and learned erudition, and points out the similarities between de Vega’s plays and that of others, like the ancient Greek playwrights and the more modern Ibsen.

Even so, the work, although short and written vaguely enough that learned analysts have read opposite senses into it, there are a few ways in which the translator has done excellent work in conveying genuine eloquence. Witness, for example, the thoughtful closing words of de Vega’s essay, “Let one hear with attention, and dispute not of the art; for in comedy everything will be found of such a sort that in listening to it everything becomes evident (38).” What de Vega is saying here, in defense of his own writing, is that it is not the nature of comedy to leave things mysterious, but rather to reveal everything so long as one pays attention. We see in our own contemporary comedies the devotion to slapstick, the making of everything plain and obvious, without restraint, and the same was true of the comedies of Lope de Vega, or, for that matter, the comedies of Shakespeare, Moliere, Machiavelli, Terrance, Aristophanes, or many other comedians for that matter. As de Vega was here attempting to defend his deviance from the rules of comedy, he notes that his monarch was not fond of the representation of kings on the stage in a comedy, as he felt it detracted from his honor and dignity. In writing as he does, de Vega is pointing out that he merely gives the people what they want, and that is how he has been so successful, and that those who desire success would imitate his example, as indeed they did, and he is not writing in order to appeal to monarchs or elite scholars in so doing, pointing out that even at this early age there was a sharp division between high and low art, a separation that continues to exist to this day, and one which thoughtful people who wish to communicate well in a variety of genres need to understand and overcome.

[1] See, for example:

Contested Legitimacy In Lope de Vega’s Fuente Ovejuna

Castigo Sin Venganza

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The Crushing Weight Of Castles In The Air

When I was a child, a bookish, lonely, imaginative kind of child, it should be noted, I created a heroic imaginary persona who lived in a castle on top of an imaginary cloud [1]. As is my habit, I did a fair bit of worldbuilding, thought about the logistics of how such a heavy castle with its landscape would stay afloat and yet appear as an innocent puffy cloud to those on earth below, and came up with various stories about why someone would undertake such a task. While that story, unlike some of my other childhood stories, did not endure until I was old enough to write down my thoughts in earnest, I have at times pondered the symbolic meaning of that choice, being a melancholic person by temperament, for whom clouds have long been a fitting metaphor for my own emotional state, and given that my characteristic approach to dealing with problems is trying to find a vantage point above the problem from which the larger context and picture can be seen without being lost in all of the details, and where a sense of distance can be preserved.

This morning, when I woke up, someone had commented to a post I had written between four and five years ago, wondering if my use of metaphor in that post [2] was heavy handed. Reading the post again with bleary eyes, since it was not a post whose contents I instantly remembered, it being one of my diary posts from 2011 examining the issue of political behavior and interest from people who claim to be largely apolitical, I noticed only two aspects which could be considered metaphorical. The first example was when I compared the tour I gave to the visiting ministerial dignitary to the tour that King Hezekiah gave to the Babylonian envoys recorded in 2 Kings 20:12-18 and Isaiah 39. Given that the comparison was to the thoroughness of the tour I gave, including every part of the school in Northern Thailand where I taught at the time, I did not consider that a particularly heavy-handed metaphor, but rather a lighthearted one given my love of playfully referring to scripture as part of the context of my own life, certainly by my own standards of playfulness and lightheartedness, at least. The second reference was to the fact that our involvement in the world, while retaining a sense of distance, is an aspect of developing the talents that we have been given, another reference to a familiar passage [3] where Jesus Christ speaks of His servants trading their talents in the marketplace of the world, and so building up profit to be returned to our master. While that reference may be taken as more heavy-handed, in that our involvement with the world is an area of considerable controversy to those who wish to remain unspotted and preserve their seat in the peanut gallery where they can look down and critique the world’s affairs without getting their hands dirty in doing anything about the world’s problems, I meant it straightforwardly and barely metaphorically at all.

How much weight can a metaphor bear? As someone who regularly draws parallels and connections in widely disparate disciplines and areas of life, much of the way I think inside and express myself externally involves issues of simile and metaphor, in either explicit or implicit comparison and contrast. At times, the comparison is meant to exist on one or two qualities that happen to stand out at the time, and at other times the comparison is designed to be much deeper, with multiple complicated layers of interrelation and meaning, where the full understanding of the connection that is being made depends on a great deal of personal knowledge, but where several of the layers have a meaning that is somewhat straightforward, at least. Yet there are times where a metaphor may be chosen that has levels of symbolic meaning that are not intended to be drawn as parallels to a given person or situation. How are we to tell what sort of comparison is made, on which levels, and which meanings are intended, permissible, and strictly forbidden or inapplicable to the reader or listener or interpreter?

Many people misleadingly claim that Jesus Christ spoke in parables because parables expressed deep truths in prosaic and familiar images of farming and life in villages and small towns that his audience could relate to rather than the dry and formal language of intellectuals and scribes with their musty and inaccessible book learning [4]. Yet not only was this not Jesus’ point, it was specifically contrary to His point. Jesus Christ did not speak in such a way that others would be able to easily understand His message. On the contrary, He spoke in such a way as to be deliberately obscure. As it is written in Mark 4:10-13: “But when He was alone, those around Him with the twelve asked Him about the parable. And He said to them, “To you it has been given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God; but to those who are outside, all things come in parables, so that ‘seeing they may see and not perceive, and hearing they may hear and not understand; lest they should turn, and their sins be forgiven them.’ And He said to them, “Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables?”

At this point, Jesus goes on to explain the parable of the sower and the seed, or the soils, which is a parable about the different sorts of hearts that people have when they are given the word, and that the success of evangelism depends on the state of the heart that hears the Word of God, something that the sower has no control over. The crowd that heard the metaphor did not get an explanation, only those who were puzzled but intrigued and curious about the mysterious and enigmatic message and then chose to ask Jesus Christ what it meant later on. This is the key. The parables of Jesus Christ were not meant to be transparent, but were meant to be mysterious and enigmatic, as a way of testing the audience to determine if they would simply mark the sayings as confusing and difficult and go about their ways, or if their curiosity would be piqued so that they would wrestle with the enigmas and riddles and seek to understand what was being meant. It is this difference in response, between those who were caught up in life’s affairs and unable to think about what was important, or those who were easily deterred because the message was not handed to them straightforwardly and because they lacked the interest in understanding what was meant, and those who understood there was more that they did not understand but wanted to grasp, which led them to ask questions and seek understanding and knowledge, to whom such things were given.

Without seeking to claim that I possess the words of life, nevertheless I too write in such a way that is very often deliberately enigmatic. There are a variety of reasons for this, which I do not care to discuss in detail. Be that as it may, my way of writing deliberately is layered and complex [5]. To be sure, there are people who read the straightforward meaning and agree or disagree. There are those who know I am being deliberately obscure about something and let it pass as something too confusing for them to understand but not something they want to know, others that understand a layer or two and think they have understood everything I was trying to say, and still others who know they do not understand but who want to know what I am getting at, and these people actually ask me what I mean. Unlike the person who commented on my post early this morning, they do not ask as an accusation, having already come to a judgment, but ask because they frankly confess their lack of knowledge and want to know, and to such people who are genuinely curious I am generally willing to tell. Ask and you shall receive, seek and you shall find, knock and the door shall be opened to you, and all that.

If we live honestly and sincerely, our manner of living will present a riddle to the world around us. Many will be unobservant, even spectacularly so, about the mystery we present, but others will be curious, and that curiosity will drive them to ask questions and present friendly opportunities for discussions about why we believe and behave as we do, to which we can then give an answer, and provide food for thought for other people to reflect upon later on. Without ever deliberately going about seeking the attention of the world, our lives and example will give us more attention than we possibly desire. Our candor and sincerity will mark us as eccentric and unusual, as clearly marching to the beat of a different drum, and though there will be some who are frightened by this and envious of this and will therefore abuse and attack us, there will be others who are encouraged and inspired by the quiet rebelliousness of people who are simply who they are in a world that prizes façade and conformity while it claims to seek freedom. In such a way, even our lightheartedness can carry the crushing weight of symbol and meaning, but not a weight that is designed to be a burden for others, but rather the sort of dignity and importance that comes from layers of meaning that provide a depth to even that may appear to the casual observer as a trifle of no particular importance. Let us be people of such depth who reward investigation and curiosity and interest, and whose lives are a mystery simply waiting to be read, and a puzzle waiting to be solved.

[1] See, for example:

A Fortress Around Your Heart

The Fortress As Death Trap

Your Princess Is In Another Castle

I Am The Knight Who Will Fight For Your Honor

[2] https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2012/01/02/thats-just-the-way-we-roll/

[3] https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2011/01/22/a-comparative-analysis-of-the-parable-of-the-talents-and-the-parable-of-the-minas/

[4] See, for example:

Matthew 13:10-17, Mark 4:10-12, Luke 8:9-10: The Purpose Of Parables

Book Review: Parables

[5] See, for example:

Artichoke Hearts

What Lies Beneath

Peel Back The Onion, Be Ready To Cry

If You Don’t Know The Text, You Can’t Play

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Book Review: You Will Be Made To Care

You Will Be Made To Care, by Erick Erickson with Bill Blankschaen

[Note: This book was provided free of charge by the author in exchange for an honest review.]

In order to understand this book, and its author, a bit of context is important. Erickson is a well-known blogger and political commentator and radio host, among other interests, and as a longtime follower of the website he used to edit, RedState, as well as his current Resurgent Morning Agenda, he would have a regular discussion of the way that leftists in our society (and in other Western nations) have an abiding interest not only to oppose godly ways among the general body of citizens, and to punish people for speaking or acting according to biblical truth in the public, but also to oppose even those who silently and quietly oppose such matters. His statement about the following issues, which he has used frequently in the years I have read his material, is “you will be made to care.” Either one will succumb to the incubus of the progressive left and adopt their misbegotten worldview, or one will be motivated to direct and open opposition to that worldview. And it is in light of that reality of our culture wars that Erickson writes this work of current events political journalism.

In terms of its contents, the author aims for a thematic organization. Various chapters examine the history of progressivism, the abuse of governmental power that shows a marked similarity to Hitler’s Germany, and various social and cultural issues ranging from education to business to the leftist obsession with “pelvic issues” like abortion, homosexuality, and gender identity [1], as well as the simultaneous demonstration of hostility to Confederate history, which the author views to be related [2]. The author writes passionately and in a detailed fashion about all kinds of disastrous Supreme Court decisions, selective enforcement of laws, hostility to Christianity on college campuses and the official abuse of power against those who think and behave, even quietly, according to that which is right in any public fashion, yet the call is not a call to arms as much as it is a call to repentance and also a call to unity in a broad coalition that seeks to defend religious freedom and preserve culture, and also to recognize that however Progressives may be deluded about the inevitably of success, they will eventually fail because they act contrary to nature and truth and because God is sovereign over all. The book has a sort of postmillennial Calvinistic optimism about it, showing the author’s own religious beliefs even as it points out the obvious evils of the spirit of our age.

In looking at what is aimed at here, we see a consistent approach to nonviolent but persistent resistance to progressive oppression—refusal to apologize for believing and behaving rightly, refusing to accept second-class status, and refusing to be silent and self-censor, thus conceding the town square to contemporary leftist idiocy, while retaining love and concern for those who oppose, and seeking their repentance to God and to His ways. In order to oppose the evils of the left, the author promotes a vision of community of like-minded people, an individual commitment to honest and genuine faith, a revival of family concern and faithfulness in marriage, a revival of the Church, and then a revival of Christian citizenship, an appealing and worthwhile vision even for those of us who, like myself, tend to be easily isolated. In the author’s mind, those who speak the truth are likely to face persecution, including the loss of jobs, fines, and the threat of jail. In other words, it will be just as safe to be a Christian blogger speaking the truth to corrupt power here as it is in Thailand, but that we should speak bravely anyway, even knowing the risks, knowing that one is looking towards a heavenly and eternal reward. This book is a powerful blueprint for a Christian counterculture, both grimly realistic about the evils of the present age as well as ultimately hopeful in eventual and ultimate victory.

[1] See, for example:

Book Review: End Of Discussion

To Love What God Loves, And To Hate What God Hates

Book Review: Me

[2] https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2016/02/04/the-right-thing-done-the-wrong-way-is-the-wrong-thing/

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Book Review: Virtue, Valor, & Vanity: The Founding Fathers And The Pursuit Of Fame

Virtue, Valor, & Vanity: The Founding Fathers And The Pursuit Of Fame, by Eric Burns

Those who have read the writings of the Founding Fathers have often understood that they were definitely posing for history, seeking to present their best face in their letters and editorials and other writings [1]. The author of this intriguing and entertaining book takes a look at the view of the Founding Fathers and the context of their fame, their relations with their peers, the development of American celebrity culture as a whole, and the origins and models of celebrity that the Founding Fathers modeled their lives after, namely the heroes of the Roman Republic. The title itself hints at a tension within the mindset of the Founding Fathers, that they wanted to be remembered, wanted to serve the people at large and also serve themselves, and that they were concerned about whether the people at their time and long afterward would remember them and give proper credit to them for their deeds, even as they enjoyed the company and respect of other famous people.

In terms of its organization and structure, the book is divided into three parts, like ancient Gaul. The first part of the book looks at the beginnings of celebrity in the Roman Republic, specifically in the writings of Cicero, and turns his attention to the celebrity status of Benjamin Franklin in Paris as well as the way that Americans behaved at home regarding fame. The second and longest portion of the book examines the ingredients of renown: ambition, vanity, modesty, jealousy, image, and myth, aspects that sat in tension with each other. Some of the founding fathers were more noted for some qualities than others. For example, John Adams was a particularly jealous man, his envy of others and his insecurity throbbing in his eloquent and tortured writings to his wise wife Abigail and his loyal and patient friends like Benjamin Rush, who helped him reconcile with Thomas Jefferson. The third part of the book looked at the last days of various famous men: Benjamin Franklin, Patrick Henry, Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams, before giving an epilogue about the death of a man who did nothing to deserve fame and was famous more or less for being famous, the pointless celebrity Button Gwinnett, whose name graces one of Georgia’s counties. The lives and deaths of the founding fathers established patterns of American culture that continue to this day in our own culture of fame.

There is a lot to praise about this book. The book is only slightly over 200 pages and deals with a massively important subject, namely the way that the Founding Fathers wrestled with the tensions between their high view of character and their devotion to public service on the one hand and their transparently open vanity and desire to be seen as important by peers, by the commonfolk, and to attain immortality in memory by having lived in such a way that one could not be forgotten. In addition, the book is highly quotable, both in that the author is in command of the relevant primary texts in Roman and colonial history and quotes well, but also that the author himself has a highly quotable and elegant prose [2] that makes the book easy to read, even if it contains a great deal worthy of thinking upon. After all, to the extent that any of us are 18th century men (or women), modeling our own thoughts and expressions on the elegance and erudition of our forefathers, we too have to wrestle with the same tension between our own overweening ambition and our desire to serve, between our humility and modesty and our own vanity and desire to appear to be wise and good, between our desire to avoid shame and embarrassment and our desire for positive attention and even perhaps the adoration of others. We live our lives in contradictions, seeking to be remembered yet at the same time disparaging the negative aspects of the fame we so diligently, if surreptitiously, seek.

[1] See, for example:

Book Review: The Intimate Lives Of The Founding Fathers

Book Review: A Leap In The Dark

You Will Remember Me For Centuries

[2] See, for example, the following quotes:

“Yet Cicero was not indiscriminate in his quest for those sweets. He wanted them badly but, in his view, justly, for the right reasons, for what he believed to be the most virtuous of causes. He wanted to be known for his support of the issues he thought important to the success of the Roman republic. He craved admiration for his vision of the republic’s future. It is what we would today call enlightened self-interest, the realization by a gifted individual that he could satisfy the cultural and political needs of his community at the same time that he satisfied the needs of his own ego. For this reason, the men who created the American republic looked on him as one of their own. Dryden’s opinion notwithstanding, Cicero’s character didn’t suffer in the least (9).”

“[Quoting Thomas Jefferson’s Dialogue Between The Head And The Heart] Head:…To avoid those eternal distresses, to which you are forever exposing us, you must learn to look forward before you take a step which may interest our peace (38).”

“Franklin didn’t educate himself for a successful career, which would have been ambitious in the conventional sense. Rather, he educated himself because learning was a joy to him, and he wanted to feel that joy as deeply as he could, expressing it to others, asking for and refuting information, always with the goal of adding to his storehouse of fact and opinion.

Franklin didn’t invent the armonica, bifocals, the Franklin stove, the lightning rod, the storage battery, and swim fins to impress others and amass a fortune. Instead, he invented because of the satisfaction of solving problems whose solutions had not only escaped others but would benefit others, too, and the further satisfaction of sharing his devices and the reasoning behind them with all who wanted to know and had tried to work out similar problems before. Again: to add to mankind’s storehouse of fact and learned opinion.

Franklin didn’t experiment with electricity, magnetism, and refrigeration to earn a place in the pantheon of world scientists–another example of conventional ambition. He experimented because of the thrill of discovery, and he could not help but show off those discoveries, to discuss them with people of similar interests, and to encourage them to make use of his theories and move beyond them. The progress of science mattered more than his personal gratification. He was effusive, tireless, but not premeditated enough to be called ambitious. He was who he was: a uniquely gifted and voluble human being. He could be introspective at times, but there was so much to pique his interest, demand his energy, reward his devotion–so much other than himself, outside himself. Introspection may well have seemed to him a form of selfishness.

Franklin’s accomplishments, combined with his ebullient nature, could not help but make him famous. He might have seemed full of himself at times, but he was brimming with perceptions

[3] See, for example:

Elite Competition and the Decline of Deference in Late 18th Century America

Book Review: Give Me Liberty Or Give Me Death

The Constitution Writers

The Heart Wants What It Wants

Posted in American History, Book Reviews, History | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

The Right Thing Done The Wrong Way Is The Wrong Thing

[Note: Although I do not mention it specifically below, the contents of this blog entry were strongly influenced by a book I have been reading for the past couple of days, with its review forthcoming.]

This morning as I woke up, after doing my daily Bible reading, which happened to be some of the early chapters of Exodus where God was smiting the rebellious slaveowners of Egypt with plagues, I read a biographical essay on General Sheridan, which talked about how his experiences in the Civil War led him to see the directed military force from the federal government as the solution of choice to various problems of the postwar world like recalcitrant Southerners, western tribes of indigenous peoples who stood in the way of settlement, and striking urban industrial workers. A thought came to my mind that the lessons we learn from history are not necessarily the right ones. Once we have held the boom hammer and used it on someone, there is the tendency to view every resistant population as needing to be hammered into submission. We use exceptions and crises as providing the precedent for normal behavior, eschewing the ways of peace or the time it takes to build consensus, demanding rapid change or else.

I spent most of my childhood in the rural South between the ages of three and fourteen. Although the South had been defeated in the Civil War, and forced by that defeat to give up their slaves, the destruction of their slaveowning republic did not lead to a societal repentance over their sins. Far from it. Defiant against federal efforts at protecting the freed slaves, for almost a century the South (and not only the South) preserved a system of unjust racial dominance that was stopped by nine unelected Supreme Court justices using rather at times bogus legal reasoning in service of a just end, just as decisions like Dred Scot and Plessy vs. Ferguson had used bogus legal reasoning in service of unjust ends. For those who merely looked at the ends, it looked as if there was the possibility for social justice at last, after so many centuries of exploitation and abuse, but those who were more pessimistic would have been justified in recognizing that the bogus means of justifying massive social change by appealing to the feelings of those who were considered oppressed could be used in ungodly ways as well as godly ones. And so it has been.

As Americans, we live in a society that is caught up in a false dilemma. On one side of the dilemma is a South that still flies the battle flag of the army of Northern Virginia, that still honors its sculptures of long-dead rebels and traitors who lived and died in defense of their corrupt traditions. On this side of the false dilemma the supporters of tradition are supposed to stand, at least by design. There is no question that the South, at least the core of the South, still holds to their traditions despite everything that has happened in the past 150 years. Yet, in part, that is part of the problem, for traditions are not necessarily good. There has been no societal repentance, no widespread desire to be forgiven for the sins of our wicked fathers, for the theft of land, and the sale of human souls, for the treatment of children of God like mere chattel property. No, there has been a sullen replacement of the goals of dominating the country with a willingness to defend states’ rights, but just as consistently the federal government has been willing to enforce social change, deeply unpopular social change, via federal power.

Nor do those that cheer justice and moral excellence have anything to rejoice when force is necessary to enforce just laws and decisions, for a willingness to support what is right by force makes it easier to support what is wrong by force and to unforce ungodly social change by the mechanisms of government power, and with the goal of demonizing those who oppose such corrupt social change by tarring them with the same brushes of delegitimization as happened to those who were obviously and flagrantly unjust. No, the victorious North, and the supporters of the expansion of federal power and the use of that power to support social justice, has its own deep flaws, including the arrogance that comes from victory and the belief that progress is irresistible and irreversible, and that those who stand in the way of social progress and what one believes to be justice are enemies of the human race and outside of any need to negotiate, to restrain oneself, and to treat as a being created in the image and likeness of God. No, there is no celebration to be found in the other side of the false dilemma either, as we see that power being abused to punish those who resist the corrupt social changes of our corrupt and wicked progressive elites.

What, then, is left for good men, women, and children to do, who neither blindly follow tradition nor who blindly hate it [1]? How are we to resolve this false dilemma that pits justice against righteousness? We must defend another option, an option that does not at present appear to be part of the larger social discussion, but one which properly frames contemporary questions of societal immorality with questions of historical justice that are used to justify the same sort of oppressive behavior against both the righteous and unrighteous. In short, we must expose the false dilemma for what it is, and point to a standard of ethics and moral conduct that stands outside of us all, that is unchanging and eternal, and that is not subject to the whims of corrupt elites, or the shifting tides of what are considered to be progressive and enlightened views. We must resurrect the biblical worldview, and view both our contemporary society as well as history from that perspective, and in doing so we ensure that we are not committing the same sort of wickedness as either side in placing either a corrupt view of inevitable social progress or a corrupt holding on to any sort of tradition, without regard to whether it is good or evil as the standard by which to judge.

In a past discussion of my church’s doctrine on military service [2], I commented that the reason why it is improper for a Christian to volunteer for military service is that as a Christian we have already signed up for the army of God, to commit to fighting spiritual battles with spiritual weapons, and commit to a code of conduct that is strongly at variance with that required by soldiers who submit themselves to the authority of human officers who have no particular loyalty to God’s laws, under the guiding authority of a corrupt federal government that uses its military and constabulary consistently in support of unjust efforts both in the United States and abroad. As citizens of the Jerusalem that is above, and as soldiers in God’s army, we are to realize that ultimately the battles we engage in are not physical in nature but are spiritual, and are not to be won through conquest but through conversion of hearts and minds to God’s ways, through the development of godly character by the indwelling presence of God’s Holy Spirit and a lifetime of growing obedience to God’s laws and through outgoing love and graciousness towards other people, including those who do not in the least way deserve it, or even recognize it.

It is too late for us to undo the mistakes of the past. We cannot go back in time and urge the corrupt slaveowners of the South, or racists in the North, for that matter, to act in accordance with Christian justice and our common origin as children born in the image and likeness of our Heavenly Father. It is too late for us to act with malice towards none and charity towards all, so that defeated Southerners did not feel it necessary to hold on to their wicked cultural traditions in self-defense of their own human dignity. It is too late for us to undo the precedents of the past in the use and abuse of federal power to enforce unpopular social change without working slowly and gradually and effectively to build a consensus for those changes, to change hearts and minds and not only laws and authorities. What is done is done, and it cannot be undone. The evils of the past cannot be wiped away; we can only fight against their effects and seek to counteract them through retraining ourselves to act in better ways ourselves and not to fall into the errors of our fathers before us.

Yet in seeking to overcome the patterns of the past, we cannot demonize those who came before us either. Our fathers were people like ourselves, of a mixed nature of good and evil, just like everybody else. In honoring them despite their sins and wickedness, we set a proper example for others to honor us despite our own flaws and sins and weaknesses. In remembering that our enemies are created in the image and likeness of God, we are restrained in our hostility and our bloodlust, so that we treat even those who act against us with respect and concern and love, even as we oppose the wickedness they seek to force on the rest of us. When wielding the two-edged sword of the Word we must remember why that sword has two edges—it not merely seeks to cut others to the heart, to provoke them to godly sorrow leading to repentance from their wicked ways, but it also cuts against our own complacency and our belief in our own moral perfection. The same Bible that we use to cry aloud about the sins around us is the same Bible that we use to reprove ourselves of our own sins, and to remind us that just because someone commits evil does not mean that they are unworthy of love or respect, or else none of us would ever be deserving of these things that we all value so greatly and that we are commanded to give to others.

The right thing done the wrong way is the wrong thing. We cannot justify either supporting evil ends with good means, or supporting good ends with evil means. God is working with eternity in mind, focusing on the development of godly conduct, and the slow change of patterns of inbred wickedness, as well as the restraint of overly rapid and destructive social change. In seeking to become molded by the master potter into His image, we are to remember that this process requires that we abandon the wicked traditions of our fathers, but to remember that not all that is old is obsolete and worthy of being tossed out. Not all that is new is worthwhile and good either, but both tradition and change must be judged by the external standard of God’s ways, and must be lived in a way that is in keeping with our behavior in loving and respecting others and in behaving justly in a world that is often deeply unjust. Let us therefore live according to standards that are right, standards that are righteous and enduring, worth keeping not merely for being old, but because they represent the unchanging character of God above, and are ever new only because they are never perfectly modeled in any human institution or society, because every one of us and every age has its own distinct mixture of good and evil that requires its own repentance and reformation.

[1] See, for example:

A Pox On Both Of Your Houses

I Can Teach You, But I’d Have To Charge: A Lesson On False Dilemmas

The False Dilemma Concerning The Song of Solomon

A Leadership False Dilemma

[2] See, for example:

Fundamental Belief #14: On Military Service And War

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How Much Wood Could A Woodchuck Chuck, If A Woodchuck Could Chuck Wood?

In the printed and digital versions of the Spokesmen’s Club Manual that I have used in various roles, as instructional material for a public speaking class in Thailand, in my own progress through Spokesmen’s Club in both Florida and Oregon, and as an evaluator of the speeches of others, there is a section for tongue twisters. One of the most noted tongue twisters of the genre is the following one: How much would could a woodchuck chuck, if a woodchuck could chuck wood? As much wood as a woodchuck could, if a woodchuck could chuck wood. How much wood is that? Based on various estimates of the burrowing speed of marmots, if a woodchuck could move would at the same efficiency as it moves the dirt in its burrows, it could move about 700 pounds on a good day. Other estimates, based on its digestion rates, figure that a groundhog could ingest about 22 cubic inches of wood a day. Neither number is as efficient as that of wood chucking rodents like beavers, but at least they provide a concrete answer to the titular tongue twister [1].

Groundhogs are known by a dizzying and confusing array of names. It being Groundhog day as I write this [2], and coming from a particularly unsentimental farming family background in Western Pennsylvania as I do, groundhogs have long been a subject of focus for my relatives. How did an animal that doesn’t chuck wood get the name woodchuck in the first place? The best answer appears to be that woodchuck is a transliteration of an Algonquin word wuchak, and that when early English and American fur traders asked where the fur came from, they were given the native word and then transliterated it as woodchuck. The animal is still regularly killed for sport, fur, and even food, and it is fond of alfalfa, which made it plentiful in my family’s farm, since we used alfalfa as the grass of choice when leaving parts of our fields fallow. Other people call this rodent by the names whistlepig, chuck, wood-shock, groundpig, whistler, thickwood badger, Canada Marmot, monax, moonack, weenusk, and red monk, depending on the region [3].

In my mid-to-late 20’s I helped out as a judge of various forensics competitions in Central Florida, and were I familiar with the groups that did so here, usually homeschoolers and parochial schoolers, I would do so here in Oregon as well. Of course, neither Oregon nor Florida are places where groundhogs are commonly found, but in a place where they could be found, a suitable question for a Lincoln-Douglas debate would be the following prompt: “Groundhogs are a menace and a threat to people and should be exterminated.” Evidence in support of exterminating marmots could include their role in the film Groundhog Day in prolonging Bill Murray’s agony, the fact that their burrows are destructive to gardens and farmland, cause economic damage by wrecking tractor axles, and even cause soil settlement that damages building foundations. On the other side of the picture, marmots are cute animals, do a fair job of exterminating themselves through aggressive behavior, and their burrows home animals like skunks and red foxes that hunt vermin and pests and so groundhogs indirectly help farmers thereby. As they have a mixed record, like most beings, they are a fitting subject for debate.

One aspect of woodchucks is beyond debate, though, and that is their negative aspect in the sort of heathen augury that they are best known for. Groundhog day is one of those pagan festivals where one of any number of famous marmots are used as natural weather prognosticators to determine the length of winter. Whether one is talking about Punxsutawney Phil, Wiarton Willie, Jimmy the Groundhog (of Sun Prairie, Wisconsin), Staten Island Chuck, Smith Lake Jake (from Graysville, Alabama) or General Beauregard Lee (from near Atlanta, Georgia), there are many groundhogs in North America whose shadows are examined to determine whether there will be a long winter or not. This is not a new tradition, as the first recorded reference to the festival in English dates back to the 1840’s [4]. Even further back, the festival relates to the pagan Celtic festival of Imbolc, and to general heathen customs of bogus weather prognostication, and thus is a relic of the pagan customs of nature worship of Europe that have been syncretized into contemporary practice.

What are we to make of all this? For one, believers are not to adopt the customs of the heathen, especially with regards to augury and prognostication, which are expressly forbidden for believers in the Bible [5]. Whatever our feelings are about groundhogs, they should be left in peace to burrow, and should not be used in vain attempts to figure out how much longer winter will last in heathen superstition. Marmots are efficient builders of burrows, fierce animals that have a low social cohesion (not unlike contemporary Americans), and pests that have friends who help farmers out by killing even worse vermin. They are not weathermen, though, and any such use of marmots as a way of compromising between various heathen systems of calendar observance for when winter ends and when spring begins is inaccurate, self-contradictory (as different marmots given different answers), and ungodly to boot.

[1] See, for example, the following:

“How much wood would a woodchuck chuck?”, Spokane Chronicle (July 11, 1988), p. A9.

P.A. Paskevich and T.B. Shea (July–August 1995). “The Ability of Woodchucks to Chuck Cellulose Fibers”. Annals of Improbable Research 1 (4): 4–9.

[2] See, for example:

Groundhog Day

Don’t Blame This Sleeping Satellite

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Groundhog

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Groundhog_Day

[5] See, for example:

May Day: The Curious Connection Between Paganism And Socialism

Book Review: In Search of Ancient Wisdom

Book Review: The Discovery Of Middle Earth

Putting The Saturn Back In Saturnalia

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