Monthly Archives: May 2011

A Man and His Dog: A Love Story

There is a special bond between a boy and his dog, or in this case, a man and his dog.  For girls, it is horses.

Martin Kihn is a successful writer living in New York City with his wife, Gloria.  He should be happy, but he is miserable.  What is his problem?  He is an alcoholic.  His professional life is collapsing.  Gloria has had all she can endure and is about to leave him.  Physically and emotionally he keeps himself going with regular transfusions of vodka.

Salvation comes for Kihn in the “person” of a purebred Bernese mountain dog named Hola.  Purchased as a puppy, Hola has no inclination of what is and isn’t acceptable behavior.  As Hola grows into a rather large and very active bundle of fur, he becomes increasingly attached to Martin.  Hola is a man’s dog.

Hola’s apparent jealousy of Gloria leads to escalating aggressive behavior towards Gloria.  This development, together with Gloria’s growing conviction that her husband cannot overcome his alcoholism, leads to her departure.

With his life in ruins, Martin turns to Alcoholics Anonymous.  The AA alone will not save him.  Like anyone who is trying to escape an addiction, Martin needs a goal, something he can commit to.  That goal becomes training Hola.  If he can train Hola, perhaps he can win back Gloria, too.

Kihn commits himself to helping Hola win the Canine Good Citizen’s award from the American Kennel Association.  In order to win the coveted CGC, Hola must pass a rigorous ten-point examination.  Kihn is not sure Hola can pass the test, just as he has doubts about his own goal.  The two struggles, Kihn’s and Hola’s, become intimately entwined.  Hola’s winning the CGC becomes Kihn’s hope for success in his own struggle with alcoholism.

Bad Dog (A Love Story) is Martin Kihn’s account of how he helps Hola to achieve the CGC, and how Hola helps him to achieve sobriety.  It is a story of struggle, perseverance, and yes, a love story.

Until next time, be good to all God’s creation, and always live under the mercy.

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Left Behind, At Least for Now

If you are reading this, then you are among those left behind.  But don’t feel too bad, for all of your friends, myself included, are also still here.

Frankly, I did not expect the world to end at 6:00 p.m. on Saturday, as predicted by Harold Camping.  I was a little suspicious when Mr. Camping did not give away his money, estimated at $118 million in 2008.  Certainly if he had faith in his calculations, he would want to give his money away.  I mean, he didn’t expect to take it with him, did he? 

What about his Family Radio network?  Did Mr. Camping cancel all contracts?  Were sponsors, donors, program hosts and others notified that the network would shut down, that is of course, after a prerecorded tape was played informing the rest of us that the Rapture occurred, and we were left behind. 

Perhaps Mr. Camping’s calculations were off by a digit or two?  Not so, says Camping.  He has done his job.  The world has been warned.  It is now under “spiritual” judgment, and the material end has been rescheduled for October 21. 

Mr. Camping announced on Sunday that he was “flabbergasted.”  When asked by reporters at a Monday news conference about all those followers who gave up jobs, gave away their money, sold their homes, and much more, Mr. Camping’s response was rather nonchalant:  “We at Family Radio never tell people what to do with their possessions. . . . That is totally between them and God.”  When asked about whether he would give back any of the millions of dollars given to Family Radio by the faithful, the not so surprising response was that the organization would continue doing God’s work. 

I was attending a graduation ceremony at Union University in Tennessee, when the Rapture was supposed to occur.  The service was outside, as is traditional there.  A large clock tower served as a backdrop.  Over six thousand visitors were waiting to watch the new graduates cross the stage and receive their hard-earned degrees.

It was a beautiful afternoon, although very hot.  There wasn’t a cloud in the sky.  The Bible says that when Jesus Christ returns, the clouds will part.  Since there were no clouds, and the sun was beating down on all of us sitting in those plastic chairs, I assumed that everything in the program would take place without interruption.

As I sat there waiting, I occasionally looked up at the clock.  It must be six feet across.  At one point, just minutes before the clock would strike 6:00 p.m., a bird flow up and landed just below the clock.  Was it an ill-omen, or a promise?  

I wasn’t so sure I wanted to be raptured, at least not before all those students received their degrees.  Can you imagine, over six thousand people suddenly flying up to the sky?  I reminded myself that Union University was not Hogwarts.  It is a Christian university. 

I looked up at the clock.  The little hand was on six, and the big hand pointed straight up at the twelve.  The university band began to play “Pomp and Ceremony.”  The graduates began to march in; all decked out in black robes and funny hats, and some with gold pins and breaded cords.

I listened for the sound of thunder, or the blast of trumpets, or a great chorus of angels in the sky singing Beethoven’s “Song of Joy” or Handel’s “Halleluiah” chorus from The Messiah.  I looked around me.  Everyone was still seated.  Everyone was looking at the stage below the big clock.  Nothing unusual happened. 

As I sat there, not knowing whether to worry or feel relieved, the president of the university stood up and walked to the microphone.  He welcomed the visitors—parents, grandparents, other relatives and friends of the graduates.  He asked that everyone turn off their cell phones and hold their applauses until the appropriate time.  Then the service began and proceeded according to schedule, just like every graduation.

The Rapture has not occurred.  We are not left behind.  There will be an end to all that is, but no one can predict the time.  C.S. Lewis once said, that when the Lord returns, we Christians should be busy doing what we were commanded to be doing, not sitting around trying to predict the time.  I agree.

Until next time, be good to all God’s creation, and always live under the mercy.

Blood of the Reich

Blood of the Reich is William Dietrich’s latest thriller.  In this first exposure to Dietrich’s list of suspense novels, I was caught from the very beginning, and I remained interested to the end.

All the elements that make up this type of thriller are present—Nazis of the worst kind, a quest for a type of lost ark (in this case the mythical land of Shambhala), a romance, and a quest to save, or destroy civilization, itself.  There is not one but several mysteries that the reader is compelled to try and solve.

I do not want to give away the plot, but I am confident that every reader will think of Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark.  No doubt Dietrich is counting on the popularity of Indiana Jones to attract readers.

The mystery shifts back and forth between Washington state and Tibet, between the present and 1938.  The relationship between the locals and the time periods is a part of the mystery that unfolds through the novel.

Part of the novel’s appeal, at least for me, is Dietrich’s use of real places to ground the story in the “real” world.  He refers to small towns and roads in Washington, his home state.  One can take out a map of Washington and follow Rominy Pickett and Jake Barrow from Seattle to Hood’s Cabin in the northern Cascades.  The little town of Concrete, population of 866, was home for my wife’s parents during the early 1950s.

Dietrich also draws upon mysteries surrounding Heinrich Himmler and the SS during the Third Reich.  It is well known that Himmler and others in the SS wished to discover the historical roots of the Aryans, whom they thought were a distinct race and forefathers of the Germans. 

Wewelsburg castle, the spiritual home of the SS planned by Himmler, is real.  Historians of the Third Reich remain unable to unlock the mysteries surrounding Wewelsburg.

 The Ahnenerbe, or The Ancestral Heritage Research and Teaching Society that plays a prominent role in Blood of the Reich, was founded in 1935 by Heinrich Himmler.  It was a “scholarly” association of academics—historians, archeologists, doctors, scientists—who shared Himmler’s obsession.  The Ahnenerbe sent out expeditions to the far corners of the world in quest of the historical roots of the Aryans.

As a history professor who has studied modern German history, these references to the mysteries surrounding Himmler and the SS added to my enjoyment of the novel.  In fact, I would encourage potential readers to take a little time to google such topics as Ahnenerbe, Wewelsburg Castle, Aryan, Heinrich Himmler, Shambhala, Lhasa, Dalai Lama—before reading Blood of the Reich.  I am confident that such a detour will only enhance the enjoyment of this novel.  If the reader is not in the mood for research, it is still a good romantic thriller.

After this introduction to William Dietrich, I am looking forward to reading his earlier thriller, Ice Reich (1998).

Lorna Graham’s Ghost Story

Take a young, charming and somewhat naïve young lady from Ohio, place her in an “affordable” apartment in Greenwich Village, and add a male ghost who is obsessed with writing a book.  This you would expect to be a winning formula for a romantic story similar to the classic novel The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1945).  At least that is what I expected. 

The Ghost of Greenwich Village (New York:  Ballantine Books, 2011) is Ms. Lorna Graham’s first novel.  She is an accomplished writer, having written for television, major newspapers and magazines.  The challenge for Ms. Graham is to make the transition from writing prose to writing fiction.  They are two very different genres. 

The idea, or plot, behind this novel is one that has promise.  However, I found it started slowly and never picked up speed.  Frankly, I felt it was rather dull. 

Perhaps what bothered me most is the ghost, Donald, who comes with the apartment.  Our principle character, Eve Weldon, cannot actually see Donald.  Neither can she hear him.  Somehow Donald communicates with Eve telepathically, that is, in her mind.  What kind of ghost is that?  I kept thinking that what Eve needed was a psychiatrist.

Eve Weldon is searching for something of the Greenwich Village experienced by her mother, who lived there during the mythical sixties.  But, even a third of the way into the story, I found nothing of what I imagine the Village to have been like during the sixties.  Although I never lived in Greenwich Village, I did experience the sixties as a college student.  Ms. Graham did not succeed in transporting me back to that era. 

I am not sure who the right audience is for The Ghost of Greenwich Village.  Perhaps people who live there will find it interesting.  As for me, I prefer rereading The Ghost and Mrs. Muir.

“The Help”: Memories Awakened by Kathryn Stockett’s Novel

I seldom read novels, but I was persuaded to pick up Kathryn Stockett’s  The Help (New York:  G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2009) and give it a go, when it was highly recommended by a friend whose opinion I trust.  Also, I lived in the South, in Lynchburg, Virginia during the 1960s, the period in which the novel is set.  I have lived the past eighteen years in the Jackson, Mississippi metro area, and taught at a private college located in the Belhaven neighborhood, also the geographic setting of the novel.

I can remember those turbulent days of the Civil Rights struggle, but from the skewed perspective of one who was, as we would say in those days, “free, white and twenty-one.”  Those were some of the “good old days” for me.  I could eat in any restaurant I could afford, which were few. I could attend a movie theater and sit wherever I wished.  Of course, there were places that even some of us “whites” could not go, unless we were of the right socio-economic class.  In Virginia it helped if you were related to one of the patriarchal families, for example, Jefferson, Lee, Byrd, or Glass.

Thomas Jefferson’s summer home, Poplar Forest, is located within the current city limits of Lynchburg.  It was a private residence during the sixties.  Today, it is a tourist attraction. 

Lynchburg was also the home of Senator Carter Glass, co-sponsor of the Glass-Owen Act (1913) that created the Federal Reserve System, and the Glass-Steagall Act (1933) that created the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.  “Mountview,” commonly referred to as the “Carter Glass Mansion,” was located just outside the city limits on a hill overlooking the Norfolk and Western railroad line.  During the years that Senator Glass served in Washington, DC, the train would make a special stop at Mountview to pick up or return the senator.

Glass bought the Lynchburg News for $13,000 in 1887.  He paid $100 down on the purchase.  Only twenty-three years old at the time, within a couple years he purchased the two competing newspapers, thus becoming the sole newspaper publisher in Lynchburg.

As I recall, the Glass family still owned the newspapers in the sixties.  The Lynchburg News appeared in the morning and the Daily Advance in the afternoon.  My older brother worked as a part-time proof reader while attending Lynchburg College.  In addition to correcting misspelled words, he told me that he was instructed to remove the courtesy titles—Mr., Mrs., and Miss—from the names of known “colored” people.

During my tenure as a student at Lynchburg College, also during the mid-sixties, I worked as a clerk in a department store downtown.  I remember an elderly lady who had a habit of shopping there.  Whenever she entered the shoe department in which I worked, I was the one who had to serve her.  No one else could stand to wait on her.

Mrs. “B,” was a cousin of Senator Harry Flood Byrd.  The “Byrd Machine” controlled politics in Virginia from the mid-1920s to the late 1960s. Mrs. B never passed up an opportunity to point out that she was related to the senator every Virginian either loved or feared.

I sort of inherited her one afternoon, when Mr. Martin, the department head, tried to fit her with a pair of shoes.  She tried on a number of pairs before finding a style she liked.  Unfortunately, we did not have her size.  Trying to explain why he could not produce the pair she wanted, Mr. Martin commented on the fact that her feet were a rather “average” size, and hence a popular size. 

Mrs. B suddenly became very angry.  “I want you to know,” she announced loudly and forcefully, “I am NOT average!” 

The customer is always right, even when the customer is wrong.  Mr. Martin remained polite, but swore that he would never wait on her again.  Henceforth, if I was working when Mrs. B came in, I had the privilege of waiting on her.

I knew how to handle her, and others like her.  Patience and a smile was my secret.  I would listen politely as she told me stories about what life was like on the plantation when she was a little girl.  Judging from the fact that she must have been in her seventies, at least, that was an era that only the planter aristocracy would look back on with nostalgia.  But I would listen, and I would smile, and she adored me for it.  I adapted to my environment as a clerk in a department store, much as a maid adapted to the domestic environment in which she worked.

I remember in particular one story Mrs. B told me of a visit from a lady “from up North.”  As Mrs. B and her husband were driving their visitor through the beautiful foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, their guest commented on a “colored lady” she noticed along the road. 

Mrs. B looked me straight in the eye.  Her face became very serious, almost scary.  “I told her,” she said shaking her finger in my face, “that is NOT a lady!  That is a N****R!”

There were, no doubt, many people like Mrs. B.  But, there were many who were not like her.  Many who grew up under segregation took it for granted as part of the natural order of society.  Many, black and white, observed the color line without animosity towards one another.  That people could be content with such an injustice is sad, but unfortunately true.

Mr. Hunt, an older gentleman who also worked part-time in the shoe department, pointed out to me the obvious contradiction in segregation.  He came from a family of ten children.  His father owned a general store in a rural area.  The store sold everything a person needed in life, and upstairs above the general store was a funeral parlor, also operated by Mr. Hunt’s father.

Mr. Hunt said that his parents kept an African-American wet nurse in the home as long as there was an infant present.  He and his siblings were raised, as he said, by “colored nannies.” How could a person who was raised by an African-American nanny and even nursed by one, Mr. Hunt asked, consider himself superior?  That is the very question Ms. Stockett explores in her novel The Help.

Ms. Stockett was born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi.  Educated at the University of Alabama, she spent nine years in New York City—a different universe compared to Jackson, Mississippi—before settling down in Atlanta.  Her novel draws heavily on her experiences growing up in Jackson during the 1970s, a time when blacks and whites were still, as Ms. Stockett recalls, “staunchly separated.”

The delicate and very complex relationship between whites and blacks is explored through the eyes and voices of three individuals,  Miss Eugenia Phelan, or “Miss Skeeter,” and two African-American maids, Aibileen and Minny.  Miss Skeeter returns to home to Jackson after graduating from the University of Mississippi in 1962.  Upon arrival home, she discovers that the beloved African-American nanny who raised her, and whom she loved, has been dismissed from service by her mother.  No one will say anything about why Constantine was dismissed, or what has become of her.

In her search for answers, Miss Sketter is forced to confront the reality of the world in which she grew up, but never really knew.  Aibileen and Minny become her guides, and friends, as she begins to see how the “other half” live.  It takes time to win the trust of the two maids and other members of the underclass of domestic servants.

As Miss Sketter’s eyes are opened, she is determined to write a book about the outwardly tranquil world of segregated bourgeois Jackson.  She wants the ladies whose lives are made comfortable by their maids to see and feel what it is like to be the ever loyal, ever quiet, ever smiling servant living a life that is a lie.   

The Help could just as easily have been set in early twentieth-century England.  A life “in service,” as the English described domestic service, was in many ways similar to a life of domestic service in the “Old South.”  The popular BBC television series “Upstairs Downstairs” (1971-1975) provided insight into the real world behind the outward glamour and pretense of Edwardian England.

Both worlds are now a part of social history, but the further we are in time from the world of formal segregation, and the fewer voices there are of those who experienced that world, the more we are in danger of viewing it in a purely nostalgic fashion.  Ms Stockett’s novel, although fiction, will help us keep a balance between life as we would like to remember it, and life as it really was during those turbulent and exciting years of the 1960s.

Until next time, be good to all God’s creation, and always live under the mercy.

For further insight into the connection between the novel and Ms. Stockett’s own life experiences, see her article “This Life:  Kathryn Stockett on her childhood in the Deep South” online at http://www.dailymail.co.uk/home/you/article-1199603/This-Life-Kathryn-Stockett-childhood-Deep-South.html

A trailer for the movie based on the novel can be found online at http://collider.com/the-help-movie-trailer/86182/

States that Almost Were, But Never Made It

Have you ever met someone who was born in the state of Absaroka, Forgottonia, or State X?  Maybe you have met someone just over the border from State X in State Y.  Where are these little known states?  Maybe a better question would be, “Where were they?”  But, that would not be entirely accurate, since they never actually existed, that is, except on some old map or in the minds of their advocates.

In Lost States:  True Stories of Texlahoma, Transylvania, and Other States that Never Made it (Philadelphia:  Quirk Books, 2010), Michael J. Trinklein has put together a most delightful book about the many interesting states that never made it to full statehood.  There were many of these might-have-been states in our nation’s history.  Some would have made perfect sense, as for example Superior (the upper peninsula of Michigan) or South California. 

South California was a proposal made in 1859, when California had a population easily calculated on one’s fingers and toes.  The advocates of this mutilation of California, led by a wealthy landowner named Andres Pico, wanted to name their state “Colorado.”  The proposal failed, but the name survived.

The course of history was not kind to these “states.”  The Gold Rush seems to have doomed the idea of dividing California.  At least in California’s case, the idea is not totally dead.  It keeps coming up again and again.  And why not?  Many residents of northern California would love to be rid of southern California and all its problems.

Trinklein devotes two colorful pages to each of what he calls the “lost states.”  One page provides a map locating the proposed state, and the other provides a brief account the history and fate of the “state.”  The book’s attractive dust jacket folds out to provide a large, antique-looking map of the continental United States of America with twenty of the lost states superimposed on the actual forty-eight.  This atlas of another, somewhat romantic, America is the perfect gift for American history buffs, or as a coffee table book.

Until next time, be good to all God’s creation, and always live under the mercy.