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What is a Classic?

I’ve posted before on the idea of what is great literature and what is not, and particularly on the tendency of some people to become gatekeepers over the distinction. I personally reject the very idea of reading lists. If people think my reading is eccentric (it is), or that I have not read certain pieces of supposedly classic literature (in many cases, they’re right), that’s fine with me.

Sam Sacks enters this debate (not with me on my tiny blog, but with the heavies) with a post Canon Fodder: Denouncing the Classics on The New Yorker site. I call attention to it because I think it’s interesting, but I also think it tends to miss the point. This is because it falls into the trap of thinking that a word must have one referent. There are at least two senses of “classic,” at least as I would use them. First, there is the classic that is so great (in my opinion), that it deserves to be read widely. Thus I will use the term “classic” of literature that might not be old enough to be considered a classic by more normal people. (The question is, which is to be master–that’s all!) The second use is illustrated by my parenthetical quote. A classic is something that has worked its way so far into the way we think about things that it would be helpful for you to have read it in order to understand your own culture. But in my view you won’t make it through any good sized list without neglecting something anyhow. So I make no apologies for leaning my literature reading a bit more to the contemporary than “true literati” would find acceptable. I’m not a “true literati.” I’m just a publisher. (Note the use of scare quotes, or in this case, perhaps, disdain quotes.)

In any case, I remain convinced that choice in reading is personal, and that you can objectively determine if literature is popular or influential, but not whether it is good or not. That’s a matter of taste. Mostly.


April 2013 Christian Carnival Posted

… at On Planting Seeds. Some good stuff here!

Can I Let Go of Sadness?

At first I really didn’t want anyone to know.

Well, that’s not quite accurate. I wanted my wife to know, but only so that she would fell less alone in her pain. But otherwise I didn’t want anyone to know.

But as I think back on that time, I have to admit that wasn’t accurate either. I didn’t mind if other people knew about the sadness. I just didn’t want them to talk about it, and even more I didn’t want them to make me talk about it.

Unlike most stories on this blog, this story is as true as I can make it, and you are free to use it in any way that will be helpful.

It was just a depressing time. A couple of weeks before, I had been watching Hurricane Ivan approach. My wife and I have a simple rule. If there’s a storm above category 1 approaching the coast near enough, we’re out of here. But our son James was in the last few weeks or even days of his life, and we couldn’t move him far enough to get away from the storm. I tried to discuss it with my wife, but she just told me she couldn’t handle one more decision. “Just tell me what we’re going to do,” she said. So I worried (a lot) and prayed (a little)–how often that’s the case when we most need the opposite!–and decided we’d go to a friend’s place that was much more hurricane-ready than ours.

After the storm we’d seen the devastation around the area. But our house was still there and even had power–partially. James wanted to be back in his house, so we moved back. Struggling with the limitations left by the storm didn’t help at all.

But James was able to be in his own house when God called him home. It is now going on 9 years, and just typing that sentence still brings tears to my eyes. I’m sitting in the same room, in reach of the place where his hospital bed was located. I can see him now.

I’ve had people tell me that it can’t be as bad for me, because James is my stepson. I hope they’re wrong. If it gets harder than this, I don’t want to experience it. I don’t even want to know about it.

For days I would regularly hear his voice somewhere else in the house, clearly enough that I would get up to go to where he was, only to suffer the shock of finding he wasn’t actually there. While I haven’t heard that voice for some time, I can still picture everything. I see the bed. I see James. I see his little dog Barnabas under the bed waiting and watching. After James died we thought we’d lose Barnabas as well. But after about two weeks, he decided he’d make do with Grandpa. I wasn’t James, but I took him for his walkies. But there would still be those moments. I’d usually walk Barnabas in the morning and as James went to school, he’d stop the car and greet his dog. For as long as Barnabas lived, he would stop on those walks and look at any cars that passed by, waiting for the right one.

I had to learn to talk about it. It wasn’t just for me. Jody and I found that when we taught about just about anything, if the subject of bereavement and loss came up at all it would take over the conversation. There were so many people suffering and wondering why. They wondered if there was something wrong with them. Shouldn’t they be joyful as Christians? But still the sadness is there.

And so I’d talk about it. How does it work? My wife and I experience this grief differently. For her, it’s Christmas, James’s birthday, and the anniversary of his death that bring back the memories. For me, I remember mostly the day in June when I called his doctor and got the results of a set of tests. They said that the cancer was back–again. James had extracted a promise that I would call him as soon as I got word, no matter what. I should confess here that he was definitely more courageous that I am, and less willing to tell himself a happy story in order to avoid the reality. Then I had the task of telling Jody. She was on a mission trip and out of reach by phone. My only option was to send an e-mail, and then spend the hours waiting for her to get it (via an unreliable dial-up connection), knowing what kind of devastation it would wreak when it arrived. June is just a bad month for me, every year.

It’s a depressing story, isn’t it? It’s also as true as I can tell it, every word.

But it isn’t the whole story. I want you to know that I don’t have a bunch of answers. I can’t tell you why James died, except for the basic science. That’s what cancer does. I don’t have a list of wonderful things that will make it OK. Oh, I do have a list of wonderful things that he accomplished in his life, and even things that were accomplished by his death. But they don’t make it OK. None of those things make me feel repaid in some way for the fact that I never got to see him march in a college marching band, or get married and raise a family, or become a professional musician.

It’s not that I can explain why. But I can say this: God is with me. God is with us. There are things we cannot understand, things we probably will never understand, but we do have hope, and we can have joy.

For every one of those times when I sit here with tears in my eyes thinking about the loss, there are many more when I remember James with joy, and celebrate him in my heart. I remember the day he’d just gotten his learner’s permit. We were headed to Panama City, Florida, a bit over a hundred miles. Jody had explained to me that it was my job to teach James to drive. She couldn’t handle the teaching. As soon as he knew he’d have his permit, he started talking to me about driving. By the time we were backing out of the driveway, he’d concluded he would just drive the first few miles. As those miles passed, he thought he could drive to the interstate. Was that OK with me? It was. We got to the ramp, and he thought he’d just try getting on the interstate. (In case you’re wondering, he was very good behind the wheel. I had high expectations and he exceeded them.) Once we were on the interstate and had gone a few miles, he figured he’d be OK until we got off the interstate again. Driving in a strange city, he told me, would probably be going too far. But then we got off the interstate and it didn’t seem so bad. He didn’t get out from behind the wheel until we were parked in our friends’ driveway.

Then there was the fact that no surface anywhere was safe. If he had drumsticks, he’d be beating rhythms with them. If there were no sticks, hands would do. You always knew you had a drummer in the house. If you suggested he should stop, he’d look shocked that anyone could mind the sound of a bit of rhythm.

I don’t think it’s a matter of letting go of the sadness. I think it’s right for me to feel loss when I remember James. He’s in a better place, but I miss him. I’m going to continue to miss him. There are the moments when the loss is as strong as the original moment.

But so is the presence, so are the memories, and so is God.

I can be sad, but also joyful. I can feel loss, but also gain. I’m in much less danger of forgetting that I’m a pilgrim and a stranger in this land, waiting for my true home.

As Christians, we don’t need to forget. We don’t need to deny. We need to keep everything in perspective. Consider the incarnation. Jesus is fully human. He experienced our sorrows and suffering. But Jesus is also fully divine, capable of lifting us above. We can’t forget either one. We can’t let one take over for the other (Hebrews 2:9-18, 4:14-16, 7:26-28).

We don’t need to deny. We don’t need to forget. But we also don’t have to let the sadness rule our lives. We have the means of living with and living through.

We can rejoice!

(This story was written for and submitted to the one word at a time blog carnival – sadness.)

Christian Carnival Time

At Learning {one day at a time}. Check it out for links from around the Christian blogosphere over the last month.

Next Christian Carnival

February’s Christian Carnival will be at Learning {one day at a time}.  The carnival will post on or soon after February 6, 2013.  Submit your favorite post published within the last month using this form on our blog by Tuesday night.

We Have Always Failed

“It’s very simple. We need to ask for surrender terms,” said the deputy commander of the city militia of Qenixtlan. His words fell clearly on the silence in the conference room. “The reason is also simple. The fact is that the Grand Empire’s army always succeeds. They win every battle. But we always fail. We have never won a single battle.

Copyright © 2013 Henry E. Neufeld
This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to any person, place, thing, or event in the real world is purely coincidental.

The commander looked around the room. He saw the failure on every face. Nobody believed that there was any reason to fight. No matter how horrible the stories were of how the Grand Empire of the Sun treated conquered peoples, there was not one person who was willing to take the risk resistance. However badly they might be treated if they surrendered, it would be much worse if they resisted and lost. And in their minds, they had already failed.

And he knew that they were right, at least about the history of failure. Their city had been conquered four times in the previous century. Their militia had proven quite capable of arresting thieves and rounding up juvenile delinquents. Every time they met a foreign army in battle, however, they lost. The only reason they were independent right now was that their last conqueror had simply collapsed about a decade ago.

He looked around the room, and he knew he couldn’t fight it. Not today, in any case. “Very well, then,” he said. “You are dismissed. The militia is disbanded.” He stood up and walked out the door without meeting anyone’s eyes.

It took a several minutes for the shocked men to leave the room. They were stunned. Everyone would complain. It was expected. Nobody actually believed they would succeed. Why should they? It was true that they had never won a single battle against a foreign invader. They had a truly unbroken record of failure. But there was a tradition to uphold. The commander was supposed to lecture them. He was supposed to exhort them. He was supposed to raise their morale by telling them they could succeed. They wouldn’t believe it. Likely he wouldn’t believe it either, but they would all pretend. Then when the enemy attacked, they would stand for a few minutes for form’s sake before they dropped their weapons and raised their arms over their head.

The word spread through the city. Some people started collecting a few possessions and loading them into carts so they could escape the city before the enemy arrived. The king wanted to call the commander in to ask him what he thought he was doing. What negotiating platform would he have if he didn’t even have a militia? There would be no reason for the invader to offer the city any kind of favorable treatment when they could simply march in. But the commander could not be found.

The next morning people were shocked to see recruiting posters all over town. They were signed by the commander and they read: “All those who are willing to resist the invader should report to a point one kilometer north of the city at the old fortress at noon today. Only those prepared to fight should report. We will form the Regional Defense Militia.”

It was signed by the missing commander.

Men looked at one another. Everyone was hoping that his neighbor wasn’t going to go meet north of the city. Then some of the younger men grabbed whatever weapons they had and headed north. Soon some of the older men, shamed by the action of the younger men, headed north as well. By noon, there was quite a crowd at the fort. Almost all of the same men who had been in that comfortable conference room were there. Even the deputy commander had showed up.

Somehow those who were used to being leaders found themselves inside the courtyard. It wasn’t comfortable like the conference room downtown. It wasn’t in all that good of repair. Since the fort was only intended to help resist invaders, nobody paid much attention to it. After all, nobody had successfully resisted an invader in living memory.

The commander raised his hand. Amazingly, silence fell in the room, though there was still quite a bit of noise coming from outside where the crowd had gathered.

“We are the Regional Defense Militia,” he said. “We just came into existence. We will send messengers to all the towns, villages, and farms within a week’s travel and invite them to join us in fighting the enemy. And fight we will. We will stand. We will not surrender. We are the Regional Defense Militia of Qenixtlan, and we will win, because we have never failed.”

The entire group broke into cheers. They didn’t know why, but they even believed it.

But the commander knew. He knew these men knew how to fight. He knew they were willing to die, if necessary. But they had known—not believed, but known—they were going to fail.

And that is why the southern border of the Grand Empire of the Sun is located just to the north of Qenixtlan. Three times they have sent their armies to take the city, and three times they have lost.

The commander will tell you this is because for the first time, they have encountered an army that has never failed, never lost a single battle.

(See Ephesians 6:13, or perhaps 6:10-20.)

(This story was written for and submitted to the One Word at a Time Blog Carnival – Failures.)

What Honor Demands

When 16-year-old Winifred determined that she was pregnant, she knew she had to take action immediately. It would not be long until her mother would start asking questions. Her mother, in turn, would doubtless tell either Winifred’s father, or her maternal grandfather, depending on how angry she was. If she was really angry, she’d tell both. In any of these cases, the consequences did not bear contemplation.

So Winifred packed a small bag and exited the house through her own bedroom window. Her mother was not the sort of person who could imagine exiting any building through a window, so Winifred was relatively certain this was safe.

She made her way to the home of the Keretian commercial representative.

This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance of characters, places, and events to those in the real world is coincidental.
Copyright © 2013
Henry E. Neufeld

To understand her decision, one must have some understanding of her home town, the small seaport of Aroqra. Despite having a relatively good seaport near several major shipping lanes, Aroqra was a poor town. It was multicultural, not in the sense of having developed a diverse mix of thriving cultures, but in the sense of having collected the remnants of many cultures. Specifically, those who were unable to leave for some reason.

Aroqra could, by the very optimistic, be called a city-state. At the moment it was ruled by someone who styled himself the sultan, though less than a decade earlier, it had been ruled by a king, and before that by a mayor. Few remembered any further back than that. It mattered very little to the inhabitants. The same man had been chief of police through all those changes of government, and he and his people enforced a sort of consensus law as best they could. The mayor, king, or sultan could decree, but the police enforced, and they enforced what they thought they could get by with enforcing. What they couldn’t manage to solve in this way, they let people solve for themselves.

The Keretians were primarily a seagoing people, with widespread commercial interests. They preferred to establish commercial representatives, who served as their ambassadors, wherever they could. In general, they expected these to be treated as embassies, unless they could manage to arrange extraterritorial rights for their citizens. In the case of Aroqra, they had simply stacked silver coins in front of the sultan until he guaranteed them their extraterritorial rights.

But to get back to the world as Winifred knew it, the Keretian ambassador had a son, also 16 years old, who had become quite popular in the community. His name was Malkish, and it was to him, not the building, that Winifred ran.

Malkish hid Winifred in one of the unused rooms of his father’s rather large home. It should be noted that this home was also his father’s place of business, and that it was surrounded by a substantial wall and guarded by armed guards. None of these guards paid any attention to the activities of the teenagers, however.

However long it might have taken Winifred’s mother, Marga, to discover that her daughter was pregnant had the girl stayed home, it took practically no time at all for her to come to that conclusion when she discovered the girl had run away. It took very little time after that for her to discover where Winifred had gone. Winifred was sneaky enough to climb out the window, but not sneaky enough to avoid the many witnesses who had seen her walk from her home to Malkish’s home.

And thus began the trouble …

“Our daughter is pregnant,” Marga said to her husband.

“Pregnant?!” he yelled. “Impossible!”

“Nonetheless it is so.”

“You have failed in your duty as a mother! You should have prevented this.” He would have struck his wife, but he restrained himself. After all, she could enter any room while he slept and she cooked his food.

“It is you,” she said, “who permits her to roam the town. What did you think would happen?” He was unhappy to be reminded of this, but it was true that he was very indulgent of his daughter.

Winifred’s father thought throughout the afternoon. Finally he decided that he would have to take a little trip into the countryside to the west, a trip from which Winifred would not return.

“Honor demands that this stain be erased,” he told his wife.

She had expected precisely this result.

“Bring her to me!” he demanded.

When he found out that Winifred was not available, he was furious. He went out and told his relatives who told their relatives. By the next morning, there was a crowd gathered in front of the Keretian commercial representative’s building.

Yarub, the representative, could not understand what the problem was. The crowd was demanding that he bring out a girl he’d never heard of. He asked his staff, but nobody knew. He asked his guards, and finally someone said that Malkish had brought a young woman into the compound the day before, but that wasn’t particularly unusual, was it?

So Yarub called for Malkish, who admitted that he had hidden the girl in the compound.

“She has sought refuge here,” said Malkish. “Doesn’t honor demand that we protect her?”

Yarub couldn’t see any reason why honor would demand that he protect a random girl, but then he thought of one circumstance in which it would. If Malkish was the father of this pregnant girl’s child, then honor would demand that he protect them both. Keretians were very protective of their offspring, even if they had not been conceived after the wedding.

Yarub allowed Winifred’s father to come into the compound to talk.

“Honor demands that my daughter be given to me, so she can pay for the disgrace she has brought on our family,” said the angry father. He didn’t specify just how the girl would pay.

“But she is carrying my son’s child,” said Yarub. “Honor demands that I protect her and my grandchild!”

One of the guards whispered to Yarub. “What?” he asked. “This man would kill his daughter!”

“I didn’t say that,” muttered Winifred’s father.

“But you didn’t deny it either. That’s what you mean, ‘pay’. You mean to kill her, and my grandchild at the same time! I will not allow her to leave this compound! You will leave immediately!”

“You are a dishonorable man! Who are you to stand between me and my daughter!”

But the guards threw the angry father out of the gate. The crowd continued to yell and occasionally throw rocks, but there was little they could do other than block the entrance.

Marga also told her father what had happened, and explained how her husband was going to kill her daughter if he could, because honor demanded it.

But Marga’s clan did not have the same custom’s as her husband’s.

“Honor demands that we kill the man who has defiled my grandaughter,” said Marga’s father.

Soon there were two competing crowds in front of the Keretian commercial building, one demanding that Winifred be sent out to them, and the other than Malkish be sent out. From time to time, men from the competing groups would get into fights.

Jeloran was a captain in the city police. In fact, his task was criminal investigation. And despite the fact that he had no tools or training, and was paid very little, he took his job seriously.

For some time he observed the groups gathered in from of the Keretian commercial building. He heard the crowds yelling at each other about honor and what it demanded. Perhaps, he thought, honor demands that someone find out exactly what has happened here!

So he started asking around. Very quickly he discovered that Winifred was not known to be regularly in Malkish’s company. Like most of the young people of the town, she hung around the group that hung around him. He was rich, he was flamboyant, he was exotic, and the young people did that. But Winifred was not especially closely connected to him.

He kept asking, and finally he discovered that there was a young man, from the wrong side of town (there were lots of wrong sides in Aroqra). He contrived to corner the young man out of sight of any of the contenders. This was easy to do, as the contenders were all gathered at the gate to the Keretian compound.

“Pregnant?” said the young man. “How could she be pregnant?”

“The usual way,” snapped Jeloran. Surely the young man knew how babies were made.

“We played around,” said the boy, “but we didn’t go all the way. I swear it! But if she is in trouble, she can come home with me.”

Jeloran thought about that for a moment. It would never do! The people who were now outside the Keretians’ gate would burn this poor kid’s house down around him in a moment.

“Don’t tell anybody what I’ve said. I’ll see to it she’s alright. But things will go very badly if you say anything. Understand?”

The kid understood.

Jeloran went and found a healer, and they both went back to the Keretian compound. They made it through the crowd because Jeloran listed so sympathetically to the demands of both sides that he bring Winifred and/or Malkish out with him. Instead, Jeloran went to Yarub’s office.

“I would like to see Malkish and Winifred,” he said.

“I am not going to let any of you barbarians kill my grandchild!” said Yarub. “Honor demands that I protect both the child and its mother!”

“Are you sure there is a grandchild?” asked Jeloran.

“What do you mean?”

“Are you sure the girl Winifred is pregnant?”

“My son said she was. Why would he say that if it wasn’t true?”

“What if he just took her word for it? What if he even knew he couldn’t be the father?”

Yarub sat there silently. “He always did have a soft heart,” he said finally. Then he called both of the young people to his office.

When Winifred saw the healer she tried to run. The healer just said, “What do you think I’m going to do to you, girl?”

“I don’t know!” said Winifred.

“Are you actually pregnant?”

“No. I thought I was. I was late. I now know I’m not.”

“Could you have been the father?” Yarub asked Malkish.

“No, father, but honor demanded …”

“Yes, I know. Honor. Everyone is talking about honor.” He turned to Jeloran. “What can we do? Everyone wants to kill someone.”

“Oh, I think this can all be solved, if you’re willing to spend what will be, for you, a small sum of money. The healer hear will confirm that the girl is not pregnant. There’s no way he can really be sure at this early stage, but the people out there believe he can. He’ll want his bill paid, by the way. Then your son will swear that he did not have sex with the girl at any time. If the two men, the girls father and her maternal grandfather are satisfied, then the crowds will disperse. Then you offer her a job that requires that she go elsewhere for training.”

“In my experience, men around here are not anxious for their daughters to get jobs,” said Yarub.

“That is quite true, but in this case, they are going to have problems marrying this girl off to anyone after this. There will always be a taint. Her father will accept that she’s innocent, because he never really wanted to kill her in the first place. But everyone else will have doubts. But you’ll need to offer a bit of money to keep the father happy.”

“It seems I’m paying a lot for a girl who is not my son’s girlfriend,” he said, looking pointedly at Malkish.

“But,” said Jeloran before the boy could speak, “you’ll end the disturbance at your gates, and you’ll have several people in your debt.”

“True,” said Yarub.

And so it happened that Winifred was recruited for a job in a distant land, and her father gave her permission to accept.

After all the negotiations were complete, Jeloran had one more task to complete. He called Yarub aside.

“There’s a young man,” he said, “who is actually Winifred’s boyfriend. I’m wondering if you could do something for him.”

“And why would I do that?”

“Might I suggest that my honor demands that I do something for him, to reward him for honestly answering the question that led me to the solution to all of this.”

“That’s your honor, not mine.”

“But would it not, perhaps, be helpful for you to have the chief investigator of the city police in your debt as well, a debt of honor? I take my honor very seriously.”

“Oh, I see,” said Yarub. And he did.

(This post was written for and submitted to the One Word at a Time Blog Carnival – Honor.)


Due Honor to Those to Whom It Is Due When It Is Due

“You have to pay your dues,” said the professor. “You must give due honor to the people to whom it is due when it is due. Honor comes only after due time spent in study as a leaner, and a duly humble one at that. Just as the dew falls on the ground, this is what the student must do.”

The professor thought himself a rather clever man with words. In fact, he was a professor of military science, and wasn’t nearly as clever as he thought. But he was still the professor, and today he was lecturing a student, though one he expected to soon be an ex-student. Ex-student, he would point out, as though his students would miss it, is very different from graduate. An ex-student is just someone who pretended to learn, but failed to do so. A graduate is due honor and respect. Less honor and respect than his teacher, but nonetheless honor and respect.

This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance of characters, places, and events to those in the real world is coincidental.
Copyright © 2012
Henry E. Neufeld

“Now you, Schultweiss, you are not a good student. The only thing due you is a dismissal from this university. You will never amount to anything. You will never be a great tactician or strategist. You will never be cited by other scholars when they research military history or other topics.” To the professor, honor was measured in how often one’s works were cited by other scholars.

Armand Schultweiss only half listened to this lecture. He’d tried to argue earlier when the professor told him that his ideas about maneuverability were really quite wrong, but the professor cut him off. Nobody had ever operated in that way before. It wouldn’t work. Where were his citations? He wrote entire pages of his thesis without any footnotes at all! Did he think one of his youth and lack of credentials was capable of having his own thoughts, thoughts not rooted in and nurtured by the authorities?

And then, after making his final clever speech, he dismissed Armand. Four years of hard study wasted. No degree meant no recommendations. No recommendations meant nobody was going to hire him for their guard. He could try to enlist in the army, but his career potential as a commoner would be limited.

***** 25 years later *****

General Armand Schultweiss watched as his opposite number and staff marched stiffly into his command tent. It was a reversal of historic proportions. He had come into this battle outnumbered  two to one, with troops that were considered less well-trained. (It should be noted that Schultweiss disagreed with this assessment of his troops.) He commanded the forces of the tiny new Republic of Zeeland, formerly the province of Zeeland, against the forces of the Ardenean Empire, at least those available in the local area.

But then Schultweiss noticed one man in the opposing delegation. It was the professor, serving as an adviser to his opponent. The professor showed no sign of recognizing Schultweiss. In fact, he showed no sign throughout the surrender ceremony.

But before closing the ceremony, he turned and asked, “Professor, what are you doing here?”

The professor was startled. He was not surprised that he had been recognized as a professor. Every well-educated military officer should know his name and should have read his books and papers. What surprised him was the question. If his services were available, why would he not be employed on a general’s staff? He was the foremost expert!

“Why would I not be here?” asked the professor.

“After you expelled me from the university, I checked your record. You have never before served on a military staff, nor were you ever a soldier or an officer. Isn’t this the first time you’ve served on any officer’s staff?”

“Well, yes. It seemed to me that since I’ve retired from teaching it was due time that I put some of my knowledge into practice.”

“And would you say that your advice was appreciated?”

“Oh yes! The general relied heavily on my knowledge, especially of military history.”

“So you would say that the battle plan used by the imperial forces was yours?”

“You could say that.” The professor seemed oblivious to the situation. He was proud of his plan and the fact that it had been adopted.

“A long time ago you said to me: ‘You have to pay your dues. You must give due honor to the people to whom it is due when it is due.’ That was right before you expelled me. Do you remember that?”

“I said that to many upstart students, students who failed to give their professor and their betters the respect they were due.”

“I’m just wondering, professor, how much honor is due a battle plan, or the person who crafted it, when that battle plan fails as miserably as your plan has today.”

The professor looked stunned. It was at least a full minute before he spoke. “I can see why I expelled you. You have no respect for your betters. My battle plan was perfection itself. It took into account all the established principles of strategy. It took account of all the historical factors.”

“But you lost,” said the general.

The look on the professor’s face was genuinely puzzled. “I’ll tell you what I think,” said General Schultweiss. When he saw that the professor was about to speak, he continued quickly. “I think that very little respect is due to a battle plan that fails. I think little honor is due to a professor whose first experience of battle came after he retired, in a battle which he lost. But I’m thankful to you, professor. If so many of the empire’s officers had not been trained under you, I would probably have lost this battle.”

Then General Schultweiss laughed. The delegation that had just surrendered were first astonished, then furious at this treatment. Even a surrendering general and his staff were due respect. “Actually, professor,” the general concluded, “the Republic of Zeeland thanks you for its independence!”

And he turned and left.

(This story was written for and submitted to the One Word at a Time Blog Carnival – Due.)

How Scrooge Got It All Wrong

Scrooge really doesn’t get it, someone thought. Perhaps he needs a little shove.

It was a fine Christmas Eve, and Ebenezer Scrooge was at home eating his supper. He had done well that day. Corn sold at above the market rate. Debts collected from people who couldn’t afford it. He’d put Bob Cratchit in his place, and he’d get that much more work from him in the coming year because of it. The collectors for charity had been sent packing. Everyone would know that Scrooge meant business, so those with business on their minds would come to Scrooge and Marley. That meant success!

He heard a loud thump on the doorstep. Then there was a rattle. Some clinks. The first could be an accident. The second might still have nothing to do with him. But the third convinced him there was someone at his door, and at this time of night that could only be a thief, though why a thief would make so much noise escaped him.

He grabbed his walking stick and went to the door. He was about to open in when there was another rattle, and then a clunk. (The distinction between a “clink” and a “clunk” is esoteric, but worth investigating.) There was something wrong here. He bent down to look out through the keyhole, but before his eye adjusted to the darkness something slammed into his head and he fell over backwards.

He recovered from that undignified position only to see a largish man. He was decorated with chains of gold and silver. He had two large chests encrusted with gemstones. Scrooge was wondering how heavy they were when the man set one down on a floor. Clunk! Now that was a real clunk.

“Who are you?” asked Scrooge.

“I am Jacob Marley, your late business partner,” replied the man. Scrooge hadn’t noticed until now that the man didn’t appear quite solid. Not wispy like a cloud, but just not entirely there, you  know.

“You do resemble my partner, but what are you doing here?”

“I came to give you some advice.”

“It looks like you might need some advice yourself. Perhaps someone to help carry those chests.”

“Oh, no! I wouldn’t give these to anyone else for the world!”

“But if you’re dead, you’re a spirit. Does a spirit have use for any of those things?”

“Well …” Marley paused briefly and awkwardly. “We don’t actually use them here, but they’re a sign of status. I have very high status in the spirit world.”

“But you don’t use them?” asked Scrooge.

“Status is important,” replied Marley. “And besides. You have every bit as much, or even more, than I have. What good does it do you?”

“I can spend my money. I can invest it and make more!”

“But here you are in a dimly lit room. You don’t want to waste candles. That food you’re eating isn’t that much better than what the poor eat, and your clothes, while not exactly worn and ratty are not excessively fine or comfortable. In fact, other than making more money, I don’t see how you use yours any better than I do mine.”

“I see.” Scrooge paused thoughtfully. “So what was your advice?”

“You really don’t get the possibilities of Christmas.”

“Bah, humbug! Not you too on this Christmas thing. I don’t intend to waste my money making people merry on Christmas!”

“Ah, but you do like making money, do you not?”

“I do.”

“I thought so. And it is well that you do. You will have high status when you reach the spirit realm. You will have even more to carry around than I do!” Marley looked enviously at his partner.

“So how can Christmas make me money?”

“Finally!” said Marley. “You are asking the right question. How can you make money indeed! But that is not for me to tell you. You will be visited tonight by three spirits. They will advise you. Listen well! May you be honored with a heavy load!”

“But what if I don’t want a heavy load?” asked Scrooge, but Marley was slowly fading away.

As the clock struck one in the morning, Scrooge heard a whisper of a breeze run through his bedroom. He would have missed it if he hadn’t been awake worrying about the appearance of the spirits. A man appeared in the room dressed much like Scrooge himself would dress for business.

“Who are you?” asked Scrooge.

“I am the ghost of Christmas past. Or let’s just make it this past Christmas. That’s far enough to go.”

“So what do you do?”

“I show you your past mistakes. Like this!”

There was a whooshing sound, and Scrooge saw various colors and objects he couldn’t identify fly past him. Suddenly he was standing in front of a poulterer’s stand and he recognized himself talking to the owner. The stand was decorated with Christmas candles, quite an innovation on this street, and the owner wanted a loan. He remembered the incident. The owner had requested a loan and he had refused on the grounds that he was wasting money on the decorations. How could he be a sound investment with all that waste?

The owner argued that more people saw his stand and would buy from him with the decorations. He argued that it wasn’t a waste.

“Christmas is for idle people!” exclaimed Scrooge, refusing the loan.

“Stupid, stupid man!” said the spirit. “Big mistake!”

“But he went out of business within the month!”

“Because he couldn’t get a loan. Let me show you what would have happened if you had loaned him money.”

The scene shifted. Scrooge watched as more and more people went to that poulterer’s stand. By the time the next Christmas came around, he had a storefront rather than a stand. The moving scene slowed and stopped.

“He would have repaid that loan and borrowed from you twice more during the same year, and paid you back on time and with full interest. But you didn’t get it because you were upset about decorations.”

“But decorations are frivolous! They have nothing to do with making money!”

“People buy things. People like decorations. It’s all in how you look at it—or how you present it!”

And with that Scrooge found himself back in his own bedroom. It looked pretty drab to him for just a moment.

And suddenly he was awakened by a gong. It sounded like a very loud alarm clock. The spirit—he knew that’s who it was immediately this time—was a young flashily dressed man. Scrooge knew some younger men of business who would dress this way. He thought them frivolous. He was sure they would eventually fail at business.

The spirit wasted no time. “I’m the spirit of Christmas present. That’s today. Right now. Let’s go.”

And Scrooge found himself on the floor of the exchange where he was negotiating the price of corn.

“You think that was a good piece of business, don’t you?”

“Indeed I do!”

“Wrong! Bad idea! Very bad idea!”

“But I got an excellent price for that corn!”

“And later this year someone will show up and undercut you, and then what will you do?”

“There will always be someone who needs some corn.”

“But you could keep these folks as customers as well.”

“How would I do that?”

“You offer them a Christmas discount.”

“And give away money?”

“You are such a straightforward sort of villain! No, first you raise the price, explaining that you then give them a Christmas discount. You tie the discount to a longer term contract. Or, alternatively, you offer them credit, and make up the difference in the interest. Cornering them on one deal was good. Getting them tied to you as permanent customers who can’t afford to get away. That’s priceless! Christmas has countless commercial possibilities!”

But again the spirit took him by the arm and he found himself watching the Christmas party at his nephew’s house.

“Idleness! Waste!” he muttered.

“But such valuable idleness!” said the spirit.


“You see the drinks? Add up the price in your head. The meat? Bread? New clothes to show off at the party?”

Scrooge’s face fell as he added up the total of the waste.

“Why does your face fall?”

“It’s the waste!”

“But all of that money went to business in this community, and several of those businesses owe you money. In fact, you could get someone like your nephew to help you. He could talk about Christmas to all his friends, while you invest in the business that provide the necessities for celebrating Christmas right.”

“But my nephew really believes in all this. He would never do it to help me make money.”

“He wouldn’t really have to know. He encourages people to ‘keep Christmas right’ and you make money on it. Soon people think that if they don’t have a large enough goose for Christmas dinner, they’re not good people.”

“So I tell them to buy more stuff?”

“You don’t understand. You need to encourage people to have parties. They buy stuff for the parties. That puts money in your pocket. I know you envied the wealth your late partner carries in the next world, and you will have much more. But you could double, triple, or even quadruple that amount!

“About that,” said Scrooge, “I still don’t get what that money does for a spirit in the next world.”

“It makes you wealthy!” said the spirit. And he deposited Scrooge back in his bedroom.

Scrooge never really heard the clock strike three. He was overwhelmed by the sound of a large crowd. People were yelling and shoving one another. They kept running into one another in the aisles. Yes, those were aisles, with merchandise on all sides. He had never even imagined anything the size of this store, for a store it obviously was. At the front there were lines of people waiting to pay for things that they had piled up in little push carts. The lights were not candles, but Scrooge couldn’t identify them.

“Where am I?” asked Scrooge.

The spirit was a woman in some type of uniform with her name on a tag. The tag read “Ghost of Christmas Future.” She looked businesslike and efficient.

“You are in the future of Christmas,” she said.

“The future of Christmas? What does this have to do with Christmas?”

“This is what will happen if you will just follow the advice the spirits have given you.”

She led Scrooge up to the counters where people were, he thought, paying for their goods. He watched as they passed little cards through a machine of some time.

“Where is the money?” he asked.

“Those little cards pass the money through the machine. In fact, most of them are borrowing money to pay for their Christmas shopping. The card automatically borrows it for them.”

“Lending money to buy Christmas presents? Somebody must be insane! You borrow money to buy goods to sell. You borrow money to build buildings. You borrow money to create a business. You don’t borrow money to buy Christmas presents. You would be ruined!”

“Ah, but the people lending the money are doing very well. They make large amounts of money on the borrowers. These people will be paying the bankers for the next year, and maybe the next and the next.”

“But many of them won’t be able to pay the money back and the bankers will lose.”

“But there are increased interest rates, fees for late payments, fees for borrowing more than your limit …”

“Borrowing more than your limit? How is it a limit if you can borrow more than that?”

“The limit is flexible. But if you go over, there’s a monthly fee. Then the payment every month is very small, so once you add up the fees and the interest rates, your balance may actually increase every month even when you’re not buying anything.”

“But then you would never get paid back.”

“But that doesn’t matter. Eventually you can make more money in fees and interest than you loaned in the first place. Then if the people can’t pay, you sell your loan to debt collectors and let them pursue the people for the money. You only get a few cents on the dollar, but since they may now owe you thousands when they only borrowed hundreds, you don’t care.”

“But what happens if people start to realize what’s going on and quit borrowing, or they all fail to pay and end up in debtor’s prison. What do you do then?”

“Well, we don’t have debtor’s prison any more, but I get your point. It can all collapse when people start to get worried about how much they owe. But what you do is prepare a golden parachute for yourself.”

“What’s a golden parachute?”

“A golden parachute guarantees that while your business goes bankrupt, you yourself get paid a large sum of money and can continue to live comfortably and even start a new business.”

“How … No, I don’t think I want to know. I’ve been such an amateur at business!”

When Scrooge woke up in the morning he called a boy to go and get the biggest goose from the poulterer. He paid him an extra shilling, explaining that it was Christmas. He sent it to his nephew with a note.

“My dear nephew,” it said. “I want to make sure you make the right impression with your Christmas feast. I think you know how to keep Christmas. Stop by the store tomorrow. I have a proposition for you.”

From now on, thought Scrooge, I’ll keep Christmas right!

Of Special Units of Measure

Seeing the word “dab” for the One Day at a Time blog carnival brought back memories of my mother’s cooking. Yes, this is another non-fiction entry. I just can’t resist.

My mother is a pretty good cook, at least if you like food for the health-conscious. If you’re into extremely sweet or very low fiber, perhaps not so much. But amongst our friends when I was younger, her food brought many compliments.

My parents believed in hospitality, and would frequently invite visitors home for lunch after church. If there was a pot-luck meal, we’d always be there with the appropriate dish prepared.

With the compliments would come the inevitable request for the recipe. But my mother doesn’t really cook with precise recipes. Rather than things measured in cups, teaspoons, drops, or any such precise quantities, we would take “some” water, add a “dump” of flour, perhaps a pinch or two of salt, a splash of oil, and so forth. Then one might put a “dab” or two of oil in the bread pan before using it for cooking. Of course I’ve skipped ingredients and much processing, but you get the idea.

I never really could get the idea, and neither could most other people. A “dump” doesn’t remain the same size. Four loaves of bread take a larger dump of flour, not to mention that “some” water changes in quantity. Mom could always get it in proportions, but it was very difficult to provide a recipe to those who requested one. She’d sometimes write one out, trying to figure out the proportions in “real” measures as best she could.

To this day I can’t cook that way, even though I had to learn how to cook a number of different dishes, not to mention learning how to bake bread when I was younger. I need a detailed recipe. If the recipe happens to skip a step, no matter how obvious, it doesn’t happen.

I was comparing this to giving instructions regarding how to do some process on a computer, something I find easy. My wife is less “loose” about her cooking than my mom is, but she still has a tendency to cook something until it’s done, rather than for 11 1/2 minutes. I set the timer to the second. She was telling me that I should know how to cook pasta by now and be able to tell when it’s finished. I asked her how long it had been on the stove. Then I pointed out that she likes her computer instructions to be very precise, probably for the same reason as I like my cooking directions detailed. Neither of us is comfortable in the other one’s natural space.

So perhaps the special unit of measure we all need is several dabs of understanding. When you know what you’re doing and you’re comfortable with the equipment and the process, less precise units work just fine. But when you don’t really understand the process, the only option is to get—and follow—precise directions.

(This story was written for and submitted to the one word at a time blog carnival, dab.)