Advent Letter: Year 2, Letter #2

Note: This is part 6 of me and my brother’s Advent Letters project.  If you missed last week’s letter, read it here.  For an explanation of the project and to get caught up on last year’s letters, click here.

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Matt and Jer chased down the street after Brian. But a team of penguins with hockey sticks over their shoulders wedged between them. Jer got pushed to the right, down an alley toward a red-tile court. A group of elves and gnomes was playing some kind of game with paddles, passing a ball back and forth before slamming it over a net.

 Seeing an unused paddle and ball, Jer got an idea. He could whack the ball at the fairies to scare them into dropping Bri. Hopefully somewhere soft. He grabbed the paddle. But when he did, it rumbled. Tiny gears whirled and smoke puffed from the top of the paddle. Before he could drop it,brass wires looped around his hand down his arm. Motors grinding, it dragged Jer onto the red tiles as the players argued over whose team he was on. Whatever this game was, Jer was playing.

On the left side of the street, Matt sidestepped his way through the crowd while keeping his eyes toward Brian. He bumped into something that dropped him to the ground. That something was big, but slightly squishy.And fuzzy. Looking up, a curtain of white fur ran to a dark snout filled with teeth. A polar bear. In the middle of the street. And it reached a dinner-plate sized paw toward Matt.

If Matt had been paying attention, he would have noticed a whistle around the bear’s neck, and a “Stop” sign in its other paw. But he was too scared to do anything but scamper to his feet and tense his muscles.

So when the bear asked, “Are you okay, young man?” Matt screamed and ran, not stopping to wonder how a bear just spoke to him. He dodged along snowy side streets, ducking past elves and hopping over raccoons until he was safely on the other side of a mossy-stone bridge.

Catching his breath, Matt noticed a glittering overhead.Brian and the fairies. Before he could start after him, something else stepped in front of him. A reindeer this time. Still jumpy from the polar bear, Matt backed away with his arms in the air. But instead of talking,1 the reindeer pawed the cobblestone, and gestured its snout toward Brian. Matt’s stomach dropped. The reindeer was offering to carry him up to Brian. Matt stuttered, but the reindeer cut him off with a growl. Too shocked to do anything else, Matt climbed on its back. Before he could even get his arms around its neck the reindeer sprang into the air.

If the reindeer had simply flown straight, everything would have been fine. But unbeknownst to Matt, reindeer have a penchant for hotdogging–especially when they have a rider to impress. Matt was soon spinning and barrel-rolling his way to Brian.

Matt’s arms and legs viced against the reindeer to stay aboard. Like Brian, he was too scared to scream. Despite all this, Brian was soon within reach. Ever so carefully, Matt reached out his hand. But at that moment, the reindeer did a twirl in the opposite direction, sending Matt flying into the air. Flailing, Matt clung onto Bri’s ankle. The added weight caused the fairies to lose their grip, and both boys dropped from the sky.

While all this was happening, Jer’s game of römmeljebållen had reached match point. The opposing gnome whackers set the ball as Jer jostled with an elf skirmisher along the net. But when Jer reached to block the shot, the ball pelted him in the forehead before careening out of reach. The other team cheered. Jer’s team groaned, and lined up along the net while the other team all grabbed balls with a triumphant gleam in their eyes.

Jer did not want to see what happened next. He also noticed that the paddle’s wires had finally unwound from his hand. He threw the paddle down and ran, ignoring the cries of shame from the players. But before he made it five steps, Jer turned at a loud buzzing behind him. The paddle was chasing him and, with a looping arc, whacked him in the rear. Then it looped around and whacked him again. And again.

While the paddle chased Jer through the city, he noticed Bri and Matt fall through the air, and land in a snowbank with a powdery poof. Seeing his chance to escape the paddle, Jer sprinted toward the snowbank with all his might, diving in head first.

For a moment, the brothers sprawled in the snow and panted.Eventually, they started laughing. They were about to swap adventure stories when a shadow fell over them.

It was an elf. Dressed in his Christmas finery, he had a sharp nose, pointy ears, and  a distinguished, handsome face. He carried a giant ledger and quill pen. His name was Erno.2

“Who, may I ask, are you?” Erno’s voice was crisp.

Before the boys could answer, Kanute bounded toward them. “They’re with me.”

“Human children at the North Pole? Highly irregular.” Erno said.

“I didn’t have a choice. They captured me and used their wish to come here.”

Erno sighed. “Just tell me you got the Heart of the North.” Kanute played with his beard, and Erno’s face slowly turned. “What happened?”

“It landed at these boys’ house. By the time I got there,they’d brought it into their yard where it was . . .” Kanute gulped. The boys ducked their faces behind the snow bank. “Taken by a troll.”

Erno’s face was ashen. “This is horrible. Awful.Catastrophic. I shall tell Santa Claus immediately.” The boys, now frozen and miserable, hoped the elf would forget about them. Instead, he turned and stared.

“Did you boys touch the Heart of the North?”

They nodded.

“And when you did this, did you have in your hearts feelings of greed, avarice, or other twisted desires?” The boys’ squirming was all the answer Erno needed. “Show me your palms. Come now, be quick about it.”

The boys complied , and Erno gasped.

“How could you bring them here, Kanute?”

“I didn’t think to–I mean, with the jewel gone and the wish it slipped my mind that . . .”

“What is it?” Jer asked, and looked down at his and his brothers’ hands. On their palms, fainter than a faded bruise, was a circular pattern. It looked almost like a wreath or weeds.

Erno’s voice was heavy. “You boys have the Mark.”

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1  While other North Pole creatures (such as raccoons, penguins, seals, foxes, and mice) have the ability to reason, only Polar Bears are capable of human speech. This, of course, is because the Saami hunter Juho taught them to speak around the time of the North Pole’s founding. But that’s a tale for another day…

2  Yes, that’s me! And sorry for the “distinguished, handsome face” line. I know that’s the sort of thing you humans view as conceited. We elves view it as truthful. Our breathtaking beauty is such a burden sometimes…

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Illustration by Brian Mellema

Advent Letter: Year 2, Letter #1

Note: This is part 5 of me and my brother’s Advent Letters project. For an explanation of the project and to get caught up on past letters, click here.

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My dear young Mellemas,

The past year certainly has flown by. To think that Sam is nearly three, and singing the first two verses of “Frosty the Snowman.” And that Susannah, Piper, and Noah are walking and climbing stairs. I especially commend Shepherd for his sage decision to choose crawling instead.

As you know, we at the North Pole monitor the world’s children throughout the year. Whenever you five all visit your grandparents’ house, we have to bring in extra gnomes to keep up!

But I’m doing it again. Avvu told me that last year’s letters rambled on so much about myself that it got in the way of the story. I assume he’s right. Any faults notwithstanding, Avvu is a brutally honest editor, and his judgment is sound. As such, I’ll keep my personal asides to a minimum this year. Those who don’t like it can address their complaints to Avvu the Polar Bear, 5 Kringle Road, North Pole.

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Kanute’s sphere zoomed into the clouds, and the world became a blur. Steam poured over the gears and Kanute pulled levers. Through the domed windows the mountains, then forests, then glaciers whipped past them. The boys grabbed each others’ shoulders and tried to scream.

As quickly as it started, the sphere stopped. It hovered for a moment before lowering like an elevator. After a crunch of ground, the lid opened with a hydraulic wheeze. The boys spilled out on top of each other.

“As requested: the North Pole.” Kanute said. The boys looked around in wide-eyed amazement.

Continue reading “Advent Letter: Year 2, Letter #1”

NEW Advent Letters Coming Tomorrow: Catch Up on the First Four

It’s that time of year again—the next four installments of the Advent Letters are coming! This is a Christmas adventure story my brother, Brian, and I are telling to our kids. And lucky you, we’re letting you all follow along. We’re telling the story one letter at a time and only on Sundays of Advent (yes, this might take awhile).

In case you missed last year, here are the first four Advent Letters to get you caught up.

Advent Letter #1

 

Advent Letter #2

 

Advent Letter #3

 

Advent Letter #4

Expect the newest letter the first week of advent (tomorrow)!

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Awesome illustrations by my brother Brian Mellema

 

Repost: “Those Evangelicals” Are Ruining Everything

My last repost before the project is done….I think…maybe…hopefully…

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The original post is over here.

My last post was on assuming the worst about “Those Evangelicals” and the liturgy. This week, I thought Those Evangelicals deserved their own post. But first, I should explain what I mean by Those Evangelicals.

Who are Those Evangelicals?

No matter your theology or politics, everybody can have Those Evangelicals.

If you’re a conservative, Those Evangelicals are the people who read Rachel Held Evans and vote Bernie Sanders and use words like “social justice” and “fair trade coffee.”

If you’re a liberal, Those Evangelicals listen to James Dobson and vote Ted Cruz and use words like “sanctity of marriage” and “American exceptionalism.”

And if you’re like me and like pretending you’re a moderate, you could have Those Evangelicals on both sides of you.

Continue reading “Repost: “Those Evangelicals” Are Ruining Everything”

Repost: The Essential Guide to Praying in a Circle

Still plugging away on the special project. Here’s another of my most popular posts.

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Here‘s the original post. You can check it out or just keep reading.

Last post, I shared one of my many embarrassing prayer stories. It was basically an example of what not to do. Today, I want to be more helpful. I’ll give you a step-by-step guide to the most important type of public prayer: the group circle.

Basics

The hallmark of prayer circles is informality. A group of people–usually guys–gather around and pray before an event. This informality causes the awkwardness. Prayer circles can splinter any number of directions, depending on who’s in charge and what method they’re using.

I’ve assembled a list of simple rules for dealing with each of these methods.

Continue reading “Repost: The Essential Guide to Praying in a Circle”

Repost: The Time My Mom Was Right

I’m still working away on that special project (that I hope to have for you to enjoy by Thanksgiving or so), so here’s repost #2.  Thanks for bearing with me!

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The original post is here, but you can just keep reading. And to clarify, my mom has been right about a lot more than this one thing.

The week before I started high school, my mom took me aside to have One of Those Talks. As only a mother can, she worried that my charm and winning smile would attract a bevy of girls. And some of those girls might lead me down the path of vice.

If mom ever saw me talk to a girl, she’d know she had nothing to worry about. My tongue turned to lead. Sweat beaded down my forehead. And when I started talking, a small piece of my brain told me that I was a thin-wristed loser who wasn’t pulling off that shell necklace. It’s hard to find a girlfriend under those conditions.

As high school rolled through college and into young adulthood, my tongue stayed as lead as ever. But my mother started believing that I was staying single on purpose. This was partly because she still saw me through mom-colored goggles.

Also, that’s what I told her.

Toward the tail end of college I realized that the sweaty forehead would probably never change. But I could change how I framed it. Instead of being the guy too awkward to talk to girls, I became the guy with too many plans to waste time on women.

Continue reading “Repost: The Time My Mom Was Right”

Repost (and Some News): Why I Like My Grandma’s Church

I have good news and bad news. First the bad news: I won’t be able to update the blog for a few weeks. That means you’ll be getting a series of “best of” posts. But the reason I can’t update the blog is (cue good news) I’m working on a secret new project. I think you’ll like it. I won’t give too much away, but it involves evangelicalism, robots, and Tasmanian tigers. And don’t worry–I’ll let you all know as soon as it’s ready….

So now, here’s “best of” post number one:

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Check out the original post here, or just keep reading.

As any cynic knows, the easiest targets are previous generations. It’s simple for millennials to be cynical toward people who are older than us:

  • They’ve already had a shot at running the world. That means all remaining problems must be the result of them screwing up.
  • They have different views of morality and propriety. This obviously means they’re prudish, bigoted, narrow-minded, and generally wicked.
  • They’re, well, old. So we can point to hilarious examples of why they’re silly–look at those old people with their sagging skin and high pants and McDonalds coffee! They can’t even use Facebook right!

When cynics look further into the past, things get even easier. We can make whatever sarcastic joke we want. It could be unfair, and even untrue (Victorians were afraid of sex! Puritans hated fun! The Middle Ages were full of ignorant superstition!). It still sticks.

Continue reading “Repost (and Some News): Why I Like My Grandma’s Church”

What Old Books and Rwandan Bishops Have in Common

The last couple weeks have been depressing. Of course, there’s the usual stuff: hectic job, crowded schedule, and the existential horror of finding a grey hair in your mustache scruff. The social mediasphere is as toxic as I’ve ever seen it. It’s getting to the point where each new development in the Kavanaugh quagmire makes me feel nauseous.

But this week, I’ve found comfort from two different sources: century-old books, and a Rwandan bishop. I think they’re comforting for the same reason. But before I explain, here’s a little bit about the two sources:

  • Old Books. This past week I’ve been revisiting a couple old books that I love. They aren’t profound. In fact, they’re pulpy and kind of silly. One is “The Woman in White” by Wilkie Collins, which was published in 1859. The other is Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “A Princess of Mars” from 1912. But what the books lack in substance they make up in other virtues–they’re both imaginative, atmospheric, and charged with adventure. And they both have wonderful narratorial voices. By wonderful, I mean different. There’s a unique kind of intimacy that comes from following the way a narrator guides a novel. You get access not only into their opinions, but also the assumptions and habits that were commonplace to them, but are alien to modern readers. While sometimes shocking, on the whole it’s charming.
  • Rwandan Bishops. One of my favorite things about my church is our connection with Rwanda. We were planted by the Anglican Church of Rwanda, and have kept close ties ever since. Folks from our church regularly head over to Rwanda on pilgrimage. And, on the rare occasions, the visa system permits Rwandan leaders to visit us. This past Sunday we hosted Bishop Samuel Mugisha Mugiraneza. His sermon was excellent–you can listen to it here. His insights into American culture were especially striking. Being a visitor and observer helped him identify uniquely American struggles we take for granted–a consuming desire to get ahead, a gnawing need to work, and monetizing all our time.

You probably guessed what these sources have in common, but I’ll explain anyway. They both got me out of my neurotic news bubble. Getting outside the bubble lets me see its limits, feel its edges, and put it in context. My problems aren’t the whole world. My country’s problems aren’t either. They’re just a tiny piece of a larger picture. Whether you’re hearing the Word of God from the other side of the world, or just spending some time in a pleasant Victorian page-turner, it helps to remember that.

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Photo by David Flores

CS Lewis Was Right About Dialogue

CS Lewis once quipped that, “The more ‘up to date’ the book is, the sooner it will be dated.” Novels with teenage characters are a great example of this principle. Writing dialogue for teen characters is hard. New words, phrases, and expressions shuffle in and out of their speech so fast that it’s impossible to get it right for long.

There are two approaches novelists can take in response. The first is trying to capture teen slang in as up-to-the-minute detail as possible. Tana French’s 2014 novel The Secret Place takes that approach.

The Secret Place is a detective novel with literary aspirations. It centers around a murder at an all-girls school outside Dublin. The girls’ speech is, to put it mildly, distinctive. Here are some actual lines of dialogue:

“Not even. I mean, maybe, but no? Like, they could’ve just made it up … They’re, ohmyGod, so weird . . . Well, they used to be OK, like ages ago. Now we’re just like, ‘Whatever,’ you know?”

“[S]he thought she was totes amazeballs because she’d caught someone who was in OMG college, but of course he dumped her the second he found out how old she actually was.”

“OhmyGod, here, have some more duh. They can say whatever they want.”

“[Y]ou actually do the blood-sisters thing? Because that would be so totes adorbs I could just die.”

“But, I mean, she just said it. Straight out. All the guys were like ‘OMG, ew! Way TMI!’ . . . See what I mean? They act like they can say anything they want. None of them have boyfriends–duh, surprise?”

French obviously worked hard to capture the precise language of Dublin teens in 2014. But the problems with her approach outweigh the accomplishment.

Using so much slang is a cheap way to make the dialogue feel “authentic” without digging deeper. The important thing about French’s teenage characters should be their desires, motivations, and values—not the fact that they say “totes adorbs.” French does have interesting things to say about teenage friendship. Or at least, she would if she didn’t distract readers with all the jargon.

Also, this dialogue has aged terribly. I’m a 31 year old nerd, and even I know that teens don’t say things like “totes amazeballs” anymore. A mere four years after publication, it’s already embarrassingly dated.

Meg Wolitzer’s 2013 novel The Interestings takes the opposite approach. Its opening scene is a conversation between a group of teens at an arts camp during the summer of 1974. I’m sure that teens in the 1970s had just as much slang as teens from any other period. But you’d never know it from the book.

For instance, one of the boys loves the phrase “diametrically opposed.” This isn’t a slang term, but it’s perfect for the character: a clever, precocious teen who wants his friends to think he’s profound. It’s the sort of thing I used to say as a teenager.

Perhaps the best dialogue, though, is from a character named Ethan. He’s the group’s most talented artist, and has been nervously explaining his cartoon creation to a girl he has a crush on. After a long description, he says:

“Oh, and did I say that the cartoon is funny? It’s a comedy. Or it’s supposed to be, anyway. You get the idea, I think. Or maybe you don’t . . . I don’t even know why I want to show it to you, but I do, and there it is . . . It just occurred to me in the teepee tonight that there was a slight possibility that you and I had something in common. You know, a sensibility. And that maybe you might like this. But I’m warning you that you might also really, really hate it. Anyway, be honest. Sort of.”

When I finished reading that passage, I thought about how perfectly Wolitzer captured what it was like to be a teenager. And she did it without a word of slang or up-to-date jargon.

The lesson for writers should be obvious. Focusing on the latest slang creates dialogue that feels dated the instant it’s published. But focusing on the timeless aspects of being a teenager creates dialogue that will remain authentic for decades to come. The best way to make it fresh is to stop worrying about making it up-to-date.

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“Speech Bubbles” by Philippe Parreno (1997)

Photo by Looking 4 Poetry

Do Evangelical Celebrities Really Have Worse Kids?

You may have noticed this post is a couple days late. That’s because my original post was *gasp* shrouded in CONTROVERSY.

Sort of.

My original post’s argument went like this: (1) a declaration that the children of evangelical celebrities are, on average, worse people than children of normal evangelicals; (2) a personal anecdote about a jerk evangelical celebrity kid who I went to high school with; and (3) speculation on why evangelical celebrity kids are worse people.

Before I post anything, though, I ask my wife to review it to make edits and stop me from saying anything stupid. And this time, Danielle’s “anything stupid” detector was blaring.

Continue reading “Do Evangelical Celebrities Really Have Worse Kids?”