Saturday, December 29, 2012

Playing Peek-a-Boo With Myself

Do you know why peek-a-boo is no longer a fun game for you?

If you answered, “Because I’m not a baby,” you’re pretty much exactly right. Brilliant, I know. So the real question is, why do babies find peek-a-boo so delightfully, giggle-inducingly fascinating?

Because, when they can’t see you for that brief instant, they think you disappear. That’s right. All you have to do to become a Houdini-class magician to a baby is hide your face with your hands. Enjoy it now. You will never be entertaining so easily ever again.

It’s a pretty big deal in child development. Mommy doesn’t cease to exist simply because she stepped into the hallway. Daddy is actually continuing to live and breathe when he’s not being monitored by the watchful eyes of the baby in the crib. That stunning revelation has a fancy psychological name: object permanence.

It doesn’t take us too long to realize that other people exist when we aren’t around. But, for most people, it’s much harder to deal with the idea that we exist when we’re not around.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012


Seen a Hallmark holiday special yet? Turned on the radio to hear a Christmas song intended to pull on your heartstrings? Seen the covers of Christian novellas with titles like “Little Julie’s Gift” or “A Christmas Miracle” or “Members of a Small, Steepled Church, Including a Disillusioned Pastor, a Rebellious Teenager, and a Busy Mom With Wrong Priorities, Come Together to Bring Christmas to an Injured Child Whose Father is in Prison”?

Writers out there, take note: sentimental sells during the holiday season. In case you need a guide on how to capitalize on this, here’s a handy scorecard to see how sappy you can possibly make a piece of Christmas entertainment.

Does it feature a child?: If yes, +10. If no, it’s not a sappy Christmas movie/song/book. Try again.
            Does this child believe in Santa or God despite the cynicism of adults around him/her?              +25 (+10 bonus if this change only comes at the end of the movie/song/book)
                        If you flinched at the association of Santa and God above, good for you. No                         points, though.
            Has this child recently lost a parent, or is this child critically ill? +25
            Does this child die? +200

Does someone cry? (Tears of sadness: +10, Tears of happiness: +20, Tears of happiness that could be mistaken as tears of sadness or vice versa: +50)

Is there a gift that expresses profound symbolism? +20

Is there a scene/line where unexpected snow features significantly? +10
            Do the characters look up at the snow with expressions of joy and wonder? +5 per person
            Does someone express a disbelieving sentiment such as “Well I’ll be”? +10 per comment

Does the line “Merry Christmas” or some form of it end a critical scene? +10

Is one of the characters opposed to Christmas? If so…
            Is this character on a personal quest to cancel or get rid of some feature of the holiday (or             the entire holiday)? +10
            Is this character an embittered older person who will probably have a change of heart? +30

Are there any cute pets? +10 per cat, dog, bunny, reindeer, monkey, or baby hedgehog (no points for snakes or lizards)

Are angels referenced or pictured? +15 if said angel is robed and carrying a harp. -100 if it has six wings, carries a sword, and/or is covered with eyes.

Quick Checklist
+5 for any of the following:
Airport scene?
Mention of peace on earth?
Slow motion?
Word “miracle” used?
Someone looks up and says, “Thanks”?
Bells (church or jingle)?
Sleigh ride?
Boys’ choir singing?

Friday, December 14, 2012

Domesticating Evil

“What do you think about evil?”

It was a question my Gospels professor asked a classroom full of junior and senior Bible majors, who always have deep thoughts and several cross-references to back them up (sometimes they’ll even throw in a little Greek). So I knew it would be an interesting discussion.

Several students shared about how they’ve learned a lot about trusting God in hard times, and that suffering has given them the ability to minister to others who are suffering and bring them hope.

But the professor kept pushing. “But what about really terrible evil on a large scale—like natural disasters or trafficking of child slaves or genocides?”

Or an entire class of elementary school kids in Connecticut murdered on what was once a normal school day. What about that?

And the answers came again, this time more along the lines of how God can bring good out of even the worst evil, like with Joseph. Sometimes natural disasters like wildfires are ultimately a benefit to the land. We can’t fully understand what God is up to so we just need to trust the He has a plan.

In a way, I think all of those things may be true. But I raised my hand anyway, because I just couldn’t leave it at that. There was something more that I felt needed to be said, so I said it. “Sometimes I think we need to let evil be evil without saying that it leads to something good.”

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The First Noel?

Recently, I played one of those games where it gives you the name of a Christmas song or carol in fancy vocabulary so you have to guess what it is. The examples ranged from “A singular yuletide yearning for a pair of anterior incisors” (“All I Want for Christmas is My Two Front Teeth”) to “Our company consists of a monarchial trio” (“We Three Kings) to “A query concerning the infant presently before us” (“What Child Is This?”)

It was fun trying to figure out the different titles, and after a few, I got pretty good at it. It was when I got to “Proclaim tidings of jubilation from the summit of a rocky terrain,” otherwise known as “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” that I realized something: the “it” in the title is talking about sharing the gospel with people, especially the good news of Jesus’ birth.

Who knew, right?

Maybe all of you knew that. Probably. Because it’s right there in the song. But the “Name That Carol” game reminded me of something really interesting: I never really listen to the words of the songs I sing at this time of year.

There’s something nice, comfortable, and familiar about Christmas carols. You can let your eyes wander to the starry background of the screen during worship at church, not even glancing at the words, and still sing them on auto-pilot. The memorized lines are tucked away somewhere deep inside us, and we bring them out like treasures from the attic once a year, dusting them off and displaying them proudly.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Christmas Burnout

Eight Christmas parties in one week.

On the first Sunday of December during my sophomore year, this sounded like the most exciting schedule ever. I was involved in a half-dozen groups and organizations, all of which decided that they needed to distribute frosted cookies at various events to properly celebrate the season. It was going to be so much fun!

By Wednesday, I was a little sleep-deprived, but hey, Christmas only comes once a year, right?

By Friday, I was starting to get sick, dragging through my classes with annoying Christmas songs stuck in my head. I wrote in my journal, “To survive this weekend, I’m going to need lots of prayer, Nyquil and Christmas fudge.”

By Sunday, I skipped my last party and almost fell into a candy-cane induced coma.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

In Which I Apologize to a Fictional Character

I’ve never been really into the whole anti-hero thing. Recently, I realized that all of the main characters in my stories, while flawed in certain ways, have some things in common: they’re intelligent, they have a strong sense of justice, and they love other people.

Right now, I’m working on a story with a character named Barton.

Barton is a rude, anti-social assassin. Not exactly my typical hero.

He’s not as smart as I am, and he’s also fairly impulsive. This is annoying because I think of all of these great, complicated plans that would solve all of his problems, but I can’t realistically make them happen because Barton wouldn’t do them. (Those of you who don't understand the idea that the characters in some way determine what the author can and can't do...just trust me on this.)

He does not work well with people. In fact, when he can help it, he doesn’t work with people at all. This is annoying because everyone knows that when you have a big challenge to overcome and several people around with different skills, teamwork is the best way to go. Not alienating everyone around you by bossing them around and insulting them. That doesn’t work out so well.

He’s probably the hardest character I’ve ever worked with. And this is annoying because it shows that I am an immature writer who has some work to do. Writing Barton made me see very clearly that I tend to give my protagonists certain traits, keep their weaknesses in areas I’m comfortable with, and make them, well, kind of like me.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Marketing the Christmas Spirit

Every year, several of the residence halls at my college decorate their suites and hallways according to a certain theme, usually pretty elaborately. And every year, my brilliant theme idea gets rejected: A Cynical Christmas.

In the first suite, we would have a shopping mall filled with flashy, neon advertisements and cranky people fighting over the last Furby (heaven help us all that this trend has returned). In the second room, we would have a war-torn ghetto with a waif-like freshman huddled under old newspapers with headlines of death and destruction on them. Happy 50s Christmas music would be playing ironically in the background. Then we’d have a hospital wing—complete with holiday Jell-o—and finally, a nursing home where everyone would forget what they were supposed to be celebrating.

Fun, right?

Actually, I understand why most people wouldn’t enjoy this theme. Besides poking fun at the genuine suffering of others, it’s a bit too…cynical. Sometimes, though, that’s just how I relate to the world. Fortunately, I have two separate cynics inside of me, and sometimes when they duke it out on a particular issue, the idealist cynic wins.

Not sure how that works? Allow me to demonstrate.

Let’s take the topic of “Christmas spirit.” It’s in almost every holiday special, but sometimes it’s hard to define in real-life terms. Do people really become more joyful in December? Are they really more likely to say smile at strangers, drop money in the Salvation Army bucket, and compliment young moms on their adorable children like some sort of picture print by Currier and Ives? Do people really feel anything like peace on earth or goodwill to men when most of them think of Jesus as that plastic baby in a nativity scene?

The first cynic in me wants to say, “No.”

But I have a counter-cynic who argues with this first-reaction cynic and says, “Maybe.” The evidence? Not the touchy-feely stories on the news about someone adopting a kitten from the animal shelter on Christmas Eve or whatever. Not statistics (because even the counter-cynic knows that statistics can be completely made up). Not the frantic shopping rush that we pass off under the sneaky label of “generosity.”

The biggest proof, to me anyway, that people are less selfish at Christmastime is that marketers have to change their strategy in December. If you don’t believe me, watch the top ten Superbowl commercials. Then watch the top ten Christmas…sorry, I mean holiday commercials.