December 31, 2009


(This series is a little biography and a little imagination. The biography will detail a month long trip my dad took in the summer of 1946 when he and a friend hitchhiked from Loring Park to Duluth, Minnesota and back. The motivation, names and details all come from my imagination though. For example, I don't know if Dad ever made it to Anoka’s amphitheater, but you never know! I’ve started interviewing Dad and finding out more details which I’ll add as needed. To read earlier SHORT LONG posts, click on the link right. July 2, 1946 is on the bottom as you scroll down. Enjoy!)

“We gotta get you outta town,” Tommy Hastings said. “But I still gotta tell somebody.”

“No!” Freddie Merrill exclaimed. His shout echoed off the dark walls of apartments and row houses surrounding Loring Park. Tommy was sure he heard bushes rustling in the park – Nazi spies or Minneapolis gangsters, he was sure – as they came to the corner of West 15th and Hennepin.

Tommy shushed him and whispered, “You want Officer Lars to rap on your head some more with his night stick?”

Freddie cringed and turned to look in the park. Whispering, he said, “Who you gonna tell?”

“May. She’ll know when to let Mom and Dad know we left for Duluth. And Dad’ll know if he can say anything to your dad.”

Freddie nodded as they turned right on to West 15th and ran lightly down the sidewalk to the walk up where the Hastings lived. Crouching like they were thieves, the boys opened the front door and slipped in, tip-toeing down the hall to Tommy’s room in the back of the house. They went into his room, pushed the door closed silently and collapsed on the bed laying crosswise, both pairs of feet dangling almost to the floor.

Neither one woke until early afternoon. They’d curled face-to-face with their feet pulled up on the bed and woke with a start when a string of black cat firecrackers rattled away outside the little bedroom window. Tommy ‘bout fell out of bed then peeked out into the hallway and whispered back to Freddie, “Dad’s sleeping in the living room. I think Mom’s out housecleaning.” With his dad retired on an Army pension, his mom still had to work outside the home. She’d been a domestic when she’d met Guy Hastings in Duluth in 1919 and did the same thing still.

“We gotta go,” Tommy said. He went to his dresser drawers and pulled out socks, underwear, T-shirts and another pair of pants. He grabbed his swimsuit and pillowcase, stuffing everything into it. “I’m ready.”

“What am I supposed to take? All my stuff’s at home!” Freddie said.

Tommy looked at him and rolled his eyes, “We’re the same size, dummy! We can wear the same stuff,” he said, going to the dresser and throwing more things on the bed. He stripped the pillowcase from his pillow and stuffed the things into it. “OK, we should get going if we’re gonna get there before sundown.” He held out the case.

Freddie stared at it for a while before he finally took it. “Can I have the other one? That’s gonna stink like you,” he said, “I’ve never been away from home for more than a couple nights.”

Tommy shrugged. “We have to go.” He slung the dirty pillowcase over his shoulder, opened the door again, peeked out and said, “Come on.”

They left by the front door. May was just coming up the steps, wearily plodding. She worked in the office at General Mills on the Mississippi. “Freddie and me are going up to Duluth,” he said to her.

“Have a nice trip. Write when you get a chance,” she replied. She was in the house and shutting the door an instant later.

“‘Have a nice day’ to you, too,” Tommy said. He looked at Freddie then turned away quickly when he saw the look on his face. “Let’s go.” They went back to Hennepin Avenue and hiked along until they reached University and turned north. “Here we go,” said Tommy as he turned to face Minneapolis and stuck out his thumb. “You better get behind me. ‘s a better chance of us gettin’ a ride if I’m in front.”


“Shut out and stick out your thumb.”

December 27, 2009

WRITING ADVICE: Jack McDevitt 8: Have Fifty Characters Named T’Challah

(The Twelve Blunders are used with permission of Jack McDevitt, from his webpage:

McDevitt’s advice here might best be summed up in two words: “Diversity pays”.

Looking at a class list for two periods of English Language Learners, these are some of the names I find: Joseph, Mirna, Mathieu, Nabila, Maria, Waqas, Victor, Wei, Karina, Mohamud, Joan Carlos, Konah, Yuritzi, Katya, Avena, Holyba, Luz, Lavanie, Eduardo, Obadiah, Rosa, Daisy, Tou, and Gao Ia. Last names are even more varied: Vang, Rivera-Parra, Massaqoi, Marcatoma, Guachichuica, Ho, Chacon, Vargas, Barantian, Meza-Murga, Saybo, Getu, Yonkedeh, Swaray, Lin, Khan, Kariuki, Chanthavong, Agnatodji and Badri.

The message here for me is that we have enough strange Human names, we can be at LEAST that creative with our “alien” names.

Even so, McDevitt avoids aliens like the plague because, “Aliens…are mysterious, romantic, compelling…but only as long as they remain distant. As soon as they get a name, or begin describing their peculiar social institutions, all that fades away and they become like us, only more boring.”

Here is where I deviate from his advice…sort of. My personal belief is that aliens allow us to explore parts of ourselves that are not currently clear or always apparent. I understand that when we meet them, aliens are going to be, by their nature, ALIEN. We will not “get them”. Even if we are members of a local group of stars that was “seeded” by common cometary DNA, it’s unlikely that we will turn out like the STAR TREK panoply of Vulcans, Andorians, Klingons, Ferengi, Romulans and Cardassians. Even if we do, it’s doubtful that we’ll be able to employ a universal translator because so much of Human communication is non-verbal, there’s no reason to expect that other intelligences will be any LESS complex and while we might say the words right, the context will be wrong.

By McDevitt’s logic, being Humans we can’t create aliens because they’ll just be Human – implying “why bother”? It’s why his aliens, as he says, “remain distant.” I disagree. Occasionally, Humans have imagined really alien aliens that don’t appear to be “Humans in rubber suits”. In SOLARIS, Stanislaw Lem imagines something that closely approaches an alien I find nearly incomprehensible. Even the STAR TREK franchise got it right once when they created the Horta and while I doubt we’ll solve such first contact problems in 43 minutes, it posed some fascinating questions.

I agree we need not label our aliens with gobbledegook names. Besides, when we meet real aliens someday, we will call them something pronounceable behind their backs. Most likely, they will pick up names derived from their looks or actions. But I disagree with McDevitt when I suggest we need more aliens, not fewer.

Julie Czerneda created the alien Dhryn and it seems like they are “humans in rubber suits” at first. But she succeeds where McDevitt feels SF fails: as soon as Brymn is named and Czerneda describes his people’s peculiar social institutions, myself – and others – find that the Dhryn’s “alieness” comes into focus and they become less like us and far more interesting. In exploring the alien Dhryn, we are forced to look more closely at our own species imperative – which some would say is embodied in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic command to “…be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it…” (Genesis 1:28) [My argument: only 1/3 of the world’s population is JCI – the other 2/3 must be responding to a different imperative then…]

At any rate, I think we need MORE aliens not less; but we must build them well enough to satisfy even the most ardent critics – like Jack McDevitt. And we have to use them only when needed and for the main purpose of exploring our Humanity more fully.

December 24, 2009


It occurred to me this morning that other bloggers like Nathan Bransford and Bruce Bethke have somewhere stored, a Christmas blog they trot out each year to look at and revisit. Below is my attempt at this venerable tradition…

Like many people, I have Christmas traditions.

I watch Jim Carrey’s HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS. I check out a copy of Dicken’s A CHRISTMAS CAROL (the version with Patrick Stewart, Star Trek:TNG’s Jean-Luc Picard playing Ebenezer Scrooge). I snuggle up to the TV to listen to Burl Ives sing in the animatronic version of RUDOLPH THE RED-NOSED REINDEER. Of course I read the Christmas story from Luke 1:1 – 2:20, but I dig out my old December 1997 issue of ANALOG and reread “Easter Egg Hunt: A Christmas Story” by Jeffrey Kooistra. I also find time alone to watch the video tape of a Christmas musical I scripted with music and lyrics by an old, old friend of mine, Lynn Bell. The musical was called “Just In Time For Christmas” and was a children’s time-travel version of A CHRISTMAS CAROL with a couple of twists. Performed twice by a huge cast of kids from my church, it included both my son as an Outsider-sort of angel and my daughter as a shepherd who was watching her fields by night.

I conclude then that for me Christmas is about the past. It ranges from ancient times in far-away Israel to present day kerfuffles about what to do Christmas day when my sister is in Virginia with her “other” family and our get-together last Saturday was postponed because of a frigid blizzard and moved to January sometime and will include celebrating my mom’s 75th birthday and the fact that I’ll be working most of today at Barnes & Noble and Mom and Dad are coming for Christmas Eve dinner and I won’t be around to help get ready. This past includes my daughter’s concern about the commercialization of Christmas that led her to ask us to spend the money we would have used on her to get a sewing machine for an organization that teaches women in northern India to sew for a living.

On the other hand, my son loves to seek out just the right gift for each person and disdains gift cards – he loves the giving part of Christmas. He started the small avalanche of gifts under the tree right now when he set out his college-student-meager presents.

My wife was talking to a cashier at a local warehouse grocery story a few hours ago and asked what the day held for her. The woman said that she hated working Christmas Eve because people were so crabby – they yell at cashiers because the store is out of “stuff” and if anyone bumps their cart, they explode into anger. As we walked out into a flurry of gently falling, diamond sparkling “crystal rain” (see Tobias Buckell’s fabulous book, CRYSTAL RAIN to discover the origin of that phrase), we talked about the cashier’s observations.

Under the guidance of Our Father Below (, we have taken a simple attempt to remember the birth of the Son of God and have turned it into a tension-filled extravaganza of over-spending, over-eating and secular glitz that eclipses the original pagan ritual from which it sprang. The original event also included a kerfuffle as well as a brush with governmental bureaucracy, so maybe it was only natural that we perpetuated Mary and Joseph’s search for a place for her to have Jesus by our searches for the perfect gift, food or event.

Take a deep breath, Guy. Perhaps I need to go a bit further back in time; maybe to the announcement the angel made to Mary: “For nothing will be impossible with God.” Luke 1:37. Maybe that’s the message I’ll take from this season – that no matter what happens: kerfuffles, angry shoppers, divergent gifting and traditions; nothing is impossible with God.

Peace on Earth? He can bring it.
Deep security? He can give it.
Salvation for everyone? He did it.

“For nothing is impossible with God.”


(First published December 25, 2008)

December 20, 2009

Slice of PIE: Alternate History and Christianity

In this time of the celebration of lights, plastic Nativities and over-buying at Barnes & Noble, I was exercising my imagination. What if Jesus was never born and Humanity didn’t have to worry about all that “Christianity” stuff, instead exploring its TRUE potential without the baggage and hatred that is, according to some, Christ’s only contribution to world history?

This is a situation some atheists hope and work for and a few have written about. The exploration of this question is admittedly only a tiny slice of a minor branch of a huge body of science fiction called Alternate History. Even so, we’ve seen several recent “blockbusters” in film and print that take the speculation about alternate historical events to new levels.

No matter how you cut it, the movie INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS is a science fiction alternate history movie in which Jewish nationalists and American GIs assassinate Adolph Hitler and his staff in 1941. The “alternate history” is clearly illustrated by the spelling of the second word of the title – no American would misspell the word if they could help it, being that it’s been a standard epithet since 1830. While they don’t go beyond the assassination, it’s relatively safe to say that WWII would have wound down early and not dragged out to 1945 and perhaps even avoided the US use of the atom bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

STAR TREK (the 2009 reboot) is another voyage into alternate history – only in this case the history is in the future. In this world, a Romulan incursion from the far future destroys Spock’s homeworld, Vulcan, making its people an endangered species, which never happened in the “real future” of the STAR TREK we all know and love. The ramifications of THIS alternate future will be dealt with in the next STAR TREK movie, set to come out in 2011.

Kim Stanley Robinson, in his 2002 award-winning novel THE YEARS OF RICE AND SALT postulates a past where the Black Death killed not only 99% of Europe’s population, but Christianity as well.

A new SF anthology titled THE AETHER AGE postulates a past in which Egypt and Greece never waned and Christianity never happened.

Popular Christian writer Bill Meyers explores the same theme (without explaining why Jesus was not born in Bethlehem two millennia ago despite the fact that the Old Testament is extant) and decided to come “today” in America.

As Americans, we are enamored of poking around in our past and future. We love to explore “what if”. Christians get into the act by postulating the same. Even so, I think such diddling may be dangerous. While it’s clear that certain events of the past (or the future) are malleable and may or may not have had long-term impacts on our present (there’s a school of thought that says that even if we change past events as we know them, some OTHER event will occur that will bring about the present we know; ie: assassinate Hitler and some other dictator will rise up and serve the same purpose), I'm not sure what purpose they serve other than entertainment. This may or may not be "enough" for you, but I'm pretty sure it's NOT enough for me.

Even given that, there is ONLY one Son of God who could take away the sin of the world. No one else could do that. No one else could become God Incarnate, Jesus Christ. No one else could take on the sins of all Humanity and pay the price for them. As it says in a Bo Giertz’ HAMMER OF GOD it is all “Jesus only”. No matter what the past or present did or brings, Jesus came to Earth to redeem us and it is that blessed fact that we celebrate during this season!

While we have the freedom to play around with alternate histories, it's clear that God caused only one history to happen: this one.

December 13, 2009

POSSIBLY IRRITATING ESSAY: The New STAR TREK and Christian Discipleship

Sometimes, STAR TREK illuminates God’s word for me.

Take for example, the STAR TREK reboot – designed to draw in the oldsters like my dad and me with the names and feel of the original series as well as using actors that Gen-Xers connect with.

I’m sure you see the clear connection between the movie and this passage of Scripture:

"If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple. Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple. For which one of you, when he wants to build a tower, does not first sit down and calculate the cost to see if he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who observe it begin to ridicule him, saying, 'This man began to build and was not able to finish.” Luke 14: 26-30

Uh…you DON’T see the connection?

Hmmm. Let me try to shed some light then.

Remember the scene in the new STAR TREK where Captain Pike has ordered Sulu, Kirk and Chief Engineer Olson (who was wearing the obviously deadly RED space suit of death) to do a space dive in order to destroy the Romulan mining machine as it tries to poke a hole into Vulcan and drop its load of red matter? Just before jumping, Olson gets excited because he finally gets to “kick some Romulan butt”. His focus; his life at that moment is the personal satisfaction he’ll receive from beating the Romulan threat. He serves himself first and secondarily his boss.

Shortly after that, he is disintegrated by a gigantic drilling beam.

Kirk on the other hand, after being on the sharp end of Captain Pike’s tongue (“So, you want to be the only genius-level repeat offender in the Midwest?”), joins StarFleet and embraces the mission of the Federation, which his father died serving. Not that Kirk isn’t above self-serving, selfish decision-making. James Tiberius Kirk is NOT a saint! But he serves a higher purpose. He serves the Federation. He gets his butt kicked an uncounted number of times (the next time I watch the movie, I’m going to count the times Kirk is punched, poked, slapped and otherwise abused…by his friends. Stay tuned for a PIE on that little statistic) – but after nearly dying at the hand of the Romulans, he becomes the permanent captain of the ENTERPRISE.

The connection between the new STAR TREK and Luke 14 should now be clear: Olson served himself and was disintegrated by a Romulan mining beam. Kirk served the Federation and while he got beat up, in the end, the Federation used him to its greater glory. For Olson, there was no cost involved in “kicking Romulan butt”. By the end of the movie, Kirk was willing to give everything to serve the Federation.

This is how we should serve Christ. Do we? You might, but I don’t – not yet anyway. STAR TREK is another reminder that in service to Christ, He is the only source of power; submitting my will to His is the only way I can serve Him. I have to do this every day, every hour, every moment. Thank you Lord, for using STAR TREK to reiterate Your message to me.

image taken from:

December 11, 2009


As every Minnesota ninth grader did thirty-eight years ago in 1971, I read Daniel Keyes' masterpiece, FLOWERS FOR ALGERNON. The story has stayed with me since and rather than haunting me, it grew into my mind as a symbol for both the overwhelming possibilities of the human intellect and the overwhelming impossibilities faced by a profoundly challenged human intellect. (The character of Kathleen Kelly in YOU’VE GOT MAIL, puts it well: “I started helping my mother here after school when I was six years old. I used to watch her, and it wasn't that she was selling books, it was that she was helping people become whoever they were going to turn out to be. When you read a book as a child it becomes part of your identity in a way that no other reading in your life does...”)

I’ve started and stopped it half a dozen times since I wrote the first outline eleven years ago. Now that I’ve grown up as a writer, I think I’m ready to tackle it. I wanted to do two things: bring the ideas that shaped me into the person I am today into the present millennium; and look at a FLOWERS FOR ALGERNON type of story from the viewpoint of someone who loves the one changing.

Thus this book was born. I hope I can do the theme justice. I hope my story affects others as Daniel Keyes’ story affected me.

To read RECONSTRUCTION from beginning to here, click on the label to the right and scroll to the bottom.

By the time Dr. Chazhukaran and his nurses, nurse aides, technicians, reporters, neporters – internet news reporters – and doctor observers were gone, it was past midnight. CJ and his mom were standing at the front door. Dr. Chazhukaran was facing them. He held up his finger and said, “Perhaps I can check one more thing?”

Mom held up her hand, “Nothing more, Doctor. We’re ready for bed. CJ has school tomorrow. It’s been a long day.” She changed the subject, “When can we expect her to wake up?”

He lowered his lecturing finger and said, “As far as I can tell, she could wake up any moment. I gave her a sedative after we got her waking quantum EEG. Her brain waves are totally different than the ones we got before! It’s very exciting. There’s every evidence of higher cognitive functions now where there were none before. Her brain is working as good as yours is,” he looked directly at CJ and added, “Maybe better.”

CJ snapped, “What’s that supposed to mean?” He was a special ed kid; touchy about it, too. Kids at school knew, but nobody else needed to. “You think she’s gonna be better than me?”

Mom held up her hand again. “When will she wake up?”

He took a breath to continue, but CJ stepped closer to his mom and glared. Dr. Chazhukaran blinked then said, “Any time after sunrise.” He leaned closer, “You will give me a call, won’t you?”

“Yes. We’ll call you. Good night, doctor.” She closed the door slowly in his face, locked it and leaned back against it, closing her eyes, facing CJ.

He said, “Good job, Mom. He should have gone a long time ago.”

“He didn’t mean what he said, Chris.”

“He hates me,” CJ said, turning around and heading for the stairs. “Can I surf the web for a while?”

She nodded, looked down at him and said, “You have school to go to tomorrow.”

“You’re making me go before she wakes up?” he exclaimed. “That’s not…”

“CJ,” she said softly, holding up her hand as she had to cut off the doctor, “She’s going to be awake. Not running around talking and looking at your rLife account or riding your bike. She’ll just be awake. Practically like a newborn. We’re going to have to teach her everything. I doubt she’ll be ready to graduate with her PhD before you get home from school.” She took him by the chin and smiled. “She’s going to grow up fast – but not that fast.”

CJ took a deep breath, slowly nodded and said, “’night, Mom.”

The next day, school seemed to take forever. He was heading into last hour when Mr. Johnson, his science teacher held up his hand and said, “CJ! You’re supposed to go to the office. Take all your things. They said someone’s here to pick you up.”

CJ’s stomach dropped to his feet. He turned and hurried out of the room, to his locker, grabbed his backpack after stuffing a few books in it and ran to the office. He burst in and looked around, expecting to see his mom.

Dr. Chazhukaran was standing by the office counter instead. He was looking at CJ sadly.

“What’s wrong…”

Dr. Chazhukaran started talking at the same time, saying, “There’s nothing wrong…”

CJ recovered first, “Then why are you here?”

“Things aren’t going exactly as we thought they would. You need to be home. Now.”

“Then what are we waiting for?” CJ bolted from the office, ignoring the secretary calling to him that he had to sign out. He pushed through the exit doors and into the courtyard. A taxi was sitting in front of the school. Dr. Chazhukaran stepped out. CJ looked at him, “A taxi?”

The doctor shrugged, “I can’t afford a car.”

CJ shook his head, “Let’s go. Mom and Mai Li need me.”

The doctor’s long stride brought him alongside CJ before they reached the taxi. He said, “Not exactly in the way you’ve been expecting her to need you.”

“What do you mean?” CJ said as the doctor opened the taxi door and gestured him in. He slid in as the man went to the other side and got in. “What do you mean she doesn’t need me like I’ve been expecting her to?”

Dr. Chazhukaran said to the driver, “Back where we came from.” He looked like he bit the inside of his cheek then said, “It seems her development under the ministrations of the nanomachines have produced more efficacious connections than expected.”

CJ rolled his eyes and said what one of his nurses had said the night before, “English, doctor! English!”

He shot CJ a look then said, “I think she’s talking. Asking for you.”

“What do mean, you think she’s talking?”

He didn’t say anything for a while. They were almost half way home when he spoke. “Humans learn to speak by mimicking others around them. That’s why baby talk in ‘babytalk.’”


He shot CJ a look. “Even though her brain had profound damage, her hearing was fine. She could hear what you and your mom – even what we – were saying.”

“So she can talk already?”

He didn’t answer and as the taxi pulled up in front of the house, CJ grabbed his backpack and ran for the front door. As he threw it open, a woman’s voice that wasn’t his mom, was screaming, “I want CJ! I want CJ!”

December 6, 2009

WRITING ADVICE: Jack McDevitt 7: Major Events Take Place Offstage

(The Twelve Blunders are used with permission of Jack McDevitt, from his webpage:

“Conflict is the soul of good fiction…Especially when the conflict arises between two apparently reasonable but mutually exclusive views…narratives dependent on villainous characters have a hard time rising to a very sophisticated level…” And that conflict has to take place front and center -- it's why readers want to read a story!

In my own writing, I discovered this after I’d finished my first “real” 110,000 word science fiction novel, INVADER’S GUILT.

In it, I’d played five characters and four minor characters off one another in five different story lines as they came together then parted ways and eventually arrived at the same place at the same time at the end of the book. I still like the story, but after re-reading it, I found that while their personal stories were interesting, there was no compelling overall “event” taking place. Their stories were all set against the Human invasion of the WheetAh homeworld at the end of a protracted interstellar conflict. While this is certainly dramatic, there wasn’t anything ELSE happening. It was a pretty average story of the conclusion of a pretty average interstellar war that Humans appeared about to win (of course…)

Then I found the real conflict; the reasonable but mutually exclusive view that was driving the story. There were actually two, one obvious, one hidden. I worked to bring out the first story line by eliminating two character viewpoints and focusing on three – a group of alien, plantimal WheetAh who were political prisoners of the planetary ruler and had a Human prisoner dropped in their midst and then escape their prison; a pilot/drug dealer and a Buddhist nun working to stop a plague; a Christian missionary with connections to WheetAh government because of her work with WheetAh and Human orphans.

The second conflict I’d never noticed: extremely powerful aliens have a plan to create God and Humans and WheetAh are part of it. Whether they want to be or not. Whether they even notice or not.

Suddenly – at least for me and a few beta readers – the story was more coherent and there was moral ambiguity: do Humanity and WheetAh have any right to decide if they want to be part of the Weaver’s attempt to fabricate God? Neither one could in any way stop the Weavers, who exist outside of the universe the two kingdoms inhabit, though their intent is clearly good.

Ah! That’s it! Now I have it!

Now all I have to do is sell it…