Witness for the Dead

First thing’s first – I enjoyed this book. Though that may not be saying much because I tend not to finish books I don’t enjoy.

I love a good murder mystery. A murder mystery set in a world of elves and goblins in a world of complex social expectations, different religions, and class conflict? Right up my alley.

I love its relaxing style

I typically enjoy plot-driven books, where a lot happens and every detail matters. I like epic stories with big magic that alters the world. I like biographies about famous people, histories about important events, and the stories of people who are unlike me. But sometimes I need a rest.

I read Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor last year and, despite its complex world-building, complex fantasy politics, and interesting characters, found it to be an easy book to put down when I needed to go live life. Don’t get me wrong, I still read it in a week or two, but the book didn’t grab onto my mind and heart the way many do, demanding that I devote my attention to it until it’s resolved all the plot points and character arcs. It allowed me to enjoy and relax a little. So, when I needed another relaxing read, I picked up Witness for the Dead.

Throughout much of Witness for the Dead, Thara Celehar, the protagonist and narrator, seems to just be recounting random events in his day-to-day life. Eventually, however, they come together to resolve the main plot and provide him with some closure for his own problems. And though the various plots revolve around murders and death, this daily-journal-like style plays a large role in why it is a relaxing read.

I love its good, flawed protagonist

It might seem strange that for my relaxing read, I’d choose a book about a gay elven priest. I come from a religiously conservative background. Doesn’t that create some dissonance or cause me to ask some challenging questions? I’ll get to that.

First and foremost, Thara Celehar is a decent person. He isn’t heroic or superhuman. He’s too accommodating and kind to a fault. He’s blunt and straightforward, often to the point of offense. He is aware of this and tries to correct for it. He just doesn’t have the social aptitude to do so. He isn’t particularly ambitious, but he does what he feels is right, even if it creates problems.

I appreciate the way Ms. Addison wrote this gay character. While I think it is important to have characters and plots where the orientation of the character is more central, simply reading a story in which a gay person is kind and good is helpful in recognizing that orientation simply doesn’t have an impact on whether someone is kind or good. Teenage and young adult me would have benefited from seeing more characters like him in books and other media (though perhaps I did and just took it to be Hollywood propaganda).

I love the detailed, complex world

Western European medieval fantasy worlds will always have a place in my heart, but to find something different is invigorating. In Witness for the Dead, elves and goblins live together in a mixed race society that resembles industrializing Europe of 19th century. The characters must navigate a complex world of a long-lasting imperial power, with multiple languages, class tensions, and religious plurality. The world is fun to explore.

The craft is also fun to think about. The biggest thing Ms. Addison did to create this world was make up words for the various social and political roles people fill. I saw some complaints from other reviewers about all these made-up words, but it is through words that an author reveals the underlying culture. To craft a world that feels alien or different, an author needs to use just enough words to convey that feeling without completely baffling the reader. I think she got the balance right.

The religion is one aspect of the world that fascinates me. Akin to the pluralistic religious world of pre-Christian Europe, there are multiple goddesses. Worship isn’t built around any particular goddess, but rather various practices. Different sects are permitted. Really, the idea that any practice would be banned seems somewhat foreign in this world, though some teachings do cause problems. It made me think about how our world may look, if we can learn to religiously coexist without insisting that everyone align with our ideological views on everything.

Conclusion

Overall, I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys murder mysteries, vignette style books, and fantasy. It’s a wonderful thing to live in this golden age of fantasy, where we can read fantasies combined with just about any other genre or style.

The Secret Lives of Color

This is the kind of book I feel I should have on my shelf. It is full of stories that can act as inspiration, new words to liven up my writing, and background on things I never thought to think about, such as why we name colors the way we do and whether what we call taupe today is what people 200 hundred years ago called taupe (partly I’ve never asked this question because I’ve never used the word taupe and couldn’t have guessed what color it was until I read this book).

My only complaint is that it was too short. I wanted more detail for many of the colors and I wanted more shades of each one. She recommends other books at the end and I think I’ll be picking up some of those recommendations.

One step towards becoming a professional

I’m entering my first writing contest. For the Storymakers Conference in May, I’ll be submitting a first chapter. It’s the first time I’ll be sharing any of my writing with anyone other than friends and family. It’s a little nerve-wracking, but also exciting. I don’t have high expectations – Storymakers has hundreds of very talented writers – but even if I don’t place, I’ll be getting feedback from professionals. I’m moving slowly into the world of professional writing, but this is a step in the right direction.

I’ve also posted a couple book reviews for The Secret Lives of Color and Witness for the Dead.

All In review

I finished this book a few days ago but have struggled to write this review. Why? I just don’t like reading book reviews. Too many simply summarize the book and sprinkle in a few vague statements about how good (or bad) it was. The good reviews give a unique perspective on the author, background on the book, or some interesting connection the review’s author has to the book.

I don’t have much to offer related to the author or book. Even though All In was published 7 years ago, I didn’t know it existed until a few weeks ago. But I did find myself in this book.

I connected with All In because it is a book for dads who are dissatisfied with how society in general is approaching dad-dom. (Hm, in my head “dad-dom” sounds better than fatherhood, but I’m not sure it works written out. Dadom? Daddom? The realm of the masculine figure in the household.)

That focus on dissatisfaction drove me a little crazy for parts of the book, which is ironic, because Mr. Levs spent so much time trying to argue we should feel more positive about everything related to fatherhood! Which is why I kept reading.

As I read the book, I found myself wanting to be a better father, to be “all in.” I found myself thinking of the ways that I hold back. How it’s so much work to get my kids out of the house to do things, so we stay home too much. How it’s harder to make dinner or do a chore with their help, so I find a way to distract them so I can do my stuff. How I am reluctant to answer a question because the incessant stream of questions that will follow that first answer.

But the book reminded me, again and again, of how rewarding being all in is. How showing my children the wonders of the world is something I won’t get a second chance at. How teaching them to care for themselves and their space is one of the most important skills I can share. How feeding their curiosity encourages them to keep asking questions when all the easy ones have been answered.

The focus of the book is on the challenges our culture and laws throw before fathers: the lack of paternal leave; stigmas that discourage fathers from taking it; the stereotypes of clueless dads; fear of men. I’ve faced some of these.

One of the reasons I am a stay-at-home dad rather than a part-time professional is because it is very difficult to be a part-time professional in our society. Careers, daycare, etc. are often built around the schedule of fulltime workers. For a brief time, both my wife and I worked. We took our oldest daughter, then about 2, to a daycare for part of the day. We wanted her home most the day, so I picked her up at lunch time. Unfortunately, she was the only one who didn’t stay until later. She felt isolated because of that. The social isolation and the cost didn’t seem worth it. I was fortunate that my wife had a well-paying job that she enjoyed.

The result has been that I’ve entered a world dominated by women. Schools and daycares default to calling my wife (despite the fact that they interact with me nearly daily and often haven’t met her), the majority of Tiktok and Instagram parenting accounts address moms, and it can be a little uncomfortable at storytime or the park during the day. If I walk up to that group of moms and try to start chatting, will they include me in the conversation? If I comfort one of their kids, will they assume I’m a creep?

But I came away from the book encouraged and hopeful, because there are fathers like Mr. Levs – and many others he interviewed for the book – who are all in. They are working to raise their children to be good people. They are also working to erase the barriers they have faced as fathers. I want to be all in on that aspect, too.

Fathers need paternal leave. All working parents need paid family leave. We need more support for parents – we need cities and transit systems built around families. We need jobs and childcare designed for working parents. We need more men on the playgrounds, in the day cares, at storytime. If we want women to be more equal in the boardroom, we need men to be more equal at home. One thing I want to do is explore how we can better do these things. All In encouraged me not just to be a better father, but also do the work to help other men do the same.

The Lord of the Rings review

It’s been almost 25 years since I first tried reading The Lord of the Rings. It’s been a little less time since I actually did. They aren’t exactly written for 5th graders.

This is, if I’m remembering correctly, my fourth time through all three, though I read The Fellowship of the Ring at least twice before I finished the others. You may suspect I’m a bit of a history nerd.

I regret waiting so long to reread them. The last time I made visited Middle Earth was before The Return of the King came out in theaters. I listened to the audiobook this go-around (Rob Inglis did a great job, though I hear the Andy Serkis version is excellent, as well). One sign that I was reading a master work: when I sat down to read a different book on my Kindle, I found the prose by this other, fairly popular fantasy writer left much to be desired.

But you’ll feel I’ve wasted your time if I just tell you how great the books are. Here are a few observations, in no particular order:

Tolkien was a bit feminist, or at least more than I remembered.

There’s plenty of evidence for the alternative. If you’d asked me recently whether the “I am no man” line was Tolkien or the screenwriters, I would have laid money on the screenwriters. Nope! It’s not a direct quote, but it’s pretty close. Tolkien may not have included any women in the Council of Elrond or in the Fellowship, but I think his words of praise for Galadriel – emphasizing not just her beauty, but also her strength and power – as well as Éowyn’s role as a shieldmaiden undermine the patriarchy within the book. There are so many examples of misogyny from the decade these books were published, particularly in the genres neighboring The Lord of the Rings, it’s nice to be reminded that Madeline L’Engle was a friend of Tolkien.

Tolkien supported indigenous people keeping their land.

I don’t know Tolkien’s actual politics, but one thing comes through clearly: he believed it was ideal for people with vastly different cultures to inhabit neighboring lands in peace. The enmity between elves and dwarves is a symptom of civilizational degeneration. Aragorn, as king, promises the wild men of the forest that they will be left in peace. The main protagonists – the Hobbits – are simply trying to live in their land peacefully. Their final battle, and the one that most strongly hints at Tolkein’s politics, involves driving out colonizing capitalist bandits.

Sam is the real hero of the story.

I know I’m not the first to make this observation (apparently Tolkien himself did). This is fairly evident from the events of Return of the King, especially the end. Sam was the only ring-bearer who willingly gave up the ring. He carried Frodo the last steps up Mount Doom. And the book ends with Sam returning home, sitting down with his wife, and saying, “I’m back.”

The Lord of the Rings is post-apocalyptic.

Throughout the story the characters are traveling through the ruins of and learning the stories about the older fallen civilization. They use objects which they do not understand and cannot use. Their victory at the end is beautiful but is still a sad step towards the oblivion that awaits all the beautiful things in Middle Earth.

I still love these books, even after the fourth reading and everything that has changed in my life since I first read them is a sixth grader. If you have only seen the movies, I highly recommend the books. The first one is slow if you don’t love learning background info, but the others are a little more action-oriented (though only in comparison). I think we would do well to be a little more like hobbits.

My Abortion Bill

Given that

Here is my brainstorm on how we can decrease the number of abortions and encourage a life-honoring culture. These ideas can be enacted in both blue states and red, regardless of the current legal status of abortion.

Prevent

  • Offer hormonal birth control over the counter.
  • Provide sex-ed courses that emphasize contraceptives and consent.
  • Review, reform, and improve enforcement of laws punishing non-consensual sex.
  • Invest in research for improved birth control methods, particularly male birth control.

Provide

  • Job security
    1. At least six weeks paid family leave for all employees.
    2. Prohibit discrimination based on pregnancy or parental status.
    3. Review and revise laws to ensure that fathers receive the same incentives to care for children that mothers do.
  • Healthcare
    1. Invest in maternal health centers in population centers with the worst maternal death rates.
    2. Maternal care funding for all women below a certain income level.
    3. Fund early childhood medical care.
    4. Set up a health commission for improving maternal health outcomes.
  • Childcare
    1. Pass and fund a child payment plan (such as Senator Romney’s).
    2. Invest in childcare centers in low-income communities.
    3. Revise laws that may discourage multi-generational households, i.e. prohibit zoning laws and HOA rules that prohibit non-nuclear-family households.
  • Education
    1. Expand public schools to include pre-k programs, including funding for new buildings and teachers
    2. Create incentives for school districts to increase teacher pay before investing in any other infrastructure.

Happy Fourth?

I don’t believe we live in the greatest country on earth.

I’m not even sure what metric could possibly determine that. In so many we fall short of many other nations.

But, the United States is my home, so I love it. It’s beautiful and majestic. I love that people from everywhere live here. I love the vast array of knowledge and traditions and languages spoken here. I love that we can say and believe many different things.

I love that we declared to the world so long ago that all people are created equal. I love that our founding day remembers a committee-drafted legal document declaring that sovereignty rests in the people.

We don’t live those ideals perfectly, yet. Coming anywhere close has been a long, slow, bloody process. I hope that we can keep striving to come ever closer, despite our many backward steps. I hope we can remember that “all men” is a synecdoche, not for “all European men” but for “all humans.” Every man, woman, and child of every race, creed, gender, orientation, or any other identity we use to divide ourselves, was created by a loving God and given the same inalienable rights.

I hope we can shed the harmful ideas and partisanship that dominate our culture.

I hope we remember that no man or party or belief is more important than our neighbor.

Be safe and I hope you can find something to be grateful for today.

Liberal Tears

Liberal tears mug

I’m not embarrassed to admit I cry.

I cried on the day Donald Trump was elected. At the time I was working in downtown Austin. I didn’t have much to do (I rarely did. It wasn’t exactly fulfilling or demanding work), which was fortunate, because I was having a hard time feeling anything but depressed. A protest had begun not far from my building. They were marching north up Congress Avenue toward the Texas Capitol. When they were close, I left my office and walked the few blocks to watch them pass. I didn’t join, but I empathized far more with them than with the winners of that election.

I cried because Donald Trump had hurt a lot of people to get to the White House. He’d insulted and bullied his way to the top. He stoked fear and rage over imaginary foes. He placed himself – a cowardly, unfaithful, narcissistic, perpetual liar – as some sort of savior of hard-working, honest, God-fearing America.

My grandfathers fought in World War II and the Korean War. One was in the Navy. His boat was torpedoed and sunk in the Pacific. The other was in the Marines. He flew bombing runs over North Korea and miraculously survived a plane crash when a wingmate’s plane exploded. After nearly giving their lives for their country, each came home to serve their families and communities. With my grandmothers, they taught their children, my parents, to be some of the best people I will ever know.

Those men, and their wives, sacrificed for and preserved institutions that I fervently believe in – a representative democratic government, religion, and family. I believe in those institutions because I believe that they are the best means of preserving all that mankind has accomplished and passing it on to the next generation. I grew up conservative, believing that conserving these institutions was a great cause. I saw liberals as a threat – they were part of a movement that wanted to burn it all down. Perhaps their intentions were good – I certainly understood that things were broken – but without the framework these institutions had provided, things were bound to fall apart. A movement couldn’t replace an institution.

I voted accordingly in 2008 and 2012. I saw John McCain and Mitt Romney as a bulwark against some of the more radical ideas Obama campaigned on. I did start seeing some of the warning signs in 2012. As a politically-curious law student, I thought I’d like to get involved in Romney’s campaign. As I listened to his primary messaging, however, I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I don’t remember what exactly he said, but I knew I didn’t want to associate myself that closely with it.

2016 changed everything. I happened to be in the room when a family member watched Trump’s announcement speech. He parroted ideas that my conservative education at home, church, and at BYU had taught me were little more than lies. I told myself at the time that no one would take this seriously.

I was wrong and it hurt. It still hurts. Trump harnessed and created a movement. A movement that, as I see it, is antithetical to nearly everything I was taught. I was taught to be kind. I was taught to be honest, true, chaste, benevolent, virtuous, and do good to all men. I couldn’t reconcile those teachings with Trump’s movement. It mystified me, and still does, how people with the same upbringing as me, who were taught the same articles of faith, could embrace that movement, or at least tolerate it.

The next 4 years were a trial in many ways. No need to repeat them here. Then, we experienced January 6. There certainly has been some conspiracy theory mongering and exaggerated rhetoric around that day. But it also was certainly not a “tourist trip.” It was a dangerous and embarrassing day for our country. It was the day that lay bare for all the world to see that Trump’s movement had one endpoint (intentional or not) – burning down our institutions.

I want January 6 to be the low point of American democracy and American Christianity. I had some hope on January 7 that enough other people felt the same way that we could turn the corner. A lot of those hopes have been dashed in the last year.

I still don’t get it. In conversations over the last couple years it’s been implied, if not expressly said, that I am the problem, that my questions are a threat to other’s faith, that my efforts to seek compassion are a pathway for evil influences. I’ve been called worse than the devil.

I’m tempted to disengage, to just shut up. In many ways I have. I post on Facebook far less often. This blog has been quieter.

I know I don’t have all the answers. I am just as susceptible to the pull of the Algorithmic Narrative as everyone else. But I’d like to think that my questions and thoughts add something to the conversation.

I still believe in the promise of America – the idea that a diverse community of people can cooperatively govern themselves. I still believe in the promise of Christianity – that the children of God can, through faith in Christ, build a beloved community that cares for everyone. I still believe that I can and must teach these values to my children. But I feel far less optimistic about the survival of these institutions than before.

I’m not shutting up. Not completely. And I’m not entirely sure what the point of this post is. I suppose it’s simply a way to process some of my feelings and a hope that it may help those who read it process their feelings.

I don’t really think of myself as a liberal. I’d lean toward calling myself an institutionalist. But if you need anything to fill your cup of tears, I’ll lend them.

Stephen Sondheim

Celebrity deaths I have noted: Leonard Nemoy, Carrie Fisher, Chuck Yeager, Sean Connery, Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The list goes on. I haven’t personally known any of these people, but each has contributed in some way to something I love. I was sad to hear of their passing. Then Stephen Sondheim passed away and I found myself, for the first time, crying over the death of someone I didn’t know. What was going on?

I’m not really a Stephen Sondheim fan. I don’t dislike his work; I don’t know most of it. I saw the 1961 movie adaptation of “West Side Story” once and have heard the music as often as any American. I know a little about “Sweeney Todd.” But then there is “Into the Woods.”

I first heard “Into the Woods” around 20 years ago. My sister was working on a project for one of her classes; it was a paper or report on “Into the Woods.” She had the CD and as she listened to it, I picked up the booklet inside the CD cover and started reading. I found a little masterclass on storytelling inside. I learned about the power of symbols (such as the woods). I learned how protagonists stand in the audience’s place. I learned that many of the most interesting stories explore beyond “happy ever after.”

I returned to the music and listened as the characters traveled into the woods and accomplished their goals. The music was fun. It was nice to see how the characters met their challenges. It was satisfying to see them reach their happy ever after. But that was only the first act.

The challenges of life didn’t stop. New ones, heart-breaking ones, arose. The play ends on a more ambiguous, but far more powerful note. Characters have been betrayed. Some have died. It’s a lonelier and sadder ending, but those who are there at the end keep going. They help each other. They’ve found each other in the woods.

I didn’t get it all back then. But I loved it. I listened to that CD many, many times. When a local theater put on a production and one of the actresses (who went to church with my family) invited us, I happily went. Seeing the play in person was even better. Not only did I hear all the dialogue that wasn’t on the CD, but I was also introduced to a trope I love – the narrator interacting with the characters and the audience.

Over the years I’ve continued to listen to “Into the Woods,” but I’ve never explored any other Stephen Sondheim work. Up until last week, I would have just said “Into the Woods” was a musical I really enjoyed.

Then I heard the news of his passing. “How sad,” I thought. As I read the tributes online, people quoting his most powerful lines, sharing how he touched their lives, my eyes kept filling with tears. Why? I didn’t understand why.

“The Daily” podcast episode from December 3, which may have brought the most tears, helped me answer that question. In it the theater critic, Jesse Green, spent a few moments towards the end explaining “Finishing the Hat.” They play a part of the song (which I hadn’t heard before) and then explain how it explores an artist’s dedication to art, despite the cost. It capped a discussion of how Stephen Sondheim loved the art he was creating and valued it and encouraged others to produce art. His message? It’s worth it.

Which brings me back to the question: why did Stephen Sondheim’s death cause a casual fan grief? The best I can explain it, “Into the Woods” has given shape to my desire to be a storyteller. Reading that CD cover 20 years ago started a journey that I’ve only recently accepted as mine. Stephen Sondheim’s efforts to reimagine old stories, his ability to explore the complexities of life with nuance, his effort to elevate his artform have all stuck with me.

As I listened to the Daily’s exploration of Sondheim’s work, I thought about my own doubts. I have a law degree. I have kids to take care of. I never even actually wrote a draft of a book until a couple of years ago. Does the world need another writer? Does this really make sense?

Stephen Sondheim was telling me, yes. I spent 7 years studying economics, philosophy, and law. That was valuable time I spent trying to find meaning in the world around me, figuring out why it is shaped the way it is. And now it’s time for me to share that journey with others, to help them find meaning.

Maybe you’re rolling your eyes. Books are just entertainment, right?

Or maybe not. Is that just my inner critic?

Stories are all we have to make sense of the world. So, I’m doing it. I’m making a hat. Because I know things now I hadn’t known before. I know that Stephen Sondheim, without ever knowing I existed, helped nurture a love of stories in my heart. He showed me that stories can shape lives. I hope to someday produce something that can shape another’s life.

Children Will Listen

I didn’t realize until today, but Stephen Sondheim taught me the power stories have in our lives. I’ve been enjoying and learning from his music for the last two decades and my life is immeasurably better for it. I share stories with my children knowing that they will listen.

Thank you Stephen for writing and writing and writing and sharing it all with the world.