Monday, September 29, 2014

The Best Books that Almost Weren't

Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons.

Given the difficulty of the writing process (gut-wrenchingtime-consuming, and soul-destroying are some appropriate adjectives), and given how complicated the publishing process can be, it's a wonder anything ever gets printed.

When you hold a book in your hands, know that pressed between those covers is the sum total of thousands of hours on the part of the author, his agent, his editors and copy editors, graphic designers, and everyone else involved in the process of getting the book from concept to reality. 

It's a miracle, really. 

But with so many moving pieces involved, there's plenty of room for things to go wrong. And go wrong they do, often spectacularly so.

In fact, some of the best-loved books in the English language almost never were.

The Best-loved Books that Almost Never Were:

To Kill a Mockingbird 

Can you imagine the American literary landscape without Boo Radly? Without that endless Alabama summer, and Jem's broken arm, and Dill's visit, and Scout dressed as a ham? Without Atticus Finch

I certainly can't, but plenty of publishers in the 1960s could. 

After ten rejections, To Kill a Mockingbird finally found a publishing home; but even then, the editor still demanded two years' worth or re-writes and warned Harper Lee that her book was unlikely to sell well. The publisher predicted dismal sales and ordered only a small print run. 

The book, of course, went on to win Lee the Pulitzer Prize and sell 50 million copies worldwide.  

The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings

When Tolkien sought publication for The Hobbit in 1936, he handed his manuscript over to the firm of Allen & Unwin. After reading through what he considered to be a strange tale, Stanley Unwin couldn't decide whether or not the book would be worth his while to publish. As seemed to be somewhat of a habit with him when dealing with children's books, he let his ten-year-old son read the story. If his son liked it, the firm would publish it. 

And thus, says literary biographer Devin Brown (in a line that brings tears to the eyes of Tolkien lovers everywhere), "the literary fate of Middle-earth would depend on just one rather ordinary person."

After the reading public demanded more stories about Hobbits, Tolkien launched into what he found to be grim and frightening territory: writing a sequel. He spent nearly thirteen years writing a massive epic so different from the original that he worried nobody would like it. 

He called it The War of the Ring. 

Even under pressure from readers and his publisher to finish the story, Tolkien almost quit writing several times, certain that nobody would ever want to read the book. In fact, if not for the constant encouragement of his friend C.S. Lewis, he most certainly would have given up entirely. 

Tolkien's long-suffering publisher, upon finally receiving a massive tome in quite a different style from what he'd anticipated, promptly chopped the door-stopper into three parts and re-titled it The Lord of the Rings. 

One thing seemed certain: there would be no more "Hobbit books." In a note to his publisher regarding his difficulties in writing The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien said, "It is written in my life-blood, such as that is, thick or thin; I can no other." 
The Once and Future King

Although T.H. White completed his King Arthur epic in 1941, publishers wouldn't touch it. Apparently the pacifist nature of the book's final section would be at odds with public opinion, therefore making the book unsalable. 

Fortunately, after the dust of the Second World War finally settled, White finally secured a publisher. In 1958, a full seventeen years after the manuscript's completion, it was finally made available to the public.  

The Sackett Saga and everything else by Louis L'Amour

L'Amour received over two hundred publication rejections before he landed his first book deal. 

Think about that. L'Amour faced literary rejection over two hundred times and still found the fortitude to keep submitting

While it's true that L'Amour's novels are perhaps not the greatest literary works of all time, it should be noted that his books have sold somewhere in the range of 330 million copies, providing countless hours of adventure to readers across generations.  

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone

JK Rowling's agent received twelve rejections for the first in the Harry Potter series before finally landing a publishing deal, and then only because Bloomsbury's acquisition's editor's eight-year-old demanded to know what happened next (score another win for the world's literary tots). Even so, Rowling was advised to keep her day job, since her cute little book about a boy wizard had little chance of making much money.  


* * *

If I have any point here at all, it's that rejections don't always mean what they seem. 

So if you're working on something that you're passionate about, keep after it. 

Sure, you'll fail and get rejected (and in my case, occasionally want to take a flame-thrower to your computer). But that's okay! It's all part of the process.

Get rejected.

Get over it.

Get better.


* * *


Monday, September 15, 2014

How to Visit Ruth: an Unsolicited Guest Blog Post

This summer when our friend Bryan came out to North America from New Zealand for work, he found himself with a few days to spare in transit and dropped by South Florida for a little visit. 

A few weeks later, I found this in my inbox. He's even recorded the audio to go along with the post, so make sure you don't miss it.

I leave it here for your edification and enlightenment.

And, of course, entertainment.  -R. 

Photo by a random tourist at NASA, courtesy of Bryan

How to Visit Ruth: an Unsolicited Guest Blog Post
by Bryan 

Everyone wants to meet the person behind the living legend that is Ruthette. If the dream does come true, it's entirely possible you could be so overcome with emotion in the lead-up to such a momentous event that your cognitive functions fall apart.

To save you from being overawed, here is a helpful reference so you know what to expect and how to make the most of your visit.

How to Visit Ruth:

Step One: Set Your Goals.

It's important to be realistic. Visiting Ruthette is less about doing and more about being. It's about soaking up the inspiring presence and personality that is Ruthette. Therefore do not attempt to cram things in, but leave room to let things happen in front of you. With Ruth, it most definitely will.

My goals were simple:

-Firstly, to meet Ruth and her family (that live in her immediate vicinity). This was number one and it should be with you also.

-Secondly to see the Saturn V rocket displayed at Kennedy Space Centre. Something that can deliver six million pounds of thrust and send people to the moon trumps that mouse down the road at Disneyworld, and Ruth will thank you for your choice to visit the former rather than the latter.

-Thirdly, the jump shots! 

I recommend you practice your jumping moves before the visit and experiment with different styles of jumps, especially how to extract the highest or weirdest elevations from your legs. 

I was a little rusty but fortunately in my case muscle memory from when I was young, fit, and agile cut in, and my stunt-like dive rolls produced the desired Shock and Awe (mainly shock that I might have hurt myself and awe that I didn't). 

It was probably just as well she didn't bring her mini trampoline as it would have been Shock and Oww! 

-Fourthly, I wanted to eat at her brother's Chick-fil-A, which I recommend to anyone planning a visit, especially when the classic cars are on display. 

Pro Tip: Have your camera ready. Alas I didn't react quickly enough to photograph Ruth when she spontaneously broke out into her patented non-sexy dancing routine.

-Fifthly, the traditional retail excursion. I'm not resident in the USA so my obligatory trip to Walmart may not be relevant for some of you, but if you are a fully grown male insist Ruth takes you to Walmart anyway. You're almost certain to meet people Ruth knows and their reactions are all part of the entertainment, whether it's the speechless reaction of a former teenage student of Ruth’s when he spots her standing with you in the toy aisle, deciding which Nerf Gun to buy, or the chance to clearly lip-read an older lady asking her husband "Who’s that with Ruth?" as you go driving past. If you're a married man, keep your left hand with its ring finger concealed in your pocket to improve the effect in store, and then smile broadly and wave to the older lady with your right hand as you pass by.

Step Two: More Than Meets The Eye.

Obviously you'll get to meet Ruth, and she'll be only too happy to tell you all about herself. It shouldn't take too long to figure out when you can enter the conversation and how to finish your point before Ruth starts on hers. You shouldn't need to force the issue too often, as anything Ruth says is well worth listening to, unless she gets her facts wrong. Take a few moments to observe the way her sister waves Ruth off if Ruth tries to interrupt her. This brings me to the second person. Ruth's sister, Bethany.

Contrary to popular opinion, Bethany does speak more often than we have been given to believe. You have to pick your topics though. If you know how to play a sport that she is unfamiliar with I suggest going on a horse ride with her. It gives you the perfect opportunity to explain the rules of any given sport. I was even able to explain cricket in about an hour. This is a third of the time it took on my first attempt to explain cricket to an American (almost exactly ten years previously). If you have the opportunity to impress Bethany with factoids, she doesn't know then take it. For example over three quarters of people in planes crashes survive. She knows that one now so don't use it, especially as I'm not sure if she believes me.

Finally, the third person is by far the hardest person to get to know: Ruthany

Photo courtesy of Bryan
While I was able to figure out how to relate to Ruth and Bethany individually, when you put them together, they're like one of those Transformers that combine to form one big one with a completely different personality. Don't bother trying to relate to Ruthany. Just sit back and enjoy it. Maybe they really are robots in disguise because there is no way you'll figure out their programming. They are obviously connected through an impenetrable wireless link and it would take years to hack their code. It won't spoil the fun, but it's best to just watch it unfold before you instead of trying to understand.

Pro Tip: Don't mention politics. Ruth will force you to devise a limerick before you can speak again. Bethany will ensure you never will speak again. I'm not sure what Ruthany would do, but it could involve mocking your pitiful existence. It's hard to tell.

Step Three: Enjoy the Conversation

Ruth knows a lot and is very intelligent. You can learn a lot by keeping your mouth shut and listening. The combination of her theological training and life experience is especially enriching. Her life will inspire you. Make sure you give it the chance.

Pro Tip: If you speak English you should know Ruth is fluent. You won't need to slow down every two senetences and translate everything into American.

Yet Another tip: Warn Ruth in advance if you don't want her to talk about the neural anomalies of psychotic murderers.

Step Four: Roll the Dice

Actually don't. Ruth is incredibly lucky at Yahtzee. 

Step Five: Expect the Unexpected

Ruth gave me a hug! Bethany is incredibly fast at jigsaw puzzles. The movie Rocketeer was twenty years ahead of its time. I highly recommend the high capacity of the Hail-Strike Nerf Gun with Suction tipped darts when battling your offspring.

Final Pro Tip: If you have the chance to sneak up on Ruth and surprise her at the airport upon your first encounter, take that chance! 

I didn't out of politeness, and I'll regret it for the rest of my life!

Monday, September 8, 2014

Everything You Need to Know about What It Feels Like to Be a Teacher

In the thirteen years that I worked as a classroom teacher, I spent twelve of those years teaching teenagers.

A more weird and wonderful career could not be imagined. 

While going back over some old journals, it dawned on me that pretty much everything you need to know about what it feels like to be a teacher can be found in my 2008-2009 journal.

Everything You Need to Know about What It Feels Like to Be a Teacher:

April 14, 2008: Today I tripped over the stool at the front of my classroom and nearly fell on my face. Fortunately, I managed to realign my balance by doing a kind of awkward, stumbling dance step across the front of the room. I'm telling you, my kids hardly ever have trouble staying awake.

November 14, 2008: While working on finalizing play costumes in my classroom just now, I looked up to see someone from the fire marshal's office come in to do routine check. He was kind of cute. Of course, I was standing in the center of my room holding a set of droopy men's pajamas up to myself and looking in the mirror, trying to guess if they would fit they boy playing Scrooge. I was all, "Oh! Um, hi!" I gave a little wave with one hand while trying to keep the pajamas held up with the other hand. Then I let loose with this really awkward laugh. 

Dang it.

October 30, 2008: It smells like somebody pooped in here.

November 3, 2008: On Friday, someone gave me an Amish Friendship Bread starter kit, which I promptly forgot and left in my classroom all weekend. It now smells strongly of yeast in here.

I suppose it's better than poop.

December 5, 2008: I was so proud of myself at lunch for having successfully eaten an entire container of yogurt without dribbling any of it down my front (I have bad luck with yogurt) but then I went to the bathroom and caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror and saw a black smudge of whiteboard marker on my forehead and some darker spots on my shirt that must have been from breakfast. I was less excited about my success with the yogurt at that point, but only marginally. 

A minor victory is still a victory.

February 24, 2009: Today I managed to cut myself with a whiteboard marker. It was sort of like a paper cut, only it came from the cap of a black Expo marker. The cut was surprisingly deep! By the time I'd realized what happened, there was already a bead of blood on my knuckle. I was so shocked that I stopped talking just to stare at my hand. My kids got all curious, because I never stop talking. They were like, "What's wrong?" To which I intelligently replied, "I cut myself on the marker!" 


March 27, 2009: I just wrote "January 25" on the board. It is neither January nor the 25th. Today could be trouble.

April 15, 2009: Yesterday as I was leaving for work, I saw that somebody had drawn a naughty sketch of male anatomy in the dew on my rear window. Today I arrived at work and found four (4) trash cans placed at random intervals throughout my classroom for no apparent reason. 

I'm so tired.  

April 24, 2009: Today a bee flew into my mouth while I was eating lunch. I spat it back out and kept talking, much to the amazement of the 7th graders at the picnic table with me. 

The legend continues.

August 19, 2009: I dreamt that I arrived late for the first day of school (aak, stress!) to find that my homeroom class had lined up straight out from the building, jutting off the sidewalk and straight through a hedge.

I instructed them that tomorrow they should line up on the sidewalk so as to avoid the bushes, and one of the boys said, "WHAT bushes?" 

I looked, and there were no bushes there any more.

I turned back to the line of kids and saw that the first boy in line was wearing his school uniform pants on the bottom but a wife-beater on top. I asked him why, and he said his uniform shirt hadn't come yet.

ME: Well, you can't wear that.

HIM: Why not?

ME: It's inappropriate!

HIM: My mom said you'd be hormonal about this.

ME: She said what?!

Then I woke up.

August 20, 2009: First days are surprisingly enjoyable. The kids haven't settled into their grooves yet: all is quiet on the discipline front. Everyone has clean notebooks, sharpened pencils, and pristine text books. It doesn't get any better than that. 

One boy did lose control of the pencil that he was spinning around his fingers, though. It came flipping across the aisle and bounced off my chest. Naturally, he was mortified. I felt so badly for him: he'd hit the teacher in the chest with a pencil on the FIRST DAY! Even though I could tell it was an accident, I sent him to sit in the back anyway, "to keep out of range," I said. This action was mostly taken for the benefit of the new students, who needed to see that I wouldn't be mean, but I wouldn't tolerate any shenanigans either. 

August 21, 2009:

I have made a list of personal goals for this school year, as follows:

1. Keep my hands out of the urinal as much as possible.
2. Not wait until the last minute to get ocean water for class projects.
3. Refrain from after-school tutoring if possible.
4. Pack (and eat!) a lunch every single day of the school year.
5. Find time to use the rest room at least once every day.

September 2, 2009: I ate lunch with some 9th grade boys today. Our lunch discussion: If you had to pick between fighting three tigers with your hands tied behind your back and falling halfway down the Himalayas to wrestle a goose, which would you choose? I picked falling down the mountains to wrestle a goose, because I at least have a chance of killing the goose by landing on him.

September 8, 2009: 

Snippets from parent e-mails this week:

"I would have appreciated you letting me know that this was a problem." (In response to an e-mail I'd sent her to alert her of a problem.)

"My son has Asperger's. Maybe you should try reading about it. It might help you." (In response to my query regarding how she and I could best work together to help her son adjust to a mainstream classroom.)

"Sorry that is am it it with her for volleyball." (That's the whole message.)

September 23, 2009: Today has actually been rather awful, as days go. I planned to sit down and write it all out, but then thought better of it. After all, don't we all have a list of grievances that we could rattle off on any given day?

Instead, these thoughts:

Some mornings I hate dragging myself out of bed to go to work, but I have a job.

Sometimes I do not agree with all of the decisions made by those over me, but I am glad that I do not have to make those decisions.

Rebellious teens make my life difficult, but thank God that He extends grace.

November 19, 2009: 

Things I said at work today:

1. "Please stop throwing imaginary Chinese stars at my head."
2. "That's something we all think, but do not say."
3. "Put the lizard back in the bush were you found it!"
4. "I don't care if it is an epic battle rap. It still counts as passing notes, and I am confiscating it." 
5. "When I told you that you could not use any contractions or any forms of the word you in your papers, did you think that I was not serious?" 
6. "Poe is not pleased with you." (This after conferring with the cutout head of Edgar Allen Poe that has become my unofficial teacher's aid.)
7. "Even if you use the word fornicate, it's still not a topic that I want to hear you discussing."

December 8, 2009: Were we this self-absorbed when we were in high school? Surely not.

December 17, 2009: Those three little words that thrill my heart: END. OF. TERM.

* * * *
The truth is that despite the patent use of hyperbole in the title of this post, there's really no way to understand what it feels like to be a teacher unless you've done it yourself.

It's weird and wonderful and terrible and awesome.

If this post accomplishes nothing else, I hope that it gives you an increased appreciation for the teachers in your life and in your children's lives. Most of them work terribly hard for very little compensation, and all of them could recount story after story echoing the sentiments above.

Today, no matter what else you do, thank a teacher. 

Monday, September 1, 2014

How to Be Yourself

Photo by Lisa Delgado
(Catch the audio.)

“Be yourself.”

How many times have we heard that cliché trotted out to encourage personal expression and self-fulfillment? But should we really be encouraging people to “be themselves”? 

What does the phrase really mean?

In the general sense, I think most of us are using it to encourage individuality: to inspire others, especially young people, to develop a sense of personhood which is not wholly dictated by their peers, but is fostered instead by an appreciation of inner distinctiveness.

Fair enough. 

But how do you go about being yourself?

How to Be Yourself:

1. Wear fur pants. (Or, for my UK friends, so that you don't spray your computer monitors with mouthfuls of coffee, "Wear fur trousers.") Okay, so you don’t have to wear fur pants, necessarily. But if you seek the path to being yourself through being different, then you’re going to have to be genuinely different. Unfortunately, when most people try to be “different,” they all wind up being different in the same old ways. Every once in a while, though, we meet someone who gets it right. They’re genuinely different. I don’t have to describe this sort of person to you in detail, because if you’ve met anyone like this, then you know that such people defy easy description. They’re the ones who wear the fur pants and don’t mind what you think about it, thanks very much.

The good news is that instead of being mocked for their inclination toward the unconventional, such individuals are hailed as heroes of self-actualization and widely respected for their ability to do what many dream of doing—being themselves.


2. Learn everything there is to know about freeways. Again, it doesn’t have to be freeways. As has been previously mentioned here, the ability to like what you like and not be ashamed of it is not only one of the first steps toward being awesome, but also a good way to show people that you’re not afraid to be yourself. I once met someone who regaled me with a very detailed (yet, thankfully, concise) history of freeways. And you know what? I found it halfway interesting. Not because I’m inherently interested in freeways. I mean, other than being thankful that they exist, I really couldn't give an owl’s hoot. But I like hearing people speak passionately about their own particular pet subjects, so I sat up and took notice. Here was someone who knew how to be himself.  

The good news is that such people are almost universally lauded for their depth of knowledge and the ability to launch into raptured monologues at a moment’s notice regarding the more prosaic concerns of life.


3. Become someone else completely. Learning to be yourself through becoming someone else sounds counterintuitive, but most aspects of spiritual growth do. After all, as A.W. Tozer reminds us, a Christian goes down to get up, loses his life to save it, and is strongest when he is weakest.

The Christian is also most like his true self when he learns to be like Christ.

Of everyone who’s ever lived, only Jesus has been able to show us what real humanity should look like, since he alone lived a life free of the pitfalls of sin. Only when we allow him to live in us, changing us from the inside out, can we become the best versions of ourselves possible.

The good news is that this concept—that freedom to be yourself only comes through Christ—is generally understood by the Christian community and clearly communicated to our youth.


Growing up in the 80s and 90s, I took Numbers 1-2 on the above list to heart, living them out with a kind of fierce pride. I dressed how I wanted to dress (not in fur pants, of course, because hello, Florida), I liked what I liked, and didn’t care what anybody thought about it (to be honest, looking back at the pictures, not even I am sure what I was thinking at the time). Of course I was teased, but for some reason that didn’t bother me all that much. 

Somehow Numbers 1-2 were never an issue.

But Number 3 has been a lifelong challenge, and I still have a long way to go. 

While I’m able to acknowledge my need to develop Christlikeness, there’s still something in me that resists bowing the knee, even to the Savior who loves me. While I desire consistent growth and change, I also fear it, because I know that change always requires giving up something of myself along the way.

I say that like it’s a bad thing.

May my heart learn to echo the words of John, “He must increase, and I must decrease.”