Category: Personal

Finding Resolve in the most unlikely places

I begin most days the same.  I’d like to say that I read my Bible first thing, but in truth, I skim through detroitnews.com and foxnews.com – the former to see how my favorite sports teams are doing, the latter to keep current on the national and international news.  This past Saturday the name J. D. Salinger caught my eye. http://www.foxnews.com/leisure/2013/08/25/biographers-say-new-jd-salinger-works-will-be-released-starting-in-2015  I knew the author had passed away three years ago at the fine age of ninety-one, and I was surprised to learn that there were nearly fifty years of his “yet unpublished works.”

When I was a freshman in College, only two years older than Holden Caulfield, his teen character in Catcher in the Rye, our class studied the only one of his books I’ve ever read.  It’s kind of amazing that we were actually encouraged to read the book by a University of Detroit English professor – a Catholic Jesuit institution.  In those days it wasn’t unusual for a teacher who assigned the book to be fired or forced to resign.  Even as late as 1979, a study of censorship noted that Catcher in the Rye “had the dubious distinction of being at once the most frequently censored book across the nation and the second-most frequently taught novel in public high schools.”

Like many young people of the time, I identified with the adolescent’s alienation from the conservative society of my parents and my church.  And when our professor told the class that, in an interview Salinger had stated the Caulfield character was based on his own rebellious teen years, I identified with the author as well.  It’s not that my behavior mirrored the immorality and perversion of Holden, who used religious slurs and freely discussed casual sex and prostitution – but it reflected what was going on in my mind.  “As a man thinks in his heart, so he is.”  [King Solomon, Proverbs 23:7]

Anyway, I wondered what had happened to Salinger, because, as quickly as he had burst upon the public scene, he had pretty much disappeared by the young age of forty-six.  The article went on to explain that he had self-imposed retirement from public life, but that friends, neighbors and family members all reported that Salinger continued to write.  And it’s these later works that his son has authorized to be published in the next ten to fifteen years.

The author himself told The New York Times in 1974 that he wrote daily, although only for himself – “There is a marvelous peace in not publishing,” he said at the time.  So again, I find myself identifying with J. D. Salinger, but now the reclusive one.  I have written two books myself, which I’m in the process of self-publishing through CreateSpace.com.  But each has languished for a considerable period of time on my computer hard drive, as I edit, rewrite, edit and rewrite again – and again – and again.

I guess I never understood and appreciated the courage and risk an author took to his or her ego and self-esteem when they published a creative piece of themselves.  It is a fearful thing to open up what’s in your mind to the public at large – to the evaluation and criticism of friend and foe, to familiar and strange voices – for everyone has an opinion and is free to express it – and does so fearlessly, especially in this age of the anonymous internet.  Yet that is both the wonder and the angst of publishing your work.  One of the reasons I began this blog was to test my personal resolve to deal with negative criticism that was bound to come out of such a diverse culture – of which 75% likely disagree with a significant part of my mores.

Though I truly understand Salinger’s assessment that “There is a marvelous peace in not publishing,” this week I took the step of establishing an ISBN for my book, Candlemass – a Paul Leit and Mike Trombley Mystery.  All that remains is for me to download the file and complete the design of its cover.  This will complete the second phase of my personal test of resolve and boldness.  It’s less important that someone actually purchase the book than it is that I satisfy myself that “I can do this!”  If I can, then I’ll be able to move out on the publication of the more important work, Soaring above the Storm – Practical Applications in Spiritual Warfare.  A number of people who previously attended classes my wife and I taught a couple years ago using the materials which serve as its framework have already expressed interest in getting the final document.

So if you’re a Christian and you believe God is true to His promise to guide us in every step in life when we seek His direction, then I would value your prayers for wisdom and strength to complete this task.

Why did I keep that?

Not too long ago I was reorganizing the basement shelves and came across a box of memorabilia from my elementary and high school years.  It’s not the first time I’ve looked through this stuff – I do this sort of reorganization every five years or so – and each time the pile gets thinned down a little.  Other than thousands of photographs, which I’ve been pretty good at putting into albums in a bookcase, the memorabilia stuff can now fit into one small cardboard box.

Most of the few items I’ve retained over the years can easily be explained, like my boy scout badges and emblems, the souvenirs I traded for at the Jamboree in Colorado, or even my eighth grade report on Washington Irving’s short story The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, with its colorful illustrations of Ichabod’s flight through the night.  But then there’s the one high school essay I’ve hung onto all these years – on Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage.  Why did I keep that?

It was the beginning of my senior year at De La Salle.  It was also Brother Cronan’s first teaching assignment.  In his mid-twenties, fresh out of college he was my English instructor, and he was cool.  Short and thin of frame, he had a handsome always-smiling friendly face, and a buzz cut.  His accent reminded me of my cousins in Pittsburgh, but I think he came from further east.  Brother Cronan seemed happy with his vocation and we laughed a lot while he taught.  And I wanted to make a good first impression on this man I admired.

It was early September, and he handed out a reading list and asked us to pick a book for our first report – he’d give us more directions in a couple weeks.  I picked The Red Badge of Courage and immediately began reading it – a little each night.  Near the end of the third week of classes Brother Cronan gave us our instructions – we were to choose a major character and write a five hundred word essay on a situation or difficulty the character faced and how he or she dealt with it.

Friday night I had a football game and I played middle linebacker.  I’m not sure why, because I was only 5’8” and 180 lbs and I wasn’t very good at pass defense.  We beat Salesian – one of our two wins that year.  Saturday morning I began writing the report.  I did well in math, science and foreign languages – but writing was not my forte.  Still, I was determined that this report would be great.  Brother Cronan would see my character, Henry Fleming in a new and unique light.  My tools, a dictionary and a thesaurus – I would use colorful words in ways I’d never used them before, and unique words that I’d only read in books, but had never used myself, and definitely big words (at least three syllables seemed like a good criteria.)

I wrote the first sentence.  Then I wrote it again, adding adverbs and adjectives and prepositions.  And I wrote it again and again – nouns turned into noun clauses, adverbs into adverbial clauses – the thesaurus my guarantee that I didn’t repeat a word when a previously unused synonym was available.  That first sentence turned into a sixty word introductory paragraph.  In that pre-computer age, it took me over two hours to write.  But I had developed a process that would enable me to work much faster on the rest of the report.

By Sunday afternoon I had completed an approximately 550 word essay – in eleven sentences.  For those of you in Rio Linda, that’s fifty-five words per sentence, as Rush Limbaugh would say.  Then I wrote it again, on two clean sheets of paper, in my best cursive, and stapled the pages.  As I read it one final time before I set it aside to do other homework, I just knew Brother Cronan would be moved by my masterpiece.  I even imagined him reading it to the class and citing it as an example for others to emulate.

I handed my essay in Monday morning, along with everyone else in Room 40 – and I waited for that great moment.  Near the end of the week Brother passed our essays back, with nary a comment.  At the top of my paper was a B-.  I was dumb-founded.  There were no notes on the front side of either page.

Embarrassed, I turned the essay over on my desk.  That’s when I saw the single sentence he had written on the back in red ink.  “I would have given you an ‘A’ but you and I both know you didn’t write this yourself.”  God bless Brother Cronan’s heart – I had been too clever for my own good – he had concluded that I had a college student help me.  He didn’t know my only sibling was seven years my senior, had graduated from college two years earlier, had started a job as an electrical engineer and was currently on a small island in the Philippines, in his words, “dodging headhunters’ blow-darts.”

Should I plead my case to Brother Cronan?  It wasn’t in my nature to do that.  I’d just have to suck it up.  So, when the class ended, with my head down, I moped out of the room and moved on to Chem lab.

So why did I keep that essay?  Did I learn a valuable lesson from the experience?  I’m not sure I did.  Writing still doesn’t come easy for me – and I still put enormous amounts of time and effort into it – much more than anyone else I know.  Has anyone else ever read that essay?  Not really!  And it’s probably a good idea they haven’t – because it reads like it was written by a seventeen year old boy who was trying to impress his teacher by using big words he didn’t really understand and long dangling sentences.  But at that moment in my life, I was proud of the effort I had put into that essay, and I felt good about the end product.  And I knew the truth, even if I was seriously misunderstood by someone I looked up to.