Annum Novum Faustum Felicem!

Annum Novum Faustum Felicem! Thus I wish you cheer.

Annum Novum Faustum Felicem in the coming year!

Annum Novum Faustum Felicem, as I said before;

Annum Novum Faustum Felicem now and evermore!

I presume I’ve now made plain this Yuletide wish to you.

Explication would make it mundane: a fate I fain eschew.

Ergo, Annum Novum Faustum Felicem! How so well expressed!

Annum Novum Faustum Felicem simply says it best.

Id est: Happy New Year!

~ Eugene Meltsner, Adventures in Odyssey

I would like to share these warm wishes from Eugene Meltsner, even though his words are so, well, wordy. A number of them are in Latin, and even some of the ones in English are a little hard to follow.

When I was a child, I delivered unto my listeners the following pronouncement: “People don’t always understand me when I use big words, but say let ’em learn ’em!” (At any rate, my relatives tell me I made such a statement; I don’t remember it, but that’s hardly a surprise.) Even as an adult, I sympathize with Anne from Anne of Green Gables, who declares, “People laugh at me because I use big words. But if you have big ideas you have to use big words to express them, haven’t you?”

I like wordy words, but I’ll be the first to admit they have two faults. First, the purpose of language is communication, and fancy-sounding words don’t always fulfill that purpose. What’s the point of using those words if nobody understands them?

The second problem with a large vocabulary is that is gives an impression of self-conceit. People who use big words seem like they’re showing off. In college, a classmate once accused me of shaming others by flaunting my vocabulary. His criticisms really stung. After all, I don’t consider it a personal insult if other people are more skilled than I at dancing or baseball or repairing cars. Why should anyone be outraged if I use big words? My classmate and I argued about it until a professor shut us up.

In the end, as much as I appreciate fancy-sounding words for their power to convey precise shades of meaning, I acknowledge they aren’t suitable for many contexts. The value of language is in being understood, not in seeming smart.

That said, instead of repeating Mr. Meltsner’s unintelligible benedictions, I’ll just say, “Happy New Year,” and leave it at that.

252. About Storytelling: Endearing Quirks

When I was in high school, I had a teacher named Mr. Quiring whose legendary silliness I have mentioned one or twice before on this blog.

For example, he once removed his necktie and unbuttoned his shirt during class to reveal a T-shirt emblazoned with the Batman logo. (He wasn’t really Batman, sadly.) At various times, Mr. Quiring pelted me with chocolate, brandished a meat cleaver and leaped off a chair shouting “To infinitives and beyond!”

The reason Mr. Quiring’s antics amused me so much is that he is not a silly person. Quite the contrary: Mr. Quiring is one of the most intelligent, dignified gentlemen I have ever known. It’s as though he compressed all the humor and silliness of ordinary people into short, intense bursts. Every time he did something outrageous, he reverted immediately afterward to his solemn self.

Mr. Quiring provides fine examples of endearing quirks: those funny little habits of real people or fictional characters that make us love them.

Some fictional characters are simply masses of endearing character quirks. Wooton Bassett, the mailman from Adventures in Odyssey, has too many odd habits to count: collecting fast food toys, expressing his feelings by the color of his slippers, baking jellybean casseroles and exiting his house via a slide. Wooton is fully capable of thoughtful introspection, but he’s mostly just hilarious.

Wooton BassettSome characters are less silly, balancing funny quirks with tragic flaws or struggles. Consider the Doctor from Doctor Who and Vash the Stampede from Trigun. The Doctor is an intergalactic goofball, bouncing around the universe with a beaming face and a slew of witty remarks. Vash is a gunslinger who obsesses over doughnuts, whines like a child and walks into a firefight with a trashcan lid on his head.

My thanks to my younger bro for permission to use his artwork!

My thanks to my younger bro for permission to use his artwork!

Vash and the Doctor seem sillier than Wooton, but their quirks mask profound inner turmoil. The Doctor despises himself. His travels throughout space and time are not a careless vacation, but his way of running away from past mistakes. Vash also has a lot to hide. The body beneath the overcoat is covered in horrific scars, and the man behind the goofy grin is tormented by regret for the lives he couldn’t save.

In the case of Wooton, endearing quirks are a form of comedy. The quirks of Vash and the Doctor serve a different purpose. Their odd habits hide sad struggles, and make the viewer feel more when their stories take turns for the tragic. After all, it’s easier to feel sorry for funny characters than for serious ones.

Then there is Miles Edgeworth, the friendly rival of Phoenix Wright from the Ace Attorney series. Like Mr. Quiring, Edgeworth is dignified, composed and intelligent.

Miles Edgeworth

Edgeworth also has a secret.

This respected prosecutor is secretly a fan of Steel Samurai, a cheesy show for kids about a futuristic warrior and his neverending fight for justice. Edgeworth vehemently denies liking the show, of course… but there’s his inexplicable knowledge of Steel Samurai trivia and the Steel Samurai action figure in his office.

In the case of super-serious people like Mr. Edgeworth, a single quirk can make a cold, distant character seem a little more human. Liking Steel Samurai is a weakness, but not a sin. We can respect Edgeworth, and we can also laugh at him.

Carelessly loading a character with endearing quirks is a mistake: too many odd habits, or quirks that seem out of place, are irritating. Used intentionally, however, endearing quirks can develop great characters—and make us laugh!

233. The Best Christmas Special Ever

There are one or two Christmas specials which are near and dear to my heart: for example, the Peanuts one.

Charlie Brown Christmas

After the incomparable Peanuts program, I think my favorite Christmas special is a silly sketch from the good folks at The Ceiling Fan Podcast.

The Ceiling Fan Podcast is an audio series produced by fans of Adventures in Odyssey. It’s the tale of Ethan Daniels, hyperactive teenager and self-proclaimed greatest Odyssey fan.

The Ceiling Fan Podcast

I could ramble on about The Ceiling Fan Podcast and how much I enjoy it, but I’m here to talk about Christmas specials.

(I will mention, however, that it was the creator of The Ceiling Fan Podcast who put together a freaking rap battle for this blog. He’s a really cool guy, and it was an awesome rap battle.)

In the classic film It’s a Wonderful Life, which I should probably watch someday, an angel shows a man named George how much worse the world would have been if he had never existed. Without realizing it, George had touched many lives and made an incredible difference for good.

In the best Ceiling Fan Christmas special, a man named John (a recurring character in the podcast) undergoes a similar experience… except his supernatural guides show him how much better the world would have been without him.

For example: John works as a newscaster for a failing radio station—a station confirmed to have only one regular listener. With another newscaster in his position, the station is incredibly successful. Another example: John lives alone with his cats. In his absence, a neighbor finds each of those cats a loving home—as she puts it, “It would be downright awful to have so many cats all living in one place! I can’t imagine any of them would like that very much!”

John’s conviction deepens that his life has been meaningless… and then he encounters a lonely boy named Ethan Daniels. Ethan is spending the holidays with his mom; his dad hasn’t ever been around for Christmas. At the moment, Ethan feels just as depressed as John.

Then Ethan turns on the radio and hears one of John’s newscasts. Ethan likes it, and decides to create a podcast of his own—The Ceiling Fan Podcast.

As they watch Ethan, John and his guide begin to talk, and music wells up in the background, and I shed a few quiet tears.

John’s guide explains: “This is the moment that little boy decides he wants to do a podcast, a podcast that gives him a purpose, and leads him to all kinds of adventures! And he meets some of his closest friends through it. And he has the time of this life. And it all starts at this moment. With you, John. Because of you.”

“And his podcast becomes big and famous, and changes a lot of lives?” asks John.

“No, John,” replies his guide. “It stays small… but it affects some lives.”

John seems to get it.

“Even if I only help this one kid, and it goes no further than that… it was worth it, right?”

“What do you think?”

John continues, stammering slightly. “He—he’s the one, isn’t he? The young man is—is the one who’s still listening to the show.”

“Yes.”

John concludes: “Even if I make a few people laugh, and I have fun and enjoy what I do, then it’s worth it.”

Something tells me the person who wrote this scene wrote it for himself. The Ceiling Fan Podcast isn’t big or famous. It hasn’t changed a lot of lives, but it has affected some. It has definitely affected mine. When I struggled through a bout with severe depression earlier this year, The Ceiling Fan Podcast is one of the things that kept me going.

Every time I hear this scene, I think of my lousy blog. (After wiping away manly tears, of course.) TMTF isn’t really successful. It hasn’t changed a lot of lives. It has stayed small… and it has, I hope, affected some lives.

“Even if I make a few people laugh, and I have fun and enjoy what I do, then it’s worth it.”

In what is becoming a Christmas tradition, this ridiculous holiday special—as far as I’m concerned, the best one ever—reminds me that something doesn’t have to be extravagantly successful to be worthwhile.

After all, a lot of good things have been small. Ethan Daniel’s podcast. Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree. Christmas itself began with an ordinary girl in the ordinary town of Nazareth.

Few of us are great. That doesn’t have to stop the rest of us from trying! We may not change the world, but we can brighten our own little corners of it.

Redeeming the Worst Song in the World

All right, the title of this post is a little misleading. “Friday” is the worst song in the world, and it is far beyond redemption. The song above, “Communicate,” is the worst redeemable song in the world.

Adventures in Odyssey is amazing, but this long-running Christian radio drama once made an unspeakable mistake. In 1987, a year of darkness and infamy, an episode titled “Lights Out at Whit’s End” unleashed an atrocity upon the world. This was “Communicate,” a rap song sung by two middle-aged men and a bunch of kids, whose message was… the importance of communication.

I couldn’t find the original version of the song online, presumably because “Communicate” would leave the Internet a smoldering ruin. The song was so bad that “Lights Out at Whit’s End” has not been aired since its first broadcast.

Then the brave folks over at The Ceiling Fan Podcast, a really clever Adventures in Odyssey fan series, decided to find out whether “Communicate” could be made into… well… something that didn’t stink.

I think the video above is a smashing success. Given the source material, the new “Communicate” is actually kind of awesome.

For some reason, my typewriter monkeys (who are fond of rap music) really like this video. I mean, they really, really like it. It worries me.

186. Adventures in Odyssey

Adventures in Odyssey should not exist. Every law in the known universe declares its continued existence impossible, but Adventures in Odyssey defies the odds and keeps going.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is amazing.

Adventures in Odyssey

Adventures in Odyssey is an original radio drama: an artistic medium that has been driven nearly extinct by films, television and the Internet.

More importantly, it’s a Christian program that’s really, really good.

I don’t mean to be uncharitable, but overtly Christian media is sometimes kind of awful. Christian video games stink. With a few outstanding exceptions—Gilead and Peace Like a River come to mind—openly Christian novels tend to be sappy, trite or one-dimensional. Much contemporary Christian music is horrendous. Religious films are often produced on a very low budget.

To wit, Christian media tends to be preachy, shoddy or simply bad.

Adventures in Odyssey is none of these things. Everything about the show—the writing, the music, the acting, the editing—is excellent. Did I mention the show, which has aired more than seven hundred full episodes, has been running for more than twenty-five years?

Odyssey is a little town in America; its exact location is the subject of much speculation. (At least one writer on the show has suggested the town moves around like the island from Lost.) The town’s most famous attraction is Whit’s End, an establishment for kids run by a middle-aged inventor named John “Whit” Whittaker and frequented by a colorful and ever-changing cast of characters.

One of my favorite things about Adventures in Odyssey is that it transcends genres. In one episode, an ordinary seminary student struggles to survive his studies. In the very next episode, a government spy is tracked to Odyssey by terrorists hellbent on weaponizing a deadly virus.

No other story I’ve ever read, seen or heard ventures into so many genres, and Adventures in Odyssey does it with effortless aplomb. Detective story? Sketch comedy? Spy thriller? Teen drama? Historical fiction? Adventures in Odyssey covers them all, often resorting to clever tricks like flashbacks and stories-within-stories.

One of the cleverest aspects of the show is the Imagination Station: an invention of Whit’s which is sort of like a cross between the TARDIS from Doctor Who and the virtual world from The Matrix. Basically, the Imagination Station lets a person (or several persons) enter a virtual adventure based on an event from history. This plot device allows the show to tell stories beyond the modern-day town of Odyssey, from the lives of Old Testament prophets to the battles of the American Revolutionary War.

Then there are the characters. Dash it, there are the characters.

Meet Wooton Bassett.

Wooton Bassett

“That’s a funny name,” remarks a kid meeting him for the first time.

“Yeah,” replies Wooton. “I know. It’s Old English for village by the wood.”

“Your parents were Old English?” demands the kid.

“No,” admits Wooton. “They were just old.”

After the incomparable Father Brown, Wooton Bassett is my favorite character in fiction. He surpasses even such legends as Atticus Finch, Jeeves, Anne Shirley and the Doctor in my esteem. I was incredibly honored when Paul McCusker, veteran Adventures in Odyssey writer and creator of Wooton Bassett, agreed to write a great guest post for this blog.

Wooton is a mailman, toy collector and huge fan of the highly successful PowerBoy comic series (which he secretly writes). He can play “Camptown Races,” and only “Camptown Races,” on a vast number of musical instruments. Wooton also furnishes his house with refurbished junk and produces such culinary wonders as popsicle cakes and jellybean casseroles. In everything, he acts with cheerful exuberance and perfect kindness toward everyone.

Wooton Bassett is, in absolutely the best possible way, freakishly strange. I wish he were my next-door neighbor.

Adventures in Odyssey is full of fascinating characters: Eugene Meltsner, the socially awkward genius; Harlow Doyle, the incompetent private eye; Bernard Walton, the pessimistic, sarcastic window washer; and, of course, Whit himself.

The show does a fantastic job of depicting nuanced characters. I once read a blog post by a nonreligious listener who loved Adventures in Odyssey and appreciated the respectful way it handled issues like agnosticism. Eugene Meltsner, a religious skeptic, wasn’t stereotyped or demonized, but developed with the same believable mixture of virtues, flaws and lovable quirks as the other characters.

To sum up: Adventures in Odyssey is awesome, and I wish there were more eccentric, toy-collecting, comic-obsessed mailmen in my life.

In case you’re interested, Adventures in Odyssey has a website where many episodes can be heard online.

106. How to Make Christian Media Awesome

Today’s post was written by Paul McCusker, veteran writer and director for Adventures in Odyssey and Focus on the Family Radio Theatre, and author of numerous books and plays. (For more from Paul, check out his website!) Since his work in Christian media has been phenomenal, I could think of no better person of whom to ask the question: “Why does Christian media so often fail, and how can we make it better?”

In the thirty years I’ve spent as a writer I’ve often heard Christians complain about the sub-standard quality of the Arts in modern Evangelical Christendom. The lament is that films, novels, plays, music and all other forms of Art seem to suffer at the hands of well-meaning Christians. I have launched this complaint myself at one time or another. And some might argue that I’ve contributed to the problem, considering my varied career as a writer in some of those fields.

Before we complain too much or too often, I think it helps to ask a few questions just to clarify what we’re talking about. What do people mean by “sub-standard quality”? Sub-standard compared to what? Are we measuring against the secular realm, which certainly has its share of flops (maybe even more if you consider the percentages)? Or are we measuring against something else? If so, what?

If nothing else, we need a coherent definition of success. For example, how do we measure artistic success? Is it based on a sense of fulfillment and experience—a story or song hits in all the right ways for the audience? Or maybe it’s the fulfillment and experience of the artist, somehow shared with others? I once read how the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams stated that he wasn’t sure if he liked it one of his symphonies, but it was certainly what he meant to say when he wrote it.

Are we measuring according to financial success? Is a great story something less than a great story if a lot of people don’t buy it? Or maybe we’re creating sub-standard art because we don’t have the right level of investment at the start? More money means better effort? Or does it?

Or are we measuring according to spiritual success, tallied by the number of people who are drawn closer to Christ in one way or the other?

These are the kinds of questions we must ask before applauding or dismissing the efforts of Artists. I’ve been moved by stories that I knew were not very well-made. Equally, I’ve been unmoved by stories because the flaws were impossible to look past. I’ve shrugged at big-budget films that should have gotten it right and didn’t. And I’ve watched in wonder at low-budget films that combined plot, character and theme in near-perfection.

All these questions aren’t meant to evade the issue. I’ve wrestled with them repeatedly over the years—from project to project, and audience to audience. There are so many factors an Artist in any discipline has to consider. But those factors aren’t always clear to the unwary. And success may only be an elusive hope, no matter what we do. But let’s allow that we should always do our best. Here are a few suggestions how.

I would suggest that any Artist—Christian or otherwise—must know the disciplines of Art. We must learn the craft. Master it, as much as it can be mastered. Do our very best while recognizing our limitations and the limitations of the Art we hope to master. Understand the objective rules of Art while appreciating the subjective experience people will have of it. Learn, learn and keep learning.

We must never do, nor accept, less than the very best, even if people seem to grow closer to God because of it. Well-intended rubbish is still rubbish. God can redeem our very worst efforts, but we mustn’t keep putting Him in a position where He has to. Yes, we can be forgiving about poorly crafted Art, but we mustn’t let that forgiveness excuse the flaws in a poor effort.

We have to remember that every Artistic effort has its own choices and challenges and opportunities for mistakes. The goal is to learn from those mistakes this time in the hope we won’t repeat them again next time. We learn—and we learn again.

It’s not popular to suggest it, but I believe we must understand for whom we write. Who are they? What are they expecting from us? (And if we don’t like the answer to that question, then we may be writing for the wrong audience.) It’s easy to look down our artistic noses at the very people we want to communicate with—especially when they’ve rejected us. Personally, I’m inclined to want to assume the best about my audience. I suspect that they are a lot smarter than me—and haven’t been proven wrong—and try to write accordingly.

None of this has to do with being “successful” in media, by the way. It’s only part of the equation. Our “success” as Artists is often determined by sales-people, distributors, producers, marketers, and a large number of professionals who will impact what we do and how we do it. In that world, we have to learn their rules—and try to play by them—until someone creates new rules for us to learn and follow. That’s yet another reality.

Even as I guest-write this blog, I’m aware that there’s someone looking over my shoulder, representing his audience, determining whether or not I’ve come close to what he asked me to write. And as I wind up, I have to paraphrase Ralph Vaughan Williams once again: I don’t know if I like what I’ve written, but it’s what I meant to say.

31. The Art of Blundering Hopefully

I like gloomy characters. Well, I like gloomy fictional characters; gloomy characters aren’t nearly as likable in real life as they are in fiction. There’s something strangely endearing about pessimists and their pessimism, so long as I don’t have to deal with them personally.

Puddleglum from C.S. Lewis’s The Silver Chair is one of my favorites. “Good morning Guests,” he says to the protagonists after they spend the night in his home. “Though when I say good I don’t mean it won’t probably turn to rain or it might be snow, or fog, or thunder. You didn’t get any sleep, I daresay.”

Then there’s Marvin the Paranoid Android from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, and Eeyore from the Winnie-the-Pooh books by A.A. Milne, and Bernard Walton from the Adventures in Odyssey radio series, and a dozen more delightfully depressing characters from all sorts of stories.

The problem with pessimism is that it’s not nearly so pleasant in real life. It’s difficult to put up with pessimists—and it’s much worse to be a pessimist.

Some time ago I realized something important. (I was actually going to write about it weeks ago, but decided not to post too many serious reflections in a row.) What I realized was simple—so simple I couldn’t believe I had overlooked it for so long.

I had become a pessimist. Not a nice, lovable pessimist like Puddleglum or Eeyore, but a genuine, depressed pessimist.

I suspect my long, dark Thursday Afternoon of the Soul, a year and a half of intense depression and anxiety, had conditioned me to expect only the worst. I expected the worst from myself, wrestling with insecurity and self-doubt. I expected the worst from life, living in anxiety of whatever difficulties lay ahead. I expected the worst from God, struggling to believe he could really be as gracious, loving and generous as he claims. Every trial confirmed my belief that life was a dreary business, and every blessing made me suspect there were strings attached.

Since recognizing my tendency toward pessimism, I’ve been working to perfect the fine art of blundering hopefully.

We don’t have to live in perpetual fear of the future. It holds difficulties, true, but it also holds blessings. It’s certainly no good worrying about the difficulties. We can only deal with them as they come. In the meantime our business is to trust God and do our best: believing that his grace is greater than our mistakes, trusting that he will walk with us through our difficulties, holding on to his promise that his love endures forever—to wit, blundering hopefully.

So I’m doing my best not to burden myself with guilt for past mistakes or live in fear of future ones. By faith I blunder onward, trusting that God’s grace is sufficient for me.

God’s grace is sufficient for you too, in case you were wondering.