Looking for Beta Readers

What’s a “beta reader”?

Writers need feedback of many kinds. Professional editors, of course, are essential. But another very important kind of feedback comes from “beta readers.” A beta reader is a person who’s willing to read a manuscript and offer suggestions and feedback from the perspective of an average or non-professional reader. Usually, the manuscript will have had a developmental critique by a professional editor, and will have been revised based on that critique before the beta reader receives it.

Like beta testers in software development, the beta reader looks for issues in the manuscript that distract or detract from the pleasure of the read. Glitches in the plot, inconsistencies in the narrative, confusing passages, breaks in the smooth emotional arc of the characters’ development: These are the issues the beta reader will comment on.

Beta readers generally volunteer and aren’t paid, as professional editors are, but they offer a enormously valuable service to the writer: providing the perspective of the reader, who after all is the key arbiter of any book’s success.

 

 

What do beta readers look for?

Here are some of the questions that a beta reader might be asked to consider, borrowed from Black Rose Writing, my publisher’s, blog:

  • Did the story hold your interest from the very beginning? If not, why not?
  • Did you get oriented fairly quickly at the beginning as to whose story it is, and where and when it’s taking place? If not, why not?
  • Could you relate to the main character? Did you feel his/her pain or excitement?
  • Did the setting interest you, and did the descriptions seem vivid and real to you?
  • Was there a point at which you felt the story started to lag or that you became less than excited finding out what was going to happen next? Where, exactly?
  • Were there any parts that confused you? Or even frustrated or annoyed you? Which parts, and why?
  • Did you notice any discrepancies or inconsistencies in time sequences, places, character details, or other details?
  • Were the characters believable? Are there any characters you think could be made more interesting or more likable?
  • Did you get confused about who was who among the characters? Were there too many characters to keep track of? Too few? Were any of the names of characters too similar?
  • Did the dialogue keep your interest and sound natural to you? If not, whose dialogue did you think sounded artificial or not like that person would speak?

I am currently revising my fourth novel, titled A Patriot’s Campaign, following the critique by my developmental editor, Lorna Lynch. Patriot is the fourth book in the Monastery Valley series. In the coming fall, I’ll be asking folks to volunteer to be my beta readers. Usually, I look for five experienced readers, and this book will get the same treatment.

The manuscript, when it’s ready, goes to the beta readers electronically, as a PDF document.  There is no hard and fast deadline for the feedback to come back–beta readers are generous volunteers, after all!–but the normal turnaround time is a couple of months. When the book–incorporating the beta readers’ suggestions–is finally published, each beta reader will receive a complementary copy.

I worried about that word, complementary–should it be complimentary? So I looked it up, and am no surer now than before! (This could start a heated discussion in a pub.) The book-gift could be complEmentary, as in “completing” the beta reading transaction; or it could be complImentary, as in praising the reader for a job well done.

Sigh.

If you’d be interested in being a beta reader for Patriot, please feel welcome to comment on this post and let me know, and I will get back to you.

 

Garbage–physical and spiritual–in Michael Hartnett’s “Generation Dementia”

Author Michael Hartnett’s Generation Dementia is an engaging, bittersweet, and ultimately affirming story about the garbage—physical and spiritual—that we produce in our lives.

Hartnett has given us the opposite of garbage: A gem of a story, finely cut and beautifully polished. But it’s a story about trash, or really, about lost kids—Generation Dementia—high school seniors whose lives are adrift toward emptiness and who must find some way to connect to each other and themselves. They do this in a wildly improbable way: By signing up to collect their town’s garbage every morning before school. It’s called Operation Pick-up Kids, devised by a crusty school psychologist on the verge of retirement who hopes somehow—though he doubts it’ll happen—to save as many kids as he can.

The narrator-protagonist is Hash O’Connell, newly orphaned and heading for a collapse after the death of his mother, whom he calls “the Joan.” Hash, depressed and an occasional hallucinator, signs up for Operation Pick-up Kids and slowly seeks answers to his desperate questions. For much of the book, Hash not only empties garbage pails into the truck, he also carefully selects odd pieces of trash to keep and he slowly becomes a hoarder. One of the first pieces he collects is a set of old floppy disks, one of which is labeled “the Answer,” from a deceased Pulitzer prize winning journalist who was somehow connected to “the Joan” before she died. The book follows Hash’s probing into the mysterious “answer,” which leads him deep into the secrets in his family and in his town.

Hash—we never learn how he came by that remarkable name—is a rich and fully drawn character. Michael Hartnett’s story and his writing reminded me of Michael Chabon or the early John Irving: deep emotion without a touch of sentimentality, strong plotting full of surprises and twists, and well crafted and memorable characters with wonderful evocative names. Louie Sacco, Hash’s partner on the truck, Lee Lee, a girl genius who plays violin on the truck, Grandpa Artie, Mayor Heine, Eva (who, despite chain-smoking and guzzling coffee constantly, begins to help Hash begin the long journey back to life), Big Bill Hannah, Rev. Alexander Burr (as in “under the saddle”?), Selena Omaha, the mysterious Mavellas, and of course Pulaski, the school psychologist. All these characters are vivid and true to life, and Hartnett keeps their unique voices pitch-perfect throughout.

Garbage, of course, is not only the literal stuff Hash and the kids must deal with, it’s also a profound metaphor for both the kind of society we seem to want (the town is named “Frick”) and the psychological and interpersonal mess that our dependence on smart phones and screens and our absorption in reality TV are creating. In a remarkable scene early in the book, Hash finds that he is forgetting all the passwords, locker combinations, phone numbers, ID numbers, and personal information about himself—all the information that binds him to others and to his world. He ends up standing at his locker, obsessively and futilely spinning the knob, seeking the combination for hours, and missing all his classes. It’s a heartbreaking moment— but one deftly lightened by Hartnett’s humor. When Pulaski writes an order for Hash to apply for Operation Pick-up Kids, Hash observes that he looked like a physician writing prescriptions, and thinks, “I’d rather he was handing out passwords.” Hash, despite his pain and alienation, is one of the keenest observers and genuinely funny characters I know. Remember Holden Caulfield? Hash has Holden’s edgy wit and his own broken heart.

You can read Generation Dementia simply for its enormously entertaining story, or for its engaging writing, sparkling images and similes, and wonderful characters. You can read it as a commentary on how trash is perhaps the most enduring and connecting thing human beings produce, or as a keen psychosocial exploration of the alienation and despair afflicting so many who are coming of age in a world full of garbage. But at whatever level you read it, I promise you this: The twist in the last two lines of the book will knock your socks off.

 

 

 

Michael Hartnett’s “Fools in the Magic Kingdom”

Michael Hartnett’s Fools in the Magic Kingdom is a timely, complex, and entertaining novel, capturing both the bold outlines and the more subtle nuances of the contemporary anti-immigrant trend with a combination of biting social commentary and laugh-out-loud satire.

The story is set in the Magic Kingdom—Disney World in Florida—which is a perfect metaphor for the “American Dream”: A rosy illusory world built on a hidden underworld of racism and corporate manipulation. The bones of the story involve a crowd of “Dreamers,” the young Hispanics brought to the U.S.A. illegally when they were young children, who gather in Disney World on April Fools’ Day. They are enjoying the portrayal of the country in which they so much want to remain. Opposing them are various hate groups who want to “take back our World” (meaning both Disney World and the wider American society) from the Dreamers (and immigrants in general).

Hartnett deftly weaves together multiple story lines—I count at least seven! Without spoiling anything, I note that each of the seven could carry the weight of its own novel:

  1. A group of intellectuals tries to embarrass the Disney corporation by acts of humorous subversion of Disney’s perfect world;
  2. Groups of “patriotic” haters try to “take back our World” by violently attacking the Dreamers in the Magic Kingdom;
  3. The chief security officer of Disney World struggles to protect the Dreamers and to disrupt the plans of both the intellectuals in story #1 and the hate groups in #2;
  4. An aging actress manipulates a narcissistic movie director through a day in the Magic Kingdom laced with consumption—of toys, souvenirs, food, and alcohol—in order to reignite her career;
  5. Girl (from story #1) meets boy (from story #2), they fall for one another, until a tragedy strikes (perpetrated by a guy from stories #1 and #2);
  6. An elderly do-gooder (from story #1) falls for an elderly racist (from story #2, but also story #5), and both are changed in the process;
  7. The big corporation (Disney World itself) cons and manipulates everyone to line its own coffers.

 

Disney World might in fact be the main character in the book. It both helps and thwarts all the other characters as they pursue their goals. It offers the illusion of satisfaction to all, while relentlessly parting everyone from their money. A single illustration: On the positive side, the park provides Tucker, its chief security officer, a large, nimble, and effective security team who can take control of a disturbance almost instantly and nearly invisibly. But at the same time, the park’s vast size and enormous variety of rides, features, restaurants, and shops makes Tucker’s job almost impossible—there’s no way for him to know where the bad guys are and what they’re up to.

One of the most intriguing features of Fools in the Magic Kingdomis Hartnett’s almost gleeful violation of some of fiction’s cardinal norms. For instance, there is no single plot, as I already noted. Instead, Mike mashes stories and genres exuberantly. Is this a detective story? Yup. Is this a social satire? Yup. A critique of the current social and political situation in America? Yup. A coming of age story? Yup. A romance? Yup. Its all of them, and more. The mash-ups are strikingly like Disney World: They promise (and deliver) something for everybody.

Another way Mike breaches fictional conventions lies in his agility in switching points of view (POV), often within the same scene, even (at times) within the same paragraph. Yet, he’s so smooth a “head-jumper” that I never lost the thread or became confused. As an ardent “one POV per scene” kind of writer, I took guilty pleasure each time I “heard” the interior thinking of both Character A and Character B in the same moment. Mike pulled off his crimes as smoothly as Disney World makes the illusory “real.” His novel reminded me: No rule is too sacred to break—and if you want to break rules, do it with gusto!

I am left with deep admiration for this book. The intricacy of the plot(s), the dimensionality of the characters (every “good” character had some darker flaws, every “bad guy” had surprising virtues), the skillful—and wholly unexpected—way the multiple stories became one story at the end, the extensive descriptions of Disney World rides and hidden spaces, and the evidence that the author has done extensive research into all facets of the Magic Kingdom (did you know there are “hidden Mickey’s” scattered throughout the park?)—all tell me I was in the hands of a master story-teller. Mike Hartnett is an author after Walt Disney’s own heart.

From Drafting to Editing to Polishing to Publishing, Part 3

Editing the Manuscript (and a mistake in my last post)

 

 

In my last post, I talked about drafting the manuscript and my typical process of going through multiple drafts. When I feel it’s ready, the next step is to send it to my editor, Lorna Lynch. Lorna has edited all three novels in the “Monastery Valley” series, always profoundly improving them. (Last week I made a mistake in describing my process: I actually don’t send the book to my “beta” or trusted readers until after it gets its first round of editing, because these folks are doing me a favor and I want the manuscript to be in as good shape as it can be out of respect for them. Not sure what I was thinking!)

The developmental edit

When the manuscript is ready, I ask Lorna to do two rounds of editing: The first round is a “developmental edit” (also called a “structural” or a “content edit”). In a developmental edit, Lorna dissects and evaluates the structure of the book:

  • the consistency of the plot and character development;
  • whether the necessary structural components are all present and whether they fall more or less where they should;
  • whether the pacing and emotional tone of each scene carries the story forward and is faithful to the overall story arc itself;
  • and how well the story accomplishes its goals.

She always sends back the manuscript full of notes and comments, along with a lengthy document providing a separate critique of the story, characters, plot, and overall structure.

As you can imagine, this leads me to yet another revision, sometimes two. For instance, for my latest novel, The Bishop Burned the Lady, (you can preorder it now at a 10% discount from the publisher–click on the title and enter promo code PREORDER2018.) , I worked through the manuscript with Lorna’s separate critique first, because it tends to be more “global,” dealing with the overall structure and arc of the story. Then I went through the marked-up manuscript and dealt with each individual change she recommended.

No one expects an author to accept every one of her editor’s suggestions, but Lorna’s have always been reasonable and clearly aimed at strengthening the story and the writing. I seldom, heck, almost never, decide to ignore her recommendations.

The Copy Edit

The second round of editing also has various names: “Copy edit” or “line edit” are most common. This is the classic edit wherein your pages come back all marked with red ink. Lorna, as most editors do now, uses Microsoft Word’s “Track Changes” tool. The copy editor, rather than the big-picture focus on the arc and structure of the story and the development of the characters, focuses on individual paragraphs, sentences, words, grammar, style, usage. Not to say she may not notice something bigger that either she missed in the developmental edit or that I inadvertently messed up in my revisions after it. She even does a bit of proofreading—a third level of editing that focuses on typos, misspellings, and such gremlins that happen no matter how often the manuscript is revised or how many people searched proofread it.

I find that my revisions after the copy edit take quite a while. At this point, I’m not merely revising to address the copy edit, but I’m starting to polish the prose. That may be the wrong word choice—my prose is not meant to be “polished.” I aim for a style that is spare, consonant with life and society in a small mountain town. But while I’m working through the copy edit, I’m always on the lookout for a better verb, and more pungent image, a stronger noun.

The Proofread

Proofreading is the final edit. It usually happens just before sending the manuscript to the publisher, and more formally after publisher converts the manuscript into an electronic “proof.” (In the old days of paper manuscripts, the proof was called a “galley.”) Now, they come as PDF files, and the task is to check every letter of every word for accuracy. Some proofreaders, to prevent themselves from reading the story and possibly missing errors, start with the last sentence and work backwards, sentence by sentence. I can’t do that. Instead, I hire a proofreader.

I’ve worked with two proofreaders, each of them both marvelous and meticulous—Kim Cheeley and Lorna. I met Kim, in fact, after she borrowed a copy of Climbing the Coliseum from her local library—and promptly proofread it, marked up all its typos and misspellings (she found 51, this after I had proofed the galleys twice!), and sent me the library’s copy. (She bought them another.)Since she found numerous typos, misspellings, and errors, I vowed always to have a proofreading done by a professional.

When all is done, and the proof is approved, a release date is set by the publisher. My publisher, Black Rose Writing, set April 12 as the release date for The Bishop Burned the Lady. Watch this space or my Facebook page for news about activities around the release! You’ll be glad you did!

From Drafting to Editing to Polishing to Publishing, Part 2

Last week, I wrote about how I develop ideas for my novels. It’s not a particularly sexy method, and many authors do much the same thing. This time, let me tell you what happens to prepare the early drafts—and there are quite a few—to step out in public. Typically, I write between four and six drafts before taking the next step. I worked through seven–count ’em, seven–“first drafts” of The Bishop Burned the Lady before I felt it was ready for the next step: trusted readers.

The first draft is just that, a rough draft (very rough!). I let it sit for a couple of weeks (unless I’m really in love with it, in which case like any love, I can’t bear to stay away). Draft 2 is structural—do the inciting incident, the four plot points, the three twists, the climax all fall more or less where they should? Is the build of the story–the logic of each scene following those before it and preparing for those to come–sound and compelling? Draft 3, assuming I’m satisfied with the structural integrity and logic of the story arc, focuses on pace and timing. Does the story move well? Are there slow spots or passages during which my mind wanders from the story? Does the tension build appropriately through every scene (in some fashion)—including the scenes designed to offer some relief?

Draft 4 focuses on language and style: Are the verbs robust and the nouns able to carry the weight of the job they are doing? Are the style and language well suited to the scene? By “well suited” I mean, do they carry forward the scene’s purpose and do the words themselves reflect the dominant mood of the scene? For instance, if the scene’s purpose is to show a character facing a crucial decision on which much depends, are the words tension-loaded, heavy with implication?

Once I am satisfied (well, I’m never really satisfied), I turn to my trusted readers, also called “beta readers.” My wife, Michele, is the first one. She marks up the manuscript with her well-tuned teacher’s pencil, showing me breaks in the logic or word repetitions, confusing sentences or passages, inconsistencies either of plot or character, grammar goofs, and all sorts of other errors. So now I’m back to draft 5 or 6.

When that’s ready, I call on my other trusted readers, four or five folks who graciously read as, well, readers. They don’t offer editorial advice, but they do offer their insights into the story or the characters, criticism about passages that don’t work for them or don’t fit the flow of the story, suggestions for improving it, and overall challenges targeting how to make the manuscript stronger. Their feedback is always helpful, very often nuanced, and frequently wise. I wait until I have heard from everyone, then compile their feedback into a single document organized according to the structure of the book. Emphasizing the changes that more than one beta reader suggest, I use that document to work my way through the manuscript again, draft 6 or 7.

Finally, it is ready for editing. I’ll write about that next week.

From Drafting to Editing to Polishing to Publishing

Over the next few weeks, as I approach the release date for my next novel, The Bishop Burned the Lady (now available for pre-order here at 10% off) I’m going to share some of my experiences in bringing a book from the idea stage to publication. I’ll focus these posts on the process I went through in writing The Bishop—but it is very similar to how the first two books grew.

I am always fascinated to hear from other writers how they midwife a wispy idea into a meaty draft that hangs together as a novel. My own process is not unlike many other writers. I start with an issue that intrigues me, outrages me, somehow ruffles my feathers enough to make me want to dig into it. For instance, Book I of the series, Climbing the Coliseum, arose out of my frustration about tax evasion and anti-government conspiracies, which rear their ugly heads every few years and invariably get someone killed. In Nobody’s Safe Here, the second book in the series, I toggled between wanting to explore school shootings and their underlying drivers on one hand and investigating the long-term consequences of clergy sexual abuse on the other. So I wove them together.

The Bishop Burned the Lady grew out of a story I’d heard about rural sex trafficking, specifically about how many trafficking gangs operate as businesses, but often hide behind a religious cover, pretending to be a usually secret fringe church or cult.

Once I decided this might be a big enough subject with plenty of dramatic and human emotional power, I started the asking myself “what if?” What if sheriff’s deputy Andi Pelton (a main character in the series, set in a small Montana county) was assigned to investigate a suspicious fire in the forest above the town? What if she discovers charred bones in the ashes? What if, between her visits to the fire scene—which perhaps is a murder scene—someone completely removes every clue, down to the bare earth? What if she discovers an old man living in a forest compound—with a dormitory-like building on his property—near the scene of the fire? What if she invests a lot of energy in the old hermit whom she suspects of being the leader of the sex traffickers, but it turns out she’s wrong? What if, after she’s forced to start over, she is suddenly betrayed by her co-investigator? What if she is captured by the real leader of the gang and finds herself with his knife at her throat? What if . . .?

No doubt you recognize that each “what-if” is a turning point that makes things worse for Andi. Each increases the stakes—tightens the tension—for her and for the investigation. Those turning points, once I had fine-tuned them, formed the skeleton of a plot-structure, and once I was satisfied that that skeleton could support real flesh-and-blood and blows to the human spirit and conflict galore, I was ready to start writing the first draft. That’s when it gets fun, for me.

Next, Michele, my wife and a former teacher, read it and wielded her trusty red pencil. Her critique is always invaluable at this stage, because she shows me errors and gaps I failed to see (because I was too close to the story). She points out passages that don’t work so I can either rewrite them–or send them packing. The next draft incorporates her advice–and allows me to tighten and trim the story itself. The third draft then focuses on the writing itself–making it stronger, finding more robust verbs and sharper images, sentences that sing, nouns that pop. Each draft forces me to feel the book as a whole, to satisfy myself that the pace and sequencing, the conflicts and their resolutions, the dialogs and the inner monologs are true to the story and true to the characters. And when I decide they are, it’s time for my editor to take the stage.

Next week, I’ll write about that next step: beta readers and my editor.

Is Fiction Fake News?

Writing fiction, as I do now, has allowed me to experience first hand a curious paradox: Fictitious stories are simultaneously both untrue and true. They are news of a kind, but “fake” news (to borrow an odious phrase). We’ve always known this, of course. A delightful Goodreads page of quotes about fiction confirms this. For example, Albert Camus said, “Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.”  Or this from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures.”

Contrast this paradox—that the lie of fiction can discover the deeper truth of reality—with the Trumpian and Fox-News-ian blather about “fake news.” Crying “fake news” about whatever one doesn’t like to know is a lie intended to obscure the truth. In the lie of fiction, on the other hand, I try to create a world, people, events, reactions that utterly imaginary, yet truer, perhaps, than many actual, historical places, people, events, and reactions.

And readers are the judges: They know when a place or a person or something that happens rings false, even in fantasy fiction. Readers love J.R.R. Tolkien or George R.R. Martin in part because their worlds are so palpably real, their characters so emotionally authentic.

And in reading successful fiction, by agreeing to accept the author’s lie, astute readers can have the life-affirming experience of opening to a deeper, broader, sharper truth—the truth of what it means to be human. Hiding the truth behind the whine of “fake news” steals from all of us the dignity of our human capacity to judge for ourselves what is true or false.

Hiding Behind the Mentally Ill

In my professional life, before I began writing novels, I was a psychologist. In the course of my work, I met hundreds of wonderful, courageous, loving, generous people. They all suffered some form of mental illness.

After each drumbeat of the tragic mass shootings in our beloved country, a chant arises from the right wing of the choir.

Like any chant, it follows its rubric carefully, meticulously. (Chants, you know, have no power if they are improvised, disorderly, undisciplined. Ask any monk, any member of any choir.) The chant goes like this:

We are outraged: This evil strikes again

 For the victims and their families, women, children, men:

We send our thoughts and prayers.

 

It is too soon to speak of guns,

We must honor our departed ones,

And offer them our thoughts and prayers.

 

The killer was mentally ill, an animal, deranged.

Not like us, not like those of us who exchange

Our thoughts and prayers.

 

This chant is an obscenity.

“Thoughts and prayers” are not the anti-dote to mental illness, treatment is. But what has the present administration given us regarding mental illness? A law expanding access to guns for the mentally ill!

As if to say, “We will arm your killers, and when you are dead, we will pray for you.”

Yes, outrageous. But an even deeper outrage, to me, is the way politicians hide their cowardice toward the NRA behind tough language about mentally ill persons. Their veiled (but only thinly veiled) implication is that every mentally ill person is a potential mass murderer. If “mental illness” causes mass shootings, then . . . This is not only nonsense, it is insidious, hateful nonsense. It casts a shadow on every law-abiding, loving, hard-working person who happens to suffer from a mental illness.

If I were to twist the truth in the same way about gun owners, I could write: “All mass shooters are gun owners. The problem here isn’t guns, it’s owning a gun.” (This is a variant on the NRA’s “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” It just takes it one logical step further—therefore, owning a gun is the problem.) But that would be nothing else than hateful, dishonest, and cruel nonsense, equal in depravity to “guns don’t kill people, mentally ill people kill people.”

Just as millions of gun owners are lawful, decent, caring human beings and the gun owners who kill are a vanishingly small number of them, so too millions of Americans who suffer from some form of mental illness are upright, caring, and decent people and the number of mass shooters with mental illness is infinitely small. To tar all those good people in either group with the cowards’ brush—“We don’t have a gun problem here, we have a mental illness problem”—is perhaps a more hateful and fateful evil than gun violence itself.

Why?

Because it is an evil perpetrated by those who do not need to do it, who commit it to divert attention from the real causes, the real problems, the real issues that make gun violence “as American as apple pie.” It is a vast smear against millions of decent people that further divides and weakens our country.

We don’t need to “make America great again”—it is already great.

We need to make America honest again.

Why Teach the Humanities?

In the Nov. 9, 2017 issue of the New York Review of Books, author Marilynne Robinson writes an impassioned and thoughtful defense of the humanities and liberal education in general (read it here). She reminds us that liberal education—under attack from many quarters in our rapidly deteriorating intellectual climate—is “an education worthy of a free people.” As she says, “[T]he object [of political attacks on public higher education in general and the teaching the humanities in particular] is clear—to create a virtual army out of the general population who will compete successfully against whomever for whatever into an endless future, at profound cost to themselves.” Education as boot camp for robot-like workers in the perfect capitalist economy.

Then, wryly, she adds, “All this differs from military engagement in one great particular. The generals [CEOs, in this case] are always assumed to be free to abandon their armies and go over to the other side, if there is profit in it.”

The attack on the humanities arises, she contends, out of an insistent belief that public education should be oriented only to “skills training” for the competitive economy. This article of faith is in turn driven by a world view  (dare I say “religion”?) that defines competition as the only meaningful criterion of value.

In defending the humanities and liberal education, Robinson notes that “literature had been made a kind of data to illustrate, supposedly, some graceless theory that stood apart from it, and that would be shed in a year or two and replaced by something post- or neo- and in any case as gracelessly irrelevant to a work of language as whatever it displaced.” We’re all familiar with “modernism,” “post-modernism,” “constructivism,” “post-constructivism,” “neo-post-constructivism,” and on and on. Trendy—and empty—when you set those theories side by side with Hamlet, For Whom the Bell Tolls, From Here to Eternity, or Ulysses.

But she ends on a hopeful note. “And yet, the beautiful persists,” she writes, “and so do eloquence and depth of thought, and they belong to all of us because they are the most pregnant evidence we can have of what is possible in us.”

“. . . the most pregnant evidence we can have of what is possible in us.” A call to grace in a graceless time.

“Taking a Knee”

Last weekend, we went to our grandson’s 7th grade football game. Midway through the game, after a hard tackle, he didn’t get up. His dad was a linesman, carrying the down marker; his mom was sitting beside my wife, her mother. Our breaths caught in our chests as the doctor rushed out, and knelt at the side of our grandson’s small body.

As she and the coaches were gathered round Aspen, the boys on the field were taking a knee. Sudden memory returned—when I was a boy, my football coaches trained us to take a knee when a player was down, perhaps injured. Taking a knee was a sign of respect, of concern and attention and almost of prayer.

Taking a knee, in football, symbolizes acknowledgement that an injury has occurred and that attention should be paid. We attended, watchful with worry, until Aspen stood up and we burst in applause.

And as that happened, I realized something.

Most of you, no doubt, have been aware of the controversy about the NFL players taking a knee during the playing of the national anthem. What I realized is that Colin Kaepernick—and now more than a hundred NFL players, and some MLB players—are taking a knee because there has been an injury to which they want to attend, to express concern, to show respect for the injured, perhaps to have a moment of prayer:

For the injury of racial injustice and the lingering sin of white supremacy in America, the land of the free, and the home of the brave.