An Open Letter to Toastmasters About Pathways


The new Pathways website is Coke II for Toastmasters. From a User Experience perspective, it is simply not ready for primetime. Extend D.T.M. program availability, and steer people towards D.T.M. pursuit until Pathways becomes adequate for public use and people abandon the old D.T.M. track manuals because they simply can’t compete with Pathways for member attention.

An XKCD comic parodying product improvements

Dear Toastmasters;

I’d like to quote from an old posting from my site, old enough that it was actually provocative when it was posted:

When the Master governs, people are hardly aware that he exists.
Next best is a leader who is loved.
Next, one who is feared.
The worst is one who is despised.

Lao Tze, Tao Te Ching, tr. Stephen Mitchell

In looking at various award review sites, I have seen people equating creative web design with good web design. This is not simply in acknowledgement that creativity is one of the gifts of the human mind and an indispensable part of the great triumphs of human culture. It goes further to take the perspective that “good web design” means design that impresses the viewer with its creativity. This perspective, which is almost never questioned among awards reviewers, is one which is eminently worthy of question.

Good acting does not leave people impressed with how good the acting is. The very best acting leads people to be so involved with the drama and tension that they forget they are watching actors at all. Not all acting reaches that standard — which is a very high standard — but acting has the quality that, at its best, it is transparent: people see through the acting to the important thing, the story.

What are the basic responses to my A Dream of Light? In order from best to worst:

  • Best: The reader is moved by the images and stimulated by the ideas, and leaves the reading a wiser person. Perhaps this involves being impressed by the thoughts, but the reader who is impressed is impressed as a side effect of the literature’s power. The reader leaves the reading thinking about the writing’s subject-matter.
  • Second best: The reader’s primary response is to think about how smart I am, or how eccentric, or something of that sort. The writing has not completely succeeded. The reader leaves the reading thinking about me.
  • Worst: The reader reads it and walks away thinking about the page’s design, even how clean and uncluttered it is. The reader leaves the reading thinking about the web design.

If a reader walks away from that piece of literature thinking about my web design, the design is a failure. The design is as bad as a photograph where the scene is blocked by the photographer’s thumb.

It is sometimes easy for webmasters to forget that readers spend most of their time viewing other pages — not figuring out mine. I intentionally employ a standard web design in nearly all of my pages: navigation bar to the left, and a body to the right with dark text on a light background, different colors for visited and unvisited links (with visited links looking washed-out compared to unvisited links), no frames, judicious use of emphasized text, a header at the top, and navigation links at the bottom. I do not use any technology just because it’s there — one page uses Java, and has content that would be almost meaningless if the applet were not there. The design on my home page is not creative, because it is intended not to be creative. I copied best practices from other sites and from friends’ suggestions, in order to make a design that gets out of the way so readers can see the content.

To adapt a classic proverb: Don’t bother to impress people with creative design when you can impress people with creative content. My web design is not evidence of any great creativity, but many readers have found the content in what I’ve written to show considerable creativity. I employ a very standardized web design for the same reason that I use standard spellings and grammar when I write: I want people to be able to see through them to whatever it is I’m writing about. Yf spelynge caulze uttinshun too ihtselv, itt yss mahch herdyr too thynque abaut whutt iz beeynge sayde. If, on the other hand, people employ standard spellings, readers can ignore the spelling and focus on the point the writer is trying to make. The spelling is transparent. Spelling is not where you want to demonstrate your creativity. And neither, usually, is web design.

Now, does that mean there is no place for creativity in design? No! In I learned it all from Jesus, I had each sentence a different color from the one before, andnone of it black — which I regard as a legitimate artistic liberty. The Quintessential Web Page is aiming at a quite different effect (humorous rather than artistic), and it does other things that are not ordinarily appropriate. In this page, I use the content to draw attention to the design — also not normally appropriate. These things are not a special privilege for me; I just mention my pages because they’re the ones I know best. There’s some really beautiful Flash art on the web. One human-computer interaction expert has created a usability resource that is one of the ugliest pages I have ever seen, and does almost every major no-no on the list. This is as it should be — he is making a point by demonstrating features of bad web design. In that regard, making a page that is singularly annoying makes the point far more forcefully than an exemplar of good web practices that says “Be careful that you don’t have text that’s indistinguishable from your background.” It is perfectly acceptable to stray from general rules if you have strong and specific reason to violate them. I learned it all from Jesus, in my opinion, is a unique and valuable addition to my web page — but if I made every page look like that, my PageRank would drop through the floor.

Picasso said, “Good artists copy. Great artists steal.” Great artists never believe they have to invent everything from scratch to make good art — instead, they draw on the best that has been done before, and use their own creativity to build on top of what others have already accomplished. In web design, this means making a site that is usable to viewers who have learned how to use other sites.

A careful reader will notice one element of design on this site that is not standard, but should be. Designers for major sites, who often have excellent vision, will put navigation links on the page, but make them as small as they can be and not be completely illegible. This is a truly bad idea, and I don’t understand why it is so common. (Maybe web designers forget that some of us only have 20/20 vision?) The navigation links are some of the most important links on most web pages, and I wish to say, “Yes! I consider these links important for you to be able to read and use, and I will proudly let you read them at whatever your preferred text size is, not the smallest size I can read!”

I will consider this to be a successful design feature if you weren’t aware of it until I pointed it out.

A bit too self-congratulatory perhaps, and my design has changed, perhaps for the worse.

Now back to Toastmasters.

Every one of the few Distinguished Toastmaster (D.T.M.)-track printed books I have read is formulaic. I do not mean this as a dig: it is a very good thing. They are, and should be, formulaic, meaning that people don’t have to figure them out, because people open the first page already knowing how to use the book. Someone who is reasonably bright and determined stands a good chance of eventually making D.T.M. status without ever bothering the Vice President of Education about how to use the manuals. They are not only intelligently written; they use conventions successfully.

What is User Experience?

User Experience is an information technology discipline that is all about “Let’s not forget the user.” Every other part of the IT picture besides management that I am aware of is based in the sciences; communication is important, but the work product is ones and zeroes, and things built from ones and zeroes into something bigger. User Experience is different, and it draws primarily from the humanities. The User Experience professionals who worked at Xerox PARC and made the foundation for what became the Apple Macintosh were anthropologists, pure and simple. There are other disciplines that are relevant besides anthropology are psychology, linguistics, philosophy, and so on, but the work product is not building things from ones and zeroes, unless you count software like a word processor. It is a better understanding of how people interact with a particular system.

If you’d like to read further, I highly recommend Laura Klein’s UX [User Experience] for Lean Startups, which does an excellent job of introducing User Experience on a shoestring budget.

I would like to give one concrete example so as not to speak in colorless generalities. I was going to say I was going to nitpick a small detail, but while this may be a nitpick, upon reflection I do not consider it small.

There are three things about the popup that seems to do the lion’s share of the work that leave me puzzled. More specifically:

  1. That segment of the website is implemented with a popup window, as opposed to, for example, a lightbox within the page, a new browser window, or just being the whole page. This means that users won’t get to access something very important unless they dig into parts of the browsers most users never see. Speaking for myself as a professional, I go into my preferred browser’s settings all the time for IT reasons, but I don’t know how to browse to turn pop-up windows on or off or make exceptions for individual sites; I have to search. I am at a loss for why Toastmasters members are put through this choice.
  2. The popup window does not match its content in size. This means that, if the person tries to expand the window a bit, a feat of some dexterity is necessary, and it is necessary when the popup appears because the system doesn’t remember the user’s change. I am at a loss for why Toastmasters members are put through this choice.
  3. Lastly, I am at a loss for why the scrollbars have been confiscated when you can get them for free. (Someone thought that scrollbars are ugly and the page would look prettier if they were suppressed?) It is quite easy in CSS to only display scollbars when they are needed, and it may be the default behavior. I am at a loss for why, given the two points above, scrollbars are confiscated from Toastmasters members.

This is more or less the tone for the whole site.

The red flag hitting a User Experience professional again and again, about the site and the organization that implementented it, is comparable to starting a brand new car and being greeted by the overpowering smell of burning petrochemicals and seeing smoke escape from under the hood.

Jakob Nielsen, who was one of the founders of what is now User Experience for websites, gave some cardinally important maxims, such as “Zero learning time or die,” or “Users spend most of their time on other sites.” My own site uses a WordPress “child theme”, meaning a variation on a standard theme that (in this case) visitors have seen on many other sites. I try to respect this basic wisdom.

It is also a rule of thumb that if you are explaining to people how to use your site, that’s because you know on some level that it’s confusing. No D.T.M. material I’ve read opens with a “How to use this book” page.

One other cardinal finding that is really a matter of politeness at core is that if there is a site that’s confusing, people feel stupid. Worse, most visitors will blame themselves for being stupid or whatever, and not a website, if the website leaves them confused.

(There was a comic strip that I failed to track down that said:)

What Users Need (Amazon)

A classic and relatively simple Swiss Army Knife.

What Stakeholders Want (Amazon)

The legendary "everything but the kitchen sink" legendary Wenger Giant knife.

Where does this leave Toastmasters?

Where does this leave Toastmasters?

Actually, it leaves Toastmasters in a surprisingly good position to profit immensely from a mistake.

One thing I heard at a first job is that “Sunk costs are not an issue,” and “In a healthy company, 40% of all projects are scrapped.” This usually does not mean that people are honest with themselves and realize a project should have never have been started in the first case, or that they had no business being involved in that area in the first place. More often the thought is, “It was the right thing to start, it was the right thing to continue, and it was the right thing to stop.”

Second of all, copyright issues aside, a good Python shop should be able to clone the present Pathways site within a month, and possibly modify from there.

Third of all,, I would recommend that Toastmasters hire a good Python shop and a good User Experience lab, treat the existing site as an alpha release, and improve from there. (Or better, try to make a web equivalent of the program that made Toastmasters famous worldwide, and improve from there. The resources to do better are available, and they are within easy reach, possibly much easier reach than the current solution.

Do you believe that “Toastmasters is for everybody?” Put your money where your mouth is. The present Pathways implemention is manifestly not for everybody, or at least not yet. It’s confusing and it’s causing needless calls for help. Keep your manuals and the D.T.M. track available. They are for everybody in letter and in spirit.

I remain available for questions or suggestions. I have knowledge of Python, known for getting a lot done quickly and well, which has facilities like Django (where “The web framework for perfectionists with deadlines” is not just a tagline), and I have interest in User Experience. I’m not sure I’d be the ideal person to tackle either side, but I have general knowledge in those areas.

And most of all: make D.T.M. a wide open door, at least until Pathways is genuinely ready for our members.

A toast: To the next and better Pathways implementation!

A green Toastmaster Christos Hayward, Competent Communicator, Sergeant at Arms

(P.S. How can you know when Pathways is ready? Very simple. It will go viral among members and clubs, and there will be no need to exhort, sell, or force people to use Pathways because they will adopt of its own. You can know when people stop ordering your excellent D.T.M. track materials. They will go the way of the horse, for routine U.S. transportation, if you make Pathways a good enough car.)

Fr. Cherubim (Jones) Anathematized by the Canonical Autonomous True Orthodox Synod in Dissent, of the Dregs of the Dregs of Rubbish Outside of Rubbish Bins (RORB)

Satire / Humor Warning:

As the author, I have been told I have a very subtle sense of humor.

This page is a work of satire, inspired by the likes of The Onion and early incarnations of The Onion Dome.

It is not real news.

[Editor’s note: Our first reporter, assigned to investigate directly with the Canonical Autonomous True Orthodox Synod in Dissent, of the Dregs of the Dregs of Rubbish Outside of Rubbish Bins, ran away screaming. A more seasoned reporter was able to locate a Church scholar with a strong heresiological and religious studies background, who was willing to speak on the record; the official was available for comment but has requested conditions of anonymity.]

Reporter: So how do I get to the bottom of all this? What on earth is “the Article by which the Orthodox Church stands or falls?”

Scholar: Fr. Cherubim, like many after him and even those who anathematized him, retained significant Protestant attributes long after being received into the Orthodox Church. The concept of an Article by which the Church stands or falls stems from the Reformation, when Martin Luther rightly or wrongly pressed the entirety of theology as it was then known into a very small nutshell and cut off things that wouldn’t go in. He had a famed three Sola’s: “Sola gratia. Sola fide. Sola Scriptura,” that we are saved only by divine grace, saved only through faith, and accept Scripture alone as authoritative. The “Article by which the Church stands or falls” is that we are saved only by grace. It was, to Luther, the only doctrine that mattered: if you know whether the Church believes in salvation by grace alone, that is really the only question worth asking.

In Fr. Cherubim, called “Dead Cherubim Jones” by those who anathematized him, there are large bits of intact Protestantism that have survived and gotten a brushstroke or two of Orthodox décor. With or without anyone anathematizing anyone, the zealots, written CATOSDDDRORB, owe Fr. Cherubim a tremendous debt. There is no longer an Article by which the Church stands or falls, but now an Article by which the Orthodox Church stands or falls. Where the former was concerned with momentous questions of grace and salvation, this is concerned by how many miles across the universe is.

Reporter: Dead Cherubim Jones?!? How many mile—whaaa? Is there an indictment of ecumenism in all this?

Scholar: Hmm, yes, those types will give you quite an earful about ecumenism, but there is genuinely more going on. Let me take on a couple of housekeeping details before addressing the meat of the matter.

First, CATOSDDDRORB correctly notes that when people spoke of “Blessed Cherubim Jones,” they were making a twisted use of language. For many, many centuries, someone recently deceased in the Lord is referred to as, “Of blessed memory.” When Fr. Cherubim’s posthumous work came out, he is quite straightforwardly called “of blessed memory,” just like many people are referred to as being “of blessed memory” in the years following their demise.

It is an available alternative, and you find this in figures as ancient as St. Irenaeos, that instead of saying, “So-and-so of blessed memory,” things are packed in a bit to refer to that person of “blessed So-and-so.” So shortly after the death of an Alexander Schmemann or Vladimir Lossky, one can be entirely right to refer to “blessed Alexander Schmemann” or “blessed Vladimir Lossky,” and this is not just for famous people. A recently reposed member of your parish may just as rightly be called “blessed So-and-so,” and other things as well.

Fr. Cherubim’s camp abused this custom to effectively give Fr. Cherubim a seemingly official honorific that sounds like a type of saint. The term sounded more and more official as “blessed” was hardened into a never-dropped “Blessed,” and since this did not satisfy, “Blessed” became “Bl.”

Then when Fr. Cherubim had the temerity to challenge Protestant assumptions in posthumous unearthed texts, the “Canonical True Autonomous Orthodox Synod in Dissent, of the Dregs of the Dregs of Rubbish Outside of Rubbish Bins” split off from another jurisdiction whose name I don’t remember, and as their first act, anathematized Fr. Cherubim. Their second act was to collectively realized that “Bl.” really only meant “dead,” and that it would be calling a spade to refer to their former pioneer as “Dead Cherubim Jones.” With emphasis on “Dead.”

Reporter: Wow. You’re bending my brain.

Scholar: There’s more; if you need to, take a walk or sit outside for a few minutes. I’ll be here.

Reporter: Ok; thanks. Is there more?

Scholar: Ok. Have you heard Alan Perlis’s quote, “The best book on programming is Alice in Wonderland, but that’s just because it’s the best book on anything for the layman?”

Reporter: Now I have.

Scholar: Precise measurement as we know it didn’t exist. We have a platinum one meter bar under lock and key; we have measuring implements made to the most minute precision we can. Whereas, in the ancient world, under conditions of poverty that you can hardly imagine, having all kinds of measuring tools would be costly on tight purses. So, among other units of measure, they used parts of their own bodies for measurement. If a man straightens out his forearm, the distance from the outside of the elbow to the tip of the finger would be one cubit: a solution that was free, sensible, and practical. It, by the way, remains a brilliant idea today: circumstance permitting, if you want to measure a distance of a certain general neighborhood, if you don’t have a measuring implement handy, you can measure it in cubits, multiply it by some other tool and divide by the length of your body’s cubit. Voilà: approximate measurement in a pinch when you don’t have any artificial measuring-tool.

This may not be a direct observation of the Bible, but literature in the medieval West had creatures who at times appeared to be the size of insects and at others reached adult human stature, and there was a remarkable lack of interest in nailing down an exact size for such wondrous being. The astute viewer may watch some cartoons that take radical changes in size to be perfectly unremarkable, and entirely natural.

Now there are certain translation issues between the Hebrew and the Greek for the Old Testament, possibly stemming from relations between the arm and the leg. The “hand”, in modern Greek, interestingly extends to the elbow, and “daktulos” without further clarification can apply to either fingers and toes. Scientifically speaking, an arm and a leg are the same basic kind of thing; their proportions are different and their uses are different but they are each one of our four limbs.

And what gets really interesting is when you take Protestant fundamentalist efforts to determine the size of the Universe from the Bible.

Reporter: What’s that?

Scholar: According to the Hebrew and the Greek Old Testaments, the CATOSDDDRORB devotees yield a size of 4000 miles for the Hebrew, and 7500 for the Greek, and they decided to do things the Orthodox way and settle with the universe conclusively being 7500 miles in size.

Reporter: Um, uh, ok… does that do any real harm?

Scholar: Maybe, but that’s not really the point. The CATOSDDDRORB eagerness to straighten out scientists’ “backwards understanding of science” has irritated a number of members of the academy.

Reporter: That’s not too bad.

Scholar: There’s worse.

Reporter: Present CATOSDDDRORB members were scandalized when some further manuscripts were put to publication.

First, Fr. Cherubim said everything we said above and more. He said that a “foot” may be a unit of measure, maybe, but a foot of what? Of an insect? A dinosaur? Ezekiel seems to specify an explicitly human cubit. The Old Testament in either Hebrew or Greek seems to trade in “feet” (I will not comment on some ambiguities), but not “foot of man” as such.

Second, this draws on mathematical subtlety, but a distance on earth, straightened out as much as a sphere permits, corresponds to a certain angle of an arc. Distances between places can be a linear measure of how much surface is crossed, or (if they are straight) they can be an angle.

What this means is that distances, if we are dealing cosmologically, are cosmological distances. There are the difference represented by an angle between two rays from the earth’s center. In normal science, scientists are quick to use so-called “scientific notation” where the total size of the universe is a mouthful of 500,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 miles wide but you write it as 5.0e+23.

But here’s the interesting thing. Fr. Cherubim was not dogmatic, or at least not dogmatic about the size of the universe.

Reporter: Huh?

Scholar: Of course he was dogmatic about some things; he is dogmatic that this universe in entirety belongs to God, and scarcely less adamant that God could have created the universe at any size he wanted. However, his scholarship on the universe’s size never really nails down dogmatically that the universe is either 4000 or 7500 miles wide, or a number with lots of zeroes. If you are at all careful, you will recognize that he mentions something more devastating to CATOSDDDRORB: the size of the universe does not seem to be a particularly live question, or one that attracted particularly much debate. The Fathers didn’t really make a fuss about it. But he also fails to vindicate the standard model. Not only does he not make known use of scientific notation, but he does not seem to name the numbers that motivated people to create scientific notation in the first place, or for that matter numbers at all. One gets the impression that he envisioned a “middle-sized” universe, incredibly large to the CATOSDDDRORB crowd, ludicrously small to standard science. The gist of his writing is not to help people get the right numeric calculation. It is, here, to draw to people’s attention to how much they don’t know, and gently draw their attention to greater things.

Reporter: What was the reaction to that?

Scholar: In a heartbeat, “Blessed Cherubim Jones” became “Dead Cherubim Jones,” and the new Canonical Autonomous True Orthodox Synod in Dissent, of the Dregs of the Dregs of Rubbish Outside of Rubbish Bins anathematized him. The chief complaint was that he failed to buttress their efforts to take a beloved Protestant ambiance in Biblical exegesis, substitute the Greek for Hebrew Old Testament, and make their calculation of a 7500 mile wide Universe into the Article by which the Church stands or falls.

Reporter: This has been very interesting. Do you have any further reading to recommend?

Scholar: Sure! Here’s my spare copy of Alice in Wonderland!

Meet Characters Who Riveted Me. Meet Me!

A screenshot of the homepage

This is my homepage; for better or for worse, this is where I am now, and I have written quite a lot. The home page has a picture of me at Times Square at the top, and lots of discussion of humility further on. This is entirely deliberate.

“This is where I am now:” The site you see before you represents, more than anything else, quite simply my life’s work. Much of it is packaged and available as books or ebooks to curl up with, from my author site on Amazon. It is a vast and varied collection, and I invite you to explore, but not try to read everything. I have only met a scant few people who have read everything I offer here, a collection that is longer than the Bible.

I have had quite a journey getting here, and I would like to introduce you to a few characters who have been signposts along the way. In nearly all the cases, I was too wrapped up in my identification of that character and I needed to let go of something increasingly unhelpful.

A cover image for Madeleine l'Engle's "A Wind in the Door"

A Wind in the Door was my favorite children’s book, from well into my childhood, to well into my adulthood. I was irresistably drawn to the character of Charles Wallace, and surprised when I was told I very much resembled him. Charles Wallace:

  • Is a six-year-old boy.
  • “His IQ is so high it’s untestable by normal standards.”
  • Is getting roughed up in school.
  • Is reading Darwin, but it hasn’t helped. (Maybe he should have been reading Intelligent Design.)
  • Gathers thoughts from loved ones’ minds.
  • By the end of the story, kythes: communication as angels communicate, mind to mind, heart to heart, in indescribable intimacy.

Earlier on, I was drawn primarily to Charles Wallace, and later on the figure of Blajeny. Though Blajeny is introduced as a “Teacher” and states that Charles Wallace has a Work but will never be a Teacher, Blajeny is a mature Charles Wallace. The figure of Blajeny is mysterious, (“Mr. Blajeny? Sir Blajeny? Dr. Blajeny?”—”That is all of my name you ever need to know,”) but the name may have been taken from the Slavonic and Russian Блаженны, meaning Blessed as the term is used in the Beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount. He offers the wisdom of an alien world:

Where is my school? Here, there, everywhere. In the schoolyard during first-grade recess. With the cherubim and seraphim. Among the farandolae.

It is also Blajeny who teaches other characters kything.

Cherubim and seraphim are the highest ranks of angels; farandolae are fictional sub-cellular life which power mitochrondria, which are a real energy powerhouse found in human cells and are slightly munged in Star Wars as “midichlorians”, where they have everything to do with energy.

A screenshot of a site with a short story, or Socratic dialogue, of Blajeny from Madeleine l'Engle's "A Wind in the Door"

This site (the domain has lapsed) was a single page site with a fan fiction story or Socratic dialogue. It features two rotating hypercubes (4-cubes), called tesseracts in the book and much science fiction literature from a certain period. The presentation may be a bit archaic, as nobody uses backgrounds like that now, but the presentation attests to the draw the content had to me.

A cover to Robert A. Heinlein's "Stranger in a Strange Land."

Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land is about a race of one. Protagonist Michael Valentine Smith grew up biologically human but Martian by culture. The book is a bestseller, a cult classic, and has never gone out of print. It also has any number of things that are creepy. The author grinds the most incredible and unexplained axe against all guns and firearms, but at least in the story gives a hearty endorsement to casually killing and eating human beings. Also, from fairly early on the protagonist is ushered into the company of four lovely women who most of the time scarcely show any needs, baggage, boundaries, or jealousy.

Be that as it may, the story is riveting, although some may lose patience with where things were going when Mike was out to change the world. (The book is a candidate for the ;abel of, “Each chapter was better than the next.“) Michael, who is absolutely brilliant is a figure who pioneers a new way of being human, a common cultural thread in modern times, and the story offers a believable portrayal of someone who is highly gifted. Perhaps because I was impaired not by my own choice, I hated it the first time I read it but the second time through loved it. There is a thread of wholly given attention, and intimacy, in continuity with A Wind in the Door.

I used Stranger in a Strange Land as a model for Firestorm 2034. My version is one quarter the length of Heinlein and at least one reader said he liked it better than Heinlein. One obvious explanation is that the problems and offensiveness in Stranger in a Strange Land are present in Firestorm 2034, but to a lesser degree.

My Looking at Stranger in a Strange Land as a Modern Christological Heresy may be of interest to readers familiar with the book.

A closeup to the cover of Robert A. Heinlein's "Stranger in a Strange Land."

At one point in Stranger in a Strange Land the women are standing in line so Michael can kiss them, which comes across as extraordinarily. A live question is raised over whether any of them will faint. But the author offers a believable surprise when the father-figure Jubal asks Anne what is so special about how he kisses:

“Is this something different?”

Anne pondered it. “Yes.”


“Mike gives a kiss his whole attention.”

“Oh, rats! I do myself. Or did.”

Anne shook her head. “No. I’ve been kissed by men who did a very good job. But they don’t give kissing their whole attention: They can’t. No matter how hard they try parts of their minds are on something else. Missing the last bus—or their chances of making the gal—or their own techniques in kissing—or maybe worry about jobs, or money, or will husband or papa or the neighbors catch on. Mike doesn’t have technique… but when Mike kisses you he isn’t doing anything else. You’re his whole universe… and the moment is eternal because he doesn’t have any plans and isn’t going anywhere. Just kissing you.”

I’ve quoted, or wanted to quote, that passage in contexts that have no direct connection to sexuality. For instance, refraining from multitasking at work; I remember when the business world started to recognize that the fractured attention of multitasking is not a good thing, not good for the work or for the employee. Or on a video clip, a CEO explains as “a hack” that her mother, a homemaker, whether she was giving you cookies or doing anything else with you, gave you her whole attention. This point is at least an undercurrent in Technonomicon: Technology, Nature, Ascesis. The late Thomas Hopko’s brilliant 55 Maxims include, “34: Be awake and attentive, fully present where you are.”

The cover to C.J.S. Hayward's "Merlin's Well".

The figure of Merlin attracted me from an early age, and I’d like to give some sophisticated reason why, but for a number of years, even if I took Merlin as a nickname, I simply pined for some great and supernatural power. Not that there could be no resonance here: the literature on giftedness contains comments about the abilities of children at extremes can seem like magic powers. Playing AD&D was frustrating for me in that for most players, the character represents a vicarious step up in power, but I found myself making a vicarious step down in power, even if my character was named “Merlin.”

A friend recommended Steven Lawhead’s Merlin to me, not when I asked any question about the figure of Merlin, but when I asked about literature that portrays gifted children well, apart from A Wind in the Door. That point is not front and center to the story but it is only done well.

A book cover for C.S. Lewis's Space Trilogy, which includes "Out of the Silent Planet," "Perelandra", and "That Hideous Strength."

C.S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength is a difficult book to appreciate for many, but once it is appreciated, people tend to really, really like it. (And, for some, want to revisit the passages with St. Anne’s company, including Merlin, over the dull banality of evil in the N.I.C.E.)

One basic distinction in literature and writing is between flat and rounded characters. Of the definitions of the difference, the one that most readily comes to mind is that a rounded character believably surprises the reader. One reads these surprises occasionally: hence King David in the Bible prays, weeps, and fasts while the ailing child of his affair was alive, but then washes up and gets back to normal life when he learns of his child’s demise. However, they are ordinarily occasional. The figure of Merlin in C.S. That Hideous Strength comes close to dealing nothing but believable surprises, and may be the most riveting character I’ve encountered in literature.

The cover to C.J.S. Hayward's "The Sign of the Grail."

The novella in Merlin’s Well and The Sign of the Grail stemmed from when I spent too much time reading Arthurian legends, but it also serves to house the major elements of an intended thesis that got squashed by my university. In Arthurian legend there were kisses enough, and I do not think I handled the text roughly. (I did ignore certain parts, like incessant medieval action-adventure style fighting.)

Before I wrote Looking at Stranger in a Strange Land as a Modern Christological Heresy, I wrote in Grail a Christmas homily which unfolds Merlin to say that if he were deepened and expanded, he would look more and more like Christ.

The cover to the Classic Orthodox Bible.

(I have posted and withdrawn the Classic Orthodox Bible, first because I had pastoral encouragement, and second, because this sort of thing needs a bishop’s blessing, and I have not been granted such.)

In Orthodoxy, there is a great emphasis on deification: we are to become by grace what Christ is by nature. Or, as the saying has rumbled down the ages, “God and the Son of God became Man and the Son of Man that men and the sons of men might become gods and the sons of God.” This is the entire point of Orthodoxy.

One detail of English translation is that one particular word in Greek and Latin is translated by two separate words and introduce a distinction not in the original languages. We have the Apostle referring to “Jesus Christ,” and the Psalmist saying “Do not [violently] touch my anointed ones.” But it is the same term, and in the Classic Orthodox Bible the same term is used: “Christ” as the Latin and Greek alike have christus and χριστο&sigmaf in both kinds of passages. This may or may not all boil down to doctrine—probably it doesn’t—but there is perhaps a shadow of another ambiance that differs between East and West.

A 19th century Russian icon of Christ the King.

When at least some people enter Orthodoxy, there is a quest to find a new name, a Slava or patron saint. It is believed that the choosing runs both ways.

When I was getting ready to enter Orthodoxy, I had picked out the names “John Adam.” John for St. John the Theologian, because I wanted to be a great theologian in a thoroughly Western sense, and “Adam” because I wanted to be, in the fashion of Stranger in a Strange Land, someone forging ahead with a new way of being human. And yes, there’s as much proud narcissism in both of them as it appears at first glance.

I struggled long with my conscience, and when I finally surrendered, the name that was ringing in my ears was “Christos,” a name being read commemorating Orthodox for some need. And now that is the C in “CJS Hayward”.

People have sometimes assumed that it was out of pride that I took the name I took. In fact what I experienced was a check on my ample enough pride, and from the moment of repentance.

All figures but one in this collection are toxic if held too tightly. The one exception is Christ the King, here portayed in a 19th century icon. He holds a king’s orb. All the others, if I have wanted too much of some prominent feature, I have gotten into trouble. Like almost being named “John Adam,” and I don’t care here about the technicality of whether Adam is a saint. My problems were much bigger. By accepting the name of “Christos”, I rejected a Messianic fantasy.

Christ is not the only person who is worth emulating, worth holding as a hero. The Orthodox Church has an extraordinary collection of saints, a real treasurehouse to admire and imitate. Some have said that Russians learned about Christ, not from the Gospel but from the saints, and that is sad if it is true, but it catches something about the saints. Each one gives a glimpse of Christ’s face, if you have eyes to see it.

Best wishes!

You might also like…

Character Sheet

The Sign of the Grail

Looking at Stranger in a Strange Land as a Modern Christological Heresy

Within the Steel Orb