T-Minus 2: Comebacks and Controversy

 

football-pic

 

Everybody loves an improbable comeback, a victory snatched from the jaws of defeat.  Unless you’ve been living in an alternate universe,  you know that the New England Patriots just won their fifth world championship. And they did it by engineering the biggest comeback in the history of the Superbowl, recovering from what nearly everyone assumed was an insurmountable  25-point deficit. One for the ages, whether or not you like the team.

This Thursday, February 9, will mark the official soft launch of my debut novel. I can’t help but see some similarities with the big game.  True, Eddie (our protagonist)  has little in common with Tom Brady — he’s not a millionaire, a celebrity, strikingly handsome, or married to a supermodel. But he is facing long odds and determined opponents. One antagonist wants to humble him and humiliate him. Still others have a much harsher outcome in mind; they want him dead.  And like the quarterback, Eddie finds himself in a very deep hole that is at least partly of his own making. Failure is not an option. Yes, he’ll make a valiant effort. But will it be enough?

For those of you have already made plans to buy the book, thank you. Here is the link to use on Thursday: http://amzn.to/2k6GVf4  For people still on the fence, I have been providing a list of random reasons to check it out. Past reasons included the fact that it’s not too sweet; it’s apolitical; and the fight scenes are real. Here are today’s reasons why I think you’ll find it an interesting read.

Location, location, location. In a way, this story happens all over the place. Eddie travels a lot, and you’ll see locations from Beaver County PA to Boca Raton, FL, and many places in between. But the opening chapters and the final climax happen in the town of Framingham , MA, a place where I lived for several years.Framingham is an interesting place for several reasons.

It dates back to before the American Revolution. It is the largest town in the state — everyplace with more population is a city, not a town. It is the largest muncipality in America with the direct democracy of a town meeting form of government. Its population is culturally diverse, much like the cast of characters in Fighting Back. But none of these things are the reasons the setting matters to the book.  That’s about an unusual bit of history I dug up while doing my research.

There is a surprising real-life connection between Framingham and two more famous Colonial Era towns. What our protagonist knows of this helps drive his decision making. Once I found out about this history, I couldn’t imagine the story being set anywhere else. if you like settings that are as alive as the characters in the story, I bet you’ll like Fighting Back.

It’s Controversial:  Yoko Ono said,”Controversy is part of the nature of art and creativity.”  I don’t know whether she was right about that.  I know I didn’t set out to court controversy in writing this book. But I seem to have done so anyway. One author, who is also a pastor, called Fighting Back “the most controversial Christian Fiction I have ever read.”  And he liked it. This Thursday, I invite you to find out why.

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Don’t Kick the Bears

Today is T-minus five. The Great Leap Forward is set for Thursday, February 9. That’s the date the e-book should appear alongside the print version of Fighting Back. It’s also the day I hope to see my novel  catapulted to number one in sales rank in the biblical fiction category. I’ll be making an appearance on a nationally syndicated radio show in support of the book that morning. There will also be a blog appearance or two, and a Facebook launch party with an “ask me anything” segment. If you haven’t purchased your copy yet, but are planning to, please do so on February 9. That would really help me out. And if you’re still wondering whether this is a book you would enjoy, here is one more random reason to buy:

The fight scenes are real. I was reading the first few pages of a novel yesterday. A group of people were camping when a grizzly bear attacked. Women and children were in peril. Fortunately, a heroic man raced out of the tress and launched a flying kick at the bear, knocking it off its feet. Wait. What?!?  A large female grizzly can weigh up to 800 pounds. Males can weigh more than twice that amount. Either sex is powerful enough to wrestle moose and elk to the ground. I can’t picture a man kicking one over. The fight continued. Man and bear both got to their feet. The bruin stood on its hind legs and swatted at the man, who made a sweeping motion with his arm and blocked the blow. A grizzly can rip a door off a car. That swipe should have taken the guy’s head off, and he blocked it? I closed the book at that point. It may have been a perfectly wonderful story, but that unrealistic fight scene made me unwilling to read further.

All the fights in my novel happen between people. (No bears were harmed in the making of this book.)  I made sure the fight mechanics were realistic by interviewing a  boxing trainer and a Mixed Martial Arts fight coach. I watched scores of YouTube videos, from UFC matches to street brawls. Sparring partners helped me with choreography by going through the moves at speed to make sure the scenes worked. The result is realistic fighting that still manages not to be too (wait for it) … grisly.

Tomorrow: Location, location, location!

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Because Destiny. Or Clerical Error.

I’ve been planning my book launch for a while now. Tuesday, February 7 would be the big day. There would be a daily countdown on this blog, and multiple events on launch day. Well, the calendar is changing. Due a clerical error my book designer made when uploading files to Amazon, Fighting Back is actually available now. Surprise!

I prefer to think that the unexpected acceleration of the schedule is becasue destiny can’t wait. That just sounds more awesome than clerical error. Whatever the reason, anyone who is in the mood can click right over to Amazon and buy it here:  http://amzn.to/2k6GVf4

I’m still going to post the series of articles that were planned for the countdown. Only now we’ll be counting down tot he release of the e-book versions, which will be up on February 7 (if the schedule holds). Print book or e-book, I know there are some 32 million titles on Amazon, with around 4,500 new ones published every day. With so many books to choose from, you might need a reason to choose mine. I’ll publish a couple of random reasons every day. Without further ado, here are today’s:

It’s Not Too Sweet  Refined sugar is out these days. (Tip of the hat to you if you are old enough to remember when “it’s not too sweet” was a jingle for Canada Dry ginger ale.) Maybe you’ve read stories with characters that are unbelievably sweet. They’re always kind, considerate, and wise. They float through life unruffled by the forces that buffet those with less faith then they have. They’re better Christians than anyone you know.  The believers in Fighting Back are sincere in their convictions, but they can struggle with putting those convictions into practice. Real people aren’t always ideal people. If you’d rather read about the trials and triumphs of imperfect people like the ones you know instead of quasi-angelic heroes, I think you’ll like this book. It’s realistic. A little bit gritty, even. Definitely not too sweet.

It’s Apolitical. You found this post via Facebook or Twitter. And let’s be honest; your social media feeds resemble a battlefield right now. Your Progressive Democrat friends are posting endless fear and loathing of the Trump administration, just like your Conservative Republican friends did throughout the Obama administration. I’ve seen right-wingers posting that they don’t understand how anyone could vote Democrat and call themselves Christian. And I’ve seen left-wingers posting that believers who voted for Trump are obviously not Christ-like. Want a book that considers deep moral issues without demonizing half the country? Check out Fighting Back.  Give yourself a break from politics. Trust me, all the Internet rage will still be here when you get back.

So there you have it! Countdown to e-book launch (currently T-minus 9) continues tomorrow with two more random reasons you might like Fighting Back. Launch day will feature a nationally-syndicated radio interview, a couple of blog appearances, and a Facebook party with some cool giveaways. Stay tuned!

 

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I’m with Anton

bruckner

Having been raised on classical music, there are lots of composers whose work I like. But there aren’t many I can relate to. I mean it’s hard to feel much in common with someone like Mozart, a genius who wrote his first symphony at the age of eight and his first opera at twelve; or JS Bach, who, in addition to writing what many consider the greatest single piece of music in the western canon (Mass in B Minor), composed so much that his collected work comprises sixty volumes. These men seemed to operate on a whole different level than ordinary mortals.

But I can relate to Anton Bruckner, a humble Christian composer from Vienna.  Never heard of him? Blame his more illustrious peers for taking all the limelight. The other famous Vienna composers included Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, and Mahler. It’s not easy to stand out in a crowd like that.

Bruckner was a bit of a late bloomer. He wrote nine symphonies in all, all composed between the ages of forty-two and seventy-two.

The man had his share of struggles. At the premier of his Third Symphony, which he conducted at the Vienna Conservatory, the audience was not impressed.  First they laughed. Then they began filing out. When Bruckner finished and turned to take his bows, he was shocked and humiliated to find only an empty room. I like to remind myself of this story whenever I feel like my work isn’t appreciated.

Though I may be a late bloomer releasing my first novel at age 53, and though I have had my share of bitter disappointments (who hasn’t?), and though I’m surrounded by deservedly more famous writers, none of these things are the main reason I feel a kind of kinship with Brother Anton. It’s more about a shared conviction. Bruckner was  a devout man who wrote a choral work called Te Deum (“Thee, God”). He is reported to have said, “When God calls me to Him and asks me: ‘Where is the talent which I have given you?” Then I shall hold out the rolled-up manuscript of my Te Deum and I know that He will be a compassionate judge.”*    That quote really resonates with me, especially considering the searing memory he must have had of his less-than-compassionate audience for the Third Symphony.

Fighting Back is finished. I poured heart and soul into it.  I think it’s good, but I can’t really know what other people will think of it. That’s a little scary. Will I turn around to face enthusiastic applause, or the humiliating echoes of an empty house?  Whatever happens, I am willing to put it in the Lord’s hands, and I know that He will be a compassionate judge.

What about you? Whatever your passion, your business, your ministry, your self-expression: Do you ever put it all out there and wonder if you really should have? Is getting the proverbial cold feet a familiar sensation? How do you get yourself through it?

  • Classical Music: The 50 Greatest Composers and Their 1,000 Greatest Works by Phil G. Goulding. p 357

 

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Life Imitating Art

Spoiler alert: The following post contains a spoiler for my forthcoming novel Fighting Back.  If you’d rather be surprised by the plot points, skip this one and wait for my next post later this week. If you don’t mind knowing more of what the book is about than the summary on the back cover reveals, then read on.

A few days ago, I picked up a Boston Herald to read during lunch. I read about a police raid in Brighton (a Boston suburb) that saved ten women who appear to have been victims of a human trafficking operation.  The account made my jaw drop. The article is here. http://www.bostonherald.com/news/local_coverage/2016/11/tip_led_cops_to_alleged_human_trafficking_hot_spot

I’ve spent the last three years learning about human trafficking as part of my research for this book, so I knew that suburbs all over America play unwitting hosts to criminal enterprises like this. It’s everywhere, including in a neighborhood near you.So my shocked reaction was not due to any surprise that the hideous crime of sex trafficking was going on in an average borough full of two-family houses.

Rather, it was about  how the location of this particular bust mirrored what is described in the novel. The alleged house of ill repute described in the Herald is just steps away from a busy and active church that has been at that location for decades.  At least three times per week, church members  probably parked near this house and walked in front of it on their way to service, completely unaware of the people being victimized within earshot of their worship. This real-life tragedy reads almost exactly like the fictional one I dreamed up for Fighting Back: :

He took special note of the Framingham location. It was on Union Avenue, just one block from Solid Rock Church. Say it isn’t so. Innocent women might be held in bondage a stone’s throw from where two hundred people met weekly to sing and shout about deliverance and freedom. 

I wrote my fictional account of a brothel located next to a church hoping that the irony of the location would add a little extra emotional impact to the story. Reading about that very thing happening in real life was more unpleasant than I would have imagined. It was made worse still by the fact that I know the church in question, having once attended it myself. Though three decades have passed since I was a member, I know the kind of people who go there. They are, for the most part, loving, caring people, the kind who would give you their last dollar or the shirt off their backs. Who knows how long this great evil coexisted next to so much love and good will? Who knows how such darkness flourished unnoticed by the light?

When I first found God, I wondered if I was supposed to become a missionary and travel to Ethiopia or Pakistan, or some other far-flung place. I now know that my calling, like most people’s, is to the residents of my own neighborhood.  Sometimes the people in most desperate need of help are in a tidy little house or storefront business on your block. Making that point was one of the reasons I wrote Fighting Back. But I still I wasn’t quite prepared for the emotional jolt of life imitating art … so close to home.

The vigilant man in the newspaper story took one approach to human trafficking on his street. My novel’s lead character takes quite a different approach. Tell me in the comments: What would you do if you suspected this was going on in your neighborhood?

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A Time to Worry?

The 2016 presidential campaign has got me thinking of the potential fallout. If I were the type to worry, I think I’d have a lot to worry about. For instance:

  1. I’d worry that we have lost the once sacred concept of the secret ballot. I don’t have any political bumper stickers on my car. There are no candidate signs on my lawn. I don’t use my Facebook page to declare my allegiance to this candidate, or my steadfast opposition to that one. I’m going to walk into a voting booth, pull the curtain behind me, and exercise my right to vote in secret. I’m not going to tell you for whom I voted. If I were the worrying type, I’d worry that people have forgotten that keeping one’s mouth shut is always an option, and a great way to avoid a nasty political argument.
  2. I’d worry that churches will lose their moral authority and distinctiveness. By throwing themselves mind, body, and soul into the political process, churches and church leaders of every stripe have allowed themselves to become more identified with political candidates and party platforms than with the gospel message.  The church is not supposed to be the spiritual arm of any political party. Paul was determined to become “all things to all men, that by all means I might save some.”  That’s harder to do when the church has practically hung Democrat or Republican signs over the pulpit.  Likewise, Paul warned Timothy that a spiritual warrior does not “entangle himself in the affairs of this life.” Today’s church is about as politically entangled as I have ever seen it.
  3. I’d worry that we have forgotten one of the key lessons of The Holocaust. Jean Francois Steiner’s book Treblinka details how the camp guards would sometimes select a Jew at random and force him or her to make a brutal choice: the inmate was to choose ten people to be killed. If the inmate refused to pick the ten victims, then the guards would kill one hundred people instead. By forcing them to choose what seemed “the lesser of two evils,” the Nazis tried to make the prisoners complicit in the murder of their fellows. But it was a false choice. Everyone imprisoned in those camps was there to be murdered.  An inmate’s choice of ten victims did not “save” ninety.  Believing there was a lesser of two evils was delusion; the whole system was irredeemably evil. Likewise, I reject as a false choice the idea that it is my duty to vote for whomever I perceive to be the lesser of two evils in this election. By voting for evil, I become complicit in it. Evil never turns out good, and the idea that Evil #1 will turn out better than Evil #2 cannot be verified or proven. I imagine there were people in Pre-War Germany who supported the Nazis only because, compared to the Communists, they seemed the lesser of two evils.
  4. I’d worry that the division, the rancor, and the scapegoating that have characterized this season will continue unabated after the election. The fabric of civil society is being rent in pieces, and it may never be mended. And I’d worry that otherwise spiritual people will fail to see the spiritual forces at work in all of this. Remember the scene in The Fellowship of the Ring when the big argument breaks out at the Council of Elrond? Did you see and hear what the One Ring was doing while the people bickered and fought? Real life is something like that. Ephesians 6:12 says, “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly ”
  5. I’d worry that no matter who gets elected, America’s best days may be behind it.

Of course, all of that is only if I were the worrying type. I’m not. I refuse to worry, because worrying accomplishes nothing. Worry is just fear dialed down to simmer rather than dialed up to boil. It is destructive to mind, body, and spirit. So I’m going to put on some Chopin nocturnes, plan my work week, and plan next weekend’s teaching. Maybe I’ll write a sentence or two in my second novel. I’ve got a dozen cool things on my to-do list.  Don’t you? Truth be told, we’ve all got better things to do than to worry.

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Irreducibly Complex

People are complicated, no matter how we wish them to be simple enough to define with a single word.  Muhammad Ali is a good example to start with. Few dispute that he was “The Greatest” when it comes to boxing.  He reached the pinnacle of his sport three times, beating the likes of Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier, and George Foreman in their primes. He had speed, fluidity, a gracefulness of movement not normally associated with boxing’s heavyweight divisions.

He was also charismatic, an entertainer  whose outsize personality dominated every interview.  There is usually nothing so dull and predictable as athletes talking. That was not the case with Ali.

Outside of the ring, his generosity to strangers was well-documented.

His political stands were either heroic or shameful, depending on whom you asked. His refusal to enlist in the Vietnam era cost him what likely would have been the three best years of his career, but he wouldn’t back down. He saw no reason to risk his life for a country that, at the time, offered him and other black people second-class citizenship. I understand that; my own father remembered black WWII veterans who shed their blood abroad, only to come home to states that forced them to ride in the back of the bus and avoid drinking at whites-only water fountains. Ali took an antiwar stand, held his ground and took his lumps.  Many people couldn’t understand  his point of view, and never forgave his refusal to serve.

And then there was his personal life.  Four wives. A long string of extramarital affairs. Nine acknowledged children, and possibly quite a few unacknowledged ones, some of whom are living in poverty. Given all of this, it’s no wonder the online comments on Ali’s many obituaries are so wide-ranging. Some say he was a hero, RIP.  Others say he was a bum, and good riddance. [I’ve got to wonder about people who post sentiments like “good riddance.”  Is that the kind of thing you want his survivors to read?] The truth is, you can’t sum up such a complex man with a single word. He was a superlative athlete, a great showman, a political lightning rod, a generous neighbor, a philandering husband, an absentee father. In other words, he was a complex character.  Isn’t everybody?

When Michael Brown and Ferguson Missouri were in the news every day, a lot of “All cops are heroes” sloganeering was flying around the Web. That view  is more than a little myopic.  Would you  name as heroes the plainclothes cops whose aggressive driving caused a near collision with a mail truck, and who then roughly arrested the on-duty postal worker for yelling at them about their driving? The New York City police commissioner sees their actions as disturbing, not heroic.http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/nypd-oversaw-postal-worker-arrest-loses-badge-gun-article-1.2584376   Or how about the South Carolina cops who pulled an illegal traffic stop, followed by a no-probable-cause body cavity search of a humiliated man on a public street in broad daylight? http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/white-s-cops-give-black-man-illegal-public-cavity-search-article-1.2585402  And there can be nothing heroic about shooting a fleeing man in the back and then planting a taser on his corpse to try to justify the shooting. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/08/us/south-carolina-officer-is-charged-with-murder-in-black-mans-death.html  Do a Google search on the name “Frank Serpico,” and you will get a pretty eye-opening look at a classic case of institutionalized police corruption.

But some cops are indeed heroes. Maybe lots of them.  Not necessarily famous, not celebrated, but quietly protecting and serving their communities, putting their lives at risk for others. My brother was a career cop who once pulled five people from a burning minivan, saving three generations of one family. Was that a heroic act?  I think so.  Is “hero” the term that best sums up my brother’s life and career?  I don’t know.  I didn’t get to see him live his life or do his job day in and day out. Like most people, he is probably a complex mix of the admirable and the not-so-much.

I’ve seen this post pop up on my Facebook a few times today. https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10154112456717696&set=a.421145862695.193437.750062695&type=3&theater  I’d have no problem with it if it said “the problem might not be your leadership, the church you attend.” By saying that the problem isn’t those things, it goes for simplicity at the expense of truth. It wrongly insists that the institution is never the problem. The leaders are never at fault. People in pulpits are guiltless, and people in pews are always at fault. As one who often occupies a pulpit, I understand the attraction of that idea. But the truth is that people and their interactions are irreducibly complex. Wisdom and folly, truth and error, innocence and culpability are a part of every human life. From the pulpit to the door, there is no simple one-size-fits-all description of people and their problems.

If you can see that, then you will recognize the people of Fighting Back. I write about complex characters who defy one-word descriptions, people who combine strength and weakness, the profound and the banal, the heroic and the lamentable. I think that’s what makes them real.

Was Muhammed Ali a hero or a bum?  Yes. That’s what made him so fascinating.

 

 

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