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.

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.   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?  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.  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.  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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Picture This

I’m giving away a free copy of my forthcoming book — in exchange for a little help. As publication launch day approaches, I need to commission a great book cover for Fighting Back.  You may remember that I had one hastily drawn up in time to use it in last year’s book trailer. As time went by, I realized that cover wasn’t going to cut it.  It reminded many people of a Rocky kind of story, which Fighting Back definitely is not.

If you never saw it, here it is:

Fighting Back, Front cover, original

While I liked the grittiness it conveyed, I had to admit it was a bit self-published looking. I wanted a cover that was indistinguishable in quality from any book on the shelf at Barnes & Noble.Time to start over.

So I went to the good people at 1106 Design in Arizona to see if they could help.  They were the ones who’d done the cover for my nonfiction book Making Mammon Serve You, and I thought that was a home run.  Maybe lightning could strike twice?

I told them what the novel was about, in terms of both plot and theme. I let them read the first chapter, as well as the climactic scene. I supplied a dozen random quotes from other places in the book to convey its tone. I told them I wanted the cover to visually represent  the genre as well as the feel of the story. I wanted no faces on the cover, so readers could “see” the characters as they wished.

From this relatively blank slate they gave me four designs, from which I chose one to refine.  Since the primary job of the cover is to attract the  eyes of readers and invite them to pick up (or click on) the book, I thought I’d ask readers which of these cover versions they like best.

Fighting Back Cover 5

Fighting Back Cover 6

Besides the obvious difference in background color, covers 5 & 6 are very similar. In #5, the word “Back” is in white, and opaque, while in #6 it’s black, and you can “see through” to the stairway beneath. In #5, the church silhouette is black, while in #6 it’s the same as the swatch of background color.

And then there’s this one. Cover 7 is like Cover 6 with a different background color, and the author name occupies one line of type instead of two.

Fighting Back Cover 7

So which of these speaks to you? Do you have a clear favorite?  Would you mix and match, say, the steeple from one with the background color or author name font of another? Vote in the comments below. One voter will be randomly chosen to receive a free signed copy of the book when it goes to print! Thanks in advance for your feedback.




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Confessions of a Modern Luddite

I’ve always had an uneasy relationship with technology. It’s not that I dislike it on principle. I just dislike the perception that I can’t get away from it. Take video screens, for example. Half the restaurants where I might go for a late dinner have one or more TV sets blaring at me. They’re mounted in the hallways of shopping malls. On the seat backs of charter buses and many cars. They’re mounted above the pumps at self-serve gas stations.  In short, they’re everywhere.

Well, almost everywhere. I haven’t had television in my home in more than ten years. It’s not just that I don’t subscribe to cable or satellite TV. I don’t even have an off-air antenna.  And I don’t do Netflix, or Hulu, or any of the other streaming services. So I’ve never ever seen American Idol, or Dancing With the Stars, or Lost, or Game of Thrones, or whatever else people fill their evenings with these days. And that’s simply because I decided long ago that I’d prefer to live a real life myself rather than sit on my couch watching actors portray an imaginary one. If you have a TV, I’m not dissing you for it. It’s just not for me.

I came across this spoken word presentation on Facebook:  It’s a cool message, cleverly delivered.

It’s always surprising to see how big a problem the “wired” lifestyle is for some people. Maybe I’m just lucky that I never fully bought into it.  Yes, I have a Facebook account. And I’m peripherally involved in Linked In. I don’t do Twitter, Instagram, or any of the other ones. I also don’t Skype, and I rarely text, except perhaps to tell someone I’m running late for an appointment.

I’m definitely not one of those who will spend four years of his life looking down at a phone.  Ninety percent of my cell phone use is for business, and I routinely turn it off after business hours. If you call me, you’ll get voicemail.  It’s nothing personal, it’s just that I have a phone for my convenience, not the convenience of anybody and everybody who wants the power to reach out and interrupt me at will. Those images of people checking their phones over dinner with another person? That’s just rude. Would they read a newspaper or a magazine in the same circumstances?

I do wonder about people who find time to locate and share twenty five videos and other links per day on social media.   And I don’t mean that in a “look at all the lost productivity” kind of way, although…look at all the lost productivity! My main issue is that the tactile immediacy of interaction with the natural world is just hands-down more satisfying than any cyber-substitution.

My MMA instructor is a serious outdoorsman. From him I’m learning to improve my map and compass skills, as well as learning about edible plants, and numerous tricks of the survivalist trade. There is nothing online that compares with fresh air, sunshine, and a lunch of wild berries and pine needle tea (more vitamin C than an orange!). I still have a lot to learn. But I love the idea that one day soon I could park the car by the side of the road and walk off into the wilderness and be fine.

My next door neighbor is a fishing enthusiast. He knows all the great trout fishing spots in the area that don’t get crowded. I’m going to get him to show me just a few.

Another buddy is an automotive technician turned engineering student. I hang out with him and work on my car. My daily driver is twenty-three years old. Driving a new car requires only money. Driving an old one without spending a fortune on repairs requires some mechanical chops and ingenuity. I’m having a blast developing both of those traits.

Many of my Christian friends send me videos of various musical groups performing hymns. I enjoy them. But if you think How Great Thou Art is good on a video monitor you ought to try singing it yourself while looking at a beautiful vista in the wilderness. Talk about goose bumps.

I wouldn’t trade an hour of time under the hood, or beside the stream, or walking cross country for a hundred more “Likes” on Facebook. I don’t believe all screen time is wasted time, and I don’t believe all use of social media is evil or even silly. It’s just seriously settling for a distant second to real life.

If you’re still reading at this point, thank you. Now shut down your device and go outside. See, touch, taste, smell the natural world. Walk around in it and think about something besides politics and pop culture. Leave your phone off. This is real life. Remember it? You can thank me later.



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Making a Difference: Top-Down or Bottom-Up?

I recently watched a video from Prager University, the online soapbox of Dennis Prager, in which he explained the core differences between liberals and conservatives in America.  It came down to their views on how to make the world a better place. Liberals, he said, want to improve the world by improving society. It’s macro, not micro. It’s top-down.  By contrast, he states that conservatives want to improve the world by improving the moral character of the individual. It’s micro, no macro. It’s bottom-up.

It reminded me of a similar disagreement in the world of investing. Fundamental analysts are bottom-up people. They think investing success is found in analyzing the business plans and balance sheets of individual companies. Find a company with a good product or service, loyal customers, good management, and good cash flow. Evaluate that company’s prospects for future growth. If it looks good, buy it and hold it for the long term. Pay no attention to markets and all the blather on financial TV and radio shows. It’s micro, not macro.

Opposite the fundamental analysts stand the technical analysts. They couldn’t care less about individual companies. They want to know what the whole market is going to do next, or at least certain segments of it. They analyze moving averages, support levels, resistance levels, and all sorts of arcana to predict whether stocks in general will rise or fall tomorrow, or next week, or next quarter. It’s about predicting investor behavior and riding the trend. They believe the intrinsic value of a particular company is irrelevant, as a rising tide will lift all boats (and an ebbing tide will lower them). It’s macro, not micro.

So who is right? Both of them, actually.  It feels strange to say that, as I feel that technical analysis has more in common with playing poker than with investing.But while I remain convinced that the fundamentals rule in the long run, that’s faint consolation to buy-and-hold investors who get croaked in the short run while their market-timing brethren occasionally manage to be out of the market for a big correction. There are times when both approaches contribute to the bottom line.

The same is true politically, by the way.  Without the moral improvement of the individual citizen (bottom-up), no amount of legislation can create a just and righteous society. However, it is sometimes the reality of top-down change that confronts individuals with their need for personal moral improvement. The end of slavery and of Jim Crow were top-down affairs. If the country had waited for individual personal growth on these issues to reach critical mass, we’d still be waiting.

In the world of investing, people tend to be exclusively fundamental investors or technical investors. Few can appreciate both. Politically, people tend to play for the liberal team or the conservative team. Few can admit that both sides have occasionally been right at important times.  Whichever side you’re on, it’s easy to believe that the other side has nothing meaningful to contribute. We’re more likely to demonize our opponents than we are to dialogue with them.

In Fighting Back, our protagonist Eddie accidentally learns of a major social problem, a hideous injustice going on under everybody’s nose. There are advocacy groups whose mission is to raise awareness of the problem. And numerous organizations lobby government to create more stringent laws to control this problem. This approach is  macro, liberal, top-down. Are these organizations good? Important?  Yes and yes. But if you were to meet, say, a starving child in your travels, please know that he doesn’t need you to raise the public’s awareness of child poverty, and he doesn’t need a lobbyist. Speeches and candlelight vigils won’t help him, and neither will laws named in his honor. He needs food, and probably medical care. Now.

Eddie gets this. He enlists all the top-down help he can get, but knows that’s not enough. And in seeking a bottom-up solution to the evil he encounters, he just might save himself.

I’m really liking this story. The manuscript is done. The countdown to publication begins.




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Appearance Versus Reality

One of the enthusiast car forums where I hang out has a running joke, a stereotype of a young new member’s first question. It goes something like this: “Hi!  I just bought a new-to-me 540i 6-speed in Alpine White over black. It has a slight oil leak, and it shimmies when driving between 55 and 65 mph.  It pulls left when braking. I’ve had to top off the coolant twice in three weeks. I don’t like the stock 15-inch wheels, so here’s my question: will 19s fit?”

The “joke” inherent in this hypothetical (but not uncommon) post is that the car owner is neglecting serious mechanical issues to focus on appearance. Fancy rims may make a car look good, but they don’t make a good car. A good car rides, handles, and stops optimally. It has properly sorted systems, and doesn’t leak hazardous chemicals all over the environment while risking an engine-destroying overheat. The smart owner won’t spend money on cosmetic cool at the expense of his own safety.

Many people willingly substitute the appearance of a thing for the thing itself. Take prosperity. Do you know someone who has a closet full of designer clothes, thirty pairs of shoes, a 50-inch smart TV, an i-Phone 6, and a stylish new car? Do they also have big debt, little savings, and lots of stress? Perhaps they are one layoff away from moving into their parents’ basement, assuming they don’t live there already. In Texas, that’s called  “big hat, no cattle.” They have the appearance of prosperity, but not the substance of it.

Physical safety is another area where appearance often trumps reality. Flown on a plane lately?  The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) was created in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks. Despite the massive investment in airport countermeasures, many experts feel that the TSA provides “security theater” — a display of tactics designed to make the public feel safer, without actually being safer. There is an interesting article on this topic here

Someone posted a picture on Facebook showing a man accompanying a woman down a narrow sidewalk in an urban area.

couple walking

More than a 142,000 people have shared the image so far, Thousands commented. The vast majority pointed out what they thought was obviously wrong: “a true gentleman always walks on the outside, between his lady and the street.”

I disagree. A right-thinking (I like that label better than “true”) gentleman will place himself wherever he can have the most positive practical impact on the woman’s safety. And that’s not always the same place. The “gentlemen walk on the outside” rule hearkens back to an era when the typical dangers involved chamber pots being emptied from upstairs windows or muddy water splashing up as horses and carriages went by on the unpaved roads.. So the man positioned himself on the outside in order to take the brunt of those indignities. Today the biggest issue in some locales would be street crime. The couple can’t see who might be lurking around the corner at the end of that construction wall. Google “the knockout game” for some of the unpleasant possibilities. The man might best place himself between the lady and a potential assault from another pedestrian. I know that when I’m out walking with Priority One, and we’re approached by a group of men coming in the opposite direction, I invariably place myself between them and her, regardless of where this puts me in relation to the street. She appreciates my attentiveness to such things, because real security interests her more than the appearance of it.

Some will object and say that the biggest risk is oncoming traffic, and the man in the picture should place himself between the woman and the cars on the street. I note that the pavement is dry, so there are no puddles to protect her from. And if a car loses control and veers up onto the sidewalk, the man’s 190-pound body won’t shield her from the impact of a rolling 4,000-pound machine. Unless his last name is Kent and he hails from the planet Krypton, his only hope of saving her is to move her out of the car’s path. With that construction wall to his left, he can’t move her out of harm’s way in that direction. He may need to save her by propelling her the other way, toward the street, but out of the path of the onrushing car. He can do that more readily from where he is.  Some threats can’t be evaluated until they develop. A truly safety-conscious man would have started contingency planning earlier in their walk. Is there a wider, safer sidewalk on the other side of the street? Could they avoid that construction wall with its blind corner by crossing over or going around the block? Those are questions asked by a a man who wants the woman to actually be safe, rather than merely feel safe. At the very least, he shouldn’t have his hands in his pockets. He should be ready for anything. The point is that risks to our physical safety are fluid and dynamic, and our responses must be too. Getting locked into static rules such as “a gentleman always walks on the outside” is about appearances. It’s classical chivalry as a form of security theater.

Church is another place where appearances can deceive. One quickly learns how to look the part of a good Christian, by showing up reliably for services, dressing appropriately, and maybe testifying now and again. Dotting one’s Facebook posts with platitudes about faith and blessings never hurts either. It’s easy to settle for the appearance of godliness instead of the reality of it. Your life might be like putting chrome rims on a clapped-out car, but the outside is all many people see or care about. It’s spirituality theater.

Fighting Back  will be out soon. In it, protagonist Eddie has to learn to distinguish between the mere appearance of freedom, happiness, and even salvation, versus the reality of those things. And he has to do it while staying one step ahead of people who are trying to kill him. Writing this novel was enlightening as well as fun. I hope you feel the same way about reading it.

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