Saddle Shoes and Knuckle Sandwiches

This is a chapter from the new book I’m currently working on (feedback welcome):  

I was in kindergarten when I got into my first fight. For a week straight another boy had tormented me about my shoes. Looking back, he had a pretty good point. When my sneakers finally gave out I was forced to wear an abomination known as saddle shoes- black and white leather monstrosities that were frequently featured as part of cheerleading costumes.

I have no idea where the shoes came from. My mother is far from a vicious person so I’m sure she had no desire to humiliate me, but we were poor and I can only assume that she had no other options.

Perhaps some cheerleader got booted from the squad and threw them out her car window in protest and disgust. Maybe my mother found them in the yard and said a quick prayer of thanks that she had a perfectly good pair of shoes for her eldest to wear to school. If the shoes were an answer to prayer, God really cares nothing about fashion (which would help explain why evangelists always have such bad suits).

However, the boy who sat across from me on that bus in rural West Virginia obviously cared deeply about fashion. I picture him today as a pretentious shoe salesman at some high-end men’s clothing store, turning up his nose in derision when anyone asks if they carry saddle shoes.

But at that time I pictured him quite differently- bloody and crying beneath the fury of my justice. Every day as his jibes intensified-

‘Timmy’s wearing girly shoes. Are you wearing panties too?’

I planned and plotted. I fumed and formulated. I sulked and schemed. And one day I acted. I told another boy that I was going to fight the little fashionista and within minutes it was the talk of the school. I learned, at that moment, one of the foundational truths of the universe- a spectacle offering the possibility of violence or humiliation draws people quicker than rotting carrion attracts vultures.

To my horror and growing dread the carrion seekers flocked in a roiling mass at the far end of the playground by the time I was dismissed for recess. Sammy Spiffy Shoes stood at the center of the loose throng, looking serious and terrifying.

We stood several paces apart staring at each other, not really sure what to do next. Silence descended over the crowd. My mouth felt sticky and dry and my heart was racing. Suddenly someone yelled ‘fight.’ My opponent and I rushed at each other. And just like that it was over.

My next memory is sitting on the ground listening to the crowd recount my humiliation as they were shooed away. My head was tucked between my knees as I sat watching drops of my blood fall in a steady stream from my split nose and drip audibly into a growing emerald pool. And this is one of those things that my parents failed to prepare me for. You see I wasn’t allowed to watch TV and my opponent had obviously been weaned on Bruce Lee movies. If I had been better educated I might have known that it is inadvisable to charge an opponent who is in the midst of performing the dreaded flying crane kick.

It is easy for me to smile about it now, but at the time it was utterly humiliating. I was so soundly beaten that I became the footnote of an instant playground legend. History is written by the conquerors and good old Sammy’s stock rose dramatically that day, his feet firmly set on a path to shoe sales glory. My stock, on the other hand, plummeted in true Black Friday fashion. From some of the girls I received sympathy, which compounded my embarrassment. From other boys I got derision and the reputation as an easy mark. This fight had been my first, but it was hardly my last.

In the years that followed, at the nearly dozen different schools I would attend, this episode was replayed a number of times. The cast of conquerors changed, but Tim the vanquished received numerous encores. I played France with glasses to many a crowd of vultures. There is a palpable essence that emanates from fear; a scent of docile terror that attracts bullies, who intent on masking their own feelings of inadequacy, follow it like sharks on the blood trail of a wounded fish. Much of my childhood was spent, like Nemo, ineffectually flapping my bum fin in a vain attempt to outrun the smell.

I spent my elementary and middle school years as the perpetual new kid, the outsider, making it difficult to conceal myself and my insecurities. I was also poor. It certainly didn’t help that my clothes were never quite right or that my teeth were too large for my face. Sometimes when I see pictures of myself from those years I’m tempted to bully me. That insecure smirk seems to invite it.

But what really provoked it was my implicit surrender. I took it. I didn’t tell anyone and I didn’t fight back. I tried to pretend it was part of a joke that I was in on. That initial fight convinced me, for many years to come, that I was unable to defend myself.

I never fully recovered from the humiliation of the incident that left me with a nearly manic aversion to confrontation. It also left me with a compulsion to hide my fear and weakness- from family, friends, or anyone else who might have helped me.

When someone beat me up or performed some act of ritual humiliation I laughed it off. If someone asked where the bruises came from or why my shirt was ripped, I lied. I made myself into a victim but protected that fact with fierce determination. No one could be allowed to see just how weak and cowardly I was.

But I always knew. I could pretend, but the truth was always there, taunting me. I tried reinventing myself over and over, through different types of music, fashion and friends. I buried myself in fantasy, imagining a world where others looked at me in admiration, not derision. I would sit for hours thinking up elaborate storylines that featured me as hero, rather than punch line.

Now if I’m going to be completely honest this is all a bit whiny. One might jump to the conclusion that I haven’t even revealed anything damaging and I’m already making excuses. That is not completely unfair. Whenever a person begins to assess bad choices and behavior, the temptation is to add ‘yes but,’ and thus begin down the road to rationalization. I don’t wish to journey there. I do think it is important to provide context for behavior. Without motivation tragedy becomes farce.

And part of what would lead me down the paths that I have chosen began on a schoolyard playground in rural West Virginia. But I must point out that I chose to fight Sammy Spiffy Shoes. It wasn’t his fault he was better at it than I (or that he had impeccable taste). And I dare not blame the string of bullies who followed. In the years that bind the humiliated kid to the divorced father trying to make sense of his regret, I would do much worse.

Sunshine and Rotting Pansies

It is one of those rare days of late autumn- cloudless, balmy, peaceful. It is a day to be savored…

But I’ve seen the forecast. I know what is coming. Tonight that slight breeze turns treacherous and the temperature drops 30 degrees. And when the sun rises in the east, the temperature will not follow.

I recently moved to downtown Frederick, a remote and fairly affluent suburb of Washington DC. I love my new home. There is a little pedestrian mall just a block from my house where I like to go to write, on days like today. Charming boutique shops and upscale restaurants bracket both sides of a wide brick walkway that lines a picturesque channel known as Carroll Creek.

This completely manufactured waterway is bisected by artful bridges, be speckled by a cornucopia of potted aquatic fauna, and injected with the sonorous symphony of numerous artificial waterfalls. It is clean, peaceful and beautiful. However, even the diligence of the public works department cannot completely hide the inevitable. Leaves give up their hold and fall onto the brick pathways, increasingly cold nights continue to erode the color from the numerous flower beds. Everywhere death encroaches on life and the struggle against that eventuality grows increasingly futile.

As I sit here watching the ebb and flow of privileged humanity- joggers fighting their own autumns, couples holding hands with desperate adoration, shoppers engaged in that most important of civic responsibilities- it is tempting to ignore the waning season. It is tempting to believe that this will last. I am comfortable. I see happy and prosperous people stroll contentedly by. I know happy hour is just minutes away.

But if I look around the corner I can see the homeless man who only cares about his next fix. If I breath deeply I can just get a whiff of the organic dank of vegetation beginning to rot. And if I listen very carefully I can hear the first rustling of that cold gale moving this way.

The young couple strolling by, cheeks still flushed from their make-out session under the bridge, are oblivious to it. The pack of businessmen bustling by are too busy posturing for each other to sense it. The frazzled, overweight mother is too harried by her familial realities to notice much of anything. And that homeless man is too fixated on his need to care.

But it strikes me that the people streaming by are actually me, and you. Don’t we, particularly here in America, walk through our manicured lives, and shopping centers, ignoring the signs of what is coming; of what has already come in other parts of the world?

The news channels try to tell us. Calamity is everywhere. Famine, war and pestilence are so normal that they threaten to interrupt my Geico commercials. Kim Kardashian tweeted a new picture of her stupidity, but I missed it because of some virus that is wiping out a country that I can’t find on the map.

I see the faces on TV- demonstrating incredibly bad hygiene and an incredible misunderstanding of what Ayn Rand meant- starving masses living under tarps and drinking water that collects in ditches- and I think to myself- why can’t Monday Night Football come on earlier?

On Sunday Pastor Randy will tell us that we are the hands of God, sent to help those in need. He will say that when God returns he will ask what we did with our abilities, resources, and time. He will talk too directly and make me begin to squirm in my seat. He will say that the clock is running out and just saying that you’re a Christian doesn’t make it so.

But, right now, thank God and praise Jesus, it is happy hour.

God and the Great Googling

Throughout my college years I was told I often came across as condescending. This was never an intentional attitude, but the result of an extremely declarative way of speaking. When I believed something, I would pronounce it with the air of utter conviction. People called it condescending. I always preferred convinced.

And then Google came along and let much of the air out of my inflated opinions. Suddenly convicted pronouncements could be instantly fact-checked for accuracy. No one enjoyed undermining my rather numerous assertions of infallible truth more than my brother, Chad. He had a smart phone way before I did and took great pleasure in deflating my completely plausible diatribes. I would make a pronouncement and he would whip out his iPhone, calmly revealing my error (with a really smug look on his face, I might add). And even I couldn’t argue with Google.

Arguments that I used to dominate with the sheer volume and dogmatic confidence suddenly wilted under the suffocating light of truth (which was really annoying).

Today I am much less blustery (depending on who you talk to) but still keenly aware of this tactic of discourse.

Working as the Communications Director for a non-profit that routinely tangles with mainstream scientific reporting, I often deal with reporters who make vague pronouncements loudly, often, and without much interest in whether what they are saying is true or not.

And I find that this scientific condescension is not just targeted at those who question current agricultural practice, medical treatment options, or environmental policies. Media reports about religion are increasingly filled with condescension and outright antagonism.

And this antagonism goes beyond the historical battle between creationists and Darwinists. As science arrogantly marches into areas that it doesn’t fully understand, like genetic manipulation, religious objections are increasingly met with scorn and derision. In any arena where science butts up against religion, the media increasingly dismisses the latter as naïve, misinformed, and even dangerous.

Now, as a Christian, I know that I have something much better than Google to deflate these condescending windbags. My Bible clearly elucidates the truth about where we all came from and where we are going. It lays out the principles that govern man, his world, and the cosmos as a whole. It clearly establishes the limits of human scientific understanding and its relation to God.

Paul puts it this way:

“For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight.” 1 Cor. 3:19

But how do you convince a group who refutes that the Bible is anything more than a cultural artifact? Sure, I could point out that everything that the Bible has ever predicted has happened (something no scientific theory has ever managed). I could demonstrate the positive influence that this book has had upon civilization (when much of science has done the opposite). I could point out that if they are right and we are all just a random evolution of matter that even discussing these issues is pointless because our lives (and hence our arguments) mean absolutely nothing.

I guess perhaps the best thing I can do is cling to my faith, pronounce it proudly whenever possible, share with any who will listen, live it out joyfully, and trust that the ultimate fact-checker will one day reveal all truth, whether skeptics care to believe it or not. My Bible tells me that a day of judgment is coming (the Great Googling for purposes of this post) and I believe and declare this emphatically and expectantly. And I stand by this fact regardless of what your smartphone says!

Take that Chad (love you bro!).

PS- Here’s a headline for all you scientists- there is life on other planets. Google:
Ephesians 3:10

On Top of the World (which is a pile of dung)

My father was a better athlete than I ever aspired to be. He went to college on a track scholarship, ran marathons nearly an hour faster than my best time and was one of those people who get real medals at the end of the race (usually before I cross the line and get my finisher award).

After he blew out his knee playing football he took up cycling with the same intensity that he had for running. Although he didn’t cycle competitively, he trained ferociously and was a huge fan of the sport. He was particularly enamored with the Tour de France.

He died in 1989 while riding his bike, the year before American Greg Lemond would win his third Tour title. I remember watching the 1990 Tour and feeling a combination of incredible grief and comfort as my father’s cycling idol rode down the Champs Elysees as champion. At that moment Lemond stood on top of the world. But it didn’t last long.

In the coming years Lemond became better known for his whiny accusations than his cycling prowess. He famously battled Lance Armstrong, who had taken his limelight as the preeminent American cyclist, over accusations that Armstrong took performing enhancing drugs. He went from icon to pariah in a matter of years, chiefly at the hands of Armstrong, who used his power and influence to destroy Lemond’s waning reputation.

Lemond became a punchline and had to watch as Armstrong rode to victory seven times, made millions in endorsements, dated celebrities and became the hero of cancer survivors everywhere. Armstrong stood cockily on that mountaintop once occupied by Lemond.

But that didn’t last either. Several years ago Armstrong finally admitted that he had used PEDs throughout his dominant years. Lemond was vindicated, but it almost didn’t matter. Ivan Basso, Jan Ulrich, Floyd Landis- giant after giant fell to doping tests. What was revealed was that all of these cyclists were battling to get to the top of a tainted sport. They all wanted to stand atop a huge pile of dung.

We see this play out in other sports: baseball, football, track. In fact, we see this play out in all aspects of life: music, acting, politics, academia. It has become almost ritualistic in our culture to watch giants rise and fall. We glory in their excellence and revel in their destruction.

And yet no matter how many times we see the plot repeated, most never learn the lesson. We all scramble after our little whiffs of glory believing that if we reach the top of the mountain, it won’t smell like shit.

Jesus tells us:

Do not lay up for yourselves treasure upon the earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal. But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in and steal; for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.  Matt. 6:19-21

But that’s easy for Jesus to say. It’s not like he was ever tempted by personal glory…well except for that episode where he was tempted in the desert and Lucifer offers him the entire world. But was he ever tempted by real glory?

I remember standing on that stage in 1979 accepting my ribbon for winning the annual elementary school spelling bee. As I looked out over the auditorium filled with at least 20 people, who respectfully did not rush the stage in adulation, I knew that the world was mine to conquer and rule.

Now I have to use spellcheck just to get through the day. And that smells like failure.

 

 

Absurd Back Stories

I can remember sitting on a bench watching this tiny, old Asian woman looking nervously at a group of teenage boys out of the corner of her eye. They were posturing and talking loudly, attempting to impress a group of nearby girls with how thuggish they were.

As I observed this lady warily survey the strutting group of wannabe hoodlums, a strange thought sprang into my head- what if she were secretly a vigilante crusader tracking down her next group of victims? Was she isolating their weaknesses and plotting their demise. It made me laugh and gave me a fun new game to play- the absurd back story.

It is a great game for those trips to the beach, the mall, or anywhere else that people gather and act in bizarre ways- which pretty much makes it universally applicable. Nothing can make the doldrums of the medical waiting room take on new life like a well-developed and ridiculously absurd back story.

Today, I had a bit of inspiration. I was out for a run and getting a little one on one time with the guy upstairs. I was asking for help in dealing with my anger, which tends to worsen in direct correlation with an increase in the volume of idiots who refuse to yield space on the sidewalk, or ignore traffic laws, or who find dog owner sanitation requirements to be beneath them.

I had just successfully pulled off a triple salchow to avoid a group of five suited yutzes who managed to create a moving wall across the entirety of the fifteen foot width of the running path, when a thought came to me- what are they hiding?

I knew what I was hiding. I wore my typical street expression- intense, unsmiling, perhaps a little angry. When running in the city, I always wear the mask. Why? Because if you look like a victim, you will be a victim. It is the rule of the street and the jungle. But beneath my faux MMA persona, I was struggling with the guilt of the impact of my divorce on my kids, fears about my inability to be the man they need me to be, anxiety about what the future holds, and doubts about my worth as a person.

So what were all of these people hiding behind their chosen masks? As I glided by faces, I began to see them differently. The old lady biking alone- missing her best friend and husband of 30 years who should have eaten better. The middle-aged businessman in the $1000 suit- frowning as he thought about the way his wife had flirted with his best friend at the dinner party. The young pregnant girl- hoping that this time the man would stick around. The skinny black boy- trying to look tough, but knowing that he would be chased through the projects on the way back to his rundown shithole and scared that this time he might not be fast enough.

I saw them for what they were. Not literally, of course. I didn’t know any of them and most of my back stories were based on cliches or stereotypes. But I knew a truth about them, because I was part of them. I realized that we are all the same, regardless of our color, or background, or gender, or religion. We are all dealing with the same voices of doubt and fear and guilt.

It didn’t matter whether my stories were accurate. What mattered was that they were true and that they made me less uncertain, less afraid, less guilty.

And an interesting change occurred. I found myself smiling at strangers. I moved off into the street when the sidewalk was blocked, and didn’t think about how good it would feel to run over someone. I even mouthed ‘hi’ to several others who met my eye. And those faces changed. I was met with smiles, and waves, and humanity.

Well, not uniformly. There was the militant-looking thug with the teardrop tattoo who fired a finger pistol at me. And perhaps under that armor of anger he just needs a hug, but I’m not quite ready to go there just yet.

The Hitler Abortion Question

hitlerdead5

I remember one of those super intellectual discussions I had during a late-night ‘study’ session back in college. Here is the premise- if you were a doctor in Austria in the late 1880s and you knew your patient, Klara Polzl, was going to give birth to the monster who would go on to spawn the holocaust, would you abort the fetus?

 

Regardless of your views on abortion, it is an interesting question? And it is a question that has stayed with me through the years.

 

The reason I find this so fascinating is that it answers so many puzzles related to God. Why would God create a being like Satan? Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people? Why doesn’t God intervene more directly in my problems? Why doesn’t God get rid of all those scary clowns?

 

For me, the answer is the fundamental subject of the Fallen Angel Trilogy- Free Will (no, not the thing about the whale).

 

If I am the Austrian doctor with that kind of knowledge, I am, in one respect, like God. God oversees the births of over 350,000 people every day. If we accept that God is omniscient, omnipresent and omnipotent, than we have to accept the fact that he allows individuals to live who he knows will kill, injure and destroy. Why? Because if he didn’t, free will would be a complete sham.

 

If I allow only those who will do as I wish to live, is there really any choice available? If I know you will disappoint me and remove you from the equation, did you ever get the chance to decide?

 

Personally, if I were in God’s shoes, Hitler would have been toast. But, than again, if I were in charge, I’m not sure I would have made the grade. I know those stupid clowns wouldn’t.

 

 

Apologies To Job

There have been many moments over the last year or so that I have compared myself to Job, the biblical character whose faith is actively tried by Satan’s persecutions, with God’s sanction. A wealthy man who literally loses everything except his life, Job maintains his faith in God’s goodness despite being subjected to every type of personal assault- loss of enormous wealth, his home, his health and his family.

I have repeatedly reread this story over the last eighteen months and tried to use it to keep from losing my own faith. Recently, I have felt assaulted by the enemy and abandoned by God. I have railed against God and openly questioned where his protection is? Though I have yet to curse God, like Job’s wife suggests he do, I have had some pretty frank criticisms for him

Two days ago I realized how foolish my comparison has been. Upon returning from a run, I read a text that my ex-wife had sent responding to my request to speak with my kids:

‘Kids can’t talk. Tali in hospital.’

That was it. My heart instantly froze in my chest and I nearly collapsed. I tried to call my ex but got no answer. I tried calling other members of her family, my panic rising by the minute. It was a terrifying half hour before I received a follow up text telling me that everything was OK.

It puts everything back in perspective. My assaults of the past year have been related to money, finding a publisher, my ego and questions about the future; but I have been healthy, and more importantly, my kids have been healthy, happy and secure.

Job lost everything in a very short period of time, through no fault of his own. He is then subjected to a variety of bad advice from everyone else in his life. I have had financial challenges (related to my own mistakes) and have had good friends and family to support me. I haven’t lost anything very important. In fact, I have been very blessed.

So, my apologies to Job for making inappropriate comparisons. And my thanks, as well, for showing that despite whatever Satan can throw at us, God is ultimately in charge, and he is on our side.

Angelic Warfare

 

This scene, taken from the Sistine Chapel (my brother nearly got arrested trying to snap a picture of the famous ceiling during our visit a few years back), depicts the war between angels and demons during the final judgement.

 

Here comes the spoiler- this battle will represent the climax of book three, Oceans of Fire.

 

Here’s what I want you to notice about Michelangelo’s spectacular depiction- those cats aren’t fighting with pillows. They aren’t playing harps or singing hymns. They are fighting to the death. But this isn’t the first time that these angels have battled. Revelation 12 says this:

 

And there was war in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. The great dragon was hurled down–that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.

 

This battle occurs toward the end of Tail of the Dragon, and it happens in heaven. I have been asked by a number of people who have read the book how we can depict violence and injury in heaven? Isn’t heaven a place of peace and harmony?

 

My answer is this- we are told that there was a ‘war in heaven.’ Unless the war was some kind of celestial Halo tournament and the good guys were quicker with their joysticks, then I assume that means angels were hurt or killed. Just as I assume that if Satan was able to tempt a third of them to go astray, temptation must also have been present in heaven.

The Dragon

 

Central to our series is the figure of Helel. In Tail of the Dragon, he is a secondary character, but remains the driving force of all action in the book. He is a highly charismatic, beautiful, intelligent and proud arella who causes those around him to bend to his will or resist him.

He is modeled on our conception of Lucifer, the angel that, in monotheistic tradition, fell from heaven after leading a rebellion. It is this story, the tale of the created challenging his creator, that led us to undertake this book.

This story is so fascinating to me. How is it possible that God created a being that he had to realize would lead a rebellion? How is it possible that a created being became the foil for his own creator? How could a being, with no conception or evidence of evil, go on to become the author of the Dark Ages, the holocaust, cancer, suicide bombings and Fox News?

Our understanding of Satan is a very Christian one. In Jewish tradition it is less clear that he was a definitive being. The term Satan and ha-Satan (meaning accuser or the accuser) seem to be used interchangeably, indicating that it is either a specific being or a set of characteristics (antagonist, accuser, he who opposes Yahweh, etc.). In the Koran, Satan is a being who is cast out of heaven for failing to bow down to Adam at Allah’s behest. He tempts Adam to sin and is cast out of heaven with the human patriarch. He is told that his punishment will be delayed until the day of judgement. But the New Testament indicates that Satan is the angel known as Lucifer, who was cast from heaven, tempted Eve in the garden, and now seeks to destroy mankind. It indicates that he has dominion over the earth and that he will be judged at the second coming and condemned to hell fire.

This Christian version of Satan is our character Helel.

In the second book, By Demons be Driven (currently undergoing first edits), Helel becomes a much more visible character. This allows us to explore some of the earlier questions that I mentioned.

We take a somewhat dualistic approach to the question of sin. In our books, Helel is always clearly a created being who perverts good things in an attempt to undermine God’s authority. He is not, however, the author of sin. He is not even the first being to rebel against God. The prologue to the first book actually begins with an episode from a previous rebellion, which becomes a model for Helel’s own insurgency.

In books two and three the idea of chaos becomes more and more important. We take the stance that there is a destructive force that Helel taps into and gains some mastery over. However, he is merely a created being who harnesses something that is a force, rather than a being. It is this force of destruction which is the real opposite of God. Helel merely taps into this force to further his cause.

And by the last book, Oceans of Fire, chaos becomes a character in its own right.

Alcoholic Angels

Did you hear the one about the drunken angel? Apparently no one has. I was amazed that of all of the rather controversial items that we take on in the book, the issue that generated the most push back was the concept of angels drinking.

There are several characters in the novel who have a taste for yayin. Although it is never explicitly stated, it is inferred that this is some type of wine.

While to me this seemed like a minor point of controversy, [after all we endorse a version of the big bang, we  imagine angels using wormholes, we conceptualize a network through which dark energy is continually recycled, we even have angels mining the material of quasars] many of the earliest reviews contained questions about drinking in heaven.

Here is our answer: perhaps angels never tasted wine in heaven; however, the fact that Lucifer, an angel living in heaven, was able to be tempted to reject God and was able to convince a third of the angels to follow suit seems to indicate a level of temptation in heaven.

If there is no temptation, there can be no choice. Sin needs opportunity in order to exist.

Sin is most often the misapplication or perversion of a good thing. Food is good; gluttony is bad. Sex is good; promiscuity is bad. Football is good; the Dallas Cowboys are bad.

So an angel walks into a bar and orders a martini…

* I would have given proper attribution to the picture above, but found it in several locations and wasn’t sure who to attribute it to. If it is yours, thanks!