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.

God’s Equations

I once read a book detailing the history of Albert Einstein’s famous general theory of relativity. It was the work of his life. His attempt was to develop a theory that would be useful to cosmologists in mapping space and time. He wanted to develop a model of the universe that would explain the data of mathematicians and astronomers.

In reading this book, “God’s Equations,” I was struck by a quotation in which Einstein said that through an understanding of math and science, we could get closer to knowing God. Most mathematicians and scientists have long forgotten this point, that their work and the work of theologians is one and the same- reaching out for the one unifying principal of the universe-God.

Very few people in history, in fact very few scientists, have ever fully understood the complexity of Einstein’s theory. Those who have understood it have been overwhelmed by the beauty and harmony of the formula. I don’t understand the formula. I barely can grasp a layman’s description of the formula, but I do understand the awe that scientists have felt in studying the formula.

Several years ago Chad and I went on a trip to Europe. We spent a few days in the Swiss Alps in the little town of Gimmelwald, which is as close to heaven as I have ever been. We hiked up majestic mountains drinking ice cold glacier water straight from the streams. We walked through giant fields of wildflowers serenaded by the clank of cowbells. It is a place of harmony, unspoiled by pollution, overpopulation, waste, development, and all the other scars upon the land. You can see the immense glaciers which melt throughout the summer, you see the rock that these glaciers have ground into fine mineral rich dust, you see the fields nourished by these glaciers, the cows feeding on those fields, fertilizing those fields, the locals taking only what they need. You see a world in harmony and balance, the way that I believe God intended the world to be. I remember the awe that I felt in seeing that world.

Today, I awoke at 5 a.m. I drove to the Inner Harbor through the slums that surround Johns Hopkins. I drove down dark streets strewn with trash. In the predawn darkness, the homeless were already milling about, begging, scrounging, stealing. The bus stops were occupied by those who depend on others to deliver them to their minimum wage jobs.

As I drove through the cold, dark streets of the city, I thought about that trip. I have been to heaven and I have seen hell. I know there is a God because I have watched the beauty of a waterfall cascading down a sheer mountain cliff in Switzerland. I know there is a devil because I have seen a man reduced to living in a pile of trash on the steps of city hall, his only hope clutched inside a brown paper bag.

God developed certain rules for governing the universe. Objects in motion will stay in motion, unless acted on by an outside force. Gravity exists and exerts its will. A pretty girl will always get better service at a hardware store.

We can choose to understand the equations that govern the universe and realize that they make our lives better or we can ignore them. We are given that choice. We can choose to see rules as a hindrance to our freedom, or a means to maintain a balanced and healthy life.

God created the world and it was good. He told us to be good stewards of that gift. But we, particularly in America, have ignored that mandate. We have subtracted without adding and we shake our hands at the sky asking why it has gone to hell.

We tolerate a world where so much is controlled by so few. We pollute and destroy without thought of tomorrow. We spend as if there will be no tomorrow, no buyer’s remorse.

One of God’s most basic equations is this- for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction (otherwise known as Newton’s Law of Motion). The apostle Paul said it this way, ‘you shall reap what you sow.’

Our book attempts to demonstrate this concept. We see, primarily through the character Gadreel, that action without forethought does not preclude consequence. Jumping without looking doesn’t make the rocks below disappear. Gravity will pull you down whether you choose to acknowledge its presence. It’s in the equations.

HOW v. WHY

I have taken a few days off from the blog to work on a new business venture, a mobile kiosk that will soon be moving through the streets of Baltimore, spreading joy and dispensing vanilla lattes. As I was working on adapting the plumbing and electrical systems, a thought occurred to me- you can’t run water through a wire, but you can run electricity through a pipe.

 

This rather profound thought occurred to me as I was wiping the water that had just burst from a pipe out of my eyes, realizing that I had failed to turn off the electricity. Luckily, I did not electrocute myself, but I did learn something- morons shouldn’t mess with plumbing.

 

I also realized that sometimes, we as humans, attempt to use a wire to funnel water. We use the wrong tools to build the birdhouse. We use the wrong lens when examining a problem.

 

Let me give you an example- my brother (the real brain behind the book) is a doctor, is engaged to be married and will soon be a first-time father. As a doctor, he needs to look at a problem that a patient brings from a detached, scientific perspective. However, if he uses this same perspective in dealing with his fiance’, he might experience the following:

 

[fade in on couple getting dressed for dinner party]

 

Honey. Does this dress make me look fat?
Well, dear. Given that you are pregnant, your body is storing higher levels of glycogen, thereby increasing your bmi, so technically you are fat. The dress really has nothing to do with it. 

[zoom in on crying girl and fade out]

 

In other words, you can’t use your medical school training to comfort your pregnant fiance’. You need to use different paradigms when examining different types of problems. You can’t use philosophy to work out a scientific problem. You can’t use science to work out a philosophical problem.

 

This is because science answers one specific question- how? Philosophy and religion, on the other hand, don’t offer the necessary framework to understand how. They are meant to help discover why. Part of the problem that exists between science and religion is that too often scientists forget that they don’t have the why tools, and philosophers sometimes mistakenly believe that are able to reason out the how.

 

In the Fallen Angel Trilogy, we attempt to use both. I hope we don’t electrocute ourselves in the process.

Beating Down The Door

 

I have a birthday coming up this weekend. I won’t tell you how old I will be, but I will tell you that this year marks the tenth anniversary of  my first marathon in Dublin, Ireland. It has been nearly two years since I ran my last marathon and lately I’ve started really thinking about my next race.

A marathon covers 26.2 miles and is categorized as an endurance race, but I don’t like that label. While you must have endurance to finish a marathon, a more apt characteristic of finishers is perseverance.

Endurance is defined as the ability to hold up, tolerate, or bear- all passive terms. Perseverance, on the other hand, is ‘continuing in a course of action in spite of difficulty or opposition.’

Why do I make this distinction, you ask (besides validating my decision to major in English)?

I have always thought of myself as someone who perseveres in the face of adversity. However, if I am honest, my personal history reveals more periods of endurance than perseverance. I have, often, hunkered down, inactive, waiting for the storm to pass. I have, often, changed course rather than overcome.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow famously said this:

Perseverance is a great element of success. If you only knock long enough and loud enough at the gate, you are sure to wake somebody.

I have, of late, had some adversity in my life and have turned to God in an unprecedented way. I have spent more time in prayer and reading His word than at any time in my past. And yet, I continue to struggle. I keep waiting for Him to give me that breakthrough, but it remains elusive. I wait to hear His voice, but he is strangely silent. It is frustrating and I have often quoted from the Sermon on the Mount to underscore the validity of my angst:

For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it shall be opened.Matthew 7:8

But I have to admit that my knocking and seeking and asking have an air of passivity to them. They more resemble endurance than perseverance. I tend to ask for deliverance rather than guidance. And perhaps God needs to teach me to pound that f#@%er down, rather than lay outside the door complaining that my feeble knock went unnoticed. I need to learn to persevere, not endure. I need to beat that door and refuse to go away until its answered.

A marathon is run on a course, with a specific goal. It requires a person to run up the hills, not go around them. If you pull a muscle, or get tired, or forget your name, you have to keep going. You can’t take a cab or hitch a ride. You have to keep your feet moving. You can get support from the crowd, fellow runners, or God, but you have to run the race. You have to persevere.

Yesterday I saw this great video that says it so much better than I can:

 

 

Tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint…Romans 5:3,4

Break Out The Yayin

I spent nearly six hours a day for the last several weeks undertaking a massive rewrite of book 1. I am happy to report it is finished. The updated manuscript includes twelve new chapters detailing Quemel and Maleyan’s failed revolution, but I trimmed enough from the original to reduce the word count by 20,000 to just under 100,000 words.

I will be submitting this new manuscript to several publishers over the next couple of weeks. In the meantime, I am redoing the website and releasing the new novel on Kindle. I also reworked the promo video above.

Again, if you purchased the first edition of Tail of the Dragon and would like the updated version, please let me know. I will send you a promo code to download the new Kindle version.

Please Don’t Use the R Word

Recently I was contacted by a publisher who is interested in the book. Consequently, I am undertaking a major rewrite of Tail of the Dragon. This involves incorporating a new storyline of about 10,000 words, while simultaneously cutting about 30,000 words from the current edition. (note-anyone who purchased the first edition can email me to receive a free copy of the new book after publication)

 

I’ve decided to give a sample of some of the new story line (Quemel’s rebellion). Your feedback is welcome-

 

Chapter 5
Nuriel’s Fractal stood at the heart of the academy campus, it’s position and size indicative of the importance of the work done at the facility. Inside this spectacular structure, researchers wrestled with the language of the Kings, mathematics. The monolithic edifice was a functioning example of the quest to decipher its intricacies. The slowly rotating stack of ellipses was the physical manifestation of a logarithmic formula developed by an ancient mathematician named Nuriel. His famous solution resulted from his work attempting an explanation of the presence of fractal geometry in the shell of mollusks. The building was a massive model of the infinitesimally minute layering of calcium that served as home to the King Snail, one of the little ironies that its inhabitants found so endearing about the place.
During construction of the enormous fractal, its namesake perpetually patrolled the site, causing numerous delays. A story from that period claimed that Nuriel personally tore down three stories of the incomplete research center because the rotation was off by a few nanometers. He told the project manager that any variations from the formula, no matter how minute, made the structure a farce and a degradation of the perfection of fractals.
The inscription above the massive curving entry read “slow the course-bright the path.” This was rumored by students to be a subtle joke on the trail left by snails, but Barmen believed it to be a critique of the well publicized delays that had plagued its creation.
Penemue’s office was located on the ground floor, appropriate given how important his work had been to the development of this department. His old friend was considered by many to be the foremost scholar in several branches of mathematics. His research in the area of harmonics helped quantify the way that music worked to alter physical states. His book, “Harmonic Healing,” was still used by the health sciences school nearly a millennium after its publication. But it was his expertise in encryption that Barman was hoping to use.
“Oh, Barman, good,” Penemue exclaimed as he walked through the door. The frantic looking angel guided him to a wooden chair, depositing with a soft shove. “Look up there and let your vision relax.”
Barman’s eyes moved to the swirling mass of images that swirled just beyond his friend’s outstretched finger. At first he could detect nothing but streaks of colored light moving in a haphazard motion.
“What am I supposed to be seeing?” He began.
“Shh. Just relax. Don’t look at anything. Just try to take in the whole field at once. If you focus on any one thing, you won’t see it. Oh, I should write poetry,” his friend muttered, chuckling to himself.
Barman tried to do as directed. He stared at the roiling mass of colors, observing the whole mass, but kept picking out particular streaks, involuntarily following their arc until he lost them in the tangle. He closed his eyes and opened them again, conscious to avoid being drawn to the movement. But there was still nothing there.
“Anything now?” Penemue asked.
“Nothing,” Barman answered, attempting to keep the irritation from reaching his voice.
“Try this,” he said, rubbing something dark on the end of Barman’s nose.
“What did you put on me?” he asked, bunching his lips and trying to extend his nose to see. Then he saw it. Just beyond the black smear at its tip he could clearly see the image of a black swan flying gracefully before the backdrop of an immense waterfall. The sun glinted on the regal bird’s ebony wings and offered a startling contrast with the ebbing blues and whites of the crashing water.
“It’s a black swan,” he said, amazed that he hadn’t seen any of this.
A light lit up the room and the image disappeared. Penemue took some antiseptic smelling towelette and rubbed it across his face, causing him to sputter and swat his friend’s arm.
“Welcome Barman. It has been a while. Can I get you something to drink?” he muttered sarcastically.
“Don’t be such a baby, Barman. I am trying to help you.”
“And how are you doing that?” he asked.
“By showing what we need to decipher the message,” Penemue answered.
Barman thought back to his request to see his friend. He had made no mention of the letter and certainly hadn’t indicated that he needed help decoding it.
“My job is to weigh probabilities. Your word choice, time frame, and vagueness led me to deduce that you have some sort of communique that needs to be deciphered as part of your work.”
“I asked for an appointment at your earliest convenience,” Barman replied.
“Exactly. So I was right,” he said and nodded before continuing. “The image of the swan was visually encrypted. I ran it through a filter that disrupts the visual spectrum. By refocusing your attention you were able to see it.”
“I have absolutely no idea what you did or how that relates to my letter,” Barman said, retrieving the prisoner’s correspondence from his satchel.
“With codes, the message is right there. The secret is discovering the key that reveals it. The key for my little demonstration was the angle of the eyes. With encryption the solution usually depends on two separate keys, one private and one public. Both are needed to decode what is hidden. Often decryption involves mathematics, but not always.” Penemue picked up the letter and studied it intently. Barman related the story of its origin as he did.
“So he wasn’t able to touch the parchment at all?”
Barman shook his head, relating the guard’s story about the meetings.
“Well, the good news is that the cipher can’t be that complicated. The bad news is it’s very well constructed. He avoids much repetition, so finding patterns will be difficult. I’m going to need as much information as I can get on this prisoner in order to have a chance of figuring this out.”
Barman dropped a thick folder on the desk and turned to leave.
“We are running out of time on this. You know how to reach me when you have something,” Barman said as he strode into the hallway.

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!

Ink on the Skin, Ink on the Page

When I was 21, I decided to get a tattoo. It was 1991 and I was a third year freshman in college. You might recognize this image as the logo for Led Zeppelin’s record label, Swan Song.

After 21 years I still love the music of Zeppelin and I still kind of like my tattoo. Through the years it has meant many different things to me.

 

In my twenties, it was an homage to my favorite band. Like many young people, I used music as a means to craft a sense of identity. Metallica, Guns n Roses, Rage Against the Machine- my musical influences reflected my lifestyle- fast and hard.

 

Later, after finishing graduate school and beginning my professional career, it reminded me of Icarus, the mythological character who flew too close to the sun with wax wings. He fell into the sea and drowned. This tattoo gave me a warning about the dangers of blind ambition and excessive pride. I chose to ignore the warning.

 

In my mid-thirties, I had the first of two children and this tattoo became the good angel, sitting on my shoulder, reminding me of the necessity of making the right choices. Or at least that was the intent. Given the choices that I made, perhaps it was a fallen angel, tempting me to do things that caused me to fail. My divorce would seem to argue for that interpretation.

 

Through the years I have often been asked if the angel was flying upward or falling downward. My answer is YES. It depends upon your interpretation.

Today, this slightly blurring, subcutaneous ink is a reality check. It is a reminder of the war that is going on between good and evil every day. It is a reminder that we live among the fallen, but we have a way out. My tattoo is Gadreel, or Ariel. You will have to read the book to decide which one.