Independence Day 2018, I am heading down the highway to pick up my son from work and happen to catch the last bit of an All Things Considered broadcast on NPR. The guest is Sheryl Kaskowitz, author of God Bless America: The Surprising History of an Iconic Song. The point of discussion between the host and Kaskowiz was the different venues and groups in America that had appropriated the song for its message and was capped by an audio snipped of Irving Berlin singing the song. It was an encore broadcast chosen, I suppose, because today is the 100th birthday of the song that is considered our unofficial national anthem. Berlin’s voice and all it evoked was inspirational and set me to thinking.
In our current (and past) political climate, much is made about those in power diverting from the American ideal or the Father’s framing of our nation. Polarized pundits proclaim that they are ruining the country for us and that we cannot let them get away with it. Whatever happened to WE the PEOPLE of the UNITED states? America does not belong to the conservatives or liberals, the left or the right, the religionists or the secularists. As a true monarchist—I owe the reader that disclosure—I believe the United States of America belongs to God Almighty. Its stewardship, however, is the responsibility of us all.
The Preamble of the Constitution should be familiar to us all. “We the People of the United States, in Order to from a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blesssings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” Constitutional scholars like to point out at times that this is just an introduction and doesn’t hold the weight of law like the body of the work itself. I am not a lawyer or an academic, but if the stated intent of the document doesn’t educate its interpretation, language should be thrown out as an intelligent means of communication. The drumbeat of the Preamble is unity: we,people, union, common, ourselves, our, united.
I remember an appearance of the comedian Paul Reiser on the Tonight Show years ago. He was joking about the shortest length of time possible was the length of a salsa song on the radio before he changed the station. I think I have him beat. The instant a talk radio pundit states that this country has never been as polarized as it is now, my hand moves in a lightning strike to extinguish the noise. The thunder that follows is my fuming over their intentional disregard of our history.
We live in the most politically polarized period of our history? I suppose in their view Tories (the “right” during the Revolution) and the Patriots (the “left” or “liberals” during the Revolution) weren’t polarized. Maybe the talking heads think that hateful half-truths spit across the aisle are more polarizing expressions than congressmen cracking skulls with canes during debates. Perhaps the Blue (the centralizing-of-power nationalists) and the Grey (the libertarian-constitutionalist states-righters) were only out exercising their Second Amendment rights as “sportsmen” and over 600,000 of “We the people” died as a result of unfortunate hunting accidents. Maybe the young men and women dying under our flag in Vietnam didn’t have that much of a different mindset from those burning the same flag on American campuses.
Conflict and debate were the midwives at the birth of our nation. War was its delivery room. As the doctors attendant, the Founders showed their genius in their acknowledgement of the diversity of opinion and the absolute need for unity. They provided to us, their progeny, with a system of governance well-suited to the tasks of maintaining both. I thank God for their accomplishment and pray that our nation remain as a home and bastion of freedom so long as the King should tarry.
In the simple and beautiful words of Irving Berlin:
“God bless America
Land that I love
Stand beside her
And guide her
Through the night with the light from above.”
 This may seem contradictory to my prior sentence regarding “religionists,” but in my view religion has much more to do with man than it does with the living God.
This year’s top ten comes to you from a deeper data set than the previous two years. Though writing still occupied much of my time this year, I still managed to read my way through twenty tomes. The ten (plus one) below are the ones I enjoyed the most. With the exception of the plus one, below are my reviews of them in the order that I read them.
Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism by Timothy Keller.
Timothy Keller has been preaching for the better part of the past 40 years plus and this book clearly demonstrates the passion of his faith and the wisdom of his age. In the introduction of the book, Keller identifies three levels of ministering the Word: informal one-on-one conversations (Level 1), counseling and teaching individuals and small groups (Level 2), and pulpit ministry (Level 3). Though he aims this work primarily at those involved in Level 2 and Level 3 Word ministry, I can think of no Christian communicators who would not benefit from the insights in this excellent work.
He sets the foundation of the work well on the only foundation that can hold the true weight of Word ministry: the accomplished work of Christ. Keller recounts reviewing two sermons from Mark 5 on Jesus’s healing of the demoniac. The first one pointed to Jesus as the demoniac’s deliverer and invited the hearers to bring their problems to Jesus for resolution. The second one more faithfully presented the Gospel for it gave the reason why Jesus could free the naked, bound, banished, and tortured man. He was able to do so because He would take the man’s place. He would be bound, stripped naked, tortured, and banished before God in our place. This is just one of many illustrations through which Keller brings home not only the absolute necessity of the message being centered on Christ, but also how to bring it home.
Subsequent sections and chapters deal with how we communicate Christ to our culture, to the late modern mind, and to the heart of the listeners so that the sword of the Spirit finds its mark and exposes all to their need for Jesus. In short, this book is a treasure trove and a great encouragement to all who are intent on sharing the Gospel effectively.
Politicians have warped the realities of war since before Athens was a city-state. After the CIA black sites and enhanced interrogations had kept us safe for almost a decade after 9/11, they lined up to paint a necessity of war (gaining actionable intelligence) as an atrocity on mankind and a stain on America’s moral fabric. But their labeling of the techniques that were approved by the Justice Department and used in the enhanced interrogation program as torture is like school administrators calling a sixth-grader’s fumbled kiss rape.
This book is a must read for those who want a “behind the walling wall” view of how Osama bin Laden and many of his lieutenants were found, apprehended, and brought to justice.
The Perfect Kill: 21 Laws for Assassins by Robert B. Baer.
I dabble in the fiction of what Robert Baer lived. A recipient of the Career Intelligence Medal, Baer brings his uniquely qualified observations on what makes for truly effective assassination operations. His 21 laws are the chapter titles in the book and could be a viral-worthy Pinterest post in their own right. (A couple of my favorites are Law #1: The Bastard Has to Deserve It and Law #19: Always Have an Encore in Your Pocket.)
Although it is a mix of memoir and political science musings, it comes off like a first-person, hard-boiled detective novel except the detective is a self-deprecating operative with a deep philosophical bent. Baer’s proverbial similes add plenty of spice to the text, some even sending me to my reference tools. If one wants to know what the morass of the Middle East looks like from the ground level of the CIA, this book is for you.
I purchased this book at Barnes & Noble along with Enhanced Interrogation as research material for my next Gypsy Spy novel (see Law #19 above). When I handed the cashier my educator’s discount card, he asked me, “With these books, should I be worried about what school you are teaching in?” Deadpan, I replied, “Homeschooler.” My comment didn’t seem to ease his concerns at all.
The Savior Generals: How Five Great Commanders Saved Wars That Were Lost—from Ancient Greece to Iraq by Victor Davis Hanson.
Themistocles, Belisarius, Sherman, Ridgway, and Petraeus viewed through Hansen’s keen historical eye and explained in his always masterful use of ink. It is a thrilling ride through history showing the common principles of what it takes to lead others out of hopelessness when the opposition is intent on your defeat and your life and culture hang in the balance. The author carves a story arc from sea battles in ancient Greece to the modern counterinsurgency in Iraq and skillfully demonstrates that the character and skills required to save a lost cause have not changed in millennia. An informative, engaging, enlightening, and entertaining read. Hansen does not disappoint.
Smarter, Faster, Better: The Secrets of Productivity in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg.
Be sure to read this one cover to cover as even the end notes have gems in them. Though some of the subject matter covered was familiar to me (SMART goals, Lean thinking, team dynamics), Duhigg offers history on the genesis of these standard productivity tools as well as a host of new insights. His skill in weaving them together through the stories of people and organizations that have been improved through their implementation is on full display and highly enjoyable. Not to be missed is the Appendix where the author shares his own application of this productivity tool box to the writing process. If you liked The Power of Habit, you will not be disappointed by this book.
America’s Secret War: Inside the Hidden Worlwide Struggle Between America and Its Enemies by George Friedman.
Friedman is the founder of Stratfor, arguably one of the most authoritative geopolitical intelligence platforms in the private sector. Borrowed from a friend’s bookcase in June of 2017, I found myself wishing I had known about it when it was published back in 2004 as I read it. Considering that in the year of its publication it was a near-event reflection on 9/11 and a fair piece of highly educated prognostication on how the War on Terror might progress, it proves the measure of prestige that Stratfor and Friedman hold in intelligence circles. Page 339 from the conclusion is highly insightful. “The weakness of the U.S. is not our soldiers, nor their numbers, but the vast distance that separates American leaders from those who fight … To them, the soldiers are alien, people they have never met and don’t understand. When the children of leaders stay home, the leaders think about war in unfortunate ways.” And this: “Either the U.S. will withdraw [we did] from the Islamic world, creating a vacuum to be filled by the Caliphate [which ISIS did], or Al Qaeda will be crushed and the spirit that gave rise to it will be defeated [it has not been].”
Beyond Opinion: Living the Faith We Defend by Ravi Zacharias, Author and General Editor.
Ravi Zacharias is a treasure and his team brings a wealth of apologetic experience to the page. This book, written for popular consumption (as opposed to an academic audience), centers on the relational-reality model of apologetics. As Zacharias writes, “All reality is ultimately defined by the Holy Trinity, God who is a Being in relationship.” It is this insight and approach that I most appreciated in this work. Having read many apologetic books, mostly from the scientific or philosophical perspectives, this work from multiple authors and disciplines was very enlightening and encouraging. If you are a Christian seeking to grow in your presentation skills of the Gospel or a person curious about the claims of Christianity and its relevance to the modern world, I highly recommend this book.
A Crack in Creation: Gene Editing and the Unthinkable Power to Control Evolution by Jennifer A. Doudna and Samuel H. Sternberg.
I have a genius older brother who commented when I told him about reading this book, “Doudna is brilliant. She and her lab are involved in Nobel Prize worthy work.” I can think of no higher accolade than that. Though authored by two scientists on the forefront of CRISPR technology, it is told primarily through Doudna’s perspective. A Crack in Creation is the scariest book I have read since Regenesis by George Church. Unlike Church, whose hubris and trans-human intentions are on full display in Regenesis, Doudna’s humble and wise humanity shines through her prose.
Church observed that the 1990s were still the Stone Age of genetic engineering and that the state of the art had moved into the Industrial Age when he wrote his book published in 2012. Doudna published her paper on CRISPR applications for gene editing in Science in June of 2012. If 2011 was the Industrial Age of genetic engineering, 2017 is well into the Information Age. We have moved on from genetic engineering to gene editing.
One of the authors’ most chilling (and telling) statements is that “what used to require years of work in a sophisticated biology laboratory can now be performed in days by a high school student.” (p. 113) They state that a CRISPR lab can be set up for just $2,000. What is scary about this? CRISPR can make gene edits that are heritable. The age is upon us, exciting and chilling. Genome beware, Tinkering-man is coming for you!
On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman.
An excellent book and affirming in an odd way. Based upon what Grossman documents, I got much of the psychological cost of killing right in Gypsy Spy. At least 12 dog-eared pages and multiple underlinings give evidence to my engagement with the book. The author has a fascination with Freud, but that can be forgiven. He doesn’t make any faith claims, but he is Biblically literate. He knows the difference between killing and murder and this book is on killing.
The history, psychology, and current social implications all combine to make for a very worthwhile tome. His section on killing in Vietnam made me appreciate even more what all the veterans of that war have had to suffer because of our treatment of them and the cause they served.
Heartening to all should be the revelation that despite the decrepit condition the human race is in and the awful instances of mass shootings at home and barbarism by our enemies abroad, mankind isn’t naturally predisposed to killing. It takes a lot to get someone to the point where he or she will kill another person.
Grossman quotes Swank and Marchand’s WWII study that noted that only 2% of combat soldiers exhibited “aggressive psychopathic” tendencies. He goes on to clarify that a more accurate conclusion of their finding would be that there is a “2% of the male population that, if pushed or given a legitimate reason, will kill without regret or remorse.” He later drops this jewel of an observation regarding this rare 2%: “Whether called sociopaths, sheepdogs, warriors, or heroes, they are there, they are a distinct minority, and in times of danger a nation needs them desperately.”
Fascinate, Revised and Updated: How to Make Your Brand Impossible to Resist by Sally Hogshead.
When we worked together, my brother often said, “You know me, I ride for the brand.” His comment, born from our love of the Western and the reality of our step-father’s livelihood is a strong reminder of what we mean when we talk about branding. In the days before ear tags, cattle had their flesh seared with the indelible mark of their owner’s identity. Our modern use of “brand” derives from the Middle English use of a torch. Burning wood heats iron and a branding-iron imprints identity. As Sally Hogshead so aptly demonstrates, we all carry a fire—corporately and individually—that is our brand. Her gift is a replicable method for identifying and leveraging one’s brand effectively and affordably.
If the reader is familiar with any of the various personality type inventories such as Myers-Briggs, DISC, or OCEAN then the sense of this work will be even that much more apparent. Hogshead has identified seven archetypes of brand advantage and illustrates how and why they work to draw the public’s attention. She then moves into how these can be used in a combination of ways for tactical gains in changing circumstances without a loss of central value or identity.
Reading this work fired my imagination, has reignited my personal author branding message, and has inspired deep conversations on marketing and branding in the company I work for. Whether we recognize it or not, most of us are involved in the business of marketing. Fascinate provides great tools to increase the impact and effectiveness of those efforts.
And … [drum roll] … the promised Plus One:
Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and Their Journey by Isabel Fonseca.
Fonseca’s Bury Me Standing is a singularly stellar personal and literary accomplishment for the author. Isabel Fonseca put herself in circumstances few would willingly venture into, gained access to a closed society dominated by men and mother-in-laws, and reported her findings with literary elegance and beauty. I first read this book over 20 years ago. It stands the test of time. It is vital reading for anyone who wants insight into the Roma.
I am the youngest of seven children born under three marriages, but comprising only two constellations of siblings: Russell and Larum. I was perhaps six months old when my eldest brother Ronald went off to Vietnam. That should give you some sense of the remoteness the baby in the family can feel toward his oldest siblings. But ours was far from a normal family. “Blended” wouldn’t do it justice, so I leave that tale for another day.
Six boys and one girl, which means that both mom and sis were strong women in a way that could put to shame many a man I have known. Mom buried three husbands and two sons. I am very grateful she was already home to greet the latest departure. On Friday, September 29, 2017, Michael, my third-oldest brother, went home to be with his Lord and enjoy a family reunion I can only hope for. And then there were four.
One would think that having six siblings would minimize the intense sense of loss somewhat. But it doesn’t. Seven is the full set. Anyone missing leaves us less. I felt this first at the news of my brother John’s death in 1992. He was only forty-three; I was nearly twenty-eight and already overly familiar with the process of grief having lost my father when I was thirteen. As I recall it, I was deep into a construction project with my son Nikolai—a toddling two-year-old who loved stacking the blocks up into imaginary castles almost as much as I did—when I received the news. I was totally unprepared for my reaction: shock, sorrow, and relief. Relief? Yes, relief. I suppose it is time to introduce you to my brother John.
John was my mother’s second son. She was a recently minted nineteen-year-old when she had him. Though young, the drama of life had already swept her into a tale that would ultimately rival any soap opera and still surprises audiences when I tell it. John was the only boy among us with black hair. “You don’t look like the rest of them,” folks would often say. “If I only had a dollar for every time I’ve heard that,” was his frequent reply. The rest of us boys were redheads. Barbara stood out because she was the girl. John, well, John was different.
All my siblings are charming, but I admit I am biased. John was charming in a way that would make women who knew better swoon. Handsome, athletic, driven, brilliant and armed at an early age with a sociopathic lack of conscience, John was an exhilarating and dangerous roller coaster to ride. As life would have it, he was the older sibling who showed up on the scene to “help” my mother when my father was dying of emphysema and lung cancer. “Help” meant that he was there to engage and challenge his teenaged baby brothers, Timothy and Nikolas (that’s me on the right—people often confused us even though our names only share two letters), who were the last left at home. And “help” is in quotes because his move to Arkansas from California wasn’t motivated by any sense of obligation or altruism. Narcotics officers were hot on his tail and he thought it best to let his California market fade away in his rearview mirror.
John taught us all the things older brothers shouldn’t teach their younger siblings and a few that they absolutely should. The shoulds ran the range from expanding my literary horizons to knowing how to put my fist through wood if necessary. The should-not’s I won’t list, except for this one: if you want to score a million dollars, don’t try stealing it from one guy; instead, find a way to con a million people out of a buck. That was John, the consummate conman.
Our last conversation was a godsend. We must have talked on the phone for nearly two hours. I laughed so hard I couldn’t cry anymore. “I finally got your number from Mother, but she still wouldn’t give me your address,” he said. I laughed. “John, you know I love you. I simply can’t afford you.” He laughed. Good times. He died of an overdose not long after that call. It was like having a chunk of my heart pulled out. I was sad he was gone and relieved that the danger had passed.
2007 was a monumental year for me. In June of that year, I began a new career in waste management. After nearly twenty years working in the installation and warehousing side of the commercial office furnishings industry, I landed a job managing a materials recovery facility. Essentially, I went from opening cardboard boxes to recycling them. I knew next to nothing about waste hauling and even less about running a processing facility. Fourteen-hour days were not uncommon and the commute simply added to the load. It was about midday on a Thursday when my wife called me with the news. There was no easy way to say it. My brother Timothy had passed away the night before. I have never been a big Halloween fan. His death on October 31, 2007, didn’t improve my opinion of the day any.
Classic me, I tried to keep working. I think I was able to function for about an hour and half before I admitted to myself the impossibility of it. I had to go home. Tim was my Irish twin. He was No. 6 to my No. 7, the only other biological child of my father. I should have been prepared for my reaction to the news: shock, sorrow, and ultimately relief. Relief? Yes, relief. Please let me explain.
Timothy wasn’t dangerous like John. As far as I know, he never ran a con in his life. He loved his family, cherished our mother, and adored his daughter. He was physically talented and fearless. I see cliffs as something to climb. He climbed cliffs to find higher ground to dive from. I learned to fight for self-preservation. He liked to fight for fun. I had to teach myself how to laugh out loud. His laughter could always shake the room and was more infectious than Ebola. Though some may disagree, I believe my head outweighs my heart. His heart was always bigger than his head.
Timothy taught me to dance, got me hooked on restaurant work, and had a way of talking me into schemes I should have known better to avoid—like driving him and his best friend to a party because mom never said I couldn’t take the car, never mind that I was only fourteen and unlicensed. In many ways, ours was a case of classic sibling rivalry. But our conflicts were always tempered with an abiding affection for each other. Being last in line, we experienced the most together. It was a treasure trove of memories none of the other siblings had in common. News of his death was like taking a .45-slug to the chest. The hole is still there.
My last conversation with him was a godsend. I was at work checking on one of our auxiliary warehouses when he called me on my cell phone. He was distraught over many things. He had recently been assaulted at a gas station by a group of thugs who felt he had cut them off on the highway. The experience had left him humbled and profoundly shaken. Our brother Eric, with whom we were both very close, had moved back to Spain. To make matters worse, the Spain we had grown up in no longer existed. Prone to nostalgia, the physical loss of the country he grew up in left his identity somewhat adrift. Last but not least, his little girl was going to be a legal adult and the chances of her deciding to move out to him were slim to none. There was really ever only one salve for our wounds: Jesus.
As I spoke with Timothy, we encouraged one another in our faith. I believe I helped him define his distress and in doing so, brought some relief. If the above leads you to believe that the conversation was sad and somber because of its content, then I can only surmise that the reader hasn’t spent much personal time in the company of Larums. That is not our way. There are few traumas that we can’t laugh our way through. Aside from the usual jocularity, the joy of this conversation was in the shared hearts of brothers who truly knew each other.
Timothy worked hard and played harder. He died of a heroin overdose. Mother said he must have been shocked to come to and see Jesus. She believed as I do that the high was his aim, not suicide. He was only forty-four years old.
Hard as John was to live with, Mother never fully recovered from his death. Timothy was the only honest-to-goodness mamma’s boy among us. I feared she would sink in the sorrow of his passing and never return to us. She proved me wrong. She was always surprising like that. I had been casting about in my mind for how to broach the subject of God’s mercy in Timothy’s exit with her. She kindly beat me to the punch. “Sad as I am,” she said, “I am thankful he went that way. Maybe God allowed it to save us all from something worse. What if he had gotten into an accident drunk behind the wheel and killed someone? He wouldn’t have been able to live with that. I think God was merciful to us.” That is what I mean by relief.
My earliest memory of Timothy and Michael is the same. Ron and Mike were playing catch with Tim in the living room of our California home. Timothy was the ball and he was having a blast. Having older brothers over six feet tall when you are a toddler is like having your own personal amusement park. If Timothy wasn’t an adrenalin junkie at birth, he certainly was one by the age of three.
My next memory of Michael was of him working on our mother’s car. It was an Opel coupe. I recall coming out of the house and walking down the driveway just in time to see him reach under the hood, pick the engine up, and set it down on the ground. Did I mention that Michael was big? Some people don’t believe in giants. I grew up with them.
An imposing six-and-a-half feet tall, Michael was a gearhead and a consummate prankster. When Charles Manson was going helter-skelter, Michael was knocking on the neighbors’ doors and keeling over with a toy knife protruding from his chest, his white t-shirt smeared with ketchup. I don’t know if he ever encountered an engine he didn’t think needed to come apart. He worked as a lumberjack, married young, had two children, and ultimately found his way to being employed by IBM. My grease monkey, lumberjack, giant of a brother wound up being an executive in a high-tech computer company. Folks who may consider me to be loud and perhaps a bit obnoxious have little appreciation for the din of brilliance I grew up under. As the baby, I had to be persistent to be heard. If that didn’t work, I got louder.
Our last conversation was a godsend. Michael suffered a catastrophic stroke early in 2012. We were unsure at the time if he would survive it. He did, but not entirely. Strokes have a way of removing restraint on certain aspects of personality. Certain aspects of Michael’s personality were in continual need of restraint. His wife and children were heroic in his care, but not without a price. Eventually, my nephew Matthew had to set Michael’s phone to receive only. I had not called him in some time. My sister Barbara reached out to me to let me know Michael really wanted to hear from me. Were it not for her, I would have missed the opportunity.
I am ashamed to say that I never ventured out to California to see him in the nursing home. At first I was dealing with enough fires on the home front. But ultimately, it boiled down to plain selfishness. Selfishness and fear. I had made my way through cancer. I was weary of digging holes. I didn’t possess the courage to see him that way. I kept my distance. I’m the baby, gotta love me.
I called Michael and we had a beautiful talk. He reminisced about his last visit to Virginia. I had taken my two oldest boys, Nikolai and Gavin, to play disc golf with my brother Eric. While we were chatting in the park, an old geezer who looked like a slightly run over Mark Twain shuffled his way to us and started talking to the boys. It was all I could do to keep a straight face. Michael had them going a good while before he stood up to his imposing full height and removed his Billy Bob teeth to reveal himself. We still laugh about it. The kids were so impressed that my wife bought Billy Bob teeth for all to wear when they met the new dentist. The gag worked great. Thanks, Michael!
We talked about that epic day in the park, about the time he came to my church, about the grace of God, about the love of family. In his bed, paralyzed from the waist down and a good chunk of his brain missing, Michael talked with me as a loving, older brother. He asked about my life, about my kids, about my plans. How does someone love like that? Here I was, almost put out to call him. There he was, laid low in a nursing home loving on his baby brother. It leaves me undone.
He wrestled with survival, unsure of whether he wanted to stay or go. When the news came, the feelings were familiar: sorrow and relief. His suffering was over. His time had come. Mom had a party in heaven, I am sure.
I know our times are in His hands. I believe in the imminent return of Jesus Christ and hope to experience having my mortality swallowed up by life. But if that doesn’t happen in my lifetime, I know that my corruption will put on incorruption. All that being said, if I go before He comes the only one I want feeling any relief is the Devil. I want to be full of years and in a good old age. I want to be in the same shape as Moses, whose eye wasn’t dim nor his natural force abated.
Rest in peace, my brothers. The days of our reunion will by far outweigh the days of our lives.
Simple things should be celebrated; things like breathing. I am continually disappointed by how quickly I lose gratefulness for the mundane. I wake up. I stretch. I drink water without pain and think only of my thirst. I shuffle to my bathroom and manage to brush my teeth without fouling the sink with last night’s dinner and don’t give it a second thought. I met Jesus at my bathroom sink. He’s still there, I just forget to say hello far too often.
I celebrated my fifty-second birthday not long ago, marking another year in overtime since someone called the last quarter. Forty-seven has been the major mile marker on my road of life since I was thirteen. My father never made it to forty-eight. They carried him out of the house on a sheet twenty days before Christmas in 1978. It wasn’t until I reached 47 that I realized how young my father was when he passed away and began to sense a tinge of living on borrowed time. Then, in my forty-ninth year, I was informed that I had cancer already at Stage IV.
Beating dad’s longevity by two short years seemed a small accomplishment in the face of that diagnosis. My youngest hadn’t yet reached the age I was when I lost my father. I certainly didn’t want him or my other children to go through what I did as a child. I know firsthand what widowhood did to my mother. I couldn’t bear the thought of such a burden on my wife. So I decided to submit to the chemo and walk through the fires of radiation to see my way through. That’s when I met Jesus at my bathroom sink.
I’ve been a dedicate student of the Bible most of my life. In more than three decades of study, I had developed a fairly woven tapestry of theology. All of that went away at teeth brushing time. I would pray to the Lord not to throw up and then when I did, I would thank Him for carrying me through. I was especially thankful for the mornings I didn’t have to brush my teeth twice. When life is under that type of stress, one becomes thankful for the simple things in life. Each day is horrible, but you’re glad for it because it’s a day you’ve overcome. Redemption is another day closer. Sorrow only lasts for the night.
I get stressed out now. I worry. Will we triumph over the termites? Can I get my budget done on time? Will I parent well and help my children be successful? Are my brakes making noise, or is it just my imagination? Will folks at church get offended at me? Will we win that bid? What if I get fired? Silly stuff, really, because I’m alive. Every time I breathe without thankfulness, temporary pressures take on the form of titan troubles. He carried me through the fire, what is that in the face of a business budget or bad brakes? I am cancer free, thank God, but I need to remember the character that chemo taught me.
I do things now I wouldn’t have done three years ago; things like going to a hip-hop concert with my kids on St. Patrick’s Day. “Honey,” my wife asked, “you want to go to a Toby Mac concert with your kids?” Sure, why not? I’m alive, aren’t I? If they’re going to have fun, I’m going to join them in the experience. I hadn’t been to a pop music venue since 1979. Five minutes into the show, I remembered why. Hip hop isn’t really my thing. Through most of the sets, the visuals on the big screens were more a distraction from the music than they were an enhancement to the show. I say “most” because I was grateful for them when Matt Maher performed.
There I was, a recently minted fifty-two year old with his teenage and twenty something kids suffering through songs I didn’t know and words I couldn’t make out but glad my kids were enjoying themselves. Then, in the middle of the bedlam a worship service broke out. Matt Maher had taken the stage. Lyrics were on the screen and the songs had a melody I could follow. I came out to be with my children and have fun. I didn’t expect to wind up in tears.
I’m alive, I’m alive
Because He lives
Let my song join the one that never ends
Because He lives
I can face tomorrow
Because He lives
Every fear is gone
I know He holds my life my future in His hands”
As I sang this song, I was overwhelmed with thankfulness. I’m alive. I’ve marked another year. My children are not orphans, my wife not a widow. I am the wealthiest man I know. And I am so because He lives. Simple things should be celebrated; things like breathing, even at a hip hop concert.
I did a lot of writing in 2016, but by the looks of it not much made it on Larumland! Carlos de Leon, my favorite Gypsy, has been monopolizing most of my creative time. Even so, I did manage to get some reading done in 2016. Below are my top ten of the year in the order that I read them.
Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, 1881-2001 by Benny Morris. Morris is an Israeli historian and is a professor of history in the Middle East Studies department of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. This masterful work on the establishment of the modern Israeli state and the resultant Zionist-Arab conflict tells a tale unlike what one hears from Evangelicals or Arabophiles. The righteous victims of the title could be either the Jews or the Arabs or neither depending on the incident or the era. It seems to me that current humanism believes any conquest to be immoral, regardless if it is accomplished through trade, war, or migration. But conquest is a reality of the human condition, a lesson that the Western Hemisphere teaches us well if we would but listen. Anyone desirous to understand the conflicts and talking points surrounding the Arab-Israeli conflict owes it to themselves to read this book. Morris exposes both sides of the conflict in a highly objective history that documents the strength, perseverance, and atrocities of the clashing cultures. It is a very authoritative and highly approachable text. The reader will come away with a greater understanding of the challenges Israel, Jews, and Arabs face.
The Math Myth: And Other STEM Delusions by Andrew Hacker. Any book that challenges the status quo is bound to criticized. The Math Myth is no exception. Some reviewers go so far as to attack the author because he isn’t a mathematician. These attacks lend weight the author’s argument, in my opinion. I listen to colleagues recount their college days and their struggles in what their professors openly called “weeder classes” like advanced calculus and I have to agree that Hacker is on to something. The author’s thesis is that the continual push for higher mathematics is impinging on true talent development for the college bound as well as not offering real world solutions or delivering on its promise to make better critical thinkers. He exposes the influential role the mathematics “mandarins” have had in perpetuating this myth and imposing theoretical and abstract mathematics on a population in dire need of strong arithmetic skills and greater numeracy. In the last chapter, he provides great examples of how arithmetic alone is sufficient to provide deep insights into everyday problems and statistics. The Math Myth is a very enlightening and enjoyable read.
Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring by Alexander Rose. I was preparing for my pilgrimage to Arkansas this summer and grabbed this book as a fun read for the plane ride. I had watched AMC’s Turn and was curious how close to the “novel” the show was. First surprise: this book isn’t a novel; it’s a history – a very fascinating history. If you happen to be a fan of Turn, you may be disappointed in the facts presented in Washington’s Spies. But truth is stranger than fiction and ultimately more rewarding. Rose’s work is an eye-opening look into the factious society of revolutionary America. Not surprising that less than 100 years later, we managed to kill over half a million of ourselves in the Civil War! The early spy craft was fascinating and Washington’s role as our nation’s first spy master is a story every patriot should know. I had the opportunity to hear the author speak on 7/14/16. Mr. Rose is much younger than I had expected. He is a fascinating fellow and really knows his subject.
Gypsy Spy: The Cold War Filesby Nikolas Larum. It may seem self-serving to put my own book on this list, but it is a ripping good yarn if I do say so myself. Through most of its gestation, the story lived under the working title The Long March Home. I never expected the path to publication to mirror the title. Twenty-five years after the completion of my first draft, I began the layout of my latest rewrite for publication through CreateSpace. The Long March Home gave way to Gypsy Spy and a fortnight later, I had my novel in book format for the very first time. Until that time, I had never read my story as a reader – someone sitting down with a novel for a bit of escape. I was pleasantly surprised by what I found. After all, a story crafted over the course of a quarter century moves much faster when read in two weeks’ time. My estimation of the work is truly biased, so I thought you should get a review from one of my readers. This one comes from Karla Perry, who is an accomplished writer in her own right.
“Gypsy Spy by Nikolas Larum is an exciting read. Larum provides the perfect combination of Cold War history, thrilling adventure, mystery, intrigue, and biblical truth in this excellent novel. Larum brought the characters to life in a way that I would find myself wondering what Carlos was up to when I wasn’t reading. His writing style actively pulled me along from sentence to sentence drawing me into this engaging read. I would love to share more on my favorite moments in Carlos’s life, but I like to read blind without any idea of where I’m being led. In fact, anytime I felt I knew where the story was headed, I found myself pleasantly surprised to be taken in a different direction. The twists and turns of the story enhance the beautiful cohesion of the novel. I read a lot of Christian fiction and it is rare to find a Christian author who is able to weave biblical truth into a story without losing the art of telling a story. Larum successfully told an amazing story while also powerfully communicating grace, truth, and the power of God. I recommend Gypsy Spy for your reading pleasure! Enjoy!”
Scalia’s Court: A Legacy of Landmark Opinions and Dissents, Kevin A. Ring, editor. Scalia was brilliant. Progressives may certainly disagree with his opinions, but having read some of SCOTUS’s decisions, I don’t think any of them could seriously argue with his approach. His writing was exquisite. One aspect of my day job is slugging through the mind-numbing language of contract legalese. Scalia’s writing is anything but. Insightful, Constitutional, and consistent, his opinions and dissents are human and humorous. I left a lot of red ink in this book, but below is a small sample of some of his genius.
From his concurring opinion in Glossip v. Gross where he argues against Justice Breyer’s call for the abolition of the death penalty: “[Justice Breyer’s] invocation of the resultant delay [between sentencing and execution] as grounds for abolishing the death penalty calls to mind the man sentenced to death for killing his parents, who pleads for mercy on the grounds that he is an orphan.”
From his concurrence in part and dissent in part in Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey: “The emptiness of the ‘reasoned judgement’ that produced Roe is displayed in plain view by the fact that, after more than 19 years of effort by some of the brightest (and most determined) legal minds in the country, after more than 10 cases upholding abortion rights in this Court, and after dozens upon dozens of amicus briefs submitted in this and other cases, the best the Court can do to explain how it is that the word ‘liberty’ must be thought to include the right to destroy human fetuses is to rattle off a collection of adjectives that simply decorate a value judgment and conceal a political choice.”
Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer by Roy Peter Clark. Clark is as enjoyable to read as he is a great help in writing. The numerous examples from different writers from various fields and times give great examples of the tools he expounds while showcasing great writing that can be emulated. And his own writing is insightful, entertaining, helpful, and encouraging. I am always inspired to write when I read Roy Peter Clark. The title promises 50 tools and the author delivers just that, fifty actual tools that writers not only can use, but neglect to their own peril. I underlined plenty of the text as I read, but offer this one jewel because I have found it to be tried and true.
“To test your writing voice, the most powerful tool on your workbench is oral reading. Read your story aloud to hear if it sounds like you.”
Back to the Futureby Karla Perry is an insightful, thought-dense treatise on redeeming America through Kingdom mentality. Though informative to all, this book is addressed to the Church, the American Church specifically. Perry sets the stage of our current cultural decay through a concise review of the philosophers that seduced Western Civilization away from a biblical world view into the faith of secular humanism that has birthed our post-modern identity crisis. She builds on this exposure of the thought brokers in Chapter 1 to lead the reader into needed realm of reconstruction. This reconstruction, she argues, must be predicated on a rejection of the false antithesis of reason and faith. It must embrace a substantive faith that enlightens reason with truth.
“[The] faith spoken of in the Bible is not a matter of intellectual belief, but a matter of connecting experientially and substantively with the person of Truth, Jesus.” (p.26)
Throughout the book, she avoids the trap of cloistered Christianity and advocates a bold, public life of faith that brings salt and light to the culture. Well written, excellently documented with footnotes, bibliography, and suggested reading, Perry has loaded this 140 page book with gold. I highly recommend it.
A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman. Backman writes his novel. He writes like a sports commentator calls the game. Nikolas reads the story in a way surprised people taste new food and are unsure of the flavor or like a painter viewing a Picasso, sure for a moment that he can do better. Which of course, he cannot. Not quite in that way. A veritable treasure trove of similes, Backman breaks the rule of show-don’t-tell with wild abandon daring us to push past Ove’s brusqueness into a heart that is too large for the world it finds itself in.
The narrative of this novel is written mostly in the simple present. It is one of those literary devices you read about in writing books but seldom encounter in a full-length work. Since the author is Swedish and I was reading the English translation, I was unsure if this was an intentional device employed by the author or simply the way Swedes write. The coworker who turned me on to the story is Swedish. She has neither confirmed nor denied. Regardless, the style grew on me and charmed me into this marvelous story.
Backman invites us to dislike Ove, a man intent on suicide sabotaged by the lives around him, only to peel the layers back in a way that leaves us embracing this most lovable curmudgeon. I did indeed laugh and cry. My only regret in reading this book was that I had to do it in English. If it is this good translated, I can only imagine how great it is in its original language. Treat yourself. Read this book.
The Power of Understanding People by Dave Mitchell. Iconic personality type profiling has been with us for a while. From Hippocrates’s humors to Jung’s alphabet soup a la Myers-Briggs, these schemas have aided those interested in understanding people to classify them in general categories for greater ease of interaction. If you have spent any time in the corporate world or a modern mega-church, you have no doubt encountered this philosophy. From Humors to DISC to Jung to OCEAN, they all bear a consistent four part root that in spite of physiological evidence still leaves us nodding our heads in agreement. We know these types of personalities exist.
It is a testament to Dave Mitchell’s talent that he is able to pick up this well-known paradigm of psychology and breathe fresh life into it through humor, anecdotes, and fresh nameplates on old character types. Enter the Romantics, Warriors, Experts, and Masterminds (no spoilers here – you’ll have to read the book to find out who wins)! Mitchell outlines these basic personalities and then blends them into characters we all recognize: the best friend, the hired gun, the specialist, the adventurer. He then illustrates these roles through well-known Hollywood actors who portray them. I truly enjoyed this book, though I caution against eating while reading as you might choke on your food while laughing. Insightful and funny, this book is both enjoyable and helpful.
Once a glorious laboratory framed in robust Federalist rhetoric and purchased with Patriots’ blood, America sits now as a sick room, a critical care unit to a liberty nearly dead. The Republic wheezes as the SCOTUS tube drips its poisonous public policies into the network of our societal veins while the executives debate over how they plan to pull the plug. And We the People look up to them from the gurney: polarized, afraid, and caustically accusative. How did it happen? We forgot.
When memory fails, we fall for fallacies. Once the lies are believed, liberty bleeds out of us and feeds the despotism of deception. Think I overstate my case? Take the short quiz below:
President Barack Obama is responsible for the Affordable Care Act, which is why it is commonly called Obamacare, true or false?
A strong, conservative president can repeal the Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion, true or false?
The purpose of the Supreme Court is to decide on the constitutionality of the laws passed by Congress, true or false?
If you felt any of these were even partially true, you have contracted Despotic Deception Disorder (DDD). I mean no disrespect with my diagnosis. The disease is hard to avoid. DDD vectors are pervasive in the Republic and can be found in the very clinics that are intended to inoculate against the malady. The free press, politicians, parents, preachers, and teachers have transmitted the propaganda of the President being the most powerful person on the planet along with the myth of the mighty court.
The Chief Executive and the Supreme Court are both part of the machinery of governance. But they are not the seat of power. They only become so when we cower under their orders or opinions to the peril of our premier founding document, the Constitution. “We the People of the United States…do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” So long as we recall that we are a nation of laws established by the governed, we will retain the liberties those laws were instituted to protect.
Which is the most powerful branch of government? Constitutionally and logically it is the legislative branch. Congress, as the direct representation of the people’s will, far outweighs the executive and judicial privileges. If only we the people would hold them to it! I believe the cure for our current malady lies in a revitalized interest in our law-making bodies, from city councils to state legislatures to US Senators and Representatives. Is the reader aware of who represents their neighborhood, county, or district? If not, I beg of you to become aware. The increasing nationalization of our politics have sapped them of substance and turned them into a Survivor-type reality show.
Does anyone seriously believe that a Hillary Rodham would have been elected as the Senator from New York, appointed as Secretary of State, and now stand as the nominated candidate for the Democratic Party? Do even sycophants the likes of Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity believe in their heart of hearts that Donald Trump was ever qualified to run for President let alone be one? Without his brand recognition, Trump’s hostile takeover of the GOP would have been impossible. The Reality Show Right refuses to admit it, just as the DNC will turn a blind eye to Mrs. Clinton’s corruption.
All this became possible because neither party is constitutionally minded; and we the people have suffered under their continual insults to our liberty for so long, I fear we have lost sight of constitutionalism ourselves. Both sides are banging the drum of the Executive to appoint the right Judiciary to reign over us. All Hail the Chief! All Hail SCOTUS!
Last I checked, Americans are supposed to elect our lawyers or hire them. Once we are in a place that the Lawyer must be appointed, our “free” phone call will be worthless.
While pundits and politicians fuel the media fire storm surrounding the bathroom rights of transgenders, another “trans” group sits neglected in the shadows. They have walked among us for decades – if not centuries – hidden in plain sight at battle reenactments, theme parks, and cosplay conventions. They frequent their preferred watering holes like That 70s Bar or Pirates’ Cove Tavern and eat at establishments like 25th Century, a trendy molecular gastronomy restaurant in Soho. Who are these people? They are the transtemporals and they sense that their time for equality has come.
“Most Americans are oblivious to our plight,” lamented Archibald Pruner, president of the Past|Utopic|Transtemporal|Retro|Instants|Dystopian+ Society (PURTID+S), an advocacy group for all transtemporal and time-challenged minorities. “While the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 made great strides in protecting Americans of a certain age, it did nothing to help those of us who do not identify with the generally agreed upon time frame.” Mr. Pruner is serious and it is difficult not to take him as such dressed as he is his impeccable Victorian schoolmaster’s garb. “I don’t know what I would do if I didn’t have this job,” he confessed. “I couldn’t degrade myself to wear the ridiculous clothing that sequentials call ‘business casual’. To me, it is the ultimate oxymoron. Why should business ever be casual?”
In case you missed it, “sequentials” is how those in the PUTRID+ community refer to those in the general public who maintain their ideals of straight timelines that flow from the past through the present to the future. What may seem obvious to most is not necessarily the reality accepted by transtemporals. Even their patron saint, Albert Einstein, appears to agree. He is often quoted as stating that “the distinction between the past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.” This has become a mantra of sorts for many in the PUTRID+ community who feel that Einstein gives scientific gravitas to their temporal relativism.
“Frankly, we are tired of being made fun of,” confesses Cleve Zertron. We are sitting in Cleve’s basement apartment in his parent’s home. Cleve is a self-employed software developer who has been forced to freelance because no IT company will hire him, not even for a helpdesk position. “They love my résumé and my educational credentials are impeccable,” he tells me. “The phone interviews always go well. But the minute I walk in, it’s all snickers.” Zertron is dressed in a silver colored, reflective Zentai that covers him like a second skin from head to toe. “This is what we wear in 2215 se. I shouldn’t be denied employment because I’m from the future. You would think that IT companies would appreciate having a real futurist on their team. But they refuse to acknowledge my right to dress in accordance with my temporal identity.”
Mr. Zertron’s plight is unfortunately typical, especially for future transtemporals, or FTTs. While PTTs (past transtemporals) have been able to access public employment through historical theme parks like Colonial Williamsburg, FTTs are generally viewed as crazy even among many in the PUTRID+ community. “Were it not for the FTTs,” explains Ingrid Oldkirk, “our community would be referred to as PTRI [pronounced pee-tree, like the dish], which is much more clinical and less offensive. But FTTs come in two main varieties: Utopic and Dystopian. When they are not disagreeing with each other about what the future looks like, they are disagreeing with us about what the past was really like. Giving them the U and D in our society was the only way to make peace, even though most of us think it stinks.”
Dr. Malcolm Synclair is the H. G. Wells Professor of Transtemporal Ethics and Justice at Yale University. In 2014 he won a milestone concession from the trustees to provide time-appropriate restrooms for transtemporal students and staff. “For some PTTs, a flushing toilet is terrifying,” he tells me. “One should be able to have a bowel movement because one needs to, not when one is scared to.” A survey of the student body found that 65% of them were in favor of the outhouse installations popping up around campus, though only 5% said they would be willing to shake hands with a transtemporal exiting one. “It’s not just restrooms,” Dr. Synclair continues. “Our culture takes continual jabs at transtemporals. Why is it that in most movies, time travelers lose their clothes? From The Terminator to The Time Traveler’s Wife the unwritten rule seems to be that transtemporals must be stripped of their dignity and forced to scrounge for clothes appropriate to the sequential era.” His face is flushed and his gaze intent. Synclair feels the pain of the prejudices that transtemporals bear every day.
“It wasn’t easy coming out of the clock,” Sally tells me. Even now she is cautious, allowing me only to use her first name. “My mother was always offering to take me to the mall to go shopping for the latest styles. She was concerned that my closet had nothing but vintage clothing and claimed that all my friends were Goths pretending to be vampires. I finally had to tell her that I was a transtemporal, that I no longer identified with my assigned birthdate.” After that initial encounter, things were a little less tense in the household, but not by much. “They are convinced that I am delusional. One night in exasperation, my father pulled out my birth certificate and made me read it out loud. I told him it didn’t matter what sequential society thought I should be. What was important was that I identified as someone born in the 1880s, not the 1990s and that he should respect that.” She said that her father stormed out and remains a chronophobe to this day.
The recent monumental gains made by the LGBTQ+ community in redefining marriage and making the idea of sexually segregated public restrooms and locker rooms the icons of the new civil rights movement have given those in the PUTRID+ community hope. And progressive municipalities and religious organizations are starting to move in their direction.
The Portland, Oregon school board has ruled that the omnitemporal verbs iz, waz, and bilbe will replace the classic sequential verbs is, was, will be in all official documents to avoid transtemporal discrimination.
Ashville, North Carolina has enacted an ordinance that requires all restaurants to provide outhouses for PTTs and zero-gravity toilets for UFTTs. When City Council was asked about the financial burden this would place on restaurant owners, they replied that perhaps the owners should enlist the help of the Utopic Future Transtemporals for ways of building space toilets cheaper than the ones NASA currently builds. Regardless, if the restaurants don’t have the toilets in place by January 2018, they will be subject to punitive sanitation fees from the City. Ashville City Council plans to use the money to provide costume and housing subsidies to transtemporals.
Determined not to be left out of the progressive party, the 2nd Baptist Church of Mayberry, North Carolina is the first church in the country to ordain openly transtemporal ministers. Jamie Demple is the senior pastor at 2nd Baptist and he led his congregation’s move away from the Southern Baptist Convention soon after taking the pastorate there ten years ago. “The church should be about tolerance and inclusivity,” Demple says. “Our church is diverse enough for both old time religion and progressive relativistic messages.” Can I get an amen?
 The ADEA and several other facts in this post are real. I leave it to the reader to decide what is not.  The great physicist was posthumously honored with the title Patron of PUTRID+ Relativism at the 3rd 5th Annual Beta PUTRID Convention in San Francisco in 2011 se. (I feel an explanation is necessary as the name of this convention might be confusing to the reader. It is referred to as the 3rd 5th Annual because that was the best consensus that the transtemporals at the convention could arrive to regarding which convention they were all actually participating in. SE is the transtemporal designation for the Sequential Era and corresponds to what is classically referred to as AD – anno Domini, “in the year of our Lord” – but has become in many militant secular environments CE, or “of the common era”.) http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/a/alberteins148814.html, accessed 5/14/16.