My Top Ten Reads of 2018

Though writing occupied much of my time in 2018 (two book publications, sixty-eight blog posts, and 13,000 words into my next novel) I still managed to read through 37 books with a good mix of fiction and non-fiction covering diverse topics. How did I get through 37 tomes? I supplemented my regular reading with listening to audiobooks on my commute to work.

I would have preferred to provide the list in January instead of March, but this year got off on a difficult foot and I am still struggling to regain my stride. Below are my top ten of the bunch in the order I read or listened to them. Any that spark you interest is well worth your time to read.

Love Does: Discover a Secretly Incredible Life in an Ordinary World by Bob Goff

With story after story filled with Christ’s love and how transforming it is to actually follow Jesus instead of just stalking Him, this book is an inspiration and challenge all wrapped up in one. Its child’s-faith outlook stands on a firm biblical foundation. The author’s audacity to live as a change agent in response to God’s love has led him up an elevator hauling a 4×8-foot Valentine’s Day Card and down to the depths of dungeons to liberate incarcerated and enslaved children.

Profound statements abound throughout the work and Goff’s writing and observations gave my red pen a work out as I found myself underlining section after section. A couple of my favorites: “I used to be afraid of failing at something that really mattered to me, but now I’m more afraid of succeeding at things that don’t matter.” (p.25); and, “Love is a do thing. It’s an energy that has to be dissipated.” (p.48). Say yes and read this book!

The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible by Michael S. Heiser

Exciting, affirming, and challenging, Heiser’s work is both approachable and technical. An academic work superbly written and assembled for the general public, it offers compelling evidence to continually hold in mind the reality that we live in both a supernatural and material world. The epic tale of the revelation of God’s manifold wisdom through the church to the principalities and powers of the world is fleshed out in ways that are startling. The consistency of Scripture in presenting these ideas inspires awe for the Author of the Bible and appreciation for His human agents. As one who has consistently held to the idea that the Old Testament is the New Testament concealed and the New Testament is the Old Testament revealed, it is eye-opening to read a work that follows the precept that the Old Testament is what informs and supplies the New Testament writers with their ideas, theology, and metaphors.

Favorite quotes: “My conscience wouldn’t let me ignore my own Bible in order to retain the theology with which I was comfortable.”

“There’s no need to camouflage what the Hebrew text says. People shouldn’t be protected from the Bible.”

The Black Widow (audiobook) by Daniel Silva

I may need to actually read Daniel Silva! George Guidall’s performance was exquisite. Silva uses repetition to great effect. His description of Gideon standing with his hand to his chin, his head tilted slightly to the side becomes a refrain that makes you familiar with the character and comfortable with the writer. It is nearly poetic in its use.

(Spoiler Alert!)

The bad guy getting away and the entire operation not bringing any of the desired fruit was a letdown. It may be Silva’s attempt at realism. Regardless, the entire tale maintained suspense and the resolutions hinted at provided some satisfaction of closure. It was a great listen.

Fair Play: The Moral Dilemmas of Spying by James Olson

James Olson spent his entire career in the Directorate of Operations of the Central Intelligence Agency and is a former Chief of CIA Counterintelligence. His book is an excellent resource for those serious about the practical and ethical challenges inherent in espionage. Well written, informative, and full of insights from multiple sectors. The Spying 101 notes alone are worth the purchase price of the book. They contain a treasure trove for espionage writers and enthusiasts.

Shared Sorrows: A Gypsy Family Remembers the Holocaust by Toby Sonneman

I expected an informative read when I purchased this book. I received much more than I bargained for. Sonneman’s collaboration with Rosa Mettbach not only highlights the little known Great Devouring of the Gypsies under the Nazis, it also delves deeply into the burdens of bitterness, the betrayal of humanity, and the need for forgiveness. Studded throughout with exemplary scholarship, it retains its personal touch and avoids falling into dry academic “objectivity.”

Beautifully written, deeply personal, comprehensive, and unflinching in its description of the horrors of the Holocaust, it is a must read for those who want to learn about the Gypsy experience under the Nazi’s from the recollections of those who survived it.

Tripping over the Truth: How the Metabolic Theory of Cancer is Overturning one of Medicine’s most Entrenched Paradigms by Travis Christofferson, MS

As a cancer—and a cancer treatment—survivor, this book was a revelation. Had I been told in my original consultations that chemotherapy came from an accidental exposure of sailors to mustard gas and what they wanted to put through my veins was mustard gas’s cousin, I may have investigated alternative therapies more thoroughly. But by then, I was hurting and scared.

Early in the 20th century, Otto Warburg developed a workable metabolic theory of cancer that has recently gained momentum as the chasers of singular, or even manageable, DNA mutation causers have run into dead end after dead end at the death of millions, the misery of millions more, and the cost of billions. Warburg’s succinct thesis is below. This book is the history of that insight and its promise and implications nearly one hundred years later. If you have cancer or have a loved one battling it, read this book before the mustard gas begins dripping into the veins.

“Cancer, above all diseases, has countless secondary causes. But even for cancer, there is only one prime cause. Summarized in a few words, the cause of cancer is the replacement of the respiration of oxygen in normal body cells by a fermentation of sugars.” Otto H. Warburg

Story Trumps Structure by Steven James

Steven James is a national bestselling novelist whose pulse-pounding thrillers continue to gain wide critical acclaim and a growing fan base.[1] I had the pleasure of attending a couple of his workshops at a writers’ conference. I would consider this book to be the text book for his presentations.

Encouraging and challenging, this unique how-to tome had me stretched from, “I can do this” to “why did I ever think I could write?” Enjoyable to read and a valuable reference manual, it will sit on my writer’s reference shelf with my Roy Peter Clark books, dictionaries, and style manuals. Thank you, Steven James, for generously sharing your tools of the trade!

Man Without a Face by Markus Wolf

The victors of war write different histories than the vanquished. Markus Wolf was a Cold Warrior par excellence who perforated the West with strategically placed agents for nearly 30 years. While our side’s modus operandi relied on buying treason, Wolf managed to recruit ideologues who believed in the Communist cause. He enjoyed a prime advantage in his career. He was a German spying on Germans. His biography adds flesh and blood to the dreary concrete of the GDR’s surveillance state. A professional intelligence officer even in revealing his own life, the book is a far cry from a tell-all tome. But what is told is well worth reading.

Enemies: A History of the FBI by Tim Weiner

Hoover’s FBI was first and foremost an intelligence gathering organization. His agents acquired information in the traditional espionage fashion: break ins, black bag jobs, and wire taps—lots of wire taps. J. Edgar Hoover hated Communists and Communism and considered them both to be the most pressing threats to the American way. He was willing to violate the rule of law to make sure that Moscow couldn’t gain traction in the United States. Enemies carries the reader from those early days to the tragedy of 9/11 and all the successes and failures along the way. Paced like a political thriller, Tim Weiner’s history of the FBI is a highly enjoyable and informative read.

The Midnight Line (audiobook) by Lee Child

Absolute mind candy and pure entertainment, but then …

I thought the writing almost simplistic, until I found out that Lee Child was actually the pen name for James D. Grant, a British novelist with a background in TV production. He nails Americanisms in his novels. What I first considered simplistic is actually minimalist. He allows the reader to fill in blanks. Small towns USA are his canvas. He paints in details at will. He uses repetition in his writing for rhythm to drive the story forward and it works. Want a great escape? Forget Tom Cruise. Read the real Jack Reacher.

[1] https://www.amazon.com/Steven-James/e/B001IU0RQS, accessed March 23, 2019.

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Closer than Cousins

“Did you turn out the lights when you left that place?” my brother Eric was fond of asking me. It was a standing gag between us. He is number four. I am number seven. Once I saw the light of day, they not only shut out the lights, they removed the mold. My mother could have no children after me.

Seven siblings would be the number of us for twenty-seven years. Then we lost John, the second born. Eric and I dug his grave together. Fifteen years later, Timothy would follow. He was number six. We had lost our second line bookends. A decade would pass before Michael, number three in the lineup, would enter his rest with our Lord. That left us at four. On New Year’s Day, 2019, Eric Larum ended his pilgrimage on this earth. The center sibling is gone. Now we are only three: the eldest and the youngest and the wonder woman in between.

In this world of broken lives and blended families, I suppose “were you close?” is a fair question to be asked when you tell a colleague that your brother died. Fair or not, I still stumbled in my answer. Was I close to my brother Eric? Too close to explain. Too close to discuss. Too tender to touch. Too raw to reach. Too painful to manage more than a subdued yes.

When we were growing up, the term “blended family” hadn’t been coined yet, which is fine because it falls far short of describing our reality. Gloria’s brood wasn’t blended. We were welded, fused together in the heat of fierce family love and tragedy. The seams and scars were all there, but they left no steps or halves in their wake. We were brothers and sister. Never mind that the older three called my father Uncle John. Never mind that the next two called my father Dad and their father Pop. Never mind that my closest cousins were my brother and sister and my oldest brothers had a different last name. Blood was blood. That was that.

Mom married young and had three sons: Ronald, John, and Michael. Her first marriage was short in number of years, but long considering the circumstances. All the boys were still under ten when she divorced her first husband. Then she met the Larums—Jim and John in particular. John noticed her first, but Jim was faster on his feet and got the first dance.

pop and dad
Jim (Pop) & John (Dad) Larum 

James Patrick Larum, the youngest brother of the Larum clan, was a gregarious soul by all accounts. Mother said he never met a stranger. I only know snippets of him, bits of stories told by his widow and siblings. He was the life of a party, the man to have on a hunt, the capable woodsman, a good dancer, a wise soul, a troubled soldier, a courageous man. He loved his wife. He loved his children, all five, even though only two of them were from his loins, Eric and Barbara.

Mom and Pop were only married for five years. Except for how it ended, from mother’s accounting I always gathered that they were happy years. On a camping trip near a lake, Jim drowned while rescuing Eric, then three, who had gone into the water to be with his older brothers. The tragedy left an indelible mark on the entire family, but I suspect it scarred Eric most of all.

Jim was the seventh of seven. My father, John Harold Larum, was number six. My Aunt Katy tells me that when my father announced he was going to marry Gloria, their brother’s widow; she asked him, “Why would you marry her?” “Because I saw her first,” he said.

They wed in my Uncle Glennon’s church. They had two boys, Timothy and me. Mom’s second Larum marriage lasted three times and change longer than the first. My father died when I was thirteen. To my oldest brothers, dad would always be Uncle John. For Eric, Barbara, Timothy, and me, he was always Dad. Pop was the name reserved for Jim.

For better or worse, fathers impart identity. Growing up, much was made of Timothy looking like my father. I never thought I favored him much in appearance, however much I mirrored him in heart. I am my father’s son, no doubt. But Tim was the one that most looked like him. Folks at times would think us twins. I never saw it that way. Tim looked like Dad. Everybody said so. Me? I looked like … well, I always thought I looked like Eric.

I remember the day I proudly presented my first driver’s license to my mother. When a child looks or acts like a living parent, recognition of the fact usually elicits endearment or positive commentary. When the parent is dead, the child’s resemblance touches a different emotional core. It’s difficult to avoid the spook factor. I handed Mom my license. She looked at the picture and then at me. She paled, brushed by an unexpected specter. “You look like Jim,” she said. I was used to her reactions, negative and positive, when I behaved like my father. It was a familiar dance, spook factor and all. But reminding her of the husband she buried before she married my father proved too spooky even for her.

Were Eric and I close? Mom thought I looked like Pop, a man who drowned and subsequently made my birth possible. Eric’s tragedy, my legacy. We were cousins like few others. We were brothers from the same mother.

Father’s impart identity, siblings stamp character. Hugs and blows, heart-shares and arguments shape and augment the wet clay. The farther down one is in the birth order, the more one is shaped by siblings than parents. I am the youngest of seven. Eric was number four, square in the middle, pivot man between two fathers and three older brothers and granted by God to play the lead out man for the other three Larum kids.

When I started kindergarten, it was Eric who walked me there. I was five, he was twelve. He wasn’t insensitive to my needs or age, but he didn’t allow his sensitivity to impact his stride. He would walk me there, but I had to keep up. My normal walking pace remains fast to this day, forty-eight years later.

I recall a night when I was fifteen walking home from work after closing the kitchen down near the midnight hour. Out of the dark and some distance behind, a voice bellowed my name. It was my brother Timothy hoofing his way home from parts unknown. The street was poorly lit and I had been nearly two blocks ahead of him. “How did you know it was me?” I asked him. He laughed. “Brother, I would know that walk anywhere.” How close were Eric and I? He gave me my walk.

When I was six and Eric was thirteen, we walked from Michigan to New York to catch a plane to Spain. Mom and Dad were with us, as were Timothy and Barbara. We hiked for three weeks at least. Memory tells me my pack weighed twenty pounds. Not too bad for a six-year-old, but Eric’s pack held the canned goods. He was always Big Brother.

He left home not long after our return from Spain in 1976. I was eleven. He was eighteen. I wouldn’t see him again for another five years. The occasion of our reunion was my brother Timothy’s high school graduation in San Jose, California. My mother, step-father, and I had ridden the road from Arkansas to be there.

A lot happens to an eleven-year-old’s body in five years. Last Eric had seen me, I didn’t reach his shoulders. Now he looked up at me, sixteen and filling out. He smiled. We hugged. He held me out at arm’s length, a hand on the side of each of my shoulders, open-palmed. “Well, you may be taller than me now,” he said and lifted me off my feet, “but I’m still your big brother.” It was never in doubt. To this day I remain amazed by his feat. Men who can do don’t brag. Eric was never a braggart.

He came back to Arkansas for a short stint when I was in my senior year of high school. He joined me and my buds on my best friend’s farm for a bon fire evening. Eric was seven when I was born. At twenty-four, he had no qualms about hanging out with his baby brother. Years couldn’t estrange us. He was perfectly content with extended periods of solitude and equally comfortable in a crowd of people. He never had to be the center of attention. But he was hard to miss. When we arrived at the site, my high school friends and I gathered branches and twigs for the fire. Eric came out of the woods with a tree trunk across his back. If you wanted a real bon fire, Eric was the Viking to invite.

I moved to Virginia. I met Heidi. We married and had children. Born on the Pacific coast, I was now making a life on the Atlantic seaboard. My siblings and I were scattered, but I was the outlier hanging on the eastern edge of America. I landed a contract to install office furniture overseas and invited Eric out to join me. We assembled desks by the hundreds in Naples, Italy. We climbed Vesuvius, walked on the ancient streets of Pompeii, and sipped cappuccinos together in Capri. We built cubicles together in Rota, Spain and pool tables at Oceana Naval Base in Virginia Beach.

vesuvio 1-26-97 crop
Eric and me on Vesuvius – 1997

We ended up working together for nearly five years. He lived with us, sharing a room with my older boys. In some ways, they were reliving my childhood. I gained a love of reading, crafting, and working through osmosis from my brother. My sons would soak it in from their uncle.

Working with Eric was poetry in motion, a sibling synergy I will treasure all of my days. Each anticipated the other’s moves. We could communicate with a glance, pass tools and material to each other like a dance, swap whole jokes with just a punch line, and roar together in shared joy as the rest of the crew just shook their heads. He used to tell me his friends in Spain always wondered how he could have worked for his younger brother. “I tell them I loved working with you. It was no problem for me. At work, you were the boss. At home, I was the older brother.” Proud men put on airs. Eric was a humble soul. He poured out love.

With the exception of my brother John, all my children have had the blessing of knowing their uncles and aunt. But they grew up with their Tío Eric. I was very young when my family left California, still young when I moved away from home base. My sons and daughters were somewhat isolated from my side of the family until Eric came. Through him, they would taste their grandmother’s cooking, hear their great-grandfather’s laughter, sense their forefather’s craft. He widened their context. He was a gift to us all.

tio-gideon.jpg
Eric with Gideon – 2003

A decade into his life with us in Virginia, he reconnected with the love of his youth, Marisa Mateu. Theirs is a love story written by the hand of God. Eric was always rugged, on the edge of the wild. He pitched a tent once to camp out for the night on a plot of land he and my brother Timothy were buying in Arkansas. He left the camp site six months later. Marisa tamed the lone wolf with love. They had been sweethearts as teenagers, lost contact for thirty years, and reunited through a series of events that began with one of my employees, moved through my best friend in grade school, and culminated with their marriage in 2007. After Jesus, Marisa was the best thing that ever happened to my brother.

bbq marisa and boys
Eric, Patrick, Gideon, me, and Marisa – 2014

Eric lived the last years of his life in Spain, the country that was always home for us. He and Marisa made it possible for my wife and children to see where I grew up and walk the streets I ran on as a child. As a married man with seven children, I am seldom lonely. But being able to be over there with them and my brother made me forever less alone than I was. Eric had a knack for giving gifts that kept on giving.

I have gone long. Eric would say, “Too many notes, Mozart.” I disagree. Were I able to write an entire opera, it would not be enough.

How close were Eric and I? Closer than cousins is an understatement. We shared the womb. We shared a room. We lived together as children and adults. We worshipped together. We worked together. We walked together. “Close” is insufficient to describe the nearness of heart. He was one of the very few people on earth who knew me inside out, forward and back, warts and all, and loved me still.

We both had US passports, but our citizenship is in heaven. He is there with our fathers, our mother, and our brothers in the presence of our Lord. I find comfort in the sure hope that the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, will come and transform this body to be like His glorious body and I will embrace my brother again. Thanks be to God for His unspeakable gift.

 

Senior Discount

I should be grateful. After all, I’ve spent most of my life leveraging the fact that I’ve generally been thought to be older than I am. My mother used to say that I was born old. In my early teens, this was both and advantage and a danger. Suffice it to say that passing for twenty-one when you are fourteen can tempt a young man into territories that actually require twenty-one years of maturity.

Being thought older wasn’t simply a subjective sense of the world’s reaction to me, though that does play into it a bit. I went through a fairly rough patch when I was sixteen (see reference above about a fourteen year old running in young adult circles). My mother worked as a nurse for nearly forty years. She was highly attentive to our physical ailments (so attentive, in fact, that my siblings and I developed the habit of hiding symptoms to avoid her ready needle and syringe). On this occasion, she decided to take steps regarding my mental health. She sent me to a psychologist. He and I chatted. He gave me a battery of personality tests. We met again. “I graphed the results of your tests,” he said, showing me the graph. “You a perfectly normal for a man in his thirties.” He didn’t even crack a smile when he said it. Just the facts, man.

I was in my mid to late twenties when I took my first serious stab at self-employment. Though mowing lawns as a young boy and cleaning windows as an early teen were important lessons in enterprise for me, the concern I entered in my twenties was an entrée into the real world of business. I was closing major deals on a consistent basis and running large projects all over town. I had a birthday. My top customer asked me how old I was. I confessed to just turning twenty-six. “Twenty-six?” he said, incredulous and a bit shaken. “You mean I’ve been doing business with a kid this whole time?” Yep, kind of the story of my life.

I am the youngest of seven children. For most of my life, I’ve kept company with people who are substantially older than I am. For most of my life, I have been “the kid” in the room. Life has shifted. I am learning to walk in new shoes.

I remember when my wife and I met with my ear, nose, and throat oncologist for the first time. After examining me and letting me know I was at stage IV—no worries, I made it through—he went through the treatment protocol. I let him know I was on board. On the way out of the examining room, he reassured me that I had made the right decision. “If you were my father,” he said, “I would be giving you the same treatment.” Okay, he was a young doctor, but he wasn’t that young! I pegged him to be in his mid to late thirties at least.

“His father?” I remember saying to my wife as we walked to the car. “How old does he think I am?”

I am growing used to not being the kid in the room anymore. My eldest will soon be thirty-one. In and of itself, that doesn’t make me old. I have a dear friend who tells me old is when you take your son to the Social Security office to file for his retirement benefits. I am certainly not there, but I am well on the road.

The other night, I took three of my younger kids out to the movies. Two of them are legal adults. They each bought their tickets in turn. When I got to the counter, I was fully prepared to pay the man the full $8.80 admission fee. Imagine my surprise when I only had to pay five dollars and change. I looked at my receipt. It said “Senior.” He hadn’t even asked for ID.

I should have been grateful. After all, I’ve spent most of my life leveraging the fact that I’ve come across older than I am. But I sat through the previews and stewed a while. I am fifty-three, I reasoned, maybe I qualified on my own merits.

When I got home, curiosity got the best of me. I did a search for the senior discount age for Cinemark theaters. According to their FAQ page, anyone 62 years old or older qualifies. All I can say is that it’s not my age, folks, it’s the mileage.

Cancer Five Years Gone

According to babycenter.com, Victoria is the 26th most popular baby name for girls in 2018 so far (#45 overall) and Victor rings in at 214th place for boys. I did a search for the name “Survivor” and received the following pop-up message:

“Sorry, we didn’t find any names that match your criteria.”

Are you surprised? I didn’t think so. After all, have you ever met someone named Survivor? Me neither. The implication of “survivor” is a death narrowly avoided. Victors win; survivors only manage to make it out alive.

I am a cancer survivor. Admitting it is always sobering. Absent intervention, I would have been a statistic, a digit added to the death toll.

In the early months and years after my treatment was complete, I struggled with the “survivor” handle. I wanted to be a cancer victor, not a cancer victim. I eventually had to admit the validity of confessing that I was indeed a cancer survivor. I had made it through the fight, but at a cost. The admission still humbles me, leaves me feeling vulnerable and weak. But admitting weakness is a component of true humility. And humility is strengthens character.

My character is always in need of strengthening.

October 7, 2013 was the day I received my last dose of radiation for base of tongue cancer that had metastasized to the lymph nodes in my throat. The pain didn’t end on that day nor did the disease—the former was waxing, the latter waning—but I chose it as my touchstone because it is the easiest mile marker to read. After treatment, no one wants to say you’re cured. “In remission” is the preferred term. I like it less than “survivor.”

Five years ago I hung the plastic mask that held me down to the radiation table as a trophy on my office wall. I kept it there as I struggled through the severe pain of internal x-ray burns and the queasiness of radiation poisoning as a reminder that God had brought me through and would yet deliver me.

Today, it all seems like a memory from someone else’s life. As I type this, I am eating my dinner—a tasty combo of beef strips, mashed potatoes, and riced cauliflower—and am compelled to remember that not long ago I despaired of ever eating solid food again or of being able to taste any flavors beyond bland and sparky. Memory of the battle is my antidote for ungratefulness. I fail to dose myself far too frequently.

I am not the same man I was before the disease. In many ways, this is a good thing. Compared to the blessings I’ve received in this extended lease of my earthly life, the losses to the cancer and its treatment are minimal. Surviving has benefits to live for.

If you happen to be a cancer survivor like me, I would like to encourage you with a bit of etymology. The word “survive” comes to us from the Late Latin word supervivere, literally to “over live.” I prefer to cast the term another way. We aren’t just survivors, we are Super Alive—alive to grace, alive to the wonder of each new day, alive to love, and alive to give thanks for all we once took for granted.

Impeachment: The mis-State of the Union

What is worse than a conman parading as a statesman? A Supreme Court Justice who believes he is a legislator. What is worse than a Supreme Court Justice who believes he is a senator? A senator who believes he is powerless? What is worse than a senator who believes he is powerless? Constitutional illiteracy.

One paragraph in and I find myself compelled to make several disclosures. I am a lifelong conservative, born into a Republican family and embracing conservatism—which used to be known as liberalism until the term was hijacked by socialists—in my own right after much study and investigation; in other words, I have matured into conservatism to a greater extent than I ever received it from my mother’ milk. I am no Trump fan and never have been. Last but not least, I have unplugged from the political debate since the election as vociferous member of the Right trumpet louder and louder delusions while apparatchiks on the Left appear unable or unwilling to attack their displeasure of the presidential election results with the legitimate tools at their disposal. All seem to have devolved to the level of elementary school name calling and sandbox pushing. Today was a near final straw for me.

Driving home while surfing radio stations in search of at least one decent tune for the ride home, I landed on NPR. The story of the day on All Things Considered was Michael Cohen’s guilty plea on numerous criminal charges in Federal District Court in Manhattan on Tuesday. Mr. Cohen’s plea is troublesome enough as the continual denials of a White House fire by Twitter Trump and the surrounding Trumpsters amid the chocking smoke that surrounds them stretches the extreme limits of legitimacy of the office of the President, let alone the Donald himself. If that wasn’t tragic enough, Senator Chuck Schumer decided to add his proof of personal ignorance (or incompetence, I’ll let the reader decide).

At issue is the coveted Supreme Court, a branch of our government that has gained exponentially more power than the Framers ever intended because our partisan parties would rather bet on the civic complacency or the Constitutional illiteracy of the citizenry than actually exercise their function as balancing powers to preserve our liberties. Today from the Senate floor, Schumer stated:

“It is unseemly for the president of the United States to be picking a Supreme Court justice who could soon be, effectively, a juror in a case involving the president himself. In light of these facts, I believe Chairman Grassley has scheduled a hearing for Judge Kavanaugh too soon and I am calling on him to delay the hearing.”

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, he said this in the Senate. Leaving aside for the moment his reason as why he believes it unseemly, let us constitutionally examine his questioning of a sitting President nominating a Supreme Court justice. Article II, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution delegates to the President the power to nominate judges of the Supreme Court. It matters not that both parties have grandstanded as to when a sitting president should or should not be able to do so. The law of the land—and we are supposed to be a nation governed by the rule of law—is that the president has this power. If Senator Schumer does not think the nominee appropriate, then he has a constitutional means by which to block it. He needs to convince enough of his colleagues that Judge Kavanaugh is not fit to be a Supreme Court Justice on Mr. Kavanugh’s own merits, not on the grounds of who nominated him. Instead, Senator Schumer takes to the microphone and makes an emotional appeal based on scandal for a delay of a vote he must believe his side will lose. And why doesn’t he want to lose? Because allowing black robes to legislate is easier than actually doing the hard work of drafting sensible laws and guiding them through the process.

Now, let us take in review his ridiculous reason as to why he thinks it unseemly. He thinks that if confirmed, Kavanaugh could be a juror in a case involving the president himself. Unless Schumer has sunk to the level of confusing what the meaning of the word “is” is, a juror is a member of a jury. Judges and Justices are judges, not jurors. Of course, if one is predisposed to allowing constitutional erosion through judicial decision, his confusion might be understandable. But it certainly is not excusable.

Senator Schumer posits this potential as being proximal, a case soon to be under the purview of a Supreme Court Justice. Such a case could only be an impeachment proceeding. And in an impeachment trial, it is the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court who presides as judge and the senators who are the effective jurors in the case.[1] Once again, the Senator has exposed his penchant for granting to the judiciary the power which belongs to the legislative branch alone.

The mis-State of our Union saddens me. I pray that all freedom- loving Americans can remove their Left and Right lenses and read our Constitution in the true light under which it was written and in future elections, vote accordingly. God bless America! Heaven knows we need it.

[1] Article I, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution.

A Patriot’s Ponderings

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.[1] 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.”

[1] 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.

My Top Ten Reads of 2017

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.

Enhanced Interrogation: Inside the Minds and Motives of the Islamic Terrorists Trying to Destroy America by James E. Mitchell, PhD., with Bill Harlow

It seems that no film or TV show involving spies, terrorists, torture, or behavioral modification has been without a “waterboarding” scene or an allusion to the practice. James Mitchell is a bona fide expert in the field and everything you have seen is fiction. This book is educational, enlightening, and heartbreaking.

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 Worldwide 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.

And Then There Were Four

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.

The Four crop
The Four at Mike’s Night to Remember. R-to-L: Ronald, Eric, Barbara, and me.

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 Clark Larum
Brother John in his younger years.

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 Larum
Brother Timothy as he was often found – laughing! (With his daughter Tiffany.)

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.

Siblings
November 2005 – the last time we would all be together. L-to-R: Barbara, Timothy, Michael, Mom, me, Ronald, and Eric

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.

 

 

Alive

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.

“Amen, Amen
I’m alive, I’m alive
Because He lives
Amen, Amen
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”

(“I’m Alive Because He Lives” by Matt Maher)

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.

My Top Ten Reads of 2016

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 Files by 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 Future by Karla Perry

Perry presents 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.

Self-Publishing for Profit: How to Get Your Book Out of Your Head and Into the Stores by Chris Kennedy

The author generously shares the methods he has used and the knowledge he has gained to be a successful independent author in this very practical guide. Clearly written and very encouraging, this one is going on my writer’s shelf for handy reference.

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.