My Top Ten Reads (plus) of 2022

As preview of what lies ahead, following is 2022’s list with all titles linked to their Amazon page:

  1. The Stranger in the Lifeboat by Mitch Albom (2021)
  2. Everything Sad Is Untrue by Daniel Nayeri (2020)
  3. On Writing Well, 30th Anniversary Edition by William Zinsser (2012)
  4. The Bomber Mafia by Malcolm Gladwell (2021)
  5. Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgment by Daniel Kahneman, Oliver Sibony, and Cass R. Sunstein (2021)
  6. South to America: A Journey Below the Mason-Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation by Imani Perry (2022)
  7. Paul, Women & Wives: Marriage and Women’s Ministry in the Letters of Paul by Craig S. Keener (2004)
  8. Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger (2013)
  9. Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith by Jon Krakauer (2004)
  10. Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions by Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths (2017)

Plus a bonus listing of some great fiction series and authors I discovered in 2022:

  1. The Line Between Series by Tosca Lee (2019)
  2. Red Rising Series by Pierce Brown (2014-2019)
  3. The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells (2017-2021)

2022 started with a bang! (Uh, edit that. It’s not only cliché, but wrong.)

I got my big break in 2022!

No, it wasn’t a sweet deal from a traditional publishing house. I broke my leg on the third day of January, which put me out of work and on recovery road for the next five months. The end result of my unplanned sabbatical was the completion and ultimate publication of my second Gypsy Spy novel, Valley of Wolves, as well as some extra reading time.

I chewed through sixty-eight titles in the year, which made choosing only ten to highlight difficult. So, I decided to cheat and give you a bonus. This year’s list includes literary fiction, hilariously heartwarming autobiography, a classic on the craft, riveting history, true crime, practical theology, and behavioral science. The bonus pack contains thrillers and meaty science fiction. If you are looking for your next great read, this list is for you.

The Stranger in the Lifeboat by Mitch Albom

This is the first book I’ve read by Mitch Albom. He is a household name to many. He was a stranger to me until I opened his lifeboat. Albom is a master of the craft with deep insight into the struggle of being human and the hope God can bring. This is allegorical fiction wrapped in an exquisitely crafted mystery. I’ll refrain from revealing anything more (to avoid potential spoilers) except this one line of dialogue to give you a taste: “Despair has its own voice. It is a prayer unlike any other.”

Everything Sad Is Untrue by Daniel Nayeri

Born in Iran in 1982, Daniel arrived in Oklahoma at the age of eight with his mother and older sister. This autobiographical work, written through the eyes of that eight-year-old, is a magic carpet ride. It’s a real life mythically told.

Nayeri’s narrative has a masterfully directed stream of consciousness flow. Enchanted childhood creeks twist into sibling sewage pranks, become blood-soaked flows of promise straddled and crossed by the running refugee trying to return even as he moves on. This is poetry disguised as prose, faith hidden behind doubt and profound rejection, love learned in sacrifice, and the most beautiful Mother’s Day card I’ve ever read. Thank you, Koshrou!

On Writing Well, 30th Anniversary Edition: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction by William Zinsser

If you’ve ever attended a writing workshop, you’ve heard this title recommended. After reading it, I now understand why. Though a guide for writing nonfiction, Zinsser’s principles, methods, and forms are about the craft and thus apply to all writing. Like Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, this is a book that needs to be on every writer’s shelf. Along with technique, Zinsser addresses the heart of the writer. For instance, with regard to identity and audience, he writes:

“Soon after you confront the matter of preserving your identity, another question will occur to you: ‘Who am I writing for?’ It’s a fundamental question, and it has a fundamental answer: You are writing for yourself. Don’t try to visualize the great mass audience. There is no such audience—”

To the perfectionist in us all, he says:

“You won’t write well until you understand that writing is an evolving process, not a finished product.”

The Bomber Mafia by Malcolm Gladwell

This work developed from four episodes in the fifth season of Malcom Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast. Though classic Gladwell in style, it marks somewhat of a departure for the author as it is a focused work on a narrow period in history versus an eclectic examination of human behavior.

Gladwell encouraged his readers to get the audio version instead of traditional print because of its enhanced production value. If you know me, you know I’m a Malcolm Gladwell superfan, so I did as instructed. This audiobook is like listening to his Revisionist History podcast, only better. It is an insightful examination of the morality of war and technology and the men who saw beyond their times to envision the means to bring national disputes to a quicker close. The Bomber Mafia lost the battle of precision bombing in World War II to the lack of sophisticated technology (as genius as the Norden bombsight was) and succumbed to napalm and the A-bombs in Japan. But they won the war as technology in the 21st century reached the scope of their dreams.

Grab this title from your preferred bookseller (or your local library, like I did) and play it on your commute to work. But be careful, you might miss your highway exit as your mind tries to zero in your bombsight on the munitions factory dead ahead.

Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgment by Daniel Kahneman, Oliver Sibony, and Cass R. Sunstein

Most are aware that biases can warp judgment into wrong conclusions and bad policies. Few are aware of or pay much attention to noise, the scattered conclusions of experts one would expect to agree based on the facts on hand. This book is the authors’ attempt to rectify that neglect.

Their exposure of noise in criminal sentencing (life or parole? That depends on the time of day, the weather, or who won the football game), finger print evaluations (“It’s a match, his fingerprints are on the knife…or it might be this other guy”), and medical analysis (“Your PET scan indicates that you should get your affairs in order” or “Take some antiacid, it’s just gas”) gave me to most pause. Overall, it demonstrated to me in objective fashion how poor we humans are at predicting the future and the degree to which we feel we should be able to.

Of great benefit to organizational managers in multiple fields, it is also a must read for anyone interested in behavioral economics.

The mike-drop quote of the entire book:

“People cannot be faulted for failing to predict the unpredictable, but they can be blamed for lack of predictive humility.”

South to America: A Journey Below the Mason-Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation by Imani Perry

South to America is a beautifully written, bitter little pill. The author’s premise is that one cannot understand America without a fuller knowledge and understanding of the South. Perry does a great job documenting the injustice done to Blacks over the centuries, but any gains made post-slavery and after the Civil Rights Act are somehow turned into further grievances. No way forward is shown. White is wrong. Period.

Now, if you are white (as I am) and saw yourself personally accused of being in the wrong by virtue of having been born white, you heard White wrong—and right. A couple of samples might help to explain what I mean.

Regarding Black people, she states:

“We are people who see no necessary conflict between loving individual White people or the agape love of all human beings, including White people, on the one hand and hating Whiteness and what it has meant for us on the other.”

In my reading journal, I wrote “how odd this would sound from my pen with the adjectives reversed.” But the truth is, I can’t reverse the adjectives and express an equal (or equivalent) sentiment. Though my paternal grandfather was an immigrant, he hailed from Norway. He was a bona fide, pale skinned, northern European. Though my maternal grandmother came from Spanish colonial stock (as in “residents of Alta California in the Empire of Mexico”), I bear the redheaded and freckled morphology of her Scotch-Irish husband. I have only been White, which in America is an inheritance Whites—even poor ones—have great difficulty appreciating.

I discussed the citation above and the one following with one of my Black coworkers. I wish I had recorded his responses because they were thoughtful, sensitive, and sublime. His concluding comment ran something like this, “These are attitudes and habits that develop from having to live life cautiously.”

Let that sink in as you move to the next scene. Imani Perry gets in a taxi at the airport. The driver is a complete stranger. She records her sentiment and thoughts about him:

“He is the man I have known to distrust. He is the one whose race and manhood once (and maybe still) made him my ruler and me his mule. He could kill me then, and if he had a badge, he could kill me now. I tasted venom in my mouth when he spoke. I won’t even say he hadn’t earned it because the odds were good he had. I can guess the words he wouldn’t say to my face but most certainly would say.”

My coworker agreed with me that this sentiment was raw racism. Perry doesn’t know this man. That said, she does know history. She grew up in the region she travels. Regardless her economic status, she knows what it means to have to live cautiously.

I don’t agree with her paint brush or conclusions. But the beauty and power of her prose is undeniable.

Paul, Women & Wives: Marriage and Women’s Ministry in the Letters of Paul by Craig S. Keener

If the role of women in the church isn’t controversial to you, then perhaps you have been sheltered from some seemingly harsh verses like 1 Timothy 2:11-12.

1 Tim 2:11-12 NKJV
11 Let a woman learn in silence with all submission.
12 And I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, but to be in silence.

These verses, and others like it, have been the grounds on which women’s ministry to the church has been unduly restricted. Reading scripture in context means not only seeing how the verse fits in the letter and testament, but also how it communicated in its cultural context. This book helps us understand that historical context as well as a broader view of the role of women from the whole counsel of God.

Keener’s spirit, scholarship, and evenhandedness shine throughout the entire work. Ideologues may remain unconvinced, but the arguments and expositions regarding 1 Corinthians 11 (head coverings and women speaking), 1 Timothy 2 (women teaching), and Ephesians 5 (women submitting) align statements that may seem harsh to our ears with the greater gospel and show a way of appropriate obedience for all saints.

Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger

Don’t let the title fool you, this is an exquisite murder mystery wrapped in the elegance of historical literary fiction. A self-admitted departure by the author from his usual style and genre, Ordinary Grace sings with the beauty and anguish of humanness and sincere trials of faith.

A bit of a warning for those who gravitate to “clean” fiction: though as an author I avoid using profanities, Krueger does not. But unlike other authors who drop F-bombs and curse words on every other line, Krueger’s use of them in the mouths of his characters is an appropriate reflection of their times, circumstances, and placement.

The story is set in Minnesota in 1961 and centers on two preacher’s kids living through tragedy as their father holds onto his faith. I do not know if Krueger is a believer in Christ (everything I have read about the author paints him as spiritually curious). That said, this book contains one of the most beautiful presentations of the Incarnation that I have ever read. His writing brough me to tears more than once.

Following is a taste of Krueger’s delicate touch.

“Part of it was the music itself but it was also the way Ariel played it. To this day there are pieces I cannot hear without imagining my sister’s fingers shaping the music every bit as magnificently as God shaped the wings of butterflies.”

Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith by Jon Krakauer

Hulu recently broadcast a docuseries based on this book, which was published in 2004. A colleague of mine asked if I had seen the show. Since I’m not a Hulu subscriber, I checked the book out of my local library.

Krakauer delves into the vicious murder of Brenda Lafferty and her fifteen-month-old daughter by Ron and Dan Lafferty in 1984. But it is impossible to understand this horrendous crime without a deeper understanding of the roots of Mormonism and the beliefs and behaviors of its various polygamist adherents. The author provides this information in spades.

One could be tempted to believe that Krakauer’s exposé on Mormon history was crafted to amplify a few salacious and bloody instances in its infancy for pure shock factor. But this is not the case. No clear-eyed view of Joseph Smith can avoid his scandalous behavior or his revolutionary ideas.

If you are a fan of true crime or have an intellectual curiosity about Mormonism, this book is for you.

Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions by Brain Christian and Tom Griffiths

How long should one look before signing the rent agreement? How long should an employer entertain candidates? How many dates before you pick the one? It turns out that the figure is 37%. Once you’ve spent 37% of your allotted looking time, choose the first option that beats what you’ve seen thus far.

This is the first example given by the authors and they build from there. Algorithms utilizing solid data standardize decision making. They simplify life and bring a measure of consistency to outcomes. The authors make this technical subject matter approachable and applicable. You’ll find plenty here for life and business.

I read with red pen in hand to underline and annotate. The more a book engages me, the more red ink lands on the page. I probably drained half a pen on this one. Below is a sample from their chapter on overfitting under a section titled “The Idolatry of Data.”

“The First Commandment, for instance, warns against bowing down to ‘any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven.’ And in the Book of Kings, a bronze snake made at God’s orders becomes an object of worship and incense-burning, instead of God himself. (God is not amused.) Fundamentally, overfitting is a kind of idolatry of data, a consequence of focusing on what we’ve been able to measure rather than what matters.”

Fiction Bonus Pack

The Line Between Series by Tosca Lee

I’ve been aware of Tosca Lee for years, but The Line Between, published in 2019, is the first novel I have read by her. I shouldn’t have waited so long. As a writer, former cult member, and a young fan of Stephen King’s The Stand, this book hit all the right notes for me.

Lee’s description of the viral spread, rapid societal disfunction, social distancing, and instances of official government communication regarding a pandemic seemed at first to me a capitalizing on the COVID-19 pandemic until I realized she wrote this at least a year before the outbreak. Goosebumps. She was spot on. This is a great tale of someone coming out of bondage and looking for the light with real life emotion, challenges, and faith crises on the backdrop of tense, thriller scenes and story arc. I highly recommend it for all readers, especially Christian authors who want an example of how to do it well. As a taste, check out how she starts chapter one:

“Conventional wisdom dictates that there’s an insurmountable divide―an entire dimension of eternity and space―between Heaven and Hell. Lucifer managed to make the trip in nine days, at least according to Paradise Lost. That equates to a distance of about 25,920 miles, assuming standard rules of velocity.
But I can tell you it’s closer to a foot and a half. The distance of a step.
Give or take an inch.”

Exquisite. Read this book. And read the sequel, A Single Light. Lee is an author unafraid to upend her own conventions and brings the story home with no promises unanswered.

Red Rising Series by Pierce Brown

I was looking for some new science fiction and happened upon Pierce Brown’s Red Rising. I opened the page and Darrow, the Helldiver of Lykos, grabbed me by the throat with his clawDrill and pulled me into the depths of Mars in a way I haven’t felt since I was a child reading Edgar Rice Burroughs’s A Princess of Mars.

Red Rising is epic space opera meets Hunger Games dystopia wrapped in Ender’s Game deceit. It’s the realpolitik of The Expanse on the cultural background of Romans meet Vikings in space. It is Dune’s breeding program amplified to amazing ends. Each book is a wild ride.

The series currently has five volumes. All Howlers (fans know what I mean) eagerly await the publication of the sixth, slated for November of 2023.

The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells

Is cozy science fiction a genre? If not, I think Wells might have just invented it. Don’t let “cozy” put you off. I haven’t met a robot I liked this much since The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Murderbot is an introverted, self-aware SecUnit that just wants to watch its entertainment feeds and not have to deal with humans. Currently, there are six titles in the series. Five are novellas and one is a full-length novel. A seventh is slated for publication in November 2023.

These books are not only funny, they are a fun read. Wells dives into the potentials of AI and the meaning of personhood and sentience. It comes through in the voice of an android who confesses, “As a heartless killing machine, I was a complete failure.” Buy the ticket and get on a Company transport. SecUnit has your back.

There they are, dear reader. My bifocals are clean and my eyes currently clear. January 2023 is behind us and we’ve nearly bit off the first week of February. I have one title down, two in the reading, and multiples in the stack. 2023’s list promises to be epic.

Long Live the Republic

It’s Monday, the day before Election Day 2022. I got out the vote early today, and by early, I mean 3:30am when I got up to go to work.

I have held many jobs in my life, but the industry I have spent the most time in is the installation of commercial office furnishings. I have installed cubicles from Denver, Colorado to Naples, Italy and many points in between. The trade has taken me into mom and pop shops, ultra-secure military posts, factories, call centers, and operating rooms. But today is the first time I had the privilege of delivering voting booth set ups. And it warmed my heart.

Conspiracy theories are seductive because they give simplified answers to the complex reasons why unexpected and unwanted outcomes happen. There are those who believe the previous election was swerved through massive corruption and data manipulation, others who state that systemic problems with the process work malignantly to deny the vote to minorities. Caustic mistrust plagues the system.

The people I encountered today served as a vaccine against the pandemic of demagoguery blaring through the broadcast waves and posted through anti-social media. Retired school principles who set up voting machines and locked them away in their delivery cages, custodians and volunteers who received their booths, teachers, parents, your neighbors. In short, the extraordinary ordinary people of We the People working to provide the principle means of our self-government.

Tomorrow, all across this great nation, we citizens will participate in our blood-bought privilege to make our wishes known in the voting booth. It is an act of faith in the structure of our republic and a process shepherded at the grass roots. May we never lose the wonder of it. Long live the Republic!

My Top Ten Reads of 2021

So you know what lies ahead, this is 2021’s list:

  1. The Brain’s Way of Healing by Norman Doidge, M.D. (2016)
  2. Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin (2006)
  3. The Forever War by Dexter Filkins (2006)
  4. Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow (2005)
  5. Wonder Works by Angus Fletcher (2021)
  6. Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell (2019)
  7. The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins (2020)
  8. Tecumseh and the Prophet by Peter Cozzens (2020)
  9. Under Jerusalem by Andrew Lawler (2021)
  10. Dune by Frank Herbert (1965)

I used most of my “leisure” time in 2021 completing the first draft of my most ambitious project yet: Valley of Wolves, the sequel to my Gypsy Spy novel. Even so, I still managed to enjoy thirty-four tomes from other authors. If you are in the mood to break away from streaming by breaking open a book, this list contains titles worthy of your time and attention.

This year’s list features inspiring neuroscience, sweeping history, on-the-ground views of the war on terror, third world hope, Shawnee courage, classic science fiction, dystopian mastery, and social commentary par excellence. In the past, I have listed my recommendations in the order they were read. I’m breaking from that tradition this year. Though all ten are worthy reads, I’ve stacked the most impactful at the front. Also, I’ve added the publication year next to the author’s name.

Happy New Year, everyone!

The Brain’s Way of Healing by Norman Doidge, M.D. (2016)

This book on neuroplasticity and the innovative therapies used to engage it to prompt the brain to repair itself brought me to tears time and again—tears of joy, amazement, and praise. It is a narrative of the impacts of the avant-garde neuroplastic therapies and the results they have engendered for patients who were given hopeless prognoses. In highlighting neuroplasticity, Doidge exposes the wonders of the Creator’s wiring. From the truth that our cells run on light to the revelation that the ear can reset the brain, I was reminded time and again that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made.”

If you have suffered from any neurological set back (chemo brain, traumatic brain injury, concussion, etc.) or are close to any who have, this book will not only give you hope but ideas as well. From people born with half a brain to severely autistic children, the author highlights therapies that have energized the marvelous brain to function as designed. Read this book. You will be amazed.

Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin (2006)

When the Taliban surged to take over Afghanistan during the current administration’s precipitous withdrawal despite U.S. efforts over more than twenty years to neuter them, I was made painfully aware of my ignorance regarding them. Deciding to remedy my problem, I did a library search on the subject of the Taliban and this little jewel popped up as a suggestion.

It’s not about the Taliban.

It is, however, about one man’s journey to improve the lives of many in areas controlled by the Taliban and others like them. The full title of the work is Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace … One School at a time. Greg Mortenson was a mountain climber who after a failed attempt to reach the summit of Pakistan’s K2 mountain, got separated from his guide and wound up in an impoverished, remote mountain village and promised to build them a school as a thanks for his rescue. To call what follows next “awe inspiring” would be an understatement. Mortenson’s journey is a testament to what one person committed to the betterment of others can accomplish.

The most profound quote from the work comes from Mortenson’s mouth. “In times of war,” he said, “you often hear leaders—Christian, Jewish, and Muslim—saying, ‘God is on our side.’ But that isn’t true. In war, God is on the side of refugees, widows, and orphans.”

The Forever War by Dexter Filkins (2006)

This was the other title Overdrive suggested I should read. I am returning the favor. Strap on a flak jacket, tighten your helmet, and read this book. Imagine Saving Private Ryan or American Sniper or Apocalypse Now except you’re not an officer or a soldier. You’re just a brave (or foolish) soul without rifle or side arm running through a war zone with a bunch of Marines. Yikes!

This book is front row seat to a confusing and catastrophic conflict. Filkins brings the reader into the offices of officials—U. S., Afghani, and Iraqi—and asks hard questions with no clear answers. But most of all, he takes the reader along for the civilian and grunt view of war. It reads at times like stream of consciousness reporting. His battle fatigue is apparent as the narrative unfolds. Following are some of my favorite lines from the work:

“I went to the Moshin Mosque to remind myself of what I didn’t know.”

“Iraq was filled with people like Yacob Yusef. They weren’t survivors as much as they were leftovers. The ruined by-products of terrible times.”

“For many Iraqis, the typical nineteen-year-old army corporal from South Dakota was not a youthful innocent carrying America’s goodwill; he was a terrifying combination of firepower and ignorance.”

Dexter Filkins

“There wasn’t any point in sentimentalizing the kids; they were trained killers, after all. They could hit a guy at five hundred yards or cut his throat from ear-to-ear. And they didn’t ask a lot of questions. They had faith, they did what they were told and they killed people.”

“…however many Iraqis opposed them before the Americans came into [Abu Shakur], dozens and dozens more did by the time they left. The Americans were making enemies faster than they could kill them.”

Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow (2005)

If you think I was inspired to read this biography because it inspired the mega-hit Broadway musical that Disney ultimately streamed on its nascent platform, well then, you’d be right.

I watched Hamilton expecting not to like it. I failed. Miserably. I read Alexander Hamilton expecting to learn more about the founding of the National Bank and instead found him at the founding of that and just about everything else one can think of when one thinks, “American.”

My review of the work in my reading journal is uncharacteristically concise and short.

Wow, just wow.

Larum Reading Journal

But Chernow’s sweeping view of Hamilton’s life and times deserves more. Though I was blessed with an extraordinary American History teacher in high school, he gave short shrift to Hamilton. I had no idea how instrumental he was in the founding our nation.

Following are some lengthy quotes from Chernow’s masterful work.

“If Jefferson provided the essential poetry of American political discourse, Hamilton established the prose of American statecraft. No other founder articulated such a clear and prescient vision of America’s future political, military, and economic strength or crafted such ingenious mechanisms to bind the nation together.”

“Hamilton was an exuberant genius who performed at a fiendish pace and must have produced the maximum number of words that a human being can scratch out in forty-nine years.”

“Hamilton’s besetting fear was that American democracy would be spoiled by demagogues who would mouth populist shibboleths to conceal their despotism. George Clinton, Thomas Jefferson, and Aaron Burr all came to incarnate that dread for Hamilton.”

“Hamilton was an American prophet without peer. No other founding father straddled both these revolutions [political and economic]—and only Franklin even came close—and therein lay Hamilton’s novelty and greatness. He was the clear-eyed apostle of America’s economic future, setting forth a vision that many found enthralling, others unsettling, but that would ultimately prevail. He stood squarely on the modern side of a historical divide that seemed to separate him from the other founders. Small wonder he aroused such fear and confusion.”

Last but far from least, Chernow includes Hamilton’s confession on his deathbed:

“I have a tender reliance on the mercy of the Almighty, through the merits of the Lord Jesus Christ.”

alexander hamilton

Wonder Works: The 25 Most Powerful Inventions in the History of Literature by Angus Fletcher (2021)

Angus Fletcher is a PhD with dual degrees in neuroscience and literature. Yeah, if I met this guy at a party, I’d probably say, “You had me at hello.”

This work combines two subjects I am fascinated with: story science and neuroscience. The author not only takes us through literature’s innovative history, he explains how the rhetorical devices work on the brain. Fletcher’s writing is exquisite and he practices the devices he highlights throughout the tome. He hooked me early on with this literary and neural view of courage:

“… to Old French and Latin wordsmiths, courage wasn’t a stoic virtue or a rational choice. It was a feeling that collided with the terror that rushed through our veins in times of danger, counterbalancing one emotion with another, and rousing us with the psychological desire to hold our ground.

[This] insight has been extended by modern neuroscience. The neural origins of courage start deep in the primordial center of our brain, where there sits, ensconced upon a drop-shaped double throne, the coward despot known as our amygdala. As soon as our amygdala senses danger, it panics.”

Courage blooms with the addition of another ingredient. I would finish the thought, but you would do better to be brave and read the book.

Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don’t Know, by Malcolm Gladwell (2019)

If you know me, you know I love Malcolm Gladwell. I consider him to be one of the most articulate thinkers of our times. In this work, Malcolm (I’ve read so many of his books—and took his MasterClass on writing and listened to all his podcasts—that I think of myself as being on a first-name basis with him) begins with Sandra Bland, moves into spy rings, exposes truth-default theory and the cost of suspicion, looks at suicide and coupling, moves to crime and policing, and returns to Sandra Bland and the tragedy of strangers misunderstanding one another.


Some favorite bits:

From the Author’s Note: “Sometimes the best conversation between strangers allow the stranger to remain a stranger.”

I write spy novels. Malcolm has this to say about spies: “The issue with spies is not that there is something brilliant about them. It is that there is something wrong with us.”

While explaining myopia theory, he provides these insights about inebriation: “When you are drunk, your understanding of your true self changes…Alcohol isn’t an agent of revelation. It is an agent of transformation.”

And what of the role of benefit of the doubt regarding strangers and familiars alike? Malcolm drops this jewel: “To assume the best about another is the trait that has created modern society. Those occasions when our trusting nature gets violated are tragic. But the alternative—to abandon trust as a defense against predation and deception—is worse.”

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins (2020)

The prequel to The Hunger Games, the story centers on Coriolanus Snow, the villain of the original trilogy. In my humble opinion, no one succeeds at making the anti-hero likeable quite like Stephen R. Donaldson. Collins comes close. I wonder if she ever considered making Lucy Gray the protagonist, though it’s understandable why she chose Snow. If she didn’t do as well as Donaldson in making the villain likeable, she definitely beat George Lucas at the task of showing us the early life of the tyrant. The songs and mockingjays steal the show. I have no idea how many were original compositions, but all were placed well and had meaning.

My favorite lines:

“The cabbage began to boil, filling the kitchen with the smell of poverty.”

“Staring up at the towering rows of seats made him feel diminished to the point of insignificance. A raindrop in a flood, a pebble in an avalanche.”

“Sejanus appeared in another brand-new suit, with a rumpled little woman in an expensive flowered dress on his arm. It didn’t matter. You could put a turnip in a ball gown and it would still beg to be mashed.”

“‘Then be kind, Coryo,’ she snapped. ‘And try not to look down on people who had to choose between death and disgrace.’”

Tecumseh and the Prophet: The Shawnee Brothers Who Defied a Nation by Peter Cozzens (2020)

If you like me only knew the name Tecumseh because of Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, it may interest you to know that his father gave him the name because he admired the Shawnee chieftan.

I confess to a woefully ignorance of serious native North American history, which is one of the reasons this book intrigued me. Dealing with the years leading up to and following the War of 1812, it provides insights to the dealings and cultures of the tribes of the Old Northwest along with highlighting a period of American History I am unfamiliar with. Though the Prophet is the vehicle of the tale, Tecumseh is the hero―a leader all admired. The British, the Americans (the Long Knives in Shawnee parlance), and the various tribes held him in the highest esteem. Histories of noble courage lift us all and this is such a history. Their dream was hopeless, but they fought for their hope nonetheless.

Under Jerusalem: The Buried History of the World’s Most Contested City by Andrew Lawler (2021)

As a history of archaeology in the holy city, it is a vivid illustration of the different world views that clash above ground. If nothing else, in searching for the remains of Herod’s temple, the archeologists have thus far proven Jesus’ words to be true when he said, “there will not be left here one stone upon another.”

Two quotes prove the poignancy and difficulty of the subject matter. The first comes from Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann who in 1937 said, “There are now two sorts of countries in the world, those that want to expel the Jews and those that don’t want to admit them.”

Later in the book, this observation is made: “A dozen years before the Soviets built the Berlin Wall, Jerusalem became the world’s most divided city.”

Dune by Frank Herbert (1965)

A story as old as I am, Dune remains for me the masterpiece of the genre. I consider the original trilogy to be science fiction’s equivalent to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings in stature and influence. I’m not prone to reading the same fiction book twice. This is perhaps my fifth reading of Dune in the past forty years. It was like visiting an old friend.

I make much of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s and Stephen King’s influences on my writing style, but Herbert’s Dune left its stamp on my voice, something I had not recognized until this reading. Shamelessly head hopping and introspective, its style guided my writing of Gypsy Spy.

If you are a fan of the book and haven’t seen the newest film adaptation, I highly recommend it. If you haven’t read the book, well then, you are in for a classic treat.

Firearms, Fear, and Mental Health

A bullet hole in your wall is never a good sign, unless you look at it right. Not acknowledging it is foolhardy, obsessing over it is debilitating. These sides of the teeter totter must be balanced when the hole is really there. What to do when it’s not…well, that’s what this is about.

Firecrackers and rifle rounds, these are the sounds of my childhood. In an early exercise of modifying childish behaviors, my mother had me light a full box of kitchen matches one at a time and let them burn down to my fingertips. It was supposed to cure me of playing with matches. I was three. My brother Eric, who was ten at the time, told me decades later that the look on my face said mom miscalculated. She didn’t cure me. She made me. I remain a functional pyromaniac to this day.

So, perhaps it’s not surprising that fear and firearms aren’t coupled in my psyche. What firearms I have, I own out of prudence, not paranoia. I’ve been on the wrong side of a gun (you can read about that here). I have also used firearms to procure food. For any who have not ventured into the woods and come out with meat to feed their families, you’ve missed something in life. Politicians and popular culture make apologetic room for the American firearm fascination with lip service to the sport of hunting. Watching children eat meat you harvested isn’t sport. It is a central reality of man stretching back for millennia. It is the same reality that caused men to take up arms and defend their home and person. Making it about the weapon misses the point.

Supporting the Second Amendment in its original frame calls for intellectual honesty regarding its consequences. Malice, negligence, and accidents are a reality. Years ago, I was in charge of a waste hauling operation that could see up to sixty trucks on the road at any given time. We functioned under the mandate of a zero-accident policy. The policy was understandable, admirable even. But there were those among us who held to the philosophy of it being possible. To be fair, it was possible—simply so. All I had to do was ground the fleet. No movement, no accidents. No guns, no death and maiming by firearms.

A bullet above my daughter’s headboard. Wounded sheetrock in my boy’s room. The former resulted from a neighbor in emotional distress and contemplating suicide. The later, a negligent discharge from a guest who knew better. Nobody died. I repeat, nobody died. This is where fear and mental health enter the picture.

The spirit of man is invested with the capacity, the drive even, to dream. We were created with the ability to see the impossible, to call out things that are not and strive to make them be. The same mechanism that got us to the moon lets us stress about near misses as if they were catastrophes.

In life, I’ve found stressing over non-events isn’t just a waste of energy, it’s also debilitating to mental health. A near miss is a near miss. Going into adrenal hyperdrive at that moment is understandable and desirable. Carrying the fight-or-flight past a reasonable calming period is self-destructive.

Worse than being wrapped in the trauma of a near miss is the upset over possible catastrophe when the near miss never happened. This is what happens when we imagine what someone might have done to or said about us and we get upset as if they did. Call it delusional trauma, pain caused by the ghosts of our own imagination. When we trade the wonder of imagining what could be for the fear and regret of what may have been, we are poorer for it.

Holes in walls, happened. People dead, didn’t. In both instances, my mind was fully capable—without any prompting from me—to envision a new reality in light of the non-event of catastrophic loss. I had a choice at that point. I could imagine the tragedy of a lost child and allow my limbic system to light up as if it had already happened or admit it didn’t happen and behave accordingly. One would leave me toxic, the other thankful. A bullet hole in your wall is never a good sign, unless you look at it right. The holes in my walls were evidence of God’s protection in grace in the face of the carelessness of others. When I think of them that way, I stay in a much healthier head space.

My Top Ten+ Reads of 2020 (… and 2019)

Have a Barnes & Nobel gift card burning a hole in your pocket? Did some kind soul gift you with Amazon cash? Still suffering under arbitrary shut downs and curfews imposed by power hungry governors? Have a trusty library card you need to put to use? I can help.

This year(s)’ list features thrillers (real and imaginary), histories, philosophy, psychology, grammars, devotionals, and writing how-tos. My picks were curated from 52 works by 35 authors and include books read in 2019 since I didn’t publish a top-ten last year.[1] Listed in the order they were read; I trust the suggestions lead you to your next reading enjoyment. Cheers, and Happy New Year!

Wedge: from Pearl Harbor to 9/11, How the Secret War Between the FBI and CIA Has Endangered National Security by Mark Rieblin

The more I read on the CIA, the more concerned I become for our country. Either they have pulled off the best disinformation campaign about their capabilities (or incompetence) or they are one of the most inefficient foreign intelligence services in the developed world. Wedge is a scathing indictment of CIA’s incompetence, of the absurdity of splitting domestic security from foreign intelligence and counterintelligence, and the danger of bureaucratic turf wars. Of particular interest to me was the continual highlighting of the difference between law enforcement mentality (FBI, “arrest the spy”) and intelligence mentality (CIA, watch the spy, develop the spy, turn the spy). Wedge reads like a real-life thriller, which it is.

Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA by Tim Weiner

Any report or publication delving into the history and truth behind a covert agency always leaves me wondering how much of the full story the author got and what is the potential of the work itself being a brilliant exercise in disinformation. Legacy of Ashes left me with only small twinges of doubt. Tim Weiner’s due diligence, exercised over decades as a journalist, comes through on every page of this extraordinary book. Factual and non-fiction, it reads like a top-notch political/espionage thriller. For those worried about the intrusions of spying in the digital age, read this book. I trust that like me; you leave this exposé with the expectant hope that our government has gotten better at intelligence that keeps a free society free.

Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English by Patricia T. O’Conner

Originally published in 1996, I read the 2019 Updated and Expanded Fourth Edition. In O’Conner’s own words, “Woe Is I is a survival guide for intelligent people who probably have never diagrammed a sentence and never will.” Concise, witty, and practical, one need not be a grammar nerd to enjoy this book. But if you happen to be a grammar nerd, it is sure to please.

As the title itself implies, correct isn’t always right. English is a living language and constructions that may satisfy the purist can do violence to our ears. O’Conner devotes an entire chapter to old rules that need to be put to rest (“The house of grammar has many rooms,” she writes, “and some of them are haunted”) and enforced conventions that were never rules to begin with. The chapter is as liberating as it is enlightening.

This work has taken its rightful place on my writer’s reference shelf. O’Conner’s final chapter, “Saying Is Believing: How to Write What You Mean,” is a toolbox for anyone desiring to improve their craft.

Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art by Madeleine L’Engle

Only 224 pages long, I nevertheless opted to chew it slowly over the course of six weeks. More than just a commentary on the creation of Christian art, it is a contemplative devotional examining the deep impacts of our faith in our lives. Walking on Water, if you’ll pardon the pun, is a deep well. I rarely read a book without pen in hand, particularly a non-fiction book (even if it is written by one whose primary art is the writing of fiction). But this book was loaned to me. Its owner had already left her own annotations, which added to the richness of the read. I believe any artist with an open mind could benefit from this book. That said, the creative who walks in faith with Christ stands to benefit the most from L’Engle’s insights. The book is encouraging and challenging both on what it means to create good art and what it means to walk with Jesus across the lake of life.

On Desperate Ground: The Epic Story of Chosin Reservoir—the Greatest Battle of the Korean War by Hampton Sides

A harrowing read that moved me to tears more than once. The bravery and endurance of the men Sides highlights is inspiring. The lead up to the battle is a Greek tragedy. The generals and officers on the ground dutifully followed orders from self-referencing brass all the while knowing they were heading into the desperate ground of Chosin. General Smith stands as the central protagonist whose primary antagonist, in my view, was MacArthur and his subordinates. Sides says of Smith, “fifty-six years old, was a cerebral, soft-spoken man whose habits seemed atypical of a gung-ho Marine.” Two of my favorite quotes about General Oliver Prince Smith that Sides catalogs are: “[Gen. Smith was] a professional killer, employed in a hard trade: tenacious, cunning, resourceful, cold, cynical, and tough.” (p. 11) and “said one Marine, ‘I’d follow him to hell because I know he’d get me out.’” (p. 326).

The Reformation of America by Karla Perry

On a scale from populist-pablum to serious-think, Karla Perry lands squarely on the latter. A serious thinker, Perry presents her case in The Reformation of America in a way that demands the honest reader to think seriously. Through multiple historical examples, she unflinchingly demonstrates what can be accomplished in the uplifting of a nation when believers in Jesus become disciples of Christ and follow through on His order in the Great Commission to “make disciples of all nations.” Along with providing encouraging examples of cultural redemption, Perry also drags some embarrassing skeletons out of the Church’s closet (e.g., “secularism is a Christian heresy.”) The Reformation of America is not a cozy read intended to simply reaffirm many present-day Evangelical suppositions. It is a well written overview of the biblical formation of America, where the Church went wrong, and how we must work to reform our nation into a disciple of Christ.

Gosnell: The Untold Story of America’s most Prolific Serial Killer by Ann McElhinney and Phelim McAleer

Warning: this is not a bedtime story! McElhinney and McAleer are documentary filmmakers and Gosnell is their first book. For a first time out, and understanding their intent, it is a sterling performance. Print journalists would have written it differently. A novelist would have taken away from Kermitt Gosnell’s banality and pedestrian greed and focused on his misogynistic tendencies and perverse joy in infanticide. As is, this is a horrific read which in many ways was harder for me emotionally than all the holocaust studies I’ve read. If you think you know about pro-choice or pro-life, you need to read this book.

Murder Your Darlings: And other Gentle Writing Advice from Aristotle to Zinsser by Roy Peter Clark

Murder Your Darlings is a metabook, a tome on books about the craft. Clark’s passion to continue developing as a writer has fed his life’s work of being “America’s writing coach.” In this work, he highlights some of the primary lessons he’s gleaned from the writing books on his shelf. Organized in six parts, each addressing a specific aspect of the craft and the writer’s life, it is informative and inspirational. As to the titular advice, Clark writes “A way to murder your darlings is to identify ‘false color’ in your work, also known as overwriting…Too many vivid words bump into one another, competing for attention. Apply this test: which of these words is more interesting or important? Murder the rest.” In the final section, which is on mission and purpose, he offers this quote from Kurt Vonnegut, “Practicing any art―be it painting, music, dance, literature, or whatever―is not a way to make money or become famous. It’s a way to make your soul grow.”

10 Stupid things Women Do to Mess Up Their Lives by Dr. Laura Schlessinger

In my life, I’ve encountered numerous women who have saddled themselves with losers. It never made sense to me how otherwise intelligent, self-supporting, and attractive women would stay with drug users, alcoholics, cheaters, and abusers. Though Schlessinger’s work provides numerous insights as to how this happens, the phenomenon still leaves me scratching my head. I like Dr. Laura. My wife is a bona fide fan. She bought this one and the one on stupid guys for our young adult children to read—just in case. Schlessinger is always a healthy dose of common sense and blunt-nosed candidness. Written in the mid-1990s, its worth is evidenced by its relevance and applicability a quarter of a century later. It’s not pop-psychology. It is great life advice for getting out of horrible situations, or better yet, avoiding them all together.

Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations by Ronen Bergman (translated by Ronnie Hope)

Hands down, Rise and Kill First is the best spy thriller I have ever read and it is truth, not fiction. Bergman’s unflinching history of the shadow realm of Israel is a tour de force and speaks of the author’s discipline, commitment, and courage. In an age inundated with overt biased reporting, Bergman is evenhanded without hiding his own sensibilities. In framing a history that encompasses early 20th century Zionism to the modern state of Israel as of 2015 with Meir Dagan―a man who “had a serious malfunction in his fear mechanism” (p.128) and whose great specialty according to Ariel Sharon was “separating a terrorist from his head” (p.708)―the author shows both the necessity of deadly force and its ultimate inability to solve the situation. For anyone truly interested in understanding the Middle East conflict, Rise and Kill First is an essential read.

The Practice: Shipping Creative Work by Seth Godin

Packed with powerful one-liners, The Practice was a shot in the arm to my creative efforts. Efforts―not channeling, not magic, not the muse―are essential to the practice, to showing up and being on the hook. As a writer, the section “No Such Thing as Writer’s Block” was particularly affirming. I am tempted to plunk down numerous memorable lines, but I will only mark two here. For a long time, I have sought to help people who were angst-filled because they just wanted to do what they loved. I have found that knowing how to love what you do is the better life skill. Godin encapsulates this idea with the following lines: “Do what you love” is for amateurs. “Love what you do” is the mantra for professionals. (p.22)

Psychology of Intelligence Analysis by Richard J. Heuer, Jr.

I came across this title in the conclusion of Christopher Andrew’s The Secret World: A History of Intelligence. Recruited to the CIA in the early 1950s, Heuer is a veteran Cold Warrior who spent the first 24 years of his career working with the Directorate of Operations before moving into the Directorate of Intelligence. This work is a text book, the kind of reading one would do in a CIA class room. As such, it offers a real view into the world of intelligence. But its value and application go far deeper. Only three chapters in, I found myself texting my former boss that I had found his next business read.

Heuer’s work, though tailored to the intelligence analysts’ world, deals with the cognitive limitations we all have and how to work around them. Heuer begins with a review of our mental machinery, how our brains work and memories are built, then provides tools for thinking. He shows how more information doesn’t necessarily make analysis better and can actually be counter-productive, then lays out objective means for structuring analytical problems. Lest you think this is all cloak and dagger stuff, his analysis matrix provides a quantifiable means to arrive at the best car buy choice.

Heuer’s advice to intelligence analysts is equally applicable to problem solvers and creatives regardless the enterprise or the art: “Talking about mindsets, or creativity, or even just openness to new information is really talking about spinning new links and new paths through the web of memory.”

Auschwitz: A Doctor’s Eyewitness Account by Dr. Miklos Nyiszli

Dr. Nyiszli, a Hungarian Jew, wound up being the coroner of Auschwitz working directly for Dr. Josef Mengele. Nyiszli offers a front-row seat to the gates of the crematorium and beyond. I endeavor to write a paragraph or two in my reading journal after finishing a book. My note on this book was only three words: gruesome horror story. Though Communist regimes have murdered millions more than Hitler’s Germany, the rational and methods of the Nazi industrial murder machine sets it apart as a deeper form of evil. Let us never forget.

A Top Ten+ list would be incomplete without a fiction section. The fiction authors I read in the 2019-2020 timeframe include J. R. R. Tolkien, Lee Child, Scott Turrow, Adrian J. Walker, Michael Connelly, James S. A. Corey, and Craig Johnson.

Michael Connelly

Michael Connelly is best known for his Harry Bosch novels. Titus Welliver, who plays Bosch in the Amazon Prime series, is the voice actor for the audiobooks. I listened to and read seven Bosch books these last two years. Print or audio, they are a treat. Following is a peak into my reading journal on one of the novels. [Spoiler alert!]

The Crossing by Michael Connelly (audio book)

The Bosch novels deliver on entertainment, mystery, and rich characters. The title comes from the search of “the crossing,” where perpetrator and victim intersect. Bosch is hired by his half-brother Mickey Haller as an investigator on a murder. It turns out to be all about the watch. It leads Harry to two bent cops who kill to cover their trail. It was a hoot to hear Titus Welliver do Mickey’s character in a manner that seemed to channel Matthew McConoughey. I enjoy Welliver’s work on the TV show, but have a higher degree of respect for his acting on his nuance as a voice over talent. Superb.

James S. A. Corey

James S. A. Corey is the pen name for Daniel Abraham and Ty Frank, who write the Expanse series of science-fiction novels. Expanse is space opera with grit. The authors say they wanted to fill in that gap in the genre between humans inhabiting the stars and how they colonized the solar system. All that and vomit zombies. It’s not Orson Scott Card or Frank Herbert. Which is good, because Card and Herbert did their own thing well. So do Abraham and Frank. I recently finished the third book in the series. Below is the note from my reading journal.

Abaddon’s Gate by James S. A. Corey

The authors deliver yet again. Expanse has all the grit of realpolitik and messiness of flawed humans along with the epic stretches and stakes of science fiction. This book gets bonus points from me for grappling with theological issues that arise in the face of alien life and the potential to colonize the stars. The duelers in this debate are Hector Cortez (a Catholic priest or Anglican minister or just a televangelist?) and Anna Volovodov, a Methodist minister. The following bit of dialogue between these two hints at more serious considerations—deep dialogue for science fiction:

“So many stars,” she said. “Some of them might be ours someday.”

“I wonder,” Hector replied, his voice low and sad. “I wonder if we should have them. God gave man the Earth. He never promised him the stars. I wonder if He’ll follow us out there.”

Anna squeezed his hand again, and then let it go. “The God I believe in is bigger than all of this. Nothing we ever learn can be an attack on Him as long as that’s true.”

Never mind that the conversation happens between a televangelist who is more political animal than religious leader and a Methodist minister that is in a same sex marriage, the words are evidence of the authors’ familiarity with Christian theology.

Another line from Rev. Dr. Anna reminds me of questions and considerations debated in my family when I was young. Faced with alien life and the fact that it had stolen from and killed humans, “all things we would consider sins if we were doing them,” she says, then adds:

“Does that mean they’re fallen? Did Christ die for them too?”

Here’s the thing, this is not Christian fiction. But the authors’ raise these questions in a way that isn’t heavy handed, that serves the plot, and is a serious theological question if one is a Christian and happens to believe in alien life.[2]

Craig Johnson

Craig Johnson is the writer of the Longmire Mysteries. I’ve read ten so far. Johnson’s prose is captivating, poetic, and profound. If you’ve seen the Netflix show, you’ve met a Walt Longmire, but you haven’t met the Walt Longmire or Henry Standing Bear or Victoria Moretti, for that matter. Written in first person perspective from Walt’s point of view, the reader is in the main character’s head for the whole ride. And what a ride it is. For great writing and true escape, it’s hard to top Craig Johnson.

[1] I was all set to do it, but New Year’s Day 2019 landed hard and I wrote the poem “Red” instead.

[2] Which, for the record, I don’t. Mankind is a unique creation of God that sinned against its Creator and for which His Son died to redeem and resurrected to justify.

Cancer Survivor 2.0: Transitions

“You were dying.” I seem to get that a lot, and by “a lot” I mean more than once. Once is enough, right? The first time around, it revolved around the cancer itself.[1] This time, it had to do with the aftereffects of the treatment.[2] I was well out of the woods, the base-of-tongue tumor a good five-plus years in my life’s rearview mirror. But I wasn’t well. “Glad to see you made it in,” the doctor said when the test results came in. “Because looking at these numbers, I don’t know how you’re still walking around.”

“He’s been grumpier than usual,” Heidi, my wife, told the receptionist after I dropped the clipboard with the new patient form down on the counter in frustration and told Heidi she could fill it out. It was a rude, inexcusable, over-the-top reaction to her matter-of-fact observation that my handwriting was illegible. It was March 8, 2019. Grumpiness earned me a doctor’s visit. Hopefully, that says something about my regular demeanor.

Without controversy, 2020 has been crazy. But the crazy for me started well before the pandemic and violent protests of this historic year. In retrospect, the cause of my condition should have been obvious. All the symptoms lined up, I just never assembled them for the same crime. If I had, I might have agreed to see the endocrinologist when I could still manage to keep my cool.

Suspect No. 1: High Cholesterol

My previous employer offered yearly wellness checks, part of which was a basic blood test to measure cholesterol levels for heart disease risk. In June 2016, my total cholesterol level (TCL) was 311 mg/dL (less than 200 is the desired range). We made some adjustments to my diet, substantially decreasing the large daily dose of raw eggs that were a major component of my protein shakes. Two years later, my TCL had climbed to 390, nearly double the healthy range.

The result made no sense. From 2016 to 2018, I lost weight—two pounds, to be exact, but decrease is decrease. I carried 171 pounds on my 5’ 11” frame with considerable ease. It wasn’t the food, so I blamed cortisol, the body’s stress-response hormone implicated in high cholesterol levels. Not that I “felt” stressed, mind you. But my body has always been a faithful witness to what my soul ignores.

Suspect No. 2: Peripheral Neuropathy

I wear gloves in summer and make a point to push my legs to their limit because Cisplatin, the chemotherapy drug I was given as part of my cancer treatment, did a number on my nerves. Walking was difficult during the initial recovery phase. Cold hands and numbness in my feet persist. lists peripheral neuropathy as a less common but serious side effect from the drug and notes that “neurologic effects may be irreversible.”[3] Nothing to see here, folks. Move along.

Suspect No. 3: Depression

Depressed? Who, me? No way.

I was sad. In early 2018, after seven accolade-filled years of managing the hauling operations for my former employer, they gave my post to someone better suited to their executive succession plan.

I was lonely. Work moved me from my central-hub office that I affectionately named The Fish Bowl, to an office in a practically abandoned suite at the back of the maintenance shop I called The Cave, where I toiled away—a manager on hold with only contracts to supervise.

I was grieving. My brother Eric passed away on New Year’s Day, 2019.

Suspect No. 4: Fatigue

As a hauling manager, I regularly worked 10 to 11-hour days, five days a week. When they changed my post and I became effectively a manager without portfolio for close to six months, I still put in over forty-five hours a week on average. In August of 2018, I began managing our main recycling facility. 55-hour work weeks were not uncommon. I walked five miles a day doing the job. Then came the weekend when I studied, preached, and wrote. Yep, I was tired. I had reason to be.

Suspect No. 5: Emotional Lability

I didn’t see this suspect, my family did. Emotional lability is the psychological term for rapid and often exaggerated changes in mood where strong feelings such as uncontrollable crying or heightened irritability—hello, grumpiness—occur. I wasn’t irritable. I was focused. And if I cried at the drop of a hat, it was because it reminded me of my brother. At least, that’s what I told myself. My family told me I was grumpy. It wasn’t until I was getting better that they told me I was dying on them.

It’s late August 2013, before the chemo, before the radiation. The professionals reviewed the treatment protocol with all its promises and potential pitfalls. I listened. Heidi took notes. The chance of the treatment not working was low, the possibility of coming through unscathed nil. We knew at the start that the radiation would bombard my thyroid gland on its mission to destroy the cancer cells on my tongue and in my lymph nodes. Once I could eat again, we folded in a natural thyroid supplement into my protein shakes. As the years ticked by, the level of supplementation increased. If I missed a dose, I had a sense of crashing. I should have stopped. Instead, I fell into my default of pushing through.

I pushed through projects. In March 2018, I published Wind, Water, and Fire, a book about the Holy Spirit. As soon as it launched, I began writing Love Everlasting: A Practical Theology of Time, which I published in March 2020. In the same time frame, I started writing Valley of Wolves, the sequel to Gypsy Spy.

I pushed through work. In August of 2018, I assumed active management of our community’s largest post-consumer recycling facility. I had managed a small materials recovery facility and transfer station in the early years of my waste management career. Taking on this plant was like going from a go-cart to a high-mileage Ferrari. The workers and machinery required direct attention. I jumped into the fray at full-throttle. The post was nominally an office job. I was the general manager of a multimillion-dollar operation. I wasn’t in the office much. Flesh and blood, metal and grease are more my style.

I pushed through play. I went on business trips; nice trips to San Diego and Orlando, company funded and wife accompanied. I attended writing conferences that we turned into family vacations. Slowing down is something I am still learning to do.

While preparing for this post, I came across a line of dialogue I had jotted down in my idea journal. It’s dated May 22, 2018. I didn’t assign a character to it and can’t be certain of its inspiration. Did I overhear someone say it? Did I read it somewhere else? Was it just part of one of those conversations that fictional players have a tendency to whisper in my head? Maybe it was just my Freudian slip showing.

“Too many folks hurry about like they was rushin’ to die.”

You think?

We met with the endocrinologist. He ordered the blood work and told us he would see us a couple of weeks after the results came in. I went in for the blood draw on the last Monday in March 2019. That Thursday, the 28th, held the typical whirlwind of activity during which I either ignored my cell phone or couldn’t hear it ring (recycling plants are noisy). I walked up to the main office and the receptionist told me I needed to call home—now. “The results are in,” Heidi said. “The doctor wants to see you today.” Today? What happened to two weeks?

I like to think of myself as brave, but let’s be honest. Once you’ve been a recipient of a deadly medical diagnosis, a busy doctor saying you need to come in immediately is terrifying. My boss’s face when I told him I had to go didn’t help much. He was still a bit traumatized from watching me go through treatment. “You gave us a pretty good scare there, Nik,” he told me once. For a reserved man, his confession exposed much. He looked at me wide-eyed. “Good luck.”

They led Heidi and me into the exam room. We knew our places. She sat in the chair. I perched on the exam table. We waited. We wondered. We prayed. The doctor came in, report in hand. He looked at it, he looked at me. “Glad to see you made it in. Because looking at these numbers,” he lifted the sheet of paper, “I don’t know how you’re still walking around.”

He had ordered a thyroid panel. They checked my blood for T3 (triiodothyronine) and T4 (thyroxine), which are produced by the thyroid and TSH (thyroid stimulating hormone) which is released by the pituitary gland when it thinks the thyroid needs some encouragement. My T3 and T4 levels were nowhere near the low end of the reference range. And my TSH?

“I don’t know,” I said. “I’m still working over fifty hours a week. I probably walk five miles a day going through the different plants.”

“Well, let me put in perspective for you. Most of my patients, if their TSH level is at 10, are in my office demanding that I do something. At 12, they are barely functioning. Yours is at 72.75.”

Measured in microunits per milliliter, the sweet spot for the TSH level is 1.8. My pituitary gland was on overdrive trying to wake up my radiation exhausted thyroid. I was in full-blown hypothyroidism, symptoms of which include high cholesterol, peripheral neuropathy, depression, fatigue, emotional lability, and weight gain.

What, weight gain? Wait a minute! I was a full-grown male, average weight for my height with a body mass index of 24 which was thankfully inside the normal range. Funny how we can use one fact to deny that a part of us is dying.

“It was like it took everything for you just to hang on,” Heidi told me. “We were watching you. You were gray. You didn’t look well. You snapped at us. You were dying.” She got me to the doc. My mother was a nurse. Dodging medical diagnosis was a habit I learned early in life. Heidi saved mine. Again.

Medicine is a practice. Over the course of the next several months, the doctor increased the daily dosage level of my thyroid medicine. The good news: I was getting better. The bad news: the edge on my emotional lability took a while to dull. Generally diplomatic to a fault, I had become increasingly frank with my boss and with ownership. I jotted a note in my journal after a particularly trying meeting with them in early August 2019.

“The false satisfaction in blame never resolves the problem.”

It all came to head a couple of weeks later during a staff meeting filled with brass in which I made statements and presented information that painted upper management into a corner. Speaking truth to power is never without risk. Doing it on edge can bring sudden life transitions.

After 12 years of a job I often described as “a joy ride,” my employer and I had an amicable parting of ways. I left the world of a thousand spinning plates to return to the trade of an office furniture installer—a hybrid of mix of carpenter, mechanic, assembly line worker, and logistician. It’s difficult to measure the load you are carrying until you put it down on the scale. I never fully appreciated the level of tension I was under until my employer released me. I breathe easier now.

I had blood work done at the end of August 2019. Treatment was working. My total cholesterol was down to 170, a 56% drop from its highwater mark and inside the normal range. My T3 and T4 levels were normal. My TSH was at 1.31, which made the doc happy happy. I was less grumpy. And my weight? Apparently, I was overweight at 171 pounds. When I was 18, fresh out of high school, I might have weighed 152 pounds soaking wet. I am fifty-five. In my current job, I walk about seven miles a day, some of it on my knees and much of it carrying or pushing freight. The hours are reasonable, the stress negligible. If I stick with eating five times a day, I manage to keep 150 pounds on my 5’ 11” frame.

If you had sat down with me seven years ago and on the tail of hearing from the medical professionals all the true horrors of the treatment I had signed on for and said, “After all this is done, you are going to be a better man than you were in your 20s.” I would have laughed. And cried. My thirty-year-old self was in much worse shape than the twenty-year-old version and I had added a lot of mileage since then. But my Father is the Creator of the heavens and the Earth. My God is the Redeemer. In His hands, nothing goes to waste. He makes all things good. He is the master of transition and transformation. Just keep holding His hand. Everything is going to be okay.

[1] In case you missed it, you can read about it in “Dealing with a Death Sentence.”
[2] I shared about my treatment experience in the post “Pizza Night: Milestone on Recovery Road.”
[3] accessed August 29, 2020.


It has been a year
And still, I cannot speak.
The wound too raw,
The flesh too weak.

It is not hopeless grief,
But it is sorrow nonetheless.
When giants fall,
How is this midget to rest?

You taught me to walk,
Carried my weight
Across planes, through valleys,
Up hills and mountains
And over the oceans.

You saw me in the forge,
Tempered me in the waters.
You honed my edge,
And were ever my buckler.

Pilgrims we were together,
I now more than ever.
The mighty sleep,
The weak press on.

Tell our brothers
All they missed.
Tell our mother
She was truly blessed.

We wait for the removal
Of the torn veil,
When Heaven is all
And there be no hell.

Let us build houses
From everlasting wood,
And rejoice in the Savior
Who said we could.

Let us hike through
The healed land.
Let Larums roar,
Hand in hand.

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], accessed March 23, 2019.

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.

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.