My Top Ten Reads of 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Black Widow (audiobook) by Daniel Silva

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

(Spoiler Alert!)

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

Fair Play: The Moral Dilemmas of Spying by James Olson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Story Trumps Structure by Steven James

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

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

Man Without a Face by Markus Wolf

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

Enemies: A History of the FBI by Tim Weiner

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

The Midnight Line (audiobook) by Lee Child

Absolute mind candy and pure entertainment, but then …

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

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

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Closer than Cousins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

tio-gideon.jpg
Eric with Gideon – 2003

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Senior Discount

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cancer Five Years Gone

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

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

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

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

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

My character is always in need of strengthening.

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

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

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

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

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

And Then There Were Four

I am the youngest of seven children born under three marriages, but comprising only two constellations of siblings: Russell and Larum. I was perhaps six months old when my eldest brother Ronald went off to Vietnam. That should give you some sense of the remoteness the baby in the family can feel toward his oldest siblings. But ours was far from a normal family. “Blended” wouldn’t do it justice, so I leave that tale for another day.

Six boys and one girl, which means that both mom and sis were strong women in a way that could put to shame many a man I have known. Mom buried three husbands and two sons. I am very grateful she was already home to greet the latest departure. On Friday, September 29, 2017, Michael, my third-oldest brother, went home to be with his Lord and enjoy a family reunion I can only hope for. And then there were four.

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

One would think that having six siblings would minimize the intense sense of loss somewhat. But it doesn’t. Seven is the full set. Anyone missing leaves us less. I felt this first at the news of my brother John’s death in 1992. He was only forty-three; I was nearly twenty-eight and already overly familiar with the process of grief having lost my father when I was thirteen. As I recall it, I was deep into a construction project with my son Nikolai—a toddling two-year-old who loved stacking the blocks up into imaginary castles almost as much as I did—when I received the news. I was totally unprepared for my reaction: shock, sorrow, and relief. Relief? Yes, relief. I suppose it is time to introduce you to my brother John.

John Clark Larum
Brother John in his younger years.

John was my mother’s second son. She was a recently minted nineteen-year-old when she had him. Though young, the drama of life had already swept her into a tale that would ultimately rival any soap opera and still surprises audiences when I tell it. John was the only boy among us with black hair. “You don’t look like the rest of them,” folks would often say. “If I only had a dollar for every time I’ve heard that,” was his frequent reply. The rest of us boys were redheads. Barbara stood out because she was the girl. John, well, John was different.

All my siblings are charming, but I admit I am biased. John was charming in a way that would make women who knew better swoon. Handsome, athletic, driven, brilliant and armed at an early age with a sociopathic lack of conscience, John was an exhilarating and dangerous roller coaster to ride. As life would have it, he was the older sibling who showed up on the scene to “help” my mother when my father was dying of emphysema and lung cancer. “Help” meant that he was there to engage and challenge his teenaged baby brothers, Timothy and Nikolas (that’s me on the right—people often confused us even though our names only share two letters), who were the last left at home. And “help” is in quotes because his move to Arkansas from California wasn’t motivated by any sense of obligation or altruism. Narcotics officers were hot on his tail and he thought it best to let his California market fade away in his rearview mirror.

John taught us all the things older brothers shouldn’t teach their younger siblings and a few that they absolutely should. The shoulds ran the range from expanding my literary horizons to knowing how to put my fist through wood if necessary. The should-not’s I won’t list, except for this one: if you want to score a million dollars, don’t try stealing it from one guy; instead, find a way to con a million people out of a buck. That was John, the consummate conman.

Our last conversation was a godsend. We must have talked on the phone for nearly two hours. I laughed so hard I couldn’t cry anymore. “I finally got your number from Mother, but she still wouldn’t give me your address,” he said. I laughed. “John, you know I love you. I simply can’t afford you.” He laughed. Good times. He died of an overdose not long after that call. It was like having a chunk of my heart pulled out. I was sad he was gone and relieved that the danger had passed.

2007 was a monumental year for me. In June of that year, I began a new career in waste management. After nearly twenty years working in the installation and warehousing side of the commercial office furnishings industry, I landed a job managing a materials recovery facility. Essentially, I went from opening cardboard boxes to recycling them. I knew next to nothing about waste hauling and even less about running a processing facility. Fourteen-hour days were not uncommon and the commute simply added to the load. It was about midday on a Thursday when my wife called me with the news. There was no easy way to say it. My brother Timothy had passed away the night before. I have never been a big Halloween fan. His death on October 31, 2007, didn’t improve my opinion of the day any.

Classic me, I tried to keep working. I think I was able to function for about an hour and half before I admitted to myself the impossibility of it. I had to go home. Tim was my Irish twin. He was No. 6 to my No. 7, the only other biological child of my father. I should have been prepared for my reaction to the news: shock, sorrow, and ultimately relief. Relief? Yes, relief. Please let me explain.

Timothy wasn’t dangerous like John. As far as I know, he never ran a con in his life. He loved his family, cherished our mother, and adored his daughter. He was physically talented and fearless. I see cliffs as something to climb. He climbed cliffs to find higher ground to dive from. I learned to fight for self-preservation. He liked to fight for fun. I had to teach myself how to laugh out loud. His laughter could always shake the room and was more infectious than Ebola. Though some may disagree, I believe my head outweighs my heart. His heart was always bigger than his head.

Timothy taught me to dance, got me hooked on restaurant work, and had a way of talking me into schemes I should have known better to avoid—like driving him and his best friend to a party because mom never said I couldn’t take the car, never mind that I was only fourteen and unlicensed. In many ways, ours was a case of classic sibling rivalry. But our conflicts were always tempered with an abiding affection for each other. Being last in line, we experienced the most together. It was a treasure trove of memories none of the other siblings had in common. News of his death was like taking a .45-slug to the chest. The hole is still there.

My last conversation with him was a godsend. I was at work checking on one of our auxiliary warehouses when he called me on my cell phone. He was distraught over many things. He had recently been assaulted at a gas station by a group of thugs who felt he had cut them off on the highway. The experience had left him humbled and profoundly shaken. Our brother Eric, with whom we were both very close, had moved back to Spain. To make matters worse, the Spain we had grown up in no longer existed. Prone to nostalgia, the physical loss of the country he grew up in left his identity somewhat adrift. Last but not least, his little girl was going to be a legal adult and the chances of her deciding to move out to him were slim to none. There was really ever only one salve for our wounds: Jesus.

As I spoke with Timothy, we encouraged one another in our faith. I believe I helped him define his distress and in doing so, brought some relief. If the above leads you to believe that the conversation was sad and somber because of its content, then I can only surmise that the reader hasn’t spent much personal time in the company of Larums. That is not our way. There are few traumas that we can’t laugh our way through. Aside from the usual jocularity, the joy of this conversation was in the shared hearts of brothers who truly knew each other.

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

Timothy worked hard and played harder. He died of a heroin overdose. Mother said he must have been shocked to come to and see Jesus. She believed as I do that the high was his aim, not suicide. He was only forty-four years old.

Hard as John was to live with, Mother never fully recovered from his death. Timothy was the only honest-to-goodness mamma’s boy among us. I feared she would sink in the sorrow of his passing and never return to us. She proved me wrong. She was always surprising like that. I had been casting about in my mind for how to broach the subject of God’s mercy in Timothy’s exit with her. She kindly beat me to the punch. “Sad as I am,” she said, “I am thankful he went that way. Maybe God allowed it to save us all from something worse. What if he had gotten into an accident drunk behind the wheel and killed someone? He wouldn’t have been able to live with that. I think God was merciful to us.” That is what I mean by relief.

My earliest memory of Timothy and Michael is the same. Ron and Mike were playing catch with Tim in the living room of our California home. Timothy was the ball and he was having a blast. Having older brothers over six feet tall when you are a toddler is like having your own personal amusement park. If Timothy wasn’t an adrenalin junkie at birth, he certainly was one by the age of three.

My next memory of Michael was of him working on our mother’s car. It was an Opel coupe. I recall coming out of the house and walking down the driveway just in time to see him reach under the hood, pick the engine up, and set it down on the ground. Did I mention that Michael was big? Some people don’t believe in giants. I grew up with them.

An imposing six-and-a-half feet tall, Michael was a gearhead and a consummate prankster. When Charles Manson was going helter-skelter, Michael was knocking on the neighbors’ doors and keeling over with a toy knife protruding from his chest, his white t-shirt smeared with ketchup. I don’t know if he ever encountered an engine he didn’t think needed to come apart. He worked as a lumberjack, married young, had two children, and ultimately found his way to being employed by IBM. My grease monkey, lumberjack, giant of a brother wound up being an executive in a high-tech computer company. Folks who may consider me to be loud and perhaps a bit obnoxious have little appreciation for the din of brilliance I grew up under. As the baby, I had to be persistent to be heard. If that didn’t work, I got louder.

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

Our last conversation was a godsend. Michael suffered a catastrophic stroke early in 2012. We were unsure at the time if he would survive it. He did, but not entirely. Strokes have a way of removing restraint on certain aspects of personality. Certain aspects of Michael’s personality were in continual need of restraint. His wife and children were heroic in his care, but not without a price. Eventually, my nephew Matthew had to set Michael’s phone to receive only. I had not called him in some time. My sister Barbara reached out to me to let me know Michael really wanted to hear from me. Were it not for her, I would have missed the opportunity.

I am ashamed to say that I never ventured out to California to see him in the nursing home. At first I was dealing with enough fires on the home front. But ultimately, it boiled down to plain selfishness. Selfishness and fear. I had made my way through cancer. I was weary of digging holes. I didn’t possess the courage to see him that way. I kept my distance. I’m the baby, gotta love me.

I called Michael and we had a beautiful talk. He reminisced about his last visit to Virginia. I had taken my two oldest boys, Nikolai and Gavin, to play disc golf with my brother Eric. While we were chatting in the park, an old geezer who looked like a slightly run over Mark Twain shuffled his way to us and started talking to the boys. It was all I could do to keep a straight face. Michael had them going a good while before he stood up to his imposing full height and removed his Billy Bob teeth to reveal himself. We still laugh about it. The kids were so impressed that my wife bought Billy Bob teeth for all to wear when they met the new dentist. The gag worked great. Thanks, Michael!

We talked about that epic day in the park, about the time he came to my church, about the grace of God, about the love of family. In his bed, paralyzed from the waist down and a good chunk of his brain missing, Michael talked with me as a loving, older brother. He asked about my life, about my kids, about my plans. How does someone love like that? Here I was, almost put out to call him. There he was, laid low in a nursing home loving on his baby brother. It leaves me undone.

He wrestled with survival, unsure of whether he wanted to stay or go. When the news came, the feelings were familiar: sorrow and relief. His suffering was over. His time had come. Mom had a party in heaven, I am sure.

I know our times are in His hands. I believe in the imminent return of Jesus Christ and hope to experience having my mortality swallowed up by life. But if that doesn’t happen in my lifetime, I know that my corruption will put on incorruption. All that being said, if I go before He comes the only one I want feeling any relief is the Devil. I want to be full of years and in a good old age. I want to be in the same shape as Moses, whose eye wasn’t dim nor his natural force abated.

Rest in peace, my brothers. The days of our reunion will by far outweigh the days of our lives.

 

 

Alive

Simple things should be celebrated; things like breathing. I am continually disappointed by how quickly I lose gratefulness for the mundane. I wake up. I stretch. I drink water without pain and think only of my thirst. I shuffle to my bathroom and manage to brush my teeth without fouling the sink with last night’s dinner and don’t give it a second thought. I met Jesus at my bathroom sink. He’s still there, I just forget to say hello far too often.

I celebrated my fifty-second birthday not long ago, marking another year in overtime since someone called the last quarter. Forty-seven has been the major mile marker on my road of life since I was thirteen. My father never made it to forty-eight. They carried him out of the house on a sheet twenty days before Christmas in 1978. It wasn’t until I reached 47 that I realized how young my father was when he passed away and began to sense a tinge of living on borrowed time. Then, in my forty-ninth year, I was informed that I had cancer already at Stage IV.

Beating dad’s longevity by two short years seemed a small accomplishment in the face of that diagnosis. My youngest hadn’t yet reached the age I was when I lost my father. I certainly didn’t want him or my other children to go through what I did as a child. I know firsthand what widowhood did to my mother. I couldn’t bear the thought of such a burden on my wife. So I decided to submit to the chemo and walk through the fires of radiation to see my way through. That’s when I met Jesus at my bathroom sink.

I’ve been a dedicate student of the Bible most of my life. In more than three decades of study, I had developed a fairly woven tapestry of theology. All of that went away at teeth brushing time. I would pray to the Lord not to throw up and then when I did, I would thank Him for carrying me through. I was especially thankful for the mornings I didn’t have to brush my teeth twice. When life is under that type of stress, one becomes thankful for the simple things in life. Each day is horrible, but you’re glad for it because it’s a day you’ve overcome. Redemption is another day closer. Sorrow only lasts for the night.

I get stressed out now. I worry. Will we triumph over the termites? Can I get my budget done on time? Will I parent well and help my children be successful? Are my brakes making noise, or is it just my imagination? Will folks at church get offended at me? Will we win that bid? What if I get fired? Silly stuff, really, because I’m alive. Every time I breathe without thankfulness, temporary pressures take on the form of titan troubles. He carried me through the fire, what is that in the face of a business budget or bad brakes? I am cancer free, thank God, but I need to remember the character that chemo taught me.

I do things now I wouldn’t have done three years ago; things like going to a hip-hop concert with my kids on St. Patrick’s Day. “Honey,” my wife asked, “you want to go to a Toby Mac concert with your kids?” Sure, why not? I’m alive, aren’t I? If they’re going to have fun, I’m going to join them in the experience. I hadn’t been to a pop music venue since 1979. Five minutes into the show, I remembered why. Hip hop isn’t really my thing. Through most of the sets, the visuals on the big screens were more a distraction from the music than they were an enhancement to the show. I say “most” because I was grateful for them when Matt Maher performed.

There I was, a recently minted fifty-two year old with his teenage and twenty something kids suffering through songs I didn’t know and words I couldn’t make out but glad my kids were enjoying themselves. Then, in the middle of the bedlam a worship service broke out. Matt Maher had taken the stage. Lyrics were on the screen and the songs had a melody I could follow. I came out to be with my children and have fun. I didn’t expect to wind up in tears.

“Amen, Amen
I’m alive, I’m alive
Because He lives
Amen, Amen
Let my song join the one that never ends

Because He lives
I can face tomorrow
Because He lives
Every fear is gone
I know He holds my life my future in His hands”

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

As I sang this song, I was overwhelmed with thankfulness. I’m alive. I’ve marked another year. My children are not orphans, my wife not a widow. I am the wealthiest man I know. And I am so because He lives. Simple things should be celebrated; things like breathing, even at a hip hop concert.

The Wrong Side of the Gun

It has happened to me too many times, which is to say that it’s happened to me twice. I have jumped on the hood of an oncoming car, been threatened by a group of drunk rednecks embroiled in a romance rift, cleaned public restrooms which were defiled beyond description, sat under the disappointed glare of my father and across the table from IRS Inquisitors. None of these circumstances compares to the discomfiture I felt on the wrong side of a gun. No other place I’d rather not be.

I was only fifteen the first time. I grew up in a small town with little crime. It was the kind of place where people only locked their cars on accident and their houses hardly ever. I was walking home late at night with no sense of apprehension or concern. A car started up on the road across the field that ran parallel to mine. I watched as it made its way to the perpendicular street, drove up the hill to my road, turned right, and headed toward me. What, me worry? We lived in a safe place full of friendly people who were more apt to offer me a ride home than run me over. I didn’t slow my pace or change my course. The car, however, headed directly toward me and stopped as it pulled alongside.

Did I mention that our town was full of friendly people? I happened to be one of those people. Not only was I friendly, I also had the benefit of being young and naïve. The driver was a long hair, but I was partial to hippies so he didn’t bother me. His girlfriend looked nice enough. I bent down to the passenger side window to find out what they needed. That was when the driver stretched his arm across the back of the seat behind his girlfriend’s head and pointed his pistol at me. “Give me your money,” he said. For better or worse, I’m generally a logical person prone to truthful answers. Unfortunately, the robber found my truthful response of “I don’t have any money” less than believable. “Give me your money, [insert alliterative curse]!” His girlfriend looked more scared than I felt.

For a split second, I considered falling backward off the road as it sat on a short rise that marked the end of the field it ran beside. I would be out of his line of sight with a good chance of making my escape. I didn’t consider this option because I was particularly bold but because I was partially disbelieving. The revolver had to be a fake, I reasoned, a toy gun the hippie was using to make a fast score. Thankfully, an olfactory miracle saved me from my folly. Despite the wind at my back, I was still able to smell the oil of the gun in my face. I became a believer and tossed my wallet through the window. My assailant gunned the engine and roared away. I walked for about a minute after that then considered what he might do when he found that my wallet really was devoid of cash as I had said. I sprinted the next half mile home. My brother wouldn’t believe I was mugged until I called our mom at work. She gave me no rest until I called the police. They never caught the perpetrator nor recovered my property.

The second time was worse. I was nineteen working as a low-level manager in a fast food restaurant in Richmond, Virginia. Richmond isn’t huge; but compared to where I came from, it was Big Town. It is the kind of place where people lock their cars on purpose and deadbolt their doors even when they are home. Anyone offering you a ride is suspect. I was working the morning shift prepping the salad bar with ice in between taking orders and making breakfast croissants. Bucket full of ice, I headed out to the dining room just as one of my customers stormed past the serving line. I’ve dealt with my share of angry customers, but this took the cake. What on earth could I have gotten so wrong with her order that would cause her to cross the barrier line between customer and food server with a look that said she was ready to throttle me? I continued forward to intercept her, feeling certain that my chances were good against a lady in her sixties. That’s when she dropped the bomb.

“He’s got a gun,” she said as she passed me and went straight back to the kitchen. I looked up and sure enough, there he was shooing my customers to the kitchen with threatening waves of his nickel plated .357 magnum revolver. I should have been more alert. Had I noticed him before my customer told me that we were being robbed, I could have warned the crew in the kitchen to beat feet out the back door. But it was too late. He had us in his sights and though there were maybe fifteen of us and he had only six shots, none of us wanted to be his target. Coworkers and customers were herded into a bunch in the small kitchen. Only two of us were in managerial ties. He trained the gun on me. I absolutely hate being on the wrong side of a gun.

“Open the safe, [insert derogatory comment regarding inappropriate family relations]!” I had him. For better or worse, I’ve been blessed with a sense of humor that loves to express itself under pressure. Hands raised over my head, face before the open bore of his threat, I donned a slight smile and said, “I don’t have the combination.” Checkmate, Robber Man! My victory was short lived. “I do,” chimed in Jeremy, the assistant manager. I wanted to shoot him.

Robber Man ordered us into the walk-in freezer and refrigerator. I won the freezer lottery along with several of the customers and a couple of my coworkers. A lady holding her three-year-old daughter started chanting, “He’s going to kill us, he’s going to kill us, oh God, he’s going to kill us.” Fortunately, I already had a relationship with the Almighty through the auspices of His Son Jesus Christ and I felt assured by Him that we weren’t going to die that day. “Ma’am, he’s not going to kill us,” I told her. This seemed to allay her fears momentarily. But then she started chanting, “I’m going to be sick, I think I’m going to throw up.” This was serious. I got within inches of her face and made sure we had strong eye contact. “Ma’am, you are not going to throw up.” Her eyes went wide and she was trembling from fear and the cold. “You know why you aren’t going to throw up?” I asked her. No, her headshake said. “You aren’t going to throw up because this is my walk-in and if you throw up in it, I’ll have to clean it up. So you are not going to throw up.” I wasn’t a highly compassionate young man. Regardless, she managed to keep her croissant breakfast down. God bless her!

We turned the freezer fan off and my coworker and I began stacking the boxes of frozen roast beef in front of the door. I was confident we weren’t going to be killed, but there was no reason not to take precautions. Frozen roast beef makes for an awesome barricade. That didn’t stop us from jumping when the door was pulled open. “You can come out now,” Jeremy said to the wall of boxes in front of him, “he’s gone.”

Jeremy had his own tale of terror to tell. Our safe had two compartments. As a crew leader, I didn’t have the combination for either door. Assistant managers had the combination for the top safe. As the daily cash receipts mounted up, they would bundle the money with a report and put it through the slot in the back of the top safe to drop it down into the bottom one. Only our general manager had the combination to the bottom safe and she wasn’t working that morning. After the robber had put us all in cold storage, he directed Jeremy to open the safe. Jeremy complied, opening the top safe and giving the gunman all the cash. The robber then asked him to open the bottom safe. Jeremy was stuck. After volunteering his possession of the combination, he was forced to confess, “I don’t have it.” A tense moment transpired while the thief weighed his options. Thankfully, he settled for the top safe cash and the minimal amount in the registers and didn’t add murder to his crimes.

The police apprehended him and his wheelman within the hour. They brought him back to the store for an on-the-spot, single-perp line up. “Is this the man?” they asked me. Right build and race, I told them, but he had covered his face with a bandana while holding us up. All I had seen were his eyes and the gun.

That is exactly what I told the prosecutor on the day of the trial. He interviewed me for about a minute in the hallway outside of the courtroom. The case would be in front of the judge shortly. He thanked me and asked me stay close until the bailiff called me in. Then he and an attractive young lady engaged in a very cordial and lively discussion. “I am going to say this and so.” “Good, then I will respond with thus and such.” “Fantastic, then I can move for a whatchamacallit.” “I won’t object and we can be done with this one in less than half an hour.” It dawned on me then that she was the public defender. They were both overworked young professionals in a taxed judicial system doing what they could to make their day smoother. For a country bumpkin like me, it was a real eye opener.

I can’t remember what sentence was handed down after the prosecutor secured his conviction. The main bone of contention from the defense was the impromptu, single-perp line up at the scene of the crime. The police had presented us with only one man to identify, no wonder several of us said he was the robber. In spite of her argument, the decision went against her appointed client. His gun and bandana certainly matched the description, as did the amount of cash found in the car.

In the weeks following the event, what surprised me most in recollection was my calmness in the encounter. I remember being glad the restaurant remained closed as the police worked the crime scene since it gave me time to have breakfast. It wasn’t until several months later that the true impact of the event started coming to light. I was in a convenience store happily looking for a snack when I found myself suddenly anxious and very uptight. I scanned the store and eyed the exit and wondered why I was on the verge of a panic attack. That is when I fully noticed him.

A worker had just come on shift and walked behind the counter without his store smock on. My peripheral vision had caught the action and my limbic system pushed the fright-and-flight hyperdrive button. I paid for my purchase and went to my car where I sat shaken, waiting for my body to metabolize the sudden influx of adrenaline. I was shocked by the realization of just how deeply the robbery had affected me.

One might think being victimized by armed robbers would make me a strong advocate for gun control. But the only gun control I advocate is a firm and steady grip on the firearm to improve aim. Having said this, the reader could be excused for believing me to be a Second Amendment proponent for personal self-defense. But self-defense is not the primary reason I own firearms. I enjoy hunting, but harvesting wild game isn’t the reason for my arsenal. I own guns because I am a student of history with a deep respect for our Founding Fathers who had a healthy distrust of human nature when vested with governmental authority.

As much as I dislike being robbed at gunpoint, the thought of living under the authority of elected officials who are on the wrong side of the gun disturbs me more. I remember the stories of Don Antonio’s father being pulled out his house in front of a Guardia Civil firing squad for making jokes about Francisco Franco, the Spanish dictator. I remember him showing us the walls pockmarked by bullets where priests had been lined up and shot by the regime; lambs led to slaughter, losers of the Spanish Civil War. I think of Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot and shake my head sadly at all those who believe it couldn’t happen in the land of the free and the home of the brave. Our Founders held no such delusions.

As I write this, there are five front runners in the 2016 Presidential Election race: Ted Cruz, Hillary Clinton, Marco Rubio, Bernie Sanders, and Donald Trump. I have studied each of their positions on the Second Amendment. Were I a single-issue voter (which I am not), following is how I would rank my choices from best to worst.

No.1 – Ted Cruz
Cruz would be my top pick of the pack for a politician that would work to uphold our right to keep and bear arms. Of the five, he is the one whose communication and actions on the subject indicate that he gets the true purpose and meaning of the Second Amendment.

”The Second Amendment to the Constitution isn’t for just protecting hunting rights, and it’s not only to safeguard your right to target practice. It is a constitutional right to protect your children, your family, your home, our lives, and to serve as the ultimate check against governmental tyranny — for the protection of liberty.”[1]

Senator Cruz understands that the Founders enshrined in our Constitution the right of the people to keep and bear arms as a bulwark against the State’s abuse of the monopoly on violence. It is intended as a hedge against tyranny. The first purpose of an armed citizenry is to protect our liberties from threats domestic. Secondarily, being familiar with and in possession of firearms makes the citizenry more prepared to defend its liberties against foreign enemies. Target practice and hunting are meaningless without these two securities being in place. And in a nation where the citizenry is denied the right to defend its liberties from all governments, both foreign and domestic, the notion of using a firearm for self-defense is nothing more than an invitation to be prosecuted for such action by the state.

No. 2 – Marco Rubio
Rubio comes in second not for any lack of support for Second Amendment rights but because I could find no clear statement from him that compares to Senator Cruz’s crystal expression of the Founder’s intent in the Second Amendment. Aside from that, his focus on violence being the real problem while defending our right to keep and bear arms is commendable. An example of this can be seen in his delivery of the GOP response to President Obama’s State of the Union Address in February of 2013.

“We were all heart broken by the recent [school shooting] tragedy in Connecticut. We must effectively deal with the rise of violence in our country. But unconstitutionally undermining the 2nd Amendment rights of law-abiding Americans is not the way to do it.”[2]

When pressed about this during a CNN interview a couple of months later, Senator Rubio had this to say:

“My position on guns is pretty clear. I believe law-abiding people have a fundamental constitutional right to bear arms…I’m troubled this debate is about guns. It should be about violence. Violence is the problem, guns are what they’re using. We are missing a golden opportunity to have an open, honest and serious conversation about these horrific violent acts, because everyone’s focused on passing these laws that have proven ineffective.”[3]

As much as I like his answer and his efforts to correctly characterize the problem, the following policy statement from his web site is what put him in second place in my book:

“New gun laws will do nothing to deter criminals from obtaining firearms; they will simply be ignored by those who wish to do harm. Meanwhile, new restrictions will infringe on the rights of good, law-abiding Americans who wish to have a gun for hunting, sport, or, most important, the protection of their families.”[4]

Whenever a politician – right or left – puts hunting first in a list of gun rights, my radar goes up. I begin to fear that they don’t truly understand the Second Amendment; or, worse yet, they do but opted to pander to those who don’t anyway. At least he qualified the order of his list by claiming the protection of our families as the most important reason to have a gun. But it is couched in the context of deterring criminals. I assert that the Founders believed it was most important to deter tyrants. I happen to agree with them.

No. 3 – Bernie Sanders
Those who know me may be surprised that I place Bernie Sanders above the darling of the Reality Show Right, but I mean it. He would be my third pick in the current field in spite of statements like the following:

“This is what I do believe. I come from a state that has virtually no gun control. And yet, at political peril, I voted for an instant background check, which I want to see strengthened and expanded. I voted to ban certain types of assault weapons, which are designed only to kill people.”[5]

All due respect to Senator Sanders, but as a man who has harvested his fair share of game using firearms I can attest to the fact that my dove hunting shotgun is perfectly capable of killing a man. I am also fairly certain that given the opportunity, I could take a deer down with an AR-15; particularly if I had a magazine that held more than ten rounds of ammunition. So exactly, pray tell, is an “assault weapon” which is designed only to kill people? Personally, I wouldn’t own a firearm that was incapable of taking human life. Every tyrant I’ve ever studied or read about is human. They are the reason why I own guns.

So why do I place Senator Sanders third? Because with Bernie, you know what you’re buying. I dare say that of all the presidential candidates, he is the least ambiguous regarding his beliefs or positions. Besides, if he got elected I would expect there to be an upswing in gun sales and a true galvanization on the right.

No. 4 – Hillary Clinton
Clinton scores below Sanders because her gun control solution is to attack capitalism and free trade. The following is one of her positions statements from her web site:

“Hillary believes the gun industry must be held accountable for violence perpetrated with their guns. Hillary will lead the charge to repeal the so-called ‘Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act,’ a dangerous law that prevents victims of gun violence from holding negligent manufacturers and dealers accountable for violence perpetrated with their guns.”[6]

The web site lists this as one of the ways Clinton plans to prioritize community safety over gun lobby profits.[7] A true socialist elite with a law degree, her solution to the nation’s violence problem is to criminalize manufactures and expose them to fiscal confiscation through the courts. Sanders at least had the sense to defend the manufactures by voting against such measures. It makes me think he understand at least a little bit about how commerce should work.

Last – Donald Trump
Trump is the loser when it comes to politicians whose positions on the Second Amendment I could trust. I use the term “politician” when it comes to the Donald loosely as I don’t consider him to be one. Many may consider this to be a good thing. Not me. Like it or not, the office of the President of the United States is a political office which requires political experience. That would make the Donald worse than an apprentice. He is simply not qualified for the post.

Note the following from the Reality Show Right darling that the likes of Shawn Hannity and Rush Limbaugh seem intent on fawning over as the potential savior of conservatism:

“I generally oppose gun control, but I support the ban on assault weapons and I support a slightly longer waiting period to purchase a gun.”[8]

The statement comes from his book The America We Deserve published in 2000. It is essentially his initial résumé for the office he currently seeks. Generally oppose gun control? I don’t want a president that “generally” opposes gun control. Tell me clearly if you’ll fight for my right to keep them or if you intend to erode my liberty in some way. Support the ban on assault weapons? I refer you to my comments above regarding Senator Sanders.

In a display of his need to play to crowd and his savvy celebrity brand marketing, the following policy statement can be found on his campaign web site:

“Gun and magazine bans are a total failure. That’s been proven every time it’s been tried. Opponents of gun rights try to come up with scary sounding phrases like ‘assault weapons’, ‘military-style weapons’ and ‘high capacity magazines’ to confuse people…The government has no business dictating what types of firearms good, honest people are allowed to own.”[9]

Which Donald are we to believe, the supposedly serious and concerned citizen who took counsel with a group of White House experienced domestic and foreign policy advisers to write his book in 2000 or the crass and sophomoric midway carnival man of the 2016 Presidential campaign? Therein lies my dilemma. Not only do I not know where he truly stands, should he get elected I fear conservatives will fall asleep and the Donald will rob us all blind.

An armed America is a strong America. Vote your conscience and stock up on ammo just in case.

[1] Ted Cruz, “What the Times Doesn’t Get about the Second Amendment,” National Review (2015), accessed February 7, 2016, http://www.nationalreview.com/article/417149/second-amendment-history-lesson-times-ted-cruz.
[2] http://www.ontheissues.org/2016/Marco_Rubio_Gun_Control.htm, accessed February 7, 2016.
[3] Ibid.
[4] https://marcorubio.com/policy-for-you/marco-rubio-gun-owners-second-amendment/, accessed February 7, 2016.
[5]http://www.ontheissues.org/2016/Bernie_Sanders_Gun_Control.htm, accessed February 7, 2016.
[6]https://www.hillaryclinton.com/issues/gun-violence-prevention/, accessed February 7, 2016.
[7] Ibid.
[8]http://www.ontheissues.org/Celeb/Donald_Trump_Gun_Control.htm, accessed February 7, 2016.
[9]https://www.donaldjtrump.com/positions/second-amendment-rights, accessed February 7, 2016.

Pizza Night: Milestone on Recovery Road

I prefer miracles over medicine, but enjoy being alive most of all. With a diagnosis of cancer comes an assault of life-altering information. You are no longer just feeling sick; you are ill. You aren’t fighting off some foreign invader; you are being attacked by your own flesh. Treatment success rates are given to you in percentiles and the percentiles matter. The devastation of the therapy is contrasted with the known path of the disease and it actually sounds like the better option.

I still chuckle when I see drug commercials on television. You know the ones. People who look somewhat healthy are all shown celebrating the various fun activities of a normal life: family dinners, beach outings, fishing trips, and the like. The cheerful voiceover announcer begins to talk in soothing tones about the new drug you should ask your doctor for to treat your condition. “Do you suffer from an overactive bladder? Are trips to the bathroom keeping you from going to the beach? Nopeasama® could be the drug for you. Patients treated with Nopeasama® have shown marked improvement in bladder control and have been able to reclaim their lives.”

The music is uplifting and the lighting bright. The fancy logo scrolls across the screen as the announcer’s tone drops in volume and elevates in seriousness. “Nopeasama® has been known to cause diarrhea, severe vomiting, and frequent nosebleeds in some patients. Other possible side effects include dizziness, drowsiness, depression, and dehydration. In some instances, Nopeasama® has caused blindness in small hamsters and redheads. If you are a small hamster, do not take this product.” I laugh, but I laugh like a man whistling through a graveyard.

Faced with a choice between a highly probable death and a course of therapy guaranteed to cause permanent damage, I signed up for the treatment. This seems like a no-brainer and it actually is. Had I taken more time to think about it – or if I had known then what I know now – I might have chickened out and ran the other way. After all, dying in and of itself isn’t that scary of a concept to confront. Perhaps a story might help to explain what I mean.

Pretend for a moment that you are the hero in a classic Western movie. You are minding your own business, leaning up against the hitching post while you watch the dusty traffic on Main Street. A man in a black hat rides up to you, leans forward in his saddle and says, “You know, I could kill you, Cal.”[1] You see, that threat only carries a minimal level of menace. We in the audience barely squirm as you calmly stare the villain down with a cocky I’d-like-to-see-you-try smirk on your face. “CUT!” the director cries. “Let’s do that again; only this time, make me feel it.” You knew this was coming, because black hat always blows his line on the first take.

“I’m gonna kill ya, Cal,” black hat says. “But I’m gonna kill ya slow, see; so it hurts. Hurts real bad. And I’m gonna make your woman watch while I do it.” Now the audience is nervous and black hat hasn’t even given the details yet. Then he says, “I’m gonna make your tongue swell up so big that swallowing water will be nothin’ but a distant and painful memory. I’m gonna fill the lymph nodes in your neck with so much fluid, they’re gonna explode clean through your skin. Once I’m nearly done with you, you’ll wish you had taken me up on my offer!” No cocky smirk this time, black hat is serious and you’re in trouble. What’s worse, your woman is looking real nervous and on the verge of tears. “Offer? What offer you talkin’ about, Cancer Bill?” The villain looks pensive. Misery was his game and he was fairly good at causing it by sneaking up on folks. But it was always a gamble when you asked them to volunteer for it.

“Oh, well, we can go through all that I just talked about or you let me bolt you down in the Mask and shoot you with my fancy new ray gun every mornin’ for seven weeks straight. Your neck will burn worse than that time on the cattle drive when you forgot your bandana and lost your hat in the windstorm. But you won’t mind that much because about the middle of the third week, your throat’s gonna feel like I shoved a brandin’ iron down it and let it sit a while as I watched the smoke come out your nose. And in case you get any funny ideas about making things better with some ice cream or mamma’s chicken soup, I’m gonna fill your veins with my special snake venom. It won’t kill ya, maybe, but you’ll wish you’d died. All you gotta do is make it to the end of the seven weeks and I’ll call the feud off.”

“Well, why didn’t you say that in the first place, Cancer Bill. Sign me up for the torture. It sounds like the more sensible deal. Besides, makes me nervous when my woman cries.” Cue the sunset.

Upon reflection, my decision to undergo chemotherapy and radiation for head and neck cancer was perhaps more cavalier than courageous. They warned me it would be painfully difficult and leave me a changed man. But I had no idea how painful and nor did I appreciate the challenges that the differences would make. Which brings me to pizza night, or almost.

Shortly after my second dose of chemo, anything that had even a remote connection to tomatoes came off the menu. I love tomatoes. Fresh tomato slices served with dinner? Sign me up. Tomato soup with grilled cheese sandwiches? Any time of year. Ketchup? Good on eggs, potatoes, burgers, meatloaf, and any meal that needed help. Stews, spaghetti, eggplant parmesan, lasagna, and pizza. I loved them all. But I especially love a good pizza. All of this and any possibility of it came off the menu. Tomatoes turned into nausea inducing rusty metal with a crust of sugar in my mouth. And they tasted that way long after my throat had healed and the chemo was gone. It hasn’t been until recently, now some nineteen months after my last infusion of the life-saving deadly cocktail, that tomato sauce has been tolerable.

So it was that after an impromptu movie date with my bride, I spied the pizzeria across the courtyard from the theater and said, “Let’s get dinner.” “Are you serious?” she asked. “Yeah, I’m game.” I said. Never mind that taking on crust substantially adds to the challenge of swallowing food without saliva. Never mind that often times I eat by memory as how food now tastes frequently bears little resemblance to how it used to taste. Never mind that it was after eleven o’clock at night. It was pizza and for the first time in a while, I really felt like I got the draw on Cancer Bill.

It didn’t taste like it used to, but it came real close. And it only took me three glasses of water to get two small slices down. But I was thankful. Thankful to have come through. Thankful to be alive. Thankful to eat pizza. And thankful most of all for my bride.

[1] If you’re name isn’t Cal, just go with it. It’s a movie, for goodness sake!

West African Journey

“Immunizations: Yellow Fever is mandatory.” For someone none too keen on the entire immunization industry, this notice alone in the information pack should have given me pause regarding my travel plans. Yellow fever is fairly tame when compared to the hemorrhagic fever known as Ebola, but this was long before the current outbreak. Regardless, I wouldn’t be allowed in country without the yellow fever certificate in my passport, so to the clinic I went. Had I know the troubles that Lariam[1] would give me, the yellow fever vaccine would have been the least of my worries.

I’ve flown over oceans, seen icebergs swimming in their natural environment, and gazed over the orderly squares that tamed the amber waves of grain. But nothing gives one that out-of-Kansas feeling quite like the expanse of the Saharan sands. The plane was pointed south and soon we would be in Mali. Our stop there was short and disconcerting. Once most of the passengers deplaned, the flight attendant took her post in the safety demonstration area. Only this time, there was no fake seat belt or unattached air mask. She held up two aerosol cans and shook them vigorously. With the nonchalance of experience, she cracked both foggers open and walked the length of the plane and back. It seems that the dangers posed by the mosquito far outweighed any comfort considerations for the remaining passengers. Definitely not Kansas.

Our next stop was in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso where we would meet up with the missionaries we had come to work with for the next two weeks. Our ultimate destination was the town of Wa in northwestern Ghana. But we would need our rest for that journey, a grueling 220 mile ride on the dirt highways of the interior that would take nearly eight hours. We awoke that morning refreshed and expectant, eager to commence our church planting mission in the upper west territory of Ghana. But first, our missionary guides had to renew their visas.

We stood outside the consulate taking in the sights, smells, and sounds while our hosts sorted out their visas inside. Six of us had come on this short-term mission trip: three women, two men, and one teenage boy. All of us were white except for Jackie, who was an African-American in Africa for the first time like most of us. One of our teammates was a veteran. This was her third or fourth foray into West Africa. And she was sure that French was the lingua franca necessary to successfully interact with natives in this part of the world.

She and I were involved in a heated debate over the usefulness of French over Spanish as we watched the sea of humanity ride by on a kaleidoscope of mopeds. She was right in her assumptions regarding the usefulness of French in West Africa. But I was stubborn and far from a Francophile. Spanish, I informed her, had gotten me by in most places that I had traveled. I felt no need to learn French. Just then, a moped peeled away from the flow of the avenue and steered straight for us. The gentleman dismounted, strode up to me, and asked “Se habla español?” I turned to my teammate and smiled.

We talked for nearly forty-five minutes. He was a Burkina native who had lived and studied in Mexico City for ten years. He hadn’t had any opportunities to practice his Spanish since returning home. The presence of white faces hanging out on the avenue gave him hope that perhaps today was his day. What are the odds? We talked about life in Mexico, the US, and Africa. And we talked about Jesus; how he came to save all and without whom all were doomed. We shook hands and he rode off. The mission had begun in earnest.

The following days were perhaps some of the most intense I’ve ever experienced in life or ministry. I’m not unaccustomed to culture shock, but I was unprepared for its sub-Saharan impact. I watched in amazement as women carried anything from water jugs to large bundles of branches on their heads; just one more on their long list of daily chores required for survival. A mother bathed her young boy in a wash tub outside set in the dirt lot in front of their shack. Fifty feet away, others defecated into the ditch that ran through this section of town. What litter wasn’t stuck in the mud was fair game for toilet paper. Singular encounters turned to thronging audiences without much notice. All music was beautiful and loud.

Regardless of what we told ourselves about our commitment or sacrifice to be there, the fact remained that as Westerners, we were pampered and soft. The Ghanaian workers that had come up from Accra in the south or had signed on from local congregations spent far more time evangelizing on the streets and trails than we did. While we rested in the comfort of the missionaries’ house, they rested on the cinderblock and wood plank pews set up on the dirt floor of the makeshift church. At night, under the single light of a naked bulb, the invited came to sing praises to Jesus, hear the Gospel, and receive salvation.

It was toward the end of our journey when Jackie shared her revelation with us. I remember her fiddling with her Nefertiti gold necklace as she worked to put words to her thoughts. She was old enough to remember the racial tensions of the late 1960s and early 1970s in America and black enough to have experienced any of the numerous slights suffered by her people that white folks are oblivious to. The insult of slavery still brought tears to her eyes. And yet, she confessed, if slavery is what her ancestors had to suffer for her to be born an American; she was grateful.

To deny that ethnic injustice persists in the US is to betray ignorance of the facts. To smash windows in Berkley, California because a cigar robber in Missouri got himself killed while assaulting a police officer is to abandon reason. As a society, we need to continue advancing toward the experiential reality that all men were created equal. We have made great strides in that direction. Let us pray that we may continue to do so and not slide into the darker side of West Africa’s journey.

[1] I took this trip in August of 2001. In 2003, this anti-malarial med was implicated in the psychotic episodes of some returning servicemen.

Immigrant’s Song

“I have been a stranger in a strange land.”
Moshe ben ‘Amram, c. 1440 BC

I was born in America. Well, California to be precise; which is close enough. Strange land indeed. My parents began dreaming of their exodus not long after my birth, if not before. My dad was an immigrant’s son. My mother was tied to the land through a centuries-long, generational thread. But that thread wound its way to other origins that she was anxious to explore. And the traveling man she married was more than happy to oblige. The four minor children still in the home didn’t have a vote.

It was 1970. What belongings weren’t sold we packed and we made our way to the Arkansan Ozarks. Arkansas wasn’t a foreign country, but it was foreign enough. And it was deep country, southern through and through. We were only stopping off for a year, but I didn’t know that at the time. Mom and dad both worked. All four of us children went to school. Life was fairly normal, except for the funny way people talked. I didn’t suspect a thing.

I’m sure that there must have been discussions and family planning. We were a fairly close-knit crew and the folks liked to involve us in the overall efforts. But I was only six when preparations were under way, so I’m certain I missed a memo or two. When dad crated up his rifles and stereo equipment, I should have realized that a big change was coming. But my imagination wasn’t sufficiently developed to envision the grand adventure they had in mind. Even now, with an additional forty-three years of life behind me, I shake my head in disbelief.

What remained of our essential possessions was loaded up in the back of the pick-up truck. Dad drove us to Michigan for a visit with my oldest brother, Ronald. The third oldest boy, Michael, made a surprise appearance. When dad sold him the truck, I should have been worried. But when you’re six years’ old and your family goes on a shopping spree inside a camping store, it’s like Christmas. Me worry? Whatever for? Like the rest of them, I was outfitted with a backpack, sleeping bag, canteen, mess kit, and poncho. Aside from the one instance when I happened to send a fish hook through my hand, my limited experience had taught me that camping was fun. My limits were about to be expanded.

What remained of our essential possessions was loaded up into our backpacks. I don’t know exactly where our walk began, though I doubt it was Ann Arbor. I have no doubt of where we wound up, which was Kennedy Airport in New York. To get there, we walked through a substantial length of Pennsylvania, much of it under the shower of September rains. My father had just turned forty, my mother forty-two. The children they were leading – Eric, Barbara, Timothy, and me – were twelve, ten, eight, and six respectively. As the youngest, I undoubtedly had the lightest pack. Even so, it was an easy twenty pounds. We hiked for three weeks to catch our plane to Spain.

Our trek bears little resemblance to those taken by individuals and families south of the border making their way into America. We weren’t aliens, illegal or otherwise, walking on the rugged trails of this land. We were Americans. I think that most native born US citizens lack a perspective to truly appreciate what that means. We walked through town and country, secure in our persons and belongings. No coyotes led the way. No brigands blocked it. And no one asked for papers or identification until it came time to depart our shores.

After a couple of stops along the way, we arrived on the plain in Spain where the rain mainly came. My folks had settled on Castellon de la Plana as the new place to call home based on a recommendation from a fellow traveler newly met. Their intentions became clear. We were still Americans, but we hadn’t come to Spain to visit. We had come to assimilate. We had come to live as Spaniards. They had no jobs, no contacts, but some capital. None of us spoke Spanish. And we freedom-breathing inheritors of the liberty bought with the blood of the Founders and those they led were living in the last, and longest lasting, Fascist dictatorship in Europe.

By all accounts, assimilation was traumatic. My mother often commented that I did nothing but cry for the first six months, after which I could speak no English. I can recall entering the first grade with much trepidation. One of those early days stands out among the others. My classmates were all lined up to read to the teacher. I followed suit with my book. When my turn came, he looked at me and underlined a word. I had no idea. I couldn’t speak the language, let alone read it. He underlined another word. Nope. He looked at me and motioned me back to my seat with his aquiline nose. Stupid American.

This scene would ironically repeat itself nearly five years later. Francoist Spain had begun to lighten its restrictions on the use of the regional dialects of Spain.[1] During my final year there, my school was offering a class in Valencian, the local dialect, after regular school hours as an elective. My brother Timothy was very excited about this class, not so much for its historic or political implications but mostly it offered him an opportunity to catch up to our older brother Eric who already had a fair mastery of it. Timothy convinced me to go with him, even though the course had begun weeks before and despite the fact that after being in school from eight in the morning until six in the evening, all I wanted to do was go home.

I walked into the class room only to discover that the man teaching was none other than my first grade teacher. The kids stood in line to read. I followed suit. He underlined the phrases I had written in my notebook. I could copy the words from the chalkboard, but I couldn’t read them. He looked at me and shook his head. Back to your seat, stupid American. No worries, Maestro, I’d be back in America sooner than I knew.

Despite the level of assimilation we had attained in five years’ time, the fact remained that we were foreigners in a land in transition. When Francisco Franco died and Juan Carlos reestablished the monarchy, my father decided it was time to leave. This caused no small tension in the household as my mother wanted us to depart together and he wanted her to leave first. Their marriage had frayed somewhat in those years. Not only did she not want to leave; she was afraid that if she left alone my father could sue for divorce under Spanish law and claim abandonment, thus automatically gaining full custody of the children. So when she left, she took me with her as insurance. I was oblivious to of all this at the time. I only knew that we were packing. And I allowed myself to believe it was only for a trip, not a move.

My vacation fantasy came to an abrupt end once we arrived in Arkansas and my mother registered me in school.  School meant move. School meant stay. We were going to live in America, not just visit. The culture, friends, language, and life I had known along with its dreams, aspirations, and loves were now truly out of reach. I wouldn’t step foot back in Spain for another thirty years. Had I realized that then, I would have cried more than I did.

What does the Arkansas school system do with an eleven year old boy that speaks with a Spanish accent and is illiterate in his native tongue? They put him in with the group of kids with learning disabilities. We didn’t call it that in those days. Back then, the term “retarded” was still allowed in polite company. Sit with the pantwetters in the back of the class, stupid Spaniard. I think I may have put up with it for almost three weeks. The morning my teacher found me seated at the front of the class, she asked me why I wasn’t in the back with the special group. “Because I can read better than they can,” I told her flatly. She didn’t argue the point.

The transformation from American to Spaniard was painless compared to the forced assimilation of a Spanish boy into American culture. My early scholastic interests in science and mathematics were overwhelmed by the necessities of English mastery. As I fought with near hatred to become literate in  English, my brain decided to translate five years of memory from Spanish to English without even asking my permission. In my efforts to relearn my native tongue, the one nearest to my heart faded into hidden closets of my mind that took me years to locate.

It was difficult, but eventually I settled in. I even managed to develop a bit of a southern drawl. Those formidable years in Spain had set me, however, as sure as the kiln the clay. I love this country, but there is a part of me that never feels at home here. To make matters worse, the Spain I knew – a time capsule of 1940s Europe – is no more. It will require nothing short of an apocalyptic event for me to finally be at home.

Immigration is full of promise and pain. I lived through it twice before I was twelve and the experience defines me to this day. As I listen to our leaders and pundits argue over the current state of our immigration policy – and even add my voice to the fray – I have to remind myself of the boy I was. Immigrants aren’t a faceless horde swarming like a plague of locusts over amber waves of grain. They are people; each with their own story, each with their own pain, each come to the greatest nation on earth. I pray we deal with them wisely and with compassion.

[1] Spanish in Spain is known as castellano, Castilian. It is actually the dominant Romance language of the central part of the peninsula. Francisco Franco mandated that it become the only official language of the country when he came to power. He essentially outlawed the use of the other regional dialects and languages.