November 18

This Thing of Darkness – How I Dealt With Nightmares

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Richard showers first. I sit in a wooden chair by the window and enjoy a soft breeze that blows in off the sea a few blocks away. The mosquitoes aren’t bad tonight; the wind keeps them at bay. The smell of the ocean is mixed with night jasmine blooming somewhere nearby. This, I reflect, is a very pleasant moment. I’ve haven’t been noticing as many pleasant moments lately, and I resolve to enjoy this one for as long as it lasts.

Ten minutes later, Richard returns from the bathroom wearing a sarong, his hair wet.

“It’s all yours,” he says. “But I didn’t leave you any hot water.”

“Jerk,” I reply.

The joke is old and worn. We don’t have hot water. All our showers are cold. After a long day during the hot season, I love a cold shower. But on a cooler evening after the rain, I shiver at the thought.

I first arrived in Sri Lanka on December 6, 1993.  In honor of International Human Rights Day, Sarvodaya headquarters displayed a collection of children’s art .  The graphic images drawn by young children shocked me.  I had never before visited a place in which such gross human rights violations were a part of daily life.

My first stay took me through the uncertainty and fear of Chandrika’s death-defying election in 1994, the hope for peace that followed once the outgoing government agreed to step down without violence, the assassination by the LTTE of Chandrika’s opposing presidential candidate, and the collapse of the cease-fire in early 1995.  These events were dramatic, frightening, and impacting, but did not threaten me in any direct way.

In 1998, I returned to interview peace workers across the island.  On this trip, I traveled by bus to the eastern city of Batticaloa, which according to government sources was safely in government hands.  In reality, the government held most of the city, and they controlled the main roads in and out during daylight hours.  The rest was controlled by the LTTE rebels.  I saw things on that trip that would haunt me for years.  Soldiers herded Tamil travelers at gunpoint.  A pre-teen boy had lost both hands to a booby trap.  A woman showed me a medical report, in English, graphically detailing her husband’s torture at the hands of the government. A brave Sinhalese woman talked of risking her life in her efforts to support Tamil families who were caught between the two fighting forces.

I came back from that trip changed, acutely aware of the fragility of security.

The following year, I sat in the dark as a battle raged outside a compound near Padaviya in the northeast.  Artillery shells landed not far away, and I realized that people were dying out there and there was nothing I could do to stop it.

That’s when the nightmares started.  I returned home unable to work and afraid of social situations.  I exhibited all the classic symptoms of PTSD.

As the bus revs its engine and departs town, there’s a sinking feeling in my chest, an inexplicable sense of loss. Soon we are in the countryside, and I see why they keep the bus so well-maintained. There’s nothing out here. On either side of the one-lane paved highway, I see only empty grassland. Kebithigollewa really is the frontier. You wouldn’t want a bus to break down on this road.

Occasionally there are stretches of jungle, and even less occasionally abandoned homes. Each home has white Sinhalese letters hand-painted on its front.

“What do they say?” I ask Richard.

“Budu saranay,” he reads from the first one.

We’ve both been here long enough to know that it means “Blessings of the Buddha.”  I consider that for a moment, and realize, just as I see from his change of expression that Richard too has realized, that these are homes where someone has been killed.

I continued to work for peace in Sri Lanka for another eight years, and I sought help from therapists from time to time.

Ten years after the Padaviya trip, one therapist had me write about my experiences.  This helped so much, I wrote a story that sought to express what I saw and felt.  I showed it to a friend of mine, and he encouraged me to publish it.  He even designed the first cover for it.  That’s how This Thing of Darkness came into being.

Reader commentary of the first version convinced me that the story wasn’t finished.  It was a raw look at the emotional struggle of an unprepared man caught in a war, but the story and character development were weak.  Earlier this year, I rewrote the story and republished it.  It’s a much better story now.

This Thing of Darkness is a work of fiction based loosely on that 1999 trip to Padaviya.  Its goal is to convey the emotions I felt during my work there, from culture shock and fascination to horror and fear.  I hope it also conveys some understanding of what war looks like now that we no longer have two or more nations battling each other.  But above all, I sought to make this a good story, and I hope you enjoy it.

“I admire your courage, kid,” the priest says, as my tears begin to run dry. “You’ve got chutzpah, coming out to a place like this. You cry as much as you need to. Then we’ll go back to the others, and you can keep your dignity. You did okay.”

I nod. Then, in a shaky voice, I ask, “Chutzpah?”

McMurphy smiles.

“One of the hazards of working with a rabbi,” he says, “is that I’ve picked up a little Yiddish.”

September 9

Domino Theory Began as Something Else

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Danny had seen a run of bad luck lately.  Two years ago, he’d been gainfully employed, with an apartment and a decent car.  Yeah, he had a little drug problem, but he paid his dealer in cash with the money he earned from his job.  He’d never hurt anyone, never robbed or stolen.  He just liked to get high after work. Then he’d gotten a DUI one night on the way home from a bar.  They had to be kidding!  He’d only stopped in for a couple of drinks, get a little loose, try to pick up on a chick.  He hadn’t even done any drugs!  But the cops claimed he’d failed the field sobriety test.  Hell, he couldn’t walk a straight line dead sober.  Then he’d blown a .24 on the breathalyzer, well over the legal limit of .08.  So not only had he struck out with the woman, he’d gone to jail instead of home to bed. That had been a Friday night.  By the time he’d been arraigned on Tuesday he’d lost two days pay and his job.  Then, just like dominoes, one thing after another had fallen away. 

My second book, Domino Theory, began as something else.  In 1980, I began my first novel, a murder mystery featuring Danny McCabe, a drug addict who’d been clean and sober a few years.  Danny gets called for jury duty, and inadvertently gets involved with trying to clear the defendant, a drug addict who’s been framed.  That book is as yet unfinished, though I hope to finish it this year.

I started Domino Theory around 1990.  As usual, it began with a question: “What would happen if I was drunk and woke up next to a murder victim?”  The result was a mystery about a guy who’s been framed.  He has to dodge the cops and two hit men while finding out who set him up.

I originally planned for the main character to be the defendant from the first Danny McCabe book.  Over the next eight years, I got it plotted and about three quarters written.  Then I stopped.  After all, how can you publish a sequel to a book that isn’t finished?

Domino Theory languished for ten years.  I wasn’t very motivated to work on it because I wasn’t having much luck in the publishing department.

Then came Ordinary World, which sold over 3,000 copies and got great reviews.  That modest success encouraged me to look at my unfinished novels with new eyes.  I thought Domino Theory had a great plot, but it was missing something.  Then it occurred to me to make it the prequel to my Dannny McCabe story.  After all, Danny is a recovering addict.  Why not tell the story of how he got into recovery?

As I began my rewrite, I was strongly influenced by Lawrence Block’s A Ticket to the Boneyard, which I consider the best of the (generally excellent) Matt Scudder series.  It portrays Scudder trying to get sober while facing a brutal opponent.  Despite his need to stay off the booze, Scudder gets drunk again several times.  As a recovering alcoholic and addict, I’ve always though Block portrays Scudder’s struggle well.

I wanted Domino Theory to convey the reality of the insanity a drug addict lives with in his addiction, the constant need, and the ridiculous justifications he believes.  The scenes where Danny struggles with his addiction are as real as I can make them, based on my own ten-year experience.

The misery isn’t as bad now as it was when I kicked.  I’ve been off the sh*t for three weeks.  Well, almost three weeks.  Two and a half, anyway.  My body doesn’t ache any more.  I’m starting to be able to sleep at night, if I drink enough.  Yeah, I drink more, but I’m off the dope.  I’m clean, and that’s something to be proud of. So what am I doing with a bag full of dope in my room?  I don’t want to use it.  Really, I don’t.  It was too hard to get off of it. But the sh*t is calling to me.  That goddamn heroin is calling my name. I drain the third Moosehead and reach for the fourth.  Two thirds gone now.  I’m pretty drunk, but not drunk enough to ignore the dope calling me.  I suck down half the bottle in one swallow. Damn it, I hate that sh*t!  F***ing heroin.  For months I couldn’t not do it.  Now I’m clean, and it still wants me back.  It’s like an evil woman that won’t let go of me, and I can’t say no. That’s the thing: I know I can’t say no.  I always go back to it.  I always have, and I always will.  Yeah, I’m clean right now, but that’s temporary.  I know it.  You know it.  The dope knows it.  It’s calling my name; it knows that sooner or later I’m going to give in.

I don’t know if anyone who hasn’t been there can really understand what goes on in the mind of an addict.  I know some whose friends and loved ones are addicts have stopped trying, and I don’t blame them.  Our actions are as incomprehensible as they are heartbreaking.

Domino Theory is an attempt to bridge that gap, while telling what I hope is an entertaining story.  Danny has no clue who framed him or why.  He knows he he has to get off the drugs to have any chance of staying alive.  With the help of some new friends in AA, he begins to unravel the mystery.  He stakes out drug dealers, tracks a mysterious woman to her home, and identifies several of the people involved.  But who is the mastermind blaming Danny for a string of murdered dealers, and can Danny stay clean long enough to find him before the hit men or the cops catch up with him?

If the internal dialog is too raw, if you can’t understand how anyone could be so crazy, at least take this from your reading experience: People like Danny and me, crazy as we are, do find recovery.  I’ve been clean and sober more than thirty years!  Domino Theory is a mystery, and a look deep into the frightening mind of an addict.  But it’s also a story of hope.

AA, Danny thought, not for the first time, really didn’t apply to him.  He might as well go out and get loaded, because AA wasn’t going to work.  What the heck?  He had plenty of dope.  He could hole up in a motel and stay stoned until they found him.  With enough heroin in his system, he wouldn’t even feel the bullet that killed him. “F***ing AA,” he muttered.  “It’s for pussies, not for people with real problems.”  He took a last hit off his cig and ground the butt into the pavement with his shoe. Then he remembered the guy from Newark who had stolen money from the mob and had to make amends for it.  And the girl, Jamie, who had come to puking her guts out on the floor of a jail cell. “Okay,” he acknowledged.  “They had problems.  So maybe AA does work.  But what am I supposed to do?” The answer came.  It was in Alicia’s voice, almost like she was there in his head responding to his question. “That’s freaky,” Danny said.  Because what the voice told him to do was pick up the phone and call someone in AA and ask them what he should do.

Domino Theory is available in paperback and eBook on Amazon and Kindle, Smashwords, Barnes and Noble, and from other online retailers.

August 31

The Ordinary World Story

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I live in one of the most prepared states in the country: Utah. The Mormon Church, as it is called by non-members like myself, has taught preparedness for decades. Most families here have a year’s worth of food in storage, an abundant supply of ammunition for their firearms, and a seventy-two hour kit in case of evacuation. Outsiders seem to find that strange. Evacuation? Why prepare for that? They have already forgotten about hurricanes that hit the Gulf and the East Coast, floods in the mid-west, wildfires in California and Texas, and any number of other natural disasters that displace tens of thousands of Americans each year. Since 9-11, the federal government has gotten on the preparedness bandwagon. Homeland Security advises us to be prepared, to have an emergency plan, to keep a supply of food on hand. But I wonder how many folks outside of Utah and the Mormon Church are listening? –“Zombies and Boy Scouts,” Ordinary World

Ordinary World was my first published novel. I was surprised how well it did, selling over 3,000 copies and garnering 73 reviews and an average of 4.4 stars on Amazon.

The idea for the book began several years before I started writing it. When I moved to Utah, and especially during the financial crisis of 2007, I adopted the local preoccupation with preparedness. I began stockpiling food and ammunition. I went to the annual Preparedness Fair in Cedar City. I listened to experts talk about the Spanish Flu Epidemic. I read military strategist John Robb’s analysis concluding how vulnerable our centralized system is to terrorism or acts of God.

I began to wonder, if any of these events actually happened, what would life look like for us? I mean, we have some medical supplies, lots of wheat, guns and ammo, sleeping bags and cots for refugees, and backup kitchen supplies. But how prepared are we really?

I first conceived Ordinary World as a fictional blog, posting the chapters in real time. I posted several chapters. The problem was, no one read it.

I thought the story was a good one: a family struggling to survive as the economy slowly melts down around them. I wanted people to read it. So I turned it into a novel.

This is the third winter since the collapse began. In the first, Gracie and I did pretty well because we were prepared. In the second, after Rita, Bernard, and Weylan joined us, we were helped by mild weather and supplies left over from before. This time, we have to face a winter relying on our own resources. It’s the first time that has been true. Coming as I do from old New England stock, the phrase “First Winter” strikes a chord of fear in my heart. The cultural memory of the hardships the first settlers faced is ingrained deeply within me. —“The First Winter,” Ordinary World.

I read it to my family as I wrote it. The characters Bill, Gracie, and Joe, became real to us. We cried when Sunflower the goat died, just as we cried when our real-life goat Christie died. I think my wife was as nervous in real life as Bill is in the book about whether Gracie would recover from her injuries. (She actually threatened me that I better not kill Gracie!) Ordinary World became a labor of love for my whole family!

When the time came to publish it, I chose Amazon’s CreateSpace as my platform. My history with query letters to publishers is dismal. And I really wanted people to be able to read it.

Even before publication, my family had encouraged me to think about an audio book. With the book’s success, I began to take the idea seriously. I was fortunate that narrator Scott Pollack became interested on the project. He did a fabulous job, and the audio book is available on Audible and Amazon.

(Sample the audiobook here:)

Fans have encouraged me to write a sequel. I’ve tried. But Ordinary World is in my opinion a great story with some of my best writing overall. I haven’t been able to come up with an idea for a sequel that measures up to the original. For the time being, Ordinary World stands alone.

We ran out of meat two weeks ago. When I say that, I mean we cooked our last stew bone. There is nothing left… Lack of protein and the lack of Vitamin C have combined to make us all feel weary and slow-witted. I’m not confident of my ability to make good decisions. And our family meetings suggest that no one else is, either. There’s a lot of “I don’t know” being spoken.

So here I am, ten miles or more from home, determined not to come back empty-handed. I’m carrying the 30-30, which is a bit big for rabbits, but which is the most flexible rifle I have. I can shoot anything up to the size of a deer with it. Including coyotes, should they decide to try to make a meal out of me. If I see a rabbit, I’m just going to have to hit him square in the head so there’s something left to bring home. But I haven’t seen a rabbit, not even in the distance.

I’m not going back empty-handed. In my pack, I have a down sleeping bag, a tent, and some supplies. I’m prepared to spend the night out here if I have to. Even two nights.–“Desperation,” Ordinary World

Ordinary World is available from CreateSpaceAmazon and Kindle, AudibleSmashwords, Barnes and Noble, and other online retailers.

August 16

Forgiveness

This is the second sermon given by fictional Pastor Jason in the forthcoming novel , Steve’s Grace.  I hope you enjoy it.

As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one: There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God.  They are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable; there is none that doeth good, no, not one.  Their throat is an open sepulchre; with their tongues they have used deceit; the poison of asps is under their lips:  Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness:  Their feet are swift to shed blood:  Destruction and misery are in their ways:  And the way of peace have they not known:  There is no fear of God before their eyes…  For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God;  Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus:  Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God;  To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus. –Romans 3:10-24

“How many of you here,” he asks, “fall short of what they know they ought to do.”

He raises his hand, and almost everyone in the congregation raises theirs.  I do, and Cindy quickly follows.

“It is impossible to be human, and make all the right choices,” he says.  “That’s the nature of the free will we have been given.  Sometimes, we choose wrong.  And when we choose something other than what God wants us to do, that’s sin.  It is falling short of God’s desire for us, and our duty to serve Him.

“How many here have made a really, really bad choice at some time in their life?” he asks.

Several hands go up.  Mine is one of them.

“How many have made a really bad choice in their life but don’t want to admit it?” he asks, chuckling.  Another hand goes up, but most do not.  “That’s okay,” he says.  “You don’t have to admit it in public, or even to me.  But sooner or later, you have to admit your sin to yourself, and to God.

“Why do you have to admit it?  Because until you do, there can be no redemption.  If you don’t admit you did wrong, you can’t be forgiven.

“Think about it, people,” he says.  “If I steal your wallet, and I deny I did it, can you forgive me?  Of course not.  You’re not even sure who took it!

“Suppose I come to you and say, ‘Hey, Bob, I stole your wallet and I know it was wrong and I’m asking for your forgiveness.’  Now you have the option of forgiving me.  And it is an option.  You don’t have to forgive me.  Unless, of course, you happen to be a Christian, in which case Jesus tells us that we can only be forgiven for our sins if we forgive the sins of others.

“And that right there is the formula for being forgiven,” he says.  “You have to admit your sin and ask for God to forgive you.  And you have to forgive the sins of others.

“But what if you’ve done something really awful?  I know a man who committed murder.  Because of the circumstances, he was never arrested or tried by the law.  But he did it, and he knew it was wrong.  Now, the Bible says the penalty for murder is death.  If he asks God to forgive him, will God do it?

“Yes! Because Jesus gave his blood so that those who repent might be saved.

“And that man did ask for forgiveness, and he repented, and now he lives his life according to what he believes God wants him to do.  He helps people.  And he does it not so he can be a good person, but because he wasn’t a good person and he owes a debt to God that can never be repaid.

“Every one of us is a sinner,” he continues.  “Every one of us owes a debt for God’s forbearance.  Because God sent his only son Jesus to die for us.  What an amazing gift that is!  Jesus gave his life so that we can be redeemed from our sin.

“And it is a gift.  But when someone gives you the gift of life, don’t you feel just a little bit obligated to them?  Maybe grateful?  And wouldn’t you want to live your life in a way that expresses that gratitude?

“A wise man once said that mercy is not getting what you deserve, and grace is getting what you don’t deserve.  I look at my life today, and I am struck by the mercy and grace of God.  I am a sinner.  But I have not gotten what I deserve for my shortcomings, and I have gotten so much goodness in my life that I don’t deserve.

“We fall short, but God forgives us.  We do bad things and God forgives us.  We don’t do some of the good things we should do, and God forgives us.

“Can anyone relate to that?  If so, I want to suggest that when you leave church today, you find a way to express your gratitude to God.  Because, I don’t know about you, but my life is better today than I have any right to expect.

“Amen!”

August 9

How Hard Is It?

This is the first of two fictional sermons given by fictional Pastor Jason Schumer in the forthcoming book Steve’s Grace.  If I could actually preach like this, I would become a minister!  I hope you enjoy it.

Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth:  But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.  And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloke also.  And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain.  Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away.  Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy.  But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.  For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same?  And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so? –Matthew 5:38-47

“When I was a kid, my mother said to me, ‘Stay away from those Catholic kids. They don’t go to the right church.’ Then my father said to me, ‘Stay away from those Jewish kids, because they don’t go to any church at all!’ Both of them thought that if I only hung out with kids who went to the same church as I did, I would grow up with better standards.

“You know, peer pressure is very strong, and I think that’s what my parents were counting on. If my peer pressure came from good kids, they figured I would learn good behaviors. So I hung out with kids who went to my church, and I did what they did.

“My parents were just a little shocked when I got caught in the back seat of my buddy’s car with a bag of marijuana, a twelve-pack of beer, and the sixteen-year-old girl who lived next door.”

The audience chuckles. Then Jason delivers the punch line:

“And both my buddy and the neighbor girl went to the right church!” he shouts.

Everyone laughs. He has our attention as he delivers a sermon about how we are all sinners, and we are all God’s children, and he loves every single one of us.

“God doesn’t love Catholics more than Baptists, or Baptists more than Catholics,” Jason pronounces. “I’ve got news for you. He doesn’t even love Christians more than non-Christians.

“So if God doesn’t love us more for being Christians, why are we in church this morning?” he asks. “Is it because we can’t find anything better to do?” He raises his hand as he asks, “Would anyone here rather be surfing?”
Everyone laughs, and I gather Jason must be an avid and vocal surfer.

“We’re not here to make sure God loves us,” he says. “At least, I hope that’s not why we’re here. No, my friends, we are here to be reminded that as Christians, as people of God and followers of Jesus, that we are commanded to love everyone else!

“I was on the freeway back from El Segundo one morning this week and this guy cut me off. He just cut right in front of me, like I wasn’t there. I’m human,” he says. “I wanted to give him the one-finger salute. But that’s not what Jesus says I should do. He says I should love that person.”

He pauses, and rolls his eyes..

“If it was up to me, I’d have loved that guy right off the side of the road! But that’s not what Jesus says to do.

“Who can think of a reason the guy might have cut me off on the freeway?”

“He didn’t see you,” someone suggests.

“He didn’t see me!” Jason repeats. “It had nothing to do with me at all!”

“He was having a bad morning,” says someone else.

“Yeah, he was having a bad morning,” Jason repeats. “And I’m about to make it worse! How Christian is that?”

“He doesn’t like surfers,” someone shouts.

Everyone laughs, including Jason.

“You get the point, right?” he says. “I don’t get to hate anyone, no matter what they do to me. Jesus says if someone sues me for my coat, give him my cloak, too. If they want me to walk a mile with them, walk two.

“How hard is it to look at someone who just cut you off in traffic and say, ‘I’m sorry you’re having a hard day, and I hope it gets better’?” he asks, loudly.

“Hard,” shout several people at once.

“How hard is it to see someone doing something you don’t approve of and forgive them for it and love them anyway?” he shouts.

“Hard!” comes the reply.

“How hard is it to forgive someone who hates your guts and love them anyway?” he calls.

“Hard!” everyone shouts.

He pauses again, and his voice softens.

“How hard is it to be a Christian?” he asks.

They seem to know this one is rhetorical, because no one answers.

We sing another hymn, and there are announcements. Then Jason stands again.

“Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven,” he says. “Thank you all for coming.”

June 11

On Being a Writer and Becoming a Dad

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My son, Samuel, was born May 29, 2014.  I was 54 years old and, until then, childless.  I have a ten-year-old stepson who came into my life when he was six, and whom I love as my own.  But having a baby, and now a toddler, is a whole new world.

My wife lost a baby two years before, so the first sound of Sam’s heartbeat during the ultrasound was thrilling.  Then I got to see him born, and watch him take his first breath.  His head was smaller than the palm of my hand!

He’s a year old now.  He’s starting to make words like Mama, Dada, and Tiger.  He can stand while holding on to something, and has stood without support for a few seconds at a time.  I have no doubt he’ll be walking soon.  But he’s still at the “everything goes in the mouth” stage.  One day, he tried to eat the TV remote and shocked his mouth.  Another day, he chewed the label off a water bottle and choked on it.  He is fascinated with electrical cords, cell phones, computers, and anything electronic.  This demands constant supervision.  And he wants more attention now.  He’s less satisfied playing by himself.

I love my son.  But fifty-odd years of being childless has made me selfish and set in my ways.  I want to do what I want to do, when I want to do it.  When I’m inspired to write, I want to write.

Having a child has been a huge adjustment.  I can no longer write while I watch him.  Which means that sometimes when I am inspired, I can’t write down my thoughts.  And often, when I have the time to write, I find myself with nothing to say.

Sometimes I wonder how people with children keep their jobs.  But mine is a unique situation.  I work at home, so I’m always available but never quite off duty.

I’m told that these things work out over time.  I hope so, because my writing has continued to improve, and I look forward to finishing the projects I’m working on.  But during this period of adjustment, I still wouldn’t give up my son for anything!