Friday, February 24, 2017

The Kindness of Strangers

As my upcoming novel gets closer and closer to publication, I find myself realizing something that's more than a little intimidating.

I've done a whole bunch of self-publishing, writing books for a small circle of people that know me, dumping them out into the shouting noise of the world.  I have this little blog that is, again, mostly read by friends and acquaintances.  I share what I'm doing, regularly, but I'm lousy at the relentless self-promotion that is necessary to succeed in the self-publishing business.  I'm too introverted, too aware of my own motives when I'm pitching something, too willing to subvert my own efforts.

There are people who have that skill, who have by some miraculous combination of luck and fortitude succeeded at self-publishing.  They are rare.  I am not one of those people, and that's OK.  I'd come to terms with my limitations.  They felt...manageable.  Within the boundaries of my control.

As I'm discovering, publishing with a traditional publisher will be different.  It has to be, because they need to stay in business.  To succeed in that milieu, my novel needs to have a reach that is significantly beyond my capacity.   Meaning, not selling in the hundreds of copies, which is pretty much what all my other efforts have managed.  Not selling in the low thousands of copies, which would be a factor of ten higher.  But selling twenty to thirty thousand copies, at a bare minimum threshold of success.

This is a fearsome thing.  Because, sure, I could relentlessly pitch myself, going full on monomanaical with my novel.  Hey!  I have a book!  Hey!  Buy it!  Hey!  Hey!

It wouldn't make a difference.

To get to both profitability and a modicum of success, it would require every person I know on social media to buy a copy, and then every single one of their friends on social media to buy a copy.  And then some.  I am not delusional enough to believe that's probable.

Success will not happen by my efforts.  It is outside of my capacity, in the same way that building my own rocket from scratch and attempting a journey to Trappist-1 would be beyond my own capacity.  It might make for an entertaining blooper reel, although that fiery explosion at launch probably would take the fun out of it.  I would not succeed.

The book will need the gifts and blessings of countless people...most still strangers to me...if it is going to fly.   It has needed the inputs of beta readers and gifted, insightful editors and sharp eyed copy editors.  It will need experienced marketers, thoughtful, literate salespeople and enthusiastic store owners.  It needs reviewers and bloggers and readers willing to share it with friends.

Countless strangers, a crowd of faces I do not know.

That requires trust, such a hard thing to muster in this jaded, cynical age.  But trust is the sister of faith, and faith?  Well.  I suppose I do know how to do that.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Laughing at the Stupid People

A memory resurfaced this morning, an old one, like a dream rising from the haze of my past.  It's an imperfect memory, stuttering and pixelated.  It's so old I'm not even sure it wasn't a dream.

It was decades ago, and I was a young man, as young as my own sons are now.

It was the Fourth of July.  I was in Utah, sitting out in a park in Salt Lake City as twilight fell.  I had just recovered from strep, and was sitting with my girlfriend and her family, waiting for the cool night to be filled with thunder and fire.

Around me, America, in the earnest way that Utah was and is American.  Families picnicking, children running and playing...really rather a whole lot of children, now that I think about it.   It felt wholesome, perfect, just so.

But then there was that one family, a family settling in near us.  A mom, bony and angular and clumsy of feature.  A group of boys, equally clumsy.  All awkwardly dressed, their clothes mismatched.  Their hair, poorly cut, clearly done at home by someone without the skill or inclination to do it well.

They'd brought their own fireworks, bottle rockets of an array of sizes.  Though the gentle slope was crowded with other families, they were clearly going to set them off.    It was the wrong place, and the wrong thing to be doing, a reality that was self-evident to everyone else there.  But not to them.   There was murmuring.  There were disapproving glares, a word or two of questioning and rebuke.

The boys did not notice, oblivious to the disapproval, eager about their project.  The mother noticed, snarling back, profane and defiant.  No-one was going to tell them what to do.   The grumbling around them deepened.

The boys set the rockets into the ground, pointing the rockets skyward, the sticks sunk into the dirt.  Deep in the dirt.   Which is not how you launch a bottle rocket.  You need a bottle.  Or a pipe.  That is where the stick goes, before it provides flight stability.  Because if you root that rocket's stick into the earth, it will not fly.

It will explode, right there next to you, the thrust blackening earth as it strains screaming and helpless against the anchor you have created.

Which is what happened with the first attempt with their smallest rocket.  Then again, with the second, the lesson unlearned.  And then a third time, with their largest rocket, which detonated with such force that it panicked that sad, broken, angry family.

Around them rose laughter, the laughter of the gathered righteous at the harm these stupid people had inflicted on themselves.  Laughing at their ignorance, at their incompetence, at their thoughtless, foolish plans for the most American of American holidays, so blind to those around them, so selfish.

I remember it.  I also remember not laughing.

Because there was nothing whatsoever funny about it.   It just felt irredeemably sad.

Strange, how memories rise, unbidden.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Donald and Melania: An American Love Story for the Ages

Dear K-

This is that book project I was telling you about, the one that just fell in my lap. So here's the pitch:

No-one who sees them together can miss it.  Of all of the lovers in the history of human love, Donald and Melania are unique.  Their love, a verdant field of spring flowers in bloom. Their love, as warm and radiant as the summer sky.   Their love, the glory of the woods in autumn, the soft silence of a winter snowfall. Their love, so perfect the angels weep for joy in heaven.  

To see them together makes the knees buckle at the sheer intensity of their passion, of the unfathomable depth of their caring, two souls, intertwined as one, destined for one another from the dawn of time.

Romeo and Juliet?  Wesley and Buttercup?  Gomez and Morticia? Hah. They are but flickering, faint, battery-powered tea candles against the glorious golden sun of Donald and Melania's love.

What mother does not hold her infant son in her arms and whisper, one day, my child, I want you to be loved as Donald is loved? What father does not see his daughter blossoming into her womanhood and not say, oh, my child, one day you shall find your Donald?

How could such a perfect thing be, America asks, as we together swoon at the sight of their touch?  How could their divine paragon of storybook romantic bliss have ever taken shape in a cruel and heartless world?

There's a cover story, of course.  We've all heard it.  But I now know the true-truth, the real-truth, the secret story of their love that Kellyann Conway may or may not have whispered to me as she mistakenly drunk-skyped me at two-thirty in the morning last Thursday.  This happens all the time in DC lately.

I found it hard to believe, at first, but it was Kellyann, so I know it must be true.

There's a runaway bestseller in this, I'm sure of it, and if we can get to market with it quick, it'll blow the doors off the Valentine's Day book-gift market next year.

I've enclosed the standard format book proposal. We'll talk soon!



Donald and Melania: An American Love Story for the Ages

1) Summary:
It begins, of course, with a gypsy curse.

The year is 1945. Fred, a wealthy New York real estate developer, is tearing down a tenement in Queens to make room for new apartments.    As he evicts the tenants, one of old gypsy woman...hisses these words at him as she is dragged away:  "Till he ze hand of True Love Takes, He vill... sometink... sometink....makes.  Ach, the hell with rhyming!  He vill haff TINY Hands!  Tiny Haaaaaaands!"

Those words haunt his nightmares, nightmares that come true when his otherwise perfect firstborn son Donald is born with impossibly small hands.   GI Joe Action figure hands, and not them man-doll 70's action figures, neither. Little plastic mini-figure hands. Tiny, tiny, preemie-baby-lemur hands.

The best surgeons can do nothing.  Though Fred spares no expense to provide his beloved son with atomic-age clockwork prosthetics, he knows the curse can only be overcome by true love's hand in marriage.

Fred tells his son the truth of the curse on his deathbed. Suddenly aware of the truth, Donald begins a lifelong quest to find true love. Donald--now a charming, debonair man of international adventure with perfect hair--travels the globe with his nuclear steampunk cyborg hands,  driven always by his father's dying wish to reverse the curse.

Donald samples all the women the world has to offer, countless women, very very beautiful, all of course completely willing and entirely receptive to his advances. But none of them, not one, are his true love. It's a mighty struggle, just as hard as fighting a ground war in Southeast Asia, but he forges on, a man possessed.

He marries, sure it is love, then marries again, but to no avail. Decades of earnestly seeking, yet the curse remains. Then, just when all hope seems lost, true love! But there are sinister forces at work, dark powers seeking to stop Donald from gaining the big love hands that could one day unite America...nay, the love.

Donald and Melania is the very, very true and entirely factual story of this magical journey, a trail of hope, romance, and high adventure that leads to a love for the ages, a beacon for lovers everywhere.

2) Chapter Outline:

Chapter 1) Daddy and the Gypsy Curse

Chapter 2)  The Boy with Tiny Hands.  So Sad!

Chapter 3)  Robot Hands for Christmas.  The Best!

Chapter 4)  Donald Makes His Fortune With No Help.

Chapter 5)  Daddy's Deathbed: The Curse Explained!

Chapter 6)  "But I Must Grab You There!  It May Lift My Curse!": The Wharton Years

Chapter 7)  Is it Ivana? The Hands? Unchanged!  True love? NOPE!

Chapter 8) That Little Girl By the Side of the Road?  She can't be more than SEVEN!  But those EYES!  Could it be HER!?  IMPOSSIBLE!

Chapter 9)  Is it Marla?  Still Not Right.  Not true love? UNACCEPTABLE!

Chapter 10)   The Quest Continues: Perhaps She Is One of These Slovenian Strippers!

Chapter 11)  The Little Girl!  NOW ALL GROWN UP!  MELANIA!  Love? TRUE LOVE!

Chapter 12)  The Wedding Planned!  ALMOST THERE!


Chapter 14)  Melania: Prisoner of Belgian Vampire EU Bureaucrats?  Bad Dudes!  ONLY HE CAN SAVE HER!

Chapter 15) Donald and Bannon Put a Team Together.  THE BEST!

Chapter 16)  Melania Rescued!  Hero!

Chapter 17) True Love!  Marriage! The Curse Lifted!  Hands, now the Biggest!  So Big!

3) Author Biographical Information

The author is an American who loves America.  He loves a great America, an America where flags fly and the air is rich with the smell of fresh baked apple pie.  He loves an America where big rear-drive cars with V8 engines ply perfect, empty roads that wind through purple mountain majesties.  He loves an America where the rumble of his Harley Davidson Twin Cam 88 Dyna Glide throbs as he rides through the cool desert night in the moonlight, his fine lady pressed warm against his back.

He loves an America filled with big bright dreams and city-light striving.  He loves an America filled with fresh faced country girls smiling from the beds of pickup trucks, as their strapping boyfriends hold the wheel in their calloused, honest hands.  He loves an America that stands tall and proud, an America that reaches up with her big hands and touches the stars.

A full resume is available upon request.

4) Platform/Marketing

What, are you kidding me?  All of America is crying out for this book.   Totally sells itself.  Every American, everywhere, will buy it.   Because we're all about love.  True love!  It's what has always made America great!

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Leaked Text of Bannon Executive Loyalty Order

The White House
Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release


- - - - - - -
     By the authority vested in me as President of the United States by the Constitution and the laws of the United States of America, including section 301 of title 3, United States Code, and sections 3301 and 7301 of title 5, United States Code, it is hereby ordered as follows:
 Section 1.  Loyalty Pledge.  Every employee in every executive agency hired on or after January 20, 2017, shall sign, and upon signing shall be contractually committed to, the following pledge upon becoming an employee:
     "As a condition, and in consideration, of my employment in the United States Government in an executive branch position invested with the public trust, I commit myself to the following obligations, which I understand are binding on me and are enforceable under law:
 "1.  I will not, within 5 years after the termination of my employment in any executive agency in which I am chosen to serve, engage in political activity that acts counter to the stated policies and implicit purposes of the executive branch under which I served.
"2.  If, upon my departure from the Government, I am covered by the post-employment restrictions on communicating with employees of my former executive agency set forth in section 207(c) of title 18, United States Code, I agree that I will abide by those restrictions.
Section 2.  Executive Chain of Command Protocol Revision.  Effective ten business days from the signing of this order, the White House Office of Personnel will lorem ipsum blah dee blah dippity doo OK I stopped reading midway through the second paragraph because I don't have the patience to actually look at anything Steve Bannon puts in front of me, no matter how late Steve Bannon stays up working on it and how much real effort Steve Bannon puts in.  Which is why I'm signing my name to the following:
"1.  I hereby resign from the Presidency of the United States of America, effective immediately.  All executive powers for the period of the transition are hereby bequeathed to Steve Bannon.  The period of the aforementioned transition will be no less than twenty (20) years, or the lifetime of Steve Bannon, whichever comes last.
"2.  I hereby formally and forever declare that my hands are in the bottom decile of human manual physiology, being more like the hands of a pygmy marmoset somehow grafted onto the arms of a homo sapiens sapiens.  All public renderings (paintings/sculptures/pinatas) depicting my brief and misbegotten presidency must integrate this hideous deformity into my likeness.
"3.  I declare that my hair is a violation of the natural order of the universe, unlike Steve Bannon's elegantly graying, abundant, and remarkably impressive coiff, a glorious sweep of alpha male dignity which represents the kind of hair you find on the healthy scalps of real men who don't have something desperately wrong with their psyche.
"4.  I hereby formally direct my daughter Tiffany to go on at least ten (10) dates with Steve Bannon, who has the best hair in America, and who has noted repeatedly in my presence that she is by far the most attractive and "exotic" of my daughters.  Plus, she must dye her hair black and wear a Jasmine costume from Aladdin, so that she'll perfectly match the Jafar outfit Steve Bannon has started wearing to NSC meetings.
"5. It is formally decreed that Jafar is, in point of fact, the best of all Disney characters, hardly a villain at all.  Despite a terrible and misleading script, he's clearly the hero of "Aladdin."  Clearly.  He is strikingly handsome, cunning, and powerful, and really does have the security interests of Agrabah at heart.  In point of fact, he most resembles a young Steve Bannon, or Steve Bannon the way Steve Bannon still sees Steve Bannon in the mirror in the morning.  
"6. The Disney Corporation is hereby ordered to remake the motion picture Aladdin, and to entitle it: "Jafar: a Grand Vizier for the Ages."  It will be R-rated, mostly for the scenes between Jafar and Jasmine, who must be drawn to bear a remarkable resemblance to my daughter Tiffany Trump.
"6.  As I always skim every document and stop at section three and go, hmmm, interesting, as I pretend that I've read it, every single freakin' time at section three like Steve Bannon doesn't notice and struggle not to roll his eyes, here we go:
"Section 3. Waiver.  (a)  The President or his designee may grant to any person a waiver of any restrictions contained in the pledge signed by such person.
     (b)  A waiver shall take effect when the certification is signed by the President or his ok I've gotten bored and started watching Hannity again.
Section 4.  National Bannon/Jafar Day.  It is hereby decreed that President's Day is to be renamed "Bannon/Jafar Day."
(a) Bannon/Jafar Parade.  On every Bannon/Jafar Day, the nation will celebrate Bannon/Jafar day with a great parade through the nation's capital.  At least one hundred (100) elephants will be provided, upon the largest of which Steve Bannon shall ride dressed as the great Jafar with Tiffany Trump (as Jasmine, in the aforementioned costume) on his lap.
(b)  My Bannon/Jafar Day Costume.  On every Bannon/Jafar Day, I, former president Donald J. Trump, must by the provision of this executive order be dressed as Iago, Jafar's obnoxious parrot.  I must follow behind the elephants cleaning up, all the while grumbling and saying things like, "Bigly!  Bigly! AAAACK," like I'm just a parrot and I don't really actually know how to talk, even though I do.  Barely.
(c) Alright, we're getting near the end and I always make a very public show of reading the last bit, not that I have a clue what any of it means, so:
     Section 5.  General Provisions.  (a)  To the extent that this order is inconsistent with any provision of any prior Executive Order, this order shall control.
     (b)  If any provision of this order or the application of such provision is held to be invalid, the remainder of this order and other dissimilar applications of such provision shall not be affected.
     (c)  This order is not intended to, and does not, create any right or benefit, substantive or procedural, enforceable at law or in equity by any party (other than by the United States) against the United States, its departments, agencies, or entities, its officers, employees, or agents, or any other person.
     (d)  The definitions set forth in this order are solely applicable to the terms of this order, and are not otherwise intended to impair or affect existing law.
     (e)  Nothing in this order shall be construed to impair or otherwise affect:
(1)  the authority granted by law to an executive department, agency, or the head thereof; or
(2)  the functions of the Director of the Office of Management and Budget relating to budgetary, administrative, or legislative proposals.
     (f)  This order shall be implemented consistent with applicable law and subject to the availability of appropriations.

Monday, February 6, 2017

A Theology of Walls

There are walls in the Bible.

The first and most familiar?  The walls around Jericho.  Those walls served a particular purpose: safety and security.  And they stood, as the story goes, to keep out a foreign rabble, a mass of humanity fleeing slavery and oppression on their way to a land where they could settle.

The choice of the residents of Jericho was not to show welcome, to shut their doors against this strange motley army of aliens that came through their land.  On many levels, this is an understandable response.   Here, a people who were taking the resources of every land they passed through.  There were so many that they posed a threat, both to the culture and to the economic structures of the region.  It was not just a migration, not just a flight, but an invasion of an host that took what it needed by force when hospitality was not offered.  Which, more often than not, it wasn't.

So hiding behind a wall certainly makes sense, seen from the perspective of Jericho.

But those walls came tumbling down, as the story goes.  Those trumpets must have been played by Fred Wesley.  So much funk, even them walls gonna dance.

Even so, this isn't my favorite story.  Whenever a biblical tale ends with a holy-war massacre of women and children, I cringe more than a little bit.  Because, well, Jesus.

The best-case-scenario issue here, as it is in so much of the Biblical narrative, is to see it through the lenses of hospitality.  Closing doors to the journeying stranger in need is a violation of the fundamental ethos of every Semitic culture, and by extension, a violation of the will of the God of Israel.

Walls appear again in the narratives of Ezra and Nehemiah, the scribe and governor charged with rebuilding Jerusalem with the blessings and resources of Cyrus of Persia.  Jerusalem's walls would permit the Jewish people to regain their integrity as a nation-state.  The walls, a new bulwark against invasion, and a mark of the renewed strength and pride of Judah.  Both Ezra and Nehemiah saw the rebuilding project as part of the divine work, the will of YHWH in re-establishing the boundaries of a shattered people.

Here, it's primarily presented as a theology of reconstruction and collective identity formation.

But there's a twist.  A theological minority report, woven up into Scripture.  Because physical rebuilding was not the only item on Ezra and Nehemiah's agenda.  They were also obsessed with racial purity, on re-establishing the blood-integrity of the Hebrew people.

So in addition to the physical walls, Ezra and Nehemiah instituted a policy of driving out the foreigner, casting out the wives and children whose heritage was mixed or impure, colored by the "lesser" peoples of ancient Palestine.  They were straight out racist.

And the Bible resists that part of their story.  That resistance comes from the book of the Prophet Isaiah, which makes a fiery case for the inclusion of the foreigner and the alien.  The foreigner who honors the laws and God of the land must be welcomed, saith the Lord through Isaiah.  It comes from the Book of Ruth, which came into its final written form after the exile, reminding the people that their greatest king had Moabite blood.

Those walls cast up to keep the Other out, says my sacred Book of Books, do not come without peril to the souls of those that build them.

Seems worth keeping in mind.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

The Johnson Amendment and Religious Liberty

The video above is worth watching, particularly in our current context.  It was produced, distributed, and played in conservative evangelical churches all around the country on the Sunday before the election.  Mike Pence, governor and vice-presidential candidate, right there up on the sanctuary screen, talking about how good Christians should feel called to vote for Donald Trump.  Why? Because he's 1) pro-life and 2) going to press for the repeal of the Johnson Amendment, which forbids congregations from endorsing candidates or parties.

Of course, the video itself seems a pretty flagrant violation of said rule.  I mean, "Mike Pence and Donald Trump: Men of God?"   Pence, I can see. He's right out of central casting.  But Donald?  Lord have mercy.  Were there alternatives?  Did, after showing this, those pastor show their congregations "Bernie Sanders: The Lord Descends from Heaven As a Sparrow" and "Gary Johnson: Jesus Totally Gets High With Him?"  I think not.

Out of curiosity, I went to my sermon blog and ran a search.  When, I wondered, was the last time I mentioned Donald from the pulpit?

It was in October of 2015, back when he was a joke candidate, out on the periphery of the national consciousness, just the reality-television absurdly-coiffed conspiracist buffoon who capered and leered and entertained us with his offensiveness.   Before that, I'd used his name twice, both times in the context of talking about someone being "fired."

Since things got...weird, I've committed to making no explicit mention of him from the pulpit.  Lord have mercy, the Drama Queen In Chief takes up too much of our bandwidth as it is.

Again out of curiosity, I did a second search.  In the last eight years, I mentioned Barack Obama twice.  Once, in the context of directing the congregation to the Epic Rap Battle Youtube video between Romney and Obama, a rap battle won most notably by Abraham Lincoln and a giant American eagle...and which was watched millions of times more than the actual debate between the two candidates.   The second time, in the context of calling out both Democrats and Republicans for the pernicious influence of money in politics.  

It is, of course, technically against the law for a pastor to endorse a candidate or political party from the pulpit.  If you want to be a 501(c)3, and exempt from taxation, you can preach on social issues all you want.  You can be pro-life or pro-choice.  You can preach in favor of sane gun safety or hand out Smith and Wesson M&P 15 Sport II tactical carbines to every new member.  You can do these things, and still be nonprofit.  

But you cannot endorse or explicitly support a candidate or party and hold on to your nonprofit status.  Well, that's how it's supposed to work.

The argument for this, from the position of the Constitution, is that formally favoring churches with both exemption and the ability to preach partisan politics is a violation of the Establishment clause of the First Amendment.  From that slippery slope, it becomes easier and easier for congregations to become just another arm of the party in power.

But the argument for this from the position of the church is stronger.

Whenever the Gospel becomes the servant of a particular political perspective, it is betrayed.   Whenever a church chooses to be explicitly in the camp of one party or another, the Gospel is no longer served.  When the state has the power to co-opt my denomination's Barmen Declaration so pointedly notes...that faith has become corrupted.

Even if our administration and Congress delivers this spiritual Trojan horse to America's churches, I have no intention of changing what I am currently doing.  My religious liberty and the integrity of the Word matters too much to me.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

When the Friends Fall Away

One of the clearest signs you are in an abusive relationship: your friends fall away.

The one who seeks control does not want you to have any friends, no natural connections with anyone other than the relationships they control.  Oh, you can see their friends when they come over.  Sure.  But your own relationships?  Never.  Those lie beyond their power, and nothing beyond their power is permitted.

And so from day one of an abusive relationship, the abuser starts cutting away your friends and family.  They criticize them.  They create drama with them, going out of their way to be offensive, forcing you to choose between them and everyone else.  They convince you that those friends actually despise you, that the family members who express concern are really just trying to control you.

One by one, those friends fall away.  Or you think they do.  The odds are they still care, but you have more and more trouble perceiving it as you fall deeper into the abuser's dark spell.

The goal of the abuser:  destroy your sense of your best self, and gradually narrow your world until the only thing you can see is them.  The doors close.  You don't go out any more.  You don't see anyone any more.  You only see what you are allowed to see.  You stay safe and secure in the dark sanctuary of their control.

The abuser does this with an admixture of charm and fear.  They're the one who gets you.  They're the only one who knows all the answers.  The world is frightening, and you are weak and ignorant, and you need them to protect you.  They say this with absolute confidence, and it's hard to look away.

They seem so strong.  And the weaker you feel, the stronger they become.

This, for anyone who counsels, is what abuse looks like.  It is what we are taught to look for.

And what is true for individual souls?  It is, our world's dark history teaches, just as true for the soul of a nation.