There are thousands of “murder mystery” books out there, and a thousand more examples of message fiction. The true test of a good author is one who can craft a good story in a celebrated genre with a thoughtful message that doesn’t come across as, well, preachy.
Ironically, Jamie Greening does just that with his latest Pastor Butch Gregory novel, How Great is the Darkness. Combining the fast-paced thrills and light-hearted, banter reminiscent of some of Jim Butcher’s best work with moments of adroit, theological and philosophical depth that make you take pause and think not only of the state of the world but also the state of your heart, Greening’s story and characters are the literary progeny of some of the greatest Christian storytellers in the last half century.
If you’re looking for a book you can literally not put down, both for the story and the meaning BEHIND the story, look no further than How Great is the Darkness. It won’t disappoint.
Here’s my semifinals speech from the Toastmasters International Speech Contest in DC back in August. Feels like a lifetime ago.
The problem with a two-party system (or even a 10-party system) is you have to make choices. Candidate A might say he wants to put an end to the death penalty and institute a complicated economic policy that is DAMN NEAR GUARANTEED to give everybody a million dollars. But he/she also hates people from Kansas and says he plans to nuke the state once elected. Candidate B wants to give away free cars to everyone in the electorate, but in order to do that you have to give all your money to the government, and 1/5 of all people in the United States will be sent to work camps three months out of the year.
If you vote for Candidate A, you will be called a Kansas-hater and all your friends will say the blood of the midwest is on your hands. If you vote for Candidate B, everyone will say you support the next, great American concentration camps. You will also be compared to Hitler at every turn. People will photoshop mustaches on your facebook photos. It will not be pretty.
Those are your choices. Pick one.
Sure, there are some third party candidates (and there is always the option of voting for baseball players like that one idiot you know), but the sad reality is either the Kansas-masher or the New Hitler will be your next President no matter what you do. You can choose the lesser of two evils or throw your vote away on a third party.
What do you do?
You think back to past elections, like the one in 2000 where Candidate Q promised to give everyone free healthcare but we had to change our middle name to “Feldspar.” Also, people named Bob had to break their pinky fingers over and over on months with more than four Fridays in them. He won. And what’s the world like today? Nobody is named Feldspar, and only a few people followed through on the pinky breaking thing. Everyone wonders whether they were stupid for doing that (hint: they were).
Then there was the candidate in 2004 who promised to really take the fight to the BadEvilDoers from OverThere-i-Stan, who everyone was afraid of for some damn reason. All he required was the right to run a porn website out of the White House and a cadre of people with red hair who followed him around all day telling him how awesome they thought he was. People didn’t like him all that much for that. Well … some people did, but those people are weird. Anyway, he fought the BadEvilDoers for a while, then gave up and focused on Education, which was nicer than the porn website, which never really took off in the end. And thank God for that!
So you realize that every time there has been a presidential election in this country, all the major candidates are painted as THE WORST THING SINCE SLICED BREAD by the opposition and the media and people with blogs and bad youtube channels. And yeah, this time around, Candidate A says he likes to grab women by their genitals and that he wants to deport people who worship the wrong God. And sure, some people say Candidate B sold our national secrets to our enemies and ruined the lives of those people who accused her husband of sexual assault when HE was in the White House, but are these things REALLY true? All the BadThings from past presidential cycles turned out to be not as bad as we might have thought. And, gosh, it sure would be nice to have that million dollars Candidate A keeps talking about. He probably won’t bomb Kansas, right? Who would do that? That’s crazy! If he does, maybe he’ll let people leave first BEFORE he bombs it. Why would anyone want to live in Kansas anyway? It’s so … flat!
Granted, both LOOK bad, and the supporters on both sides are RABID in their hatred of you for having made your choice, even though you REALLY don’t want to bomb Kasnas OR open up concentration camps so people can get a car. Nobody wants that. Not really. But that’s what everyone SAYS everyone else wants.
Because people are crazy in election seasons. Stark raving mad. Completely insane. Like that guy who votes for baseball players. Only with malicious intent.
So you walk into the voting booth and you vote for someone despite their many failings and hope for the best. Maybe it will be like last time. Maybe those BadThings won’t really happen. And, if they do, you plan to stand up to THE MAN even Your Candidate wins. Because you have some friends that live in Kansas. And you don’t like the idea of work camps. You vote for one of the two Candidates and you promise to work with the people on the other side as best you can. It would be nice if there was a Candidate out there who was AllGood and a Candidate who was Allbad. But, like Ben Stiller said in that one movie your college roommate kept watching all the time instead of working (or paying bills), “There aren’t any good guys. There aren’t any bad guys. It’s just a bunch of guys.” It would be nice if you could ignore the failings of one in support of the other. But you can’t. In the real world, you have to choose some things. People don’t always understand WHY you choose as you do, and they might call you names for having done it. But you still have to do it. Because this is real life and real living means making hard choices. Plus, you’d have to be an idiot to vote for a baseball player instead. Right?
Choosing things is hard. Life is hard. Sometimes these things just suck. The important thing to remember is that just because THINGS suck and CHOICES suck, it doesn’t mean YOU suck. And it doesn’t mean your friends suck, either. They did the best they could. God forgive us. We all did.
Except for that one guy who votes for baseball players. Man, that guy is an idiot.
I’m a big fan of optimism. But optimism can only take you so far. Sometimes, what you need is a big dose of reality to get you where you need to go.
That’s what I think is in store for my favorite baseball team, the Cincinnati Reds. There have been some fun stories this year, and the last five or six seasons have been a fun ride, but Reality is here to let us know that some of our most cherished ideas and beliefs about this team and the players who comprise it are on their way out.
Read my article on Redlegnation.
I loved winter when I was a kid. I hate it now because I’m old and one of the signs you’re getting old is when cold weather turns you into a troll, but I loved winter when I was a kid. It meant hot chocolate, late night movies on the weekends (eating buckets of popcorn, warming our feet under the radiator next to the tv in the living room), snow days off school, and sledding down the many hills in our neighborhood. I grew up in Greenhills, a suburb of Cincinnati, and you KNOW we did a lot of sledding because we had the word “hills” right there in the name.
The best place to go sledding in Greenhills was behind the high school. There was a monstrous hill just behind the library that went down for what seemed like a few stories, flattened out across the soccer field, and dropped off into the woods on the other side. All the kids showed up there at the first hint of snow, waiting for just enough coverage to make it down without pulling up clumps of sod and rolling.
By mid-January the hill had a nice, protective armor of ice and snow, shined to a perfect smoothness by the relentless barrage of the neighborhood kids and their many trips down. The goal was to attack the hill with enough speed to send you flying across the soccer field and off the edge of the field, into the woods. We had no idea what would happen if we actually accomplished this, but everyone there knew it would be “totally cool” if we did.
One year, we got a huge snowstorm, one of those blizzards that dumps several feet worth of snow in just a few hours. Everyone in the neighborhood gathered at the high school the following morning to take advantage of this gift. Rather that slide down the hill like normal, we brought shovels and, instead, spent three days building a snow track with high edges leading straight down the hill and across the field. It was like a rudimentary luge ramp, only perfectly straight and made entirely out of snow. With this, we said, we couldn’t accidentally dart sideways. With this, we said, we can make it all the way to the woods.
Once we had it built, Matt Kemper from Cromwell road got the bright idea to smooth it out with our sleds and douse the whole course with water just before nightfall.
The next morning, Adam Hester, a tall third grader from Damon Road, stood atop the hill, waiting for the right moment. He set his bright orange sled at the top of the ramp, stood back about ten yards, and took a running start. He leapt through the air and hit the sled, which took off like a bullet, leaving a cloud of slow and ice in his wake. It was like watching the Roadrunner speeding away from Wile E. Coyote. The only difference was this was real life, and a few short seconds into Adam’s trip, we all knew this would end badly.
He flew across the soccer field, hurtling toward the edge of the field leading to the drop-offs into the woods and he never slowed down. “It was the water that did the trick,” Matt Kemper said later, with a mixture of pride and horror. “I thought of that.”
Adam hit the drop-off at full speed, rose into the air a few feet like the General Lee in the Dukes of Hazzard, then dropped into the woods and out of sight. We heard a few crashes, then a brief silence, and then a loud wail that signified Adam had landed somewhere below, likely in an uncomfortable position.
It took us a good hour to get Adam back up the hill. Several kids had gone to get his parents by then and an ambulance had arrived to take him to the hospital. Adam’s parents gave us stern looks and admonishments to “be more careful” and lectures that we should “act like men, not boys” and promises that they would “call all your parents just as soon as we get home.”
Then they got in their car, leaving the rest of us in silence to ponder what we had done. In the coming weeks, we would learn that Adam had broken an arm, his leg, his collarbone, and two bones in his left foot. He had suffered a concussion and a laceration across his back so deep they wondered about the kind of scar it would leave. He was on crutches for several months and was unable to play baseball the following spring. Later, we would learn an important lesson about the need to plan carefully and always pay attention to the dangers that lay waiting for us just over the next ridge.
But all of that was later. That day, standing in the snow by ourselves, we did the only thing you can expect of young boys with a pile of snow, an abundance of time, and several new sleds.
We said, “That was cool. I’m next!”
Back when I was a younger man (with hair … and the mistaken belief that I knew everything … and did I mention the hair?), New Year’s Eve was my favorite holiday. Christmas was mostly fun, and it certainly ranked. The Fourth of July was also fun but too hot for my taste. Halloween and St. Patrick’s Day were basically the same thing as New Year’s Eve: an excuse to dress like an idiot and drink enough to justify the bad decisions I already planned to make.
You might think they’d blend together, but New Year’s Eve was different. It had the big countdown and the dropping ball in Times Square. Plus, if there was enough mistletoe leftover from Christmas, there was always the chance I might get to kiss someone at midnight, provided they were like me and had consumed enough alcohol to justify bad decision making (this was well before I was married. And the person I was always trying to kiss is now my wife, proving once and for all that persistence trumps good looks and personal accomplishments nine out of ten times).
We don’t go out on New Year’s Eve anymore. It’s hard to do when you have kids (and the “it’s hard to do when you have kids” line works well when your friends ask why you’re staying in and you don’t feel like saying you’ve grown fond of a 10:00 bed time and anything more than a glass or two of wine gives you a nasty headache the following morning). This year, we had a couple friends over to play board games. We stayed up to watch the ball drop and comment about the strangeness of “Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve” now that Dick Clark has passed away.
As the clock on the screen counted down to zero, I got to thinking about time and how much things changed in 2012. Time moves almost imperceptibly, so slow we don’t often notice. The face you see in the mirror might look the same to you every morning, but go back to photos from five, ten, or twenty years and that face might look different.
“I used to think parachute pants were cool?” you might say, laughing at yourself.
Or maybe … “I was still in high school back then. I was so close with everyone in that picture, but now I can’t even remember their names.”
Or maybe even … “That was before the divorce. Back when mom was still alive, and we lived in that house on the cul-de-sac with the big tree in the backyard, and my kids still smiled a lot and laughed at all my jokes.”
Time moves so slow we don’t often notice. But it still moves. And when it finally piles up on you – in pictures, in videos, in moments next to the television wondering what happened to Dick Clark – it can make you laugh, it can warm your heart, it can shock you, and it can even make you cry. Time is an old, bald cheater in the Game of Life, as Ben Johnson once said, and he does his best work when we’re not looking.
But not at New Year’s. Time can’t touch us then.
There’s an abundance of hope at New Year’s. That’s what I like about it. It’s infectious. All the mistakes you made last year are wiped clean. You get a do-over, a new slate full of hope for what’s to come; a kind of semi-Jubilee. I think we could use more of that in our lives. Stuff piles up from time to time and it’s nice to set it down occasionally, and walk away. If we could occasionally wipe the slate clean for ourselves and each other, we might be a bit better off. I’m an optimistic person, more or less, so I like that.
Here’s hoping 2012 treated you well. And, if it didn’t, here’s hoping 2013 is better. Here’s hoping you got your Jubilee or at least a chance to change your perspective and find something great for yourself, your friends, your family and everyone in your life.
I’m going under the knife. Again.
This will be the third surgery in less than 18 months. The first was in July ‘11 for a digestive issue that had been bothering me for several years. Result: all cleared up! The second was after I fell down the steps in January. Results: still limping but at least I can walk (kinda).
This time, I’m excited about the surgery. In a little less than three weeks, I’ll be the recipient of some dead guy’s cornea. Due to a degenerative corneal disease, I’ve been legally blind in my left eye for three years, and mostly blind in my left eye since Bill Clinton was president.
I started noticing something was wrong way back in high school when those 3-D posters started popping up everywhere. They looked like bad Jackson Pollock paintings and I’d think “What the heck is that?” My friends thought they were cool. “That’s neat!” they’d say. “Look at that dinghy!”
It took me a while to realize they were serious and not just making suggestive jokes at my expense.
After a while, I noticed something was wrong. I’d go for walks in the park close to my college apartment and, when I looked at the leaves, I could see a distinct difference between camera 1 (left eye) and camera 2 (right eye). Driving at night became increasingly difficult, and I never quite got the hang of first-person-shooter video games because people were always jumping out of dark corners to shoot me in the back of the head.
I hate it when that happens.
I went to the eye doctor and was quickly diagnosed with Kerataconus. Kerataconus is a degenerative corneal disease in which your cornea this and distends like one of those volcano islands in the pacific. It’s always changing, so your new prescription lasts maybe six months. There was no known cure at the time. My only options were: hope it stops, wait for my eyeball to explode so I could have surgery.
Thus, I dubbed the disease “Exploding Eyeball Syndrome” or EES for short.
I found a really good eye doctor here in Columbus and we managed my increasingly poor eyesight for several years, starting with thick glasses then moving through a series of expensive (but thankfully covered by insurance) custom contacts until about two years ago when the contact in my left eye just wouldn’t stay in. I’ve been “driving home with one headlight” for the last two years now and, while I’m usually okay, I get lots of headaches and the sight in my left eye has regressed to the point where I can only see are the kinds of things that inhabit Tim Burton’s nightmares: kinda scary, but mostly strange and sometimes oddly endearing.
At my most recent visit, The Really Good Eye Doc(tm) told me he couldn’t help me any more, and that I’d probably need surgery. I saw the surgeon earlier this week and I’m scheduled for early November.
Despite the fact that having somebody cut out part of my eyeball with a scalpel and replace it with some dead guy’s cornea sounds about as much fun as having Mike Tyson punch me in the face for an hour, I’m excited. For one … pain meds! For two … I’ll be able to see things again.
Back when my contacts worked, I always looked forward to the day when I got the new set. I’d walk outside and everything looked more Real™. It was weird. It reminded me of the time we first got a big screen television with HD. We’d had this small television set for years and, sure, the picture was kinda blurry, but that’s how it always was so we were used to it. Then we got the new television! We’d flip that baby on and stare in wonder as even commercials for Bob Johnson’s used car lot seem like works of art.
Imagine that, but with everything, not just on t.v.
I’m looking forward to later this year, when I can take the bandages off my eye and look at my wife and my kids, seeing them as they really are, not just the balls of blurriness they’ve become. I can’t tell you how excited I am for that day.
I might also get to see what those 3-D posters were all about, too.
Gravity is a cruel mistress. She tempts. She teases. She torments.
I learned my lesson earlier this year when I was on my way to the basement to do some laundry. I got halfway down the steps, stuck my foot where I thought the next step would be. The only problem was it wasn’t there. I missed, and that’s when Gravity reached out from the depths with her icy hand and pulled me to the ground below. My knee when CRUNCH. I went “AHHH” and I hit the floor hard, like a sack of wet meat.
At the hospital, they said I tore my patella tendon, which is what holds your kneecap in place and let’s you do fun stuff like stand and walk and kick things. I had surgery followed by several months in the torture chamber known as “Physical Therapy” and, even though I’m still limping, I’m finally on the mend
It’s been a long road, and I learned three lessons along the way that have helped me get through. They might help you, too, should you find yourself on the wrong end of Gravity’s good graces.
Lesson #1: There are 256 divets in the ceiling above the couch in my living room. I know. I counted each and every one of them … many…many times.
Everything slows down after an injury. I knew that. But I wasn’t prepared for just how slow things can be. Just getting out of bed was an ordeal. And showering? Lord have mercy! You can’t just get in and get out. You have to find a way to maneuver over the lip of the tub without falling, which is especially difficult when you’re naked and dripping wet.
I’m sorry for the image of me that leaves in your heads, but it had to be done.
There’s a process for everything: getting up the steps, getting into a car, sitting down to eat, using the bathroom. It’s exhausting. Sometimes it’s easier to just lie on the couch and count the divets.
But if you hang in there long enough, eventually it gets better. The crutches go away you think, “Yes! I can do all the things I used to do!”
Which leads us right into lesson #2: You can’t.
You might think you can finally get back to normal life, but you can’t. Not yet, anyway. Here’s what I’m talking about…
I was late for work, and I couldn’t find my keys. My wife had already left, so I was stuck. Then I remembered the bus stop down the street.
“It’s only a half mile,” I thought. “I can walk that, right?”
No. I couldn’t. I got just a few blocks away and I was stumbling along, drenched in sweat, waving at passing cars like it was Mardi Gras in New Orleans and I was on the main float. I got to where I could see the bus stop when I hear a familiar “woop wop” behind me.
Uh oh. The police.
“Was I speeding, officer?”
“We had complaints of a disturbed man wandering down this street,” he says.
“Well I saw this one guy in a speedo running the other way not too long ago and … OH you’re talking about me, aren’t you?”
“Uh huh,” he says with his arms crossed in front of him. “Sir, I’m going to need you to walk this straight line.”
I put my arms out like I’m walking a tightrope and stumble along the imaginary line the police officer drew in front of me.
“You don’t understand,” I tell him. “I fell down the steps, ripped my patella tendon. I had knee surgery so I just LOOK like I’m drunk.”
“Uh huh,” he says, writing something in his notebook. “Sir, please touch your fingers to your nose.”
I alternate hands, touching my nose perfectly.
“I’m only out walking ‘cause I lost my keys,” I tell him. “I have a meeting at work and I’m late, so I was in a hurry.” I lean over to look the police officer in the eye.
“You know how that goes, right officer?” When I lean back, I accidentally hit myself in the face with my own hand. My eyes start to water.
“Uh huh,” he says, opening the door to his car. “Sir. I’m going to need to you to come with me.”
“Wait wait wait! I can prove it! I have a scar on my leg! Look!”
I start to remove my pants and get them halfway to my knees with it finally occurs to me that if I’m trying to convince this man I’m not drunk or mentally distubed, disrobing in public is not the best way to accomplish my goal. I crumble.
“I’m sorry, officer. It’s been a horrible day and I have this meeting and I lost my keys and my knee is killing me …. And … I’m going to jail, aren’t I?”
“Patella tendon, huh? I tore mine last year playing basketball.”
“Oh thank God!” I said. “Not that you hurt your knee… I mean..”
“It’s fine. I’ll give you a ride … And sir?
“ Please keep your pants on.”
Lesson #2: If you think you can… you can’t. Remember that.
Lesson #3: Just like your knees, Pride goeth before a fall
We were building backyard playset for the kids. They delivered the lumber and I was in the process of moving it into the garage nice and slow so I didn’t hurt myself. I was proud of myself for this; too proud, in fact; Which is why, when my wife came out to help, I said something very stupid.
“Look, honey,” I said. “I’m taking it easy so I won’t fall and hurt myself again.”
I hadn’t even got the words out of my mouth before I stepped on an odd patch of grass, fell, and hurt myself again. And that’s how, three months past surgery, instead of cruising into recovery, I found myself right back at lesson #1, lying on the couch, counting divots.
When suddenly I felt a tug on my jeans. It was my six month old. Micaiah. He put both hands on my leg, pulled himself up to a standing position, and grinned.
I wasn’t home when our oldest started walking. I missed his first steps and his first words. But this time I got to see it. This time I was part of the story. And I would have missed it if I hadn’t fallen down the stairs.
The truth is we all slow down. Whether you hurt yourself or just get old, eventually you’ll look at the things you used to do and to say “I can’t. Not anymore.” When this happens, you have a choice. You can rant and rave and say stupid things or you can give up your pride and accept the good things right in front of you.
We all slow down. It’s HOW you slow down that makes the difference. It’s small, sure, but it’s big enough for me and I intend to make the most of it. I hope you do, too.
One last lesson, though. The next time you’re doing laundry, take it from me. Watch where you’re going, okay?
We’re trying to sell our car. I posted it on craigslist (among other places) this morning and quickly received a response. What follows is my correspondance with an online scam artist known as Jordan Evans…
On August 24, 2012 10:15 AM, “Jordan Evans” email@example.com wrote:
Is the car still available?
On August 24, 2012 10:15 AM, “Joe Shaw” wrote:
Yes it is, but I’ve had a lot of people ask about it. Are you interested?
On Aug 24, 2012 11:19 AM, “Jordan Evans” firstname.lastname@example.org wrote:
Thanks for the mail,i am buying this for my son as his gift because i would not be around to celebrate with him i am a petroleum engineer currently on a rig offshore and due to the nature of my work,phone calls making and visiting of website are restricted but i squeezed out time to check this advert and send you an email regarding it. I really want this item to be a surprise gift for my son so i wont let him know anything about the item until it gets delivered to him,i am sure he will be more than happy with the item.I will make the payment through paypal because i don’t have access to my bank account online as i don’t have internet banking, but i can pay from my PayPal account,as i have my bank a/c attached to it, i will need you to give me your PayPal email address so i can make the payment as soon as possible for the item and pls if you don’t have PayPal account yet,it is very easy to set up, go on www.paypal.com and get it set up ,after you have set it up i will only need the e-mail address you use for registration with PayPal so as to put the money through.I have a pick up agent that will come for the pick up immediately you have receive the payment in full.
On Aug 24, 2012 11:45 AM, “Joe Shaw” wrote:
Thats awesome your buying a car for your son. I’m selling my car to help pay for college because my parents dont have any money
My dad says I should be careful don’t want to get.caught ins a scam tho. Can you send me a photo of yourself on the rig where you work holding a sign that says, “Go Mudhens!”
I’m a huge.fan of the Toledo Mudhens.
Looking forward to doing business with you,
Jim “too tall” Short
On Aug 24, 2012 12:35 PM, “Jordan Evans” email@example.com wrote:
jim, i cannot send pictures today. we are very busy and not having the time to be on the internet. i only have a short amount of time. please send em your paypal info so i can send you the money. My son is excited about the car. he should like it very much. good luck on college.
On Aug 24, 2012 1:13 PM, “Joe Shaw” wrote:
You told your son about the car! I thought it was a surprise? How old is your son? This car has a V6 and I think there are laws about kids under the age of 18 driving cars with powerful engines. Your really going to like this car. I’ve had a lot of people ask about it, though, so I had to raise the price to $7000. I hope that’s okay.
I know your busy and I know your not a scammer but my dad won’t let me sell the car if I don’t have some proof? when can you send the picture?
On Aug 24, 2012 1:22 PM, “Jordan Evans” firstname.lastname@example.org wrote:
I will send it soon. Please send me your paypal address.