I am Lance Conrad, author of the Historian Tales series. My currently published books, The Price of Creation, The Price of Nobility, and The Weight of Swords are available through Amazon, Dawn Star Press, and other excellent booksellers. Thank you for reading!

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

A Christmas Argument

   Gerald sat in a worn recliner, his hand wrapped around a mug of cold hot chocolate, and contemplated murder.
   He was not a violent man. In fact, he could not remember a time that he had raised his voice or his hand in anger. Deep into his golden years, it seemed a strange time to turn so savage, his head swimming with deadly thoughts. Still, he had run out of options. He was at the end of his rope. He had been pushed too far.
   His guest would not leave.
   It was Christmas Eve, the first since his Charlotte had died. His children had each in turn begged him to come spend the holidays with them and their families. He had refused them all, mollified them with stories of plans that required him to stay around home. Only his oldest son had been bold enough to keep arguing. Finally, Gerald had taken him to the side, looked into his eyes - the boy had been born with his mother’s eyes - and told him that he wanted to spend this first Christmas alone with his memories of his dear wife.  They shared a moment of understanding and his son had relented.
   Still, that did not stop the Christmas Eve visits. It had lasted all day. Kids and grandkids, nieces and nephews, and even one great grandchild all wrapped up in fuzzy blankets, had come in a steady stream all day to wish him well and share their love. He had smiled through it all, thanking each of them in turn and giving the smaller ones tight hugs that left them grinning.
   It had been pleasant enough, but he was anxious to have it be over. Always an introvert, the energy it took for Gerald to be sociable left him feeling drained. He had been closing the door on the last of them when one more hand rapped on the door as it attempted to swing shut on the world.
   It was Jerry.
   Gerald’s warm smile and words of welcome formed a sharp external contrast to the groan he felt inside. He had been counting down the relatives and had come to the end of his list. He had not counted on Jerry.
   All of the children called him Uncle Jerry, and Gerald and Charlotte had spent the early years of their marriage with each thinking that Jerry was a relation of the other. One year, when Gerald asked her some trivial detail about him, she had looked at him puzzled.
   “How should I know? He’s your brother.”
   He had responded with shock of his own.
   “I thought he was your brother!”
   A quick investigation among the family was worthless. Everyone thought he was tied to someone else, but nobody could remember where or when he had come into the family. They finally all agreed that he must have been a friend of Charlotte’s father, who had died young. He was a gypsy fellow, only popping in every now and again at family reunions.
   Now he sat entrenched on Gerald’s sofa, chatting away amiably as time crawled ever onward. Gerald had managed to stay friendly for an entire hour, his smile staying on his face like a soldier bravely manning his post.
   Now they were deep into the third hour of Jerry’s visit and Gerald’s smile had abandoned him, running off into the night, hand in hand with his patience. He couldn’t blame them, he felt like his sanity would soon follow.
   He had dropped every clue he could think of, but Jerry had been oblivious to them all. Even now, he chattered away like some pre-teen girl at a sleepover about all the pretty lights across town. Gerald seized on this opportunity. It was time for some tactical rudeness.
   “Actually, I’ve never cared much for Christmas.” He interrupted Jerry coldly, feeling like a ship’s captain launching a broadside volley into his enemy’s vessel of vacuous conversation.  He leaned forward in his chair to watch the effect of his salvo. It would grow awkward now and Jerry would have to retreat.
   Their eyes met and held, Jerry’s smile grew deeper. It was a devious, satisfied smile. Gerald felt tendrils of panic starting to creep into his brain. He didn’t understand it, but he felt like he had stepped into a trap. He felt a momentary sympathy with animals who chewed their own legs off to escape steel jaws. A part of his mind lightly contemplated what kind of self-harm he could inflict to get himself out of this.
   “Why not?” It was not a true question, but rather a verbal hook, drawing him deeper into the trap. Gerald felt a surge of unexpected anger and responded with a lot more volume that he intended.
   “Because it’s pointless!” He bellowed at his guest, though age had left his voice thin. Jerry was still smiling that spider’s smile at him. The sensible part of his brain told him that he should pull back, draw into himself. But he was in his fury now and let it all pour out in tirade.
   “It’s a garish display of the worst parts of human nature. You like the lights, do you? They’re pathetic! People spend monstrous amounts of money to string them up everywhere, often risking their fool necks in the process, just to outdo their neighbor. It’s not a holiday, it’s a popularity contest, right out of some high school, the richest and the prettiest win.”
   Gerald’s whole body was taught. His cane was by the door, but if he had been holding it, he would have shook it at Jerry. Still the man’s smile held, driving him to deeper depths of irritation and rage.
   “It’s not all about the lights, maybe there’s some other part you like. The gifts, perhaps?”
   “Gifts?! You expect me to get all wide eyed about gifts? I’ve got everything I need. I’ve had everything I needed for the last forty years!”
   “You know, it’s better to give than…”
   “Giving gifts?” Gerald interrupted the other man, rather than endure the whole trite aphorism. “I couldn’t give gifts to all of my family even if I were a millionaire, there’s too many of them now. Besides, they also have everything they need. Do my grandkids really need more toys? They already throw away more every year than I had my whole life! No, I can’t say I enjoy the gifts, giving or receiving. It’s fine and dandy that the economy gets a bit of a boost, but you can’t expect me to feel all warm and fuzzy because some corporation saves its bottom line in the last quarter.”
   “What about the true meaning of Christmas?” Jerry asked softly.
   Gerald had a grin of his own now. Jerry thought he was so clever, but Gerald had seen this coming from a mile off. He was ready for it.
   “You mean the birth of Jesus Christ? You know, most Bible scholars now agree that He wasn’t born in winter at all. He was born in the spring.”
   “Oh?” There was a sneaky innocence to Jerry’s question that should have warned Gerald that he was being played, but he was too caught up in the chase.
   “Yes! He wasn’t born anywhere near to Christmas. In fact, I read on the internet that the only reason it exists is because Christians in olden times were trying to replace the pagan festivals held around that time. They couldn’t get them to give them up, so they just renamed them something Christian. They didn’t even change the traditions. Most of the Christmas traditions we celebrate are old pagan rituals.”
   Gerald felt proud of himself, he felt like one of those college kids who always knew more than everybody else. He finished triumphantly.
   “So if you think I’m supposed to tear up to celebrate Christ’s birth on the wrong day and by celebrating pagan stuff, you’re dead wrong.”
   He sat back, folding his arms. He felt smug. He had seldom felt smug in his life before. He didn’t mind the feeling. Maybe he would try to spend more time being smug…
   “That is fascinating.” Jerry mused. Gerald’s smugness faltered just a little. His guest didn’t sound defeated at all, as he should. He didn’t even sound fascinated, as he claimed.
   “A pagan festival, you say?” Gerald nodded, confirming it. “Do you know what they were celebrating?”
   Gerald’s smugness faltered a little more. He hadn’t paid that much attention to the article. One of his younger friends from work had emailed it to him. He had only skimmed it, and that had been many years ago, before he had retired.
   “Oh, you know those pagans, I think it was some sort of sun thing.” He offered lamely.
   “It was centered around the winter solstice.” Jerry spoke with authority, a man who knew what he was talking about. Gerald felt the last of his smugness slip away, joining his smile and his patience off in the darkness. “Or I guess it would be better to say it came just after the solstice. The winter solstice is the shortest day of the year.”
   “I know what a solstice is!” Gerald snapped, feeling petty. Jerry continued as if he hadn’t heard.
   “So all through fall and winter, the days got shorter and shorter and the nights got longer. To the primitive mind, this was the sun abandoning them. For some cultures, it was the forces of light being defeated, darkness and death taking over the world. At the winter solstice, it would appear that the battle was nearly lost.
   “Then the days got just a little longer. It was still mostly dark, the days still frozen and barren, but even those primitive people could see the spark of hope in these signs. Even though it was still one of the darkest times, they knew that the light was coming back, that the forces of light were rising again. So they celebrated with candles and feasting, using light and laughter to help the sun push back the darkness.”
   Gerald muttered under his breath. “Ignorant savages.” But his cursing had no weight behind it, he was just being bitter and he knew it. There was something of beauty in what Jerry was saying.
   “This whole system of the planet’s motion through the heavens was designed by the Father of us all, and I can’t believe these months of darkness were a design flaw.”
   Gerald grunted a grudging agreement and Jerry continued.
   “I think He knew that life would take us through cycles of light and darkness, sorrow and joy, even righteousness and sin. I think He sent His Son to this earth to give us hope, a means to rise after we have fallen.”
   A lump formed in Gerald’s throat and Jerry looked a little fuzzy to him through watery eyes, though he didn’t understand why. Maybe he was allergic to something.
   “I expect He was born in the spring, as you say. He is the life, after all, and spring is the season of life. But I do not think we are wrong to celebrate that birth in winter. Winter is cold and dark. It is the natural symbol of death. Men and women have always tended to keep to themselves in winter, huddling and hoarding, trying to wait it out amid sickness and dwindling resources.
   “Could it really be by chance that we celebrate Christmas at this time when people are most inclined to be isolated and selfish? Or could it be that we, like our ancient ancestors, feel the impulse to use lights and laughter to help the Son push back the darkness?”
   A single tear glistened on Gerald’s wrinkled cheek and he nodded silently, not trusting his voice. He had somehow heard the difference in the last phrase, and he knew that Jerry was not speaking about sunlight. They sat together in a shared moment until Gerald gathered himself again.
   “Are you saying that I should be with my family? With my kids?”
   “No. They don’t really need you, do they?” Gerald was stunned by Jerry’s blunt answer. In spite of his new humility towards Christmas, he felt a bit indignant, his anger flaring.
   “What do you mean by that? They’re my kids, they love me! They would be thrilled if I came and saw them.” He asserted forcefully.
   “Of course they would, I never said otherwise.” Jerry defended himself, his hands raised in a mollifying gesture. “I only intended to say that there might be other people who actually need you more. A stranger on the side of the highway, out of gas. Or perhaps someone in a hospital, far from family. Surely, you could do much more for them than you ever could for your children, safe and warm in their own homes.”
   “I guess I never saw it that way.” Gerald mused, thinking out loud. “I suppose I got used to Charlotte needing me all the time, especially towards the end. I haven’t felt that since then, I haven’t felt important. Are you saying that there are still people who need me?”
   Jerry’s deep smile was back on his face as he stood and held out his hand to help Gerald from his chair.
   “Come and see.”

Thursday, November 27, 2014

My Thanksgiving Message

The secret to happiness is low standards.
   I throw that out every once in a while as a thought experiment. For example, a bare, one-bedroom apartment with a shared bathroom down the hall might not seem like luxury; but if it's for a homeless man who has been living in a cardboard box, that apartment is incredible.
   It makes people think. With a bit of fast talking, I can usually convince most people that I'm right about that, but I'm really not. It's the shadow of a deeper truth. Low standards are not the key to that insight, gratitude is. The problem is, if you start talking gratitude, people's minds shut off, because they've heard it all before. They miss the big picture.
   We're all here on Earth scraping and scrambling for some amorphous horizon we've named Success. Problem is, most people have no idea what that even means. We're pretty sure money has something to do with it, but we've seen enough Disney movies to know that can't be all of it. I would like to suggest a definition:
   Success is a life of deep connections and lasting happiness.
   I am basing this definition off of the common traits I've noticed in the men and women I most admire in this world. They have deep and meaningful connections with their families and friends. They also have an optimistic and happy view on life, even when events in their lives get very bad.
   Let's go to the studies for a closer look...
   There was a study done on college students where they measured initial happiness by various indicators, then split the groups into two sections. One section changed nothing, the others had the task of recording five things they were thankful for every night in a journal. At the end of six months, the people with the thankful journals were 60% happier. All good stuff.
   The study was immediately criticized. These were college students! What the devil do they have to be sad about? We could have got even better results with free pizza!
   So they ran the same study again using patients with terminal illnesses and chronic pain as their study sample. These new subjects were literally the suffering and the dying.
   As expected, the results were different. The 60% increase in happiness did not happen over six months...
               ...it happened in two.
   Let's take a quick look at the darker side of the equation. By a significant margin, the most common complaint of people in failed marriages is "He/She doesn't appreciate me."
   Dale Carnegie, that great student of human nature, said that after the basic physiological needs are taken care of, a person's greatest need is to feel important. So if someone in a relationship doesn't feel like they matter, it's a safe bet they aren't going to stick around for long.
   Could it be that even with all we've done to encourage gratitude, even having a national holiday for it, we still haven't even scratched the surface?
   Gratitude keeps us in the present, focused on the good things around us. It frees us from the guilt of the past and the worry and anxiety of the future. Gratitude gives us hope and the resiliency to try again when life has knocked us down. Gratitude makes us believe in people and their potential, so we reach out and lift them up.
   With such amazing powers, surely gratitude can change the world. But first...

   Let it change your life.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

So That Happened...

I'm going to take a wee break from deeper musings and political commentary to share with you a story of how I was assaulted in my own car.
I was driving to the library because... I don't need a bloody reason, it's the library! Anyway, there was a slight tickle on my chest, the faintest whisper of sensation. My brain and I settled down to analyze the situation, mulling the thing over for countless milliseconds. Little did we know that there were other members of the body who were not so prone to deliberation.
My left arm, it turns out, is quite impatient, and had no intention of waiting for my brain and I to decide that there was, in fact, a bug on me and that it should be swatted.
No, sir! My left arm is an arm of action! Breaking rank, it flew of its own accord to see that the problem was dealt with swiftly and decisively. Sadly, when it acts independent of the brain, my left arm doesn't have any sense of level or restraint.
It wasn't leaving anything to chance.
So it was, from the vantage point of me and my brain, that there was a slight tickle on my chest, followed immediately by a rib-cracking thump delivered by my own left arm.
Not wanting to offend my left arm, I congratulated him on his swift reflexes and decisive nature. Still, in these quiet moments, my brain and I exchange loaded glances. Heavy eyebrows carry deep worry about a house divided against itself...
I'm not saying I'm a danger to myself, but for the sake of caution, I might sleep tonight with my left arm held securely under my stomach.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Best Cheap Skeet Game Ever!

So there's this little game I invented called Cheap Skeet. It is highly irresponsible, do NOT try this at home, you WILL slice things off your body and all that...
The rules are simple, people throw water bottles at you and you slice them out of the air with a machete, sword, or very large knife. Various sub-games have arisen. The following video is possibly the most awesome round of Cheap Skeet ever, and I thought it was blog-worthy. Enjoy :)

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

On Bleeding...

   I love donating blood.
   Specifically, I love doing double reds. For those unfamiliar with the term, double red means when they pull the blood out of your body, process it right there to separate out the red blood cells, then pump the other stuff back into you, along with a lovely saline solution. Using this method, they are able to take two units worth of red blood cells, rather than just one.
   Smaller needle (Never minded needles much myself, but I guess this is a major selling point for some)
   VIP service (Red Cross people LOVE double red donors)
   Really cool machine (I geek out a bit every single time)
   You get your plasma and platelets back with extra fluids, so it doesn't really knock you out as much. (It also feels gnarly when it goes back in, like taking a cool drink through your arm)
   And ladies and gentlemen, that isn't all!

   Those are only the specific benefits of double red donation. Blood donation in general is absolutely amazing.
   As regular citizens, we often don't get much chance to save lives. We may donate to charities that may, with the help of thousands of other donations, contribute to saving lives, but that is quite indirect. When you donate blood, however, that little piece of you might save another person's life by the end of the week.
   The Red Cross alone provides blood for over 5600 transfusions a day, almost all of them critical. By my calculations, that boils down to a transfusion every seven seconds or so. That is a crushing burden! I see in that a fragile system, unable to handle great catastrophes.
   The only answer is a shift in public perception. Blood donating should be a regular activity like changing the oil in our cars. A massive need can only be answered by a mass response.

   But wait, folks, that's STILL isn't all!

   Donating blood comes with a host of personal health benefits! The initial ones are obvious. You get a free mini-physical, complete with blood work. Beyond that, however, science is now coming to terms with the health benefits of blood donation. Blood donors are 88% less likely to experience heart attacks than non-donors.
   There are also initial findings suggesting that donating blood on a regular basis contributes greatly to overall health and longevity. Donating blood even helps with weight loss and reduces cancer risk! It may be why women live longer than men and why bloodletting was such a common medical treatment for hundreds of years. (Now without leeches!)

And ladies and gents... THAT STILL ISN'T ALL!!!

They also give out free snacks and juice :)

Ok, that's all. Don't forget to donate!


Sunday, June 15, 2014

5 Rules of Fatherhood

   Happy Fathers' Day!
   While it is certainly a lesser cousin to Mothers' Day, I do feel that it deserves some recognition. For Mothers' Day, I composed a nice little poem of questionable merit, but I don't think that would work as well for fathers.
   So in salute to the male mind, I instead put forward the 5 Rules of Fatherhood. I do not set them out as judgements passed or laws to be followed. These are my observations of good men who made great fathers, especially my own.

Rule #1: Show up.
   Children do not understand block text, legal text, subtext, context, or the many texts that rule the adult world. They will not remember the whys and hows, only if you were there or not. The miracle of muddled mortal memory will erase most of the details of childhood events anyway. What will be remembered is if you were there during those formative moments in your children's lives.

Rule #2: Show up.
   Worth another round, believe me. There is a little tradition we humans have that marks us as being among the dumbest of God's creatures: we wait. Somehow, our happiness and fulfillment always lay over the horizon. We put off what is "most important" for what is "important right now." So there is a constant static of little things we have to do before we get around to our true priorities. Have the courage to put all that noise aside when you are spending time with your kids. Focus. Engage. Be there.

Rule #3: Give them an example.
   While it defines much of your personal life, your kids won't really see much of you at your job. Make sure that your life includes something else where you can show off a bit for your kids. Not every dad is going to be a rocket scientist or an Olympic athlete, but you can show your kids what it means to excel.
   Build stuff, fix stuff, climb stuff, draw stuff, or whatever else you can do better than the next guy. Show your children your strengths so they can start looking for their own.

Rule #4: Give them something to believe in.
   Like biting our own elbow, there are a few things that plain don't work, no matter how many times or methods you try. (You're trying it anyway, aren't you?) One of these things that simply doesn't work is trying to achieve happiness through selfishness.
   It seems like it ought to work, which is why so many people keep trying it. They keep pushing for that next car/house/degree/job/winning lottery ticket/fling/vacation that will finally give them the fulfillment they so richly deserve. Problem is, it doesn't bloody work!
   Take the time to show your kids the rewards that come from having a purpose in life. Show them that they can make a difference. Rather than trying to make them feel important by a million pats on the head, let them actually be important by being part of something larger than themselves. If you can get it to stick when they're young, they'll keep it their whole lives.

Rule #5: Show up.
   Now I know this seems a lot like the first two, and heaven knows it bears repeating, but this one is different. While the first two were for general trends and behaviors, this one refers to a specific time in your life. I don't know what or when it will be, but there will come a moment when showing up becomes truly difficult.
   This might be because of death, disability, divorce, or any number of life tragedies, but there will come a time when showing up for your kids and looking into their faces is one of the hardest things you'll ever do. Whatever happens, dad, don't fail in that moment. In the end, the ultimate truth of fatherhood is that your life doesn't belong to you. It belongs to those who depend on you.
   So show up.

*Dedicated to the magnificent fathers who have shaped my life. Happy Fathers' Day!

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

In Defense of Monogamy

   I was watching a show the other day when some of the characters got into a discussion about monogamy. They said it was unnatural. They claimed that the widespread failure of marriage and relationships was proof that our social system of dedicated relationships is archaic and oppressive.
   It's not the first time I've heard things like this. Usually, it's from men looking to justify their own infidelity. Now there are even large numbers of women who are supporting the claim that human beings naturally want to wander from mate to mate.
   They make some good arguments. It is entirely possible that human beings are not monogamous in our most natural state.
   Let me make another observation, though. If we hit the reset button on civilization and plunged our world into darkness, people would cheat, steal, lie, and murder to survive. Such things are happening in third world countries across the globe, even as you read this.
   A cynical mind would look at this and say that this "proves" that people are violent, deceptive animals, only held in check by societal pressures. I say that those societal pressures came about because there is something deeper in mankind, a drive to be better than we are. That may not be our default setting, but it is something we should be reaching for. So as a human race, are we "naturally"...
   No. I cannot, with my knowledge of history and human nature, make that claim.
   But we are when at our best.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

For Mothers

A Mother's Day Poem...

I write of my "Momma," it's so plain to see,
How a woman gives her life, a mother to be,
Hot tears shed and sleep well lost,
Not a thought of "Why me?" or a tally of cost,
Father wins battles, his hand on a sword,
But it's clearer to see a mother's reward.
Sons with clear eyes and tall broad shoulders,
Minds to move men and strength to move boulders.
who watched and learned lessons deep,
Their own children blessed by the vigil they keep.
Beauty and wisdom to govern a nation,
Passed down by example to each generation.
If one could see Heaven, one could expect,
A numberless multitude, paying respect,
To a mother so lovely, a heart so true,
Who would give a whole life out of pure love for you.

Love you, Momma, happy Mother's day!

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Why I Write

   When I speak at schools and libraries, one of the most common questions I get asked is why I chose to be a writer. At that point, I usually lie to them. Not with any evil intent, of course, we just don't have the time for the real answer. However, if you will stick with me through this, I think I can explain it...
   I write because I'm insane.
   Picture, if you will, a man who believes with all his heart that if you spin an orange just right, it will fall upwards. As he goes to show people, however, the stupid orange keeps falling down!
   Still he doesn't doubt. He tries over and over again. With each failure, his mind stretches a little farther to explain why it isn't working. It's the wrong time of day. This orange is defective. It only works over wooden floors. This might actually be a small grapefruit.
    No matter how many excuses or attempts he makes, the orange falls to the ground every single time.
   That's when he starts to doubt himself. Maybe he did it wrong. Maybe he was spinning it the wrong way. Soon waves of frustration roll out in all directions and the man finds himself yelling at an orange like a crazy person. Though for all his doubts and anger, he still believes fully that an orange can fall up.
   Now we bring the metaphor full circle. I believe with all my heart that I live in a world where men are noble, women are pure, and love lasts forever. I have never been able to make myself believe any different.
   Every bloody morning I am assaulted by fresh avalanches of evidence that I am wrong. Even a single look at any newspaper should be more than enough to convince me that I am a fool.
   And yet, like the madman with his orange, my mind pushes limits farther and farther to come up with explanations, reasons why it only seems like men are devious, women are fickle, and love is a bargaining chip.
   Returning to our poor chap with his orange, let us further imagine that if he eats pizza right before bed, he dreams of oranges spinning up into the air. How refreshing would that be for that poor, tortured mind? Even knowing it wasn't real, he still got to see those oranges doing what he knew they should.
   Writing is like that for me.
   Even though I know it's not real, I get to spend time in worlds of my own creation. In these hand-crafted universes, I spend my time in great adventures where I know good will prevail over evil. I struggle along with great heroes and heroines who are willing to sacrifice everything for greater truths.
   It is the warmth of these memories that helps me live in a world that seems to have forgotten how it's supposed to act.
   That is why I write.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

He is Risen!

   During my time in Ukraine, I grew quite attached to a little tradition everyone participated in during Easter. Everyone you meet would greet you with "Он воскрес!" which means "He is risen!" Then the next person would respond "Воистину воскрес!" which means "Truly He is risen!" (Roughly translated)
   It usually takes me a while each Easter to hunt down a Russian-speaking person so I can go through this little ceremony that sits so close to my heart. (Thanks Vladimir!)
   So why does it matter?
   It is the most basic tenet of all Christianity, the death and resurrection of our Savior. It is the one miracle that stands above all others. It gives us hope for light beyond the darkness of the grave.
   What does that mean for today?
   Among His other magnificent roles, Jesus the Christ stands as the ultimate example for us all. The way he lived, the way he taught, and even the way he died gives us our path through life. So on this beautiful Easter day, we are reminded of what the Resurrection means for us after death.
   But what lesson does it hold for our lives?
   Is it not to rise?
   Our lives are an endless string of trials and struggles that push us down. They grind and crush our spirits down to bitterness, anger, and hate. Our Savior endured all of these things and more, and in the end was pushed all the way down to death itself.
   But He rose.
   And so can we. We can rise from discouragement. We can rise from injustice. We can rise from sorrow. We can rise and rise and rise again, beyond all hope and reason. Could there be any greater tribute to Him that led the way?
   He has risen... and so shall we.

#Easter #Ukraine #heisrisen

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Magic Words (With a nod to Tracy Hickman)

   Words have power.
   There isn't a person in the world who hasn't had their lives changed by words, whether they were read, spoken, or heard. Words are the symbols we use to craft meaning out of this whirlwind of life. There are three elements that decide how powerful certain words are going to be. I will share a personal experience to demonstrate:
1: Source - We live in a perpetual avalanche of input, opinions, and advice. A large part of staying sane is deciding which sources deserve your attention. Throughout our lives, we slowly assemble an informal council of family members, friends, and leaders that help us along in forming our own opinions. For core values, most of humanity looks to a source no lower than God himself as they search for wisdom in their myriad sacred texts. Very powerful words indeed.
   In my personal example, the source was none other than best-selling fantasy author Tracy Hickman. He and his wonderful wife, Laura, provided me with hundreds of delightful hours reading their many novels. Imagine my surprise when I chanced upon a blog entry by Mr. Hickman where he talked about me and my book!
2: Content - Any writer would love to believe that their writing is universal, but how much certain content will impact a person is always going to be a very personal matter. There are phrases that have always had power to tug at my heartstrings and stir my blood, though I would have a devil of a time explaining why to anyone else.
   In his blog, Tracy Hickman talked about how I had knocked on his door (quite randomly) while going around selling my book door-to-door. It would be perfectly understandable had he seen me as a nutcase (many do) or an annoyance (most do). Instead he talked about how much he admired what I was doing.
3: Timing - Life is timing. Every decision or indecision, every action or inaction, we can plot our life of achievements and regrets in terms of "just in time" or "too late." Our very identity hinges upon the snapshot of circumstances that we find ourselves in. Who among us can say that we are the same person we were ten years ago? So great words, regardless of source or content, can slip by unnoticed if the time isn't right.
   The timing couldn't have been more perfect for me to find Mr. Hickman's words. I had just finished a rough week of sales on the doorsteps of rude people. I had just had an author event with almost no attendance at all, in spite of dozens promising to attend. Worst of all, I had just received my first three-star review, not horrible, but my worst so far (English teachers, just no pleasing them, know what I mean?)
   So it was that I was feeling quite discouraged and was searching the internet to see if any other bad news had surfaced when I ran across the Hickmans' blog. "That is the kind of author who deserves to be read." That's what he said about me. Those words, at that time, were exactly what I needed to dust myself off, square my shoulders and face the world once again with a devilish grin on my face.
I can only hope that one day my words will have that same power for someone else.

For anyone interested in reading the whole blog post, it can be found at: http://scribesforge.com/lyceum/100/door-door-author/

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

What I Would Say to the Ukrainians

   Two things should be obvious by now. First of all, this situation in Ukraine is very personal for me and deeply troubling. Second of all, I have no qualms about offering my opinion to those who haven't asked for it. So with those two things in mind, here are the three things I would say if I could have a heart-to-heart talk with every Ukrainian.

#1: Be Brave!

   There have been a lot of people, myself included, who have likened this situation to the beginning of World Ward Two. On a global scale, people are frightened of a new era of Russian expansionism. From the Ukrainian point of view, however, there is another war that is far more relevant: the American Revolutionary War.
   Whatever else might be said in patriotic songs and stories, our war for independence was fought against a vastly superior force and with a very divided country. There were large portions of the population who felt that their interests would best be served by staying allied with Great Britain. It can be deeply discouraging when there are some of your own countrymen who feel more loyalty to the enemy than to their own homeland.
   Still, there is great encouragement to be found in the story as well. We never could have beaten the British in open war. We were too divided and they were too strong. In the end, we didn't really have to. All we had to do was to make it too much of a pain to stay. For all the analogies that have been flying around, Putin is not Hitler. Hitler was a raving zealot, ready to kill or die for his fanatic beliefs. Putin, on the other hand, seems cold and calculating, and certainly given to enjoying the good things in life. He did not seize the Crimea for the good of its people or for some misguided ideal. He invaded for economic reasons, for money, to make a grab for your ports and long term financial benefits. He will not stay if you make it too troublesome for him.
   So even when it seems hopeless, I would tell you to resist. Even when it seems like you are beaten, I would tell you to fight. And even when the enemy seems as mighty as a bear, I would remind you that even great bears limp at a small thorn in their paw.
   All you have to do to win back your country is to be the thorn.

#2: Be Braver!

   Any revolution worth having is worth having again. Your great temptation when you have won your battles will be to relax and try to pick up the pieces. The truth is that Ukraine had widespread problems before Yanukovych. There must be an open war waged against corruption at every level of government. There must be protests against the organized crime that drowns honest businesses.
   For Ukraine to realize its potential, each and every citizen must take responsibility for the good of the country. Your government, no matter how just, cannot save you. That is not even the government's job.
   There comes a moment after the loud chants and songs, a moment where quiet courage is needed. This greater bravery is needed to work every day to build a better Ukraine, to believe that the efforts you put in to making your home and neighborhood better will pay off in the long run for you and your children.

#3: Be Bravest!

   Bravery is measured by the obstacles you must overcome within yourself. Understanding this, there is almost no greater bravery than forgiveness. When the dust has settled and what's done is done, you will look to your neighbors. There will be those that did nothing, there will be those who supported Russia, and there will be the nation of Russia itself, your national neighbor.
   You would be completely justified in feeling anger and resentment towards these neighbors. None would judge you if you hated them. But all that justice will not make you great, only mercy can do that.
   Forgive your neighbors who stood idly by or even opposed you. Show them the benevolence and dignity of a Ukrainian. They will see the future of the country in you and they will believe.
   Last of all, I would ask you to forgive Russia. It is not the Russian people who ordered the invasion of Crimea or the corruption of your leaders. It mostly falls on Putin, and he will not be president forever. The history between the US and Britain is long and blood-soaked, but now we have become the greatest of allies, even when our politics do not agree.
   It may be too early to think this way, but I can foresee a time when Ukraine and Russia can deal with each other as equals, working together to increase the welfare of both their peoples. Holding on to feelings of anger and hatred would rob you of that future and leave you watching your back for the rest of time. Everyone deserves better.

#Ukraine #Putin #riseagain

Monday, March 3, 2014

One American's Take on Putin

   I feel a bit like Winston Churchill today.
   A full decade before World War Two started, my buddy Winny started panicking about a little German guy with a funny mustache.
   Nobody really believed him. Nobody really had any good reason to believe him. Hitler was just a political reject in a broken country when Churchill started his dirge of doom. Fresh out of World War One, nobody wanted to hear that, so he was mocked and sent into political exile until Hitler had rolled up most of Europe.
   So why did he make such outlandish claims about Hitler when there was so little supporting evidence? It's very simple. He studied the man and knew what sort of person he was. He knew enough about history and about mankind to know that a power-hungry zealot like Adolf would not be stopped until someone stopped him.
   That is how I feel about Putin.
   Let me paint a picture for you. Putin is a fighter pilot, judo master, ex-KGB agent. That all by itself should be a fair hint that this is one scary sucker (The dead shark eyes don't help much either).
   That is just the beginning, though. He also has a long and questionable history of making his political problems magically disappear. People were whispering about poisonings and media tampering over ten years ago. Somehow everyone managed to move past all that because everybody knew that Putin was on his way out. Sure, he had been a scary and manipulative president, but he had been good for Russia overall and his terms were up. He would have to leave the presidency and all would be well. Right?
   It possibly would have been, but instead he just stepped down to Prime Minister while another person nobody really remembers kept the seat warm for him. As soon as that constitutional formality was out of the way, he stepped right back into the presidency, stronger than ever.
   Enter Ukraine. It is a country very valuable to the Russian economic scheme and it has never been out from under Putin's watchful eye. I refer you to my last blog post about Yanukovych, who served as Putin's toadie in Ukraine, making sure that the country's policies stayed very Russian.
   At last, the Ukrainian people manage to oust the sad sack and he runs away to Russia. No big surprise there. But now, Yanukovych tells a stirring story of an illegal coup and an imminent danger to the Russian-speaking peoples of Ukraine. Coming from that would-be tyrant and murderer of his own people, it is a truly laughable accusation.
   But I stop laughing when Putin jumps right on board and immediately sends "peacekeeping" troops into Ukraine's borders to "preserve democracy." Over 16,000 Russian troops now stand on Ukrainian soil, with supporting armor and air support.
   So we might expect that the peacekeeping troops have been helping quell riots and repair the damage done in the capital, right?
   Wrong. The force landed on the Crimean Peninsula, stopping up Ukraine's major ports and shipping lanes in the Black sea, over five hundred miles from Kiev! Geography alone is more than sufficient to tell the truth of the thing.
   This is an invasion.
   There is no way around it and no other possible explanation for the massive amount of troops and armor in that location. Leaders in the West have wagged their heads in the most disapproving way they knew how. Now they have even threatened to have talks about some sort of economic sanctions. May there be peace in our time.
   Putin is five moves ahead in this chess game and our leaders still think we're playing Go Fish. Those who know me are fully aware that I do not hold or spread any sort of extreme views. So I hope that there is a sense of gravity in the mind of my reader when I say that we are staring down the barrel of war.
   We may push it back a while, mostly through selling out Ukraine for a promise of diplomacy; but I challenge anyone out there to study the life and policies of Vladimir Putin and tell me that he doesn't have the will and capacity for domination in the East.
   It is my fondest hope to be wrong about this. But I don't think I am.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Confessions of a Bibliophile

   I love books.
   I realize that there are a lot of people out there who enjoy books for a variety of reasons: plots, characters, information, escapism, and so on. I love books for all these reasons. Beyond that, I just love books.
   I love the smell of them, the earthy woodiness of the paper and binding glue. I enjoy the heft and the solidity of a hardback. These are things I've never felt from an electronic reader.
   Still, I see the value of having an entire library available on a single device, so I have tried to analyze my reluctance to embrace this exciting new technology. Surely there must be a reason for the intense loyalty I feel for my bound pages. You'll need to bear with me until the end of this, but here is what I've come up with:
   State Dependent Learning - This is a recognized factor in the educational realm. The idea is that your memories are tied together with your physical state and surroundings. The usefulness of this is immediately obvious. Here's some examples:
  • If you're studying for a test, try to simulate the exact conditions of the test, you'll remember the material better
  • If you tapped your pencil when you learned it, you should tap your pencil when you try to remember it
  • If you were listening to a certain song when you read something, hearing that same song will light up the memories you had of that subject and your surroundings
   Just keep this in mind as I bring in the other players. Next we have...
   Perception of Reality - There is a significant part of the human brain that cannot tell the difference between a real events and imagined ones. For proof, you need to look no further than a person getting goosebumps or being startled at a scary movie. While the tiny bit at the front of your brain knows that it is all pretend, the rest of your brain is freaking out thinking that an attack is imminent.
   Sports trainers are just barely beginning to catch on to this fascinating phenomenon. Using mental imagery has often been as effective as actual physical practice in refining reflexes. Wrestlers and dancers who have been out of the game for months due to injury have suddenly burst back on the scene as good as ever, just from picturing their moves and routines as they lay in bed.
   The Wrap-Up - So let's combine these things and re-examine what was really happening during those thousands of hours that I spent reading, my head bowed over a book as if in prayer. My mind believed in what it was seeing unravel in the words of books.
   I have flown. I have dived. I have been wounded and crawling, no friends for miles. I have fought nobly, demons before me and innocents at my back. I have fallen in love and felt glorified as the object of my affection grew to love me as they saw the sincerity of my soul. These experiences were real to my mind and helped form my whole life and character as I bled, suffered, and loved with my companions in history and fiction.
   Through the miracle of state dependent learning, all of these magnificent experiences have been tied together, bound into one universal symbol: books. When I hold a book in my hands I feel the weight of it, I smell the ink and leave fingerprints on the cover. These miniscule experiences trigger echoes in my mind, lighting up synapses and calling up all the emotions and excitement of the many full lives I've lived. How could I ever move past such a bond?
   I love books.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

One American's Take on Ukraine

   The internet is awash right now with stories about the protests in Ukraine and the government's violent and oppressive response. Protesters have died, policemen have died, and everything is gearing up for more violence.
   The newscasters and political analysts are scrambling over each other to offer explanations and predictions. It didn't take long for someone to start saying that this was a U.S. versus Russia issue.
   I have lived in Ukraine and some of my best friends live there. However, I claim no expertise to draw a political analysis of the situation. Rather, as a writer, it is my privilege to take a step back and see the big picture.
   What I have to offer is a story.
   The nation of Ukraine includes some of the best real estate in the world. Almost every conqueror in Western history made a play to conquer and keep Ukraine. It's rich black soil has been washed in blood over and over as each conquering people wiped out the ones who came before.
   The closest it ever came to having its own independence was during the time of the Cossacks, a mixture of freemen, escaped slaves, and landless nobles who were versatile and ruthless fighters. Some have compared them to the mountain men of the American west, tough and hardy.
   It all fell apart when their "ally" Russia came to their aid in their wars against the Polish and the Turks. Russia came willingly to save them, and just as willingly stayed to occupy and rule. This has never been far from the Ukrainian mind.
   When Communism fell over the East, Stalin used brutal force and artificial famines to starve entire cities into submission and break the Ukrainian will. Millions died before they bowed. When the wall fell, Ukraine was one of the first to break free of the Soviet Union. This helped provide the final blow, as Ukraine's fertile fields were known as the "bread basket" of the USSR and provided food for the sprawling empire.
   Still, Ukraine struggled under the weight of corrupt government officials, strong organized crime, and continued interference from Russia. This came to a point when pro-Russia presidential candidate Victor Yanukovich orchestrated a rigged election in 2004, poisoning his opponent, abusing voters, and committing outright fraud.
   Lovely guy, huh?
   These atrocities led to the Orange Revolution, similar to the one going on now. Yanukovich was thrown out and the poisoned Yuschenko took the lead. Internal strife and opposition tied his hands and he was finally run out of the government, bruised and broken. I met him here in the U.S., where his idea of a vacation was going to a farm and working the fields on a tractor, far from press and prying eyes.
   Care to guess who took the reins once he was out of the way? None other than Victor Yanukovich, the same despot who had been pulled from power during the Orange Revolution!
   Now we find ourselves in the same spot. Almost ten years later and the Ukrainian people are still not rid of this oppressive, violent snake in the grass. His policies coincide wonderfully with Russia's goals and prosperity, while somehow completely neglecting his own people.
   My hat goes off to the Ukrainian people as my heart goes out to them. I feel as bad for the police as I do the protestors. Both are pawns in a ridiculous power struggle brought on by a few power mongers, entrenched in key positions. The people of Ukraine have everything they need to be a great and thriving nation.
   If only their government would get out of their way.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Unto the day...

    I read some words today, as I am prone to do. These words were "Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof." There is something special about that thought. We are a nation and a society that gets entirely lost in time. Somehow, we have managed to spread ourselves out over our own timelines. This is the worst kind of time travel... ever. We anchor ourselves in the past and then reach hard for the future, stretching ourselves beyond our means and straining the present to a breaking point.
    In this twisted system, we place our greatest triumphs and tragedies beyond our reach in both directions. Driven by our memories of successes and failures already faded, our attention is on the future, hoping for its prizes and fearing its pitfalls.
    It's too much to handle and we don't really handle it well. Imagine then, what it would be like if we brought this stretched existence back into focus. Leave only wisps of will and memory to act as guideposts in past and future. With that kind of presence in the present, a man or woman might just be able to cope with the evils of any given day. Imagine the sanguine sleep you would enjoy after a day where you had helped the people right in front of you, forgave the wrongs that threatened to lower your spirit, and worked hard so you could end the day with pride.

    Surely that would be enough for a day.

Monday, February 10, 2014

It begins...

People whose opinion I respect have told me that I simply must begin a blog. Up until this moment in time, I have held back. It is not because of humility, for I have none. It is not because of a lack of things to say, for I have plenty. Rather, it is due to a feeling of mercy for the populace of the internet. Millions upon millions of hardworking, honest people are on the internet every day to find information, entertainment, news, and cat videos. Surely it would be rude of me to inflict myself on these poor people with a blog that will inevitably dissolve into insane ramblings.
Still, I have been assured that almost no one will ever read this blog. Comforted by this, I am officially starting this blog dedicated to The Historian Tales, great literature, lasers, or anything else that might traipse its way across my mind. Thank you, reader, and good luck.