Sunday, September 25, 2011

Is Faith the Same as Church?

Last night I decided I would not be going to church today. I always feel guilty about this since I grew up with a strong mandate to attend church and Sunday school every Sunday. I argue with myself about what my priorities are. If I'm really a Christian, shouldn't going to church take precedence over anything else I might do on a Sunday morning?

But I'm also a human being.

One of my unique needs is the need for alone time. I was built with a need for time away from people, time when I get in touch with myself, time to de-stress and refresh my mind and spirit. If I don't do this, I start to worry and fret and get the crazies. It's not pleasant.

This has been a week with more than my usual quota of social activities. In addition to the day job, I attended the Wednesday night supper at church with Bible study afterwards, a dinner out with friends on Friday night, and the monthly RWA chapter meeting on Saturday. These are enjoyable and two of them were also educational, but they also have a component of stress for someone like me. All I could think about last night was that, if I went to church, I wouldn't have any morning quiet time this week, I'd need recuperation time from yet another social activity (and church is a social activity as well as a worship activity), and yet another weekend would go by with household chores falling farther and farther behind.

Now, I do believe that it is important to gather together with other Christians to worship God, sing praises, and partake of the sacrament of Communion. The premise for the mystery series I'm writing is the importance of the community of believers. Sharing faith leads to growing faith.

But it isn't the same as faith. Faith is between you and God. Faith is what you feel in your heart. I found this quote from Hebrews 11:1 just now while seeking for a way to describe it:
"Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see."
And, regarding my "should" of going to church every Sunday, this from Galations 2:16:
"know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified."
Those quotes are a good reminder that following the rules to the letter, like the Pharisees, is not what makes you a Christian. So today I will enjoy my alone time, catch up on some of those chores, and refresh myself for the new week.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Book Review: My Blood Approves by Amanda Hocking

This book was a surprise in a totally different way than the last one. Now, unless you haven't paid any attention to what's going on in publishing these days, you've probably already heard of Amanda Hocking.  She's one of the sensations of the epub world, selling a humongous number of books in a short time.

I have to admit that I didn't expect much from this book. I still have a certain snobbery and bias towards traditionally published authors. The perception that those who find an agent and a publisher are superior to those who don't and publish their books themselves hangs on in my brain, despite evidence to the contrary. And I did read somewhere that Amanda Hocking had tried querying agents with her books and gotten her share of rejections before deciding to self-publish.

Then there's the fact that she offers the first book in each series for 99 cents and the sequels for $2.99. Again, I have a bias towards "You get what you pay for."

Lastly, I understood this to be a paranormal romance, which is not my genre of choice. I just don't get what the obsession is with vampires. I even described her work as probably being a "Twilight" knockoff before I read it. I didn't much enjoy "Twilight" and I wasn't eager to read anything similar for a long time.

You can see that with all of my prejudices against  "My Blood Approves", it's a wonder I ever got around to reading it at all. But Amanda Hocking did recently sign with a traditional publisher, I've read interviews with her, and all the people buying her books couldn't be totally wrong, so I finally started this book.

There's a reason she sells so well. The woman knows how to tell a story.

Her characters are real. Alice, the seventeen-year-old whose story this is, rings true. She's not particularly interested in school. Her life consists of hanging out with her friend Jane, listening to her iPod, and spending time with her younger brother Milo while their mother works the night shift. Milo is the nearest to an adult character in this novel. He cooks the meals, chides Alice about staying out late at night, and tries to keep peace with their mother. The family dynamics work.

Then Alice meets Jack and everything changes. From the beginning, there's something different about Jack. For one thing, although Alice never tells him exactly where she lives or where she's at when she texts him, he always seems to know just where to find her. His skin is cool. It doesn't feel like real, living skin. Everyone he meets falls a bit in love with him, except Alice. And there's obviously a secret that he's keeping from her.

School becomes even less important as Alice spends all her free time with Jack. There's an attraction that she can't quite explain, but what he finds intriguing that she isn't hypnotized by his presence like other people are.

I don't want to say too much more about this book because I think the reader should discover the story on their own. I wouldn't want to give away too much of what happens.

The fact that I remember all the characters' names several days after finishing the book is amazing enough. Usually, once I move on to the next book, I quickly forget details of the last one I read. But not in this case. The characters are so well drawn and the conflict so engaging, I'm having trouble not rushing back to the Barnes and Noble site to download the rest of the series.

This is highly recommended. Great job, Amanda!

Saturday, September 17, 2011

And the Rains Came

Just when the monsoon season was winding down, a batch of storms moved through this week that made this the rainiest September on record. It rained four days in a row this week with 2.84 inches of rain falling on Thursday alone. When you measure rainfall in hundredths of an inch, this is a big deal.

The Santa Cruz River, which is usually mostly dry this far south, became a raging torrent.

Of course, there were the usual number of water rescues. Despite the "dumb motorist law," which fines anyone who enters a flood area despite warning signs, there are always those who try to cross a wash or a flooded intersection.

This time, there was also a man lost to the flooding. Somehow he wound up clinging to a bridge stanchion in the Santa Cruz. He was swept away before police and fire could get to him. They positioned themselves on several bridges over the river trying to spot him. The explanation was that this way they could see the whole width, while standing on the bank would only allow them to see one side. As far as I know, his body hasn't been found yet.

In sections of town, homes and businesses were flooded, as well as part of one campus of Pima Community College.

The water drains pretty rapidly in Tucson. The desert sucks it up in a matter of hours. By the time I left work on Thursday, the streets were almost dry. The weeds, however, are having a field day. And there are mushrooms sprouting in the lawn in the park across the street. It's amazing how much growth happens in a short period of time following rain here. The Sonoran Desert is amazingly green.

This was probably the end of the 2011 monsoon season. Now we enter the time of year with the weather that brings retirees to Tucson. Temperatures will drop to the eighties, then the seventies, the skies are huge, blue backdrops for the mountains, and the sun shines all the time. I can't wait.

* * *
Photos from the Arizona Daily Star can be seen here.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Book Review: Old Man's War by John Scalzi

You never know what you'll run into while clicking through the blogosphere. I don't remember exactly how I got there, but one day I found John Scalzi's blog. He writes an interesting, literate blog and posts almost every day, so I continued to return to it.

Scalzi is the current president of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, so you can guess his chosen genre. I was kind of curious about what he wrote but, as I've said before, I don't read nearly as much SF&F as I used to. However, when he announced that "Old Man's War" was going to be made into a film directed by Wolfgang Petersen, the book made it to the top of my nook wishlist. In case you don't know who Wolfgang Petersen is, he directed The Perfect Storm, In the Line of Fire, Air Force One, The Neverending Story, and the amazing Das Boot.

I was disappointed in this book. To begin with, the first half of the book was largely exposition: an introduction to the main character and a lot about the society and technology. Nothing. Much. Happens. Science fiction has a tendency to do more of this than other genres because half the fun of the writing, and often the reading, is extrapolating what technology is possible and how that will affect society. But an author can weave this into his story seamlessly or, as in Old Man's War, it becomes the primary focus of pages and pages of the book.

When I finally got to the second half and things started happening, meaning the plot became prominent, the more I read, the more I thought, "This is just like Heinlein's 'Starship Troopers,' only with bioengineered bodies instead of mechanical suits."

Heinlein did it better.

Now, Heinlein was one of my favorite writers in my teen years. "The Rolling Stones" was my introduction to science fiction. I took it out of the school library because it was about a family named Stone. I've reread "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress" multiple times and I'm positive that that book is one of the reasons I became a computer programmer. And "Stranger in a Strange Land" opened my eyes to thinking about religion in a different way. So Scalzi had some pretty big shoes to fill.

To his credit, the author does acknowledge Robert Heinlein for inspiring this book. I was glad to see that and it did make me feel better about the novel. But not enough better.

I think the key difference between Heinlein's version and Scalzi's version is that Heinlein created characters I really cared about. As I read "Starship Troopers," I felt like I was inside Johnny's skin. With "Old Man's War", I always felt some distance from John Perry. Maybe it's because Perry's attachments to other characters are ephemeral. Most of the people he gets close to die. The one character who promises a continuing relationship isn't really who she appears to be. Maybe it's because Perry doesn't have much vulnerability. I like my characters to have flaws. Perry was always the hero.

The other thing that bothered me about "Old Man's War" is that it presented the human race as being in an imperialistic land grab against every other race in the universe. The premise was that there are only so many life-friendly planets and we had the right to conquer as many of them as we could--even if they were already inhabited by another species. My memory may be wrong, but in "Starship Troopers" the war was being fought because the "bugs" were trying to conquer planets where the human race had established colonies. We were defending ourselves against the invaders.

I keep wondering what Publisher's Weekly and World Science Fiction Convention members who nominated it for the Hugo saw in this book that I didn't. Maybe it's because I haven't been reading science fiction over the past few decades, so I don't know what's standard in the genre any more. Regardless, this wasn't engaging enough to encourage me to read any more books by this author.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

September 11th


I was born in Queens and grew up on Long Island, eighteen miles from the New York City line. I remember the time before the World Trade Center was built and the controversy over how those boxy towers were going to ruin the distinctive New York skyline.

Years later I remember walking on the outside observation deck, my young son laughing at my fear at being suspended in the sky as the wind whipped our hair and clothes.

I remember the first trip home in 2001, Christmas I think it was, and staring at the hole where the towers used to be from the span of the Throgs Neck Bridge.

I was working in Boston in 2001. I remember that bright Tuesday morning in September, the air so clear and the sky so blue it would break your heart. We had our usual weekly meeting with the CIO, a meeting all us techies put up with but couldn’t wait to leave. Released at last, we hurried down the hall to our computers so we could do what we loved best.

A few minutes later, my boss came out of his office looking stunned. “My daughter called and said a plane hit the World Trade Center,” he said. We, too, were stunned. I quickly brought up the CNN web site but there wasn’t much more than what he’d already told us. A few minutes later he came back into our room and told us the TV was on in the lunchroom if we wanted to go watch it.

I stayed at my desk initially, but I couldn’t concentrate. I went downstairs and sat in the lunchroom, glued to the news reports, watching the smoke billow out of the North Tower.  From nowhere, the second plane came into the screen and I flinched as it hit the South Tower. I knew then this was a terrorist attack. I didn’t need a reporter or politician to tell me that.

I cried for months afterwards. It didn’t take much for me to start. The sight of flags flying in front of houses, offices, and from car windows would do it. And there were a lot of flags flying in Boston. The grim resolve of people whose lives were shattered, but were determined to carry on, to not let the terrorists defeat our spirit. The pictures of the smoldering ruins, the raising of an American flag among them, the shower of ashes and paper through the New York City streets.

I cried for the people who had gone to work that morning, perhaps dreading a meeting of their own, never thinking they would die that day. I cried for the police and firemen who rushed into the burning buildings, knowing how dangerous it was, but risking—and giving—their lives in an attempt to save others. I cried for the heroes of Flight 93 who wrested control from the hijackers and crashed the plane into a Pennsylvania field rather than let it be a weapon against another building. I cried for the loss of our innocence, our invincibility that was shattered, and the knowledge that our world would never be the same.

 And I returned to God.

I didn’t go to church, except for the occasional Christmas or Easter, in the decades before September 11th. God and I had had a falling out. I figured that some day, a day far in the future when I was closer to death, I’d take some time and figure out this whole religion thing. But there wasn’t any urgency about it. I was young yet. Well, young enough.

But the enormity of what happened that day made me realize that I needed something bigger than myself to understand it, to accept it, and to move forward. I needed to be able to make sense of something that was, at its core, senseless.

I spent the next several months going to various churches, staying longer at some than others, but never finding quite the right fit. Finally I decided to try a Lutheran church that wasn’t too far away. I’d put the Lutheran church at the bottom of my list because, well, because I’d been raised a Missouri Synod Lutheran and hadn’t particularly cared for it.

I went to House of Prayer in Hingham, Massachusetts without much hope one Sunday morning. And found a warm and welcoming ELCA congregation. The minister remembered my name after the first Sunday, some older women kind of adopted me and encouraged me to join their weekly Bible study group, and I started doing some of that exploration of faith that I’d put off so long.

I used to ask myself on occasion whether God had caused the events of September 11th to bring me back to Him. That seemed like a lot of hubris and I’m not sure I could accept the fact that God had been the cause of something so awful.

I still have a lot of doubts and questions about God and Christianity. There are times I feel like a fraud. And I know that I’m not living what faith I have in as positive a fashion as I should. But I also know that I can’t imagine facing another September 11th without God. And, horrifying as it is to contemplate, there’s a good chance that there will be another September 11th in my lifetime. Evil never gives up.

Monday, September 05, 2011

Number One on My Bucket List

A few years back there was this marvelous movie with Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson called "The Bucket List". It was about two men with terminal cancer who decided to do a number of things before they kicked the bucket. It started me thinking of what would be on my bucket list and what I could do to accomplish those things.

Not surprisingly, the first thing that came to mind was to see the Red Sox play at Fenway Park. Although I lived in the Boston area for eight years, I never made it to Fenway. When you live in a place, it seems like there will always be time to do things there. You regularly pass by landmarks and think, "Some day I'll have to go there." But some day never seems to come. Life gets in the way.

And then I moved to Arizona and it was a bit longer than a ride on the T to get to Fenway Park. I did manage to see the Red Sox play at Chase Field when interleague play scheduled them against the Diamondbacks. But Chase Field isn't Fenway.

This past spring I started thinking about going back to Boston for a visit. We were coming up on the Fourth of July and, with the severe drought we had, there was talk about fireworks shows being cancelled. That reminded me of what the Fourth is like in Boston. There's no place better to celebrate the Fourth than on the Esplanade with the Boston Pops and fireworks over the Charles River. So I started searching the Internet looking for travel packages that might get me there.

I didn't find any fireworks packages, but I did find Red Sox Destinations. Now that might be a way for me to get to see the Red Sox play, along with a stay at a good hotel, eating fresh seafood, a chance to visit with old friends. I took a look at the dates. I pondered. I saw that there was one trip scheduled for the Yankees series at the end of August. There couldn't be any openings left. But there were! I slept on it. It would be expensive with airfare and hotel and meals out. And then I clicked and made the reservations.

So I spent last week in Boston, saw two Red Sox games, had a VIP tour of the park, a session with a Red Sox player, and lunch at the park. It was wonderful!



I got to the park early enough to see batting practice on the first day. It was hard to believe that I was actually there. I've watched so many games on television, seen so many pictures, I almost had to pinch myself to believe it was real. The Sox lost, but it was okay.



Day two was packed with activities. The tour was fun and I learned a lot about the history of Fenway. Next year will be the 100th anniversary of Fenway Park. The intention is to have it put on the National Register of Historic Places at that point. That will keep it just as it is. Newer parks may be shinier, have bigger broadcast booths and more luxurious seating. But Fenway has character. Sure, it shows its age, but there is no place that feels more like baseball than Fenway.


 And I was there. I walked on the field. I stood next to that old manual scoreboard. I went inside the scoreboard that doesn't have air conditioning or heat or running water, so you can imagine what it's like for the guys who sit inside it every game and post those worn green and white numbers for the fans to see.

The players aren't immune to what it means to play for the Red Sox at Fenway Park. We had the pleasure of meeting Jarrod Saltalamachia before our lunch. He signed one item (in my case, a baseball thoughtfully provided as part of the package) for each of us, then did a question and answer session. He was thrilled to be there, thrilled to have Varitek as a mentor, and he practically burst with pride and pleasure when one member of the tour asked how it felt to be the future of the Red Sox. He's a good kid and, from what I've seen, the first catcher who stands a chance of taking Varitek's place when Tek retires.

The second game couldn't have been any better if it had been written into a movie script. Beckett pitched. Ellsbury hit his first home run over the Green Monster. Big Papi launched one over the fence in center field. And Pedroia put on his laser show in the field. What more could you ask?