Half-Hung Christmas Lights  

Posted by Brock Booher

I’m alone again on Christmas day. I’m sitting in a hotel room thousands of miles from my family waiting for their video call so I can watch the kids open their presents. It doesn’t sound like much of a Christmas, but in some ways, the solitude has helped me reconnect with the real meaning of Christmas.

When did we begin to expect so much from the Christmas season? When did Christmas become a time to outdo your neighbor with synchronized lights and oversize inflatable lawn ornaments? What happened to simply gathering around the piano with your family and singing Christmas carols? Nowadays simply putting up a tree and sending out a few Christmas cards isn’t enough. We have to decorate the house with hundreds (or sometimes thousands) of lights. We have to put up the perfect tree adorned with properly spaced ornaments of matching colors. We have to erect an entire Dickens Christmas village that takes over the entertainment center.  We have door hangars that make noise and jingles bells every time the door is opened. We have life-sized Santa dolls that dance and sing to popular Christmas tunes. We even have costumes for our dogs. Decorating for Christmas is an event unto itself.

Next, we bury each other in treats. We get plates of cookies, fudge, and toffee. We get cheese balls, popcorn, and homemade salsa. We get muffins, cupcakes, and fresh bread. We get candy, fruitcake, and hot chocolate mixes. We are inundated with scrumptious morsels of all types. Every time the doorbell rings, we all get excited to see what special treat our friends and neighbors are dropping off. Unfortunately, I can’t possible run enough miles to keep from gaining ten pounds from all the goodies.

In return, our family makes Christmas jelly, a bright red cranberry/raspberry spread that makes even the plainest bagel look like a Christmas treat. We have to start stocking up on jars in October, and buy several pounds of sugar just to meet the demand. We set aside a night or two on the calendar for production. We bring the mixture of juice and pectin to a rolling boil, and then add a mountain of sugar. We fill jar after jar with the hot syrupy mixture until we have cases of little red jars stacked and ready for delivery. Then we listen to the popping sound of the well-sealed lids. My wife puts special labels with holiday wishes on each of the lids. We have to guard the stuff so the kids don’t eat it all themselves.

Ah Christmas! It’s the most wonderful time of the year, right?

This year the frenetic pace of things didn’t put me into the Christmas spirit. The Christmas season is always a busy time of year in the travel industry, and this season, I worked a lot. Because I was working a lot, and my wife was not at her usual superwoman strength, we struggled to get everything done. We put up the tree and a couple of nativity scenes, but passed on the Dickens village. We passed on the Christmas card because we could never find the time to get a photo of the entire family. I never could find the time to hang all of the lights and too cheap to hire professionals, I hired my fifteen-year old son to hang them. Due to several days of unusual rain, a myriad of broken lights, and his inexperience, the lights don’t quite look the same this year. I had to be satisfied with half-hung Christmas lights.

Since I was going to be gone Christmas Eve and Christmas day, I hurried to finish shopping, wrapping, and stuffing stockings before I left for a four-day trip on the 22nd. Instead of feeling a sense of sadness as I left the house, I felt a sense of relief. I was leaving behind the stress of Christmas.

Now, in the solitude of my hotel room, I miss my family, but I have had time to reflect on the story of Christ’s birth and its significance. I have put aside all the worldly trappings that worry us and make the season stressful. I have reread the Christmas story found in the Holy Scriptures. I have enjoyed a friendly Christmas breakfast with coworkers. I have quietly reflected on the love I have for my wife, my children, and my extended family. I have felt the spirit of Christmas.

When I drive home tonight I will no doubt see all the decorated houses aglow with fancy lights, blowup ornaments, and synchronized electronic displays. They will make me smile and fill me with sense of the season. However, as I pull in my driveway and look up at the half-hung Christmas lights it will remind me that Christmas isn’t in the decorations, the treats, the presents, the parties, or in the stockings hung by the chimney with care. Christmas is found in a lowly manger and the miraculous birth of the Son of God.

Homeless Santa  

Posted by Brock Booher

This is a revision and reprint of a story I posted two years ago.
Merry Christmas!

“Look Daddy, it’s Santa!” said my four-year old daughter. I looked up from serving soup in the homeless shelter and saw an old man with a bushy white beard holding a soup bowl.

I smiled and poured him a large scoop of hot soup. “Did anybody ever tell that you look exactly like - ”

“Santa Claus?” he said as he stroked his beard. “Yes, Because I am Santa Claus.” His face was blank. No jolly laugh. No twinkling eyes.  No ho, ho, ho.

“Don’t worry,” I said to my worried daughter. “He’s not the real Santa. The real Santa lives at the North Pole and is a jolly old elf.”

“Ho, Ho, Ho,” he replied without enthusiasm. He took his soup and moved on.

I continued to serve the other homeless patrons, but couldn’t take my eyes, or mind, off of the Santa look-alike. He sat alone in the corner like a forgotten man sipping at his soup. As soon as I finished serving, I sought him out.

I slid into one the cold metal chair across from him. “Feel better after the soup?” I asked.

“Like a bowl full of jelly,” he replied without smiling.
“You know," I started, "I’m sorry that life has been hard on you, but you didn’t have to burst my little girl’s bubble. She still believes in Santa Claus.”

“Well, I am Santa Claus.”

“I know you look like Santa, but - ”

“Santa Claus is just a fictional character to help make Christmas magical,” he mocked. “You don’t even believe in Santa Claus, and yet you lecture me on not bursting your little girl’s bubble?”

My face flushed with a touch of anger, and shame.

“Most people don’t believe anything they can’t see or touch anymore,” he continued. “How can you believe in the miraculous birth of the Son of God if you can’t even believe in Santa Claus when he’s sitting right in front of you?”

“I guess you’ve got a point,” I mumbled as I stood to go. “Merry Christmas.”

Over the next few days my conversation with homeless Santa haunted me. He was right. Like everyone else in the world, I had become cynical, even hypocritical. Everything in my life had to be proven or verified. I didn’t believe in Santa Claus, yet I perpetuated the story with my daughter because I wanted to believe.

When my boss asked for volunteers to organize the office Christmas party, I got an idea. I told everyone at my office about my encounter with homeless Santa and asked if we could sponsor him. We could take up a collection to buy him new clothes, and a few Christmas presents, and he could come play Santa Claus at our company party. I spoke with the director of the homeless shelter and made all the arrangements.

Homeless Santa came to our office party dressed for the part – traditional red suit, black boots, and bag full of toys. He gladdened hearts with his rosy cheeks and his hearty “Ho, Ho, Ho!” He had a magical touch with children, and my daughter beamed as she sat on his lap.

As the party finished, we gave him our gifts. He cried openly at our generosity, and we joined him, but they were tears of joy. By the end of the night, we all believed in Santa Claus.

That Christmas Eve, my daughter put out milk and cookies for Santa before she hurried off to bed. The next morning the cookies were gone and the milk had been replaced with a note –

“Inasmuch as you have done it unto the least of these my brethren, you have done it unto me.”  Thank you for believing in me!
Santa Claus
(P.S. I moved back to the North Pole.)

Thanks for Race Sounds  

Posted by Brock Booher

Most people think I have a screw loose because I like to run. Even other runners think I’m a bit twisted because I rarely listen to music when I run. It’s probably true. Anybody who enjoys waking up, lacing up, and running for an hour, is probably a half bubble off level. It comes with the territory. Maybe I’m a little more twisted than most, because I like to think instead of listening to things when I run. The voices in my head become clearer.

On Thanksgiving Day I ran a Turkey Trot. Well, actually, I ran a Fun Run and a Turkey Trot. My daughter went with me to the race and begged me to run the two-mile fun run with her since she didn’t want to run it alone. (Over two thousand people ran the fun run, so she was hardly “alone.”) I gave in. Consequently, I ran the two-mile run with her (in about eighteen minutes), and then hurried back to the starting line to run the 10K turkey trot.

Decartes said, “I think, therefore I am.” When we engage ourselves in activities that make us look inward at our thoughts , it makes us more alive. As I ran that day, I looked inward and thought about all the sounds I would have missed that day if I had plugged headphones into my ears and cranked up my favorite songs.

I would have missed the conversation with my thirteen year-old daughter. Teenagers have amazing, adaptable minds uncorrupted by the rigid thinking of the adult world. They are alive with wonder and insight that adults have long since lost or surrendered to the perceived realities of life.

I would have missed the nervous chatter of the starting line – “Are you ready?” “How fast do you think you will run it?” “I’ve really got to go pee, but the line is too long.” “Dude, I can’t believe you drank all that vodka last night.”

I might have missed the wail of the air horn as it signaled the start of the race and the runners’ cheers, excited to finally start the race. A police siren announced the coming of the lead runners. During the first half mile the street was lined with jubilant spectators coming to cheer on family members and friends. They shouted encouragement and called out names. I could hear the clicking of cameras.

At the first turn one of the race volunteers was telling everyone to stay to the left. A police bullhorn commanded passing motorists to slow down, and I listened to the quiet hum of his BMW motorcycle.

Then as the crowd settled into its pace, it got eerily quiet. I heard the shuffling of feet against the asphalt. I heard the friction of fabric as running shorts rubbed against thighs. I heard the huffing and puffing of racers striving to get air into taxed lungs. The sound of spitting runners spewing their nervous spittle became evident. I heard the quiet hum of passing traffic. In the distance I heard the music at the finish line teasing me and urging me to hurry.

Just before the one mile point a father stood on the side of the course with three small kids and a boom box playing “Eye of the Tiger.” I heard and felt the thumping beat, the encouraging words, and the wail of the guitar. I heard his daughter crying that she was cold. I heard him shout encouragement and tell his daughter to look for Mommy.

At the one-mile point I heard things like, “We need to speed up,” and “We’re doing good.” I swore I heard the ticking of the clock as it mocked me, and my lack of speed, that morning. Just past the mocking clock volunteers were passing out water. I heard water spilling onto the concrete as runners tried to drink on the run and missed their mouths. I heard, “Thank You,” over and over again as racers thanked the volunteers. I heard the hollow clunk of paper cups as they were tossed aside. I heard gasps for air as racers gulped down the last of their water and sucked in air.

As we turned and headed downhill for a stretch I heard a collective sigh from the crowd. I could hear other people’s headphones. Dogs barked from the nearby neighborhood. Conversations started back up among racers. “He was the Vice President of the company until…” “Yeah, I liked that race. It was fun.” “When is the next water station?” I passed a man pushing two screaming kids in a running stroller.

At the halfway point we passed near the finish line and the cheers of spectators came back. I heard the sound of the port-a-john doors slamming shut. I heard my bladder calling. I heard the sound of my draining bladder. I heard the sound of the air rushing in and out of my lungs as I struggled to catch back up to my race pace.

One runner’s cough sounded like a shotgun going off, and he coughed every ten to fifteen seconds. I hurried past, and gladly put that odd sound behind me.

We turned uphill, and I heard a collective groan go up from the crowd. The ever-present habit of spitting got louder. I heard phlegm hocked up from somewhere deep in the thorax come spewing out through heaving lips and splat against the churning asphalt.

The passing traffic on the busy street got louder. I heard myself going faster with an empty bladder. I heard the clock laughing at me, and my attempts to go faster.

The course turned the corner and headed downhill for the last two miles. Shoes scraped against the course as tired legs lost their good running form to fatigue. Some of the runners were carrying helium balloons. One of them popped.

With about a mile left, I could almost hear the music at the finish line again. I looked up and saw a bright yellow sign that read, “Deaf Child.” I thought about the child who lacked the ability to hear all the things I had taken for granted that morning. I gave thanks for my ability to hear, and all the sounds of the race became even more vivid.

I finished the race strong (for an aging fat guy), and savored the sounds of the race – the shuffling of feet, the huffing and puffing, the spitting, the coughing, the rubbing of cloth, the cheering of spectators, the crying of babies, the humming traffic, the roaring crowd, the ticking of the mocking clock, the music at the finish line. The best sound of the race? My daughter saying, “Good job Dad!”

For the record, I do like to listen to audiobooks or podcasts from time to time when I run.

Land of Milk (and honey)  

Posted by Brock Booher

The best biblical compliment given to any geographic location is a simple phrase - a land flowing with milk and honey. Having traveled a bit, I guess you could say that I consider the quality and quantity of a country’s milk a key indicator of its civilization.

Why milk? Milk is a highly perishable product that requires cleanliness, constant care, and daily effort.

To get milk to market first you need keep cattle that you don’t plan on eating, at least right away. That in and of itself is an indicator that the agricultural capacity of a location can support more than subsistence farming. Second you need a stable workforce. Dairy farmers don’t take vacations. Third you need a sophisticated transportation system that includes refrigeration so that you can get the product to market before it perishes or becomes a health hazard for consumers. Last, you need an enforceable health code to ensure the quality and consumer safety of the product.

Yes, you can call me a milk drinker. Having grown up on a dairy farm, you might say that I am a connoisseur of the world’s milk. Since I don’t drink alcohol, I don’t frequent the local bars and imbibe the local beer, wine, or liqueur when I travel. Instead I head to the nearest supermarket and check out to the dairy department.

A lot of locations produce the sterilized cartons of milk that don’t require refrigeration. I walk right by those shelves. I am looking for fresh moo juice. I don’t care if it comes in bags, bottles, or cartons, but it has to be fresh. Fresh milk lets me know that I am in a civilized place.

Drinkable Peach Yogurt
Next I look for the range of varieties and brands. The more variety, like chocolate milk, whole milk, two percent milk, or any other variation of fresh milk, means more sophistication of milk production. More variety of milk means that this connoisseur has choices, and I like choices.

I also pay attention to the quantity of milk available both on the shelf, and per average container. In the US we find shelf after shelf of gallons of the good stuff. In other countries I might only find fresh milk in liter bags. Since I can drink a quart of milk for breakfast without breaking a sweat, I get a warm fuzzy feeling when I find a dairy department stocked full of cold fresh lactated liquid.

After sampling the fresh stuff, I also look for the milk byproducts like butter, cheese, yogurt, or ice cream – especially the ice cream.  Statistically speaking they have proven that people with more education and higher IQ’s eat more ice cream. It doesn’t surprise me since ice cream is the highest form of milk byproducts. I’m just not sure if smart people eat ice cream or eating ice cream makes you smart. I will have to continue my research.

I recently returned to Lima, Peru, after fifteen years. One of the first things I did was head to the nearby supermarket and check out the dairy section. I was pleased to see that both availability and variety of milk have improved in my absence. I took great pleasure in sampling the various fresh milk products delivered in one-liter bags. I enjoyed the drinkable peach yogurt produced by Gloria. Of course I had to sample the D’Onofrio ice cream that street vendors sell everywhere. (Based on the ubiquity of ice cream vendors in Lima, they must be some of the smartest people in the world.) After several days of assessment, I would say that Peru has made tremendous strides in the last few years. It has become a land flowing with milk, and that is progress you take to the fridge.

Yes, I’m a milk drinker, a veritable connoisseur of cow juice, a maniac for moo-moo, a disciple of dairy. For me, nothing says “civilization” like a large, well-stocked dairy section in a grocery store. To say that a land flows with milk is a compliment of biblical proportions.

Dairy Section of Supermarket in Miraflores
(No offense meant to all you fans of apiculture. I love honey too, but for me, milk is the bee’s knees.)

Once A Pawn  

Posted by Brock Booher

I recently finished a writing class where I produced several short stories. So far none of them have been published, and I have returned my focus to novel writing. The problem with short stories is that there isn't a big market for them. Almost nobody gets magazines with short stories in them anymore.

As a writer, you work several hours on a story. You send it out into the world looking for a home. You deal with the rejections and tweak the story. In the end you might get a hundred bucks for your efforts. But they are still fun to write. So, I have decided to post this story for your enjoyment. Enjoy. Feel free to critique. Thanks for reading.

Once A Pawn

“I’m innocent!” shouted Jamil, but the sound traveled no further than the soundproofed walls. He strained to see through the mirrored glass in vain. He guessed it had been over an hour since they locked him up. “I’ve done nothing wrong! This is all just a misunderstanding!” He rapped his knuckles against the glass. “Can anyone hear me?”
Nobody responded.
Tired of pacing the room, he sighed and sat down in the stiff metal chair. By now, he was sure his flight home to Chicago had left without him. He wondered how he was going to explain this one to his ex-wife.  She would be furious when he didn’t show up for their daughter’s birthday party tonight. If they ever let him make a phone call he would try and explain it to his daughter, but three-year old girls have a hard time understanding the concept of distance.
Jamil jumped to his feet when he heard the door open with a squeak. A uniformed policeman walked in followed by a short guy in a suit. The uniform placed pen, paper, and two bottles of water on the metal table and left. The short guy in the suit stood motionless with both hands in his pockets, staring at Jamil as if sizing him up for a fight.
Jamil knew he should say something, maybe introduce himself, but he froze with uncertainty. He just stood there, waiting for something to prod him into action.
“Hello,” said the guy in the suit as he extended his hand, “I’m Special Agent Conti.”
Trying to show a measure of confidence, Jamil took the man’s hand in a firm grip and introduced himself. “Jamil Tannous, Equipment Sales and Leasing with Commercial Banking Corporation, it’s a pleasure to meet you.”
“Sit down Mr. Tannous,” said Agent Conti as he took a seat at the table. “You’re in a bit of trouble today.”
“Please, call me Jim. And, yes, I do seem to be in a difficult spot,” responded Jamil as he took his seat.
“Okay… Jim.” Agent Conti pushed a bottle of water across the table. “Do you know why you’re here?”
“Well, I know that I was selected for random screening at Kennedy airport as I was going through security, and when they swabbed my briefcase sirens went off. After that, the TSA took me into custody. They held me for short time before I was transferred to NYPD and brought to this room.” He opened the bottle of water and took a drink.  “Obviously my briefcase has alarmed a few people. I didn’t know leather could get you guys so riled up.”
Agent Conti smiled at the weak attempt at humor. “Leather alone doesn’t excite me, but let me read you a list of things that the swab from your briefcase contained.” He picked up the notepad and began reading the words with some difficulty. “Cyclotrimethylene trinitramine more commonly known as RDX, polyisobutylene, and diethylhexyl. Are you familiar with those chemicals or substances?”
“No, but they don’t sound that harmful,” he chuckled, “Only difficult to pronounce.”
“The substances are a lot easier to pronounce if you just use the street name. Can you say C-4?” asked Agent Conti. “In addition to the traces of C-4 on your briefcase, we found eleven-thousand five hundred and twenty dollars in your briefcase covered in the stuff.” Agent Conti paused. “Blown up anything recently?”
“Just my marriage,” retorted Jamil. He ran his hands through his hair. “Look, this is just a misunderstanding. I can explain.”
Agent Conti turned the page on his notepad and tapped his pen. “Do you travel to Spain often?”
“Yes,” answered Jamil looking more puzzled by the moment. “I travel to Spain regularly. Why?”
Agent Conti referred to his notes. “I see that you just returned from Spain, particularly Malaga, Spain. What hotel did you stay at?”
“Uh…the Malaga Palacio, as usual.”
“Do you know what happened at the Malaga Palacio about four hours ago?” Agent Conti leaned close enough for Jamil to smell the onion on his breath. “Jim?”
“No,” said a puzzled Jamil as he leaned back as far as the metal chair allowed.
“Somebody used C-4 to blow up a couple of rooms.”
The blood left Jamil’s face. The knot in his stomach came untied and unleashed a wave of nausea.
Agent Conti tapped his pen on his notepad. “It just so happens that the US Ambassador and his family were in the rooms at the time of the explosion and several people were killed… including the Ambassador.”
Jamil placed his trembling hands on the table and looked Agent Conti square in the eye. “I am innocent!” He shook his head and looked away. “I had nothing to do with that explosion!” He crossed his arms and clammed up.
Agent Conti popped a breath mint into his mouth. “I want to believe you, but so far you haven’t provided any explanation.” He propped his feet up on the table. “So, tell me how you ended up at JFK with traces of C-4 and over eleven grand in a briefcase about the same time a US Ambassador was being blown to bits in the foreign hotel you just returned from. It better not begin with, Once upon a time.” 
Jamil took a deep breath, relaxed his shoulders, and began his story.
“I just got back from a business trip to Malaga, Spain. I landed in New York yesterday evening on Iberian Airlines, but of course you already know all this. I needed to go by the home office this morning, so I checked into the Central Park Hotel and went to bed early.”
“Since my body hadn’t adjusted to the time changes, I was wide awake at four o’clock this morning. I’m a runner, so I decided to go for a run in Central Park down by the Bethesda fountain; you know the one with angel statue, and then on to the Ramble. When I got to the halfway point, about three miles, I took a little breather and walked down to the edge of the lake.”
“There at the base of a tree near the water’s edge, I noticed this clear plastic bundle and took a closer look. As I got closer I could see that it was cash. I recently got divorced, and the ex-wife took me to the cleaners, so I was pretty excited. I looked around and didn’t see anybody.  Since it was raining a little bit I had on a light jacket. I stuffed the money into my jacket and ran back to the hotel, nervous as hell.”
“When I counted the money, I noticed a white residue on some of the bills, but I was in a hurry. So, I stuffed it all into my briefcase and showered for work. After taking care business at the home office, I took a cab to Kennedy and here I am.” Jamil let out heavy sigh and looked at Agent Conti for some sort of reaction.
Agent Conti rolled his eyes. “You expect me to believe that fairy tale? You found the money laced with C-4 in Central Park while you were out for a morning jog? Please!”
“It’s the truth!” shouted Jamil as he stood and began pacing the room. “Check with the hotel, I’m sure somebody at the front desk must have seen me go for my run.”
“Jamil… Jim, even if we see you on the hotel security footage leaving and returning when you said, that still doesn’t prove the rest of your story.” He tapped his pen on his notepad. “How about this? You gave terrorists access to your hotel room in Malaga. They paid you with money that had been exposed to C-4. You handled the money and then with the residue still on your hands, you handled your briefcase. You were selected for extra screening at JFK and, bingo, here we are.”
Jamil looked up at the blank and patient stare on Agent Conti’s face. The smell of onion and mint lingered in the air between them.
Agent Conti looked at his watch. “Take your time. I’ve got all day.”
Jamil fixated on the watch. “That’s it!” he shouted as he slapped his hand on the table. “My running watch has a built in GPS. It records my runs and downloads the information to my laptop. If you let me download today’s run to my laptop, it’ll prove my story.”
Agent Conti popped another mint and took in Jamil’s comments.  After a moment, he looked at the one-way glass and nodded. “Okay, we’ll take a look at the data from your watch, but even if this backs up your story you’re not in the clear, you know.”
“I’m telling you the truth,” begged Jamil.
Agent Conti stood to leave, and stopped at the door. “We’ll see.”
Jamil had paced the room for hours trying to stay alert against the onset of jet lag and adrenaline letdown when Agent Conti opened the door.
“Have a sit Jim,” ordered Agent Conti.
“My story checked out didn’t it?” asked Jamil in a calm voice.
“We checked the security videos, spoke with the hotel clerks, and verified the route from your GPS. Your jogging story checked out, but that doesn’t mean you’re not hiding something,” answered Agent Conti as he took a seat.
Jamil breathed a sigh of relief. “I told you I was telling the truth.”
Agent Conti leaned forward. “I’ve been at this game a long time, and I can usually tell when someone is lying or not telling me the whole truth.”  He pointed at Jamil. “You’re not telling me the whole story. You’re simply telling me the truth you want me to hear.”
Jamil looked away from the accusatory finger.
 “Do you play chess Mr. Tannous?” asked Agent Conti.
“I’ve played a couple of times,” said Jamil with a shrug. “Personally I prefer blackjack or Texas hold ’em.”
“I have a theory about people,” continued Agent Conti. “People are like chess pieces. Some people have the power to move their lives in multiple directions, like the knights, rooks, kings, and queens. Others are simply pawns in the game of life. They have limited ability to move, and are usually controlled by others. They have little power to change the game, and are easily sacrificed. In fact, many chess players make a clear distinction between chess pieces and pawns. Which are you Jim? Are you a chess piece in this game, or are you a pawn?”
“I don’t think of myself as a pawn.”
“That’s good. Because one of my other theories about people is, ‘Once a pawn, always a pawn.’” Agent Conti popped a mint. “It’s just a theory.”
Jamil stabbed the table with his finger. “Well, maybe I am a pawn, but I am not a terrorist.”
Agent Conti put a briefcase on the table. “That’s what I told the DA’s office.”
“You’re not charging me with anything?”
“Well, you did try to pass through an airport checkpoint with explosive residue. We’re confiscating your briefcase and its contents, including the money, but we’re not charging you with anything… yet.”
“Am I free to go?”
“Yes, but we need you to come in for more questioning tomorrow.  Why don’t you get a good night’s rest, and come back in around, say, ten o’clock? You don’t mind spending a couple of more days in the city do you?”
“Do I have a choice?” asked Jamil.
 “No, not really,” replied Agent Conti as he opened his briefcase.  “We have to keep your phone for a bit. You know, check out the calls and messages.” Agent Conti slid a cell phone across the table. “The agency has provided you a temporary replacement. My number is programmed in under ‘Conti’ if you think of anything else.”
Jamil walked out of the precinct office a free man, even though he didn’t feel like one. A throng of cameramen and reporters pressed down on him making it almost impossible to get into the cab. He wanted to sleep, but knew he needed to lose the newshounds. After changing cabs several times, and a short ride on the subway, he happened upon an out-of-the-way dive and checked in.
The clerk didn’t seem to recognize Jamil and checked him in without fanfare. After getting his room key, he slipped out front, found a pay phone, and dialed. Layla picked up on the third ring.
“Hello,” answered Layla with a touch of curiosity in her voice.
“It’s Jim. I need to see you. Tonight!”
“Jim? Are you okay? Did they release you?”
“I’m fine, but I have a lot of questions. I need to see you!”
“Sure baby, tell me where you are and I will be there as soon as I can.”
“Be careful. I’m probably being watched.”
Jamil gave her directions and returned to his room. He was tired and irritated. He knew he had been played, and he was determined to get some answers. Layla would help him.
He had just stepped out of a hot shower and was toweling off when he heard a soft knock at the door. He wrapped the towel around himself and peered anxiously through the peephole. A feeling of relief came over him when he saw Layla. He unlocked the door and ushered her into the room.
She had her hair pulled up under a Yankees baseball cap and sunglasses on. In spite of the warm weather she had on a light jacket and sweatpants. She sat her large handbag on the bed, and tossed the sunglasses next to it.  When she took off the baseball cap hat and let down her jet-black hair with a shake, the smell of her intoxicating perfume filled the room.
“Oh Jimbo, I’m so glad your okay,” she said as she rushed into his arms.
“Do you think you were followed?” he asked.
“I don’t think so. I think we’re safe,” she said as she kissed his neck.
He pulled away from her and looked through the sheer curtains at the city lights trying to keep his head straight. “Layla, I think those CIA guys played me.”
“What do you mean?” She peeled off her jacket and pulled a bottle of wine from her bag.
“Those guys you introduced me to paid off my gambling debt at the casino in Malaga, and told me they wanted to bug my hotel room so they could catch a spy. They said it was a matter of national security. Instead they blew up the US Ambassador and his family!”
“Hey baby, calm down.” She slipped up behind him and started rubbing his shoulders. “I’m sure the CIA will clear up the misunderstanding.”
He shook free from her soft grip and spun to face her. “Misunderstanding! The extra money they gave me was laced with C-4! They played me!”
Layla reached out and cupped his face with her long fingers. “Oh Jimbo, I’m so sorry. You know it’s not your fault.” She kissed him on the cheek. “Did you tell the police about them?”
“No, I didn’t tell the FBI about them because I was afraid I would be implicated.”
“Hey come on baby, you’re tired and upset,” She said as she drew the curtains. She pulled close and wrapped her arms around him leaning her head on his chest. “Let me pour a drink and ease your mind.” She looked up at him with her dark eyes.
Jamil pulled away and sat in the overstuffed chair across from the bed. He rubbed his temples and tried to think.
“We can clear up this mess, tomorrow. I’ll go with you and we can tell them the whole story. Tonight just try and relax. Please?”
She was right. It wasn’t his fault. He’d had a long and taxing day and he needed a drink, a little fun, and a good night’s rest. Tomorrow they would get their story straight and talk to Agent Conti, but tonight he could unwind with a good woman.
Jamil let out a heavy sigh and leaned back in the soft chair.  “Maybe you’re right. I’m letting myself get all worked up.”
She perched herself on his lap and caressed his bare chest. “That’s my Jimbo.  I’ll go with you tomorrow and sort this all out.” She kissed his cheek and nibbled at his ear. “Let me pour you a drink and change into something more to your liking.”
Jamil closed his eyes and relaxed deeper into the soft cushions as Layla stood and opened the bottle of wine. Too bad my ex didn’t treat me like Layla.  If she had, maybe we would still be married.
“Here you go Jimbo. Drink this while I go transform into your goddess of love,” she said with a wicked look in her eye.
Jamil took a long drink and began to unwind. His muscles began to relax. He could feel all the tension of the day leaving him. Then the room began to spin. He struggled to breathe. He tried to think, but it felt like his thoughts were stuck in quicksand.
Layla walked back into the room, still fully clothed, with rubber gloves on.
“Layla! Help me!” His words slurred together. He struggled to remain conscious as the room began to twirl.
She ignored his pleas, and took his glass of wine with her gloved hands.
He watched her through a gathering fog, trying to understand why she wasn’t helping him. Like sounds echoing through a tunnel, he heard the hotel room door burst open. Black-clad figures with guns rushed in. The fog faded to darkness.
         Jamil awoke to a strong antiseptic smell, and beeping noises. He was in a hospital. He opened his eyes and saw Agent Conti sitting in the corner playing chess with a uniform.
         “Good morning Jim,” said Agent Conti with a big grin. “We almost lost you there. Welcome back to the land of the living.” He moved his bishop and took a pawn. “Checkmate.”

The End

Fear of Morality?  

Posted by Brock Booher

I read something going around in social media the other day that certainly started more than one argument. “The human species is the only species that displays homophobia.”

I found the statement most interesting because of what it tried to accomplish even before the real debate even began. It labels anyone who disagrees with a moral stance as having a phobia. For me, the statement was a “non starter” because I won’t engage anyone in social media once they revert to name-calling, but I did spend some time thinking about the real argument over what is considered morally acceptable, or legally acceptable, when it comes to sexual behavior, or perhaps the deeper notion that we as a species have a moral code at all.

Nietzsche said, “Fear is the mother of morality.” I’m afraid I don’t agree with him.

First, the idea that if you disagree with the behavior of another person on moral grounds that you must therefore have a phobia is ludicrous and disingenuous. If I disagree with the behavior of a thief does that mean I am a cleptophobe? What if I disagree with a buddy of mine cheating on his wife? Does that make me a malaxaphobe? If I have objections to someone setting buildings on fire, does that mean I suffer from arsonphobia? Maybe I shouldn’t be writing about this because I am a catagelophobe, who knows?

One thing we know for sure is that the human species is the only species with a codified moral code. Every law that exists on the books is based on a moral judgment of some sort. We judge that public nudity is inappropriate and we therefore pass a law. We judge that taking property that does not belong to you is morally wrong and we pass laws against stealing in various forms. We consider it morally wrong to take the life of another human being and codify a multitude of laws against the act ranging from negligent manslaughter to first-degree murder. As a species we have passed moral judgment on a variety of behaviors. That is what makes us different than the rest of the animal kingdom.

It is true that other species display various types of moral behaviors such as caring for their young, or division of duties, but we can also find a variety of other accepted animal behaviors that we consider morally wrong. These are included but not limited to – eating your young offspring, killing and eating your mate after sex, pecking the weakest member of the group until it is dead, beating or killing your rival because you want to be in charge, bludgeoning your sexual rival and taking their mate as your own. All of these behaviors are perfectly accepted among animals, but we humans frown on them and even enforce laws against such behaviors because of our moral code.

We have set ourselves apart in the animal kingdom, not because of our phobias, but because we have dared to set a moral standard and even codify it with laws. Fear will not bring us to higher moral ground, and name-calling will not win an argument. If we want to rise above the behavior of animals, we must engage in legitimate moral debate, because after all, deciding individually or collectively if a sexual practice is acceptable is a moral judgment, not a phobia.

Thursday’s Child  

Posted by Brock Booher

It isn’t everyday I get approached by a young woman in the supermarket, especially when I’m sporting three days worth of stubble, with a touch of gray, but this was a Thursday.

I saw her as she turned down my aisle. I was looking for some waffle mix and glanced up as I saw her turn the corner. She looked like a skinny preteen in a yellow halter-top and white shorts. Other than basic awareness that she was walking down my aisle, I paid her little mind.

“Excuse me sir,” she said in a sad voice. She had stopped right beside me.

Due to years of training on situational awareness, or maybe an innate paranoia, I am normally very observant of my surroundings. I didn’t realize she had stopped until she spoke to me. I paused my comparison of Bisquick and Krusteaz and looked up at her.

“Sorry to trouble you, but you wouldn’t be willing to give me some money for a hotel room would you?” she asked. She hesitated for moment after the request.

In that moment I took a good look at the human being in front of me. She was average build and thin with long spindly legs like a bird. She had the face of someone in their late twenties and the body of an early teenager. Her face had no remnants of makeup and she looked a bit haggard even though she was trying to smile. Her hair was up in a ponytail and frizzed out like she had just jumped out of bed and pulled it back away from her hollow eyes. She wore a yellow halter-top with her bra straps showing, but based on her figure, the straps weren’t working too hard. She wore white shorts and flip-flops. In her right hand she held a large Styrofoam cup, apparently with soda still in it. She had a medium size purse in the crook of her left arm. She looked like a forlorn waif, a veritable Thursday’s Child personified.

She continued with a voice pleading and soft, “I need some money for a hotel room because I was traveling with a friend, and she stole all of my money, over $1200. You wouldn’t be able to spare some money so I can get a room for the night would you?”

I wanted to give her some money. I don’t like turning away anyone in need, especially a woman. All that is good in me wanted to help, and the pity I felt jumped up in my throat. Here is one of God’s children in need. Help her! Cried the voice in my head.

Another voice was talking in my head as well. Careful! This one is trouble. Nothing is as it seems. See the nice purse. See the soda from recent meal. Look at her eyes. Beware the nature of the thing she asks for.

Caution won out and I smiled and said, “I’m sorry. I don’t.”

“Okay, thanks,” she said without any apparent rancor and continued down the aisle.

Guilt-ridden, I turned away and stared at the boxes in front of me covered with bright colored pictures of delicious waffles and pancakes topped with strawberries and blueberries and smothered with hot syrup. My stomach turned when I thought about her condition.

I called out to her before she got too far. “Do you need any food?” I asked.

She stopped, turned halfway around, and finished taking a sip from her drink. “No, another gentleman bought me lunch.”

I nodded. She turned and continued. Thursday’s Child has far to go.

I stared at the shelves of packaged food in front of me trying to make sense of what had just happened, a conflict raging inside of me.

I should have given her money. Didn’t you see how skinny she was?

You idiot she was playing you. Didn’t you see the hard look of a druggie on her face?

Who cares? She needed money and I could have spared a five spot.

You would have just enabled her. She needs a different kind of help.

I could have at least gone to the hotel and paid for the room for her.

Fool! That is probably what she wanted anyway. She was soliciting you, you moron!

Oh my gosh! She must really be in trouble. Maybe she’s a runaway. I have to find her and see if I can help her. Maybe I can get her the help she really needs.

Now you’re talking.

I searched the store – nothing. I quickly checked out and searched the parking lot – gone.

My encounter with Thursday’s Child haunted me. I wondered how far she had come to get to her desperate condition. Even more, I wondered how far she had to go.

Monday's child is fair of face,
Tuesday's child is full of grace,
Wednesday's child is full of woe,
Thursday's child has far to go,
Friday's child is loving and giving,
Saturday's child must work for a living,
But the child that's born on the Sabbath day,
Is fair and wise and good and gay.

(Old Nursery Rhyme, Author Unknown)

It's 9/12 and Life Goes On  

Posted by Brock Booher

I took a stroll down memory lane last week, but the truth is, I also sprinted part of the way not wanting to spend too much time lingering with some ugly memories. I reflected on good times and on tragic times, but all the events had one thing in common – I had to keep moving. Life went on.

I took a trip to Provo, Utah, to drop off my second son, Cody, at the Missionary Training Center for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. He will be preparing to serve in the San Antonio, Texas, area, and will be speaking Spanish. The training center is adjacent to my alma mater, Brigham Young University. As we pulled off the freeway and drove up the street towards the campus, the floodgates of my memory opened up.

I passed the mall where I took my wife on our first date.  We both swooned a bit at the memory and laughed. When we started down the hill from the mall, I remembered how she used to stick her head out the window to dry her hair as I drove her to work. I started to tell the story, but Cody had already heard about it so many times that he finished my sentence. We passed the stadium, places where we had lived, and old restaurants whose names had long since changed. I remembered classmates, old girlfriends, Air Force ROTC, walking up the hill to work, and quiet snowfalls. Images passed across the theater of my mind and filled me with nostalgia and joy.

In those days the cold war had reached a climax, and even though we didn’t know it, was about to end. We worried about thermonuclear war and the resulting nuclear winter. Terrorist from Libya bombed nightclubs in Germany, and President Reagan sent a clear message of, “You can run, but you can’t hide.” We worried about the end of the world in those days too, but life went on.

It was a nice stroll down that lane of mostly fond memories, and although I wanted to linger, I had to keep moving forward. Then as the week came to an end, I took a turn down Elm Street, and repeated a nightmare – the tenth anniversary of 9/11.

We sat down as a family and watched a documentary about that fateful day and discussed how we felt about the event. I wanted to race past those tragic memories and haunting images, but forced myself to slow down and remember.

Ten years. I know you’ve heard it. I know you’ve thought it. “I can’t believe it’s been ten years since the attacks of 9/11.” Even though it was a tragic day, life moved on.

I wasn’t on that road that fateful day. I was at home in Arizona and had just finished my morning run. When I opened the door the Television was blaring. My wife met me at the door in tears. When I witnessed the graphic images on the TV, I couldn’t process the scene. As I stood there trying to make sense of it all, the first tower collapsed, and so did I. My knees buckled and I felt like I was going to throw up. We worried about the images our kids were being subjected to and turned off the TV.

I sat there stunned, unable to speak. Cody broke me from my trance. “Dad, we’re out of milk,” he said from the breakfast table. That simple statement put me back into motion. His childlike perspective wasn’t calloused or cold. It was practical. My children inherently understood that time would not stop. Life would go on.

They say our world changed forever on 9/11, and in many ways it did. But life did not stop. It rolled on, changing daily.

Airport security became an exercise in patience, and continues to be a sore spot for travelers. We became familiar with terrorist cells, Al Qaeda, and argued over the spelling of Usama or Osama bin Laden. We watched video feeds from UAV’s and their smart bombs. We were relieved at discovering foiled plots like the shoe bomber, the underwear bomber, and the Times Square bomber. We added words like “GITMO” and “IED” to our vernacular. We endured strip searches and roving wire taps.

In spite of the changes, the world moved forward. In Oct of 2001, the first Ipod was released and revolutionized the world of music. Then came the smart phones with built in GPS and multiple apps to make our life easier. Next came the Kindle, the Nook, and the Ipad. Airbus produced the world’s largest commercial airliner. Video conferencing, always a promise of science fiction, became a reality of everyday life. Facebook and Google changed the way we communicate and interact as individuals, and as communities. In the last ten years the world did not stop. In many ways it actually improved.

Now it is 9/12/11. Life marches on. What goals are we striving for? What new accomplishments are we seeking? What are we looking forward to?

It was a nice stroll down memory lane, and therapeutic to rush past the horrid scenes of ten years ago. I will never forget the lesson of my son’s prodding that brought me back to the present. We should remember and learn from the past. It is proper to give reverence to its memories both good and bad. But time doesn’t stop. Neither should we.

Life goes on. Are we going with it?

Transportation Troubles  

Posted by Brock Booher

I noticed the small orange fuel light when I dropped my daughter off at school, but I couldn’t remember if it was on when I left the house. My son had been driving the truck for the past three days. Did he see the light come on? Why didn’t he put gas in it? Since my appointment was only a few miles away, and I assumed he light had just come on, I decided to press on to my appointment and stop at a convenient gas station along the way.

About half way there, I passed an old van stalled on the side of the road. The driver was putting gas into the vehicle with a bright red gas can. We made eye contact as I passed - like a bad omen of things to come. The tiny orange fuel light suddenly looked like a flashing neon sign.

I was almost there. I could see the gas station – a hundred yards to go. Sputter. No! Cough. Just a little further! Jerk. Aw crap! My truck ran out of gas. I whipped into an adjacent parking lot. The sign from the gas station taunted and laughed at me.

I took a deep breath and kept my cool. I called my appointment and told them I would be late. I grabbed my phone and wallet and walked to the gas station. Ten minutes later I was back at the truck with two gallons of gas in a bright red container and a half-drank forty-four ounce soda. I was cool as a cucumber.

After pouring the gas into the tank, I wiped my hands and slipped behind the wheel. I took a sip from the soda and turned the key. The starter kicked in and the motor turned over and over. Nothing. I paused and thought for a moment. Oh yeah, prime the pump. I turned on the key, waited a few seconds, and then energized the starter. The truck sputtered a moment and then droned through the motions of trying to start. I took a sip of my soda and try to stay calm and cool. I repeated the process. It started for a moment and then died again. I took another sip. It was getting warm. I was starting to sweat.

I tried for twenty more minutes. All I could get was a sputtering start, a rough idle, or the moan of a turning motor that isn’t firing. I could feel the sweat trickling down my back. I wiped my forehead and called my son’s cell phone. He didn’t answer. He was still sleeping. I tried the truck again. Nothing. I called the house. No answer. I called my other son. He answered.

“Go wake up your brother and tell him to answer his dang phone!” I said.

A moment later we were talking.

“When did the gas light come on in the truck?” I asked.

“I don’t know… Sometime yesterday I guess,” he answered.

“When you saw the gas getting low why didn’t you put gas in the truck? You have a credit card.”

“I don’t know.”

“Why didn’t you tell me that the light was on?” (I was looking for any excuse to shift at least some of the blame.)


“Okay, I need you to get up, grab another gas can from the shed, fill it with gas, and come help me.” I heard a long sigh.


I hung up and said a short prayer. I prayed that the truck would start. I prayed that I wouldn’t blow a gasket of my own.

I tried the truck again. Nothing. I tried again. Nothing. I tried again. Nothing. I tried again, and all of a sudden, it started!

I called my son and told him he could go back to bed, and went on to my appointment. After my appointment the truck started right up. I went straight to the gas station and filled up. The truck started right up. I went to the bank. The truck wouldn’t start.

I tried to keep my cool, but the soda cup was empty. My frustration was reaching a fever pitch. After multiple attempts the truck finally started again. I roared out of the parking lot and merged onto the nearest freeway. I floored it and soon reached speeds in excess of the posted limit. When I was certain that the fuel problem was resolved, I headed home and nosed into the garage. I turned off the truck, and then tried to start it again - Nothing but a sputter.

When I walked into the house hot and bothered, my wife tried to console me, but I would have no consolation. A week earlier the air conditioning went out on our van. Out of the three vehicles I owned only one was working properly at that moment.

They used to hang horse thieves, and now I understood why. When you mess with a man’s transportation, they get testy and mean.

I wolfed down a lunch and did a couple of internet searches. I called a mechanic buddy of mine. The truck displayed all the symptoms of a bad fuel pump. Of course automotive engineers in their infinite wisdom place fuel pumps in the fuel tanks these days. Changing them requires dropping the fuel tank or lifting off the truck bed – neither of which excited me. It was all an evil plot to coerce me into taking the truck to the dealership so they could suck the dollars out of my pockets.

My calendar was full for the next day or so and I let the truck sit in the garage and drove our van with the broken air conditioner. I did try and start it a few times, but each time I got the same sputtering result. My wife put out a cry for help on Facebook asking if anyone wanted to help fix the truck in exchange for buddy passes. Our friend and neighbor, Geoff, said he could do it, but he wanted to make sure it was the fuel pump before we tore into the truck. He sent me a link from a forum discussing a recalled relay that could often show the same symptoms as a bad fuel pump.

Driving without air conditioning in the Phoenix summer heat can cause brain damage. It was time to get my transportation troubles solved. We decided to trade in the broken van, and I was going to diagnose the truck problem or haul it to the shop.

The next day we started early. First stop was the Nissan dealership. They could replace the recalled relay if I brought the truck into the shop, but they wouldn’t sell me the relay because of the recall. I was reluctant to bring it in until I knew it was the relay and not the pump – catch 22. We test drove some really nice vehicles, met the salespeople (not pushy thank goodness), and moved on to other dealerships.

We went through the usual suspects – Toyota, Honda, Subaru, Volkswagen. In the modern information age most car salespeople are friendly, but no too pushy. They know that you are armed with a lot of information. The Volkswagen sales guy was the only old-school, what-can-I-do-to-get-you-in-a-car-today pushy type. We drove by the GM and Ford dealerships, but we just waved. By the afternoon we were sick of sales pitches, sticker prices, and standing in the sun and drove home without a new car.

After we got home I headed for the parts store and bought a repair book and a fuel pressure tester. Following the instructions, I removed the engine cover and found the “quick connect” fitting where I was supposed to attach the fuel pressure tester. The only problem was that it was a “quick connect” not a “quick disconnect” and I couldn’t get the thing to come off to save my life.

After multiple attempts and several Youtube videos explaining how to disconnect a fuel line “quick connect” fitting, I called another my neighbor Charlie that likes to work on old cars. He came over and together we tried to get the fitting to disengage without success. He remembered hearing that if the line still has pressure, it won’t be easy to disconnect. So we both listened for the sound of the fuel pump priming when we turned on the truck. Sure enough, we heard the small whine of the pump coming to life. At that point it was late, I was hot, and my brain was mush. We pushed the truck back into the garage and I called it a night.

Just before I went to bed I read the link Geoff sent me one more time. I had missed a step. There was a workaround to determine if the problem was the relay or the fuel pump. I knew that the next morning I would get one more shot at diagnosing the problem before calling the tow truck.

I got up the next morning and went for a run. I needed some endorphins. When I got back I swapped two relays as instructed by the workaround solution. I kissed the steering wheel for luck and turned the key. The truck started right up! I danced a jig to the sound of a Nissan Titan motor running like a top. My transportation troubles were over!

My wife interrupted my celebration. “Honey, can we go to the Mazda dealership before you go to work this morning?”

By the time I took off from Phoenix that afternoon, she had traded in our van and closed the deal on a new Mazda CX-9. I was just glad that my temporary transportation troubles were over, for now.